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!”

 

 

Lake Titicaca: Peru vs Bolivia

Lake Titicaca presented us with the most picturesque border crossing opportunity so far, a high altitude lake (the highest in the world in fact) shared by Peru and Bolivia. Exactly who owns the majority is in some ways a mystery, the story will differ according to which country you’re in but it doesn’t really matter because it’s absolutely massive.

It turns out however that each side of the lake offers a totally different experience, something that wasn’t made clear to me when I was asking around for which side was better to spend he most time. One tour company just shrugged and said have a look at both they’re nice. Nice?! I know English was not his first language but ‘nice’ really doesn’t do this place justice at all.

First up, the Peru side. We took a bus straight from Cusco to Puno, the nearest big town on the lake. You do have the option of taking the train here if you’re feeling fancy, and I really wish I had felt more fancy on that trip. We got assigned seats at the bottom of the double decker bus, usually reserved for the first class seats, but clearly on this bus it was not. Some buses like to advertise their air conditioning but turn it off to save money, and despite the suffocating heat and smell of unwashed bodies, nobody complains. Except for me of course. But you have to be crafty about it as you’re cut off from the drivers cabin and any form of assistance on these type of buses. You just wait until the “direct” bus stops to pick up passengers on the side of the road as it inevitably will do at least 10 times on the 6 hour journey, clamber over the cringing boyfriend and burst out the door to raise the alarm. “Clima por favor!!” This will get you a few minutes of air conditioning if you’re lucky. I’ll spare you the story of the nappy changing IN THE SEAT NEXT TO ME that preceded this breakdown.

So Puno isn’t a city to spend much time in, we got to our hostel Inka’s Rest and enquired about visiting the lake the next day. On the Peruvian side of the lake it’s all about visiting the floating reed islands. Apparently the indigenous communities also thought Puno was a horrible cities and decided to make their own mini cities on the lake out of the reeds that’s grow there. It’s certainly resourceful, a great use of space free of the pungent smells of traffic and rubbish. They also have the added bonus of being President of their own islands, this sense of confidence and pride is very apparent when you meet the people who live here.

We took a half day tour to the closest floating islands, Uros, and learned about how they make the islands and live on them. You can do a full day tour and visit another colony as well, or even a two day tour where you sleep on the islands. We opted for half a day so that we could get a bus across the border and be in Bolivia the same day, the tour was much cheaper (20 soles/£4) and it meant less time spent in Puno. I highly enjoyed the tour, the people clearly love explaining their very unique way of living and stepping onto the islands feels like what I image stepping onto a cloud might feel like (in my cartoon dreams). It’s definitely worth a visit, although I’m not sure what else could be gained from spending a full day there, half a day was plenty for us.

The Bolivian side

In the afternoon we took a bus to Copacobana on the Bolivian side, via the border. We took the Titicaca tourist bus which looked NOTHING like the pictures, but it’s not the first time that’s happened. 60 backpackers crammed onto a decrepit rusty bus in the sweltering heat headed straight for the wild side. I think this company gets some bad rep but they dropped us outside a hotel offering a dos out if we stayed there (cheeky) but it was actually a bloody good deal with a huge room and a view of the lake (Hotel Mirador), so I have no complaints.

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The view from our £10 hotel room

FYI Americans, Bolivia is not your friend. They will not make your border crossing easy or cheap, so make sure you have $160 in crisp unripped notes ready. Plus photocopies of your passport and pictures if you’re feeling super organised, if not they have facilities there.

Copacabana is a nice town set on the Bolivian side of the lake. Unfortunately its main drag is rather touristy, with waitresses trying to drag you into their establishment at every opportunity. Do your research before entering, some of her food is abismal. I’m talking mainly about Kota Kahuana who managed to get coffee so right but burgers so wrong. The Condor and Eagle cafe does fantastic breakfasts, it’s part Irish owned and they make amazing homemade baked beans on homemade Irish soda bread. It was the little taste of home I had been craving. Next door to this we had a great meal at Winaya, great enchiladas of all things.

Isla del Sol

The main reason people come here is to visit Isla del Sol, a 2 hour ferry ride away from Copacobana. This is easily the highlight of lake Titicaca for so many reasons. It’s isolated without wifi which makes a nice change, it’s beautiful terrain for challenging climbing, the views over the snow capped Cordillera Real are gorgeous and this all makes it the perfect place to go back to basics and unwind for a few days.

There are several ways to enjoy Isla del Sol depending on what you’re into. Both the south and the North have archaeological sights so it’s worth seeing both if you can, you can do this by boat without trekking if you wish. There are several trails across the island that you can do, some through wonderful smelling eucalyptus forests and some through indigenous villages. You can do it all if you decide to do a full circuit in one day which takes about 7 hours, if you do this you can take all your things with you to the island. We decided to leave our big bags at the hotel on the mainland and just take supplies for 2 days as this meant we could hike from one end of the island to the other without all our stuff. We met a lovely couple Nicole and Dave and decided to head to the island with them and do the trek together.

Ferries at 8.30am take you to the north side of the island, but we were running late so took the 1.30pm ferry to south of the island. The plan was to spend the night her and trek to the north the next morning in time for the 1.30 ferry back to the mainland. This ended up being perfect because it meant we got to have dinner at Las Velas, an enchanting restaurant in the middle of a forest lit solely by candles (even in the kitchen!) The lovely couple that own the restaurant are trained gourmet chefs and the food reflects this. It’s a seriously long wait for he food (1 hour 50 minutes!) but we were kept entertained by card games and wine. If you stay in the south part of the island this restaurant is a must, and make sure you get there in time for sunset for a great view and guaranteed table. You’ll also need to take a torch as there’s no lights to lead you back home at the end of the evening. Despite being prepared we still got lost on our way back down as we were staying near the port, I’m not going to lie I was terrified. Luckily the boys led us to safety using their Bear Grylls skills.

I recommend staying as high up as possible, there are a lot of hostels being flogged near the port but the main part of the village is on the summit so it’s worth doing the long walk up at the beginning to find a place to stay, otherwise you’ll be doing it again the next morning when you start your trek, and it’s not easy!

The trek across the island is one of the best I’ve done, despite being at altitude and therefore pretty difficult at times. Luckily there’s not too much uphill to do once your on the summit you kind of walk across the peak, but we did get a bit lost yet again as it’s not exactly well signposted. We were led through some beautiful eucalyptus forests, some isolated farms, down ancient in a trails and eventually made it to the other end where some ancient inca ruins awaited us. This trek had everything and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

So does Peru or Bolivia win? In my opinion Bolivia was more picturesque, challenging and an experience to remember from start to finish, but then again it’s not every day you get to bounce up and down on a spongy man made island dressed as an indigenous couple, so I guess we can just say it’s a tie 🙂

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Cusco and Machu Pichu

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Cusco is a great place to relax and acclimatise before heading to Machu Pichu. It was once the centre of the Incan empire, or “naval” of their world as they liked to call it. It’s a beautiful colonial city to explore with A multitude of cobbled streets and alleyways to explore. I was disheartened when I learned that the Spanish also thought this city was beautiful when they arrived in the 1400s, so much so that they decided to destroy it all and build their own beautiful city on top of it. Charming. There’s not even a painting of the old Incan city left on this earth, just a few descriptions from the more sensitive souls at the time. I’m constantly questioning the ethics of my love for colonial cities, considering that each time I visit one I learn a little bit more about how they were built by slaves in an attempt to destroy the original architecture of the nations. “Put a church on it” is the hymn sheet the Spanish sung to and whilst it may make the towns we visit look beautiful, it’s worth remembering how they came to be.
The free walking tour isn’t a bad option for learning about the city and finding some hidden spots, I recommend doing it at the start of your stay so you can explore the parts you like on your own afterwards.

We stayed in San Blas which is the more artistic quirky area of town, and we loved it. We opted for a hospedaje which I’m pretty sure means family run guest house, they tent to be quieter and more friendly places to stay. Hospedaje Jhuno was all this and more, with a decent breakfast and hot water brought to your room on demand to make tea a plenty. They even made me a hot water bottle when we got back from Machu Pichu because I couldn’t feel my feet and was visibly shaking from head to toe.

The food

There’s plenty of delicious food to be eaten in cusco, and despite being sick for most of my time here, I still managed to indulge. We found an excellent restaurant called Sara Wasi on Calle Procuradores just off the Plaza del Armas that serves a 15 soles menu, that’s £3!!! It includes an alcoholic drink, soft drink, garlic bread, starter and main course. Traditional food or Italian. I highly recommend the quinoa soup, it’s the best I’ve ever had!! We also had yummy aji de gallina in Nuna Raymi, and delicious Italian food with craft beer and Peruvian wine in La Bodega 138. For excellent coffee from a family run business head to D’wasi cafe- they even taught Mickaël how to use a French presse like an expert! But the creme de la creme was the full English breakfast at Jack’s cafe, the most authentic I’ve had on our trip. This cafe uses high quality ingredients and service with a smile, they even have English copies of Vogue and Marie Claire which kept me busy for a good couple of hours.

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The travel agencies

Cusco is absolutely brimming with agencies offering you the exact same tours for vastly different prices. Do your homework and don’t be pressured into making a decision EVER as there is always time and always other options. It’s hard to know who to pick, I usually go on recommendations or if that’s not an option go with your gut. Agents should be personable, know their product inside out and be able to answer all your questions with a smile. We found such an agent called Jose from J.A. travel and he’s the best business man you’ll ever meet. He doesn’t pressure you, he jokes around and he gives you a good deal when you ask for it. He’s a proper family man and does honest business, I respect him immensely. You can find him on Calle Triunfo just off the main plaza, in one of those shops that sells everything from jumpers to pan flutes, sitting at his desk at the front of the shop.

How to do Machu Pichu

There’s several different ways to reach these incredibly hyped inca ruins, the thing to accept right now is that it’s way over priced and you just have to suck it up, fork it out and enjoy, and you will enjoy. The ruins are impressive and tell a great story of a lost civilisation, and it’s certainly more impressive because the surrounding mountains are so beautiful. We did a lot of research before booking our trip, unfortunately we were constrained by the fact I was ill and it was the rainy season so trekking didn’t seem too appealing. Trips costs a similar amount with the main difference being how many days it takes, obviously if it’s a 4-5 day trek you save on 4-5 days worth of accommodation, so if your on a budget this is worth considering. Also think about whether you want to stay in hostels or camp as this will affect your decision as well. There’s probably more options out there than what I’ve complied, but this gives you an ideas of the options in order (easiest to hardest).

Also worth considering is the type of entrance ticket you want to get. You have the ticket by itself that gives you entry to the ruins, but you can combine this with a climb of either Wayan Pichu or Machu Pichu mountain. Wayan Pichu is more popular and sells out quite far in advance (1-4 months depending on the season), but Machu Pichu mountain is usually available, we bought a ticket that including climbing this mountain just 2 days before. This is because it’s A LOT harder than Wayan, and takes about 3 hours round trip, whereas Wayan can be done much quicker as it’s not as high. I think it’s definitely worth climbing one of the mountains as you get excellent views over the ruins and with most trips you get about 8 hours at the site which is quite a lot! It only cost an extra $10 USD and felt like a great accomplishment. Do note that you cannot decide to do this on the day as you purchase the mountain access with your entrance ticket.

Machu Pichu Mountain
Machu Pichu Mountain
Wayan Pichu
Wayan Pichu

Machu Pichu by train – 2 days 1 night $195-220 USD

This is the option we went for because it’s the easiest and quickest. We took a bus to Ollantaytambo, and from there a train to Aguas Calientes, the town right below Machu Pichu. We stayed overnight in basic accommodation then took a bus up to the site at 7am (this bus isn’t included in the tour cost but can be bought separately for $12 USD each way.) we had a 2 hour tour of the ruins plus free time and a return train at 7pm. We were incredibly lucky to have clear skies until we finished climbing the mountain at 2pm, then the torrential downpour started. Everything was soaked, I was cold and shivering for the rest of the day until we got home at 11pm. Put on top of that a serious case of food poisoning that had me vomiting several times on the train and minibus, and you can imagine it was a pretty horrific few hours. I think what I learned from this is everyone had to suffer to see Machu Pichu, whether on an arduous and tiring trek or by getting sick afterwards because you took the easy option. Lesson learned.

You can also combine this trip with visiting the sacred valley on the first day, which consists of 3 archaeological sites leading up to and including Ollantaytambo. We did this in a separate tour when we first arrived in Cusco for a mere 35 soles, so if you choose to do this as part of a trip to Machu Pichu make sure you don’t pay too much extra as its a really cheap day trip to do. Some places were charging $380 for Sacred Valley and Machu Pichu so don’t be fooled!

Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo
Pisac
Pisac

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Machu Pichu by bus – 2 days 1 night $100 USD

With this option you don’t take the train so it’s much cheaper, that’s being said I felt the train was a nice experience and very scenic too. You take a minibus to Hydroelectrica, then walk from there to Aguas calientes (the town is only accessible by train or foot which is why you have to walk this last part.) the walk is about 2 hours along the train tracks. You stay in basic accommodation, visit the ruins the next day but must leave promptly at 2pm to get back to Hydroelectrica in time for your bus back.

Inca Jungle Trail -3 or 4 days $150-$220 USD ($150 if you get the bus back from Hydroelectrica instead of the train from Aguas Calientes)

This is the fun party style option that consists of mountain biking on day 1, a couple of hours walking plus rafting, zip lining, and thermal baths stretched across the other days, it’s definitely easier but also for the more adventurous types. You stay in hostels so your clothes have a chance to dry out too which is a treat!

Lares trek, Salkantay trek, original Inca trail 4 days 3 nights, $250-300 USD

These are for the more serious Trekkers as you do 5-8 hours of trekking a day. EEK. I met a lot of people who did the Salkantay, this is the serious option for those who haven’t booked the original inca trail 6 months in advance. They all loved it and said it was the hardest thing they have ever done. I can’t comment personally… Multi day treks just aren’t my thing, I like showering and getting warm after a day of hiking!

Peru Part 1

We started our Peruvian adventure in the far north of the country, in search of some final sea and sand in South America. From here on in, we knew it would be mostly mountain towns and cold coastal regions so we were keen to get some serious sunbathing in.

Mancora is definitely the place for this. It’s not exactly quintessential Peru, to be honest you could be anywhere in the world, but the same is true for most beach towns. I was able to sample some Peruvian food whilst here, ironically in a Japanese restaurant. It was my first taste of Lomo Saltado (famous Peruvian dish of stir fried steak strips, onions and tomatoes with chips and rice in a soy based sauce), and it was delicious. I also tried sushi here for the first time, having avoided the idea of raw fish for long enough as far as Mickaël was concerned. I loved that too! It was prepared by a Japanese man and had good reviews from people we were staying with, so it seemed like a good opportunity.

This Japanese restaurant can be found far off the beaten track in Mancora, opposite the first hostel we stayed in here, Misfits. It’s an aptly named hostel considering the English owner rarely leaves his hammock even when greeting guests, tries to involve himself in every conversation- again from the confines of his hammock- and has only left the hostel 4 times in 6 months. Such an awkward fellow, and just goes to show how the people who run the hostels you stay in can have such a big impact on your experience.

We promptly moved to Loki hostel and what a different experience that was! This is the ultimate backpacker resort, dare to venture inside and you may never leave. There’s a huge swimming pool, cheap bar, good food, games and activities all the time and backpacker bar tenders. We intended to stay one night and stayed 3. Prisca and Jodie vowed to come the day after us and bought their bus tickets, but succumbed to the rum slushies and missed the bus. And again the next day. Third time lucky and they finally made it out alive, if not slightly broken from the endless drinking and partying. It was really fun but a totally different experience as a couple. 3 days was enough for us to get a great tan, meet some great people then hightail it out of there in search of the real Peru.

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Trujillo

The next stop on our route was Huaraz, but it was no easy journey to get there. We had to take 2 long buses to get there, and decided to break the journey into two overnight 9 hour buses at Trujillo. Here we visited the pre Colombian ruins of Chan Chan, a vast village made entirely of clay, most of which has been destroyed by El Niño rains. It was a very impressive site even if most of it has been destroyed, it was certainly brave of them to build an entire city out of such a fragile material! We spend just 12 hours exploring around Trujillo and it’s not the nicest of cities. There’s a few pretty colonial buildings but overall it’s quite a poor, smoggy city. We had a delicious meal at Casona Deza in the evening, all in all we were happy to get the night bus out of there that evening.

Huaraz

We arrived in Huaraz at 5am in the pouring rain and freezing cold. Not a great start, but it got swiftly better when we arrived at our hostel, Churup, hoping they’d have a room available. They did, and they let us check in at 5am! After recharging our batteries we walked around town which unfortunately was quite dismal. We expected a mountain town such as this, with beautiful landscapes as far as the eye can see, to be quaint and pretty. However the town of Huaraz is full of functional buildings that offend the eyes. It’s best just to look up at the snow capped mountains rather than in front of you!

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We ate at some really good restaurant while we were here, a huge Peruvian breakfast called Huevos Rancheros (tortilla covered in beans and cheese, fried eggs, avocado chorizo AND steak!) at Cafe Andino, authentic fondue and mulled wine at El Tio Enrique, amazing coffee and tasty falafel at California Cafe, and of course some local Peruvian food at the lunch houses that serve you soup, juice and a main for £1. Bargain!

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Huaraz is the place to trek in Peru (as well as Machu Pichu of course), but as we are not massive trekkers we agonised over what to do. There’s a range of easy treks that seemed a bit too lame for us, medium day ones that everyone seems to do (Laguna 69), and multi day hikes that sound like my worst nightmare (surprisingly enough I’m not the kind of girl to trek for 4 days with a 10 kilo backpack in the rain). Suffice to say we settled on Laguna 69, we figured there must be a good reason for everyone doing it! We treated ourselves to a delicious chicken, bacon and cheese sandwich to eat at the summit and set off for our 6 hour hike in good spirits. That was after an evening of dread and panic that I wouldn’t be able to finish the hike (I’d read too many trip advisor reviews of people that found it had and had to turn back!) It was an incredible experience, especially because i’d set my expectations of myself so low (equivalent to a 20 stone 60 year old) that I actually impressed myself! I took my time on the steep inclines, but reached the summit by no means the last of the group, and I didn’t have to turn back! Success 🙂

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Lima

We had a brief stop over in Lima, we hadn’t heard great things about it and were keen to get down to the south of Peru were all the drama is. By that I mean the canyons, Inca ruins and picturesque towns. Until now we had been quite underwhelmed by the architecture, and I do love a good building. Our day in Lima fell on Halloween, something we’d forgotten about until we walked into our hostel and were faced with skeletons, mummies and cobwebs. After waiting a few minutes for our room in the bar which in 12 hours would be party central, we realised this wasn’t really for us. It’s not that I’m old and lame now, it’s just…well… Ok I’m a bit older and lamer than the 24 year old rave-a-holic I used to be. We quietly retreated and hunted around the Miraflores district (otherwise known as gringo central) for non-party hostel. I wasn’t interested in getting drunk whilst listening to Thriller with the rest of the Brits, I wanted a fancy Peruvian meal in the eating capital of country, and I make no apology for that!

My wish came true when we visited Panchita and I ate my first Aji de Gallina, a kind of Peruvian curry that is very mild, the sauce is made with creme and cheese and other lovely stuff, served with rice and potatoes (as is everything in this country it seems!)

Huacachina

Our visit to the oasis in the desert was much anticipated. We’ve never seen massive sand dunes before, and from the pictures it seemed this would satisfy our craving. We arrived at night in Ica and got a cab 10 minutes down the road to Huacachina. We didn’t think there could be a desert so close to a big city, and started to lower our expectations. We checked into our hostel and headed to the oasis, a very pretty lake you can walk around in about 10 minutes. It’s lined with tourist eateries and shops, we picked somewhere and ate an average meal. We couldn’t see these massive sand dunes everyone was banging on about, so were glad to be leaving the next day.

The next morning we woke up and looked out the window wondering what on earth was blocking our view across these supposed sand dunes. Oh, it was a MASSIVE sand dune, the town is completely surrounded by 30 metre high dunes that actually block out the sun in the morning! Very impressive indeed. After a fruitless hunt for real coffee (turns out it’s only instant here) and some average chicken wings for lunch, we decided to climb the dunes which was exhausting but rewarded us with gorgeous views across a seemingly endless desert. Later that afternoon we headed out on a dune buggy tour, pretty much the only activity in Huacachina, and it’s all you need. Belted in tightly, we raced across the dunes at break neck speed taking in the breathtaking scenery. We stopped a couple of times to have a go at sand boarding, I opted for going down on my belly rather than standing on the board and inevitably falling off. It was terrifying flying down huge dunes with nothing to secure me to the board, I held on for dear life and screamed the whole way down. It was so awesome I did it again, this time sitting on the board, and this time I really couldn’t keep control and I fell spectacularly into a body slam on the sand. After that I’d had enough. We drove a bit further to watch the sunset over the dunes, it was beautiful and peaceful, we felt like the only ones there.

The view from our hostel
The view from our hostel

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Arequipa

We headed straight out of Huacachina after a day and a night on the dunes, on our beloved Cruz del Sur bus. It’s definitely the best bus company in my opinion; comfortable seats, good meals on every service, clean toilets and English films (with your own personal screen on the Suite service!) if your travelling through South America, my advice is to take this company where you can.

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Arequipa is a beautiful colonial city, quite small but grand in its own way. We really enjoyed strolling through the streets and the main plaza is beautiful apart from the hoards of pigeons. There’s also plenty of delicious food to eat, we went for one of the local cheap Chifas on our first night, great Chinese stir fries for 6 soles (£1) and trust me, one is enough to feed two people! Arequipa also has one Indian restaurant, which I made my priority as soon as we arrived. It wasn’t s good as mum’s obviously (is there anything I miss more than her curry? Ahem, and her…) but it satisfied my craving for sure.

We stayed in Vallecito Hostel, a lovely family run place a 15 minute walk from town complete with a friendly old grandfather who just loves to talk about his fair city. The hosts really can make or break your impression of a city, and this lovely family made us feel right at home.

The biggest activity to do in Arequipa is visit the Colca Canyon, the second biggest canyon in the world a mere 5 hours away. We were really keen to do it but all the tours left Arequipa at 3am in order to see the condors flying overhead early in the morning. No thank you, not interested. Instead we decided to go there ourselves and hope we could get a tour from the town near the canyon, Cabanaconde. It was certainly a risk as we had to be back in Arequipa the next day for a night bus to Cusco. I felt even more stressed after getting to the bus station at 7am only to realise the bus wasn’t until 9.30, which meant we wouldn’t get to the canyon until 2.30, hardly a lot of time in the area and I don’t like to rush. It got worse when the bus broke down and the driver ran over the hill and out of sight in search of water for the overheated rusty “vehicle” we were travelling in (who can complain for £3?) as we neared the first canyon country town of Chivay I starred getting anxious that Cabanaconde was still 2 hours away after 5 hours of traveling. As the bus pulled in we made a snap decision to stay in Chivay so we could enjoy some hours of daylight not on a stinky bus. This turned out to be the best decision ever! We strolled around the huge market eating local food (Peruvian dauphinoise potatoes stuffed with Andean cheese with chicken curry on the side, seriously), drinking local drinks (visit the medicine women who boil up an array of Andean herbs and flowers which they claim will heal any ailment you have- delicious) and trying not to buy the “alpaca” clothing, which I failed miserably at.

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In the evening we were treated to the best sunset OF MY LIFE, I have been on the hunt for one that lights up the entire sky with a million colours, and this evening I found it, I was so happy I was reduced to tears, anyone who knows me knows that’s not a rare thing to happen, but it really was magical.

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After the sun went down we visited the local observatory in the nearby hotel Casa Andina. The hotel itself was beautiful, wood burning fireplaces everywhere with comfy sofas and attentive staff. We were early so treated ourselves to a delicious dinner by the fire (yes we’d only eaten in the market 3 hours earlier) where Mickaël tried alpaca steak and I had filet mignon with quinoa risotto. Both were heavenly and we felt very spoiled! The observatory was fine for 20 soles (£4), we had a look at the Milky Way and some star systems 17,000 light years away, but it would have been better on a clear night so we could see some planets or the moon. Overall it was a lovely evening.

Our hostel Rumi Wasi was cheap and cheerful, and they even organised for us to join one of those tours that left Arequipa at 3am at a leisurely 7.30- result! We visited the rest of the canyon villages and Cruz del Condor, the best place to view the canyon from and headed back to Arequipa. If I had my time again I would definitely spend more time in those pretty Andean villages. It’s funny, for a city girl I sure do love the small town  🙂

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The Galápagos Islands on a budget

 After much deliberation we decided to go to the Galápagos Islands for a week, and I’m so glad we did. The expense nearly put us off, but we figured we can make up for it another time, do it as cheaply as possible, and it’s the Galápagos for god’s sake! No way was I going to miss that! 

Costs

All in all we spent about $1000 (£600) each, which is cheap compared to doing a cruise. That includes flights from Guayaquil ($350 return), park entrance fees ($125), budget accommodation ($15 per night), ferries to and from Isabea island ($33 each way), 2 tours (1 snorkelling for $120, one cave canyoning $40) and 2 meals a day ($5 breakfast, $20 dinner). Luckily we’re not big drinkers or the cost would have been much higher! As you can see, things are expensive here and you pay a premium for being at a top tourist destination and so far from the mainland. This trip cost us what should have lasted roughly 17 days on our standard budget, so clearly we overspent. Was it worth it? Totally. 

Cruise or independent travel? 

  
We opted to do the trip ourselves instead of doing a cruise for many reasons. Both options appealed to us, but Mickaël didn’t fancy sleeping on a boat (at 6ft5 you can hardly blame him) and I didn’t fancy sticking to someone else’s rigid schedule for 5 days. It’s also a lot more expensive (Jodie opted for a cruise and spent roughly $800 more than us for a 1st class boat), but you do get food and daily activities included which you don’t get as much of if you’re doing it on a budget (Jodie said both were amazing!) With a cruise you get to go to islands that only allow cruise boats on them and are lush places to explore (namely Floreana and Española) but at least when you do it yourself you explore by yourselves and get whole beaches and magical moments all to yourself without a hoard of people around you all taking photos at the same time. Swings and roundabouts indeed. 

Where to go?

Opting to organise things when we got here meant an unavoidable headache for our first day trying to map out where to go and what do to. We based ourselves in Puerto Ayora having flown in to Baltra airport, this is the biggest town on the archipelago and supposedly the best place to arrange last minute cruises and day trips. Well certainly they can be organised here but don’t expect much from the sales people. It’s almost as if they don’t want your money, they seem so unbothered by your presence. We went to 10 different companies, only at the last one did someone say “welcome to the Galápagos, how can I help you?” Shocking. 

So the low down is that all places offer roughly the same options for cruises and day tours, at roughly the same prices. Maps like the one above will help you to decide which places you want to go to,here’s some top tips we picked up. 

1. Everything is much further apart than it looks, so be aware you can only hit one spot per day roughly. If doing day trips from Santa Cruz, both Isabela and San Cristobal require an overnight stay if you want to visit them.

2. There’s only 3 islands you can stay on; Santa Cruz which is very touristy with very little wildlife on its doorstep, San Cristobal which we didn’t visit but we hear is also very touristy and home to the sea lion colony, and Isabela which is the quieter chill out island with lots of wildlife around to see for free. 

3. Some of the best islands for wildlife only allow cruise ships to visit to limit numbers, or are too far away to reach on a day trip from one of the inhabited islands. These include Floreana, Española, Darwin, Wolf and others north of the equator. So if you opt for not doing a cruise you will not be able to see whales or albatross’, but most other wildlife can be seen at other islands. 

4. Cruises do not leave every day to the places you may want to go. For example Jodie wanted a trip that covered Floreana and Española, but they mostly leave on a Friday and we were looking on a Sunday. She was very lucky that one of the boats came back around to Puerto Ayora to pick up 2 passengers and she got a last second place, and had to leave straight away! Spontaneous to the core 🙂 

5. Many books and travellers say that if you go to the islands in low season and book day trips and cruises last minute, you can haggle and get 50% off the original price. This is not true at all. We made friends with a couple of tour operators, one who sells tours in Quito and one who sells tours on Santa Cruz. Buying a last minute cruise will drop a couple of hundred off the price at most but it’s risky as you may not get what you want. You also have to pay an extra 22% tax (which may be included in the price they quote but ultimately drives it up) and 10% extra if you pay on card. Last minute day tours are always booked on the islands and they quote a lower price in low season, $5-20 less than in high season. I like to think I’m a pretty good bargainer but even I could only get $5 off the $125 price tag for a day trip to Pinzon. Other people on that boat paid $135 for the same trip so I think we did pretty well. 

6. Ferries between islands are expensive and do not actually resemble ferries in any way. $33 one way (that included the extra you have to give the porters that take you in small boats to the slightly bigger non-ferry) and it’s really not worth that amount. It’s a tiny speed boat that holds 22 people. Most of whom will spend the 2 hour journey being sick into plastic bags. The sea is roughy, the boat is unforgiving. On our return trip the boat actually broke down in the middle of the sea, it couldn’t be fixed so went at half speed for ages, then we got transferred onto another boat. For this reason I’m really glad we only chose to go to one other island! 

   
 7. ATMs are not reliable here, and they charge up to $6 for withdrawals of maximum $200. The middle ATM in Puerto Ayora by the supermarket is the cheapest. Bring as much cash as possible from the mainland. Isabela has no ATMs so make sure you get cash out well advance of your ferry or you’ll be clucking about like me as it’s about to leave getting cash out from any card that’ll work, having tried several times at several ATMs with no avail. STRESS.  

Our Galápagos adventure

So after a day of exploring all the options available with the tour companies, we decided to book 1 snorkelling trip from Santa Cruz that was said to be the best for seeing a range of wildlife (Pinzon) and then moved over to Isabela Island for the rest of the trip. We chose Isabela because it’s chilled and you can do a lot of stuff there for free and some great paid tours too. We opted out of San Cristobal as it would have been too much to do all 3 islands in just 7 days, and we heard that it’s very touristy there. We would have liked to see the sea lion colony and frigate birds, but we saw plenty of sea lions on Isabela and flamingoes too. There are some great snorkelling spots over there like kicker rock and devils crown which we probably would have done as a day trip from Santa Cruz if we’d had more time and money, but actually the boats between islands are choppy and treacherous so perhaps we wouldn’t have… All in all I’m happy with our choices and we had a wonderful time. 

Pinzon

This trip was great because we had 4 snorkel sites and saw so much wildlife. Mickaël and I were swimming with sea lions as they played and mimicked our twists me turns, it was adorable. We saw scores of sharks sleeping on the coral, although I had been told they were vegetarian reef sharks I still bolted when they woke up and started swimming toward me… The turtles are much more friendly and chilled out, it’s so hypnotic floating above them and watching them eat and swim without a care in the world. The fish were countless in their colours and numbers, they dart about you in an under the coral, it’s mesmerising. From the moment we jumped in the water it was like being a different world, we could see exactly why people come here and say it’s the best wildlife watching in the world. 
Isabela

    
This might be my favourite island in the world, and I’ve seen a lot. Gill Air in Indonesia was at number one, but there were no penguins to greet me there! That’s right, we pulled in in the boat and immediately got to watch penguins feeding and playing in the water, closely followed by their sea lion friends. As we walked to our taxi we found that our route was blocked by a dozen marine iguanas dozing in the sun. Loved it. As far as greetings go, this has got to be the best I’ve ever received! 
We went to stay at Janet homestay as this is where our new friends from the boat were staying, but at $46 per night for the room, it was slightly out of budget. We tried to haggle as was suggested by the guide book in low season, but she was having none of it. She was a lovely woman though, and guided us to the place next door where a very friendly Ulise shook our hands and showed us to his $30 a night room, similar in every way apart from the most crucial, no air conditioning. Luckily it wasn’t too hot or I’d have been kicking up a fuss…  
We headed out to find out what do on this lovely island, it’s not difficult to navigate as there’s only one main “high street” to wander down. We bumped into Alfredo, a very friendly Galápagos guide who talked us through all the best things to do and see, and eat! We went for his favourite dish at his favourite restaurant (the very first place on the high street), bolon con heuvos (ball of fried plantain and cheese with eggs) and it was delicious! 

  
After breakfast we went for a walk through the flamingo ponds up to the tortoise sanctuary. It was a beautiful walk through a magical lava forest where you can actually see the cooled molten lava and how it spilled over the land thousands of years ago. The flamingoes were every bit as elegant as I imagined, as were the tortoises. One of them came to make friends with me and let me stroke him too! 

      
The next day I got sick with a stomach bug AGAIN, so couldn’t do anything at all. Gutted. We planned a snorkel trip to Los Tuneles for the following day, Mickaël’s birthday, but decided to cancel as we weren’t sure I’d be up to it. Luckily I was feeling better on Thursday so we did some of the free activities on the island. We headed up to Concha Perla in the morning which is the bay just past the harbour. It’s a lagoon you can snorkel in without a tour which means just $5 for the equipment (there’s a shop right by the harbour). It’s pretty cloudy water compared to when you go out to sea, but the water was warm, we saw some nice fish and the highlight was swimming with lots of marine iguanas and a turtle. 
In the afternoon we hired bikes and managed to haggle $3 an hour down to $25 for the day for 2 bikes. We headed straight out on the main route that goes past the vast, beautiful beach of Isabela and onto some of the other smaller beaches (best visited at low tide or you can’t sit down). The route takes you through some arid lava-scape and onto the land of the tortoises up into the hills. The route itself isn’t too difficult, which means very easy for normal people… It was really the best bike ride I’ve ever been on, such surreal landscape and tortoises everywhere munching on cactus! We stopped a the last viewpoint which gives a beautiful view over the island, all in all a great day. We topped it off with a fancy birthday meal at the overpriced hotel Iguana Crossing. It was a lush meal indeed and we felt very spoilt! 

  
On our last day we had clear skies in the morning so did some well deserved sun bathing on the beach. We couldn’t agree on what to do by way of tours; I wanted to go snorkelling at Los Tuneles but Mickaël wanted to do a 5 hour volcano hike… I was not so keen on that option. We compromised and went with our hostel owner on his tour of some caves. That was the extent of our knowledge of what the trip would entail. When we arrived in the middle of the dense jungle and got harnessed up, I started to panic. Then he explained to me in Spanish how to use the harness, I panicked more. I had no idea I would need this, at thought if I did I would be shown how to use it every step of the way. Eek. We walked up through the beautiful undulating hills and peered into a deep and wide volcano crater, covered in fern trees. Surreal. As we got closer we realised this was the cave we would be going into, and it looked like no easy feat. I must admit it was beautiful, but I had no idea how to tackle it. He explained to Mickaël in Spanish how we would be attached and go down backwards holding onto the rope ladder and a separate rope with our harness attached. 1 step down, then move the harness rope down, so on and so forthcoming. It was easy but terrifying because of the sheer drop and absolute randomness of the trip and the task. Once you get to the mouth of the cave, you transfer onto a separate steel ladder that goes straight down. I cried at the end of it in sheer panic of having to climb back up it again after a cave exploration. I must say though, I’m incredibly glad I did it. I faced a fear and did something way out of my comfort zone. And survived! 

    
The next day we headed back to Santa Cruz where we met Jodie and exchanged stories from the week. She had a wonderful time on the cruise, saw loads of animals and ate delicious food all week. She felt a bit tied down by the rigid schedule and the boat rocked so much some night she was clinging to her bed for dear life, but ultimately enjoyed it and said she was very glad she did it. I’m glad we did it our way too, I much prefer doing things on our own schedule. The only thing I would have changed would be to do more snorkelling, but you can’t do everything when you’re on a budget, and although we sacrificed this it means we will be able to do a trip on the Great Barrier Reef in January. It was an amazing trip and a definite highlight of our travels so far. 

Ecuador

What a surprise this country has been! I can’t believe we were actually considering bypassing it- we have so many countries in South America that we want to visit in only 4 months – but I’m very glad we didn’t. We couldn’t have really, international flights from Colombia to Peru average about £400pp. The easiest thing to do was to cross the border into Ecuador and see what happens. 
The border crossing was much easier than anticipated, for some reason this worried me (probably because I’m a worrier…) It’s just a matter of walking to the Colombian immigration office and getting an exit stamp, changing some money with one of the several men shouting “cambio!” “Change!” (If you get a fair exchange rate like we did), crossing a bridge and buying some tempting pineapple chunks on the way, and queueing up in Ecuador’s immigration office to get their seal of approval. Done!

Quito 

After a 6 hour bus journey to Quito, we arrived in darkness, yet again terrified by the stories of people waiting to kidnap you at any opportunity. We thought about getting the 25 cents bus into town but agreed this was probably too hardcore considering we didn’t know exactly where we were going. $10 taxi it is! And of course the taxi driver was lovely and made great effort to warn us of the dangers of getting in fake cabs, and how to spot them. 

  
We stayed at Community Hostel which is in the historic centre and had the best ratings on Hostel World. It’s easy to see why. From the minute you enter the building their relaxed, homely vibe washes over you. You’re given a tour by a very fast talking American and shown to the clean and comfortable room with huge beds. Marble floored bathrooms and huge inviting kitchens and common rooms make this a place you’ll never want to leave. Despite being uninspired by Quito itself, we stayed 5 days here (2 more than planned) purely because we felt so at home. There are some great things to do in Quito but chilling out and relaxing at this hostel is probably one of the best.

Some of our Quito highlights include the free walking tour, food tour, Guayasamin’s casa/museum and the journey to the middle of the world. You’d think we’d have got more done in 5 days, but seriously, chilling out at high altitude takes up more time than you think.

I recommend doing free walking tours in any city you can. Sure you can do it by yourself, but you don’t get the same sense of history and purpose that you do with an organised tour. The food tour (organised by the hostel and the only one in town!) was even more fascinating, because Ecuador has so many weird and wonderful dishes to try. Seco de Pollo was one of my favourites (basically a chicken stew with rice) and this was actually recommended by Natasshja. Another firm favourite was Lapingachos con Fritada, mash potatoes served with slow cooked pork, crackling and corn. Yummy! We also tried some cow placenta (caldo de 31) and tripe (tripa mishqui), let’s just say not everything tastes good just because it’s marinated in garlic. 

  
Guayasamin was a tortured soul like many artists and walking around his house definitely gives you a sense of this. The grounds are beautiful and huge, with some disturbing colonial art to whip past and some of his own pieces downstairs. It’s an interesting place to explore for an afternoon, and there’s some great street art to look at on the walk back down to town. We visited the botanical garden afterwards but it was pretty disappointing, perhaps check if you’re in the right season before you go so you don’t mistake it with a garden of death.

The journey to the middle of the earth was a surprise. We expected to go and see the equator line, do some experiments either side of the line and be done with it. That’s just half of the experience. We did the experiments and they were way more fun than we expected, most notably trying to balance an egg on the equator. Everyone had a go, most succeeded but I sadly didn’t. But I was determined. I went back for another go but got slightly too into it… And cracked the egg into its podium. Oops. Luckily they have spares…

  
The museum on the equator also included a hefty section about some of the Amazonian tribes of Ecuador. They have some pretty disturbing rituals, one of which includes shrinking the heads of their enemies with a magic potion. We saw one of the heads, it was pretty twisted. 

The Quilotoa Loop

After Quito, we parted ways with Jodie and Prisca (sniff sniff 😥 for a couple of days to visit the crate lake in Quilotoa. I found it quite difficult to disseminate all the information about it and figure out the best way to do it, and I’m not sure we found the most time efficient way but we still had a great time. There’s several towns you can stay in, including Quilotoa itself which is right up at the edge of a huge volcano crater with a lagoon inside it. It’s the centre piece of the area and absolutely breath taking. You can hike around the crater in about 4-6 hours, or walk down the lake and back up again which is the trip we opted for. The walk down was fine but I was dreading the way back, insisting I would get a donkey to carry me for $10. However somewhere along the way I picked up some determination to do it by myself, stuck some music on, took my time and voila! 

  
We knew that the only bus back to the town we were staying in, Chugchilan, was at 3pm and it was only 1, so we sat by the side of the road and waited for any car going in our direction to pass by and hopefully give us a ride. Half an hour later and the first car let us jump in the back! In exchange for speaking English with their teenage daughter of course. Bargain! Her mother even gave us some organs to munch on. We thoroughly enjoyed our ride with the very well spoken Stefie, and arrived at the Cloud Forest Hostel feeling like true adventurers. That is, until 5pm when a group of lads arrived who had walked all the way from Quilotoa through a canyon for 4 hours. They deserved the 3 course dinner much more than we did. Some people come here with just a small backpack and hike from village to village over the course of 4-5 days, hardcore! We were happy just doing a bit, but I would have quite happily spend more time here exploring, it’s a truly beautiful region. 

Transport is a bit of a nightmare, the buses from Chugchilan back to Latacunga are at 3.45am and 6am. WHHHYYY??!! I don’t know. But we were very happy to be offered a ride from our hostel owner at 6.30am, complete with a packed breakfast from his wife. So sweet! He dropped us off in the middle of a motorway which apparently serves as a bus stop, because there’s plenty of people there waiting for a bus plus a very friendly woman selling hot drinks! 

Baños

We decided we should head to Baños as so many people said it was their favourite place in Ecuador. It’s famed for it’s extreme sports and beautiful waterfalls, in addition to the thermal baths that give it a name more commonly translated as “bathroom”. 

We were apprehensive as when somewhere is so popular and hyped up, it usually tends to be too touristy for our liking. We were proved right this time sadly! It was great to be reunited with Jodie and Prisca again, and we indulged in some fun activities so it wasn’t a total bust, but unfortunately our hostel owners were very rude and that always perplexes me. Why would you work in the service industry if you hate dealing with people?

We were feeling quite lazy when we arrived in Baños and only made it as far as the Arte Cafe, a brilliant and tasty cafe so waste an afternoon in. Proper French crepes and a coffee tasting menu makes this one if the best cafes I’ve been to in South America. The staff are pretty indifferent to their customers. But that seems to be a theme in be is so don’t be surprised. After a while morning of being lazy some people came from our hostel and we started chatting about what we’d been up to. Whilst I’d been gorging on cappuccino and crepes they’d been canyoning, and were renting quad bikes in the afternoon. Needless to say we started to feel kind of lazy, so we peeled ourselves out of the hammocks and headed over to GeoTours to do something productive with our afternoon. 

We flicked through the brochure and settled on rock climbing. The girl seemed a bit shocked that we made the decision so quickly, considering we’d never done it before but signed us up to leave in 10 minutes anyway. As we were waiting we started to get the feeling we’d been a bit impulsive. I’m pretty sure rock climbing requires some sort of body strength which I definitely don’t have… Luckily we were bought more time as it turned out it wouldn’t be possible to go that afternoon. She suggested zip lining instead which we jumped at, who wouldn’t for $20?! We headed straight out for the mountains for a magical afternoon of speeding through the jungle and through the valleys on a metal wire. It’s a exhilarating activity which allows you to soak up the breathtaking scenery with a rush in your belly, we all loved every minute! 

  
 
 
The next day we decided to go ahead with the rock climbing, despite the fact I was feeling really sick with a cold and fever. I tried to get out of it but left it too later, and didn’t want to waste the money. We went to the site which was a massive cliff of basalt- jet black, slippery and unforgiving rock to climb on for the first time! Despite feeling sick I volunteered to go first, I think watching everyone else doing it would have freaked me out. Although the guide goes first to show you where to put your feet and hands, he moves like a friggin ninja and I lost track after the third move. Near the bottom of the rock they shout directions at you, but once your half way up their voices are drowned out by the river underneath, and you’re on your own. My legs were shaking so much as I struggled to cling to the rock face, my sweaty fingers couldn’t find anywhere to grip onto. I was terrified. I thought many times about giving up, but was so full of adrenaline and determination that I persevered. And I made it to the top! I was so proud, well actually I was just glad to be alive (dramatic as always). I assumed we would wait for everyone else to come up, but it turned out I needed to abseil down so the next person could go. Despite the fact no one had shown me how to do that. I refused to move of course. Luckily another guy was doing the harder climb next to me, so I waiting for him to direct me, and it was thrilling jumping down, I could have done it a million times! Sadly I never made it up again, I used up all my strength on the first go. I think I’d definitely like to make it a hobby though, and have another go somewhere else on our travels. 

   
 Alausi 

We had a few days spare between Baños and getting to Guayaquil for the Galápagos trip, and asked Marco from the Community Hostel in Quito to suggest something for us. He happens to be building a new hostel in Alausi, and suggested we go there every though it’s not ready yet. He said it was just a quiet little indigenous town so might be a little quiet for us, little did he know that’s exactly what we wanted! His dad lives there and could show us around. We eagerly agreed and headed straight over as soon as we could. 

Marco’s dad, also named Marco, met us at the train station and showed us to his home. They’re building a beautiful looking hostel there but it won’t be ready until March. He showed us to some rooms in the original house, and we immediately felt like we were at home. Family pictures everywhere, quirky antiques and comfortable beds! We headed out for some Chinese food, but stopped by the empanadas stand first for a starter. Delicious! 

The next day Marco offered to take us to see Ozogoche Lagoon in Sangay National Park, after taking Jodie to the hospital to attend to her inflamed toe… They gave her some painkillers and told us to return after our trip to remove the toenail. Yikes!

   
 We went on a breathtaking drive through the Andes, past hundreds of indigenous families walking through the fields or washing their clothes, tending to the animals and waving at us as we pass. It truly was like entering a different world. What made it even better was Marco stopping everywhere to say hello to the people, to offer them fruit or a ride. He’s the kindest man we’ve met in a long time, and it’s so nice to be reminded of the intrinsic goodness that exists in some people. 

  
We made it down to the lakes and had a walk around the breathtaking scenery, and headed back to town for a hearty chicken meal. We were all craving a rotisserie chicken, but weren’t quite prepared for the soup starter with chicken feet floating in it! 
I think this was probably our favourite place in the whole of Ecuador, because we had great company, great food, beautiful scenery and a home away from home for a few days. We like Ecuador a lot but unfortunately not everyone is as friend is Marco and Marco junior. We were faced with a lot of people how clearly don’t like tourists, despite the fact we always speak Spanish to them and try hard to be respectful. We experienced a lot of incidents that made us feel uncomfortable or unwanted, which is such a shame for a country that is bursting with tourism opportunities. Despite this we still enjoyed our stay because there were lots of people that went out of their way to be hospitable, and it’s hard to be disappointed waking up to new and exciting experiences every day with the person you love. 

Salento and the Valle de Cocora

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In between Medellin and Cali we visited the small mountain town of Salento. This would be our first taste of the Andes, and I was keen to indulge in as many activities as possible, considering most of our time so far had been spent relaxing, reading and generally floating about.

After a windy 6 hour mini van ride to Armenia, followed by a 45 minute collectivo to Salento, we arrived at a full hostel. I was disappointed not to get our first choice (a dairy farm with impeccable views), but I think we had a lucky escape as it seems all the teenage backpackers head there. We were pointed in the direction of La Floresta, where we were greeted warmly by two young girls and shown to the dorm – no privates available this late in the day! Luckily we were sharing with a nice couple and two girls, the latter of which would become our travel buddies for the foreseeable future (3 weeks and counting!) The hostel was filled with travellers around our age chilling out in hammocks every evening, just my cup of tea.

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On our first morning we met a lovely English girl called Jo who invited us to brunch at… Brunch! You must make sure to go here if you visit Salento. Chocolate and peanut butter brownies, berry milkshakes, blueberry and granola waffles, freshly baked bread, I  was in heaven! Our friend Sam opted for BBQ ribs and an ice cream sundae. Those of you who know me will know this made him fast friend of mine.

There are plenty of activities to do in Salento, we opted for a coffee tour and hiking in the famous Valle de Cocora. Horse riding was also an option we saved for the last day, unfortunately I came down with another stomach bug with a fever so severe and sudden I was convinced I had malaria. God damn those similar symptoms.

The coffee plantation tour at Don Luis’ place is the highly recommended one, and it was certainly informative, if not a little dry. I did enjoy learning about one of my favourite drinks, and even getting to taste it at the end. I’ll leave the secrets for you to discover yourself, but my one tip is to only ever buy medium roasted coffee, that’s the one that comes from the perfectly round and ripe beans. High roasted coffee is blasted to mask the imperfect beans, and actually has no caffeine in it as a result of the process. The walk to the plantation is stunning, but go early if you want to walk back.

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The Valle de Cocora trek was the most beautiful and painful activity done so far. I think I read somewhere that it’s not too difficult, well I beg to differ. Perhaps if you’re quite fit, but clearly I’m not. I even gave up smoking, so foolishly thought things like this would be easier, but it just wasn’t true. I’m really hopeless at climbing mountains. Luckily I wasn’t alone, Jodi was feeling as desperate and pathetic as me so we struggled on together. That being said, we managed it, and only 10 minutes behind the group, with Mickaël pushing me (physically and emotionally) to the summit.

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We trekked 2 hours uphill following a river, crossing it on precarious looking bridges and dipping into waterfalls where possible. The air was cool and the incline bearable. We made it up to a hummingbird sanctuary nestled into one of the valley peaks, that climb was definitely tougher but we were rewarded with hundreds of hummingbirds buzzing around our heads and South American anteaters pawing us to say hello. I caught my breath and indulged in the local speciality of honey tea with dipping cheese. Yes that’s right, you dip your cheese into your tea. Great stuff.

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***Valley tip*** after the summing bird sanctuary climb back down and take not the first, not the second but the THIRD right to continue your trek. The second right will take you 2.5 hours up the wrong mountain. Luckily I found that out the easy way, from our friend Christian who led the group having done the trek 3 days before.

Another hour uphill and we were at the summit, greeted by a beautiful garden overlooking the jagged peaks of Cocora. From then on it was a lovely downhill stroll, so I was a happy bunny. From here we marvelled at the wax palm trees, a species of palm native to this particular valley, the only place in the world where they grow naturally. We basked in the glory of our hike and enjoyed the casual stroll downhill. When we got back to town, my legs were like jelly and my chest hurt, but I felt very proud of what I had accomplished. So I celebrated with lasagne AND pizza!!

Colombia’s cities

When I thought about going travelling to South America, I have to admit that I was least excited about the cities. I love European cities but when I went travelling around South East Asia, the cities were dirty, polluted necessities to endure en route to the more beautiful beaches and rain forests. I assumed South America would be much the same. In a lot of ways, I was wrong. As it turns out the cities in Colombia are very different from each other, they all have something slightly different to offer (climate being one of the most obvious) but they all tell the country’s story in their own way, and what a story it is.

I’m pretty sure that when I told my family I was going traveling, it was Colombia they were most worried about. Me too, I suppose. The whole of South America scared me in a way I couldn’t understand; so many friends had been there and loved it and encountered minimal trouble, but it was “the unknown” to me. It was just another country torn apart by corruption, guns and gangs, not to mention that the most infamous drug cartel in the world once operated here. It is the cities of Colombia that tell the story of recovery, where the wounds are still deep in many places but the scars have healed in others. Yes, I came here for the awe inspiring nature but to truly understand a country I really feel you have to get to know their cities, so that’s exactly what we did.

Bogota

This may not be the best example to start with, but it’s where our journey in South America began and therefore seems logical. Perhaps it’s actually quite fitting, considering the terror I expected from Colombia, and the immediate terror I felt the moment we stepped outside our hotel.

It was a Thursday evening, about 10pm. We were cold, tired and hungry and decided to go our hunting for food. It seemed fair to assume there would be something open considering we were in the city centre, but in our street, it was like the apocalypse had struck. There was no one around, except for the junkie melting crack on a spoon in the corner. We walked swiftly past. Shortly afterwards sirens surrounded us. A police convoy blocked off the road perpendicular to ours to let through a stream of fancy cars with blackened windows. A few steps later and we were outside the centre for agriculture where a huge protest seemed to be taking place in a piss ridden square. It was at this moment we stood frozen to the spot, wondering whether we should turn back. Culture shock doesn’t even begging to cover it. Nevertheless we carried on, found a dodgy looking Mexican fast food place to eat at (yes we’d just landed from Mexico…) wolfed it down and hurried home. Bogota didn’t stand a chance after that ordeal.

The next day we did some sight seeing, which doesn’t take long in this city. The gold museum was interesting, the funicular up Montserrat was a beautiful view, but that just about covers it in my opinion.

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The view from Montserrat

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Corn on the cob – a definite highlight although it tastes NOTHING like the corn in England. This is more like tasteless popcorn…
On Saturday evening we wandered through Calle 7 which was an event in itself. Crowds of people watching old Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson videos, clowns, magicians, but the transvestite miming power ballads took the biscuit for sure. We treated ourselves to a fancy meal that evening which was most definitely the highlight, a massive steak at T-Bone in the Candelaria.

All in all I wasn’t a fan of Bogota, and having travelled through most of Colombia now I don’t think it’s representative of the country. It’s not a welcoming city that invites you in and beckons you to look around the corner to see what might be happening, as the other cities do. Instead the tramp pis sing on the rubbish mounds tells you definitely don’t turn that corner. In an attempt to remain objective, I do think we were unlucky. I’ve met people since who love the place, but it just didn’t do it for me.

Medellin
Medellin was an entirely different kettle of fish. After 15 hours on a bus through the mountains I was tired and cranky. We were held up in traffic on the mountain roads for an hour and it seemed very suspicious, I was sure it must be guerrillas or some other terrifying crisis. Obviously not. I was sure after that, that the taxi driver would kidnap us, obviously not. My fears were totally unfounded. In the 4 days spent here I grew to love this city, so much so that I would seriously consider living here (sorry mum). The weather is spring-like all year round, the people are so friendly and excited that tourists are finally visiting their beloved city, and there’s some really beautiful spots to be found.

On our first night we stayed in El Poblado which is the backpacker area, and I was gutted to find out there didn’t have space for our second night. Begrudgingly we moved to another hostel in Laureles which actually turned out to be a much nicer place to stay. Not touristy at all, more of a busy middle class suburb. Unless you like being surrounded by backpackers, this is the place I would recommend. We found a delicious Arabic restaurant (I finally got to satisfy my shawarma and humous craving!) and in the evening took a stroll down avenue 33, a street filled with bars and clubs blaring out salsa music. We took our pick and enjoyed cocktails and local prices. They even had an urban picnic installation full of food vans from different countries, I finally ate an arepa that matched the quality of Natasshja’s! Venezuelan is the way to go, clearly. In comparison, El Poblado felt very manufactured for tourists, with cocktails twice the price and a beer house serving Stella and Amstel. I didn’t like it, it did however have a great Italian restaurant, Il Forno, where I indulged in both carbonara AND lasagna.

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the amazing arepa!
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You’re wondering where the Colombian cuisine comes into it? Well it never seemed that appealing to me to be honest. Until I had a Perro Caliente, the Colombian hot dog. This is no ordinary hot dog. I comes with bacon, melted cheese, lettuce, 3 sauces and crispy fried onions. Heaven. For the best one head to the planetarium and look for Diego, on the main road furthest from the botanical garden. He’s worth looking for. Junk food at its absolute best, and served by a slightly crazy but very friendly Colombian and his wife.

Perro caliente!!!
Perro caliente!!!
I attended my first Couchsurfing event in Medellin which was a very positive experience. I had only used it as a place to find couches to sleep on in the past, but thought an event might be a nice way to meet people. We went to a “language exchange” event in the botanical gardens which consisted of sitting in a circle with a mixture of Colombians and foreigners playing games like charades. I didn’t learn much language but the Colombians got a chance to practise their English, which I think was the main point actually. After a walk around in the evening the group of 30 became 6, we all got on very well and decided to go out. They insisted on taking us to a salsa club, but it didn’t quite work out like that. A lot of the places on avenue 70 were too expensive for them, so we ended up buying two bottles of Casillero Del Diablo (yes, the exact same wine I love in the UK!) and heading to the nearest park. I admit this made me nervous, no gringo in their right mind hangs out in a park after dark in Medellin, right? Well we were with the locals so we just went with it. It turned out to be a lot of fun. They taught us how to salsa, in exchange I taught them how to rave to drum and bass. Not exactly a fair trade, but a fun one.

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We also did our first walking tour in Medellin, and I’m pleased to say I’m now a total convert. It’s a free tour based entirely on tips, and our guide Juliana deserved a hefty one. She taught us all about Colombia from a Colombian’s perspective, and it’s no easy story to tell. Never mind Pablo Escobar, the civil war between the various extreme left groups, far right paramilitary groups and the government will have your head spinning as you try to understand the pain they cause the civilians of the country. It’s too complex to go into here, but suffice to say it’s important to understand Colombians history in order to understand why they are so proud and welcoming now. Our tour guide likened it to a country that’s been stuck in quick sand, sinking deeper and deeper with no way out, no hope, no control. Finally they’ve grabbed onto a branch and managed somehow to pull themselves out of the quicksand and into safety. They feel nothing but relief and happiness to be alive. That feeling is what the Colombians show the tourists, I believe it’s what they feel inside too. I can’t image how it would feel to live in fear of your life, let alone to finally feel free of that fear. But I know that despite the fact gag the civil war is far from over, Colombia is a safer place now and the people can’t wait to show you how wonderful their country is.

Once one of Medellin's most dangerous spots, now full of LED lights that make the square glow with positivity. One of the many great initiatives they've had - using architecture to transform unsafe parts of town.
Once one of Medellin’s most dangerous spots, now full of LED lights that make the square glow with positivity. One of the many great initiatives they’ve had – using architecture to transform unsafe parts of town.
Cali

We came here after 4 days in the quiet mountain town of Salento, with a group of friends we made there. We were lucky enough to meet a great bunch from all over the world; Jodie and Jo from England, Priska from Switzerland, Christian from the Netherlands and Sam from Australia. However sharing a dorm with them was probably too optimistic. Not because of them, but because of the reality of sharing a single bed with a 6ft5 boyfriend. It was the first and probably last dorm of the trip! Cali is he city of salsa, so of course we got dressed up on Saturday night ready to dance our socks off. I wish I could say that’s what happened. I’m very ashamed to say that after a giant bowl of pasta at Rustica, San Antonio and a couple of drinks, I was ready for bed. We ordered 2 cocktails each, I didn’t make it through one. To be fair I had yet another stomach bug, but still. I’m sorry Cali, I didn’t do you justice. You deserved better. But it’s time for me to accept that I’m not the party girl anymore, I’ve overdone it. I’m really happy with the odd drink, a nice meal and an early bed time. If you’re in that category too, I would probably avoid the Colombian cities on the weekends, they’ll just make you feel old.

Before the dancing ordeal we did stumble upon a free festival on Saturday which was sublime, lots of handmade crafts, some fantastic Colombian music, dancing and great homemade food. I had the best empanadas of my life, they tasted just like samosas! It backs up my theory that you just need to eat everything at every opportunity, because you never know when it might be your best ever experience.