Friday, 5 August 2011

The Last (Blog) Post...

After our epic trek to the Ciudad Perdida, Ania and I headed back to the wonderful Casa de Felipe in Taganga to rest up for a few days. Many of our group were still staying in the hostel and those who weren't turned up most nights to eat the tasty food from Patrick the Dutch chef's kitchen, based at Casa de Felipe! During the last week we went diving once more with Aquantis, doing two boat dives one morning. Once again we loved it! We saw great wildlife including more lion fish and moray eels. The highlight was probably an octopus that we scared a little, resulting in it inking itself and swimming off very fast! Hadn't seen that before! We also enjoyed our dives because it was just the two of us in a group with a very nice dive leader from Australia called Shanna. And once again we got more great photos of us underwater.

Caption competition? Ania and I experience some underwater communication problems!

After a few pleasant days relaxing we said goodbye to Casa de Felipe and took a bus to Palomino, where we'd booked a treat of a resort for the final week of our ten-month trip! Our destination was Tuci's Place, also known by the names Donde Tuci and El Matuy. After a very interesting but actually very enjoyable bus ride, we arrived! We caught a local bus and were amongst only four tourists on board. The bus had a conductor as well as a driver and the vehicle seemed to be operating not only as a bus but also as a courier service. People would load on enormous sacks of onions or cardboard boxes full of produce which the conductor would then deliver at people's homes or restaurants and cafes along the way! They were very friendly too and helped us with our bags. And as for El Matuy, I cannot recommend this place highly enough! We spent seven very happy nights in this wooden, palm-thatched cabin, seconds from the beach:

We were surrounded by palm trees and spent our time cooling off in the sea, eating the delicious food (included in the price - more on that later!) and lazing in our hammocks with our books. Here's the view from our cabin veranda:

A nice view for lunch:

I LOVED the food in Colombia. I couldn't say what the grub is like in other parts of the country as we only spent time on the Caribbean coast. We quickly discovered that lunch is the best meal of the day at El Matuy. That's nothing against what they served for breakfast or dinner, we just really liked the lunch! The picture below is fairly typical fare and makes my mouth water! Smoked fish, coconut rice (made using the copious coconuts hanging everywhere above us), salad with mango, fried plantain and beans for Ania! Delicious!

And to drink? Amazing fruit juices of course! We liked the mora (like a mulberry, a cross between a blackberry and raspberry), the maracuya (passion fruit) and their home-made lemonade. Here's the owner of El Matuy, Ernesto, who would also cut us open a coconut if we wanted something to drink and to snack on:

A happy woman with an enormous coconut:

Our evening hangout spot! There's no electricity at the resort, so we'd sit on these beanbags next to the dining area, chatting with our fellow travellers by the light of candle lanterns and oil lamps! Very romantic with the stars above us too!

The beach was great too with some lovely soft sand and we spent a lot of time lying on bean bags on the beach, reading and then jumping in the sea to cool off. There were some pretty rough waves so we enjoyed the challenge of getting past them and then riding them back in to shore. A couple of times we turned right at the beach and walked along the beach, where you can swim in a river that flows into the sea, just in case you fancy a change from salt water. The scenery was beautiful and the area is so secluded that you don't see many people. After so long travelling and roughing it in places, this was bliss!

The one proper 'activity' we did during the week was tubing or black water rafting. We had a go at this in New Zealand but this was far more relaxing! Ania and I set off with a lovely Canadian couple we met called Neil and Moira. First, four 'moto-taxis' turned up (that's a motorbike, you sit on the back!). We collected our tubes, like a big inflatable donut and then got back on our moto-taxis (yes, with the tubes!) and met our guide, a very friendly seventeen year old Colombian boy. After a short but tricky, up-and-down-hills walk we came to the Rio Palomino. We sat in our tubes and gently floated downstream for just under an hour! The water was very shallow in places, I'm talking shin-deep, but it was very enjoyable and the whole thing including our moto-taxis only cost about £10! Well worth it.

We saw some amazing sunsets in Palomino, too. Here's a few shots below. They don't really do it justice, but it does give you an idea!

I started this post by referring to an epic journey, and I'll end it in the same way! On 28th July we set off on what would become a 28-hour journey that would take us from El Matuy in Palomino to Ania's aunt and uncle's house in London! A bus, a taxi, three flights and three delayed pieces of luggage later (never fly with Iberia if you can avoid it. Both of our flights with them were delayed and we arrived in London with only the clothes on our backs and our hand luggage while our backpacks continued the trip in Madrid) we arrived at Heathrow, where Penny and John picked us up! They dropped us off too, so there's a nice symmetry there!

We will follow up with some extra 'bonus posts', but here concludes the diary entries of Ania and Stu's Big Trip. Thanks for reading as always, everyone. Stu over and out.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

There Will Be Mud: Ciudad Perdida Trek

Having completed the Inca Trail less than two weeks previously, Stu and I decided we were suckers for punishment and signed ourselves up for an epic five-day jungle trek to the Ciudad Perdida (´Lost City´) deep in the Sierra Nevada (tropical Colombian foresty mountains). We signed up with Expotur in Taganga, who were excellent. When we initially signed up we were told we would be in a small group of seven people (including our friend Richie who we met in Cartagena), but by the morning of the trip this had expanded drastically to 18 people! At first we had our reservations about this, but it turned out to be no problem at all since the whole group got on brilliantly and the fantastic people on the trek with us elevated the experience from a memorable trek to one of the most fun things we´ve done on our entire trip!

Day 1

We started on South American Time (i.e. waiting around while everyone faffed about for ages) before 10 trekkers, 2 guides and a driver were crammed into a jeep and driven for a hot and sweaty couple of hours down an increasingly bumpy road to the start of the trek. We arrived to meet the second van-load of our group in the village that would be our starting point, and got to know each other over a lunch of sandwiches. Richie had kindly lent us a backpack (we otherwise only had one between us), so we set off with our backpacks lightly packed for ease of trekking, our walking sticks from the Inca Trail, and some wet shoes for river crossings which turned out to be incredibly useful.

Not ten minutes had passed before we reached our first river crossing and changed out of our hiking boots and into our wet shoes. It is so hot out here that wading through the rivers is a refreshing treat, but it was about to get a whole lot wetter: about 15 minutes into the trek the skies opened and it bucketed down with rain! Heavy, hot, tropical rain that soaked us to the skin in seconds. We shrouded our backpacks in plastic bags and stayed in our wet shoes, continuing on through the jungle while taking a compulsory open-air shower. I actually really began to appreciate how cooling the rain was when the sun came out again and baked us!

It was uphill for ages on the first day, on a path that ranged from a neat country trail to a red mudslide, and went through sections of jungle and up onto hilltops with beautiful views of the countryside. We had stop for watermelon slices and coffee, which made all the difference.

A tidy-looking path at the start of the trek:

The view:
The mud:

We arrived at camp around 5pm, and I was impressed by how good it was. We were sleeping in hammocks that were covered by mosquito nets, and the camp was sheltered by a roof so we wouldn´t be soaked by the regular tropical rains. The camp also had showers (the luxury!) and big wood burning stoves for our dinner. (I hung my soaking wet, folorn-looking shorts over the stove overnight in the hope of drying them, but we quickly discovered that nothing really dries in the humidity of the jungle. Better to grow accustomed to the constant damp instead.) We were fed really well on the trek too, with big plates of rice and veg, and even soy meat for me and the other veggie in the group! We spent the evening trying (unsuccessfully) to dodge mosquitoes, while playing the card game ´spoons´. I slept surprisingly well in the hammock, too.

Our hammocks:
Day 2

The second day was the easiest one of all. We got up around 7am to coffee/hot chocolate and a delicious breakfast of granola, fruit and yoghurt (very rare in South America), before doing a reasonably easy two and half hours walking to the next camp.

Filling up a water bottle from a waterfall:

Some noisy wildlife:

The two of us on fine trekking form (note the long socks pulled up to provide a little extra protection against the mosquitoes - they love to bite your ankles!):

The weather was much sunnier too, although after the first day we were deeper in the shady jungle so it wasn´t too baking hot. Nevertheless, we were all pretty sweaty by the time we arrived at camp, so we all headed down to the river to jump in for a swim - lovely! There was a 7-8 metre rock jump into the deep river, and a tough swim against the current to get back across - a very refreshing start to a relaxing afternoon in the jungle.

After lunch, we took a walk to a nearby Kogui village, which was really interesting. The Koguis are one of the tribes of people indigenous to northern Colombia, and they are the most traditional of these communities. They still speak their own language (although many speak Spanish as well), and they live in traditional round thatched huts and wear white. (Our campsite was run by a different indigenous people, the Arsarios, and they made us feel very welcome.)

Kogui homes:
Some Kogui boys we met at the village:

In the evening of Day 2, Stu and I taught everyone a card game we had learned during our Bolivian salt flats trip: ´Werewolf´. It´s something of a murder mystery game, and it became an ongoing theme of the trip, with many games played each night!

Day 3

More rain. Lots of rain. We were supposed to be up at 5am but the rain delayed our start so the guides let us sleep till 6am! Nevertheless we set off quickly so that we would make it across all the rivers before they got too swollen with the rain. The first big river didn´t actually require wading since there was a lift contraption set up to carry us across the valley. The lift hung from ropes and was pulled across the drop by guides at either end. Everything went smoothly until my turn came, when the rope jammed in the pulley and I was momentarily stuck, suspended over the raging river below! Luckily I didn´t have time to get worried, as with a jolt (which nearly sent me flying out the back) the rope was freed and I made it to the other side.

Trekking in the rain:

Stu crossing the river in the rickety lift contraption:

Me with our excellent guide/translator Carlos, with an enormous bamboo thicket behind us:

There was a lot of uphill walking on the third day, but our spirits were kept up with regular stops for snacks of pineapple, bananas and sugar cane. We emerged out of the jungle onto this big open hilltop, with great views and a very friendly horse which ate all our banana skins:

On the final part of our ascent to the campsite, we had to wade through a waist-deep river against a really strong current - we had to hold hands in a long line to keep everyone upright, and inch our way slowly from one side to the other. Felt very intrepid, although totally soaked!

Arrival at the third campsite:

There was only one shower at this campsite, so Stu took advantage of the downpour and showered in the rain! Rather predictably, the rain calmed down a lot just after he´d got fully covered in shampoo, so he had to stand under the dripping corners of buildings for ages to get washed off.

Our treat for the third night was that Stu and I got a comfy tent to sleep in instead of hammocks, and I was very glad of that because it was really cold that night and I hadn´t counted on it being cold so I didn´t bring warm clothes! Rooky error. Nevertheless we had another fun evening in the campsite playing ´Werewolf´and building houses of cards with ´Agua´ (´Water´), a seven-year-old local boy who was very sweet.

Some friendly locals at the third campsite, during a break in the rain:

Day 4:

This was the big one: finally, we got to the lost city. We were up early, had a hot drink and headed straight to the Ciudad Perdida. It was about an hour away from the camp - half an hour through jungle and across a river, then another half an hour up some ancient, mossy stone steps the first of the city´s many terraces.

Another river crossing:
The steep climb up the stone steps to the lost city:

The steps were really small for us - I think because the people who built the city were so much smaller than we are. So it was 1200 little steps up and up through the forest until we emerged into a clearing decorated with several stone circles that were apparently the locations of houses. This first clearing was once the city´s market, centuries ago.

Made it!:
In the clearing our excellent guide Archie and translator Carlos gave us an interesting history of the city. It is believed to date back to 800AD (making it over six centuries older than Machu Picchu), and the local indigenous communities call it´Teyuna´. It was originally inhabited by the Tairona people, who were the ancestors of today´s indigenous tribes. The city was never really ´lost´to the local peoples who have alway lived deep in the jungle here, but it was more widely discovered in 1972 after treasure hunters found the stone steps which led to the abandoned city (it was apparently abandoned during the Spanish conquest). The local tribes still hold a festival in the city every year.

The city consists of a network of circular terraces and plazas, joined by stone staircases. It was really amazing to wander through it, you never really got a sense of the scale of the city because each terrace was obscured from the next by the thick jungle. Staircases go off in lots of directions and it would be easy to get lost there! It was also mosquito-central: I had never seen so many enormous mossies in my life, and you couldn´t stand still for long without being totally devoured by them! As we were given the history of the place, we must have looked like a group of crazies, all swatting around at the air and smacking ourselves to get rid of them!

One of the many mossy stone staircases leading through the jungle to the cleared terraces that made up this jungle city:

Staircase leading up to one of the terraces:

View from one of the upper terraces:

Stu had enough of the staircases...:

The site has some slightly scary stories in its past. In 2003, a group of tourists was kidnapped from there and held for three months, although they were released unharmed eventually. There have also been fights between looters and police, which resulted in some deaths. However, security has been increased and army soldiers now guard the city so it is safe for tourists again. We met the soldiers who were happy to chat with us about their experiences there - they are posted to the Ciudad Perdida for 5 months at a time!

The soldiers guarding the site, who were both very friendly and very heavily armed:

After a few hours exploring this amazing place, we headed back down the steps to camp for a delicious lunch of hot lentil soup and fried arepas, as we still had a lot of walking to do: all the way back to the campsite we stayed in on Day 2! It was a long walk, and very slippery to go downhill in all that mud - lots of people fell over at various points. But we were all so pleased to have reached our goal that spirits were high as we spent our last night in hammocks.

Day 5

Our final day meant walking from Day 2´s campsite all the way back to the start of the trek: that´s the first two days walking in reverse, in one day. It was much easier of course going downhill (with exhausted legs on the final day I couldn´t imagine the insanity of walking up the steep slopes that we had managed on the first day). We were up at 5am to start walking at 6am, so that we could make it back to the start in time for lunch. One of the guys in our group hilariously managed to bargain with a local to get a ride back on a mule, which unfortunately gave Stu a minor allergic reaction. A quick break and a couple of antihistamines later, we caught up with the group in time for a well-earned stop at a natural swimming hole - bliss! :

Our victory lunch back at the start point included a few bottles of bubbly provided by the tour to celebrate! I felt elated to have made it back, happy to have had such a good time with such good people, relieved that I would sleep in a proper bed again at last, and sad that the trip was over. I also said goodbye to my walking boots, which had seen me through about eight years but were well and truly finished off by this trek!

After a bumpy ride back to Taganga, we had the most amazing showers and naps EVER. But we made sure to get up to meet all our group (including our guide Carlos) for dinner at our hostel. A few Colombian rums later and we headed out to a bar/club on the beach which had an open-air dancefloor balcony with amazing views across the bay. Despite aching limbs, we danced the night away before collapsing back at the hostel after one of the best experiences of the year.

The morning after, Stu in a hammock in our lovely hostel, writing the dates of this second trek on our Inca Trail walking sticks:

Taganga: A Slice of Caribbean Life in Colombia

After our three days in Cartagena Ania and I decided to move on to Taganga, a small fishing village next to the city of Santa Marta. After hopping into a minibus full of tourists, four hours later we arrived at Casa de Felipe, a hostel that had been recommended to us by several travellers and guidebooks. It hasn't disappointed and has turned out to be one of our favourite hostels of the whole trip, right up there with Travellers' Oasis in Cairns, Australia. We arrived on 5th July, and with two days to go to my birthday, decided to splash out on a slightly more expensive room with a TV, its own balcony complete with hammock and a sea view!

Here's Ania repairing her sunglasses with her sewing kit (yes, her sunglasses!) on our beautiful balcony:

For me, Taganga is the place where I truly started to enjoy Colombia. Casa de Felipe is fantastic, a big hostel that somehow manages to feel private and sociable at the same time. There's also an amazing restaurant run by Patrick the Dutch chef. His fillet mignon steak with blue cheese sauce is incredible. There's also great veggie soups and wraps that Ania's been enjoying. We've eaten in the restaurant several times now and as well as the great food and atmosphere, we're usually joined by the hostel's resident kittens who are tiny and so cute! On our first night we met Mel and Steph, two lovely Aussie girls from Melbourne. Here's Mel playing with one of the kittens at our dinner table (after we'd eaten, obviously!):

Colombia has some of the cheapest scuba diving in the world, so on 6th July we set off with a local company called Aquantis for two boat dives. It was unbelievable value! About £40 each for two dives, a basic lunch and photos taken by the guide underwater included in the price! The staff all speak great English and are very helpful and friendly too. The diving was good despite some poor visibility in places. But the amount of wildlife we saw more than made up for that: a sea snake, lion fish, porcupine fish, moray eels (in two different colours) and a lot of squid. Ania saw some seahorses on the first dive after I'd surfaced (I am an official air guzzler underwater). We also had a really nice group of six: us, plus two other couples from the UK and Holland:

L-R that's Nicky, James, me, Ania, Sonna and Rob.

We're ok! Us two underwater:

Some of the aforementioned amazing wildlife: a big lobster we found hiding under a rock...

...and a seahorse:

The next day was my 27th birthday! We saw it in on the night of the 6th. Hanging out on the roof terrace of Felipe's we met an American guy called Dave and his brother Joe. Dave thought I looked familiar and it turned out we'd met him almost four months ago in Pucón in Chile! It was a nice surprise to link back up with someone we'd hung out with before and the guys raised a glass to me as the clock ticked over to midnight on the 7th. The next day began my birthday proper. Thanks again for all the messages and emails on the day, it was so touching to hear from everyone. I certainly haven't had many birthdays abroad, so to have one in South America was really special! On the actual day we didn't do much, aside from some serious relaxing! Ania woke me up with a pancake breakfast in bed from the hostel's restaurant (ain't she sweet?!), I Skyped with my mum, dad and sister and we ate dinner with Mel and Steph.

In the evening we took a walk down to the beach and found a small percussion band playing with the beautiful sunset behind them:

Then we bought arepas from this street vendor. Arepas are cornmeal patties. This guy barbecues his and then stuffs them with guacomole, salsa, cheese and chicken. Yum!

We ate our snacks on the beach and continued to watch the sunset. Ania took this photo, I'd say it's one of the most beautiful from our entire trip:

The following day Ania, myself and Mel headed to nearby Tayrona National Park. Poor Steph was ill, having been taken to hospital and put on a drip just days before. The three of us caught a bus for an hour and a half to the entrance to Tayrona, paid our entrance fee and then set off on a three-hour walk to a beach camp site where we planned to stay the night. We started off by taking the wrong path for the trek, the one meant for horses rather than people!

Mel and Ania at the very start of our walk:

Some leaf-cutter ants! These guys were everywhere and busy, busy, busy. I suspect that somewhere they are building one MASSIVE leaf. But to what purpose?

Our horse track was churned up into a kind of swamp in places (easy with hoofs, difficult without) and I was only wearing flip flops, having not anticipated a tough trek! Very soon Ania and I had gone barefoot to avoid losing our footwear and we were thigh-deep in mud, while Mel had an easier time of it in her trainers!

My new pair of mud-boots. Just dip and let them dry!

Towards the end of the toughest section my left leg went all the way into the mud and I stacked it, ending up sitting down in the mud! I was not best pleased at the time but after a quick wash in the sea I saw the funny side. I believe Mel has an embarrassing photo but I don't have it for the blog. What a shame!

After some easier walking over sandy beaches we reached Cabo de San Juan, where we rented hammocks for 20,000 pesos (about £7) and met up with Mel's friends from home Jim and Chris, plus their friend Tyra from London. By this point it was afternoon so we spent as much time as possible relaxing on Cabo's beautiful beach and cooling off in the rough yet refreshing surf.

Ania relaxing as the light fades on Cabo beach:

Later we climbed the rocks you can see in the distance in the photo above and enjoyed the views, before returning to our camp. Here's our footprints leading back from our mini-adventure:

That evening our little group was joined by Owen from New Zealand and we all had a poor and overpriced dinner, plus some beers, before breaking out our own bottles of rum and ginger ale, which we drank from our old beer cans for lack of cups! We rinsed them out first, what do you think we are, animals?!

After a surprisingly good sleep in our hammocks we woke up, or rather were woken up by some obnoxious tourists, at 7am. It was actually quite nice to be up for a swim before breakfast and to enjoy some beach time before the insanely hot high temperatures in the middle of the day. At one point Ania and I climbed up to a sort of tower they have at Cabo beach. The building has private cabanas and a floor below with more hammocks (the demand is high, but Mel managed to get one for her second day). We checked out the views from the balconies and climbed on some more rocks, as you can see in the photos below:

At midday Ania and I waved goodbye to the others and headed to La Piscina, a different beach on the walk back with calmer waves. There we met James and Nicky again, the couple we'd scuba dived with days before. Ania and I took the right path back to the park entrance this time, which was far easier although it definitely had muddy points! We got the bus back to Taganga and enjoyed a good shower and a proper bed at Casa de Felipe.

Arrival in Colombia: Cartagena de Indias

After relaxing in Cusco for another couple of days after the trek to Machu Picchu, Stu and I flew back to Lima for just one night back at the volunteer flat before catching our flight to Colombia. We had decided to skip straight to the Caribbean coast for the final month of our trip, and it was certainly a big change! Getting off the plane was like stepping into a wall of humidity and heat - which was actually just what we were looking for after spending the last couple of months wrapped up against the cold. On the way to our hostel it started raining - heavy, tropical rain. We´d barely slept the night before and were exhausted, so it was a bit of a downer at first. But once the sun came out the next day we really started to enjoy Cartagena. Cartagena de Indias (the city´s full name) is an old colonial city, and the walled old section is beautiful - plazas, balconies covered in bougainvillea, horse-drawn carts and stalls selling mango slices. We were staying just outside the colonial centre in a slightly down-an-out neighbourhood called Getsemani, which is where all the cheap hostels are - it wasn´t too shady, but it certainly didn´t have the charm of the centre. There were street parties blasting vallenato music in the alley outside our hostel most nights! Although one nice thing about our hostel was that we made friends with fellow guest Richie, from Ireland, and convinced him to come trekking with us the following week!

Cartagena in the rain:
Most of our time in Cartagena was spent wandering about the city and enjoying the warm weather and views from the fort walls along the sea. We also tried local Colombian food straight away, and it is delicious - much nicer than Peruvian food in my opinion. Think beans, rice, fried plantains, veggies, arepas (cornflour patties), and meaty things for Stu such as spiced minced beef and fresh fish from the Caribbean of course. Colombia also boasts amazing tropical fruits and delicious super-sweet sweets in the same vein as Indian sweets, which I love. Just inside the walled colonial centre is an alley called El Portal de los Dulces, which is a sweet market with loads of stalls selling sweets predominantly made from coconut, nuts, or arequipe (a milky caramel substance which is much the same thing as dulce de leche in Argentina and manjar blanco in Peru). Yum!

View of a typical plaza from the city walls:

Another visit we made was to the Palacio de la Inquisicion, which is a museum that documents the history of the city, and in particular the effect of the Spanish Inquisition there. There was a display of some grisly torture instruments, but most of them had a sign next to them saying that these weren´t actually ever used in Cartagena (the Inquisition seems to have been at its most brutal back in Europe). The whole museum was in a beautiful old colonial palace, which was worth a look in itself.

You can really tell you are in the Caribbean here: the people, the music, the heat, the sea all give it a really different feel to the previous places we´ve been. Here we are with a couple of local women selling fruit from the baskets on their heads:

Cartagena was fun, but after a couple of days we had enough of the city and decided to head along the coast to the village of Taganga...