Tag Archives: ancient volcanos

Costa Rica – Adventures

With an official end date to my Latin American adventures quickly approaching I’ve had to make some hard decisions. One of these was to only spend a week in Costa Rica, this being on the basis that it’s the most expensive country in Central America.

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From David in Panama, I caught a bus to Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. The bus ride was around eight hours including the border crossing, which wasn’t as stressful as I was led to believe. Like Panama, when entering the country ‘proof of exit’ is required. This time I had a fake booking set up but was not asked for it.

San Jose isn’t as influenced by the US as Panama City is, and since my plan was to stay in the city only two nights I didn’t spend a lot of time exploring the city beyond finding a restaurant and a supermarket. This still took me past a municipal building.

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Soon after arriving, I arranged for a full day tour to see as much as I could in the short time I was here. I confirmed the time of pick up and was prepared for the early start. The next morning the tour operator arrived 30 minutes early and when I wasn’t ready, left without me. This led me to wonder if I’d heard the wrong time. When the staff member at the hostel arrived for the morning, he confirmed that I had been correct and set about getting my money back. He booked me on another tour for the following day, a cheaper one, with the difference in price covering the cost of another night in the hostel.

The next morning the tour operator arrived at the correct time and we were off. First stop was the ruins of the Temple of the Santiago Apostle Parish. The building of the temple began in 1870 but stalled after an earthquake destroyed part of it. Building again began several years later but again stalled because of another earthquake. This happened several times over the course of 40 years until in 1910 when it was decreed that God didn’t wish the temple built and construction was abandoned.

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Our next stop was Volcán Irazú, the tallest active volcano in Costa Rica. As we drove to the top, the cone was shrouded in clouds so it was unclear if we’d be able to see much. At the top the crater was barely visible through the mist and we put on rain jackets to save getting wet. Like Volcán Barú in Panama, Volcán Irazú can sometimes give views of both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, but today was not one of those rare days. The clouds cleared enough after 10 minutes and we finally got to see the crater.

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After the volcano visit, the tour headed to a restaurant for breakfast then north across the continental divide to the Caribbean side of the country. After a couple of hours in the bus we stopped at Rio Puerto Veijo and got on a river boat for a 90 minute cruise along the river.

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On the trip we spied plentiful birds, including the rare Red Macaw – which are often poached and sold on the black market for US$30,000 each. We then encountered a lone Iguana sitting in the bushes on the side of the river…

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There were also sightings of a Sloth and its baby asleep in high boughs…

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Then a lone Caiman about the length of my arm. Caimans have no ridges along their backs and are much smaller than their larger cousins…

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We heard several Howler Monkeys, although only caught glimpses in the trees. Then small camouflaged micro-bats on the trunk of a tree and lastly, Crocodiles. This one is about three metres long.

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We then stopped at an animal sanctuary that houses poisonous frogs, an Asper snake and a butterfly conservatory. The poisonous frogs were the most interesting. There were two varieties, one black with luminous green spots about the size of your big toenail, and the other tiny and red about the size of your little fingernail. Their poison was used in blow guns by natives of Latin America. Lunch was a traditional Costa Rican meal but included Iguana, which like crocodile, tastes very like chicken. Then it was a 2 hour bus ride back to the hostel.

The following day, I caught a bus to the northern city of Liberia, a hub of tourism in Costa Rica. Like many Costa Rican cities, it has a more modern church…

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During the couple of days I stayed, I made my way to Playa del Coco – Coco Beach, which is a touristy beach town set on the Pacific Ocean. As much of Costa Rica is tropical, even in winter, I enjoyed a swim in the cool waters of the ocean.

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For my last day in the country, I visited Llanos de Cortez waterfall where myself and three women from the hostel enjoyed swimming. This is just one of the many waterfalls in the area…

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Next I head to the beach town of San Juan del Sur in southern Nicaragua.

The World Wanderer

Volcán Barú, Panama

Barely 37km from the border of Costa Rica is Panama’s tallest mountain, Volcán Barú. At just under 3,500m, it’s still considered high altitude but is really just a molehill compared to 6,000m tall mountains of Andes. Volcán Barú is commonly climbed for the rare possibility of seeing both the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Caribbean sea to the north. It’s rare because the view to the Caribbean is often blocked by a layer of clouds.

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There’s two ways to the top of Volcán Barú, either taking a 4×4 vehicle tour or to hike. The hike is difficult and long at 13km from the trailhead to the peak (with a 1,750 climb in altitude) before 13km back again. What makes it a challenge is most people begin climbing at midnight, aiming to see the sunrise from the summit after walking 6 hours in the dark. Hiking 26km makes for a long day at the best of times, but beginning at midnight makes it just nasty. I even tried to nap in the afternoon, but only managed an hour, which was nowhere near enough.

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Getting to the trail head is fairly easy, with one of the hostels offering transport for US$5. Then after a very short briefing, we were pointed off along a wide track and told to just keep climbing no matter what forks in the trail we see. Except for 3 short descents, the 13km was a steady climb along the wide rocky trail. When you’re hiking at night all you have is your head torch and the ground directly ahead of you to look at.

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We were lucky to be walking under the full moon, so it wasn’t always necessary to use the head lamps. But even in daylight there would be little to see, as there are trees along both sides of the trail. We did come to several locations where we looked down upon the township of Boquete. The lights were beautiful but fleeting and too distant for good photos.

Getting to the summit for sunrise was not my aim, so I took is more slowly. When sunrise did hit, I was still half a kilometre from the summit but was able to watch it, seeing the same view as I would have from the top.

Unfortunately it was around this point where altitude sickness struck. It felt like someone had split my head in half and prodded at the insides with their fingers. As I climbed the last of the trail to the radio tower buildings at the top it grew worse and I started to feel ill.

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The last 500 metres was steeper than the rest and when I made it to the top I found the howling wind rough. I found a secluded spot and put on some warm clothing. When dressed, I looked around the buildings and took photos of the surrounds.

To the south was the city of David and the islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui beyond.

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To the west, Costa Rica.

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On the other side, I discovered the buildings were not at the absolute summit, as there was a rocky outcrop that climbed perhaps 30m higher. To get to the top was a rocky scramble, but with the state of my head and stomach I decided against it. The cross on top is the highest point in the country.

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From the northern side of the summit I was out of luck with seeing the Caribbean sea but instead clouds fading away into the distance.

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While I sat huddled out of the wind, one of the girls from my hostel found me and sat with me while I brewed a cup of tea using my hiking stove.

The walk down was very long but straightforward. The trail descends for most of its length except for three points where it climbs. Half way up the first and longest of the three climbs, my tiredness gave out and I lay down on a large rock for a power nap, letting my friend walk on alone. I woke forty minutes later slightly refreshed and no longer feeling the altitude.

The rest of the walk was more of a stagger although I did manage to catch my friend again. We discovered there were many wild flowers growing along the trail but was too exhausted to take photos beyond this one…

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We passed some of the lookouts and caught daylight glimpse of Boquete…

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We eventually made it to the end of the trail and exhausted, booked a taxi through the ranger before being whisked away back to the hostel for a shower and a well deserved sleep.

Overall, the hike up Volcán Barú was okay. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t suffered altitude sickness at the end and if we’d started at a more reasonable time. While walking at night was fine – it’s cooler out of the sun and there isn’t much to see anyway – the main difficulty is the length. To make the hike more enjoyable, I would make it a two-day hike, camping just below the summit, climbing to see the sunrise early on morning two before the long walk back again.

The Lone Trail Wanderer.

Boquete, Panama – Impressions.

Nestled in the mountain plains 60km from the border of Costa Rica is the mountain town of Boquete (‘Boc-ket-e’). At 1,200 metres above sea level, the township is cooler than the rest of Panama and this makes it a popular holiday destination for both locals and travellers alike. It’s also one of the leading retirement locations for US citizens outside of the United States.

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Boquete is next to Parque Nacional Volcán Barú and is the primary starting point for those who wish to climb the volcano, the tallest mountain in Panama. The mountains around Boquete contain many short trails but the only real hike is the volcano climb, although it’s not the best of hikes as there’s little to see along its 26km length.

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Every year in mid-January Boquete hosts a flower and coffee festival that runs for ten days. It’s a very popular occasion with people coming from all over the country to party late into the night at the dance hall. Feriado Las Flores y del Cafe – literal translation: Holiday Flowers and Coffee.

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The fiesta is less crowded during the day, which allows better access to see the impressive flower displays.

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There are plenty of things to do in Boquete besides hiking and the festival, these include horse riding, visiting coffee plantations and farms, and the Aguas Calientes – hot springs.

For $2 you can spend all day on the property where several pools have been crudely set up. The crudeness gives it character, and if you get too hot there’s a river nearby to cool off in.

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Overall, Boquete has a vibrant energy about it and is a great place to hide away from Panama’s year round heat.

Next, I cross the border into Costa Rica to the capital of San José.

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 3 – Northern South America

Peru

As I left Bolivia I made my way around Lake Titicaca and along the Andes to Cusco, capital city of the Inca Empire more than 600 hundred years ago. Cusco was built in the image of the Puma, a holy symbol of the Incas.

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Cusco’s a popular tourist destination because of it’s closeness to Machu Picchu. To get to the ruins many people walk one of the expensive hikes in the region: the infamous Inca Trail, The Salkantay Trek or The Jungle Trek. While these hikes are said to be amazing, the expense and length of time needed to prebook put me off. Instead I caught the train to Aguas Caliente, the township at the base of Machu Picchu mountain, and climbed the near 2000 steps to the ruins. At altitude, these steps are still hard going. The ruins felt like Disneyland because of the huge number of tourists but it was still beautiful to behold…

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After Cusco, I travelled to the city of Arequipa, the southernmost city of Peru. Near Arequipa is the county’s third most popular destination, Colca Canyon. Colca Canyon is one of the largest canyon’s in the world, twice as deep as The Grand Canyon. The hiking there is very cheap and doesn’t require a guide. I explored the canyon for three days, including the final climb, a kilometre straight up.

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After Arequipa I headed down from the Andes for a time, stopping at Huacachina, a small town near the ocean renown for its massive sand dunes. I spent an afternoon sand boarding down the slopes.

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Next was a visit to the capital, Lima. I stayed in the tourist zone of Miraflores which felt like I was in the centre of any other city in the world. I then moved to the historical centre and this was more to my liking with great architecture and a distinct lack of tourists.

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I continued north and back into the Andes to the city of Huaraz nestled between the Cordilleras Blanca and Negra. From Huaraz a group of us hiked the four-day Santa Cruz trek, with one of the hardest climbs I’ve ever completed.

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From Huaraz, I made my way to the far northern coast and the country’s second most visited destination, Mancora. Mancora is a beach town where I stayed for four days in a cabaña 20 metres from the Pacific Ocean. After the Santa Cruz hike, it was great to just sit and enjoy the beach for a few days.

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Ecuador

I left Peru and headed across the border to Ecuador’s capital, Quito, where I made plans to visit the Galapagos Islands. Two days later I was on a plane – my first since arriving in South America – and a few hours later landed on the famous archipelago. After booking a four-day cruise around the islands, I made friends with a Uruguayan guy at the hostel and spent the days prior to the cruise exploring Santa Cruz island with him, including a great swimming hole and the Giant Tortoise sanctuary.

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The cruise was amazing, I enjoyed snorkelling through the icy waters and swimming with penguins, fur seals, sea lions and sea turtles. On land there were many bird species including Blue Footed Boobies, the smaller water iguanas and the large land Iguanas.

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Back in Quito, I met some friends at the hostel and explored the city with them, including some amazing architecture, the original site of the equator and the newer more technologically accurate equatorial site. I had also prearranged with some locals to hang out with and spent a week enjoyed their company.

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With my friends from the hostel, I headed north for a weekend to the adventure town Minca buried in the rainforest, where we hung out with Hummingbirds, zip lined ourselves crazy and generally enjoyed our stay.

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Next, two of us travelled south to the city of Riobamba where we hiked to the amazing crater lake of a collapsed volcano called El Altar. Most hiking in Ecuador must be done with a guide, but the two of us enjoyed the three-day hike without one.

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Then we headed south to the southern city of Cuenca where my friend headed into Peru and I explored Ingapirca, the ruins of an Incan Fortress.

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Colombia

Then it was back to Quito for a last few days before I headed north into Colombia, to the city of Cali where I stayed for three days. I explored the city via a walking tour, learning its history, and climbed one of the hills to the local statue of Christ.

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From Cali I headed north via a very winding mountain road where the bus driver thought he was formula one driver. After the humidity in Cali, Bogota was cold. I’d prearranged to meet some people in Colombia’s capital and they were so friendly I stayed for three weeks to spend more time with them, including attending a huge Pop Culture Festival…S.O.F.A.

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Bogota is not well set up as a tourist destination but during my stay I caught a cable car up to a temple of the hill giving awesome views across the city.

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Then with general sadness at having to leave my friends in Bogota, I headed north to Medellin, a more popular city for tourists and home town of the late Pablo Escobar. I hung out at a New Zealand owned hostel and between a couple of nights partying I took a walking tour, both with a group and a separate one with a couple of guys from the hostel.

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Next I headed to Cartagena, a city on the Caribbean Sea where I hung out for a few days in the extreme humidity. Cartagena’s Old Town has a great stone wall around it that once protected it from pirate attacks 500 years ago. The entire old town is a world heritage site.

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Further along the coast is a small beach town of Taganga where I stayed for a few of days. It was a quiet little town away from the bustle of the larger Colombian cities.

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From Taganga I booked and walked the four-day jungle trek to find the Lost City, an amazing ruins of the local tribes that had been abandoned 500 years earlier. The trek was humid and sweaty, and this made the long climbs up clay trails more difficult. Swimming in the icy rivers were highlights of the sweaty days.

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After a couple of recovery days in Taganga, I headed back to Cartagena to say farewell to South America. After 9 and a half months of amazing adventure, it was sad to say farewell to the continent, although my travels were not yet at a conclusion. In Cartagena, I booked a cruise on a yacht with 11 others to make my way through the Caribbean Sea to Panama, and the beginning of my Central American adventures.

This will be an adventure I will never forget.

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 2 – Central South America

After a 20 hour bus ride from Patagonia, I arrived in Mendoza, Central Argentina. Mendoza is a wine region and boasts some of the best red wines in the world. While I wasn’t the biggest fan of red wine before, after my time in the city I was a Malbec convert. One of the fun things I did while in the City of Steak and Red Wine was to spend the day enjoying some aguas calientes, a set of hot pools near the city. While this might seem strange for a desert city, it was amazing and included a huge buffet lunch.

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Around Mendoza are several wine areas and the best way to see them is via bicycle tours. The wine was delicious and cycling around the area after many glasses of wine was both crazy and fun at the same time.

Beyond the vineyards, the tallest mountain of the Andes, Aconcagua.

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Next I caught a bus across Argentina to Cordoba, the country’s second largest city. While staying in the city I got out-of-town to Parque Nacional Quebrada del Condorito – Condor Gorge National Park – for a long day walk in the heat.

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Next I headed to the Buenos Aires and stayed in a different area of the capital from the beginning of my trip. As I knew I was heading back to the city, I made contact with a friend of a friend and organised to hang out with him and his friends while I was in the city. They were very friendly and I stayed in the city over two weeks to spend time with them.

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During my stay in Buenos Aires, I caught a ferry across the river to the Uruguayan city of Colonia. While I could have stayed in Uruguay longer I was happy to see the more expensive country for the day and get the stamp in my passport. I enjoyed learning about the city and the country in a guided tour.

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I then bused headed north for my final Argentinian destination, Puerto Iguazú. While the township was very touristy, it had good reason, Iguazú Falls is one of the more popularly visited places in the region. While it had been raining the day I visited the Argentinean side of the falls they were still like nothing I’d seen before. I even took a boat to get right up close to the spraying water.

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The following day, I took a bus across the border to the Brazilian side – Iguaçu Falls. While it’s the same set of falls, it’s a totally different sight and you get closer to the Devil’s Throat, a formation of rock that water pours into from three sides. Both Argentinian and Brazilian sides are a must see if travelling to this end of the world. It was then back across the border to Argentina for a final night before booking a bus to Rio de Janiero.

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After a 24 hour bus ride to Rio de Janeiro – the longest trip in a bus I would take – I found the city to be dirtier than expected. It also gave me a sense of danger I hadn’t experienced in either Argentina or Chile. I’d booked a cheap hostel near the location of Carnival and it turned out to be the smallest hostel I’ve ever stayed in, squeezing 18 people into the space most hostels would fit 6. It also only had one bathroom.

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The hostel aside, the natural wonders of Rio were amazing. I visited Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain and took a bicycle ride along both Ipanema and Copacobana beaches.

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I then took my second 24 hour bus ride to a city called Campo Grande in western Brazil for an overnight tour through Brazil’s Pantanal. The Pantanal is a vast swampy area south of the Amazon. It’s similar to the jungle in many ways, just without the trees. We spent the night on the border of Brazil and Paraguay (the closest I would get to the landlocked country). On arrival we ate Piranha, the mean looking faces leering up at us from the pot. The next morning, we took a boat trip along the river to fish for more Piranha…

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…and to see Caimans, smaller cousins of Alligators.

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Then it was over the border and into Bolivia. As soon as you enter it’s obvious that Bolivia is the poorest country on the continent. The roads are bad, the towns are dirty and the buses are owner operated family affairs and include the kids running up and down the aisles while badly dubbed Steven Segal movies are blasted very loudly. My first stop was the city of Santa Cruz, where I stayed at a brand new hostel for a couple of days before heading on to La Paz.

La Paz is a bustling city high in the Andes and when I arrived my head was exploding from the altitude. It only took a good night’s sleep to recover, thankfully. While the entirety of La Paz is terracotta in colour it grows on you as you explore the city centre and beyond. The lights at night are amazing up the walls of the bowl the city is built in.

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Using La Paz as a base, I had many adventures in Bolivia. For a start, you can’t come to the city without hearing about or doing Death Road. Death Road is a crazy stretch of dirt road 65km long and famous for the cliffs on one side with no barriers. It gets its name from the people who have plummeted to their deaths from it. Riding down it on a bike is one of the most thrilling and fun things I’ve done on this trip.

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Next I hiked along an alternative route to Death Road called El Choro, through cloud forests and past my first Incan ruins. During the hike I climbed to the highest I have ever hiked, 4900m, and at that altitude the climb was intense and difficult. It was a great hike and also my first with a guide. Not something I relish, preferring to carry all of my own gear and cook my own meals.

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Then I caught a bus to Uyuni for a 3 day tour around the Salt Flats and along the Andean High Plains to the three-way border of Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The Salt Flats are like an inland sea without the water.

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There were so many different terrains on the high plains and many stunning views. We visited some very interesting places, like the lodge made entirely from blocks of salt where we stayed on the first night. Views across Lago Roja – Red Lake.

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Then it was back to La Paz where I managed to suffer from food poisoning, an illness everyone seems to get in Bolivia. Don’t trust the street food! For my final days in Bolivia, I caught the bus up to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. After a day tour to Isla del Sol, I booked a bus into Peru…

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Next, Part 3 of my Look Back Series where I complete my time in South America by working my way to Colombia.

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 1 – Patagonia, South America

Patagonia is at the southern end of South America and is an area that is jointly owned by both Chile and Argentina. Patagonia contains the tail end of the Andes mountains, the second largest ice field in the world and is predominantly set up for tourism with is brilliant mountains, amazing lakes and so many hikes you could walk around it forever. Thankfully, that was the primary reason I came to Patagonia.

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I arrived in Usuhaia, Argentina in the last days of summer and was stunned by the beauty of the mountains and the seas near the most southern city in the world.

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With Autumn came low season and a slowing down of the tourism industry. This didn’t mean there was a lack of people, just not as many. And, if anything, it was a good thing because the numbers in high season can be overbearing. In Ushuaia, as I waited for a boat to Antarctica I did several hikes in and around the Martial Mountains.

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After a 12 day trip to the White Continent…

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I left Ushuaia for a 12 hour bus trip to Punta Arena, the southern most city in Chile, for a two day stop of before heading to Puerto Natales, another 5 hour bus ride north.

Puerto Natales has a large tourism industry set around two places, the southern fiords of Chile and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile’s most popular and most expensive national park. I spent a couple of days in Puerto Natales preparing for my hike before heading to the national park where I spent 9 days hiking around the Torres del Paine Massif. A fantastic hike.

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Back in Puerto Natales, I made the decision to catch the Navimag Ferry though the patagonian fiords, but I also wanted to head into Argentina to hike around Mt Fitz Roy. So I decided to do both. I booked the five day ferry trip and with several days before it departed, I caught a 5 hour bus across the border to El Calafate in Argentina.

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There is a famous glacier near El Calafate in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares called Perito Merino. But after coming back from 9 days hiking, and having seen plentiful glaciers in Antarctica, I decided to just rest in El Calafate for 3 days before heading north to El Chaltén. In El Calafate I had, perhaps, the best Asado – BBQ – I’ve had in South America.

El Chaltén is 3 hours by bus from El Calafate and is set at the north end of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The town principally supports hiking around Mt Fitz Roy, which is another name for Chaltén. For three days, I walked what I call the Fitz Roy Triangle around the mountains to see some wondrous peaks and lakes.

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Then I was back on a bus to El Calafate for the night before then heading back to Puerto Natales once more.

The following night I was on the Navimag Ferry and was preparing for the trip. The ferry left Puerto Natales at 4am the following morning and wended its way south west to pass through a thin gap before heading north. That was when the rain started and it stayed with us for the rest of the trip. It was a shame because we missed a lot of the mountain views due to the low clouds. So the only thing to do was to stay inside and get to know some of the travellers.

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I arrived in Puerto Montt at the end of the journey and made my way to my Hospedaje, a home stay style hostel. Compared to the small relaxed towns of lower Patagonia, Puerto Montt felt like a bustling atrocity set beneath a might volcano.

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I guess it was just the more people all in one place. After a couple of days around town, I headed 2 hours north by bus to Osorno with the intention of hiking the Puyehue National Park and climbing a small volcano. I hitch-hiked out to the parque to find it had been closed because of a missing hiker. So I stayed the night in a cabin before flagging down a bus heading to Osorno.

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Three hours north of Osorno, again by bus, is the town of Pucón. Pucón is a beautiful little town on a lake and below a large active volcano. Every tourist seems to climb the volcano, so instead I’d planned a 6 day hike around the base of both it and the one behind it. All I needed was a nice space of fine weather, but after a fortnight the break in the weather never come. The time wasn’t wasted, I spent much of the time writing. Before leaving Pucón, I caved and climbed the volcano…

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A day or so later, I said a final goodbye to Chile as I crossed the border back into Argentina to the city of Bariloche in the Lakes Region. In Bariloche, I decided to take a 2 week Spanish course,  But on the weekend prior I climbed to Refugio Lopez near the top of Cerro Lopez to look down upon the lakes that give this region its name.

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A week later, during my weekend off study, I climbed Cerro Catedral and stayed at Refugio Frey next to a frozen mountain lake.

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After my second week of study, I travelled a 100km south to the small not very hippie-like, hippie town of El Bolson. It would have been nice to have hiked in the mountains there, but due to the time of year, it turned out to be a rather uninspiring visit.

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After two nights, I was back to Bariloche for my final days in Patagonia before heading north by bus for 19.5 hours to the warmer wine regions of Argentina – Mendoza.

My trip to Patagonia was wondrous trip through the southern portion of South America, reminding me very much of the South Island of my home country, New Zealand. And being such a vast place, you just can’t see all of it. Perhaps one day I will come back and explore more of it…

Next, I head around northern Argentina and then through Central South America…

The World Wanderer

El Altar, Sanjay National Park, Ecuador

Nearly two years ago, the government of Ecuador changed the laws regarding multi-day hikes. Because so many people were getting lost or dying, all hikes in the national parks now require a certified guide. Peru has a similar law, although it doesn’t police it as stringently as Ecuador does. And at US$50-80 a day for a guide, my dreams of doing a multi-day hike in Ecuador came to a screaming holt.

My companion and I caught a bus to Riobamba, a city six hours south of Quito and set about finding a hike we could do without a guide. After some investigation we found one – El Altar – an overnight hike into an area of mountains only policed one day a week.

Day 1
We were up early and waiting for the taxi. A crazy drive through the mountains followed to Hacienda Releche, the ‘trail head’ of the hike. We met the owners of the hacienda who quoted us 5-6 hours to their lodge in the mountains and at $12 per person per night it’s far cheaper than a guide.

We began climbing along a dirt track following a gully. On either side was a thin line of trees and beyond were fields; one containing rows of flowers, the other grazing cows.

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For the first two hours of the walk the trail climbed steeply up the side of the hill with the occasional short area of boggy mud. While the skies were cloudy there was no rain. A look back along the valley gave great views of the surrounding hills. By the deep green of the hills, I’d suggest it rains here fairly regularly.

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As we continued climbing, the trail grew less steep, but the mud increased dramatically. As the easiest way to get to the lodge is by horseback, this churns up the mud. In many places, it was difficult to pass without squelching our way through. Luckily, waterproof leather hiking boots have no issues with mud and we waded our way through, trying to fall over as little as possible. This is only a problem if the mud is soggy and wet, which for the most part it wasn’t.

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We stopped for a late lunch with a view of a road across the valley, before marching on. As the afternoon wore on, the rain began, and we decided to rest out of the rain for a bit, so following a short path we found a pair of large pine trees as shelter.

While we were waiting, we heard hooves on the track. I went to have a look in the rain and discovered around ten large horned, cows trampling along the trail. When they saw me they stared for a few moments before bolting back up the trail. A few minutes later, we heard hooves again, this time it was a group of riders leading the cows. Two of the cows had climbed the bank and charged through the area where we were sheltering, scaring the wits out of my companion.

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By this stage, we’d already walked 5-6 hours with no sign of the lodge. We continued on, crossing through gullies and the occasional stream. As darkness began to fall, we still hadn’t found the lodge and my companion began making suggestions of roughing it, as we didn’t have a tent with us. So under the light of our head torches we kept an eye out for sheltered spots but continued walking.

An hour and a half after dark we rounded a hill and could just make out buildings ahead in the vague moonlight. We reached the buildings and found the first one open. It was a dorm room with bunk beds and a bathroom. We dropped our packs and investigated the other four buildings. Two were locked dorms while the others were dining areas with kitchens and fireplaces. We found a bunch of candles and set up our room, cooked some dinner and collapsed into our sleeping bags.

Day 2

The next day we were up and after breakfast, we cleaned up the room, packed our bags and stowed them away in a hidden room off one of the kitchens. We then headed out across a stretch of soggy, rocky ground towards The Altar, a collapsed volcano surrounded by peaks. The valley is at about 4000m above seas level, and even with a slight grade crossing it was a struggle because of the altitude.

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At the far side was a tough climb up the valley wall. While the sky was cloudy and mist covered many of the mountains, we could just make out a snowy peak above us as we climbed. My younger companion raced ahead while I struggled with the altitude, even without a pack. During one of our regular breaks, we discovered another pair of guys close behind us. This pushed us on and eventually we came over the ridge to see the large crater lake and the bottom of the mountains surrounding it. El Altar.

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We waited up there for almost two hours, watching as the clouds came and went. I noticed more than a dozen kinds of wild flowers growing in the area so set about taking photos of as many as I could.

At about 1pm, the sky began to clear and I was able to take a panoramic shot – something I’d not done before on my new camera.

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On the way back we passed two other groups of people totalling 10 between them, before arriving back at the lodge to meet the lodge owner’s father, who was also the caretaker. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak english and our spanish wasn’t enough to get across that we had already paid for the previous night. The message finally got across with the help of one of the other guys and we booked another night. This time, we had a more luxury room – one of the locked ones.

Day 3

After breakfast, we packed and headed down from the lodge.

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The climb down was fairly uneventful. There was the occasional rain, but nothing worrying. Most of the trail was dry mud but we also passed through several different levels soggy levels of it as we went: dirt, wet dirt, hard mud, soft mud, sludge and water pooled mud. For the most part, we found little of the last two and mainly plentiful soft mud. When climbing down a dirt or rocky trail, it can be hard on your knees, even with walking poles. But soft mud cushions your footsteps without swallowing your boots totally. As we walked, we saw more of the wild flowers…

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We finally reached the owner’s hacienda just as the rain began. After a lunch prepared by the owner’s mother, we waited for the bus that didn’t come before talking the park rangers into giving us a lift back to Riobamba. This was ironic because they would have stopped us from doing the trek if they had caught us at the beginning. We arrived back to the hotel we’d been staying at and the luxury of hot showers.

Summary
Overall, the trek was a lot longer than we expected, but we still had an awesome time and saw one of the few sights available without a guide in Ecuador. While the trail was muddy, it made the trek more of a technical challenge than an annoyance. For the views and the lodge, I would recommend this to anyone looking for an overnight and cheap hike in Ecuador.

Next we are off to Cuenca in Southern Ecuador to see Ingapirka, the most famous Inkan ruins in Ecuador.

The Trail Wanderer

Colca Canyon, Peru

Colca Canyon is the third most visited destination in Peru and is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. The canyon itself is just a massive yawning gorge in the middle of the vast tall mountain landscape of Peru. It’s an amazingly picturesque wonderland and a great place to spend a few days hiking.

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There are many tours into the canyon, most of them visit the same place, the tourist destination of Sangalle, also known as the Oasis. It has plentiful hotels and entertainment for those who wish to pay for a guide to lead them down the massive face of the canyon wall. And for those who can’t or don’t want to climb back out again, there are mules for hire. The Oasis…

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But a guided tour isn’t necessary. You can catch a bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde, the township at the top of the canyon, and from there just walk into the canyon at your own timing and direction.

There’s actually quite a lot you can do in the canyon; numerous little settlements dotted across the other side, several archaeological dig sites, a waterfall high up in the mountains and a set of hot pools right on the river. You could spend a week here exploring. Plus, you don’t need camping equipment, cooking equipment or food, as it’s all available in the settlements (including beer). So, grab a couple of hundred Soles and get down there!

Day 1 – Arequipa to San Juan de Chuccho
Being picked up at 3 a.m. followed by a 7 hour bus ride is a god awful way to start a trek. Trust me on this! Especially when you’ve only managed 3 hours sleep the night before.

The bus arrived at Cabanaconde at 10 a.m. and in the heat, everyone else headed off with their guides to do their tours while I tried to find the start point of my solo hike. With the quality of the maps in general being poor and with no topographic ones at all, this was one of only tow navigation challenges I had. I asked one of the locals and was pointed out along the road the bus had come in along. A few hundred metres outside of town, I waved down a policia on a bike and he pointed me further on. At least I was on the right track. I eventually reached the San Miguel Mirador and looked back at Cabanaconde…

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…and across at a couple of the settlements on the far side of the canyon. These two are, Malata and Cosñirwa. These are just two of about ten scattered along the canyon.

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From the mirador I continued along the edge of the cliff following the wide trail to a large shelter with no walls. I stopped for lunch out of the heat. While it’s the middle of winter it’s still hot, reminding me of summer in Victoria, Australia, or late winter in Central Australia. Like those areas it’s dry, dusty and the sun shines brightly off the light coloured dust, making it annoying to discover that my sunglasses are broken. Yay! And I haven’t even started yet! Cheap Brazilian rubbish!

The trail is about 2 metres wide here and stays near the top of the cliff for a while. This path was recently closed because of rock slides blocking the path and while it’s officially open again, I’m still cautious.

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The trail continues on, always heading slightly downwards and I can see where the trail has been repaired in several places. The direct sunlight is very draining, not that I had much energy to start with. I come across some workman having lunch in a shelter and they point me the right way when the trail forks. The other way no longer functions, I guess.

Soon I reach an area where the trail begins to zigzag down the mountain. I stop for a break and take off my boots to dry my feet – good practice on a hot hike. Looking down, I see the settlement of San Juan de Chuccho, my target for the day.

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The trail zigzags steeply the entire way down the canyon wall and is long, hot and arduous. As I descend I see the bridge across the Rio Colca still several hundreds metres below that I’m aiming for with San Juan de Chuccho 50 metres up the hill beyond it.

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Finally, after hours in the sun I reach the bridge and take another rest. I see an arrow and the word Roy’s pointing off along the trail, so I when I muster the energy I follow. It heads further along the canyon then begins climbing to eventually come to the small set of clay huts that is San Juan de Chuccho. Roy’s, it would appear, is the name of a hotel here, the first one. I find the owner’s son – perhaps 8 – who takes me to a room. His mother appears moments later and takes me to a better one with a double bed, bathroom, hot shower, and a bay window looking directly across the canyon to the trail I’d just climbed down…

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And high up on the trail, the tiny figures of the workers fixing the trail.

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The price of the room? 20 Soles or about US$7.50. Less than camping fees in many places in Australia. I bought a large bottle of beer, a large bottle of water for tomorrow and booked dinner, each for 10 Soles. That’s expensive for the beer and water, but they have to carry it in by pack mule, so I wasn’t complaining. It was a couple of hours to dinner, so I took a nap, then after dinner I collapsed into bed.

Day 2 – San Juan de Chuccho to Llahuar
After 12 hours of sleep I was made pancakes for breakfast! Hell yeah!

After breakfast I packed and was off. It was already hot when I left, heading up past another three hotels and onto the trail that would take me the length of the populated canyon face to the hot pools at the far end. The trail meandered its way along the side of the canyon for 30 minutes before rounding a corner and heading up a gully. Along the gully a water channel had been created sending water from the small stream directly back to San Juan de Chuccho. Further up the gully, the trail crossed a bridge and began zigzagging steeply up the bank. I climbed, stopping regularly in the heat. 30 minutes later I arrived at the top and into the village Cosñirwa (the first of the twin towns I showed 6 photos up).

From here a dirt road led through the village, but I don’t see a soul as I walked. On the other side of town, I follow the road up a little to the second town – Malata – a couple of hundred metres further on. I also don’t see anyone until a truck came rumbling up the road carrying passengers in the back. I guess this is the only form of bus in the canyon. I walked on and the trail forks, the road continues on, while an old trail leads up to it. I decide to follow the trail and about half way along, the footing becomes so precarious I couldn’t continue, but instead of heading back and taking the road like a normal person, I decide to climb up a rocky gully instead, about 30m with my 15kg+ pack. This was difficult and took time, but I got there with only a few scratches. I’m thankful for all that time I spent indoor rock climbing. Useful!

The road continued until I came to a small dugout in the rock wall where I was able to take shelter from the sun and again take my boots off. From my vantage point, I could see some of the ‘Oasis’ below and the steep zigzag trail leading down to it…

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And while I watched I could see several groups climbing down it, including this laden mule caravan…

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Heading off again, I continued along the road as it slowly climbed towards mirador Apacheta, the highest point I’d climb on this side of the canyon. This gave me a view further along the canyon, with my destination down near the river.

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After a break, I headed off again down a dusty path that I consider to be rather dangerous, not because of the long fall of the side of a cliff, there is that but because of the potentially painful fall into one of the three varieties of spiked cacti here. Ouch!

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As I headed carefully along the trail to a road and then along it, I passed two small communities, stopping at the second one for a refreshing bottle of Coca Cola. After a zigzagging climb down the next short bank, I crossed the river and headed briefly up the trail to my destination, Llahuar – pronounced ‘ya-oo-ar’ with a rolled r at the end. Two Ls together is a y sound, so Llama is pronounced Yama.

I stopped to rest and cool off with a cerveza – beer – before being shown to the aguas calientes – hot pools – belonging to the hostel, where I soaked right next to the river chatting to a solo french trekker who was doing the same. A perfect way to end a hot dusty day of trekking. Tomorrow I climb the zigzagging trail up the 1000m tall bank to the top of the canyon and back to Cabanaconde to end this little adventure. While it’s going to be difficult, being under the constant sun the entire way will make it worse.

Day 3 – Llahuar to Cabanaconde
After another 12 hour sleep, today began overcast and with pancakes for breakfast. I guess it’s difficult to bake or keep bread here… After packing, and donating some money to the French guy who hadn’t brought enough, I set off. The code of the hiker, always help other hikers in need. I climbed back up to the settlement I’d bought the coke from the day before and looked down the valley to the bridge that would mark the beginning of the hardest part of my hike.

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I followed the road down to the bridge and found a small natural geyser bubbling away next to the river.

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Then it was off up the trail and after climbing for 20 minutes I discovered I was going the wrong way, so had to head partially down again before finding another trail that lead me back up to the right trail. I didn’t need the extra work, but you get that. I began climbing and while it was generally overcast, and I was thankful to not be under the full sun, it was still warm. A way up the trail, I looked back down the valley to the tiny settlement of Llahuar and the pools at the edge of the river.

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A short time later, an aging local man casually comes climbing past me like he was walking up a slight hill. The trail was long and hard, and I stopped on many occasions for breaks. At point high on the canyon wall, the trail wound in along a deep gully, the first part that actually went slightly down before crossing a bridge at the top of the gully and again heading up the side of the mountain.

I finally reached the top of the canyon to discover the trail continued on along the top of the cliffs for another couple of kilometres, up and down several small hills before arriving in Cabanaconde. With the town finally in sight I quick marched to the centre plaza and found a hostel. It was a little crumby, but all I needed was a shower and a bed behind a locking door.

After my third 12 hour sleep in a row, I was on the bus and back to Arequipa, stopping briefly for a photo of the plains at the end of the canyon, before heading off again. On the way back, over the highest points – near 5000m above sea level – it snowed and I’m glad I wasn’t still in the canyon.

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Colca Canyon is a hikers’ wonderland, with so much to see. It’s not an easy walk, but for the fit there is plentiful places to visit and see, if you don’t mind climbing some pretty heavy trails with just a touch of altitude.

Next, I head north to the city of Ica, where I can gain access to the Paracas National Reserve, the Red Beaches and sand boarding.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Arequipa, Southern Peru – Impressions

Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru with 900,000 people next to Lima (with 9 million) and is the capital of the south. The centre of Arequipa gives a similar impression to that of the ancient Incan capital Cusco, a ten hour bus ride away. A beautifully set up cobbled main plaza with cathedral on one side…
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…and many tour agencies and restaurants trying to hawk for your business on the others.

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Peruvians seem fascinated by fountains and while there aren’t as many here as their was in Cusco, there are plenty. Along one side of the plaza is an open air mall with plentiful shops restaurants and the like.

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On the horizon outside the city is a tall range of mountains, and a solitary volcanic cone called Misti Mountain that’s said to spend most of the year surrounded in mist. Although I’ve been here a week and have yet to see it shrouded. It’s a two day climb up and down the 6000m cone.

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Between the city and the mountains is river where several groups host rafting, and while it’s only a short experience – 90 minutes max – the level 3 and 4 rapids are fun, although not as intense as my previous rafting experience in the Waikato, New Zealand.

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There are plentiful museums and monasteries in the city, one hosted an exhibition known as the Ice Girl. In the time of the Incans she was sacrificed to the angry mountain gods. At 11 years old she had to walk 170 miles from Cusco before climbing Misti Mountain to die and ascend to live among the gods. She went willingly and it was seen as an honour to be sacrificed. Many similar sacrifices were made along the mountains from northern Argentina to Peru. Her preserved body is on display in a special glass freezer case.

The most popular reason people come to Arequipa is for Peru’s third most popular tourist attraction, Colca Canyon. Colca Canyon is said to be the second deepest canyon in the world, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US. I managed a 3 day solo hike through the canyon and it was amazing. A post of its own is coming shortly.

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Next I’m off to the city of Ica, south of Lima to see the Red Beaches of Paracas and do some sand boarding.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Aguas Caliente and Machupicchu

After nearly six months travelling around South America, I’ve finally arrived at the most popular tourist destination on the continent, Machu Picchu. But there’s more here than just the ancient ruined city at the top of a mountain.

Located deep in the mountains, a 3.5 hour train ride from Cusco or 4 days via the Inca Trail, is a town called Aguas Calientes, meaning hot waters, or hot pools in Spanish. With no road leading into the town, there’s no other way to get than walk or catch the train.

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Aguas Calientes is a beautiful little town set on the side of the Rio Urubamba and nestled among the mountains. It’s purely set up for tourists visiting Machu Picchu, meaning if the ruins didn’t exist, neither would the town. There are a vast number of restaurants, hotels, hostels and massage places all for the pleasure of the tourist and the tourist dollar. With so many restaurants, the owners fight to get just a few customers in each night.

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I arrived by train at midday and set about investigating the town. With a plan to hike up the 2000 steps to Machu Picchu early the following morning, I headed out towards a nearby set of waterfalls only 45 minutes walk from the town. The trail leads you along the side of the train tracks that wind through the valley.
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When I got to the house with an arrow pointing at it and the word cataratas (waterfalls in spanish) on a sign I was sceptical as I couldn’t hear the waterfalls. So, I decided to just keep walking along the trail instead.
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It was a pleasant walk with no hills, so I just kept going and going until I came to a place called Santa Teresa and decided to start back. The scenery was absolutely beautiful…

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What had begun as a 45 minute walk turned into a 5-hour hike. On the way back, I was able to see a single building from the ruins at the top of the mountain.

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While a casual 90-minute walk wouldn’t have been a problem, I wasn’t really prepared for the length I ended up walking. I wasn’t wearing the correct socks and managed to gain a couple of blisters, something that rarely happens to my feet.

The next morning I was up at 4.30 and getting ready for the climb to the ruins. The hostel is prepared for this as breakfast begins at 4am.

The 2000 steps climbing up to the ruins were built in typical Inca style, although with the road winding up the side of the mountain for the buses, I’m sure the stairs weren’t built by the Incans.

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The stairs were strenuous on their own although I’ve climbed more difficult mountains, but add the altitude and it becomes challenging. (Add blisters and it’s even worse!) I made it just after 7 when the mass of tourists from the buses were trying to get into the city. This is what I’d expected and why I call Machu Picchu the Disneyland of South America.

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I finally got in just before the sun rose over the mountains to shine on the city, lighting it up the stone work in the pinkie yellow of first light.

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There’s a lot that can be said about the city, but much of it is speculation and not on my part. There are few signs but beyond telling you where the exit is, they don’t tell you anything about the ruins. No-one’s really sure what the full story behind the city is and I was only able to garner a small amount of information by listening in to the many guides around the different parts of the city.

These two mountains are Huayna Picchu (the shorter) and Wayna Picchu. Wayna Picchu has a temple built atop it with a precarious path leading to it. You need to pre-pay to get to these mountains and I hadn’t.

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The ruins were discovered in 1911 when a local advised a US American that there was Incan architecture atop the mountain. He scaled the mountain and discovered the overgrown city.

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Machu Picchu was thought to have been built as the winter home of an Incan emperor and is said to have been abandoned before the spanish conquests in 1534. This is one of the many speculations of its existence. The house at the top of the tiers is the highest point in the city and the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain is behind it.

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The city was thought to be the lost city of the Incas but many think the lost city is another, larger city, several days away in the jungle. Other stories say that this was an Incan Concubine city for the emperor, with 100-200 concubines living here.

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Nestled as it is on the top of a mountain, the city isn’t flat, with many terraces and stairs. Corridors were thin or closed off to protect areas of the ruins, meaning it could be slow going with all the tourists trying to get around.

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It takes about two hours to walk around the ruins, but even in the middle of winter it’s very warm during the day. There are large open grassy areas, possibly where crops were sown.

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At the end of my walk around the ruins, I decided to climb Machu Picchu Mountain. The stairs up the side were even steeper than those leading up to the city.

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I got to a spectacular viewing area about half way up (about the same height as Wayna Picchu). With the altitude, the heat and my general state of exhaustion I decided to forego the rest of the climb and headed back down again.

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I found my way to the exit and began descending back down the stairs to Aguas Caliente. At 30°C+ it was very hot going and exhausted, I finally reached the hostel and a welcoming shower.

While Machu Picchu is packed with people – 2500 are allowed there a day – that was the only downside of the ruins. The reconstruction of parts were great and the city overall is amazing. I certainly enjoyed my visit and while expensive, it’s something I had to do, unlike the Inca Trail, where the amount of people would have spoiled my enjoyment.

Next, I am off to Arequipa, a southern city in Peru in hope of hiking through Colca Canyon, a canyon twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US.

The Lone Trail Wanderer