El Cocuy, Colombia (20-25 December)

We’ve just returned to the nice little white and green painted town of El Cocuy from the mountains. El Cocuy National Park is a fantastic wilderness and its actually a bit of a shock to the system being back in this quiet little touristy town and planning the next part of our trip!

From the very first day going up, we were in paramo, which is a quite other worldly seeming high altitude tropical ecosystem. There are generally fewer flowers and its been generally dryer than the paramo we’ve been to in Parque Natural Iguaque or Finca San Pedro near Sogamoso, but it is more stunning because of the scale and remoteness.

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Paramo

Its worth noting that this is the dry season, which generally means dry and windy with hot days and cold nights. The park would be quite different in other times of year – which from accounts means wet and cloudy with less temperature variation.

On the first day we set up camp by the Pintada Cabana and walked though patches of frailejónes [fry-le-hones] (which are the weird and wonderful plants related to sunflowers that are common in this environment), passed several lakes to a mountain pass at the southern extent of the park as a relatively low altitude ease in. It was really great to be walking in such an environment but we were just a little too late to see any views of the other side as cloud had descended over us. There we met a nice French chap (sorry Ive forgotten your name!) who we would bump into a lot until we left the park.

This didn’t used to be the southernmost extent of the park but in the last year most of the paths on the western side of the main mountain range that forms the park are off-limits. The official story is that the indigenous people living there near the Venezuela border don’t want tourists walking there (or perhaps more likely that they want a just share of the tourism profits – my speculation!). But it seems that this is only part of the story and the other reason is that the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) – a communist organisation that opposes Colombian governance, are known to be present in this area and are believed to be a risk to tourists. The FARC do have a history of kidnapping for extortion though it seems that lately the risk is much lower than it used to be. This is all a great shame as there is a classic 7 day trek around the Cocuy range which is mostly on that side, which is where the most spectacular scenery is supposed to be. However aside from upsetting the locals and the potential terrorist threat, this walk appears quite technical in places and since it is officially closed, guides cannot be found. Therefore the east side would have to do for us, and we assure anyone who was put off by the restrictions that is is most definitely still worth it!

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Frailejones (they grow between 1-4cm per year)

The next day we walked up to the snow line below the Pulpito del Diablo at around 5000m – the last bit consisting of an easy walk up flat glacial rock sheets. We set off early (first brushing the ice off the tent!) to avoid the potential afternoon cloud but the air stayed crystal clear providing us we stunning views of this incredible glacial formed landscape all day. We were both feeling OK with the altitude – walking slowly and drinking lots of water seems to keep the symptoms to a light headache. Apart from some lizards and distant vultures, the only other evidence of life were lots of little round droppings at high altitude – perhaps from the furry rabbits, or marmots that are supposed to live here.

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Pass beneath Pulpito del Diablo

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Pan del Azucar

We then attempted to walk around from the pass that is below Diablo to Laguna Grande de la Sierra which lies at 4500m, just below 6 of the high Cocuy peaks. However, bad just doesn’t describe the official map that is provided and the path was not clear – there being multiple cairns (clearly built by other lost hikers) that would lead us in circles if followed! We ended up taking a very tortuous route over countless ridges in a large boulder field with the occasionally frailejón bog until we eventually reached a nice looking lake that people had obviously camped at before so very tired by now, we decided to stay there. We knew we must be close to Laguna Grande, but many more ridges of boulders and lots of streams dissuaded us from trying. Just as we had finished dinner we spotted the French guy. He’d managed to get nearly to the top of Pan del Azucar (the peak next to the Pulpito del Diablo) without any crampons or ice axe and then also had a very tricky time tying to find the Laguna Grande. He decided to camp near us as it was a stunning location – lakes glaciers and boulders all around – it felt like another planet.

The old official map which has the 7-day trek on it is much much better than the new one and it looks like it would enable safe navigation around the park. However, since the trek was off-limits the map is no longer readily available. The only place we know where this can be found is Esperanza Cabana as a copy was given to our French friend.

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Laguna Grande de la Sierra

It had been pretty cold camping at Pintada Cabana the night before, but this must have been at least -10 degrees. We awoke to strengthening winds (and our French friends tent was rather flatterned). Fortunately the wind seemed to keep the ice from forming on our tent, but as soon as we were out we were wearing everything we had to stay warm! Because of the wind we chose to pack up and walk down to Esperanza Cabana (towards the middle of the park) rather than to explore the glaciers around the lake more as wed planned. We had a nice walk down, but only once we’d finally found the path so it was another long day! XT was rewarded by an unexpected hot shower in the Cabana but sadly the power failed by the time I went in – they kindly heated up a bowl of water for me but it was not nice in an unheated room! A new experience to my pampered western upbringing but not new to XT! So although cold, at least I was clean.

We decided to have a “rest day” the next day – catching the milk truck “el lechero” to the Ritacuba stop and walking to Cabana Kanwara in the north of the park. The milk truck was late (as expected – it is Colombia after all) but great fun; the passengers basically stand or prop-themselves or sit on a milk tub in the back of a medium size open-slatted truck surrounded by tubs of milk and some other produce like potatoes and cheese. We bounced around for over 1.5 hrs thought lovely alpine countryside to the junction, collecting well over 1000ltrs of milk at very frequent stops and distributing a lot of beer for Christmas! We bought one of their cheeses at a great price as a treat before setting off up hill to Cabana Kanwara. This cabana is very luxurious and situated below some impressive glaciers of the northern mountains. Though a rest day, after setting up camp we walked up the road above and discovered the most impressive panorama of the park we had seen – we could see most of the mountains in the park. On our way down we saw the French chap walking up to the road! He had climbed over the pass from the Laguna and down to Laguna de la Plaza, which is supposed to be the most beautiful laguna in the park, and then down most of the way, but too tired to reach the cabana, camped.

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Path above Cabana Kanwara

The winds had been consistently strong from when we left Laguna Grande but the next morning we were encouraged by a very light breeze to try to camp beneath Ritacuba Blanco and Negro at about 4600m for a special Xmas eve. However, as we got part of the way up the wind started blowing pretty strongly, and by the time we got to the exposed and not very inviting camp site on rocky ground it was gale force! We decided instead to dump our camping gear and walk up further to get to a view point as we had done for Pulpito del Diablo. It was the highest we’d been and very hard work walking, but we were rewarded near the snow line of amazing views of the glaciers and some amazingly folded rocks to the north.

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Ritacuba del Negro glacier

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Folded rocks in the north of the park

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Cushion plants

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Glacial terrain

After a long walk down and in lieu of camping high, we decided to treat ourselves to a room in Cabana Kanwara. We wanted to see the sunset from the viewpoint we went to the day before, but when we got up there the cloud was descending rapidly so we thought we’d be disappointed when XT spotted a bird flying towards us, it was a condor! It flew so close to us, about 10 meters I think, and then circled up on a thermal triggered by the hill we were sitting on. It was number 85 from its tag – they are reintroducing them to the area but there are very few around. Seeing this made up for the lack of a sunset by a long way! Not a bad end to Xmas eve and the Cabana which was more like a suite as we had a small building to ourselves and even got a wood fire going! We were still cooking our trekking rice and peas though as the cabana meal didn’t sound great, but two whole bars of chocolate were a nice treat!

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Condor

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The Cocuy range from above Cabana Kanwara

We’d done all the day hikes we realistically could, and were not so keen to hire equipment and a guide to climb to some of the tops or walk some of the illegal paths so it was sadly time to leave the park the following day. We caught the milk truck again and bounced down to the town of Guican only to find that everyone said that there were no busses or taxis to El Cocuy where our luggage was being held – everyone was hungover or still drunk from the Xmas celebrations! Eventually we found a random street where other people wanting to get to El Cocuy were waiting and trying to flag down cars and after a while a bus that wasn’t supposed to exist turned up – phew!

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Guican Xmas day

Next stop is San Gil to hopefully fly or perhaps just look at Chincamocha canyon. The downside is that from El Cocuy its a one stop (first going in the wrong direction to Tunja!) 14 plus hr night buses. Our bus leaves at 8 pm and this I am not looking forward to after the last, but its the least worst option!

(Barely) Surviving Avianca Airlines

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Long-haul buses in South America can be painful but it can’t compare to the nightmare of delayed and cancelled flights combined with very poor service from the airline. Finding some unwelcome time on my hands, I have taken the chance to write this blog on our experiences!

We had a fair share of air travel during the past seven months and, for one reason or another, we ended up travelling with Avianca all the time. Half the flights were delayed and when things go wrong, the arrogant attitude and incompetency from the staff was appalling. Instead of boring you with pages of accounts of bad service, here are some examples that surprised and frustrated us the most:

  • When our flight was delayed from Pereira to Bogota, the only three foreign travellers (including us) were singled out and forced to go home without any compensation and come back for a flight 12 hours later despite the fact that there were a later connection to Bogota. After much persuasion, they finally allowed us to go on the later connection on the condition that we sign a piece of paper waiving our rights to hotel and food compensation while in Bogota. Being forced to choose between no compensation, or travelling 6 hours round-trip to the airport at our own costs, we signed the papers under duress.
  • We made from Pereira to Bogota only to find out that they wouldn’t let us on the connection to Santa Marta even though it had not left the airport. There were 6 other locals travelling from Pereira to Santa Marta as well and they fought with the airline for solutions. Only after much tears from one of the locals and more than an hour at Bogota airport, we were promised hotel and food. Even then, the hotel shuttle took another hour and half to come.
  • Our flight from Lima to Bogota was delayed 2 hours due to “technical problems” and we arrived in Bogota half an hour before the scheduled departure time for our London flight. Again, we were refused to board while we stared at the parked plane at the gate. The reason is that they insist that we cant board without the luggage they could apparently not manage to get the luggage on the flight fast enough! (Half an hour in the same terminal!!!) Two different staff on two different occasions assured me that I will be able to enter immigration and got to a hotel even after I pointed out that I do not possess a valid Colombia visa anymore. Of course, when we took all the trouble to go through immigration, I was denied access into the country. We ended up being trapped in the airport in Bogota for 16 hours and they changed our flight from a direct one to a connection via Madrid, adding another 2 hours to our travel.

Through various delays, all we got was misinformation and a shrug of shoulders saying that there is nothing more they can do at this point. No apologies at all and no help unless you put up a good long fight for your rights and demand to see their superiors.

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After a sleepless night, we finally found the most comfortable place to spend our (hopefully only) 16 hours trapped in airport!

During our long hours of waiting and agonies in the airports, we can’t help but wonder: how can the airline be so arrogant? Who protects air travellers’ rights?  

  • Travelling from EU with any airlines or to EU with EU airlines: You are in luck! EU laws has specific rules that protect your rights: http://www.caa.co.uk/default.aspx?catid=2211&pagetype=90&pageid=15443 Besides accommodation, food and Internet access, the airlines are obligated to compensate you for the travel delays depending on the length of your travel and the delays. You should try to file the complaint with the airline first. You can also file complaint through CAA or other private agencies that are specialized in air travel compensations.
  • Other cases: Most of the countries ratify Montreal Convention 1999 (http://www.jus.uio.no/lm/air.carriage.unification.convention.montreal.1999/) although the treaty mandates airline to compensate travellers for delays, it does not specify the amount and the means to compensate. Some countries may have their own laws protecting travellers’ rights but most of the developing countries do not! That is why airlines like Avianca treat their clients with utter lack of respect. It is best to travel with reputable airlines so if things go wrong, you are not left at mercy of the airlines. Check the reviews for airlines for the country you are travelling to before you decide.

Travel Insurance: Most policies include some sort of compensation though it may not come to much, but the cover appears to be most commonly (and certainly for our policies) limited to actual expenses occurred for things not provided by the airline. This could include; food, accommodation and taxis to a hotel etc. But it does not normally include compensation for things like; your time and loss of earnings, reduced comfort of travel because you are trapped in an airport without luggage etc. Check the small print!

What to do when thing do go wrong?

CAA is a very good reference: http://www.caa.co.uk/default.aspx?catid=2226. From our experiences, it is also helpful to take photos of the announcement boards at the airport that indicate your flight is delayed and note down the names of the employees who you spoke to.

We hope you all have better luck flying than us! And avoid Avianca at all costs!!

Epic South American Adventures… by Bus

While searching for some games to download for one of our countless epic S. American bus journeys, I was surprised that one of the most popular games in the Google play store here in Brazil was “Bus Simulator”, a little less popular being “Bus Simulator 3D” – I suppose it just goes to show how the South Americans love buses! However, I decided to stick with solitaire for now…

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A typical cramped cooperative mini-van (usually only travel once ALL the seats are taken)

I honestly find it hard to believe the days (actually weeks now) we’ve spent on buses on this trip – anything from comfortable new double-decker sleepers, to antique creaking, squeaking local mountain village buses complete with a cargo of cuey (guinepig) food and smelly cheese brought in by an equally smelly passenger. I do hate bus travel especially on the longer routes – the dirty, busy stations, the seemingly endless waiting and being forced to eat so much junk food and truly awful coffee. I never set foot in one in the UK if I can help it, however it’s unavoidable here and especially for us as carting around paragliders and camping gear means that internal flights are impossible or very expensive. Without this problem and on long routes, flying is actually often cheaper and obviously faster, but it does also lock you into a schedule (which we normally needed to keep more flexible) as you have to book in advance to get these cheaper tickets. We were the only dumb ones to take the entire 30+ hour trip from Salvador to Rio in the bus!

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No, not a dead body in the hold – just the driver taking a nap!

While night buses are an efficient use of time and help with accommodation costs, they are not at all nice in my view (though Xioating, being able sleep anywhere at any time enjoys the excuse for extended rest!). For some reason they always turn the air-conditioning to the max in Colombia and Brazil. This can catch out naive travellers like us (despite the warnings in the guidebooks) who can’t comprehend the Arctic temperatures these buses can achieve and hop on without changing from our 40 degrees tropical clothing. After spending one very long shivering sleepless night like me, you’ll learn!  The view is of course limited to the frequent glare of passing traffic and the occasional town lights which (for me anyway) makes the time go very slow, and it is sometimes scary – like our breakneck rally race into the Colombian mountains on a bumpy winding road where all you can see is the dim outline of trees rushing past as the bus bounces and slides around the corners. In Colombia especially, you also have to just try to accept the blind overtaking of lorries around corners to preserve the hard won momentum.

On the plus side, buses here are generally pretty good (certainly better than in the UK) – they’re mostly cheap, numerous, frequent, nearly always have friendly drivers who help with luggage and are mostly comfortable especially in Brazil and Peru (though nothing could really be comfortable over 24hrs!). And like flying, there’s often a choice of class including sleeping seats which go quite flat, for a price of course. In Colombia the WIFI was great (better than any place we stayed at) and seemed to be in nearly every bus, even mini buses. Brazil in contrast was rather disappointing – all our buses advertised WIFI but it has absolutely never worked even in a top end sleeper bus. The drivers just shrug and walk away if questioned about it. The WIFI in Peru only occasionally worked.

Day buses can also offer the opportunity for some extensive daydreaming (and even blog writing!) for those like me. Though not to be counted on, we’ve also been on some truly beautiful and spectacular roads which you’d just miss if flying over it all.

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El Cocuy milk truck (stand in the back and dodge the milk being poured in)

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Our very welcome ride in the back of a government official pickup truck in Colca Canyon in Peru

Occasionally situations called for alternative transport to busses if there were none available. In S. America it is quite easy to hitch a lift in or on whatever might be going your way which is often free or maybe for a small donation. This included; the El Cocuy milk truck in Colombia (a fun but smelly, incredibly slow and roundabout way to get up and down the mountains), motorbikes, supply trucks, the back of pickup trucks, in various cars/taxis and rickshaws and once Xiaoting got a rather slow and uncomfortable ride in a peddle powered ice-cream trike! All these trips were interesting, but not always the fastest or most comfortable means of transport!

Bus Travel Advice

On our travels, we learnt several hard facts the hard way, so this summary should help you get there a bit more smoothly and with a bit less stress:

In Colombia and Peru buses stop almost anywhere (except for the long distance express or tour buses of course). In Brazil they will only stop at designated areas in town, but will stop at random places out of town, though on hi-ways it’s best not to count on it.

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Our fun ride up to the paragliding launch in Roldanillo in Colombia

We heard stories of bags going missing from buses from overheads and the trunk, so keep an eye on it if you can, and keep your baggage tag and tickets safe. In Brazil (and sometimes Peru) the system is very secure – they check your ticket, then put a tag on your bag and the corresponding sticker on your ticket so they can be matched up later. Colombia was only sometimes this thorough. For the posh long distance buses in Peru the baggage system was very fussy but secure requiring an airline-like check-in system, but at other times on other busses there was no tags or security at all.

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Expect flat tyres, but don’t expect any spares even in smart-looking buses like this one in Colombia

For night buses, wear long sleeves and socks, take water and maybe something for a pillow. But some of the up market buses in Brazil and Peru provide a thin blanket and a pillow, water and some snacks which they’ll mostly advertise, but there is no such thing as up market in Colombia, so you need your own. We found sleeping bags a comfortable solution to combat the cold. I also had an eye-mask (stolen from a plane) and headphones which were useful to block out some of the bustle of people getting on and off or the loud TV speakers in some Peruvian busses.

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Landslides like this one in Peru are not uncommon

In Columbia the buses double in price for national holidays so try to avoid these if possible, though for us on this length of trip, it was not. And during holiday periods also beware of different, limited or non existent schedule as we found on Boxing Day in Colombia! Also in Colombia and Peru we were often overcharged compared to the locals when getting on local buses (though this was not normally much). We found the trick was not to ask “how much” but to simply hand over what you think it should be (if you have a rough idea!) Companies often vary in price, speed (number of stops) and comfort if they serve the same route, so get advice on which to take, though it’s normally pretty obvious as in the bus station – it’s the company with the biggest queue! And though not necessary in Colombia, for the long distance routes in Brazil and Peru you must have your passports ready when booking and boarding or they won’t let you on.

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Roadside repair of suspension in Peru

Book early if possible to get a good seat – the very front on bigger buses is good as you don’t have some annoying person squashing you as they put their seat as far back as possible and you are more likely to get a view out front. Unfortunately there is nothing you can do in advance about that damn kid behind you who enjoys repeatedly kicking you in the kidneys unless you sit in the back. But this we do not recommend as the ride is normally very bumpy indeed in the back and the toilets can start to be unpleasant after a few hrs on the road. Especially in Colombia don’t be surprised if your booked seat is taken though, but we found that people will mostly move if you wave your ticket at them and stubbornly wait!

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1st of 2 flats in 10 minutes in Peru

Don’t count on a schedule, especially on the longer routes. Though departures can be on time, arrival times are aspirational at best (if not; no earlier than) and seldom achieved. Our supposedly 16hr bus from Governador Valadares to Salvador in Brazil was 2 hrs late leaving and arrived in Salvador 4 hrs late. Also, the local cooperative mini-vans typically only leave when completely full which in our experience can mean a 30+ minute wait. Flat tyres are common because of the tyre and road quality – In Peru our taxi had 2 flats literally in the space of 10 minutes! And I’m frankly amazed that in Colombia that we only experienced one flat tyre, but it did delay us a good hour as the bus had no spare and we has to go to a repair shop. Landslides are also common due to the rough and ready road building techniques, and a couple of times we came to an extended stop to wait for our road to be built!

All in all, we had some fascinating if sometimes uncomfortable bus journeys in S. America and in any case, what choice do you have…!?

Hiking the Colca Canyon to the Valley of the Volcanoes, Peru (26-29 May)

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Looking back into the Rio Achacota valley and the Sabancaya volcano smoking on the right

The Colca Canyon is the second deepest in Peru at 3270m and is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. It is very wide with many different layers with very varied topography from active volcanoes over 6000m high to the white water of the Rio Colca itself.

Though most people choose to do guided group trips in the Colca Canyon, hiking the Canyon and indeed from there to the Valley of the Volcanoes solo and without a guide is very possible.

The main tourist routes in the Colca Canyon from Cabanaconde (the town where the majority of the Canyon trails start) looked easy to us, though this is just speculation as we chose to do something different. Those paths looked a bit dull with all the trekking tour groups treading the same routes in a long line. So after a bit of research and obtaining a contour map in Arequipa (the main entry town for the Canyon) we decided on a 3 to 7 day trek west from Cabanaconde in the Colca Canyon to Chacas or maybe Andagua in the Valley of the Volcanoes where there is night bus back to Arequipa.

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Colca Canyon

However, hiking off the tourist routes is not straight forward: The map we obtained “Canyon del Colca” a 1:100,000 scale contour map printed by Edicions El Lector, though undated proved to be truly ancient but nevertheless essential. Many marked paths are now roads (sometimes even paved!) and many paths no longer exist or follow different routes, but we supposed the mountains and valleys are still mostly the same!

Local advice along the way is also essential but not always very accurate: Some Spanish is required to enquire on a route to find out where it goes and if its currently passable. And a decent amount of skepticism is required when asking the time a route will take to hike!

We considered getting a guide (apparently found in villages for the following day if you ask) on some sections we thought looked tricky, but in the end we did the whole route solo due to (over?) confidence gained in conversations with locals!

Hiking this route could be tricky and it pays to be prepared: Sometimes the paths were confusing in their numerosity or nonexistence, and sometimes we needed to cross icy-cold rivers or tread carefully around the edge of recent landslides. We did also get lost on a couple of occasions, but our experience navigating in mountain terrain helped us get back on track! We were well acclimatised to the altitude, but the route does go to 5200m so be prepared to walk slowly and watch out for signs of altitude sickness. Also the depths of temperature at night surprised us after being at similar altitudes in Colombia without as much problem (for example; water even inside the tent freezing!) so try to be a bit more prepared than we were! And two days before we intended to set off, a big snow storm came over which everyone said was unusual for this time of year (dry season!). We were grateful that it cleared and we had perfect blue skies, though it led us to be flexible with plans just in case we had to head back.

Remoteness has its benefits though – we found ourselves walking nearly all the paths with only the company of the wildlife – bliss!

Day 1: Cabanaconde to Choco

Duration: By foot: 9+ hours or drive to Punte (bridge) (about 1/3 of the route) and by foot: 4-5 hours

Difficulty: Easy (but local advice on the initial route required)

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Track to Choco

A supply truck leaves from the main square of Cabanaconde to the bridge across Rio Colca every Wednesday and Friday at 0700 at the time of writing (but the schedule seems to change frequently so inquire at the shops on the square). We discovered later they are currently building a dirt track all the way to Choco so in future it may be possible to drive all the way – ask first!

Trusting the locals estimate of 8 hours to hike to Choco, we started our hike at 0600. The start of the trail is very hard to find without a more detailed map than we had as many trails to surrounding villages in Colca Canyon start in Cabanaconde. Ask locals for detailed directions if you want to hike, but watch out as their descriptions are not always so clear! We were lucky enough to find a local farmer while scouting out a route the previous day who used to be a guide. He spent more than half an hour describing the route to us!

The trail heads west out of the town: Follow the route to the Mirador Achachiwa which is signed from the square and ask locals to put you on the right trail head.

Follow the wide stony trail west, ignoring shoot-offs going off to the left, until it goes down to cross the small river in the valley. Once over this, ascend west-southwest towards the eucalyptus tree line. Some parts of the trail here may appear to be a small stream, but keep on it and you will reach two small pools on your right. Turn left uphill here and shortly you will reach a crossroads where you should turn right to take the path that goes between two hedges. The trail then meanders along west-northwest to eventually join the dirt track (still a footpath on our map) that the supply truck takes towards Choco. Turn left on the next junction (the right turn heads towards Llahuar).

We meandered a little uncertainly through the interesting and varied farmland of quinoa, potato, maize and barley until descending into the Colca Canyon. The trail traverses through some lovely countryside of the Colca Canyon which is seldom visited by tourists and friendly farmers offered help with directions.

Once on the dirt road, we started our descent into some of the deepest parts of the Colca Canyon with views of the wild river below and snowcapped mountains in the distance. The road meanders lazily around but you can find short cuts down some the ridges. The view is amazing as the canyon walls close around you and the vegetation and geology changes. Condors may thermal high to keep you company while lizards escape behind rocks and you are surrounded by cacti and blooming wild flowers. It is a very different experience than the Oasis hike as the canyon here runs even deeper and it is seemingly untouched by the tourism in the rest of Colca.

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Humming bird restaurant on the trail to Choco

As we ran out of shortcuts to shorten our journey at about 3.5hours in, we started to realize that this trek could be hours longer than the locals said! Before we had time to contemplate a plan b, a pickup truck offered us a ride in the back to the bridge. Later we found out that they were government officials heading all the way to Choco! To our delight, we got some picture time at the new bridge built for the future dirt road all the way to Choco and continued with the truck up the other side of the valley as far as the under-construction road goes. We were fully expecting to walk this whole section (especially as we didn’t know how far the road went) so this was very fortunate indeed.

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Track to Choco

The grand scale and the incredible depth of the Colca Canyon stunned us as we carefully followed the small gradually ascending footpath, tightly hugging the walls of the canyon. Looking down, the Colca river continues to carve the canyon deeper, rushing down and turning green or brown in the changing light. There isn’t much vegetation here except on some abandoned Inca terraces. There are some traces of old Inca trails and lots of cacti and alien looking trees with few red or green leaves hanging on as a last goodbye to the wet season.

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Clothes line in our designated camping spot in Choco

The trail suddenly turned right and the greener Choco Canyon opened in front of our eyes. You can see some Inca terraces on the almost vertical slope opposite (those crazy Incas!) which later merged with other terraces currently in use by the Choco farmers. It is in this lusher canyon that we found the village of Choco (2473m) tucked away where the canyon splits into two, under the foothills of some awe-inspiring snowcapped mountains.

People in this remote town were very welcoming and helpful. We camped in the football field of the local school with access to the sink and toilet and could even dry our clothes on the goalposts! A local lady saw us setting up camp and give us some apples. The entire villages kids were very excited about these visiting “gringos” so it was hard finding some peace until the teacher eventually ordered them all to go home at dusk!

Day 2: Choco to Rio Achacota via Mina

Duration: 10 hours

Difficulty: Moderate – negotiating river crossings and small landslides

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Rio Chalza Valley

There are three routes to Chacas from Choco; the one via Mina up the Rio Chalza seemed to be the recommended route of most locals, another goes up the mountains more directly which not many seem to use, and the third bypasses the mountains and follows a river directly to Chacas. This last one is the least strenuous and does not require camping at altitudes (locals say it can be done in ten hours, but we couldn’t comment!)

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Bye bye, were leaving Choco…

Determined to see the mountains, we headed up towards Mina. The route gently climbs up an impressively narrow and deep river gorge, sometimes on the left, sometimes right of the river. A couple of the crossing points via rough stepping-stones are tricky and I had to change into my sandals and brave the fast flowing freezing cold water. The river attracts much wildlife including a family of green parrots having a morning bath, torrent ducks (which seem to enjoy swimming in the fastest flowing sections!), big humming birds hovering over the currents and two different types of dippers (small fat birds which take dips in the river to feed). Condors and eagles also frequent the sunny canyon walls.

Sometimes the path had been washed away by floods or covered by landslides and had been remade which made it sometimes unclear but there is no uncertainty of the general direction in this narrow, deep gorge. For us it was always possible to find a way even though it could be a bit concerning passing under some rather loose looking boulders overhanging above, or treading gently along a narrow scree ledge above the water. But its probably best to ask in Choco on the state of the path before setting off.

As the river valley comes to an end approaching some magnificent snow mountains, you can find Mina (~3600m) – a sleepy little agricultural village with families ready to host hikers for a rest after the five hour (supposedly the locals do it in 3!) hike from Choco. But we decided to press on to camp in the Rio Achacota valley which took us another five hours (but I was not feeling on top form so it may take others less). The trail starts from Mina (not before as is marked on our map) and locals will gladly point you in the right way. You could also hire guide in Mina.

The start of the climbing zigzagging trail is easy to follow but it then mingles in with multiple cattle tracks. Climbing and following the general bearing which our old trail map indicated on these intermittent paths, we arrived at the top of the ridge (~4600m) despite one small detour when we were tempted by a large but unmapped path! As we climbed up, alpine wild blossoms of the valley turn into an altiplano ecosystem where cactus and cushion plants dominate the landscape. We saw deer and condors with a range of snow peaks as our backdrop as we climbed. Nearer the top, you can even see Cabanaconde and the surrounding valley in the distance.

At the top of the ridge, the Rio Achacota valley revealed itself with a range of snow peaks including Cerro Cerani looming over it. There is an enclosure with a small hut inside near the river where we set up camp and took a much needed albeit cold rest before the bigger climb the next day.

Day 3: Rio Achacota to the foot of the Laguna Encante valley

Duration: 8 to 9 hours

Difficulty: Moderate/difficult – technical navigation and 5200m altitude reached

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Sabancaya volcano (most active in Peru)

We set off at 0700 as we needed to ascend from ~4300m to ~5200m then back to 4400m on the other side of the Cerro Cerani pass. Our water froze solid as we set off but luckily the path was heading towards the sunny side of the valley so there was much motivation to get there fast!

There are still cattle grazing at 5000m (purify your water as they graze upstream) and there are no clear footpaths as the cows reshape the rocky high mountain terrain as they wander around. We used the map to get our bearings and just picked the easiest looking route up towards the peaks. As we ascended past the multicoloured barren hills towards the looming snow capped peaks, views of the Colca Canyon started to reappear to our backs.

Hiking up to 5200 m pass

Hiking up to 5200 m pass

We could see some vicuña (wild llama) grazing on the hillsides in the distance. Always wary of us they would move away – clearly not aware that even if we wanted to get closer, the high altitude reduced us to a slow trudge with the minimum of deviations!

Our orientation was limited by the lack of a clear path and little detail on the map, so we were pleased to find our chosen route met up with a nice path up to the mountain pass at ~5200m where we finally got views of the Valley of the Volcanoes in the west as well as amazing views of the snow mountains in the east.

Cushion plants all around

Cushion plants all around

Walking down to the river was straightforward following a path which was mostly clear, but sometimes split up into multiple zigzags down some scree sections. But once down, things didn’t seem quite right – it turned out that we’d climbed the wrong pass according to the path marked on the map!!! It was all good though as we had rejoined the ongoing route at a high altitude meadow, we had just gone over a pass which went to the south instead of to the north of Cerro Cerani!

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Hiking down towards Valley of the Volcanoes

We made our way along a wide dirt road (also marked as a footpath on our map) passing vicuñas and viscachas (plump furry rabbit-like rodents) hopping around boulder fields and with an occasional condor cruising far above as we made our way towards our intended camping spot near the village of Umpallaca. However, the village turned out to be a long uninhabited ruin (did we mention the map was old!) so we settled for a nice spot near the road and river at the foot of the Laguna Encante valley with views of some snowcapped mountains one way and the Valley of the Volcanoes in the other.

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vicuña grazing at 4500+ masl

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Small Lake below 5200 m pass

We set up camp and started cooking, but my normally trusty Primus stove puttered out and wouldn’t restart. I figure it’s the “gasohol” (petrol with a small % of alcohol) I’m trying to run it on – the only liquid fuel available here. Petrol is the most horrid fuel as it stinks, is dangerously volatile and it seems that especially with alcohol added and at this altitude it burns very uncleanly and inefficiently and clogs the stove with soot. So dinner ended up being 2 very small cold sausages each, tomato paste and popcorn, with a little precious chocolate for desert!

Once the sun dipped below the mountains it became very cold so we retreated to the tent only to find Xiaoting’s sleeping mat had sprung a leak. Eventually giving up trying to sleep with the freezing jagged stones sticking in her, she squeezed into my sleeping bag – barely both covered it was a very cold and uncomfortable night but we both managed to sleep a little!

Day 4: The foot of Laguna Encante valley to Chacas

Duration: 5 hours

Difficulty: Easy

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Looking down at Chachas and valley of the volcanoes

After our disturbed night we woke to find our water frozen in the inside of our tent, it was COLD! Though the dawn light on the mountains across the Valley of the Volcanoes was beautiful we packed up in super quick time because we couldn’t cook breakfast and before we lost ALL the feeling in our fingers!

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Valley of the Volcanoes

Today was all downhill but the trails from the foot of Laguna Encante as shown on our map first took some finding. There is a little used trail which goes through the barren rocky terrain on the north side of the river and takes a more direct route compared to the new ascending and winding road. Then we had to take a small detour to find a place to cross a small but fast flowing river to then rejoin the dirt road which now replaces the two footpaths shown on our map.

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Viscacha enjoying the sun

As the track descended, it gave us amazing views of the big lake next to Chacas with its huge gravel inflow and the impressive Valley of the Volcanoes. Beneath a large snowcapped mountain lies a huge valley dotted with several perfectly shaped cinder-cones which are 200-300m high. About 200,000 years ago, these small volcanoes erupted when the lava fields were degassed – read more here.  The track does get a bit tedious however as it snakes back and forth without making much progress down towards Chacas below, so we sometimes cut the corner by making our own way though the rocks and cacti and later we found a couple of lovely but rarely used paths which saved us much time and allowed us to better enjoy the changing vegetation and views. Higher up, rock fields (complete with many viscachias) interspersed with grassland turns slowly into large cactus and many different flowering bushes carrying almost overwhelming scents and attracting buzzing bees.

From above, Chachas signaled one small step towards “civilization” with a modern looking square and even a bull fighting ring. But in reality, the town still runs at a very rural pace. When we arrived just before noon, there was only one restaurant open and the only shop in town opens at random hours. Based on our research online, there’s suppose to be a 1300 daily bus to Andagua but it seems that buses now run only at 0200 and 0800 in the morning on some days (as a local put it: “it all depends”!). After asking around, someone in the square offered us a ride to Andagua at 1700 in a supply truck. As the major path (~5 hours) to Andagua was flooded and as we did not fancy the alternative ~6 hour walk on dirt roads, we decided to wait. But of course, things run on Peru time here: After the driver manually filled up the tank with 5 buckets of diesel, loaded the back with squeaking guinea pigs and potatoes at 1730, the truck was parked up very neatly as if to stay for a while! We joined the locals indulging in the main entertainment in town – sitting on a bench chatting! In fact, the most active resident in town was an old man slowly walking around town all day with the help of two sticks. Getting cold as the sun set, we eventually retreated to the cab to keep warm.

At last, at 2245, a mere 5.75hrs after we were told we’d leave, and almost 12hrs from when we got into town, the two drivers appeared. They at least now agreed we could join them for their entire trip to Arequipa, not just to Andagua which saved us a night in hostel and a night bus the following day. So with the three of us uncomfortably crammed into the two passenger seats we set off on the supposed 12hr trip – gulp.

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Uh oh, no suspension!

As we left, it turned out that even the normal road out of town over the big gravel lake inflow was flooded and it would have been a very long walk out indeed, so perhaps the wait was worth it…? But the truck ride was not without incident – one of the leaf suspensions came apart on the rough dirt mountain road (which also accounted for our exceedingly numb bums). I think we all actually appreciated the break and after a long period of some dodgy jacking, the jack placed scarily on some rocks to raise it further, whacking the suspension with a spanner, and cutting up an inner-tube with my old Swiss Army penknife (Christmas present when I was about 8!) and by the light of my head-torch to tie the suspension back together, the truck was fixed.

After another 4hr bus ride from where we were dropped off, we were finally back in Arequipa at noon – so at least this uncomfortable ride saved us a days travel!

Other Activities

As well as the trail, these are our highlights not to be missed:

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    Vultures get a good view of the tourists at Cruz del Condor!

    Close condor encounters at Cruz del Condor: It may be busy with tourists early in the morning, but it is indescribably magic to have these vast creatures flying by so close you can almost touch them. Tours operate, but we just took the 0700 Reyna bus from Cabanaconde and then caught the Milagros (Chivay to Cabanaconde) bus (~0900-0930) going back which worked out perfectly for timing on that particular day. We could watch 10 condors take advantage of the morning thermals going up the cliff face to leave their nests before cruising off to find food. Following advice, we also highly recommend finding a clear spot on one of the two lower viewing areas for a chance of really close encounter!

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    Colca Canyon terraces

    Day hike between Coporaque to Yangue: This takes you through some beautiful rural landscape in the Colca Canyon on an easy trail and allows you a panoramic view of layered canyon terraces against snow-mountain back-drops almost all the way. The great news is for such an easy trail, it hardly gets any tourists! I started from Chivay: there are regular mini-buses leaving Chivay near the main square and it only takes 1.5 soles and around 15 mins to get to Coporaque (a sleepy canyon town). Ask around in Coporaque for the trail start and locals are extremely helpful with directions. Once you are on the trail, it is signed all the way to Yangue. The trail takes you past three ruins: an interesting cliff tomb, San Antonio and Oyu Oyu. From Oyu Oyu, you can hike down to a bridge that crosses the river to Yanque where you can get a mini-bus back to Chivay. The whole hike takes 3-4 hours and you can also hike from Chivay to Coporaque which adds another hour although you will be sharing the track with passing mini-buses.

  • Delicious Peruvian homemade food at Cabanita’s Place in Cabanaconde: Instead of paying a fortune for pizzas and pastas at your hostel in Cabanaconde, try this local gem! The owner Senora Gladis Feria speaks fluent English and is extremely friendly. She loves cooking and used to own a small Peruvian restaurant in Washington DC, USA. She moved back to her hometown recently but can’t give up what she loves – cooking great food and sharing it with others! She cooks everything in her restaurant with extreme care and changes the menu all the time. We ate three meals there and every dish was different and delicious! A set lunch menu cost 6 soles and a set dinner menu costs 7. You can taste her dedication to cooking Peruvian food in all her dishes! A must try for all those who visit Cabanaconde.
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Giant Hummingbird

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Local wares for sale at the 4800m pass from Ariquipa to Chivay

Chapada Diamantina, Brazil (31 Mar – 5 April)

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Between the table mountains of Vale do Capao

Arriving after dark on the 7hr bus ride from Salvador, we were surprised to find Lencois, the normal gateway into the park, a very touristy but pleasant little town with many useful shops including a trekking shop where we could find a couple of topographic trail maps. The town also has some really nice, if pricy restaurants. We stayed in Casa Colonial: it is right in the town square and put on a huge breakfast including beiju – tapioca pancakes – yum!

Day 1: Lencois – Vale do Capao

We were planning a 3 day hike past the base of the famous Fumaca waterfall to Vale do Capao. Unfortunately, the local who we found to show us the start of the trail took us to the start of the northern-most trail, the “conventional” trail (as locals call it) between Lencois to Vale do Capao. We realized this fairly soon but we decided to continue on this lovely path and visit the falls later. However, this turned our planned 3 day trek into a 1 day rush because of our relaxed start! Luckily the trail is well walked, has a gradual climb at the beginning and is quite flat for the rest. Reportedly, the Fumaca trail and the Vinte e Um waterfall trails are both steeper and harder to navigate on your own – we heard it requires scrambling or possibly even rock-climbing in sections.

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Sandstone landscape

The scenery on this walk is quite unique – lots of flat sheets of sandstone, sometimes with thin soil supporting short shrubs, cacti and flowers. It’s pretty dry here at the moment, but there are still a few streams if needed to top up water supplies.

We didn’t see so much wildlife apart from the millions of lizards, a few vultures and eagles and humming birds. We were warned its snake season, but we never saw any – they must be very rare, or maybe its just another ploy to try to get us on a guided tour!

The trail goes 18k to reach the 4k dirt track that leads into Capao. We started around 10 am and just managed to finish it before sunset (but that did include a 30 minute detour when we were seduced off the path by some paths around a camping area!). We could have powered through into Capao but instead camped at a lovely spot just outside “town” near a large clear stream. Though not marked on the map, the site has good views of the surrounding rocky terrain and many have camped here before. There are also couple of campsites earlier along the trail including a lovely one near the river which looked perfect for a swim.

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River next to a camp ground

Day 2: Capao – Fumaca

It is a 4k hike from where we camped to Capao on a dirt track. There is not much scenery so we hitch hiked half of the way and then based ourselves in a lovely pousada (Cantagalo Eco Adventure) which has nice rooms, camping spots and a good kitchen. It is just 5 mins away from the trail head of Fumaca waterfall and about 20 mins walk to the main town centre.

We chose to take an easy day and hiked to the top of the Fumaca Waterfall which is the second highest in Brazil .Its a lovely and easy walk (about a 4 hour round trip) although the start looked like it may be very slippery in the wet. The waterfall is stunning, even now in the dry season there was some water going over and it is quite amazing to see how it evaporates before reaching the bottom as it falls down the sheer Cliff Drop 340m below.

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Fumaca

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Fumaca feed water

Day 3: Capao – Gerais Dos Vieira

We decided to take the west-most and highest trail into Vale do Pati. There is a 6k dirt track from Capao to the start of the trail in Bomba and walking it would not reward you with anything much except for dust from passing vehicles, so we decided to spend 15 R$ each for a motorbike taxi. It was terrifying to hare down the very bumpy track at speed with no helmet, our sweaty hands desperately trying to hold on, but the drivers were good and we both survived. XTs driver was feeling especially pleased with himself for overtaking Al’s bike towards the end!

The trail first crossed a few streams, which we imagine might require a paddle in the wet season, then climbed up through forest and eventually opened up into sweeping grassland (actually mostly mini bamboos) dotted with wild flowers and framed by hills. In places you could get a true 360 view of this vast landscape – truly spectacular. We were hoping to swim in a pool near a waterfall, named Purificacao, but either the path to it is very unused, or the map is wrong (not the first time) so we could only admire it from above.

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Big spaces!

It was only about 9 k to the campground (marked on map and easy to find for a change) which we reached in 3 relaxed hours. The campground was great: there was a small waterfall going into a large pool complete with little fish, a couple of lime trees, and a wattle & daub hut complete with a fireplace. The pool water however was dark dark red like most of the pools in the park we saw. It gave Al the creeps but we both swam and it was nice to swim under the waterfall for a much needed shower! We were visited by a group of very colourful blue/green birds, some tiny marmoset monkeys, a big bat and a tiny blue humming bird which was very sociable and hovered in front of us for a while when we were cooking. And as sun set we were treated to a show by hundreds of glow-worms.

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Playing with fire

Day 4: View of Vale do Pati – Toca do Gaviao

We continued on the west-most trail, which first climbed the west slope of the valley and then stayed on top of a ridge nearly all the way. The trail starts by the stream that is crossed to get to yesterdays campsite and is a bit of a chaos of eroded paths crossing several wet bits – search around the west side of the stream crossings for the path! We had grassy hills on our right and stunning views of the valley’s table mountains on our left as we travelled south to Vale do Pati. The vegetation and the views constantly changed with wild flowers dotted in the grassland and glorious purple and yellow flowers lighting up the lush green valley. We saw some truly weird plants too – seems it can be both boggy and extremely dry here with extremes from mosses to cacti!

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Vale do Capao

We hiked about 14k and got to our campsite around mid afternoon. Our campsite was a cave where we’ve pitched our tent (again marked on the map and fairly easy to find). It was not as spacious as the night before but offers a view of a range of rocky hills between the vegetation and the company of some cheeky over fed little birds looking for crumbs. We climbed the rocks above the cave, dodging cactus and observing some of the alien plants up close. As the sun set and we watched our view turn red, we used the nice fireplace to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Later, the bright almost-full moon lit up the valley and we joked it was light enough to walk by (and certainly it would have given us a better view than the next day!). It was very peaceful with just a few bird, frog and monkey calls lulling us to sleep.

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Camping caveman style!

Day 5: Toca Gaviao – Cachoeirao – Vale do Pati (Ponte)

We woke up around 5:30 a.m. to a mist that concealed the chirping birds 5 meters away. This persisted as we set off to the waterfall marked on the map as “Cachoeirao”. The layered sandstone terrain and the strange vegetation surrounded by the fog made it seem very alien! Luckily there were some chalk arrows on the rocks to follow as there were no landmarks. In some places the arrows were pointing in multiple directions but we followed the thickest, clearest arrow, which consistently gave the right direction.

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Alien landscape

As there was not much information we could find about the park except about the Fumaca waterfall, we had no expectations about Cachoeirao and even thought it could be a small dried up waterfall we walked past as we headed on to find the trail that should lead us back into the valley according to the map. So we were stunned when our path abruptly dropped vertically away more than 100m beneath us! When we arrived the mist filled the valley so we were happy just admiring the four waterfalls dotted around the high cliffs dropping down into the valley. Then slowly, the valley opened up in front of our eyes as the sunrays hit it through the thinning mist and we could see more of the high cliff faces in the distance and the awe-inspiring narrow gorge around us – it was purely magical!

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Cachoeirao waterfall valley

We were still high on this serendipitous dose of the wonder of nature when we set off to find our way down into the valley (marked as trail No. 15 on the map). But after an hour going to and fro following various conflicting and increasingly indistinct arrows in this landscape of countless natural paths of bare rock interspersed with shrubby vegetation, we could not find the trail. So, before we got lost completely, we were forced to retrace our steps about 4k and then get down to the valley from the west end of the park. Though long, this was a beautiful hike and led us onto some trails that offered views of both the west and east end of the valley and the table mountains. The vegetation in the valley is more lush and we saw a variety of vegetation distinctly different from in the high ground. There were also more exotic birds and butterflies including many groups of beautiful green parrots that fled in mass making very loud noises when they detected us getting close. Here there are a few local homes that take in tourists, but they all seemed very packed so we powered through to the north-end of the valley all the way to a bridge (ponte) that marked the start of the trail that exits the valley to Andarai.

We had walked 8 hours in total (including the hour trying to find the elusive no. 15 trail) and about 25 km. But our very tiring but scenery-charged day ended well when we found a nice camp spot just past the bridge (marked on the wrong side of the river on the map but easy to spot as you trek past the bridge towards the southeast). We went for a sunset swim in the cooling water of Rio Paty with the beautiful cliffs either side of the valley as our backdrop. No one was travelling past, so we cooked and ate our dinner on the bridge as we dangled our feet over the large river rushing past. We then laid on the sunray soaked surface of the bridge as the full moon rose up to light up the whole valley and dim the stars.

Day 6: Vale do Pati – Andarai – Lencois

This was a 14k hike with the first 4k climbing gradually 400 m to a pass. It was a great way to appreciate the changing vegetation between the valley and the hills: Lush tropical forest gradually becomes shorter and drier and it gets easier to get the last glimpses of the beautiful valley from different angles. Beyond the pass exiting the valley towards Andarai, the landscape gently drops away to the flatlands in the distance and we could see patches of wetlands between Andarai and Lencois. It almost seemed surreal that those deep gorges, high cliffs and lush valleys existed just few km west of here! The terrain became increasingly dry with lizards whooshing around cactus and bromeliads covered rocks. And close to Andarai, we entered a landscape of gigantic conglomerate rock formations, made up from naturally cemented pebbles and where the diamonds of the park’s name had been found, making us feel we were walking on a different planet!

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Looking back at Vale do Capao for the last time

According to locals in Andarai (an interesting former diamond mining town), there is one daily bus departing from Andarai to Lencois and the departure time varies between 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm. We missed it of course but luckily met another 2 travellers and shared a taxi back to Lencois, which cost 160 R in total. Though it is possible to hike along a dirt track (about 25k) back to Lencois it did not sound worth it based on information in Lonely Planet.

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Bromeliad and cactus invasion

Notes for trekkers

Multiple day hikes in the park are completely possible without a guide. Lonely Planet gives very limited and out-dated information in this regard. However, local guide agencies in Lencois are hostile towards independent hikers and wouldn’t give us any information. With the trail maps we purchased in Lencois (“Trilhas e Caminhos” and “Trilhacerta”) and a compass, we enjoyed a six day trek around the more easily accessible North end of the park starting in Lencois and ending in Andarai. The scenery was amazing on all the trails and full of contrasts: from rolling grasslands to tropical jungle, high cliffs and alien looking cactus covered rocks. We hardly met anyone on the trails and always had the beautiful camping spots to ourselves.

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Tourist map of the park

The Trilhas e Caminhos map is probably the best you can find and gives the basic information you need to navigate but it isn’t very accurate or detailed and does not mark all the points of interest or camping spots in the park. Some of the campsites are marked in the wrong places and some of the trails marked can be very hard to find on your own (if they even exist any more!?). Also, beware that the map isn’t quite aligned North up! Compared to the other one, the Trilhacerta map has more detailed contour lines, marked couple of trails more accurately. However, it has very little other information and is missing many of the trails marked on the other map. The trails though mostly well walked, are generally not well-marked and it’s easy to miss junctions if you’re not looking out for them. A few more difficult parts of some trails are marked with chalk arrows on the rock and the occasional cairn. These are mostly helpful, but sometimes confusing so beware – at one point we encountered arrows of various styles pointing north, south and west!

We trekked in the park from March 30th to April 5th and there were still loads of other trails, waterfalls, wetlands and caves we didn’t have time to explore. It was very very hot and mostly dry, but it did rain heavily in the night a couple of times and we were lucky to avoid the thunderstorms in the valley on the afternoon of our last day.

In addition to your usual trekking gear – don’t forget to take; trail map & compass, water purification, waterproofs and mosquito spray!

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Kitchen/dining room Day 6

We had a really fantastic time in this amazing and unique park and highly recommend it to anyone who likes hiking. Also, do go without a guide if you prefer, but be prepared to use your navigation skills and keep your plans flexible!

For a brief intro to the park click here.

Detour to the Caribbean Coast, Colombia (11-15 Feb)

[Written by Xiaoting under Al’s account, as again, she could not remember her log-in info]

Roldanillo is great for flying and flying only! So when it poured down for four days and the forecast for the week still looked wet, we decided to take a “vacation” from our flying vacation and head to the sunny Caribbean coast for a change of scenery.

Frankly the coast would not have been our top choice as neither of us are the type that can laze around on a beach for too long. But Colombia’s Caribbean coast has something special to offer: it is overlooked by the world’s highest coastal mountain range- Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta-reaching the altitude of 5775 meters and just 42 Km from the coast. The mountain is revered by the indigenous as sacred and virgin tropical forests tightly hug the foothills. It is very difficult to hike up without local knowledge. Many go for the famous “lost city” (Ciudad Perdida) hike with local hiking agencies. It is a 5-6 days hike and we’ve heard mixed reviews about it. Dreading the mosquito bites, mud and humidity, (mostly the Mosquitos, they just love my Chinese blood and can find ways to suck me dry no matter how many layers of spray I put on!), we opted for 3 days beach hopping and hiking in Tayrona National Park, a locals’ favourite at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

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Beaches are hugged by tropical forests in the park

It is not a park that you want to visit during Colombian holidays as it is small and very popular. You definitely need to dedicate more than a day to the park if you want to get away from the touristy bits and enjoy the most fun parts of the park – beautiful quiet beaches that are not known by many and lush primary tropical forest that is home to 56 endangered species.

Beach hopping: Many of the beaches in the park are not suitable for swimming due to the strong current. But some of those are where you can find some peace and just enjoy the stunning contrast between the beach glistening with fools gold and the turquoise ocean with verdant tropical jungle as a backdrop. Vultures, eagles, pelicans and crabs kept us company on the beach near Arrecifes. We also saw a peccary (a bit like a furry pig), loads of lizards and a big iguana near the beaches. We cooked our breakfast and dinner on the beach while vultures were feasting on a fat eel nearby.

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The only official swimmable beaches are La Piscina and Cabo San Juan la Guia. There are also some other beaches on the west side of the park where snorkelling is supposedly better but you need to go out the park and re-enter from the west entrance to access those. We would avoid Cabo at all costs: even in low season, it was packed. And the campground there resembles a refugee camp… Despite the crowd, there is only one restaurant, one shower/bathroom facility and one juicy bar… So be prepared to line up to take a shower, to eat and to pee!! La Piscina in comparison is much nicer with long thin stretch of beach and tourists spread along it. But the best option was a beach we found 5 mins walk from Cabo. It is hidden behind a palm tree forest but there are easy trails through the palm trees that will take you there. Hardly anyone goes there except some snorkelling groups and couple of tourists, mostly passing by. We had the beach mostly to ourselves and even found a private spot among the palm trees to camp for the night. The only problem was there are so many land crabs digging their homes in the palm forest, it was impossible to avoid camping on the entrance of their homes! We found a place with the least density of crab holes but Al still felt a poor crab struggling to get out for some fresh air under his feet at night! Luckily we found a couple of new holes around the tent the next morning so I think our crab safely escaped in the end.

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Camping on our “private beach”

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Palm forest help hide away our “private beach”

Exploring the jungle: It is amazing how quickly you can emerge yourself in the deep jungle just by hiking inland away from the breezy beaches. Most of the trails in the park is built up to suit the beach-lazing crowds; but the slowly ascending trek to Pueblito, ruins of a pre-Hispanic town, takes you over big granite boulders intertwined with the expansive roots of the ancient forests and offers you glimpses of the less developed side of the Caribbean Coast. We can hear groups of howler monkeys and many different types of birds having fun in the juggle. But they are hard to spot. We were lucky to see a woodpecker with a red crown, a turkey vulture and a mantled howler monkey very close!! (We observed the monkey for half an hour not to his delight. In the end, he stood up, stared into my eyes and decided we were not a threat but more an annoyance to his peaceful alone time and jumped to a lower branch to hide from our sight!)

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trail leading to Pueblito

From Pueblito you can hike either to a beach called playa brava or to another gateway to the park called Calabazo. It is about 2 hour and half hike (with breaks in between and time to take in the views) from Pueblito to Calabazo. The trail is well maintained. There are some junctions without signs but you just need to keep to the left. The first half of the trail still takes you through primary forests ( where we encountered the monkey) and the trail follows the spines of the hilly terrain of the forests which offers some unique perspectives that you can’t get in every tropical forests: you could be walking close by to the canopies of some 20-30 meter tall trees rooted in the gullies close by while still enjoying the undergrowth on your trail! The most amazing type of canopy walk!!

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There are canopy walks but also trails with tree roots as railings!

Human impacts have already encroached into the second half of the trail. The trail becomes wider; dotted around are farms, villages, burnt patches forests; and the sounds of chainsaw operations disturbs the peace of the forests and drowns out the songs of birds. But maybe that is why we were lucky enough to see the howler monkey as their natural habitats keep on shrinking. We also encountered groups of Kogi people, the indigenous communities who reside in Sirrera Nevada de Santa Marta. They wear simple white ropes, carry traditional colourful bags and live in circular huts made of stone, mud and palm leaf thatched roofs. They were really friendly people and seemed to have kept their culture and way of living despite the booming tourism around their territory and once isolated lifestyle.

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Kogi Village

We ended our trip in Cartagena the old town part behind the chunky city walls is nice but very touristy and expensive, there are lots of old colonial buildings and restored buildings and lots of upmarket shops and restaurants in them! There are trains of horse carriages taking some tourists who desperately need some exercise around and causing traffic jams in some narrow alleys. We still enjoyed it though. It’s busy but not too crowded so it’s actually relaxing. We found a free art gallery that had some very nice and interesting pieces in as well as some fun wacky ones.

So the key to explore the old colonial town is just to wander around and, more likely than not, you would stumble upon something you may unexpectedly enjoy. Like how we stumble upon the caribbean coast that reminded us that there are many things we can enjoy besides paragliding!

Los Nevados, South, Colombia (12-14 January)

Were just catching up on chores and resting today after getting back from our Los Nevados trek yesterday afternoon. I’ve got lots of sewing to do as my clothes are rapidly turning to rags, and XT is doing Spanish classes although she is really very good already – of course!

We thought we’d struck gold when we were shown our “room” yesterday evening. It’s part of the same Plantation House hostel in Salento as we stayed in before, but instead of a room with a shared bathroom, were in a suite with garden, kitchen and our own bathroom. This morning we discovered the reason; were surrounded by building works for a new dorm room and were not supposed to use the very well stocked kitchen. The Italian owner is here and popping in and out to make coffee etc, but she and her partner are really nice so although were still working out exactly our place, it’s still very pleasant.

The trek was really fantastic – we just can’t get enough of paramo, so it’s sad to think it will probably be our last visit on this trip. Although we very quickly realised that Lonely Planet was out of date and we really didn’t need a guide, we were in a fun group; Dominic from Germany and Mia from Dominica as well as our great Colombian guide Chucho (his nickname confusingly meaning both Bogyman and Jesus!). He is a biologist working for Paramo Trek who knows a lot about the park and could speak English well. He was fun, professional, and we were later to find out, went out of his way to make our trek enjoyable.

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On the way to Tolima

We arrived in the now rather fake and touristy (take note LP!) little town of Salento in the middle of a parade/carnival. Crawling through traffic to a massively busy and noisy bustle – just our luck after bumbling into the Menizales carnival! Anyway, luckily, our hostel was in the edge of town and quite quiet.

The first day we walked the Cocora valley which is mostly pasture dotted with some wax palms which are native to the area and quite ridiculously tall. We quickly got into lovely jungle following a rocky river and crossing many (sometimes rickety) bridges. The jungle is home to countless birds including parrots, woodpeckers (stunningly coloured), hawks, pheasants and of course being Colombia, a wide variety of hummingbirds. It’s funny to notice how so many garden plants common in UK such as red hot pokers and fuchsias are actually designed for hummingbirds!

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Many orchids were flowering in the jungle

It was a long walk to the paramo, but it was fascinating to climb up through the transitions slowly – the other times we’ve started off pretty high already, or the land was farmed. You can really see how the vegetation changes with altitude when you pass through it gradually.

After a brief zone of shorter vegetation, the paramo appeared suddenly and was the most densely packed with frailejones we’d seen yet, and so many were flowering – it was beautiful! The wind was picking up as we were walking and mist was sweeping across us, as Chucho said “like the blink of an eye”. It was very mysterious. Apparently when a particular famous gorilla fighter went to the hills with his force to escape the conquistadores they dressed some frailejones in their wool ponchos and sombreros to trick the spaniards that there was an army on the hills! We didn’t see much wildlife up there except a couple of daredevil eagles trying to fly in the extreme wind and thick cloud! As well as some birds and amphibians, there are supposed to be mammals there including rabbits, deer, foxes, but they are now very rare so it would have been very lucky to see any. Also, there are only 6 condors which have been reintroduced after loss of habitat and persecution by farmers in the past.

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Paramo

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Frailejone flower

Though there were quite a few people on the track we were mostly on our own, but the La Primavera farmhouse/cabana where we were to spend the night was packed; hikers like us, guides, the farm family including many children, cows, chickens, and of course dogs. It was noisy but entertaining; for example Choocho luckily found the egg that was laid in his bed in the evening, not the morning!

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Cattle farm

The second day, we woke early to have enough time to reach the glacier edge at 4800m on the perfectly shaped currently dormant volcano of Nevado del Tolima. It is a shame that the land around the farmhouse is grazed by cattle. This means that there are no frailejones at all and the landscape reminded me a lot of the moors of north Scotland. After a “short-cut” across a bog of bouncy/sinky moss and wading though a river we rejoined a path which passed by some mountains that form spurs of Tolima and the frailejones started populating the landscape again with avengeance – at a distance they make the landscape spotty with their dark stalks and light yellow green furry tops. As we climbed, the vegetation gets more and more sparse and small, and at about 4500m just a few of the mini variety of frailejones, and mosses and lichens are left. It was hard work climbing, not only the altitude that makes breathing so hard, the path turned steep and sandy so for each step, we slid down half a step!

We’d each been provided with a little coca powder made from crushed coca leaves and bicarbonate of soda. Legally sold in Colombia, coca is the traditional treatment for altitude as it helps the body use oxygen. You simply put a bunch of the bitter, grassy tasting powder in a cheek and hold it there. As a first timer, I can tell you it really helps. I’ve walked at this altitude before without it but with, it staves off my normal headache and gave me more energy to walk – amazing stuff. Sadly despite its non-narcotic effects, its classed in the same category as cocain in the UK, so I won’t be bringing any back with me!

Though there were clouds all around us as we climbed up, they dispersed at times revealing the steep sides of the volcano and glacier. We could also see the wreckage of an aircraft  on on the slopes. A pretty grisly scene – the fuselage and tail (of what looks a bit like a Macdonald Douglass DC-? But I can fun no information on what it actually is) clear to be seen quite a way below the wings. Finally, at 4800m we reached our destination, a peak just below glacier height with a great view of the mountain (or at least when the clouds briefly opened up at times). We’d been higher a couple of times at Cocuy, but this walk was definitely the longest, hardest, and most spectacular!

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Tolima glacier and some tired hikers, Left to tight; Al, XT, Dominic, Chucho, Mia

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Air-crash

To top it off, Chucho fished in his bag and revealed some bars of some of the best Colombian dark chocolate, one 100g bar each – oh yes! 🙂 He also cooked an elaborate vegetable casserole lunch (so heavy to carry!) by a beautiful laguna (which is home to some native ducks) half way down!

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Another frailejone

We returned to the cabana for the night and walked down the next day. Entering a into a stunning valley in sub-paramo (the lower of the 3 main classes) – was such a mass of flowers and humming birds! Its hard to believe that though we’ve been walking in so much paramo, this was still so different to what we’d seen before.

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Tolima at dusk

We stopped at a farmhouse for some hot soup to be greeted with the scene of a pig being butchered outside accompanied by some cheerful music – not the best way to stimulate our appetite, but interesting to see how self sufficient these farms have to be! Later, on a grassy ledge overlooking the valley, to complete lunch Chucho exceeded himself by bringing out a bottle of red wine (Chilean of course – we tried Colombian wine once and that was enough!) – nice one! 🙂

The rest of the way was through jungle, but our hopes of seeing a toucan (not pelican Dominic!) as guaranteed by Chucho, were dashed when the dark clouds that had been forming turned into a thunderstorm. I’m sure all the toucans were huddled up somewhere relatively dry. Picked up again by one of the brightly coloured Willis Jeep tourist taxis, tired and wet but happy, we returned to Salento.

We found a book that provides a good overview and stunning pictures of Los Nevados in our hostel room. It also tells a great tale of the hard balance between conservation and the livelihood of farmers in the paramo. La Ruta del Condor (the route of the condor) is published by Universidad de Bogota Jorge Tadeo Lozano.             

Los Nevados, North, Colombia (10 January)

From the town of Menizales, we wanted to escape the carnival and explore the north of the Los Nevados National park which is where the biggest mountains and the most glaciers are, however the restrictions due to the erupting volcano Nevado del Ruiz meant that we just did a day trip to the base of a glacier. Ruiz is infamous for the Armero tragedy—where on November 13, 1985, a small eruption produced an enormous mud and debris flow that buried and destroyed the town of Armero in Tolima, causing an estimated 25,000 deaths, so its eruption shouldn’t be taken lightly!

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Nevado del Ruiz erupting (mid-right)

We had a nice but long and tiring day going into the mountains to a glacier. It’s the usual hurry up and wait Colombian tour operator timescale; leave at 4am then pick up some others in the group, fill the truck with fuel, spend 30 minutes at a random shop for coffee, and halfway to the start of the walk, eat a leisurely breakfast. Then at the top, wait for loads of other groups to join us in a big crowd to go up the mountain. I didn’t look at the time we actually started walking but it was certainly not early anymore!

As we started walking the various speeds of everyone soon meant XT and I could walk in relative peace, so it wasn’t too bad. To give you an idea of the kind of people here; one girl in our group was wearing pink wellies and we passed a couple of girls on the way down redoing their makeup at 4000m – somehow I don’t think they’d got to the top! Also the scenery was great as usual with paramo. This was slightly different paramo again, not quite the same mix of flora as we’ve seen before, but not quite as diverse. It can’t be compared to El Cocuy of course, but in Cocuy we didn’t have frequent views of an erupting volcano which is pretty special!

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Looking back down to a wall of cloud

It was fairly easy walking and a clear path – definitely no need for a guide, but it seems it’s obligatory for this side of the park. At the top, we got to see what a rapidly receding glacier looks like. It is incredible that the glaciers were at altitudes as low as 4,500 meters in 1985 but have now retreated to elevations of 4,800–4,900 meters. I’d forgotten my gloves and the wind was very strong, so we didn’t hang around for too long. In fact, I only regained feeling in my fingers quite a way down after warming them up on a rock!

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Glacier

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Glacier

Fauna in the park is rare but there was a condor flying near as we drove up – but neither of us got the chance to see it. Some French hikers saw a hare up the mountain and I saw a terrified marmot or fluffy rabbit running from us across a dry laguna. And we all saw some big black and white eagles from the truck on the way back so it can been seen if you’re lucky.

It was rather frustrating that despite specifically checking, we were not provided with the lunch, instead starving, we had an early dinner at the hostel we had had breakfast at. And eventually got back to our campsite at 7 (scheduled time was 4). Anyway, it’s Colombia – what were we expecting!?

Preparation

Disclaimer: Posted by Xiaoting using Al’s account as she can’t figure out how to sign in :p

It was not until the warm summer Lima sun hit my face that it became all real to me: I soon will be homeless and jobless for the next seven months :p

Preparation for this long-haul trip has been intense and stressful at times and we thought we would write up some our reflections for those who may venture out soon:

Balance planning and flexibility for your trip: Some planning is required especially when you want to paraglide and are on a budget. Like prepping for any flying trip, you need to find out when are the good seasons for flying and plan your trip accordingly. XC Mag’s travel guide is a really good starting reference: http://www.xcmag.com/travel-guide/ If you picked a peak flying season for the area, you also need to plan ahead for accommodation otherwise you may stuck in an inconvenient place or paying for more expensive options. For example, Rodanillo in Colombia and GV in Brazil both require some planning ahead.
But you also do not want to overload your plan; your budget would be tight but you have more time! Have a rough plan but also try to go with the flown so you can enjoy any serendipities! Dont stress too much about each days details.

Be smart about what goes into your luggage: The indispensables are your paragliding gear! Then you can decide whether you want the extra “joys” of camping at the expense of extra weight. For everything else, minimise as much as you can. Many daily essentials can be bought trip when you travel. And you will be amazed how little we need to lives on. 🙂

Get your medicines and jabs: Take advantage of health insurance or the NHS (if you are in UK!) the travel clinic will let you what you need.

Insure your travel: Finding affordable travel insurances that include paragliding is tricky and it is even worse when you do not yet have UK residency but live in UK!
For the lucky Brits: our pick is GoWalkabout. It has comprehensive coverage and the ceiling amount in high for emergencies including rescue.
For everyone: Global Underwriters is a good choice. It insures most nationalities and has low premium for paragliding. You can also tailor the insurance including the maximum insurance level and deductibles (copay/excess).

If you are on a budget, rent out your place: Prepping the house ready for rent was the most time consuming task but would help ease your budget burden for the trip. Finding a lending agent will save you a lot of headaches.

Find a way to connect with family and friends when you are away: Internet signal may not be strong enough for good Skype calls and calling home may not be affordable. So condsider blogging! 🙂

Get the advise and help from locals: Reach out to local pilots and there are always some who are happy to help and share advice – another amazing thing about this sport! we have to thank Juan Pablo in Colombia, Steve Barton and Capra mauricio in Brazil, Lucho, Tessa and Romina in Peru and many others who offered advice for making our planning easier.

Find a partner who shares the passion and dream: It’s a big decision to make! And travel always has its ups and downs, especially when travelling in foreign countries where you do not speak the language. A partner who can share the joys and pains of the trip will make it all less scary and much more fun!

Start preparing early! We started the bulk of our preparation in September and created a shared checked list of tasks to track progress. Spread your workload out to reduce stress level then most planning could be part of the adventure itself 🙂 and finding the right partner in crime, who is crazy enough to go through all this with you, may take the longest time to prepare :p

We are happy to share more details with those interested. And we should have more travel tips at the end of our trip 🙂 Stay tuned!

Hiking and travelling in Utah 玩转犹他州

Utah is the outdoor enthusiasts’ dreamland! Within a short span of 2 weeks, we strolled around alpine meadows, meandered through aspen and pine forests, dipped in natural hot springs, slept under the milky way, ducked our head under well preserved stalactites and stalagmites in Timpanogos Cave and dropped our jaws at spectacular and unique sceneries in the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

犹他州是户外运动爱好者的天堂!在短短的2周内,我们漫步高山草甸,徒步白桦林,观赏钟乳石洞,跨越拱门和峡谷地两大国家公园。天然温泉泡澡,银河当被, 完全融入大自然中。

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Timpanogos Cave 钟乳岩洞

The sceneries between the parks were often amazing too and there are actually scenic spots marked along some of the highways for you to stop and take in the view. The speed limit is often 80 mph so you could miss a scenic spot really fast!

在犹他州自驾是非常享受的:五个著名国家公园紧贴着。沿途风景很好。还有路标提醒你沿途值得一停的采风点。很多路段限速130码。爽开!不过飙车同时也容易错过采风点。

Pretending to be an arch in the Arches

Pretending to a Arch in the Arches 拱门国家公园

July probably is not the best time to visit some of the national parks though as the heat makes hiking between 11:00 a.m.- 4:00 p.m. almost impossible for those used to mellow European summers. When we are in Arches and Canyonlands, we tried to do hikes early in the morning and late in the afternoon and used the time in between to store up on supplies, drive in between our destinations and eat icecream. LOTS of ICECREAM!

七月份并不是去犹他州最好的季节。(春秋天最好)正午最高温度可以到40摄氏度以上。干热加暴晒。我们习惯了英国夏天平均25摄氏度的天气,只能在早上11点之前和下午4点之后活动。中午时间用来赶路和狂吃冰激凌解暑!

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Sunset hike in Canyonlands 夕阳下的峡谷地国家公园

Around Salt Lake City, it was slightly easier to escape from heat as there are higher elevation trails you can drive up to, cooling caves you can explore and some well-shaded valleys. You can also just enjoy the AC in your car and drive around the scenic alpine loop . Make sure that you stop in Java Cow Coffee for the world’s best Icecream in Park City on your way!

盐湖城附近有一些海拔高或者阴凉的景区。避暑比较方便。你也可以享受车内空调自驾风景秀丽的盘山公路。

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Monroe Mountain near Richmond, Central Utah 门罗山

There are so many hiking options and flying usually won’t start before 1:30 p.m. in July around SLC itself. This somehow laid out a great daily schedule for Al and me: hike in the morning, 1 pint icecream each at noon and fly in the afternoon till sunsets around 9:00 p.m.! (hey, maybe July is the time to go visit Utah :p)

犹他州也是滑翔胜地。盐湖城的伞友就有将近2000人,两小时车程以内场地将近20个。这里小气候很稳定,七月份,下午一点半后可以飞灵感山,六点到九点太阳下山之间可以飞超豪华的点北场地。当地伞友相当好客。但懂点英语是必须的 :p

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Canyons forever! 峡谷地国家公园