Desert days in Huacachina & Nasca: the good and the bad

I’d never been to a desert before and to be honest I didn’t realise there was so much desert in Peru. But there is, in fact Nasca’s highest sand dune is taller than England’s tallest mountain! I’m going to spell Nasca as the locals do in Spanish instead of with a ‘z’ as English speaking countries do – just in case you were wondering. Before I go into detail about these two stops on my trip, I want to let you know that I was really disappointed by Huacachina – a place I had really high hopes for – and I was really impressed by Nasca – previously only known to me vaguely because of the world famous Nasca lines. This post will be one of contrasts, the good and the bad (but not the ugly). I don’t want to dwell on the negative too much but I would like to share some of the lessons I learned.

Huacachina

After three days in Lima, I caught a six hour bus to Ica, the nearest city to Huacachina. I decided to stay in Ica firstly because the buses stop there and it would be easier to get to a hostel than taking a mototaxi to Huacachina in the dark. And secondly, because I thought it would be easier for me to look at the options for sandboarding and buggy ride trips in town.

A few weeks ago someone showed me a video of their friend skiing down the sand dunes and I really wanted to try this. I did ask one tour company in town but I soon gave up and booked the standard trip with my hostel – later realising that it was much better to speak to the tour operators in Huacachina instead of Ica. I also let the language barrier get to me, instead of sticking to what I really wanted to do, I gave in because I didn’t want to struggle in Spanish, even though skiing is the same in Spanish. This was a big lesson for me because as it turned out the trip I booked wasn’t very good and certainly not good value.

So the trip costs 60 soles which is about £15 (this probably should have been a giveaway) for a 2 hour buggy ride and sandboarding combined trip (this is a pretty standard package). The hostel minibus drops you in Huacachina two hours before, a nice idea if I had known about this free time I wouldn’t have rushed to eat my lunch before. Here I had some time to take picture of the amazing sand dunes and the oasis in the middle of the small town. It’s a great view and probably the best part of the trip.

When I went to the tour operator for the start of our trip we had to wait quite a long time for a group who were running late – the first occasion of time lost from our 2 hours. Then the tour operators spent some time rearranging everyone to balance out the buggies but finally we were off. The buggy ride was exciting and our driver was zooming up and down the dunes – at this point I was having a pretty good time. We stopped to take loads of pictures and the sand dunes looked amazing.

We hopped back in and after a quick run up went off a huge dune – this is where the problem started. It was like something out of a comedy sketch. There was a loud bang and the driver turned his head to the left to see if the wheel had gone flat and at the same time the wheel and the axel bounced passed the buggy on the right. Not an easy fix. The driver rung for another buggy to come pick us up and this meant more waiting and more time wasted. At the time it felt like it would be a funny story to tell but not so much after. We could see a group nearby taking turns to sandboard down a huge dune and I was excited to get a go myself.


When the replacement finally came we hopped in, went over a few more dunes before stopping at the top of a beginner slope to collect our boards. Most people go down lying on the board head first unless they know how to stand up. I laid down for my first go and it was really fun. On my second I wanted to try standing up even though I had no idea what to do. I lasted about two seconds before slipping onto my bottom. I slid most of the way down. But I was ready to go again and master the technique. Disappointingly, just like that our time was up and we were rushed back into the buggy to see the sunset from a viewpoint. I didn’t want to see the sunset, I wanted to sandboard. I wasn’t quite aware that it was the end, I thought we might get another go after the sunset but no.

I got some great pictures but I felt like a phoney to say that I had been sandboarding when it only lasted for 10 minutes. I was definitely disappointed by the trip to Hucachina and although I didn’t stick to my initial idea of independently finding a tour, I don’t feel like it was my fault that I had a bad time. What makes it even more annoying is that I spoke to a couple recently who had stayed at the same hostel as me and managed to go skiing with help from the hostel staff!

Later in my trip I’m planning to go to the Atacama desert in Chile so hopefully I’ll get another chance to try and master the standing technique.

Nasca

My trip to Nasca started much better with a 10 soles (£2.50) bus along the coast. I arrived in Nasca at lunch time and although I got massively overcharged by the taxi to my hostel (rookie error forgetting to ask the price before the journey) I was excited to book my flight over the Nasca lines as soon as possible. The host at my hostel in Nasca, Nanasqa Hostel, was great! A super accommodating, 30 something, local guy who was still building and improving sections of the hostel. He booked the flights for me straightaway and even ordered me a takeaway lunch to the hostel – a delicious quarter of chicken and chips.

In the afternoon there was a trip on offer at the hostel and because I didn’t want to just have spent the day travelling, and I was still annoyed about Huachina, I signed up. It included tour of the Cantallo aqueducts, the pyramids of Cahuachi and the Cemetery of Chauchilla. If I’m honest I didn’t know much about what I had signed up for but I was glad to get out of the hostel doing something – and they were mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. 

Our tour guide turned out to be our host’s father who drives you to the sights, says some information in Spanish and waits in the car for you to have a look around. Luckily there were two Venezuelans in the group who could translate for me and even without the translations the sights were really interesting. And without a story behind them I was free to invent my own, imagining the people of the time building and using the aqueduct, trading and doing business in the pyramids and preparing the burials at the tombs. 

By the time we finished the five hour tour, a beautiful blue and orange sunset led us back to the hostel across the bumpy desert track – the drive was as good as the tour. The pyramids and tombs were completely in the middle of nowhere so there’s no way I would have been able to get to either on my own. This trip was a great example of expecting nothing and seeing loads of really intriguing ancient sights instead. 

The next day I was up early for my flight and despite a slight hiccup where I needed to transfer some money to my bank card to pay for the flight on the sketchy airport WiFi, it went without a hitch. I paid $90 for the flight and airport transfer in total. Due to safety concerns I was happy to be going with the most established company flying even if it wasn’t the cheapest.



The flight lasts just 30 minutes but you get to see 14 signs and some extras that the pilot points out. The plane looked the same as the small plane I’d taken in Venezuela to get to Canaima national park so I wasn’t worried about the plane sickness. This time we had headphones where you can hear one of pilot’s instructions as he points out the lines and figures. Each figure is circled twice so both sides of the plane can take pictures which is great – I didn’t want to miss a single one.








When the flight was over I was sad because it had been so much fun to tip right over in the small plane and see all the amazing markings with my own eyes instead of photographs. Although it’s a super touristy event, I would 100% recommend it. I flew with AeroParacass and they were really good. Until you see it for yourself you can’t truly understand how fascinating the lines truly are and a big thank you to my Uncle Phil who suggested adding it to my list!

Next I’m going to Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, before doing the classic tourist 2 day trek in Colca Canyon – it’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and the second deepest in the world (so my guide book says). Expect amazing pictures!

Lima: the old and the new

To follow neatly on from my last post, if I thought the night bus from Ecuador to Peru (Cuenca to Máncora) was going to be long then the bus from Máncora to Lima was going to be mammoth. 23 hours is a long time to be on a bus with complete strangers where you have to watch your possessions all the time. Thankfully I’m a great sleeper so I did manage to snooze through most of it and I actually spotted some friends from Colombia on the bus so it wasn’t all bad. With severe sunburn (typical gringo) and sand literally everywhere, I was looking forward to getting to Lima – the only place on my trip that I’ve actually been to before.

Lima is the most developed capital city I’ve visited yet and the prospect of being somewhere more cosmopolitan was definitely appealing after two nights in a beach hut with rumours of mice. It’s been a great adventure going to lots of different kinds of towns and cities but Lima felt much more in my comfort zone. Although I have been to Lima before, it was a long time ago and I stayed inside the sports complex for almost the entirety of my stay. Now free to explore for myself, I decided to split my stay between the centre of Lima in the historic part of town and Milaflores, the sophisticated, modern area.

The Old 

From my Lonely Planet guide and Hostelworld research, I found a converted 20th century mansion turned hostel to stay in for the first two nights. Always a risk going by the pictures, I was delighted to find the hostel just as fancy and antiquated as I had hoped. It had wooden panels, original black and white floor tiles and high ceilings with detailed coving. I felt like I was staying in a boutique hostel for the price of a budget hostel.

The hostel also had a great location next to the MALI (Museo de Art de Lima), one of Lima’s most impressive and popular art museums. This was my first stop and it’s clear why it’s so famous, even the building housing the museum is a work of art. If you follow me on social media then you might have seen a preview of the museum at the time. It’s packed with art from pre-colonial times right up to modern art. I learnt a lot about the Inca and Wari cultures and the free audio guide app and WiFi really enhanced my experience of the museum. They also had a temporary exhibition about Nasca and the lines which I’m hoping to visit during my time in Peru. Even if museum’s aren’t your thing, I’d definitely recommend visiting this one.



In the afternoon I had signed up to the free walking tour offered by the hostel. By a random turn of fate, I was the only person who had signed up so I got a personalised, solo walking tour. Pam, who does the tour, showed by around the historic centre, suggested street food and drinks to try and explained about the politics behind the protests in Peru at the moment. I even got to see some of the protests while I was there, but this did mean we couldn’t go to the main square because the police had closed it.




The next day, following Pam’s suggestions, I went to visit the Catacombs under the city at the Convento de San Francisco. Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take any pictures and I’d accidentally joined a Spanish tour group so I can’t share that much about it. There were a lot of skulls and bones lined up in graves under the church. If my translation is correct (my Spanish is still awful), people often think they were tortured or prisoners but they’re not, it was an honour to be buried here. There is also a dusty, decaying library which has a copy of the bible dating back to the 14th century and looked like it could be in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

After this I went to explore China town. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was, my maps seems to be contradicting each other but I just kind of wandered around. Once again I was the only tourist bumbling around but Lima is quite a safe city so I didn’t feel too concerned. It’s nice to be able to explore without time pressures or feeling anxious about getting lost. By this point it was lunchtime so I went to a Chifa (Chinese restaurant) and had chufa (chicken fried rice, basically). It also came with a chicken noodle soup and dumplings so for just 8 soles (£2) I was very happy and full. On the way back I visited the main square which was back open and saw the cathedral and president’s palace – both stunning buildings set around a beautiful square lined with bright flowerbeds and palm trees.

The centre of Lima was really interesting and bustling – the closest place to London so far. I’m really glad I stayed here for a few days because most tourists just stay in Milaflores and miss a lot of the culture and heritage of this 500 year old city.

The New

Even just from stepping out of the taxi by my next hostel I could tell I was in a completely different part of town, with shopping malls, skyscrapers, expensive flats and touristy restaurants on every street corner. The department store nearby was even selling MAC make up.

The hostel staff suggested one of the best sights was walking down to the clifftops where there’s a large shopping mall built into the cliff and you can walk along the top to a park and lighthouse. I’ve been struggling with the suitability of some of the clothes I packed for hiking and my pack-a-mac has a hole already so this sounded like a good idea. It was a great shopping mall with amazing views, all the best hiking shops (Colombia, North Face, Salomon and more) but what I realised was that I couldn’t really afford to buy any of the things I wanted. It’s not that I don’t have the money now but I don’t have a job or any income. One of the cheapest coats was the same price as 10 days of accommodation here or a three day hiking trip. And when it comes down to it, I know which one I want more. This was a sobering fact and made me feel a quite downbeat. I love shopping and the feeling when you buy something new that you really like; I’m a consumerist at heart and it’s hard not being able to afford anything expensive. But that’s the price to you pay to have every day as a weekend and it’s definitely worth it.

I did continue walking along the cliffs to the lighthouse, views are free after all, and despite the grey, cloudy skies it was a beautiful view. The drop to the beach is quite steep and so you have a clear sightline out across the sea and along the clifftops. A sense of calm returned as I remembered how nice it is to just walk along without worrying about your possessions or the evening closing in.

The next morning was my last few hours in Lima and so I went early with a couple of Americans from the hostel to see Huaca Pullcana, a pyramid-shaped temple dating back to 400AD in the centre of the city, only recently rediscovered in the last 20 years. We managed to successfully join an English tour group this time (yay!) and we learnt all about the Lima people who lived here before the Wari tribes. It was such an interesting contrast to see such an important and interesting archeological site surrounded by modern skyscrapers and glass building. The old and the new continues to battle for prominence through out the city and it’s so interesting to see both sides. 



Once again I had a great time in this capital, despite others telling me there wasn’t much to do or see here. On the way back to the hostel I had an amazing ‘firewood’ chicken sandwich with the best chips ever and a yummy smoothie at La Lucha, and I left Lima feeling sad to go. But it was time to move on and wow have I got some exciting things planned for the next week or so. Stay tuned for sandboarding in Hucachina and a flight over the Nasca lines.

Ecuador part three: Baños, Cuenca and my first night bus

I’m not sure how I managed to visit so many different places in Ecuador in just two weeks. Quito, Quilotoa, Mindo, Cotopaxi, Baños and Cuenca. It’s not a large country in terms of land mass but the Andean mountains and volcanoes do slow you down. Maybe it’s because there’s more of a well-travelled route in Ecuador so the tourism is more established – I kept meeting the same groups of people in different hostels in every town and city. But I’m still on track with my plans and although I would have liked to spend more time in Ecuador and there were more places I could have to seen, by the end I was definitely excited to move onto Peru.

Baños

One of my final stops in Ecuador was the highly touristy mountain town of Baños. If I thought Mindo was touristy then I was in for a surprise. Baños de Agua Santa is named after the natural volcanic hot springs which are occur in the town and surrounding areas. Today it serves as a tourist hub for high adrenaline activities such as white water rafting, canyoning, mountain biking, bridge jumping (like bungee jumping except you jump with a rope instead) and quad biking.

I arrived in Baños in the early evening – it was dark and just starting to rain. Without a map downloaded on my phone or an address for my hostel (great forward planning here) I joined another backpacker in the search for their hostel to take advantage of their WiFi. Baños at night is not a very nice place to be, not because of safety but because the streets are lit up with flashing signs and cheap takeaways. It’s commercial almost to the point of tacky and the authenticity that Mindo has is completely washed away here.

I had managed to book a hostel on the outskirts of town which meant I had a bit of a walk with my big bags. When I finally arrive I was gutted to find out the WiFi didn’t work in this hostel either. How was I supposed to make any future plans without the internet for research or booking? The free dinner at the hostel nearly made up for it and the quick laundry was good but I did start to crack up a little. Still feeling positive though, I went to bed early thinking everything would be better in the morning. Unfortunately I was wrong after being woken up at 1am by a cat sleeping on top of me. As you’ll know if you read the last blog post, animals are not my thing and despite living with cats in London for the last year, I do not want a semi-stray cat on top of me in the middle of the night, especially because I haven’t had a rabies inoculation. More cracking up happened as I desperately ushered the cat out of the dorm without touching it (clapping loudly is the best method). There was no way I was risking the same thing happening again so I climbed into the empty top bunk and fell asleep soon after the trauma had faded from my thought.

The next morning I got up early and decided I would not stay the second night in that hostel, despite having already paid for it. I spent most of the morning in an Internet cafe catching up with family and friends, and uploading my blog.

Baños: The Swing

In the afternoon I wanted to go to The Swing or La Casa del Arbol (The Treehouse). This was the main reason I had wanted to come to Baños but I didn’t know much about it other than the pictures I’d seen online. At the hostel I asked if you could walk there and they gave me directions and showed my a vague route on a cartoon map. I invited two of the volunteers at the hostel to join me, which to my bad luck they accepted (I didn’t really know them and they were kind of strange) and after collecting some snacks, we set off up the mountain-side in search of The Swing.


The track was more of a muddy path and once again I was walking slowly, although this time due to the steepness instead of altitude. The hostel guys stopped for a break after about an hour and I continued on, assuming they would catch up with me. I reached a fork in the road about ten minutes after this and spent a while considering where to go. I decided we still needed to be higher so chose the steeper path that looked to continue climbing up the mountain-side. Even now I don’t know if this was the right choice.

After about 20 minutes more, I realised the guys were not going to rejoin me and I was on my own. I adopted a small stick as my new companion and marched on up the muddy hill. I realised I was now walking though a farm with lots of poly tunnels. Doubts were starting to creep in as I had been walking for over two hours and seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I hadn’t seen another person for about an hour and there weren’t any signs. I even had to walk past a cow that was on the path and I was much braver than with the cat the night before and slipped passed without too much fuss.

Soon after this I picked up a bigger stick and realised I was definitely lost when the path suddenly stopped. So I turned back around and headed back to a small side path I had seen a minute earlier – this way I didn’t have to pass the cow just yet. I clambered up the tree-lined path with the help of my stick and appeared at the top of the farm. Here I spotted a more extreme swing than the one I was looking for where you had a harness and were strapped in. Being the only tourist here, I asked a girl playing football with my broken Spanish and Google maps as my aid where I needed to go.

With renewed energy and directions, I set off excited to be close and no longer completely lost. Luckily at this point I met two Argentineans and a dog (I named him Fluffy) who were also looking for The Swing. So we joined together and with their Spanish and my enthusiasm we navigated our way to the top in just 30 minutes more. It might not have been the easiest way to get there but it was a real adventure.

Finally at the top after over three hours hiking, sweating and so glad I bought snacks, I quickly joined the queue and resolved that I would be taking the bus down (it’s only $1 anyway). Although I had to wait about half an hour for my turn on the swing I didn’t mind because it was exciting and funny watching everyone else take their turn. The man who was pushing the swing on the line I had joined (there are two swings either side of the tree) was a charismatic, hippy kind of guy with lilac dreadlocks and bare feet and he seemed to enjoy scaring the people he was pushing.

First he pushes you five or six times very high, then taps your feet and sets you spinning while you swing. He tells you to spread your arms for pictures and then before you know it your turn is over. The adrenaline makes it go by in a flash but it was a great feeling of freedom as you swing out into a canyon, like you’re at the end of the world. Thankfully the Argentineans took some pictures for me also so I have some great snaps.




Baños:Hot Springs

On the way back on the bus, I decided to go straight to the hot springs, La Piscinas de la Virgen, as they were near my hostel. Everyone has to wear a little cap in the baths which makes the whole thing more of an event than just swimming. I got there around 7pm so had to pay $3 – a dollar extra for the evening session – and the place was filled with locals – I had obviously chosen a popular time to go.

They have four pools or baths. The first downstairs by the entrance is the super hot one, heated naturally by the volcano to 42°C. I spent most of my time in here – you’re only supposed to spend five minutes at a time but I spent about 20 minutes. It felt like when you run a bath that’s a bit too hot but it never seems to cool down. I hopped in and off the side every time I got a little to hot but because you can’t guarantee hot showers in South America I revelled in the heat.


They also have a cold pool which I didn’t try, and two warm pools. One of the warm pools is very shallow and you almost lie down in it and the other is a good height for standing in or sitting on the ledge.

I really enjoyed visiting the baths and although they aren’t unique to Ecuador, they are famous for them so it was really nice to experience them and it was just what I needed after the three hour walk to The Swing. Also the backdrop of the mountains and the big waterfall made it feel more authentic than other attractions in the town.

When I got back to the hostel I packed up and moved to a different hostel in the centre of town. Luckily I got a dorm room to myself so it was quiet and relaxed, and most importantly cat free! I had the best dinner in a nearby Italian: chicken, ham and beef lasagne with garlic bread (I didn’t have any lunch though). There was even a Peruvian band playing pipes and drums in the restaurant too.

The next day I had planned to move to Cuenca but I decided to take a day out to plan the next stages of my trip, getting to Peru and what I would do there and where I would stay. It was nice to just spent a bit of extra time there, even though it was touristy, just to relax and get my bearings. The next day I caught the early direct bus and got to Cuenca in the late afternoon.

Cuenca and my first night bus

When I arrived in Cuenca, after speaking to the staff in the hostel I soon discovered that a lot of my research the day before wasn’t necessary anymore because I could take a direct night bus to Peru from there instead of going to another town first. It would also take me to Máncora instead of Piura which was a better place for me to stop off in Peru too.


I arrived in Cuenca on a Saturday evening and on Sunday nearly everything except the churches were closed. I spoke to some of the other travellers in the hostel and met a really nice Canadian called Justine who was also planning to go to Máncora and so I decided instead of waiting another day, I would travel with her to Peru. It was my first night bus and so I was glad to have some company – I’ve heard this is where most travellers get robbed so I had avoided catching them until this point.

Justine gave me a little tour of closed Cuenca and it’s churches, and then we spent most of the afternoon relaxing in the hostel. Our hostel, The Bauhouse, had Netflix and comfy sofas which is the first proper lounge I’ve encountered travelling so far. It also had great WiFi so I’d recommend staying here if you’re passing through.

The anticipation for the night bus has been building all day and in reality it really wasn’t too bad. I had downloaded a few episodes of The O.C. season 1 and slept a few hours before we reached the border. Immigration was reasonably painless, we only waited about an hour which was quite good as it can be up to seven but luckily we were one of the first coaches to reach the border.

I was quite tired when we got back onto the bus and fell into a deep sleep, hugging my valuables for all they were worth. Lucky Justine wasn’t sleeping so deeply because I would have slept right passed our stop. We reached Máncora earlier than we had expected and ended up on the side of the road in a small dusty town with our bags, no local currency, surrounded by tuk-tuks at 4am! We had only booked the hostel for the next evening, expecting to arrive in the day so weren’t sure what to do. The cash machine gave me two 100 soles notes (not helpful) so we used our dollars to get a tuk-tuk to our beachside hostel, hoping it had 24-hour reception.

We were lucky that a couple from our bus were also staying in the same hostel and were doing the same. When we reached the hostel, it really was a beach hut in the middle of nowhere (except for other hostels). Dogs awoke the sleeping owner and after checking in, we were told that the only beds available then were hammocks with mosquito nets. With no other options we put our luggage into the sheltered area and wrapped up for a chilly few hours in the hammock (lucky I’d already slept in one in the jungle in Venezuela).



All in all, although we hadn’t planned to arrive at 4am with no money and no plan, my first night bus went pretty well. I didn’t lose any possessions, I slept well and I had great company. And the reward, a few days chilling out at the beach in Máncora before getting extremely sunburnt and catching a 23 hour night bus to Lima on my own.

Spoiler: the next bus was fine too (it had fully reclining seats, dinner and breakfast and individual TV screens with English subtitles on the movies) but I didn’t sleep as well because of the sunburn which is still painful nearly a week on.

Life lesson: ALWAYS wear suncream.

Three days at Cotopaxi: the most relaxed volcano in Ecuador

After having spent six nights in Quito, the most I’ve spent in any pace so far, it’s fair to say I was very excited to be moving on to somewhere new. The hostel I had been staying at in Quito, The Secret Garden, has a sister hostel in Cotopaxi national park. Everyone I had met at the hostel seemed to be moving onto there next so I thought there must be a good reason for it. Cotopaxi is one of Ecuador’s most famous volcanoes and visiting it was already on my bucket list, so I joined the bandwagon and booked the 3 day-2 night inclusive trip ($88 for a dorm).

 We set off at a reasonable 10:30am to travel to the new hostel in a Jeep. The four-wheel drive was definitely necessary, the road was bumpy, cobbled in parts and full of holes to avoid. It reminded me of the driving in Venezuela. On the way there it was quite cloudy and I was always looking out the windows to try and get a glimpse of the snow-capped volcano.

The hostel itself is enchanting. It’s run like clockwork and you are immediately welcomed into a warm and cosy lounge, with mulled wine at the ready. There are two long tables where everyone eats their meals together, a large round kitchen in the centre of the main room and a fire that gets lit in the evenings. I realised once I had arrived that you could also stay in Hobbit holes (like in The Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit) but you have to be really organised as they get booked up very quickly. My dorm was great though, with its own log-burning fire and amazing views of Cotopaxi.

After a delicious lunch, our first activity was a short walk to some nearby waterfalls where we could jump in, if we felt brave enough. The walk lasted about an hour and it was a nice opportunity to get to know the people in my group who I would be spending the next few days with. I asked one of the volunteers what would be the best time for taking pictures of Cotopaxi, as it was still covered in clouds. She said you could never tell and it had been cloudy for a while, in fact some people never get to see it. Disappointed, I put this thought out of my mind and continued on with the walk.

Feeling adventurous I decided to jump off the waterfall. I don’t have any proof but I can tell you it was very very cold. The platform was only about three metres tall but it was a wet and slippy. I was very nervous of not jumping far enough and hitting my head on the rocks. But I managed to jump cleanly and just about touch the pebble covered bottom of the pool before resurfacing and rushing out of the freezing water to change.

By the time we got back from the waterfalls, we were greeted by the most amazing view of Cotopaxi, finally clear after what it turns out to have been two weeks of cloud curtains. I felt so extremely lucky to see this beautiful view so early and clearly in my stay. I went to relax and reheat in the jacuzzi which had panoramic views and ended up getting out every five minutes to take pictures.

The first night was fajitas for dinner (one of my favourites) and then I sat up writing and reading by the fire, snuggled up with one of the five hostel dogs. When I left the main lodge to head to bed, I had a second truly amazing view – the most clear, starry night I have ever seen. The snowcapped mountains shone in the moonlight and I didn’t know which direction to look in there were so many stars, each as bright as the next.

The next day we set off early on a six hour hike to the top of Pasochoa, a nearby extinct volcano (4,200 m). I found this day so tough and it was the first time in a week the altitude had seriously affected me. Every step made me more and more out of breath. I was desperate not to keep holding everyone up but I couldn’t move any faster. I’m not exactly fit at the moment but I have been walking a lot so I didn’t expect to find it so hard. By the time I finally reached the top I was tearful and shaky. The coca leaves I had near to the top had helped a bit but I still felt weak and surprised at how hard it was for me.

The way down was much easier – in fact as points I was running and jumping. I wanted to show to myself that I’m not weak. But in hindsight, why does it matter if I am? It doesn’t matter if I’m not the best and one of the lesson I most want to learn from travelling is not to be so competitive with myself anymore. Being the best and being the worst doesn’t matter. It’s about being happy and enjoying the moment you’re in.

I was exhausted by the time we got back and excited to hear it was pizza for dinner. I spent the rest of the evening in a similar way to the one before, relaxing, writing and reading. It struck me on the way back to my dorm, once again lucky enough to have a clear night, that this would be a place I would be happy to come to die. It sounds really morbid but the hostel and its surroundings felt so calm and relaxing. A dutch girl had described it as a ‘zen’ place to be and I agree with her. It felt like what I imagine a yoga retreat to be like, without the flexibility and stretchy pants.

The next day was my last and I decided that hiking would be too much for me so I pushed myself further outside my comfort zone and signed up for horse riding. Anyone who knows me well will know I’m not an animal person. In fact I’m scared of most animals and normally I would never even go past a horse in the field walking my dogs, let alone voluntarily ride one. But I knew that it would be a great experience and I wanted to try something new.

I’m so glad I signed up for it. It was amazing. My horse, Mil Amores, was a beautiful blonde steed and he could sense I was inexperienced and nervous. We slowly trotted along most of the way until break time, getting closer and closer to Cotopaxi. On the way back we went quite a bit faster and my legs and bottom found this less comfortable, bouncing and flying all over the place.

The riding lasted about three hours but it was over before I knew it. Just like my time at Cotopaxi. And like fate, the clouds covered back over the awesome volcano as I loaded my bags back onto the Jeep. It was a fantastic three days and I was sad to leave. But the sadness didn’t last long as I had the adventure of jumping on my bus to Baños with all my bags while it was still moving – standard practise here in South America but exciting still.

Ecuador part one: Quito, Mindo and Quilotoa 

Ecuador has turned into another place that I underestimated. In my plans I have just two weeks set aside for this naturally beautiful country. In a short time I’ve seen a lot but, as always, there’s a lot more to see. I’m writing this post from perhaps the most beautiful place I have stayed yet but I’ll save that for part two.

Quito

The capital of the country, although at first not as historic as Cartagena or as cultured as Bogota, has its own unique appeal. The hostel I stayed in, The Secret Garden, has amazing rooftop panoramic views which gave me the perfect spot to see all the sights. Quito is situated in a valley between large mountain ranges and has the appearance of a long, bustling centre.

On my first day in the city I joined an active group of travellers from my hostel taking the TelefériQo (cable cart) and climbing Rucu Pichincha behind it – although at first I thought it was just a three hour hike. Well this turned out to be my hardest physical test since Roraima. Combined with altitudes over 4,600m and strong winds, there were certainly points where I didn’t think I would make it to the top and points where I didn’t even want to. But the views from here were even better and the sense of achievement at the end was extremely rewarding. The company during the five hour hike (it was three to the top!) also improved the experience. Take gloves though, if you plan on venturing there yourself!


On my second day I was hit with my first upset stomach, halting my plans and preventing me from doing to walking tour. This meant I didn’t learn much about the history of the city but I did manage to see some of its many churches and the main plaza – a picturesque, tree-lined square with benches and restaurants facing inwards. The day off did give me time to make plans for the rest of my time in Ecuador, including a day trip to Quilotoa.

Quilotoa


Quilotoa is another famous volcano in Ecuador. Many travellers spend three days hiking the Quilotoa loop around the rim of the volcano’s crater which is filled with the most beautiful, blue-green lagoon. I didn’t have enough time for this and with an upset stomach decided it wouldn’t be wise to try. So instead I signed up to the day trip run by the travel agency beneath the hostel (CarpeDM). This has definitely been my best spent $50 so far.


The day started early with a long drive, a stop off for breakfast and then a further drive to two animal markets. First we visited a large animal market selling pigs, cows, alpacas, goats and lambs. This was quite disturbing and the vegetarians in our group certainly struggled with the sight. The next market was for smaller animals including guinea pigs (a popular delicacy in South America), chickens, ducks, puppies and cats (I hope the last two weren’t for eating). I was less shocked by this market and although visiting both wasn’t a fun experience, it was an interesting one.


After this we had another hour of driving before reaching the top of the volcano’s crater. It was very windy when we got there but this didn’t detract from the fantastic view. The pictures show just how breathtaking the crater and lagoon was. I was expecting to be slightly disappointed by the reality, having seen a lot of pictures before. But this wasn’t the case, in fact I think the view is even better in the flesh. The water was so bright and clear, even with a few clouds hanging around the edge of the crater.


We took the walk down into the crater at a steady pace, making it down the to water in about half an hour. There was a real sense of calm just sitting down by the water’s edge. There’s a small wooden pier you can sit on and take pictures. We sat here for a while just enjoying the tranquility.


After another half an hour our time was up and we needed to climb back up the crater. The altitude was still really high here so it wasn’t all that easy. I went for a slow and steady speed with few breaks and made it to the top in 48 minutes.


At the start of the three hour journey back to Quito, we stopped off to take pictures at a canyon which was another little bonus of the trip.

This is the second inclusive trip or tour that I’ve paid for and I’m really glad I did. It was definitely good value for money and it meant I could see a part of Ecuador that would have been hard to fit in on my own. Highly recommended!

Mindo

Next I went to Mindo, a small town set up for tourism two hours north east of Quito. I spent one night here, splashing out to a hotel instead of a hostel, which actually felt kind of quiet after weeks in hostels.

As soon as I stepped off the bus I was ushered into a tour operators office and straight into a taxi to the butterfly farm. The butterfly farm was the main reason I wanted to go to Mindo as I’d never really heard of one before and I think butterflies are so pretty. All the posters in town had these giant blues butterflies on them and I really hoped I would be able to get a picture of one myself.


The farm was a lot smaller than I expected but it didn’t disappoint in anyway. The compact room just meant it felt like there were more butterflies.


They had these small trays with mushed banana which you could dip your finger in and pick up the butterflies by their body. I even managed to balance three on one hand for a while.



They also had all stages of the butterfly lifecycle on display from egg to caterpillar, chrysalis to baby butterfly emerging from its shell. I spent over an hour there taking pictures and videos, finally determined to get a picture with a blue butterfly by my face (mission accomplished).


After this I went for a late lunch at The Beehive restaurant (a huge plate of fajitas, blackberry juice and a hot chocolate) and went to my hotel to relax and read. A few naps later I stepped out again for dinner, via the small main square where a dance class seemed to be going on. It was an usual sight as people of all ages joined in and I later realised this was my first experience of Reggaeton. Not adventurous to join in, I grabbed a great handmade pizza nearby and went back to the hotel for an early night. 

The next day I decided to try the ziplining with Mindo Canopy Adventures. And it was awesome! Not a small course, the ten lines send you hundreds of metres across the cloud forest canopy. I even felt brave enough to try the superwoman and mariposa (butterfly) positions – the latter where you fly upside down.


I went back to The Beehive for lunch (a burger this time) and then visited one of the chocolate factories for a tour and excuse to eat lots of free samples. It was similar to the chocolate museum I visited in Cartagena except they had real-life examples of cocoa trees, cocoa beans and the drying process. It was great to learn even more about chocolate as I’m quite a fan and they had a coffee tree too so I could see what the beans looked like as they grow. I had to leave a little early from the tour to catch my return bus to Quito but I left feeling I’d had a great time in this touristy town.


Back to Quito


One day left in Quito, I had to try the helado (ice cream which is offered by servers at every street corner) and visit the famous Basilica de Vito Nacional. Well the ice cream was so refreshing I had two.



The Basilica deserves it’s fame, it’s an outstanding sight to see inside and out. You can even climb up one of the towers but I decided not to. Instead of gargoyles, the outside of the gothic church is lined with turtles, iguanas, alligators and other unusual animals. The inside is lit by bright and colourful stain glass windows at all ends. There’s also a small chapel behind the alter dedicated to Mary and it’s decorated with more ornate windows and colours. I’m really glad I managed to fit this in because it’s probably the most impressive church in the whole of the city.



All this I’ve seen in just one week! Ecuador has so much to offer and I’ve still got another week coming up. I’m writing this from Cotopaxi, a very ‘zen’ place to relax and hike. Next up is Baños and Cuenca before I head onto Peru. I promise I’ll get another post up before the end of the week. The moral of the story, be prepared because Ecuador should not be underestimated!

A rush of colour: my time in Colombia 

When I first researched Colombia, I had thought there wasn’t going to be much to interest me. I really wanted to see the graffiti in Bogota and other than that I wasn’t too fussed. In fact, originally I had only set aside one week to pass through the entire country.


Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even from my first night in the Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta (it’s a great place to stay, I’d definitely recommend it) I realised that Colombia has a lot more to offer. Some travellers come to South America just to see for Colombia for six weeks or more, and I’m rushing my way through like a tornado taking in all the sights in a whirlwind trip.


In my initial plans Santa Marta was meant to be a quick stop over on the way from Venezuela. Cartagena would be a couple of days to look at the ‘amazing colonial architecture’ (I thought I wasn’t all that interested) and Bogota would be three days to see the world famous graffiti. But in just 10 days I’ve learnt so much about the culture, history and politics of the country.


The people

The vibrancy of the people and the culture of Colombia immediately takes you in and the contrast with Venezuela is much stronger than I had imagined. Although facing its own political problems, it’s in a much more stable place at the moment, making it a far more relaxed place to travel with a large backpacking scene. I hadn’t expected to meet so many warm, friendly and interesting people here, travellers and locals included. After just an hour in Bogota, I had lunch with a local guy who spoke perfect English and chose to sit with me instead of his family, sharing all the best places to visit in the capital. And in Popayan, the tour guide for the free walking tour was busy so two tourist policemen gave us a tour instead – even though it isn’t their job. Colombia definitely gives you a warm welcome as a tourist and thankfully my lack of Spanish hasn’t caused too many issues yet.


The food

The food here is also fantastic, it isn’t all just arepas (corn pancakes that are sold everywhere here). Because of the climate, there’s a huge amount of fruits and vegetables available, with stalls selling mango and pineapple on every street corner. I had the best guacamole I have ever tasted in Santa Marta (in a small cafe called Lulo). I also got to try Ajiaco in one of Bogota’s oldest restaurants (a traditional Andean chicken soup with corn and different types of potatoes – it was great!). I went to a chocolate museum in Cartagena where they explain how Colombian chocolate is grown and produced (plus you get to mould your own chocolates and add flavours). And the lemonade in Cartagena was the best too! Basically, any weight that I lost in Venezuela trekking, has definitely been put back on here. Maybe it’s a good thing I’m moving on really…






Cartagena

I wasn’t expecting to be so easily charmed by this city. The architecture is as good as everyone says, I walked around Cartagena for hours just looking at all the beautifully coloured building and huge bougainvillea hanging from large balconies. The old city wall was also very impressive, especially as you are free to walk along the top at your own risk. My favourite place was the bookshop cafe, Abaco Libros y Cafe, with the amazing lemonade. Part of the real charm from this city is also the laid back atmosphere, this was the first place on my trip I was free to walk around in the evenings late at night and feel worry-free. I also went snorkelling while I was here which was great too and the beaches are better than people tell you, although I got supremely burnt after falling asleep in the sun. I could easily have spent a week or more getting to know this place, but three days was all I could manage. 


Bogota

Bogota is probably my favourite place in Colombia. Other travellers told me there wasn’t much to see and I should skip it and visit Medellin instead – another great reason why I want to make my own decision on this trip (see my previous blog post). The graffiti in Bogota is AMAZING and the tour made it even better with the detail and the context our tour guide, Jahir, gave us. He explained the conflicts with the artists and the government and the mayor’s department, the history behind the Colombia civil war and the artists’ inspiration. I wanted to stay another day and see more of the graffiti but I didn’t have time unfortunately. Although I did manage to party in a roof top club with some people I met in the hostel, visit both the Gold museum and the Botero museum, and climb the 3150m Cerro de Monserrate (in a slow 1hr 8mins). The view from the top was unbelievable, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a large city (it has 25 universities if you can believe that). The cable car isn’t worth it though so I’d suggest walking both ways. This city is hugely underrated and definitely worth spending a decent amount of time in, but again, four days was all I had.







I am about to move on to Ecuador next week which I am very excited about but I’ll be sad to leave Colombia knowing there is so much more to see. I know there are destinations and attractions later in my trip that I want to spend more time seeing though so the hard decisions have to be made. For anyone considering visiting Colombia, I’d say definitely do it! It’s a colourful country with so much to offer and a lot safer than it’s past leads you to believe.

Doing your research, getting advice and making your own decisions

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while. I know I’m only on my third week of travelling but I have been researching my trip since the beginning of January and I’d like to think I’ve done quite a lot of planning. 

As you’ll know if you have been following along with my adventures so far, I’ve recently moved on from Venezuela to Colombia. Instead of flying which costs about $250, I choose to do my first land crossing. My guide book gave me detailed instructions on how to do this and as it came closer to July, I spoke to my travel agency who were able to help with organising a transfer to the Venezuelan border. 

Confident I had done the proper research and preparation, I thought nothing more of this part of my journey and moved onto planning my travels in Colombia. But, after speaking to some travellers who were part of my first trip in Venezuela, I started to doubt my decision. They were telling me that I couldn’t cross there; that the border was closed; it was really unsafe; that I’d be arrested by corrupt police and more of the same worrying thoughts. And these seeds of doubt grew in my mind. Was my research wrong? 

So I contacted my travel agency asking for advice, did more research and spoke to some local people. When it came down to it I had to make a decision: either abandon my plans and get a flight, or continue with what I had originally decided and paid for.

After a lot of thought and worry, I decided to stick with my decision and cross the border on foot, as planned. I was so tense and worried in the days leading up to the crossing. I felt like I was taking a big risk but that I didn’t want to back down on my initial decision. 

When the day finally came, a long story short, the biggest problem I had was losing my Nike cap on a motorbike taxi. Crossing the actual border was fine. I had my bag checked near the border for the first time and once I’d walked the 100m to the Colombian immigration office, the staff were really helpful – I even had a joke with the English speaking attendant behind the counter. The bus I got from Maicao to Santa Marta was pretty luxury with air conditioning, reclining seats and three TV screens, and it only cost me £6-£7 for a five hour journey. 

The point I’m trying to make is, although it’s worthwhile listening to advice from other travellers and you can gain some really useful information, you don’t have to take it all as fact or law. When it comes down to it, you can make your own decisions and choose what risks you want to take. Everyone will have a different opinion on what the best sights to see are or places to visit, which towns are dangerous and which are fun. It’s the journey of discovery that makes travelling a fantastic experience. 

I’ve had a short but sweet time in Santa Marta which I wouldn’t have been able to see if I wasn’t crossing the land border. Now I’m continuing my journey south through Colombia to the popular colonial city of Cartagena.