A Travellerspoint blog

June 2014

Montezuma's revenge, Delhi belly... call it what you will

Ok there's more... the runs, traveller's trot, the shits, Peruvian plops (too far?)

You may have noticed, but this is a blog all about the squits. And why not?! As I lie here clutching my painfully gripey stomach wondering which end I'll need to hurriedly take to the bathroom next, I thought it was the ideal time to talk about one of the harsh realities (and infinitely least enjoyable parts) of travelling.

Staying healthy and well whilst being away from home for a long period isn't always easy. At some point, depending on where you go, it's pretty much inevitable that some nasty E. coli, salmonella or similar is going to get you. So if you're about to have a bite to eat you might want to put it down, or better still check in a bit later on. Or... skip this one altogether and wait for some scenic photos :)

Overall we've actually been pretty lucky in our 9 months away. Of course in some parts of the world a bout of TD (traveller's diarrhoea) is much harder to avoid, and for our delicate European tums, Latin America is high on the list.

I had, let's say, a minor digestive readjustment in Asia but it was very short lived and no big deal. Ant suffered badly in Ecuador's Amazonia which was the most unpleasant experience for him, and at the same time I had my head in a bowl for several hours so that was definitely a rough 24 hours for us both.

In New Zealand Ant had that severe allergic reaction to the cats in a homestay which was potentially the most serious problem of all. If you've ever seen 'Hitch', well his face went a bit like that...

And in Australia, I had a bad reaction to those revolting bed bug bites which caused diarrhoea for a few days... right in the run up to Christmas.

But... considering some of the places we've eaten and the new foods we've tried, I think the number of times we've got ill has been pretty good going.

However, if it wasn't for those aforementioned pesky bacteria, we would be continuing our sightseeing adventures instead of currently being holed up in our hotel room. We were meant to be moving on tomorrow but we're somewhat grounded. I've been ill for 3 days with stomach pains like I've never had before. I even managed to get a bit of sick on my forehead and eyelashes?!

I must confess it's possible it's entirely self-inflicted as I've stupidly become blasé about using tap water to brush my teeth, because we've been in cities rather than out in the sticks. A rookie error and one I am deeply regretting!

A lovely Peruvian doctor has given a prescription - or "recipe" as he called it - for antibiotics so hopefully things will start to improve!

So if nothing else but to serve as a warning to other travellers - don't get complacent, use bottled water wherever advised for brushing teeth and don't sing in the shower! I am definitely estúpida - this entry isn't about looking for sympathy.

PS Sorry if this blog grossed you out. To be fair you clicked on it despite the title ;)

Posted by Galavantie 16:09 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

The wonder of the Nasca Lines

sunny 24 °C

We made a decision a couple of weeks back not to go to Bolivia. We're both a bit disappointed as the salt flats look truly spectacular, but we dallied a bit too long in Ecuador and as a result our time in Bolivia would have been rushed. We agreed that it was better to do Peru well than speed through both countries not getting the best out of them. The upshot was we weren't planning to go to Nasca but our decision now made this possible.

Our bus journey from Paracas to Nasca was a pleasant one, and the scenery gave way from cloudy grey desert to blue skies and high mountains as we headed along the Pan-American Highway.

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An intriguing gathering in the middle of the desert... burn the wiiitches!

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Twisty mountain roads gave us some great vistas before reaching Nasca

Our guesthouse felt very homely and welcoming, it was family run with a mum, son and grandmother knocking about the place. They were all very sweet and friendly - the mother had a much used mantra "mi casa tu casa".

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The Nasca symbols are everywhere in town - these were the bus stops

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We'd read that a small planetarium in town was worth a visit before seeing the Nasca Lines so we headed there first. The planetarium is named after Maria Reiche, a German woman who dedicated 40 years of her life to unearth, map, protect and importantly draw worldwide attention to the lines. She's quite the heroine of the town.

The presentation was really interesting, there is so much unknown about what the lines signify... they may be partly astronomical, they are believed to have been used in religious rituals and ceremonies, and many point to mountain water sources. Oh, and then there's the whack theory that little green men made them.

The Nasca people lived between 100BC and 800AD. The lines were created throughout this period, with new generations adding their own, often criss-crossing existing lines. The famous animal figures are the oldest of all the lines. The drawings are all done with one singular line, and there are hundreds and hundreds across a vast area of desert.

They were found as recently as the 1920s, when the first commercial flights started crossing the Nasca desert. Sadly the Pan-American highway actually cuts a lizard symbol in half as they had no idea the lines were there when the road was being built.

As part of the Atacama desert, this is one of the driest places in the world - they receive just 5mm of rain equating to no more than 3 hours of rainfall per year. 'Nasca' in Quechua means 'pain' which sums up the harsh environment that past generations of Nasca people have endured. Water is such a precious commodity that even today the residents of Nasca only get water from the mains supply for one hour every evening.

The planetarium experience included some star watching and the guide pointed out several constellations including the Southern Cross, the zodiac symbol of Scorpio, the plough (which incidentally is huge by comparison to the UK night sky) and Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to Earth.

The next morning we were psyched up for our flight! There was a bit of a wait as early fog needed to burn off before flights were taking off, but by the time we were called up it was a beautiful clear sky.

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A service offered close by to the airport. But where are the treatment rooms??

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Our 8 seater Cessna

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Nasca River - dry as a bone

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The large distinctive white mound in the distance is Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world at 2.2km

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Pan-American cutting through the desert

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From his previous trip Ant had warned me that the flight is a bit bumpy and most people come away looking a bit green, but it was smoother than we were expecting. The plane banked left and right around each symbol and it was this motion coupled with trying to take photos which caused a bit of queasiness.

But any slight discomfort was completely worth it! Having watched documentaries on the subject, to see the symbols first hand was fantastic. Some are quite difficult to pick out as there are so many lines it's confusing to the eye. To help, I've enhanced the photos so the symbols stand out more.

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The whale

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The 'astronaut' on the side of a mountain

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The hummingbird

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The spider - hard to see at low-res, it's left of the triangular point in the centre of the picture

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The monkey

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The condor

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The tree and the hands - although we also heard the hands are meant to depict a frog

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Very clear geometric shape

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Coming back over fertile land

After the flight we booked a guide to take us to Cahuachi, a lost city of pyramids where the Nascans lived, now covered by mudslides and sand. It was a place of huge significance to them and separated by just a small mountain range, they've discovered that many of the Nasca Lines point directly to Cahuachi.

On the way we saw the sad sight of endless graves which were raided in the 1940s and human bones still remain scattered on the ground, bleached in the desert sun.

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The main pyramid is only half excavated and that has taken 30 years, so it'll be many more before the entire 24 sq km site is uncovered. Our guide said it could well be the 'new' Macchu Picchu when finished, it certainly will be an impressive sight.

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The views from the pyramid

As our visit coincided with the winter solstice, the guide at the planetarium had said it was possible to see the solstice sun setting down one of the Nasca Lines, which only points to the sun at this time of year. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss. The line was narrow but sure enough it vanished into the horizon directly towards the sun. It was extremely beautiful and serene watching the sunset over the desert with just a handful of others.

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Us and our guide, Raul!

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The winter solstice line

A short but very sweet stay in Nasca!

Posted by Galavantie 04:47 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

In the deserts of Peru

overcast 19 °C

We left Lima in style, in VIP seats on a Cruz Del Sur bus - one of the best companies which operate long-haul bus journeys across South America. It was super comfortable and although a lot more expensive than buses in Ecuador (which are $1 for 1 hour of travel), at £13 each for a 3.5 hour trip it still wasn't bad. You get mahousive seats which recline right back, individual screens to select different movies and internet. Highly recommended!

Our next stop was the Paracas region, and the small fishing village of El Chaco - the best base to visit Las Ballestas islands and the Paracas Reserve National Park.

In summary, we had a great time on the excursions we did, but neither of us much liked El Chaco - it had more than a faint whiff of desperation about it.

Perhaps it's partly the time of year. The skies were sheet white and the light almost insipid. It gave the village a gloomy, rather bleak feel. The other thing we've noticed is that wherever we've been (in Ecuador and Peru) there have been an abundance of restaurants, and tables within each restaurant, way over and above the number of tourists around. It makes places feel dead and there's zero atmosphere.

Although it's winter here, June-August are actually the peak months for tourism in Peru because it's the summer holiday period for North Amerians and Europeans. Plus we're guessing that summer temps here probably make a visit unbearable.

It didn't help that our hotel was so new they were still drilling and doing construction on the roof terrace right above our room. And their wifi was pants. It was fair to say we didn't warm to the whole place from the off.

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We did have a nice view even if it was a little grey!

Aaanyway, back to the good stuff. We did three activities in total and first up was a 2 hour boat trip to Las Ballestas islands. Everyone else on the boat were part of a tour group so we felt proud of ourselves for being the only independent travellers!

Billed as a mini-Galapagos, these are guano islands due to the vast numbers of guano producing seabirds which nest on the islands. The guano is 2.5-3 meters deep at its peak!!! Apparently you can smell it before you see it, but it wasn't too overpowering on the day we went. There were plenty of birds, but not the sheer number that can sometimes can be seen. The guide explained that due to El Niño phenomenon, the waters are currently warmer which meant less wildlife in general.

Ant did this trip on his first visit to Peru in 2006 and said that the abundance of birds was impressive.

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The jetty used to harvest the guano

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Nasca boobies!

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We were also shown a geolyph of a 'candelabra' cut into the land. They don't know the significance of it but based on pottery found in the area it is believed to be the work of the pre-Incan Paracas peoples, and dates back to c200 BC. The design is cut two feet into the soil and is 595 feet tall.

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The figure looks vaguely like a candlestick, thus its name The Candelabra of the Andes, but what it represents is unknown as it's unlikely that such highly stylised candelabra were in use during the period of its creation

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Fishing boats in the harbour, many the reserve of birds

Next was a trip to the Paracas Reserve - our first experience of Peru's desert which forms part of the Atacama line.

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Looking down on El Chaco

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A monument to something...

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Fossilised shells indicating this desert floor was once under the sea

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The strange light I mentioned earlier actually made the landscape very ethereal - it was very subtle and really quite beautiful. I love the photos as a result.

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The scenery almost looks like a watercolour

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The tour took us to Playa Roja (Red Beach) - the sand given its reddish tinge from the red granite cliffs nearby.

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We watched the pelicans muscle their way into the fishermen's activities, and Ant spotted a sea otter swimming which we were really chuffed about!

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In the Paracas Reserve centre. Grapple me grapenuts, who knew?

The third excursion was dune buggying and sand-boarding. Bloomin' brilliant! Ant had also done this previously, but it was my first time... soooo much fun. The buggy sped over the dunes and down slopes that looked impossibly steep - it caused a few squeals from the six of us. Then the guy got the sandboards out and we went down sitting up, lying down head first and Ant tried it standing up too.

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Looking confident!

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Slightly less so... going...

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... going...

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Goner!

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It was great to try something new, a super fun afternoon.

The evenings were very quiet in El Chaco. One night we braved a restaurant with no-one else in it - well, it was actually more of an unfinished house... bare breeze block walls, unplastered ceiling, plastic garden tables and chairs... very rustic.

An older guy and a young girl, presumably grandpa and granddaughter, jumped to attention and set to work together creating pizzas on a long floury work surface right behind us. It was really cute to watch, I just had to turn a blind eye when I saw the state of the rag they used to wipe the cutting surface, and the tinned mushrooms which came out as one of the toppings...

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We also tried some Peruvian food during our stay - lomo saltado - a marinated steak stew with rice which was absolutely delicious. Already Peruvian food is proving considerably more tasty than Ecuadorian, which we found a bit bland.

I mentioned the evenings were quiet, that was until our last night when a christening party took place a few doors up and they celebrated until 5am. For a christening?! The music was so loud we could Shazam it from our bed. Needless to say we barely slept a wink and were pretty unhappy about it. The police drove past around 4am when the music was turned off, but as soon as they'd moved on they switched it back on again. Inconsiderate *%&#*!

So the trips we did were very good but we were glad to leave the village behind. We were completely shattered on the morning we left!

Posted by Galavantie 19:58 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Chao Ecuador, hola Peru!

overcast 20 °C

And so it was farewell to Ecuador, and despite the robbery blip, it was a very fond one. But before we left we had a gem of a journey from Cuenca to Guayaquil (Ecuador's largest city) to get our flight to Peru's capital, Lima.

Well, when I say gem, what I actually mean was a tortuous 2 hour nail-biting-in-fear-of-our-lives ride.

We'd booked a mini-van transfer which was in theory better than going by bus. Ours came complete with dare-devil driver who was happy to accelerate up to every bend before braking each time, and then try and overtake on blind bends in pea-soup mountain mist conditions.

I rarely get travel sick but his driving style made me feel really queasy, and his lazy habit of cutting corners by driving on the wrong side of the line was very nerve-wracking. It was a relief to drop down from the highlands and reach long straight roads for the final stretch.

Then the police pulled us over.

Our hotel in Cuenca had warned us that some of the transport companies operate illegally in competition with the buses, and some drivers get arrested en-route to Guayaquil. We'd asked the hotel to book our transfer so were less concerned about the legitimacy of our firm. That was until, after speaking to the police, our driver said to us in Spanish that if asked by the police we were to say we hadn't paid anything for the trip. Great!

Thankfully on production of some papers the police let him continue without speaking to the passengers. It was a nice feeling to arrive at the airport in one piece!

We only had a short time in Lima having decided it wasn't a city high on our priorities. Most people we've met haven't particularly liked it and we figured two days would be enough to see the highlights.

Having agreed a rough plan for our route around Peru we caught the bus into the city. Being winter here it was very dull with a blanket of white cloud, so the city wasn't looking its best.

Lima is vast but it had a very different feel to Quito - it looked far less shabby and felt much more affluent. It could've been any large European city - it felt a bit like London at times and was very cosmopolitan. Traffic was horrendous!

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We headed straight for Plaza des Armas - the city's beautiful main square - and visited the Basilica Cathedral of Lima. It's a whopping Baroque structure built in 1564.

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The Government Palace of Peru, also known as House of Pizarro

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Next up was the monastry and church of San Francisco, which is one of the best preserved chuches in Lima. However the reason most people visit is for the catacombs which lie beneath.

The catacombs were actually part of Lima's original cemeteries, which were built under churches. We were told that an estimated 75,000 bodies are buried under San Francisco alone, and many of the remains are exposed, stacked in strange patterns in circular stone pits. It was weird as a service was actually taking place whilst we toured the catacombs beneath, and we could occasionally peer up to the church through grills in the floor.

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Both the Cathedral and Church were beautiful and were definitely worth a visit.

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The Municipal Palace, again on the main square

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The Basilica Cathedral

We chuckled when we spotted the same guy from our 'Where's Gringo' game in Otavalo. It was quite a coincidence seeing as three weeks had passed, but sure enough the dude in the top left of the pic below was also on our catacombs guided tour, and wearing exactly the same clobber too. We know how that feels!

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We had to move hotels as our first one couldn't accommodate a third night. Although disruptive it did us a favour as we ended up in the middle of Miraflores, a bustling district surrounded by bars and restaurants. We weren't in the mood for sightseeing on our second day, and having found a great Irish bar we settled in for the afternoon to watch the World Cup. The cuba libres were tasty! It was a nice reminder that we haven't done this that often.

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A brief but good intro to Peru. From here we head south down the coast. Until the next time...

Posted by Galavantie 19:16 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

Cuenca ends our Ecuador adventure

semi-overcast 17 °C

Cuenca was absolutely beautiful, and we'd go so far as to say it's the most beautiful city we've been to on this trip yet.

It was a long 8 hour bus ride to get there from Baños, but this time we had the opportunity to go by day, which was safer and gave us the chance to see more of the Ecuardorian countryside. What a very beautiful country this is. It was a spellbinding journey through the highlands with unbelievable views around every bend. I was snapping away like a good 'un!

Most were taken quickly through the bus window so they're not the best of shots, but they give you some idea of the fabulous scenery Ecuador has to offer.

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Ecuador's highest volcano, Chimborazo - a perfect cone-shaped snow-capped volcano

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An example of many out in the sticks houses/shops we saw along the way

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Much of the time we were higher than the mountain clouds!

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We were pretty tired when the bus rolled in to Cuenca, but our hotel proved to be an absolute treat when we checked in. It had only opened 2 months ago and we guessed that's why it was still priced within our budget, because oh lordy... the place was gorgeous. By far the nicest hotel on our travels, really attentive staff, crisp white linen, a stunning exterior and lobby... and a knock on the door each evening with a small dessert and hot water bottle. Can you believe all for £34 a night! It's also the first place we've seen on booking.com with a 10/10 score.

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The windows of our room

To do Cuenca any justice it's all about the photos, so this is a picture heavy blog... but I'll tell a couple of stories in between.

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The new cathedral - completed in 1975 with work having started in 1885 - is the focal point of Cuenca's main plaza

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The interior of the cathedral is already peeling away

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The massive sky-blue domes of the cathedral

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Walking around Cuenca was such a pleasure. We stumbled across impressive church after church, tucked away cafes and bars, ornate buildings and jasmine-filled squares. It was hard not to fall in love with the place. It was like wandering around a European city without the crowds.

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Men crowded around an electrical shop to watch the World Cup

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Cuenca is Ecuador's third largest city, but compared to Quito and Guayaquil it certainly doesn't feel like it. The Spanish founded Cuenca in 1557 and to this day it retains the atmosphere of a traditional Andean town. It was recognised by UNESCO as a World Hertitage Site in 1996.

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Just a few streets away from the main sights and not all the buildings look so smart

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Some of the detail on the buildings was simply stunning

We whiled away a couple of hours in one of Cuenca's main museums - Museo Pumapungo. A large part of the museum is dedicated to recreating dwellings from a number of Ecuador's indiginous cultures.

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The most notable exhibit was a few shrunken human heads - a practice once carried out by the Shuar people of the jungle but is now illegal under Ecuardian law (they can still do it to sloths apparently).

I'm not sure what I expected - perhaps something very shrivelled and bearing little resemblance to a human - but it was quite shocking to see how perfect they were. The detail preserved was amazing - they would have been recognisable for anyone who once knew the 'head owner' - just roughly a quarter of the size of a usual human head. Their mouths had been sewn up to prevent evil words from passing their lips... and the tiny decapitated heads were displayed on sticks. It was all a bit macabre... but utterly fascinating. I was peering at one for ages, almost willing it to open an eye!

I couldn't help but think it was a really whack way to end up... to have your head shrunk, stuck on a stick and preserved forever and a day behind glass, for us normal-headed beings to gawp at.

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Traditional and modern dress

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One of Cuenca's cute olde-worlde shops

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Getting a trim in the barber's... at least he didn't leave as a meat pie!

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I'm not sure what was more alarming - the barber's chair or the suggested hairstyles on the wall

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Cuencos have a very sweet tooth - there's a plethlora of bakeries and cake shops. Another reason to love Cuenca!

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Barranco - Cuenca's famous retailer of Panama hats, which actually originate from Ecuador. I bought the one second from the right, third row :)

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Cuenca's modern art gallery was a strange experience. It had obviously been a convent or monastry in a former life due to its layout and, as a result, it felt a bit like wandering around an institution of sorts. The art wasn't up to much but it was an interesting place to visit all the same.

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A binary corridor - I loved this!

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Another huge plus for Cuenca is that it's considered very safe for tourists - there's a large North American expat community here. We have no idea if the presence of the expat community makes it safer or whether it was always safe which is what attracted the gringos here in the first place. Either way, it was great to enjoy the city at night without feeling on edge or paranoid - something which can't be said of Quito.

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City Hall

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Travelling is all about new experiences eh? So we decided to do something a bit different for our last night. Once a week (and only on Saturdays) an expat father and son open up their home as a restaurant called Joe's Secret Garden. It's not the best secret seeing as it's rated #3 on TripAdvisor, but we loved the concept and thought it might be quite memorable. Unfortunately it did mean we missed the second half of England's first World Cup game.

Having watched the first half we thought we might be turning up a bit late but, to steal Ant's line, we were roughly 20 years too early. We arrived to a roomful of retired North Americans (and probably a few Canadians thrown in too), most of whom seemed to know each other. Talk about sore thumbs. But we found our situation quite funny and decided it would definitely be something different. As it turns out we had a pleasant enough evening, we were seated on a table of 6 and sat next to an interesting couple who made for good conversation. Turns out their daughter lives in the UK so we had some common ground to break the ice.

They also told us a story about our hosts, Joe and Joseph. Back in the day, Joseph decided to help out a lesbian couple by donating his sperm so they could have a child. When the child was old enough, he wanted to find his father. Joe and Joseph hit it off instantly and became very close, so much so that Joe left the States to join his father in Ecuador, and between them they now run this 'secret' restaurant for 100-odd diners every weekend.

We must have been cause for a certain amount of novelty as, whilst waiting for a cab at the end of the night, a half-sozzled expat said "so, young people, what brings you here?"... and after a quick reply, we were then mistaken for being Australians (as is often the case with Americans, although I've never understood why, sport).

It was a funny old night, we're glad we tried it... it wasn't amazing but it wasn't a car crash of an evening either.

All in all Cuenca was a brilliant way to end our time in Ecuador. If you come to this country Cuenca should definitely not be missed, it was a real highlight of our time here.

Posted by Galavantie 15:31 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Ah Baños, just the tonic we needed

19 °C

The town of Baños (not to be confused with baños - the Spanish word for toilet) was a gorgeous little place in a stunning setting, nestled deep within looming hills and volcanoes. The nearby towering Tungurahua (meaning throat of fire) is Ecuador's most active volcano and, in fact, spewed a 10km high ash cloud as recently as 4 April this year!

But being in Baños itself isn't particularly risky as the crater is on the other side of the volcano, facing away from the town. The volcano supplies the hot springs to the town which it's famed for, and hence the close name to "toilet"!

Unfortunately we only got a tantalisingly quick glance of the 5,000m+ snow capped summit, as it was shrouded in cloud for the majority of our visit.

There's no denying Baños is very touristy, but after our robbery (see previous blog), we were very happy to be somewhere which was safe and full of gringos.

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We probably didn't make the most of all that Baños has to offer... hiking, canyoning, rafting... but we got exactly what we wanted from it... some much needed R&R.

We wandered around the town trying different cafes and bars, we enjoyed the very good selection of restaurants, we had long lie-ins and enjoyed being in our accommodation (La Casa Verde) which was probably one of the nicest rooms we've had in SA. I caught up on some blogging and we basically had a very leisurely stay. When there's always new things to see and do, sometimes it's easy to forget the importance of doing nothing!

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The view from our room - green, lush and mountainous

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Ant wrestling with his bag again

I booked a massage and facial at our accommodation but it wasn't quite as relaxing as I would've liked. The massage was very firm so I was squirming quite a bit on the table as her thumbs found tender spots. After the massage I was thinking, do I really want a facial from this woman? And it turns out I was right. Silly me for thinking a woman's touch is as light as a feather. This woman went to the School of Facials for builders.

Imagine saying to a builder, "right, in order to do a facial you need an exfoliant. So go and lay your hands on some grit, and when you get back you have to rub it into their face as hard as you can. No really, they love it."

The facial was conducted with no finesse whatsover. I had thumbs in the eye and after an hour, emerged red faced and red raw. Admittedly my skin did feel smooth, but that's largely down to losing the top five layers. If I don't start getting asked for ID I'll be gutted.

One of the days we did manage something a little more active. We hired mountain bikes and rode the 'ruta de las cascadas' - waterfalls to you and me. It was a bit of a grey, dull day but the scenery was wonderful and we enjoyed taking our time on the 22km route.

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A sad looking football pitch

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We took a cable car across one of the ravines to get a closer look at the waterfalls. Well Ant got a closer look, I stood at the back clutching the rails for dear life with my knees literally knocking! It was fun to do even if I did find it a bit terrifying and many swear words were uttered.

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The bike ride culminated with the most spectacular waterfall of all - El Pailón del Diablo (The Devil's Cauldron). Wow, it really was impressive! A thundering mass of water dropping from vertical cliffs into a basin, frothing and steaming exactly like a cauldron. It was fantastic to see and get so close to. You could even crawl through a narrow space in the rock to walk behind the waterfall - very cool!

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So beautiful eh

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We left Baños excited for our final destination in Ecuador, Cuenca - the third largest, and considered the most beautiful, city in the country.

Posted by Galavantie 19:12 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

The night we got robbed

A cautionary tale

Before I recount what happened to us I just wanted to say that some of it may seem implausible, but I can assure you that the following is a true story.

In our 8.5 months away, it was only our second night bus journey, leaving Lago Agrio at 20:50 for Baños (via Ambato). We had a long 11 hour ride ahead of us.

All of the jungle tour group were long gone, catching much earlier buses to Quito, so we had several hours to kill before our bus left. When we got to the station we were the only gringos there so I was keen to just get on the bus and go.

Just before we got on the bus, a large friendly guy exchanged a few pleasantries. His English was reasonable and it was apparent he was on the same bus as us. We are always wary of strangers engaging us in conversation but we also don't want to assume everyone has ulterior motives else we'd never speak to anyone!

He asked us where we were from and then discussed the recent Ecuador v England friendly for the World Cup. Then he asked where we were going. Hmmm I thought, but still potentially a harmless question. Baños we say, and he confirmed we'd be there for 8am. We all stowed our luggage in the hold, boarded the bus and that was the extent of our conversation.

The bus was not a great experience. We had the first two seats right next to the TV screen which played two shit movies back to back until past midnight. It was loud and bright so impossible to get any shuteye.

I dropped off then awoke in the early hours to find a guy in a hoodie standing in front of us facing the rest of the bus. Ant was wide-eyed and looking furtive! Pretty much after that neither of us slept well.

Around 5am, and whilst it was still dark, the bus stopped at Ambato and everyone got off. We weren't sure if we were meant to stay on the bus to continue to Baños, or change buses - we hadn't been told when booking and it was unclear what we had to do. Concerned for our luggage in the now open hold, and that we were the last to get off the bus, we went to collect our bags. Immediately we could just see one lonely bag left in the stow - mine. Anthony's had gone.

It's one of the things you fear most, obviously other than for your own personal safety. Everything he owned other than valuables in his small rucksack had been stolen. It was gutting and my heart wrenched for him - it's the one thing I was dreading on our travels.

We stood in the bus with the driver, the conductor and a new bus driver trying to discuss and mutually understand what had happened and what our next steps were. We were pretty cross with them because each bag stowed is given a sticker which you are then given a matching ticket for. So in theory your bag can only be collected by you.

They were quick to confirm that it was a fat man who took the bag and that we were travelling as "tres personas". No, no, no - "dos personas", gestering to just the two of us, "no amigo". We could see that the penny then dropped. It transpired that because the driver had seen the three of us chatting before alighting, he thought we were all friends. It was clear this was all part of the thief's game plan, as when the fat guy got off the bus in the middle of the night he apparently said we had stayed with him in Lago Agrio and he was collecting our bag. So, without insisting on the production of the matching ticket, the young conductor gave him Anthony's bag. Bloody idiot.

We kept mentioning the police and that we needed to report it for our insurance. They said that they knew where the guy had got off and therefore where our bag was as they had a record of every passenger's destination. It was a town on the edges of Quito.

The driver gestured we would go to Quito with him so we could find our bag. Noooooo... not Quito again! We're meant to be going the other way - to Baños! We really couldn't see the sense in this, we had no hope of relocating the bag - it could be anywhere by now, as the guy had left the bus 2 hours earlier. We just wanted to find the police. On hindsight they seemed to do everything they could not to involve them.

So with the light now breaking, we found ourselves standing at the side of the road with the bus driver, waiting for his car to come and pick us up from Baños. We had no idea who was going to be in this car, it was one of those occasions where you put complete trust in someone you've only just met. I was pretty upset, one for Anthony because of his stuff and our souvenirs, and two because I didn't have a clue what was going on and we were vunerable.

I was somewhat relieved when what was clearly his family car arrived, with his wife at the wheel and two teenage boys in tow. The eldest boy, 19, could speak English which greatly aided both us and the bus driver to fully explain what was going to happen next.

The bus driver had a printed list of all passengers, down to names, ID, seat number and destination, so already he knew the fat man's name and that he'd got off at Sangolqui - the very first stop the bus made some 6 hours into the journey. This is where we were heading, 1.5 hours up the Pan-American highway. It was good to know that whatever happened with our bag, the police could at least trace and arrest him.

During the drive there were a lot of phone calls being made by both the bus driver and his wife. The son, Andres, explained that his mother knew someone in the police dept and from the name and ID, they were trying to locate him. We couldn't help but think it could all be a fruitless task as he could have easily given fake ID. It was turning into a one-family-vigilante hunt!

The poor bus driver was starving, bearing in mind he'd only just finished an 8 hour night drive and was now on a manhunt to help two gringos. We stopped at a cafe for breakfast and as we were starting to feel more comfortable with our situation and that the family appeared to be genuinely trying to help us, we bought them breakfast as a thank you. We had also since learnt from the son that, as luck would have it, his father was also one of the owners of the bus company. This started to make sense, as he probably felt quite responsible for their actions in freely handing over our bag, and he wanted to do right by us.

Over breakfast a call came in with an address and phone number of the thief. Great, the police can now go and pay him a visit! The son hushed us whilst his father then made a call. To the police right? No... only the bloody thief directly! Whaaaat! We have absolutely no idea what was said to the thief, other than he was asked if he was in possession of a tourist's bag. Apparently he had sounded somewhat surprised when asked the question. He was quick to say it had been a mistake but that yes, he did have the bag.

With his address and phone number known, he was clearly in a vunerable position, so when the bus driver said we were coming round to collect the bag, he insisted that he meet us on neutral ground at a service station.

We couldn't believe it! We were still on the edge of our nerves as we weren't sure he'd turn up at all, or worse still turn up with a few choice friends, but we also had safety in numbers being the six of us.

The thief duly pulled in and brought the bag over. I was seething. Anthony maintained composure and even accepted his handshake, whilst all the time he was insisting it was a mistake. That despite the fact the outer bag's zip had been forced open and he'd clearly rumaged through the entire contents.

We kept asking him why he'd forced the zip and gone through the bag if he'd picked it up by mistake. Funnily enough his English was suddenly not as good as it had been. We continued to shake our head throughout his pleas, I was so angry I dismissed him by sitting back in the car. I said I was tired of his bullshit and as he gave a last sorrowful look through the car window I gave him the most evils I could muster!

The mother didn't speak any English but we shared a disapproving shake of the head whilst Anthony, the father, son and thief had final words.

I guess you could say it was a win/win for everyone. We were reunited with all of Anthony's belongings - there was nothing in there of interest to a thief anyway. The thief avoided any dealings with the police, and the bus company avoided form-filling and a black record for safety.

The thief must have had the shock of his life - two dozing gringos he left hours ago now tracking him down, in his home town, with an adopted Ecuadorian family! One can only hope that the outcome will make him think twice about doing it to some other poor unsuspecting souls.

We had a 3 hour drive back to Baños, which was fortunately where the family lived, and we were able to relax and chat with our stresses melting away. They stopped several times along the way for icecreams, side-of-the-road fruit vendors and even at a market selling artisan crafts so we could have a browse... I bought myself a South America design alpaca jumper as a form of celebration. It had turned into a bit of a family outing.

They dropped us directly to our Baños accommodation and we all hugged, me and the mother quite tearfully. What truly beautiful people. We arrived about 3pm absolutely exhausted from the little sleep and adrenaline fuelled morning. When we recounted the tale to the B&B they said we were the first people they'd ever heard of to have a stolen bag returned, so we feel extremely blessed.

Methinks someone was looking out for us that day.

In summary...

1. The thief was stupid seeing as the bus company had ID records of every passenger
2. The thief lied like a hairy egg, a mistake my arse
3. The bus driver's family were the most wonderful, kind and helpful people we have met on our travels
4. We are never going to speak to anyone at a bus/train station again
5. Ant got his smalls back and it's made a great story for the blog ;)

Posted by Galavantie 06:07 Archived in Ecuador Comments (5)

Welcome to the jungle

[Grab a brew, it's a long 'un]

30 °C

Effing bloody Quito. Here you are again for a fourth time!!!

We had to return because our night bus left the city at 11pm to Lago Agrio, where we were picking up our tour to Amazonia. This left us with 10 hours to kill in La Mariscal before the bus trip. Joy. It was also a Sunday again so the place felt pretty dead.

With bags in tow, we moved from bar to bar drinking tea and juices all day, feeling like a couple of hobos.

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The canned square of La Mariscal that we just can't get enough of

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How happy are you to be leaving Quito Cookie?

Lago Agrio is not considered a safe place for tourists and this did make us think twice about booking on the trip. It's very close to the Columbian border and as a result the town is associated with drug trafficking and guerrilla activity. The wiki travel page doesn't make for great reading:

'Be careful in this area. The long running conflict in Colombia creates spillover along the northern border of Ecuador.
Drug trafficking activities and general lawlessness in this area create plenty of opportunities for a tourist to find trouble.
If you want to go alone, you should advise the embassy or somebody not travelling with you of your travel plans and return date.'

To be fair, on arrival all the gringos get off the bus, jump straight into taxis and are taken to the hotel pick up point for the tours, so risks are minimised but it does make you feel uneasy all the same.

The 6.5 hour night bus journey (our first) was uneventful and we slept better than we were expecting to, despite the fact that our immediate neighbours looked like just the sort to rob us whilst we slept (all the guidebooks frequently warn you that robberies are more common on night buses). Ah paranoia, our old friend.

We arrived at 5.30am and had a four hour wait until we were picked up. This was followed by a two hour bus journey and a further three hours in a motorised canoe. You could say it's quite a commitment getting to the jungle.

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The part of Amazonia we visited was the Cuaybeno reserve, a tributory of a tributory to the Amazon, and a primary rainforest region. It would take 20 days winding through the flooded forest to reach the Amazon itself, which then continues for 4,000km to the Atlantic Ocean. Pretty staggering.

Our guide showed us some fabulous stuff along the way including five species of monkey, tonnes of birds, bats, an anaconda and the highlight for me - a three-toed pale throated sloth.

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Hard to see but he's dead centre in the pic

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Hoatzin - or 'stinky turkey bird' because the meat smells bad when cooked

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Green anaconda - a juvenile, the adults get to 8m!!

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Our lodge was on a small spit of land situated next to a large lagoon. It has to be the most remote place we've been so far. It was basic but nice enough - there was even a five inch cockroach in our bathroom as a welcome party!

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Our group of 17 were a big mix of nationalities... Dutch, Swiss, German, Austrian, Greek, Canadian, American - we were the only Brits.

We were taken to the lagoon to watch the sunset, it was so peaceful and still.

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The next day they took us deeper into the jungle on motorised canoes to visit a small village of indiginous people. We witnessed a type of flat bread being made from a root vegetable which Ant helped to pull out of the ground, and I volunteered to make one of the breads over the very hot plate.

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'Noisy nocturnal monkeys' we spotted along the way - or the Furby of the primate world

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We also got to try some 'jungle juice' - we had the tiniest of sips as they warned us our stomachs may not take it. There were two home brews; Chicha made from the root vegetable used to make the flat bread, and one made from cacao. Potent stuff and not particularly pleasant either, but the guide wolfed it back so clearly it's an acquired taste...

We had a go at using a blow pipe, followed by a meet with the village's Shaman. It was fascinating to learn about his role in the community, and he talked in length about 'yaje' - a hallucenagenic drink which is widely taken (from as young as 9 years old!) to enable the participant to have visions. As their use of this drink is 'mastered' they start to see 'elegant beings' - above and beyond things like colourful flowers, butterflies and animals. Once they've achieved this - taking some 15 years - they can become a Shaman, effectively the medicine man in the village. Coming from the west, it was hard for us to get our heads around, but once they have seen the 'elegant beings' they can use yaje to diagnose illness in others.

If you have the time or inclination, this website is an interesting read.

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As the afternoon progressed I started feeling unwell, which was soon followed by vomiting in the trees. Oh dear... must have been the jungle juice. It continued on the way home and I was being sick out the side of the canoe. Nice! One of the other girls started up too, and by the time we were back at the lodge, Ant and I were desperately taking turns to use the bathroom.

We skipped dinner altogether and later in the evening one of the guides came to see me. I had my eyes closed lying on the bed. He proceeded to rub my head, face and feet with a round object and started saying that I had a bad ear and it was that which was causing the sickness. I heard a cracking sound and he confirmed again... ah yes, you have a bad ear. I thought, is that an egg he's using to diagnose me?! Sure enough it was. Hmmm... I was too out of it to argue but wanted to say it's not my ear it's food poisoning!

Unfortunately it persisted all night, Ant suffering from diarrhoea and me with sickness. The next morning it transpired that 11 of the 17 in our group had been unwell during the night, but as some didn't have the jungle juice we were never entirely sure what caused it.

The following day's activities were severely hampered as a result, we couldn't face breakfast and only managed a few forkfuls for lunch. But other than very sore stomachs, we were more human by the evening and everyone in the group was reunited for dinner.

The next activity after recovering was a two hour paddle in very rickety canoes, and unfortunately at the same time the heavens opened for a serious downpour. And it's that 'thick' tropical rain... none of that fine mizzle we get in the UK. Despite heavy duty ponchos we still got pretty soaked and I have to say it wasn't a whole lot of fun.

But before the rain came our guide caught a piranha (second attempt too so God knows how many of them were down there). Unfortunately it bit the end of the hook off which got caught in its mouth. Due to its sharp gnashers he couldn't remove it with his fingers so he had to kill it, and once he had, he filleted it and put small pieces into fresh lemon juice for half an hour. The flesh turned white and three brave souls tried it. No way on earth after just feeling better from the dodgy stomach! Bleurgh!

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The weather picked up for a pleasant afternoon boat cruise around the waterways and lagoons. Sadly we didn't see much wildlife but our guide did spot a Hoatzin nest and we got a really close up view of two baby birds which he reckoned had hatched no more than two days ago.

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A night walk provided some gruesome spider sightings, a tiny poison dart frog and a particular ant which the guide made quite a fuss about. The Conga ant was about an inch long and apparently its bite is worse than a scorpion sting - even the people of the jungle fear it. Oh, and there's the Brazilian wandering spider (or banana spider) - the world's most poisonous spider which can be found in the tropics of SA. One bite and it's curtains. Apparently the poison immediately causes necrosis. Happy walking!

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Wolf spider

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Scorpion spider - check out how crazy long the second two legs are

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You're probably not going to get this from the photos as they look like we had an amazing time (hey, I always pick the best ones for the blog!), but after four nights in the jungle the whole experience was 'just ok'. To be fair the first three hour boat ride getting there and the visit to the village were pretty special, but we certainly felt like we were done with the jungle the day before we were due to leave.

The biggest disappointment was being ill which wiped out 24 hours, and it left us delicate for the rest of the stay. The only mode of transport was the motorised canoe so this featured in every activity which started to feel a bit same same - and the lifejackets and ponchos stunk to high heaven!

It rained a lot. Not that this came as any surprise, but it meant everything started to feel damp. There's so much moisture in the air nothing dries in the jungle, so our wet clothes started to seriously honk.

The cabins were very dark and dingy, and started to become oppressive. Even in daylight little light got into the room and with only a dim bedside light available from 6-10pm, it became infuriating to find anything. I was surprised how much it got to us but it was like being deprived of one of man's most basic needs.

Perhaps our expectations were set too high, but it did seem like we went off on an exploration many times to see particular creatures and didn't. Our group our 17 were split between two guides, and the guide with the other group to us was infintely better at spotting things in the trees, so they got to see a lot more wildlife than we did. It was great for them but obviously frustrating for us.

All things considered we were happy to be moving on, but with our jungle stripes earned!

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Our smaller group

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Leaving the jungle

Posted by Galavantie 18:41 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

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