Posted by: Colin | September 20, 2010

Border Bashing

The bus tickets we bought from Cuenca was for Tumbles but the route took us to Machala first. We got on the bus and settled into the ride. The next thing I remember was Jamie grabbing me and telling me to get off the bus. Little did I know, he had been having several strained conversations with the bus conductor about how best to get there.

When we got off the bus Jamie explained that we were going to hop across the road and get another bus heading for Tumbles saving us journey time. We grabbed our bags and hopped over the busy Pan American Highway and boarded a South bound bus.

When we got closer to Tumbles we hit the Equadorian Customs who needed to search the bus. We got off and left the coppers to inspect the bus. Strangely we weren’t search and there were no dogs in sight. Jamie and I could easily have been holding 20kg of Cocaine.

We arrived in Tumbles and proceeded to find a taxi. We walked across the river which is the theoretical border and tried to find a taxi. Two lads approached us and offered to take us to the Peruvian immigration and onto the local town to get a bus to Mancora for $5 (LP says $12). We followed them to their taxi which turned out to be down a dark alley. What was equally strange was that both of them got into the taxi. Jamie and I looked at each other. We both exchanged our concerns with a glance.

We arrived safely at Peruvian immigration. As we rolled up to the station, which was a random building on the side of the road, he asked from $50. He explained that this was needed to prove that we had means to make it through the country. Unsurprisingly, we declined to give him the cash.

When we stopped he then said that one of us should stay and one should get our passports stamped. He explained that this was the normal procedure so he couldn’t drive off with our stuff in the trunk. Another worrying conversation tallied up. We got our passports stamped and got back in the taxi.

Mid way through the 8km journey from the Peruvian immigration to bus station, an argument broke out. The taxi driver was demanding to be paid ~$50 for the journey to the bus station or $80 to go straight to Mancora. When we explained this was out of the question he slowed the taxi to a crawl. At this point it was pitch black and we were in the middle of a desert, miles from the nearest town. By this point all four of us were raising our voices in our mother tongue with little real communication. Personally I was fuming and ready to punch both their lights out. Jamie was the voice of sanity and tried to resolve the situation with what little Spanish he knew. Finally we agreed on a price and the taxi resumed its normal pace.

When we arrived I exited the vehicle and grabbed my bag. I hand over the $25 we agree and was thankful to be on our way. One of the most frustrating things was that one of the punks wanted to shake my hand. I agreed only to get rid of them both forever.

We relaxed in the bus station and reflected on the madness that preceded our arrival. I found some solace in Ron. Finally we joined the queue for the bus to Mancora. Scarely we got our fingerprints and photos taken again.

Posted by: Colin | September 20, 2010

Banos and Cuenca

Back in the big city (Quito) we decided to get a better idea of the city by heading up the vernier to the top of the overlooking mountain. We got a taxi there and bought a ticket. Thankfully you could pay another 3 pounds to get the tourist ticket which allowed you to skip the enormous queue. The vernier slowly carried us to the top of the mountain, up more than 700m. We had a coffee at the top and went for a walk. Up there you could see over the entire city and beyond. We went for a walk in the noticeably cooler air and there headed back down the mountain.

That afternoon we got a bus to Banos. The bus journey was terrible. Jamie played seat joust with a local and I ran out of juice on the my ipod. We were both tired and went to sleep without venturing out. In the morning we hit the natural springs. It was situated around a waterfall, was roasting and contained several poisons in it. Just as the lonely planet said it is mainly an adventure sport town. Apart from the hot springs the best part of the trip was the journey to Cuenca as it was through the Andes at a reasonable hour of the day (with ipod battery). The scenery is amazing. Definitely not the rounded glaciated hills of Scotland.

We arrived in Cuenca and found a nice little hostel where we were staying with a Italian guy. That night we got pizza and went to a microbrewery. I liked the way it said Est. 2006. It was a nice refreshing bit of honesty compared to the lies breweries and other alcohol producers make. It annoys me that alcohol companies say they were Est. in the 1700 when nothing from that time period remains. We wandering round the town and went to see the famous Cathedral/ town squares.

All in all Cuenca is a very pretty town. Next we got the bus to Mancora and across the Peruvian border.

Posted by: Colin | July 19, 2010

Jungle 3

We got up early and went to pick up the English and German folk from the Shaman’s home. On route we passed a couple indigenous tribal hamlets. They seems to be self sufficient to a large extent with water towers, outhouses, solar panels and sewage pipes. No doubt the oil and tourism helped.

When we arrived at the Shaman’s house we heard about the hallucinogenic party they’d had the night before. It seemed to be the same stuff that Bruce Barry had during his Amazon series. All in all it sounds like a horrible experience as the hallucinogenic qualities are apparently unpleasant and the suspension makes you vomit and retch continually for an hour or so. Plus it cost $80.

We had a look around the Shaman’s house. Several gigantic spiders and a very hot pepper bush. Jamie regretted trying the chillies. Then we headed back to the canoe and relaxed for our 3 hr journey back to the road. Got a packy of horrible sliced cheese and mechanically separated meat as usual. Instead of the ancient van, a pickup truck arrived. The guide and us Scot jumped in the back. Chuck Norris sat on the side of the truck but I sacrificed relative comfort for safety by sitting in the back of the truck. The three hour journey wasn’t pleasant as the round is winding and can be rough. It rained for about 45 mins on and off. Luckily it wasn’t enough to flood the floor of the back of the truck where I was sitting. For some reason Chuck Norris enjoyed it.

Was interesting to see how the discovery of oil has affected the landscape. The processing plants, miles and miles of pipe line following the road. Large parts of the road were getting another layer of tarmac and there were a few waterways having bridges built over them.

I later read in a magazine that the Ecuadorian president (a US educated economist) is trying to amend the oil contracts to increase their corporate responsibility. A much needed change in my opinion, the environmental impact is quite amazing with the large deforestation and oily by products entering the soil and water features. When you hear the stats you get an impression of massive scale of the problem. In the Western media there is a lot of blame put on resource rich countries exploiting their natural wealth. I however don’t blame them as I would do the same in search of better prospects for my population. To rectify the situation they have proposed to open a fund where countries, institutions and people can allocate capital to prevent Ecuador selling oil and mineral rights to companies. This way they get their money and the resources stay where they are. Sounds like an innovative idea. If it succeeds is another question. In the back of my mind I can’t help think that Ecuador will put a time limit on this fund. When it expires they will then exploit the resources when oil is $200 a barrel and minerals futures are at a higher price.

Anyway we arrived in Lago Agrio and got on the 7hr bus back to Quito. Sadly I left Phil Garnett’s girl with the dragon tattoo on the bus (it was getting to the good bit too). Ah well back to the boring law book I found.

Posted by: Colin | July 15, 2010

Jungle day 2

The next day we got up early and went bird watching just after dawn. Some of the birds were quite comical. As I often do, when nature watching, I daydreamed. As always I humanised the birds into stereotypes of various cultures, famous people and races from around the world.  The small flamboyant bird would be Japanese. The large brute would be an African American redneck who linebacks at College.

We then went piranha fishing again. This time I managed to catch a piranha. I was careful when attempting to take off the hook not to get fingers in close to the piranhas teeth in case some due revenge was on the cards.

We then went back for lunch and another siesta. We spent longer in bed as we were planning for a night walk in the jungle. Of all things we were promised to see a few species of venomous scorpions and large spiders. Not the most enticing aim of a walk in a remote area of Eastern Ecuador.

When we woke we went for some more bird watching around the lagoon. But we ended up looking for pink dolphins. We managed to see some fins but nothing spectacular

At sunset we went for a swim in the lagoon. The lagoon is quite large. Before the oil discovery there were no tarmaced roads so the only reasonable way to approach this area was by sea plane. The sight reminded me of Indiana Jones and the lost ark. The first scene when he liberates the golden statue from the cave and escapes after numerous spears, arrows and blow dart are targeted at him

The water was quite dark. If you opened your eyes under water (something I don’t like to do) you could only see 2m. As the lagoon was at quite a high level, manitees come to the area. Sadly, the only sighting was Jamie’s wandering leg.

After sunset we went searching for Cayman. The method is to shine a very bright light into low water areas. If there as a reptile in the water you would see red eyes reflecting back. This is when you realise the Sci-fi and horror movie have some basis. We search for and hour and a half and saw a couple anacondas but no Cayman. As we were returning to camp we noticed another set of red eyes. These were very close to camp and between three trees which made maneuvering difficult. After some carefully motoring and some manual pushing of trees we got slower. To our delight we saw the Cayman in the low water. It was 4-5ft long and maybe 5-6 meter from the camp’s embankment. Not good when you have been waddling through the waters during daylight to load the canoe.

At dinner the guide showed us a book of wildlife in Ecuador. It was amazing that hardly any pages were passed without us seeing an animal we had spotted while in the jungle. Later he told a story of a previous trip where an anaconda had made its way up from the embankment to the grass in front of the huts. The guest of this tour were two families with a pair of twins. The story went that it was making it’s way up the hill to devour them. The guide’s friends then went to the canoes and collected some petrol and filled a water bottle with a rag at the top.  The result was flare grilled anaconda.

After dinner we played cards with the two chefs and the guide. We played cheat in Spanish which was trial as we didn’t know the words for the face cards. Later we played a Peruvian game which was a cross between Snap and Uno. Annoyingly the guide was a Cayman himself and had lighting reflexes. We finished off Ron and hit the sack for early morning start.

Posted by: Colin | July 15, 2010

Jungle Day 1

We unloaded our minimal baggage from the canoe and proceeded into the clearing. In the clearing there was a series of 3 huts. One was the kitchen and dining room, one was the guests’ bedrooms and one was locals’ home. After dumping our bags I jumped into one of the hammocks and finished the charge on my iPod shuffle. Like many times over the trip I ask myself “where are you, Colin.” The reply I came up with “was not in Kansas.”

We had a surprisingly nice three course meal then chatted to the other guests of the Amazon over a few glasses of rum (ron). With us was a Swiss lad, two German men and an English couple. We were all tired from the journey and went to bed under our mosquito nets early.

The next morning the group was separated. Antonio, the Swiss gentleman, stayed with us while the Germans and English loaded up an unstable canoe. We had great hilarity at watching them paddle off when the water line was but 3 or 4 inches down the canoe. Subsequently we jumped into a motor canoe and set off across the lagoon.

We arrived on an embankment after 30 mins for a walk in the jungle. Our guided didn’t speak much English so Antonio kindly translated. We got some face painting from some bitter “tasting fruit (?)” Over the walk we climbed a couple of creepers, saw a few snakes, a few large beetles, face learnt about neurotoxin used for fishing, quinine and lots and lots of medicine for D&V. After walking we headed back for lunch and siesta.

After a welcomed nap we went piranha fishing in some reeds up stream. Unlike fly fishing, I’m used to, this is very different. When fly fishing you minimise disturbances to the surface. Whereas when piranha fishing you thrash about to mimic a wounded animal. As the time past the piranhas were getting more numerous or more aggressive. The chunks of beef were leaving the hook in 3 or 4 seconds. Antonio was the first one to catch a piranha, then I got a cat fish then Jamie got one too. This was his first fish ever. We took the edible fish back to camp so they could be pan fried. After we eat our catch of the day we played some cards before heading to bed.

Posted by: Colin | June 19, 2010

The Jungle Arrival

Organising the trip to the jungle was a strange expereince. We had to get a bus to an oil town 7 hrs away then meet “Jorge” at a cafe. As far as we could tell lots of things could go wrong in the process and it smelt dodgy. Nonetheless, we caught the overnight bus to Lago Agrio.

We arrived at 6am, got our luggage and attempted to find this mysterious cafe. After wandering the streets for 10 mins we finally found someone to ask. Thankfully we got the general direction and found it. We then waited 3hrs for Jorge to turn up. His English accent was typical of someone who had watched too many Hollywood films. For no reason he also decided to call Jamie, Chuck Norris. For any of you who know Jamie, he couldn´t look more disimilar to Chuck Norris.

We loaded the minivan and set off to get supplies for the 3 days we would be in the jungle (had to pick up Ron as well). When turning a corner we hit the kerp and burst a flat tyre. When I say burst, it was more of a explosion as the back wheel disinflated and we heard metal on tarmac. Not a great start as we heaeed into the most remote area of the world I´ve ever been too.

Tyre fixed, Ron collected and other essentials loaded we headed off to Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. This was a highly unpleasant journey as my knee were holding up the seat and passengers in front. After 3.5 hrs we transferred into a canoe and did another 3hrs.As we got deeper into the jungle the waterways widened. On the way we saw an anaconda into the branches of a bush. It was bigger than I had seen in Cali Zoo. We also saw countless birds, monkeys and some jumping fish. As sunset arrived we finally hit a large lagoon and proceeded to our camp on the bank.

Posted by: Colin | June 19, 2010

Back to the Big City

We arrived in Quito and got a taxi to the reknowed hostel called the “Secret Garden” in the old town. Annoyingly there was no space for we headed into the new town . We found a place the LP recommended called “Cafe del Mundo.” It is in the Quito party district called Mariscal which also happened to rank as one of the most dangerous areas in South America.

The following morning we woke up early and I headed out to find some internet. 20m down the round of 2 African lads decided to push me. I instantly replied with a harder push. I´m unsure whether this reply made them think twice about a possible mugging or if he was trying to act the big man to his friend by pushing a gringo. Either way they went on their way I continued my search for internet.

After several emails and food, Jamie and went to explore the old town. The colonial architecture is amazing. Really not what I was expecting from Ecuador. Gothic cathedrals, marble churchs, palaces and grand plazas where all in a 1.5km area. We visited a couples museums before going to the Basilica, a massive chathedral.

We climbed to the top of the bell tower. Getting there was a dance with death. Rickety ladders, plank walkways and unstable spiral stariways paved the way to the canopy of Quito. At the top you got a great impression of the lay out of the city with its sprawling suburbs, shops for its 4 million inhabitants and surrounding snow peaked Andean mountains (Coapaxi).

As it was Friday night we relaxed in the hostel to take advantage of its 10L of free Ron and coke. During this affair we got chatting to an American girl who told us how the previous night she had managede to “fall down some stairs and hit her chin.” She must have spent a bit too much time with Ron. The next day she freaked out a bit and decided to go to see a doctor and request a CT scan. “That will be $150 and we´ll throw in 2 mysterious shots in the ass.” Quite amazing that she managed to get a CT for 150, no questions asked and she got 2 injections in the ass. Points for anyone who can suggest what they might be.

After Ron left, we headed to a bar and then onto a night club. It was full to the brim. There was some who were salsaing, some bogging and some grinding like no tomorrow. At 2.30am we were suitably intoxicated and headed home. On the way Jamie had a cigarette so we sat down on a couple of bollards. Two Ecuadorian lads sat down next to us and we had a chat about Scotland, Ecuador, university, and what they wanted to do in the future. When we got up to leave they then asked us if we wanted any girlss to go home with. Politely we declined and turned to leave. They larger of the two then said “fuck you.” Me being naive thought they only wanted a chat. The way they had turned into two nasty pimps in the space of 10 secs was disheartening. The next day we headed to Agrio Lagrio and said farewell to one of the most dangerious areas in South America.

Posted by: Colin | June 7, 2010

Monsters and Trouble at the Border

 We arrived at the hostel. Managed to get a twin room for the price of a dorm. Was rather disconcerting as everyone was warning us how dangerous the area was and how dangerous the buses can be. Hunger as we were we went to a Mexican restaurant. Amazingly a bloke, Chris, sat down who was from Edinburgh. We welcomed his poor pronunciation of Spanish words. He wouldn´t have been out of place saying “I hate Colombia.” At the end he invited us to his DJ set in the Cowgate on Saturday nights.

The next morning we hit the zoo. The lonely planet didn´t lie when it said “you get close to the animals.” The aviary and butterfly cage meant you could touch the animals if you were brave enough. The speed and proxcimity to the birds was slight disconcerting as some were massive. The big cats seemed to be right next the path until you were at the fence and you could see a small trench. All in all better than Edinburgh Zoo and the animals seemed happier and livelier.

That evening we got the bus to Ipiales on the Ecuadorian border. It was a night bus which has been robbed several times over last year. Undoubtedly we were a bit apprehensive about being kidnapped or robber. When we sat down the conductor came around with a video camera to take photos of all the passengers. We could only hypothesis that this was to document that was on the bus incase anything happened. A scare thought to say the least. Jamie decided to hide his passport between the frame of the seat and the mattress. The bus left and I fell asleep.

We arrived in Ipiales the next morning around 8am and decided to head into the centre to get cash and food. When we reached the ATM Jamie remembered he had left his passport on the bus. Panic ensued! We hailed and taxi and sped off to the bus terminal. We found the bus operator and explained to situation in our terrible Spanish. Thankfully the bus wasn´t scheduled to leave until 3pm. The operator said he would have a look. 1.5 hrs later he returned with no passport. Jamie then convinced the driver to let him look personally. Hallelujah he returned with it.

We then hopped into a taxi got some food and sped off to a Cathedral at the bottom of a Jorge. It was amazing. The climb back to the top was hard with the altitude and our massive back packs. We crossed the border with no problems and got on another 8hr journey to Quito. Although long the journey on the pan American express though high Andes passes was breath taking.

Posted by: Colin | June 6, 2010

Sun, Sea and Pirates

 We stayed in Santa Marta another two nights. The first day was pure relaxation in front of the pool, TV and reading. This was due to Jamie and I´s horrendous sun burn. Personally I thought I was in the shade under a tree. Unknown to myself I must have drifted out as the sun progressed through the sky. For how long, who knows since Colombian sun is 4x as strong as Scotland´s, (UV index 12:4). 

That evening it was an American expats birthday so the hostel had a massive party. Tens of thousands of Pescos were consumed along with a bottle of rum. In good style we started drinking games, most notably was “fuck the dealer.” Sadly I was on the losing end of 1/3 bottle of rum straight off. The bar closed at 3.30am when the party moved to the roof. Everyone was in bad shape by then. Towards the end around 5am a pair of Colombians turned up with a bag of white powder. Must by how Colombian´s like to party as around 2am the national election results had been released. 

Two hours later I was carted in a rickety car to scuba dive. We quickly got our kit and headed off. The 30 min boat ride was not help by the fact we were sleep deprived, massively hung over (or still drunk), starving and dehydrated. Sadly the visibility was not what I had hoped. But saying that we saw lots of eels, crabs, fish and other under water life. 

The next day we were feeling better and got the bus to Cartagena. It’s the largest port in Northern South America. The Spanish wall city is the reason Gringos (foreign tourists) travel to Cartagena. It is nothing less than spectacular. The town originally grew rich from transporting pillaged treasures from all over South America back to Spain to finance its many wars. Lots of the wares never got to Spain and were plundered by pirates. While walking through the narrow street you can imagine the many swashbuckling adventures there must have been. 

We only stayed in Cartagena 1 night before flying to Cali, the Salsa Capital of the World.

Posted by: Colin | June 6, 2010

One Coke please, sorry Coca Cola…

We landed safely after some serious turbulence and a rocky landing. Our taxi driver (un)surprisingly was drunk but in good form got us there in record time. After a welcomed sleep at the Platypus we got some breakfast (tacos) and then headed up the 600m veneer to the top of the surrounding Andes plateau.

At the top there as a famous monastery which just started its midday ceremony. We were surprised to hear the acoustic guitar had replaced the church organ we were expecting.

In the afternoon we went to the Museum de Olo which contains the most treasured pre-spaniard artifacts ie Inca Gold. Many of the artifacts were exactly as you have seen in the films. Gold discs, massive earrings, nose rings and sings of the jaguar or sun. There were some seriously impressive displays. Once room, the ceremony room, locked its captives/visitors in a pitch black circular room and processed to play some funky jungle beats. The beats then digressed into eerie melodies with scary light displays.

The rest of the day we tours the streets and realised the Colombian population is young and there are a lots of guards with assault rifles floating around. That said better too many in the hands of the police than too many in other people´s hands. The next day we got a 20 hr bus journey to the North of the Caribbean coast.

We arrived in Santa Marta and found a hostel run by 2 American brothers. Amazingly for $6 a night the hostel had a pool, free pool table, satellite TV (with an enormous bass), free internet and all the other amenities you would expect in a hostel. Unsurprisingly it was fun of US patriots on their way from Central America or finishing their trip and heading home. We walked around Santa Marta and discovered it was more a provincial town than a classic Caribbean resort.

The next day we got a bus for 1200 Pescos to Taranga which is the iconic Caribbean beach. Its cover is filled with moored fishing boats, Colombian families and your friendly drug dealers. Our first offer came straight of the just across the road from the local police station. Couldn´t help think anyone accepting his wares would turn sour quickly.

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