Huacachina. A tranquil little tropical oasis in the middle of the sourthern Peruvian desert, it is not.
No, this place is clubland Peru complete with cheap BBQs, cheap(ish) drinks and loud all-night-long music. It is indeed a desert oasis and for the briefest of moments in its history there may have been an urge to take Huachachina down the classy path of desert hideaway for the wealthy.
Thankfully though, this didn’t happen. Instead, the people of nearby Ica saw the giant sand dunes surrounding Huachachina and put their car mechanic skills and imaginations to the test. They’ve built the craziest and loudest machines you could conjure up. And then made them go fast.
And then put them on the sand dunes. And then scared the bejesus out of every tourist that came through.
San Agustín is a pretty small town in southern Colombia. We made the 4 hour dirt road journey from Popayán so that we could see these super old and mysterous things.
Aside from the Anthropological Park, one if the best ways to see these mysteries is on horse back.
So we set about trying to figure out how to rent a horse. In these parts, it’s not as simple as following a sign that says “horseback riding this way”. We wandered around the little town, trying to find a tour agency or anything that looked remotely like it might offer horseback riding tours.
We couldn’t find anything.
So, back up the hill to our hostel. A little defeated, but vowing to figure this out – somehow.
When we were walking back up the big hill to Casa de Nelly’s, a man appeared out of nowhere.
He introduced himself, said he worked with/for/at Casa de Nelly and was talking to us (in Spanish) about horseback riding and renting his horses.
It’s like that saying, it’s always in the last place you look! Or in our case, it appeared out of thin air as soon as we stopped trying.
Things were progressing nicely in the horse rental area. Or so we thought.
All of the sudden the guy whips out a little black book.
He opens his little black book to a random page and holds it out for us to read. So I start reading and see that it’s full of testimonials from travellers. They said things like:
“Thanks so much for taking care of us. We had a great time!” — Lucy and Steph, from Canada.
I was lost for context. I thought this man told us he was the chef at Casa de Nelly. How good was his food? I mean, I’d heard the dinners were good…but the food must be freaking unbelievable if this is what people were saying.
I didn’t get it but whatever. I just wanted to rent 2 of his horses.
And try his food now.
So I said that’s great, very cool.
We were all back to talking about horses when all of the sudden the guy says (in English) in a near whisper, “I used to work with Pablo Escobar.”
As a refresher, Pablo Escobar was a notorious Colombian drug lord, affectionately known as The King of Cocaine. He’s basically the reason why older generations might think we’re mental for going to Colombia in the first place.
Really, we said to him, neither of us having any clue what that had to do with renting his horses. Unless…in Colombia they call drug mules something different…something like horses?
Jokes, that never crossed my mind. But it wasn’t the greatest character reference, was it!?
Oh jeeze. What were we getting into.
Then he clarified (not that we asked – the conversation was over as far was we were concerned).
Did we want to do a special tour with him? He could take us somewhere secret where we could make cocaine.
OOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHH it’s all coming together now. When I thought he said “cocina” (kitchen) he actually said “cocaina” (cocaine). And those testimonials in his little black book weren’t talking about his cooking…nope, not at all.
No thanks, man, we’re good. And we definitely don’t want to rent your horses either. You know, just in case they’re stuffed full of drugs.
As an aside or an afterward or just cause we’re not the type of people to do stupid stuff like make or do drugs anywhere on planet earth…here’s what we think about it:
The special tour is really stupid to do!
First of all, you don’t make cocaine. It takes at least a week to make it – not 4 hours like the tour leads you to believe.
Secondly, you look like a fool for paying so much money for a phony experience and few pinches of cement-laced chacha.
Thirdly, by taking part in the tour you’re exacerbating corruption (the police know about this tour and are bribed to keep it going). Why would you want to consciously do something that makes every day life for every day Colombians really freaking hard?
Fourthly, it’s illegal! So if those bribes don’t get paid, guess who goes to jail? You do!
Fifthly, the guy taking you on the tour didn’t work with Pablo Escobar. It’s a lie to help make the sale to you. You look like a fool if you do it to everyone but your drug riddled self.
In the end, Harry (the awesome guy who works at Casa de Nelly) found us different horses to rent.
The next day, we went horseback riding through the countryside, visiting different archaeological sites. I had an amazing time. Matt had a good time too, though it was a little painful for him.
You see, when we were getting assigned our horses, Matt was told to “no touch the side of the horse because he no like.” This brief but perfectly clear explanation was accompanied by a disctinct bucking motion.
So, Matt spent about 4 hours riding his horse like he was riding a Harley Davidson: legs straight out in front of him. No matter the speed of the horse trotting, Matt never moved his legs for fear of pissing off his horse. So he ended up just helplessly bouncing around in the saddle. I almost died laughing! Actually, I’m laughing again as I write this a month or so later. Why he got that horse is beyond me.
I was squeezing the breaks on my bike as hard as I possibly could without actually stopping the bike. My legs were shaking, my heart was pounding. I’d never mountain biked before.
And I was afraid I was going to rip down the mountain, slide on gravel or loose dirt, and go straight over the side.
Sure, it’d be the most direct way down, but that’s not exactly what I was going for.
For the first 5 minutes, I desperately wanted flat pavement. Then I kind of got into a groove.
It was a blast! My favourite part was going through the rural villages but I enjoyed all of it. On the mountain, I felt so connected to the earth.
At one point, I was going along a dirt track, doing a great job of dodging giant tuffs of mountain grass that I thought might throw me off the bike. It was so peaceful – not a sound except the crunching of the earth beneath my tires.
I let my mind drift away from the ground in front of me for a second. I wanted to fully enjoy the peace that I was experiencing.
I felt so free.
And then my front tire hit a huge tuff and the brakes escaped my hands and I lost my footing and came crashing down on the seat.
Inner peace time was over. Back to concentrating.
That was the last time I let my mind drift from the ground immediately I front of me.
Truthfully, neither Riobamba or this mountain were on our radar. I really had my heart set on hiking up to the glacier on Cotopaxi but I was really sick in Quito so we had to cancel our Cotopaxi trip.
Matt knew how bummed out I was about Cotopaxi, and he discovered that we could mountain bike down Ecuador’s biggest mountain. I was sold!
Chimborazo isn’t just a massive mountain to be climbed up or biked down. It’s also home to adorable vicuñas!
They used to be extinct in Ecuador. But in an effort to bring the vicuñas back, Peru and Chile gave Ecuador around 150 of the animals in the 1980s. Today, their population has increased and Ecuador is home to about 6,000 of those cute little guys.
But First, Let Me Hike To 5,100 Meters
Neither Matt nor I had ever mountain biked before Chimborazo. And with zero seconds of experience between us, we naturally chose the biggest mountain in Ecuador (and the highest mountain in the world if you count from the centre of the earth’s core) to give it a go.
We kicked off at 4,800 metres and hiked to 5,100 metres. Despite not summiting, this is waaaay higher than the highest mountain in Canada…and higher the tallest Rocky Mountain.
I struggled with the altitude like crazy, having to stop ever 10 or so feet (probably didn’t help that 2 days earlier I’d been tossing the old cookies every 10 mins). It took us about an hour to reach 5,100 metres. Maybe even longer but whose counting at that altitude?
We spent a few seconds recovering and headed back down to 4,800 metres where we suited up and got on our bikes.
Biking Spirit Review
The company we chose to tackle Chimborazo with was Biking Spirit. We did Route 2. This route is apparently a Biking Spirit exclusive:
We will ride primarily on dirt roads and single tracks through archaeological inka ruins, mineral springs and Indian communities; you will observe magnificent views of Chimborazo’s south face.
Distance: 37 km, 26 km on dirt route and 11 km on pavement
Uphill distance: 2 km approximated
Downhill distance: 32 km approximated
Highest altitude: Whymper shelter 5000 masl (16.405 feet)
Lowest altitude: San Juan 3200 masl (10.500 feet)
Total time: 6 to 8 hours
Edison was our guide for the day, and we couldn’t have asked for anyone better. He’s a great guide, super professional and experienced, and packs a mean picnic.
Before each leg, he would prepare us for what was coming. Since this was our first time mountain biking, he prepared us for the first leg of the day by letting us know that it’s best not to fly down the mountain when you’ve never done this before because that’s how people get hurt.
We never flew. And I never even had the urge to. Dodging rocks and trying to stay up right was exciting enough!
Volcan Chimborazo is Ecuador’s highest mountain, reaching a sky-touching 6,310 meters. It’s technically the highest mountain in the world when you count from the earth’s core. You know, because of the equatorial bulge.
When sickness kept us from popular Cotopaxi, we decided that we’d take on Chimborazo instead. And man oh man, was it beautiful and fun!
Press play on the video below and watch our ride through Matt’s handlebars.
The Galápagos is one of those places that we all grow up hearing about. It seems like some far flung place on the outer edges of earth that only a few fortunate people get to go to – namely, the lucky people who get to make documentaries and TV programs on these magical islands. It’s a place that seems so out of reach for regular people that we barely dare dream about setting foot there.
But we’ve got wanderlust souls so we did dare dream about going to the Galápagos. And we did dare go – with our moms!
Honestly, the islands are every bit as magical in person. You feel like you’re living in a nature documentary. You pinch yourself constantly to see if this is real!
Are you really snorkelling with sea lions…and sea turtles?
How’s it possible that the blue-footed boobies aren’t flying away from you?
Land iguanas…lava lizards…marine iguanas, they’re everywhere!
Do you see? Those albatross just set foot on land for the first time in years and they’re doing their reunion dance!
Giant tortoises of every age are just a few steps away!