Category Archives: Health and Safety

Tungarahua Volcano: Active Once Again

It’s official folks, Tungurahua volcano has officially gone active again as of 6:47 a.m. yesterday (Sunday, July 14), with authorities declaring an “orange alert” – the second highest warning level.

200+ residents were evacuated from the Cusua, Chacauco and Juive areas. Forunately, no injuries have been reported.

While Tungurahua has had its spontaneous bursts of activity in the past year, the power of the explosive eruption was apparently grater than anticipated., having measured elevated seismic activity in the area over the past few weeks, claims that the eruption was not as surprising as the sheer power and force of it, with heavy rain and mild flooding following suit.

Visitors already in or heading to Baños should take note of the volcano’s activity, making sure to take reasonable measures to either stock up on supplies (water, masks, non-perishable goods, etc.), or packing up and heading elsewhere. For those planning on going to the Tungurahua region, it is advised you postpone plans for at least the next week, or until further news and updates come in regarding the volcano’s potential future activity.

On the Road – Peru: Rain, Rain, Go Away …

As reported last month, rains have caused havoc in travel plans in Peru and throughout South America. The highlands have been drenched, causing rivers to be rushing torrents by the time they reach the coastal plains.


Last Sunday, I got to experience this first hand while traveling south from Ica. At about midnight, our bus halted. Passengers drifted in and out of sleep, wondering why we were motionless on this black highway in the middle of nowhere. Within a few hours, we were once more traveling, the gentle sway, the gentle song of wheels on pavement lulling us to sleep.


Stranded in southern Peru. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

But again, at 4 a.m., we were stopped. Before sunrise, I walked out to see a long line of buses, trucks and other vehicles wrapped around the base of a cliff, fading around the bend uphill, and into the distance below, ending at water’s edge. On the other bank, another line of buses and trucks wound up that road and around the curve. Between us, the land rolled down to flooded fields. In this pre-dawn light, a broad river raged, red with soil, tumbling to the sea.


A río huayco, the driver told me. In Quechua, huayco means a river that forms in dry gulches, hauling rocks, trees and mud into the lowland valleys—and flooding the landscape for kilometers around.

Our río huayco rolling off to the sea. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

On that stretch of the Pan-American highway just before Camaná, near the village of Pescadores, no bridge exists because this is normally a rio seco—a dry river. But the past few years, with the constant cycle of El Niño and La Niña weather patterns, this river has existed in the summer months when temperatures soar on the coast and the rainy season arrives in the Andes.


The rising sun’s heat was tempered by clouds to the east. But this forebode more rains in Arequipa, Puno or wherever these rivers are born.


"Agua, gaseosa, golosinas," he called out. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

A white van skidded to a stop at the side of the road and its door slid open, revealing mounds of water, sodas, snacks and toilet paper for sale. Passengers heading to Arequipa, Tacna and other southern destinations lined up to pay over double the normal price. The vendor grinned broadly, soles sign (S/.) dancing in his bright eyes.


Finally with the morn, a bulldozer began clearing a channel in that río huayco. Soon the waters ceased to rise. The level lowered enough for the first buses and trucks to cross. Finally at 9 a.m., it was our bus’ turn to slowly wade through the still-strong current.


Our turn to cross. Photo by Lorraine Caputo


This year’s rains have caused havoc all over the region. The Peru-Chile border south of Tacna is closed 7 a.m.-noon (5-10 a.m. Chilean time) to clear 40-year-old anti-personnel mines that the flooding has unearthed. Chile has been wracked with overflowing rivers, from the San José in Arica to the Río de las Minas in Punta Arenas. Travelers report being stranded for up to 12 hours when crossing the altiplano from Bolivia or the Atacama Desert into Argentina.



If you are traveling this season, be sure to pack extra food and water. (Buses only carry enough for serving at mealtimes.) If you will be traveling into Peru’s southern departments of Moquegua or Tacna, or crossing international borders, this is a challenging task because of agricultural customs controls. No produce, whether fresh or dried, dairy or meat products are allowed. Bread is safest bet, as are peanut butter, marmite or vegemite sandwiches. Stock up on drinks and snacks, as well as a book, sudoku puzzles or anything else to pass the time.


And most of all—don’t forget to pack in some extra patience.


Safe Journeys until next week!



Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2012 edition of V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

Quito's Crafty Nuns

When you think of nuns, often the image of “penguins” slapping parochial schoolchildren’s hands with a ruler comes to mind. But other Catholic orders dedicate themselves to tasks in service to others, or to making homemade goodies and medicines.


This is the work of three convents in Quito’s Centro Histórico: Santa Clara, Carmen del Alto and Santa Catalina. If Quito’s dry air is taking a toll on your skin, or you’ve picked up some sort of bug while out in the jungle, head over to their shops. If you’re more interested in sweets and other delectables than in natural medicine, these crafty nuns can fulfill your desires, too.


Convento de Santa Clara‘s (Rocafuerte and Cuenca), founded in 1596, is one block south of Plaza San Francisco. Among this convent’s offerings are a cucumber cream to soothe your skin at these high altitudes and a makeup remover. The sisters here also produce wine and have a bakery. While at the convent, stop by the church for a guided tour of the Baroque art collection (Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Entry: $1).


Two blocks to the east is Monasterio e Iglesia del Carmen del Alto (Rocafuerte and García Moreno). This is one of Quito’s oldest convents. It was originally the house of the city’s first saint, Mariana de Jesús (1618-1665). Upon her death, her family donated the building to the Carmelitas Descalzas, who enlarged the house according to the saint’s wishes. The work was completed in 1661. The convent is a closed cloister; the sisters do not enter public and pass their lives speaking only a few hours per day. The only parts the general public may visit are the church and the shop.


The Barefoot Carmelites of this convent specialize in raising bees, and many of their goods are made from that. They also make crafts which are for sale at their shop. The sisters are especially renowned for their embroidery work, sweets and holy wine (said to be the “star” creation of these Carmelitas Descalzas).


From the Iglesia del Carmen del Alto, walk two blocks east to Plaza Santo Domingo and cut across the square to Calle Flores (the street the Trole takes). Take Flores four blocks to Convento de Santa Catalina, on the corner of Calle Espejo. It is located in Barrio San Marcos, on the site where the Incan Aclla Huasi (House of the Chosen) was.


This convent has probably the widest range of health and beauty aids, some made by its community and others by outside producers. Besides lotions and creams, this religious order’s members craft products your great-grandmother probably whipped up in her kitchen. There is horseradish syrup for coughs, and all manner of teas and potions for other ailments. The honey-bees’ wax cream is exceptionally good for relieving dry skin and nice for massages. While at Convento de Santa Catalina drop by its museum (Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5p.m. Entry: $1.50).


These convents create products from their own huertas, or garden-farm plots. Besides being the way they fulfill their calling, this is also how the nuns can raise much needed money for their communities and projects. The shops are typically open Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

On the Road – Colombia: Safety—Highways & Papaya

The rains and adventures continue in Colombia. Reportedly, the journey between Medellín and Mutatá is now taking 17-18 hours. Buses must go by way of Montería, as a bridge near Mutatá is out. Travelers coming to Cartagena from Medellín say trips are taking several hours longer than usual.

The images flashed across TV screens and splashed upon newspaper front pages show the situation to be quite desperate in some parts of the country. But how much is just hype?

Last week a couple traveling from Alaska to Ushuaia on bikes left Cartagena with hopes of getting to Mompós. They were a bit concerned about what Invías (the highway department) and newspapers were reporting. Nonetheless, they made it in a few days.

Richard McColl, owner of Casa Amarilla hostel in Mompós, reports that in recent weeks neither Mompós nor Magangué have been totally isolated. The Cartagena-Magangué road is fine; work is being done between Bodega and Mompós. Even though the road isn’t good, Unitransco’s direct Cartagena-Mompós and other transport continue.

Richard says, “Mompós never can be isolated … as it is a riverside town so can always reach here by boat. When there are problems, chalupas are put on from Magangué. The conditions may not be great, but it’s all in the spirit of adventure and travel and we must always remember that it has never been straightforward getting to Mompós, and it is this issue that has protected the town and for this reason remains an unspoiled corner of Colombia.” If you have any concerns about the road conditions to Mompós, contact Richard.

Indeed—Mompós is one of those many corners of Colombia that is difficult to get to even in the best of times, but well worth the adventure. Others are the Guajira, Llanos and Putumayo.  And with these La Niña rains, such adventures are presented to travelers wending through most of the country.

Photo by Lorraine Caputo

But there’s another facet of safety that visitors need to keep in mind as well, that has nothing to do with physical or political climate.

Colombians warn travelers, “No dar papaya.” Literally this means, “Don’t give papaya”—a strange way, perhaps to advise you: Don’t make yourself a mark for thieves.

Does this mean Colombia is a Den of Thieves? No, far from it. But as any place in the world, foreigners are an easy and logical mark for robbers. We either physically stand out from the local crowd—or do so once we open our mouths and our thickly accented Spanish comes stumbling out. Some would-be thieves believe if we’re traveling we must be rich. And often we are. Passports, bank and credit cards, travelers checks and cash. Laptops, cameras, iPods and other gadgets. Anything is easy to get rid of on the black market. Thieves around the world know this.

V!VA Colombia and other guidebooks warn about Colombian thieves’ tricks of the trade. When you meet travelers who have fallen into the same ol’ familiar traps, you can’t help but ask, “But didn’t you read …” “Yeh, I did, but I never …” is often the response.

Here are some real-life Colombian experiences of travelers from all over the world and of all ages. Some are seasoned journeyers, others are green on the road. Only the names have been changed to protect the identities of these people who gave papaya.

Magdalena, a retired travel consultant from Buenos Aires, was walking through Bogotá’s Candelaria neighborhood. While listening to her iPod music, she admired the colonial architecture and Jorge Olave’s statues of daily Bogotanos perched atop buildings. Suddenly she felt something wet hit the top of her head. “Oh,” a woman passing by told her, “a pigeon just shat on you.” Before Magdalena knew it, the woman was gone—and her iPod, too.

Swedish Per was sitting in Parque de los Periodistas, people watching. A plainclothes “police officer” came up to him and demanded to see his identification and proof that he had sufficient funds to be in the country. The “officer” also requested the same from another Latino “foreigner” sitting next to Per. He thought, well he’s complying, so should I. He told the officer his passport and such was at his hostel. While they walked back to the hostel, the “officer” kept hold of Per’s wallet. Per entered, turned around—and the cop was gone. (Note: There are no plain clothes police in Colombia.)

Young Australians Jenny and Bill, and their friend Mary couldn’t resist nightclubbing their last evening in Bogotá. A group of friendly, chatty Colombians sat down at their table. Jenny and Bill got up to dance. After a while, Mary began to feel “strange.” The three of them decided to go back to the hostel straight away. Mary began fainting away. An emergency visit to the hospital confirmed her drink had been drugged.

Sarah (UK) was sitting on Cartagena’s fortress walls, writing in her journal. She felt something hit her leg. As she looked down to see what it was (a soccer ball), her daypack (along with her guidebook, camera, passport and credit cards) disappeared from here other side. The same trick happened to Charles (US) while sitting in Plaza San Pedro Claver in the same city.

This is an unfortunate thing to say, but in my over 20 years traveling in Latin America, I have learned that much thieving isn’t done by locals at all. Rather, it’s a traveler-on-traveler crime. Too many tourists come to places like Colombia and get involved in taking cocaine or crack. The money runs out and the easiest mark is other foreigners. They’re in the same hostel, and of course they have passports, bank and credit cards, travelers checks and cash. Laptops, cameras, iPods and other gadgets. (Anything is easy to get rid of on the black market, after all.) And who would ever suspect that the culprit is another foreigner just like you? Never!

To keep from giving papaya to these would-be-thieves, take care about where you are staying. Avoid hotels that have a reputation for drugs (they’re illegal anyways). Choose hostels with personal safes or lockers, and use a good-quality lock. Be sure to keep all valuables locked away.

For more security tips, check out V!VA’s Safety in Colombia.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA Colombia. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

State of Emergency in Peru

Frigid temperatures have been chilling South America over the last couple of weeks. Now the Peruvian government has declared a state of emergency in 16 of Peru’s 24 regions  after temperatures dropped as low as -24 Celsius.

Lima, the nation’s capital, recorded the lowest temperature in 46 years at 8 degrees Celsius. Temperatures were as low at 9 degrees Celsius in Peru’s usually humid Amazon region.

Hundreds of people, including many young children, have already died from cold-related illnesses such as pneumonia. The mountainous south, including poor, rural populations living 3,000 m above sea level, have been the hardest hit by the cold.

The state of emergency in Peru comes in the wake of severe cold weather throughout Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay and Chile. If you are traveling to South America in the near future, be sure to bring extra layers for unusually cold weather.

US Embassy Issues Warning About Dengue Outbreak

By Jen O´Riordan, Viva Editorial Intern

The US Embassy in Honduras has issued a warning to residents and visitors to and from the country about dengue fever. Last month, Honduras declared the recent surge in cases of dengue a national emergency. It is believed that the disease has killed 21 Hondurans already this year. Another five fatalities are currently being investigated in order to ascertain if dengue fever was the cause of death.

The disease takes on two forms; classic and hemorrhagic. Symptoms include fever, headache (particularly strong behind the eyes), bone joint and muscle pain, bleeding through the nose and gums, and in many cases an increased susceptibility to bruising and a rash.

The disease cannot be transferred from one person to another but is contracted by a bite from an infected mosquito. Unfortunately there is no vaccine or cure for the disease yet. Last week, the total cases of classic dengue in Honduras since the start of the year stood at 17,620, with another 594 cases of the hemorrhagic type also diagnosed. The government reported that 85 percent of the hemorrhagic dengue cases occurred in the capital of Tegucigalpa.

However, cases this year have also been reported throughout Central and South America in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Peru, Puerto Rico and Mexico.

The fever usually lasts up to a week, and in a very small percentage of cases patients develop dengue shock syndrome (DSS), which can lead to death.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dengue infections are a worldwide occurrence and are commonly reported from most tropical countries in the South Pacific, Asia, the Caribbean, the Americas and Africa.

The Honduran government has launched fumigation efforts and a public education program in order to try and bring the recent outbreak under control.

Flooding in Northeastern Brazil

Over 600 people are missing, 42 dead, and thousands homeless after a week of heavy rainfall caused flooding in northeastern Brazil. The coastal states of Alagoas and Pernambuco have been hit the hardest.

According to the state civil defense office, over 20,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed in Alagoas and 40,000 people have been left homeless or displaced in the neighboring state of Pernambuco.

Mudslides and torrents caused by the heavy rains have mangled infrastructure and swept away homes. The death toll is feared to be rising.

Governor Teotonio Vilela Filho has declared a public calamity in more than 30 municipalities. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will tour the damaged areas tomorrow.–fbintl_ro-donovan062310.html

Rough Week for Guatemala

This hasn’t been Guatemala’s week.

First, there was the volcano. Last Thursday night, the Pacaya volcano began spewing ash and rock about 18 miles south of Guatemala City. The volcano continued to erupt until Tuesday. Three people have been reported dead after being crushed by rocks. Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom declared a 15-day state of calamity in the wake of the eruption.

Then, there was the storm. Over the weekend, Tropical Storm Agatha pounded Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador leaving 152 people dead in Guatemala alone. One-hundred people are missing and 87 injured, according to recent reports from the nation’s emergency agency. The storm has caused widespread destruction, with rain and overflowing rivers causing mudslides and flooding.

Now, there is a giant hole. In the northern part of Guatemala City, the storm created a large sinkhole that reportedly swallowed a three-story building. The sinkhole, which has probably been weeks, months or even years in the making, most likely collapsed due to flood waters caused by the storm. It is estimated to be 18 meters wide and 30 stories deep.

The good news is that both the Pacaya volcano and Tropical Storm Agatha have weakened. The bad news is that the giant sinkhole could be growing. Depending on the composition of the subsurface layer that forms the exterior of the hole, it could take in more of the surrounding buildings. Sinkholes are natural depressions that form when wet soil becomes too heavy, causing the roof of a void to collapse. Sinkholes can also form when water gets in a crack of limestone bedrock, causing it to expand. As the crack grows, the topsoil sinks, leaving behind a giant hole.

After a devastating week, Guatemala must begin the recovery process. Hopefully next week, Mother Nature will take a hike.

Ladies in Latin America: Solo Travel Safety 101

Ladies in Latin America: Solo Travel Safety 101

“So who are you going with? On your own? To (enter your destination here)? Wow, that’s brave!” As a female traveler, you hear that all the time. But you don’t need to be G.I. Jane to travel solo as a woman. In fact, more and more women are hitting the road alone, from backpackers on their first trip to middle-aged ladies leaving their hubbies at home. OK, so we all have stories about how we checked store after store for a simple box of tampons, or had to cross our legs on an impossibly long bus trip with no toilet stops while guys peed in a plastic bottle…But those are minor inconveniences. What daunts women from traveling alone, though, is the issue of safety.

Without sugarcoating it, women are simply at higher risk of robbery or assault and, in most parts of the world, have to fend off lots of unwanted male advances. Why? Because many countries have different standards regarding acceptable female behavior and women are perceived as easier targets for crime. Yeah, life is unfair.

But being aware of your safety and planning ahead doesn’t mean you can’t wander the mountains of Central America or the markets of Sub-Saharan Africa on your own. After all, lots of women do so and have a perfectly good time. It is just a matter of taking simple precautions. And since they can never be repeated too often, here are basic safety guidelines:

1/ Be prepared

Do your homework, research your destination. Talk to other women who have traveled to that country. Book the first night of your trip in advance, to give yourself time to find your bearings.

When you arrive, ask around (at the tourist office or your hotel reception) to see whether the areas you intend to visit are safe.

Solo, but never alone!

Solo, but never alone!

2/ Don’t make yourself an easy target

Always be aware of your surroundings and walk like you know exactly where you are going, whether that’s the case or not! Rather than standing on a street corner looking lost and peering at your map, duck into a shop and ask for directions.

Unless the place you are going to is close by and in a safe area, don’t walk alone after nightfall, take a taxi instead.

Do a gut check from time to time. If a place makes you nervous, move on quickly!

3/ Avoid cultural missteps

Be aware of the cultural values of your host country. In traditional societies dress conservatively, covering up shoulders, thighs, cleavage. In some parts of Latin America, decent women do not wear bikinis at the beach, they throw on a t-shirt and/or shorts.

In most places, it is perfectly OK for a woman to hang out at a café by herself, but bars and night clubs are a different story. In some parts of the developing world, the only women sipping drinks alone at night are local prostitutes. Avoid casual misunderstandings by exploring the nightlife with a group of people from your hostel or by joining a pub crawl tour. Be careful about accepting drinks from strangers, since the alcohol might be spiked with a drug, and only do so if you have watched the barman prepare it.

4/ Learn to handle male attention
If men hiss, whistle or catcall just ignore them. They rarely take advances further and a response from you will only encourage them to be more aggressive.

Bear in mind that even informal chitchat might be interpreted as a sexual invitation. In the event that the conversation takes an uncomfortable turn, shamelessly resort to a white lie – “my husband is waiting for me at the hotel” and leave.

Generally speaking, just use common sense, trust your gut feeling, and you will have a wonderful, rewarding trip!

By George! Galápagos Giant May Finally Become a Father

Lonseome George

After nearly a century of life, Lonesome George, the last Galápagos Giant Tortoise of his species, may soon become a daddy.

Last Saturday guards found a friendly surprise upon opening the nest in George’s corral: five laid eggs, in perfect condition. The eggs were immediately measured, weighed, then carefully transferred to the Giant Tortoise Center for Reproduction and Captive Breeding . Now researchers must play nature’s waiting game, as it will take 120 days (November) to find out if the incubated eggs are fertile.

For years scientists have been struggling to get Lonesome George to procreate, after scientists discovered the near-extinction of his species on the Pinta island of the Galapagos islands and brought him into captivity at the Charles Darwin research station in 1972. However, the endangered reptile’s low libido has severely complicated the survival of his species. In efforts to resurrect the Pinta island tortoise, researchers spiced up the solitary George’s living arrangements by giving him new roommates: two female tortoises (given the mundane monikers No. 107 and No. 106).

Although researchers hoped the ménage à tortoise would be a success, the fickle and disinterested George never budged until 2008, when after 36 years of captivity he finally mated with both females; unfortunately, the eggs turned out to be infertile. The newly laid eggs by Female No. 107 have reignited hope in scientists, and although there are no certainties, they are trying to remain optimistic.

Even if the eggs end up infertile, George has mated twice in two years – quite the fertile feat for the old giant. May the reptile revolution persist!

To learn more about the Lonesome George and the plight of his species, visit the Galapagos Conservatory.

Rachel Anderson is a staff writer/editor for VIVA Travel Guides.