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Quilotoa Crater Lake

On our third day in Latacunga we booked ourselves onto a day tour of the Quilotoa crater lake. The day trip was again $35 per person and the schedule was the same as per Cotopaxi, pick up at 8am and return back by 5pm.

The tour itself is made of a couple of stops along the way, the first of them being the small and incredibly quiet town of Pujili. We stopped for only 10 minutes to take a quick look around the main square and learn about the style of architecture used, and the rope powered Swiss tower clock which chimes every 15 minutes.

Pujili - main plaza

Following this we carried on along a beautiful road through the mountains with stunning scenery, until we arrived at another pit-stop; the traditional houses of the indigenous people. We were shown a couple of the thatched houses that were dotted along the road and then invited to see the inside of one. However, what we came across was hard to accept.

Settlement near the main road between Pujili and Zambaua

Outside the house lay 2 near starved to death dogs and a wild falcon with clipped wings, in what can only be described as a triangular hand-made cage, which barely gave the powerful bird any space to manoeuver. It broke my heart to watch this majestic bird desperately trying to free itself from the cage. When I asked the guide why the bird was there, he replied that they had managed to catch the bird to display it for tourists who came to visit. In that instance I decided to not partake and turned off my camera and went back outside to wait for the others, needless to say without leaving a “donation” for the owners.

Our journey carried on until we reached the market town of Zumbaua, as it was a Saturday our visit coincided with the market. However, this was not a type of market I had come across before. At first it seemed pretty standard with the usual fruit, vegetable and clothes but as we wandered to the other side we stumbled across what can be best described as an animal cemetery.

Zumbaua - saturday market

The streets were littered with animal bones, and not just your usual chicken bones and odd steak bones, but rather half skull bones with teeth still attached. The smell of dead animals was also strong and everywhere you looked you could see hungry dogs chewing on animal skulls. Personally, I would not recommend this market for this reason and for the fact that it is not of any particular interest.

After a good half an hour of slowly being led through the market we moved onwards again to the view-point for the beautiful Rio Toachi Canyon. Apparently the biggest in Ecuador, the canyon has depths of up to 150 metres, and if you are feeling brave enough you can walk right to the edges of the ridges in the centre and feel as if you are flying above the canyon!

Rio Toachi canyon - panorama

Rio Toachi canyon - viewing point

After taking a few photos we finally headed off to our final destination; Quilotoa crater lake. Once parked we were led up the path to the view-point and were then told to stop and close our eyes. The guide then led us the last few metres with our eyes shut. When we reached the fence we were told to open our eyes, and were met with this amazing sight!

Quilotoa - the crater lake panorama

The whole of the crater is filled with amazingly blue-green water and from the view-point you can see all the way around the crater. When you do the tour you can choose to either do the standard descend down to the lake and hike back up, or you can opt to walk around the crater which takes around 6 hours. The one thing to bear in mind though is that the crater rim is at 3850 metres altitude and that does take a toll on your system.

I was not feeling up to doing either option as I was feeling the after effects of climbing Cotopaxi the day before, therefore I decided to just do a short walk by myself part of the way round the crater while my partner went down to the lake and back.

Quilotoa crater lake view from path

When he returned he said the views from the lake where not as impressive as from above, whereas the short walk I took I thoroughly enjoyed as the views from the rim are remarkable. I just wish I had been feeling well enough to do the circuit as I imagine it to have been truly worthwhile.

Nevertheless, the crater view-point offers everyone the opportunity to appreciate the beautiful surroundings, and when you have had enough of the cold wind you can pop into one of the nearby hosterias for a hot tea!

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Cotopaxi Volcano

Whilst in Latacunga we decided to do a couple of one day tours, including climbing Cotopaxi up to the glaciers. It is possible to climb to the top in 2 days but we thought the glaciers would be high enough for our first attempt.  After speaking to a couple of agencies we realised that they pretty much offered the same standard packages for the same price, so we booked ourself in with Marcelo Araque Expediciones agency, as they seemed the friendliest.

The tour cost us $35 each and included transport, a bilingual guide, any gear we wanted such as gloves etc and lunch. We were picked up at 8am from our hotel in a 4×4 and collected a couple of more people along the way.

After about an hour we reached the park entrance, got our tickets and after a quick pit stop we headed up towards the parking, located 10 kms inside the national park and at an altitude of 4600m.

Cotopaxi National Park: driving to the car park

Unfortunately for us the usually quiet park was full of cars and people, mostly Ecuadorians as it was a national feast day. This hindered the route to the car park as not all cars were able to make the steep gravel roads, which meant we couldn’t pass and as such we had to park a little before the designated area.

The first thing that hits you when you exit the vehicle is the wind. Not the fact that it is windy, but more the icy temperature of it, plus it is filled with the dust from the roads. Mix this with the altitude and you start to find it hard to breathe.

Cotopaxi National Park: on the way to refugio

The climb itself is split into 2 parts, the first takes you to the refuge where you take a break and the second part is to the actual glaciers themselves. The refuge is located at 4800m and the glacier is at around 5000m. If you have not been at these altitudes before, like us, it can be a real struggle to walk.

Cotopaxi National Park: reaching the refugio at 4800m

We found we had to stop frequently just to get our breaths back and slow down the heart rate. The climb itself was not particularly hard, but as the guide explained, the altitude can play havoc with your heart and lungs and so we took the climb slowly.

Cotopaxi National Park: panorama from the volcano at 5000m

The views on the way up were amazing as the clouds were clearing, however, on the way down we got lucky enough to have clear blue skies for a few minutes and were able to see Cotopaxi in its full glory.

When we finally reached the refuge we were feeling quite tired and were grateful for the rest and especially the hot drinks. One thing to note is that if you are new to these altitudes then coca sweets/tea can really help. We took some in the morning and topped up again at the refuge and found that aside from the breathing, we did not have any other side effects such as headaches or dizziness.

Cotopaxi National Park: reaching the glacier at 5000m

After our rest we were ready for the final climb to the glaciers, strangely the second part was not as hard to do as the first and we soon found ourselves face-to-face with the glaciers and the freezing cold winds!

At the glacier I noticed that some people were climbing into a sort of glacier cave and wondered over for a look, to my surprise the Ecuadorian guys soon had me hoisted up onto the high platform and I was able to feel like I was inside the actual glacier! However, it soon dawned on me that I would need to get back down the 2m drop. This did not prove to be a problem for the guys who held me at one end and caught me at the other, but it left me feeling rather undignified sliding down the glacier, backside first into the arms of a stranger!

Cotopaxi National Park: inside the glacier at 5000m

Cotopaxi National Park: inside the glacier at 5000m, second look

When we were sufficiently frozen we headed back down to the refuge for a short break before heading back to the car. The descend was fairly easy-going but as the ground is more like sand, you can find yourself sliding rather than walking down.

Cotopaxi National Park: Laguna de Limpiopungo

Once at the car we headed over to the lake for a quick view before going for a late, but hot, lunch at a nearby park restaurant. Feeling tired but content we headed back to Latacunga and were dropped off back at the hotel around 5pm.

Cotopaxi National Park: saying good-bye to the volcano

All-in-all a very good day and money well spent!

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Cerro Chato

Whilst in La Fortuna we decided to hike up to Cerro Chato, the now inactive older brother of Arenal volcano. Located next to Arenal it offers views of its brother and a crater lake to swim in. The entrance to the trail is located next door to the Rio La Fortuna waterfall and starts through the grounds of the hotel.

We were warned that the hike is quite steep and would take about 2 hours to get to the top, once there we would have to descend for around 15 minutes to reach the actual crater lake but that the views are worth it. So off we went.

The first part of the hike, through open fields, was a little slippery but manageable. Once past the first viewing point it started to get quite steep and as it had rained a fair bit over the last few days it was incredibly muddy.

Cerro Chato: viewing point

After about 45 minutes we reached the start of the forest. The weather at this point was not looking too good but we were hopeful that it might pass. This part of the trail was a lot harder the incline was higher and there weren’t any real steps in place. The few that were there were incredibly high, at least so for me. At 5′ 2″ it felt more like an SAS assault course rather than a hike with mud holes to jump over, giant roots to scramble up and rocks to climb over.

Cerro Chato: forest path

Just as we reached the second view-point and realised the weather was not going to clear it started to rain, being determined not to miss out we put on our waterproofs and carried on.

2 hours later, covered in mud and wet we reached the summit and the last part of the hike – the descend to the lake. If I had thought that the going was tough before than this was a whole new level! The “steps” were so steep in places that I literally had to jump down ledges.

Cerro Chato: climb down to the lake

By now I was rather annoyed with the hike and hoped the lake would be worth it after all. As we reached the lake we realised that there was no chance of seeing more than a few metres across it, let alone seeing Arenal. The clouds were so low that your only view was of grey clouds.

Cerro Chato: crater lake with no view

Needless to say by this point we were cold and soaked through and so decided to not hang around but instead try to head back to the warmth of the car.

The journey back was even more treacherous as the rain made the rocks and roots extremely slippery. By the time we got back out of the forest the rain had let up a bit and was now just a drizzle.

After about an hour and a half we finally arrived back at the car, luckily we had bought a change of clothes as we had planned to go swimming in the lake so we quickly changed and had our lunch in the car just in time for the heavy rain to start again.

I am sure that in dry conditions the crater lake offers beautiful views and a lovely swimming spot but if its looks like there is a chance of rain don’t bother as the hike is really not worth it if the views aren’t there. Also be prepared for a challenge!

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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La Fortuna / Arenal Volcano

After a couple of days in Santa Elena we headed out towards the active volcano of Arenal next to La Fortuna. The road from Arenal to the town of La Fortuna is back to back with expensive resorts and thermal spas which have been constructed with a view of the active side of the volcano where even today you can see the indentations made to the ground by previous eruptions.

Arenal Volcano: lava on the active side

The town of La Fortuna itself is not very big but seems to have been built up for the sole purpose of catering to the tourists arriving to see Arenal. For good quality and very affordable accommodation head to Gringo Petes Too, the original Gringo Pete offers the same facilities and prices but the newer, number 2, has bigger rooms and better facilities. We managed to get a private room with bathroom for only $14 per night and still had views of Arenal and Cerro Chato.

La Fortuna: view of Arenal and Chato volcanos from the hostel

During our time there we explored Arenal via the Silencio trail, which allows you access at the bottom of the volcano but not as far as the lava fields. We later learned that there were many access routes around the volcano as historically the land had been privately owned before it became a national park, as such, there are numerous “trails” with different costs and entry areas.

Reserva Mirador El Silencio: map of trails at the reserve

The Silencio trail takes you through a deep forest route which is great for seeing wildlife except you have no time to stop as there are hordes of mosquitos waiting to feast on you. The views from the view points are nice but not spectacular, partly because you have to get very lucky during the wet season to see the crater clear from clouds.

Reserva Mirador El Silencio: view of the Arenal

All in all it was a nice day out but I am sure it would have been better during the dry season and spectacular had it been active.

The next day we decided to visit a butterfly and frog conservation located on the outskirts of town. We had wanted to see one of these in Santa Elena but it had been closed for refurbishment.

The butterfly centre is made up of 4 large outdoor areas, each one with different climates for the various species. It is a beautiful experience to walk through and have all these colourful butterflies fly around you, some of which are also impressively large!

Butterfly Conservatory: owl butterfly with open wings

Unlike some places there was no time limit on the time you could spend there and we soon realised a couple of hours had gone by as we tried to photograph the butterflies.

Butterfly Conservatory: butterfly on a bench

We later headed onwards to an organic farm called Margot that we had seen on the tourist map, which was literally located at the end of a road. We weren’t sure as to what to expect and were slightly disappointed to discover they didn’t have a shop but soon cheered up when we discovered an all you can buffet of organically produced foods, including pork!

As we only eat organic meat this was a true treat for us, our first pork in 4 months, and needless to say we made sure we had our stomaches were truly full before leaving!

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Rincon de la Vieja

Our first national park trip was to Rincon de la Vieja in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. Despite its proximity to Liberia there is no public transport available to the park. Your options are: a car hire, a tourist shuttle or a tour. The tours and shuttles were very expensive, $35 p/p for just a round trip so we opted to hire a small 4×4 as we also wanted to visit Monteverde.

The drive took around an hour and a half despite the park being only 25km away. The reason for this is a combination of unpaved roads made purely of large loose rocks and lack of any signs to the entrance.

If you plan to drive there follow the signs for the Rinconcito lodge until you get half way up a steep hill with a junction, left to the and straight ahead to seemingly another lodge. At this junction go straight, this is actually the entrance to the park as well as the lodge.

You will have to pay 700 colones per person to cross a private property, marked by a closed gate and a guy manning it. Once through, stop at the hot springs entrance on the left at the bridge for a free map of the area and explanations of how to proceed.

Rincon de la Vieja Nationa Park: path

We arrived at the Pailas ranger station entrance and paid $10 each to take a short hike of the circuit. Unfortunately the volcano crater was closed due to activity and the waterfalls were apparently still a little dry from it being the start of the rain season.

Rincon de la Vieja Nationa Park: Warning sign

During our trek we saw various fumaroles and hot mud pots – which if you have never seen be prepared for an awful smell that comes from them, something like rotten eggs, caused by the sulphur!

Rincon de la Vieja Nationa Park: Boiling mud pots

After our trek we headed back to the hot springs and paid another $10 each to visit a small hot spring complex with 6 or so pools of thermal water ranging from 37 to 41 degrees C.

Rio Negro: hot springs near Rincon de la Vieja

Included in the price is also the option of a mud treatment where you are given a pot of the clay like mud from the volcano and a paint brush. Once you have “painted” yourself with volcanic mud you chill out for 10 – 15 minutes until it dries. When you feel like your skin is cracking you are ready to rinse and dip in the thermal pools again.

I have to say the treatment is fantastic for the skin, it left it feeling silky soft for 4 days afterwards and it is also a very relaxing experience to just sit in the thermal pools.

For the $10 and no time restrictions, the hot springs option is very good value and lockers and towels are also provided for free!

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Ometepe Island

Ometepe is located in lake Nicaragua and consists of what seems like 2 islands, each with a volcano making up most of the island, joint at the hip by a narrow ridge.

The larger of the islands has an active conical volcano called Concepcion, while the smaller island has a dormant volcano called Maderas with a crater lake.

Ometepe Island: volcanos

There are 2 ways to get to the island, either by ferry straight from Granada although this service only runs bi-weekly or to go to San Jorge near Rivas and take a daily boat across. Either way will take you to the larger side of Ometepe from where you will have to take the bus or, if you can join a large group, take a taxi to your destination. However, you should note that buses stop running at 5.30pm.

We arrived from Granada following a 4 hour ferry journey and were lucky enough to find 10 other people looking to go to the same area so we managed to arrange for a shuttle to take the 12 of us for a discounted price.

Ometepe Island: sunset over volcano Concepcion

There are only a handful of attractions on the island; the 2 volcanos, a waterfall which unfortunately was almost dried out due to it being the start of the rain season, a clear pool of water called Ojo de Agua and petroglyphs.

Outside of this the island has some beaches but they do not seem to be very well maintained. We walked along Playa de Domingo, the beach resort area and found plenty of dead fish, cattle droppings and rubbish scattered among the shoreline. As such we decided to only stay 2 days.

Ometepe Island: playa Santo Domingo near Santa Cruz

There are many options for accommodation on the island and we would recommend taking your time choosing the hostel/hotel as they don’t all live up to expectations.

We pre-booked at the Zopilote eco-farm near Santa Cruz and were expecting a basic yet homely retreat. We arrived after the sun had set and had to find our way along a dark path through a plantation for around 200 metres, needless to say with 1 torch at hand between us (2 packed away) we got lost and the 10 minute walk turned into a 20 minute search for the right way. Luckily we were rescued by a passerby who directed us the right way or who knows how long it would have taken us!

Once we arrived the whole place was in darkness except for the communal kitchen and reception which were hard to find as the place is full of paths. We finally arrived dripping in sweat and out of breath from the uphill scramble in the dark.

Ometepe Island: a path in El Zopilote

Once checked in we were shown to our cabana which was very basic and didn’t even have a fan but the big surprise came when we were given a map to the accommodation area and discovered we had communal showers in the open air with compost toilets.

Ometepe Island: cabana in El Zopilote

We hesitantly went for a shower among bamboo shoots, under the light of some stars and the moon. Definitely a new experience for us!

Ometepe Island: japanese shower in El Zopilote

When we woke up the next morning we were pleasantly surprised with our surroundings and once we got our heads around the facilities we started to enjoy our open air showers.

The only downsides to the place were the extremely basic kitchen with no fridge and the complete lack of light at night. The cabin could have done with a few more basics too. There are also no shops nearby so if you plan to cook make sure you bring food with you as the little home shop sells only a couple of basic items.

After 2 days we felt ready to leave and decided to head towards San Juan del Sur on the beach for a few days before moving onto Costa Rica.

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Mombacho Volcano

Although Mombacho volcano is classed as active it has not erupted since 1570 and therefore has a very dormant feel to it. The only giveaway that this volcano is still active are the pockets of hot air that can be felt coming out of the soil near the otherwise very green and peaceful crater’s edge.

We decided to take a tour to the volcano and were again lucky enough to have the bonus of a private tour, due to low season, at no extra cost. We were picked up at our hostel and driven up to the ecological station near the crater.

Mombacho volcano: start of the trail

From here we took a very comfortable and relaxed 2 hour trail around the main crater. The area is very peaceful and the cloud forest keeps you cool even when the sun is out. There are clear, easy to follow paths allowing you to gently walk around and enjoy your surroundings.

Mombacho volcano: view of Laguna de Apoyo, Granada and Lake Nicaragua

The biggest appeal to the tour is the views. From around 1,100 metres high you are greeted with extraordinary views of Granada and the surrounding landscape, including Lake Apoyo and Lake Nicaragua as well as the steaming Masaya volcano.

Mombacho volcano: the crater

To ensure the best weather we opted for the 12.30pm tour which lasts 4 hours and were lucky enough to have perfect weather for the duration of our time there.

Mombacho volcano: view of Granada and Lake Nicaragua

If you are feeling particularly energetic you can opt for the 4 hour puma trail which goes around the second crater of Mombacho, however for this you will need to have a guide with you which you can easily arrange for at the station and it is not included in the tour.

The trail was by no means strenuous and it was nice to go at a slower pace and really enjoy the scenery. This is another tour that we would recommend!

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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