Tag Archives: South America

Cartagena, Colombia – Impressions

Cartagena is a famous sea port on the Caribbean Coast in northern Colombia. Thirteen hours north of Medellin, it’s the hottest place I’ve been on my travels so far. At the beginning of winter it was averaging a humid 33ºC.

Cartagena is famous for being the seat of the Spanish Inquisition from where, in their lust for gold, they destroyed many of the South America’s native cultures. It was also one of the most popular plunder sites for the infamous pirates of the Caribbean.

To defend against the pirate attacks the city was surrounded by a thick wall. Five hundred years later and the wall is now a World Heritage site with Old Town – the well maintained area within it – a popular tourist destination.

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Old Town is not large, taking only 20-30 minutes to walk around. And while car traffic is permitted along the thin streets, it’s not uncommon to see people being ferried around in something little more eco-friendly…

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While no longer needed to protect against pirates, the wall is used by day as a major walkway around the city and on weekend as a place to dance the salsa. While the murky brown waters and rocky beaches of the coast are not wonderful to look at, and are dangerous to swim in, they do offer sea breezes providing some relief from the muggy heat.

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To defend the walls cannons were placed along its length. Now only the barrels remain protecting Cafe del Mar, a popular but expensive restaurant and nightspot.

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In the distance and under repair is the Palace of the Inquisition, a regular stop for party buses most weekends. The buses, each having their own salsa band, drive to many places around the city, eventually finishing at the party zone of Old Town.

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You can get lost in the romance of Old City, in the sea, the sun and the charm, until you round the corner and discover New City on the other side of the harbour.

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Next, I’m back on the Malaria tablets as I head along the coast to Taganga, a small beach town beside Tayrona National Park, the gateway to the jungle and Colombia’s Lost City, Ciudad Perdida.

The World Wanderer

Medellin, Colombia – Impressions

Medellin was once known as the most violent city in the world. In the 1980s there was a major urban war here revolving around the infamous Pablo Escobar and his Medellin Cartel. Since his death 20 years ago things have changed dramatically. Crime has declined significantly and the city has opened up more for tourism. Medellin is now known as the tourist capital of Colombia, south of the Caribbean Coast, with most travellers skipping the capital, Bogotá, for the warmer and better set up Medellin.

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The second largest city in Colombia with 2.4 million people, Medellin is a 10-hour bus ride north-east of Bogotá on a winding mountain highway.

The best way to see the historical centre of Medellin and to learn about its history is via a free city walking tour. On the tour you learn that the people of this area were cut off from the rest of Colombia for almost 300 years because the valley is surrounded by the peaks of the Andes. This isolation led the community to thrive and grow, using the region’s main natural resource, gold, to fund different advances. It was this gold that built Medellin and not the drug money of Escobar, as many believe. The drug money actually caused more harm than good, killing hundreds of thousands in the urban war and giving Colombia a sour reputation that it would fight for years to overcome.

After Escobar’s death some of the more dangerous areas of the city were cleaned up and monuments erected to the ‘new’ Medellin. Monuments such as Plaza Cisneros and its many light columns. Each of the columns have strips of led lights on four sides that are lit up at night as a symbol of hope.

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There are pretty places scattered throughout the city, such as El Palacio de la Cultura, but many of them have darker secrets, some more obvious than others.

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The Medellin government in the 1920s didn’t like the gothic inspired palace causing the Belgian designer to flee the country after only having completing a third of it. Colombian builders didn’t bother to finish it, instead simply sealing the unfinished side with a plain white wall.

Then there is this pretty inner city church…

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…surrounded by brothels, gambling houses and drug dealers, its visitors seeking to gain forgiveness for the sins they commit on a daily basis.

There are plentiful interesting sculptures dotted around the city, donated by a rich and locally famous artist.

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After the darkness of the 80s and to foster education in the poorer parts of the city, grand libraries were built.

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These structures stand out from the terracotta brick buildings of the surrounding city and is a symbol of freedom for the local population.

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Overall, Medellin is an interesting city to spend a few days and is very much a party city for tourists making their way from the northern coast to the countries of the south.

Next I’m off to the Caribbean Coast and the city of Cartagena, famous for being plundered by the notorious Pirates of the Caribbean during the 1500s and 1600s.

The World Wanderer

Bogotá, Colombia – Impressions

Situated at just over 2,600m above sea level, Bogotá is the third highest capital city in South America after Quito and La Paz. With 9 million people, it’s also the largest of the three.

I arrived in Bogotá after a crazy 10 hour bus ride from Cali, where the bus driver thought he was a Formula One driver along the very curvy road. It was as if he was fleeing the cartels as he overtook trucks on blind corners and slammed on the brakes when a vehicle came the other way. However, I still managed to get some sleep. I guess I’m well used to bus travel on this continent.

Once in Bogotá, I caught a taxi to La Candaleria, the city’s historical centre where my hostel was. On arrival, the area looked rather old and dirty. At the hostel, I was warned not to go too far in any direction at night. Luckily I’d eaten during the bus trip and didn’t need to go out.

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The following day, I headed out to see some of the sights and was again warned about the city. It’s not fun being on edge when walking around a city but I avoided being kidnapped, so I guess that’s something. Not far from the hostel I found some architecture, but many of the buildings had been tagged and not well looked after.

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After a couple of days the hostel began to annoy me, blasting music from morning until night, with the only good internet actually in the midst of the music. When the internet stopped functioning completely along with my inability to have a decent hot shower, I moved to another hostel closer to the centre of the city.

Near my new hostel, I discovered Zona Z, a large areas of malls, restaurants, bars and night clubs. Zona Z felt far cleaner and safer than La Candaleria. While I was there they were well into setting up for Christmas even though it was only early November.

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Before going to Bogotá, I’d arranged to meet a group of locals who had similar interests to me. They were amazing people and I ended up staying three weeks to spend time with them. They were some of the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels. One of the group took me under his wing, taking me to different places to visit and hang out with his friends. Then towards the end of my stay it was my birthday and one of the girls from the group surprised me with a cake. All for one random stranger who showed up one day to hang out with them.

During my stay was S.O.F.A (Salon del Ocio y la Fantasia) – loosely translated as ‘Leisure and Fantasy Lounge’, a 4 day popular culture convention. Included in the show was everything geek, from Cosplay to board games, every type of console, computers, robotics, paintball, RC vehicles, shows, art, concerts and much much more. The first two days were bustling, allowing time to walk around without too many people. The final two days – Saturday and Sunday – were insane, with so much noise and people everywhere. On the first and quietest day…

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All over South America I’ve been told that Colombian women are the prettiest on the continent. I can officially vouch for that one!

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The day after the convention I headed up the cable car to a church called Monserrate atop a hill for a wondrous view across the city.

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Across the valley, atop another hill is, surprise surprise, a statue of Christ, protecting the city.

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I also wanted to see the famous Gold Museum in Bogotá, but as it’s closed on Mondays I missed out.

Overall, while not overly touristy, it was the people of Bogotá who kept me there longer than I would have stayed. Next I’m heading north to the more touristy – and warmer – Medellin.

The World Wanderer

Cali, Colombia – Impressions

With 47 million people, Colombia has the second largest population in South America after Brazil and it’s whopping 201 million. My first port of call, Cali, is the 3rd biggest city in Colombia, with 2.5 million. Cali is known as the capital of sport and salsa dancing in Colombia.

Most people I’ve met on my travels have said Colombia was an amazing place with very friendly people. This is in vast contrast to what’s generally said about the country. While it’s less dangerous than it’s been, there’s still a guerrilla presence. They are kept at bay by the plentiful armed military, police and security guards everywhere.

After an eventful 20 hour bus ride from Quito in Ecuador, I welcomed my arrival. The bus was full of Colombians in their early 20’s who had boarded the bus in Lima, Peru, 2 days earlier! They were more raucous the normal, meaning I didn’t get much sleep overnight.

In Cali, I caught a taxi to my hostel and went out to check my surroundings. The hostel is in an outer suburb but I found a large area of restaurants just around the corner, including 2 supermarkets.

Then after a better sleep, I decided to see the city centre by taking a free walking tour. Cali has its share of awesome architecture, although in 1971 they decided to tear much of it down to make room for the Pan American Games. Some still remain though, such as this church…

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And this plaza with a history of the city on the wall beyond it.

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Of course it wouldn’t be South America without a fountain or sixty.

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Or the occasional colonial building…

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I only stayed three nights in Cali, so I tried to make the most of my time. I caught a taxi up to see Cristo Rey… yes, a giant statue of Christ. Many cities in South America have one of these in the hills ‘protecting’ the people. Unlike the one in Rio de Janeiro, this one is free.

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It also allowed me to see some awesome views of the city from above.

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Then after 3 rather warm days – it’s quite humid in Cali – I caught the bus north to the country’s capital – Bogotá.

The World 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