Telling the tale.

WEEK 19

ECUADOR | PERÚ
The Pacific coast.

by Xavier

Map: Montañita and the coast, Ecuador

I don’t think I will ever forget the last week (a bit like Jesus, when you think about it).

Montañita was our last stop in Ecuador as we continue following the Gringo Trail across South America. The guidebook wasn’t too encouraging about it, but it was going to be one of our last chances to relax on the beach so I thought we should give it a go, and convinced Simon to make the journey there just before Easter.

We took an afternoon bus from Cuenca to Guayaquil, where we found that the connecting bus was full so we paid a man US$20 for the pleasure of cramming in a stuffy van with nine other people, plus the driver, and off we went. Beetles are among the most numerous living things on Earth; the bright lights above the pumps of a petrol station where we stopped for a few minutes were attracting a nightmarish number of them, many the size of chestnuts, and not all entirely harmless. They buzzed and crawled all around us, even landed on us. The unfortunate ones got crushed under the moving vehicles or under people’s shoes, with a hideous crunching noise. It was like a scene from a horror movie. Fortunately, none of the creatures got inside the van with us and about three and-a-half uncomfortable hours later we arrived in Montañita.

What I hadn’t quite anticipated is the hot, small, dirty town we encountered. A notorious party beach resort that makes Southend look like St Tropez. There is nothing in Montañita besides hostels (ours was surprisingly good compared to some of the others, which was a relief), countless bars, cheap food outlets (one or two decent ones), and endless shops and stalls selling all kind of merchandise with the name of the town on it, including a place that was selling “I SURVIVED MONTAÑITA” t-shirts – little I knew how prophetic that would turn out to be. The denizens of Montañita are mainly a collection of local tourists, Argentine waiters, beach bums, backpackers, surfers, Israelis celebrating the end of their military service, and peddlers. We spent any amount of time declining continuous offerings of quality sunglasses, hammocks, all sorts of hand made ornaments and, especially, freshly baked brownies and cookies of the kind consumed by adventurous youths – what I took to calling The Great Montañita Bake Off.

Despite all this, we ended up spending four days there – Simon likes to think of it as our own South American version of The Beach – and actually had a really good time, mainly due to coinciding again with Char, Matt, Grace, and Jason, which goes to show how it’s always the people what makes the difference.

Montañita

Montañita nights

We Survived Montañita

It all went rather well until the last day. The sun was up and the beach wasn’t crowded after the hectic weekend. There was some surf but it wasn’t rough, yet only a handful of people were in the water. We had just said goodbye to Grace and Jason, who were moving on, and had made arrangements to meet later in the evening with Char and Matt. Simon settled under an umbrella and I went for a swim – and very nearly didn’t make it back.

To Igor and Conrad, the two surfers that got me out of the water after I got washed away by the current: thank you again; nice one.

That evening was very subdued after the day’s events, but we still managed a couple of nice beers with Char and Matt, who were planning to hang around the area for a bit longer while the rest of us headed to Perú. We wish them all the best and hope to see them again some time, who knows!

And that was Montañita.

The next morning we rode the bus back to Guayaquil and changed to another bus which took us across the border with Perú at Tumbes (apparently the worst land border crossing in South America but on this occasion quite painless except for the mosquitos that came to say hi while we waited to get back on the bus) and on to our next stop. For the second time on this trip (the first was on arrival at Easter Island) my Spanish passport baffled the border control officers, who kept asking if I had Colombian citizenship. Once again I really wanted to say “Do I look Colombian to you?” but of course we all know the answer to that, so I just stood there smiling until they eventually stamped me out of Ecuador and into Perú, much to Simon’s amusement.

Map: Máncora and the coast, Perú

It took us about 13 hours to travel from Montañita to Máncora, another popular beach destination. With Easter Week in full swing (it was already Holy Wednesday) we were expecting to find the place busy, and indeed available accommodation had been scarce by the time we booked our hostel. The usually infallible Lonely Planet describes Máncora as “the place to see and be seen along the Peruvian coast – in the summer months foreigners flock here to rub sunburned shoulders with the frothy cream of the Peruvian jet set. It’s not hard to see why – Peru’s best sandy beach stretches for several kilometers in the sunniest region of the country, while dozens of plush resorts and their budget-conscious brethren offer up rooms within meters of the lapping waves.” – yet this write up differs somewhat from our experience.

hello all...

Besides the initial shock on arrival (“budget-conscious” doesn’t even begin to describe where we stayed, though to be fair the place has glowing reviews on Tripadvisor and the people there seemed alright after we got to talk to them a bit more), the whole place looked very rough. There was hardly anyone or anything on the long barren beach except for the odd fish carcass. It seems the whole coast has been battered by recent bouts of extreme weather, and indeed there are numerous signs that a particularly bad El Niño is already affecting South America this year. Weather notwithstanding, the handful of people that we did see on the stretch of beach closest to the town didn’t look terribly jet-set either, so I guess anyone who had come here to rub their sunburned shoulders was staying put inside the plush resorts, of which we spotted a few. Longingly. We were also warned not to wander around the area outside our hostel as it wasn’t safe, which added another layer of discomfort since the hostel itself had no walls to speak of, or locks on the doors, and we struggled to see how it could be safe inside either. The town itself was pretty charmless, though we found a nice café for lunch. We tried a prawn filled version of a popular Latin-American snack called tequeños, which was very good. That, and a spectacular sunset, were definitely the highlights of the day. We’d only booked two nights in Máncora and it was clear that we weren’t going to stay a third, so we made enquiries about buses to Trujillo, our next stop. With the Easter weekend looming all buses the next day were full, but we were offered instead to leave on the last bus that same night and we jumped at the opportunity. Our Canadian friends Grace and Jason were in Máncora as well – and apparently enjoying it about as much. They were staying in a much better looking hostel just down the road from ours, so we were very glad to meet them there for some reparatory beers before leaving to catch our bus.

Don’t be fooled by these photos…

Máncora

Máncora

The overnight journey between Máncora and Trujillo ended up being ten excruciating hours. A mixup at the bus stop meant that instead of the marginally more comfortable bus we had paid for, we were put on the one they call Económico, and the worst bus ride of this whole trip ensued (Simon later on looked up the bus company El Sol on Google and found that it is regularly mentioned in news reports for crashes, robberies, and fines for breaching safety rules). To cut a long, dreary story short, we arrived in Trujillo early in the morning, feeling and looking the absolute worse for wear but in one piece and with all our belongings. Due to a fortunate foresight from our part we had booked a nice posh hotel for that night so we knew we’d at least get a proper rest after the ordeal. True to our style, we turned up with our dusty backpacks in tow, dishevelled, and in much need of a shave. The staff were very gracious as usual. We did get a few looks from other guests, but we were beyond caring by that point. I spent most of the day sleeping, while Simon somehow managed to drag himself out for lunch.

Trujillo, Peru

Trujillo is actually an OK city. Much recovered by the evening, we ventured out to the old town, which is lined with colonial buildings and had a lively atmosphere. We had an excellent dinner at El Celler de Cler, which I totally recommend to anyone visiting Trujillo. Rested and scrubbed up, we were ready for a spot of sightseeing the next day. The largest Pre-Columbian city in South America lays about five kilometres from Trujillo. Now a vast archaeological site, the ruins of Chan Chan are a must for those travelling in Perú. We shared a local guide with a Spanish couple from Barcelona – apparently both engineers working on the construction of the metro in Lima – and wandered for about an hour around the parts of this extraordinary city that are open to the public. Just as entertaining as the tour itself was witnessing the battle of wills between the very inquisitive Spanish woman and our tour guide, who clearly didn’t appreciate being interrupted. From Chan Chan we drove a short distance to another fascinating Pre-Columbian site, the Huacas de Moche, where we also had a very interesting guided tour, after which we headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags and make our way to nearby Huanchaco, on the coast again, which had been our original planned stop after Máncora.

Chan Chan

Huaca de la Luna

Chan Chan and Huacas de Moche

Huacas de Moche

The best thing I can say about Huanchaco is that it wasn’t as bad as Máncora. The town stretches along the coast for quite a bit. The sea looked quite rough but we saw considerably more people around than we had seen so far. The B&B we had booked was very odd. The common areas looked rather nice but the room definitely wasn’t. The manager, a middle-aged man from Argentina, reminded me a bit of Basil Fawlty but perhaps more helpful. We only stayed one night, so didn’t get a chance to see much, but we did catch a glimpse of the Good Friday celebrations before meeting Grace and Jason, in town once again, for more drinks later that evening. It is remarkable how much more enjoyable some places become when you can share a mojito or two with friends.

Easter in Huanchaco

We headed back to Trujillo in the morning. Our next bus journey – about nine hours – would take us further south, along the road between the coast and the Andes, the Panamericana, all the way to the capital, Lima. No longer trusting agents, Simon booked our bus tickets directly online with Cruz del Sur, the same company we had used to cross the border with. The bus this time was a modern, clean, double decker with huge, fully reclinable seats (three across!) with individual entertainment screens, air con, meal and drinks service… I almost cried when we got on. The views along the way were very impressive. The sea to our right, the Andes to our left, and just sandy desert all around us. At some point we got diverted off the Panamericana and for a while drove on a fresh-looking road carved on the side of massive compacted sand dunes – I called it the Sandes… geddit?… Simon says I may have a career in cracker jokes – and it made for a truly spectacular view.

the road to Lima

It was 2009 when we were in Lima for the last time. We are going to stay here for a few days to chill and get our strength back before carrying on, and have rented a great apartment in Miraflores via Airbnb. Simon is also fighting off a cold, so a few days of rest will hopefully do us a world of good. We hope you all have had a lovely Easter. More news soon!

loving the Ball Chair

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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.

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.

There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something.

WEEK 12

NEW ZEALAND
Aotearoa

by Simon

We had to spend one night in Auckland at both the start and end of our trip to the North Island. I’d visited Auckland as part of a post-graduation trip in 1998, and hadn’t exactly loved the place. I was keen to see if this impression was unfair, but a quick stroll along the deserted streets and past the 1960s blocks of the city centre made me think that it wasn’t. In the evening we went out to Auckland’s answer to Shoreditch, Ponsonby Road, which was only marginally less deserted (but who would go out on a Friday night – also the start of the bank holiday weekend for New Zealand Day – after all). We did find a couple of bars on K Road, and on our return through Auckland an excellent restaurant.

John Radford sculpture at Western Park, Auckland photo: John Radford’s sculpture at Western Park.

From Auckland we took the bus to Rotorua. Xavi was very keen to visit the Hobbiton movie set – a bargain at just under £40 each for a two hour tour. This was pretty meaningless to me – I had been unable to stay awake during my one attempt to watch a Lord of the Rings series film, and hadn’t tried again – but it was clearly very, very exciting for a lot of people. The highlight of the tour was the “free” drink at the Green Dragon pub, where we were permitted to linger for about 15 minutes before being loaded back onto our coach and invited to spend yet more money at the souvenir shop, a temptation I found strangely easy to resist. [Note from Xavier: it was actually brilliant.]

at Hobbiton!

Rotorua is also at the centre of an active volcanic zone and we visited a number of geothermal attractions, including the ambitiously named (and even more ambitiously priced) ‘Wai-o-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland‘. This has some moderately interesting geothermal features including boiling mud pools, weird-coloured crater lakes, and numerous strange smells. The alleged highlight is the Lady Knox Geyser, which erupts promptly at 10:15 each day, with help from from a bag of soap. After another night in our rather strange hostel, it was back to Auckland.

at Wai-O-Tapu

Lady Knox geiser

In summary we thought the North Island lacked the breathtaking scenery of the South Island but was even more breathtakingly expensive. Good thing then that our next stop is famously cheap French Polynesia.

Moorea

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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.

Kia ora!

WEEK 11

NEW ZEALAND
Aotearoa

by Simon

Map: Oceania

After two great weeks in Australia, we arrived in New Zealand’s South Island, landing in Christchurch just after midnight. Our first couple of hours in the country were a little underwhelming: first, we had to declare our walking boots to customs as a biosecurity risk, then the elderly taxi driver who drove us to our hotel made a racist comment about people “in a turban” overcharging, and finally the night shift receptionist at the hotel greeted us with the warmth and charm expected of a US immigration officer. Welcome to New Zealand.

Christchurch has not recovered from the earthquakes that devastated it in 2011 and 2012. Whole blocks in the centre have been demolished and the sites cleared, but many buildings remain fenced off and empty, an eerie sight. There are, however, construction works all around the centre, as well as signs of regeneration, like Re:START, an outdoor shopping area made entirely of shipping containers transformed into shops and cafés.

Christchurch NZ

Christchurch NZ

After a day seeing what was left of the city we departed early the following morning on the TranzAlpine across to the west coast, heading to Franz Josef glacier. We passed stunningly beautiful scenery on the way that seemed straight from a film set – as, indeed, it is. Franz Josef glacier is unusual for descending almost to sea level, ending in a rainforest. Once settled in, we hiked around said rainforest and up to the edge of the glacier – which has retreated rapidly in recent years and it is now not safe to get too close to it, but it remains an impressive sight. The surrounding countryside brought back distant memories of geography lessons.

TranzAlpine

at Franz Joseph Glacier

Franz Joseph Glacier

at Franz Joseph Glacier

at Franz Joseph Glacier

at Franz Joseph Glacier

Our next stop was Queenstown. Actually there were numerous lengthy stops before the bus finally arrived in Queenstown, almost nine hours later. Despite more beautiful scenery (which after a few days here I almost stopped noticing), this was a painful trip: after a driver switch mid way, the new driver, when counting the passengers, saw that some were trying to sleep and said loudly “Comatose heh? We’ll do something about that!“, and then proceeded to talk over the loudspeaker nonstop for the entire trip, covering such fascinating subjects as his favourite type of apricot. After some other similar bus journeys I came to think that severe verbal diarrhoea must be a required qualification for bus drivers in New Zealand.

Queenstown is a centre for outdoor activities (such as the original bungy jump) but it was far too cold and wet to do anything like that. [Note from Xavier: yes, we definitely didn’t bungy jump because of the weather. Seriously.]

source: Queenstown NZ channel, YouTube.

The area is also a wine producing region, so we visited instead one of New Zealand’s oldest wineries, where Xavier got to see what all the wine he drinks in a year looks like when in one place. [Note from Xavier: Simon thinks he is joking.]

Gibbston Valley Wines

wine tasting in Queenstown

On the road again, we drove a hire car to Te Anau on our way to the Fjordland at the far southwest, to visit spectacular Milford Sound. We stopped a few times along the way, including for a breathtaking (literally) uphill hike at The Divide through more rainforest, to barren mountaintops shrouded in clouds.

Queenstown and Te Anau

on the way to Milford Sound

The Divide NZ

The Divide NZ

on the way to Milford Sound

At Milford Sound the mountains drop directly over 1,500m to the water below, and when it’s been raining (as it had been in biblical fashion when we visited) hundreds of temporary waterfalls crash down along the vertical walls – and in some cases, where caught by the strong wind, vanish mid-air. We took a boat tour of the fjord, all the way to the Tasman Sea and back. The fjord is vast yet its entrance is very well hidden from the open ocean – so well that Cook bypassed it twice on his journeys along the coast. We were lucky enough to see a pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming and jumping out of the water very close to our boat, and a herd of sleepy seals on the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs. Also in the fjord was super yatch Serene, allegedly owned by Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler, which had made the local news.

Milford Sound

in Milford Sound

Milford Sound

the Serene at Milford Sound

New Zealand is one of the most expensive places we have come on this trip, which has entailed certain economising. Xavier has taken to this with unrestrained enthusiasm, particularly the need to stay in backpackers hostels (for Queenstown he suggested about twenty alternative places, all “just a little” more expensive) and prepare some of our own food (“but there must be good cheap restaurants” – with Michelin stars, presumably).

Next, New Zealand’s North Island. Watch this space!

Here Be Dragons

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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.

Down Under.

WEEKS 9 and 10

AUSTRALIA

by Xavier

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.
— Bill Bryson, Down Under.

map: Oceania

It has been almost seven years since both Simon and I were in Australia at the same time. We were very excited about stopping by as we cross Oceania from West to East, especially since we have some very good friends living there. Sadly, due to the nature of our trip and the fact that Australia is noticeably more expensive these days, we could only allow ourselves a brief stay so we really wanted to make the most of it.

Our first stop was Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city. It was my first visit too, the third for Simon. We stayed for five nights, in a nice apartment in the middle of Richmond we rented via Airbnb, very well located and easy to get around from – our host, Daniel, was lovely and gave us lots of ideas for things to see and do. Thankfully, the weather wasn’t as hot as we had anticipated (it had reached over 40°C some days back) so we could be out and about in the Melbourne sun.

Melbourne

On the slight (and arguable) downside, any illusion of keeping to the reasonably healthy lifestyle we had acquired in Asia, where wine is not very good and expensive, or good and very expensive, so we mostly abstained, went out of the window practically the moment we touched down in Australia. It didn’t help (or rather it did) to find a superbly stocked bottle shop (sic.) just around the corner from the apartment. No dry January for us!

When not deciding between the Riesling and the Cabernet Sauvignon, we set out to explore some of Melbourne’s more interesting areas, like the exuberant Botanical Gardens, St Kilda and its very lively beach (there was a beach volleyball tournament going on, as well as a lot of kite surfers), and trendy Fitzroy (think a sunnier, more suburban version of London’s Hoxton)

Melbourne: Botanical Gardens

Melbourne: St Kilda

Melbourne: Fitzroy

We also managed to find ourselves in the middle of two of the biggest events in the city’s calendar: the Midsumma festival and – most amazingly – the Australian Open, where we got to see Rafael Nadal play his first match of the tournament (sadly he didn’t make it to the final this time), it was awesome.

Melbourne: Midsumma 2015

Melbourne: Australian Open 2015

Melbourne, in short, was a blast. The days just flew by, and suddenly it was time to move on.

Our next stop, after a short flight, was Sydney. We were kindly hosted by Anthony and Trevor – whose year-long travels around the world some time ago were the inspiration for this trip – in their beautiful house in Randwick, very close to Bondi Junction so we squeezed in quite a few trips to the Westfield shopping centre there… We had seen the boys briefly back in London only a few months ago but it was great to see them again, and their utterly lovely dogs: Emma, Bonnie, and Scooby.

Fortunately, our stay coincided with a three-day weekend because of Australia Day, and we were able to see and catch up with the rest of our friends in Sydney, including our also adventurous housemate Luke, who also happened to be in town by happy coincidence.

Sydney was amazing in many ways, one of which took the shape of a much missed musical fix for me. Having only known the building from the outside, I finally had a chance to go inside and watch a performance at the iconic Opera House and meet some of the cast afterwards, courtesy of my dear friend Alex who runs her own very successful artist management company and had come in support of one of her singers, Hannah Dahlenberg, a remarkable Queen of the Night. It was a wonderful evening.

Sydney Opera: The Magic Flute 2015

Alex was kind enough to show me around the front of House areas during an unusually long interval apparently caused my a mysterious problem backstage (at one point we bumped into the Company Manager, Allana Sheard, who just looked at Alex and exclaimed “I have no idea!“) so I could marvel at the design of the building. We paused briefly just outside the door to the auditorium towards the end of the interval when a man walked past and as he did he said to us: “The Queen of the Night… Only dogs could hear her!” before disappearing inside the auditorium, leaving both Alex and I, who had heard the Queen quite clearly, rather bemused. Alex’s husband Loz met us at the end and we walked over to a very cool pub for dinner and drinks with Simon and the boys.


source: Opera Australia channel, YouTube

I saw Alex and Loz again the following evening after more opera, this time in the park, which I’d come to see with a mutual friend: the gorgeous Lady Ramsden. Simon likes opera as much as he likes Tolkien, so he went to meet his friends instead, missing a collection of opera’s greatest hits which the huge crowd lapped up and with some very impressive singing too. Just as the last note rung out the skies opened (likely unrelated) and it just didn’t stop raining for the rest of our stay.

We also celebrated Simon’s birthday over the weekend, with a traditional barbecue at the house, generously provided by Anthony and Trevor, with Andrew manning the grill, and buddying writer Greg entertaining us all with humorous anecdotes of the kind that cannot be repeated here. Simon was so pleased he even gave a speech (he never does) on how much he was enjoying his birthday this year.

Then Australia Day came and as it was realistically the last chance to see most of our friends before everyone went back to work we decided to brave the rain and try to see as many people as possible, and so we started by heading off to Surry Hills for an indoors picnic at one of Sydney’s top beauty salons (as one does), with its owners Richard and Asim and some of their lovely friends. Richard and Asim are two of the first people I met when I moved to London in 1997 and I hadn’t seen them since I was last in Sydney seven years ago. I was very happy to see them now, but most of all I was bowled over by their amazing five year old twins Azra and Wednesday. It was a real pity that we couldn’t linger as we had to leave for our next engagement. Alex and Loz were giving a barbecue in their lovely home in Manly Vale, where we arrived just in time for some mouth watering lamb. Once again we had to make our excuses far too soon, and hurried to our next and final engagement to meet Andrew and Dean in The Rocks – Dean is a cake designer, which is a much better job title than I will ever have, and runs his own brilliant business in Sydney. We had drinks at the bar of Sydney Theatre, a super cool space on the wharf with amazing views over the harbour, and then moved on for dinner at a trendy Italian nearby, while outside the drizzle turned into a downpour. Those familiar with Sydney will realise just how much of the day we ended up spending going from one place to another, but it was all well worth it.

FRIENDS!

We would have loved to stay longer in Australia – we had even pencilled in a trip to Byron Bay when we were planning our itinerary – however it could not be this time, and we find ourselves currently traveling around some pretty amazing surroundings in New Zealand… More of that on the next update!

Milford Sound

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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.

So long, Asia!

WEEKS 7 & 8

THAILAND
ราชอาณาจักรไทย

by Xavier

We seem to be getting a little behind with the blog, so here is another “two-for-one”, about the end of the first leg of our trip.

With only two weeks left in Asia we were determined to make the most of it. From Bangkok we flew to the north of Thailand and landed in Chiang Mai, which we really liked when we first visited about 15 months ago.

map: Northern Thailand

Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s main destinations, with plenty of things to see and do. We thought we’d use it as a base from where to explore other parts of the north we hadn’t been to before. For the first two nights we found a very basic but ok tiny guesthouse a short walk from the Old Town. Most of the sightseeing there is to do in and around Chiang Mai – over 300 temples, just to start with – had been done in our previous trip; still, one of the first things we did was to visit Wat Phan Tao again; a beautiful little temple in the Old Town, with stunning grounds which are decorated around the various religious festivals in the year, most notably during Yi Peng, the amazing Full Moon festival that takes place in mid to late November – which we have sadly managed to miss by a matter of days on the two occasions we have been here; maybe next time!

source: Christine Gilbert channel, YouTube.

The decorations from the recent New Year celebrations were still up; it is really one of the most joyful places I’ve ever visited.

Wat Phan Tao

Wat Phan Tao

Unfortunately we didn’t have the time nor the weather in the end to visit another favourite of mine, an extraordinary temple which I particularly fell in love with the first time we came to Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a few kilometres from the city, sits at the top of a mountain since allegedly the late XIV century and is one of Thailand’s holiest and most striking sites. The White Elephant legend is one of the many versions on the original foundation of the temple.

We did however, pay £2 each to pop by the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders, a grand name for what is essentially a small three-story house which hosts a private collection of old display cabinets full of assorted dead creepy crawlies (some truly stunning beetles and butterflies there), as well as some interesting information on malaria research. There is another larger insect museum a short distance away (the museum is larger, the insects are presumably of the same sizes) but we were beetled out after this one so we didn’t go.

Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders

We also visited two of the three main museums, on the history of the region and its peoples, quite interesting but it was horrendously hot that day and walking around became a bit too much after a couple of hours. Later on, the ubiquitous weekend market was crowded and uninspired, so we focused instead in finding somewhere nice to go for dinner and a cold drink. Simon, always the researcher, found a great restaurant very close to our guesthouse, a beautiful open teak house with indoor/outdoor seating, delicious yet ridiculously cheap food and live music, where we ended up having dinner every of the four nights we spent in Chiang Mai in total – partly out of convenience, but mainly out of how much we liked the place. On the last night, the owner herself (a fabulous woman) looked after us, and even gave us a bigger helping of her home made apple crumble (to die for). Honestly, if you’re ever in Chiang Mai eat there.

Looking at our options, Simon suggested a little trip further north, to the small town of Pai, near the border with Burma. The idea was to get there and either travel part of the Mae Hong Song loop, or stay in Pai if we liked it enough.

map: Northern Thailand

You can get to Pai by regular bus or slightly quicker mini van. Either option is very cheap, about £3 for a three to four hour journey. The guide book warned us that the mini van may not be suitable for those prone to car sickness (ie, both of us) so we jumped on a ratty yet extortionate tuk-tuk to the bus station to find there is only one company that operates the regular bus service to Pai, its ticket booth somewhat hidden in the terminal across the road from the main building. We were told the buses have no air con (and when we got to take a look at said bus while in Pai we realised that it couldn’t possibly have had air con on account of very likely having been built during the Industrial Revolution), so we headed back to town and bought two tickets for the mini van the next morning and hoped for the best.

It turned out the journey wasn’t too bad after all. The van was a little cosy but reasonably comfortable, it sneaked its way up and down (mainly up) the sinuous road fairly smoothly through some stunning countryside, and once in Pai, dropped us a short walk to our guesthouse – which was actually very nice for the price, very close to everything, and had a lovely pool.

In the last couple of weeks we have been asked a few times what are the highlights of our trip so far. Pai is definitely one of them. With a name so apt for puns (up to and including “Strawberry Pai Forever” at a fruit stall), it’s a quaint little town set in a beautiful mountain valley, very popular with both foreign and Thai tourists, with a chilled atmosphere (many hippies about), nice people, plenty of cool laid back bars and restaurants, dozens of street food and market stalls (of course), and with a range of outdoors activities, one of which we’d always said we’d like to do each time we’d been to Thailand, but we never got around to actually do it: ride an elephant.

And ride an elephant we did. Well, Simon for about 15 minutes, after which he decided that balancing precariously nine feet above uneven terrain on a three ton beast with a temper wasn’t really for him and got off, whereas I stayed on for the duration and it was great fun, except perhaps not the bit where one gets playfully thrown off the elephant into shallow water where said elephant has just had a big poo.

at Tom's Elephants

bathing time

elephant ride

the king of the jungle

All in all, a memorable experience. We ended up staying in Pai for a few days. The return journey to Chiang Mai, by mini van again, was this time a test to how firmly we could hold on to the contents of our stomachs, courtesy of our Thai driver who clearly detested his job, the road, and everyone on it.

Our second guesthouse in Chiang Mai was an excellent find. Good location, surprisingly modern, cool design, awesome service, and great price. And just as well, because the weather had begun to turn during our last night in Pai and by the time we arrived back in Chiang Mai the skies had truly opened and it was rain, rain, and more rain for the rest of our stay. Not ideal at all to be out and about so yes, we went to the cinema again, watched Taken 3, no comment.

All that rain wasn’t going to do at all, so from Chaing Mai we flew to the south and returned to sunny Bang Niang Beach via Phuket. It was great to end our Asian adventure where it had started, back in November. Even better was to see Phylippa again and have one more chance to hang out at Green Pepper with its really cool Swedish owners Andy and Dunk, and meet other Swedes and assorted locals. We sure are taking some excellent memories with us!

Khao Lak nights

making friends

making friends

We did spend one more night in Bangkok, from where we were flying to our next destination. And with one more trip to the cinema, a nice dinner, and one last visit to the Night Market, we put an end to the first leg of our trip.

We’ve loved every bit of Hong Kong and South East Asia (maybe not the stomach bugs so much), hope to visit again some time soon!

As we continue traveling eastward into Oceania and on to Australia, we have had a few really nice days in Melbourne and are now visiting all our friends in Sydney. More of that on the next post.

Oh, I did mention a debut on the Thai stage, didn’t I…

at Moo Moos Cabaret, such fun 🙂

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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.