Bogota and Villa de Leyva

I have basically abandoned this blog since I got home, despite having the final few days still to write about! I’ve been busy, and it feels weird writing here when I’m home! But anyway. Here goes, the last few days of our epic journey.

We flew to Bogota from Santa Marta – just staying two nights at first. Bogota is nice, but huge and really spread out. It was difficult to find restaurants in the evening near where we were staying, although it was really busy during the day. We did a little wandering and finding our bearings the first day, then the second day we were really busy. We spent the morning in the gold museum, which has more gold than I’ve ever seen before, and an emerald that I was told was “huge” so I was expecting something giant. It was actually about fist-sized. Which I guess is pretty big for an emerald. In the afternoon we did a bike tour of Bogota, which was fun although a little frustrating, as the guide kept starting talking before the whole group had caught up.

The following day we took a bus to Villa de Leyva – this involved a few hours of sitting in the hottest stuffiest bus station ever, but the bus was pleasant enough. Villa de Leyva is a colonial town that looks basically untouched. Unfortunately, I ate something dodgy and ended up – not really sick, but unwell, so I had a pretty sad time there. Michael went on a short hike and took some great photos. We ate lovely food (apart from the dodgy meal at the start) but I wasn’t as appreciative as I might have been. We also did some wandering around the little tourist shops and bought a few gifts (but not many, as we are poor backpackers).

We had three more nights left in Bogota after Villa de Leyva and we spent these in a hotel (as opposed to a hostel), in a more up-market area than before – with restaurants in easy reach. We spent a day in a modern shopping centre (and got soaked walking back!) and a day visiting the Salt Cathedral 45 minutes outside the city. I loved this place – it’s a giant church carved out of an old salt mine. It’s got stations of the cross carved along the tunnel as you walk in and they’re gorgeous too. Apparently they only do Mass there at Christmas, which would be really cool if anyone is in Bogota around then. There was also a free light show with our guided tour, which was a nice way to end things.

The final day was just spent hanging out in a cafe, packing up and eating lunch before we went to the airport. And of course we ended with slight airport drama, in the form of the world’s longest queue for baggage drop. We were queuing for about 90 minutes, and despite us getting to the airport in plenty of time so that we’d have a chance to eat and do some shopping, we had time for none of that and ended up having to get straight on the plane once we’d gotten through security.

And now we’re home – which feels crazy. And also like we’ve never been away. It’s nice to have family and friends and Milo home comforts and be able to eat what I want when I want. But it was an amazing experience that I’m so glad to have had.

Thank you all for reading.

The Caribbean Coast

We flew from Medellin to Cartagena, as the bus was to take forever, was supposed to be quite uncomfortable and it was only marginally more expensive. Cartagena is a walled city on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia – and it is beautiful. Or at least, the walled part of the city is. We were staying just outside – a 5 minute walk away – and the place we were staying was a little rougher around the edges. It’s the only place I’ve felt nervous in Colombia really. But the old city was beautiful and felt extremely safe.

It was much much hotter and more humid than we’d been dealing with for the past few weeks which was tough going at times. We are pale and Irish and not made for hot climates! We tried to book a walking tour, but apparently the tour guide is no longer allowed to do official tours as she doesn’t have the proper paperwork. She offered to do a “secret” tour, but I’m too nervous of Colombian law so we didn’t! On the first full day we were there, we did a chiva tour instead – you go around on an open bus and they show you the main sights. It was quite fun, even though the Spanish explanations for things seemed to take twice or three times as long as the English explanations, so I’m pretty sure they got extra information and jokes. My Spanish isn’t up to the speed and accent of coastal Colombia. Even the words I know I know sound totally different – including the numbers, which makes everything confusing! Anyway. We visited the old Spanish castle – which has some awesome defensive features (the picture of me with the old man’s arms around me is him demonstrating one of these!) – and the monastery, and visited the old town at the end, including a little talk about emeralds. The following day, we wandered around the old town, visited the Museum of the Inquisition (and looked at some lovely instruments of torture!) and wilted in the heat.

We also had some beautiful meals in Cartagena, although one dinner was punctuated by a mouse running out of the kitchen, through the restaurant and out the door. Something that would have you out the door yourself in Ireland – after 5 months backpacking, you just sort of shrug and get on with eating and smile at the waiter who looks slightly bemused, but not worried either. It was a gorgeous dinner.

Our next stop was Palomino, a tiny fishing village about 6 hours further east. We’d debated the pros and cons of Tayrona and Taganga, both meccas for backpackers but decided that Palomino sounded a bit more what was required – Taganga sounded a little too cocaine-fuelled and dirty, while Tayrona sounded amazing, but maybe a bit too rustic. Palomino was perfect. We took a shuttle to Santa Marta and then a local bus to Palomino – about another hour and a half. It was a slightly uncomfortable journey – they shoved our bags on the roof and I was mildly nervous about their safety the whole way, the bus had no air con, so they solved this by just leaving all the doors open, and it seemed to have trouble starting every time it stopped. But we got there – and were immediately dragged onto motorbike-taxis (one each) to bring us to the hostel! I’ve never been on a motorbike before, and to be on one with a 15kg backpack, a valuable daypack and no helmet wasn’t exactly in the plan, but he went pretty slow and it was actually quite fun.

The hostel was like a resort and was amazing. Gorgeous pool, beautiful beach (although you can’t swim), cheap cocktails and friendly people to play cards with. We basically just read all day. I think I read 9 books in the 3 days we were there! The hostel provided all the food too, and it was lovely, but did get a bit samey after a while. I also had to spend a lot of it a bit dosed up, as I somehow managed to get a cold/sinus thing at some point. But Colombia is pretty good for super strong painkillers, so it’s all good! We spent one night in Santa Marta after this, before catching a flight to Bogota – our last flight before our flights home!

Medellin

We arrived to Medellin on a very nice bus, thankfully – it even had wifi intermittently and TV screens in the seat backs! The TVs only showed movies dubbed into Spanish, but it was still a very comfortable journey. Our hostel was equally lovely, big spacious room with a flat screen TV showing loads of American TV shows – I got obsessed with this one show about a guy who came to rescue people from their crazy cats. A bit like SuperNanny for cats, it was nuts. Anyway. We didn’t just watch TV in Medellin!

We slept late the first morning as it had been a few days of early starts, and that afternoon did a walking tour. We have done walking tours in every big city we’ve been in and this was the best one. The guide, Pablo, was so funny and enthusiastic and knowledgeable and it was really really well done. We went to the typical tourist sites as well as the places that tourists are told NOT to go, watching tourists take photos of Medellin’s landmarks, prostitutes ply their trade in front of the churches, people dancing salsa in the main square, people smoking crack in a lesser square (again in front of a church!). It was an amazing view of the “real” Medellin – as well as the best anti-drugs manifesto I ever heard… in not at all a preachy way. But if you ever buy cocaine in Ireland after listening to Pablo describe how the cocaine trade ripped apart his country and made him and his friends grow up in fear, you’ve a harder heart than I do. I mean, we were standing in one place where a busy market was blown up in the 90s, killing several people, including a 7-year-old girl… and that’s what’s bringing you your high. Not to mention the gangland crime in our own country. Anyway, the mayor has done an amazing job cleaning up the city and reclaiming the no-go areas through democratic architecture and it was an amazing tour. We enjoyed it so much that we signed up to do other tour as well, two days later. The following day we went to this super hipster cafe and had the most amazing breakfast, before taking a metro and cable car ride over the city… Fabulous views, at least on the way there, as on the way back it got very wet and overcast, so we were lucky in our timing. There is a park with nature walks and activities at the end of the line, but we didn’t partake in any of that, as we’d arrived quite late in the day and were getting a bit grumpy and hungry.

The following day we had an early start with our second tour – this was a fruit tour. Our guide took us into a market in the centre of Medellin and we got to sample nineteen different fruits, the majority of which I’d never even heard of before. Many of them were very sour and many of them were very weird! But it was so cool to hear about them and taste them, as I’d often walked through the markets before and not have a clue what was on sale. I was always a bit scared to buy stuff in case I ate it wrong or it needed to be cooked or something! Again, very enjoyable and our guide was fantastic. That afternoon we gave in to my inner child and visited Parque Explora, which is this amazingly cool science museum. Outside they have giant model dinosaurs and machines to play on to explore various scientific concepts. They have an aquarium specialising in native species, and a smaller vivarium with insects and spiders. They also had an amazing interactive exhibit on the brain, which I loved, as lots of the concepts were familiar to me from the psychology course, and another with more random interactive exhibits. It was a place where I would stay all day, I loved it. It would have been way more fun had the signage in English been complete, but only some of the signs were in English. I would love for something like that at home. The Science Gallery is cool, but it was the Science Gallery on a giant scale. We’d intended to go to the Botanical Gardens that evening, but we’d stayed so long in the park that it was closed. We had a lazy day the following day, as we were quite tired and a bit coldy, our only real outing being the Botanical Gardens, and the next day was our last. We managed to catch most of the rugby, before getting our flight to Cartagena.

I really really loved Medellin. It’s been the only city on our whole trip where I’ve felt like I could really stay for an extended period of time. This was largely because of the people. They were RIDICULOUSLY nice. Some examples: in one of the so-called dodgy areas on our walking tour, we must have looked lost, as a man crossed the street to come over to us and in a mix of English and Spanish tried to give us directions; in the subway, I delayed a lady and stood on her and when I apologised, she smiled and apologised to me; in the subway, I looked at the map and said something about it to Michael and instantly a young guy took off his headphones and asked if we needed help to find our way… these people are genuinely amazing. The weather was also lovely, warm but not too hot and a little rain to remind me of home… AND I found an authentic Thai restaurant. Perfect! If I ever have to skip the country that’s where I’m headed!

Colombia begins…

I had been led to believe that the journey from Quito to the Colombian border and beyond would be hazardous and the border queues would be long and hassle-filled. Now the journey was certainly not comfortable, as the bus had zero leg room and no air con and there really appear to be no rules of the road in either Ecuador or Colombia and overtaking long lorries on blind bends on mountain roads is a national pastime… but it wasn’t dangerous and the border crossing was very smooth. I even had a laugh with the border official. We weren’t searched or questioned; our passports were stamped and that was it.

First night in Colombia was spent in Pasto, where all we did was eat dinner and go to sleep – and then left for Popayan the following morning. Popayan is a very pretty colonial town and we spent some time wandering around the old buildings and churches. It’s not hugely touristy yet, which in some ways is nice, but makes it a little difficult to get a good variety of food. Our next stop was Cali, taken by yet another incredibly uncomfortable bus. I was a little nervous of this city, as it has a bit of a name for robberies, but we were staying in a lovely area and my fears were unfounded, thankfully. There is a good zoo in Cali, so we spent a morning there, before wandering around the old town again. We were actually quite tired with all the buses and so on, so quite a bit of time in both Cali and Popayan was spent just relaxing, which was quite nice. Unfortunately in Cali a mosquito got at me and I spent some of the time there in misery, as they swelled up like crazy and I had to find a pharmacist to help me out.  I was worried about them for a bit, but they’ve settled down now.

Our next stop was Salento, a town in the middle of Colombia’s coffee zone. Finally a pleasant journey, as our bus was super comfortable. I was actually disappointed when we arrived in Armenia, where we had to catch a connecting bus to Salento. It was here that we had our first real taste of amazing Colombian hospitality – we weren’t sure where to find the Salento bus, and a random man saw us looking confused and took us under his wing, found our bus, chatted to the driver to make sure it was correct and deposited us safely. All this without any English and with no desire for money. So nice.

Salento was pretty awesome. We did a tour of a coffee farm and I drank black coffee for the first time in my life probably – and actually really liked it! I helped grind the beans, so I’m sure my input had something to do with it! We also did a hike into the Cocora Valley (despite me saying I would never hike again – I was seduced by the hummingbirds…) It wasn’t an easy walk but most of it was enjoyable, apart from one really steep part. And anything with hummingbirds is worth it. I love them. Transport in the town is former World War 2 jeeps, which was a cool novelty in itself. Also there was a fantastic restaurant there that does relatively authentic Indian curry! I really really really miss curry, so that was amazing to find in a tiny town.

Our next stop was Medellin, where we went on another uber-comfy bus (this time with wifi and TV screens in the seat backs!) and where I LOVED. But that’s for the next post.

Galapagos

What can I even say about the Galapagos. Hands down, highlight of the trip. I feel like words aren’t even worthy of how amazing it was, so I’m going to write a relatively short blog and let the pictures speak for themselves.

We booked our trip on Christmas Eve with Sangay Touring in Quito (extremely helpful company if anyone is searching) and flew to the Galapagos on the 12th of January. Our boat was called the Eden, and while our cabin was tiny, that was really my only (also tiny) complaint for the whole trip. Our guide (Cheche) was fantastic, the crew were lovely, the yacht was spotlessly clean and comfortable (slight seasickness aside!), the food was gorgeous and our shipmates were fabulous! Everyone was so so nice.

And the islands themselves. Just wow. They have no fear whatsoever, you literally have to keep looking down on the ground to make sure you’re not stepping on a baby sea lion or an iguana. Blue footed boobies, frigate birds, pelicans, penguins, iguanas, seals, sea lions, everywhere… We saw the giant tortoises (and I even became one – see the pictures!) and saw a humpback whale in the distance! I also snorkelled for the first time and was very and extremely brave…! I got to snorkel with turtles, sharks, penguins, flightless cormorants, amazing fish, seals, sea lions and… DOLPHINS.

Literally that was a dream come true for me. The previous day we’d seen hundreds (not an exaggeration!) of dolphins jumping beside the boat. Then we were on our last snorkel of the trip, looking for (and finding) sharks and suddenly Cheche yelled that he could see dolphins and we jumped back in the dinghy and sped over. I forgot all my fear of deep water and was the first to jump in – and was literally surrounded by dolphins. Beside me, under me, all around me. I could hear them make their high pitched noises. They were close enough to touch. They quickly swam away and sadly loads of the others completely missed them. I was so lucky. Most amazing thing ever. :)

Cheche took some awesome videos and pictures under the water. I’ve shared some of the photos (including a very flattering picture of me in a wetsuit…), but the videos are too big, so I’ll probably plague you all with them when I get home!

We were on the boat for 7 nights and while it sounds like a long time, I really didn’t want to leave. I would go again in a heartbeat and I advise anyone with the chance to go to take it. But we had to go back to Quito so we could take the epic journey into Colombia the following day. More to follow!

Quilotoa Loop

Hi all, Michael here. So, when Kate left off the last blog we’d arrived in the town of Latacunga – not the most interesting place in itself but it is the starting point for the Quilotoa Loop. The Quilotoa Loop is a route going through a number of remote Andean villages, travelling either by bus or hiking between villages. The highlight is Laguna Quilotoa, a huge lake set in a volcanic crater. As Kate decided she was going to sit this little sidetrip out (coming out, as she was, in a rash at the mere mention of hiking), I was going solo for a few days.

I started the trip by getting the bus from Latacunga to the little village of Isinlivi, which was an experience in itself being the only Gringo on the bus. I stayed the night in the lovely Llullu Llama hostel, a converted traditional farmhouse, before setting out on the 11km hike to Chugchilan the following morning. From there I would hike on to Quilotoa the following day before getting the afternoon bus back to Latacunga.

Now, the thing about hiking on the Quilotoa Loop is that the trails are poorly signed, if at all, so it’s not too hard to get lost. But the hostels give printouts of pretty detailed instructions (complete with pictures in one case!) so what could go wrong? Well, not too much on the first day but I did spend about 30 minutes at one stage walking up and down the trail looking for a turnoff that didn’t seem to exist before finally finding it.

The second day turned out to be a bit more problematic. The first part of the hike was down to the bottom of a canyon and then back up. According to the directions I got there should be no confusion going back up the canyon as there was only one trail, leading up from a bridge at the bottom of the canyon. Well, I definitely took a wrong turn somewhere, as when I got to the bottom of the canyon there was no bridge and no trail going up the other side of the canyon. So, I was left with going back up the way I’d come down and starting from scratch or walking along the base of the canyon to try and find my way back to where I was supposed to be. Perhaps not too sensibly I decided on the latter, and spent a slightly anxious 45 minutes clambering over small boulders until I eventually found the bridge and the path I was supposed to be on. I was getting visions at one stage of a sequel to 127 Hours being made about my story, as if anything happened to be down there, there was nobody finding me any time soon!

From there I managed to keep my bearings but it was a pretty tough hike, going up from 2800m to 4000m at Quilotoa. The last part of the hike, around the rim of the crater was particularly tough but worth it for the amazing views.

The whole hike was a great experience, through canyons and along cliffs to small traditional highland villages and farmsteads. Some parts of it actually reminded of a slightly more extreme version of parts of Ireland, with the greenery and landscapes, not to mention the intermittent drizzle! It definitely felt like getting off the usual tourist trail (though all the guidebooks mention it as a highlight of Ecuador), as I only met a handful of other people along the way – all really interesting people.

After the Quilotoa Loop and Latacunga, we made our way to Canoa, a small hippyish beach town on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. We just spent the few days there chilling out on the beach and in the sea, along with the odd cocktail. We had planned to take a surfing lesson but I ended up getting sick (again!) so we had to knock that on the head. We’re back in Quito now, preparing for our trip to the Galapagos tomorrow, which is bound to be one of the highlights of our time here.

New Year in Banos

We decided to head to Banos for New Year, after it appeared that (a) everyone in our Christmas hostel was going there for New Year and (b) the Internet promised it was a cool place. And it was! We arrived on December 30th and checked in. The first night in the hostel wasn’t great, as a family of rampaging kids and shouty adults kept us awake til 1am… which would have been fine if the same family hadn’t woken at 5am and started shouting and rampaging again! Argh! Luckily they checked out that day.

In a slightly grumpy and sleep-deprived state, we headed to Casa del Arbol. This was something we found totally by chance, as it’s not mentioned in any guidebook we consulted and they don’t advertise it in town. Luckily, I was checking TripAdvisor.com and spotted it. It’s a treehouse built on the top of a hill, with a long swing that swings out over the descent of the hill. I’d seen pictures on the Internet, in memes and top ten lists of “super cool places” and while I knew it was in Ecuador, I assumed it was somewhere relatively inaccessible. But no! It happened to be in the very place we were going anyway. So naturally I was very excited and didn’t hesitate to queue up with a bunch of kids to ride on the swing. :) Michael was a little more restrained and waited for the adults to start queuing. And then I queued again. Because I’m a big child and it was awesome. It felt like flying.

New Year’s Eve ended up being pretty fun. First I got to Skype my family who were all a little merry, and ring in the Irish New Year. Then we had a nice meal, spending a little more on it than we have been, and then popped to the Leprechaun Bar (not an Irish bar despite the name) for a cocktail, where we were greeted with free flaming shots and ended up meeting some new friends and bumping into some people from our old hostel. The real New Year party was on the streets, however. Banos is crazy! All day men had been going around dressed up as women and there were kids in costume – and all the bar staff were dressed up. They had effigies attached to their cars and as New Year approached, they lit bonfires and threw the effigies on, sometimes with firecrackers attached. Apparently it’s their way of saying goodbye to all the bad things that happened in the previous year. It’s like a crazy mix of New Year, Guy Fawkes Day and Halloween. But it was really fun.

The following day we were supposed to go paragliding, but there was a mix up in the dates, so we ended up visiting the thermal springs that give Banos its name. It wasn’t actually very pleasant. We’ve been to a few thermal springs now and this was the worst. I don’t know if it was just that it was crowded because it was New Year’s Day, but it was just packed and seemed kind of dirty. The following day was much more fun – we started it with a massage and finished in the afternoon with paragliding – with an active volcano in the background, just to make the photos extra cool! Paragliding isn’t even slightly as scary as it seems… I thought it would be a crazy adrenaline rush, but it’s actually not. It’s super relaxing. When you’re up it just seems really chilled and calm. I went first and when I was watching Michael and the others in our group go, it seemed way scarier than doing it myself. I was sitting watching going “I didn’t do that high!” and “I didn’t go that far!” but I was reassured that indeed I had. I’d definitely do it again.

Our next stop was Latacunga, where Michael was set on doing the Quilotoa Loop – it’s a 3 day hike thing – and I was set to NOT do the hike (because ugh hiking, and also because I had a sore shoulder) and spend some alone time in the hostel! So the next blog will be from Michael, which I’m sure will be very exciting for everyone.