I often end up writing rather long emails about where my route took me, where I stayed and recommendations for restaurants, tours etc. So.. for all those planning/on a trip in South America - this is for you!
ARGENTINA (December 2010 - May 2011)
Buenos Aires (December 2010)
My first landing point of South America. Unfortunately I was not happy to be in yet another big city that reminded me of other cities in Europe/Spain... but:) definitely go and see La Boca for the beautifully bright houses, and also eat at La Gran Parilla - my first Argentinean steak and it was tasty!
Puerto Madryn / Peninsula Valdes (December 2010)
If you can time it right to see the whales, do it!
Ushuaia (January 2011)
If money allows - go to Antarctica! I payed USD3250 for a 9 day cruise but at the time I saw 6000 for 2 people on a 1 month South Georgia/Antarctica cruise too. Pick a small boat (70ppl for instance) as you will get 2-3 landings a day. I went with Antapply. The big hostel in Ushuaia is Freestyle. Campsite above town is also nice. You can do many hikes/unguided walks on your own - Valle de Andorra, Lago Escondido. Ask at the tourist office. No memorable restaurants to report.
Puerto Natales - CHILE (January 2011)
The starting point for Torres del Paine. If you're looking for other hikers, Erratic Rock have notices/evenings to meet others. Best Hamburger in South America was on a restaurant near corner of O'Higgins and Baquedano? Like a big open canteen type place with 2 eating areas (smoking an non) with the kitchen at the back. Called Don ?? perhaps. Hamburger was amazing - with Palta (avocado). We found a little house that rented rooms - 5000CHP each.
Torres del Paine - CHILE (January 2011)
You can do the full circuit - 5-9 days, or the W 3-5 days. Do the full, but be prepared for wet weather. We did it in bad weather in 5. In February. But it was hard, but rewarding. It's pretty expensive to get in the park too, so make it worth it! Try to time doing the Torres in good weather as it was impressive that way.
El Calafate / Perito Moreno (January 2011)
Uber touristy town. Because I'd been to Antarctica I opted out of seeing the most impressive glacier in the world;) Perito Moreno. But go!
El Chalten and Fitz Roy (January 2011)
Small seasonal town filled with climbers with some good eating places and hostel to hang out. Remember a coffee shop with decent coffee an cookies behind the school. We had such bad weather hiking in Fitz Roy that we skipped out of more wet hiking days and ended up at a small hostel paying 50 pesos for a night.
Esquel (February 2011)
Not much in town, but nice hikes around in nearby Parque Nacional de Los Alerces. Camping at Las Rocas. Nice day or multi day hikes. Windy ridgelines though. Local buses to the parque.
El Bolson (February 2011)
Hippie town. Great afternoon drinking beer and picking up munchies at the nearby market stalls in the main plaza. Nice big camping ground, or lots of hostels. Definitely must have icecream at JUAJA. the BEST icecream ever. Lemon Cheesecake and Tirasmisu. Favourite combo:) A place where you will end up staying more time than planned. Can do day hikes to Lago Puelo (touristy lake), or better yet, a multiday hike to Cajon de Azul. 3 day is a nice route - Hielo de Azul, hike up to glacier lake, Refugio Natacion. Can make it longer. Nice climb up forest, then glacier, big river to hike down. In Esquel 47 pesos for dorm, and like 15 for the campsite. Definitely also hike up to Cerro Piltriquitron. AMAZING view of Andes stretching out before you. You can usually hitch you way up and down to the refugio that is the starting point.
Barliloche (February 2011)
Very touristy town for good reason. Near to some of the best hike I did and never did. Yes, there is chocolate (try Mamoushka) and of course Juaja icecream. Really, it is the bomb - better than others. But if you can't find Juaja, then go for Grido. It's cheap but really good. Loads of hostels - nice one Periko's. We ended up camping at Lago Guiterrez, nice campground alongside lake with full services. But it was a fair way out of Bariloche. Treks? Nahuel Haupi Traverse. Great trek - Refugio Grey - Refugio Jakob - Refugio Italia. 3 nights ( or in our case we got lost and it was 4 nights;) Other fantastic hikes in the area - ask at the Club Andino. They even allowed us to take a sneaky photo of the topo map. The hike I never did? Across from Pampa Linda, Around Mont Tronador and across the Andes into Chile. Wind way up the lakes in Chile, then up to Villarica and round back to Bariloche. Do it!
Siete Lagos (February 2011)
Hire a car. There are great places to discover, awesome free camping sites within the national parks. I was in a car from Bariloche to Mendoza, so between these 2 spots. these were my favourites in a northwards order... Lago Trufful. QUENI hotsprings (free campsite then you need to hike 45mins) - beautiful totally natural river/hotsprings, Parque Nacional Lanin (impressive volcano), Copaheue, Canon de Rio Azul (just south of San Juan)
Mendoza (March 2011)
Yes, there's lots of wine here! Firstly, hostel Empredado is very nice (55 pesos) and best thing! you can use their washing machine for free! I also stayed out in a camping site for 25 pesos. Mendoza itself is a nice enough town, but lets face it, you're there for the wine. There's also a nice wine bar in town that you can sample a decent selection of wines. To see/taste at the wineries, hire bikes out in Maipu. I only visited one out there, called Carinae. It was ok. But the best was Archoval Ferrer. Boutique winery - FANTASTIC wines. Otherwise I was somewhat spoilt by a friend by visiting some other far flung wineries and being treated to beautiful lunch courses. Salentein was big but impressive, Andeluna nice, Altavisa, Malipel. if you can afford it, get on a tour / hire a driver. They'll often take you to smaller less known wineries.
I also did a really nice hike out to Cerro Vallecitos. Can take local bus out of Mendoza, and then hike up and get a 6000m in if you are ready for it! Thats Cordon del Plata, but Vallecitos is a little smaller but the whole hike / ascent is very beautiful.
Tasting room in Mendoza city- Vines of Mendoza Good place for tastings
Salentein - big dutch owned, great cabernet sauvingon that would cellar well.
Achaval Ferrer - a beautiful winery - some lovely higher end reds. I really liked Finca Bella Vista (Malbec).
Melipal - ok wines, big gourmet lunch (5 courses)
Carinae - small french owned boutique winery in Maipu.
Andeluna - had a picada at the bodega. A nice torrentes there as well.
Pulenta Estate - drank this at Vines of Mendoza
Jean Bousquet - Grand Reserve Malbec - one of the wine critics I met said that this wine made him settle in Mendoza.
San Juan (March 2011)
Another wine town just north of Mendoza. My favourite there was: Merced del Estero in Valle Tullum. Had nice Syrah for 25 Pesos. HIke out to Dique Ullum, but not so impressive. Just stick to a couple of wineries there:)
Rodeo (March 2011)
The dam out there apparently is the windiest place, and so it is one of hte best places to Kitesurf in South America.
Uspallata (April 2011)
Not much in town, but a nice way to drive from Mendoza to Uspallata (on the way to the Chilean border) is via Villavincencio.
CHILE (February - May 2011, February 2012)
Santiago (April 2011)
At first, I didn't like it here. Too much smog. But it sort of grew on me. I liked the parks, that there was a library in one of them. That there was nice food, and sort of nice living in some parts. But mainly I was there because I was learning to ride and buying a motorbike. Hostels? Footsteps is the cheapest and one of the nicest places I stayed. Depending on what deals are on Hostelworld / Hostelbookers, I paid as little as CHP 3900, and up to CHP6000. It's in Providencia. And another hint - there is a white wine, 1 star Santa Julia bottle that you can buy across on the tienda on Vicuna Mackenna for under 1000CHP. And it's decent. Nice huh! Can do trips out to Cajon del Maipo with visits up to glacier and hiking too. You go near the Concha y Toro winery, but it's pricey to do a tour here (compared to Argentina where you don't pay). Also Cerro La Campana is some nice hiking west of Santiago too.
Valparaiso (April 2011)
I loved this city for the mix of all walks of people, the colourful houses and all that seafood! Also south of Valparaiso are some poetic places to visit - in Isla Negra where Pablo Neruda (Chilean politican and poet lived) and a nice cute hostel, The Poet's Madness.
Huasco (May 2011)
By this time I was riding on my motorbike, so I've skipped a bunch of places. This fishing village though is up north of La Serena. I just like it, and tasty empanadas and met some very friendly locals. In particular Fernando Jimenez.
Copiapo (May 2011)
Yep, nothing here! Just on the way to the border crossing to Argentina. But this border - Paso San Francisco is pretty stunning! If you can, try and cross the Andes in these parts - either Paso Agua Negra, or Paso San Francisco, or even up to Paso Jama. (The crossing from Salta to San Pedro)
Fiambala (May 2011)
A sleepy town close to Paso San Francisco, here you can organised with local climbing legend, Jonson Reynoso (firstname.lastname@example.org) an ascent of Ojos del Salado.
Cafayate (May 2011)
My favourite town in Argentina. Another wine region, but woo hoo, this time many of the wineries are walking distance from the town/hostel. Stay at Rusty K's - nice courtyard and rooms. 50 pesos for dorm. On the way there, after visiting a pre-Inca ruin called Quilmes, I chanced upon a new winery called Los Arcas de Tolombon - the young range, Siete Vacas was fantastic. Cab Sab and Torrontes fantastic. Beautiful scenery around - good way to see it is to hire a bike from Rusty K's (50 pesos) and take bus up to Garganta del Diablo, then cycle back the 50kms to Cafayate. The road north of Cafayate to Cachi is stunning too - past cute adobe towns like Molino, famous wineries like FInca Colome, and through desert, moon like rock landscapes. Option could be to hire a car in Salta and do this loop at your leisure.
Salta (May 2011)
I didn't actually like the centre of Salta much, but it had a fairly nice vibe. North of Salta though, is a motorbike rider's dream road to Jujuy, and just west of there are some nice thermal baths. The most picturesque part is the Quebrada de Humhuaca towards the Bolivian border. Cute towns such as Tilcara are sweet.
Parque Nacional Baritu (June 2011)
This is Argentina's northernmost and most remote national park. It's sort of high jungle, and has a huge range of wildlife - especially birds. To get there, you actually need to go into Bolivia first, and then back into the national park which is back in Argentina. Very small towns and communities, hardly any visitors, muddy roads but an off the beaten track place to visit.
Tarija - BOLIVIA (June 2011)
I really liked Tarija. Admittedly there's not that much there, but the surprising thing for me was the wines I got to taste. Really high quality reds, and something like USD6 for a mid range boutique wine. I cheated, and just visited the wine bar just down from the tourist information in the centre. I also got to have my first salchipapas on the street - 50c for a cone of fresh fried potatoes, sausage, lettuce, tomato and mustard. Yum!
San Pedro de Atacama - CHILE (June 2011)
A super tourist, but cute adobe town that is used for the starting/ending point for tours of the Salar de Uyuni. Lots of hostels and cabanas, but I stayed at El Anexo (just on the road out to the border). Built from adobe too, the best thing was Arturo, a French chef/baker/traveller that got stuck:) He baked baguettes every morning in the outdoor adobe wood oven that were to die for. Bread here is of the soft, sweet, white variety, so this was a real treat. Rooms were nice, and I shared a private double paying 6000 each. There also was a really nice restaurant in town that was called something like Natural ... but cute adobe inside, with open fires, and really great fresh (and so far from Argentinean/Chilean) food. Around San Pedro, you can visit the Geyers de Tatio, Valle de la Luna, and some other villages/salt flats around. Actually not a bad place for a couple of days. Oh and there was free wifi in the tiny town plaza!
BOLIVIA (June 2011 - September 2011)
Salar de Uyuni and Laguna Colorada (June 2011)
An absolutely stunning place. An absolutely must see. Take a tour, ride it yourself, just do it! We had wanted to come from San Pedro, but due to snow the border was closed, so instead came into Bolivia from the west. Then down past the Arbole de Piedra (camping there) and down to see the magnificant Laguna Colorada with it's rusty red colour and pink flamingoes. We even camped in the restaurant beside Salar Chilviri and was bombarded in the morning with all the travelling jeeps that cruised in for breakfast. Up then via Villamar, to Uyuni, from where we took a tour out to see the Salar. We had hoped to ride into it, but there was still some water at the edge. Tours are 3 days usually, but try and take a bit more time!
Potosi (July 2011)
This is where you can visit the silver mine. It's not for anyone who is claustrophobic, or doesn't like hot, small spaces. Also if you choose not to see them. I actually didn't think there was much more to this town, though some others thought it was really beautiful. Stayed at La Casona Hostel which were our first hot showers in 3 weeks and it was the bomb! 50Bol each to share a double private room.
Sucre (July 2011)
LOVE this town! Not actually much to do activity wise I guess, but a great place to take Spanish Lessons. I stayed at Hostal Pachamama (45Bol each to share private room with bathroom) which has a beautiful courtyard complete with hammocks, wifi, big kitchen and is close to the market. Studied at Me Gusta Spanish School. Two main gringo hangouts - JoyRide, and Florin. I liked Florin better - and their Bife de Lomo (45Bol) was fantastic steak. Actually, there is stuff to do activity wise - climbing, riding, quad biking, hiking - check with Off Road Bolivia and Henrry who you will likely run into at Florin.
Jungle tour from La Paz (August 2011)
There are quite a few of these, we went to Rio Verde through an Israeli guy who runs tours. Shaol. He organises things from his obscure apartment in the central tourist district. Good value but perhaps a little lower standard. We chose rafting, and built our own raft, and explored a fair fiew rivers/canyons.
Ruta del Che and Samaipata (August 2011)
You can track along the last steps of Che - he was gunned down near a small town called La Higuera and then executed in it's schoolroom. You can stay next door (camping or room) in the house used for the telecommunications. Also a french run place across the road that has great food. Can go via Vallegrande where there is a good museum that details the activities and missions of the Guerrillas. Town itself is not too exciting. Samaipata on the other hand is a great place. A bit hippie, but really relaxed and laid back. Lots of farms too - and like at Finca La Vispera where we camped. They had a fantastic restaurant with nearly all the ingredients coming from their gardens. Nice camping setup too. 30Bols to camp. In town there were great places to eat too, and I hear there's a bar run by 2 Australians that is quite good too!
Santa Cruz (August 2011)
Big city. Not so exciting, but a jumping off point for other places. HI Hostel Jodanga is ok, but a little pricey for the private rooms.
Jesuit Missions Circuit (September 2011)
The Jesuits came and set up missions all around the north and east of Santa Cruz. The result now is some stunning woodwork on the timber churches, and surprisingly a lot of stringed instruments are still played and taught in the small towns. We visited Concepcion, and then headed back west towards Trinidad. It's hot and muggy here though. There is a full loop you can do (on the way to Brazil/Pantanal) but it is quite long and the roads are bad.
Trinidad (September 2011)
This town is packed to the hilt with motorbikes! It's also the port of the route the barges take into the Amazon - so if you want to head deep into the thick of things, you can buy passage on a hammock up the river. Note that get a barge that travels through the night too - otherwise you will be eaten alive by the mosquitoes. The food gets a little monotonous - the same day after day, and there are various levels of hygiene in play. These boats head up to Guayamarerin, where you can go into Brasil, or head west and around the top of Bolivia and into Peru at Puerto Maldonado. Due to the wrong season, we were not able to find a boat leaving in time to take us and the bikes, so we headed west via the roads.
Rurrenabaque (September 2011)
The jumping off point for the Bolivian Amazon, this is the most economical way to see it. There are 2 main types of tours - Pampas or Jungle. Both are 3 or so days each. Pampas means animals - crocodiles, pink dolphins, birds, whereas Jungle is experiencing being in the Jungle. Mogli Tours came highly recommended. There's a back way to get to La Paz through more jungle, but otherwise most people opt to fly instead of the 24hour harrowing bus ride. We drove it though, and it didn't seem so bad but we took 5 days to do it. Rurre is quite a small town, but there's enough to relax after the tours. No ATM though.
Coroico (September 2011)
The end point for the downhill mountain biking route, this is quite a beautiful town perched on the hillside, all cobblestone streets. Usual array of touristic restaurants, but you can get Spetzle at the Back-Stube Konditorei. (How German!) Nice walk up the 12 stations of the cross to get a view of the town.
La Paz (September 2011)
Big city, capital of Bolivia, you're likely to end up here. Usual array of hostels, many good restaurants in the tourist centre, interesting markets (such as the central everything market, the witches market, the absolutely everything market in El Alto) but just watch you bags.
Copacabana and Isla del Sol (September 2011)
One of my favourite places. Loved the feel of Copacabana, all that trout you can buy in the food stalls in the market, the feel of the town, the colourful weekends/Sundays when cars get blessed, the walk up the hill. I stayed in a bit of a run down place, but Mery was like your unkempt but super friendly Aunt. Definitely head out to Isla del Sol - you can do it in 1 day, but I would recommend taking camping stuff or staying in on of the affordable hostels (30 Bols for single private room) and go for 3 or 4 days. Nice place to relax, do walks, see ruins, get into local town. In Yumani (southern half) where most of hte hostels are, there is a small restaurant called Las Velas. It's out in the Eucalypt Forest at the top of town, no electricity so get there before sunset, but fantastic steamed red wine trout. (55 Bols I paid for the dinner plus wine)
PERU (October 2011 - March 2012)
Puno (October 2011)
You go to Puno to see the floating reed islands. I didn't though - but if you can stop 1 night and do a tour, then do so. I preferred to enjoy Lago Titicaca from Copacabana. There is a Cruz del Sur Tourist bus that goes from Cusco to Puno, that you get to stop en route at a couple of places, so this is a good choice if you are heading north or south.
Arequipa (October 2011)
Arequipa is another colonial city whose centre is made from white volacanic stone giving it quite an atmosphere. It's beautiful, has the iconic Misti Volcano on the skyline, and has a good selection of restaurants. I got stuck there for dental reasons, but enjoyed it mainly due to the place I stayed. This was La Casa de los Pinguinos... run by Alex who knows everything about the area. She has made a really top notch hostal, that is a nice place to relax (either reading from her library, watching videos, or out in the garden in hammocks) and use as a base to see the town and Colca Canyon. She can give you more info on seeing the Colca, but there's 2 ways essentially. Either do it on a tour (which isn't actually that much more than organising yourself) or go on your own. Tours are 2-4 days, you could easily spend 1 week doing it. Bus to Chivay (hot springs), onto Cabanaconde (via Cruz del Condes) to stay at Hostal Pachamama (15 soles/night includes breakfast), then hike to San Jose de Chiquitos/Tarqui/Cosnihura, in Cosnihura as you walk in on the upper (right) side is 1 of the 2 hostals - run by Sonia with her 6 y/o son Ken. Delightful place! Then down to Sangalle de Oasis to chill, and a early morning climb up to Cabananconde. There's also more extreme hikes across Valle de los Volcanoes that you can enquire about in Arequipa.
Another more backpacker places to stay is Flying Dog - it's new so in good condition still:) It's also near a great pizza place called Los Lenos on Calle Jerusalem. On the whole food is great in Arequipa - for fish, have lunch (no dinner) at El Tio Dario at Mirador Yanahuara, or ask Alex for the fish place (where you can eat Espanda - swordfish) near her place, or other places in town like ZigZag (where you get meat served on hot volcanic stone) or La Creperie. Another thing not to miss in Arequipa is Monestario Santa Catalina. Great history, stunning photos.
Cusco (October 2011)
This is the most touristy spot in Peru - and for good reason. Not only for Machu Picchu, but there's loads to do - hiking and cultural around Cusco. It's also a pretty city too. Ecopackers is a backpacker located centrally, but we found so many nice little hospedajes (also up in San Blas) to stay for cheaper too. So, I'm not going to go through everything you can do, but when you arrive, head to the South American Explorer's Club in San Blas. They are not an agency, but a not for profit organisation. Impartial info on what you can do around Cusco, alternative ways to get to Machu Pichu, good hikes (from day hikes, to visitng Huchuy Cusco, to circling Ausangate). You can easily spend at least a month around Cusco. Make sure you spend some time in Ollantaytambo too (its on the way to Machu Picchu). I really liked this place:) and the english run aid cafe - Hearts Cafe is nice too (and has wifi:)
There's loads of restaurants - my favourite for lunch was Graja Heidi, I liked the Indian British run curry house up in San Blas, liked hanging out in the cafes, loved playing around in Aledea Yanapay ( a kids cafe complete with hats, toys and a alcoholic menu). Too much to do and see!
Huacachina and Pacaras (December 2011)
Huacachina is where the dunes are, it's between Arequipa and LIma on the coast, and apart from 1 afternoon to go sandboarding, you don't need much more time here. Paracas is further north (past Nazca) and is a bit more interesting. You can go on a half day tour of the Islas Ballestas to see pengins, birds and sealions, and also go into a big park to see some pre inca ruins (I think). Bargain down on the boat rids, I got mine as cheap as 20soles for the half day.
Lima (December 2011)
I actually went to Lima 2 main times, and 4 times in total. It's a bit city, most people end up in Miraflores which is nice enough. Ooh there big deluxe supermarkets which is fun! You can paraglide off the cliffs. Lots of hostels in Miraflores - I stayed in a couple and like Kokopelli the best for a backpacker dorm, and I guess Flying Dog was ok for the privates. South of Lima (day trip) you can see a pre inca ruin - Pachacamac too.
Arica and Iquique (February 2012)
I went back south to sell my bike, so here's a little about these 2 places. They are pretty dry and unexciting - Iquique is the more entertaining of the two. You can swim closer to the hostels here, there's good icecream and sushi places, more nightlife. Also a tax free shopping zone. In Arica it's similiar but not quite as exciting - stay at Hostal Colonial, it's a nice vibe and cheaper than the standard Surfhouse hostel.
Huaraz (March 2012)
Another great base town to explore the surrounding Cordillera Blanca y Negra. There are some day hikes - like Laguna 69 and Laguna Churup - and some you can extend into multi day hikes. When I was there the Santa Cruz was half closed, and it was too wet for Huayhuash so two big unfortunate situations. Huayhuash is meant to be amazing - one of the best hikes in the world, and Santa Cruz although popular, still has is charms. A place I want to return to and hike my heart out! THere's also a couple of mountains (under and over 6000m) you can summit. For climbing/rock exploration, head to Huchuy Matay in the Cordillera Negra.
Good tasty places to eat too... Cafe Andino is a nice (though gringo) place - sort of feels like a cafe in Australia. And.... they have Chai - and soy milk! Heaven for me. So I could get a 1L french press of soy chai tea for something like 11 soles (USD4.50). Good food too. Next door there is a Anticoucheria - where they bbq beef hearts. Very tasty - a plate of 1 skewer, with potoato and sets you back 3 soles.
Trujillo (March 2012)
I literally spent 1 day here - I came on a night bus from Huaraz, and left that night for Chachapoyas. I spent the morning seeing pre inca tombs - Huaca de la Luna y Sol, and missed out on seeing the other ones - Chan Chan. If you can, see both! Why not hey!
Chachapoyas (March 2012)
Really like the vibe of this high jungle town. If it were not for my schedule, I would have stayed longer - small town, nice vibe, lots to explore a couple hours from town. I stayed on the Plaza at Hotel Revash (20soles/night for private room) and through them got some good deals to see the Gota waterfall (quite impressive) and Kuelap ruins (uber impressive). Totally different from Machu Picchu - and very tranquil. Very special pace to see before it is overrun by tourists. There are many more things to see in Chacahpoyas, so I think you could easily spend 1 week there.
From Peru to Ecuador (March 2012)
This is a 2 day route - but I really enjoyed it so want to detail how it happened. From Chachapoyas, you have to get to San Ignacio. To do this, you can either take a series of collectivos (shared taxies) to Jaen, and then San Ignacio, or do what I did, and hop on a Chiclayo bound bus, getting of Chumajo, take a cab to Jaen, a tuk tuk to the other collectivo station, a collectivo to San Ignacio, sleep there, next morning another tuk tuk to the collectivo for Las Balsas (the border), then walk across the border, wait for the Ranchero truck to take me to Zumba, then take a bus to Vilcabamba. A little stop start, but nice scenery, including rice paddies and muddy roads, and beautiful valleys.
ECUADOR (March - April 2012)
Vilcabamba (March 2012)
This is Ecuador's answer to the hippie town - I think a large majority of american hippies must of ended up here. But the start attraction is a hostel called Hotel Izchayluma. Dorms are USD10, and you get a beautiful resort, with pools, bars, full fruit laden buffet breakfast and breathtaking views. Highly highly recommended! Usual array of vegan/veg friendly cafes in town with brownies etc, and also some nice day hikes to do from the town too.
Cuenca (March 2012)
LIke Sucre and Arequipa, Cuenca is a beautiful, genteel colonial town. It's somehow more gentle and delicate, but there's a great array of restaurants, a microbrewery or two and about a gizillion churches. No stand out restaurants, all the main touristy ones were pretty awesome. Good icecream too at Tutta ...? on the main square. Never fear, this is a chain so you'll see in in the rest of Ecuador too. Out of Cuenca you can do a day/multi day visit/hike to PN Las Cajas. Beautiful rolling scenery with many lakes. Oh and the other thing for Cuenca - get a Panama Hat! Cause they actually come from here -t hey were only shipped via Panana so that's how they ended up with that name.
Riobamba (March 2012)
This is the starting point for Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador. What's cool is you can hitch a ride up / take the bus, and then walk/ride up to the first refugio (at 4800m) and then walk to the 2nd refugio at 5000m. Here's a fun fact, even at the first refugio, at 4800m, you are 4KM higher than the TOP of everest - thanks to the 'bulge' of the earth. Cool huh! There's a new bar called Abbey Road in Riobamba, run by Wladamir, who who runs a tour agency that arranges amongst other things, Volunteering too.
Banos (March 2012)
A fun town with lots to do and see! High jungle, but not too humid. Lots of adventure sports, like canyoning, rafting, riding, buggying, motorbiking. Nice tours of the cascadas. Many people head east from here to visit the jungle proper, but we didn't. Stayed at a nice hostel called Hotel Chimenea (USD8.50 each to share a double room - very cheap!) that had wifi etc, and in house spa too. Hang out with the locals and esp chat with the older men and women at the municipal baths below the waterfall on the end of town. Great place to swap stories!
Nice restaurants in town too - Swiss Bistro was tasty, I've heard the Samurai Sushi is tasty, and of course there's a few bars like Leprachaun.
Latacunga and Quilotoa Loop (April 2012)
If you want to climb Cotopaxi, then it's a nice place to start from. You can do some acclimatisation hiking around Quilotoa (stay at Mama Hildas in Chugchillan while on the loop) for 1-4 days, and there's some beautiful views from there too. The crater lake at Quilotoa is gorgeous and on a clear day you're supposed to be able to see Cotopaxi. In Latacunga, Hostal Tania is nice, but unfortunately next door is a gym and the base of the gym classes resonate through the rooms in the hostel from 7am to 9pm. Otherwise it's a sweet hostel with a great common area and kitchen. You can book Cotopaxi from there too for USD170 for 2 days. Make sure you are property acclimatised though.
Mindo (April 2012)
Like Banos, but smaller. Loads of Hummingbirds too! Best place to see them is in a hostel in town is in a hostel (you can also stay there for USD 18 each) at the end of the road that Jardin de los Pajiritos is (where we stayed for USD10 each including breakfast). Hands down though you've got to go El Quetzel - a small boutique chocolate place where you can do a nice tour and see how they make their very very tasty chocolate! I also did some canyoning and ziplining to make up for missing it in Banos. USD15 for each for a couple of hours.
COLOMBIA (April 2012)
Popayan (April 2012)
We were here for Semana Santa, and it was packed out with families relearning the last day so of Christ, long, slow serious processions and oddly, sort of a party atmosphere too. Stayed at Parklife hostel which is nice because it's ON the plaza (it's next to the Cathedral, actually it probably was part of the Cathedral) and ate at some nice places in town. More coffee shops with espresso too!
Salento (April 2012)
This small cutesy town had one of the best hostels I've ever stayed in - Hostal Tralala. Great spaces, very clean, very nice detailing on rooms and common spaces. Wish we could have spent more days here! There's a couple of coffee plantations you can visit around town - and also some hiking into wax palm tree forests in the Valle de Cocora. Around this area there are a fair few confiscated / ex drug lord houses that you might stumble onto! Cheap, but tastiest Almuerzo (set lunch) at Rincon Lucy for 6000COP, and then nice coffee at Jesus Martin.
Medillin (April 2012)
This was a bit of a whirling visit, and we were staying at my friend's apartment, but did manage to swing by a tasty tasty natural foods cafe/bakery, and have a very wholesome, non greasy!! meal and buy some chocolate and almond bread:) at Salud Pan. in Barrio Los Laurels, Circular 3.
MInca (April 2012)
Small town above Santa Marta - so if you want to escape the heat of the coast, head here! 45min and 6000COP from town. Book head to stay at Casa Loma, up quite a steep hill, but great vibe and you can sleep in hammocks. Also camping is there too. Walks to waterfalls, or visits to La Victoria Coffee FInca can be explained by Jay, the English owner.
Constena Beach (April 2012)
Just outside of the area's main attraction, PN Tayrona, this is a new surfing hostel right under the coconut palms near the beach. You eat together at the big table, play beach volleyball together, go for surfs, lay in the hammocks, relax or explore the driftwood plenty beach. Weather wasn't pictureperfect when we were there, but sort of a little taste of the Caribbean nonetheless!
Cartegena (April 2012)
A gorgeous, stately, dirty port city, it is a wonderful mix of different cultural influences, beautiful architecture and plentiful food! You need a couple of days here - really worth just sticking around a week if you need a bit of urban rest. Also interesting to visit the Castillo San Felipe (fort) which has made many computer games famous:) Heaps of hotels on Calle Media Luna - we stayed just off in a guesthouse called Hostal de las Americas - very decent price for the front double room.