Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Into Colombia - Ipiales and Miracles

Today was the day that we crossed into Colombia.  It was an interesting decision to come here, as everybody  knows of Colombia as a dangerous place where tourist, get robbed and kidnapped.  But after having spoken to a number of people who have experience of the country, and checking out the FCO advice and crime stats, we realized that it s now a lot safer than it was and many people welcome tourists wholeheartedly.

Dragoman restarted their trips to Colombia this year; we are on only their third trip, and they have already changed the itinerary once to deal with practical and safety issues, so this leg may be a little more unpredictable at times.  Whether coming to Colombia proves to be a wise decision only time will tell, but it feels like we should be OK if we stick to the advice not to travel at night and take care in the towns.

We crossed the border with no problems, and set off up to Ipiales. The main road up was known for there being some attacks on vehicles, so now the police are out in force with regular security check points, and if you travel during the day it is generally safe.   We made it to Ipiales without any problem.

wanted terrorists
 Ipiales is not a place to visit particularly, as town itself is nothing special.  However as we came into town, we passed a military base, which had a huge poster board outside it showing the pictures of eight wanted terrorists.  Four of the eight had red crosses through them, so we assume those ones have already been caught or killed.  It seemed somehow fitting that this was the first photo that I took in Colombia.

NB:  Since writing this we have heard that Alfonso Cano, the farc leader was killed, so one of the other faces should have a red cross through it too!

Las Lejas

But we did go just out of town to see a cathedral called Las Lajas.  It is nestled in a valley on a bridge over a river, with a waterfall next to it.  It is quite gothic looking, and is quite impressive when you look down on it from the hill.  Personally, I think it looks better from a distance than it does close up, but it is worth walking down to it to see all of the of plaques on the walls. Las Lejas  competes with Lourdes for being the place with the most miracles.  People come to pray in the hope of being healed, and the thousands of plaques on the walls are put there by those who claim to have succeeded.

a few of the miracle plaques

I can't say I am convinced by the idea of the miracles, but the people who visit clearly are.  When I walked in to the church there was a couple walking out and she clearly had an injury to her leg.  As I waited for them to pass, the man clasped my hand and said something that I didn't really understand, but seemed to be about having faith together.  I just smiled at him, rather than telling him that I don't believe in all that stuff.  They obviously take some hope in this pilgrimage, and if that positive attitude helps them in even a small way, who am I to knock them.  But still I found it a little sad that so many people must come here and in reality, leave no better than when they arrived.

And I guess a pilgrimage only counts if it is difficult, but the hill and steps down to the church, and then back up again, were no easy if you had a walking disability.  I know that I felt the strain on my knees on the way down, and they were no better on the way back up, so clearly there was no miracle for me!

Back in Ipiales it was clear there was nothing much to see, so we and Leoni thought we'd try to find a cafe with wifi.  We have got so used to it being available everywhere in Argentina, Bolivia and Peru,that we just expected it to be available here too.  How wrong can you be?  We asked all over the place and some of them looked at us like we were crazy, it's just shook their heads.  We did spot a place where people were drinking coffee and using laptops though, so we checked that out.  It didn't quite feel right when we went in, and we gradually realized that we were in the campaign HQ for one of the political candidates on the upcoming election.  They did offer us a coffee but we felt it best to beat a hasty retreat before we were asked to hand out leaflets or something.  Colombia is not the safest place to get involved in politics!

We found a place with Internet and they directed us to a few streets away, but when we go there there was nothing that looked right.  We tried in the most likely looking cafe, and they were very helpful and led us upstairs t an area by the kitchen and turned on their own wifi for us.  It didn't work as the signal wasn't strong enough to reach us, but it was good of them to try, so we had a drink there before going to just a normal Internet place.

The meal in the evening was a somewhat chaotic event, with some old arriving ages after everything else, wrong and forgotten orders and general confusion all round.  A quick reminder that we are in South America after all. Part way through the meal, we met a couple of guys from another Dragoman truck that were on their way down from Cartagena.  They had arrived late because they'd run out of petrol.  I'm sure that Izzie and TJ would never do that!

I can't say that we were sad to be moving on the next day.

Taking photos - heaven or hell?

Is taking photos when travelling a good thing or a bad thing?  This may seem like a strange question, but sometimes I do wonder whether it's worth it.

Obviously there are good reasons for taking them.  Primarily they hold memories.  They can be a memory in themselves, of the particular person or thing that you saw, or they can jog your own memory into remembering other details about what was happening when the photo was taken.

They also give you a way to share some of you memories and experiences with other people.  When you want to describe the way a building looked, or an amazing view, it can be much easier to just show someone a picture.  An you can't really imagine the sight of a whole fried guinea pig on your plate unless you actually see it!

But does anyone really want to look at hundreds of holiday photos - or thousands as it will be in our case?  They are our memories, not theirs.  And how often do you actually look at your own photos?  I like the way that you can make them up into a book now, and I think that does make it a bit easier to look at more often, but even so, it just isn't something that most people do that often.

Then there is the quality of the photo.  I don't pretend to be a good photographer, and I don't have a fancy camera.  Even the settings that I do have I hardly use.  I am definitely of the point and click breed.  So the quality of my photos is a bit haphazard. But even when they are decent photos, the picture doesn't really do justice to the reality.  Frequently I look back at photos of something and they're not a patch on the real thing.  I took loads of the Bolivian altiplano and whilst some of them are nice pictures, they don't show the true beauty of the place or evoke the same feeling of wonderment that all of us there experienced when we saw it first hand.

But even if my photos were always perfect, I simply don't take some of the ones that I most want because I feel like I would be intruding or being rude.  I really wanted to be able to take some close up pictures of the women in Bolivia and Peru in their traditional dress, one about their day, but it felt far too rude to go up to a person and stick a camera in their face.  I would hate it if someone  did that to me as I was walking around London, even if they asked first.  And I know that there're still some people who believe that having their picture taken is bad; some even still believe that it can take their soul, and it would be terrible to cause that kind of offense to a person.  Then there are just the times when the opportunity for that fabulous photo is so brief that by the time you have your camera ready, you've missed your chance.  

Another issue is that when you are spending all of your time taking pictures, you often don't actually look properly at what you are taking a photo of and so don't spend enough time simply appreciating it, absorbing it, and forming the memory for later.  When I was on safari, I was so happy to see the male lion close up that when he walked right next to me I didn't even try to take a picture even though I had my camera in my hand.  And whilst I can't show anyone the picture of the lion, the memory is so vivid that's don't need a picture to remind me of it.

It's not just the time taking the photos either, you have to spend time uploading them, editing them, putting captions on so that later you can remember who or what they are of, and putting them in an album or book.  That time could be better spent actually doing more things.

But the biggest risk is one that has been brought home to me sharply over the last weeks.  And that is the devastation that you feel when you lose those photos.  We have had five people lose photos on this trip.  One person lost a photo card when it fell out of her bag.  Another got a virus of some form in his camera and it wiped everything.  A third, someone who was our most avid photographer and video taker who kept it all on his laptop, had his laptop stolen from a bus from Banos to Quito.  A fourth had her camera stolen at knife point in Quito old town.  And a fifth lost her camera in the fire at Shangri-la.  All of them are, quite understandably, very upset to have lost their photos, which they know they can never replace.  Of course others on the trips have all offered to give copies of our photos, but we know that it isn't the same.  If it isn't your photo then it isn't your memory.

And it's no point in saying well the photos should be backed up because it just isn't possible to do that all the time when you're on the move like we are.  Access to computers or Internet is limited and you don't have that much time available to do it regularly if you want to see the places you visit.  So you balance the risk and hope that you're not the unlucky person who gets affected.

So the sensible part of me says that taking photos doesn't make sense.  That we should focus our energies on seeing and enjoying what is there in front of us, forming the memory well enough to be able to remember without relying in the fragility of a photo.

Bu the sensible part is losing to that urge to capture the moment.  The knowledge that I won't remember everything I've seen if I don't have something to jog my memory into action.  The desire to be able to share at least some of those memories with others.

So I have taken far too many photos and will continue to do so.  I will try to make sure they are uploaded safely so that I don't lose them even if I lose the camera and laptop, but I will accept the risk that I still might.  And I will look back at them remembering not only the scene in the picture, but the story behind it and the photo that I really wanted to take but didn't or couldn't.

Otavalo and the equator

We left Quito at 7:30am for the short drive to Otavalo.  On the way, we stopped at the equator.

baby llama

They have created a little village around the equator, which they call Mitad del Mundo, or middle of the world. There are lots of little shops and restaurants, presumably because lots of people visit, but once they have taken the photo of the line of the equator, there isn't much else to do, or to spend their money on.  There are llamas though, including a baby one when we were there.

the false equator

Well I say the line of the equator, but in fact it isn't.  Apparently when they created this park, they got their coordinates slightly wrong, so the large Stalinist looking monument with its yellow equator line is in the wrong place! The actual equator is just outside the park.  They have created a new tourist attraction there, doing little experiments like watching the way the water goes down a plug hole on the equator and either side - though realistically the outcome probably has less to do with the tiny distances from the equator, and more to do with the way they tilt the bowl they are using.  But it is a bit of fun.

We figured that we had crossed the equator, and the monument looked good, so we would take our photos at the false equator.  And if I hadn't told you about it you'd never have known.

From the equator, we carried on to Otavalo.  It is a small town, but has a well known market of local products and handicrafts.  This is the place where Izzie got 'gossip llama' which is her woollen hat that looks like a llama.  It created quite a stir with some of our fellow travelers and she has orders for about half a dozen that people want her to buy and send on to them.

We arrived in time for lunch, and found a nice little restaurant that had recently opened.  Their written menu was limited, but the guy told us that if there was something else that we wanted then they would be happy to try to make it for us.  We were quite happy with the soup and empanadas.

After lunch we hit the market. It was raining, and had been for a while, so there was a knack to avoiding the moments when a torrent of rainwater would come splashing down from the plastic tarpaulins that covered the stalls.  Nic came a cropper once, but luckily he had his waterproof on, so mostly avoided getting wet.

Like many non western markets, the moment that you walk close to their stall, the owner rushes over to try the hard sell on you.  And if you show any interest in an item, then it and all the other variations of it are pulled down for you to look at.   Nic spent a bit too long looking at the various cousins of gossip llama, ie hats with all sorts of other animals and characters such as cows, donkeys, lions, monkeys, reindeer, smurfs and characters from the muppets.  The lady thought she was going to make a big sale I think and was probably quite disappointed when we left with nothing.

I did find a nice shawl at another stall though, and when she reduced the price considerably, I couldn't resist; well I do still need some clothes after all!

It started raining again during dinner so a few of us decided to shelter in a nearby pub afterwards as it was quite a walk back to the hotel.  But the rain stopped eventually so we made it back in the end.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Abusing authority

Why are some people so horrible to others? Why do they feel the need to take out their own frustrations and anger on other people.  I know we all sometimes get irritated and snap at someone, saying someone we might regret later, but that is normally a heat of the moment thing whereas I am talking about calculated nastiness.

One of our group left us in Quito and was going on to Brazil on her own. Se had her flight booked but needed to get a visa from the Brazilian embassy when she got to Quito.  This should normally be able to be done on the same or next day. Unless of course the woman at the embassy happens to have a son who happens to have had to wait for his visa to get into your country.

Her view was that your country made my son wait for a visa so, even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with you, I am going to make you wait.  She has been told she has to wait eight days to get the visa, which means she will have to change her flights and travel plans.

Now I know that visas are never guaranteed, and that delays are sometimes inevitable, but that isn't what is happening here.  This is some woman abusing her authority because she is unhappy about what happened to her son, taking it out on a person just because she comes from the same country.  Of course I would love to be able to say that this is just South America, but sadly, while this kind of thing may be more prominent here, I know that it can happen in the UK too.  It shouldn't.

She is going back to try to reason with the woman again; I hope that the woman sees that she is being unreasonable and does the decent thing.

All change in Quito

Quito brings another change of leg.  It was only Ben, Nic and me continuing on to Cartagena with Izzie, TJ and Cindy, so we were saying goodbye to Shanyn, Leon, Cathy, Sue and Ken.  It seems particularly strange not to have Leon on the trip now, as he was the one remaining person from our original group.

However Leoni, who was with us from BsAs to Cusco had met us in Quito, and we had managed to persuade her to join us again for this last leg, which was good.  Other than that we had seven new people getting on.  These are Annelies and Sien from Belgium, Simon from England, Axel from Germany, Julie from Wales, Mary from Australia and Pirjo from Finland but now living in Norway.

So there are eleven of us for the final push to Cartagena.  On we go!


This morning we said goodbye to Tena and headed to to local bus station for the five hour bus journey to Quito.  The bus was more of a coach, and was surprisingly comfortable.  They even were showing a film for the first part of the journey.

We arrived at Quito to be greeted by a rather relieved TJ and Cathy.  Sometimes it can be hard for people who are at a distance to accept that things really are OK in a situation like this, and I think that they were both anxious to see that we really were all unscathed!

Some of the group needed to go t the loo, and as we waited outside with our somewhat depleted baggage, the police approached us to helpfully warn us to be careful of our bags in case of theft.  When we told them we were getting taxis  into Quito centre, they waited with us and escorted us out into cabs, presumably because they wanted to be sure we weren't ripped off or robbed.  This was both nice that they showed such concern, and worrying that they felt they needed to.  But we goth to the hotel with bags intact.

By arriving the day early, we had three nights in Quito, but we didn't really get to see any of it other than the shops!  However that may have been a good thing as a friend that had been on the truck earlier and met up with us in Quito, had her camera stolen in the old town by a group of five people, two of them with knives.  This along with some of the other stories we had heard from travelers we had met left us feeling Quito was not the safest place.

The first evening, as our group farewell meal, we went to an 'all you can eat and drink' place, but I don't think they had reckoned on how much we could put away.  Dragoman paid for the meal as a gesture because of the fire, but I think we got value for money!  The second night was a Sunday, and apparently they are not supposed to serve alcohol after 4pm.  We had gone to a nearby restaurant prepared for a dry meal, but we're pleased to find that they were serving after all.  I wont say where we were just in case the wrong person reads this!

On our various shopping trips we managed to buy an iPad to replace our laptop, and enough clothes to keep us going for now.  I still need new boots, and  we will rely on the spare sleeping mats on the truck for now, but we have sorted out the main things we needed.

On the Monday, we met up with the new group for the welcome meeting and meal, ready for the last leg of the Dragoman trip.

Counting the losses - and more of the Amazon Rainforest

In the morning, needless to say the talk at breakfast was all about the fire, what we had lost, and how lucky we all were to be alive.

In terms of losses, Nic has lost most of his underwear, and I lost most of my outer clothes.  Luckily, Nic and I keep one set of clothes separately in each others' rucksack in case one gets stolen, so I had two tops and two pairs of trousers, and my fleece and waterproof jacket were safe.  But I also lost my walking boots, and some jewellery and souvenirs that were in my make up bag. We lost other bits like gloves and sleeping mats etc, but thankfully nothing that's irreplaceable like photos, or really troublesome like medication.

Others lost varying amounts, ranging from just the set of clothes that was drying, to everything but their laptop.  Shanyn was the only one to lose her camera in the fire, which is obviously terrible for her, but we will give her copies of our photos to try to fill the gap.

We were very aware though that some of the people sat next to us either were the owners of the
 lodge, which would not have been insured, and so they had lost a huge part of their livelihood, or people who worked at the lodge, who had possibly lost their jobs if the owners could not employ them elsewhere.  We definitely considered ourselves lucky.

Izzie and Roberto had, despite the obvious difficulties, arranged that we would still go put to the animal sanctuary and the local community today.  Alternative lunch arrangements had been made, as we had been due to ear at the lodge, and the only thing we could do was the planned tubing down the river.  We were very impressed that they were able to let us go ahead with the activities, and although many of us felt a little odd doing such touristy things they day after the fire, it probably did us good to get on with our normal routine.  It no doubt also helped Izzie as then she didn't have to worry about us while she spent the day chasing around police stations getting police reports for us all, and making arrangements for us to get to Quito the next day.

banana boat
So we got in taxis and drive to the river, where we saw bananas being offloaded from a boat and we had a boat waiting to take us to the animal sanctuary.  We were all given life jackets, and as the boat set off we could see why.  It was a long, narrow boat that sat very low in the water, and so whenever it got a bit choppy, or we turned a bit sharply, it felt like we were going to dip into the water.  In fact the driver obviously knew what he was doing and we didn't even get wet aside from a few splashes, but I know that a few companions were very glad when we arrived nonetheless.


The animal sanctuary is huge, although as many of the animals are loose, we only got to see a small proportion that were in cages, although some of the uncaged squirrel monkeys did put in an appearance. They had a number of different types of monkeys, some ocelots, various birds, and caiman, amongst others.  It was interesting to walk around hear what they're doing to help rehabilitate and protect  these animals.  We also bought chocolate!

We were back down the river to have lunch, and then into the taxis again to go to the local community.  But on the way, we stopped at Shangri-la.  A few of our travelling companions still held out hope that some of their belongings would still be there.  It was soon clear that they would not be.

after the fire

Arriving in the clearing at the top of the steps, you could be forgiven for thinking nothing had happened.  The trees had thankfully not caught fire, so the jungle around the lodge was as green and dense as ever.  

after the fire - our cabin

But when we went down the steps, we could see the devastation of the lodge itself.  There was nothing left of it other than a few brick walls that had supported the toilets and showers, and the corrugated iron that had been on some of the rooves.  Where our cabin had been, there was just a mound of earth and ash, with a couple of sheets of the corrugated iron on top.  And the same was true for the others.

the remains of Shanyn's camera
We picked our way over the still hot ashes, and looked around the rest of the site.  Then Nic spotted something amongst the ashes.  Shanyn's camera.  Or rather the charred and melted remains of her camera.  She was strangely pleased to get it back, even though it was clearly useless now. Our companions also found an odd sock and a nail file that had been dropped on the pathway during the evacuation, but nothing was going to have survived the fire. 

The sight of the complete destruction of the cabins that we were only about half an hour from being asleep in, brought home to us just how lucky we had been.  We left feeling a strange mix of horror at how narrow our escape had been, sympathy for how terrible the loss was for the owners, and pleasure and relief that we were all safe and well.

the paint pot tree

Shanyn and Roberto

We carried on with the trip to the community but I could not help but feel slightly detached, so was a little relieved that we weren't expected to participate in any activities other than trying a bit of their yucca chicha drink, which was actually quite nice.  We did try out the face painting using the fruit of one of the local trees as little mini paint pots, but I think we were all quite pleased to make it back to the hotel.

the traditional dance

Izzie had arranged that we would get the bus from Tena to Quito the next morning, and so we had the evening free.  Nic and I were planning to try a restaurant nearby, but got sidetracked by sone event happening in the main square.  It was celebrating the 20th anniversary of something, and had lots of people doing various traditional South American dances - and a few that weren't so traditional!


the not-so-traditional

Later in the evening, they announced a singer called Gerardo Moran.  Now I have no idea who he is, but the crowd were thrilled.  All of a sudden, hundreds of people surged down from the stands where they had been sitting, to gather in front of the stage.  I wouldn't quite call it a pop concert - it was more like it was Barry Manilow or Cliff Richards, but you couldn't doubt the excitement of the Ecuadorians.  We stayed and watched most of it, slightly bemused as to why he was so popular, but left when the songs that he did for the numerous encores all started to sound the same.

Fire - and a narrow escape

So the generator went off at about 8:15pm.  Izzie had already taken her sunburn off to bed and Sue and Ken had gone a short while ago, so the five of us all figured that with only the light from Nic's and my torches, we should finish our drinks and go to bed too.

Then we saw the fire.

section of the fire as seen from the top of the flying fox

It was burning behind the kitchen area, around where the flying fox was, thankfully the other side to the route out of the dining area and the lodge.  It had already engulfed the cabin directly behind the kitchen area, and was spreading fast through the ne next to it.  Thankfully those cabins were empty, though it is quite possibly where TJ and Cathy would have been had they been there.  But the next cabin along was Izzie's and the steps up to it, ie her escape route, were in real danger of catching fire very soon.

We all began yelling fire very loudly, in English and Spanish.  Leon and I both went running up the steps to Izzie's cabin, yelling at her to get out.  Leon was banging on her door and we were both shouting at her that we weren't joking and she seriously needed to get out now.  The pause while she got dressed seemed like an eternity, but she came out having had the presence of mind to grab her laptop.  She never had the chance to go back for anything else.

The guys from the lodge started trying to put out the fire, but it became clear this was a losing battle.  Ben helped the guys to ferry the gas bottles away from the fire, Shanyn was banging on nearby doors, and I went to wake up Sue and Ken.  Our rooms were all on the far side of the lodge, so we we had a chance to go in and collect some of our stuff, but there wasn't time to get everything, especially as in the dark it was hard to see what was there.  Poor Shanyn couldn't find her camera, and after the second attempt, Izzie quite rightly said she should not go back in to look for it again.

We knew that the rain from earlier in the day would have helped dampen down the trees, but with the way the fire was burning, we were concerned that there was a possibility that the trees above the lodge could catch fire, blocking off our escape route. So we figured it was time to leave. With a backward glance to the advancing fire, we set off up the steps. We were pretty relieved when we got there, and equally pleased to see two fire engines pull up. They started setting up, and when I told them that there were still people down there, they went into overdrive. We realized that two of our group had not made it up yet, and Izzie went back down to make sure they got out safely. We were all pretty relieved to see the three of them come up the steps.

The lodge had obviously made arrangements for what would happen in the event of a fire, as taxis started to arrive to take us away to town. All eight of us piled into the taxi truck that turned up and we were driven the twenty minutes back into town to a hotel owned by the same group. Izzie then had the long task of getting in touch with TJ and Dragoman HQ to let them know what had happened. We were up for some while afterwards, and the guys from the lodge got back around 1:30am. The lodge had burned to the ground.

We were lucky. We had all lost some stuff - Izzie just about everything - but we had all escaped without any harm at all. Had we been sat further away from the fire, we would not have seen it so soon and so the situation could have been much worse. And had it been thirty or so minutes later, when we had gone to bed, I think we might have been lucky to make it out at all.

A narrow escape then, but an escape we are very thankful for.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Shangri-la - our first day in the Amazon Rainforest

the steps to the lodge

From Rio Verde we drove the short hop further into the Amazon proper and arrived at Tena in time for lunch.  The place we were staying is just into the Amazon Rainforest, about twenty minutes drive from the town.  And straight away, we could feel the increase in temperature and humidity.  It was clear that we were all going to spend the next three days being very sweaty!
TJ and Cathy left us there and took the truck off to Quito to have the time to get the fridge fixed, with the plan to pick us up again in three days time.

view from the lodge
The lodge we were staying at is called Shangri-la and is a bit like a big tree house.  You pull off the road down a short drive to a clearing.  From there, the lodge is about one hundred meters down the hill and you reach it by going down a winding set of log steps.  To save lugging your bags up and down though they have a 'flying fox' which is a metal basket on a pulley system that goes directly down to the lodge.

our lodge cabin

The lodge itself is mostly made from wood.  There are a series of wooden cabins around a central kitchen and dining area, and then further up there is a deck with lots of hammocks for chilling out.  The views across the river and into the jungle are fabulous, and we were lucky to have cabins on the edge, with balconies looking out over the basin.  Sadly, other than the one of our cabin and hammock, even when I can finally load pictures again, I won't be able to give you any photos of the lodge, for reasons that will become clear soon (or you know if you read the earlier news flash!)

the view from the lodge

I was really looking forward to the stay in the Amazon, with one exception; my fear of spiders was leaving me really rather nervous about sleeping in a wooden treehouse in the jungle.  And it probably didn't help that they have a tarantula called Matilda living on a clock in the dining room.  It wasn't so bad when she was just sat there quietly, but the Izzie woke her up and got her off the clock, and she started running around.  At that point I headed to the higher part of the dining area where I could see her, but could put plenty of space between us. Thankfully she soon settled back down to sleep and I could at least partially relax again. 

Having dropped off our bags in our room, thoroughly checked for eight-legged creatures, we collected our wellies and had lunch.  Or in Ben's case, had three lunches! We then headed off on our first foray into the jungle. Needless to say, with the high potential for creepy crawlies, I was fully covered up, including a hat.  As we walked through the jungle, my (uncovered) hands were generally held up in front of me, out of the way of the plantlife that was encroaching into the narrow track we were walking along; one of my companions said I looked as though I was putting up my fists to fight the jungle -and in a way I suppose I was!  But anyway I managed to avoid anything nasty landing on me.
the walking tree

Our guide, Roberto, led us on and it soon became clear that left to our own devices we could easily have got horribly lost, even this close to the edge of the jungle.  He stopped every so often to point out different trees and palms and tell us how they are used by the locals, some for firewood and construction, others for medicines and food.  One was the walking tree, so called because it puts out new roots and moves itself to better positions over long periods of time, while another had a rough, bumpy surface and they use that as a food grater.  He also pointed out the large conga ants that we had to avoid touching as they can leave you with a nasty numbness for a few days, or worse if you happen to react badly to it.

We passed the ground termites with their mud nests, and the tree termites with their nests made from bark and resin.  These are apparently a good mosquito deterrent and are used by the locals as a form of natural repellant in their homes.

We continued through on an increasingly invisible path, with Roberto occasionally using his rather large machete to clear the way, until we reached the caves.  Of course we woke up the bats and sent them flying above our heads, which unnerved a few people to start with.  The route through the caves involved a bit of canyoning.  As we reached the parts that were too narrow to simply squeeze through, we had to use our back and legs to shuffle ourselves up the cave wall to where it was a bit wider and then edge along sideways through the gap. This was not always easy, and at times the next foothold was further away than my and others' legs, or sometimes just confidence, would reach.  At those points assistance was required and I offer thanks to Nic, Roberto, Leon and Ben who all gave assistance at various times.

But in the end we made it through all of the gaps without mishap, and reached the other side.  Then is started to rain.  And it is not called the Rainforest for nothing.  We were soaked right through to the skin almost instantly!  At least it was warm rain though, so although it felt like we were standing under a power shower, it was at least a warm drenching.  So we made our way back in the rain, and arrived back at the lodge like drowned rats.  We all headed to our cabins and peeled off our clothes, leaving them over our balconies to dry.  I emptied a few gallons of water out of my wellies too.  Dried off, and wearing dry clothes, we headed back to the dining area via the bar, for a much needed cold beer.

Dinner was soon served, and we broke out the cachaca.  You may recall me talking about cap time before.  Well the cachaca was a bottle that Anne had kept for cap time but we had never got around to drinking.  When she left the truck in Lima, she left it with me to use at an appropriate moment.  And with three days in the jungle, now seemed like the time, so we passed it around and got through about half the bottle, deciding to keep the rest for tomorrow.  Thanks for that Anne, although it is fair to say that there were a few 'Shay faces' and some gave in and mixed it with their pineapple juice.

was this a very poisonous frog?
During the evening, Ben spotted a little yellow frog on the steps up towards the hammocks - in fact he nearly trod on it.  Probably just as well he didn't, as we think it was one of the really poisonous ones!  Obviously we were distracted by this for a while, before returning to our beers.
Then the generator went out and the lights all went out.  We had been warned that this would happen fairly early, so Nic and I were prepared and had our head torches with us, but we hadn't expected it quite as early as 8:15.  None the less, it was clearly going to be difficult to see enough to stay up for too long, especially as others didn't have their torches, so we concluded that we would probably finish our drinks and then head to bed.

But that isn't quite how it worked out, as you will see in the next posting!

Baños and Rio Verde

After a small but relatively peaceful mutiny at dinner the previous night, when we threatened to sabotage the truck in order to prevent the proposed 7am start, we managed to delay this morning's start to 8am.  A minor victory perhaps, but it was important to those of us who aren't used to being up with the larks (if there were larks here that is).

switchbacks and sheer drops
 We had more windy roads for much of the journey, and at one stage we went round a particularly steep and sharp switchback in the road where TJ had to reverse back to get around the turn. As he was reversing back towards the sheer drop behind us, we noticed that there was not one, but nine of those little crosses that mark where someone has died - presumably by driving off the edge that we were very close to ourselves! However TJ was obviously either more skilfull, more careful, or just more lucky than they had all been and we made it safely.


The drive was not too long today, and we got to Baños at about 1:15pm.  Banos sits at the foot of a constantly active 5016m volcano called Tungurahua. So the first thing we were told when we arrived was that if the siren goes off, we should evacuate the town, not do as the local do and rush towards the volcano to watch the eruptions!  Apparently much of the activity is very minor and so safe, but sometimes people do get killed and obviously a proper full eruption would take out the town completely.
Pequeña Paraiso

With the possibility of an eruption in our minds, we headed to the market for lunch again, and this time we did not have such interesting food sights, but the meals were still good.  After lunch, those of us in the cook groups went shopping for the meals for the next few days of camping.  Then it was off to our latest temporary home.

We weren't staying in Banos, we were staying in the safe zone of Rio Verde, camping at a hostel called Pequena Paraiso. It is cut into the vegetation and full of lemon trees, banana plants and fabulous red amarylis.  Sue and Mark run the place, assisted by their dog Tasha.  We had a big room we could use and, as we were self catering, it was great to have a proper kitchen too.

Banana plant

We were there at the same time as a small group called Kamuka, who don't have a truck as they travel on public transport. They were traveling in the opposite direction, so over the next few days stories and recommendations were swapped.

The first day the options for activities were given to us, but as the white water rafting and canyoning were both a little too likely to cause me to end up panicking under water, I decided to give them a miss.  Nic considered the rafting but being grade 5, it wasn't covered by the insurance, so he didn't do it either.

Pailon del diablo

On the first day, we took a walk down to the tallest waterfall nearby, which is called the Pailon del Diablo, or Devil's Cauldron.  It was quite a walk down and then back up, but it was a good sight of a reasonably impressive waterfall.

Afterwards, we had planned to try the local empanadas, but unfortunately the woman wasn't there, so after a quick drink we caught the bus into Banos.  We had decided to treat ourselves to a massage and jacuzzi at Huella's, and it was an excellent decision.

It was then a quick trip back to Pequena Paraiso, as I was on cook group and had to start on dinner.  With the proper facilities available, we were pushing the boat out with chicken fajitas, all the trimmings, and flambeed bananas for dessert.

After dinner it was Izzie's turn to challenge on Bananagrams, and she also had to walk away defeated.  However, Leon's practice and persistence had finally paid off and he not only got to 'peel' more often, he even won a game.  He was delighted!  We only let him win the one though.

Big moth

Rio Verde was also where we had our first taste of the size of some of the bugs in the jungle. Amongst others, we had a moth that was about the size of your hand when it had its wings spread, and a cricket type thing that was the size of your palm.  And then there was the bat flying around the room one night, but that was regular size.
The next day we had another go at the empanadas -this time successfully.  We each had a chicken and cheese one followed by a banana and chocolate one.  And very nice they were too!

We found a free Internet site in the afternoon, so spent a short while catching up on some practical bits, including looking for somewhere to stay when we go to the Edinburgh festival next year.

Nic was on cook group today, and they had also decided to up the stakes with breaded chicken fillets, mash, and pancakes for dessert.  Clearly it is just as well we don't normally have a kitchen or we'd soon all be a few stone heavier. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011


A quick newsflash. The jungle lodge that we were staying in burned to the ground last night! We saw the fire and raised the alarm but the place was like a giant wooden treehouse and the blaze was quickly out of control. We all made it out safely, but it was all very dramatic! Have lost some stuff - mostly clothes - which is a nuisance, but just glad everyone OK. Will post more when catch up with the blog.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


The drive to Chugchilan

We left Riobamba at about 7:15am for the drive to Chugchilan.  On the way to collect the bags after breakfast, Nic spotted that there was a Liverpool -v- Man Utd match showing in reception and was most disappointed that he couldn't stop to watch it.  We looked up the result later though and he was just about satisfied with the one all draw.

Cotapaxi volcano

The first part of the drive was a good one as we passed a number of mountains and volcanoes, including Cotapaxi.

We stopped off in a small town and went to the market for our lunch.  Shanyn and Ben had got quite excited as they thought they had seen chicken schnitzels being cooked, and a number of us had agreed this sounded good, but when we got there we discovered that they were just deep fried dough.

As we arrived at the market, we were greeted by the sight of a cow's head, and a dog eating the innards of some small animal.  Once we were in the market, we could see the various meals being prepared, including pigs' heads, and big pots with whole (except for their heads) chickens or other various other pieces of meat inside.  From the looks of the many discarded bits of skull on the ground, some of the pots probably contained whole sheep's heads!

I decided to stick to one of the fried dough things with sugar on, which was actually quite tasty, and a bread thing that was pretending to be a pain au chocolat.  Nic was bolder and sat down at one of the tables for his lunch.  He was expecting just a plate of rice and chicken, but got a plate of rice, salad and egg, plus a bowl of soup with a big chunk of chicken in it.  He enjoyed it.

Quilotoa crater

There was still some way to go to Chugchilan so Nic and I attempted to play bananagrams again, but soon had to give up as the journey became so bumpy that the tiles would slide everywhere and jump off the table.

We stopped off at the Quilotoa crater that was the starting point for some people to do a hike the next day if they wanted to.  It was a good view into the crater, but having now seen it, Nic and I weren't especially disposed to walk for three hours the next day.
Hairy drive round the Quilotoa Loop

The last part of the journey to the hotel was a bit hairy at times.  We were once again winding our way around the edge of the moutains and hills with very little space to spare and a sheer drop at the side.  Izzy again did a great job of the drive and we coped with passing some rather large vehicles coming the opposite way at most inopportune moments!

dancing traditional style
Chugchilan is a tiny town, with no more than a few little shops, so basically we had some time to relax, try to upload some photos (without success), and play more games.  We did have the dubious pleasure of a few of the local kids coming to do a tradional dance for us.  Those who know me won't be surprised that I declined to join them.

TJ had previously extolled the game of bananagrams and challenged us to a match. The three of us were joined by Leon, and the peeling soon began again.  TJ is most competitive, and after having played seven games, with Nic or I winning all of the them, he decided to quit.  Leon was not so faint-hearted and carried on to achive his first peel.  It is an understatement to say he was pleased!

Riobamba and bananagrams

We left Cuenca at the more civilised time of 9:30.  The drive to our stopover at Riobamba was long and not especially interesting.

We passed some of the time with a few games of Bananagrams.  The game has a tiles with letters on and you each take a set of tiles and play a sort of individual scrabble. You have to use all of your tiles up and then call 'peel' and then everyone has to take another tile.  This carries on until there are no more tiles, and the first person to finish using all their tiles and call 'bananas' is the winner.  I was playing this with Nic, who is always good at these games, and Leon, who whilst his English is excellent, is at a definite disadvantage being Dutch.

The game is good fun and once you get going there us always a point where one person is able to keep using their tiles quickly and so the 'peel' call goes out almost continually.  This is find for the person calling, but for those struggling to use their tiles - normally because they've picked up the Js, Qs, Xs and Zs, it us a nightmare because you don't have time to even think while this is going on.  But everyone gets stuck at some point, and often in the final moments Nic and I would be almost neck and neck to finish and call bananas.  Leon didn't really get a look in, but he was learning some new words, and did not get at all dispondent about it.  He said later that his aim isn't to win, but just to actually get to be the one to say 'peel' at least once!
We arrived in Riobamba around 4:30pm and I was sufficiently tired that I decided to have a short nap - and ended up asleep until 8pm.  We wandered around the closest part of town for a while, seeing a funeral going on, doors wide open with a group of mourners outside chatting.  It seemed no less sad an occasion, just a bit like a combination of a funeral and a wake together.  We continued past the hoards of partying fifteen year olds, and then found a deli that was serving food and ate there.
Riobamba is not really a town to visit, but it was a necessary stopover on the journey to Chugchilan.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


the greenery tells us we're in Ecuador
We not only left behind Punta Sal this morning, we also left behind us the Pacific Ocean, the desert, and Peru.  A couple of hours after we left the sandy terrain we hit the lush green vegetation that reminds you that you are close to the Amazon Rainforest.

Shortly after that we crossed the border into Ecuador.  And what a nice border crossing.  The buildings were new and modern, we were able to wait inside, but in fact hardly had to wait at all.  The whole process was professional, efficient and fast.  Which can't be said for some of the others that we've done in South America.


The rest of the drive to Cuenca was fairly uneventful, so many games of rummy were played in the almost ten hours we were on the road.  We did however see evidence of the many landslides that hit Ecuador and Colombia.

We got there a bit after 5pm so had time for a quick look around before we went out to a place called Eucalyptus for dinner.  Happily it was ladies night so there was a free drink for us girls.  The food was good too.

Cuenca is a great city.  It is the second biggest in Ecuador, but the centre is quite compact and easy to walk around. The buildings are not as grand as in some cities, but the architecture is interesting and varied. It looks attractive and it feels safe.

Panama hat factory

In the morning, we got into taxis to the Homero Ortega museum, which is in fact the panama hat factory,  you may think that the panama hat comes from Panama, but it doesn't, it comes from Cuenca, Ecuador. This style of hat already was being made from the cactus leaf and worn here, when they spotted that the men building the Panama were an ideal market for their hats.  This sales strategy was so successful that the hats became synonymous with Panama and the name stuck.  It certainly made the hats famous, but Ecuador and particularly Cuenca would rather people recognised where they really come from.

The fun (if slightly mean) thing about the taxi ride was that the drivers were expecting a decent fare from us gringos, but in fact when we arrive at the museum, someone from the factory actually comes out and pays the fare for us, so they get a disappointing basic fee instead.

Panama hat factory

The factory was interesting and they showed us the process of making the hats.  Local women start it off at home and weave the basic product, dropping great bundles of them off at a time.  At the factory they tighten the weaving and finish the edges, before bleaching the hats and sometimes dying them.  They shape them individually and then iron them, still using an old fashioned iron with hot coals inside it.

Panama hat factory

The standard of the hats, and therefore the price, is determined by the quality of the weave.  The cheaper hats use a wider weave, only splitting the leaf a few times.  The most expensive split each leaf six times to produce a much finer weave and a softer finish to the fabric.

As well as the traditional white Panama hat, they also make a range of other colours and styles, and have branched out into handbags and other items, and even have started making clothes.

At the end of the tour we hit the shop and tried on the hats.  I really liked one that was a big heavy, cream coloured 1920's cloche style hat, but clearly that was impractical, so I bought my other favourite, which is a brown very wide rimmed sunhat.  This is both practical - sensible colour and will be great in the heat of Colombia - but also impractical as it is not easy to pack in a rucksack!  At present it's fine as it lives in its box on the truck when not in use, but once we are travelling alone I may have to send it back to the UK.

spitroast pig

For lunch, we set off for the market, where they have a range of cooked foods available but the main draw is the Ecuadorian speciality of spitroast pig.  There were five or six of them on different stands, and you could go and get a little taste of each before deciding which to have.  They all tasted good, so we picked the one with the best crackling.  A good value and tasty lunch.

Later in the day we headed off to visit a museum, but via a particularly good ice cream shop, Tutto Freddo. The ice cream was good, though still not as good as in Freddos in BsAs.  Sitting in the park to eat it, we bumped into another person from our group and she decided to join us going to the museum.

The museum we picked had information about the various Ecuadorian tribes and people, including their costumes and customs.  The most interesting of course was the Shuru tribe who were head shrinkers. They believed that if they cut off and carried the heads of their important enemies, that persons knowledge and power would transfer to them.  Head shrinking was also important in some spiritual ceremonies.  There were a number of shrunken heads on display and it is fascinating how well preserved they are. They really are perfect mini heads.  These days, the tribe is no longer allowed to practise human headshrinking and uses sloths for its ceremonies instead.

On the way back from the museum we decided to pop into a bar and take advantage of its 2 for 1 offer.  After having our two drinks each and trying to work out who all the pictures on the walls were of, we set off again.  However we were quickly diverted by finding a microbrewery.  It seemed important to try the local beer, so in we went.  Once in there we found that they made beer cocktails so we tried those.  Nic had a dark beer with whisky, baileys and coffee liqueur in it, I had a large blonde beer with vodka, gin and grenadine, and our friend had a large blonde beer with a tequila shot sunk into it.  We enjoyed these, but of course still don't really know what the local beer tastes like!

We had made it a little further on, when we came across a hookah bar. None of us had ever tried this, so we decided to go in.  We ordered a chocolate and mint pipe to share and a beer each.  By this point our friend was happy to say the least, and she entered into a spirited discussion with the guy in the bar, including trying to buy his jacket.  By this point we had noticed that the other customers had gone and they had put down the shutters.  This was slightly worrying, so Nic and I made sure it was clear that we were still fully in charge of our faculties, but in fact it was fine.
We eventually persuaded our friend she didn't want the jacket and left, and decided that it was best we got done food and do for ease and speed we went back to the place we had been before.  On the way there, and then back to the hotel, we discovered that the people of Cuenca are a friendly and tolerant bunch of people, as they nearly all responded with an amused greeting to our friend calling Hola to every person we passed!

We deposited our friend safely in her room, and left her to await her hangover.