Quito

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!

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Southern Colombia

We travelled south from Salento, out first stop was Cali, Colombia’s largest city. It is huge but we managed to walk around the old town, it had some beautiful churches (only on the outside) and it even boasted glittery bollards in the city centre!

Our next stop was Popayan, a small colonial town, with predominantly white pretty buildings but with terrible traffic, we were glad to only be staying a couple of days!

Our final stop in Colombia was Ipiales, a typical border town, kind of grotty! However there was the very cool Las Lajas Santuary close by, a gothic style church built on a bridge inside a canyon. We waved goodbye to Colombia, our next stop Quito!

Medellin

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.

Bogota

We arrived into Bogota from Cuba, instantly excited to check out the supermarket! It was worrying how much enjoyment we got from seeing aisles upon aisles of fresh food. We spent a few chilled days in a lovely hostel in Chapinero, a nice part of town. Although we didn’t do much, we drank a lot of coffee, visited some brilliant museums and met up with a couple of friends (Julia, a friend of Ali’s from university who works as a journalist; and Nuria, a friend of Rose’s from Francis Holland who now teaches English in Bogota). It was great to have an inside view of what it is like to live and work in Bogota, as well as getting recommendations for what to do and where to go in Colombia. We also took the opportunity to walk up to a viewpoint at the top of one of the hills to the east of the city. Although the altitude is not massively high, this was our first attempt at walking at this height and we definitely found ourselves working harder than usual to get to the top. It was also unfortunately a public holiday, so despite leaving really early in the morning, the route was busy.

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.

Esteros del Ibera

Esteros del Ibera in the north east of Argentina is a vast wetland notable for its incredible wildlife and landscape. The marshlands are home to cayman, capybaras, piranha, monkeys, snakes and thousands of different types of birds. Esteros is extremely isolated and getting there was a long and tedious journey—an overnight bus to a small town, followed by a 3-hour drive on a dirt road in a 4×4 to a tiny village called Carlos Pelegrini in the national park, which had no street lights or even proper roads.

It was made completely worth it by the expanse of nature that we had almost completely to ourselves. We were so surprised by the fact that Esteros has such a potential for tourism yet hardly anyone knows it even exists. Luckily for us this meant we saw very few other people. We stayed in a little posada (guest house) who also took us on two boat tours and a walking tour. On the boat tours we saw an abundance of birds: great egrets, great pampa-finch, storks, falcons, red-crested cardinals, southern screamers, and lots more we couldn’t identify! We also saw cayman everywhere, generally lying half in and half out of the water waiting for their lunch to find them. Capybaras were the funniest sight. They are technically the largest rodent and about the size of a Labrador. They also bark like dogs and can be quite grumpy! They graze on the marshlands or hang out sitting in the water. On the walking tour we saw a family of howler monkeys—they are blonde with black faces. When the males reach full maturity at 7-years-old they turn fully black haired.

On our last night there was a huge thunder storm and it rained heavily for about 15 hours. We were worried that the road out of the village would be flooded and we might be stuck for an extra night or two—which often does happen. Miguel, our lovely 4×4 driver, arrived to pick us up and drove us back to the nearest town (120 km away), at parts with no visibility out of the window at all due to the sheets of rain. He reassured us by saying: ‘todo bien’ (everything’s fine)! As we pulled into the bus terminal a bus saw us and asked where we were going, luckily it was heading to our next destination: Corrientes.

Colonia del Sacramento and the surrounding countryside

Picturesque Colonia del Sacramento is one of the main gateways into Uruguay from Argentina. Only 1 hour away from Buenos Aires by boat, its tranquil old town has been awarded UNESCO world heritage status. Founded by the Portugese in 1680, it was of strategic importance due it being placed on the tip of the north peninsula of the Río de la Plata. Its most famous street, Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), has two equally interesting theories on how it got its name. One story states that prisoners who were convicted to death were led up the street to be tied up and drowned when the tide came in. Another claims that the sighs refer to the sounds of the many brothels that were allegedly located on the street.

Montevideo

More relaxed than nearby Buenos Aires, Uruguay’s capital Montevideo has a population of less than  1.5 million. That being said, the country’s entire population is only around 3.5 million. The city’s old town, where we were staying, is largely pedestrianised, with outdoor markets situated in front of old colonial buildings on cobbled streets. Interestingly, most of the old films set in Cuba were actually filmed in Montevideo’s old town, as they share a striking similarity, and Hollywood directors were unable to gain access due to US/Cuba relations.