Tag Archives: Backpacking

El Viaje

When Justin and I were in Cordoba we went to the Evita Fine Arts Museum. on our way out our heads turned and our attention was drawn to a rather dark painting of a small bus filled with passengers travelling through the dead of night, traulling through empty land depicted by grey speckles. The only color on the painting was from the two yellow headlights beaming out in front. Somehow, we understood what the painter was trying to communicate. And then we saw the title: El Viaje.

It’s now been a week since we finished our Viaje (‘journey’ in Spanish). Our itineraries have slowed down to a virtual stop, Justin staying in Petaluma, CA and me in Bromsgrove, England. The music that entertained us on the streets, in the corner shops, and in the bars has been replaced with birds tweeting, the rumble of lawn mowers, and the friendly chatter amongst the neighbours (which we can now understand fully!). The views of beaches and small, rather sloppily put together red brick houses are now views of the English or Californian countryside with perfectly put together houses and manicured lawns. The temperature has now dropped so that rather than feeling like your brain is about to boil even at 4:00 in the afternoon, you can leisurely bask in the sun at all hours of the day (surprisingly I’m only talking about England right now since it’s been raining in California). And the ever-changing company of fellow travellers and South American locals is now the solid company of family and old friends.

I posted on Facebook before leaving that I was excited, scared and sad about coming home, and I think that relates to Justin as well. We had been saving for over four years to go on the journey of a lifetime, and the fact that it was coming to an end scared us. We wondered how we would adjust to the Western World after eight months in South America; would it be too quiet, would there be too much order, would we become bored with just being in the same familiar place? On the other hand, we were also excited, dreaming of the foods we would eat first, mine a Cornish pasty, his a deep dish pizza with extra sauce, being able to communicate without any effort, having our own beds and mostly seeing our friends and family.

Over this past week I think we can both say that coming back wasn’t as hard as we thought it would be and have fit back into the more orderly way of life pretty quickly. What does seem surprising is how the last eight months seems more like a dream. It’s crazy to think that last month we were at Sambodromo in Rio, the month before we were sailing around the Galapagos, the month before that we were visiting coffee fincas in Colombia (which makes choosing Colombian coffee a little more fun now), and the month before that we were hiking the Inca Trail. The list of adventures, experiences and journeys we’ve had goes on an on, and will be memories that we will cherish for a lifetime. As well as the adventures, the people we’ve met along the way have added so much to our journey, especially the Buus family, whom we lived with in Bariloche, Carina and Carolina our Spanish teachers in Argentina, Elizabeth our Spanish teacher in Bolivia, Fabiano and Lina who took us in over Christmas so we had a family to spend the holiday season with, and numerous inspiring other travellers. The two that stand out the most we met in Patagonia; one who sailed a small boat from France to Ushuaia with his wife, another is a back country skier who went alone to Glacier National Park and had to cross a treacherous avalanche zone to get to the slope he wanted to ski down. While we thought we were cool travelling around the continent, these guys brought adventure to a whole new level. Then there were the friends we made, some of them we may never see again. And this really is the notion of travelling. One day you could be sat in a hostel chatting away with someone from Israel and the next you could be hiking up a mountain with people from Denmark. Travelling not only provides you with fun memories, but also helps you to cease the day and meet people you may normally just pass on the street.  This is one of the reasons we just couldn’t carry out our original idea of having you help us with our journey, and vote on what we should do next. Our itinerary was too spur of the moment.

Along with the good there is the bad. South America is a third world continent and I feel so privileged to come from England where I can have pretty much whatever I want; clothes, a car, a house. Simple things that we expect, rather than hope for. The governments we have in both the States and the UK are more or less for the people, vs. for themselves. Yes we could argue the other way, but we are so lucky to have education, world class health care, well built houses, roads, and a well organized waste disposal system! I have seen poverty before, but have not had time to absorb it like we did in South America. Yes, there are areas where the standard of living is similar to the UK or the US, but the poor areas are much greater with locals living in tiny brick boxes, most with metal supports sticking out of the top while they save up for a second floor. They don’t just throw their washing in the machines but do it by hand and hang it out to dry by a smoggy road. They throw their rubbish on the floor because they don’t have the education to realize what it does to the environment. Sometimes they don’t use soap, because they don’t have the education to understand about germs. And some still live in fear of guerrillas.  It’s a shame that it is still like this now we are in the 21st century, but unfortunately they were part of the new world that had everything taken from them and left to deal with what was left. Hopefully one day they will be able to find their feet and become competing countries. Brazil is showing signs of change with the upcoming Olympics and World Cup and the fact that it is one of the BRIC countries, however they still have a long way to go.

One of the travellers we met described South America as a wonderland and I couldn’t agree more; from a continent long mountain range, to wide, flat salt lakes; from jungles to deserts; from the world’s largest glacier to tiny hot pools; coffee, wine and cachaca; friendly wildlife and unsure tribal people; South America has so much to offer. I hope that Justin and my journey has educated you, inspired you and one day maybe we shall meet somewhere in the world. We only get one life, and we only take with it memories so go Shadow Travellers and explore!


Beach Bumming in Brazil

As the sun sets in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, the sun also sets on our South American adventure and it is now time to re-enter the real world. Well somewhat.

Our last few weeks were spent bumming around on the Brazilian beaches. After the hype and energy of Carnival in Rio, we headed back out to the house my parents had rented for some relaxation, however Carnival still continued in the little town of Ponta Negra. Cars with huge sound systems (really it should be sound systems with cars) blasted out the latest tunes 24 hours a day. Residents of Rio who came to this little village to escape Carnival took over, storming supermarkets, camping in the fields, sunbathing in thong bikinis and speedos and drinking by the river. As we were up on the hill, we were able to get a comfortable mix of joining in with the locals and relaxing by our private pool. Life wasn´t too bad. My brother and I had a fun night at the local fun fair, although we did feel a little old, so went to the bar and watched some slightly uncomfortable Brazilian karaoke. We also celebrated my Mum´s 60th Birthday, where she enjoyed a relaxing pool day, followed by a BBQ of Filet Mignon and many caiphirinias. One of the highlights of the day was the gift my Dad gave to her. Have you ever heard of wing walking and flight acrobatics? He got her a ride, strapped to the top of the plane where she can do different acrobatics should she choose too, at over 10,000 ft in the air and over 100 miles an hour! That is a sight I can´t wait to see!

After Ponta Negra we headed back down south to Ilha Grande, a mountainous island covered in jungle. The boat journey there was picturesque, sailing by other islands with hidden private beaches, yachts floating in the ocean, and mountainous scenery surrounding us.  After the ride, the island didn´t disappoint. Thank god as it was pricey enough after Carnival. There is one main town on the island, which is a little overdeveloped with pousadas built almost on top of each other. When you get out of the town and away from the tourists you are able to really appreciate the island, hiking through the trails, taking in the wildlife and incredible views, and relaxing on the long beaches. We spent a well deserved three nights relaxing and eating some good grub at Biergarten (yeah I know it´s not very Brazilian but it was nice to move away from the typical rice and beans). We also discovered Acai (ass-sci-ee) and have not looked back. It´s a superfood berry found in the jungle in Brazil that is whisked into a tasty thick smoothie that you eat with banana, guarana, honey and granola. However we were a little sad to discover that it is full of calories. We only found this out after eating 300ml per day per person for a week! No wonder why my shorts were feeling a little tight.

In need of some exercise we headed to Paraty, a colonial town made up of colorful houses and cobblestone streets that are a little hard to walk on. Away from town is the famous Penha waterfall. The waterfall is a little unconventional whereby it flows over a huge rock which is fun to slide down. If you´re a local you´re a little crazy and will run, jump and slide down on your feet! We had to see this so met our friend´s James, Ann, Taq and Meg and biked the 9km gradual uphill in over 30 degree heat to go see it. After the bike ride, the cool water was very refreshing and we spent the afternoon acting like kids sliding down the waterfall, followed by some more acai.

A 40 minute bus ride from Paraty is Trindade, a tiny beach side town with dramatic scenery reminiscent of Parque Tyrona in Colombia. The town offers a few restaurants and some hippy shops, but the beaches are what you come for (but beware there are nudist beaches too, just in case this isn´t your thing), and the waterfalls. We stayed at a hostel owned by a Brit (unfortunately the hostel was a little on the grimy side so wouldn’t really recommend) who is extremely excited about showing the locals the area. He ended up taking us to a waterfall where we could hide in a cave, get swallowed up by a rock, and a slide down a small water slide. I think he likes playing like a big kid every day, and it was fun to join in with him. That night we ended up at a bar on the beach looking up at the clear night sky covered in stars.

Ready for some more city life we headed back to Rio for a couple of nights and back to our favorite hostel in the world, Bossa in Rio. I swear this place could be a boutique hotel. This time Rio was much quieter, both for us and the city. One of the nights we headed up into Santa Teresa and dined at Espirito Santa, a lovely little restaurant overlooking the old mansions. Here we had our favorite meal of the trip yet; heart of palm stuffed fish, wrapped in collard greens, and drizzled with banana cream sauce. It´s a dish from the north of brazil and  was to die for! After that and dessert, we were pretty much in a food coma, so went back to our lovely room and passed out. We had grand plans for the following day, until we ended up bumping into our friend Fran whom we spent New Year’s eve with. She is such a comedian and we spent the day laughing ourselves around Ipanema and Copacobana. The beaches in Rio are a whole other story, with men (all without shirts on) exercising at the workout areas, women walking up and down in thong bikinis (doesn´t matter of the size), and both genders always posing. There are stalls set up along the praia´s selling coconut juices, signs with misters to cool you off, and vendors selling colourful sarongs, just in case you feel like covering up. It was definitely some fun people watching.

Sadly after two days our time in Rio ended and we endured our last long bus trip of 30 hours up to Itacare, a small surfer town. This is a town you can get really comfortable in, if you have the time. You can take surf lessons, there are plenty of restaurants and many beaches to check out. At this point our tans were coming along just nicely! Since we were in Brazil, and doing so much beach time, I decided to get a Brazilian…I´ve only had one in the past and forgot how painful it can be. For about 20 minutes the spa lady ripped and giggled at me, as I screamed. Not sure if I´ll be back too soon! But at least I was ready for the beach now!

Also in Itacare you can learn or watch the famous Brazilian dance called capoeira, created by the African slaves. The dance is made up of moves that are somewhat like karate or jujitsu. One night we went to a show and saw them swing their legs up, do somersaults, and move to the beating music. It was an interesting experience, although it didn´t grab me as much as salsa!

Our last beach stop was on Morro do Sao Paulo, which turned out to be a very touristy island with mainly young Israelis who just finished their term of service and are ready to party! We were able to escape the crowds hiking past the fourth beach on the island and chilling out in the hot pools. When the tide goes out, small pools are created between the coral and the water quickly heats up in the 35 degree plus heat. We also walked to Gamboa and on the way found a clay pit. Now men, I know this is the stereotypical dream that never really happens, but about two minutes after we got there a bunch of Argentinian girls came up, started rolling around in it, wrestled and even started climbing on top of each other! True story. Justin got a picture to share with his male friends out there (although he was too shocked to take it while they were wrestling). Back in town we bumped into a friend we met in Itacare and finished off our last night at a beach party, slurping on a delicious juice and vodka drink.

Final stop of the trip was Salvador, Brazil´s third largest city. We checked into a lovely hotel to treat ourselves and took in what the city had to offer, a  UNESCO world heritage site, more beaches, and some good restaurants. Unfortunately, the beauty of the Pelourinho is contrasted by the beggars that surround Praca de Se. Nothing is hidden here and you can see little kids on crack and prostitutes at 7am in the morning. I guess it´s like the Tenderloin of San Francisco. This shouldn´t put you off coming though, as the people are still friendly and there´s so much to see. The first night we arrived (a Tuesday) there was a concert. Apparently this happens every Tuesday in the Pelourinho. We enjoyed seeing the locals dance, and listening to a mixture of music. Just outside of the Pelourinho is the huge elevator that connects the upper city with the lower city. Originally it was built to transport goods from the port, but now is a part of the people´s commute here. From the lower city you can take a bus out to Bon Fim, a church where the locals started tying ribbons to the gate and making three wishes. The brightly colored ribbons look like a skirt surrounding the church. Since it was the end of our trip, we thought it suitable to make some wishes and took part in this tradition. We also checked out the Barra district where the beaches are located (I think we´re turning into beach lovers), and saw some brilliantly made sand sculptures, and took in our last sunset which incorporated an applause from the locals.

Today has been a day of emotions, being the last day, and the day that Justin and I go our separate ways (well for a little while). He is now on his way back to SF and I, in an hour, to London. So now to England where the story will finish…don´t worry, there will be one more blog!

Back to the East Coast

Yet again it´s been a while since I last wrote, and yet again we´ve been busy with our adventure taking us back to Argentina, and on to Uruguay and Brazil. After having a blast with the wedding in Lima, we headed to Buenos Aires, the Paris of South America. Our first impressions were a little hazed. It was windy and rubbish was getting blown in our faces, we had to dodge piles of dog poo on the streets (a big problem in BA), and navigate ourselves around the sly little lily pads, the tiles that were not fully secured and if stepped on would reward you with little splashes of dirty rain water on the back of your leg. Not only did we have to navigate the pavements, we also had to be mindful of those annoying overhanging air conditioner systems that spit little droplets of dirty water on you from above.

All that aside Buenos Aires was a wonderful experience. Walking around the different little neighbourhoods feels like you have been transported out of South America with the sounds of tango music flowing around the Parisian style architecture. Our first night was stereotypical BA, sat in a plaza in San Telmo watching tango dancers provide entertainment to the locals and the tourists. Loving the dance we headed towards La Boca, a working class port neighbourhood where the dance originates. The buildings there are a palette of reds, yellows and blues, providing a vibrant background for the very sensual dance. Also in the La Boca neighbourhood is the home of the not so sensual Boca Juniors football club, where the massive stadium towers over the town. Later in the week we headed back over to the stadium to experience a game and watch Palermo´s last match. We were told that we would have a separate section for tourists to make sure we wouldn´t be in the middle of any riots, but no, we were in the bleachers! Fortunately it was just a friendly so the mood was more relaxed. There were fireworks, bands and chanting. There were even flares, although I have no idea how they got in as you aren´t alowed to bring in lighters! The noise and mood were incredible and we stomped and sang the night away.

Palermo, another district of Buenos Aires is the artsy, trendy district, filled with small boutiques and a smorgasbord of restaurants. We spent the day wandering round the friendly neighbourhood, tasting some of its cuisine (delicious tacos!) and went to the Evita Museum. The museum is well set up, describing her life and how she contributed to the Argentinians. It´s amazing what she accomplished, fighting for healthcare, orphans, and women, all before she passed away at 33. She is buried at Recolleta Cemetery, another place we visited. The cemetery is saved for the famous dignitaries of Argentina and is almost a town in itself. The tombs range in size, usually from medium to XXXL, and are ornately decorated. Imagine a town only compiling of tiny churches and this is Recolleta Cemetery. It was an interesting visit, but almost a little bit creepy too. Back over in Palermo, Justin and I took part in a tango lesson! It turns out that Justin does have some moves, and after a little direction by our teacher he was swinging me around the dance floor (well that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but he was doing well). After the lesson we watched the locals who had been mastering tango for most of their lives seduce their partners. After the tango, the salsa lesson started and I think Justin had enough of dancing for one night so we left. However there will be more dancing to come!

Avenida de Mayo, in the center of BA is also an interesting road, cutting by different government buildings, famous cafes and ending at Plaza de Mayo where the Pink House (President Cristina Fernandez´s house) is located. Close to here is Puerto Madero, which has recently been regenerated with new buildings and the famous Puente de la Mujer, a bridge straddling River Plata. Over here we thought we would give the Argentinian steak another go since the meat we have been tasting hasn´t been the best we´ve ever had. Going to La Cabana, the top place to go for steak in Buenos Aires it didn´t disapoint, however I still think the steak I have had in San Francisco is better. Sorry Argentina!

Finishing up with Buenos Aires, we headed by boat over to Uruguay. Our first stop was Montevideo, which turned out to really be just another big city. We stayed here a night before moving on. We did get to see a couple of movies being filmed, one a period drama and another for a video game. Next stop was out in the Uruguayan countryside that was reminiscent of California, rolling green fields with Eucalyptus trees. We stayed at an estancia and pretty much lazed around for two days and caught up on some sleep. I did get to do some horse riding, which was a fun experience. I went Guacho style riding with the owner. I know how to ride English style, but Guacho is a whole other ball game. I did however get to gallop and the horse I was on was brilliant, listening to my every move. When you see the photos please excuse my bike helmet. They hadn´t ordered the riding helmets yet!

Our last stop in Uruguay was in Colonia do Sacramento. The name says it all really. A beautiful colonial town with little restaurants and boutiques. The historic center is actually a World Heritage Site. Here we spent the afternoon wandering the streets and enjoying some Freddo´s icecream!

Done with cities and architecture, we headed north to Iguazu Falls, Mother Natures work. After another long bus ride, our 16th over-nighter, we arrived in Puerto Iguazu, a tiny town made for the tourists. After checking in to our hostel, we headed to the Brazilian side of the falls. That was a shock, the first time in 6.5 months that we haven´t been able to communicate a thing! We thought that with Spanish and English we would get by, but it turns out they don´t know much of either! Hey ho, it was a warm up before heading across the border for Carnival. This side gives you an incredible panoramic view of the falls and allows you to take in how enormous they actually are.

The next day we met up with my parents, Liz and Adrian and brother, Andrew, who had flown in for my Mum´s 60th birthday. Even though in mostly good spirits, they´d had an arduous journey from England, being told that they were on standby for their flight, most of their luggage being delayed by three days so my Mum only had a turtle neck sweater to wear, and then their landing being aborted when arriving to Iguazu. As you can imagine, they were ready to just chill. The following day we headed to the Argentinian side, which allows you to get up close and personal with the falls. You can even do a boat ride. If you think the Maid of the Mist at Niagra is a waterfall boat ride, you haven´t done the Iguazu Falls boat ride, which literally takes you right under the falls and gives you a proper soaking. Great at the start of the day to give you a break from the intense heat! Over on this side of the falls, you can spend the whole day hiking the different trails to get various perspectives. The most incredible was Diablo de Garganta, which allows you to pretty much stand on top of the strongest part of the falls. This is where you get a real appreciation of how powerful they are, and how you really don´t want to have a go at falling over the edge!

Finishing up our time in Argentina, we went out for another Parilla (a grill) and found that the chicken was extremely tasty.

Now on to Brazil for Carnival!

The Wedding

We’re back in Lima! The reason….for Catie and JuanCarlos’ big day. And what a celebration it was. We arrived last Sunday to spend some time with the happy couple. Like us, their plans are up in the air, so we figured we’d better catch them while we could. It was also a great opportunity to explore the city and its surroundings, and taste some of the delicious food it has to offer. However I still need to try Cuy (guinea pig) before we leave tonight.

The most popular area of Lima is Miraflores and is very up and coming. It’s full of top class hotels, luxury high rise apartment buildings overlooking the ocean and fitness trails running along the cliff. There are also plenty of fine dining restaurants. One of the most popular groups is owned by Gaston Acurio, a famous chef from Lima who actually owns La Mar in San Francisco. One night we went to Madam Tusan, a Chinese restaurant (OK, so not Peruvian, but so worth it) and enjoyed a bountiful display of noodles, sweet and sour chicken and stir fried vegetables. It was delicious and a refreshing change to our usual diet.

We also ventured outside of Miraflores and headed to Barranco. This little region is full of Peruvian charm with colorful architecture, a plaza and small little streets with cafes. We came over here one night to watch the stunning sunset over the ocean. Unfortunately there weren’t as many cuisine options over unless you went to the main touristy restaurants. Another big attraction in Lima is the Parque de la Reserva which holds the Circuito Magico del Agua, a fountain park. This is extremely popular with the locals who are looking for entertainment for their kids or just to cool off during the hot days. The park is filled with all different types of fountains; you can run through them, walk under them in a water tunnel, or just simply watch them. They even have a lazer show and music. Yes it’s a bit cheesy, but good fun too.

If you want to venture out to some nice beaches (the ones in Lima are a little rocky), then you can go south to Punta Hermosa or Rocas. There’s also good surf in that direction so Justin wanted to check it out. We took the bus, which is more or less easy to do, but we got a little confused as to where to go and ended up paying S45 on the way there and only S15 to get back. Whoops! The beaches south of Lima are long and the towns surrounding them seem pretty dead. It’s almost like you’re walking into a ghost town. I think this is different on the weekends. Fortunately we found a nice little spot in Punta Rocas with deck chairs and ceviche!

The rest of our time in Lima was spent on the wedding, getting nails done, renting suits, rehearsals and of course parties! On the Friday night before the wedding the happy couple had a welcome party on the roof top at the Radisson, where we enjoyed a few glasses of champagne and meeting their international friends and familes. However we couldn’t stay out too late because I was a bridesmaid and I had to get up at 5:00am the next day. Ouch!

Then finally it was Saturday. Their big day! Preparations started early with hair and make up. In Peru the tradition of bridesmaids doesn’t exist, so the three of us (Cynthia, Julianna, and I) were getting a few strange looks all morning as people tried to figure out why we were all wearing the same thing. After we were ready it was time to get Catie into her dress, and after about 20 minutes of pushing, pulling and tying her corseted dress she was looking stunning. It’s so funny to think of the bubbly girl I met 8 years ago in Boston, who is now a sophisticated woman (well some times). After photos we left Catie and her mum, and headed to the church. The church is only five years old and is in an unusual modern cone design, however still has the traditional feel on the inside. Nerves were starting to build between us, hoping that no-one  tripped going down the aisle and the timing. Church’s here are very strict on timing. If you are late then they will start without you. So, as a bride, you could be walking down the aisle to only the priest conducting mass, rather than music. Fortunately Catie arrived on time and the ceremony started without a glitch, however half of the guests didn’t get the memo and still arrived in Peruvian style; 30 minutes late.  After the ceremony there is a greeting line. Sometimes the greetings can go on for 1.5 hours! Fortunately their greeting line only lasted 30 minutes. Well with some help from us and the encouragement of champagne we were able to lure a few gringos away from the line. Then it was off to the party.

Catie and JuanCarlos were whisked away in their black Mercedes Benz off to Mamacona, the location of the wedding. We followed in our bus, which got side swiped by another car on the way. Tally of broken down busses, 4. Fortunately we only had to wait 30 minutes on the side of the road and then we were on our way again. Arriving into Mamacona, you start to wonder where the hell you are going. The road is dusty, there isn´t much surrounding it, and the area just seems a bit industrial. But when we pulled into the ranch, we were welcomed by the beautiful open air tent with flowers in abundance, colorfully decorated tables, a huge bar and a relaxing lounge area. In Peru the weddings don’t include a formal sit down dinner, but rather different food stations throughout the day. This also means that the party starts right away, at 2:30! There was also a bottle of whiskey on each table. I knew this party was going to be fun. With our sensible hats on we started with the food and it was delicious, ceviche, cheese, and passed hors d’oeuvres of asparagus and anticucho (cow heart, wasn’t really for me). Later on we had a buffet of shrimp, pork, tamales, rice, and then later on there were pork sandwiches.

The newly weds kicked off the party with a waltz with each other and then their parents, and then the bridesmaids and groomsmen joined in while they played Home by Edward Sharpe. After that I don’t think I left the dance floor. We all pretty much danced for six hours straight. It was so fun to see the mix of cultures on the dance floor, with a mix of rock ‘n’ roll, salsa, and then dance. At around 6:00pm they had a crazy hour. This is typical in Peru to liven up the party (not that it needed it). They had a guy on stilz, a jester, masks and hats for everyone and balloons. And the crowd went crazy! We danced, we did the limbo and we did the conga. Full of energy, the groomsmen were ready for another Peruvian tradition, to throw the bride and groom in the air. Chatting at the bar I see JuanCarlos high up in the air. That can’t be right….and then Catie! Unfortunately I was too shocked and forgot to get my camera out. The day turned into night, the drink kept flowing, the tunes kept playing and we were sad when 10pm rolled around and we had to go home (however I think everyone’s feet were happy).

What a great experience to be a part of. Congratulations Catie and JuanCarlos Estrella! We wish you a lifetime of joy, happiness and love.

Now off to Buenos Aires.

Flashpacking in the Land of the Inca’s

The Inca’s were the largest civilization in South America, their territory spanning 4000 miles along the Pacific coast of South America starting in Columbia and finishing close to what is now Santiago, Chile. What is amazing about this tribe is how much they accomplished in such a short amount of time. The civilization began in the 1300’s however their peak lasted less than 100 years from 1435 to 1531 AD. The first Incas were formed in Lake Titicaca on Isla del Sol (which I briefly wrote about in the last blog). Legend has it that the Incas began with Mama Ocllo (a woman) and Manco Capac (the first king of the Incas) rising up from Lake Titicaca with a golden spear. With their spear they travelled north to find the best land to call home. When they arrived in Cusco, they stuck their spear in the ground and named it the capital of the Incas. Mama Oclla taught the native women about sewing and weaving, while Manco Capac taught the men how to cultivate the land and build infrastructure and houses. They also formed the language Quechua, which is still spoken today in Peru and Bolivia.

After Manco Capac (also named the Sun God), there were nine official kings of the Incas. The incredibly rapid expansion of the Inca Empire began with Viracocha’s son Pachacuti (king number eight), who was one of the greatest conquerors. His son Topa Inca was also a powerful ruler conquering many lands as he built his kingdom. The last four kings were influenced by the Spanish and so are not regarded as worthy kings. Tupac Amaru was the last indigenous leader of the Incas and died in 1572. You may be interested to know that 2Pac (the rapper) was named after this Inca leader.

We left Lake Titicaca and headed to Arequipa, Peru, although we nearly lost our lives on the way there. Stupidly we took the ‘local’ bus, which turned out to be the fishmongers and sales bus. As the workers opened up the bottom of the bus to store our luggage the stench of fish that came out nearly made me sick. Then we had to endure 6 hours of salesmen nattering away in Spanish trying to sell the next moisturizer that will rid you of those annoying wrinkles. No thank you Senor! To top it off, the driver thought he was part of Formula 1 and we nearly had a head on collision with a truck since all of the drivers love to overtake going at top speeds, around bends, with steep cliffs on the side of the road. Fortunately everyone stopped when this truck decided to overtake on a bend and no one went over the edge, however our nerves were tested to the max. As you can imagine we were relieved when we arrived in Arequipa with all limbs attached. We spent four days in the white city calming our nerves, relaxing in the garden of our hotel, eating some delicious food (Alpaca!) and drinking some good coffee! We even found Starbucks! So we have decided that we are now flashpackers! We are travellers that would not dream of doing dorms, we now travel in luxury busses, we eat good food (well when we can) and when we camp we have room service! We saw the flashpacking phrase in a brochure talking about the hotel we were staying at and it kind of stuck…well for Peru anyway.

Arequipa was known as the White City originally for the Spanish white men that lived there. After a while the meaning switched over to the white buildings made of volcanic rock that decorate the plaza and its surroundings. The city is also home to Huanita, the famous Ice Queen. Typically the Incas did not sacrifice humans, normally choosing black llamas as the victim, however they did sacrifice about ten children that were the ‘chosen ones’. The most famous, the Ice Queen, was marched (not unwillingly) from Cusco to Arequipa and sent into the volcano to protect the communities from the Volcano Gods. She is special because when she was discovered her body was still fully intact with skin and hair because she was frozen. She is now on display in Arequipa. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see her.

After four days we decided we were ready to hit the road again and headed to Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world at 3269 meters (the deepest is close by Cotahuasi at 3535 meters, and Grand Canyon is 1800 meters). The tour took us through the antiplano which is surrounded by the three important volcanoes; Chachani, the largest, Misti, which is active (although the locals don’t like to acknowledge that fact), and Pichu Pichu. After a few hours we arrived in Colca Valley, a vast valley layered in terraces. We dropped some of the group off in the little town of Chivay, which to be honest I’m glad we weren’t staying in. It was all dusty streets and run down buildings. Because of our new flashpacker status and feeling like we needed some luxury, we had decided to stay at Colca Lodge and it was beautiful! We had a beautiful room with views of the valley, private hot springs overlooking the river, and a spa! I was in my element. I was almost tempted to skip the early pick up at 6am to see condors and just enjoy the hotel. Justin and I enjoyed the hotel for the afternoon, chatted with some fun Canadians and relaxed with a good glass of wine and some alpaca for dinner. After some convincing by Justin, we did decide to get up at 5 the next morning and headed on with the tour to see the condors soar down in the canyon and over us on the cliff side. If you’ve seen Grand Canyon then you need to wipe the meaning of canyon from your brain for about 30 minutes while looking over the edge of the cliff. It’s pretty yes, but stunning? Not really. To be honest I think the hotel experience really made our trip.

After having a taste of luxury we weren’t going back to the crappy busses and chose to travel with Cruz del Sur, a more expensive but less risky option. One that is less likely to turn you into a statistic (however we did break down for ten hours the other day on our 20 hour journey from Cusco to Lima; you do the math!). The busses are very nice and spacious, play good movies and the food isn’t half bad either. From Arequipa we headed to Huacachina, a small oasis town in the middle of the humongous sand dunes. The town itself is a cool little chill out spot for travellers, however the oasis has some pretty dodgy water and only the locals were splashing around in it. The reason to come here: Sandboarding and Dune Buggying. We signed up right away and were told we were going with the craziest dune buggy driver out there. I don’t think we got the craziest since I’ve had hairier experiences with my Dad doing the classic car trials. But I won’t say it wasn’t fun shooting over the dunes and doing a few jumps here and there. Sandboarding is very different to snowboarding. For one it is very sticky and hard to make turns. Justin took to it well, but I made a fool of myself face planting in the sand straight after I stood up. We started off on the equivalent of bunny hills and then by the end we were doing blacks! When signing up you can either choose the regular board or get the snowboard and boots. As we knew how to board we went with the snowboard, but it looked more fun and faster going down on your belly. Great experience, but I won’t be swapping it for snowboarding.

Next stop….Cusco! As mentioned above this was the capital of the Incas, however like much of South America, the Spaniards took over and it has a colonial feel with many churches. We spent five days in Cusco acclimatizing to the altitude and for me the food, or the pisco sours. After the second day I had a case of the Montezumas, which was three days before we started the Inca Trail so unfortunately I wasn’t able to explore as much as I’d hoped. Thankfully I was back to, well almost normal when Thanksgiving rolled around and we started the Inca Trail. However using the hole in the ground loos was an experience. Lets just say that you really have to make sure you’re aim is good.

So as not to be disappointed Justin and I decided to not read up much about the trail, nor had we looked at many photos. And we were not disappointed! The bus picked us up at 6:00 am and we headed for the town of Ollantaytambo. Here we ate breakfast and got pestered by the local women until we bought ponchos and sticks. Then we continued in the bus for another 30 minutes until we came to Km 82, the start of the Inca Trail. Packing up our things there was a sense of anxiousness, yet excitement in the air. The Inca Trail is the top activity to do in South America and you have to book it at least two months in advance, so this was a big moment for everyone. We were also walking the trail in the rainy season, but luck was in our favour and the day we started there were bright blue skies and the sun was shining down. After about 15 minutes the group was ready and the porters (chaskeys, which means messenger in Quechua) had loaded themselves up like donkeys. They are truly amazing. You read reviews about how strong they are, but it´s not till you see them carry a load probably as heavy as person and literally run by you do you realize their strength. There are actually three different trails to Machu Picchu; The sacred trail for the pilgrims, the commercial trail to transport food and other goods, and the military trail to transport messages between the rulers. We were walking on the sacred trail.

The first day winds you through the valley, by the river and by ruins. The first ruins we saw were Q’entimarka, which is shaped like a puma’s foot. All of the settlements built by the Incas were built in the shape of an animal. Machu Picchu is actually shaped like a condor. After a few hours of walking we enjoyed lunch in a small community. The chaskeys had set up a tent for us to eat in and cooked a four course lunch. They were so organized that we even had our own little bucket of warm water to wash our hands in. After lunch we worked our way up through the valley finishing at a campsite with views of Mount Veronica, a snow capped mountain sacred to the Incas. Machu Picchu itself was built with four sacred mountains in mind surrounding the settlement to protect the people; Mount Veronica, Machu Picchu, Yananti, and Pumasiyu. That night at camp we all got to know each other a bit more chatting over a beer. We had 15 in our group, four Columbians, two from Australia, six Americans and three from England. Amazingly we all got on very well and were laughing and joking the whole way. Our guides were great too, Percy the main guy who was very informational and Marcos who was there for you if you were ill. After another three course dinner we got ourselves into bed and just like it was timed the rain started to pour down.

The next morning we woke to cockerels and ducks walking around our tents, and to the beautiful view of Mount Veronica breaking through the clouds. Oh and don’t let me forget room service! Yes we were woken up with a choice of tea or coffee to be taken in our tent. Talk about service! The chaskeys had it all under control. Some of them have been working on the trail for 20 years and still continue to work at 67 years old! The second day of the trail was all up hill, ascending 1200 meters from 3000 to 4200 meters. We wound up from the valley to the cloud forest and then to the top of the mountains to Dead Woman’s Pass. Fortunately for us again the weather was perfect and we were able to siesta after lunch. Thank goodness as we needed all the energy we could get to hike to the top of the mountain. That night we celebrated Jami’s birthday and amazingly the chef was able to bake a cake for her. We have no idea how he did it other than the possibility that he carries a fridge and an oven on his back. This could be an option based on the size of his pack!

The third day was my favorite. Again waking up to views of snow capped mountains, waterfalls and the beautiful cloud forest below was a winner. This morning we had coffee in our tent. After breakfast we started heading up again. Our first stop for the day was the Runkuraqay ruins, which is a tambo, a resting spot for the messengers. They actually had tambos every seven km so the messengers could quickly relay messages either orally or using a quipu, a type of abacus using colored strings with nots which only royalty could understand. After finding out a little more about the Incas we carried on up to the first pass where we did a ceremony. This was a traditional ceremony that the Incas would do to make wishes and leave all of their bad demons behind. We had to find three perfectly shaped coca leaves and fan them out. We also took little pebbles from the river. Circling around a sacred rock, Percy made a speech and then one by one we all blew on our leaves, made wishes, layed them on the rock and covered them with our pebbles from the river. After the ceremony we carried on down the mountain to the sound of Percy playing his flute. It was such a special moment.

Reaching the bottom of the hill we explored another ruin and then crossed through the cloud forest once again. The cloud forest is so interesting, full of squishy mosses, tiny mushrooms, and colorful flowers. Mike, one of the guys in our group, teaches biology so was able to tell us about the different plants. Well he was able to do this on the second day, unfortunately he was suffering from altitude sickness on the third day and was doing everything he could just to make it through. We had our bought of rain this day too, which actually seemed quite suitable as we were hiking through the forest. And we got to use our colorful ponchos! After descending a while, the rain cleared up and the cloud started to disperse giving us a clear view of Machu Picchu mountain. Carrying on down we had just enough time to make it to the last ruin of the day, which was terraces upon terraces built into the side of the mountain over looking the vast valley and the river below. It was absolutely spectacular. We even saw llamas (apparently the park has pet llamas that can just roam as they please) and a fox roaming around the grounds. I wish we had more time because we really could have done some exploring there. After being called about five times we all came down and practically ran to camp so as not to get stuck in the dark! We made it and settled down to our last dinner with the group.

The fourth day, the final day, the Machu Picchu day. We woke extra early this day to get in line to enter the park. The gates open at 5:30 am but groups start lining up at 4:30. We were actually the last in line, which unless you are super bothered about seeing the sunrise at the Sungate works out because everyone is ready to move on when you get there and there is nobody coming up behind you. I feel like this is the way our trip was organized from the start. On the whole trail we hardly saw anyone and there were many times when it was only Justin and I, or us and a couple of others from our group. 12 years ago, the park was overwhelmed with visitors and the government decided to take it over, only allowing a limited number of people along the trail. Now only 500 people can enter the trail in a day, 200 tourists and 300 porters and guides, making it pretty easy for loosing yourself on the trail. As we were waiting, nervous chatter was in the air, then the gates opened and the nervous chatter changed to excited energy as everyone started hiking along the path. As we were walking the sun came up over the mountains and we had another cloudless sky. I seriously cannot believe our luck on this trip. I think the Inca Gods were looking down on us. I was up behind our guide as we were hiking, and he was unhappy at the pace we were going behind the other groups, trying to get us there before the place was filled with tourists. At one point, one of the other groups pulled over and we were off running along the trail overtaking anyone that had pulled over. We turned a corner and there were a set of steep stairs that you needed your hands to pull yourself up. Even with our backpacks on we flew up the stairs; I seriously thought my heart was going to explode! And then we came to the Sungate. There she was, Machu Picchu, prestigiously mounted on the hillside. We stood a while taking in the view, and taking numerous photos of the same thing trying to get the best shot. After a while we headed down and entered the park. We had completed the Inca Trail. The trail itself was amazing, but seeing Machu Pichu was the cherry on top. We spent the morning walking around the ruins, guided by Percy. It felt kind of funny to be mixed in with the nicely dressed tourists that had just come up for the day on the bus from Aguas Calientes. We almost felt like we deserved more recognition after exerting all of the sweat over the last four days. Maybe they could change their opening time for the other tourists to 11 am and the ones who actually hiked up a mountain to get there could enjoy it alone for an hour or two. But of course that couldn’t happen.

Machu Picchu was made public knowledge by Hiram Bingham, a professor at Yale, back in 1911. I don’t want to say he actually discovered it because of course the locals knew about it, there were even a few families that were living at the ruins when he arrived. Also, in 1902 a local farmer named Agustin Lizarraga also discovered Machu Picchu but kept the information to himself, took some of the treasures and sold them on the black market to an Italian. He even left his name and the date inscribed on a rock at Machu Picchu. The ruins were never found by the Spaniards during Spain’s conquest of South America since the kings led them along other paths.

In December 1908, Bingham attended the First Panamerican Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chile. It was there that he decided to follow the old Spanish trade route from Buenos Aires to Lima. Inspired by 17th century chronicles about the lost cities, Bingham headed to Cusco. In Cusco, Bingham made the acquaintance of J.J. Nunez, then prefect of the Apurimac region, who invited him on the arduous trip to the ruins of Choquekirau, thought at the time to be the site of Vilcabamba, the much sought after “last resting place of the Incas.” Bingham went back to the US and decided to organize another expedition to Peru in 1911. Interestingly he bought all of his equipment from Abercrombie and Fitch who sold him chocolate bars, leather straps to close chests and other interesting things. In agreement to the expedition, the Peruvian government elected Sergeant Carrasco as his guide and translator. One night they camped near the Urubamba river and met Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer. Arteaga told them of ruins on top of the mountain above the camp. Bingham paid Arteaga to take him and Carrasco to the ruins. Starting in the morning they climbed the mountain. At midday they rested with campesinos who had been living on the mountain for four years. They also knew about the ruins and elected Pablito Alverez, an 11 year old boy, to lead Bingham and crew there. They came upon the ruins almost immediately and were amazed at what they saw. Theories are still being found out about Machu Picchu to this day. The thought is that the city was a second capital. The people that lived their were royalty and metal workers. Vilcabamba has still not been uncovered and is located somewhere in the jungle.

After exploring Machu Picchu we headed down the mountain, had lunch in Aguas Calientes and enjoyed one or ten beers with the group before heading back to Cusco on the train. We were there for another day, then headed to Lima for our flight to Columbia. We are now in Bogota, where we are not having so much luck with the weather (there are constant torrential downpours), but we are enjoying the partying!

…de la Muerte

We left the comforts of Sucre and headed up to La Paz, the highest capital in the world standing at 3500 meters above sea level. I swear our bodies don´t know whether we’re coming or going as we keep going up and down between the different destinations. The drive into La Paz is actually at 4100 meters giving you a good view over the city which forms a bowl shape in the valley. The city itself is not that enticing, a concrete  jungle  full of pollution and people¸ you really come here for three reasons, the scenery just outside of the city, to party, and to say that you´ve been to the highest capital in the world. After a night of partying and a walk around the market (which was 100 times better than Tarabuco since the items were actually made out of local materials and by hand vs. acrylic and by machine), we were ready to tick the third item off of our list and see the sites outside of the city.  We decided to do the Camino de la  Muerte (or Death Road to you and me) on BIKES. You may have seen the episode of Top Gear where they had to drive along the road and yes it is as dodgy as it looks on film. The road starts high up in the mountains by La Paz, cuts through the Yungas and then finishes in the jungle. However, the day we decided to give it a whirl was not exactly the most idyllic day, thick with cloud, pouring with rain and we could hardly see our hands in front of our face. At the top we got suited up, gave some 97% proof alcohol to Pachamama (Mother Earth) as well as a little sip ourselves for good standing and headed on our way.  The start of the ride is actually on the new paved road so it doesn´t feel too scary, however the drivers tend to refrain from using their headlights so we could only see cars or busses coming when they were 5 feet in front of us. We rode for about 40 minutes in the rain with our fingers crossed that a car wouldn´t hit us, until we reached the start of Death Road. At this point we were absolutely soaked through and I was shaking from the cold. Normally the van follows you down so you can sit it out for a while if you’re feeling tired, however on that day there was a landslide so our guide gave us the option of starting half way down (after the landslide) when the weather had hopefully cleared up a bit. Now, after the last time I sat out in the rain all day back in Pucon and then got the flu for two weeks, the idea of getting ill again didn´t sound too appealing, so I opted for the van while Justin braved the weather (and the road) and  carried on down. This was a bad idea….when we reached the other side it turned out that only 20 minutes of the ride was left. Very annoying! Especially when the bit that was left was not even an adrenaline rush at all. Well, we did go through two streams so there was a bit of thrill there, I guess. When we reached the bottom there was the option to do a Canopy Zip Line. Needing more of an adrenaline rush for the day I said yes and headed up with three others in our group. There were three lines that traversed across the valley. Feeling brave I went first and arrived on the other side safe and sound. Then came the second line. All was going well until the guys on the other side told me to brake but it was too soon and then I ended up stopping before the platform and started going backwards to the middle of the line. I was bloody stuck, swinging above the trees, roads and rivers having visions of being stranded there over night. After much yelling from the guys in the end I had to pull myself in back up to the platform. Talk about an arm workout! On the third line we could go in tandom, so I went with Carmel, an Irish girl who came along with us and sat out half the bike ride too. We started out fine again until we reached the end, we braked to early and got stuck. But we were laughing so hard we could hardly even pull ourselves back in. Fortunately we mustered up the strength and pulled ourselves to safety. The day finished off with a trip to the wildlife refuge, which for me was the best part (and safest part) of the day. We saw macaws, a toucan and monkeys. The animals had come to them from the black market. Some of the monkeys had to be tied up because they could attack you or steal your wallet as they were trained to be pick pocketers. It was fun watching them play in a safe environment. After the refuge we drove 3 hours back to La Paz ready for Halloween!

In Bolivia, and I believe South America in general, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated rather than Halloween. In general it is a family occasion which they celebrate at a relative’s house, cook special food and then offer it to their departed loved ones. In return, the souls of the dead relatives watch over them. However in the Wild Rover Hostel (an Irish party hostel) we carried on with our tradition of Halloween, got dressed up, drank a few too many and enjoyed the celebrations into the wee hours of the morning. Well I did…Justin needed some beauty sleep. Unfortunately we had to fly the next morning so my carriage turned into a pumpkin at 1am, while the others went until 7am!

Our next stop was Rurrenabaque, located in the Amazon Basin north of La Paz. You can travel there by bus or by plane and neither option sounds very safe. The bus is 24 hours along the Death Road and is very treacherous. We even met a lady from La Paz who took the bus and it fell off the road into the river. Fortunately the fall wasn´t far and everyone survived. We opted for the plane, which was tiny! The tiniest plane we have ever been in, seating 19 people. The plane was so small you could probably pull yourself up into it, and when inside you can´t even stand up. You can see the pilots and hear all of the beeps that normally go on, that sound a little nerve wracking if you´re not used to them. We were told that the scenery helps to calm the nerves, but the day we left the cloud was still looming and we couldn’t see a thing. On the way back, however, there were brilliant blue skies and we could see the snowcapped mountains that we were flying in between and the rivers and trees below. It was like something out of Indiana Jones. After 35 minutes, we finished the longest flight (or Vuelo de la Muerte) of our lives and landed in Rurrenabaque.

The next day we started our Pampas Tour. The Pampas is located 3 hours away from Rurrenabaque close to a town called Santa Rosa (sound familiar?). The meaning of Pampas is grasslands, however we were going to a river that flowed in between the grasslands where the wildlife call home. There were five of us in our group, Carmel and her friend Kim that we had met back in Sucre and La Paz, and another Irish girl called Shannon. We were staying at an Ecolodge on the edge of the Rio Yacuma. The lodge, for being basic was actually comfortable and when we weren’t in our little boat we were hanging out in hammocks or drinking tea in the meals room. The first two of the three days were spent sailing up the river which is abundant with wildlife. Right away we saw Caimans lying on the banks or swimming in the river an arms reach from the boat. Capybaras were munching on grass and cooling off in the water, while turtles, piled up like dominoes, sunbathed on the logs in the water. We saw a wide variety of birds flying across the river, diving to catch fish for their next meal. We sat and watched black howler monkeys, while they watched us and played in the trees. On the second day we even had the chance to swim with the Pink River Dolphins, well dolphins, piranhas and caiman. Justin jumped right in and I followed just a few minutes behind as soon as I knew it was safe. 🙂 Fortunately the dolphins protect you against the caiman, however you’re kind of on your own with the piranhas. After 10 minutes of swimming around in the dark muddy water we decided to not push it and got out with all of our fingers and toes. The last day we went hunting for anacondas. Unfortunately we couldn´t find any, but we did find a rattle snake hiding in the bushes. Our guide Alex, also took us fishing and he caught a piranha so we could all see what it looked like. Boy it had some sharp teeth. Thank goodness they weren´t hungry when we went swimming the day before!

Our next adventure was to the Amazon, to Madidi National park which we ended up doing solo. Talk about customer service, we had our own guide, captain and cook. We took a small river boat 4 hours up the Beni and Tuichi rivers to our next Eco Lodge which turned out to be a little more basic than the Pampas. The showers were pretty much outdoors and the water was from the river. Our dining area just had a grass roof but with no protection from mosquitos, and they loved us! However, when you let the annoyances go and take a minute to soak in the surroundings, listening to the crazy sounds and smelling the sweet flowers or the tall garlic  trees you realize it’s an experience of a lifetime. There’s the normal cricket noise mixed in with sounds like chainsaws, old computer game zapping and random screaches. From the river, the jungle looks pretty ominous, but hiking through it you realize how much life there is. In fact Madidi National Park is one of the planet’s most biological diverse regions. I swear we didn’t see the same bug twice and we saw a lot of bugs. I even had a large stick insect on my head! A lot of tourists also come here to find herbal remedies for infections or even diabetes. The park, as with most national parks in Bolivia, is young and was only founded in 1995. Unfortunately for the park and it’s inhabitants the region is under threat by the government who want to build an international road, search for oil, create hydro electricity plants to name a few. For once tourism actually has a positive impact on the region and could help save the park. We spent our days hiking through the jungle, looking out for peccaries (small boar like creatures that roam the forest in groups of 10 or more) which if they notice you, run, make funny firecracker sounds, and let off a burning smell to warn you to stay away. We also saw monkeys playing in the trees and giant otters swimming down the river. On our last day we did some handicrafts and made ourselves some new wedding bands out of nuts. They look quite good with our gold bands if we do say so ourselves. After four days it was back to Rurrenabaque for one more night before our flight back to La Paz the next morning. We had survived our jungle experience with only mosquito bites and a couple of ticks in the butt as our souvenirs. If you’re interested in reading more about  Madidi go to this website: http://www.ecobolivia.org/em/home.php

After all the talk of …de la muerte  we were excited to go to our last destination in Bolivia which was Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. At first it is quite striking with mountains in the background, however sometimes you get the feeling like it’s a big reservoir. We stayed in Copacabana which really is nothing to write home about, however we did go over to Isla del Sol which is worth a visit. This is where the tribe of the Incas was formed. We saw the sacrificial stone where they would offer llama’s to the gods and the labyrinth where they offered other gifts. Walking from the north of the island to the south you get a complete view of the island which is actually quite striking. We did the walk with a couple from Chile and spoke Spanish the whole way! However it was tough going as were back at 4000 meters, could hardly breath and I was getting a funny tingling sensation in my fingers and toes.

That night we got back and headed for Peru…although it was touch and go as we had to get a taxi to catch our bus as it left without us!


Bolivia, rich with culture, history, landscapes and colour, but unfortunately the poorest country in South America. Arriving at the border we immediately felt the difference between Bolivia and Argentina. To cross borders you have to exit out of one country and then enter the next. The border patrol on the Argentinian side while still fairly flexible in terms of what we´re used still had an official feel (however I think they are only official with tourists because you see Bolivians and Argentinians just scurrying across without even stopping). When we arrived at the Bolivian border, the guards were jovial (much like the rest of the Bolivian people), joking with us and random people kept coming in to chat. Justin, because he is a US citizen, had to pay an entry fee and get a visa. Fortunately we had looked into this the day before and he had purchased his mug shots for the visa. He also needed $135US in crisp notes, however the casa de cambio was shut in Salta and he was planning on figuring it all out at the border. This would have been fine if we weren´t delayed for three hours on the way there because of picketers and arrived at 8:00pm. At first, one of the guards said we could pay in Argentinian Pesos, then the next said no it needed to be dollars. Then the other agreed and told Justin that there was a casa de cambio open 2 blocks up the street (I swear you get the same answer when you ask for any direction. It´s always 2 blocks that way, or 1 block then 1 block to the left. I rarely bother asking for directions anymore). As you can probably guess the casa de cambio didn´t exist or was shut. When Justin returned the guards had decided that he could pay in Argentinian Pesos but it would be $50 more! Joke city! Finally after much deliberation and going back and forth, one of the guards conveniently remembered that there was an ATM 4 blocks up the street that dispensed US $$. It was now 9pm and the one dark alley way we could see just kept looking dodgier and dodgier. Justin fortunately got the money, got a ride back on a scooter from one of the nicer guards and then we were out of there. The border town was called Villazon and was not exactly the nicest place to be so we took a cab straight to Tupiza. This may sound a little extravagent but it only cost $25 for a 2 hour journey! Not to bad…although I did have visions of the taxi drivers stopping halfway, letting us out in the middle of nowhere and telling us we had to pay more if we wanted to carry on. All worked out though and we finally arrived to the very comfortable hostal Salares at 11:30pm.

The next day was a our first real sighting of Bolivia and it was a pleasant surprise. Tupiza is a hot spot for starting the Antiplano and Uyuni Salt Flat tour, however still doesn´t feel too touristy (this will probably change soon as an international road is being built straight through the town). The town is described in Lonely Planet as a cowboy town, not sure if I would call it that but it definately has a wild west feel with the red rock canyons and formations serving as a fortress around the town. It´s also on the route of Butch Cassidy and the Sundace Kid. Walking through the streets, it feels like you have been transported back in time a hundred years. The women still wear traditional Bolivian dress with what look like bowler hats, long dark braided pig tails and pleated knee length skirts. They usually have a brightly coloured blanket filled with either goods or a child slung over their back. While you see men working in some of the stores, it´s normally the women who have the street side tiendas selling snacks like chocolate bars or something indiginous to the area. We spent the day trying to figure out our tour. A five day tour including a volcano climb was our goal, however most people wanted to do a four day tour. We could have gone solo, however it would have been ridiculously expensive. In reality you need four or five people to make it economically feasible on a travellers budget. After 4 hours of searching and not really finding anyone we reserted to going to the bus station and bombarding the people coming off the bus. In the end we found three french girls who wanted to do the same as us. As much as I hate saying this because we have met a couple of cool French people along the way, it was a bad idea to go with the french!

Unfortunately the night before our tour Justin ate something bad and got food poisoning. Thats one area you have to be really careful with in Bolivia…the lack of hygiene. In the smaller towns they rarely wash their hands and god knows what they cook your food in. He pretty much spent that morning on the loo and we nearly didn´t go. The owner of the hostal made him some coca tea with papousa and it seemed to help his stomach a bit. With his chin up we decided to carry on with the tour and we all piled into our tight but trusty jeep. The jeeps the tour companies use are hardly spacious and really only fit 5 people, however we had 5 in our group, a driver and a chef; or so we thought until the chef never showed up. It actually worked out best and Justin could sit in the front. Plus the guide seemed happy to cook for us. As Justin was in the front, it meant I was stuck in the back with the three french girls! We had agreed beforehand that we would speak in Spanish as we all pretty much could converse in the language, however they seemed happy to just carry on chattering in French. I tried speaking to them in Spanish…they answered my question and then kept talking in bloody French. Things were even worse at dinner that evening. Justin was in bed and so I was sat with the three of them. There were two other groups staying at our…well…shack, one of which was English. Not only did the French carry on chattering between each other but they blocked me from the English group. After about half an hour of  ‘cava…j´mapelle annoying (that´s the extent of my french) etc etc’…I decided to just talk across the table to the English.  Things did kind of get a bit better after 3 days however I wouldn´t call it fun. The accomodations we were staying in..well they did have running water so I can´t call it basic, although one night we were eating in a room that had a curiously hung curtain to the side of the room. Justin pulled back the curtain just to see what interesting things were behind it and a dead pig was just hanging out on a sofa! Great! We were eating and a sleeping in a meat house! The hostal on the third night however, was very comfortable and Justin and I even had our own bedroom and bathroom. The hostal was made out of the salt right from the lake.

The sights (which we reallywent for) on the tour were amazing. Travelling through Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve we saw Valle de los Rocas, which is a sandy valley scattered with big rocks that came from the volcanoes, salado petrificados, and Lagunas Verde, Negra and Colorada. Laguna Colorada had to be the most amazing for me as the water changes to a purple color in the afternoon because the pink flamingos disturb the minerals in the bottom of the lake which change its color. At Laguna Negra it was also fun to watch the different birds dabbling around the lake and making laughing sounds. We also saw geysers, bathed in a thermal spring and gazed up at the star filled night sky. It´s funny that even though we obviously don´t know all of the constallations of the northern hempishere the night sky down here definately looks different. The fourth day was the piéce de résistance (oh look there goes my french again). We woke up early and drove for half an hour along the salt flats to catch the sunrise. Driving over the flats was ridiculous…one minute you’re driving on land and then the next your on a salt lake and it´s white as far as the eye can see. Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flat at 4,086 sq miles and was formed by prehistoric lakes. It is made up of layers of salt and water, but it is still tough enough to drive on. We spent the day hiking up the islas and taking funny illusional photos. Our last day we hiked up Vulcan Tunupa which was at 5300 meters. The hike was not easy, half of the hike had a trail and the latter half we were treading on loose rocks. Our guide kept yelling back ‘peligroso!’ (danger), just what you want to hear when you´re climbing up a volcano. I have to say the last bit up to the top was a bit frightening as were were walking on a path about two foot wide with steep drops either side. However suffering through the climb (and for Justin, altitude sickness…poor guy thought his head was going to explode) rewarded us with a 360 degree view of the salt lake and the volcano. The colors of the volcano were incredible, a mixture of different shades reds and a bit of green. After a little while, we headed down, ate lunch and headed to Uyuni and the end of our tour.

As tourists, Uyuni really is only a pit stop to either start or finish the Salt Flat tour. The main business here is farming the salt as well as extracting the lithium. 50-70% of the worlds lithium is found here. Being tourists, we finished the tour at 5pm, saw the town and decided to get the 7pm bus to Potosi and then continue on to Sucre in a taxi. This was our first experience of busses in Bolivia. At first everything seemed great; bus was clean (even still had the plactic wrappers on the seats), and we even had semi cama. Just before we set off Justin asked me ‘Who do you think we´re going to get stuck next to on this journey? The snorer, the whiny kid or the person on their mobile that doesn’t know how to put it on silent.’ Not only did we get stuck next to two of the above, fortunately we dodged the snorer, but the bloody bus driver thought he was a DJ at a disco and kept blaring the Bolivian music at high volume for 2 thirds of the 6 hour journey. We were relieved to finally arrive in Potosi, and hopped straight into a cab which drove us to Sucre. At this point it was 1:30 in the morning, freezing cold and raining, AND we had climbed a volcano that morning. There was one other person in the cab, which was good to begin with because he would help us with the cost, but Justin sat in the back with him and after about half an hour the guy was alseep and almost falling in Justin´s lap. The taxi driver kept his window open the whole way, proceeded to chew coca leaves (we had them on our tour and the rank smell almost makes me vomit) and then chain smoked for the majority of the 3 hour journey. The music wasn´t too bad, basically top ballads from the States or England translated into Spanish. Can you tell we are becoming weary travellers yet? We decided to get some relaxation and take some time out of the hostel world, so when we arrived in Sucre we wanted to get a hotel. Unfortunately the one we wanted was full (at 4am) so the cabby drove us around the block to another. We couldn´t see what it was like because the power had gone out after a little bit of rain. However, finally some luck…we got to our room saw a big fluffy bed and passed out.

We´ve now been in Sucre for the past week and a half, the old capital of Bolivia (however the locals will tell you it still is the capital), which is a lovely city full of beautiful colonial architecture. We’ve been taking more spanish lessons at Me Gusta Spanish School, getting into the culture with cooking lessons (we had tongue the other night, see photos), visited a Fexpo showcasing local artesans and went to the Tarabuco Market this past Sunday. The market, a long 2 hour bus ride away from Sucre, is one of the most famous in Bolivia held by the Yampara culture, and was quite a colorful site to see. The plaza is surrounded by artesans selling their blankets and artisanal pieces, and parades fill the streets. The Bolivians do love their parades, I think we´ve seen one almost every day that we´ve been in Sucre. Unfortunately the town of Tarabuco is less to be desired with the side roads smelling of urine. I think we even caught one women peeing in the road!

Tonight we head to La Paz, the highest capital in the world, for some halloween fun!!