Quilotoa Loop

While travelling I have found blogs a very useful tool to guide you through each country and the Quilotoa Loop popped up as an experience not to be missed and having now completed it myself, I would say it was my favourite trek and activity in Ecuador.

After a good nights sleep and more falafels for breakfast we pack our small rucksacks with enough clothing and supplies to last four days, but not too much to weigh us down while hiking. This was posing to be quite difficult, as the weather can change at any moment on the loop, from hot sun, to rain, to freezing cold.

We load onto the bus at the bus main bus station and head to our first stop Sigchos, a little village 2 hours from Latacunga, and in the middle of high hills covered by little farms. It’s best to get the earliest bus possible which leaves at 7am, if not the 9am as there are only few buses that run to Sigchos. The earlier you start the better chance you have of avoiding the afternoon rain.

The bus zig zags around the green hills, up one and down the next for what seemed like forever.  Dose up on the ‘calms’ before if suffer with travel sickness. 

There was no chance of being alone on our first day trekking, the bus was full of gringos and their back packs. With just the screen shot of directions from a blog for us to use to navigate, and the other gringos to follow I felt more assured that we wouldn’t get lost. How wrong could I be…

Off we set, like sheep following the gringos in front that seemed to know their way. Quickly we learn that its best not to rely on others and check the directions regularly, as one missed turn can mean crossing a river without a bridge and wet boots.

The first days hike to Isinlivi is estimated to take between four and five hours, depending on your fitness and capability of following directions and is meant to be the easiest of the four days.

One of the highlights of the loop is meeting other travellers that you get to know over the course of the four days. Today would be the day that I meet one of my favourite travelling couples, Lana from Bosnia and Ana from Mexico.

Ana having recently injured her foot, meant that Lana had to carry by herself this massive rucksack – it looked like it was packed to last a month not four weeks. The first part of the trek was a gentle meander down the valley to the river, crossing the bridge and through the village. Really quite pretty and so far relatively easy.

Well the easy part ended after taking the turn after the school, as it was all up hill by a good 200m to the top of the other side of the valley. Following the path that was also used by cow and mules, muddy in parts and steep in others, but really pretty. Stopping to catch my breath and looking across the valley the view was amazing and so different to any other so far, with patchwork or farms.

We make it to the top after about two hours of walking just as the rain is about to start. On our way up we see some of the others from the group, who have taken a wrong turn, and start a long climb up a much steeper and tougher route.

Arriving at our destination Isinlivi after just over three hours of walking, we are happy to find a happy welcome at the Llullu Lama hostel, a beautiful styled hostel that reminded me of staying in a ski chalet in the Alps. Maybe that’s because its run by an Ecuadorean-Dutch couple, the European influence definitely coming through.

The real positive to Llullu Lama, wasn’t just the roaring log fire keeping everyone warm, but the jacuzzi, steam and sauna. Sadly the only the jacuzzi was working on my visit. But after a long trek, there was nothing better than talking to a group of strangers half naked while drinking beer.

After good evening meal and delicious breakfast we were ready for day two of trekking. The sun was out again, and I had stripped down to just shorts and a vest, meaning I had to carry everything else. A group of eight of us left the hostel at the same time, all with the same instructions.

We were all told to not follow the second instruction due to a landslide a few week previous, but to take a different route. Well, we may as well have not had the instructions as they made not sense from beyond that point. Instead of going down the valley to the river, we managed to go up, up and up and cross the valley at a different point.

This making the route much harder, but far more beautiful than if we had just followed the river. Luckily a local lady told us to look out for the winding path down. Which we did and we found the river and some other lost trekkers. Although we had gone a much longer way, we all enjoyed it. 

Well except for Thomas the French guy. Who hated the fact that we were talking in English and not Spanish, or French. We all laughed when he took a wrong turn and was then chased by a dog and shouted at by the owner.

We always knew the last part of the trek to Chigchilan would always be the toughest, what we haven’t planned for was the extra effort we had to put in earlier due to getting lost. The last part indeed was steep and long. But there was determination not to let Thomas reach the top before us. Even with his walking poles to aid him.

Arriving at the Cloud Forest hostel, the mist started to cover the village and the temperature drop drastically. Now we understood why we needed our warm clothes. The only warm room was the main common room, that was full of about 40 people and smoke from the log burner. Tonight would be an early night for sure.

Well not before a few beers with our fellow trekkers, discussing how we all managed to take different route to get here.
Day three and the day we would make it to the top of the extinct volcano Quilotoa and see what all the fuss is about. Having beaten the average time for the previous two days, we decided to take it easier today and walk with Lana, Ana, Joe and Faye.

This time we were not going to get lost. Mainly because it was so well signposted along the way we didn’t need our instructions. Along this route as before we had lots of local children, offering to show us directions for caramel or sweets and aks for their foto to be taken.

The cutest were brother and sister, Dennis and Viviana and their cousin Lesley. Not one of the children we met had what I would call a typical Spanish name, there were all western names. 

After about 2 hours walking across the most beautiful landscape, that looked like a patchwork quilt under a perfect blue expanse of blue sky, with the sun shinning strong. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect.

Stopping for some food, the other fellow trekker’s Holly and Dan caught us up and joined the group. So far most of the trek has mainly been flat or down hill, zig zagging along the valleys edge. This is where the fun begins, as we descend higher towards 3700m and the volcano crater rim.

Nearing the top of the sand track, I look back to see if I can see the others in the distance, but alas I cannot. Dan, Holly and myself had quickened are pace, and we could hear the sound of the dogs the others were disturbing as they descend upwards slowly. 

Reaching the top and seeing the expanse of green water that shimmered in the days sun was incredible. My first crater lagoon experience, and what a spectacular journey to get here. Pretty exhausted from the 4 hour trek, I rest and just take in the view.

Just then a cute little four year old comes up from no where, with the cutest smile saying “foto, foto” and sits next to me and starts pressing my selfie stick remote. “Otro, otro” meaning another. Even little kids out here on the top of a volcano know how to work an iphone.

Laura joins me with the others and we just rest and appreciate what we see before us. Also to rest, before the final one and half hour trek along the rim to the village of Quilotoa where we will spend the evening.

There are two options you can take around crater to reach the town. One that takes 5 hours and reaches the highest point at 3900m and the shorter 3 hour route. We opted for the shorter one as the weather was turning and we made it in one hour thirty minutes .

The alpaca hostel was our base for the evening, which turned out to be a great find. We got a room with two doubles beds for the price of a dorm. The log fire lit, we kept warm fully clothed under the three blankets, it was so cold. A night of playing cards around the log fire with our fellow trekkers Lana and Ana was the perfect end to a perfect three days.

Yes it was a meant to be four days, but we decided to not trek the final day to Zumbahua. Mainly because we were exhausted and most of it was along a road.

The following day it was back to Latacunga and goodbye to Laura as she heads to work on a farm for a month in the North of Ecuador and I continue South to Banôs

Exploring my Limits at 5000 metres 

Leaving Quito and Ronja behind Laura and I head to the nearest bus stop, to get the local bus to the most southern bus terminal 11km away. That’s how big Quito is… it sprawls on forever .

However as we soon realise the E2 bus we needed wasn’t as frequent as all the others, and we forget that travelling at 5pm on a weekday means rush hour in most cities. And when you are loaded with your backpacks – rush hour is not the time to be traveling on public transport.

Over the years I have moaned myself at tourists using the London underground at rush hour, thinking “why do it now, why not wait”. Well having being shunted about by the locals , the bus finally arrives, but it is full to the rafters.

They sure know how to pack them in. No chance of us barging in for the ride. We have no choice but to take a taxi, which again because of the rush hour traffic, took an hour to go 11km and cost $10. We both left Quito moaning how taxi drivers try and rip you off. Make sure they put the metre on when you get in, it is always cheaper.

The bus to Latacunga was completely empty, it was just us and the disco lights above our heads. Only costing $6, we thought amazing no one to bother us. But alas we were out of luck. We should have known, no bus ever travels far empty. Like all busses it stoped every time someone stuck out their hand and until it was full.

We opted to stay at Hotel Central due to a recommendation about the friendly staff. What I wasn’t excepting was the seventies decour and bright blue bathroom suite, the place looked like the set of ‘Faulty Towers’.

The owner, the lovely old Arabic lady that emigrated to Eacuador 50 years before, however more than mad up for it. Treating us to a wholesome breakfast that included falafels before our big day and even made homemade hummus for our evening snack, at the request of Laura.

Travellling to the entrance of Cotopaxi national park was simple enough, by taking the bus for Quito from the main bus terminal in Latacunga and ask to be dropped off outside Cotopaxi Park. It was only $2 and takes 30 minutes.

Once we arrived there were a couple of white 4*4 trucks waiting out side the entrance. Here we negotiated $20 each for our guide to take us in to the park and up to the 5000m point of the Volcano, via the lagoon at 3800 and the climbers refuge at 4800m.

As you drive along the road the forest is dense with trees and shrub, but further into the park the pine trees start to thin out and there in front of you is the magnificent sight of the snowed topped volcano Cotopaxi. The size is impressive, as it expands for what seems like miles. The lagoon at the base was much smaller and less spectacular than I was expecting.

Excited about our climb we quickly leave after ten minutes and make the drive higher to the base of the volcanoes cone. From here it will be by foot all the way to the climbers refuge. The climb was slow, and zig zagged up the side of the volcano, the earth and rock turning from black and grey, to a red colour from the last eruption.

After thirty minutes the crunch of our feet on the red soil, changed to the crunch of snow ever increasing as we climbed further upwards towards 4800m. The air was getting thinner and my breathing faster. I had to stop and take a few big long breathes to control my breathing. The cloud started to clear slightly and you could see the white top of the volcano glisten in the days sun.

On reaching the climbers refuge after an hour of climbing, we stopped for a food break and to recharge our bodies for the final 200 metre climb to the glacier. We met a traveller from San Francisco that was attempting the summit at 6900m the following day, and would be spending the night at the refuge. This requires some pre training at similar heights and knowing how to climb across glaciers. Although only 1.5km to the summit, it takes 6 hours to climb.

This is something we were not prepared for, but walking to the edge of the glacier – we were ready. 200m again doesn’t seem that much, but when your this high it can hurt and is really slow. After another thirty minutes of climbing we made it, I checked my phone and it said 5011m. Whoop Whoop.

The sense of achievement when we arrived was incredible, Laura and I hugged each other as we were so happy we had done it. Our guide sadly had had enough and wanted to head back down quick sharp.

However not until we got the perfect shot… which was proving difficult due to the cloud cover being so thick. But alas the cloud started to part and the glacier started to shine brightly under the suns rays piercing through the days clouds.

The decent down was much quicker and more direct, but still had its effect with my heart racing quicker and feeling a little dizzy once in the back of the 4*4. Running the last few metres turned out not to be such a good idea. We headed down in the car, back though the Park, and our guide stops the truck. I turn to see the Cotopaxi in all its glory, the cloud having parted and leaving it naked for all to see.

It was back to Latacunga for some rotisserie chicken and potatoes, as this seemed to be the only cuisine in town, well other than ice cream and more hairdressers than tanning shops on an Essex high street. What I wasn’t expecting was the chicken feet in my chicken soup, but it was rather yummy once I removed them.

To be honest Latacunga isn’t known for it beauty, its probably one of the ugliest cities I have ever visited, but it had a great feel about it and sense of community. Every third resident was dressed in the local dress for the area, which included a fedora hat for both the men and woman. The women wearing such wonderfully colourful combinations of greens, purples, pinks and black.

Latacunga is also the best place to leave your heavy bags and do the 3 three or four day Quilotoa Loop a few hours away. Tune is for this and more tales of Ecuador.

Top 10 things to do in Colombia 

Colombia is so large, travelling from Cartaenga on the coast to Bogota the capital, is like travelling from Manchester in the UK to Paris. It’s such an incredible and fascinating country, that it would be hard to see and do everything unless you have few months to travel. 

To help you, I have pulled together my top 10 recommendations of what to see and do from my 6 weeks in Colombia, and even I didn’t get to do everything. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. 

1) Parque Tayrona 


Parque Tayrona has some of the best beaches that Colombia has to offer and is Colombias most popular national park. To get to the beaches you will need to hike a minimum of two hours, through the jungle and along the beautiful coast line. Make sure you take plenty of water with you, as its pretty hot and humid. 

I would recommend you leave you big bag at the Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta and take enough for 1 night 2 days, and spend a night in the park sleeping in a hammock at El Cabo San Juan. If you get there early you can claim a hammock overlooking the sea high up on the lookout point, otherwise it will be a sweaty tent.

Expect there to be lots of other travellers doing the same. Alternatively you can book one of the many hostels and eco hotels just outside the park.

Make sure you take plenty of bug repellent as the mosquitos and sand flies are pretty ferocious here.

Getting to the Park

  • Shuttle from Santa Marta – most hostels provide a daily shuttle service to the park 15,000cop/£3.60
  • Local bus from Santa Marta – Take the bus headed to Palomeno and ask for the park. 10,000cop/£2.50
  • Taxi from Santa Marta – 30,000-40,000cop/£7-£9 

There are a few trekking options 

  • 6-7 hour round trip through the jungle via El Pueblito where you will find some indigenous locals. Access vis Colionas de Calabazo entrance and return via the coast route to the main entrance. 
  •  4 hour round trip along the coast. This is the same beautiful trek there and back and takes 2 hours. For a quicker route back follow the horses, as it only takes 1 hour 30 minutes through the jungle. 
  • To access this route via the main park entrance and take the minibus to the start of the trail.

     Costs 

    • Accommodation – Hammock 25,000cop/£6 – Hostel 25,000/£6 – Eco Hotel 163,000cop/£40
    • Park entrance 48,000cop/£12 (require your passport)
    • Minibus 3500/£1


    2) Minca


    For the ultimate relaxation, I recommend you stay a few nights in the mountains, in the middle of a finca (coffee farm) 1600m above sea level close a a little village called Minca. This hidden gem is relatively new on the tourist trail, so therefore a lot less commercial than its neighbouring tourist traps. 

    There are some Hostels in Minca, but take the extra 30 minute motorbike ride deep into the jungle and stay at Casa Viajes. You won’t be disappointed with the view, the hostel or the friendly staff. And it was the best cooked meal I had had at any hostel. To help you relax even more and switch off from the world, you wont find any wifi, although there is a computer to use if required.

    Make sure you take advantage of the daily organised hikes, yoga, bird watching and the tour of the La Victoria coffee farm. La Victoria is a self sustainable coffee farm that uses the nearby waterfall to power the coffee bean processing and supplies electricity for surrounding inhabitants, including Casa Viajes.

    Costs – 

    • transport from Santa Marta – 15,000cop £4 hostel bus – taxi from Santa Marta 60,000cop/£14
    • motorbike taxi up the hill – 20,000cop/£5
    • Accommodation – Dorms 34,000cop/£8.5 –  private room 89,000cop/£22 – Breakfast 10,000/£2.50 – Dinner 21,0000cop/£5

    top tip – take plenty of money as there are no cash machines 


    3) Water rafting in San Gil

    San Gil is the best place in Colombia to try out all the adventure sports like, rafting, bungee, rappelling, zip lining and mountain biking . Some of the cheapest you can find in South America, so make the most of it. I would recommend the rafting on the class 4/5 river, it was really well organised by Colombia Rafting, the rafting guides are all part of the national rafting squad. 

    It is a half day activity, with three hours on the river and an hour each way traveling, lunch is provided. If you haven’t experienced rafting before, this is the best place to try for your first time, as they use larger rafts so your are less likely to fall out.  However it does still happen so be prepared.

    Cost

    •  130,000cop £36 


    4) Watch a live football match 


    The Colombians are such a passionate nation and no more so than when it comes to their football. One of the highlights of visiting Colombia is going to watch a football game at one of the many stadiums in the big cities. I’m not a football fan particularly, but I loved the atmosphere, listening to the many chants the fans sing throughout the whole match.

    There tends to be a local team and the national team. Both give an incredible experience, although the level of football will differ massively. Oh and the Cerveza is alcohol free so don’t be fooled by the vendors. 

    Buying at the stadium is much cheaper than going on a organised tour

    Costs

    • Entry Price 25,000cop £6 
    • Organised tours 70,000cop/£17

    top tipbuy a football shirt for 25,000/£6 from one of the street vendors, as everyone will be wearing one.


    5)  Take a Salsa lesson in Cali –

    Salsa is the national dance of Colombia and everyone can dance it, all be at differing levels. You will hear Salsa or Regatón blaring from every bar, club and car in Colombia. Dancing Salsa is the best way to meet the locals. So take advantage of the many free Salsa lesson on offer when in Cali or request a private lesson. You won’t be disappointed. 

    El Viarejo Hostel has free salsa lessons for all guests.


    6) Barichara 

    If you get to stay in San Gil, then make sure you do the day trip to Barichara. A beautifully unspoilt village with cobbled sandstone roads, whitewashed single story buildings with terracotta roofs. This is by far one of my favourite villages in Colombia and with very few tourists.  Try and take the bus in the morning and have lunch at one of the cute restaurants around the square. 

    If you feel energetic then take the 5km, three hour hike to Guane and take in the spectacular views of the valley beneath. The road reminded me of Dorothy’s yellow brick road initially, but as we ventured further into the wilderness, it became more isolated and arid from the scorching sun beating down. I had visions of Jesus walking to Nazareth – don’t ask me why….

     You reach quaintest little Colombian village and if you have time, stay the night at the beautiful Casa Misia Custodia Hotel

    How To Get There

    • Catch a bus from the small Contra San Gil bus station on the corner of Calle 17 / Carrer 10. 
    • Ask for Barichara and the bus leaves every 30 minutes. 
    • The bus will take 45. Minutes
    • Costs 6000cop £1.50



    7) Cathedral de Sal 

    If you have a few days in Bogota then the Salt Cathedral is well worth the two hour bus journey 30km. You may wonder, why build a Cathedral hundreds of metres underground in a salt mine. All will be answered by the guide that will take you on a one hour tour. I was totally amazed at what man can still acheieve, an in in such a short time.

    How To Get There

    The B74 from Las Aguas bus terminal to Portal North was simple enough, you buy a plastic bus pass for 6500cop/£1.60 which includes your bus fare. Walk to platform 2 through the underpass to catch the B74, don’t wait under to sign that says B74 as it’s wrong and you will wait like me for twenty minutes before you realise this isn’t the stop. The bus network is pretty impressive and easy to use.

    After about 45 minutes your arrive at Portal Norte, and you go through the barrier to the intermunicipal platform and look for a bus with Zipa in the window. Get on and a young guy will take your fare once you are on the road (5000cop/£1.20). The bus takes about 45 minutes, once in Zipa get off around carrer 10a and then walk the rest of the way to the Cathedral. It’s a small town and easy enough to find the cathedral from the main square.

    Costs

    • Entrance 48,000cop/£11.90 one hour guide
    • Bus 5000cop £1.20 each way 



    8) Guatapé 

    Guatapé is one of those places that is on the tourist trail, but worth taking the two hour bus journey from Medellín. The climb up the 750 steps to the top of Piedra del Peñol (the rock) is worth it. The Stunning view of the Embalse del Peñol, a large lake beautifully sculptured by green peninsulares and home to some wealthy Colombians swimming in their pools. 

    From the rock you can catch a tuk tuk to the town of Guatapé, make sure you haggle the price, as 11000cop seemed a bit steep considering it was only 3km away. 

    Once in Guatapé you can take a boat out on the lake and visit some of the peninsulares or zip line across the water. Or do as i did, and sit and have their local dish of grilled trout while watching the action on the lake. 

    There is much too see in the town, it is full of the most beautifully painted buildings, little shops and cafes to meander around, but not for too long as the last bus leaves at 18:30


    How To Get There

    • Take the metro to Caribe Station – 4800cop/£1.19
    • Take a bus from the North Bus Terminal next to Caribe metro station. Buses leave four times an hour and cost 13000/£3.20
    • Entrance to the Rock – 18,000cop/£4.50
    • Tuk tuk 10,000cop/£2.50 (try and take it with other tourists to share the cost)


    9) Cascadas de Valencia 

    There are many waterfalls to see while in Colombia, some spectacular and some just meh. The dream is to swim under the waterfall and there is no better place than Cascades de Valencia. There are five waterfalls in total, with three that can be easily accessed and each having a clear pool of warm water to swim in. 

    How To Get There 

    • Either take a local bus from Santa Marta or Palomino that goes to Parque Tayrona and ask the driver for the Cascades and he will drop you off at the entrance. 
    • Bus 10,000/£2.50 – 15,000cop/£3.70 depending on where you come from
    • Entrance fee 3000cop/74p 


    10) Medellín 



    If there is any city that should be on your list while in Colombia, this city is it. By far my favourite city in Colombia, and one I would even consider moving too. The place is just so alive and full of energy, it has character, and not too impacted by the western world, unlike the Capital Bogota. 

    I would say that Colombians are probably the friendliest and kindest nationality I have ever met, yet the Paisans from Medellín are even friendlier and will go out of there way to help you.

    I have to admit it’s the not the most attractive of cities, but the people and vibe more than make up for that and in a way masks its ugliness. 

    It’s amazing to hear the stories and see for your self first hand what the city has been through over the last 30 years, and if ever a city has transformed and prospered the most in such a short time, then Medellín can show a lot of cities how its done.  

    Twenty years ago it was the most violent city in the word thanks to the drugs trade and the man that cannot be named ‘Pablo Escobar’. It’s is beacuse of this, the people of Medellín have such belief and determination in their city and own life, that it’s hard to stop or disagree with. It’s quite infectious. 

    In today’s Medellín I couldn’t have felt more safe walking around the City, obviously still being aware of my surroundings and understanding where to avoid, like in most big cities.

    They have a saying in Medellin “dont offer the papaya”. If you offer papaya it will be taken. This basically means dont give someone the opportuibity to take, as they will. It’s a nice way of making tourists think about their belonings and what they do.

    A great way to see the City and understand its past is to take the free city walking tour or visit Community 13, and witness the transformation yourself. 

    • Medeilin Free walking tour – Real City Tours meets at Alpujarra Metro station morning and afternoon. This requires online registration.
    • You pay a tip at the end of the tour, based on the experience – normally 30,000cop/£7 per person

    Where to Stay

    • Sugar cane Hostel – chilled and relaxed vibe – 31,000/£8 for a dorm
    • La playa Hostel – more of a party vibe but not too much –  39,000/£10
    • Airbnb  from 39,000cop /£10 double room – ideal for a longer stay 
    • treat youself  – Dann Carlton Hotel 

    Where to eat

    • Malevo – Argentina steak – really cute and perfect for a quiet dinner for 2 or dinner with friends. The Steak was amazing, with a good selection of Argentine wine. The Argentinian staff were really friendly and welcoming. 
    • Cafe Zorba – Pizza and Humous with a really lively atmosphere, it’s gets really busy at weekends.
    • Lenteja Expresa – great little vegetarian place that does quick and easy food.
    • Verdeo – Vegetarian , with amazing iceream. The resataurnat is set on the second floor, with a great open feal and lots of plants to make you feel relaxed. It has a real scandy feel to it. Amazing food too.
    • Mondongoz – the perfect place to try out the typical Paisan cuisines. Full of locals and a great atmosphere.
    • Chiclayo Cocina Peruana Envigado – the best place for ceviche in Medellin 

    Where to Drink 

    • Victoria Regina – probably the coolist bar/restaurant in Medellin. Tends to have live music at the weekends.
    • Chiquita – little kitsch and camp bar with really fun decor. Good to start the night here for drinks.
    • 37 Park – great place to sit outside amongst the trees drinking sangria – gets lively at night when the music is turned up. 

    Where to Dance

    • Victoria Regina at weekends is perfect – they often have live music and is always full of locals and ex pats. 
    • Son Havana – best place in town to try out your salsa moves – its small and is full to the rafters with locals on Thursdays and Saturday when they have live salsa bands. 
    • Salon Amador – where the hottest people hangout for a night of dancing until 3am.


    Silento 

    Now I never managed to get here, but everyone else that I met had recomended it and said it was wonderful and one of the higlights of their trip. Its full of Coffee plantations and has some of the best trekking in Colombia. 

    Hello Ecuador…

    Quito and Climbing Volcanos 🌋

    I finally left Colombia and made the twenty two hour journey from Cali to Quito. Crossing the border was simple enough, just remember to get your exit stamp from the Colombian side and walk across the bridge to Ecuador and queue for the entry stamp. This can take some time depending on the time of day, I queued for an hour at lunch time.

    Arriving in Tulcan you immediately see and feel how much more poorer this border town is, compared to Colombia. All the buildings are run down and there are a lot more street vendors. The seven hour bus to Quito was only $6, however the buses are much like the buildings here. They have seen better days and they are constantly stopping to pick up and drop off locals or food sellers during the journey.

    On the road I am instantly taken in by the staggering scenery, the bright blue sky, against the grey rocky mountains that scale many 1000 of metres above you. Passing through Otavalo I see my first snow capped Volcano, ‘Volcán Imbabura’ towering over the town and the water from the lake bekow glistening in the evenings sun. Not much protection for the people of Otavalo if she was to ever blow her top, maybe it’s an extinct Volcano…

    Arriving in Quito, it’s late and we haven’t booked a hostel, so I use my rough guide in iBooks for a recommendation . Bluehouse Hostel seems good enough, and after a $8 taxi ride we make it to a large house that would have once been owned by a rich family in the one of only two areas its safe to stay, centre-north.

    Laura , Ronja – our new German traveller friend – and myself luckedout with a private room with an ensuite and balcony for the price of a dorm. Which we had for our entire four day stay. Bluehouse was a great place with a really chilled vibe, and mostly friendly staff. 

    I say “mostly”, because the miserable dwarf like woman, that just shouted was not nice. We nicknamed her ‘Orc’ . Breakfast of , fruit, porridge, toast and coffee is included in the $10 price and you even get a towel.

    Not having wifi for 24 hours meant I hadn’t had a chance to see what the local guides were like in Ecuador. To my surprise, they were more attractive than I had imagined. 

    After getting the usual increase in messages, primarily because of being one of only a handful of gringos that seemingly use the same local guide app.

    After sifting through, I reply to Danilo, a Brazilian who lives in San Fransisco but is on vacation for one day in Quito. Sounds mad right, 12 hour flight for just a day!!!

    Anyway we agree to meet and see the city together, taking in the many colonial buildings and stunning Church’s and Cathedrals, like La Compañía de Jesús. We even stumble across a mass taking place inside the extravagantly gold decorated La Compañía. Interesting to see so many young families in the congregation, very different to the blue rinse brigade back home.

    After what was probably my most expensive lunch on the trip so far at $20, we decide to try out one of the 6 best locations to see the whole of the city. 

    1. El Panecillo, Old Town
    2. La Basílica, Old Town
    3. Parque Itchimbía, Old Town
    4. Guápulo, centre-north
    5. Parque Metropolitano, Northeast
    6. El Teleférico, Volcán Pichincha

     The Basílica del Voto Nacional was the closest and it is hard to miss when exploring the City.

    As Quito is the second highest seat of Government after La Paz at 2850m, it’s best to take your time when walking about. Poor Danilo was having a tough time walking up the hill to the Basílica.

    Paying the $1.50 for entry, I was pleasantly surprised at how high you could climb to get the best view of the city. I imagined just taking the stairs to the first level, and that would be it. Oh no you walk across narrow wooden planks that cover the eaves of the inside roof, and up a few ladders to the top of one of the main turrets. It Reminded me of Tom Hanks being chased in the film ‘Angels and Demons’.

    From the top, you can see and take in the expanse of the city that just goes on for as far as the eye can see, or until a steep mountain or Volcano gets in the way. Which I soon come to realise, there are a lot of in Ecuador. I bid Danilo farewell, and give him some tips for his trip to london in December. ‘Sink the Pink’ being a must.

    The old town of Quito is small enough to do in one day, as most of the points of interest are there. However there are plenty of day trips to take advantage of to the surroundings areas, which can be booked at most hostels. 

    The closest Volcano to Quito, is Volcán Pichincha. Still an active Volcano last showering Quito with ash back in 1999, it has two summits and two posible climbs. Ruca being the easier and Guagua being the harder, but both reaching 4700m at its summit. Ruca can be accessed easily by the Teleférico, which takes you to 3947m/12,950ft – this would be my highest altitude yet.

    After a twenty minute ride up on the Teleférico, the city gets smaller and further away, the cloud got thicker and the air thinner. To think I still had to climb another 700m was daunting, but the excitement of trying to achieve it drove my determination and I had Laura to keep me company who was equally as excited.

    The advice is not to attempt the summit after 11am, otherwise you will be coming down in the dark as the suggested round trip time is 5-7 hours, depending on your fitness. Thankfully both of us are in pretty good shape and the climb was quite gradual, climbing ever higher with the clouds parting and forming around you all the time.

    As we got higher, our pace got slower and the vegetation disappeared to just grey rock, it felt like we were walking across ‘Mordor’ with Frodo and Sam. This is when I learn that Laura and I are massive Lord of the Rings fans. As we get higher, the terrain is more difficult, with steeper climbing. One wrong foot and it’s goodby from me.

    The cloud gets thicker and the temperature drops as we get to the top. No sooner had we made it, but we had to come straight back down due to a hale storm with hale stones the size of marbles falling from the black sky, and the rumble of thunder getting ever closer. We were not prepared to see out a storm 4700m high, where anything could happen.

    A bit disappointed we couldn’t enjoy our achievement a little bit longer, we make the climb down on the advice of some pro climbing Germans. We managed to reach the summit in just over three hours and made the decent in under two hours. As a first time climber, I would definitely recommend Pichincha to get you ready for some of the higher peaks.

    Still quite giddy from our achievement, that evening we hatch a plan to climb Cotopaxi the highest active Volcano in the world and take the four day Quilotoa Loop.

    Stay tuned to see if I make the 5000m climb

    ¡Hasta luego! Colombia.. Santa Marta to Cali

    The Dreamer Hostel turned out to be quite a party hostel, with daily games for travellers to play and get drunk. This resulted in me playing Beer Pong for the first time, killer pool and card games in order to just drink more. It was just like being at University again. Also it was a great way of meeting my fellow travellers. All of them shocked when they found out my age.. “I thought you would have been late twenties max” they say lol.

    Sitting at the bar, drinking a Club Colombia and chatting to Scott the Canadian that had a story for everything. I clock the bar girls stop mid pour and stare over my shoulder, I slowly turn to see what has caught their attention. Four guys arrive, the front two ripped and in good shape, and all in their twenties.

    James was the blond with perfectly styled hair, who looked like he had just walked off the set of ‘Made in Chelsea’. It’s turns out he went to Harrow School, need i say more .. The other Ed, had the most incredible blue eyes that dazzled you against his dark hair and tan.

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    It turns out they are from the UK, best of mates that have just graduated and are travelling for a year. They join in on the drinking games with everyone else and once enough is consumes and the bar closes, we all head to a salsa club La Puetra in Santa Marta.

    Boys being boys, they lark about and poor old Max, one of the four ends up with a sprained finger from trying to punch Ed. I sense this will be the sort of antics that will carry on through their year of travels. If they make it that far alive… Hilarious to watch.

    So Hostel life has treated me pretty well so far, but I soon realise that it is a hot bed for germs and god knows what else. All across Santa Marta there is a break out of pink eye, and several in my hostel have it. Apparently it had originated from the ‘Lost City’ four day trek, and from a couple of Gringos. Some travellers coming North from Medellin report of it having made it the 835 km South.

    Luckily I have avoided it – maybe it’s because I never use the gross hand towels. Why would anyone!!!

    One of the good things about being gay in Colombia, is there is little chance of meeting a hooker in a bar. For the straights its just damned hard to avoid it. Prostitution in Colombia is legal and they are everywhere.

    Dancing on the rooftop at La Brisa Loca – the best venue I have been to in Colombia. An attractive woman comes up to me and starts to dance, we speak some Spanish. I find out she is from Medellín and then she grabs my crotch and says “You like Sex”…

    I say “No Gracias¨and move away.

    Now I warn a couple of my new found friends to be careful of the the ladies, that some are ‘ladies of the night’. The majority heed my advice and some do not.. #dontkissahooker.

    Thankfully we all successfully make it back to the hostel together.

    What I love about this travelling alone, is you can do what you want when you want, you have the freedom to choose and just go with the flow. I did exactly this and changed my plans and headed to Minca and stayed at Casas Viejas for two nights.

    Minca lies 650m high in the Sierra Nevada and is a new find on the traveller route for Colombia, so still pretty unspoilt and only 15km from Santa Marta.

    Casas Viejas is thirty minutes further up the mountain and only accessible by motorbike. I hop on the back with both my travel backpacks and make the steep climb sometimes off road. Ouch my thighs..

    I hop off the bike at my destination. The beautiful Casas Viejas is in the middle of a finca – coffee farm. The view from the main dinning area is the best I have seen yet. Looking out across the jungle to the cloud covered mountains ahead with just the birds playing their tunes. Absolute paradise.

      

     

    The mornings are even more spectacular and on a clear day you can see Santa Marta on the horizon. At night your can walk higher up the finca to ‘Sunset point’ with a beer and watch the sky turn red and see the twinkling lights of Santa Marta in the distance. The food is pretty good here too, all cooked by volunteers. It’s perfect for hiking, bird watching over 300 species and seeing a lot of bugs, spiders and butterflies.

     

     

    The Coffee tour at La Victoria, was well worth the 20,000cop £5. This Coffee farm like so many others is completely self sustainable thanks to the nearby waterfall powering everything. The water powers a single generator that powers the farm, the local brewery , the surrounding houses and the hostel.

    A 24 pipe system across 150 hectares delivers the freshly picked Coffee beans to the little processing plant, and then goes through several processes of washing to make a bean ready to sell. Who knew most coffee is sold and shipped to its destination as a white bean, and is then roasted in the final destination.

      

     

    Nothing is wasted, the good coffee beans are sold to international buyers, the less quality coffee is sold locally and the skin layers that are removed from the coffee bean are all used to make fertiliser for the new plants. Too think that this area was a no go zone for travellers just over two years ago due to the fighting that has plagued Colombia for so much of its past.

    Due to my two amazingly chilled nights in the mountains I only have one night in Cartagena. Which to be honest I was fine with, from what I had heard from other travellers and from what I could see when I arrived.

    After the six hour bus journey, I took the 30 minute taxi to El Viarejo in the old town, and just saw a dirty, uninspiring tourist trap, full off ugly hotels. The old town was mildly better with some colourful colonial buildings, but little else. The stifling heat and humidity makes it hard to want to do much.

    Due to Avianca changing my flight to a 10am from a 7pm I didn’t have time to see much more of the city. Cali was my next destination and where my Colombian journey will come to an end.

    Cali is home to Salsa, so I was so excited to be experiencing the city and meeting up with my travel chum Laura. Taking the one hour flight, was far better than the 20 hour bus. I arrived at El Viarejo in the district of San Antonio. I took a taxi from the airport which took 30 minutes and was 45,000cop £11.

    El Viarejo have a few hostels in Colombia and out of the two I stayed in, this was the better of the two. The staff were much friendlier and the layout much nicer than the long corridor of Cartagena. The pool was perfect for cooling down, and the free nightly Salsa lessons were a great addition. The only down side was the bar closed 22:30, but this just forced you to head out to the many Salsa clubs, like Tin Tin Deo a must on a Thursday Evening.

    The area of San Antonio was really pretty, with a great selection of restaurants and cafes. Corrine a particular favourite for freshly baked bagels and coffee for breakfast, Cafe Mocando for some delicious ice cream feasts, La 4ta Pared Cafe for a cheap evening meal.

     

     

    Like many Colombian cities, there are the usual museums and church’s to see. Cali had lots of street art and murals painted on the side buildings that gave it a more youthful influence. Also there was a great indoor market ‘Plaza de Mercado Alameda’, worth a visit to try out the many varieties of fresh fruit and many street sellers selling ceviche.

      

     

    The time has come to make my final bus journey 12 hours South to Ipiales, the closest town to make the final journey across the border to Ecuador. We were advised to book through transipiales, as they were the best operator on this route.

    So glad we did, the bus was a double decker, we had seats at the front of the top deck, and the seats were super comfy and was my cheapest long distance bus journey at 45,000cop £11.

    We arrived at Ipiales at 9am and were shocked by the sudden drop in temperature, from the warm sun of Cali, here I had to search for my warm coat for the first time. Ten minutes from Ipiales is the ‘Santuario De Las Lajas’, a beautiful basilica church that looks like Rivendell from lord of the rings is worth visiting.

     

     

    One thing you notice this far South is how close you are to the border of Ecuador, as the local people change. They have become shorter, rounder and more brightly dressed. Can I say that!!! Oh well I have…

      

     

    Colombia you have been more than I could have imagined, and I am sad to be leaving. I look forward to my many more future visits to your fabulous country and I hope my experience will encourage more to visit.

     

    San Gil to the Caribbean Coast

    San Gil was a perfect fours days of relaxation, adventure sports and nature. There is something to do for everyone here, no matter what your fitness level or lack of enthusiasm for extreme sports. There were less expats than anywhere I have been so far, which makes for a nice change so I can practice my Spanish.

    Forty five minutes away on the bus is the most beautiful little village called Barichara – taken from the Indian word barichala meaning “a good place to rest”. The whitewashed walls and clay tiled single story houses, and stone slabs roads make it idyllic. It is by far the most beautiful little village I have visited and it appears to have escaped the negative impact of tourism that you can find in so many similar places.

    Feeling energetic from our morning run, Laura and I decide to take a two hour hike (5km) to a tiny Hamlet called Guane. The hike had spectacular views of the valley and surrounding mountains and was relatively easy.

    The road reminded me of Dorothy’s yellow brick road initially, but as we ventured further into the wilderness, it became more isolated and arid from the scorching sun beating down. I had visions of Jesus walking to Nazareth – don’t ask me why….

    Arriving into Guane some chickens run past us into the whitewashed house, and we follow the stone road that leads us to the main village square, which was so perfectly unspoilt and Colombian. Some old guys sitting playing games, and local women sweeping outside their beautiful white homes.

    We stumble across a fantastic little boutique hotel Casa Misia Custodia , that would be perfect for a quiet getaway or to book with friends for a special occasion. A central courtyard, has about 10 beautifully designed rooms along 2 sides, and a swimming pool and restaurant along another. 155,000cop £39 per night for a double room when booking two nights.

    Arriving back into San Gil, it is time to say say good bye to laura for now. I leave her watching the Colombian game against Paraguay, and agreed to meet her in Cali in a few weeks, before heading south.

    The Bus journey to Santa Marta is my longest so far at 12hours, but still much cheaper than flying at 60,000cop £15. A quick tip is get the hostel to book your bus, I saved 30,000cop £7.70 compared to the online price. I am so glad it was through the night, as the bus would overtake every lorry on a blind corner as we descend the mountain, and this was a super windy road.

    I arrive at the Dreamers Hostel in Santa Marta along with the other gringos off the bus. Oh and Gringo just means foreigner, nothing bad like it’s made out to be on T.V. Apparently it originates from locals saying “green eyes go”, so I was told by a Colombian.

    I check in and see a poster for a trip to the closest beach in Tayrona Park “Playa Bahia Concha”. I put my name down and take the last spot. My name is called by someone I would say could be the hottest Colombian I have met so far.

    I squeeze into his 4*4 and meet 6 guys from Belgium on their holidays. We drive through a rough part of town to get to this dirt track and drive for 30 minutes through the jungle.

    We arrive and so too have quite a few buses of locals and gringos. We reach the beach and I’m confronted with a row of gazebo style shelters with chairs and lots of locals. Not quite the picturesque national park I was expecting.

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    Thankfully Orlando – the driver takes us to the other end of the beach where it is empty and exactly what I had imagined. After four hours of sunbathing, swimming in the clear very warm sea, playing ball with the Belgium boys, and eating an expensive lunch the rain comes and it is time to leave. Most things in the park are overpriced, so take provisions with you if you’re on a budget.

    As we walk back, I use it as an excuse to practice my Spanish with Orlando and much to my surprise he compliments me on my accent and how easily he understands me. Obviously I’m super chuffed.

    It’s my First night in a 6 person dorm, I have a top bunk, it has a fan and a/c and a cute guy from oz. I’ll be fine I’m sure. Well that changed when I decided to get an early night to prepare for my day of hiking, and I find a guy and girl in the bunk below me.

    Obviously I didn’t tolerate the bunk moving for too long and popped my head over and made it clear it wasn’t going to continue. Thankfully they listened and I went to sleep.

    The hostel is super lively with lots of young Traveller’s in groups, and no surprise there are tons of Dutch. Colombia must be the top holiday destination for the Dutch, as they are everywhere and always really friendly.

    Tayrona Park is Colombias most popular national park. A jungle that hugs the coast line between Santa Marta and Palomeno, and has some incredible beaches. The entry is 48,000cop £12, there are a few hiking options you can take to get to the beaches. I opted for the 2 hour hike along the coast, not the 4 hour up and over the mountain to get to Cabo San Juan the main stop for visitors.

    You have the option to stay the night in the park in tents or in a hammock right next to the beach. I decided to stay in Hotel Chayrama just outside the park and enjoy a private room to myself. Chayrama was perfect, really relaxed and Danny who checks you in and then is your waiter for the evening, also takes you on local tours for free.

    I would definitely recommend staying over at least 1 night and spend 2 days exploring the area. Outside the park their are some great waterfalls like Cascades de Valencia where you can swim and escape the 90% humidity that drips continually down you neck.

    Goodbye Medellín

    So after 3 weeks in this fantastic city that is Medellín, and having met so many wonderful people it’s time to say adiós.

    Although I’m sad to be leaving, I am super excited about the adventures I’m about to embark on and the amazing places I am going visit. So before I say goodbye properly I have a few more tales of Medellin to share with you. I have met some great people and some hot guys while in Medellín.

    Ok – so the boys in Colombia are all, I can say on the most part HOT, all be it a little on the short side for my 6ft. It is amazing how different they can be from one city to the next. Not just like in the UK where it’s the accent that gives there place of birth away. Here it’s the looks, the attitude and just the way they are.

    My guides in Bogota I would say we’re a lot more reserved and just interested in meeting and hanging out. In Medellin, they couldn’t be more different. More open about what they want by getting straight to the point. Basically just skip all the other bits and try and get you straight into bed. Fine if you like that….

    This may have something to do with 25 being the average age of an openly gay guy here. It’s hard to find a local over 30, particularly on the local guide app I have utilised. Maybe they are just a more confident generation and have grown up through more excepting times.

    
    

    The other x pats I have met either through trips or Spanish school have been amazing. Danny and Katie who kindly let me live rent free for a few nights in their spare room made me feel so at home. Asia and Laura my party girls, that I had such a laugh with and danced many a night and morning away with.

    So much so that was a had a leaving night of fun planned for Laura and my departure. Yes Laura decided that 3 weeks of partying was enough and she would join me in some back to nature activities.

    The night started with the World Cup qualifier between Colombia and Paraguay. The preparations for the the national team playing started early on in the day, with every bar, restaurant and house festooned with balloons and the national flag ready for for the fans to cheer on their team.

    Sadly Columbia lost their game, but the beer continued to flow as too did the partying. We decided that a treat would make our Colombian friend Simon feel better. So a good Argentinian steak and 4 bottles of Malbec at the lovely Restaurante Malevo was very welcome.

    Let’s just say, after quite a few pitchers of beer at the game and a whole bottle of wine each, some could stand and some could not. This did not stop us from heading to the Cuban bar at Parque lleras for some salsa and what else – but some aguardiente. It was a great way to end my last night in this fabulous city.

    Feeling better than I should after the last night, I wanted to get a good view of the whole city and see it in its full glory – and where better than at the Pueblito Paisa. A purpose built Paisan town on the top of a hill in the middle of the city, giving you a 360 view of the city.

    As I head to the bus station, I feel there is still so much of the city I didn’t see, an excuse to return for sure. It is finally time to leave and take my first 7 hour overnight bus journey to Bucaramanga and then another 3 hours to San Gil. Actually it wasn’t bad at all. You get a seat that almost goes flat, and you get your own little screen to watch Spanish movies or listen to whale music to send you to sleep. I opted for a zop and slept most of the way.

    The bus stopped with a jolt as the bus driver is shouting “San Gil” trying to wake us from our travel trance. We step out into the blazing late morning sun. San Gil is a little town in the district of Santander, and is the best place for extreme sports in Colombia. Thankfully I have my new traveling companion Laura to explore it it with.

    Having stayed in an Airbnb while in Medellín it was finally time for me to try my first hostel EVER. Airbnb was perfect for the longer stay and was just as cheap as the hostels, just without 7 other people in the same room. I certainly recomend it if you want privacy.

    We lucked out with our room at Hostel Nirvana, as we are only two in a four bed dorm, so I am gently easing myself into hostel life. Who knew that hostels have pools, this is transforming my view on how to travel for sure. Maybe that will change after another four months of hostel world.

    Day one and feeling surprisingly spritely we opt to to the Cascadas de Juan Curi, an amazing waterfall 30 minutes away by bus. After a short 40 minute hike through the woods, you come out to the river and the amazing view of the waterfall that must be 200 m above. By far the best waterfall I have seen in my young 36 years.

    A guide shows us the route up the slippery rocks to the waterfall pool, where you can feel the full force of the water pouring over the cliff edge, the spray cooling us down immediately. Sadly the the water was so fresh, it was too cold to swim in.

    Catch the bus at the end of Carrera 12 near the bridge, and look out for the bus to Charala and ask for Cascadas. The locals will help you where to go.

    Motivated by our small adventure we book white water rafting for the next day. Well, Laura booked it and booked the hardest of the options – class 3-5. Which I didn’t realise until I got to the river and our instructor was talking through the safety instructions. Feeling pretty scared now, what if I fall out – blah blah I managed to get in the boat.

    Well I didn’t fall in and I loved the whole experience, it was amazing. Once the first wave hits you in the face and your told to just keep paddling, all the fear just goes and it just becomes a thrilling 2 hour ride of some really speedy and fierce rapids. We did lose one girl, but we soon hauled her back into the boat.

    It turns out that our instructor is part of the Colombian national rafting team and will compete in the South American championships. We were definitely in good hands at Colombia Rafting Expediciones. 130,000cop £36.

     

    next week for more tales.

    Medellín.. Mucho Fiestas

    I have been in Medellín for two weeks and I love the vibe and the energy of the city. Although in a city that has so much life like Medellín, where it’s just all go go and fiestas all the time, it’s hard to find a place that is quiet where you can sit outside in the sun, away from the smog that lingers in the central areas.

    But alas I found it, as did half the families in Medellín, at the Jardín Botanical. A free park, full of hundreds of differnt species of trees, a butterfly house and some rather large four legged reptiles. Sunday is totally a family picnic day. It reminded me of Victoria Park on a rare hot summers day, minus the east London hipsters. As I sit in the afternoon sun, writing last weeks post, and getting strange looks from the locals all searching for the last spot of shade to sit under, I thought I could get use to this.

    Getting around Medellín is super easy and cheap, as it is the only Colombian city to have a Metro, and thankfully its is dead easy to use. Either Metro A that travels North and South, or Metro B that travels out West. There are some cable cars and trams which I am yet to try. The Metro was built about 20 years ago, at a time when the city was just ending its besiege from the Medellín Cartel.

    I have to say, it has to be one of the cleanest Metros I have ever used. It’s like stepping into a different world from the one outside. Super clean, yet no bins in sight anywhere, not even a scratch on the window or spot of graffiti to be seen. One of my local guides tells me, that the Metro is highly respected by the locals, it is seen as the beacon of hope that pulled the city out of the past. Also, being Piscen (being born in the district of Antioquia) they are just simply proud to be the only city in Colombia to have one.

    But oh my, if you think rush hour in London is bad, it’s nothing compared to the evening rush hours here!! You would think it was the last shuttle to civilisation the way they stampede onto the train. Look out for pick pockets during this time, it’s not someone touching you up, believe me.

    The locals don’t just respect the Metro its self, but those that use it. When it comes to the older generation waiting to get on, a seat is made vacant and an automatic parting of the people is made so the little old lady/man can get to their newly vacated seat. A single journey costs 2,400cop (60p) to most places.

    Spanish school is proving difficult, why didn’t I do this earlier in my life I ask myself everyday, when I look at my tutor Julio and say ¨no entiendo¨. It’s so hard, but I am slowly picking it up. Verbos irregulares can go do one , there are so many and when do know if the word it going be masculino or femenina. As I often say to Julio “español es loco “, but im glad I have made the effort and put the time into learning.

    Julio always asks me at the end of my class, ¨Que haces ahora¨ – what are you doing now, and my response is always ¨Voy para el almuerzo¨ – I go for lunch, which after 3 hours of intense study I definitely need. Lunch is the best time of the day to eat because you get value for money. Anywhere in the city you can find ´menu del dia´, which is a 3 course lunch with fresh juice for 10,000cop (£2.50), bloody bargain, I hope all of South America has it!

    Did I say Medellín likes to party.. well it really does, and the hot spot where everyone heads to is Poblado around Parque lleras or to any of the surrounding streets to find the liveliest of bars and clubs. Chiquita bar is definitely my favourite, its kitsch decor is amazing and its super gay friendly. Followed by a good dance in Victoria Regina, for a Cuban salsa night, a super cool restaurant come club, where you can put your salsa moves to the test.

    This time I plucked up the courage to ask this hot Colombian girl to dance with me. Now I’m not saying that I’m for turning, but this girl certainly could have given it a go. Apparently I need to slow my steps and listen to the music more. After a few more Hendricks and tonics I had it down.

    Off to the club with the prettiest faces in town, Salón Amador to drink and dance some more until the bewitching hour or in my case sunrise. There is so much going on here its hard to know what to do, but thanks catalyst weekly there is no chance of me missing out on any of it, thanks to a weekly email and update on FB.
    Having suffered a pretty epic hangover, my Saturday was a right off as too were my plans for a day trip. Bed and Netflix is all I wanted, oh and a Burger King.. so a day later than planned I made the two hour journey to Guatapé.

    Two hours doesn’t seem long, but when your sat in a seat designed for Colombians who average 5ft5inch, and I’m 6ft1, two hours is a long time to have your knees hitting your chin every time you hit a bump. The bus leaves the North bus station next to Caribe Metro station at least 4 times an hour and costs 18000cop (£4.50).

    However, it was well worth it. The views at the top of Piedra del Peñol (the rock) after climbing the 750 steps was amazing. The Stunning view of the Embalse del Peñol, a large lake beautifully sculptured by green peninsulares and home to some wealthy Colombians swimming in their pools.

    Pablo Escobar once owned a large estate here called ¨La Manuela¨ ranch, where you can have a tour and even shoot each other with paint. From the rock you can catch a tuk tuk to the town of Guatapé, make sure you haggle the price, as 11000cop seemed a bit steep considering it was only 3km away.

    Once in Guatapé you can take a boat out on the lake and visit some of the peninsulares or zip line across the water. Or do as I did, and sit and have their local dish of grilled trout while watching the action on the lake. There is much too see in the town, it is full of the most beautifully painted buildings, little shops and cafes to meander around, but not for too long as the last bus leaves at 18:30.


    Tomorrow is the start of my last week in Medellín and at Spanish school, although I have loved it, I’m looking forward to a non city stop. San Gil is my next stop, for some country air via what will be my first overnight eight hour bus journey. San Gil is in the middle of the country, north of Bogotá in the Santander region, so come back next week and find out how I get on.

    While trying to post this today, Medellín had the biggest storm that I have experienced, thunder so loud it made the house and everything in it shake. Resulting in no electricity for 2 hours, and still no wifi. So I sit in the local supermarket in order to post. All part of the experience I guess.

     

    Tales of Colombia cont…

    As I land in Medellín after the quick 45 minute journey from Bogotá my hangover of the year seems to be passing. Thank you Latam Airways for changing my seat to an exit seat at the gate.

    There are two options to make the 45 minute journey from the airport to Medellín. The bus is 14,000cop / £3.70 and as expected had everyman and his wife, child and donkey are waiting in the queue; or a white airport taxi that is 75,000cop £19 with no queue.

    Hangover not completely averted and the thought of the Hotel pool, I go for the taxi. Forty five minutes of pure hell, holding down the vomit with each turn and bend as we go up one side and down the other side of a mountain.

    I finally arrive at my last attempt of luxury and check into the Dann Carlton Belfort 5 star. It would seem the higher the star, the lesser the trust. I paid for my 2 nights in full at check in and made it to my room, with a massive bed and a shower big enough for the Colombian football team I was happy.

    Unfortunately this 5 star establishment doesn’t permit guests of guests unless details and passport documents are taken. So no football team for me. Instead I get room service, watch some columbian tv and crash. Obviously I checked out the local talent too 😜 via my orange local guide app.

    It’s my first full day in Medellín and im excited about seeing the city, I had arranged to meet Olivia and Luke who were friends of friends from London at the museum of Modern Art.

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    Feeling a bit museum fatigued I decline to join them inside, so we caught up in the local park, where to my delight I am informed that all parks in Medellín have free wifi.  I wonder off and head into Poblado the epi centre for tourists and familiar myself with the surroundings. Already I am getting a completely different vibe to Bogotá, and I like it,  I like it a lot.

    Evening arrives and I meet up with Olivia and Luke for food and drinks fresh from their kickstarter video, they fill me in on there fact finding mission about the Colombian narcos trade and the effects on the local community. The stuff you don’t hear on the walking tours.

    Hearts and red balloons are everywhere, it turns out it’s Valentine’s Day, but Colombians are inclusive, in tell me its for friendship as well as love. The Bars and Restaurants around Parque lleras are packed with tourists and locals, you can feel the energy.  After dinner the guys decide to call it a night, but after quite a few margaritas I have the party spirit in me.

    Sitting alone in a bar taking cover from the monsoon like rain pouring down outside, I check on my local guide app. Before I know it the guy on the next table has messaged me, so I message back. Turns out he can’t speak English and my Spanish was still to rocky to enter in conversation, so we translate using google.

    I join him and his mates and go to the club upstairs for a dance. I meet a couple from New York and their friends and we dance and drink and dance and drink. Not content with our fill, we demand more from our local friends. Where to next we ask.

    Six of us pile into the smallest taxi and head over the river to a bar/restaurant that was packed to the rafters (I cant remeber its name). A bottle of rum later (I hate rum) and few more hours of dancing I’m feeling woosey, and make my way back to the hotel at 8:30am. Suffice to say the next day was spent by the pool writing last weeks update.

    Monday comes and so to does my first day at Spanish school, having decided to do three weeks of school while in Medellín. My poor tutor Julio, I think he thought he was getting someone far more advanced.

    It turns out the online tutorials of daily Duolingo hasn’t made me 30% fluent the lying son of a… but I’m determined and ready to learn. The El Dorado Spanish School in Envigado is great and at a great price. One on one, 3 hours a day, 4 days a week 320,000cop / £80.

    By Thursday my brain is well and truly fried from all the new information and my frustration was getting the better of me. I needed some fun.

    Through the free walking tour  of Medellín, which I might add is well worth doing to get to know your way around the city. You see first hand the struggles of the past and understand the amazing journey, from the most violent city in the world to the city it is today, open to anyone.

    As you may have noticed when on organised tours I tend to get talking to people and make them my new traveling buddies. This tour was no different and my new buddies and I decided to go to a salsa club. For those of you that know me, you know I love to dance 💃.

    Son Havana was perfect, full of locals dancing salsa to a live salsa band. Sylvia my new Dutch friend showed me the main salsa steps and before I knew it my hips and legs were moving in time. I loved it and can’t wait to do it again.

    Talk of paragliding the previous night turned into seven of us actually heading up to the top of Medellín, strapping up and taking the plunge. I can honestly say I have never been so at peace, being 3500m in the air, with birds flying below and no sound other than the wind whistling past your ears, an truly amazing experience. I can see why the instructor is happy to make 36 trips in one day. It is an experience not to be missed. 145,000cop £36 or 165,000 cop £45 with an SD card for videos. We used Zona de Vuelo, but there are a few outfits that can be used that take off form the same place.

    Saturday like for so many in the world is a day for football, and no where more so than in Colombia are they mad for it. Me on the other hand, only ever watches England play in the Euro or World cups and thats normally only a maximum of four games, as they tend to get knocked out by some other country quite early on.

    Fast forward and it’s 4pm in the stadium, I’m wearing my newly purchased Medelliín home shirt (my first ever), standing on the seats with 20 or so other foreign travellers and 16,000 Medellín supporters.

    The atmosphere and passion was electric, with their own brass band in the terrace and 16,000 fans singing chants at the tops of their voices, jumping up and down on their seats, it was like nothing else I had witnessed before. Within 10 minutes a spectator was stretched off by an ambulance crew, due to falling from the upper terrace from too much excitement.

    The Medellín fans put a lot of time into creating the chants, a shame the players didn’t spend as much time on their game. They just didn’t know how run forward or kick into the box. When the away team scored, there was and eerie silence, as only home team fans can spectate in Colombia. So after the second goal scored by the away team, the chanting and stamping got louder and finally Medellín scored with 6 minutes to full time. Sadly not enough to win.

    One thing I have learnt about Colombians and especially Paisan´s, is that they are full of optimism and will celebrate the smallest of wins, especially in the hardest of times. This mentality has certainly proved to serve Medellín very well.

    Its Saturday night and I have been invited to a BBQ by the friends of one of my local guides Kevin. We turn up to what can only be described as one of the best penthouse apartments ever. It’s has everything, the view, the cinema , the jacuzzi; oh and racing pigeons.

    As always I was made so welcome by the hosts and all their friends, it’s just the Colombian way. I think the giant bottle of aguardiente certainly helped.

    Hello Colombia

     

    As I left London it dawned on me that I’m going to be without my family and friends for the longest time ever and that this trip, my first ever solo could be quite lonely. Well that was London, fast forward to me arriving in Colombia´s capital city Bogotá and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

    I arrived at the airport at 3am, the Avianca flight from London to Bogotá was perfect and I would recommend this based on some of the stories I have heard about the BA-Iberia flight from Madrid.

    Having taken a mild sleeping tablet on the flight and sleeping 6 hours, I arrived into Bogotá airport with my brain not functioning quite as it should.

    Thankfully my first Colombian angel saved me from making a big mistake, that every guide book and practically every traveller says ” DO NOT GET A TAXI WITH A RANDOM MAN..” thankfully my angel saved me and put me in a yellow taxi straight to the hotel. Taxi to Candelaria was 38,000cop or about £9.60.

    I arrived at the lovely Hotel Casa de La Vega at 4:30am, 13hours before check in. Thankfully the young night porter checked me in and took me to a great room over looking over the court yard. Now I wasn´t 100 percent sure, but my gay dar is normally pretty good and he was definitely a friend of Dorothy. Maybe it was the bleached blond hair, or the shy smile he gave through his eyes every time I saw him.

    It turned out my hotel was in the perfect location for seeing the old part of the city, Candelaria. Like in most capital cities, there are lots of museums to visit, like the gorgeous Bodero museum, a must to visit for the artists famous paintings of funny looking oversized people and objects.

    Bogota being one of the highest cities in South America at over 2000m above sea level, most travel books advise you about the impact of altitude sickness. Now the highest point I had probably previously been would have been skiing in Val d’isere and at no point then did I ever feel this effect. Feeling out of breath from the smallest walk up an incline, or slight light headed ness and just being damned tired from a few hours walking. Don´t over do it on the first day is all I can say. Having said that..

    I ventured to the highest point in bogota, Cerro de Monserrat. The cable car (teleférico) takes you another 1000m higher. This now being the highest point I have ever been while on dry land, and it certainly had its effect. Just walking the 10 steps from the cable car, I had to sit and catch my breath, I felt like a 80 year old man, not a relatively fit 30 something. It was way worth it, the views of Bogotá were incredible. Cable car cost 19,000cop/ £4.80 return.

    You do have the option to walk up or down or both, but having heard about a couple got mugged a few days before, I decided not to risk it on the first day of my travels.

    The best way to see the city is to take advantage of the free walking tours by http://www.beyondcolombia.com. The tours start at 10am and 2pm everyday from the museum of gold (El Museo del Oro). They last about 3 hours and give you whistle stop tour of Colombia´s history and Bogota´s key points of interest.

    They also do a food version where you get to try the local cuisine while you see the city. Try the local dish ajiaco, a potato soup, with chicken and a side of corn, rice and avocado. Simply delicious and sets you up for a days walking.

    Well, Who knew Colombia´s name originated from Christopher Columbus, yet he never actually set foot in the country. Not me until now. Take the tour and find out so much more.

    As a solo gay traveler, where would we be without our social apps for finding other gay men. This has proved to be an excellent way of having your own personal local guide to show you the city and go to places only locals go. I found 4 personal guides over 3 days, one lunch and one dinner paid for. Result!! For

    As most books tell you there are a few days trips you can do from Bogota but, what they don’t tell you… Is if you try to book online, they are not for the solo traveler. They are all geared towards two plus people and are expensive if on your own. It just means being brave and doing it alone.

    A couple of my local guides had told me not to miss the Catedral de Sal (salt cathedral) which was only 30km outside Bogotá in a small town called Zipaquirá. Again the organised tours were for couples or more, so I decided to navigate Bogotá´s bus network and make the 2 hour journey myself. Yes 2 hours to go 30km… Bogotá’s traffic is mad, avoid traveling after 4pm.

    The B74 from Las Aguas bus terminal to Portal North was simple enough, you buy a plastic bus pass for 6500cop/£1.50 which includes your bus fare. Walk to platform 2 through the underpass to catch the B74, don’t wait under to sign that says B74 as it’s wrong and you will wait like me for twenty minutes before you realise this isn’t the stop. The bus network is pretty impressive and easy to use.

    After about 45 minutes your arrive at Portal Norte, and you go through the barrier to the intermunicipal platform and look for a bus with Zipa in the window. Get on and a young guy will take your fare once you are on the road (5000cop/£1.20). The bus takes about 45 minutes, once in Zipa get off around carrer 10a and then walk the rest of the way to the Cathedral. It’s a small town and easy enough to find the cathedral from the main square.

    You won’t be disappointed. I did think why would you want to build a cathedral in a salt mine!!! All becomes clear once you take the tour. It lasts an hour and costs 50000cop/£12.70. The great thing about tours is your meet fellow travellers. Here I met my first fellow British travellers Henry and Reid. Both would become my drinking and dancing partners for my last night in Bogotá.

     

     

    Most countries have a national drink, and Colombia is no different. Aguardiente is Colombias, its like sambucca but less syrupy and it gets you in the mood for a good night.

    After 4 days, tonight was my last night in bogota, and I had finally acclimatised to the altitude and was ready for a night of drinking and dancing. First stop was Andres DC, a crazy six floor restaurant full of dancing and drinking. Very popular with the upper middle classes of Bogotá. Thanks to Andrea, a local beauty we got treated especially well.

    Sharing a bottle of aguardiente between 3 is defiantly the way to make the night fun, but oh my do you pay for it the next day. Lesson number one, do not order a bottle of aguardiente when flying the next day. 🤢

    From Andreas DC I took my 2 new traveling pals to what is meant to be one of the biggest gay clubs in South America, Theatron. It did not disappoint with its 13 different clubs, each with their own theme and type of music. A defínate must for any one that likes a club, regardless if you are gay or not. Both my partners in crime for the evening were straight and loved it just as much as me.

    I aso had my first merengue dance lesson from a cute Colombian, and he seemed impressed with my hip action.

    Sadly It is time to say good bye to Bogota and head to my second Colombian city that is Medellín, where the weather is much warmer and isn’t referred to as the “London of South America” like Bogotá. Bogota you were great, but 4 days was enough to experience what you have to offer.