Travelblog SA#36: Perito Moreno, El Chaltén & Ruta 40 – Argentina

4th-10th January 2019

Fresh from trekking the Torres Del Paine circuit, I began to head north. The Antarctic region of Chile is disconnected from the rest of the country by road so I was forced to cross over the border into Argentina in order to continue my journey. This was something I was not upset about at all, as there are many awesome things to see in this region of Patagonia.

 

Perito Moreno

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It did feel a little bit like I was cheating, being able to get right up close to such a marvel without doing any of the work. All it took was catching a bus from El Calafate and then I found myself at a park which had a series of boardwalks from which I could view a huge glacier from all angles.

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As I walked around, every now and then I heard a rumble as chunks of ice fell from the wall of ice and into the lake. I managed to catch the aftermath of one on my camera which you can watch if you click here.

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I also saw a pair of condors which suddenly, out of nowhere, swooped over me. I saw them from much closer than I did when at Cruz Del Condor in Peru, all those months ago. I was too awed to get my camera out to capture them. I just enjoyed the sight.

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For future travellers to this place, here is a tip; you can enter the park for half price if you manage to find a ticket from the previous day, so ask around your hostel when you arrive in El Calafate. I was a little worried they would clock me as the tickets state your country of origin and mine said ‘Brasil’, but the woman who came onto the bus when we entered the park didn’t say anything when she was collecting money. It was quite hilarious though when she got back on a few minutes later with the printed tickets and asked everyone from Brazil to raise their hand and I – probably the whitest dude in the entire carriage – raised mine. She did look at me a little funny when she gave me my ticket but I just said, “Vivo en Brasil pero soy de Gales.”

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If you are hesitant to do this, just remember; they charge foreign visitors 700 Argentinean pesos (not much shy of $20) per person whereas Argentineans only pay 100 and they receive hundreds of visitors a day. When they are taking in that much money you know only a fraction of it is going to the preservation of the park and the other 95% is just gringo tax. To sum up how guilty I felt, here is a picture:

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El Chaltén

A few decades ago Argentina sensed a land dispute coming up so they threw a few houses and a street at a frontier to lay claim. It just so happened to get very close to one of Patagonia’s most stunning landscapes and thus, over the years, it has grown.

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The day I arrived it was very windy, so I claimed a dorm bed into a hostel and had a wander around town, buying provisions and getting all my camping gear ready for the three-day trek I intended to embark upon known as the Fitz Roy & Cerro Torres Loop.

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The weather cleared up quite nicely by the following morning and I set upon the trail.

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It didn’t take me long till I began to start seeing stunning panoramas. When I reached the top of the first hill outside of the town, I could see the valley.

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And, to the other side, the iconic Fitz Roy Mountains were in the distance.

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They loomed before me for most of the day, as I got closer and closer, passing through forests, meadows, hillocks, rivers, and Lake Capri.

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It was a gentle hike – certainly after doing the Torres Del Paine just a week ago – and I reached Poincenot campsite within just a few hours, where I set up my tent, made dinner, and spent the evening reading a book in my tent, feeling very content.

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I woke up at sunrise and began my climb up to Laguna de Los Torres. It was steep but not too long and it only took about an hour to reach the top. When I first arrived it was cloudy, obscuring the view of Fitz Roy, but I waited and eventually, the sky cleared and the sun illuminated the peaks.

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I walked back to Camp Poincenot and dismantled my tent. I was walking along a trail towards Laguna Torres that day. I passed through forests and several lakes – including a pair known as Madre and Hija – on my way.

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It was as I was walking the final stretch to Camp Agostini that I bumped into Benjamin, a Swiss guy I had met a few weeks ago in Punta Arenas. We had a quick catch up and realised that we were both, over the next few days, heading in the same direction and he just so happened to have a car. We decided to meet up the next day to do the journey together.

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I walked around Laguna Torres for a while, which was fed by a glacier of the same name and had icebergs floating across its surface. I was camping nearby that night so I also returned in the morning just after sunrise, but to be honest I thought it looked better in the afternoon so I didn’t take any more pictures.

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When I returned to El Chaltén, I treated myself to lunch, collected my backpack, had a shower, and sat in a café for a while, waiting for Benjamin to come and pick me up.

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I enjoyed the Fitz Roy & Cerro Torres Loop very much. The actual hiking itself is very easy and the days are short. It has a very relaxed pace so you can take your time and it feels more like a languid series of walks with camping in between then a proper hike but you still get to see many views along the way. Ones which you would usually need to venture much further from civilisation for. I would recommend it as either a warm-up for those about to do the Torres Del Paine or for those who, like me, have just done the Torres Del Paine and fancy winding down with something easier.

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It is also great for wildlife. I saw Andean Foxes (videos here), Falcons (videos here), an austral parakeet (click here), and also a couple rabbits (which I didn’t quite manage to capture before they scarpered away, so you’ll have to take my word for it).

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Ruta 40

When Benjamin came to pick me up, it was late in the afternoon but, with it being Patagonian summer, we still had plenty of daylight left. His car was huge, with four spacious seats and a bed at the back which he sleeps in most nights. He bought it in Ushuaia and intends to drive it all the way up to Colombia over the next few months.

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We left El Chaltén behind and entered the Patagonian Steppe. A flat, windy, barren landscape covered with little shrubs which seemed to be the only thing which grows there, and the guanacos which fed upon them. Most of the road was fairly good but there was a good hour or two of gravel which – combined with the wind – made for a bumpy ride.

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It seemed that Benjamin was not the only old face I would see this week; when we stopped at a gas station I bumped into a girl I met while in Sucre in Bolivia almost two months ago and we had a quick catch up. She was hitchhiking but going the opposite way to us, towards El Chaltén.

When it got dark, we parked up by some trees by the side of the road and I set up my tent for the night. I slept, and in the morning we got up, ate, packed away and got back on the road.

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We saw a couple of rheas that day and some foxes. The landscape became less flat and we eventually saw white-capped mountains in the distance, a sign we were getting closer to Chilean Patagonia. We reached Los Antigos by the afternoon and there was a cherry festival going on with live music, rodeos and other things, so Benjamin decided he wanted to stay there for a while. I was more pressed for time though so he dropped me off at the border of Chile and we went separate ways.

 

More more photos click to see the following albums: Perito Moreno and El Chaltén.

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Travelblog SA#23: Machu Picchu & Ollantaytambo – Peru

23rd-24th October 2018,

3 am. That is how early you have to get up to guarantee to be on the first bus to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. I felt like a zombie as I put on my shoes and met the others in the lobby. We began the walk to the bus stop. It was a dark and miserable morning. It was raining, and it was a thick, heavy kind which drenching everything. We waited there for almost three hours in all, and it showed no sign of letting up.

About an hour in, hoards of people began to swarm past us, all on their way towards the trailhead for the steep climb up to the ruins. The previous evening, I had toyed with the idea of heading up by foot myself – as the bus is quite expensive – but at the last minute changed my mind. I figured that I am only going to see Machu Picchu once and I didn’t want to be worn out before I even reached it. And it seemed, considering the weather, I had made the right decision.

I was beginning to worry though. This was my only shot at seeing Machu Picchu. Coming here is a very expensive venture and I already had my train ticket out booked for later that day. It wasn’t just pouring with rain, it was foggy too, and you couldn’t see anything further than a few dozen feet.

By the time the bus came, the queue was huge, but we were – thanks to our early rise – the first on. The rain calmed down a little, but the thick fog prevailed.

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Simba – who’d been our guide for the last four days around the Salkantay trek – began to escort us around the ruins. It was still very foggy, so we didn’t get a decent view, but I guess it had a certain eerie quality.

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Machu Picchu is bigger than photos make it seem. It took us around two hours to walk around it. Simba told us some of its history. How it was abandoned by the Inca’s during the Spanish Conquest, and it is possibly thanks to that course of action it can still be admired today. Most of the other monuments of this empire were raided for their treasures and the stones were used to build the churches and mansions of colonial power. But this one, possibly the most treasured and sacred of all, remained hidden within the towering peaks of the Sacred Valley, where the Spaniards never felt the need to tread. It was rediscovered and brought to international attention in 1911.

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Although Machu Picchu is surrounded by terraces, it is believed that it was not enough land to produce food for all its people so they would have relied upon supplies brought up from other settlements in the valley. A large number of the skeletons found here belong to young women and many of the buildings seemed to have served a ceremonial function. All of these factors indicate that Machu Picchu was a sacred place, reserved for people who served a religious function.

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Simba explained to us some of the areas to give us to give us a better idea of how the people here lived. We were taken to the quarry, where the stonemasons who built this place worked. The Temple of the Sun, whose windows are aligned to where the sun rises and sets during the solstices and equinoxes of the year. There was also a stone platform where offerings were placed to Inti, the Incan god of the sun. The urban sector, whose water-channel system still functions today, is large and home to the Royal Palace, where it is believed the Emperor and his family resided.

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One of my favourite areas was the Sacred Plaza, which is home to not just the main temple, but the smaller – and yet visually more iconic – Three Windowed Temple. The windows represent the three realms of the Incan cosmos; Uku-Pacha (the underworld) Hanan-Pacha (the upper-world, where the gods dwelled), and Kay-Pacha (the present day world humans existed within).

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One piece of advice I would give to people visiting Machu Picchu is to book to climb up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, even if you don’t actually plan to climb them. They have recently implemented new rules which allow visitors to only enter the premises once and created a strict one-way system around the complex. Guards are placed in strategic positions, and they do not let you turn back once you have moved on to a new section. Being such a vast site, it would be very easy to accidentally miss parts of it.

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Weather is also another reason I advise this. The first time I walked through it was foggy, but on the second time, the air began to clear.

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Having a fear of heights made Huayna Picchu not an option for me. Even the path up Machu Picchu Mountain has some cringe-worthy sections which will trigger vertigo but it is doable if you grit your teeth during certain parts. The mist helped, I guess, as I most of the time I couldn’t actually see the drop below me, but this also worried me too. This was a steep and difficult climb, but was it actually going to be worth it in the end? I passed some people who were on their way down, and they said saw nothing at the summit and got bored of waiting for the weather to clear.

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I saw a coati whilst on my way up. It ran across the path in front of me and back into the forest. It was way too fast for me to get a photo of it but, for illustration purposes, here is what one looks like.

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By the time I reached the top the mist was beginning to clear. I drank some water, ate some chocolate and then walked over to the mirador where around a dozen people were all waiting – cameras primed – for a break in the clouds.

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It happened eventually, and I have a video of it here.

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The mist continued to clear whilst on my way down and I even saw some sunshine. When I reached the bottom and was back within the ruins, I finally got the view I had been waiting for.

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Despite my initial concerns, I actually consider myself to be very lucky with the day I saw Machu Picchu. I got to see it in two different lights. All shrouded in mist and atmospheric, and then, later on, in all of its majesty. And the views of all the mountains around it were incredible.

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I made my way back down to Aguas Calientes by foot down along an old Inca trail. By the time I got back, it wasn’t long until I needed to catch my train to Ollantaytambo. From there the rest of the people on my tour were headed on a bus back to Cusco, but I had arranged to be left Ollantaytambo.

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Ollantaytambo was a charming little village set within the heart in the sacred valley. It had old, cobbled, narrow streets and still retains much of its original Incan groundwork.

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I had a bit of a strange experience with the hostel I was staying at though. It came up as a last-minute deal on Booking.com at only 10 soles (about $3) a night for a twin room including breakfast. That is very cheap, even for Peru. Almost unrealistically so. It was a new place and she didn’t have any reviews yet, so I figured that maybe she was just running off a very small profit for a while to build her customer base. I booked it with the mentality that, if she gave good service, I would tip her generously and make sure I leave reviews for her not only on my blog but also Booking.com and Tripadvisor.

When I arrived, her demeanour toward me was a bit strange and cagey. She acted like she was only vaguely aware of my booking and when the matter of the price came up she claimed that it was a mistake and that she didn’t know how it had happened. Her tone was a bit accusative, and I felt like she was trying to make me feel guilty. I offered to pay her double (at 20 soles a night), and she agreed, saying she would still give me the free breakfast.

The thing is, another man (who had booked the same deal) arrived a couple of hours later, and she did the same routine with him too. Acting like she was surprised. She wasn’t a very good actress, and it all started to feel a bit fishy.

To be fair, her rooms were clean and nicely decorated, but that was the only nice thing I can say about the place. When I went to use the shower there was underwear hanging in it and a pile of bathmats on the floor. She kept turning the WiFi off for some reason, and whenever I asked her about it she acted like she didn’t know.

In the morning when I came downstairs for breakfast she pushed an overpriced menu in front of me and asked if I would ‘like to order something’. I asked her about the included breakfast she had promised me, and she pulled a face like I had just slapped her and said, “There isn’t any breakfast, but, out of courtesy, I will give you some papaya.”

That was the point when I decided to leave. I told her I didn’t want any papaya, went to my room, packed my bags, gave her twenty soles (which she eagerly snatched from my hand, in a manner which was almost cartooneqsue) and moved to a place a few doors up the road. They were actually more expensive than her, but they were nicer-mannered, honest, and I didn’t mind paying a few extra soles to not have to put up with her weird passive-aggressive behaviour.

I will name the place on here – it is called ‘Hospedaje Inka’s’ – but I have decided to not write anything on Tripadvisor or Booking.com because I don’t want to sabotage her business. I do genuinely hope she eventually figures out how hospitality works. She is new, so she should be undercutting the other hostels in the area ever-so-slightly and treating her guests well to build a reputation, not luring people in with crazy-cheap prices and then using weird passive-aggressive behaviour to try to extract extra money. I checked her place out on Booking.com a week later, out of curiosity, and noticed she still had not fixed the ‘mistake’, so I can only assume that this is an ongoing tactic she is using.

It is a shame, but I guess what goes around comes around. Like I said earlier, if she had behaved better I would have given her glowing reviews on several platforms, a tip (of my own volition, not because she had guilt-tripped me), and stayed there longer but, because of her behaviour, she got nothing but twenty soles and an early departure.

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Now that I had escaped from the strange lady, I spend the rest of the day exploring Ollantaytambo, which is home to some rather beautiful Inca ruins.

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They are not quite as spectacular as Machu Picchu but they had their own charm and, most blessedly, were much less crowded. It has a Temple of the Sun (which Inca temple doesn’t?), but the primary theme of Ollantaytambo seemed to be water. Its complex irrigation system still works, fuelling numerous fountains and channelling all the way to the ruin’s centrepiece, the Temple of Water.

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Ollantaytambo is actually a place I would advise people to not get a spoken tour for (or at least if you do, maybe consider walking around again afterwards alone) as the complex is quite spread out and I think the guides there are a little lazy because they were not taking people to the farther reaches of the complex, such as Inkawatana.

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I enjoyed having these areas to myself though. As I was walking back I saw Pinkullyuna, another set of Inca ruins on the other side of the valley, and decided to head there after lunch.

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Pinkullyuna can be accessed by a steep pathway in one of the back alleys of Ollantaytambo. Historians actually believe them to be a series of storehouses, and they are definitely worth seeing because during the walk you get to glimpse Ollantaytambo from even more angles.

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The next morning I caught a bus back to Cusco, which will be my base for the next few days as I explore more of the Sacred Valley.

 

For more photos from Machu Picchu, click here. And for photos of Ollantaytambo, click here.

 

Travelblog SA#2: The Quilotoa Loop – Ecuador

10th-13th June 2018

After a few days of exploring Quito’s museums and churches, I felt the call of the Andes (and a need for a change of scenery) so I hopped onto a bus – taking just a small bag of basic necessities with me – and headed towards the starting point for my first South American trek.

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As the bus climbed through the mountains, my ears kept popping. Quilotoa sits at an altitude of almost 4,000 meters. More than a thousand of what I had been acclimatised to previously in Quito.

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After checking into a hostel, there were still a few hours of daylight left, so I made my way down to the lake. Day-trippers, by the dozen, all had the same idea. Many of them carried by horseback. I felt sorry for the horses. You could tell some of them were tired. Although, to be fair, I noticed that the Kichwa women – clad in their traditional pleated shirts and dark hats – were handling their steeds with far more care and respect than the men, who whipped them whenever they showed strain and seemed – from both the features of their faces and attire – like they had moved to this area from cities, seeing an opportunity in the tourist boom.

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On my way down I passed a girl suffering from altitude sickness. She was barely conscious, and her father was trying to wake her up. I and some of the other passersby gave her water and coca sweets and eventually, she seemed to recover.

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It was a remarkable transition, how quiet the village became later on when all of the buses drove off. There were only two other people staying in the guest house with me, and it was very cold that night. I was feeling a little light-headed because I wasn’t quite acclimatised, so I went to bed early.

 

The Quilotoa Loop

Day 1

By the morning I was feeling fresh and invigorated. I got up at the crack of dawn, ate breakfast, and set off early.

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The first hour of the trek skirts around the rim of the crater, so I got to see more of Quilotoa. A dog followed me out of the village and became my companion for the journey. I called him Frank.

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They say to carry a stick with you around this trek, and I found that to be sound advice. Not only was it good support for the steep descents, but I also used it to fend off dogs. I passed lots of them during the route and not all of them were as friendly as Frank. Some of them were very territorial and tried to block my path. I think I got hassled a bit less than most people though. Frank was a good ambassador. Often when we were approached he would intercede, they would sniff each other, and we would be allowed to pass. But on other occasions, I needed to wave my stick at them to get them to budge.

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Climbing down the mountain towards a village called Guayama, the trail became difficult. We had to make our way down the canyon via a narrow series of ledges snaking down the face of a precipice. Apparently, this route was the new ‘safe’ one – the old one was destroyed in a landslide a year ago. I found myself fighting the same battle I am often faced when mountaineering; my sense of adventure in conflict with my fear of heights.

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At its most terrifying – when I had to climb a steep and narrow section of a rather crumbly-looking ridge – I abandoned my dignity and resorted to crawling on my hands and knees. Shortly after, a young boy raced passed me and put me to shame. I realised that, to him, this was just a casual wander.

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I guess you have to earn views like this though.

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When I reached the bottom, Frank was waiting for me. I grew concerned for him as the day wore on. I didn’t know if he was a stray or belonged to someone. If he did have a home back in Quilotoa he had wandered quite far. It was a difficult thing to do – as I enjoyed his company – but eventually I tried to shoo him away, but it was no use. He remained loyal.

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We clambered up the other side of the ravine. It was around midday, so the sun was strong. I took my time, reaching Chugchilan in the early afternoon. I claimed a bed at Cloud Forest Hostel. Aptly named, for that was the terrain I would be passing through the next day.

 

Day 2

The following morning I set off again, but this time alone. I’d fed Frank the previous evening, and he’d lingered around the hostel but, by dawn, he was gone. I never found out if he had an owner. No one I asked seemed to recognise him. Perhaps he did have a home, and made his way back there during in the night. Maybe he had latched onto another hiker, and such was his wandering, nomadic lifestyle. I guess I will never know.

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After a steep, downward climb, I was back into the ravine again, but a different part of it that day. I reached Itualo – a small village with a school – about two hours in and rested behind the shade of its church for a while.

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Snaking my way along the river – with mountains, farms, and patches of cloud forest on either side of me – I eventually reached a bridge, and it was time for a gruelling slog back up.

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Once I reached the top I crossed paths with a French couple who were on their way down. We took pictures at the Mirador and swapped tips for the terrain which lay ahead of each other.

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Curving across the side of one mountain, and then onto another, I came across a stream. It was the perfect opportunity to use my water filter for the first time.

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And, shortly after, I caught my first sight of Islinivi; my destination that day.

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I reached there just after lunch and claimed a pallet at Llullu Llama Hostel, which was one of the best places I have ever stayed. Not only did it have wonderful views of the mountains, but it also came with a free steam room, Jacuzzi, dinner, and breakfast. All of the food was homemade (even the bread and cakes) and they kept filling our plates over and over again until we were full.

 

Day 3

During most of the trek I had been suffering from hayfever – and for the first few days it had been bearable – but something happened during that night and it suddenly got really bad. I probably annoyed the hell out of the rest of the people in the dorm I was sleeping in, with my sniffing and sneezing.  By the morning, my eyes were all red and puffy. I had not slept much at all. I was tired, fed up, and felt like clawing my face off.

It was a shame because Llullu Llama was such a nice place I would have otherwise been tempted to stay a little longer, but instead I was forced to set off. It was the final day of the trek.

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Perhaps it was because I was in a rush to get out of there, but this last day was the shortest yet and I arrived in Sigchos just three hours after leaving Islinivi. Most of the trail that day was through a scenic valley, but I wasn’t feeling very well and I’d been somewhat spoilt for scenery over the last few days, so I found this final stretch of the Quilotoa Loop a little underwhelming.

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As soon as I reached the town, I marched straight to the bus terminal and bought a ticket back to Quito, hoping that the smog of the city might dilute the spawn of pollen sweeping through the Andes.

 

For more amazing photos from the Quilotoa Loop, click here!