Thinking about going travelling?

So you’ve finally decided to take the plunge, quit your job, and see the world. Congratulations! That is the first step. I’m sure you have plenty of friends who have been away and have their favourite parts of the world that you simply must see. South America, South East Asia, New Zealand perhaps (clearly there’s more options than this, i’m just going to focus on the places I know about!) The problem is, how do you choose where to go? Do you decide to go everywhere on your wish list as its your only chance, your “once in a lifetime opportunity”? Or do you pick one continent to get lost in for months on end, learning the language, going native? Well, that’s your choice to make, I can only tell you my opinion based on the two travelling adventures that I’ve worked and saved hard to go on. You need to think about what you want to get out of the experience, and that will tell you how many places to go.

If you’re escaping the routine and regulation of working 9-5, craving something that will set you free, maybe you want to consider picking one place to get to know really well, where you don’t have to worry about timeframes, deadlines and the next place on the itinerary.

If you’ve never been abroad before or not been on a big trip, perhaps you want to see as much as possible, the wonders of the world and all the places you’ve read and dreamed about your whole life. If that’s you, doing a round the world trip might be a better option.

Having done both, I can safely say this is a crucial decision to make and one not many people think about when they start organising their trip. So have a think, take a read through my important things to consider so you can choose the right type of trip for you.

Culture

The culture of these three continents is obviously very different, and it’s good to consider what you’re interested in learning about, that’s assuming you’re coming away to learn about other cultures and not just get drunk all the time.

South America has the most diverse history to learn about, going right back to prehistoric times as this is a great place to see dinosaur skeletons, fossils and footprints. There are plenty of fascinating archaeological sites to visit where you can find pre-inca, Inca and Aztec ruins, and It has a huge indigenous population who still live in small villages in the mountains, popping with colour in their brightly coloured scarves and English bowler hats. Really. Fast forward in time and you have the Spanish to thank for the beautiful colonial buildings, churches and plazas to enjoy in almost every city. I think plazas are the thing I miss the most about South America, it’s the best place to go when you first get to a new town, to sit and watch the world go by. It really brings the community together and you really notice it when you go to Asia where there’s no equivalent.

Historically speaking, Asia is a great place to visit if you like temples. The have an abundance of them from the better known Angkor Wat in Cambodia, to lesser known but equally amazing sites like Sukothai in Thailand or Bagan in Myanmar. Aside from the big sites like these, every town has a temple, usually reached by climbing a massive hill best done in time to catch the sunset. Rural Asia allows you glimpses into village life that is very different from South America, but still fascinating. Riding through villages on motorbike in Thailand, or on the slow trains of Myanmar make you realise how differently people live here, life carries on as it has done for centuries.

New Zealand and Australia aren’t really places people visit for culture, but the do have it. New Zealand has a great relationship with the Maori culture, mutual respect and intrigue are the orders of the day and you can find plenty of Maori art or tours where you visit villages and Maori people. Australia doesn’t have such a great relationship with their indigenous population, there’s still some bitterness about all the child snatching apparently…

Food

People don’t exactly rave about the food in most of South America, but it’s not bad in my book. In Colombia there’s plenty of room for improvement, their national dishes being a rather heart attack inducing hot dog or ‘patacon con todo’ which is basically a huge deep fried plantain covered in 6 types of fried meat and 3 sauces drizzled on top.  Ecuador relies mainly on meat and beans, but further south in Peru, Chile and Argentina you’ve got some delicious dishes to be sampled. Everywhere on this continent you can get your hands on fresh fruit and yummy juices, but be warned a lot of people get sick here, myself included, and there’s not really any way to avoid it.

South east Asia is a foodies heaven, if you like spicy food that is. Curries, soups, noddles and rice are always on the menu in different variations depending on which country you’re in, and for me, it never gets boring. Malaysia and Thailand take the award for best food in my opinion, with Vietnam in second place. Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia are all good enough but nothing to write home about. You don’t find many of their restaurants overseas, let’s put it that way.

You can find some good western restaurants in both continents, but not enough to eat there every day of the week. Trust me when I say you’ll never have Asian food in your home country as good as here, so take advantage and get your fill!

New Zealand and Australia have great food from all over the world so you’ll want for nothing while you’re here. Asian food, steak, burgers, Italian, brunch, it’s all here and it’s all amazing!

Activities

South America is definitely for the more active individual, there’s so much to do you’ll be spoilt for choice. The Andes proved the best adventure playground in the world, starting in Colombia and Ecuador where the extreme sports are cheap and plentiful, moving through to Peru, Chile and Argentina where you’ll get fantastic trekking. Patagonia has to be the ultimate destination for trekkers, and while its deserving of this accolade, we  actually did mind blowing treks in every country on this magnificent continent. We’re not really the trekking types but it’s the best way to enjoy the scenery here so get fit and get involved. Patagonia’s winning hand lies in being able to trek amongst, and sometimes on, the most phenomenal glaciers of the world, which is a truly special experience. There are some nice beaches on the Caribbean coast but the Pacific coast isn’t that great Im afraid, apart from the Galápagos Islands. Brazil is the place to go in South America if you want good beaches, I do wish I’d had time to visit here, but I was heading over to Asia shortly so I didn’t feel too bad!

Asia has plenty of opportunities for trekking too, but you’ll be sorely disappointed with it if you’ve ever been to South America or new Zealand. If you know how to seek them out, there are some wonderful treks to be done, they’re just not as plentiful as other continents. Indonesia has some great ones due to their volcanic activity, Mount Bromo in Java is a great night hike to do to watch the sun rising over volcanic craters. You also have opportunities in the mountainous regions of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, and some lovely waterfalls to see too. Be prepared to sweat a lot though, the humid weather isn’t conducive to trekking for me! If you come to Asia, it’s for the beaches. They are truly the best in the world. Hundreds of islands to explore, snorkel and dive in, and beach life is truly addictive. If you want to relax, do yoga or meditate, this is the place to do it.

New Zealand has amazing trekking and adventure activities and definitely some of the best scenery in the world, it’s just a lot more expensive to do the activities. Although Queenstown is touted as the adventure capital of the world, you can do all of the activities offered here elsewhere in New Zealand for cheaper, namely Taupo and Wanaka. The north island is also host to some of the most wild and intriguing geothermal activity in the world, taking a walk through one of the parks in Rotorua leaves you feeling like you’ve just been on Mars. Thanks to this geothermal activity there’s also loads of thermal baths you can visit for a relaxing dip in the water after a long hike. You’ve also got some great coast land in New Zealand, some nice swimming beaches but also wild untamed beaches full of seals or crazy rock formations. You’ve also got the opportunity to go whale watching which I highly recommend, it is an absolutely breathtaking experience to watch the whales spout water and dive under with their mammoth tales.

Weather

This is definitely something worth considering, as the weather systems in tropical countries are much more extreme that in Europe. Asia between April and August is oppressively hot, so much so that they have a water fight festival in mid April when the temperature reaches 40 degrees. I say this whilst sitting on a bus heading south through Thailand, because it was too hot in the north for us to do anything. It’s the end of March and it’s already 40 degrees up there, compared with 30 degrees on the beach. It was an easy choice to make.

South America has intense weather to compete with too, worth considering if you visit Patagonia in the extreme south or Colombia up north. You can’t always plan your trip around the weather and it’s won’t necessarily ruin your trip if you’re not there at the right time, but if you can plan your trip around it, you’ll get more clear skies and less trekking in the rain, which can’t be a bad thing!

Budget

Loosely speaking, Asia is the cheapest continent, South America is mid-range and Europe, Australia and New Zealand are high end. Of course if you scrimp and save and are clever with your money, anywhere can be cheap. For example, taking a tent with you, hitch hiking and cooking your own meals will save you bucket loads on the three most expensive things, accommodation, transport and food. Again, think about the type of experience you want to have and what matters to you most. A comfortable bed, sampling the local cuisine, or saving money on these things so you can do loads of activities and tours. There’s no right or wrong answer.

For us, we quickly realised on the trip that we were terrible backpackers. You see, most backpackers save the pennies and the pounds by staying in dormitories, cooking most nights in the hostel or eating at the market, and if it’s a really expensive country like New Zealand, sleeping in tents and hitch hiking. We are not those kinds of travellers. I worked hard to come on this trip, I saved money for 4 years, and decided very early on that I did not work that hard to live like a poor person for a year.

In South America, my boyfriend and I stayed in private rooms with shared bathrooms, ate at restaurants and cheap markets every day, went on cheap tours or free hikes and took half bed instead of full bed buses. Living like this, we managed to stay in budget (£1000 per month or £30 per day each) everywhere apart from Chile and Argentina.

In New Zealand, we had to forget about the budget. We couldn’t hitch hike or stay in a tent, which would have saved us about $25 a day each, as we were with Mickaël’s brother and girlfriend, if you do this you will probably be able to stay in budget.

In Asia, we were very happy to be spending just half our daily budget without trying particularly hard. Lovely private rooms, cheap night markets for food and cheap transport made things very easy for us. The only exception to this is Myanmar which you can read about in my other post.

So there you have it, a summary of contrasts between the continents I have visited to help you plan your once in a life time trip. Do leave a comment with your route and questions I’d love to hear from you!

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Thailand’s Best Kept Secret: Prachuap Khiri Khan

Courtesy of Kirk Gillock
Courtesy of Kirk Gillock

Maybe I shouldn’t even be putting this out there on the internet… But you’re my friends and I trust you to keep this secret. I mean, people know about this place, mostly the French because they don’t much like to be around other people, so their equivalent of the Lonely Planet suggests places that no one else goes. There’s definitely a lot less tourists here than anywhere else I’ve been in Thailand, and if you’re anything like me, that’s what you crave. Koh Phagnan’s full moon party was a dream 10 years ago, a truly blissed out wannabe hippie’s dream. 5 years ago, you needed to pay for a wrist band to get onto the beach where one or two people died at each full moon by either drowning or setting themselves on fire whilst jumping through a lit hoop. Now, I don’t even want to go near it for fear of what it has become. The perfect beach isn’t perfect if it’s full of people, and there’s not many places you can go in Thailand now to find that paradise island you were dreaming of. Until now.

Sometimes I love Mickaël’s way of travelling, and sometimes it drives me mad. You know me, I like to research, find the hottest places to go or the “off the beaten track gems” with just enough going on to keep you interested. Once I have my hit list, I plan the route. Mickaël is more of a point to the map and go kinda guy. This is great when I you happen to find a gem that’s not on anyone’s radar, slightly annoying when I already have my perfect itinerary in mind. Luckily this time, it was the former. We gave ourselves a week of relaxing beach time before heading into the madness of India, we just needed somewhere close to Bangkok to go. The contenders were limited, as most of the best islands are a good 12 hours away if you don’t have the luxury of flying. To the east you have Ko Chang, Ko Samet and Ko Kood whose beauty cannot be disputed but whose prices certainly can. It’s peak season and booking a bungalow last minute doesn’t come cheap. Pattaya was out of the question, it’s seedy reputation precedes it and we had no interest in gawping at lady boys or seeing what the latest thing to fire out of a female’s genitals is (last time the darts popped every balloon above my head). Lastly, we were faced with a place called Hua Hin and further down, Prachuap Khiri Khan. Regarding the former, the Lonely Planet insisted that although it was more senior citizens and less backpackers, this shouldn’t be disregarded as a top destination to go to. The less backpackers for me, the better (or so I thought). Prachuap was touted as a sleep fishing village packed with charm, which also sounded appealing. Luckily I was speaking to my old friend Kirk (the owner of Isara where I volunteered as a teacher 5 years ago, now environmental enthusiast building a plastic bottle boat to sail through the gulf of Thailand next month!) and he just so happened to  be living in Prachuap, what luck! As a compromise, we decided to head to Hua Hin for a couple of days then down to Prachuap.

Hua Hin has literally the worst beach in Thailand. Do not even bother. No white sand, no calmness, just pensioners who have clearly spent too long in the sun eating too much ice cream, and they wear far too little because they just don’t care about other people’s feelings. It’s harsh, but true. And what’s worse is to get to this beach you have to travel for an hour! What a waste, but man did it put my weight issues into perspective. There’s an amazing restaurant here which made our stay worth it, Kota, on the main highway that runs through town, and a nice night market that will keep you entertained for a night or two with its noodles, friend chicken and banana pancakes.

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Hua Hin at sunset
Kota Restaurant
Kota Restaurant

Two days later and we were eagerly on our way to Prachuap Khiri Khan with high hopes of somewhere relaxing to rest our heads for the next 4 days. The minivan dropped us in the middle of town and we walked straight to the peer to find somewhere reasonable to stay with a view of the sea. For £14 a night, we got a huge air conditioned room in Suksant Hotel right by the main peer, a run down but perfectly adequate hotel. We told ourselves we’d find somewhere cheaper the next day, but we never keep this promise when we offer it. Such terrible backpackers we are, honestly. Just read about our journey through India to confirm this.

We hired a moped for £5 a day which is really the best way to get around this small town. Our first stop was to see Kirk and his amazing plastic bottle boat which will hopefully set sail in April. It really will stay afloat using over 12,000 plastic bottles, well hopefully anyway… And he does it all for his love of Thailand and passion for educating the people here about littering. It’s a huge problem in this country and its really inspiring to see him take such positive action to change it. To find out more you can go to his website or follow him at www.facebook.com/plasticbottleboat .

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We had a great catch up and talked for hours about our travels, his travels (he cycled on a BICYCLE through Laos and Vietnam!) and what the future had in store for us, when you travel for so long I can’t tell you how nice it is to see a familiar face, especially one that motivates you to do better and be better. Some say that the right people come along at the right time, and this is certainly true of this encounter, but more about that another time 🙂

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Sunset at Kirk’s office

Back to Prachuap, and the other reason we came here, beach time. Prachuap is a town of 3 big bays, the middle one being the centre of town. It’s pleasant enough for relax on, but not the best in Thailand you’ll ever see. But as we quickly found out, this far more to the perfect beach town than the quality of its beach. The nicest beach is a short ride away in the Air Force base south of town. It’s an interesting place to drive through, a massive resort for soldiers on leave perhaps, who knows. But the beach is idyllic, stretching out through a tree lined cove with plenty of deck chairs available to lounge on in the shade. This is not a beach for bakers, be warned. They have a food market right across the street selling ice coffee and a whole host of lunch time treats, it’s the perfect place to spend the day.

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If you want to bake but Hua Hin doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, the beach to the north by the temple is a good bet, but sadly there’s quite a bit of rubbish on the shoreline to wander past which somewhat kills the mood. It seems the Locals don’t know how much of a treasure they have here and they continue to litter, or maybe they do know and they use it as a way to put tourists off. Either way, Kirk’s inspiring environmental project couldn’t come at a better time.

There’s also an interesting temple in town, visible from pretty much everywhere in Prachuap and famous because it’s completely over run with monkeys, Jungle Book style. Monkeys intrigue and terrify me in equal measures because they’re so cute, so much like humans in the way the care for each other, yet vastly unpredictable in their temperament. This is the perfect place to watch them in their natural habitat, but do so with caution because if you stare at one for too long they’ll hiss, run after you and try to steal your phone. The views from the top of this incredibly high temple are unrivalled, and worth it even in 35 degree heat.

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Every night there’s a small night market in town with plenty of food on offer, but as an un-touristy town there are no menus in English. We wandered around aimlessly for a while until we were drawn to a particular dish we could see or smell, then point at it in just the right way to show we were not mentally challenged but in fact wanted the same thing. This often worked out in our favour and became so addictive that we’d share 3 or 4 dishes from as many stalls each evening. Pad Thai, satay, noodle soups or my personal favourite ga pow gai (stir fried minced chicken with chilli and basil) all delicious especially when eaten all in the same evening!

But the real star of the show in this town is the weekend night market, every Friday and Saturday evening, when the town really comes alive and everyone comes along to sample some street food or buy a t-shirt. Obviously, we were more interested in the food, and by we, I mean me. I got crazy eyes when we first arrived and sampled everything from every stall I could get my hands on. I was so excited to see all my favourite foods on offer, things I hadn’t seen since my teaching days in Nong Khai 5 years ago when the other teachers and I would rush down to the market on a Sunday evening to fill up on sweet corn treats, fish cakes and other fried goods. I tried to pack 2 months of this activity into 5 minutes at the market in Prachuap, which was slightly frightening for Mickaël. He handled it like a trooper though and dutifully handed me the wallet. I happily filled up on all of the above and gawped at the rest of the food I was then too full to eat, while Mickaël took his time to find the cream of the crop. He chose Vietnamese spring rolls packed with fresh vegetables accompanied by a sweet, tangy sauce and the most refreshing pad Thai over ever had (because I’m never to full to have a little taste). A successful trip all round.

curiously delicious unknown delicacies
curiously delicious unknown delicacies

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So all in all, I really think Prachuap has it all, and I hope after reading this post you agree and give it a try. It won’t be the paradise island of white sand beaches and buckets of booze that you may have had in mind, instead you’ll get a slice of the real Thailand with plenty to keep you entertained if you enjoy the simple things in life. Riding through town to the deserted beaches clinging to Mickaël with the wind in my hair was honestly the greatest I’ve felt on the whole trip. Never have I been so carefree, so at home and yet full of adventure, so content because this was it. This is what we had been looking for, and I hope one day you find it to.

One Week in Sydney: Food and Frolicking Highlights

My last travelling adventure in 2010 ended in Sydney, Australia and I ended up staying a lot longer than I’d planned. Like, a year longer. It’s a captivating city, one you fall in love with more the longer you stay. It has plenty of distinct neighbourhoods to wander around, beautiful beaches to suit every taste, classy bars, dirty drum and bass clubs and heavenly food. I was never bored here, I just always wished I had more money to burn. Returning here with Mickaël, I was determined to show him my Sydney and show him why I loved it here so much. So naturally, I planned the perfect itinerary each day to take us on a 6 day journey of food and frolicking.

Neutral Bay

We stayed here with my old college friend Amy and her husband Lee, in fact my old boss from when I lived here before (no clues for how I got that job). They have a stunning apartment on Military Road in the Neutral Bay Area, it’s a place not many tourists visit as its over the bridge from the centre of town, but I really think it’s a highlight if you like living the high life. There’s tons of boutiques and nice restaurants here, but for me the best part was walking down to Cremone Point along the waterfront which affords your fantastic views of the Sydney harbour bridge, silently bobbing yachts and plenty of benches or grassy knolls to rest your weary legs. When you get down to the point you can catch a ferry to Circular Quay which gives you even better views of the bridge and opera house. The best thing is no tourists! This is a truly secret spot for you to enjoy, courtesy of me.

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Views walking along the coast.
The view as you come into the harbour.
The view as you come into the harbour.

I don’t think there’s a bad restaurant in this part of town, but one of my highlights was Sam Thai, a cheap and quick lunch spot serving up authentic plates of home cooked Thai food. Head there for a lunch special at an unbeatable $10 a plate. In the evening head over to the Oaks pub on Military road for drinks in their massive beer garden where a giant oak tree covered in fairy lights takes centre stage in dazzling your eyes, you may need sunglasses for this one.

Central

Eating here is mostly for the suited and booted crowd, and there’s plenty of lunch options available. Sydney knows how to do a food court better than any country I’ve seen (apart from maybe Singapore, but at least in Australia I can read the menu!) and you’ll be spoils for choice with the amount of mouth watering food on offer. My hot tip is to head down just after the lunch rush, when the Asian options box up what they haven’t sold into $5 cheap eats. Bargain! My favourite courts are the IGA on St Martin’s Place and underneath town hall, where you’ll also find an incredible Brazilian restaurant if you fancy something more adventurous and expensive.

Don’t miss a wander through Hyde Park after lunch or shopping, it’s not quite like the one in london but it’s definitely one of the best in Sydney.

Your visit to Sydney also wouldn’t be complete without a drink at the Opera Bar, best at sunset. It’s a really magical spot despite the hoards of people, luckily it’s big enough for you to find somewhere to perch and enjoy the view.

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China Town

Sydney’s china town, unsurprisingly, is full of delicious food but the absolute best is Mamak’s on Haymarket, authentic and inspired Malaysian cuisine. Our first night in Sydney I marched straight over there and had squealed with delight over their mouthwatering menu. Sometimes you have to queue as they don’t take reservations, but man is it worth it. Possibly my favourite restaurant IN THE WORLD.

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If for some reason this doesn’t tickle your fancy, the best Thai food can be found at Home Thai, as the name suggests, totally home cooked and wonderful with a manic street kitchen vibe about it.

Paddington

Oxford street starts by Hyde park in the centre of town and runs right through Paddington, my old turf and another great place to wander around for boutiques, cafes and markets on the weekend. The part nearer town hold the aptly named North Indian Cuisine restaurant, it’s nothing fancy but it makes wonderful vegetarian Indian food. If you make your way through Paddington you’ll find a whole host of great coffee shops, my favourite being the cafe bookshop with loads of excellent books to tuck into over a cappuccino. In the evening head over to The Beresford Hotel for a drink in their huge garden, this was a favourite pastime of mine when I lived in Sydney before. I love everything about this place, the layout, drink selection, excellent music choices (funk and soul if you’re lucky) and a great atmosphere.

Best beaches

Bondi is the obvious choice here, but it can be heaving on the weekends and holidays. Undoubtedly though, It’s a great beach. A huge bay with great waves and nice restaurants nearby. You can walk from here to Bronte Beach along the coast, something I wish we’d done but unfortunately we were hit with bad weather an hour into our sunbathing on Bondi. The next bay down from Bronte is Coogee, another quieter choice with good swimming water and food options nearby.

Balmoral beach is much quieter as its over the bridge near neutral bay, and perfect if you want some peace and quiet or get bored of staring at six packs and boobs. If you’re feeling really adventurous, a drive out to Palm Beach will not disappoint you, after all it’s where Home and Away was filmed. When it starts to cool down, a walk to the top of the hill just north of the bay will give you a little taste of that Australian jungle you wanted without too much effort.

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The view of Palm Beach
The view of Palm Beach

The Blue Mountains

No trip to Sydney would be complete without a day trip to these magnificent, and truly blue looking mountains. We met up with some old friends that we made in Bolivia who lived in Sydney, and we took a lovely trip up in their car to the mountains. It’s definitely better if you have your own transport as you can avoid the crowds and find some more deserted viewing spots. The three sisters lookout is the most famous and while it’s worth a look, be warned you may have a challenge on your hands in getting a picture without people on it. We drove out to Evan’s Lookout and Govett’s leap for a really isolated and quiet experience that really left us in awe of these majestic mountains.

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So there you have my whirlwind tour of Sydney, there’s so much more to do here than I could possibly describe which is why I’m so glad I spent a year here living the semi high life. If you don’t have that luxury, try to visit some of these spots and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

New Zealand

Planning your New Zealand trip

We have been lucky enough to share our New Zealand trip with Mickaël’s brother Franck and his girlfriend Marion, so we decided to hire a car as it’s much more cost efficient if there’s four people. I also meant we could go anywhere we pleased, which is both a blessing and a curse when there’s so much to see and only 2 weeks to see it in.

As none of my travel buddies have been to New Zealand before, and none of them are really that fussed about planning I decided to take it on. It was definitely a necessity to book everything in advance because we were travelling in high season (January) and there were four of us, so turning up late to every town having spent a long day sightseeing would mean a tough time finding hostels to accommodate all of us within our price range. It’s much more ideal to figure it out as you go, and definitely possible if your transport doubles as your accommodation, but if you’re planning to stay in budget accommodation I would book it in advance if you can.

We originally wanted to drive from north to south, but this would mean hefty fees from the car hire company for not returning the car to its original destination, so we opted to do a loop of each island with flights to connect the two. If it had just been the two of us and we had more time, hitch hiking would have been a much more budget option, but again there are drawbacks with that because although it’s very easy to do here, you can’t stop when you want to.

Budgeting

In terms of budget, you can pretty much throw it out the window unless your hitch hiking and sleeping in a tent. We spent as little as possible whilst still eating a few things in cafes and restaurants, but no where near as much as in South America. You should also note that most hostels don’t offer breakfast, and you’ll be lucky if they don’t throw their heads back in laughter when you ask if they do.

On average, we spent $60 a night on accommodation for a double room, dorms cost around $25 so between two you don’t save too much. Lunch in a cafe costs about $5-10, a proper meal costs $18-25. Our car hire costs $500-600 per week with a full tank of petrol costing $80-100 and a full tank can last you about 8 hours of driving. So there you have it! I hope that helps you all budget for your next trip 🙂

Ooh one last tip, pick up the free ‘Arrival’ magazine at the airport or any of the AA guides as they’re choc full of discount vouchers!

The North Island

Auckland

Mickaël and I started our trip by spending a day in Auckland with my good friend Dean, who I knew from when I lived in Sydney but now lives in Auckland. He took the he day off and drivers around the city showing us all the sites; the beautiful harbour, the town centre and of course the best places to eat. We started with a proper brunch, the first I’d had in a long time and I was beyond excited. Eggs Royale for Mickaël and creamy mushrooms with poached eggs and a potato rosti for me. Delicious! We visited a lovely rose garden and the wonderfully posh Ponsonby for a $5 wrap in the shopping centre, who is unlike any shopping centre you’ve ever seen. It’s a renovated warehouse space full of delicious looking fruits and vegetables, kitsch food stands and the wonderful Burger Burger, which we visited on our return to Auckland one week later.

The Coromandel Peninsula

After a full day of eating we were ready to pick up Franck and Marion from the airport, and we drove swiftly to the Coromandel, chasing the sun so as not to drive the windy roads in the dark. Sadly we got there when it was dark and rainy and head straight for bed, so we could be fresh for our day on the beach the next day. However, we were confronted by a grey and drizzly day, and informed by the hostel that thunderstorms and even a cyclone were on the horizon. Great! Undeterred, we headed from our hostel in Whitianga to Cathedral Cove, one of the most stunning pieces of coastline in New Zealand. After a short park and ride to the coast we embarked on a beautiful walk that takes you to several beautiful coves and beaches, ending with the grand arch of Cathedral Cove with waves crashing around her, and as it turns out, it makes  great shelter from the rain. Luckily our walk wasn’t too wet, we had some luck on our side.

Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove

Afterwards we headed to hot water beach, famous for the thermal activity under the sand accessible at low tide. Despite the persisting rain we decided to head to the beach to dig our own thermal bath. We got the pre after many others had already dug their baths, so we decided to brow their spades, dig around a bit and dip our toes in the warm water before retreating to the car. It was a novel experience, more something you do to say you’ve done it rather that it being something mind blowing. According to locals it’s far more enjoyable in the winter when it’s cold and there are less tourists there. The weather made the beauty of this area hard to see which is a shame, but we still enjoyed our day. We drove to Rotorua that afternoon ready for the next adventure.

Rotorua

Rotorua is an absolute must when you come to New Zealand, I went 5 years ago and was only too happy to go again. Whilst the town itself is nothing to write home about, the area is full of geo thermal activity, so you have your pick of parks to explore. We picked Wai-o-tapu, the one with the most wow factor as it has magnificent multicoloured sulphur lake. On the way you can stop off at the mud pools, which are much weirder than they sound. They bubble and explore constantly, omitting a strong sulphurous smell that is inescapable in this area.

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There’s also some beautiful lakes in the area, about 17 I think. We walked around the Blue Lake, about 1.5 hours of fairly flat forest land with plenty of secluded beaches to stop and swim at.

After our full day of walking we decided to treat ourselves to the wonderfully relaxing thermal baths next to Wai-o-tapu before driving down to Taupo.

Taupo

We spent 3 days in Taupo to give ourselves a bit of a rest from the car and moving around constantly, and it’s the perfect place to do it because there’s so much to do around the area. If you’re into adventure sports it’s pretty much the capital of the world, and the cheapest place in NZ to do them. Mickaël and I decided against any as our budget is so tight and we did plenty in South America, but Marion and Franck opted for a scenic parachute ride on the lake pulled along by a speed boat. 15 minutes in the air flying up and down with spectacular volcano views made them very happy indeed!

Huka Falls
Huka Falls

One of the best activities we’ve done on this trip was the sunset sailing across lake Taupo to see some Maori stone carvings. We spent two and a half glorious hours huddled against our loved ones sitting on bean bags drinking wine to keep us warm. The scenery was beautiful and we were given so much information from the captain about the area. All for just $35! Not bad at all 🙂

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Tongariro national park is not far from Taupo, and has plenty of walks to choose from depending on what you’re looking for. I was really keen to do the famous alpine crossing, a challenging eight hour trek across volcanic terrain and snow capped peaks, but sadly my ankle still hasn’t healed so we opted for a much easier circuit to see Taranaki Falls with views of the volcano. It’s was a lovely walk past babbling brooks and the waterfall was a lovely spot for lunch.

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We also spent a day visiting nearby Kinloch, a tony town west of Taupo on the lake with great walks to choose from. Sadly this trip wasn’t so successful and after two hours of steep ascent and no idea how long it would continue, we decided to head back to base.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

On our way back to Auckland we stopped off at the glow worm caves, famous in New Zealand because it’s one of only a handful of countries that have these mesmerising creatures to see. I’m really not into insects as anyone who knows me will attest to, and the idea of going into a cave full of worms hanging from the ceiling obviously freaked me out, but for some reason I didn’t protest. I figured, they’re not flying around my head trying to kill me, so let it go, and I’m so glad I did. We took a quick tour through the limestone caves which could have been a tour in itself they’re so impressive! Afterwards we set sail in a tiny row boat and a real sense of awe took over every single person as we sat in complete silence, drifting along on the dark hypnotised by the bright lights above us. It is truly one of the most magical experiences of my life, not to be missed if you visit the North Island.

The South Island

This island is very different to the north, mainly because it lacks the sheer volume of volcanic activity that makes New Zealand so unique. It does however have it’s own charms in the dazzling coastlines, from the Milford Sounds in the south to the Marlborough Sounds in the North, whale watching in the east and one of the best coastal drives in the west where you can see the unique pancake rocks. This is the place for epic scenery, and I’m pleased to say we saw a lot of it.

Kaikoura

Our first stop on the South Island was Kaikoura, a small town 2 hours north of Christchurch famous for whale watching and beautiful scenery. Unfortunately when we arrived it was pure fog and drizzle, so we couldn’t see much at all. It was very depressing weather for a summer holiday, and the forecast for the next few days didn’t fill us with hope. We decided to postpone our whale watching trip for the morning we were due to leave Kaikoura for the west coast as the weather looked better, which meant we had a dreary day to fill. We checked out the weather forecast and it looked slightly more promising in the north so we packed into the car and drove up to Marlborough. Now I know I profess to be a super trip planner, but even the best of us can miss some gems in the itinerary, and Marlborough was one of them. Sometimes you just have to leave things to fate and hope you stumble across something great, which we did. Marlborough sounds are a beautiful place to be for trekking, relaxing walks, lounging in a cafe and soaking up some sun. Ok there wasn’t much sun, but enough for us to be very glad we took the 2 hour drive up. The drive itself was fantastic too, it takes you past a seal colony and on our way back we headed to the beach in search of some seals, a very victorious mission.

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The next day in Kaikoura we woke up to brilliant sunshine and were very shocked to see that we were actually surrounded by the most beautiful mountain ranges and cliffs. We hadn’t been able to see just how beautiful Kaikoura was with all that rain! We set off at 9.30 not knowing wha to expect except their average of 1-2 whale sightings. We were lucky enough to spot 5! The tour was very well organised, they give you lots of information and make ta real adventure out of finding the whales. It wasn’t a trip I was that enthralled about but it ended up being a real highlight of our trip. The sperm whales are so majestic and we felt really lucky to have the experience. We also had a pleasure of spotting a huge group of pilot whales and dolphins playing together which is only sighted 2-3 times a year, and it truly brought tears to my eyes to see them so close, so tranquil in their natural habitat.

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Driving the west coast

To cross from easy to west you have very limited options, the Lewis Pass is closest to Kaikoura or further down you have Arthur’s pass which is a tourist road and supposedly very beautiful but too far out of the way for us. In fact driving through the Lewis Pass was incredibly beautiful I don’t see how it could be topped. The thing with New Zealand is your constantly surrounded by natural beauty so you’ll never be disappointed. There’s a few interesting stops on the way, Hanmer Springs is a popular choice but we had limited time as we started driving so late. We stopped for a delicious ice cream in the old mining town of XXX which is a real blast from the past. We stopped for the night in Greymouth ready for our big drive down the west coast the next day. Ideally we would have stayed the night in Westport a bit further up as the drive from Westport to Greymouth is the famous best drive in the world, however we were short on time and didn’t want to have a 10 hour drive the next day. Instead, we started our day by driving up to the Pancake rocks just 40 minutes from Greymouth and worth the detour. These ancient, mysterious formations jut out of the coastline so peculiarly, you have to see them to believe it.

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Our target was to drive from Greymouth to Wanaka in one day, which is certainly a challenge in terms of distance. We felt it was the right decision as we only had a week on this island, and the only sensible place to stop would have been the glaciers which was way out of our price range. We stopped there to check out the glaciers but unfortunately they’ve receded so much you can barely see them. When I visited 5 years ago I was able to hike on the glaciers, now you have to get a helicopter ride to reach them. I definitely don’t recommend making this a big part of your trip to New Zealand. There’s plenty of other great scenery to indulge in on this drive, from untouched beaches to waterfalls and jungles, if you can do it over 2 days all the better.

If you want to see a real glacier check out my Patagonia post!
If you want to see a real glacier check out my Patagonia post!

Wanaka

The drive into Wanaka from the west coast was definitely some of my favourite scenery from the whole trip. Two huge lakes flanked by the most imposing mountains, and at sunset to top it all off. Our jaws dropped at the sheer beauty of it. We arrived to the YHA hostel to find we had been put in a windowless room with a couple of tiny fans in the middle of summer, and we were not best pleased. Unfortunately the accommodation was so expensive we didn’t have much other choice here! Suffice to say I complained afterwards and got a refund 🙂 Wanaka itself is a lovely town with plenty of activities to do. We were all so knackered from the jam packed trip when we got her that we mostly did a lot of relaxing in the form of eating and drinking wine. Doing anything other than sitting still is very expensive in this country and our budget had more than run out by this point. Luckily Franck and Mickaël’s mum came to the rescue here with a cash injection that allowed us to eat something other than spaghetti cooked at the hostel! I had been massively craving Indian food and we headed out to the Spice Room which was a delicious treat. There’s some great cafe and restaurants here once you venture outside of the hostel.

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Queenstown

Queenstown was also very food focused for us, after a quick wine tasting on he drive from Wanaka, naturally we headed straight to Ferg Burger, one of the most famous burger joints possibly in the world. Queues are always huge but always worth it. We took a walk around town, a great place to window shop and relax by the lake. Once we weren’t feeling so sick from the massive burger, we stared thinking about what else we could eat, and naturally settled on the biggest pizza in the world at Fat Badger’s. Yes, I put on A LOT of weight here.

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Queenstown is the place for adventure sports (although you can find most of them cheaper in either Taupo or Wanaka) but we were feeling rather lazy from all the burger and pizza eating. Franck and Marion decided to do a Canyon Swing, an insane 160 foot drop into a canyon that I’d done on my trip 5 years ago. They were lucky enough to get a cancellation spot, usually they book out quite a few days in advance. They loved every minute of it, which is more than I could say when I did it last time- it pretty much put me off adrenaline seeking for life.

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On our last night together I finally made the Mac and cheese Franck had been begging for the whole trip, and we shared a lovely last meal together with Mickaël’s favourite Cloudy Bay wine, it was a great last evening together where we spoke in both languages and realised how much we had all progressed. We topped the evening off with dancing and karaoke at the cowboy bar, a trashy night that made me feel 21 again.

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We were very lucky to share this part of the trip with Franck and Marion, New Zealand is a beautiful country with so much to see and do, we were always happy despite not having the best weather. It was my second time there and I still did so much I hadn’t done before, it’s really full of surprise and wonder.

Chile: where new friends are made

Puerto Varas and around

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Puerto Varas was our first stop in Chile, a lovely old German town on the lake nestled between two towering volcanoes. It’s a charming little town if not a little touristy. Not so many backpackers, more of the older generation. We didn’t feel overly inspired to explore when we got here for some reason, despite there being plenty of activities on offer. After a day of pottering around we decided enough was as enough. We hired a car and hightailed it out of there on an adventure. Doing a day tour to all the sites cost 22,000 pesos each, but hiring a car was only 23,000 per day for both of us, even I can do that maths. We headed straight for Ensenada and the waterfalls and lake views along the way which was a stunning drive. We wanted good views of volcano Osorno but unfortunately the clouds were not on our side. We stayed the night in the lovely Hamilton’s Guesthouse, a beautiful house built by a charming Canadian guy and his wife. It was one of the most welcoming places we stayed on our trips and it had great views to boot.

Ensenada
Ensenada

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Chiloe

The next day we decided to drive to Chiloe, a small island just west of Puerto Varas, with the possibility of returning to Ensenada a few days later when the weather would be better. It was a slightly stressful drive full of missed exits despite using sat nav,but we got there in one piece. They really need to figure out putting road signs up before the exit, not after. Chiloe is a pretty little island with great scenery, if you’ve never been to England that is. I really felt at home amongst those rolling hills full of sheep and cows, ever so strange. Our main reason for coming here was to see the Penguins nesting near Ancund, which was absolutely worth it. We drove right onto the beach and caught a boat that took us around the jagged rocks to spot the Penguins and plenty of other birds going about their business.

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After that we took the ‘scenic’ route to the capital of Castro half way down the island, which was on nothing more that an dirt track in a tiny Hyundai 3 door car. We survived, that’s the main thing to remember. Castro wasn’t the most inspiring town, despite the guide book promising a glorious and uniquely colourful town of houses on stilts. Sure there were a few, but it wasn’t a big deal, no one cared. I don’t even have a picture to show you. We did have some amazing pasta there at Pomodoro, I seriously think it was worth the 3 hour drive to taste that rich tomato sauce. We didn’t love the atmosphere of this island as much as we’d hoped, so we left the next day to Ensenada, a great decision as it was a perfectly clear day and we could see the volcano perfectly. Better than that, you can actually drive most of the way up because in the winter it’s actually a ski station! As it was the summer we just drove up and climbed part of it at the top, which afforded us unforgettable views over Puerto Varas and the lake.

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Pucon

On New Year’s Eve, we decided to head to Pucon. The lonely planet dubs it as a very touristy town but actually I didn’t think it was as bad as Puerto Varas. We thought it would be a good place to spend New Year’s Eve and we were right, they had a spectacular fireworks display on the beach and we were able to get closer to it than any display in England would ever safely let you get. We stayed at an  interesting hostel called Eco Etnico, an incredibly hippy place run by a nice couple with a few resident hippies living there and helping out. They have a dizzying amount of bins in this hostel, around 8 I think, and I found this environmental commitment especially ironic considering the shower leaked constantly. We only planned to stay a day here and booked our bus tickets for New Year’s Day, to keep myself busy while we waited for the bus I decided to play some music with a guy named Javier, as I had a couple of songs I wanted to put to music. The result was magical. We had a musical connection so great that he’d figured out the perfect chord sequence before I had finished singing the song. I was so happy to have finally found someone I could play music with that I asked Mickaël if we could extend our stay, which we ended up doing for 3 days. They were 3 days filled of magical music making, singing together at the back  the garden under the shade of the trees wishing we didn’t live in other sides of the world. Who knows, maybe one day we will reconnect. It certainly gave me the impetus I needed to say I will finally make a go of my music career when I get home, and for that I am totally thankful to him. You can check out the songs here: www.soundcloud.com/laurengold

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Valparaiso

We left Pucon and headed straight for Valparaiso, a colourful, town set on the high hills north of Santiago on the sea. The town itself, down nearly the port, is pretty grim and dirty. However if you go up into the hills you find what some people say is an artists haven of wildly unique and enchanting street art and plenty of cool restaurants and bars to sit at an contemplate the coolness of said art. Mickaël just thought it was dirty and full of hippies. He’s not wrong, but I rather like street art.

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To be fair, they have something wonderfully unique in this town and yet they can’t be bothered to clean it up or wash away the mess that the seemingly millions of stray dogs leave behind. Even so, we enjoyed our time here and I’d highly recommend it for a couple of days or even as a day trip from Santiago, which is where we headed next and where our South American adventure finally and tearfully came to an end.

Santiago

In Santiago we stayed with Celeste, the daughter of my dad’s old university chum. I’d never met her but got in touch on my dad’s suggestion, and she very kindly offered for us to stay with her. They live in a lovely part of Santiago full of tree lined streets, hidden trendy cafes and plenty of fancy houses guarded by ferocious barking dogs. I didn’t have high expectations of Santiago as plenty of the travellers we met talked it down, but having the luxury of being shown around by locals can you make fall in love with any city in my opinion. We ate at great restaurants, visited the best areas, watched some quirky live music and relaxed in sunshine.

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Unfortunately I can’t give you any tips because for once we had the luxury of being led around by friends not paying much attention to where exactly we were. One thing I can highly recommend is the bike and wine tour of the vineyards on the outskirts of the city. It’s something I had longed to do since our botched attempt in Argentina and I was hell bent on cycling through some vineyards whilst sipping on some vino. We got such an experience with Bike and Wine, and had a lovely and informative guide who I may have liked more because she plied me with wine all morning. Yes morning. I was drunk by 11am.

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And so concluded our time in South America. We had a truly wonderful time on this continent, so varied in our experiences and humbled by the sheer beauty we encountered. Of the people, the landscapes, the rhythm of life, it is all so different to how I live my life in England and I feel so lucky to have experienced something out of my comfort zone. Yes we were on the tourist trail seeing the same things millions of other tourists see, but actually you get of it what you put in. You see what you want to see and experience it in your own way, and I was lucky enough to be with Mickaël who always sees things differently to me. There was always another perspective, another voice noticing the nuances of daily life in this world, and I loved to make those observations and learn about their culture and my life in the process. It sounds like hippy generalisations I know, but what’s the point in travelling the world if you don’t learn something along the way? Notice everything, question it and compare it to your life and you’ll learn so much. If you can apply it to your life back in the real world, I’m sure it will only make you a better person. We are the lucky ones after all, I will never stop being grateful for that.

Eating, Drinking and Dreaming in Buenos Aires

This city definitely takes the biscuit for our favourite South American capital, I would move here in a heart beat if I could. The food is amazing, the people friendly, the bars unique and the laid back cool culture permeates everything.

The districts

We stayed in the area of San Telmo first and then moved to Palermo to get a feel for a different area. It was far to posh for us! San Telmo is much more down to earth, rustic and interesting. Less tiny dogs in handbags basically. It’s known as the place to stay if you like antiques, and is also home to the famous Sunday market that takes over the whole of Defensa street. It sells the usual tourist tat mixed in with artisan goods and antiques, but the best thing about it for me was the tiny plaza serving beers and cakes in the sunshine with a fantastic Argentinian band entertaining the crowd. They made everyone so happy, people were spontaneously getting up to dance, and even the waiters we bouncing as they cleared tables. Sitting there sipping my cold beer listening to the sweet sound of Argentinian music is a moment I’ll never forget.

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During our 5 days in BA we mostly just walked around a different neighbourhood each day, it’s enough for us just to soak up the feel of a city on foot, stopping for coffee and steak along the way. San Telmo is a great place to do this if you’re into finding nice little nooks and crannies, Recoleta is also a good choice but had a very different feel. It’s the mega posh area of BA with tree lined streets and mega mansions to gawp at. We also visited the cemetery here which is a very popular activity, not as depressing as you might think, more like an episode of pimp my crypt, if such a show should ever exist.

Recoleta
Recoleta
the giant crypts at Recoleta cemetery
the giant crypts at Recoleta cemetery

We also spent an afternoon wandering around the Puerto Madero area, after seeing some of the government buildings in the centre of town nearby. We walked up to the nature reserve and then got a bit flummoxed by how to get in, so just chilled out by one of the many meat stands there, which I’m told offer up a decent meal. Sadly we’d just eaten a pretty rubbish sandwich.

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The food

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Maybe one of the best things about BA. There’s so much steak everywhere, how do you choose?! Well we tried out both ends of the spectrum and enjoyed them both equally in different ways. We headed to our good friend Four Square to find a well rated steak restaurant, and picked La Brigada in San Telmo, a wonderful choice. The waiters are so attentive and help you pick the right meal. It’s a fancy setting so we freaked out at first that the price would be too much, and actually it was for our backpacker budget. I proceeded to have kittens because it’s was too late- we were already sitting down and this was not the kind of place you could quickly dash out of if the price was too high, like we had done so many times before. Luckily Mickaël put things back in perspective, and reminded me that half the fun of travelling is eating amazing food, and we were going to have a fancy steak and wine dinner in Buenos Aires whether I liked it or not. Well obviously I liked it very much indeed, and just to put it into perspective for you, the bill came to £52. Seriously.

La Brigada
La Brigada

On the other end of the spectrum you have the hole-in-the-wall eatery near the info or antiques market that has a huge grill going all evening, tempting everyone that walks by. You can find it near the corner of Defensa and Bolivia streets. Here you will find the best Choripan in BA (chorizo sausage in yummy white baguette), for a mere 30 pesos, or a huge piece of steak and if you’re feeling adventurous, even a black sausage that is not a sausage at all, make no mistake. It will burst into a pile of black goo when you poke it. Obviously I did not order this, the people sitting next to enjoyed this as their dinner as I looked on, horrified.

yummy street asado!
yummy street asado!

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The entertainment

There is plenty of this here but unfortunately I came down with a nasty cold here and didn’t much feel like partying. We made it to a tango lesson before I got ill, this was a surreal experience. We opted for a dance hall that got going later in the evening after all the classes had finished, but this wasn’t well timed being on a Sunday night. Saturday would have been more lively. We had a great lesson and hung around waiting for the music to start until about midnight, at which point they brought out an old guy on an untuned piano playing pieces well above his ability. Poor guy. Poor us for having to listen to him actually, we left pretty promptly.

There’s plenty of clubs for hard dance music or Latin music in BA so indulge yourself until your heart’s content!

Travelling through Northern Argentina is not as easy as you’d think…

I’ve been a bit naughty and haven’t blogged at all for Argentina and Chile, two of the biggest countries we’ve visited with the most need to be blogged about, because they’re not easy to travel in cheaply! Apologies for that! What I can offer you is highlights for each city we visited. I’ll be honest, they’re mostly food based… with the exception of a glacier here and a volcano there 🙂

Some pre-trip tips…

An overall warning for those of you thinking about travelling in Argentina and Chile, whilst no one can dispute these are truly beautiful and exciting countries to experience, they don’t offer the same types of exciting challenges that backpacking in less developed countries do. Personally, we loved the less developed countries because surprisingly things seemed easier there. Buses stop literally anywhere on the road, a motorway intersection is always an opportunity for a hot drink while you wait for a long distance bus, and if you don’t think the price for something is fair, you can engage in some light bartering to agree on a price you’re both happy with. Everything is so much more expensive in Argentina and Chile, so in order to stay on budget you have to be crafty, or do as we did, and throw the budget out the window 🙂 Another warning, these countries are huge, especially Argentina. So expect a lot of 20-40 hour buses. I think these are good countries to plan in advance so you can have a good route that doesn’t include too many long buses, and possibly some flights as the can be a similar price if booked at the right time.

We started our journey through the south at San Pedro de Atacama and nipped across the border to the north of Argentina and made our way south. In Patagonia we came back over to Chile and headed north to Santiago. Crossing borders isn’t too much of a fuss and with such a long frontier you don’t necessarily have to do one country then the other, many people zig zag across.

San Pedro de Atacama

Hiring a bike and cycling through the Lunar Valley was the absolute highlight here. The guys at the hostel said it was a fairly easy ride, I don’t know who he was trying to kid. We cycled for 3 hours, mostly against the wind, uphill. Challenging, but I was very proud of myself for not whinging and actually being pumped full of energy because my body had finally got used to exercise. Result!atacama

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I was also over the moon to eat fresh food with salad and vegetables that I didn’t have to worry about getting sick from, I properly indulged myself here, as usual, but this time without fear!

Salta, Argentina

We arrived in Salta, Argentina on a warm summers night, craving a good steak and wine of course. These two luxuries are synonymous with Argentina and despite being 10pm there was no way we were going to wait until the next day to get our fix. It wasn’t easy though, arriving in Argentina at night with no pesos is absolutely not advised. Nowhere accepts card (visa only in most places too) without your passport, getting cash out of the machine will result in everything costing twice as much as it should (if the cash point even accepts your card), and no one is exchanging money on the black market this late at night. Not being aware of these facts will most likely result in a twenty minute standoff with the restaurant trying desperately to throw dollars at the situation with no avail, until they realise you’re a clueless gringo with nothing else to offer.

I’m pleased to report that the steak and wine was totally worth it, and of course 10pm is never too late to go for dinner in this country. Our hostel had directed us to Patio Ameghino, a fancy dining hall with 6 restaurants, a winery and table service. We were apprehensive at first but actually the steak wasn’t bad, the grilled chicken was tender and the house wine was some of the best we’ve had in Argentina. It was the perfect welcome to the country, the place where locals dine and stare curiously at the the gringos who don’t seem to be able to pay for their meal. Luckily we won the standoff and managed to pay in dollars, so our delicious meal came to just $5 a head!

Note that this may not be an issue when you travel, during our trip the government changed and one of the first things the new president decided to do was try and sort out this whole black market nonsense. So do check when you travel what the deal is, it may not be necessary to bring American dollars with you to get a more favourable exchange rate.

Salta is a lovely city to walk around, through the park, plaza and side streets we felt a million miles away from the rest of South America. It was all so familiar; the al fresco dining on canvas furniture, the trendy boutiques, beautiful trees blooming on the pavements, I felt so European again and I loved it.

Salta to Córdoba: travelling through North West Argentina

I pride myself in being able to plan routes quite effectively but that’s pretty had to do when the middle of a main highway is cut off from all public transport. Sure, you can travel half way down, or half way up, but the whole thing? Well, that’s just ludicrous.

The stretch of road I’m talking about is from Salta to Cafayate via Cachi. Cafayate is the NW’s premier wine region and as such a major tourist destination. It can be reached easily via Route 68 with a cheap public bus, a very scenic route indeed, or less easily via Cachi, another popular wine region that is less touristy but apparently very beautiful. We would have loved to visit Cachi and travel down to Cafayate via route 40, better known as Valles Calchaquies, as the scenery is wonderful and there’s plenty of beautiful artisanal villages to stop and wander around. However public transport only travels half way down this route, or half way up if you’re coming from Cafayate, which as I mentioned before is kind of ludicrous. You’re best bet is to hire a car and do a loop from salta going through Cafayate and Cachi, but as we were planning this last minute, and as we later found out on a major bank holiday weekend, there were no cars available and about 4 hostels that weren’t fully booked. Not ideal! But I do love a planning challenge and I was determined to get my drink on.

I looked up a few places in the region below Cafayate and found some great spots to explore; Tafi del Valle, Belen, Londres, La Rioja ending in Mendoza. They follow a main highway so you’d assume you could get between them fairly easily right? Wrong. From Cafayate your only choices are picturesque Tufi del Valle or dirty, fly ridden, sweat pit Tucuman. Guess which one we chose? From Tucuman, your choices are more plentiful but by that time we were pretty done with trying to navigate through the countryside, and we’d run out of pesos so we decided to head to Cordoba where we could replenish our money and easily get to wherever we needed to be.

Our final route took us through Cafayate and Tafi del Valle which were two incredibly beautiful spots with very scenic drives, so we were very happy. Cafayate is a small village surrounded by beautiful mountains in every direction each path hosting a variety of bodegas and vineyards to explore. The town itself is set around a lush green plaza (of course!) with plenty of restaurants lining the edges. There are about 7 bodegas in the town so you can easily spend a day in the town itself doing wine tastings, eating steak and ice cream to cool off from the summer sun. Some bodegas offer free tastings others are for a small fee. We really enjoyed Nanni bodega because the tour was informative and the setting beautiful, the wine wasn’t the best but we learned a lot in the tasting session.

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You can also spend a day exploring the bodegas just outside of the town, either by bicycle, quad bike or car. We decided to rent mountain bikes for 200 pesos per day (£10) which seemed like a great idea until I realised we were in a valley and as such all paths to the bodegas are uphill. I did the best I could but when you want to have a nice relaxed day sipping wine on verandas, sweating and panting as you cycle hill for an hour in the baking sun can be a massive let down. Add to that the local marathon runners overtaking you by the dozen and you start to feel really pathetic. Luckily we found Vasija Secreta, a lovely bodega with delicious wine and great prices. We relaxed here for a while and retreated back to town to recharge our batteries and prepare for our awesome dinner at La Casa de las Empanadas, simply the best empanadas you can find in the whole of South America. Fact.

Tafi del Valle

It’s a very touristy town but worth it for a lovely hike in the surrounding hills, up to the cross at the top of the hill through lovely estates of gorgeous houses and well kept gardens. Relax afterwards at the coffee shop near the bus terminal, delicious cake and coffee to be had here!

Tucuman

Don’t go here. Just trust me on that one.

Córdoba

Best experienced on the weekend, when you can immerse yourself in the buzzing night life of the artistic neighbourhoods. There’s plenty of kitsch bars and delicious restaurants to indulge in here so take your time! It’s also a great place for museum lovers, although I’m not one of those so all I can tell you is that there are some. We did venture out to Che Guvara’s childhood home which was a nice setting in which to learn about his life. It’s in a suburb just outside Córdoba which is a lovely place to visit, but not at siesta time! Plan your trip accordingly.

We planned to do so much in Córdoba but it was so stiflingly hot that we ended up bailing on our plans every day! Even Che’s house was a struggle. If we had managed to leave the city we would have gone to Carlos Paz or one of the other beautiful mountain regions, trust me there’s plenty to do here to keep you busy for a few days.

Salar de Uyuni: From Bolivia to Chile in Style

 

The last leg of our Bolivian journey took us through some of the most magnificent scenery this world has to offer: Salar de Uyuni (also known as the largest salt flat in the world), Laguna Colorada, Laguna Verde finishing in the Atacama desert in Chile. You spend up to 3 days in a jeep with complete strangers tackling some of the toughest terrain this continent has to offer, wondering how on earth the driver knows his way with no signposts or discernible landmarks. I was truly in awe of our 24 year old guide Hugo, who got us safely to our destination and gave us a ride to remember whilst listening to cheesy dance music on repeat for 3 days straight.

Booking a tour

Judging by backpacker rumours and the reviews of this tour on Trip Advisor this adventure can either be the highlight or the ultimate near death experience of your entire trip so don’t rush into any decisions. If you can, book with a full car of people you know, I can’t stress enough what a severe impact to your sanity sharing a car for 3 days with crazy people will do to you.

Most people do a 3-4 day tour of this region starting in Uyuni heading south towards the border of chile stopping off to see the sites along the way, heading straight back up to Uyuni again on the last day. Some tour companies give you the option of finishing the tour in San Pedro de Atacama which is ideal if you’re heading to Chile or Argentina. Otherwise your third day consists of a 7 hour journey back to Uyuni. We did meet some unfortunate people who didn’t consider finishing in Chile because their plan was to go to Argentina next. It’s actually quicker and much less hassle in terms of border crossings to finish in Chile, enjoy the Atacama desert and get bus to Salta in Argentina afterwards. Otherwise you have a 7 hour bus journey back to Uyuni, an 8 hour bus journey to the border town of Villazon, a possible overnight wait in the cold until the border opens, then another 7 hour journey down to Salta. Not ideal as some Israeli people we met found out the hard way.

Another option is to start the tour in Tupiza, further south than Uyuni in Bolivia. This town is apparently much more beautiful than the touristy tumbleweed town that is Uyuni, and the tour route is much less busy than if your start in Uyuni as its going the opposite way. You cannot really finish a tour from here in Chile unless you do an expensive private tour so this is only really a viable option if you’re heading north.

We booked our tour with Cordillera Travel, a reputable company recommended by the Lonely Planet and several people on Trip Advisor. We paid 850 BOB (about £85) for a 3 day 2 night trip finishing in Chile with a Spanish guide. if you choose this company you have to haggle down from 950, but you didn’t hear that from me… Another good company if you prefer an English tour is Red Planet Expeditions. In hindsight I would have liked an English guide because I’m really interested in the geology and geography of the region. If you’re not that bothered you don’t need to pay the extra 300 or so that an English guide costs. Also be aware that there seems to be a lot of issues with drink drivers on these tours, mostly with the smaller less official looking companies. This isn’t a rumour, we heard first hand stories of people stuck in cars with aggressive alcoholic drivers with no choice but to sit and pray they didn’t have an accident. I have no idea why this industry is so corrupt in this way, no one really does, just be careful and go with a company you trust.

I think in this case pictures speak a lot louder than words, so I’ll leave you with some of the stunning photos taken by myself and (mostly) Mickaël on the trip.

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Bolivia’s Cities

We kept our time to a minimum in Bolivia because we didn’t have a lot to spare, and had heard from pretty much everyone that you get sick a lot here. Considering how much illness I’ve suffered on this trip we decided to heed this warning and choose our destinations wisely. Our entry point was Lake Titicaca and exit would be after the Uyuni salt flats expedition. In between that, the only place we heard about that seemed worth visiting was Sucre, Bolivia’s second largest city. We thought it would be rude not to visit the capital, La Paz which was en route, and from Sucre to Uyuni we made a cursory stop in Potosi giving us a total of 5 steps in 2 weeks in Bolivia. Here’s the run down on Bolivia’s cities.

La Paz

We’d heard mixed reviews about this city, but honestly I don’t know why anyone likes it. That’s my objective opinion. I believe most people come here to do the famous “Death Road”, a narrow mountain road with beautiful views and killer turns. Ok so only 17 people have died on it, but that’s enough to make me think twice. Obviously some people come here and do it dangerously which we never would, but still, I had no interest in earning the “I survived death road” t-shirt, mainly because it costs you around £50. We had a beautiful mountain biking experience in Popayan, Colombia for a fraction of that price so I was contented with that. For those of you looking to survive death road, just make sure you go with a good company and test those breaks well before you leave.

We stayed in a quieter suburb of La Paz called Sopocachi, with beautiful views of the mountains and great food nearby. Our hostel was Landscape BnB, run by very friendly young guys but owned by a narcissist who likes to brag about how much money he has and how intelligent he is. If you can stomach this at breakfast you’ll be rewarded with excellent showers, wifi and a homely feel to your stay. We ate delicious Vietnamese food at Vinapho, although it was really more Thai in my opinion it still tasted great. We also chilled out in Blueberries cafe and indulged in blueberry pancakes. I also had the worst plate of carbonara IN MY WHOLE LIFE at Sancho Panza, it was basically tasteless scrambled eggs with spaghetti mixed in. It was so gross that I sent it back. This is what happens when you go to the only place open on a Sunday with no customers in it, shame on us.

We braved the traffic fumes and ventured into the centre of La Paz on one of our two days in the city, only to be greeted with a depressing “plaza” that paled in comparison to that of Cusco or Arequipa. We also found the tourist street selling tourist tat that we didn’t want, and decided to make a swift exit back to Sopocachi for some donuts and coffee. I do think that other people could really love this city if they gave it a chance, I guess after the joys of lake Titicaca we just weren’t feeling it, I do concede that it could have been better if we’d given it more of a chance. But this happens sometimes, you can’t force it!

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One of the nicer streets in La Paz

 

 

Sucre

From La Paz we got an overnight bus to Sucre, and managed to pay just 100 Bolivianos (£10) for a full cama bus with Trans Copacobana, reduced from 180! I do love to haggle and so do the Bolivians.

We arrived in the morning to the beautiful CasArte Takubamba hostel which was way out of our price range but in a lovely setting with huge comfortable beds. We would have left after one night of luxury if it weren’t for he fact I got sick again and was bedridden for 2 days. After I was better we moved to Condor BnB which had a much more central locations and lovely rooms for a fraction of the price. We spent a day exploring the city hand in hand, which is such a lovely thing to do in a beautiful city like this one. We started with delicious falafel in Condor Cafe then headed to the Plaza that I’m pleased to say made up for all the lackings of La Paz, and then to the park where oddly enough we found a miniature Eiffel Tower to climb, followed by the Cemetery- a weird choice I know but so many people said how beautiful it was and they were right. After that we went for a cocktail at the mirador on the other side of town. The next day we went to the Cretaceous park, because, well who doesn’t like dinosaurs?! It was so much better than we expected because not only do they have life size dinosaur models, but they’ve discovered actual dinosaur footprints there too! The area nearby used to be a lake where dinosaurs would drink on their migratory path. Each season they would come here, and each season the footprints would be covered with layers of mud and dust. After the dinosaurs died out the Andes were created by tectonic plate shifts, causing the land the footprints were on to become part of the mountains. Twenty years ago construction workers were digging got material to make cement with and they accidentally discovered this amazing insight into the past. It really is a sight to behold, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Sucre was a beautiful city that I would happily spend quite a long time in if I had the chance. A lot of people decide to take Spanish lessons here, indulge in some extreme sports or do treks to the nearby waterfalls or dinosaur relics. There’s so much to do here that I definitely recommend setting aside a good amount of time to enjoy the gem of Bolivia.

Potosi

We decided to break up the 12 hour journey to Uyuni with a visit to Potosi, the old silver mining city that was once the most prosperous town in the whole of South America. Unfortunately after the mining boom it sank into poverty which is much more apparent now than its previous glory. Most people opt to do a tour of the mines here but we decided against it as it can be very depressing and highlights the terrible conditions that the miners still work in today, not really my thing. Instead we decided to explore the town and have a nice relaxing day. Although it didn’t exactly start that way. You see the bus from sucre and anywhere else in Bolivia drops you at their shiny new terminal, all buses except for Uyuni buses. This makes no sense whatsoever. I had it in my head that we would casually find out the bus times for Uyuni the next day before heading to the hostel. When there was no Uyuni buses there, we decided to head to the old terminal to find out the times, despite the fact that we’ve always just turned up at the bus station whenever we wanted and got a bus that was leaving soon. Sometimes we do things that don’t make sense I guess. We got a minibus collectivo to what we thought was the old terminal and was actually a market inconveniently named “Uyuni market”, and when we asked for directions to the terminal kept on being told “it’s four blocks that way”. Hmm. Half an hour later we still weren’t there, clearly lost and it started to rain. I was feeling very foolish because really there was no need at all to go to the station anyway. Luckily we were saved by….. Rotisserie chicken! If ever you’re tired and weary and you see tasty looking chicken, don’t think twice, just eat.

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Once we had full bellies and happy hearts we found the terminal, booked our tickets and headed to our hostel on another collectivo. We were clearly feeling very adventurous today! After dumping our bags and the very friendly Casa Blanca Hostel we went for a walk to see the sights of Potosi, which it turns out aren’t that exciting. We still enjoyed our time, mostly because we spotted one of the many table football tables dotted around town had become free, and rushed over for a game, the father and son next to us had other ideas and invited us for a game which was the most fun we’d had in ages. The little boy couldn’t have been more excited to be playing table football with us, his new friends, actually I think he just enjoyed spinning the handles round and round while he screamed with joy no matter who scored. Good wholesome fun.

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That evening one of the guys that worked at the hostel decided to make a meal for everyone, the tastiest stroganoff I’ve ever had. Everyone gathered round the table for a declicious home cooked meal and cocktails, and for the first time in ages I really felt at home. So while Potosi may not have been the most beautiful or exciting city on our journey, it certainly was a lot of fun. It just goes to show that sometimes the best experiences aren’t the ones you pay through the nose for that everyone on the gringo train is expected to have but instead it’s the ones that happen by accident when you just say “yes!”