After an uncomfortable journey, we arrived back in Peru, in Mancora at 4am, roaming the streets that we already knew well, we checked into a hostel and slept for a couple of hours. Tom hit the surf, and I read on the beach – we enjoyed our favourite 10 sole menu, which consisted of potatoes and cheese for starters, and tuna, rice and salad for main course, washed down with a beer. At 6pm we picked up our next overnight Cruz Del Sur bus, this time it was taking us to Lima, arriving 14 hours later, we hopped straight onto another bus south to Ica.
After 8 hours we arrived in Ica late at night, jumping in a taxi we headed for Huacachina, ten minutes down the road. Huacachina is quite literally an oasis in the desert, flanked with huge, towering sand dunes. It was definitely a sight to behold when we woke up in the morning, beautiful blue skies, contrasted with bright yellow sand.
We took a stroll around the tiny town and the lake, then when the sun had gone down, we started our ascent up one of the sand dunes, to watch the sunset. My god it was hard work, it was like being at the gym on a stair climber. One step up, two steps down. What’s more, having applied suncream, the wind would whip up the sand and it covered me, sticking to my glue like suncream, Tom could actually scrape sand off me! After making it to the top, we walked across the dunes, it was incredible. We sat and watched the sun descend on the desertscape, then we ran like the clappers down the dune – so much fun – as you can take the biggest of strides…
After showering the remains off me, we took anther night bus, our second in three nights to Arrequipa. Arrequipa is a pretty town and also a UNESCO site, probably one of our favourite Peruvian cities, it is also one of the wealthiest, had a cosmpolitain feel, something we haven’t felt in other places in Peru, woman having lunches, men dressed in business gear etc.
Only here for a night and day, we spent our time wisely, after walking round the old town, we holed ourselves away in a rooftop bar and whiled away the afternoon drinking Pisco sours…. We then treated ourselves to an amzing Lomo Saltado sandwich… It was amazing!
Arriving in Ecuador, we were greeted by grey skies and humid weather, we were out of season so we were told the weather wasn’t going to be great. The bus dropped us off at Guaquill late at night, we’d read in the lonely planet book that it was a dangerous place, numerous robbings at the bus station, people taking your cash after withdrawing from the cash point (the usual basically). Anyway we didn’t have a clue where we were staying, luckily we bumped into an English backpacker, and basically hijacked his night, asked him where he was staying, then jumping in a taxi with him.
We didn’t see much of the city only from what we saw from the back of a taxi, as the next morning, we were up early and back to the bus station to jump on a bus to the coast, to Montanita.
Montanita is notorious for its surf and its party town atmosphere. After a four hour bus ride we arrived, and trudged down the main road with our bags to find our accommodation. The place was a traditional Ecuadorian house, made completely of wood, and basically felt like it was going to fall down at any moment, but it was near to the beach so was perfect for two nights.
During our stay we’d made contact with lottie and Jirin, and they were on our way to Montanita to meet us. On their arrival we moved to new accommodation across the way, right on the beach, where we had out own outdoor space and cooking facilties, so we could all chill and watch films, play cards and drink together – it was a nice few days. Tom got a surf board and I soaked up the very intermittent sun.
From Montanita we all went up to Las Tuna, about a 30minute bus journey North, Lottie had managed to bag some free accommodation off someone they’d met and we were able to camp on the premises, close to the beach… Las Tunas is a very small, non-touristy town, so it was nice to be in good company, and we wiled away the hours, drinking and eating… and the boys surfed.
On our final day in Las Tunas we took a bus ride into Puerto Lopez, as we needed to book our bus tickets to Quito for that night. The town was an active fishing port, with huge amounts of catch dropped onto the beach, sharks, tuna, you name it, it was on that beach.
Saying a fond farewell to Lottie and Jirin, we jumped on our bus, an 8 hour journey to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Arriving on the south side, we then had to navigate the trolley (an electric bus) into the centre, hard work when you have all your bags. Anyway after an hour, we got off and walked to our hotel. I’d caught a nasty cold, so I wasn’t up for doing a great deal, so we used some of the time to catch up on work. We visited the old town, with its colonial buildings and buildings which scattered the mountain sides. We also got to try a ‘Llapingacho’, a potato like pancake filled with cheese, it was delicious!
Leaving Quito we headed to Banos, located at the foot of the Tungurahua volcano, famous for its waterfalls and hot springs. Still feeling poorly, I was good for nothing, having checked into our hostel, Tom nipped out and brought back a pizza and went to the pharmacy to stock up on tablets to hopefully make me feel better. After a walk around the town to take in the sites, we picked up a bus to take us to Riobamba.
Now from what we read Riobamba was supposed to be a lovely university town, it was far from that! The accommodation we stayed in wasn’t particularly nice, and their wasn’t a great deal to do, we were going to do the famous ’nosebleed’ train – one of the highest trains in the world, however further research revealed it was a major tourist trap and not very good, so we decided to forego the idea.
After a night in Riobamba we got a bus to Cuenca, another town famous for its colonial architecture, we mainly used the time to catch up on work and get on top of things, however we manged to take a look around the old town, albeit raining, whilst indulging in some delights from the local pandereria. We then booked onto an overnight bus back to Peru, back to Mancora – it’s up their with one of the worst buses we’ve taken, potholes made up the entire road and the bus driver insisted on driving like a maniac, safe to say we got no sleep, as our heads were thrown around like a rag dolls.
Ecuador doesn’t fill us with fond memories, as we had nothing but bad things happen to us. On the bus there, Tom lost his kindle, then when leaving Quito on the trolley, my phone was pick pocketed out of Tom’s pocket, then the next day on a bus journey, someone pulled my bag from under my seat and stole 300 dollars, whilst I slept from being ill. That said, we just wanted to hot foot it out of Ecuador as quick as we could, so I am unable to give a true representation of Ecuador. Hopefully, knocking on wood, that’s our bad luck streak over with.
Landing late in Lima, and because we were flying onto Cusco early the next morning, we opted a place to stay, close to the airport, staying at a place called Javier’s place, he picked us up from the airport and then took us and another couple who were staying to his local restaurant that does good Cerviche… (Cerviche is a national dish in Peru, however we’d already had it a few times in Columbia, as it’s widely available.) The food was good and Javier introduced us to another national favourite, the Pisco Sour, Pisco is a grape brandy that both Chile and Peru argue is exclusively theirs, it’s mixed with lime and egg whites and taste delicious – back at the hotel we all shared a number of beers and then hit the hay.
The flight to Cusco was not for the faint hearted, as we started our descent the aircraft pitched into a steeply angled turn and spiraled it’s way between numerous peaks, into the depression in which Cusco sits. The landing certainly tested the suspension! Getting our bags, we jumped in a taxi and headed to the airbnb we were staying at. Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, was once capital of the Inca empire, and is now known for its archaeological remains and Spanish colonial architecture. Set at an altitude of 3,400m, it’s the gateway to further Inca sites.
As Cusco sits at such high altitide we had to be there 3 days before the Inca trail to acclimatise to the altitude. We used the time to stock up on some walking gear and coco leaves! Yes, coca leaves are the raw material for cocaine, but chewing the leaves or having them with tea, helps to combat the effects of altitude sickness, as well as numb the gums and give you green teeth!
Packed and ready to go we descended on the famous Inca trail trek, having had to book it 6-months ago in order to obtain a permit to walk in the footprints of the Incas….
Day 1: Cusco – Km82 – Ayapata
The first day of the Inca Trail was pretty easy going. Covering 14km of the trail climbing gently up the Cusichaca Valley passing by the Inca site of Llactapata, where we enjoyed great views of the snow-capped peak Veronica (5900m). Our campsite for the night was at Ayapata (3300m / 10829ft). The food and set up was outstanding, we were really impressed with the standard and creativity of the food, especially since we were at the top of a mountain!
Day 2: Ayapata – Chaquicocha
Today is considered by many to be the hardest day of the trek; with two high passes (Dead Woman’s Pass is the highest at 4200m / 13779ft) to cross with a total walking distance of nearly 16km. We didn’t think it was that hard, but it was two hours constantly up hill and as the altitude got higher you definitely noticed a difference in your breath, whilst noticing every step you took.
We got fantastic views of the high mountain ranges as we crossed the two passes and visited two Inca sites (Runcuraccay and Sayacmarca).Our campsite for the night was at Chaquicocha (3600m / 11800ft) which like Ayapata is one of the quieter campsites and affords beautiful views of the sunsetting over the mountains in the distance.
Day 3: Chaquicocha – Winay Wayna
Having made it over the 2 passes yesterday we had a more relaxed day, through some of the most beautiful scenery the Inca Trail has to offer. With a relatively short distance to cover along what is known as Inca Flat we got to enjoy the lush and verdant cloud forest around us and the spectacular views of the Andes in the distance.
With visits to 2 Inca sites (Phuyupatamarca and Winay Wayna).
On the final day after a 3am start and a 3 hour walk we finally made it to Machu Picchu… Wow, what a site to behold, such a magical place, I actually felt honoured to be there, to soak it all up and bask in the wonders of what the Inca’s created. And the best part was we had blazing sun and clear sky’s which made it all the more impressive.
Leaving Macchu picchu we got the bus down to a town called Aguas Caliente, a town that lies in the gorge of the famous ruins, here we grabbed a quick bite to eat and a few beers, before getting on the train back to Cusco. On the trek, we made some great friends with an Australian couple Mark and Amy from Syndney, laughs a plenty were had. On our return to Cusco we managed to get a few nights out together consuming numerous Pisco Sours before they jetted off to the Galapagos islands!
We stayed around Cusco for a few days, mainly because I got bitten on the last day of the trek by hundreds of sandflies. My legs swelled up and I was having difficulty walking and needed time for the swelling to go down, but once I was on the mend, we took a collectivo taxi to Pisac, which sits at the heart of the Sacred Valley renown for its Inca ruins and artisan market.
Besides the Inca ruins I was really keen to see the local salt mines, called Maras salt mines or, “Las Salineras” they’re literally salt mines derived from the flow of a naturally salinated river creek between Ollantaytambo and Cusco, we were able to get up close and walk along the ridges. so we took a bus and hiked up to see them.
One of the towns we passed to and from the ruins as famous for eating Guinea Pigs ‘Pepián de Cuy o Conejo’, this is a delicacy in Peru – (Gem if you are reading this, I am sorry, I know you had a guinea pigs as pets growing up) yes its cooked, and yes Tom wanted to try it, so we headed to one of the many family’s selling them and ordered one. They aren’t the greatest of tasting, a lot like very greasy chicken, except there is no meat really to find.
Leaving the sacred valley, we flew from Cusco back to Lima, and then picked up an over night ‘Cruz del Sur’ bus to Huaraz. Huaraz is the holds the key to the Andean adventure kingdom and its rooftops command exhaustive panoramas of most impressive mountain ranges in the world, the Cordillera Huayhuash, also the mountain range climbed by British climber in near fatal film ‘Touching the Void’….
On arriving, we went into town and stocked up on hiking provisions and gas, before repacking the bags and heading to Laguna 69, known as one of the most beautiful sights in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, so we were excited to set off.
After a strenuous four-hour uphill climb where we gained 4,600m in elevation, which by the way you bloody well felt it with your bags on, full of food and camping equipment. Nonetheless after a steady pace and then a very slow pace nearing the top we were finally presented with Laguna 69 and it didn’t disappoint – glacier aqua blue – even better there was only one other camper there, so we basically had the place to ourselves for the night – pure bliss.
It was pretty cold up there, there was ice on the tent in the morning, but our gear kept us warm. When the stars and moon came out it was so bright it was as though there was a light on in the tent, it truly was beautiful up there. During the night you could hear the rumblings of the glacier moving and rocks falling down into the water, waking us up a number of times….
Up early we had breakfast and took in the wonders, before the many hoards of day trippers make their ascent. Packing up, we then started our next ascent to the refugio, near to the base camp of Pisco mountain 5,752m.
This trek was hard work, the altitude and also the terrain didnt help, but we finally made it, we’d both hoped that the refugio would serve food and have a fire and serve wine, and guess what?! It bloody did! We were made up, as we were running lowish on food. Entering there was a roaring fire, and the guys who run it were super friendly. We ordered a glass of red wine, chicken and mash potato and sat down to play monopoly – it was wondeful, and the perfect setting, especially since it was raining outside and didnt stop until morning. Tearing ourselves away we headed to the tent and made a coco and camimille tea and hit the hay, warm, full and tired. The next morning we packed up and headed back down, returning to Huaraz for a nice hot shower and a comfy bed.
On the bus from Lima, we’d met a Californian, Michael, switching numbers we said we’d get together to do the Santa Cruz trek, this 4-day trek (which we did in 3)is one of the most popular treks in the Cordillera Blanca. Taking in spectacular mountains and lakes with beautiful views and colors. From the trailhead, therewas amazing views of the mountains Artesonraju, Rinrijirca and Alpamayo, as well as Huascaran (the highest mountain in Peru), the four peaks of Huandoy, Pisco, Chacraraju and Chopicalqui. The night before we met up for drinks and a hearty meal, and to discuss intineries, routes etc. We started the trek on Friday but finished on Sunday, pushing ourselves to the limits and also taking in other lakes on the trek.
On finishing, my feet were totally shot, I think I counted six blisters in total, Ouch! So I planned to rest them for a while before returning to the mountains. We had a last supper with Michael, saying our goodbyes, and then jumped on a bus north to Trujillo, on the coast. We didn’t stay in Trujillo, instead we headed to Huanchaco, a quaint fishing village famous.. Here we camped just for a night, whilst Tom surfed, we also bumped into a Dutch couple who were staying in Hauraz and also our campsite, a good excuse for a few beers and Pisco sours – we’re going to try and meet up when we get to Ecuador.
Leaving we got another overnight bus, which took us further up the coast to Mancora, on arriving the sun was blazing, there was a great breeze, so it wasn’t uncomfortably hot and we found a nice chilled out place to stay.
We decided after a frantic few weeks jumping around to stay put, so that’s what we did, we spent five days, relaxing on the beach, reading, surfing and eating fantastic food – just what we needed to recharge the batteries.
We still have a few things in Peru that we want to tick off, so we’ll be returning later on the trip as we pass back down from Ecuador to Bolivia.
After a seriously hair raising flight from Panama City to Medellin, where we hit a storm and at one point I thought we weren’t going to make it, people screaming, clinging to their chairs. We finally, to my relief landed, although I think I am a little scared from the experience – god help the next flight! The El Dorado airport was a 45 minute journey away from Medellin, so we hopped on an collectivo bus and headed into the city…
Medellin is based in the Aburrá Valley, a central region of the Andes Mountains, it’s extremely picturesque, even at night with its blinking lights, the hole basin is lit up like a Christmas town… Arriving in Medellin after our collectivo, we jumped in a taxi and headed to El Pablado, a district in the city, very similar to the NQ in Manchester, it was a Saturday night too, so was bustling with activity, Colombians eating and drinking out on the streets and generally enjoying their weekends. After dropping the bags off, we headed out to join in on the action, ordering up some beers and food whilst adjusting to Columbia culture.
Having spent a few days in Medellin, we still felt there was so much more to see, so we made sure to swing back round at the end of our Columbia trip. Here’s a run down of the highlights in Medellin.
We took the cable cars up over the barrios – in Medellin they have a total of 249 districts grouped into 16 official urban communes which hug the mountains around the valley. All the barrios are connected by cable cars, this is their public transport. We took a ride up and down and got some amazing shots of the barrios carved into the steep sides of the mountain ranges.
Paragliding – owing to Medellin being overlooked by the Andes it makes it the perfect location to paraglide… Both me and Tom hadn’t done it before, so we were a little nervous, but we were in safe hands.. it was an amazing experience, as you got to take in the stunning vistas whilst overlooking Medellin. The pilot even did some air acrobatics, (be warned you feel pretty sick afterwards).
It was a great experience definitely something I’d do again. After the flight, we sat down for a traditional Antioquian meal of Bandeja Paisa known as the fattest dish in Columbia and some say the world, however I doubt that!
We went on a free city walking tour, where we took in Medellin’s downtown (El Centro) with a local Columbian. Exploring the historic districts, whilst being told stories, descriptions and urban legends that really made this fascinating city come to life. The tour educated us on the Paisa culture, the people and their stories, it really was inspiring to listen to a country that was once ravaged by drugs and cartels, to a country that has completely turned itself around. During the 4 hours of the tour we discovered the most traditional parks, squares and streets of the city.
Tom was keen to watch a football match so one Saturday night we headed to the stadium, having bought the tickets earlier in the day, for a mere £4.50 to see a football match – Independent Medellin from Panama City to Medellin
El Pablado – such a lively district of the city from Thursday – Sunday, after that it is like a ghost town, so quiet. We loved it here, we never had a bad meal falling in love with a curry house, called Naan – it was so good and a 4 course meal with gin and tonics cost us as little as £20, we couldn’t get enough of the places.
Saddened to say goodbye to Medellin, we left taking a flight to Cartagena, on the North coast of Columbia on the Caribbean coast, back to the humidity, that Tom so desperately despises. Being a colonial town, it was great for wandering around and taking pictures, of course we ate a lot, had to get the last of the Caribbean flavours somehow…
From here, we flew to the capital, Bogota, however we didn’t stick around, landing we jumped on a collectivo bus North to Tunja in the mountains, we used this a base to stayed the night, in a dump of a hotel close to the bus station – on entering the owner looked startled to see us, we don’t think he’s had many guests in a long while. It was so cold, my feet were like blocks of ice, the all season sleeping bags had to make an appearance to get us through the night. Setting the alarm for 5am, we headed to catch our bus, the first one to Villa de Leyva..
Villa de Leyva
After getting acquainted with the town, we hired some bikes and headed out into the countryside, it was brilliant, with lots of places to stop off and visit. We stopped at the Museo el Fosil, dedicated to one giant swimming dinosaur fossil and several thousand ammonites, it was really interesting. Next stop was a winery, Colombian wine is something I’ve not tasted before, and there’s a reason for that, it was like paint stripper, anyway the views were amazing, and with a big plate of cheese, we managed to drink the Cabernet Sauvignon, but we had to leave the Sauvignon Blanc.
From here we headed to a town where a lady had recommended a restaurant for a famous meaty dish, I was pretty full from my cheese fill, but Tom ordered a plate…
After a knackering ride back, I think we cycled 40 miles in total we arrived back to Villa de Leyva. It was Friday night so we headed to the main square for a few beers, joining the locals as they did the same. On the way back to the hostel (which was pristine and just lovely and cost us £5 per night) we saw a lady selling empanada’s in a hole in the wall, made to order. Wow! They were amazing, I think we must have consumed about six each, if not more, and they came in at around 0.15p each… Bargain!
The next day, we raced to catch the only bus that day out of Villa De Leyva, with seconds to spare! Packed on like sardines, literally 30 people in a people carrier that has 12 seats, we were on our way further North to San Gill. Now it’s quite hilly and the roads are none exsistant, gravel, stones and mud, the van didn’t sound in a good way, he was struggling to get it into gear, needless to say, 20 minutes into our journey the gear shaft went and the van broke down – so we were all turfed out in the middle of nowhere and we waited 30 minutes for a replacement.
Here we did white water rafting on Rio Suarez, I’d wanted to do it on a Cat 5 river (Whitewater, large waves, large volume, possibility of large rocks and hazards)and this was just that. After signing our life away on the disclaimer forms, literally, even going as far to not only sign it but leave your finger print, we set off to the river. The operator we did it with were the Columbia rafting team, so we felt like we were in safe hands. It was an amazing experience, really exhilarating and fun, we didn’t lose anyone from our boat but on the last set of rapids the boat in front lost 3 members, we pulled one of them into our boat and he looked pretty shaken up….! Having already done it before I knew what to expect, Tom enjoyed it too, we’re already planning to do in Chile. (Photos to follow)
San Gill wasn’t the prettiest of towns, but it had a nice town square which was filled with an abundance of street vendors, who came out late afternoon with their hot coals, selling skewers of steak, chicken, chirizo all served with a potato on top. They worked out at 0.20p a skewer and you could grab a cool beer for around the same price from the corner shop – needless to say this is what we ate every night for the duration of our stay.
On one of the days we headed out of San Gill to Swim in the natural pools and waterfalls of El Balneario de Pescaderito, a 30 minute bus journey and then an hour’s walk, where we passed by small villages.
Leaving San Gill we headed even further North to Barrichara, a really quaint town and renown by many as being the my beautiful town in the whole of Colombia’. When we arrived we were greeted by a white wash Colonial town, bright sunlight bounced off terracotta roofs which was matched by by striking bright orange clay fields. A mountainous backdrop and an abundance of warm weather flora and fauna topped off the picture postcard look of the town.
We checked into this lovely place that overlooked the valley, it was idyllic, what’s more the shower to our room was secluded yet outside on the balcony, so whilst showering you could look out on to the valley and soak up the vista.
Having spent some time walking around and photographing Barrichara, especially from the upper area of the town to capture the rooftop vistas, we embarked upon a gentle hike to the nearby town of Guana. During this journey we got our first real taste of Andean countryside and Colombia’s version is beautiful and lush. We could have spent forever exploring the rocky old roads that meander through the green fields and colourful countryside to link villages that are forgotten by everyone but their inhabitants.
Leaving the countryside behind, we headed to further North to Bucaramanga, the capital city of the department of Santander – passing through in the taxi, it was not the most attractive of places, our overnight stop here consisted of us walking to the nearest broaster (A rotisserie chicken place), to get our evening meal. The next day we picked up our flight back to Medellin where we spent another 4 days there, before picking up our flight to Peru.
To summarise, we loved Columbia, a mecca of everything! The people went out of their way to make you feel welcome, the food was fabulous (and ridiculously cheap) and the landscapes was stunning, and despite all the warnings, we both felt really safe there. A country ravaged by cartels and the marching powder, making headlines for all the wrong reasons has tried tirelessly to rid itself of its reputation, which in parts of the country it has, and its now slowly turning itself around. It’s no wonder, all the Colombians want you to do, is love the country they love so much, and to tell your friends. And that’s just what we plan to do. I would highly recommend. All hail Columbia….
Now it might sound cliche, but for me nothing beats that exciting feeling of planning your next adventure, absorbing the scenery, devouring delicious new cuisines, whilst capturing it all through photography, be it a city break, a weekend camping in the UK or a destination far away. Now I don’t know if this is true, but I was once told, that the average human only sees a mere 6% of the world, now I am sure you can do the math, but that’s a whole 94% of the world that goes unseen – crazy I know!!
This statistic has always stayed with me, so it comes as no surprise that myself (Sarah) and partner Tom, have finally taken the plunge, rented the house out, sold our trusty car, eBayed the majority of our prized possessions, and are finally (after what seems like a stressful few months of consistent organising) ready and waiting to pack our final few belongings into our bags, get on a plane to Canada to start our 8-month journey through the Americas, all the way down to Ushuaia.