A Travellerspoint blog

Ecuador - Baños, Devil's Nose Train, Cuenca and Vilcabamba

16th - 28th October

semi-overcast 22 °C
View Ellie and Mike's Round the World Trip on elliemike's travel map.

Our next destination after Mindo was Baños. Baños is a pleasant but quite touristy town which is surrounded by beautiful green mountains. There are quite a lot of things to keep people occupied there so we ended up staying for 5 nights.

Baños takes its name from the thermal baths that are scattered around the town and this was traditionally the main appeal of the place. Incidentally, 'baño' is also the word used for toilet in most of South America! The baths that we went to, on a couple of occasions, had four pools of varying temperatures that people would switch between. Probably the best thing to do was go from the hottest one into the cold plunge pool (or vice versa).


Another activity which is now popular in Baños is cycling from the town down to the village of Rio Verde. This route is more about the scenery than the cycling and takes you past a number of waterfalls on the way down. At one point on the route you can take a cable car over a gorge where there are particularly spectacular views of one of the waterfalls and surrounding mountains. When we reached Rio Verde we saw another waterfall called el Pailón del Diablo (the Devils´s Cauldron) then got a taxi back up the hill to Baños.


The hostel that we were staying in was quite a social place and had a roof terrace where people would meet in the evenings to drink, listen to music, play cards etc. The roof terrace also had amazing panoramic views of the town during the day. On quite a few of the nights that we were there we went into the town to go to some bars with the people from the hostel.


The hostel also had a steam bath which we visited on three of the mornings that we were there. It was quite a long process (each session took about 45 minutes) that largely involved sitting in a wooden box, with only your head poking out, whilst getting steamed for four minutes at a time. In between bouts of steaming you would encounter cold water in various ways. These included sitting in a pool of cold water, having it tipped over you from a bucket and getting sprayed with a hose.

On our final day in Baños we hired a buggy which is basically a large go-kart that has two seats. Quite unbelievably, they allow your to drive these things on the road with all the other traffic. We followed the same route as we did on the bikes a few days earlier. This was quite a fun activity, particularly for Mike who doesn't have a drivers licence and had never driven on roads before. At one stage, on the way back, we had to drive the buggy through a windy, dark and fairly long tunnel. A large bus ended up getting stuck behind us which actually turned out to be a bit of a blessing as the lights on the buggy weren't the strongest and we were struggling to see the road in the tunnel. Mike was driving at this point! We did make it back to Baños safely though and ended up going out for one of the best meals we've had the whole trip at a Swiss cafe.


From Baños we got a bus to Riobamba. Riombamba is a fairly nondescript town and the main reason that people go there is to go on the Nariz del Diablo (Devil´s Nose) train journey. The day after we arrived we had breakfast, with the majority of the guests in the hotel, at 5.30am in order to be at the train station in time to get a good spot on the roof of the train! Sitting on the roof of the slow moving train is the main appeal of the journey as it provides the perfect vantage point to take in the views. Of course the novelty of siting on the roof is also part of the attraction.


We returned to Riobamba by bus after the train ride and were up early the next morning to get a bus to Cuenca. This took longer than expected as a result of the bus repeatedly breaking down but we still arrived by mid-afternoon as the driver and other guys from the bus always managed to fix the problem(s).

Cuenca is a fairly large colonial city and probably has slightly more eye-catching churches and plazas than other similar places in Latin America. It is regarded as Ecuador´s finest city and has quite a European feel making it a pleasant place to spend a few days. We didn´t do a huge amount when were there though apart from take in the sites, do a bit of shopping and eat at a decent Mexican restaurant.


We left Cuenca on Saturday morning and got a bus to Vilcabamba so that we could stay at a hostel called Izhcayluma. Izhcayluma is quite high up in some beautiful mountains and is owned by the comically named German duo, Peter and Dieter. There was a really good crowd of people there at the same time as us so was a perfect place to spend Ellie´s birthday.


We were there for three days but didn´t really take advantage of any of the daytime activities. We just relaxed at the hostel and enjoyed the views. At night things got a bit more lively as they have a good bar in the hostel. On separate nights they organized pool, table tennis and poker tournaments. For the pool and table tennis tournaments there were bottles of rum up for grabs and they always came to our table! The staff at the hostel also gave our table a bottle of rum for Ellie´s birthday as well as baking her a cake and giving her various other free drinks!


Posted by elliemike 11:45 Archived in Ecuador Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Quito, the Pacific Coast and Mindo, Ecuador

5th - 15th October

semi-overcast 21 °C
View Ellie and Mike's Round the World Trip on elliemike's travel map.

The border crossing from Colombia to Ecuador ran smoothly and we arrived in Quito by the early evening. We got a taxi to a hostel (which had a roof terrace with excellent views of the city) then went for dinner with a Colombian guy called Juan Sebastian who we met on the bus. At the restaurant Ellie and Sebastian went for cheaper half portions which cost $1.50 but Mike chose the full portion for $3 - these turned out to be exactly the same size!


The next morning we explored Quito old town. The first place we went to was Plaza de Independencia. There happened to be some kind of independence celebrations going on and we caught the end of the speech given by the President.


There were soldiers marching in formation and various people in fancy dress entertaining the crowds, in quite random ways. At one point Ellie was taken from the crowd by a woman dressed in a kind of green pixie outfit and put on a stretcher where people dressed as doctors and nurses pretended to inject her with a large plastic syringe. It was all very strange and we didn't really know what to make of it but everyone was laughing and it was all being filmed for TV!


We then had a further look around the Old Town at churches, plaza's and important buildings.


We bumped into Sebastian and he had arranged to meet up with a couple of girls from Quito in the New Town, one of whom was a friend of his friend. We went with him and spent the rest of the day in a bar which had 2 for 1 cocktails. We drank a lot of Mojitos and it turned into an enjoyable drunken evening.


The following day we went with Sebastian to the Mitad del Mundo, where the equator line is. We first went to the Equatorial Line Monument, which is on the equatorial line determined by French explorers in 1736. Inside the monument is the Museo Ethnografico which exhibits artefacts relating to indigenous cultures.


However, the original equator line as called by the French is actually 150m out according to recent GPS measurements (not a bad effort for 1736 though!). On this line where the latitude is actually 0'0'0'' is the Museo Inti-Ñan. At this museum they do various experiments relating to the gravitational pull of the equator. These include seeing water in a sink fall straight down on the equator line, clockwise in the southern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the northern hemisphere; showing that you have less resistance to force on the equator line; and allowing the tourists to have a go at balancing an egg on a nail (which was our favourite!).


We left Quito the next day and headed up north to the Pacific Coast. We spent a couple of nights in Atacames, which is a fairly busy beach resort. We weren't planning on going out on the first night but we ended up bumping into Ryan, a Canadian guy who we met in Cali. We had a few Caipiriña's, a local drink, in one of the many bars along the beach front with Ryan and a German guy, Max. We then had a few more back at their hostel and ended up almost missing our hostel's 3am curfew!

We spent a bit of time on the beach the next day, but despite being so close to the equator is isn't very warm and was very cloudy. Mike played football on the beach with some locals who almost started fighting a number of times during the game as they were always betting on which team would score the next goal!


After Atacames we got a bus to Mompiche, a few hours further along the coast. Mompiche is a rustic little fishing village which is at the early stages of being developed into a more popular resort, although the roads remain unpaved at the moment. Again the weather was cloudy and it was quite drizzly. We still had a good time though and did a bit of surfing, ate seafood and had a night out. We went to a bar on a beach a few times that is owned by some French and Portuguese guys where they serve excellent pizza. We also went to a club down on of the side streets where drink was really cheap and lots of locals and Ecuadorian holiday makers were dancing.


On the way back down south after Mompiche, we got off the bus a few hours before Quito in order to go to Mindo. In the manner we have become accustomed to, we were dropped at a junction in the road and had to wait for some form of transport to take us the rest of the way. This time it was three mountain bikers in a mini bus. Mindo is a small town surrounded by cloud forest and is a nice place for walking and relaxing. The hostel we were in had a large balcony with comfy sofas and hammock so spent quite a lot of time there! On one of the days we were there we walked to the top of a large hill, took a sketchy cable car contraption over a gorge, and walked a trail through the forest that took us to four different waterfalls.


Posted by elliemike 08:54 Archived in Ecuador Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

San Agustín, Cali and Popayán - Colombia

23rd September - 5th October

sunny 24 °C
View Ellie and Mike's Round the World Trip on elliemike's travel map.

After our time in Salento we got a bus back to Armenia then took an overnight bus to Petilito followed by a collectivo to San Agustin. San Agustin is very laid back little town surrounded by beautiful rolling green hills.

The main tourist draw of San Agustin is a pre-Colombian archaeological site where there are hundreds of monumental stone statues which are the work of a mysterious civilisation of which little is known. We remain ignorant of even what little information is known about the stones and their origins as we didn´t have a guide when we visited them but we still enjoyed taking in the sights.

The countryside around San Agustin is perfect for walking and this is something we that we took advantage of. On one of the days we tried to follow a route that had been recommended to us by using one of the crudely drawn maps they hand out in the town. The farcical lack of any kind of scale on the map and complete lack of signs meant we walked a very different route than planned but still managed to see some beautiful places and find our way back to San Agustin without any problems.


After a few days in San Agustin we decided to leave and head for Cali, the nearest big city, in order to be somewhere with a bit more life for the weekend. Getting there involved a six hour bus ride to Popayan along an unpaved road with more or less continous potholes which was a bit of a nightmare. We then took another bus for three hours to Cali which, fortunately, only involved normal roads.

When we got to our hostel in Cali (after getting dropped off by a taxi driver who told us he had been in prison in England for five years for 'the drugs') we bumped into an American couple, Nick and Liz, who we had met in Salento. We went out to a Chinese restaurant with them and some people they had been hanging out with in the hostel.

We then came back to the hostel and ended up going out to the Zona Rosa with some English and Japenese guys. We went to a salsa club that was free to get into but you were obliged to spend a certain amount at the bar so we got two bottles of rum between us. We made some fleeting attempts at dancing salsa before going to another bar where we drank a few beer towers.

It was a good night and this set the tone for the rest of the time we were in Cali. We spent a lot of time with two English guys, Alex and Tony, often in a pub where beer cost 30p a bottle. It was more of an off licence with some seats outside than a normal pub but was still a quality place to sit and drink. On the evenings that we were there we introduced a drinking element to an Israeli card game called Janiv that we have been playing which made things get quite messy. On one of the nights we got through a bottle of Rum, a bottle of Aguardiente (a Colombian drink similar to Ouzo or Sambuca) and a fair amount of beer.


Probably the most productive thing we did in Cali, apart from going to a Colombian steak house, was go to a football match. We saw America Cali play Millonaires Bogota. The game itself was OK (America won 1-0) but it was the atmosphere that made it. It was particularly intense in the south end of the stadium where the hardcore Amerca fans were standing. They had all sorts of flags and banners and were jumping up and down whilst chanting for almost the entire game.


After spending five days in Cali we went to Popayan which is a colonial city with a fairly relaxed pace. We stayed in a hostel that is run by a Scottish couple from Kinross. We were there for a few days but didn´t do a huge amount. We wandered around the town and a bit and spent time in the hostel relaxing and generally recovering from Cali.


We left Popayan and got a bus to Ipiales, a town in the south west of the country. We arrived in the evening, ate dinner then had an early night so we could get up early the following morning to visit Sanctuario de Las Lajas. Sanctuario de Las Lajas is a gothic church that is spectacularly postioned on a bridge that straddles a gorge with a river running underneath it. Unfrotunately for us it was a Sunday morning and mass was in full swing making the whole area much busier than we would of liked. After a short time admiring the church (from the outside) we returned to Ipiales and made our way to Ecuador.

Posted by elliemike 11:42 Archived in Colombia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Medellin and the Colombian Coffee Region

17th - 22nd September

semi-overcast 20 °C
View Ellie and Mike's Round the World Trip on elliemike's travel map.

After leaving Tagana for a second time we got a night bus to Medellin, Colombia's second largest city. Medellin is set in a valley and is surrounded by beautiful hills but the city itself is not the most picturesque of places. Medellin is perhaps best known for the conflicts between rival drug gangs during the 80's and 90's which resulted in it having the highest murder rate in the world. Fortunately things have calmed down considerably since then and Medellin is now no more dangerous than other cities of similar size in Latin America.


After we had dropped off our bags at the hostel where we were staying we spent an afternoon exploring the city. The first thing we did was take the Metro to a stop where there is a cable car that takes people up one of the largest hills. The cable car is there for pracitcal reasons and is mostly used by locals to save themselves the strenuous walk up the hill, but tourists also use it to enjoy the view. Maybe enjoy is the wrong word as you mostly see slum housing but it is still an interesting experience.


We then took the Metro into the city centre and wandered around there for a few hours. It is a typical hectic South American city centre with lots of market stalls and street vendors but doesn't have many places of interest for visitors. When we wanted to get back to our hostel we realised we were only one Metro stop away so decided to save a bit of money and walk. This wasn't the best of decisions as we ended up passing through some pretty dodgy areas and walked past a small park full of junkies. At one point we were walking across a bridge that crossed a busy road when a guy started shouting at us in Spanish. We couldn't make out everything he was saying but heard 'Run gringos, run...'


The following day we left Medellin and got a bus to Armenia which took about 7 hours. The journey was quite enjoyable as the route was scenic and took us through vast and spectacular mountains. We did have the customary distruption though of the bus being stopped and searched by Colombian military. We spent the night in a cheap hospedaje close to the bus station in Armenia then travelled the short distance the following morning to the village of Salento which is in the heart of Colombia's Coffee region.


Salento is quite high up in the mountains and therefore has a much cooler climate than the other places we've been to on this trip. It actually gets quite cold there, especially at night. It is a really idyllic place though and is perfect for a period of relaxation. The hostel we stayed in is a converted country house with a homely feel, large kitchen and amazing views from the garden.


One day when we were there we went to a place called Cocora so we could walk in the cloud forest and look at the 60 foot palm trees that are unique to the region. It took 40 minutes to get there in a small jeep. They somehow managed to fit 15 people into the thing. We were both standing on the back with two others and someone else was sitting on the roof!


On another day we went on a tour of a coffee farm that is owned by an English guy called Tim who also owns the hostel (and incidentially looks very similar to Jim Royle from The Royle Family). It was interesting to learn about the coffee making process and see the other fruits on the farm such as oranges, strawberries, pineapples and bananas.


That afternoon we went to the village plaza as they were having a food festival. This involved a number of stalls all with almost identical menus: sausage, trout (which is the local delicacy) in various forms and patacones (deep fried plantain in batter). There isn't much to do in the evenings so we have been taking it fairly easy which has been a welcome change.


Posted by elliemike 04:19 Archived in Colombia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Colombia - the Caribbean Coast

4th Sept - 16th Sept

sunny 35 °C
View Ellie and Mike's Round the World Trip on elliemike's travel map.

We arrived in South America by plane and not by boat as we had hoped but were immediately impressed by the colonial city of Cartagena. The flight itself was an interesting experience as the plane was tiny (for a commercial plane), and only had nine rows of seats.

Cartagena is an easy place to spend a few days and we spent a fair ammount of time exploring it. The old walled town is particularly pleasant to wander around with its relaxed pace, 15th/16th century architecture, cobbled streets and plazas where you can get a game of chess with some of the locals. There are also a number of beaches close to the city on the Caribbean coast that are worth visiting.
On our second day in Cartagena we went to Volcan de Lodo el Totula which is basically a mud bath at the top of a small volcano (which looks more like a huge mound of earth than a volcano). It was the first time that either of us had been in a mud bath and we both found it a fairly surreal experience. It feels as if you are in a giant pot of honey as it is really hard to move. When you are standing your head always stays above the surface, with no risk of sinking, despite your feet not touching the bottom.


Cartagena is also famous for its night life and we had a good night out with some people from the hostel we were staying in. We found a strip of clubs near the old town, all of which were free entrance, so we spent the night stumbling between these.


After Cartagena we went to Taganga which is essentially a fishing village although it is now more developed than it used to be as it is quite popular with tourists. Taganga has one large bay set in a valley of green hills so is quite a spectacular place. Despite being on the Caribbean coast it has a strangely Mediterranean look and feel.
When we were in Taganga we did another ten hours of Spanish lessons that we split across four mornings. On one of the afternoons we walked across some of the surrounding hills to Playa Grande which is a slightly nicer beach than the one in Taganga. In the evenings we generally went for dinner with an Australian couple, Clint and Jaz, and sometimes sat on the beach drinking rum with them until the early hours.


We left Taganaga on a boat with Clint and Jas that took us to Parque Nacional Tayrona which is a large unspoilt tropical area with lots of jungle and white sand beaches. There are hardly any cabanas so almost everyone stays in either tents or hammocks. We arrived late afternoon, found a place to stay, and had dinner and some drinks on the beach.


The following day we walked along the coastline and went swimming in a few choice locations. We had our lunch at one of the camping areas then set off on a trek to Pueblito which is an indigenous village in the jungle that you reach by following a path uphill for about 90 minutes.


The way up was fine, as was looking at the site at the top, but the way down turned into a bit of an ordeal for the two of us. We had split up from Clint and Jas then got confused at a point on the trail where you had to go through a cave. We eventually figured out the way then almost immediately took a wrong turning and followed a path for about 15 minutes until it ceased to be a path and was just dense jungle. It was getting dark so we found our way back to the place with the cave as quickly as we could. The situation wasn't helped by the fact that it was raining quite heavily, there was a thunderstorm, our flip-flops were broken and we didn´t have a torch. With light rapidly fading we still couldn´t work out the way until Ellie eventually spotted where the path continued. By the time we met up with Clint and Jas it was pitch black so we were very relieved to be out in time. The prospect of a night in the jungle wasn´t appealing!
We then had a further 45 minutes to walk along the coast back to our campsite which wasn´t easy with two head torches between the four of us. Walking along the beaches in the dark was made difficult by the number of large crabs that seemed to be everywhere. After we were back we had some well deserved and much needed showers, beers and food.
We had a fairly early night then went to sleep in our hammocks. Despite putting on lots of repellent, wearing long sleeves etc we were eaten alive by mosquitos, sand flies, ticks and fleas. We woke up the next morning covered in bites and any thoughts of spending a third night there were abandoned.
We returned to Taganga, this time by road, and have been relaxing here since then.

Posted by elliemike 10:17 Archived in Colombia Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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