Thursday, 24 October 2013

Arequipa and the amazing Colca Canyon

After one full day in Puno (which is all you really need) we booked a bus (Cruz del Sur, again) to Arequipa. Arequipa has about 10 earth tremors a day (apparently) and is at the base of Misti, an active volcano.
This was not the most pleasant bus ride we have ever had, not the bus company's fault (though the driver did get lost twice!) unfortunately Angel had either eaten something or picked up a bug as he was sick all morning, we should have cancelled the bus but we took it anyway and he was sick the whole way, it was not fun. But we arrived in the evening and shared a taxi from the bus station to our hotel near the Plaza de Armas with a Spanish girl who was on our bus, this meant it only cost us 6 Soles (about £1.50).Public transport in South America is very cheap. Average taxi within a city/town is about 3 Soles, which is about 80 pence!
Monasterio Santa Catalina
We had booked the hotel via the Trip Advisor app, which then took us through to the Hostelworld site, which must have had a glitch as it booked our room for the 20th of November instead of the 20th of October, luckily they had a vacancy. The main problem with the hotel was they had let the person who was in the room before us take the key with them on a 3 day trek, so our room had no key, we could only lock it when we were in there. This meant we had to keep all our valuables with us all day.
We dropped off our dirty clothes (Angel had puked on himself) and booked our Colca Canyon Tour for the next day and headed to the magnificent Monasterio Santa Catalina, just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas. This was built and rebuilt several times and was opened to the public in the 1970's there are still nuns in there now, not many and they are in a section of the monastery you cannot visit. It's the best example of colonial architecture in Arequipa.
On top of the monastary
After this we decided to do the free afternoon walking tour, put on by the local University and the guides are Tourism students, it was a brilliant tour and we learnt things about the city which we would have never learnt ourselves, the tour is tip-based and well worth the 2 and a half hours. By the end of the tour it was dark so we decided it was time to eat, we had been recommended a pizza place which turned out to be very tasty, as Angel had been ill we did not want anything too fancy, just some basic pizza and this place was just the ticket. It was called Los Lenos and was very reasonable!
on our way to the canyon

Off to bed for an early morning pick up for our tour to Colca Canyon. We booked with Colca Trek as Ellen (who has been doing all the reading) had read some really great things about them and Matt, Paul and Rachel who we met on the Inca Trail had done a tour with them and said they were great. We were not disappointed. Paul, our guide, was brilliant, really friendly, helpful and knowledgeable, our driver Willy was also great. We had another great crowd, everyone got along and no one was a pain in the arse. We drove out of Arequipa and stopped to see the active volcano Misti (5,822m), along with the other 2 Andes mountains you can see from the town Chachani (6,075m) and Pichu Pichu (5,571m). We stopped for Coca leaves and water and headed to the desert. After about an hour and a half of driving we stopped to see the most endangered (and expensive) of all, the Vicuna, there are only 110,000 in Peru, their wool is worth US$800 per kilo. There were also Llama's and Alpacas, which are domesticated, unlike the Vicuna which is a wild animal.
Forest of Stones
Another hour or so along the road we came to the Forest of Stones, a section of the desert which is sandstone and has been eroded over time to leave vertical pylons of rock, apparently Colca Tours are the only group which will take you there. After a quick snack and eating some native plants (very peppery) we then climbed (in the van) to 4,910m where we saw the stone stacks left by locals as an offering as they walked from their villages to Arequipa to sell their goods. 
at 4,910m
Then we started to descend, the driver stopped to show us the habitat of the Viscacha, an Andean rabbit-like animal, we were told you do not often see one and as we stopped one jumped out from behind the rock, Bonus! Along the road a bit further we were shown a cauliflower type plant (not edible) which the locals used to use to burn as there is no wood up here this high, unfortunately it became endangered and they have planted Australian Eucalyptus trees at lower levels to provide both building and fire wood to save other native species (but this has had some negative impack, gum trees suck a lot of moisture from the ground).
really did not want to leave!
After a very tasty local buffet late lunch (loads of Alpaca in different forms, some trout, local soups and salads) we were shown around the local markets and tried some black corn Chicha and local fruits.
We then headed to the Canyon. It was an hour to sunset so we checked into our magnificent hotel and then had a 45 minute walk down to the canyon edge where we arrived just at sunset, it was spectacular. 
Sunset over the canyon
The hotel is great, each room has a big fluffy bed, with flannel sheets, floor to ceiling windows overlooking the canyon and an amazing bathroom (well, amazing buy the standards we have had here in South America). So far the best place we have stayed. It well and truly trumps the hotel in Cartegena now.
Cruz del Condor

Next morning it was a 5am wake up to get to the Cruz del Condor (3,795m), the place within the canyon where the chance of sighting Condors is most likely, after nearly an hour and a half of waiting and watching, just as we were about to leave an adolescent Condor flew by us, it was such a magnificent creature, so elegant and huge! We were so stoked to have seen one, it would have been a disappointment to have missed out. We then had a short trek up a hill to see some more of the Andes mountains (there are 3 x short treks on this tour, it was not a 'trek'). Just before lunch we stopped off at some natural hot springs which we had to walk over a very dodgy suspension bridge to get to, no health & safety here.
Hot springs
After lunch our tour ended and the group split - those going back to Arequipa and those heading to Puno (us), and this was a bit of an adventure in its own right. We had been told of transport strikes in Puno, we were told we were ok as our bus was a private transfer, so we headed towards Puno, about 2 hours into the drive, in the middle of the desert, we got a flat tire, the jack the van had was not strong enough to support the van so we (there were 6 of us on the transfer) had to find the driver some rocks to help support the van while he changed the tire. About 30 mins later, just as it got dark, we were done and were on our way. Just before Juliaca our driver decided to stop at a police station to check the strike situation, and came back out stating that there were road blocks and that we had to go to down a 'new road' which was a back road. New this was, like unsurfaced, rocky, dirt path. We really should have been in a 4WD. It was an adventure, and we made it, AND we got to see the milky way so clearly as we were driving down the dirt path, in the middle of nowhere, with no street lights or lights from towns. 

Monday, 21 October 2013

Puno & Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca, looking towards Puno

Uros Island talk
We arrived in Puno from Cusco after our train journey (see post). There is not a hell of a lot to keep you here. A Plaza de Armas, a Plaza de Mayor, and Lima Street (tourist shops, banks and restaurants). That's about it. It is a gateway for tours to on Lake Titicaca.
We arrived at night and booked a tour for the next day. We were picked up at 7am and taken to a 'fast' boat (we paid more for the fast boat to get back to town at 4 instead of 6pm).

All dressed up..
The boat was comfortable and the Von Trapp lady and her husband from the train were on the tour.

First stop was Uros, the floating islands just 30 mins away from Puno. The people live on these islands (or some are just here for the tourists, the wealthier ones) and pretty much everything they do revolves around the reeds, their islands are man made from the reeds and the reeds roots, their huts are reeds, their boats, their beds, their roofs, and their handicrafts are, you guessed it, reeds.

Impressive reed boat

After a 20 minute talk on their lives and meeting the 'president' of the island (each island has a president), we were taken to see their huts and how they live by a little girl. It was just the two of us who the girl took, and she decided to dress Ellen up - skirt, jacket, hat, pom poms - while Angel laughed...until the girl began to dress him up. Quite fun, but we looked hilarious.
After the island tour we were put into a reed boat (quite impressive, 2 story seating area!) and two of the girls from the island rowed us down the 'river' to another island where our tour boat met us.

Taquile Island, our lunch view
After about 1.5 hours we arrived at the 2nd island of the tour - Taquile - the 3rd largest island on Lake Titicaca and home to several settlements (each one has an arched gate along the path to it). Here we learned that the men knit and the women weave. We bought some stuff and then headed for a small trek to the house of the family who were going to cook us lunch. Ellen had a great trout lunch and as Angel does not eat seafood, an omlet was made, it was tasty.
Then it was a 2 hour ride back to town.

Later that night we met up with Rosie & Darren who had been on our Inca Tour and Train trip and we had dinner together at Mojsa according to our hotel owner and Trip Advisor is 'the best restaurant in Puno' (which would not be hard).

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Cusco to Puno by rail

This was always going to be a highlight of our adventure, It's one of the few train journeys in South America, and this did not disappoint.
We arrived at the Peru Rail station at about 7am, we had to be there at 7.30 for the 8am train, we checked our luggage which was taken onto the train by porter, then we boarded. We had brilliant seats, just the 2 of us, facing forward, posh table cloth, lamp, and a menu, lunch and afternoon tea were included but breakfast was not. As we didn't have time for breakfast this morning we ordered the breakfast, loads of toast, eggs how you like them, orange juice, coffee and jam, all brought out on china and with silverware. 
The train moves quite slowly, which is nice as you can enjoy the scenery (the same 10 hour train journey takes 6 by coach), the train had just 5 seat carriages, then a dining carriage with a glass roofed and oped backed rear. 
There was an alpaca (naturally) fashion show about 4 hours into the journey with a free Pisco sour, followed by a Cusco based Peruvian band and dancers, then cocktail making lessons (Pisco sour), followed by a Puno based band with dancers. 
It did feel like we were on a saga holiday, with the majority of the passengers over 70, but it was brilliant fun and our new friends from the Inca Trail, Rosie and Darren were also on the train. 
Riding along the rails we passed villages where people were standing outside waving to us, the train stopped at a market (this is not a busy route; one train a day, 3 days a week in high season, 2 days a week in low season). 
In Juliaca the train line is literally running straight through the market, the stall holders move their canopies back to let the train through, in some cases leaving their wares on the track, then moving it all back over the tracks. It took us a good 20 minutes to move about 5km, with the driver blaring the horn to get them to move out of the way. 
There were some funny characters on the train, including one woman who was 83 and was Canadian (and made sure everyone knew it, including wearing a t-shirt with Canada across the front, and an older bloke, had to be in his 60's who practically stood at the back of the train the whole journey, taking photos of everything!
Finally we arrived in Puno. It was sad to leave the train, as expensive as it was (thanks VCCP for those token shares 6 years ago!) we really think it was worth it.

Friday, 18 October 2013

The Inca Trail

The route
We woke at 3.30am to have our last shower for 4 days, pack our stuff and leave our big backpacks in the hotel storage leave the hotel and meet at Plaza Regocijo.

Our tour company was Llama Path we had done loads of research and a colleague of Angel's had gone with them just a few months before. Our guides were Eddie and Marko, Marko ended up spending most of his time with Ellen at the back of the group on the hike (some of our group were extremely fit!!!). After about 2 hours the bus stopped and we had a buffet breakfast (not included in the tour but cheap) and probably the last proper toilets we would see in 4 days. Then it was time to head off for another hour of driving to the beginning of the trail.

Our group
Our group was a fantastic crowd, the best you could have hoped for, we all had a similar sense of humour and just got along really well, there were no annoying people, no divas, it was a perfect group, and all from the UK & Ireland (except Angel, but he is now technically British, innit).

Day 1
We got off the bus at Rio Urubamba and put on our packs and rain gear - we bought quite heavy duty ponchos in Cusco which would also cover our packs - and packed our belongings into our red Llama Path sacks for the porters to take. These porters are superhuman. They each carry 30kg of stuff (our belongings, 7 tents, food for 4 days, stools, a table...) and they march ahead - some of them run - and set everything up for our arrival at lunch and then do the same again at dinner, including putting up our tents and putting our bags in them. They really are amazing.

Our remarkable porters
The initial section of the hike is almost flat and lulls you into a false sense of security as before long you hit a very steep section, and as we were hiking in wet weather gear there was a lot of sweat.

Along the way we stop here and there for our guides Eddie and Marko to give us some information about where we had stopped and Inca history. Wayllabamba was the first Inca site we encountered on the trek. We then walked a little longer and met up with our porters who had set up a tent, cooked our lunch and had bowls of warm water and a towel for us to wash ourselves before eating, we were all pretty amazed by the quality of the food cooked with what they had carried. After lunch we head off on the first steep section of the hike for about an hour where we stopped to try the local made beer Chicha, it's made from maize, and the process begins by women chewing the maize in their mouths and spitting it into a vat before the fermentation process begins. It's an odd taste, quite sweet and it smelt like when Angel is making bread, very yeasty. At this point we were also were shown how to chew the cocoa leaves to help with altitude sickness. This was an acquired taste and makes your lips and the side of your mouth go numb after about 20 mins.
Refreshed we headed off for about 3 hours of continuous uphill hiking to our first campsite, at Ayapata, 14 km from our starting point and at 3300m above sea level. The views from the campsite were breathtaking, we camped on a section right in the sacred valley. The tents were up and everything was ready for our arrival. These porters are amazing. Every day at about 4pm we had happy hour, which consists of Milo, tea, coffee, crackers, jam and popcorn.
At Dead Woman's Pass

Day 2
We were woken (by porters bringing us cocoa leaf tea) at 5am for what is said is the hardest day of the trek, 16km of practically all uphill over steps built by the Incas to Dead Woman's Pass (no women died in the making of this name, it apparently looks like a woman laying down, dead) the pass is 4,215m high, we really struggled up this section of thousands of steps, Ellen was kept company by Marko, who stayed with Ellen through most of the trek, and who Ellen wanted to adopt by the end. Yes Angel struggled too (but we think all the spin classes back in London helped!). On the hike up we saw llamas and some sheep, but the real star was the scenery. From the top there was a very steep downhill hike for around an hour after Dead Woman's Pass followed by a stop for lunch at Pacaymaya before hiking uphill (ouch!) again passing the Inca site Runcuraccay at 3,710m before heading downhill again for about an hour to the next Inca site of Sayacmarca at 3575m. We also saw some deer, which Ellen spotted and excitedly interrupted the guides' talk at Runcuraccay to point them out. That night we camped at Chaquicocha which is at 3,600m where there were llama at the site, which was nice until Angel trod in Llama poo on the way to the bathroom in flip flops.

Winay Wayna

Day 3 
Today was less hiking. Up at 5am and a day consisting of up and downhill treks into the rainforest, amazing views of the Andes, and several inca sites.
The path became narrow and was along the edge of some serious cliffs, and even at one point the path was chipped through a boulder in the side of the cliff to allow the pathway along the ridge. By now we were feeling more energised and knowing that the hardest section was behind us at Dead Woman's Pass we knew we could handle anything the trek threw at us.

The last inca site for the day was right next to the campsite at Winay Wayna 2680m, which they call Machu Picchu junior. Here Marko gave us a talk about the site and the terraces and how the Inca used them to experiment with growing crops at various altitudes.

Day 4
The final morning was a bit of a shock to the system, most mornings we were up at 5, today it was 3.30am. Eddie said we had to be first to the checkpoint which was only10 mins down the track but opened at 5.30am, we were first, and just as well really, there are 500 people a day on the trail, 200 hikers and 300 porters and guides, so we wanted to be the first group to the Sun Gate, which gives you the first views of Machu Picchu, we almost were the first but after the gate opened, about 30 mins into the hike we were overtaken by 2 Americans with a death wish, this couple actually overtook us on a very narrow cliff edge and sprinted to the end, our group were all pretty cautious after hearing of an American tourist who died after plummeting from this section of the trail in January this year, when she was apparently rushing to be first to the sun gate.
Ellen coming up the Gringo Killer

We survived the 'Gringo Killer' which are very steep steps just before the gate, and made it to just glimpse the famous site through the mist as it formed! But as we walked down to the site, about another 30 minutes later the clouds began to clear and we were treated to the most magnificent views over Machu Picchu. One of the guys in our tour, Paul, had a sun god necklace and had rubbed it that morning in hope of good weather, now we are not believers, but we must admit the weather that day could not have been better. After a tour of the site by Eddie and an hour of walking around the site ourselves we all took the bus down to the town of Aguas Calientes and enjoyed a final lunch together before going our separate ways.
We made it!

We had opted to stay the night after the trek in the town at the end of the trek and had pre-booked a hotel stayed at a hotel, we ate at a pizza place and put our clothes in to be washed and just layed on the bed knackered. The next morning we both had massages, 1 hour for £12 each!

We really had an amazing time, made all the better by the group we had. We're all staying in touch.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

4 days in Cusco

Plaza de Armas
After the manic travelling from Lima to Cusco, we were pleased we had 3 days in Cusco to acclimatise and just generally chill out. We realise the title of this post says 4 days, the 4th was the night after we arrived back from Aguas Calientes.
Cusco is beautiful. It really is, the old town is well preserved, the streets are cobbled, there are dodgy bits but which city doesn't have these areas? 
Hotel Ninos

We stayed at a place called Niños II, which is the 2nd hotel in Cusco run by the amazing Jolanda van den Burg who moved from The Netherlands about 15 years ago to help underprivileged kids in Cusco and has lived here ever since, Angel has bored many a fellow traveller with Jolanda's incredible story (and Ellen has had to sit through it each time). You can read about her here (so we do not bore more people), but needless to say staying in the hotel and eating at the hotels delicious restaurant contributes to this brilliant cause.
We ate at several restaurants, had some juices - no alcohol before the trek! - and did loads of browsing through the markets. 
Angel did get a bit of a dodgy stomach on the second day so we took it easy and it cleared up by the following day - the day before the trek, luckily. Generally in South America antibiotics are very easy to buy without prescription so we bought some, just in case. 

We went into the Cusco Catedral and saw the Peruvian interpretation of the last supper, complete with guinea pig as the centre piece dish! 
There were a few kids selling their stuff (pens, llama key rings, prints etc) and we pretty much spent our daily budget one day buying things from the kids. 
It was sad to leave Cusco, but we must travel on, next stop Puno, by posh train.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Nazca Lines

Panoramic of the lines from the small hill
Another 5 hour bus journey brought us into Nazca late into the night, we were greeted at the bus station by the hostel owner. the hostel itself was very basic and actually felt a little but like it may have been a former prison, as the doors were bars covered in plywood, it isn't a former prison.
We booked a tour for the next morning to take us out to the famous Nazca Lines.
When the tour bloke turned up, at 10am, right on time, we were surprised to find it was a personal tour, so just us and the driver (who spoke English perfectly, and also spoke French, Japanese and was learning German), it was about a 20 minute drive along the panamerican highway to the viewing site for the lines. The panamerican highway, our guide told us, is the longest highway in the world, stretching from Alaska to Chile! 

On the hill overlooking the lines

We stopped at a hill which we climbed to get a better view of the lines not very high but it was still enough to give us a view of the summer and winter solstice lines, and then he drove us a little further up the highways (which cuts through the lines!) to a viewing tower which we paid 2 soles to climb, and from this platform we could see the 'Tree' and the 'Frog' - two of the thousands of line formations on these plains.

The Tree

It's amazing how they were made and no one knows for sure why they were made though there are many theories, and what is even more amazing is the German woman, Maria Reiche who dedicated most of her life, unpaid, to clean the lines with pretty much just a broom, until her death in 1998, no one has picked up her cause and the lines are slowly covering over again with pollution and dust. According to our guide the government has no plans to restore them as they are happy enough to take the tourism money. There are no guards watching over the lines, there used to be, Maria paid them herself from the money she made talking at seminars and from proceeds of her book she wrote on her theories on the lines, though she herself lived in a very modest one room house in a village near the lines.

Paracas, the poor mans Galapagos.

We arrived into Paracas at sunset after a 5-hour bus journey from Lima. The journey itself was quite remarkable, passing through some amazing scenery; at parts the desert was right up to the sea, and also passing through a desert town called Chincha Alta which reminded us of something out of Mad Max!
After arriving at Paracas we disembarked the bus and walked the 600m down the street from the Cruz del Sur depot to the hostel, Paracas Backpackers House. Paracas is very small, it all leads off the one main street, there are loads of very cheap restaurants crammed together to the left of the beach, and to the right there are about 8 more posh restaurants and bars which front the town pier, following the other side by many hand made souvenir stalls.
We ate some dinner at one of the cheaper places, called 'El Angel' (had to be done!) which was ok, we fed a stray cat and booked our boat tour out to the islands for the morning. The old bloke who owns and runs the hostel is quite a character. When we booked the hostel he sent us an email with the picture of the hostel and told us not to speak to anyone at the bus station and ONLY walk into the hostel which was the same as the picture that he sent us - it turns out that after the success of this hostel, several other hostels in town have people that will meet the bus and tell you that it has closed or that it is dirty, or try to take you to another hostel. When we got there he gave us a 20 minute 'brief' of the town, where things were, what we could do, and told us he could organise tours for us but that we should go and compare the prices and decide for ourselves (he was very insistent of this, he would not just let us book with him). 
Making fertiliser
The hostel doesn't do breakfast (not many hostels here in Peru do) so we grabbed some bananas and headed to the pier and caught our boat out to the islands. It takes about 30 minutes to get out to the Islas Ballestas on the speed boats, it's colder than you think it will be and it rained a little on the way out. On the way to the islands the boat takes you to see the 3 pronged Candelabro which is a massive white carving in the hillside which no one knows why it was done, nor who made it. One idea is that it was maybe a sign for sailors of the day to know when they were home.
The islands themselves are home to thousands of birds including humboldt penguins and boobies (which there are thousands!) - we never saw the Chilean Flamingos or dolphins. There were also many noisy sea lions, cormorants and pelicans.

Sea Lions

The island is farmed every 7 years for its guano (bird shit) which is sold as fertiliser, apparently the best in the world and Australia is a buyer.
As we had a bus to Nazca in the afternoon we were unable to do much else, so we had a long lunch and sat by the beach for a couple of hours before walking back to to the bus station.
The photos aren't the best as the day was overcast and the sea was quite rocky and the camera had trouble focussing. 

Just a day in Lima

Catedral de Lima
Unfortunately due to our time schedule we only had a day in Lima, which in hindsight was a bit silly as the city is amazing. We arrived from Bogota late at night and had organised for the hostel to come and collect us, which was just as well as it is quite intimidating arriving at Lima airport, there is a sea of 'taxi' drivers - mostly just people who call themselves taxi drivers and have no licence and probably no insurance, and there are horror stories of muggings by drivers, so we thought it best to use the hostels taxi. There was a nice bloke, who drove like a rally car racer (this is standard South American driving) to our hostel.

The hostel itself was very basic, but cheap and in a great location in Barranco, a suburb south of the city, there is a regular and very cheap bus service, like the Transmilenio in Bogota, at only £0.44p a journey, it's a bargain. There are also several bars and restaurants around, and the sea is right across the road.
We decided as we just had one day we would cram in as much as we could, we caught the bus to the bus depot to buy our ticket to Paracas for the next day and then headed into town (very easy to get around). We got off the bus at the central station and walked up the road to the Plaza St Martin, where there is a statue of St Martin (of course) with a statue of Madre Patria below him, this statue was commissioned in Spain and instructed to give the lady a crown of flames, the Spanish (not latin american Spanish) word for flame is llama, so the hapless craftsmen put an actual llama on her head. 

The Llama

We then walked up the pedestrian shopping street where we must have been asked to buy a map twenty times at least (even though we were holding one) up to Plaza de Armas, as it was Sunday there was a mass on in the La Catedral de Lima and the worshippers were pouring out onto the plaza, all the roads were closed off and there were literally thousands of people, and the mass was being broadcast outside. 
We saw the Palacio de Gobierno (house of the president) where we had missed the changing of the guard about guide book said it was noon but it was just over as we arrived at 12, so we walked up to the river, which was empty as they are currently in the middle of a massive project to build a motorway under the river! We did not head over the bridge, but it looked like the poorer part of town, with shanty houses on the hillside.
We walked back towards the central bus station and stopped at the now faded Gran Hotel Boliviar as this is apparently famous for its Pisco Sour, so naturally we had to sit in the old bar and have one. From here we caught a bus to Miaflores, one of the more affluent suburbs of the city, Lima is very clean, in fact compared to other South American capital we have been to, it's the cleanest. 
Ellen with her Pisco Sour
We walked to the Huaca Pucllana, an ancient Inca ruin, which is smack bang in the middle of the suburb of Miaflores, it's quite arresting that you have these modern houses next to this pile of inca bricks from 1,600 years ago! 
We strolled around the suburb and stopped for lunch at La Lucha on Kennedy plaza, it's a great American-style sandwich place with a Latin American twist, it's huge very tasty sandwiches are so big so that we didn't eat dinner. From here we walked down to the ocean front and watched the paragliders for a while and sat in the lovers park before walking along the coast, with so little time and wanting to see as much as we could of Lima we decided we would walk back to the hostel along the coast as our hostel was on the coast. We stopped in the massive new shopping centre built into the cliff edge, this was full of the types you would expect (you know, the sort of people who wear sunglasses inside and wear their jumper over their shoulders) even though the shops are average UK/US stores like Gap and Starbucks, this is obviously where the well to do in Lima shop.

Huaca Pucllana, Miaflores

All over the Lima coastline are signs for Tsunami evacuation routes, which kind of amused us and freaked us out a little (ok, freaked Angel out). The coast of Lima is a sandy cliff edge with a motorway running along the beach below it so we assume if a tsunami hit it would slam into the cliff and bring a lot of it down, which made us think the shopping centre built into the sand of the cliff edge seemed a little reckless, especially adding the history of earthquakes too. 
Tsunami evacuation?

Walking along the cliff edge we watched the sun set and then wandered around the suburb where the hostel was, Barranco, it was Sunday night so not a lot was open, though we did manage to have our first Inca Kola, kind of tastes like creaming soda, but it's bright yellow.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Cartagena to Santa Marta and back

We've had a bit of beach and sun for the past 6 days, 2 nights in Cartagena, followed by 3 nights in Santa Marta and another in Cartagena before our 2 flights taking us to Lima.
We arrived in Cartagena from Bogota and stepping off the plane you are instantly hit by the heat and humidity. We collected our bags and jumped in a cab (the airport is 3km from the old town, so cost us only COP9,500) to our hotel, which was probably the poshest place we have stayed so far, cooked to order breakfast, very comfy bed, 3 pillows each, and importantly air conditioned, this is a must up here; it's very muggy.
Cathedral, Cartagena

The old town is gorgeous, colourful old colonial buildings some with balconies with bouganvillias pouring down them like waterfalls and several squares most with well kept churches. There's not a lot here as the town is within a walled fortress (built because Francis Drake attacked the city, then many pirates), and outside the walls is pretty dodgy and not as much money put into it, though this is apparently changing.
We had planned to take a boat to Playa Blanca but the weather turned (and it rained) and we decided to eat and drink and roam the town streets instead, the sun came out again in the early afternoon.
We caught a bus (MiraSol) from Cartagena to Santa Marta, door to door service for COP42,000 each which took about 5 and a half hours. They collected us from the hotel then picked up another bloke from a hotel then took us to their office for about 30 minutes until they left for Santa Marta. The trip was a bit scary, most roads here are one lane each way, and they like, no love, to overtake. Needless to say it's not a relaxing journey, but hey it's an adventure! (And we made it!)
Tropical storm, Santa Marta
Santa Marta is not a very pretty place, it's one of the oldest towns in Colombia and where a lot of Colombians come for holiday, but it's pretty run down, it really stinks and the the people are not as friendly as we have seen in Bogota and Cartagena. But we are here for the Tayrona National Park, not Santa Marta. We arrived at the hotel, Hotel Nueva Granada, which is much cheaper than the hotel in Cartagena and looks like it was built in the 70's and never renovated, but it is clean, safe and has a pool!! There is also a resident cat, Timoti (we think like the shampoo, or it could be Timothy, we weren't sure). The first thing we did was jump in the pool, then about an hour later the skies opened up and unleashed a massive tropic thunderstorm, it was actually very cool and brought the temperature down a bit. We waited for the rain to stop, or calm down at least, and then headed out for some dinner. We had read on Trip Advisor about a great Mexican place called Agave Azul with tasty burritos, and we have been talking about Mexican food for a few days so we went, and were not disappointed. Starving, we dove into guacamole and chips while we waited for our burritos (one chicken, one beef, shared) and washed them down with a couple of beers and margaritas (it was happy hour, you can't let one go by!)
La Piscina, Tayrona
The park is stunning, beautiful beaches, tropical jungle, not a lot of people, millions of ants making their highways across the pathways ... This was pretty cool to see actually.
We had a really nice day at the park but we left on a sour note after being ripped off on the way out of the park - there are guys at Cabo San Juan offering a boat ride to Santa Marta, but they took us to Taganga and when we told them they had said they would take us to Santa Marta they just said 'no' and turned away, literally. This had cost us COP45,000 each which was supposed to be a treat. As a storm was brewing we decided not to hike back the way we had come (which was 2 hours via La Piscina and Arrecifes - which were stunning!) and take the boat back instead, it was pricey but we thought it would be worth seeing the coast. Which is amazing.

We did have a great time at the park, the walks are gorgeous - even if badly sign posted and no map is given despite if costing COP35,000 to get in (Columbians pay COP14,000), the only thing that ruined it for us was these guys on the boat. They were walking around the beach saying 'boat to Santa Marta' so it was not like we had misunderstood. It was more the attitude when we arrived at Taganga and they could not have cared less. In just over a month it is the only time we have been ripped off so we are not going too badly.

We decided to end our day on a better note and went out for burgers. The place we went to was La Placita and we had a La Placita burger and a Tango Burger, both were very very tasty, made with homemade buns. It was nice that they noticed that Ellen had pulled out the rarer part of her burger (greedily, she had a 220g patty) and put it to the side and the manager came over and asked if everything was ok and would she like it cooked. A the burger was massive she said she had eaten enough so they kindly offered Angel a free dessert! (He is always up for dessert - especially free ones!) 

Overall a really great place, a right stand-out here in Santa Marta, indeed Columbia.

For our final day in Santa Marta we decided to take a chill out day. By 10am it was 36 degrees so we thought best not to stray too far from the pool! There was a family from Chile staying in the hotels we had a chat (in English, we are not that good!) and they gave us some tips for Peru. We went back to the Mexican place we had been to on our first night for dinner and beers, we tried something different this time - enchiladas and tacos - and then slept in the comfort of our air conditioned room.

The final day was really just a travel day, another 5.5 hour bus ride back to Cartagena after breakfast and then a bit of street food (Arepas) for lunch and then back to write this blog. We are off out again for dinner tonight, Ellen is on the iPad looking for somewhere to go.

Tomorrow we fly back to Bogota to catch a connecting flight to Lima. So goodbye Colombia, we'll miss you.