Trujillo

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.

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Chachapoyas

 

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!

Vilcabamba

 

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.

Cuenca

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.

Secret Garden Cotopaxi

This is probably going to be the hardest blog post to write, not least because we have thousands of photographs, hundreds of good times, and we had the heaviest of hearts leaving this place. We made some of the best friends of our trip and we really found our slice of heaven in South America. We are writing this full of emotion due to the nostalgia of missing namely Victor, Pablo, Sophia and Patrick. But the absolute contentedness and surreal homely feel that we found three and a half thousand meters above sea level, not too far from the equator, wrapped up in an isolated part of Ecuador brings smiles to our faces whenever we think about it.

Situated just outside Cotopaxi National Park, the Secret Garden hostel enjoys stunning views of the surrounding volcanoes. A home away from home it has a lovely, relaxed feel. A cosy fireplace dominates the main social area and five dogs huddle together, tired after their daily long walk. A giant hammock is located with breathtaking views of the Cotopaxi volcano, its almost perfect shape never ceasing to amaze. Hobbit holes give the sight a unique charm.

While it would take pages to detail everything we got up to over the month, here is a quick rundown of achievements gained while living there:

• Three volcanoes summited—one of them over 20 times between us
• Amazing friends
• An insight into farming life in the hills of Ecuador
• One film made
• Experience riding a llama (Ali)
• Learning how to slack line—sort of (Rose)

While working here for the month our main job was to guide two of the local hikes: one was through the river to a few waterfalls and the second was a longer, harder hike to the summit of the extinct volcano Pasochoa at 4200m. We really enjoyed the physical exercise every day and luckily we got really well fed too. Other work included chopping wood, painting and building odd things for the hostel.

We were working with the manager Victor, an absolutely amazing Argentinian who made us feel so welcome and actually had a very similar sense of humour to us. The lovely Sophia was the other manager and our personal yoga teacher and joint fun times beer drinker. We were also working with Pablo, a vegan-raggaeton obsessed French guy who provided a lot of entertainment, along with Patrick the Swiss guy that taught us some Swiss German that we still haven’t had confirmation is actually true. Gunnar was a very energetic Norwegian guy who had so much enthusiasm for everything. Jeff was a lovely, super fast hiker that broke us into our work and beer drinking well. We are definitely going to miss all of them. The local staff, especially Oliva and Janet, were particularly welcoming. Don Juan, the gardener, was in his 80s and strong as an ox, always saying hello with the biggest of smiles.

When the month came to an end we struggled to stay goodbye. We really battled with the decision to stay on in a more permanent capacity. However, we decided eventually to drag ourselves away and head south towards Peru, hoping to miss the flooding that had been devastating the country.

Guayaquil & Baños de Agua Santa

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.

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.

Tulum

Our last real stop in Mexico we were initially taken aback by how touristy Tulum was. Holiday goers out numbered Mexicans and we saw numerous people paying in US dollars. Despite this and a considerable spike in costs of things we adjusted quite quickly. We split our days by sightseeing in the morning and going to be beach in the afternoon. The first day we went to the Tulum ruins. Tulum was one of the last cities inhabited by the Mayas surviving for around 70 years after the spanish started to occupy Mexico.

It was really nice seeing the temple right next to the sea and the ideas behind the sunrise and moon felt very akin to somewhere like Stonehenge. We arrived first thing in the morning and the light was incredible with no one else there- by the time we were leaving the droves of tourists arrived.

We went to Akumal which is known for turtles grazing on sea grass. We were excited to snorkel in the hope of seeing them- which we did. It was amazing, they are only about 1.5 meters down feeding on the grass below and coming up for air every few minutes, which was our favourite thing to see- it was quite funny! These turtles were the same species that we released in Bacocho a couple of weeks before. We also saw sting rays- Rose wasn’t as keen.

Before flying to Cuba for Christmas to meet Roses family we spent a night in Cancun with Rose’s work friend Jo with her husband Joe, who are also on their ‘honeymoon’. We drank lots of a delicious cocktail made by Joe with Mezcal, Mint, Agave syrup, and water. It was so nice catching up- revelling at the idea that it was just a few days before Christmas and it couldn’t feel less christmassy.

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.