Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Santa Cruz Trek

The Santa Cruz trek is the best known and most popular trek in the Cordillera Blanca, and for good reason. Over the course of four days, it loops around the highest part of the range, mostly staying beautiful alpine valleys, and giving stunning views of the range’s tallest and most beautiful mountains, as well as a series of spectacular lakes.

Cordillera Blanca

Cordillera Blanca

After successfully tackling a number of hikes so far on my trip (such as Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala and the Lost City trek in Colombia), I had been pretty confident the Santa Cruz was well within my abilities.

Having completed the rather grueling Laguna Churup day hike, I suddenly wasn’t so sure. I had planned to do a second acclimatisation hike to Laguna 69 on my third day in Huaraz. Waking up that morning my legs were pretty stiff and my knee was still aching slightly. I decided I’d be better off with a rest day and prayed that everything would be OK for the saturday morning, although I decided to leave nothing to chance and spent an extra $12 hiring some good trekking poles, ideal for taking the weight of the knees on steep descents.

The road to the start

The road to the start

I was relieved to wake up early on the first day with the stiffness in my legs gone, and feeling pretty used to the thin air, both of which had me feeling more confident about the day ahead. Even better was stopping for breakfast on the way to the trailhead, as it gave me a chance to get to know the group a bit better – I’d be hiking with four couples (two fellow Brits, two Swiss, one British-Australian and one German-Peruvian), as well as a solo Brazilian guy. Quite a mix of nationalities and languages, but it soon became clear we all clicked really well and they’d be a great group to walk with.

View from the first pass

View from the first pass

The journey to the start of the hike was stunning enough in itself – as the bus climbed up from the village of Yungay (scene of the Western Hemisphere’s worst ever national disaster, the 1970s earthquake that buried the entire town killing all but a handful of the inhabitants) up into the valley, we were soon rewarded with a view of a beautiful turquoise-coloured lake, with Huascaran, the world’s highest tropical mountain towering above us. After that, the road climbed up a series of steep switchbacks towards a high mountain pass to take us over to the eastern side of the range where we’d start the hike.

We’d already been warned the first day was going to be the easiest of the lot, consisting of a pretty short, flat hike along the bottom of the valley. It was a nice gentle introduction to the walk, and all along the way we’d regularly be stopped by sweet local children begging us for our ‘caramelos’ (sweets). It was impossibel not to oblige. The biggest challenge on day one was getting used to the cold once night fell – at this latitude, the mountains are incredibly warm during the daytime (and the sun fiercly intense) – but with clear skies at night the temperature soon plummets and I needed every layer I had just to stay warm.

Day two was the hard one – and after Laguna Churup I worried how I’d cope, given we’d be climbing to 4750m, three hundred metres higher than I’d done a few days before. Luckily, my worst fears weren’t realised. It was pretty hard work, struggling up the steep slope, stopping for breath every few minutes, but I was determined to get there, helped along the way by the knowledge it would be a chance to stop for lunch, and then afterwards it’d be downhill all the way to the end of the trip. In the end, there was nothing as steep or as difficult as the final ascent at Laguna Churup, and I reached the top ahead of the rest of the group, giving my time to enjoy the amazing views all to myself.

View from the Punta Union pass

View from the Punta Union pass

The pass itself, called Punta Union, is a little notch in a high ridge dividing the two valleys, meaning you can’t see anything at all of what’s on the other side til you reach the final step. The second valley, Santa Cruz itself, is if anything even more beautiful than the valley we’d just left, looking down across yet more snow-covered peaks and towards another couple of bright blue lakes. After a slog like that, you really appreciate having donkeys to do all the hard carrying work (it’s quite an amazing sight watching them wind their way up the steep slopes with far more ease, and speed, than humans), as well as a chef to make nice filling meals on our return to camp – I can see the appeal of doing treks like this yourself, but the last thing I’d want to do is have to cook dinner once I’d finished walking for the day.

Donkeys arriving at the pass

Donkeys arriving at the pass

Soon we’d started the descent, this time with my fighting my natural instincts to race ahead, instead descending slowly making full use of my trekking poles to help my knee, which certainly helped – while I had twinges of pain it was nothing like as bad as it’d been on my previous day hike,
which came as quite a relief – I certainly wouldn’t have fancied three days of walking steadily downhill in constant pain.

The second night brought a little disappointment for all of us and quite a bit of discomfort for most. The disappointment was that Alpamayo, called the world’s most beautiful mountain (for its almost perfect pyramid shape) was shrouded in cloud. The discomfort was the fact that most of the group had fallen ill to diarrhea – whether it was brought on by dirty water or dodgy food we don’t know, but I didn’t envy the few who were up all night and then having to hike on the next day with depleted energy reserves. Yet again my iron constitution saw me through though, and I felt fit as a fiddle.

Alpamayo

Alpamayo

The disappointment continued the next morning, as Alpamayo sat stubbornly refusing to come out of the clouds properly. We got a brief, partial glimpse, but not enough to see it in its true majesty (although apparently we didn´’t miss all that much – it turns out it’s the world’s best when viewed from the other side anyway – you have to do the longer and tougher Alpamayo circuit to see that face). Still, the rest of the mountains did their bit to make up for it, and with their snow-capped peaks gleaming under the bright blue sky we certainly had nothing to grumble about.

The Santa Cruz valley

The Santa Cruz valley

The final couple of days follow the Santa Cruz valley back to civilisation, and it really is an awesome sight – the glacial valley has towering, steep-sided walls, with glacial waterfalls cascading down the sides at regular intervals, running into little streams that wind their way across the flat valley floor, and feeding the lakes we’d seen from the pass above.

Eventually we made it back, with tired legs but smiles on our faces, glad to be heading back to showers, beer and pizza. Turns out that my ‘acclimatisation’ hike to Laguna Churup had been more challenging than the Santa Cruz turned out to be, and I was extremely relieved that my knee had just about made it through without too much bother.

The hike gave me the best mountain views I’ve ever seen – it truly deserves the term breathtaking, and I have to say it was the highlight of my trip to date. The only thing that was worrying me was how on earth the Huayhuash circuit could live up to it (oh, was well as hoping that just the one rest day in between would be enough time for my legs to recover).

You can see all of my photos of the Santa Cruz trek here

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Trekking to Laguna Churup

Arriving in Huaraz was just what I needed after six weeks in Colombia. I mean, I wouldn´t say I partied non-stop there, but it´d be fair to say it was my most sociable country so far. What I need was a bit of time up in the mountains to get away from it all, and the Cordillera Blanca seemed like the perfect place.

The Cordillera Blanca from the road to Huaraz

The Cordillera Blanca from the road to Huaraz

With the biggest cluster of 6000m+ peaks outside of the Himalayas, the Cordillera Blanca is the world´s highest tropical mountain range. Besthike.com claims the area offers the best Alpine hiking in the world, and that was enough to make me plan my trip around them – I wanted to make sure I was there at the height of the Andean summer, to make sure I made the best of the weather.

That was certainly the right decision – I stepped off the nightbus from Lima to find myself in a town ringed by some of the most beautiful mountains I´d ever seen, all lit up by bright sunshine and framed by a deep blue, cloudless sky, which was a godsend after the constant grey skies that hang over the capital at this time of year.

I was in Huaraz to do two multi-day hikes, the Santa Cruz trek & the Huayhuash circuit (trip reports on both of those coming soon), but the first step was to get acclimatised. Other than day hikes in Guatemala and Colombia to over 3500m, I´d never spent a significant amount of time at altitude before, so I made sure I built in a conservative amount of time to acclimatise before heading onto higher and more strenuous stuff.

Day one was spent chilling out and adjusting to the thin air of Huaraz, much of it spent enjoying the fantastic coffee at Cafe Andino. As I felt no ill effects, I was up bright and early on my second day to try my first spot of walking, on a day hike to Laguna Churup, which I´d been told was ideal preparation.

Coca tea in the mountains: perfect hiking fuel

Coca tea in the mountains: perfect hiking fuel

After a short collectivo ride to the trailhead, the walk started gently enough, winding its way gradually uphilll through farmland with lovely views of the Cordillera all around. After an hour or so I reached a little farmhouse where I was able to stop for a warming cup of coca tea (also handy for the effects of altitude) before starting on the serious ascent.

And boy was it a serious ascent. It was probably a combination of being unprepared for hiking that high up, plus a certain amount of unfitness, but every step was a bit of a struggle – I was constantly short of breath and going any distance at all was quite an effort, and I suddenly started to worry about what I was letting myself in for, with two multi-day hikes to come.

The final ascent

The final ascent

The worst was yet to come, too. The final hundred metres or so consist of a steep scramble up the side of a waterfall. It was pretty tricky, and very tiring, but it was all worthwhile as I rounded the top and the view of the laguna opened up in front of me.

Too tired to do much exploring, I plonked myself down on a rock to take in the views and enjoy a spot of lunch (made even better by an Israeli hiker who happened to have a little stove and was preparing fresh coffee just as I arrived…if only that always happened) and chilled out for an hour or so.

Laguna Churup - 4450m above sea level

Laguna Churup - 4450m above sea level

Eventually it started to get a tad chilly, so it was time to head back. If anything, the descent was even tougher, with the scramble down the waterfall being especially tricky.

After that I thought I´d be fine – until the thing I´d dreaded happened: my knee started to hurt. I injured it running about five years ago, and despite physio it´s never been quite the same since, but it´s been OK enough for walking up til now. On this particular day, it started to throb as soon as the downhill section started, and the pain got worse and worse on the way down. By the time I got to the bottom I was hobbling along with avery pronounced limp. Not a good sign at all.

I thought I was going to get a gentle acclimatisation hike – instead I ended up with the toughest day hike I´ve ever done. Worse, with my knee playing up, suddenly my plan to spend three weeks in the mountains, the single thing I´d been looking forward to most in my entire trip, was under threat.

Sunset over the Cordillera Negra

Sunset over the Cordillera Negra

As I sat in my hostel that night, enjoying yet another fine Huaraz sunset, I was praying my knee would get better…

Andean sunset

I’m going to be spending most of the next two weeks doing multi-day hikes in the Cordillera Blanca & Cordillera Huayhuash around Huaraz in Peru, so apologies in advance for the lack of updates.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of last night’s sunset over Huaraz.

This place is stunning, the area is possibly the most beautiful I’ve ever been to.

See you all when I’m recovered from the hiking.

Colombia round up & budget

Colombia was a last-minute addition to my itinerary based on the rave reports I’d read from other travel bloggers, and as I travelled through Central America, I heard more and more people gushing about how it was their favourite country in South America. So how did it turn out?

After a very disappointing start in Bogota, I ended up loving the country. For a country with such a dangerous reputation, I actually felt safer in Colombia than any other country so far. You’d never know either that mass tourism is relatively new here either – it’s a very easy country to get around andI stayed in some of the nicest hostels to date.

Freshly picked coffee beans

Freshly picked coffee beans

There were plenty of highlights – Villa de Leyva is one of the finest little colonial towns I’ve seen so far; Tayrona gave me the best beaches I’ve ever seen; climbing Nevado del Ruiz took me above 5,000m for the first time; Medellin is one of the most fun cities I’ve ever visited; visiting Hacienda Guayabal to see how coffee is grown and made was both beautiful and fascinating; San Gil gave me the opportunity to try paragliding, and the Lost City trek is the best hike I’ve ever done.

Colourful Guatepe

Colourful Guatepe

I even grew to love Bogota in the end. It’s funny how much of a difference the weather can make to my enjoyment of a place – after a cold, wet and grey first experience, on my second visit I arrived to glorious sunshine, blue skies, and warm weather. And suddenly the city looked beautiful (and not like Croydon so much). I ended up in a much nicer hostel (the fantastic DN) in a slightly safer-feeling area, discovered some beautiful little side streets and some of the nicest and friendliest little bars and restaurants I’ve seen on my trip so far.

Every country has its downsides, and for me the only real letdown was the food. The Colombians seem to have a penchant for deep-frying everything, which was not great, and pretty much everything that wasn’t deep-fried seemed to be stuffed with cheese (even when you least expect it). It was generally quite expensive too, compared to other countries I’ve been to, and even the supermarkets were poor – I found a better selection of many things even in Guatemala, a much poorer country. There were some highlights, such as the hot chocolate with cheese, and some excellent street-food chorizos, but on the whole it was all a bit disappointing.

But my happiest memory of Colombia is nothing intrinsic to the country – it was instead the other travellers I spent time with. In the Macondo hostel in San Gil I met a fantastic selection of Brits, Irish & Americans. I did the Lost City trek with six of them, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better group of people. After that, every place I visited ended up being with a selection of the group from San Gil. Thanks for helping make Colombia such a special experience.

The unusual Bolivar statue in Manizales

The unusual Bolivar statue in Manizales


I’m now getting used to the fact that each country never turns out to be as cheap as I was hoping, and Colombia was no exception. I found food to be especially on the costly side, although as usual I did myself no favours by spending far too much partying. Still, on the brightside I spent the least since Guatemala, and only a touch more than I spent in Mexico. Here are the daily averages:
Transport: $6.69
Accommodation: $7.80
Museums, activities & excursions: $9.58
Food & drink: $24.52
Miscellaneous: $1.27

And now onto the serious business – here’s how Colombia shapes up in numerical terms (and what’s really noticeable now is how much church fatigue has set in – the number has plummeted since Mexico)
Buses 20
Taxis 21
Flights 1
Jeeps 2
Churches 3
Beaches 4
Beds 13
Hammocks slept in 5
Night buses attempted to sleep on in the face of over-enthusiastic aircon and suicidal drivers 3
National Parks 3
Hot springs 1
Laundry 6
Postcards 2
Phone calls 3
Cash withdrawals 12
Museums 2
Lost cities 1
Volcanoes 2 (1 mud, 1 normal)
Coffee farms 2
Cable Cars 2
Days spent hiking 8
Paraglides 1 (disappointing)
Water Parks 1
Ants eaten – several (which was probably several too many)

On the people I met front, the biggest disappointment is that I didn’t get to spend more time with Colombians – all the ones I met on the street and so on were incredibly friendly, but because I met such a fantastic group of travellers early on in San Gil, I ended up spending most of my time with them and didn’t make enough of an effort to go out and meet more locals. Must try harder. On a positive (geeky) note, Colombia did give me the opportunity to add a few more unusual countries to my list (French Guiana, Isle of Man, Guernsey, Egypt)
UK 21
US 15
Israel 12
Australia 9
Colombia 7
Ireland 5
Argentina 3
Canada 2
Isle of Man 1
Norway 1
Egypt 1
French Guiana 1
Poland 1
Guernsey 1
Romania 1
Uruguay 1
Germany 1
Spain 1
Belgium 1
France 1

You can catch up on any of my Colombian posts that you’ve missed here and see all my photos here.

Marvellous Medellin

After not really liking Bogota, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Medellin, Colombia’s second city. I needn’t have worried – from the moment I arrived in the bus station I had a feeling I was going to love it.

Considering the city was notorious in the 80s and 90s as the home of Pablo Escobar, the country’s biggest Cocaine baron, the place has made a fantastic turnaround and has to be cleanest and most prosperous feeling city I’ve encountered so far on my Latin American travels. Admittedly, compared to some of the places I’ve been to so far, it doesn’t have a huge list of obvious attractions for tourists, rather it’s the kind of place where you instantly feel at home, and is one of the first places I’ve been to that I could actually imagine living in.

Medellin from above

Medellin from above

That’s not to say it’s devoid of sights. One of the most interesting are the cable cars. As part of the transformation of the city, the authorities built a cable car up the steep sides of the valley to connect what had been the city’s most dangerous slum to the metro system (and the cost of the cable car is included in the price of a metro ticket, to make it affordable). It’s been a huge success, the area is much safer now, and it makes a great introduction to the city, offering great views across the valley.

Another highlight is the Museo de Antoquia, which has a huge collection of paintings by Ferdinand Botero, Colombia’s greatest artist, as well as a big collection of sculptures by him in the square outside. I’d first been introduced to his work in the Botero museum in Bogota, and I can’t believe I hadn;t heard of him before. He is equally at home with portrait, still life and sculpture, and the one thing that links everything together is that they are all fat. There’s a real cheekiness and humour in his pictures, it’s very much the kind of modern art that’s accessible and fun – which is probably why he’d never have got very far in the UK.

A typical Botero

A typical Botero

The surrounding area offers some great (and some not so great) day trips. The first one we tried was the water park. After months of seeing lots of museums and churches and doing lots of strenuous outdoor activities, it was fun to just spend a day messing about and having fun, with barely another gringo in sight. Highlight was probably floating around a circular ‘river’ on inner tubes, as early on my friend Matt & I foud our rings hijacked by a rather bositerous group of middle aged Colombian women attaching their rings to ours, and then surrounded by a group of teenagers who found the two gringos and the four ladies a hilarious combination. There was much splashing, much bad Spanish and much bad English, after which I could only come to the conclusion that all Colombians are mad. I told them this and they all seemed to heartily agree.

La Piedra

La Piedra

I liked Medellin so much I actually went back for a second time after leaving for Salento, and on my second weekend there I took a trip out to nearby Guatepe, famous for the huge, almost vertically-sided granite monolith that rises out of the gently rolling hills of the area, and very imaginitively named ‘La Piedra’ – the rock. You can reach the top by climbing a set of very steep stairs. It’s all worth it when you make it to the top though, as the view over the surrounding landscape, a man-made lake dotted about with islands, is stunning.

View from La Piedra

View from La Piedra

You can see more of my photos of Medellin and the surrounding area here

Who needs Starbucks?

After a fair amount of distinctly average tintos (the ubiquitous small cups of Colombian black coffee – unfortunately most of the best stuff is exported) I was keen to try the real thing, and my stay in Manizales, at the heart of the Zona Cafetera was the perfect opportunity.

The highlands south of Medellin have the perfect conditions for growing coffee, with the lower slopes of the Andes having the ideal soil and climate, producing some of the world’s finest beans (Colombia is unusual in only growing Arabica beans and not the cheaper Robusta ones). Just outside the city of Manizales is the Hacienda Guayabal, a large coffee finca that provides daily tours, and it was a fascinating experience.

Diana Carolina and a map of the Finca

Diana Carolina and a map of the Finca

Our brilliant guide Diana Carolina took us through every step of the coffee-making process, starting with the seed beds where the seeds are planted, explaining the complex process by which the seedlings are grown and replanted several times before finally being planted on the hillsides to become mature plants (with Diana Carolina taking delight in telling our mostly male group that they mostly plant female trees, as they are bigger, stronger, and make more and better beans than the rather pathetic-looking male trees), taking several years before the first beans are harvested.

Coffee seedling

Coffee seedling

We were lucky enough to be there when many of the plants were flowering, meaning the lush green hillsides were interspersed with the beatiful white coffee flowers, and as we wandered round we got to talk to the coffee pickers, who travel from finca to finca picking beans as and when they harvest, something that’s become much more unpredictable in recent years with global warming. The picking process in Colombia is especially labour intensive too, with the pickers picking individual beans at the right stage of ripeness, rather than just stripping the whole branch at once, which would be far easier and quicker but which would result in poorer coffee.

Coffee flower

Coffee flower

Unripe beans

Unripe beans

Freshly picked beans

Freshly picked beans

The whole farm was beautiful, with the coffee fields being interspersed with bamboo, red banana trees and Heliconia (Bird of Paradise flower), and with colourful insects and hummingbirds flitting around between the plants.

Bird of Paradise flower

Bird of Paradise flower


Giant green beetle

Giant green beetle

After seeing the farm itself, we got to see the various stages of the production process, from washing to drying and shelling, with the best beans being separated for export, and the poorer quality ones remaining to be ground up for use in Colombia. Finally back at the finca itself we saw the final stage of roasting and grinding, before getting to taste coffee made with the farm’s own beans, with Diana Carolina expertly describing the correct way to taste coffee, picking out the five key aspects (aroma, body, sourness, bitterness and aftertaste). I’ve never had a single-estate coffee before, and I’m not sure if it was just because I’d had such a perfect day in such a beautiful place, but it was absolutely delicious.

Freshly roasted beans

Freshly roasted beans

I never had any idea quite how complex and how many stages there were in making coffee, it’s something you just take for granted. It was quite an amazing experience, and if you’re thinking of going to Colombia and have a love of coffee it really is a must-see.

You can see the rest of my photos of the Hacienda Guayabal here

Snow in July

Altitude sickness is a serious matter. In mild cases it can lead to headaches, dizziness and vomiting. In more serious ones it can lead to death. The good news is that it’s easy to avoid by ascending slowly once above 2,500m in altitude…

…and not by going straight from less than 2,500m up to 4,800m in a couple of hours by bus before hiking straight up to 5,200m. Which is what you do if you take the day trip to Volcan Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia’s second highest mountain. I’d already met several travellers who’d done the trip, and who’d reported numerous cases of people vomiting immediately on leaving the bus.

Nevado del Ruiz on a clear day (unlike the day I went, sadly)

Nevado del Ruiz on a clear day (unlike the day I went, sadly) - photo by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chilangoco/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

So why was I mad enough to give it a go? Well, I’ve never been above 3,800m before (I’d come close in Guatemala and earlier in Colombia), so was curious to know who susceptible I’d be – as it varies significantly from person to person, based more on genetics than on fitness – especially as once I get to Peru I plan to do significant amounts of high altitude trekking, so I thought it would be a good idea to find out if I’d need to change my plans to allow for longer acclimitisation on arrival.

The journey getting there was pretty beautiful, as the road wound up the mountain from Manizales, giving spectacular views across the lush valleys of Colombia’s coffee-growing region. We soon reached higher altitudes, where the Paramo (a zone of vegetation only found in the tropical Andes between 3,800m and the treeline) begins, which was full of weird-looking stumpy cacti (unfortunately the bus was moving to quickly to get a good pic of this).

Once we crossed the treeline, at about 4,500m, the landscape changed to a bleak, grey area that looked much more like the moon than anywhere else I’ve seen on earth. Unlike the neat, conical volcanoes I’d seen in Guatemala, Nevado del Ruiz is huge, with numerous extinct craters, sheer cliffs and old lava flows interspersed with huge sand dunes formed from eroded rock.

Sand dunes on Nevado del Ruiz

Sand dunes on Nevado del Ruiz

We left the bus at 4,800m and I could feel the affects of the height instantly – even walking around on the flat left me slightly short of breath, and you could taste the thinness of the air. Next step was the relatively brief ascent to 5,200m, just below the crater. It’s only a 400m climb (and 1km in distance on the ground), but every step was knackering. It took us about 40 minutes of slow trudging to get up to the snowline, which was quite a novelty – getting to experience snow in the northern hemisphere, just a few degrees north of the equator.

Bleak conditions (and a rather battered flag) on the way to the top

Bleak conditions (and a rather battered flag) on the way to the top

Unfortunately it was a little bit of an antic-climax – the thick cloud meant there was to be no spectacular view of the area, the snow wasn’t really of the right consistency for a decent snhowball flight, and anyway, it was bloody freezing (the wind didn’t help) at that height, so after a relatively brief stop, we soon hiked down again to try and warm up. Luckily the tour included an afternoon stop at some natural hot springs further down the valley, which felt absolute bliss after being chilled to the bone earlier on.

I blame the cheesy pose on altitude-related light-headedness

I blame the cheesy pose on altitude-related light-headedness

Overall it was a fun day out, but by no means the most exciting day hike I’ve ever done. I’m not stupid enough to think this means when I get to Peru I can throw myself straight into that sort of height again (there’s a big difference between a one hour hike and trying to do it at that altitude for up to eight hours), but at least I know I’m not too badly susceptible, hopefully meaning a few days acclimitisation in Huaraz should be sufficient before I tackle the 10 dayHuayhuash Circuit, which is the single thing I’ve been looking forward to most of my entire trip. Bring it on!

You can see the full set of my photos from Los Nevados here.