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Road to Colombia – The Tulcan border crossing, turning 30 in Popayán and the ancient statues of San Agustín

One last stop in Ecuador before we decided to move onto country number nine, and that stop was the much hyped market town of Otavalo. It is situated 2 hours north of Quito and is a major tourist draw, known for its colourful Saturday market. Mooching round toot markets is not really our cup o’ tea but Ollie had become obsessed with the idea of rubbing her face on Alpaca blankets since Insinliví. The offering at Saquisilí market near Latacunga (every Thursday) was poor so we had no choice; off we went…to the mother-load. A bus from Latacunga to Otavalo direct took 3.5 hours (direct buses avoiding Quito do not go from the main terminal, but from the Cita Express offices, $3.50 each) and dropped us on the outskirts of town on the Pan American highway. After a 15 minute walk into town we found our hostel (Rincón del Viajero, $25 for private room) then nipped out to grab some last minute bargains on blankets and hammocks at ‘Plaza de Ponchos’. Bargaining was easy as it wasn’t a Saturday and we were pretty much the only browsers there.

Alpaca blankets - The colours of Otavalo

Alpaca blankets – The colours of Otavalo

Saturday however, was completely different. This town erupts into a sea of colour and faces. Every street was covered in stalls selling any kind of South American treasure you could ever want, and to accompany it, hundreds of gringos willing to buy all of it. We have no photos since we heard that pickpockets operate heavily and sure enough, after being in the market for less than a minute we saw an Aussie girl who realised she had had her purse stolen. This town is all we expected it to be, so we decided to leave the next day. Not before meeting Paul and Catrin, and after some rum and cards we decided to travel into Colombia together the next day.

The Ecuador/Colombian border to Ipales

The Ecuador/Colombian border to Ipales

A bus from Otavalo to Tulcan took 4 bumpy hours (ask a taxi to drop you off to where they stop) after which we piled into a taxi to the border at Rumichaca who drops us at Ecuadorean immigration. A quick stamp, some dollars changed for pesos, a quick walk across a bridge and a slightly longer wait for a stamp into Colombia took 30 minutes in total. Next, we jumped into another taxi to take us to Ipiales bus terminal where we would find a bus to Popayán.

A big regret we have is not making it to see Santuario de las Lajas, just outside of Ipiales. It’s a huge gothic church on a stone bridge across a gorge in the Colombian Andes. We didn’t have the time, but if I redid it, I would have left two hours early to see it. I will just have to suffice with a picture…as will you, for now.

Santuario de las Lajas

Santuario de las Lajas

A bus from Ipiales to to Popayán is not a short affair, in fact it took 10 hours. The price of transport increased as soon as we stepped over the border. No longer a dollar an hour, this ride cost $15 each with Expreso Bolivariano, going via Pasto. On our first stop some shiny looking army men asked for my papers, and further into our ride, we were stopped for another hour by army, who again wanted papers and to poke noses in bags. Security when travelling at night on this route was a mild concern but there seems to be a big police and army presence along the way. Arriving in Popayán at around midnight we found our way to Parklife hostel where we toasted with a beer and quickly found our way to bed.

Popayán is a white washed colonial city with not much to do. Merely a stop off along the way for us, but we ended up spending four whole days. Being my 30th birthday, we tried to make the most of it, but there really wasn’t much going on. After a meal at Rapi Arepas (Arepas can be compared to El Salvadoran pupusas, but are fatter and chunkier, sometimes cut in half and stuffed with meat or cheese) where I lost a tooth, we celebrated this special occasion with some rum and drinking games in the hostel. Almost enough rum was consumed to forget about my missing tooth. Not many lucky boys get spend their 30th birthday having emergency dental work, but I just happen to be one of those lucky boys. Saying that, 45 minutes and $30 afforded me a brand new tooth. There is a lot to be said for Colombian dentistry! The next day, we tried to go for a hike to a view point, but on the way, some locals stopped their car and advised us about going in that direction as it was dangerous. That combined with the rain, we retreated to the hostel and wasted another day.

Birthday celebrations

Birthday celebrations

 

Taken by Ollie - Translating Spanish and 'mouth full of drill language' at the same time!

Taken by Ollie – Translating Spanish and ‘mouth full of drill language’ at the same time!

The next day, we moved on with a bus from the main terminal in Popayán to San Agustín. A 4 hour bumpy and windy dirt road journey with ‘Cootranslaboyana‘ cost $12.50 each and dropped us on the outskirts of town, where a jeep transport arrived to take us the rest of the way. They put the hard sell on you from the get-go in this town, so have a plan of where to stay and an idea of what tour you want to do. As always in Colombia, bargaining will get you far. It’s a pleasant, but busy little colonial town with a huge selection of hostels to stay at, and nearly everyone on the street wants to sell you either a jeep or horse tour to see the ancient 3500 year old statues.

The road to San Agustín

The road to San Agustín

We decided on two nights at El Jardin Casa Colonial for $15 for a room, and we decided to book a tour with Humberto and Carlos who operate tours out of Hostal Diosa Lunar. Since our journey up a volcano in Uruapan on horse-back was one of the most physically traumatizing experiences of my life I was adamant that I wasn’t getting back on one of those unpredictable bastards. Combined with Paul and Catrin’s burning enthusiasm, my reluctance turned into a good bargaining technique for everyone else and as there was a good deal to be had with the promise of a comfortable saddle, I opted in.

Streets of San Agustín

Streets of San Agustín

The next day at 9am, we saddled up and trotted off into the hills to see some of the mystical carvings that are scattered around the area. The horse tour takes you to four random spots in the hills where carvings have been found and left in situ. Carlos was a great guide, showing enthusiasm for the history of the area along with offering many random tit-bits of info on the local ways of life. The place is covered in coffee plants along with a fair few marijuana and the infamous coca plants. It is legal (according to Carlos) for people to own their own marijuana and coca plants, within moderation of course, but the production of cocaine is illegal. Making tea and chewing it are fine by the army. Anyway, back to the statues…

The infamous Coca plant

The infamous Coca plant

Not much is known about them, the people who put them there or why, but as you can imagine, there are many theories about the various meanings. The statues pre-date Incas and the culture is believed to have died out before their arrival on the scene. I could go on and speak about each site individually, but if you are going, you will get a guide and if you’re not, a picture will do more justice than my words. The area is stunning though, trotting and galloping through the dirt tracks around these hills is something I’m glad I signed up for. Genuine natural beauty combined with these mystical little carvings made for a pretty special day out. Feeling rather saddle sore after 5 hours, we had a quick lunch then joined the guides again for a special tour about local crop production. The day was topped off with an attempted night out in the town (not much was going on apart from some live music in the square and an empty bar) where we sampled more of Colombia’s finest Ron Viejo de Caldas.

Feeling the need to escape the streets we headed to Finca El Maco on the outskirts of town for some green scenery and hammock time. From here, we walked to the actual Archeological Park of San Agustín where we spent a day looking at some more of the mystical carvings that are dotted around a fantastic lush green park.

 


What surprised me most about San Agustín was the fact that only the Archeological Park seems to be run by some kind of official national body, charging entrance and maintaining. The other sites are just left on peoples land under tin roofs. There is no entrance fee and no obvious government involvement. Our guide on the first day said that these belonged to the people of San Agustín and as such, they are left to look after them. What our guide also told us that he along with other locals has excavated (and raided) 1000’s of tombs in the local area, detecting them solely by poking a metal stick into the ground until he hears a ‘clink’. No one else is interested apparently, so after they find (and raid) the tombs, they simply cover them back up. The hills are full of them waiting to be found.

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The Quilotoa Loop – 7 days of central Andean beauty

We’ve been away for a while now, dropped some weight, built up those leg muscles and have got a bit hairier (mainly me in that area) so we felt it time to get out into the Andes proper and try and tackle parts of the Quilotoa Loop.  The 200km circuit of Andean beauty starts via the busy little town of Latacunga that sits at 2800m, out west of the route’s namesake; The Quilotoa Crater Lake sitting pretty (cold) at 3900m.  An entire 200km round trip on foot is far too much, so we set out to spend around a week working our way round by bus, truck and most importantly by foot.

Quilotoa Loop Route

Quilotoa Loop Route

All specific details and maps for hikes are available at Hostal Tiana and Llu Llu Llama.

Day 1

Quito to Latacunga:  Being the main jumping off point for the route we felt it sensible to head to Latacunga first and make a plan of attack.  After nearly throwing myself on the floor in a full-blown tantrum at the fact that I had to spend another hour of my life on the Quito Trole system to the bus station from Old town, we found a quick little bus that got us there in around 2 hours.  Latacunga at first glance can seem quite a grubby little commercial breeze block nightmare, but the further in you go, the more you can see its subtle colonial charms and handsome faded architecture.  We were told that Hostal Tiana is a nice spot with some helpful advice on how to tackle the route unaided and it did not disappoint.  Not a great deal else to do in the town but we did find a big supermarket to stock up on supplies, somewhere to buy a wooly hat with llamas on and lady who was selling steak, chorizo and plantain skewers at $1.50 a throw.  After devising an excellent packing strategy (for me, tying two bags together with shoelaces) we thought we were ready!

Day 2

Insinlivi

Latacunga to Insinliví:  We apparently want to be different so decided to head to the small town of Insinliví first and work our way round the loop anti-clockwise.  The bus from Latacunga to Insinliví left the main terminal at 12:15 (as it does daily) and took just shy of three hours to reach our destination.  A seat on the right hand side of the bus afforded us some stunning views; after the town of Sigchos passed us by as we began to wind our way through the clouds and treacherously muddy sheer drop paths. We have seen some impressive country on this trip, but nothing compares with the armfuls of natural beauty on offer here.  It was school run time so at Sigchos the bus filled up with kids in uniforms on their way home.  One thing I have noticed and continue to do so on this trip is that teenagers, wherever you are in the world are the same annoying specimens they are everywhere. London to NYC, San Salvador to Antigua and even here in the Andes, you will find a boisterous group of sods pumping tinny music out of their mobile phones.  The only difference is, these kids get off and hike up dirt trails to their homes in the hills of an evening.

Soon we arrived in the tiny town of Insinliví where a local kid directed us to the Llu Llu Llama hostal where we planned to stay for a couple of nights.  We immediately regretted coming here first as it was by far the nicest place we have stayed on our entire trip so far.  The ground floor is set around some comfy sofas with alpaca blankets and a fire place that gives off a generous amount of much needed warmth.  It is set on the edge of the town, giving stunning views over the canyon below.  After perusing their well complied list of hikes we decided on a quick one that loops up around the town just to test our lungs walking at 2900m.  It was soon dinner time and we tucked into a home cooked cottage pie with the two other guests and enjoy a glass of red.  This place is top draw and I can’t recommend it enough.

Day 3

The Guantualo Loop Hike:  One of the many free hikes on offer from the Llama is the market trade route to the town of Guantualo from Insinliví.  The hike took us SW down into the valley below Insinliví, where we crossed the river Cumbujin and slowly made our way up the other side towards the tiny town of Guangamala.  The day was glorious with the sun’s intensity felt on our skin as we gazed into the blue sky and fluffy white clouds that top the green peaks around us.  We steadily headed for higher ground and kept climbing through meadows and up muddy trails until we got that ‘top of the world feeling.’  Soon the town of Guantualo was in site and we walked through, not expecting to see much as market day is on Mondays.  There is in fact, nothing going on here on a Saturday, and the only people we did see were sitting outside their house with a llama and plastic jugs of aguadiente.  They offered us ‘uno para el camino’ which we graciously accepted.

Up to the town of Guantualo

Up to the town of Guantualo

Shortly after the fire in our belly cooled we stopped for some coffee and biscuits (I know, so very British) before descending downhill and back in a NE direction towards the road and hill we ‘recognised’.  We lost the path quickly, but soon found it again with the help of a local farmer and we eventually got on the road back to Insinliví.  The weather changed in a flash, the clouds zoomed in over the hill tops and soon rain came.  Walking on a road uphill is never fun, even in these glorious surroundings.  I stuck my thumb out and we managed to hitch the last uphill struggle back to the town in a pickup truck just before the killer rain set in which didn’t relent until it was time for another one of Gladys’ delicious dinners and some time by the fire.  We were joined by the only other guest, Tara, and one half of the Ecuadorean/Dutch owner couple Cristian who was happy to tell us all about the area; including all about the Italian master craft apprentice style programme run here by Don Bosco in woodwork for locals and the Llama’s help within the community.

Day 4

Hike from Insinliví to Chugchilán:  With trusty maps (not the IGM ones, they were last updated 20 years ago, and due to the sheer amount of contour lines, it is impossible to tell what’s a path and what’s not) and directions courtesy of Llu Llu Llama we set off at 9am accompanied by two others.  Tara the other guest and a scrappy looking mutt we affectionately named Biscuit.  The weather was again pretty fine, which according to Cristian, is the standard.  Fine weather up until around 1pm, then the clouds roll in and with it the rain.  With this in mind, we realised that the proposed 6 hour hike was going to get a bit wet at the end.

A few more steps then

Heading down into the canyon again we veered SE round the other side after crossing the river.  After passing through a meadow we descended down through some deep muddy paths until coming out on a huge flat plain, overlooking one huge chunk of the surrounding sierra with a sheer cliff drop at the edge.  Carrying on we saw some handsome light coloured cliffs and a couple of fun looking caves as we continued down to the stony riverbed of the neighboring Toachi canyon.  This place is heart achingly gorgeous and it is hard to concentrate on the hike with all there is to see.  Wandering past the river bed, we passed the odd farmer and cow herder, until we eventually came to a clearing of eucalyptus trees.  Soon, a fun but sketchy-looking log bridge was in view that we knew we must cross so Ollie tentatively offered herself up first, followed by Tara and Biscuit.  Slightly further upstream at an even more fun suspension bridge we stopped for lunch courtesy of Tara who knocked up some peanut butter and honey sarnies that along with our coffee (Biscuit just ate the biscuits), gave us the boost we need as the rest of the walk was going to be uphill with bad weather.

Heading up the other side of the canyon we came across a small village called Itualo which was empty of people, but offered a quick rest stop before a 400m 15 switchback climb up the canyon.  I feel it’s important here to say that Tara was carrying full pack and only had two days of altitude under her belt.  Only slightly behind us on the way up, it was clear who is the fitter hiker!  We all took it slow, and panted for breath often, but soon were at the top and the look-out point at the town of Chinalo.  The weather continued to darken and spit at us, so we pushed on (after Biscuit got his biscuit of course)  slowly round the hills taking in some further jaw dropping views and seeking direction from a local. (apparently, Ollie can understand Kichwa now?)  As we found the road to Chugchilán it continued to climb as the rain set in heavy. With 5 hours under our belts we arrive at our lodgings at the Hostal Cloud Forest and celebrated with a well-earned beer.

Day 5

Sickbed and Cheese dreams:  I felt it coming and didn’t want to acknowledge it, but it hit me with a bang. Fever, hot sweats, cold sweats, sore throat, nausea, head ache and photosensitivity.  Not ideal when your 3200m up and planning on hiking.  I stayed in bed and listened to the dogs bark all day whilst Ollie set out on a hike with Tara to the local cheese factory.  Ollie would be writing this part, but unfortunately, the cheese factory closes at 11am and they got there at 11:20.  Those of you who know Ollie will know how devastated this made her.  It was a handsome walk she tells me and on returning while I lay in bed she and Tara tucked into a bottle of wine by the fire in the Hostal Cloud Forest games room.

Day 6

Pickup ride to Quilotoa

Pickup to Quilotoa/Hike down the crater lake:  Feeling much better, but not better enough to tackle the 7 hour hike to Quilotoa, which involves 1000m worth of ascent we all decided to take up the Cloud Forest hostal’s offer of a pickup ride to the town of Quilotoa for $5pp.  Along the route, we were stopped by construction work in the form of diggers and earth movers carving out the road ahead of us.  When I say road, you must understand that it is a dirt path.  When the road ahead was clear (relatively of course), we continued on through some more impressive endless scenery and past further road works (they appear to be paving it!) until we reached the small town of Quilotoa.  First order of business was finding a room, which we do at Hosteria Alpaca (don’t book online or pay the $25pp they ask, bargain!) on the outskirts of town. Second order of business being to check out this crater lake.

The first sight of it was stunning.  Even though there was no sun (and felt like there never would be!) there are few clouds and the whole crater is clearly visible.  We’ve seen crater lakes before but nothing compares to this.  Even a photo needs perspective so here’s some dimensions.  It’s 3km wide, 250m deep (although locals believe its bottomless), 3915m high at its highest point and to hike around the rim is 10km in distance.

The Quilotoa Crater Lake

The Quilotoa Crater Lake

We opted for the hike down to the lake’s edge which involved half an hour of steep descent.  As soon as we got down there, the clouds started creeping in, but we had time for a cup of tea at the small hostal there.  Refusing the horses we hiked back up in the pouring rain which took an hour and not quite as bad as it could have been.  Still pretty tough though at that altitude!

At the lakes edge in Quilotoa

At the lakes edge in Quilotoa

It’s real cold there.  The wind is harsh and the air damp.  I had a fever still, and couldn’t shake the chill in my bones so we headed for some food in the town.  Dreaming of some steamy soup and fire place all I got was constant disappointment with nothing on offer anywhere.

Quilotoa is a strange little town and I wouldn’t recommend anyone stay there longer than one night. It seems as if plenty of money has been thrown at development as there is no shortage of places to stay, and the new shiny buildings, car park and visitor centre (I imagine what that is what was meant to be, but it is just full of tourist tat for sale) are all branded with Ecuador tourism logo’s, but none of the places are actually catering for hikers and are run by locals who don’t seem to want you there or care about their businesses.  I’m all for local run places and by no means am I looking for a Big Mac up there, but I don’t understand why they bother spending big money and then letting it be run poorly.  They are on the ball everywhere else in the country, but here we didn’t even pay our $2 fee, didn’t know who to pay it to!  We felt like we were the only people staying in our hostel as we didn’t see anyone else there and barely another soul in town, but when the dinner bell rang, out came 20 shivering and ravenous gringos who had obviously been hiding under the covers until dinner time. If only someone sold a little mulled wine by an all day fire, they would make a killing!  Business idea…

Day 7

Back to Latacunga and some warmth:  After a night of feverish sleep by a fire stove we decided to head back to Latacunga.  We just couldn’t get the cold out of us and were pretty knackered anyway so after a quick breakfast we grabbed a pick up truck headed to Zumbahua ($5pp), where we then got another truck back to Latacunga ($3.50pp) .  The final views were still as incredible as our first ones a week before and before we know it, we were back on the streets of Latacunga and at Hostal Tiana again.  Since we had spent the week eating various variations of chicken rice and potatoes we decided to head for pizza in town before an early night.

You know those times when your Llama just wont leave his pig at home. #AndesProblems

You know those times when your Llama just wont leave his pig at home. #AndesProblems

The natural beauty here on the Quilotoa Loop is absolutely jaw dropping and is a must do for anyone visiting Ecuador.  I am genuinely sad that I didn’t get to see more of it now we’ve left and if we ever do return to South America, you can be sure we are heading into the Andes again.  For a country we didn’t plan on visiting in the first place and weren’t too keen on in the beginning it has certainly been a major contributing factor in our new found love for Ecuador.  Anyone planning on doing the loop should start in Quilotoa than finish in Insinliví.  The reasons being that you descend in altitude, the temperature gets steadily warmer and the accommodation gets more ‘accommodating’ the more knackered you get!


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Baños – Some fresh air and sunshine in the Central Highlands

Banos bus funSlowly moving our way back North up the Andes towards Quito we decided to spend a couple of days in the popular town of Baños (de Agua Santa) to see what all the fuss is about.  Leaving from Alausí we took a bus to Riobamba, then another to Ambato, where we then tracked down another bus taking us on to Baños itself. A note on Ecuadorean buses if I may.  They are pretty comfortable and cheap, and when out of the city centre have a relatively good seat-to-person ratio going on.  But my god, every bus, and I mean EVERY bus, the ONE person who doesn’t have a seat, perches themselves next to me.  There is a whole aisle-worth of people’s personal space to encroach upon, but oh no, “let’s go and wake up that güero who has just tried to get to sleep for three hours by sitting on his arm rest and trying to share the head rest.”  I swear I went through an entire bus journey the other day where the elderly female passenger behind me felt the need to claim ownership of my headrest by putting her hand where my head wasn’t.  Obviously when I decided to move my head on the odd occasion, this became an irritation and the need for some angry stares from both of us. She had those scary eye’s, so I put up with some hair stroking for a couple of hours in the end.

Baños Cathedral

Baños Cathedral

Baños is the place to go if you like the idea of lying around in naturally heated thermal pools, mountain biking, rafting and various other outdoor activities.  It is set at 1800m and in the presence of the ominously near, yet hard to spot Volcan Tungurahua.  It last erupted in February this year!  The town itself is not a colonial gem by any means, but it is pleasant enough and has a couple of green squares (maybe one’s a park, I’m not sure) with a varying selection of restaurants catering to both locals and tourists.  Anywhere you find a micro-brewery; you know you’re going to find plenty of gringos.  Hostal Timara, owned and run by an Ecuadorean family that includes a Brit by marriage, was a great place to stay, for $7 a night each with hot showers, comfy beds and good kitchen.  We look for nothing much more these days…but the addition of a nice British chat about things such as the weather was just the tonic.

Taxo fruit - Pretty weird looking, but quite tasty in a passion fruit kinda' way

Taxo fruit – Pretty weird looking, but quite tasty in a passion fruit kinda’ way

What we really wanted to do there was to get out and hike the hills around the town as we were feeling a bit twitchy after being cooped up for a week.  Luckily, the weather was fine and the walking was free so up into the hills we went for the day.  One block south of the hostal entrance the path lead out of town and into a steep 45 minute climb towards the easterly look-out point of the ‘Bellavista Cross’, which gives you some stunning views of the town and the surrounding hills.  Only a short walk out and it suddenly feels like you are miles away!  Heading uphill but in a westerly direction we headed for the small town of Runtún, which took us along a variety of paths from empty roads to overgrown canopy covered muddy paths.  Arriving at Runtún, we found little there apart from a pack of aggressively vociferous dogs that succeeded in chasing us out.  We realised quickly that we didn’t know where we were or where we were going, but soon came across a local farmer who gave us directions and a strange juicy fruit called a babaco for the road (tastes a bit like tropical squash drink really).  Back on track, we wound round the hills of Baños in a westerly direction until we came to the holy (and pretty knackered looking) statue of ‘The Virgin’, which has some more choice views of the town.  A spot of lunch up top saw us right and we made the descent down the flight of 600-odd concrete steps to town below.

At the western edge of the town, we find the cemetery and decide to have a respectful mooch around before hitting the beers.  As you walk in, you are surrounded by rows of mausoleums, some full, some not, some grand, some humble, but all side by side and decorated in personal styles.  There are larger apartment like blocks for various working unions as well as family units. It’s clearly a close-knit place as the majority of (former?) inhabitants seem to be named Guevara. Individuality and freedom of design (to a certain extent) is clearly allowed here, with some interesting structures on show.

What is one thing that all travelers should do on a visit to Baños?  Visit the thermal pools of course!  We did not though.  Mainly because we were there at the weekend, and on attempting to visit on a Saturday afternoon found them heaving with Ecuadoran families.  The places were literally bursting at the seams with half-cut adults and excited children.  Not the relaxing spa experience I envisioned.  The next day, it rained, so we skipped it.  There will be other pools along the way I’m sure!

Sugar cane toffee called Melcocha is for sale at every turn in town in Banos

Sugar cane toffee called Melcocha is for sale at every turn in town in Banos

It would have been nice to stay longer and mountain bike down to Puyo but we had to head back to Quito for a medical appointment.  Nothing serious, just some physicals for visa purposes for one the countries on our hit list.  We stayed in the Old town area around San Blas again, but this time in ‘Colonial House’ which I would recommend over our previous choice.  It’s cheaper, comfier and quieter at night, with a kitchen!

Back in Quito!

Back in Quito!

What we did take advantage of while we were back in the big city, was to visit the IGM offices (Instituto Geográfico Militar) where you can get printed maps of any area of the country for about $3.50 each. Of course, if you want access to any sensitive areas, you may be asked some questions by the nice teenagers with automatic weapons and camouflage, but for our purposes, we got a couple for the Quilotoa Loop no probs.  (Les, couldn’t help think that this is somewhere you would have loved!)  After being given a clean bill of health by Dr Sosa and his radiologist sidekick we celebrated the only way we know how these days, with pizza and wine. 

Next stop, further south again…to tackle the Quilotoa Loop for a week.