Week 27: Banos, Riobamba & Otavalo. Ecoudor

Banos is a gorgeous town surrounded by volcanos, mountains and waterfalls. There are lots of action sports you can do here zip lining, canyoning and rafting. Having done these before I opted for the reliable rothar. I rented a bike to cycle the famous ruta de la cascadas where you stop off at lots of different waterfalls. It was so good to be back on the bike after months. The first stop was to see “Cauldron of the Devil”  an amazing waterfall in the Rio Verde area.  This waterfall was seriously impressive and you hike down to get to some gorgeous viewpoints. We got absolutely drenched  during the hike.

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Some of the waterfalls on rute de la cascadas
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The route down into the devil’s cauldron. It was almost impossible to take photos here because of the sprays from the waterfall

Afterwards I was the guts of 1/2 hour trying to unlock my bike. When I managed to unlock the bike it 100% was not mine it was a huge mans bike.  I have no idea how I managed to do it anyway I was secretly delira it was miles better than the ladies bike I started off with.

I continued on the stunning route viewing lots more waterfalls. I went as fair as Rio Negro which is the official start of the amazon and where most people start jungle treks. I got lost in the most amazing place and that’s where I stopped for lunch. A kind American found me and got me back on the main route. The route is almost entirely down hill on the way it’s so much fun as you are basically free-falling the whole way. The way home on the other hand is no easy task. For that reason most people  get the bus back with their bikes. I was urged not to cycle back saying it was too hard. When someone tells me I can’t do something it makes me want to do it more so the tough cycle home was happening regardless.

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Full of optimism for the cycle home

The uphills were torture but it was great to be back exercising as I’ve become pretty lazy lately. Carrying the backpack has become the new gym. I stopped off to buy some fruit and the lad felt so sorry for me that the oranges were on the house. A gent! I’ve noticed here whenever you say you are planning on walking or cycling somewhere the locals really try to discourage you! I asked him how long I had to go and he said 35km and I’d easily cover it in less than 1 hour. Now maybe he thought he was dealing with Lance Armstrong but a good  rule of thumb is never ask someone is South America how long left because there estimations of time are outrageous. The 1 hour turned into a torturous 3 1/2 hours. It was tough, nothing compared to the hellish ring of Kerry but then again nothing ever will be. But it was worth it, the sun shone on the way home and the views were gorgeous. Despite some mechanical bike issues en route home I managed to make it back to Banos before dark not feeling my arse. I treated myself to pizza and beer that night and slept for 12 hours. MAGICAL

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Views en route home in Banos
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The prettiest fruit stands selling only  fruits local to the amazon region
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The gent who gave me these mandarins on the house!

The iconic images of Banos’s are people on the swing (in a cool tree house). Most people opt for the bus up to the top and the hotel owner urged me not to walk that is was too tough. People here really hate exercising! The walk was rough I made it to some holy statue where I saw two kids and asked them how long left. They responded by saying no more than 10 minutes and that they were going in that direction too. Happy days, well not so happy days they’re ridiculous estimation of 10 minutes turned into 2 1/2 hours. Outrageous. Anyway the weather turned for the worst and there was a storm on top. Weather was really atrocious I mean it couldn’t have been worse. Sure you win some you lose some.  Luckily the swing was still operating and it was pretty cool being flung through the thundery clouds. I stupidly wore a dress so ended up flashing the poor chap pushing me. En route up I picked up a German and American teenager. The trek down in the storm was way too dangerous so we camped out at the top by the fire drinking the most delicious hot chocolates and eating empanadas.

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View of Banos
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The perfect day to wear a dress
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Casa del Arobol ,Banos

We hitched a ride  back with a party bus which included a visit to the local sweet factory! Banos is really famous for its sweet production to due the vast amount of  sugar cane in the area. The jelly sweets are made out of a local fruit (can’t remember name). Dinner that night was half a chicken carcass, potatoes and salad.

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Banos’s massive sugar cane industry

Next day off to Riobamba where I had a very good couch surfing with an eccentric man called Holger who has hosted 2,800 people he even has his mother hosting people. When I arrived he was in the middle of making homemade ravioli (my  favourite but unfortunately not for me). There isn’t much happening in Riobamba it’s a good base for climbing Chimborazo volcano (6,263m). Up until recently it is compulsory to go with a guide if you want to summit because apparently it’s quite dangerous. So I decided to trek up at far as 5,000 m which is free. There were only 3 us trekking and lucky me got stuck with the strangest Columbian man for the trek. He was giving out to me for wearing sun glasses because apparently I was blocking out the natural forces. He then was encouraging me to drink the water on rocks to help with the altitude sickness. I then told him I was sick and would prefer to walk alone no such luck the kind stranger insisted on staying with me. So lots of deep Spanish conversation were to be un avoided for the next few hours. Even the topic of aliens was covered. I needed a stiff drink  after listening to his rigmarole!

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Stunning views of Ecuador’s highest peak Chimborazo
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It was a baltic one

En route home to the crazy chef I got severely lost and ended up walking like a headless chicken for 2 hours. Luckily though, I found the most amazing Mexican restaurant where the owner was nice to me and told me I could spend all night there while I waited for my bus to Quito which was at 2 am. The people in Ecuador so far have been amazing. Next stop was  Otavalo which is known for its famous Saturday market. I arrived feeling/looking pretty rough having spent the night in the bus terminal. You forget about how tired you are when you are here the market is amazing you see the most amazing crafts and clothes. I loved it here.

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They have the most amazing clothes in Otavalo (and of course gold teeth)
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I asked this woman could I take her picture and she agreed only if I bought one of her tops. An excellent business woman
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I couldn’t get enough of this cutie
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A trip to Otavalo isn’t complete without buying one of Ecuador’s famous hats
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Cheese, Ice cream and fruit! I’ve seen it all

Just north of Otavalo there is the amazing Cotacchi Volcano. This was an amazing day. The hike is a 14km loop around the most stunning lake. I met a few grumpy Englishmen at the beginning and then after that I had the place to myself.  It is a crater at the foot of the volcano.  It is called Lago del Cuy or Guinea Pig Laguna because the islands resemble guinea pigs? After the hike I met a lovely guy who treated me to a traditional Ecuadorian snack of choclo (corn), toasted banana chips, onion, tomato and limes. This is eaten by all of the locals as a snack and its so delicious and only 50c. We had a hot fruit drink made out of a local fruit (can’t remember the name), maize and pineapple.

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Lago Del Cuy
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You can take a boat around the different islands
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All of this completely to myself!

Dinner that night was on the streets. It consisted of cow’s foot soup. Once I removed the cow’s foot it tasted delicious and had a lovely flavour of peanuts. The next thing was the star of the show I wasn’t even hungry but there was a little old woman selling bags of maize and cheese and the people couldn’t get enough of it so I had to try it. This was sensational and only 50c. The cheese melted into the maize and it was topped off with a spicy chili sauce. I could live off this stuff so good.

That night I was in one of my impulsive moods and when I got back to the hotel to collect my bag to leave for Quito I  started looking up flights to the Galapagos Islands.  And before I knew it I was booked onto a flight for the following morning. This place was never on my list because it’s so so expensive but every backpacker you meet says it’s really worth it. I think one of my better impulsive decisions. I didn’t sleep a wink with the excitement of it all. I CANNOT WAIT!!!

Week 26: Cachapoyas, Montanita & Banos. Peru & Ecuador.

I decided to stay in Cachapoyas longer than expected it’s such a gem of a place.  It is home to Gocta waterfall, classed as the third highest in the world at 771 m high. The highest in the world are Angel Falls in Venezuela and the second highest are Tugela Falls in South Africa. Claudia who I was couch surfing with is a guide in the area so took me to the non touristy trail (even though this entire area does not see many tourists…yet). This waterfall has been known to the locals for centuries but it was only in 2002 that they were discovered by a German tourist who noticed them on google maps . Crazy how many un discovered beauties are potentially still out there.

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There were the most stunning trees in this park
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View of Gocta from a distance
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Gocta up close

 Myself, Claudia and Tibet the dog headed off to Gocta. The route was stunning with hundreds or fruit and coffee trees and the best thing there wasn’t a sinner there. We hiked for about 5 hours uphill until you get to the top of the waterfall. The photo’s don’t even nearly justify this place it was spectacular.  As per usual I had a fall on top trying to get a picture because the water from the falls is so strong. Very sad a tourist died at these falls last year because he swam in a forbidden area. Beautiful yet dangerous place.

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Tibet to the rescue

After the highest point you descend to the bottom where you can swim, an incredible (albeit freezing) experience. Having the world’s third largest waterfall completely to yourself was one of my highlights of the trip so far. Next time I want to camp here I didn’t want to leave this stunning place.  Everyone needs to go here, seriously cool.

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Me at the base of Gocta waterfalls

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Myself and the legend dog Tibet
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Claudia and Tibet
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In my ellers
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Our swimming spot!

Fedo (the other Argentinian couch surfer) didn’t join us on this occasion and I was kind of glad. It transpired that Fedo has no money and hasn’t had a debit card for 9 months. He has been just couch surfing and occasionally going to Western Union. I’ve no idea how he has survived. Well actually I do…..he scabs off everyone else. So completely emphatising with someone loosing their card and having no money I lent him money. For breakfasts and lunches he was eating all of Claudia’s food (who was too nice to say anything) and soon enough all of my food. Now I was happy to share because I can’t physically carry all of  my food but he was taking it a step too far when he started eating my chocolate!! He got fed and watered for 1 week without spending a penny. I got annoyed when I saw him lashing into Claudia’s good  Italian olive oil and asking for the parmesan I wanted to knock him out with the cheese. Not even an utter of thanks, unbelievable. On my last night we went out for pisco sours as I wanted to thank Cluadia  little did I know I would be thanking Fedo too because once again he had no money!

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Beautiful Cachapoyas at sunset

A lesson to us all if you have no money you don’t go for pisco sour no matter how delicious they are!!!! Myself and Claudia had a ball together one of the best couch surfing experiences to date. We are both massive foodies so I have half promised to return to open up an Italian cafe with her in Cachapoyas. Our last dinner was probably the nicest food I’ve eaten in  6 months. An insane and extremely understated salad of; chicken, potatoes, lettuce, tomato, onions, avocado, cucumber, sunflower seeds, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, basil and huge chunks of parmesan, We calculated and the whole dish cost 1 euro in the local market. O mo dhia it was divine all it missed  was a large  glass of red. Dessert was this almond nought from Italy and ice cream and then off to the bus station to try to make my way to Ecuador.

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My send off at the bus station; Me, Claudia, Fedo and of course Tibet the amazing puppy

Peru has been amazing and I’m so glad I finished off in the north. I love the freedom of having absolutely no plans it’s the way to go you never know where your going to end up. The food in Peru has been a highlight with the stand outs being ceviche and just in general the food is so flavorsome and dirt cheap. If they could sort out their wine situation then we would be laughing (it’s sickingly sweet). Peru has it all ; beaches, jungle, desert and incredible trekking. It’s the third largest country in SA so 2 months here didn’t cover the half of it.  

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Hasta Luego Peru: I will be back!

The journey to Ecuador involved two night buses in a row so this was always going to be a rough one. The first one  was v v comfy but I didn’t sleep a wink with  excitement. I arrived in Chiclayo and had the day to kill and spend the last of my pesos. So no expenses spared I had a fabulous breakie of pineapple juice, mixed  exotic fruit salad with chia seed porridge and  brown bread with avocado, cheese and toms and excellent coffee (a rarity when backpacking).

Lunch was not so fabulous. Really sleep deprived and extremely hot ( I was wearing half the wardrobe and it was over 30 degrees). I researched this place a lot deciding to treat myself to Chiclayo’s most famous dish arroz con Pato (rice and duck). The restaurant was buzzing and packed with locals which is always a great sign. When my duck arrived it was a devastation. What it was, was a mountain of greasy rice and a lump of cold duck. The best thing about the dish was the side of onions and chilis.  I ordered a frozen Chica (typical Peruvian drink made out of maize). Anyway not one to waste anything I packed up the left over rice for the bus journey that night. I spent all of my remaining money on that muck, my most expensive meal in Peru.

The mauldy rice made the journey with me to Ecuador and we both endured the next night bus together. This bus was also v comfy Una you’ll be glad to know I splurged on the expensive ticket.  Once again I couldn’t sleep I think the smell of the duck and rice was nauseating me. When we arrived at the border  I was a complete disaster. I ended up queuing for 1 hour in the Peruvian que and didn’t notice there was a que especially for foreigners.   A kind lady pointed me in the right direction. I spent ages trying to find a pen to fill in the customs form when I eventually handed  it in  the Peruvian customs said they didn’t want it so I put it in the bin (naturally). I made my way back to the bus and before I knew there was a guard chasing after me. I forgot to go to the Ecuador customs (a minor detail). They needed the form I had put in the bin.  I then went back to the loo to try to find it  with the guard  escorting me But  to no avail, I filled out another and had the whole bus waiting for me . In my defense this whole operation was happening  at 3 am in the morning!

Anyway back on the bus we eventually made it to Guayaquil in Ecuador where I had to catch  yet another bus (only 3 hours) to Montanita. The beach! During this whole operation I managed to lose my greasy rice somewhere between Peru and Ecoudor I was raging having lugged it around for the past 2 days. When I arrived at the hostel I got stuck into a hammock and couldn’t move expect for food and loo breaks. I looked like  scene from a horror movie.  This was me for the next 3 days absolute bliss. Montanita is a party place and has gorgeous beaches and is a popular spot for surfing.  It is a little bit touristy for my liking but for a few days it was perfect. Swimming here was a little tough going because the waves are pretty crazy but it was still so good to be back in the water.

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Beautiful beaches in Montanita
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Sunsets in Ecuador
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First swim of 2018

One afternoon while walking in the town who do I find but my box of Peruvian rice and duck sitting on a hedge. I know a bit disgusting but I couldn’t leave it behind. We had been through  a lot together. So dinner that night was stir fried rice! I cooked the life out of it to kill any dodgy bacteria and it actually didn’t taste half bad! This is typical Gallagher behaviour and reminded me of my Uncle Joe; a lunatic but a legend.

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This was a resident at the hostel and popped up for meal times!

Next stop was Banos known as the gateway to the amazon. It started out as a bit of a disaster. I organised couch surfing with a guy. I firstly told him the wrong time because I thought the bus was 3 hours it turned out it was 10 hours (an easy mistake), the second major issue is there are apparently two Banos in Ecuador so idiot here ended up at the wrong Banos, So the poor lad was waiting for me at the bus station. Anyway potentially a blessing in disguise I ended up in a private room in a hotel for 7 dollars a night. A delightful change from my usual sleep set up!

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Road into Banos
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Banos’s main cathedral
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Banos’s is sugar cane obsessed. They absolutely love and live off sugar. Every street corner is selling a handmade candy called Melcocha. It is sickeningly sick

Week 25: Haurez, Cajamarca, Cachapoyas. Peru

Having got back from the Santa Cruz trek I was slightly delirious, sleep deprived  and grateful to be in one piece. In the hostel, I ended up chatting to this guy from Israel who was looking for hiking partners to do a 10 day trek (Huaywash). Obviously without even batting an eye lid I agreed and before I knew it I was buying maps and head torches for the challenging trek . We spent the next 2 days preparing and buying all the essential bits.  Asaf the Isreali, had been in the army for 4 years and fought in the war in Gaza. It soon transpired that he was a very intense and an aggressive guy and not exactly my cup of tea. Why I had agreed to do more hiking alone with this stranger for the next 10 days is an excellent question. Absolute idiot is why. One evening en route back to our extremely cheap hostel he pulled out a huge knife saying he didn’t trust the area and was trying to protect me. This is when I knew I needed out.

One of the  days a gang of us from the hostel went to the famous Laguna 69 which is about a 5 hour round  trip of walking. I was forced to do the hike in jeans because somehow once again I’ve lost a load of clothes.The lake is stunning and has the most magical blue colour. We had snow, wind, rain and sun at the top.  I stupidly lost my lens cover for my camera in a cave (didn’t think I’d be back in a cave so quickly).I  spent ages underneath rocks trying to route it out. I was giving up hope when I eventually found a long armed German who saved the day and rooted it out for me.

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Views en route to Laguna 69

At the top I enjoyed some of my Irish chocolate (a pressie from una). It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Me at Laguna 69
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Sara, Asaf, Martha, Morgan and me at Laguna 69

Asaf went for a dip in the Laguna and I got a full view of him in the nip as he had me fetching his clothes. This is when I decided there was no hope of me going with him the following day.

En route down from Laguna 69 I was warned that there was an aggressive cow on the path and to be careful. Having spent the past 2 nights sleeping with cows I didn’t bat an eye lid. I approached the cow and it gave me the most evil stare that I knew it he meant business. I was with a french girl who ran away ( I don’t blame her) and before I knew the cow launched at me and pinned me again the side of a cliff digging his horns into my arms. I manged to free myself by hitting him with my camera bag. For once the ridiculously heavy  2 kg camera came in handy. I then legged it as far away as I could from the crazy cow. I found out later in the day the cow attacked 5 different tourists one of which being my Israeli mate who was actually thrown off the cliff (luckily he was ok).

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My attacker at Laguna 69

After this incident I had  even less of a desire to go back to the mountains. This is a typical me situation where I agree to everything and it’s only afterwards I think. I felt guilty because this trek is not possible on your own.  So bailing meant the lunatic wouldn’t be able to go. For once, I made the sensible decision and bailed. I pulled a sickie ‘altitude sickness’. We were due to take a 4am bus the following morning  Asaf was livid with me especially when I asked could we split the food. I even went as far as spooning peanut butter into  plastic bag and decanting my portion of whiskey into a plastic bottle which will definitely come in handy later.

I spent my last day in Huarez chilling out with the sound hostel owner, drinking beer, going to stunning view points and eating ceviche.  All the while Asaf was in a huff!!With the volume of food I have now acquired  I could feed a small army. I am subsequently carrying about 5 extra kg of food just what the bulging backpack needs!  An idiot but a very relieved and happy idiot not to be on the mountain with that funny fish. Lesson learned Ro!

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Saying goodbye to the Cordillera Blanca

Huarez  itself isn’t the most stunning  town but is the perfect base to get to some amazing places. I can’t recommend it enough but it’s always good to move on so my next stop was Cajamarca.

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Street vendors Huarez
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I told this woman I loved her hat and she just grunted at me. Definitely not a gal you would want to mess with ( pic was taken on the sly)

This is Peru’s most famous place for cheese and dairy products  (what I’m missing most from home). This was one of  the main reasons for going here unfortunately the cheese did not deliver but the ceviche made up for it. While in the market I was asking where I could find the best ceviche and this strange lady called Mongolia Nelly told me to follow her to the best ceviche restaurant in the city.  So  off I went. Mongolia Nelly  is a Peruvian who lived in Miami for 25 years and another 25 years in Venezuela a strange but intriguing lady. She was right about the ceviche it was out of this world . We shared 2 beers and Mongolia Nelly milled into a Lomo Saltado (stir fired beef and rice) another Peruvian delicacy. When it came to the bill I was footing the beers.

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I have mastered the eating of ceviche but obviously not of pouring beer

Afterwards we went for coffee. I just ordered an espresso and Mongolia ordered cake (3 leches a typical moist milky sponge cake here). We lapped away for another while until Mongolia had to head off.  Once again when it came to the bill Mongolia left the honours to me to pay again! Lesson learned don’t ever trust anyone with the name Mongolia Nelly. V cheeky. She was obviously in it for the freebies but the ceviche was a hidden gem I would never had found that I forgive and forget!

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Cajamarca
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Cajamarca

I decided in the dairy capital of Peru that an ice cream was a must so I went traditional and bought lucuma ( a fruit similar enough to sweet potato) and maracuya (passion fruit). My best yet I could have eaten kilos of the stuff.

In Cajamarca I couched surfed with a lovely Peruvian lad called Hans. He brought me to  Banos Del Inca very popular with the locals.  I had no idea what this was but you basically get a private room with  a  natural thermal bath. So it was a little strange sharing a bath with my new mate Hans. At this point the made up boyfriend was brought up. He’s a catch, a doctor who plays football in Cork and he’s coming to visit me in Columbia for my birthday. Hans seemed very interested in him. I really have lost my mind it’s actually quite enjoyable making up idealistic boyfriends. Cajamarca is not touristy at all but is so worth a visit and is known as a small non touristy version of Cusco.  After our bath feeling v relaxed we had a traditional breakfast drink of Quinoa. It’s a warm drink made of Quinoa, pineapple, cinnamon and cloves. It’s so popular here and for 20c I can see why. It’s usually eaten for breakfast with an egg or avocado roll (50c).

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One of the pathways to Cajamarca’s viewpoint
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Main cathedral’s in Cajamarca

I was stopped 5 times that day from people looking for my photo they are not used to gringas here. Love the attention I should start charging  the way the Peruvians do I would be minted.

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An intense game of cheese happening near the square

So the bus from Cajamarca to Chachpoyas is renowned for being horrible. And true to its word it really was. It also known for being really dangerous the 13 hour overnight bus has to drive through the  most narrow mountain ridges And the ‘roads’ are barely passable. There are free puke bags offered at the beginning because vomiting is a common occurrence and if anyone was going to vomit it was going to be me. I stocked up on extras. I was the lucky one who got seated next to a lovely but very obese Peruvian man. He had me suffocated for the journey.  The heat the smell the entire experience was bleek, grim words don’t cover this one. I listened to the soundtrack of La La Land on repeat (forgot to download music) for the entire 13 hours. This was the only thing keeping me sane. At one point in the road there was another bus on coming so our bus man had to reverse around this cliff corner in pitch darkness.  I was scared for the entire 13 hours because I was see how close we were to the cliffs edge, sleep was always going to be an impossibility.

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The bus broke down at 3 am and in the middle of the mountains a few passangers helped replace the wheel.  The operation did not instil any further confidence.
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That’s the ‘road’ on the right from Cajamarca to Chacapoyas (for the entire 13 hours)

When I arrived in Chachapoyas I tried to recover with a few coffees and some breakie. I then made my way to my couch surfing. I soon realized I had lost my mattress. You would think a difficult thing to loose but this is my second to kick the bucket. Raging!!!

I couldn’t have been luckier with this one. It was a Peruvian couple who are both tour guides. The guy was off doing a tour for the week so it was just Claudia and their Pup Tibet. There was another guy from Argentina also couch surfing and we all hit it off from the beginning. Cluadia was just back from a month’s holiday in Italy where she lived for years. She brought back with her loads of Italian olive oil, balsamic vinegar, parmesan , chocolates and coffee.  That afternoon we all made risotto laced with the most stunning cheese. I couldn’t have been any happier tasting parmesan for the first time in 6 months. I felt like I was in a dream (it’s sounds ott but that’s how much I miss cheese).

Later in the evening the 3 of us set of to the nearby canyon for the most stunning view points.

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Me at Canyon de la Sonche
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Claudia and fellow couch surfer Fedo from Argentina
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The legend Claudia that supplied me Italian olive oil and cheese! Forever grateful (if you will ptp)

The next day the 3 of us decided to  head off the Kuelap which is a walled settlement built by the Chachapoyas population.  It is built on top of a mountain 3,000m high.  They believe that over 30,000 habitants lived there and is thought to be bigger than Machu Picchu. We set off at 5am for the challenging climb. It’s a solid 5 hour steep uphill but so worth it at the top the scenes are breath-taking.  At the beginning you see loads of trees with the Chilimoya fruit (one of my favs in South America). If your feeling lazy and have money you can also take the cable car.

On the way up I had a bit of a fall in a mud bath and got severely stuck that I couldn’t move. I had to get lifted out. The poor hiking boots have been put through the mill. The pair of us are both on our last legs.

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Post mud bath (it happened again on the way down) only one leg got stuck that time. The other were spotlessly clean!
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The extra weight from the mud made the steep uphill even harder (no joke)

When we reached the historic site there was only one other French guy there who was camping (great idea). For me this place was more magical than Machu Picchu. Clearly Machu Picchu is a wonder but the whole tourism behind it is so excessive. The place is wedged with people. Up to 3,000 people visit Machu Pichcu each day. Kuelap has yet to be discovered so go now. The people in Chachpoyas are predicting lots more tourism with the recent construction of the cable car (only since last year).

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View of the ancient village Kuelap from the outside
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Ruins at Kuelap
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Fedo at the ruins in Kuelap
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Me on top of Kuelap
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These designs are typical of the Chachapoya communities
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Kuelap’s resident Lama
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Trekking down from Kuelap in the dark because none of us wanted to leave. Insane seeing a rainbow at night