Tag Archives: hiking and trekking

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Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Marconi Glacier – Day 2

The trip description from Serac Expeditions for the South Patagonia Icefield Trek says this about Day 2:

…we trek up the glacier until nearing the Marconi pass – entrance to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.  This will surely be the Expedition’s toughest day.

This is what had been fueling my fears for months!

We awoke to rain and wind, and had a brief breakfast of cornflakes and tea while still in our sleeping bags.  Although I put it off as long as possible, I did eventually have to emerge, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the rain was not as heavy as it sounded from inside the tent.  We got dressed in our waterproof pants, jackets and gaiters and packed up quickly ensuring, as per Juan’s advice, that our sunglasses, crampons and harness were easy to get to in our packs.

And so began our climb up to the glacier and the entrance to the Icefield.

Trekking companion on the climb to the face of the Gorra Blanca Sur glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

A not-so-steep part at the beginning of our climb to the face of the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier.

Was it as tough as it was made out to be?  

Absolutely!

And this was despite the fact that we had a pretty good day for this part of the trek!  On some expeditions the wind is so strong that they have to stay extra days at Lago 14 waiting for it to abate.

The first 1.5 hours of the climb was essentially straight up a vertical cliff – in many places more like rock-climbing than hiking.  There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. changes in climate over the past few years have made ascending directly via the Marconi Glacier too dangerous.  This new route accesses the Icefield via the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier, whose face is at a higher altitude than the Marconi Glacier. 
  2. we were trekking at the end of Summer.  Earlier in the season this area is covered in snow and you can essentially just snow-shoe your way directly up to the glacier face.
Beautiful light on the mountains - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

At one point Rafa tapped me on my shoulder and said “Mira detrás de ti” (“Look behind you”). The light was truly spectacular, and provided a welcome distraction as we climbed

There were some very tricky parts – particularly for a person with short legs and carrying more than 1/3 of her bodyweight on her back!   One of my favourite images from the entire expedition is the following, which completely encapsulates the challenges of Day 2.

Juan helping Anita on top of a narrow ledge with a steep drop-off to the left - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

An encapsulating moment. Overcoming the third obstacle of the trek, but with the most incredible view

We had already climbed up from below the lake, being careful to brace ourselves against wind gusts and not fall on the slippery, wet rocks.  Juan instructed us to put on our harnesses as we faced our third obstacle of the trek – a “step” that was taller than I was, with a sheer drop-off on the left-hand side.  An attached rope provided the solution as we harnessed ourselves to our guides and used the rope to pull ourselves up onto the 1 metre-wide ledge.  Anita has just executed this maneuver in the image and Juan is unhooking her.

At this point, we found a slightly sheltered place behind a rock for one of our short snack stops.  The food provided by Serac Expeditions for this trek was great, and included Argentinean empanadas for lunch on the first 2 days!  I chose to eat one of these, rather than diving into the chocolate bars, muslei bars, and other snacks – partially to save the others for later when I would be craving something sweet, and partially because they were the heaviest food item I was carrying!  Anything to reduce weight 😀

Argentinean Empanadas for lunch - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Argentinean empanadas for lunch. There was no shortage of food on the expedition

Another obstacle we came across a little later was essentially a rock “chute”, where I had to brace myself against the walls in order to reach the top.  Usually I’m quite coordinated, but on this particular occasion I somehow managed to get myself turned around and wedged pretty tightly in the narrow crack.  I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to get myself out.  But I was determined not to have to ask for assistance, and through sheer force of will I managed to extract myself.

Up, up, up we climbed.  I couldn’t imagine doing this if it had been any windier!

Silhouette of trekking companion climbing toward the glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Did I mention it was steep?

Eventually we reached the face of the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier and it was time to affix our crampons.  

Affixing crampons - - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

I’ve worn crampons before, but each time they are slightly different. Juan affixed them the first time for me. Yes, it was still raining

Then up onto the ice.

The next hour was a steady 30 degree climb up the glacier to the Icefield.  At this time of year all the snow had melted so we were walking on hard ice and had no trouble spotting and avoiding the crevasses.  The views back down the glacier were stunning, though the rise of the glacier itself seemed to be never-ending.

The view behind (top) and in front (bottom) as we climbed the glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The view behind and in front as we climbed the steady 30 degree slope of the Gorra Blanca Sur Glacier

It was a relief to finally reach the Icefield where our trek flattened out.

Looking back across the flat icefield towards where we'd come from - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Looking back across the flat icefield towards where we’d just come from. These two people were the only ones we saw for 6 days, and this was as close as we got to them

Here, the crevasses became wider and deeper, often with small trickles of water falling into the abyss. We also came upon a Moulin – a hole created when melt-water encounters a weak-spot in the ice and, due to the Coriolis effect, begins to boar a narrow vertical shaft into the glacier.  Ultimately, both processes deliver water to the base of the glacier to lubricate its movement, and it is for this reason that glaciers tend to move faster during Summer. 

Crevasses and a moulin - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Learning about Moulins (top) and some of the larger crevasses on our hike to the hut

An hour later, the hut (our home for the next couple of nights) was in sight, though there was one last uphill in order to reach it.

Approach to the Garcia Soto Refugio - - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The Refugio Garcia Soto was at the top of this rise on the bare rocky ground. Climbing another hill was the very last thing I wanted to do after scaling what was essentially a cliff to get here

We had crossed the border into Chile at around the point where the glacier flattened out, and arrived for a late lunch at the CONAF hut. 

Exterior of Refugio Garcia Soto - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The Refugio Garcia Soto – our home for the next two nights

There are usually 3 Chilean Carabineros (police/border guards) stationed here (seriously, you find these poor guys stationed at the most remote outposts of their country) but, given their absence, we had the place to ourselves and quickly settled in.  The hut was not warm (renewed respect for the Tasiilaq Mountain Hut in East Greenland), but we spent a great afternoon drinking tea and chatting around the dining table.

Inside the Refugio Garcia Soto - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Making ourselves at home at the Refugio Garcia Soto. It was not heated, so was quite cold inside.

We also made several excursions outside to explore our surroundings.  Although the mountains were obscured, we were treated to a bright rainbow arching over the glacier.

Rainbow over the glacier - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Rainbow view from the Refugio Garcia Soto

Amazing patterns in the ice.

Ice patterns - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

I loved these patterns in the ice, looking towards the Icefield itself

Spectacular vistas over the Icecap (move cursor over the image to scroll the panorama).

 

And to top it all off, a platter of peanuts, olives, cheese, salami and crackers on one of our “tea-breaks” back inside the hut!  Heaven!

Luxury snacks on Day 2 of the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Luxury snacks! The food provided by Serac Expeditions was fantastic, and this was a real treat to celebrate the end of the hardest day of the expedition. No wonder our guides were carrying 26kg!

We finished the day with a beautiful sunset that promised better weather tomorrow, and headed to bed early due to tiredness and the fact that we had to wake up at 5am for our ascent of Gorra Blanca.

Sunset from the Refugio Garcia Soto - - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Sunset over the Fitzroy range from the Refugio Garcia Soto

Hiking Details

  • Hiking time: 5.5 hours
  • Distance Covered: 8.3km
  • Altitude:  +818m, -22m

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El Chaltén to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to Bahía Témpanos
  • Day 8 – Bahía Tempanos to El Chaltén
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

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Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Río Eléctrico – Day 1

I slept surprisingly well despite my nervousness about the trek, and was at the office of Serac Expeditions just before 8am.  There we added 1/2 of a tent (the tents were shared) and our specialised equipment for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition (crampons and harness) to our packs, as well as food for the next 6 days.  

Inside Serac Expeditions with the guides packing the last of the gear

The last of the gear to be packed for the expedition. The entire floor was covered when we first started

Everything was divided evenly and, in the end, each of our packs weighed around 21kg (the guides were carrying 26kg).  I was the smallest person in the group, and this was more than 1/3 of my body-weight.  Lifting it from a standing start was challenging to say the least!

Packing and ready to go on the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Final packing for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition. My backpack (hired from Serac Expeditions) is the one in the middle

Once we had all the equipment and food packed, we bundled into a minivan for the 40 minute drive along a bumpy gravel road to the Río Eléctrico – the starting point of our expedition.

Trekking companions walking past sign to Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Leaving the parking lot at the Río Eléctrico to head toward Piedra del Fraile

The first few hours were nice and flat and followed the river through the Lenga trees to the Refugio Los Troncos at Piedra del Fraile. However, to make it a little more challenging, Juan and Rafa set a cracking pace, which meant I was almost running to keep up as I tried to stop and take photographs along the way.

Valle Eléctrico and Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Hiking through the Lenga forest (top) to reach the Refugio Los Troncos at Piedra del Fraile (bottom)

We stopped at the Refugio for about 1/2 hour for a snack and a rest and to admire the incredible surrounds, before loading up again and continuing past the “point of no return”…

Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Views from Piedra del Fraile (top and middle) and the sign indicating the point of no return (bottom)

From there we entered a wide glacial valley surrounded by impressive peaks

Trekking companions in the wide glacial valley after Piedra del Fraile - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Glacial valleys tend to be wider than river valleys, and U-shaped rather than V-shaped

and eventually reached the Lago Eléctrico, which we skirted around for the next hour or so.

Lago Eléctrico - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The turquoise waters of Lago Eléctrico

About 1/2-way around the lake, we encountered our first major obstacle of the expedition – the Pollone River.  It was time to change from our hiking boots into our river-crossing shoes. 

Trekking companions changing shoes - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Prepping for the river crossing

Just like the rivers in East Greenland, the Pollone River originates from a glacier and is absolutely freezing cold.  Unfortunately, I still don’t own neoprene socks, so by the time I slowly negotiated the deep and very swiftly flowing river (there were a few hairy moments, even with the aid of my trekking poles), my feet were once again in agony from the chill.  

Crossing the Pollone River with Cerro Fitzroy in the background

We continued following the shore of Lago Eléctrico to reach the scheduled campsite at La Playita but, as agreed with Juan at the briefing the night before, we did not actually make camp there. 

Looking back towards the lake and La Playita - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

The end of Lago Eléctrico and La Playita campsite

The idea was to hike an extra 1.5 hours on this “easy” first day, to make the “very hard” second day a little less difficult.  Seemed like a very good idea, so we started our ascent toward the alternate campsite at Lago 14.

Trekking companions ascending towards Lago 14 - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

A little further on, we encountered our second obstacle of the trek – the raging Río Eléctrico Superior.  This was a huge amount of water flowing down a very narrow channel in the rocks and, in order to cross, we had to use a zipline!  So this is why we were carrying harnesses 🙂

Rafa and Juan setting up the zipline - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Juan and Rafa on either end of the zipline. Juan helped us hook up, and Rafa helped pull us across and disengage us at the other end

I went across first with my 21kg backpack dangling between my legs.  The line was angled slightly up so we actually had to pull ourselves across – thank goodness Rafa was helping out!

Obstacle number 2 out of the way, we continued our climb to Lago 14.  We were hiking against a pretty stiff wind at this point and I was very tired when we finally arrived, but you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful campsite!

Campsite at Lago 14 - - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Campsite at Lago 14 – an absolutely stunning location

Juan and Rafa showed us how to pitch the tents and we settled in before it started drizzling.  The views to Cerro Fitzroy were absolutely stunning, and it was clear why it is often called “the smoking mountain”.

Cerro Fitzroy - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Views of Cerro Fitzroy – the “smoking mountain” – from Lago 14

Unlike in Greenland, we had no communal dining tent on this trek.  Juan and Rafa would boil water for tea and cook our dinner, and shuttle-run between the tents to deliver thermoses of hot water and our meals.  I have to admit I felt sorry for them being out in the cold, but very thankful at the same time that I didn’t have to go out there in it!  Although I love the idea of being a trekking guide, I’m not sure I’d really enjoy the reality of it.

Dinner on the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

While camping, Juan and Rafa would deliver our meals to our tents. Yes – our plate was a tupperware bowl

After Jan and I finished our in-tent/in-sleeping-bag dinner, Juan appeared with the map and explained the plan for Day 2.  An early start for the very steep climb up onto the Marconi Glacier and the Icefield itself.  This is the day I’ve been worried about…

Juan explaining the plan for Day 2 in our tent - - South Patagonia Icefield - Argentina

Juan explaining the plan for Day 2, armed with a map and the weather forecast

Hiking Details

  • Hiking time: 7 hours
  • Distance Covered: 8.3km
  • Altitude:  +500m, -185m

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El Chaltén to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to Bahía Témpanos
  • Day 8 – Bahía Tempanos to El Chaltén
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

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Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Prelude

In 2015, I did the 7-day Torres del Paine Circuit trek with Swoop Patagonia.  Although I had hiked most of the trails of the Torres del Paine National Park in my 3 previous visits (it really is one of the most spectacular places on the planet), I specifically wanted to do the Circuit for the moment when you reach the top of the John Garner Pass and have the South Patagonia Icefield stretched out before you.

Looking down on the Grey Glacier and the South Patagonia Icecap from John Garner Pass on the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

Looking down on the Grey Glacier and the South Patagonia Icecap from John Garner Pass on the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

I fell in love with long-distance trekking on that trip.

A rainy dawn at the Torres del Paine National Park

A gorgeous sunrise over Los Cuernos in the Torres del Paine National Park meant walking in rain for the rest of the day on the Circuit Trek

From there, I crossed the border into Argentina, re-visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate

Perito Moreno Glacier

The face of the Perito Moreno Glacier – one of the most impressive glaciers I’ve ever seen.

and exploring for the first time around El Chaltén – Argentina’s (then largely unknown) mecca for hiking.   

Approaching El Chaltén and the Fitzroy massif

Approaching El Chaltén and the Fitzroy massif

It was there that I first learned about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition, in which you spend several days trekking on the Icecap itself.  Guess what replaced the Torres del Paine Circuit on my bucket-list?

Fast-forward to 2017.

One of the friends I made while on the Unplugged Wilderness Trek in East Greenland told me she was traveling to Patagonia in early 2018.  While helping her plan her trip, I suddenly remembered the Icecap Expedition and went searching for it on the internet.  After the 12-day trek in Greenland, the 10-day Huayhuash Circuit Trek in Peru, and the 7-day Torres del Paine Circuit in Chile, I was looking for a new challenge and, having re-read the description, it sounded like the perfect trek to tackle next.  I contacted Swoop Patagonia (they were amazing last time) and signed up for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition with their Argentinean partner company Serac Expeditions.

Storefront of Serac Expeditions in El Chaltén - Argentina

Storefront of Serac Expeditions in El Chaltén

The website makes it very clear that this is a strenuous trek with an intermediate technical difficulty.  While the distance didn’t phase me at all, I have to admit I was a little nervous about the cold, and that fact that I’d have to carry a full backpack for the first time in 20 years.  On my other long-distance treks I only had to carry a day-pack, as the rest was schlepped by porters or donkeys or boats. 

Due to the nature of the trek, both Swoop Patagonia and Serac Expeditions screen potential clients for suitable previous experience and, fortunately, I passed the grade.  But I still had several months to stew on the question of the cold and carrying the weight of the backpack…

It was almost a relief when, the day before the expedition started, the group met at the wonderful Patagonia Travelers Hostel in El Chaltén (I highly recommend it as a place to stay) for a briefing with Juan, our guide, and Rafa, our assistant guide.   There were 4 of us in total – Anita and Reto from Switzerland, Jan from Czech Republic, and me, and this get-together was to make sure that we each had everything we needed to be safe and relatively comfortable on the trek.   

Rafa went through all my gear with me, item by item, and gave me the tick of approval.  Then we all gathered around the map as Juan explained the plan for the next 8-9 days.  

Our trekking route for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

The thick lines highlight our actual trekking route for the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition as recorded by Reto and his fancy watch. This was exactly the plan that Juan suggested at this briefing

Despite my fears, it sounded incredibly awesome, and I was really looking forward to getting started.

The last part of the briefing was to take us to the police station to register our trek and get stamped out of Argentina (we would spend several days trekking in Chile), and I decided to have an early night in anticipation.

Sign to the police station in El Chalten

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El Chaltén to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to Bahía Témpanos
  • Day 8 – Bahía Tempanos to El Chaltén
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

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Hiking Ecuador – Volcán Ilaló

A quick half-day hike just outside of Quito is to the cross on Volcán Ilaló.  And, unlike most of the hikes in this hiking mecca of a country, you can actually get to the trail-head on public transport!

However, it turns out that I didn’t need to worry about that as my friends Suzi and Marcelo were also interested in climbing to the viewpoint.  They picked me and two more of their friends up at around 8am and off we set to the Chapel in San Pedro del Tingo – the starting point for the hike.

Already from the Chapel, you have nice views over parts of Quito and out to the surrounding mountains.

Vista from the start of the trail up Volcán Ilaló

The vista from the start of the trail up Volcán Ilaló

But if you are keen – you can also do the climb.  

I have to admit, this was the least interesting hike I’ve done in Ecuador ☹ 

Because it is so close to Quito and so easy to get to, it is extremely popular.   The trail is very obvious, but is in really bad shape, mostly I suspect due to the off-road motorcyclists who also attempt to do the climb while trying to avoid hikers.   On this day, there was a group of 4 of them catch up to us, which was really frustrating because of the noise and also the fact that they kept blocking the path (they were having a lot of trouble getting the bikes up the trail and resorted on several occasions to using ropes to pull the bikes up).

Partially destroyed hiking trail up Volcán Ilaló

Its no wonder the trail looks like this when off-road motorcyclists also attempt the climb

The hike is surprisingly steep – a 30-ish degree grade that doesn’t let up for about 2 hours!  And this is one of the easier hikes in Ecuador! 

A less-steep part of the trail up Volcán Ilaló

This is actually one of the less-steep sections, quite close to the end of the trail

There are several small crosses along the way,  but unfortunately I couldn’t find any information about why they are there.

Cross overlooking the outskirts of Quito on the trail up A less-steep part of the trail up Volcán Ilaló

One of the many small crosses that lined the path up Volcán Ilaló

And the main event – the big cross – which is not actually at the summit of the volcano, that’s another 40 minute hike away.

The Cruz de Ilaló

The Cruz de Ilaló

But the views from here were lovely, and would be truly spectacular if it were completely clear, as Volcán Cotopaxi would loom large on the horizon.

View from the The Cruz de Ilaló

View from the The Cruz de Ilaló

Recommendation

If you don’t have a lot of time and would like to do a relatively “easy” hike around Quito, Volcán Ilaló might be a good option – especially if you are starting your acclimatization for hikes at greater altitude.   Personally, I’d recommend going to Otavalo and doing the Laguna Cuicocha rim hike as a much more beautiful option, but it depends on your timing and route.

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Hiking Galapagos – Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico – Isabela Island

Having survived the snorkeling trip to Los Túneles without a relapse in my illness, for Christmas Day I headed out on the second tour I’d organized for Isabela Island – a hiking tour to Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico.

Once again, the day began overcast and, as we bused to the starting point of the trail, we ascended into fog.   We stood in light drizzle as our guide explained it would be a 16km hike, and I almost had to laugh at the enormous groan that went up from the other 12 people in the group.   My reaction was “OK – let’s go”, even with lungs full of fluid from the flu, but clearly I’m starting from a different hiking baseline than the majority of people.

Sign at the start of the Sierra Negra trail - Galapagos

We hiked the first 3km in fog.  It was nice and cool and very enjoyable chatting with a couple of my fellow hiking companions. 

Fellow hikers heading into fog on the Sierra Negra trail on Isla Isabela - Galapagos

I hope it improves!

What wasn’t so nice was that when we got to the first of the viewpoints, we could see absolutely nothing.

Caldera completely obscured by fog

See anything?

Our guide explained that this was common at this time of year when the ocean currents and winds push cloud up against the southern side of the mountain.  He suggested we continue to the next viewpoint and perhaps we’d have better luck there… 

Ummmmm…. Nope.  I didn’t even bother to take a photo.  On to the third viewpoint…

Fortunately, here the fog was starting to clear and we could see part of the second-largest caldera in the world (the largest is Mauna Loa in Hawaii).

Fog lifting over the Sierra Negra caldera - Galapagos

This is looking better

The caldera of Sierra Negra is about 10km wide, and looking out across such an enormous  expanse of flat, black, cooled lava is incredible.   

Panorama of the caldera of Sierra Negra - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Different patterns in the lava of the floor of the caldera told the story of its formation – if only I could have interpreted it.  I keep coming back to the idea that I should have continued my studies in Geology…

Patterns in the solidified lava of the floor of the Sierra Negra caldera - Galapagos

We spent about 20 minutes admiring the view, then hiked a further 2km to Volcán Chico

Approaching Volcán Chico - Sierra Negra hiking trail - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Approaching Volcán Chico across the lava field

With the fog gone, the equatorial sun beat down savagely and this last part of the hike quickly became very hot.  To distract us, our guide highlighted the features of the volcanic landscape we were walking through (until this point we’d been walking along what was effectively a road).  He pointed out lava tunnels and areas where small explosions had occurred, and explained the differences between a’a and pahoehoe lava.

Images of volcanic lava features on the hike to Volcán Chico - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Different lava features including a small lava tunnel (middle), pahoehoe lava (bottom left) and a’a lava (bottom right)

The views from Volcán Chico (not actually a separate volcano, simply the most active part of Sierra Negra) were fantastic, and would have been really incredible on a clearer day. Again – being able to see the vast, barren lava plains of Isabela Island is amazing.  I think it is the flatness and the complete lack of vegetation that makes it really capture my attention.  

Volcán Chico details - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Volcán Chico is very colourful (top and middle) with an incredible view over the lava fields of Isla Isabela (bottom)

We spent about ½ hour at Volcán Chico before starting the return journey. The final viewpoint of the caldera was even clearer this time and I managed to steal about 10 minutes there by myself just admiring the view and relishing the silence.

Sierra Negra caldera from the third viewpoint - Isla Isabela - Galapagos

Finally, a clear view of the entire caldera of Sierra Negra

I walked most of the way back by myself noticing the different types of flowers that grew every now and then along the side of the road (I was too busy talking to notice them on the way up).  As the fog closed in around me offering some cool relief, I was a very happy camper having had the opportunity to see the caldera. 

Recommendation

This is a great day trip on Isabela Island if you are prepared to walk 16km.  It is not a difficult hike, though the sun can be very strong and hot, making it feel more difficult.  Bring loads of sun protection (hat, sunscreen, sunglasses) even if the day looks like it is going to be rubbish.

Time: About 7 hours in total

Cost:  $30 includes transport, boxed lunch, guide

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Hiking Galapagos – Muro de las Lágrimas on Isabela Island

In order to protect the environment and the animals, the number of excursions you can undertake independently in the Galapagos is quite limited.  One of the longer ones is the ~15km return journey out to the Muro de las Lágrimas (Wall of Tears) on Isla Isabela.  

Sign explaining the Muro de las Lagrimas complex and route

Almost everyone does this on a bike (and that’s certainly what the tourist agencies encourage you to do), but I decided I’d hike it instead.

It’s a very easy hike – the main difficulties being the heat and, if you aren’t used to it, the distance.  However,  there are plenty of points along the way for small detours and rest stops.   For example, I was lucky enough to be passing “El Estero” at low tide – the only time possible to visit.  It was an interesting little detour with mangroves and even a few Blue-footed boobies in the distance!

Some of the stopping off points along the road to the Muro de las L

Some of the stopping off points along the road to the Muro de las Lágrimas – El Estero and a Blue-footed Boobie (top), lava tunnel (bottom left) and Los Tunos (bottom right)

Galapagos Giant Land Tortoises

One of the key highlights of this excursion is “The Tortoise Way” – a section of road along which giant land tortoises are usually found.

Sign by side of road explaining not to touch the tortoises

The need for signs explaining not to touch the animals never ceases to amaze me. A sad indictment on the behaviour of a surprisingly large number of travelers

I got super-lucky and came across 8 of these amazing creatures within a 2km stretch!  I love their pigeon toes and wizened faces.

Closeup of the face and front legs of a Galapagos Giant Land Tortoise - hiking along the Tortoise Way in Isla Isabela

This tortoise was one of the shy ones. He stayed retracted into his shell for the duration of my visit

None of them was as big as I remember from last time I was in the Galapagos and, according to a sign, they were bred at the local tortoise centre.  They are the descendants of tortoises that used to live on the slopes of the Sierra Negra volcano, and were released into the wild once they were big enough to survive – so were most likely juveniles.

Front view of a giant land tortoise with neck extended, as well as details in the shell and the legs

The faces of the giant land tortoises are incredible – I would watch them all day! And the detail in the shell and their skin is fascinating

That being said – they were still enormous!  And it was a beautiful experience to come across so many of them in the wild.  On my last visit, there were very few outside of the Charles Darwin and other breeding centres. 

Cyclist passing a Galapagos giant land tortoise along the Tortoise Way on Isla Isabela

On my hike, I came across 8 tortoises enjoying the relative freedom of movement the edges of the road offered

They are fascinating creatures to watch, and I spent some time with pretty much all of them. I watched this guy eating for quite a long time … he didn’t seem to care.  But watching his struggle to strip the leaves of the small plants really makes you appreciate having hands and opposable thumbs!

This looks frustrating

And when they move, your heart really goes out to them. Every time, they would let out an “old-man-sigh” from the effort involved.  Though I guess I would too if I had to carry around such a heavy shell!  If they only want to move a short distance, they tend to half-lift, half-scrape themselves across the ground – the effort seemingly too great to lift themselves all the way up.

This looks like hard work and a lot of effort!

They only bother if they really want to cover some ground.

The Muro de las Lágrimas

Leaving my tortoise friends, I climbed to the top of the first lookout at Mirador Cerro Orchilla to survey the dry scrubby surroundings,

The view from Mirador Cerro Orchilla

The dry scrub that makes up Isla Isabela and the brilliant blue ocean from Mirador Cerro Orchilla

and then finally made it to the Wall of Tears. 

Approaching the Muro de las Lágrimas

Approaching the Muro de las Lágrimas

This ~25m high construction was built by prisoners between 1946 And 1959 when Isabela Island was used as a penitentiary. An interpretive sign explains:

This futile construction is preserved in memory of those hardships endured by those forced to build it

Indeed it would have been a horrible labour under the strong equatorial sun!  And some locals believe it is haunted, with stories of wailing and moaning being heard at the site.

Different views of the Muro de las Lágrimas

The Muro de las Lágrimas – an enormous amount of work to build a pointless construction

Leaving this stark reminder of a darker period in the history of the Galapagos, I climbed to “The Radar” viewpoint – one of 3 old radar stations established in the Galapagos by the US.

The path up to El Radar and the concrete slab where the radar was positioned

The path up to El Radar. There’s not a lot left of the radar apart from a concrete slab

I stayed up here for about 1.5 hours enjoying the shade and the breeze, and soaking in the incredible view over the ocean and the island itself.   I didn’t see a single other person.

Viewpoint from El Radar on Isla Isabela - Galapagos Islands - Ecuador

El Radar has a wonderful view over Isla Isabela

I was constantly amazed on this excursion how those on bikes didn’t seem to stop off at any of the side-“attractions” along the way, including the two prominent viewpoints.   Why?  If you are going to make the excursion, make the whole excursion!

Galapagos Flamingos

Eventually, I re-traced my steps all the way back to Puerto Villamil, but decided to make a detour at the entrance to the town to visit the Flamingo estuary.  It didn’t take long to spot several flamingos – their bright pink feathers highlighting them against the dull shrubbery and green brackish water. 

Flamingos at the estuary just outside of town

Its not often you get this close to flamingos

It’s rare to be able to get so close to a flamingo, and fascinating to see how they filter feed.  Who knew they were such noisy eaters? 

Recommendation

The Muro de las Lágrimas is an amazing day (or 1/2-day on a bike) excursion on Isla Isabela.  I enjoyed hiking it so I could take my time and explore everything along the way.  Even if you rent a bike, I would still encourage you to take your time and do this, as there is a lot to be seen.

Cost:  Free, if you hike

Time:  I took about 7 hours to hike there and back.  However, I did take it VERY slowly, stopped off at every location, spent a lot of time with my tortoise friends, and spent a lot of time chilling out at the viewpoints.

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Hiking Galapagos – Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz

Most people arrive to the Galapagos Islands via Baltra airport near the island of Santa Cruz.   When I first visited 14 years ago, we essentially went straight from the airport to our cruise boat (it was not possible to travel independently in the Galapagos at that time), and didn’t see anything of Santa Cruz beyond the dock.  This time I planned to spend 3 days on the island, with Tortuga Bay the first stop on the itinerary.

Welcome to Santa Cruz, Galapagos sign

Welcome to Santa Cruz Island!

Before setting out, I took a quick detour to the Laguna de las Ninfas – a small tidal lagoon with red and white mangroves (I learned all about mangroves in Nicaragua last year) and a nice little boardwalk.

Views of Laguna Ninfas, its boardwark and vegetation near Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

I loved the different texts that were engraved on the boardwalk

Then started off on the 40 minute hike to Tortuga Bay.  They have built a very solid path all the way there, which takes you through the dry vegetation characteristic of the Galapagos Islands, and giant Opuntia cactus.   Although found on many of the Islands, Santa Cruz has the tallest specimens of this cactus, which are an important food source for iguanas, tortoises and cactus finches.

Path and vegetation that leads the way to Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

The hiking trail to Tortuga Bay is pretty obvious

I found it fascinating how the cactus evolves as it grows larger – something that is clearly seen on this hike. It starts off as discrete pads that stack end-on-end and perpendicular to each other (below left).  Then, as it grows larger, these seem to “fuse” into a more solid-looking trunk covered in spines, with new pads appearing at more random angles in the upper reaches (middle).  And finally, the trunk loses its spines and becomes quite solid and wood-like, with the new pads forming a haphazard jumble at the top (right).

3 stages of evolution of the trunk of an Opuntia cactus, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Evolution of a Galapagos Opuntia Cactus

The texture and patterns in these trunks are amazing!  I had expected it to feel like a paper-bark tree, but no. It is much more solid than that.

Close-up detail of a trunk of a large, mature Opuntia-cactus on Santa Cruz, Galapagos

The hiking path eventually deposits you on the long, white, sandy beach of Tortuga Bay.  It is a beautiful beach, but unfortunately not one they recommend you swim at.

Tortuga Bay beach on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Given that I don’t particularly like swimming anyway, that was fine with me, so I hiked along the beach, stopping to investigate the dark, volcanic rocks along the way. 

It was a thrill to see the Sally-Lightfoot Crabs again

Male and female Sally-Lightfoot Crabs on a rock at Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz, Galapagos

and the Marine Iguanas of course! The Galapagos Islands are the only place in the world where these iguanas are found, and there is something very special about being able to see these creatures in real life.

Galapagos Marine Iguana on a rock at Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Especially in the water, where their flat tail helps them to swim.

Galapagos Marine Iguana swimming at Playa Mansa on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

I was lucky enough to find this guy actually eating something (they usually just lie there expelling salt from their nostrils)

Marine Iguana eating plant material from a rock in Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

And loved watching them walk along on the beach.

Galapagos Marine Iguana walking along the Tortuga Bay beach on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

In order to go swimming or snorkeling, you have to walk all the way to the end of Tortuga Bay and cross over to the far more sheltered Playa Mansa.  

Marina Iguana on Playa Mansa with people in the background - Santa Cruz, Galapagos

A Marine Iguana wondering whether to approach the people on Playa Mansa

Given I’m not much of a beach person, I actually preferred exploring the cliff at the end of the beach, with its volcanic rocks and tall Opuntia cacti.  

Views and vegetation from cliff at the end of Playa Mansa on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

and watching the Frigate birds flying above.

Frigate bird flying over Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos

Note the forked tail on the Frigate bird. They are called Tijeras in Spanish because the tail looks like scissors.

On the hike back to Puerto Ayora, I spent lots of time chasing Galapagos Lava Lizards along the path in an effort to get a good photo, and then headed into town for an icecream – it was a warm walk 🙂

Lava Lizard on a rock, clearly showing the bright orange neck and face. Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos.

Recommendation

This is the main hike that you can do from Puerto Ayora.  And best of all – it is free and you can do it independently.

Time:  I spent about 5 hours on this excursion, but depending on whether you wanted to go swimming/snorkeling at Playa Mansa – you could easily spend the whole day.

 

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Termas de Papallacta (Hot Springs) – Quito – Ecuador

If you are after relaxation, the Papallacta Hot Springs (Termas de Papallacta) are a very easy day-excursion from Quito, and a really lovely experience.

Investigating how to get there on public transport, I decided it would be simpler to head to the Quitumbe terminal to catch the bus, rather than trying to pick it up at La Scala in Cumbayá, even though I’m very familiar with buses going past the Scala shopping mall.

What a mistake!

After catching the Ecovía and taking 45 minutes to get to Quitumbe, we caught the bus no worries.  But then I almost chewed my arm off in frustration as the driver went no faster than about 30km/hr and took 1.5 hours to get from there to La Scala!   Had I known exactly where the bus was going to go (and that it was going to go past La Scala, there wasn’t a different route it would take), I most definitely would have just caught it from La Scala!

I have absolutely no idea why we were going so slowly (suspect a problem with the bus, but we never did find out), but when we eventually left the outskirts of Cumbayá we finally picked up speed.  Of course, from there it was only 20 kilometers more…

The bus dropped us at the entrance to the town of Papallacta and we caught one of the taxis waiting there up to the thermal pools.  There are actually two parts to the complex, and we chose the Balneario over more expensive Spa.  Really, I don’t understand how the Spa could be better than the Balneario – it was amazing!

Balneario part of the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

There are a large number of impeccably clean pools that range in temperature from glacial (straight out of the river) to scalding.   There’s even one that has spa jets!

Balneario part of the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

What we didn’t realise was that there are actually 3 main parts to the Balneario.  Two of them (those that we visited) are very obvious once you walk in, but there is a third section to your left as you enter.  It pays to explore the whole site first!

There are undercover picnic tables

Balneario at the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

Raúl and I soaking up the warmth. You can see the undercover picnic tables in the back.

Plenty of change-rooms

Change rooms - Balneario at the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

The baskets are for your personal items. You can also rent lockers here to keep them safe.

and amazing views of the surrounding mountains.

Balneario at the Termas de Papallacta Hot Springs - Ecuador

We lounged around soaking in the various pools for several hours before heading out and back down the road a little to have some lunch (about 1/2 the price of eating at the cafe/restaurant at the pools).  

Then we decided to hike up to the border of the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve where there were some lakes that Pedro has seen on the internet and thought would be really beautiful.

Although we never quite made it to the lakes (we were running out of daylight), the hike up the road was absolutely stunning.

Hiking to Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve - Papallacta - Ecuador

There were amazing views to the mountains further into the Reserve

Hiking to Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve - Papallacta - Ecuador

and behind us – what would be an incredible view of Volcán Antisana, if it weren’t for the cloud.

View to Volcan Antisana from Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve - Papallacta - Ecuador

We managed to catch glimpses of the snow-covered peak of the Antisana Volcano, despite it being covered in clouds.

I am soooooo going to come back and do this again when next there is a clear day in Quito!

Recommendation

This was a surprisingly lovely day-trip that I highly recommend!   If you wanted to hike to see the lakes, I would suggest getting the taxi to take you all the way there first thing, then walk back down the road and enjoy the pools afterwards.

Cost:  The bus to Papallacta was around $3 each way.  The taxi to reach the pools was $1 each way.  Entrance to the Balneario was $8.50.  Though there is a cafe/restaurant on site, I recommend heading down the road a little to one of the several restaurants there, as they are about 1/2 the price.  Your ticket will allow you to re-enter.

Time:  Up to you really.   From La Scala it was about a 45 minute bus ride to get to Papallacta.  You could easily spend the whole day here relaxing and moving from pool to pool.   To hike to the lakes just before the entrance to Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, I estimate it would take about 2-2.5 hours at a reasonable pace.

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Hiking Ecuador – Volcán Cotopaxi Day Tour

One of the most popular day-tours from Quito involves hiking to the glacier of Cotopaxi – the second highest volcano in Ecuador.  I’d never done it, despite spending a significant amount of time here over the years, so when Pedro and Raúl came to visit, this was high on the list.

Similar to the day I hiked Volcán Pasochoa, it was already raining at 6am as we waited out the front of CarpeDM Adventures for our minibus to take us to the National Park.  A couple of hours later, the weather had not improved…

The CarpeDM minibus with mountain bikes loaded for the Cotopaxi day tour in Ecuador

Our minivan loaded up with the mountain bikes in the parking lot at the start of the hike. Yes, that’s fog.

Nevertheless, our intrepid group of 9 plus our guide geared up for the hike to Refugio José Rivas at 4,863m (15,953ft) above sea level.

Our hiking group for the Cotopaxi day tour with CarpeDM Tours in Ecuador

I have to admit, there wasn’t a lot to see on the way up, though the Refugio eventually became visible in the distance.

Views of our hike up to the refugio on our day-trip to Volcán Cotopaxi in Ecuador

But we did make it 🙂

The sign at the Refugio José Rivas on Cotopaxi, Ecuador

And took a short break to warm up with coca tea and hot chocolate.

Our group at the Refugio José Rivas on Cotopaxi, Ecuador

The refugio itself is much, much larger than I expected, and very nice.  This is where those that are summiting Cotopaxi stay in preparation for their early-morning ascent.

From there, it was a further climb up to the start of the Cotopaxi glacier at 5,000m (16,404ft).  Fortunately the fog started to break-up/lift so we did end up with some half-vistas while hiking up.

Views of the snowy landscape we encountered while hiking between the refugio and the glacier on Volcán Cotopaxi in Ecuador

This was as far as we could go without a specifically-qualified guide and special equipment, so after taking innumerable photos while trying not to fall over in the snow and mud, we retraced our steps, heading back down past the Refugio to where we had left the minivan.

Me posing at the edge of the Cotopaxi Glacier in Ecuador

The end of the road for this trip to Cotopaxi. Standing at the edge of the Cotopaxi glacier

Down at the carpark, we managed some tantalising glimpses of the snowy peak of Cotopaxi

A glimpse of the snowy peak of Cotopaxi from the carpark - Ecuador

and the valley below

Panorama of the valley below the Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador

But unfortunately glimpses were as good as we got.

From there, we drove down the worst part of the gravel access road and unloaded the mountain bikes off the minivan for our run down to Laguna Limpiopungo.

Our group on their mountain bikes ready to ride down the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador

This exact ride was meant to be part of the 3-day mountain biking trip I did last year with the Biking Dutchman, but we were unable to do it at the time as Cotopaxi was showing increased volcanic activity and this section of the park was closed.

There were some incredible views on the way down (it must be amazing with clear skies), and the less-than-spectacular weather made for very dramatic vistas.

Misty view of the Rumiñahui volcano as we mountain biked down the Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador

You can see Laguna Limpiopungo at the base of Rumiñahui volcano

It did start raining on us as we rode, so once we reached the Laguna, we packed the bikes up quickly and piled back into the minivan for the return trip to Quito.

Recommendations

Even with very ordinary weather, this is a good day trip – there’s a reason it is one of the most popular.  Just remember, however, that you are climbing to 5,000m, so:

  • take lots of warm clothes with you (even if the weather is good)
  • try to spend a few days acclimatizing before you attempt it.  Massive kudos to Caite for doing the climb!  She had only arrived the night before from Chicago to join Pedro, Raúl and I for a few days in Ecuador.

Cost: $50 with CarpeDM Adventures including breakfast, lunch, transportation and guide

Time:  Full-day trip

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Hiking Ecuador – Podocarpus National Park near Loja

My original plan last year was to travel from Cuenca to Loja and Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador before heading to Peru.  That was scuppered when I had to hightail it to Peru directly from Cuenca to arrive in time to do the incredible 10-day Huayhuash Circuit trek.  So when my friends Pedro and Raúl decided they wanted to visit the Galapagos for 5 days (I’m going there for 2 weeks later in December), I headed to Loja – just in time to catch the end of the Festival of Loja and the International Arts Festival.  

Even with only a few days to explore Loja, I was determined to do one hike in the nearby Podocarpus National Park.  So I arranged a taxi through my amazing Airbnb host, Fransiska, out to the trail-head of the Los Miradores Hike, to arrive as soon as the park opened (I had to get back for my first show at the Festival after all). 

The sign at the start of Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

Can I just say, this is an absolutely incredible hiking trail!  But not for you if you suffer from vertigo.

The park ranger told me it was better to hike in an anti-clockwise direction, which actually meant following the signs for the lakes route, rather than the above sign for the miradores.  His rationale was that this way I would only have to walk 2km uphill followed by 3km downhill.  Sounded good to me!

If you follow this advice, the trail starts off in thick forest on a well-defined path.

Views along the trail on Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

I cannot describe how beautiful it is, and how many birds you see – including this guy that seemed to be following me for most of the way.

Close-up of a bird on los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

I seemed to be the only person in the park – just me and the sounds of nature.  Absolute heaven!

The weather was not the best

Dense vegetation seen from the trail of Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja in Ecuador

but there was a spectacular showcase of gorgeous flowers wherever you looked

Various flowers on los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

and awesome plants as well.

Various plants on los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

I got the occasional glimpse out to the valley to the South

View down to the valley from Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

before breaking through the tree-line and onto the open ridge where the viewpoints are.

Me at the sign indicating the highest point of Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

No, I didn’t get to see much unfortunately.

Up until this point, the hike had been fairly easy, ignoring the usual challenges of hiking at altitude.   So I was very surprised to discover that it quickly turned much more technical for the next 2 km!  Essentially, on this section, you hike along the top of a reasonably narrow ridge that ascends and descends (I swear it was an M. C. Escher mountain!), and has steep drop-offs on either side.   Add in a pretty stiff wind with gusts strong enough to make me stumble, and it was an “interesting” time!

View along the narrow ridge of Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

You can just see the path tracking all the way along the ridge line

I had read online about using attached ropes for parts of this section, and this was not the first time I had used ropes while hiking recently.   However, I do believe they should have started them earlier than they did!  There was one place in particular that gave me significant pause – wondering how the heck I was going to get down the rock without slipping and falling and killing myself.

Ropes to assist in the very steep sections of Los Miradores hike in the Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

The top image is the large rock I had to figure out how to get down without the assistance of a rope. That was my main “moment” on the whole hike.

But it was spectacular!   

Various views from Los Miradores hike in Podocarpus National Park near Loja, Ecuador

Despite the crap weather and the fact I couldn’t see any of the distant vistas from the miradores, I would say that this is one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done – thanks to the diversity and lushness of the vegetation.

I eventually made it back to the trail-head and then began the 8km hike down to the highway along the access road.  When I signed out from the park, it turns out I was the only person to visit that day!  

Recommendation  

If you are in Loja – you should definitely visit the Podocarpus National Park.  It is beautiful!  There are 2 shorter hikes that are much easier, and one longer hike that I’ll do next time I visit.  If you aren’t stable on your feet, are uncertain about rock scrambling, or suffer from vertigo, I wouldn’t recommend Los Miradores Trail. 

Also, ask your taxi to take you to the start of the trail-heads at the refugio to save you an 8km uphill walk.   It’s much nicer to walk back down it, and very easy to catch a bus back to Loja from the junction with the main road.

Time:  I took 5 hours to complete what is touted as a 3 hour walk.  I reckon it is longer than 3 hours if you take care over the more technical bits.  Then again, I did spend a lot of time watching birds and taking photos…

Cost:  I managed to get a taxi all the way to the trail-head for USD$8 – about 1/2 the price usually quoted.  There is no cost to enter the park, and the bus back to Loja cost USD$0.50.

 

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