SENSING SOUTH AMERICA – THE HIGHLIGHTS

168 days, 31 cities, 8 countries, 1 continent.

South America blew our minds with its breathtaking scenery, vibrant culture and crazy people! There were a lot of ups and definitely some downs (32 hour bus journeys, getting robbed a lot and Bolivia belly) but it wouldn’t have been a true South American experience without them.

Shaping 6 months worth of footage into a 4 minute video seemed like an impossible task but here are our best bits… Thanks for watching, we hope you enjoy it!

http://www.sensingsouthamerica.com

Filmed on GoPro Hero 3 Silver and Nikon d3100

Music – Nobody to Love by Sigma. Purchase from iTunes here…

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/nobody-to-love-single/id829034268

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TASTE – Cartagena Street Food Tour

When travelling around South America you end up getting a lot of tips on where to go and what to do from people you meet who are going in the other direction. Most of these get lost in the drunken haze of a night out or some scrap bit of paper that you misplace, but sometimes these traveller tips can really come up trumps. One such recommendation was to do the Cartagena Street Food Tour, and for foodies like us it was a real treat in our last week of Colombia.

Run by an enthusiastic, bubbly and very knowledgeable Australian girl called Kristy, the Cartagena Street Food tour aims to give you a taste of a more interactive tour that mixes the usual gobbets of history with local culture such as street art, quirky anecdotes about the city, and of course, lots and lots of FOOD. Picking us up from our hostel on a baking afternoon, Kristy eased us into the tour with a boli each (essential a very tasty ice pop), as she introduced us to some of the fantastic street art around the Getsemani district of Cartagena. Having walked down several of these streets without even noticing the art on the walls, she literally opened our eyes to the beautiful sculptures, paintings and graffiti around us, and gave us a bit on context on the lowly begins of Getsemani, as well as popular artists in Cartagena and Colombia itself.

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Street Art in Cartagena

The focus then turned more directly to the topic of food as we entered the colonial heart of the Cartagena. A beautiful walled city of inviting squares, cobbled streets, and fantastic architecture, there was plenty to admire as we chomped on traditional treats. We tasted the classic Colombian Arepa in several varieties, including Cartagena’s speciality Arepa e huevo – deep fried with minced beef and a runny egg inside, topped with a bit of salsa to give it a little kick! Chicharrones was the South American equivalent of English pork scratchings, served hot and freshly cooked with yuka and sour cream. After all that greasy food, some local jugo de lulo and coconut water certainly freshened us up in time for dessert, enyucado con dulce de piña, a sickly sweet concoction that was offset a little by a shot of coffee from a street seller!

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Freshly made arepa e huevo

Kristy’s Street Food Tour was more like hanging out with a friend than being carted around the city by a guide, and she could answer any question with a mind-blowing amount of local knowledge that I doubt even the locals could beat. At 60,000 COP (about £17) it was a little outside of our daily budget, but if you can stretch the shoestring for a day activity that is well worth doing it was worth every penny, and made me wonder where in the world I can move to do a street food tour! Maybe next trip…

To take the Cartagena Street Food tour, email kristy@cartagenaconnections.com or visit http://www.facebook.com/cartagenaconnections

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SIGHT – Waking Up In Paradise

Anyone who has never travelled will most likely scoff at the claim that you need a holiday after travelling. But it’s true. All the night buses, figuring out a new town or city every other day, meeting hundreds of people and generally being always on the move really takes it out of you. So with less than two weeks to go until our return home, what better place to spend it than the Caribbean.

Whilst the Colombian coastline is blessed with colossal numbers of beaches and islands, Tayrona National Park was by far the most highly recommended destination for a taste of paradise. A special place untainted by the Gringo bug that has crept its way into other South American beach spots such as Mancora, here you can peel yourself away from your tablet, mobile or laptop for a few days of utter relaxation.

Getting to Tayrona National Park involves taking one of the old school pimpmo-buses that make Colombian driving so colourful, from Santa Marta. What should usually be about a 15 minute drive is close to an hour as you crawl your way up gentle slopes, passing villages, fields and several of the passengers who want to get on as in turn every car, motorcycle and truck passes by the bus. Eventually, you arrive at the entrance to the park where you pay a 37500 Colombian peso entrance fee (about £11) that lasts for the duration of your visit. Once you’re in, you’re in, so it’s worth taking a good few days to make the most of it. A short ride on a mini bus drops you at the car park, where the adventure really begins. There are several camping spots within Tayrona National Park, but we opted for the furthest away after hearing that it had the most spectacular beaches. An hour and a half of walking took us on a trail through the welcoming shelter of the forest, over, under and around trees and rocks, with an occasional glimpse of the glistening Caribbean through the greenery along the way. Arriving eventually at the campsite and locating our hammock for the next two nights, we finally ditched our bags and sweaty gear to get ourselves to the beach!

Private beach at El Cabo campsite

Private beach at El Cabo campsite

There is something quite special about the Caribbean. Drinking in the sight of the rippling blue waters, the hot-to-the-touch sands that hug the bay like a warm embrace, the unthinkably huge rocks that nestle themselves like dinosaur eggs onto the headland looking out onto the horizon, it is no exaggeration to say that you’ve arrive in paradise. And waking up at sunrise in your hammock to observe through a sleepy haze the sun stretch itself over the palm trees there is certainly nowhere else in the world you’d rather be, even if you can’t face rising from your slumber for another few hours. On an evening the brisk breeze of dusk dims for a pleasant night air that tingles on your sunburnt skin and reminds you to fetch the aftersun before bed. Pure bliss.

Tayrona National Park is perhaps undoubtedly pricier than other destinations in Colombia – paying 20,000 pesos per night to sleep in hammock isn’t exactly justified compared like-for-like to a hostel with all of the perks. Meanwhile the restaurant’s fine dining prices are more than disproportionate to its options on the menu. However when you consider that similar spots around the world would be snapped up by luxury resorts and privatised for only those willing pay the five star prices, it is laughable that even a shoe-string traveller should complain about the cost of spending a few nights in a place of such unspoilt beauty. We managed to exist quite comfortably for two days on £22 a day, bringing an ample supply of snacks to keep us satisfied through the day, and enjoying a beer with a meal in the restaurant in an evening. Not so extortionate really, is it. In fact, it’s probably the cheapest luxury escape you’ll find in the world.

Exploring the beach at Tayrona

Exploring the beach at Tayrona

With sand on our shoes, a typical bronzed-lobster balance of tan ratio on our English skin, and a completely refreshed mindset in which to enjoy our last week in South America, Tayrona National Park was a fantastic ‘holiday’ to mark the last leg of our travels. Especially considering that we would be heading to a hectic weekend of celebrations at Colombia’s Carnavale in Barranquilla a few days later. The second biggest Carnival in the world behind Brazil’s, it was going to be an unbeatable blowout to end the trip (and the rest of our budget!) on!

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SOUND – Stories of Pablo Escobar

Depending on your age, you’re likely to at least have heard of Pablo Escobar if you aren’t acquainted with his history and its inseparable relation to that of Colombia. A drug lord whose fame in the 80s and 90s was both worldwide and notorious, Pablo lived, reigned and died in Medellin. As the 90s kids who knew little about the ins and outs of Escobar’s days, we decided to take one of the many Pablo Escobar tours during our time in Medellin to learn more about him and how he affected Colombia during those decades.

When Tom and I first decided that we would add Colombia on our list of places to visit during our time in South America, the responses back home ranged from ‘Cooooool!’ to ‘Please tell me you’re joking’. Beyond the continent itself, most people around the world associate Colombia with two things: Pablo Escobar and cocaine. Oh, and the crime and violence that have resulted from both. Medellin in particular was one of the most dangerous cities in the world 20 years ago. However, since the drug lord stopped hitting the headlines in the years after his death, few have heard little else in the media to alter these perceptions of the country.

Arriving in Colombia it was clear that this isn’t the same troubled and degraded place that we had been cautioned so strongly against visiting. Firstly, we were amazed by the beauty of the sweeping landscapes and luscious greenery that bless the countryside all around. Medellin itself was a thriving cosmopolitan hub with an infectiously happy vibe and much to boast about. Everything was clean, organised and modern, the people were obviously proud of their city. As we embarked upon the tour, the passionate Colombian woman who would be our guide for the next few hours spoke of her anger of the reputation that Escobar and the drug industry has given their country, and suddenly the illusion of all Colombians as coke-happy hippies was put to rights.

The tour took us around Medellin, stopping at important buildings and sites that tied in with a very detailed insight into Escobar’s life, Colombia during the 80s and 90s, and how he and the drug trade affected the lives of local Colombians during that time. We heard of how Pablo began as a hero to the people, using his money at the start to fund local improvement projects and gain popularity. This allowed him the gain the votes to enter Colombian politics, giving him political immunity for the time being, until he was thrown out of his position when it became apparent that he was in fact a drug lord, not your average entrepreneur. Nevertheless, Escobar’s riches grew, as did his list of enemies. Most people who spoke out against him would be assassinated shortly after, yet he still faced resistance. By the late 80s this had grown into a full blown drugs war between him, the Cali cartel, the authorities, and other high-power people who tried to unhinge Escobar’s power. In the years 1989-1992 tens of thousands of people died, mostly civilians, from the violence. Car bombings, even plane bombings, were regular occurrences to target people and places of strategical importance; evidence still subtly marks the modern facade of Medellin today.

Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993 was highly symbolic, but of course a drug empire wouldn’t end with just one more fatality. However it did enable Colombia to take gradual steps towards changing its course, with such a big player out of the way. Travelling around Colombia today it is at first a little disconcerting to see so many stop-and-search points on the road and armed guards in the streets, but when you see the happy Colombians living a rich and successful life in this new generation, you understand. Nightlife, that was non-existent a few decades ago, is now thriving in Medellin and elsewhere, as is business, culture and, at last, tourism. As the new era of South American Gap Yah kids invade Colombia, it is only a matter of time until the word spreads that this is the hottest new country to visit on the continent…

Pablo Escobar's grave

Pablo Escobar’s grave

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SENSE-IBLE – Hostel Etiquette

Now for those of you seasoned travellers who have been both the victim and the culprit of poor hostel etiquette, you may not feel the need to read on. HOWEVER, spending over half a year in and out of dorms, shared bathrooms and an impressive range of hostels has taught me that most people are blissfully unaware of their hostelling habits; even those of us who are pretty clued up can often slip the standards after a long journey or big night out. So here is, shall we say, a reminder of the Do’s and Don’ts of hostelling just to make them known once and for all…

Match the Mood

If you’re massively in the mood for a party, pick a hostel to match to avoid aggy roommates and embarrassing yourself in front of a load of people having a casual drink at the bar. Equally, if you’re wanting some down time don’t be the kill joy in bed at 8pm that makes everyone else feel awkward – find a quieter hostel to unwind and everyone is a winner.

Top tip: For reliable party hostels in South America, Wild Rover and Loki will sort you out in Peru and Bolivia. Anything ‘eco hostel’ tends to be at the other end of the scale…

Indoor Voice

Some people, wait a lot of people in fact, simply never learned the valuable difference between the indoor and outdoor voice. Or those that did lose it somewhere in the bar. Especially on an evening, try to keep the volume down when near sleeping areas and in your dorm.

Top tip: Shut it

Lights Out

Always a contentious issue; you really need to find your charger but there’s a girl in bed with the lights out at dinner time and you don’t want to wake her up. This one is a bit of a judgement call. Generally speaking you’re completely in your own rights to turn on the lights when it’s still considered to be daytime, but try not to be in and out of the room every 5 minutes coming back for something else – get what you need and try to leave them in peace. After 10/11pm or before 8am, try not to turn the lights on unless it’s really necessary.

Top tip: Invest in a torch and you’ll make life a lot easier in the night!

Cookie Monster

I have to admit that I sometimes struggle to abide by this one myself when you’re lacking a drop of oil or a clove or garlic for your meal, but when it happens to you it is really annoying. For hostels with a communal kitchen, label your stuff (or else they usually make it communal or chuck it out) and keep your hands off other people’s labelled stuff! If you’re in desperate need of something just ask someone or head to the shop!

Top tip: Start a grocery bag of the herbs, pastas and sauces that you pick up so that you don’t have to buy from scratch every time you want to cook a meal (but make sure everything is properly sealed!). Squirrel away any sachets of sauce or butter portions you come across to save buying them later.

Don’t Be Shy

Sometimes when you arrive at hostels and people are already in groups talking, or, even worse, nobody is talking, it can be daunting trying to make friends. But you’d be surprised at just how easy it is to strike up conversation and the next thing you know, you’ve got a group together for dinner. Don’t be afraid to say hi or introduce yourself, especially when you first arrive.

Top tip: Break the ice and get people interacting by suggesting a game of flip-cup or beer pong

Tight Ship

When travelling in hostels it’s important to keep your stuff tidy and organised not only so that it doesn’t get lost or stolen, but also so that people aren’t tripping over your strewn shoes or stepping over your dirty underwear. Try not to leave everything lying around – remember your mum isn’t here to clean up after you anymore!

Top tip: Set yourself a bedside pile and stick to it

After months of jumping from bed to bed, it’s inevitable that you’ll pick up on more and more things that annoy you about people’s habits and, in fact, people in general. However if you abide by these rules yourselves and try to be as understanding as possible of drunken messes and late arrivals, you’ll hopefully get along with your hostel roommates just fine.

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SIGHT – Acquainted with the Equator

It would have been criminal to visit Ecuador without taking a trip to the centre of the earth. Situated just outside of Quito, it seemed like a perfect way to fill up a sunny Saturday morning in the capital (as actually there is little else to do here!). Plus, who could resist getting yet another stamp in your passport to prove it..!?

Needless to say we could have been a little more sassy about picking our timing, and Saturday city centre traffic was never going to be the quickest and smoothest journey to the centre of the earth. Catching the first of two buses to get there, Quito soon lived up to its reputation as the crime capital of South America when a man tried (and failed!) to pickpocket me – thankfully I felt my bag move and saw his guilty look, and the other passengers had soon cornered him to get the purse back! He got a good kick in the backside sending him off the bus at the next stop. With the traffic the whole journey took about an hour and a half, although anyone who has ever been to South America will know that this wasn’t an altogether dull journey, as we were able to buy ice cream and fruit, watch street entertainers sing and beg, and enjoy being cooked in the sweaty tin can as we watched people getting on and off.

Eventually we arrived at Mitad del Mundo, which, despite its huge complex, isn’t in fact the true location of the equator. Established hundreds of years ago by the French, it’s inevitable that eventually it would be turned into a fully-fledged amusement park of a tourist attraction. Complete with insectarium, a ‘mini Quito’, heaps of shops and restaurants, and even for some reason a stage, this giant playground set around a line feels like it’s been frozen in the 70s. And the reason for that lies in the fact that only a few decades ago they realised they’d got it all a little wrong. The ‘real’ line, calculated by military GPS, lies about 200 metres outside of the complex. Oops. Nevertheless, it was a cool photo spot, although we were far more impressed by the humble Museum that lay host to the actual physical equator.

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Mitad del Mundo

Intinan Museum lies down a little dirt-track just outside of the imposing walls of Mitad del Mundo. Work your way through the maze of decking, cacti and totem poles and you bump into one of the very enthusiastic guides who offers to give you a tour of the park. With a bit of background into the Ecuadorian tribes of the Amazon, including the somewhat chilling tradition of removing, boiling and shrinking heads to preserve as necklaces, we eventually moved on to the equator itself. Yet another thick painted line, this is in fact the GPS calculated centre of the earth at latitude 00 00 00. But here at least they were able to prove it, with some incredibly cool tricks that harked back to the joys of year 7 science. And just because I know that we all have that little geek somewhere inside us, I’m going to share my lessons with you!

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Middle of the Earth!

So the Northern and Southern Hemisphere both have their own centrifugal forces, which is why you get things such as tornados and cyclones. However at the equator, these forces cancel each other out. Here you have a zero overall force and in fact the lowest point of gravity on earth. For this reason, on the exact line of the equator you are able, with no small measure of concentration, to balance an egg on a nail. Now I just wasn’t blessed with the level of patience required to defy this law of gravity, however Tom could, and now has a certificate to prove it (yay!!). Meanwhile, next time you let water out of the sink or flush the toilet, have a look at the direction that the water spins. In the Northern Hemisphere, it goes anticlockwise, whilst in the Southern Hemisphere the water spins clockwise. Meanwhile if you let a sink of water out on the equator, as we incidentally did, it doesn’t spin at all – hence the forces cancel each other out. Just a few gobbets of useless information to spice up your day… but we were fascinated.

Tom and his perfectly balanced egg

Tom and his perfectly balanced egg

After another long journey to get back to Quito we were feeling pretty tired, and with the prospect of a 30 hour bus journey to Bogota on Monday we were feeling a little travel weary and homesick. Plus, defeating a pickpocket is tiring work! So we spent our Saturday night eating like kings as we successfully managed to recreate a roast dinner solely on hobs. With 3 weeks to go until we return to the UK the excitement for home comforts is really starting to kick in! But not before we explore the most anticipated country yet, COLOMBIA!

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TASTE – Welcome to Ecuador, Birthday in Baños!

Peru outdid itself in the three weeks that we spent there, and we were pretty sad to have to leave it behind. We hadn’t heard too much about Ecuador so weren’t entirely sure what to expect. Add to that, the news that Tungurahua volcano was currently erupting in our planned destination, Baños, and Tom’s birthday on the 11th was looking a little up in the air to say the least. As an avid planner of special days, I wasn’t sure if I was going to pull off a birthday as good as the ones he’s given me over the past few years!

And the situation was only to get hazier, as our parting experiences with Peru was being mugged off by a travel agency in Mancora. They not only sold us fake tickets for the ‘direct’ bus to Baños, but when the said bus thankfully let us on with some makeshift seats in the aisles that they made for us, turned out it didn’t go to Baños anyway! Stranded in a bus terminal in Guaynaquil, Tom’s birthday plans seemed to go from bad to worse when 48 hours before we were unable to withdraw any money and had to stay the night in this strange city! Nevertheless, the next day our fortune looked up. We got money, were quoted a bus price of $8 instead of $40 that we’d been given the night before (proof that panicked travellers stick out like a sore thumb!) and by the evening of the 10th we’d made it eventually to Baños.

But as they say, it was all worth it in the end. Baños is a cool little town in the mountains of Ecuador that is host to a whole host of activities, most of which would have my mum’s palms sweating. And the fact that when the clouds clear you can see smoke belching its way out of the volcano makes it just that bit more brilliant. Drawing the line at jumping off a bridge on a swing bungee, Tom opted to spend the day canyoning. Luckily our mums misread our plans and thought we meant canoeing, which saved us a lot of stress of them worrying more than they needed to! However, our foolhardy attitude was soon humbled when we reached the waterfalls that we were about to canyon down! Walking vertically down the wall of a waterfall with only one rope attached to you, that yourself have to ease off to descend, is a lot scarier than I imagined. And even after familiarising ourselves with the ‘practice’ falls, and enjoying a hairy but fun zipline down a diagonal rope attached to a rock, the 25 metre drop that we tackled at the end was something else! Nevertheless we lived to tell the tale, and it was certainly good fun!

Canyoning down a 25 metre descent

Canyoning down a 25 metre descent

After all of that fun we’d worked up quite an appetite and couldn’t wait for a special birthday meal to end the day. Torn between a steakhouse and a Swiss restaurant that both ranked highly on Tripadvisor, our decision was made for us when the former turned out to be closed. Turns out it was the right decision, because this place was perfect for special occasions and felt a world apart from South America and its cuisine. So much so that we made quite an embarrassment of ourselves when it came to etiquette. After ordering a small antipasti platter, we were disgusted when they brought over a morsel of beef the size of a thumbnail, and raised it with the waitress. Turns out this was simply an amuse bouche, and the antipasti itself was divine! So too was the beef fondue which came next with a sizzling pot of oil into which we dipped out chunks of meat to cook ourself! It was great fun and definitely worth the money, accompanied excellently by a litre of house vino… Just as we finished and debated whether we had room for dessert, the waitress came out with a huge slice of cake with candles in, on the house! We’d mentioned it was Tom’s birthday when we arrived and so it was a lovely gesture of them to end the meal. We were so happy, and full, and perhaps a little tipsy too. Needless to say Tom’s birthday had been a success :)

Feeling a little groggy this morning, we managed to pull ourselves out of bed to visit the infamous ‘Swing at the End of the World’. An unbeatable photo spot that has become a huge tourist attraction in Ecuador, our Aussie friend Adam rightly pointed out that anyone could just put up a swing on a hill. And in fact it is all an illusion – the cliff and abyss in the photos is just a small slope at the bottom of this guy’s garden. Anyhow, it was worth the visit just to get the cool photo… I think you’ll agree!

Swing at the end of the world

Swing at the end of the world

With only a week on our schedule for Ecuador, Baños has been a great town to get a taste for the country and do some cool things in only a few days. Certainly a perfect destination for birthday fun and special occasions. We’ll be spending the rest of the week (and Valentines Day!) in the capital, Quito, where we can visit the equator and get a stamp to prove it in our passports. Any suggestions on things to do there, let us know!

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