Sunday 19 May 2024

A speedy hike to the fifth highest waterfall in the world: Yumbilla

Hello everyone! How are you all? We have now crossed to northern Peru, moving fast and Dan is having to do a lot of driving. We have to get to Huaraz to meet Ioanna's best friend (Maro) on the 19th May. Exciting times for us all, we'll get to talk to someone else apart from each other! 

Because we move so fast and drive through so many different places every day, it's hard to get some time to write on the blog. But I had to tell you about this bit because I am sure you will enjoy it. 

Since we started our trip, we must have seen over one hundred waterfalls by now. In every single country we've been, in every single region, there is a waterfall to be admired at or a waterfall to hike to. There is of course no doubt that Iguazu will always be the most impressive waterfall of them all, but I think the Yumbilla waterfall is definitely the second. However, this is for a different reason: not because of how big it is (like Iguazu), but because of its incredible height.

Yumbilla is the fifth highest waterfall in the whole world - and it's hardly known or visited, in the remote northern cloud forest of Peru. Although it is broken into three tiers, it still counts as one waterfall. 

Did you know that Peru has two of the ten largest waterfalls in the world:

  • Yumbilla, 896 meters tall, the fifth largest waterfall

  • Las Tres Hermanas, 914 meters tall, the third largest waterfall (but you can only see that by aeroplane!
What I really liked about the Yumbilla waterfall is all the stories and legends that come with it. For example, it is regarded by the indigenous people as a river spirit and they warn those they see to approach the falls with respect lest the guardian put a curse on them. 

Dan and I did the two-hour hike to Yumbilla while Ismene and Ioanna stayed behind. Our plan was to be as quick as we could so they wouldn't wait long but also because we had a lot of driving to do afterwards. Before we started the walk, a passing shower came down adding to the cascade of water falling from the waterfalls. On the way to Yumbilla there are two more waterfalls you get to pass and we had a lot of fun walking behind and beneath one.

The path twisted through the cloud forest, and we weaved through tree arches and climbed over rocks.

It was hard but also good fun, and I was glad to have another adventure with Dan.

When we got to Yumbilla, I was amazed by how high it was and it seemed like the gushing water gave it an almost angry and imposing look. We got to a viewpoint to see all three tiers which was great because we didn't really have time to get very close. It was very impressive!

I will be posting again soon, but I think next time it will be a very different post. Watch this space!

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Back in Ecuador: Cloud forests, volcanoes and high mountains

We're back in Ecuador (and almost out of it), and I must say, it feels very odd; maybe because we won't come back or maybe because we're visiting the mountains more or maybe both but it feels great, peculiar and familiar in equal measures to be back.

First off, it's been great to be back in more mountainous areas. Thinking about it, in Colombia  I found the coast a bit hard (sorry Ioanna). The heat was a bit too much and I wanted to walk, yet it was too hot. Of course, it would be wrong to say Colombia wasn't mountainous; I mean look at Ciudad Perdida and La Mojarra.  But the truth is that we didn't hike as much as we are here.

Several of the wild, forested areas we've been to during our second time in Ecuador, are Maquipucuna, and (again) Podocarpus. Maquipucuna is an area within the Mindo valley, just off Quito. What's special about it - and made Dan very excited - is that is a unique bird watchers paradise. When the annual bird count is held, people flock to Mindo, and the area has won the world record six times! We even had hummingbirds eating out of our hands!

At Maquipucuna, we stayed for three days and camped in the reserve's grounds. We hiked every day and in our second day we got a guide to take us to the primary cloud forest in the reserve which was amazing. It felt wild and endless! We even spotted many fresh puma tracks on our way up, and then on our way down, we saw newer tracks and puma poo which probably meant that a puma was following us. Yikes!! Also, the birds were just insane: toucans, hummingbirds and so many other new species. Dan was constantly adding birds onto his bird list. It was truly amazing. And did I mention anything about the rain....? We were up a cloud forest after all! This was not just any rain, it was tropical, pouring, sky-on-our-head, 'where-is-Noah-with-his-boat' kind of rain!

But Maquipucuna was not the only cloud forest we visited, we also went back to Podocarpus National Park. And I say 'again' because the attentive readers of my blog would remember that this is our second time visiting Podocarpus, the first one was just after Christmas. Podocarpus was even more amazing than I remembered it the first time. The range of diversity in vegetation has earned the park the nickname “Botanical Garden of America" due to the fact that there are over 4,000 species of vegetation inside the park’s boundaries. This super diverse ecosystem is also home to lots of wildlife. Some of the rarer sightings include jaguars and spectacled bears, although in Maquipucuna spectacled bears are much more common and can be seen every single day during the autumn when the bears come down to eat their favourite fruit which is a small kind of avocado. Sometimes you might even see a mountain tapir (although we weren't lucky enough to see them). 560 birds also nest or migrate through the park and approximately 6% of the world's species can be found in the park while 40% of Ecuador's list of species can be seen within the park's terrain

In Podocarpus, we repeated and finished the hike we started when we visited the park after Christmas. And, just as our first attempt, we got wet, very wet...again! After making our way through the forested part of the park, we reached the park's ridge, and because it had not yet started raining, the view stretched for miles around. At this point, none of us would guess that we would be soaked to the bone by the end of this hike. Or as the Greeks say...'as wet as a duck'! It was brutal but it was still amazing to walk through miniature ecosystem underneath your feet, or as Dan described it 'an incredible fairy garden'. 

Apart from cloud forests we also visited more mountains, and in our case, volcanoes. First off, we drove up to Cotopaxi. Cotopaxi, is one of the most important volcanoes in Ecuador and it was amazing! It has large glacial sheets around it, its lower flanks are a reddish rock dropping into a beautiful paramo were wild horses and llamas roam. We were very lucky as we were reaching higher up to the volcano, the clouds started to suddenly clear. For a few minutes, we had the perfect clear view of the towering volcano top, and I can tell you that was magnificent!

To finish it all off, we did a two-day hike up to the Quilotoa volcano, one of Ecuador's most popular hikes. The hike was long and hard, especially the last day, mainly because it was always steep uphill or steep downhill, getting us through small traditional Andean villages (with many many dogs to ward off). When we finally reached the crater, at nearly 4,000m above sea level, the views down to the lake were so rewarding and hard to believe what you were looking at. You heard me right, inside Quilotoa's crater is an awesome, bright blue lake which was formed when the volcano erupted 800 years ago!!!

We're crossing to Peru in a couple of days and I can't wait for more mountains, crazy archaeology, insane history and many, many more adventures!!!!

Wednesday 8 May 2024

Our last few days in Colombia: the Valley of the Ghosts and La Pelota

I am sorry if the title of this post is a bit confusing. There isn't really a Valley of the Ghosts or La Pelota, these are simply nicknames for the last two places we visited in Colombia: the Tatacoa desert and the ruins found in San Agustin. I'll start then telling you about the first one, our stop at the Tatacoa desert.

The Tatacoa desert is the second largest dry area in Colombia after the Guajira peninsula - though it's not really a desert but more of a dry forest. Its nickname is the Valley of the Ghosts, chosen because of Tatacoa's unique landscape. Tatacoa is a vast expanse of scrub and rock, characterised by rust coloured sand, punctuated by bizarre wind-shaped cacti and trees. We stayed only one night and, in the evening, we went star gazing like we did in San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. It was actually a last-minute decision to go because it was so cloudy that we didn't thought it would be worth it. Fortunately, it cleared out only a few minutes before the star gazing presentation started. 

When we arrived, there was a big group of secondary-aged students and their teachers from Bogota, and the guy presenting and telling us about the stars was very passionate and excitable. He told us how the stars were formed and how they are named. It made us laugh when he was telling us excitably about the Greeks and how they named the stars, I think Ioanna was ready to shout ' I am Greek'! Unlike the star gazing we did in San Pedro de Atacama, in the Tatacoa desert we only observed stars and star cluster from the telescopes, not planets. We did however have a look at the moon, which was as amazing as I remembered it in the Atacama desert.

After that, we visited San Agustin, one of the most important archaeological sites in Colombia, contested only by Cuidad Perdida. La Pelota means football in Spanish and is San Agustin's nickname, chosen for its large, grassy flat plains. San Agustin is shrouded by mystery, almost nothing is known of its creators, and all the 'clues' are grave bones, and hundreds of large carved statues. Nobody knows why this specific cultural group came to the area and how it disappeared, but the statues date from 4000 BC. 

We walked through the forest of statues where archaeologists had placed a hundred or so statues to lead the way to the 'mesitas' (flat areas like little tables). All the statues were almost comical, they represented monsters or animals with their angry looks and toothy features. Several of them were monkey-like, others were representing big, scary creatures eating or holding other creatures or playing some kind of ancient musical instrument. It also appeared like the statues were blocking the entrance to the tombs and guarding the dead. 

Going closer to the border to Ecuador tomorrow and driving a road called by locals 'the trampoline of death'! Wish us luck...

Friday 3 May 2024

Bustling Bogota

Hello from Bogota, Colombia's capital and the largest city I've ever been. I think there are ten million people living in Bogota which is divided into twenty areas. We stayed in El Candelaria, which is in the centre of the city and it took us two hours to get to from the point of seeing the Welcome to Bogota sign!  El Candelaria is an area of beautiful colonial buildings and museums. We spent a few days wandering the streets, visiting museums and eating delicious traditional food. Candelaria's streets are crowded with passers-by and street stalls. I am not sure how to describe this but, while wandering the streets of Bogota, it felt like you're being accepted, as a visitor, into the community and it felt like everyone is trying to help you and make you enjoy the city!

It was a weird feeling but maybe this has something to do with Bogota's crazy ex-mayor, Antanas Mockus. I promise this is not some random information - I read about Mockus in our guidebook and I thought it was too good not to share his story with you all.

Basically, in the 1990s, Bogota was known as a world capital of crime; kidnappings, murders and car bombings were common in the streets and some people thought it would take a super hero to change Bogota. Enter Mockus, ready in his super-citizen costume to transform Bogota into a place where people felt safe to walk the streets. And if you are wondering whether I made this up, the answer is no. He did often show up in official meetings in a costume with a cape encouraging people to be 'super-citizens'. As far as I could tell, Mockus did so many imaginative and progressive things, and he was beloved by people in the city. For example, to stop gun crime in the city, he put an amnesty on guns in exchange for food, and had the metal made into spoons for babies. Or when the city's water was low, he starred - NAKED - in an ad on national television showing the citizens how to shower using less water! He also hired hundreds of mime artists to mock drivers who broke the traffic rules - apparently this worked better than fines! Reading about him made us all laugh, but I also thought he was very inspirational in a crazy kind of way.

But almost as crazy as Mockus was some of the food we had in Bogota. Starting with the most gigantonormous pan au chocolate we had. It was as big as a flat football and larger than my face, I kid you not! We also tried a traditional soup and stew; Ajiaco (the soup) and Sancocho (the stew). Ajiaco is a thick soup of chicken, potato, sweetcorn, capers, and cream. There are many different types of sancocho but mine consisted of beef ribs, potato, sweetcorn and yuca, both dishes were served with rice and avocado. I loved both and would gladly have one again!

Unfortunately, while we were in Bogota, Dan caught a cold, but despite this, we still got to visit Bogota's famous Gold museum. I thought it was also a bit like a history museum as there were gold pieces from several pre-Hispanic cultures, the Tayrona one of them. It was amazing to see gold pieces and ceremonial clothes from Ciudad Perdida and the Tayrona, it feels weird but in an amazing way that I can actually say that I've been to these places. I was disappointed that we didn't see the eagle famed in the tales of the looters and the most valuable piece found when they discovered the city. My two favourite exhibits from the museum were:

  • A flying fish in 3d which was very beautifully shaped.
  • A shell covered in several layers of gold, the shell had rotted away leaving just the gold.

In the next few days we are leaving Colombia which will involve a lot of driving and many one-night stops so I might not be able to write posts quickly. But fear not, I'll be back!

Bye for now, Orestis.

Tuesday 30 April 2024

La Mojarra: a climber's (and foodie's) paradise

You all know that I think climbing is amazing; the feel of the rock, the places it takes you, the views and the excitement that climbing offers! We've climbed several times on this trip but I have never climbed for more than one day in a row. So I was very excited when we stopped in La Mojarra, a climbing area a few hours away from Bogota so we could climb for four days.

My joy was indescribable and I was eagerly anticipating the days to come. Another reason why I was excited was because we were camping again. Thankfully, not in hammocks, but in our own tents. It was a small campsite which we used to shelter in the morning when the sun was too hot to climb, but was very close to the climbing area and there was a lot of space for us to run around.

Las Rocas de La Mojarra is just south of a big town called Bucaramanga in the area of Santander in Colombia, and is a part of the Chicamocha Canyon. The actual climbing crag is a national reserve and is maintained by the local climbing community. The rock was sandstone (my first time climbing on sandstone) and was hanging into the canyon. The views were stunning, overlooking a valley and looked so picturesque and unique. I really liked chilling out and looking at the valley when Dan was climbing, and I had nothing much to do. 

I  did around 10 climbs over our four days there. They were all much harder than I've ever done before but really nice climbs. The highest of them was 25 meters (my highest ever) and, at the highest parts, it felt very exposed and airy. At one part on a shelf, I got quite scared and hurt myself a bit. After that, I was a bit freaked out but I was determined and made it to the top. The last climb we did was called Machu Pichu and that was much easier. It also felt great to 'go up' Machu Pichu. A bit of a practice for the real thing?

But climbing is not the only thing we did in La Mojarra.  When we were up in the coast in Medihuaca (before visiting the Tayrona National Park), we met a German couple who recommended we get in touch with Santiago who lives in the area, is a climber himself, but most importantly is also a chef who prepares meals for people in his house (a bit like a supper club I think). Ismene and I loved helping him prepare and serve some of the dishes and learnt a few tricks from him. That inspired me to start helping out Ioanna cook (which she is very glad of) and really enjoy it now.

Santiago's food was fantastic, even for a meat lover like myself: a cold melon soup; charred cabbage with carrot sauce; smoked spaghetti; japanese dumplings with an onion, mushroom, and potato filling and, last but certainly not least, an amazing chocolate mousse! Ismene and I even got to help him make the dumplings in the kitchen! We all loved his food, and bought some of his yummy activated charcoal bread to have for sandwiches the next day.

Bogota (Colombia's capital) is our next stop for museums and fun!

Wednesday 24 April 2024

Marvellous Mompox

Hello, Ismene here! I am here to tell you a bit about the two days we spent in Mompox. 

Mompox is built next to the Magdalena river with boats that pass by everyday. It is a very nice, chilled out town with loads of pretty colonial buildings and churches. There is also a wonderful river path where people walk up and down in the evenings.  One evening, we stopped to admire a group of young people dancing what seemed like a very fun, traditional dance.

We spent our days hiding from the scorching sun and the heat (40-41C) but in the evenings, we went out to one of the church squares by the riverside. This is where I made a friend called Matilda and Orestis had a go at an electric scooter. We also tried a cold drink called 'granizado', which is a bit like a slushy (or a frozen drink) but made of fruit. It was delicious but it gave me a brain freeze!

Now we are going to a campsite for 4 days, and I think the plan is to also climb while we are there. See you in a while!

Thursday 18 April 2024

Getting to know Gabo

I bet you are wondering who this Gabo is. Gabo may not ring a bell but it is what his friends and family called him. His real name is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the author of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' and one of the best and most famous authors of South America, especially after wining the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

On our way down from the coast, we visited Aracataca, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's birthplace, and this is how I got to get to know Gabo. Aracataca is a very small sleepy town, not really a town you would expect such an important author to be born. We visited the house where he lived as a boy (now a museum) and learnt about some of his story: Gabo lived with his grandparents, and his role model and person he was closest to was his grandfather. His grandfather inspired his love for words and writing, and gave him his first dictionary at a very young age. His grandfather would also make small metal fishes in his workshop while Gabo or Gabito (as a kid) drew on the walls with crayons or wrote stories in his book. It is quite a coincidence that we came here after visiting La Guajira as Gabo’s grandparents had come from La Guajira. As a kid, Gabo spent most of his time with the two servants living with the family from La Guajira and he had said that spending time with them inspired characters he included in his books. In fact lots of his characters in many of his books were based on members of his family and other people in the house.

We also learnt about a very exciting and scary incident that happened when Gabo was young. In Aracataca, there was a local bull ring where men would go to to watch bull fights. One day, women in his family came in the room where Gabo was reading, shrieking and grabbed him because the bull had escaped from his enclosure and had entered the family's kitchen! Luckily, the bull's handlers managed to take it back before it did any harm. But, for little Gabito, it must have been an unforgettable experience. 

If I am honest, it is a bit weird writing about an author whose books I haven't read but his life seems fascinating and I can't wait to read his books when I am older. 

If you want to know more about Gabo, you can check out this little video that tells his story. Happy viewing!

ps. Soon, and I mean soon, I will do the quiz.  

pps. I (Ismene) am going to write a post about our next stop (a small town called Mompox). See you in a little bit. Bye