Saturday, 31 March 2012

Bathing in Banos

The journey back from the Amazon took us about 20 hours to reach our next destination of Banos. This made us feel like proper hard core explorers but also made us very keen to find a comfortable place to chill out for a few days. In many ways Banos was the perfect place to chill out, it is named after the hot thermal springs which are meant to have all sorts of soothing medicinal properties. It however took us a couple of days to properly get into the swing of chilling out. In our first full day we hired mountain bikes and headed off on a 20km bike ride. Fortunately the ride was about 70% down hill so it was not too hard. The only real difficulty was when we came to a land slide which completely blocked the road, thankfully a kind Danish man was on the other side and we were able to pass him our bikes as we chambered over the rocks. Near the end of our ride we stopped to walk down to see a water fall known as El Diablo. It was the most impressive waterfalls I have ever seen. The sheer power of so much water forced through a small space created a great roar and a mass of white spray. There was a small cave that we could crawl through so we could stand behind the water getting soaked but with a great view. The second day we once again failed to chill out and instead decided to book a white water rafting trip. Despite my nerves after the instructor gave us a terrifying introduction on what to do if you fell in, we all managed to stay in the boat. The rain was however so heavy by the end it looked like we had swam the river anyway. After our hectic start we were able the next few days to properly chill out. Banos is a lovely little town with loads of nice cafes, restaurants and a market where you can buy nice freshly mixed fruit drinks and barbecued guinea pigs. We bought a number of the drinks but could not bring ourselves to try the guinea pigs yet. We knew that we had really managed to wind down when the most strenuous activities we fit into two days was sitting in the warm thermal baths by another waterfall and sitting in a cafe all afternoon watching the old classic film 'whem Harry met Sally'.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Jungle is massive!

It's been a while since our last Blog as we had a bit of a disaster on a bus - my passport, money, camera and debit card were stolen!! Not good at all and we're so careful with our stuff but someone must have dived under my seat from behind to get to it as I had by wedged in by my feet. Very frustrating but after a lot of paperwork I am now the holder of an emergency passport. And fortunately I didn't lose any photos as I switched memory cards the day it was stolen which is a little strange. Back to the Amazon which really was something worth remembering. After a 10 hour overnight bus ride, with numerous police searches, throughout the night, we rocked up at a bridge where we boarded a motorised canoe with our guide and our 5day adventure began. On the ride back to the lodge we spotted 4 types of monkey jumping overhead, toucans and a snake. We were loving it already. The lodge was surprisingly the most luxurious place we stayed, considering it was in the middle of nowhere. And the food was incredible-3 courses every time. There were only 2 other guests in the lodge which we didn't think would be as fun to begin with but we were lucky the other 2 people were a young Germany couple who were great fun. And it meant because we were a small group we could choose what we wanted to do a bit more. We did so much in these 5 days that it's a little tricky to write about. We really got our money's worth as we would be rounded up for 3-4 different trips each day! We would have about 30mins spare time-it was non stop! But i'll write up some of the highlights. We went on a 4 hour hike through the forest where our guide Wilmer, who was definitely a character, he told us all about how the locals use the plants for medicinal purposes. We tasted liquids from trees, lit liquids which were actually used as firelighters and incense, had a go at swinging on vines and waded through swamp water up to our thighs which was particularly entertaining as our guide laughed hysterically at how muddy we all were. He was definitely disappointed that none of us fell in!! Piranha fishing was great fun. You had to thrash the water with your bamboo rod to convince the piranha that something had fallen in and then as soon as you felt a nibble speedily pull the hook up. Jonty did very well catching one but although I got lots of nibbles I failed to catch him this time. Luckily we did get a chance to piranha fish again as we loved it, so peaceful, and I was determined to catch one. And I did better than that catching two and Jonty caught one more a fish called a Huanchiche. Our guide scarily demonstrated how strong the jaws of the piranha, by putting a twig in its mouth and it would slice right through it. No piranha dinner for us though as we threw them back to maintain the piranha numbers. That wasn't the only scary creatures we saw though. We went on a night walk and a night boat ride. On the walk we saw whip snake spiders and bullfrogs and had to turn off our torches at one point as our guide was convinced the dangerous bush tracker snake was trailing us. We're not sure still if he was winding us up about this but he seemed worried!! But the 6metre caimen we spotted by its glowing red eyes in the dark was a definite highlight. The boat eased right up to it and we were so close we could touch it, hmmm, but we were all fine until it dived under the boat and the driver speedily reversed away!! Each evening, we would go swimming in the middle of one of the great lakes at sunset. And one time, when it was just Jonty and I as we stayed on an extra day than the couple, we spotted river dolphins again but this time fairly close and our guide quite rightly said "when are we going to get a chance to swim with river dolphins again" so we dived right in. It was incredible, possibly my favourite moment swimming across that great, quiet lake and getting so close to the dolphins. I never quite caught them up, funny that, but I got pretty close to them and had almost swum the length of the lake when the boat pulled alongside and the guide told me I was swimming right next to where we had seen the 6m caimen yesterday. I was back in the boat within seconds, Jonty already on there. The guide told us that it's fine the caimen don't go there in the day and he wouldn't have let us in there if it wasn't safe but we later heard that another group had seen a caimen crossing the lake quite close to me- hmmm!! A pretty memorable trip was when we went to see the local shamen Tomas. We arrived and we saw a man dressed in jeans and tshirt but within minutes he was dressed in brightly coloured traditional shamen clothes. We felt it was little put on for the tourists but he was a friendly man and he proceeded to tell us about what he does, through a translator, and how he uses hallucinogenic plants to find out what is wrong with a patient. He conducted a mock ceremony on our german friend who struggled to keep a straight face and we were relieved we hadn't been chosen as the mock patient. On our last day as it was just me and Jonty on the tour, our guide who we had come to know very well now and liked (despite the fact he took about 20 photos a day of himself looking moody at arms length-ha), taught us how to drive the motorised canoe. This was very entertaining as we tried to do 3 point or 0 point turns in the river!! Most nights after dinner we would all play a game of some kind and it was while we were playing a dice game that I thought I saw a tarantula on me and I jumped up and screamed. It was actually a spiny lobster- check it out on Google images. We managed to look at it closely, after the initial shock, but it looks like something from a Doctor Who film!! The staff all found it pretty funny as they'd all run out to see what was going on when I screamed!! Jonty also had a surprise visitor of a frog jump on him in our room but he wasn't as terrifying as a spiny lobster. We were very sad when it was time to go, but in need of a rest after the 5.30am starts and non stop exciting schedule. We saw so much incredible wildlife, I have lists of everything we saw but won't bore you with all of them. But in summary the highlights were, river dolphins (not pink the ones we saw I'm afraid Phil but apparently its the older ones that are pink), caimen, parrots, toucans, kingfishers, stinky birds (so many birds) red headed woodpeckers, snakes, owl/squirrel/cappuccino/yellow handed titi monkeys, snakes. And the list goes was an awesome, beautiful 5 days.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Watch the birdie

Mindo, a sleepy village in the cloud forest was our next stop. And it certainly lived up to its cloud forest name with all the surrounding mountains covered in clouds in turn giving the village a feeling of being in a bubble and totally cut off from society. We were staying in a cute wooden cabin hostel overlooking a noisy running river which was lovely to go to sleep to and there were humming bird feeders down by the deck so gave us another chance to try and take a photo of the fastest birds in the west well south!! Wandered around town and got drawn into watching a local very competitive volleyball game where money was changing hands. I was keen to join in but held back! Instead we treated ourselves to a classic Ecuadorian meal of Churruso which is steak with two eggs on top mmmm! We're certainly not eating too badly on our travels. Mindo is officially the birding capital of the world so we went on several pretty walks to track down the toucan which is officially our favourite bird. Our first walk didn't end up being the most successful. After walking along a pretty track for a couple of hours, having not spotted much, we sat down to eat our snacks which proved disastrous as i was wearing shorts and i was ravaged by sand flies-gaining 50 bites. Not my finest moment! I'm still suffering. Jonty was spared as he was wearing trousers! But that didn't stop us - the next day we set off at 7am and this time we managed to pick up a guide but not of the human variety. Whilst crossing the town square a cute black dog who had a permanent smile came and said hello. We responded and that was it he led the way for the next two hours all the way up to a waterfall and along the route where all the birds were. When we stopped to look at birds he stopped patiently and waited for us and then marched on when we started up. It was like having our own littlest hobo. The only problem we had was when i ducked under a fence to get a picture of the classic black and yellow toucan and smiler continued to maintain his guide position by running ahead of me but he ended up scaring off the toucans. But, it was pretty cool seeing them in flight. We spotted a few more other toucans and a quetzel and a south american turkey bird with help from official tour guides that we came across with big scopes. The colours and the bird song were very cool. After 2 hours it was time to say goodbye to our canine guide as we had reached the cable car which would take us over to the walk to the waterfall. After speaking to the cable car operator we found out that Smiler regularly escorts tourists up to the waterfall-very kind of him. We got in the 4 person cage to cross a canyon and then walked a couple more hours to a pretty waterfall which surprisingly had a concrete staircase next to it so you could walk up the waterfall!! In the evenings as it was a pretty quiet town we had dinner with some cool people we met and then ended the evening with beer and a few rounds of yachtzee. Oh yes we know how to party!!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012


As it is far too risky to go overland from central to South America we flew from Panama city to Quito in Ecuador. The customs official in Panama decided he was going to give me a hard time although it was nothing to do with where we were going but more to do with what I was wearing. He looked up from his newspaper and saw my Spurs shirt and kindly reminded me that Spurs had just lost to Arsenal 5-2. He kept saying el classico cinco dos! Landing in Quito was the first time being in South America and for me the first time being South of the Equator. It was also the first time we had experienced that much altitude. Quito is 2850m high and you can feel it's effects. As soon as the plane touched down Katie felt dizzy. Walking towards immigration she needed to sit down as the world was spinning and she was feeling weak. The effects gradually wore off over the next two days but it was a good warning for when we want to hike Machu Picchu. On the first morning a lovely Ecudorian woman gave us a tour of the old town. There were many beautiful churches, incredible colonial buildings and interesting facts but embarrassingly the one thing that most stayed in my mind was the story of the architect who was not properly paid so cheekily put large penises on the cherubs decorating the house he was building opposite one of the cities grandest churches. One of the things I most liked about Quito was the statue of the virgin Mary standing on a dragon, which overlooks the city from a nearby hill. She makes quite an imposing presence from nearly any street in the town. To a couple of gringo tourists like us Quito felt wonderfully foreign. Both the men and women wore fedorer style hats and many wore traditional clothes, embroidered shirts and the women had babies strapped to their backs whilst the men had long pony tails. Our attempt to find authentic Ecuadorian night life was however a mixed success. We went out in a part of town which was full of people, bright lights and loud music. It was gave us a sensory overload considering we had only recently left the desert islands of San Blas. We failed to find our dream place with live Latin music and ended up drinking in a club that was playing UK dance music from the early 90's. However by the end of the night they started playing some local tunes and Katie and I "wowed" the locals with our Latin dancing. On Saturday we left Quito for the nearby town of Otavalo famed for its market - the biggest market in South America. The market was an incredible sight, so colourful and vibrant and so different to anything we had seen before. It started in the main square selling beautiful hand crafted goods to locals and tourists and then spreads out to all the nearby streets selling everything from Nike trainers to armadillo guitars to Indian headdresses and ground up bugs which were meant to cure all sorts of diseases. We got tempted by some paintings and jewellery. The people were as fascinating as the goods they were selling. The locals wore beautiful traditional outfits but most did not like gringos taking pictures of them which was a shame because Katie wanted to take a picture of everthing she saw as the scenes were so exotic and a lot to take in. The food in Otavalo was also lovely, although because of my poor Spanish for some reason the waitress in one restaurant brought me two plates of trout to eat. Katie then joked I did it on purpose and called me two-trout Jonty! The next day we did a 4 hour hike around a lake formed in the crater of a volcano called Laguna Cuicocha. The views were absolutely stunning on a lovely sunny day, on one side the sun was shinning on the lake while on our other side we could see for miles the mountains and valleys around Otavalo.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Island life with the Kunas

We've actually made it to Ecuador now and we're currently sitting in a cloud forest watching humming birds dart around.  our mission here was to see a toucan again but no luck on our walk this morning but as i'm sitting here writing the blog the lady who owns the place runs over to us to show us a toucan which she is holding.  Not exactly the way i expected to see a toucan and we had no idea why she was holding it.  Turns out some other people staying in the hostel had run out saying there's a rat in our room and she went into investigate and found a toucan under the bed.  Now that's my kind of rat!

Anyway better get back to Panama and playing catch up.  We headed to San Blas a remote set of hundreds of islands all owned and run by indigenous people.  After a rough jeep ride we caught a boat to our chosen island and flew across the caribbean sea bouncing over the waves.  When we turned up it looked as though we had swam as we were drenched but exhilarated from the ride.  Island life couldn't have been more different than Panama City!!  We could walk around the island in under 10 mins, there were only 3 families living on the island and 3 sets of cabins.  The island was stunning, with crystal clear carribbean water and palm tree lined beaches.

Days followed a similar pattern, swimming, snorkelling, reading, chatting to fellow shipwrecked travellers.  Busy busy schedules!!  Days were punctuated by several memorable moments.  The first being when Jonty went for his first swim in the sea and suddenly found that he was a human climbing frame as two local children climbed all over him.  After looking a little confused and concerned  he soon realised what they wanted and proceeded to flip them in the air and into the sea.  Very sweet.

Another highlight had to be a bumpy boat trip to an uninhabited island with a few other travellers where the sea floor was just covered in star fish.  It was very cool.  There were orange, yellow and red ones and we'd never seen so many.  

The passing of the days were often marked by meal times where we would all sit around the table together and eat.  After 3 meals the same - chicken, chicken and more chicken we were besides ourselves when a catch of lobster and a massive red snapper came in.  The atmosphere was fab that night as we feasted like kings and the night was finished off with a campfire on the beach- a pretty violent one as it was fueled by palm tree leaves which go up in seconds.  We found the kuna people fascinating who lived on the island.  The women wore the most incredible brightly coloured traditional dress with beads wound all up their legs and the children were very sweet and were keen to join in whenever we were playing a game like frisbee.

Our final night we had a persistent visitor in our straw hut we were sleeping in on the beach-a very cute but playful kitten.  After putting it out twice and it sneaking back in we decided that the kitten would play this game all night so we made a bed for it where it happily slept.

Island life had been pretty special but not sure if we're cut out for it long term as we think we might have gone a bit stir crazy staying there for any longer than a week.  After 4 days it was time to head to the mainland and to see what on earth we looked like in a mirror!

Katie and Jonty xx

Monday, 5 March 2012

Big city medium sized canal

Leaving the madness of las tablas and heading for Panama city we found out that traffic after a major holiday is pretty similar all around the world. However despite being stuck in traffic for a couple hours we realised that it could have been much worse when we bumped into two people at the bus station who had left over two hours before us. We decided that we had not quite got our fill of carnival so went to see the last evening of Panama city's carnival. We missed the floats but got to watch some live bands play some latin flavoured music. It was fun but not as good as Las tablas. Panama city was unlike any place we had been before with big shopping malls and even bigger sky scrappers. We however were staying in the old town which was very pretty and was in the process of a major renovation. There was building work everywhere but it seemed thst they were doing there best to keep its old world charm. Following our Lonely Planet guide book we decided to go to what they described as one of the unmissable attractions in Panama and go to the tourist centre on the Panama canal. However as soon as we paid our $5 we knew it was a mistake. We were surprised quite how unimpressive the canals lock was. Although you had to be impressed with the guide who seemedlike he was genuinely excited by the dull facts he was reading out.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Carnival Panamania!

Carnival Panamania! We were a little sad to leave Costa Rica as we'd loved the country and the friendly people but we were very excited about our next adventure in Panama. We made it across the border into Panama surprisingly easily and after 12 hours of travelling we decided to split our journey and stay in a small town called santiago. We stayed in a really quirky local hostal and met some lovely people but pushed on to Las Tablas for what was to be our home for 4 nights of carnival madness. And it was crazy. The panamanians really know how to party - having a day and night party session. In the day it was all about dancing, eating food on sticks, drinking and water water water. There were massive fire trucks and tankers lined along several of the streets and they would let rip by hosing down the partygoers. It was pretty entertaining and often very welcome as it was so hot. At times though it was a bit like running the gauntlet if you just wanted to make it to the next street. Let's just say we got drenched pretty often. And it wasn't only the giant hoses you had to watch out for but locals and kids who were armed with water guns and were keen to shoot the gringos especially as we were a very rare sight as there were probably only about 20 gringos amongst the tens of thousands of party goers. The people were incredibly friendly and there were so many families out making the atmosphere just fab. And there was a massive police and military presence so there was no trouble which was surprising considering there were so many people partying. At 4pm the police would clear the streets and give the town a chance to recover before the evening party began. Las Tablas was the biggest and most popular carnival in panama and we could see why. The floats were incredible-so elaborate, colourful with giant animal creations and feathers adorning the queens. The panama carnival is all about the battle between the two carnival queens from different areas of the city. And each queen would have a brass band following and supporting them, along with other supporters following the floats on foot. The brass bands were just so cool-playing so energetically -really fun and lively tunes. You really felt part of it as you could literally touch the floats as they passed by and often had to run to get out of the way. There were also endless firework displays framing the floats and the most obscene amount of firecrackers at times just chucked in the street. The noise was deafening but added to the excitement-although one lot went on for half an hour-crazy. Off the main square where the parades were there were so many cool little bars, clubs and bands playing in the street and this is where jonty and i learnt or attempted to learn the merengue - the local dance - by watching the locals We had the most special time in las tablas and we were fortunate as we were staying on the coast so we could get away from the madness for a bit if we needed to - although i did get stung by a jellyfish again. We had a very entertaining german host too who'd cook the most ridiculously huge breakfasts so we were stocked up until dinner. The other people staying at the hotel were lovely and such good fun too so we would head into town with them and enjoy carnival. We were sad to go but in need of a rest when we eventually left for Panama city. Katie and Jonty