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Posts tagged ‘South America’

Hasta La Vista South America

Tick (√) off the list a tiny portion of Central/South America.

93 days spent exploring a little bit of: Costa Rica, Panama, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

Which required a total of 11 flights – way too many!

The Highlights:

  • We’ve woken to Howler Monkeys and the crashing surf in Costa Rica.

    Bocas del Torro

    Bocas del Torro

  • Been serenaded to sleep by nature in cloud forests.
  • Soaked up the sun on the islands of Bocas del Torro.
  • Watched huge tankers navigate the Panama Canal.
  • Been charmed by the bowler-hat wearing Bolivians and the brightly dressed Peruvians.
  • Explored the ancient trails of the Incas and the mystical ruins of Machu Picchu.
  • Uros Village Lake Titicaca

    Uros Village Lake Titicaca

    Visited the Amyara people of Lake Titicaca and trekked the Island of the Sun.

  • Soared over the mysterious Nazca Lines.
  • Immersed ourselves in the wild beauty of the Amazon Jungle.
  • Ridden horseback to the Quilotoa Crater.
  • Swam with sea lions and turtles. Marveled at the marine life in the Galápagos.
  • Visited remote villages and islands of just a few hundred to major cities of millions.
  • Had the privilege to catch a brief glimpse into the culture and lives of the people.

You know you’ve spent too much time in South America when you:

  • wpid-zoom.jpgautomatically look for the bin to put the toilet paper in.
  • alway have spare toilet paper on you and use it regularly.
  • turn the shower on and wait 5 minutes before you even consider checking to see if it’s hot yet.
  • stop noticing the foul taste UHT milk has in coffee.
  • don’t expect the hotel to have a lift.
  • expect your room in the hotel to be on the top floor.
  • anything below 3,000 meters doesn’t count as ‘altitude’.
  • start to realise you understand the person rattling off in Spanish.
  • think Casillero del Diablo is a reasonable red wine!

 

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Galapagos

Our seven days aboard Nemo II was one of the most amazing experiences we’ve had.

It exceeded all my expectations and rates an equal first along with safari in Africa.

There are twelve guests on board; four Americans from Texas who are celebrating birthdays beginning with a 3! They are Tabitha & John Charles, Kirby & John.

Sharing a cabin are two solo travelers: Traci from New York and Annu, who is Finnish. David and Su are Ecuadorians, both speak English and David has lived in the States.

We also hear the familiar twang of an Aussie and Kiwi accent from Elly and Milton.

Nemo II is the middle child in a fleet of three catamarans. She is just under 22 meters (71 feet) in length and is comfortably fitted out with sun-lounges on the upper deck, outdoor dining and indoor lounge area.

Of course we’ve got the worst cabin on the boat, but you get what you pay for and this isn’t a luxury cruise liner. We have the essentials; air-conditioning and our own bathroom.

The first night we have a rough eight-hour passage and I’m sleeping on the top bunk, so narrow I need to hold on to avoid falling out.

Everyone struggles that night to get their sea legs, some more than others. I was surprised I wasn’t queasy, whilst Don spent a few hours that night getting fresh air on the upper deck.

Selecting a Galápagos cruise is all about what type of boat, number of passengers and which route. We wanted a small number of passengers and a catamaran was preferable; the dual hull supposedly provides a smoother ride.

As for the sailing route, we really didn’t care. The wildlife on our ‘must-see’ list were sea lions, turtles and blue-footed boobies. All three feature on every itinerary.

Each day we generally have two snorkelling expeditions and two walks on land; the latter is easier said than done when you’re now rocking from the boat.

wpid-wp-1438847084153.jpegWe spend a day at Puerto Ayora visiting a tortoise farm up in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island.

As you can see, we discovered a new and very unique tortoise this day.

The difference between a tortoise and a turtle? A tortoise lives on land, turtles in the water.

In the afternoon we walk through the Charles Darwin Research Station. The station has been operating since 1959, preserving the environment and biodiversity of this unique archipelago.

It’s a bit like visiting a zoo, the enclosures are home to at-risk giant tortoises and iguanas. The station is conducting a comprehensive breeding program on these species.

The baby tortoises are clumsy and adorable as they clamber over each other is search of food and water.

wpid-wp-1438846970705.jpegOur first snorkel expedition is at one of the Galápagos landmarks, Kicker Rock. Where we swim the channel between the two volcanic rock outcrops, rising over 140 meters out of the sea.

We see our first sea turtle and shark, along with an amazing array of colourful fish. It’s an incredible introduction to the life living in the ocean.

Sea Lions are everywhere and the young pups are very inquisitive. On the beach they’ll come-up and sniff you. We are warned to be careful not to touch them, as a mother will reject her pup if it carries human scent.

The brooding male is the one to watch out for, he’s usually the largest and crankiest sea lion. You’ll find him lolling around on the pristine beaches, warning you to back-off with its raspy bark.

wpid-wp-1439114635996.jpegIn the water, which by-the-way is a magnificent turquoise blue, the sea lions are playful and will swim right up to you, as if to give you a kiss, darting away at the last second. We have many encounters with them during our week.

On land a turtle is lumbering and slow, in the water they are graceful and fast. We swim with three one afternoon who are feeding not far off shore, ignoring us as they munch on sea grass and plankton.

On land the tortoise can live over 100 years, its close relative can only expect to make it for about half as long.

We are not birders by any stretch of the imagination, but the bird life on the Galápagos Islands would spark anyone’s interest. We are lucky to have a budding birder on board – Traci is quick to identify for us the birds we encounter.

Cormorants, albatross, frigates, hawks and lots of pelicans of course, but the most adorable is the Blue-footed Booby – easily identifiable with its bright blue feet.

When mating, the male does a strutting dance, showing off his big blue webbed feet to attract his mate. He will later use these to cover their young and keep them warm.

You can never see enough boobies – as you’d expect there are lots of booby one-liners all week!

Mostly black in colour, the marine iguanas are plentiful and sometimes we see hundreds piled on top of each other on the volcanic rock, soaking up the sun, or swimming out to munch on algae.

The land iguana is bigger and more cumbersome ranging in colours from black to yellow/green. It’s like being in a prehistoric landscape with land iguanas poking up their heads all over the island.

Everyday is different, every island is different. The landscapes change from barren volcanic moonscape, pristine beaches of white sand and crystal-clear water, to lush mangrove swamps.  And each has their own combination of birds, animals and reptiles.

Neither of us were sure we’d survive 7 nights on a boat; I would say that it was just the right amount of time.  We were also lucky to have spent it with 10 other great people and we all had a lot of fun together.

The Galápagos is truly a remarkable and unique experience, well worth the effort (& expense).

PS: Lots of photos and I have plenty more!

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Quilotoa Loop

Flying back from Cuenca, we jumped straight into a taxi and headed south to Lasso, a very nondescript town about 1.5 hrs south of Quito.

The only reason people stop here is to go hiking near the Cotopaxi volcano.

Our plan was to stay overnight and start the nearby Quilotoa loop in the morning.

Quilotoa is a water-filled caldera in the Ecuadorian Andes. The 200km or so loop is becoming an increasingly popular village-to-village hiking route.

We didn’t hike, but we did make it around the loop and up to the crater rim.

wpid-wp-1437665431773.jpeg I’ve booked us into Cabañas Los Volcanes; it’s pretty basic, but Marcelo the owner is very friendly and helpful.

Marcelo explained we couldn’t start the loop from here and we still needed to go to Latacunga to get a bus. The next morning he walked us to the bus stop and put us on the right bus to Latacunga.

Our dinner choices are rather limited in this one-street town. The busiest place is a women cooking chicken on a propane gas stove out the front.

We have to wait for a seat, so Don goes searching for a beer (it’s BYO). Several little corner stores have beer in the fridge; they just don’t turn the fridge on!

Dinner was delicious and one of the cheapest we’ve had; US$7.50 for two chicken and chips.

The next day we take a bus from Latacunga along a bumpy dirt road, at times I don’t think would pass as a road. We head deeper into the Andes leaving rich fertile plains behind for steep jagged mountain sides.

Regardless, the Ecuadorians seem to farm every square inch they can find, crops run up and down the landscape, scattered with sheep and cows.

We climb up, over and around the mountains. At times the bus is perilously close to the edge, the only thing to do is close your eyes.

There aren’t any designated bus stops, we randomly pick-up and drop-off people along the way, sometimes in the middle of nowhere.

snapseed-04It’s about a 3 hour journey to the picturesque village of Isinlivi where we are staying 2 nights at Llullu Llama.

We are greeted by two americans Karen and John who are volunteer hosts at the lodge. In exchange for food and board they are looking after the place for a month.

Llullu Llama has shared accommodation and private rooms.

Yes, you can assume correctly, we have a private room – a very nice one with its own fireplace. The chilly nights make it perfect for an open fire.

Later in the afternoon, hikers coming off the trail start to arrive looking for a bed. Most haven’t booked, but they’ve heard about the place.

A couple of doors up the street is a slightly cheaper option; I don’t think it gets much business unless Llullu is full.

The lodge has a wonderful friendly atmosphere; by early evening everyone is sitting around with a glass of red, or a beer, swapping travel tales.

The food is also excellent. There is a hearty breakfast and 3 course dinner included, which is a good thing, since there isn’t any other option in town.

The only ‘hiking’ we did was with Karen and John up to the local cheese farm, about an hours climb up the hill. Unfortunately it was closed, but the views were worth it.

Further around the loop our next destination is the village of Chucchilán. If you’re not up to hiking, another mode of transport is to hitch a lift on the local milk truck.

Farmers leave their few litres of milk by the side of the road to be collected by the milk truck. In addition, locals use the truck for a lift, paying with a few coins.

I opt to take the luggage in a ute whilst Don takes the milk truck to Sigchos where I will pick him up.

My transport is a family affair, the driver has bought his wife and two children. One is on her lap in the front (forget seatbelts) and a 3-year-old boy is asleep on the back seat. I rearrange him to a more comfortable position and so I can fit in beside him.

wpid-wp-1437873084237.jpeg

My ute also collects people along the way – regardless of the fact that I’ve paid ‘gringos‘ rates to get to our next destination.

In Sigchos we catch-up with the milk truck and collect not only Don, but also a rear tray load of people heading in our direction.

Our luggage is squeezed in the back with us to make room and the boy (still asleep) ends up on my lap.

Located in the village of Chucchilán is the award-winning, vegetarian eco-lodge, Black Sheep Inn.

Don is a little concerned that he won’t be consuming meat for 2 days and thinks he might starve!

Black Sheep has been around a bit longer than Llullu Llama, but they are of similar ilk in taking an eco-friendly approach.

However, Black Sheep is significantly more expensive and I am not sure that it’s justified. Our room at Llullu’s had been much nicer.

Tesla is another volunteer, an avid hiker she spends a few months each summer volunteering at the lodge, helping Edmundo the manager. She runs through the activities they can help organise and we decide to take the horseback option to the crater.

Don takes a walk into the village in the hope of finding some meat! He’s thinking he might smuggle in a roast chicken, or something, however, the only thing he can find is a women cooking an unidentifiable soup.

Dinner is served family style – everyone sitting around a big table. There are 10 of us staying. The other 8 are from the US: a group of teachers on a trekking holiday from Wisconsin; a Mother and Son – Susanne and Kasey; and another couple Dan and Betsy.

Dan and Betsy kindly offer us a lift to Banos, as we are both heading there after Black Sheep.

Dan works in IT, similar to Don’s past-life and even though he’s on holidays for a week, his boss is still asking for pipeline updates and sales forecasts.

Don offers to have a chat with Dan’s boss and explain what being on holiday is all about!

The following day our guide Oswaldo arrives with his horses. Now Don and I are not experienced riders. This is the third horse ride we’ve done in the past 14 months.

Before that, I’ve probably been on a horse 3 other times in my life. The docile type of holiday riding where you sit on a horse that appears extremely bored and disinterested – just one in a line of many following each other nose to tail.

Today, we have two rather feisty steeds. I quickly learn to canter and work out my horse likes to be the boss and in front of Don’s.

Don’s horse also likes thinks he should have the lead. All day, these two battle over who’s ‘boss’.

I could make an analogy about our relationship, except Don worked out long-ago who’s the boss!

The horses navigate up and down steep ravines, across streams and through farmland.

I didn’t think a horse could clamber up and down such steep terrain, especially with a passenger, but they never lost their footing.

Oswaldo was also brilliant, providing basic tips on managing/controlling our horses.

We nicked named my horse Frijoles, because she seemed to have eaten way to many beans for breakfast. Everytime she sped up, she farted; mostly in the face of Don’s horse!

It was a 3 hour ride from Black Sheep to the Crater rim and a fantastic experience. The ride was challenging and spectacular, my padded bike shorts came in handy and made sitting in a saddle for that long a tad more comfortable.

Quilotoa Crater

Quilotoa Crater

When we get to the rim we hand our horses over and a driver takes us back to Black Sheep. Don spots a place selling chicken empanada’s and heads-off to purchase one.

Much to his meat-loving disappointment and my amusement, they are out of chicken and he ends up with just cheese!

There are two new guests staying at Black Sheep that night; an Irish couple, Rebecca and Ben. They are keen hikers and Rebecca a keen rider, after hearing of our horse adventures they decide to also ride up to the rim as we did. I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did?

We head off to Banos with Dan and Betsy the following day. Banos is renowned for its hot springs and is a popular weekend destination for Ecuadorians. It’s a fairly touristy town with lots of adventure activities like rafting, bungy jumping and hang-gliding on offer.

We pamper ourselves with a massage, pedicure and manicure (I’m sure you can work out who had what).

Of course you can’t come to Banos and not take a dip in a hot spring.

The local public baths have three pools, though one is about 45 degrees, so unless you want to poach yourself it’s a little too hot.

We catch-up with Dan and Betsy for dinner and drinks. They are heading back to Quito and home the following day.

We decide to make the 20km bike ride down to the Devils Cauldron, a waterfall. As we are leaving, the rain begins to fall and is pretty heavy for most of our ride. Aside from the rain, it’s a really easy downhill pedal. Of course, the rain stops when we get to the waterfall.

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Cuenca

Cuenca is probably Ecuador’s most authentic colonial city, with beautiful spanish architecture, ornate churches and cobblestone streets.

The city centre dates back to the 16th century and of course it’s another World Heritage Site.

We stayed at the wonderful Casa Montalvo. Our delightful host Sonia, collected us from the airport with her Papa on the night of our arrival.

The Casa has only been open for business a few months, but will no doubt become a popular place to stay. Sonia’s hospitality reminds me of our experience in Cape Town with Phil at Parker Cottage.

Nothing was too much trouble, with our poor Spanish and her English (better than our Spanish), Sonia provided us with lots of advice on where to go and what to see.

She also made dinner reservations for us, arranged taxis and when we asked where we could buy some wine, she drove us to the supermarket – that’s service!

We had a fairly relaxing time wandering around Cuenca, the Italian restaurant Sonia recommended around the corner was so good we ate there twice and she also booked us into a superb steakhouse called Anubis.

The town square is lined with street stalls selling a kaleidoscope of colourful sweets and biscuits as part of the festival of Corpus Christi.

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Cuenca has long been a weaving centre for the sombrero de paja toquilla or better (though incorrectly) known as the Panama Hat.

There are a number of famous hat makers in the town you can visit where they will show you how the world-famous hat is made.

The fibre comes from the Toquilla palm and the density of the weave determines the category of the hat; from standard to superfine.

A superfine hat will hold water and should be able to roll up and be pulled through a man’s ring, so they say. A hat can cost anything from US$10 to US$500.

About an hours bus ride from Cuenca are the towns of Gualaceo and Chordeleg. They are known for handicrafts, pottery, gold and silver.

Our first stop is the fresh produce markets at Gualaceo which was a colourful and lively scene, with most of the women dressed in traditional clothing.

Chordeleg is a hub for gold and silver; be warned – you need to be careful and know how to spot the good quality from poor, and genuine from not so genuine.

The Trans Andean Railway, built-in the early 1900’s was once a lifeline linking the coastal city of Quayaquil with Quito and the highlands.

Today there are only a few sections of the line still operating, the most famous part being Nariz del Diable , the devils nose. An engineering feat in its time, a series of switchbacks allow the train to zig-zag 765 meters of sheer cliff.

It’s totally a tourist attraction with the 2 hour return journey commencing in the town of Alausi. The train traverses down the cliff to Sibambe where you are stranded for an hour.

The local dance troupe greets the train, then returns to the card game it’s in the middle of; a women offers photos on her horse, standing with the old railway station in the background and the café serves its captive market bad coffee and unappetising snacks.

Whilst the train journey is a bit of a let-down, the bus journey from Cuenca had been spectacular, winding up above the clouds through lush green mountains to Alausi. The town itself is charming, a bit more authentic with many people in traditional dress going about normal day-to-day life.

Amazon Adventure

Sacha Lodge
It’s a short 30 minute flight from Quito to Coca; a gritty little oil town on the banks of the Napo river, in the Amazon Basin.

Our naturalist guide, Dario, meets us at the airport.

We are joined by 2 other couples: Rose and Alex from the US and fellow Australians, Steve and Judy; with whom we will spend the next four days exploring the Amazon.

In addition to Dario we also have a native guide – Jose, looking after us.

From Coca we board a motorised canoe for a 2 hour journey down the river to Sacha Lodge. After a 30 minute hike through the rainforest we arrive at lake Pilchicocha, after which we then paddle across a lake in a small canoe.wpid-wp-1435162807026.jpeg

Sacha Lodge (“Sacha” is the Quichua Indian word meaning “forest”) was a dream founded by Arnold Ammeter, or as he is more commonly known, “Benny.”

Born in Interlaken, Switzerland, Benny boarded a ship and headed for Chile in 1963.

His thirst for adventure and passion for the forests of South America have kept him in the region ever since.

Spending time in Chile, Bolivia and Peru, he then headed for Ecuador and opened his first tourist lodge in 1985; ” La Casa del Suizo,” on the Upper Napo at the village of Ahuano, which still operates today.

As civilization slowly approached Ahuano, Benny, who was captivated by the wilderness, he decided to search for a place to build a lodge deeper in the forest.

By 1989, his search had taken him throughout the entire Ecuadorian Amazon region, more commonly known as “El Oriente.”

One day after leaving Pañacocha (located two hours downstream from Sacha Lodge) he stopped to speak with one of the locals living on the bank of the lower Napo .

Benny spoke of his dream and the gentleman told him that he knew of the perfect place for a lodge. Together they hiked through a swamp, not knowing that the trail would soon become Sacha’s present day boardwalk (“El Anden”), and arrived at an isolated lagoon.

Benny immediately fell in love with this lake, called Pilchicocha. In October of 1991, 170 employees began construction of Sacha Lodge and it’s famous wooden tower (” La Torre “).

Sacha Lodge was officially opened in April 1992 with six guest rooms, a dining room, and housing for guides and other staff.

Today, the property extends for 5,000 acres and offers a safe refuge for a tremendous variety of plants and animals native to the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Arriving early afternoon, we are welcomed with a refreshing drink and shown our rooms. We have a few hours to relax, which in our case means taking a nap.

Cayman hidding

Cayman hidding

Before dinner, Dario takes us on a night canoe ride; we paddle silently across the lake looking for caimans (small alligators) with their glowing orange eyes peering out at you from amongst the thick reeds.

The black water lake is home to many species of fish and animals, including Pirhanas!

Dinner is a feast of soup, fresh salads, chicken and pork, after which everyone retires early – It’s been a long day.

What they don’t tell you in the brochure is that the day starts with a 5am wake-up call!

By 6am we are crossing the lake again to make the return journey back to the Napo river. A motorised canoe is taking us further down river into the Yasuní National Park.

Mid-journey we stop at a ‘parrot lick’, an exposed clay riverbank where brightly coloured parrots gather in the early morning to eat the red clay.

Apparently, the birds’ diet includes a toxic berry, but specific minerals in the soil neutralise the toxin. Each morning they flock to the cliffs to line their bellies with the clay.

We stop at a local Quichua community where Sacha Lodge pays the teacher salaries for the village school.

With most of the men working either in the oil industry, or at Lodges in the area, the running of the community and raising children is left in the hands of the women.

We are shown around the village and farm, then given a demonstration on how they weave palm leaves for baskets, plus sample some local cooking – though I don’t think anyone but Dario ate the worms!

I’m not going to continue giving a blow-by-blow account of what we did everyday – that might get a bit tedious.wpid-wp-1435162587752.jpeg

Basically, each day was divided into a number activities during the day and night; canoe rides through the tributaries feeding lake Pilchicocha and walks through the Sacha reserve, bird watching high up on the canopy walk, or in the Kapok tower.

The canopy walkway is 36 meters high and 275 meters long, where you get a “birds eye view” of all the wonders and beauty the tropical rainforest has to offer. Designed to be a self-standing rigid suspension canopy walk, it is one of only a few in the world!

One of Sacha Lodge’s highlights is the 43-meter observation tower. Situated on a hill and constructed around a giant kapok tree, the observation platform provides a magnificent view of the surrounding area and an ideal spot for avid ‘birders’.

One day we fish for the razor-toothed piranha in the lake. Dario tries to convince us that piranhas will never attack a person and swimming is perfectly safe – you first Dario!

wpid-wp-1435163194017.jpegThe Lodge also has a butterfly farm designed as a live exhibition conservatory. In “the flying room” hundreds of colorful butterflies flutter from flower to flower and even stopping to rest on us.

I doubt we would have got as much out of the four days without our guides.

As a qualified naturalist, Dario provides detailed insight into the environment and native wildlife.

Jose has a knack for spotting things we’d just pass by, or something hidden deep within the jungle.

They open our eyes to the wonders of the Amazon, showing us the many plants, animals, spiders, birds and insects that inhabit this hot and humid environment.

The plethora of wildlife we encounter is too long to start naming and I don’t remember all the names!

Enjoy the photos instead…

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