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February 2016

Week six: impulsiveness followed by overdue idleness

Finally we made it out of Baños; I was feeling substantially better, whilst Harry was at a particularly low, rum-induced ebb. Perfect day to spend on a bus down to Cuenca, with nothing to see but clouds and a dubbed action movie. We got brave (or lazy) and adopted the local attitude to buses: no need to buy a ticket, just jump on a bus that looks like it’s going in the right direction and see where you end up. Seemed to work rather well!

Arrived in Cuenca and proceeded to undertake the main Cuencan activity: having a wander.
We had some delicious food down by a gushing river, some slightly more questionable (but infinitely more authentic) food in a bustling indoor market and a trip to the Panama hat museum. I use ‘museum’ here in the loosest sense of the word; it was a shop, with some giant hat hole-punch machines. But hey, if this is where the ubiquitous traveller hat was invented, it was necessary to at least say we saw how they were made.

Cuenca’s main charm lies in its overload of churches. Each one comes complete with a nice square for a nice sit; necessary when we were caught off guard by the heat here. Cuenca seemed to be the Popayan of Ecuador: beautifully colonial and best experienced from sitting in a square and doing little else!

In an attempt to be well organised (for once), we ventured to the bus station to prepare for our grand parting of ways, as Harry, Janna and Martin (our German cohort) were heading down into Peru. However, as with all the best laid plans, we were swayed by a particularly idyllic looking photo of Mancora beach and I was on a bus for an unscheduled mini-break in Peru before the day was out!

Following a particularly fruitless two hour queue at the border, whilst all the immigration officers simultaneously took their break, we arrived in Mancora. Flies everywhere and, at low tide, the dilapidated beach left a little to be desired.
However, as the sun scorched, the sea crept toward us and crowds of cool surf-folk flocked, we adopted the perfect people watching position and really began to indulge in beach life.

Being a surfers’ paradise, the waves were particularly strong there. Thus, when I wasn’t being attacked by waves- either trashing my clothes or pulling them clean off- I was in the shadey end of the swimming pool. Nothing more than a bobbing head, being fed and cerveza-ed from the side.

We wiled away days by the pool, ate a lot of seafood and indulged in the three daily happy hours! Opposite to expectation, nighttime was dedicated to the beach, with locals and gringos alike swarming to party in the sand. The only drawback was that every beach bar wanted in on the action, thus the battle for best speakers (and worst song) was deafening!

Three days of achieving blissfully little and now it really was time to say goodbye. Somewhat akin to the bride leaving a wedding, I was escorted to my tuktuk and eagerly waved off by my new international family.

As I boarded my bus, complete with more people than seats, my regression to being a solo traveller was off to a questionable start. But I scored a seat, had a sleep and successfully made it to Guayaquil.

What can be said about Guayaquil?…
I battled several buses and metros to make it to the waterfront promenade (aided by a nice Ecuadorian man who navigated me through the city’s transport confusion, via running a few of his errands!) and found myself somewhat underwhelmed. Imagine Brighton pier, but shit.

There’s a rather pathetic pirate ship, a lot of bronze statues of old men and a small botanical garden diffused with pollution from the main road. There is a relatively nice cathedral… But nothing to write home about.

Just as quickly as I’d arrived, I was off again. Straight to the airport to attempt to make myself understood and to get to the Galápagos!
I failed to straighten out the clerical catastrophe that is my return flight and then was fleeced for every penny I had before I’d even stepped foot on the islands. But, as I write this sizzling on the deck of a dive boat in the Pacific, I feel as though the financial and organisational struggles will be worthwhile!

Week five: rain, rain, go away!

First week in Ecuador has been pretty liquid heavy- be it measured in alcohol consumed, rain absorbed or rivers fallen in.

We began in Quito, where all the sights are best enjoyed by climbing up things. From our glamorous hostel roof terrace, we could pick and choose the best spots to go exploring the sprawling expanse of city around us.

From lowest to highest: climbing the gothic monstrosity Basilica was almost an extreme sport in itself. Reaching the organ balcony gave an impressive enough view of the spectacular vaulted ceiling, but then things just kept going up and up. Up to the revoltingly modern clock, via an unexpected cafe and gift shop, to the top of the towers, offering a supreme buenavista over Quito’s colonial Old Town. Further satisfying my penchant for climbing buildings, a rickety bridge, a la Indiana Jones, crossed the length of the roof to another spire. This time the ascent was on some sketchy ladders- adding a level of adrenaline, often lacking from Cathedral visits! From here you could also appreciate that the church’s gargoyles were in fact Galapagós birds and iguanas; way less menacing than usual!

If you don’t want your view somewhat blocked by the church itself, then climbing the hill and, beyond that, the statue of the chainmail-esque virgin/angel/dragon-strangler, offers yet more sprawling vistas along the valley. Unfortunately you can only reach her feet, and the journey upwards is strangely populated by small architects’ models of just about every church in Quito. Still, can’t complain.

Finally, for those who want to climb without risking over exertion, the cable car system can take you all the way from a dodgy looking theme park that time forgot, to the top of the mountain. From here it became apparent quite how unexpectedly enormous Quito really is, and, as we struggled to breathe, how high up it sits! Ignoring all the serious looking hikers, with sticks, boots and all sorts of important looking so gear, Harry and I (yes, we’re still stuck together like glue) flip-flopped our way up into the clouds. So close, yet so very far from civilisation.

Other than climbing things, Quito offers a lot at ground level too. Namely, a LOT of drinking. La Mariscal, the ‘strip’ if you will, offers every cuisine imaginable and can murder every musical genre imaginable! An innocent seeming yellow school bus shuttled to and from our hostel, forcing a unanimous regression to a childlike state. The bonus of this being that everyone in the hostel feels equally terrible the following day, after a night of debauchery, salsa and attempting to teach Ecuadorian’s how we Westerners dance (i.e. vigorously, but terribly!)

Just outside Quito (although it’s takes longer to get to the edge of the city than to reach anywhere beyond) lies the Equator line. Thus, determined to have productive hangovers, a group of us journeyed, quite literally, to the centre of the Earth! Admittedly, it is the world’s most pointless attraction: lie down on a yellow line at any curbside and you can pretty much recreate the photos we journeyed so long for; but boy did we enjoy the ice creams for sale there!

Unfortunately, a little too much fun in Quito destroyed my honourable intentions to see the famous market town at Otavalo, or to reach dizzying heights in the cloud forest at Mindo. Instead, I reasoned that ‘what’s more fun that going miles back on myself on a bus, or hiking the Quilotoa loop in the rain?’; ‘Following Harry to Baños, for rum and rafting!’

Arriving in Baños at night (to a very warm welcome- apparently I was already famous here!) I didn’t quite get to appreciate the beautiful surroundings: to my left, a very Disneyland church, to my right, a gushing waterfall, often complete with a picture perfect rainbow.

These views, all this nature n shit, can be perfectly appreciated during the restful periods on a white-water rafting trip! That is, when you’re not hurtling face first into some treacherous rapids, flipping, flying, partially drowning and (embarrassingly) having to evacuate and carry our raft when we lodged on some rocks. Try as I might, I seemed to lack the balance to pursue a serious career in rafting- I only fell in their river upon being pushed, but I did face plant back into the boat on multiple occasions. I have the facial bruises/ badges of honour to prove it! I blame the terrible, holey wetsuits we were supplied (or perhaps the fact we were a little preoccupied thinking about food and cracking jokes to actually focus on any serious paddling…)

A much more chilled way to appreciate the watery town of Baños (apparently not named after a toilet) is a visit to the thermal baths. Picturesquely situated, steaming below our local waterfall, the glamour was somewhat undermined by the obligatory stupid hats we were forced to don. We piled into the already crammed, disconcertingly orange, volcanic waters and proceeded to prune. But it’s so much more than a relaxing bath, we discovered as we practiced the ‘proper way’ to do the baths: i.e. to broil yourself in the 45 degree heat and then plunge into an ice pool, and back. I probably put my body into some sort of severe shock, but it seemed like a good idea at the time to sweat out some of the week’s cumulative toxins.

Still plagued by rain, and now illness too, movements through Ecuador have been somewhat stunted. Hopefully I’ll be back on climbing, rafting, adventure sporting form soon!

Week four: jailbreak from Colombia

As previously alluded to, I began the week in Cali- Colombia’s third city and the salsa capital. Travelling there solely on impulse (because a flight was cheaper than buses to anywhere else) it ended up being totally unlike anything I had expected.

The city seemed to sprawl far and wide and, thanks to the abundance of cars, felt much more LA than NYC (or so I assume.) Luckily for my weary feet, this meant that the ubiquitous city walking tour was replaced by an afternoon in a jeep, seeing some of the more bizarre sights. As with Medellin, Cali is proud of its transformation post-cartel era, turning areas of crime into shining beacons of hope. Inexplicably however, this pride is here manifested through the creation of ‘Cat Park’; a park inhabited by 20 giant sculptures of cats, each designed by a different artist and each as quietly creepy as the next! The hillside overlooking Cali is also home to an enormous warm up to Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue. Standing a few metres shorter than its more famous rival, and on a much lower hillside, this imposing statue still provided me plenty of practice for my selfie game prior to reaching Rio in June!

Other than that, Cali has a rather hippy, chilled out vibe. Days were comfortably spent lazing by the pool, or exploring street food, warming up for salsa-filled nights. I tried any unattractive looking fruit that the market traders forced my way; some spectacular (newly obsessed with Mangostines), others, well, one looked like the burnt scrapings of the barrel at KFC… Hopefully I’m staving off scurvy though, whilst also feeling pretty local.

Despite my hostel offering free salsa classes (in the hottest, windowless room known to man), I’m sorry to say, I haven’t improved. As a female gringo, everyone wants to partner me in a club, and despite my warnings and protestations, they are all certain I simply can’t dance until I’ve been led by them… And then the flailing begins! A lot of fun though, a chance to practice my Spanish (in very close quarters) and a free work out (battling the Colombian passion for deep frying things) all in one.

Famously quite stubborn and independent, I’ve spent my trip so far with people who are my best friends in the world, for a few days, and then I up sticks, have some ‘me time’ on the bus and repeat the mingling process. However, after wiling away an entire day laying by the pool, with an Aguila in hand, I bagged myself a new multi-stop travel buddy.

This was particularly fortunate as our bus the following day crashed into a stationary car and, as you can imagine, chaos ensued. One particularly sassy woman spent the next hour or so finger pointing and throwing her two cents (or 1000 pesos) in at anyone who would listen. I appreciate that, alone, this could have stressed me out no end, but as it stands, Harry and I embraced the people watching, repeatedly asked “Como es el mani?” (= ‘How’s the peanut’ = ‘What’s the haps?’) and chased our bags from bus to bus, finally making it only as far as Popayan. A small colonial town, where everything is painted white, every third building is a church and where we had no intention of being at all!

The following day, we made a break for it, determined to make it up to the mountains, along the reportedly “ghastly” road, to San Agustin. Admittedly the road was only partially paved, and supremely windy, but the views through the national park were pretty spectacular (and the promise of a hostel with friendly dogs and great Thai curries at our destination was enough to make the journey worthwhile!)

San Agustin, as a town, has little to offer, short of some delicious food (of course nowhere has a menu, so we just nod and hope for a plate of deliciousness, and are rarely disappointed!) and a copious amount of daytime drinking. It’s mostly famous for its unfathomably old (well, 3300 years, ish) stone statues, dotted around the surrounding area. As with all the treasures in Bogota’s gold museum, so much time, craftsmanship and intricacy was devoted solely to the dead; with not so much as a ‘thank you’, I can only assume!

A campfire, a lot of Chilean wine and a LOT of rain later, we were turned down for white water rafting and left with little else to do but look at more rocks or head for the border.

Several buses (and another trip to our beloved Popayan!) later, we made it to Ipiales. I was determined to squeeze one last sight out of Colombia before we left, and despite the rain and enormous, dorky rucksacks, we persevered to visit the church built into the valley-side. I’m not sure whether it was the surrounding waterfalls, the spectacular gothic architecture or the genius use of the rock face itself as a ‘feature wall’, but move over Prague Cathedral, I have a new ‘favourite church ever’!

Having satiated my touristing for the morning, I took great pleasure in running over the bridge to my first ever land border. Used up the last of our pesos and excited to be in a country where the coins will be consistent, rather than randomly stamping a price on any size or shape of metal! Bring on Ecuador- so far, all I’ve seen is green…

Week three: aptly split between three cities

Other than wandering around Medellin, between churches and their adjacent prostitutes (pragmatic for confessing sins I suppose), I started the week with a couple of day trips out of the hustle bustle of the city.

First stop: Guatapé and Piedra del Peñol. Guatapé itself is an idyllically colourful, lakeside town. Vibrant murals transform each street into a storyboard of the area’s history. Spectacularly fresh fish, tuktuks and boats pretty much sum up what we gleaned from wandering around. The big draw however is the inexplicably enormous, imposing rock at the top of the hill. Perhaps a meteorite (I’m suspicious) or maybe just a happy coincidence, of course the challenge is to climb the damn thing. 659 steps to the top to be exact. But of course the view gets better with every pit stop; there’s even a shrine halfway up, presumably to beg Mother Mary for the strength to get there! From the top, despite the spectacular view of the sprawling lake punctuated with verdant islands, of course myself and my tall, exotically Arian Dutch friend, Delia, were the main photo opportunity! I personally thought the view bore an uncanny resemblance to a Sim village, all a little too perfect; and upon arriving back down, I discovered it was in fact a man-made vista, thus my cynicism was verified!

Our perfectly healthy, active day out declined somewhat when we were spontaneously drawn into a brewery tour. Well, less of a tour, more just a well organised piss up in a brewery! (Turns out, it is possible!) This of course escalated into a full blown night out, Medellin style. Unfortunately, whilst my bravery with learning and speaking Spanish escalates with each drink, perhaps the heavy bass, techno surroundings of the party district isn’t the place to practice! Lots of mindless nodding ensued.

Of course, the perfect cure for a vivid hangover the following day: paragliding! At first somewhat concerned about my ability to run full pelt off the edge of the hill, my fears were allayed when my feet left the ground after two steps (well, it was more of a waddle; paragliding gear isn’t particularly fetching!) Of course my camera died the moment we took off, and after all the idle conversation I could face with my ‘pilot’, I relaxed into the peacefulness of the sprawling valley view and total weightlessness. Foolishly, my penchant for adrenaline led me to agree to gaining height and speed and tackling some horizontal, high-speed spinning; severely ill advised on a hangover, I warn you.

My next adrenaline sport was a trip on the Medellin metro, at rush hour, with my rucksack! No matter what I do, my bag seems to grow every time I pack up to move on; I’m severely starting to resent it, rather than feeling that ‘backpacker kinship’ I was hoping for. But needs must, as I was off to Bogota!

Staying in La Candelaria, i.e. the old town, Bogota felt much more like Cartagena, or any other small town, where the most exciting and enriching activity can be going for a wander. The main square, edged by some supremely grand buildings, is also home to more pigeons than Trafalgar Square, following a breadcrumb hurricane! Not the place for a quite sit with some lunch after all.

On a Sunday, the streets become a bustling hub of activity; a real family fun day! Piles and piles of crap for sale (if you’re in the market for some old clothes, creepy dolls or possibly functioning remote controls and other such dismantled electronics), a plethora of street food delights (I felt somewhat safer in knowing I wasn’t just eating ‘mystery meat’ when I saw it carved from an entire pig- we requested ‘no face meat’ though!) and some unrivalled people watching. As with cosmopolitan centres worldwide, you’ll find your fair share of goths, punks, skaters and hobos. However, marking it out as Colombia in particular, the busking isn’t solely musical: it also takes the form of human statues who haven’t quite understand the ‘statue’ brief, karaoke (sober?!), virtual reality gaming and a lot of Guinea pig gambling!

Other than wandering and partying with locals wherever possible, Bogota sated my cultural appetite with the famous Museo del Oro (because I’m a magpie who likes shiny things) and the, probably less famous, Salt Cathedral in the commuter town of Zipaquira (because I’m ginger so I like being deep underground when it’s sunny.)

Too impatient to wait for an English speaking tour of the Catedral de Sal, my travel buddy, Joseph, and I chanced our luck on the Spanish one. As far as I’m aware, the salt mine is 180m deep and 250,000 tons were excavated to make the cathedral… the guide said some other stuff too, probably. All we really needed to know was that the fourteen mini chapels on the way down represented stages on Jesus’ crucifixion journey, they all presented fantastic (potentially sacrilege, think ‘Life of Brian’) photo opportunities and that you could buy salty popcorn at the very depth of the mine! I’m not entirely certain of the economics of it, but if salt is cheaper than marble, it became apparent that it could make a similarly glamorous end result! It was all a little surreal, but certainly impressive.

All too little time spent in the capital, with some fabulous new friends, but I was forced to readjust to flying solo and head to Cali. Jumpers shoved back in the bottom of the rucksack, I write this poolside. Will reveal Cali adventures as they continue to unfold…

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