Otavalo and around

We spent a few days in Otavalo before heading to our workaway in Cotacachi, a small village nearby. We didn’t see the famous Saturday market, but we did wander around the regular tourist market as well as the locals’ food market.

The 18m Peguche waterfall is on the outskirts of town. You can get there by following the old train lines north of town. There’s a little campground there, which at the time we visited seemed to be the place for local teens to hang out.

We took a half day guided hike ($35 pp, including transport, guide and lunch) to Fuya Fuya, the extinct volcano overlooking the sparkling Lagunas de Mojanda.

There was barely a cloud in the sky when we set out in the back of a bumpy truck from Otavalo. On arrival, the walk looked deceptively simple; straight, up, and up a little more.

But in the high altitude we were a little slow and as we kept going we realised there was a lot more ‘up’ than we had seen from back at the lake side.

By the time we reached the top, we were covered in clouds and our hopes for the spectacular view quickly vanished. However, it was beautiful being surrounded by spiky vegetation and drifting whiteness, and our guide kept us entertained with stories and facts.

My favourite tale was about a family of cannibals who lived along the old route between Quito and Otavalo, which passes close to Mojanda. They preyed upon weary travellers until one day a visiter stopped at their farm for food and was served pie…with a human nose inside! He escaped and ran to tell local villagers who got together a posse and killed the cannibal family.

Despite the clouds, it hadn’t rained for quite a long time in these parts; plants and animals were drying out.

Laguna Cuicocha, a volcanic crater lake nearby, was more lush.

It’s possible to walk around the whole crater in about 4 hours, but we didn’t have that much time so we contented ourselves with hiking partway and sitting to watch the pleasure boats chug across the blue water. There’s also a small, modern museum which explains about the local ecosystem and formation of the lake.

There’s no public transport to either of the lakes so you have to rent a private vehicle, hitchhike or go with a tour. We got a truck-taxi in the village of Quiroga to take us to Cuicocha and pick us up later for $10. You can get this cute map overview of the area at the tourist office in Otavalo.


Travelling from Peru to Ecuador was a bit of a culture shock, but the differences were made all the more acute because the first place we spent any time was in Cuenca. Fancy restaurants, cafes and (mostly retired, American) expats were everywhere! Still, it was a nice place to spend a few days strolling old streets, eating in cafes, visiting odd museums and cloud-watching.


Real thieves eat caviar.


Whilst Kuelap is the most famous attraction in the area, the whole Chachapoyas region is full of archaeological and natural sites which, with a little effort, can be visited. The tourism industry is mostly geared towards domestic tourists, but in the last few years has started to cater to backpackers. Still, don’t expect to find anywhere open and serving food during mid-afternoon siesta time.

The town is probably the cleanest and prettiest I saw in Peru. The colonial buildings are well-kept and the climate makes it pleasantly green without being too hot.

We took three different tours and were surprised to see the same group of people each time: Peruvians using their annual holiday to explore more of their own country. They said it wasn’t as jungle-like as they expected when they imagined the Amazonas region, which Chachapoyas is the capital of.

After visiting Kuelap, we took a day trip to some funerary monuments of the ancient Chachapoyans: the Karajia sarcophagi and Quiocta caverns. It was a little frustrating because, as usual, information was incomplete. No one told us we would need wellington boots nor that the cave had absolutely no lighting except the single hand-held torch the guide had. We could rent boots easily enough for 2 soles each, but I really wished I had my headlamp with me. We sloshed through puddles and sticky clay mud with only our camera flashes and the single beam from the guide to light our way. The plus side of this is that we all made friends quickly as we warned each other about invisible holes or extricated those unfortunate enough to get stuck in sucking mud.

The caverns were only ‘discovered’ and opened to the public very recently. This is something I find really exciting about the region – there are many more sites that were previously unknown and are only now starting to be studied by specialists. If only I could get a job here!

Consisting of six connected caverns, human remains were found in the first two near the entrance. Chachapoyans often deposited bones in difficult-to-reach niches in caves and on cliff-sides. In Quiocta, they’ve now become sites of offerings by modern day people, with coca leaves strewn over the bones. I found it pretty interesting how these archaeological remains were being treated in a non-academic way.

At Karajia, mummy-containing sarcophagi were built high on a cliff.

Here you can see three different sets. On the right, there is only one damaged sarchophagus; the rest have been destroyed by looters and an empty niche left behind. In the center is a well-preserved group, 2.5 metres tall, some decorated with human skulls on top. Finally, on the left is a simpler mausolem, also decorated with molded faces and paint, but less well-preserved.

It was amazing to think how the original builders managed to get up to those niches and carry the equipment needed to create the tombs as well as the remains they were going to place there. Walking along a path below, we found more bones that had once come from tombs; the whole cliff-side must have had many more burials that have since been destroyed by time and man.

It’s nice to know that the archaeological remains are now being valued and safe-guarded as an economic resource rather than being looted. I don’t know how much revenue goes to the local communities, but we paid them directly for lunch, refreshments and even horses (for those too lazy to walk to the sites) so it doesn’t all go to outside stakeholders.

On two legs or four, the walk to Karajia was beautiful.

We saw more gorgeous scenery the next day when we went to Gocta falls.

The waterfall is said to be 771m tall and, depending on which souce you quote, is the third, fifth or sixteenth tallest in the world.

And did I mention it was only ‘discovered’ in 2005? Kind of odd, considering it’s so big, but it further demonstrates what little notice the outside world, and the Peruvian government, has taken of this region.

This is definitely somewhere you might consider travelling to independently, unless you enjoy walking at a snail’s pace with the rest of the group. We tried to stick together so we could listen to the local nature guide, but it was physically impossible for me to go that slowly.

As luck would have it, we went ahead and were able to reach the waterfall, sun ourselves on a rock and head back in time to miss most of the huge downpour that fell in the afternoon. We also got to eat our lunch at a more reasonable time. I suspect the rest of the group wished they had stopped a little less and taken fewer pictures on the way there.

Even if you choose to pay for a horse once on location, both trips still involve some hiking, traversing steps and mud, which the horses can’t do. If you’re an averagely fit person you should have no problem. The tour to Karajia and Quiocta cavern cost 50 soles per person, excluding lunch, boot rental (2 soles) and entrance fees (10 soles). The trip to Gocta cost 30 soles, excluding lunch and entrance fees (5 soles).There are a selection of agencies on the main square in Chachapoyas, but prices vary a little bit so check around for the cheapest. Chachapoyas Backpackers have lovely owners who can also arrange tours.

South America by selfies

This is kind of an update, but also a peek into what’s to come. You see, we aren’t actually in South America anymore. We’re still blogging about South America because there’s so much more to share, but our trip came to an end late last year. In the time since then, we’ve relocated to Boston and have been busy with all that that entails (let me tell you, a lot of paperwork!).

To celebrate the amazing 675 days that we spent strolling around South America, here are some photos. Selfies, in fact. It’s not an exhaustive record of our trip because we rarely took photos of each other, let alone selfies, but we did take some and they remind me of the great times we had. So from Brazil to Costa Rica, over 38,540km, this was our journey.

Getting wet at Iguazu Falls.


At Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, enjoying whiskey with ice chipped straight from the glacier.


Sunrise at 4,327m at El Tatio geyser field in northern Chile. Cold, cold, cold!

Pausing to take a break while walking slowly in the high altitude at Laguna Colorada, Bolivia.

Gran Poder with friendsHaving fun at the Gran Poder in La Paz. We’d just eaten anticuchos and were about to tuck into a sandwich de Chola.

Playing dress-up in Chocolate Caliente in La Paz. I think every restaurant should include wigs.

Drying off after swimming with pink dolphins in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. What you can’t see, and what I didn’t feel at the time, are the hundreds of mosquitoes biting my back!

Enjoying the Incan agricultural terraces at Maras in the Sacred Valley, Peru.

Hiking in Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru.

Taking advantage of the therapeutic mud at Agua Blanca village, near Puerto Lopes in Ecuador.

Saying farewell to the San Blas islands in Panama before heading to the mainland after five days on a sailboat (and there’s a great story about this that involves the US Coast Guard. Eventually I’ll get round to telling it).


Trujillo, on the north coast of Peru, was one of the earliest colonial cities in the Americas. Although it was founded in 1534, an earthquake in 1619 destroyed many of its buildings so most of the architecture in the historic centre dates from the 17th century and later. We spent a sunny afternoon wandering inside the old walled town, enjoying the colourful facades and iron- and wood-work balconies. The tourist information office in the Plaza de Armas is very helpful and offers lots of free maps as well as a tour of the historical judicial building (Spanish only, I think).

The Archdiocese of Trujillo.

The Freedom Monument was unveiled in the centre of the Plaza de Armas in 1929.

The Cathedral of Trujillo was finished in 1666 (although it’s clearly had a lick or two of paint since then).

El Carmen church and monastery.

Coincidentally, we ate the most delicious fried rice in South America (we’re talking proper Chinese marinated pork here) at Chifa Chung Heng on Jr. Colón 205, just a few blocks from Plaza de Armas.


We arrived in Trujillo, bleary-eyed at 5am, with no idea where to go or how to get there. I don’t like relying on taxi drivers, let alone trusting them, but we decided it was our only logical option so we asked the driver to take us to the plaza principal so we could look for a hotel. Seeing our backpacks, he suggested we stay in nearby Huanchaco instead – mas economico. A quick fumble through the lonely planet told us there was a beach, and yes, it was cheaper. We went for it and grabbed a room at the first place we arrived (double with private bath for 40 soles). When it got light outside we discovered a little seaside town where you could hire both surfboards and traditional reed fishermens’ boats to take you out on the waves. You could dine in fancy restaurants or eat ceviche for 8 soles, drink mediocre coffee in a corner bakery or pay through the nose for some of the best breakfasts in Peru.

Zoilo Flores 1334 to 20 de Octubre 2315

A click as the apartment building door closes behind me, and I’m out on the street with the dog from Autopartes Lopez barking at me for no reason. I run across the cobble-stone road to get away from it, and wonder if it spends all night outside in the cold. That’s probably why it’s so grumpy. Even though all the shutters are still down, I smile at the sign for Jhoncar, another spare parts shop, and imagine the cartoon crocodile bodybuilder tearing up that dog instead of a tyre.

At the corner sits the sandwich lady, slicing tomatoes in one hand as she prepares her wares to sell to morning commuters. She’s bundled up against the cold in shawls and layers of skirts and I know I must look woefully unprepared for the 3°C temperature. But later in the day it’s going to be T-shirt weather and I’m willing to sacrifice some warmth now in order to not carry my coat around later. I make do with a scarf wrapped around my neck, which also acts as a shield against the traffic fumes that chug out into the cold, dry air.


Turning again at Plaza San Pedro (from here it’s one long, straight walk), I pass San Pedro Church with its ornate sandy-coloured, stone-carved exterior, and a hand-stenciled sign for Alcohólicos Anónimos. A man opens the entrance to the Hotel Osira next door (which I remember serves a nice set lunch) and shakes out his broom. A shoeshiner walking past offers his services and I glance behind me for a second as he sits in front of the extended, leather clad foot and begins taking out his polish.

The prison rests on the opposite side of the street; tall, windowless, leaking some kind of liquid from its lower parts. With watchtowers at its corners, it looks like a medieval castle, but one that would wash away in the rain. The straw and mud facade on the side facing Avenida 20 de Octubre looks so flimsy to me. I think of all the prisoners inside escaping through a hole in the wall after a storm, carrying their huge stereos that I’ve seen relatives bringing them as gifts, and their cocaine processing equipment that apparently keeps them employed, even behind bars.

On the corner, a man is washing the paintings on the ugly pebble-dash surface of Animalandia (a vet, pet shop and dog hairdresser all in one). From the nursery opposite, a scarily deformed Dora the Explorer and Spongebob wave at passersby – clearly Animalandia employed the better muralist. Ahead a woman pours api and quinoa milk into small plastic bags, straws sticking out the top, to sell to people in a hurry. Those with more time can stand and drink from dubiously cleaned glasses. My favourite piece of graffiti looks down on us; a pigeon lying as if on a dissection table, chest opened with delicate organs and bones exposed. It’s so much more beautiful than the real pigeons that run between our feet to peck at pastel and salteña crumbs, too lazy or too hungry to even fly away until people step into them.


The streets are getting busier and I have to stop and wait for a chance to run across the roads in between taxis and microbuses full of people. I sidestep and try to ignore the man slumped in the doorstep, rocking himself, with a pile of fresh vomit at his feet. Two paces ahead a well-manicured father tries to flag down a taxi while his equally well-dressed son stands daydreaming. His perfect little uniform is the same grey-black colour of the greasy stains left from rubbish bags piled in the street every evening

As I keep hurrying, I get stuck behind a cholita moving slowly. Her long black plaits are caught under the stripy pink and purple cloth that ties a baby to her back. The too-small bowler hat rests miraculously on her head, as with each step her pea-green, satiny skirt swishes and a toddler is pulled along by her free hand. I lose patience and step into the road to go around her. Though from behind her dumpy shape had made me think she was old, I see she’s not much more than a teenager.

I stride across yet another road (and you have to stride here otherwise you’ll never make it if you wait politely for traffic to stop for you). The pavement in this spot, where Avenida 20 de Octubre meets Calle Ecuador, is particularly treacherous. The slope, combined with the age-worn smoothness of the paving slabs, sends me slipping every time. I’ve gotten used to it now and know exactly where to tread if I want to slide but not fall. The guy in front isn’t as aware as me and he stumbles momentarily.


A puff of exhaust makes my nose tickle. I know I need to blow it but I don’t have any tissue and I hope I can last until I reach work. I’m just passing the flamboyantly baroque building of Mujeres Creando, an anarchist-feminist group, which houses a radio station, cafe and hostel for women. The shabby, deep pink building always seems to have sunlight on it at this time of the morning, and the giant painted woman on the facade glitters in her silvery nakedness.

The pavement here is less steep and less worn down. Sopocachi is full of fancy restaurants and cafes (by Bolivian standards). I pass Sweet Shop Chocolaterie, Swiss Fondue and Ja Ron (with a logo very reminiscent of Hard Rock Cafe). For some reason the Cuisinart shop sells office chairs and a single box of gold Christmas baubles, in addition to some expensive outdoor barbecue sets.

I see the metal gate across the road, open and waiting for me. As I press the doorbell to be buzzed in, I feel in my bag for my thermos. It’s one of those days – days that don’t even give me enough time to eat properly – so coca tea is going to get me through until this evening when I head back up the hill to San Pedro.

La Paz and San Francisco: a completely uncalled for comparison

There’s no real reason that I’m comparing these two unrelated cities, except that we just got back from five days in San Francisco and, being that we flew there and back rather than slowly travelling over a series of days or weeks, the culture shock was pretty strong. We also met up with our old housemate from La Paz, and the conversation naturally turned to comparisons. So, here are some unqualified generalizations.


Cars and driving
Seat belts. They’re in every car. I didn’t even notice when we took a taxi for the first time – I just automatically assumed there wouldn’t be one as I’ve only been in one taxi with a seatbelt in La Paz. Not only are vehicles safer, but drivers are far more respectful of rules and pedestrians. They actually stop at red lights in San Francisco! Crossing the road was a piece of cake once I realized that drivers would actually give way to me instead of speeding up or beeping their horn in some weird intimidation attempt. It was so much more relaxing to walk about San Francisco than La Paz.

The urban density of San Francisco is 6,632.9/km2, whereas La Paz is only 1,861.2/km2, but you would never guess this when walking around. The streets in San Francisco are huge, with multiple lanes of traffic and really wide pavements, giving the illusion of spaciousness. In La Paz, many streets are single lanes and pavements are sometimes non-existent. You’re constantly surrounded by people and traffic and bottlenecks of both vehicles and pedestrians are common. It’s also really hard to get an unrestricted view since the city is built in a valley and everywhere you look there are buildings rising up the hillside around you. I’m actually quite at home in dense urban environments so the spaciousness of San Francisco took some getting used to (in fact the ‘bigness’ of the USA in general always surprises me).


People on the streets
Despite me saying that San Francisco has lots of space, the streets are still busy all the time (though slightly less busy on a Sunday morning). This is pretty similar to La Paz. Both cities have street vendors, but they sell different things. In La Paz, you can buy anything on the street; mobile phones, fruit, stationary, tights, empanadas, magazines…they’re all sold from tiny stalls or mobile carts and can be found on every street corner throughout the day. In San Francisco, most vendors sell food and drinks at peak hours to commuters. There are specialized markets selling organic produce or arts & crafts, but you have to go to a particular place if you want to buy these things, whereas in La Paz you can guarantee to pass a stall selling what you need while on your way to somewhere else.

Buskers, on the other hand, are all over the place in San Francisco. And not just a guy with an acoustic guitar, but whole bands with full drum kits and amps! I also heard live music from different venues as I walked past in the afternoon. This is a city that loves music! Of course, there is live music in La Paz too, but not on the streets. The only people I see playing music outside are campesinos – they come from the countryside to La Paz and sometimes end up making a living from begging – or blind people. In both instances, money is given as charity and the music is a secondary thing.

Which brings me to the third point; homelessness. There are plenty of homeless people in La Paz. Most are women, sometimes with kids, who come to the city looking for something better than the life they left in the countryside. There are also some old people, perhaps unable to work anymore. They beg from passersby, who often give them money or food, and they generally act in a very humble way. Like most big cities, there are also drunks and drug users (almost always men and young boys). I see them mostly passed out or in their own substance-addled world. I never feel threatened by them. But in San Francisco I saw some clearly disturbed people; the kind who have arguments with invisible opponents in the middle of the sidewalk or who ramble incoherently. I had forgotten how many ‘crazies’ there are in cities of America or Europe. I’ve also never been asked for money for ‘hangover beer’ or weed, but that happened in San Francisco.

However, the thing that surprised me the most were the number of homeless people who seemed relatively new to this lifestyle. They were ‘normal’ people. They had once had jobs and a home.They had pet dogs with them. Some had prams and shopping carts full of possessions (more than I probably own right now). Perhaps this is a reflection of the current economic situation. Having not lived in the West for several years, I haven’t been as aware of these things as I maybe should be.


I was told that the weather in San Francisco is a little like La Paz, as in it never gets very cold or very warm. You need to take a jacket when you go out in both cities as the weather can change quite quickly. It’s true, I did need a jacket when the sea breeze blew in, but I was able to wear a t-shirt for most of the day (although apparently the weather was exceptionally nice for this time of the year in San Francisco). On even the warmest day in La Paz, when you feel the sun burning your skin and searing your eyes, if you step into the shade you’ll feel a chill. I actively seek out the sunny spots to walk in because it gets too cold in the shadows. This temperature diversity is what happens at an altitude of thousands of meters. Considering this, I can’t understand how I got sunburned in San Francisco. I suppose it was the reflection off the water and the silver skyscrapers, plus the big open spaces ideal for strolling. These are all lacking in La Paz. Hills, however, are not. Sorry San Francisco, but you’re really not that hilly. I think the reputation is undeserved. There are some steep hills, but most the city seems to be flat or only gently sloping. In La Paz, you’re hard pressed to find somewhere that isn’t on a hill. The Prado, running down the middle of the city, is the only flat street in the centre of town. Everything else slopes up from here (or down, depending on which direction you’re traveling). So not only am I super fit from walking around La Paz for ten months, I also have way more red blood cells than I would if I lived at sea level, which means I’m practically superhuman. I was up Telegraph Hill without even pausing for breath, while others took slow steps. It’s too bad this effect doesn’t last long, but at least I’m able to acclimatize easier now I’m back in La Paz.