Sunday, 26 April 2015

Bienvenidos a Peru! Huanchaco

Welcome to Peru! I cant quite believe we are in Peru already. Brazil only seems like two minutes ago but they do say that time flies when you´re having fun! Fun isn´t quite the word I would use to describe our first experiences of Peru. After a tyre change high up in the Andes, our bus finally made it to the border and after a few stamps of the passport, into Peru. You could be forgiven for thinking northern Peru is an African nation, with shanty towns stretching as far as the eye can see, thick sheets of dust clinging to the piles of rubble strewn across the roads and waste disposal sites burning in the horizon. We arrived in the border town of Piura exhausted and unimpressed and as my head hit the pillow, I did a little prayer for an improvement during our trip to Huanchaco the following day.

Huanchaco reached and exceeded our expectations as we were welcomed with a sunset over a glimmering shoreline, waves lapping at the pier and tourists and locals alike soaking up the last of the afternoon sun. The beach town of Huanchaco is a haven for surfers, and travellers like us looking for some downtown. After three days of travelling on hot and smelly buses, our first day in Huanchaco was spent on the beach doing nothing but sunbathing, relaxing, reading and eating tasty homemade empanadas. 

Whereas we had been able to wind down during the daytime, our Irish hostel owners informed us of free salsa lessons at the club next door so of course we jumped at the chance! My moves, rusty from our lessons way back in Cali, Colombia, were lubricated by Pisco, the national spirit made from grape brandy and soon we were all mingling and intertwining on the dancefloor, gringos and locals alike. 

I couldnt have asked for a nicer way to spend a few days at our first ´proper´ stop in Peru. 

Friday, 24 April 2015

Quilotoa and Cotopaxi volcanoes

Because of the two parts of the rocky Andean mountain range that runs through the centre of Ecuador it is a haven for thrill-seeking outdoorsy types looking to scale volcanos, mountain bike, zip-line through tree canopies, and abseil down waterfalls. All of which we have been doing for the best part of a week. From Quito the first stop on our adventure odyssey was Latacunga close to both Quilotoa and Cotopaxi volcanoes. Quilotoa is an extinct collapsed volcano with a lagoon within the crater. We were lucky enough to have beautiful weather during our day which made it even more stunning - the water rippled in the breeze and sparkled in the sun and the surrounding mountains looked like brightly coloured patchwork quilts rolling in the distance. 

Next up was Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, home to the active snow capped cone of Volcán Cotopaxi, Ecuador's second-highest peak standing at 5897m. Along with our tour guide we made it through the eery mist to the first refuge point from which we began the hour ascent to the second refuge and then further on to the staggeringly huge glacier slowly forcing its way down the side of the volcano. As we heard many times en route from fellow climbers, the terrain is 'just like' the moon with jagged boulders protruding from black fine sand next to vast ravines filled with red solidified lava. Cotopaxi delivered my first experience with a glacier and it didn't disappoint. We hopped over streams of melting ice water and negotiated crevasses until we were actually inside the glacier; a surreal experience. 
I am soon realising that when climbing to heights of around 5000m altitude sickness is a serious danger. Acclimatisation is key but even so we passed several people collapsed by the side of the trail suffering with dizziness, shortness of breath and crippling headaches - a scary reminder of how beautifully dangerous Ecuadorean mountain ranges can be. 

Chimborazo Volcano

Believe it or not, we have come to our last volcano on the Ecuadorean list. And we have saved the best until last - Chimborazo, the furthest place on Earth from its exact centre and the closest place on the planet to the stars. 

Riobamba, the city nestled in its lowlands was, after a devastating earthquake in 1797, rebuilt specifically to align towards Chimborazo to enable locals to enjoy the scenery during day-to-day life. From here we loaded up our 4x4 and began the climb to the base camp, called Whymper Hut after Englishman Edward Whymper who made the first ascent in 1880. From here, the last part of our trek was only 900m in distance and 200m in elevation but took over 40 minutes due to the altitude as by now we were over 5000m, higher than Mount Blanc, the Alps' highest peak. Sadly reaching the second camp gave us no better views as the weather had closed in, covering the landscape with thick fog and a smattering of falling snow. Back down to Whymper Hut and it was time to mountain bike! Volcanic rock and debris under the tyres along with 20% visibility, biting cold and sheer drops either side of the path made the first part difficult and treacherous. Our route would be half on tarmac, half in the wilderness so after a couple of kilometres we were rewarded with a short cycle on smooth road. 
However back on the trail and the terrain had changed completely. Scrubland had taken over and huge mounds of moss-covered sharp rocks took up the paths cut out by melting glacier water. All the while traversing these rocky conditions, the steep descent means gravity takes over so you find your frozen hands gripping the brakes as if your life depending on it (ironic really). After a particularly rough section, I came off the bike and was thrown down a hill which marked the end of my short-lived mountain biking career. But the fun didn't stop there. Our tour guide turned into a off-road champion so as the others pedalled on we were hurling across the moonscape, whizzing by curious Vicuña, a protected species related to the llama/alpaca family. Their wool is so highly coveted that one kilo can fetch $800! For lunch we stopped in a ravine likened to scenes from 'The Lord of the Rings' and watched local women herding cattle, sheep and alpacas around ancient Inca ruins, all the whilst sat on an embankment soaking up the late afternoon sun. 
Although I thought I'd be a professional biker by the end of the day, turns out Chimborazo had other ideas and I, quite frankly, loved how one of my last days in beautiful Ecuador turned out.


From Latacunga we caught another local bus to Baños (pronounced banyos) which was a peaceful town full of proud Ecuadorians going about their daily lives in traditional dress, culturally uncompromised despite the towns popularity with tourists. On our first day we signed on the dotted line at the tour company and headed to one of the many cascadas, waterfalls, to begin an afternoon of canyoning; essentially abseiling down sheer waterfalls. I love outdoor activities so volunteered myself to go first, angling myself diagonally off a cliff into ice cold mountain water. Remembering all the advice, techniques and what-not-to-do's is no easy feat whilst trying to forget that dangling yourself backwards off a waterfall goes against all human instinct. BUT when I made the final leap into the swirling pool below, it was so exhilarating I just wanted to move to the next rock face. 

Three hours and about a million selfies later, we had made it to the bottom. Soaked to the skin and shivering cold, we hopped on the dirt bikes back into town and agreed it was definitely $25 well spent! 
On our second day in Baños, after a spur of the moment night out on the tiles, we went to the 'Swing at the End of the World' to try and shake off our hangover. This swing has made it into many 'top ten things to do before you die' lists so we had high hopes. Typically the Andean weather was not on our side so the 'end of the world' was out of sight but the swing itself is just abit of pure, childlike fun next to  a zip line that wouldn't look out of place in a kids playground. With only a piece of rope to keep you on the swing, health and safety obviously hasn't reached Ecuador yet but that was part of the experience. With only a small crowd, and a tenth of the adventure we have had the past few days, it was a charming quiet afternoon spent in the foothills of the towering Andes. 

Friday, 10 April 2015


When we left Otavalo I was expecting to reach Quito and be welcomed by a grimy capital city that has a reputation for being dangerous. However following a free walking tour on our first day my opinion of the worlds highest capital city dramatically improved. For three hours we visited local markets and tried the fresh produce - Moroche for me, a warm milky drink perfect for combatting the affects of the altitude sickness that I was suffering from - walked around large public squares and learnt the history of Quito, whose name derives from the word Quitu literally meaning central earth. 

Before we arrived in Ecuador I had it down as the sleepy neighbour to conflict-ridden Colombia and drug capital Peru. But it turns out the country and capital has its fair share of colourful historic stories from presidents being murdered in machete attacks to hyperinflation leading to a complete change of currency (from the Sucre to the U.S. dollar - just before the changeover the conversion rate was an astronomical 25,000 Sucre to just one dollar) Although after the tour I was suitably impressed, we had still been given regular warnings about pickpockets, crime rates and where is simply too dangerous to go in the city. Similarly to Rio de Janeiro, building and infrastructure works are popping up everywhere in and around Quito as the government and active tourism ministry 'prettify' the city. However it seems logical to me that if all efforts and energy were targeted at lowering crime and bettering the local every day quality of life, then tourists would eventually come naturally as part of the inevitable circle of exploration and adventure as more and more people are taking to travelling the world. 

As the name suggests, Ecuador sits right on the equatorial line so we ventured the 30 minutes out of the city to the Mitad del Mundo, or middle of the world. Over 500 years ago explorers were able to locate the equator using only the mountains and sun alignment and impressively managed to get it to within 300 metres. Today with the help of fancy GPS a huge red line has been painted on the exact 00°00'00" latitude where we found ourselves conducting classroom-like experiments to understand the change in hemispheres and gravity from one side of the line to the other. From balancing an egg on a pin head to watching the clockwise and anticlockwise spin of water down a plug hole, it was fascinating to feel and see the affects of natural forces which are the reason the Earth exists as it does. After we had received our diploma certificate for balancing said egg on the pin (yes really) we made our way to La Basilica, Quito's outwardly impressive cathedral. 

I found the interior to be a much of a muchness as the other churches we have visited elsewhere but La Basilica has a secret weapon in its arsenal - for an extra $2 it's possible to climb the vertical exposed steps up the actual spires to reach the highest views of the city, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site located on the Andean active volcano of Pichincha  Needless to say, in the blowing wind, I didn't bother doing that choosing rather to enjoy the views from a safer slightly lower platform where I was shocked to see just how big Quito is, as it sprawls along the valley floor and banks up the sides of the looming Andes. It is easy to get swept into city life and become accustomed the the high rise buildings but, as I look out from the hostel terrace in the direction where the Amazon basin begins, I am reminded of just how naturally beautiful Ecuador is. 

(Photos to follow)

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Colombia to Ecuador - Otavalo

The next leg of the journey from Popayan was a mammoth days travel which consisted of us crossing into Ecuador. This being our first land crossing (Brazil to Colombia was via the Amazon) and having read and heard many horror stories of South American border crossing, I was a little apprehensive to say the least. In order to break our journey up and keen to see some sights, after we arrived from Popayan to Ipiales further south, we caught a short taxi to Santuario de Las Lajas, a basilica situated on the side of a deep ravine cut through by a waterfall. 

It is a huge pilgrim site and we found ourselves with 16k of rucksacks trying to navigate our way through a thronging crowd, down some steep steps, avoiding beggars to get to the entrance of the church only to find it packed to the rafters of Catholics from a wide spread of the continent here to pay their respects to Jesus and light a candle. Although we were the only gringos we could see, quite a lively tourism trade has sprung up to cater for visitors with money to burn. Copious stalls selling identical religious offerings are set beside restaurants and food outlets with a variety of delicacies - the main one which caught my eye was cuy, or guinea pig; a sharp reminder of how close we are to Ecuador! After this little stop off, we headed for the border at Rumichaca and were pleasantly surprised at just how easy it was. Unlike others crossing over, we had no bag searches, no questions asked... A British passport is a beautiful thing! Now in Ecuador, we caught yet another bus to Tulcan and then onto Otavalo. The reason for all these stops is there isn't yet a direct bus over the border, something we can look forward to when we move to Peru. As much as this is a hassle for us, drug trafficking is still a prevalent issue in this area hence the need for all the changes and the searches which were conducted on one bus by gun-toting narcotics officers. 
Finally we had arrived in Otavalo, a place only really on the tourist map due to its famous market. Locals come down from their mountainous villages to sell handmade wares ranging from alpaca jumpers and silver rings and necklaces to homegrown fruit and veg and hot takeaway style dishes. After a couple of hours and a considerable amount of haggling and bartering, Max and I left laden down with bags full of patterned trousers, woollen jumpers, traditional Andean outfits, sunglasses, fridge magnets... You name it, we bought it! En route back to the hostel we found a hand to carry our lunch which was a pulled pork dinner (a whole pig roasting on a spit, head protruding from the shop window like a look-out) with boiled corn kernels, pan fried parboiled potatoes with salad. We always know we're onto a winner with our food choices when we are dining with locals and this was no different, with a couple of local men conversing with us in the worldwide language of head nods and hand gestures. Although Otavalo was only a stop off for us to visit the market, the town which is made up of old Ecuador and new Western influences has surprised us into liking border towns just that little bit more. 


Via an overnight, uninteresting stay in Cali, we arrived in Popayan in time for Colombias Semana Santa festival, or Easter as we know it. Popayan is a popular destination for Catholics to descend upon for the celebration and we were able to experience first hand the lengths the devout go to to pay homage to their Catholic beliefs. Walking round the old town it is easy to see why this is called the 'White City' as the sun glares off whiter than white colonial buildings towering from either side of the roads. 

As with many colonial parts of cities we have been to, most corners and blocks have extravagant churches and Popayan is no different. Including the beautiful cathedral, all the holy temples had shrines to Jesus set up around the inside perimeter. Made from plastic-wax type material, the figurines cast eery shadows around the churches and portrayed pained expressions on their faces. Later on, as we watched the four hour long procession wind through the streets, we realised the shrines were for this exact reason as priests were carrying them, pall-bearer style whilst a crowd of around 10,000 watched on in subdued silence, many holding candles. A live band consisting of both young and old created the mellow soundtrack to the parade, creating a very intense religious experience. Although the faith side of the celebration bypassed me, it was fascinating to see how it brought people of every walk of life together and just how vested their interest in the Catholicism is.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Salento - Zona Cafetera

As we are quickly learning, the places on our itinerary with which we expect the least always seem to surprise us and remind us not to judge a book by its cover. An example of this is Salento, a small town nestled in the corazón, or heart, of the country. Renowned for its location within Zona Cafetera, the area famous for producing most of Colombia's coffee, we expected an education on coffee production and a few days of relaxation. El Ocaso was the self-sustained eco-coffee farm chosen and we weren't disappointed; we picked coffee beans by hand, used aged machines to split the beans apart, learnt about the unexpectedly long farming process (eight years from seed to cup) and tasted traditionally made local blends. 

Salento town itself was centred around a large square with cobbled uneven streets running off it at all angles. We sampled a taste of local street food; delicious toasted maize flatbreads with ricotta cheese called arepas and charcoaled herby sausages on sticks whilst meandering in and out of the bohemian artesian boutique shops. 

Later that evening, accompanied by our new friends from the hostel, we accidentally stumbled across a private birthday party. Invited in by the host and offered the aniseed-flavoured spirit of aguadiente, we donned our paper sombreros and eye masks and joined the huge congo trail snaking round the pub. Later on, drenched in silly string and clutching our piñata winnings we took part in a saucy Colombian version of 'pin the tail on the donkey' - besides the posters of naked men and women were small children dancing their best salsa steps, a very bizarre combination. After copious amounts of cerveja and aguadiente we bode our new friends buenos noches and walked the 1km back in the pouring rain. Try as it might, the weather couldn't dampen our spirits after a fantastic evening immersed in the local culture. 

Day two and following a half hour ride in the back on a battered old Jeep, we arrived at Valle de Cocora, a beauty spot known for its towering palm trees and vibrant landscapes. Convinced by my companions (most of whom were suffering from the night before) I climbed on a horse that was to take us to a waterfall further in to the valley (I should take a moment to explain that I hate horses and am quite frightened of them). Turns out the Spanish word for horse is very similar to the word for onion - and I wondered why I got a strange look from our guide!
After a unsteady start, we were on our way to the cascade which can be seen miles out. En route were the famous palm trees everywhere. Whether they sprang up naturally or were planted by man, they loom eerily over the landscape creating a jagged skyline broken up by vivid purple flowering trees and coffee plantations which created a beautiful scenic view. The waterfall was a crashing torrent of water thanks to the downpour the previous evening and was a pleasant reward after the muddy horse ride. 
Back into town for the evening and we dined on local dishes of bandeja paisa, a mix of rice, beans, salad, meat and fried banana and trucha, a trout delicacy served simply with garlic and plantain. We had been told of a bar where it's possible to play tejo, a game which consists of throwing rocks at firecrackers on a metal ring sat on a clay board in the hope that they explode. Sounds easy right? Wrong! Without sounding like a tradesman blaming their tools, we looked like complete amateurs amongst the other gringos playing as all evening, we only managed two explosions (which obviously we blamed on faulty equipment). After a few drinks in the square with some locals we headed back to our eco-farm hostel for the last time before making tracks for Cali the next day. What we had pinned as a sleepy town with only one coffee shaped bow to its string turned out to be an exciting hidden gem which provided us with a couple of the best days we've had in a while.