A Holiday From a Holiday in Palomino

It was time. I’d been gallivanting around South America for about four and a bit months now and was surprised at how worn out I was getting at playing tourist. Whoever said travelling was a walk in the park obviously has only been on all-inclusive holidays. This travelling business is just as hard as a job, the only thing is that its full time. So after reaching Colombia, I was a little tired of always being the tourist, I just wanted to relax and chill out. I guess you could say I wanted a holiday from my travels – ah its a tough life!

Luckily Colombia is full to the brim of places to get stuck in and really just live like the Colombians. After a week and a bit in Cartagena, I was ready for some serious beach time and Palomino Beach seemed like the perfect idea.

I caught the bus to Santa Marta and spent one night in this hot, busy city. Santa Marta didn’t leave much of an impression on me in the short time I was there. It seemed too chaotic, dirty and busy so I caught the bus to Palomino the following morning to meet two of the English girls I had stayed with in Cartagena. The drive to Palomino was long but beautiful. We passed Tayrona National Park, the starting point of the Lost City trek and many different little roadside villages. I arrived at the Tiki Hut Hostel where the girls were staying at instantly felt at ease. This tropical resort looking hostel was exactly what I was chasing. I spent the afternoon lazing around the pool with the girls, catching up on what we’d been doing in the past week.

The following day I did more of the same – devouring the amazing breakfast on offer at the Tiki Hut, sun baking, swimming and sampling one of the best brownies I’ve had ever. Not even kidding, these brownies were LIFE-CHANGING! Life is good! I went tubing down the river with some Danish girls that were also staying at the hostel and a big group of us solo female travellers found a delicious vegetarian restaurant that we may have visited twice in one day!

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The Tiki Hut – amazing!

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For the first time of the trip I was surrounded solely by girls and it was absolutely wonderful. We were all either travelling solo or in pairs and it was great to see how we could all come together from different parts of the world. I felt like girl power was definitely at its finest in Palomino, no boys needed here! I also found it hilarious that despite your address, every group of girls will have the same conversations. We talked about boys, our bodies and futures. As cheesy as it sounds but talking with these girls was empowering and it made me realise that my decision to travel instead of settle down was the right decision.

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Girl Power!

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Falafel and quinoa 
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Raw beetroot salad

We stayed in Palomino for the week, extending our stay every morning much to the hostels staffs humour. Each time we’d go to reception they’d said ‘Another night girls?’. That was another great thing about the Tiki Hut, the staff were so friendly and welcoming. I definitely recommend this hostel to anyone in Palomino – it’s the perfect place to enjoy the Caribbean coast. Plus the pancakes at breakfast are absolutely bomb!

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Palomino Beach

One of the English girls L and I wanted to go diving so we reluctantly left our little oasis in Palomino and headed back to Santa Marta to find a dive school. We booked into Masaya Hostel which was a grand old building, that must of have been a fancy hotel back in it’s day. The best dive shops were 15 minutes away in the small town of Taganga, so we put it on tomorrow’s do-to list and enjoyed dinner at a small little cafe called Carambolo, which had the most delicious wraps and drinks. It was here that I was introduced to coconut lemonade and let me just say that my life has never been the same! Carambolo was situated in a colourful little street that opened up into a big square, which was much nicer than the area of Santa Marta than I had seen briefly. My opinions on this city were starting to change.

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Inside Masaya Hostel

We headed to bed early that night, still running on our Palomino schedule where the bed time was early and the sleep was solid. Tomorrow, lets go diving!

 

J. x

 

Cartagena Part 2: Playing Tourist

I’d been living the high life in Cartagena for the first three days but I actually hadn’t seen much of the city. We’d spent so much time in enjoying the luxury of our own apartment that sightseeing had taken a backseat. While I thoroughly enjoyed my time living it up in style, I was also eager to experience Cartagena.

After a pretty ordinary stay at Chill House Hostel I made it my first mission of the day to find a new hostel. Luckily I didn’t have to go too far until I found the greatest hostel in Cartagena. Mi Llave Hostel was on the outside of the old town, right by the water in a bright pink building. This relatively new hostel had absolutely everything you wanted in a hostel and the staff were so lovely, I booked in straight away. After cooling down for a bit (Cartagena was the hottest place on the planet!) I set back out with my trusty camera and went to explore the Old Town.

Surrounded by Las Murallas – the thick walls built to protect the town from enemies – the Old Town is a real piece of colonial architecture. The construction of the walls too two centuries to complete due to storms and pirate attacks. It was finished in 1796 however due to the excellent military engineering they still remained in remarkably good shape. Inside the walls, the bright coloured buildings are squashed between churches, plazas, palaces and many different restaurants and cafes. I spent the day wandering the cobblestone streets, getting a sore neck from constantly looking around. Late in the afternoon I stumbled across what can only be described as a dessert lovers heaven and I thought it would be rude not to sample their goods.

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Entrance to the Old Town

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These cast iron statues are surrounded all around the Old Town

Mila Cafe sits on the corner of a colourful street in the Old Town and takes ones breath away once they walk through the door. The gold accented building has a French influence and their display cabinets are enough to make anyone a dessert person. I was particularly drawn to the gold topped brownies and tarts that sparkled under the bright lights. Deciding it was definitely cake o’clock, I ordered a brownie and iced latte and sat down in the cool air-conditioning. Let me just say, this brownie was not only the most amazing thing I’ve eaten, but it was definitely the prettiest! I knew I would be returning to this place a few more times before I left!

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Too pretty to eat!

That night my friend L, who I trekked the Santa Cruz trail with in Peru met me at Mi Llave and we planned to spend the next few days together in this hot little city. We walked the streets, ate more brownies, talked until we couldn’t anymore and almost gate-crashed a wedding.

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Exploring the Old Town
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Fresh orange juice!

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One day we caught a local bus to Playa Blanca, the nearest beach to Cartagena for some much needed ocean time. Playa Blanca is a beautiful beach, only polluted by the masses of tourists that visit it everyday. The snow white sand and clear water is incredible to be near, but the hordes of tourists and annoying hawkers make it not such a relaxing stay. We stayed for a few hours, playing in the cool water and working on our tans before heading back to Cartagena.

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Playa Blanca
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Welcome to the Caribbean Coast!

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L left after a few days together and I was alone for three whole hours before my bus buddy J met me again. He had been up north and we shared our adventures from the past week over more brownies and coffees (I may have become addicted to Mila Cafe) We watched the sunset on top of the walls of Las Murallas and had some delicious pizza to end the night with.

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Final sunset in Cartagena

The following day we split up again, with him heading south to Bogota and myself to Santa Marta. I’d had a small taste of Colombian beaches with Playa Blanca and I was keen to get some more. Caribbean coast here I come!

J. x

 

 

 

Cartagena Part 1: Living in Luxury

As the taxi drove us through the city of Cartagena to the old town, I could just tell that this place was going to steal my heart. The old colonial style buildings mixed in with the colourful houses were mesmerising to look at and the cobblestone streets were just enticing me to wander through them.

We reached our hostel, Media Luna, and quickly changed clothes and went out to find food. Entering the arched gates of the Old Town we found a small cafe and splurged on burgers to make up for all the poor snacks we’d been surviving on for the past few days. It was ridiculously hot and humid in Cartagena, which was a shock to both our systems, so we revelled in the air-conditioned cafe for as long as possible.

Eventually mustering up the energy to face the heat again, we headed back to Media Luna and laid out by the pool for the rest of the afternoon. That night we met up with J’s friends and I became acquainted with five English girls who were just lovely. We tested out the Cartagena nightlife (which is fantastic) before crashing hard in the cool air-conditioned rooms at Media Luna.

The following day J and I met with the English girls in their fancy AirBnb apartment. It was absolute luxury and we spent the day in the pool right outside their apartment door. The seven of us had all been travelling for several months now and were all missing food from home, so after trawling the nearest Exito supermarket we created a menu to make any Westerner jealous. A Blue cheese, a baked brie, guacamole and toasted garlic bread for entree, Japanese stir fry for dinner and chocolate truffle and tiffin for dessert left the seven of us literally in a food coma. Unable to move, we sprawled out on the floor, totally stuffed but totally satisfied! Mission accomplished!

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Chefs at work
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We may or may have not brought a trolley three blocks from the supermarket into the apartment. Funnier still, an Exito employee came and took it back for us!
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First course!

The following day J left for the north coast and the girls invited me to stay with them in their apartment. I happily took them up on the offer and moved straight in. We spent the day by the pool again, working on our tans and enjoying this little bit of luxury. Another delicious home-made dinner and cocktails, we did our best not to comatose ourselves with food again. As it was one of the girls last night in South America, we went out on the town in search of an espresso martini and a good place to dance. El Barôn delivered the goods on the martinis (which were almost as good as the ones at home!) and afterwards we found a couple of local salsa bars to boogie in. It was nearly 3am by the time we got home but it was just so nice to have a girls night out. I hadn’t done that since I’d left home.

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The following day was similar to the day before and we managed to convince the owners the give us a late check-out. Not leaving until 5pm, we reluctantly said our goodbyes to our beautiful little apartment and went our separate ways. Some of the girls were heading north to Santa Marta and some others were heading south. I was staying in Cartagena for a few more days because my friend L was arriving so it was back to hostels for me. I said goodbye to the girls and we made plans to meet up again on the Caribbean coast, they were such a great group of girls that I hoped those plans would stick.

Checking into the Chill House Hostel just around the corner from our apartment, it definitely was a shock to the system. It wasn’t the flashiest of hostels and a far cry from the luxury I’d been living in but it would do for the night. I headed to bed early so I could be ready to spend the following day playing tourist.

J. x

 

How NOT To Cross Three Countries By Bus

One lost phone, one lost pair of thongs, a scam at the border, four buses, one flight and absolutely no headphones later I finally made it to Cartagena, Colombia and let me tell you I was so, SO happy to be there!

Let me rewind to three days earlier when I met up with my friend J in Mancora to begin our epic journey. J and I had met in La Paz where he was working behind the bar at the Wild Rover Hostel. We’d kept in contact since then and when he told me his plans to head north to Colombia to meet some friends I quickly jumped on board. After months in southern South America I was itching for some hot weather and nice beaches. I’d heard nothing but good things about Colombia and wanted to get there ASAP. The thought of having a travel buddy was enticing and before I knew it we were making plans on how to make the 4,000-ish kilometre journey to the Caribbean coastline.

Early Thursday morning J met me at the Loki Mancora and between my hangover and his altitude sickness we sure were a sight for sore eyes. After a quick kip, I finally checked out of Loki and we bought our bus tickets to Guayaquil in Ecuador. The bus was leaving in 10 minutes so we just made it on time for the minivan to meet us in the street and take us to Tumbes on the border of Peru and Ecuador. The ride took about two hours and was uneventful. J and I caught up on all our travel adventures since we last saw each other and laughed at our hopelessness and crazy decision to travel all this way.

We reached Tumbes and the minivan dropped us on the main street. We were quickly hounded by taxi drivers offering us rides when two men came up to us saying that they had to drive us to the next bus station because the one in Tumbes was closed.I hadn’t heard about any bus stations closing or that we would need to be driven anywhere but the men were wearing shirts bearing the ‘Chifa’ bus logo and they had business cards and a fancy looking car. It felt a tiny bit suspicious, but they assured us that they would take us to the right spot. So far since travelling I’ve had no issues or fell victim to any scams. In general, most people I’ve met in South America have been genuine and actually want to help. So Team Dumb & Dumber (aka J and I) got in the car and crossed our fingers.

As we drove out of Tumbes and onto the main highway I started to feel a little uneasy. I had assumed it would be a short drive but as the minutes ticked on, it felt like we were being taken on a ride. The men assured us that this was the right way to go and that the border was very dangerous so they were being our security. I had heard stories that the border was in fact a bit dodgy so went along with their charade and J and I hoped that our positive attitudes would lead to a positive outcome.

Unfortunately we were wrong.

We reached the town on Ecuador side of the border, which even now I still don’t know what it was called. Driving right through the border signs, the men drove us to a small side street and into an empty car park. It was here that my warning bells were ringing off the rails. I clutched my backpack containing all my valuables and waited to see what their next move was. Another man came up to the car and we were told that he would walk us to the bus station but we had to pay them $60USD for being our security before getting out of the car. J and I stared at us in disbelief. That much money was about quadruple the price of our bus tickets to Guayaquil, which the man in the passenger seat still had. We tried to argue but our poor Spanish just wouldn’t get the message across. After a lot of finger pointing and shaking our heads, we decided to just hand over the money and go. Luckily J had $60USD in his wallet so we threw it at the drivers and grabbed our bags quickly. The drivers demanded more money but we walked out of the car park and prayed they wouldn’t follow us. The man who had met us in the car park caught up to us and led us through the busy market to a bus station. When we reached it, he went to leave but we asked for our bus tickets back. He kept saying ‘No se, no se’, as in he didn’t know and turned and walked quickly off.

Fuming, we dropped our bags at the bus station and wiped the sweat off our foreheads. It was about 35 degrees and we were both melting. I looked around the bus station and realised this wasn’t even the Chifa bus station and that the little Ecuadorian man had just taken us to the closet one he could find.

Feeling defeated and annoyed we sat in the small bus station and pondered on what to do. At this point we were sitting in in Ecuador illegally, with no stamp in our passport, no bus ticket, no money and no idea. Too hot to think we decided to get on the next bus leaving to Guayaquil from this bus station and hope for the best. It was leaving in ten minutes and in my awful Spanish I tried to ask the bus driver if the bus would stop at immigration so we could get a stamp. J was sitting on the bus waiting and our bags were stowed underneath but something felt wrong. After asking a couple of people I finally someone who understood me and said that we had to catch a taxi to the Frontera to get our stamps before getting on the bus.

Quickly pulling our bags off the bus we watched as the bus pulled out and wondered where to go to next. I only had Peruvian soles on me and had to change them over before we could go anywhere so leaving J to rest in the shade, I persisted in the heat to find a money exchange. Three banks later I was still unsuccessful. Finally after walking through a forest of market stalls, I reached what appeared to be the border of Ecuador that we had driven past earlier with the dodgy men. Asking around I finally found a man changing money and got some US dollars in my hand. I asked the man about getting our passports stamped and he confirmed what I’d been told before, go to the Frontera by taxi to immigration.

Feeling slightly better now that I had money and sort of idea what to do next I raced back to J and relayed the news to him. We pulled our bags on again and braced ourselves to emerge back into the heat to hail a taxi. The taxi ride was short and only cost us a small $3USD. Feeling better about our situation we waited in line at immigration and almost jumped for joy when they stamped us in! No more illegal backpacking in Ecuador!

Our moods turned brighter when we saw a bus pull up with a sign saying Guayaquil on it. We pounced on the bus driver and begged him to let us on. In our broken Spanglish we got the message across and he told us it would be $10 and to wait on the other side of the road until the rest of the passengers had been stamped through. Within twenty minutes we were on a bus to Guayaquil with stamps in our passports and money in the wallet. Team Dumb and Dumber were back on track!

After venting about the border incident we decided to just think positive and not think about what had happened for a few days until it would become a funny story. In retrospect we were super lucky, we still had all our belongings and were only $60USD and a bus ticket down – the situation could have been a lot more worse. Luckily J and I were both very easy-going people so once we’d had a little vent, we were just happy to finally be back on track with our journey.

The journey to Guayaquil was uneventful and we arrived into the Ecuadorian city at around 9pm. The bus station was the fanciest I’d seen since travelling. It was about four stories high and even late at night, it was buzzing with activity. There was even a Maccas in the food court! We booked a ticket to Quito which cost us all of $10 and left in 25 minutes. Good spirits were flying between us both despite our tiredness and we got some dinner before running to the bus.

We reached Quito early in the morning at 4:30am and delirious from lack of sleep we raced through the bus station and found a bus leaving in 10 minutes to the border of Ecuador and Colombia for a mere $7AUD! My shocked face said it all as we laughed about how our bad situation had done a total 360 turn, things were coming up Team Dumb and Dumber!

The bus was a local one which meant that it was a constant chaotic mess of loud noises, screaming children and crazy people coming on board trying to sell hand wash and pens. The six hour journey went slowly but together we managed to survive the ordeal. We reached the border at Tulcan and crossed without issue. Finally we were in Colombia!

One final 12 hour bus journey to go, we booked our ticket to Cali and grabbed some food for the next bus. A bit sick of sitting down, we decided to cheat a little and book a flight from Cali to Cartagena as it meant cutting out at least another 20 hours. With ten minutes to spare between buses we quickly booked seats on the next Viva Colombia flight before running to our final bus!

This bus ride was probably the worst. Leaving in the early afternoon we watched as the sky slowly turned darker and darker. The views however, were phenomenal! Huge mountains, deep valleys and windy roads made the long journey slightly easier. By this stage I’d had only about three hours sleep in total and was running pretty much on empty. The visions on a Colombian beach and a coconut cocktail was the only thing keeping me going!

We reached Cali around midnight and couldn’t be more happier to be off a bus. Our flight wasn’t until 10am so we had heaps of time to kill in between. The shuttle to the airport didn’t start running until 4:30am so we took advantage of the well set up bus station in Cali and settled in for a few hours. This bus station felt like the Holy Grail – there were SHOWERS! We both raced to the showers and washed away the past two days of travel. Feeling much fresher,we found some food and played cards until it was time to catch the airport shuttle.

Cali Airport was small and nondescript. Being 4:30am in the morning, not much was happening so we settled in on the hard concrete floor and tried to nap for a couple of hours. If you can picture two hopeless looking humans spread out in the middle of a food court in an airport, covered in sarongs and scarves then that was us. We looked ridiculous!

The hours ticked by slowly and I managed to finish my second book of the journey while J napped on the floor. Finally at around 8:30am we could check in and drop our backpacks off. Cartagena was so close I could almost feel the heat! We found breakfast and coffee and waited patiently until our flight was called. As we boarded our flight, I couldn’t believe we’d actually made it this far! This journey was definitely going to be a story for the ages.

The flight to Cartagena was super short (mainly because I fell asleep before take off) and once I opened my eyes, we were landing. Racing of the plane, J and I were ecstatic despite our tiredness. We were in Cartagena! We caught a cab to the Old Town and found our hostel, where we would be meeting J’s friends. I was stoked to be in Colombia, this country has been the one that every person I spoke to loved. I couldn’t wait to explore it!

I had no plans for the next part of my trip, only knowing that I wanted to squeeze as much of Colombia in as possible. Stay tuned to see how it turns out!

J. x

Getting Beachy..

It had been about three and a half months since I’d left Australia and only twice had I been to the beach. After spending some much time in cities and in high altitude all this little black duck wanted to do was have some quality beach time. After we returned to Huaraz, L and I booked a night bus pronto to sea level and hung out at the hostel watching movies until it was 10pm and time for our bus.

We were heading north to Trujillo, where close by there was a small beach town called Huanchaco which sounded perfect for us to recover after our five days hiking. We reached Trujillo in the early hours of the morning and shared a taxi with a French couple to Huanchaco. The taxi ride took all of 20 minutes and before I knew it, I was breathing in the salty air that I haven’t breathed in so long. It was about 6:30am by the time we got to Huanchaco and of course we hadn’t booked a hostel, so we spent some time on a park bench eating biscuits until the hostels receptions starting opening.

Crossing town with our backpacks, we finally found a hostel that would take us. Naylamp Hostel & Camping was on the outer of the main street but was a peaceful little area, perfect for us to recuperate. We checked in to a six-bed dorm but had managed to score the room to ourselves. Spreading out our bags from one end to the other, we made ourselves at home and had a little nap to catch up on the missed sleep from the overnight bus.

Around 9am we headed out to explore the little town and find breakfast. Huanchaco was a sleepy little fishing village that just looked like someone had starting building a resort town and kind of gave up half way. Stray dogs roamed the streets and surfy looking dudes called out offering surf lessons. The streets were cracked and uneven and the buildings were unfinished and bare. It was like Huaraz except at the beach. However there was a certain charm to this little town and I had a feeling I would be spending more than a couple of days here.

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Sunsets in Huanchaco

 

In one of the back streets we found the Mercado and ordered breakfast from a little lady in one of the cafes at the back. Paying about $4AUD for two egg, avocado and cheese sandwiches sided with fresh juice and a coffee, we were pleased with the cheap prices here. The rest of the day was a bit of a write-off as we lazed about the hostel, found a delicious bakery and watched the sunset on the beach.

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The following couple of days went similarly to the previous one. We slept in, ate lots and sunbaked on the beach. The laidback vibe of Huanchacho hit us hard and the motivation to do things was hard to muster. One morning we did visit the ancient ruins of Chan Chan – the largest pre-Colombian in South America. It was once the capital of the historical Chimor Empire from AD 900-1470 until they were defeated and incorporated into the Inca Empire.

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The ancient ruins of Chan Chan
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The rooftops were built to protect the ruins from rain and wind

After a few days L left me to head further north, whereas I was content with staying for a couple more days. After she left I switched to a different hostel right on the beach front. The Meri Surf Hostel was like a big old house made for backpackers. There was a rooftop terrace, outdoor kitchen and huge sitting areas. They had heaps of surfboards for rent and the TV was always playing clips of surfing videos. Even those I had no intention of trying out surfing here (after years of Dad trying to teach me I find it more satisfying to watch) it felt like home.

It was like a family at Meri, everyone knew everybody and we spent hours lounging in hammocks just talking about anything and everything. We gorged ourselves on chocolate croissants at the nearby bakery and got brown by the Peruvian sun. I was so chilled out that it was struggle to move further north.

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Afternoons in Huanchaco

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Sunset from the balcony of Meri Surf Hostel

After four days I took a nightbus with three other girls to Mancora to spend some more time at the beach. Mancora was a little more touristy than Huanchaco, with its main street lined with stalls selling everything beach related and many restaurants with persistent waiters encouraging you in. The beach was definitely nicer than it was in Huanchaco and the weather much hotter, so we spent most of our time either at the beach or by the pool.

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Overlooking Mancora from my room at Loki del Mar

I was staying at the infamous Loki del Mar Hostel, which was popular amongst backpackers for its crazy parties and resort-style set up. The girls and I split ways after a couple of days, with them heading to Ecuador while I stayed in Mancora waiting for a friend to arrive. After the girls left I have to admit I didn’t do a whole lot. The ‘Loki spell’ trapped me and I was definitely spellbound. Between the awesome people that I met, the crazy nights and the familiar sound of the happy hour song, my days here blurred into one long, happy stay at Loki.

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View from my room – bliss!
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Best breakfast at Monkey Coffee!

Early Thursday morning my friend J finally arrived and I had to say my goodbyes to this fun place and head north to Colombia. We had this insane plan to travel all the way to Cartagena by bus to meet friends of his and to get some real, Caribbean beach time. It wasn’t the most conventional way to travel South America but the both of us had zig-zagged across the continent already so we figured going a bit more out of the way wouldn’t hurt. Unfortunately my phone and thongs had decided to grow legs and disappear the night before so I was now phone-less and thong-less, which didn’t make for a great start for our journey. J was also feeling under the weather having spent the week travelling on buses but we booked our bus tickets to the first stop in Guayaquil, Ecuador, dubbed ourselves Team Dumb and Dumber and left Mancora with our fingers crossed that we would survive our massive journey.

Stay tuned for how our journey ended up!

J. x

 

 

Trekking the Santa Cruz Trail

After a solid but not long enough sleep, L and I woke at 5:30am to be picked up for our Santa Cruz trek. Still tired from the day before I stayed awake long enough to put my bags in the van and find a window seat before falling asleep again. When I woke a short time later, the van had filled up with seven more people all joining us on the trip. The bus ride went for about two hours and I spent that time drifting in and out of sleep. It was a bumpy old ride, which didn’t make for ideal sleeping conditions but the rest of the passengers in the bus and myself seemed to make it manage.

We were woken abruptly to stop for breakfast at the same place we stopped at yesterday. Having already packed breakfast because we were organised, I ordered a coffee and stocked up on the delicious chocolate bars I discovered there. We were ushered back into the van and driven for another two hours, high into the Cordillera Blanca. The scenery was absolutely gobsmacking; we switch-backed up a high mountain range and reached up to 4,800 metres above sea level. Stopping near to the top, we had a quick photo stop and were in awe of the view below up. The Cordillera Blanca stood majestically before us and the windy road we had just climbed up zig-zigged below. There were so many snowy peaks that I just couldn’t even deal – and this was only day one!

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Amazing colours on the drive to the National Park
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Just part of the view from our drive up to 4,800m
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L and I looking rather perky after a 5:30am start!

We drove on for a bit longer until we reached the starting point of the trek. We stopped in a small village called La Vaquería and gave our bigger bags to the Sherpa’s and got acquainted with the rest of the group. There were five 18 year British boys that were on their gap year who were hilarious and just adorable and a German couple, who were doctors on a short hiking holiday. For the next couple of hours we went up an down grassy slopes passing small villages, where the local Peruvians were going about their everyday lives. It definitely would be a peaceful existence out here in the Andes, with all the fresh air and no worries of the modern world. After about four hours of hiking we reached the campsite in the Paria Valley.

Our camp was right near a rushing creek and surrounding us were huge mountains, some covered in snow. A large waterfall cascaded down a mountain and despite the thin air, I felt well and truly alive. While this was supposed to be the easy day of the trek, the sudden incline into higher altitude knocked us around a bit and we were so glad to finally be here! One of the perks of doing a trek with a tour group is that they set up camp for you and cook you all your meals. Call me a princess but after a day of hiking, I was in no mood to set up a tent! We settled into our tents and then had tea and biscuits while waiting for dinner. As the sun dropped behind the mountains it started to get very chilly and we huddled in the meal tent until dinner was served a little awhile later. It was amazing what our cooks could make out here in the mountains; we had delicious soup and meat with rice and vegetables – very Peruvian and very delicious. After dinner we chatted for a while before slowly all sneaking into our tents to sleep. It was only early but we were on all energy-conserving mode for the following day, which was supposed to be the hardest hike.

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Day one of the hike, so many gorgeous valleys!
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One of the pack horses for the trek

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Our campsite for the night

We were woken early the next morning by our guide Ricardo and wiped the sleep from our eyes while we had breakfast. Toast and eggs with coca tea and we were good to go. During todays hike we would climb over 1000 metres and walk about 12 kilometres. L and I had psyched ourselves up for this day and took it slowly as we climbed the rocky tracks higher and higher. Stopping every couple of metres, I stopped to admire the view and to suck in whatever air I could. The ten of us were the only ones on the trail and it felt like we were lost somewhere on the set of the Lord of the Rings. Lush green mountains surrounded us and grey clouds sat low, covering the snowy peaks. We climbed higher, passing small lagoons and rocky peaks. I was glad my Kathmandu hiking boots had good ankle support, this track was definitely ankle breaking inducing!

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Where’s Frodo?
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The grey clouds made for great reflections!
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Up, up, up

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Hiking on for a couple more hours, we slowly made the climb up to the pass, Punta Union. The last stretch of the climb was the hardest as the thin air made it nearly impossible to climb up the uneven, rocky path. Once I reached the top however all my previous pain disappeared. 4,800 metres have never been more worth it! The view was absolutely stunning! 360 degrees of mountainous beauty. A turquoise coloured laguna sat below a snowy peak and a massive valley encompassed by more huge mountains stood to the left. The wind was howling this high up so I found a little perch that blocked the wind and allowed my to eat my lunch in front of this amazing view.We stayed at the top of the pass for about forty-five minutes – even though it only felt like five – before starting the descent down to our next campsite. Now that we’d tackled the hard part of the trek (which actually wasn’t as hard as the trek to Laguna 69 to be honest) we had a downhill run for the rest of the trip.

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Made it! And made a furry friend! I’m getting good at adopting animals on hikes

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Our group at the top of Punta Union

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My new furry little mate
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Please ignore my dopey face – so happy!
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Stoked as! L and I hamming it up for the cameras

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Slowly making our way downhill, I had to keep stopping to enjoy the landscapes around me. I’d taken to walking alone with my headphones on and pretending I was in a music video. It made the downhill trek easier and took my mind of my aching knees. It also meant I could stop whenever I like to do a little happy dance because I was so damn pleased with myself! On this fine Thursday afternoon, here I was somewhere in the Andes mountains when my friends back home were at work – how could I complain with that!

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L and I with the British boys who were absolutely adorable!
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These views though!
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Taking a well deserved break (ha!)
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The road to our camp

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It took about an hour to trek down to the campsite, which was in the heart of the lush valley. I kept turning around to catch one last glimpse of the beautiful snowy mountains, but needn’t have worried because our camp was set up with a 360 degree view of the Cordillera Blanca. Our meal tent looked directly out to the infamous peak Artesonraju, or more commonly known as Paramount Mountain. Yes, that very mountain from the Paramount Pictures logo was standing right before me as I threw back coca tea. Dinner was an early affair and we huddled in the meal tent out of the frigid cold. It wasn’t as chilly as the night before despite being higher in altitude but it was still bitterly cold. Just before I went to bed, the sky cleared and Paramount Mountain glowed in the full moon’s light – it was a perfect way to finish the day!

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One of the boys enjoying the scenery
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Ah the serenity!

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Sweet little mountain ponies

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Paramount Mountain in the fading daylight

The following morning we had another early start because we planned to reach the end of the trail.While we were on the four day trek, it was possible to finish in three and meant we could enjoy the hot springs in the small town we finished in, winning! We started our hike by heading up to the view point to see the Paramount Mountain properly. Despite the clear skies though, it didn’t quite look like the logo – but that didn’t mean it wasn’t any less cooler! I guess I’m just a nerd when it comes to things like this, the smallest things excite me!

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Paramount Mountain – not quite like the famous logo
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Views of the valler
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The token alpaca

The hike down was beautiful as we crossed an empty river, fully of ankle breaking stones and headed into the valley that we had seen from Punta Union the day before. We were flying through the trail and had made it halfway before 10am. We stopped for a food break and continued on where to trail starting to descent rather abruptly. I have to say, hiking downhill has to be worse than going uphill. The pressure on my hips and knees is going to bite me in the butt when I’m older I just know it! By early afternoon we were reaching the end of the trail and the hot sun starting pounding down on us. By now we had been walking for about five hours and the novelty was starting to wear off. I was tired and my toes hurt from squishing into my hiking boots from every step down, but just as I was ready to break we reached the small town of Cashapampa where our camp was set up ready for us!

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More animal friends

Celebrating with a hard earning Cocoa-Cola and chic-chip bikkies, we were stoked to have made it. It was still only early and our guide Ricardo was impressed with our efforts, he said we absolutely smashed it (well the British boys said it, but you know) We spent the afternoon chilling out at our little campsite before devouring a feast for dinner and talking late into the night. We didn’t even go to the hot springs that have enticed us the day before, it was a 35 minute walk away and we were so done with walking!

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Our little tour group

The following morning we had an easy start as the bus wasn’t coming to pick us up until 10am so we ate breakfast and lazed about until the van arrived and took us back to Huaraz. My first overnight hike was definitely a success and I’d happily do another one in a second! However I was ready to get back down to sea level and get some beach time in! It’s been a long time coming and I couldn’t wait to hit warmer weather!

J. x

Lost My Breath at Laguna 69

Laguna 69 is a place that I’ve never heard of before I stepped onto South American soil. It was in Lima the first time when I heard about this incredible place. A couple I had met had just come from Huaraz and told me it was an absolute must-do in Peru. After seeing their photos I had to agree, Laguna 69 was officially on the bucket list. Three months after I learnt about the Laguna, I was finally on my way to see this magical place.

My new French friend L and I caught the night bus from Lima to Huaraz and after a bumpy ride we made it into Huaraz early in the morning. It was a little chilly here which was a big change from hot Lima so we rugged up in whatever gear we had on hand and walked into the town to find a hostel. Akilpo Hostel seemed like a good option, mainly because it was the first one we came across! We checked in and luckily got to go to the room straight away, where we passed out for an hour or two. The thing about catching a night bus is that it is good in theory to use it as not only a way of transportation but as a bed for the night. However usually you don’t get much sleep anyway and spend the next day tired as hell.

We stirred around 9:30am and headed out in search of breakfast. Huaraz had a similar feel to Bolivia with its crazy, hectic streets, unfinished buildings and women in traditional clothing. It was definitely a big contrast to modern Lima but I liked it as it made me feel like I was back in the ‘real South America’. We found a little sandwich shop and ordered breakfast sandwiches, coffee and fresh juice for the bargain price of $1.50AUD – I liked this place already! After breakfast we went out in search of a travel agency to book our trips. Not only did I want to do Laguna 69 but also the Santa Cruz trek which is a four day hike through the Andes mountains. We managed to negotiate a good price for both tours and all of a sudden, our next five days were booked up!

We were doing the Laguna 69 trek first as an ‘acclimatisation’ to the altitude even though I’d heard it was the harder of the two treks, but after spending the last month or so in high altitude in Bolivia I was sure I’d be able to handle it. We checked out Huaraz for the rest of the day and got organised for the two trips before heading to bed early ready for a big day.

The following morning at 5am we were picked up and driven a couple of hours to the starting point of the Laguna 69 hike in the Cordillera Blanca. A quick stop for breakfast and toilets and to pay the National Park fee and then we were on our way. The first part of the hike was nice and cruisy as we walked through lush fields surrounded by snowy mountains. Despite the lack of oxygen at 3,900m above sea level, I felt like I could really breathe here. After being in stuffy Lima for a couple of days, it was nice to get back to nature and suck in all the fresh air that I could!

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The drive through Cordillera Blanca to the starting point of Laguna 69
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SO MUCH SNOW!
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Views from the start of the hike

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We slowly inclined up rocky path, jumping over flowing creeks and admiring nearby waterfalls. Yet again, I was overly excited about the snow on the mountains and couldn’t believe I was spending the next four days surrounded by them. For years I have thought that I was a beach girl however after travelling through South America I was torn between the beach and the mountains – and at this point, the mountains were winning!

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Can’t breathe, still smiling!

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We hiked on and up, slowly inclining to a higher altitude and lack of breath. We reached the top of the first incline and the trail flattened out into a valley, where we caught our breath and shed some clothes. The sun was starting to bear down and despite the chill in the air, I was getting clammy! We hiked on, our group dispersed all over the trail. L and I were one of the first few and I didm’t want to lose my spot, I wanted to be one of the first to see the Laguna! The second incline was a lot tougher than the first and it took a lot of stopping and promising myself with chocolate bars to keep going!

Finally, finally after many stops and wondering why I decided to like hiking we made it to the top. Racing down the stony path I knew what I would be seeing in a matter of steps. Within a hundred metres I could see that infamous turquoise water shining in the morning sun. Overwhelmed with adrenaline and excitement I raced closed and squealed with delight – the Laguna looked even better in real life! 4,600 metres above sea level and no oxygen but all the views! Clambering onto a big rock away from everyone I sat down to catch my breath and to take in the view. There were no words to describe the view – actually there are hundreds but words don’t do it justice. Photos don’t either but here are a couple for you to get a little idea of the magic I was witnessing.

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Made it!

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So, so blue!

I got closer to the Laguna and we ate our packed lunch by the clear waters. A lone cow was roaming around looking for food so I bribed her with cookies to get a selfie! We stayed for about an hour and just took in the amazing beauty that Mother Nature had shown us. Peru truly has every kind of environment possible. It was hard to believe two days ago I was at the beach and now I’m deep in the mountains. It’s one of the reasons why its my favourite country.

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Making pals everywhere :p

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The healthy part of my lunch. The rest was chocolate bars and biscuits!

Reluctantly after an hour or so we had to head back so we slowly made our way down the mountainous trail. The views were still spectacular this way and the vision of Laguna 69 was still deeply imprinted into my retinas. If this was an indication of the next few days to come, I was going to be constantly in awe of nature. It took us considerably less time to hike back down and by the time we reached the bus I was tired but happy. Stuffing my last chocolate bar down, L and I gushed over the magnificent scenery before passing out on the bus journey home. We reached the hostel around 7pm and had to organise our bags for our next trip.

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On the way back down

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Last stop before the bus back to Huaraz

If you make it to Peru, add Laguna 69 to your list ASAP. It’s not that hard of a trek if you’re relatively fit as long as you give yourself a bit of time to acclimatise to the altitude. You won’t regret it!

J. x