South America’s Strangest City

Few cities in the world have as spectacular a setting as La Paz, which, like its fellow Andean capitals Bogotá and Quito, is high up in the mountains, at a lung-challenging 3600m above sea level (making it the highest capital on earth).  The city sits in a valley surrounded by the Andes on all sides, including the permanently-snowcapped Huayna Potosí and Illimani mountains, with the colonial buildings, church spires, and office blocks of the flat centre slowly morphing into the gravity-defying houses of the ramshackle poorer suburbs, stuck precariously to the steep sides of the valley.  And down at street level, there’s the usual assortment of squatting beggars, wandering salesmen, street markets, traffic jams, smoke-belching buses, and honking horns.  So, not very different from many big cities in this part of the world, then. Continue reading

Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu

After spending time among the mountains of central Peru, it’s time to rub shoulders with what looks like the entire continents of Europe and North America on their summer hols, as I head to the country’s most popular city, Cusco.  Home to the most famous pre-Colombian civilisation in South America, it’s the eastern end of the Sacred Valley, a series of mountainous villages that run along the Andes, all the way to the most famous ruin on the continent. Continue reading

Peru’s Mountainous Middle

Following on from my tour of Peru’s historically-fascinating and architecturally-interesting (but not-very-tropical) coast, it’s back into the mountains.  And not just any old mountains either, but the highest peaks in the country, the highest mountain range in the tropics, and some of the highest in the entire Andes. Continue reading

Peru’s Historical-but-not-tropical Coast

One of the things I love unequivocally about Central America is the beach.  The coastline of this part of the continent, from Mexico to Panama, is simply stunning.  On the Caribbean side are the reefs, islands, and cayes of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras (plus more idyllic scraps of land in Nicaragua’s Corn Islands and Panama’s Kuna Yala).  And on the Pacific side are the less-relaxing (but no less-appealing) volcanic grey-black beaches and powerful breaking surf.  Plus, being both in the tropics and at sea level, the climate’s hot and the water’s warm. Continue reading

The Famous-but-not-famous Ecuador Hat

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).

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Walking the Quilotoa Loop

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

Colombia’s Salty Underground Church

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