JOE Backpacking Diary #15 - Finishing Colombia in style and my first few days in Ecuador
This week's diary is about my last few days in Colombia and discovering that Ecuador is an incredible country.
My name is Joe Harrington; I'm travelling through Central and South America for eight months, here's what happened on week 14.
Next stop: Mocoa, Colombia
After a week of adventures in San Agustín, some that will live with me forever, it was time to move on.
My Dutch friend Lisa and I decided to get to the Ecuador border as quickly as possible while also trying to fit in some activities along the way.
The town of Mocoa was the next destination as it was as far as we could get in a day and it's famous for its waterfalls.
We arrived at 4pm in the afternoon which was too late to find any of the big falls so we just wandered along the Rumiyaco River beside our hostel. A good idea to go exploring, look at this.
We were tight on time but we wanted to see one of the waterfalls and the closest was the Hornoyaco which we were told was a three and a half hour roundtrip from the hostel.
We left the following morning at 5:45am and it turned into a pretty eventful few hours.
The start of the trail was perfect with gravel paths and this beautiful suspension bridge.
Then things took a turn, the rain started and the conditions underfoot became soul-destroying.
The red mud path we had to walk on was very slippery so I was like Bambi on ice for around 45 minutes. Lisa wasn't much better.
After crossing wooden log paths and two more bridges, we eventually reached a sign that said, "Hornoyaco Waterfall - 50 metres" and it had an arrow pointing down.
We were delighted, almost there... we thought.
The next part of the hike was downhill and STEEP! I slipped on my arse twice before we reached a part with more of the dreaded red mud.
This part was dangerous so there were ropes to hold onto going down. I went first and got down by holding on for dear life.
Lisa climbed down the first part no problem. Here she is, you can see the steepness of the trail.
I told her to use the rope for the second part but she either didn't hear me or ignored me because she didn't and she paid the price.
Just as she was trying to get her footing on the way down, she slipped backwards, fell off the side of the path and dropped three metres into a hole in the jungle.
I yelled, "Jesus Christ" as she flew through the air in what seemed like slow motion. Her fall was broken by tree trunks but she slipped down deeper under branches and bushes.
I tried to pull her out but her head was stuck. After a few seconds of shimmying she eventually got her head free and I pulled her up to the path.
She was okay, nothing broken, but she was burning all over because of whatever plants and insects she landed in.
She was in agony and needed to cool the burn so she more or less ran down the rest of the trail to the waterfall to get into the water.
It took me another five minutes to get to the waterfall, the path was still trecherous in places.
When I eventually got there Lisa was trying to ease the pain of the burn in the icy water. It helped, but she was still pretty sore.
The waterfall itself is beautiful, it's probably the nicest one I've seen on my whole trip.
The trip back to the hostel was slow and our collective patience was at its limit so it was very frustrating but we got there in one piece.
It could have been so much worse. She actually could have died. Yikes.
Accommodation: Casa Del Rio. €11 per night for a dorm. It's clean and in a cool location about a 20 minutes walk out of town.
Food: You can order in dinner in the evening. Don't get the pizza.
Drink: I didn't drink.
Highlight: Eventually seeing the Hornoyaco Waterfall.
Lowlight: My travel buddy almost breaking her back. I still get flashbacks.
Next stop: Ipiales, Colombia
After that dramatic morning, we left Mocoa. Our final destination was the border town of Ipiales but getting there wasn't straight-forward at all.
We needed to go to the town of Pasto first and to get there we travelled by jeep on the Trampolín de la Muerte. The English translation: Trampoline of Death!
The road, which is considered one of the most dangerous in the world, went up and down over mountain peaks for five hours. Here's an example of the drop off the side.
The problem with travelling on a mountain road like the Trampoline of Death is that the side of the mountain can collapse from time-to-time.
Yes, of course it happened when we took it. Luckily, a few good men and two JCBs were there to clear the road. Timing is everything.
We got to Pasto and there we had to walk to a different bus terminal to catch a bus to Ipiales.
We got into Ipiales at 7:30pm and got a taxi to the Gran Hotel which was highly recommended in Lonely Planet.
The cheapest rooms were €40, no thanks, so we went to another recommended spot called Belmonte Hotel which cost €5 for the night. Deal.
Another early start the following morning because one of the most beautiful churches in the world is very close to Ipiales and we wanted to check it out.
We hopped in a taxi to Iglesia de Las Lajas (€8 one way) at 7am and it was well worth getting up to go there. Look at the building.
The level of detail on the church is hard to fathom and the wall behind the altar inside is the rock from the side of the valley.
Here's the view from the other side. Incredible.
That was the last stop in Colombia after an amazing five weeks, I cannot recommend the place highly enough.
Nevermind the bad reputation, that's in the past, the country is a gem and you should make it your business to visit in the near future.
Accommodation: Belmonte Hotel. €5 per night.
It's... well... it's rustic and the woman lied to me about there being hot water in the shower, but it's so cheap.
I wouldn't book it for your honeymoon or anything.
Food: We ate in a place called La Terraza in the main square. It was good.
Drink: I didn't drink.
Highlight: Iglesia De Las Lajas. A bucketlist place if there ever was one.
Lowlight: The vibe in Ipiales was a bit sketchy.
Next stop: Quito, Ecuador
I was sad to be leaving Colombia but very excited to be going to Ecuador. My original plan was to skip it but that changed in the last few weeks and I've decided to spend a fortnight there.
The first task was to get from the border to the capital Quito. It was very easy. The emigration was smooth, then we got a €3 taxi to Tulcan and from there an €8.50 bus to Quito.
We arrived in Quito at 7pm and after looking at a few hostels in the old town we ended up in Community Hostel which is absolutely brilliant.
The following morning we went on the cable cars in Teleferico. They are similar to Medellin so the impact of the view wasn't as great but it showed the size of the city. Quito is enormous.
At the top you can choose to go straight back down or else do a five hour hike to Rucu Pichincha. We decided to hike.
I spoke to some people in the hostel who did it and they said they had real trouble with the altitude, it's over 15,400 feet, so I was a bit worried.
It turned out to be totally fine, I coped really well with the altitude and lack of air. The hike is mostly easy uphill but there are parts where you need to scramble.
The summit was special though, the highest I've ever stood in the world.
I have an Irish scarf with me because of the Euros and I found it in my backpack so I pulled it out for a photo.
I was literally up in the clouds.
The hike back down was tricky in places. I had one wobbly moment when I thought I couldn't get down over a ledge and I twisted my ankle at the bottom. Overall though, a successful hike.
We strolled around the old town when we got back to the city. It's really pretty, I recommend getting a coffee in the main square and have look around.
The next day was a 6am wake up for a trip to Quilotoa Lake which is a few hours south of Quito.
We booked the trip with CarpeDM Adventures (€50) and the package included breakfast, lunch, a visit to an indigenous family in the mountains, a stop at a local market and a tour of the lake.
The indigenious house in the mountains was cool.
We met the local family who live there and were told about there lives there. They grow 18 different types of potatoes and their favourite meat is guinea pig.
Yes, those cute little guys are dinner.
Dinner in the mountains of Ecuador
The next stop was the local market in Pujili where I bought some fruit and haggled with the locals to get an alpachas jumper for cheap. It was fun.
Then we got to Quilotoa Lake, it's an absolutely breathtaking place.
I've seen about eight volcanos on the trip and while they've all been amazing in their own way, I think Quilotoa is my favourite.
The hike down to the lake takes 30 minutes and our guide took us to a place where the water was bubbling because of the heat from underneath. It's 260 metres deep.
The hike back up is fairly tough and takes about an hour. I took time to stop off and take a photo with my new jumper, it's soooo nice.
The next day was my final day in Quito so I decided I'd go and find the equator or Mitad Del Mundo as it's known locally.
The bus from old town to Mitad Del Mundo costs €0.30 and it takes an hour. To be honest, there isn't that much to do out there (Entry - €7)
It has a cool science museum, a brilliant mountain photography exhibition and some more buildings giving background on the area.
The main reason people go there is for the photo on the equator, here's mine.
My tip is to go around the back of the monument, there are a lot less people there and it's pretty much the same photo.
My Australian pals from Guatemala, Will and Jonnie, showed me the brilliance of a #SweetPano three months ago and I did my own on the Equator.
A #SweetPano is where the same person appears in a photo twice by taking a panorama, stopping halfway, and the person running around the other side for the rest of the photo.
I took the bus back to Quito and checked out of my hostel that afternoon. What a cool city, I wish I had more time there. The next destination, Baños.
Accommodation: Community Hostel. €10 per night.
It has great beds, clean bathrooms, a communal eating area, a TV room, lots of tours and nice food.
Food: We ate in Secret Garden and Community Hostel. They both do excellent dinners for €5.
Drink: The hostels are as good as anywhere. I didn't drink (again) because I was doing so many activities.
Highlight: It has to be reaching the summit of Rucu Pichincha.
Lowlight: Twisting my ankle on the way down the mountain, it hurt and left my hobbling for a few days. I manned up though.
Read more about my trip to Central and South America here:
Diary #2 - Miami, Guatemala City, Antigua
Diary #3 - Antigua, Lake Atitlan
Diary #4 - Entering El Salvador
Diary #5 - El Salvador, Leon, Nicaragua
Diary #6 - Volcano boarding in Leon, Laguna De Apoyo, Granada
Diary #7 - The volcanos of Ometepe and Sunday Funday in San Juan
Diary #8 - Monteverde and Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
Diary #9 - Bocas del Toro, Panama City
Diary #10 - San Blas Islands, reaching Colombia
Diary #11 - Exploring north Colombia, Cartagena, Santa Marta, Punta Gallinas
Diary #12 - My first week in Medellín
Diary #13 - Meeting Pablo Escobar's brother, Guatape and Salento
Diary #14 - The wonders of the Tatacoa Desert and San Agustin in south Colombia