Tag Archives: Travelling

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

Quito, Ecuador – Adventures

Quito is the capital of Ecuador with about 2.5 million people. It’s perhaps also best known for being the city on the equator.

Of the countries I’ve been to so far, little is spoken about what you can do in Ecuador except, of course, the Galapagos Islands. But Quito has just as much to offer as many other cities on the continent. Including the view from the hostel at night.

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Old Town – The Historical Centre
On my first day back from the Galapagos Islands, three of us from the hostel decided to go for a walk around Old Town. The Historical Centre of Quito has many of the city’s plentiful impressive pieces of architecture. We wandered around the streets of Old Town heading from building to building for 2 hours enjoying the views.

Lastly we headed to the centrepiece building, the Cathedral.

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It’s very impressive, but is also getting a little old and hasn’t been as well maintained as some of the other cathedrals in South America. After scaling some rickety ladders, we climbed up into one of the towers, getting a good look at the surrounding city and the pair of clock towers.

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We then climbed into the belfries of one of the clock towers for some more views of the city.

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New Town – La Mariscal
New town is considered to be the entertainment centre of the city with its trendy bars, restaurants and clubs. The hub is Plaza Foch, a crossroad surrounded by plazas. It’s also affectionally known as Gringolandia. One of the inner quarters of Plaza Foch…

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Mitad del Mundo – Centre of the World
Quito is in a unique position in the world, sitting as it does right on the equator. To celebrate this fact the city has erected a museum on each of the equators, the old one and the new one. Wait, two equators?

A great monument stands at a position that claims to be the equator 0º0’0”. This is where many surveys placed it, but with precise GPS readings this was determined to be incorrect. The old monument with it’s 5 ton ball on top…

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14 years ago, the equator was determined to be 240m north of the structure. To commemorate this they painted a red line on the ground signifying the actual line (which most people straddle)…

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They also built an outdoor museum around it, dealing with both the equator and the people who once lived here. It’s interesting to see the water test, where they pour water down a sink on either side of the line to show it goes down in different directions. It’s also interesting to see an actual shrunken head from 150 years ago. Head shrinking was seen to be an honour soon after death….

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Reserva Geobontanica Pululahua
Just near the equator on the north side of Quito is a large volcanic crater. It’s extinct and collapsed in on itself 2500 years ago. It’s since been transformed into farm land. We stopped by as part of the tour to Mitad del Mundo, but low cloud blocked the mountains on the far side, losing the sense of it being a crater.

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El Panecillo

On a large hill in the middle of the city and viewable from most of the city is a monument to the Virgin Mary. Climbing the hill is dangerous so we attempted to get a taxi to take us. Of the couple we asked none were keen to take us anywhere near it.

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El Teleférico – The Aerial Tramway

Starting in the central city, a cable car goes up to the active Pichincha volcano some 4100m above sea level for some fantastic view down over the city.

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These are just a few of the activities on offer. And being in the centre of the country, Quito is used as a hub. It allows ease of travel to places such as Mindo to the north – a town buried in a rainforest; Cotopaxi National Park – to climb one of the tallest active volcanos in the world; and the Galapagos – needs little explanation, among others.

I was originally planning to travel to Cotopaxi National Park for a hike next. But as it’s legally required to carry a permit and hire a guide, we decided it would be too expensive, so are now heading further south to walk around the base of Chimborazo – Ecuador’s tallest mountain.

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

Galapagos Islands, Equador – Adventures

The Galapagos Islands is an archipelago of volcanic islands about 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador. While they’re technically Pacific Islands, they don’t have the same tropical islands feel like that of Tonga or Fiji. There are no palm trees here, for example.

Most people travelling to the Galapagos come for a cruise to see the diverse animal species. Most cruises are organised from the mainland before arriving and can be expensive. So, I decided to book a flight to the islands and to look for a ‘last minute’ deal when I got there, like I had for Antarctica 7 months ago. If you have time to spare, this is the cheaper way to go.

After an hour in a taxi from the hostel to the airport, a 30 minute stop off in the port city of Guayaquil and a 90 minute flight, I finally arrived on the islands. The airport is situated on a desert island, not the sandy romantic type, but a more rough dry vegetation type. What they don’t advertise is the US$100 entry fee into the National Marine Park – which covers all of the islands. Luckily, I had just enough on me, otherwise they would have taken my passport and I would have had to pay and collect it somewhere in town.

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I caught a bus to the ferry pier, caught a ferry to Santa Cruz Island, and another bus to Puerto Ayora. After my early flight I napped for the hour and a half it took to cross the island. I woke as I arrived in the port town…

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At the hostel I met a Uraguayan guy, Ernesto, who I ended up hanging out with for the rest of my time on the islands. We were greeted by the owner Kevin, from the US. Kevin took us on a free tour of the town introducing many of the aspects that were useful to know. At the end of the tour, Ernesto and I booked a 4-day cruise at a fairly good price. It was a couple of days away, so we explored some parts of the island.

Giant Tortoises
At the top of the island is a sanctuary for the massive giant tortoises that can only be found on these islands. They wallow in mud, chew grass and take very leisurely strolls down the side of the main cross island road. While fencing is used to separate properties on the islands, the tortoises are allowed to go anywhere they want, albeit slowly.

A taxi to anywhere in town is US$1 by law, but to get to the Giant Tortoise sanctuary it costs US$30 and the driver who takes you up there becomes your impromptu tour guide – thankfully Ernesto could translate. At the end of the tour, the driver takes you to several other places before dropping you back at your hostel.

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The reserve on Santa Cruz Island isn’t large but we met many of the tortoises who were just sitting around munching grass or drinking muddy water. The very large ones are the males (some 1.5m long) while females are smaller. There were several young aged 3-5 years, which were about the size of normal turtles. You’re not allow to approach to within 2 metres of the animals, but even at 5 metres some of them pull in their heads and hiss. They could no doubt give a nasty bite, so we kept our distance.

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Lava Tube
After visiting the tortoises, the driver took us to a large lava tunnel and dropped us at the start before going to wait for us at the exit. Stairs descend into the tube, which was slightly taller and wider than a train tunnel. The tube is nearly 500m long and is lit by sporadic lights.

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Near the end the tunnel roof descends, giving only a crawl space for about 2 metres. After crawling through on our bellies we met the taxi and were taken back to town.

Swimming Hole
While it’s not steaming hot in the islands, it can be a little muggy first thing in the morning. The day before the cruise was cloudy but warm, so we decided to find the swimming hole we’d been told about. Just prior to leaving, an English couple arrived at the hostel and we invited them to join us.

From the pier at the centre of town a water taxi takes us across the small harbour for 60 cents, zig-zagging through the yachts.
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We then walked across volcanic rock for 20 minutes to a natural fissure in the rock about 40 metres deep. The bottom 10 metres is filled with water.

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A pair of bikini clad girls from Florida at the edge of the swimming hole told us the water was cold. Of course the best way to get into cold water is to dive. But, the water wasn’t as cold as expected and the four of us ended up swimming for an hour, occasionally climbing up the sides and jumping from the rocks.

Eating
Puerto Ayroa has plentiful restaurants and being in the Pacific, seafood is common. For the three nights we stayed we ate in three different places. Firstly, at the pier where the boats bring daily fresh catches. In the morning they sell their catches of fish and crayfish, then in the evening they have a cheap seafood fry up. Very tasty.

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On night two, we discovered a street where all the small restaurants block the road by setting up plastic tables down the middle. At one particular restaurant, I ate a local fish dish – Caviche – where they slowly cook raw fish in a lime throughout the day. Yum!

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Day three, with our new English friends, we ate at a normal restaurant. Boring, but still tasty.

Tortuga Bay Beach
Lastly, on returning from the cruise, we decided to head to Tortuga Bay beach, a 30 minute walk along a 2.5km path. The day we went was warm but very cloudy and when we arrived at the beach it was beautiful but rather cold.

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As we walked we spotted several black Marine Iguanas wandering down the beach. Middle right in the above picture. When necessary, he uses his long tail to swim through the surf. Then, at one end of the beach, we also found an Iguana pile…

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As evening approaches, the Iguanas head a special location and pile on top of each other to conserve heat during the night. The Marine Iguanas are the only species of in the world that do this, and at a half a metre long each, that’s a big pile.

Next, the 4-day cruise around the islands.

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