Archive for the ‘South America’ Category

Parque Nacionál Sangay, Ecuador – The invisible

Sonntag, Dezember 18th, 2011

Was this necessary? Another road crossing the Eastern Cordillera? It’s the fifth meanwhile. Admitted, it makes travelling and living for the people here easier. It’s problem-free to change between highland and the Amazon Basin. This newest traffic-wise achievement is now mainly paved and cuts the National Park Sangay in two halves. What is counterproductive for an intact flora and fauna is a delight for travellers, particularly as the pass traverse offers an access into the before extremely difficult accessible nature reserve.

Short after Macas the park begins with the subtropical jungle of the Amazonian highlands with uncountable meandering creeks. Ascending slowly the Andean mountain range we find cooler cloud forest where long skinny Wax palm trees stick their dainty top into the clouds. Numberless waterfalls divert the collected rainwater. In altitude trees give way to dense green-brown grasses and scrubland and release the view to the Atillo lagoons that nestle between the surrounding peaks. The páramo lake area is the highlight of the Sangay National Park that is accessible by road.

The 5,230 m / 17,160 ft high Sangay, one of the most active volcanoes on the entire American continent, isn’t visible from the road, at the most with a long hike or from far with a lot of fortune from Baños, the Pan Am or from Macas. The other volcanoes and mountains in this national park like the Altar or the Soroche, which bears the pretty as proper name “altitude sickness”, cover themselves.

The best place to sleep is at the lakes; either on the parking lot at the viewpoint (S 02°10’34.8’’ W 78°30’12.1’’) or a bit further west at Campamento Atillo with better view. Here you can park at a gravel place beside the road or better and way quieter one floor deeper, accessible via the dirt track leading down: S 02°11’16.2’’ W 78°31’14.3’’. There shouldn’t be safety doubts, but at the second site we are even in sight of the village. Best photos of the lakes can be taken at night or at sunrise when clouds disappeared.

Macas, Ecuador – Yucca fritters: deliciously packed with calories

Samstag, Dezember 17th, 2011

How to make yucca fritters? In principle like potato fritters, and they taste at least as good as those; especially if substantial butter is added for an enhanced dainty-yummy-factor, the fritters are stuffed with cheese, and deep-fried in sufficient oil. During I learn how to put as many delicious calories in the most confined of spaces, Joerg works for his portion clearing Peter’s big property of pointless grass by machine. We simply forget for a while what the expression “kilojoule” means and which consequences are joined with their consumption. Instead we let ourselves be stuffed with breaded fillet of beef, chicken with mushrooms, and barbecue meat. (Peter, how can you keep your figure with Patricia’s culinary skills?)

At least we can stretch our legs on Peter’s jungle plot, 20 minutes far from his house. Five hectare (12.5 acres) secondary forest – the tropical wood was removed years ago, as it was still allowed – that are acknowledged as building land and developed. In Germany we would build a hundred houses including feeder roads on this plot. But maybe Peter just wants to keep a piece of jungle.

Macas, Ecuador – The rescue

Dienstag, Dezember 13th, 2011

Galo lures us to Macas, but now we are somehow lost. Galo whom we met on the way in Ecuador with his travel group, and his Texan wife are one day late due to a postponed flight. The quiet gravel road in front of their plot, where we stand, transformed into a busy bypass and produces more dust than we like to expect of our cabin’s interior. And as the nature guide and RhoAnn, the travel agent, finally arrive we find the excursions way too expensive. 100 $ for two travellers for a daytrip into a nature reserve of the local Shoar Indigenes don’t seem appropriate to us. We would neither have seen the Shoar’s culture nor their shrunken head production – for what they have been dreaded. Costumes adapted for tourists and rehearsed dances are only presented with multiple-day stays.

But salvation already draws near, in the form of Peter. The German pensioner with his young Ecuadorian wife, his daughter, and a hidden estate in the middle of abundant greenery with swimming pool adopts us. And so a planned overnight stay in Macas turns into a longer stopover.

Macas, Ecuador – Down to the Amazon

Montag, Dezember 12th, 2011

The Amazon Basin: huge forest area, our planet’s lung, inaccessible jungle, one of the few areas of the world that are only basically explored. Ecuador has its share in the Amazon as well – with more than 100,000 sq km / 40,000 sq mi after all more than a third of the national territory. In the course of our journey, in Brazil, we’ll get to see at lot more from the Amazon. But we want at least to “scratch” it to cover all three different landscape forms in Ecuador – the coastal area, the Andean belt, and the Amazon Basin. The inside of the jungle is here like in Colombia only to explore by small airplanes and boats.

From Baños the deep canyon of Pastaza river cuts through the eastern cordillera and leisurely leads down into the plain. The road that doesn’t miss scenic drama is called Ruta de las Cascadas. As the name indicates one waterfall follows the other. The most powerful one is the El Pailón del Diablo. A mighty water mass pours forth in a narrow pothole before the torrent finds its way out and turns off into Pastaza River. Best viewpoint is a swinging suspension bridge. But honestly: There are many cascades on our earth that are higher or spit more water. For 1.50 $ the two kilometres / 1.2 mi long hike with high steps is an edifying physical education at least.

The road drops deeper and deeper until it leaves the Andean highland in Puyo. We continue south to Macas. The reputation that rushes on ahead this less touristy and somewhat sleepy city is to be “clean”. Clean means in this case free of oil boring, collecting tanks, pipelines, and their dirty, deeply polluting consequences.

Petroleum is one of the main economic factors of Ecuador: In the meantime it amounts to 60 % of the entire export volume. The major part of the reserves is the Amazon region of all places, the inaccessible jungle that doesn’t really make those researches easier. At present the daily output of 500,000 barrels is pumped through a pipeline from the primeval forest over the mountains to the Pacific harbour Esmeraldas. The first test drilling was executed by Texaco in 1963 – at that time on Shank’s pony through the inhospitable mosquito contaminated area. To guarantee profitability, the oil companies use cheap obsolete technology and reduce maintenance to a minimum. Leaking oil pipes and crude oil basins contaminate ground water. Worse are the cesspools from drilling refuse: drilling residues, salts, acids and lye are flooded with rain and generously spread out in the nature. Consequences don’t fail to appear. Further exploitation of the oil reserves, which are only estimated for duration of 20 years, is at the planning stage.

Baños, Ecuador – Ashes, smoke and clouds

Sonntag, Dezember 11th, 2011

We give volcano Tungurahua another two days to show activity. The weather is perfect, although clouds usually set in for sunset. But between two and five in the morning it mostly clears up, a resident betrays. True. It stays without overcast during the day, but the volcano shows only moderate activity. Poisonous yellow puffy clods escape at times, otherwise it produces large amounts of white steam that unite with passing clouds and cover the crater like a white toupee with decreasing temperatures during the evening hours. During Baños’ inhabitants still sweep the ashes from the streets that Tungurahua blew on their roofs and into the trees during the last two weeks, the volcano implements a cease-fire and confines itself to smoke.

Again we stand on the hill Las Antenas, this time at the restaurant Ojos del Volcan on the grass verge in the curve. The owner invited us some days ago during our last visit to camp here. We eat a well stomach filling portion of baked trout with rice, potatoes and fried plantains for a fair price. The food is vegetable-free besides a slice of tomato with marinated onions, like Ecuadorians love it. Instead Rogelio and his wife get us a hot Canelazo, a kind of Ecuadorian grog made from fruit juice or like here from sugar cane juice with schnapps. Very warming.

During the day they hand us homemade blackberry juice or fruits from their trees through our cabin window. The restaurant with unhindered volcano view opens on request only, therefore advance notice is practical (Rogelio Bastidas cell 092977530, Elisabeth 095776781, both Spanish, S 01°22’57.4’’ W 78°26’03.1’’). Trucks are officially not permitted on the feeder road, but as an important evacuation way it is in good shape and suitable for vehicles up to 4 m / 13 ft. The winding road is narrow and steep with little traffic, the pitch big enough for several rigs.

Baños, Ecuador – Stew at waterfall

Freitag, Dezember 9th, 2011

The volcano doesn’t get off that easy. We decide to stay in Baños for the moment for more photos. Tonight we change location. The Germans Regine and Dietrich own the Hosteria Finca Chamanapamba with the restaurant Regine’s Café Alemán in the neighbouring village Ulba since many years. With its idyllic setting in the middle of a subtropical garden with many birds and a waterfall we feel like in a different world. There is enough space to park camping vehicles. Bigger rigs can stay at the waterfall before reaching the buildings where trees hang deeper. The highlight is the restaurant. You can get Hungarian stew, steaks, and chocolate cake for moderate prices with fantastic view and original architecture:, phone in Ecuador 03-2742671, S 01°24’02.9’’ W 78°23’58.4’’.

Baños, Ecuador – The Tungurahua burps

Donnerstag, Dezember 8th, 2011

A hundreds of metres high plume of smoke leaks from its pit. Dense smoke soars up into the atmosphere. We watch the remarkably active Tungurahua with mixed feelings, but consider ourselves to be safe on the other side of the deep Pastaza gorge, which does not only secure a magnificent lookout for us, but hopefully maintains a sufficient distance between us and the volcano. Just in case… The 5,016 m / 16,460 ft high Tungurahua belongs to the very active volcanoes of Ecuador. Its most violent eruption occurred in 1777, but even in the recent past it became a talking point: In 1999 Baños was forced to evacuate for several months, and 2006, 2007 and 2008 some villages at the foot of the volcano were run over by hot mud and scree avalanches. Just since some days the Tungurahua draws again attention. Besides smoke it spits occasionally lava and glowing talus, what might be seen with clear sky.

But the view to the volcano is a bit tricky. The hot and in the meantime snow-less peak is permanently surrounded by clouds that get caught in the peak or steam that’s self-produced. After our hike at the Chimborazo we drive to Baños, the town at volcano Tungurahua’s feet, Ecuadorian backpackers’ paradise. We don’t come for the hustle and bustle, but because of hoping to get pictures. The tourist information in town distributes city maps and information about the best viewpoints. The closest look you can get is at Casa del Arból midway up the mountain. We don’t think it’s best for photos, and we are already in the middle of the volcano-clouds. On the other side of the deep river valley, in the safety zone, we go up instead to the mountain Las Antenas at 2,600 m / 8,530 ft. The road is freshly made with pavement stones, but big rigs might have problems in the steep and narrow hairpin bends.

At Mirador Ojos del Volcán there is a restaurant (not open every day), and in the hairpin bend a kind of lay-by on grass. The hamlet seems to be deserted, and only after a long search I find an inhabitant who immediately offers to stay on his plot instead. The man just has to climb two poles to remove the volleyball net for Arminius to fit in and park (S 01°23’02.1’’ W 78°26’14.1’’). The view to the ogre is perfect. Leniently it shows itself for a few minutes between swirling wafts of mist. We don’t get to see it again in this night, but we can hear it. The volcano discharges a loud burp into the darkness, a threat, a thunder like from a mighty fireworks, and then peace reigns again.

Parque Nacional Chimborazo, Ecuador – The 5,000-metres mark (16,500 ft) cracked

Donnerstag, Dezember 8th, 2011

I heavily breathe with every step. It’s only ridiculous 900 m / 990 yards to go and 200 m / 660 ft of elevation to overcome. That would be a piece of cake – if we wouldn’t be in 5,000 m / 16,500 ft elevation. The volcano Chimborazo that has erupted last 5 million years ago offers mountain hikers one of few possibilities to get into these heights. From Refugio Hermanos Carrel, the lower shelter, we plod through deep snow to Refugio Edward Whymper on nearly exactly 5,000 m / 16,500 ft (S 01°28’21.9’’ W 78°50’18.9’’). Here evidence stickers are available for one dollar the piece.

The atmosphere is quieter than at the Cotopaxi, wintrier and awe-inspiring. At night temperatures drop below freezing. We can walk a bit above the shelter; we reach 5.100 m / 16,830 ft for our logbook. Don’t dare to climb into the glacier as hobby mountaineer. In spite of all panting walking is still better than anything else. Eating, drinking and sleeping belong besides tying shoes to the silliest activities to do in this elevation. Since it is not possible to continue breathing while eating and drinking without choking, shortness of breath inevitably results, which has to be made up by vehemently gasping for breath. The nights are even worse. Sleeping – that’s quite out of the question! Concentrating on deep and fast breathing when still half awake, we immediately fall back into the acquired shallow breath when falling asleep, and we wake up struggling for breath. The whole night feels like a slight asthmatic attack lasting several hours. Only bending down is worse. Since one doesn’t have the entire lung volume at one’s disposal, it is impossible to tie the shoes without choking fit.

While hiking breathing is automatically faster and deeper and in fresh air we feel relieved. We manage the ascent in deep snow in just under half an hour, and we dash down in ten minutes. An oncoming group of hikers that struggles up through the snow uncomprehendingly stares at us – as if we cam from another planet.

Parque Nacional Chimborazo, Ecuador – The world’s highest elevation

Mittwoch, Dezember 7th, 2011

I’m hearing you groaning aloud. What does she claim now? The earth’s highest mountain is the Mount Everest! Correct. And still I’m in the right. The Chimborazo Volcano is the spot on our planet that has the largest distance to the centre of the earth. Therefore it was considered for long time for the world’s highest mountain. It’s paradoxically not. Its peak is only 6,310 m / 20,702 ft away from the earth’s surface. How does this go together? Let’s fall back upon Galileo Galilei. He wasn’t right with his assertion that the earth is a sphere. At least not completely. Isaac Newton stated that the earth goes baggy at the equator and is flattened out at the poles due to its rotation and the effect of the centrifugal force. Later this theory was proven. Therefore sea level isn’t the same like sea level. The surface of the oceans close to the equator is further away from the centre of the earth than close to the poles.

Even if Chimborazo isn’t he earth’s highest mountain, it is Ecuador’s only mountain over 6,000 m / 20,000 ft. Its glacier noticeably ices up because of leaking fresh snow, global warming and increasing UV radiation, and gets more difficult to climb. But we don’t want to get that high. The well paved road south of the volcano is already above 4,000 m, so it’s nothing to us to drive up the 8 km / 5 mi long dirt road to the Hermanos-Carrel shelter at 4,800 m / 15,750 ft. Here’s a parking lot and not far from it a complimentary camping zone.

In the ranger station at the access we again have only to pay the 2 $ local fee and the second day is free, although we declare that we want to overnight. Between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. the post shall be unmanned, but we happily pay the 4 $, the park has to be financed somehow. There was nobody in the camping area for long time, the snow is probably too deep. Arminius feels well here, and we also in the snow-covered solitude. After the engine is shut off, the vicuñas dare to get closer. Vicuñas are one of four kinds of the hump-less New World camels. Two of them are original wild species – guanacos and vicuñas – and the other two, lamas and alpacas, are millenniums-old breeding. Vicuñas are the daintiest and most elegant, but rarest and most endangered Andean camels.

They were nearly extinct because of their fur – the finest and most expensive we know. Since nearly 50 years the hunt for them is forbidden, they are just captured for shearing and released again. One animals produces only one pound wool, and this is worth around 300 US$. Their silky fur is yellow-brown to red-brown, the belly is white. Vicuñas adjusted best of all four species to their cold barren environment. They never live below 3,500 m / 11,500 ft, but they are still seen above 5,000 m / 16,500 ft. They modestly nibble at mosses and grasses. Thanks to a program of the Swiss government the animals were re-introduced to the area and the stock recovers well, despite the threat through recurring ash sediments from the neighbouring Tungurahua Volcano, vehicles on the road and Andean foxes that attack the small camels. The surrounding farmers got lamas and alpacas as presents, and as a countermove they withdrew the voracious sheep that challenge the vicuñas’ food.
Ranger station Parque Nacional Chimborazo: S 01°29’51.0’’ W 78°52’29.9’’
Camping zone at Hermanos-Carrel-shelter: S 01°28’21.0’’ W 78°50’56.6’’, 4,845 m / 16,000 ft

Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, Ecuador – The perfect giant

Dienstag, Dezember 6th, 2011

The Cotopaxi doesn’t let us go. Ecuador is a fascinating country of partially harsh beauty, but the Cotopaxi volcano has a certain appeal. Yesterday evening we returned once more to the national park since we hoped for more weather fortune this time. And really, the sky clears during the night and it stays like this until sunrise and into the morning. Joerg is up half of the night to take photos. From half past eight on the mountain produces its own clouds. The sun thaws the area, then it gains strength and starts to evaporate the humidity. The mist immediately condenses in the cold air and there we have the ground fog. It clears for several times, but then the usual afternoon clouds of the rain front come in. We are happy nevertheless, because Cotopaxi rarely presents itself so beautiful and naked.

Machachi, Ecuador – The Quilotoa roundtrip

Sonntag, Dezember 4th, 2011

The crater walls of the Quilotoa stand completely on their own in a circle. In the middle is the emerald green lagoon, in a sheltered place mirroring clouds and crater walls. Who likes can hurry downhill the 400 m / 1320 ft of elevation to the waterline on a sandy path for 1.5 km / 1 mi and uphill on foot or on a mule. Alternatively one can hike around the lake along the edge of the crater for around six hours. Admission fee is 2 $, sleeping on the parking lot (S 00°51’59.7’’ W 78°54’58.5’’) in front of the crater would be possible as well. Coming from south Laguna de Quilotoa is accessible via paved roads; from here on we drive for 50 km / 31 mi on a pretty good sand track through the mountains. The area is known for its artists that capture naive painting on sheep skin, which is depilated and cleaned with a special procedure. Three kilometres / 2 mi after Tigua there is a sales exhibition.

The Quilotoa roundtrip seems to be popular among globetrotters. On our way we meet German Frank with his BMW motorcycle, who already formed his opinion after travelling 14 months through South America: “The people here are stupid and futile.” Well, enjoy your further trip. In a tiny village we see the well-known car of an English couple on a world trip whom we have met at the Overland Expo in Amado, Arizona. They have a breakdown. The transmission case of their Landrover is broken since two weeks, but they seem to have pretty well integrated into the community. If brandishing the machete or tending cows – nothing is worse than boringly waiting for spare parts. We have to admire them. Nearly without Spanish knowledge they happily and impartially repair around the world.

The complete Quilotoa roundtrip is 200 km / 125 mi, a quarter from it is sand track, the rest cobblestone and asphalt, altogether problem-free for most cars. In the end, back to the Pan Am, we turn north again to the town Machachi. The Papagayo farm will be our nightly host (S 00°33’38.5’’ W 78°35’41.6’’, feeder road 1.5 km / 1 mi south of Machachi toll station, direction EcoRoses). Although they ask for 5 $ pp for camping on the parking lot in an intransigent way, they have at least bathrooms, hot showers, and a fast internet. The Papagayo seems to earn its money with Cotopaxi mountain climbers and to organize these tours. Even though not all clamberers return happily: They are all exhausted, but not all of them reached the peak. Maladaption to the elevation, insufficient fitness, or just bad luck with altitude sickness are the main reasons.

Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, Ecuador – Onset of winter on latitude zero

Freitag, Dezember 2nd, 2011

I nearly don’t trust my eyes: Snow everywhere I look at. My mind tells me that even on the equator precipitation falls as snow from a certain elevation on. It is hard to understand nevertheless. The whole night it rained on our overnight place, but the glacier of the Cotopaxi instead received a new layer of snow. Driving up to the parking lot below the shelter José Rivas the jet-black lava sand is gradually overlaid with bluish white. The eight kilometres (5 mi) long trails reaches 4,500 m / 14,764 ft. The last stretch is so steep and bumpy that the coaches that dare to go up here – astonishingly enough – have to park some hundreds of metres further down.

From the parking lot (S 00°39’23.3’’ W 78°26’19.5’’) a simple trails leads to the refuge at 4,810 m / 15,780 ft. There is no time difference between the shorter but steeper direct route and the longer winding path, both ways request 45 minutes. Walking in the fresh snow isn’t easy, and if trampled down it is slippery. We make it before the first coach group of seven (It’s only a weekday!) climb the mountain. The few teens that come close to us are more than enough for us. Loud music booms from their MP3 players and some of the boys put on so much cloying scent that I become dizzy even without altitude sickness. But I have to admire a young lady who manages the climb with lilac patent leather boots with high wedge heels.

In the shelter José Rivas a strengthening meal is available, and the “real” mountain climbers sleep here before conquering the peak. The glacier above the shelter isn’t demanding, but no playground for hikers. We descend back to our truck and drive down into the beginning ice-cold rain to the south entrance of Cotopaxi National Park. Our next destination is crater lagoon Quilotoa. We will drive the Quilotoa roundtrip clockwise. We find a camping spot in the village Tigua at the pretty farm La Posada de Tigua (S 00°56’50.3’’ W 78°51’22.7’’). Access is signed from the main road. Camping fee is “normally” 3.50 $ per person, but 5 $ for two will do.

Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, Ecuador – The road of the volcanoes

Donnerstag, Dezember 1st, 2011

Ruta de los Volcanes is the name of the valley that extends along 500 km / 310 mi and a width of 20 to 30 km / 12 to 19 mi from north to south. In 1,800 to 3,200 m / 5,900 to 10,500 ft elevation it snuggles up to the two Andean cordilleras, the Cordilliera Occidental and the Cordilliera Oriental that cut through the entire Ecuador. The two mountain chains are larded with volcanoes, but even in the long valley some of the more or less dormant giants are situated. Today we again proceed to the old bumpy Pan Americana that brings us from Quito directly to Cotopaxi National Park. We want to thank the Carrera family whom we left this morning for their hospitality and their repeated introductions to Ecuadorian cuisine. In the town of Sangolqui south-east of Quito we just have to find the way to Rumipamba (partially signed / ask around). Once on the cobblestone road it is only 32 km / 20 mi straight ahead to the park’s north entrance. The pavement stones are partially torn out and left deep holes that ask for vehicles with some clearance. It is a bit narrow with deep hanging branches in one spot, but besides scratches the road doesn’t cause any problems.

A watchman opens the gate of the EMAAP waterworks, or lend a hand yourself if the guy is absent. The volcano route takes us through lonesome páramo scenery with scattered tiny Indigene villages. On our way south we pass the flattened volcano Pasochoa to our right, and then we see the deeply fissured Sincholagua peak at 4,898 m / 16,070 ft on our left hand side. Rumiñahui Mountain is again on the right with its three peaks that lend it the appearance of a face in a lying position. Just in front of us we can guess Cotopaxi Volcano that wraps itself in clouds like most of the other mountains today.

At the little used north entrance of the park we have to pay admittance. Foreigners shell out 10 $, but for an unknown reason we only pay the local charge of 2 $ pp, and since we want to camp there are another 2 $. Park’s opening hours are daily 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Soon we reach the flat plateau nearly without vegetation at 3,800 m / 12,470 ft where Cotopaxi stands completely secluded. The volcano is with 5,897 m / 29,190 ft not Ecuador’s highest but possibly most famous one, perhaps due to its perfect cone shape. It is said that its glacier is technically easy to climb. The plateau is a bit spooky: It is covered with lumps of rock in different sizes, dumb witnesses of the volcano’s eruptions of the past thousands of years. It was especially active during the 18th and in the middle of the 19th century. The last eruption occurred in 1904. Scientists become aware of a warming of Cotopaxi during the last years, measures of evacuation were prepared.

The park ranger at the entrance explains us that we can camp everywhere, and that there are two designated camping zones. We decide for the parking lot at Laguna Limpiopungo where it is very lonely. On our way there we already get to see the wildlife highlights: wild horses with long manes and tails down to the ground; the timid Andean fox that nearly reaches the size of a coyote; and buzzards that are attacked by way smaller birds.

Laguna Limpiopungo: S 00°36’53.9’’ W 78° 28’25.8’’
Other camping options in the park: Tambopaxi Hosteria close to north entrance
Camping zone 1: S 00°37’38.8’’ W 78°28’30.4’’
Camping zone 2: S 00°38’11.6’’ W 78°28’57.0’’
Along Ruta de los Volcanes there are many options for free camping, the area seems to be safe; for example:
S 00°29’37.1’’ W 78°26’22.7’’
S 00°31’38.2’’ W 78°26’52.7’’
S 00°31’52.0’’ W 78°26’59.6’’
S 00°32’28.2’’ W 78°27’09.3’’

Quito, Ecuador – Cable car to the home mountain

Montag, November 28th, 2011

Quito’s home mountain is Rucu Pichincha. To get to the dormant 4,698 m / 15,413 ft volcano we take the cable car. The Teleférico (parking lot at S 00°11’28.9’’ W 78°31’04.4’’) takes us for 8.50 $ (return ticket) from 3,100 m / 10,170 ft to 4,000 m / 13,123 ft with gorgeous view to Quito. That gets even better from the mountain top. There is a trail to the Rucu peak, wide in the beginning, narrow and partially steep later on. The last stretch up on the rock is associated with a small climb. Not too difficult as an oncoming mountain climber claims, but we relinquish. We return at 4,600 m since a hail shower converts the trail into ice first, then slush, and finally sludge. Under these circumstances we would have to calculate four hours for the ascent (although the young mountaineer ran it in one and a half), and nearly as much for the descent. In this altitude we have to puff with each step, but besides lack of oxygen the elevation doesn’t harm us.

Quito, Ecuador – Four seasons in one day

Sonntag, November 27th, 2011

Quito is thought to be populated since 12,000 years, and the Inca made it a powerful trading centre in the end of the 15th century. Before the Spaniards reached the city, an Inca general burnt Quito down – as a revenge for the last Inca king killed by the conquerors, and with foresight to the well-established thrust of the Spanish warriors. The colonists only found a destroyed city, but rebuilt it quickly. The city where it is situated today was founded on December 6th 1534. This is what Quito celebrates happily during this week with musicians, artists and fireworks.

The historic centre holds many churches and other clerical buildings, but government buildings and private palaces as well. Most of the colonial city is renovated and in excellent shape – despite the many earthquakes they had to stand. Like Calle La Ronda, the oldest street in Quito. Also Plaza Grande is surrounded by historic buildings. The bishop’s seat for instance houses a little mall with souvenir shops and restaurants in a beautiful covered inner courtyard. From the Plaza there is a good view to the Panecillo hill (a popular viewpoint with locals) and the aluminium statue of Virgen de Quito.

Quito has a reputation for two things: Its resourceful thieves that work with straight razors. Recommendations go so far not to show cameras evidently and to better wear backpacks in the front. The other claim is that Quito offers all four seasons in one day. And really, in the morning it is sunny and mild most of the time, and summerly warm with intense sunlight at midday. In the afternoon rain showers or violent thunderstorms set in regularly. At night temperatures drop below wintry 10° C / 50° F.

Volcán Pululahua, Ecuador – Fog-thick soup or soup-thick fog?

Samstag, November 26th, 2011

Going back from the beach to Quito we pass the dormant volcano Pululahua, just few miles west of Mitad del Mundo. Its crater is 600 m / 200 ft deep and measures around 5 km / 3 mi in diameter. Its special feature is that we can drive down a very winding gravel trail (no special requirements to the vehicle) to the crater bottom where agriculture is carried on since ages. Camping is offered, but we stop at the access road at N 00°02’42.7’’ W 78°28’40.7’’ since an archway is visible from here, which is definitely not high enough for us. At 12 o’clock on the dot a very special spectacle meets our eyes. Thick clouds climb over the ridge of the precipice and pounce enthusiastically into the depth. In-between half an hour the entire hollow is filled with soup-thick fog.

We see to get out of here and escape to Quito. The world’s highest capital – before Bolivia’s Sucre – is situated at an elevation of 2,800 m / 9250 ft and spread rampantly during the past decades to comparatively modest 2.5 million inhabitants. Unfortunately the weather isn’t better in Quito. The sunshine a minute ago changes into a violent thunderstorm with vertical pink flashes and a hail shower that makes us flinch with every striking. Within minutes cars can’t drive off any more in the steep side roads. To make matters worse, Quito is situated in a high valley. The surrounding slopes collect the precipitation and reliably conduct it downwards, where the water masses transform the roads into torrential rivers. Despite half a meter of water depth and fountains bubbling from drains, runarounds and mopeds struggle bravely through the stream.

Fortunately the nightmare is quickly forgotten on the east side of Quito and we find in the valley of Conocoto other relatives of Walt and Lidia who own a big plot with houses for the whole family and a factory. They manufacture special textiles like belt straps for backpacks and other pieces of luggage or cleaning sponges and rags.

Mompiche, Ecuador – The curse of successful aqua culture

Dienstag, November 22nd, 2011

Angel is a diamond. He invites us one more time to a savoury breakfast when he returns with his American group of 14 birdwatchers for the coffee break. But then we really have to leave, the way down to the Pacific coast is long. Owing to its topographic shape Ecuador represents nearly all climate zones of the world. Today we feel like tropics. In Mompiche in the province Esmeraldas we get our private beach today. That’s the story behind: Walt and Lidia from California saw our vehicle in Joshua Tree Park, but missed us. They sent us an e-mail later and offered us to visit his son and daughter-in-law in Ecuador. Unfortunately son Ron is gone away for some days, instead of him we are looking for his wife Monica in the village Mompiche. After quite a number of the mainly black population eyed us suspiciously, nearly maliciously, her sceptic mother betrays where we could find her. A strange hostile atmosphere is prevalent in this place, but Monica is a treasure. After we drove her several times through town suddenly everything changes: The people wave to us, some even smile, although not all of them.

Mompiche shall have the most beautiful beach on the Ecuadorian mainland, but has the reputation not to be the safest place. Strolling around at nighttimes is not recommended. Monica owns a lonesome plot somewhere at the seven kilometres long grey Pacific beach. She says it is safe, and if something happens they would find the guilty person. We believe her, what else can we do? The beach nearly disappears with high tide and is not passable then, but with low tide it is wide and firm, so that not only cars but motorcycles and bicycles drive along. The water has bearable 25° C (77° F), but for South Americans this cosy spot is on of the warmest at the west coast.

Quite a few inhabitants of Mompiche make their living from tourism, although not all. Surfers and backpackers are frequently seen guests. A good deal of the coastal dwellers is unemployed, what partially explains criminality. One of the reasons, not the only one though, is the formula “many shrimps = few fish”. Already during our trip here the enormous amount of aqua cultures attracted our attention. Unfortunately raising of this shellfish is extremely little personnel-intensive so that a large part of the inhabitants has no work. In addition numerous valuable mangrove forests had to give way to the shrimps breeding. Unfortunately those are the nursery of many fishes. And so there is few fish to catch. At least a change can be listed: The worth of the mangrove forests was discerned, the remaining stock is protected, and there is even reforestation.

Reserva de la Paz, Ecuador – The bird whisperer

Montag, November 21st, 2011

“Manuela, Pancho, Maria” Angel calls, and then again with high voice “Manuelita, Panchito, Maria”. What happens then is almost incredible. Two Giant Antpittas that were already thought to be extinct – Maria and Pancho – appear from the undergrowth and allow Angel to feed them with a kind of woodworm. The nearly one foot big brown birds that mainly live on the ground are extremely rare and so timid that they always hide in the dense undergrowth of the tropical cloud forest. Maria is the grandmother, Manuela who doesn’t show up today the daughter, and Pancho the only eight months old grandson who didn’t yet give up this baby begging call.

Angel Paz is the man who performed this miracle. He is co-owner of the private nature reserve Reserva de la Paz and our guide. Angel baited different birds as well, among them several other, smaller insect eating Antpittas and the vegetarian Wood Quails. All of them are birds that can fly but usually stay hidden in the undergrowth, looking for food on the ground. For birdwatchers like the two American women who accompany us today and nature lovers this is a small sensation.

The baiting seems to do harm to the Antpittas as much as fat balls hanged outside in winter for other birds. During their breeding season the birds retreat for two months in higher elevation and are hard to lure after their return during the four months long rainy period since they easily find enough food on their own then. Besides we simply have to welcome those initiatives, because they protect the last pieces of primary forest from deforestation.

Other birds get lured by Angel’s rich repertoire of calls or can be watched from shelters at the right places; like the also rare Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (up to 40 cm / half yard) with their conspicuous plumage: bright red tuft hood reaching down halfway of the torso, black belly and grey wings. The female is inconspicuously brown. There are numerous kinds of hummingbirds and other birds as well. Despite a fast telephoto lens this kind of animal photography is difficult in the dark forest. The fun isn’t too inexpensive: Angel takes 20 $ per person, and if visiting another site belonging to his brother after that to see two more rare kinds of Antpittas there will be another 5 $.

For that we receive a seven-hour program (from morning 5:30 to 12:30) with a coffee break and hearty breakfast, consisting of a deep-fried plantain dumpling with chicken stuffing and other Ecuadorian specialties. We make an acquaintance with Angel Paz and his family, a super nice, genuine, nature loving Indígena who really performs hard work when seeking and luring the birds. He is supported by his brother. I somehow lose track of the family as so many men introduce themselves as Angel’s brothers during yesterday’s evening and today. As Angel tells me that they are nine I don’t wonder anymore. At the starting point of the hike there is a kitchen, bathrooms, and a dining area. We may camp here for free as long as we want; we are even offered to use the kitchen.

An appointment is essential for a visit at Reserva de la Paz. Use a tourist agency or call Angel Paz directly if you speak Spanish: +593 (0)87 253674. Coming on route # 28 from Quito to Los Bancos turn left into a gravel driveway 10 km / 6 mi after Nanegalito at N 00°01’59.0’’ W 78°43’14.7’’. After 4.5 km / 2.8 mi you reach a small parking lot (N 00°01’12.3’’ W 78°42’26.0’’). You can also sleep at Angel’s finca in Nanegalito if you don’t want to drive up yourself. Some clearance should be o.k. for this road in dry season. You can go through the shallow river if you don’t trust the wood bridge. Angel plans to build cabañas on the mountain next year. The overnight place deserves 5* since it is completely lonesome and quiet, not even traffic noise and no dogs can be heard.

Mitad del Mundo, Ecuador – Crossing-the-line ceremony

Sonntag, November 20th, 2011

The equator is only five kilometres south of Cayambe at the eastern branch of the forking Pan Americana. If we wouldn’t have watched the street signs carefully, we would have passed the unspectacular monument. The sundial equal to pre-Columbian examples with Cayambe Volcano in the background is definitely photogenic. And funny with it, we can stand with one leg on the northern, with the other on the southern hemisphere. Of course, the crossing-the-line ceremony can’t be missed. Fortunately we brought the Champaign from Colombia where alcohol is less expensive. Although it is not our first equator crossing, it is the first time on foot respectively by car, and for Arminius it is definitely the first time. The visit of the monument is complimentary, but for listening to the explanations of the local guide a “donation” of 1 $ per person is requested.

In contrast to the quiet “real” equator monument is the completely commercialised tourists’ spectacle Mitad del Mundo 25 km / 16 mi north-west of Quito. To visit the “centre of the world” we have to fork out 2 $ for parking and another two per person for the access. A 30 m (100 ft) high monument with a globe on top stands here, together with 13 busts of the members of the French-Spanish geodetic expedition from 1736 to 1744 and the equator line that the scientists calculated back then. Too bad that it is wrong. The commission miscalculated it for 180 m (197 yards). In view of the year a forgivable mistake. In the monument is an ethnologic museum whose mediocre call one can follow for another 3 $ or not. Around the monument there is a whole lot of tourist fuss including the indispensable restaurants and souvenir shops. Despite the hustle and bustle – Mitad del Mundo is an essential part of an Ecuador trip.

Cayambe, Ecuador – Snow on equator

Samstag, November 19th, 2011

Another delightful piece of side road goes from Ibarra via La Esperanza, Zuleta and Olmedo to Cayambe. Until Olmedo we chug over old pavement stones and gravel, the last 18 km / 11 mi are paved. The route takes us through scenic páramo highland. Buses go here, so the road isn’t exacting to the vehicle except for suspension and damping. We get close to the beautiful 5,790 m / 19,000 ft high snow-covered Cayambe. The dormant volcano whose southern slope is crossed by the equator is worldwide the highest elevation along the equator line.

The weather is kind to us today and the glacier peak is aglow in front of steel-blue sky. We stay in Cayambe town and ask in the horse farm Shungu Huasi if they would allow us to camp. The hotel operation seems to sleep and there are not many horses. Doesn’t matter, the young woman welcomes us and we agree on 5 $. We prefer to park in front of the residential building instead at the stables where there are bathrooms but many flies as well. A quiet kilometre off the main road we still have a precious view to Cayambe Mountain. Shungu Huasi horse farm: N 00°03’02.2’’ W 78°09’17.5’’.

Ibarra, Ecuador – Insurance and other purchases

Freitag, November 18th, 2011

The insurance office is located in Ibarra at the named site (N 00°20’47.8’’ W 78°07’53.8’’). Colonial Seguro sells us a third-party-insurance for a month although the lady at the reception claims something different in the beginning and I nearly want to leave. A SOAT is available for one month or one year only. We receive a paper and a sticker for the windshield to show the police from far that we are insured. The costs for an RV shall vary between five and seven dollars, we pay 5.09 $. Since 2000 Ecuador uses the US$ as only valid currency. A couple of hundreds of yards south to the insurance office a mall is situated with a supermarket of the nationwide Maxisuper chain (N 00°20’46.4’’ W 78°08’07.3’’).

Generally food in Ecuador is slightly less expensive than Colombia, but prices are subject to strong fluctuations. Especially inexpensive are cheese and produce with many varieties. Meat is o.k. in price, bread in comparison insolently expensive. A loaf of coloured (“wholegrain”) or uncoloured white bread gives you 4 $. Alcohol is very expensive with nearly one dollar for a small bottle – remember we are in a third-world-country with very low incomes. Maybe the current president wants to solve the ever-present alcohol problem (everywhere in Latin America) in his country that way? In the mall you can find all mobile phone providers to get SIM chips for your phone, or air cards as well. We are lucky that Julius sells us his USB modem that he doesn’t need, so we save a lot of money. In Ibarra you can overnight at the PS gas station N 00°21’39.8’’ W 78°06’43.2’’. We prefer to go back the half hour to Julius to barbecue with the entire family.

Valle de Chota, Ecuador – A name, a country: Ecuador, the equator state

Donnerstag, November 17th, 2011

That was the fastest Latin American border check so far. The departure from Colombia took 15 minutes including pulling in, pulling out, and money exchange. Of course there is a customs clearance as well. The temporary import permit is simply withheld, but we are asked politely if we would like to have a copy and get it stamped. Then we receive the departure stamp, and off we go to Ecuador. The passport check is fast like always, only at the customs we have to wait a bit since another German couple enters with its own camper as well. All border officers are very obliging. We need altogether an hour, and then we have the vehicle permit in our hands. There are no obtrusive border helpers in South America any more. Although we come from the drug country Colombia, nobody is interested in our camper’s content. Maybe that’s because Ecuador plants enough cocaine itself. Both border crossings were free.

On inquiry we are confirmed that a third-party-insurance for vehicles is mandatory for foreigners in Ecuador as well. We could buy it in the next town Tulcan what doesn’t work out. Finally they send us to the next city Ibarra, which is not on our itinerary today. Instead we visit the cemetery that might be the most beautiful in Ecuador. Hundreds of cypress bushes were cut into elaborate shapes, partially according pre-Colombian motifs. The facility is huge and still offers a lot more room to die. Between the green works of art white multi-storey urn tombs with affectionately decorated graves were built. The initiator of the art cemetery himself is buried under the green in the meantime. “A cemetery so beautiful that it invites to die” is written on his gravestone. His sons continue the tradition.

Five kilometres (3 mi) behind Tulcan the old Pan-Americana branches off to the west and leads in an arc over a plateau at around 12,000 ft to El Angel. In the course of the wonderfully lonesome stretch it touches the El Angel reserve, where the frailejonas that we already met in Colombia (see blog entry from 01.11.2011) get several metres high. Their sheer amount is impressive – they are millions and millions. The mountainous region that’s called páramo in Ecuador isn’t less attractive. Apart from the tiny hamlets in the beginning and the end of the 42 km / 26 mi long trail there is no traffic on the way and only one tiny hacienda. The route consists of old not hewed paving stones that disappeared for the most part and gave way to dirt. There are some deep mud holes on the marshy plateau – it’s better not to dare to get here without all-wheel drive. In El Angel we reach asphalt and 20 km / 12 mi later the new Pan Am. In between times we fill up our tank. Ecuador is a dreamland for drivers. Diesel costs 1.03 $ per gallon, regular 1.48 $ and super 2 $. The diesel is filtered and not dirty at all.

Further down we go on the Pan Am to 1,500 m / 5,000 ft to the hot valley of Chota River. The climatic enclave is alike a semi-desert with few precipitation. We are looking for Julius, a Liechtensteiner emigrant who is resident and married in Ecuador since 18 years. His small hostal isn’t yet opened officially, so we don’t find the ex-rocker and Harley driver immediately. Since there is only one gringo in town we finally discover what we are looking for and are warmly welcomed. Behind the restaurant we park relatively protected from the noise of the Pan Am. Julius is always available for a beer and a chat. He became quiet now and fond of children as well: He’s got four now. His facility Route km 121 is located in ideal distance to the border. Camping shall cost 5 $ per vehicle, including use of the pool. Ask also for his cabins. Cold beer and barbecue stuff is on hand as well. Julius asks for booking if somehow possible (E-Mail / Facebook:, Tel. +593 (0)6 2637223, Mob. +593 (0)94 119763). He can be found 100 m / yards south of Ambuqui toll station on the western side of the road at km 139.5: N 00°28’09.6’’ W 78°02’37.4’’.

Las Lajas, Colombia – Snow in Colombia

Mittwoch, November 16th, 2011

We look out of our window and everything is white. Is that the proof that in this country nose candy lies everywhere on the streets? Hardly. A dramatic thunderstorm with long-lasting hail shower lets the temperature drop from 30° C / 85° F in the hot morning to 8° C / 45° F. That is called diurnal climate. All seasons in one day, typical equatorial highland climate – we are in 9,000 ft after all. We still camp on the parking lot above the pilgrimage town Las Lajas. Joerg had for some of days an indefinable afternoon fever without any other symptoms, which hindered us from driving on. Is it one of these odd virus diseases passed on by mosquitoes that disappear as fast as they appeared? I bake a convalescence cake just to be on the safe side and lift my cake embargo lasting for years. Whatever helped, it seems that we are ready to continuing our trip.

The parking lot is well visited by busses with pilgrims, especially on weekends. Then the parking lot attendant turns up who collects the parking fees. We stay undisturbed. Besides a small chat the man doesn’t want anything from us. Astonishing. A bit above the parking lot a family lives who owns a water connection and kindly supplies us with drinking water for our water tank. When filling up this morning – we want to be prepared for our onward journey – we talk to the adult son of the family who washes cars in daytime about the necessity to learn Spanish when travelling individually in this part of the world.

A reoccurring question is, if Spanish is difficult to learn. The grammar is difficult, I explain him, much more difficult than in English. He hesitates: Isn’t German the same like English, isn’t that our mother language? Besides the disturbing gap in the young man’s education he expresses what we often experienced. If a Latin American speaks another language (mostly English) that is a magnificent achievement. They assume that every tourist naturally speaks English, that it must be his mother tongue. They don’t even consider that learning a foreign language (English as well) might be linked with the same difficulties for us. To put it in a nutshell: All non-Latin Americans are gringos, and all gringos speak English. Beautiful simple world.

Las Lajas, Colombia – The wonder-working Virgin

Dienstag, November 8th, 2011

The Virgin Mary in the pilgrimage church in Las Lajas is regarded as miraculous. From the border town Ipiales it is seven kilometres / 4.5 mi east to the small town. There is a spectacular sight from a view point into the deeply carved gorge where Rio Guáitara gurgles before even reaching the village. A 45 m / 150 ft high stone arch bridge spans the river, the small grey and white church leans on it and cuddles up to the ravine wall. Nuestra Señora del Rosario de Las Lajas was finished in 1949 in neo-Gothic style and replaced the chapel from 1803.

According to the legend Holy Mary appeared to a deaf and dumb Indian girl on a day in September 1754. “The mestiza is calling me!” she said to her mother, pointing on a rock where the Virgin became apparent. Henceforth the child was able to hear and speak. The spot where the miracle took part is the altar back wall today, the Madonna was drawn on the rock. The Holy Mary is still wonder-working. At least this is what thousands of votive tablets tell that were glued to the rock face with plaster.

From a small parking lot (2,000 Pesos) in town we walk down to the pilgrimage church along uncounted souvenir shops. An alternative parking lot above (N 00°48’27.5’’ W 77°34’54.7’’) is quiet, free of charge and offers a lot of space for camping. But take care, every year in September (around the 16th) thousands of Ecuadorians and Colombians make a pilgrimage to Las Lajas to ask for fulfilment of their wishes. The pay kiosk is already waiting for the masses.

Volcán El Azufral, Colombia – Our first mountain over 4,000 metres / 13,000 ft

Montag, November 7th, 2011

The wool hat on the head, the fleece jacket and the thick winter rain jacket at the top, the warm rain hiking pants down: that’s how we start today’s hike. Oh yes, we are still in Colombia. But even on the equator it is chilly in 13,000 ft. The average temperature here is 6° C / 43° F, plus there are deep clouds and rain that reliably starts in the afternoon. The hike is still worth it. It brings us onto the quiet Volcán El Azufral, what means sulphur volcano, of which the highest point is 4,070 m / 13,350 ft. It has three lakes in its crater: Laguna Verde that got its green colour from the sulphur, the deeply dark Laguna Negra and Laguna Blanca, which has more green than clear water.

Laguna Verde has snow-white beaches and bare rocks that are covered with a yellowish white sulphur layer. It is possible to partially walk around the lake. The chilly, constantly bubbling poison water is not suited to swim in. From holes in the ground stinky steams escape. The surroundings of the volcano are densely grown over with thick moss pillows, lichen, grasses, and low brush. 70 creeks shall rise from here what I believe straight away. The almost 5 km / good 3 mi ascend from the parking lot at 3,670 m / 12,000 ft to the sign on the summit at 4,000 m / 13,125 ft are wet and muddy.

We manage the trail that is apart from the last stretch mildly steep in a nippy hour and fifteen, despite the elevation. Then it takes half an hour to descend the 200 m / 656 ft of elevation in almost one kilometre / 1000 yards down to the lagoons, fist through a rocky brook bed, then over steps partially broken off in an extremely slippery upland moor. This is equally the most difficult part of the hike. It came in useful to us that we already slept the last night on the parking lot what helped us to become acclimatized.

The access to volcano Azufral is two kilometres / 1.25 mi behind the city of Túquerres on the road to Olaya (turnoff at N 01°05’43.1’’ W 77°41’08.4’’). From there it is 7 km / 4.5 mi continuously worsening and partially narrow gravel trail. Parking is at the side of the road at the ranger station (N 01°05’41.7’’ W 77°41’08.4’’), for camping we have to use the upper part of the trail. Levelling is difficult but possible (only for AWD). Volcano access is 1,000 COP pp, parking 5,000 COP once only. We don’t pay anything for two nights camping. The hike is worth the effort, it is a simple mountain over 4,000 m / 13,000 ft, and a great habituation to higher elevation.

Túquerres, Colombia – Panamericana Sur

Sonntag, November 6th, 2011

Along the Pan Americana from Popayán to the south some camping options offer:
* Truck stop Biomax, Panoya, 68 km / 43 mi north of Pasto, quiet grass/gravel area: N 01°34’04.1’’ W 77°21’00.1’’
* Texaco truck stop north of Pasto, a lot of space, very busy: N 01°15’49.5’’ W 77°16’42.7’’
* Gas station south of Pasto, quieter: N 01°09’48.1’’ W 77°17’43.9’’
* The restaurant Country House in Pasto that was mentioned by other travellers in the past is ruled out since it’s not operating.
* Biomax truck stop Porvenír, N 01°06’57.5’’ W 77°22’51.2’’
* Esso truck stop south of Tangua, N 01°03’53.2’’ W 77° 25’43.7’’
* Esso truck stop 14 km / 9 mi north of Ipales, N 00°54’31.7’’ W 77°31’40.0’’
* Terpel truck stop Ipales, N 00°50’05.3’’ W 77°35’55.8’’
* Fuel is in Colombia generally more expensive than in Ecuador. Diesel costs about 8.000 Peso per gallon, gas around 10,000. On the other hand, fuel is said to have poor quality in Ecuador. It is good to know that the department Nariño at the border to Ecuador has tax privileges. Upon leaving Cauca prices at the gas stations change. Diesel is only 5.000 COP per gallon.

Popayán, Colombia – Operation in the eternal war

Freitag, November 4th, 2011

Helicopter rotors boom above our heads. One after the other arises into the air, propeller-driven planes roar. We knew that there is a military base close to the house of Carlos and Lucia. But who would have guessed that there are so many helicopters stationed here? The noise doesn’t seem to end and Popayán’s inhabitants slowly start to worry. It can’t be an exercise. Something’s going on. But only the evening news discloses the secret: The Colombian military killed the leader of the biggest guerrilla organisation FARC, Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas alias Alfonso Cano, during a large-scale operation that was planned for two years. He held the office since 2008. His body was found besides the one of his girl-friend close to the village Micay. The detailed facts of their deaths are unknown at present.

The Pacific region of the department Cauca, of which Popayán is the capital, is in the hand of the guerrillas for years. Although the targeted killing without legal proceedings seems to be questionable according to criteria founded on the rule of law, the Colombian nation welcomes the act. The guerrilla organisation that might really have fought for the country’s workers and farmers became really only an end in itself. It terrorises citizens, steels land from farmers instead of getting it for them as basis of life, abducts, kills, and finances itself with drug trafficking. The FARC shrank from originally 17,000 members to about 8,000 today.

The people still stay suspicious. Many of the former or present members of the government (including an ex-president) are said to have belonged to a guerrilla or paramilitary organisation in the past. Many government members are suspected of dealing with illegal organisations and exchanging information. Further the rulers are reproached for promoting the eternal war since arms trade is as lucrative as the drug dollars that flow into the country. Therefore the blow against the FARC is a big thing for Colombians, during American and European news hardly takes notice of this incident.

Popayán, Colombia – The white city

Donnerstag, November 3rd, 2011

Popayán counts – beside Cartagena and Mompós – to the most beautiful colonial cities in Colombia. For us it has much more charm than Cartagena, since it is also outside the historic centre a pleasant city worth living in. The town with only 250,000 inhabitants that was founded in 1537 has produced more intellectuals, bishops, and presidents than any other Colombian city. Its constant spring climate makes our stay pleasant.

Its title Ciudad Blanco origins from the uniformly whitewashed facades in the old town. Here are the sights like the Basilica Metropolitana, the square clock tower Torre del Reloj with a clock from London (since 1737) with only one hand, the baroque church San Francisco, and the bridges made from hundreds of thousands of bricks. Doing a round is especially worth in the evening when the colonial buildings are lit full of atmosphere.

Popayán, Colombia – The two faces

Mittwoch, November 2nd, 2011

Here they are again, the two faces of Colombia. We arrive in Popayán in the early afternoon to look for a camping option first. The only truck stop that has some space to park and is somehow suitable is the southern Biomax (N 02°25’12.6’’ W 76°37’57.5’’). We ask additionally at a restaurant with big parking lot, but you can probably imagine the answer: Yes, but … it’s 50,000 Pesos. Of course. We head to the Carrefour supermarket first to buy some grocery. Here they have a truck access as an exception (at N 02°27’36.6’’ W 76°35’43.4’’). Further south on the Pan Am there is the less expensive Exito supermarket.

We hardly started to push our cart through the aisles, the other Colombian face stands in front of us: Lucia and Carlos, a super-nice Colombian couple. They take the overnight question off our shoulders because they simply invite us to stay with them. From one planned night result three. Later Carlos explained us his theory how they found us in the huge mall after they discovered the Unimog in the parking lot. Well, how would you look for two Germans driving such a vehicle? 1. Travellers don’t buy clothes or shoes, they purchase food and have to be in the grocery. 2. Unimog drivers have to be tall, everything else would be uncomfortable. 3. Germans aren’t usually dark types, they have more likely blue eyes and lighter hair. 4. Where to find Germans in a supermarket? In the beer aisle. That’s exactly where we meet.

Coconuco, Colombia – Stressed backsides in hot water

Dienstag, November 1st, 2011

It seems to be harder to find overnight places in Colombia than a couple of years ago. All restaurants along the Pan Am asked for 50,000 Pesos (27.50 $) per night from us – regardless if we were willing to dinner there or not. I don’t hesitate calling this outrageous, but maybe they simply want to chase this kind of traveller away. Other places simply didn’t want us. Generally I would say Colombia already discovered that money can be earned with tourism without that they provide appropriate infrastructure or service. For example, there is nearly nobody in this country speaking English – neither in high-educated circles, nor in tourism (the young generation starts to change). I guess one can’t expect from every overseas tourist to visit a language course before? I also have the feeling that they are quite interested in other than South American travellers. And we have to always consider that Colombia is a developing country where average salary is around 200 $! On the other hand, people especially in the south are very friendly, extremely polite, and honest. Nowhere else except in Canada we received so many food presents than here.

In the hot springs of Aguatibia close to Coconuco we are asked for 8.000 Peso (4.50 $) entrance fee per person plus 15.000 Peso (8 $) per vehicle / tent for camping (no service except a very far bathroom up the hill and cold outside showers) – 17 $ together, close to the edge. We stay nevertheless to relax our muscles stressed from horse riding in the algae-green fizzing thermal tubs well at body temperature and in the little bit cooler, clear-blue mineral water pool stocked with tiny fishes. Besides, overnight places are rare in this area. Coconuco is located at the road # 20 from San Agustín to Popayán. For the good 100 km / 65 mi five hours have to be calculated: one hour pavement, three hours gravel with many working areas where there is only one-lane traffic. From here, where the hot springs are located, it’s another hour pavement to Popayán. On the plateau at 3,000 m / 10,000 ft elevation frailejonas resp. espeletia can be seen. These composites are so-called half-shrubs and typical for the tropical highlands, but grow only in northern South America. On a stem of dried leaves pineapple-like small tops grow that look a bit like a small agave with white fur. Termales Aguatibia, Coconuco, N 02°18’23.9’’ W 76°30’26.0’’