The beauty of Playa Blanca cannot be overstated. It stares you right in face with a piercing gaze. This is a tropical paradise as seen on the old Bounty adverts. And in order to fully appreciate its beauty, you need to spend the night on the beach. You need to do this because at midday every day boatloads of people arrive; families with screaming kids, doting couples, pushy sunglass-sellers, the elderly… it’s like a human zoo.
But by four o’clock all of the day trippers have jumped back on the boats and suddenly you can stroll the white sands in peace. The place is transformed! (Well, ahem, some of the doting couples still remain… and have been joined by a few bands of dreadlocked travellers, but it’s still much more tranquil).
After the busy streets of Cartagena, we decided we needed some time on a beach. We had heard of Tayrona National Park through other travellers and friends, and it came highly recommended. Colombia is a little more difficult to travel than other more tourist-orientated countries in South America, and after doing some investigation, it turned out a door-to-door minibus transfer would be better than the arduous task of getting a local bus.
So we set off on the 5 hour trip to Taganga, a small little fishing village that had become a popular spot for locals and backpackers. In some respects this popularity and the resulting tourist development had negatively affected the town, and the beach front was practically just restaurants and street sellers. I didn’t see many fishermen!
Cartegena de Indias is a city of two sides. Most visitors will stick behind the colossal old city walls and just see the photogenic facade: brightly painted colonial buildings, picturesque crumbling churches, shady palm-tree plazas, friendly street-side sellers, bougainvillea balconies, horse & carts, bustling outdoor restaurants… it’s undeniably attractive and you can see why the place is a regular stop for cruise ships.
Iquitos is the biggest city in the world without any roads leading to it. To get there we had to take a three hour flight over the rainforest, and when the clouds cleared, the view from the window was pretty spectacular.
I’m not usually someone who’s interested in monasteries. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no philistine; I don’t mind strolling around a church or cathedral for ten minutes admiring the architecture. I don’t get all dewy-eyed at the model crucifix, but I can still appreciate the skill and effort (and hard labour) it takes to conceive and build such a structure.
South America has loads of churches. Some of them are awe-inspiring like the one in Cusco, which has a great painting of the last supper with a roast guinea pig in the centre of the table. Others are bare brick buildings that have probably been pillaged of all their valuable objects over time. Most are relics of the colonial days when the Spanish and Portuguese came and forced their religion on the indigenous people, so there is usually some kind of torrid history.
In my last post I told the tale of the Inca Trail, the 43 kilometre hike that took us from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. It left off on a sour note, as the mighty ruins had not appeared from the ever-present cloud, and this had left our group irritable and tired after the hard slog up there.
Well things were soon to change. As we descended from the Sun Gate, down the winding path towards the famous site, some of the buildings started to take shape out of the mist…
Ah, the Inca Trail. A four day hike over mountain passes, down winding stone stairways, through cloud forests, fields and unseen Inca ruins… this popular trek is usually fully booked months in advance, but I can assure you it’s no walk in the park. And thanks to an unexpected visit from our old friend the stomach bacteria, it turned out to be a tougher challenge than initially anticipated.
Our group consisted of me, Jem, two Danish girls and our guide Jamille (from left to right). Groups can get much bigger, but 5 turned out to be the magic number and we all got to know each other pretty well during the trek.
In Arequipa we discovered what the phrase ‘rainy season’ really means in South America. It means if you’re outside when it starts it’s like standing underneath a waterfall, and in 20 minutes every street in town has become a river. So if you’re on the pavement you’re getting wet from above and splashback from every car that passes.
Maybe this was what made us decide to take a break somewhere warm. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t – I don’t remember, but it turned out to be a damn good idea wherever it came from.
After Bolivia- which is now firmly cemented as one of my favourite places in the world- we crossed the border to Peru. And sadly, the majority of my time in Peru was spent with a bad case of the runs. This didn’t stop me doing most things, but it did stop me drinking, which is arguably the greatest crime ever achievable by a bacterial organism. At one point I mistakenly thought it had been conquered, proceeded to have a few beers to honour the occasion… big mistake: It returned so violently my intestines still quiver pitifully at the thought of it.
But while I was staggering around in a dehydrated daze, clutching a ragged toilet roll like a junkie cradling his crack pipe, I did manage to achieve a few cool things. Even if they were a bit painful at the time. Note: Peru is not the best place for ‘the squits’, there is a distinct lack of toilets combined with a profusion of long and bumpy bus rides.
I’m going to take a step back from Peru here, because a tiny island in Bolivia where we spent just one night deserves a special mention. Situated on the shores of high-altitude lake Titicaca, the little town of Copacabana is a quiet little fishing port. With a small main square, tiny market and a handful of traveller-friendly shops, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Copacabana (one astonishingly good hotel withstanding – Las Olas). Basically, it’s as far from it’s Brazilian beachside namesake as you can get.