Charlotte Dixon

Joined February 2017
  • Day22

    Huaraz, Peru

    May 1 in Peru

    Huaraz is a hikers paradise. Back to the fresh mountain air and the altitude!

    Huaraz is situated in the Callejón de Huaylas valley at 3000m altitude so this was a bit of a shock to the system having been at sea level for just over a week. Even just walking 20 minutes from the bus station to the hostel with my big backpack was a struggle, even though the walk itself was mostly flat! The city is surrounded by Cordilleras Blancas and Huayhuash, hosting some 22 summits over 6000m with makes it the highest mountain range in the world outside the Himalayas. You can see why there’s some incredible hikes to be done around here.

    Virtually the whole city was flattened by an earthquake in 1970, so today most houses are single story but the city has rebounded to be an adventure capital in Peru. It’s hard to understand how so many people backpacking Peru seem to skip this northern part but at the same time I’m not complaining if it means less crowds in some incredible spots.

    I didn’t spend much time in Huaraz town itself, mostly using it as a jumping off point for various hikes in the region which I’ll write about in separate posts! It’s an interesting town though, being surrounded by stunning mountains and with a heavy market culture - anything from food, hiking gear, regular clothing, handmade alpaca clothing, bags, household items. You name it. We’d heard that Huaraz was one of the cheaper places to buy alpaca clothing so aside from the markets the town is relatively calm during the day, but for some reason seems to be swarming with people in the evenings, no matter what day it is. Street food stalls multiply, selling anything from empanadas to pizza by the slice.

    Speaking of food, I came across a few good spots - one being California Cafe which was just a sweet little cafe with a nice vibe and an extensive book and game collection, perfect for chilling out for a few hours.

    There’s also many Chinese restaurants in Peru, due to a large Chinese population here which dates back to the late 19th century when many Chinese were shipped over to work as labourers to fill the void after African slaves were liberated. Many of these immigrants died due to poor working conditions and treatment, but those who survived eventually managed to escape their employers and make businesses of their own - mostly in the form of restaurants. These days Chinese food is somewhat mixed in with some of the Peruvian cuisine - one dish in particular being Lomo Saltado, which is sort of beef stirfry served with rice and bizarrely sometimes French fries too. Who knows how they came up with that combo?!

    Unfortunately I came down with a cold whilst in Huaraz, my usual cough back in full force and quickly making me the favourite in the dorm... but I pushed through it anyway and got amongst a couple of different day trips and a longer trek too. All to be revealed in upcoming posts!
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  • Day20

    Huanchaco, Peru

    April 29 in Peru

    A more local side of Peru, a visit to some ancient ruins and the first bout of sickness for the trip.

    The overnight bus from Máncora was unfortunately punctuated with a sudden onset of severe stomach pains and consequently a couple of vomits...thankfully these long distance buses are equipped with toilets on board! It did make for a bit of a battle over the following couple of days to reintroduce foods again but at least it was relatively short lived.

    Trujillo is one of Peru’s biggest cities and is only 10km or so away, but we decided we’d prefer to stay in a smaller place rather than a big city. In the end our stop here was mainly to break up what would otherwise be a 16 hour journey to the Huaraz, but also to see some of the ruins in this area.

    Until the 1970s Huanchaco was supposedly a bustling fishing village but today it is relatively laid-back, although many of the boats called caballitos and made from totora (a type of reed) remain lining the beach. Otherwise the beach is pretty substandard compared to Máncora and Montañita in terms of lounging and sunbathing but there’s still a fair amount of people surfing here. In fact, an hour or so further down the coast is actually the world’s longest left.

    Chan Chan was the capital city of the Chimú Empire, an urban civilisation that appeared on the Peruvian coast around 1100-1300AD and is the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas. At one point the city covered roughly 25km2 but now only spreads about 14km2. At its peak Chan Chan housed approximately 60,000 people before the Chimú people were conquered by the Incas around 1460. Later the Spanish looted the city, as it was well known for its wealth. One particular tomb of one of the Kings was found with an extortionate amount of gold inside. Every time a king died, his wife and servants would also be sacrificed and buried - so the palace would become a mausoleum and the next king would require a new palace. Over the years, nine different royal palaces were built. I hate to think how many people this means were sacrificed.

    We only saw a small portion of these ruins due to the fact that this was all that was open to the public but the size and scale of the place was insane, not to mention the detail in the clay walls. Originally these were thought to have been painted colourfully too but today no colour remains, although many drawings of various animals and lines do. Their building knowledge was very also clever for this time - some walls being up to 4m thick or designed in such a way to withstand the amount of earthquakes in the area. Given this site has only been subject to restorations in the last 30 years, they’ve definitely done a good job.

    Our ticket for Chan Chan also gave us access to a couple of other smaller ruins but without a guide they didn’t mean an awful lot to us so these were relatively short and sweet visits! In hindsight we probably should have booked a proper tour including a visit to the temples of the sun and the moon which we later found out were incredible as they still have coloured walls too but hey, can’t win them all.

    The rest of our time in Huanchaco was spent relaxing, perusing the markets for fresh local produce to make use of our hostel kitchen and a couple of visits to a bakery we stumbled across that did some great pastries, cakes and ice cream! You have to make the most of these things when you find them as they’re a rare occurrence in these parts.

    In the end I decided to go a day ahead of Kit and Bronte to Huaraz, partly due to the fact that there wasn’t a massive amount to do in Huanchaco but also to start acclimatising for some of the hikes I wanted to do. Somehow I ended up on a VIP bus, complete with VIP lounge pre-boarding with free crackers, tea, computers and the best couches I’ve seen in a while. Then on board I got given a pillow, blanket, hot tea and a snack bag. Very unexpected! The night buses here are actually very comfortable, with mostly ‘semi-cama’ seats which generally lie back to 160 degrees with leg rests as well do they definitely beat plane seats. Peru’s bus system was notoriously dangerous but has had a big overhaul particularly for long distance buses which requires them to display their speed, have seatbelts and not make extra stop to pick up any rogue passengers. Win for us really.

    Anyway, it’s definitely time for a break from the beach - take me back to the mountains!
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  • Day16

    Máncora, Peru

    April 25 in Peru

    New country, more incredible sunsets, beach time and friends.

    Our overnight bus direct from Montañita had us reaching the Peruvian border around 4am which meant we had to get up and clear customs for each side. Once upon a time this border was not overly safe or straightforward, but now it has been simplified to the point that the Ecuadorean and Peruvian border security is all in the same building, just a desk apart. The whole process was very smooth, taking a mere 20 minutes for our entire busload to cross into Peru. It was definitely one of the more relaxed border crossings I’ve done, especially considering we didn’t even have to get our big bags out of the bus. I guess they’re going on trust that you’re not bringing in anything you shouldn’t be?!

    Máncora already had much more of a relaxed vibe than Montañita. One main street that stretches for a couple of kilometres parallel to the beach, mostly consisting of restaurants and stalls selling the usual junk clothing.

    Kit, Bronte and I had already booked a hostel we’d been recommended but it ended up being at the complete opposite end of the beach to the surf and all the restaurants and the like so we ended up swapping hostels to one with our other English friends which was more amongst the action. Loki hostel could have been mistaken for a resort in Greece - huge multi-level white buildings surrounding a swimming pool with loungers. Definitely out of place from anything else we’ve seen recently and a mere 10 steps from the beach too. There were a few times we got sick of the place though as it became a bit of a forced party hub each evening but it was still a good time.

    We filled our days here mostly with beach time, pool time, surfing, paddle-boarding and watching some more incredible sunsets. One thing I love about travelling is having the time to appreciate such things. We did intend to go and see some turtles or go fishing down the coast one of the days but this happened to coincide with some of the local fishermen striking about their pay, which meant it was impossible to hire a boat due to them blocking the bridge we’d be required to pass through. Not to be, clearly!

    For our last night in Máncora we ended up getting an Airbnb just a little out of the town with other friends that we’d met back in Montañita. With the strike from the fisherman happening on the bridge near our hostel, we had to walk through some of the protest to get a tuk-tuk from the other side to the Airbnb. Thankfully everyone was cooperative enough! It was really good fun and nice to have a break from hostel life and have a sense of normality staying with a group of mates at our own place, similar to a New Years vibe at home. Kit, Bronte and I only stayed one night as we needed to keep moving but I definitely contemplated missing my bus to stay an extra night with everyone else. However the following day I would have had nothing to do all day until the night bus as the others were leaving early morning so had to cut my losses and continue on!

    Typical we left the Airbnb with plenty of time to get back to the city to catch the night bus south to Huanchaco, only sit on the curb for almost an hour and a half waiting for said bus to turn up. Joy. I think we’ve well and truly overstayed our welcome here!
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  • Day12

    Montañita, Ecuador

    April 21 in Ecuador

    Switching up mountains, hiking and altitude for some beach time and some proper warmth! The tan is definitely in need of a top up and the lungs are ready to not work so hard.

    We’re back to sea level after being 1800-4700m for the previous two weeks. The ease of breathing is something you take for granted until it’s taken away from you that’s for sure. It came at the cost of a 9 hour night bus from Baños vía Santa Elena though, and all of us having horrendously sore ears throughout the ride from such a drop in pressure after so long.

    Hopping off the bus to immediate warmth and beach town vibes was enough to put any bad vibes quickly in the distance though. Mark was one happy chappy, back in the place where he’d recently spent two months volunteering at Kamala Hostel which is situated just outside the main town. Unfortunately being the weekend, it was booked out so we stayed at another hostel in town instead. This hostel turned out to be a bit strange and didn’t live up to its good reviews so we definitely tried to keep our time there to a minimum!

    Montañita is a strange wee town. It can be quite relaxed and chill during the day, with people making the most of surfing and tanning on the beach. The evenings are a completely different vibe, depending on which day of the week it is. There’s a street that comes to life in the evenings, lined with trolleys selling street food and shacks selling cheap cocktails on the appropriately named “Cocktail Alley.” To be fair these cocktails we had off the side of the road for a mere $2.50 USD were some of the best cocktails any of us had ever had! There’s also multi-story clubs which continue on until all hours of the morning so it’s definitely not somewhere you need to stick around in for too long.

    Much of our time in Montañita was spent at the beach relaxing, cruising the town eating some of the street food, surfing, a couple of big nights out, hanging out with friends and watching some incredible sunsets.

    The first day we were there we went to a pool party at Kamala hostel where we ended up meeting lots of people, including a couple of kiwi guys who were volunteering there for a couple of weeks. Always nice to meet fellow kiwis and of course we got on easily! In some ways I wish we had been able to stay out there as it was a fun vibe and was run by an Australian couple so the food was good too. Thankfully it was easy enough for us to go and hang out there a few times even though we weren’t staying there. There’s even two resident donkeys that just roam freely through the complex, mostly trying to get into the bins to get food. Too funny.

    And with that, it’s Adiós to Mark who is finally going to stop backtracking with us and head to Columbia, but it is also my last stop in Ecuador. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this country, it’s been somewhat of a pleasant surprise in a number of ways, particularly as it wasn’t part of my original plan to come here. Incredible scenery and a lack of obvious tourism has meant that it’s definitely become a country I would recommend to visit and a perfect way to kick off my time in South America.

    Hasta pronto Peru!
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  • Day9

    Baños, Ecuador

    April 18 in Ecuador

    Baños was a bit of a series of meres but we made the best of what we could! It is a bit of a strange little town which has beautiful surroundings of mountains and waterfalls. It’s also the lowest point I’ve been so far in this trip, but still 1800m in altitude. Already it’s noticeably easier to breathe in general and to sleep at night.

    After a brief stopover in Latacunga to pick up our big backpacks, it was back to the Panamerican highway to wait for another bus further south. It always makes me laugh the speed at which these buses come in and then the way they throw your bags in, hurry you on and start driving before you can barely even blink. Points for efficiency, that’s for sure!

    We hadn’t pre-booked anywhere to stay but had a couple of hostels in mind so wandered around the town until we decided on one which ended up being somewhat on the outskirts and just so happened to offer a free dinner that evening. Win.

    Feeling like we hadn’t seen much of the nightlife so far in Ecuador, the four of us ventured out to see what Baños had to offer. There’s a street with a few bars and restaurants so we found a place with a happy hour for what turned out to be some strong cocktails and later sampled some of the local bars.

    The following day we hired some push bikes and headed out of the township to follow a trail to see some waterfalls. Mark stayed behind as he’d actually already been to Baños and done this but just wasn’t ready to part with us for good yet! So Kit, Bronte and I braved the grim weather to cycle down a valley. A few stops to check the map and a brief encounter with a small snake (dead) on the road and we were on our way.

    There’s a few zip lines along the way as well as the waterfalls so Bronte opted to do the first one we came across, seeing we had been told was the best of the three. Kit and I were feeling a little shady from the previous night/not overly trusting of the structures so decided to pass. It did look pretty epic though - a good few hundred metres long and a few hundred metres high over one of the waterfalls. Bronte just paid for one way though so came back in a trolley like structure that almost resembled Willy Wonka’s magic elevator.

    We continued on through the valley, passing more ziplines and some stunning waterfalls. At times the path was separate to the main road, mainly due to some tunnels which were required for cars and trucks to pass through, while we would continue along the river. Eventually we reached the end of the Ruta de Cascadas which is where there is one enormous waterfall. This one couldn’t be seen from
    the road and required walking to, so we decided we needed a wee food break for some empanadas first! These ones were handmade in front of us and then deep-fried. We opted for savoury ones but for some reason they ended up throwing in a sweet one for free. Yum!

    Bellies full, it was time to make the 20 minute walk through the bush down to the big waterfall. And big it was. Not to mention the recent rainfall had almost made it out of control, to the point that some areas where you’d normally be able to stand would have left you saturated in seconds. Some people took up that opportunity regardless but the three of us decided we weren’t keen on a wet ride home so just viewed from afar!

    The rest of the day was spent unsuccessfully trying to barter a better price for hiring quad bikes or a jeep to head up to one of the well known swings that are situated on the top of one of the hills overlooking Baños. When this failed we decided to just get a taxi which also didn’t work out as we got half way up the road only to find they were doing roadworks so it was impossible to continue up there, even by foot. Fail.

    Sick of feeling defeated, Bronte and I decided we would dabble in one of the massage places that seemed to be rife in this town. We managed to get an hour package including an aromatherapy massage and a facial. Admittedly it wasn’t the most relaxing of venues given it was right by a busy street but for a mere $15 USD each, you can’t really complain!

    Things were looking up again and we managed to find a good curry spot for dinner before embarking on the first night bus of the trip. Time to switch up the mountains for the beach. Montañita here we come!
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  • Day8

    The third and final day of the Quilotoa Loop had us scaling cliffsides, walking through villages and battling the altitude to reach our destination of the stunning crater lake.

    After the boys took us on a rather roundabout route the previous day, they decided it was the girls turn and put Bronte and I in charge of navigation for day three. Vague paper instructions and maps.me at hand, we set off in the sunshine from the village of Chugchilán. Early doubts in navigation were quickly rectified as we descended down into another valley. The lush green countryside in this area of the Andes is insane.

    We had a couple of options of paths to take that would ultimately join up. We chose the more direct but dangerous one, which lead us to a steep canyon where there had evidently been some landslides previously. There was definitely some immediate regret of choosing this path upon reaching this section as it was such a steep descent, none of us really knew how to approach it. Thankfully on a second look, we realised it was mostly sandy as opposed to just slippery rock so we could just slide our way down to the rickety bridge to cross the river and begin our ascent up the other side.

    We continued past many more landslides, up the side of another valley and through some mini canyons. Ecuador sits on the Ring of Fire so earthquakes are common and I suppose this contributes to the amount of landslides in the area. By this point it was reaching late morning and we were battling the heat and the altitude again as we were about 3000m up. Thankfully we came to a small village with many derelict buildings but at least a little shop to find some cold drinks to quench the thirst!

    From here it was the final slog to ascend to Laguna de Quilotoa - the crater lake. We scaled up the side of the crater in a more steep route to skip some of the zigzagging from the proper path. Reaching the crater rim at 3800m was both a relief to be able to stop climbing against the altitude and also because the views were incredible.

    The emerald green lake is enclosed by the stunning crater and when the sun was able to shine through the colours were insane. One thing I love about Ecuador too is that even somewhere as incredible as this, there’s hardly anyone around. It definitely hasn’t been hit with the tourist boom too much yet. We found a cute little dog up here and took the obligatory photos before continuing to walk around the crater. It was crazy to have such a contrast of amazing views; highlands on one side and the crater lake on the other. At one point there was even a section of proper white beach sand, even at 3800m?! Bizarre.

    We were all starting to get really hungry but finally reached the town of Quilotoa around 2:30pm. Good timing as the weather suddenly packed it in not long after we arrived, the clouds rolled through, we could barely see 100m and it got really cold. Turns out this was an awkward time for lunch though as many places seem to close between lunch and dinner but we eventually found somewhere open and selling pizza.

    We were all freezing so had to resort to lying in bed to keep warm until dinner. We did have a log fire in our room but the staff wouldn’t agree to lighting it until later in the day. Rough! Not ready to retreat to bed post dinner, we ventured out to a little cafe/bar down the road. Quilotoa is another small blink-and-you-miss-it kind of place so as you can imagine, no one was really around. Of course we were the only ones in the bar but they had a cute wee kitten called Toa who kept us entertained while we had some cocktails!

    The nice thing about being out in more rural areas is seeing a more authentic side of local life. Local women wear more traditional dress; usually skirts and tights with small heels, colourful ponchos and woolen hats similar to a fedora/trilby. Not to mention they scale the cliffsides just as fast, if not faster than us in those heels! The men dress similar, ponchos over long trousers. No matter how warm it is though, they always seem so wrapped up as if it’s the middle of winter. Who knows if they ever find it warm?!

    I must be finally adjusting to the altitude and getting over the jetlag as I managed to sleep pretty well at 3800m. Typical now that we’re finally heading lower! After an amazing few days in the countryside, it’s time to head further south too. Next stop, Baños.
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  • Day7

    Incredible scenery, creating an alternative route and the worst lunch in history.

    Day 2 of the Quilotoa Loop got off to a much easier start considering the path continued on right next to our hostel. Unfortunately we struck a bit of rain to begin the day but at least it meant the others could put their newly purchased ponchos to good use!

    Before long the sun was back and we found ourselves getting a bit lost again, but the locals around here seem to be used to this. One little lady shouted at the top of her lungs across one of the valleys to us, even though we couldn’t distinguish what she was saying nor could we see which way she was pointing. Bless. Ultimately we must have picked the right direction because she walked off as if her job was done. We were still using a combination of our directions from the hostel back in Latacunga and an app called maps.me which lets you look at maps offline. Somehow the boys led us off on our own route for most of the day but it was probably more stunning than where we were supposed to walk. Of course they disguised this for the best part of the day, much to their amusement and then ours once we figured it out. On the plus side it meant we had the path to ourselves.

    Eventually we met up with the normal path at one of the miradors (lookout) and found a few worried faces from people we’d met at the hostel the night before. We quickly reassured them our different route was somewhat planned as they thought we’d become completely lost. The rest of the day’s path was mainly uphill, punctuated by a cute wee donkey who jumped off the hillside to say hello and then lastly we walked on the main road to the village of Chugchilán.

    Chugchilán was a bizarre little place, almost a little ghost village. You could literally see the whole place within about 5 minutes walking, if that. Blink and you miss it sort of vibe. The hostel we had in mind had space when we got there and again included dinner and breakfast for a mere $15USD.

    We’d arrived around 2-3pm without having had lunch so opted to eat at our hostel given there didn’t seem to be many (if any) other options of places to eat in the town. We made the mistake of letting the staff loose on giving us the “Menu del día” without clarifying exactly what this would actually be. Usually this involves a soup, a main course and a dessert. Cue the worst soup one could ever imagine. Think pasta boiled for about three days, a hard boiled egg and chicken pieces. It was horrendous to say the least and it still gives me shivers to think about. Subsequently none of us ate much of this and then were left speechless when the owner came to take our bowls away and asked why we hadn’t eaten it. Awkward. Courses two and three were a little better but definitely not good enough to stop Bronte and I venturing off to find an ice cream to fill the void!

    A pretty lazy afternoon followed considering there wasn’t a massive amount to do and as soon as the sun disappeared it was pretty cold as we were still at 3200m altitude. Hammocks and reading kept us busy until dinner, which was thankfully much better than lunch. Another early night before we’re back pounding the pavement for day three!
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  • Day6

    The Quilotoa Loop is essentially a three day trek through the countryside and villages of the Andes Mountains, beginning or ending at Laguna de Quilotoa, a stunning crater lake. We chose the latter, mainly to have something to be working towards and to look forward to.

    After our brief stop in Latacunga for a quick rearrange of the bags, we set off on one of the local buses to a small village called Sigchos to start our hike. It was a stunning 2 hour ride through the mountains, albeit a bit hairy at times with such skinny windy roads and many tight and blind corners which were not for the faint hearted, particularly when the roads had minimal barriers for the sheer drop to the side.

    Everyone does this hike self-guided but all the blogs we’d read about it said that you’re guaranteed to get lost at some point. Even with a vague set of instructions from our hostel in Latacunga, we battled to even find the beginning of the trail “in the far right corner of the town.” Lost before we’d even started!

    Eventually we found it and began our descent into the valley, walking through shrubbery and beautiful landscapes, past sugar cane farms and many cute animals - mainly pigs, dogs, cows and horses. A couple of wrong turns and a few points in the right direction from some of the locals and we scaled the other side of the valley to reach our destination for night one.

    The first day was just a short one, supposedly supposed to take 3-4 hours but it took us just 2.5 to reach our stop for the night in the small wee town of Isinlivi. Here we stayed at Llullu Llama, arguably one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever stayed in. Bizarre considering it is literally in the middle of nowhere. Llullu llama was probably more of a mountain lodge/resort than what one would normally describe as a hostel, and had incredible views over into one of valleys.

    Somehow we ended up getting a free upgrade because the dorm we had booked was full, so the four of us had our own private cabaña for the night, complete with a balcony overlooking the valley and a shower that could open out onto said valley too. Bliss.

    The evening was filled with a three course meal which was included in our stay, a ridiculously long game of the board game Risk which definitely gave Monopoly a run for its money, and one stunning stunning sunset. All punctuated with cameos from the resident St Bernard called Baboo.

    One thing that has been refreshing here in Ecuador compared to a lot of other third world countries is seeing so many well looked after animals, both domestic and farm. Probably sounds a bit strange but it gets pretty distressing sometimes seeing so many animals in such poor condition. Even just seeing more regular bred dogs such as Baboo or labradors as opposed to some of the bizarre mixes in Asia and the like is nice!

    After a wee early morning yoga session in the studio overlooking the valley to stretch out the previous days tired muscles and a hearty brekkie, we were ready to set off on our way to Chugchilán for day two of the Quilotoa Loop.
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  • Day5

    Latacunga, Ecuador

    April 14 in Ecuador

    This footprint is really just a quick pit stop, both literally and figuratively. Latacunga is a preparatory stop for our next few days doing a three day trek called the Quilotoa Loop.

    From Cotopaxi we had a one hour shuttle bus from the hostel to the nearest town called Machachi with some of the other guests and from there some of us went our separate ways. At this point we just had to wait on the side of the Panamerican highway for the next local bus south to Latacunga. It still mind boggles me that you can do this in these countries. Literally just stand on a main road (or in this case a three lane highway) for long enough and hail the bus, tell them where you’re headed and away you go. Who needs actual bus stops?

    Our late arrival from Cotopaxi with a couple of extras in tow meant we just grabbed a quick dinner around the corner from the hostel and an early night. Up early the following morning to rearrange everything we needed into our daypacks for the next three days. Not such an easy feat when trying to account for all different temperatures, sweatiness and also some extra comfy clothes for the evenings! You’d think I’d be an expert packer by now, but sadly not the case! Definitely will be refreshing to travel light for the next few days though, as we leave our big backpacks behind here in Latacunga.

    Being a Sunday, it meant the buses to the start of the Quilotoa Loop were a little less frequent. The 6:30am bus was not tempting anyone so we settled for the more appealing time of 11:30am. A lazy morning with few stops in the town on our way to the bus station to find snacks and various supplies for the team kept us busy enough though, onto Sigchos we go!
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  • Day3

    Mountains, mountains and more mountains, with a side of cosy accommodation, home-cooked food and many cute dogs to sort the animal fix for the next little while. Highs and lows, literally and figuratively.

    The Secret Garden Hostel in Quito has a sister hostel in the Cotopaxi National Park, a couple of hours drive south. The four of us were ready to escape the city life and get amongst some nature and trekking, so this seemed like a pretty good option. This was probably the clearest day we’d had so far, so it was a beautiful drive through countryside, with amazing views over to the surrounding mountains and finally a glimpse of Cotopaxi - a stunning cone shaped volcano, commanding the skyline at 5897m with its snow-covered peak. Lush green fields line the stone and gravelled roads that led us up to our home for the next couple nights.

    And it really did feel like a home, instantly. Secret Garden Cotopaxi is a lone settlement almost in the middle of nowhere, with incredible views looking out over to the Cotopaxi volcano and some of the other surrounding volcanoes. The main house itself has a large lounge with an open fire and big couches, an open plan kitchen and big dining tables for us to all eat together. There’s hammocks inside in a conservatory, plus a huge hammock outside for 10 people to enjoy the views. Everyone eats like kings and queens together for three meals a day. Oh and there’s endless banana bread, tea and coffee. There’s also five dogs; two sausage dogs called Mash and Daisy, Milo the Dalmatian, Yodi the weird street dog mix, and little Luna who looks sort of like a beagle. There’s no WiFi either, so it really is an escape. Such a dream. One can easily see why so many guests end up coming back to volunteer here. I would definitely be tempted!

    Given the surroundings of this place, there’s many activities on offer so the six of us who had arrived together from Quito, headed straight off with one of the volunteers for a 2 hour hike to some waterfalls in gumboots. It definitely felt nice to be amongst nature and exercising again, especially as this has been somewhat limited since I left New Zealand a month ago.

    Unfortunately this hike was punctuated with me dropping my DSLR camera in the water. My bad luck with cameras continues! Fortunately my quick reaction time meant that limited water got into it, but I was left with a smashed UV filter on the end of the lens. Kicking myself for not having bought a new lens cap before I left the UK, but at least the filter saved the lens itself from smashing too. One of the guys I’ve been travelling with Mark, is a professional photographer so he quickly helped me take apart the camera and take out the battery and SD card just in case water was in there. I think the lens may have a tiny bit of water in it, even after leaving it in rice for a couple of days but thankfully it doesn’t seem to be affecting the images at this stage.

    5pm rolled around which is designated “snack time” (you can see why this is my kind of place) and also the time where you have to decide what activity you want to do the following day. We did have a free hike included with our package of coming to stay here but in the end the two boys and I decided to fork out a little extra to do a different hike to the top of the Rumiñahui volcano. Bronte decided to save her money for other things, have a chill day instead and do the included hike with us the following day.

    The evening passed with good food, conversation and card games with other guests before an early night to prep for the next days hiking. Unfortunately my sleeping is still pretty haphazard, a mix of the altitude (3400m) and jet lag I think. Never a good combo!

    We tucked into a hearty breakfast to fuel for the day before our guide Flavio picked the six of us up from the hostel in a retro Land Rover with no suspension or power steering, perfect for the conditions ahead. An hour drive over some unpaved roads which were in incredibly poor condition got us to the beginning of the hike, not feeling fabulous but already with some stunning views of Volcán Cotopaxi.

    Rumiñahui stands at 4690m which is the highest I’ve hiked to date. In fact the hike started at 3800m which is almost the highest I’d been previously in Guatemala. I was definitely a little nervous because there’s no way of knowing how your body will react to such altitudes, everyone is different.

    The 5-6 hour hike started like most volcano climbs, rather flat and mainly just walking through shrubbery. Already I had a headache but it seemed to pass as we started to ascend. The views throughout the hike were incredible. We were lucky to have such a clear day so we could see for miles. At one point we managed to count seven different mountains surrounding us. Such a ridiculous sight. The last hour of our ascent became quite difficult and tiring at times, walking on essentially soft volcanic sand/ash and then basically rock climbing on all fours for the last section.

    Even though it had clouded over slightly by the time we reached the summit, the 360 degree views were still insane. Nothing a camera will ever be able to capture though! It was surprisingly warm up there, even though we were exposed and at 4690m. Not like any other volcano summit I’ve been to, that’s for sure! A wee packed lunch at the top, a few photos and it was time to descend again. It was actually much easier to come down than we expected, and running down on the volcanic sand section was lots of fun. Many a tumble but it’s a soft landing so not too much of an issue!

    It was an epic day with some great company, not to mention the fact that over the whole day we didn’t see anyone else. Ecuador has definitely not been hit with the tourism boom just yet, which is always refreshing.

    Unfortunately I seemed to get a late bout of altitude sickness as we got back in the car. Anything between 3000-5000m is considered high altitude and therefore this is when you can start feeling side effects, so I guess it’s not really surprising. My head felt like it was going to explode from the pressure and the pain, and vomiting was also a very real possibility. Not ideal with an hour bumpy car ride back to the hostel when I already get headaches from that anyway! To say it was a relief to get back to our accommodation is definitely an understatement, but a wee lie down, a shower and lots of liquids and I thankfully came right again a couple of hours later, even though we were still at 3400m.

    Subsequently I ended up skipping the following days hike, partly because I didn’t think it would live up to the previous day, to avoid the risk of altitude sickness again and also just to generally have some time to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

    A couple of days off the grid at Cotopaxi was a real treat. Originally I was planning to do this or the Quilotoa loop (a three day hike), but in the end the four of us decided we wanted to do both. So from here it’s a brief one night stop in Latacunga to leave our big bags behind before we venture into the Andes for the next few days!
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