Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A great stepping stone back to home

New York, USA: 6 - 12 Dec. 2010

My transition back to the wintery developped world was helped by the facts that in places Colombia is very modern (certainly a big step up from Peru) and that, away from the hot Caribbean coast, the climate in November and December is relatively cool. Even so, once I got passed an incredulous US customs official ("You've been travelling for 15 months?!"), I felt a bit out of place during my stop-over in Orlando airport given its cleanliness and facilities, especially toliets where you can flush the toilet paper!

From there I flew onto New York, where I was joined the next day by Aileen and Nicole. We had the perfect week, which had the nice mix of seeing and doing a lot during the day without pushing it too much (like ice-skating in Central Park), and then in the evenings enjoying some lovely meals out, followed by nighttime walks to soak up the Christmas atmosphere (like seeing the tree in front of the Rockerfeller building).From getting the morning boat to Ellis Island, having a dim sum lunch in Chinatown, going to the top of the Empire State Building, to seeing "Wicked" on Broadway, it was a fantastic week.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The art of travelling in rainy Colombia

Palomino, Tayrona, Cartagena, Medellin, Manizales, Salento, Valle de Leyva, Bogota, COLOMBIA: 17 Nov. - 6 Dec. 2010

I had generally done quite well in avoiding being in countries during their rainy seasons, but I ended my travels in South America by being in Colombia during their worst rains in nearly 40 years.But it wasn't too bad; it just meant that we visited a fair few museums and art galleries (I especially liked this painting in Medellin by Fernando Botero about the death of the other famous man from Medellin - the drug lord Pablo Escobar) and we did some muddy treks. In the end, we decided to embrace the mud by bathing in the mud volcanic pool outside Cartagena - a fun and truely unique experience.During my last few weeks in Colombia, I was reminded of Alain de Botton's book "The Art of Travel". One thing I remember from reading it was his view that guide books' and other people's supposed highlights do not have to be your highlights. While the walled, coastal city of Cartagena certainly lived up to the hype, for me other so-called highlights failed to greatly impress. For instance, while we heard that going to the beach in Tayrona National Park was a "once in a lifetime experience", I much preferred the couple of days we (Ciaran, Elaine and myself) spent at the stunning and deserted beach a little further along the Caribbean coast at Palomino (where we slept in a hut on stilts literally right at the water's edge).
Similarly, for me what made our time in Salento in the Coffee Region so memorable was not the hike to see the famous wax palms, but rather our night out there. We started by drinking in a "wild west" type saloon full of men wearing ponchos and cowboy hats playing cards and billards, and then moved onto another bar where at the back you could play tejo. This game, which is free to play so long as you keep buying drink, is one of the best pub activities I've ever done. We had hours of fun throwing metal disks at a clay-filled target box about 15 metres away which was filled with little packets of gunpowder - there was such a great sense of joyous satisfaction at hitting one of the packets and causing an explosion!Other personal highlights of Colombia, which don't get mentioned in guidebooks, include: going into shops that sell both motorbikes and washing machines; seeing people on the street making calls from "public" mobile phones that are chained onto the vendor (the guy holding the sign, who is standing in Bogota's main plaza, has half a dozen phones chained to his belt - its common to see a bunch of people all making phone calls standing around these guys);and seeing roadside posters calling the army today's heroes of Colombia. The army certainly are all over the country (it was the norm to pass through several army checkpoints on every bus trip). I just thought it was interesting to see them portrayed like movie-heroes.
My time in Colombia was a nice reminder to avoid the trap of blindly following the Lonely Planet or of putting too much faith in other people's recommendations. The fact that we did some of our own things made my time in Colombia a nice end to my Latin American adventures.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In praise of Salomon

Popayán, San Agustin, Cali, Santa Marta, COLOMBIA: 1 Nov. - 16 Nov. 2010

This week, when I dumped my Salomon trail runners, I decided that they must be the best purchase I've ever made. Bought for 100 euro three years ago, they served me well for all the hill-running I did before I left Ireland and then for the first fifteen months of my travelling. My first few weeks in Colombia provide a good example of what I´ve put them through in the last year:
  • walking all around the colonial city of Popayán in the south of the country, with its streets lined with all-white buildings;
  • horse-riding in the countryside around San Agustin to several statue-filled sites;
  • salsa dancing in Cali, where myself and Ciarán again met up with Elaine and her friends;
  • trekking for five days with Ciarán and Elaine through rivers and mud to the "Lost City of Tayrona".

Me and my Salomon runners have done a lot of fun stuff over the last 15 months, and I expect their replacements (which I plan to buy in New York in December) will serve me just as well!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Moving from south to north

Cuenca, Quilotoa, Cotopaxi, Quito, Lago Agrio, ECUADOR: 16 - 31 Oct. 2010

Despite having fourteen months in Latin America, I somehow started to run out of time. Therefore I had to move through Ecuador fairly quickly. But in my two and a half weeks there I had some great experiences:

  • Quilotoa Loop: After two days in the pleasant city of Cuenca, we spent three days travelling between rural mountain villages centred around the dramatic Quilotoa crater lake (hence this circular trip is known as the "Quilotoa Loop"). As well as hiking around the lake (reaching a height of over 4,000m), I will remember this trip for our two hour stint in the back of the local milk truck as it did its daily rounds collecting milk from the local farmers and in the process bringing us and some locals from one village to the next.
  • Cotopaxi National Park: Part of our four days here was spent relaxing and reading either in hammocks or by a roaring fire, and part was spent climbing to the summit of the mountain itself. At 5,897m high, Cotopaxi is higher than Mont Blanc and Kilamanjaro and it is the highest active volcano in the world. Climbing on a snow-covered glacier by the light of the full moon is probably the single most memorable thing I've done in South America. Its hard to describe how great it felt to reach the top. Luckily Ciarán has done a great job in detailing our adventures, which will soon be available to read on his blog.
  • Quito: While on a couple of occasions we felt the unsafeness that we had been warned about, I quite liked the Ecuadorian capital, especially the Old Town (where we did a tour of the Presendential Palace just a few weeks after a so-called attempted coup!).
  • The jungle: Ten hours east of Quito in the Amazonia region, we spent a fun four days in the jungle. We stayed in a remote lodge and did a lot of swimming and animal watching - we saw monkeys, river dolphins, snakes (a boa and an anaconda), countless spiders (including tarantulas) and birds, and we heard a jaguar in the distance during a night hike. I also went fishing for the first time in my life, and I caught a piranha!

On the bus to the Colombian border we crossed the equator, so after nearly eleven months I'm back in the northern hemisphere and onto my final Latin American country - Colombia!

Monday, October 18, 2010

A tale of two treks

Cusco, Huaraz, PERU: 25 Sept. - 16 Oct. 2010

Over the space of 12 days I did two four-day treks - both great experiences and highlights of my time in South America.

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, 42kms, highest point 4,200m.

Machu Picchu is the most visited attraction in South America and walking the Inca Trail to get there is the classic (read popular and therefore expensive) tourist thing to do. Having heard about it for so long, I was interested to see what I would make of the whole thing.

Ciaran, John and I were put into a group with thirteen others (mostly American) and we started our trek on a sunny morning - together with two guides and twenty porters! The idea of needing so many people to do a trek initially didn't sit well with me, but I soon got used to this luxurious style of trekking, where our tents were pitched for us and the food we were served was delicious. Given that I had just spent six months living at altitude and had done plenty of trekking, I didn't find the going as hard as others in our group. So I was able to enjoy the lush scenery and the Inca ruins that we regularly came across (which added to the historic feel).
After three days of early starts (and early nights), we got to Machu Picchu at 6:30am on the fourth morning. It really was an impressive place in the most amazing of locations. It didn't disappoint.
Santa Cruz Trek, Las Cordilleras Blancas, 45kms, highest point 4,750m.

After saying goodbye to Ciaran Luttrell and John, I headed ten hours north of Lima with Ciarán Aylward, Elaine and Sally (a friend from Devon who I've met up with several times over the last eight months) to Huaraz to go trekking in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range. During the four-day trek we saw some fantastic, rugged scenery and, unlike the Inca Trail, we had it pretty much all to ourselves, i.e. the four of us, our guide and his trainee, and Alberto and his two donkeys and two horses who carried our tents etc. I'm getting used to this style of trekking where our stuff is carried, our tents pitched and nice food served up!It was a very enjoyable trek and the Cordilleras Blancas rank right up there in my list of amazing places.After the trek, I continued north with Ciarán and Elaine. First to Trujillo (a colourful colonial city near a beach and with fascinating pre-Inca ruins nearby) and then to Máncora (a small beach town). Elaine left us to skip up to Colombia to catch up with her friends, so it was just myself and Ciarán left when we hit for the Peru-Ecuadorian border. I had overstayed my six-month visa but only had to pay a dollar for every day that I was over. So after paying the US$28, I left Peru having spent a very memorable seven months there.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

On the road again

Lima, Arequipa, Cusco, PERU: 15 Sept. - 2 Oct. 2010

I left Ayacucho for Lima to once again become a hostel-staying backpacker. Over the course of three days I was joined by four friends: Ciarán Aylward (Lima was his first stop on a round the world trip); Antonio (a Mexican guy I met in Mexico City last year); and Ciaran Luttrell and John O'Leary (who came to Peru for a two week holiday).

After showing the lads around Lima, the five of us flew to Arequipa where we rented a jeep and hit for the Colca Canyon. I hiked here six months earlier when I first got to Peru but was happy to do it again as the scenery is stunning. After a nice hike we spent a memorable night at the bottom of the full moon-lit canyon.Back in Arequipa we discovered that in typical Peruvian style the only road to Cusco was blocked as part of a dispute. All the reputable bus companies cancelled their services, but as we had to get to Cusco to start the Inca Trail we took a chance and went with one of the few companies that were operating. This involved having to get off the bus at 4am to walk with our bags past all the blocked vehicles and through the roadblock to a bus that was waiting on the other side. But it all worked out and we made it on time to Cusco - the backpacker capital of South America.

It was nice to finally get there as I had heard so much about this city, the former capital of the Inca empire. Here we met up with Elaine, my former Ranelagh housemate, and her four Cork friends who are travelling in South America for four months on their way to Australia - after travelling solo for so long, I was now surrounded by people I knew!

After the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu (more about this in my next blog entry), I flew back to Lima with Ciaran and John for the last night of their holiday. Unfortunately we couldn't have a drink to celebrate as the "ley seca" meant that no alcohol was allowed to be sold in Peru for the three days leading up to the elections - imagine if they tried to bring that rule in in Ireland!

It was a great two weeks and I'm happy to be back on the road again.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Goodbye to Los Cachorros

Ayacucho, PERU

After nearly six months, its time to leave Ayacucho. Time has flown and I've had a fantastic experience - I feel very lucky to have been able to live in this Andean city and to work at Los Cachorros.

I had a great last few days. There was a nice going away party for me where kids performed songs and dances and, thanks to my generous friend Catherine who sent out the necessary gear, on my last day I taught the kids and the staff to play tag rugby, which they loved.

While I won't miss:
  • the dogs barking all night;
  • people throwing rubbish everywhere - it was so hard to teach the kids not to throw rubbish since everyone here does it;
  • fireworks/dynamite/gun-shot sounding noises at all hours, especially 5am,
I will miss:
  • the weather - my time here was mostly in the non-rainy season, when everyday was sunny and around 24 degrees;
  • cheap fruit and vegetables - the jugerías in the market charge €0.80 for huge, delicious juices and I've cooked more vegetarian meals here than in my whole life;
  • sitting on the roof of my house with a book and/or a beer at sunset watching the Andes change colour from brown/green to orange/purple; and
  • the kids.
I hope the best for the kids and while it would be easy given their family backgrounds to be despondent about some of their futures, I know that I'm leaving them in very good hands at Los Cachorros.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Lima, Ayacucho, PERU

For someone who usually doesn't make a big deal of their birthday, last week was surprisingly cake-filled. First I went to Lima to meet my former Ranelagh housemate Sinead and her four Australia-bound friends from Ballincollig. We went surfing, had a couple of nice meals out, including a birthday dinner and cake for me, and a really fun night out.
It was great to meet up with the girls and to hear their Cork accents (as far as I can tell, there are no other Irish people in Ayacucho).

Back in Ayacucho, a "surprise" party was thrown for me in the shelter. I had another (very creamy) cake, which my face was pushed into (a Peruvian custom!)
and I got some nice presents - the kids bought me a wallet and the other volunteers gave me a jersey of the local football team, Inti-Gas.
Then on Saturday night there was a joint birthday party for me, Emilie (a French friend of mine) and her Peruvian friend Lorena (our birthdays fall within three days of each other). We made a brownie cake so that our faces couldn't be covered in cream - Emilie has lived in Ayacucho for a few years so was well aware of the custom involving birthday cakes! It was a fun night.
In between all these parties, I continued my work at Los Cachorros, which includes helping out at our chocolatería. This has now expanded to be a repostería, so I spent a morning in the home of a Dutch woman (picture a lovely, cake-baking grandmother type) who runs a nursery here as she taught a few of us (mainly Deysi, the 18 year old mother of two who used to live in our shelter but who we are now training to run the repostería) to make cakes. I hadn't done things like separating the whites and yokes of eggs since "helping" Mum, i.e. about twenty years ago (I realised in this week that I turned 29 that I can now say things like "I haven't done this in twenty years" and not be exaggerating). I quite liked making the cakes, although I learned that the nicest ones have loads of sugar, butter and chocolate in them!

While on the topic of celebrating anniversaries, I started my career break this week last year - its been a great year and right now I feel like I will continue with travelling and volunteering abroad for the next two years! So I wonder where I'll turn 30...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Jungle Blog

San Francisco, Puchari, PERU

Since arriving in South America, and especially since getting to Ayacucho, I've heard a lot about la selva (the jungle) and last week's "Festival of the Coca Leaf" in Pichari provided the perfect reason to go. So I took the six-hour mini-van ride north through amazing and changing scenery (where the mountain roads reminded me of the so-called "World's Most Dangerous Road" that I cycled down in Bolivia) with my friend Miguel. He is one of the few people from Ayacucho who I have met who can speak English. Although he is about to qualify to be an English teacher, my level of Spanish is about the same as his level of English (and I wouldn't consider myself in any way able to teach Spanish to anyone - an indication of what appears to me as the low standard of the education system in Peru), so we talk half the time in English and half in Spanish - a handy arrangement.

On arrival in San Francisco (the town where we spent our first night) after our sweaty journey, we did as the locals do - we went for a wash in the river. The water was warm and it was busy with people washing themsleves, their clothes and even their moto-taxis (note the guy shaving in the moto-taxi´s mirror while his friend washes it).The fact that I wore swimming shorts rather than just my underwear made me stand out - although it would have been hard to blend in given that I was the only white foreigner there (I didn't see any other non-Peruvians during this four-day trip). Washing myself in a river across from a topless old woman who was doing her laundry was one of the most "third world experiences" that I've had here.

After a night out with Miguel's brother and his friend, we headed an hour up the (dirt) road to Pichari. During our three days there we watched some of the festival's events, including:
  • a singing contest (I am not a big fan of Peruvian music - click here to see Marisol, who I saw in concert in Ayacucho, who is a popular and typical example);
  • a running race (I was one of the only people who clapped for the people as they crossed the finish line - even for junior events the Peruvians only clapped for the winner, and then without much enthusiasm); and
  • a version of the ploughing championships involving the four stages of planting and producing coca (this was scheduled to start at 10am, but when we left at 1pm to get our bus back to Ayacucho the event still hadn't started - punctuality is not a Peruvian trait).

I didn't go to the cock-fighting competition, and then we missed the moto-taxi race as we spent that day doing a great hike through a lush, fruit-filled jungle track to six impressive waterfalls.Note that Muguel is about the average height for Peruvians - in Peru I have often found myself in the novel position of being the tallest person in a room full of people.

It was interesting to see a side of Peru that is quite different to Ayacucho: Pichari was hot right through the night, whereas in Ayacucho when the sun sets at 6pm it gets cold due to the altitude; and I felt my first rain since the end of the rainy season in Ayacucho in April. I plan to go to the jungle again when travelling in north Peru or Ecuador.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Cheery and tuneful?

An account of my cycling trip in Argentina back in February has been published in the blog of "Journey Latin America" - check it out at:


Friday, July 23, 2010

Ayacucho in Miniature

Huanta, PERU

Huanta is a town just over an hour from Ayacucho. I went there last week having recently read about it and the devastating effects that the Sendero Luminoso (the "Shining Path" - a communist terrorist organisation that was founded in Ayacucho. Between 1980 and 2000, 69,280 people died or disappeared as a result of the armed conflict between the Shining Path and the government) had on the town. Apart from the effects of the Shining Path, I found many things in Huanta that are similar to things in Ayacucho:

A nice central plaza;
A mirador overlooking the town;Breastfeeding is so openly prevalent there is even a statue;
Several churches, big and small;
Adobe houses (I find the process by which a Hannah Montana poster ends up in the window of a house in a mountain town in Peru mindboggling);
Street art - the phrase translates as "The majority of people waste a lot of time talking about the problems that confront them" - I didn't realise that smurfs were such great sages!;
Educational and instructive wall paintings;
Moto taxis - these three-wheelers are everywhere and for €0.30 will take you anywhere in the city. Many are pimped, though manily with religious quotes and pictures. Most Peruvians I know are shocked when I tell them that I walk the 25 minutes walk (at my fast pace) between my house and my work - the concept of enjoying walking doesn't seem to have caught on here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Serious Clowning

Ayacucho, PERU

Last Monday, on my day off from Los Cachorros, I spent the day volunteering with another organisation. The day involved dressing up as a clown and driving in a van into the mountains surrounding Ayacucho.

After driving through amazingly scenic mountain valleys, we visited three villages. My job was:

  1. Attract all the children to the center of the village (this was easily done as not much seems to happen in these remote villages, so the sight and sound of a van full of clowns certainly got their attention);
  2. Join in the games that the "head clown" played with the kids, where the prizes were toothbrushes;
  3. Once we had all the kids happy and lined up, I put on surgical gloves and a facemask over my painted face and acted as a dental assistant as we cleaned the kids' teeth and gave advice on dental hygiene - and boy did they need it judging by the terrible state of their teeth.

Being a dental assistant while dressed as a clown in remote Peruvian villages is certainly an image I'll keep with me for quite a long time.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Upwardly Mobile

Ayacucho, PERU

Last week while I was bringing the kids in my PE class to the nearby public frontón (a cross between squash and handball) courts, we came across a young boy asleep on the side of the road. The boys told me his name is Robert and that he used to live in the Los Cachorros' shelter. Although he ran away from the shelter just before I came, I had heard of him because soon after I arrived the kids told the staff that they had heard rumours that Robert had died on the streets. But then the staff found out that he had gone back to the jungle (about seven hours south of Ayacucho) where his family lives.

When we got back I told the staff that we had met Robert. The next day when I turned up for my 2pm - 10pm shift, I found him back living in the shelter - it was great to see that the hungry- and dirty-looking boy who I saw sleeping on the streets the day before now had clean clothes, food and a bed. The staff think that he will leave again after awhile, so I am happy just to teach him a few things (I introduced him to Tetris in my computer class) while he's here. And I was glad to hear that he remembered some of the English words that a previous volunteer had taught him - so I see now that even with the kids who leave some of what we're doing sticks.

Speaking of people on the up, I went paragliding in the mountains surrounding Ayacucho. After our first attempt to take off resulted in a crash landing (we just avoided landing on a large cactus!), I then had a great, relaxing flight - a nice way to spend a morning.
Then to round off a good week, all the staff and boys in the permenant shelter went on a day out to the countryside where we played games and some football before swimming in a pool heated by natural springs - it was a fun day out.