Iguacu/Iguazu – a photo blog

There’s not really a story for us behind Iguacu (Brazilian) or Iguazu (Argentinian), other than it’s spectacular.  Hearing such great things about it from friends and family, it was on our list of must dos and we were not disappointed.  Plus, considering it was on the border, it provided an easy and cheap way to cross from Brazil into Argentina.

Many visitors only see one side or the other – we think it’s worth seeing both – largely to get a full view of the natural wonder, but it’s also interesting on how both sides treat their respective national parks.

On the Brazilian side, there’s only one trail, which is concrete and absolutely packed with people (you often must wait in a line to take a photo from a vantage point).  However, on this side, you can see the falls by helicopter – over $200 for 10 minutes (a bit of a steep price for us).  On the Argentinian side, there’s multiple trails, which are wooden and raised above ground so as not to disturb the wildlife.  They also don’t allow helicopter tours for the same reason.

Due to the number of trails, one only needs a half day to visit the Brazilian side (we spent about four hours, including the lines to enter and all the lines Jen waited in to take pictures).  Whereas on the Argentinian side, you need a full day because there’s so many trails to walk.

Given the scale of trails and the very varied vantage points, we preferred the Argentinian side.

Both sides also had an interesting racoon-like animal, called the quati in Portuguese or the coati in Spanish.

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Their natural habitate appears to be the National Park Snack Bar. . .

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Now for the photos. . .

Brazilian side

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Argentinian side

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Oh, and on the Argentinian side, Jen took a boat ride under the falls.  Erwan wasn’t allowed due to his cast and thus not having the ability to hold on with two hands.  Jen loved it – she got drenched, but it was 20 minutes of pure joyous fun.

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Plus, it allowed for several interesting selfies, including one where it looks like the grim reaper is coming for her. . .

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To enjoy Brazil, we escaped the city to Ilha Grande

We’re city folk.  We love the urban.  We love experiencing their people, life and dynamism first hand.  And Jen is a certified urban dork, so she loves not only wandering around their architectural gems (or un-gems), but also figuring out their structure and planning.  Even gritty city neighbourhoods that others look past, Jen can’t get enough – the street art, the industrial buildings, the fun little design (or undersigned) inventions – she loves it all.

Thus, we thought Rio was going to be right up our alley.  And in many ways it probably would have been – it’s lively, there’s plenty of sites and there are many different areas to discover – historic or brand new; gritty or polished.  But that didn’t go to plan (see post from January 5th) and we ended up for the first time in our lives, a bit turned off by the urban.

Yet, fortunately Brazil is so much more than Rio.  Prior to even coming to the city (and following friends describing it as the most beautiful places they visited in South America), we booked a two day break in the middle of our Rio time to visit Ilha Grande – an island that’s about 4 hours south of the city.

When the day arrived, we were so ready to leave the city – like so crazy ready.  To the point where when we were catching a taxi to the bus station (after our uber failed to show up – first time ever) and two drivers began bickering over who had the right to take us, Jen frustrated (and tight on time) yelled at them “I don’t care which one of you takes us, I just need to get the hell out of this city”.  Seeing the fury and probably, craziness, in her eyes, the drivers quickly resolved their dispute and one of them took us to the station, with the statement “nice lady, I take you now.”

The bus ride to Ilha Grande was fairly uneventful as it runs along an urban freeway passing strip malls and suburbia.  However, it gets interesting for the last 30 minutes or so, where you are driving along the coast – beautiful green landscape meeting a lovely blue sea with a sprinkling of little islands.  Sadly we were sitting on the wrong side of the bus, so we didn’t get any good photos (and on the way back it was overcast).

The bus drops us off at Conceicao de Jacarei, where we now need to wait for the ferry to take us over to Ilha Grande.  We apparently just missed a ferry, so we needed to wait about two hours for the next one (seriously you think they’d have coordinated the buses and ferries).  Fortunately during this time, we have a lovely view.

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We also used the time to meet some of the other travellers heading over to the island.  There’s a group of three young, twenty something British guys who have already started drinking and are largely chatting up the two young female travellers.  But more to our liking, we meet Ilena and Luciano.  Ilena is an Italian, now living in Germany, and on vacation in Brazil for about a month.  She brilliantly speaks 4 languages and is trying to pick up Portuguese while here (she was already way more successful than us at doing so).  Luciano is from Cordoba, Argentina and pretty much a fitness buff (more on this later).  They met in Rio and decided to travel to Ilha Grande together.

We mostly chat to Ilena (Luciano has gone to explore the beach and exercise on the outdoor gym equipment).  Yet our conversation is cut short, when we finally are led to the boat, squeezed on like cattle with everyone’s luggage and apparently several boxes of food for the island.  A comment on these boxes – considering that many were meant to be frozen, yet were completely defrosted and sitting out in the sun, Jen was very glad she’s a vegetarian.  Erwan would stick to the island’s seafood. . .

Back to the boat trip – considering how tightly packed we are, we only get some partial views, but even those are stunning.  After 30 minutes, the boat drops us off in Abraao (the only town on the island), which is clearly focused on tourism.  It is mostly made up of hostels, beach shops, restaurants, cafes, and tour operators.

After checking into our Airbnb place, we have to figure out what to do in our time here – mainly because we wonder whether we need to book one of the various boat trips that are advertised at every other shop in town.  We originally thought we would do the hike to Lopes Mendes Beach, which is supposedly one of the best beaches in the country and the hike is a meant to be a nice, but rigorous jaunt through the jungle.  It was recommended by everyone we spoke to, however on the boat ride over and then from a quick google search, we realised that there was SO MUCH MORE to the island and we ended up in choice overload!

There are hundreds of beaches on the island, and while most are still considered inferior to Lopes Mendes, many looked pretty damn awesome.  There are lagoons! There are hikes! There are adventure activities!  Yeah, it was clear we weren’t going to have enough time here.   After umming and ahhing for awhile, we finally decide to go with our original plan of hiking to Lopes Mendes – after all, it is what everybody who’s been to the island told us to do with absolutely stellar reviews.

With our minds made up for the next day’s activity, we head out to explore the town.  Yet it starts to rain, so we go inside a restaurant that looks like a good place for dinner.  We’re not hungry yet, so we order some caipirinhas, then a few more, then another round and then we finally get around to dinner – fresh seafood for Erwan and fresh pasta for Jen.

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During one of the rounds of drinks, the three drinking Brits from the boat come into the place with their luggage.  They had still not made it to their hostel after being dropped off (hours ago) and instead were doing a bit of a pub crawl to the place – we shared a round with them.  They were all from London.

After dinner, we go back to our original idea and wander around the town.  The town is tiny, so we of course run into our new friends of Ilena and Luciano and thus, make plans for all of us to hike to Lopes Mendes Beach in the morning.

The next morning we meet at the pier and they have brought along three other travellers from their hostel:

  • Luciano (another one) – a Brazilian, who is currently traveling a bit after returning from living in Russia and starting a job in the new year.
  • Jack – another Brazilian, who is taking a few months out to travel around Brazil.
  • Strongman (not his real name – we can’t remember it) – a third Brazilian, who is in the military (and also a fitness buff), but doesn’t speak a word of anything other than Portuguese.

After introductions we get to hiking.  From the beginning, it was clear that there are two types of trekkers in the group.  Argentinian Luciano (who we now find out is a trail running coach in real life) and Strongman are in a league of their own and they are off, while the rest of us of us normal folk are left in the dust.

The hike is 3 hours and it’s not exactly a leisurely hike – sure it passes a few other beaches, but much of it is up or down the surrounding hills and in parts, it’s actually pretty steep.  The only thing that keeps us going is knowing that at the end of the trek is supposed to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the whole country.  In fact, Jack, who had gone to the beach the day before (although by boat), described it as “perfect”.

The hike has various view points out over the surrounding sea, but most of it is through the jungle – we even saw a sloth!

These viewpoints are where the two fast trekkers stop to wait for the rest of us, but after a few times of waiting for what probably feels like an eternity to them, they stopped doing so and just continued.  After 1.5 hours of hiking we arrived at Das Palmas Beach, where we stopped for a break and took the opportunity for a photo shoot along some of the nearby rocks overlooking the water.

The beach is nice, but we’re told it’s nothing compared to Lopes Mendes.

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However, during the break on the beach, Argentinian Luciano and Strongman are no where to be found.  We thought they would wait for us there, but then assume that they had gone up ahead, so we continue.

We get to Do Pouso Beach (where the boats drop people off for Lopez Mendes since boats aren’t allowed on the ‘perfect’ beach).

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This beach is less appealing, but from here, it’s only 30 more minutes until happy perfect beach time!

After one more climb over a hill, we get to Lopes Mendes!  And it is indeed perfect!  A vast stretch of white sand and beautiful blue water with plenty of shady palm trees in the background, no surrounding development, and not too many people.

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We settle into a spot, right near the Brazilian flag.

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We also realise that Luciano and Strongman aren’t here.  Did we beat them here?  Turns out, they had indeed waited for us at Das Palmas in one of the little café huts and we never saw them.  Fortunately they caught on soon enough and considering their fast pace, they joined us on Lopes Mendes only 10 minutes later. . .

Now that the hike is over, there was nothing left to do but lounge about on the beach, enjoying the views, the good company and the peace.  It was fantastic!  Our fellow travellers were all really fun and interesting people.  We shared great travelling stories from around the world, learned more about Brazil and attempted to learn a bit of Portuguese (and Spanish).  Argentinian Luciano and Strongman left for awhile to hike the other nearby hills, but the rest of us stayed behind happy in our sun, relaxation, and conversation.

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The only downside to the afternoon was that when in the water, Erwan couldn’t put his arm under, so I joined him in solidarity (for awhile).

Sadly after 4 hours, we needed to head back in order to catch a boat (yeah, we weren’t going to hike that thing back – there was no longer the cherry at the end of a gorgeous beach).  So we hike the 30 minutes back to Do Pouso Beach, where when passing through earlier we reserved our spot on the last boat out.

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Argentinian Luciano and Strongman did not take the boat with us mere mortals – they ran back.  We found out later that it only took them a bit over an hour, when not weighted down with us. . .

Arriving back in Abraao, we make plans with the others to meet for after dinner drinks and then head back to our flat to rest.  For our last night on the island, we have dinner at one of the nice restaurants, right on the beach (table on the sand) and of course enjoy some more caipirinhas.

We then meet the others for even more caipirinhas – bought from a street vendor and enjoyed on the esplanade, looking out over the water.  The good company and conversation continues and the troubles of Rio seems like miles away.  In fact, we hadn’t really thought much about the ordeal at all (except when describing it to others or the fact about Erwan’s arm not being able to go in the water).  We were truly relaxed.  But sadly the night came to a close and as we were leaving the next day, we said our goodbyes and got all the deets of our new friends.

For the next morning, when originally planning our time on the island, we thought that we would have enough time for a cheeky little half day jaunt elsewhere on the island.  Sadly with the timings of the ferries and buses, this was going to be tight.  Thus, in the morning, we opted for a further exploration of the town (which only takes 30 minutes), a shared brunch of an acai bowl (it was huge!) and a little wander along the coast.

Then we had to reluctantly head back to the city as scheduled to spend our Christmas (see previous post).  While we weren’t exactly looking forward to returning to Rio, we were better able to deal with it having gotten a bit of escape time out of the city.

 

 

 

Christmas in Brazil – beaches, coconuts, rainbows, cocktails and Modernism – these are a few of Jen’s favorite things

When Christmas came around, we were in Brazil – more specifically Rio for Christmas eve and then Brasilia for Christmas.  Sounds great, right?  Hmmmm, yea, to begin with we weren’t really in the Christmas-y, festive mood and if you read our previous post of being mugged less than a week earlier, you’d understand why.

We had big plans for Rio, but all of that fell away, as we just needed to rest, recover and deal with errands (like calling insurance) following the incident.  We left the city for a couple of days to Ilha Grande, which did rejuvenate us a bit (future post pending), however, our plans brought us back to Rio just before Christmas and we weren’t feeling it.

When planning this part of the trip back in London, we originally thought Christmas on a remote island wouldn’t be fun, so let’s go back to the big city.  Yet, when we returned to Rio, we so, so wanted to be on the secluded beaches of Ilha Grande.  It particularly didn’t help that when we arrived on the 23rd, our Airbnb host wasn’t there (as thought) and we had to wait for over an hour in the arcade of his building (open to the street) with all our stuff until his son came and let us in.

Earlier in the week, we also learned that a lot of the city was going to be closed for Christmas eve (being a Catholic country).  Thus, we had to have the nice dinner we planned for the 24th on the 23rd – at the Veuve Clicquot restaurant (a cashed in birthday present of Jen from Erwan’s family).  Mmmmmm, Veuve Clicquot. . .

So with our special ‘Christmas dinner’ already behind us and in a city that still put us on edge, how were we going to celebrate Christmas Eve?  We decided, to buck up, and do like the locals.  We went to the beach.  Ipanema Beach first and then a little walk to Copacabana in the late afternoon.

Both beaches were packed!  They weren’t as lovely as our Ilha Grande.  Yet with the fresh air, the warm weather, the dramatic backdrops, the fresh coconut water, and all the fun going on around us, we too began to lighten up a bit.  It was Christmas and we were on the beach in hot, hot weather, drinking straight from coconuts!

Then came the next issue – where would we eat dinner.  Every place we investigated before was closed, so we would just have to try our luck in the area.  In the neighbourhood (we were staying in Ipanema this time around), there was one place open.  From the outside and the menu, it looked like a lively cocktail bar that also served pub food – ok, let’s try it.  When we went in, we realised that it was full of mostly good looking men and we soon realised that it was a gay bar.

Now the fact that this place was the only one open, gives us somewhat mixed feelings – firstly happy feelings, because it turned out to be great.  It had fantastic cocktails (Jen had the ‘Praia Santa’ or Santa Beach), good food, good music and a lively and fun atmosphere.

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However, it also gave us slightly sad feelings, because we realised that this bar was open on Christmas Eve because many of its patrons had nowhere else to go on a night when the average Brazilian was spending time with their family (put frankly they weren’t welcomed by their ‘loved ones’).  It is disheartening to us that in 2016, even during the holidays, people are not accepting of those they are supposed to love the most.  Yet, on the plus side, once people arrived in the bar, they seemed to have a good time – this was now their family.

After eating and of course enjoying the tasty cocktails, we headed back for a somewhat early night due to our flight the next morning.

Most people wouldn’t want to fly on Christmas Day.  We’ve done it before to fly back to the States and it’s actually a great idea to do so.  The flights are often as much as half the price and the plane is empty.  This was the case this time around too, so despite the early wake up, we got some shut eye enroute.

And unlike our host in Rio, our Airbnb host in Brasilia was there to happily greet us, despite us arriving on her doorstep at 11am on Christmas Day.  In fact, Rachel, was one of the best hosts we’ve had – super friendly and helpful (for instance researching and telling us the best hospital to go to get Erwan’s stitches out the following day) and she even cooked us a large breakfast two days later, simply because it was her birthday.

Anyway, back to Christmas Day – we’re in Brasilia and it’s time to explore!  Now for those of you who don’t know, Brasilia is a planned city designed by Lucia Costa and Oscar Niemeyer.  The city itself and the key buildings within it are considered Modernist masterpieces and they are!  Jen has wanted to visit the city since learning about it in her first year at architecture school.  The thing is Jen is an architecture dork – particularly for 20th century buildings.  However, many other people aren’t – including Erwan.  But Erwan likes to see his wife happy, so here we were. . .

After a brief time planning our route, Rachel dropped us off at the National Congress Building on her way to visit her family (again, how great is she).

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We were here!  Jen was so happy she attempted cartwheels outside the building on the esplanade.  From the photos, you’ll see that she was actually mastering the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. . .

Niemeyer’s National Congress Building!  And then his Ministry of Justice building!  And then the Palacio do Planalto (President’s office), Praca dos Tres Poderes (Three Powers Square), Panteao de Patria (a museum), Espaco Lucia Costa (a city museum), Palacio do Itamarty (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and Supremo Tribunal Federal (Supreme Court)!  All Niemeyer!  Yay!

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We then walked up the esplanade (monumental axis), past all the original governmental department buildings to the Cathedral!

Oh the Cathedral!  One of Jen’s favorite churches in the whole wide world!

Then the science museum, the library and the theatre!

Jen went photo happy, while Erwan watched from the shade of the closest nearby tree.  Jen was elated and Erwan was happy for her.  After walking for hours in the 97 (36 celsius) degree heat, we treated ourselves to ice cream from a vendor outside the Cathedral and headed back to rest before dinner.

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There was still more to do tomorrow – including the Don Bosco Santuary (another of Jen’s favorite churches – two in one city!), the JK memorial, the Garrincha Stadium, the Ermida Dom Bosco chapel (great for sunsets) and the TV tower.  Basically while we ticked very little off our Rio to-do list, we got it all in Brasilia – much to Jen’s pleasure.

Finally, at dinner was when Erwan got his Christmas treat – a traditional Brazilian buffet dinner (they charge by the weight of your plate), with meat, meat and more meat – oh did we mention the meat?  There were options for Jen too – and she also got another fresh coconut. . .

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By the end of Christmas day, we were full, happy and content – just as it should be.  We started out the holiday feeling bad for ourselves and being a bit scared, but we ended by enjoying the beach, having good food and experiencing Modernism marvels – some of our favorite things.

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In a way, just like when Julia Andrew sang before – when the dog bites; when the bee stings; when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things – and then I don’t feel so bad.  Merry Christmas and Eu ❤ Brasilia!

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We got mugged in Rio

This isn’t entirely a happy post and (spoiler alert) the title already tells you what happened.  However, despite not being a fun post or memory, it was a pretty big event in our travels, so we thought we should still document it here – not least because we think overall we have dealt with the ordeal positively.

When we lived in Beijing, they had a saying – “you aren’t a true Beijinger until you’ve had your bike stolen.”  Erwan became a true Bejinger (twice), yet despite living there a year, Jen never did – largely because she invested in two locks that together cost the same as her bike.  Anyway, in Rio, apparently, they also have a saying (although slightly sadder) – “you’re only a true Carioca [person from Rio], once you’ve been mugged”.  We became true Cariocas on our very first night in Rio – indeed our very first night in Brazil.

When we first arrived in the city, it was early afternoon and it was pouring.  So, we took the time to map out our next few days of awesomeness.  We were going to be spending 3 days here, then a two-day break to Ilha Grande and then back to the city for two days – including Christmas Eve.  We had a lot planned and were good to go by the time the sky cleared.

As it was early evening, we decided to walk to the Escadaria Selon (those famous Rio stairs), which weren’t too far from our Airbnb flat and then we would head up the hill to the Santa Theresa neighbourhood to see the sunset and catch dinner.  Santa Theresa is full of 19th century mansion houses and is known for its lovely little restaurant and bar scene.  Our guidebook recommended it and mentioned no warning on safety (despite doing so for several other areas in other cities/countries).

The Escadaria were nice, but very touristy – tons of selfie takers, who took a really long time to make sure their shirt/hair/pout were just right.

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As it was a Sunday, the tram up to the Santa Theresa area was not running, so we walked it – despite the earlier rain, it had turned into a lovely evening.

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It’s a winding road up, which gives you little snippets of glimpses down to the city.

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We get to the top and had we turned right, there would be the lovely street of bars and restaurants, with fun atmosphere and lively music.  However, as it was sunset time, we see that there is a lookout if we turn left.  We turn left.  At this lookout, there’s also a group of guys gathered, but we don’t pay much attention to them and instead try to find a good view.  Turns out the lookout isn’t that great, however maybe on the other side of this one mansion house?  We walk down that street a bit to check out that view.

That view is also not that great, so we turn to leave.  As we do so, Jen notices that two of those guys are now walking rather menacingly towards them.  To avoid them on the sidewalk, she tells Erwan “let’s walk in the street”.  We go to do so, but at this point, they run towards us (with one of them already being in the street – so three in total) and we are now trapped between two parked cars.

One of the guys brandishes a gun and says something that neither of us remember, but clearly they want our stuff.

Now, you never know how you will react in a situation like this until it happens.  You can try to prepare, you can hypothesize on what you would do, but in the actual moment, your body just goes into automatic mode and does its thing.  You can only think and analyse after the fact.

Also in this situation, there are really only two responses – relinquish your stuff or resist (in its different forms).  People will have opinions on which is better in the moment and we are not going to advise on which should be taken – probably because both us took a different approach. . .

When the guy took out the gun, Jen got a good view of it and rightly or wrongly, immediately thought “that’s a fake gun” (the proportions of the barrel looked too long and skinny).  She thus went the resist route, thinking “it’s not real, I’m not handing over my stuff”.  She thus, kept her backpack on her (it was also clipped around her waist) and held tight to her camera (around her neck), poking out her elbows to block the grabs (basketball training?), refusing to hand over anything and mumbling “no, no, no”.

In contrast, Erwan did not see the gun clearly, so with the threat of being shot dead, he unclipped his backpack and allowed it to be taken.  One of the three guys runs off with this prize.

The other two are still working on trying to pry the camera from Jen’s hands and yank the backpack off her back.  In so doing, they are now dragging her along the street and she is screaming.  Seeing Jen in this state, Erwan comes to defend her, saying “Don’t hurt her”.  The love, yet desperation that was heard in his voice while stating it, still makes Jen tear up. . .

As Erwan comes to help Jen, one of the guys turns on Erwan and starts hitting him with the butt of the gun.  The blows go to Erwan’s left arm (which Erwan was using to block) and his head.  The gun breaks on Erwan’s head, shattering plastic bits everywhere – it was indeed fake. . .

Meanwhile, Jen is still on the street, lying on her back, but with only one guy, she is also able to kick the offender as he still tries to get her camera.  Her havana flip flops now break in the process.  Also during this, the phone in her pocket is either taken or falls out (and then taken).

Eventually, having taken one backpack and a phone, and now with a broken ‘weapon’, the guys give up and run off.  We’re not sure, but the whole ordeal probably lasted about 30 seconds.

Once they leave, the first thing Erwan says is “do you see my glasses?”.  They had fallen off in the altercation.  They were by Jen’s broken flip flops – although as havanas, they are easily fixed and put back on her feet.  Fortunately, Erwan’s glasses are not broken and they are put back on his face.

From Jen’s screaming, neighbours had come out into the street and, dazed and confused, we stumbled towards them.  Seeing the state of Erwan, with his shirt all bloody from his head wound, we first ask for a hospital – then the police.  They call the police for us, as they say we need to do that first.  Still confused, we take stock of ourselves and this is when Jen realises her phone is gone.  We go back to the scene to see if we can find it, hoping that it just fell out, but nope, it’s stolen.

The neighbours were really friendly and also it seemed that they were also in a bit of a shock.  One of them, Christina, lived in London for 12 years and was thus able to serve as our translator.  She also invites us into her house to wait for the police, drink some water and clean up a bit.

We then wait for the police to arrive on her balcony overlooking the street.  During this time, we learnt that the area has gotten increasingly dangerous over the past few months, with one of the neighbours commenting that she got mugged the previous week right around the corner.  Christina, herself, is now planning on moving back to Europe due to the increased crime in the city.

While waiting on the balcony, a man walks by and picks up the baseball cap that had fallen off the dude that Jen was kicking.  Christina yells at him saying it’s part of a crime scene, but the guy waves her off and continues walking with his new black Nike cap.  In response, Christina states in anger and disgust, “everyone steals here; they steal from you, the president steals from all of us, and this guy takes a stupid cap!”

After about 20 minutes, the police arrive – two different cars.  With Christina as translator, one set of cops attend to Erwan, but the others ask Jen to get in the car with them, as they will drive around the neighbourhood to see if she is able to identify the guys.  We are doubtful this will work, as it’s been some time and the guys are probably long gone.  Yet Jen complies and gets in the car.

They drive past all the restaurants and bars where we were originally heading to; they drive along another fairly busy street; and then they turn down a little side street.  Suddenly Jen gets scared and paranoid.  She’s alone on a dark, quiet side street with two guys who might not actually be cops, and yet they have massive semi-automatic guns, which Jen is pretty sure are real.  If this is some kind of scam, how will she defend herself?  Is she about to be kidnapped?  Her brain is in overdrive.

Fortunately, it was not a scam, they were indeed cops, and Jen is soon back to the scene of the crime with Erwan.

By this point, two tourist police have also shown up.  This is the unit that deals specifically with crimes against tourists.  They will now accompany us for the rest of the night, and yet they only speak Portuguese.

Due to Erwan’s injuries they first take us to the hospital, where he receives 5 stitches in his head and gets his arm x-rayed.

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Fortunately, the arm is not broken, however due to the significance of the bruises and the fragility of the arm, they wrap it in a cast and sling.  Jen also gets her scraps on her knees and elbows cleaned up and wrapped.

At the hospital, we were quite a sight, with numerous people stopping to stare or even ask what happened.  Not only were we clearly two foreigners, one of whom is completely bloodied, but we were also accompanied by the two police officers the whole time.  This scene caused one woman (who was getting a cast just before Erwan) to give the officers an earful about how foreigners are treated better than locals.  She probably has a point, but at that time, we weren’t going to complain.

Cleaned up and medically sorted with various prescriptions in hand, the two police officers then take us to the tourist police station to give our statements.  Along the way, they very kindly point out all the tourist sites that we pass.

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Our part at the police station was pretty straight forward, but it took hours for the report to be drafted and finalised.  We were there until 3am (at which point, those same two police officers saw us safely back to our flat).

During the time at the police station, we were however able to take stock, gather our thoughts and gain some perspective on everything that just happened.  Firstly, we were alive and we were still together.  Secondly, the bastards didn’t get much in the end – the most valuable thing being Jen’s phone, but in Erwan’s backpack, there was mostly incidentals (I hope they enjoy our tissues and guidebook) and a bit of cash.  The only annoying thing taken in it were Erwan’s prescription sunglasses.  Thirdly, nearly everybody else in this city has gone out of their way to help us.  Even regular people in the hospital expressed sympathy or concern.

Fourthly, we were not going to let this deter our travel plans – if we allowed that to occur, the arseholes would have stolen much more than a bunch of replaceable objects.  From that, we vowed to continue traveling and not let this hold us back.  In fact, we were going to try to remain positive as much as possible.  There’s a statement that Jen heard once – “If you hang on to anger or resentment towards someone, then you are letting them live rent free in your mind” (or something along those lines).  Screw that!

So, we remained positive.  Yes, something horrible just happened to us, but again, we were alive, we were together, we still had most of our health, and we still have our adventures.

That being said, getting back to normal was a bit difficult.  The next day, we did nothing in the city, but just rested and recovered.  We only left the flat once to fill the required prescriptions and go to the bank – however, we also went to lunch at a lovely little vegetarian restaurant down the street.  Also on the positive side, the recovery day allowed us to fully utilize the rooftop pool of our flat and catch up on our BBC documentaries.

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The next day, we started the morning by going to visit the city’s Modernist Cathedral.  However, both of us were anxious, so we didn’t really enjoy the experience.  This was also the last time that Jen brought her camera out and about in Rio. . .

Yet, we found a solution to our edginess of sightseeing – explore the city by air!  After hearing about our ordeal, several of Erwan’s friends chipped in and sent us money, telling us to “treat ourselves”.  Although one of the friends suggested we use the whole amount on a massive quantity of caipirinhas, we went for a helicopter ride over the city.  It was amazing!  One of the best things of our trip so far!  We are truly thankful for all those who made this happen.

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And since, we didn’t feel like going out that night, we spent the time making this video (which is also amazing)!

We would have been ok with leaving Rio after that, but that’s not what our travel plans were.  So, after spending a lovely two days in the beautiful and peaceful (emphasis on the second adjective) Ilha Grande, we came back to the city as previously planned to spend two days, including Christmas Eve.  This time we were staying by the beach.  These two days, were about as active as the other two and we spent the time resting or running errands relating to getting our life back in order.

So, while we did visit both Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches, have dinner at the Veuve Clicquot restaurant (a cashed in birthday present for Jen from Erwan’s family) and see the awesome Modernist Cathedral, we did very little else in Rio – despite having so many plans when we first arrived. . .

  • Favela Tour – no, cancelled as it was booked for first thing the morning after the incident
  • Samba school – sadly not
  • Sugerloaf Mountain – nope
  • Old Town – none of it
  • Hike to Christ the Redeemer – nada
  • Botanical Garden – nao
  • Maracana Stadium – nein
  • Niteroi museum – Jen’s a bit gutted about this one

So yea, Rio is still largely characterised for us by a pretty horrible experience.  However, as Forest Gump coined “shit happens”.  What matters is how you deal with that shit.  All of the bad people are entirely outnumbered by all the good people.  Everyone else we met in Rio were warm and lovely.  Furthermore, if it wasn’t for the mugging, we wouldn’t have gone on the helicopter ride of the city – one of our favourite experiences so far.  While we still wouldn’t want to be mugged, it does show that good things follow bad.  We’ll try to focus on the good things and the good people.

Postscript – after the whole Rio experience, Jen finally went through all her photos from the night.  This was the last one, before we were mugged.  This woman knew. . .

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20 hours in Montevideo – mmmm, beer, cake and a snippet of tango. . .

Firstly, two fun facts about Montevideo:

  1. It is the ‘true’ home of tango. Apparently, the dance originated there, but then got co-opted by the city’s bigger neighbour of Buenos Aires (a short ferry ride away).
  2. Montevideo is also home to ‘the best beaches in Buenos Aires’. Given the proximity, this is supposedly where are the Argentine city folk come to relax in the sun.

We didn’t know these facts until arriving to the city and in fact our visit wasn’t really planned, but came about due to logistics.  Essentially we needed to get from Guayaquil to Rio de Janeiro.  Sure, one could pay for a direct flight between the two cities, however to do so, one should win the lottery first, as it’s quite expensive.  Instead it was much cheaper to do the following:

Fly from Guayaquil to Lima, have a 5-hour layover and then fly to Santiago, Chile.  Stay overnight at an airport hotel (no time to explore, not least because it took us 2.5 hours to get through customs – seriously Chile, do you want people to visit?!).  Then depart the next morning for Montevideo to leave the following morning from Montevideo to Rio.  Seriously, all that was much cheaper than flying direct and thus is left us with 20 hours to explore in Montevideo – score!  A new country to visit as well!

Now, in all actuality, we didn’t have 20 hours to explore, since that was the time between flights (so not counting getting through customs and the time needed at the airport prior to leaving).  It also didn’t count sleep – and we’re too old now to travel without that.

So in reality, we had about 7 hours to explore the city.  Beforehand, we had spoken to a few people who had been to the city and they assured us that this would probably be enough, so long as we weren’t going to the beach.

Thus, we had big plans to hit Montevideo – first we would go to the famous Mercado (market) and see the lively atmosphere, then walk around the old town, visit the museum dedicated to the plane crash immortalised in the movie ‘Alive’ (they were Uruguayans), stroll along Las Ramblas (the walkway along the beach), catch dinner and then maybe see some tango.  Tight, but doable.

So, we started out as proposed – we went to the Mercado and it was indeed lively – it helped that it was Saturday afternoon.  We should explain, that this is not quite a market in the traditional sense.

It sells food as you would expect, but it’s also a place where people hang out, eat, and more importantly, drink.  So, yeah, by the time we got there around 3pm, it was already a pretty big piss-up.  There were tons of people and plenty of lively music.

As we walked around the market (and in fact when we were about to leave), we met a group of Uruguayan guys who wanted to have a drink with us.  They were friendly, two had previously lived in Scotland, so could speak English well, and therefore why not, let’s have a cheeky little beer.  Thing is, the beers weren’t little – they were large.

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One drink led to more provided by our new friends and before we knew it, we were closing the Mercado down (to be fair it closes at 6pm).

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Realising that we hadn’t seen anything else of the city, we left (with a bunch of new Facebook friends) and explored the old town (fortunately it’s not that big).

After walking around a bit, we realised a few things – we no longer had time for the Alive museum, but more importantly we were a bit drunk and starving.

So, we decided to move up dinner.  Yet the problem is, in Uruguay, they eat dinner really late.  Our guidebook stated that if you get to dinner for 9pm, you’ll still probably be the only one there.  Most restaurants are closed between 4 to 8 or 8:30pm.  But, lo and behold, we came across a cute little café advertising quiches, homemade soups and interesting daily specials.  Relieved, we settled in and began to salivate at the menu.  However, we were there during their ‘high tea’ time and thus, despite the great daily chicken special that Erwan was hoping for, we got to choose what type of scones, cakes and mini sandwiches we wanted for our tea.  More sweet than savoury for what we would prefer as a dinner, but we went for it. . .

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After finishing with one of the richest chocolate cakes that Jen has ever had, we went back to the hotel, sugar drunk and still buzzing from the beer.  Considering we had little sleep the night before (seriously Chile, 2.5 hours for customs?!), we had an early night.

Thus, our time in Montevideo was characterised by beer and cake.  No Alive museum, no stroll along Las Ramblas, yet we did see one couple dancing tango outside the Mercado, so we’re going to count that. . .

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I guess we now need to come back to spend some ‘proper’ time in the city, particularly as we need to go to this place, where “good shit happens”.  See ya next time Uruguay!

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Ecuadorean Round-up

Out of all the countries we’ve been to so far on this trip, our favourite has been Ecuador.  The people are really friendly and kind; the landscapes are amazing, the cities are full of character and we’ve had some great, great experiences in the country.

However, for some reason, all this amazingness hasn’t been translated into blog entries.  We’ve had major writing block and thus, have not properly relayed all the good times – and there have been some serious good times.  We left the country over a week ago and yet, we still haven’t written about most of what we experienced.  And further, we have already composed a blog entry for Uruguay (the next stop), yet, because Jen is somewhat OCD, we can’t post that until we appropriately cover Ecuador.

To do this, we have provided a bit of a round-up below on each of the places we visited.  Each could in fact have their own blog entry – they were that awesome and we will be forever talking about our 2+ weeks of Ecuadorean fun-ness, but none the less, a few summaries. . .

Otavalo

As our avid reader will recall, we were supposed to get to Ecuador two days prior to when we did, but flight issues landed us in Bogota for that time.  We were originally going to go first to Quito.

As part of our planning for Quito, we organised a quick day trip to Otavalo to see the Saturday market, which is supposedly the largest in all South America.  To make sure we had plenty of time at the market (Jen likes to wander and take photos), we booked a hostel there for the Friday night before.

So, when did we finally arrive into the country?  Of course – on the Friday night.  Because there were mixed messages as to when the last bus up north was, we were slightly panicked as to whether yet again something wouldn’t go to plan – particularly since our flight was delayed.  We were shooting to get an 8pm bus, so we went straight to the bus station, even splurging on the taxi fare to get there.  We didn’t arrive until around 8:30.  Yet relief settled in once we realised there were still plenty of buses to be had.  We hopped on and settled in for the 2-hour ride.

Apparently, the drive up to Otavalo is meant to be gorgeous.  It’s through the mountains and looks out over the volcanic landscape.  As it was night and pitch dark, we didn’t see a thing.  Sadly, on our return on Saturday, it was our one day of rain for the entire time in the country and thus, we again didn’t see a thing. . .

Since we arrived pretty late, we found a quick place for dinner – only $4, including beer (the fact that things are cheap in Ecuador is another reason to love it).  And then settled in for the night.

The next morning at breakfast in the hostel, we met an American couple, who now live half their time in Ecuador.  They were previously dairy farmers in Missouri and still go back to visit, however now that their eldest son runs the farm, they decided to move to South America for a bit.  They live outside Banos (more on that locale later) and when we said twe were planning on going there, they told us to stop by their place on a weekend, since that’s when their children (they’ve adopted 17 over the years, many from Colombia) have a street stand selling ‘the best donuts in Ecuador’.  They described their place as ‘the large house with a green gate at the top of a hill between Banos and Puyo’.

Following breakfast, we headed out to the market.  Now it should be said that the market is actually a few different markets spread across the town and focusing on different things.  There’s the main craft market in the square, which most go to, but there’s also the animal market just on the edge of town, a children’s market which appeared more like a bit of a fun fair and then all the side streets have various food and goods vendors.

After speaking to the American couple, we decided to go to the animal market first (particularly since it ended earlier).  Jen was sceptical, as she was certain she wouldn’t like it.  Yet after being assured that there weren’t animals in cages and it was a bit more like a state fair, then we decided to head off.

We get to the end of one road and there’s several people, some in traditional dress, gathered and haggling over chickens, geese and sheep, which are just held casually by their owners.

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Or in one case, carried like a child. . .

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However, apparently this was the informal animal market – the real one was a bit further up.

We arrive and there’s a decent sized field filled with cows.  They weren’t in pens, just simply tied to a post and most were just chilling, eating the grass around their area, as their owners and prospective buyers walked around talking and negotiating.  Jen was ok with this – although a few looked a bit too skinny for her liking.

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However, in the next field over was the ‘pig department’.  There the pigs were tied up like the cows, but in bunches and with less space to move.  Thus, many of the animals were crying out and clearly not happy.  Jen did not like this and Erwan knew that she was possibly going to try to buy a group of pigs to save, so we promptly left and decided to head back into town for the regular market.

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By this time, it was in full swing – there were vendors everywhere, selling everything from traditional clothing to basic cosmetics like toothpaste.  We walked along the side streets a bit making our way to the main square.  Once there, we had a mission – buy a scarf for Jen (she didn’t bring one along and would need one for the colder areas of our trip) and buy a blanket for us.  Yup, here we were only a little over a month in and we were going to splurge on a souvenir – and a large one at that!  However, this is the place where you can get amazingly cheap soft fabrics made from alpaca wool.  In fact, the American couple came up just for the market, where they buy things cheap and then sell them on in the states for 5 or 6 times the price. . .  From them we were advised that a scarf should be $5-6 (although she gets them for $3.50 as she buys so many) and a blanket should be $14-$17 (again, she says she gets them for $11).

With our price advice in hand, we went to find our items – it didn’t take long.  Although the market is big, after walking around for a bit, you will notice that many of the gift items have the same patterns from stall to stall (at least for the blankets and scarfs – the jewelry and woodwork items seemed a bit more one-far, however we weren’t looking at them in detail).  We then get to this one stall, where the blankets were a bit more unique.  In particular, there was one that was predominantly cream in colour, but then with various pastel strips of varying widths.  Plus, it was super soft!  Jen wanted it, so the haggling began.  The woman started at $20 and Jen started with $14.  It ended at $15.  Sounds good, although the haggling didn’t take long, so Jen, probably could have stayed at $14 – granted, that one dollar will probably go further for the woman than Jen.

At the neighbouring stall, Jen found her scarf as well and the haggling went about the same way.  The woman started at $10, Jen started at $5 and it went to $6 – again, that $1 means more to her than to Jen.

Happy with our purchases, we wandered around the rest of the market taking pictures and enjoying the environment.  It interestingly wasn’t as busy as we thought, with most of the local action was taking place on the side streets.

Once we scoured the main square, we made our way back to Quito.  Good thing too – although we had a beautiful blue sky while wandering the market, upon boarding the bus, the clouds rolled in and it started to rain.  Sadly no nice views for us, well we kind of got this semi decent one. . .

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Quito

We had too little time in Quito.  I will say it here and I will say it again – Too. Little. Time.  I will always hate VivaColombia for cutting our adventure in this lovely city from 3.5 days to 1.5 days.

We arrive back in Quito just before 2pm and after checking into our hotel, immediately head out to lunch, as we’re starving.  Fortunately, in the neighbourhood of our hotel, there’s a highly recommended Ecuadorian place, called Achiote, so we head there.  Basically, we stuffed ourselves.  Ecuadorians have tons of different types of mushrooms and tons of different ways of cooking them, and since Jen rarely gets to have mushrooms (Erwan doesn’t like them and he’s the cook), she had something mushroom-y with every course.  So good!

By the time we finished our mammoth Ecuadorian lunch, it was 4pm and now pouring out.  Rather than start exploring the city in a downpour, we headed back to the hotel to rest, tired from stuffing ourselves.  We instead would rest up and have a full and proper hypertrek the following day.

After our naps, we head out for a night stroll and basically come across a street party.  It’s is a week before Quito’s celebration day (December 6th), so there are festivities everywhere.  Temporary stages are up in all the squares with bands playing and there are party buses driving around full of revellers.  We soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the music for a bit, before heading back to get plenty of sleep in time for our now early wake up.

7 am!  Time to leave and explore the city!  VivaColombia left us with too little time, so we need to go!

We hit the old town first.  As it’s so early the streets are still pretty quiet (although not as much as you would have thought).  Quito’s old town is magnificent – so many churches and cute little streets – plus the hills add to some great vistas up into neighbourhoods.  We meander the town with Jen being trigger happy on her camera.

After our wander, we head up the neighbouring hill of Panecillo to take in the views.  We take a taxi as were advised that the neighbourhood along the route is ‘peligrosso’ (plus it helps us time-wise).  The views were stunning!  The city is so big – it just sprawled out around the whole hill, but you still get great views to the old town and its plethora of churches.

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It was also quite peaceful up there – since we arrived shortly after 9, none of the usual street hawkers were there and the tourist stands were still closed.  They opened around 10, just as we were leaving. . .

We then head to the Basilica for another chance of views.  And the climb to the top of the Basilica is not for the faint-hearted.  While walking up the rickety staircase, Jen repeated one of her mantras to herself “do one thing everyday that scares you, do one thing everyday that scares you.”

Once at the top, we were not disappointed – see for yourself. . .

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Safely down on terra firma, we head back to our hotel’s neighbourhood for another fabulous lunch.  We decide to try out the city’s public transport system and thus, hopped on a bus.  Fortunately, it was the right bus, but unfortunately, it got into a little fender bender with another bus enroute.  The drivers got out, settled it amongst themselves and we drove on.  However, during those ten minutes we were left standing on a packed, overcrowded bus that was baking in the sun.  Good thing London has trained us well (except for that baking part) and we patiently waited along with everyone else.

Anyway, that fabulous lunch – this time it’s at La Cuchara de San Marcos en La Mariscal, an Ecuadorean vegetarian restaurant that serves craft beers!  How exciting is that!  After a lovely mushroom appetizer, Jen had one of the best veggie burgers ever – it was made with quinoa and had a soy mayo.  Erwan had a version of the local delicacies, cow’s feet stew – only it used eggplant instead.  The food was fantastic and the beers were too – however, sadly they weren’t Ecuadorean (Californian) – but I guess you can’t have everything. . .

Well fed, we decided to visit the equator.  Here’s the tricky part though – there are three different sites outside Quito, that claim to be ‘the centre of the world’.  In an ideal trip to Quito (you know where VivaColombia doesn’t mess things up for you), we’d have visited all three.  This time we went to two – Mital del Mondo and the Intinan Solar Museum.  Fortunately, they are pretty much right next to each other and thus, we decided to again try public transport – 2 hours and 3 buses later we got there (it didn’t help that the first bus was caught in a traffic jam following the end of the local soccer game.  It was also a pretty packed bus once we picked up all the fans). . .

Anyway, of the two monuments, Mital del Mondo was a bit grander, in that it’s a huge monument.

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It provided for a great equator ussie. . .

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Petit George also enjoyed it. . .

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However, the Intinan Solar Museum is a bit more fun as the basic tour includes a bunch of games to play on the equator.  In particular, did you know that on the equator, you can balance a raw egg on the head of a nail.  Watch. . .

Again, we had some selfie fun. . .

We were fortunately able to cram both visits in just before sunset and then headed back to Quito proper (this time only 1.5 hours and two buses – we improved).  After such a jam packed day, dinner included snacks and beers in the hotel and then we got an early night.  The next morning, we had to get up early to fly to the rainforest and we didn’t want to miss that!  We spent 5 days there, but we have already written about that in our post from December 14th.

Banos

From the rainforest, we then headed to Banos, which was described to us as ‘a backpacker’s paradise’ and that it is – it’s a small, easy to navigate, little town, with plenty of outdoorsy adventures all around it.  It’s cheap and there’s plenty of cafes/bars/restaurants that cater to Westerners.  It’s also known a bit as a party town – and not just for tourists.  On our bus ride into town, starting about an hour outside of Banos, we started picking up locals that were clearly dressed for a night out (we were arriving on Saturday night).

This party aspect is something our hostel was keen to address with signs everywhere saying “this is not a party hostel”.  It sounds harsh, but the owners of the hostel were absolutely lovely – some of the best we came across thus far (I think they’ve just had a few bad guests in the past).  One of the best things about the hosts is that they spoke Spanish to us, but really, really slowly, so that we could understand.  It was perfect!  Elsewhere, when people spoke Spanish to us (after us saying we understood a little), they would rattle off at 100 words per minute and we would understand about 4 of them. . .

We aren’t much of partiers these days, so our first night consisted of Mexican food and cervezas at a trendy little café called Casa Hood – tasty and cheap!

The next morning, after randomly witnessing the start of a local 5K run that had to be completed with your dog, we rented bikes to cycle along the Ruta De Las Cascades (route of the waterfalls).

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Oh and we visited the Sunday fruit market to pick out snacks for our trip.

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And it was a perfect day to do it!  Nothing but blue skies and clear visibility, so we could see all the beautiful waterfalls along the way.  We were told that since it was dry season, it was very low for the waterfalls, but they were still gorgeous. . .

As was the landscape in general. . .

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The largest of the waterfalls is Pailon de Diablo (devil’s nose).  This one can’t be seen from the cycle route and instead you must hike a couple kilometres to visit it.

You can also climb through caves to get behind the waterfall (and get drenched in the process).

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Pailon de Diablo is where most cyclists catch a bus back to Banos (it was largely downhill to this point).  Thinking we were fit, we decided to continue – probably not all the way to Puyo (61 km in total), but we were having such a good time, let’s go further. . .

Um, we soon realised why most people turned around there – we continued a bit downhill, but then it turned uphill.  And stayed that way.  For a while.  Our legs were not up for this.  Jen’s particularly.  It got to one uphill climb, where she had had enough and decided to walk her bike up it, declaring that we would turn back at the next bus stop.  Erwan knowing that such a statement was not a request, also got off the bike and started walking it.

As we got to the top of that one hill, we saw a vendor’s stand.  It was selling donuts and wait, look!  It’s a green gate!  It was the Americans from Otavalo!  We never thought we’d see them, given the somewhat vague description of their place and here they were!  Well the wife was there with her children, with the husband having left that morning to handle some business in the states.

She very kindly showed us around their wonderful home with its even more wonderful surroundings.  Seriously, look – this is their view from the living room. . .

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After spending a bit of time chatting, rehydrating and resting, we decided to continue the route to San Francisco (which our friend advised was completely downhill from her property) and then catch a bus.  Which is what we did.  However, no bus would pick us up – they would slow down when they saw us, as if to pick us up, however once they saw the bikes, they’d continue giving us a hand gesture as if to say “kind of” (we’re still not sure what this hand gesture means).  After waiting at that bus station almost an hour, we decide to continue downhill again (fortunately) to the larger town of Rio Negro.  Yet, again a bus wouldn’t take us.  Getting tired and now wanting food, we found a guy with a truck that takes us back to town for the same fare as a taxi.  Exhausted we went for comfort food for dinner – pizza (but stone oven backed so really good!).

Oh and we made a video of the day! Our first gopro video of the trip. . .

We only have one more full day in Banos and there’s so much to do!  Firstly, we wake up early and catch the 5:45 bus up the mountain to visit the Casa del Arbol, which is basically a large swing along the mountainside.

We went early to avoid the crowds (it was just us and a couple from South Africa there).  However, as it was so early, it was quite cloudy (no good sunrise), which still made for some atmospheric shots, however after posting one to Facebook, we realised that it looks like Erwan is blowing black smoke out of his ass.  Jen can now not unsee it. . .

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Back in town, we headed to the hot springs, for which the town got its name.  The complex is like many in Europe where it’s organised by separate pools and you must wear a bathing cap.  The water is also quite mineral rich – it tasted a bit like a penny.

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While the pools were relaxing, the complex was not as nice as many we have been to and given that it’s a built complex, not as atmospheric as others, such as those previously visited on this trip in Boquete, Panama.  That being said, a new larger complex was being built next door, so maybe in a year or two, it’ll be amazing. . .

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In the afternoon, we headed out for our big adventure of the day – paragliding!  Neither of us had ever done it, so we were both really excited/nervous.  We booked through one of the local tour companies and were joined by two others (also Londoners – we’re everywhere).  During the hour’s drive through the mountains to the paragliding stop, we got to know our fellow travellers – long-time friends, they were travelling around South America for 6 months as he made his way to Australia, where he was moving to (having just secured a visa) and she was joining him for the journey (sans Australia part).

We get to the paragliding spot and it’s perfect – beautiful skies and a clear view of Tungurahua Volcano.  Ready to paraglide, Erwan goes first!  He takes off in a matter of seconds and 20 minutes later lands with a huge grin on his face saying “Amazing!  Amazing!”.

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OK, Jen’s ready to go.  But the paragliding guide takes up the London girl.  She lands, but doesn’t seem pleased – she didn’t enjoy it.  Oh now Jen’s back to being nervous – what if she also doesn’t like it?  What if she drops her 360 camera?  Not only would she lose it, but it could hit someone and kill them!  What if she just drops, full stop?

Fortunately, the guide takes the London guy up next and he lands, saying “fantastic, wonderful!” Jen’s ready again and now there’s only her to go!  And she’s off and she loves it!  It’s quite the adrenaline rush at first – but not in a scary way.  More in a ‘I’m sitting in a comfy chair, floating through the air, looking at a volcano’ kind of way (if that makes any sense).  And Jen didn’t drop her 360 camera!  Nor her phone!

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In conclusion, we both loved paragliding and are so happy that we tried it out – definitely one of the best experiences so far on the trip.  And how would you end a day like this?  Well, whenever Jen does outdoorsy activities in the mountains (usually skiing), she craves fondue and that is what she wanted.  Banos did not disappoint!  Given that the town caters to Westerners, there was a Swiss fondue place (appropriately called Swiss Bistro) and Jen could not be happier. . .

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Cuenca

Sadly, we left Banos, but we headed to Cuenca, a place that we had heard further good things about.  It’s a cute little town (a UNESCO heritage site), which also caters to westerners (although apparently more the American retiree type that want a beautiful, cheap place to live out their golden years).

Thanks to an 8-hour bus journey, we get to Cuenca in the early evening, with the major tasks being to find dinner (check) and a pharmacy.  Somehow in Banos, Jen got some sort of lip thing – her bottom lip was swollen, a bit crusty and stinging like hell.  We had no idea what it was, but upon finding a pharmacy and showing it to the pharmacist, he knew exactly what to do.  A box of antibiotics and a tube of lip cream later, we had successfully managed our first medical issue of the trip (and it was healed only days later).

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We spent a full day exploring Cuenca, which was lovely – there’s a fantastic three domed cathedral (UNESCO),

cute little streets to stroll along,

and a sombrero museum, which is 2 parts shop, 1 part museum.

We also found a great little Ecuadorean café for lunch (full of said American retirees), a fantastic restaurant in an old courtyard for dinner and a hot chocolate bar for desert.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Cuenca has a bar that specialises in hot chocolate – just the place for Jen.  The menu was extensive and we decided to order the hot chocolate with mozzarella (interesting), the hot chocolate with chili and rum (already know it will be good) and a chocolate cake (classic).

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Thing is there was something lost in translation (which we should have known from the confused look on the waiter), because instead of the chocolate cake, we just ordered another basic hot chocolate.  So, yea, we got three mugs of cocoa.  Also, the hot chocolate with mozzarella, was a bit disappointing as the cheese was just served on the side (Jen was hoping for some kind of cheesy chocolate liquid concoction).

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All were still very tasty though. . .

Guayaquil

Unlike Banos and Cuenca, we hadn’t heard good things about Guayaquil, with many people who have been telling us to miss it altogether.  Thing is, our onward flight was leaving from Guayaquil, so we had to get there at some point and might as well check out the city – particularly since Jen read about a park where there are tons of iguanas – so many that they fall out of trees!  Iguana park was a must!

Needless to say, with all our fun-ness elsewhere, we did indeed leave little time for Guayaquil.  Our bus from Cuenca (which the view consisted of mountains and then fields and fields of cocoa) dropped us in the city early afternoon, with our flight leaving the next morning.

That’s plenty of time of iguanas, so off to Parque de Seminario (it’s official title)!  At first when we arrived, Jen was a bit disappointed – she didn’t see tons of iguanas.  But we had entered from the wrong side apparently, because as we walked through the park, suddenly there they were.  On the paths, on the grass, in the trees, yup everywhere.

And there were some clever little old ladies who knew a market when they saw one.  They were selling bags of chopped up lettuce for tourists to feed the animals – basically for the price of an actual head of lettuce, they probably got 8 bags worth – good business.

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And of course, Jen fell for it, so with bag of lettuce in hand, Jen befriended a few iguanas.

And got a great money shot. . .

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Although, Jen was never as cool as this little girl, who made one her pet. . .

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After spending what Erwan thought was way too long in iguana park, we headed out to see the rest of the town.  Well, really we just walked along Las Ramblas – the promenade along the beach where there was a Christmas market, Santa, etc.  Given the temperature and the waterfront setting, it was a bit of a strange sight for us. . .

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And for dinner on our last night in Ecuador?  We found a surf themed café/bar, where the food was ok (we can’t really remember what we had there now), but with great juices.

Oh, that reminds us!  We haven’t even talked about all the amazing fruits and juices in Ecuador!  Or the pavement patterns!  Jen hasn’t told you about the pavement patterns!

Seriously the place is going to keep us going with stories and memories for years.  The above is just quick snapshots of everything we did/saw (and yet it’s still quite a long post).

Ecuador, you convinced us and we will be back!

Oh and here’s one last iguana. . .

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Travelling by bus in Ecuador

Ok, so we’ve already ridden a few buses in the other countries that have been part of this trip (and we will always love the pimped-out school buses of Panama), but in Ecuador it was our main mode of transport – both within cities and between them.  Except for our five-day stint in the rainforest, it seemed like we were always on a bus.  Below are a few things we learned as part of the journeys. . .

Don’t trust the blogs

Firstly, we are conscious of the irony that we’re writing this on a blog, however seriously don’t rely on them.  No matter how recent they are – things change, or things are different on different days of the week.  What worked for one traveller a month ago, might not work for you.  Or at least don’t trust them on specifics.  We woke up early for one bus thinking it was a 7:15am departure, thanks to a blog from a few weeks ago.  It was leaving at 8:45am.  Another blog named the wrong bus station in Quito (fortunately, we realised before heading that way).

Blogs are useful in understanding how others got around, but for any specifics, best to get local information – definitely so if it’s for a bus that only runs once or twice a day. . .

“Time doesn’t matter here”

On our first bus journey – trying to get from Quito to Otavalo, we ran for the bus after purchasing the ticket, thinking it was going to leave in only a few minutes.  We arrived at the Otavalo bus parking spot with people still queuing to get on board.  As we waited to board, a local woman noticed Jen’s ticket and in flawless English, the following conversation occurred:

W: “This isn’t your bus.”

J: “This goes to Otavalo, no?”

W: “Yes, but this is the 036 bus.  You have a ticket for the 040 bus (pointing to the number on the ticket).  That will be next.”

J: (confused as our bus’s departure time is momentarily) “Ok, what time is this bus”

W: “Time doesn’t matter here.  Your bus will be next.”

And the woman was right, time was simply a suggestion when it came to Ecuadorean buses.  However, when stating this, it should be noted that they weren’t always late.  Sometimes they left late and sometimes they left early.  Pretty much if they were full, they left.  If they weren’t full, let’s wait a little bit more rather than leave on time. . .

The timings probably don’t matter so much if taking a common bus (like Quito to Otavalo), however if a less frequent bus (like Banos to Cuenca), it’s best to show up early, just in case they decide to leave early. . .

There’s always room for Jell-O

Remember that commercial?  If not – why do you have to make me feel so old?!

Seriously though, for Ecuadorean buses, when you think it’s full, it’s not.  The bus will leave when most of the seats are full, however along the journey, the bus will continue to stop and pick up people along the side of the road.  There’s always standing room, right?

For some of the longer journeys this sounds harsh, however many of the locals use the bus network to get from local village to local village – when they need to get off, they simply walk to the front and tell the driver.  Similar to being picked up on the side of the road, they hop off on the side of the road – often with the bus still rolling along. . .

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When Jen was left with standing room as the only option, the conductor kindly gave her his comfy seat. . .

Hurry up and wait!

For every single bus we took, we were rushed on board and told we would be leaving momentarily, only to sit on board for several minutes more (maybe a half an hour?) as they waited for more passengers.

The hurry up attitude was also prevalent when the buses would pick up people along the side of the road, with passengers often jumping on board with the bus still slowly rolling along.  The only ones that were immune from this rushing attitude were the elderly or the disabled (appropriately).

All about the views

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Best. Part. Of. The. Journey!  The buses we took were along windy, mountainous roads, which the driver often took way too fast (easily making you dizzy).  Yet. the sights along the way were often stunning – even when the weather was poor.

To get the best views, we always recommend sitting on the right.  Thus, the view won’t be interrupted by opposite traffic.   However, if you are looking for the most spectacular views to a specific site (for instance one of the many volcanoes), look up which side is best to sit on (this is something you can trust the blogs on).

 Get on yer bike!

 In Banos, we rented bikes to cycle the Ruta de las Cascadas (route of the waterfalls).  We were assured for the return journey that you could just hope on any of the buses heading back and stow the bike in the luggage hold.  This is true if you stop your cycle trip at one of the key tourist stops (like Pailon del Diablo).

However, like the bad asses that we are, we continued past all the key tourist stops, until we got tired (in San Francisco to be exact).  We rocked up on the side of the road and waited for one of the many buses that past to pick us up.  We were going to do it like the locals – not so much. . .

Even though buses came by and even though they slowed when we first flagged them down, once they saw the bikes, they continued on with the conductor simply hanging out the door and shaking his hand as if to say “sort of”.  This hand gesture occurred every time and we’re still not sure what it means.  It was clear that, while they’d pick us up, none had any intention of stopping to pick up bikes.  We ended up having to ride further along to the larger town of Rio Negro in order to take a taxi back.

So, if you’re travelling with bikes and want to take a bus, go to one of the recommended normal stops.

 Final tips

 A few final things we learned while navigating Ecuadorean buses:

  • Similar to in Colombia, there will be vendors that come on board – useful for water, less useful when they wake you up to pitch their wares. . .
  • If you can sleep/read on a bus going through winding, mountainous roads (at speed), bless you! You are one of the chosen ones!  If you can’t, download some podcasts or an audio book to pass the time.
  • Don’t drink too much water – the bathroom breaks are few and far between.

The Amazon – something from Jen’s bucketlist finally happens!

Jen has always wanted to go to the Amazon – to see the animals, to swim in the waters, to explore the dense forest, to meet local people – everything about it!  So of course, when planning the first couple months of this trip, a trip to the Amazonian rainforest was a priority.  After all sorts of research, we decided on Jamu Lodge in the Cuyabeno Reserve of Ecuador.  Ecuador was chosen because it is half the price as a Brazil rainforest trip, we were a little tentative of doing the jungle in Colombia (FARC and all) and we aren’t planning on going to Peru (it will be another trip).  Jamu Lodge was chosen because it was mid-range – something nice enough to make the experience special, but not the full-on luxury to blow the budget.  We booked it back in August and Jen was ready!

After a brief time in both Otavalo and Quito, the time was here!  Thing is, Jen was stressed.  So far on this trip, everything that Jen really looked forward to had gone awry due to weather or travel mishaps – the San Blas (hurricane Otto), hiking Volcan Baru in Boquete (rainstorm and dangerous visibility), canyoning in Dominican Republic (tropical storm), Quito (VivaColombia Airlines is shit).  In Jen’s mind, something else was going to go wrong.  She didn’t sleep the night before, stressed we would not wake up in time for the flight.  Then she thought Quito traffic would make us miss the flight.  Then she thought the plane would be delayed.  Even when we arrived in Lago Agrio for our ground transfer, she was still waiting for something bad to happen – spoiler alert – nothing did!

Wow!  We had actually managed to tick off one of Jen’s must do items for the trip!  Yay!

Granted there was a very slight travel mishap, in that Tame had cancelled our return flight.  Yet, we had found out about this a couple days before, so we decided to stay an extra day in Lago Agrio after leaving the jungle (a rather misable town, except for the ecology park).  However, when we first arrived in Lago Agrio, we had to check with Tame to make sure that we were indeed scheduled on the next possible return flight.  We were, but this checking meant that the lodge transfer bus had to wait 15 minutes for us.  We ended up apologising to all the other guests, once we finally did board – great way to meet the people you’ll be spending the next 5 days with. . .

Anyway, settled on the bus, we began the 2-hour journey to the reserve, giving us plenty of time to meet our fellow travellers.  In particular, one was another Londoner, who was also taking a sabbatical.  She was spending her time traveling in Central and South America, while learning Spanish and doing some volunteer work.  We also met a young French couple from Paris who were in the country for a wedding in Quito two weeks later.  Instead of taking the 40-minute flight to Lago Agrio, they took the 7-hour bus and had been up pretty much the whole night. . .

Once we arrive at the reserve, we have a quick boxed lunch, meet our guide for the week, Ronald, and then boarded the canoe for the 2-hour boat journey to the actual lodge.  It should be said that there’s 11 of us in our group, so it’s a pretty big canoe (and it has a motor).  This journey was our first guided tour and we saw a big one within an hour – an anaconda!  It was sleeping on a termite nest (odd) and all coiled up.  Jen was hoping for a photo of the head, but we didn’t get too close to see (rightly so).

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During this journey, we also saw tons of birds and monkeys – all of which had to be pointed out to us by Ronald.  Our urban eyes weren’t used to spotting things yet. . .

Once we get to camp, we settle in and Ronald outlines the agenda and the house rules (for instance, we could only use the soap and shampoo provided, as all regular cosmetics would damage the fragile ecosystem).  And of particular note – there is no internet or phone access.  Now is the time for Erwan to get stressed – 5 days without whatsapp!  As you can see, we survived, however it was our longest time without wifi since it became ubiquitous (103 hours!!!).  After the first day, Jen kind of enjoyed the peace, however it was strange to not be able to immediately look something up when in conversation, as we are all now used to.

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Also of note, the lodge runs entirely on solar power.  There were no electrical sockets in the cabins and instead, there was a “charging area” in the large communal cabin, which also housed the dining area, the bar, and the hammock loft.  Due to the amount of charging points (and actual electricity), the lodge requested that people be mindful of others and not charge high power items (hair dryers and irons – who brings an iron to the jungle?) and to limit the items that you charge.  Another panic attack for Erwan!  How would he charge all his gadgets?!  Fortunately, we switched everything to airplane mode to save power and we have our own handy solar power pack – did the trick nicely. . .

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Anyway, after settling in, we were off on our second tour – an evening swim in the local lake, Laguna Grande, and then a night ‘hunt’ for caymans (like alligators).  Yay!  A swim!  On the very first day, Jen will achieve her goal and get to swim in Amazonian waters!  And at sunset!  It was stunning!

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However Erwan can’t tread water very well, so in several of our selfies, it looks like he’s drowning. . .

Oh, and we also got to test out the life straw – it works a treat – or at least Jen didn’t get sick, yet. . .

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After sunset, we got back in the canoe and headed out to look for caymans, which you do by noticing the reflection of their eyes when you shine a flashlight.  The thing is, once you spot one, by the time you get over to the spot, you maybe see a bit of its head before it goes underwater, where it might stay for up to 30 minutes.  Thus, sadly, Jen got no good photos of a cayman the entire trip (despite seeing quite a few).  The shining of the flashlights also makes you notice how many bugs are along the river – a lot!

Back at the lodge, we all ate dinner (by the way, they had good veggie options for Jen) and then were left for ‘free time’.  We headed to the dock with the fellow Londoner to watch the stars – wow, just wow!  There were so many!  Our fellow traveller also had an app that when you hold it up to the sky actually tells you the constellations/planets/stars that you’re looking at – Awesome!  As urban folk, we were stunned.

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So, to sum up day one – made it to rainforest, saw an anaconda, swam in Amazonian waters, and had a stunning star show – Jen was happy, really, really happy.

Day two!  After a very large breakfast (Jamu Lodge definitely fed us well), we headed out on the next tour – a walking medicinal tour, where we learned all about the various plants and trees in the rainforest and what some of them can be used for.  We drank milk of magnesia straight from the tree and saw a tree where the sap can be used to paralyse one’s enemies.  Oh, and there’s also a tree, where when you break off a branch, the sap on the top can be lit and used as a torch.

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Oh, we almost forgot!  When boating to the location for the walking tour, we saw a pink dolphin!  It was extremely briefly, but Jen managed this one shot – see that pink smudge to the right in the water?  That’s him going back under water.  We will print this photo out, circle the dolphin, add an arrow to it and pass it to our friends, just like Jen’s mom does with her whale watching photos. . .

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After the walk, we had another boat ride back to the lodge – only this time we had to paddle.  Sounds great, however it only really works if everyone in the boat paddles.  Instead about half did not (there were two older couples that didn’t really do much) and thus, those that were paddling (us) were pushing a lot of dead weight.  It seemed to take forever to get back to the lodge.  On the upside, during this time, Erwan gained a pet butterfly that stayed on his hand for ages (even while paddling).

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Back for lunch, everyone was exhausted, so there was very little talking and afterwards we all went for naps in the heat of the day.

In the evening, we headed back to the lagoon, but this time to the side of it that is known as the ‘flooded forest’.

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There we found the tree that you make henna from and thus made some homemade tattoos. . .

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We also found this one bird that has the best camouflage ever – can you see him?

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Following the lagoon, we went for a night hike ‘hunting’ insects and other creepy crawlies.  Suddenly, Erwan got his jungle eyes.  He was one of the best at spotting things.  And we saw tons, from scorpions, to beetles, to all sorts of spiders.

On that last note, the night before, we saw that there was a tarantula family living in a tree near our cabin.  We saw them every night – ah, neighbours.

After the insect night hike, the finds continued back at the lodge – just before dinner, we found a snake on one of the camp’s raised walkways.

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Onto day three!  And it was a marathon one!  We started with a 6am birdwatching hike.  Plenty of birds, however oddly the highlight was seeing an anteater – the only one we saw the entire trip.

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After birdwatching, we head back to camp for another large (but quick) breakfast and then head out to spend a day in the local indigenous village, which is about an hour boat ride away.

Once we arrive in the village, we meet a few of the locals and get a brief description of the area.  In particular, we were shown all their various fruit and chilli trees and get to try them out.  One of them even provides the traditional face paint for the tribe. . .

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Outside of the village we also get to visit one of the oldest trees in the world.

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After our brief tour, we get down to business – our goal was to learn how to make the local yucca tortilla.  The first task was to harvest the actual yucca, which looks like a medium sized bush, but then once you pull up the roots, you get the large, yam-like yucca.

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Next step, we had to peel the yucca, and then we take it back to the village kitchen for grating.  We all had a go at grating it, but the local women, put us to shame.  After grating it, the shredded yucca has to be drained of water in this woven hammock, wench type manner.  After this process, the shredded yucca looked and felt like shredded coconut.

All of this was then spread on a flat, round plate and heated to make the tortilla. . .

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We ate it served with jam (for Jen the vegetarian) or more interestingly, a local salsa, which includes fish.

After lunch, we have free time to wander around the village for a bit.  We found the ‘pub’ – basically it was a shack that had a tienda sign and some advertisements for beer.  Sadly, it wasn’t opened, but the hammock was still out.

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Even though Erwan thought Jen was spending too much time in it. . .

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We then head upstream to meet the local shaman.  Shaman’s huts are traditionally located outside the village so that they can do their thing and properly treat any patients.  The shaman, tells us about his profession and his studies and then lets us taste ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drink – it was horribly bitter – not sure we’re fans.  Following the ayahusaca, he performs a ritual on Jen to cleanse her mental state.

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And Erwan learns how to use a blow gun.  He was much better than Jen, but not as good as the fellow Frenchman who could hit the target – even when challenged to do so with one hand!

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It starts to rain, so we head back.  In the process, we decide to take a poncho selfie, but got photo-bombed!  Best selfie ever!

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Back at camp, we only have a quick 30 minute ‘settling’ before we’re on our next adventure.  Unfortunately, it’s cloudy and raining, so sunset isn’t great, but we head out for another ‘cayman hunting’ tour.  Pretty much the same outcome as last time – they duck for cover before Jen can get a shot.  However, from the bubbles, we could tell that after ducking, one swam directly under our boat and circled around for a bit. . .

At dinner, we say bye to the French couple as they have to leave at some ungodly hour the next morning (in fact that’s why we did the bird watching tour this morning – it’s normally on the 4th day and thus, it allowed them to join).  As it’s the last night in camp for everybody in our group except us, we stay in the bar area having drinks and discussing everything we’ve seen as well as everyone’s future and past travels.

Day 4 and it’s solo time!  We say goodbye to everyone else from our group at breakfast and now it’s just the two of us!  It was great to meet the others, but we must admit we loved our day of just us with Ronald – a private jungle tour!

So, we go out for another paddle journey.  This time it was grand.  There were only the three of us in the boat, thus it was much lighter, but more importantly, all of us were paddling!  Because we didn’t have the noise of the motor or all the other people, we also saw so many more animals – a whole group of monkeys jumping between trees.

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Our best views of a sloth (they hang like a hammock, so sort of look like a blob).

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Not to mention way more birds, including some awesome macaws.

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And even some creepy crawlies in our boat!

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The goal of the paddle trip was to make it to one of the smaller lakes via a really tiny river.  The thing is, a tree was blocking the way.  We tried to cross over it, but as our boat was still the big one used for the bigger group, it wasn’t having it.  We turned around the continued our exploration elsewhere. . .

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Two other interesting tidbits from this tour:

  1. Erwan tracked it on runkeeper
  2. Erwan got shit on by a monkey

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After a private lunch, which was a little bit awkward since it was us and Ronald, we had a bit of down time before heading out for another swim (the last one!) and a night tour.  Oh no – our final sunset!

During the swim, Jen also had a homemade Amonzonian face scrub.

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The main thing from our final night tour is that we saw piranha (interestingly when trying to find where a cayman had gone).

During our final dinner (again, just the two of us with Ronald), we learned that Ronald is childhood friends with Antonio Valencia, the Manchester United defender (turns out he’s from Lago Agrio).  Interestingly, Ronald said that Antonio’s older brother was the better footballer, but he “liked beer too much”.  We also learned that only a few months prior to our stay, the Cuyabeno hosted the next series of the reality show, “Naked and Afraid”.  The tv crew stayed at Jamu Lodge and Ronald had to brief the contestants for the show before they got sent out (what to avoid, what not to eat, etc).  He was filmed while doing this, but was unsure if he’ll appear in the series.  We knew little about the show, so Ronald filled us in – we were particularly surprised that the contestants do it just for fun (Jen was sure there was a cash prize or something).

Sadly, that was our last night in the jungle (sad face).  The next day, after breakfast, we headed back to Lago Agrio.  We had one last boat tour back to the entrance of the reserve and then repeated the same 2-hour bus journey to town.

On the bus journey, back, it all felt like a bit of a dream.  We had seen and done so much in such a short amount of time and everything was beginning to blur together.  Great memories for a lifetime and we were gutted to leave.  However, back in town, Erwan was at least able to get back on whatsapp – he had 500 missed messages. . .

7 Lessons from Colombia

We were originally supposed to spend only 5 days in Colombia and only in Cartagena.  But thanks to weather, boat and plane snafus, we ended up spending 10 days and taking in Medellin, San Jeronimo, Cartagena and Bogota.  While we had other plans and part of us are still gutted they didn’t work out (oh, San Blas, why do you elude us!), we still had a great time in “the gateway to South America”.

And despite us having been in Colombia before (and in many of the same cities), we still experienced some new amazing sites and experiences and will take home stories and little tidbits of info.  Below is a few of these ‘stories’.

Lesson 1 –  The fruit – OMG, the fruit!

We mentioned this is our Cartagena foodie adventure post (December 2nd), but it is seriously worth mentioning again – the fruit of Colombia is something else!  Not only is it always fresh and A.MAZ.ING tasting, but they have so many unique and wonderful fruit that you can’t find anywhere else.  A few include:

Maracuya: Colombian passion fruit, but more slurpy.

Pitahaya: Colombian dragon fruit…tiny pips wrapped in juicy sponge like texture.

Guayaba: Colombian guava… again, super juicy – so perfect for juicing!

Pineapple: yes, this exists elsewhere, but here it’s extra juicy, picked at full maturity, as it was spared the long journey to our shores.

And you can find all this fruit everywhere!  In Medellin and Bogota, it’s often sold on the streets already cut up into cups of fruit salad (for busy urban folk).

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Yet in the countryside and in Cartagena, it’s just sold whole directly on the street from numerous sellers.  And so super cheap!

In summary, we suggest traveling to Colombia for the fruit alone.

Lesson 2 – Salesmen are everywhere

Like anywhere, the touristy places of Colombia have their share of street vendors and hawkers. Usually this is benign (although see beach lesson below) and uncharacteristic.

However, unlike the last time we were in the country, this time we took public transport – both within cities and between them.  And here we learned that besides the street hawker, Colombia has salesman on the buses.  These guys, hop on the bus at a usual stop, do their pitch from the front and then walk the aisle touting their wares – only to then get off at the next stop to make the return journey.

Often they are selling very useful items, such as bottles of water (a lifesaver once when we forgot to top up before a 2-hour journey on a hot day) or snacks (candy seemed to be a good seller with the locals).  Yet, on one occasion, a gentleman was selling a sort of ointment called ‘Coca y Marihuan’.  We didn’t quite get his pitch, but he kept saying “marijuana” and it appeared to be a panacea for all one’s ailments.  We didn’t buy it, but Erwan is now regretting it, as he thinks he has the start of early arthritis. . .

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Lesson 3 – And they want to sell you a hat. . .

With the salesman phenomenon, comes one that is very specific to Cartagena.  They all want to sell you a hat.  Seriously, this the place with the most hat salesmen per capita.  We declined the offer of purchasing one at least every half an hour. . .

Lesson 4 – The last Domingo of the month

On the last Sunday of the month, the major tourist attractions are free for entry.  Sounds great, however we then learned that it was just for Colombian nationals.

While we sadly couldn’t enjoy, that still sounds great, right?  A good way for locals to learn more about their history, city, and culture.

In theory, yes, but this is the day we decided to visit the fort in Cartagena (we had to miss it the last time around having decided to visit the Totumo Volcano instead – check that out if you get the chance).  Anyway, the fort is one of the biggest attractions in the city and thus, when it’s free entry, it was rammed with people.  They were everywhere, and Jen kept getting frustrated when they would walk in front of her carefully composed photos – and Erwan kept getting inpatient with Jen as she waited for people to move out of the way of her shots.

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Fortunately, we found one level of the fort, where many didn’t venture (it was on the bottom and around a tight corner, so less people ventured to it) and Jen had her photoshoot. . .

Lesson 5 – The beer is not as good as the fruit

We’re beer drinkers.  Erwan is actually a broken French man and doesn’t drink wine, so beer is the adult beverage of choice (he’s also keeping a tally of all the local beers drunk on this trip, so expect a future blog post).  We grow our own hops, we make our own beer and we like trying beers, particularly craft beers from all over the world.  So, we were obviously excited when we found a craft beer market in Cartagena.  We picked out a small selection to try and headed to the city walls to enjoy a nice, cheap evening.

Sadly, it sounds better than it was.  Of the three beers we tested, we only really liked one and feel that in fact all three were mislabelled in some way.  One was described as an IPA, but it tasted like a weissbeir (which Jen does not like) and the pale ale tasted way too citrusy and not hoppy at all.

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That being said, we do support the growing beer culture in Colombia and while in Bogota, we went back to one of our favourites, the BBC, Bogota Beer Company, to enjoy some quality brewskis.  Jen particularly likes the Monserrate Roja.

Lesson 6 – Cartagena is not a beach town

 So, let me preface this ‘story’, by saying we love Cartagena.  It’s a beautiful city with such a great vibe and really friendly people.  We have even discussed coming back to live for a bit as part of one of our future ‘retirements’.  Yet, it is not a beach town and we do not recommend going there for such – there’s a good chance you will get scammed in some way.

Ok, so upon getting to Cartagena, Jen was desperate for a beach day.  We had missed out on our fun in the sun time in San Blas (see November 23rd post), and Jen was desperate to rid herself of and even out her backpacker tan.  Considering that we had four days in the city and we had already done a lot of the sites, a day doing nothing on the beach would be great.

The closest beach to the city is along Boca Grande – a newly developed part of the city.  We were advised against this area, as it wasn’t the prettiest and it has more aggressive hawkers.  As we didn’t go, we didn’t experience this ourselves, but the perception was confirmed the first evening, when we had dinner with some Canadian friends (from failed San Blas trip).  They spent that day at the Boca Grande beach and besides always being hassled to buy stuff, they had massages forced upon them, with the assaulters then demanding payment.  We agreed to avoid.

Another option is Playa Blanca, which is two hours from Cartagena.  We heard mixed reviews on this one and were considering it.  Again, we didn’t go and can’t personally attest, but another friend (this time an American from the failed San Blas trip) was scammed trying to get there by boat.  The driver agreed a price, but then demanded an increased amount for fuel while traveling in the direction.  Our friend refused, but still had to work out payment to get off the boat.  Twenty dollars out of pocket and right back where he started, he finally caught a bus to Playa Blanca.  Considering this and the distance, we opted out.

Thus, we decided to travel to one of the nearby islands for beach time.  Rosario is known, but we were advised that this is best as more of an overnight trip to do it well or the day trips are just further scams, where they try to sell you tons of stuff, charge extra fees for snorkelling (even if you don’t want to snorkel) and take you to the aquarium as part of the tour (which Jen does not like).  Instead, we opted for Tierra Bomba, which is just a 20-minute water taxi away from the mainland and the only place we didn’t hear bad things about.  Our Airbnb also recommended it and told us to go to the Tropical Inn, a hotel on the beach, where for about $15 you could get beach chairs and shade, lunch and use of the hotel facilities for the day.  Great!  Let’s go!

We were joined by our Canadian friends (who wanted another beach day, but away from Boca Grande) and after negotiating the correct rate with the water taxi (as advised by the Airbnb host), we were off.  At that time, we thought it was cute that the water taxi guys that surrounded us when we first arrived in ‘port’ described themselves as a ‘collective’. . .

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Upon arriving on Tierra Bomba, the ‘captain’ of the water taxi accompanied us to the Tropical Inn (we thought he was just showing us where to go).  In reception, the price of the day pass suddenly jumped to $25 per person.  When we told the hotel receptionist that we were advised it was only $15, there was a heated discussion between him and the water taxi guy.  From what we could make out, essentially the water taxi guy was trying to get his cut.  We tried to only pay the $15, but the hotel guy caved and said it was $25.  We decided to walk away and find elsewhere.

As, we walked down the beach, the water captain followed us and said he would get us a deal like we wanted, so we gave him a change.  A few meters away from the hotel beach, he got us some lounge chairs, the use of a ‘cabana’ and a promised lunch for 50,000 COP – just a bit more than we were expecting (45,000 COP is about $15).  We agreed and decided to just sit down and enjoy the beach, rather than walk around looking for elsewhere (particularly as the lunch options looked sparse).

Enjoying the beach is a stretch though – it was fairly small, a bit littered and the water was dirty (a plastic bottle and other bits floated by as we were in it).  Furthermore, the water taxi guy, just hung around behind us the whole time – um, awkward.  At least the company of our friends was great.  Oh and the view was pretty good too. . .

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Lunch came, and it was ok, nothing spectacular (see the foodie post from 2nd December for the description of the fish).  We accompanied it with some beers, which Jen thought was included in the lunch.

We ‘enjoyed’ the beach for a couple more hours and then it came time to head back and therefore, time to settle the bill.  Here we learned that not only were beers not included, but the water taxi guy was charging 7000 COP for them (over $2) – elsewhere they are only $1.  Ok, fine, we should have asked how much the beers were, so we hand over more money.  Then the water taxi guy, puffs up his chest (and he’s a large fellow) and says “where’s my tip”.  Um, where we’re from, one earns a tip with good service, not by demanding it and scamming us out of the Tropical Inn, charging more for beers and creepily sitting behind us as we try to enjoy the beach.  However, we need to get back via this guy (fortunately we had already withheld the return water taxi fare until arrival back in Cartagena), so we fork out an unjustified tip just to get back.  When we arrive back we exchange our terse goodbyes, mumble how we won’t be returning and go back to the much more beautiful side of Cartagena.

In the end, we paid $10 more than we expected/should have.  It’s not a lot and the dude (and his ‘collective’ probably need it more than us), however the whole experience leaves a very sour taste in the mouth – particularly given that it wasn’t a very nice beach.  So, if you want to go to the beach in Colombia, just go to Santa Marta instead. . .

Lesson 7 – Plaza de La Trinidad is where it’s at!

This time in Cartagena, we stayed in the vibrant Getsemani district – essentially the trendy, up and coming part of town and still filled with more locals than tourists (although there’s more and more gringos apparently).  The heart of Getsemani is the Plaza de La Trinidad, which is actually quite a historical place – for instead, it’s the location where the slave rebellion started.

During the day, the plaza isn’t much.  It has a fairly non-descript church marking it and a couple of street vendors settle under the only two trees.  However at night it is a party!  Our Airbnb place was only a block away, so we witnessed it every evening and there was always something going on – from large dance classes, to a trampoline for the kids, to street performers.  And the whole neighbourhood comes out to sit on the steps or benchs, drink, eat and mingle – fun times had by all!

So those are our take-aways this time from Colombia.  Although it is not all positive, we truly had a grand time here (again) and we will be back!

Street art in Colombia

So who knew that Colombia is one of the hot new scenes for street art? We certainly didn’t, but glad we found out!  Online forums are raving about the scene and some rank it in the top ten places in the world!

Particularly, Cartagena and Bogota have really dynamic street art scenes – supposedly so does Cali, but we weren’t there to check it out.  In Bogota, it’s difficult to not see all the graffiti everywhere – particularly in the Candelaria district and downtown area. For Cartagena, it’s mostly in the now trendy Getsemani district and less so in the old town or San Diego area.

 In both cities, we recommend taking street art tours to better understand what you are looking at – particularly since some of the most interesting pieces have historical or cultural references.

https://www.facebook.com/streetartcartagena/

http://bogotagraffiti.com

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Both tours we took were free but request donations.  And on both we learnt tons! About the local areas, their history, and the current political and social issues and all through the medium of street art.

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 We won’t repeat everything we learned here (not only will we do a bad job of it, but we would still recommend the actual tours to help the local areas and their art scenes).  However a few teasers:

 1. Due to the wealth in the city and the increased tourism, the once working class neighbourhood of Getsemani is going through significant social and cultural change – the resistance to such is expressed through street art.

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2. One of Bogota’s street artists, DJ Lu, is known as the Colombian/Latin American Banksy, due to his ironic political messages.

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3. Justin Bieber had a part in making the Colombian street art scene what it is today (yes, seriously).

 On that note, here’s some more cool images (what this post is actually about). . .

Cartagena

Bogota