Chasing tail in Mindo

Following our time in Cotopaxi, we spent one more night in Quito before moving on again the next day. One taxi and two long buses got us to the town of Mindo within a few hours. Mindo is a small place in Ecuador, located in a valley surrounded by dense forests. We arrived to find a tiny and very quiet place. Our guesthouse was small and a bit strange – we were essentially staying in the home of an older couple. 

After checking in and unpacking, we found a small restaurant nearby for lunch. We shared salad and chips and were pleased to discover that it was both cheap and delicious – our favourite combination. I enjoyed a large beer (which, incidentally, is VERY cheap in Ecuador) and Kat ordered her new favourite drink – limonada natural. 

When we were suitably full, we went off to find some coffee. We’d read that one of the best places in Mindo was called El Quetzal so that’s where we headed. In actual fact, the coffee wasn’t great but we did enjoy the brownie – probably because El Quetzal doubles as a chocolate museum. This convinced us to book onto the last chocolate tour of the day. It was a great decision. We saw where the chocolate is grown, how it is made and got to try A LOT of it. We had coffee chocolate, chilli chocolate, dark chocolate, almond chocolate, etc, etc. They even let us try their home-brewed ginger beer. Safe to say, we were suitably stuffed with chocolate and left in very high spirits. That night we had another run-in with very loud and inconsiderate people in the guesthouse. It turns out that not everyone is willing to go to bed at 10pm. 

The next day we decided to check out the local hummingbird garden. We saw loads of varieties of hummingbirds and a few other species of birds. We watched them for a while and could have watched them all day. Kat was sad because she didn’t see a toucan so we had to add that to our to-do list. We had lunch in a lovely place with an American chef and ended up booking ourselves onto a night walk having bumped into the guide. It left at 8pm, so obviously we needed a nap to prepare ourselves fully. The walk itself was in the surrounding forest and we saw frogs, beetles, bugs, spiders and even an incredibly rare kinkajou. I have no photos from this walk because the only device we had with us decided to run out of memory. However, I promise that it was really fun and I would recommend it to anyone who visits Mindo. 


Hummingbirds


Now, back to those toucans. Kat wouldn’t let it rest that we hadn’t seen one yet, so we woke up at 5am the following morning to go birdwatching. There were 4 of us and the guide on the tour and we had one telescope between us. At times it was difficult to see the birds before they disappeared. However, we did see a very rare quetzal bird, woodpeckers, parrots and more hummingbirds. And of course, most importantly, we saw 4 different types of toucans. Kat was very happy. By the time we got back, we were shattered so caught up on our lost sleep with a nap and then went out for dinner.

Quetzal

Toucan


We rather enjoyed our time in Mindo but were ready to move on. Unfortunately, we were overcharged when we checked out of the guesthouse so this left a bit of a sour taste to our visit. Still, we were very excited for our next trip to Puerto Lopez. We were off to find some whales!

Cotopaxi’s best secret

After our time in Quito, we walked the short distance to The Secret Garden Hostel to await our transport to Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi itself is an active volcano south of Quito. We weren’t heading for the volcano exactly, but an area of the national park nearby. From Quito, our small and very squished bus took us through bumpy and winding roads for over 5 hours until we eventually reached The Secret Garden, Cotopaxi. We loved the surroundings from the moment we arrived – greenery, mountains, volcanoes, animals and no cars as far as the eye could see. We’d booked to spend the weekend here, on a bit of a splurge, in rustic luxury and with 3 meals served a day included in the price.

Cotopaxi volcano


The first step was to leave our bags and gather with the rest of the arriving masses around the warming fire. We were given a small mug of mulled wine which went down a treat. The staff filled us in on all the details – where the facilities were, when the treks were, and most importantly, what time the food was served. After the initiation, we were shown to our room – a cute-as-a-button hobbit home built into the surrounding hills. It was like something out of a book (ha) and the views were absolutely stunning. In fact, the only view that was better than the one from our bedroom was the one from the toilet. Honestly; check the photo.

Hobbit home

Toilet view

There was no time to sit back and enjoy the landscape as we were heading off on a trek almost immediately after arriving. This one was through the forest to visit 2 waterfalls. We donned our borrowed wellies and woolly hats and set off with the rest of the group. The walk itself was actually quite enjoyable (yes, I did just say that) and not too difficult but the altitude made it quite hard to breathe. We had to climb some very slippery rocks at one point and I felt a bit like Bear Grylls. Both waterfalls we visited were beautiful and some of the group even jumped into the second one – I wasn’t brave (or stupid) enough for this. The walk back was equally as pleasant and we reached The Secret Garden just in time for a warming quinoa and potato soup. After this we had some time to relax before returning for a 5pm meeting. We did feel a bit like we were at school at times – set meal times, organised day trips, everyone sat at the same table – but we actually quite enjoyed the routine after weeks without any. Dinner that evening was nutritious and delicious and we enjoyed a bottle of red wine before teaching an older German couple how to play some card games. 

Enjoying a hike

Chasing waterfalls

Bear Grylls


The next day we arranged to go on a 5-6 hour hike up to Pasachoa mountain. We thought it would be good practise for future hikes. Little did we now just how difficult it would be. I genuinely think it may have been one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. No exaggeration. Neither of us had hiking boots (but you know this from the Quito blog) so we took on the hike in trainers. By the end of the hike they didn’t even look like trainers – caked in mud, soaking wet and on the verge of ruin. We walked uphill for what felt like forever, waded through thick mud in the valley and climbed up wet rocks and trees in the forest. I spent 98% of the journey complaining. When we did reach the top of Pasachoa we had lunch and enjoyed the views. The walk back down was a lot easier and at one point I decided I would roll down to save time. In total, the hike took almost 7 hours and we were absolutely exhausted when we got back. Luckily, dinner was delicious (fresh burgers from the BBQ) and we were able to have an early night to recover. 

Top of Pasachoa

Views and dirty shoes


Our final day involved a lot of sitting around – we made the decision to not do another hike after the trials and tribulations of the previous day. Instead, we made the most of the breakfast and lunch served to us and read a book each. Then, along with a small group we had met, we hopped on the bus to head back to Quito. We were staying there for one more night before moving on to our next destination; Mindo. We loved our time at The Secret Garden in Cotopaxi and would recommend it to anyone who needs a break when travelling. 

The middle of the world (ish) in Quito

After a long time travelling to reach Ecuador, we were absolutely delighted to finally reach our hostel in Quito. We had booked 3 nights in Hostel Revolution – one of many recommendations from the blog ‘Two wandering soles‘. We’d been told lots of mixed reviews about the capital of Ecuador and left still unsure of our own opinion.

As soon as we had checked in we walked straight to the supermarket. Having lived almost solely on a diet of instant noodles for a while, we decided to splash out on dinner and bought rice and fresh vegetables. It was one of the most nutritious meals eaten in the last few weeks! We then more than enjoyed the hostel happy hour(s) – $1.50 for a large ice-cold beer or a rum and coke. Much needed after the long boarder crossing. The people we met in the hostel were lovely and we played cards with some of them before heading to bed feeling much more relaxed. 

Our first day in Quito started with a blissful lie-in – the first morning in 4 days we didn’t have to get up early. We decided that we would go on the hunt for some walking boots as we were (and still are) exceptionally under-prepared for our upcoming hike to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, every pair we found was far too expensive and we decided renting them was probably a much cheaper option. On the way back we ate lunch in one of many KFCs in Quito. As it turned out, KFCs were one of the most common sites – one particular stretch of road had SIX. Still, set least it was cheap and safe. We then found a local market and bought a lovely hand-painted tray as a souvenir (this now has to be carried around for 2 more months in South America and then 9 in Australia…). Our next stop was the busy central market selling all sorts of fresh fruit, vegetables and indeterminable meats. We bought some fruit and headed off in search of coffee. A place called El Duche in the old town was in the Tripadvisor top 10 and rightly so as we found out. We had a delicious iced coffee and iced tea and watched as the bakers prepared cakes and bread in front of us. It was fascinating and really set this cafe apart from others we’d been to. After a long day out, we ate leftovers from the night before back at the hostel, watched films in bed and had an early night. 


On our last day in Quito we walked back to El Duche for our coffee fix and then visited the beautiful La Basilica church (avoiding the political protest in the main square). It turned out that you can actually climb the church towers all the way to the top for a small fee. Rickety ladders, steep stairs and wooden draw bridges lead to some heart-in-mouth moments but it was worth it in the end. The view from the top of the church was incredible and we were really glad we made it to the very top. After getting the lift back down most of the way (lazy, I know), we set off to Mitad del Mundo (where the equator supposedly lies). I was really excited to see this as I thought it would be a great story to tell in future – I’ve stood on the equator. Unfortunately, the 3 hour one-way journey on 2 busses was not worth it and I later found out that Mitad del Mundo is not even the real equator – how gutting! That night we stayed in again and packed in preparation for our next adventure in The Secret Garden, Cotopaxi…



Our first border crossing 😩

The next major obstacle in our South American travels – and one I was absolutely dreading – was the border crossing from Colombia to Ecuador. We’d read horror stories of night busses being hijacked, crossing the border itself taking hours and countless other problems. So, we decided to do it in 3 days in the hope that it would be easier. In the end, it was hellish. Enjoy; this is a long one! 

Day 1: Salento to Popayan

Admittedly, our starting point wasn’t the best as Salento was not only very far away from the border but also had no real bus connections to anywhere. The first step therefore was to get a bus to somewhere that did – Armenia (not the country FYI). That bus took just under and hour and then we had to find a bus to our next destination. We soon found out that only one bus company (apparently) go from Armenia to Popayan. Unfortunately, as it turned out, this bus was far from the luxury of our previous long journey. In fact, the bus was so old we were surprised it was still functioning. On the 7 hour journey we had no toilet and only a couple of toilet breaks. I was back to my old complaining self. 

When we finally reached Popayan we decided to walk (20 minutes) to our hostel. As soon as we left the bus terminal the heavens opened and it chucked it down. The two of us, our clothes, our shoes and our bags got absolutely soaked and we arrived at the hostel looking like drowned rats. We dried ourselves off and made it to the supermarket 5 minutes before they closed (more luck than judgement) to buy noodles and snacks. The one night stay in Popayan was uneventful and we just used it as a stopover.

Day 2: Popayan to Ipiales

The next day involved travelling to the last town before the Colombia-Ecuador border: Ipiales. At the bus terminal the same company we had used the day before tried to rip us off and then squeezed us onto a bus that was already full. We claimed 2 seats together at the back after complaining. We were pretty sure the bus was even older than the one from the day before. The journey itself was absolutely horrendous. The bus hurtled through the mountains and swung us from side to side for 8 hours straight. It also stopped at various points for no apparent reason. When we did reach Ipiales, we were travel-sick, exhausted and done with busses. We were looking forward to a good night sleep in the hotel that we’d booked. Unfortunately, it turned out that our ‘hotel’ was dirty, dowdy and dodgy (and not exactly a hotel). We didn’t feel safe being there and it was freezing. We wanted to be out of there as soon as we could.

Day 3: Ipiales to Quito

At 7am we left the hotel and hailed a taxi back to the bus terminal. ‘Collectivos’ (collective taxis) heading to the border were easy to find and cheap. When we got there we had to first get our exit stamps from Colombia. Now, Colombians are only in a hurry when it suits them so of course there was only one desk open. After a long wait, we were leaving Colombia and walked across the border into Ecuador. All done? Nope. Next we had to get our entrance stamps for Ecuador. As it turned out, Ecuadorians are not in an hurry either and we waited another hour here. The next step was a taxi to the local bus terminal in Tulcan. 

From there we had to get yet another bus, this time to Quito (our final destination). As soon as we got out of the taxi we were accosted by 3 men asking us where we were going. We were ushered onto a bus leaving “NOW” to Quito. Almost an hour later, after picking up more passengers at every bus stop in sight, we were on the way. The bus didn’t stop once for a toilet break but did stop countless times along the way for pick-ups and drop-offs. We had about a million different people trying to sell us everything from ice-creams to cooked meats. The 5 hour journey took almost 7 hours and ended up going nowhere near our hostel. So we jumped off and, after receiving the help of various kind Ecuadorians, found a bus heading towards our hostel. Eventually we made it and after 3 days of hellish bus journeys, needed a cold beer or 12. Hopefully the next border crossing won’t be so terrible…

I actually enjoyed Salento…

We left Medellin on a bus headed to Salento that was supposed to take 5 hours. Almost 8 hours later and we reached our destination.  It turns out the roads in Colombia are not built for speed; they are winding, run through mountains and are currently ALL in the process of being dug up. Luckily, the bus was one of the more luxurious options – we had a toilet, a tv each and 15 English films to choose from. From the moment we reached Salento, we loved it. It was quiet, safe and vibrant. Our hostel provided us with a lovely private room and what felt like our own little kitchen! We dropped off our bags and went to explore. We wandered down streets full of artesenal shops and bars crowded even on a Wednesday night. Instantly we loved the feel of the place. We stumbled upon a place for dinner called Brunch and enjoyed a burger and veggie chilli followed by a delicious peanut butter brownie. The place was cool and the food was great. 


The next day we woke up bright and early to do the Valle de Cocora trek and see the tallest palm trees in the world. I won’t lie, the trek was hard. We walked (climbed) through forests, waterfalls, rocks and other difficult terrain. I slipped numerous times and almost fell face first in mud. It also involved walking uphill solidly for an hour. I did not enjoy that part. We stopped at a farm half-way to try hot chocolate with cheese (yes, that’s a thing in Colombia) and see some amazing hummingbirds. The trek ended in the valley itself and we saw the most enormous palm trees – they were very impressive. Then we travelled back to town, enjoyed some instant mac and cheese from a packet and zonked out, absolutely shattered.


Our second day involved visiting a coffee farm, learning how it is grown and harvested and then tasting it. We chose El Ocaso Finca and loved picking our own coffee beans and seeing the process of coffee-making. It was interesting to learn that most Colombians actually drink second-class coffee because the country cannot afford to buy the high-quality coffee back after exporting it. Colombia might grow some of the best coffee in the world but it certainly doesn’t drink much of it. On the way back to town we rode on the back of a Jeep (standing) and held on for dear life. Then we cooked ourselves a gourmet meal of – you guessed it – instant noodles.


The last day in Salento was very quiet and we spent most of the day in bed recovering. Later in the day we played cards over a few beers and then went to try out a typical Colombian game called Tejo. We found a bar nearby and ordered 2 beers. The game itself involved throwing heavy metal discs at a ring surrounded by explosive packets. The aim was to make the biggest explosion possible. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. To treat ourselves we then went for our last meal in Salento – at Brunch again (we are definitely creatures of habit).


In the end we were really sad to be leaving Salento and could have spent much longer here. It was the most relaxed I’d personally felt through all of our travels so far. Maybe I’m starting to actually enjoy travelling. We’ll see…

Medellin: murderous or misunderstood?

The next destination in Colombia was Medellin – former murder capital of the world. Our flight from Santa Marta arrived without any problems. Little did we know that the airport was actually an hour away from the city and it was almost impossible to get a bus to where we needed to be. Luckily, a Colombian man who spoke English approached us and suggested we share a taxi.We obviously agreed and climbed into a taxi with the man, his wife and their son. It was pretty cramped but much cheaper. Our hostel in El Poblado was Garden of Blues; a nice hostel with poor communication and not much functionality. It transpired that our dorm room was in a completely separate house further down the road which we had to find ourselves (not a fun thing to do with huge backpacks). You also had to ring a doorbell to be let in AND OUT of the building. Someone didn’t think that through very well. On the positive side, the room was lovely, clean and quiet at first. The peace was later ruined by some very loud French girls but that’s just me finding something to complain about! We decided to go to the supermarket and buy some food – the start of our eating in after spending far too much money on restaurants – and grabbed a beer in the local BBC (Bogata Beer Company). We cooked pasta and had a chill night in. I was starting to get the hang of this travelling lark. 

The following day we walked to the Metro station to start a 4 and a half hour walking tour of Medellin. I’m not a huge fan of walking but I thought I’d give it a go. It turned out to be one of the most fascinating and enjoyable experiences of my travels so far. Our tour guide took us all over the city and showed us plenty of sights. However, it was his enthusiasm and and knowledge that made it so great. Being a Paisa (look it up), he wasn’t short on confidence and we learnt so much about the history of Medellin from him. The drugs, the murders, the politics, the corruption, the money, the building of the Metro and the new hope that the city has of writing a new history – one that doesn’t involve the negativity of the past. In one of the city’s plazas was a Botero statue that had been blown up decades previously. The resilience of the city is shown with that statue. They kept it where it was, refused to take it away, and put an identical (in-tact) statue next to it. They wanted to show where they had come from and where they hoped to be. We realised that the stories we had read, and the reputations that Medellin and Colombia have, are completely wrong. 

After walking for almost 5 hours on the tour, we went back to El Poblado and walked a massive hill in the boiling heat. That was not fun. We had a rest in the hostel and then ventured out to find somewhere to eat (the previous vow of eating in gone out the window). We found a really cool, almost secret, restaurant (it was very hard to find the entrance) called Casa Comedor and had some interesting beer cocktails (my kind of thing!). Unfortunately the food was cold and tiny but I would recommend it for cocktails.


Our final day was just as busy. We chose not to visit Guatepe (the 2 hour bus journey sounded awful) and instead got the cable car all the way up to the top of the hills. We were able to see the whole city and the stark contrast between the poor areas of the hills and the hugely built-up city. Then we travelled further up and into the forest to visit Parque Arvi. We took the wrong path on our walk and didn’t enjoy it but it was an interesting place to see anyway. 


The highlight of our day was (I’m sure you can guess) finding an amazing coffee shop to drink REAL Colombian coffee. We went twice in one day. Oh how we love coffee shops. For our last night in Medellin we settled for what would soon become our staple diet – instant noodles. 

Off to sleepy Salento next!

Santa Marta and Minca

Colombia’s Caribbean coast continued…

So, after coming to terms with the loss of my flip-flops (this took days, really), we arrived in Santa Marta expecting to find a lovely hotel, with our own bathroom, to relax in for 4 nights. The reality, however, was that the hotel we had booked was empty and MILES away from anything. Hoping we were just being dramatic, we dropped off our bags and walked to the main centre of Santa Marta. 25 minutes later we were still nowhere near and were exhausted from the 30 degree heat. We passed a grand total of 1 restaurant and plenty of dodgy streets. We decided that we couldn’t stay at the hotel and returned to try and get a refund. The issue here was that the woman at reception spoke no English and our Spanish is very limited. “No me gusto”, “quiero un reembolso”, “muy  lejos” and “dos chicas solo” eventually got the message across and we got a refund for 2 out of 3 nights. Result! We booked a taxi and left for Taganga (a small fishing village nearby) full of hope for a more enjoyable stay.

The hostel we had chosen had amazing reviews on HostelWorld and seemed lovely at first – a nice outside area with a pool, a roof-top bar and a hammock overlooking the village. However, after closer inspection, we noticed that the room had no windows and just a tiny, barely-functioning fan to help(!) combat the heat. This may not seem like the end of the world, but when you are number 1 on mosquitoes’ most wanted list, this is a massive problem. It was the only thing I could think about and I was dreading the night ahead. Instead of complaining (that’s a lie) we set off for a “3 minute walk” (according to the hostel) down to the beach. 20 minutes later we made it. We found a nice taco place and watched the beautiful sunset and it actually turned into a lovely evening – disregarding the hair I found in my food. The walk back in almost complete darkness was terrifying – I’ve never seen so many stray dogs – and we decided one night was probably enough in Taganga.  We didn’t sleep a wink that night and sweat almost half to death. So once again, we changed our plans and cancelled the other 2 nights in the hostel, resolving to give Santa Marta another chance. 

The next hostel was much better – amazing air-con, a jacuzzi on the roof, a bar and free breakfast. We did end up changing rooms twice (1. Creepy old man, 2. Smelly group of boys) because we love to complain, and someone did steal my yoghurt, but we coped. Santa Marta, however, was not much better. It was too hot, too crowded and too smelly – not a particularly pleasant place to be if you ask me. Highlights of our stay included finding a great coffee place with air-con (La Canoa if you’re wondering) and eating wonderful arepas from a street seller (which, by the way, Santa Marta has TRILLIONS of). So, we spent 4 days drinking coffee, moaning about the heat and waiting for our flight to Medellin. We would have left early if we could have. We chose not to visit Parque Tayrona (beaches, treks, heat, people) for obvious reasons. We did go on one (half) day trip to a tiny place called Minca. The journey was winding, bumpy and full (one woman was even sat on a stool instead of in a seat). When we reached Minca, we trekked for an hour to spend 5 minutes at a disappointing waterfall (at least I went in!) and then walked all the way back. Luckily we saw some beautiful birds and amazing views. 

We’ve realised, having spent quite a while on the coast of Colombia, that we are most certainly NOT beach people. My growing list of things to avoid whilst travelling includes: party hostels, mixed dorm rooms, heat, random hotels, trusting reviews, booking flights in advance and treks in 30+ degrees. On to Medellin!