Somewhereabouts

From Mancora to Huaráz

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I’ve become so used to sleeping in moving vehicles I’m thinking of investing in a race car bed when I get home. After eight nights in the Galápagos on a boat, we decided to treat ourselves by taking an overnight bus trip to Mancora on the north west coast of Peru. However I use the term ‘overnight’ very, very loosely.

Officers at the station informed us the bus would arrive in Mancora at 5:30-ish in the morning. But unless in Spanish ‘ish’ translates to ‘subtract 2.5 hours’ I’ll have to assume they were lying, as we were woken by the attendant yelling “MANCORA” at 3:00am sharp. It was one of the few times I’ve ever wished a bus trip would go for longer so I could fit in a full eight hours of shut eye. Tired, groggy and a tad grumpy, we fumbled around with our Lonely Planet guide, jumped in a tuk tuk and asked the driver to take us to Loki Hostel, which he did, and which took all of about 30 seconds as it was only 27 meters down the road. (Peru obviously doesn’t face the problem of drivers refusing short fares – Melbourne taxis, take note.)

Loki feels more like a resort than a hostel, with balconies off every room, a pool and an awesome outdoor bar. It can be a bit loud as rooms are opposite the bar, but we never had any trouble sleeping on the nights (or night) we didn’t join in the festivities. The town itself is pretty unassuming – it’s just one road with a few shops and restaurants scattered along it. However one of the best meals we’ve had on our trip was at a little restaurant called La Sirena D’juan, which serves tasty melt-in-your-mouth tuna steaks. We kind of enjoyed the fact that there’s not that much to do in Mancora. It was a pretty awesome excuse to just laze by the pool. And running into Ollie and Kyle from our Panama boat trip was a pretty awesome excuse to have a few drinks. Not that we ever really need one.

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After not venturing further than 50m from Loki for four days we were due for something a little more wholesome, so we headed south east to Huaráz, a city on the brink of the Cordillera Blanca Mountain Range. Our only option to get there was sitting on a hot, sweaty, beat-up old Etti bus for 14-hours to Casma, followed by another 3-hour local bus to Huaráz.

Most of the time, the best part of a bus trip is the view. Most of the time. But gazing out the window as we left Mancora, I saw: Barren land. Road. A gravestone. Another gravestone. White cross. Gravestone. Cliff. Cluster of gravestones. Cross. Memorial site. Gravestone. The only comforting factor was that there didn’t appear to be any mass graves big enough to account for an entire bus full of people. Needless to say, I’ve had better sleeps. Gravestone.

Once in Huaráz, we organised a day hike to Laguna 69 (cue sniggering) for the following day. With the company Galaxiam we booked transport to and from the trail start in Cebollapampa, but did the walk unguided. They said it should take about six hours. Usually, the “estimated time required” is based on the average speed of an 86 year-old woman with crutches. So when we found out the bus would only wait around for six hours, we figured we’d still have oodles of time for a picnic at the end.

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The trail started at an altitude of 3900m with a 700m climb up to the lake. Now I’m no hiking expert, but I’m also no 86 year-old woman. The walk was mighty hard work (coming from sea level the day before probably didn’t help). Ben was getting irritated because I kept stopping to “take photos”, when really, I was just trying to take in some oxygen. Thankfully the walk is pretty picturesque (I mean, how else do you suppose they trick people into doing it), and the lake itself is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It was quite literally breathtaking. Or maybe that was just the hike.

After scoffing down our picnic and rushing back to the bus, we only just made it in time. Then of course, we had to sit there and wait for over an hour for a few slow pokes to return.

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Galápagos Islands

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For eight days on the Galápagos Islands, all I heard was David Attenborough’s velvety voice narrating in my head.

Following advice from friends, we spent a few days in Guayaquil so we could get a better deal on a boat trip to the islands. There weren’t as many options as we’d hoped for and we were running on limited time, so we ended up booking the earliest boat we could – an eight day trip on the Guantanamera.

With a few days to kill before our boat departed, we took a shortish bus ride up the coast to Montañita with Sarah and Keisha, two girls from our hostel. The weather was a bit gloomy (I let this slide given it was the beginning of winter) and the beach was nothing special, but there were just enough waves for Ben to go out for a paddle. Unfortunately the next day he was struck down with a small bout of food poisoning (though I still maintain the seafood pasta at Pigro was delicious).

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After a quick pit stop back in Guayaquil, we flew off to Baltra Island where we were greeted by our guide, Johan. Born and bred on the island of Santa Cruz, Johan is one of the nicest Ecuadorians you’ll probably never meet. He spoke excellent English and knew more about the islands than we could possibly have had time to hear, and he genuinely seemed to care whether everyone was enjoying themselves or not. Our private cabin felt like luxury after our boat ride from Panama, and the three square meals a day never failed to disappoint.

In our eight days, we travelled around the central and south-east islands of San Cristóbal, Española, Santa Fe, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Santiago. The itinerary was jam-packed – we had one or two snorkelling sessions and multiple walks every day, which means I now have more photos of sea lions than even my mum will want to see. It’s hard not to be shutter-button-happy though, as there aren’t many places in the world you can explore such varied landscapes and see so much wildlife in a short space of time.

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Just to give you an idea, let me tell you about a little place I like to call Kicker Rock (actually a lot of people like to call it that, given that’s its name). It consists of two huge, jagged, prehistoric-looking rocks sticking out of the ocean with a small channel running through the middle. Johan took us snorkelling there on our second day, and within 30 minutes of being in the water we’d seen over 20 blacktip reef sharks, manta rays, sting rays, eagle rays, sea lions, turtles and heaps of fish – basically the entire cast of Finding Nemo (minus Nemo). Swimming amongst so many sharks was daunting at first (especially with the Jaws theme song playing on repeat in my head) but we were told it was safe so many times that I almost started to believe it.

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It’s amazing how completely fearless the animals are of people. Sea lions (the dogs of Galápagos) don’t even flinch when you step over them to get down the boat ramp, and blue footed boobies act nonchalant as they nest their eggs next to the walking path. However it doesn’t take much human interference to alter their behaviour. Years ago on Española before the National Park had enforced such strict guidelines, tourists used to give mocking birds water from their drink bottles. So nowadays if you pull out your drink bottle you will likely be swarmed by a ridicule of parched mockingbirds (luckily Johan gave us the heads up and and we escaped unscathed).

These were the priciest eight days of our trip so far, but the experience was worth every quarter, nickel and dime. You actually feel like you’re in a nature documentary (or if you’re Ben you think you’re in Jurassic Park). If it’s not already on your bucket list, I recommend you find yourself a pen now.

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North Colombia

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I now know how Nelly must have been feeling when he so eloquently said “It’s getting hot in here”.  Northern Colombia is take-off-all-your-clothes kind of hot. All. The. Time.

Our first stop was Cartagena, one of the oldest cities in South America. The old town is beautiful, with its European architecture, fortress walls and cobblestone streets. We stayed at Media Luna Hostel just outside the walled city and spent a couple of days partying with our amigos from the boat. Most mornings we frequented a great little cafe we found (by ‘we’ I mean Lonely Planet) called Gato Negro, while at night we were regulars to the hole-in-the-wall empanada shops. I also loved the little food market that popped up in the evenings in Plaza Trinidad – the burgers there can cure any hangover (and push any heart disease sufferer over the edge).

An hour or so drive to the north east of Cartagena lies Volcan de Lodo El Totumo. We took a half day trip which dropped us at what looked like a mini volcano, but instead of being filled with hot molten lava, it’s filled with tepid, slightly pongy mud. It apparently goes 200m deep, but you can’t really get far below the surface – you just kind of float and bob around. It’s kinda how I imagine floating in space to be, except murkier. It was certainly a weird feeling, made even weirder by the Colombian men giving us full body massages.

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We stewed ourselves in the mud for the recommended 45 minutes before going to rinse off in the nearby lake, where we were greeted by local women, buckets in hand. “NAKED AMIGA!” My chosen lady yelled at me while she yanked at my bathers. I clutched at them maniacally and may have even let out a girlish squeal – which I think was fair given the water was only ankle deep. I’m not sure how much cleaner the whole process made me anyway, given the colour of the water resembled that of the mud (which I was still finding buried deep in my ears nine days later).

After finishing all the empanadas in Cartagena, we had little choice but to move on to the small fishing village of Taganga to see what culinary delights they had to offer. The empanadas on the beach were some of the best we had, mostly thanks to the array of condiments available. We also had a pretty tasty dinner at Babaganoush where we ran into Hayley and Lucy, two English girls we met on the boat from Panama.

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We used Taganga as a base to travel to Tayrona National Park, where we hiked for a few hot, sweaty hours along the coast to Cabo San Juan. I have to admit I’ve become quite the beach snob post-San Blas, but this beach was undeniably spectacular. We did regret not packing more snacks though, as there’s only one little restaurant and a teeny shop, both of which have theme park prices. We stayed the night in a tent (you can rent out hammocks but they were all full) and headed back to Taganga the next day.

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Sailing the San Blas Islands

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If somebody says “close your eyes and go to your happy place” I’m not usually very good at imagining where mine would be. But now I’ve been to the San Blas Islands, I’ve got a pretty good place to refer to.

After a brief stop in Panama City – where we enjoyed fish-market-fresh ceviche in a styrofoam cup and great coffee at Unido – we set sail on a four day trip to Cartagena via the San Blas Islands. There are 378 of these tiny islands scattered off the north coast of Panama in the Caribbean sea. Some are no more than a sprinkle of sand with a few palm trees poking out.

They are actually paradise.

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On board our catamaran, El Gitano Del Mar (The Gypsy of the Sea) was Captain David, his assistant Jenaro, Mystic the dog and 16 other travellers, who thankfully were all absolute legends. The first three days were spent sailing around to different secluded islands, sun baking on the deck, snorkelling, kayaking and paddle boarding. Oh and drinking. There was a bit of drinking. Only around 50 or so of the islands are inhabited by native Kuna Indians, who would occasionally canoe over to our boat selling handicrafts, or more importantly, lobster. The locals were all really friendly – one night after a day of drinking on the boat we decided to take the party over to one of the islands, and we were welcomed with a bonfire, music and cold beer.

Aside from the few hours of torrential rain on the first day, the sun was out in melanoma force. It was face-melting hot. I felt bad for Jenaro who was always slaving over the stove to feed the masses. The food was actually really tasty and quite impressive considering the size of the kitchen. My only gripe was with the ‘drinking’ water, and that’s because it tasted like a sewer smells. In fact it smelt like it too.

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Like all good things, our time on the San Blas Islands had to come to an end, and we had to begin the 30 hour non-stop sail to Cartagena. Oh how things changed.

All 18 of us went from I’m-so-blissed-out-I-never-want-to-leave to get-me-off-this-fucking-boat-before-I-go-Exorist-on-you-all in a matter of minutes. The cabins quickly turned from a private sanctuary to a suffocating cell. We had to keep all the windows shut to prevent any water getting in. But you know what it also prevented? Air. And in turn, sleep.

We did briefly forget about the urge to puke as a pod of dolphins leapt out of the water while the sun went down. But the moment of euphoria was short lived when a few of us were drenched by a wave while sitting out on the deck (actually, we probably prolonged the joy for some). Despite what Captain David said about the ‘calm seas’ and ‘optimum sailing conditions’, those 30 hours were tough. That being said there’s no question that it was all worth it, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat. 

It’s weird thinking that a year ago, I didn’t even know the San Blas Islands existed. Now, I regard it as one of the best places I’ve ever been to, and you’ll be lucky if you can get me to shut up about it. 

Viñales

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Three cities and eight days into our Cuban adventure, we finally resigned ourselves to the fact that food is not Cuba’s forte. Cigars? Excellent. Rum? Killing it. But the food leaves a bit to be desired. Unless, of course, your favourite dish consists of white rice and black beans, in which case you may think you’ve stumbled upon some sort of culinary dream.

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But let’s put rice and beans aside (as we did during many a dinner) and focus on Viñales, a beautiful little country town in the Pinar del Río province of Cuba. We arrived one afternoon after a six hour bus ride from Trinidad (though we probably could have shaved a good few hours off the trip had the bus not stopped every 30 minutes). With only really one full day to explore, we organised a walking tour through the InfoTur office on the main drag. Our guide Alejandro took us through farms, the Vaca (or Cow) Cave and a tobacco factory. Here, a farmer showed us how to ferment tobacco leaves and roll cigars using honey as a glue. It was a really interesting tour and definitely worth while, especially since there’s not a whole lot going on in the town itself.

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After an evening of sinking mojitos and fumbling through an impromptu salsa lesson at Patio Centro Cultural, we woke up rather dusty and dreading the fact we had to organise our transport back to Havana. We weren’t overly keen on the bus given our stop-start journey on the drive from Trinidad, so we were pretty excited to see signs posted in the tourist office saying “Taxi to Havana only $3 CUC more than Viazul Bus”. We decided to splurge – it would be worth it for a non-stop journey, right? Right?!! 

After negotiating the price with a taxi driver on the street (well his bookie anyway) we arranged to meet on the corner for a 1:00pm departure. We arrived with our bags and he began walking us to his car (this is where I began to feel nervous – I thought the primary benefit of taking a taxi was that they pick you up?). The walk was like playing a game of taxi roulette, that we were pretty much guaranteed to lose. Every semi-decent car we passed filled us with false hope… “That car’s alright!…We could do worse than that one!” …Yes. Yes we could. 

The car was a bomb. A small black boxy bomb, that looked like it would have been equally as crap when it was driven out of the dealership 30 years ago. Not only was the car small, the driver was awkwardly big for it. Sitting in the driver’s seat, he looked like one of those kittens that has been grown inside a jar and is permanently stuck with its face pressing up against the glass. His English was poorer than our Spanish, making communication hard, and the likelihood of being mugged without realising, higher. 

It has to be up there with one of the most stressful three hours of my life.

I figured we would be fine as long as he didn’t stop the car. I’ve heard enough travel horror stories and watched my share of crime shows to know that: Driving = good. Stopping at a house/abandoned car park/in the middle of the desert = bad. This ‘logic’ led me to think that every time the driver hit the brakes he was going to pull over and rob us for all we were worth, so you can imagine my distress when he decided to enter the driveways of two different rapey-looking houses. However it turns out both stops were innocent – the first time it was only to put air in the tyres, and the second time to fill up the tank with petrol because it was cheaper (and let’s face it, more fun for us all) than going to the petrol station across the road. So much for a non-stop journey.

The car’s state-of-the-art window air conditioning system was also working a treat, until it started raining while we were on the freeway. “Stop your whining Louise.” You’re thinking. “Just wind them up!” A very good idea, in theory. But alas, this model didn’t feature window winders – instead it operated on the vintage pulley system that requires the driver to reach over to the passenger side while driving at 100kms per hour and clutching frantically at the pane of glass, as though it’s the last thing he’ll ever touch. Which it very well could be.

Thankfully this final incident occurred on the outskirts of Havana and we were able to make it back un-mugged and in one piece.

Trinidad

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Bursting with colour yet slightly sleepy, a few days in the relaxing town of Trinidad was just what we needed.

After spending our last day in Havana trying to spot our friends Amanda and Claire, who we knew were also in town, we did miraculously manage to run into them, which really was amazing considering we had no form of contact. They’d organised a mini bus to Trinidad for the next day so we  decided to join them.

The trip took around 5 hours with a couple of stops along the way. Once in Trinidad, the driver dropped us at his friend’s casa, Hostal Roca Verde. This was by far the best casa we stayed in during our time in Cuba – there was a nice leafy courtyard to chill out in, and our host Marialenna offered cooked breakfast and dinner as well. The food was plentiful and always far tastier than eating out (except for the restaurant up on the hill with the delicious lobster spaghetti).

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The main activity Trinidad has to offer – as far as I could tell by observing the locals – is sitting. On a rocking chair, on a doorstep, in a gutter, you name it. We thought we’d best try and experience the city like the locals do, so one rainy afternoon we spent sitting in rocking chairs outside our casa. The people watching was actually quite entertaining and very relaxing despite the constant fear of rocking too far backwards and catapulting off the chair (it gave me many a heart palpitation – I don’t know how the old folk do it). It was an activity so perfectly suited to my lifestyle, I’m thinking of bringing a bit of the Cuban culture back home and taking up porch sitting as my new hobby upon return to Sydney.

One night after a few frothies at Casa de Cerveza, we visited the rave cave at Discoteca Ayala which is probably one of the most awesome venues I’ve ever been to, and it would have been even more awesome had we not had to wait for it to open, had we not skolled a plastic cup full of disgusting tequila upon arrival (thanks Pozz), and had there been more than 12 of us there.

We also took a day trip out to a small national park, where we hiked out to a waterfall. It was a nice walk (we only saw two snakes) and an excellent chance to finally christen the hiking boots that I’d been carrying around for a month.

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Havana

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Cuba, Cuba, Cuba. Where do I even begin. Logic tells me to start with Havana, since that’s where we flew into. 

Let me preface this post by saying Cuba is a beautiful country. But as a rather underprepared traveller, it can be difficult. I’ve only really got myself to blame (actually, there’s Ben, I’ll blame Ben) as we did little to no travel research before touching down in Havana, hoping we could just wing it. 

When Cuba was good to us, it was great. It just took a bit more work than we’d anticipated. It’s kind of a catch 22, because it’s the same things that make Cuba so interesting, that also make it hard work at times. The fact that it appears to be stuck in the 1960s lets you almost step back in time, but it also means a lot of things don’t work (except by some miracle, all the ancient cars). 

Given the average government wage of only $20 a month, not many people seem to care about their jobs. There was a great quote in an article on Cuba from a circa 2012 edition of National Geographic Magazine we read later on in our trip, “they pretend to pay us while we pretend to work”. You have to know something’s not working when medical professionals are moonlighting as cab drivers because they can earn their yearly doctor’s salary in a month of driving taxis. It’s also only in recent years that Cubans have been allowed to run their own businesses. Here’s a tip we only learned on our last night in Cuba – restaurants that say ‘paladar’ are privately run, so you’re more likely to get better food and service. (A great example of this was Paladar Los Mercaderes, which we visited numerous times.)

I won’t bore you with the details of Cuba’s dual currency system as I’m sure Wikipedia gives a far better (and let’s face it, more accurate) explanation, but just for a bit of context, all Cubans who work for the state get paid in the relatively weak Cuban Peso (CUP), while most businesses (at least all those aimed at tourists) only accept the much stronger Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). 

After touching down in Havana we discovered the only ATM at the airport doesn’t accept MasterCard (take note fellow Cuba travellers), which of course is all we had. Luckily a taxi driver overheard our troubles and offered to take us to Havana Viaje (the Old Town, where we wanted to stay) via a bank which would accept our cards. So we hopped into his cab and hoped for the best, only to arrive at the bank to find a queue of 30 people out the front. Now, at home, I don’t mind lining up, but that’s because I know I’m getting delicious Mexican street corn at the top of the dark stairwell. Banks on the other hand don’t taste nearly as good. Thankfully, the legendary taxi driver managed to sweet talk our way to the front and dropped us in Havana Viaje where the accommodation hunting began. 

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Cuba doesn’t really do hostels, it’s either hotels or casas peticulars, which are like home stays where you rent out someone’s spare room. We opted for a casa for a more authentic experience, but didn’t have one booked (it’s difficult to do so before you arrive as internet access is hard to come by for most Cubans) so we had to stumble our way into one in the beautiful Plaza Viaje. 

The casa was nice enough. And by nice enough, I mean it was fine. And by fine, I mean weird. The father greeted us at the door, topless, smoking a durry, before proceeding to give us the guided tour of the living room which was decorated with a life size baby toy tiger and close up crazy-eyed glam shots of his daughter. The family was sweet though, and didn’t speak a wink of English which helped force us to practice our Española over our three night stay. 

We didn’t have a whole lot planned, simply walking the streets of Old Havana was an attraction in itself. It was hard to stop taking photos of all the old cars and colourful buildings – everywhere you look is like a postcard. However on our first day exploring, we did learn that for tourists, most things in Cuba come at a price. Walking along the street we met these two Cubans – let’s call them Julio and Lissette. They started talking to us and seemed nice enough, so when they asked us if we knew about the ‘festival’ and offered to show us the way, we thought why the hell not. They ended up just taking us to a nearby bar, where we ordered four mojitos and continued chatting. This was fine, until the conversation turned to a discussion about how bad the government is and how poorly people in Cuba are paid (cue the warning sirens). They followed by asking us to buy expensive cigars so they could get commission. It turned a bit sour when we declined, so we got the bill, paid for their drinks, gave them some CUCs and GTFO. 

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We ticked off most of the touristy things like visiting La Bodega Del Medio for Hemmingway’s mojitos, La Floridita for his daiquiris, and drove down the Malecón in a convertible, you know, as you do. Café el Escorial became our regular breakfast spot, where we enjoyed decent cuppas and an excellent vantage point looking out onto Plaza Viaje. We also spent one afternoon at the Museo de Revolution, and popped in many a time to Taller Experimental Grafica, a little artists studio we stumbled upon in the old town.

Cuba is amazing and probably the most interesting place we’ve been to so far. It’s well worth a visit, but it can be exhausting. Everyone looks at you like you’re their opportunity to get their hands on some CUCs, so you start to assume people are only talking to you because they want something, which of course isn’t always the case. Well I hope not anyway.