Tag Archives: outdoors

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 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

The Lost City – Ciudad Perdida, Sierra Nevada National Park, Colombia

In the jungles of northern Colombia there’s a magical city known as Ciudad Perdida – ‘Lost City’ in spanish. Believed to be built around 800AD (650 years before Machu Picchu in Peru) the site is said to be the central city of the Tairona people, connecting the many small villages around it. Originally home to between 2,000 and 8,000 people the city is said to be four times as large as Machu Picchu and far more spread out.  Abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquests and the city was only rediscovered in 1972.

There are now regular jungle hikes to the site taking between 4 and 6 days. It’s considered a moderately difficult hike and since I was in the area I decided to do it.

Day 1
I was picked up from my hostel at 9am with just my little pack. I’m not used to carrying so little and I almost felt like I didn’t have enough with me. But then I usually don’t go on guided treks, preferring to walk alone with all my own equipment.

After a ten minute minivan ride from Taganga – the beach town where I’m staying – I was dropped off to the tour company’s office in Santa Marta where I was to meet the others in the group. I’d figured I wouldn’t be alone on this fairly popular trek but I didn’t expect to be one of 19 plus guides. With so many others hikers it was difficult to find the serenity of nature I enjoy when hiking alone. But I did my best.

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By 11am, we were off in a pair of 4x4s heading towards El Mamey, the village that serves as the hike’s trailhead. An hour later, we left the sealed highway and headed along a rough dirt road suitable only for 4x4s, motorcycles and horses. A further hour later and we arrived at El Mamey where we were provided with lunch.

After lunch and once we were all ready we headed out along a dirt road, crossing a pair of rivers as we went.

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It wasn’t long before we began to climb in the muggy heat. While the steep climb was not at altitude like my previous few hikes, where lack of oxygen slowed me down, the somewhat oppressive heat stripped me of my energy, having a similar effect. As we worked our way slowly up the tree covered hill, the clay of the trail seemed to capture the heat and send it at us from all directions. Sweat ran from everywhere and I was soon soaked completely, a state I was to be in for the entire four days of the hike.

We had reached the top of the hill and were walking along a ridge line when the afternoon rains finally arrived to cool us down.

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We took shelter at a small cabaña until the shower passed but it was not to be the end of the rain for the day. As we continued, low clouds began to move in around the hills, bringing a much appreciated cool breeze.

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We continued along the cloudy ridge until it dove down a long steep clay and mud trail before crossing the river to another village. Finally, we climbed a smaller hill to the cabaña where we’d be staying the night.

Under a wall-less tin roofed building there were line upon line of hammocks covered with mosquito netting.

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One section of the wall-less hut was a massive kitchen where the guides prepared our dinner of chicken, potatoes and rice. As we ate the rain returned, this time very heavily and accompanied by long peels of thunder and brilliant flashes of lightning. After dinner and a couple of beers – no South American hike would be complete without beer at the camps – I headed to bed in preparation for the next day.

Day 2
It rained heavily for a large portion of the night, well past the time I’d gone to sleep. Sleeping in a hammock was a first and quite comfortable using a blanket as a pillow. I used a second blanket briefly early in the morning when it grew a little cooler and I was thankful for the protection of the mosquito nets.

At 5am we were up and given breakfast. It was an early start to avoid the oppressive humidity later in the day. It was still hot, a wet heat that made it difficult to regulate my own temperature. But this was only a problem when I was climbing, which was much of the morning following the dirt trail through the endless trees of the jungle. During the climb we paused from time to time in various villages to get our breaths back and to take photos.

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The trail dove down hill again for a long period and at the bottom we were forced to remove our boots to cross a river. Wading across, the water came up to our thighs in all its cold and gloriousness.

With only 30 minutes to our evening’s cabaña, most of us stripped down to our shorts (or to bikinis for the girls) and went for a swim. It was difficult for us to leave the river, but we eventually tore ourselves away, dressed and walked the 30 minutes along one bank to the cabaña.

After lunch it was shower and relax time as we waited for the afternoon rains. We are only 1km away from the steps leading up to the Lost City. So close we could hear the buzzing of mosquitos.

Day 3
Many of us were woken by the breakfast crew at 3.30am, not because we had to get up but because they were being noisy. I managed to get back to sleep and at 5.30 was up and having breakfast. Then we were off along the bank for the 1km to another river crossing where we again had to remove our boots. Even first thing in the morning the cold of the river was refreshing. On the other side we found the 1,200 or so steps that lead up to Ciudad Perdida.

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The ancient tribes must have had small feet as the steps are tiny. Still, it didn’t take us long to get to the top where we emerged into the city’s market area covered in sweat. After reapplying insect repellant, I zipped on my leggings and rolled down my sleeves as defence against the mobs of ravenous insects.

We spent three hours walking around Ciudad Perdida…

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From the market, we headed up the hill by steps…

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…that led to the rich quarter of the city where the best views could be had.

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There aren’t any buildings left from the day of the city builders, as unlike the Incas, the Tairona built houses from bamboo, wood and mud. A few natives do live here but their buildings are recent.

In places around the city are gun toting soldiers, protecting visitors to the city for the last decade. The last kidnapping in the area was ten years ago in 2003. Next we headed down a long flight of steps to the poorer quarters.

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After some history lessons we climbed back down the main steps, very slowly and eventually made it to the river where the boots were off again as we crossed. 30 minutes later and we were back at our last nights accommodation for lunch.

Next was a long ten kilometre hike back along the trail to our final night’s cabaña at the bottom of a very long downhill. In the heat of the afternoon, and still drenched with sweat, we were thankful to arrive at the camp. It didn’t take us long to get out of our wet clothes and into the cool river. On the far bank a waterfall feeds into a grotto behind a huge rock. There’s an elaborate technique for getting across, the last of which is to power swim through the strongest current. A couple of us made a chain to catch some of the less strong swimmers as they were being swept past.

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That evening we relaxed under the beady eyes of many Cane Toads enjoying the rain.

Day 4
The final day was simply returning along the trail we’d walked on our first day – up a steep long climb, back along the ridge line and down a very long climb. 15 minutes before we arrived back at El Mamey, we stopped at the river for a final swim – they couldn’t have stopped us if they tried! Then after 30 minutes in the water, we were back on the trail for the final short walk to the village, where we stopped for lunch before being transported to Santa Marta and the end of the adventure.

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Overall, the 4 day jungle trek was a great adventure, and while the constant sweating and dripping wet clothes left me covered in a heat rash, it was worth it to get to the Lost City and my final adventure in South America.

The Lone Trail Wanderer.

Cuenca, Ecuador – Adventures

Cuenca is a city of half a million people nestled in the southern Ecuadorian Andes. The city is only four hours south of Riobamba by local bus (US$2.50) and the main attraction of the area being Ingapirca, the largest Incan ruins in Ecuador. This was the major reason I decided to travel here, but hoped there’d be more on offer.

Cuenca City
It seemed to be raining everywhere in Ecuador when we arrived in Cuenca. But then Ecuador isn’t large, only marginally larger than New Zealand. On the bus, my friend and I ran into a woman we’d met in the hostel in Quito a week earlier. So, as the light began to fade and the rain continued lightly, the three of us wandered the streets and discovered plentiful examples of excellent architecture. Like many places in South America, the architecture is great, but they aren’t well looked after. The Basilica…

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The next morning the rain had eased and we wandered around some more. The central plaza has a statue, and yes, a fountain too, hidden away in one corner.

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We also found two small Incan ruins that had been surrounded by the city. This one is just a small lot, while the other is more spread out and is part of the local botanical gardens, although only the foundations of the ruins are still visible.

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The next day we booked a tour of Ingapirca, but as part of the tour we had to book a train ride down the Devil’s Nose.

The Devil’s Nose – Nariz del Diablo
After a three hour van ride north, we arrived at the town of Alausi where we boarded the train that would take us down the Devil’s Nose – a hill that looks sort of like a nose.

When building a railway through the country, the Ecuadorian government had to find a way to connect a station at the top of Devil’s Nose with one 800m below. Unable to go around, they decided to build a switchback system where the train goes back and forth down hill.

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Thirteen thousand locals took part in the creation of the switchback, of which 2,500 were killed during the process through dynamite explosions, apparently.

At the bottom station there’s a small museum, some traditional dancing and a cafe.

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Ingapirca

After the train ride back and another 2-hour van ride, we arrived at the largest ruins in Ecuador, Ingapirca – a thousand year old pre-Incan fortress. Like most of the Incan cities, the spanish destroyed it, using the bricks as foundations for some of the buildings in the surrounding cities, including Cuenca. The only building left standing was the sun temple, set to catch the sun four times a year on the solstices and equinoxes.

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It was raining, so we didn’t spend a lot of time in the ruins, but the guide was very knowledgable. This stone below was used as a calendar. There are 28 holes cut into the rock, one for each day of the thirteen lunar months of the Incan year. It’s said that they could tell the date by which of the holes the moon was shining in.

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The sun temple has two sides, so it can catch the morning light and the evening light.

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Then it was back in the van for a 90 minute ride back to Cuenca.

Overall
Cuenca and the surrounds is a nice area of the Ecuadorian Andes and worth a visit if you are travelling through from Peru or as a nine hour bus ride from Quito.

Next, I head back to Quito for a couple of days to plan my way north into Columbia.

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

Mindo, Ecuador – Impressions

80km north of Quito is the town of Mindo, buried deep in the rainforest of North Ecuador.

As one of my friends leaves South America in the next week three of us, who’ve been hanging out in Quito, decided to go away for the weekend to have one last adventure together. Spending $8 in the taxi to the bus terminal, we paid $2.50 each for the 2 hour bus ride!

Mindo is a charming little town with a lot to offer, which is why it’s a common weekend destination for travellers stopping off in Quito. While it’d take a week to do everything on offer here, with only two days we decided to take it easy and enjoy ourselves.

To start with, we found a place that served breakfast and ordered. While we were waiting on the balcony for the food to arrive, Hummingbirds flitted around, stopping to drink from a feeder.

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They skit and bob around like insects with their wings blurred and are the only birds that can fly backwards. It was impossible to get a clean photo of them while they were flying as the camera just couldn’t focus on them fast enough. There are 14 different types of them here.

After breakfast, we went for a walk to check out what the town had to offer. 10 minutes later, we were done having seen the bar district and the restaurant district. The town consists of a main street, several short side streets and a plaza.

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Next, we decided to go zip lining and walked the 3km up the hill to one of the companies that offered it. There were 10 different lines and on most of them we were able to ‘fly’ while accompanied by one of the two guides. Hanging from our backs we sped along with arms wide, aeroplane style. Overall, it was a most fun two hours.

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That evening, we headed out to the bar district for tapas and sangria. We discovered we were some of the only foreigners in town that night, so after eating, we headed back to hostel for our own little party, just the three of us.

We woke late the next day and after breakfast, decided to visit the waterfalls. By the time we headed up there it was early afternoon. To get to the falls, we caught a taxi the 10km to a home-made cable car which took us across the valley. The engine was made from an old van with gears and all…

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On the other side of the valley, we walked down a dirt trail in the rainforest for some time arriving at some of the waterfalls. Hot from the walk, two of us donned our swimmers and leapt in, and out again, as the water was as cold as expected. There are 7 sets of waterfalls in the area, but in the two hours before the cable car stopped for the day we got to four of them.

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That evening we hung out with a group of new arrivals at the hostel before heading to bed early. While we had only two days in the town, there are many other things we could have done, including canyoning (where you rappel down a waterfall), tubing down a river (like rafting but large tire tubes tied together) and an animal sanctuary, to name a few.

It’s a peaceful change from the city and at the price to visit and stay, it is well worth the effort if you are in Quito with a few days to spare. Just remember to take your Malaria tablets and try to avoid mosquitos, although it was the midges that feasted on us.

Next, it’s back to Quito to prepare for a four day walk around Cotopaxi, one of the world’s tallest active volcanos.

The Trail Wanderer

Galapagos Islands Cruise

The Galapagos Islands are an amazing set of volcanic islands just under 1000km from mainland Ecuador. There are several ways to see the islands each with benefits and drawbacks:

  • Pre-booked cruises are the most popular means to see the Islands and are commonly booked from the mainland. They are perfect for those with only a short vacation time but can also be the most expensive.
  • Booking a Last Minute cruise when you arrive on the islands is more suitable for long term travellers or those with plenty of available time. The cruises are up to half the price of a pre-booked cruise but there may be some wait before departure day.
  • Island hopping is possibly the cheapest means of seeing the islands and can be tailored to however long you have available. They take more work to organise and you can’t get to some of the more distant islands the cruises can take you to.

For my trip to the Galapagos, I simply flew to the Islands and booked a Last Minute 4-day cruise. The cruise started several days after I booked it, giving me time to explore parts of Isla Santa Cruz and Puerto Ayora.

Day 1
The day began early with myself and my Uraguayan friend leaving the hostel at 7a.m., having a quick breakfast in town before catching a taxi to the bus terminal. After a 90-minute mixed bus and ferry ride we arrived at the airport where we met our tour guide and some of the other passengers. We were taken to the boat, the Estrella del Mar – Star of the Sea. The boat’s passenger capacity was 16 and my friend and I were the oldest of the group.

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Onboard the Estrella del Mar we were given a delicious lunch and as we sailed to our first destination, Isla Bartolomé, had a chance to get to know the other passengers. As we travelled the choppy seas and the rocking of the small boat caused me to feel a little sick, so I took some sea sickness pills I had left over from my Antarctic cruise.

We arrived into the calm waters of Bartolome Island in the early afternoon and donned our wetsuits. We were dropped off on the shore and snorkelled for an hour around the pinnacle – a large piece of weathered rock sticking up at the edge of the beach.

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While there wasn’t any coral, there were plenty of fish. As we swam we located several Galapagos Penguins hanging out on the rocks and the occasional Galapagos sea lion doing the same.

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There were also plenty of small colourful crabs climbing the rocks so I swum in for a closer look. As I got nearer to the shore, I went underwater and came face to face with a White Tip Reef shark sleeping in a small cave under the rocks. While they aren’t usually aggressive, I was still cautious for the few minutes I watched it. I did eventually get a shot of the colourful rock crab.

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After returning to the beach, we were taxied to the boat where we changed before being delivered to another part of the island, to hike to the top of a volcanic hill. There were great views and our guide was very knowledgable about the formation of the islands.

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After the hike, we returned to the boat for dinner while it headed north. At about 11p.m. we cross the equator.

Day 2
Our cabin was on the lower level at the front of the boat. So, while we were in motioned overnight, the cabin was very hot even with the air conditioning on.

In the early hours of the morning we arrived at Isla Genovesa, an extinct volcano where a massive sinkhole had filled with water to form a natural harbour. After a large breakfast, we were taken in the zodiacs to the beach, where we went for a short walk around the beach and a small patch of mangroves. This allowed us to see several nesting species of birds, black Marine Iguanas and fur seals, including this cub.

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We then changed into our wetsuits on the beach before heading into the water. We snorkelled for about an hour in the fairly murky water. We saw plenty of fish similar to yesterday, but little else. We were taken back to the boat briefly before being taken across the bay for more snorkelling. This is the only spot on our cruise where Hammerhead sharks are commonly seen but after an hour in the water we had no luck. I had fun swimming a little way down the shelf that drops off to a depth deeper than the ships sonar can see, making it more than 350m deep.

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Back on the boat, we had lunch and relaxed for a couple of hours. Many of us napped after a long morning of swimming. When we were ready, a small group of us were taken to third spot in the bay for yet more snorkelling. It was calmer and warmer in the water as the sun had broken through the clouds during lunch. We swam along the wall of the bay, the rocks climbing up about 20 metres. We were joined by a couple of sea lions, but they only played for a few minutes before heading back to their rocks. We snorkelled on, but saw little more.

Lastly, after heading back to the boat for a shower, we climbed to the top of the rocky wall and walked through the hardy trees to see more wildlife. We spied the Blue Footed Boobie, a Petrel, a rare sighting of a Galapagos Owl – which actually hunts during the day – and a lovely pair of boobies, Nazca Boobies that is…

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After the hike, we were taken back to the boat for dinner and an early night following a very busy day. During the night we headed back across the equator and it was again very rocky aboard.

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Day 3
Overnight the rocking of the boat caused me to feel very sick, but only in my cabin, so I forwent my usual evening movie and just went to sleep. And this was after having taken seasickness pills. I awoke in the morning to calm seas and felt much better.

After a hearty breakfast, we set about getting ready for our first activity, a short hike across South Plaza Island to see some wildlife.

We started on the beach where many fur seals were sleeping.

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We then walked along the rocky trail stopping for photo opportunities and discussions about the flora and fauna. Among the various species of birds we spied a land Iguana. This one is a metre long.

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Then it was back to the boat and off across the strait to Isla Santa Fé where we had lunch and prepared for another walk. We landed on the beach amidst plentiful napping sea lions…

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We walked along a rocky path seeing two species of lizard, the metre long yellow land Iguana…

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…and the 10cm long gecko.

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Then, it was back to the boat to change into our wetsuits in preparation for our final snorkelling session of the cruise. Swimming in the bay at Isla Santa Fé makes me want to buy an underwater camera. Firstly, there were playful sea lions and I finally found my first coral in the waters. It wasn’t very colourful, but some coral is better than no coral. Then, as we snorkelled across the small bay, we were joined by sea turtles and stingrays sucking at the sand on the bottom. All in all, an excellent snorkelling session for our final day.

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Back on the boat, we set sail for Puerto Ayora harbour where we dropped anchor for the evening.

Day 4
The final day on the cruise was a little disappointing. When booking the cruise, we enquired if they would be going to either the Giant Tortoise colony or to Charles Darwin Research Station, where they look after the young animals. We were told the cruise would finish at the Research station, so prior to the cruise, my Uraguayan friend and I headed up to see the Giant Tortoises. As it turned out, the group was taken to see the Giant Tortoises. But instead of seeing them again, we called an end to our trip and headed back to the hostel.

Summary
Overall, the cruise around the Galapagos Islands was great. While the islands don’t feel as tropical as other Pacific Islands, the diverse species of animals, especially the ones that are native to these islands were amazing. A most enjoyable cruise.

After a couple more days in the Galapagos Islands, I fly back to Quito.

The Trail Wanderer

Mancora, Northern Peru – Impressions

Máncora is the second most popular tourist destination in Peru, with Cusco / Machu Picchu the first and Arequipa / Colca Canyon the third. While most of Peru’s tourist destinations have plentiful tours – hiking, boating, climbing, rafting and the like; Máncora is different. There are tours, but the main attraction is the sand and the amazing beaches.

My original plan was to skip Máncora on the way to Ecuador. But the bus from Lima to Quito is nearly 2 days long, so to break it up, I decided to wait for the bus to pass through by hanging out at the beach for a few days. Sounds horrible, I know, all that waiting.

Máncora has a local population of just over 9,000 people and has an average altitude of 11m above sea level. This is of interest because I’ve spent most of my time in Peru at 3,000m and above.

On arriving in the town, the first thing I noticed was the number of Tuk Tuks on the main street.

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As I stepped off the bus I was accosted by the usual taxi drivers but made sure I booked my ticket to Quito first. Then it was a mad dash on a slow Tuk Tuk to my hostel, which was right on the beach front.

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My cabaña was a two level dorm with 5 beds and a balcony which looked out of the Pacific Ocean, only 20 metres away. The golden sand is hot and the sun blaring, but what do you expect from the beach?

While I went into town a couple of times; once for dinner at one of Máncora’s many amazing restaurants, and once for a look around. But I didn’t find much there as it’s a beachside town and people don’t visit for its shopping. So, for most of the four days I was in town, I just lay around on the beach, wrote, or swapped movies. It seemed that everyone staying at the hostel had a hard drive. So, while we were sitting on the beach, our computers were copying our selections. Honestly, what else is there to do on the beach? Such a hard life!

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Then at the end of the 4 days, my bus arrived and I was off again to Quito.

The Trail Wanderer

Ica and the Huacachina Oasis, Central Peru

Ica is a small city in central Peru about 300 km south of the capital, Lima. Ica lies at the top of the Atacama desert that stretches south for over 1000 km into northern Chile. It’s the driest hot desert in the world (Antarctica is the driest cold desert), with parts receiving only 1 mm rainfall a year. The fact that Ica is in the desert is very obvious because it’s surrounded by massive sand dunes.

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As a size reference, that small black shape near the top is a dune buggy designed to carry 12 people…

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While Ica doesn’t have that much to offer the tourist, just west of the city is a place called the Huacachina Oasis (pronounced waka-chee-na). The oasis is literally a large pond surrounded by the massive sand dunes.

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A very small township has been built in a horseshoe in the gaps between the dunes and the pond; with hotels, hostels, bars, clubs and restaurants – the most popular being The Huacafuckingchina.

After arriving, checking into my hostel and having breakfast, I went for a walk around the pond. Five minutes later, I was back after having seen most of the town. So, I decided to take a ride across the pond on a pedal boat with a friend from the hostel.

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That killed another half an hour and while getting out of the boat at the end, I managed to drop my camera into the water. BUGGER! Guess I’ll be buying a new camera when I get to Lima… So, that ended my ability to take photos. Pictures from here on aren’t mine.

In the afternoon, I booked in for what most people come here to do… Sand boarding. Late in the afternoon, ten of us piled into dune buggy with the driver and drove madly across the dunes (madly is the only way possible on these sand dunes!) skidding and bouncing around before stopping at the top of a large dune.

For those that had previously snow boarded are able to sand board standing up, while the rest of us went down on our bellies.

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The buggy then picked us up at the bottom and shot us off to another, taller and steeper dune; each one growing more and more intense. It was exhilarating to say the least, but two hours goes past far too quickly…

While the sand boarding is fairly inexpensive, hiring quad-bikes and touring the dunes is far more expensive. Beyond that, there’s not much to do and staying longer than a day leaves you to just sunbathe, if that’s your thing. Early the next morning, I caught the bus to Lima.

After a few days in Lima, I plan to travel to Huarez to do some hiking in the Cordillera Blanca – the White Mountains.

The Lone Trail Wanderer