Popayán and Salento

After a rather long-winded journey and border crossing from Ecuador, we had finally made it to Colombia! We were planning on reaching a pretty colonial city called Popayán by the following morning, but before that we wanted to visit 'Las Lajas Sanctuary', a basilica church just outside the border town of Ipilaes. We caught a cab to the bus station and bought tickets for the night bus that would leave around 9pm. After a twenty minute taxi ride we were dropped at the top of a hill (unfortunately with all of our bags) and made our way down the steps to the canyon of the Guáitara River where we were met by this spectacular church.

Bridging across a river gorge with it's intricate grey and white Neo-gothic decoration, it was an impressive and somewhat unusual sight for a small South American border town. We spent an hour or so taking it in from the various view points before grabbing a quick beer and watching the sun go down. Once it got dark the church was lit up in various different colours that faded from one to the other, showcasing the churches impressive form in fairytale style.

We then slowly made our way back up the hill with all our bags and eventually managed to share a cab with two Colombian ladies and headed to the bus station. After a hilarious 'lost in translation' moment which left them thinking Stef was the daughter of tennis player Steffi Graf, we said goodbye, boarded the night bus and vowed to try harder at learning Spanish! The bus was not as comfortable as previous ones, so without much sleep we pulled into Popayán at 4.30am and wearily headed to the station cafe to kill some time before the hostels opened.


We took a cab to Hostel Caracol, which had good reviews and luckily for us 2 beds that were available at a good price. We only had a day to explore Popayán so once rested we set off, excited to experience our first full day in Colombia. Popayán, also known as 'The White City', is known for being one of the prettiest cities in the country. We wandered around the quiet colonial streets, taking in the many white stone buildings and churches. It was easy to see how the city got it's nickname.

After a while it began to rain pretty heavily, so we headed into La Cosecha Parillada Centro keen to try some traditional Colombian food. We had noticed by now that no one spoke English so we welcomed the chance to test out our (not so great) Spanish skills. We ordered the Bandeja Paisa, a national dish containing eggs, beans, avocado, pork crackling, pulled pork, steak and roast potatoes. It was like a combination between a full english breakfast and a burrito and was very tasty, not to mention incredibly filling!

Once the rain has passed we decided to work off our enormous lunch and see a bit more of the city. We walked through the square past some craft stalls and headed up the hill towards the Iglesia de Belen Santuario de Belen. After taking in the view from the top we headed back to the square and explored more of the old cobbled streets and buildings. We opted for a light dinner near our hostel and settled in for a decent nights sleep ready for another full day of travel ahead. 

The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast from a small cafe opposite our hostel and made our way back to the station by cab to get a bus to our next destination: Salento, a small colonial town located just north of Armenia in the heart of the Colombian Coffee region. There was no direct bus route from Popayán, so after 5 hours of bus travel we caught a 2 hour minibus from Armenia to reach Salento itself.


Salento is a bustling colonial town with brightly painted houses, great craft markets and restaurants and a great launchpad to explore the surrounding national parks. After getting dropped off by the minibus it was a short walk to Hostel El Zorzal, a peaceful hostel on the outskirts of town with lovely little bungalow rooms and friendly staff. After checking in we grabbed a beer in the pretty surrounding garden, teaming with colourful birds.

We set out to explore the small town and spent a wonderful hour or so taking photos of the colourful and picturesque buildings and walking amongst the gift shops selling beautiful gifts, jewellery, bags and clothing. We then made our way up the steps at the end of the main street and ascended to the look out point, with one side giving a view of the town, and the other side a fantastic view of the lush mountains of the surrounding coffee region. 

By chance our lovely friends Amanda and Daniel (follow their amazing journey on Vivalavida) who we had travelled with in Peru had also arrived in Salento that day. After meeting them and catching up with their news we decided to try our hand at the traditional Colombian game of Tejo. Known as the national sport of Colombia, Tejo is a similar game to boules where the aim is to throw iron weights into a central iron ring set into a small clay pit. Small packets of gunpowder are positioned on the ring and explode on impact, gaining the player extra points. Intrigued and excited by this we couldn't turn down the chance to play!

Amanda (with her now perfect Spanish) had asked around and heard that the best place to play was at Los Amigos, a ranch style bar in the centre of town. For 10,000 pesos (£3) you got a beer and unlimited time to play, which was a fantastic deal! We were led into a barn type space where locals where hurling weighted balls across the length of the room and with sounds of splatting clay, exploding gunpowder and cheers. It was definitely one of the strangest games we'd played but we embraced the tradition and got fully stuck in. We played for about an hour (to varying degrees of success!) and then headed to the very pretty main square, soaked up the busy Friday atmosphere and sampled the local food trucks.

Trekking the Cocora Valley

One of the highlights of visiting Salento is a trip to the Cocora Valley, famous for the worlds tallest wax palms set amongst stunning green hills. After a great breakfast at our hostel we met with Amanda and Daniel in the main square and found a spot on one of the many colourful jeeps that shuttled visitors to the valley. After a fun (but cramped!) 30 minute jeep ride we were dropped at the entrance to the national park and set off along the trail in our wellies, waded across streams and headed into more dense forest with rickety wooden bridges and rushing water beneath us.

After crossing many bridges and walking up lots of slippery stone steps we ended up at our first stop, the Acaime Humming Bird sanctuary. We each gave a small contribution to the owners, and in return were given a hot drink and a snack. We stayed for an hour or so to marvel at the lush garden around us and tried to capture shots of the hundreds of colourful hummingbirds birds that had made this place their home.  

We set off back down the hill and found the path that led us to a look out point. We stopped for a while to catch our breath and watched the clouds rolling past us through the valley below. We then continued through a forest of huge pine trees, yet another type of terrain, until we made it to a clearing where we got our first glimpse of a some of the impressive Quindío wax palms, the national tree of Colombia.

As walked a little further we spotted a huge, bright blue wasp dragging a tarantula through the grass. We all got pretty close to get a good look and take pictures, but it wasn't until later when we looked it up that we realised it was a tarantula hawk wasp, an insect that gives the second most painful sting in the world. It paralyses a tarantula, drags it back to its nest and lays an egg on its back. The wasp lava then eats the tarantula from the inside out - it was like something from a horror film! We might not have got so close if we had known but we're excited to have witnessed it. 

It was pretty cloudy at this point, and so we couldn't see into the valley but were able to marvel at the height of the palms above us, some standing over 45 meters tall. The clouds continued to roll passed and suddenly the valley became visible, and we got a full glimpse of the wax palms dotted around the stunning green landscape. We wound our way through the impressive, prehistoric scenery and back to the starting point where we had to wait a while to get one of the jeeps back to Salento. The trek had definitely stood out as one of the most memorable of our trip.

Horse Riding & Waterfalls

The following morning Amanda had arranged for us to go horse riding to one of the nearby waterfalls through their hostel La Eliana (which also has a great restaurant). Following another tranquil garden breakfast at our hostel we met in the town and headed to some stables where the locals set us up with our horses. After some brief instructions we were on our way and rode out of the town and into the lush landscapes that surrounded Salento. 

The weather that day was perfect for riding, and being just the four of us and our local guide made for a really memorable experience. We trotted and cantered whenever we got the chance, and after an hour or so we reached a spot to tie up the horses and made the short walk to a waterfall.

We changed into our swimwear and even though the water was pretty chilly it was very refreshing after our ride, and set in an idillic spot. After swimming as long as we could we got out and noticed hundreds of butterflies basking in the sun all around us. We managed to get some quick shots of them before mounting back on our horses and continuing on our rather steep and muddy ride back up to Salento.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the picturesque town, soaking up the atmosphere and milling amongst the craft shops and cafes. As it was Stef's Birthday the following day we all decided that it would be nice to ditch the backpacker budget for a change and get dinner from a highly recommended restaurant called Cafe Bernabe. We went for a very tasty steak with a blackberry sauce followed by birthday cake, and had a lovely evening enjoying the great food and company. Amanda and Daniel even offered to pick up the bill as a birthday treat!

Stef's Birthday 

We woke the next morning to a spectacular sunrise from our hostel terrace, and Stef caught up with friends and family sending her Birthday wishes before checking out of our Hostel. Life on the road could be pretty fast at times so it was great to dedicate some time to catch up with loved ones properly. We then headed to Brunch de Salento to try the legendary peanut butter brownie. We both agreed it's only OK to have brownie for breakfast on your birthday! We then wandered over to Cafe Jesus Martin for an ice coffee and juice.

It was then time for the birthday surprise, and we headed up the hill and stopped outside the gates of the boutique hotel El Mirador del Cocora! We had the most beautiful double room with a balcony and our own jacuzzi overlooking the amazing Cocora valley. After opening a surprise pile of gifts (treats from Otavalo market and Salento) we spent the afternoon relaxing in the hot tub, listening to music and drinking wine. Birthdays don't get much better than that! We then headed out for dinner and cocktails in the town to to top off the day.

Our time spent in Salento was magic, and became one of our favourite destinations of the trip. From colourful buildings and bustling atmosphere of the town, to the incredible treks and horse rides through the stunning Cocora Valley, it had been an amazing mix of experiences. We had heard so many great things about Colombia from fellow travellers, and even after 5 days we were completely blown away. It was a perfect introduction to an amazing country, and we couldn't wait to explore more.

San Pedro de Atacama

After a week of exploring Salta and the Jujuy region it was time for us to move on to the desert. We took an early day bus from Purmamarca as we’d heard the scenery was particularly beautiful along the road to the Atacama. By chance we had front window seats giving us amazing cinemaesque view of the Andes as we cut through the towering mountains toward Chile, passing through salt flats, volcanoes and deserts. The boarder crossing was quick and painless, and after a basic lunch provided by the bus company we arrived in San Pedro, the gateway to the Atacama desert and the salt flats of Uyuni.

San Pedro is a small but touristy town due to it’s proximity to the Uyuni Salt Flats, making it a popular stop off for backpackers working their way up to Bolivia. There are also some highly recommended things to do around the town including star and planet gazing, the Luna Valley and trips to Volcanos and Geysers. Positioned in the heart of the Atacama desert, and surrounded by volcanoes and canyons, the town is comprised of single-level huts made from mud bricks, with a few bars, restaurants and numerous tour operators all selling pretty much the same tours.

We decided to stay in Hostel Rural, a hippy hostel that looked like something out of Burning Man festival. With hammocks, a bar and helpful staff giving advice on tours, it was a great place to stay while we prepared for our Salt flats trip. San Pedro is one of the best places in the world to see planets due to its high altitude and lack of ozone. Unfortunately, the day we arrived the moon was too bright, meaning the conditions weren’t suitable for star gazing that evening (which we were a bit gutted about). Instead, we booked the Luna Valley tour the following day, one of the main attractions in San Pedro. That evening we had a few beers with fellow travellers, and found a great sandwich shop offering lentil burgers and shredded beef sandwiches (we made more than one visit!).

The Luna Valley

Our tour to the Luna Valley started at 4pm in the afternoon, so we had time for a lazy lunch before setting off. We were picked up in a minivan with several others and driven about 30 minutes out of the town to the first stop on the tour. On arrival we had to pay a park entrance fee before were taken to Pedra do Coyote, an amazing mirador overlooking the Luna Valley. Our guide explained the geological history of the area, and how the valley had been created by rising tectonic plates and evaporating salt lakes.

We then jumped back on the minivan and were driven down into the huge expanse of orange and white mountains made out of rock salt. We could understand why the area had been named Luna Valley, as it definitely felt like another planet! We trekked along a steep, narrow path through the rock salt formations and into the Salt Cavern, where we needed torches to navigate the tight passageways and tunnels to get to the other side.

After the cave we got back in the minivan for a short drive to an interesting rock formation called The Three Marys, a group of rocks that looked like three women praying. One of the Marys had been knocked down by tourists over a decade ago, but the other remaining two still bared a resemblance at the right angle.

We then were taken to our final stop, the Great Dune, to watch the sun set over the central crater. We climbed our way up to a narrow ridge on top of the huge sand dune in order to get the best spot. There were already a number of people waiting at the top, but it didn’t detract from the incredible 360 view.

It was a fantastic sunset, with vibrant reds and oranges beaming through the clouds and turning the Andes behind us vivid pinks and purples. The panoramic views were spectacular and we spent half an hour watching the light fade away before we made our way back down the ridge to the minivan.

The Salt Lagoons

Much to our luck, the day we decided to go on the lagoons tour was overcast, and the temperature had dropped a lot. This meant that the pools were a bit on the chilly side, but that didn’t stop us from going along to experience swimming in the floating salt pools. We were picked up at 4pm, and with spirits still high made our way to the first lagoon.

On arrival we had to pay another park fee (which was pretty expensive!) before heading to the changing rooms not far from the lakes. The water was very cold - It reminded us of swimming on a ’summers day’ in England! It was, however, a lot of fun floating in the salt water, and was near impossible to swim due to our buoyancy! We stayed in until we started getting really cold, clambered out and made our way back to the bus feeling very salty!

After a 20 minute drive we reached the second pool, and by now most people were not feeling keen to jump in: the dramatic drop in temperature was not what they’d signed up for! Us being Brits, and having experienced colder water, couldn’t turn down the chance, so we led the way with big dives, much to public applause! It was pretty cold but as this pool was fresh water it got a lot of the salt of us.

We then made our way to the Salar de Atacama to watch the sun set. By now the weather had really started to kick off and a storm was taking place over the mountains with dramatic bolts of lighting every minute or so! We were given Pisco Sours and some snacks, and chatted with the other tour members whilst trying to get a photo of the lightening. 

Despite unusually cold weather during our stay (We’ll blame it on El Niño!), we found San Pedro to be a great place to relax, meet lots of new people and gather research and recommendations for our trip ahead. The Luna Valley tour was excellent, with stunning scenery and wild weather revealing the desert landscapes at their most colourful. San Pedro was, for us, a stop gap between the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, but we were really glad we stayed for an extra few nights to experience some of what the Atacama desert had to offer.

Patagonia — The W Trek

The W Trek is one of the most famous treks in Patagonia, and also one of the best ways to experience Torres del Paine National Park. With world-class landscapes, wild weather and breathtaking views, for many it's the experience of a lifetime. Having not had much trekking practice we were a little apprehensive about the 5-day 70km trek in the wilderness, but having spoken to other travellers about just how amazing it is we had to throw ourselves in headfirst and accept the challenge. After a 6 hour bus ride from El Calafate we arrived at Puerto Natales, Chile, the gateway to Torres del Paine.

We'd heard there was an informative talk at the hostel and hire shop Erratic Rock at 3pm every day. We decided to stay a couple of nights so we could hear the talk, hire the relevant equipment and prepare our food for the next 5 days. They offered detailed information on the route (west to east was recommended) as well as transportation to and from the park. The staff couldn’t have been more helpful, and we were grateful for the extra tips and expertise passed on by these passionate hikers. After the talk we hired our camping gear before visiting local stores to pick up food supplies, ensuring that the quantity and weight was suitable for our 5 days ahead. The following day we got up at 6am, had a final hot shower and set off for the bus to Torres del Paine National Park.

Day 1

Trail section: Paine Grande Campsite to Refugio Grey
Distance: 11 km
Duration: 3.5 hours

After a 7am bus to the national park, paying our entrance fees and listening to fire safety talks, we were dropped off by the ferry port and waited an hour or so for our catamaran. We were advised by Erratic rock to walk to a small but pretty waterfall not far from the docks. The wind was incredibly strong and at first we found it difficult to walk, even without our heavy packs! On return, we realised there was a big queue for the boat, and didn't end up getting the first one, so annoyingly had to wait for the second boat.

Once we landed, we set off to Refugio Grey, an 11km (mainly uphill) hike against the strongest winds we'd ever been in. It was quite a shock to the system, so were relieved when the winds finally died down halfway through and we were able to take in the views of Glacier Grey and Lago Grey. At 6pm we finally arrived and set up in the shelter of the campsite. We then walked to the lookout point of Glacier Grey, about 10 minutes from the camp, which was impressive even from a distance. We then walked back and prepared our first of many pasta meals in the communal kitchen in the company of fellow trekkers.

Day 2

Trail section: Refugio Grey to Campsite Italiano
Distance: 18.6 km
Duration: 6 hours

The following morning we made porridge and tea before packing up our tent and setting off on our next stint to Campsite Italiano. As we were walking back on ourselves the scenery was fairly uninteresting until we passed our starting point where the Catamaran dropped us. We wandered through scorched black and white trees where a fire had torn through the park a few years before (you can read up on it here). After a quick lunch of our own chorizo quesadillas (highly recommended) the clouds cleared in front of us to reveal Los Cuernos del Paine, an epic group of jagged pewter-coloured mountains.

The good weather held up all afternoon and we had fantastic views of the mountains ahead of us until we reached our second stop, Campsite Italiano, where we set up our tent in a small sheltered forest. The campsite had no running water so we had to climb down a river bank to a raging river to collect the ice cold fresh-off-the-glacier water! After cooking another much needed carb-heavy pasta dish and eating Nutella by the spoon-full (acceptable when trekking!) we got chatting to others we’d met along the way about their trips and experiences until it got dark and we headed back for an early nights sleep.

Day 3

Trail section: Campsite Italiano to Los Cuernos Campsite
Distance: 16.5 km
Duration: 7.5 hours

After a very wet and windy night we woke up to clear blue skies, much to our relief! We hung our wet tent up to dry during breakfast, left our packed bags at the campsite and ventured out with light daypacks to the Valle del Francés (or French Valley). Not having to carry such weight made a massive difference, and we felt a new wave of energy with our lighter packs and trekked through the stunning valleys in the beaming sunshine. Surrounded by towering snow-covered mountains, sprawling glaciers, waterfalls, raging rivers and turquoise lakes, for us it was the most amazing panoramic view we’d ever seen. After following the river through thick forest, the footpath ended at Mirador Britanico where we stopped for lunch completely surrounded by the breathtaking landscape.

Once we’d fuelled up on more quesadillas, snickers and trail mix we headed back down to Campsite Italiano to (begrudgingly) pick up our heavy packs again to head onwards to our next stop. The 3 hour hike was broken up nicely by Mirador Nordenskjöld, a beautiful panoramic lookout of Lake Nordenskjöld, before descending to a small pebbled beach. We took a short break, skimmed a few stones on the clear and completely still water before walking another 1km to our 3rd stop, Campsite Cuernos.

Day 4

Trail section: Los Cuernos Campsite to Torres Campsite
Distance: 20 km
Duration: 8.5 hours

We were pleased to wake up to clear skies once again, and after having our staple breakfast of porridge and tea we set off to the final stop: Campsite Torres. Our legs were starting to feel a little bit weary after 3 solid days of trekking, but the lighter packs and great weather kept spirits high as we walked up the steep cliff side in the warmth of the sun. As we’d made good time we stopped for a leisurely lunch at a small lake and took a 10 minute sunbathe and rested our feet.

The final stretch got really steep, and it took quite a lot of our energy to scramble up the boulder-filled path in the heat of the day. Once we finally arrived at the campsite, we decided to dump our packs, set up camp and make our way to Mirador Torres straight away. We were quite tired by this point, but the excitement of seeing Torres in clear weather was all the motivation we needed. Despite seeing other trekkers stop for the day we decided to quickly fill up our water bottles and venture up the final 1km steep incline to the final and much anticipated viewpoint. We were so glad we did, as once we arrived we were treated with an amazing clear view of Torres del Paine and the turquoise lake in front. 

Day 5

Trail section: Torres Campsite to Las Torres Hotel
Distance: 10 km
Duration: 5 hours

When doing the W trek west to east, on the final day its tradition to get up in the early hours and see Torres at sunrise. At 5am we begrudgingly woke up, packed a sleeping bag and warm clothes and set off in the dark to Mirador Torres once again, eager to witness the classic sunrise. Using head torches, we followed the small reflective arrows up the steep rocky path in the rain, not really sure why we were putting ourselves through it again! Towards the top it started to snow, but we powered on determined to make it before the sun came up. Sadly we arrived in thick fog, and could barely see the mountains at all. Although this was disappointing, it made us feel even more glad that we’d gone up the day before.

We waited as long as we could in case the fog cleared, but had to charge back down the mountain at around 9am to pack up our tent and complete the final stretch of the W. The last 8km was downhill, and although our packs were lighter without food, it was pretty tough on our knees. Hotel Torres finally came into view, and it was a huge relief to arrive at the finish line of this epic trek (there were even a few tears of joy from one of us!). We then heaved our tired bodies onto the busy shuttle bus that took us back to the park entrance, and we waited for the final coach to pick us up and take us back to Puerto Natales where well earned victory beers, dinner and hot showers awaited.

On reflection, we were so glad we’d made the effort to do the complete W trek experience. From carrying all our camping equipment through all types of weather to rationing our food and collecting our water from fresh streams, we felt a huge sense of achievement. Trekking through Torres del Paine National Park for 5 days was a real privilege, and definitely an experience of a lifetime. After a tasty grilled lamb dinner at Aldea Restaurant we headed to the Basecamp Bar for celebratory beers with our fellow trekkers, and reminisced about our incredible Patagonian experience.

Patagonia — Glacier Perito Moreno

El Calafate

After 10 brilliant days in Buenos Aires we decided to take our first inland flight south, and within three hours of leaving the vibrant, bustling capital we landed amongst blue skies, snow-topped mountains and dazzling turquoise lakes. We had arrived in El Calefate, Patagonia! A short bus ride later we were dropped at our hostel America del Sur, sat high on a hill overlooking the small town. It was a great mix of contemporary architecture and rustic hostel living, and gave fantastic panoramic views of the Lago Argentino. The hostel staff were very helpful and got us booked up on our exciting trek for the following day.

Glacier Perito Moreno

After a 2 hour bus ride through incredible Patagonian landscapes we were dropped at our first stop: the Balcony. We were given a few hours to walk around the various glacier viewing platforms, taking in the epic mass of ice from all angles. It was truly amazing; neither of us had ever seen anything like it before.

At 5km wide and 70m high it's sheer size is astounding, and it's surroundings equally impressive - it was hard to get your head around the scale! Every so often large chunks of ice would break off and crash into the freezing water below, and for 20 minutes or so we patiently waited and listened to see if we could catch one before it hit the water. We had a quick packed lunch we'd previously prepared overlooking the amazing glacier.

The Glacier Trek


After returning to our coach, we could hardly believe that the best was yet to come. We boarded a catamaran and set off for a hike on the glacier itself. The approach was spectacular, and as Moreno grew in size so did our excitement! After getting off the catamaran we walked along boardwalk through a small stretch of woods and stopped at a row of wooden huts to prepare for our trek.

After getting our crampons (spiked shoe attachments for grip) on our feet and a quick lesson in walking on ice we were off. Less than 5 minutes into the trek it felt like we'd entered another world. Huge mountains of white and mineral enriched blue ice towered around us as we snaked through the truly awesome landscape. It felt like we were on another planet!

The trek was rounded off with a lovely touch of whisky on the rocks, where of course, the ice was chipped straight off the glacier in front of you - it tasted amazing! The trek had been one of our most expensive days on our travels, but one in which we both agreed had been an experience of a lifetime. It jumped right to the top of our list as the highlight of South America so far!