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…
When we arrived at the Ecuador / Colombia border crossing we had no idea what to do or where to go. We must have looked like proper gringos with our South American phrase book in one hand and the Lonely Planet in the other. We joined the only queue there was and hoped for best. Fortunately it was the right queue and we managed to get our exit stamps relatively quickly. It then took literally two minutes to cross into Colombia. Well for me anyway…Sam got asked 100 questions about why he was visiting, where he was going etc…but eventually they waved him through. We did find ourselves in a familiar situation where we had no Colombian money so we changed what dollars we had left with one of the many dodgy Colombians hanging around the border and made our first stop an ATM. With no hostel booked and night travel not advised our cab driver took us to what he called an ‘Economical hotel’ which ended up being a godsend at only £10 a night and right next to the bus station.
Our plan was to get up to the Caribbean coast as quickly as possible as we’d heard it’s the nicest part of Colombia. From there we were going to go to Venezuela, however after hearing how expensive it is we’ve reluctantly decided to give it a miss. This means that we will have to double back through Colombia and Ecuador to reach Peru. I’m sure some of you are wondering why we don’t just fly, but flights in South America are ridiculously expensive, so our only option is more bus travel…fun!
En route to the coast we stopped in a couple of places; Popayan which is a small Colonial town, very pretty to look at but not much to do. We then took a 12 hour night bus to Medellin, a large bustling city to the West of Bogota. We could have taken a Pablo Escobar tour which included trying on some of his old hats and meeting his brother (doubtful) but at £20 each we decided that we wouldn’t be missing out on that much. Instead we took the metro across town and had a walk around down-town Medellin…not that nice to be honest and weirdly full of statues of fat people. There were lots of people selling everything from a phone minutes, i.e. use their phone for so much a minute. You could also pay to get weighed on what looked like bathroom scales and there were lots of people selling home-made juices just walking around with them on trays like they were a waiter at a party.
We did go on a cable car though which provided great views over the city and across the poorer areas. I also managed to get my hair cut whilst there…a real treat for me and I felt human again for a while. The last time I had it cut properly was in Laos (Jan) and Sam attempted to trim it in KL but that was a bit of a disaster to be honest. We were in Medellin mid-week so there were no wild parties or salsa nights happening unfortunately. Although I am sure the latter wasn’t a problem for Sam…I think it would take a small miracle to get Sam on the dance floor salsa dancing (watch this space).
One thing that has struck us the most here is how expensive bus travel is. A typical 12 hour bus trip is about £35 each (over a day’s budget) which is why we have been trying to travel through the night…save on accommodation. This however, brings along its own risks and the stories we’ve read about armed bandits and bags being stolen have made these journeys somewhat nerve-racking. My bra has become our new wallet and Sam’s socks have become the hiding place for our passports. The buses are also freezing cold, for some unknown reason they crank up the air-con (maybe to keep the driver awake) and Sam finally got to use his sleeping bag on our last bus…after 9 months of carrying it around. My alpaca jumper and socks seem to be sufficient so far…I just need a nose warmer and I’m all set.
Our latest bus journey of 14 hours brought us to the city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. Our first impressions…mental! As soon as we stepped off the bus and into a battered looking taxi we were faced with chaos everywhere. The lonely planet (yes we do read it sometimes) describes Cartagena as ‘a fairy tale city of romance…the most beautiful city in Colombia’. We soon realised that this was only true for a very small part of the city…the old town. Behind the ancient walls, lies the beautiful old town with any stunning squares, flower-decked balconies and boutique shops. We spent a few days in Cartagena just walking around, taking pictures and of course enjoying a mojito or two along the way. Outside of these walls was nothing but high rises, dirt and chaos.
Continuing our journey along the coast, our next stop was Santa Marta where we were hoping for some nice beaches to chill out on for a few days. Not so. I think I had a certain expectation of a Caribbean coast and unfortunately so far Colombia has not lived up to it…the beaches are dirty and with a big old port stuck at one end of the beach and a sewage river through the middle, they are not very pretty. Instead we spend a few days chilling out in our hostel and enjoying the blistering heat from our roof terrace. We were back to cooking our own meals as well, so it was good to get a change from fried food. Not exactly what you want to eat when it is 36 ° outside, but you don’t really have much of a choice in South America.
We quickly moved on to a small fishing village called Taganga further along the coast. We’d heard that the beaches were a bit nicer and it was also the gateway for Tayrona National Park where we plan to spend a few days before heading south to Bogota. Taganga is famous for its cheap diving so we signed up for a couple of dives as soon as we arrived…probably our last dives of the trip. It was great to be back in the water but sadly the dive sites themselves weren’t the best. Our first dive was ok but the coral reef was either dying or dead so there wasn’t a huge amount to see. The water was freezing as well so for our second dive we both decided to wear hoods (a first for us).
The second dive was more like a drift dive as the current was really strong…at one point I thought we had lost Sam so I had a mini panic and grabbed the dive master but soon realised that Sam was just above me laughing at me panicking…nice. Sam was excited to see a flying gurnard and we also got to see a giant green moray eel poking its head out of the reef wall. Another highlight for Sam was watching me (and taking photos) trying to get back in the boat…there was no ladder or step so the idea was to pull yourself up and over. Well I have zero upper body strength so our dive master had to pull me over and I landed flat on my stomach…so much for chivalry and Sam helping me. Included in our dive package were some underwater photos so we finally have a few to share with you.
After a few days of hanging out in Taganga, it was time to head into Tayrona National Park. We’d heard nothing but good things about it and were told that this was where all the amazing beaches were. All we had to do was to decide which was the best way to see the park. The Lonely Planet recommends a route which involves a few hours of walking but with many beaches along the way to stop off at or stay. However, we’d met with a group of people the night before who were taking a boat to one of the remote beaches but this is all they would see but they would avoid the park fees so we were torn between the two. In the end we decided to take the books advice and go with the recommended route…even with the two hour trek.
The bus dropped us off at the entrance and we spent the first hour walking through some very nice jungle with some people we’d met on the bus. We came to the beach called Arrecifes which we’d been told not to swim in as it was too dangerous. There were several cabins, camping sites and restaurants here so we stopped off for a drink before heading further into the park. The beach itself was huge…very hot sand and just a shame that we couldn’t have taken a dip. We followed the trail further into the jungle and passed several beautiful beaches on our way to Cabo San Juan, where we would be spending the night.
We spent the afternoon lazing on the beach and it was wonderful…I know it’s only a few months since we were last on a beach but I have missed it so much. Our bed for the night was a hammock about 50m from the beach…sounds idyllic but the reality of sleeping in a hammock is being is a very uncomfortable night’s sleep. The evening was very relaxed…a nice meal and enough beer to help us sleep. The next day after a few more hours on the beach we followed the trail back to the entrance but this time we stopped at all the beaches along the way, had a dip and played with the frisbee. We eventually got back to Taganga around 7pm and managed to meet up with the group who had taken the boat…they all had a good time but I am so pleased we chose our route. The beaches were the nicest we’ve seen in a long time and the first we’ve seen in Colombia. I actually felt I was on the Caribbean coast.
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Until the next time…