Ecuador part three: Baños, Cuenca and my first night bus

I’m not sure how I managed to visit so many different places in Ecuador in just two weeks. Quito, Quilotoa, Mindo, Cotopaxi, Baños and Cuenca. It’s not a large country in terms of land mass but the Andean mountains and volcanoes do slow you down. Maybe it’s because there’s more of a well-travelled route in Ecuador so the tourism is more established – I kept meeting the same groups of people in different hostels in every town and city. But I’m still on track with my plans and although I would have liked to spend more time in Ecuador and there were more places I could have to seen, by the end I was definitely excited to move onto Peru.

Baños

One of my final stops in Ecuador was the highly touristy mountain town of Baños. If I thought Mindo was touristy then I was in for a surprise. Baños de Agua Santa is named after the natural volcanic hot springs which are occur in the town and surrounding areas. Today it serves as a tourist hub for high adrenaline activities such as white water rafting, canyoning, mountain biking, bridge jumping (like bungee jumping except you jump with a rope instead) and quad biking.

I arrived in Baños in the early evening – it was dark and just starting to rain. Without a map downloaded on my phone or an address for my hostel (great forward planning here) I joined another backpacker in the search for their hostel to take advantage of their WiFi. Baños at night is not a very nice place to be, not because of safety but because the streets are lit up with flashing signs and cheap takeaways. It’s commercial almost to the point of tacky and the authenticity that Mindo has is completely washed away here.

I had managed to book a hostel on the outskirts of town which meant I had a bit of a walk with my big bags. When I finally arrive I was gutted to find out the WiFi didn’t work in this hostel either. How was I supposed to make any future plans without the internet for research or booking? The free dinner at the hostel nearly made up for it and the quick laundry was good but I did start to crack up a little. Still feeling positive though, I went to bed early thinking everything would be better in the morning. Unfortunately I was wrong after being woken up at 1am by a cat sleeping on top of me. As you’ll know if you read the last blog post, animals are not my thing and despite living with cats in London for the last year, I do not want a semi-stray cat on top of me in the middle of the night, especially because I haven’t had a rabies inoculation. More cracking up happened as I desperately ushered the cat out of the dorm without touching it (clapping loudly is the best method). There was no way I was risking the same thing happening again so I climbed into the empty top bunk and fell asleep soon after the trauma had faded from my thought.

The next morning I got up early and decided I would not stay the second night in that hostel, despite having already paid for it. I spent most of the morning in an Internet cafe catching up with family and friends, and uploading my blog.

Baños: The Swing

In the afternoon I wanted to go to The Swing or La Casa del Arbol (The Treehouse). This was the main reason I had wanted to come to Baños but I didn’t know much about it other than the pictures I’d seen online. At the hostel I asked if you could walk there and they gave me directions and showed my a vague route on a cartoon map. I invited two of the volunteers at the hostel to join me, which to my bad luck they accepted (I didn’t really know them and they were kind of strange) and after collecting some snacks, we set off up the mountain-side in search of The Swing.


The track was more of a muddy path and once again I was walking slowly, although this time due to the steepness instead of altitude. The hostel guys stopped for a break after about an hour and I continued on, assuming they would catch up with me. I reached a fork in the road about ten minutes after this and spent a while considering where to go. I decided we still needed to be higher so chose the steeper path that looked to continue climbing up the mountain-side. Even now I don’t know if this was the right choice.

After about 20 minutes more, I realised the guys were not going to rejoin me and I was on my own. I adopted a small stick as my new companion and marched on up the muddy hill. I realised I was now walking though a farm with lots of poly tunnels. Doubts were starting to creep in as I had been walking for over two hours and seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I hadn’t seen another person for about an hour and there weren’t any signs. I even had to walk past a cow that was on the path and I was much braver than with the cat the night before and slipped passed without too much fuss.

Soon after this I picked up a bigger stick and realised I was definitely lost when the path suddenly stopped. So I turned back around and headed back to a small side path I had seen a minute earlier – this way I didn’t have to pass the cow just yet. I clambered up the tree-lined path with the help of my stick and appeared at the top of the farm. Here I spotted a more extreme swing than the one I was looking for where you had a harness and were strapped in. Being the only tourist here, I asked a girl playing football with my broken Spanish and Google maps as my aid where I needed to go.

With renewed energy and directions, I set off excited to be close and no longer completely lost. Luckily at this point I met two Argentineans and a dog (I named him Fluffy) who were also looking for The Swing. So we joined together and with their Spanish and my enthusiasm we navigated our way to the top in just 30 minutes more. It might not have been the easiest way to get there but it was a real adventure.

Finally at the top after over three hours hiking, sweating and so glad I bought snacks, I quickly joined the queue and resolved that I would be taking the bus down (it’s only $1 anyway). Although I had to wait about half an hour for my turn on the swing I didn’t mind because it was exciting and funny watching everyone else take their turn. The man who was pushing the swing on the line I had joined (there are two swings either side of the tree) was a charismatic, hippy kind of guy with lilac dreadlocks and bare feet and he seemed to enjoy scaring the people he was pushing.

First he pushes you five or six times very high, then taps your feet and sets you spinning while you swing. He tells you to spread your arms for pictures and then before you know it your turn is over. The adrenaline makes it go by in a flash but it was a great feeling of freedom as you swing out into a canyon, like you’re at the end of the world. Thankfully the Argentineans took some pictures for me also so I have some great snaps.




Baños:Hot Springs

On the way back on the bus, I decided to go straight to the hot springs, La Piscinas de la Virgen, as they were near my hostel. Everyone has to wear a little cap in the baths which makes the whole thing more of an event than just swimming. I got there around 7pm so had to pay $3 – a dollar extra for the evening session – and the place was filled with locals – I had obviously chosen a popular time to go.

They have four pools or baths. The first downstairs by the entrance is the super hot one, heated naturally by the volcano to 42°C. I spent most of my time in here – you’re only supposed to spend five minutes at a time but I spent about 20 minutes. It felt like when you run a bath that’s a bit too hot but it never seems to cool down. I hopped in and off the side every time I got a little to hot but because you can’t guarantee hot showers in South America I revelled in the heat.


They also have a cold pool which I didn’t try, and two warm pools. One of the warm pools is very shallow and you almost lie down in it and the other is a good height for standing in or sitting on the ledge.

I really enjoyed visiting the baths and although they aren’t unique to Ecuador, they are famous for them so it was really nice to experience them and it was just what I needed after the three hour walk to The Swing. Also the backdrop of the mountains and the big waterfall made it feel more authentic than other attractions in the town.

When I got back to the hostel I packed up and moved to a different hostel in the centre of town. Luckily I got a dorm room to myself so it was quiet and relaxed, and most importantly cat free! I had the best dinner in a nearby Italian: chicken, ham and beef lasagne with garlic bread (I didn’t have any lunch though). There was even a Peruvian band playing pipes and drums in the restaurant too.

The next day I had planned to move to Cuenca but I decided to take a day out to plan the next stages of my trip, getting to Peru and what I would do there and where I would stay. It was nice to just spent a bit of extra time there, even though it was touristy, just to relax and get my bearings. The next day I caught the early direct bus and got to Cuenca in the late afternoon.

Cuenca and my first night bus

When I arrived in Cuenca, after speaking to the staff in the hostel I soon discovered that a lot of my research the day before wasn’t necessary anymore because I could take a direct night bus to Peru from there instead of going to another town first. It would also take me to Máncora instead of Piura which was a better place for me to stop off in Peru too.


I arrived in Cuenca on a Saturday evening and on Sunday nearly everything except the churches were closed. I spoke to some of the other travellers in the hostel and met a really nice Canadian called Justine who was also planning to go to Máncora and so I decided instead of waiting another day, I would travel with her to Peru. It was my first night bus and so I was glad to have some company – I’ve heard this is where most travellers get robbed so I had avoided catching them until this point.

Justine gave me a little tour of closed Cuenca and it’s churches, and then we spent most of the afternoon relaxing in the hostel. Our hostel, The Bauhouse, had Netflix and comfy sofas which is the first proper lounge I’ve encountered travelling so far. It also had great WiFi so I’d recommend staying here if you’re passing through.

The anticipation for the night bus has been building all day and in reality it really wasn’t too bad. I had downloaded a few episodes of The O.C. season 1 and slept a few hours before we reached the border. Immigration was reasonably painless, we only waited about an hour which was quite good as it can be up to seven but luckily we were one of the first coaches to reach the border.

I was quite tired when we got back onto the bus and fell into a deep sleep, hugging my valuables for all they were worth. Lucky Justine wasn’t sleeping so deeply because I would have slept right passed our stop. We reached Máncora earlier than we had expected and ended up on the side of the road in a small dusty town with our bags, no local currency, surrounded by tuk-tuks at 4am! We had only booked the hostel for the next evening, expecting to arrive in the day so weren’t sure what to do. The cash machine gave me two 100 soles notes (not helpful) so we used our dollars to get a tuk-tuk to our beachside hostel, hoping it had 24-hour reception.

We were lucky that a couple from our bus were also staying in the same hostel and were doing the same. When we reached the hostel, it really was a beach hut in the middle of nowhere (except for other hostels). Dogs awoke the sleeping owner and after checking in, we were told that the only beds available then were hammocks with mosquito nets. With no other options we put our luggage into the sheltered area and wrapped up for a chilly few hours in the hammock (lucky I’d already slept in one in the jungle in Venezuela).



All in all, although we hadn’t planned to arrive at 4am with no money and no plan, my first night bus went pretty well. I didn’t lose any possessions, I slept well and I had great company. And the reward, a few days chilling out at the beach in Máncora before getting extremely sunburnt and catching a 23 hour night bus to Lima on my own.

Spoiler: the next bus was fine too (it had fully reclining seats, dinner and breakfast and individual TV screens with English subtitles on the movies) but I didn’t sleep as well because of the sunburn which is still painful nearly a week on.

Life lesson: ALWAYS wear suncream.

Three days at Cotopaxi: the most relaxed volcano in Ecuador

After having spent six nights in Quito, the most I’ve spent in any pace so far, it’s fair to say I was very excited to be moving on to somewhere new. The hostel I had been staying at in Quito, The Secret Garden, has a sister hostel in Cotopaxi national park. Everyone I had met at the hostel seemed to be moving onto there next so I thought there must be a good reason for it. Cotopaxi is one of Ecuador’s most famous volcanoes and visiting it was already on my bucket list, so I joined the bandwagon and booked the 3 day-2 night inclusive trip ($88 for a dorm).

 We set off at a reasonable 10:30am to travel to the new hostel in a Jeep. The four-wheel drive was definitely necessary, the road was bumpy, cobbled in parts and full of holes to avoid. It reminded me of the driving in Venezuela. On the way there it was quite cloudy and I was always looking out the windows to try and get a glimpse of the snow-capped volcano.

The hostel itself is enchanting. It’s run like clockwork and you are immediately welcomed into a warm and cosy lounge, with mulled wine at the ready. There are two long tables where everyone eats their meals together, a large round kitchen in the centre of the main room and a fire that gets lit in the evenings. I realised once I had arrived that you could also stay in Hobbit holes (like in The Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit) but you have to be really organised as they get booked up very quickly. My dorm was great though, with its own log-burning fire and amazing views of Cotopaxi.

After a delicious lunch, our first activity was a short walk to some nearby waterfalls where we could jump in, if we felt brave enough. The walk lasted about an hour and it was a nice opportunity to get to know the people in my group who I would be spending the next few days with. I asked one of the volunteers what would be the best time for taking pictures of Cotopaxi, as it was still covered in clouds. She said you could never tell and it had been cloudy for a while, in fact some people never get to see it. Disappointed, I put this thought out of my mind and continued on with the walk.

Feeling adventurous I decided to jump off the waterfall. I don’t have any proof but I can tell you it was very very cold. The platform was only about three metres tall but it was a wet and slippy. I was very nervous of not jumping far enough and hitting my head on the rocks. But I managed to jump cleanly and just about touch the pebble covered bottom of the pool before resurfacing and rushing out of the freezing water to change.

By the time we got back from the waterfalls, we were greeted by the most amazing view of Cotopaxi, finally clear after what it turns out to have been two weeks of cloud curtains. I felt so extremely lucky to see this beautiful view so early and clearly in my stay. I went to relax and reheat in the jacuzzi which had panoramic views and ended up getting out every five minutes to take pictures.

The first night was fajitas for dinner (one of my favourites) and then I sat up writing and reading by the fire, snuggled up with one of the five hostel dogs. When I left the main lodge to head to bed, I had a second truly amazing view – the most clear, starry night I have ever seen. The snowcapped mountains shone in the moonlight and I didn’t know which direction to look in there were so many stars, each as bright as the next.

The next day we set off early on a six hour hike to the top of Pasochoa, a nearby extinct volcano (4,200 m). I found this day so tough and it was the first time in a week the altitude had seriously affected me. Every step made me more and more out of breath. I was desperate not to keep holding everyone up but I couldn’t move any faster. I’m not exactly fit at the moment but I have been walking a lot so I didn’t expect to find it so hard. By the time I finally reached the top I was tearful and shaky. The coca leaves I had near to the top had helped a bit but I still felt weak and surprised at how hard it was for me.

The way down was much easier – in fact as points I was running and jumping. I wanted to show to myself that I’m not weak. But in hindsight, why does it matter if I am? It doesn’t matter if I’m not the best and one of the lesson I most want to learn from travelling is not to be so competitive with myself anymore. Being the best and being the worst doesn’t matter. It’s about being happy and enjoying the moment you’re in.

I was exhausted by the time we got back and excited to hear it was pizza for dinner. I spent the rest of the evening in a similar way to the one before, relaxing, writing and reading. It struck me on the way back to my dorm, once again lucky enough to have a clear night, that this would be a place I would be happy to come to die. It sounds really morbid but the hostel and its surroundings felt so calm and relaxing. A dutch girl had described it as a ‘zen’ place to be and I agree with her. It felt like what I imagine a yoga retreat to be like, without the flexibility and stretchy pants.

The next day was my last and I decided that hiking would be too much for me so I pushed myself further outside my comfort zone and signed up for horse riding. Anyone who knows me well will know I’m not an animal person. In fact I’m scared of most animals and normally I would never even go past a horse in the field walking my dogs, let alone voluntarily ride one. But I knew that it would be a great experience and I wanted to try something new.

I’m so glad I signed up for it. It was amazing. My horse, Mil Amores, was a beautiful blonde steed and he could sense I was inexperienced and nervous. We slowly trotted along most of the way until break time, getting closer and closer to Cotopaxi. On the way back we went quite a bit faster and my legs and bottom found this less comfortable, bouncing and flying all over the place.

The riding lasted about three hours but it was over before I knew it. Just like my time at Cotopaxi. And like fate, the clouds covered back over the awesome volcano as I loaded my bags back onto the Jeep. It was a fantastic three days and I was sad to leave. But the sadness didn’t last long as I had the adventure of jumping on my bus to Baños with all my bags while it was still moving – standard practise here in South America but exciting still.

Ecuador part one: Quito, Mindo and Quilotoa 

Ecuador has turned into another place that I underestimated. In my plans I have just two weeks set aside for this naturally beautiful country. In a short time I’ve seen a lot but, as always, there’s a lot more to see. I’m writing this post from perhaps the most beautiful place I have stayed yet but I’ll save that for part two.

Quito

The capital of the country, although at first not as historic as Cartagena or as cultured as Bogota, has its own unique appeal. The hostel I stayed in, The Secret Garden, has amazing rooftop panoramic views which gave me the perfect spot to see all the sights. Quito is situated in a valley between large mountain ranges and has the appearance of a long, bustling centre.

On my first day in the city I joined an active group of travellers from my hostel taking the TelefériQo (cable cart) and climbing Rucu Pichincha behind it – although at first I thought it was just a three hour hike. Well this turned out to be my hardest physical test since Roraima. Combined with altitudes over 4,600m and strong winds, there were certainly points where I didn’t think I would make it to the top and points where I didn’t even want to. But the views from here were even better and the sense of achievement at the end was extremely rewarding. The company during the five hour hike (it was three to the top!) also improved the experience. Take gloves though, if you plan on venturing there yourself!


On my second day I was hit with my first upset stomach, halting my plans and preventing me from doing to walking tour. This meant I didn’t learn much about the history of the city but I did manage to see some of its many churches and the main plaza – a picturesque, tree-lined square with benches and restaurants facing inwards. The day off did give me time to make plans for the rest of my time in Ecuador, including a day trip to Quilotoa.

Quilotoa


Quilotoa is another famous volcano in Ecuador. Many travellers spend three days hiking the Quilotoa loop around the rim of the volcano’s crater which is filled with the most beautiful, blue-green lagoon. I didn’t have enough time for this and with an upset stomach decided it wouldn’t be wise to try. So instead I signed up to the day trip run by the travel agency beneath the hostel (CarpeDM). This has definitely been my best spent $50 so far.


The day started early with a long drive, a stop off for breakfast and then a further drive to two animal markets. First we visited a large animal market selling pigs, cows, alpacas, goats and lambs. This was quite disturbing and the vegetarians in our group certainly struggled with the sight. The next market was for smaller animals including guinea pigs (a popular delicacy in South America), chickens, ducks, puppies and cats (I hope the last two weren’t for eating). I was less shocked by this market and although visiting both wasn’t a fun experience, it was an interesting one.


After this we had another hour of driving before reaching the top of the volcano’s crater. It was very windy when we got there but this didn’t detract from the fantastic view. The pictures show just how breathtaking the crater and lagoon was. I was expecting to be slightly disappointed by the reality, having seen a lot of pictures before. But this wasn’t the case, in fact I think the view is even better in the flesh. The water was so bright and clear, even with a few clouds hanging around the edge of the crater.


We took the walk down into the crater at a steady pace, making it down the to water in about half an hour. There was a real sense of calm just sitting down by the water’s edge. There’s a small wooden pier you can sit on and take pictures. We sat here for a while just enjoying the tranquility.


After another half an hour our time was up and we needed to climb back up the crater. The altitude was still really high here so it wasn’t all that easy. I went for a slow and steady speed with few breaks and made it to the top in 48 minutes.


At the start of the three hour journey back to Quito, we stopped off to take pictures at a canyon which was another little bonus of the trip.

This is the second inclusive trip or tour that I’ve paid for and I’m really glad I did. It was definitely good value for money and it meant I could see a part of Ecuador that would have been hard to fit in on my own. Highly recommended!

Mindo

Next I went to Mindo, a small town set up for tourism two hours north east of Quito. I spent one night here, splashing out to a hotel instead of a hostel, which actually felt kind of quiet after weeks in hostels.

As soon as I stepped off the bus I was ushered into a tour operators office and straight into a taxi to the butterfly farm. The butterfly farm was the main reason I wanted to go to Mindo as I’d never really heard of one before and I think butterflies are so pretty. All the posters in town had these giant blues butterflies on them and I really hoped I would be able to get a picture of one myself.


The farm was a lot smaller than I expected but it didn’t disappoint in anyway. The compact room just meant it felt like there were more butterflies.


They had these small trays with mushed banana which you could dip your finger in and pick up the butterflies by their body. I even managed to balance three on one hand for a while.



They also had all stages of the butterfly lifecycle on display from egg to caterpillar, chrysalis to baby butterfly emerging from its shell. I spent over an hour there taking pictures and videos, finally determined to get a picture with a blue butterfly by my face (mission accomplished).


After this I went for a late lunch at The Beehive restaurant (a huge plate of fajitas, blackberry juice and a hot chocolate) and went to my hotel to relax and read. A few naps later I stepped out again for dinner, via the small main square where a dance class seemed to be going on. It was an usual sight as people of all ages joined in and I later realised this was my first experience of Reggaeton. Not adventurous to join in, I grabbed a great handmade pizza nearby and went back to the hotel for an early night. 

The next day I decided to try the ziplining with Mindo Canopy Adventures. And it was awesome! Not a small course, the ten lines send you hundreds of metres across the cloud forest canopy. I even felt brave enough to try the superwoman and mariposa (butterfly) positions – the latter where you fly upside down.


I went back to The Beehive for lunch (a burger this time) and then visited one of the chocolate factories for a tour and excuse to eat lots of free samples. It was similar to the chocolate museum I visited in Cartagena except they had real-life examples of cocoa trees, cocoa beans and the drying process. It was great to learn even more about chocolate as I’m quite a fan and they had a coffee tree too so I could see what the beans looked like as they grow. I had to leave a little early from the tour to catch my return bus to Quito but I left feeling I’d had a great time in this touristy town.


Back to Quito


One day left in Quito, I had to try the helado (ice cream which is offered by servers at every street corner) and visit the famous Basilica de Vito Nacional. Well the ice cream was so refreshing I had two.



The Basilica deserves it’s fame, it’s an outstanding sight to see inside and out. You can even climb up one of the towers but I decided not to. Instead of gargoyles, the outside of the gothic church is lined with turtles, iguanas, alligators and other unusual animals. The inside is lit by bright and colourful stain glass windows at all ends. There’s also a small chapel behind the alter dedicated to Mary and it’s decorated with more ornate windows and colours. I’m really glad I managed to fit this in because it’s probably the most impressive church in the whole of the city.



All this I’ve seen in just one week! Ecuador has so much to offer and I’ve still got another week coming up. I’m writing this from Cotopaxi, a very ‘zen’ place to relax and hike. Next up is Baños and Cuenca before I head onto Peru. I promise I’ll get another post up before the end of the week. The moral of the story, be prepared because Ecuador should not be underestimated!

A rush of colour: my time in Colombia 

When I first researched Colombia, I had thought there wasn’t going to be much to interest me. I really wanted to see the graffiti in Bogota and other than that I wasn’t too fussed. In fact, originally I had only set aside one week to pass through the entire country.


Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Even from my first night in the Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta (it’s a great place to stay, I’d definitely recommend it) I realised that Colombia has a lot more to offer. Some travellers come to South America just to see for Colombia for six weeks or more, and I’m rushing my way through like a tornado taking in all the sights in a whirlwind trip.


In my initial plans Santa Marta was meant to be a quick stop over on the way from Venezuela. Cartagena would be a couple of days to look at the ‘amazing colonial architecture’ (I thought I wasn’t all that interested) and Bogota would be three days to see the world famous graffiti. But in just 10 days I’ve learnt so much about the culture, history and politics of the country.


The people

The vibrancy of the people and the culture of Colombia immediately takes you in and the contrast with Venezuela is much stronger than I had imagined. Although facing its own political problems, it’s in a much more stable place at the moment, making it a far more relaxed place to travel with a large backpacking scene. I hadn’t expected to meet so many warm, friendly and interesting people here, travellers and locals included. After just an hour in Bogota, I had lunch with a local guy who spoke perfect English and chose to sit with me instead of his family, sharing all the best places to visit in the capital. And in Popayan, the tour guide for the free walking tour was busy so two tourist policemen gave us a tour instead – even though it isn’t their job. Colombia definitely gives you a warm welcome as a tourist and thankfully my lack of Spanish hasn’t caused too many issues yet.


The food

The food here is also fantastic, it isn’t all just arepas (corn pancakes that are sold everywhere here). Because of the climate, there’s a huge amount of fruits and vegetables available, with stalls selling mango and pineapple on every street corner. I had the best guacamole I have ever tasted in Santa Marta (in a small cafe called Lulo). I also got to try Ajiaco in one of Bogota’s oldest restaurants (a traditional Andean chicken soup with corn and different types of potatoes – it was great!). I went to a chocolate museum in Cartagena where they explain how Colombian chocolate is grown and produced (plus you get to mould your own chocolates and add flavours). And the lemonade in Cartagena was the best too! Basically, any weight that I lost in Venezuela trekking, has definitely been put back on here. Maybe it’s a good thing I’m moving on really…






Cartagena

I wasn’t expecting to be so easily charmed by this city. The architecture is as good as everyone says, I walked around Cartagena for hours just looking at all the beautifully coloured building and huge bougainvillea hanging from large balconies. The old city wall was also very impressive, especially as you are free to walk along the top at your own risk. My favourite place was the bookshop cafe, Abaco Libros y Cafe, with the amazing lemonade. Part of the real charm from this city is also the laid back atmosphere, this was the first place on my trip I was free to walk around in the evenings late at night and feel worry-free. I also went snorkelling while I was here which was great too and the beaches are better than people tell you, although I got supremely burnt after falling asleep in the sun. I could easily have spent a week or more getting to know this place, but three days was all I could manage. 


Bogota

Bogota is probably my favourite place in Colombia. Other travellers told me there wasn’t much to see and I should skip it and visit Medellin instead – another great reason why I want to make my own decision on this trip (see my previous blog post). The graffiti in Bogota is AMAZING and the tour made it even better with the detail and the context our tour guide, Jahir, gave us. He explained the conflicts with the artists and the government and the mayor’s department, the history behind the Colombia civil war and the artists’ inspiration. I wanted to stay another day and see more of the graffiti but I didn’t have time unfortunately. Although I did manage to party in a roof top club with some people I met in the hostel, visit both the Gold museum and the Botero museum, and climb the 3150m Cerro de Monserrate (in a slow 1hr 8mins). The view from the top was unbelievable, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a large city (it has 25 universities if you can believe that). The cable car isn’t worth it though so I’d suggest walking both ways. This city is hugely underrated and definitely worth spending a decent amount of time in, but again, four days was all I had.







I am about to move on to Ecuador next week which I am very excited about but I’ll be sad to leave Colombia knowing there is so much more to see. I know there are destinations and attractions later in my trip that I want to spend more time seeing though so the hard decisions have to be made. For anyone considering visiting Colombia, I’d say definitely do it! It’s a colourful country with so much to offer and a lot safer than it’s past leads you to believe.

Doing your research, getting advice and making your own decisions

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while. I know I’m only on my third week of travelling but I have been researching my trip since the beginning of January and I’d like to think I’ve done quite a lot of planning. 

As you’ll know if you have been following along with my adventures so far, I’ve recently moved on from Venezuela to Colombia. Instead of flying which costs about $250, I choose to do my first land crossing. My guide book gave me detailed instructions on how to do this and as it came closer to July, I spoke to my travel agency who were able to help with organising a transfer to the Venezuelan border. 

Confident I had done the proper research and preparation, I thought nothing more of this part of my journey and moved onto planning my travels in Colombia. But, after speaking to some travellers who were part of my first trip in Venezuela, I started to doubt my decision. They were telling me that I couldn’t cross there; that the border was closed; it was really unsafe; that I’d be arrested by corrupt police and more of the same worrying thoughts. And these seeds of doubt grew in my mind. Was my research wrong? 

So I contacted my travel agency asking for advice, did more research and spoke to some local people. When it came down to it I had to make a decision: either abandon my plans and get a flight, or continue with what I had originally decided and paid for.

After a lot of thought and worry, I decided to stick with my decision and cross the border on foot, as planned. I was so tense and worried in the days leading up to the crossing. I felt like I was taking a big risk but that I didn’t want to back down on my initial decision. 

When the day finally came, a long story short, the biggest problem I had was losing my Nike cap on a motorbike taxi. Crossing the actual border was fine. I had my bag checked near the border for the first time and once I’d walked the 100m to the Colombian immigration office, the staff were really helpful – I even had a joke with the English speaking attendant behind the counter. The bus I got from Maicao to Santa Marta was pretty luxury with air conditioning, reclining seats and three TV screens, and it only cost me £6-£7 for a five hour journey. 

The point I’m trying to make is, although it’s worthwhile listening to advice from other travellers and you can gain some really useful information, you don’t have to take it all as fact or law. When it comes down to it, you can make your own decisions and choose what risks you want to take. Everyone will have a different opinion on what the best sights to see are or places to visit, which towns are dangerous and which are fun. It’s the journey of discovery that makes travelling a fantastic experience. 

I’ve had a short but sweet time in Santa Marta which I wouldn’t have been able to see if I wasn’t crossing the land border. Now I’m continuing my journey south through Colombia to the popular colonial city of Cartagena. 


Climbing Roraima: My first mountain 

My trip to the Gran Sabana to climb Roraima, a huge table top mountain in the south of Venezuela near the Brazilian border, had a somewhat less exciting beginning than the flight that started Angel Falls expedition. It began with a 12 hour car transfer from Ciudad Bolivar to Santa Elena de Uairén. My driver only spoke Spanish and my language skills are limited to numbers and los banos (the toilets). Fortunately, we started early and I was tired enough to sleep through some of the journey. 

When we finally reached the posada, a bit like a B&B, there was a bit of confusion as everyone around me spoke in Spanish and I stood by looking completely lost. The owner walked me a few doors down the road to the Kamadac office – the tour company that the trek was booked with. A quick briefing from my guide, Marisol, who thankfully spoke good English, and I was heading back to the posada armed with directions for a pharmacy to get more insect repellent in the morning. 

Up early, I explored the dusty border-town in search of repellent and failed. I later learned that shampoo could be difficult to come by so perhaps repellent was a bit of a stretch. So I headed off on the six day trek hoping the remainder of my pocket-sized can would be enough. 

Finally getting going, we set off in a big Jeep on a track to the start point with anticipation in the air – at this point I wasn’t really sure what I had let myself in for. The group was made up of a young Brazilian couple, a middle-aged Norwegian man (who complained most of the trip so I won’t include him here), myself, our guide and four porters. With a sleeping bag and camping mat tied to my day backpack, to say I was ill-equipped was probably an understatement. Somehow I’d forgotten that I’ve never climbed a mountain before and although I was wearing hiking boots, the most I’d used them for was walking the dog around the park. Was I making a huge mistake signing up for this? 

Around 10 minutes in the path we were walking on steepened and we were told this section was called ‘The Proof’. If you can’t do this bit, you won’t be able to climb the mountain. Well, there was a lot of huffing and puffing but I made it to the top okay, although quite slowly in the heat. I was feeling happy with myself and just maybe it wouldn’t be so hard after all… 

The first day of walking lasted just four to five hours but felt a lot longer. We were all pretty tired when we arrived at the first camp by the Tek River. Here I found out I would be sharing a tent with our guide which I was a bit nervous about. Scared that I would get more insect bites, I slept in a waterproof coat until I got so hot and decided I was being ridiculous. 

The next day was more of the same, packing up my belongings from the tent soon after breakfast, hiking for five or six hours and then stopping for dinner. Here we decided to wash in the river/waterfall despite the bugs. I was quite sure I had more bites but it was hard to tell with so many making me look like I had chicken pox. It was great to be clean though finally – especially after sleeping in a coat and two days of walking in basically the same clothes. By this point we had walked to the Base Camp, it felt like quite an achievement and my body wasn’t feeling too bad – although constantly itchy when I stopped. 

The third day was where it got really tough for me – this was Base Camp to the top and what was more a vertical climb than a walk. First we had a difficult walk through the jungle to The Wall – where the mountain goes vertically up. I found this bit really hard and my bag seemed like it was five times heavier with the continual steep incline. I even considered going back and giving up because the group were having to wait for me a lot and I was really struggling. Once we reached The Wall, we turned to climb parallel to it, up a ramp that is very hard to see unless you know it’s there. Here we were going up and downhill, zig-zagging up the ramp and even climbing up a waterfall to reach the very top. 

To say this day was hard is another huge understatement. I might have run a marathon but that was when I was fitter and had done loads of training. Here I’d just turned up and said, “I fancy climbing a mountain today”. Well I made it, but only just and if it wasn’t for Marisol and the help of the Brazilian couple, Aline and Wyllyam, I’m pretty sure I’d still be there now trying to get to the top. 

The next day we explored the top and although the clouds had set in thick there was still a lot to see. My guidebook had described the top as a ‘moonscape’ so I was expecting craters and dusty rocks. It was far from this and felt more like we were on the bottom of the ocean with lots of rock pools and brightly coloured plants. 

We visited the Valley of the Canyons, the Cliff of the Oil Birds, the Crystal Valley (where there was once huge quartz crystals before they were taken by travellers), the Window (Ventana) and what we had been calling, The Car – the highest point on the mountain. 


This was my favourite day by far, and wow had we earned it. Without our bags we were free to jump from rock to rock and climb higher and faster than before. We had picked up some techniques from our guide and I was starting to look like I knew what I was doing. The eight or nine hours walking was over quickly and we knew the hard day’s walking tomorrow would be extra tough – stopping only at Base Camp for lunch and walking all the way back to the River Tek (a journey we had done in two days before). 
Thankfully I found going down a lot easier than going up, but I seemed to be alone in this. Although I had an exciting James Bond style roll down a steep bit, generally I was okay with the walking. We washed in the River Tek and too long dithering with my clothes meant I was brutally attached by the puri puris and mosquitos. 

The final day was only four hours walking in the morning back to the start point but we were all extremely stiff from walking down yesterday and it felt like we were zombies plodding along. I wasn’t sure if I would be driving straight back or staying in Santa Elena for another night – but I spent most of the walk hoping for the latter and desperate for a real shower and wifi. 
When we saw the Jeep waiting for us we were so excited; glad the torment was finally over and we were going back to civilisation – using a real toilet instead of a stool in a tent, sleeping in a bed and wearing clean clothes. We were whisked away with our guide to a restaurant for lunch and to say our goodbyes – it turned out I was driving back so no shower or wifi for me! 

The Roraima trek might possibly be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and definitely the hardest physical challenge I’ve completed so far. Would I do it again now, knowing how hard it was? Yes, because of the fun I had with Marisol and the Brazilian couple. They made the hard times, fun and when I should have been crying I was laughing with them instead. 

Marisol was a fantastic local guide and she knew all the answers to our questions. She cooked all our meals, guided us across rivers, held our hands and even rubbed my knee when it was sore. We spent hours giggling and chatting in our tent when we were meant to be sleeping and I’ll remember the trek because of her more than the pain or even the natural beauty of the mountain. 

Wyllyan and Aline were great too and have said I can visit them in São Paulo in October. They’ve given me a huge list of extra places to go and sights to see in South America – hopefully I can include some of them in my plans. 

Next up is Santa Marta, Colombia in few days time after a border crossing at Paraguachón-Maicao. I’ll tell you how that goes soon! 

Angel Falls: A once in a lifetime adventure

My adventure to Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall, was fantastic; from the four person plane journey, to the exciting boat ride, the tricky jungle trek, spectacular views and walking behind Sapo falls.

I have just returned from my first scheduled adventure to see Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall. What an adventure to start my trip with! It’s not any easy sight to get to and it’s not for the easily deterred. 


It all started out at Ciudad Bolivar airport early on Sunday 2nd July with me taking a shot of the iconic Jimmie Angel plane outside the entrance – this is the American explorer the falls are named after who first landed on top of the mountain Auyantepui in search of gold in 1937. 


Shortly after this I was herded into a four person plane with two other tourists also taking the trip and the captain. It was an exhilarating flying experience, despite, or maybe because of, the false start and the panoramic views of the Venezuelan landscape were outstanding. Bursts of rainfall and cloud meant we saw rainbows frequently and the hour’s journey was over in no time. 


After a short briefing once we had arrived in our lodges, we set off around lunchtime for the boat ride up river to the base of the falls. This was half the adventure with wild rapids and little safety measures. Our local guides were very experienced and took us the best routes up the river with no problems – in the dry season passengers have to get out and pull the boat over the rapids and rocks. 


Eating our humble packed lunches halfway through the three hour journey was a highlight for me, and not just because it was the first food I had eaten in 26 hours, but because of the serenity and contentment I felt looking at the spectacular scenery and forgetting any of my worries. 

About an hour from the base, it started to rain, not a drizzle but a pour. There was thunder and lightening, and with our coats stored away from us it was not looking good. We had only just finished drying out from the rapids. The guide kindly gave me his waterproof but the effort was in vain and I got soaked anyway. 


When we arrived, I swapped my flip flops for walking boots (perhaps a bad idea as I managed to soak them from the inside out) and we began our assent through the jungle to the closest point to Angel Falls we could reach. 

I was surprised by how hard I found the hike, but with my little legs and relatively low fitness I guess I shouldn’t have expected an easy ride. The slippery roots and rocks were hard to follow behind the experienced guide, José. The humidity meant that even with the shelter of the canopy, our tops were still wet and clinging to us the whole time. 


Red, puffed and sweating we reached the viewpoint after and hour and wow was it worth it. The weather had cleared and the falls looked picture postcard perfect – blue skies peeping through and a clear view across the river valley to the surrounding peaks. Here we stayed undisturbed for almost half an hour before beginning the decent to our lodgings for the night. It certainly felt like we had earned the reward of seeing the world’s highest waterfall. 

The decent was easier to start with but overly confident I managed to slip on to my backside once. Fortunately it caused no injuries, just a bruised ego. As dark set in were were keen to get back to the lodgings and change into some dry clothes. The dinner was a delicious chicken cooked on the fire and our beds were hammocks open to the jungle – the only walls in our lodge was for the toilets. For a long time the openness disturbed my sleep – I’m not a lover of wildlife. But even in the discomfort of the hammock I hadn’t mastered, I finally drifted off to sleep. 


Waking early to a view of the falls one last time, we set off to return to our lodgings in the Canaima Lagoon (Tepuy Lodge). The journey back was dry and speedy with the current behind us and the beautiful peaks appeared to be steaming through the clouds. 


Later that afternoon we took a shorter trip across the lagoon to Sapo Falls. This was still thrilling, as although much smaller we could stand much closer to the falls and we even got to walk behind them on a naturally-made path. The water boomed over our heads, soaking us once again from head to foot. Here we saw beautiful rainbows and amazing butterflies. 

The trip was truly outstanding and I hope to remember the experience for a long time. I had anticipated the spectacle for a few months but to finally see it with my own eyes was fantastic – made even better by the fact that less the 15-20 people a week make the journey (it used to be as much as 150 a day). A huge thank you to our guide, José, who will never see this for making the trip so memorable and putting up with me nearly slipping over every five seconds. 


Now back in Ciudad Bolivar, nursing my bug bites, I prepare for an truly challenging adventure to trek to the top of Roraima, a table mountain on the Venezuela/Guyana border. The trip includes up to eight hours hiking a day in steep, perhaps wet conditions. I’m slightly nervous that it might be too much for me to handle but there’s not much I can do about that now. Wish me luck! 

My packing list: South America

A full rundown of everything I’ll be packing and taking with me to South America for the next four months, including clothes, toiletries, tech & gadgets and other essentials.


Tomorrow is the big day. I’m taking an early morning flight from London Heathrow with a big traveller’s backpack, a day rucksack and a small personal bag to last me for four months in South America. I say four months as my plans for the ski season are waiting to be confirmed. I still have my heart set on Canada but I’m not sure what form I’ll be going there in. Stay tuned for updates on that front…

So with just over 12 hours left to go before my first flight (to Portugal and then onto Caracas, and then Puerto Ordaz) I am finally packed! It has taken me a long time to collect together every last item to include in my bag – and I’ve probably spent a lot more money than I intended on items to go into the bag, and the bag itself. But I’m happy that I finally have everything I want and it all fits, just about. 

As promised, here’s a full list of everything going into my bag (I was planning to do a video instead but ran out of time…):

Clothes
9 short sleeve tops/t-shirts
2 long sleeve tops
1 long skirt
2 cotton dresses
3 pairs of leggings (2x sporty, 1x cotton)
1 pair of jeans
1 pair of cotton flowery trousers
1 demin jacket
1 thick cardigan
1 hockey sweatshirt
8 pairs of socks (4x walking, 4x sports)
2 swimsuits (1x bikini, 1x swimming costume)
Underwear (pants, bras, sports bras)
1 fold-up waterproof

Shoes
Flip flops
Walking boots
Trainers

Accessories
1 scarf
1 belt
1 pair of gloves
1 Nike cap
Personal bag (small over the shoulder bag with lots of pockets)
Sunglasses

Toiletries
Shampoo & conditioner
Face wash
Toothbrush & toothpaste
Hairbrush & hair bands
Suncream & aftersun
Insect repellent
Face wipes
Medicines
Make up (probably too much of it…)
Tampons (apparently hard to find while travelling)
Tissues
Universal sink plug & travel wash
2 travel towels (little and large)

Tech & gadgets
iPhone
iPad & keyboard (which I’m practising on now)
Kindle
Adaptor
Chargers
Portable battery pack
2 torches
Headphones

Other essentials 
Passport
Travel money
Purse & bank cards
Packing bags (to separate all my belongs in my bag and keep them protected)
Travel folder with all my important documents printed, scanned and photocopied
Books and travel guide
Journal
More tissues
Inflatable neck cushion
Eye mask & ear plugs
Fan
Cable ties & duct tape

And that’s just about everything I think… It’s not the most exciting list – I’d love to carry around a bag full of Haribo (it would be a lot lighter too) but it’s hopefully everything I’ll need in South America. And if not, I’ll either throw it out or pick it up along the way! 

That’s it for now – next post will be more exciting, I promise! It will come from Venezuela! 

First stop: Venezuela

First stop on my travels is going to be Venezuela. This is a country with amazing natural beauty and often gets overlooked by travellers.

 

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When I tell most people that my first stop on my travels is going to be Venezuela, their reaction is often quite negative. Don’t you know it’s really dangerous? Have you really thought about this? On your own? I don’t think it’s a good idea.

But I’m really excited about going to this beautiful country. I’d be ignorant to say it isn’t dangerous in parts but that shouldn’t stop people going to places and doing things they want to do. If you take precautions and are sensible then you shouldn’t let the fear of what could happen stop you.

I’ve done a lot of research on travelling in Venezuela. It appears that the safest way to visit as a solo traveller is to book group trips through a travel agency. Initially there were four sights I was interested in visiting: Los Roques (amazing islands off the north coast), Angel Falls or Salto Angel (the world’s tallest waterfall), Roraima (a breathtaking table top mountain) and the lightning show at Catatumbo (a natural phenomenon unique to Venezuela). After more research and first enquiries with travel companies, I realised it wasn’t going to be feasible to visit them all in the two weeks I have set aside for Venezuela. As the destinations were reasonably far apart, I made the decision to just see Angel Falls (pictured above from Google) and Roraima.

From here I had lengthy email conversations with a few travel companies, trying to figure out logistics and compare costs. This was quite complicated and the time difference was slowing me down but I’ve finally decided on the expeditions and the company I want to go with.

Osprey Expeditions, is run by local Venezuelan travellers and does lots of different trips across the country and continent. I’m going to be visiting Angel Falls first for three days and then trekking for six days to the top of Roraima and back down. On one of the days I’ll be trekking for at least eight hours, which is slightly worrying but if I can run a marathon, surely I can mange this, right? I’ve invested in some hiking boots which I’m hoping will make the journey a bit easier.

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In the next post I’ll give you a full rundown of what’s going into my four month traveller backpack (also a new purchase!)

It’s time for a new adventure…

I’ve quit my job, left London and moved back to my childhood home in Stroud (a small town where practically nothing ever happens). Why? I’m going to go travelling around the world in search of a new adventure. Find out why I made this change in my life now…

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I’ve made the decision in my life to quit my job, leave my family and friends and go travelling around the world in search of a new adventure.

Right now, I’m in a fortunate position where I am not committed to anything. I don’t have a mortgage tying me down, I have savings I can use and I’m not locked into a career path. I have the freedom to independently decide what I want to do in my life and when.

Until now I’ve conformed to the typical path for someone in my situation. I went to a good school, studied hard, played sports and came out with good enough grades to go to university and do the same. After that, I moved to London and started a career in marketing. From the surface you might ask, what do I have to complain about?  You might even think I’m being ungrateful for the great start in life I’ve had.

I’m not though. I just want more. I want to do something meaningful or remarkable with my life. When I look back on my life, I want to be proud of the choices I’ve made and the achievements I’ve collected. What have I done now that hundreds of people my age haven’t? Not much I’d say.

No one has the power to change that except you. You can’t change where you come from, but you can change where you are going. And I am going to do something great. Starting with this trip and ending who knows where. Stay tuned for more about my planning and packing over the next month before I set off for my first destination in July: Venezuela.