Love at first sight.

WEEKS 17 and 18

ECUADOR
Quito and the Andes.

by Xavier

You see, the first thing we love is a scene. For love at first sight requires the very sign of its suddenness; and of all things, it is the scene which seems to be seen best for the first time: a curtain parts and what had not yet ever been seen is devoured by the eyes…
— Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments.

Mirador de Bellavista, Quito

OK there were some bits of Colombia that I liked a lot: the nights out in Bogotá, the hotel pool in Santa Marta, the friends we made in San Agustín… but I wasn’t bowled over by Colombia, or really got as much from it as Simon did – he loved it. So I worried that South America was not quite going to do it for me this time, and we still had over two months to go. All of this was weighting on my mind as we were making our way into Quito from the border. Another road, another stuffy old bus. Then I looked out of the window and my jaw dropped. We were approaching the town of Ibarra, half way between the border and our destination. I could see it in the distance, small and flat, and framed by an immense volcano shrouded in thick white clouds. It was an incredible scene, and I was mesmerised. It got dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Quito, higher than the sprawling city itself. The view of the city lights from the road was like the view from a plane, which I always find very exciting. At the bus station we said goodbye to our Dutch friends and found a taxi. As we chatted to the driver and took in the views I thought to myself I was going to like this place.

Map: Ecuador

I loved Quito. A lot. We stayed in a great hostel in La Floresta which had amazing views (when the fog permitted; there seems to be a lot of fog in Ecuador), and spent a few days exploring the city, though the weather turned cold and wet (and foggy) so not as much exploring as we would have liked. The old town is a legacy of Quito’s wealthy and deeply religious colonial past. We visited some beautiful churches, like the Iglesia de San Agustín, the Cathedral, and one of Quito’s highlights: the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, a (mainly) baroque extravaganza built by the Jesuits between 1605 and 1765, and decorated with – we were told – about seven tons of gold leaf, which says a lot about the priorities of the Church. There were some museums too. Casa del Alabado is a restored late 1600’s Spanish house that hosts an excellent collection of pre-Columbian art, with some items on display dating from about 4,000 B.C. It was well worth the visit. We also tried some typical food, like fanesca, a hearty soup traditionally eaten during Easter. We hung out in Plaza Foch a few times, did a bit of shopping (I found a small shop in the old town where a group of young designers sell some cool stuff), and wined and dined at a couple of hip restaurants near our hostel.

Quito

Iglesia de San Agustín, Quito

Quito

Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, Quito

Casa del Alabado, Quito

One of the things we wanted to do while in Ecuador was to go to Galápagos Islands. After Easter Island, Galápagos was the main highlight of our penciled itinerary. It was in Quito where we finally decided not to go. Our travel budget is already on the overstretched side, particularly after the time we spent in the South Pacific. Oh well, next time. On the up side, we now had some extra time in our hands, so decided to extend our stay in Quito for two more days before heading south. The rain and the cold spoiled these days a bit but we managed to enjoy ourselves, and I really hope to come back to this wonderful city at some point.

Foch Yeah!, Quito

From Quito we travelled south to Baños de Agua Santa (or just Baños), a small town reminiscing of Vang Vieng in both setting and main activities. The weather was fortunately a lot better than in Quito, which was just as well, because there is nothing to do in Baños other than outdoorsy stuff – well, while Baños is fairly dead midweek, thousands of people descended on it for the weekend, and the centre of town turns into a massive Latin party on Saturday nights, as we found out. Baños offers a wide range of outdoor activities: hiking, paragliding, white water rafting, canyoning, zip lining, mountain biking, swinging off bridges, etc, etc. We chickened out of the most thrill seeking ones (for me a thrill is to sit in the lower rows at the IMAX) but managed to cycle to the Pailón del Diablo (the Devil’s Cauldron), a spectacular waterfall about 20 kilometres from Baños, and a couple of strenuous hikes through the farming land just outside the town – the first hike we did totally disproved the theory of infinite universes where everything is possible because there is just no way there exists a universe where I could have climbed that hill without stopping every couple of meters to catch my breath; the second hike ended up on an unwitting game of Mud Or Shit, with an ever increasing amount of both. Great views though. Simon even tried the thermal pools that give the place its name, but they were apparently crowded and not terribly clean, so he wasn’t very impressed. Our hostel was fairly out of town, good for the views and very tranquil, but a bit of a pain for getting to and from town, which we ended up doing more than anticipated, not least on account of hanging out in the evenings with some of the guys we met in San Agustín, who are travelling a similar route to us and happened to be in Baños over the same few days, which was great fun.

Baños

La Casa del Árbol, Baños

Baños

Baños

Baños and friends

And from Baños we made our way to Cuenca, Ecuador’s most important colonial city after Quito, mainly to break the long journey towards the border with Peru. We only stayed a couple of nights, at a very quiet B&B just outside the old town. Cuenca was very pleasant. Simon, as usual, found an excellent restaurant on the first night, then we spent the next day seeing the sites along Mariscal Sucre and Calle Larga, two of the main streets. We saw some works by Ecuadorian artists at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, and walked the long way to the Museo del Banco Central, touted as Cuenca’s most important museum and so on, but actually very odd. The only thing of some interest that we found was its permanent ethnological exhibition, about the different indigenous Andean peoples of Ecuador, especially the section dedicated to the Shuar culture and its custom of shrinking human heads – tzantzas – and yes, there are a few on display. With not much else to do, we spent the rest of the time in cafés, and looking for a place where to fix my wristwatch, which turns out was never water proof after all.

Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador

After Cuenca, the plan was to head straight for the border. I liked the idea of stopping by the sea first, as we’ll just have one more chance on this trip when we get to Peru, so at my insistence Simon agreed to make a detour from our planned route and hit the coast north-west of Guayaquil – adding eventually about 15 hours of bus journeys, so I hope it’s worth it.

We are now in Montañita, a very popular and, er, lively beach town, where we have to wear a wristband with the details of the hostel, and the ratio of people to dodgy cocktail bars seems to be one to one, as if we have materialised in an episode of Sun, sex, and suspicious parents. Definitely watch this space.

Montañita nights

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.

Shake, shake, shake, Señora.

WEEK 16 into 17

COLOMBIA
Bogotá and the South

by Simon

on the road again

From Medellín we undertook a delightful ten hour bus journey to the capital, Bogotá. We stayed in a small, modern hotel in the business area right by the Zona Rosa (the dedicated nightlife district, filled with restaurants and bars and heavily policed; every Colombian city seems to have one). Bogotá is a great city to eat and go out, and we did a lot of both, as well as some compulsory sightseeing. I also particularly enjoyed getting around on the Transmilenio, the city’s main public transport system. A cross between a bus network and a metro, it was actually designed by my soon-to-be-former employer, and it featured in nearly every company brochure.

We visited the Museo de Santa Clara, a beautifully decorated church in which there was an exhibition of 18th century portraits of dead nuns who had lived and died in the adjacent convent. The spectacular Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) has an extraordinary collection of pre-Columbian gold artefacts – the biggest in the world. After what we had heard in the north about the Spanish conquest it seemed surprising that Colombia has so much gold left.

Bogotá

Santa Clara

Museo de Santa Clara

Museo del Oro

Museo del Oro

We took a trip to the nearby town of Zipaquira; here we visited the Catedral de Sal, an enormous underground Catholic church carved inside a salt mine. We spent several hours wandering through the network of tunnels, which only occupy a small corner of the salt mine. Given how huge the cathedral was, the full scale of the mine was almost impossible to imagine.

Zipaquira

Catedral de Sal

video: Discovery Latinoamérica channel, YouTube.

Whilst we were in Bogotá an earthquake struck to the north of the city. The city itself didn’t suffer much damage, but it was a very strange experience. First I thought I was having a sudden attack of dizziness, then I realised that the building was actually shaking. The streets were eerily quiet that night.

video: Tanatos channel, YouTube.

From Bogotá we took another ten hour ride, this time in a hot minibus, to the town of San Agustín. To make the journey more memorable, someone vomited at the back halfway through and it was unaccountably left to fester for the duration. San Agustin’s main pull for visitors is a series of pre-Columbian statues scattered in the surrounding countryside, some of which are over 2000 years old. A huge number of these were made and many are superbly detailed. It’s not entirely clear why they were built as little is known of the culture of the time; there are no written records. The statues were not for display but were buried in huge tombs with the dead leaders. Lucky people got to be sacrificed so they could join them – apparently considered a great honour at the time. Both the statues and the surrounding countryside were very impressive. We had a very relaxed few days here, staying just out of town, at a wonderful hostel where we made some friends (fellow travellers as well as the cutest dogs and cats). San Agustín deserves to get more visitors than it does – we were almost alone much of the time at the archaeological sites. Many people seem to be put off by the inaccessibility of the area and the (now well past) history of guerrilla activity.

San Agustín

San Agustín

San Agustín

From San Agustín our intention was to head straight for the border with Ecuador. As the crow flies this isn’t far – only about 200 kilometres (120 miles). By land, however, it is rather more difficult – bad roads winding through beautiful but not entirely safe areas, where you are told not to travel after dark due to the risk of attack by armed bandits. We opted for the more direct of the two available options, via a road reassuringly named the Trampoline of Death, which runs 80 kilometres (50 miles) between the towns of Mocoa and San Francisco. Harry, the hostel manager, assured us that it was a long time since there had been fatal bus crash on this route, but a quick Google news search showed that there had still been a few. Therefore it was with some trepidation that we took our motion sickness pills and headed off on the first day of the journey, to the city of Pasto where we would pass the night before heading on to the border.

The first few hours of the journey, to the grim and remote town of Mocoa, were uneventful enough. This is where the ‘trampoline’ begins: the road became a narrow dirt track which climbed high into the mountains, with vertical cliffs on one side and a sheer drop on the other, sometimes with a crash barrier but more often with just some yellow tape to mark where the edge was. The scenery was stunning, when we could see it through the clouds that shrouded the road; sometimes we could barely see out of the front of the minibus to the next bend and vertical drop. It was probably a good thing we couldn’t see, as in some places apparently the drop is 1,000 metres – though I hoped the driver could still see where to go. Fortunately, the fearsome reputation of this route inspired uncharacteristic diligence in Colombian drivers (trucks even pulled over to let us pass, which hasn’t happened anywhere else). It took three hours to cover the 80 kilometres to San Francisco. After another couple of hours, and over ten hours after leaving our hostel in San Agustín, we were in Pasto.

Trampolin of Death

Trampolin of Death

survived the Trampolin of Death

Pasto is a city travellers generally visit for one night en route to or from the border, and it didn’t seem like a place to linger, so early the next day we took our last Colombian bus, through more beautiful scenery, to the even grimmer border town of Ipiales. Here we made a short detour to the stunning Santuario de las Lajas, a church built on a bridge into the side of a mountain, where someone at some point had had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Whatever one thinks about religion, it has inspired some fantastic architecture.

We then crammed into a colectivo (shared vehicle) with ten other people for the remaining few kilometres to the border. Immigration was swift and customs control was non-existent, so we were through the border in no time. We shared a taxi to the Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan with a couple of Dutch travellers we’d met, and we didn’t even make it into the bus terminal before we were spotted by the bus company’s touts and loaded into a bus for Quito, another five hours away.

Las Lajas

Las Lajas

Welcome to Ecuador

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device.

South America

WEEK 15 into 16

COLOMBIA
The Caribbean coast and Medellín

by Simon

Cartagena de Indias

The longest single journey of the trip so far. From Easter Island we flew to Santiago, and then on to Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, via Bogotá. Dazed from our roughly 24 hour journey and blinking in the blinding sun (the heat was almost crippling during our entire stay) we joined a queue for a taxi to our B&B. Very efficiently, we were given a ticket which showed the price for the journey – this turned out to be useful as the taxi driver tried to charge us three times as much. This was only the second attempted taxi rip-off of the trip so far (the first being in Bangkok, where it seems almost mandatory).

Cartagena has quite a history. It was the main port used by Spain to ship back to Europe the treasures that it, er, stole from the indigenous population after the conquest. The British wanted a share of the loot so employed pirates (most famously Sir Francis Drake) to attack and grab. It was one of the first cities in Colombia to declare independence in 1810, and it was subsequently ‘pacified’ by the Spanish, resulting in the death of almost half of the population. What proud histories our countries have! The city is full of statues to people executed by firing squad “for being a patriot” – although Colombia did of course go on to win its war of independence. The old city is almost perfectly preserved, and with its massive city walls, church towers, narrow streets, and balconies covered in flowers, feels a bit like Spain’s Cordoba or Seville. We explored as much as the heat would allow in the days we spent in Cartagena, including visiting the vast fortress constructed by the Spanish on the outside of the old city (to protect it, successfully as it turned out, from British attack), and the network of tunnels within it.

Cartagena

Our next stop was Santa Marta, four hours further along the Caribbean coast. One of South America’s oldest cities, it was founded in 1525 by the Spanish, their first settlement in Colombia. Santa Marta is visited primarily as a base for the famous trek to Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) and the Tayrona national park. We ended up doing neither of those, as the heat made a five block walk uncomfortable, let alone a five day hike through the jungle. We did however enjoy the hotel pool and some rather amazing street performances in the old town, including spectacular gymnastics, traditional dancing, and fire-juggling. We also visited the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the villa and grounds where South American independence hero Simón Bolívar – El Libertador – spent his final months. On our final day we took a hair-raising local bus journey over the cliffs to the nearby resort of Taganga for lunch at Babaganoush, a very unassuming restaurant with great views over the bay and excellent food (also stupidly cheap), run by Dutch chef Patrick Verdegaal, who came out to greet us at the end. Very nice man. Lunch was followed by an interesting walk along the packed beach, and another unnerving bus ride back to Santa Marta – which suffered a major power cut during our last night that knocked out the air con in the hotel so we barely slept at all because of the horrendous heat. We still made our flight next day to Colombia’s second biggest city, where we arrived feeling a little the worse for wear.

Santa Marta

Simon Bolivar memorial

Xavi thinks the Simón Bolívar memorial is a little “COLOMBIA ÜBER ALLES“…

Santa Marta and Taganga

Medellín was reduced to a near war zone in the era of cartel boss Pablo Escobar but since he was killed in 1993 it has recovered and now feels a pleasant and reasonably safe city by Latin American standards. We stayed in a very chilled hostel in the upmarket district of Poblado, and ended up staying rather longer than planned – in my case, much of the time sitting in the hammocks in the garden. We did however venture into the centre of town, following hostel manager Lucy’s advice to leave watches and credit cards behind. The central square has been decorated with numerous distinctive sculptures by Medellín-born artist Fernando Botero; it should be very impressive but unfortunately the very persistent hawkers made it hard to enjoy. We retreated from there into the calmer Museo de Antioquía, which has an extensive collection of Botero sculptures, paintings, and drawings, as well as other Colombian art, and it’s well worth a visit.

Medellín

Museo de Antioquía, Medellín

Medellín is located in a deep valley, with the poorer districts often further up the steep slopes on either side. To link these previously inaccessible areas to the metro system in the valley, the city has built cable cars (the Metrocable). We took the longest of these routes, which makes a spectacular ascent across the south of the city, over the mountains and deep into the surrounding countryside, to visit Parque Arvi. This was a pleasant escape from the heat of the city, although despite a long and rather breathless walk across the park (which is at around 2,000 meters of altitude) we failed to find any of the supposed attractions there.

Medellín

Metrocable, Medellín

Some in Medellín are cashing in on the city’s troubled history, and offer Pablo Escobar tours, where you can visit the key sites in the life and death of this (depending on your point of view) local Robin Hood hero or international gangster and terrorist. You can even meet his brother (who was also his accountant, managing wealth estimated in 1989 as US$30 billion). These tours are near-mandatory for visiting backpackers but Lucy was clear she did not approve – not entirely surprisingly, many in Medellín don’t – and we weren’t organised enough to arrange it ourselves. Next time!

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All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.