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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…

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…

Dunes, treats and exotic meats

Everyone we had met who had been to Peru, told us that we must travel with Cruz del Sur…the best bus company in Peru…and the most expensive. So when we were booking our bus ticket to Lima, we ignored all the advice and decided to go with a budget option instead. Never again! After three tuk tuks and a five hour bus journey to the middle nowhere, where we were the only gringos in sight and everyone looked like they wanted to rob us (maybe I’m just paranoid now), we finally got on our bus to Lima. It was at this point that I threw my toys out of the pram and said ‘no more budget buses Sam, its Cruz del Sur all the way, whatever the cost’…surprisingly he agreed with me!

Whoop Whoop...it's the sound of the police

Whoop Whoop…it’s the sound of the police

We had booked what I thought looked like a nice hostel in Lima…private room with en-suite in a good area (Miraflores). When we arrived however, the place looked like it was falling down and the very damp private room didn’t have an en-suite. The owner was very apologetic (and a bit mad) and ended up offering us two nights for the price of one if we stayed there. Never one to pass on a bargain, we agreed to stay. That night we treated ourselves to the biggest Domino’s pizza I have ever seen, and ate it in bed whilst we watched a film on the lap top…bliss.

After two nights we left the run down hostel and checked into a much better one which even had cable tv and our own kitchen. We had a great few days doing absolutely nothing. We went to the cinema to watch Batman, watched some of the Olympics and ate far too much blue cheese, pate and bread. We also managed to buy another camera which makes it our fourth of the trip. Hopefully this one will last the remaining four months.

Nazca Lines

Nazca Lines

We decided to break up the journey to Cusco by stopping at a small town in the middle of the desert called Nazca and its famous Nazca lines…anyone heard of them? No me neither. Small history lesson for you…the lines were discovered in 1939 when a routine ancient irrigation flight found them…like graffiti or giant carvings in the desert floor. Nazca is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and people flock here in their thousands to get a look at these lines. The idea is that you take a small plane and fly over the lines but of course this was too expensive for us so instead we went on a tour which took us to an observation tower where we could get a glimpse of some of the lines. As Sam has mentioned in previous blogs, it takes a lot these days to impress us and unfortunately this was not one of those times. I was however impressed with Cruz del Sur…blankets, pillows and breakfast all provided and very comfy seats.

Sand boarding show off

Sand boarding show off

Another thing to do in Nazca is sand boarding. We signed up for an afternoon which also included a visit to a couple of burial sites and pyramids. He also showed us a mummy of a child that was sacrificed. It was a bit of a strange thing to see just in the middle of the desert. In most other countries it would be in a museum rather than just left out in the open. The guide then took us out to some sand dunes which were stunning and then decided to have some fun by driving the sand buggy up to the top of a dune, stopping at the top so we tilted over and then at full throttle going down…scary but great fun.

Eating sand

Eating sand

Then it was time to actually try sand boarding. We started on some smaller sand dunes going down on our bellies just to get comfortable on the sand. The sand boarding part was really hard…well I found it hard but Sam seemed to pick it up quite quickly. I had a couple of try’s and then spent the rest of the time going down on my belly…much more fun. Some of the dunes were really steep, and we were taken to higher and higher dunes as the afternoon went on. We ended the day with a very cold journey back through the desert to the town with our clothes full of sand…literally everywhere and even now Sam is still emptying his trainers of sand.

Landslide

Landslide

We met another English couple in our hostel who we travelled with to Cusco. Again, another Cruz del Sur bus but this time with luxury seats, dinner and breakfast provided. We had a fairly uneventful journey until about 8.30 in the morning (by this time we’d been travelling for 12 hours). We were woken up with breakfast and the bus abruptly stopping. It looked like a traffic jam but we soon found out it was actually a landslide just up ahead. We all got out to have a look, take pictures etc…whilst getting bitten to death by mosquitos and hoping we’d be on our way soon. No such luck…it took five hours to clear the road and with no air-con and sat in the sweltering heat it wasn’t a very pleasant five hours. We eventually arrived in Cusco around 3pm, checked into our hostel and unpacked for Sam to find that his kindle was missing. We phoned the bus company just in case he’d left it on the seat and someone handed it in but there was nothing. We actually think someone took it out of his bag whilst we were out stretching our legs. Surely our luck has to change soon!

The road to Cusco

The road to Cusco

Cusco is 3400m above sea level, and it’s really noticeable how much the altitude affects you. Just walking up a short flight of stairs can leave you puffed out…at least that’s what I am blaming it on. Even though we were knackered and upset about the kindle we’d heard about an English pub serving roast dinners on a Sunday. We enjoyed only our second roast dinner in almost 11 months, washed it down with a local beer and had an early night.

Guinea pig anyone?

Guinea pig anyone?

We’ve been in Cusco for five nights which is probably a bit too long really but it’s a nice place to walk around and very touristy which is actually quite nice once in a while. We’ve been busy sorting out our insurance claim, getting all the relevant documents printed and scanned which we’ve now sent off so fingers crossed we get a bit of luck there. We have also enjoyed some local specialities including Alpaca and Cuy while we have been here. The Alpaca (Llama) was very tasty and a bit like veal and was served in a black pepper and aniseed sauce. Last night we finally got around to trying Cuy…roasted guinea pig. We had to pre order it as it takes about one hour and half to roast and it came with roast potatoes and stuffed bell peppers. It was ok, not my favourite meat to be honest and there wasn’t a lot of it but the little we did have tasted of lamb. As you can see from the photos, they serve it whole…head, claws…the lot, which makes a great picture but doesn’t make it easy to eat.

Street llamas

Street llamas

Today is our last day in Cusco and we decided to go on a free walking tour of the city. We’d been told by a few people that it was really good so decided to give it a go. The tour lasted about three hours and included a gastronomy tour which I especially enjoyed. We visited the chocolate museum where we got some free samples as well as a chocolate tea…nice. Then we were treated to another local speciality…Causa which is layered potato, avocado and chicken or crab in mayonnaise which was absolutely delicious. At only 75p for a slice, we’re going back later for more. The gastronomy tour also included a Chinese restaurant where we had Chinese cookies, an ice cream parlour and a bagel shop. Not all local food but nice none the less…and free! The tour ended with a short hike up the hill to a point where we had amazing views over the city. The tour was a great way to see a bit more of the city and I can highly recommend it to anyone visiting Cusco. It’s just a shame that we didn’t do it on day one.

Cusco skyline

Cusco skyline

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…

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