A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: barbla

A Taste of Costa Rica

Travelling with my dad and Anne-Marie

sunny 22 °C

Red-eyed leaf frog - the mascot of Costa Rica

Red-eyed leaf frog - the mascot of Costa Rica

It seems I have to cast myself way back in time to catch up on this story about Costa Rica. Island life in the Pacific is slow, and a month and a half ago feels more like three months ago. Also, it has been such a change of scenery since we arrived in the Pacific that the details of our last weeks in Latin America seem harder to recall.

We were travelling with my dad and Anne-Marie who had met us in Panama in early November. After visiting the City and the area of Boquete, we took a long bus journey from David, in northern Panama, to San José in Costa Rica. Anne-Marie and I had considered breaking up the journey by going to the Osa Peninsula and the Parque Nacional Corcovado for a few days. This destination however was hard to reach and travelling there from the Panamanian border appeared to be too adventurous for our party. Reluctantly we abandoned that plan and decided to focus on the highlights of Costa Rica's North instead.

San Jose post office - one of the prettier buildings...

San Jose post office - one of the prettier buildings...

Our stop over in San José was short and of a practical nature as San José is not exactly the prettiest city in the world. Dave and I needed a day in town to get the keyboard of our laptop fixed (the new one we bought in Ecuador...), and it's the hub for pretty much all buses to elsewhere in the country. Even though Costa Rica's capital can't boast many interesting buildings (whether old or new) I thought it had a nice, lively atmosphere, and kind of liked the place. We also found a couple of worthwhile museums and restaurants, always a key ingredient for me to appreciate a city.

My dad and Anne-Marie visited the Museo de Oro Precolombino (Gold museum) on their own whilst Dave and I were at the computer shop. We then went to the Museo de Jade (Jade museum) together after a lunch break in one of the many sodas (as local cafés are called) of the Central Market. Both had good exhibits, and I had never seen so many finely chiselled jade pieces before. In the evenings, we first ate at Café Mundo, a trendy spot with a large terrace near our hotel, and to which we returned for apéritif the following day. On our second night, we caught a taxi to go to Restaurante Whapin, a Caribbean eatery in another neighbourhood. After taking a few turns, and giving the driver various instructions to get to the restaurant – addresses in Costa Rica function by landmark rather than by street names – we found out that the place located 200 metres east of the small lighthouse was also within walking distance of our hotel. The taxista had a good laugh at us whilst he cashed in his fare and provided directions to get back by foot after dinner.

Volcan Arenal clears soon after arrival

Volcan Arenal clears soon after arrival

There's likely more to see and do in San José, but we left the capital the next morning for the small town of La Fortuna, at the foot of Volcan Arenal. This volcano is one of the easiest active volcanoes to visit in the world so we were all very excited to potentially see some live lava. As a consequence, we were all equally disappointed to learn that the volcano hadn't spouted out anything for the past 11 months and looked rather dormant at the moment. We still enjoyed looking at it from the balcony in front of our rooms. When we arrived, it was sunny and we could see the top. Perhaps we should have rushed to to the national park and observatory at the foot of the volcano on that first day as thereafter the cone remained mostly covered in cloud. Instead we chose to spend a relaxing afternoon and review the many tours you can partake in.

In the end, we decided that renting a car was a better solution for us than going on various tours. This gave us the liberty to visit the area's key sights at our own rhythm, and actually turned out to be more economical overall. We explored the local forest canopy from the trails and hanging bridges of the Puentes Colgantes de Arenal pathways in the morning. We then drove along Lake Arenal for a bit and had lunch in a lovely roadside café with a great view over the lake. In the afternoon, we walked around some of the trails of Parque Nacional Volcan Arena. We saw a large Ceiba tree and took another look at the lake whilst standing on the 1968 lava flow. Unfortunately, the volcano was hidden by clouds the whole time and we all agreed that it wasn't worth continuing to the volcano observatory. As it felt too warm to go to one of the area's many thermal baths and we had already had a long day, we simply headed back into town for dinner.

At the twisted waterfall

At the twisted waterfall

The following day, we had planned a horse-back excursion to the pretty Catarata de la Fortuna (La Fortuna waterfall). It was raining heavily when we woke up, so we first hoped that the tour would be cancelled, and actually called several times to ask about it. It wasn't cancelled, but we were lucky enough that the rain stopped just about when we were climbing onto our horses and did not start again until late in the evening. Don't take this trip if you like your horses to go fast. We hardly went beyond snail pace, and the horses really only respond to the guide's voice command. The last bit of trail is done by foot and leads down into a canyon to the waterfall. This is pretty amazing and I wished we would have had more time to hang around this trail and by the waterfall. We even spotted an eyebrow viper (poisonous) curled up in a tree on the way. We took a detour back to the ranch with our horses and stopped at a Maleku show-hut. The Maleku are an indigenous tribe living north of Volcan Arenal and the traditional hut is there to show tourists their ancient ways of living and more importantly sell their handicraft. I loved their rainmaker tubes, especially the giant one they were using for the show, and could not resist buying a small one as a gift for someone back home.

Giant rain maker stick

Giant rain maker stick

Later on that afternoon, we went to the Baldi Hot Springs. I have seen many thermal baths in my life as they are quite common in Switzerland and I'm a big fan of them, but I had never seen anything as extravagant as these – it was the Las Vegas of thermal spas! There are 25 pools and 12 different temperatures to choose from (apparently... we lost count after a while). The pools stretch out into a lush tropical garden, some are so hot that you don't even want to dip a toe in (have you ever tried anything above 44 degrees? At Baldi, there's one a 67 degrees!). At least three of the pools feature a bar so you can sip your cocktail whilst sitting in the warm water and watch TV. Some have jets and jacuzzi bubbles, others have lie-in loungers. There's a pool with various water-slides (kind of scary, but I did give a go to one of them), and the last one is towered over by a giant waterfall under which you can sit if you tolerate the high temperature and intense pressure of the water. Check out http://baldicostarica.com/tour/photo-gallery.html for some photos of the extravaganza, we only managed to get one with drinks in hand at the bar.

By the swimming pool bar

By the swimming pool bar

The next morning we moved on to Monteverde via the popular jeep-boat-jeep route. The jeep is more of a 4x4 mini-van but it still gets you there much faster than you would through any other route. On reflection, I preferred the Monteverde region to the Arenal region. We stayed in a cute little hostal in the village of Santa Elena. It was called Cabinas Eddy B&B and managed by Freddy, a charming young Tico (as Costa Ricans are called), and his wife Shirleny (www.cabinas-eddy.com). We thought it was easily the best value place we found in the whole of Costa Rica and were very happy about the excellent breakfast of fruit and eggs each morning. If you are looking for it, it is right next to Casa Tranquilo. Whilst the village was still very much geared up for tourists, things seemed to be a bit more low-key and less brash in Santa Elena and Monteverde than in La Fortuna. At least we did not get solicited by a tour salesman each time we walked through town.

The star attractions of the area are the various cloud forests which you can visit from dawn to dusk. We took a guided walk through the Reserva Santa Elena one early morning, and were shown many plant and bird species by our enthusiastic guide. Despite keeping our eyes peeled, and smelling them occasionally, we spotted no howler monkeys. We could not find any sloths either. Apart from the forest, there are a number of other interesting places to see. My dad and Anne-Marie went to the small Santa Elena orchid garden, whilst Dave and I visited the ranarium. We all came back thrilled with what we'd seen. Dave and I returned to the ranarium that night when many of the frogs were more active and displayed off all the colours of their body. We also took an amazing tour at the Bat Jungle. This included over an hour's talk to learn more about these animals followed by a walk through a bat house. It was led by a very passionate Belgium biologist who had landed there after meeting his other half in Costa Rica. We all walked out of it believing that bats are the most important and astonishing animals on earth, and swearing that we were going to install bat shelters on the walls of our houses. Watch out, we may try to convert you to do so as well... To find out more about the Bat Jungle and bat houses, visit www.batjungle.com and www.batcon.org/index.php/get-involved/install-a-bat-house.html.

In the cloud forest

In the cloud forest

From Monteverde and Santa Elena, we took a tourist transfer van to Tamarindo where I was hoping to see a giant Leatherback turtle lay eggs for my birthday. If a bit pricey, the tourist transfer van seemed the easiest option to get us from A to B in this case. This way, we could avoid changing buses three times and having to wait by the roadside under potentially pouring rain (rainy season was proving to be quite reliable in Costa Rica) until the next connection turned up. It also saved a bit of travel time and meant we didn't have to get up at the ungodly hour of 5am. On the road, we saw two different groups of howler monkeys and stopped at a café which had a colony of semi-domesticated macaws in the backyard. We also passed Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge), a short-cut to the Nicoya peninsula financed and built by the Taiwanese government in 2003.

Tamarindo lies in the northwest of the Nicoya peninsula and is a well known tourist spot with a developed infrastructure. Many go there first and foremost for the sun, the surf and the party. We took the long trip because I had read that the critically endangered Leatherback turtles, the biggest of all sea turtles, come to lay their eggs in nearby Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas de Guanacaste from November to February. Dave and I had longed to see a turtle laying eggs since we visited the impressive TAMAR project centre back in Praia do Forte, Brazil (see “The treasures of Bahia state” posting) so we were very excited about the prospect to finally being able to witness this. In the end, we did not see a Leatherback, but a sub-species of the Green turtle (locally referred to as Black turtle). It was indeed only the beginning of the nesting season for the Leatherbacks, and by now this species is unfortunately so endangered that only very few of them come ashore. Chances were just better of observing a Black turtle.

Turtle eggs being laid

Turtle eggs being laid

We drove to an unprotected beach (shocking!!) and followed our guide unto the sand stretch with our red lights. White lights are prohibited as they disrupt the turtles who are trying to navigate their way ashore. Soon after, he spotted one who was already digging her bed to nest. We watched her quietly for a while so as not to disturb her. She re-started her bed several times as she was bothered by roots or other things in her way. Another tour group arrived on the beach and our guide decided to take us to a neighbouring beach to limit the numbers watching the same turtle. There we found another animal within minutes. This turtle had already dug her hole and was entering her trance to lay her eggs. This is the best moment to approach without disturbance. We could take a few photos and even touch her carapace. Once she had finished her job, the guide moved the eggs to another hole he had dug a few metres up the beach. This is to prevent locals from finding the eggs for consumption. Regrettably, these are still considered as a delicacy or an aphrodisiac. Locals can easily follow the turtle tracks to find the original nest and since we were on an unprotected beach, there was no one there to keep them from doing that.

Whilst we observed the awe-inspiring spectacle, a lone biologist from the Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas arrived to take measurements, count the eggs and mark the turtle. The guide told us he spends every night on three beaches of the area to help the conservation effort as much as possible. We all walked away having mixed feelings about the whole experience, and I believe we do have to question ourselves about whether it is right to gawk at these age-old creatures in a moment that normally commands utter privacy by anyone's standards. That said, it immediately renewed Dave's and my desire to act for the protection and conservation of these animals. We asked the guide how we could help the biologist and offered our last week in Costa Rica up for turtle volunteering. We even phoned and emailed the park's director to see how we could help. In the end, we could not make it work this time as a minimum of two weeks is required from volunteers given the required training. The project will remain in our heads however, and we will continue to look for an opportunity to save the turtles.

Blue and gold macaw

Blue and gold macaw

The following day was my birthday and I managed to buy two pieces of clothing (a funky dress and a top/skirt) in a local shop where they were sewing the pieces in the design studio above. I also had a swim and a relaxing massage on the beach where the sound of the waves mixed in with the chill out music emerging from the bar next door. Later in the afternoon, we drove back towards San José to see some things in the surrounding area and be closer to the airport as it was nearly time for my Dad and Anne-Marie to return home. We did not go back into the city however, and stayed in Atenas, a small village of the Central Valley, not too far away from the international airport.

The next morning, we drove up to Volcan Poas, an active volcano that has the bad habit of getting covered in clouds from about 10am. This pretty much kills the chance to see anything apart from other disappointed tourists near the rim of its main crater beyond that time. We did not make it before the cloud descended, despite getting up early. We were lucky enough though to get a rainless walk around the remainder of the national park's trails and a peak into the old crater which is now filled by a lake. We also took the time to go to Zoo-Ave, a worthwhile bird park that ended up having lots of other animals too, and the butterfly farm of La Guácima. The latter we fitted in due to Anne-Marie's flight being delayed by a whole 24h. This confirmed my belief that it is better to avoid flying with Iberia if you can help yourself (they still seemed to have problems scheduling that flight a week later when we returned to the airport. Why would you try to land a long-haul flight at 3pm, when the rain is most likely to be torrential?).

View over central valley

View over central valley

We really liked to share a piece of our journey with my dad and Anne-Marie. We think the travelling together went well, although I guess we'll find out how they really felt if they ever travel with us again. After their departure, we only had a week left in Latin America before starting our slow return home via the Pacific Islands. We were torn between lazying on the Caribbean coast (more specifically in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, much recommended by Basak and Sam) or heading to Bahia Salinas near the Nicaraguan border, for a week of kite-surfing.

We picked the kite-surfing...

Click for more photos of San Jose and surroundings, La Fortuna and Monteverde.

Posted by barbla 16:49 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

Panama City and Boquete

Meeting up with my dad and Anne-Marie

sunny 28 °C

We have now left our adventures in Latin America behind us and are in Samoa, our first destination in the Pacific. Considering that we are dreadfully behind on our blog, we've decided to take up my dad's suggestion and write a more recent story first. As a consequence, we'll skip Colombia for now (though it was much loved), in the hope that we'll catch up on it as we sit on a beach of white sand. Fast-forwarding should enable us to maintain a more up to date blog (maybe...). Perhaps this will help people who have been telling us they never know where we are (despite our best efforts to create a journey map with dates). We also try to write shorter posts again (another recurrent critique to our recent stories is that they take too much time to read).

Panama City skyline

Panama City skyline

We arrived in the small port of Portobelo (Panama) by sailing boat which left from Cartagena (Colombia). This trip took us five days with a stop in the picture-perfect San Blas archipelago for two nights. We were meeting my father in Panama City on 3rd November, and his partner, Anne-Marie, was arriving on the 4th. My dad got to our meeting place, at Casa de Carmen in one of the nicer areas of Panama City, about an hour before us. We had many travel tales to share (he had been road tripping from Boston to Florida with a friend before catching a flight to join us), so we soon headed to a wine bar for aperitif.

The following day we rented a car and drove to the Caribbean side of the isthmus to visit the Gatun Locks. This conveniently allowed for a detour back to Portobelo where I had forgotten a mobile phone on the boat. The Gatun Locks are the biggest of the three sets of locks on the Panama Canal. They lower or rise boats by 29.5 metres in three stages between the Caribbean Sea and the artificial Lake Gatun. We just made it in time before the visitor centre closed and were able to witness a big ship go through two stages of the locks. The vessel was followed by a comparatively rather small-looking catamaran which entered the Canal at the same time. This made Dave and I dream about the day we would go through the Canal on a yacht ourselves... perhaps when we sail around the world during our next sabbatical. On our way back to Panama City, we picked up Anne-Marie from the airport.

Boat passes the Gatun lock house

Boat passes the Gatun lock house

Since we still had the car, we drove to the Miraflores Locks the next morning. These are the most visited locks of the Canal as they are the closest to Panama City. Apart from the viewing platform to see the ships pass, it has an informative visitor centre where you can learn more about the construction of the Canal. We observed a Chinese ship go through this set of locks. It was even bigger than the one we saw on the previous day and, according to the official speaker who loudly comments on the passing boats, there were only 60 cm to spare on each side between the ship and the lock walls. It was truly impressive to watch the giant vessel being lowered into the first chamber of the locks and, once the water level equalised, being gently pulled through the open gates into the second chamber by six locomotives.

Each set of locks actually comes in pairs allowing traffic to enter and exit the Canal at the same time. But ships sometimes still have to wait around for days and they have to book their slot months in advance. Between 35 and 40 boats go through the channel each day. You can see them queue up for it in the ocean on both sides of the isthmus. With such demand and the boats getting bigger and bigger, the Canal is currently expanding. A third lane of larger locks is being constructed near the Miraflores and Gatun Locks and the channel itself is being deepened and enlarged in some sections. Completion of the new larger locks is planned for the Canal's 100th birthday in 2014.

Watching boats pass at Miraflores Locks

Watching boats pass at Miraflores Locks

Having had our fill of Panama's engineering marvel, we drove out to the Causeway under pounding rain. Since Colombia, we had become used to the afternoon downpour common to the rainy season. But we could not see much of our surroundings so we decided it was better to just look for a lunch spot until the deluge calmed down. The Causeway is a 2km-stretch of palm-fringed road that heads out into the Pacific Ocean linking four small islands. To build the road, the land between the islands was filled with debris from the Canal construction. It is supposed to protect the sea leading to the entrance of the Canal at the Miraflores Locks. Now the Causeway is popular relaxation spot for residents and tourists alike. It offers splendid views over Panama City's skyline and a good selection of bars and restaurants as well as plenty of walking space and cycle lanes. The future Museum of Biodiversity designed by famous architect Frank Gehry will provide it with a new landmark when it's finally completed. Now it looks more like a pile of colourful rubble.

(Future) Museum of Biodiversity

(Future) Museum of Biodiversity

On our final day in Panama City, we visited the old colonial part of town, the Casco Viejo. Whilst charming with its old crumbling buildings next to beautifully renovated ones, Dave and I weren't perhaps as blown away by it as Anne-Marie and my dad. However, matching Cartagena and the many perfectly preserved colonial villages of Columbia is a big challenge, and we still very much enjoyed our walk-around. After a quick bite to eat, we headed to the domestic airport to catch a flight for David, Panama's second largest city and the capital of the Chiriqui province. From there, we took a taxi to Boquete where we planned to spend a couple of days before crossing the border to Costa Rica.

Kuna lady selling crafts in Panama's old town

Kuna lady selling crafts in Panama's old town

Boquete is famous for its balmy climate and nice surroundings. The area boasts several recommended scenic walks, thermal springs, coffee growing farms and plenty of extreme sport options. We thought we'd definitely find something for everyone's interest there. It turned out that the hike I most fancied, the Sendero los Quetzales (Quetzal trail) across the Volcan Baru national park, was quite difficult from Boquete. The better starting point would have been in Cerro Punta, another village lying about 1,000 metres higher than Boquete. But this required a long drive and sounded too complicated to us, so we decided to try the Sendero El Pianista (Pianist trail) instead. It turned out to be a lovely walk, although the ascent through the cloud forest to the top of El Pianista (as the mount is called) was quite steep and we got wet and muddy in the rain. My dad also managed to rip a big hole around the crotch in his only walking trousers.

Rain in the cloud forest

Rain in the cloud forest

On our second day, my dad and Anne-Marie enjoyed an excellent visit of an organic coffee farm whilst Dave and I stayed in our comfortable round cabin to do some administrative work and put up a blog posting. In fairness, we had wanted to go river rafting but the recommended outfitter that ran the tour was full for that day and we could not find another company that offered a ride on the same day in the time we had available for search. In the afternoon, we headed to the local hot springs, Los Pozos de Caldera. These consisted of two rather simple, home-made, stone-walled pools in the forest by a river and we all thought it wasn't really worth the taxi ride. The water was just too hot (about 40 degrees) for the weather and the pools too small to really relax in. We did see a funny tame monkey on the way to the pools though, which belonged to the family owning the grounds, and the drive to the pools offered beautiful views over the Chiriqui valley.

After a last home-cooked dinner in our cabin and another tranquil night, it was time to return to David and get the bus crossing the border to San Jose, Costa Rica. For more photos of Panama and Boquete, click here.

More short stories soon, we hope...

Posted by barbla 17:21 Archived in Panama Comments (1)

Whistle stop tour of the Ecuadorian Andes

From Cuenca to Quito with Lecia

semi-overcast 20 °C

When we last left Lecia in Salta, Argentina, we didn't really think we'd see her again until our brief stop-over in LA before flying to Samoa. Her plan was to go to Australia via Easter Island before heading back home to Los Angeles whilst we were going through Brazil and then up north towards Central America. But Lecia changes plans quite easily and likes to go with the flow. So after living a month in Ushuaia, she decided it was a better idea to stick with the Spanish speaking world and head up the Pacific coast across Chile and Peru to join us for a little more travelling together in Ecuador. As ever, I had suggested a few places to visit based on my reading and come up with a route that would take us to Cuenca, Baños, Cotapaxi and finally Quito.

Team Caballos: Lecia, Barbla and Dave near Cotopaxi

Team Caballos: Lecia, Barbla and Dave near Cotopaxi

From Puerto Lopez we first needed to head back to Guayaquil from where we could pick up a bus to Cuenca. This was just as well as we needed to pick up our still broken laptop from the service centre, and whiz through the luxurious shopping mall mentioned in the last posting, to buy a new one. Whilst in Puerto Lopez we had indeed received the sad news that fixing our laptop would cost nearly as much as a brand-new one and take the silly number of 45 days to complete. As a consequence, it was easy to agree on the course of action. We settled on a similarly small and light Acer netbook, which came with a Spanish keyboard and operating system. ¡Naturalmente!

Bus journeys in Ecuador are more interesting than most bus journeys we have experienced so far in South America. They come with challenges such as trying to avoid people vomiting over you or sitting on your shoulder. It is quite common for the bus attendant to distribute plastic bags before the start of the drive and to have a fair amount of people make a discreet usage of them. We're not sure if the Ecuadorians are particularly sensitive to motion sickness or if it's just an effect of the bus snaking along the twisty mountain roads. It reached its zenith for us when an old lady shoved a bag of vomit into our faces, asking politely for it to be thrown out of our open window. Quickly evaluating the options of polluting the road side with plastic or the thing landing on our laps, we shamefully ended up throwing it out. Lecia gave us a lecture until she found out what was in the bag, and we've been picking up litter in national parks as penance since. People sitting on your shoulder is just an effect of picking up too many passengers on the way. It's quite common to have nearly as many standing in the bus as sitting for long stretches of the journey. Basically, nearly everyone travels by bus as they are the cheapest option going (we certainly thought Ecuador had the cheapest fares of all of South America). Otherwise the buses themselves are quite OK, despite the loud martial arts films that often get played. Furthermore, contrary to expectations any chickens, cats or dogs on board are neatly packed in cardboard boxes before being placed on the overhead racks or in the boot.

Renovation with modern touch in Cuenca

Renovation with modern touch in Cuenca

I picked Cuenca because it is one of the best preserved colonial towns in Ecuador (UNESCO world heritage listed) and close to both a national park and the most important pre-Incan ruins of the country at Ingapirca. We got in late so we didn't get to see much on arrival. We only had time to check into our cool little hostel (El Cafecito) and jump across the small square nearby to a restaurant-bar which was still serving dinner. We explored the town on our next day and were quite charmed by the old colonial houses and the many plazas. We were also enjoying the warm sunshine after the two weeks in Puerto Lopez with near-constant cloud cover. The oldest part of Cuenca follows a small river where houses have been built on the short, steep bank and look very picturesque. Behind this area there are lots of shops producing, repairing and selling Panama hats. These are actually an Ecuadorian product contrary to its misleading name. Somehow we all managed to avoid buying one, with a touch of regret, and we didn't know anyone's head size to make it a present. Apart from just strolling around the cobbled streets we visited several churches, the largest of which was the cathedral. You can see its impressive blue-tiled domes from around town. We also liked the colourful flower market with indigenous ladies in traditional dress close by. Towards the end of the afternoon, we enhanced our understanding of Ecuador's various cultures at the ethnographic exhibit of the Museo Del Banco Central Pumapungo. This museum is famous for displaying real, shrunken heads from the Amazonian Shuar tribes, but it holds many other interesting items too. These days, head-shrinking is a forbidden practice, on humans at least!

Beyond just being a pretty town, Cuenca also has a good range of restaurants and lively bars. Our hostel had a relaxed café out front, busy throughout the day and with a good selection of cocktails on offer at happy hour (including Gin & Tonic). One evening we excitedly went in search of a restaurant described as serving Vietnamese food. It transpired that they were out of ingredients for the few Viet dishes on the menu, but they did have a reasonable Thai selection. However, when the band came on we could no longer hear each other and quickly left. Another evening we decided to try cuy, a speciality throughout the Andes. This is guinea pig, usually slowly roasted on a spit over a wood fire. We headed to a restaurant famed for this delicacy which had many spits squeaking away at the back of the restaurant. Whilst the sound could remind you of the original fluffy pets, we promise you that they were all already dead when we arrived and we didn't have to pick one for the fire. We thought cuy tasted a bit like crispy pork skin with a white flesh reminiscent of rabbit, chicken or pork. Since the roasting marinade was well done we enjoyed the flavours, but the guinea pigs really don't come with a lot of meat – it is mostly avoury, glistening skin.

Given that we had recently seen some ancient ruins at Kuélap, we opted for a day-tour of the Cajas national park on our second day instead of the ruins at Ingapirca. The Cajas park sits between 3,100 and 4,200 metres and is mostly páramo, high-altitude moorland. Specific to the park are a high number of tiny lakes and small forests of polylepis trees that are endemic to the area and prosper in sheltered depressions. Our tour started with a walk around a small lake to spot birds. As usual when we go birding we didn't see that many. We then drove to a high point in the park where the watershed between the two oceans lies. This is of geographical interest as rivers flowing to the west only have less than 70 km to go to reach the Pacific, whereas those flowing east go into the Amazon and have over 3,000 km to flow to reach the Atlantic (both straight-line distances). After that we went for a 3 hour walk through the páramo and lakes. The walk went mostly downhill and wasn't that difficult although we did feel the altitude at the beginning. In any case the guide complained, only half-jokingly, that we were all walking too fast. We saw many achupallas (puya puya aequatorialis, also called chupaya by the locals), a type of bromelia that looks more like a cactus and grows a long fluffy stem with tiny blue flowers from its leafy base. The indigenous people burn this stem to encourage rainfall, sometimes causing fires. Our walk ended in a trout restaurant, which seems to be the common lunch dish when you go on a tour in the Andes. Click here for more photos of Cuenca.

One of the many, many lakes of Parque National Cajas

One of the many, many lakes of Parque National Cajas

We left for Baños on an early bus the next day. Baños was of interest to us because it's the emerging adrenaline-sports capital of Ecuador, and there are a few of those activities, in particular rafting and canoying, that we still haven't ticked off our list since we started our sabbatical. Baños is also a friendly little town with thermal baths that sits at the foot of Volcan Tungurahua (recently fuming) in a pretty valley, approximately mid-way between the central Andean plain and the Amazonian jungle. Due to its location, Baños enjoys a relatively warm climate and, at 1,800 metres, was one of the lowest points in Ecuador we visited after Puerto Lopez and Guayaquil.

Volcan Tungurahua remained elusive for most of our time in the area. Lecia and I were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it for 30 minutes one afternoon but otherwise it remained shrouded in clouds. This didn't keep us from having a lot of fun though. During our first walk through town we watched a bunch of crazy people jumping off a bridge over the Rio Pastaza. This made me quite dizzy after a while, whilst Dave started contemplating the thought of giving it a go. He didn't get a chance though as we put our names down to go canyoning shortly thereafter. This turned out to be with the same guys who were helping the people jump off the bridge – a reputable company called Jose and two dogs.

Banos and volcano

Banos and volcano

The canyoning route involved a few jumps, three good abseils besides waterfalls, a rope slide across the canyon, and generally walking, swimming and sliding along the river bed. With the wetsuit, the water temperature was just about tolerable although by the end everyone was feeling chilly. With the exception of one 2-3 metre jump, I did not die of fear and almost managed to enjoy myself! Lecia had a blast and Dave wanted even more drops. That said, to get back to some more familiar ground after the canyoning, we ate a fantastic cheese fondue in a Swiss-owned restaurant (Swiss Bistro) decorated with cows and all of the canton's flags. This was accompanied with mint tea and the traditional bottle of white wine, even though it wasn't Fendant. There was a local innovation which consisted of dunking cherry tomatoes into the hot cheese – quite tasty after my first 'this is not how its supposed to be' reaction.

We tried going to the thermal baths on the edge of town several times but never made it into the water. For reasons we never understood, they emptied the main pool in the evenings when we went along, forcing the a mass of people to cram into the small pool like sardines. As it was more reminiscent of the London Underground on a wet Monday morning than the relaxing baths we hoped for we never went in. To be honest, the baths weren't that nice and I wouldn't recommend going to Baños just for them. Perhaps some of those in the surrounding countryside may have been nicer, but they required taxi rides to reach. You can find more pics of Baños and our canyoning trip here.

All dogs are safely down

All dogs are safely down

Our next destination was a hostel called Secret Garden, just outside of Cotopaxi national park. This place had been praised by a Brit we met in Paraty, Brazil, and I had made a little note of it. Obviously we were also interested to see Cotopaxi itself which is a perfectly shaped, snow-capped volcanic cone, a bit less then two hours south of Quito. It is reputedly the highest active volcano on earth, though it hasn't properly coughed since 1903 and doesn't even smoke. We were picked up by Arturo, Secret Garden's dedicated driver, by the horse statue on the edge of the town of Machachi as planned. He drove us the last 15km to the hostel at the foot of ex-volcano Pasochoa near Cotopaxi national park.

When we arrived, the clouds were just clearing over the volcano and the sun was starting to set. The location of the hostel and the views from it were truly stunning and we immediately fell a little bit in love with the place. Green fields, with cows and horses rolled up to the base of Cotapaxi and several other impressive peaks dotted the horizon. The hostel itself is made up of several houses set in flowery gardens. On top of the hill there's a jacuzzi in a conservatory providing a great vista over the countryside and of the stars at night. Separately, there's an organic toilet that provides similarly inspirational views. Lecia, Dave and I stayed together in a 'honey-moon suite' which is somewhat misnamed, and is really just a simple cabaña. It did, though, have its own wood-burning stove which was much appreciated when jumping into bed at night, once Dave had super-charged it. The owners and staff, including some volunteers, were super friendly and everyone was served the good meals around the one large wooden table, making it feel like an extended family.

View over Cotopaxi from the garden

View over Cotopaxi from the garden

Secret Garden offers a number of activities in the area. We picked horse riding on the first day as I was keen to explore the countryside and Lecia was tempted to get back on a horse after 20-something years of avoiding them following a fall. We had a long ride to the national park entrance, and Dave and I took off galloping through the forest track whilst Lecia and our guide followed at a more sedate pace. Unfortunately Cotopaxi remained covered during most of our outing and we wouldn't have believed it was there if we had not seen it the evening before. It did show itself as we relaxed our bodies in the jacuzzi after the long six-hour ride.

The next day we went back to the national park, this time in a truck. We went all the way up to the car park at 4,500 metres. We then walked 300 further metres up the volcanic sand slope to Refugio Jo Ribas. This was exhausting and I could really feel the altitude. My head was spinning and at one point I felt I was going to vomit, but with Dave's help I slowly made it. After a short break at the refuge we walked up another 200 metres to the snow line and the edge of a glacier. This was a little easier as it was less steep. From up there we had strictly no view as the clouds had descended and it was snowing. However, everyone was thrilled to be at 5,000 metres (higher than Mont Blanc at 4809m) and to see some snow.

At the base of the glacier at 5,000 metres

At the base of the glacier at 5,000 metres

Back at the car park, mountain bikes were unloaded from the truck roofs and those who wanted could ride down to the base of the volcano, onwards to the park entrance and for those still keen to continue, all the remaining 12km back to the hostel. Dave soon disappeared into the mist in a more aggressive decent to the base of the volcano and thought it was one of the most fun things he'd done so far in our travels. As he was waiting for me at the bottom, he did discover that he'd lost a wheel nut in the process and the handle bars had seriously loosened. He later pointed out at the hostel that if they are to rent mountain bikes for a volcano decent they need to start doing some proper maintenance. I went down very slowly and whilst my knuckles froze on both brakes, I realised I should have followed my original instinct of taking the truck down to the bottom of the steep section to start riding from there. We did pedal all the way back to Secret Garden and for the most part enjoyed it, until I got a bit cold and tired on the last few kilometres.

I was glad I could just jump into the jacuzzi with Lecia rather than having to rush off to Quito when we reached the hostel. We had moved our appointment with the Jatun Sacha foundation (for our second volunteering stint) to the following morning to make sure we could fully enjoy our day tour and treat ourselves to another evening of conversation around the big table and fire place. Some may think that Secret Garden is a little bit expensive. It costs between USD32.5 – 44.5 (inc tax), depending on your accommodation choice. But factoring in that all meals are included, you get to hang out in a breathtaking location with amazing views and the atmosphere is really friendly, we thought it was well worth it. [Dave edit: subject to some bike maintenance!]. This link will take you to a few more stunning views of Cotopaxi.

Panoramic from our room at Secret Garden

Panoramic from our room at Secret Garden

In the morning it was time to move on to Quito and say goodbye to Lecia again. She had decided to go straight to Otovalo to be there for the weekend market, whilst we needed to be in Quito for our appointment with Jatun Sacha and a touch of city life before heading to our next voluntary role in a forest reserve. We deposited her back at the horse statue. Like before, we enjoyed seeing a bit of road with Lecia and we'll miss her companionship in the next few months. She's a very easy person to travel with and always seems to be content about my many travel plans. Better than that... I can happily inflict all of my travel advice upon on her without her complaining. She's even appreciative and often ends up following the advice I provided. We are looking forward to telling her of the rest of our South American stories when we briefly stop at her place in LA in November.

Posted by barbla 08:28 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Two weeks pretending to be a marine biologist

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

overcast 18 °C

Waving the tail

Waving the tail

Ever since I watched the Commandant Cousteau and Ushuaia on TV as a child, and later on David Attenborough's Deep Blue, some part of me wanted to become a marine biologist. But then how do you become a marine biologist in Switzerland, a country with no seas. My mother doesn't dislike nature but her preference has always tended towards man-made things. My father somehow failed to transmit his love of the environment to me as I was growing up, and I had to rediscover it all for myself as an adult. Our two weeks in Puerto Lopez working for the Pacific Whale Foundation were going to be my chance to test this long-forgotten idea.

Before getting to Puerto Lopez we had planned a short stop in Guayaquil to try to resuscitate our computer in a Toshiba-recommended repair centre. After checking our computer in with the technical guys and having a walk around a luxurious shopping mall in the vicinity to look at prices of brand-new equivalent laptops (so we could set an upper limit on the repair price – a “plan B”, if you will), we headed to the Malecón. A malecón is the street or path running beside the river or seaside. Guayaquil's has been fancily re-invented along a seamanship theme in the early 2000's and hence is known as the Malecón 2000. I was honestly surprised to see such a well-executed piece of urban planning in Ecuador and this, together with the luxurious mall, immediately changed our view of Ecuador as one of the least-developed countries of South America.

Malecon 2000

Malecon 2000

We walked the 2.5km from the Mercado Sur (a metallic market building, a bit like Borough market in London without the organic burgers and frappucinos) at the southern end to the bottom of Santa Ana hill at the northern end of the Malecón. On the way we passed a clock tower with Moorish features, two big sailing ships, one of which we had seen in photographs sailing around Cape Horn back in Punta Arenas (southern Chile), and a pompous statue of Bolívar shaking hands with San Martin surrounded by flags of most South American countries. Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín are unanimously recognised as their liberators from Spain (with the exception of Brazil and the Guyanas). The pair had a famous meeting, the content of which is unknown, but afterwards San Martín retired to France and Bolívar tried to set up Gran Colombia (an amalgamation of Columbia, Venezuela and Ecuador). Gran Colombia was a first step to his dream of a united South America but only lasted for eight years.

The Santa Ana hill is home to the barrio Las Peñas, the oldest part of the city. Carefully restored houses line cobbled streets and little staircases. On top of the hill sits a lighthouse from which you get 360° views of Guayaquil. A few years back Las Peñas used to be a dangerous neighbourhood in disrepair. Some cynics say that the restoration is only a façade and behind the colourful houses people still live in poverty. It is true that tourists are only allowed to walk the alleys that have been repaired with others parts being closed by metal gates. However, tourism is bringing income to the many little shops, cafés and restaurants that now adorn the streets and the heavy security presence has made the neighbourhood a much safer place, including for its residents. Also the council plans to continue the restoration programme and extend it to the neighbouring hill of Del Carmen. Click here for a few more pics of Guayaquil.

From the top of the lighthouse on Cerro Santa Ana

From the top of the lighthouse on Cerro Santa Ana

We travelled to Puerto Lopez the next morning to start our two weeks of volunteering. Carolina, who works for Cristina Castro the director of the Pacific Whale Foundation in Ecuador and our boss for our time there, picked us up from the bus stop to go to Cristina's house. Cristina turned out to be a bubbly woman, very passionate about her subject if a bit chaotic at times. She let us into our nice apartment with terrace and sea-view, and sat down with us to review the volunteering programme. Carolina then showed us around town so we could drop the laundry off and buy a local SIM card. We then met up with Cristina again, who showed us around town another time from the car, and gave us a introduction to the work of the foundation and some example results (whale tail matches between Antarctica and Puerto Lopez). The work focuses on humpback whales (megaptera novaeangliae, ballena jorobada in Spanish) and the principal activity is photographing the underside of the whale's tail (which is like a unique fingerprint) so that whales can be identified and their migration patterns followed. The area around Puerto Lopez is an important breeding and birthing ground for southern-Pacific humpbacks and so is a relatively easy place to study them. They migrate each year between Antarctica, to feed in the krill-rich waters, and their breeding grounds in the warmer waters off Ecuador and Colombia. Foundations along the Pacific coast of South America are able to photograph the pods (as do Antarctic expeditions) leading to information on their behaviour. The Pacific Whale Foundation is present in many countries where humpback whales are found, including Australia and USA.

Professional whale hunter

Professional whale hunter

On a typical day, our job was to go out on one of the tourist boats. Perched on the upper-deck, we had to try to photograph as many undersides of tails as possible (not very easy, at all). We were also to photograph dorsal fins which can lead to identification too, especially to distinguish whales within one pod. However, it is thought to be less reliable for photos taken in different locations and at different times. Dorsal fins can be of various shapes – some are round, others hooked or pointed – and many have distinguishing marks or scars on them. With practice, we got used to identifying between the different whales in a pod whilst observing them. At the beginning they just all looked the same but perhaps we were too busy trying to take decent photos whilst being rolled around on the boat. We also took photos and video footage of interesting behaviour such as breaches (a whale jumping out of the water), pec slaps (a whale lying on its side and banging its pectoral fin on the water repeatedly) or tail slaps (a whale showing its tail and smashing it on to the water). Apart from taking photographs and video, we recorded the location of the whales with GPS, the number and type of animals present, how long we observed them for and their behaviour – all of this for each pod we encountered. This data is used to calculate statistics on how many whales are present in Puerto Lopez.

A tour on a tourist boat would normally take about three hours, during which we'd observe whales for a third of the time and see, on average, 2-3 pods with between 1- 3 whales. We'd also watch, on average, 3-4 other tourist being fairly sea-sick and vomiting over the back of the boat, an affliction we thankfully remain free of. Our normal boat was called “Humback Whale” and was captained by Charlie (+593 (0) 97638407). You can find him at the south end of the beach, look for a Saint-Bernard dog and a man with a curly mullet like Kevin Keegan in his pride. Cristina took this boat out for her research trips from time to time, and he knows how to find and follow whales. We also liked the boat of “La Plata tours” (www.laplatatours.com) on a quiet day. It is large so it can get crowded but has a spacious upper deck where you could get a good grip for photographing. The guide, Jose Rivera Gonzalez was knowledgeable and environmentally-conscious (+593 (0) 91839095). Not all boats, captains or guides are of equal quality. We once were on a boat where the captain steered shockingly close to the whales and crossed their path several time. Even if it pleases the tourists, they are not meant to do this as it disturbs them significantly. We reported this behaviour to Cristina and she had a strong word with the culprit. This seemed to help and we saw him steer better, at leat for the time we were there.

Breach

Breach

On return to shore, we would spend at least another three hours sorting the photographs and completing our notes. The pictures for each pod were organised by individual whale and we would carefully scour to see if we had any good quality tail photos. Somewhere in the day we also fitted in an hour of Spanish lessons with our excellent teacher, Freddy (+593 (0) 95095530, seriously recommended). With our own apartment I often cooked late in to the evening as well. About the only thing we couldn't fit in was progressing with our own blog and photos. Given our own computer was in the repair shop, Cristina was able to lend us one of hers for our time there. We also used one of her SLR cameras for photographing the whales, with our own compact camera being useful for shooting video.

The very first day which we were due to go out, the port authorities were not allowing boats to go to sea due to a storm threat. This lasted 2.5 days and caused much concern for the tourist boats as on the forthcoming weekend was the Independence Day holiday and should have been one of the busiest weekends of the year. In the end, boats were allowed out on the Saturday afternoon but, with the weather warning, Puerto Lopez wasn't quite as busy as it should have been. This threw the initial schedule out of the window. It was never redone, instead we played it by ear each day. As an alternative to a boat survey, Cristina took us to the office and introduced us to the process of tail matching. This consisted of comparing whale tails which had been photographed by the Chilean Antarctic research programme with tails that had been photographed between May and July that year. We learned that there are nine different categories of whale tails ranging from all white to all black, with several distinct patterns in between. This was painstaking work and in three days of concerted effort we didn't find one match. Fortunately, Carolina found two re-occurrences later that week in the photo-set she was comparing.

Deploying the hydrophone

Deploying the hydrophone

On two occasions, we went out on a research boat with Cristina. A research boat is just a tourist boat which she hires for herself in order to stay out longer and see more whales. On these trips Cristina was able to explain more about whale behaviour so that we got a better understanding of what was happening within the pods. On the first research boat trip we were joined by a friend and colleague of Cristina's, Koen. He worked out of Lima for the International Whaling Commission (IWF), and so we had an extra expert to explain what was going on. We met a large pod of whales, including a female and several males who were fighting amongst each other for her favours. This is called a competition group and the males' behaviour can be quite impressive as they show off their strength by breaching. They may even bump into each other or try to force a competitor into submission by lying on top and blocking its blow-hole. The second time we went out on the research boat, Cristina took the hydrophone (and under-water microphone). After spending a long time observing a mother, baby and a rather aggressive male, we deployed the hydrophone several times to listen for whale chants. We were unlucky and didn't hear anything that day but Cristina did play a song she'd recorded previously. That same day we also saw a whale spy-hopping, this is when a whale stands vertically in the water only showing its head on the surface.

Blue-footed boobie

Blue-footed boobie

One day we took a tour to Isla de la Plata, an island about 35km off the coast. It is known as the poor man's Galapagos as it has some of the same wildlife and vegetation but is considerably easier to get to. We took our usual photos of whales on the way out there and then just enjoyed the tour for the rest of the day. During our walk around the island we saw many blue-footed boobies close up. They are very beautiful birds with attractive turquoise feet, though Dave thinks they look slightly comical. As it was mating season they were doing their nest and finding a partner. We saw one couple performing a mating dance and a parent caring for a small chick. It was mating season for the magnificent frigatebirds who were on the island too. For this species, the male inflates a bright red throat pouch, like a balloon, to attract a mate. The pouch disappears after three weeks and becomes a barely visible red dot. The tour also includes a snorkelling stop near one of the coral reefs circling the island. After much hesitation I adventured into the cold waters anyway and saw a green turtle swimming above the reef as well as many brightly coloured fishes. Whilst it was a worthwhile trip, there are many things you don't see here which you would in the Galapagos, and we remain keen to visit there one day.

Frigate in flight

Frigate in flight

Because we missed out going to sea on the first two days, and our overall travel schedule remained tight, we worked non-stop for the next 10 days. Before we knew it Lecia, our friend from the Antarctic Dream whom we've travelled with already several times, joined us in Puerto Lopez for our last outing. I enjoyed every single day out on the boat watching the whales and it really didn't feel like doing a lot of hard work, even when the photo sorting was tedious. With the Spanish lessons, the cooking and the photo organising the time flew by. It was occasionally chaotic, often busy but always very enjoyable and it never felt like the hard labour one often expects in a volunteering role.

We felt we learnt a lot about humpbacks, a little about animal charity work, and we got 10 decent whale tail photos to add to the catalogue (out of ~50 of varying quality - research papers suggest this is a reasonable hit rate). We were also able to share our experiences of Antarctica with Cristina who is keen to go next year. We talked a bit about other nature and tourism activities we'd seen elsewhere too, and what good points could be used on the whale tours in Puerto Lopez. One of the only downsides is that the weather is resolutely grey and cloudy in Puerto Lopez at this time of the year, with only a few afternoons of sun. After all our travelling in South America this felt strange. Nonetheless, we would recommend this volunteering experience without hesitation if you are looking for something to do with nature that isn’t requiring too much hardship and you got some money to spend (it isn’t cheap but a good proportion goes towards financing a thoroughly needed local research assistant). Contact Jim Lehmann at the Foundation for Center for Research of Whales (edecuador@yahoo.com or lehmannmath@yahoo.com, www.researchwhales.com) or Cristina Castro at the Pacific Whale Foundation (cristinacastro@pacificwhale.org, www.pacificwhale.org, www.pacificwhale.org/category/blogs-author/cristina-castro) if you are interested. Although I am a very happy HR manager now, I definitely still think I may have missed a career as a marine biologist after all.

For more photo of whales, Puerto Lopez and Isla de la Plata, follow this link.

Hooky and the tourists

Hooky and the tourists

Posted by barbla 20:46 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

A snippet of Peru

From Iquitos to Mancóra through Peru's northern highlands

sunny 22 °C

There are only two ways of leaving Iquitos – by boat or by plane. Given that we were now on a rather tight schedule to get to Ecuador for our first stab at volunteering, taking a flight was the obvious choice. Here as well, there are only two direct options – you can either fly to Lima, the capital, or to Tarapoto, a sizeable town squeezed between the foot of the Andes and the edge of the jungle. We picked Tarapoto because this seemed a straighter and more adventurous way of getting to Ecuador than flying via Lima. From Tarapoto, the journey to Ecuador leads through the northern highlands and the surfer town of Mancóra. The northern highlands are home to the ruins of Kuélap which is heralded by some as the “other Machu Picchu”. Given that we decided to miss out on Peru's star archaeological site for this year's sabbatical, Kuélap appealed immediately as a fine substitute. Mancóra is one of Peru's top beach spots and sounded like a fun and well-deserved pit stop on a long trip to Ecuador.

Rice fields as you climb the hills out of the Amazon

Rice fields as you climb the hills out of the Amazon

We arrived in Tarapoto around 4pm and hurried to the street with the various bus offices in a moto-taxi. It wasn't very clear, from the information we had before, how long the journey to Chachapoyas (the nearest town to Kuélap) would take, nor if there were going to be any more colectivos from Pedro Ruiz (where we needed to change) to Chachapoyas once we got there. After asking around for a bit, we managed to get on a 5pm bus which should have arrived in Pedro Ruiz by 11pm. The road first led through a plain with beautiful rice fields and then started climbing the Andean slopes offering some stunning views. Night fell and we continued driving along the curvy road. We stopped in a small town along the way so the bus drivers could get some dinner and the passengers a toilet break. Thirty minutes later we drove on. Eventually it was past 11pm and most of the bus was asleep. The bus boy asked if he could turn off the video (generally always an awful film) and with the silence, we gave in to sleep as well. When we finally turned into Pedro Ruiz at 1am, we were mentally prepared to spend the night there. But we were lucky...

Following inquiries at the only open shop and various food stalls for the night crowd, we found an older lady who wanted to go to Chachapoyas too and a colectivo driver willing to make the journey there at this late hour. Colectivos in this part of the world are in fact shared taxis where each of the four passengers pays a fourth of the normal taxi fare to get to the destination. In this case, Dave and I quickly agreed to pay the fare for three passengers as we weren't willing to wait around until a fourth one turned up in the middle of the night. Frankly, at this hour I would have been happy to pay the whole fare (40 Soles, about USD14.50) if necessary. By 2:30am, we were standing in front of the door of our hotel in Chachapoyas wondering how on earth we were going to get in. All the lights were out and there didn't seem to be a night guard. We knocked repeatedly and phoned several times but no one answered. On top of that it was raining heavily. After trying for half an hour to get someone's attention, we decided to go look for another place though we didn't have much hope of finding more life elsewhere. This is when I spotted the door bell. We rang a couple of times and gave it a few more minutes as we had nothing to loose, and finally a very sleepy man came to open the door. Without much questioning, he ushered us into the first room he found and disappeared back to his bed. We crawled under our covers as well, happy to have made it somewhere safe and warm.

Gocta waterfall

Gocta waterfall

We took things easy the next morning and only got up around 9:30am. We knew this was going to be too late to join a tour for Kuélap but we thought that we might be able to see the Catarata de Gocta, a 771-meter waterfall also in the vicinity of Chachapoyas. Since another guest from the hotel wanted to go to the fall, the hostal owner suggested to rent a colectivo taxi for the rest of the day and share the cost. This turned out to be an excellent idea and barely more expensive than taking a tour. Accessing the village that leads to the fall is difficult by public transport and you have to walk four steep kilometres up from the main road. Two French guys, also from our hotel but who had left earlier, opted to go this way as it is cheaper, but they were quite happy when we picked them up in our collectivo for the last couple of kilometres up the hill. It is recommended that you hire a guide in the village, which turned out to be rather unnecessary with the path to the falls being pretty straightforward. That said it's a nice way to support the community and the lady from Lima, who we were sharing the i]collectivo[/i] with, was quite happy that the guide could radio for a horse to carry her back to the village. The walk to the falls is not very long but still quite challenging with a hefty climb on the return leg. Altitude adds to the difficulty so many people opt for the horses.
The fall itself has two tiers, with the total drop measuring 771 metres which depending on who you believe, makes it somewhere between the fifth and the sixteenth highest waterfall in the world. At nearly 500 metres, the lower tier was impressive on its own however. You can walk right to the bottom of the fall and go swim in the icy-cold pool if the weather is nice. We didn't attempt it as it was cold enough with the spray and the wind generated by the falling water. The guide told us of the legend of a blacksmith and a mermaid who were guarding the falls with the blacksmith occasionally making some loud noise when working. In reality the noise comes from a strange natural phenomenon whereby gas builds up pressure underground then occasionally explodes out through the bottom of the falls. Back in Chachapoyas we booked our bus to the coast for the following evening. Because it was the end of the week's holiday following the Fiestas Patrias (National Independence Days), our preferred bus company was full but the one we ended up with was just fine (a question of your definition of a semi-cama (sleeper) seat). Having sorted ourselves we went out for a nice asado (BBQ) dinner with a Peruvian bottle of wine (not as bad as you may think).

The road to get to Kuelap

The road to get to Kuelap

The next morning we joined a tour for Kuélap, the ruins of a mountain-top fortress. The spectacular road to get there is mostly unpaved (though in fairly good condition) and sometimes clings to the mountain side in scary ways. Fortunately our driver wasn't in a hurry, unlike some others, which enabled us to enjoy the plunging vistas in a relaxed way rather than in fear. Kuélap sits on the top of a ridge at 3,100 metres. From the fortress, the Chachapoyas (or “People of the Clouds”, the pre-Incan civilisation who inhabited these lands and built the fort) had a strategic view of the surrounding valleys. Dave wasn't so impressed with the ruins itself, but the location is truly stunning and well worth the visit. I quite liked the ruins too. The vast majority of the thick outer wall remains standing and on the inside you can see where the round dwellings of the Chachapoyas once stood. Some of these dwellings are in better condition than others, with line decorations visible on the outside representing jaguars, eagles and snakes, three sacred animals for the Chachapoyas. One house has been fully reconstructed, including a steep straw roof to give visitors a better understanding of their original shape. Inside the house ruins, you could see fireplaces, stone channels where guinea pigs were kept, and holes in the floor where the bones of the dead were kept. The Chachapoya people believed that with the dead resting in the house their spirits would protect the family! Within the complex there was a large sun temple resembling an inverted cone from which the priests would conduct ceremonies. Closer to the military quarters, a separate platform allowed priests to pour animal blood mixed with magical herbs through a channel. The Chachapoya warriors would drink this empowering concoction prior to a battle.

But what I was most impressed by was the cunning entrance to the most protected part of the fort. This was in the form of a funnel, where at the end only one man could go through at a time. Within the funnel, there were a series of giant steps connected by wooden stairs that could be easily removed (most likely burned down) in times of conflict. The guide described the gruesome scene of the Chachapoyas raining arrows, stones and hot oil down on their enemies whilst they floundered on the giant steps. The second entrance wasn't much safer. In the form of a funnel too, it would lead on to a fake platform that would collapse under the weight of the invaders and fall down the steep mountain side. In the end it was the usual epidemics of cholera, measles and smallpox that the Spanish brought, which conquered the Chachapoyas. After visiting it, I'm still not sure whether Kuélap can substitute for Machu Picchu but I am glad we went. We definitely jumped on our night-bus without any regrets of having chosen this route through Peru's northern highlands.

Royal entrance

Royal entrance

We arrived in Chiclayo at 4am. For once the bus was on time even though we had hoped this one would be a bit delayed (allowing more sleep). Whilst I watched the bags Dave went in search of a recommended bus company that would take us on to Piura where we could change again for Mancora. It turned out their office was only two blocks down the road so we ventured out on the streets with our bags despite the darkness. We were amazed at how busy the various bus offices were at this early hour and had to wait until 6am to get a bus as the 5am was fully booked. Despite the many people travelling, we still couldn't find a bloody coffee though. Hot and a bit tired, we reached Mancora by lunchtime and after the afore-desired coffee and a juice in a road-side café we were ready to find a hostel. Mancora offers a lot of choice and if you're willing to spend more than 60 USD you can stay in some gorgeous places with swimming pool, wifi and beach-view room. Given our laptop was dead we decided to go for something cheaper and settled on a small place with two lovely little cabañas. In the end Omar, the owner, didn't have space in those so he put us up in his house which he usually reserves for groups of 10 or so. It was now the last weekend of the Fiestas Patrias and he didn't expect many more large Peruvian families to show (Casa y Bungalows Gonzalo, www.vivamancora.com/gonzalo, +51 972 820 946).

After taking a bit of rest we went shopping for swimming suits having forgotten ours by the pool in Iquitos, where we had hung them out to dry following our last dip. Finding a swimsuit in South America isn't easy for a European woman. Not only are the ladies a fair bit smaller, but they also have tendency to wear only skimpy little swimsuits which show a lot of flesh on your bum. I had to try on quite a few bikinis before finding the sexy brown, yellow and pink number I ended up buying (and which provides, just about, a respectable amount of coverage). I'm not sure yet whether I'll wear it on a beach in Europe but it will do for the Caribbean coast, our next top beach destination. A pisco sour stop later, and we managed to find something suitable for Dave too – some normal looking shorts, not revealing a lot of flesh. By that time it was dark and the hour of more pisco sours and dinner.

Self-potrait on Mancora beach

Self-potrait on Mancora beach

The next day, we chilled out on the beach in our new swim gear and took a dip in the Pacific. This was the first proper swim in this ocean for both of us, having previously only immersed our toes into the cold waters off California. Luckily the waters of Mancora were a touch warmer though still fresh. I managed to spend 15 minutes in the water so it couldn't have been that bad. Later on in the afternoon we tried our first ceviche of the trip in a beach bar. Ceviche is raw fish or seafood soaked in a copious amount of lime to “cook” it. It normally comes mixed with finely chopped onions, peppers, tomatoes and a touch of chilli, and served with fried plantains. We liked this dish greatly and would often look for it at lunch time in Puerto Lopez (Ecuador) as well. We didn't do much else in Mancora but it was easy to see how you could spend a few more days there. It proved to be exactly what we wanted it to be, a fun and lively beach town to have a quick rest in on our way to Ecuador. The following day we took the bus across the border to Guayaquil.

Here are some more pictures of our journey through northern Peru.

Posted by barbla 17:07 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

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