Our journey (bus ride of course) to Ecuador from Mancora, Peru was one of the most frustrating journeys we’d had. First off the bus was late and the guys at the agency were pretty sketchy, so we were sat at the side of the road thinking we’d been conned. Finally a mini bus turned up (not the semi cama/bed coach we paid for) and we didn’t really know what was going on. We eventually found out that the mini bus was taking us to a town just before the border and from there we would catch another bus and then another once we got to Ecuador. Not quite the direct bus as we were told! Getting through immigration took an hour and half which was so much longer than in any other country. Anyway, we got our stamps and finally got to our destination, Cuenca just 10 hours after setting off (we thought it would only take 4!).
Cuenca was a bit of a disappointment after reading lots of people rave about it. The town was okay but nothing special. I’m not sure if after all the places we’ve seen we are getting harder to please or if it genuinely wasn’t all that great.
After Cuenca it was onto Banos, a town famous for its hotsprings and outdoor activities (kayaking, canyoning etc). Banos was really similar to Pucon in Chile, though Kyle described it as a poor mans version as the town itself wasn’t quite as nice. One of the top rated things to do in Banos is rent bikes and cycle along the ‘Ruta Del Escades’ / route of the waterfalls. So that’s what we did, the bikes cost $5 for the day. The cycle was a little scary as it was on main roads most of the way and we were passed by lots of crazy truck drivers. It wasn’t quite as downhill as it was sold to us but we had a fun day. The waterfalls themselves weren’t amazing, but after seeing Iguazu Falls we are not as easily pleased! The final one we saw was quite impressive and you can walk right next to it. After visiting this one we had lunch in the town and called it a day with the cycling. There was a man in a van waiting to take people back so we paid him and got in the back with two other English guys (one from Halifax – small world!) and went to town to take the bikes back.
We had a few hours the next day before getting our next bus, so we thought we’d go to the hotsprings. It was Saturday morning but thought as it was early it wouldn’t be too busy yet…. We were wrong! We made the mistake of paying to go in before seeing how busy it was and all three pools were rammed. There wasn’t a single other gringo there so we decided not to bother getting in. A shame but we didn’t really feel like we were missing out.
After our failed hot springs attempt it was onto to our next stop, Latacunga. Latacunga is a small ish city which is in a good location for going to the Cotopaxi volcano and the Quilotoa Crater lake. Cotopaxi is for hard core / expert hikers to climb so we didn’t go there but instead took a day trip to Quilotoa.
The crater lake of the Quilotoa volcano was a great experience. The views were stunning (see below). You can walk right down to the bottom of the crater and even kayak on it. We didn’t rent a kayak as it was ridiculously windy. We (I) had enough trouble not letting the wind blow me off the edge, let alone trying to stop it controlling the kayak!
Next stop was Quito, the capital of Ecuador. We didn’t have much time in Quito due to getting in late and just staying two nights. The main thing we wanted to do was visit the equator line, not something we’d be likely to be near again!
The Mitad Del Mundo / Middle of the Earth is an hour or so outside of Quito. There is a big monument in a park, but they measured the equator wrong all those years ago so the real equator line is 200 metres away within a little museum. The museum was pretty cool, you get a free tour as part of the entrance fee. They give you a history into Ecuadorian tribes then do some demonstrations on the equator line. We were shown how water flows through a plug hole on each side (clockwise on the North hemisphere and anti clockwise on the southern) and tried to balance an egg on a nail (didn’t succeed). It was a strange experience and didn’t think we’d be able to say we stood on both hemispheres at the same time!
Going to the Equator took longer than we thought due to going to the second museum so we didn’t have enough time in the day to do more sightseeing around Quito before heading to the Ecuador/Colombian border.
We had planned to get a bus from Quito to Tulcan (the town nearest the border) then pop over the border in one day, but the bus took longer due to picking up every man and his dog and letting anyone selling something on to pitch to us! At one point there were 8 sellers on the bus at one time and three of them were selling the same bags of oranges! So, it was night by the time we reached Tulcan and didn’t fancy crossing the border at night (it can be pretty dodgy). We found a cheap hotel opposite the bus station then did the border hop to Colombia first thing in the morning.
The border crossing was our quickest yet, not a single question asked or bags checked. We took a taxi to the bus station in Ipiales and got a bus to Bogota. We were already missing the cheap prices in Ecuador after having to pay a lot of money for the bus. Not quite the $1 an hour prices that Ecuador had.
Bogota properly wasn’t worth the overnight bus or the money paid as we were pretty underwhelmed with Bogota. Maybe we’ve just seen too many of the same big South American cities now but we just didn’t get a buzz about the place, like other people do. It didn’t help that the hostel we booked to stay in palmed us off to their other location, it wasn’t far away but the street felt much dodgier and I didn’t feel very safe there. It’s probably the only time I haven’t felt safe in the whole of South America. It didn’t help a creepy guy trying to get us to buy coke and following us for longer than I was comfortable with. So we didn’t make the most of what is meant to be a great party scene in Bogota.
Next stop was Medellin which was much better. We didn’t spend enough time there to fully appreciate and explore it but we had a good couple of days. We went to the botanic gardens, the famous Botero sculpture park, took a cable car to get a good view of the city and we timed our stay perfectly to see a football game. It was a local derby of the two Medellin teams. The rivalry is so intense that the away team weren’t allowed in the ground so it was only one set of fans there. We were told that it would still be pretty dangerous and I was even told to change my top as I was wearing the opposition colours! The game had a brilliant atmosphere (even with just one set of fans) and there was no trouble just lots of crazy fans literally standing/hanging on the edge of the upper tier!
Our time in Ecuador and Colombia was rushed a little so that we could quickly get to the coast to enjoy the Caribbean Sea for our last week of travelling (boo!). In fact we endured 3 overnight buses in 6 days so we could give ourselves enough time to relax on the coast and it was definitely worth it!
Stepping off the bus on our first stop on the coast Santa Marta, we were hit by the heat (probably because the aircon on the bus was ridiculously high) so knew we were in the right place.
Tayrona National Park
As soon as we read about Tayrona national park we were excited about it and thought it would be a great place to spend a bit of time before leaving. We weren’t disappointed! Cars can only get to a certain point in the park so we had to walk for an hour and half in 30 degree heat. Literally never been so hot! We walked up and down through the jungle and came out to some great views of the beaches.
We found the campsite 15 minutes away from the beach within the jungle that we were recommended and hired a tent for the night. We were going to get hammocks but they didn’t have mosquito nets as it’s apparently not necessary so instead opted for a tent. We dumped our bags and strolled along the beach. By this point, the sun had gone in and the clouds were brewing a thunderstorm. It held out for just long enough for us to have a wander to a couple of the beaches which were amazing. But we’d spend more time on them the next day.
The next morning the sun was out so we wanted to make the most of it & headed out straight after breakfast. Unfortunately it clouded over pretty quickly but was still really hot and the sea was the perfect temperature for swimming. We swam in the first beach we got to where swimming was allowed. The waves are huge in Tayrona so it’s pretty dangerous to swim in a lot of places. We walked to a couple more beaches and set up camp for the rest of the day on a quieter beach.
After 2 nights camping in the jungle we headed out of the national park. Had to make the dreaded walk back in the scorching sun (it decided to make an appearance for this). We were very glad to get to the end and onto an air conditioned bus back to Santa Marta. We had wanted to have a chilled afternoon by the pool at the hostel but who’d have guessed as soon as we got back it started to rain! Santa Marta hadn’t had rain for a year previously and had severe drought warnings issued as rain wasn’t forecast until 2015… We saw heavy rain twice! If any countries are in drought they should just have me and Kyle sent over!
We did get a really nice sunny day the next day (and obviously we complained it was too hot) before heading to our final stop in Colombia and South America – Cartagena.
As soon as we arrived in Cartagena I instantly knew I was going to like it. I haven’t had that instant ‘love at first site’ too many times travelling but this was definitely one of them… Even though it was dark when we arrived. As it was Friday night the streets were packed and there was a real buzz about the place.
Seeing the place in daylight the next morning didn’t disappoint. The city is filled with history and has a walled city around the old town from when they tried to protect themselves from the invasion from Spain. Inside the walls the streets are stunning. Aside from the harassment of sellers the place was perfect.
It’s a shame we didn’t have more time to spend in Cartagena (and all of Colombia) but it was a great end to our South America travels.