Tag Archives: outdoor adventure

Kayaking the Comau Fjord – Leptepu and Porcelana

Day 5

Out in the kayaks early today for a paddle to explore the southern end of the Comau Fjord.   Glassy water, no wind, easy paddling – now THIS is what I was expecting!   THIS is what all those kayaking videos spruik – paddling lazily along taking your time and poking your nose into interesting nooks and crannies.  And it was sufficient to convince me to give kayaking another go – but perhaps on a lake, where there is no wind or waves, and maybe just for a few hours at a time 😉

Glassy water in the Comau Fjord

Glassy water (finally) in the Comau Fjord

Although the Comau Fjord has salmon farms and other seafood production along its entire length, it was particularly concentrated in this part.   So we went and checked out the salmon farms on our paddle.

Salmon Farms - Comau Fjord

Checking out the salmon farms

Given that it was a gorgeous, sunny day, the wind picked up about 1/2 way through the paddle (this wind is very typical during fine weather) so we decided to not head up the river, but return to camp and hit the hot springs.   This time we executed an “out-of-the-kayak-from-the-water” dismount – which thankfully, and once again due to my awesome coordination – delivered me to the Don Miguel nice and dry.

kayak to boat transfer

Kayak-to-boat transfer

Final piccy of us in the kayaking gear 🙂

The kayakers

The kayakers! Huw, Koreen and me

The rest of the day was spent at Porcelana, the site where we had originally intended to camp.  It is absolutely gorgeous there – and very typical of Patagonia.

Porcelana - classic patagonia

Porcelana – classic patagonia

But the key attraction are the natural hot springs that emerge directly from the forest.

Porcelana hot springs

Porcelana hot springs

There were a large number of pools to choose from, and most were at a great temperature.   There was also a “plunge pool” – otherwise known as a dip in the freezing river – just 30m away as well.  Spent a great few hours there chatting and relaxing after all the paddling.

Day 6

The next day dawned rainy and miserable.   We had no problem with this at all given we were to spend it inside the Don Miguel retracing our route back up the Comau Fjord, heading back to Hornopirén and then Puerto Varas.  

We dropped Huw off in the rain to await transportation further south, and then enjoyed tea and other goodies during the 5 hours it took to make the return journey.  Quite amazing how far we paddled!

Don Miguel

Don Miguel, ploughing through the rain

Summary

Despite the pain, this was a really wonderful trip!   Wonderful company, wonderful scenery, and definitely an initiation by fire to the world of kayaking!   We got to experience all of the moods of the fjord – calm, stormy, windy, wavey, strong tides, blue skies, overcast skies, rain – as well as reverse launches and kayak-to-boat transfers.   In fact, the key thing I didn’t get to experience (thankfully) was tipping over!

Cost:   At almost AUD$2000, this was not a cheap trip!  In fact, I almost didn’t do it because of the cost.   However, for that price, you get a support vessel (the Don Miguel “mothership”), which, in the end, was worth every cent!   I would not recommend doing a multi-day kayaking trip in Patagonia unsupported!

Time:  6 days

Recommendation:  Can definitely recommend Alsur Expeditions.  They were very responsive in the lead-up to departure, and the trip ran very smoothly.  Special shout out to Colyn who was an awesome guide and lots of fun.

 

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Kayaking the Comau Fjord – Termas de Cahuelmó to Porcelana

Day 4

The next day saw another brilliant blue sky and an opportunity to do a little hiking – up to a lake a little further up the valley.   This hike had to be timed to coincide with low tide, and we had to get there and back before the tide rose too much, otherwise we would never be able to cross the river.

Start of the hike at Termas de Cahuelmó

Start of the hike at Termas de Cahuelmó. The river was the highest Colyn had ever seen it

As it turned out, yesterday’s storm and the large amount of rain the area had received over the past few weeks had already swollen the river so much that we were thwarted in our endeavour. Instead we bush-bashed back to the Don Miguel through the vegetation, pulled out the kayaks and started our paddle for today.

Aborted hike at Termas de Cahuelmó

Aborted hike at the Termas de Cahuelmó

I’ll be honest, this was the worst day of paddling of the lot!   Heading back up the Cahuelmó Fjord towards the sea lion colony was against the current and against the wind, and if you stopped paddling, you very quickly started going backwards!    About 2/3 the way along I motioned that I needed to stop for a rest and suggested we pull in near the waterfall.   Colyn, however, was adamant that we had to keep going a little further, as the waterfall was not sheltered enough and he wanted to get out of the Cahuelmó Fjord before the full force of the wind came down upon us and made it even more difficult to paddle.

Kayaking past the sea lions at entrance to Cahuelmó Fjord

Sight for sore eyes (well, arms, back and shoulders), sea lions at entrance to Cahuelmó Fjord

We eventually made it to the sea lion colony and the entrance to the fjord, but it turned out we weren’t done yet.   Colyn kept assuring me that the beach we were aiming for was “just around the corner”, to “keep paddling”, and that I was doing really well, but he had a sense of urgency about him that none of us had seen before.  

Finally, about 5 corners and 1/2 hour of paddling later, we spied a brilliant white patch of land to the left, and beached ourselves with absolute relief.  

rest stop - Comau Fjord

Finally at the rest stop in the Comau Fjord

The beach was surprisingly well sheltered, but soon after we settled in for lunch, our arch-nemeses for the entire trip – the Colihuachos (big bitey horse flies) – found us.  So we left our paddling jackets on (the only way to thwart them) and slowly baked in the sun.

Beach and Colihuachos

Resting on the beach trying to avoid our nemeses for the entire trip – the Colihuachos

After about an hour, Colyn went out in his kayak to see whether he could spy the Don Miguel. The mothership had to wait for high tide before it could pick us up and transport us further down the fjord, and we were all wondering why it hadn’t yet appeared.   After about 20 minutes, Colyn came speeding back into the beach, hurrying us up to get in the kayaks for launch.   Apparently the Don Miguel couldn’t pick us up from the beach and we had to paddle further to a more sheltered pickup point.

🙁

By this time the wind had picked up enormously and the waves were getting pretty large!   Colyn was clearly worried about the conditions (particularly given he had a complete novice in his charge), but there was nothing for it.    We sat in our kayaks facing up the beach and he launched us backwards, one by one, into the waves.   The idea was to paddle backwards as powerfully as possible for a bit, then turn as quickly as possible before being capsized.   Uh … okay…

Fortunately I’m a super-coordinated person 🙂 so executed a textbook maneuver, and set off down the fjord with arms, shoulders and back burning – but at least I was still upright.

Finally found the Don Miguel about an hour and a half later at a very sheltered little dock, and thankfully pulled the kayaks up onto the back deck.   I think Colyn was the most relieved of all of us – that we’d all managed to make it without upending.  Apparently the conditions were the worst Koreen and Huw had ever paddled in, and it goes to show that sometimes ignorance is bliss … I wasn’t scared or worried at all … I was just exhausted!

kayaks loaded up

The rest of the afternoon was spent cruising down the Comau Fjord admiring the scenery and soaking up the amazing weather.   

Incredible scenery on the way to the southern end of the Comau Fjord

Incredible scenery on the way to the southern end of the Comau Fjord

Unfortunately we weren’t able to visit the Research Station along the way, and it turned out that the campsite we were aiming for was no longer accepting campers!   Apparently they had become tired of cleaning up the trash after campers had departed, so decided they wouldn’t be offering campsites anymore.   This meant finding a different place to stay, and we ended up around the corner and up a big hill.   Can’t complain about the view though!

View from campground at the end of the Comau Fjord

View from campground at the end of the Comau Fjord

 

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Kayaking the Comau Fjord – Cahuelmó Fjord

Day 3

Day 3 of our kayaking trip to explore the fjords in the north of Pumalín Park dawned bright and sunny again.   Given we were already just across from our campsite scheduled for Day 3 (thanks to the storm), after another amazing breakfast aboard the Don Miguel, we hit the kayaks and went for a paddle up the length of the Cahuelmó Fjord

Breakfast Table on the Don Miguel

Breakfast Table in the Don Miguel wheelhouse. All our meals were taken here.

Even after 2 days of paddling, I’m finding the whole kayaking experience rather challenging and frustrating.  The others make it look so easy, yet I’m going ten-to-the-dozen just to keep up with them!   But I do get there eventually… even against the wind!

Kayaking Cahuelmó Fjord

Kayaking towards the sealion colony – Cahuelmó Fjord

The aim of the paddle was to visit the sea lion colony near the entrance of the fjord.   Very noisy, but great fun to watch, especially when they were checking us out from the water.

Sea lions at the entrance to Cahuelmo Fjord

Sea lions at the entrance to Cahuelmo Fjord

Then we paddled slowly back towards our campsite, passing more sealions and some amazing waterfalls.    

Cahuelmo Fjord

The first time paddling with the wind and tide, and trying to put into practice some of Colyn’s tips from earlier in the morning, I felt like I might finally be getting the hang of this activity … sort of … kinda …

Kayaking Cahuelmó Fjord

Paddling towards the campsite in Cahuelmó Fjord

Our campsite for the night was at the Cahuelmó thermal hot springs (Termas Cahuelmó), and after 3 days in the kayaks, we were all looking forward to soaking in the hot water.

Cahuelmo thermal hot springs (Termas Cahuelmo)

Unfortunately, another family arrived at exactly the same time as us (what are the chances!) so we ended up diverting as many of the streams of hot water running into the pool we wanted to use as we could (it was waaaaaaay too hot to sit in comfortably) and went to set up the tents and to do a short hike up to a lookout over the Fjord.  

Lookout at Termas Cahuelmo campground

Lookout at Termas Cahuelmo campground

When we returned, the family was gone and the pool was just cool enough for us to relax in properly.   Ahhhhhhhh – luxury!

Cahuelmo thermal hot springs (Termas Cahuelmo)

Finally! Koreen, Chloe and Colyn enjoying the pool.

Dinner on board the Don Miguel was a great as always, and Chloe spoiled us with an incredible apple cake for dessert!   This was followed up by yet another spectacular sunset – I love being out in the middle of nowhere.

Sunset along the Cahuelmo Fjord

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Kayaking the Comau Fjord – Isla Llancahué to Quintupeu Fjord

Day 2

Awoke not feeling too bad given the unfamiliar and extended exercise of yesterday.    The clouds had rolled in, however, and the forecast of rain was looking more and more accurate.

Rain Comau Fjord from Isla Llancahué

Setting out into the Comau Fjord from Isla Llancahué under threatening skies

After an amazing breakfast on board the Don Miguel, we suited up in our kayaking gear and headed off towards Quintupeu Fjord

Towards Quintupeu Fjord

The weather progressively got worse over the 2.5 hours we were paddling, and for the last 1/2 hour to the waterfall, we were paddling in the rain.   Not cold (too much exercise for that), and initially not unpleasant.  But we were glad to abandon the kayaks and retreat to the mothership when the rain started pelting down about 15 minutes after arriving.

Quintupeu Fjord

It started to rain once we’d reached Quintupeu Fjord

We were meant to continue paddling up Quintupeu Fjord and stay the night at the end of it, but given the weather and the abysmal forecast for the rest of the day, we agreed that we’d actually motor around to the next Fjord and cut short the super-long paddle (20 miles!) scheduled for Day 3.  Given my struggles with the paddle, I was all for it.  

Waiting out the storm

Waiting out the storm in the wheelhouse of the Don Miguel

Once we arrived in Cahuelmó Fjord, we found a sheltered spot and tied up alongside some fishermen who were diving for mussels.   They very generously gave us some of their haul, and we sat around drinking coffee and eating mussels for the next 7 hours – waiting out the very impressive storm (horizontal bullets of rain, incredibly strong winds, huge swell, low visibility) in the wheelhouse of the Don Miguel.  At this point, the others all agreed that abandoning the original plan for the day was a great idea!

Coffee and mussels while the storm raged outside

Coffee and mussels while the storm raged outside

Eventually, the storm abated, and we were able to head out and enjoy the sunset – having decided to roll out sleeping bags in the bottom of the mothership, rather than trying to find somewhere dry to camp.

Sunset Cahuelmó Fjord

Sunset after the storm – Cahuelmó Fjord

Thought for the day:  who knew kayaking hurt the knees so much?!  Though it has occurred to me that it would be the perfect sport given my arthritic toes.

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Kayaking the Comau Fjord – Hornopirén to Isla Llancahué

For the past several years I’ve wanted to include a multi-day kayaking trip as part of my adventures.  However, mostly due to the fact that I travel independently and it is tricky to find others who are up for an extended activity at the same time I am, it hasn’t happened.  

Until now!

Trawling the internet, I found a few companies offering a 6-day kayaking trip down the length of the Comau Fjord in Parque Pumalín (part of the area saved for conservation by Douglas Tompkins – if you don’t know the story, I encourage you to read it)  in northern Patagonia.  The the idea of paddling slowly past the incredible natural beauty of one of my favourite regions on Earth immediately caught my imagination, and I was determined that nothing less would do.

Pumalín Park and the Comau Fjord map

The 6-day kayak trip took us all the way down the Comau Fjord in the northern part of Pumalín Park

OK.  So, no, I have never actually kayaked before.  And yes, it would have made much more sense to start out with a kayak of a few hours to see what it was like.  But in a rare period of irrational thinking, and having been assured that prior kayaking experience was not necessary (you just had to be reasonably fit and come with a “can do” attitude), I ignored logic and followed my heart’s desire. 

For several weeks I waited in hope that others would be interested in doing the same trip.  And, just when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen, Alsur Expeditions contacted me to let me know they had 2 others.  We were good to go!

Day 1 – Hornopirén to Isla Llancahué

I was joined by Huw from Wales (some kayaking experience), and Koreen from Canada (fair amount of kayaking experience), and, together with Colyn (our guide) and Chloe (our general all-round-helper and cook), we set out from Puerto Varas for the drive (and ferry ride) to Hornopirén.  There we met the last member of our expedition, Miguel the boat driver,  loaded the kayaks and all of our food and gear for the next 6 days into the Don Miguel “mothership” and motored for about 5 minutes to a sheltered spot to get set up with the kayaks and start our first day of paddling.

Loading Kayaks onto the Don Miguel mothership

Loading Kayaks onto the Don Miguel “mothership”

Given my experience with kayaking (remember, none), I was thankful that the kayaks we were using were of the particularly stable kind – something I tested as I got in for the first time.  Colyn help me to adjust the pedals for the rudder, gave me some basic instructions, and we were ready to go!

Don Miguel

Prepping kayaks for our trip

The whole of Patagonia is full of incredible scenery, and we were really lucky this first day to have bright sunshine and glorious weather!   We even went and visited this fur seal who was tucked up on a buoy trying to ignore us.

Kayaking Comau Fjord

Unfortunately, the gloriousness of my surroundings wasn’t quite enough to distract me completely from the fact that I seemed to be putting a heck of a lot more effort into paddling than my colleagues, and that kayaking is a shitload harder than it looks!  Particularly true when you paddle for 4 hours straight without a break!   Words cannot express how happy I was to see this beach on Isla Llancahué – our campsite for the first night.   I may have bitten off more than I can chew here…

Approaching Isla Llancahué campsite

Approaching the Isla Llancahué campsite – finally!

Here, we were also introduced to the “ferry” between the mothership and wherever we were camped and, after a luxury dinner on board the Don Miguel, we headed for our sleeping bags.

Ferry between the Don Miguel and our campsites

The ferry between the Don Miguel and our campsites

 

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Ciclopaseo – Quito – Ecuador

Another of the awesome initiatives in Quito is the Ciclopaseo.   Basically, the city shuts down 30km of one of its main North-South arteries (Avenida Amazonas) to traffic each Sunday between 8am and 2pm (Quito is a long, narrow city oriented North-South), to encourage everyone to get out on their bikes.

ciclopaseo - Quito - Ecuador

And its incredible how many people take advantage of the opportunity!  By some counts – an average of 30,000 people each weekend, most of them families and “normal” people (as opposed to lycra-clad speed demons, though there are a few of them as well).  This is even more incredible when you consider that Quito is at 2,800 metres above sea level and the city is surrounded by massive volcanos and mountains.

ciclopaseo - Quito - Ecuador

On my second Sunday in Quito I decided to join Charlotte and at least do a couple of hours of cycling.   First task – rent a bike at one of the stations around the route.  Definitely not the most comfortable seat, and I was missing a gear or two, but a great way to enable everyone with this activity – including travellers 🙂

ciclopaseo - Quito - Ecuador

To rent a bike, you have to leave your actual passport with them (daunting prospect), but this is to ensure that you don’t make off with the bike!   Of course this means that you have to return the bike to the same stand, so if you are going to cycle the whole route, it is a 60km round trip.  Get an early start!

But to help you on your journey, there are large numbers of ciclopaseo and other stands set up where you can get help with your bike, refill your water, buy some food or fresh orange juice, or buy some cycling gear 🙂

ciclopaseo - Quito - Ecuador

We started at the corner of Parque Carolina and cycled south (Charlotte had gone north last weekend).  Unfortunately I had to turn around after about 45 minutes (I had to get my laundry done before I headed off trekking), and was surprised to find that those daunting-feeling hills that we cruised down weren’t actually that bad to cycle back up!   I ended up continuing on past where we’d hired the bikes to take a quick look at part of the northern sector as well, but definitely preferred the south to the north.

Also – you don’t have to cycle!  I saw joggers, walkers, roller bladers and skate boarders out and about taking advantage of there not being any traffic.

ciclopaseo - Quito - Ecuador

In the end, according to one set of maps I found, I cycled about 1/2 the route. I couldn’t believe how flat it was given that there are very steep and very tall hills everywhere you look in Quito.  It’s a very well planned route – so if you are in Quito on a Sunday, and regardless of how fit you are – jump on a bike and explore parts of Quito you would not otherwise see!

 

Cost:  If you need to hire a bike, it costs $3/hour or $12 for the whole day.  That’s the only cost though.

Time: Depends on how keen you are.  I did 2 hours.  You have from 8am to 2pm without traffic.

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Biking Dutchman – mountain biking Ecuador

What is the most obvious thing to do when you’ve spent 1 day at altitude in the last 18 months, haven’t been on a pushbike at all for about 9 years and have never mountain biked?   Do a 3-day mountain bike tour of the Ecuadorian altiplano with the Biking Dutchman of course!

I came across the Biking Dutchman website while I was rapidly planning my first few days in Ecuador once I finally had internet access again in Cancún.  They had a 3-day trip to Cotopaxi – Quilotoa – Chimborazo starting the day after I arrived in Ecuador and I figured it would be a really great way to get out in the countryside, get some exercise and see some of Ecuador the slow way.   Acknowledging I hadn’t done that much exercise in about a month, and having not spent a lot of time at altitude, I knew this was going to hurt me, but I figured what the heck 🙂

Day 1: Cotopaxi

There were 3 other people on the 3 day trip:  Mark from Malaysia, and a couple: Sean from New Zealand and Rachel, originally from Wales, as well as Luke from the Netherlands who was only with us for the first day.   Esteban, our guide, rocked up with the Land Cruiser all ready to go with the bikes on top and off we headed towards our first sector – Cotopaxi – Ecuador’s most famous volcano.

Biking Dutchman - mountainbiking Ecuador

It’s about a 1.5-hour drive to Cotopaxi and there is no mucking about getting to altitude.  Our first stop was the Laguna Limpiopungo at 3,800m where we did a “warm-up” hike around the lagoon.  Unfortunately, the weather was not the greatest and we didn’t have the most spectacular views of Cotopaxi, but it did eventually peak out briefly.

Laguna Limpiopungo Volcan Cotopaxi - Ecuador

From there it was helmet and gloves on and time to get on the bike for the first time.  After some instruction on braking and gear changing (almost exclusively for my benefit – it turned out Sean and Rachel did a lot of mountain biking in New Zealand and Mark commuted each day on a bike), we started off riding along the dirt road towards Cotopaxi.  Turns out, sandy dirt roads are actually a little nerve-wracking for a novice mountain biker who hasn’t ridden at all for 9 years, and an adrenaline rush doesn’t help your heart-rate when you are exercising at 3,800m.   Fortunately, I managed to keep my seat and slowly got used to being on a bike again.

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

Riding towards Cotopaxi, which is peeking out from behind the clouds

Esteban was really fabulous and led us off-road after a while and through a gorgeous meadow with flowers (the other bikers we saw just stuck to the road).

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

New challenges here were crossing dry creek beds and our first “downhill”, which looked pretty daunting but I managed to navigate successfully.

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

We didn’t ride down the bit in the middle – we came straight down the steep part on the right hand side!

We rode about 7 km to the north gate of the Cotopaxi National Park and then loaded up the bikes again to drive to the next biking route.  Unfortunately, Cotopaxi has been more active than normal recently and we couldn’t actually do part of the regular trip because parts of the park were closed.  So we drove down to the main entrance, had lunch and then got back on the bikes for a downhill along the paved road to the main road.    There were plenty of signs to remind us that we were biking down an active volcano, and Esteban again took us off on a short “secret” route through the pine forest to break up the tarmac section!

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

The great thing about this trip (and all the different options the Biking Dutchman offers) is that there is very little uphill and, if you are really struggling, the 4WD follows along as a support vehicle so you can jump in and take a break if you want.  Fortunately, none of us had to take advantage of this during the 3 days.

Support Vehicle - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

Once we reached the bottom, we loaded up again and drove for another 2 hours to reach Quilotoa where we would begin the next day’s adventures.    Actually, we stopped a little before there in Zumbahua because there was a whole-of-community party happening and everyone was out and about and rolling drunk.   Traditional music on the stage, lots of indigenous people dancing and drinking, and a couple of enterprising guys who came and asked Rachel and I to dance.   The problem with traditional music is that the “songs” never end – they kind of all just roll from one to the next without a break, so Rachel and I danced for about 10 minutes and then pleaded off that we had to continue on our journey 🙂

Party in Zumbahua

Arrived quite early at Quilotoa (given we couldn’t do one of the biking legs at Cotopaxi), walked up to the viewpoint to have a look at the gorgeous crater lake, and then headed indoors (yes, it is freezing cold at 3,800m!) for some pizza and Canalazo – a hot drink made of passionfruit juice, naranjilla juice, cinnamon, sugar, and a local sugar-cane alcohol which is served on the side.   We all quickly became fans of the Canalazo (both with and without alcohol) and ended up scoffing probably way too much sugar thanks to this fabulous drink.

7:30pm was dinnertime at Hostal Alpaka – a set meal of potato soup and popcorn (you put the popcorn in the soup – it actually works!) with the main dish of chicken with rice and vegetables.   We asked for extra helpings of broccoli for me – it was soooooo good to have broccoli after the dearth of vegetables I’ve been suffering!   Sat around the wood fire for a while before heading to bed – ready for Day 2 of the adventure!

Total distance biked:  28km (normally about 40km)

 

Day 2: Quilotoa – Urbina

After a fairly restless night for all of us (altitude often affects sleep), it was up at 7:30am for breakfast and then off for a hike into the Quilotoa crater.   Mark wasn’t feeling well and Esteban had to wash up the lunch gear from the day before, so Sean, Rachel and I headed off.   The trail starts at the top of the crater (3,930m) and descends very steeply about 400m – it was going to hurt walking back out!   It was a cold and dusty descent thanks to the really strong wind, but some gorgeous views of the lake that changes colour to a deep jade when the sun is out.

Laguna Quilotoa

Sean braved the cold water and went for a (very quick) dip and then we started the hike out, determined to not take one of the donkeys from the bottom and at least match what Esteban had claimed was a good-paced time – 45 minutes.   I ended up doing it in 50 minutes – but then again – I had to stop to take photos!

Back at the hostel it was onto the bikes for the first ride of the day – downhill on the paved road from Quilatoa to Zumbahua, where the party was yesterday – admiring the scenery and stopping off at the Cañon del Río Toachi.

Mountainbiking from Quilotoa to Zumbahua

Esteban prepared lunch in the back of the 4WD and then we drove for about ½ hour to somewhere in the middle of nowhere (Kilometre 25) at 4200m for our next downhill along a dirt road to Latacunga.

Preparing lunch - Biking Dutchman

Esteban preparing wraps for lunch in the back of the 4WD

This road descended through rural areas with amazing views over the valley to Cotopaxi (had it been clear in that direction).

Middle of nowhere to Latacunga - Biking Dutchman

There was a sandy, holey diagonal that we took and that I successfully managed to navigate without falling off – getting more confident.  Esteban decided to follow us in the 4WD and then showed us another “secret” sandy road to keep us off the main drag until the town.

4WDing

We then drove for another 2 hours to Urbina near Mount Chimborazo, stopping along the way at Salcedo, which is famous for its icecreams.  This one is the traditional one, but I can attest that the coco one is just as good as the Sarita Cocos of Central America 🙂

Helado de Salcedo

More Canalazo and a meal of Locro soup (one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted) and beef stew with more broccoli in front of the wood fire before turning in for another night.

Total distance biked:  40km

 

Day 3: Chimborazo – Ambato

Drove for about an hour to arrive at the entrance to Chimborazo – Ecuador’s highest (6,310m) Volcano.   First up was a Mate de Coca tea before heading out on the hike from Refugio Hermanos Carrel at 4,800m to the highest refuge in the world: Refugio Edgar Whymper at 5,014m.

Volcan Chimborazo

Looking at Refugio Edgar Whymper (5,014m) from about 3/4 the way up the path from Refugio Hermanos Carrel at 4,800m.

Although this walk was significantly higher, it wasn’t as difficult for me as the hike out of the Quilotoa crater yesterday (though Rachel really felt the altitude difference), and in the end Sean and I climbed further to the Laguna Condor Concha at 5,100m.   Really gorgeous views!

Laguna Condor Concha - Volcan Chimborazo

Once we were all back at the lower refuge, we were back on the bikes for the 8km downhill along the dirt road to the entrance to the park.  It really does help to hit those corrugations at speed 🙂

Volcan Chimborazo - mountainbiking Ecuador

We then drove for about another ½ hour and descended into drizzle on the Carretera Vía Flores.   This valley is as green as you can imagine and absolutely gorgeous, even in the wet – it must be truly spectacular with bright blue skies!

Had lunch in the back of the 4WD out of the cold and wet and then back on the bikes for the descent through the valley to the city of Ambato.   The first part of the valley is absolutely gorgeous – really, really beautiful – but it becomes drier and more populated the closer you get to Ambato.  You also get to ride through quite a few eucalypt groves … I was breathing deeply, drawing in the scent of home (not because I was out of breath 🙂 )

Carretera Vía Flores - mountainbiking Ecuador

Loaded up the bikes one last time and then it was 2hrs back to Quito and the end of the trip.

Biking Dutchman - heading back to Quito

It helps to have a small group!

Had a really awesome time with a great small group.  Thanks to Sean and Rachel for their patience with me, and a million thanks to Esteban for being a fun guide and helping me with everything from slipped chains to complicated bike helmets!

 

Recommendation:  I really, really, really loved this trip with the Biking Dutchman!   A really fantastic way to explore some of Ecuador’s most popular volcanos while getting a bit of exercise at the same time.  Would do it again in an instant.

Cost:  US$280 + ~$20 for dinners and other snacks.    The cost of the trip includes accommodation, 2 breakfasts and 3 lunches.  You have to have your breakfast before you start the first day and pay for the 2 dinners while on the trip.

Time:  3 days.   Check the schedule at the Biking Dutchman website for trips that already meet the 2 people minimum requirement.

 

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Viñales – Cuba

The Viñales valley (you guessed it – yet another UNESCO location) is about 2 hours away from La Habana, really chilled out and really beautiful.

Mogotes - Viñales - Cuba

It is one of the biggest tobacco growing areas in Cuba where traditional cultivation techniques still dominate, and is renowned for its mogotes – dome-like limestone outcrops that rise abruptly from the valley floor.

I spent about 5 days in Viñales where I hiked up to the Hotel Los Jazmines lookout one morning to catch the dawn.

Hotel Los Jazmines lookout - Viñales - Cuba

Another morning, I again left just before dawn to hike out into the valley itself.  Lots of opportunities to see traditional farming techniques at work.

Mogotes - Viñales - Cuba

I also ended up catching up to this farmer who gave me an impromptu tour of his tabacco drying sheds and chatted a little with me about the area.

Mogotes - Viñales - Cuba

Another day I took a horseback-riding trip into the valley on Caramello – who started out enthusiastic but quickly lost the desire to walk without prompting.

Horseback riding - Viñales - Cuba

Samuel (the guide) and I essentially followed the same route as my hike, but ended up going a bit further to reach the Mural de la Prehistoria, which, while impressive in scale, wasn’t quite what I was anticipating.

Mural de la Prehistoria - Viñales - Cuba

We also visited a cave, which would have to be the least developed, non-technical cave I’ve ever been in – no formed paths at all.    As with all caves, it was pitch black once we got a little way inside and we only had 3 torches between 15 people (I joined up with a group).   This meant that more often than not you couldn’t see where to put your feet and the stakes were raised by several slippery sections.   Only stepped in the water once and fortunately didn’t actually fall over.   Couldn’t help laughing to myself that you would never be allowed to do this in Australia or many other countries.    The bonus of the cave was that you could go swimming at the end of the 300m grope through the darkness – but I have to admit the murky water wasn’t terribly appealing.

Cave - Viñales - Cuba

Added bonus of my trip to Viñales was that I got to catch up with Chris and Cathy Feil one night for dinner.  The people you meet on the other side of the world 🙂

DSCF0776

 

Recommendation:   Get out and about just before dawn as that when the light is at its best and it’s not stinking hot.

Cost:

  • Hiking = free if you do it by yourself, or you can hire a guide
  • Horseriding = 5 CUC/hour.   I arranged through my Casa Particular.
  • Entrance to the cave = 2 CUC

Time:

  • Hike = I walked for about 2.5 hours
  • Horseriding = I was out for about 5 hours
  • Cave = 20 -30 mins
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Horseriding & History – Cerro Guazapa

Woke up early to catch the 7am bus out to Sitio Guazapa for our horseriding tour on Cerro Guazapa with Guazapa Tours.

Cerro Guazapa

Cerro Guazapa

A 163 bus (love how buses in El Salvador have route numbers) came along at 6:50am so we got on that one and headed out along the highway. Then, after a while, the bus turned off the highway onto a very slow dirt road … It poked its way up there for about 20 minutes and eventually we asked whether we had missed our stop. The guy assured us that we hadn’t, it was coming up after we got back to the highway. Soon after, the bus does a 3 point turn, stops for about 5 minutes, then heads back the way it came down this dirt road. I made a bet with the two others I was travelling with that our stop was about 50 metres past where we turned off the highway for this enormous detour (we were also now 30 minutes late). Back on the highway, 50 metres down the road, they tell us that it is our stop. Seriously? Why didn’t you tell us at the turnoff and say it was only 50 metres further? We would have walked!

The good thing was that Orlando, our guide, was still waiting for us with our horses when we finally arrived!  I was the brave one and chose Bilcho, the male horse, to ride (the other horses were female). Turned out to be the best decision! Bilcho is the only horse I’ve ever ridden on one of these things that actually wanted to walk and go places.  It was an absolute pleasure to not constantly have to be trying to figure out how to make the horse go!

Cerro Guazapa horse riding

Bilcho – the horse that wanted to walk

The other two horses were not quite so keen, and one of them had an almost-1-year-old foal who decided to come with us and would try to get milk at every opportunity!

Cerro Guazapa horse riding

The first ~45 minutes of the horse ride was along a road past fields that were being prepared for the sowing of corn and frijoles (beans).  Orlando, it turns out, is actually a doctor – a GP – who takes tours in the morning with Guazapa Tours (another local cooperative of tour guides that started 12 years ago and is still going strong), and sees patients in the afternoon.  It was very easy riding and nice and shady given we’d started out so early.

Our first stop was an old Añil (indigo ink) processing place called an “obraje”.  There are apparently still Añil plants up on the highest reaches of Guazapa but we didn’t get the opportunity to see them on this tour.  Basically, the leaves were collected and crushed (with water, hence why it is located next to a river) in the large basin in the picture.  This was then strained into a smaller basin for collection.

Cerro Guazapa Añil

The road eventually came to a stop and the horses continued up a fairly steep and rocky trail.  This made the horse riding more adventurous as you had to keep an eye out to make sure you wouldn’t lose your head on a low branch or lose a leg as the horse brushed past a tree.  We continued for about 15 minutes and then dismounted in a clearing.  This is where we started learning about El Salvador’s civil war that ran from ~1980 to 1992, and was essentially the people against the Government (and hence army).   The war began because the people were barely surviving – all the land was owned by a few rich people who, if the workers were lucky, would give them enough food for their family to live on but nothing more.  The civil war was about the redistribution of land amongst all the people to allow everyone to be able to support themselves and not rely on the goodwill of the wealthiest Salvadoreños.

Cerro Guazapa

Viewpoint on Cerro Guazapa looking out over Lake Suchitlan and Suchitoto toward Honduras. The Guerrillas used this as one of their lookouts during the civil war.

It’s really quite staggering how many people were killed in uncounted massacres during this conflict, and the first civil war sites we saw on the mountain were specifically built so that people could be hidden from the army.   In particular, there are many Tatús scattered around the mountain.  These are small underground “bunkers” that could hide between 1 and 12 people (depending on the size) while they waited for the danger (the army) to retreat from the area.  Once the people were inside, the entrance would be covered with vegetation and other guerrillas would sneak them food and water – they could be in there for several days.   This one fit 12 people and would have been quite cramped!

Cerro Guazapa tatu

We also visited the site of the guerrilla hospital – about a 1.2km hike (round-trip) from where we left the horses after we had backtracked some of the way down the mountain.  There were no buildings constructed as they would have been easy for the army to find, but rather small tents were used when needed and the rest was just out in the open air.   Apparently the army never found this place.

Cerro Guazapa horse riding

It just looks like forest at first glance, however, exploring further, there were several examples of lookout points, trenches, and the sleeping areas were still picked out in stone.  There were also a few vestiges scattered around the site like old shoes, some cloth and a radio.

Cerro Guazapa guerrilla hospital

Clockwise: lookout point, shoes left on site, an old radio, Orlando explaining how the trenches were used

Cerro Guazapa guerrilla hospital

Sleeping locations that were leveled and surrounded by stones in an effort to keep out animals

Orlando was telling us some of the stories about the the hospital (the first operations had to be done without anesthetic because it was extremely difficult for the guerrillas to get medical supplies), the doctors (one from Cuba, one from the US) who worked there, and others – like his grandmother – who supported its operation by running messages and cooking food.  Hard to imagine that all this was only 30 years ago!

We returned to the horses and backtracked the same way we came – about another 40 minutes in the saddle.  It was a wonderful tour, and I asked so many questions I think my companions were wishing I’d shut up 🙂

Cerro Guazapa horse riding

And to top it all off, we even managed the direct bus back to Suchitoto so we avoided the detour a second time!

 

Recommendation: If you want to learn a little more about the civil war in El Salvador, this is a great introduction.  Orlando was very keen to talk and tell the stories, but you do need to speak spanish to get the most out of it.  If you aren’t into horseriding, Guazapa tours also do hikes on the mountain.

Booking:  You can book any tour with Guazapa Tours through the Amigos del Turistas office in Suchitoto.   You just have to let them know before lunch the day before.

Time Required:  The horse ride itself took about 4 hours.  If you catch the bus that doesn’t do the detour, it takes about 30 minutes to get to the drop-off point from Suchitoto.

Cost:  Cost for 1 person = US$30.   Cost for more than 1 person = US$20 each.  Plus the cost for the bus of course (less than US$1).

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Horse riding Ometepe

There’s something about horse riding that is really special.   If there is an opportunity to go horse riding I usually take it, so this morning I headed out with Ayssar (guide) and Rosita (my horse) for a few hours near San Ramón on the southern end of Ometepe.

horse riding ometepe

Specifically we went to check out some of the petroglyphs that can be found in many places around Ometepe. These are rock carvings of various designs, and although the site we visited was very small, it gave an idea of what could be found in the more than 70 other sites on the Island.   Looks like tortoises and a caiman to me!

petroglyphs ometepe

On the way back I had a special bonus – Ayssar asked if I wanted to bathe the horses.  Sure!  He removed the saddles and in we waded.  It was a relief for me to be in the water and the horses definitely enjoyed it (after all, they’d done all the work).  It was really incredible to be swimming with Rosita – something I’d never imagined doing!

swimming with horses ometepe

Time required: ~3- 3.5 hours.

Cost:  US$7/hour.

Recommended place to stay:  If you are after a peaceful and “remote” place to stay on Ometepe away from the main tourist crowds – I can highly recommend the Finca Mystica.   Their staff are amazing!  Both this horseback riding and the volcano hike I did was arranged through them and the guides were local people.   I stayed in the Communal Cob (got the whole thing to myself because I was the only guest at the time), which is very cheap.  It’s an extremely large room (not like a regular cramped dorm), and the shared bathrooms (which are just outside) were also large and very clean.  The food is also incredible (best pineapple and passionfruit smoothie I’ve had in Nicaragua) and included things like Thai soup and Indian curry – fabulous if you have been in Central America for a while and are hankering for something a bit different to beans and rice!  They also offer 2 vegetarian options each night.   Or you can walk the ~25 minutes into Merida for other food options.

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