Quilotoa loop

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.

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Salento and the coffee region

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.

A Cuban Christmas

We left Mexico sad to say goodbye but excited at the prospect of seeing Rose’s family in Cuba. We landed in the capital, Havana, as the sun was setting and were immediately taken aback by its contrast to Cancun. Where Cancun airport was host to designer shops and rich American tourists, Havana appeared harsh and outdated, its faded red walls a metaphor for the country’s struggling communism.

Despite 3 months of travelling we would be lying if we said Cuba did not come as a culture shock. The impact of half a century of communism and strict sanctions has made day-to-day life very difficult for those who remain there. Long queues can be seen outside every public building, with locals diligently waiting to enter supermarkets whose shelves are virtually empty. The strict control of internet has meant contact with the outside world is heavily restricted, with locals struggling to contact family members in neighbouring Miami fortunate enough to have left the country. The food leaves a lot to be desired—its incredibly bland nature arising from a scarcity of ingredients—and generally revolved around dishes containing meat, beans and rice. Additionally, the introduction of a dual currency system in 1994 only emphasises the divide between tourists and locals.

The knock-on effect of this is a soured attitude shown by a large number of Cubans towards tourists. It was rare that we felt we were not trying to be cheated out of our money, and when it was clear that we did not agree with proposed exorbitant prices people would very quickly lose interest. Perhaps the bitterness arises out of the assumption that outside of Cuba people are made of money; however, it inevitably left us with a negative view of the people.

That being said, Cuba itself is beautiful—a pastiche of crumbling colonial buildings and 1950’s Chevrolet’s. The photogenic old town of Havana is an assault on the senses, with Afro-Cuban mambo and rhumba blaring from every bar and restaurant. The cigars are cheap and the rum is cheaper, offering endless opportunities for fun. The long stretch of ocean boulevard which frames the city known as the Malecon made for beautiful sunsets, the silhouettes of countless fishing rods providing a memorable sight.

Bypassing the better known beach resort of Varadero, we spent our second week in Cuba in Guanabo. Situated only a short drive away from Havana, the neighbouring town is a favourite holiday destination for Cubanos and a much more low-key spot to enjoy the country’s stunning beaches. Grateful to escape the overwhelming buzz of Havana, our second week allowed us to enjoy the beach and make the most of our time with Rose’s family.

Being able to enjoy Cuba with Rose’s family was very special and made Christmas a much more enjoyable affair. We were incredibly lucky they agreed to come out and meet us and I hope they had as much fun as we did. Sadly though this meant it was that much harder to say goodbye. After two great weeks, we put on a brave face, said our farewells and looked forward to Colombia.

Bacalar

After yet another night bus- we arrived in the early hours of the morning in bacalar, the lake of seven colours. Arriving at our hostel knackered- our hearts dropped as the hostel was dirty, staff unfriendly and everyone seemed to be ill. We swiftly went to look for other options and luckily found a lovely hostel down the road with an available room. Sadly the weather wasn’t great initially but the lake was still stunning. We went for a little explore on the lake with a pedalo- but returned when it started to rain. Hopeful that the rain would stop we booked a stand up paddle board tour for sunrise the next day. Paddle boarding was so much fun and calming way to start the day. The water looked like a mirror as the sun rose, we made our way to bird island where the birds sounded like pigs. Before heading to the black cenote, a sink hole that is so deep all you can see is black. The difference in depth throughout the whole lake creates so many different colours, varying from crystal clear turquoise, deeper greens, electric blues and completely black.
We also visited cenote azul, which is connected to the main lake by underground waterways. It was so beautiful- almost perfectly round and about 100m in diameter. The water is so fresh and was so nice to swim in. In typical fashion the sun only shone on the day we were leaving but the lake was still beautiful, and somehow unbelievable that it even exists.

Puerto Madero

Puerto Madero is the waterfront area of Buenos Aires. Built in 1897 to allow direct docking for cargo ships, which was not possible due to the river being shallow, it only remained properly in operation until 1911. As cargo ships got increasingly larger, the port became unable to accommodate them and an alternative port was built. Following years of degradation, it has seen a massive regeneration, now featuring bars, restaurants and hotels.

Walk around the Ecological park near Buenos Aires

On the southern side of BA there is an ecological reserve open to the public during the day, where we spent an afternoon enjoying being away from the noise of the city. On one side you can see towering skyscrapers, while the other opens out to the Rio del Plato and Uruguay. Most of the people there appeared to be either runners, cyclists or teenage couples. There is a variety of plants and wildlife and we were lucky to to spot terrapins and a brief glimpse of a Brazilian guinea pig.