Day 157: Goodbye South America … I’ll be back one day!

South America has tons of distinctive traits and before flying out of the continent two specials ones showed up once more. The first being the pleasant chaos that is always around, however this is every time accompanied by a smiling face that makes the caused discomfort much more bearable. The latter is the apparently cheap cost of labour that results in tons of employees where one could have been sufficient. My endeavour  to fly out of Cartagena was characterized by both.

A couple of days ago a plane, of the company I was flying with, was struck by lightning upon landing in Bogota. Although the plane broke up in three parts, most of the passengers survived, leaving only one deadly victim due to a heart attack. This disrupted the whole flight schedule in the coming days as well as the flight I was planning to take. On my last evening in Cartagena I got two emails from the airline company, the first one for the direct connection I had booked, the second one de-routing via Barranquilla and leaving one hour earlier. Just to be sure I got very early to the airport and passed on a final night out in town. When I showed up at the airport, I got referred from desk to desk until I finally queued up for my flight check-in which started one hour later than promised. There it turns out that I got two flight tickets for the flight de-routing through Barranquilla, nevertheless I would be taking the direct flight to Fort Lauderdale, only on a different hour than either the ones that was originally sent to me (things were starting to get slightly confusing for me at this moment). During check-in I all of the sudden needed different documents than the ones requested up front, but we managed to make our way around this. Then I had to wait for another hour to get to customs check, since that one isn’t open at the moment.

Customs check turns out to be like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. First an airline employee writes down my name, then I go for a first interview with a policeman. After this I drop off my bags to get them through the scanner, while I go through one of those walk-through scanners myself. Everything normal until here. Never minding the result of the scanner, I get scanned manually by an officer as well. Then I take my bag to another officer who goes through all my stuff as well. A next officer pads me down, before sending me up to the narcotics officer who takes X-ray shots of my body (so far for privacy)! Then I go back down to the migration officer who questions me once more before giving me my stamp. Then another lovely lady takes down my name and sends me to another airport employee who once more goes through my bags before finally approving me safe to fly. I got to the airport at 7.30am and at 1.30pm, I can finally board my plane towards the States.

Don’t let this short history give you a wrong impression however, I’ve absolutely loved my time on this continent. Before I left I heard horror stories about the freezing cold in Patagonia, the unavoidable food poisoning in Bolivia and the fearless para-military groups of Colombia. All the while during my five months of travelling here I only had amazing experiences, met incredibly friendly people, ate (mostly) really good food and saw fantastic sceneries. I will take all of these with me as beautiful memories while my trip continues and hopefully far beyond. I can only recommend everybody to travel here yourself and experience the absolute friendliness and beauty of this continent.

In an attempt to organize some of these memories I’ve drawn up some lists that rank the most memorable ones.

Best Countries

1. Colombia
2. Bolivia
3. Argentina
4. Peru
5. Chile
6. Ecuador

First place here had for a long while been in the hands of Bolivia, which without any doubt is an amazing country that has so much to offer at a bargain price. In the end Colombia took over based on two reasons: having a coastline (sorry for rubbing it in Bolivia) with all related advantages and the always present joy the Colombians show while smiling, talking or dancing. Having the prettiest looking ladies of my trip might have been important as well. As for the other places I’ve been, if Patagonia had been a country it would definitely been on the top of my list, same for Galapagos. Peru was good fun, but limited to Huaraz and Cuzco area.

Best Regions

1. Patagonia
2. Galapagos Islands
3. Caribbean Coast

Because the country question didn’t cover the whole spectrum, I started looking at specific areas as well. Patagonia is taking first place here because it is just plainly amazing and I would recommend everybody to go there and to discover it by himself. It’s also a region that has changed part of me as well, where I discovered that I loved being outdoors and go trekking, thus it has definitely defined how the rest of my trip would look like. Galapagos Islands have a mythical aura around them and were the place where I felt most like I was a kid again, looking in amazement at the animals around me. The Caribbean Coast in Colombia is a deserving third that has a lot to offer for anyone who is up for it, stunning beaches with abundant marine life are linked to the cloud forest of the Sierra Nevada rising just behind it, with a flourishing nightlife in between.

Relaxation in the middle of Patagonian peaks

Best Food

1. Caribean lobstertails in Santa Marta
2. Patagonian lamb in Cafayate
3. Filet Mignon in Taganga
4. Mangrove Crab in Guayaquil
5. Self-made food whenever eating out became too expensive

When eating, the people you’re sharing the food with are probably just as important as the quality of the food involved. So it’s no surprise that all off these meals were shared with great fellow travellers. The lobstertails with one of the final evenings of travelling with my parents came in giant portions with freshly grilled vegetables. The Patagonian lamb was a delicious dinner after Tom, Tom, Joss and I finished our trek around Mount Fitzroy. The filet mignon was once again shared with my parents (we tended to go to slightly more expensive restaurants when they were picking up the bill) and it was a pleasure to finally have a nice thick piece of meat (so much that I even went back later on with Tom and Roy). The mangrove crabs were shared when I met Sophie and Jay, a superb Australian couple that I kept running in to later. From time to time, the urge to cook our own meal took over and moments like those mostly gave us the most gratification.

Best Drinks

1. Fresh stream water in Patagonia
2. Malbec wine in Mendoza
3. Caipirinhas in Buenos Aires

Rarely good food goes without a good drink and definitely not in the wine regions of Chile and Argentina. But drawing up a list of my favourite drinks didn’t turn out to be that easy, apparently my alcohol consumption has been more limited than I had expected up front. This reflects itself in the first place as well, the fresh water out of the small Patagonian creeks and waterfalls. After being used to bottled and tap water for 25 years, it was an absolute revelation to be able to drink straight out of the little water streams. As a balance for all this healthy water, there were the famous wines of Chile and Argentina. The Malbec variety was our absolute favourite here and it was hard to have a meal where we weren’t drinking a bottle of wine when we were in the area. Caipirinhas normally are reserved for Brazil, but on a great samba party during our first weekend in Buenos Aires the combination of these strong cocktails and good company made us dance all night long.

Tasting Malbec wine in Argentina (still with beard then)

Most challenging activities

1. Kicking off this trip
2. Climbing Huayna Potosi
3. Biking back from Lago Desierto
4. Surviving freezing cold nights in Huayhuash trek
5. Keep going on the Torres del Paine trek doing everything ourselves

Without any doubt, making the decision to start on this trip was the hardest challenge to overcome. I had been playing with the idea for three years before I finally gave in to it and decided to go for it. Everything since passing that hurdle seems to be a piece of cake. Some things however were a bit harder than others. Climbing Huayna Potosi near La Paz definitely is the achievement I am proudest of. Whilst feeling physically ill, I had the guts and character to continue and make the summit. Afterwards the dredging walk back might have been even harder, but in the end it was all worth it. The mountain-bike trip back and forth to Lago Desierto must have been the most painful experience, neglecting the advice of the locals we set of on a 75km trip over the worst dirt road possible. When coming back there wasn’t a single muscle that wasn’t hurting and every single rock along the road had been personally cursed upon. Whilst trekking the Huaraz area in Northern Peru, each night the temperatures dropped to zero degrees Celsius and I was shivering inside the tent trying to keep my extremities warm by putting a hot water bottle near my feet and sleeping with my hat on. All of this made our trek in Torres del Paine even more impressive, where we were carrying all our belongings, pitching our own tent at night and cooking our own food in harsh conditions. But back then we were still full of fearlessness and courage.

Magical moments

1. The first look of Glaciar Grey
2. Sunset in Pacific with sealions and flying fish
3. Hatching baby turtles in Galapagos
4. Night dive in Taganga
5. Sunrise on Huayna Potosi
6. Sleeping in a hammock at Parque Tayrona
7. Swimming with river dolphins and cayman in the Bolivian Pampas
8. Biking through a deserted Atacama desert
9. Sunrise in a thermal bath during Huayhuash trek
10 . Sunrise at Ciudad Perdida (pictures click here)

The whole trip has been full of amazing experiences, but some of them are even a bit more special. I can vividly remember them straight away and I knew I was thinking to be the luckiest guy on the world at those moments. It’s hard to make a ranking of them, but I gave it a go. The feeling I had when stumbling upon Glacier Grey must be at the very top, after 7 days of intense hiking the majestic view of a 30 kilometre long glacier was extremely overwhelming. Sharing a sunset on a surfboard with animals as well as the hatching of sea turtles used to be things I would dream of as a kid, now I have actually experienced them myself. The night dive I did in Taganga as a part of my advanced dive course was great fun, slowly plunging into a dark unknown world with only my flashlight to guide me was just amazing. The sunrise on Huayna Potosi is without any doubt the most rewarding one I have experienced on this trip. After a couple of days on the Caribbean coast I had gotten used to sleeping in hammocks, but none was as overwhelming as the one in the tower up on the small peninsula of Cabo. Sharing a river with dolphins and cayman was pretty damn cool, as well as taking our mountain bikes and find a part of the Atacama desert that wasn’t full of tourist tours. The last two sunrises were equally magical, it’s only the amount of mosquito bites in Ciudad Perdida that bumped it down to the last place. (Pretty hard to make the selection here considering I had to bump Uyuni saltflats, Macchu Pichu and paragliding in Iquique)

Foggy sunrise at Ciudad Perdida

Best trekkings

1. The Circuit in Torres del Paine in Patagonia
2. Ciudad Perdida in Sierra Nevadq de Santa Marta
3. Huayhuash trail in North Peru
4. Salkantay trail to Macchu Pichu
5. Cerro Lindo in El Bolson

I had never expected to do that much hiking during my trip, but it seems like you’re never to old to discover new things you like. Out of the 155 days I’ve spent travelling, it turns out that some  45 of them were dedicated to (multi) day trek through nature. I believe the following five were my favourites. Doing the circuit in Torres was something we planned up front and one of the reasons we headed to Patagonia. It didn’t disappoint us and set the expectation level very high from the beginning on. The trek to Ciudad Perdida was something completely different, going through the jungle over ancient old paths of Tayrona indians we had to cross rivers and fight off mosquitoes to finally get to the old indian capital. The Huayhuash trail was equally beautiful as the other hikes done, only we did it a bit more luxurious having our own guide and horseman. The Salkantay trail was great fun to share with an amazing group of people and ended up in the mythical city of Macchu Pichu. A short two day hike to Cerro Lindo finishes of this list, it doesn’t happen that often that you can climb a frozen waterfall in the end.

Huayhuash trail


Most Played Music on my Ipod

Rodrigo y Gabriela – Rodrigo y Gabriella
The XX – XX
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Isbells – Isbells
The Black Keys – Brothers

The music I’ve been listening most to on this trip, other bands that have been passing by a lot: Air, The Beatles, Beach House, The Black Box Revelation, Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors, Eels, Fever Ray, Fleet Foxes, The Hickey Underworld, Jef Neve, The Low Anthem, Monsters of Folk, The National, Soulwax, The Subs, Vampire Weekend, Warren Zevon, The Whitest Boy Alive.

Things I miss the most

1. Friends and family living their lives and big moments
2. My own kitchen
3. A good game of basketball

While I’m travelling around the world, I’ve taken a side track to the life all of you are involved with. This also means missing out on all the special occasions in your life: new girlfriends, family celebrations, couples getting married, buying houses and having kids, new jobs, … These are the moments I wished I could send myself back for a short moment and be part of all the joy in your life. Guess I’ll just have to catch up fast once I get back.
Asides from that it seems like the things I’m missing are rather trivial. Having my own kitchen with my own utensils, spices and ingredients to put together a nice meal as well as playing a bit of basketball at times. But I guess those two would be better with friends around as well.

Shortly going through these lists I can only see that this trip has been a great experience till now. Five months in six South American countries have flown bye and great memories will always be attached to them. Now it’s time for three weeks of cruising through the States before starting the final leg of my trip in Asia.

Take care,

David

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Surf, sulfur, seafood and other strangenesses

Tired, but dazzled and once again amazed by the beauty of mother earth, the 4 brave Huayhuash-hikers got back to the Hostel. After an amazing shower and luxurious diner (back from a nine day hike a juicy steak is more or less heaven) we all went our own ways again. Australian Tom and I (TomTom) bought a ticket for the bus in the direction of Trujillo where we transfered towards the relaxed surfertown Huanchaco. Tears flowed when “la Furia Roja”  defeated the poor Dutch national team. More weeping when the golden pair TomTom was separated. Australian Tom got en route to the Galapagos islands. I decided to make a stopover in Huanchaco.

Huanchaco Hyves and Mancora malice

The small town of Huanchaco is known for its surfing, fishermen and cool vibe. The “pescadores” still use their traditional fisherboats or “caballitos de totora”. It is said that these watercrafts were the first to be used to surf waves. Thus, finding a symbol for this cool township wasn’t very difficult. I installed myself in “La Casa Suiza”, weird enough a French-owned hostel. Aside from that a perfect spot to stay: good value, comfortable beds and amazing home-made pizza.

Tom and the caballito de totora

During the trip I discovered the thrill of riding waves. So, I was pretty keen on further improving my skills in Huanchaco. Determined as I was, soon a new “golden duo” was founded. Surfing instructor Tommy was appointed as my private tutor, being incredibly motivated to pass on the surfing-vibe. My  surfing-Spanish improved considerably, as well as my handshake.

Slowly I got my surfing at a next level. I drank liters of seawater and suffered severe cold, lying there in the Pacific Ocean waiting for “la ola perfecta”. And… three days later I caught my first enormous (for me at least) wave. And it was well worth all torment and pain!

In the hostel, I met Sofia, a Swedish girl travelling her way up through Peru. And as we were both a bit sick of the lack of sunshine in Huanchaco, we agreed upon moving further north together.

We still had some time left so got to the “Huaca de la Luna”. Together with the Huaca del sol, the pyramids constituted the powercentre of the Mochica culture (100 to 900 a.C.) – Hey, a little history lesson won’t harm you. Another interesting phenomenon to be found on site is the Peruvian dog. The animal is characterised by its hairlessness and was a popular pet kept during the Incan empire.

Incan hairless Peruvian dog at the Huaca de la Luna

Following our brief encounter with one of Peru’s archeological treasures we progressed and headed for Mancora. Only to find out we both did not really like the vibe of this self-called beach paradise. Probably a result of the contrast with the adorable atmoshpere in Huanchaco compared to the “pushy” feel of Mancora. Thus, we spent some time wandering around the beach and surfing before scheduling our trajectory to Ecuador.

Flashy fishermen, mating whales and blue-footed boobies

We dropped our anchor in Puerto López, a small coastal village 5 hours away from Guayaquil.  In the morning, fishermen can be spot on the beach, dragging huge manta rays and marlins shorewards while pelicans are hanging around, waiting to get a tasty bite of the fish. In the evenings, we got some of the best seafood prior to hitting one of the well-lit bars with oceanview on the main strip, sipping a cocktail.

The charming village of Puerto López

Pelicans in line waiting for some tasty bites

Manta rays waiting to be taken to the local fish market

Besides the fishing, tourism is the main industry in Puerto López. The city is the headquarters for the Machalilla natural park, the only coastal preserve in Ecuador. Mid-june to october, the mating whales are the main attraction here. Tours can easily be booked, and you’re guaranteed to spot some coupling humpback whales. And indeed, it’s quite spectacular to see the huge animals jumping around while spraying seawater with their blowholes.

Humpback whales playing around in the Pacific Ocean

We opted for a combined tour, with stopover on the “isla de la plata”, an island a few kilometres offshore. The isle is referred to as “the poor man’s Galapagos”, as some of the same species can be found overthere. And well… Shuffling through my bank statements and hearing about the excessive prices of the Galapagos cruises, I was pretty fine with the “budget version”. We spotted quite a few birds of which the blue-footed booby and frigatebirds were the absolute highlights. We ended our day with an hour of snorkeling in the coral reef the island is surrounded with.

The blue-footed booby

Frigate birds relaxing

The next day, a mototaxi dropped us in Agua Blanca, a small community in the middle of the Machalilla park a few kilometres north of Puerto Lopez. The indigenous people make a living mainly out of agriculture and tourism. Guided tours take you into the community, where the most memorable spot is the sulfur bath. You are meant to cover yourself with some of the mud on the bottome of the lagune to get your skin purified. Allthough the smell of eggs did not really attract us right away, we followed the wise advice of our guide and smeared some of the delicious ooze over our tired bodies.

Sofia and Tom enjoying a smelly-sulfur-mud-treat

Getting back into the village, Sofia and I decided to go our own ways again. Sofia wanted to go kitesurfing, while I was fierce to go for the same thing, only without the kite. Moreover, in Puerto Lopez I got hold of  “the kite runner” through the book exchange, more then enough kite for me.  So a lot of whining and weaping and another adieu…

From Canoa to Colombia…

Shortly after, I arrived in Canoa, more or less the Ecuadorian equivalent for Huanchaco. The coming days I took the time to get some final surfing vibes in Latin America. Especially my last session I’ll remember for a long time.

In my early morning surf I got to know the phenomenon pointed out by locals as “el beso de agua mala” literally translated: “the kiss of the bad water”. While paddling in the ocean, all of a sudden my whole forearm felt as if it was burned and stung with 100 needles at the same time. Apparently I bumped into an audacious type of jelly fish. Luckily the pharmacist was able to give me a good antidote, so I was ready for a second surfing session.

Lying in the water later in the afternoon I suddenly heard a screaming sound. Scanning the ocean promptly I saw a girl struggling in the water. I did not hesitate and with my surfboard I got her back on shore. Quickly I speeded towards the doctor who got the unfortunate young woman back on her feet. A somehow scary experience. Nevertheless, all’s well that ends well!

Surfing Canoa

Leaving behind all the excitement, I packed my bag, ready for some new adventures. I am currently writing from the small Colombian border town Ipiales where I am awaiting the nightbus to Cali. There I will meet up with Roy, a good comrade from back home in Belgium. Together we’ll be cruising through Colombia the coming weeks.  In the meanwhile, I will ameliorate both my Spanish and Salsa skills. And believe me, especially for the latter, there is quite some improvement possible. But, more on all of this in my next post. To end I want to wish everybody a great summer and an exhilarating vacation!

The best to all of you!

Tom