There had been a lot of flooding in Peru, and so we had to make a strange way through the country as some roads where still closed. We boarded a bus to Trujillo, which was supposed to take 12 hours, but we got stuck behind several landslides and it ended up taking 54 hours. However in true South American fashion, out of nowhere people turned up selling all kinds of things, popcorn, fruit, homemade crisps which kept us fed and somewhat entertained. After two nights on the bus the landslide had been cleared and we were on our way, slowly but surely. We will never complain about the train journey to Edinburgh again! Trujillo had been quite devastated by the flooding, walls had fallen down and rubbish was absolutely everywhere. We visited some ruins called Huaca del Sol y Luna, the largest pre Colombian adobe structure in the Americas at four floors high. It was really impressive, and so unlike the other ruins we had visited, the mud bricks had been very weathered by the rain and it looked like a huge sandcastle.
Having crossed the border, by a mixture of bus, taxi, collectivo and tuk tuk we finally arrived into Jaen. One of the cheapest places we have stayed, however, there was a reason, it was pretty awful! The next day we ventured to Kuelap a fascinating archaeological site which dates back to the 6th century and was left undiscovered for hundreds of years. The site consists of four hundred buildings surrounds by huge walls and placed at the top of a mountain. The round buildings were really interesting to see, a lot of them also had inbuilt guinea pig pens which was a funny fact!
Our last stop in Ecuador was Vilcabamba, a small town in the South of the country, with a very hippy feel. It is often referred to as the Valley of Longevity, as its inhabitants live to a very old age. We spent much of our time eating falafel and avoiding the rain. Luckily we had a few dry days too and did some hiking; we climbed up to the local mountain called Mandango, which was really beautiful.
We decided to do an indigenous San Pedro ceremony. It was one of the most profoundly enlightening things we have done and it made us feel very connected to mother earth.
We were really sad to be leaving Ecuador, the country had completely won our hearts and we had had some of the best times whilst here for over 2 months.
After a gruelling night bus we arrived into Cuenca, a colonial city with UNESCO world heritage status. We enjoyed walking around the city and were surprised to hear the majority of people speaking English—there is a huge American population living here. We visited the close by national park of El Cajas, known for its numerous lakes. There are over 270 lakes and we spent the day hiking through the lush expanse. It could easily have been somewhere in the British Isles. Ecuador was proving to be incredibly diverse and hiking was such a nice way of seeing so much of it.
After leaving Secret Garden with heavy hearts we headed to do the Quilotoa loop with our lovely French friend, Pablo. At home Pablo is a hiking guide, so we struck lucky and had our own personal guide.
Having left our main bags in the nearby town of Latacunga we started our adventure in a small village called Sigchos, the lush green landscape stretched out before us. We had a lovely but very wet first day. Luckily we stayed in a hostel in a small place called Insinlivi that had a fire so we were able to dry our clothes.
The second day had some of the most dramatic landscapes as we walked towards out next destination, Chugchilan. The green valleys split and parted and the landscape seemed endless. We had a lovely picnic lunch in the sun followed by a relaxed walk to our second night’s accommodation.
Our third day was a longer day of hiking with more elevation gain involved. The landscape began to change, and became less green and more volcanic looking. We continued up towards the crater lake, but by the time we got there the weather had closed in and we could not see a thing—we could have been anywhere! We then spent the night in Quilotoa, which was a great idea as the next day we had clear skies and we were able to see the crater. The reflection of the clouds in the water was absolutely stunning. Having taken about a hundred photos we continued on to our last destination of the trip, Tigua. Home to a community of indigenous artists, the little trodden path was completely ours. After a couple of wrong turnings and precarious river crossings later, we arrived (sort of) in Tigua. The heavens opened and it began to throw it down. Although initially intending to visit some galleries, we were hindered by the rain and decided to hail a bus back to Latacunga. The next day we waved off Pablo, again teary for the second time in a week.
We flew from the Galapagos into Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. It was a huge contrast to the sunny and cool climate of Quito. It was very hot, humid and wet! We only spent one day here and took the time to walk down the riverside into the centre of the city—it was clearly a huge metropolis, which did not get many tourists. The old colonial buildings, shrouded by more modern high rises was a reminder that not all of South America was behind with the times.
From Guayaquil we went to Baños de Agua Santa after so many people had recommended it. An old spa town, sadly we didn’t like it all that much. There were way too many tourists and the place seemed a bit soulless. However, we did go to the baths early in the morning. We were the only foreigners among mainly older Ecuadorians half asleep enjoying the baths. Interestingly they had an irrigation system in place that meant the locals could wash their clothes in the waterfall that feeds the baths.
After our brief stay we had to make our way back north to Quito to spend the night, before starting our month of volunteering at Cotopaxi National park.
Our trip to the Galapagos began with Santa Cruz Island. The nearest airport is on Baltra Island just north of Santa Cruz, from where you take a boat and bus. As we were coming in to land we saw a huge pod of bottlenose dolphins from the plane which was incredible, while from the bus on the way to the town of Puerto Ayora we saw numerous giant tortoises in the fields either side of the road—a great start!
Having found the cheapest hostel we decided to go to a few tour operators to compare prices for different day trips we wanted to do. Our first day on Santa Cruz was an early wake up to get to Tortuga bay, a long walk to a secluded beach which boasts marine iguanas and sightings of blacktip reef sharks. Tortuga bay was absolutely stunning, a wide and very long beach with barely anyone there; the sun rising over the ocean made it even more amazing. The marine iguanas were everywhere—these big sleepy guys definitely had some character! We were also lucky enough to see lots of bright red crabs, blacktip sharks, pelicans, and green sea turtles—which we paddled out to get a better view of.
We returned to Puerto Ayora for a quick bite to eat before heading to the lava tunnels, which are underground and you can walk through. It was incredible to be inside something that was probably made in a few minutes and had stood the test of time for thousands of years. We then went next door to El Chato, a giant tortoise reserve. Having watched many David Attenborough documentaries, this was one of those utterly lost for words moments: the giant tortoises were huge, tranquil and really sweet! We spent a long time just sitting and watching them, the way they moved and how they farted every so often! We rounded up our day with a visit to the Darwin Research Centre, which gave us a bit of geological background to the islands. We could not believe how much wildlife we had seen in one day. Excited and exhausted we got an early night.
The next day we went on a day tour to Bartolome Island. We luckily were on a really beautiful boat, which meant we were able to sit at the front and enjoy the view the whole way there. We spotted many things breaking the ocean, some of which we thought must have been sharks or rays. However, our most exciting sighting happened as we approached Bartolome: a huge pod of bottle nose dolphins were surrounding our boat. There were about 30 of them, jumping, twisting and talking to each other, which was also amazing to hear and witness. It was one of those truly special moments where everyone on the boat was completely in silence with massive smiles on their face. After visiting Bartolome we had our first Galapagos snorkelling experience in the bay of Santiago Island, which was incredible. The sea was bursting with life, small and big, we saw all sorts of things, from turtles, rays to big and small fish.
The following day we went on a day tour to South Plazas, which is special for its vegetation and for being one of the only islands home to land iguanas. As we approached we talked about how staggeringly different every landscape seemed to be on the Galapagos, you feel like you are going back in time! In the bay when we got to the island we saw a school of sealions, with the alpha male looking after all of the kids. The small sealions were very sweet and seemed to play endless games of tag in the bay. The land iguanas and marine iguanas have bread on this island to make a strange mix of the two and rather similar to the mule they are also infertile. The island is covered in a plant called Sesuvium, which turns from green in wet season to bright red in dry season. Luckily it was dry season when we were there and the contrast between blue waters and the fiery red was striking.
Officially the highest capital in the world, at 2850m and the closest to the equator. It also boasts the largest old town in the Americas, its sprawling pedestrian streets, numerous cathedrals and churches made it a lovely place to wander around. The cathedral had some very interesting gargoyle which included: anteaters, turtles, frogs, iguanas and birds. We had wonderful weather whilst we were in Quito, and took advantage of enjoying the many high views of the city from the surrounding valleys. Next stop Galapagos, it was hard to contain our excitement and as usual we arrived at the airport way to early!
Salento is a small, sleepy colonial town in the coffee region. We went to a small family run organic coffee farm for a tour, which was incredible. The information about each plant and how it assists the coffee plantation was fascinating, from the chilli plant which acts as insecticide to the Yukka to stop landslides, the avocado trees for fertiliser and the banana trees for shade and potassium. The farm was a humble three acres, with eight thousand coffee plants. The harvest happens twice a year and takes three whole months of twelve hour days, all picked by hand. We got to see the whole process from picking to drying, roasting and grinding—then we got a cup. Their hard labour clearly paid of,as it was one of the best cups of coffee we have had. We topped off our lovely day with a Saturday night curry—first one in about 5 months—it was delicious!
The following day we hiked in the Valle de Cocora, a beautiful expanse of lush rolling hills, cloud forest and tall wax palms. This was easily our favourite hike so far and the weather was far more manageable than in Minca.
Salento also presented us with an opportunity to play Tejo, a local game that is basically an explosive version of boules. Given that all we had to do was buy a beer in order to play, we didn’t miss out on the opportunity and many laughs were had.
We flew into Medellin from Cartagena, again making use of the ridiculously cheap flights. On the drive from the airport the city looked magnificent, sitting nestled inbetween the mountains which surround it. The weather in Medellin is perfect, around 25 degrees all year round and mainly sunny—it reminded us of English summer. We really fell in love with Medellin and quickly, largely because everything is so easy. The metro system is clean and really easy to use, the best thing about it being the cable cars that join up to the metro stations, installed in an attempt to unite the poorer areas with the centre of Medellin. It is even thought to have had an impact on crime figures, dramatically reducing crime as more people from underdeveloped neighbourhoods (up the mountains) are now able to easily travel through the city.
We took it quite easy in Medellin, taking the time to use the very well equipped hostel kitchen to make some nice meals.
One of the highlights was visiting Parque Arvi, a beautiful nature reserve accessed by cable car from the city. It is amazing how quickly the city turns to lush countryside, as you travel above forest as far as the eye can see. Pleased to escape the buzz of the city, we hardly saw anyone on our walk, enjoying a picnic in perfect weather.
We also took a day trip to Guatapé, a lakeside town 1.5 hours away. The main attraction here is the “Peñol Rock” (La piedra del Peñol), a 200m scalable rock with stunning views of the local area. The town itself has quirky colourful buildings; however, has sadly become overly touristy. For example, many people visit the town to play paintball in Pablo Escobar’s old mansion.