To say our taxi ride south was an adventure would be to do our driver a disservice; it was terrifying. Crammed into the car with our bags on our laps, he bobbed and weaved and squeezed through the tiniest of gaps in traffic, including a few passing lane games of chicken that we could have done without. Against the odds, we finally arrived in Huacachina, a small desert oasis nestled in the sand dunes for our next activity: dune buggy and sand surfing.
We dropped our bags in a small shack at the dune buggy lot and hopped into one of the worker’s cars to head to our buggy. The buggy itself had two seats in the front and three in the back, and even had seat belts for everyone. Our driver navigated the buggy through a few dirt streets within a small neighborhood before reaching the entrance to the dunes and really opening it up.
He took us up and over several large stretches of the dunes including a few drops that made our stomachs turn (in a good way). Our guide stopped about half way through so we could take a few turns sand boarding down the dunes, which is literally just snowboarding on a sand dune. He even took the time to park atop a particularly picturesque dune so we could take some stereotypical tourist photos.
All in all it was a great trip, and worth the frightening taxi trip. After sunset our guide dropped us of back at the shack where, somewhat surprisingly, our bags were still there. We scooped up our bags and took another taxi to our hostel, located in the nearby city of Ica. We walked down the street for dinner to try chifa for the first time for dinner (a fusion of Peruvian and Chinese food) and plopped down in our beds after a long, tiring day.
In the morning we made our way to the bus station and boarded a bus headed for Nazca. We spent the afternoon on the bus weaving through the desert mountains. Nazca, famous for their large sand-drawn images (or “lines”) was located even further south in the heart of the desert. We arrived on a Sunday, which happened to be Peru’s presidential election run-off day, so much of the city was shut down. We wandered around a bit and enjoyed some ice cream at one of the only open places we could find, before spending the rest of the evening at our hostel.
The main attraction in this town is the “Nazca Lines“. The Nazca lines are a series of large geoglphys scraped into the soil a few thousand years ago. Their designs range from human hands to various animals. Since they’re so huge, the best way to see them is really by plane. We researched a few guided tours to see several different areas to view the lines, but the prices just didn’t fit our budget. Instead we were able to negotiate a private car that would take us out to the large viewing tower along the highway, which we had passed on the way into town the day before. A short 30 minutes later and we were atop the tower, looking down at the giant artwork. It was pretty neat to see in person, and really fascinating how you really cannot see the lines from the road, despite the lines being literally feet away from the edge of the roadway.
Our driver brought us back into town where we spent the rest of the afternoon checking out various bars and restaurants. We played cards and had pizza for dinner, then headed home to enjoy a few homemade cocktails (fresh passion fruit is the best!) in preparation for, you guessed it, another overnight bus ride. This time we didn’t leave until 11:50 pm, but we felt like regulars by this point in our trip and knew the best routine to get through a night of “sleep” in a reclining bus chair.
Our second overnight bus of the trip arrived in Lima at around 5 am. Fortunately we had been in Lima recently so we headed to back to the hostel we previously stayed at to kill some time before our next bus. We were able to get into the hostel (*walked in confidently like we still lived there*) and hung out and slept a bit in the common area until our next bus at 8 am. That second bus took a few hours and dropped us off in Pisco. After 13+ hours of travel and not a lot of sleep, we were exhausted. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were bombarded by taxi drivers and since none of us were functioning at 100% we said yes to the first guy without negotiating to keep our journey moving. About a half hour later we had finally arrived at our next destination, Paracas, a small desert beach town on the west coast of Peru.
Our hostel in Paracas was awesome with lots of open air, and we even our own private roof deck overlooking the ocean complete with rocking chairs and hammocks.
Paracas is a small town and we were only a couple blocks away from the ocean. That first afternoon and evening was spent recovering from a night of travel, stopping for coffee and lunch, relaxing on the rooftop, and then finally enjoying ceviche and fresh seafood for dinner along the waterfront. Walking around town is also where we met Alfredo, a top 5 in our list of “characters met during our trip”, a travel agent who was working his tail off to sell us one of his excursions and/or travel to neighboring cities. He went as far as sitting down with us at dinner to tell us about a great deal. Can’t knock the hustle.
After breakfast the next day we rented bikes and took off for the Reserva National de Paracas, a desert peninsula and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shortly after leaving the main highway and entering the reserve it became evident that we were truly in the full on desert. Just sand, everywhere, broken up by only a few roads. Nothing else. Truly a bizarre landscape to find yourself in after having spent the night along the ocean’s edge.
We spent the next four hours riding through the desert and along the ocean. The desert is no joke, and we must have reapplied sunscreen at least every hour. We stopped at a few beaches along the way, and took a break to eat the snacks we brought about midway through at a tiny fishing village near the water before biking back to Paracas.
We again relaxed on our rooftop that afternoon before heading to dinner. For dinner, we returned to a restaurant we had stopped by the previous night in search of ceviche. The owner told us he had no fish but would buy some for us if we came back the following day, so we did. He made some wonderful ceviche which came with the best chifles (fried plantain chips) we had on our entire trip. As a bonus, a local neighbor boy took a liking to us and shared numerous examples of his water color paintings with us throughout our meal. He especially liked Elizabeth who was able to have a full conversation with him in Spanish and really get an understanding of his creative inspirations.
Following our ceviche and art show we found another restaurant along the water for dinner. We sat down at a small place with a grill where we had seen fresh seafood being grilled the night before. Our meal included fresh fish and octopus grilled directly next to our table, as well as a few drinks to celebrate Mike getting rehired at his same company from before we left on this trip. We followed up dinner with a few celebratory cigars on our rooftop, this time for Chris’ birthday (belated by a week or so). Before long, around 12:15 am or so, our hostel host came up and politely asked us to go to bed. Whoops!
The next morning we set out for the waterfront and boarded a tour boat for a trip to the Ballestas Islands National Reserve, also known as “the poor man’s Galapagos”. The boat took us around several islands and included some historical landmarks with narration by our tour guide, and, more importantly, tons of super cool wildlife. Throughout the tour we spotted dozens of species of birds, including penguins, many crabs hanging on to the rocks at the water line, dolphins, and even some sun-bathing sea lions.
As icing on the cake, on our boat ride back we ended up passing through a pod of curious dolphins. A 10/10 day for wildlife spotting.
Back on land we headed back to our hostel to pack up our stuff. We met up with Alfredo, who we had finally come to an agreement with for one of his great deals to get us to our next destination. Bags packed and ready to roll, we showed up to our pickup location only to be told that the bus was no longer coming (presumably due to an accident). We sat on the curb for a while. After nearly an hour of Alfredo running around town, trying to find anyone who could take us to our next town, he finally found a guy with a very small car and very little trunk space. Since we didn’t really have any other options we all crammed into the car with our backpacks on our laps.
The main highway, like most of the roads we’ve been on in Peru, was a two lane road with nothing but desert on either side. We knew by this point it was common to pass in the other lane of oncoming traffic, whether you’re in a tiny car packed to the brim or a giant bus. Whoever our driver was (Alfredo’s friend?) didn’t talk at all and turned out to be a pretty aggressive driver. After what felt like a few close calls, we arrived safely to our next destination. Traveling is never dull.
Overnight bus rides; where to begin? Peru is a huge country, and since flying everywhere wasn’t an option on our budget, busing between cities became the most efficient and cost effective way of getting around. Rather than spending an entire day on a bus, taking a 10+ hour overnight bus gave us more days to actually explore.
And now, another excerpt from our favorite guest writer, Chris.
We embarked on our first of a few night buses. We did not know that to expect from our 10 hour long journey and let me tell you what: the bus did not disappoint. The seat options available reclined to 160 degrees which in our opinion was plenty for comfortable bus sleeping but boy were we wrong. Equipped with our face shields, double face masks, and movies downloaded for entertainment we found our seats and settled in.
Mike and Emily were seated behind us. It became immediately clear something was very wrong with my seat. Any weight put on the back it would continue to recline until I was crushing Mike’s legs behind me and laying in his lap. Then began the constant cycle of dozing off, crushing Mike, dragging the back of my chair into a vertical position, and then repeating the process. Thankfully the person in front of me was in a very similar situation as I so it was a lovey seat train of leg crushing. We arrived at like 4 am and walked up to our hostel exhausted and ready for sleep. All in all just a great time on the night bus!
We pulled into the bus station in Huarez at 4:30am and were absolutely exhausted. Overnight buses, despite their highly advertised reclining seats, are not ideal for sleeping. We groggily made our way a few blocks to our hostel, Aldo’s, where we met our host, Aldo. Despite it being super early in the morning Aldo hooked us up with one of the two rooms we booked for the following night immediately so we could try to get some sleep. Chris and Elizabeth were kind enough to let us stay in the room and did their best to make themselves comfortable at the end of the hall, making use of a single hammock and spreading couch cushions on the floor.
Later that morning we enjoyed a complimentary breakfast at the hostel of coffee and tea, bread, fruit, and cheese. We immediately realized how much the altitude was impacting us (10,000 feet above sea level) after having been in Lima (basically sea level), so we decided to take it slow that day and just explore and get some laundry done. We ate lunch at a small cafe, planned out our next few days, and took some time to walk through the local market. For dinner we stopped in a tiny local restaurant near the market and each ordered Lomo Saltado, a traditional Peruvian dish of stir-fried beef, tomatoes, onions, and french fries. Each of our meals came with soup and tea, and our check for the four of us came to a grand total of $6. Can’t beat the price.
The following morning we were up at 4:30 again, this time by choice, for an all day excursion to Laguna 69 in in the Andes mountains of Hauscarán National Park. Our transportation for the day would be a small passenger van, similar to Wilda, but with seats for 10. After about 2 hours or so of driving up the mountains (including snow as we gained elevation) using some pretty gnarly curvy roads, we stopped at a small family run restaurant atop one of the mountains for breakfast. We had bread, cheese, coffee, and coca tea and got back on the road. We kept climbing, driving onto narrower and rougher dirt roads, and stopped again at the Llanganuco Lakes for a quick photo op.
Around 9:30 am we arrived at the trail head and started the hike up to our primary destination for the day, Laguna 69. The trail is an 8.6 mile out and back to a lake with 2,700+ feet of elevation gain. The four of us typically fare pretty well on hikes, even those with intense vertical sections and altitude gain, but starting from such a high altitude really took its toll. We drank as much water as possible, kept the pace slow, and ate plenty of the free airport lounge snacks we snagged before our last flight. As we made our way to our final destination we were treated to countless gorgeous views of snow-capped mountains, lakes, and even some mountain cows!
Just after noon we crossed the final peak and finally saw Laguna 69, which was incredible. A huge alpine lake with beautiful turquoise water surround by mountains, snow, and rock on all sides.
Lunch by the lake was PB&J sandwiches, fresh mango from the market, and various snacks, which we we enjoyed while dipping our feet in the icy cold water. After taking some time to eat and to rest we began the return trip down the mountain. With the entire return trip being downhill we felt ourselves going much more quickly. As a result, we all began to feel a bit dehydrated and some of us more than others (me) felt down right crappy. We did all manage to make it back to the van without issue, but once we got back to the hostel we ate a quick dinner and passed out from exhaustion.
Feeling better the next day, we elected to go on a rock climbing excursion guided by our hostel host, Aldo. Some of us had been rock climbing indoors before, but never outside on actual rocks. We took a cab to the rock face which was situated just behind a small community and offered awesome views of Huarez. We ended up climbing in two different areas several times each and all managed to avoid embarrassing ourselves.
Here’s a time lapse video of Chris crushing the rock wall.
After another PB&J lunch at the base of the rock wall we walked back into town and turned in our equipment. Once back at the hostel we spent the afternoon showering and relaxing after an eventful and physically demanding couple of days. Later in the afternoon we went to a local clinic to get a quick Covid test which is required for most long bus trips in Peru. With negative tests in hand we then cooked a delicious and cost effective dinner of ramen noodles, and prepared ourselves for yet another overnight bus trip.
We landed in our next country, Peru, in the middle of the night and took a taxi to our hostel in Lima, the capital and by far largest city in the country. Since we got in so late we slept in the next day and took advantage of the grocery store across the street and made brunch at our hostel. By early afternoon we were ready to head out and explore.
We spent our first full day in Peru walking around the Miraflores neighborhood where we were staying. We stopped in one of the many coffee shops and visited the Inka Market which was full of souvenirs, trinkets, and alpaca wool blankets. Every vendor did their best to sell us something at “a special price”, and we promised them all we’d be back (and we would). We walked through Kennedy Park which is full of adorable stray cats and resisted the urge to pet them all.
As usual with any new country we visit, we did our research on all the best local food to try. In Peru, number one on our list was ceviche. Although we had ceviche in Panama and Ecuador, each country seemed to put their own spin on it, and it originated in Peru (it’s the national dish) so we had to try their version. We stopped at a seafood restaurant that Emily went to almost 7 years ago on her last trip to Peru, called La Mar. Fortunately the ceviche was as tasty and fresh as I remember it being last time around.
Since Lima is located right on the Pacific coast we got some pretty good views of the ocean from Miraflores. The city extends right up to the water, but rather than a beach it’s more like a dramatic cliff drop off to get down to the water. We walked along El Malecón, a walking path and park the extends along the top of the cliffs. We tried to time up our walk with sunset and it was unfortunately too cloudy to see anything, but still a great place to hang out on a Friday night.
The next day, Saturday, was a big day for our little group: Chris’ birthday. We started off the morning with mimosas and homemade breakfast at our hostel to fuel up for the weekend. Elizabeth did a great job planning out a day including some of Chris’ favorite activities, including the following:
1. Surprise Extreme Activity
Although Mike and I were in on the plan, Chris had no idea where we were going when we took a taxi to a random building parking lot. From there, we got in a van with a couple other tourists and drove about an hour south. We pulled up onto a beach which is about when Chris probably figured out that we were going paragliding! Our 15 minute flight up and down the coast had some great views and was surprisingly relaxing.
After taking the van back into Lima, we found a great outdoor food hall market called Mercado 28. Complete with plenty of food and drink options, outdoor seating, and televisions showing the Champions League Final (Chelsea versus Manchester City), this was the perfect place to hang out for the afternoon and watch soccer. Of note: Chelsea emerged victorious on the back of a wonderful Kai Havertz goal (assisted by Mason Mount from beyond the midfield line). Up the Chels!
We spent the rest of the afternoon bar hopping around Miraflores and trying different local beers.
One of the awesome amenities in our hostel for the weekend was a private movie theater with several tiered rows of huge couches and all the streaming services you could think of. Elizabeth rented out the theater for the night and we watched a movie we’ve all seen more times than we can count, Superbad (the Peruvian version is actually called “Supercool”). As we were about to start the movie, we went to the hostel community fridge to grab the case of beer we bought earlier in the day to enjoy during the movie. The bad news; the beer was gone. Someone had apparently helped themselves to it that day. The good news; Elizabeth spoke to the hostel staff who kindly offered us a round of complimentary drinks from the restaurant downstairs and dessert. While we were all annoyed that someone had taken our beer from the fridge, we enjoyed our free pisco sours, made a huge batch of popcorn, and enjoyed the rest of the night.
And there you have it, the four components to a pretty great birthday. The next day, Sunday, we took it easy and packed up our backpacks for the next stop on our journey around Peru. We prepared ourselves for the first of many overnight bus rides (what an adventure) to our next city.
Early Monday morning we began what would be a very long day of travel. The morning started with a vehicular taxi, followed by a water taxi back to the main land, followed by yet another vehicular taxi, before finally boarding a cross-country bus to El Valle de Anton. It was here at the bus stop where learned that plastic face shields are actually required on public transportation in Panama. Fortunately we’d been carrying ours around since the airport. So, rocking our face masks and face shields, we sat on a bus for the next eight hours. The bus dropped us off on the side of the Pan-American highway in a neighboring city, meaning we had to wait for another means of public transportation to bring us to our final destination. After passing on numerous vans that seemed like they’d be taking us in a roundabout way, we ended up finally taking one and arrived in El Valle de Anton, a small mountain town located in the crater of an extinct volcano. In total our trip consumed over 9 hours of our day, but we made it.
The following day we signed up for a day trip to Pozo Azul, an area local to Valle. The trip was meant to be a visit to a canyon of waterfalls and pools filled with crystal clear, bright blue water. Recent rains apparently turned the water brown and murky instead of bright blue, but we decided to go anyway. We rode in the back of a pickup truck up through the mountains, and got absolutely soaked in the rain on the way. One of the coolest spots on the tour was a watering hole surrounded by huge boulders where you could jump off. Going heavily against my nature, I followed our guide to the jumping point and launched myself into the water. Don’t worry, it was impossible to see if there were any hazards lying beneath the waters surface… super safe!
The above photos are courtesy of Avic Producciones, run by a couple who happened to be on the day trip with us. They had a super legit drone and took awesome videos and photos of each location that we stopped at, including my jump into the swimming hole.
From that swimming hole we continued on and stopped at another waterfall, this time much taller and with a really shallow pool. The water here was absolutely freezing but that didn’t stop us from jumping in. After hanging there for a while we stopped at one final viewpoint overlooking the jungle.
We finished our day with a cheap lunch at a Colombian restaurant before catching a bus to Panama City. In truth our journey was made up of a small van (packed), a bus, and then a taxi finally to our hostel. Once we arrived at the hostel we took some very cold showers and had takeout for dinner.
The next day we set out to explore Panama City, starting with a walk along the waterfront and then through Casco Viejo, the historic neighborhood in the city. We stopped for drinks and some lunch at a place run by an Expat from Mississippi. In the afternoon we hiked up to the top of Cerro Ancon, a hill which overlooked the city. There were a few mango trees atop the hill flush with fruit, including tons of mangos of that had recently dropped. Without doing much research we picked some mangos from the ground, which tuned out to be partially fermented by that time. After carrying them all the way back to our hostel we decided it was best not to eat them, but a lesson learned. In better news, we did spot two sloths in the mango trees, sleeping their afternoons away.
We took an unexpected trip to the Panama Canal the next day, courtesy of our Uber driver turned tour guide. After our driver picked us up at our hostel, we first stopped at Puente de Las America’s, a very-tourist-trap-y place overlooking one end of the canal. Our Uber driver said (as politely as possible) “… are you staying here?”. Picking up on his tone and seeing that there wasn’t much to see here, we all laughed and struck up a conversation with him.
He told us of a better location to potentially see some ships and offered to drive us to the Pedro Miguel Locks. Here we were fortunate enough to time our stop perfectly and see a huge cargo ship progressing through the canal locks.
After spending some time watching the ships and learning a great deal of Panama Canal facts from our driver, he drove us back into town. We enjoyed a beer and had lunch at a local cafe, where interestingly enough saw a person from our hostel in Bocas del Toro (all the way across the country). It’s a small world.
With our time in Panama coming to a close, we spent some time hanging out at our hostel and planning for our next few stops on the trip. Then, off to the airport and to our next country.
On Tuesday morning we jumped back into the van and took off for the Caribbean coast. Our route took us on a bunch of windy roads through the mountains before finally reaching the coast. Once we arrived at the port we parked the van (affectionately named Berto) and got into a water taxi (a large 20 person boat) with our bags which took us to Bocas del Toro, an island town off the coast of Panama that’s only accessible by boat or airplane. From the water taxi port we then took a regular taxi around the peninsula of the island to our hostel, Skully’s, an awesome beach shack right on the water’s edge including a pool, beach bar, and every beach game you could think of.
After dropping our bags off we grabbed lunch in town and took a water taxi to an adjacent island, Isla Bastimentos, where we planned to spend the afternoon at Red Frog Beach. Once dropped off at the dock we took a foot path through the jungle from one side of the island to the other and arrived at the beach. Though the island is known for them, we saw no red frogs on our walk unfortunately. We spent the afternoon swimming in the ocean and sipping cocktails at a cool beach bar that was set back from the water among the palm trees. The beach bar had a slack line (a strap tied tightly between two trees, a few feet from the ground, where you try to walk from one end to the other without falling), which we all tried with varying levels of success, and plenty of seating to enjoy drinks with a great view of the water.
That evening we took a water taxi back to the main island which included incredible views of the sunset. Once back on land, we found another local place on the water for dinner where we enjoyed some good food and drinks (heavy on the drinks). We spent the evening hanging out on the deck at our hostel overlooking the water, and made friends with a few other hostel guests.
The next morning we had to say goodbye to Clara and Nestor, who embarked on an all-day drive back across the country to catch their flight back to the US. Again, we cannot describe how wonderful it was to see them especially coming out of a 3-day quarantine. HUGGGEEE shout out to Nestor (aka “Papi”) for being our driver and tour guide during their trip! Once they departed we decided to spend the rest of the weekend in Bocas del Toro (one of the perks of long term travel – flexibility).
After checking out of our hostel we took a water taxi back to Isla Bastimentos, this time planning to spend the night at a Selina hostel, a large, well-known hostel chain known for having awesome design a great vibe. After a pretty long walk uphill with all of our bags and a few jugs of water, we checked into our rooms in the middle of the jungle. Our hostel included a pool so we promptly dropped our bags and spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool. On our way to said pool, we spotted a sloth just hanging around (pun intended), seemingly posing for us to snap some photos!
In the evening we walked through the jungle in search of a beach front dinner and saw another four sloths on our way to the beach. I’d like to think I’ve become something of sloth-spotting pro at this point in the trip, searching high and… high for stationary clumps of grey/tan fur nestled in the tree tops. We enjoyed dinner on the water, back at our favorite beach bar from the day before, before returning to the hostel to get some rest before the following day’s all-day excursion.
On Thursday we had scheduled an all day boat tour around the area, which included a complimentary 12 pack and stops at starfish island (tons of starfish), guaranteed dolphin spotting in the bay, snorkeling at a coral reef, and a stop at a smaller island for a few hours of relaxation. We did in fact spot quite a few dolphins, and the snorkeling was fantastic.
Our favorite stop however was the tiny remote island. From the dock where we were dropped off, we carried our cooler a few hundred yards down the beach. Here we sat in the shallow, crystal-clear water just off the edge of the beach and enjoyed our beers in the sun. After a lot of hard work, we also managed to crack open a few fresh coconuts. This afternoon stands out as one of the single best times of our trip, but of course that’s pretty hard to pick and choose.
The second half of the tour included a delicious local seafood lunch and a stop at “sloth island” where we unfortunately saw just one sloth way up in the trees. We weren’t too disappointed though, since we saw quite a few the day before. From here the boat took us back to shore and we walked back up the hill to our hostel, where we spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool.
The next morning we packed up our stuff and took a water taxi back to the main island, specially back to Skully’s since we really enjoyed the first stop so much. Our previous stay was the 6 of us in a 3 bed room that was air conditioned and private, and we were fortunate enough to get the same room again, though our party had been reduced to 4 people. The bad news was, the weather for the next three days was pretty much constant rain. The good news however, was after an eventful week we were happy to relax and had plenty of beach games, card games, drinks, and coconut-cracking to keep us entertained.
In short, the next three days were spent hanging around at Skully’s. We spent time around the pool, played all the yard games we could find (corn hole, ring game, darts, horseshoes, giant jenga, and more), and knocked down coconuts from the trees on the property and enjoyed the fresh coconut water. We also caught up on laundry (which we needed to do, badly). We met some interesting characters who were also staying at the hostel, and a few expats. After a great weekend despite the rain, we were ready to move on to our next stop in Panama as we started making our way back along the Pan-American highway towards Panama City.
The four of us could not have been more excited and relieved when Clara and Nestor rolled up in that big beautiful rental van to rescue us from our three day quarantine. We threw our bags in the back and immediately took off to finally explore some of Panama City. Nestor (our driver for the week) made it clear that his primary desire during his vacation was to enjoy some ceviche, and headed towards the local seafood market (Mercado de Mariscos).
The market was a bustling area right at the water’s edge with a bunch of small restaurants offering fresh seafood. We let Nestor navigate the onslaught of eager salespeople trying to get us to their restaurants and sat down at a large table. Our first non-airplane-food meal in Panama included ceviche, an entire fried fish, and some local bear, which was all great.
Following lunch we hopped back in the van and headed west out of the city to Valle de Anton for a quick hike. We arrived a bit later than anticipated and unfortunately missed sunset despite climbing up the mountain in record time. It was also pretty cloudy, which didn’t help. We turned around at the top as dark really settled in and made the entire return trip using head lamps and our phone lights. It was dark enough that all the nocturnal animals were out and about (bugs) but Nestor did spot a pretty cool looking river crab. We piled back into the van to continue driving towards our hostel for the night. A few hours later, including a stop for dinner along the Pan-American highway, we made it to our hostel. We settled into our rooms and crashed immediately after a long day.
On Sunday morning we got up early and continued west towards our next destination on our tour of Panama, Boquete, a small town up in the mountains about 6.5 hours from Panama City. As we made our way down the Pan-American highway we noticed that there were literally no other cars on the road, which was quite odd. A short while later we were stopped at a government checkpoint and it was clear why we were the only ones on the road: the entire province we had entered this morning was in a weekend-long lock down for Covid. The officer reviewed our information and thankfully let us go, telling us to go directly to the hotel that we would be staying in.
When we arrived at our hostel in Boquete and walked in through the open front door, no one seemed to be there. A few minutes later someone came out from a back room to help us, but it turns out she was a tenant and that the host actually wasn’t there, perhaps thinking we would not be arriving on a Sunday due to the lock down. Almost everything in the town was closed. We settled in and then luckily we were able to order some burgers via a local delivery service for lunch.
Once we were fed and settled we began to realize the true effects of the weekend lock down; no exploring, no restaurant hopping, and nowhere to grab a drink. Being the resourceful group that we are, though, we messaged as many local restaurants as possible to resolve our dilemma. A dozen or so text messages later and we had a few pizzas and cases of beer to enjoy on the back patio of our hostel. The beers were delivered in a blender box, presumably to hide the true contents of the container as, strictly speaking, alcohol sales were prohibited during lock down.
Fortunately on Monday everything opened up again and we were able to enjoy Boquete as originally planned. We started with some coffee and breakfast at a local shop before driving to a nearby hike. As we were walking from the car to the trailhead we saw an SUV get stuck in mud on the side of the road and helped them get back into the road, which was an exciting way to start our hike.
The hike we had picked out was a loop through the jungle that would take us past three waterfalls, which were all amazing. The best part of the hike (if you ask me) happened about midway through. As we approached the second waterfall we noticed a pair of hikers stopped in front of us, apparently looking at something across the river. We slowly continued and tried to see what they were focused on and that’s when we saw it, a Quetzal! A Quetzal is an exotic bird native to a Central America that has bright green feathers and a distinctive tail feather measuring up to 35 inches in length.
After making it back down from the waterfalls we had originally planned to head to another mountain, but we were pretty tired, so instead we stopped for lunch at a cafe and checked out a nearby chocolate shop. We tried a few different chocolates and spent some time on the upper balcony people watching and enjoying our drinks. From there we stopped at a local brewery with an awesome hanging picnic table and a solid selection of beers to try.
We enjoyed our final evening in Boquete by watching the sunset from the hammocks on our hostel balcony with yet another round of tasty delivery food for dinner. The next morning we were off to our next stop in our drive across Panama.
When we booked flights from Ecuador to Panama a few weeks in advance of our arrival we researched all of the Covid specific travel requirements. Besides presenting a negative Covid test to fly into Panama City, we were good to go. Even better, our good friends Clara and Nestor agreed to fly to Panama from DC to meet us and spend a long weekend there.
To our surprise (horror), just a few days before we were scheduled to fly, Panama issued some new restrictions; since we were flying there from South America we would be required to take a Covid test before we boarded our flight, take a second test at the Panama City airport, quarantine in a hotel for three full days, and then take a third and final Covid test before we would be free to leave the hotel…
For a seven day trip, spending three days locked in a hotel room didn’t seem like a great idea. Luckily we were able to extend our stay in Panama by pushing our departing flight out of the country by about a week, which gave us a total of two weeks in Panama. While a quarantine didn’t seem great, it seemed much more palatable for a two week trip rather than one, and plus, our friends were flying to meet us there so we couldn’t exactly cancel the trip. The other part that eased the pain is knowing we wouldn’t have to pay for the three days in quarantine (the Panama government would cover our hotel). Our friends arriving from the US also didn’t have to quarantine, and could fortunately shift their flights back a bit so they weren’t waiting around for us for three days. This line of thinking was correct, as we did end up surviving the quarantine, but man it really tested us.
We had a very early morning flight and arrived in the Panama City airport around 7 am. Upon receiving our second negative test in two days following a two hour wait in the airport terminal, we made our way through customs and were immediately escorted to a waiting area for our transportation to the government issued hotel. Adding insult to injury: I left my only sweatshirt (and only PSU hoodie) on the ground at baggage claim in my haste to keep things moving quickly on our way out of the airport. A short bus ride later and we arrived at our accommodations for the next three days, an older, probably-was-nice-10-years-ago hotel. We were put in a separate room down the hall from Chris and Elizabeth, and given our first of many airplane meals, the only food available during our stay.
To make a long, long story short, we spent the next three days in our hotel rooms (or on our balconies) eating airplane meals and sitting on the bed watching television. One of the few bright spots came when we successful ordered snacks (including a box of wine, which apparently was not actually allowed?) from a local delivery service. It took some finagling, including my risking everything by going down to the lobby in the elevator to meet our delivery man and waiting as the police officer literally looked in our bag to inspect what we were bringing into the hotel. He gave me a small, sympathetic head nod, and handed the bag over to me to return back to the room. This delivery of snacks and goodies may have single-handedly saved our time in quarantine.
Our biggest feat during our three day quarantine is without a doubt the shear quantity of movies we watched via the hotel cable. Without much to do, we sat on our bed and watched whatever movies we could find in English. The internet didn’t work great so we were at the mercy of what was playing on the cable movie channels. Fortunately we were able to text and alert each other to what was on at any given time. All totaled we enjoyed 22 movies and several episodes of Game of Thrones Season 2. See the gallery below for a list of said movies.
After three long days (72 hours almost exactly) we received our third Covid test in as many days. Once we got the call that our tests were negative we grabbed our (already packed) bags and made for the elevators as quickly as possible. We hustled out of the hotel lobby and within a minute of being in the fresh air saw a beautiful site: a huge white van piloted by our friend Nestor and co-piloted by his fiance Clara. We were free!
After our last breakfast in Latacunga we walked across town to the bus station and boarded a bus to Quito. The capital of Ecuador is a huge city so following the bus ride we took a 45 minute cab ride to our Airbnb. We booked an apartment in Quito for 5 days which was the longest time we’d spend in one location so far on our trip. This was partially because Quito was enforcing weekend shutdowns, so we had at least two days when we’d likely just be hanging out inside. Luckily we landed in a nice two bedroom, two and a half bathroom apartment within a high rise complete with a giant TV, gym, hot tub, and an accessible rooftop. Not to mention a pretty nice view.
Our first day in Quito was relatively uneventful. We went grocery shopping for the weekend, drank coffee, played cards, did laundry, and got takeout for dinner. We also chugged a lot of water in preparation for the next day when we’d be tackling one of the world’s highest active volcanoes: Cotopaxi.
On Friday morning we were picked up by our guide in a pickup truck for the day’s excursion, a hike up to base camp on Cotopaxi. The long journey took us through the national park, up some crazy dirt roads, and eventually to the base of the volcano where the truck started to really show its value. The road, or path more appropriately, was quite steep, windy, and full of massive potholes and ditches. We climbed for about an hour in the truck and as we approached the last bit of vehicular path we saw an incredible fox scavenging for food.
We parked at the base of the trail and started on our way up the slope. Our guide told us there were two options to get to our destination, and we chose the more direct (and difficult) option. The temperature had to have been close to freezing and snow covered the ground right from the start of the hike, and only got thicker as we gained elevation. After a slow and steady ascent we arrived at our final destination, Refuge José Rivas.
Refuge José Rivas is perched at 15,953 feet and is where people spend the night before summiting the volcano. It’s not quite the highest elevation we’ve reached this trip (Chimborazo was) but it’s up there. While we weren’t continuing on to the summit it offered us the chance to enjoy some hot chocolate and mate de coca and take a quick rest before heading back down. As we sat and enjoyed our drinks we also saw some other hikers with a more serious set of equipment who were heading back down after reaching the summit that morning.
The hike down went much more quickly as we hopped and slid down the gravely path back to the pickup truck. We took a few more minutes to snap some photos and then began the drive back down the steep, switchback path. At the park entrance we stopped for a typical Ecuadorian lunch at the park restaurant, including some tasty soup, fresh juice, and chicken with rice. Exhausted but with full bellies we napped in the truck on the ride back to Quito.
Back in Quito we decided to treat ourselves after another high altitude excursion and make the most of our last few hours before weekend lock down. We stopped for a drink at a German beer garden before sharing a whole chicken dinner, which was delicious.
The weekend was relatively uneventful seeing as we couldn’t leave the apartment for more than an hour (for exercise). We cooked a bunch, watched movies, and used some of the building’s amenities including the gym and hot tub. It was during this lock down period where we learned about an unfortunate change in travel restrictions regarding our next stop after Quito… but more on that in our next blog post.
On Monday morning, lock down over, we headed out to explore Quito. Our day started with some awesome donuts from a local shop before we made a quick stop at a local clinic for Covid tests, which we needed to fly to our next country. After our tests we walked to Parque Itchimbia, a really cool hilltop park which offered 360 degree views of the city. We grabbed drinks at a nearby spot with a great deck also overlooking the city, and walked to a small restaurant for a super cheap Ecuadorian lunch (that cost less than $10 total for the 4 of us). Next on the agenda was visiting Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, aka the “Middle of the World”, just north of the city. We researched which buses to take, walked to the nearest bus stop, and waited for a bus. Then a nice man told us that buses weren’t running for some reason. At this point we’ve gotten used to last minute unexplained travel snafus, so we flagged down the nearest cab and took that instead.
The “Middle of the World” is a place dedicated to where the Northern and Southern hemispheres meet at the equator (even if the monument is located a few hundred feet from the actual equator…). Despite being a bit tourist-trappy we enjoyed our time here, especially the girls who found countless ways to switch between hemispheres including literally hopping across the line as well as hand-stand walking, jumping, and zig-zag running back and forth. The main monument which included a small museum was in the middle of a mini town that had been built here including a few small parks, some museums, and plenty of little shops and restaurants.
The next morning we headed to the bus station for a day trip to a town a few hours north of Quito called Otavalo, which is known for it’s traditional market in the main city square. A few hours later we arrived in town and stopped for coffee and lunch at a cool little stop in town. It was here where we experienced what I would call our low of the entire trip. As Emily pulled out her wallet to pay for our meal she realized she did not have cash, which did not jive with the amount of cash we should have had. She asked if I switched the cash from her wallet to mine, which I had not, which is when I pulled out my wallet to see again no cash. It turns out, after recounting the morning’s event, that we were robbed on that morning’s bus.
A bus worker (or so we thought) sitting behind us at the back of our bus had evidently gone under our seats and reached forward to our bags that were sitting at our feet, cut Emily’s pack and unzipped mine, and took all of our cash. All without us noticing. Talk about deflating. Fortunately nothing else (bank cards, ID, etc.) were missing, so we took our lumps and took exceptional care of our bags for the rest of the trip. With our morale pretty low we ended up taking a walk through the market and then heading back to Quito. To add to a stressful day, after arriving at the main bus station back in Quito in hopes of transferring to a city bus to get to our apartment, we learned that some city buses still weren’t running. We asked someone for directions who told us to take the next bus to another station, and transfer there. We followed their recommendation and arrived at the next station to a huge mass of people all waiting for essentially one bus. There was maybe one security guy compared to hundreds and hundreds of people, and some tense moments on the platform, but we eventually made it onto a packed bus and back to our Airbnb. Overall not a particularly enjoyable day, but we figured we should share the not-so-fun parts of travel along with all the good stuff. It’s still by far mostly good stuff. We spent that night, our last night in Ecuador, packing up for an early flight the next morning.
Next stop… Panama! A new country for all four of us and where our friends Clara and Nestor were flying to meet us for a week of vacation. Little did we know we’d have quite the experience before actually getting to meet up with Clara and Nestor, but more on that in our next post.
We left the jungle early Monday morning to take a van back to Baños so we could then get on another bus to Latacunga, our next stop. After a few hours of travel we arrived in a medium sized town and navigated our way to our AirBnB. Our hosts were an older couple who had converted their longtime (100+ years) family home into a bed and breakfast and they could not have been nicer people. Clearly thrilled to finally host guests during the pandemic, they were perhaps the nicest hosts on our trip (despite some miscommunication about how much it cost to use their washer and dryer).
Our first and only excursion in Latacunga, and the main reason we stopped in this town, was a trip to to an incredible crater lake, Laguna Quilotoa (aka Quilotoa Lake). The two mile wide lake was formed when the top of a volcano collapsed following an eruption hundreds of years ago. Our bus, which took about two hours, drove us along a windy road through the Andes mountains and dropped us off at the edge of town. I suppose “town” is a relative term here, as the area surrounding the lake was clearly built up as a result of tourism and quite small in the grand scheme of things. It was also pretty quiet and there weren’t many tourists around.
It took us about 10 minutes to reach the edge of the crater at which point we were greeted with an absolutely breathtaking view of the volcanic crater lake a few hundred meters below us. We stopped for a quick lunch at one of the small restaurants in town before beginning the day’s hike down to the lake’s edge. There’s a multi-day loop you can walk around the entire lake, but we opted for the shorter version down and back.
The next hour or so was spent heading down to the lake via some of the steepest switchback paths we’ve been on. We took a few minutes at the bottom for a photo and a short rest and then started the return trip back up the same path. On our way down we passed plenty of mules you could pay for to carry you back up to the top, but we were determined to make it on our own. It’s no surprise the climb back up was rough, and even though we’d spent some time at high altitudes by this point, being at over 12,000 ft still makes everything more difficult.
Our return bus back to Latacunga departed at 4 pm so we pushed ourselves up the hill to make sure we didn’t miss it. We made the bus and, interestingly enough, while driving back through the mountains we passed snow on the ground which was a stark contrast to the day’s weather.
The next day happened to be May 5th so we decided to take a rest day and celebrate Cinco de Mayo. After some quick research we ended up at a local Mexican restaurant and enjoyed some nachos while, unfortunately, struggling through some pretty bad margaritas. After a second stop at another Mexican restaurant that didn’t serve alcohol, we stumbled upon a great spot on a side street with a hidden courtyard out back that served great mojitos. No luck with margaritas but fresh and delicious mojitos would do.
On the way back to our Airbnb that evening we stopped at a small bodega around the corner to grab a six pack. There wasn’t anyone there initially, so we rang the bell. Funny enough, out came the sweet older man who was hosting us at his AirBnB. Turns out they also owned the shops downstairs. We then enjoyed our beers over our usual nighttime routine: watching a movie until one or all of us eventually falls asleep.