After my return flight to Bogota and a quick whistlestop tour of South Western Colombia, I found myself in Ecuador, and the small northern (it's just north of the equator...) town of Otavalo.
The people of Otavalo all still wear their traditional dress, and a large market in the town was a good place to pick up my new hammock. On top of a hill nearby is the rehabilitation centre Parque Condor - my best (probably only?) chance to see a Condor, as well as a handful of other owls, hawks, buzzards and eagles.
My next stop in Ecuador was Quito, the capital. Sprawling through the surrounding mountains Quito is another imposing large city - not something I'm particularly fond of, although the old town isn't so bad with narrow streets and grand old architecture. Having intended to take the cable car or a taxi to the top of one of the many hills overlooking the city, my plans were foiled by a cloudy and miserable day, so instead I paid a visit to the reptile centre. I'm not sure whether it's my improving spanish or a vague knowledge of snakes that allowed me to understand a fair amount of the Boa demonstration...
One of the most popular tourist towns in Ecuador is the small town of Banos, 3 hrs south of Quito. Most tourists come here for the rafting, biking and canyoning but since I no longer have my boat and kit, I came to soak in the thermal baths. Set on the edge of the town, the baths are a nice (if rather busy) place to spend the early evening, and recover from spending too much time on buses.
I had intended to take a train ride for the next leg of my journey, supposedly a stunning ride along switchbacks amid towering volcanoes and mountains, unfortunately though I was told that it was closed - I guess the track has been damaged by the heavy rains. Instead I headed to Ecuadors third largest city - Cuenca, set in the southern highlands, and full of grand old colonial buildings. It has a distinctly small town feel in the centre, with narrow streets and a seemingly relaxed pace of life.
From Cuenca it should be a few more hours on a bus to Loja, before the long hop into Northern Peru.
It's never ideal to hear on the news of rioting in the city you're about to travel to, but I just assumed that I wouldn't be anywhere near the University and wouldn't see any clue of the violence supposedly taking place on the streets of Santiago... On the short walk from the bus station to my hostal, this assumption was proved rather misplaced.
The clean up operation from the previous day was still taking place, with fires being extinguished and debris removed from the roads, all under a hazy smog of tear gas that left everyone on the streets jogging and covering their faces to try and escape the burning effects.
Having experience the effects of the tear gas, I didn't go out looking for the protests, but stumbled across them a few blocks from the hostal. The atmosphere was a strange mix of tension from the Police, decked out in full riot gear with horses and riot vans on stand-by, and an almost festival atmosphere from the crowd of mainly young people making their way along the main road past the University area.
From what I saw, todays protest looked to be more peaceful than yesterdays, but there were later reports on local TV of a few clashes. Fingers crossed the roads aren't all closed tomorrow morning, as I need to catch a bus to the airport for my flight to Bogota.
Growing tired of lugging my boat from hostal to bus station, bus to bus, and then again to another hostal, I decided that I would fly to Chile, take the boat to Pucon and try to leave it there before spending the next few weeks travelling the easy way with just a small backpack.
Pucon is known by kayakers across the world as the place to head to in Chile, but it turns out that everyone else heads here too and the town feels more like a small Alpine skiing village rather than a South American town. After arranging to leave my boat with Ben from KayakChile.net I had a week left before my return flight from Santiago to Bogota.
Most visitors to Pucon come for the rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking, thermal springs and to climb the Villarica volcano which towers over the town. Rather than just sit around eating cake and drinking coffee, I decided to give it a crack as well. The first attempt was called off after a short walk up into the ski area when the weather deteriorated and we found ourselves surrounded by clouds, fortunately the second attempt coincided with a day of good weather.
Despite the torturously slow pace set by the guide, a couple of the group began to struggle fairly early on as we zig-zagged our way up the steep and icy slops with crampons and ice axes. Around 2/3rds of the way to the summit the guides stepped in and told 2 of the group they couldn't continue, and once another 2 voluntarily took the chance to stop as well there were just 3 of us left for the final hour or two to the summit.
Unfortunately the view from the summit was slightly obscured by the light cloud cover, but nonetheless it was definitely worth the treck. After 6 hrs of walking to reach the top, we each grabbed a plastic tray, and sliding with limited control back down, were back at the bottom within 30 minutes.
Without any raft trips to the Rio Suarez or Chicamocha canyon, I decided to check out what other activities were on offer in San Gil. Having always wanted to fly, and with paragliding costing just £20 for a short flight with views of the Chicamocha canyon, it seemed like the obvious choice! Soaring gently on the thermals among the large birds of prey was a pretty surreal experience, and surprisingly quiet and tranquil, at least until the instructor decided we were high enough and started a series of tight spirals accelerating us back towards the ground!
After another day of disappointment regarding paddling (lots of rain over night meant any trips were cancelled), I headed to the small village of Curiti nearby, in search of somewhere a little quieter and more chilled out than busy San Gil on a Saturday.
I'm supposed to be leaving San Gil tomorrow morning, off to discover more of South America!
After nearly two weeks of living with Alejandro, and finally getting to paddle the Upper Acequias again, it was time to leave Venezuela. After spending a day on a couple of buses (and an encounter with a member of the Nation Guard, which left me BsF. 50 out of pocket), I found myself in the uninspiring border town of San Antonio del Tachira. Having read fairly damming reports of the bus station on the Colombian side of the border, I was up early hoping to cross the border and get on a bus as quickly as possible, hoping to avoid spending too much time in "one of the worst bus stations in Colombia." Passport stamped, and a small minibus heading in the right direction found, I was on my way up to the mountains, and the small adventure sports destination of San Gil.
San Gil boasts a wide range of adventure sports, from paragliding to canyoning and of course rafting. The Rio Suarez is billed as one of the best IV+ rafting runs around, so naturally my first port of call was to find a rafting company and try to tag along on the next trip. Unfortunately for me, all of the best raft guides are currently in Costa Rica at the rafting World Cup, and there are no commercial trips on the Suarez until they return leaving me a hydrospeed and raft trip on the Rio Fonce to tag along with (a grade 2/3 run into the centre of San Gil).
Along the riverbank near the centre of town is the Parque National Gallinereal - described as one of the most beautiful places in Colombia, it's a large botanical garden spread across several acres with colourful plants, and trees covered in silver fronds. There's even a couple of parrots (unfortunately, not wild parrots...).
A short bus ride from San Gil are the small villages of Barichara and Guane - perfectly restored/preserved colonial villages with cobbled streets and whitewashed buildings.
I received a message one evening from one of the few guides left in town, telling me of the possibility of going to the Suarez the next day. Unfortunately that night it rained and they felt the river was too high, so instead we headed to the Rio Mogatico - a nice enough 3/3+ run with a few grade 4 rapids and one 5. I'm afraid i didn't really stop to take any photos...
There has been talk of possibly being able to paddle the Chicamocha canyon one day - from what I've gathered, it's fairly easy but incredibly scenic and would save me having to go and visit the national park to see it!
I've now got about a week left before I leave San Gil, so fingers crossed we managed to get a bit more paddling done, and I might give paragliding a go too if I get a chance...