The Grand Finale!

South America, it’s been a pleasure – consider yourself traveled!

A great 4 months it has been but it is time to return to reality. Our 7th and final country has been Colombia. I decided to break Colombia evenly up into 2 blogs. The 1st one for Cali, Salento and Medellin – the more Southern places of Colombia. The 2nd one then for the Carribean coast of Cartagena and Santa Marta and then to Bogota for our flight. I planned this for my readers in advance to satisfy their blogging needs. The 1st blog had salsa, coffee farms and a Pablo Escobar tour. I then envisioned a Breaking Bad-esqe grand finale with idyllic beach pictures with Sharika, Sofia Vergara and all their friends popping in. This last blog is not of Breaking Bad quality (that season finale was epic). It’s more like Dexter – disappointing. Or even The Sopranos ending when your first see it – emotions of confusion and anger. The 1st blog trumps this one.

Our first stop was Cartagena. The old town where we stayed had some nice architecture but little to do. I wanted to get a nice beach picture but failed. Not even Shakira or Sofia showed up to share some love and save the day. Instead I had this thing trying to massage me:

I do like taking photos of cuisine in nice places so I thought a nice coffee and a picture of an affogato (espresso over ice cream) would salvage the photo album. No. Nat scoffed the affogato and demolished it before I had a chance to get a good pic.

A typical day for us. Example of Day 1 was: Wake up. Breakfast. Internet. Check Fantasy team and wonder why it’s not doing better than it should. Watch the Netlfix they have. It doesn’t work. Lunch. Internet. Netflix still doesn’t work. Check my online banking and wonder why it’s as low as it is. Walk around the town with Nat. Dinner. Netflix – we’ve given up on you. Beer. Feeling Zzzz in the dead heat. Bed. Day 2: repeat Day 1 and watch Arsenal v Man City on a slow streaming site.

It didn’t hold much hope for Santa Marta as they told us in advance that Cartagena was better. What do “they” know. If you stay at the Masaya hostel (which was more like a hotel), then it surely will be good. It was. The hostel had a roof terrace with a pool, TV, bar, hammock and pool table.

   

Bogota then was just a quick stop for our flight so nothing to report. Re-reading this blog and makes me wonder why your still reading it. The first blog is much better. If you want to know about the North of Colombia and the nation’s capital, you have to come to the wrong place.

Colombia was a good country. It gets an A- for us. We never planned to do much other than relax after all the treks and sightseeing prior to it:

Good: Coffee was the best in South America, hostels were good, Medellin is a nice city, people are friendly and the day tours are good

Bad: The architecture wasn’t that great. Santa Marta and Cartagena underwhelmed here. It’s a good place to chill but Peru and Brazil rate better as there is more to do in the country as a whole on activities to do.

On a serious note, I do want to thank people who have read the previous 15 blog entries that I have put up. The feedback I received from people was heart-warming. This trip was months of planning and saving (and sacrifice) and was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Not to preach but traveling is something everyone should do. South America has been my 5th continent that I have traveled for at least 2 consecutive months and I truly agree with the statement “traveling is the only thing that makes you richer”. There has always been up and downs when I have travelled – it has not always been taking photos of my legs on a beach every day. But I regret none of it and the last few years have been brilliant. I wouldn’t have met Nat if I didn’t travel (very cheesy from me). I wanted to do something slightly different with this traveling trip. When couples go away together, I didn’t want to check in on Facebook in every city with pictures like this:

The blog was my way doing something I’d look back on in years to come. Of course, I wanted my family to know their baby boy was safe but I also wanted people to know more about South America. Everyone knows about Rio and Machu Picchu but hopefully a few more know more about the Bolivias, Ecuadors and Chile’s. On a personal side, it has given me a chance to let my creative side out. I planned to do a blog on just what things like hostels and buses costs to help other travelers. Then, I didn’t fancy doing something so monotonous and I’m sure my family and friends don’t want to know how much a mixed dorm is in Cusco, Peru (although I do plan to write something about costs soon). I prefer spewing some verbal diarrhoea for my reader’s to digest. It was a nice hobby to have and I don’t think blogs of me commuting to work or my expert advice on what players to pick and leave out in Fantasy football will take off.

Again, thank you for the love throughout my travels in South America. If you have any questions about South America, message me on this blog and I will answer any queries you have. I will leave you now with a picture of that lovely travel quote I mentioned earlier..

travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer A Travel Philosophy; What are you Travelling For?

Hostel guide

This is a guide to help any backpackers traveling South America.

Overall, the hostels got better as we went on in terms of entertainment and things to do in the hostels. Peru and Colombia were good examples of this.

Brazil and Argentina provided better breakfasts and were better value for money for privates. For example, if a dorm was 7GBP in these countries, a private could be 8.40GBp. Well worth the extra money. Unfortunately, it was the opposite from Peru onwards. If a dorm was 6 GBP, a private would be about double this making it harder to get a private.

Our main source of booking was Hostelworld and we used AirBnB twice (during the World Cup).

 

For the countries we traveled, here are the hostels we stayed at:

Brazil (4 weeks)

Rio: El Misti. 10 GBP for a dorm. We stayed here for 14 days at the start of the World Cup in an 18 bed dorm. Good atmosphere and really good breakfast (free) and dinners (cost about 4-5 GBP). Not the cleanest but we were happy not to pay 50GBP when the World Cup started.

Rochina Guest House: 25 GBP for a dorm. We got moved into a private for 6 days in Rio’s favela of Rochina. The price was inflated due to the World Cup but El Misti would have been 50GBP. A great experience in the favela was the highlight and was safer than you think

Paraty: Airbnb. Stayed with an Italian guy and his cat for 2 nights. 15.50 GBP a night. An expensive place in general but was a nice place to stay to escape the madness of the World Cup (especially for Nat) for 2 nights

Sao Paulo: Stayed with a girl called Luisa for 6 nights on Airbnb. 6 GBP a night (great price for the World Cup). Really good host and had our space was great after spending alot of time in hostels in Rio.

Foz do Iguazu: Hostel Pousada El Shaddai. 10.50 GBP each for a private. Nice breakfast but nothing special here for the 1 night we stayed.

 

Argentina (2 weeks)

Puerto Iguazu: Mango Chill 10 GBP a night for private. Again like Foz do Iguazu, the hostels are nothing special on this side of things. Have to pay that extra when you see the Iguazu Falls

Buenos Aires: The Ritz by Hostel Inn  9.50 GBP for a private. Milhouse hostel on this street was booked out which was a shame. This place lacked atmosphere and would recommend going for Milhouse in advance. Hostels in Palermo would also be worth looking at. An above average breakfast.

Mendoza: Punto Urbano Hostel,  6.50 GBP for a 4 bed dorm. The hostel was nothing amazing although their breakfast was really good – crepes and omelettes is what they offered in the price. This place is where we met the best fellow guests. The 3 best friends we made on this trip (Dan, Sian and Adam were here) so we had good nights here.

 

Chile (1 week)

Santiago: Andes Hostel,  11.25 GBP for a mixed dorm. Santiago is expensive so we had to pay premium for this. A nice hostel with a standard breakfast. As the trip goes on the more hostels have TV rooms and this was the start. Good hostel

Santiago Backpackers. 8.25 GBP for a mixed dorm. A dark and not so clean place. We were only here for one night to save 3 GBP (I’m that tight) from the previous hostel but this was a slight regret. Nothing great to write home about although their activities did look good for other nights.

 

Bolivia (2 weeks)

Potosi: Casona Potosi Hostal. 5.40 GBPThis place did my head in. I absolutely hated the staff and the way they ran the place. They would ask for a deposit if you wanted to use a pan or cutlery. Ridiculous. Could have been a good place if it wasn’t for the staff.

Sucre: Hostelling International. 5.25 GBP Lightning struck again. Sucre was just like Potosi. The staff are just as annoying and had no common sense. Irritating. For the rest of our stay in Bolivia, we stayed in franchise hostels rather than Bolivian run hostels and for good reason. This may sound harsh but Bolivians fried my brain. I’ll never be friends with a Bolivian.

La Paz: Loki Hostel,  6 GBP a night for a 4 bed dorm. It was converted from an old hotel and has a great view from the bar on the 8th floor. The next hostel (Wild Rover) had a better atmosphere but the beds are really good. A novelty when you get a good mattress in a hostel

Wild Rover Backpackers Hostel 6.50 GBP for a 6 bed dorm. This is an Irish hostel and is a bit of rowdy one. A very nice bar and it did good food. If your are here to socialise and dont mind the noise, it is recommended. Bloody wild Irish!

 

Peru (3 weeks)

Arequipay: Arequipay Backpackers,  5.75 GBP for a 6 bed dorm. This was one of our favourites. It was such a great chillout place. It had a cinema room, a TV room and a pool table. Good value for money and was near the main square.

Cusco: Wild Rover Backpackers Hostel 7 GBP for a 6 bed dorm. A very nice bar but Wild Rover in La Paz had a better atmosphere. If you go to more than one Wild Rover, you get a free beer at the bar.

Pariwana Hostel 7 GBP for a 8 bed dorm. Nat and I have said this was our favourite hostel in South America. It had the perfect mix of atmosphere and relaxation. They have a cinema room, comfortable beds and a good bar to drink and eat.

Trujillo: Surf Hostel Meri,  6.80 GBP for private ensuite. Trujillo itself didn’t offer us much but this hostel was pretty good. We had a nice ensuite private to ourselves and the hostel itself did good food. Its a very chilled hippy surfer place and was quite different to what we stayed in previously

Mancura: Loki Hostel,  6.40 GBP  a night. This Loki was better than the one in La Paz. It did good entertainment at the bar and beer pong was 24/7. It felt more like a holiday resort as the weather was great and the hostel also a pool. It was a shame we didn’t stay there longer than 1 night.

 

Ecuador (1 week)

Quito: La Guayunga 6 GBP for a mixed dorm. We arrived in Quito in the early hours and stumbled into this place. The only place we didn’t book before arriving. Quite cheap and good value for money in comparison to what was around. Kitchen and bathrooms weren’t the cleanest.

Nicky Lodge (part of a 4 day package in the Amazon)

 

Colombia (2.5 weeks)

Cali: El Viajero 6.50 GBP for a 12 mixed dorm. This was a great hostel to have in Cali as it had a good location and provided salsa classes free everyday. There was a pool near the bar and the majority of guests sunbathed whilst staying there. They provide free yoga and a free breakfast (which is better than most we stayed at)

Salento: La Floresta Hostel 5.50 GBP for a 8 mixed dorm. We stayed here for one night and rarely hung out in it. It was a basic hostel and an okay location. Good value for money.

Cartagena: El Viajero 8.60 GBP for a 10 mixed dorm. Very underwhelming in comparison to their hostel in Cali. It lacked atmosphere and everything seemed to not work (their Netflix worked only once for us). It’s rated as the top hostel mainly due to its location in the old town.

Santa Marta: Hostel Masaya 6.75 GBP for a 12 mixed dorm. This was more of a hotel than a hostel. It was the perfect hostel for us to finish the trip in. A beautiful and modern rooftop terrace is the major feature here. It had a pool, kitchen, bar, tv, hammocks and a pool table. We spent most of our time in Santa Marta here in the hostel. A nice feature was that the dorm beds have curtains.

If you have questions about any hostels or anything else South America, please message me on the blog.

Colombia: Killing Pablo

Cali:

Two things I like are coffee and yoga. Another thing I like but I am not really good at is salsa dancing. Our first stop in Colombia was Cali – “the capital of salsa”. I would prefer to go swimming with sharks than go dancing with stars. So the prospect of salsa dancing wasn’t ahead of the World Cup or Machu Picchu on my things to do in South America, to be honest. I also love anything free and with yoga and salsa classes taking no currency from my pocket in the hostel, I was on board. Nat was new to the world of yoga and gave her best shot at doing her best “downstairs facing” pose (it is called “downward facing dog”, Nat). I managed to get out of my comfort zone and with 3 classes later, I was dancing like a shooting star. You will be proud of my cha cha, Mom!

Salento:

Located in the heart of the Colombian coffee region and tucked between Pereira and Armenia rests Salento which was our second stop. A small and pleasant town which offered us a warm relaxing setting from the bigger cities. Nat and I are big coffee lovers so I was really looking forward to going to a coffee farm in this town.

 

 

We arrived at the ‘Don Elias’ coffee farm where the family were all hanging around the “finca”. Don Elias himself was there- an old man with a cowboy hat on (dressed like Don Corleone in The Godfather 2 just when he died). His grandson spoke English and took us on the tour around the farm. His girlfriend was living in Cork studying English…small world you say?

 

 

The coffee process for those interested: First we got taken to see the coffee plants growing. They are small green bushes with little berries in them- some red and some green (some Colombian and some Arabica). The coffee plants are amongst banana palms which provide shade. The coffee farm was organic so they planted pineapple plants to attract the insects away from the coffee. We picked some beans and took them to a machine used for peeling the outside berries: we tried one at this point and it just tasted sweet but not of coffee at all. Then the beans go into a water bath: the ones that do not float are the best. They are left overnight until being transferred to a conservatory to dry out. Beans that are dried are often then sent for export so that the buyers can roast it themselves. The second skin is then peeled off: it’s very flakey. Then the beans are roasted for an hour being constantly stirred- that is when they go dark brown and look like coffee beans we recognised. Then we put them in the grinder and we were treated to a fine brew.

 

On the way back from the coffee ranch (fingers and toes crossed that the bags of coffee we bought from them don’t get confiscated at the airport), we had a game of “Tejo” – the Colombian national sport. It involves hurling a heavy piece of metal towards a clay target laced with packets of gunpowder.

 

Medellin:

After our stint in Salento, it was time to visit the infamous Medellin. Once upon a time, not too long ago at all, Medellin was the most dangerous city (and murder capital) of the world. This was primarily due to the infamous Medellin drug cartel and serious political and civil unrest. The one man who embodied this was Pablo Escobar.

The legacy of Pablo Escobar is still a cause for division amongst residents of Medellin, with some people seeing the man in a positive light, while others do their best to relegate the violence of the 80s and early 90s to the history books.

It was a half-day tour which included visits to Monaco, the eight story apartment building where the Cali Cartel detonated a car bomb in an assassination attempt, a visit to the building adjacent his final safe house where he was ultimately killed, and his family grave in the city of Itagui, south of Medellin.

The Monaco Building

The final safe house where he was ultimately killed

Pictures on the day he died

His grave

Straight after the tour, it was on to another one. The free walking tour of Medellin. Pablo (not Escobar) is so passionate about Colombia as well as Medellin and really manages to paint a picture about Colombia’s history and the ongoing civil war. Even though we saw the nice side of Medellin, Pablo was a professor in a University and now does tips based tours… I thought that was the most intriguing bit of the tour. You have to feel for the guy, traveling overseas as a Colombian…from Medellin…with the name Pablo has given him into a lot of unwarranted attention from immigration and customs in various countries.

 

Prostitutes behind the statue in the distance. Selling their anatomy…outside a church!

After spending over a week in Cali, Salento and Medellin, we made the 13 hour bus to Cartagena. Cartagena, Santa Marta and Bogota will be the last traveling blog of South America as we have 8 days left on the Carribean coast….and then it is back to reality!

Welcome to the Jungle

We arrived in Ecuador solely for one reason – to visit the Amazon jungle… Oh, and we had to get through Ecuador if we wanted to get to Colombia from Peru.

A total of a week was spent here with the 4 day Amazon trip following 3 days of hanging out in the country’s capital – Quito.

Those 3 days were mostly spent sightseeing and planning what to do when we got home (life after the blog) as we have reached the 3/4 mark of our trip.

On our first day we walked around the town and on the third day we went to see Mitad Del Mundo, or Middle of the World. It is a large monument that straddles an east/west line, separating the northern hemisphere from the southern. Each face of the monument sports a cardinal point, North, South, East (as you can see below) and West. Atop the monument sits a large globe weighing five tons.

 

That third day, we hung out in Quito all day then took the night bus to Lago Agrio for our Amazon trip where we took on a 4 days and 3 nights package that cost us £150. We arrived at 6:30am the following morning and it was a horrible bus as I dont like sitting in seats that don’t go beyond 90 degrees. I even tried sleeping on the aisle floor but kept sliding around when the bus moved. We had a couple of hours to waste then the tour company picked us up at 10am to take us on a 3 hour ride to a 2 hour canoe ride to get us into the primary rainforest area- Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. Once we got out of the car to get onto the canoe, it pelted down rain. Luckily we had ponchos, but that didn’t help the fact that we were going directly into the rain and it was pounding against our faces! Finally we did arrive to the lodge. We were at the Nicky Amazon Lodge, apparently the only lodge you can book in Quito that is in the middle of the Cuyabeno Reserve and not on the edge of it.

On our first night, we slept in from our lack of sleep on the night bus and missed one of the guides wrestle a caiman (South American crocodile). Cheers Ecuadorian buses for the fatigue. Although Nat did catch this cool photo:

The second day we went on the canoe to look at birds. We saw tons of birds like macaws and toucans flying around. But they are always far away, flying high above or sitting up high in trees so it’s impossible to get a good picture of them. I’d love to come onto this blog and say I am an avid bird lover but sadly I am not. I am a casual fan. I love the colourful ones and if they make some crazy noises, then fantastic. When our guide when in depth about the birds, I sometimes pulled the faces Colin Farrell pulls in the movie “In Bruges”:

When we came back we did a jungle walk and saw stick bugs, leaf bugs, cicadas, giant dragonflies, huge millipedes/centipedes, ants carrying leaves and of course, spiders. We also saw a snake, some frogs and lizards. An interesting night walk, especially with the sounds of the jungle echoing around you. In the jungle, the sounds of monkeys and birds are constantly going all around you. Our guide Diego pointed out to us interesting insects and even let us try lemon ants. Can’t recall eating ants that taste like lemon before so that was a first.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

In the jungle walk, we were told about snorting garlic and it clears the sinus (my Mom has terrible sinus so she would love this). The two pics below are the before and after doing it:

Before snorting it

The aftermath of snorting it

Our guide also had this friend to show us below. Since another guy in the group put him on his face for a picture, I did it as well to be cool.

I’m smiling because I love prickly bugs crawling on my face.

The next day I thought was better as we went on the canoe whilst the sun pelted down (my pale Irish skin became nice and red – I was like a Cork flag). We were on the look out for pink dolphins and saw numerous jumping out as us. Our guide told us when 2 jump out after each other that they are having sex…for about 6 hours. I’m building to that endurance, Nat. Be patient. We had a swim then in the river and Nat was the last person of 15 on the canoe. She claimed it was too dirty and dangerous to get in. She gave into peer pressure and got in…for 40 seconds.

Check out my back flip into the water. Like a young Chris Jericho.

We went to a tribal community for lunch but it looked more like Western Australia than the Amazon. They had football pitches, basketball courts and even wi-fi. Sellouts!
We went to another area down the river where a family lives on ayucca/cocoa plantation, in a house away from the community. Then the family took us out and showed us how they harvest the yucca (a root, a bit like potato) and then how they make yucca bread out of it. It was really interesting; they make it using only yucca, nothing else is added. It’s a thin tortilla-like bread.

There was a parrot there at the house who I tried to have photos with but he kept pecking me in the arm. Luckily for him, I dropped him when I did get a hold of him:

I broke my fishing virginity when we went fishing for piranhas. Not sure if it counts for anything but I caught a Brazilian fish called a Mota. Not sure if it counts as I dropped it when he was right next to the boat when I was reeling him in. Nat says it counts so I won’t argue with that.

After a second round of fishing (catching no fish this time) on the last morning, it was time for breakfast and then to go Colombia bound. The Amazon was our last big trip for physicality and Colombia would be 2 weeks of chilling out with coffee and… maybe even salsa dancing?

The Lares trek to Machu Picchu

There it is. A 7th New Wonder of the World. The Big Cheese. The Showstopper. The Main Event. Bucket list entry. It is the picture synonymous with South America: Machu Picchu.

It is a splendid sight nestled in a lush section of the Peruvian Andes, one of many examples of the ingenuity of Inca architecture and how it blends spectacularly with the surrounding environment.

This particular example of Inca Architecture is considered by many to be the best way to examine the remarkable history of pre-Colombian civilisation in South America. The Inca empire first emerged around 150 years before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, the last of a long line of pre-Colombian civilisations that had developed in Peru for 5,000 years.

To get there, we hiked a route known as the Lares Trek which takes you off the beaten track and through some spectacular scenery. The Lares trek takes you away from the over hiked Inca Trail and through some interesting viewing. We saw how the very rural people live in this part of Peru as you stop by some houses where herding sheep and llamas are the main trade. Am I biased towards the Lares trek over the Inca? Yes. Why? The Inca trail was booked out so this is the only option left. To be fair, both are the same price of £650 and its very miniscule details between the two. Prior to leaving England, this was the only tour we booked for South America as we were told we had to have a permit months in advance to do a trek. Better safe than sorry and all that. Good to know that we got to Cusco and found out that we could book it a day in advance and it cost about ¼ of the price we paid in England. Still, better to be safe than sorry.

After failed attempts to cancel our booking we did in England to go with a cheap one in Peru, we met our group colleagues and set off for our first ruin known as “Sacred Valley”. Would love to say it was this quiet:

This is more of the realistic scene there:

After the Valley, we drove first to Calca where we wandered around the local market. We were advised to buy cheap toys or bread that we will be able to give to the kids when taking a picture of them. They were so unappreciative most of the kids so Nat and I gave some of our food to the dogs instead of the kids (Just look at the photo below to see their pretty smiles). I also bought a rubix cube….for myself.

After Lares, it was time to actually start walking. It only took us 1½ hours to get to our first camp in Quishuarani. Our tents were set up in the garden by of one of the crew members. We had lunch and walked the same amount of time again to our tents to sleep. The night itself was capped off by a game of “Murder Mafia”. A notable highlight was me getting Nat lynched early on….kind of had to be there, I suppose. The night time conditions were not ideal – sleeping in a sleeping bag with no air mattress in the tent with temperature of 2 degrees.

Day 2 brought potential flashbacks of Colca Canyon. Day 1 and 3 were more strolls in the altitude but I feared for Nat again on Day 2. We left at 5.30am for an 8 hours walk reaching 4700m with some really steep hills. I lost my cool earlier on seeing Nat struggle with the trek leaving us at the back and I played the role of a dick boyfriend well for some time that morning. Don’t worry, karma got me at lunch time. After reaching the top of the summit, we made the decline walk to our tent for lunch. Well, lack of lunch for me. A mix of altitude and that stomach bug I had in Bolivia showed up at a rather inconvenient time. For the last 2½ hours, Nat carried the duo whilst watching me slip numerous times, struggle for breathing and get sick. Oh karma! No Murder mafia for the night as an early rest would alleviate some of the fears for Day 3.

Day 3 was easier for me as we made the 3 hour walk downhill and saw ruins, kids, dogs and some lovely images. An opportunity for the backpackers to play the Peruvian tour guides in soccer is too good to turn down even when your sick. With Nat (Southgate) marshalling the defence with another Italian girl (Panucci); they gave us a solid base for us to perform well. With myself (Cascarino) and Australian Julian (Viduka)  grabbing a brace each to win 5-3, we are able to sink the Peruvian hearts. Thanks to Marco, our tour guide, for a lovely kick in the ankle with his steel cap boot to welcome me to Peru. No tip for you. Who wears steel cap boots playing football? After our lunch and football, we drove to Ollantaytambo to catch the train with the rest of the group to Agua Calientes where we spent the night. This time in an hotel. I’m not tough enough for 3 days camping in the cold.

The next morning, we got the 25 minute bus to Machu Picchu.

There it was:

No-one is entirely sure why Machu Picchu exists. Some suggest it is a royal citadel where the Inca elite retreated for their pleasure. Others surmise it was designed as a stronghold to maintain Inca culture in the face of Spanish invasion. Whatever the truth, the citadel was abandoned at some point and left to the jungle, until re-discovered at the turn of the 20th century. There is also a theory that it was discovered by aliens. Could be true.

I think the pictures can describe it better than myself so enjoy the views:

Always time for an empanada with the big MP in the back:

This trip was wedged in between time in the city of Cusco. In Cusco, it contained a few massages, beer, lots of falafel and a triumph for Nat and Shane in “Flip Pong” to win a free night in our hostel. We were like a young Kate Moss and Pete Doherty in action.

After Cusco, we went to Lima for a day. Most notable here was the park that had dozens of cats in it. This picture is for you, Fiona:

In an effort to get to Ecudaor as quick as we can, we also had brief spells at Trujillo and Mancura. Quiet little beach towns.

Peru…you have jumped to the best country in South America. You get an A. Over to you now Ecuador and Colombia

Best: Perfect mix of sightseeing and relaxing. It is slightly more expensive than Bolivia and cheaper than Brazil – a nice spending level for a backpacker. The food was the best so far (even if some of that was Western dishes). The architecture in the towns and the history was very rich in detail in comparison to the other countries we have visited so far. Our favourite 2 hostels have been in Peru and were great.

Worst: They insist on having potatoes, rice and chips for all their dinners…sort it out, Peru! Buses and bus routes were a little tedious to deal with at times.

On the day of Machu Picchu, we were 3/4 of the way through our trip. The plan was few more days in North Peru, a week in Ecuador and over 2 weeks or so in Colombia. Give or take another 2-3 blog posts left for you to savour.

Next blog will be Quito and the Jungle Trek in Ecuador!

 

Trekking the Colca Canyon

Our first stop in Peru was the “white” city, Arequipa. It is the country’s second largest city and is situated on a plateau in Peru’s arid southwest. Arequipa has a beautiful Main Square and one that lead us to all the American food and drink franchises. After enduring poor food in Bolivia over the past two weeks, Starbucks and KFC were very welcoming additions to the trip.

The main attraction of Arequipa is the Colca Canyon, which is Peru’s (big) answer to the Grand Canyon: It’s twice as deep! It s located 160 kilometers (99 miles) away from Arequipa. The canyon is about 100 kilometers (62 miles) long.

Our tour was a 3 day/2 night trip to the Canyon and begun at the unlawful hour of 3am as we were collected from our hostel and brought towards the attraction. Perhaps the most common reason for visitors to venture out to the Canyon is to catch a glimpse of the endangered Andean Condor. These species can be viewed best from the Cruz Del Condor lookout point; the birds are the largest in the world boasting an incredible wingspan of up to 3.2 meters. The conditions on the day were good but we only succeeded in getting a glimpse of 2 condors.

A hidden little tip from the travel agency was not to bring heavy bags. With about 15kg on our backs and 7L of water in our hands, we certainly were making life tough for ourselves before the trek began. We descended 1250m into the canyon, on a rough rocky path which was hard work on the knees and feet, and we arrived with aching muscles to Llahuar where we were to spend the night. It was lodging in the bottom of the canyon, sitting above the fast flowing Colca river.

The second day was going uphill and was approximately the same time trekking as the first day – 3 hours. The accommodation we got was beautiful as we stayed in cabins in an environment that provided a swimming pool, a bar and vast amounts of flowers. Both nights consisted of surprisingly good meals and games of Uno.

The third day we had to climb back up the canyon to our start point, and it was literally just UP, straight up the side of the canyon from where we were staying, a 1250m ascent. We started at 5am in the dark and began our ascent; I think our previous trek had got us in better shape, and after over three hours we reached the top. This day was our toughest day of trekking even though we managed to get a pair of mules to carry our bags up for the final day. One person who would agree with me is Nat. This was not a stroll in the park for her as her loving boyfriend felt the full force of a verbal tongue lashing on a frequent basis. I felt like Mufasa trying to protect Simba from the hyenas at every turn and climb. It came to no avail as I would preferred this…

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but got this… (This is not actually Nat)

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The combo of tough love and moral support consistently backfired as “I’m not f#@king fine”, “Stop f#@king telling me to walk” and “I can f#@king do this” were pointed at me. Potty mouth. Nat, if you have any intention of settling  down with me for good, then you will need to adjust to my orders and leadership if you are to remain as my other half.

To her credit, she was like Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games and showed great determination and grit to keep going till the finsh. It was a tough ordeal but we came through unscathed in the end and we throughly enjoyed the breakfast they put on for us. Later in the day we stopped for a buffet lunch where a healthy combo of 3 plates of Mains and 2 plates of dessert were the perfect post workout snack.

 

On the right picture above is picture with Llama Del Ray and a local young girl before the buffet. “Now give me money” the girl demanded after the picture was taken. Get lost, bitch!

The bus stopped a few times on the way back to look at Llamas and Alpaca, some local villages and to the highest point in the mountains.

 

We returned to the hostel where we stayed in before the trek which contained a Playstation room, a hammock, a fusball table and a TV room – a good combo. Our night before the trek, we watched the movie “Eyes Wide Shut”. A film starring Tom Cruise as he visits a sex orgy party. We were joined by a fidegty individual who consistently stroked his leg when viewing the movie. Thankfully after the trek he was not there. That was a good thing.

Our next stop after Arequipa is the city of Cusco for 5-6 days and then onto the big cheese: Machu Picchu!

Knocking on Death’s door

Our final tour in Bolivia was  the infamous “Death Road”: One estimate stated that 200 to 300 travelers were killed yearly along the road and in 1995 it was christened the “world’s most dangerous road” as it is is legendary for its extreme danger. One way to prepare for this tour was for the body to be in full working order. In the past few days, I think I feel victim to the sickness called “Bolivian Belly”. I had an envious mix of nausea, fatigue and an unstable stomach. And a really sore testicle. The last symptom was probably not associated (and completely unnecessary for this blog) but when your luck is down…

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This 69-kilometer stretch of road starts out at an altitude of 4,700m in the bitterly cold mountains north-east of the capital La Paz, and finishes at a subtropical 1,200m in the humid town of Coroico. But riding the Death Road in Bolivia is also one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions, and there are many different companies that offer to guide you down the route. Nat and I got a good tour and were the only 2 in the group of 16 that paid for the best bikes (480Bs/€60).

Like Lance Armstrong, I got up on the bike with one good testicle and from there on, myself and Nats luck were to later change in opposite directions. Maybe it was the high of Nat and I winning Loki Hostel’s Tuesday night Table Quiz that spurned us on (any chance for a cheap gloat).

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The first segment of the road is all  asphalt in the  mountains outside La Paz which is actually pretty safe. This part of the road is a beautiful stretch of highway to ride, surrounded by epic wintery vistas, vast valleys and roadside waterfalls.

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It’s only when you descend down to the temperate greener world beneath the mountains you become aware of the road danger. You ride through more waterfalls along a gravelly, stony dirt road, racing through the spray and earth through numerous sudden changes in elevation. While this is fun, some reality hits when you see crosses marking the spots vehicles have veered over the edge of the road into the deep valley below. Occasionally tyres and shards of metal come into view just beyond the periphery of the road; mechanical carcasses that fell victim to the precarious plight of local travel in this part of the world.

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As the model boyfriend, I always stayed with Nat and watched everyone pass us by while Nat nervously shouted regular profanities to herself (and me). My health was back to working order while Nat’s nerves lived on knife edge. For Nat, the bicycle ride in Mendoza was more suited to her. In an ideal world, she would have had a nice little bicycle, flat surfaces and a pug sitting in a basket at the front of the bike. Do not get me wrong – pugs are awesome (we plan to get one soon after South America so pics of the pug will replace “new blog post” on Facebook about our travels). This wasn’t Mendoza…this was big boy shit!

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It takes about four or five hours to cycle the Death Road from start to finish, and it’s virtually nearly all downhill with a few kilometres uphill. Once we finished, we had a buffet and made a 2 hour trip back to La Paz. What are Shane’s thoughts on the Death Road in Bolivia? This dangerous stretch of Bolivian highway might be responsible for thousands of deaths, but if you don’t push past your personal limits (which can be hard not to) and cycling ability you’ll probably be fine. After all, 23 out of 25,000 tourists have faced the road and come through unscathed.

We left La Paz a few days later to go to Lake Titicaca and then onto Peru. The next blog is bout Colca Canyon in Arequipa.

Dancing with the Devil

The silver mines of Potosi were founded in 1545, initially attracting a population of over 200,000 and establishing ridiculous wealth for the Spaniards that had recently taken control. It quickly became the prized possession of the Americas and rumors floated over to Europe about a city paved with silver. But when Bolivia finally won their independence from the Spaniards in 1825, the city of silver had lost its sparkle.

Today, the silver mines operate as a cooperative, but Potosi is a dusty artifact of its former self. Regardless, it’s a popular stop for travelers looking to experience a working mine — a unique experience that likely wouldn’t pass safety regulations, if they existed.

In the morning at the hostel, everyone in the group put on oversized pants (expect for me as I am ’a Big guy!!’), green jackets, rubber boots, and a plastic helmet with a battery-powered electric headlamp attached before we headed out.

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Before we arrived at the mines, we stopped in a market to buy gifts for the miners. If I worked in a dirty mine, I would probably want water and something to counter the respiratory problems I would endure there. That is just me though. What they do want is alcohol (that is 96%), juice (to mix with the alcohol), coca leaves (to counter the hunger and fatigue) and dynamite (to blow stuff up…an obvious one). It’s a well-known fact there that everyone who works in the mine is trading an income two to three times the minimum wage for a reduced life expectancy. Between accidents and the inevitable lung diseases, many career miners die by the age of 40

In our group, there was the two couples of Nat, Myself, Sian, Dan, two Germans and two girls. The mines were like a cross between Indiana Jones in the Raiders of the Lost Ark and a slave camp. Anyone over 6 feet tall was always going to struggle with this. So myself and 6’4’’ Dan always walked with crouched shoulders through the low ceilings and muddy water. Also, anyone who struggles with claustrophobia will also suffer. This is where our group went from 8 to 6. Sian opted out before we had to begin crawling up the mines. Dan gracefully bowed out with Sian to guide her back as a good partner should. I told Nat I would do the same if she got scared.

The crawling around was tough going but then we had an opportunity to chill with El Tío: the representation of Satan worshiped by the miners. Our guide explained that, outside of the mines, the men are devout Catholics who go to church and pray to God. But underground, no one seeks the assistance of heaven. The underground is the devil’s domain, so offerings and prayers are made to El Tío. It is believed that if you make Tío happy, he’ll reward you with the discovery of a large mineral deposit (silver if you’re lucky). But if you do something to upset or anger him, miners end up injured or killed in accidents such as cave-ins. So we danced with the Devil and poured coca leaves and alcohol on him.

Then the group went from 3 boys and 3 girls to 3 boys and 0 girls. The mines got more narrow and that is how far it went for the females. Like a good boyfriend, I let Nat walk back with some random Bolivian miner guy whilst I powered on with the two Germans. The trio of Ozil, Mertesacker and Podolski blitzkreiged our way to the bottom of the mine to see the miners actually working. I do not envy their job. I was keen to ask our guide two questions. The first one was ‘For example, what would happen if you slipped and broke your leg down at the bottom of the mines?’ Before he could answer, an oncoming cart drove past without warning. When he did attempt to answer, he shrugged his shoulders, laughed and walked on. I felt asking my second question of who the Health and Safety Officer was now an irrelevant one to ask.

As we saw the light at the end of the tunnel I felt as though I could breathe more easily. We were only underground for around an hour and a half and yet it felt a lot longer. I couldn’t imagine doing it every day. And yet for these miners, working 12 hour shifts in these unsafe, unhealthy and cramped conditions is a reality. If you find this blog doesn’t fully satify your thirst for knowledge about the Mines, there is great documentary called The Devils Miner about the Mines that certainly pulls the heartstrings. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a well justified 94%.

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We left Potosi the next day to go Sucre bound. Nothing major to report here but it was time to say goodbye to Sian and Dan with a good night out. The equivalent of 7 pints gave me a 2 day hangover (the old age of 26 is getting to me) which wasn’t ideal for the bus to La Paz. Then nothing does prepare you on the bus for the weirdness endured. Take your pick which was the weirdest experience that we encountered on the night bus to the North of Bolivia:

•A one armed Bolivian man blowing kisses at me
•A Bolivian lady taking Nat to go to the toilet together
•A Bolivan man taking a piss whilst facing us in the bus when we stopped
•The main door downstairs on the bus staying open for hours..seemed safe.
•A dog asleep on a Bolivian lady for 12 hours in front of us

*Next blog is Death Road in La Paz

Salt of the Earth

Thanks to its promise of adventurous tours and dirt cheap prices, Bolivia is officially a backpacker’s hotspot and that suited us perfectly. Arguably the top Bolivian destination on most travelers’ lists is Salar de Uyuni—the salt flats. There’s basically one way to visit the vast white plains and breathtaking desert and that is a three day jeep tour. Marcel and his (lack of) pearly whites met his 7 companions for the next 3 days in San Pedro, Chile. There was myself, Nat, Sian and her carer Dan, Isabell from Austria, Whitney from the States and a Spanish lady named “Mom”.

Most operators have limited-to-zero web presence so we booked it in person where economies of scale kicked in and were able to haggle a good price of 70 pound each and an English speaking driver for the 3 days. The joke was on us – Marcel didn’t speak any English. What Marcel did bring to the party though was an iPod converter in his car. Marcel endured every act from Avril Lavinge to Bruce Springsteen to The Eagles to Ja Rule to Oasis and to The XX. So many contenders for the crown but it was a toss up between 2Pac’s ‘Hit Em Up’ and TQ’s ‘Westside’ that come closest to taking the prize.

Jam packed with questionable music for 72 hours, the trip itself took us to some beautiful physical features. Our first stops were Laguna Blanco and Laguna Verde before reaching the Termas de Polques hot springs. At 38 degrees C, the water was toasty, but when combined with a height of 4,400m above sea level, it created a perfect storm for altitude sickness to kick in. We bathed and admired the view whilst soaking in the nausea.

Nothing worse as well when women want me to strike a guns pose for them when I am trying to relax…

Heading even higher to 5,000m above sea level, we arrived at the Sol de Mañana sulphur springs. There were bubbling mud pools and steaming fumaroles sprouting through the Martian terrain. A beautiful rotten egg smell washed over us.

When day one was done and dusted, we arrived at our hostel for the night. Having been fully briefed beforehand that the hostel had no showers or electricity, we had been bracing ourselves for a truly rustic experience. In fact, it turned out to be quite pleasant. Well not for Sian. A concoction of altitude and travel sickness had her face visiting the toilets on a regular basis. As Dan mentioned this alot in his blog, I will leave it at that. Your welcome Sian. Knowing that the temperature reaches well into minus degree, Nat and I slept with our clothes on and wrapped in a grand total of 8 blankets on bed.

Day 2 began with a bit of lethargy as “el vino did flow” (Sir David Brent reference) for Dan and I in an aid to numb the cold the previous night. First on the agenda was the Árbol de Piedra, or ‘Stone Tree’, which as its name suggests is made of sandstone and looks like a tree, sort of.

We then arrived at Laguna Hedionda to see the flamingos in the flesh. The white bits of Laguna Colorada are borax, the red patches are pools of algae. It is eating these algae which colours the flamingos pink.

After keeping foxes and birds away from my chicken and rice lunch, Marcel took us through narrow canyons and tourist hot spots. An omitted detail from this tour to us was that there very little in the way of plumbing facilities out in the desert. I loved nothing better than keeping “look out” for Nat as the landscape became her toilet or ‘Baño Natural’ as it became euphemistically known throughout our trip.

 

Home for the night was Hotel de Sal – a hotel entirely made of salt. The floors were made of salt, the tables were made of salt, the chairs were made of salt, the beds were made of salt – the mattresses, duvets and pillows were not.

The next and final morning, Marcel took us to the Salt Flats. The Uyuni Salt Flats cover over 10,000 square kilometers and it all looks exactly the same. We had no idea where or what Marcel was driving towards – only that when we got there we would finally get the chance to take ‘hilarious’ photos. ‘Hilarious’ photos are without doubt the number one reason why 99% of all Uyuni visitors visit in the first place. The completely flat surface and lack of anything on the horizon offers a unique opportunity for camera trickery. There are more than likely funnier ‘hilarious’ salt flats photos floating around on the internet than the ones we posted but we did our best.

After an exhausting hour of building a collage of silly poses, Marcel made the way to Uyini with a trip to the Salt Museum sandwiched in between. 10 minutes was more than enough time in the Museum (but I did get a picture with an Irish flag).

The adventure was over. Well no it wasn’t. We arrived in Uyini to hear that the strikes were still on and that we couldn’t leave Uyini via bus for 5 more days. As we later found out, this was a protest due to the fact that the local government had embezzled 11 million Dollars of a 12 million Dollar fund provided by the Bolivian Government for a new bus terminal. How to end the adventure? Pay Marcel $50 each to drive us 6 hours to our next town Potosi. Marcel definitely now had the money to buy new pearly whites.

*next post is our trip to the Mines in Potosi*

Travels in a Thin Country

Santiago plan: Skydive and World Cup Final in a 2 day stay.

Santiago reality: No skydive  (told I had to wait another week) and World Cup Final in a 5 day stay.

I do not why but we procrastinated too much and extended our stay and now regret getting little in.

After crossing the Andes from Mendoza, we arrived in the capital of Chile – Santiago.

On our second day, we got a view of the city of Santiago from the few lookouts on Cerro San Cristobal.

Cerro San Cristobal is part of the Parque Metropolitano of Santiago. At the foot of the hill is the old funicular train that climbs 284 meters to the summit. Whilst up there, I had a strange drink called Mote con Huesillo.  It consists of dried peaches and cooked wheat in sweet tea which is not drunk but eaten with a spoon. I’ll let you decide if it is nice or not.

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The other notable time (besides introducing Nat to The Sopranos in our hostel) in Santiago was the day of the World Cup final. After seeing the Germans blitz to victory, we went to a salsa bar where I wooed Nat with my blistering dance moves. She has seen it all before so it has just come part and parcel of the relationship. (Editor’s note: I am actually a poor dancer)

Located in Chile’s Norte Chico northern region, San Pedro de Atacama is one of Chile’s hottest tourist towns and was our next port of destination. After a close call in making our bus (we got the only taxi driver in Santiago who didn’t know where the bus station was) we met up with a recently married couple from England. We met Sian and Dan in Mendoza and would stay with them till Bolivia.

San Pedro is found in the driest desert in the world (it reportedly hasn’t seen rain since 1870) but the rock formations here are stunning and it’s the perfect place to stargaze. That is what we did there – stargaze. The four of us enjoyed red wine and hot chocolate on a stargazing tour. We even saw the Rings of Saturn (below is the closest pic to what it looks like through a telescope – courtesy of Google)

In terms of grading, Chile gets a B from me. It is a shame that we didn’t go down the South of Chile as it is apparently better there.