Poor old Ecuador. Apart from the Galapagos Islands, few people know anything about the place; and the country’s one world-famous export that everyone has heard of is forever associated with an entirely different country – the Panama Hat. To any Ecuadorian worth his or her salt, it’s a sombrero de paja toquilla (toquilla-straw hat); and to the connoisseur, it’s a Montecristi (named after Ecuador’s most famous hat-making town, a place that’s like Havana to cigar aficionados).
The Andes mountains run the length of Ecuador, from the northern border with Colombia to the south and Peru, in a continuous chain that the 19th-century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt dramatically-christened “The Avenue of the Volcanoes”. Around the capital Quito, they reach their highest (and most photogenic) peaks, including Cayambe (a volcano that’s right on the equator, the only place on the equator where there’s permanent snow, and the only place on earth where both latitude and average temperature are 0°), Cotopaxi (a symmetrical mountain that’s one of the planet’s highest active volcanoes), and Chimborazo (whose summit is the furthest point from the centre of the earth, despite being 2500m lower than Everest, due to the equatorial bulge). Continue reading
One of the most popular day-trips from the Colombian capital Bogotá is a visit to the town of Zipaquirá, about 50km north of the city. Zipaquirá itself is nothing special, but just outside town, at the edge of the suburbs, is one of the world’s few salt cathedrals. There are actually two salt mines here, both near each other, and each one contained a cathedral; but for safety reasons, one mine (and its cathedral) closed, in 1992. Its replacement opened to the public in 1995, and is one of the more surreal tourist sites in the country – which is saying something, considering Colombia also has a safari park started by a drug king. Continue reading
If there’s one famous Colombian that everyone can name (aside from perhaps Shakira), it’s Pablo Escobar. He started his criminal career as a teenager on the streets of Medellín, stealing gravestones (which he would later sand down and re-sell). And after doing everything from stealing cars to selling fake lottery tickets and contraband cigarettes, he got into the cocaine business in the 1970s. And by the 1980s and early 90s, at the height of his career, his Medellín Cartel was apparently responsible for over 80% of the coke in the world, making US$60 million a day. Continue reading
Unlike every other international border in the American mainland, it’s not possible to cross overland between Panama and Colombia (except illegally, and even then I’m not sure if it’s doable). There’s a land border, of course (it’s the skinny bit where Central America joins South America); but it’s located right in the middle of a complete wilderness, with no roads and hardly any people – the Darién Gap. Continue reading
The Nicaraguans may be itching to build a trans-isthmus waterway (and Nicaragua may have been the site of the very first plans for an inter-oceanic canal); but it was Panama who got there first. And a trip along the Panama Canal gives me a good look at the world’s most famous shortcut, plus a glimpse of the extremes of Panamanian urban life. Continue reading
At 16 square kilometres, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s smallest national park. And as it’s also one of the country’s popular tourist destinations, one of the busiest, too. But considering that Costa Rica is famous for its protected areas (25% of the country is protected, the largest amount in the world as a percentage of territory), and its biodiversity (5% of the world’s biodiversity in 0.05% of the world’s landmass), the country’s parks’ popularity is understandable. And wandering along the trails, through the jungle and down to the park’s picture-postcard beaches, I can understand why – the forested hills full of animals, the white-sand beaches, and the regular ocean views, all make for a lovely setting. Continue reading