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.

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Iguazu falls

The Iguazu falls are the largest system of waterfalls in the world. Situated on the Iguazu River on the border of the Argentine province of Misiones and the Brazilian state of Paraná, they separate the river into the upper and lower Iguazu.

We were staying in the city of Foz do Iguaçu in Brasil, having crossed the border from Paraguay in the morning. Foz do Iguaçu is the Brasilian gateway to the falls and so easily accessible by public transport. Stepping off the bus we were blown away at the vista in front of us, a panoramic view of waterfalls spanning from left to right as far as the eye could see. It’s not surprising that it was recently voted one of the new seven wonders of nature.

Throughout the trip we have heard differing views on whether it is better to visit the falls from the Brasilian or Argentinian side. Having enjoyed visiting them in Brasil so much we decided to see them from Argentina the following day. While Argentina lacked the panoramic view of the Brasilian side, it allowed you to get much closer to the action, with walkways of different heights right up to, and in some cases on top of, the falls. A particular highlight was being perched above the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s throat), the largest of the falls at 82 x 150 x 700 metres, which funnels around half of the river’s flow. With around 1,500 cubic metres of water flowing over the falls every second, the seemingly endless stream of water creates a momentous roaring and permanent mist that looms over the abyss, broken only by the occasional darting of some rather daring swallows.

From Foz do Iguaçu we also visited Parque das Aves, the largest bird park in Latin America, with more than 1,320 birds from about 143 different species. Housed in 16.5 hectares of rainforest next to the falls, the birds are predominantly rescued and rehabilitated before being released back into the wild. One of our favourite things about the park was the number of walk-in cages, where you could see many of the birds up close, including a huge cage housing around 30 varieties of parrot and parquet . The sea of colour flying over your head was incredible.