That’s all she wrote

25 Nov

I had a few more days in Boquete in which I studied a little more and then attempted the level B2 DELE Spanish Exam. I knew it was going to be hard, needing 70% across all five sections of the exam, and although I’m not 100% sure, I think I would have failed. Not to worry, that was my first ever language exam so a good experience nonetheless.

In my last few days I learnt how to make Patacones with Miriam, a food that has been part of my staple diet for a very long time, and watched two films with the kids about talking eggs. I said goodbye on Friday with Amilcar, a talented drawer, drawing me a farewell picture to remember the family by. It was a really great experience staying with them and one I won’t forget.

Amilcar’s drawing of ‘Australia’

The next day I headed to Bocas del Toro, something that has been on the places to go list for a long time. Although very touristy I can see why people go there, some beautiful islands in the caribbean and good nightlife. On the way I met Jen and Annika, a couple of American girls who had come down from San Jose for the weekend. We all went to Aqua Lounge, which is renowned for it’s parties, and spent the late afternoon jumping off the trampoline and swings into the ocean. We went for a walk around sunset and ended up eating Lobster for $7.50 at Gran Kahuna, another hostel around the corner. There’s many things I won’t miss about the food in Central and South America but cheap lobster is not one of them. The party that night at Aqua Lounge definitely lived up to expectations and conveniently I have no photo evidence of the night.

Aqua Lounge, Bocas del Toro

The next day I took a boat with the girls to one of the other islands where you could spot red frogs, amongst other things. It is renowned for its beautiful beach too but it was raining so that wasn’t much good to us. We went for a walk through the jungle and the girls shared some of their knowledge about the plants, with both studying Ecology at University. I mainly complained about how much better it could have been with no rain and a pair of flip flops. Jen also spotted the famous red frog, which was really, really tiny.

Jen and Annika at Isla Bastimentos

There’s a red frog but you can’t eat it

That night was open mic night at Aqua Lounge. Although there were a few guitar player/singers around, they were fast asleep in the dorm room having partied a little too hardy the night before. So instead we were treated to some hilarious freestyle rapping from a Panamanian guy Enrique who worked in the cafe at the hostel “Can you smell what Enrique is cooking? Chicken Sandwiches’. I couldn’t decide whether to stay another day or not and when I woke up to another overcast day I decided to head for Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica. Puerto Viejo is over run by tourism (hostel, cafe, hostel, yoga farm, hostel, organic produce, hostel etc), especially of the American variety, but pretty chilled nonetheless. Despite rain for the first half of the day the skies cleared and so I went to the beach on bicycle with Alena, Alizee and Clemence from my hostel.

Generic caribbean beach photo, Puerto Viejo

That night we got involved in some drinking games, the swiss (french) version of circle of death was funny, especially when the rule everyone has to speak with a french accent was introduced. I introduced the girls to the game fingers and afterwards we met up with Winston and played some epic table tennis tournaments. I was happy to beat Daniel, an Irish guy, in an epic Federar vs Nedal style 5th set and then Alizee, who’s Dad was Swiss champion. She had a vicious forehand; a few less drinks and I think she would have easily had my number.

Alizee is going down

I dragged myself away from Puerto Viejo and hopped on a bus to San Jose for what would be my final destination in Central/South America, sniff sniff. On the bus I saw Rob, a nice Australian guy I’d spent the night hanging out with in Bocas. We got to the city and I went to where Chris and Chloe were staying to hang for a night. We went out for the final supper, so to speak, and I prepared for my job interview with Pfizer which was the next morning.

With that done I was New York bound and after 375 days it was goodbye Latin America! After being through 13 countries and travelling thousands of kilometres I felt mixed emotions, both ready for a change but sad to be leaving. I was ready to get back into some sort of routine, burn my travelling clothes, flush my toilet paper down the toilet and eat a salad.

Thanks to those who made the year what it was, a truly amazing and life-changing experience, particularly my fantastic travelling buddy Roh who I shared almost half a year with. Without those friends from home, family, and literally hundreds of amazing people I met throughout the trip, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much.  Until next time that’s it from me, Dan, and the beaten track.

San Blas Islands

5 Nov

Something I missed out on doing the first time I travelled down through Central America was a trip to the San Blas Islands in Panama. I decided I wanted to go back up from Colombia so booked myself a spot on the Stahlratte, an old German sailing boat that travels between Cartagena and the Islands. The boat had come highly recommended consisting of Captain Ludwig and his crew of volunteers.

The Stahlratte

We finished the formalities and set sail on Monday morning with 11 other passengers (a mix of English, Scottish, US, Canada, Brazil, Germany and Sweden), 3 crewmembers and the Captain. The first day and a half would be straight sailing so that we could reach the islands by early afternoon the next day. There were some pretty disconcerting storm clouds around and being hurricane season I was a touch apprehensive about the conditions. Things got pretty rough that night with most of us being thrown around our beds and not getting much sleep. We found out later it had in fact been a little hurricane called Sandy that had passed by…

The trip itself was made enjoyable thanks to delicious food, a few drinks and good people. It also gave me a chance to get through the majority of my first Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, the second book I’ve read in Spanish. Although I read painfully slowly I feel like there has been quite a bit of progress since El Principito. We arrived in the idyllic islands in the afternoon and celebrated by swimming and exploring one of the islands we’d moored between. That night we had a bonfire on the beach, drank rum punch, then Winston’s rum, and cooked BBQ skewers on the fire.

Yannik jumping from the boat

Setting up for the beach bonfire

The next day a group of us went snorkeling in the morning around the coral reef. It was pretty decent with plenty of fish including the troublesome Lion Fish, which has been introduced and is destroying marine life in the Caribbean. That day we had a family of Kuna people join us for food on the boat and so got our first sight of what is a very interesting indigenous culture. We were also joined by a ridiculous private boat, which we found out had been hired by a family of three for $350,000/week. We found this out because Aran, a Kuna guide working on the boat, came across to our ship to hang out. That night was about amazing food (lobster and fresh fish), a nicely planned out trick ‘canoe game’ and spiderman.

Is that Spiderman on the Stahlratte?

The next day the tour finished but a group of seven of us decided to stay on the islands another night. We were picked up by Mireya, a Kuna woman who would be our host and guide, and taken to Isla Diablo where we would stay. Two Kuna families inhabited the island, one of which didn’t seem too happy with our presence. It is one of the dilemmas you face when travelling, on one hand you want to see and experience other cultures, but on the other you feel like you are intruding and in many ways spoiling it at the same time. The Kuna people have independence from Panama and are governed by a few elders in the community. Mireya explained that things have changed over time with external influence and now the people are allowed more freedom of choice (ie, can marry outside Kuna) compared to the past. However, most still live simple, traditional lives on the islands, with the men fishing while the women maintain the home and care for the children.

Isla de Diablo, San Blas

Contemplating life from a Canoe while watching the sunset, descriptive.

Mireya took us across by boat to see some of the other islands in the archipelago and to have some beers at one of the beautiful beach bars. She showed us around the island and explained how they use different fish medicinally and some of the ceremonies that take place for the people. When we got back she cooked us a dinner of Conch, gave us a bottle of rum and explained more about Kuna culture and why we were staying on the ‘devil’s island’. It was definitely a worthwhile experience staying an extra night and seeing first hand how the Kuna people live.

Sunset and a full moon

We had a lot of trouble getting to Panama City the next day as there were riots in the city and roadblocks all over. The government is trying to sell off ‘zona libre’ around Colon and the local people in those areas who rely on earning income there are having nothing of it. After a lot of sitting around in traffic we got there eventually and went out for a nice Italian dinner. Despite being a group of seven we were functioning pretty well and decided to travel together to Boquete to trek up Volcan Baru.

We arrived on Saturday night in Boquete then went to the supermarket and bought some supplies for the trek with the prize purchase a $25 bottle of Patron Café. We were heading off in perfect conditions, clear sky, full moon and quite a mild temperature considering it was midnight. It was up, up and more up as we started the ascent to 3500m (about 2000m of altitude over 14kms). It was harder than expected, even though we’d been told it was hard, but I put the struggle down to two things; a) I have not been exercising enough and am really unfit and b) starting an uphill trek when your body is saying sleep is tough. Luckily Patron came to the rescue and by 530am we had reached the summit.

Freezing at the summit of Volcan Baru

After discussing how silly the people at the hostel were for telling us to take warm clothes, we were eating our words as we huddled at the summit in a circle like penguins waiting for the Antarctic winter breeze to pass. About 15 minutes and some complaining later the sun started to rise above the Caribbean and we were happy campers. The view of the moon over the Pacific at the same time, which was glowing yellow like a sun, was one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen this trip. The cloud formations deflected the light perfectly giving the sky a nice pink tinge. Like the sunrise in Guatemala from Volcan Santiago, this was a sight I won’t soon forget.

Sunrise from Volcan Baru

View from the summit looking north

The experience trekking up the volcano was made all the more enjoyable because of the people involved. Three Canadians, Julia, Grayson and Nic, two Brazilians, Wellington and Rafael, and one German, Yannik. After being at the top till almost 8am we took three and a half hours to get back down and finished with nothing in the tank. It had been 30 hours without sleep and 28ks up and down a volcano so we went for lunch and then crashed. Fortunately we had one more night together before everyone parted ways so we hit up the Mamallena back porch with a heap of cocktails and some delicious Paella (thanks Brazil).

Volcan Baru, 12 hours later, with Wellington, Rafael, Yannik, Nic, Julia and Grayson

This week I started what will be my last round of Spanish classes and moved in with a Panamanian family- mother Miriam, and children Amilcad and Astrid. It’s been a great experience so far the family are fantastic. I am in Boquete for two weeks studying for the Diploma de Espanol como Lengua Extranjeros (DELE) level B2 exam. Why? Well, it opens up the option of studying a Masters in Granada next year. Level B2 is high intermediate and after starting the preparation I think I’ve set myself a tough task. At worst I fail the exam but come out the other end of this two weeks with significantly better Spanish.

My family home in Boquete, Panama

Over the weekend was Panama’s Independence Day and the Day of the Flag. Apparently Panama are really into marching bands, so any type of national festival involves street parades with marching bands. There were colleges, clubs and independent bands all on the streets of Boquete throughout the morning. Amilcad, Astrid, their older sister Yaleth, her son Josue and I, went to watch. That night I caught up with Chris and Chloe from the Stahlratte and we had dinner and beers in Boquete.

Yaleth, Astrid, Amilcad and Josue at Panama Flag Day, Boquete

Today is the 5th, which means it is my one-year travel anniversary. Thanks to all the people who have made it one of the best years of my life. People told me ‘you’ll know when you are ready to stop travelling’. I’m ready. This will most probably be the penultimate blog in what has been an unforgettable year.

Ride the Pony

21 Oct

I decided to leave Ecuador after returning from the Galapagos and embarked on an all day bus trip that would lead me back to Colombia and land me in Popayan. I was a bit nervous as it is one of the more dangerous routes to travel due to the strong presence of guerillas and cocaine trafficking. But all was fine and I arrived in Popayan at 2am following a tiring day of travel and a grilling from a Colombian police officer. I was going to be staying with my friend Mauricio and his family and checking out some of southern Colombia.

Popayan is the capital of Cauca, has been home to 17 Colombian Presidents and has very distinct Colonial architecture (it’s known as the ‘white city’). Mauricio took me on a walking tour as we checked out one of the lookouts, The Mosquero Museum and the old town. Afterwards we met up with one of his friends Sandra for beers and dinner.

Popayan by sunset, the white city

The next day was one of those travel days that becomes burnt into the long term memory. We had asked for information in the tourist office about visiting the Volcano Purace, which towers over Popayan. After getting directions from the girl in the tourist office to hop off in a small town, we did exactly that. As soon as we go off and asked about the motor bikes she told us we needed, the locals told us we should have stayed on the bus for another 16ks. After asking around we started walking in the hope to hitch hike the rest of the way. We ended up at some check point after 20 minutes where we were again told we should have taken the bus and essentially there was no other way to get there. Luckily there was a group of locals on motorbikes and after some discussion they agreed to take us with them. We piled on three to a moto and headed for a sulphur mine which we would pass through to access the volcano.

Waiting at the gates of the sulphur mine

Rain added to the fun as we worked our way slowly uphill, having to get off frequently as the moto didn’t have enough power to carry three people up the dirt road. Eventually we got to the base of the trail and even though we’d barely lifted a foot it felt like we’d been walking all day. The ascent was tough, mainly because of the altitude, with Mauro and I struggling as his brother Adrian charged up the mountain.

View from the bottom of the trail at Volcan Purace

After 2 hours and a bit of complaining about the lack of oxygen we made it to the top and were rewarded with a great view of a steaming volcanic crater. It is one of the most active Volcanoes in Colombia having last erupted in 1977. We passed a sign that said 4650m quite a while before getting to the top so I think its peak must be around 4800m. The way down was easy and rapid and we hopped back on the motos for an hour return journey in the pouring rain. After initially thinking we weren’t going to be able to do it because of crap advice, we made it, avoided paying the park entrance fee, got a tour of a sulphur mine, and a ride on a moto.

Adrian and Mauricio at the Volcano crater

We said farewell to Mauro’s family and headed to Cali the next day to meet up with Andres. It was saturday night so a few drinks were on the cards and we ended up back at MiKasa, a bar that usually plays more electronic and less salsa than the other bars in Cali. However, this night was retro night so it was non-stop 80’s hits. We made friends with some local girls and ended up spending the night with them continuing on to another bar in the city.

MiKasa otra vez

Mauro’s friend had asked him to take some photos of his band the next night. It was ‘alternative music week’ in Cali, which, from what I saw, can be read as heavy metal/thrash week. We went to the amphitheater and watched two bands. The first band was from Bogota and had a hot lead singer who screamed a lot. The second was Mauro’s friend’s band;  there was no hot female lead singer and still a lot of screaming. I couldn’t understand a lot except a lot of ‘puta’ this and ‘puta’ that, which is combined with other words to mean son of a bitch, motherf* etc. It was amusing to watch, plenty of teens and a few circle pits, where the aim seemed to be to push and hit other people with mild aggression. Afterwards we met up with Mauro’s friend Natalia for dinner and to take in the view over Cali from one of the parks with a nice lookout point.

I have to thank Mauricio again for some photos, when we travel together it makes sense to use his as he is a far superior photographer.

Put your hands up if you like heavy metal

We arrived in Salento in the Zona Cafetera and checked in at La Serrana before walking down to one of the local fincas for a coffee tour. The place was called Don Elias and is a small, organic, family run farm. It was interesting to hear about the process and see how the coffee is produced even though the guy taking the tour was a bit too serious and seemed like he’d taken the tour a few too many times. The Russian lady seems in awe here.

Coffee tour at Don Elias, Salento

The next day we’d arranged to go horse riding to some waterfalls with Don Alvaro. I had never ridden a horse before so wasn’t really sure what I was going to make of it. We went with Ana, Hannah and Natalie, with Natalie, Ana and I all horse riding virgins. Mauro rode it like he owned it as he took off galloping within a minute of exiting the hostel. My horse followed suit and my first thoughts were; I’m going to die, then this is weird I’m riding an animal, and then this is really uncomfortable bordering on painful. It was great fun though after 10 minutes I felt comfortable with the horse, emotionally speaking, and wanted it to gallopp as often as possible. At the halfway point we had a swim in a waterfall, as I estimated it was waterfall number 379 for the trip thus far.

Riding the pony

That night we went to Dave’s Speakeasy. Dave is a friend of Nick and Adams and has a small bar in his house in Salento. It is essentially like going to a house party with a nice little courtyard at the back to drink in. It was good fun and we ended up back at Plantation House afterwards having beers with Natalie and Hannah. The next day we headed for Valle de Cocora. It’s the most popular activity in the area and after arriving and starting walking through 40-50m high palm tress I could see why. We ended up doing a big loop of the valle and finishing off with the best views of the Palms as the sun was going down.

Mauro shooting the Palms at Valle de Cocora

Hannah ready to kill Guillaume for making her walk too much

The next couple of days were pretty chilled. We moved from La Serrana to a small hostel closer to town and spent the days walking around town, drinking delicious coffee and checking out some of the view points. We hung out with the Hannah and Nathalie and with Guillaume, a nice french guy we’d met on the walk in the valley. One night we went to play Tejo, the local Colombian sport where you throw a Tejo at explosives on a clay panel. We were joined by Carol, a Colombian who worked at La Serrana. I ended up hanging out with her a fair bit for the last couple of days in town with the three of us going for a delicious trout dinner. Mauricio and I considered trying Ayahuasca, the plant consumed with a Shaman that gives you spiritual revelations, but ended up bailing the idea due to bad preparation (you are meant to detox the body before with a specific diet). Instead we spent our last night in Salento with Carol enjoying rum and Colombian music in town.

Streets of Salento

I went from Salento to Medellin with Guillaume on Saturday and ended up at Casa Kiwi, a gringo party hostel. We met up with his friends, a French couple, Clemencia and Jeremy, and the four of us went out to a bar in El Dorado that night. The next day we met Niko, a German guy and the five of us went out to Alta Voz, an alternative music festival at the University of Medellin. As it turned out it was primarily heavy/death metal and I found myself wondering how, after never liking metal, I was at my second live metal gig within a week.

Niko, Clemencia and Jeremy enjoying the Medellin rain in their carpas

The next day a group of us headed out to the national park just outside of Medellin on the cable car. The view was nice but by the time we got out there and started walking the afternoon rain was coming. We went for a walk through the forest and tried some more local food, with the strangest being this marshmallow like food that they mold with their hands and put on a ice cream stick. That night I made my way to Rio Negro to see Diego and Samara and stay the night with them before heading to Cartagena. It was great to see them again and to see that they were back together and happy.

Cable car in Medellin to Arvi park

I flew to Cartagena the next day and ended up in Media Luna with Dave. That afternoon I walked around the old city and could immediately see what all the hype was about, it’s without doubt some of the most beautiful architecture in the country. I also rediscovered the difficulties of understanding Costenos speaking Spanish feeling like I was back to the start where I couldn’t understand anything.

The clock tower and entrance to the old city in Cartagena

The next day Dave and I went for another walk around town, ate Cerviche with David a Colombian guy and then headed for the castle San Felipe close by to the hostel. We paid for a tour but had a horrible, arrogant guide who refused to speak slower or clearer so we could understand. That night we went for a sunset walk (but missed the sunset) along the wall that encloses the old town with a big group of people from the hostel. Afterwards was the famous Media Luna Wednesday night party, which exceeded expectations with plenty of Colombians coming in.

Castillo San Felipe

Drinks on the wall with Dave and Marlou

We had a great group of people and decided to continue the party and head for playa blanca together the next day. Playa Blanca is a boat trip away from Cartagena and although a bit touristy (mild harassment for massages etc), is still a great place to kick back for a night. We relaxed with some bottles of rum on the beach with the Dan Bank funding the Ice man but then going bankrupt and the Rich bank opening for business and funding almost everyone. It ended up being quite a night with a pleasant surprise being Niko and Guillame showing up too.

Rum drinkers at Playa Blanca

Playa Blanca with Marlou

The following day was primarily R&R and by the time we got back that night and had some pizza and drinks we had run out of energy for another night out. Marlou and I went for a walk around the old town and then rented bikes with Eise and went for a trip out to the peninsula. That night was most of the groups last night together so we had some drinks on the rooftop and then headed to an electro rooftop party in the old town. Although not the best tunes and not a huge crowd, we had fun and managed to stay out till the early hours.

Biking with the Dutchies, Marlou and Eise

Today I said goodbye to Marlou, Eise and George as they all left Cartagena for other destinations in Colombia. It’s my last night in Cartagena, my last night in Colombia and my last night in South America, it’s all a bit sad really. Tomorrow I hop on a sail boat and go back to Panama to check out the post card perfect San Blas islands.

The Galapagos Islands

3 Oct

Back to English. Polly and I left our jungle lodge in Masahualli and headed for a popular town in the south of Ecuador called Cuenca. Cuenca is known to be one of the wealthiest cities in Ecuador and accordingly has plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants. On the way to Cuenca we met Morgan and Britney, two Canadians, and Mark and Jennie, an English couple. Polly, Morgan, Britney and I found a hostel when we arrived and went for a late night falafel.

The next day the four of us went for breakfast and then set out on a walking tour of Cuenca. After going to the tourist information centre we realised that it was going to be a day of visiting museums or churches. Polly and I walked to The Modern Art Museum but Morgan and Britney had just come out and informed us it was a waste of time, seemed Ecuador’s modern art was stuck in the 90’s. Next we headed for the Panama Hat Museum. Surprisingly, the famous Panama hat is not from Panama, it’s from Ecuador. We were shown how they make the hats, which was much more interesting than expected.

Women making Panama hats (in Ecuador)

Following that we went to the Museum Banco Central, which had a whole floor dedicated to the different regions and indigenous groups of Ecuador. There were plenty of models, pictures and artifacts to look at alongside information in Espanol. We decided we’d have an early dinner at a vegetarian restaurant and then continued on to a local brewery afterwards. We’d organised to meet Mark and Jennie in another bar but there was an Ecuadorian thrash band playing, five-dollar cover charge, and a room of sweaty Ecuadorians head banging, no thanks. We ended up in a bar called fly which stayed open past the 12am curfew for us in what turned into some sort of a lock in.

The next day Morgan, Britney and I dragged ourselves out to the Caja National Park despite feeling a little worse for wear. The weather wasn’t ideal, being heavily clouded over and a touch rainy, but it was still nice to get some mountain air and go for a walk out around the lake. At just under 4000m you could certainly feel the uphill climbs. There wasn’t a lot to see, despite being handed a massive bird watching chart upon entrance, and even the llamas ran away when we tried to take pictures with them. Later that afternoon I had lunch with the girls and then said goodbye as they headed to Peru.

Morgan and Britney at Caja National Park

I met up with Jennie and Mark the next day as we were all travelling to Guayaquil prior to flying to the Galapagos Islands. Guayaquil is widely considered the most dangerous city in Ecuador so it was nice not to be arriving alone. Although the poverty on the outskirts was evident, there was a surprisingly pleasant, modern, strip along the waterfront. As we wandered along a 6 year-old kid drifted in behind us looking to snatch a wallet.  Jennie gave him evil eyes but I wasn’t too concerned, getting anything out of skinny jeans is a tough task.

When I woke up the next morning, it was difficult to contain my excitement about going to The Galapagos. What should have been a routine flight turned out to be anything but. As we approached the runway on Baltra the plane didn’t quite land and we were informed we were returning to Gauyaquil. There was a collective sigh of disappointment from the passengers. I could almost smell the sea lions as we turned around.

First sight of Galapagos

Fortunately, they put us up in a five star hotel, fed us and put us on another plane first thing the next morning. It also meant I met a few people including two great Israeli guys Omer and Michael, who I’d go on to spend quite a lot of time with. After saying I wasn’t going to book a cruise I got swept up in the excitement of the last minute deals and I booked an 8 day cruise. It meant changing my flights to spend an extra two days here, worse things have happened. Afterwards I met up with Mari, a great American girl who I would be couch surfing with for the week. That night we ate dinner in town and then played Ultimate Frisbee with some of her friends. If I’m honest I’ve always considered it a sport for those not talented enough to play a real sport but it was really good fun.

The next day I was straight into it booking a day trip to an island called Sante Fe, which was not included in the cruise ship itinerary. Although it was a long and bumpy boat trip to get there, the island itself was incredible. We docked the boat in the bay and landed in a dingy on a white sand beach filled with sea lions. Most were sleeping and none were concerned with our presence.

A couple of sleepy sea lions

At one with / one of the Sea Lions

Afterwards we went for a walk up through the middle part of the island where we found some Galapagos doves and land Iguanas, a certain species only found on Isla Sante Fe. I caught him eating cactus and then licking his lips.

Up close and personal with a land Iguana

When we returned to the boat it was time for a snorkel so we hopped in the icy water for a look around. I was hoping for some sea lions to come play but instead found two massive turtles that were more than happy to be observed from close range. On the boat trip back to Santa Cruz we were treated to a dolphin show, with flipper and friends following our boat and jumping out of the water for about 20 minutes.

Sea lion next to a cactus, a unique sight

The following day I wanted to find some free activities; since arriving I had been hemorrhaging money. In the morning I went to Las Grietas, a canyon-like formation with crystal clear water. I went snorkeling there and it was really still and clear until a massive group of annoying American tourists turned up and started bombing off the rocks.

Natural canyon, Las Grietas

I got out of there as quickly as possible and headed for Bahia Tortuga, a stunning white-sand beach which is close to town. Initially the weather was pretty awful raining constantly but it eventually stopped and out of the mist came some massive black marine Iguanas and the famous blue-footed booby. The marine Iguanas eat sea algae and as an adaptation to excess salt consumption sneeze out salt through their nostrils. I’m not sure if it’s just coincidence but they seem to do it with increasing frequency as you approach them. The blue-footed booby definitely gets the prize for best named species. They are everywhere in the Galapagos and are easily distinguished via their blue feet (to state the obvious) and their hunting technique dive bombing for fish.

A couple of salt sneezing Marine Iguanas getting hot and heavy

Blue-footed booby

I was sitting chilling out on the beach when Omer, Michael, and another Israeli girl Dor, came wandering down the beach. I wasn’t planning on staying but ended up spending the day on the beach with them. There were a bunch of tiny birds that came flocking in as soon as you got out food. I felt like some kind of a bird magnet, but also a bit like they were about to attack me.

The Galapagos bird whisperer

A bird in a thong (would only have a double meaning in Australia)

That night Mari and I met Jennie and Mark for dinner and then we all went and played ultimate frisbee with Mari’s group of friends. The following morning I headed on another solo mission to the Charles Darwin Centre, a ‘must visit’ in Puerto Ayora. I was pretty disappointed overall, especially with the visitors centre, which could be so much better. There were enclosures for the various giant tortoises from babies to those 100+ years of age and an empty pen where Lonesome George, the last giant tortoise of his species had lived until June this year. As they couldn’t fin a mate when he died his species became extinct, sad isn’t it?

Galapagos Giant tortoise

Afterwards I met up with Omer, Michael, Dor and two other Israeli guys and the six of us headed out  to Los Tuneles (underground lava tunnels). I don’t know if I’ve just been a tourist for too long and have lost my enthusiasm but they were not particularly interesting. However, Lilly, the Ecuadorian woman who worked at the entrance to the tunnels was a lot of fun. She invited us to pick oranges, make orange juice and hang out in her kitchen. Out of ideas that afternoon having ticked off everything I wanted to see in Santa Cruz I went for a run to Tortuga bay.

Orange juice at the lava tunnels with the Israelis

I had booked to go diving the next day, something I was extremely excited about, having heard that there is some of the best dives in the world here. Getting up at 5am to meet at the dive shop I arrived to the disappointing news there something was wrong with the boat. We couldn’t go to Isla Floreana but instead they could send us to Bartolame and Cousin Rock, north of Santa Cruz. I wouldn’t make it back in time for my ferry to Isabella so would have to delay a day. As it turned out we had two fantastic dives, which were quite different in terms of what we saw and the type of coral. The first dive at Bartolame was calmer, clearer and we saw turtles, manta ray, a Galapagos shark, white tip sharks and massive schools of fish (thousands of baracudas).

Diving in the Galapagos definitely gets a thumbs up

School of barracuda

The second dive was much more difficult as we battled strong currents. The visibility was worse but we saw a black tipped reef shark, two turtles right up close, an eel, a sea lion, and more massive schools of fish. Another amazing experience, I would have dived more if it wasn’t $150 a day.

Turtles everywhere

Eels up inside

Shark!

We returned to Santa Cruz and I had missed my ferry to Isabella, so I spent another night at Mari’s house. She made pesto pasta which we ate together and shared a beer. She was a great couch surfing host sharing her knowledge of the Galapagos and taking me to frisbee. Plus she had a spare room so I didn’t have to sleep on the couch. The next morning I headed off early for Isabella. This is considered the prettiest of the islands that are inhabited with plenty of cheap/free activities for the day. I met Mark and Jennie and Mark and I went down to the beach to read and get some sun. After lunch I walked out to one of the Giant Tortoise sanctuaries nearby to have a look around. On the way were some pink flamingoes, cool to see. That night we went for a run and then had dinner and drinks on the beach.

Drinks on the beach in Isabella with Mark and Jennie

The next morning we went on a snorkelling tour to las tonteras (white tip sharks). There is a small channel of water where the white tipped reef sharks ‘sleep’ during the day. We also wondered around the island looking at hundreds more black marine iguanas basking in the sun. Afterwards we went snorkelling in a bay that was full of turtles, but nothing else. There was some kind of a turtle party going on with about 15 turtles hanging out in one area. I opted to go without a wetsuit so only lasted about 30 minutes in the cold water. Omer and Michael arrived that afternoon and we hung out in hamacs watching BBC documentaries on the Galapagos. Interesting fact, the name ‘booby’ is derived from the Spanish word bobo, meaning fool.

White tipped reef sharks

Pile of salt iguanas

We said bye to Mark and Jennie and Omer, Michael and I attempted to go to Volcan Sierra Negra without a guide. The key word being attempted, we got lost and couldn’t find it. Unlike other treks, where a guide comes recommended but you don’t really need one, this time we needed one. We’re unsure where we went wrong but we ended up wandering through Galapagos forest for a few hours failing to find a crater. Although disappointing not to find the volcano we did fid a small rat, which we believe (based on nothing) is a new species not yet discovered here. We have named it the ‘Gris Austrael’, a combination of our countries.

Does google maps work out here?

New species found, the Gris Astrael

Once we found civilisation again, we we asked for help and ended up visiting a cave nearby. It was much better than the lava tunnel in Santa Cruz. Afterwards we walked back to Esperanza where we stumbled upon a group of Anthropology students from Miami being educated and entertained by a local couple. They had a finca where they grew coffee and we sampled and then bought some of the produce. We hung around while they had a question and answer session with the weird American teacher then got the bus back to Puerto Villamil. That ended the self-guided tour, with Tuesday the first of eight days on a boat as part of the budget-blowing all inclusive.

The first morning of the cruise we were waiting around at the airport for the rest of the group to arrive. By chance I bumped into Bruno and Marjolein so we had a coffee and caught up on what had been happening since leaving Santa Marta. First activity on the boat was lunch and then we took the dinghys over to Barchas beach on the uninhabited side of Santa Cruz. The highlight was a brackish lake with pink flamingos and marine iguanas.

Pink flamingos at Barchas beach, Santa Cruz

Overnight we moved to Genovesa Island in the north of the archipelago. We went for a walk in the morning to see birds, a lot of birds. There were Red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, Frigate birds, Swallow-tailed gull, Brown pelicans, Galapagos doves and Mockingbirds. There were nests and chicks everywhere.

Crazy-faced baby booby

Frigate bird chick/a comfortable pillow

Red footed booby

In the afternoon we went for a dingy trip to view fur seals and herons. The fur sea lions are timid because they were hunted in the past and can only be seen on the more remote islands. Afterwards we went for a walk up Prince Phillip’s stairs to look at the breeding ground of the Nazca (masked) boobies. Michael, Omer and I watched a documentary on The Galapagos and decided they are the evil boobies. The parents lay two eggs but one sibling, usually the one that hatches first, pushes the other sibling out of the nest so it dies. Galapagos must be one of the few places you can say there are boobies everywhere and not be met with judging eyes.

Dinghy ride to Prince Phillip’s stairs, Genovesa

Mother booby feeding a baby booby

The other main objective of the walk was to try and site the short-eared owl. On Genovesa Island it is the main predator and, somewhat unusually, hunts by day. We’d all but given up finding it until all of a sudden it appeared out of nowhere and started circling looking for prey. That night I had a great chat in Spanish with Christina, from Valencia, about all things Spain. Nice to get some practice in leading up to my pending Spanish exam in November, more on that later.

We moved early morning from Genovesa to Marchena. This is an island not many boats get to visit. You’re not allowed to walk on it so we had two snorkeling trips for the day. The first in the morning was at Punta Mejia. It was fairly open and exposed to the rough seas and there wasn’t much to see. Actually that’s generous there was nothing to see; everyone returned pretty disappointed with multiple people vomiting from motion sickness.

The deck of our sail boat, The Samba

Luckily the afternoon session made up for it. We snorkeled in a protected pool with sea lions. The babies came to play and the water was warm so it was happy days. That night we started our navigation to Isabella and it was extremely rough conditions the entire way. There was food flying everywhere as we attempted to eat dinner on the move.

Snorkelling from the ‘Panga’

One of the busiest days of the trip started at 530am with a dinghy ride to see the flightless cormorants. They are only found here in the Galapagos and use their slightly deformed looking wings for swimming rather than flying. Mid morning we took a walk for two hours to see what was left of an old American Naval Base from WWII. There were plenty more large marine iguanas and we saw the flightless cormorants up close.

Flightless Cormorants

We moved location for the afternoon snorkel (passing over the Equator and celebrating with cocktails) in what was to be the best of the trip. There were hundreds of sea turtles but it was the sea lions and penguins that stole the show. The sea lions played around swimming right up to your face and it was incredible to watch penguins hunting fish underwater. I also saw cormorants and stingrays.

Crab and a marine iguana

We celebrated another enjoyable day with a few rums on the deck and several games of Kabul. The two dining tables had been more or less established by this point, with one table affectionately known as the ‘frigate birds’.

Rums on the deck with PJ, Omer and Michael

We were up early for a walk on Floreana, which is the newest Volcano in the archipelago. Walking across the lava field was interesting as we observed hundreds more marine iguanas and the odd sea lion doing its thing. There was also plenty of dead animals, some interesting cacti, and a whale skeleton to look at.

Baby sea lion

Oyster catcher

Afterwards we went snorkeling in a ‘hot spot’ to observe marine iguanas feeding on algae. The term hot spot could not be further from the truth when it came to the water temperature, it was the sort of cold that makes your boy hurt. The visibility was poor but we saw a few iguanas freezing for the sake of a feed. That afternoon we were back on land thawing out and observing giant tortoises and land iguanas.

Baby face clean shaven alongside wrinkly face ancient giant tortoise

Sunday was our final day on Isabella. The morning trip was a 6am boat ride to mangroves at Elizabeth Bay. We floated about in the calm shallows watching turtles, sea lions and penguins. We also saw a Galapagos Hawk perched hire on a tree. Although more or less the same animals it was a great trip and the highlight of the day.

Penguins

The snorkeling trip was a bit further south with the hope being to spot eels or sea snakes in the algae. Again the water temperature felt sub zero and the visibility was terrible if you strayed from the shallows. I did see turtles (standard) and a few fish I hadn’t seen but certainly couldn’t find the eels. The afternoon land trip was a walk across a lava field. Luckily we had a beautiful day and so had full views of Sierra Negra, the volcano that Omer, Michael and I had unsuccessfully tried to trek to a week earlier. There were more pink flamingos in one of the lakes and a heap of white tipped reef sharks trapped in another close to the ocean. That night was a pretty horrid 13-hour navigation in our little Samba boat but luckily I don’t suffer from motion sickness.

Lava lizard taking in the view on the lava field

The overnight navigation was to get us down to Floreana, an island in the south. It was another buffet breakfast before a day looking around a tortoise reserve and hearing about the human history on the island. There was an ongoing joke in the group about staying 2 metres from the animals and not touching them. A funny German man, Manfred, loved quoting Martha, the guide, throughout the trip about all the rules. My roommate Joon, from Korea, chose to ignore most of them constantly getting in the animals’ faces.

Rahhh

We navigated back to Santa Cruz that afternoon and had a farewell cocktail with the crew that night before disembarking in Puerto Ayora for a couple of hours. I picked up a nice and touristy booby singlet to take away. We finished off the last night with red wine and rum over a casual game of South African style kings led by PJ. The last morning we headed to yet another giant tortoise farm, just to make sure we were turtled out. We also went to Las Gamelas, a couple of volcanic craters on the way to the airport. We had a great mix of people, fantastic guide and crew, and an unforgettable experience in the Galapagos. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip.

Que dificil es hablar en Espanol!

12 Sep

Si no pueden leer Espanol y estan interesando, utilizan google translate. No es perfecto, ni es mi Espanol, pero en general, entenderan. Gracias por la ayuda desde mis escuelas de Espanol (Spanish Experience Centre- Tania, Enrique, Adriana;  Neotropical- Elsa and Sven; Banos Spanish Centre- Patti and Liz) mas todos las personas que hablan Espanol que yo he encontrado en mi viaje.

Yo escribi sobre hace tres meses cuando estuve en Colombia que iba a escribir un blog en Espanol. Despues una semana de clases en Banos yo tengo confianza por eso, entonces vamos. La semana pasada era un poco dificil, por que yo estaba intentando decidir que hacer con mi vida. Yo pensaba que teniendo muchos opciones era bueno pero cuando estas viajando es dificil hacer decisiones. Yo cambiaba mi opinion cuatro o cinco veces pero al final, pienso que saber lo que voy a hacer en los proximos meses.

Yo estaba un poco preocupado cuando yo llegue a las clases de Espanol el Lunes porque yo iba a estar viviendo con una familia Ecuatoriana. Todavia yo tenia problemas con el estomago y estaba inseguro sobre la comida que yo recibiria. Ademas, yo esperaba que iba a valer la pena. Mi Profesora era Patti y yo estaba estar viviendo con Liz, otra Maestra y jefa de escuela. Imediatamente sabia que Liz era una persona muy amable, divertida y ella iba a ayudarme mucho. Ella tenia dos hijos, un chico se llama Luigi y una chica se llama Annalia. Ellos tenian 20 anos y 16 anos, respectivamente, y inicialmente yo pense que ellos estaban disinteresando en hablando con migo. Tiene sentido, si yo tuviera ellos edades y muchos extranjeros pasando en mi casa yo habria estado un poco incomodo tambien. Pero me resultaba equivocando, porque ellos eran chevere y mas abierto con migo durante la semana. Tambien, dos chicas de Estados Unidos, ambas Medicos, estuvieron en otra cuarto en la casa de Liz.

Yo pase mis primeras dias en la escuela con Patti sin problemas. Ella me dijo que yo era un nivel intermedio, pero un poco mas que intermedio, porque yo entendi el tenso ‘subjuntivo’. Ella dijo que yo necesitaba practicar hablando, entonces comenzamos  conversar sobre todos las cosas politicas, cultural y social en Ecuador. Buen practicar y educacion tambien. No sabia nada sobre Rafael Corea, el Presidente de Ecuador, pero ahora yo se mucho sobre el, las politicas nuevas en Ecuador y programas social. El Martes yo encontre Julie (la chica de Estados Unidos que sabia desde Argentina) por casualidad en Casa Hood, mi cafe favorito en Banos. Esa noche, yo organize a encontrar Julie, Tom y su novia en un bar. Tambien por casualidad, habia otra personas que conoci en Chugchilan y todos tomamos y jugamos billes juntos.

El dia siguiente, Julie y yo encontramos en Casa Hood para almuerzo. Despues, fuimos caminando arriba la montana cerca de Banos con una buena vista. El clima era un poco mal porque habia mucha lluvia por la tarde. Cuando llegamos en la cima de loma, encontramos tres hombres en el ejercito. Hablamos con ellos mientras estaba lloviendo y ellos nos ofreceron tomamos mas arriba a un pueblo, se llama Runtun. Entonces fuimos con ellos atras en la camioneta de ejercito a Runtun y luego un lugar mas cerca de Volcan Tangurahua. Habria sido una buena vista de Volcan pero el tiempo era miserable con mucho nubes. Pero no importaba, habia una casa se llama “Casa de Arbol” y en columpio y habiamos disfrutado con eso. Era chistoso porque todos los chicos de ejercito querian fotos con Julie, es la verdad, los muchachos de Ecuador se encanta las gringas con pelo rubio.

Julie y Yo con el ejercito

Columpio a lado de casa de arbol

Queria ir a la ruta de las cascades pero habia sido demasiado lluvia cada dia por la tarde. Jueves el cielo era claro entonces despues clases yo decidi montar una bicicleta por alli. La tierra por Banos es montanoso y la via alli es en declive. De acuerdo, inicialmente yo monte la bicicleta facilmente y con una vista espectacular. Por la primera vez yo podia ver el Volcan completamente y lo era impresionante.

Ruta de las cascades, Banos

Volcan Tunguruhua

Los vistos todo la via era increible con montanas, rios y obviamente, cascades. Habian unos pueblitos en la via y en un pueblito yo encontre El Ecuatorian formar de mi perro, Zac. Cuando yo llegue en Rio Verde, yo caminaba a la ultima cascada y mas grande, se llama ‘Pailon del Diablo’. La cascada era tan fuerte y el agua abajo era muy profundo. Estuve alli por sobre treinta minutos antes de yo regrese otra vez por bicicleta. El retorno era mucho mas dificil que ida porque todo el tiempo yo estaba subiendo. La verdad, yo necesite el ejercicio.

Ecuatorian Zac, ven aqui

Las ultimas dias yo estuve en la casa con la familia la mayoria de tiempo. Mi Mama Ecuatoriana, Liz, estaba enferma despues comimos un typo de comida local, se llama ballones. Tenia platano secar y un poco de cerdo adentro. Una noche ella estuvo en hospital por eso y yo comi con Luigi y Annalia en un restaurante. La proxima dia habia un partido de futbol, Ecuador y Bolivia, en los calificadores para copa del mundo. Lo miramos en la casa y Ecuador gano en circunstancias controvertidas por una falta. La ultima noche en Banos yo estuve con Polly en nuestros bar favorito, se llama Mocambo. No habia muchas personas salieron pero tomamos Mojitos y hablamos por un rato antes de regresamos a nuestras casas.

El fin de semana Polly y Yo fuimos a Masahualli, un pueblo en la selva cerca de Tena. Habiamos leido en libros que Masahualli era un pueblo popular y virgen en el pasado pero ahora lo era menos popular y menos bonito. Pero hemos escuchado desde otra extranjeros que vale la pena. Cuando llegamos en la cuidad fuimos un hostel afuera de area primeria, se llama Banana Lodge. La casa era a lado de rio en un lugar muy tranquilo. Despues dejamos nuestras cosas, nos regresamos el pueblo para comida y para organizar un tour. Encontramos un chica y por casualidad su esposo era un Guia. Entonces, nos reservamos un tour por la proxima dia y regresamos al lodge para nadar en el rio. En ese lugar todos que se podia escuchar era el ruido de la selva.

A lado de Banana Lodge, Masahualli

La primera dia del tour Polly y Yo fuimos al rio para conocer nuestros Guia, se llama Leo. Leo seria el mejor Guia que yo vaya tener en todo mi viaje. Habia otra chico se llama Pedro, quien manejaria la canoa para el tour. La primera parada era la selva primaria, donde llegamos despues una hora en la canoa. El conocimiento de Leo de la selva era increible, el sabia todo sobre cada planta y cada animal nos econtramos. Tambien, nos dijo historias desde su veinte anos de experiencia era un Guia en la selva. Una vez, el estuvo con diez turistas, y ellos se encontraron una Boa Constrictor doce metros. Ellos pensaban lo era un tronco de arbol y se sentaron en cima de serpiente. Despues cuando ellos realizaron, obvio se fueron rapidamente. Nos pensamos el estaba bromeando pero nos dijo que era la verdad. Leo nos dijo sobre plantas medicinal, alucinogenas y comestible y nos contaba historias sobre todo. Comimos hormigas muy pequenas y oliamos varias plantas con aromas diferentes. De hecho, utilizamos termitas para repellente los Mosquitos. Luego, nos llegamos a un columpio y habiamos disfrutado con eso.

Leo, hablando sobre las termitas, buen repellente para Mosquitos

Disfrutando la selva

Esa tarde, Polly y Yo flotabamos por tubos en el rio mientras los otros seguido en la canoa. Despues dos horas de relajante y tomamos sol, llegamos a la casa de familia indigenas donde nos ibamos a quedarnos para la noche. Nos sentimos un poco incomodo con eso porque era una casa de familia y somos extranjeros. Pero cuando llegamos no habian las personas mayores solo los ninos. Entonces nos sentimos en la sala y una mujer, que habiamos recogido en la canoa en la via, se cocinaba pescado en una hoja por todos. Despues cenar, Leo y nosotros fuimos a un lago donde podiamos ver Caimen con nuestros luces. Ese noche, dormimos en el suelo, era madera, que horrible.

Indigenous casa en la selva

El dia que siguio me desperte con dolor en la espalda. Comenzamos el dia por haciamos un actividad muy divertida, utilizando una arma de las indigenas, se llama, serviaterra. Yo era terrible, me faltaba cinco veces antes de lo golpee. Polly era mucho mejor que yo, ella lo golpeo la tercera vez.

Dispara por el premio, almuerzo

Si, almuerzo

Habia mucha lluvia despues, pero nos esperamos un poco y fuimos otra lugar se llama Amazoonica por la canoa. Amazoonica es un refugio para los animales que necesitan ayudar. La mayoria han encontrado en casas privadas o hoteles en Ecuador con problemas de comportamiento. Habia muchos animales cheveres, pero mi favoritos eran los monos y Macaws que hablaban en Espanol. Mas raro, habia un chico de Aleman, el estaba besando un animal que parecido como un cerdo.

Mono, no recuerdo su nombre

Un muchacho esta besando un cerdo

Despues Amazoonica, nos decidimos que queriamos caminar por la selva otra vez. Leo nos muestro mas plantas, nos hizo sombreros con hojas y nos enseno sobre el pene de diablo. Mientras mirabamos a una planta, avispas nos atacaron de la nada, y habia que corrido rapidamente abajo el sendero. Me pico dos veces en el brazo y la mano y brazo inflado immediatamente. Salimos la selva y cogimos la canoa abajo el rio en la direccion de Misahualli. En el retorno paramos por una communidad indigenas donde podiamos sostener un serpiente (Boa Constrictor) casi cuatro metros. El tour termino en la playa y estabamos muy contento con dos dias en la selva.

La vista desde la canoa

Puedes ver el terror atras la sonrisa?

Polly, Pedro, Leo and Yo

La ultima dia en Masahualli estuvimos por el rio a lado de Banana Lodge. Nos probamos San Pedro Cactus, utiliza en indigenas ceremonias en Peru y Ecuador. Era una experiencia interesante y me disfrute mucho. Si te gustaria mas informacion, hay que preguntarme. La ultima noche en la selva yo habria debido dormir pero no pude porque yo tome medicinas con cafeina por equivocacion tan tendre dormir en el bus en lugar..

 

Ecuador, giving with one hand and taking with the other

3 Sep

I left Colombia from Medellin and flew into Quito, Ecuador. I was on my own and feeling a touch apprehensive after hearing so many stories about how dangerous Quito is. The first night I arrived Miles, my friend from Santa Marta, came over and we went into La Mariscal for drinks and food. We walked to the train station but were told by the lady when we got there that we shouldn’t do that because there were robbers everywhere – lucky escape perhaps. In Mariscal we bought beers from some guys back door and then met two crazy guys, one Colombian from Bogota and one Ecuadorian from the amazon. The Colombian guy was obsessed with philosophy and mushrooms, but mainly mushrooms, claiming to have studied Mycology, and spent the night outlining exactly what to look for if one wanted to pick psychedelic mushrooms. The Ecuadorian guy gave me his family’s address in the amazon so I’ll consider a visit to their organic finca later to check it out.

I woke a touch hungover but more so feeling the effects of altitude, being at almost 3000m above sea level. I met Tom, a guy from the UK, who I invited to come with Miles and I up the teleferico. After getting lost finding Miles we eventually went up the cable car to the look out point with a spectacular view across Quito and the surrounding volcanoes. I had been surprised at how nice the city was, despite reading it was ‘the most beautiful colonial city in South America etc etc’ in the lonely planet.

View over Quito towards Cotopaxi

Tom, contemplating life in Quito

Tom and I left Miles in parque Carolina as he went back to the embassy and made our way to the old town for lunch. For $1.75 you can get the ‘menu el dia’ which includes soup for entre, a main of rice, beans and meat and a juice. I’ve immediately noticed Ecuador is a hell of a lot cheaper than Colombia. We walked around the streets of the old town, through a museum with a cool Mexican revolution exhibition and to the Basilica.

Old town streets of Quito

Knowing I’d be back regularly I was keen to get out of Quito as soon as possible. The next day I travelled with Leah, an American girl from the hostel, to Otavalo two hours north. Otavalo is not a particularly pretty town but is famous for having one of the biggest indigenous artisanal markets in South America on a Saturday morning. We arrived lunchtime on Friday and after getting stuck talking to a local crazy man in Spanish in the centre square for an hour we fled to the Peguche waterfall in the mountains outside town.

The river flowing from Peguche outside of Otavalo

That night we went for dinner on the streets keen to try some local cuisine. The meal involved potato done two ways, corn done two ways and meat done one way, extremely salted. I can’t say it was the best food I’ve tried, actually who am I kidding it was awful. We left with our fingers crossed that we wouldn’t get food poisoning. The next morning we got up early and went to the markets. I was keen to get myself a couple of new jumpers, being extremely sick of the one I’d been pulling out of the backpack for almost 10 months. I managed to find two llama wool knits, without the stock standard llama pictures, which I considered early birthday presents to myself. Happy birthday me, thanks me. A few laps of the markets and we felt like we’d seen enough and headed back to Quito.

Anyone for pork?

It was Saturday night in Quito and I was going to be turning 28 at 12:01, cause enough for celebration. Initially I thought I wasn’t going to have anyone to celebrate with but good company turned out easy to find. Leah and I started with dinner at an Italian place where we met two English girls, one of whom had just interviewed the Ecuadorian president about the Julian Asange saga. After we went back to the hostel where the staff warmly embraced me and my birthday by giving me free champagne and jaga shots. You can probably see where this is going. I know we went to an Irish bar in La Mariscal, very Ecuadorian, then to a club, but I’d be lying if I said I could tell you what happened. From this photo it looks like I had fun (but perhaps couldn’t see particularly well) and thanks to the people I was out with I was returned home safe. I was told the next day that they tried to give me a bottle of water to sober me up but I kept sniffing it suspiciously and then waving it away refusing to drink it. That’s years of drinking experience right there.

Happy to be 28

Waking up Sunday morning alive and in my bed I was happily hungover, or perhaps still drunk. I stumbled upstairs to the terrace where Natalia and Daniel filled me in on the details of the night before retiring for another 3 hour sleep. Finally rousing myself and packing my gear I was about to leave the hostel and head to Latacunga when Lydia arrived, who I travelled with in Argentina in May. I was keen to hang out and chat so I stayed another night in Quito. It also worked out for the best because Tom, a dutch guy in my room, was keen to join me on the Quilatoa loop leaving the next day. We left Quito the next morning and took a bus to Latacunga where I dropped off my stuff. We then continued on to Lake Quilatoa, via a bus and a ute ride through the mountains.

Tom in the back of the truck on the road to Quilatoa

The Quilatoa loop is about 200km and cuts through the Ecuadorian Andes. Undoubtedly the highlight is lago Quilatoa, a huge volcanic lake thought to be 250m deep. The town itself, at 4000m, is inhabited by 250 people, all Quechuan. Upon arrival we found a place to stay and walked down to the mirador. I don’t think I’ve used breathtaking for a while, if at all, it’s one for the backpocket when you’re travelling for a year, but this sight was breathtaking (and not just because I was breathless due to altitude, which was also true).

Chilling out at Lake Quilatoa

Tom and I walked down to the bottom of the crater and then rested before attempting the uphill. I knew I was struggling early on, with my muscles feeling very fatigued and a bit of a headache creeping in but thought all would be ok and pushed upwards. By the time we reached our cabin I was feeling pretty rubbish, and we both had a nap before dinner. I had lost my appetite that day and attempted to eat some dinner but without much luck. We retired to bed straight after but I suspected I was in trouble and woke up shortly after with a cracking headache and feeling like I was sleeping in the fires of hell. I’d been there before and knew it was altitude sickness. Around the same time I started to need the toilet with increased frequency. It seemed old food poisoning and altitude sickness had got together and conspired against me. I couldn’t get out of bed until lunchtime the next day so Tom went off to trek around the lake on his own. That afternoon I dragged myself up and we got another truck to Chugchilan, a town further around the loop.

Perhaps stupidly I attempted to eat something that night and it ended in severe stomach cramps and me missing out on horse riding the next day. I was turning out to be an awful travel companion for Tom not being able to get out of bed two days in a row. Luckily I had my Ecuadorian Mama Patricia checking on me regularly and bringing me herbal teas to cure the ailments. That night we played a few games of pool with all sorts of crazy French, Dutch and Ecuadorian rules. After two nights in Chigchulan, where for a naturally beautiful place I’d spent far too much time in my room reading “El Principito”, we departed the next day with four others from the hostel back to Latacunga. We went via the Saqusili markets, an animal activist’s worst nightmare, displaying all sorts of sick looking farm animals and animals crammed into incredibly small spaces. No one was really into it and the trip finished on a sour note when poor Tom had his camera expertly pick pocketed.

The markets that will turn the most dedicated meat eater vegetarian

I got back to Latacunga still not right in the stomach and needing another day of rest. I also thought I’d use it to make some decisions and do some planning. To make myself feel better I booked flights to the Galapagos Islands for mid September, so that chapter is to come. It means a month less travel elsewhere but at this stage I think it’s worth it. I also hit the streets and although Ecuador may have poor hygiene and have given me four days of ill health, it takes with one hand and gives with the other. Where else can you buy 5 pairs of new socks, 6 packets of double strength aspirin and 16 anti-diarrhoea tablets for under $5?

I decided my body definitely wasn’t up for Cotapaxi and so instead headed for Banos, a small town in the Andean highlands that is famous for adventure activities. It’s also a cheap place to take some Spanish classes. Feeling a touch better on Saturday I met up with Polly, who I’d met in Colombia, for some breakfast. I then made a last minute decision to tag along to an abseiling trip with Mathias, a german guy in my room, an his two Ecuadorian friends, Pancho and Diego. Turned out to be a pretty scary affair, with the final abseil being off a 45m waterfall.

Abseiling down a 45m waterfall in Banos

I headed out for dinner and drinks with Polly that night and we had a look at nightlife in Banos. I can’t say it’s anything to write home about but it was pretty funny watching Ecuadorians ripping up the dance floor in some of Banos’ cheese ball clubs to some ear bleeding electro. It seemed to be an extremely male dominated bar and club scene but I guess that can happen anywhere. Sunday was a rest day with rain settling in. I headed out for food, to pick up some new shoes, and then went to watch Amelie at a local cafe come cinema. I also finished reading El Principito, my first full book in Spanish. Tomorrow I start a new round of Spanish classes and move in with an Ecuadorian family, which should be an interesting experience. As it stands I’m just shy of 10 months on the road…

F*ck me, I’m famous

22 Aug

Firstly apologies to my Grandmothers for the title, I couldn’t help myself.

Emma and I arrived in Bogota on a Friday night and took a taxi straight to La Candelaria, which is the neighbourhood with most of the hostels just south of the CBD. It had been two and a half months since I’d been in a big, busy city (Buenos Aires) and I’d also forgotten what it was like to feel cold after living on the coast for so long. Bogota is in the mountains 2625m above sea level, making it the third highest capital city in the world. Upon arrival, we met Emma’s friend Narayan at the hostel and then went out for dinner and drinks at a local tequila bar. Afterwards we went to a club nearby that was playing minimal tech, a nice change after 10 weeks of eye stabbing Vallenato and Regaton.

The next day we went out for a late breakfast before heading to the Botero museum. We walked around La Candelaria and Bolivar plaza where Emma got the classic South American photo sitting on top of a llama. That night Diego, my former housemate from Santa Marta, came round to the hostel for drinks and we went out for dinner. Quickly falling into the convenience trap we went back to the same restaurant for middle-eastern cuisine, a great change after arepas and empanadas, and then to the same tequila bar round the corner.

A botero piece

Sunday morning ended up being a bit stressful as we tried to get Emma on a flight that, for a period, didn’t seem to exist. Once she was on her way back to Santa Marta I spent the afternoon exploring the streets of Bogota. That night Polly, who I’d met in San Gil, came over with her friend and on the way out for dinner we bumped into Felix, who I’d met in Brazil in February. We ended up back at the hostel drinking and doing psychological self-critiquing exercisers with Michael, a Dutch guy with his own career-counseling consultancy in Holland. Unfortunately he didn’t give me any definitive direction regarding where I should work and live when I finish travelling.

It seemed I was bumping into people I’d met throughout Colombia every day in Bogota. Colin and Anneliese, who I’d volunteered with in Santa Marta, and Zoe and Andrea, who I’d trekked the lost city with, Felix, and I all went out for Mongolian food on Monday. Just prior to that back in the hostel, a Colombian film agent had come in and was looking for fair-haired, white-skinned extras to be in the Colombian Tele Novella ‘El Capo II’. Think Pablo Escobar. Felix and I gladly accepted the offer with $120,000 pesos and the opportunity to be in a Colombian film too good to let pass. Late that night Emma came back from Santa Marta for one last night in Bogota before a sad farewell as she was heading back to England.

Tuesday the 14th of August was show time. We were picked up at 630 and taken to Fox Studios Bogota for what was the final day of shooting of El Capo II. Unsure about what we had signed up for Felix and I were quite excited but upon arrival, quickly realised we were going to be doing a lot of standing around. After finally entering the studio we were taken to the dressing rooms to get changed. Being a Colombian gangster film we were hoping for roles as criminals or if not maybe police officers. Unsurprisingly they didn’t consider us to look tough enough for either and we were dressed up in collared shirts and preppy vests to play journalists. We weren’t sure when we were going to be needed and so hung about the waiting room at the back of the set chatting to the other extras all day.

All in a days work, a couple of likely Cameramen

It wasn’t until 630pm that we were finally called to set. The scene was a police press conference in Miami and we were cameramen with a female journalist in toe. Given the camera was half covering my face I’d say I’ll be difficult to spot although there were a couple of shots where I was directly behind the lead actress for the scene. Regardless it was good fun and I’ll certainly be sitting down to watch El Capo II when it comes out. Afterwards Felix and I went to a bar in Zona Rosa to celebrate our newfound stardom and spend the cash we’d just received for doing sweet FA. We met a couple of nice Colombian girls Elizabeth and Johanna who we spent the night dancing with and practising our second languages, not a euphemism.

These intercambios can be hard work

The next day I met up with Melanie, a half-Colombian half-Swiss girl I’d met in Costeno beach north of Santa Marta. That morning we went up to Monserrat on the cable car where you have a nice view over Bogota from about 3300m above sea level.

View across Bogota from Monserrat

Afterwards we had coffee in La Candelaria before hopping on the bus to go for lunch in the suburbs with some family friends of hers. They were a friendly and interesting German man Uli and Colombian woman Carmensa who prepared us an amazing lunch at their stylish apartment. It was another good day of Spanish practice with conversation becoming easier to understand and contribute to each day. Getting back to the hostel was a two hour nightmare in peak hour traffic and reminded me how awful commuting can be. A couple of beers and a burger with Felix rounded out my Bogota experience, at least for now anyway.

Melanie and I met back up at the bus terminal the next morning and took a stunning full day bus trip through the mountains down to Cali. We passed through the café district, which I’ll have to return to when I come back to Colombia. When we arrived at Andre’s house we met his family, Jonas, from Switzerland, and Mauricio, who we would spend the next four days with. That night we went to the Pacific Coast Petronio Alvarez Music Festival, one of the reasons I’d headed to Cali. By the time we’d eaten Arepas and Sapicon (fruit salad) and drunk some homebrewed ‘arrechon’, a cane spirit mixed with condensed milk or something similar, we were too late to enter the festival. Instead we left and headed into town to a street that was closed off for a street party post festival. We had a few more beers and enjoyed some Colombian street music.

Petronio Alvarez Pacific Coast Music Festival in Cali

The next day we headed out on a full day tour of Cali with our local tour guides, Andres and Mauricio. We started out walking around the main plazas and churches in down town Cali before stopping off for a coffee. After we headed to the Gold Museum, which was actually much more interesting than I thought it would be. There were some interesting miniature models and it was more anthropology from the region including information on the history of Lago Calima, located near Cali. Following on from that we got back outside and walked up to a lookout point before continuing on in a taxi to cerro Cristo Rey. It’s actually not far off Rio’s Christ Redeemer being 31m high (Brazil’s is 39m).

Plaza de pigeons

Arranch…what was it again? Mantequilla face

That night we got to the festival earlier and got in to see some bands play. The music of the pacific coast of Colombia is heavily influenced by African music because it is a region that, historically, was populated primarily by African slaves escaping the Spanish. Being Cali there was a lot of Salsa dancing going on, yet another dance form I struggle with. The others drunk Viche, which is cane spirit famous on the coast and tastes like methylated spirits. I decided to give it a miss to avoid vomiting on some innocent by standing Colombian.

The night escalated when we went to ‘mikasa’, a bar/club with a great interior design, garden dance floor and live music. Although some Pacific coast music was played there was also a mix of other electronic music types. Although drinking mainly ‘Aguardiente’, another famous Colombian drink that tastes like Sambuca, I’m pretty sure some Viche mixes snuck in amongst the rounds of drinks. As is often the case the night ended at a street food vendor with dirty burgers and hot dogs.

Borrachos en Cali

At mikasa with Andres, Mauricio, Esmelanie and Jonas

The next day we’d planned to get up at 6am to go out to San Cipriano, between Cali and Buenaventura, instead we woke up at 9 after getting home at 5. Moving slowly we eventually got ourselves to the bus station and then into a taxi to San Cipriano. San Cipriano is a tiny town that’s famous because the locals have created a special transportation system called Brujitas, whereby a motorcycle attached to wooden seats moves swiftly along railway tracks.

Brujita, an interesting form of transport

We travelled through the jungle via Brujita to the town and then hired tyres to float down the river on. I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of this activity it’s always fun. There were a couple of rapids that were particularly strong and a few of us had run-ins with rocks and or trees. We also stopped off at the deepest point of the river, supposedly 14m, to jump off trees into the river. Once we got back to town it was late afternoon and we were cold so we warmed ourselves up with a bowl of the famous local soup, Sancoche de Pescado.

River rafting in tubes at San Cipriano

Dale Jonas, dale

Post rafting back in town

By Sunday we were in need of a quieter day and decided to go to the modern art museum and then to see a film. We watched The Separation, an Iranian film in Arabic with Spanish subtitles which comes highly recommended. After purchasing some gifts for Andreas and his family, Jonas, Mauricio and I headed to the festival for one last look. There were significantly more people and Jonas almost got taken out when some sort of fight broke out and some guy tried to run through him. Feeling a touch uncomfortable we left the festival in favour of a local shop and bar. Then somehow it was 330am and we were at another street vendor eating arepas again.

Our final day in Cali was spent at a river and some small waterfalls just outside of Cali with Carlos, one of Mauricio’s friends that we’d met at the bar the night before. A swim, some volleyball, some soccer and then eating Sancocho de Gallina rounded out a relaxing day. The Sancocho even came with chickens feet… ET phone home.

Sancocho de gallina, feet and all

Jonas and I left on an overnight bus to Medellin after a nice farewell with Andre’s family. Great hospitality and a great four days in Cali.

Familia de Andres

I spent my last day in Colombia with Samara, my old housemate from Santa Marta, and her family in Rio Negro. I tagged along at the family lunch before returning to Medellin. Some of my best experiences and memories from Colombia are because of the people I’ve met, rather than the jaw-dropping things I’ve seen. It’s true what they say; Colombians are warm and hospitable people. I feel like there is still quite a lot I haven’t seen in Colombia so would like to return after Ecuador, time and money permitting. But for now that’s it, three months in Colombia and ya, me voy.