Jul 142015
 Posted by on July 14, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  1 Response »

A few hours south of Quito is the spectacular mountain town of Banos, nestled under the active volcano, Tungurahua. Volcan Tungurahua tends to errupt frequently, including fairly recently, but the locals always come back,  minus a few relatives, limbs and layers of skin.

There are many adventures to be had in Banos, mostly focused upon mountain bikes, rafting, climbing and visiting the many sketchy bars. The only problem with Banos (apart from the active Volcano) is that it rains; not your regular type of rain, but rain that never stops. In fact, it rains so much that it washes the Andes away along with the roads that have miraculously been built upon it.


Banos, city of rain

After riding to Banos with David on the back, who never once complained about being soaking wet, we arrived at our hotel. It was a pleasant enough hotel with a sauna (and for some bizarre reason, a swimming pool), but it did get a tad claustrophobic after a day or two because of the persistent rain. So we decided to go for a ride and where better to ride when it is raining, but to the Amazon.


Volcano evacuation route, Banos

We planned to ride to Puyo in the Amazon basin; a mere 63 KMS away, but distance is relative in the Andes as many other factors have to be considered. The first barrier we encountered was a long line of trucks and cars, about 5 kilometers long. We rode past the cars and busses, that looked like they had been there a very long time, and came to a mudslide that bulldozers and trucks were hastily clearing. During a break in the theatre of blades and mud and gushing water, we sneaked past them, waved respectably, and continued along the road to Puyo.


Church in Banos

After a couple of kilometers, we entered a tunnel that looked a lot like the mine-shafts that I had seen as a child on the West Coast of Tasmania. We rode into the dark tunnel, that is strangley wetter on the inside than the outside, as water was coming through the roof; not in a pleasant Sunday-drive trickle, but in roaring waterfalls. We rode past the waterfalls, consider the engineering ramifications, and continue on our journey.


Entering the Amazon

After a couple of more kilometers we encounter another road block and another set of blades, mud and trucks. Again we negotiate the mudslide, wave, and continue on our journey. And then there is another tunnel and another mudslide and a theme develops. After a couple of hours of this we have still only gone about 20 kms and the vegetation starts to look mightily spooky; we were nearing the Amazon! But as it was getting dark and the road may have disappeared behind us, we decided to leave the Amazon for another day and went back to Banos just in time for happy hour.

Jul 052015
 Posted by on July 5, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: ,  No Responses »

South of Quito, the picturesque capital of Ecuador, and near the mighty volcano Cotapaxi, there is a loop that connects a number of small indigenous communities via road. Many intrepid travelers walk the loop, or take the bus, but David and I decided to do it on the moto.

We spent the first night in Latacunga, a pleasant enough colonial-style town (with many young men with unfortunate haircuts), then set off up a windy road into the clouds (literally!)


Everyone wears a 1920s style hat in Zambahua

The first town we stopped in was called Zumbahua, a small lively village where the locals spoke Kichwa, the language of the Incas (the Incas invaded Ecuador from Peru and then the Spanish invaded the Incas from Spain and the Ameicans invaded the Spanish from America). We arrived on the weekend and the locals were having a party, so we set ourselves up in a rickety wooden hotel overlooking the square and joined in.

A big bottle of beer was only $1, so $6 later, we were having a good time. Thousands of villages had come from all the damp crevices of the mountains for the party and they didn’t hold back! There was a band, dancing, bull fighting, fireworks, street food, and lots of drinking both beer and the locally produced rice wine; strong enough to kill a pony. The party continued the entire weekend and the window of our hotel room was literally metres from the square, so we didn’t get any sleep all weekend, nor did anyone else in the town.


Party-on Zambahua!

The next place we visited (bleary eyed) was Laguna Quilotoa, a bottomless volcanic lake full of lime-green water. The walk around the lake on a thin, crumbly path with steep cliffs on either side took no less than six hours.


Languna Quilotoa is bottomless..

The next town, Chugchilan, was a shit-hole; its only redeeming feature being its location (sort of like Sydney I suppose). But we stayed at a wonderful Hostel (everything is called a Hostel in Equador), called Hostel Cloud Forest. The next day, armed with some sketchy directions from the hostel owner, we set off to see the mythical cloud forest. A cloud forest occurs when the mountains are higher than the clouds and the clouds sneak into the valleys of the mountain and take a rest before continuing on their journey. It is pretty damn special to witness, but a tad spooky and we were hesitant to walk down the road that vanished into the clouds.


Don't go into the Cloud Forest.

The next town, Isinlivi, was in a permanent coma, so we didn’t stay long. And David, my trusty navigator, got some dodgy directions from an old local lady who had possible never driven a 4WD jeep in 40 years let alone a 125 cc moto with two people on it. Our “road” back to lazy Modernity took us on an unsealed, rocky, and windy cliff-hanger over a 4000 metre pass that tested the poor Yamaha and our relationship.


Bull fighting in Zambahua...

Jun 232015
 Posted by on June 23, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: ,  1 Response »

The past week after leaving Colombia I have been in Ecuador where I met my friend David loitering within the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’ in a small village called Cotacachi. I missed Colombia as soon as I crossed the border, especially the soldiers on the side of the road decked-out in full combat gear, adorned with handsome,  well-oiled  machine guns and giving the universal ‘thumbs up’ to signal that all was well around the next corner in which I was pointing the 125 cc moto.


Hosteria Oro Azul, Cotacachi

David was volunteering at a Hosteria (hotel) just outside of Cotacachi, so I piggy-backed on the good will of his efforts and stayed for a lazy 3 days to refresh my Garcia-Marquez. David, weighing-in at a modest 52 kgs, then jumped on the back of the moto, and we sped-off at 50 kmh to Cotopaxi, the nearest active volcano. The owner of the Hosteria,  a lovely man in a funny hat, advised us that Cotopaxi was closed to visitors because it was erupting, which made our journey much more exciting because we had never seen an erupting volcano.


The active volcano, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

After riding past a number of helpful “warning volcano” signs on the side of the mighty Pan-Amarican highway, we arrive at the gate to volcano Cotopaxi. However, the park ranger, a well – spoken Ecuadorian lady in her early 30s, wouldn’t let us in with the moto because she was afraid that the fumes from the moto would impact upon the small animals! So we left the 125cc Suzuki (with its errupting nuclear reactor) at the gate and hitched a ride on the back of a jeep.


The car park at 4800 metres, Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador

The jeep drove into the park and after a bumpy 10 kms, we started our assent up the fearsome Cotopaxi. The jeep went up and up and up and the temperature went down and down and down.  And then it started to snow (sidways) and the flesh-eating wind grew to a blizzard and striped the life off the barren, deathly landscape. At the car park at the end of the road, I jump off the back of the jeep, gasping for what passed as air at 4800 meters, looked at David, who had already died 3 times, and wonder when we are going down again.


Cotopaxi volcano carpark in a blizzard

David then disappears into the mist chasing his hat and the driver and the others casually get out of the cab to climb to a mythical base-camp-cabin somewhere above what is already the highest point I have been anywhere on earth. I quickly get into the vacant cab, still trying to breath, and then David comes back, after dieing a fourth time, and without a hat. We wait in the cab of the freezing jeep for what seems like hours until the others come back smiling, they kick us out and battling the wind we climb on back and go down again to where the humans live.

Jun 132015
 Posted by on June 13, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »

Colombia has one of the most diverse climates of any region that I have ever encountered; from tropical beaches, to cool cloud forests, to misty towns in the mountains, to dusty lawless deserts fit only for banditos. Riding a motorcycle over this geography is challenging as it is almost impossible to predict what the temperature will be in the next town. When I was in Santa Marta on the Carribean coast, I rode a mere 20 kms to a town called Minca and the temperature halved (from 30+ Celsius to about 14 Celsius). Minca is at an elevation of only about 1000 meters but has its own sub-climate of heavy predictable monsoon rainfalls, cold nights, and misty days.



At the next town that I stopped, Tolu, the temperature was unbarably hot at noon and only the mentally challenged (and gringos) could be seen wandering about outdoors at this time of day. In the next town, the large modern metropolis of Santa Marta, the temperature was a mild and comfortable 25 Celsius with bright sunny days and cool evenings. But in the next town, Soleno in the coffee region up in the mountains, the rains and the mist had returned and the weather forecast predicted that the liklihood of rain was 100% over the next 7 days (it has a monsoonal type of sub-climate good for growing coffee beans).



I am now in Popayan, not far from the Equadorian border, a beautiful colonial town with an impressive and well maintained historical central district. The temperature here is hot with bright sunny days and shorts and tee shirts are a must (yesterday in Solento I was wearing thermals and a puff jacket).


Soleno, coffee plantation

In the next couple of days I will cross into Equador to do some trekking near Quito and make my way the next 6000 KMS (on my trusty 125cc motorcycle) through the other diverse climates of South America on the way to Mount Fitz Roy in Pategonia.



May 312015
 Posted by on May 31, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: ,  2 Responses »

I have taken one bus so far in South America, it was only for 4 hours between Cartagena and Santa Marta, and it truly sucked. The thought of travelling the next 6000-8000 KMS by bus to Santiago in Chile made my heart sink as there is nothing particularly adventurous nor romantic about the autobus. I was contemplating this dilemma in my breezy hotel in a little fishing port called Taganga when I asked a young chap called Kieran for a cigarette  (been doing too much of this lately).  Then his mate Tom came over and we start talking and it turns out that they had just ridden from Santiago on motorcycles and both of them were for sale.


A few beers and cigarettes later, I had transferred a reasonably large sum of money and the autobus problem was solved. I am now the proud owner of a motorcycle that is going to take me all the way to the other end of South America!


Admittedly it is no Harley Davidson, and it is possibly the smallest motorcycle to travel from end-to-end of South Ameica, but it is almost new and if these guys can do it, then I am sure I can too. South America has now become a monumental road trip and if anyone every glibly says that “it’s a small world” I will give them a spanking.


May 302015
 Posted by on May 30, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  2 Responses »

After spending 3 weeks in Bogota in a sprawling colonial – style house in the Chapinero district, I decided that my Spanish was workable enough to tackle this monumental continent (well, I can communicate the important things, like ordering food and beer, but then it gets a tad complicated). And I must say, having cafés around the corner from my pad in Bogota, a large television set, a soft couch and a buddy from Australia to hang out with was a welcome reprieve from the day-to-day slog of solo traveling. Traveling is not really about grand narratives, they are always a few towns in the past and they take a little while to weave their way into the coherent present. The day-to-day stuff, like ATMs designed by Kafka, matresses stuffed with dead porkipines, sketchy dim-lit streets that stand between you and the next bar and slipping on the floor and cutting your head open in unfamiliar bathrooms are the potatoes and beans of travelling (yes I did that and I thought my biggest danger in Colombia would be leftist paramilitaries, but perhaps it is banality that is always the most dangerous).

For instance, the other day I caught a flight to Cartegena on the Caribbean Coast. Cartagena is a 16th Century Spanish colonial town fortified by a menacing wall to keep out pirates (old school pirates,  not Kim Dotcom). I arrive at the airport and search for a cab to take me into the centre of Cartegena to my ‘travellers hotel’ (with a rating of 23 on Hostelworld). I find a cab, a zippy yellow number that looked a bit like a Costco shopping trolley. I take a deep breath and squish in (lucky I am travelling alone) and tell the driver the name of the street, which is Las Tortugus.


Dog days

We drive into the town, past the fortressed walls and into Getsemani, the backpackers district of Cartegena. The cab drives along a busy road that is hot and polluted, one of those cancerous veins that drain most modern cities. The cab stops on the side of the apocalypse and I look out the window but it definitely isn’t ‘Las Tortugus’. I was about to ask him WTF are we, but I don’t know how to say WTF in Spanish and I have only just learnt the word for turtle.

I decide to get out of the trolly/cab and make my own way as my legs will carry me better than my language skills. I open the door, on the apocalypse side of cab, and of course, given the nature of this journey so far, it collects the side of the Colombian middle class, mirrors go flying, metal on metal and then Spanish on Spanish.  The car, a late model Lexus, favoured by many respectable gangsters, is scratched end to end. Then a large Colombian gentleman with some interesting agrarian features gets out and stands next to me holding his rear vision mirror in his hand.

A crowd gathers, backpackers, hawkers, cab drivers, and hotdog sellers. And they are all speaking loudly in Spanish in a unfamiliar tone. A man that looks alot like Francis Drake, complete with eye path, walks up to me and says in a matter-of-fact way, are you going to pay? I hadn’t thought I actually had an option and if this was India, I would have already been locked up as ransom. I thought about the pirates question for a moment and then I said, “I don’t really want to”. And then he says “then leg it then before the cops come” (and I wasn’t sure what this meant, but I didn’t want to find out).

I didn’t actually leg-it, it was more a gentlemanly bow, a few friendly smiles, a greeting here and there, then I’m on my way, briskly walking up a sketchy dim-lit steet called ‘Las Tortugus’ to where I found my hotel along with some ethical reflections.


Beach near Santa Marta, Caribbean Coast, Colombia

May 172015
 Posted by on May 17, 2015 travel, travelogue Tagged with: , ,  1 Response »

Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is a large modern metropolis of about 8 million people that sits atop a mountain range of 2500 metres. Because of this it has a cool, temperate climate, that is in stark contrast to the other, tropical parts of the country. I have been here for 2 weeks now, taking a rest after 4 months of hard traveling, getting my itinerary together, waiting for my soul to catch up, and learning some basic Spanish. In Asia the travel advice is always, “learn a bit of the local lingo, the locals will appreciate it”, but as my friend David says, in South America you must learn to speak Spanish otherwise the locals will think your an idiot (and they do think I am an idiot).


National Museum of Colombia

Bogota is very similar to large “new world” Western cities, as it’s overly industrialised and excessively modern; a bit shabby, dehumanising and robotic like elements of LA, Sydney, and Melbourne. When I first got here I was expecting to find many of the dignified rhythms of the best of Spain, but instead found many of the hum-drum rhythms of the worst of the United States. Bogota is a down-beat work-a-day city with a 9-5 culture of large office buildings, peak hour traffic from hell, and big pissy, desperate weekends. The majority of the food here makes the diet of the English working class look healthy and I never knew there were so many ways to deep fry food (ie. and this is a component of the worst of the United States). But then again, like all big cities, Bogota is full of contradictions and if one can manage to cross the roads, there are some of the best museums I have seen anywhere full of Inca gold, exuberant contemporary art, and smug portraits of Spanish conquistadors. Plus they are curated in a sensitive and contextually informed manner, especially the National Museum and Gold Museum (and the museums are usually free or close to it).


Graffiti in Bogota

Bogota isn’t really an international city (unless this is defiend by down-town Los Angeles), as it is a very, very long way from Asia and the Middle East. And perhaps there isn’t really such a thing as “the International” anyhow, only ways to see the international as the international, as we all engage with the forces of the world differently (and every wondered why the only people you will find in elevators of the London Shard are shiney, well meaning hillbillies from Perth or Dubai perhaps imagining that they inhabit the peak of civilisation?) The iron cage of Modernity is everywhere and inhabits no where, so read those history books peeps because they may just give you access to many more richer worlds.


Entrance to the Salt Cathedral near Bogota

And in terms of the elephant in the room, the drug question, well I am glad you asked. Here is my blog-post version. In the 1960s, the United States was at the peak of its economic power, perhaps controlling half of the World’s economy. And the large, brattish generation that grew up in that period started smoking marajuana and snorting cocain in the truck loads. And ironically, whilst this generation was saving Vietnam, they were also f**king up Colombia as someone had to supply them with all the trucks and boats and planes stuffed full of high-grade coke and marajuana.

In Colombia, a well organised criminal class emerged, led by people such as Pablo Escobar and members of Maoist rebel groups to supply lubricants for emergent American lifestyles (and not just the US of course). This led to bucket loads of cash, deadly weapons, years of internal conflict, murders and kidnappings and loss of State control over large parts of the country. Although, I am told, the conflict between the rebels and the drug lords and the State is not as bad as it once was, Colombia is still the World’s second largest producer of cocain after Peru and some parts of the country are still even out of bounds to bloggers!.


Modern Bogota