Olympic marathon south ends in photo finish(ed)

After having such a great time on the north coast of Colombia, we somewhat reluctantly began the long journey south to Peru. Our first stop on the way was Colombia’s capital Bogota; a 21 hour bus trip away. The journey itself wasn’t too bad, but we were both relieved to get off and stretch our legs. Everyone had warned us that Bogota is cold but it was actually quite warm when we arrived, and we looked fairly overdressed in our alpaca jumpers. However that night we were so pleased to have our llama clad clothing, as the temperature plummeted and it was absolutely freezing.

Bogota gold museum
Bogota gold museum

We weren’t in Bogota long, but we had been told by several people that we should visit the gold museum. It wasn’t far from our hostel and was fairly cheap to get in, so we went to take a look. At this point in our trip it takes a lot to get us excited, and sadly this was not one of those times. It did have a huge collection of gold dating back thousands of years, but we’re obviously very hard to please. We also visited an art museum with various modern pieces including dozens from the famous Colombian artist, Fernando Botero.

Our next stop was San Agustin, and this couldn’t have been more different to Bogota. It is a tranquil country town with stunning views of valleys, waterfalls and undulating hills. But the main attraction, and the reason that most people visit the area, is because San Agustin is a world heritage site. Dotted around the countryside are hundreds of statues which date back thousands of years. Never one to encourage walking, Katy decided that we should take in the sights via horseback. We had managed to barter a good deal by joining two other English people we had met at our hostel, Sophie and James.

San Agustin horse trek
San Agustin horse trek

I was a bit apprehensive as I had never ridden before, and my brief lesson (in Spanish) didn’t do much to reassure me. All I was told was to pull on the reigns to stop, and at that point he slapped the horses arse and I was on my way. Thankfully he was quite a well-behaved horse, and I was doing fairly well to hold on. It didn’t take me long to work out that it was much more comfortable when the horse was actually running a bit (cantering for those in the know). Not that I really had much choice in the matter. Katy made the mistake of telling the guy she had some experience so was given a very excitable horse, and every time he started to speed up, all four of the horses joined in.

San Agustin statues
San Agustin statues

It was a great way to do it, but after four hours in the saddle I was so relieved to get off the horse. It is not natural for a man to ride a horse, cowboys or no cowboys. We retreated back to the gorgeous setting of our hostel (cushion in hand) for a few cold beers in the afternoon sun. The same day was Colombian Independence Day, and we had heard rumours of big parties and live music in the small town. We were disappointed though as there was absolutely nothing going on. Instead we headed back to the hostel and the four of us drank the French owned hostel out of red wine. Katy did point out that no French bar / restaurant should ever run out of wine, but by that point I think the owner was relieved that we were going to bed.

San Agustin
San Agustin

The following morning we were on the move again and heading back towards Ecuador. We had to have another night in Popayan to break up the journey, and were up again before sunrise to begin our worst day travelling so far. First we had an eight-hour journey to the border, followed by a four-hour wait in the small border town called Tulcan. Then we had a 14 hour overnight bus to Guayaquil in the south of Ecuador. Our bad streak with cameras continued as our camera was stolen from our bag before we arrived in Guayaquil. I even think I know who took it on the bus, but when we told the driver and a police officer at the bus station they just waved us away. Not really a nice way to wake up after an entire day travelling, and we still had to wait another three hours before getting yet another bus to Montañita on the Pacific coast.

Humpback whale
Humpback whale

It took me a few days to calm down after having the camera stolen, but Montañita was quite a good place to do so. It’s a small town with a fairly nice beach, and has hundreds of hostels, bars and restaurants busy with both locals and foreigners. On the weekend it fills up even more with locals visiting from nearby towns and cities, and can get quite rowdy. We just enjoyed some sun and did very little for the first few days.

While we were there we did get to enjoy the opening ceremony of the Olympics with an English couple we met, Chris and Morven. I thought some bits of the ceremony were really good, and some others were quite bizarre. Overall though I think it was a success and it definitely gave us an afternoon of entertainment. A lot of people have asked us if we were glad to be away for the Olympics, and I think in some ways we are. The thought of getting home on the Central Line during the games is not a nice one. But it is a shame we are not there to watch it and just to be in London during the games. I imagine there is quite a buzz to the city right now.

Humpback whale
Humpback whale

Before we left Montañita, we went whale watching an hour up the coast in a town called Puerto Lopez. It is mating season for humpback whales, so we were pretty much guaranteed to see them. This was one of those occasions that we could have really done with our decent and recently stolen camera, but instead we had to take our rubbish backup camera. The trip itself was amazing, and I was surprised how close we got to the whales. We spent a few hours in one area watching them before we left to go and do some snorkelling. On the way, a huge whale (about 15-20 meters) jumped out of the water if front of us.

It was a truly spectacular sight, and it actually continued to breach the water right next to us. Everyone on the boat decided that they would rather watch the whale than to go snorkelling, so we stayed there until the whale decided to dive and was nowhere to be seen. On the way back to shore everyone on the boat got absolutely soaked as the captain just decided to go full throttle regardless of the big waves. It wasn’t the best end to our trip, but overall it was a great day out.

Mancora beach
Mancora beach

Peru was next on the agenda, and after yet another night bus we arrived at the coastal town of Máncora. We had been recommended a hostel that was just outside of town, so when we arrived at 4:00am we got a taxi straight there. We hadn’t expected to get there until about 7:00am, so we were hoping that the hostel might have a spare room so we could get some sleep. However we had arrived on Peru’s national day, so every room was booked out and the party was still going. We were told that we could use the hammocks around the pool until a room was available at lunchtime.

Once we eventually got settled in, we got to enjoy the sun and a nice pool. With the help of one of the hostel staff and a tour operator in Cusco, we also managed to book our Machu Picchu trip. All we had to do was visit the local bank the next day and pay for it. We went into town that evening for dinner in one of the many beach-side restaurants, and enjoyed a few beers to welcome us into another country.

The next day we had the worst experience of our trip so far, and one that I hope we never have to go through again. We went into town and paid for the Machu Picchu trip, and while we were there decided to check out the bus times so we could plan our next trip. We wanted to walk back along the beach, so we cut down a road towards the shore. After walking a couple of hundred metres, we said to each other that it felt like a dodgy neighbourhood, and seconds after that it began. About five locals ran out of a house towards us, two of them brandishing knives. One of them waved me away with his knife while he grabbed the bag from Katy. In the bag were our passports, credit card, debit card, iPhone, camera, Machu Picchu ticket…everything. I chased them through another house they had run into, but they had already gone out of the back door and into a tuk-tuk.

Two of them had stayed behind and were actually talking to Katy, asking what was in the bag. After a few minutes of shouting at them that saying that we just wanted our passports back, we decided to walk back to the main road and get out of there. Before we got back to the road though, the two men we had been shouting at actually brought our bag back. The camera, money and iPhone had been taken, but everything else was in there. It was quite bizarre. It was quite traumatic, especially as it happened in broad daylight in front of people, but it could have been a hell of a lot worse. Obviously the main thing is that we weren’t hurt, but it took us a while to calm down.

That night I went to the police station to report it, and thankfully was joined by an Argentinian guy called Juan who translated for me. Nobody at the police station spoke English, so there is no way I could have done it without him.

It’s been a strange couple of weeks, and a time that we definitely want to put behind us. I’m sure it will make us a bit more wary from now on, but hopefully it won’t stop us enjoying the rest of our trip. We’re in our final day in Máncora now before heading south to Lima. Let’s hope that our next overnight bus journey goes slightly better than the last.

Until the next time…

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Fũtbol, Sol y Español

After leaving the Galapagos we had a very brief stopover in Guayaquil before taking a bus to Cuenca, about four hours away. Cuenca is a lovely city in the South of Ecuador. It has a very nice climate as it is 2500m above sea level but still close to the equator. The drive here was pretty spectacular, taking us around narrow winding mountain roads just above the clouds.

Mmmm cake
Mmmm cake

When we arrived it was midway through the festival Corpus Christi, and the streets were lined with hundreds of little stalls selling all kinds of cakes and sweets. In the evening there were fireworks and performances in the main square, so it was a nice time to be in the city.Rather than sitting around eating cake all day, the bulk of our time was taken up learning Spanish; or at least trying to.

We had four hours of lessons a day over four days, which left us feeling fairly numb afterwards. At one point there was a suggestion that we do eight hours of lessons a day, but I’m very pleased that we decided against it. The title pretty much sums up the extent of our Spanish language knowledge so far. Our main aim was to learn enough Spanish to get us by in South America, but what we’ve learnt in 16 hours is just not enough. I’ve never been very good at learning languages; just test my German if you don’t believe me, but I must say that Spanish is complicated. The good news is that we have over six months remaining to try and improve, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.

View from our room in Baños
View from our room in Baños

Our next stop was Baños via an eventful journey on a night bus. We spent most of the journey awake as the driver didn’t feel the need to slow down when going around corners. It meant that rather than snoozing away the hours, we were left holding on for our lives. We thought the night bus would be a good way to save money, but when we arrived at 4:00am it meant that we needed a room anyway. Thankfully the hostel was kind enough to let us check in very early for no extra cost. Baños is a really pretty little town in central Ecuador surrounded by mountains and waterfalls. Although it’s small, it’s a busy place with plenty of things to see and do. One of the most popular activities and from where the town gets its name, are the thermal baths.

Thermal baths
Thermal baths

Just after arriving, we bumped into a guy that we had met in Cuenca. He spoke very good Spanish, so it was handy to have him as our translator. We enjoyed a couple of hours in one of the public baths, and it was quite a funny experience. There are three pools of varying temperatures from very hot to tepid, and freezing cold showers fed direct from a waterfall. The water comes out of the mountain at 60°c, and the temperature is adjusted for the different pools by adding water from the waterfall. The water looks quite murky and uninviting, but it’s because it contains various minerals…apparently.

The idea is that you alternate between the showers and the pools. We spent most of our time in the hottest pool, which was so hot it was a struggle to get in to, especially after the showers. After various rotations we started to feel quite weary, as it really takes it out of you. It feels similar to a session in the gym, so we quickly left for a quick beer to let our bodies recover.

Katy gets steamy
Katy gets steamy

Our hostel also had steam baths which Katy decided to try. She did try and persuade me to join in, but thankfully I decided not to. Instead I was available to take photos of her experience. I think she pictured a relaxing time sat in the weird wooden boxes with the steam working its magic. Instead she was hosed down with freezing cold water every ten minutes and then asked to get back into the wooden box. Not really my idea of fun, but it was quite amusing to watch.

The rest of our plans for Baños were ruined by persistent rain. We wanted to rent mountain bikes and cycle 30km (mostly downhill) to see some of the waterfalls, but it didn’t seem as attractive without the sunshine. We did manage to see some of the Euro 2012 games, although I wish he hadn’t bothered.

We went out to watch the England group games in Cuenca which certainly didn’t help our Spanish lessons the following morning. In Baños we watched the game against Italy and I was left with the same feeling that I am always left with when watching England…boredom. It really was a horrendous game to watch, even with the drama of penalties.

Next we decided to move onto to Puyo, a town that was recommended to us by our Spanish teacher. It’s located in Ecuador’s part of the amazon basin called El Oriente, and is a gateway for amazon trips. What he didn’t tell us is that it’s a very ugly town with very little to see and do.

The firestarter
The firestarter

We decided to visit the Omaere Ethnobotanical Park where we were guided around an area of the jungle by Chris, an American biologist. He spoke to us about the various tribes of indigenous people and their relationship with the plants that surround them. It’s one of the only places remaining in the region that produces medicine from the jungle. You can get anything from cold and flu remedies to skin and hair tonics; even contraception. It was a really interesting tour, and a great way to learn a bit more about the local history and traditions.

Otavalo Market
Otavalo Market

Next we headed north to Ibarra, not far from the Colombia border. This was another town nestled high in the Andes and eight hours from Puyo. There isn’t a huge amount to do here, but it was a convenient place to stop before heading into Colombia. Nearby is the market town of Otavalo which is surrounded by the volcanic peaks of the peaks of Imbabura, Cotacachi, and Mojanda. The market dates back to pre-Inca times and is the largest crafts market is South America. It is so popular within Ecuador that tourists and locals alike come to visit from all over the country. We only spent one night there on the way to Colombia and after much searching we both came away with our token alpaca jumpers. Katy also treated herself to some matching alpaca socks for those long and cold bus journeys ahead.

Katy drinking...and cooking
Katy drinking…and cooking

After travelling for over nine months now, one of the things we have missed most is cooking. It may sound strange, but eating out every night can get to you. So far most of the places we have stayed in Ecuador have had a communal kitchen, so we have enjoyed making some of our own meals. It’s been good to see Katy back to doing what she does best, and we’ve also managed to find some decent cheap red wine to wash it all down. That’s not to say that the food here is bad. One of the best ways to eat is at lunchtime by sampling an almuerzo. It usually comprises of three courses of soup, a main dish and a desert, and also comes with a fruit juice shake. Half the fun is not asking what is on the menu today, so it’s a bit of a surprise. They are usually very good though, and a bargain at $2.

Mmmm, raw fish soup
Mmmm, raw fish soup

We have however had a bad almuerzo experience. Katy decided that she liked the look of a restaurant and surprised me by ordering for us. This wasn’t your typical set lunch menu, and she told me afterwards that she had ordered the local speciality ceviche, which she thought was marinated raw fish. We had skipped breakfast that morning so this wasn’t really what I was in the mood for. What came out of the kitchen was worse than I expected. The only way I can describe it is raw mussels and squid (I think) in a cold soup that tasted more like a salad dressing. It was a struggle to eat it, and Katy refused to even try the fish. We were also shocked when the bill came to almost $20.

Anyone for guinea pig?
Anyone for guinea pig?

Another local speciality is Cuy, or Guinea Pig. I have been desperate to try this, but whenever we’ve wanted it we either can’t find it or the restaurants have been closed. It’s normally barbequed or roasted whole and served spatchcocked with beans, rice, potatoes and a sugarcane alcoholic drink. I’m hoping we will be able to try it before we leave Ecuador because I am intrigued to know what it’s like.

Although the food in Ecuador is good, it’s not very healthy. Everything seems to be deep fried or very sweet. I came to South America expecting to see lots of good looking Hispanic women, but most of the younger women seem to be bulging out of their leggings (in more ways than one). It’s almost like being back in East London.

Until the next time…

Hola South America

This entry was supposed to be written by Katy, but she decided that she couldn’t be bothered. So instead I am left to pick up the pieces and try and write an insightful and witty piece for readers all over the world to enjoy. I haven’t even had time to come up with a tabloid style headline, but here goes…

The flight to Ecuador was fairly uneventful, which is generally how I like flights to be. The only fly in the ointment was our stopover in Houston, Texas. As we were in transit with our bags automatically being forwarded on, I expected us to stroll through to the departure lounge and enjoy the three hour break from flying; maybe a cocktail and a bite to eat. Instead we stood in a queue for three hours being scanned, searched and questioned before being sent to the departure lounge as the final call for our flight was announced. I know we all have a reason to be precautious at airports nowadays, but as we had just landed and weren’t even entering the country, it was a bit over the top.

We arrived in Quito excited about seeing a new country and a new culture; so much so that within ten minutes of getting to our hostel we were asleep. In fairness the long flight and the huge time difference really got to us (we’re now five hours behind GMT after being eight hours ahead in Japan). To add to the strain Quito is located high in the Andes, 2900m above sea level.

Quito old town
Quito old town

The next morning though when we opened our curtains and took in the amazing views of the city, our tiredness was forgotten. Sandwiched between the rolling peaks of the Andes, Quito is a striking city. After being in SE Asia for so long, it is also quite a culture shock. Even trying to order breakfast via my trustee Spanish phrase book was an experience. So far in almost nine months of travelling, China has been the only country that English wasn’t spoken throughout. Even in countries like Myanmar, English was spoken almost as if it were a first language. That isn’t going to be the case in South America, but it is a good excuse for me to learn Spanish; something I have wanted to do for years, mainly due to my Spanish roots.

We spent most of our time just wondering around the city and taking it all in. It’s a fairly easy place to walk around, with lots to see along the way. It’s a city split between the historic colonial buildings of the old town, and the more modern restaurant and bar area of the new town. People in Quito are fairly friendly, but there is a definite edge to the city after dark. But other than a failed pick-pocket attempt, nothing untoward occurred. We visited some of the cathedrals in the city, but after the amount of amazing temple complexes we’ve seen in SE Asia (namely Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia), they don’t really compare.

Plaza de la Independencia
Plaza de la Independencia

One thing we did do whilst in Quito was visit the centre of the world. Thankfully this didn’t involve burrowing a huge hole hundreds of mile deep to the core of the earth. Instead we got a one hour bus outside of the city to the equator. It was a bit of a funny place that was almost deserted. Supposedly it gets very busy on the weekends, but we got to enjoy it without the crowds. What does make it slightly fascicle is that we found out that the line that marks the equator is not actually the real equator line. The actual line is about 300m parallel to their line…very bizarre.

Whilst in Quito we also booked our trip to the Galapagos. This trip is something we had been looking forward to for a long time, and had heard so many good things about. It’s a very expensive place to visit, so we did shop around a lot to try and get a good deal. We were very tempted on a last minute deal on a luxury catamaran, but we finally decided to go for the budget option of a four night land based trip for a cool £1400.

For those that don’t know, the islands are famous for the huge number of endemic species, which were studied by Charles Darwin. These studies contributed to the inception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

After a three hour flight about 1000km west of Ecuador, we arrived in the Galapagos on Santa Cruz Island. We were supposed to get a boat straight to another island, but our flight was delayed. So instead we checked into our hotel and headed out to Charles Darwin Station. Here we got our first glimpse of the Galapagos giant tortoise. Young tortoises are kept here to ensure they are healthy before being let out into the wild. They are quite strange animals really, and living to over 150 years old in some cases.

Giant tortoise
Giant tortoise

Santa Cruz has a small town near the port with various bars and restaurants to keep you entertained in the evening. Most people on the islands are here just for the tours, but it is clear that this would be a nice place to just visit for a week or two. The islands sit right on the equator, so the weather is usually good, and there are plenty of things to do on each island without having to do a tour. If we had known we would have just turned up on the island and booked the tour there, but we still got a fairly good deal.

Tortuga Bay
Tortuga Bay

The next day we took a walk down to Tortuga Bay to an amazing beach. It was a 40 minute walk to the bay, but when we got there it was definitely worth it. One half of the beach has huge waves prefect for surfing, and the other is a calm secluded spot. In between the two were marine iguanas, and lots of them. Just as we were setting up our little spot on the beach, I noticed something move behind a tree just to our side. There was a sea lion there taking a nap in the shade.

It was quite a weird experience being sat on the beach just one metre away from a sea lion who was taking no notice of us at all. Even when the frisbee made an appearance it didn’t budge. So after a couple of hours of sunning ourselves (or burning as the case may be), we headed back to town.

land iguana
land iguana

That afternoon we took a boat to another island called Isabella. The boat journey wasn’t the best, as the captain didn’t feel the need to slow down in the very choppy conditions. Instead he went ahead full throttle causing the boat to almost leave the water on a regular basis. I thought I was going to be sick, and Katy was stuck at the front of the boat desperately holding on. This went on for two hours, so when the boat finally arrived on Isabella, we were very happy to get off.

Flamingos
Flamingos

Isabella is a really nice place to visit, and probably our favourite island on the Galapagos. It’s the largest of the islands, and has several active volcanos. Here we got to see some very pink flamingos in one of the lagoons as soon as we arrived.

It’s much quieter here than on Santa Cruz, and that evening we found a nice bar on the beach to enjoy a beer a watch the sun set.

Volcanic landscape
Volcanic landscape

The next day we had an early start for one of Katy’s favourite activities, trekking. Although slightly cloudy, it was a very hot day, but surprisingly the three hour trek to the volcano seemed to go quite well. The scenery and landscape around the volcano are not like anything I have seen, with black crystallised rock crunching underfoot. The first volcano we saw has the second largest crater in the world and last erupted in 2005, but the second volcano was the most impressive for me. So after a brief lunch break, we headed back to camp. But this time the trek wasn’t so easy. It may have had something to do with the heat or the extremely steep 200m climb back up to the rim of the first volcano, but either way we struggled on the way back. When we did arrive back in our hotel, we were pleased that we could relax and put our feet up…for five minutes anyway.

Marine iguana
Marine iguana

Next we were off on another island tour just to the south of Isabella. On the way we stopped in a small cove for some snorkelling. The water here is quite cold, and conditions weren’t the best for snorkelling, but we did see some huge sea turtles and box fish, along with some eagle rays.

Penguins
Penguins

After drying off, we were on our way again to the island where we were greeted by penguins. The island is quite small and could be walked around in about 20 minutes. It was a great place to see the hundreds of marine iguanas and also to get close up to more sea lions.

Sea lion
Sea lion

The next day we had a very early start to get 6am boat back to Santa Cruz. The journey was much nicer this time, and we even managed to get some sleep on the boat. Our plans were ruined though as we got back into port late, and missed our connecting boat to Floreana. We weren’t particularly happy about this, as it was one of the islands we really wanted to go to, but our tour rep didn’t seem too concerned. So instead we were treated to a bay tour just off of Santa Cruz. The tour itself was pretty poor…that was until we snorkelled with sea lions. It was a pretty incredible experience with these inquisitive animals so close to you.

Giant tortoise
Giant tortoise

In the afternoon we headed to the highlands to see some giant tortoises in the wild. It took us a while to find them in the long grass, and when we did they didn’t seem too pleased to be interrupted. After getting our fair share of pictures, we then headed into some lava tunnels. These are basically formed around free flowing lava, leaving a cave-like formation once it has cooled. After a brief look and a Katy tumble up the stairs, we headed back to our hotel to pack our bags ready to leave the Galapagos in the morning.

Today we flew back to Ecuador in Guayaquil. We were sad to be leaving the Galapagos so soon, as we had a really good time. But we have a lot to look forward to now, and we have already started to think about our next stop.

Until the next time…