Author Archives: Sam Thompson

This is the end…

After over 70,000 blog views in 113 countries, visiting 21 countries over 15 months and quite a few memories along the way, the time has come and our travels have ended. We’ve now been back in London for about a month and we’re depressed, bemused and discombobulated. It’s cold…too cold…far too cold.

It’s hard to put into words how much fun we have had. It’s also hard to pick out specific highlights. Lots of people have already asked us ‘what’s your favourite country’, and it’s really difficult to choose one over another.

So we thought we would write a quick summary of everywhere we have been and talk about what we liked and didn’t like. So here goes…

Beijing Tapas

Beijing Tapas

01 – China

Our first stop and still one of our favourite countries, China was an amazing place to begin our trip. We found it an easy place to get around with a very good train network. The people can take some getting used to, especially the constant spitting and coughing but on the whole they were friendly and very interesting to watch. Probably the highlight of China was the food, specifically dumplings, hot and sour soup, Peking duck and schezuan food. The Drum and Gong on a tiny hutong in northern Beijing provided us with the best food of our whole trip, hands down.

Hong Kong Peak

Hong Kong Peak

02 – Hong Kong

In Hong Kong we were treated to some lavish accommodation and wild nights out courtesy of Dave, Shiona and friends. With Katy as my guide we squeezed a lot into our two weeks there. It’s probably not the most accessible place for a traveller due to the cost of everything, but we both really enjoyed our time there. Even though it is a fairly small space, there is so much to do there outside of Central. You definitely need to explore to get the best out of Hong Kong.

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

03- Vietnam

Vietnam was by far the cheapest country we visited on our trip, and very easy to get around. Ha Long Bay was one of the highlights of our entire time away, and even though it is one of the ‘Wonders of the World’, it was peaceful and serene without hoards of people elbowing you out of the way. I was very ill in Saigon, and we had to miss out Hoi An and Huế due to flooding which was a shame. It was interesting to learn more about the ‘American War’ and visit the Cu Chi tunnels…especially when Katy got stuck in the hole.

Buddha heads, Bayon Temple

Buddha heads, Bayon Temple

04 – Cambodia

One of our favourite countries, and I’m still trying to persuade Katy to buy a hostel here. Hot, humid and packed with culture, great food and friendly people. The coast (if you avoid Sihanoukville) is idyllic and somewhere we would both love to visit again (to look for hostel locations). Bus journeys are an experience here, but we got what we paid for. We have mixed feelings over Angkor Wat, we loved climbing over all the ancient temples, playing with the local children and listening to them counting to 10 in about 5 different languages. It’s just a shame we couldn’t have had the place to ourselves for the day.

Road obstructions

Road obstructions

05 – Laos

Our most adventurous and unforgettable country of the trip saw us zip wiring through the jungle, tubing down rivers and motor biking for the very first time through the remote southern region. We had some travel partners in Seb and Sophie, who helped us see in the new year at a Laos bowling alley after bumping into them on a hellish bus journey. The transport and ‘Laos time’ was probably our biggest challenge but taught us how to be more patient. Our favourite Laos dish was the Laap, a spicy minced beef or lamb salad packed with fresh coriander and chilli…delicious. Laos is a fantastic country; cheap, beautiful and very friendly.

Bagan

Bagan

06 – Myanmar

Probably my favourite country of our trip, Myanmar is so different to everywhere else we visited. There is no western influence there at all, so no Coca Cola, Malboro etc…anywhere to be seen and that just added to it for me. It has a huge Indian influence, so eating biryani from a coconut leaf with your hands is all part of the experience. It’s a tiring place to travel around with a very bad and uncomfortable bus network, but it’s all worth the effort. Bagan is just the most amazing place I have ever been, and with so few tourists, visiting it almost feels like you have the place to yourself.

Koh Lanta

Koh Lanta

07 – Thailand

We spent just over 6 weeks in Thailand, 3 of which were spent on a beach on the beautiful island of Koh Lanta where we got to recharge our batteries. The food was a real highlight for us, especially the massaman, green and red curries. We liked the food so much that we took a second Thai cooking lessons whilst we were there. We learnt how to scuba dive which was amazing and also got to play with real life Tigers. Bangkok was hectic, expensive but great fun, especially when we met up with Dave and the HK football lads.

Petronas twin towers

Petronas twin towers

08 – Malaysia

Our highlight of Malaysia has to be the food. From the amazing tikkas and curries in Penang to the cream teas in the Cameron Highlands. We definitely indulged. The Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur was a wash out but a great experience, and the music festival although fun was disappointing. We got to visit my Mum’s old school (now an army base) and found some photos of her in a local tea room. We didn’t have enough time in Malaysia which meant we missed the East coast…but there is always next time.

Central Mosque

Central Mosque

09 – Brunei

We had only two days in Brunei which to be honest was enough. Not a lot to do or see and it wasn’t helped that we couldn’t even have a drink to pass the time. We did however get see their National Park which involved a very funny boat ride in a coffin and a climb up on what can only be described as scaffolding to walk a series of bridges high above the trees…a fantastic sight but not very in keeping with the jungle. The food wasn’t very exciting which meant that we ordered in Pizza Hut on both nights we were there. Maybe the Sultan needs to invest a bit more into his restaurant scene.

El Nido sunset

El Nido sunset

10 – Philippines

With some of the best beaches and views I can remember, the Philippines will definitely be somewhere we will visit again. In fact we have already checked prices for 2014. EL Nido was simply stunning, and the diving in Malapascua out of this world. A definite highlight was diving with Thresher sharks and snorkeling with Whale sharks. The Philippines did see Katy have a mini breakdown though when she decided that she needed a holiday. It didn’t last long, especially once she had a beer in her hand and watched yet another amazing sunset.

Gili Air

Gili Air

11 – Indonesia

We have many highlights from Indonesia; the amazing diving, hunting for Komodo dragons in Flores, climbing the volcano Mt Bromo and relaxing on the beaches of the Gili islands. Bali was disappointing as it was far too touristy and Jakarta was just a massive concrete jungle. Some of the rooms we stayed in were basic to say the least, with sinks and throne toilets nowhere to be seen. It’s a big place and we barely touched the sides, so we’re definitely thinking of going back for another look some day.

Malaysian Tapir

Malaysian Tapir

12 – Singapore

Singapore was very expensive and saw us stay in our first dorm room of the trip. It’s a big city, pretty easy to get around but not really that much to see. We did venture to the zoo though where I got to see my favourite animal…a Malaysian tapir. Being on a budget we didn’t get to experience much of the glamorous side of Singapore and settled for street restaurants and the odd happy hour beer. It is a place that I could quite easily see us moving to, as there is a great expat community…and the weather is slightly better than the UK.

Sensoji Temple area, Asakusa

Sensoji Temple area, Asakusa

13 – Japan

So Japan beats Singapore hands down for being the most expensive country we visited…£12 for a pint of beer…enough said. The tube and rail network in Tokyo is immense and took some getting used to but we managed to take in most of the sights. The restaurant scene wasn’t that easy; secretive and expensive so we ate our fair share of pot noodles that week and of course squeezed in as much sushi as we could.

Sea lion

Sea lion

14 – Ecuador

Ecuador saw us swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos, climbing volcanoes, whale watching, learning Spanish (sort of) and watching a very uneventful European cup. We visited South America’s largest handicraft market which was the start of Katy’s alpaca addiction. We ate our fair share of almuerzos…a set 2 or 3 course lunch for $2-3 and tried our first of many empanadas. Our real low light of Ecuador was having our camera stolen on a bus near the Peru border.

Diving in Tayrona National Park

Diving in Tayrona National Park

15 – Colombia

Colombia was a nice surprise. We were expecting it to be bit dodgy but the people couldn’t have been friendlier and they couldn’t have put any more police on the streets if they tried. The big cities of Medillion and Bogota were average (we do tend to prefer places out of the city) but the real highlight for us was the Caribbean coast, particularly Cartagena and Tayrona National Park. We really enjoyed San Agustin where I rode a horse the first time and visited the ancient statues scattered across the countryside.

A room with a view

A room with a view

16 – Peru

Peru started badly with us getting mugged in Mancora. It took us a while to shake off the experience and probably ruined our time in Peru if we’re honest. It wasn’t all bad though as we enjoyed sand boarding in the desert, driving through the Andes, climbing Wanapicchu at the top of Machu Picchu. Our first half an hour on Machu Picchu was wonderfully quiet, serene and beautiful but it soon became overcrowded and just another disappointing tourist attraction. The food was pretty good and we became quite adventurous trying cuy (guinea pig), alpaca, Llama and ceviche.

Salt Flat Sunset

Salt Flat Sunset

17 – Bolivia

What a beautiful and extremely diverse country. We visited the highest city in the world, fished for piranhas and swam with pink dolphins in the Amazon, hunted for anacondas and capybaras in the jungle, rode horses across Bolivia’s wild-west and spent three days visiting the amazing salt flats. We had some of the best food in South America, especially the saltenas (empanadas) and enjoyed some very nice (and cheap) Bolivian red wine. The only downside was that we didn’t see a sloth.

View from Cerro Santa Lucía

View from Cerro Santa Lucía

18 – Chile

Arriving on a National holiday wasn’t the best start (you’d think we would have learnt by this point of the trip) and meant that we stayed in some very average hostels. Chile for us meant civilisation after being in basic Bolivia for a month so we took advantage of the wines (of course), being able to choose what and where to eat and paying for things with a credit card (a real novelty). We were there out of season so the snow had melted and the coast was just too cold.

Fitz Roy

Fitz Roy

19 – Argentina

What’s not to love about Argentina…amazing wines, steaks, beautiful scenery and the friendliest people we met in South America. A real highlight for us was of course the wines but Patagonia was simply stunning. Our walk across the Perito Mereno glazier was incredible and an experience we will never forget. Katy even enjoyed our trek to Fitz Roy. It’s another huge country with so much diversity. Patagonia although expensive was worth every penny. We had five weeks in Argentina, and that just wasn’t enough.

Just another beach

Just another beach

20 – Uruguay

Punta Del Diablo although out of season was a great place for us to chill out for a few days. We enjoyed walking in the national park and along the extremely long beaches (we won’t mention the cows as Katy is still having nightmares), some home cooked meals (not that we had a choice with all of the restaurants closed) and catching a little sun along the way. It was a place that I am glad we stopped in. We really enjoyed our time there, although I’m not sure we would go out of our way to visit there again.

Caipirinhas

Caipirinhas

21 – Brazil

As Brazil was our last stop, we treated ourselves to several nice hostels, meals and private transfers. The food was a real highlight, especially the rodizios (all you can eat meat buffets) and of course we drank our fair share of caipirinhas too. Florianopolis was beautiful and we really enjoyed chilling out there for a few days. Iguassu Falls was incredible and we especially enjoyed the Brazilian side. Rio was a great city to end our 15 months away and we celebrated with visits to the many sights including a very interesting Favella tour, a couple of Lapa street parties and of course many more caipirinhas along the way.


So there you have it. We want to thank everyone we met whilst away; you helped to make this an amazing trip for us and it wouldn’t have been the same without you. If any of you are ever in London, make sure you get in contact.

We also want to thank everyone at home for reading the blog and keeping up with our exploits. The blog has done really well with over 70,000 hits in over 115 countries. We even won a best photo of the week competition along the way.

World Blog Coverage

World Blog Coverage

So you don’t have to hear from us anymore. You’ll just have to buy us a drink when you next see us to welcome us home. I am still unemployed after all.

Until the next time…

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Wonder-fall Iguaçu

We spent nine days in Florianopolis, but we left wishing we had more time there. It was such a great place to relax and enjoy some sun that we didn’t really get to explore the island that much. We weren’t too discouraged however as we had more exciting things on the horizon.

After a short five hour bus journey, we found ourselves in Curitiba. It’s a city two hours from the coast that we were using as a brief stop-over before getting a flight two days later. We didn’t have much time and the hostel recommended a city tour on an open top bus…not really our thing but she somehow managed to persuade us it would be a good idea.

Curitiba Botanical Gardens

Curitiba Botanical Gardens

We started the tour with a quick trip the botanical gardens… not much to say about the gardens other than it’s a pretty place with a big greenhouse (or crystal palace) in the middle. After a brief walk around the park, we boarded the linha tourismo to begin our tour of the city.

Now I’m no expert when it comes to these buses, but it really wasn’t that great. Katy had been telling me that we would have headphones with an English speaking guide to talk us through the sites. We also thought we would be able to get on and off when we wanted if we saw anything of interest along the way. What we actually got was no headphones, a pretty poor route map and we were allowed only four stops along the way. Undeterred we tried to keep track of the sites by reading our leaflet which thankfully had an English translation.

Colonial Curitiba

Colonial Curitiba

All in all the tour was average, but we did get to see a lot of the city. Curitiba is a fairly nice looking city with lots of very expensive areas but there was nothing that stood out as a must see. The historical centre had lots of nice colonial architecture and churches, but after six months of seeing this in South America it all becomes a bit of a blur. It’s similar to seeing temples in Asia…after a while they all look the same.

The next day we were back on a plane to visit one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Iguazu Falls. The falls are situated on the border of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, but we were starting on the Brazil side in Foz do Iguaçu.

First class travel

First class travel

The flight was a bit comical, as the spaces between the seats were so small that I struggled to even sit down. The air stewardess just laughed at me as I tried to wedge my legs in. On the bus into town Katy kept on saying to me that she could smell soy sauce…I just thought the heat was getting to her. When we arrived at the hostel, we soon realised where the smell was coming from, and it was not good news. For the past two weeks I had been carrying around a bottle of soy sauce for Katy’s home cooked delights, and this had come open in my back-pack and covered half of my clothes. Most of the sauce had eventually soaked into the sleeping bag that I have carried around for 15 months and only used twice (now in the bin). On the bright side my bag is looking half empty now.

That evening we went to a Rodizio restaurant, which is a Brazilian style steakhouse. We helped ourselves to some salads and sides, and then a precession of waiters began to bring us meat…lots of meat, non-stop for about two hours. There were over 32 different types and cuts of meat to choose from, and we just didn’t know when to stop…so we didn’t  We tried pork, beef, rabbit, chicken and about ten different cuts of beef. But the meal finished on a high (for Katy anyway) when the waiter brought a full joint of pork with a huge bit of crackling on the side. She said “don’t bother with the meat; just give me the crackling”…in her best Portuguese obviously. It was a huge meal that was finished off with home-made ice cream.

Iguaçu Falls

Iguaçu Falls

We were up early the next morning with a meat hangover for our first visit to the falls. Originally we had wanted to do the Brazil side first, but our flight times the previous day changed so we didn’t have time. We decided to take a tour as it supposedly made it much quicker and easier to cross the border to Argentina. We had also been told that we could just get dropped off and make our own way around the various trekking routes at the falls and meet the group later for our lift back into town.

What actually happened was it took us nearly three hours to cross the border, which included a half hour stop whilst our tour guide disappeared with our passports into his friend’s house (to photocopy them no doubt). When we did eventually arrive at the park we were told that we had to stay with him. He refused to give us a meeting point, and when Katy kicked up a bit of a fuss about it he was quite rude to her in front of the whole group. As you can imagine this didn’t go down well at all.    

Iguazu Falls

Iguazu Falls

Our first stop in the park was Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s throat), a walkway which takes you over the river and above the falls…amazing. We had to get a small train to the start of the trail and were accompanied by thousands of butterflies along the way. The walkway ended right above the main waterfall and I am sure our pictures do not do it justice but the sheer size of the waterfall let alone the thunderous sound it made was just incredible.

Stumble and Fall

Stumble and Fall

We got covered in the waterfalls spray which made it hard to take a decent picture and we also had to elbow quite a few other tourists out of the way but it was such a spectacular sight as tonnes of water per second pours over the cliffs and the mist rises amongst the jungle. They are taller than Niagara Falls, and twice as wide. Numerous islands along the 2.7km edge divide the falls into about 275 separate waterfalls, varying between 60 to 82 metres.

All Fall Down

All Fall Down

We continued our tour of the falls by following the upper and then lower trails each giving a very different perspective of the falls. We opted out of the boat trip which actually took you under the falls but it did look amazing and a lot of fun.

Piti-fall

Piti-fall

After a long day in the searing sun, we made our way back to our hostel still on the Argentinian side to meet our friend Candy that we met in Florianopolis. We enjoyed dinner and drinks and compared notes on our falls experience so far.

Delight-fall

Delight-fall

The following day we got on a bus for another trip to the falls, this time on the Brazil side. Most people try and see the falls from both sides as each side offers a very different view and experience. We’d been told that the Brazilian side was not as good but we were really looking forward to exploring this side especially as we were tour guide free.

Wonder-fall

Wonder-fall

It was another really sunny day, and thankfully the walkways through the jungle were much quieter and more relaxing then Argentina. It probably helped that we were not being herded around in a group, but we immediately preferred this side of the falls. The views were amazing, although you aren’t quite as close as you are in Argentina. We spent a few hours slowly making our way along the path until we reached Garganta do Diablo, this time on a walkway in front of it rather than above it.

Plenti-fall

Plenti-fall

As with most attractions like this, the experience is slightly tainted by the amount of people you are competing for space with. It was the same at Angkor Wat and various other places we’ve visited. This is just the price you pay for visiting such a unique attraction. Perhaps we planned badly and shouldn’t have visited on a Saturday…perhaps we shouldn’t have got a tour guide? At the end of the day it was well worth the effort to see the falls and we got to tick off our fourth natural wonder of the world.

Free Fall

Free Fall

With just a few weeks left we’re headed for the beach and trying hard not to think about cold and rainy London.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

Cheap nights in and sun-kissed skin

We arrived at Montevideo airport in Uruguay ready for some sun, and that is exactly what we got. It was nearly 40°C and we were quick to get to our hostel and find a nice spot for some lunch and a beer. It has become a bit of a tradition to see in a new country with a few beers, and it was a very enjoyable afternoon just soaking in the sun and the sights over a few cold ones.

What we noticed while sunning ourselves is how much the locals like hot-dogs (panchos). People go for lunch and just order five of them. We’ve seen a lot of fast food in South America, and a lot of hot-dogs, but Uruguay seems to have taken it to a whole new level. There are hot-dog vans all over the city, and most seem to be open 24 hours a day. Not the healthiest or appealing national dish, but that doesn’t surprise me at all with South American food.

Hola Uruguay

Hola Uruguay

Another thing they go mad for is Mate (pronounced Matay), a traditional drink made of dried leaves of yerba mate mixed with hot water and drunk through a silver straw…tea basically. We tried some in Argentina and Katy thought it tasted like cabbage juice. We’ve seen a lot of people drink it recently but in Uruguay it’s almost like they’re addicted to it. They carry around thermos flasks of hot water everywhere they go either under their arms or they have special bags to carry both the flask and the traditional style Mate mug. I thought us Brit’s were mad about our tea.

Mate madness

Mate madness

We were only in the capital for two nights, so we decided to have an early-ish night to ensure we didn’t sleep in the following day. What we had forgotten about places that are hot are the mosquitoes. We were in a dorm room with no fan or air-con, and it was ridiculously hot. There were literally hundreds of mosquitoes in the room; so many that we could hear them buzzing around our heads. We had to sleep with the cover over our heads and dripping with sweat. Let’s just say it wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. That’s what you get when choose the cheapest hostel in town though.

The next day we still managed to get up early and decided to take a walk along the famous promenade that the hostel owner had highly recommended. It was really hot again, and we were looking forward to seeing some nice beaches. What actually happened was that we walked along a walkway that was next to the sea; a sea full of sewage. The walkway was adjoined by a very busy duel carriageway and the walk took us through some very dodgy parts of the city. There were various very drunk tramps keen on getting acquainted with Katy, so it wasn’t quite the romantic walk we had imagined especially as it was recommended to us. On the brightside, it was still sunny.

We hadn’t originally planned to come to Uruguay, but we decided that it might be nice to get some beach time after a few months of countryside and cities. That is the beauty of not having a set plan when travelling; you can make it up as you go along. One thing you can’t count on however is the weather. We have been so lucky on our trip as we have not really hit any sustained bad weather along the way. We counted a total of about ten days that it has rained during our trip, and that’s not bad in 14 months.

This week however our luck ran out. We had been hoping for ten days sunning ourselves in the hippie beach town of Punta Del Diablo, but when we arrived it was grey and overcast…a reminder of what we have to look forward to on our return to London. The weather forecast for the rest of the week didn’t look much better either. On our second night, there was a huge storm which knocked out all of the power and left everyone stranded in the hostel.

Grey days

Grey days

Most of the town was closed as the season doesn’t start until 31st December. That meant that there was a supermarket and one very expensive restaurant open…and that was it. It may have been a blessing in disguise though, as it really helped us save some money. We’ve been having some really nice (and healthy) home-cooked meals courtesy of Katy while we have been here, and it has saved us a fortune. We had our first jacked potato in 14 months, and it was absolutely amazing. It’s quite funny what gets us excited when it comes to food nowadays.

Our hostel

Our hostel

Thankfully the weather did pick up, so the first thing we did was visit the Santa Teresa National Park. We got a bus about 15 minutes up the road to the entrance to the park and began our trek. It was very quiet along the paths, and it almost felt like we were the only people in the park that day.

Llamas

Llamas

The path runs parallel to various beaches, and there is plenty of wildlife to see along the way, including llamas, horses, peacocks, monkeys and hundreds of different types of birds. There were green parrots everywhere we looked.

Playa Grande

Playa Grande

Some of the beaches we saw were stunning, and we were the only people on them. We had been warned that it was a long walk back, and it was beginning to take its toll in the hot sun. We had been told of a short cut towards the end of the walk which would take us directly back to our hostel. We thought we had found it as we followed a small path leading from the beach. We had actually walked into a cow field. It was all fine until two of the cows started charging towards us. I don’t think I have ever seen Katy panic so much. She even decided to take her red cap off in case it was attracting them.

Just another beach

Just another beach

Eventually we lost the cows, but we were still stuck in a farmer’s field. Rather than turn around and risk being chased by cows again, we decided to follow the fence round until we got back to the entrance.  As we approached the farmer’s house in the corner of the field, two dogs came charging towards us, and let’s just say that they weren’t too happy to see us. Thankfully we got away without being bitten by rabid dogs or trampled by cows and eventually found our way out of the field. The problem was that we were actually about 1km further back than when we entered the field. It probably added an extra hour and 4km to our trek, but it was quite funny none-the-less.

Playa Viuda

Playa Viuda

Thankfully the good weather continued, and for the rest of the week we enjoyed the sun. We went on a few more walks down different beaches, watched another great North London derby and prepared for our final month of travelling. Just one more country to visit before our flight home…Brazil.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

Argy-bargy in Buenos Aires

Sometimes this blog is quite difficult to write, or at least write and keep it vaguely interesting. It has got harder as our trip has gone on, but is usually hindered by the fact that sometimes we do very little of any interest. That’s not to say that we haven’t been having a great time…just that we’ve had a quiet few days or weeks…and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing in Buenos Aires.

We had a pretty action packed few weeks in the south of Argentina, so we booked an apartment for our time in the city, and it was good to have our own place rather than staying in dorms for a change. It turned out that our friends Kristin and Matt were here at the same time, so we offered them our sofa bed for a few days…in exchange for wine of course.

San Telmo

San Telmo

Our first few days were dominated with very little other than eating and drinking. We were staying in a nice area of the city called San Telmo, which has loads of small restaurants and bars to visit. BA can take some getting used to though. Most locals don’t go out for dinner until well after 21:00, they might then pop out for a few drinks at about 23:00 and won’t hit the clubs until at least 03:00. Luckily we’re far too old for clubs nowadays, so that wasn’t really a problem.

Another steak dinner

Another steak dinner

One thing we had both said we wanted to do while we were here is watch a football match. It’s such a huge part of their culture that it is a must for a person visiting; especially in Buenos Aires. When we looked into it, it turns out that the big derby game was on at the weekend. Now this isn’t just any derby game…this is River Plate vs Boca Juniors…El Superclásico.

Superclásico

Superclásico

The rivalry between Boca and River Plate is the most intense in Argentine football and in my opinion the rest of the world as well. Buenos Aires has the highest concentration of football teams of any city in the world, and River and Boca are the two main clubs. Both clubs are originally from the dockland area of the city, but 90 years ago it was decided that one of the clubs needed to move to a different area of the city. So they played a game to decide who should move, and Boca won. River moved away from the area to a more upmarket district with a more affluent fan base, hence their nickname, Los Millionarios.

Boca Juniors fans

Boca Juniors fans

This now leaves without doubt the fiercest, most vibrant, loud and violent derby experiences in the world. Anyone who doubts this really should take the time to look at some of my videos of the game below. This game was even more intense as it was the first time they have played each other in 15 months, as River were relegated to the second division last season.

Tickets for the game were a budget busting £150, including a guide, pizza and beer. We had also read that this might not be the best game for women to attend, so Katy decided to leave it to me. I thought this all may have been slightly exaggerated, but when we got our security briefing on the bus, I realised that I was wrong. I was told not to speak in English to anyone. If anybody asks a question in English, just reply “no entiendo” (i.e. I don’t understand). We were told not to get our cameras or tickets out before we had to and all bags should be left on the bus.

The National Stadium

The National Stadium

Let’s just say the walk from the bus to the stadium was a bit tense. It was so obvious that we were a group of tourists; mainly as we were the only group of people within three square miles without club colours on. Thankfully before we drew too much attention, a group of Boca fans already in the stadium started to throw things from the balcony down on the entering River fans, diverting any attention away from us.  All this and it was still two and a half hours before kick-off.

Most of the stadium is old style terracing with the rest unreserved seating. Even though we were so early, most of the stadium was already full and watching the equivalent game for the reserves. The noise even at that point was deafening, and made the atmosphere at most big premiership games seem rather drab. There is a capacity of 65,000, but so many people were pushing through the turnstiles I would guess that at least 75,000 were in there.

A bit crowded

A bit crowded

After a long wait we were treated to a 2-2 draw with Boca scoring in the last minute to equalise. To be honest though, what was going on in the stands was drawing more interest. Just before the second half started, the River fans inflated a giant pig dressed in Boca colours, suspended directly in front of the Boca fans. I’m not sure how they got this through the strict security and into the stadium, but let’s just say this didn’t go down very well.

The Boca fans proceeded to rip up every chair from their section and throw it down onto the River fans. Some stewards were sent in to try to calm them down, and just got a severe beating (see my video below that already has over 40,000 views on YouTube). We have since heard rumours that two of the stewards actually died from their injuries.

It was all a bit bizarre as while this was all going on, the game continued below as if nothing was happening. Apparently this type of thing is quite common, and so much so that away fans are banned from most grounds. It was an amazing experience. I got to see a pretty good game, but the sheer noise of the crowd were what really made it for me.

While all of this was going on, Katy, Kristin and Matt were in San Telmo for the Sunday market. Somehow I think I got the better deal. We visited the market the following week as well, and it is a really nice place for a Sunday stroll. We went for an amazing steak lunch at a great restaurant called Gran Parrilla del Plata, which is one of many that had been recommended to us. We did our best to sample them all during our two weeks in town.

San Telmo Market

San Telmo Market

We also had a few nights out in Palermo, which is another area of the city with hundreds of bars and restaurants to choose from. It’s quite difficult to know where exactly to go as there is so much choice, but we knew a few people that lived here so they helped with a few tips.

Yet another steak dinner

Yet another steak dinner

We’re now getting ready to leave and head into Uruguay. Argentina has been incredible, and by far our favourite country in South America so far. It’s a big place as well, and there are so many areas that we didn’t get a chance to see. Hopefully we will get the chance to come back some day and see some more.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

Great steaks…and some lakes

The bus to Bariloche was long, slightly uncomfortable and tiring, but actually wasn’t as bad as we expected. At home we wouldn’t even consider getting on a bus for 20 hours, but in South America it’s pretty much the norm. We were entertained along the way with a few films, and Katy’s highlight was playing bus bingo. Every time she got a number she almost jumped out of her seat. A warning to all her friends back home…Gala Bingo may be on the agenda on our return.

View from the bus

View from the bus

Bariloche is a really nice city built in the foothills of the Andes. It overlooks a beautiful lake with snow-capped mountains in the background, and we arrived with clear blue skies and plenty of sunshine. I’ve since learnt that it is famous for harbouring Nazi war criminals, including Hitler after WWII. You can see why they may have settled there, as it looks like a Bavarian town with wooden houses, barbecued sausages and chocolate shops everywhere to be seen.

Somebody we had met in Bolivia had recommended a restaurant there (La Parrilla de Tony), so on our first night we decided to check it out. It wasn’t cheap, but we were both craving meat and were almost drooling as we looked through the window. We ordered the mixed grill for two and a nice bottle of wine and waited in anticipation. When the waiter brought the meat over, we were both slightly disappointed as there wasn’t very much of it. That was until he continued to bring meat every five minutes. Lamb, fillet steak, sirloin steak, pork loin, chorizo, chicken…it just didn’t end. Eventually we had to tell the waiter that we couldn’t eat any more. We certainly got our money’s worth though, and then slowly waddled back to our hostel.

Our first plate - not for vegetarians

Our first plate – not for vegetarians

The hostel we were staying in was pretty bad, so we changed to another hostel our friends Nathalie and Adam were staying in. It was a bit of a walk out of town (up a very steep hill), but had great views of the lake and the mountains. The four of us decided to hire a car and take a visit to the national park, to see Ventisquero Negro (a black glacier) and Mount Tronador.

The entrance to the Nahuel Huapi National Park was about a forty minute drive away with some stunning views of the lakes. These views only got better once we entered the park.  Crystal clear lakes surrounded by forests and mountains, with the odd farm or camp site thrown in along the way. The road wasn’t the best, and was dusty and bumpy, but the scenery made up for it. We were driving for about two hours before we stopped for a picnic near the base camp of the mountain.

One of the many lakes

One of the many lakes

After our lunch we were ready to see the main attraction, but we were slightly underwhelmed by the black glacier. It is black because the ice has been covered in dirt caused by landslides and avalanches from the mountain. It actually just looks like rocks, so not really that impressive. Again, maybe we’re getting harder to please.

No really...it is a glacier

No really…it is a glacier

So we continued up to the base camp of Mount Tronador. There were signs telling us that the paths leading up the mountain were closed, but we were all determined to get closer to the top so we could play in the snow. It’s coming into spring here, so the ice and snow is melting causing mini waterfalls all over the place. When we reached the snow, we all turned into little kids and had a snowball fight and just enjoyed the view.

We touched that snow

We touched that snow

Mount Tronador gets its name from the sound it makes when avalanches occur. We soon got a shock when a mini avalanche came down close to us making a huge noise like thunder. It was at that point that Katy decided that she had spent long enough there and wanted to go back to the car. There was a huge layer of ice and snow just above us, so it was probably a good idea.

We finished the day with an ice cold beer back near base camp before the two hour drive back to Bariloche. It was yet another great day out, capped off with a nice home made dinner with some good red wine back at the hostel.

Well deserved beers

Well deserved beers

After saying our goodbyes to Nathalie and Adam, we made our way to the airport for our flight to El Calafate in Patagonia. Yes you heard it right, our flight. After spending so many hours on buses all of the way through South America, we finally managed to find flights cheap enough for us to afford. It was actually the same price and getting the bus if we bought a multi city ticket, so we have more flights to look forward to as well.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

Wine(ding) our way through Chile

The flight to Santiago although late, passed without incident. We had arranged an airport pick-up from our hostel, and it felt like a very civilised way to travel. A hell of a lot better than the alternative of a twenty four hour bus journey anyway. Santiago is a very European looking city, and after a few days in the most basic of accommodation in Bolivia, it was nice to get some home comforts back.

View from Cerro Santa Lucía

View from Cerro Santa Lucía

We spent our days exploring the city, and taking in as many free attractions as we could. It’s an expensive place to be, so reigning in Katy’s spending habits was taking more effort than usual. We saved money by cooking more of our own meals (well Katy more than me), and sticking to a few wines at the hostel rather than beers at a bar. The wine here is cheap. For £3 you can get a good bottle of red or white, and this is actually becoming quite dangerous. I’ve drunk more wine in the last two months than ever, and with Argentina coming next I don’t see that slowing down.

After a few days we decided to head to Valparaiso on the coast for some sun. It’s only about two hours away from Santiago, and very close to the beach town of Viña del Mar. Our plans were slightly thwarted though as on arrival the temperature dropped, and we were left with a very overcast looking coastline. So instead we got comfortable in our warm room, with some home cooked meals and some more Chilean wine.

Main Square Valparaiso

Main Square Valparaiso

As the weather didn’t get any better over the next couple of days, we decided that we had to explore, bad weather or not. Someone had recommended a free walking tour, so we thought it might be a good way to get to know the city. Valparaiso was once a major port and one of the richest cities in South America, before the Panama Canal opened. Since then it has fallen on bad times, and so there are many amazing colonial buildings which have been left to rot.

Funiculars

Funiculars

Most of the houses are built into the surrounding very steep hills. Instead of struggling to walk up and down these hills every day, they built funiculars, or cliff railways. There are not many that are still running in the city, but it is still a preferred way of getting up the hills.

The other thing that Valparaiso is famous for is the street art, or graffiti. It is so common there that people actually pay artists to paint the front of their houses. There is an unwritten rule that you cannot tag over someone else’s art. Therefore getting your house painted prevents any other unwanted graffiti. It makes Valparaiso a very colourful place, and there are some amazing pieces around the city.

Taking street art to the next step

Taking street art to the next step

While we were there we also visited Viña del Mar. It is only ten minutes away by metro, and is a nice beach town. You can see how this place gets packed in the summer, but with the weather being cold and overcast it was practically a ghost town. There are lots of nice looking bars and restaurants, all of which looked out of our price range. Instead we headed back to Valparaiso for dinner in a traditional restaurant that had been recommended to us. We had a great night with a local band playing old school Chilean songs. We were the only gringos in the place, so we got a few strange looks, but everyone was very welcoming. Katy managed to start flirting with a fireman, and after paying for a raffle ticket, she even got to wear his hat.

Where's the fire

Where’s the fire

It was typical that on the day that we decided to return to Santiago the weather picked up and the sun was shining. We checked into a different hostel that was cheaper and which offered free breakfast and dinner. It wasn’t the nicest place, but for the price we had a bargain.

Our Chilean friends that we met in San Pedro De Attacama, Francisco and Penelope, had invited us to their house, so we headed over there for Sunday lunch. We had a really good afternoon, with a few glasses of wine and some great food. I was surprised when Katy (who isn’t exactly a dog lover) fell in love with their toy poodle, Pasha. She even threatened to kidnap her, but that may have been the wine talking.

Chilean friends

Chilean friends

Before we left Chile, Katy said that it was imperative that we visit at least one vineyard, so that’s exactly what we did. It was actually quite expensive, but who am I to argue with a girl with a wine craving. We had a private car to take us one hour out of town to visit the Undurraga Vineyard.

Undurraga Vineyard

Undurraga Vineyard

We were taking the tour with Louise from Australia, who had just arrived at our hostel. The grounds were really nice, and luckily the sun had come out which made a big difference. Our guide explained the whole wine making process and the differences between the different grapes.

Almost ready for drinking

Almost ready for drinking

We spent an hour being shown around the site, including the cellars and the fermenting areas. We finished with a small tasting of four wines. The servings were conservative (in my opinion) but it was good to taste different varieties. The big let-down was the fact that there was no wine bar on site, and no food served with the wine…maybe a good thing considering our shrinking budget.

More barrels

More barrels

To make up for this, we decided to go for a local Chilean drink in the centre of Santiago. A Terremoto (or earthquake) is a combination of fermented homemade white wine, grenadine and pineapple ice cream. It sounds a bit strange, but people don’t really drink this for its taste. It’s called an ‘earthquake’ as it leaves your legs shaking afterwards. Katy and I had already tried one of these previously in the same bar, and it was as local as they come. It’s called La Piojera and I would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Santiago.

Terremoto

Terremoto

We were the only gringos in there, and we were treated to some special attention. We even had the local musicians serenading the girls…it must be the blonde hair. It was a great end to our time in Chile, and a day that I’m sure we may regret tomorrow morning when we get our early bus to Argentina.

The centre of attention

The centre of attention

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

Salt flats, alpaca hats and lips that are chapped

The road from Tupiza to Uyuni was definitely a journey to remember, and not of the bad kind. It is only just over 200km, but took six hours. This was mainly down to the fact that there are no roads as such, and most of the journey was winding through valleys, canyons and hills. It was a spectacular end to our stay in Tupiza, and yet another great experience that Bolivia has brought us.

The road to Uyuni

The road to Uyuni

Uyuni is one of the most popular towns for tourists in Bolivia. This isn’t because it’s a nice place to visit (which it isn’t particularly), it’s because it’s the main point for visiting the Salar de Uyuni (the Uyuni salt flats). We had originally planned to take the trip from Tupiza, but it was difficult to tie in crossing the border to Chile from there. So instead, after searching long and hard through the hundreds of tour agencies, we found a tour that came highly recommended and had a lot of activities that weren’t included in the normal tours.

We were joined on our tour by some friends we met in Colombia, Matt and Kristin from Texas. They are doing a slightly different route to us, but we managed to arrange it so that we crossed paths again. When we arrived at the bus station we were met by our guide, Jose. There was some concern as Matt and Kristin hadn’t checked in with the agency, and we had received no emails from them. After an hour or so, and some frantic emails, we bumped into them on the main plaza, and it turns out we were staying in the same hotel, and had been waiting at the bus station with a little welcome sign.

All aboard

All aboard

The night turned into a wine drenched evening of catching up and cards. We had bought some supplies of wine to take on the salt flat tour with us, but the supplies were severely diminished by the end of the night. The next morning we were all moving slightly slower than usual, but excited about starting our trip. The first stop was a train cemetery. It’s a bit of a strange thing to find in the middle of the desert, but there were steam trains dating back to the 1880s. Uyuni used to be the place where trains would be brought for repair, but now they are just abandoned and begging for the attention of gringo’s cameras. There are lots of tours that do very similar routes, and it feels like a bit of a conveyor belt. So we left quite quickly to try and get ahead of the pack.

Train Cemetery

Train Cemetery

This didn’t really help though as when we arrived at our next stop, the salt mines; there were already dozens of 4x4s already there. As it was a Sunday there were no workers around, but we had a quick tour and Jose explained how they turn the raw material from the flats into salt fit for the table. All of this salt is mined from the salt flats, which we were introduced to next.

Amazing backdrop

Amazing backdrop

Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 km², and it’s an impressive sight. Set against a clear blue sky, it looks like a giant ice rink, and even sounds like snow when walking on it. All of the other tours give you a couple of minutes to walk around and take pictures before loading you back into the 4x4s and driving you to lunch. We however were given bikes so we could ride around on the flats, and make our own way to lunch. The ride was probably about 5km at most, and the sun was helping us keep warm. Unfortunately a little too warm as that evening we were all very pink.

Getting pink

Getting pink

After lunch of llama steak served in a salt hotel (something you don’t get to do every day), we drove to a very remote area of the flats to take some funny perspective pictures. There are no reference points around you, so it’s the perfect place to do it. Jose asked us to come up with some ideas the previous day, but we weren’t really inspired. Thankfully he had some great ideas, and helped us with ideas and getting into position. Some of the photos were really effective and others not so much. But we had a great time messing around on the flats, and even had time for some frisbee.

Mmmm...Pringles

Mmmm…Pringles

When we eventually dragged ourselves away we visited Incahuasi Island in the centre of the salt flats. It is covered in huge cacti, and makes a very bizarre landscape against the backdrop of the salt flats. Some of the cacti are over 9m tall and 900 years old. Another island we went to visit had a huge cave where we escaped from the sun. The islands are the remains of volcanos that weren’t covered when the flats were formed by the uprising of the Andes.

Incahuasi island

Incahuasi island

It had been a long day, but we weren’t finished yet. On the way back to our hotel for the night, we stopped to get some pictures of the sunset. Jose told us that we must get a picture of us jumping in front of the sun, and we were a bit sceptical. We don’t usually take these cheesy type of pictures, but we were quite shocked at how good it looked.

Salt Flat Sunset

Salt Flat Sunset

After a very dodgy dinner of pique macho (one of Bolivia’s national dishes), we had barely gotten through our first bottle of wine before Jose was back. He took us out in the freezing cold of night to the centre of the flats to look at the stars. When we first got out of the jeep I was shocked. Back in the UK you don’t really get any decent views of the stars due to all of the city lights. This was totally different though. There were so many stars, and you could see the Milky Way really clearly. We just lay on the floor, enjoyed the rest of our wine and just took it all in. We saw loads of shooting stars, and it was a great end of a really good day.

Transportation

Transportation

We had been warned that the flats were really cold at night, but our hotel wasn’t cold at all. We had a good night’s sleep, and the next day we were primed and ready for more. Our first stop was a lookout over a volcano. We had expected to walk up to the crater, so we were slightly disappointed when we found that we were over 1km away from it. The rest of the day we saw lakes of various different colours. All of the lakes had flamingos…and lots of them.

Flamingos

Flamingos

After slowly made our way to just less than 5000m above sea level before we arrived at our hotel for the night. It had already started to get pretty cold, but as soon as the sun went down it dropped even more. So we layered up with as much alpaca as we could find, and enjoyed playing cards with Jose whilst enjoying some more wine.

Geysers

Geysers

We had a fairly early night as the next morning we were up at 04:00am to go and see the sun rise. I think we have said before that we much prefer sunsets to sunrises, but this was a sunrise with a difference. First on the agenda was a visit to the geysers. It was bitterly cold at that time of the morning, and Katy blankly refused to get out of the jeep. Matt, Kristin and I walked around them for as long as we could, before the cold got too much for us. We got back in the jeep and headed for our next stop, a dip in some hot springs.

Hot Springs

Hot Springs

This involved stripping down to our bathing suits (don’t worry, we weren’t naked) and jumping in the small natural pool that was about 35°. Everybody was a bit hesitant as it was so cold, so I decided to take the lead. After just a short jog to the pool it was a relief to get in. The problem was getting out and getting dry. There were no toilets or changing rooms, so it involved holding a towel around each other and trying not to get frostbite in the process. While all this was going on Jose had prepared breakfast for us, a hot drink and some food was perfect for warming us up.

The last part of our trip was our transfer to the Chile border. Matt and Kristin still had a few weeks left in Bolivia, so we said our emotional goodbyes before they headed back to Uyuni. We on the other hand were left in the middle of the desert waiting for our bus. It was absolutely freezing (around -10°) and we were stuck there for an hour. Let’s just say that we were not happy.

Bolivia - Chile border crossing

Bolivia – Chile border crossing

We were there with two Australian couples, Matt & Allie and Leo & Catherine. Once the bus had driven us to San Pedro in Chile, we all got off for the border control. We had been warned that it could take up to two hours to get through, but it was actually a really quick process. Just as our sprits started to lift, we were greeted with some bad news. It was Independence Day in Chile, and virtually everything was booked out. To make things worse, none of the cash points were working with our bank cards, so we couldn’t even get any money out. We had absolutely no money on us, so it looked like another fine start to a new country.

Thankfully after speaking to a few tour agents, we managed to find a hostel that had spare beds. We also borrowed some money from our new Aussie friends, so we could finally start to relax…or so we thought.

The next step was to work out how to get to Santiago. We knew it was a 24 hour bus trip, but because of the Independence Day celebrations all of the buses were booked out. Our next option was to check hire cars, but they were also all booked out. The final option was to get a flight. After searching for an hour or so, Katy managed to find a reasonable for $130 (only $20 more than the bus). Unfortunately they didn’t accept online booking with foreign credit cards. So instead we got chatting to a local couple that were staying in our hostel; Francisco and Penelope. Francisco kindly offered to try and help us by phoning the company and paying over the phone. After almost an hour on the phone, we finally had our flight booked, and decided to celebrate with a few drinks with our new Chilean friends.

This turned into a few more, and eventually they persuaded us to join them to a party in the town. There was a live Chilean Hip-Hop band that were really good, and we stood around a bonfire with a few beers and getting to know each other a bit better. Katy and I were the last ones standing, and we didn’t get back to our hostel until 04:30am. We had been up 24 hours, not eaten dinner and had drunk far too much rum and beer.

This morning we were both suffering, and we have struggled to do anything all day. We had a minor emergency when our flights had to be re-booked for more money, but it was all sorted in the end. We’re just about to enjoy a BBQ tonight, and hopefully we can begin to enjoy Chile without any more dramas.

We were a bit sad to leave Bolivia as we had really enjoyed our time there. There are so many different things to do, and it’s such a diverse country. I would definitely recommend it to anyone, and hopefully our last few stops will be as good as Bolivia.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

Bolivia takes off with a crash landing

Our time in Bolivia started with a visit to Copacabana and Lake Titicaca. We had heard really good things about the place from people we had met in Cusco, especially one of the islands on the lake called Isla Del Sol. The lake itself is the largest in South America, and it separates Peru from Bolivia. The border crossing was simple enough, although there were a few Americans on the bus that had a harder time getting across than us, with one girl even getting refused.

We had an afternoon recovering from our overnight journey and relaxing in the sun before meeting some friends from Peru (Jo and Tommy) for dinner. We went to a great restaurant that I would highly recommend called La Orilla. A good fillet steak or amazing fresh water trout with a glass of wine for under £5 can’t be bad, and a great way to welcome in a new country.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

The next morning we got up early to get a boat to the north of Isla Del Sol, which took about three hours. Thankfully it was a nice day, so we took in the sights before arriving at the tiny port. Most people on the boat were booked on as part of a tour, but we had decided that we would explore the island on our own. We knew a rough route to take us down to the port in the south of the island, and we knew we had a maximum of about four hours to walk it. We saw loads of animals along the way as most of the land is used for farming, and we even had a dog for company for the first couple of miles of the walk.

Northern port of Isla Del Sol

Northern port of Isla Del Sol

The walk itself had some stunning views over the lake with the snow-capped Andes in the background. It was a hot day, and at over 3800m above sea level some of the hills seemed more like mountains. We had a quick break in the middle of a farm where in our best broken Spanish we asked for directions. When we were pointed up one of the bigger hills of the island, Katy didn’t seem too happy, and we soon found ourselves having another break. Forty minutes later we stumbled across another farmer who told us we had been going in the completely wrong direction, but for a small fee he could get us back on track. By this point Katy wasn’t in the mood for bartering and just told me to pay the man. We got back to the south port in plenty of time though, and thoroughly enjoyed our day on the lake.

Southern port of Isla Del Sol

Southern port of Isla Del Sol

Catching up with Slaven with Strongbow or two

Catching up with Slaven with Strongbow or two

We only had two nights in Copacabana before heading to La Paz. It’s a very busy city, and a stark contrast to our last few weeks. It’s a bit of a strange city as it’s a big, but with very little to do. We struggled to find restaurants at one stage, and it wasn’t really what we expected. We did get to meet up with an old friend that we met in our first week of travelling in Beijing, Slaven. Since Beijing we also bumped into him on a desert island in Cambodia, and it was nice to catch up again after so long. We enjoyed a few drinks and a full English breakfast whilst watching some of the Sunday morning football.

La Paz is famous for its markets, and specifically anything related to alpaca. I thought we had actually bought enough alpaca clothing to last us a lifetime, but Katy was adamant that we needed more…constantly reminding me that parts of Bolivia get as cold as -15° at night.

View of La Paz

View of La Paz

The markets also sell alpaca foetuses that local witches use to cook up potions and spells. Funnily enough though, Katy wasn’t interested in buying any of those as souvenirs.

Cholitas

Cholitas

Before we left La Paz, we went to check out the local attraction that is held every Sunday. Cholitas is local wrestling, where women in traditional clothes take on the men. Not really being a fan of wrestling I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was a surprising evening. We took Slaven along with us, and not long after taking our seats in the front row were we covered in drinks being thrown out of the ring. At one point one of our fellow gringos was dragged into the ring, and I was just relived that it wasn’t me. It was all very cheesy, but a great night out none the less.

Next on the agenda was the Amazon jungle. We had been thinking about doing a jungle trip in Bolivia for some time, as it is supposed to be the cheapest place to do it. It wasn’t until we got to La Paz though that it was all booked and confirmed. We decided to go with a cheap return flight with a company that is run by the Bolivian military, called TAM.

TAM flight just after Katy's panic attack

TAM flight just after Katy’s panic attack

Katy isn’t the best flyer in the world and flying usually involves her squeezing all the blood out of my hand during take-off. This flight however was very different, with almost a full panic attack taking place. It didn’t help that the plane was about fifty years old, only held about forty people and was held together with duct tape (no joke). The main problem however was that after take-off we were flying perilously close to the surrounding mountains. Eventually though things calmed down and the panic attack was over, and forty minutes later we landed in Rurrenabaque.

The first night was much colder than we expected, and we went out for drinks and dinner with another couple from England we met on the flight, Zoe and JK. There are several tours you can do from here, but we decided to go with the Pampas tour which involved more animals and less trekking…much to Katy’s delight.

Capybara - the largest rodent in the world

Capybara – the largest rodent in the world

Our tour left early the next morning and we were joined for the very bumpy ride by four Aussies, Jess and Leigh and Kate and Andy. It was a three hour jeep ride to Santa Rosa, and we were all relieved to get out and stretch our legs before having lunch. Soon after we were on the road again, and we then made our way to the Beni River for the next leg of our trip; a three hour trip on a motorised canoe. Our guide, Juan, pointed out some of the many different types of wildlife on the way while we got to know each better and all wishing we had bought along a cerveza or two.

Spider Monkeys

Spider Monkeys

The lodge we stayed in was rickety to say the least, and we were staying in a dorm that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in a few weeks. After dinner and a cold shower, we then headed up river to spot alligators and caimans. Our torches lit up their eyes in the dark, and it was a bit unnerving seeing so many of them so close to the boat. When we headed back to camp, we made a quick pit stop in a river bar (if you can call it that) to pick up some wine. The camp only had power until 10:00pm, so we had a couple of hour playing cards and learning how much Aussies cheat.

Anaconda

Anaconda

The next day we headed out into the marsh lands looking for anacondas. The weather had got much hotter since the previous day, and it finally began to feel like we were in the jungle. Our guide, Juan told us that two weeks before he had found a seven metre anaconda not far from where we were. As we were up to our knees in swamp it was making a few of the girls a bit nervous, so after a couple of hours of  searching they gave up and started playing cards under a tree, leaving the boys to do the searching. Ten minutes later we found one. It wasn’t quite seven metres long, but it was good to finally see one after searching for so long.

On our way back to the boat Katy suddenly screamed and began jumping up and down and flapping her arms. I looked around to see dozens of wasps surrounding her and decided the best thing to do was run (obviously telling Katy to do the same thing). It turns out she had walked straight through a wasp’s nest and ended up being stung about six times. Not a very happy Katy afterwards, until we smothered her wounds with tomato sauce to ease the pain.

Piranha fishing

Piranha fishing

That afternoon we went piranha fishing in a quiet area upstream. First of all we caught some sardines as bait, and then we went for the piranhas. Katy did well and had one of the bigger catches of the day, perfect for our dinner later on that evening. On the way back to camp we headed back to the river bar where a game of football had been organised by some Irish lads on one of the other tours. We spent an hour or so running around beer in hand, trying to avoid all of the mosquitoes. It ended with the guides, English and Aussies beating the rest of the world 6-5.

Pink Dolphin

Pink Dolphin

The next morning we were supposed to be up at 05:00am to go and see the sunrise, but the previous night after quite a few bottles of red wine we all decided that we would rather have a lie in. Instead after breakfast we went to swim with dolphins (among other things) in the river. After seeing people fishing for piranhas just metres away, and a host of alligators and caimans sat on the river banks, we were all a bit nervous. Juan ensured us though that the dolphins would protect us. I’m not too sure how true this is, but either way it got us into the water.

That afternoon we had the long journey back to Rurrenabaque. It had been an amazing few days in the jungle where we saw parrots, howler monkeys, black caimans, alligators, anacondas, piranhas, pink river dolphins, macaws, eagles, vultures, hoatzins, parrots, cassowarys, rhinoceros beetles, spider monkeys, capybaras and vampire bats. Unfortunately we didn’t see any sloths or tapirs, but we were both very happy with the trip.

Post crash cards

Post crash cards

That night we all met in the Mosquito Bar along with Zoe and JK for a few drinks. It turned onto a bit of a rowdy affair before we all left (or got kicked out) for some much needed sleep. The next day we had our return flight to La Paz, or so we thought. The airport is tiny, and doesn’t really have a departure building. Instead we were all congregated on the edge of the runway waiting for our plane to arrive. As it came in to land it suddenly veered off the runway almost hitting a group on people on the grass verge. Everyone watching was pretty shocked as it looked like it was very close to being a serious accident.

Bolivian taxi service

Bolivian taxi service

The plane slowly came to a stop next to us, and there was some sort of fluid leaking from one of the engines. The locals didn’t seemed too concerned about this, and just left us to play cards under the wings so we could shield ourselves from the sun. Eventually after a couple of hours of trying to either fix the problem or organise another flight, we were told that the flight was cancelled. I think we were all quite relieved by this, as the thought of getting back on that plane was a bit worrying. So instead we decided to stay another two nights and enjoy the sunshine. Before we could even get off of the tarmac though, the bus back to town actually broke down as well, and we all had to get out and push. It was ridiculous, but kind of summed up Bolivia.

Swimming pool in the Amazon Jungle

Swimming pool in the Amazon Jungle

We found a bar that had a nice swimming pool, and spent our extra day catching up on some sun. We knew the next day was going to be busy because as soon as we got to La Paz, we had an overnight bus booked to take us to Sucre. This actually turned into a very stressful day. First of all our flight was over an hour late leaving, then it took an age to get our bags off the plane. Then as we got a cab back to our hotel to pick up our bags it was diverted as roads were closed. I also had to run to the ticket office to pick up our bus tickets. When we got into another cab to take us to the bus station, as he went to leave the battery died, and we both had to get out and push the cab, again.

Eventually we got to the station with about 15 minutes to spare, but the attendant wouldn’t let us put our bags on the bus. Instead he told us to wait outside the bus and he would come back. Well we waited there until the bus driver closed the door and started driving away. I was shouting at him to stop but he just ignored me, so instead I stood in front of the bus to stop it from leaving. Eventually the attendant came back and took our bags, and we got aboard. We had to laugh about it, but it was not the easiest day of travelling…another one to add to the list.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link (more will be added in due course):

Until the next time.

Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

About eight months ago, we were sat on a beach in Thailand talking about all the things we were looking forward to doing in South America. Machu Picchu was there on the list, and it’s actually been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now.

What we have learnt since we’ve been away is that guide books (mainly Lonely Planet guidebooks) are pretty rubbish. They may give you some useful information along the way, but too many times have they led us astray by missing or out of date information; and this trip was one of those occasions.

We knew from speaking to various people who had already been to Machu Picchu that if you wanted to do the Inka Trail that you had to book at least two months in advance. As the Inka Trail is expensive and we had no set plans that far in advance, that pretty much ruled us out of the trip. Instead what we found out was that you could get a train up to Machu Picchu instead. This gave us much more flexibility as we could book the trip much closer to the time when we knew roughly when we would be in Cusco. What the various guidebooks didn’t detail is that there are many other treks you can do to Machu Picchu that are much cheaper and readily available. Many of the people we have met in Cusco literally booked their trek two days before the trip.

All aboard

All aboard

Not being deterred though, we began our train journey from Poroy just outside of Cusco. It’s been a while since we have travelled by train as not many countries in South America have rail systems. It was quite an old fashioned train that moved slowly through the countryside, but it gave us a chance to take in the spectacular views along the way. What we didn’t realise was that Cusco is actually at a higher altitude. The rail system allows the trains to descend very steep hills by using zigzag train lines where trains have to reverse in order to continue. The line has seven full zigzags before continuing normally. Hopefully that makes some kind of sense, as it seems very difficult to describe.

Snow-capped view from our train

Snow-capped view from our train

The journey lasted about three hours, and along the way we were treated to some stunning views of snow-capped mountains and the rugged countryside of the Sacred Valley. It was actually a really nice way to travel, and we were quite excited by the time we reached our destination, Aguas Calientes.

View of the Sacred Valley

View of the Sacred Valley

Aguas Calientes is a small town just twenty minutes away from Machu Picchu, and a place that almost everyone who visits the site passes through at some point. It’s very laid back with lots of restaurants, and the rail system passes directly through the centre of town. After checking into our hostel (which had great views over the river) we headed out to buy our bus tickets for the following morning. That evening we went out for a few drinks with two other couples that we met in Cusco who were also visiting Machu Picchu the following day. It was a fairly quiet night as we had an early start in the morning.

Winding through the Sacred Valley

Winding through the Sacred Valley

04:15am is not a natural time to get out of bed, yet since we have been away I have been up at this time more times than ever. Somehow we managed to drag ourselves out of bed and down to the bus stop by 04:45am. It wasn’t as cold as we expected, but that was probably due to the amount of cloud around that morning. We had been unlucky with the weather when we visited the Great Wall of China earlier in our trip, and it looked like the same was going to happen here.

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu in the mist

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu in the mist

We were very privileged to be one of the first people into the site, and it was great to see it without the swarming tourists that were expected later in the day. We had to arrive early as we had tickets to climb Huayna Picchu at 07:00am. Huayna Picchu is a mountain that overlooks the site, and only 400 people are allowed to climb it per day. I don’t think Katy knew what she had let herself in for until she saw the mountain towering over the site when we arrived. We quickly made our way through the Machu Picchu site to get to the entrance to Huayna Picchu, and then started the ascent. Some parts of the climb were very steep, and there were various moments that Katy looked at me angrily as though it were my fault. It only took us about one hour to make the ascent though, and the views from the top were well worth the effort.

A room with a view

A room with a view

As we got to the top the clouds started to clear, and we sat down to eat our breakfast and enjoy the view. After a suitable rest and plenty of photos, we started the walk back down to the site. The walk down was still fairly tricky due to the steep incline, and most people ended up on their bum at some point. It was much easier than the climb up though, and we soon made it back to Machu Picchu in one piece.

View from the top of Huayna Picchu

View from the top of Huayna Picchu

We decided to chill out in the sun for a bit and let the tour groups make their way around the site. It was really nice place to just sit and take it all in, and it actually didn’t get as busy as I expected. Once it had quietened down a bit, we slowly made our way to the exit before starting the entire loop again.

Resting after our mountain trek

Resting after our mountain trek

The site is basically a huge one way system, and as we rushed through to get to Huayna Picchu first thing in the morning, we wanted to do it all again properly. We didn’t have a guide to tell us about the site, so every now and then we would tag onto the back of an American tour group for some information.

The mandatory cheesy shot

The mandatory cheesy shot

Here’s a bit of information for those not in the know:

The site was built by the Inkas in around 1400AD, but abandoned a century later at the time of the Spanish invasion. Although known locally, it wasn’t known to the outside world until 1911 when it was discovered by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Most of the site has been reconstructed and the restoration work continues to this day. Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. The site was never known to the Spanish during their occupancy, so it is highly significant as a relatively intact cultural site.

By the time we had made it around the site again, we were getting very weary. The sun was out in full force, and quickly draining any energy that we had left. Although the site was still open for a few more hours, we decided that we would make our way back to Aguas Calientes for a much deserved beer…we had been up since 04:15am after all. The remainder of the evening was just a countdown to when we could both go to sleep as the day had caught up with us.

A small beer to finish the day

A small beer to finish the day

The next morning we had an early train to Ollantaytambo, an hour and a half away. Ollantaytambo is a nice looking town, with what looked like some nice places to eat and drink. There is also an inka site there that is supposed to be worth a visit. We however were flying through, and we quickly then jumped into a local share taxi to Urubamba. From here we then got onto a very crowded, very smelly and very old bus to Pisac. At one point Katy actually had a man sat on her lap, and most people in the bus seemed to be fairly inebriated, which seems to be a local tradition on Sundays.

Pisac is a small town near Cusco that fills up every Sunday due to its market. Similar to Otavalo in Ecuador (although nowhere near as big), this is alpaca heaven. Anyone who hasn’t already gotten their llama fix can be found here looking for bargains. Katy’s latest treat, some alpaca leg warmers…very 1980s.

Pisac market

Pisac market

So now we have left Cusco on another night bus. It was an amazing weekend, and one that we’ll remember for a long time to come. We had high expectations for Machu Picchu, and we weren’t disappointed in any way.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

Olympic marathon south ends in photo finish(ed)

After having such a great time on the north coast of Colombia, we somewhat reluctantly began the long journey south to Peru. Our first stop on the way was Colombia’s capital Bogota; a 21 hour bus trip away. The journey itself wasn’t too bad, but we were both relieved to get off and stretch our legs. Everyone had warned us that Bogota is cold but it was actually quite warm when we arrived, and we looked fairly overdressed in our alpaca jumpers. However that night we were so pleased to have our llama clad clothing, as the temperature plummeted and it was absolutely freezing.

Bogota gold museum

Bogota gold museum

We weren’t in Bogota long, but we had been told by several people that we should visit the gold museum. It wasn’t far from our hostel and was fairly cheap to get in, so we went to take a look. At this point in our trip it takes a lot to get us excited, and sadly this was not one of those times. It did have a huge collection of gold dating back thousands of years, but we’re obviously very hard to please. We also visited an art museum with various modern pieces including dozens from the famous Colombian artist, Fernando Botero.

Our next stop was San Agustin, and this couldn’t have been more different to Bogota. It is a tranquil country town with stunning views of valleys, waterfalls and undulating hills. But the main attraction, and the reason that most people visit the area, is because San Agustin is a world heritage site. Dotted around the countryside are hundreds of statues which date back thousands of years. Never one to encourage walking, Katy decided that we should take in the sights via horseback. We had managed to barter a good deal by joining two other English people we had met at our hostel, Sophie and James.

San Agustin horse trek

San Agustin horse trek

I was a bit apprehensive as I had never ridden before, and my brief lesson (in Spanish) didn’t do much to reassure me. All I was told was to pull on the reigns to stop, and at that point he slapped the horses arse and I was on my way. Thankfully he was quite a well-behaved horse, and I was doing fairly well to hold on. It didn’t take me long to work out that it was much more comfortable when the horse was actually running a bit (cantering for those in the know). Not that I really had much choice in the matter. Katy made the mistake of telling the guy she had some experience so was given a very excitable horse, and every time he started to speed up, all four of the horses joined in.

San Agustin statues

San Agustin statues

It was a great way to do it, but after four hours in the saddle I was so relieved to get off the horse. It is not natural for a man to ride a horse, cowboys or no cowboys. We retreated back to the gorgeous setting of our hostel (cushion in hand) for a few cold beers in the afternoon sun. The same day was Colombian Independence Day, and we had heard rumours of big parties and live music in the small town. We were disappointed though as there was absolutely nothing going on. Instead we headed back to the hostel and the four of us drank the French owned hostel out of red wine. Katy did point out that no French bar / restaurant should ever run out of wine, but by that point I think the owner was relieved that we were going to bed.

San Agustin

San Agustin

The following morning we were on the move again and heading back towards Ecuador. We had to have another night in Popayan to break up the journey, and were up again before sunrise to begin our worst day travelling so far. First we had an eight-hour journey to the border, followed by a four-hour wait in the small border town called Tulcan. Then we had a 14 hour overnight bus to Guayaquil in the south of Ecuador. Our bad streak with cameras continued as our camera was stolen from our bag before we arrived in Guayaquil. I even think I know who took it on the bus, but when we told the driver and a police officer at the bus station they just waved us away. Not really a nice way to wake up after an entire day travelling, and we still had to wait another three hours before getting yet another bus to Montañita on the Pacific coast.

Humpback whale

Humpback whale

It took me a few days to calm down after having the camera stolen, but Montañita was quite a good place to do so. It’s a small town with a fairly nice beach, and has hundreds of hostels, bars and restaurants busy with both locals and foreigners. On the weekend it fills up even more with locals visiting from nearby towns and cities, and can get quite rowdy. We just enjoyed some sun and did very little for the first few days.

While we were there we did get to enjoy the opening ceremony of the Olympics with an English couple we met, Chris and Morven. I thought some bits of the ceremony were really good, and some others were quite bizarre. Overall though I think it was a success and it definitely gave us an afternoon of entertainment. A lot of people have asked us if we were glad to be away for the Olympics, and I think in some ways we are. The thought of getting home on the Central Line during the games is not a nice one. But it is a shame we are not there to watch it and just to be in London during the games. I imagine there is quite a buzz to the city right now.

Humpback whale

Humpback whale

Before we left Montañita, we went whale watching an hour up the coast in a town called Puerto Lopez. It is mating season for humpback whales, so we were pretty much guaranteed to see them. This was one of those occasions that we could have really done with our decent and recently stolen camera, but instead we had to take our rubbish backup camera. The trip itself was amazing, and I was surprised how close we got to the whales. We spent a few hours in one area watching them before we left to go and do some snorkelling. On the way, a huge whale (about 15-20 meters) jumped out of the water if front of us.

It was a truly spectacular sight, and it actually continued to breach the water right next to us. Everyone on the boat decided that they would rather watch the whale than to go snorkelling, so we stayed there until the whale decided to dive and was nowhere to be seen. On the way back to shore everyone on the boat got absolutely soaked as the captain just decided to go full throttle regardless of the big waves. It wasn’t the best end to our trip, but overall it was a great day out.

Mancora beach

Mancora beach

Peru was next on the agenda, and after yet another night bus we arrived at the coastal town of Máncora. We had been recommended a hostel that was just outside of town, so when we arrived at 4:00am we got a taxi straight there. We hadn’t expected to get there until about 7:00am, so we were hoping that the hostel might have a spare room so we could get some sleep. However we had arrived on Peru’s national day, so every room was booked out and the party was still going. We were told that we could use the hammocks around the pool until a room was available at lunchtime.

Once we eventually got settled in, we got to enjoy the sun and a nice pool. With the help of one of the hostel staff and a tour operator in Cusco, we also managed to book our Machu Picchu trip. All we had to do was visit the local bank the next day and pay for it. We went into town that evening for dinner in one of the many beach-side restaurants, and enjoyed a few beers to welcome us into another country.

The next day we had the worst experience of our trip so far, and one that I hope we never have to go through again. We went into town and paid for the Machu Picchu trip, and while we were there decided to check out the bus times so we could plan our next trip. We wanted to walk back along the beach, so we cut down a road towards the shore. After walking a couple of hundred metres, we said to each other that it felt like a dodgy neighbourhood, and seconds after that it began. About five locals ran out of a house towards us, two of them brandishing knives. One of them waved me away with his knife while he grabbed the bag from Katy. In the bag were our passports, credit card, debit card, iPhone, camera, Machu Picchu ticket…everything. I chased them through another house they had run into, but they had already gone out of the back door and into a tuk-tuk.

Two of them had stayed behind and were actually talking to Katy, asking what was in the bag. After a few minutes of shouting at them that saying that we just wanted our passports back, we decided to walk back to the main road and get out of there. Before we got back to the road though, the two men we had been shouting at actually brought our bag back. The camera, money and iPhone had been taken, but everything else was in there. It was quite bizarre. It was quite traumatic, especially as it happened in broad daylight in front of people, but it could have been a hell of a lot worse. Obviously the main thing is that we weren’t hurt, but it took us a while to calm down.

That night I went to the police station to report it, and thankfully was joined by an Argentinian guy called Juan who translated for me. Nobody at the police station spoke English, so there is no way I could have done it without him.

It’s been a strange couple of weeks, and a time that we definitely want to put behind us. I’m sure it will make us a bit more wary from now on, but hopefully it won’t stop us enjoying the rest of our trip. We’re in our final day in Máncora now before heading south to Lima. Let’s hope that our next overnight bus journey goes slightly better than the last.

As always, in case you’re interested, there are more images from before the camera was stolen available via the RSS feed on the blog, or via the following link:

Until the next time…

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