La Paz and our tiny taste of the Amazon Basin

27 Sep


La Paz was… an expected adventure. At this point, I had really done no research on this city, and knew very little of what was to come. We hoped on a bus, loaded up with food, just in case (this situation taught us the importance of preparation for bus rides in Latin America), and headed to La Paz. We arrived a few hours later, in a bustling city centre, with the usual greeting of taxi drivers vying for your attention/money. La Paz is the capital of Bolivia, and it feels strangely small. I think that’s got a lot to do with the landscape. It has a population of under 1 million, but you don’t fully understand it’s size until you ride one of the Telefericos – or cable cars. A surprisingly first world feature of the city, these cable cars allow people to get from one side of the city to the other, at a very low cost (even for Bolivian standards), and in a much quicker manner than driving or *gasp* walking. This is because La Paz is a city in a valley. The altitude ranges from 4,058m to 3,100m, and is the highest national capital in the world. When you fly into (or in our case out of) the city, you see the sprawling shantytowns which sit on flat plains around the edge of the city, and as you get to the centre, the hub of the city dips into a really big canyon, and the city itself is based around a really big and disgusting river. You can see how it was once majestic and a source of life though. There are parts of the city in which no housing exists, because it looks like something out of a space movie. Just outside of La Paz is the Valle de La Luna (Valley of the Moon) and parts of this area run into the city. These areas are surreal, weathered rock formations, which are like giant spikes out of the ground. Beyond the flats, at the top and outer most edges of the city, the Andes stand snow capped, and create a stunning backdrop to this mysterious and unique capital.









We stayed in an AirBnB here with the most entrepreneurial host, who greeted us, and his 52 hundred other guests, with jokes and laughter each morning. Here we had the most beautiful views of the city, as we slept on the top floor, and watched the sun set over the mountains every night. We visited the famous Witch markets, where shops sold all manner or trinkets and tricks, llama fetuses and dried frogs for rituals, figurines and aphrodisiac formulas and of course, palo santo. While it was definitely bizarre (and added fuel to our vego fire), it was a sight for eyes that thought they’d seen it all.













Walking the streets of La Paz, especially when you’re staying in the centre of the city, is. tough. work. Coupled with the altitude, once you’re on the main street, the only way is up, and it’s a workout. In fact, in a regular city at sea level, these streets would be tough on the legs. I have no doubt our photos only give you a taste of those endless stairs. We did find ourselves feeling a little less like fat pieces of lard, when we passed a few locals who were just as breathless as ourselves. Every few hundred metres up each hill, you’d find a strategically placed milk bar, convenient positioned for rest stops. We also had our first, and only, issue with an ATM here. We drew out money, about $300 AUD, which never actually came out of the machine. After a translator from our AirBnB helped us out at the bank in question, and we had a lengthy called to our bank in Australia, the money was put back into our account, but it sure was a stressful few days there.








Just a few days before we were set to head for Brazil, we decided that this might be our one and only chance to get a taste of the Amazon, even if it was only to be the basin, and I desperately wanted to see a Capybara. We decided to visit Coroico, and found ourselves shoved into the tiniest bus, which turned out to be the smelliest ride of our lives. There were many unwashed bodies on that tiny bus, and no one wanted to open the windows, which just made the condensation dripping down the glass all the more disgusting. I can’t say for certain, but I’m fairly sure there was a dead llama fetus being transported on that bus. One hour in and all four of our legs were numb, Josh had ripped off some bread from our stash and shoved it up his nostrils, and we giggled at the rosary beads that were hanging from the drivers rear view mirror, as we zoomed around a few corners and hung on for our lives, Latino style. This bus ride, while painful in many ways, was one of the most beautiful trips. From the depths of the city of La Paz, we spent the first hour of the ride climbing the mountain side, and then platoing before we climbed again up and in between those snow capped Andes we’d been admiring all week. Once we started decending, the condensation got worse, and the heat that had been missing from our lives the past few months, suddenly arrived. We found ourselves in a tiny town nestled into the side of the mountains, and the view was nothing but rain forest. We didn’t spend long in this sweet town, in fact it was only a day and a half, but it was long enough for some relief from the altitude, some humid warm air, and a whole lot of jungle. We went for a hike to find some waterfalls, and although we never found them, the Bolivian country side, full of marvellous butterflies and endless tea and coca plantations, was breathtaking. I really wanted to see some animals, so we paid a visit to Sende Verde, an animal rescue centre where the animals roam free and the people are in cages. And we finally saw our Capybara, which is basically a sweet natured, giant guinea pig with webbed feet, and coupled with the ridiculously cute monkeys and gorgeous macaws, it was everything I could have hoped for.


We did have to make the horrid trip back up through the mountains again, in the tiny little bus, but the flight out was beautiful as the Andes disappeared from underneath us, and the winding rivers that flow through the mighty Amazon took their place, as we headed toward Brazil.


6 Sep




As we headed South East from Cusco to Puno, which was just a single night stop over, before we hopped on a bus to head across the border into Bolivia, I couldn’t have been more terrified. I have no doubt that South America is a place where you can get in some serious trouble, sought out or not, and doing “research” prior to an endeavour such as overland border crossing between Latin American countries, can reveal the worst of stories. You pretty quickly work out that the reviews you find online about airlines, bus trips and hotels, are only bad – people only seem to comment when they’ve had a terrible experience, and need to vent. We, however, couldn’t have been luckier. While Puno was a bit of a let down, our hotel was fantastic, and they organised our transfers with a company who were very organised, and helped us the whole way. The country side and scenery was incredible, and the ride was comfortable and smooth (nothing like the horror stories of chicken buses) as we climbed yet again in altitude. At the border crossing we all piled off the bus, lined up on the Peruvian side, got our stamps, walked our selves across the border and lined up on the Bolivian side for our stamp in. As per usual with border towns, there were endless shops, and people selling all sorts of food and trinkets. And as per usual with us and new destinations in Latin America, there seemed to be some kind of national holiday, that meant the bus had to drop us on the out skirts of town, and we had to drag our bags through town – Copacabana, a tiny town on Lake Titicaca. By the time we reached the other side of town, I had had a mini break down. I couldn’t breath because of the altitude and dragging our bags through town, and of course our accomodation was at the top of the hill. So while I sat with our bags and sulked like a baby, Josh soldiered on and returned 15 minutes later with a huge grin saying, “Just you wait until you see our accomodation. It will be worth it.” We had been lucky enough to get the last room, in a place that felt like heaven on earth. It was reminiscent of what I can only imagine buildings on the Greek Islands look like. It certainly felt that lush. Stark white clusters of buildings, with highlights of deep blue were nestled into the hillside, and little pathways leading between each of the buildings, each boasting beautiful views of the lake. Our little private villa was perfect. We had our own front lawn, complete with lawn chairs, beautiful bay windows and skylights, wooden floorboards, endless blankets for the chilly nights and our own fireplace.










We spent a few days discussing, researching and making some tough decisions. Our finances were somewhat tight at this point, having spent so much in Peru and not wanting to miss out, and we had a tough choice ahead. Do we try to squeeze in the Amazon or do we put it on the “next time” list, with the possibility there would be no next time? With so much to do and see still ahead of us, we decided to indulge in our luxury at “Hostal La Cúpula” and extend our 3 nights to 10. We felt so happy and at home, we found ourselves relaxing, reading, roasting marshmallows and strolling the streets. The food situation was dire – there were no supermarkets, just tiny tiendas carrying all types of junk food and canned goods, and a market full of rotten fruit and endless root vegetables for sale. We lived off roasted vegetables, a tiny jar of pesto we carried with us from Peru, and used oil to really extend it, tinned tuna and whatever fruit we could find. The hostel had private rooms and dorms, communal areas and gardens with sun chairs and hammocks, and a restaurant, where we would treat ourselves to a meal every few days to break up our bare bones meals.







The hostel was really a haven – a world away from the town below. Our days were full of warms days, sun and blue skies, until one morning we awoke to snow covering the ground. We were told this was a good sign… that summer was really on its way. We rented a motorbike on morning and just explored the back roads of Bolivia. We drove past tiny Incan towns, a cave where locals gathered for ceremonies and saw the island of the moon and sun from the shores of Lake Titicaca. We found views of the Andes heading south and found the crisp air dizzying. One morning we decided to do a hike to the top of the hill behind our hostel. It was the slowest hike of my life, and probably the highest altitude I’ve ever been at. Easily over 4000m above sea level at this point, the air is thin and crisp, and breathing becomes difficult. I found my bones ached, and when we did finally make it to the top, we took our photos and quickly descended, the ache in my head dissipating with each meter down.









Although it was a bit of limbo time, the set up of the hostel meant we met many other travellers, had lots of great chats, and it got us excited for the next leg of our trip, because at this point we still had a bit to go before our return to Canada. We finally paid up for our last night and booked a bus to head to the Bolivian capital, La Paz, for our last stop in the country before we flew to Brazil.

Cusco and The Sacred Valley

1 Aug


Flying into Cusco was surreal. From so high up, it’s so small amongst the Andes, which dwarf the town. Or should I say city? It’s home to over 340,000 people after all. After spending a few days acclimatising to the altitude in Ollyantaytambo and Aguas, we returned to Cusco, and I’m so glad we did. It has the hustle and bustle of a city, complete with endless markets and noisy taxis, with the quaint qualities of a small town. The main square is full of cobble stone streets, small taxis zipping around, gardens and fountains, and little alleyways off to the sides of large, looming church facades.

After negotiating with our taxi driver to get us to the right part of town, and of course because we always stayed with people in their homes, we always found ourselves miles from the centre of town, we arrived at Carlos’ place. He runs somewhat of a hostel situation – a large building with a central open courtyard and rooms all around. We stayed on the second floor, in a dark but cosy room, complete with heavy blankets piled high on our comfy bed, and white, fluffy dressing gowns. What appeared to be little luxuries quickly turned into necessities come nightfall. Cusco sits at an even higher altitude of 3400m above sea level, and night time is freezing, especially due to the lack of heaters. I’m still unsure if we got sick because of the altitude, but it sure felt like a cold. The ever stoic Josh never gets sick, but the next few days were spent in bed, surfing the web, reading, and consuming lots of coca (an Andean plant that helps with altitude sickness) in the form of tea and honey flavoured lollies for the sore throats we were sporting.

We had to get really creative with cooking, as the local supermarket had nothing – mouldy fruit and veggies were of course in abundance, and even canned goods were hard to find. After eating endless puffed quinoa, chia and ancient grain cereal mixes (which I now miss terribly), I did some extensive research and was determined to find Orion Supermarket, of which there are two in Cusco. It took us half a day, a few blisters on the feet, and a few squabbles to find it, but it was like heaven on earth once we had. Finally we could find pesto, cheese and fruit without the bruises again. It seems such a small thing, but when your only job is feeding yourself, you become quite consumed with it.



Once we had a decent amount of food in the cupboard and in our bellies, and were on the mend, Cusco soon became a sensory overload and ended up being our shopping destination. We were able to buy some special pieces for our loved ones, and the endless shops and markets, holes in the walls that led to inner courtyards, and stairs that led to beautiful shops full of colour could keep anyone busy for months. The down side to this is that everyone has something to sell, but we found Cusco to be far less pushy than other tourist destinations we’d been to. The desperation to sell wasn’t there anymore and it felt much more easy going. We spent our days wandering the streets, eating traditional baked goods from little bakeries and taking in the colours, sights and llamas of Cusco.




We used Cusco as a base to explore the Sacred Valley; the heart of the Incan Empire, and we tossed up renting a motor bike or jumping on a tour bus to experience it all. We ended up on a bus full of Spanish speakers, which kind of made the trip feel a little less touristy, and the English speakers amongst the group were very keen to take photos with us, and practise their English. The tour guide always chucked on a condensed, poorly articulated version of the elaborate story he told everyone else in Spanish, which we found highly entertaining. He told us just enough, and we let the scenery do the rest, and truly, we found it the best way to get all the information about the area, and sights into one trip.





Our first stop on our two day trip was a small market place at the foot of Písac; an ancient farming ruin, established to protect Cusco from possible attacks. We didn’t have much time there, but through the twists and turns of the busy market stalls, we found a smaller inner courtyard with a large clay oven, and a little caged castle full of squeaking guinea pigs. One of the many reasons we choose not to eat meat anymore. When you’ve seen too much… you know? We bought some spinach and ricotta, and pineapple empanadas (pastries) and piled back on the bus, while the tour guide unsympathetically left the stragglers in the dust. To be fair, he had warned everyone to be prompt.











The Inca constructed agricultural terraces all over the Sacred Valley, always on steep hillsides, some of which are still in use. These terraces enabled the organised production of food and allowed for the crops to survive in all weather patterns. We visited the pear shaped ruin, Moray, which contains unusual Inca ruins. The ruins are set on a backdrop of snow capped mountains, smoke billowing on the horizon, the smells of burning palo santo on the wind, and flora that is reminiscent of Dr Seuss illustrations. The ruins consist of several terraced circular depressions, created with a sophisticated irrigation system in mind. The depth, design, and orientation creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C between the top and the bottom of the ruins. Such large temperature differences allowed the Incas to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops.









Our last stop was Maras; a series of salt evaporation ponds set into the side of a steep hill, in use since Inca times. A subterranean stream bubbles up from the hill, and as the highly salty water emerges, it is diverted, split and directed into an intricate system of tiny channels. It’s been constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto several hundred terraced ponds. Almost all the ponds are less than four meters square, and as water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated, and salt precipitates as various sized crystals onto the surfaces of the ponds.

The altitude was brutal throughout our two days, and I struggled to “stroll” around the ruins, many times resting while Josh jogged off. I found altitude sickness to be a strange thing – not what I expected at all. It’s the pressure on your sinuses and in your bones, the sore muscles, light headedness and general flu feeling that hangs around. It would increase as we drove up and decrease almost immediately upon decent. It certainly is a fickle sickness.

Machu Picchu

6 Jun


We had high expectations, considering the price we had paid to get ourselves here, but we’d never take back our experience of Machu Picchu, and photos could never do it justice. In retrospect, we’re glad we had the privilege of visiting this place, and were surprised by the many stories it had to tell.




We started our journey with a train trip to Aguas Calientes, which is sadly, a tourist-exploited town that sits in a valley below Machu Picchu. We were told the best way to see the heritage site was as early as possible, so after finding our hotel and some food, we wandered the streets, crossed bridges and strained our necks as we looked straight up the towering mountains around us.









It’s funny what you do and don’t remember about places, experiences, and pain. I’d been sick a few days prior, and had finally worked out, the night before, that the altitude sickness tablets I was taking didn’t agree with me. I’d hardly been able to walk for long before needing to lie down, mostly due to the pain I had in my lower back. I spent that night drinking huge amounts of water to flush out the diamox from my system, and praying I wouldn’t need to sprawl every few hundred metres the next day for some pain relief. I needn’t have worried – adventure kicked in and the pain became a distant memory.

The woman who sold us tickets for the morning bus told us to start lining up an hour before the buses were to leave (5:20am) and we thought she was joking. Well come 5:00am the next morning, we were already lined up, and then waited in line for the following 2 hours before we finally got on a bus. The road up wound back on itself, what felt like hundreds of times, as the bus chugged its way up each steep but short stretch. We found ourselves at the gates of Machu Picchu, shortly after opening, wove between the guides hounding tourists at the gate, marched past the slow walkers, and took a left as soon as we were through the gates, heading straight for the Sun Gate.









The clouds hovered over the mountains as the sun beams shot through the mist, dancing across the structures below. The site sits at 2430m above sea level, and as we’d only been at high altitudes for a few days, we panted and puffed our way up the trail, slowly but surely climbing up. Passing the occasional rester, we sat at the Sun Gate, just the two of us, and just watched the site wake up. Researchers say they are unsure why this site was built here, as it served no real purpose, but I think the Incan people placed a high value on feeling connected to the world. Here, you feel like an eagle sitting on the highest peak. The world below you is serene and quiet, and there is a connection to the earth around you that you won’t find in many other places. It’s almost like you need to go there just for a moment with the mountains. You’re so high above the world that you’re always feeling like maybe you could tumble at any moment. And the fall would be long, and would last forever.

We watched the hikers arrive from their four day hike in, and enjoyed a moment of solitude to just appreciate the site, as the mayhem of tourists and selfie sticks awaited us below. Finally we walked back down and explored the ruins. We listened in to the different guides as we passed group after group, all providing unique facts, each more outrageous and contradictory than the next.







The most surprising thing about this place is how accessible it is. You think, being from the other side of the world, that visiting Machu Picchu sounds exotic and only for the sound of body and adventurous spirit, but the incredible amount of people visiting this place, how accessible it is (think wheelchair access) and the variation in people, old and young, from all walks of life, was mind blowing.


Though we found ourselves overwhelmed by the crowds and were back to our hotel before lunch, the experience was unlike any other, and we’re incredible grateful that we were able to visit Machu Picchu, and see it in all its glory.


29 Nov


Our next stop was the capital of Peru, Lima, and honestly it felt like a little bit of returning to civility for us. We enjoyed supermarkets with everything we could want, walks through beautiful neighbourhoods and strange little cat parks, cooler weather and the famous eerie fog of Lima. We milled around the outdoor shopping mall, built into the side of one of Limas famous cliffs, ordered coffees at Starbucks where no one knew how to spell Joshs name, stuck to the nicer neighbourhoods like the tourists we were and I spent time getting over some serious back pain, which I later discovered was directly linked to the altitude sickness tablets I was taking.












A few days later, we hoped on a very small plane, which was delayed by 2 hours, and slept the whole way to Cusco. The second we left the plane, we felt the effects of the 3399m change in altitude. The air felt crisp and our bones seemed to ache, and after a few hours in a little mini van with little ventilation, a slight headache appeared for us both – a rare occurrence for Josh. We had decided in advance, to head straight to Ollantaytambo, a small Incan village a few hours out of Aguas Caliente which is at the base of Machu Picchu. Our decision was based purely on my fear of altitude sickness and what it might do to us, and as the town sits at 2792m above sea level, it was enough of a difference to Cusco to make all the difference in our adaption.











We stayed in a tiny traditional house with a lovely couple and spent the following days strolling around the cobble stoned alleyways, watching tiny rugged up humans in traditional Peruvian clothing playing in the streets with dogs, and disappearing into holes in the wall. The town is beautiful and quiet. It was never truly conquered by the Spanish, and as such, it has kept its original Incan buildings and generations of Incan people. The town sits in a hazey valley, surrounded by enormous mountains and two big Incan ruins which sit halfway up two opposing cliffs. It’s a lazy town, used only as a hub for the Incan Trail hike and the train station which takes tourists to Machu Picchu daily. Around noon, the bustle of people dies down as tourists board their trains, and we found this to be the best time to explore the town. The market is full of fruits we couldn’t pronounce, grains and potatoes, smiles full of gold teeth and promises of the best fly – covered foods in town. We visited the one woman in the whole town who sold bread on a daily basis, and spent our lunches downing peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
















We slowly climbed the cliff behind our accomodation and visited the Incan storehouses of Pinkuylluna. We watched the sun set on the ants that were tourists of the Ollantaytambo ruins on the opposite cliff, having the storehouses mostly to ourselves, watched the smoke from Incan households rise into the air, breathed deep the thin, Palo Santo scented air and decided this was the most beautiful and authentic place we’d ever visited.


Bogotá and the irony of safety

22 Oct


Our time in Bogotá was mostly spent researching other destinations, visiting yet another gold museum, taking a cable car up Monserrat for a spectacular view of the 8 million strong city and bakery hopping in the hopes of finding the famous chocolate bread of Colombia. As we felt like the city didn’t warrant its own post, we thought we’d combine it with our final thoughts on the country.







First and foremost, we truly believe that we just barely scratched the surface of this vast and beautiful country and that 15 days wasn’t nearly enough time here. We also believe that the better your Spanish, the more you are able to experience, and it is our hope that we can one day return to further explore. What follows is our opinion and experience.

That which we so desperately hoped we could write upon arrival, we now feel grateful to write the following with all truth. We were safer in Colombia than in Calgary. Not once did we have a problem with a taxi driver, we were never scammed or robbed, we were not mugged or accosted and even the airline, with whom we flew 4 times and whom also has terrible reviews online, did not disappoint. The cities were vibrant and colourful, the people helpful despite our awful Spanish, the festivals (of which there are many) extravagant and yet never a concern and even some of the drivers felt safe. We had one strange experience, in which a single police officer asked to smell Joshs hands, which clearly smelt of sunscreen, followed by the question “marijuana?” We politely but firmly responded no and walked away and even though we were slightly perturbed by the situation, we never felt unsafe. Even stories that came from other travellers we met were those of policemen causing trouble and one of a quick and clever hand and a traveler whose phone was probably in the wrong pocket, but never dangerous situations. We feel so grateful to say we left this country with all our belongings and our peace of mind.






But here’s the kicker. While we were in Colombia, a unit in the apartment building which we used to manage had a party. It was once our responsibility to knock on the door, tell them to be quiet and generally be the bad guy. We occasionally called the police if there was a problem. This particular party resulted in a stabbing death. Many times I’d lie in bed at a ridiculous hour while Josh went to break up a party, praying nothing would happen, that he would come back unharmed. What would have happened if we were there? We discussed many times on the irony of the situation.









While the news is sad, we are once again reminded how safety is relative and it has so much to do with right time right place and vice versa. We’re posting this having left the South American continent and while we don’t doubt that it can be a dangerous place, we have left unscathed and immensely grateful for our safe experience.


On a side note, there should be more posts soon. It’s been very difficult to edit photos and post everything on our iPad. I have been reunited with my beloved laptop and things should be much smoother in the posting department, now that we are home. We’ve still got Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, the USA and our sneaky and very secret arrival home to share. Stay tuned.

Taganga and Tayrona National Park

27 Aug


After a comfy but hair-raising ride, in which the driver would only overtake another vehicle over bridges, blind rises and corners, we found ourselves once again dumped on the side of the road in Santa Marta, with instructions to jump in an unmarked taxi that had been flagged down and directed where to take us. It seems that down here, having no hotel name to provide the driver (because we use AirBnB) can be a real pain, and we often spend a ridiculous amount of time explaining this in our broken Spanish. Something was lost in translation and after many confused looks and attempts to hide our phone with the directions on it, we were off, up and over the hill, through a neighbourhood that made me more and more nervous by the second. You know, the kind with cars on stumps, people sitting on their steps watching you drive by, dust, dirt and rubbish floating on the air currents and each house looking more dilapidated than the last. Josh is always so sweet and we have a silent conversation in almost every taxi;

“Are we going the right way?”
“Are you sure? This looks a little sketchy”
“I’m sure”
While I confess I’m not the bravest of travellers, he finally confessed he doesn’t always know if it’s the right way.








As we trundled down the other side of the hill, our hosts instructions start to make sense. “AQUI” (here), and we bail out, bags in tow, staring up the 120meters of rock wall we had to climb. It better be worth it, I’d said under my breath. Who knew 120meters up was so tough. We climbed, rested, climbed, rested and climbed a little more. Josh, ever my hero, carried both bags. We were a sweaty mess by the time we arrived, and a sweet face, with ringlets sun bleached many shades lighter than his skin pops over the banister and dashes off to tell mum. Turns out the views from here are stunning and the walk, while brutal, is worth it. There’s no internet, but that’s part of its charm. We were shown to our room; stunning views and air conditioning, a pool just below, open air common area upstairs and hammocks for days. We decided to head into town and get food supplies so we wouldn’t have to go anywhere for the next few days. The hammocks were calling us. We caught a bus at the bottom of the rock wall and bumped our way down through the sketchy neighbourhood once more. I was feeling less concerned and more adventurous by the second. We asked a friendly guy where to get off and followed his directions, and once we are past the myriad of street vendors, and have followed the single-file path, we arrived at the Exito.







I know it sounds strange, but one of my favourite things to do in a new place or country is to visit a supermarket. It’s so fascinating what is sold and what people buy and eat. For example, it’s hard to find unsweetened bread. And I mean, sickly sweet whole grain with seeds and all. Or products you’ve never seen before, like a block of cocoa mixed with sugar, that you add to hot milk and drink for breakfast. And it doesn’t taste as great as it sounds. After buying what we needed, we tried some street food; “arepas” which are essentially fried corn flour and water, with cheese and guacamole, and finally jumped on the bus back to Taganga, which stopped moving as soon as we got on, thanks to a traffic jam. We later found out the ornately decorated cars, statues of saints, loud music and fireworks were all thanks to one of the many celebrations that occur in this country. Let’s just say South America is not for light sleepers. And that safety comes second to a good firework lighting. The following days were spent poolside, relaxing, occasionally heading down the rock wall for Internet and a Lulo juice (one of the many exciting and exotic Colombian fruits). There had been no rain since November, and every morning we woke up, the valley looked drier; like a fire had raced through the night before. Every night was warm and festive, and we went to sleep to the sounds of fireworks and bad karaoke, from the once sleepy fishing village below. “They’re always celebrating something here” explained one of our hosts.







On our second last day, we decided to head to the Wilsons Prom of Colombia; Tayrona National Park, and the reason we came all this way along the coast. We were picked up by “Fifa” who kindly guided us through ticket purchase and took us all the way to the gate. Foreigners, as per usual here, pay almost ten times the entrance fee of nationals. And the lines were huge. We later discovered that we had arrived on the one day of the year that half of Colombia would too; Colombian Independence Day. After a 2 hour hike in, over boulders, across thick sand and drenched in more sweat than we had ever experienced, we arrived at the first swimming beach, La Piscina. We couldn’t get in the icy waters fast enough, and were finally able to appreciate just where we were. It was busy, yes, but the water, the sand, the rocks and jungle backdrop was worth every sweaty step. We continued on, over more rocks, boulders, through jungle and sand, to the biggest beach, Cabo San Juan. It was packed, and the sweat was coming on fast. We found our spot, and after cooling off we sat back and people watched. We had been told that we could catch a boat from this beach, back to Taganga and were given times.







The national park shuts every day at 5pm and if you aren’t staying the night, you needed to be out by then. We thought we’d be early and catch the 3:30 boat back, which actually turned out to the 4 o’clock boat, and also was full. In fact, thanks to the holiday, the next two days of boats were full, and we were fresh out of options. A 2 hour hike in, 1 hour to get out and our only option was the possibility of maybe finding a bus at the entrance, as we had told Fifa not to wait. Telling each other this would be a story (little did we know), we started the fastest and most gruelling hike of our lives. Surprisingly, I didn’t hate it until the end. If we thought the sweat was bad going in, we knew nothing of sweaty hell. We made it back to the gate 15 minutes after closing and jumped in the second last mini van, crammed with people, sweat dripping off our noses like a tap. To say the 15 minute ride to the gate was uncomfortable was an understatement. I closed my eyes and could feel heat radiating. We were more than sweaty; we had sweated off the sunscreen and were now sunburnt too. Finally, we arrived at the gate and waited for the bus to take us back to town. A bus that was either too full, or never came. An hour later it started to get dark, we were 40km from Santa Marta, and I was starting to get worried. The area at the entrance to the park is not exactly pretty. We teamed up with some guys from the UK and realized things could be worse; they had all their luggage, had just lost a bunch of money on accommodation in the park that was not what they expected, had no where to stay in Santa Marta that night, and no buses would stop for any gringos. All we had was sunburn.



Finally, in a typical British rant, complete with profanity, one guy saw a ute, and after a quick discussion, we all bailed in the back. We had no idea where the guy was going, if we should pay him, provided we arrived safely and didn’t fall out due to the 6 people, 4 backpacks and at least 10 numb limbs, or if this was even legal. We raced past two police stops, a toll and all I could think is, I’m in the back of a strangers car, in Colombia, with other strangers, and it’s getting dark. My mother would freak! But most people are good and kind, and this particular man and his family were. Though wind burnt, we were let out (slowly) in Santa Marta, waved our thanks and finally were making the hike to our accommodation, which we did not move from for the next 24hours, thanks to sore muscles and wind and sunburnt skin. We enjoyed a final Taganga sunset and went back to Cartagena the following day.

Cartagena – La Heroica

17 Aug

Although our time in Colombia began in the city of Bogotá, our adventure really began in the steamy, colonial city of Cartagena, pronounced Carta-hena with a slight roll of the r. As an addition to my stress, we were to land in the dark (read, early evening) and had to catch a taxi to our accommodation. As with most of our experience of Latin America, only negative experiences are  written about, and an Internet search on safety and taxis can bring a fresh wave of panic, but our experience has been nothing but positive. We were given a ticket with the neighborhood and a price before we got in the taxi, so the usual question about the cost was not required. We arrived in the very safe neighborhood of Castillogrande, were welcomed by our hosts, and encouraged to venture out to find dinner at night. And what a wonderful evening we had. We found a healthy dinner, artisanal Italian Icecream and a stroll along a widely paved sidewalk complete with palm trees – all which could rival, and was reminiscent of the Gold Coast. The next morning we caught the local bus, an experience in fumes, loud music and bad driving, and hopped off at the entrance to the “old” part of town.

Cartagena was founded on 1 June 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, and got its name from the same town in Spain. The city became prosperous and wealthy which made it a target for pirates and thieves, and Spain soon intervened, constructing castles, forts, and a iconic wall that surrounded the city. When all construction was completed the city was almost impossible to take, and to this day many of these building and part of the wall still stands.

We strolled the streets, awed by the colours and flowers, marveled at the intricate nature of each detail on each facade and found ourselves intrigued by the fruit vendors, who were selling fruit we had never seen. I bought a Colombian dessert, which I’m still not sure the name of. Essentially two circular wafers, with Arequipa (caramel) and coconut smothered between them. We tried uchuvas, a orange ball like fruit that comes in a paper leaf and whose texture is similar to a cherry tomato, only the taste was fruiter.

At 3 o’clock we met “Edgar”, a local man who runs free tours of his city. From here we received an overload of information about the history of the city and Colombia, something we soon found that we knew nothing of. He covered everything, from the independence of the city, to Bolivar (who was influential in the independence of many South American counties) and his role in the city, and of course, the impact that Pablo Escobar has had on the country. Edgar was so passionate about his country and educating others that we finished the tour feeling inspired, and continued chatting about the country as we watched the sun go down over the walls. After a day spent exploring the area we were staying, we packed up and headed to our next destination, Taganga.


5 Aug

We began our adventures to Panama with a short trip to the border, a walk across a bridge, a few stamps and after a few palms were greased, we arrived in the town of Bocas del Toro, Panama. We quickly grabbed some food and found a 4-wheel drive taxi who took us out to our accommodation. We soon found out exactly why the trip, of which we had been warned, was so expensive. More so because Panama uses the U.S. dollar. The road followed a dirt track, that quickly turned to sand, and then lead out onto the beach itself. Barriers had been built to prevent the “road” from being washed away. This had clearly not worked and chunks of the road were missing.






Finally, after turning to each other a few times and exchanging significant “where the heck are we” looks, we arrived at the eco lodge that is Tesoro Escondido. The two story lodge, painted in blues and oranges, has two full balconies that surround it, and being up on the cliffs, the waves crash consistently and loudly below. Hammocks and spots to hang are scattered around and a yoga deck is hidden in the jungle of a garden below. A short walk reveals a stunning, wild beach – it’s easy to see why turtles come here to lay their eggs. We relaxed and prepared for the day that would follow. Our sweet Panamanian friend had booked us a tour and we set out for the journey into town the next morning.








We were taken on a mini bus, full to the brim of sweaty shouldered people, to the other side of the island. We spent the day exploring Playa de las Estrellas, and here the blue water is full of starfish. Each is just as unique as the last, orange, red and coral in colour, each with different patterns, the smallest the size of a grown mans hand.










The next day we spent on a boat, searching for dolphins (and sadly finding none), snorkelling, resting out sea legs on an island and exploring the mangroves. We found beautiful reefs and a sloth on a floating island, reminiscent of something out of “The Life of Pi”. In the days that follow, we relaxed, meet other guests, did a bit of yoga with said guests and enjoyed the never end waves. The last two nights pour with rain, practically monsoon, and we moved everything into the center of the room to avoid the rain coming in through to mesh. Its muggy in Bocas, and quiet easy to work up a sweat, but due to the nature of the lodge, nature is the only way to cool off, and we found ourselves relying on the wind to stay cool. On the last night, I found mold on some of our clothes and the bugs had finally gotten to us. The rain was so bad, a small landslide had occurred and so three large trees were cut down in front of the lodge, sending swarms of bugs into the air. Our last night was spent covered in deet, fending off the bugs and rain. Needless to say that while this place was stunning, we were thrilled to get moving again. At 5 o’clock we started our journey on the one and (we hope) only over night bus of the trip and headed to Panama City. Drivers here leave much to be desired, and to say it was a bad nights sleep is an understatement.















We arrived, haggard and confused, but welcomed by our most helpful host yet. He picked us up before dawn and took us to his hotel of an apartment, complete with stunning views, a pool, gym and the comfiest, biggest bed of our stay. Complete with air conditioning we were in heaven, and promptly hopped in bed to recover. The following day we spent in an air conditioned mall, drinking coffee, replacing lost clothing and enjoying being away from the scraggly life that is backpacking. If just for one glorious day. We took a taxi the next day into the old part of town, Casco Viejo and wandered it’s beautiful colonial streets. Casco Viejo was the second area built in Panama City after the first, Panama Viejo, was attacked by pirates (or the Queen of Spain, depending on who you talk to). Until recent years, the area wasn’t that safe, until the government saw the potential in the buildings, and now hotels, restaurants and bars are beginning to pop up. Its still an area in development, and as such, makes for a stark contrast in condition of each building. We then negotiated a taxi out to the Panama Canal and museum. I’ll preface this next part by saying we are budget travellers and the U.S. Dollar was not kind to our pockets. We purchased one very expensive ticket and took turns visiting the small museum and peering over the decks into the canal. It’s bad practise, we know, but one that saved us aperture penny. We definitely found Panama to be the most expensive country and without careful for thought, we found it easy to blow a chunk of change in a day. Whether it’s our safety or the unknown, or a flight that I’m uneasy about, I woke up with vertigo, no appetite and a mouth ulcer that took a few days to disappear. It’s strange how ones body reacts to stress despite telling yourself you’re fine. Turns out I had nothing to worry about, but that’s a story for next week.

The Jaguar Rescue Center

22 Jul


Pistachio the pelican greets you as you enter the grounds. He roams the gardens here, and like the boss he is, will warn you when you’re too close. There are glass cages everywhere, eyelash pit vipers in greens, corals and yellows hide in each one, wrapped in pairs, never sure of where one begins and the other ends.









The tour starts with Nala the baby puma. She, like all other animals here at the center, was brought here for help. She was kept captive as a pet after her mum was killed by poachers. Like almost all the animals here, they plan to release her. Many animals that start here go to the centres privately owned and protected forest, La Ceiba, once they are ready. It’s slow release and animals, such as the monkeys, come and go as they like. Our guide shows us another of the cat family, native to Costa Rica. They have tried twice to release him, and twice he’s found his way back to the center, taking out their neighbours chickens on the way. Now they wait for another option as they begin talks with a national park far away.






The sloths, both two and three toed, hang out in a low hanging tree, each with a similar tale. Mother was electrocuted and died, baby survived and brought here. Adult sloths can regulate their body temperature and are usually around the 32degree mark, but the babies have no control and without a mothers warmth they can die from hyperthermia. They hang out here in the trees with some sweet flightless parrots who are growing back their wings. Around the corner hangs their male deer, who charges people at random, and our guide stands with a stick at the ready to ward him off.










There is a baby ant eater walking around. He may never be released. He has a neurological disorder and was found walking in tight circles. He’s slowly getting better but sometimes resumes his circles and stresses himself out. The monkeys are adorable. They need lots of love and the volunteers at the center spend hours just being their touch. There are two older monkeys – one is missing a leg and the other is blind. They are just too fragile for release. There’s a spider monkey, many howlers and a white faced capuchin. They leap and climb and play, and of course, hassle the older monkeys. There is a variety of birds; Hawks, owls and parrots, each with their own sad tale. A crocodile, famous for being beaten and dragged down the main street in Puerto Viejo, now lives here. A caiman found in a hotel bathroom lives just next door. The center is doing incredible things for injured wildlife around the area and we felt so lucky to have had the chance to see them. I’ll leave you now with Samantha – a few month old sloth who stole our hearts.