2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,900 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 32 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Arequipa, the gateway to Cañon del Colca and…… Home!

I don’t mind admitting that my travel research has always been at best haphazard, and is generally based on information gleaned from my Kindle version of Lonely Planet, South America on a Shoestring, and fellow travellers experiences. My Canadian friend Cory had posted some breathtaking photos taken on a hike in the Colca Canyon on his Facebook page, which made me think “why not?” It is also the second deepest canyon in the world (the world’s deepest canyon – Cañon Cotahuasi – is also in Peru, not even that far from there) and tourists flock there in their droves to view the largest flying land bird in the Western Hemisphere, the Andean Condor.

I had taken an overnight bus southwards from Nazca to Arequipa, the second largest largest city in Peru, and there my path once again crossed with my buddies Richard and Florence who I had originally met in Popayán Colombia. And it gave me great pleasure that they too were rugby enthusiasts and our reunion was in an Irish Pub (every city has one) to watch the first game of the 2015 World Cup between England and Fiji. I already foresaw trouble because eventually Richard, a New Zealander, and his wife Florence, a French lass, would be supporting opposing teams.  But that was in the future. In the meantime I was thrilled that they also wanted to hike the Canyon, so I left it in Richard’s capable hands to book a two day hike through their hostel, and while we were in the swing of bookings we also bought overnight bus tickets onwards to Cusco and Airbnb accommodation. I was now on a travelling roll!

I was bleary eyed when the taxi collected me at 2:45 in the morning to take me to Richard and Florence’s Hostal. We boarded a mini bus for the three hour drive to Chivay, the gateway to the canyon, where we had a spartan breakfast, and then endured a further very bumpy hour or so to the Cruz de Condor where every man and his dog had congregated in the hope to view Peru’s most famous bird (I nearly incorrectly stated Peru’s national bird, which in fact is the Andean Cock-of-the Rock – thank you Google!) 

 We did get to see a few magnificent specimens soaring through the canyon, but unless you had a powerful telefoto lens, you could not do them any justice.

  A close up replica

After all the tommy tourist stuff and hours of sitting in a bus our little troupe of 14 hikers was raring to finally get going on our hike into the canyon. It was to be a long day. 

 Our final destination for the day, at the bottom of the canyon. Getting there should have taken us more or less 7 hours.

Although we started our hike at 3 200m it was a gentle downhill path so we did not feel the altitude and we were going along at a pleasant pace when I must have tripped over a rock and as I came down on my left foot I could hear a crack  and felt a stabbing pain and in that split second I knew that this was the end of my trip! A string of expletives left my lips while I was made to lie down and a rudimentary splint applied to my lower leg. It was clear that after not more than forty minutes into the hike I would have to abort any idea of carrying on. Nelson, our guide, sent the rest of the group ahead with his assistant, but Florence and Richard insisted that they would stay with me and accompany me back to Arequipa. I was still all bluster at this stage, but I cannot tell a lie; I was more than relieved that I was not left on my own and I will forever be grateful for the selflessness demonstrated by these two young friends. 

 

But first things first, I needed to get out of the Canyon. Nelson must have had a mule driver on speed dial, because within minutes he confirmed that Tonto was on his way. While we were waiting he told us how they had to evacuate a 70 year old German lady out of the depths of the canyon the previous week after she had suffered a heart attack and I sent a prayer up to the Universe that even though this was a disaster, I should be grateful that this accident had befallen me so soon into the hike. With the help of many hands I was heaved into the saddle and because my afflicted leg could hang down the pain was manageable on the 2 hour slow trot back to the clinic at the entrance of the closest little village of Cabanaconde. 

 
From a distance we could see an ambulance with its back doors wide open parked alongside the clinic, as though it was waiting for me. Turned out that it was pure coincidence that some poor chap with a drip in his arm was being transported to a hospital in Arequipa, but I was much too self absorbed at that stage to concern myself with his woes. Now, who in his (or her)right mind goes on a two day hike with an iPad, but again I had to send a message upstairs, not only for my iPad (with a local data card) but also that I had global roaming on my phone, so I managed to find the e-mail with the travel insurance particulars and then phoned Europassist whose first request was for me to send them a copy of my flight ticket, which was also on one of my e-mails. I have to say Europassist was absolutely marvelous, because within minutes they replied via e-mail that they had approved a private clinic in Arequipa and for me to be transferred by the conveniently waiting ambulance. The poor sod with the drip in his arm had to give up his reclining position and was made to sit for the ensuing five torturous hours, racked by motion sickness, while Lady Muck received an intra muscular painkiller and got to lie in comfort. Well, comfort is not quite how I could describe the trip, because the road conditions were appalling and the ambulance must have been a relic from the previous century, and with every bounce my leg made itself felt. Both Florence and Richard were quite green. Once at the clinic in Arequipa I was immediately whisked off to x-rays, and sure enough my self-diagnosis was confirmed, except that it was worse than I had thought: the crack I heard was in fact 3 bones breaking, two straight across the lower tibia and fibula, and a further fracture at the top of the fibula. Yikes!  

 

Any hopes that this was a minor fracture which could be fixed with a simple cast were dashed there and then, and Dr Meza was metaphorically already scrubbing up for surgery. He eventually stabilized the leg and applied a thigh high cast which would see me home for the inevitable operation.

There followed four days of frenzied logistics as how to get me back to Johannesburg. First and foremost I had to get a fit-to-fly approval from the medical team in Arequipa, but finding flights proved to also be a challenge; it meant business class seats from Arequipa to Lima, a 1 1/2 hour flight, then 5 1/2 hours across the continent to São Paulo and then the long 8 hour haul to Johannesburg, where an ambulance would have to be organized to take me straight to the Wilgeheuwel Hospital. I had tasked my Doctor friend Francois to find me a surgeon on duty what turned out to be long weekend in South Africa and my friend Anne to organize the requisite authorizations with my medical aid. Everything was finally in place for Friday morning. On Monday Richard and Florence had brought me my remaining luggage which had been stored at their hostel and it was with a heavy heart that I had sent them on their way to board the nightbus to Cusco. I had gifted Florence with my hiking stick so that they would think of me on the Inca Trail and the likes, and of course I would not have much use of it for a while. I had been prescribed anticoagulants as prophylaxis for possible DVTs and on the eve of my departure they had sawed the cast in such a manner that it could easily be broken open in case of excessive swelling. The crutches they issued me were straight from the ark.

 The lengths I had to go to to to be carried up by four strapping young men.

  Thanks to Google I found out that alcohol was not contraindicated to the anticoagulants I was taking, so I got to enjoy one last caipirinha (or was it two?) in the business class lounge at São Paulo’s Guarulhos International before boarding the last leg of my exhausting haul home.

I have had a lot of time to reflect on the four months and the three and a half countries that I had managed to tick off on this epic adventure of mine. At all times I was at the edge of my comfort zone and I was very aware that at any time disaster could strike; I could be robbed, I could be stranded, I could get ill or I could hurt myself. At the conclusion of every hike I have done, last year in the East and now in South America, I sent a thank you to the Universe that I had made it down in one piece. I often shake my head at my unbelievable luck. Everyone that knows me will agree that I am a dizzy blond, and that I managed to survive India, Myanmar, Thailand,Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Borneo and Nepal and now Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and most of Peru relatively unscathed in itself a miracle. So I will not rile against the gods but accept this untimely ending of my travels as part of the journey, and things are as they are supposed to be. 

But watch this space, it’s not quite over yet!!

 Paddington Bear’s Darkest Peru

  

Of all the countries I was planning on visiting during my South American adventure Peru held the greatest mystique. Not that I knew much about the third largest country of the continent, except that Lima was its capital and that it was home to Machu Picchu, one of the top 10 bucket list destinations of the world, and certainly very much on my list of must-do things while in Peru. I probably would have scored a few Trivial Pursuit or 30 Seconds points if asked about the Incas or the Spanish Conquistadors, Lake Titicaca or the Nazca Lines but it certainly was a revelation to me to find out that everyone’s favourite bear originated in this fascinating country.

Whilst traveling through India last year I had befriended Indira, a young Peruvian lass who had been volunteering in New Delhi. She had arrived in Udaipur after a gruelling night journey and was very grateful when I suggested she shower and freshen up in my room as her accommodation was only going to become available later in the day. In response she extended an invitation to me that if ever I made it to Lima she would welcome me with open arms. At that stage I was not to know that the Peruvians are probably the most hospitable people you will ever meet on this earth; and Indira admitted that although her invitation was heartfelt she never actually believed I would make good on my promise that I would indeed visit.  

 

But Lima is situated 1000km from its northern border, so with the help of the brotherhood of fellow travelers, Lonely Planet, TripAdviser and diverse blog sites I made my way from Cuenca across the Ecuador/Peru border with the quest to discover the Darkest Peru of Paddington Bear.

My first stopover was the beach town of Mancora, popular with the younger Backpacker and Peruvian youth. I had booked two nights at the fun looking  Loki Hostal  recommended by Lonely Planet, but after the first sleepless night I realized I had made a big mistake when I found myself in a mixed dorm of twenty year olds who were probably going to sleep the day away after a full night of partying, so I hotfooted it out of that establishment and found myself more age appropriate accommodation across the road for the second night. Most of that day was spent working out the logistics of how I was going to make it to my next destination high up in the Cordillera de Los Andes, namely Chachopoyas where I wanted to explore the Pre-Incan settlement of Kuelap.

Getting to Chachapoyas meant a very early departure from Mancora, heading first to the town of Chiclayo from where I  planned on taking an overnight bus to said destination, and in a case of “Lost in Translation” I understood the lad from the hotel to have said that the moto-taxi driver should drop me off at the airport, so in my best Spanglish I gave instructions, only to be dropped off at the EPPO bus terminal. That is where I also learnt that in Peru every bus company has its individual terminal, so you need to know in advance which company you wanted to travel with. Also, the direct bus to Chiclayo was only leaving at 10 am, and (I hope I understood this correctly)  I could catch the Piura bus leaving at 8:45 and from Piura there were hourly buses leaving for Chiclayo. As per usual I was the only gringa on the bus but my first lesson in Peruvian hospitality was when a family of  padre, madre e hijo also traveling in the same direction found it quite fascinating to meet a female of indeterminate age (from South Africa!!) traveling on her own. Only the son spoke some English, but I ended up sharing a taxi with them from one company bus terminal to the next one, them helping me obtain a local Peru Data SIM card for my iPad and then catching the same bus to Chiclayo, from where they were flying home to Lima. We only arrived in Chiclayo well after dark, and they must have realized that I was quite anxious that I had not booked a bus seat, and the father and son ran around to various bus companies and eventually only bade me farewell once they were sure I was safely ensconced on one of the sleeper coaches heading for Chachopoyas. Although it all worked out perfectly, I cannot tell a lie, it did stress me out quite a bit. Once again the Universe came through for me.

The awesome high altitude ruins of Kuélap left behind by the fierce pre-Incan Chachapoyas civilization  (roughly translated as cloud-people) dating back to 800AD were first proof to me that Peru has archeological treasures that must unquestionably be on par with the Egyptian pyramids or Angkor Wat, and where Machu Picchu allows  2 500 visitors a day, here you are one of a few select visitors that get to see some of the most magnificent pre- Columbian ruins in South America.

  

 In contrast to Incan architecture which was mainly rectangular, the Chachapoyan structures were circular.

There were many more archeological treasures scattered around Chachapoyas but I was definitely on a road less travelled when I discovered the Cañon del Sonche, a mere 8 km away from the town, which does not even get a mention in the Lonely Planet and only a “by-the-way” in Footprint’s Peru. How serendipitous that after waiting nearly an hour for the collectivo to fill up with passengers to Huancas (the closest village to the cañon) I was joined by the only other visitor, Karina, a young Limeña (sounds more exotic than ” a girl from Lima”) who was visiting her gran in Chachapoyas, and by the time we had scampered along the cañon paths for a few hours, had a late lunch of cicena (a Peruvian dish made with air dried beef) and then walked the distance back to the main town we had bonded and I added her to my many “children” I have “adopted” along my travels. 

 The Cañon del Sonche

I was now on an archeological roll, so it did not phase me when I booked the bus tickets from Chachopoyas to my next destination, Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca, it meant two night buses and a full day’s stopover in between in the Pacific town of Trujillo. Trujillo was another veritable treasure chest of ancient Peruvian excavations. 

On arrival at the brand new Trujillo bus terminal I cajoled the bus company that was going to take me to Huaraz into storing my luggage for the day and without that encumbrance felt adventurous enough to test the local transport system and resorting to Spanglish asked every passing bus whether it was going to the Centro, and eventually got the nod and made it safely to the Plaza de Armaz. There I just had to look a little helpless and long before short I had various touts offering me full day tours to see the sights, and with a bit of bartering I found myself on a mini bus with 15 other tourists heading out to the first mighty excavation site of Las Huacas del Sol y de la Luna (the Temples of the Sun and the Moon) dating back 1500 years to the Moché Dynasty. I snapped away furiously  to try and capture the painstaking work these obviously passionate archaeologists had done over the years. Everything is under roof to try and protect the reliefs and the colours from the relentless sun and the wind. One thing I also did not know about Peru is that the coastal strip leading up to the Andean Cordilleras is mainly desert landscape reminiscent of the moon. I have taken the liberty of “stealing” a couple of photos posted on TripAdvisor because guess what? Somewhere between our morning and afternoon sightseeing session I managed to lose yet another camera! 

 The Huaca del Sol has been ravaged by the elements and is not open to the public. 140million adobe bricks were used to build this pyramid like structure.

  Restoration work done to the Huaca de la Luna

In the afternoon, sans camera, our little troupe headed on to the largest adobe city in the world, ChanChan. From a distance it looked  like part of the desert moonscape, but this city at its zenith around 1300AD housed more than 60 000 people with palaces lined with precious metals, which eventually were looted by the gold hungry Spanish Conquistadors. 

 ChanChan excavation captured on my iPhone camera

  A mangy specimen of a Peruvian Hairless dog. From ceramic depictions going back to the Chimú and Moché dynasties we know that these dogs were already bred that far back.

What a contrast in scenery, leaving behind the barren coastal desert and peering out of the bus window after yet another night journey on to the breathtaking early morning views of the snow covered peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, the highest mountain range in the world outside the Himalayas.

 

The colourful town of Huaraz is the starting point for what must rate some of the best hiking routes in the world. My path crossed with my travel compatriots Florence and Richard, who had just returned all agog from a 4 day trek through the Parque Nacional Huascarán, and although I was tempted to follow in their footsteps I eventually settled for a one day hike to the much lauded Laguna 69, a high altitude lake within the Parque. We were to set off from Huaraz at 5 am in the morning, but I am embarrassed to admit that my first attempt at this hike was thwarted when my alarm clock did not go off and even though I threw myself into my clothes and tore down to catch the bus all I saw was its tail lights disappearing around the corner.  And, sorry for me, a refund was not forthcoming. The next day I made sure I was ready and waiting at the alloted time.  

Suffice to say that this hike exceeded any of the superlatives I could ever conjur up. It was a challenge mainly due to the altitude of 4 600m above sea level, but even though I huffed and puffed like an old steam train, the final destination was worth every torturous step.  

 The magnificent Laguna 69 surrounded by some 6000+ meter peaks.

  Photo opportunities abound. Thank goodness I managed to purchase a replacement camera in Huaraz.

     

 Some surreptitious pictures taken just outside my hotel 

And finally I was heading to Lima. Although overnight buses are practical because they save you one nights accommodation and so far have been surprisingly comfortable, you do miss out on the landscape of the surrounding countryside, so for this leg I decided to take a day bus.  Also, Indira was adamant that she would meet me on arrival and accompany me to her home and I think it would have been a bit presumptuous to ask her to get up at sparrows and then fight her way through big city peak time traffic.  

 Once our bus had descended back to sea level onto the Great Pan-Americana I was fascinated to see that the coastal desert literally ended in the Pacific, and an interesting piece of trivia I picked up from my trusted Lonely Planet was that Lima is the second driest capital in the world next to Cairo.

  On first sight the sprawling metropolis of Lima with its 9 million inhabitants is  not a hugely appealing city. If I were asked how to describe it in one word I would say “grey”. The sky was grey, the buildings and dwellings crawling up the surrounding grey hillsides are adobe grey, even the trees looked grey. Yet in spite of its apparent drabness  it is chaotic and vibrant and rich in culture. The Limeños are kind and generous and respectful to a fault and the food, ah the food, is the best I have tasted on all my travels in South America. 

The highlight of my stay in Lima has to have been Mistura, an annual culinary festival that showcases the best of Peruvian cuisine where dedicated stalls sell from cerviche to causa, anticuchos to lomo soltado, not forgetting the heavenly picarones and quesohelado for dessert, and to drink emoliente, chicha and Inca Kola, a massive cerveza tent and my favourite: The Pisco tent. Pisco is a colourless to amber coloured brandy made from locally grown grapes best enjoyed in form of a delectable Pisco Sour. The recipe: a tot (or two) of Pisco, some lime juice, one egg white, simple syrup and a dash of bitters blended together into a frothy drink fit for the gods.

    
   

Having the privilege of staying with a local family certainly added  a completely different dimension to my Limeñan experience and I have to admit that had I been on my own Lima might have gotten the better of me. Where I had been quite proud that I had mastered the local transport system of most South American cities, I think in Lima I might have capitulated and reverted to a safe taxi option to get from A to B. Indira and her mama Carmen were so protective of me, and right up to me boarding the overnight bus to Nazca they accompanied me to make sure that I came to no harm in this daunting city.  I will forever be grateful.

Ever since I had followed the blog of Homeless Hailey on her travels through South America and for the first time heard mention of the Nazca Lines I was determined to experience this extraordinary phenomena myself. These unusual and puzzling scratches and lines in the desert surface were unearthed on a routine research flight across this barren stretch of land in 1939, and although there are many theories about the origins of more than 800 lines, 300 geometric figures (geoglyphs) and some 70 animal and plant drawings (biomorphs) no definitive answer is forthcoming. The most likely theory is that they were made by the Paracas and Nazca cultures from 900BC to 600AD as an astronomical calendar. 

I also experienced the sophistication of these Pre- Columbian cultures on the ground when I took part in a hair-raising dune buggy excursion into the surrounding Nazca Desert where we visited ancient water wells, temple ruins and cemeteries before hurtling down some seriously awe-inspiring dunes. 

  

  

 The Usaka Dunes

The following day I was collected bright and early and taken to the nearby airport for my bucket-list flight over the Nazca Lines. The terminal was abuzz with excited passengers, but for some reason the company I had booked my flight with maintained that the cloud cover was too low/the visibility was too bad and that they would have to delay our take-off till 2 pm in the afternoon. They weighed us, made copies of our passports and took our airport tax but then returned us to our hotel. I should have smelt a rat there and then! We were a group of about 15 people that arrived back at the airport for our afternoon take-off, but were effectively ignored. The Spanish speakers amongst us tried to find out what the hold-up was and they established that we had been bumped off the passenger list. It goes without saying that there were some very unhappy people milling around the ParacasAir desk. No attempt was made on their part to allocate us to other aviation companies, and I was getting quite frantic that I might miss my golden opportunity. I was leaving for Arequipa that night and it was a now-or-never situation. Eventually I managed to get on to the last flight of the day with Nazca Air, who clearly milked the situation by charging us an exorbitant 110US$. I had already paid 85$ to the hotel for the original booking, but I was sure they would sort out the problem. Long story short, as the sun was setting in the west we eventually took off, and I had some of the most thrilling minutes in the air as we banked left and then right over a miriad of  lines and squiggles and drawings. The co-pilot gave a running commentary of what we were seeing and my little camera was working overtime, but the pictures will never reflect the enormity of this bizarre experience. 

 All aboard 

 The Astronaut 

 The Spider 

 The Pan-Americana crosses the Nazca Desert. Note the look-out point from where you can view some of the Lines 

 The sun setting over the Nazca mountains

I was a very happy bunny when I boarded the overnight bus to Arequipa. It was mission accomplished; not only had I ticked off a bucket-list item, but the hotel proprietors were so mortified at the behavior of the airline that they reimbursed me the additional 25$ that I had to pay in. Now that was going beyond the call of duty, and once again proved what honourable people the Peruvians are.

And then disaster struck!!

Ecuador on a Shoestring

It was a very early morning departure from Popayan in Colombia. At the Hosteltrail in Popayan someone had pinned travel and border crossing instructions onto one of the walls and although I accepted that it would be a long day, I thought it was doable to press through to Quito in one day. Luckily I had made friends with two fellow travelers, Richard and Florence, a New Zealand/French couple, who had given up their jobs in Hong Kong and were roughly following the same route I was through South America. Their destination for the day was Otavalo, about 1 1/2 hours north of Quito, so it was great that I did not have to attempt this trip all on my own. It was still dark when we left the hostel and by 6:30 we were ensconced in a very overloaded bus heading for the border town of Ipealis. It goes without saying that South American time is very much like South East Asian time, so all good intentions to still see some famous cathedral built over the Rio San Miguel which separates Ecuador from Colombia were not going to happen, because by the time we got to Ipealis it was already 3:30 in the afternoon. And then we were further delayed because in the collectivo that took us to the border there was much dissension amongst the local co-passengers as to whether we should be dropped off on the Colombian side to clear immigration or could pass on to the Ecuador side. Eventually we followed the wrong advice of one forceful lady and were sent back across the river con luggage. The money changer who had tried to encourage us to get off the collectivo had a real “I told you so” look on his face, but he gave me a good exchange rate for the last few pesos I had on me and so I entered with 25US$, the currency in use in Ecuador since the year 2000, after the Ecuador Sucre devalued by 67% the previous year and a further 17% in one week at the beginning of 2000. Great unhappiness amongst the populace and the president lost his job, but his successor enforced it anyway.

When I see a $ sign I will be forgiven that I immediately equate it to huge expense, especially after my first foray to the ATM when I nearly had an apoplectic fit having had to pay a whopping 14ZAR for one measly Dollar! But this did not mean that my travels had to immediately be curtailed, because once I started putting things into perspective, what I learnt is that in Ecuador the $ actually goes a long way. My first expense as we crossed the border was the purchase of a bus ticket from the border town of Tulcan to Quito, a 5 hour bus ride which cost a princely sum of 6,10$, which even at R14 is a mere R85. The empanada and hot chocolate we had had the bus station while waiting for departure set me back 1,50$. If I had not arrived so late in Quito that night I would have attempted public transport, but opted for the safer taxi option, and their meters run by the second, so the 7 minutes it took in late night Quito to get to my Airbnb destination cost me 7$. The next day I found a very well stocked supermarket where I bought provisions which I could store in the fridge at my accomodation, which meant I did not have to splash out on expensive meals. I did go big the one day when I met up with my friends Richard and Florence which set me back a whopping 18$, but that was for a four course meal which was my food for the day (my 20$ accommodation included breakfast) and I justified it, because that morning I had saved money when they gave me pensioners rates on the Teleferico, which is the cable car that takes you up to the 4000m high Pichincha Volcano that overlooks Quito. 

 At 4000m this view leaves you a little breathless

A wonderful concept that is now available in most big cities around the world is the Free Walking Tour, and for a money conscious traveller like me it is an ideal way of being introduced to a new city and so far I have been on about 8 such tours and every time I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and knowledge of these young guides that are only reimbursed by tips given by the attendees. 

 Obi, our Free-Walking-Tour guide in Quito

Obi invited us to have lunch with him at the food court in the Mercado Central and for 5$ they served me such a huge meal that I shared it with another person and we still did not manage to finish it. Needless to say I went back there twice.

Public transport is also dirt cheap in Ecuador. In Quito they have a very extensive transport network and a trip from one side of town to the other will set you back exactly 25cents. When I was leaving Quito to catch my nightbus to Puerto Lopez on the Pacific Coast I consulted my trusted Google Maps and saw that the brand new Quitumbe Terminal in the south of the city was close on 25km away by car, so you can imagine what the taxi would have cost. So, ever the penny-pincher, I lugged my wheelie bag and rucksack to the closest trolé bus station, paid my 25 cents and endured the one hour plus trip across town crammed into a tram filled with half of Quito’s working population making their way home from work. 

Long haul transport is not only cheap (14,50$ for an 8 hour ride on the nightbus from Quito to Puerto Lopez) but also exceedingly comfortable and safe. On boarding said bus I was told to also put my rucksack into the hold because it was safer there. We were all patted down and our hand luggage searched on entering the bus plus they had CCTV cameras installed as an extra precaution. 

 

Of course one of the main attractions that Ecuador has to offer is the Galápagos Islands but even a shoestring excursion there booked last minute from Quito would have set me back in the vicinity of 1000$ and to be perfectly honest, Galápagos was never on my bucket list, but when I heard about the Poor Man’s Galápagos, a little island that goes by the name of Isla de la Plata, a mere 1 1/2 hours by boat from the dusty little fishing village of Puerto Lopez, and at 45$ for a day’s excursion I thought that was much more in line with my budget. And though I would never venture to try and compare it to the real McCoy I did see Blue Footed Boobies, Frigate birds, pelicans, turtles and we were privileged enough to see a close-up mating display of the magnificent humpback whale. 

   These two magnificent pictures are curtesy of Martin Plüss. My little point-and-shoot would never have done this spectacle any justice.
  A Blue Foot Booby mating pair 
 Isla de la Plata

Throughout my journey I have had the great fortune of meeting the most fascinating fellow travellers who have enriched my experiences exponentially. On the tour out to Isla de la Plata I met the intrepid couple Martin and Rike, a young Swiss couple, who had bought an old Toyota van in Buenos Aires in October last year and were now in their 11th month around the continent of South American. They graciously invited me to join them the following day to visit the sulphur baths of Agua Blanca followed by a picnic at the picturesque beach of Los Frailes. On my own I would more than likely never have ventured there, but what a fun day shared with new friends. I was intrigued by their amazing experiences and in return I tried to share some of my destinations with them.

  A healing mud pack followed by a soothing sulphur bath. 
 Rike and Martin have refined traveling on a shoestring to a fine art. In the morning we bought the ingredients for our fine picnic at the local market which we prepared in Rike’s makeshift kitchen in their van. 

 

There were so many further destinations in Ecuador that I would have loved to have visited, but I have come to realize that if I had wanted to fulfill all these travel dreams I would need a much larger wallet and that much more time. So I had to choose some places above others and thus my last stop in Ecuador before heading on to Peru was going to be the pretty little town of Cuenca. I stayed with the vivacious Airbnb hostess Pilar, who has found a niche in the market by assisting hordes of American ex-pats that have been heading to Ecuador in recent years who have found that they could retire much more comfortably on their American $ in Ecuador than what they could back home. What fascinated me is that they thought they could get by without having to speak Spanish. Go figure!!

Keeping my shoestring in mind I hopped on to a local bus one early morning for a mere 2$ to the Parque Nacional Carjas. The bus from Guayaquil (yes, to save a buck it took me three different buses to get from Puerto Lopez to Cuenca) passed through the Cajas and I was inspired to hike this magnificent terrain. I had read the tripadvisor reports so came prepared dressed in 4 layers of protective clothing, some meager provisions but sufficient water. At the information centre I heard English spoken, so gravitated to a young English speaking couple, who turned out to be John and Sam from Australia on a world trip and who had no problem  me tagging on to them for the day. Despite the fact that we never found the ruta de dos, with the difficulty rating of “alto” as in difficult, we had a wonderful day together, and once again I have met some wonderful young people that have enriched my life. John is an avid photographer and I admired his tenacity of lugging his heavy tripod through sometimes not easy terrain, but he has a wonderful travel blog site that I encourage anyone interested in travelling to follow: Stamp every Page. Well written with loads of useful information. Well done John, you are an inspiration. 

 
And that was Ecuador! I cannot believe that that it took me three whole weeks to only see a fraction of this country, but certainly a destination to be recommended and even if you miss out on the Galápagos Islands lots and lots of other things to see. Above all, wonderful people!!

Three months down, and three more to go

Stacey, my friend Anne’s daughter spent a full year in South America and did not even get to visit Brazil and I am slowly starting to appreciate that six months in this grandiose continent are never going to be sufficient to see all there is to see, experience all there is to experience, savour all there is to savour.

Right now I am experiencing a not altogether unwelcome delay in the lovely little town of Cuenca, nestled 2 500 meters above sea level amongst the Ecuadorian Andes, and this hold-up in my travels gave me the subject matter for this blog. 

The thing is, even after 8 months of intensive travel in India and South East Asia I have to admit I am by no means a seasoned traveller. Last year I was at least clever enough to take a stash of American Dollars with me, which stood me in good stead when entering countries like Cambodia, Laos or Nepal when the immigration officials wanted US$ notes for the visa on arrival. Why, oh why did I think I would be able to get by in South America with just my three credit/debit cards? So here is my dilemma: I had vaguely read and heard about something called the “blue dollar”, which is the black market Dollar traded in Argentina. When exchanging currency officially at the bank or at an ATM you would more than likely receive about 9 Argentinian Pesos for a US$, but with hard currency dollar notes there is a very active black market where you could easily get at least 30% more Pesos for your Dollar. This fact only hit home when I entered Ecuador, where the official currency is the American Dollar. I might only be getting to Argentina in two months or so, but if I was going to shore up on Dollar notes this would be the country to do it, but of course only having a debit card I am restricted by my bank to drawing  a maximum of 300$ a day from the cajero automatics (ATM). I am guessing that I will more than likely need a bare minimum of 50 – 60$ a day in Argentina (and that will be real shoestring living) so if I want to venture all the way down to the most southerly town in the world, Ushuaia, I will probably need a month to see this vast country. So, I will be queuing up at the ATM for my daily draw for at least another week. And every time I withdraw $ I reel when I see the exchange rate. Today I paid just over R14 for one greenback, and it can only get worse. Having said that, Ecuador is not a hugely expensive country. I am staying in very adequate Airbnb accommodation, where I have a room with a bathroom ensuite for 20$, local transport in Quito cost me 25 cents a trip and an overnight bus from Quito to Puerto Lopez a princely 14$. Yesterday I ate the almuerzo, or lunch, which consisted of a big bowl of soup, chicken lasagna and juice for 3,25$. Later on I plan on venturing out to the local market around the corner to sample what the locals eat. 

 Quite fancy that crackling

What other pearls of wisdom can I share with you after 3 months on the road? Last year I wrote a blog titled 10 Travel Essentials for the long haul, and a few of those items I still stand by. My iPad is still my most prized possession and I am more than happy that I traded in my previous one for a 64Gig version. No running out of space on this trip. The only thing I regret is that I did not immediately put a tempered glass screen protector on, because within three weeks of having purchased said item I dropped it and cracked the screen. And nearly every traveler I have come across has suffered the same fate. These are my best apps:

Skype and FaceTime – every time I hear my sister’s or my friends voices I cannot believe that I am separated by thousands of miles and 7 hours time difference. Being able to communicate over the oceans takes away homesickness in an instant.

GoogleTranslate –  a great help in a continent where a large percentage of people only speak Spanish. I am starting to understand a smattering if they speak slowly and clearly and I can generally make myself understood with the help of said app and wild gesticulations.

GoogleMaps – my friends Colleen and Helen will bear me out when I say that my sense of direction is abysmal. I was given the map for our walking tour in Tuscany for no longer than 10 minutes, by which stage I had already managed to get us lost. So thumbs-up to GoogleMaps. Having said that, in Quito I managed to get myself quite disorientated despite this app, while trying to find my way home and eventually a kindly lady took pity on me and loaded me into her car and took me there. My Airbnb hostess was horrified that I would get into a car with a stranger, but so far I have been blessed with wonderful experiences of local kindness.

Tripadvisor – I no longer use it to the extent that I used it in India and South East Asia for accommodation, for that I use my Airbnb app, but it is invaluable if you want to get advice on places to see and things to do. And I am now a Level 4 Reviewer, for as much as I appreciate other travelers insights, I also like sharing my experiences.

Although every place I have stayed in thus far and most eating places and even some long distance buses have offered wifi I still like to have a local SIM card with a few MBs of data in my iPad. My iPhone piggybacks via personal hotspot on my iPad, so when when looking for a place I don’t necessarily attract attention to myself by hoiking out my iPad and can surreptitiously take a peak at the smaller gadget. If in doubt, I will do so in a church or a bank.

Two items which I considered essential during my last trip have been crossed off my list since traveling through South America. They are my electric toothbrush and my hairdryer. Within the first few days of arriving in Brazil I realized I could not charge my toothbrush and the air coming through the blowdryer was at half strength, because here the power source on this continent is 120 volt instead of the 240 volt back in S.A. I have learnt to make do with a manual toothbrush and a blob of gel applied to my short hair will just have to do the trick.  In Medellin I decided to indulge in a bit of beauty therapy and went for a trim, but my hairdresser suffered from a slight rush of blood to her head and before I could stop her she had chopped off my hair to within an inch to my scalp, and with that all my highlights were also gone, so I asked her to colour my hair a darker shade of blond, but after the chop I should have learnt my lesson, because I now am a lighter shade of ginger.  

 “Ginge'” trying a local delicacy, little snails in brine, lime and coriander at the Saturday Otavalo market

Two items that I have added on to my list of essentials: firstly, a sturdy toiletry bag. During my last year’s travels I managed to kill the one my sister loaned me. What I liked about it was that it was flat, which meant it was easy to pack, with lots of divisions for bottles, but it was made out of plastic which perished. With the help of my friend Ella, who is a wizz seamstress with a heavy duty sewing machine, we were going to design and make the ultimate toiletry bag, but we never had to go that far, because she actually had a very suitable one in her possession which she gifted me, and it is the answer to world peace. 

 Zipped closed it is flat and fits snugly into my rucksack or travel bag when flying. Lots of space for plenty bottles

  Item number 2 on my list of essentials is this very clever shower caddy which my intrepid friend Ella sewed for me. Invariably there is never space in the shower for shampoo, shower gel and the like, and how often have I forgotten these items when vacating the room, but this is genius. Of course you must not be stupid like me and pack away the shower caddy but forget the little suction hooks. It took me weeks to find replacements. How do you describe that when you speak no Spanish!

My Granny Goose travel pillow remains firmly on my list of travel essentials, and after the mortification I experienced when I lost mine last year, I guard its replacement with my life. I have yet to find a satisfactory pillow on any of the beds I have slept on and with the many nightbuses I have travelled in it has been a godsend. 

Last but not least onto my list of travel essentials I add a bottle of perfume. There is nothing that lifts the spirit more than applying a spritz of a pleasant fragrance before you get dressed for the day. I had depleted my supply early into my trip, and with my tight budget I did not feel I could justify splurging on what probably seems like an unimportant yet expensive item; so I was thrilled when I discovered a chain of perfume stores in Medellin that prepared fake scents for a fraction of the price of the real McCoy. 

 Carolina Herrera? Who’s to know!

Every day on the road I learn something new, my horizons are broadened, my soul is stirred. At times I still feel timid and anxious and I have to kick-start myself into action, but the past three months have been a blast and I have no doubt the next three will be equally exciting.

A Case for Colombia

Colombia was a bit of an enigma to me before I started on my travels to South America, and except for the fact that it lies in the north of the continent and that Bogotá was its capital all I vaguely knew about was about the rampant drug trade and guerrilla warfare that dogged this country in the 70s and 80s of the last century.

During my travels through India last year I had met young Horació from Colombia, and that was the first time I had contemplated visiting the country when I eventually made it across to South America, and when the Universe destined me to meet Nicolas and Kelly from Bogotá on a Free Walking Tour through Rio de Janeiro and I received a heartfelt invitation to come and visit that I started looking at the possibility seriously. I was heading to the Amazon and Manaus, so I now had to work out the logistics of getting to Colombia taking into account that Manaus was only accessible by boat or by air. I lie, there is a road, but that leads south.

 

Flying to Bogotá from Manaus was going to be prohibitive as the cheapest one way ticket was +/-$700, so my only other option was to “boat” it the 1000+ km along the Rio Solimoes to the Brazilian border town of Tabatinga, cross over to Leticia and fly to Bogotá from there. The slow boat against the current takes 7 days, so I opted to rather take the “fast” boat, and that was a river taxi taking 36 hours!  
 

During my few days in the Amazonian jungle I had met a German lad who had been teaching at the German School in Bogota  (which incidentally is the largest German School outside of Germany with 2 800 scholars) who warned me that it would be cold and wet in Bogota, which I found surprising, as it lay so close to the equator, and it was only after I realized that the city lies 2 640m above sea level that it made sense. After the heat and humidity of the Amazon it came as welcome relief. 

Bogotá is a huge sprawling city with close on 8million inhabitants nestled against one of the Andean Cordilleras running all the way up the eastern part of South America. The first few days I did have a slight headache and felt a bit breathless and during my visit to the nearby historic town of Zipaquirá with its salt cathedral I felt the altitude first hand when I realized I had forgotten my camera in one of the public toilets at the Salt Cathedral and made a futile dash up the hill to try and retrieve it. 

I liked Bogotá; it’s cosmopolitan, it’s viby, it’s easy to navigate with its numbered Carreras (Avenues) running from north to south and its Carres (Streets) running from east to west but  mainly because of the immense hospitality shown to me by young Nicolas and Kelly who shared a fortune of invaluable information with me to make sure I get to experience the best Colombia has to offer. 

 This is the oldest building in Bogota in the district of Candelaria. Can you imagine us “defiling” our historic monuments like this? I had taken part in a very interesting graffiti/street art walking tour of downtown Bogotá, and it gave a totally new perspective  and understanding of this form of social commentary and artistic expression. 

 The view on to the city from Cerro de Monserrate

From Bogotá I flew cheap and cheerful with Vivacolombia to the coastal town of Santa Marta and stayed for a few days in the dusty little beach resort of Taganga, but because by this stage travel lethargy had set in I never got to the famous Parque Tayroná with its beautiful Caribbean beaches or trek the five days to the Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City, reminiscent of Macchu Pichu, but I figured I have seen my fair share of beautiful beaches and will get to see enough Inca ruins once I get to Peru. I did manage to escape the hot and humid conditions one day by heading into the Sierra Nevada to Minca for a day of hiking through coffee plantations and along gurgling brooks. 

 
On to Cartagena de Indias (differentiating it from Cartagena Spain) founded in 1533, whose colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. I stayed about half an hour’s walk from the historic centre in a seedier but joyfully noisy part of the city and it was in huge contrast to the pristine and beautifully kept buildings of Old Cartagena.  

     
  Photo opportunities abound. 

If it had not been for the oppressive heat I could have lingered here for a little longer but I was looking forward to Medellin where I was told it was Spring all year round. The route south to Medellin leads through the Sierra Nevada which I unfortunately only got to see the last stretch of as I took the night bus from Cartagena and I was spellbound by the spectacular scenery. The city is built up a series of steep hills and commands magnificent views from most of its barrios. 

 

When one mentions Medellin one invariably thinks of its fairly recent dark history in the 1980s and 90s when the drug cartel led by men such as Pablo Escobar wielded a reign of terror over the populace and in which time more than 3 500 people were gunned down or assassinated or simply disappeared and the list of high ranking politicians and judges that lost their lives reads like a horror story. But since then Medellin has literally pulled itself up by its bootstraps and today is a model of urban renewal, and this is mainly thanks to the building of the Metro which is the city’s pride and joy. It is immaculate and so clean that you could eat off the platforms. Of course most of the poorer barrios are built on the steep hillsides, but the city has now connected two of these fairly inaccessible suburbs by means of the Metrocable which must have changed the lives of these people dramatically. In January a further two Metrocables will be added to the network.

      

 I had the privilege of being taken to the Communa Trece (13) by  Dayro, a very passionate and serious young man who grew up in this poor suburb which has recently been connected by a series of escalators and it was with great pride he showed us that poverty does not necessarily mean squalor.  

   The escalators getting a thorough spring cleaning 

 The barrio was bedecked with wonderful street art and gardens have been planted wherever there was a little space available.

I was very blessed to have made friends with Giorgia at the Airbnb apartment that I stayed in. She is Colombian by birth, but had been adopted by Swiss parents as a very young child and grew up in Lugano. She has connected with her birth family and comes back to visit regularly. She was a delightful sightseeing and traveling buddy and together we explored many of the must-see places in and around Medellin. Of course it did also help that she spoke fluent Spanish. One of my Colombian highlights has be our day trip  to the Piedra del Peñol which towers over the picturesque little town of Guatapé lying on a huge dam built in the1960s. Every building is decorated with colourful zocolas(colourful concrete bas-relief scenes) that depict what is being sold or offered by the shop or beliefs and customs of the residents. I found it even more vibrant than Cartagena. 

   

The walk up to thePiedra del Peñol was up 700+ stairs and we were told we would only receive lunch once we returned from the summit and both the view and the lunch, prepared  by our versatile guide Rafael, were worth every step. 

     

From Medellin I took a 2 day trip to Salento in the Zona Cafetera and and that added to my enthusiasm about this wonderful country. Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world and it seems that the coffee growers have chosen the most stunning vistas to build their fincas and plant their crops. The hiking in this area is also phenomenal and I had a wonderful day in the Valle de Cocora where I had to eventually stop myself taking another photo of the jaw-dropping views. The hills are covered with Palma de cera or wax palms that tower up to 60m above the cloud forests in which they thrive.

   
Of course a visit to the area would not be complete without a tour of a working coffee plantation and a taste of a real cup of Colombian Arabica. After seeing the process of cultivating and harvesting the humble coffee bean I can now understand why it sometimes termed as Black Gold. It is the second most traded commodity next to oil (a bit of trivia gleaned from Google).

  The beautiful El Ocaso Finca
  The Main Street of Salento

And the highlights just kept coming. My young friend Giorgia forfeited a flight to Bogotá to accompany me to a small but otherworldly desert area, the Desierto de la Tatacoa. We had taken a very comfortable nightbus to the forgettable town of Neiva where we had booked a room so as to just catch our breath for one night before heading into the desert, but I guess not all Airbnb experiences can be wonderful, and this one was unacceptable, so we traipsed back to the bus terminal and took the next collectivo heading to Villavieja which is the springboard  into the desert, but this is where I was so grateful to have Giorgia with me, because the driver of our vehicle suggested  in sure-fire Espagnol that for a few additional Pesos he would take us straight into the desert where there were quite a few basic places to stay overnight. The following day we set off early to explore first the red desert and I did not quite believe it when the Lonely Planet had said it was only 330sq/km in size, but in a matter of two hours we had seen the red desert and within another two hours after breakfast we had also managed to wander through the grey desert. Giorgia and I looked at each other. Should we stay another night? The temperatures were probably close to 40 degrees and there was really not much else to do, so being flexible we asked them to organize us transport back to Neiva and there Giorgia and my paths parted when I boarded the bus further south to San Agustin to explore some pre-Hispanic archeological digs in that area and she headed back to Bogotá where her boyfriend was waiting.

 The Red Desert

  The Grey Desert

Because of our spur-of-the-moment travel decisions I had not made any arrangements as to where I would be sleeping that night, but Giorgia had stayed at the Finca El Maco which had also been mentioned in my edition of Lonely Planet, South America on a Shoestring and I hoped like hell they still had a bed for me, because by the time I eventually made it to San Agustin it was pitch dark, and boy, was I grateful when the driver of my little collectivo said he would drive me up to El Maco, because it was situated up a very steep hill (which I puffed up twice the following day) and as usual the Universe was looking after me, because they put me up in the Cabaña, which looked straight out of Hansel and Gretel.

 

I then spent two days scampering around one of the continent’s most important archeological sites where a past culture that flourished between the 6th and 14th century buried their dead and honored them with magnificent statues carved out of volcanic rock.  

   Even in those days they chose to bury their dead at beautiful sights.
And then on to Popayán on probably the worst roads I have so far experienced in Colombia. Although it was only 129km from San Agustin it took us the better part of 4 hours and there was a very visible army presence all along the route, which makes me think that there definitely is still some guerrilla activity in this area, and in fact we were told to not attempt this route at nighttime.

The main reason for stopping off in Popayán, which is known as Ciudad Blanco, because the old part of the city is painted white, was to attend the Tuesday market in the nondescript little town of Silvia about an hour’s drive away, when one of Colombia’s many indigenous groups, the Guambino descend from the hills to sell their produce, buy tools and clothes and hang out in the market square. Their language, dress and customs are still very much intact.

 It was a sight to behold. I very surreptitiously took a few photos, but when asked most of them scrowled and shook their heads.  

   

On the way back to Popayán we took a untarred back road and afterwards we were told that the main road had been closed due to some guerrilla activity, but we were blissfully unaware of the action.
And so, tomorrow at the crack of sparrows I board a bus that will take me to Ipealis, which is the border town to Ecuador, and then I will finally and sadly have to say farewell to  this diverse, magnificent, friendly and hospitable country. I can only highly recommend this as a travel destination. You will not be disappointed.

The Weariness of the long-term Traveller

I only have three days in the alluring city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast and after three weeks in Colombia only now have I have finally downloaded The Lonely Planet “South America on a Shoestring” on my Kindle, and there are tons of things to do in and around Cartagena, but this morning I woke up and just could not muster the energy to pursue any of the many suggestions on offer.  I should be heading out to the famed Baya Blanca on the Isla de Barú or visiting the Castillo de San Fillipe de Barajas but all I wanted to do was just kick back and read a book, but even that meant expending energy. I had just finished “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and now would have to research another suitable read. And that is when I had to admit to myself: travelling is exhausting and I was weary. I even googled it, they call it Travel Fatigue. It’s been coming on for a few days now, and before it becomes full-blown I think I need to take a bit of time out catch my breath. I would like to have just a few days off in which I don’t have to do any forward thinking, no searching for accommodation, no looking for transportation, no researching things to do or places to see or reviewing places seen and done.

After six weeks I left Brazil on an absolute high, and still I had that overwhelming feeling that I should have done more, stopped off at more destinations, seen more sights. I guess it’s all part of this new age condition that so many of us suffer from: FOMO! Fear of missing out. That is why I have a local SIM card in my iPad and am not reliant on wifi, I am still part of various Whatsapp chat groups at home, receive all e-mails circulating at my previous place of work and avidly follow the activities of my Facebook friends.

My day normally starts at the crack of sparrows when, still propped up in bed, I open up my iPad to check on e-mails and Facebook activity. It gives me such a kick when I see that people have looked at and commented on my latest pictures and posts. I am normally quite diligent at posting my newest photos as I have taken them so that my friends can follow my exploits in real time. I choose only the best photos and keep them to a minimum, because my motto is: life is too short to post ugly pictures.

Updating my daily journal often also takes an hour or so, because I try and record my thoughts and experiences as comprehensively as possible, because with the onslaught of so many new impressions it is easy to forget names and places. Over and above my personal diary I spend an inordinate amount of time mulling over my next blog content and the appropriate title, let alone the full day it normally takes to finally put pen to paper. I have also agreed to contribute some content to a British website dedicated to solo female travel, http://www.girlabouttheglobe.com and of course I want to publish relevant posts on the Getaway website. I have submitted articles for publication to both sites and hopefully they will go live in the not so distant future. I have also been sharing reviews of experiences and places visited with Tripadvisor and they have been forwarding questions and queries from fellow travelers that they think I might be in a position to field.

Throughout my travels so far I have chosen Airbnb accommodation, and when I am not browsing their website for my following destination I am writing a review about my last stay or communicating with my next host as to how best to get to them, bearing in mind that I am trying to use public transport where possible. Having said that, a sure sign of brewing travel fatigue was when I landed at the airport of Santa Marta on the northern coast of Colombia and just did not have the energy to find the bus to Taganga and took the easy way out and hailed a taxi, regretting it afterwards because my taxi driver decided that he was not going to give me the change for the 50 000 Peso note I handed over, because he had to expend some effort finding the Airbnb address, and who am I to argue when I don’t speak the language.

I somehow find the language barrier in South America more exhausting than when I travelled through India and South East Asia last year where I could not even read the writing, but now I put myself under pressure because I feel I should be making the effort to at least have a basic understanding of the language and all I have learnt thus far are the numbers, days of the week, Buenas Dias and Buenos Noches. Hopefully being exposed to Spanish on a daily basis will hone my ear and things will become easier as I go along. While in Taganga I took part in a day trip to the coffee area around Minca in the Sierra Nevada and our guide Jesus, bless him, kept his commentary so simple that I was able to follow most of what he told us, so maybe I am not as green as what I am cabbage looking. 

 Jesus explaining the coffee growing process

In Bogota I was blessed to have my new found friends Nicolas and Kelly, who I had fortuitously met on a walking tour in Rio de Janeiro, invite me as a guest into their home and to act as guides and interpreters. I could have happily settled into Nicolas’s home for a while longer, but I am very cognizant of not overstaying my welcome, so three days into my stay I was once again in search of the next destination. Cuba was in my sights, but after spending close on a day on research as how best to get there from Colombia I had to throw in the towel, it was just going to be too complicated and too expensive. Instead I chose to fly to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast and that online booking tested every ounce of my patience when it just kept declining every one of my credit cards and I had to start the booking procedure from scratch. In the end Nicolas came to the rescue and we used his credit card for payment. I was greatly relieved that when I booked my overnight bus ticket from Cartagena to Medellin online I did not have any payment issues and my credit card was accepted without a question. 

 Sprawling Bogota viewed from Monserrate. Bogota lies at 2 500 meters above sea level and was pleasantly cool after the sweltering Amazon.

 A picture of yours truly after some retail therapy. Whilst in Recife, Brazil, I met a lady who told me I had to buy a Wayuu bag in Colombia. The Wayuu tribe is resident not too far from Santa Marta and they are well known for their handicraft. The sombrero (that is hat in Espagnol) is hat number 3, the others lost enroute. I have also managed to lose and replace a few fans, which I could not live without in the coastal heat and humidity. Also lost: 1 camera, forgotten in a public toilet in Zipaquirá outside Bogota. The camera was a cheap-and-cheerful point-and-shoot, quickly replaced by an even cheaper-and-more-cheerful, and as luck would have it, I had transferred all the photos from my memory card onto a flash stick the night beforehand.

In a few hours I will be boarding the overnight bus to Medellin and I have already made up my mind that there is where I plan on taking a well deserved rest after all the activity of the last two months, and then I will be able to tackle the next leg beyond Colombia into Equador and Peru with renewed energy.  

 View on to Old Cartagena from Las Murallas, the wall surrounding the city

Downtown Cartagena

The Rio Amazonas – The Mother of all Rivers

Anyone that has not put the Amazon on their Bucket List needs to revise said list forthwith  to include this once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are not enough superlatives in the English language to describe the enormity and grandeur of this mighty river and I feel so blessed that I have been given the opportunity to share my exploits with you. 

 My adventure started in the city of Belém (pronounced Beleng) which is the logical launchpad for any trip up the Amazonas. My Airbnb hostess had given me a very quizzical look when I said I wanted to take the 5 day slow boat to Manaus, as if to say “why on earth would you want to spend 5 days travelling, when you could fly there in an hour?” (You must remember, she spoke no English, so I gathered this from her gestures) Initially I thought it it would be a novel idea to join the locals in their hammocks, and bought one in Salvador specifically for that purpose, but sanity prevailed and I booked a double bunk cabin instead. In hindsight thank goodness I did, I would never have been able to compete with the seasoned river traveller that stormed the deck as we were allowed to embark to stake out the perfect hammock spot. And imagine having to share bathrooms with a mob of 150 passengers! I don’t think so; there is only so much roughing it that a girl of my age is willing to do! It was worth the additional 150B$ for a proper bed and AC, and bonus: I had the cabin all to myself throughout the trip.

 Our Rustbucket

  Where would I have squeezed in? 

On the first day we cruised around Ilha de Marajó, which apparently is the largest river island in the world and the channel was narrow enough to be able to observe life on the river.  

 

These river boats don’t only transport passengers but also carry provisions to the numerous towns along the way that are only accessible by river. 

 The thriving metropolis of Breves

Along the way little skiffs would tie up to our moving boat and do a roaring trade selling bags of shrimp to the passengers for a princely sum of 5B$ (R20). I was amazed at how surefooted these river dwellers were.  

  

When on the River eat what the locals eat, so I also purchased a bag of shrimp and savoured the experience; a bit salty but otherwise very tasty indeed and went well with the obligatory cerveja. 

 

Two young Caboclo girls that could not have been older than 7 or eight years had also scrambled aboard and I managed to sneak a photo of them. Caboclo is the term used for a person of mixed indigenous and European descent, the Tupi translation “person having copper coloured skin”. 

 

Around 4 o’clock in the afternoon the sound of our engine suddenly stopped and with that we started drifting towards the edge of the river where one of the boathands jumped overboard with a rope and tied up our boat to a sturdy overhanging tree. Confusion reigned, but thanks to the translation of a Brazilian anthropologist who was accompanying two elderly (?) Swiss gentlemen I gathered that our boat had suffered engine failure which could not be repaired insitu, which meant that the offending part had to be sent off to the next big town about six hours away, and we had to wait for the next passing passenger boat to collect it, then do the necessary repairs and send it back to us. Long story short, this delayed us for a full 24 hours before we eventually managed to continue on our merry way. I was grateful that I had learnt the art of patience during my Indian travels, so I managed to read a large chunk my downloaded book, with the appropriate title “Brazil”, written by one Erroll Lincoln Uys (yes, born in South Africa). It is an 800 page tome about the complete history of Brazil up to the year 2000. It is a novel but exceptionally well researched and a must-read for anyone wanting to get to grips with the complexity of the Brazilian culture.

The diversity of the passing landscape also kept boredom at bay and although I am a bad judge of distances I could have sworn the river at times must have been at least 15 km wide, whereas Wikipedia says that during flood season it could easily attain a width in excess of 60 kilometers. All I can say I was overwhelmed by the immensity of this body of water. I also managed to extend my paltry collection of Portuguese words, because once the Brazilian anthropologist disembarked at Santarém, I was forced to converse with the help of my little Portuguese phrase book, or when we were lucky enough to have some reception google translate.

The sunsets were achingly beautiful and the night skies sublime and the many pictures I snapped did not do this grandeur any justice whatsoever, and I kept having to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming.

 

The closer we got to Manaus one could see the extent of the river flooding and one has to ask oneself why people don’t just build their homes above the high water mark, because surely this is an annual occurrence. 

 

The arrival in Manaus was preceded by an almighty tropical storm which thank goodness had abated by the time we docked. It was a mad scramble to disembark and I think most people that had done the full six days on the Clivia were very happy to have solid ground under their feet again. I still felt as though I was rocking 2 days later.

I am not going to say too much about my sojourn in Manaus, suffice to say that I once again was so lucky with my Airbnb family I chose to stay with who fed me and took me to dance forro, invited me to a family festa and showed me parts of the city I otherwise would never have gotten to see. 

 Enjoying a free concert at the famous Theatro de Amazonas in Manaus

I had the slow-boat experience, but now I wanted to get up close and personal with the Amazonian jungle. Friends John and Shân had been just a few weeks earlier and had whet my appetite to fever pitch. As I am a seat-of-my-pants kinda gal, I had not made any prior plans or bookings so only started my research once I had arrived in Manaus. Shân and John had sent me the website of the tour operator they had used, viverde.com.br, and judging by their Facebook pictures they had been very happy with their experience, but my shoe string budget unfortunately did not stretch that far that I could afford that kind of trip. After many hours of trawling the Internet I eventually settled on Amazon Gero Tours, which had received a stamp of approval from Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor and also fit into my meager budget: 510B$ for 3 days and 2 nights. Having been on the river for 6 nights I felt that was long enough for me. Tarif, Gero’s son who finalized my booking, did look a bit sceptical when I said I would take the cheaper hammock option. 

Gero has a dedicated lodge, the Ararinha Jungle Lodge on the Paraná do Mamori, only accessible by boat, about 100 km south of Manaus, although part of the journey is on one of the few roads leading through the jungle. This is most obviously the height of the flood season with certain sections of the road under water.

 Does that not bring back memories of a misspent youth??  

Eventually the water levels were too high for us to drive any further and we are transferred into a boat for the last few kilometers through a flooded forest to our destination.

 

The camp itself was rustic to say the least, and I was immensely grateful when our guide took pity on the elderly and decided that the hammock option was not my thing and upgraded me to a three bed bungalow with bathroom and fan shared with the the other two girls in my group, the gorgeous Tathiane from São Paulo and Vasu from New Delhi but now living in California. The other three lads that made up our merry troupe were Nir from Israel, who had just completed his three year army stint, Jerry, from Sidney Australia and Gregor, a silver tongued Brazilian from the island of Vitória north of Rio de Janeiro who kept us entertained with his daring antics. He had worked in Jerry’s pub for three years and was now showing him his country. Our quiet spoken guide introduced himself as Kennedy (pronounced Kenny G?) a local Indio who had the most amazing knowledge of all things jungle and kept us enthralled with all sorts of survival techniques, what to eat, what roots and leaves and bark had medicinal properties, shimmied up palms to bring us down the açai berry, opened up nuts and dug out grubs for us to try, caught baby caimans with his bare hands gave us beautiful dolphin sightings and certainly won the piranha fishing competition hands down. 

 

One thing that I am not sad I missed was the camp out in the jungle which my young friends were eagerly anticipating. I had been eaten alive by the mosquitos on our jungle hike and I could think of nothing worse than having these little kritters buzzing around my ears all night even though I was assured the hammocks all came with their own mosquito nets. I had depleted a whole bottle of insect repellant which the Amazonian mozzies just laughed at, and I think at this stage of my life I don’t have to do hardship, certainly not voluntarily.  

  Reflecting on my three days in the jungle I can say with certainty that this will surely be one of the highlights of my trip through South America. I think most of the jungle tours on offer will have very similar activities, the difference being the level of comfort you are willing to pay for, but what ultimately makes your experience a success is the people that the Universe throws you together with. I consider myself blessed and very privileged to have met such an awesome bunch of youngsters that included me in all the pranks and antics that at times were a little scary. I was about to bid my new friends farewell and wanted a group photo taken, when Gregor paddled a very rickety canoe to the jetty and  commanded us all to step aboard for this final photo session. The picture below  bears testimony at how close we were to either capsizing or sinking and I am happy to report that except for a very wet bum we made it back to shore in one piece. Thank you Gregor, Jerry, Nir, Vasu and Tathiane – I love you all!!

 

And so my six weeks in this magnificent country is slowly coming to an end. On Sunday I board the fast boat  (and that will take 2 days!)heading to the remote border town of Tabatinga where I will then cross over to Leticia in Colombia and then fly out to Bogota.

Brazil has exceeded all my expectations and I am heart sore to say adeus, but there are places to see and people to meet and new adventures to be had. 

So Hola, Spanish South America here I come!!

Meet the People of Brazil

Ever the solo traveller I do my fair share of people watching while I sit in a local bus or metro, sip a cerveja at a busy street cafe or wait for a connecting flight at one of the Brazilian world class airports. There might be inherent differences from one region to the other, but one thing the people I have had the privilege and pleasure of meeting have in common is their remarkable hospitality and genuine friendliness even if it means conversing in sign language or through the wonders of modern technology that gave us Google Translate.

My first experience of Brazilian generosity was Guilherme and Egnaldo’s kind offer to sacrifice their precious Sunday to show me what São Paulo had to offer. I had already had an introduction to the downtown by taking part in a Free Walking Tour.

 Our lovely tour guide Fe

But Sunday I got to see how the Paulistas spend their free time. Most people live in appartments so this is the day that they take to the streets to either cycle on the newly designated cycling lanes, visit the Pinacoteca or mooch along São Paulo’s well known Ave Paulista, followed by their favourite meal at one of the huge shopping malls that open to the public only at 2 pm and consists of a buffet por quilo, where you take a plate and help yourself to an array of Brazilian dishes and that then get charged by weight. After that you would walk off your lunch with a visit to the city’s biggest park the Parque Ibirapuera.

 Piñacoteca do Estado de Sao Paulo   

  Parque de Ibirapuera

So, I will be forgiven if I disagree with the people that told me that São Paulo was just the entry point into this huge continent. It definitely is worthy of a few days’ visit.

After Rio de Janeiro it was on to Salvador. I had taken a travel agent’s sage advice to rather fly the intended legs of Rio to Salvador, Salvador to Recife and Recife to Belem. As per my intentions to experiment with public transport I had asked Julia, my Airbnb hostess in Salvador to let me know which bus would take me to their abode, but Julia was skeptical whether my wheelie bag would survive the cobble stones enroute. I replied that I would try it anyway, and if I came unstuck I could always flag down a passing cab. But this is where the Universe works in miraculous ways. As I was waiting for said bus I was approached by a man who fired away in Portuguese at me, and I can only assume that he wanted to take me into town. I smiled graciously and shook my head and intimated that I would wait for the bus. He then left but came back a few minutes later indicating that he would take me for trinta (30) Reais (pronounced he-eye-sh); all sounded a bit fishy, so I declined once more, but when he came back a fourth time and two old ladies next to me tried to explain in their best sign language that where I wanted to go was very hilly and that he was offering me a good deal by showing me a thumbs-up, I relented and followed him to his little two-door car. And then I realized why he could take me to town for such a low rate: there were two other girls who also needed to get into town and we split the fare three ways. Our driver Adriano ended up making quite a detour after dropping off Christiane and Allissi (yes, by the time we arrived in town we had swapped life stories) and by means of Waze took me right to my doorstep. When I went on a reconnaissance tour around my area the following day I realized that Julia was right. I would have never managed to to wheel my bags over those cobble stones. 

 The Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos built by and for black slaves. The little ribbons are tied to the gate to ensure health and wellbeing. (Note the cobblestones!) 

  Lunching with the locals in Salvador Commercio. Quentinha (warm meal) for 5B$

My flight to Recife only arrived after midnight so I thought it a tad rude to arrive at my Airbnb booking at such an ungodly hour, so checked myself into a hotel close to the airport and as luck would have it the hotel was in walking distance to my hostess Elisabete’s apartment. Although I had downloaded an offline map of Recife I still managed to get myself a little lost, but a young couple stopped to ask whether they could assist, and next I knew, they had loaded my luggage into the boot and although it only ended up being a few hundred meters they were quite willing to help me find my destination.

Elisabete is a tour guide and was on assignment that day but she had left a key for me to enter her apartment and instructions as to how to amuse myself on a Sunday in Recife. The place to go to was Antigo, the historical section of downtown Recife, and the Setubal bus would take me there. Waiting with me at the bus stop was a Brazilian group and when the second bus passed without stopping we started chatting. They hailed from the southern part of the country, mom and dad, son Nicolas and daughter Nayara and their fiends Lucas and Sophia. Thankfully the youngsters spoke English so I asked them whether they would mind if I tagged along with them as they were also heading to Antigo and this resulted in a most entertaining and pleasurable afternoon and we parted as new best friends and as I am want to do I offered to adopt them all.

 

Booking my accommodation through Airbnb has so far been a blessing for me and Elisabete also proved to be a dear and wonderful hostess who bent over backwards to make sure I had a memorable stay in Recife. Not only did she share her meals with me but accompanied me to two normally difficult to access museums on the outskirts of the city, the ceramics workshop of the famous Brazilian artist Francisco Brennand and the art institute of his cousin Ricardo Brennand, who was a prolific collector of “stuff” that just blew me away. 

 An example of Francisco Brennand’s work 

  One of the halls housing Ricardo Brennand’s prolific collection of art

Getting to Belem, the gateway to the mighty Amazon was also not without its challenges. All flights there are routed through Brazilia, so I prepared myself for a long day, but I was still going to be arriving at a civilized time if everything had  gone to plan. But of course that was not to be. Not understanding the language of the land I will never know why the flight from Recife to Brazilia was delayed by 3 hours but I knew it meant that I was not going to make my connecting flight, but judging by all the frantic people inundating the ground staff I gathered this delay affected quite a substantial amount of the passengers. I heard “Belem” (pronounced Beleng) being bandied about so attached myself to those people and decided to do as they did. The consensus was to take the delayed flight to Brazilia at 1pm and then the next available flight to Belem, which would only depart at 22:00 arriving well after midnight. I managed to get a message of my predicament to my host family (all Brazilian airports have free wifi) and they ever so kindly offered to send dad to collect me, and there was Valter waiting for me at that ungodly hour. The next morning I met mom Dailza and young Alexandre, both of whom spoke no English, but that did not stop them being of immeasurable help to me. My first task for the day was to find the travel agency recommended by Lonely Planet that could assist with the booking of a ticket for a slow boat up the Amazon to the jungle city of Manaus. I showed Dailza the website and address and with the help of Google translate she understood my mission and phoned said travel agency, found out that the boats leave on a Friday and a Wednesday, and an air conditioned cabin would cost 500B$, a hammock berth 350B$ and the directions to get to them to make the booking. Next Alexandre agreed to accompany me by bus, but then mom grabbed the car keys and piled us into the family car and drove us downtown. After making an additional trip to the ATM to draw money to pay for the ticket she left Alexandre with me to show me the Belem sights which he did with aplomb. I think they must have all been relieved when young Luisa, who speaks good English, came home from work and took over conversation.

 My personal tour guide Alexandre

My wish expressed in Rio to experience the city like a local was answered here in Belem by this wonderfully warm family that opened their home to me and allowed me a peak into their lives. June is a particularly colourful month in Brazil when the birth of St John the Baptist is commemorated and numerous celebrations take place to honour the saint and also rural life and the end of the rainy period in the north and to give thanks for the rain. I am privileged to be part of it.

  Sunday festivities in downtown Belem

And now for the next leg of my adventure, a bucket list dream – a slow boat along the Amazon!

A Gringo in Rio

As I drove from Copacabana through downtown Rio on my way to the Aeroporto Galeao yesterday morning I realized that during my six day stay I really only managed to scratch the surface of this vibrant and breathtakingly beautiful city. Sure, I looked down on to the metropolis from both Pao de Acucar and Corcovado with the impressive Christo Redentor, I walked the promenades of Cocacabana and Ipanema, ambled through the heart of the city and sipped ample caipirinhas in pulsating Lapa, but how I wish I could have latched on to a Carioca, the term used for a native inhabitant of Rio de Janeiro, and had him or her reveal the true heart of Rio to me. 

Trying to make my worthless Rand stretch as far as possible I was determined to avoid pricy hotels and taxis and thus have been spending much wifi time searching for affordable accommodation and accessible local transport. I downloaded the AirB&B app on my iPad and was astounded at how many people have registered rooms of varying descriptions to rent on this site. I have to make peace with the fact that I will probably never again travel as cheaply as I did in the East, so settled for a room for 470ZAR inclusive of breakfast at a place that boasted 100% best view of Copa. AirB&B encourages communication with your host, so I asked Thiago which bus would take me from the Rodoviaria (bus terminal for us nao falam ingles) to his establishment, and was told that would be the 190, and with further help from googleMaps I had a fair idea of where I was heading. Of course I never took into account that my bus trip across town would coincide with rush hour traffic, so by the time I eventually made it to Copacabana it was two hours later and pitch dark. The young lass sitting next to me on the bus took pity on me when I showed her my address, and she spouted forth in rapid fire Portuguese, and said something to the effect: “do you realize that it is very steep where you are going, and are you going to shlepp that heavy looking wheelie bag up there?? And as luck would have it I am going up that steep hill myself and please follow me”. It seems that no one walks up these hills, but gets into a little VW combi bus conveniently waiting for passengers  at the bottom, pays 2,5B$, and once it is filled to capacity you set off up the hill and get dropped off at the closest point to your abode. By this stage I also realized that I was actually in one of the many favelas, all perched picturesquely on the steepest Rio hillsides. My address was on the Ladeira Ary Barossa, and had I understood some Portuguese I would have known that Ladeira means slope. But where exactly on this Ladeira my 100% Best View of Copa was, as anyone’s guess. After a lot of conflabbing it was decided to drop me off at the  Babylonia Hostel, surely that was where I must be staying. No, that was not my destination, but they were kind enough to phone the number I had written down and a few minutes later I was collected by Vera, my AirB&B hostess who wheeled my bag up another 200 meters or so on a busy narrow walkway and finally I got to see the sparkling lights of Copacabana and the bay beyond. It truely was worth it. 

 

Waking up to this breathtaking sight with a cup of the best Brazilian coffee each morning was surely good for the soul.

On day 2 in Rio I joined the Free Walking Tour of Downtown Rio which suited my penny-pinching pocket and had the great fortune of meeting two wonderful young people from Bogota, Colombia, Nicolas and Kelly, who I spent a boozy Caipirinha filled evening with and added to my ever growing family of adopted children from all over the world. I have no doubt they were sincere when they invited to entertain me once my travels took me to their stomping ground.  

      

Ever the Tommy-Tourist, but while sitting peacefully on one of the busy streets of Copacabana sipping the obligatory caipirinha I had time to reflect on the relevance of traveling solo. I mentioned it in one of my earlier blogs while I was traveling through India that I feel forever the observer. You become much more in tune with your surroundings and pick up nuances of daily life that you might easily miss when you are with another person. So it is that you marvel at the multi-cultural community living in this sprawling city where the dress de regueur is board shorts and tee shirts for men, and it is not uncommon to see them entering an eating place only clad in a speedo, spandex rules with women and if you are not wearing trainers it would have to be havaianas. 

 

Staying in the favela of Babylonia also gave me a bit of insight in how the other half lives. The first favelas were created by returning soldiers that had nowhere to live at the end of the 19th century and were then of course joined by the hordes of freed slaves. Favelas are by no means restricted to Rio de Janeiro, but similar to Johannesburg’s Soweto and Alexandra they attracted the most attention. They are certainly slum areas but can by no means compare to the absolute squalor of the Mumbai slums or our own squatter camps in South Africa. What I knew of favelas before I came here had mainly to do with the rampant drug trading prevalent in these areas and that of course it was too dangerous an area to enter. I only managed to get a tiny glimpse of life in the favelas, but let me tell you, real people live there. There is a very visible police presence called the Police Pacification Unit and we in South Africa could learn something from their waste management programs. At no time did I ever feel unsafe even when getting home  well after dark. 

   

And of course I would walk down the hill in the morning but at the end of a busy tommy-tourist day I  would walk as far as the motorbike taxi rank and ask one of the young drivers to take me up to Thiago’s. On the first day I still attempted my bargaining prowess learnt on the streets of Bangkok but no! It will cost you 3B$, take it or leave it!

 
I have bought myself a little Portuguese phrase book and have mastered the art of hello, goodbye, please and thank you and hopefully by the end of my Brazilian sojourn I will have added some more pearls to my vocabulary, but I can only repeat it again Eu amo a Brazil!! And that is straight from GoogleTranslate!