Archive | South America

Four months of South America in photos

Sarah Duff Machu Picchu

The second part of this year-long around-the-world trip (after a three-month stint in the USA), was South America, a continent I had never visited. It had always seemed so far from South Africa, so I felt like a normal-length two-week trip would never cut it. I saved up South America for a time when I had months to see as much as possible.

In four months, I travelled the length (and some of the breadth, minus Brazil) of this amazing continent, learning Spanish and tango in Buenos Aires, trekking the spectacular peaks and glaciers of Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia, getting soaked under the spray of Iguazu Falls, hiking the otherworldly landscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert, where I stood under huge steaming geysers and floated in salt lagoons, 4x4ing through the desert of Bolivia’s altiplano and seeing the sun rise over the world’s largest salt flat, bird watching and piranha fishing in the Bolivian Amazon, exploring Machu Picchu,  snorkelling with sea lions and communing with marine iguanas in the natural Disneyworld Galapagos Islands, walking through mists in the beautiful cloud forest of Mashpi on mainland Ecuador, trekking for four tough days through the Colombian jungle to reach the ancient ruins of the Lost City and learning to dive on tiny Providencia Island.

It was one adventure after another – a wild, wonderful journey that I will never forget.

These are my favourite places in photos.

Iguazu Falls, Argentina-1Las Torres hike in Torres del Paine National ParkPerito Moreno glacier trekking, El Calafate, PatagoniaMoon Valley, Atacama Desert, ChileLlama and Licancabur VolcanoEl Tatio Geyser field, Atacama Desert, ChileSalar de Uyuni, BoliviaLaguna Blanca, BoliviaLlama, BoliviaMadidi National Park, BoliviaSarah Duff Machu PicchuView from Wayna PicchuSarah Duff Machu PicchuSarah Duff Galapagos Islands-11Sarah Duff Galapagos Islands-1Mashpi Lodge, EcuadorHiking at Mashpi Lodge, EcuadorColombia's Lost City or Ciudad PerdidaProvidencia Island, Colombia




Providencia Island: Colombia’s secret Caribbean paradise

Providencia Island, Colombia

“Welcome to Providencia, where everything come in slow motion”, said our taxi driver, Jerry, as he coasted down the gently winding road along the coast of Colombia’s tiny Caribbean island. Jerry hooted and waved at just about every scooter and car that passed us: “I don’t know everyone on the island, but I will do soon.”

Providencia Island, which is closer to Nicaragua but belongs to Colombia, is a beautiful atoll home to white-sand palm tree-lined beaches, lush jungly hills, around 5000 people who mainly speak a unique form of English Creole, and a handful of small hotels and guesthouses in Caribbean-style wooden buildings the colour of fruit sorbet ice creams. There’s just one 17-kilometre road around the island (the best way to get around the island is by renting a golf cart) and not a single resort. It’s so under the radar that not even that many Colombians know about it.

The island is surrounded by the world’s third largest barrier reef, so the snorkelling and diving is amazing (I did my five-day open water PADI certification with Pichi – the most chilled guy in the world – at Felipe’s Dive Shop, and dived with sharks every day). Apart getting into the warm water to dive or swim, there’s not much else to do on Providencia Island, other than drinking pina coladas out of coconuts, swaying on hammocks, dancing to Bob Marley being played by beachside reggae bars, and watching the sunset each day. It’s honestly one of the most laidback, relaxing, friendly places I’ve ever been to.

My favourite spots were Cafe Studio, a little restaurant near Freshwater Bay that serves the most amazing crab stew with coconut rice, tamarind juices and coconut pie (which I still crave) and Roland’s Reggae Bar at Manzanillo Bay, where you can sit in old wooden boats and drink cold beer, with the ocean four steps away, or swing into the sea on buoys hanging from palm trees. I couldn’t get enough of the crab pizza at the Blue Coral Pizzeria, and the toasted crab sandwiches and homemade lemonade at Miss Elma’s, right on the beach in Freshwater Bay. I loved hiring a golf cart for the day and exploring every little beach on the island.

By end of nine sunshine-filled, wi-fi and stress free, heart-rate slowingly relaxing days on Providencia Island, we felt like we knew half the island (including its packs of stray dogs). People hooted at us from scooters and the back of pick up trucks as we strolled along the road. It didn’t take long to feel part of this tiny island community – it’s easy to see why many of the people who end up here never want to leave.

Providencia Island, Colombia

How to get to Providencia Island

There are only two ways to get to Providencia – by boat or plane from nearby San Andres Island. The boat ride is a seasickness-inducing one, and trips can be cancelled if the sea is rough, so it’s best to fly (flights don’t cost that much more).

Where to stay on Providencia Island

Posada Mr Mac, Providencia Island, Colombia

The most expensive hotel on the island, Deep Blue, has a lovely view but it doesn’t have a beach and it’s on the eastern side of the island, so you’ll miss out on sunsets.

We stayed at Sol Caribe, which was overpriced but had a great location on the beachfront of Freshwater Bay (which, having driven around the island, I think is the best area to stay in, with a great dive shop, restaurants, golf cart rental place and a few hotel options).

We also stayed at Posada Mr Mac – a very basic little guesthouse in Freshwater Bay. The room was cramped and stuffy, but super cheap – and it had a pretty unbeatable setting right on the water, with hammocks stretched across the deck, so you could sway gently watching the sunset.

Freshwater Bay, Providencia Island, Colombia Hiring a golf cart, Providencia Island, Colombia Diving, Providencia Island, Colombia Providencia Island, Colombia Diving, Providencia Island, Colombia Snorkelling, Diving, Providencia Island, Colombia Snorkelling, Diving, Providencia Island, Colombia



A jungle trek to Colombia’s Lost City

Colombia's Lost City or Ciudad Perdida

Sweat ran in thick rivulets down my back, soaking through to my heavy backpack. My face felt as hot as a pizza oven. My thighs burned and my dodgy knees were aching. My breath came out as an unpleasant sounding rasp. I was less than two hours into a four-day trek through the Colombian jungle and I was on the verge of giving up, turning back and heading for the beaches of Caribbean coast, an hour’s drive away, to do nothing but drink cocktails.

What kept me going was the thought of reaching the Lost City – the reason I was on this tough trek. Colombia’s answer to Machu Picchu, the Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida in Spanish, is a 1200-year-old city that was abandoned four centuries ago when the Spanish arrived in Colombia, and remained a secret to the outside world until it was discovered by gold hunters in the 1970s. There’s no way of accessing the ruins other than by hiking 23 kilometres through the steep, muddy, mosquito-infested jungle of the Sierra Nevada.

Once I’d conquered that first gruelling hill on the first afternoon of the hike, I’d like to say that it got easier, which it didn’t. The rest of the hike was tough (mentally and physically) – brutally hot, humid and endlessly hilly. There were lots of river crossings and slippery rock clamberings and fitful sleeps in tiny crammed together bunkbeds at the rustic camps along the way, and scorpion sightings and sore legs.

River crossing, Lost City trek, Colombia

Despite all of that, the Lost City hike was spectacularly beautiful, a lot of fun and a pretty adventurous introduction to Colombia. We walked over ridges above misty green valleys and through stretches of dense forest, with parrots and butterflies flitting between trees. To cool down, we dove into the clear water of rivers and jumped off waterfalls, and ate strips of juicy watermelon and slices of oranges as pick-me-ups after sweaty hill climbs.

From our knowledgeable guide, Wilson, we learned about how the area had been full of marijuana plantations of a strain called Santa Marta Gold 25 years ago. When cocaine became popular, the marijuana was replaced with coca plantations. The cocaine was manufactured in laboratories deep in the jungle, and transported in bags on mules to the coast, where it was sent by speedboat to the Caribbean and the US.  A few years ago, as part of the US’ War on Drugs campaign, the coca plantations were destroyed by the Colombian government. According to Wilson, there used to be 900 people living in the area, but after the crackdown, only around 50 remained. The rest moved to the city of Santa Marta to look for work, but with the decrease in cocaine smuggling, the whole city’s economy was depressed. Wilson’s insight certainly gave me a new perspective on Colombia’s drug trade and how many peoples’ lives it affects.

Scenery on Lost City hike, Colombia

The cocaine trade is an association many people make with Colombia, and the second is with guerrillas and kidnappings. In 2003, a group of tourists were kidnapped from the ruins and held hostage for three months by Marxist rebels. After that, visits to the city were suspended for a few years, but since the route was re-opened in 2005, there haven’t been any incidents. For the protection of the area there are now two army camps – one on the hiking route and one at the city –  filled with gun-wielding, cigarette smoking recruits who all look about 16, and love posing for photos.

Army camp, Lost City hike, Colombia

I had begun to really enjoy the hike by the time we reached the Lost City on the morning of the third day, after the thorough workout of a climb up 1200 narrow steps, and the trek had become as much about the beauty of the scenery, the meditative experience of walking for hours every day, and learning about Colombia as it was about actually reaching our destination.

The ruins themselves are undeniably atmospheric, although not nearly as dramatic as Machu Picchu (though, on the plus side, there were about 30 people in total at the ruins at the same time as us, as opposed to the thousands at Machu Picchu). Surrounded by mountains streaked with cascading waterfalls and flanked on all sides by trees, the series of stone and grass terraces rises out of the jungle like something from an Indiana Jones movie. We had arrived early in the morning, before the sun had risen behind the peaks, and stood on a hill, watching in silence as the light went from blue to golden over the lilypad terraces.

While gold hunters introduced the Lost City (which was originally called Teyuna) to the world in the 1970s, indigenous local tribes had actually known about the ruins all along – the site is sacred to them, and they wanted to keep it hidden from outsiders. Much of the city’s history remains unknown (including the meaning of a boulder etched with carvings which may be an undecipherable map to the area’s concealed gold mines), and sadly, many of its treasures were looted by gold hunters to be sold on the black market. It’s believed to have housed between 2000 and 8000 people, and may have been a political centre. The site is spread across 86 acres, and is one of the largest pre-Columbian settlements discovered in the Americas. Most the city, however, is still covered in jungle, and there are no plans to clear it.

Mysterious boulder that could be a map at Colombia's Lost City

Teyuna is certainly not lost any more, especially as tourist numbers increase every year, but the air of mystery that hangs over the site, its isolation and spectacular jungle setting, and the fact that you have to sweat and toil for three days to get there (and then return on the same hilly slopes) means it still feels gloriously adventurous.

How to do Colombia’s Lost City hike

There are a number of different tour operators offering four, five and six-day hikes to the Lost City, starting in Santa Marta, a two-hour drive away from the start of the hike.
We chose Expotur (based on the good reviews), and paid $380 for the four-day trek, which included a guide, accommodation in bunk beds in camps on the route, three meals a day (the food was tasty, plentiful and healthy – fish, salad, rice for dinner, eggs and arepas for breakfast) and fresh fruit as snacks.
You need to carry everything you need for the hike (other than food) in a backpack so try and bring as little as possible. Keep in mind that with the humidity and frequent rain, nothing dries properly, so keep the clothes you want to keep dry for sleeping in a plastic bag. Bring a travel towel for showering – there are cold showers at the camps – a first aid kit and some energy bars to keep you going when you hit some low spots.
There are a lot of mosquitoes on the hike. If you wear shorts, you will be bitten. I used my eco-friendly baby-safe citronella insect repellent cream on my legs, which did absolutely nothing to protect my skin. I was feasted on every day, and by the end of the four days, my legs were covered in dozens of bites. (My boyfriend sprayed himself liberally with DEET multiple times a day and only had a few bites.) Two weeks later, when I was in Costa Rica, I came down with either dengue fever or chikungunya (the blood test was inconclusive). Both are horrible mosquito-borne illnesses where you have high fevers, severe joint pains and headaches. I felt terrible for nine days, and learned my lesson about the kind of insect repellent I should be using.
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Mashpi: a cocoon in an Ecuadorian cloud forest


I have a special place in my heart for cloud forests. There’s something undeniably magical about being in a world of trees, where every view is of hills of green wrapped in thick bands of mist, and every piece of moss is covered in jewel-like droplets of water.

After a week in the natural Disneyworld of the Galápagos Islands, it was going to be hard to come back to the real world of industria, highways and concrete, where animals fear their human predators. Leaving Quito after just one night and heading straight for an Ecuadorian cloud forest was the only solution.

Reached by a winding road carved into steep hills, Mashpi Lodge is surrounded by 3000 acres of cloud forest, in the private Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve that conserves this pocket of natural splendour. The lodge itself is described by its founder as a “cocoon in the clouds” which is exactly what it feels like, with a hilltop perch overlooking a dense green canopy, and stories-high glass walls offering views of trees and mist in every direction.

I could have easily spent hours lying in bed – our bedroom had a wall entirely made out of glass, and we were on the side of the building, on the edge of a sloping hill, so the forest began where our room ended. Being in bed was like floating in the treetops. But what we were really there to do was to explore the cloud forest.

Bedroom at Mashpi Lodge

In festival-appropriate gum boots and grey ponchos (one constant in a cloud forest is that it rains a lot), we hiked with guides Sebastian Vizcarra and Carlos Zambrano on muddy paths the colour of dark chocolate through a cloudy world of giant trees, thick vines and huge leaves, discovering this complex and deeply fascinating ecosystem, one tiny organism at a time. We marvelled at glass-winged butterflies, pink shoe flowers and red heliconias, shy forest dragons (otherwise known as dwarf iguanas), frogs and orchids the size of a pinkie fingernail, smelled the almond-like arsenic secretion of a millipede on the defence and the turps-and-mint scent of the resin from a five-hundred-year-old palo santo tree, spotted a twitcher’s cornucopia of species, from rainbow-coloured Chocó toucans, motmots with ludicrously long tail feathers and tiny jewel-shiny hummingbirds, rose-faced parrots and neon yellow and black lemon tanagers.

Hiking at Mashpi Lodge

We watched butterflies hatching out of chrysalises and found the skeleton of tarantula that had been  eaten alive by a parasitic fungus. Our lucky sighting  was of a family of tairas (which reminded me of the marmot in The Big Lebowski) stealing bananas off the bird feeders. We photographed an obliging long-legged frog and a tongue-flicking snake to check if they could be new species – there’s a resident biologist at the reserve creating a catalogue of species. At night we went for hikes in the dark by torchlight to hunt for frogs, snakes and tarantulas (it sounds a lot scarier than it was). We swam in ice cold waterfalls to cool off after hikes and cycled a sky bike across a zipwire above the tree canopy, looking out at five layers of forested hills streaked in mist. At dawn we woke up for a birdwatching session to the beautiful sight of clouds forming in the valley below the lodge, turning golden with the sun rise.

View from the skybike, Mashpi Lodge

We heard the distinctive growl of howler monkeys in the far distance a few times, but never saw them. Mashpi’s reserve is surrounded by farmlands, where the forest has been cleared, so their habitat is limited. They’ve also been hunted for years, so they’re understandably wary of humans.

Mashpi is part of the Chocó, a rainforest that stretches from Panama to northern Ecuador. One of the most biodiverse and wettest habitats in the world, it’s severely under threat from deforestation, gold mining and coca cultivation. Less than a quarter of the forest remains in total, and there’s only 10% of it left in Ecuador. The former mayor of Quito, Roque Sevilla, saved 3000 acres of forest from a logging company to create Mashpi’s reserve. As in many parts of South America and Africa, eco tourism is often the only viable way of protecting habitats that would otherwise completely disappear. It’s impossible not to be moved by the beauty of this Ecuadorian cloud forest, and to know that by visiting you’re helping in some small way to protect the biodiversity, the trees, and the magical mists.

Waterfall, Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador

Travelling to Mashpi Lodge

Mashpi’s cloud forest is three hours’ drive northwest of Ecuador’s capital, Quito, and transfers are arranged by the lodge.

Mashpi Lodge has 22 simple, but tastefully elegant, rooms with incredible views, attentive service (think cold towels and fresh juices or hot blackberry tea each time you arrive back after a walk) and great food, with the focus on Ecuadorian dishes, such as octopus ceviche, mashed manioc with egg and cheese-stuffed yucca breads for breakfast, stuffed plantains with shrimps and peanut sauce and banana cake.

The best time of year to visit Mashpi is in the driest time of year, in June, or in November and December for the arrival of migratory birds from the northern hemisphere.

Book Mashpi Lodge through the Mantis Collection.

Mashpi Lodge, Ecuador


Butterfly, Mashpi Lodge Butterfly hatching, Mashpi Lodge Frog spotting, Mashpi Lodge Snake spotting, Mashpi Lodge Snake, Mashpi Lodge Mashpi Lodge


An evolutionary Eden: the Galapagos Islands

Sarah Duff Galapagos Islands-11

“No area on Earth of comparable size has inspired more fundamental changes in Man’s perspective of himself and his environment” said ornithologist Robert Bowman of the Galápagos Islands, which he surveyed for UNESCO in 1957.

Humans first stepped ashore on the Galápagos Islands, which lie just less than a thousand kilometres offshore from Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, five centuries ago. Since then these extraordinary volcanic islands have taken a hold of our imagination, and they remain one of the most naturally fascinating places on Earth with a unique biodiversity of species.

From the moment you land on a hot, dry, barren patch of land and disembark in an open-air airport filled with the sound of tweeting finches, it’s like you’re in another world. In this world, the largest land animals are impossibly giant tortoises and fat pink, orange and black iguanas, which lie on top of one another in scaly piles and snort projectile jets of salty water into the air. There are tiny penguins who once came from another colder environment on the other side of the planet, and have now adapted to life in the tropics, birds with artificial-looking blue feet and cormorants with wings that no longer work. There are very few natural predators here (not counting humans), so the animals have evolved to be fearless. As a result, you need to watch where you’re walking in case you step on creatures sunning themselves on pathways.

Under the water, marine life is equally rich. On snorkelling trips we swam with white tip reef sharks, playful sea lions, placid turtles, zippy penguins, huge sun fish, manta rays and flightless cormorants. In the sea, animals are as devoid of fear as they are on land, so penguins and cormorants dive into the ocean centimetres away from you and sea lions invite you to join them in a balletic synchronised show of leaping in and out of the water.

Every day you spend in the Galápagos is different. Each day you step on the shore of a new island with a unique geological history – collapsed craters and solidified fields of lava telling the physical story of their formation – and its own species, adapted to live there and nowhere else. Each day you learn more about the complexity of evolution. To visit the Galápagos Islands is so much more than a holiday – it’s like getting an education in nature.


How to visit the Galápagos Islands

The main thing you need to decide on when planning a trip to the Galápagos Islands is whether you want to stay at a hotel on land or go on a cruise. If you stay on land, you can pick and choose what day trips you’d like to do – snorkelling, visiting other islands and boat cruises. If you go on a cruise, you see a lot more of the islands and don’t have to spend time on travelling (the boats generally cruise to the next island at night while you’re sleeping).

Pikaia Lodge, Galapagos Islands

I couldn’t decide which option to pick, so I chose both. I stayed at the newly-opened Pikaia Lodge, set on a ridge in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island with expansive views over lush green plains to the ocean. The only sign of human habitation visible from the lodge are the big wind turbines of the airport in the far distance. The lodge has a sleek, modern design with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that make the most of the views, a huge rim-flow pool, fabulous spa and an aesthetic inspired by science in the form of decor such as a double helix steel sculpture. The library is filled with books on Darwin and evolution, and in the evenings you can watch David Attenborough’s documentary on the Galápagos in 3D on the giant TV screen. Each day’s activities are different, and for snorkelling trips and visits to other islands, the lodge has its own luxury yacht.

Pikaia Lodge, Galapagos Islands

For the cruise, I stayed on the M/V Santa Cruz, a 90-passenger boat with luxury cabins, a big deck, Jacuzzi, dining room and lounge where there was a scientific presentation every day and excellent, super knowledgeable naturalist guides. Ours was a six-day Western itinerary that took in visits to North Seymour, Isabela, and Fernandina Island where we walked ashore and snorkelled in coves and at offshore reefs, as well as the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz and a stop off at the famous post office barrel on Floreana Island, where you drop off a postcard and wait for another visitor to pick it up and hand deliver it to the address.

Both Pikaia Lodge and the M/V Santa Cruz can be booked through the Mantis Collection.

M/V Santa Cruz Galapagos Islands

Responsible tourism 

Like almost every ecosystem in the world, however, this natural wonderland hangs in a delicate balance. Many conservation projects on the islands have been funded in part by visitors, and tourism provides an incentive to protect the wildlife of the Galápagos, but each visitor who comes here has an impact on the fragile ecosystem. Boats ship in the food tourists and the locals consume, bringing in invasive species like ants and flies with them. There are pollution and waste problems. Several native species are now on the brink of extinction. It took us hundreds of years to stop exploiting the Galápagos Islands after we first discovered them and to turn to conservation.

When you visit the Galápagos, try to reduce your impact by consuming as little as possible, and taking away some of your waste with you when you leave. Don’t bring in any plants or animals to the islands, and wash your hiking shoes before you leave home to make sure you don’t bring in any seeds stuck to your soles. Choose where you stay wisely – pick lodges and cruise ships that are committed to eco-friendly practices.

The Charles Darwin Foundation, an independent scientific research station which runs important conservation projects on the island, is desperate for funds now that the government has shut down its souvenir shop. Even if you don’t visit the Galápagos, consider donating money to the foundation to help fund their projects.

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Machu Picchu in photos

Sarah Duff Machu Picchu

Photos of famous sights can be misleading. The Pyramids of Giza look like they’re in the middle of the desert, surrounded by empty horizons of sand, while they’re actually on the edge of the dirty, chaotic city, a Pizza Hut and KFC just across the road. Stonehenge looks like it’s in an English bucolic paradise, but it’s right next to the highway. You expect to be impressed with the Mona Lisa, one of the world’s most famous artworks, but you don’t realise that the painting comes with a jostling crowd of tourists.

Machu Picchu, on the other hand, is more spectacular than photos can ever portray. The ruins themselves are beautiful, but what is more astounding is their setting. Surrounded by an amphitheatre of steep, forested peaks dipping dramatically down hundreds of metres to gushing rivers below, Machu Picchu is spread out on lush grassy terraces (which are kept neat by resident llamas). In the mornings, thick swathes of clouds envelop the site, covering everything for a few minutes, before sweeping away. While no one knows exactly what Machu Picchu was, it’s easy to see why the Incas chose this place to build it.

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