Tuesday, 29 November 2011

ho hum


After 6 nights in Iquique it was time to head north once again....

I spent one night in Arica then crossed the border back into Peru. I hanged out in Tacna for two nights before getting on a bus to the surprisingly delightful town of Moquegua a few hours down the road.

The next day I spent several hours on a bus travelling to the lakeside town of Puno. I spent two nights there (Puno is a shitty little town and the only reason people come here is because it is on the shores of lake Titicaca)

after that I took a bus to Cusco, the landscape was epic.....

I’ll be here in Cuzco till the new year....

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

along the Coast to.....a jar of Marmite



Casma is a small town straddling the pan American highway. The main point of interest for the tourist is that it is only 5kms away from Sechin.

After grabbing breakfast I jumped into a tuk tuk for the short drive to the entrance. Getting there just after 9am I had the place to myself.

Tucked into the side of a rocky hill was the temple complex of Sechin. It was small but the reason people come here is to see the many stone carvings along 3 sides of the temple wall. Each of them display what happens when you get caught on the losing side of the battle! I hanged around the site for a couple of hours, with beads of sweat slowing forming, under the morning sun. After that I went on a bimble into the hinterland...nice! I even managed to hit a dog right in the ribs with a stone when it wouldn’t leave me alone!

The next day was Thursday and I was on the 09:30 bus to Lima, at 10:25 the bus turned up. The journey to Lima was one of never ending sand, occasionally broken up by dusty towns hunkering down under the hot sun. I arrived in Lima just in time for rush hour and the 5 mile taxi ride to the Miraflores district cost just as much as the bus ride!

The room in the hostel I had booked was great (it had an outdoor space for fag enjoyment) and was only one block from the central park of Miraflores aka gringo central. After a chill out and a shower I went for bimble and was I in for a shock. Turns out a couple of months ago the mayor of Lima (bastard) decided to ban smoking in pubs both inside and out!!! You can't even smoke in “the beer garden” was I happy???

In the morning I updated my facebook status bemoaning that fact and then went out for a breakfast. The hostel does a free breakfast but after one sip of what they called coffee I was glad that there was a shop downstairs that served the “real thing”. Caffeined up I headed to the sea which was only about 800m away. I had forgotten that Lima had cliffs so I was pleasantly surprised.

I was in Lima for 5 nights and I hadn't planned on doing much sightseeing. I had cable, Wi-Fi and a proper Irish bar (complete with an Irish barman called Patrick) only 6 blocks away. The next day I was online and got a surprise. My old dive buddy, Philippa, was flying into Lima the next day!

Sunday morning found me walking back from the Irish bar at 4am. The last round of the MotoGP season was at 8am, I woke up in time to watch it!

At 9pm I was hanging around the park waiting for Philippa (and her friend who was also called Philippa, which was in no way confusing) to jump out of a taxi. As I was waiting I was trying to remember the last time I saw her...turns out it was way back in the spring of 2007. Once all the “hugs and kisses” were out of the way she started complaining about my attire! Safely seated in the nearby English Bar I found out why they were here. A 10 day holiday in Peru to walk the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.

They were flying to Cuzco on Tuesday morning, so we spent Monday sightseeing.

Tuesday morning found me on the 10am bus to Ica, 4 hours down the road. However I wasn't staying in Ica but rather in a small oasis 5km west, surrounded by sandunes several hundred feet high.

The small oasis resort of Huacachina used to be a playground for the Peruvian elite, nowadays it caters mostly for backpackers...what a shame! The hotel I decided to stay in was, like most other places, having building work done (it's the depths of the low season) but I found it only to be mildly disturbing.

The main activity here is sitting in a dune buggy whilst someone else drives you or sand boarding. Neither of those appealed to me, so I decided to do nowt instead.

Two days later I got an email from my mate Bryan. Turns out he is going to be in the north of Chile for two weeks in nine days time. As I was planning on popping into Chile for a few days (you can't extend your visa in Peru any more) before heading back into Peru and over wintering in Cuzco it kind of works out quite well. (I must remember to email him back to make sure he brings me a jar of Marmite!)

Right now its Thursday evening and on the weekend it's the Huacachina Open Sand Boarding Championship. You know what that means...yep, I’m on the bus to Nazca in the morning.

Arriving in Nazca in the middle of the afternoon I got a quiet little hostel near the main square and then gratefully crashed out till the heat of the day had been replaced by the desert cool of the evening.

The town itself I found to be enjoyable (the cold beer next to the ashtray may of helped) and as it was a Friday the night was a busy one. The next morning I went to the local museum, which may have been small but it was still really interesting. After that I went for a little bimble around the town before spending the afternoon back at the hostel, out of the heat and definitely in the shade.

Sunday morning found me at the local airport waiting for my 100 dollar 30 minute flight over the Nazca lines in a light aircraft. The plane didn't take off till 11am and the late morning turbulence made for a slightly bumpy flight.

The lines themselves are really easy to see, however the figures “walked into the sand” were a little harder to spot. It was also hard to hold the camera steady, so it was a case of putting it onto rapid shooting mode and holding the shutter button down.

Back at the hostel, looking at the pictures after processing them I was really happy with the results.

In the evening I left the hostel and got the 10pm overnight bus to Arequipa nine hours away.

Arriving in Arequipa (the 2nd largest city in Peru) I went through the usual routine and then got a taxi to my pre-booked hostel in the historic centre of the city, 1 block from the main square. As I wasn't able to check in till 11am I dumped the bags, found a coffee shop and enjoyed the fresh mountain air.

The city is known as the “white city” as all the old colonial buildings are made from the local volcanic rock, which is white. The volcano is easy to see from most places within the city...it's that close!!

Once 11am came around I checked into my room and then chilled out on the 3rd floor terrace right outside my door.

The following day (a Tuesday) I went sightseeing around the town. The main square with its big cathedral on one side and two storey colonnades on the other three sides was impressive. The “Ice Mummy” museum is one place not to miss on a visit to this city. A few blocks from the main square is the old convent. It occupies an entire block and it is like a “city within a city”. It has over 80 houses and several narrow streets, all contained behind a towering stone wall. Nowadays only about 20 nuns live here and they are no longer in permanent seclusion.

One main attraction of the area is the nearby Colca Canyon. It is over 3000m deep, which makes it deeper than the grand canyon. I was thinking about doing a 3day/2 night walking tour of the canyon until I found out that the 2nd day was spent going uphill!!

I chilled out here for a few more days but on Friday morning I got a bus to Tacna, six hours away.

The guide book said that the hotels filled up quickly in Tacna, especially on the weekends...mmm

It took me 5 hotels to find one with a spare room and then it was a huge triple (and no I didn't get a single rate) but I was only staying here for two nights. The town of Tacna is known as “the heroic city” because it used to be part of Peru, then Chile won the war and took it over but the locals didn't like that and decided for themselves that they would rather be Peruvians than Chileans. The town is rather nice, laid back and easy going.

On Sunday morning I got on a bus and crossed the nearby border and entered Chile.

I was staying in the town of Arica, 20km south of the border and once again I was revisiting a place I had been to 17 years prior. This time it had a bus station, a pedestrian street lined with shops and the only thing that was familiar was the old church but it was surrounded by a brand new plaza.

I was staying in the local “surf” hostel and the big sofas and wide screen tv in the chill-out yard got used a lot (if you don't surf there ain't much to do in Arica, the direst city on the planet) but that was what I needed.

After 3 nights I left and headed south for 5 hours, travelling across the bleak Atacama desert before arriving in the coastal town of Iquique.

The only reason I was here was to hang out with my mate Bryan (who was here on a paragliding holiday...finally he had gotten around to flying the wing he brought after learning to fly with me in Pokhara three bloody years ago!!!!)

So that's what I did.....

(Sadly a jobsworth at Heathrow Airport security decided that a jar of Marmite was just far to dangerous to allow on an aeroplane....You Bastard!!!!)

Saturday, 15 October 2011

slight changes in elevation



The bus came to a halt in Cajamarca in the middle of the afternoon, about a mile from the centre of the town which is the Plaza de Arms. It was still raining and unbelievably there wasn't a taxi around.

Walking to the centre, hiding under my umbrella I was wandering just how waterproof my rucksack cover was? It took a while to reach the plaza as I was taking shelter during the heavier downpours.

There are several hostels on the square and after walking out of the 1st one ( 50 soles pn...with a shared bath!!!) the next one was only 30 soles and would do for a night.

By the evening it had stopped raining and thanks to the guide book I found a much nicer hotel for the following night.

The main square and the surrounding streets of Cajamarca and nicely colonial and it was here that the last Inca emperor was executed.

The next morning I moved into the Hostal las Jasmines, the rooms are all on the 1st floor of an old colonial house (cable, Wi-Fi and water which is far to hot coming out of the shower) with comfortable chairs and sofas on the walkway. The best thing about the place was the in house coffee shop!

When I arrived in Cajamarca my laptop was full of photos that needed sorting out and uploading, so for the rest of the day that's what I did. The following day found me still sorting out the photos and if I wasn't doing that I was reading. Life is easy when there is no rush.

The next day I went on a day trip to Cumbe Mayo, 20kms over the mountains. The place is an area of volcanic rock shaped by the wind and rain. The rock formations and vistas were cool and at the end of a short valley was another example of Inca engineering. Those clever bastards built a canal from a nearby spring to transport water into Cajamarca. The canal was about a foot wide hewn from the rock as it meandered ever so gently downhill. There was even a little 2 arch aqueduct as well!

The night-life in Cajamarca is really bad during the 1st half of the week (i.e. most bars don't open till 9pm and then only on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday), so I was glad I had cable.

On Thursday afternoon I took a trip to the nearby necropolis at Otuzco. It was only about 8kms away but it took over 2 hours to get there....why? Firstly the van stopped at a little cheese producing farm and yes there was a farm shop! Then we went to what was basically someone's allotment. Oh, there were also several stalls selling all manner of tourist crap! Finally we arrived at the necropolis and for some reason I was expecting something taller.

In the morning I had a lie in and then lounged. I did try and stay up to watch France beat Wales but by 2am with still an hour to go till kick off I went to sleep.

On Sunday morning I left Cajamarca behind and after a four hour bus ride across beautiful countryside I arrived at the small town of Cajabamba. It was a short 400m walk to the main square. On the cusp of the square I passed a hostel but decided to check out the other side of the square. 12 steps later I was hobbling in pain. The calf and hamstring of my left leg had “cramped up” and I was barely able to walk. Turning around I limped to the nearby hostel and checked in. Then I checked out my leg. After an hour of rest and massage combined with half a tube of the local brand of heat cream I was able to walk again. Mind you I was going slow with small steps because at the end of each stride there was still pain and tautness.

The small of Cajabamba provided me with a glorious sunset but the main square was fenced off and half the roads were dug up.

In the morning I was on yet another bus this time to the slightly larger town of Huamachuco which was only two hours down the road...mainly because the dirt road was now tarmac.

Thankfully it was a short walk from where the bus dropped me off to an hostel in an old colonial house on a quiet pedestrian street 3 blocks from the large main square. The reason I was here was to visit two pre Inca sites nearby.

The next day I arranged for a taxi to take me the 10kms uphill to Markahuamachuco, wait and then bring me back (there are no tour companies here)

The site of Markahuamachuco sits on the ridge of a large mountain and the entire site is over 5kms long. As it is about 3500m above sea level and as my leg still hurt I took it easy, which just so happens to be my default setting anyway.

At the highest point are the remains of a “castle” complete with “little ovens” and a small main plaza. Drifting gently downhill passing many smaller ruins for nearly a mile I came across the well preserved defensive wall and city gate. It was 10m high and 5m wide, impressive!

Beyond the gate a 1000m away were even more ruins, thankfully my camera lens has an excellent zoom because I didn't feel like walking downhill any more. Turning around I walked back uphill admiring the huge vista to my left and an hour later I arrived back at the car park and my waiting taxi.

Back in the main square of the town after admiring the most excellent topiary I decided to spend the afternoon at Wiracochapampa a mere 3km outside of town. Whilst high up at Markahuamachuco I saw the road to Wiracochapampa and decided that I would only really want to walk either there or back but certainly not both! The 1st two tuk tuk drivers weren't interested in earning any money but luckily the 3rd one was. He charged me 5 sole which I thought was expensive...then I saw the condition of the road! It was being relaid prior to tarmacking and the workers had reached the hardcore stage! 3Kms of hardcore in a vehicle that only has 3 small wheels was definitely bouncy!

Arriving at the site the driver asked how long I would be? “no idea” was my reply. He then suggested that I call him and he would come and pick me up, “no cell phone” I answered. “Adios” was his reply!

To enter the site of Wiracochapampa, if I was on a guided tour I would walk down the grand ceremonial way! As I didn't have a guide I just walked down a dirt track with old stone walls either side of me...shame really!

This site has had minimal restoration, basically so far all they have done is shore up the walls that have yet to fall over. Which is how it should be. However they have done a full restoration of an “alter” but it just looks to new!

After 90 minutes on the site it was time to leave, so I started the slow walk back up the road. Amazingly 60 minutes later I was in the town. Sad isn’t it! I think walking 3kms in an hour is fast!

The one thing I really liked about both sites was that the custodians were really happy to see you and they took a solemn delight in watching you fill out the visitor book....oh and the entrance fee at both sites is zero!

The next morning I woke up and bimbled around a lot longer than usual. As my laundry wasn't ready till 10am I had booked a “big seat” on the 13:30 bus.

I was heading to the small town of Otuzco about 100kms away on the road to Trujillo. According to wikitravel.org it was a small mountain 15kms off the main road that despite being a place of annual pilgrimage for Catholics was off the “tourist map”.

Five and a half hours later I was in Trujillo, request stops are great but only if you know where they are! (the road from Huamachuco to Trujillo was a great one to travel along, the last little descent was along a narrow valley with the flaming sun setting over the pacific) So there I was in Trujillo a few days ahead of schedule. I had planned to go straight to the beach town of Haumchaco 12kms away but only if I arrived during daylight. So instead I grabbed a room in a nearby hotel and went for a little bimble around the neighbourhood....It was mostly tile shops!

I left early the next morning and got a taxi to the main square as I had no idea where I was in the city. From there it was only a short walk to get a bus to Huamchaco. The seaside surf town is larger than Mancora but it is still deep in the low season and it doesn't have an Irish bar!

I got a room for 9gbp in a very quiet hostel, (there were cheaper places to stay but the “smell of backpacker” put me off them) and had a very much delayed breakfast of champions! Later on in the day I wandered around the town...it didn't take long.

The next day I went to Chan Chan. The large complex of Chan Chan covers several square kilometres of adobe built structures. Like the pyramids of Tucume the weather has eroded many of them. Unlike Tucume, there has been preservation and restoration work.

The main complex was about 2kms from the Pan American highway in the direction of the sea. Inside the large complex, surrounded by a 10m high wall are temples, palaces, living quarters and a large swimming pool size fresh water well. After a few hours of wandering along corridors, temples and squares I left the site and headed back to the road in a roundabout fashion.

The evening was spent quietly,drinking a cold beer or two with the pacific ocean providing the sound track.

Saturday and Sunday were spent in Trujillo, which was just as boring but I had a tv to watch the rugby world cup final.

On Monday I went a few hours down the road to the coastal town of Chimbote, lots of fishing boats and not much else.

The net morning I got the 08:30 bus to Caraz via the Pato canyon! The ride up the canyon was spectacular!!

Arriving in the small mountain town of Caraz I sat in the main square, smoked a fag whist looking at the snow capped mountain peaks over yonder.

I got a quiet hostel on the edge of the square and had a super strong cup of coffee with a big fat ha sandwich thrown in for good measure.

The town is quiet and relaxing but 49kms away and 2kms higher up is a lake. The cost of renting a mountain bike was only 50 soles but the cost of a taxi was 120 soles (the minimum monthly wage in Peru is 550 soles) so I didn't bother. I know it was only about 30 GBP but damn its a complete rip off (a tour from Huaraz is only 30 soles).

After two days of relaxing and chilling out I got in a minibus for Huaraz, the large town an hour or so up the road.

Huaraz is a modern town, mainly because it got trashed 40 years ago by a big earthquake. It's the main centre for organising multi day treks around the mountainous landscape. Right now it's just at the start of the low season but as I wasn’t planning on going up any mountain its a mute point.

After checking into a very nice and surprisingly cheap hotel near the main square I went off in search of coffee.

The next day I wandered around the town, it didn't take to long and there really wasn't much to see. I popped into the museum which did have some really cool stone statues, hanged out in the main square and had some of the best bacon ever for breakfast (note to self: in future always fry the bacon in butter).

On Saturday I went on a day tour to Chavin, a pre Inca site one valley over, of course there was a big mountain in the way! After 45 minutes on the main road we turned left and headed uphill, nearing the top was a small lake situated at 4000m with snow dusted craggy peaks at the end. After 20 minutes or so of picture taking it was back on the bus for a further 500m rise in altitude. The valley got steeper and narrower and the snow line got nearer. Turning a corner the valley came to a halt but the bus went through the tunnel. Appearing out the other side I saw a long narrow valley disappearing into the distance. The bus plunged down as the road wound its way along across the valley.

Eventually we arrived at the small village of Chavin de Huantar. Everybody got off the bus and headed straight into the restaurant (Peruvians, it seems can't go for long without food). I decided that as I wasn't hungry I would go straight to the site of Chavin on the outskirts of the village.

The site consists of a main temple with a large square in front of it. Amazingly the river next door was diverted in order to construct the square. The result of this plus the rainfall levels is that the site has a small underground drainage canal traversing the site. The main temple also has 4 subterranean chambers, 2 of which were quite large.

By 4pm the bus started the slow crawl back up the valley. By the time the bus emerged from the tunnel the sun was setting turning the evening sky fabulous.

The next day was Sunday and after a long, lazy and coffee fuelled breakfast I took a combi the several kilometres uphill to Wilcahuain. This little site had a small two tiered temple with 3 internal rooms. I hanged out there for a while before heading downhill cross country style. I only had one dog go for me!

As I was going on another day trip the following day (to a glacier 5000m up) I decided to have a early night. Walking back from the restaurant to the hotel I completely failed to see the hole...my ankle didn't!!!!

In the morning my ankle was puffy and the thought of using it to walk uphill for over half an hour wasn't something I was wanting to do...bugger!!

The next day it was time to leave Huaraz and get on the bus to Casma about 80 miles away and 2900m down. I had magnificent views of the mountains as the bus climbed out of the valley, cresting the top of the ridge it was downhill all the way. The mountains gave way to a fertile river valley before spending the last 20 miles or so traversing arid desert landscapes.

There's an old mountaineering saying “for every 1000ft you ascend the temperature drops by 1 degree” it works the other way round as well...

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Starting out in the north


Crossing the border into Peru was as easy as walking over a bridge. Once in Peru I got a taxi to take me to the immigration office 2kms down the road and then onto the town of Tumbes. Getting a visa was free and easy and the 25km drive to Tumbes was across flat scrub landscape.

The last time I got out of a taxi in Tumbes back in 94 I got ripped off. Guess what, some things don't change. The taxi driver tripled the price and when I spoke Anglo Saxon at him some of his “friends” turned up. I don't like being ripped off but as my bag was in the boot....mind you I saw him the next day and for a fat bloke with no friends around he sure could move fast :)

I got a hotel on the edge of the square which had totally changed since my last visit. The hotel room had cable which meant I was able to watch the rugby in the wee small hours.

The town of Tumbes hasn't really got much for the tourist but sometimes that's what I like.

On Sunday morning I got a minivan to somewhere that was really only for the tourist...Mancora!

Mancora is a small village of 8000 people that straddles the Pan American highway right on the coast. During the high season the town's population swells to 20000. Thankfully I arrived in the depths of the low season and was able to get a room for only 20 soles. The place was ever so slightly seedy which meant I fitted in well. There was also an Irish bar in town, owned by a Dutchman!

The next day I umed and arghed but in the end I decided that learning to kite surf for only $270 was just to cheap an opportunity to ignore. After a few days of getting over the late nights in the Irish bar it was time to fly a kite.

I was under the impression that because I can paraglide, flying a small 9m wing would be easy. Was I right? You bet, the only thing I had to “unlearn” was this...when handling a paragliding wing to slow it down you bring you hands down. When handling a kite-surfing kite if you bring your hands down what you are doing is increasing the power of the wing. After a few times of being dragged along the sand on my arse I had learnt that lesson...or had I?

After about 45 minutes on the sand controlling the wing it was time to get wet. I got the feeling that I had advanced quite quickly out of phase 1. Phase 2 was body dragging in the water. This was fun! In the water I was able to go full power on the wing without having to worry about “smack downs”. Mind you at 1st half my time was spent spitting water out of my mouth or blowing it out of my nose. An hour later I was able to control the wing well and when it did crash into the water I could self launch fairly easily. On the final two runs of the day the top half of my body was consistently out of the water, riding its own bow wave.

The next day I said goodbye to the 10m lines and hello to the 25m ones. The longer line I found made kite control easier. After an hour of body dragging it was time to get onto the board.

With the board on the sand Nacho my instructor showed me the stance I needed to have. It was at this point that I realised somewhat belatedly that I should of tried this two days ago back in the shop. “You bastard” was about to let me down again (you may know it by another name...my left ankle). Still....what's the worst that could happen.

So there I was “out of my depth” childhood style beyond the surf. All I had to do was keep the wing under control and slip my feet into the fixings on the board. Multitasking....lets just say that it didn't go the way I thought it would. I ended up in the surf, waves crashing over me and somehow the board tether had wrapped itself around my left thigh. The board itself was against my left hip and every wave tightened the rope twisted around my leg. I ended up in the shallows, struggling to stand. The kite was on the sand and luckily wasn't going anywhere. Just then Nacho appeared to give me a hand. For some reason he was under the impression that I needed help getting the wing back in the air...

As the wing took flight he shouted at me to “grab the bar”, so I did. As I was finding it hard to get to my feet I instinctively pulled the bar towards me...oh dear!

The wing went full power and lifted me into the air. I crashed into the water, which was only 4 inches deep at the point of impact. At that moment I really wished that I was wearing a full length wetsuit as my knees were dragged across the sharp sand. When it was all over I was feeling like a half drowned cat...and then I stood up!

It was then that I decided I had had enough of kite surfing for one day. I hobbled the several hundred meters back to where the bags were, pulled out a big fat marlboro and slowly sat down.

The next few days were spent lounging in the day and drinking beer into the wee small hours.

On Sunday evening I was sitting at the bar with a question that needed answering

Heads: I stay in Mancora and try and finish my kite-flying lessons (and ignore my ankle)

Tails: leave in the morning

Well I tossed that coin 3 times and each time it came up tails. The next morning I did the same 3 coin toss and once again it came up tails all 3 times. Man! The universe really doesn't want me to kite surf.

At 9am I was getting on the bus to the town of Puira 3to 4 hours down the road. The landscape was flat, arid and mostly brown in colour. The town itself is busy but it did have a few charms. I was only staying for the night so I got a hotel near all the bus companies. On my second visit to the hotel pavement the angry lady behind reception gave me an ashtray and told me to smoke in my room. Totally against the law but I wasn't complaining.

Tuesday morning came around and after smoking a fag in bed I got up, packed and got on a bus to the town of Chiclayo 4 hours down the road.

Chiclayo is busy and almost every car is a taxi. Their horns blare out every 9 to 10 seconds and not one of them shelled out for the optional extras i.e. indicators! I got a nice hotel 2 blocks from the main square and had a siesta whilst watching CNN.

In the evening I wandered around the centre of town, got some food and decided to have an early night...well I had cable.

The next morning I was up early and walked the several blocks across town to where the minibuses for Tucume departed from.

30kms from Chiclayo is the small and non descript village of Tucume, which is in no way a tourist attraction. However a couple of miles away is Tucume “old town”.

About 1000 years ago the local population built a town around a sacred mountain. 26 mud brick pyramids remain, although ravaged by neglect and centuries of rain. The site is a circle of light browns in a sea of green. Most of the pyramids are off limits as excavations are currently on going but the best place to view the site is halfway up the sacred mountain slap bang in the middle.

The day was hot, my sunblock was in my hotel room and shade was hard to find. Comparing how the pyramids were with how the looked when 1st built took some imagination but I did it in the end.

I spent a few hours on site before getting into another minibus and headed back towards Chiclayo and the small town of Lambayeque. In this place is the world famous “Museo Tumbes Reales de Sipan”. The museum houses all the finds from Sipan. The treasure trove from the lord of Sipan's tomb is epic. Sadly cameras aren't allowed, so you will just have to get off your fat arse and come here!

Nearby is another museum (which I think lost out in the funding race) where you can take pictures, so I did.

The following day was decision time, so I made one. On Friday I woke up late and didn't check out of the hotel till 19:30, why? I was on a 20:30 night bus! So I would be breaking two of my “golden rules of travel” in one go. My last night bus was a 15 hour ride from hell in Sumatra, however this time I had the option of expensive seats. The twin deck bus had 9 seats on the bottom deck and they were all large, comfy and they reclined flat! Still didn't get any sleep mind you!

At 07:30 on Saturday morning I got off the bus in the small mountain town of Chachapoyas. I felt like shit! Standing on the pavement I lit the 1st of 3 fags, downed a can of red bull and let rip one of the longest farts of my life!

It was a short walk to the main square and the 1st hotel I walked into was good enough for me. Hotel Revash is an old colonial building and I went posh, my room had a balcony overlooking the main square and it only cost me 55 soles per night, which is about 12.92GBP.

The hot water of the shower tried its best to keep me awake but the bed was just to nice to ignore. By 10am I was bimbling around the centre of the town. The colonial buildings were all white walls and brown stained wood...and the coffee was black!

I fitted in 3 little sleeps during the day and in the evening after booking a tour for the next day went out on the town. By 10pm I was in bed, with my alarm clock set for 07:30 as the tour left at 08:30 the next morning. The next thing I was aware of was someone banging on the door. It was 08:38 in the morning...WTF...7 minutes later I was in the tour bus!

The purpose of the day trip was to visit Kuelap, a mountain top fortress built in 500AD (1000 years before the Incas showed up). As the crow flies it wasn't that far but we were travelling along unpaved roads following steep river valleys in a landscape that was trying to squeeze in as many mountains as possible. After 3 hours of epic landscape we arrived at Kuelap, or more exactly at the car park. There was still a 2.5km walk to get to the fortress walls, high up on a mountain ridge.

Kuelap is sometimes known as the “Machu Picchu” of the north and although it has yet to get on UNESCO world heritage list it really should be! The level of restoration here has so far been minimal which actually makes the site a joy to walk around. The 500 or so round houses have trees growing in and around them.

The site is about 700m long and 100m wide, built on an artificial platform with stones from a quarry several days walk away. The two entrances (royal and peasant) face the rising sun and are by modern standards narrow. There are two levels, with the higher one reserved for Royals, Warriors and Shamans. The latter were experts at brain surgery.

After 3 hours on the site it was time to leave (and waste an hour having food...why!!!) and return to Chachapoyas.

Two days later I woke up to the realisation that it was now the rainy season, it was pissing down. Not the best weather for a day trip. There were only 4 of us on the trip (including the guide) so we went in a car, I called shotgun!

The 1st place we were going to was a few hours away, up and over mountains on dirt roads. The car passed through several small villages and at each one at east one dog chased the car, barking as loud as it could!

By the time we got to Pueblo de los Muertos the rain had stopped. It was a 25 minute walk to the site, downhill along a steep rocky path clinging to the mountain side. The views of the valley were wonderful, low clouds slowly rolling up the sides of the narrow river valley whose waters were on a journey of 1000's of miles to the Atlantic ocean.

Finally we reached the site, there on a craggy cliff face were the ruins of a small Chachapoyas Indian settlement. The remnants of their round houses blended into the natural colour of the rock. To the left of the houses were burial ledges. Several large domed sarcophagus stood like sentinels watching the passage of time.

We walked along the narrow path, at a few places there was only 12 inches of solid ground between the houses and a life changing drop! The cliff face had a gentle curve to it and what views they had from their front doors.

After a while it was time to go. On the way back the sky had cleared up a little and across a couple of valleys you could see the 3rd highest waterfall in South America (the 1st and 2nd I’ve already seen). It took a lot longer than 25 minutes to walk back up the mountain path. By the time I had reached the top the date of my knee reconstruction surgery had jumped forward a few months.

We drove down into the nearby village for lunch before driving along more dirt roads to Karajia about an hour away. Pulling up in the main square of a little hamlet the guide said it was an easy 2km walk, it was but only because it was downhill!

Arriving at the site I saw another large curving rock face looking out over a small river valley. I completely failed to see the six 2m high sarcophagus on a ledge halfway up!

The walk back to the car was yet another “nail in the coffin” for my knees. Notice how I haven't mentioned my ankle once....I think by now it would be “a given”.

The road back to Chachapoyas passed through great scenery and the final descent into the valley and tarmac roads was glorious...because it wasn't raining!

Back in the hotel room the blistering hot water of the shower was the salve my muscles needed and later on the cold beer in the bar was just as appreciated.

On Thursday the 6th of October I left the town of Chachapoyas behind. I was heading to the village of Leymebamba 3 hours down the road. The road itself followed the course of a river nestling deep in between mountains.

Arriving in the village in the early evening I got a room overlooking the small main square and relaxed on the balcony. At 6pm the “church bells” rang out like an early 80's doorbell! After dinner I wandered around the mean streets of Leymebamba, I didn't take long as the small village doesn't have that many.

The next morning I was up early watching the clouds drift over the mountains whist waiting for a restaurant to open. After breakfast I followed the dirt road out of the village. The road slowly made its way uphill and after a few miles I arrived at Leymebamba museum.

10 hours walk away across the mountains is lake Condor. On the shores of the lake is an ancient Indian settlement and nestling on the nearby cliffs were around 200 mummies. The museum was built to protect and display these mummies.

The walk back to the village was a slow and leisurely affair. Even from over 2 miles away I could still hear the “doorbells” of the church.

The next morning I was on the 9am bus to Celendin. It was only about 70 miles away but it took over 6 hours. The dirt road was narrow and twisty with drops of 100's of meters on every blind corner. The landscape was epic and travelling along a road above the clouds is something everyone should do!

The only reason I was staying in Celendin was because 6 hours on a bus is enough for one day. The town itself is like Slough, okay if you live there but not really worth visiting!

The next day was Sunday and I was on the 12:30 bus. As the bus pulled away it started to rain and when it arrived in the city of Cajamarca 4 hours later it was still raining...

Thursday, 1 September 2011

On the way to the border


Once in Cuenca I got a taxi to the hostel I had pre-booked the day before. Turns out despite the appearance of the place from the street the interior was really nice. Two courtyards, hammocks and Wi-Fi. My room was large but oddly shaped and for some reason I will never work out it had 6 plug sockets in a line halfway up one wall. The only downside were the shared bathrooms, the lights were motion sensor activated and when it was dark they really didn’t stay on long enough.

The city of Cuneca has a large historic centre and a sizable community of retired “septic tanks”. Well everywhere has a downside!

As I was walking along in the afternoon I had a sense of “deja vu”, just like I had in Riobamba. I have been here before! Come the evening I was bimbling along the main bar street feeling somewhat annoyed that every bar had the word lounge in its name! Just then I stumbled across an old skool bar selling artesian beers in very large glasses with ashtrays on the bar, my search was over....

On the 3rd day I went on a day trip to the Inca ruins of Ingapirca. The day was cold, sometimes wet but always windy. The ruins were impressive but my stubby little legs were cold! The following day it happened! For the 1st time in over a year I was wearing long pants, it took a while to get used to wearing full length jeans again.

After 5 nights it was time to move on, I took the easy option! From a nearby hostel I took a minivan to Vilcabamba and the valley of longevity. I was staying here:www.izhcayluma.com which was 2kms south of the village. For $25pn I had a en-suite room with private patio and hammock. The views were amazing!

I spent 7 nights there and I had such a good time. The food was great and the bar stayed opened very late. The other guests were up for a laugh and good times were had....However nothing lasts forever and on a Monday I left “Eden” behind and got on a bus to the nearby town of Loja.

Arriving at Loja around midday I couldn't be arsed to go any further (my hangover wasn't helping) so I got a room in a hotel across the road from the bus station.

The next day I caught the 9am bus to the city of Machala near the pacific coast. With over 2500m of elevation to lose it was downhill all the way. The mountain views were beautiful and as we descended through the clouds the mountains receded and banana plantations were the only views to be had.

Machala is a nice enough town and for $20 I got a room in the Hostal Madrid just off the main square. Yep, it had cable tv, Wi-Fi and best of all Air-con!!! I haven't had that since Panama city...I wasn't in the mountains any more! The air was thick and muggy and the smells seemed to linger around for longer.

I hanged out there for 2 nights and then got on a bus to the border town of Huaquillas. I spent my last night in Ecuador here. I didn't get much sleep as the noise from the fan and the street kept me awake past 1am.

At 06:30 I woke up, grabbed a coffee and then walked across the bridge and into Peru.

Monday, 15 August 2011

South to the Devil’s nose


After two weeks of bar flying in Finn McCool's my liver was happy to be leaving Quito. The rest of me was thinking “another week wouldn't of hurt”.

The bus ride to Banos was less than 4 hours and my day bag spent the entire time nestled between my feet! See, I can learn from my mistakes...my mum will be so proud.

The town of Banos has changed a little in the preceding 17 years since I was last here. The vibe has gone from a village to a small town feel and I’m not saying that is a bad thing. I found a great little hotel complete with a pack of small yapping dogs which would “go for me” every time the owner wasn't around (the result was andrew 4 dogs 0).

There's lots to do in Banos but all I did was get a massage, twice, lounge in the garden hammock and detox. I did bimble out to the bars on a couple of nights for a cheeky beer or two and I was glad to see the landlords observing the anti smoking laws in a typical Latin American way. On my second night out “it happened again”. Sitting in the bar a young local lad of about 23 or 24 came up to me and said those words...“Stone cold?....Stone cold?....you're Stone Cold Steve Austin!”. Once again I had to pose “bulldog style” whilst his mate took a picture of us together!!!!

On Friday morning I left Banos and got on a bus to the nearby town of Ambato. When I got there I stood on a street corner for 45 minutes till a bus bound to Guaranda came around the bend.

The road to Guaranda tops out at around 4300m and passes close to the dormant volcano of Chimborazo. The snow laden peaks were shinning bright in between the clouds and the tussock grass gave grazing for the llamas. By the time the bus had dropped me off in the centre of town my left eye was being itchily irritated by something. After finding a hotel I flushed out my eye but the damage was already done. By the early evening my eye lid had swollen to at least 5 times its normal size and the white of my eye was now mostly red.

In the morning I woke up and opened my eye! My left eye was glued shut with dried out pus and mucus. Once I had washed it all away I had a close look at it...on the Brightside I could still see out of it!

Guaranda is a pleasant enough town to hang out in for a day but I ended up staying there for the weekend, trying unsuccessfully not to keep rubbing my left eye. Thankfully I had cable tv and there were football matches to watch.

On Monday morning I got a pick-up ride to the small village of Salinas. It was only 30kms away but it was at 3500m in elevation. So it was uphill ride all the way standing in the back of the pick-up. I had great views and rock hard sticky out nipples...it was cold okay!

Arriving in Salinas I got a room in the only hotel in town and as it was half way up a hill I had a good view of the village from the balcony adjacent to my $6pn room.

After spending two weeks in Quito at 2800m I was fully acclimatised....to being at 2800m, Salinas is at 3500m which is higher. Walking around the village in the afternoon was a slight slow affair and when the mist rolled in and shrouded the place I retreated to a small well stocked deli for cheeses and hot chocolate. Salinas in famous in Ecuador for its co-op cheeses, so at least I wouldn’t go hungry!

The next day I went down into the village for breakfast. I returned to the deli for great coffee, warm bread and cheese. A few doors down was the “cheese factory” and from all the outlying farms and homesteads people were bringing in their milk on the backs of horses, furry donkeys and llamas. All the animals were tied up at the gate whilst the local dogs wandered around sniffing warily.

After breakfast I went for a bimble and for the 1st time since august 2009 my Nikon SLR came along. I followed a road up and out of the square which quickly became a footpath. Walking uphill from 3500m my heart was beating faster than normal and after 500m my paced had reduced to a slow bimble.

Walking along the side of a valley the views were great and peaceful. After a couple of miles I turned left and headed up and over the ridge. Nearing a small village I stopped to catch my breath, turning around I saw a snow capped mountain in the distance, the strong wind wisping snow of its peak. Passing through the village I headed along a gravel road (it's so much easier on my ankle) and followed its downhill course for several miles. It wound its way through glorious countryside till at last it turned a corner and brought me back into Salinas.

Wednesday morning came around and found me (and once again rock hard sticky out nipples) standing in the back of a pick-up to Guaranda and then a bus to Riobamba.

Arriving in Riobamba just after midday I tossed a coin and walked the 2kms downhill into the centre of town. I got a room in the delightful Hotel Tren Dorado ($15pn en suite, cable tv and way to many mirrors) crashed out on the bed, turned on the tv and had a siesta.

In the evening I wandered up the main drag to a bar I had seen on my walk into town. The name of the bar was “Zona Futbol” and as Quito were playing Guayaquil the place was rather busy. I managed to get a stool at the bar and once again smiled when I saw the sinecero.

The next day I bimbled around the city of honourable firsts as Riobamba is sometimes known, checking out several squares and a few markets. I also booked a days downhill mountain biking for the following day!

On Friday it was time to get back on the saddle for the 1st time since last November. I was looking forward to it, especially as it was about 50kms of mostly downhill action. I was joined for the day by a young Irish lad called Lambert (I resisted the urge to ask him if he had a twin brother called Butler).

The starting point for the day was high up on the slopes of Chimobarzo. Turning off the Riobamba to Guaranda road at the national park entrance the pick up snaked its way upwards for 8kms before coming to a halt at a lodge/teashop 4800m above sea level. From there it was possible to walk 1km uphill to another lodge at 5000m, neither myself of Lambert could be arsed.

Instead we got on the bikes and headed back the way we came along the loose gravel road to the park entrance. I don't recall ever being higher than this and for the 1st few miles I took it easy. The views of the mountain and desolate slopes were...wait for it...Awesome! The last 3 miles I went a little faster and I didn't forget that the brake levers were the wrong way around. Sliding to a full stop (they're not my tyres!) at the park entrance I took in the views before going along another gravel road for 1000m into a headwind.

After that it was a quick 800m blast along the tarmac before once again going off road. This time it was just a bumpy track meandering across the tussock grass landscape. I'll admit that I don't have much experience of “off roading” but I do know how to ride a bike.

30 minutes later we were back on the tarmac for a fast 2km descent before slamming on the brakes and jumping off the road and onto another track. This one was smooth rolling compacted dirt and even with disc brakes on both wheels I still managed to overshoot a tight left hand turn.

To get back onto the tarmac I had to cycle uphill!!!! it was only for about 150m or so and I was surprised when my knee didn't complain. After a 3km blast on the black stuff it was off road once again. This time it was a steepish climb for just over a mile. It was so easy I did it whilst smoking a fag. Mind you I was sitting in the back of the pick-up. Myself and Lambert couldn't be bothered with completely unnecessary uphill cycling.

Once a the top we got back on the bikes and headed down and along a valley towards an old Inca Tambo, which is basically a small military outpost built alongside a trade route. Going along the valley Lambert learnt a “golden rule of mountain biking”. The 4x4 track was smooth and fast and I was leading the way. Taking a sloping corner at speed I slammed the brakes on when I saw that the track went across a small stream. The loose pebbles, gravel and wet sand were beyond my skill level. It was then that I heard Lambert say “O shit”, the squeal of brakes and him going over the handle bars and landing on his back.

I turned around and watched him get back on his feet. I asked him if he enjoyed learning the lesson of “don't travel to close to the guy in front” the hard way!

A few minutes later we were at the Tambo. It was several large stones lying around near a natural spring whose crystal clear waters were slightly effervescent and rich in minerals. Following a rest and lunch break we got back in the pick-up and travelled uphill and over a ridge.

From here it was downhill all the way. Firstly along a grass track, then a slightly sandy 4x4 track (which was nervously fun), then 9kms of graded gravel roads before returning to tarmac for the final 5kms.

The end of the days ride was in a small village and as I approached the outskirts traffic calming speed bumps appeared. When I was on my touring bike these used to really annoy me as I had to slow right down to go over them. However today I was on a mountain bike....

Saturday and Sunday was a good weekend for sport and lounging. On Monday it was time to get back on the road, I was off to see the devil's nose!

Right now the Ecuadoran government is spending a shed load of money replacing the train tracks between Quito and Guayaquil. This meant that at the moment the line south of Riobamba is out of action. Therefore to ride the Devil's nose I had to travel 2 hours down the road by bus to the small town of Alausi.

I found the town of Alausi to be rather pleasant and I splashed the cash and paid $17pn for a really cool hotel room with the hottest and most powerful shower I’ve had in south America. After a leisurely stroll around the small town I purchased a ticket for the following days train ride to the devil's nose.

The next day I was at the train station just after 10:30 for the 11am departure. The 3 carriages were only half full so everyone got a window seat. As the train pulled out of the station I relaxed in the seat and looked out of the window, 10 seconds later I had a camera in my hand!

It took about an hour to reach the devil's nose and the views were wonderful. The tracks hugged the terrain, curving their way halfway up a narrow valley. As the train was going downhill the brake men on each of the carriages were earning their money. Every time I looked they were busy turning the brake wheels on and off.

Finally we reached the devil's nose. It marks the end of the valley and the train needs to descend into the valley floor to continue in the direction of Guayaquil. However, it's steep and there’s not much room. The engineers solved this by using a coupe of switchbacks only a few metres apart in places. Once a the bottom of the valley the train pulled into a station for an hour. Plenty of time for photos, lunch and a walk around.

When the hour was up the train blew its whistle and everyone got back on board for the return journey to Alausi...backwards!

The next day I was on the 10:30 bus and when it finally left just after 11am I had a 4 to 5 ride to the town of.....

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Ecuador: You suck


Back in '94 on my 1st south American odyssey my money ran out in Quito and all i remember of the place was trying to find a cheap flight home (if your interested Aeroflot were the cheapest). The 30 minute taxi ride from a northern bus station to “gringo new town” wasn't jogging any memories.

I had booked an en-suite room at the Posada del Maple for 5 nights but when i got there they only had a room for 2 nights, with a shared bathroom! On Sunday i moved to the Huauki hostel with an en-suite room for $4 less per night. One of the bonuses of the new hostel was that it was just across the road from Finn McCool's Irish pub.

I had a very long ”weekend” in Quito and apart from a two hour walk around the old town and a quick ride on the cable car i think you all know where i was. I could tell you some stories but they're better told propping up a bar!

On Wednesday afternoon i went to the small village of Mindo, a two hour bus ride away. I thought hanging out there till Sunday would be a good break from Finn's.

Even though the bus passed through some epic landscapes i ended up dozing off for 20 minutes or so. After two hours the bus reached Mindo and when i picked up my day-bag it felt wrongly light! My laptop, two cameras, iPod, head torch and $45 in cash had all gone.....and nobody on the bus saw a thing!. The bus company staff didn't give a shit (I’m guessing that to them it's nothing new) and then this Euro trash woman who owns a hostel in Mindo started to give me advice of what i did wrong. My rage was being directed inwards so i didn't turn round to tell her to..........

Two hours later i was still raging on the inside and i walked into this little 1st floor bar. I got a beer, sat down and carried on seething. Then the landlord did something that soothed the raging storm within. By track 3 of ZZTops greatest hits on video i was wearing a rye smile and thinking to myself that after 4 years on the road to have been robbed only once wasn't that bad...mind you it wasn't that great either.

The next morning i had a brainwave, it was time to get back with my baby. Emails were sent and plans made and if all went well i would be holding her in my arms within a week. The place i was staying at had a hammock and a couple of books to read.....

Wednesday 10th of August

I’ve been back in Quito now for 10 days waiting for DHL to deliver my baby (which is a Nikon D200 camera by the way). Its been stuck in customs all this time but hopefully today it will turn up. When it does I will have to pay $144 for the privilege (bloody import tax).

So, it looks like I’ll be “robbed” twice in Ecuador.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Queuing makes me dumb



The bus ride to the border passed through epic scenery but the views ended when I got to the frontier. A short queue at the Colombian immigration resulted in an exit stamp and then I walked across the bridge and into Ecuador.
Once at the Ecuadorian immigration I stopped. Every 10 minutes or so I would shuffle forwards a few feet. 90 minutes later the nice man behind the glass printed a visa in my passport and I was now officially in Ecuador.
I was out of the door and back in the fresh non queuing air. I needed to get my hands on some of the local currency which happens to be US $ these days. Now I don't know about you but after queuing for more than 10 minutes my brain hits the power save button and shuts down. It takes a while to reboot! Anyway, I was changing my pesos for bucks and it came to $35. The man gave me $30 in paper and a $5 coin. I know what you're thinking “there's no such thing as a $5 coin”. The very small part of my brain that was working through the fog of “I've been queuing” was shouting loudly “that's not a $5 coin, it's only worth 50 cents” over and over again.
It wasn't till I was in the minibus several minutes up the road that I heard my inner voice. Queuing for more than 10 minutes never ends well for me....
By the time I had reached the town of Tulcan 3kms up the road it was 1pm and I didn't feel like spending any more time in a bus. Cue cheap hotel next to the bus station. Tulcan is famous for......
The next morning I was up early (I've been doing this for weeks and weeks now and it's starting to really bug me) and following the usual breakfast I was on the 8am bus to Ibarra, 2.5 hours down the road. The reason I was going there was to take a train ride down and up a narrow river valley. 
By midday I had found a fantastic little hotel two blocks from the main square. At the nearby crossroads was the tourist information office, so I headed straight there. The lass behind the counter spoke English and after the usual pleasantries I asked the question “is the train running?” She looked at me with big puppy dog eyes and said “yes but not till September” Noooooooo!!!!!
Oh well, there are still 4 more train rides to take in Ecuador...maybe?
We chatted for a while and it looks like I turned up at the right time after all. This weekend in a nearby village is a big “once a year festival”, the town of Ibarra is celebrating the 188th anniversary of the battle of Ibarra and on Sunday at a nearby race track is a round of the Ecuadorian super bikes.
In the evening I was bimbling around the town wondering what to eat when when I stumbled across the Caribou restaurant. I can personally recommend the smoked pork chops!
The next morning I woke up, looked at the clock....seriously, why??? I mean 05:25 is just such a wrong time. By 9am I had dropped of my laundry and was having breakfast at the Olor Café in the main square, great coffee and nice ash trays. After breakfast I wandered around a few squares in the centre of town before walking the few kilometres west to a small archaeological museum. The museum is on the site of an Inca sun temple and although small it was worth the walk. Nearby were some old Inca ruins (my 1st since 1994) or as I like to call it “some stones lying on the ground behind a barb wire fence”.
The next day was Saturday and after a 3 cup breakfast I got the bus to the small village of La Esperazna. It was 13kms uphill from Ibarra and it was cobblestones all the way! The small village has one road, a church, a few shops and surprisingly a hostel. The guy that runs it does trekking tours to the nearby mountains and volcanoes.
The festival of Inti Raymi happens once a year in the village and lasts for 3 days. The action didn't kick off till the mid afternoon so I had time to kill. I killed the time by drinking beer and various kinds of local hooch made from fruits, vegetables and other kinds of plants. As one guy said “its best not to sniff the drink, just down it in one”!
This carried on till the party started in the yard next to the church. Music was blaring out, food and drink was being sold and the old people were sitting down watching the children dance. The basic dance was to “shuffle around” in a circle and at various times change direction. So, it was a dance so simple that even I could do it.
As the afternoon progressed more people filled the yard, more empty whiskey and rum bottles filled the bins and then it was time to do the “chicken dance”. Thankfully it wasn't the 80's dance classic but I think the chickens wished it was. The dancers went around in a big circle swirling the chickens as they went. The yard was packed out and everyone was having a good time.
Then from the outside even more dancers came in, singing loudly and waving their chickens in the air “like they just didn't care”. Masked men were whooping and jumping around and as the evening mist rolled in the band went hard core. 
It was at this point a young man shoved a chicken in my face and told me to kiss it! Apparently it's a tradition!!!
My list of “things I've never done and never want to do” just got shorter!
The party carries on late into the night but back in Ibarra they were having a party to celebrate the the 188th anniversary of the Battle of Ibarra. So I counted my chickens and decided to head back to town. 
The taxi dropped me off in the square just in time for the firework display. The town's brass band were playing large, Latin style and in my semi-drunken haze it felt “all right man”
The next day:
My head hurt!!!! 
It took a while to get out of bed but finally my need for coffee came over my lethargy. Four cups later I was able to fully open my blood shot eyes.
I made it to the racetrack 20 minutes before the 1st bike race. The location of the track was fantastic, on the shores of a lake surrounded by mountains, volcanoes in the distance and paragliders in the air.
The bikes went on their warm up lap and it was then I remembered how loud they were. My head still hurt so I decided that even though it was only 11am what I really needed was the hair of the dog.
Mmm beer: the cause and solution to all of my problems.
There were two classes racing, each having 2 races each and by the end of the 2nd race I needed another beer. Damn, it tasted so good!
Eventually the day's competition came to an end and I spent the rest of the day lying on the bed back at the hotel watching tv.
Monday morning came around and as I only had a 30 minute bus ride to the town of Otavalo I took my time. Otavalo is famous for its artesian market, the biggest day of the week being a Saturday, which sells all manner of high quality tourist tat.
The town is small (45000 people) with a couple of shop lined streets linking the two squares, architecturally its not that pretty but it has a good vibe. It also has a least one restaurant that does a “nay to bad” pizza. After the disasters in Colombia it was great to have a meal that contained the 3 basic food groups served in a circular fashion.
The next day I took a taxi ($4) to the Parque Condor 5kms up the side of the nearby mountain. This place is a rescue/rehabilitation centre for various Andean raptures including condors, obviously! In the various enclosures were several examples of the different species found in the South America Andes and they also do a free flight demonstration.. The bloke started out with a little kestrel and ended up with a huge grey hawk.
I was lucky enough to be there when they fed the two condors, food gets in the way of friendship!
Leaving the bird sanctuary I walked downhill enjoying the views of Lake San Pablo. After a while I crossed a small river and decided that as it was going downhill I would follow it. A few kilometres further downstream the river became the tourist attraction of the “Peguche Waterfall”. From there I followed the path along the steep sided valley till I hit tarmac and then walked back into town.
On Wednesday I went to the nearby town of Cotacachi, famous for its leather products. If you ever need a jacket, shirt, waistcoat, boots or a handbag made out of leather then come here! 12Kms from the town is the crater lake of Cuicocha which was the main destination of the day. The pick-up ride uphill to the lake only cost $5 and the entrance to the national park was a bargain at $2.
The crater is at 3000m and was impressive, the lake was big, the water clear and the 3 small islands in the middle an unusual feature. Towering above the lake was the mighty Cotacachi mountain, its snow capped peak reaching up to 4939m. For $2.50 I went on a boat ride on the lake and around the islands, then I walked up the path to the crater rim. At the lookout point the 360 views were great.
I left the lake and started walking back down the road. After about a mile I left the tarmac behind and followed a dirt road that travelled in-between two narrow canyons. A few miles later the dirt was replaced by cobblestones and at this point the road crossed a dried out river bed. You can guess where I walked next.
Following the course the wet season water would take it led into a narrow and twisty canyon. Eucalyptus trees lined the sides and their leaves rustling in the wind was the only sound. Later on I turned a corner to see that the dried up river bed was no longer dry. Water oozed up through the earth and within a few hundred meters the trickling sound of water filled the canyon. The further downstream I went the wider the stream got till at last I had to take off my boots to wade across, then it got quite boggy in places.
Eventually the canyon widen out and became a small valley. The land was fenced off and cows (with testicles) roamed free. I climbed out of the valley and walked along a dirt road to the small village of Quiroga and a bus back to Otavalo.
Today is Thursday 21st and I am a lounging. Tomorrow I'll be back on the road, in a bus heading to Quito.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The advert was right you know


Cali, just another polluted and crowded city...or was it?

No, it is!

This maybe the salsa capital of Colombia but lets face it no one is going to be seeing me dance any time soon.

The hostel I was staying at was right in the centre of the action and I was here for the weekend. My bed was great, the wifi was fast and once again I had the unexpected bonus of cable tv. Sometimes I am very easy to please.

So what did I do for the weekend...mmm let me see

  1. watched tv, the motogp and F1 were on over the weekend

  2. drank beer in the street bars, I did go to an “expat bar” but at 6000 pesos a beer they were taking the piss. The same beer in the street bar was 66% cheaper and you could smoke at the table

  3. relaxed, this is a very important and often overlooked activity!

The weekend passed by quickly and Monday morning came around in no time at all. As I was only going a few hours down the road I had a lazy start to the day. Just after midday the bus pulled into Popayan's bus station. From there it was a short walk into the centre of town and the hostel trail hostel. This place is run by the people that bring you the Hosteltrail.com website, which is most excellent.

Popayan has a well looked after colonial centre but back in the early 80's it got trashed by an earthquake, its been rebuilt rather well. As with most towns like this the walls are white and the roof tiles are terracotta. I bimbled around during the afternoon till the idea of yet another siesta entered my head...

The next day was Tuesday and that meant it was market day in the nearby Andean village of Silvia. Surprisingly even though I didn't need to buy anything I went. The bus took around an hour to get there and after yet another curve on the twisty mountain road I was treated to a glimpse of a snow capped mountain peak. It's the 1st one I've seen since Nepal...damn has it really been that long!!

The village of Silvia isn't architecturally attractive and the market isn't here for the tourist. It's a local market for local people which in this case means the Guambinos, many of the still dress in traditional outfits. After a breakfast at a café on the square I bimbled around the side streets before heading down to the fast flowing river. Above the river is a small man made lake and from there I could see a small church on a slight elevation on the other side of the river.

On the way to the church my improved stone throwing ability paid off handsomely. The stone bounced off the snarling dog's head resulting in a loud yelp and a tactical withdrawal by the dog, I puffed out my chest in manly pride.

Arriving at the church the view was good but I thought that standing on the small hillock 200m up the dirt road would provide an all together better view...I was right.

In the evening back in Popayan I went to the El Sotareno bar. It's a blast from the past and that evening the owner was playing Argentina classics from the early to middle part of the 20th century.

Wednesday was my last day in Popayan so I checked out the local museum of modern art (I know another one). In the evening I went for a bimble, the great thing about the colonial centre is that all the street lights are old style lamps attached to the walls of the buildings. It gives everything a subdued glow and creates a soft ambience. I ended back at El Sotareno and a good sign of a well bar is this: by the time I had reached the bar the owner had already opened a bottle of beer for me.

On Wednesday morning I got on a bus to....


Thirteen centuries ago people lived and died in a valley and they buried their dead in underground tombs. No one knows what they called the place but these days its called Tierradentro Archaeological Park.

It sounded to me like a place worth getting on a bus for and unless you fancy a 2-4km uphill walk after several hours on a bus then there is only one bus a day. It left Popayan at 10:30 so I didn't have to set my alarm clock.

The bus was a South American classic and I was more than happy to get a window seat. As soon as the bus cleared the outskirts of Popayan it started climbing. An hour later it was still climbing as the tarmac ran out. Time for things to get bouncy. The road unsurprisingly was curvy and twisty but the views were great...when I could see through the dust. The aftermath of several landslides made the going slow and slippery and the hours pass slowly. Halfway through the journey the road “levelled out” to cross a small plateau and it was at this point the road works started. The muddy dirt road was being upgraded to concrete and half the road width had been done already. Sadly no one was allowed to drive on it just yet. That meant the traffic had to take it in turns to go single file along the heavily used muddy dirt side.

More hours passed and we stopped in the large village of Inza to allow lots more people to slowly clamber on board. This took a while as the passage way was full of boxes, bags and suitcases, all of which had to be climbed over/stood on! Eventually we got going again and headed downhill. A short while later (that is a relative term) the bus turned off the main road and headed up a valley towards Tierradentro and the tiny village of San Andres de Pisimbala.

There are places to stay outside the park entrance but I had decided to stay in the village which was a further 2km up the road. The bus came to a stop and by the time it started to pull away and head back down the valley I had almost made it to the door. A loud shouted “Oi” stopped the bus allowing me to disembark.

I'm staying in the fanciest place in the village for the grand price of 20,000 pesos a night. The guy who owns place is a top bloke and he also owns the restaurant across the road...which is handy! The mainly bamboo constructed hospedaje is only half finished but the simple quality of the room combined with a great view on the veranda and the added bonus of a proper shower with pipping hot water made it a winning combination. After 6 hours of bouncing around in a bus I relaxed outside on the veranda in an easy chair with my feet up, fag in mouth and a mug of coffee in my hand. In the evening after a simple but great tasting dinner I found it hard to keep my eyelids open...

In the morning I was outside, fag in hand at 6am. The hostile chill of the early mountain morning kept at bay by my snug jumper. The American lass I had dinner with last night (we were the only gringos here) was catching the 06:20 bus to Popayan. I banged on her door before the owner (Leonardo) could to make sure she was up and ready. As a reward for my good deed of the day he disappeared across the road only to return a few minutes later with a big mug of the “nectar of early mornings”, which is coffee in case you hadn't guessed.

By 8am I was fed,caffeined up and ready to go a walking! The walk along the road to the park entrance was downhill and was taken at a “where's the rush” pace. A ticket only costs 10,000 pesos and is valid for two days. The 1st set of tombs were across a river via an arched bouncy bamboo bridge and then steeply uphill...bugger! By the time I reached the entrance, beads of sweat were being respectful of gravity and I was wondering why I hadn't in fact brought that adjustable neoprene knee support I had seen for sale in a shop in Popayan.

However the tombs were worth the agony! The 1st site had several tombs you could go into, the descent into the earth was down large spiral steps hewn out of the rock. At the bottom of the shaft was a narrow entrance leading into the tomb itself. Each one varied in size and the number of pillars it had. The pillars had been carved and along with the walls they were painted. Not all the artwork in each tomb had survived but two of them had artwork that although was slightly faded was almost completely intact.

From there it was a “ten minute walk honest Guv” to the next set of tombs. Unlike before these ones didn't have any artificial light so my little torch came in handy. After checking out the tombs it was a hard slog uphill to the road. Once on the road it was an enjoyable and easy downhill bimble to the 3rd site of the day. This time is wasn't tombs but several statues in an easy to recognise pre-colombian form. There were also good views to be had of the upper reaches of the valley.

Leaving the statues behind the road made it's way downhill back to the village which has a 400 year thatched roof and white walled church in its centre. I spent a good part of the rest of the afternoon sitting in a chair with my feet up on the veranda.

The hearty meal in the evening didn't stand a chance!

The next day;

Once again I was up early, it may have had something to do with going to bed a 9pm but I'm not sure, the night-life in the village is conspicuous by its absence. After overdosing on coffee and devouring a couple of fried eggs I hit the road.

About 1km down the road the path to a set of tombs appeared. Passing ripe coffee beans waiting to be picked I crossed the river and headed uphill. Damn, it was steep! It took a while to reach the tombs, the views kept distracting me (OK; my ankle, knee and being an unfit fat chain smoking bastard may of contributed towards the slow ascent). Once at the tombs I sat on a bench in the shade of a tree and got my breath back. The tomb were pretty cool and for 20 minutes kept me occupied.

The 2nd set of tombs for the day were several hundred metres up and two mountain ridges away. I laughed when the guard said it would only take an hour of walking to get there. I set off up the steep twisty path, the higher I got the better were the views. The higher I got the louder my breathing became. After many many minutes I passed a small holding, turned a corner and saw that I was on top of the ridge. The valley below me was breathtakingly beautiful. It was narrow and lush with a few simple dwellings towards the bottom and the small river. The only sound I could hear was the beat of my heart, which was worryingly irregular.

Looking across the valley I could see the 2nd ridge, it was bigger and steeper than the one I had just climbed....oh!!!

Walking down the muddy path I spent several minutes at various places taking in the views. Crossing the small river via slippery rocks, the going got tough and the whimpering fool got quiet. I passed several locals on the way and each one of them looked as fresh as a daisy! The path snaked its way up the side of the ridge and so did I. After several turns in the path I would catch my breath and get my camera out. Finally I reached the top of the ridge, knackered and aching. The views of two valleys filled my eyes and I rested for a while. Walking along the ridge I came across the final set of tombs. Dotted along the ridge were several open tombs robbed out in days long past. There were two tombs under cover and they were worth the walk.

Now it was downhill all the way. The path followed the descending ridge line and at one point two vultures passed over the ridge 20ft above my head. The sound of the air swooshing over their wings was magical. A short while later the path plunged down into the valley. By the time I had reached the bottom my legs were feeling the strain of the descent. The 2km walk back up the valley was a leisurely affair.

When I got back to the village the 1st beer didn't even wet my throat but the 2nd one did.

On Sunday I enjoyed a day of rest and relaxation and when Monday came around I was up early and was outside waiting for the 06;30 bus to arrive

At 7am a pick up turned up! By the time everyone had clambered on board the only space left was sitting perched forward on the roof-rack...brilliant! The road to La Plata was dusty and bumpy but I had great valley views. An added bonus of roof-rack travel is that you can smoke.

Two hours later I was in La Plata bus station and a short while after that I had a bus ticket for the 10am bus to San Agustin. By 10:30 there was still no sign of the bus but “the man” smiled and said “its all okay”. At 11am the expression on his face was one of “bugger, I forgot about the gringo”. I was hastily chucked into a car and it raced to catch up with the bus, which was actually a pick up. On board in the back of the pick-up the only thing to see was plastic. After 20 minutes some one else climbed on board, as the tarp was pulled back the view look oddly familiar.

I was only on the road back to San Andres!!!

Arriving back in the village I had left this morning, Leonardo had a deeply puzzled look on his face. The next transport back to La Plata was at 4pm...time to read my book

By 6pm I was once again in La Plata but this time it wasn't the bus station I was standing in but the reception of a cheap hotel. Leaving my bags in the room I walked the two blocks to the main square to find a fiesta in full swing. The square was packed with people and around the square the semi drunk cowboys rode their horses disco style. I found it all rather amusing, well apart from the horse bit.

In the morning I was back at the bus station to buy another ticket to San Agustin, turns out you can't WTF!!!! Instead I got a pick-up to Garzon two hours away over the mountains. From there I was able to get a bus all the way to San Agustin.

I arrived in the village in the late afternoon and found a great little B&B on the edge of the village. Umberto, the owner was a great host and after checking in he told me that he didn't always run a guest house. He used to work in a factory, a three day journey into the jungle. The factory used to be owned by Pablo Escobar!

The next morning I walked the 3lkm uphill to the archaeological park (it's why people come here). In the 78ha park are various tombs but the main attraction are the multitude of kick arse statues dotted around the place. I walked around, taking shelter when the drizzle turned to downpours.

Back at the B&B Umberto's mate tried really really really hard to get me to go on a horse ride the following day. Poor guy didn't have a hope in hell. Instead I went on a Jeep tour. The sun was out and the views were great. The tour took in a couple more archaeological sites and two waterfalls, one of which is the 2nd highest in South America (so now I've seen no.1 &no.2)

The next day I chilled out and worked out my travel plans for my last week in Colombia. My 1st choice of hanging out in a hostel in the jungle near the town of Mocoa didn't pan out as the hostel was fully booked. So instead on Saturday I returned to Popayan

Right now it's Tuesday the 12th of July and I'm staying in the Koala inn in Pasto, a large town 3 hours from the border.

Tomorrow I will be in Ecuador for the 1st time in 17 years.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A to B then C


The bus from Zipaquira terminated at the Portal del Norte on the northern outskirts of Bogotá. The easiest way to get into the centre was by a big bendy bus or the TransMilenio as the locals call it. What's great about them is that they travel on their own dedicated roads. The confusing thing about them is trying to work out which bus to catch. All the routes (of which there are many) are displayed horizontally whilst all the stops are displayed vertically. After a few minutes leaning over to my left I had the number of my bus, I also had a crick in my neck as well.

60 minutes later after one change of bus and a 10 minute walk I was standing outside the hostel I had chosen and pre-booked for my stay in Bogotá. The hostel is located in the La Candelaria district which is the old part of Bogotá, near all the museums, restaurants and bars.

The guy that owns and runs the hostel Martinik gave a quick talk about the area before marking on a map with a big red marker pen all the places not to go because that's where all the thieves and whores live.

Bogotá is cool and by that I mean cold....brilliant!!!!

In the afternoon I went for a little bimble around the neighbourhood before having a well earned siesta. In the evening I ended up in the Plazoleta del Chorro de Quevedo. There is a narrow “old Bogotá” street that comes off the little square with lots of small one room bars. There's also lots of young people all trying to be “individuals” by dressing the same...

The next day was Sunday and in Bogotá it's great! Here's why: every Sunday from 7am till 2pm around 60 miles of roads are closed off to traffic. Well when I say traffic I mean anything with an internal combustion engine. You still have traffic but it's cyclists, skateboarders, joggers and of course people like me...pedestrians. It's a little street party every weekend. However there is a dark side to it, living statutes and mimes are everywhere!!!

It's also a good day for museums, so I went to a few. I also went 48 floors up an office block for a good panoramic view of the city and the landscape it's in.

The next day was of course Monday and all the other museums I wanted to go to were shut. So I lazed around with only a small bimble during “the heat of the day”.

Tuesday was my last day in the capital and I went to the national museum, the museum of modern art (the current exhibition was all photographic...sweet) and lastly the gold museum. This museum was really good but after 90 minutes I became slightly bored at looking at exquisitely worked pieces of gold.

The following morning I was outside the bus station at 08:54 and by 09:01 I was on a bus heading slowly out of the capital. I was heading to Girardot, an old port town on the banks of the Rio Magdalena. Leaving the outskirts of Bogotá behind the road went through a small pass in the mountains and once on the other side I could see the valley...it was a long way down.

The next two hours were spent descending around a thousand bends, the views were great but overtaking the slow moving lorries wasn't so great. As I was in the back of the bus I had a big crumple zone in front of me. Finally the road entered the valley and about 60 minutes later I was standing outside the bus station in Girardot.

Across the road was a hotel, it cost more than I had wanted to pay but as a few beads of sweat formed on my forehead I decided that A/C was the way to go. It's hot in the valley and after 3 weeks of coolish mountain living I had forgotten about the downside of valley life. After a quick check that the A/C and the TV worked I left the hotel and went of a bimble.

Girardot sits on the banks of the mighty Rio Magdalena and like Mompos several hundred miles downstream it was once a bustling port. These days it isn't! The only thing going for it is that it is only a few hours away from Bogotá by car which explains why there are several boutique hotels in the area. On the weekends the middle classes come to town from Bogotá to escape the cold and the rain.

I wandered around for a few hours and ended up on the old railway bridge. Yes, I took some panoramic shots! Just then I remembered that my hotel room had A/C and cable TV!!!

In the evening I mis-ordered and ended up with a whole roasted chicken...I licked my fingers clean!

The next day I was back on a bus and heading across the valley to the town of Ibague, halfway up the mountain on the other side. The only info I had about the place was from wikitravel.org. I was looking forward to being surprised.

I found a great little hotel near the bus station and went for a wander around. The town was several degrees cooler than Girardot and it made for an enjoyable walk. There really isn't much for a tourist to see in town but sometimes its just nice to sit in the central square, lick an ice cream and watch the world go by.

The next morning I was going on a day trip to the small nearby village of Juntas. Wikitravel.org mentioned that you could see mountains from there. It didn't mention anything about the fact that Juntas was in a canyon!

When the tarmac ran out the bus stopped, I kept on going. Crossing the bridge I turned right and started to follow the track into the narrowing canyon. The people that live in the farmhouses dotted along the length of the canyon have to transport everything on the backs of donkeys. So in places it was muddy and slippery. It was also hard work on my knee as the track rose and fell and the rocks that acted as steps were large.

The views more than made up for any discomfort.

Two hours passed me by before I decided that my knee had had enough. I mean, I still had to walk back the way I came. Arriving back in Juntas the bus was just about to leave and I sat down inside it gratefully.

The next day I had a 50 mile bus ride to Armenia, it took a while. Leaving the town of Ibague behind the road steadily rose as it made its way up and along a narrow river valley. Two hours later we were in the clouds and cresting the top of the mountain pass. 10 minutes later the 1 year old girl sitting next to me on her mother's lap finally got around to doing what she had been threatening to do for the last hour. As the kid regurgitated a fountain of her mother's milk my cat like reflexes saved me from needing a clean pair of shorts. Unfortunately the mother wasn't able to move out of the way! Once the kid had finished showing g everyone what she had had for lunch I spent the rest of the bus ride perched on the arm of the seat.

The reason I was travelling to Armenia was to catch another bus to the small mountain village of Salento. However it was Saturday and having previously checked a few hostel booking websites the day before I came to the conclusion that I would be spending Saturday night in Armenia. Across from the bus station were several dive hotels and I chose the one in the middle.

The bed in the room was well used and their “tribute” to a shower was icy cold. Thankfully the tv worked. Nearby was a small square with several street food carts and a couple of bars. I ended up having a great night in one of them. There was a football final on the tv...cue “way to much to drink”.

The next morning I awoke early with a hangover that even 4 tintos couldn't help. By 8am I was on a bus for the short ride to Salento. Once off the main road the bus plunged down into the valley, weaving between the mamils. The bus crossed the river and climbed up the steep ridge and into the village. The bus pulled into the square and after the usual I wandered around to find a place to stay. I got lucky! I ended up staying in the Hotel la Palmas (it's in the book, which I only found out about after I had checked in) which is a family run B&B. For 25,000 pesos I got an en-suite room with a shower that had scalding hot water.

By the early evening my hangover has dissipated (it takes longer the older you get) and I wandered into the centre of the village. Either everyone was celebrating “”the trout festival” or it just happens every weekend. Around the main square were several open air kitchens selling trout cooked every way you can imagine and the bars had temporary outdoor seating for their many (semi drunk) customers.

Not being a big fan of fresh water fish I found a small restaurant and had pork medallions covered with a cheese and caramelized onion topping. It doesn't sound nice but it went down a treat. The rest of the evening was spent lying on my bed watching season 1 of Coupling (which is the 2nd best sitcom ever made in the UK) because I was still feeling fragile from the night before, or I had man flu!

In the morning I was outside smoking the most important fag of the day whiles my host “slaved” in the kitchen making my breakfast. When the plate was clean I picked up my day-bag and headed out of the door. Once at the square I walked along the short Camino Real, lined with tourist tat shops still closed and paddocked this early in the morning.

At the end of the street was a hill, with steps going up it. I reached the top step and stopped, glad that the creaking noise was over. The views were cool but no way near as good as the views from the nearby lookout point. The beauty of the vista took my breath away. Once my camera had cooled down I managed to tear my eyes away from the view and headed down a track into the valley and the river at its bottom. For the next few hours I followed the course of the river downstream. Sometimes walking right on its bank, other times a hundred metres high walking across steep pasture.

As I hadn't planned on doing any walking I was wearing my sandals, which as it turned out was a good thing as I had to ford several small but surprisingly deep streams. I ended up in a small village next to the Salento road. Not wanting to walk back up the side of the valley I waited for a bus.

In the evening after a few hours of lying down on the bed I succumbed to the local delicacy. The trout was nicely cooked and I have to admit the lemon and garlic sauce was spot on!

The next day I was in the square just after 7am to catch a Jeep for the 30 minute 11km ride up the Valle de Cocora to where the tarmac runs out. From there I followed a path into and up the valley. Walking between fields of lush grass and happy cows, the rock strewn path meandered along whilst low clouds swirled their way alongside me. The steep mountain ridges on either side funnelled the clouds away from the pasture and into the forest, I did likewise.

Once in the forest the path got serious, the dirt got muddy, the rocks got bigger and the gradient steeper. The only sounds I could hear, apart from my heavy breathing and creaking knee was birdsong and the sound of water cascading over the rocks. The river was fast flowing and the track criss-crossed it several times. Most of the bridges consisted of 3 small tree trunks (about 5 inches in diameter) fastened together with barded wire laid on top of a pile of rocks on each side of the bank. I'm sad to admit that I shuffled slowly across each one, my balance isn't as good as it used to be. A couple of the bridges were actually small suspension ones with small branches and half rotten planks as the road way.

Five kilometres from the start of the path, hidden in the forest is a small nature reserve which doubles as a café. The coffee was great, the seats most welcome and the many hummingbirds attracted by the free food on offer were bloody hard to shoot....with a camera! After a nice long rest I decided that what my knee really wanted was a relaxing 5km down hill stroll.

You don't always get what you want!

Retracing my steps back the way I had come I came to the conclusion several minutes later that I really didn't remember walking downhill for so long before I got to the café. I was on the wrong path and it was going uphill steeply! For some reason I carried on and 30 minutes later I was glad that I did. The path emerged into a small clearing and the views of the ridge on the other side of the valley were...wait for it...awesome!

On the right of the vista was a small peak and I sat there watching the clouds slowly swirl around it. A long rest was taken and then it was a 5km walk down a dirt road, not a step up or down in sight!

As the road slowly descended several viewing points held my gaze. I looked out along the lush green valley with the clouds obscuring the tops of the mountains. Pausing at one such view I heard a rustling in the nearby undergrowth. Moving silently I edged closer and watched enchanted as a possum rooted around in the soil for a tasty snack. A few minutes later it disappeared back into the undergrowth and I carried on with my joyful descent.

Later, after leaving the trees behind I turned a corner and saw hundreds of wax palms sky rocketing into the air. It was a slightly surreal sight.

Eventually after 6 hours of bimbling I turned a corner and I was back where I started from.

Back at the hotel I had a long shower and then collapsed on the bed. I may have only walked 10-12kms but the last time my lower extremities felt this worn out was when I reached San Cristobal.

Wednesday was my last full day in Salento. I woke up....

On Thursday the 23rd of June I left Salento behind and headed down the road to the city of Cali, the salsa capital of Colombia.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Hanging out in Boyaca County


Monday morning came around and I was up early as per usual ready to leave. I then realised two things.

One: I didn't know where I wanted to go

Two: I only had one clean T shirt

On Tuesday morning I left San Gill knowing where I wanted to go and with clean t shirts in my bag. It was a 4.5 hour bus ride to the city of Tunja and most of the time was spent going uphill. From the bus station it was only a 4 block walk to the main square and the cheap hotel on its corner but it was steeply uphill. Tunja is also 2800m above sea level, 1800m higher than San Gill, so the “short walk” took a little longer than I had thought. The hotel was good, at 25,000 pesos a night it was also cheap and the location was great.

The large main square was colonial in architecture on three sides, on the 4th side someone decided in the late 60's that a 5 storey concrete office block was what the square really needed...twat! I wandered around the streets just off the square for a while and when I reappeared onto the square a gust of wind sent a cold shiver down my spine. It's cold in the mountains but my smile was keeping me warm.

Following a night's sleep spent under the blankets (which alone was worth coming here for) I spent the morning bimbling around the streets. Tunja is a mix of old, modern and falling down. I went into a couple of very small museums both of which were originally houses of the city's founding fathers. The furniture was all original but the most impressive thing to see were the painted ceilings.

On my second and last night in Tunja I came across a great little “old skool” bar...it's just a shame I couldn't smoke in it!!

Thursday morning came around and after a great coffee in the nearby café I joyfully walked downhill to the bus station.

The bus ride to Sogamoso was only 80kms long and it was good to go somewhere that wasn't in my guide book. It was several blocks from the bus station to the main square and I found a great little hotel just over halfway for only 20,000 pesos a night with cable tv! The town is busy without much for the tourist to do. It is however a good place to base yourself as there are several places no more than an hours bus ride away that make for good day trips.

Day trip number one:

15kms away is the small mountain village of Mongui. It's off the beaten track (i.e. there's no backpacking hostel in town) and remains a unspoilt working village. The bus pulled into the main square whilst low flying clouds obscured the mountains. The 1st thing I saw was a tv production unit occupying the place with their trucks and buses...bastards, talk about ruining my pano shots.

I wandered across the square, my nose leading me to the coffee shop. After breakfast I bimbled around the village and it was prettier than Barichara. On the other side of the steep and imposing mountain ridge lies a beautiful canyon. If the sky had been blue I might of even tried to get there. As it was, after a few hours the low lying clouds decided to go on a diet. I went back to the coffee shop and watched the rain pour down. Realizing that the rain was going to be here for a good few hours I decided to call it a day. I was back in Sogamoso just after midday and by 3pm the rain had stopped.

Day trip number two:

Looking in the little tourist map/leaflet I had picked up in Tunja I decided to visit the small village of Iza. Getting of the bus in the main square I knew that an hour's walking around would be more than enough...I was right!

Six kilometres away was another village called Firavitoba so I started to walk there. The road was flat and quiet and the views of the countryside were lush and green. Halfway there I came to a junction in the road and saw a hoarding advertising the touristy delights of a place called Pesca, 10kms away...mmm, why not?

I hanged out for 20 minutes leaning against the railings of the small bridge, watching the fast flowing stream travel across the landscape. The bus arrived and by the time I got to Pesca the rain was falling hard.

The main square was impressive and the roads leading off it were steep. Five minutes later my battery ran out of juice and I was left wondering why I hadn't charged it the night before.

Day trip number three:

An hour or so away from Sogamoso is Lake Tota, at 3000m above sea level its the highest natural lake in the country. I took the bus that went the long way round via the village of Tota. The road was steep, twisty and bouncy in places but the views more than made up for it.

Arriving in the small village of Tota I didn't bother to get off the bus as there really wasn't anything for the tourist to see. So instead I carried on to La Playa Blanca. Getting off at the entrance it was a 10 minute walk down a dirt road to the lake shore, the restaurant, camping ground and the white sands of the beach.

It was cold, the water was freezing and yet the children were happily splashing around. I chilled out for an hour, taking pictures and walking along the lake shore path before finishing off a portion of trifle.

Back on the road I started walking towards the town of Aquitania. 50 metres down the road a car pulled up and offered my a lift. The young couple from Bogotá were having a long weekend in the area and during the 40 minutes it took to drive to Aquitania they let me know a few cool places to hang out further south.

The village of Aquitania wasn't much to sing and dance about but it did have buses back to Sogamoso.

The next day I packed up my things and jumped onto a bus leaving Sogamoso behind.

My next destination was Villa De Leyva and after a quick change of buses in Tunja it was up and over the mountains. Villa de Leyva became a national monument back in the mid 50's and the centre of town is basically untouched by modern development (imagine a little village in the west country where every building is graded one listed and you'll get the idea).

Walking out of the bus station I saw a nice looking hostel with a 1st floor terrace. Being the lazy git that I am I stayed there. Dropping the bags in my room I went for a wander around the small village. The sky was blue, the mountains green and all the houses were white.

It was a Monday evening and the village was quiet, well apart from the dog next door that always tired to bite me every time I went past...I'm getting better at stone throwing these days!

The next morning I was up early (I have no idea why) and I was out of the door by 7am. I headed straight to the large cobbled main square which thankfully was mostly empty of people. So I was therefore able top take a few pano shots without “ghosts” of people.

After a few hours and a lazy breakfast I found myself walking out of the village along a dirt road towards the mountain ridge. Instead of stopping when the road became a path I carried on through the trees and into a canyon. The path became more rocky and muddy and the going got more vertical. The views back to Villa De Leyva were great and the quietness of the area with only the sounds of the cascading water chilled me out. After climbing/walking up the canyon for another 30 minutes it levelled out. Walking along the path which was also the course of the stream in places, the small pass between two ridges soon petered out and I was treated to fantastic views of the valley and the mountains in the distance. I carried on for a few more hours, wandering around flirting between the differing goat paths.

In the end I made my own path down the side of the ridge and carried on into the small village of Sachica. I thankfully sat in the main square under the shade of a tree and enjoyed the bottle of cold water from the nearby shop. Following the rest I bimbled around the village for about 20 minutes before getting the bus back to the hostel.

The next day I thought that I would visit the nearby archaeological attraction of “El Infiernito”. It was a relaxing walk along a dirt road for just over an hour, the road meandered around the occasional homestead and the views in the valley floor were great. I arrived there with a few beads of sweat on my forehead only to discover that it was shut...bugger!!

So I carried on and about ½ a mile later the track rejoined the main road. Sitting in the shade of a tree I waited for a bus to come and take me to the village of Santa Sofia. The village was on the other side of the valley and the road was twisty and the driver was relying on God for his safe arrival. The village itself wasn't really worth going to but you would have to go there to find it out.

The morning came around and the walk to the bus station was the easiest one so far. 30 minutes later I was on a small bus heading to the town of Chiquinquira. This town wasn't that far away and by 10am I was dumping my bags in the hotel next to the bus station.

The town is famous for this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_the_Rosary_of_Chiquinquir%C3%A1

The main square was a slow 15 minute walk from the hotel and the closer I got the more catholic tourist tat was on sale. Not being a catholic (any more) I was able to ignore these earthly delights????

The following morning I was off again on the road, this time heading for the town of Zipaquira. The slow bus took about two hours to get there and then it was only stopping on the main highway. For some reason, despite the plethora of buses and taxis heading to the centre of town I walk the mile instead....

Arriving in the centre of town I turned a corner and saw a skanky haired whitey going into a bike shop. I thought to myself I know that comb shy gringo and it turns out that it was the guy I had met in Antigua back at the start of December. Cass was still on the bike heading south and when he mentioned that it had taken us both the same amount of time to get here realized that I really am a slow traveller. We chatted for a while then he got back on his bike and I went and got a room for the night.

The town of Zipaquira is famous for the Salt Cathedral and after a few hours walking around the town I headed up the hill, the steps were not knee friendly!

The actual cathedral is underground, 180m deep in a salt mine and despite what I thought the rock was black and not white!

Read about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_Cathedral

It was a Friday evening and the main square was surrounded on all sides by bars, cafés and restaurants. I didn't get an early night.

The following morning I was up early and got the bus to Bogotá which was just over an hour away