The final blog post in the series is finally ready! Not because it was particularly difficult to write but because well, life happened. The joys of being back…!
After the travelling highlight of visiting the truly amazing Galapagos Islands we felt refreshed and ready to get back in to travelling, albeit missing playing with sea lions. We flew from the San Cristobal island to the capital of Ecuador, Quito, taking a little diversion to fly around the erupting Cotopaxi volcano that was in the middle of our flight path.
We chose to stay in La Mariscal, which was the heart of the party when we arrived on Friday night with bars and clubs heaving with people. By Sunday the area had completely changed and was almost empty and it felt a little dodgy walking around at night. We used Quito as a base to explore several different places in Ecuador. First we went on a day trip to Otavalo for its famous Saturday market. It was a 3 hour journey each way from Quito so it was a long day but definitely worth it. We enjoyed pottering around the many stalls, shops and streets looking at everything from textiles to musical instruments. We didn’t buy much but it was a great atmosphere with musicians playing on the street and lots of locals around in regional traditional dress (items of which were also being sold everywhere around the market).
Our next day trip was to Quilotoa Lake. Most people explore the region over a couple of days but as we were quite tight for time we joined a day tour with local company CarpeDM to explore the area in a day. On the way to the lake we stopped off first at Pujili town to see the local market – the usual items were on sale including fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains but also the local delicacies of pig heads and lamb skulls! Yum! We also stopped off at a local indigenous home in the mountains. Ten people were living in one tiny room and there must have been over 300 guinea pigs running about on the floor squeaking and wurbling away. Another delicacy we were told as they ran innocently around the floor under the cooker…
When we arrived at Quilotoa Lake it was stunning! The lake is in a big crater with the bright greeny blue water, bubbling in places due to volcanic activity underneath. It only took us about 45 minutes to walk down the crater and see the lake but much longer to walk back up as it was very steep, most of the ground was sand and we were at about 4000 meters so the altitude made the walking uphill much more difficult.
On the way back from Quilotoa we drove right past Cotopaxi, the volcano which had been spewing out ash since August (the one we had previously flown over). It was pretty incredible to see so close! Unnerving too, especially as we were told the whole surrounding area, including the nearby village, would effectively be flattened by an eruption.
We spent the next day exploring Quito as we had been in the city a couple of days but not yet properly had a look around. In the morning we visited the Teleferiqo which is a cable car that takes you from the outskirts of the city up to Pichincha Volcano for amazing views over the city. In the afternoon, we explored the Old Town; including the Basilica del Voto Nacional, multiple plazas, the Cathedral (it has a painting of the last super with a guinea pig as the main course), several other churches and La Ronda which is a narrow lane lined with colourful houses. Hat really enjoyed exploring Old Town but I was a little unwhelmed; I think travelling had spoilt me at this point and I was starting to appreciate things less if we’d been to similar places before.
The next day we headed again out of Quito to Mindo, which is a town located in the heart of the Ecuadorian “cloud forest”. It was one of the most interesting sounding places I’d read about in Ecuador but I had to convince Hat that we should go (as we were running out of time!). It turned out to be a highlight of our time in Ecuador! The town, surrounded by forest, is known for its hummingbirds and sure enough when we arrived we were greeted by loads of them in our hostel grounds buzzing around bird feeders! Seeing so many of them, all in different colours, flying past our heads was really amazing!
On our first day in Mindo we visited El Quetzal, a chocolate factory, where we learnt how chocolate is made, tasting the different stages from bean to the darkest purest chocolate. We also met the hugest stick insect when walking around the rounds, just hanging about like…well, a stick.
Mindo is known as being a bird-watching paradise and that means a very early morning bird-watch is essential, even if we weren’t too keen on the prospect. We didn’t really know what to expect but we managed to see a couple of different species of toucans and other colourful birds, which was even more impressive through binoculars and a telescope where we could see features even closer. Our guide was an enthusiastic bird watcher who was super passionate and very endearing; at one point he thought he saw a species he hadn’t seen before and get really excited, only to find out it was a common bird up close! We finished up our time in Mindo meeting up with a couple of Aussies from our previous hostel in Quito who were all really nice and we all had the cheapest dinner ever at a food place they recommended.
Leaving Mindo, we headed north to start our journey into Colombia. We stopped in Ibarra overnight, just north of Otavalo, and early the next day (after a 4am start) we made it to the Tulcan-Ipiales border crossing. We’d heard that other border crossings in to Colombia could present some issues and this was the only one recommended. Thankfully it all went very smoothly and was relatively straightforward. Before we continued north, Hat was really keen to visit the Las Lajas Sanctuary, the Basilica church built across a valley only around 20 minutes from Ipiales. It was a bit of a nightmare with our massive backpacks on our back, but we visited it in turns with the other looking after the bags. It was a very worthwhile diversion, just look at this church! We had never seen anything like it.
To break up the journey north we stayed a day in Popayan (we’d been travelling since 4am so needed the break). It was very pleasant for a short stop and it gave us our first proper impression of Colombia. Our highlight was visiting Mora Castilla, a traditional Colombian cafe and trying out some of the local food and drink. The guy who ran the cafe was unbelievably friendly and smiley and it was a genuine pleasure to meet him! I don’t think I’ll ever meet someone as smiley in my lifetime. While we were in Popayan we did quite a lot of planning for the rest of our time in Colombia, booking up various bits. There was so much in Colombia that we wanted to get too but we were running out of time so had to sacrifice seeing San Agustin – an archaeological site 4/5 hours east of Popayan – which was something I really wanted to see. We’ll have to come back another time.
The next day we continued north to Salento which took most of the day. Colombia was noticeably hotter than anywhere we had been in South America and as we didn’t have air conditioning on the buses on this route the journey was a little bit of a struggle! Salento was one of our favourite places in Colombia – the town itself was very pretty with beautiful coloured houses set in the middle of stunning countryside. While we were in Salento we did a 4 hour trek in the Valle de Cocora which is famous for its wax palm trees. It could have been shorter but we took a wrong turn so ended up climbing two hills instead of one to cross the valley…
We spent the next morning on a coffee tour with Plantation House, run by Don Eduardo. We’d heard this region was pretty famous for coffee but both Don Eduardo and our hostel owner, who was also a coffee connoisseur, explained that the altitude in this area actually didn’t make it ideal for growing quality coffee. But at his Finca (coffee house), we were shown the different steps in the coffee making process and after taking loads of pictures of each part of the process, from skinning the fresh beans to roasting them in a large wok, we tried the resulting cup of ridiculously fresh coffee. If only I could have brought it home that fresh! In the afternoon, all pepped up from the coffee, we went horse riding to a nearby waterfall which we thought would be a good way to see more of the surrounding countryside. It was but the experience wasn’t exactly gentle and relaxing, with my horse in particular wanting to race the other horses.
Our next stop in Colombia was Medellin which used to be the most dangerous city in the world during the era of Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug lord. Luckily, that’s all massively changed and the city has been completely transformed in the last 10 years. When we were walking around the city centre, local people were coming up to us to thank us for visiting their country and city – something we hadn’t really encountered before! We really liked Medellin although it is difficult to explain why – maybe it was because of the interesting history the city has had and the friendliness of the people. We went on a Pablo Escobar tour with a guy who told us about what it was like living in the city when Escobar was at his heights. No gloss, no Robin Hood comparisons, just a real insight into the type of chaos and dangers the city had to endure. In Medellin we also liked El Poblado; a fairly middle-class area where a lot of tourists stay (including us) – there are a lot of nice restaurants and bars around which we enjoyed.
We also used Medellin as a base to explore La Piedra del Peñol and Guatape, about two hours away by bus. La Piedra is a 200 meter high granite rock which you can climb up to get views over the network of beautiful lakes and rich green vegetation around Guatape. It was stunning! Guatape itself is a small town but picture perfect with beautiful coloured houses and cute streets; quite stereotypical of rural Colombia.
To save time, rather than suffering through more long bus journeys, we flew north from Medellin to Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. People had warned us it was a lot hotter up there but that was an understatement – it was absolutely boiling and probably the most humid place we’d ever been, bar Mumbai. We set about to explore the city but had to stop every 30 minutes or so for a cold drink and/or ice cream. There are loads of colonial squares in Cartagena to explore, along with churches and tourist shops, and what we particularly liked was that Cartagena has a strong African influence. It used to be a big port for slavery years ago, where the number of African slaves outnumbered the local residents, which made it very different to other places we had been in Colombia or indeed anywhere else on our trip.
During our second night in Cartagena, there were two large explosions near our hostel at around 10pm at night which resulted in the power supply cutting in our area. The significance of this dawned on us when both the fan and air con in our small room stopped working and quite quickly the temperature in our room increased. Needless to say it was one of the worst night’s sleep of the holiday as we were literally dripping with sweat the whole night… Luckily we had booked a minivan to Santa Marta the following morning and we couldn’t have been happier to get into it and feel the air conditioning working!
Santa Marta is one of two towns that tourists tend to stay at to access Tayrona National Park (the other being Taganga). It isn’t a particularly attractive town, but there are a fair number of nice places to eat and we decided to stay somewhere a bit more expensive than normal – a place which had not one but TWO swimming pools! After our previous night’s sleep, jumping into the pool right outside our room was completely necessary to do immediately on arrival.
We visited Tayrona National Park in a day trip again because we were running out of time to stay any longer. Tayrona has some of the nicest beaches in Colombia along the Caribbean coast. We walked from Cañaveral to Arrecifes, and then to the swimming beaches of La Aranilla and La Piscina which were both idyllic and most importantly didn’t have dangerous currents. On our way we spotted some really cool wildlife- monkeys, all sorts of species of lizards, loads of crabs and millipedes and another poison dart frog (our favourite animal that we spotted back in the Amazon)! The walk back was a little tough as we unfortunately timed it during the heat of the day and we subsequently burnt like the lobster-red tourists we should have been a long time ago.
On our way down to Bogota from the Caribbean coast we made two more stops. The first was San Gil which is the adventure capital of Colombia. We weren’t that fussed about any of the activities on offer but rather used it as a base to explore the beautiful colonial towns of Barichara and Guane which are connected by the Camino Real Trail (9-10km). We’d been recommended Barichara in particular by a Colombian we had met in Buenos Aires and had stayed in contact with.
Our second stop was Valle de Leyva, again a recommendation by our Colombian friend, which it seemed many tourists skip on their journey around Colombia but it was one of our favourite places. It’s a cobbled, colonial town which on paper sounds like a lot of places in South America, but this one had proper Colombian charm. The main plaza is one of the largest in the Americas and is surrounded by white houses and a parish church. We also explored further afield and rented out bikes to visit El Fosil where you can see a 120 million year old baby kronosaurus fossil, another paleontological museum with a large collection of fossils from the area (everywhere in Colombia north of Villa de Leyva was in the sea millions of years ago) and Casa Terracota which is a bizarre house made from Terracota, inspired by Gaudi.
Arriving in our final destination Bogota, it dawned on us our trip was basically over. I was extremely unhappy with the prospect of finishing travelling – we’d had such an amazing time and I had really caught the travelling ‘bug’! And although Hat was ready to go home, she was upset that it had come up on us so quickly. We spent our last few days of travelling with another couple (Kathrin and Julian) that we had met earlier in both Bolivia and Peru, and who were also coming to the end of their year-long trip. We made the most of the remaining time we both had exploring Colombia’s largest city. We signed up to a tour which explored the graffiti scene in Bogota. It was a really great way to see the city and also learn some more of the history of the country through many pieces of impressive artwork. We also visited Bogota’s most famous museum, Museo del Oro (the Gold Museum), which contains more than 55,000 pieces of gold and other materials from pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. I actually thought it was incredible and much more was on show here than in places like Peru where I expected to see masses of Inca treasures. Hat got a little bored after the first couple of rooms, but enjoyed my enthusiasm.
It was really nice to end our trip with Kathrin and Julian who were going through the same thoughts as both of us. We found it useful to reflect on our trip all together and to discuss plans/goals for when we are home. Certainly we couldn’t have asked for a better place to end our trip than Colombia which was undoubtedly our favourite place in South America and we think will be a huge tourist destination in the future. We are already planning a return trip ourselves
And then that was that. We left to fly to London Stansted via Madrid, and even when landing on Spanish soil we knew we were basically home. Seven and a half months went very fast but what an adventure we had! Seeing a lot of what the world has to offer has only made us more hungry to see more of it, but we will always look back on this as one of the high points of our lives!