All Posts By

Sarah - Exploring Kiwis

Adventure Eco Tourism Hawai'i United States of America

Ditch the Cage – Shark Diving with One Ocean Diving, Oahu Hawaii

February 22, 2018

Imagine yourself, legs hovering tentatively over the surface of the water, knowing exactly what will greet you beneath the surface.  A wave of excitement washing over you as your last remaining nerves begin to slowly melt away.  The chill of the deep ocean splashing up against your flippered foot as you drift in slowly towards the others.  Days earlier, this water would have been a shock to your system but today, you’ve got your mind on other things.

Sharks.

Lots of them.

It’s a funny feeling intentionally getting into the water with dozens upon dozens of sharks, especially knowing everyone else on the island chooses to do so in a cage.

But you know what?  You don’t need a cage when diving with sharks in Hawaii.  Seriously, you don’t.

Free Diving with Sharks in Oahu – One for the Bucket List

When we last visited Oahu, cage diving with sharks was something that caught our eyes.  With limited time though, it wasn’t to be.

When we booked our return trip to Honolulu, you can guess which activity suddenly shot to the top of our travel wishlist!

There was no debating it; this time we were on the hunt for sharks – only not in the way you might imagine.

Anti-Jaws: The Natural Beauty of Sharks

Sharks may not be commonly found on the ‘most beautiful’ list within nature but having now swum with them on multiple occasions, this is something we’d seriously challenge.  With incredible grace, intelligence, stamina and curiosity, they are an absolute pleasure to observe in the wild.

On the surface, the fear that some people hold for sharks is understandable.  Dig a little deeper though and you learn very quickly that sharks don’t deserve the reputation that they’ve garnered in the media.

Cageless Shark Diving: Is It Really Safe?

Absolutely!  The team at One Ocean Diving have a 100% safety record and spend a great deal of time with these beauties.  They know many of the sharks well, check for signs of aggression before any visitors enter the water and adapt their programme to suit the animals on any given day.  Before diving, guests are loaded up with information, ensuring a safe and comfortable experience for everyone.

The second you slip into the water and look down upon these incredible creatures, I I’d practically guarantee you that any fear will slip away.  When you push misconceptions aside, you’re left with nothing but reality…

Sharks are seriously impressive.

At no point in the swim did any of us feel even remotely uncomfortable; quite the opposite!

If you closed your eyes and listened, you’d hear nothing but our gasps of excitement, non-stop chatter above the surface, the sound of bubbles rising through the water and the call of nearby whales echoing around.

There really isn’t anything to fear.

What Makes One Ocean Diving Different?

These guys know their stuff.

With a strong focus on education and conservation, the One Ocean team are serious about changing broad misperceptions about sharks.  They clearly live and breathe sharks and their passion for them is enough to convince even the most hesitant guest of the importance of their plight.

It’s incredibly obvious that a dive with One Ocean goes beyond your typical tourist activity.

With the attending marine biologist/specialist, you’ll learn about the physiology, biology and behaviour of sharks whilst learning how to read their body language and how to safely interact with them in their own habitat.

As the first and only cageless shark research programme in Hawaii, their first priority is protecting the numerous species they encounter in the region.  On any given day, you run the chance of seeing a range of pelagic sharks; sandbar, Galapagos, tiger, great white, hammerhead sharks and more are all potentially up for grabs.  That’s not mentioning any number of bonus mammals, fish and whales that you can expect to see too.

We were incredibly lucky to find our way to two massive schools converging – the more dominant Galapagos sharks rising to the surface whilst the less aggressive sandbar sharks intentionally lazed around below.  All in all, we shared the water with over 50 sharks whilst being serenaded by whales throughout the dive.

One Ocean Diving Hawaii: Everything you need to know to prepare for your dive

Getting There

To get to the harbour, you’ll need to head for the infamous North Shore of Oahu in a rental car.  We picked up our rental just after 7am (when they opened) and had enough time to stop in at a drugstore for supplies before heading to the dock at 8.30am.  It’s a comfortable drive over to One Ocean and there’s no need to pay for GPS at the rental agency – just preload either Google Maps or Waze and you’ll be set.

What to Take on Your Shark Dive

Fortunately, you’ll already have all of the required supplies with you on vacation and anything else you might need, One Ocean are able to supply.

We suggest you have on hand:

  • Flip flops (or jandals as we Kiwis call them)
  • A bathing suit (togs)
  • A towel
  • Sunscreen
  • A rash shirt and/or swim shorts if you’re looking for some protection from the sun.  The team do have rash shirts that you’re able to borrow onboard should your wish.  They don’t supply wetsuits but there’s really no need for them – the water is relatively warm and once you’re in, you won’t think twice about it.
  • Snacks and drinks.  Thanks to the early start (and even earlier breakfast), it didn’t hurt to have a chocolate bar on hand for the ride back.
  • Seasickness medication?  None of us got seasick but if you do, it’s something you’ll want to consider ahead of time.  You can pick up seasickness tablets cheaply from local drugstores, or, if you only ever experience very mild motion illness, ginger-based drinks can help stave it off.
  • A waterproof camera.  If you’ve got a GoPro, leave your bright floatie at home and instead opt for your standard extendable selfie-stick, preferably dark in colour.  If you don’t have an appropriate selfie-stick, the team will ensure you’re kitted out.  Body and hand mounts are not suitable as you’ll need to be able to hold the camera out from your body, just in case an inquisitive shark decides to check it out.  Without a camera?  The One Ocean team is able to provide videography for an additional USD50 (NZD68.35).

Though it was originally the manta rays that drew us back to Hawaii, it was our freedive with the sharks that really took our breath away.  Without doubt, our snorkel with One Ocean Diving was the highlight of our time on Oahu and one of the highlights of our six month trip.

If you find yourself in Hawaii, be sure to book a trip out with the team.  If you’re not booking a trip to Hawaii, what are you waiting for?!


Love sharks?  Help us spread the word by pinning this post!

 

Thank you to One Ocean Diving for having us out on their Shark Research Snorkel (AKA Pelagic Shark Program).  As always, all thoughts are entirely our own.  What an experience!!

California Colombia Hawai'i Monthly Round-Up North America South America United States of America

Six Months on the Road: Colombia and USA – San Francisco & Hawai’i

February 18, 2018

After countless night buses, flights, dorm beds, hikes, new friends and once-in-a-lifetime experiences our six month adventure throughout South America is over!  As I sit here, back in New Zealand, it’s hard to believe how many miles we’ve put behind us and just how much we’ve seen.

How lucky are we?

… but now we’re home, life kind of just goes on!  We’ve not forgotten about you though – as always, we’ve recorded our costings, route and suggested activities, only this time we’ve got a few stops up in North America for good measure too…

First time reading our monthly round-up?  We suggest you start with our first, second, third, fourth and fifth months on the road in South America before getting into this one.

Cartagena, Colombia

Our first introduction to Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, Cartagena was our favourite ocean-side spot (which I must admit, surprised us) in the country.  With colourful old buildings, an afternoon spent walking through its winding streets is a day well spent.  We found two nights to be more than we needed but there are worse places to spend a few days than Cartagena!

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm at Casa Torices Real @ COP29,450 each/night (USD10/NZD13.80) – we were lucky to have the room to ourselves but with a cold shower (that did actually come out with a touch of warmth), a dorm toilet with only a shower curtain to provide privacy from the rest of the room and a taxi required to get into town, it wasn’t the best value around.  Of course, hotels there would be much louder and more expensive, but we’d probably look elsewhere if returning.

Activities:  With such beautiful buildings, we spent the day wandering through the colonial streets, admiring Cartagena’s beauty.

Onwards travel to Santa Marta:  Organised through Juan Ballena, we got a shuttle from the office in Cartagena to the office in Santa Marta (USD23 each).  You are able to get a taxi/bus/taxi combo but it takes twice as long and doesn’t work out a heck of a lot cheaper in the end.  If you do decide to book, you can use the following promo code to save 5% on your booking ‘CARTAHELLYEAH!’.

Santa Marta, Colombia

Santa Marta is, for most people, a jumping off point to Minca and Tayrona National Park – for us, it wasn’t much more than that.  There’s a beach that’s flanked by oil tankers (doesn’t that sound delightful?) and a town that lacks the charm of Salento.  All in all, it wouldn’t be top of our list.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm at Mareiwa Hostel @ COP30,000 each/night (USD10.20/NZD14.05) – the hotel wasn’t anything special but was reasonably close to the action in town and did have a little warmth in the cold shower.  It didn’t have a great social spot to relax but the beds themselves were comfortable and the hostel clean enough.  It wouldn’t be our top pick in town, but the price was right, as was the location.

Activities:  Very limited – we took a wander down to the beach (which really wasn’t anything special) and picked up some food in town.

Onwards travel to Minca:  COP8,000 each for the colectivo from Santa Marta to Minca – you can pick this up on the corner of Calle 12 and Carrera 9 (and pay in the little office before boarding the van).

Minca, Colombia

Up in the mountains, above Santa Marta, sits Minca, a sleepy forested town, popular with tourists looking to relax.  It’s clean, green and a lovely break from the hustle and bustle of the neighbouring coastal area.

Accommodation:  4 nights at Casa Relax Minca Hostal Boutique in a 6-bed mixed dorm @ COP35,000 each (USD11.90/NZD16.40).  The hostel is a little way out of town but it has a lovely relaxed feel to it (though the rooms upstairs could do with proper ceilings to help cut the noise out).  The beds were super comfy, breakfast was tasty and the setting was perfect – we’d recommend a stay for sure.

Activities:  Minca’s all about relaxing and getting amongst nature.  Whilst there, we hiked to Cascada de Marinka (COP4,000/USD1.35/NZD1.85 each) and also to Pozo Azul (no entrance fee).  Both of these walks can be accessed by moto-taxi but if you have a little time on your hands and a reasonable level of fitness, we’d recommend you hike.

The walk out to Pozo Azul is slightly easier than that to Cascada de Marinka but both are totally manageable with only Cascada de Marinka have a decent dose of hill-climbing towards the end – other than that, both hikes quietly gain elevation on the way there and of course drop down again on the way back.

If you only have time to visit one spot, we preferred Casada de Marinka – the hike was a little more involved, there were fewer people there, and the two beautiful waterfalls are set in a lovely tropical garden.

Pro Tip:  Be sure to take your swimming togs (bathing suit) so you can cool off – both Cascada de Marinka and Pozo Azul provide opportunities for a dip.  Be warned though, they’re both pretty chilly!

Onwards travel to Palomino (via Santa Marta):  Collectivo from Minca to Santa Marta (where it dropped you off) for COP8,000 each (USD2.70/NZD3.75).  Once in town, round the corner at the bus station and jump on the bus from Santa Marta to Palomino for COP10,000 each (USD3.40/NZD4.70) – these buses run constantly and you just pay onboard.

Palomino, Colombia

Whilst travelling, a number of people exclaimed that we had to visit Palomino, so that’s exactly what we did.  We were told that Palomino offered much of the beauty of the Tayrona National Park, but with the added benefit of having more comfortable and affordable accommodation.  Did we find that to be true?  We planned on staying for four nights and ended up cutting back to two so we’ll leave you to decide.

Accommodation:  1 night in a private room at The Dreamer Hostel – Palomino (be sure to book the right one – we booked Santa Marta by mistake!) @ COP110,000 each (USD37.45/NZD51.60) and then 1 night at the Palomino Breeze Hostal in a 6-bed mixed dorm @ COP35,000 each (USD12.35/NZD17).  Though we loved our first hostel, it really did hurt our wallets (and even at that price, it was a cold-water shower)!  The second hostel was very basic but it had a pool and did the trick for one night.

Activities:  We chose to chill out beside the pool but you’re able to head out tubing on a local river and can also catch the bus to Tayrona (though it’s closer to Santa Marta).

Onwards travel to Barranquilla:  Bus from Palomino to Santa Marta (COP10,000/USD3.40/NZD4.70) each – speak to your driver as he’ll be able to drop you off at the big roundabout in Santa Marta where you can get straight on a minivan to continue on.  From there, head into the office of Berlinas where you’ll get a ride in the van to their main Santa Marta office and a ticket right through to Barranquilla for COP20,000 each (USD6.80/NZD9.40).

Barranquilla, Colombia

With flights out of Barranquilla, we always knew we had to spend a night there but we really weren’t planning any more than that.  In the end though, when we decided to move on early from Palomino, we figured we’d skip through Santa Marta and try our luck in Barranquilla – what a great choice that ended up being!  Our hotel was super comfortable and there were lots of yummy food options in the local mall.  Sure, it wasn’t what most of our travels were about but it was the perfect way to finish up in South America before flying on.

Accommodation:  3 nights in a private room at the Holiday Inn Express Barranquilla Buenavista @ COP78,375 each (USD26.79/NZD36.75).  This was the perfect spot to chill after a busy six months!  The beds were crazy comfortable and breakfast was filling – though it was a little bit of a splurge compared to the hostels we’d been used to, it was money well spent and great value.

Activities:  Absolutely nothing!  Though there are a few things to do in Barranquilla, it’s mostly an economic hub for the Caribbean side of Colombia.  For us, it was a place to recharge our batteries for a few days before heading up to the US.

Onwards travel to San Francisco:  Flights booked through Kiwi (click here to get a €20 on us!) at USD631.55 each (NZD870.40).

San Francisco, California, United States of America

Having visited the West Coast countless times before but never making it to San Francisco, we decided it was finally time to check out the city that we’d heard so much about.  Taking pride of place on the bay, San Francisco was everything that was promised to us and then some – it’s fair to say we fell in love with this incredible city.

Accommodation:  5 nights in a private room at the San Remo Hotel @ USD32.60 each/night (NZD51.80) and another 2 nights where we treated ourselves at Hotel Griffon.  Both hotels are well located, San Remo near Fisherman’s Wharf and Hotel Griffon being right on the water in the middle of town.

Make a difference.  Though we’ve seen homelessness elsewhere, we’d never seen it on the level that we did in San Francisco.  Expensive housing, a high cost of living, a relatively temperate climate and a lack of government support means the city has an exceptionally high level of people down on their luck.  You’re able to help though – when you leave a restaurant that offers free soft drink refills ask for a takeaway glass (commonplace in the US) or top your own takeaway cup up when you leave a burger joint.  Hang on to any leftover food, hotel amenities or articles of clothing that have been replaced on a US shopping adventure.  Anything you’re able to donate will likely be gratefully received.

Activities:   With so much to do in San Francisco you’ll be hard-pressed to tick all the boxes but if you manage your time well, it’s easy to fit a couple of activities into each day.

Alcatraz –  San Francisco’s most recognisable attraction,
Alcatraz Cruises is your go-to tour provider.  For USD37.25 per person (NZD51.40), they’ll take you over to the island and provide everything you need to explore the most iconic prison in the world… and yes, it really is a must do!  The audio tour that’s included in the trip is amazing – with background noises and sound effects, it genuinely transports you back to the prison’s heyday.

We considered both the day and night tours and found that each had their own pros and cons.  The day tour allows guests to explore the park on the island, giving them much more freedom to move about as they please.  By comparison, the night tour is apparently much more dramatic (can’t you just imagine the moody atmosphere in the old prison at night?) but it comes with a slightly higher price tag, less flexibility to do your own thing and that chilly San Francisco night air.

By the time we decided to book the night tour, the tickets had sold out!  Instead, we visited during the day where we happily spent half a day on the island and would suggest you combine it with a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf whilst you’re in the area.  There are also a number of other activities available in this part of town so no doubt, you’ll find yourself back there.

Biking the Golden Gate Bridge – Touted by friends as a must-do in San Francisco, we picked up our ‘deluxe infinity shifting priority hybrid bikes from
Wheel Fun Rentals and headed for the iconic bridge.  Though the names of the bikes sound complicated, in reality, they’re anything but; the gears shift smoothly, without any hang-time, allowing anyone to jump on and figure out the system quickly.  The bikes also come with a self-guided GPS system, taking riders through key routes and sharing interesting local information.  The ridge over the bridge itself is easy and bike lanes throughout the journey mean you’ll spend very little time on the road itself – yes, you’ll probably end up with a sore behind but the views are totally worth it.

Pro Tip:  If you’d like to cut the time you spend on your bike down, you can ride over to Sausalito (on the other side of the bridge) and catch the ferry back over towards the city.  Likewise, if you’re on a budget, simply turn around at the end of the bridge and bike back to save yourself a ferry ticket.  We really would recommend a trip out to Sausalito though, so if you don’t include it as part of your biking excursion, try to include it with another day trip (like we did whilst visiting the redwoods).

Muir Woods & Sausalito day trip – One of our must-do’s in San Francisco, we joined
Extranomical Tours to get up close and personal with the incredible redwoods.  The day itself was very relaxed, starting with a visit to the ferry building for breakfast and then a visit to the Muir Woods before heading to Sausalito and stopping off for amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and a breath of fresh air, making the whole experience a real highlight of our time in the city.

Big Bus Tours – For years Nathan has talked about jumping on a Big Bus Tour but it took us hitting San Fran for it to finally happen!  We loved the flexibility these tours offer – for 24 hours we were able to hop on and off again as often as we wanted, with entertaining, personalised commentary all the way.

Though it would be been great to have taken our tour on a fine day, it was a great way to see the city, even in the rain.  When you’re on the tour, be sure to jump off at Haight-Ashbury, the vibrant, summer-of-love part of San Francisco.

For those of you that grew up watching Full house, yes, you can check out the aforementioned houses whilst on the tour!

California Academy of Sciences – Not somewhere initially on our list, we were so pleased our CityPASS included tickets as it was literally one of the best, most interactive set of exhibitions we’ve ever seen.  With an incredible array of fish and marine animals, an amazing planetarium and exhibits to capture everyone’s attention, it was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon seeking shelter from the rain.

Even better, the Big Bus swings right past the entrance and continues on its way again so it’s easy to fit into your schedule.

Aquarium of the Bay – Again included in our San Francisco CityPASS, the Aquarium of the Bay is conveniently located at Fisherman’s Wharf and combines well with other activities in the area.  We spend around 1.5 hours at the aquarium, checking out their sharks, otters and other fabulous exhibits.

Scale-wise, it doesn’t compare to the Academy of Sciences but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially if you have a CityPASS and therefore, a free ticket.

AsiaSF – If you’re looking for a unique night out in one of the most liberal cities in the world, a visit to AsiaSF will tick your boxes!  Proud supporters of the transgender community, these stunning ladies are the epitome of ‘fabulous’, performing to enthusiastic audiences whilst serving up delicious Asian-inspired meals.  Go equipped with a sense of fun and humour and you’ll have the best night out!

Take in a basketball game – An easy subway ride from the city, a basketball game is a fantastic (albeit expensive) way to spend an evening!  With the Golden State Warriors in fine form and games running frequently throughout the week, chances are you’ll be able to pick up tickets to a game at a relatively reasonable price with advance notice.  We paid USD80.40 (NZD108.85) each to sit up in the top stalls – they weren’t the best seats in the house (quite the opposite) but allowed us to enjoy the game and unique atmosphere.

Pro Tip – Leave your big cameras and bags at the hotel!  The stadium has a strict bag-check policy and having to make use of it will cost you USD10.  If you’re able to, it’s best to pop the essentials in your pocket and avoid the hassle.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom – Never ones to turn down a good rollercoaster, a visit to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom was a non-negotiable for us (well mostly me) on our San Fran trip.  We had a great day out at the park with new friends, racing around all of the best coasters in the park.  Our top picks?  The Joker (an amazing wooden/steel hybrid with lots of airtime) and Medusa.  I also loved Wonder Woman Lasso of Truth (but couldn’t talk the others into joining me) and would have loved to have gotten on SUPERMAN Ultimate Flight had it not been closed for maintenance.

Headed out to the park?  You’ll need a rental car!  City Rent-a-Car will sort you out for the day from their central Union Square location for only USD50.

Pier 39 – Popular with tourists, a visit to Pier 39 can cost you as much or as little as you like.  We enjoyed strolling along the wharf, people watching and of course, checking out the Californian sea lions.

The San Francisco Dungeon – If you’re looking for a comical introduction to San Franciscian history, the Dungeon might be the place for you.  With a couple of rides and lots of theming and on-point actors, this immersive experience is entertaining, if a little different to your normal tourism activity.  The rides themselves were a little disappointing if we’re being honest but the experience as a whole was worthwhile, especially on a rainy day.

Onwards travel to the Big Island, Hawai’i:  We booked from San Francisco to Oahu (and then on to Auckland, New Zealand) through Hawaiian Airlines for USD625.10 each (NZD861.55).  We then connected from Honolulu to Kona for USD82 each (NZD113).

Big Island, Hawai’i, United States of America

Tropical beaches, near-perfect weather and all of the benefits of cheap American shopping; we didn’t need to visit the Big Island to know that we’d fall in love!  When tossing up between Maui and the Big Island (also known by the state’s name, Hawai’i), we elected for the later for one key reason – mantas.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Mauna Lani Bay and 2 nights at Hilton Waikoloa Village.  Both hotels were absolutely glorious!  Mauna Lani Bay has access to fabulous snorkelling just off the beach whilst the Hilton Waikoloa Village had a massive lagoon, perfect for guaranteed turtle snorkelling.

Activities:  

Manta Dive with Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii – The main reason we visited the Big Island, this is the best place in the world to swim with these gentle giants.  Absolutely massive, with an undeniable grace, these harmless beauties are attracted to the surface at night to feed on plankton – we were just lucky to observe them in their natural habitat for 45 minutes or so.  We tossed up whether we’d snorkel or dive with the mantas and in the end decided to snorkel to save a bit of money (it cost USD123.40/NZD167.10 each).  With amazing views of them throughout the snorkel, we were more than happy with our choice, though we’re sure the dive would have been amazing too!

Morning Snorkel with Fair Wind Cruises – Touted as the best snorkelling on the island, one of the only practical ways to get to Kealakekua Bay (home of the Captain Cook monument) is on a cruise.  Fair Wind provide so much more than just transport though – snorkelling gear, delicious food (breakfast, lunch and soft drinks all at no additional charge), a fabulous boat (complete the high-water dive platforms and two waterslides) and stand-up paddle boards.  We love that they really follow through on their eco-friendly policies, encouraging guests to do their bit to help cut down on waste and providing them with environmentally aware alternatives.

Onwards travel to Honolulu, Hawai’i:  Hawaiian Airlines, USD82 each (NZD113).

Honolulu, Oahu, Hawai’i, United States

Having visited Oahu before, we knew it would be the perfect was to finish up our trip.  Plenty to do should we wish but no pressure to tick activities off either – we’d been before and no doubt we’ll go again.

Accommodation:  1 night in a 4-bed mixed dorm at the Waikiki Beachside Hostel @ USD47 each (NZD64.75) and then 3 nights in a private room at the Surftide @ AUD65.20 each (USD50.95/NZD70.25 – booked through Wotif).  By far the most expensive hostel we stayed at on our travels, the Waikiki Beachside Hostel was also one of the most basic – with gaping holes in the glass, a ranchslider that barely closed and rubbish trucks passing by at all hours, we couldn’t say it offered particularly good value for money.  Our move to the Surftide was the best choice we could have made.

Activities:  As we’d visited Honolulu a few times before and were at the end of a long trip, we wanted to spend most of our time on Oahu relaxing and that’s exactly what we did.  We did, however, manage to squeeze in a few new experiences!

Discount shopping – The Waikele Premium Outlets are a little out of Waikiki but if you have a rental car, they’re well worth a visit.  With lots of popular brands (new Levis jeans, Ugg boots, Clarks heels and a whole lot more made their way into my bag) at fantastic prices, be sure to pick up an extra suitcase to cart all of your bargains home.

Cage-free shark snorkel – This is literally the best thing you’ll ever do on Oahu.  Jump in with One Ocean and leave the cages to everyone else – you don’t need one!  The One Ocean team is made up of scientists and environmentalists and is on a serious mission to improve outcomes for sharks and to educate people about their plight.  Even with 50+ sharks in the water and no real protection from them, we felt incredibly comfortable.  If you’ve never spent time with sharks and are a little nervous about doing so, we guarantee a morning out with these guys will change your thoughts on them!

Drive around the Island and check out the North Shore – Possibly the most famous surfing spot in the world, the Banzai Pipeline is the best spot to catch massive waves and surfers with equally massive amounts of courage to take them on!

Hanauma Bay – One of the most popular natural attractions on Oahu, Hanauma Bay is a great place to learn how to snorkel.  The protected bay attracts all sorts of beautiful sea life and calm water conditions means it suits snorkellers of all abilities.  Unfortunately, the fish weren’t as abundant as we remember it being in the past but we were told by a local that if you get out beyond the waves (where few people go), that it’s much more impressive.

Entrance is USD7.50 each (NZD10.25) and the bay is open every day apart from Tuesday.  To get there, jump on the 22 bus for USD2.75 one way.  If you have enough exact change, pay for the return ticket at once (USD5.50) and you’ll be given a day pass allowing you to ride the bus elsewhere at no extra charge.

Diamond Head Luau – Just how I’ve been to Hawai’i so many times without ever attending a luau is beyond me!  This time though, we changed that, heading along to the Diamond Head Luau just down the road at Waikiki.

With a new ‘farm to table’ buffet offering, the quality of the food was top notch and in typical American style, served up with a smile.  Tickets included a range of Hawaiian crafts and traditional skills, three cocktails to kickstart the night, a fantastic show, delicious buffet and entrance to the aquarium at the end of the night.

Though we didn’t visit any of the following attractions this time around, we almost always do – be sure to let us know if you’d like help planning them; Pearl Harbour, Ala Moana Shopping Mall and the Dole Pineapple Plantation.

Onwards travel to Auckland, New Zealand:   Included as part of our flight with Hawaiian from San Francisco to Auckland – we chose to add a stopover in Hawaii at no additional charge.

Lessons Learnt on the Road

  • Big expectations can be hard to meet.  Throughout our travels we heard practically everyone rave about Colombia.  To be honest though, it really didn’t live up to our expectations; there was a lot we liked about certain spots (Salento, Medellín and Minca for example), but the Caribbean coast was a surprising disappointment.  Colombia was far from a bad spot, I think we’ve just learnt to temper our expectations.
  • There’s nothing wrong with heading back to a favourite spot.  In fact, doing so can be a great choice!  It certainly wasn’t the first time we’d returned to a favourite spot but after 2.5 years of visiting places that were new to us, it was a lovely change to revisit a part of the world that we already knew we enjoyed.

So that’s us, all done!  Six months of full-time travel behind us and incredible memories to last a lifetime.

Machu Picchu, Patagonia, the Iguazu Falls, a luxury cruise through the Galapagos Islands, white water rafting, ziplining, scuba diving, sandboarding, shark snorkelling and more.  We attempted to learn a new language (and were relatively successful in doing so) and made it through a whole bunch of challenges, hopefully coming out the other end better off for them.

We’re so grateful for the last six months and looking excitedly into the future.

One thing I know for sure; this isn’t the end of our adventure.

Check out our Recent Posts

Our Previous Months on the Road


Know someone off to Colombia or the United States?  Pin this post to help them in their planning!

Colombia Salento South America Valle de Cocora

A Guide to the Cocora Valley – Salento, Colombia – Home to the Tallest Palm Trees in the World!

January 21, 2018

One of the most recognisable tourist attractions in Colombia, the Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora) is home to the country’s national tree and symbol, the towering Quindío wax palm.  An easy trip from Salento, the region was our favourite and a must-see on any Colombian itinerary.

Formed in 1985 (which might I add, was a mighty fine year!), the Cocora Valley is part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park.  Prior to the formation of wildlife sanctuary, there were concerns regarding the exploitation of the wax palms, but the national park has since provided a safe haven for these gorgeous trees along with countless other species of local flora and fauna.

Navigating The Cocora Valley

Transport: How to Get to the Cocora Valley

Getting to the Cocora Valley is surprisingly easy and affordable thanks to the colectivo 4WDs (affectionately known as ‘Willys’).

These old trucks give travellers a ride out to the Valley for only COP3,800 each (one way) – the ride isn’t particularly comfortable and they are sin seatbelts, but hey, you’re in Colombia!

Normally you’ll find the colourful Jeeps in the main square but when we found ourselves in Salento over New Years Eve, the square was closed so we made our way to Willys HQ which you’ll find just before the corner of Calle 3 and Carrera 3.  Basically, walk up the main road (Carrera 6) and turn left when you come across Calle 3.  From there, walk down and up the hill again until you get to Carrera 3 (it’s not too far) – there you’ll find the 4WDs on your left.

Though there are officially set times of departure (check with your hostel as they seem to change a lot), we learnt that in reality, the trucks just leave when they’re full (in both directions).  We do suggest you leave no later than 9am, though, to ensure you make it onto the trail with plenty of time to spare.

Need Help Getting to Salento in the First Place? Check out our travel guide to help you get from Bogota to Salento and from Salento to Medellín (or vice versa).

Option One: The Short Trip To Valle de Cocora

If you’re tight on time or just aren’t in the mood for a full hike, you can still tick off the highlight of the Valley, those giant wax palms.

Once you arrive, just keep walking straight ahead and after 20 minutes or so, you’ll find yourself at the base of the palms.  From there, you’ll be free to head higher towards La Montana or to stay down on the lowlands – both are gorgeous.

Option Two: The Full Hike Through The Cocora Valley

Do you have more time to explore?  With a whole day at your disposal, we really recommend you undertake the full hike, looping around Valle de Cocora.

To start, you’ll want to turn right at the blue gate, following the path down the hill.  This track will take you past the trout farm and eventually through the cloud forest, along the river and up to La Montana before winding back down through the palms.

The Highlights of the Full Hike Along the Cocora Loop

Checking out the Trout Farm

As you approach the bottom of the hill, soon after passing through the initial gate, you’ll come across a trout farm welcoming visitors.

The farm itself isn’t anything spectacular but we enjoyed wandering alongside the tanks, trying to spot the biggest fish whilst scattering food.  It certainly wasn’t the main highlight of the day, but if you have the time, it’s a worthwhile stop on the hike.

Cloud Forest Beauty

The start of the hike along the loop is a fairly uninspiring one, working its way along a muddy walking path, with paddocks on either side.  Before long though, grass gives way to the most beautiful cloud forest; if not for the lack of ferns in fact, we’d have sworn we were back home in New Zealand!

The hike through the forest is absolutely gorgeous.  Aptly named 7 Puentes (or 7 bridges), hikers move back and forth over a series of bridges, always weaving their way over the cascading river.

The hike itself isn’t incredibly challenging but on a muddy, misty and surprisingly warm day, it’s fair to say, we felt it that evening!  If you’re prepared and take it slowly, you’ll make it through the hike without any problems, regardless of the weather.

Acaime – Hummingbirds Galore

Tucked a little off the main loop, you’ll find Acaime, a hummingbird sanctuary.  Though the sanctuary is basic, it’s a great opportunity to see these incredible little birds in the wild.  All of the birds are free to come and go as they like (but with sugar water on offer, why would they ever leave?!) and a reasonable array of species can be found showing off.

Entrance includes a drink and there’s a very basic kitchen if you’d like some food cooked up.  The walk adds approximately 40 minutes each way to your hike but if you have the time, it’s a worthwhile addition to your day.  We sat happily for 20 minutes or so watching the birds flitting around – I just can’t get enough of them!

La Montana & The Main Event – The Wax Palms

The icon, both of this region and of Colombia itself, the wax palms are no doubt the main reason visitors make the pilgrimage to the Cocora Valley.

When we first reached the palms, just down from La Montana, they were absolutely enveloped in mist.  Though the mist brought with it its own sense of magic, it was a little disappointing to have finally made it to the palms, only to find them practically unrecogniable.

Though visitors are able to walk down (or up) the steep mountain path, due to the rain and mist, it was abundently clear to us that it wasn’t a good idea at that point in time.  Instead, we continued our hike down the road, where we could be sure of our footing.

As we neared the bottom, we were finally rewarded with clearing weather and beautiful views of the trees that we came to see…

Seriously – look at them!!

The Cost of a Day at Cocora Valley

The real beauty of a trip to Valle de Cocora (aside from the obvious natural beauty) is its price.  A day in the national park will cost you very little but even at twice the price, it would be a bargain by international standards.

  • Colectivo to Cocora Valley = COP3,800 per person, one way (USD1.35/NZD1.85)
  • Entrance to the park (for the longer hike) = COP3,000 each (USD1.05/NZD1.45).
  • A self-guided tour of the trout farm = COP3,000 including a bag of fish food (USD1.05/NZD1.45)
  • A visit to the hummingbird sanctuary, AcaimeCOP5,000 including a drink (USD1.75/NZD2.40)

All up, a that’s a total of COP18,600 each (USD6.55/NZD9.00) which, if you ask us, is fantastic value!

NB: We’ve been hearing mixed things about hiking directly to the palm trees… some people say that part of the hike is free, whereas others have said it’s more expensive than entering from the other side of the park.  If you’ve recently visited Valle de Cocora and decided to head straight to the wax palms, we’d love to hear of your experience.

Gear List: What You’ll Need for the Cocora Valley

  • Good shoes.  Ensure your shoes/boots have good soles on them (and that you don’t mind them getting dirty).  If you don’t have anything that fits the bill, you may like to look at hiring a pair of gumboots from town before leaving Salento.

  • A rain jacket.  Due to the location and elevation of the palms, they often sit amongst the mist and rain in the afternoon.  This needn’t stop you but be sure to take a jacket (or at the very least, a poncho) so you can hike in comfort.
  • Water and snacks.  There are a few places on the trail where you can buy food and drinks (La Montana and the hummingbird sanctuary) but options are limited.  You’re best to take your own and supplement your packed lunch with treats should you wish.
  • Sun protection.  Though we didn’t need it, on a nicer day, you won’t want to be without a hat and sunscreen.
  • A good backpack.  If you undertake the full loop you’ll want to put your gear in a comfy day bag.

With gorgeous views, iconic sights, a good dose of exercise and a price tag that’ll make your wallet happy, a visit to the Cocora Valley, just outside of Salento is an absolute must whilst you’re in Colombia.

… just remember, we told you how muddy it can get!


Headed to the Cocora Valley?  Be sure to pin this post!

Ecuador Galápagos Islands South America

Ecuador Island Guide – The Best Galápagos Islands to Visit!

January 15, 2018

Recently, we returned from the most incredible trip through the Galápagos Islands.  Before our cruise though, we considered many different itineraries whilst on the hunt to find the ‘best’ Galápagos Islands to visit.  Which islands were must-sees?  Was a cruise really the best way to get around?  We’ll share more about why a cruise is absolutely the best way to see the archipelago in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, join us as we share what makes each of the islands we visited tick.

Located 1,000km off of Ecuador’s coast, this volcanic archipelago hosts a diverse and unique collection of both plant and animal species.  Famous for inspiring Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the ideas that he introduced (and the animals that he studied), are clearly seen throughout the islands.

The Galápagos Islands are widely considered amongst the best locations in the world to view wildlife in their natural habitat (if not the best).  Don’t ask me why, but it’s as if the local animals missed the memo – they’re really fearless when it comes to human visitors, making observations (and potential interactions) all the more interesting.

Beyond the ecological benefits of the Galápagos though, there’s a real sense of magic that just can’t be pinned down and certainly can’t be put effectively into words – though we promise, we’ll do our best!

How We Decided Upon Our Galápagos Itinerary

We intentionally chose to join Ecoventura on their Itinerary B – Western/ Northern Route.  They promised to take us off the standard day-trip route and out into parts of the region that many people miss out on seeing.

We can now say unequivocally that this was the right choice.

With 13 main islands (and a further 7 smaller ones) though, the million dollar question must be asked; which are the best Galápagos Islands to visit?

If you’re looking to plan your Galápagos itinerary, we suggest you use the following guide to decide which islands you’d like to pay a visit to.  Or even better, book yourself a spot onboard the MV Origin and see the best of the islands, the way they’re meant to be seen.


San Cristobal

Population:  Approximately 6000, making it the second most populated island (behind Santa Cruz)

Geography:  Area of 558km2, maximum altitude of 730m.  San Cristobal is the most fertile island within the Galápagos and home to the oldest permanent settlement, found where Darwin first went ashore in 1835.  Its one source of fresh water, a small lake called El Junco, was the main reason it was initially settled.

Flora and Fauna Highlights:  Sea lions playing on the shore and marine iguana sunning themselves, all right in the middle of town!  Up in the highlands, you’ll also find the Centro de Crianza Jacinto Gordillo, an opportunity to see a Galápagos tortoise breeding programme in action.

San Cristobal is the point of departure for many cruises and also serves a large number of day trip visitors.  Though it wasn’t exactly what we imagined when we thought about the Galápagos, it had a lovely charm about it and worked well as a base.


Genovesa

Population:  0

Geography:  Area of 12km2, maximum altitude of 64m.  The island is a volcanic caldera; this formation has created Great Darwin Bay which is surrounded by cliffs.

Flora and Fauna Highlights:  Known for its dense population of seabirds, Genovesa is a bird-watchers paradise.  There you’ll find boobies galore (both the Nazca and red-footed boobies on mass), along with frigatebirds, the red-billed tropic bird and lava gulls.  Keep your eyes peeled as you may even spot the evasive Galápagos short-eared owl – the only owl that you’ll find hunting on the islands during the day.

Take to the water and you’ll spot a surprising array of tropical fish along with the stunning Sally Lightfoot crab, reef sharks and of course, playful sea lions.


Santa Cruz

Population: The most populated island with 12,000+ residents.

Geography:  The second largest island in the Galápagos; area of 986km2, maximum altitude of 864m.  Home to the largest port, Puerto Ayora, the island also supports the greatest variety of tourism-related businesses (hotels, restaurants etc.); don’t be fooled into believing that Santa Cruz is ruled by people though.  On the right trip, there are still plenty of opportunities to discover parts of the island that are practically untouched by humans.

Flora and Fauna Highlights:  The island of Santa Cruz offers a great deal of diversity thanks to its relatively large size.  The highlands are home to lush foliage and an incredibly large population of wild giant tortoises (the islands are one of only two places in the world that they can be seen, the other being the Seychelles) whilst nearer the shore, flowering cacti, marine iguanas and land iguanas can be found.


Isabela

Population:  Approximately 1,800.

Geography:  Area of 4,640km2, maximum altitude of 1,707m.  The largest island in the archipelago, it is almost four times bigger than Santa Cruz, the second largest.

Flora and Fauna Highlights:  Isabela is home to a massive population of sea turtles and though there’s plenty else to be seen, the turtles really are impressive beyond compare!  Though we thought we’d swam with a reasonable number of these beauties in the past, we soon found it didn’t even come close to our experience on the north-western coast of Isabela.

In the water, we also found a number of mola mola (known as the sunfish) and the little endemic penguin.  Only in the Galápagos will you find penguins in the company of more tropical creatures – absolutely incredible!

Also on the island, visitors will find sea lions and marine iguanas sunning themselves high on the rocks, giant tortoises and land iguanas, finches and mockingbirds and the quirky flightless cormorant with their incredible, piercing blue eyes.


Fernandina

Population:  0

Geography:  Area of 642km2, maximum altitude of 1,476m.  The third largest island in the Galápagos is also the youngest.  Formed by the Galápagos hotspot , this volcanic island is still active and has been erupting since 2009.  Unsurprisingly, this volcanic island is rugged and inhospitable, but surprisingly enough, life still thrives there.

Flora and Fauna:  The volcanic shores of Fernandina are a favourite amongst the local marine iguanas.  Hundreds, if not thousands of these interesting lizards litter the ground – to the point that I very almost walked on one when I wasn’t paying attention!

If you have the opportunity to snorkel off Fernandina, take it with both hands.  You’ll be rewarded with countless encounters with feeding marine iguanas and marble rays bigger than you’ll see anywhere else.

In addition, young sea lions can be found playing in the shallow pools, honing their abilities through play – we sat for what felt like an age admiring their strength and agility – whilst the endemic hawks hunt amongst the volcanic rock and lava cactus.


Rabida

Population:  0

Geography:  Area of 5km2, maximum altitude of 367m.  Easily recognisable due to its dark red sand beach (due to the exceptionally high iron content of the island’s volcanic rock) and brackish lagoon, Rabida provides excellent views along its shoreline.

Flora and Fauna:  On a good day, greater flamingos can be seen in the lagoon (though we didn’t have any such luck personally)… on an even better day though, a friendly sea lion will swim with you for half an hour, playing and nibbling at your flippers (true story!)  Without a doubt, our sea lion encounter was the most memorable of all our time in the Galápagos and I would say of all time.

Even if you don’t take up every opportunity to snorkel, if you see an inquisitive sea lion, be prepared to dive on in!

In addition, Rabida is home to a unique ecosystem.  The combination of shallow, sheltered waters and a host of mangrove trees makes for the perfect natural nursery; protecting baby sharks, rays and turtles on mass.  Guides turn the panga (zodiac) engines off to ensure the little ones aren’t scared away and together, you’ll float through the mangroves, spotting a vast array of marine animals.


The Galápagos Islands are unlike anywhere else on earth.  Never before have we experienced such an incredible variety of animals, plants and geological sites within such a small, accessible area.

The only question is which islands you’ll choose to visit.

By the way, the answer is all of them!


If you found this post useful, please pin it so others can find it too…


Thank you to Ecoventura for welcoming us on the MV Origin.  Though we’ve had many amazing travel experiences, our time in the Galápagos genuinely topped everything!  As always, all thoughts are our own.

Colombia Ecuador Itineraries Monthly Round-Up South America

Five Months on the Road in South America – Ecuador & Colombia

January 7, 2018

Our penultimate month in South America (that’s right, five down, only one to go!) was a welcome change from the backpacking we’ve been enjoying for the majority of our trip.  We returned to our Abu Dhabi roots and soaked in the more luxurious side of Ecuador – after all, nobody has the budget for five-star hotels for six months at a time but everyone loves a good treat every now and then!  For those of you operating on more of a budget though, don’t worry, there’s something in here to suit you too.

As always, we’re all about those ‘bucket list adventures’!

If you’re new around here, we suggest you check out our first, second, third and fourth months on the road in South America before starting on month five.

The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

The highlight of our entire South America trip (and there have been lots of highlights so that’s not an easy feat) and potentially of our travelling career, our time in the Galápagos was incredible.  We’re not going to go into a tonne of detail here as there will be plenty to come, but you should know that it’s worth scrimping, saving and bending over backwards to make a cruise around this incredible islands work!

Accommodation:  7 nights aboard the MV OriginEcoventura‘s luxury ship.  Followed by 2 nights at Casa de Jeimy in a private room @ USD22.40 each/night (NZD31.55) on San Cristobal.

Activities:  Incredible animals and nature galore!  If there’s one place in the world where you can see a massive range of animals in their natural habitat, the Galápagos is it.  We swam with sea lions, sea turtles, marine iguanas, reef sharks and marble rays.  We also got up close and personal with massive land iguanas, tortoises, whales, hummingbirds and my favourite, the beautiful boobies, all whilst relaxing on a luxury vessel with the most fabulous guests and staff.

We also intentionally checked out a day trip (as lots of the backpackers we’ve met along the way have talked about them as a cheaper alternative).  To be frank though, it didn’t compare, even remotely.  If you’re able to, we really would recommend saving more and getting yourself aboard a ship to see the outer islands.

Onwards travel to Quito:  Flying TAME from San Cristobal (SCY) to Quito (UIO) for USD193.30 each (NZD269.75).  It’s important to note that Ecuadorian’s get a discount on flights – don’t tick this box unless you’re eligible for the discount, otherwise you will be denied boarding.

Quito, Ecuador

The capital city of Ecuador sprawls out from North to South but it’s the historic town centre where you’ll want to spend most of your time.  Though the traffic is, at times, a real nightmare, we enjoyed spending a few days in the city.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Casa Gangotena.  Absolutely old-school charm, this hotel is a must in the city if you’re looking to splurge.

Activities:  A guided tour that took us through a local neighbourhood within Quito, showing us a side of the city that few visitors get to experience.  It was followed by a visit to the most iconic spots in the historic centre and the most fabulous museum.  If you’re in Quito, we highly recommend this alternative walking tour, ‘Live Quito like a local‘.

Onwards travel to Mashpi:  Organised by Mashpi Lodge – we joined a mini-bus of other guests, stopping at a local museum on the way.

Mashpi, Ecuador

Having already immersed ourselves into the jungle in Peru, we knew we wanted another experience along the same line.  Masphi offered the opportunity to do exactly that, but this time in the lap of absolute luxury in the cloud forest.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Mashpi Lodge – a National Geographic “Unique Lodge of the World”.  As you’d expect, it was absolutely incredible!

Activities:  Night cloud forest walks, a ride on their very own cable car (known as the ‘dragonfly’) and their skybike, along with hikes to cascading waterfalls, hummingbird spotting, toucan sightings and more.

Onwards travel to Baños:  Mashpi Lodge took us back to Quito and from there, we boarded a bus to Baños for USD4.40 each (NZD6.15).  We got our ticket at the Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe and jumped on the next available bus – they run frequently, all day.

Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador

The adventure capital of Ecuador, Baños was always a must-see in Ecuador as far as we were concerned.  We loved it so much that we spent a full week there checking out all this vibrant little town had to offer.

Accommodation:  7 nights in a private room at Hostal Princesa Maria @ USD10.50 each/night (NZD14.80).  A quiet hostel, as long as you ask for a room upstairs.  Victor was an incredibly friendly host!  He didn’t speak a great deal of English but was happy to go out of his way to help.

Activities:  Our hostel organised for us to go whitewater rafting (USD20/NZD27.90 each) and canyoning (USD25/NZD34.90 each) with Expediciones Amazónicas – both were great fun and excellent value for money.  The team also had high-quality gear and well-trained, English speaking guides.

We also took local buses around town – we went up to Casa Del Arbol where we swung at the end of the world and also visited Pailon del Diablo (the Devil’s Cauldron – a stunning waterfall).

Onwards travel to Latacunga:  Again, buses are easy to organise on the day.  We caught the bus from Baños to the turn-off (a big roundabout) of Latacunga – just be sure to let the attendant know that you want to get off at Latacunga and he’ll point it out to you.  From there, taxi’s will take you into town (no more than USD4).  Unfortunately, I lost our receipt but the bus Quito-Latacunga was only a couple of US dollars each.

Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

Though we weren’t planning on hiking in Ecuador, we decided to make a move to the Quilotoa Loop for Christmas, rather than spend another week in Baños (though we did love it there!)

We caught a local bus in the morning from Latacunga to Sigchos (USD2.30/NZD3.20) each and from there, hiked to our next stop for the following three days.

At the conclusion of the hike, we made the decision not to stay in Quilotoa (though it looked like a great little spot on top of the mountain), instead catching a ride with in ute back to Zumbahua (USD2 per person) and then a bus to Latacunga (another few dollars).

Accommodation:  3 nights in total across the loop in the following spots:

Activities:  Hiking, hiking and more hiking!  We hiked from each location to the next, always with the fabulous new friends we made on the loop.  Compared to the scenery we’ve seen on other hikes (and let’s face it, we’ve been spoilt by Patagonia and Peru), it wasn’t as spectacular but the people we met really made the trip!

Onwards travel to Bogata:  We were planning to catch a bus (all 34 hours of it!) but when it sold out, some of our new friends very kindly came to the rescue and helped us by letting us fly standby with them.  The flights are expensive normally so if you’re planning on taking one, definitely book in advance.  Alternatively, if you do plan on catching the bus, Cruz del Sur will take you all the way through (which was our preference to save on accommodation and lugging our gear from bus to bus), or you can take a combination of local buses (which would be cheaper but would take much longer).

Bogota, Colombia

After five months of travelling, all we’ve ever heard people do it rave about Colombia!  After a night in Bogota, I must admit, we were starting to wonder why.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the city (in fact it was nice to get back to the bright lights again), but it just didn’t wow us.  Rio?  You bet!  Lima?  What a pleasant surprise.  Bogota?  Aside from the gorgeous street art, it didn’t do a lot for us.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 5-bed mixed dorm at Hostel Casa 32 DC @ USD7 each/night (NZD9.75).  The beds were comfortable but the bathrooms and kitchen were an absolute mess (and I’m not the cleanest person in the world, so that’s saying something!).  The people were lovely so it’s a pity that we can’t really recommend this hostel.  On the upside though, it was cheap!

Activities:  We joined the Bogota Graffiti Tour which was a fabulous way to see the more authentic side of Colombia’s capital city – it’s a tips only tour and certainly something we’d recommend doing whilst in town (just book online ahead of time if possible).

Onwards travel to Salento:  We caught a local mini-bus from Bogota to Armenia and then on to Salento.  It was straightforward but we learnt a few lessons on the way.  If you’re making the journey, we have full instructions for you here.

Salento, Colombia

A colourful little colonial town, buzzing with New Years excitement, wax palm trees reaching high into the sky, coffee plantations and hummingbirds buzzing around – what’s not to love about beautiful Salento?

Accommodation:  3 nights in a private room at Walker’s House Hostel.

Activities:  We hiked the Cocora Valley, completing the full loop (starting at the fish farm, taking in the hummingbirds and finishing with the palms).  It was a full day and relatively challenging due to the massive amount of rain they got the night before (and unbelievably muddy conditions) but it was well worth it.  Rides out to the Valley (and back) are COP3,800 each way (USD 1.30/NZD1.80 per person), the fish farm is COP3,000 each (USD 1.05/NZD1.45 including a bag of food), entrance to the park itself is COP2,000 (USD0.70/NZD0.95) and the hummingbirds are COP5,000 each (USD1.70/NZD2.50 which includes a drink).  Food and drinks are available at a few different points on the walk but we packed sandwiches and drinks to take with us, making for a reasonably cheap day out!

Onwards travel to Medellín:  Again, we bused but this time on a direct service which made life so much easier!  COP47,000 (USD15.75/NZD22.15) was all it cost us and full instructions can be found in our guide.

Medellín, Colombia

Ah, beautiful Medellín!  Colombia’s second largest city really is a world away from Bogota and an easy place to spend a fair amount of time in!

Accommodation:  1 night in a 4-bed dorm at the Samarian Hostel @ COP23,300 each/night (USD7.95/NZD11.20) with lovely travellers (but small rooms and cold showers!) before moving into a 5-bed dorm at BlackPine Hostel @ COP33,300each/night (USD11.35/NZD16) for 7 nights.  We loved BlackPine – a great location, clean and tidy, comfortable beds and awesome staff.

Activities:  Paragliding with DragonFLY (normally COP130,000) – absolutely amazing!  We also toured both Comuna 13 and La Sierra in what were memorable and interesting visits (COP70,000 each, all inclusive).

Finally, we headed out to Guatape with VIT Escobar Paintball and though we wanted to love our day, practically everything that could go wrong, did!  I’m sure a normal tour with them is great, but when things go wrong, they really do and for this reason, I’m not sure we could recommend them (more on this soon).  Guatape is lovely though and well worth a visit, either with another company or independently on the bus.

Onwards travel to Cartagena:  Flight with VivaColombia from Medellín to Cartagena.  Though we’re flying with a discount carrier, we have a fair few bags now (those llama blankets were too hard to ignore) so we’ve paid COP260,291 (USD89.60/NZD125.05) each.  This will be our last flight before leaving South America behind!

… and that’s all for another month!

Lessons Learnt on the Road

  • Always preload maps onto your phone.  I generally do but occasionally I forget.  We got a reality check in Quito though where we had no choice but to get into an unmarked, unregistered taxi.  Initially, the driver said he knew where he was going but 1/3 of the way into the trip he kept asking if we did (even though he had working sat nav).  We realised at that point in time, how vulnerable we were – for all we knew, he was driving us in the opposite direction in the dead of the night (as he continually said ‘two people, two people’ on the phone in Spanish…  I was terrified we were about to be mugged!  Had we had our maps loaded, we’d have been able to follow along on our phones and the ride would have been much more pleasant.
  • Long-term travel is tiring!  I’m not sure if it’s just because the end is near or because we’ve picked up the speed of our travel but we’re pretty tired now.  We’re making sure to allow ourselves some ‘down days’ where we just vege out because at this stage, we need them!

It’s hard to believe our time here is coming to an end.  With a month to go, we’re starting to think about jobs, housing and life back in New Zealand but the fun’s not over just yet… stay tuned for the rest of our Colombian itinerary along with San Francisco and Hawaii in the US.

Check out our Recent Posts

How to Get to the Swing at the End of the World: Baños, Ecuador

Salento Travel Guide: Buses to/from Medellín and Bogota

Comuna 13: Touring What Was Medellín’s Most Dangerous District

Our Previous Months on the Road

A Month on the Road in South America – Chile & Argentina

Two Months on the Road in South America – Chile, Argentina & Brazil

Three Months on the Road in South America – Brazil, Bolivia, Chile & Peru

Four Months on the Road in South America – Peru & Ecuador

Colombia Medellín South America

Comuna 13: Touring What Was Medellín’s Most Dangerous District

January 6, 2018

Violence and lawlessness was rife in what was one of the most dangerous barrios (districts) of the most dangerous city in the world.  Citizens were short on money and opportunity and were often left with nowhere to turn.

Life was tough in Comuna 13.

This was the most dangerous barrio in Medellín.  It was impossible to reach the centre of town; we were stuck here. All our elder brothers were on drugs or dealing drugs. I just lived in the house, and the bullets came flying in, during dinner…

Sebastian, 16

What a difference fifteen years can make though.  As it stands today, it’s almost impossible, as an outsider, to imagine Comuna 13 (a part of the San Javier district) as it once was – a haven for guerrillas, local gangs, drug cartels and paramilitary groups.

In place of the danger that used to envelop the region, there’s now a surprising sense of peace; a living, adapting community that is a testament to the human spirit.

If Medellín is to be considered one of the most innovative cities in the world, Comuna 13 would have to be one of the most transformed.

What did the community come from though?

An All-Too-Recent History Lesson

The ’80s-’90s

Controlled by groups with loyalties to Colombia’s notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar, life in the district was beyond anything I can imagine.  With danger around every corner and unbelievable crime statistics, Escobar’s death in 1993 did little to calm this troublesome part of Medellín.

Instead, crime continued to escalate as drug cartels fought for control of the hillside city, it’s location of key importance due to its geographical link to the San Juan Highway.

Those that had control of this highway controlled all illegal goods flowing in and out of Medellín, and, in turn, much of Colombia.

In their minds, it was worth fighting for at practically any cost.

2002 – A Time of Unexpected Change

Now infamous within Colombia, October 16th, 2002 saw Operation Orion carried out.  The national military (along with controversial assistance from unofficial paramilitary personnel) sprung a surprise attack on Comuna 13 in a bid to drive out the occupying rebel groups.

After one failed attempt to rid the region of the rebels (due to corruption within the police force), the second was strong and unrelenting.  Over 1,000 troops and police attacked the area whilst its 100,000 inhabitants did their best to shelter from the siege – all too often, unsuccessfully.

Bombs, mortars, machine guns and helicopters rained down on locals and criminals alike, unable to differentiate between targets and bystanders.

Life After 2002

In all, hundreds lost their lives whilst many, many more were seriously injured before the week was through.

Understandably, locals were heartbroken by the events that occurred in October of 2002.  Many of the local children had been drafted into the guerrilla forces (with no genuine alternative) only to find themselves the target of such extreme violence.

Hundreds of people from the community were taken, both innocent and guilty, never to be seen again; it wasn’t until recently that the location of their bodies was revealed as being at the rubbish dump on a neighbouring hill.

The alternative of continuing on as they were before Operation Orion was far from ideal but nor was the eventual action.

And all of this for what?  The guerrillas’ presence was replaced soon after by a paramilitary group led by an heir of Pablo Escobar, Don Berna, along with others vying for control.  It seemed like in Comuna 13 would not see the peace it so badly deserved without a fight.

Incredibly, a reformist alliance eventually emerged and with key players extradited and others promised jobs in exchange for peace, the community could finally start rebuilding.

Through hardship, Comuna 13 has risen.

Residents began expressing their concern and anger through community events, music and artworks, crafting the community that we know now – a world away from what it once was.

Comuna 13 Today

Today, Comuna 13 is full of life and is almost the antithesis of its former self.

In a bid to create more opportunities for the local residents and to reduce crime in the area, a modern cable car was installed (connecting to a rail and bus network) and six covered escalators were installed to make it easier for people to climb the steep city streets.

The sound of gunfire was eventually replaced by the sounds of children playing again.  Hip hop music sings out across walkways, giving local breakdances an ever-present beat to move to.  Colourful street art now attracts visitors from all over the world, both to observe and to create.

Comuna 13 has emerged with a new sense of pride that’s visibly clear throughout the area.

More than anything though, the lessons to be learnt in this community shine through.  That a group of people could come through such challenging times and emerge out the other side is mindblowing.  That tourists can now walk through this area with cameras dangling freely from their necks, chatting to locals without reservation, is more than I could have imagined before visiting for myself.

Without doubt, the community still has it’s fair share of challenges though.

Yes, there’s been a transformation. And of course we agree with the changes. But they need to keep attacking the causes, not the effects.  Inequality, bad education, no jobs or opportunity – that’s where we need the changes.

Jeihhco

Regardless, Comuna 13 can’t help but grant visitors a sense of optimism for the world.  If they can turn their situation around and make their community a place of such beauty, we all can.

Reviewing the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour

Do I Need to Book a Tour to Comuna 13?

Let me start by saying that, no, you don’t absolutely need to join a tour to this barrio.  Yes, you can make the trip out to Comuna 13 by yourself.  The metro system is easy to figure out and though the buses aren’t as simple, you can pick up free wifi in the subway and order an uber easily enough.

We never had any intention of travelling halfway around the world, to one of the most interesting parts of Colombia just to wander aimlessly through their street art though.

The power of Comuna 13 is in their history and in their stories.  These two things simply cannot be understood as an outsider walking through the city; to really dig into the district, you’ll want a guide.

Why Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour?

With tip-only tours available elsewhere in Medellín, we opted to join one that had a set rate.  Why?  For two reasons – number one, their
amazing reviews and number two, simplicity.

We have a bad habit of turning up to walking tours a little behind schedule because we almost always try to join them when we first make it to a new city.  They’re a great way to orientate yourself to a new place but of course, not knowing your way around can make it difficult to get there in the first place!  Imagine our excitement when we realised the meeting point for this tour was our nearest metro station, Poblado.  Not only the tour pick up the cost of our metro ticket but setting such a convenient starting point is a massive help to tentative tourists.  We’re relatively comfortable navigating South American public transport systems now (albiet whilst running a bit late) but there’s nothing wrong with getting a helping hand every now and then.

We loved that the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour included everything within the very reasonable ticket price (COP70,000/USD24/NZD33.60) including metro, bus and cable car tickets, drinks and best of all, fresh local snacks – seriously, try the corn arepa (made crispy with butter, yum!) and without doubt, the fresh mango iceblock – I’m still dreaming of it!

Oscar, our guide, was passionate, informative and personable throughout the duration of the tour.  He was always more than happy to answer our questions and shared his personal insight to Medellín’s somewhat troubled past.  We loved the manner in which he was upfront about the challenges the city has faced whilst remaining upbeat and of course, respectful – this is after all his city and one that he loves unreservedly.

The more time we spend here, the more we can appreciate why.

Keen To Book a Tour?  Here’s the Key Information You’ll Need:

  • Book: Email Arthur of Comuna 13 Graffiti Tours.  Tours run seven days a week and are conducted in English.  Bookings are required.
  • Pay:  COP70,000 each directly to the guide (additional tips not required, though I’m sure appreciated if you feel so inclined)
  • Meet:  Outside the ticket station at the Poblado metro at 10am.  This is a popular place for visitors to stay so may well be your local stop.
  • Visit:  Start by taking in the views at the top of the cable car and then make your way over to Comuna 13 where you’ll soak in the local street art and most importantly, gain an understanding of what life was like in this barrio and how it has changed over time, in the face of great adversity.

Thank you to Comuna 13 Graffiti Tours for hosting us on this tour for the purpose of this review.  As always, all thoughts are 100% our own – it just so happens that we unreservedly recommend this tour.

Colombia Salento South America

Salento Travel Guide: Buses to/from Medellín and Bogota

January 2, 2018

If you’re travelling to Medellín or Bogota and have a little extra time up your sleeve, you’ll want to include a visit to Salento – the only question is how you’ll get there.  Regardless of which city you’re travelling from, this guide will help ensure you make it to and from the quaint town of Salento safely, comfortably and without spending a fortune.

Bogota to Salento Bus (or Salento to Bogata)

To get to Salento from Bogota, travellers need to transit either via Armenia or Pereira as, at this stage, there are no direct connections.  The journey is easy going, even with minimal Spanish, so don’t be put off making the journey.

Bogota to Armenia (or Pereira)

Buses depart frequently from Terminal De Transporte Salitre and tickets are readily available to purchase, even if you’re looking to depart on the next bus.

When you make it to the terminal, take the entrance on the right and you’ll find the ticket counters directly in front of you.  Though there are many companies offering reliable transfers to Armenia, look out for Expreso Palmira, Velotax and Fronteras.

Pro Tip: We made the mistake of standing in the Velotax line and being pulled out by a local tout.  We were told we’d get on a smaller bus leaving much sooner but instead found ourselves waiting, both in the terminal and onboard the bus, for much, much longer than expected.  Whilst we waited, our original (more comfortable) bus came and went and still, we waited for all of the seats onboard the bus to be filled.

Given the option, we’d suggest you stick it out in the main lines rather than being pulled off to the side – you’ll end up with on a larger, more comfortable bus and will be assured of your departure time.

You are able to jump onboard buses both to Armenia and Pereira but the onwards connections from Armenia are much more frequent; because of this, it would always be our preferred route.

Trip length varies but it took us 9.5 hours as we ran into heavy traffic towards the end of the journey.

Tickets cost approximately COP60,000-70,000 from Bogota to Armenia on the bus (USD20-23.45 or NZD 28.30-33) and we suggest you aim to leave the city by 10.30am if you want to guarantee a connection through to Salento the same evening.

Armenia to Salento

When you deboard the bus in Armenia, follow the footpath around to the main terminal.  Once inside the terminal, turn sharply to your right and head right through the terminal and back outside.  There, you will see signs for Salento and mini-vans that depart every 20 minutes or so.

Bus tickets from Armenia to Salento are COP4,500 (USD1.50/NZD2.10) and are purchased onboard.  We were told buses run until 8pm daily though later transfers may be available at certain times of the year.

Salento to Medellín Bus (or Medellín to Salento)

Getting to and from Medellín is even easier as direct connections are now available through Flota Occidental.

At present, departures are available from Salento (at the same station you’ll be dropped off at) at 8am, 10am, 11am, 12pm and 4pm.  Tickets can be purchased at the small counter at the station for COP47,000 (USD15.75/NZD22.15) and availability can be checked online.  We had no problem booking our ticket half an hour before our 10am departure but if availability is limited, you may like to walk to the station the day before to secure your seats.

The journey takes approximately 6 hours,  drops passengers at Terminal del Sur Medellín where local buses and reasonably priced taxis are available to take you to your final destination (just remember to ask the driver to put the meter on).

Making the Trip in Reverse

Obviously, if you’re wanting to make either of these journeys in reverse (Medellín to Salento or Salento to Bogota) the same instructions can be applied, working from back to front.

Generally tickets do not need to be purchased in advance in Colombia but if in doubt, check in with the carrier online or pop along to the bus station a day ahead of time to secure your spots.

Salento is a beautiful, relaxed town that’s absolutely worth going out of your way to see; a must-see on your Colombian itinerary.

Activities Adventure Baños de Agua Santa Ecuador South America

How to Get to the Swing at the End of the World: Baños, Ecuador

December 23, 2017

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen carefree travellers flinging themselves off what appears to be a swing perched precariously on the top of a mountain – feet danging right off the end of the world, so to speak.

In reality, the swings are nowhere near as dangerous as they might appear.  They’re also easily accessible from Baños de Agua Santa (more often simply referred to as Baños) and make for a cheap day out in Ecuador.

So, what are you waiting for?  Grab your camera and get ready to swing your way to that perfect Instagram shot!

How To Get To the Swing At the End of the World

  • Local bus.  Our preferred method, buses in Baños are reliable and easy to use.  For only USD0.50 you’ll be dropped at the entrance to the original swing at the end of the world, La Casa Del Arbol (The Treehouse), which is approximately 40 minutes from the centre of town.  Buses depart at 5.45am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm and 4pm from Baños (on the corner of Pastaza and Rocafuerte).  If you ask the driver, they will happily point out the correct stop for you up the top and advise you of the return times.
  • Hike.  There are two main trails that will take you to the swings but neither are particularly direct.  Choose to hike towards either Mirador Virgen and on to Runtun or towards Bellavista (before again turning off to Runtun).  Regardless of the path you choose, you’ll then continue the hike along the same path to your destination.  Allow approximately 5 hours to hike up and back.
  • Taxi.  Official taxis are available from Baños but be sure to negotiate a price before you leave town (or insist your driver turns the meter on).  Also, decide whether you’d like the driver to wait for you at the top or if you’ll find your own way back down.
  • Hitchhike.  Though we don’t normally hitch rides, we started walking back down and a lovely couple kindly offered us a lift.  If you’re keen, there will be people going both up and down in private cars.
  • Guided tour.  Tours are available from town but there’s really no need to book yourself on one as the area is safe and the other transport options work so well.

How Much Does the Swing Cost?

There are a number of swings sitting above Baños but La Casa Del Arbol is probably the one you’ll want to make a beeline too.  They charge a very reasonable USD1 per person which will give you access to two sets of swings (one more scenic than the other) and a relatively small zip line.

What Should I Expect?

First of all, the swings really aren’t as bad as they look!  Nathan’s not a fan of heights but was more than happy swinging away.

During the peak season, we’ve been told each visitor gets a couple of swings and is the ushered off for the next person to jump on.  The beauty of being there in the low season meant we actually got a proper chance to swing (and multiple times at that).

It’s worth noting that the back of the swings are a little high – this makes it hard to get momentum up as you would on a normal swing but the concrete ramp below helps with that.  Be sure to take shoes with good grip so you can get yourself to the top of the ramp.

There’s also a belt which keeps you relatively secure so you can swing without a care in the world!

That’s it – no excuses now!

Looking To Up the Excitement Factor?

Alternatively, there is a larger swing (that accommodates up to three people at a time) on the same mountain.  Just start the walk back to town and after approximately 2km, turn left… follow that road for 800m (there are plenty of signs) and you’ll find the massive structure that you’ll easily see lit up at night from town.

This monster is less playground-swing and more fun-fair ride so we’d still suggest riding the bus up to the original swing first and then walking down should you want more of an adrenaline rush.  Don’t pick this one over the classic.

Apologies – we can’t remember the name of the larger swing but you can’t miss it.  If you do make it there yourself, we’d love an update please!

Baños – More Than Just a Swingers Paradise

Though Baños de Agua Santa originally came to our attention because of the ‘swing at the end of the world’, we soon realised there’s so much more to this buzzing little city!

Whitewater rafting, canyoning, zip lining, paragliding – there’s lots on offer in the region and all at unbelievably affordable prices.

It was incredibly easy to spend a week in Baños, the perfect mix of small-town relaxation and world-class adventure.  Make sure to include a stop in this part of Ecuador when you’re planning your trip to this diverse little country!

Whilst in Baños, we recommend staying at Hostal Princesa María.  The team there offers some of the friendliest service around and will happily point you in the right direction for the bus and anything else you’d like to do in the city.

Ecuador Itineraries Monthly Round-Up Peru South America

Four Months on the Road in South America – Peru & Ecuador

December 17, 2017

A little over four months in and a little less than two months to go on this massive, diverse continent!  It’s hard to really comprehend just how much we’ve seen but at the same time, the more we speak to other travellers, the more we realise there is to see.

With flights home booked though, all good things must come to an end, so you can bet we’re making the most of the next couple of months.

As always, this post is designed to give you practical tips for your travels through Peru (and the Galapagos) – information regarding costings, transport, accommodation and activities – it’s all in there.

Isn’t it time you began planning your adventure through South America?

If this is the first monthly round-up you’ve read, you may like to check out itinerary and costings for the first, second and third months we spent in South America first.

Puerto Maldanado (the Gateway to the Amazon), Peru

An easy overnight bus (or short flight) from Cusco, Puerto Maldanado is the closest jumping-off point to the Peruvian Amazon.  A visit to the Amazon was always a ‘must-do’ in our eyes and as we made new friends and explored the jungle, there was no doubt we made the right choice in visiting.

Accommodation:  3 nights in a private bungalow at Amazon Planet.  We joined them for the ‘Native Program’ but they have a range of options available – all including food, basic drinks, a guide and activities.  The accommodation itself was comfortable (but not lux) – exactly what you’d hope for in the Amazon.

Activities:  Night jungle treks, boat floats, a visit to a local tribe and plenty of hammock-time, the activities at Amazon Planet were varied and interesting whilst still providing enough downtime in the heat of the day.  Read about our first Amazon experience here.

Onwards travel to Cusco:  Another night, another bus.  This time we paid PEN40 (USD12.35/NZD17.85) each for a salon cama seat (the equivalent of business class on a plane) on Superciva but weren’t quite as impressed.  The toilets were smelly from the moment we stepped aboard and the snacks were very basic.  If Excluciva is running that night, you can definitely expect a much improved service for only PEN10 more – with that said though, there’s not much to do in the centre of Puerto Maldanado so we wouldn’t consider staying an extra night to catch the nicer bus.

Cusco, Peru

With Macchu Pichu behind us, we had a few last activities and hikes to tick off in Cusco before moving on.  A uniquely beautiful city, and one that we came to know fairly well, it was a pleasure spending more time in the cultural capital of Peru.

Accommodation:  Though we enjoyed the first hostel we stayed in, Magic Cusco, it was a little out of town, so upon our return we decided to check another option out – Magicpacker Hostel.  They’ve got a great range of bed configurations available and it’s another example of a perfect social-but-not-party hostel – just what you need after a long day of trekking.  4-bed mixed dorm @ PEN35 each/night (USD10.80/NZD15.60) – fabulous hot showers and the biggest TV you’ve ever seen (running Netflix) included!  Don’t miss their PEN10 optional dinners too – it was one of the best meals we had in Cusco and not much more than USD3.

Activities:

Via Ferrata and Zipline

High above the Sacred Valley you’ll find the Skylodge Adventure Suites.  These infamous glass pods are attached to the cliff, providing brave guests with a chance to sleep under the stars in one of the most unique locations imaginable… unfortunately for us though, we weren’t the only ones that thought this sounded like a good idea – the pods were booked solid for months!

If, like us, you’re unable to spend an evening in the pod, there’s a great alternative available in the form of a day trip.  Geared up, you’ll climb over 400 metres, above the glass lodge and then zipline your way down through 6 different exciting lines; if you’re in reasonable shape it’s easily achievable (and the via ferrata can be substituted for a hike up should you prefer).

Humantay Lagoon Hike

A relatively easy hike, Humantay is one not to be missed!  For those not keen on the uphill hike, horses are available for a reasonable cost.

Rainbow Mountain Hike (Take One)

Before visiting, we’d heard a lot about the hike to Rainbow Mountain – some saying it was a must-see from Cusco whilst others said the colours are nothing like the over-saturated ones you’ll see floating around the city as touts try to book travellers on tours.

Keen to find out for ourselves (but not so keen to experience the altitude sickness we’d heard so much about) we’d initially joined the alternative trek which gets hikers much, much closer to the top of an different mountain in the same range.  Hikers here only have to walk for 45 minutes up (and 20 down) and have the space practically to themselves.

Unfortunately for us though, the mountains saw one of their first snows of the season which meant our private tour couldn’t even make it to the carpark, let alone to the infamous rainbow.  Instead, we spent the day checking out local historical sites and an awe-inspiring canyon.  Sure, it wasn’t what we went to see, but the canyon did go a way towards making up for that.

Would we recommend the alternative Rainbow Mountain trip?  As long as the weather is clear, absolutely!  At this point in time though, there is no way for tour providers to check the conditions up the top of the mountain – this means that some guests will find themselves on a long car ride (at a relatively high price compared with the original Rainbow Mountain) that results in a distinct lack of rainbow at the end of it all.

Rainbow Mountain (Take Two!)

Returning to Rainbow Mountain, but this time the original version, I had another crack at making it to the top and this time was successful!  With the help of a horse (for PEN60/USD18.20/NZD26) and a bit of trekking, I summited in time to soak in the incredible views.

Though some rave about Rainbow Mountain, the valley that it sits within really is just as incredible and well worth a visit.  Glaciers hang not far from the summit, the Red Valley peeks out from around the corner and, of course, the rainbow coloured mountainside takes pride of place.

Onwards travel to Arequipa:  Rejoining Peru Hop we travelled overnight, leaving Cusco late and arriving into Arequipa in the early hours.  Our Peru Hop tickets were organised ahead of time in a package so none of our travel with them had a standalone price.  If this is your first time in South America or you’re just looking for an extra touch of safety, comfort and convenience (sounds good, doesn’t it?), they’re the way to go.

Don’t take our word for it – Find out what another traveller thought of the Peru Hop experience too.

Arequipa, Peru

With our plans to hike the Colca Canyon dashed thanks to a couple of head colds that we just couldn’t shake, for us, Arequipa became a place for some serious R&R.

The town itself is gorgeous and a significant departure from the hustle and bustle of Cusco so it ended up being a great place to spend some time.  They have plenty of pubs and little restaurants serving up great food at reasonable prices and some beautiful old architecture, so it’s definitely a spot that deserves more time than the quick connection some give it.

Accommodation:  3 nights in a six-bed mixed dorm at Flying Dog Arequipa @ PEN26 each/night (USD7.80/NZD11.30)

Activities:  Known for it’s relative proximity to the Colca Canyon and for affordable and fun rafting, there’s plenty of reasons to stop for a few nights in the city – both to enjoy the outdoors and the lovely township of Arequipa.

Onwards travel to Huacachina, Ica:  Peru Hop once again.

Huacachina, Peru

A mega-touristy little town, built around South America’s only natural oasis, we didn’t really know what to expect upon our arrival.  We’d been warned off staying there over the weekend due to the all-consuming noise that emanates from a few of the bars so intentionally planned our stay to avoid Friday and Saturday night.  In doing so, we found Huazachina to be a surprisingly charming place to spend a night – yes it’s set up for tourists but sometimes there’s no harm in that.

Accommodation:  1 night in a 10-bed mixed dorm at the Wild Olive Guest House @ PEN29.65 each/night (USD9/NZD12.85).  A great hostel with comfortable beds, clean bathrooms, great showers and a massive Netflix-playing television – our favourite hostel in Peru.

Activites:  After relaxing around the oasis, we hit the desert for some serious dune bashing and sandboarding fun (booked through Peru Hop at PEN50/USD15/NZD21.45 each).

Onwards travel to Paracas (via Nazca):  Good ol’ Peru Hop to the rescue again – this was a long day on the bus but thankfully it was broken up with a few strategic stops (lunch with a view and a quick look at some of the Nazca Lines).

Though we didn’t take to the air, we’ve heard great things about jumping on a Nazca fight to see the Nazca Lines in all their glory!  If you have the time and the money, it sounds like it would be a great addition to your itinerary.

Paracas, Peru

A quiet little seaside town, Paracas is home to a national park and is one of the best place to break the long journey from Huacachina to Lima.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm (one of which we were alone and the other there were four of us) at Los Frayles @ PEN30 each/night (USD9.10/NZD13).  Though we didn’t use it, the property has a lovely pool and Peru Hop’s passenger discount means you get a much nicer hotel for the price of a hostel.

Activites:  Quad bike tours of the national park are available, as is paragliding off of the sand dunes.  We relaxed for a couple of days choosing only to join Peru Hop’s free tour out to the park.

Accommodation Eco Tourism Peru Puerto Maldonado (Amazon Jungle) South America

Amazon Planet: Your Ticket to the Peruvian Amazon

November 26, 2017

The Amazon, without doubt, is a real bucket list destination for any nature lover.  With an ecosystem like no other, it’s one of the last true wilds in the world.

When we initially planned our visit to South America, we did so with a loose plan and a number of must-see spots in mind – Patagonia, Iguazu, Galapagos and of course the Amazon.

Did it live up to our expectations though?  We spent three nights at Amazon Planet putting them through their paces to find out.

Into the Wild – Activities Galore

With a range of programmes available to guests and a well-structured timetable, there’s plenty of time to make the most of your Amazon experience whilst still unwinding in this gorgeous jungle paradise.  Every morning an activity heads out whilst hammock-time is scheduled following lunch until the day cools down when a number of afternoon/evening activities come into play.

Books and board games are available throughout the day and happy hour does an excellent job of helping to form new friendships amongst fellow adventurers.

Let’s face it though – nobody’s in the Amazon with the main goal of playing cards, and good thing too – there’s plenty to do!

Upon arriving, we were introduced to Alejandro, our guide for the duration of our stay.  Throughout our time at Amazon Planet, he proved himself to be approachable, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable.  Alejandro had an incredible knack for recognising distant birdcall and barely noticable creepy-crawlies, bringing the jungle to life for us.

Jungle Walks, Day and Night

Throughout your stay at Amazon Planet you’ll be presented with many opportunities to head into the jungle – take them all!  With unique plants and incredible wildlife, you ever know what you’ll see whilst wandering the jungle.  The guides are exceptionally talented at identifying the vast variety of bird calls out in the jungle and easily spot the smallest of creatures, making every jungle walk a real chance to see new treasures.

When night falls, it’s time to grab your flashlight and go hunting for creepy crawlies!  Tarantulas, scorpions, frogs, caterpillars, snakes, lizards and more – there’s no shortage of beasties to catch your attention.

Alternatively, hop aboard the Amazon Planet boat on the hunt for caimans, the shy cousin of the alligator.  We were fortunate enough to spot a number of these small reptiles!

Generally, the animals we spotted in the wilds near Amazon Planet were smaller than we’d imagined – it’s not the place to find anacondas, for example, and though sloths are known to hang about in the region, they’re notoriously hard to spot.  Unfortunately, piranhas aren’t generally found in the fastmoving Madre de Dios River (but they can be spotted on the Tambopata programme!), nor are the pink river dolphins, but the few animals we didn’t see were soon forgotten in the buzz of excitement as we uncovered new ones.

And best of all, even if you don’t see much (though we promise, you will), Amazon Planet has a fantastic way of guaranteeing you’ll meet a bunch of local cuties – the Taricaya Ecological Reserve.

Taricaya Ecological Reserve

The only Amazon property in Peru to have their own ecological reserve, Amazon Planet really walk the talk when it comes to conversation.  Attracting biologists, vets and volunteers from the world over, they work together to ensure that local animals that are in need of some extra TLC are well looked after at Taricaya.

Not only do they release populations of native animals back into the wild, but they give those that are unable to reintroduced back into their habitats a fantastic life.

For visitors, it’s a real treat knowing that you’ll have the chance to see a variety of incredible animals, regardless of whether or not you spot them in the wild, but it’s even better knowing that some of the funds from your stay go towards running such a worthwhile operation.

Canopy Walk

Looking for an adrenaline rush (beyond tarantula spotting)?

Take to the skies, or the top of the Amazonian canopy to be exact, for a birdseye view of the surrounding rainforest – just remember to check your fear of heights at the door.

Nestled into the top of an ancient kapok tree, a 90-metre long suspension bridge stretches out to the viewing platform, 45 metres above the ground below.  The views out over the surrounding area are fantastic and being amongst the canopy really gives you a sense of the scale of the jungle.

Visit the Ese-Eja Tribe

A short ride upriver from Amazon Planet, lives Enrique, his wife and sometimes, his children.  Enrique and his wife span two very different generations – his father lived within the Amazon, completely immersed in a traditional, native way of life, whilst his children live during the week in the city, attending school in the hopes of joining the modern workforce as well-educated individuals.

We’ve attended a number of ‘community visits’ like this one now and, to be honest, some have been incredibly worthwhile and some have, quite simply, felt uncomfortable or inauthentic.  It’s fair to say that although we give these experiences a fair go, we are somewhat skeptical when approaching them – you just never know what you’re going to get and we certainly don’t like intruding where we’re not genuinely welcome.

That couldn’t have been further from the truth in this case though!

Enrique and his wife, despite the language barrier, did an amazing job of sharing their culture and customs with us, all with the biggest, most welcoming smiles.  Of course, we couldn’t communicate directly (as they spoke Quechuan) but a good giggle is universal as it turns out.

Over the course of the morning, we learnt how to make a bow and arrow (and eventually got better at shooting them), watched them start a fire using traditional methods, and learnt about their local foods, medicines and clothing – all of which comes directly from the rainforest.

Best of all, we left feeling connected to the local people, which is what an experience like this should be all about.

Boat Float

With the sun slowly disappearing over the horizon, where better to be in the Amazon than drifting gently downriver in the current?

The team at Amazon Planet organise for inflatable kayaks and boats to be taken upstream where guests jump in and spend put in some serious relaxation time.

Hunger Pangs – Food at Amazon Planet

Though you’ll be square in the middle of the jungle, the food at Amazon Planet is anything but rustic.  Banana pancakes and scrambled eggs for breakfast, fresh fish (caught locally) and delicious yuca fries for lunch and delicious steamed chicken and rice parcels for dinner.  Every meal is fresh, locally sourced, hearty and served in multiple courses.

As we near the end of our time in Peru, we can comfortably say it was amongst the best cuisine we’ve had during our time in the country!

It’s hard to go hungry out there but should you, additional snacks are available.  That’s not to mention the soft drinks and selection of beers and cocktails, all available at very reasonable prices.

A Place to Rest Your Head – Accommodation

With a busy day of jungle adventures behind you, a comfortable place to unwind is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Each bungalow at Amazon Planet is set back, away from the main dining quarters, along wooden boardwalks (perfect on those rainy Amazonian days).  The rooms are relatively basic but include high-quality mattresses, private bathrooms and a space to relax – ours had both a sofa and a little balcony with views out to the river.

Every day our room was cleaned and our water bottled topped up – a service that far exceeded our expectations in the middle of the jungle!

Transport: Getting to Puerto Maldonado from Cusco

Getting to Amazon Planet from Cusco is a relatively straightforward process and with the option of both buses and flights, there’s something to suit all budgets.

Overnight Buses

If you’re looking to save some money and have plenty of time on your hands, there is now a direct bus route servicing the region. Years ago it would have taken days to reach your final destination but now the journey runs a relatively comfortable 10 hours.

The route between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado is operated by Civa and Cruz Del Sur – both of which can be booked online through BusBud.  We rode with Excluciva (PEN50/USD15.40/NZD22/65 each) on the way there and Superciva (PEN40/USD12.35/NZD18.15 each) on the way back.  On both occasions, we booked the 1st floor (which is their salon cama offering – similar to business class on a flight) but found the Excluciva service to be far superior.  If you have the option to book on Excluciva, we’d definitely recommend spending the few extra dollars.

Flying

If you’d prefer to get to the Amazon via a more direct route then flying becomes your most efficient option.  A number of airlines offer fares to the Amazon, including StarPeru, Avianca, and LATAM, but we suggest you check SkyScanner to ensure you get the best price available.

Regardless of how you choose to arrive in Puerto Maldonado, Amazon Planet will organise someone to meet you at your point of arrival and for your transport to their offices on the outskirts of town.

Amazon Planet – Your Home in the Peruvian Amazon

Our stay in the Amazon was all about getting back to nature; to lay in bed with the sound of the evening jungle rains beating down, to explore the undergrowth, hunting out unique animals and simply soaking in the sights and sounds of one of the most incredible ecosystems in the world.

Amazon Planet offers all of the personal, homely touches that you’d hope for in the jungle but would never really expect.

Sure, the lodge isn’t the pinnacle of luxury, but it does exactly what it sets out to do – provide an amazing experience with caring, knowledgeable staff and many of the comforts of home.

The Amazon was on our South American bucket list, and for good reason, it’s retaining its spot there as a real once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Only, is it once-in-a-lifetime if you’d go back in a heartbeat?


Thank you to Amazon Planet for hosting our stay for the purpose of this review.  As always, all thoughts are our own.  We joined them for the 3 night ‘native’ programme which we highly recommend.

%d bloggers like this: