Thursday, 29 November 2007

Ecuador and Galapagos Islands

The first stop in Ecuador was the northern town of Otavalo, one of the richest indigenous villages in the country and with a famous artesan market.

Near Otavalo there are a few nearby lakes, one of which is Laguna Cuicocha, a crater lake on the side of Volcano Cotacachi. There is a 14 km walk around the crater that traverses paramo (high altitude grassland) and a few stands of pines with amazing views.

Green flowers, Laguna Cuicocha

Quito, the capital, is at 2800 metres and the second highest capital city in the world after La Paz in Bolivia. We stayed for US$6.50 each in a clean place including breakfast.

Dog school, Quito

Demonstration, Quito

Not wanting to visit the usual tourists' sites, we visited the botanical garden and the orchid greenhouses (one warm, one cool). One in every 4 plants in Ecuador is an orchid. Here are a few...

South of Quito is a small town called BaƱos (baths) known for its hot springs. It lies on the Andes but there is a bike ride on a road that descends about 1500m into the Amazon basin. It follows a river with cliffs on each side and spectacular waterfalls. The vegetation along the way changes from cloud forest to tropical forest with palms and banana trees. An off-track detour had us hauling the bikes over trees felled by landslides. Near the end there was a fried fish stall with a view over a wide floodplain that drains into the Amazon river. To return you just get on a bus heading uphill.

Off-track section

Amazon Basin

We decided at the last minute to go to the Galapagos Islands, which involves taking a boat for a few days with a prearranged itinerary for most people. The islands themselves are desolate, covered with dry, dead looking vegetation and cacti. The absence of land predators has allowed giant tortoises and land iguanas to grow to enormous sizes and sea birds to nest on the ground. The cold currents means a lot of food for penguins and sea lions. The water was about 18 degrees celcius so we needed wetsuits on the equator!

We flew from Guayaquil to Baltra Island and spent a night in the main town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island. The tour started that afternoon and led us to a beach with marine iguanas lazing on the rocks.

Not a pretty fellow

The next day we visited the Charles Darwin Research Centre, where giant tortoises are bred. The eggs are taken from nearby islands and hatched here. The babies are protected from predators for four years before being released back to their islands. From the centre we travelled by bus to a farm to see the tortoises in the wild.

Galapagos Tortoises in the wild

We boarded our boat that afternoon and motored overnight to a new island with distinctive red sand beaches and friendly sea lions.

Roger chatting to a sea loin on a red sand beach

We visited two more islands over the next two days and saw more friendly and interesting animals.

The Galapagos Penguin, the most northern living penguin in the world

Red Footed Booby

Nesting Nazca Booby and chick

Blue Footed Boobys doing a mating dance

The most exciting part of the trip was getting engaged! We had spent the day swimming with penguins, iguanas and sea lions and climbed a hill on the island to watch the sunset. After a beautiful sunset over the twin bays below, Roger waited until everyone else had left before asking Luisa to marry him. Of course, she said yes!

Lookout where we got engaged

In great spirits, we travelled back to Guayaquil in Ecuador and caught a bus into the mountains, to a town called Cuenca. From Cuenca it is a day trip to Cajas National Park which sits at about 4000m and is full of lakes, marshes and a maze of confusing walking trails. We tried to climb a mountain but lost the trail, so walked for a few hours through many lakes, stopping just before the afternoon rain.

Alpaquitas, El Cajas National Park


South of Cuenca is a long bus ride to unremarkable Loja and the chilled and slightly touristy town of Vilcabamba. This was a great place to spend a couple of days with many walking and horse riding options through the hills.

Roger making friends

Luisa on a mountain trail

Our route from there headed south-west down to the deserts of northern Peru.

Friday, 2 November 2007



From Panama there is no good way to get to South America by road. The Darien Gap is passable on a motorbike in the dry season if you manage to avoid the guerrillas in the area. Many sailboats take tourists back and forth between Panama and Cartagena, Colombia, taking five days and apparently being quite a good trip. But we chose to fly. This was a reasonable option but we had some problems: Firstly we were required to have tickets out of the country which we didn't plan on buying, and secondly, a lady at the airport wanted us to carry on her unaccompanied baggage. We were coerced into buying return tickets that, after much time and negotiation, were refunded in Colombia. As for the mystery bag, she convinced another stranger to carry it.


It was worth it though, beacause we ended up here in Cartagena, a beautiful colonial city on Colombia's Caribbean coast. The architecture is European and the atmosphere tropical and colourful.

Pigeon feeder

Steel people playing chess while pigeons arbitrate

We took a day trip to a 15 metre high volcano that is slowly spewing mud. The mud is really dense and you float on top. You can also push people around and they slide across the top of it. Lots of fun!

A mud bath

From Cartagena we flew to Medellin, where Luisa's friends Alejandro and Magdalena are from. Medellin used to be the drug capital of the world and a dangerous place with "a lot of death" as the locals say. It was famous for the Medellin Cartel until its leader Pablo Escobar was hunted down and executed. However, significant changes and a new Colombian president mean it is now one of the safest cities in Latin America. The residents are positive about the future of their city and very welcoming - in this way it felt a bit like Croatia. It is high on our list of favourite places so far. That could be because we splurged on a grand old five star hotel with a pool, gym, sauna and buffet breakfast for about the same price as a dorm in Europe! Medellin is also proud of its beautiful, very large-busted women, helped by the presumably thriving cosmetic surgery industry.

In Colombia, drinking in public is accepted and common. Rather than trying to curb it, police just make sure that they are well represented and the public parks and squares have good atmospheres at night. So one night we just sat in a park drinking aguardiente (like Sambuca) watching the locals, who were all dressed in costumes, go about partying. It was never clear what the celebration was for, but that wasn't the point.

Our favourite piece of art: An AK47 converted into a guitar

A highlight of Medellin was visiting the art gallery and seeing many works of art interpreting the time of violence. On another theme, Colombia's famous artist Fernando Botero, famous for his distinctive "gordos" (fat people), has work displayed all over the city in statues and paintings.

A "gorda" by Fernando Botero

More gordos in the city centre

Clown entertaining traffic for tips

A fun feature of Medellin is that its metro system includes a cable car ride up a hill over the outlying suburbs, for no extra charge!

Cable car

The Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe is strongly committed to combating guerrilla groups, mainly because his father was tortured and killed by one in the 1980s. Violent crime was halved during his first two years of office and the military presence is now strongly felt. During most journeys in Colombia, the bus would stop at military checkpoints where Roger and the rest of the men would be lined up and patted down by police. Meanwhile, the women would watch the proceedings from the comfort of their seats.

Parque Las Nevadas

Manizales is a town situated near the Colombian Andes where snow falls a few degrees north of the equator. We took a tour with a few jovial Colombians (as they all are) to a national park, El Parque Las Nevadas, to see snow at 4800 metres. We then walked to 5100 metres, which is not the top of the volcano, but it was enough given that we weren't acclimatised.

As far as we got

Solento is a sleepy country town in the highlands further south on the road from Medellin. It is popular with locals for a famous valley of wax palms nearby. It was here we were able to hire horses for the day and ride around without a guide - at last!

Solento's main square

Small town life

We walked to the top of a hill where an old man was waiting and pointed out the cemetery: "It's only a small one... not many people die here".

Moth and rainbow

Next we went to Cali where apparently the beauties (natural and enhanced) rival those from Medellin. There is also a good zoo that breeds, rehabilitates and releases animals like condors into the wild. The animals seemed well cared for and it was a pleasant change from all the starving street dogs in central america.

Tapir and bird


Colombians like their music and they like to party. Even supermarkets play salsa instead of elevator music. Old painted "chivas" (buses) regularly take partygoers on a ride around town with live music and aguardiente on board.

Preparing the Chiva for a night out in Popoyan

However, we chose to attend a free classical music concert instead and hear an impressive rendition of Beethoven's "Pathetique", on a Steinway no less.


While flicking channels on cable TV we came across Las Aventuras de Bindi. The whole Irwin family was dubbed into Spanish. "Crikey!" doesn't quite have the same effect with a heavy Spanish accent.

Las Lajas, near the Ecuadorian border, is where a stunning church was built spanning a gorge because someone once saw a vision of the Virgin Mary there. It is a popular prilgramige site for locals and you can also sit on a llama and have your photo taken in the carpark for 50 cents - cool, no?

Las Lajas

Luisa and short llama

We enjoyed Colombia mainly because of the Colombians who are a charmingly polite and gracious breed. We were often approached just because people were interested in talking to us. This is most likely the result of the small number of travellers who come here and the ones who do are largely English and European compared to the large number of Americans from the US in Central America. Outside of Cartagena we only met two other foreigners in total and they were bicycle tourists.