Tag Archives: Waterfalls

Sihanoukville, Cambodia – Impressions

Five hours by bus south-west of Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s only deep water port, Sihanoukville. The port was used by the US during the American War with Vietnam. When the US evacuated the region the Khmer Rouge attacked, seizing a US container ship. This led a two-day rescue operation by marines including airstrikes across the city.

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Sihanoukville is becoming more popular among tourists because of its long golden sandy beaches and peaceful untouched islands. It’s lack of infrastructure is the only reason it has yet to become like the southern Thailand islands, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. But it’s only a matter of time.

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Beyond hanging at the beach and cruising the islands, there’s little to do in the area. This didn’t stop me hiring a scooter and heading out to see what I could find.

Wat Leu
One of five main temples in and around Sihanoukville.

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Wat Leu is also called the Upper Wat as it stands on a hill providing great views along the bay.

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Kbal Chhay Waterfall
This small waterfall is 7km from Sihanoukville and the main source of fresh clean water for the city.

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The falls became a hiding place for the Khmer Rouge in 1963 effectively cutting off the water supply.

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Island Tour
With little else left on land to do here but sit at the beach, I booked myself on a boat and was out on the beach waiting for it in the warm early morning air.

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During the tour, we visited three different islands, swam, stopped for a bbq lunch on the beach and snorkelled. As the water was mostly murky, it wasn’t the best for snorkelling but I enjoyed the time anyway.

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On our return, I hung out at a $5 bbq restaurant on the beach watching the sun set.

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Overall, Sihanoukville is a lovely, serene and peaceful place to stay for a couple of days if you like basking in the sun. The location where I was staying was a distance out of town and was particularly relaxed and quiet.

Next, Siem Reap and the much-lauded Angkor Wat.

The Lone Trail Wanderer

Langkawi Island, Malaysia – Impressions

Langkawi the Jewel of Kedah, as it’s officially known, is Malaysia’s answer to Bali, albeit a much quieter version. Tourists come to the island because of the amazing beaches and the lack of crowds, giving it a more secluded feel than nearby Penang.

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Langkawi, meaning Island of the Reddish-Brown Eagle, was originally believed to be cursed. A beautiful young woman named Mahsuri was accused of adultery and executed on the island. With her dying breath she brought down a curse of bad luck for seven generations. Her tomb is a popular tourist location, although a village has been built around it and fees charged to enter.

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Palau Langkawi is slightly larger than Penang Island and like its southern sister, the best way to get around it is via scooter. Yay! While more expensive to hire than in Penang they’re still cheap at only NZ$12 per day. A tank of gas will cost just over NZ$2 and will get close to two laps around the entire island.

Beaches
Surrounded with beaches of white sand, Langkawi is definitely a picturesque paradise. Most people stay in the touristy Cenang area, with Pantai Cenang perhaps the beach most similar to Kuta Beach in Bali.

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And within walking distance is another popular beach, Pantai Tangah.

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If you have transport, there are more beaches within reach. Only 30 minutes north is the empty Pantai Kok.

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And another 30 minutes through the mountains to the northern side of the island there’s such beauties as Pantai Tanjung Rhu, right near Scarborough Fish n Chips, the best on the island.

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Waterfalls
Scattered around the island are several waterfalls. While they aren’t spectacularly tall or wide, they’re enjoyed by locals and visitors alike as swimming spots. On our scooters, we stopped by at 7 Wells waterfall…

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… and Durian Perangai Falls.

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Oriental Village

Located at the northern end of Pantai Kok, the oriental village is an open air complex surrounding a small lake. It’s an entertainment zone with many different things to do. For the kids, there’s the water balls, round or tubular…

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The village, while not very oriental looking, has elephant rides, eagle viewing, tiger watching and snake cuddling…

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It’s also home to the Skycab, the cable car that takes people to the top of nearby mountains…

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The panoramic views over most of the island are spectacular. While the ascent can be a little breathtaking, the journey is worth it for the views alone.

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Overall, Langkawi is a perfect place to take a break away from the world. With only 65,000 residents, it’s a very peaceful place with a handful of tourist options and many beaches to relax at.

Next we head north for the craziness of Christmas and New Years in Thailand.

The Trail Wanderers

Looking Back, Central America

While it took ten months to work my way up the massive continent of South America, three months seemed only a short time to explore the Central America sub-continent even though it’s barely larger than Colombia. But since I was in the neighbourhood…

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Panama

San Blas Islands

With no straightforward bus route from Colombia to Panama, I chose a five-day cruise through the San Blas Islands, finishing in Panama City. The San Blas Islands are a glorious chain of islands in the Caribbean Sea, but make sure you do your research as the cruises aren’t always up to standard.

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Panama City

After so long in South America Panama City feels a little like home with its massive skyscrapers, malls, cinemas and fast food chains. When travelling long-term you lose the sense of time and on arrival in Panama days before Christmas I forget that it was prime holiday season for the locals. With most of the holiday destinations booked solid and long lines to get on any buses, I decided to spend the holidays hanging around the city. While there I visited the colonial old quarter of Casco Viejo, the canal and the ruins of Panama Viejo.

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Being in Panama City feels like being in the United States. There are so many Americans and I rarely needed to use my spanish skills as most people spoke english.

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Bocas del Toro

After the holiday break I headed west to Bocas del Toro, an archipelago on the border of Costa Rica. In the surf/party town I took the opportunity to spend a day on a catamaran snorkelling around the reefs and another sitting in a hammock at the hostel.

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Boquete

Then taking a chicken bus, I spent three days in the cooler climes of the mountain town of Boquete. While there I climbed the tallest mountain in the country – Volcán Barú. The views were wonderful from the top, but starting the 26km hike at midnight is difficult. So to recover I spent time in some natural hot springs just outside of town.

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Costa Rica

San José

Costa Rica has a reputation for being the most expensive country in Central America. From the capital, San José, I took a tour to the top of a volcano before boating along a river to see monkeys, a sloth, caimans, crocodiles and many different types of birds. It was during this tour that Iguana was served for lunch.

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Liberia

Next I headed north to the city of Liberia from where I visited the beach town of Playa del Coco and a set of waterfalls.

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Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur

My first stop in Nicaragua was the surf town of San Juan del Sur. A beautiful place to spend a couple of days with bars and beach-front restaurants aplenty. The town even has a statue of Christ atop a hill at the end of the beach.

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Isla Ometepe

No trip to Nicaragua is complete without catching the ferry across Lake Nicaragua to Ometepe Island with its pair of volcanos. Cruising around the volcanos on a scooter is a lot of fun, visiting beaches, cafés and thermal pools. Both volcanos are climbable and a group of us scaled the largest of the two.

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Granada

Next, I was on a bus to the touristic city of Granada at the northern end of the lake for some amazing food and a visit to yet another volcano, this one spewing smoke from the crater within its crater.

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León

Then a quick stop off on the city of Léon to go hurtling down the side of an active volcano on a volcano board.

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Honduras and El Salvador

With limited time, I set foot only briefly in both countries, mainly at customs on the borders. San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador seemed nice though for the thirty minutes we stopped there for lunch.

Guatemala

Antigua

Most travellers in Central America rave about Guatemala.  I arrived into Antigua to find another touristic city at the base of another volcano. Unlike other parts of Central America, Antigua has a lot of colonial architecture, although after numerous earthquakes over the centuries, many are in ruins.

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San Pedro la Laguna

I enjoyed a couple of days in San Pedro la Laguna on Lago Antitla with its thin streets, crazy Tuk Tuk drivers, great small restaurants and amazing lake views.

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Flores and Tikal

Then after a brief visit back in Antigua, I caught a bus to the north of the country to the island of Flores on Lago de Petén Itzá.

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Flores is a tourist destination and gateway to the great Maya ruins of Tikal, where I spent several hours exploring.

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Belize

Caye Caulker

Then on the one year anniversary of my time in Latin America I arrived in Belize, an english speaking country. Staying on the party island of Caye Caulker, I spent some time in the pristine waters snorkelling with Nurse sharks and Eagle Rays, some larger than I am.

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Mexico

While Mexico is actually in North America I included the southern portions as part of my Central American adventure. From Caye Caulker, I caught a ferry to Chetumal in Mexico and stopped for the night before heading on.

Palenque and Yaxchilán

After an eight-hour bus ride I arrived at the city of Palenque to continue The Maya Ruins Trail I began at Tikal. My first stop was the peaceful ruins of Yaxchilán and its connected site of Bonampak on the Guatemalan Border.

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Next it was to the Palenque ruins only twenty minutes out of the city.

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Merida and Uxmal

Four hours north in the Yucatán is Merida, a large and popular touristic city and the nearby ruins of Uxmal and one of its satellite cities, Kabah.

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Valladolid and Chichén Itzá

Then it was across to the city of Valladolid to see Mexico’s most visited archaeological site, Chichén Itzá, seen by more people every year than Peru’s Macchu Pichu.

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Tulum

Then it was back to the Caribbean Coastline to the town of Tulum and the Maya fortress of the same name.

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Cancún and Playa del Carmen

The final distinction in my thirteen month trip through Latin America, Cancún, where I did little more than prepare for my exit from Latin America, but managed a quick visit to the beaches at Playa del Carmen.

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Next, is a well deserved rest from travelling for six months to save and plan a year through Asia.

Adios America Latina,

The World Wanderer.

Costa Rica – Adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 2 – Central South America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…and to see Caimans, smaller cousins of Alligators.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 1 – Patagonia, South America

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

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

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

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After a 12 day trip to the White Continent…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World Wanderer

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.

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

Santa Cruz trek, Cordillera Blanca, Peru

While there are many hikes in the Cordillera Blanca, the Santa Cruz hike is the most popular, and is usually done with a guide. Hiking with a guide doesn’t feel like true hiking, especially when they carry half of the equipment, set up tents and prepare your food. So, I decided to do it without one. As it happens, four Americans at my hostel were also planning to go guideless. And while I prefer to hike alone, I wouldn’t be totally alone in the mountains… We booked a bus to the start and prepared to leave early the following morning.

Day 1

Not having a good night’s sleep the night before a hike is a bad thing. I discovered this on the Colca Canyon hike and well, it seemed to happen again!

The bus trip to the beginning of the hike is five hours on a local bus. Unlike the five of us lads, peruvians have short legs, so there was not a lot of room in the bus. The cramped first two hours of the trip was on a sealed road and then the last three hours was to be on a very rocky dirt road. Five minutes onto that dirt road, however, the bus gave up and with black smoke pouring out the side, the transmission fell out. The pool of red transmission fluid under the bus is not obvious in this photo, but it’s there…

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After an hour the bus was fixed, but only enough for it to return to base leaving us to wait for another one. Three hours later it arrived and we were on our way again. Three hours of jaw rocking dirt road meant no napping for me!

We were delivered to the small village of Yanama and discovered a group of three girls and a french couple who were also doing the hike without a guide. While the french couple were quite typical of many french people I’ve met in South America so far – they treated us like we didn’t exist and totally avoided us – the three girls decided to join the group. With eight of us, and two particularly chatty girls, my hike was going to be noisier than I wanted. So, I let the other seven head off and dropped to the back to walk alone.

The first part of the hike leads out of Yanama and down the hill via a steep dry track, crossing one dirt road on the way and eventually the river via a concrete bridge. I headed left as the trail widened leading through a couple of villages where every small child ran up and demanded bon-bons. Never give the kids bon-bons!

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Finally, I came to my first climb of the day. It wasn’t a large one but my lack of sleep caused me to struggle up it. I met the others at the top and stopped for a rest as they headed off again. I was hoping there wasn’t going to be many more climbs as the direct sunshine on top of my tiredness was draining. But there were a few. Eventually, I rounded a bend in the valley and saw a group of tents a couple of kilometres away and figured this was my companions. I set out towards them, making slow progress across some small hills.

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I was getting close to the tents when I came across a pair of cows on the trail, staring me down. Did you know that more hikers are killed every year by cows than anything else? It’s true! Google it. Not wishing to be trampled to death for getting too close, I went around, through a boggy area of ground. Exhausting!

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I finally made it to the tents to discover it wasn’t my group but a guide and his party. He pointed me further along the trail, so I struggled on. After another kilometre I still hadn’t located my amigos and with the trail leading up some hills, I picked a spot for a camp near the river and set up my tent. After cooking dinner and getting ready for the next day, I slumped into my sleeping bag and slept.

Day 2

From my planning, I was aware that Day 2 was the most difficult day of the hike. From my camp at 3,800 metres (above sea level) I would walk 13 kilometres and climb nearly a kilometre to a pass called Punta Union at a height of 4,750 metres. Followed by a further 3 kilometres down the other side.

While The Choro trek in Bolivia began 50 metres higher, I only had to climb 100m total before descending on that hike. If that 100m was hard because of the altitude, this one was going to be a very difficult day indeed fighting the altitude the entire way.

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I packed up and left my camping spot. After a fairly good sleep, I had more energy, so I set off along the trail with more vigour. But while climbing hills was still hard, it was easier than day 1.

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After a kilometre, I found the empty campsite where the other seven had camped. I headed along the valley slowly climbing as I went. As the day progressed I climbed higher along the valley. I consider any height above 3,700m to have a thin atmosphere – with less air pressure. Being a large framed, large lunged person, the higher I went the more trouble I had getting enough air and spent a lot of the time out of breath. There was a point where I had to take a break to catch my breath after every 10 steps; but only when climbing.

I climbed slowly over small knolls and past several tarns – small mountain lagoons, with towering snow covered mountains and glaciers across from me. I came over a knoll to see the ridge line I still had to climb, with the small gap at the top that was the pass.

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I continued on and the higher I went, the harder it became. Every five steps I had to take a rest to get my breath back. I even took my pack off every 100m or so for a longer break. As I climbed, my rate got slower and with only about 50 metres to the gap I slowed to only 3 steps before resting. Then for the final few metres it was only one step before resting. So…slow… But I did have a good view back along the valley.

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When I finally went through the gap, I passed an altitude marker and slumped down on the other side in the sun, taking my pack off and uttering, ‘Thank f**k for that!”

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Down was a lot easier and I powered through the switchbacks below a massive white glacier…

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…and above an azure mountain lake.

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I could see tents in the distance and marched on feeling more energised that I was no longer climbing. I stopped only once before I arrived at the tents 2-3 kilometres from the gap only to find it was another tour group. So, I walked on across the flat river plains following the river.

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Eventually, passing another guided group, I found the tents of my group and set up camp.

Day 3

The main part of Day 3 takes only 3 hours, so to extend it most people climb to Laguna Arhueycocha.

We started the day climbing slightly to a higher valley. Slightly is still difficult at 4,000m.

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On reaching the valley we left our packs with covers on as it had rained overnight. Even walking along the high valley without packs wasn’t easy and after a couple of kilometres I arrived exhausted at the base of the wall that climbs up to the laguna. The rest of the group decided to climb it, but I opted to stay at the bottom. I’ve seen plenty of glacier lakes in this trip, so decided to save my energy.

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There were some buildings nearby, so I decided to investigate those instead. They were only 50m away, up a climb of about 5 metres, but even that was exhausting. The buildings were empty, but looked to have been a camping area with a place for donkeys. While I was there it began to snow a little.

When the group returned, we headed back down the valley – an easier walk – donned out packs and climbed back down to the main valley. For the rest of the walk, we followed the valley and river along, firstly through a dry river bed thick with sand.

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Sand is difficult to walk on carrying a pack. We climbed about 10 metres up the other bank and followed the trail that undulated as it went. We passed along the side of a large laguna and took a break for lunch at the other end as we looked along the valley.

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We were to pass another laguna, but it turned out to be little more than a marsh. Perhaps it’s larger in the rainy season. Cows, ponies, horses and donkeys were everywhere as we walked along the sometimes sandy, sometimes rocky trail. Eventually I saw the campsite ahead and marched off, arriving to a set of rocky walls at a place called Llamacorral. I pitched my tent as the others arrived and we began preparing dinner when we got a visit from a pony who decided he didn’t want grass for dinner.

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Later, we made a fire in a deep rocky fire pit and sat around talking for the evening.

Day 4

The sky was clear the next day, so after breakfast I packed up my things and headed off, walking ahead of the group for a change. Most of the day saw me walking the rocky track along the side of the valley as the river snaked its way through the landscape. There wasn’t much to see as I walked and after 90 minutes I took a short break off the trail. When I was putting my pack back on, I saw the group go past.

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I marched after them, I saw a waterfall opposite which marked the halfway point of the day. For the rest of the walk, the trail descended following the river down through the gorge. With the sun high in the sky and the sandy trail, it was very hot. A distinct contrast from the day before with its slight snow.

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An hour later, I rounded a bend to find my group stripping down to their underwear at a nice spot in the river. The gingerly got into the freezing water. I was steaming hot, so I stripped down and threw myself into the river. No wading here, boys and girls, the only way into a freezing river is as quickly as possible. I was out just as quickly though and drying on the side.

Then, we were off again and 20 minutes later arrived at the end of the trail after passing a group of larger people heading back the other way. I wondered how they were going to manage the climbing. They were part of a guided group, so weren’t carrying much gear, but they didn’t look as fit as my group, and we struggled at times.

Five minutes after we’d signed out of the trail, we were walking past a house and the owner rushed out offering us cold soft drinks and beer. He told us he’d call a Collectivo – mini van – for us. It would take us to a larger town where another Collectivo would take us back to Huaraz.

As we were driven away in the van, we could see the gap from which we’d exited the hike and the surrounding landscapes.

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Conclusion

Because the trek was at such altitude, it goes down in my books as being the most difficult hike I’ve ever done. With day 2 being the most difficult day’s hike, even more difficult than day three of the Colca Canyon hike. Did my week in Lima at a low altitude cause me to lose the acclimatisation I’d previously gained in Bolivia and Northern Peru? Probably. I should have given it a couple of extra days in Huaraz before I did the hike. But these are the things you learn.

Next, I’m off north to the beach city of Mancora in far northern Peru before crossing the border into Ecuador. I’ll see what adventures await me there.

The Trail Wanderer.