A New Start at the End


A few weeks ago I nearly died.

I was snorkeling off the coast of Gili Air, Indonesia when I saw a school of small sword fish swimming towards me. I suddenly thought about the last words Seamus said to me before he swam back to shore: ‘watch out for boats‘ and so I lifted my head out of the water only to see the front of a 30-seater boat, no more than a metre away about to hit me head on.

I used my split second of time to move my head away and swing my right arm around to create just enough distance to avoid a full on collision. My legs were dragged under the boat by the force but I somehow managed to stay calm and the boat left me, floating, completely unharmed. I took off my mask and stared as the boat continued towards the shore. Two young lads stared back at me. They didn’t stop, they just stared.

After a few minutes I swam back and I think I just remained in some absurd-like shock for the rest of the day until I burst into tears in the early afternoon. I think it was a combination of having had a sudden brush with death and realising some sort of inner tension and anxiety that had been building up for little over a week. I couldn’t relate this mounting anxiety to anything, which was weird. I was excited about coming home again – if a little apprehensive, I had plans, I would see my friends, my family and I knew I was going to be OK. Yet this tension was just growing, leaving my chest feeling tight and heavy, and I would often wake up in the middle of the night, struggling for breath.


Looks like you’re all blocked


On the Island of Gili Air is a Yoga retreat called H20. I went there before my near death experience for a Chakra reading. I think I just wanted to take myself somewhere a bit Zen to calm my nerves.

The 7 Chakras are the energy centres in our body in which energy flows. It is believed that blocked energy in our Chakras can lead to illness and so to check whether energy is flowing through the body, a healer of some sort hovers a set of crystals on a pendulum above certain parts of your body. Movement of the pendulum means energy is flowing, however if the crystals are still, it means energy is blocked.

I lay down on a bed in a bamboo hut in the camp. “Now let’s start with the Base Chakra” said Sarah, the Island’s Reiki healer. “It’s located at the base of the spine. It’s also called the Root Chakra as it grounds us. Yes you have a good energy flow here.”

“Great” I exclaimed, as I peered down to where an amethyst crystal pendulum was swinging vigorously around in circles.

As the crystal moved further up my body, it came to a grinding halt.

“Now we are on the Sacral Chakra, also known as the Naval Chakra. This controls your emotions, sexuality and lower organs…that’s blocked.”

She moved the crystal up further to my stomach. “Here we have what we call the Solar Plexus Chakra or the Control Centre. It represents general health and the control we have in our every day lives…that’s also blocked.”

She moved the crystal up again to my Heart Chakra. Now, she probably felt a bit sorry for me at this point and gave the crystal a little bit of a wobbly nudge, but it made a few little circles which was good enough for me.

“Moving up to the Throat Chakra which plays an important role in communication and expression.” I went all cross-eyed as I checked to see the progress of the crystal. Dead still. “Blocked.”

“And now finally your Brow and your Crown Chakra…” My third eye and spirit….don’t tell me…”Blocked”

Urggghhh so I’m just basically dead from the waste up?

Not only was I blocked but I was tense and anxious. Well at least I had a massive cry following the boat incident, allowing some of the tension out.

But I figured I’d better go and sort this shit out.


A Focus on Mindfulness and Meditation


These past 9 months my focus has been on everything that is external to me – different countries, communities and people. I’ve enjoyed different sceneries; beaches, waterfalls, cities, canyons and mountains. I’ve tasted some INCREDIBLE food and some seriously shit food. I’ve fed my senses in every which way imaginable and I’ve got some great pictures to immortalise every one of my experiences. But with all that I’ve neglected one huge thing – my self.

I can recognise all the external things in life, and the people who make me happy – I can write a list as long as a wave. A few examples – friendships, exploring, photography, art, music, excellent food, wine, sunsets, moons, stars, mountains, valleys, lakes. These things feed my happiness in stages when they are available, but I’ve placed all my focus on these things as a means to making me happy.

What happens when they’re not there and I don’t get that ‘happiness’ fix I need? What happens when I’m on an Island for 2 weeks with shit food and where people leave me for dead?


A New Start at the End


I went back to Sarah, the Island’s Reiki healer to get healed, I suppose. I had to try something. I won’t go into it in too much detail but the experience was overwhelming – one I’ll never forget. I was pretty sceptical going into it but I left feeling completely bewildered. The physical sensation was like going on the world’s biggest, fastest rollercoaster. My stomach flipped inside-out – the same physical sensation you get when you’re falling from a massive height. In the real world, all that was happening was that I was lying down and Sarah had her hands over me.

Later that day I went for a meditation session at the centre. It was amazing. I tested out different styles of meditation and found one that fit.

The lady leading the meditation said that it takes 21 days to create a habit. In Zen meditation you are encouraged to start mediating every day for at least 21 days. I had exactly 21 days left until flying back to the UK. What better time to start.

Happiness is a combination of many things but I need to move away from the external environment and take the focus inside. I can only truly be happy if I know who I am and learn to listen to me, instead of distracting myself with things that are around me. I don’t want to come across as some sort of hippy here but something just ‘aint right, and if I’ve had my fill of adventure, travel, scenery, experiences, moments and I still feel a bit lost, anxious and tense – well, there’s something missing right? And I guess there’s only one place left to look.


Japan is my last country, and it’s MENTAL – the polar opposite to where I started this trip – Cuba.

It’s been one last incredible travel high. I finish Japan in a place called Koya San, not far from Kyoto and Osaka. I’ll be staying with some Buddhist monks in a temple for a few days, joining them for morning prayer and sitting in their lovely garden. I’ll be by myself for a bit and I’ll have time to meditate and reflect before going back to Blighty!

In Japan I’ll end with me – or to put it a better way: I’ll make a start with me – at the end.

Perfect.

Oh oh…
Ps – what’s more perfect is that I will be making my way to the starting line with Seamus by my side – as my fiancée.

The future is an exciting, magical and unexpected place.


Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: CubaMexicoColombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos IslandsArgentinaLAFijiNew Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.

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Paradise Lost

During my time in New Zealand I visited the National Geographic 50 Greatest Photographs Exhibition. An image captured by photographer Bill Allard really moved me. It reminded me a little of the hardship I had seen in South America and helped me to understand my own feelings about photography.

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Bill Allard – Peru

“His name was Eduardo Ramos and he was nine. A Peruvian taxi had carelessly driven through his family’s band of a dozen sheep in the Altiplano near Puno as he was taking them home to his village. Half were killed and lay broken like discarded stuffed animals. Eduardo was shattered. What could he tell his family? I made a few pictures and left with my assistant. I don’t think we gave him anything. I wish we’d had some fruit or food, but we didn’t.

“Later I told the magazine editors we needed to run the picture because it spoke clearly about how difficult life can be in Peru. National Geographic readers responded with great generosity – unsolicited – eventually donating almost $7,000. The Society contacted the humanitarian organization CARE, which in turn located the village. The sheep were replaced, a water pump for the village was installed, and the remaining amount went into a fund for Peruvian school children.

“To Eduardo and his family, the readers’ response must have seemed unbelievable, like something from out of the sky. The response was also a gift to me, because it lifted that heavy guilt for having taken but not really given in return.”


I went to Latin America not quite knowing what to expect but like most Westerners, whose amazing travel photos I had seen, I was expecting Paradise. There were glimpses of it, most definitely, and at times when I was floating in the water looking up at a giant waterfall cascading heavily down ahead of me, I felt it – this state of Paradise. But then I realised that’s precisely what it was – a momentary state of mind, because behind the golden sand, crystal clear waters and incredible skyline lay a very different reality for some people, a reality I struggled to photograph.

Cuba

The poverty I witnessed in Cuba shocked me. It hit me like a ton of bricks. What I was expecting to see were happy old men, sitting on the porches outside their homes, smoking cigars, singing and playing instruments – what I met were old empty shells of crumbling buildings, in which people still lived, half dug up roads, rubble and dog shit – everywhere, quiet streets with young boys standing in doorways, eyeing you carefully as you walked past – all neatly tucked away behind a whole facade of fancy hotels and restaurants lining the central Havana attraction – The Malecon.

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A few fancy ‘old town’ streets played Rumba, Salsa and entertained tourists as they wandered through – but this was far from real and I found it a little unnerving.

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But I got some great pictures in Havana. I met a family, I listened to their story, and I spent time talking to the children.

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In the countryside it was poorer still but far less oppressive. People there were happy.

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In Trinidad I had a great time talking with an elderly chap selling baskets – I gave him a beer, he gave me a mango.

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The pictures I took in Cuba are some of my favourites because of the stories behind them. I understood the politics, having listened to the locals and I established a relationships with the people I had met.


In other parts of South America it was not as easy to get involved and as I moved further south, the more harrowing the picture became.

I couldn’t photograph what I was seeing, because unlike Bill Allard I couldn’t carry that heavy burden of guilt with me. If I couldn’t understand the picture I couldn’t take it, If I had no relationship with the subject, I couldn’t justify taking their picture. If I couldn’t help or even understand – what right did I have? The image in my mind is enough, and one I can paint using words.

Colombia

I’m in the capital city of Bogota. It’s hot and the streets are busy with traffic and people: old men in traditional white hats with missing teeth laughing and patting each others backs in the shady entrance of souvenir shops; older ladies holding the hands of little children taking them to school; young couples on scooters; drug addicts – slouching on the pavement staring ahead, pipes still in hands; a middle-aged man dragging his limbless body with his one remaining arm across a road, whilst a group of young 20-something American guys casually walk past him, talking about the cute local girl who promised to take them Salsa dancing that evening.

In Colombia drug addicts, homeless and disabled people sat in the streets like discarded waste, and to those around them – they were ghosts. It was appalling.

Ecuador

Ecuador was like a breath of fresh air after Colombia. I got to know the locals and I fell in love with the people, the land and how communities pulled together to create a better life for those around them.

There’s a thing in Ecuador called Minga – a Quechuan way of life that has existed for centuries. It is when a community comes together to help support one another. A community or a person is entitled to call a Minga in distressing times, and people will travel for miles to gather around a project, family, or a single person that is in need of communal assistance. It is precisely what helps propel villages forward.

Towards the end of my time in Ecuador I heard about the struggles of indigenous people living out in the countryside. I met a man from the States who was working for a Christian Aid group, volunteering at an orphanage for disabled children who had been abandoned at birth by their families. The reality for many of these families is that if their children are not fit to work the cost of keeping them becomes impossible. Another awful reality and example of the harsh poverty in South America.

But, the fact that I came across organisations and communities whose mission it was to help, helped restore my faith in humanity again, it also made me realsie how fortunate I really was.


No matter what happens in my life I will always be able to find work, I will always have a home, I will always have access to medical attention, I will always be loved. The amount of people who have NONE of this and less is overwhelming and deeply saddening.


Counting Blessings

I’d grown tired of travelling – as many people do after 6 months. You get something called ‘Travel Burn Out’. I experienced it in front of a 30 metre high glacier exploding in front of me in the south of Argentina. I could register how amazing it was to see but I wasn’t as excited by it as everyone else around me was. I wanted more than anything the comfort of home, the familiarity that comes with having your own room, a set of drawers, a cup of tea and a sofa.

The fact that I could access that in New Zealand with Seamus’ family was a blessing. The fact that I could satisfy my urges as and when I wanted to (I need a better bed, I need something healthier to eat for dinner), has been a blessing.

The fact that I can go home and that the opportunities for me to build a life, around people I love is the biggest blessing of all.

Some people in the world would call it Paradise.


Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: CubaMexicoColombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos IslandsArgentinaLAFijiNew Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.


 

Feeling Connected

After 5 months of travelling and moving from one place to another, I started feeling a bit lost. I had no home – no friends – no family – nothing familiar surrounding me. On the one hand I was reaching out for new experiences and big adventures – on the other hand something was pulling me back, making me yearn to connect with something – anything familiar…a voice, a taste, a sight.

This moving about was beginning to feel a bit relentless.

You see, being on the move was exhilarating but so massively disorienting and exhausting. Imagine yourself having roots, these long spindly bits of wood dangling from your feet – connecting you to, well – life, I suppose. When you travel you leave your roots behind, cut yourself off, and after a while you find yourself a drift, and drifting – for me, felt pretty empty. Moving constantly meant I didn’t have time to reflect, to analyse, to improve or change. It was just stimulus after stimulus after stimulus…and where was I?


Billy No Roots


You disconnect from your roots for long enough, you may lose a sense of who you are. Getting back to a home, a routine, and feeling connected with myself and what was around me – that was all really important, I discovered, crucial in fact, to feeling happy.

Diving off a cliff and free-falling is a huge adrenaline rush – a mad adventure. Maybe the biggest adventure you could have in life nowadays is to give it all up and to go out and explore the world – to leave everything behind.

However, 9 months is a long time to free-fall. How long before the adrenaline ends? How long can you go for without roots before, like a tree you shrivel up and die?

Well, even Indiana Jones went back home to his teaching job before getting on to his next adventure.

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For me it’s an interesting concept – this one of roots. Travelling has for the first time made me realise I even had proper roots to begin with. I thought leaving would be easy as I didn’t think I had anything to miss. I guess, as the old saying goes: you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone.

So here’s me – free-falling across the globe, feeling all disconnected, suddenly conscious of a deep throbbing void, reaching out for anything familiar, comforting, warm… wait for it – McDonald’s. That’s right – those Golden Arches of deliciousness! That was the first sign that something was going horribly wrong. And it got me thinking.

I was free-falling hard, and McDonald’s was just my little way of having a mental break, closing my eyes and taking a big tasty bite of something that tasted familiar. Then I looked at my feet – no roots. Where was I? I began looking at other people and wondered what made them so happy? I looked at their roots.

I was glad I started thinking these thoughts by the time I reached Ecuador. In Ecuador – it all became so abundantly clear.


Crossing the Colombian Border – Misery


After 3 painful days of busing it across the borders of Colombia along a slightly notorious ‘Ross Kemp Extreme World‘ Pan-American Highway, I arrived safely albeit grumpily in Ecuador. We had 2 days before meeting a big group of strangers for a Galapagos Island trip. I was not looking forward to it. Just get me a beach, a bed and some wine and a healthy dose of solitude – but we were committed.

After Colombia/Ecuador border control we boarded a bus for Otavalo – a small town just north of Ecuador’s capital – Quito, famous for its textiles. Seamus’ good friend Dorien from Amsterdam was in Otavalo on business so we made plans to meet her for a catch up and some sight-seeing.

The bus pulled over quite suddenly on a main highway and the driver motioned for everyone for Otavalo to get off. We did so in a rush and as the bus pulled away we realised the following 3 things:

a. It was raining.
b. We were in the middle of nowhere on a motorway.
c. We’d left one of our bags in the overhead compartment on the bus.

I stared ahead as the bus disappeared into the rainy haze and smog, helpless – my limbs flexed and ready to run after the bus, my brain telling them to stay still where they were. From the corner of my eye I saw Seamus ask a tiny man with no teeth how to get into town. My head just emptied, and misery took a hold of me. The tiny man waved down a bus for us that would take us into town.

Otavalo is a largely indigenous town where the people are famous for weaving textiles, which are sold at the Saturday Otavalo market, considered one of the most important markets in the Andes. We were in a special place but in all honesty, I just could not be arsed.

The next day, my attitude changed completely.


Ecuador and the volcano love story


Seamus’ friend Dorien is the founder and director of Bufandy – an urban ethnic design company which sources Alpaca scarves from a family of textile weavers in Otavalo. Dorien was drawn to Ecuador during her time there as a Dutch tour guide. She now visits Otavalo regularly.

“With Bufandy I aim to inspire local craftsmen to look beyond their borders for world-wide demand and help them make economic progress…We work with small-scale family businesses that have limited access to international markets.”

The following day Dorien took us to the home where she sources her goods, and introduced us to the family – her partners in Ecuador: Fabien and Cecilia and their three children.

I stood for a while in front of the textile house, in the beaming sunshine and glowing cornfields. Ahead of us was a huge volcano, sitting still, haze-like, a painting – not quite real looking.

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Imbabura, Cotacachi and Mojanda are the volcanoes that surround Otavalo, explains Dorien. Imbabura is of significant importance to the local culture and considered the sacred protector of the region. On the western slope, an area of loose earth resembles a heart. This area, known as the “heart of the mountain” is much beloved by residents – it is said to be enchanted, as no human nor animal has been capable of scaling or hiking across it.

According to local legend, Imbabura fought with Mojanda to win the love of Cotacachi, who became his wife. When Cotacachi is snow-capped in the morning, it is said that Imbabura has been with her during the night.

It was magical – everything I was seeing and hearing – from the haze like surrounding volcanoes that hung suspended like a painting on the horizon, the cornfields glistening in the sun against brilliant blue skies – it was like being inside a giant snow globe, a magical Garden of Eden-like sphere.

We walked on into the house and had a brilliant insight into the working lives of the Otavalenos, and when I left I looked out again at this brilliant landscape and suddenly felt my heart swell. The sight of it made me feel instantly happy. This vast countryside was beautiful, like any other countryside free of 20th Century paraphernalia – but it was a very different kind of beautiful – it had meaning – it was a source of someone else’s happiness. Hundreds of people worshipped and nurtured and gave meaning to this land and it resonated.

The family I had met – the children – their smiles…I mean, if smiles had words, these smiles would say “isn’t it beautiful here! I’m so happy and I’m even happier that you’ve come to see it!”

A few weeks later I was hiking on the Quilotoa crater and took a snap of an indigenous Quichua girl. The girl  didn’t know I was taking her picture. She just smiled at me as she was passing.

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In Ecuador I came across a land of substance, of deep meaning, GENUINE happiness and for the first time I felt roots – not my own but everyone elses. It was like they were embracing me – just for a bit, giving me a slice of much needed life, feeding my soul.

In Ecuador – the Earth rules.


The more and more I tried to remember and recreate and hang onto that feeling, I remembered other cultures that I’d come across who connected to the earth in some way.

In Cuba, a Vinales cigar farmer deliberately spilled the first drop of rum from a freshly opened bottle to the ground:

“To say thank you” he explained “to the Earth for providing for my family.”

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In Mexico, priests wore thick heavy wooden clogs and danced, stamping their feet heavily, drinking liquor from a communal cup:

“To wake up the Earth beneath our feet, to connect with mother nature and celebrate our days here.”

In one church in San Juan Chamula, locals had brought in pine needles from the surrounding forests to carpet the floor – for worship.

In Zipolite on the pacific coast of Mexico, people would congregate daily and worship the sun that would rise and set along the same stretch of water.

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When you travel for a long time you learn to appreciate through others how important the ground is beneath your feet, and that realisation brings you closer to Earth. Us humans – well, we just need to feel connected – feel rooted, and take ourselves away somewhere magical once in a while – a change of scenery, so we appreciate a sense of coming home again – to our roots.

Connecting with the Earth in some way, makes us feel more alive in the present, and more hopeful for what we have to return to.

You don’t need to go all the way to Ecuador to feel connected to life – just start taking notice of the wherever it is you are and appreciate it for the snow globe that it is.

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I am looking forward to planting myself in the ground again, feeling it bubble alive beneath my feet and taking myself away from time to time on smaller adventures. I might even adopt the Cuban ritual of spilling a drink to the earth before taking a sip – just to remind me that it’s there and how good it feels, knowing that I’m connected to it.

Like Indiana Jones, I’m looking forward to having somewhere and something to come back to – my very own snow globe – whatever it’ll end up looking like, and taking myself away every once in a while for epic adventures.

There’s only so long you can free-fall for.


“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t
look any further than my own backyard. Because if it
isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

– Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz


Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: CubaMexicoColombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos IslandsArgentinaLAFijiNew Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.


 

The Quilotoa Loop – Ecuador

The village of Quilotoa is famous for its water-filled volcanic crater, and is a common starting point for the Quilotoa Loop – a multi-day village-to-village hiking route, most commonly used by the indigenous Quichua people.

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Hiking around the crater’s edge and to the nearby villages of Chugchilan and Insinlivi, crossing green paddocks and golden corn fields, up and down mountain sides and canyons is SPECTACULAR! I’ve never ever done a hike like it. I think this will soon be the next ‘Inca Trail.’ It’s beautiful, it feels undiscovered, it feels like the world’s best kept secret. In maybe 20 years or so word will spread and this will no doubt be a hike you can only do as part of a tour.

Get there quick before the crowds do.


My Guide to Hiking The Quilotoa Loop


Below I have included a complete itinerary of how we completed The Quilotoa Loop. Our hostel at Latacunga gave us written instructions and maps for hiking but some of it was a little inaccurate so I’ve amended it as best I can and included pictures. I’d recommend printing this off if you’re planning to do the loop because there is nothing else better out there as far as I can see and the route is not sign posted, meaning that most people take themselves off track and get back on the main road, which in my eyes just defeats the purpose.

How to Approach The Quilotoa Loop

People approach The Quilotoa Loop differently – starting their hikes in different villages, or by taking the roads or travelling by car, but in my eyes there is only one way the loop should be done.

As a general rule one should:

  • Start at the town of Quilotoa. This is the coldest and windiest part of the trek. It is a good place to buy additional clothing (hats/gloves/scarves) if you need them. If you make Quilotoa your last stop nothing will really prepare you for the weather conditions and you’ll be so tired from days of hiking you may not appreciate it as much, especially as the weather up there can be quite rough. If you start at the crater you can take more time to appreciate it. It is also a good place to get used to the altitude. The walk to the village of Chugchilan from Quilotoa is stunning! When you get to the town of Chugchilan you can actually look back over the mountainous landscape and see where it is you’ve come from. It’s breath-taking and incredibly rewarding. I got the impression that hiking back the other way would definitely be more tiring – with steeper climbs at the end when you least want them. Ordinarily you may assume that the harder it is at the end, the more rewarding the experience will be when you reach the summit. I think the winds will prevent you from enjoying it as much. At some points they really knock you off your feet!
  • Start every days walk EARLY! We left our accommodations no later than 9.00 am every day, allowing for at least 6 hours hiking a day. You most definitely do not want to be stuck out after dark. I couldn’t believe that some people started their trek in the afternoon. Locals may tell you a walk to the next village is only 4 hours but you’ll be surprised at how fit these people are. One lady on her way home, over took us on a steep hill. She was at least 80 years old and she was wearing heels! Allow 6 – 7 hours at least, including decent breaks.
  • Follow the natural path and keep away from the roads. Taking the option of public transport between villages just defeats the purpose. In following the natural path, you follow the same path as the indigenous people. You will hardly see another tourist in sight.
  • Aim to stay at Chugchilan for a few days. The treks around there are very beautiful and there are terrific accommodation options.

Also:

  • Your route should include these villages: Quilotoa, Chugchilan, Insinlivi, Sigchos
  • There are other villages you can walk to, to really complete the loop but the landscape is nowhere near as stunning. Locals advised us to just stick to these villages.

The Quilotoa Loop

Day 1:

Travel from Latacunga to the village of Quilotoa

  • We took a 9.30 am bus from Latacunga. The buses seemed to be very frequent but try and get an early bus to beat the day trippers into the village. The journey took 2 hours ($2) and we arrived at 11.30 am.
  • You need to pay $2 to enter the village.
  • Accommodation: Just by the lake mirador (viewpoint) is a fantastic little hostel ‘Hostal Chukirawa.’ If you book in advance it’s about $45 a night with breakfast and dinner included ($22.50 pp). We just turned up without booking and got a room cheaper. A double ensuite room cost us $30 a night with dinner and breakfast included ($15 pp). The bedroom had a wood burner and the food was pretty good. At $15 it was a complete steal.

Hike down to the lake:

After buying a hat for $5 (it was very windy and cold), we decided to hike down the Quilotoa crater to the water’s edge. The steep hike down takes 30 minutes, but the hike back up takes about 2 hours including breaks (altitude is a bit of a killer). You can ask for a horse to take you back up but if you break regularly enough it’s ok, and boy do you feel fit afterwards! It’s a good way to exercise your lungs before starting the Loop.

The views are incredible.

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Day 2:

Quilotoa to Chugchilan

11km 4-5hrs (It took us 6-7 hours as we stopped off a lot for breaks and took pictures/had lunch)

  • From the lookout point in Quilotoa take the left path where there is a sign for Chugchilan. It takes you around the crater.
  • Your goal is to make it almost half way around the crater and then descend away from the lake into the valley.

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  • You will reach a series of sandy areas. Our instructions told us to go to the second sandy area but we found about four areas we considered to be sandy so we got a bit confused. The second sandy area is really sandy though. There is probably about 100 m² of sand, if not more – see pictures below.
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The first few sandy areas of Quilotoa.

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The ‘second sandy area’, at which point you descend.

  • Make a left at the ‘second sandy area’ and take the steep path down the side of the volcano.
  • In the distance you will see a large blue roof of a stadium like structure in the town of Guayama. You’ll need to reach this.
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Large blue roof structure in the town of Guayama. Visible from Quilotoa crater.

  • Once on the steep path keep walking down, you will pass through tree-lined fields. You should come across some signs pointing to Chugchilan.
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Climbing down the other side of Quilotoa – A sign to Chugchilan.

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Tree-lined fields following descent from the Quilotoa crater.

  • The trail will hit a dirt road. Follow it until the village of Guayama.
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The road to the village of Guayama.

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You’ll meet many of these guys along the way.

  • At the end of the dirt road make a left to the entrance of the village.
  • Turn right to get into the village.
  • Walk straight across all intersections until the other end of the village.
  • Make a left and follow the dirt road out of town. You’ll soon reach a canyon with a lookout point.
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Stunning views from the canyon.

  •  Left from the lookout/mirador there is a trail going down into the canyon.
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Follow the path down to the left of the lookout point.

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The canyon pathway.

  • Follow it all the way down until the river at the bottom (maybe an hour or so walk with a small break)
  • Cross using the worn out bridge.
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Cross the make-shift bridge at the bottom of the canyon.

  • Take the steep trail going up, ignoring any paths veering left or right. You will soon reach a road/large path and at this point will be about 15-20 minutes walk away from your destination. Take the road right. There were no road signs to Chugchilan that we could see, so we asked a local who happened to be passing for directions, who confirmed we were going the right way.
  • We headed up towards a white house, in the direction of what I would describe as the hill on the hill – a tiny looking hill with a few trees on top of the big hill (see pictures below).
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The hill on the hill.

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The white house you will pass.

  • Follow the road past the house. You will arrive at the hostel El Vaquero before you reach town. This is by far the best accommodation option. We wandered down to the popular Cloud Forest Hostel but it was just so crowded, and at the end of the day, didn’t have these views:
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Stunning views from the living area of Hostel El Vaquero, Chugchilan. At the far centre/right you are able to see the spikey tips of the Quilotoa crater.


WHERE TO STAY IN CHUGCHILAN

El Vaquero
vaquerochugchilanecuador@gmail.com

We paid $15 each for dinner, bed and breakfast all included. It’s cheaper if you just turn up and negotiate than if you book online. This is a family run hostel and the hosts are just wonderful.

You will want to stay here for a few days at least.

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Hammocks outside the bedroom.

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Double bedroom with ensuite bathroom.


Day 3:

Chugchilan to Insinlivi – 6 hours 12km

  • Follow the main road out from Chugchilan. After about 30 minutes you will see a road going left to a cheese factory, pass it.
  • At the end of the road you will see a green park bench and a road going left and a road going right.
  • Take the right road. You’ll pass a white house.
  • Follow a large trail going down, just off the road after the white house. There should be a big blue sign post pointing in the direction of Insinlivi.

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  • You will reach a few houses. These are the first houses of Chinalo (watch out for guard dogs here – pass quickly and quietly).
  • You will then come to a small intersection.
  • At this intersection, standing with your back to the trail you just walked down, you will see a large path going up on your right and another one going straight ahead. Take neither of these. Instead get closer to the right hand side in front of you – you will see a steep and narrow grassy path going down. This will take you to the small village of Itualo.
  • As you walk down this path you will be able to see a nice view of the canyon and of Itualo. If you look down you should be able to see the village’s football field and church.
  • Just before the village, take the left fork in the path. This will lead you down into the village and the church.
  • When you get down follow the road going left out of the village for about 10 minutes until you walk into a curve in the road with a sandy cliff.
  • Continue on this curvy road for 150m. On the left you will see a house with a sign ‘information, coffee…’ etc. – grab yourself a coke here. You’ll need the sugar!
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Information and snack stop.

  • Now, after the snack stop and BEFORE the next house there is a (not too visible) path going down towards the river (on your right). Follow it.
  • Your objective here is to get down to the river. Our instructions said there was a clear path going down but when we went (2015) that wasn’t the case. There were lots of cornfields.
  • A local lady told us how to get down: Follow the field DOWN heading left. You’ll come to a series of small corn fields.
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Cornfields on the way down to the river.

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Crossing through the cornfields.

  • Cross them and work your way through them about 20 metres or so and try and make your way down. Watch out for cows and bulls. They should all be tied up.
  • You will eventually get down to the river. Follow it left all the way, through paddocks and small woods. Keep going, you may need to climb over a few rocks in the river. Your aim now is to find some bridges.

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  • After maybe about 30 minutes you will PASS a suspension bridge (don’t cross it). Keep walking on the left side of the river until you reach a log bridge. It’s huge so don’t worry about missing it.
  • Cross the river using the log bridge.
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Log bridge crossing.

  • The next part of the trip is quite physically demanding, so use this point to refuel. Get some carbs and some sugar in you.
  • As you continue left you should see a yellow marker on a rock or a tree, pointing you in the right direction. Follow it.
  • You will walk through a stand of eucalyptus trees. Go left through the clearing.
  • You will find a small path that will take you a bit further to the right of the river. Follow it and go up.
  • You will very quickly come across an opening to a large field that will most probably be fenced off with bits of wood. It’s probably to stop the animals from leaving the field. Climb over it, remaining cautious of the animals.

This is the tough bit:

  • The field will come to an end and you will no longer be able to follow the river.

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  • You will need to find the path that goes up and crosses over until the river comes back into view.

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Our instructions told us we had to keep going up, which was impossible.

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Seamus stood there for about 10 minutes wondering where to go. Here’s what we did:

Once you see the river again your objective is to try and find a way that goes back down again.

  • As soon as the river comes back into sight, you’ll see a small boggy pasture and a small cluster of trees in the river. Just before this small cluster of trees you should be able to spot a big rock with a yellow arrow painted on it. Get down to that.
  • When you do, the trail to the village is fairly simple and you will find lots of yellow markers leading the way.
  • After about 30 minutes maybe, you will be directed to a set of cliffs and a path will lead you up. You’ll need to climb all the way up.

We just followed the yellow signs and at some point we had to refer back to the directions that were given to us, which read:

Then you will reach a fork; there is a red painted sign which isn’t clearly visible. Make a left at this fork. You will then cross a river using a bridge; on the other side take the path going up the hill (not the one going along the river). Follow this path up the hill, there are some rocks, you will shortly get to a large dirt road; go left and up following it. Ignore the small path leaving it on the right. This large dirt road will take you up into the village of Insinlivi and will take about 30 minutes. 

The above extract from the original instructions is a little vague –  but we managed to reach the village in one piece. The point at which we needed this direction was about an hour away from town. You will pass a farm or two and possibly some locals working in the fields. Never hesitate to stop and ask for directions.

When in Insinlivi ask what times the buses leave from Sigchos to Latacunga so you can plan your final days travel.


WHERE TO STAY IN INSINLIVI

There were 2 main accommodation options when we visited: Hostal Llullu Llama and Hostal Taita Cristobal.

Taita Cristobal was the cheaper option we went for and wasn’t bad. The food was delicious but we didn’t have hot water in our room – which I’m sure isn’t the case all the time, we were just unlucky.


Day 3:

Insinlivi to Sigchos

4 hours 14km

  • Walk out of town on the main street and follow a grass path down.
  • Ask in town for the directions out before you leave. Eventually you’ll come across the yellow and red markers again.
  • After about 30 minutes you’ll come across 3 power poles standing together, pass them and keep walking 200-300 metres.
  • There will be a steep narrow path on your left just before a stand of eucalyptus trees, follow it down the hill to the village of Cochalo, ignoring any other secondary trails.
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Seamus following the path down before the stand of eucalyptus trees.

  • From above you will be able to see the small church and school playground.
  • In Cochalo the road will get to a church and a school.
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Walk towards the church and turn left before the school.

  • Follow the road on your left that passes in front of the school.
  • Continue on that road until you see a trail leading to the right down to a concrete bridge.
  • Follow that trail and cross the bridge. The trail to the bridge may not be so clear but don’t worry if you miss it. We did. As long as you stick to the river route you’ll come to the bridge, you may have to climb down and come back on yourself.
  • Once on the other side take the path going to the right passing along the side of a house up to a road.
  • On the road make a right and follow it for about 30 minutes until you see a trail going up on your left. You should see more yellow markers at this point. Follow them up.
  • Follow the trail on the left up the hill until it comes out once again on to the road.
  • Follow that road left until you come to another trail on the left, opposite a house with a large brick wall, large drive way, and a swimming pool (probably empty).
  • Take this path and follow it up until it comes out on to another road.
  • Take this road to the right and walk past a few houses until you come back out onto the main road.
  • Follow the main road left.
  • Keep going until you come to a church on the left of a dirt road/ Follow this dirt road left, uphill. This road will take you to Sighos.
  • Walk into the main square in the centre of town. Buses back to Latacunga pass by the side of the main square with the covered seating. Ask any of the locals which side you should wait on. Our instructions read to wait on the side facing the open end of the valley. The bus arrived on the other side.

I found some of the information on the Backpacker Report website to be quite useful. Check it out!


Have you completed the Quilotoa Loop?

Did you do things differently or start your journey in Sigchos?

Were these instructions helpful?

I’d love to hear about your experiences! Please share them in the comments below.


Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: CubaMexicoColombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos IslandsArgentinaLAFijiNew Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.


The Galapagos Islands – How to Travel Independently

As soon as you arrive on the Galapagos Islands you are surrounded by wildlife; walk to a local beach and dozens of sea lions will join you for a swim, take a seat on a bench by the road and a sea lion will more than likely be having a nap next to you. Lizards and Iguanas carry on about their business of digging sand or seeking shade, whilst you sit there – perhaps a few metres away, wondering how in god’s name such a place can be real – a place where wild, in some cases endangered animals, and humans live so comfortably side-by-side.

This really is the most unique place on the planet.

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We visited the Galapagos Islands as part of an organised tour with G Adventures. Worst mistake I ever made. For the price I paid for a 5-day tour, I could have stayed on the Islands for 2-weeks and travelled between them independently. Travelling to the Galapagos is no more expensive than travelling to a lot of places in Latin America.


Things to Know Before Booking Your Trip


Galapagos FACTS your travel agent won’t tell you

  • Flights to the Galapagos operate daily – there are no real restrictions on travel beyond the ordinary tourist visa you need when travelling to any country (1.e. 30 – 60 day stay) and flights selling out. It will probably be harder to get a flight in high season (June to September). When I went there were 3 or 4 flights operating daily from 2 companies.
  • Independent travel to the Galapagos is cheaper, and you will see MORE as you will be able to stay for longer.
  • Most activities on the Islands are free: The Charles Darwin Research Centre, seeing giant land tortoises and sea lions, Blue-footed Boobies, penguins and sharks. Snorkelling (if you have your own gear) is free or about $10 to hire, and all other breeding and information centres are free. The $100 tax you pay at the airport covers all of this.
  • There are hundreds of hostels and hotels across all of the islands, catering for all budgets.
  • There are shops, ATMs and plenty of restaurants/cafes/bars. You would be surprised at how built up these islands actually are.

BIG MYTH BUSTER

Animals are treated cruelly and man-handled by tourists and tour guides

Before travelling I was quite apprehensive about the tours. I’d heard a lot of horror stories about tourists and tour guides man-handling the animals. I didn’t come across any of that at all. The tour guides are naturalist guides and were very protective of the animals and wildlife, constantly warning tourists to keep at least 2 metres distance from the animals. There are also signs everywhere. I saw a few incidents of people getting too close to the sea lions. That was it. There are some very stupid people in the world but I would say, on the whole that the wildlife there is treated with respect. I was taking pictures of some Iguana in a car park when a security officer approached me, and asked if I could leave the area as there were too many Iguana, and there was a risk that I might upset them.

Now, I didn’t travel in high season so there were fewer people and so, I guess a lower concentration of stupid. I can say though that the guides do a sterling job.


When to Travel

Here is a good link I found that explains when is best to travel to the Galapagos: Best time to visit… I travelled in February – the weather was hot and mostly dry and there were fewer tourists.


How to Travel

I personally would travel independently by land. A lot of people take the cruise option – here are some cruise facts that might make you change your mind:

  • If you book a cruise in advance you’ll be paying top dollar. Never ask fellow passengers what they paid – chances are it’ll be less than half of what you paid. Every agency on every Island sells last minute spaces on all the cruise ships at rock bottom prices.
  • Cruises are unnecessarily expensive – as are land-based tours. What you pay for these tours you will be much better off organising your own accommodation and travel between Islands – you’ll save literally hundreds of dollars. We worked out that we would have saved at least $1000 each had we travelled independently.
  • You never know who you are going to share a boat with, and once you’re on that boat there’s no getting off.
  • I compared my land-based trip with someone who had done a cruise trip. They wondered where on earth I had come across some of the tropical looking beaches I had stayed on. I believe, and the person who did the cruise agreed, that you see less on a cruise. The money you save from not going on a cruise you can use to book a tour independently to the same areas.

Land-based independent travel means you can travel for longer, spend more time with the animals, have the freedom to stay in places you like for longer and do whatever tours you want to do, whenever you choose to do them.


Before you travel – restrictions and costs

You are prohibited from taking certain items onto the Islands, such as alcohol and the usual – food products, shells, living things etc. etc. If you are staying in Quito before you fly, many hostels allow you to leave luggage with them in lock-up facilities.

Currency

US $

Based on 2015 prices:

Flights

Around $400 return from Quito airport

Entry Costs

  • You will be charged $25 for a visa which you pay for at the airport before boarding your flight
  • You will be charged $100 for entry (paid at the Galapagos airport)

Concessions do apply for students and pensioners, so take your student ID with you!

Ask for your passport to be stamped when you land, as it looks great!

Accommodation, travel and food budget for the Islands

  • Taxi travel: Around $5 for 10 minute transfer. Kind of standard prices – you’ll only need to take a taxi to and from the airport if you have heavy luggage with you and on Santa Cruz Island you may want to split a taxi fare and visit the land tortoises who wander around about 15 minutes inland. Everything else is walking distance. In San Cristobal the town is only a few minutes drive away from the airport.
  • Boat transfers between Islands: $30 one way pp. average 2 hour journey time, 2 departures daily – am and pm.
  • Water taxis from boat transfers and to various locations: $1
  • Accommodation based on 2 sharing at a hostel $25 a night.
  • Food budget per day: $60 pp if you eat out for breakfast and dinner with alcohol.
  • I took 2 big tours totalling $180 – everything else I did was for free.

Travelling the Galapagos Islands


San Cristobal Island


HIGHLIGHTS

  • Sea lions
  • Hammerhead sharks and marine life
  • Stunning beaches.

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Things to See and Do on San Cristobal Island – FOR FREE


Every Island has a Visitor Information Centre. Make sure you stop here first and get a map of the Island and the town. You’ll find lots of information on what you can do – including all the free activities. Here are some of my favourites:

The Interpretation Center

Stop by the Interpretation Center – containing an exhibition space explaining the Galapagos Islands’ history.

Frigate bird Hill and Darwin Bay / Cerro Tijeretas

From the Interpretation Center make your way along a 2-mile lava trail to Frigate bird Hill and Darwin Bay – the area with its trails is known as Cerro Tijeratas. From here you will see Frigate birds and views of the port and the north-western part of San Cristobal, including Kicker Rock.

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Take a stroll down Cerro Tijeretas to what locals refer to as Darwin Bay, where a statue of Charles Darwin’s stands, commemorating his arrival to the Galapagos on board the HMS Beagle in 1835. For those who don’t know the history, the islands are most famous for their vast number of endemic species which were studied by Charles Darwin during his voyage. His observations and collections contributed to the inception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

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Spend time with the Sea Lions

Just a 5-minute walk across from Darwin Bay is Playa Mann, a lovely spot for swimming. Dozens of sea lions choose this spot for swimming too.

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Be careful of the sun – nearly every beach on the Galapagos is a bit of a sun trap. Take a sun hat, umbrella, anything you can use for shade if you plan on spending much time here.

The sea lions are everywhere – on park benches, beaches, rocks, piers – everywhere!

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Wander around by the pier at night and watch the sea lions getting ready for bed – it really is a wonderful spectacle.

Check Trip Advisor for more ideas


San Cristobal Must Do Tours – $$$


Kicker Rock / Leon Dormido

This is one excursion you don’t want to miss. Read Trip Advisor reviews here.

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What is it?

Kicker Rock or “León Dormido” in Spanish, is a lava formation just off the coast of San Cristobal that over the years has split in two. Boat companies take groups of visitors every day to snorkel/dive between the split rock, where hundreds of Hammerhead Sharks as well as other sea creatures congregate.

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Usually on this day tour you will moor up on 2 beautiful and protected beach areas and you will pass “Isla Lobos” (sea lion island) which is also a nesting site for Blue-footed Boobies.

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Cost (February 2015): $100 – $150

In 2014 and even just a week before we arrived the price of this tour was between $50-$80. The prices really did escalate as the cheapest we could find was $100. Ask around the various agencies in town before you commit as tours and prices can differ. Also, speak to other tourists who have done the tour and ask which agency they used. A good guide makes a world of difference. The cheapest we found was $100 but they were fully booked so we took a tour for $110.

Try and book a few days in advance. Even in low season when I travelled the tour sold out quickly.

My Experience

I had a stunning time! Our tour guide first took us to one beautiful isolated beach where we snorkelled for a while. I can’t remember the name of the beach but it was beautiful.

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We then ventured out to Kicker Rock and snorkelled above Hammerhead sharks, sea turtles and manta rays. Now unfortunately for us the waters were particularly rough that day and so we didn’t see as much as we would have liked to. Just the day before people saw hundreds of sharks, sea turtles, and even a whale. It’s nature, so you just can’t predict it. However, it was amazing and still well worth the money! I’d go again in a heart beat.

After Kicker Rock we moored up near another beach and had some lunch. The beach itself – breathtaking. The whitest sand I have ever seen in my life – like flour. The sea was brilliant blue and sea lions were playing. Definitely the most beautiful beach I have ever seen in my life.

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You’ll be very happy if you come to the Galapagos and this is the only tour you do – although there is one tour from Isabela Island I would recommend as well – Los Tuneles (see below under Isabella Island).

Other tours from San Cristobal

Kicker Rock is by far the most popular tour and so the agencies have started offering other tours. BUT if you haven’t got money to burn, then seriously – Kicker Rock, with lunch and the 2 beaches is all you should be thinking about. It’s the most popular tour for a reason.

Don’t buy into the islands’ 360 tour. Don’t believe an agency if they tell you all the tours for Kicker Rock are sold out – they’re just trying to sell you more expensive packages, such as the 360 tour. We know people who went and were utterly disappointed. They were told that Kicker Rock had completely sold out and yet we managed to find some last minute spots. They spent a lot of money on the 360 and although the scenery was nice the snorkeling was poor and they hardly saw a thing. Kicker Rock is by far the best tour – one you will remember for life.


Santa Cruz Island


HIGHLIGHTS

  • Giant land tortoises in the wild
  • Charles Darwin Research Centre
  • Beautiful swimming spots
  • Fish market

Things to See and Do On Santa Cruz Island – FOR FREE


Las Grietas

  • $2 pp water taxi return
  • $5 snorkel hire

Well, it’s almost free – you don’t have to go as part of a tour, that’s for sure! Las Grietas is a landscape created by old lava fissures that have formed two huge walls, in between which is a large pool of water – GREAT for swimming. It’s very deep (like a cenote) and is very transparent. It’s just beautiful. The trek to this area is lovely as well – takes about 20 minutes to walk.

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Walk about town and visit the local morning fish market

Probably one of the funniest things I have ever seen – the fish market lies en route to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. All I will say is – take a camera!

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Charles Darwin Research Centre

Interesting enough – not somewhere you would need to spend all day. We just took an hour.

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Visit Reserva El Chato and See Giant Land Tortoises in the Wild

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$30 taxi ride

This is technically a free activity but it will cost you to take transport there. However, it’s utterly worth it for an afternoon/morning activity. Try and split the taxi fare with a few people. I’m not entirely sure if this is the same place I visited, as my group camped in this region as part of an organised tour but it’s in the same area. You really don’t need to stay the night though – it’s very close to town.

Ask at the local visitor information centre for more information. Tours are not necessary, there are paths you can follow once there, and the tortoises wander in and out amongst the tall grass right by the path.


Tortuga Bay

I didn’t visit so can’t comment but I heard the beach was very nice at sunset. Take plenty of sun protection, as with all the beaches on the Galapagos – it’s a bit of a sun trap.


 Isabela Island


Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos Islands, home to 6 volcanoes, 5 of which are still active. It’s home to 95% of the Galapagos Penguin population and harbours 5 species of giant tortoise. It has some of the best snorkelling and diving spots of any of the Islands and although it is the largest of the Islands it is the least built up, giving it more of a beach town vibe. There are plenty of hostels, hotels, bars and restaurants dotted around so it’s worth stopping off on this Island for a while.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Iguana and tortoises
  • Blue-footed Boobies
  • Penguins
  • Sharks
  • Giant Sea Horses
  • Beaches
  • Volcanoes

Things to See and Do On Isabela Island – FOR FREE


Try this in an afternoon:

Centro de Crianza “Arnaldo Tupiza” – Tortoise Breeding Centre

Isabela Island is the one place in the world which holds 5 different species of giant tortoise. Learn about the process of breeding and how the population of these endangered reptiles is being recovered.

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Los Humedales – The Wetlands

As you walk down towards the beach (Playa Grande) from the Centro de Crianza breeding centre, you will notice the landscape begin to change. There’s a nice path which takes you down to the beach via flamingo filled lagoons. It’s a good 25 minute leg stretch. Best timed with sunset.

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The wetlands do extend for many miles toward a place called the Wall of Tears. Cycling through this area makes for a good day trip – but again, beware of the sun. Take a hat and a long-sleeved light shirt and wear sun block. The sun can be unforgiving.

Sunset on Playa Grande

This is a lovely stretch of beach with a fantastic sunset! Enjoy a 2-for-1 cocktail at the bar at the end of the beach -can’t for the life of me remember the name but there’s a volleyball net outside, a tight rope and generally a small crowd and music. It’s a fun spot and you can take your drinks away a little further down the beach if it gets a little over crowded.

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A great day out with the Iguanas

Find a shady spot with some palm trees on a beach just by the town Malecon. You’ll see hundreds of Iguana pottering about – digging sand pits and swimming in the sea. There are a few bars and cafes scattered about so this makes for a perfect day out!

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Explore Volcanoes – Hike to Sierra Negra

I didn’t do this as I didn’t have much time and preferred to see the wildlife – but if rocks are your thing then I heard it’s very good!


Isabela Must Do Tours – $$$


Los Tuneles

There are 2 tours you should definitely invest in whilst visiting The Galapagos. One I’ve covered in San Cristobal – Kicker Rock. Los Tuneles, off the coast of Isabela Island is another.

What is it?

Los Tuneles is a series of rock formations including bridges and tunnels formed off the coast of Isabela when the hot magma from the volcanoes reached the island’s edge and flowed into the pacific waters.

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What makes it so special?

The site is known as one of the best spots to snorkel in the Galapagos, owing to its aquarium like waters. It’s simply stunning! You snorkel with penguins, sea turtles, giant manta rays and sea horses and get within touching distance of sleeping white tip reef sharks.

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You also get very close to the Blue-footed Boobies

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The tour cost a total of $80. Again – book this at least a few days in advance, especially if you’re travelling in peak season. Not to be missed!


Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: CubaMexicoColombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos IslandsArgentinaLAFijiNew Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.


The Amazon Colombia

Planning The Amazon


I’m a very independent traveller and tend to avoid organised group trips or package tours when I can, as they are usually very expensive and restricted in terms of what you can do. I prefer to go it alone. Finding information on how you can travel the Amazon on a budget was really really difficult. We didn’t have $100 a night for a room in an eco lodge, or $600 for some cruise that sounded awful.

After researching we found a great way of travelling the Amazon on a budget of approx. £50 a day p/p – including tours, food, drink and accommodation!

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How we did it!

When I researched online I found a post on Trip Advisor that was really useful: The Rundown on Leticia Amazon – Leticia Message Board. It gives you a complete overview of the area and a summary of the trips you can take independently.

We travelled in February 2015. The water levels were quite high and some places were closed off because of flooding. This is common up until May/June. You are less likely to see as many animals when the water levels are high but we saw lots and the weather was actually great when we arrived. Clear, sunny mornings/afternoons, drizzle/rain in the evenings on some of the days.

An ideal time to travel is apparently from July to December as the water levels are lower, however July and August are in high tourist season so things may be more expensive or certain trips may be over-crowded or over-booked.

Our guide told us that November was the best time to visit as water levels are average and it is drier so you can hike more comfortably.


The Plan

We chose to base ourselves in Puerto Narino, 2 hours up by boat from Leticia. The village, described by Lonely Planet as ‘living proof that man and nature can peacefully co-exist’ is beautiful. Motorised vehicles are banned and the whole town recycles. I’ve never seen anything like it on the continent. Eco-tourism at its best. The town is full of restaurants, little shops and bars – I couldn’t believe we were in the jungle. One of the most bizarre and beautiful places I’ve ever stayed in! The accommodation was just lovely – by far the best in this village – Maloka Napu.

It was easy to access all the places we wanted to visit from Puerto Narino, and the further away you travel from Leticia, the better for experiencing the Amazon and the wildlife.

We travelled to Leticia and stopped there for one night. We had to as our flight landed after the last boat for Puerto Narino had left. It was a good base for us to get ready for the next 4 days. There were plenty of restaurants, shops, ATMs and pharmacies.

We booked accommodation in advance – not entirely necessary for Leticia as there are many accommodation options, and the hostel owner didn’t even have a record of our booking anyway but if you’re travelling further out it’s a good idea to have something booked. There is little internet access outside of Leticia and it took a few days for the Puerto Narino accommodation to confirm.


Day 1:
Arrive in Leticia


Leticia is located on the Amazon River at the point where Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet.

It’s good enough for a night stop and to stock up on supplies. The town is very busy and quite polluted so I would not recommend staying there for long or making it a main base for exploring the Amazon.

Getting around:

Firstly you need a good and reliable taxi driver. If the driver who takes you from the airport is nice and charges a good price take his number down. We had Alexander Pinto. Super nice guy. On Sunday morning our hostel couldn’t get through to any drivers to take us to the pier so we could catch our boat to Puerto Narino. We gave him Alexander’s number and he picked us up within 10 minutes. His number is: 3104777900. In case that number doesn’t work try 3104777700 (the third from last could be a 7 or a 9) he works for the official Cootrans Amazonas taxi company.


Where we stayed:

Mahatu Guesthouse

Calle 7 nº 1-40 Leticia (Amazonas)-Colombia
E: mahatuhostel@gmail.com / gusrenalvarado@hotmail.com

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We booked via Hostelworld as the owner didn’t reply to our emails. The location is nice as it’s a little outside of town and there is a small lake with some wildlife. It’s all quite pretty. The accommodation was very basic but good enough for just 1 night’s stay. You really don’t want to stay in Leticia for longer than that.


The Army Guy – Survival Treks into The Amazon Jungle

We shared a room with Juan, ex-military turned jungle guide/estate agent (his other job in Bogota). Juan acquired his survival skills back when he trained with the army and was stationed in the jungle. Following his stint in the army he lived in the jungle for 2 years. He now returns to The Amazon whenever he has free time from work and goes deep into the jungle (with or without a tour group) – the jungle is his life.

“To experience the real Amazon you must hike deep into the jungle – away from the indigenous villages. The indigenous people hunt and eat all the animals, therefore it is hard to spot them unless you hike for several days and sleep the night.” It sounded tough – not many people can make it past 1 night, explained Juan.

That’s one way of doing it!

I now know that some agencies run tours like this but in all honesty, I’d go with Juan if I wanted to do this kind of tour. In the Amazon, you really need an army man looking out for you! He was passionate and completely clued up. Maybe one day if I’m feeling brave, I’ll contact Juan and do a survival trek.

This is a link to Juan’s company, Coltrek.


Advice from the Army Guy:

  • Go as deep into the jungle as you can for any chance of seeing wildlife. Most animals are nocturnal and will only come out at night. Try and organise a night-time hike if you can.
  • Shine your torch into the trees and around the ground at night. You will see the eyes of all the animals around you. Spiders usually have blue/green eyes reflecting back at you, certain frogs have red eyes, and cats – jaguar, puma also have red eyes.
  • If you’re sleeping in the jungle itself, in a hammock, you must have a net – to protect you from the mosquitos and the vampire bats. When vampires bite, their saliva has an anaesthetising effect so you may not know you are bitten until you wake up with 2 holes. Vampire bats may carry rabies.

Below is a list of ingredients the army use as a repellent for mosquitos. Buy these ingredients from any drug store in town and use as a repellent:

  1. 1 x bottle of alcohol (70%) from the pharmacy (approx. 300ml)
  2. 1 x bar of Nopiquex soap (small black bar)
  3. 1 x bar of Alcanfor (small white bar)
  4. Tobacco (only if you are going on a proper jungle trek)
  • Empty roughly a quarter of the bottle of alcohol out (so there is enough space to fit the other ingredients).
  • Roughly chop up the bars of Nopiquex and Alcanfor and put into the alcohol bottle. Shake vigorously and leave. It will all disolve over night.

We did this and it worked, although I did use 50% DEET as a back-up. When you get deep into the jungle the mosquitos are everywhere and they are relentless. It’s hard work.


Things to See and Do in Leticia


1.Parque Santander

Bird Watching at sunset (5:15-5:45pm). Thousands of small parakeets fly to Parque Santander to spend the night in the park’s trees. The church next to the park will let you see this spectacle from the church’s bell tower. A small donation is required (COP 5,000). The tower also offers a nice view over the city and the Amazon river. The sight and sounds of the birds arriving is amazing.

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2. Tabatinga. Brazil city next to Leticia. About 1.5km to walk – or you can take a tuk-tuk.

Not much to see or do – it’s just fun to cross the border. We actually did this on our last day before going to the airport.


Before you leave Leticia

  • Buy any outgoing boat tickets a day in advance. You can reserve your place on the boat in an office located by the pier.
  • Take out cash.
  • Buy supplies – water and insect repellent ingredients (for ingredients see above – Advice From the Army Guy)

Day 2:
Journey to Puerto Narino and Swimming in Lago Tarapota


Boats to Puerto Narino

It takes about 2 hours to go upriver to Puerto Nariño, and just over 1 hour to return. It costs 29,000 pesos each way. The boats depart Leticia for Puerto Nariño daily at 08.00, 10.00 and 14.00, and return to Leticia at 07.30, 11.00 and 15.00.

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Where We Stayed

We stayed in the lovely Maloka Napu

Calle 4 #5-72
Puerto narino
Amazonas

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e. reserva@malocanapu.com

t. 57 315 607 4044 / 57 311 271 4802

Definitely the best accommodation option in town! The owner of the hostel, Ismael lives with is wife and 3 young children. He speaks little English but is incredibly friendly and speaks slowly and finds a way to talk and gesture to ensure you understand. A rare thing in Colombia. Ismael was also our guide for all of our trips. It was just us and him in a little boat. No big tour groups, no people, no noise. It was perfect!


Lago Tarapoto and Around

After putting down our bags and grabbing some breakfast in town we met with Ismael at 2pm for a trip to Lago Tarapoto and the surrounding area in a ‘peque-peque’ (small motorised boat).

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COP 30,000 p/p (about £8 p/p)
2pm – 6pm

The lake is famous for its pink dolphins, however due to tourism the chances of seeing the dolphins in this lake are very slim. We were lucky enough to see two in the lake. Ismael did take us to other areas where the dolphins have moved to but because of the high water levels we didn’t see any more.

Swimming in the lake was an unforgettable experience, and not only did we see pink dolphins but also gray dolphins, sloth carrying their young, eagles and toucans. Not bad for less than £10!

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Day 3:
Day trip – River Amacayacu, hike Parque Nacional Amacayacu and visit to the indigenous village of San Martin


The next day we headed deep into the jungle along the river Amacayacu.
Total trip – COP 170,000 (aprox. £35 – £17 p/p)

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We visited the indigenous village of San Martin

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And went for an hour-long trek into the jungle of the national park, Amacayacu – home to about 7 different species of cat (Jaguar, Puma…), deer, rats, vampire bats and another million species of animals:

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Day 4: Day of Rest and Night-Time Hike


7pm – 10pm

COP 30,000 p/p (about £8 p/p)

We ended our Amazon Adventure in style on a night-time trek where we spotted scorpions, tarantula, a baby boa-constrictor and a ridiculous amount of disgusting bugs.

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And first prize goes to anyone who can tell me what in the hell this weird and gross looking creature is:

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Day 5: Boat, Tuk-Tuk, Brazil, Take-off


On our last day we took the earliest boat back to Leticia and hired a tuk-tuk to take us down the road to Brazil before catching our flight back to Bogota.

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Puerto Narino – Places to Eat, Drink and Be Merry


Warning – Amazonians, like all Colombians do breakfast and a massive lunch so it’s hard to find dinner. In Puerto Narino breakfast was served from about 7am – 9am and lunch from 12pm – 2pm. Hard if you’re out on a trip during the day. However, we managed to get some pretty decent street food and a few places were open by the pier, selling hotdogs and burgers.

Las Margaritas is a good restaurant, serving breakfast and lunch.

For ice-cream – GO HERE!

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A great ice-cream store located near the town’s watch tower

…and buy one of these:

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The coconut ice-cream is INCREDIBLE. The local favourite – Copoazu was always sold out. Try it if you can!

Then climb up the watch tower (Mirador) and catch the beautiful sunset over the Amazon.

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Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: CubaMexicoColombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos IslandsArgentinaLAFijiNew Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.


Colombia – The Great Outdoors

My Outdoor Adventures in Colombia

Here are the highlights of everything I did in Colombia. I’ve also included a final thought on Colombia at the end.


For more information on (nearly) everything Colombia check out my ‘Highlights’ and travel tips with links for places to stay, things to see and do and places to eat, drink and be merry!


Bogota

We took time to explore Colombia’s capital. Parts of it can be pretty rough around the edges but La Candelaria has a fantastic art scene (read more about that in my blog – World-Class Art in Bogota, Colombia).

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Look up! Local artist, Jorge Olave has sculpted green figures from recycled materials and placed them all over La Candelaria – peering down from rooftops, window ledges and balconies. They represent the local comuneros (common people) of the city.

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Even Bogota has some breath-taking views. We took a cable car to the top of Mount Monserrate (Cerro de Monserrate)…

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Villa de Leyva

The beautiful open skies of Villa de Leyva – my favourite place in all of Colombia. Also, the friendliest place in Colombia!

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We went on a mountain bike tour to the surrounding valleys and desert terrain and popped into to the local vineyard (of course!). We booked with CicloTrip.

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The guy who runs the tour is super knowledgeable and friendly and will take you anywhere you want, or provide you with a map so you can venture out alone. He is the only trained professional guide with decent bikes in town.

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San Gil

A little bit over crowded is San Gil but it’s an ideal base (albeit on the Gringo trail) for:

Paragliding over the Chicamocha Canyon (Only $170,000 COP – about £40  for 40 minutes).

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White Water Rafting

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A day trip to the nearby 180m waterfalls of Juan Curi, (20km from San Gil on the road to Charala) is a must, as is a swim in the pool at the bottom

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Whilst in San Gil we took a bus to the local town of Barichara to admire its sweeping views over orange terrain and lush green landscape, set against bright blue skies!

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Palomino and Tayrona Park

Colombia’s Caribbean coast is of course all about beaches and the national park of Tayrona, and the little ‘Titi’ Monkeys who live there. That’s right – Titi Monkeys. To be honest, I’ve been to better beaches but then I was coming from Cuba and Mexico.

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A highlight on this coastline, besides the beaches was tubing down the Palomino River. Beautiful! But watch out for Caimans! We spotted a small one at the end of our trip by the bridge near town.

palomino tubing


Medellin

We took the night bus south from Cartagena to the city of Medellin, the second largest and most modern city in Colombia. It is located in the Aburra Valley, a central region of the Andes Mountains in South America.

A ride in the cable cars over the city is obligatory:

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As is a visit the Botero Plaza for the chubby sculptures!

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Manizales

From Medellin we travelled south to Manizales, to enjoy the natural thermal pools of Termales Tierra Viva and hidden national parks outside of the busy (slightly unattractive) city – oh and we met a Spectacled bear called Chucho who lives in the Reserva Ecologica Rio Blanco. Chucho’s kind is sadly endangered, hence the enclosure but he is well cared for by the park rangers and has a massive, wild space to wander around.

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Salento

Beautiful and stunning – coffee farms and spectacular scenery make Salento a Colombia must!

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A highlight of our stay in Salento was visiting the nearby Valle de Cocora with its Wax Palm reserve. The Wax Palm is the tallest palm in the world, reaching up to 60 metres in height!

Here’s Seamus standing next to one:

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On our hike through the valley we enjoyed:

Seeing hundreds of Humming Birds

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A ride in the back of an old WWII Willys Jeep, and a stunning, adventurous hike:

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Finally…hundreds upon hundreds of sky-high Wax Palms in beautiful cloud forest surroundings:

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Beautiful – just beautiful!


The Amazon

After Salento we headed back to Bogota to catch a flight to Leticia in The Amazon. Read more about my Amazon experience here: The Amazon Colombia

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Hiking Amacayacu:

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Night-time trekking with scorpions, tarantula, boa-constrictors and disgusting bugs.

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And first prize goes to anyone who can tell me what in the hell this weird and gross looking creature is:

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On our last day we took a boat back to Leticia and hired a tuk-tuk to take us down the road to Brazil before catching our flight back to Bogota.

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Desert Tatacoa

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The landscape of this arid desert is spectacular. The clay surfaces have all been eroded by a lake that once existed, creating a labyrinth effect. This is unlike any other desert landscape in the world.

The Tatacoa Desert is best known for having two distinctive colors: ochre in the area of Cusco

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And grey in the Los Hoyos area.

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Star Gazing

Because of the dry, clear conditions, lack of light pollution and location near the equator, Tatacoa is a great spot for stargazing the skies above the northern and southern hemispheres.

Every evening at 7pm, a local astrologer takes you to the top of the observatory for a full-on night show.

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The Milky Way was totally visible and we saw Venus and Mars and a whole heap of constellations that the astrologer pointed out excitedly using a green laser. It was awesome!

Only COP 10,000 for 2 hours (£3!)

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Unfortunately, an encounter with a desert scorpion (measuring approx. 15cm) led to a visit to the hospital on the last day. Luckily it wasn’t of the deadly kind.

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San Agustin

Rolling hills of pastures green, brilliant blue skies, humming birds, hammocks and red wine…YES PLEASE! Our last long stop and a firm favourite, San Agustin is a very special place indeed.

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Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, San Agustin holds the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America in a wild, spectacular landscape.

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We stayed at Casa de Francois, a hostel located slightly outside of town at the top of a hill. Beautiful scenery, incredible food and great wine!

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A perfect place to end our Colombian adventure.


My Thoughts on Colombia


I’ve not written a great deal about my time in Colombia. The outdoors life, as I’ve accounted for above was superb but to be honest, on the whole there was something about Colombia that I just didn’t like.

I can’t quite put my finger on it. It might have something to do with the way people looked at me with a certain disdain because I was a tourist – warning me with their glares not to even step foot into their bars, or it might have something to do with the fact that I was contstantly charged three times the amount for a bus trip than a local, and the bus operator would smirk thinking he’d got one over on me. Shop owners, waiters, bar tenders would make up prices simply because they could see I was a foreigner. It was outrageous.

‘Colombia Time’ is a phrase I heard constantly and it pissed me off! I was left waiting for over an hour for a vegetarian pizza and the waiters excuse for it taking so long is that it was being prepared to Colombian time. Some Colombians are generally so lazy that they’ve invented a saying which they use as an excuse!

People in general (with the excepton of people in small towns and communities), were not welcoming or friendly. My Spanish isn’t great but I understand when someone says, “What are you doing putting me on the same table as a fucking gringo?” Hmmmm.

However, tourism is fairly new in Colombia and I can sort of understand people’s fear of change and American westernisation, and how I can become a target because I’m seen as a representative of that world which people think will one day eventually take away all that is good to them.

I’ve tried to see past it. I don’t care about other people’s attitudes towards me, as I know myself and I am comfortable in my own skin but it was tiring having to keep smiling and saying hello only to have a set of dagger eyes and silence meet me in exchange.

Sorry Colombia, but it ruins your perfect view.

There have been exceptions

People on the whole have not been friendly, welcoming or accepting with the exception of people living in smaller communities such as Villa de Leyva, Salento and San Agustin, and in the modern city of Medellin.

It’s a real shame though because Colombia is a very beautiful country and the outdoors adventures I’ve experienced have been magnificent. My experience here would have just been a bit nicer had the people been more welcoming.

Saying that I’m incredibly grateful for my time in Villa de Leyva, Salento and San Agustin – owing not only to the magnificent scenery but to the people who made me feel at home in their small towns.

However, I don’t think I’ll be returning to Colombia any time soon. There are just nicer places out there.


Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: CubaMexicoColombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos IslandsArgentinaLAFijiNew Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.


 

World-Class Art in Bogota Colombia

Colombia’s capital, Bogota is a little bit of a let down unfortunately. Homelessness and drug addiction is rife and safety – especially at night, is an issue. We stayed in La Candelaria (the old town), and this is where we spent most of our time as it was quite pretty. However, walking the streets after dark is not advisable. On our first night we left our hostel at about 9.00 pm in search of a convenience store, only to be followed and threatened by a crackhead – luckily the local military guards were on patrol and so we made a lucky escape.

A lovely city break, Bogotá is not – but it does have one draw card making this otherwise forgettable city well worth stopping off at!


Graffiti in Bogotá – it’s up there with the best!


Who would have known that Colombia is in fact harbouring one of the most vibrant art scenes in the world. It’s up there with the best – London, New York, Paris, LA…

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I wasn’t expecting it and I’m so glad I stayed a few days in Bogotá to get to know it.

A must do whilst in Bogotá is the Graffiti Walking Tour.

This tour offers a fantastic insight into how Graffiti in Colombia has evolved into a form of social commentary and cultural expression, so not only do you see some of the best street art in the world, you also learn about the politics and socio-economic history of the country.

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What’s better still is that the tour is run by one of the graffiti artists, Christian.

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Christian is an extraordinary tour guide whose emphasis is on showcasing the work of fellow artists and collectives and explaining their backgrounds in the context of what motivates them to paint.

The street art in Bogotá rivals some of the best street art in the world and some of the artists (for example, Stinkfish), whose work you see throughout the city have a reputation world-wide, selling their artwork for millions.

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Yes, the art scene in Bogotá is the best I have seen in the world.


A brief history of graffiti and street art in Bogotá – provided by Bogata Graffiti Tours


The first graffiti in Bogotá were petroglyphs written on the walls of caves in the Bogotá savannah’s made by the indigenous Chicha people. From there, Graffiti evolved into a form of social commentary and cultural expression, especially during ‘La Violencia’ and the height of the civil war. With a growing middle class and a drastically improved political system, modern taggers have removed some preach from the paint and continue to focus on creating artwork that showcases their skills rather than on a cause. The designs have become more and more complex using stencils, spray paint, stickers and wheat-pasted posters.

Since graffiti isn’t technically a crime in Colombia, grafiteros have free reign to be as expressive as they please.


The Artists


Here is an introduction to some of the most well known artists in the city:


Bastardilla (Bogota, Colombia)

http://www.bastardilla.org/

Perhaps my favourite artist in Bogota.

In the male-dominated world of Colombian street art, a remarkable female artist draws from poverty, feminism, pain, the effects of violence and nature.

Bastardilla’s artwork is powerful and evocative. Her story as a woman growing up in a society where women were abused and treated as second class citizens is conveyed through her haunting, sad and beautiful artwork.

My favourite bit is her final touch of glitter, which at night-time catches the reflection of headlights and street lights.


Stinkfish (Bogota, Colombia)

http://www.stink.tk/

Another amazing artist. Stinkfish has painted all over the world – from Colombia and Mexico all the way to India.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/stinkfishate


Pez (Barcelona, Spain)

http://www.el-pez.com/

Happy-go-lucky Pez is also HUGE on the world art scene. Pez (fish) likes to keep it light and paints to put a smile on your face. He recently exhibited in London’s Westbank Gallery. He exhibits world-wide.

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Guache (Bogota, Colombia)

http://www.guache.co/

Formidable artwork. Guache produces beautiful vibrant murals of Colombia’s indigenous people, fauna, flora and terrain. He recently visited Europe where he painted and exhibited in Berlin, Paris and Barcelona.

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Toxicomano (Bogota, Colombia)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/toxicomano666

Toxicomano is an art collective made up of an artist, a publicist, a sociologist and an A/V producer. Formerly a band, their anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist graphics cover the streets of Colombia

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Last but not least – our guide:

Christian AKA CRISP (Sydney, Australia)

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A Bogota based street artist who enjoys using a variety of mediums but mainly murals and stencils to create political and thought-provoking pieces.

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www.facebook.com/crispstreetart


Art – in all it’s forms – is a passion of mine. This was a real highlight of my world trip so far. If you stop at Bogotá and don’t do this tour you’re seriously missing out!


Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: CubaMexicoColombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos IslandsArgentinaLAFijiNew Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.


 

Mexico City – The Perfect Ending to a Magnificent Country

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So here’s what we heard about Mexico City:

“It’s so dirty and polluted – it’s unbearable, it’s dangerous – do not go out at night and never ever go out by yourself!”

The reality:

Mexico City is wonderful! In fact, on my very first day as I was strolling down the city street, I felt it could easily be somewhere I could call my home. Like with any major city in the world you have areas which are considered safe and some not so much – Tottenham, Barking, Dagenham (London).

People really should do a little bit of research before they go travelling.

Here’s what makes Mexico City (and Mexico) so fabulous!

The people

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The art scene

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The quirkiness

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The creepiness

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Beautiful buildings

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INCREDIBLE FOOD

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Most importantly – new and wonderful friends

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Thank you Mexico!


Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: CubaMexicoColombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos IslandsArgentinaLAFijiNew Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.


Mexico City – Isla de las Muñecas (The Island of Dolls)

One day, a caretaker named Don Julian Santana Barrera was tending to the garden of his home by the canals of Xochimilco, Mexico, when he found a little girl who had drowned. Shortly after discovering her body he found a doll floating nearby. Believing the doll to be that of the girls, he decided to take it and hang it to a tree near where the girl was found to keep her spirit happy.

Julian was apparently haunted by the spirit of the girl and started hanging more dolls in an attempt to please her spirit. He soon realised the dolls themselves had become possessed.

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After 50 years of collecting dolls and hanging them on the island, Julian was found dead, drowned in the same spot as the girl.

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Getting to the Island of Dolls


Getting there is far more simple than the guidebooks suggest.

  • Take the metro to General Anaya and then take a taxi outside General Anaya station to Embarcadero Cuemanco (don’t bother with a bus – the taxis will take you there direct and they’re cheap if you get them on a meter).
  • Once there you will see dozens of gondolas moored up and a big banner with prices, this is where you buy tickets.

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It’s a 4 hour round trip to the Island of Dolls and hiring the gondola is $350 pesos per hour.

This came as a shock as the guidebooks all said the trip should cost $400 pesos in total!

We managed to negotiate down to $1000 pesos for the trip to the island which was very expensive but, worth it. My advice – get a group of people together, otherwise you are looking at one expensive trip.


Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere I travelled to in the world: CubaMexicoColombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos IslandsArgentinaLAFijiNew Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.