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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
After leaving the Galapagos we had a very brief stopover in Guayaquil before taking a bus to Cuenca, about four hours away. Cuenca is a lovely city in the South of Ecuador. It has a very nice climate as it is 2500m above sea level but still close to the equator. The drive here was pretty spectacular, taking us around narrow winding mountain roads just above the clouds.
When we arrived it was midway through the festival Corpus Christi, and the streets were lined with hundreds of little stalls selling all kinds of cakes and sweets. In the evening there were fireworks and performances in the main square, so it was a nice time to be in the city.Rather than sitting around eating cake all day, the bulk of our time was taken up learning Spanish; or at least trying to.
We had four hours of lessons a day over four days, which left us feeling fairly numb afterwards. At one point there was a suggestion that we do eight hours of lessons a day, but I’m very pleased that we decided against it. The title pretty much sums up the extent of our Spanish language knowledge so far. Our main aim was to learn enough Spanish to get us by in South America, but what we’ve learnt in 16 hours is just not enough. I’ve never been very good at learning languages; just test my German if you don’t believe me, but I must say that Spanish is complicated. The good news is that we have over six months remaining to try and improve, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.
Our next stop was Baños via an eventful journey on a night bus. We spent most of the journey awake as the driver didn’t feel the need to slow down when going around corners. It meant that rather than snoozing away the hours, we were left holding on for our lives. We thought the night bus would be a good way to save money, but when we arrived at 4:00am it meant that we needed a room anyway. Thankfully the hostel was kind enough to let us check in very early for no extra cost. Baños is a really pretty little town in central Ecuador surrounded by mountains and waterfalls. Although it’s small, it’s a busy place with plenty of things to see and do. One of the most popular activities and from where the town gets its name, are the thermal baths.
Just after arriving, we bumped into a guy that we had met in Cuenca. He spoke very good Spanish, so it was handy to have him as our translator. We enjoyed a couple of hours in one of the public baths, and it was quite a funny experience. There are three pools of varying temperatures from very hot to tepid, and freezing cold showers fed direct from a waterfall. The water comes out of the mountain at 60°c, and the temperature is adjusted for the different pools by adding water from the waterfall. The water looks quite murky and uninviting, but it’s because it contains various minerals…apparently.
The idea is that you alternate between the showers and the pools. We spent most of our time in the hottest pool, which was so hot it was a struggle to get in to, especially after the showers. After various rotations we started to feel quite weary, as it really takes it out of you. It feels similar to a session in the gym, so we quickly left for a quick beer to let our bodies recover.
Our hostel also had steam baths which Katy decided to try. She did try and persuade me to join in, but thankfully I decided not to. Instead I was available to take photos of her experience. I think she pictured a relaxing time sat in the weird wooden boxes with the steam working its magic. Instead she was hosed down with freezing cold water every ten minutes and then asked to get back into the wooden box. Not really my idea of fun, but it was quite amusing to watch.
The rest of our plans for Baños were ruined by persistent rain. We wanted to rent mountain bikes and cycle 30km (mostly downhill) to see some of the waterfalls, but it didn’t seem as attractive without the sunshine. We did manage to see some of the Euro 2012 games, although I wish he hadn’t bothered.
We went out to watch the England group games in Cuenca which certainly didn’t help our Spanish lessons the following morning. In Baños we watched the game against Italy and I was left with the same feeling that I am always left with when watching England…boredom. It really was a horrendous game to watch, even with the drama of penalties.
Next we decided to move onto to Puyo, a town that was recommended to us by our Spanish teacher. It’s located in Ecuador’s part of the amazon basin called El Oriente, and is a gateway for amazon trips. What he didn’t tell us is that it’s a very ugly town with very little to see and do.
We decided to visit the Omaere Ethnobotanical Park where we were guided around an area of the jungle by Chris, an American biologist. He spoke to us about the various tribes of indigenous people and their relationship with the plants that surround them. It’s one of the only places remaining in the region that produces medicine from the jungle. You can get anything from cold and flu remedies to skin and hair tonics; even contraception. It was a really interesting tour, and a great way to learn a bit more about the local history and traditions.
Next we headed north to Ibarra, not far from the Colombia border. This was another town nestled high in the Andes and eight hours from Puyo. There isn’t a huge amount to do here, but it was a convenient place to stop before heading into Colombia. Nearby is the market town of Otavalo which is surrounded by the volcanic peaks of the peaks of Imbabura, Cotacachi, and Mojanda. The market dates back to pre-Inca times and is the largest crafts market is South America. It is so popular within Ecuador that tourists and locals alike come to visit from all over the country. We only spent one night there on the way to Colombia and after much searching we both came away with our token alpaca jumpers. Katy also treated herself to some matching alpaca socks for those long and cold bus journeys ahead.
After travelling for over nine months now, one of the things we have missed most is cooking. It may sound strange, but eating out every night can get to you. So far most of the places we have stayed in Ecuador have had a communal kitchen, so we have enjoyed making some of our own meals. It’s been good to see Katy back to doing what she does best, and we’ve also managed to find some decent cheap red wine to wash it all down. That’s not to say that the food here is bad. One of the best ways to eat is at lunchtime by sampling an almuerzo. It usually comprises of three courses of soup, a main dish and a desert, and also comes with a fruit juice shake. Half the fun is not asking what is on the menu today, so it’s a bit of a surprise. They are usually very good though, and a bargain at $2.
We have however had a bad almuerzo experience. Katy decided that she liked the look of a restaurant and surprised me by ordering for us. This wasn’t your typical set lunch menu, and she told me afterwards that she had ordered the local speciality ceviche, which she thought was marinated raw fish. We had skipped breakfast that morning so this wasn’t really what I was in the mood for. What came out of the kitchen was worse than I expected. The only way I can describe it is raw mussels and squid (I think) in a cold soup that tasted more like a salad dressing. It was a struggle to eat it, and Katy refused to even try the fish. We were also shocked when the bill came to almost $20.
Another local speciality is Cuy, or Guinea Pig. I have been desperate to try this, but whenever we’ve wanted it we either can’t find it or the restaurants have been closed. It’s normally barbequed or roasted whole and served spatchcocked with beans, rice, potatoes and a sugarcane alcoholic drink. I’m hoping we will be able to try it before we leave Ecuador because I am intrigued to know what it’s like.
Although the food in Ecuador is good, it’s not very healthy. Everything seems to be deep fried or very sweet. I came to South America expecting to see lots of good looking Hispanic women, but most of the younger women seem to be bulging out of their leggings (in more ways than one). It’s almost like being back in East 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…
This entry was supposed to be written by Katy, but she decided that she couldn’t be bothered. So instead I am left to pick up the pieces and try and write an insightful and witty piece for readers all over the world to enjoy. I haven’t even had time to come up with a tabloid style headline, but here goes…
The flight to Ecuador was fairly uneventful, which is generally how I like flights to be. The only fly in the ointment was our stopover in Houston, Texas. As we were in transit with our bags automatically being forwarded on, I expected us to stroll through to the departure lounge and enjoy the three hour break from flying; maybe a cocktail and a bite to eat. Instead we stood in a queue for three hours being scanned, searched and questioned before being sent to the departure lounge as the final call for our flight was announced. I know we all have a reason to be precautious at airports nowadays, but as we had just landed and weren’t even entering the country, it was a bit over the top.
We arrived in Quito excited about seeing a new country and a new culture; so much so that within ten minutes of getting to our hostel we were asleep. In fairness the long flight and the huge time difference really got to us (we’re now five hours behind GMT after being eight hours ahead in Japan). To add to the strain Quito is located high in the Andes, 2900m above sea level.
The next morning though when we opened our curtains and took in the amazing views of the city, our tiredness was forgotten. Sandwiched between the rolling peaks of the Andes, Quito is a striking city. After being in SE Asia for so long, it is also quite a culture shock. Even trying to order breakfast via my trustee Spanish phrase book was an experience. So far in almost nine months of travelling, China has been the only country that English wasn’t spoken throughout. Even in countries like Myanmar, English was spoken almost as if it were a first language. That isn’t going to be the case in South America, but it is a good excuse for me to learn Spanish; something I have wanted to do for years, mainly due to my Spanish roots.
We spent most of our time just wondering around the city and taking it all in. It’s a fairly easy place to walk around, with lots to see along the way. It’s a city split between the historic colonial buildings of the old town, and the more modern restaurant and bar area of the new town. People in Quito are fairly friendly, but there is a definite edge to the city after dark. But other than a failed pick-pocket attempt, nothing untoward occurred. We visited some of the cathedrals in the city, but after the amount of amazing temple complexes we’ve seen in SE Asia (namely Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia), they don’t really compare.
One thing we did do whilst in Quito was visit the centre of the world. Thankfully this didn’t involve burrowing a huge hole hundreds of mile deep to the core of the earth. Instead we got a one hour bus outside of the city to the equator. It was a bit of a funny place that was almost deserted. Supposedly it gets very busy on the weekends, but we got to enjoy it without the crowds. What does make it slightly fascicle is that we found out that the line that marks the equator is not actually the real equator line. The actual line is about 300m parallel to their line…very bizarre.
Whilst in Quito we also booked our trip to the Galapagos. This trip is something we had been looking forward to for a long time, and had heard so many good things about. It’s a very expensive place to visit, so we did shop around a lot to try and get a good deal. We were very tempted on a last minute deal on a luxury catamaran, but we finally decided to go for the budget option of a four night land based trip for a cool £1400.
For those that don’t know, the islands are famous for the huge number of endemic species, which were studied by Charles Darwin. These studies contributed to the inception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
After a three hour flight about 1000km west of Ecuador, we arrived in the Galapagos on Santa Cruz Island. We were supposed to get a boat straight to another island, but our flight was delayed. So instead we checked into our hotel and headed out to Charles Darwin Station. Here we got our first glimpse of the Galapagos giant tortoise. Young tortoises are kept here to ensure they are healthy before being let out into the wild. They are quite strange animals really, and living to over 150 years old in some cases.
Santa Cruz has a small town near the port with various bars and restaurants to keep you entertained in the evening. Most people on the islands are here just for the tours, but it is clear that this would be a nice place to just visit for a week or two. The islands sit right on the equator, so the weather is usually good, and there are plenty of things to do on each island without having to do a tour. If we had known we would have just turned up on the island and booked the tour there, but we still got a fairly good deal.
The next day we took a walk down to Tortuga Bay to an amazing beach. It was a 40 minute walk to the bay, but when we got there it was definitely worth it. One half of the beach has huge waves prefect for surfing, and the other is a calm secluded spot. In between the two were marine iguanas, and lots of them. Just as we were setting up our little spot on the beach, I noticed something move behind a tree just to our side. There was a sea lion there taking a nap in the shade. It was quite a weird experience being sat on the beach just one metre away from a sea lion who was taking no notice of us at all. Even when the frisbee made an appearance it didn’t budge. So after a couple of hours of sunning ourselves (or burning as the case may be), we headed back to town.
That afternoon we took a boat to another island called Isabella. The boat journey wasn’t the best, as the captain didn’t feel the need to slow down in the very choppy conditions. Instead he went ahead full throttle causing the boat to almost leave the water on a regular basis. I thought I was going to be sick, and Katy was stuck at the front of the boat desperately holding on. This went on for two hours, so when the boat finally arrived on Isabella, we were very happy to get off.
Isabella is a really nice place to visit, and probably our favourite island on the Galapagos. It’s the largest of the islands, and has several active volcanos. Here we got to see some very pink flamingos in one of the lagoons as soon as we arrived. It’s much quieter here than on Santa Cruz, and that evening we found a nice bar on the beach to enjoy a beer a watch the sun set.
The next day we had an early start for one of Katy’s favourite activities, trekking. Although slightly cloudy, it was a very hot day, but surprisingly the three hour trek to the volcano seemed to go quite well. The scenery and landscape around the volcano are not like anything I have seen, with black crystallised rock crunching underfoot. The first volcano we saw has the second largest crater in the world and last erupted in 2005, but the second volcano was the most impressive for me. So after a brief lunch break, we headed back to camp. But this time the trek wasn’t so easy. It may have had something to do with the heat or the extremely steep 200m climb back up to the rim of the first volcano, but either way we struggled on the way back. When we did arrive back in our hotel, we were pleased that we could relax and put our feet up…for five minutes anyway.
Next we were off on another island tour just to the south of Isabella. On the way we stopped in a small cove for some snorkelling. The water here is quite cold, and conditions weren’t the best for snorkelling, but we did see some huge sea turtles and box fish, along with some eagle rays.
After drying off, we were on our way again to the island where we were greeted by penguins. The island is quite small and could be walked around in about 20 minutes. It was a great place to see the hundreds of marine iguanas and also to get close up to more sea lions.
The next day we had a very early start to get 6am boat back to Santa Cruz. The journey was much nicer this time, and we even managed to get some sleep on the boat. Our plans were ruined though as we got back into port late, and missed our connecting boat to Floreana. We weren’t particularly happy about this, as it was one of the islands we really wanted to go to, but our tour rep didn’t seem too concerned. So instead we were treated to a bay tour just off of Santa Cruz. The tour itself was pretty poor…that was until we snorkelled with sea lions. It was a pretty incredible experience with these inquisitive animals so close to you.
In the afternoon we headed to the highlands to see some giant tortoises in the wild. It took us a while to find them in the long grass, and when we did they didn’t seem too pleased to be interrupted. After getting our fair share of pictures, we then headed into some lava tunnels. These are basically formed around free flowing lava, leaving a cave-like formation once it has cooled. After a brief look and a Katy tumble up the stairs, we headed back to our hotel to pack our bags ready to leave the Galapagos in the morning.
Today we flew back to Ecuador in Guayaquil. We were sad to be leaving the Galapagos so soon, as we had a really good time. But we have a lot to look forward to now, and we have already started to think about our next stop.
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Until the next time…