Medellins’s Metro System

Medellin is, in many ways, a lot like other South American metropolises. It has plenty of poverty and more than a few very sketchy neighborhoods. Traffic is chaotic, with very loose enforcement and a staggering 75,000 taxis, almost twice the number of Buenos Aires. What sets it apart from the others is a magnificent Metro system, built almost two decades ago, that is the pride and joy of the Paisas, which is what the people of this region call themselves.

The Medellin Metro is an elevated model, quite similar to the Skytrain that has transformed Bangkok, Thailand. The main line runs north and south from La Estrella to Niqui, two cities 23 kilometers apart. Along this line, called A, are 21 stations, with 2, at Caribe and Poblado, adjacent to the major long distance bus terminals. Line B runs east- west from the downtown San Antonio station 6 kilometers west to San Javier, with 5 stations in between. San Javier is also the base of the line J metro Cable car, which transports 8 people per gondola 3 kilometers and several hundred feet up to the barrios of Juan XXII, Vallejuelos, and La Aurora. This aerial network has helped develop and improve these neighborhoods, which were serious pockets of poverty prior to this leg of the system. The Metro cable has enabled many disadvantaged residents to gain easy access to the city center, where employment is much more available.

 

There are two other Metro cable lines, K, running from Acevedo station on the northern end of Line A, up the mountain 2 kilometers over the Popular and Andalucia barrios to Santo Domingo. Like the J Line, these are 8 passenger gondolas, very clean, modern, and efficient, and very reminiscent of the gondola that climbs up Vail Mountain in Colorado. Riding this stretch of the system affords an eye popping perspective of this massive sprawl of improvised, low economic level housing. In Colombia they are called Comunas, the equivalent of the famous favelas of Brazil. Countless brick and block dwellings piled on top of each other and rising hundreds of levels up the mountain. It’s a bird’s eye view of some very dense settlements, and like the upper reaches of Line J, not a safe place to be for outsiders at night.

The top of K Line, Santo Domingo, marks the bottom of the most spectacular line of all, L, which climbs quickly and silently another thousand feet in altitude and several miles in distance. This 14 minute journey crosses a large tract of wild terrain, a cloud forest that is relatively untouched by development. The fun ride finishes at Parque Arvi, a national park that is home to hundreds of species of animals and birds. It is possible to leave the furthest metro station in the city and arrive at this pristine environment in less than an hour. The Arvi station sits adjacent to the park visitor center, where guided tours and all the vital information is available, along with many food and drink options. This is a tremendous place to have such easy access to, as it provides an antidote for the city, when it’s time to get away from the noise, traffic, and funk.

The Metro system operates every day from 5 am until 11:30, and fares are 1900 Colombian pesos, which is roughly a US dollar. The l line to Parque Arvi is the equivalent of $4 US, which I consider a bargain. The system is very heavily used, and can be quite crowded during morning and afternoon rush hours. But it has been a game changer for many residents who were previously isolated, living on the fringes of the city, and riding 3 or 4busses to get to work. It also eliminates the need for a car when commuting within the city, thus saving a lot of possible related expenses. The Metro has become one of the symbols of Medellin, and is another reason to love this city.

Tayrona Park, Crown Jewel of the North Coast

Tayrona is the best known of Colombia’s protected natural areas, and the second most popular, with over 200,000 visitors annually. Situated 20 miles from the port city of Santa Marta, Tayrona covers 70 square miles total, with a fifth of that in the marine environment. The terrain includes the lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the highest coastal range in the world. The park is a haven for wildlife, featuring over 300 species of birds, 100 different mammals, and 400 types of fresh and salt water fish. Among the critters roaming the park are Howler Monkeys, Pumas, deer, and loads of Iguanas.

A total looker

The park is pretty developed, with lots of private businesses providing accommodations, food, and services, such as horseback riding. On the other hand, it’s not the user friendliest park ever, and is best suited for those that are independent and self reliant. On the contrary, with so many cafes, stores, and campgrounds, it’s not necessary to bring everything with you, but the prices for goods are much higher than outside the park. Another negative aspect of so many conveniences is the large amount of trash that’s left on the trails. There are luxurious eco bungalows available, but the price during high season in January exceeds $200 a night. Camping is also pricier than might be expected, with $15 the nightly rate, and minimal services provided.

The coastline at Tayrona is primal

The terrain itself is stunning, with huge round boulders scattered all along the coastline, and the temperature is usually hot and extremely humid. The trails are well marked and easy to follow, and a shop selling something to eat and drink never far away. The ocean is very rough in most places, and several signs warn that upwards of 500 people have drowned here. That is a sobering statistic, but very realistic as the water has lots of rip tides and powerful surges. Even the areas recommended for snorkeling, like the Piscina and San Juan Point, are often too much for many landlubbers. However, the beaches are clean and lovely, though not spacious, and the offshore scuba diving is among the best in Colombia. Tours can be arranged through any number of outfitters in Santa Marta or Taganga, and due to the difficult logistics of getting around the park this is a good option.

http://www.parquesnacionales.gov.co/portal/es/ecoturismo/region-caribe/parque-nacional-natural-tayrona/

For those like myself more DIY oriented, a shuttle can be taken from any number of stops outside the park that will deliver to one of the main entrances, Neguanje, Calabazo, and Canaveral. These three portal stretch from West to East, with Neguanje used the most, owing to its’ proximity to Santa Marta. The entrance fee for foreigners is $21,000 pesos, about US $7, triple the price for Colombians. There are a few trails that lead to featured spots like Playa de Muerto, renowned for it’s crystal clear water, and Cabo de San Juan, which is famous for it’s massive boulders spread through the rain forest. There are several different eco habitations available near Canaveral, on the far east side of the park, and horses can be rented at any of the entrances to provide transportation into the interior. Hiking is not a problem, although the distances covered range from 4 to 10 kilometers, so energy is compulsory.

Tayrona is a bird watchers sanctuary, for those with the required patience, and although the trails cover only small portions of the total area, wildlife can be encountered if the timing is right. I came across 3 Mountain Foxes late in the day, beautiful gray creatures who fled immediately. The park is really tailored to travelers who don’t mind spending plenty to rent one of the luxury eco habs and purchase everything needed there. It can be a great destination for well equipped campers as well, but distances are hefty and therefore stamina is a must. It is a beautiful slice of the Caribbean coast that will be appreciated by outdoor enthusiasts with a sense of adventure.

.

La Candeleria in Bogota

Monseratte rises above he Candelaria neighborhood in Bogota

This is the historic old quarter of Bogota, located directly beneath the city’s most prominent landmark, Cerro Monserrate. Many of Bogota’s sites of interest are situated here, along with dozens of hotels and restaurants. Among the most popular are the Gold Museum, Botero Museum, and the church of San Francisco. There are dozens more, and this is the most scenic, and architecturally pleasing part of the metropolis. Personally, riding the tram or cog railway up the 2000 foot high face of Monserrate should not be missed, regardless of the weather.

The roads are rough at the top of the barrio, and steep enough to ski

The streets of Candelaria are mainly rough cobblestones, so comfortable footwear is a must. In addition, some of the streets are exceedingly steep, so much so that many taxis refuse to navigate them. Many could be skied if covered with snow. It is a very walkable neighborhood, as long as you watch where you’re going and pay attention to the many holes and assorted obstacles. In addition, it is home to many poor residents, desperate for anything that helps them survive, and wandering around alone at night is definitely not recommended. During the day, the barrio is heavily patrolled by police and is reasonably safe.

Bogota at night

There are several plazas that merit a visit, and the two most interesting are Plaza del Chorro del Quevado, and just a couple of blocks away, the massive Plaza de Bolivar. The former is almost as high up as you can get the steep streets below Monserrate, heaped with history, and a very popular gathering place for musicians, surrounded by cafes and beautiful vintage buildings. It’s close to many of the hotels and hostels in the area, and adjacent to a couple of narrow alleys that abound with shops selling very funky arts and crafts. The pizza slices available here are excellent, huge, and cheap, hot and crocante straight out of the oven.

Plaza Bolivar is home to the National Congress, National Cathedral, the Colombian Supreme Court and several other important looking buildings. It is often the site of both political demonstrations and performances from the army and Bogota’s Symphony Orchestra. This is the macro to Chorro de Quevados micro, and adjacent to Carrera 7, a dense pedestrian street with multitudes of vendors, selling every type of local specialty. The streets are chaotic with traffic and crowds sporadically, but this is a fine place to wander and work up an appetite.

Plaza Bolivar in the heart of Bogota

A great place to start exploring La Candelaria is from the top of Cerro Monserrate, looming over the city and impossible to miss. It is possible, and quite popular, to hike the trail to the summit, but this is an energetic trek that should be done in a group, as there have been robberies reported. The much easier option is to take the aerial tram, or very steep cog railway. Both are terrific rides, although the tram affords a better view as the railway spends much of the route in a tunnel. From the top the whole of Bogota is visible below and it’s a sight to behold. There is a pretty chapel, acclaimed restaurant, and several other shops providing souvenirs and refreshments. From this vantage point it’s easy to take in most of the major sites of La Candelaria directly below.

 

There are numerous dining and drinking choices in the old section, and several bars offer live entertainment. It’s the true dark heart of the city, and certainly nothing fancy, but if it’s bonafide Bogota that’s sought, La Candelaria is where it’s at.

Calilegua National Park

This is a place that is somewhat difficult to get to, and thus doesn’t attract hordes of visitors like other national parks in Argentina. There lies much of the appeal, as it feels like you have the place to yourself, usually a welcome sensation. it’s located 130 km north of San Salvador de Jujuy, with the closest town Libertador General San Martin 8k from the park entrance. There is a smaller town called Calilegua a couple of kilometers closer, but it’s very limited in terms of tourist services and not very useful.

Calilegua doesn’t get much more crowded than this

Public transportation to the park is provided by a bus that leaves San Martin each morning at 8:30, and returns from the entrance gate at 6:30. There are also taxis available for hire, and the standard rate one way is 200 pesos, about $9. The ranger station at the park gate provides maps and practical information, while the visitor center across the road features remarkable metal sculptures of some of the parks wild residents, such as the redoubtable Jaguar.

The Plush Crested Jays are  numerous in Calilegua

There is a very well maintained network of trails that extends into the park from the station, each color coded and signed. I covered most of four different ones in an afternoon, and would have needed just another day to traverse most of the others. There is a clean, orderly campground with water and fire pits which would make an easy position to explore the park in a leisurely manner. A tent is essential, as well as insect repellant, as the mosquitoes are many. The vegetation is thick and very similar to the dry rain forest of Costa Rica, but without the monkeys. The bird population is stunning, and really the prime attraction for many. I spotted several beauties, including several species I’d never seen before. One, the Pijui Canela, or Cinnamon Spinetail, shined through the greenery like an electric orange lantern. The Irraca Comun, or Plush Crested Jay, is numerous, not shy, and striking, similar to a Magpie. I spotted many types of hummingbirds, fleetingly of course, and heard dozens of unfamiliar calls and whistles. A serious birder could spend unlimited time in this forest and not be disappointed.

The Interpretive Trail close to the Calilegua entrance

I was looking for resident Jaguars, and any kind of mammal, and saw none, but I would venture to say that these would only be encountered at night. Camping would facilitate this, as would spending a few days rambling all the trails, especially early and late.

Calilegua has good camping and day use faciliites

Several locals told me that the other side of the park, called Alto Calilegua, was more remote, higher, and open than this side, and wilder to boot. There is a very small settlement called San Francisco here, and a couple of places to stay, and this seems to be the superior portal from which to discover the parks marvels. The wanderer who is reasonably self reliant, and not tied to any rigid schedule, will find Calilegua worth any effort to reach. The only mechanical noise around is the sound of vehicles winding around the curvy Route 83, the only road in the park, bringing very sporadic traffic from San Francisco, 18 km away. Utilizing the daily shuttle bus permits access to the interior of the park without having to rely on a rental car or commercial transportation. Proper footwear, bug juice, binoculars and a camera will enable wanderers to make the most of their likely limited time here. A tent and proper cooking gear would be the icing on the cake.

If you’re going off trail here, bring your machete

Tilcara in the Quebrada Humahuaca

The Quebrada Humahuaca is some rugged country

This dusty town is situated in the acclaimed multicolored valley that runs from north of the city of San Salvador de Jujuy towards the Bolivian border. Sitting between the 7 colored hills of Purmamarca to the south and the equally vivid hills of Humahuaca 42 kilometers to the north, it’s a transportation hub serving this 100 mile long valley, and provides a plethora of accommodation options for visitors.

Tilcara is a dusty but charming little village

Tilcara lies at an altitude of 2400 meters, sandwiched by stark desert mountains on either side. The population of 10000 is employed primarily by the tourist industry, and most live in adobe houses that cover the level areas near the highway. It’s a picturesque village with most traveler services available and is an ideal base for exploring the region.

 

The points of interest include the rebuilt ancient ruins of Pucara, where the original inhabitants lived until displaced by the Inca’s in the 1500’s.This settlement is located on a hill above the Rio Grande River immediately south of Tilcara and reached with an easy walk. The local indigenous community, Ayllu Mama Qolla, operates the site, along with a very impressive botanical garden full of local flora.The rock ruins are extensive, covering much of the hill which features hundreds of huge, wooly cactus which are shaggier cousins to the Saguaros of Arizona. An hour or two can easily be spent wandering the area, enjoying the views and taking pictures.

The ruins at Pucara 

The other notable attraction is 6 kilometers up the Huasamayo River, which runs into the Rio Grande from the east. The Garganta del Diablo(the Devil’s Throat), is a narrow chasm which was formed by an ancient earthquake. It now includes a hydroelectric plant that produces energy to the Pucara village but is an impressive geographical spectacle. A well maintained trail drops into the gulch from the entrance dwelling, with metal handrails to lend some comfort to folks prone to vertigo. A short walk further up the riverbed leads to a beautiful 10 meter waterfall surrounded by lush desert and some very lovely vegetation.

Like you might find at the bottom of the Grand Canyon

I was fortunate enough to start my hike in the morning when the sun was still low enough that the slopes of the canyon offered some shade, but by mid day, that relief was gone, and late comers going up while I was descending were all sweating profusely, with many inquiring, ‘How much further’? I calculated most of these folks would give up before making it to the falls. But there’s plenty of water to splash on your face, and each one of those might be good for a quarter mile.

Where there’s water, there’s green

Tilcara is a total dog town, with lots of hounds with a human to look after them, and even more doing it on their own in the streets. They all seem to behave pretty well, and I saw no fights or even major disagreements. People have a benevolent attitude towards most, and leave water and food out for the hungry. They are everywhere, sleeping in a dirt pile in the shade, wandering around in small packs like fired up pre teens, and quietly patrolling any outdoor patio where they might find some discarded food.

Siesta time for a couple of the Tilcara locals

The town has an abundance of lodging options, from bare bones hostels to sleek stone and glass B & B’s. So many, in fact, that I have a difficult time believing that it ever fills up. The dining choices are likewise bountiful, elegant to way earthy, with many featuring local delicacies like Llama burgers and Humitas, a type of corn tamale. There are loads of free range chickens around, and cheap, filling street food , especially empanadas. My 180 peso hostel, the very chill Andino, served a decent breakfast with coffee included, and that seems to be the rule in Argentina’s north.

A ditch at the bottom of the Garganta del Diablo, Tilcara

All this makes Tilcara  an excellent base to explore the area from, with the fabled dead end village of Iruya two hours to the north, and the colorful trails around Purmamarca. less than 20 km to the south. Two days might not be enough, and maybe 3 too many, depending on how relaxed you want to be, but I know some who could spend a very leisurely week.

Bariloche’s Top 10

This is serious lake country

Known as the Tahoe of South America, and the portal to glorious Patagonia, San Carlos de Bariloche is worth spending a few kick ass days in before continuing on to El Bolson or Villa Angostura. Get a place, drop your stuff, and eat some good nourishment before grabbing a city bus to any of these adventures, except for El Tronador. And get ready to bust out some Espanol Argentina style!

Bariloche is all about peaks, lakes, and lush woods

1. Rent a bike and ride the Circuito Chico, a road loop that covers miles of stunning landscape through dense woods and jaw dropping views with plenty of refreshments along the way. Bike shops on both sides of the road at km 18 will provide wheels, directions, and pointers on where to roll.

2. Rent a kayak or SUP and paddle on that extraordinary lake Nahuel Huapi, full of coves, inlets, and connected to other smaller lakes equally as impressive. Boat shops abound, especially directly on the lake at Playa Bonita, km 8, and playa Serena, Km. 12.

El Tronador looming above the dazzling Hotel Llao Llao

3. Hike around the Llao Llao municipal park through groves of giants, with loads of serene places to stop, look, and ponder the spectacle of this sublime forest playground, a short stroll from Km 25.5.

 

4. Climb the legendary, and imposing, El Tronador, the Thunderer, covered in snow much of the year and a monumental landmark in these parts. This is an adventure for accomplished alpiners and extremists only, and accessed from the end of Highway 82, 50 miles from the center of Bariloche.

These birds are very common in the region

 

In the Southern hemisphere winter of August and September, ski, board, or sled the massive and majestic Cerro Catedral, largest alpine fun area in South America. The views from the top are incomparable and beyond the reach of language. 19 km off the main lake road via bus 55.

https://www.catedralaltapatagonia.com/

6. Hike up to Refugio Frey, a mountain hostel on the slopes of Catedral, and spend the night to wake up in an eye popping mountain wonderland. This can also be day hiked,in order to make it back to town in time for happy hour. The trailhead is on Hwy. 77 at Km 26.8, riding bus 10.

 

7. If energy level is a bit sketchy, ride the chairlift up Catedral and wander around on top of the Andes for a while. This huge peak is reminiscent of Jackson Hole in Wyoming, with a slew of wicked looking pinnacles and spires that attract rock climbers from all over.

The green is visible on the far side of this inlet, a real water hole

8. Play golf at the ultra scenic, extra challenging, and fun as hell course at the Hotel Llao Llao. Just make sure you bring enough balls…..you’re going to need them. The more open front nine is a fine sidehill warmup for the back side, which features several holes cut into the deep woods, and a superb finishing hole across an inlet of the lake. $45 to walk, and good rental clubs another $40. The pro shop is on the main road beneath the hotel and next door to Puerto Panuelo at Km 25.5.

The woodsy back nine at Llao is world class fun

9. Take a boat ride from Porto Panuelo across the mesmerizing giant lake Nahuel Huapi to visit the fetching village of Villa Angostura, a trout fishing paradise. the islands of Arrayanes trees, Quetrihue , and get hypnotized by miles of smooth blue water and snowcapped peaks.

The orange barked Arrayanes tree loves the water

10. Last but much closer to first, conduct your own craft beer pub crawl, by wandering from one end of Juramento street to the other, stopping and sampling at each of the half dozen pubs. When you reach the end after knocking out your last pint at Stradibar, continue another 50 feet across Salta street to Huacho, acclaimed for virtuoso steaks and lamb. Congratulations, you are now ready for El Bolson!

 

The last  stop on the Juramento pub crawl, Stratibar in Bariloche

Quito

One of the high points of a city at almost 3000 meters altitude

It’s a sprawling valley city surrounded by steep hills and mountains and whose main feature is a very clean and well preserved old town. There are cops everywhere, somewhat like Colombia, which lends at least a false sense of security. This section is inclined, and the steepest cobblestone lanes are reminiscent of Bogota’s Candelaria hood. The massive Basilica is the most prominent cathedral of many, and the relaxing Plaza Grande offers a fine place to sit, gaze at the National Palace and get your shoes shined.

El Panecillo framed between the cathedral spires

kilometer to the South sits El Panecillo, a big hill topped with a giant angel statue. It’s a good walk or a cheap taxi to the top, with a terrific view and scores of vendors. From here it’s striking how mountainous this area is, but the highest peaks are often obscured by clouds.

 

A couple of nice parks and 15 blocks to the north sits the Mariscal neighborhood, home to most of the better chain hotels and heaps of hostels. The area surrounding Plaza Foch is ground zero for tourist nightlife in Quito, but my general impression was cheap beers, karaoke, and vomit. It does get packed and there are scores of bars and discos, but the theme remains the same. Miles of wandering and exploring yielded a tremendous Chinese restaurant, Casa China, but zero bars that were anything special. With the galaxy of extraordinary hiking and landscape so close by, the capitol is a fine place to start, but not too long. The Ecuador countryside is eye popping, but the cities and towns not so much. There’s also a gondola that climbs to the top of a hill that has to provide a smashing vista, but two days in Quito is plenty.

 

Montanitas

The surfer statue marks the north end of Montanitas, Ecuador

That 6am bus came a few minutes early, before sunrise, and after consulting the driver to make sure I was on the right bus, I loaded up. Of course, it was the wrong bus, which took a very circuitous route, picking up lots of mountain folk, before arriving in Riobamba at 8. Here, the conductor made an exchange with a driver from another company whose bus was indeed bound for Guayaquil, just not direct, or even close, as what I had paid for. So began a lengthy, slow, but very scenic crossing of the Ecuadorian Andes, with vast, deep valleys and beautiful steep landscape. We made about 30 quick stops en route, picking up and dropping off passengers, many of whom were indigenous with emblematic hats and dress. Eventually we dropped down out of the highlands and traversed a couple of hours of lush tropical terrain, the last section being miles of banana plantations, and shortly thereafter we rolled into the massive dusty sprawl of Guayaquil.

The bus station was modern, adjacent to the airport, full of shops and food like a mall, and packed to the gills with people trying to get to Montanitas, my destination too. The lines to buy tickets were so long that it was hard to tell where they started….just a couple of hundred people that way. Once I found the single ticket window selling the route I needed, the waiting began. South Americans are used to waiting, so people obediently stand in line as long as it takes. And it took a while, over an hour and a half, until a bus company employee came up and solicited passengers for the 4:30 bus, still 2 hours away. I jumped at the chance, thinking that the desired 3 pm departure would sell out. So 10 minutes later I was freed from the line and ready to kill some time.

Downtown Montanitas

That 4:30 bus was packed and semi cush, blasting a stupid American movie and racing the sun to the coast. Upon arrival in Montanitas, after a few questions I found Hotel Sumpa, where I had a reservation. Of course it was New Years Day and the town was overflowing, so the hotel was sold out. After some interrogation of an employee I got the owner on the phone and he came to meet me in minutes. Nice enough guy, name of Aristede, and he had had a few problems with booking.com., along with others, and later, myself. He offered to put us up in the TV room, free of charge, and since I was saving $75 I didn’t mind. Especially since the place was swarming with assorted surfers and millennials, and was nowhere as nice as it looked on the web page. Ensued a night of sleeping on the sofa, getting up to turn off lights and close doors after knuckleheads obliviously leaving them open and on, and finally passing out into a deep idiot sleep.

The Punto Verde eco hostel from the beach, a fine place to stay on the cheap

Up and out next morning and up the hill to the eco hostel Punto Verde, high on a hill on the way out of town. The owner, Joos, is a Dutch woman who traded her Amsterdam barge boat for this property, sight unseen. And she is a trip, running around doing all sorts of chores and construction, laughing, smoking, and drinking. She has plans to enlarge and improve the place, and she’ s already done a ton, including building one big dwelling from scratch which holds all the bunks, a real nice deck, and her place and kitchen downstairs.

She had a Slovenian volunteer named Greecia, a real good dude who was a surfer and quite a music freak and hound dog to boot. Most of these hostels work on the system of very few paid employees, but always a traveler or two willing to trade some labor for a couple of weeks of lodging and meals. Here, all the bunks had mosquito nets and the floors creaked like crazy, but the sound of the surf 10 foot minutes away was always there. It didn’t take long to figure that this was the place we had been waiting to find, close enough to get to town and the playa quickly, and far enough to lose the incessant pounding of the disco scene. I highly recommend this place.

The neighborhood around Punto Verde is seeing lots of development

The next days followed a pattern of beach time early and a walk through town for a licuado breakfast and a look around. Then it was a wander around and a bus ride someplace close. Then a siesta, shower, and session to get into the night mood. One solid day trip was a ride up to Puerto Lopez an hour north, along with a visit to pretty Playa Frailes, a reserve that was the best beach of Ecuador for me. The terrain all along this coast is reminiscent of Baja California, dry with heaps of cactus and a few iguanas.

Frailes Beach has a small coral reef off that point in the distance

After the initial inundation, the town cleared out but then seemed to get busier again every day. lots of wandering, sunburned vagabonds, along with hordes of tatted out gypsies selling trinkets and their typical shit. Some nights were totally dead with nothing going on, but the scene was a late one, not happening until near midnight. At that hour I was usually back on the hill, unconscious on the top bunk. Not a lot to offer but the beach, killer ceviche and a chill vibe, but if that’s what you’re into, you could a lot worse than Montanitas.

My daily meal in Montanitas, ceviche and a banana smoothie

Banos

This is the best and most bodacious double zip line I’ve ever seen, outside Banos

From Machachi, the small town closest to the Hidden Garden, this was a 2 hour bus ride that culminated in a 2 minute piss when we finally got to the terminal. Then it was the fist of several $1 taxis to the Casa de Molino Blanco, where another dorm room awaited. First stop after unloading was the ballyhooed Terma de la Virgen, beneath a skinny waterfall at the other end of town. The place was overrun with humanity, and too many kids, and the water in the hot pools the color of a Yoohoo chocolate soda. So I was less than impressed, and we split after a few minutes in the nasty water. Lunch at the recommended Casa Hood followed, a decent yellow Hindu Curry, followed by the first of many exploratory town rambles. Banos is a hilly town, surrounded by super steep mountains, and a mecca for hiking, biking, and rafting. We found a bar called Pipa’s, run by a Dutch lush named Nina. Mully tried to sell her his old I phone, we met her Ecuadorian musician painter husband, and drank as long as we could stand it.

There’s a quite active volcano, Tungurahua, dozing up above Banos

The highlight of the Banos experience is riding a mountain bike on the 7 waterfall route. The road passes out of town alongside an impressive gorge, and through half a dozen semi lengthy tunnels on the way, but bikes only deal with one. This gorge widens and deepens as the downhill roll continues, and soon the first, and by far the best, of a series of cross canyon zip lines is reached. Strapped in by the legs and chest, flying like an eagle two at a time , this traverse lasts almost a minute each way, and the price is right…..$15 for the roundtrip. I saw the famous Skytrek in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and that was half as long and twice as expensive. A number of inferior versions followed, along with multi person cable cars, and some of the bike routes that circumvented the tunnels passed through some fine terrain. By far the most impressive waterfall was the massive ‘ Chorro del Diablo’ that featured a long walkway, terraces, and suspension bridges accessing a thunderous gusher dropping 40 meters. Ride as far as you like, cross the road, flag down a bus and get a ride back to town for a buck and a half.

The landscape of Ecuador is unsurpassed, this is outside Banos

Banos is quite a holiday destination for the Ecuadorians, and the town was swelling on New Years Eve. Lots of folk had mannequins and figurines adorning their cars, and bands of dudes dressed as women stopped traffic with ropes stretched across the road scrounging for donations. All this tomfoolery climaxed as the night continued, with thousands of people, dressed up or not, milling around the center, drinking, yelling, and everybody checking it out in a feverish end of the year ritual. I checked out of the frenzy early, as I had a 6 am bus to catch across the Andes.

Cotopaxi & Secret Garden

Cotopaxi is often shrouded in clouds

The closest town to Secret Garden, and the mighty mountain, is Machachi, about an hour south of Quito. There it’s a slow 45 minutes on a prehistoric stone road to the ‘best hostel in Ecuador.’ It’s surrounded by cherry farmland and cows, along with 3 Llamas out front. A dead volcano rises up behind the cluster of buildings, which is the main lodge, some cabinas, 2 dorms, and the owner’s cush pad above the rest. The staff here was super friendly and helpful, and the volunteers were from Australia and England, spending a few weeks here on the ramble while traveling the continent. A big Brit, Eddie, led a 45 minute hike up a close gorge to a couple of 10 meter waterfalls along with a beaut Dalmation, Milo and an energetic Dachsund, Daisy. The top section was sporty and slippery, scaling some rocks with lots of exposure and vertical.

Rubber boots are handy for this terrific hike up behind the Secret Garden

http://secretgardencotopaxi.com/blog3/

The communal meals were simple but hearty, and there was unlimited coffee, tea, and water. Many of the guests were here to climb or at least get close to Cotopaxi, directly to the west but constantly covered by clouds.There was even a gas heated hot tub, which I enjoyed with 4 nubile college chicks from Boulder, Colorado. The dorm had a wood stove, which got toasty that night. It may not be in a class by itself, as the saying goes, but it sure don’t take long to call roll.  Superior, and a great vibe.

Secret Garden Hostel, a couple of bus hours south of Quito

Next morn was an early breakfast and loading into a van bound for Coto. The trip took an hour and a half, and the big parking lot was filling up on a Sunday. This was already 4000 + meters in altitude, and everybody piled out and began slogging up the pumice. The refugio, the climbers hut, was the goal, about 500 meters up, and Mully was bent in two, using two walking sticks to yank himself up the hill, a gruesome sight. Eventually, he made it to the shelter, and I followed the drivers wife as she led the way another 200 meters to the bottom of the glacier. The snow and ice looked ultra thick and intimidating, and I would not look forward to scaling that even with crampons and an ice axe. The clouds lifted, the rain and corn snow stopped, and the landscape was multicolored red, black, white and every shade of grey.

Views from the slopes of Cotopaxi are eye popping

The trip down was easier for sure, and the views almost reached the other side of the big valley and SG. The last morning the clouds briefly shifted and Coto revealed herself in full, with a snowcap that seemed Everestesque, an amazing sight. $35 a night got 3 squares and a cush place to flop, and most of the outings cost the same…Of course, as time marches on prices keep going up. But no matter the number it’s a fine stop on the road to Utopia.

Ready to take the cool plunge