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Peruvian delights – Paracas, Huacachina and Cusco

Salkantay mountain, Peru

Salkantay mountain, Peru

To put it in one word, Peru so far has been amazing. From floating along the stunning Lake Titicaca to embarking on a five day trek to Machu Picchu, from discovering the hidden gems of Cusco to exploring the arid desert-scapes, I’ve had a brilliant time and learnt a whole lot about the country’s fascinating history.

Today was a highlight – a new-found friend and I cycled through the National Reserve of Paracas, a chilled-out beachy town where I´m currently sitting, and (once again) found ourselves properly lost. Thankfully some sort of security guard speeding through on a motorbike stumbled upon our confused selves, laughed in our faces and told us we’d gone about 10km too far. Essentially we were headed for the middle of an open, empty, sand-dune dotted desert with absolutely no-one else around and nothing but a swig of water/half-eaten muesli bar left to our names – pretty good job Mr knight-in-shining-armour arrived when he did.

Empty road... Paracas Reserve

Empty road… Paracas Reserve

The reserve itself was beautiful – think miles of golden sloping desert, craggy coastlines with rough-and-ready seas and hardly any sign of life in sight apart from our own gleaming selves. Paracas as a town is small, quaint and traditionally beachy town with a row of inviting fish restaurants serving ceviche – raw fish in lime juice – and other local dishes, alongside a peaceful strip of sandy beach and a beautiful sunset by night. The Ballestas Islands – aka the ‘poor man´s Galapagos’, dotted with seals and penguins (although *warning*, named the poor man´s version for a reason) – are just a boat-hop away. I came here from Huacachina, a tiny place a few kilometres away from the city of Ica with a beautiful oasis in the desert, where sand-buggying down the steep dunes and praying for one´s life is the main attraction – and one that´s definitely worth it.

Huacachina

Huacachina

A few days relaxing in the Peruvian desert was in call after several days spent exploring the streets and clubs of the bustling, tourist-ready city of Cusco. I did a chocolate workshop at the ChocoMuseo, a heavenly cafe/shop just off the Main Square (Plaza de Armas) which offers free tours and tasters for the cocoa-obsessed. Cusco is a foodie heaven for anyone – Aji de Gallina, a curry-type chicken dish prepared with peanuts, spices and bready sauce – was a personal favourite.

Anyone for guinea pig? Cusco market

Anyone for guinea pig? Cusco market

Every corner and alleyway in the city offers something different and after a few days wandering the cobbled, historic streets I still hadn´t seen everything it had to offer, though I´d definitely recommend a climb up to Cusco´s version of Christ the Redeemer – Cristo Blanco – which offers stunning views over the whole city.

Plaza de Amas, Cusco

Plaza de Amas, Cusco

Outside of Cusco it got even better – I decided on a whim to embark on the five-day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, supposedly one of the harder routes, and found myself camping in sub-zero temperatures, trekking over 70km and dangling off a zip-line (/screaming for my life) 300m above the jungle. More on that in the next post – stay tuned…

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

In and around Argentina

Coloured rocks in Purmamarca

Coloured rocks in Purmamarca

Getting out into nature and the wilderness has been the best part of my trip so far, and it all started in Argentina when I left Buenos Aires for Iguazu, reputed as one of the most spectacular waterfalls on the planet – and for good reason. Nothing had quite prepared me for the sheer expanse of the falls and the incredible power of the water plumetting down them. While the Brazilian side gave a stunning panoramic view, it was the Argentine side that impressed the most, with the final viewpoint at the Devil’s Throat literally almost taking my breath away – even while it was chucking it down with rain (GB-style).

Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Iguazu Falls, Brazil

From Puerto Iguazu I ventured to Cuidad del Este in Paraguay – full of dusty roads, cheap-looking electrical stores and dodgy characters – where I got chatted up by a 60-year-old Brazilian man who paid for my bus ticket, bought me a bottle of water and asked if I wanted to go for lunch. Who said romance was dead?

Next stop from Iguazu was Salta in the north of Argentina, a pleasant colonial city with a beautiful viewpoint (with a cable car for the less actively-inclined), a market devoted entirely to empanadas (a pasty-type affair that seems to be the South American snack of choice), and an archeological museum housing Inca child sacrifices frozen from hundreds of years ago and displayed behind glass – as disturbing and odd as it sounds.

Other than that Salta didn’t offer all that much in the way of attractions, but it was the surrounding area I fell in love with – including Cachi, a traditional, pretty mountain village a few hours south of the city and Humahuaca, a slightly larger town with a quaint plaza at its heart and a friendly, everyone-knows-everyone feel. From there I took a fairly treacherous three-hour bus ride along bumpy, about-to-fall-off-the-edge mountain roads to Iruya, a tiny village set among stunning mountain vistas with a population of just 1,000 that, happily, seems to have been left off the beaten gringo track.

Village of San Isidro

Village of San Isidro

The next village along, San Isidro – accessible by a 16km round trip trek wading through streams – was even more remote – and yet more beautiful. After that I found myself in Purmamarca, home to the infamous seven-coloured rock, also well worth a visit. From there I moved onto San Pedro de Atacama in the north of Chile – after a fairly perilous border crossing at 5,000m (with a fair few on my bus needing oxygen hits…) we made it to the quaint little town where tourist shops and good restaurants/bars line the streets. I’d especially recommend Barro’s, which serves great (and cheap) food with a good atmosphere and live music at the weekend.

From there we booked the Piedras Rojos (Red Rocks) tour and found ourselves amid stunning, brightly coloured lagoons and an expanse of dry, rocky desert – unfortunately it was about zero degrees and we were wearing shorts and flip flops (not an entirely illogical clothing choice given we were in the desert, but it turns out altitude means cold…). We hired bikes to explore the Moon Valley and its unique, crater-like formations, and took another tour up to the impressive geysers, where jets of steam pump out from the volcanic ground (though seemingly fail to create sufficient heat – it was still minus 10 degrees…)

Quebrada del Diablo, San Pedro de Atacama

Quebrada del Diablo, San Pedro de Atacama

All in all the desert was stunning (though more dry rocky-type landscapes than the sand I’d pictured), as was the north of Argentina, and I left both with an element of regret – and excitement for what was to come. More on that on the next post – for now the intermittent wifi seems to be on its last legs. Adios amigos.

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Bolivian adventures

Laguna near Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

Laguna near Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

My Amazonian adventures (see post below) are the icing on the cake to what’s been a pretty memorable few weeks. Among the most notable experiences was a fairly gruelling 50km bikeride up and down the green, stunning hills surrounding Sucre, Bolivia’s official capital – where we got royally lost in the middle of nowhere and found ourselves getting chased by frankly terrifying dogs. Despite the odd near-death moment (and serious saddle pains for the following week), it was an epic trip over to and around Yotala, a quaint village a drive away from the city where we got burgers for 3 bolivianos (less than 30p) – and well worth a visit for anyone budding to get off the beaten gringo track.

Sucre itself – aptly nicknamed ‘white city’ for its rows of blanco buildings which tell of its colonial history – was a pleasant place with a town-like, almost Mediterranean, feel. That was especially true at the Mirador, a cocktail bar/cafe surrounded by palm trees with stunning views over the whole city.

View from the Mirador, Sucre

View from the Mirador, Sucre

I brushed up on my Spanish with some private lessons and explored cultural gems like the Casa del Libertad and the Central Mercado – a market showing off delicacies like furry cow heads and tails, an experience I’d rather not repeat any time soon. The combined wafts of raw meat and fruit smoothies certainly awoke the senses, and it’s the place to head for street food-type comida. I also visited some beautiful waterfalls nearby – not quite Iguazu but worth the trek for the peaceful scenery in the surrounding area – and witnessed the ‘world’s longest trail of dinosaur footprints’ at Parque Cretácio.

Prior to Sucre I checked out Potosí, once the wealthiest city in South America for its silver mines. Zinc mining is now the base of its economy, and a tour 40m down one of them was an experience I won’t be forgetting any time soon (for claustrophobes and the vertigo-prone it’s a worst nightmare come true – think several ladders and lots of crawling). Tradition has you buy the miners gifts – including 96 percent alcohol, which literally left my tongue burnt for days after attempting a tenth of a sip. Somehow the tour guide managed to swig away merrily as if it were a glass of chilled milk.

La Paz, where I’m sitting as I type now, is a pretty stark contrast to both of those – and it’s a lot more like the Bolivia I’d imagined, with a grittier feel, a louder voice, and a more hectic, lively atmosphere. Its steep hills are dotted with endless rows of outdoor market stands and street food stalls – mainly selling fried chicken, hamburguesas and traditional rice dishes/soups – which seem at odds with the peaceful, misty, snow-capped mountain peaks and weirdly jagged rocks among which it’s set. People seem to either love or hate the place, and I’m somewhere in the middle. My main complaint is that it’s bloody cold at night – not surprising since it’s the highest capital in the world, at over 3500m above sea level.

Highest capital in the world... La Paz

Highest capital in the world… La Paz

That brings me onto the world-famous salt flats of Uyuni in the south of Bolivia, which – aside from almost freezing to death in a ‘salt hostel’, where everything from the bed base to the floor was literally made of salt – was an amazing experience. We spent three days exploring the area in a 4-wheel drive, admiring brightly coloured, flamingo-dotted blue and red lagoons, swimming in steaming hot springs, and, eventually, watching sunrise over the huge expanse of snowy-white salt flats. We then spent a good few hours taking odd, optical-illusion type pictures that for some reason just seems to be a thing there (see below…)

Fighting dinosaurs at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Fighting dinosaurs at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

It really was as spectacular as everyone makes out, and it’s apparently even better earlier in the year when the flats are covered in water and swathes of light bounce off it in perfect reflections – another trip awaits. That’s as far as my Bolivia trip has taken me so far – next stop is Copacabana on Lake Titicaca and after that it’s Peru time, where more adventure and intriguing Inca history awaits – stay tuned for updates.

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Biking Death Road to boating along the Amazon

Sunrise over the Amazon

Sunrise over the Amazon

The past week has been one of the best and worst of my trip so far – it started with plummeting down Death Road, apparently the ‘world’s most dangerous’ street on a mountain bike (just outside La Paz), and ended with several trips to a hospital. You’d be forgiven for thinking there was a connection between the two. Surprisingly I actually managed to survive the former – and had an absolute blast bombing down the gravelly, one-wrong-turn-and-you’re-off-the-cliff path at around 40kmph – only to fall prey to a ‘parasite’ on a three day trip in the Amazon later on in the week.

Living on the edge - Death Road, Bolivia

Living on the edge – Death Road, Bolivia

So all in all it’s been a pretty eventful week, and aside from the dizzy spells, stomach pains and questionable hospitals, it’s been incredible. We flew to Rurrenabaque from La Paz – less than tempted by the bus that snakes its way down the incredibly narrow and not surprisingly accident-prone Death Road – and arrived in the backpacker hotspot of the Bolivian Amazonia on a bright, sunny and scorchingly humid Wednesday morning. Three slightly awkward hours squashed up against fellow passengers in a jeep later and we were drifting through the Amazon river in a tiny motorboat, coasting past caiman alligators, cute-faced yellow monkeys battling over bananas and pink dolphins darting elegantly in and out of the glistening water. It was pretty idyllic.

SAM_0502

As that would suggest the pampas region – largely flat wetland/grassland – was spectacular. After three days touring the local wildlife hotspots I’d held a wild boa constrictor (big achievement given the fact I’m terrified of the things), suffered a baby caiman being put on my shoulder in the middle of the night, and fished for piranhas that we were then served for dinner – certainly fresh. I can’t say I actually caught one myself despite spending about three hours trying, but it’s all about the team result, right?

Caiman just chillin' - right outside our lodge...

Caiman just chillin’ – right outside our lodge…

So the Amazon and Death Road are both on my list of travel highlights so far – and the Uyuni salt flats, south of Bolivia, are following closely behind. More on that in the next blog post when I catch up on all the other adventures I’ve been having over the past few weeks (dependent on finding a reliable internet connection in Bolivia, which is somehow proving a bigger challenge than Death Road…)

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Buenos Aires – or the ‘Paris of the South’

I´ve been in Buenos Aires for nearly three weeks now and finally feel like I´m starting to be a part of it – just as I get ready to end my Spanish course and wave goodbye to the bustling city that supposedly never sleeps.

It´s been a productive few weeks – I´ve become semi-competent in Spanish (managing to make it past the “my name is Laura and I like listen music” stage), checked out the local bars and boliches a respectable number of times and met my fair share of interesting characters – among the latter a Canadian who lived with inuits in the Arctic for a year and a South African-German who spent ten days not speaking in a medidation temple (and subsequently acting like the gap yah twat in The Inbetweeners 2 movie). Personally I´d rather not go insane and “see my soul shatter into pieces around me like tripping on DMT” in an attempt to “find myself”, but each to their own.

I´ve also galloped horseback through an Argentine ranch with a local gaucho, eaten the equivalent of several cows in steak and (gradually) got to grips with the slow pace of life that shows itself in everything from the average walking speed to the amount of time it seems to take to get a cup of tea in a caf (and this is the country´s most cosmopolitan of all).

But it´s a breath of fresh air for someone who´s used to charging through the City at 100mph and running for trains for the sake of saving a few seconds – and it´s been nice slowing things down a bit.

It´s also been great getting to know the local culture – and it hasn´t disappointed. From my experience Argentines are as a whole extremely warm, open and only too willing to help – pretty useful given my questionable map-reading skills and abnormally high frequency of general fails (which spiked at the start of my trip and usually involved embarassing clearly-a-tourist moments in various supermarkets/cafes/streets across the city).

The creative scene here is huge – perhaps unsurprising given the fact freedom of expression was pretty much shut down under the dictatorship just a few decades ago – and it´s at parque centenario, a huge green space filled with yogis, charango-players and jugglers, that I noticed it the most. Self-expression seems to be something important to almost every “porteno” I´ve met – some have been fairly vocative about their political views and the Plaza de Mayo near the government house sets the scene for a dozen protests in any one week (/day).

Meanwhile at the weekend almost every public space comes alive with some sort of music and it´s that outdoor culture I´ve come to love. On Mondays an impressive drum show called La Bomba de Tiempo takes over an artsy cultural centre – it´s a festival-type affair full of rusta-types and tourists and I´ve already been twice to throw some shapes.

La Bomba tells something of the diversity of the city – Recoleta and Palermo, well-to-do areas full of al-fresco diners and bourgeois brunches, wouldn´t look out of place in Paris. Centro/downtown combines yet more French-inspired architecture (such as the ornate opera house, Teatro Colon) with a slightly rougher-round-the-edges feel that extends into neighbourhoods like San Telmo (host to a huge market on Sundays) and La Boca, full of brightly-coloured buildings that whisper something of the South America I envisaged before coming over here. It´s also the source from which the tango sprung.

To stereotype, the culture here is generally a lot more sensual/warmer than back in old Blighty and the tango seems to embody the whole thing. Both men and women greet each other with kisses and there´s none of the awkard to hug-or-not-to-hug/how to shake a hand appropriately politics that exists in Inglaterra. Embracing it with a salsa class was comical and an experience I´d probably rather not repeat due to my questionable coordination skills, but it´s another cultural thing I – a girl who appreciates a bit of personal space every now and then – am gradually getting used to. Given I´ve got an 18 hour bus ride tomorrow that´s probably for the best.

Next stop is wonder-of-the-world Iguassu Falls – and if it´s anything like my experience here so far, I´ve got a feeling it won´t disappoint.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

The adventure begins… South America here I come!

So the time has come to set off for the delights of South America on a four-month adventure!! I’m about to leave the comforts of home and the beauties of good old Essex for the mysterious, Tango-loving, party-fuelled gaucho world of Argentina, and I’m certainly excited – but also a little nervous.

First stop is Buenos Aires, where I’ll be spending three weeks learning the local lingo – not speaking a word of Spanish it’ll be interesting to see how I get on, but anything beyond ‘Sangria/paella por favor’ would be a plus. And if all else fails, my trusty friend the phrase-book will be there to lend me a helping hand (provided I don’t lose it on the way – which would be totally out of character, of course).

Next stop will be… God knows, I’ll see how I get on. All I know is that Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador are all on the cards, and I’ll be blogging my way through the huge continent as I go, filling up long bus journeys with wonderful words for the perusal of your hopefully interested selves.

Currently I’m feeling a little daunted at the prospect of leaving behind the English-speaking world and everyone I know for several months… but I know it’ll be one hell of an adventure and I can’t wait.

So now I’m off for some long-haul flights, dodgy plane food and outdated films. And thus for now, adios amigos! BA here I come.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Why Christmas never really loses its magic…

Why Christmas never really loses its magic…

When we were a baby Christmas meant… well, not very much (to us, at least – to everyone around mercilessly subjected to our screams, it meant hell). But when we were five, it meant magic – and an obligatory 5am wake up call for all the family. As we counted sheep in an attempt to get to sleep on the night we’d been waiting 364 solid days for, our innocent little minds were filled with visions; of Santa sliding down the chimney with Barbie in hand, of the overly decorated Christmas tree surrounded by piles of presents (never all good, of course – why can Uncle Bob never get it right?), and of nine rather talented reindeer circling the earth in the space of a few hours, Banter Claus on board. When we were ten, a sudden realisation that Santa could neither viably tour the world in eight hours nor still be okay to drive his sleigh back after downing about two billion brandies (wouldn’t he get breathalysed?) began to provoke the odd doubt, and when we were fourteen all we could think was “Christmas is rubbish (why that tangerine in my stocking?), Santa definitely doesn’t exist and all I want for Christmas is to break away from the family” (hashtag emo stage).

Of course, that childhood magic has gone and it’s never coming back. And deep down we all secretly wish Santa would one day rear his head, announce the world does indeed revolve around a few little elves and show those skeptical adults just what old fatty’s made of (a la Miracle on 34th street and all other Christmas classics).

But Christmas never really loses its magic. It changes; I no longer write a two-hundred item wish list consisting of different species of Furby and plastic toys from Argos, I no longer rock up to the local grotto and sit on Santa’s knee pouring out my heart’s desires, and I no longer stay awake all night on Christmas Eve unable to sleep at the prospect of Mr Nicholas plummeting down into the fireplace and experiencing a nasty collision with the Christmas tree. In fact, the only thing I’ll be writing is a status on Facebook, the only thing I’ll be sitting on is my chair, and if I stay awake all night it’s probably because I’ll be playing ‘’I have never’’ in the local pub.

santa

But Christmas means more now than it ever did. It’s one of the only times in the whole year when we actually get to kick back, relax and watch crap TV without feeling guilty that we’re not doing the washing, furthering our careers or whatever else plagues the mind on a daily basis. The only thing that matters on Christmas day is whether your mum likes her new scarf (never too many), whether your dad likes his new socks (more the better), and whether you’ll go for the Christmas pudding or the cherry trifle (always a tough one). It’s one of the only times we devote all our energy into family, food and drinking (well the latter might not be unfamiliar but it’s the combination I’m getting at), and it’s one of the only times we can spend three hours playing Charades without being told by siblings/friends/random nosy people that we are rather sad. It’s Christmas.

In ordinary life we go where we have to go, and we do what we have to do. At Christmas we go where we want to go (well, to an extent – Auntie Fanny’s might not be top on your to-do list but the likelihood is she’ll be too drunk to reel out the old “So how old are you now, 13?” spiel anyway), and we do what we want to do. We consume about 15,000 calories and no-one (not even that “I-don’t-eat-carbs-they-make-me-bloated” type), cares. Of course the turkey has to be cooked by somebody, and, in the ideal situation, relatively well – Christmas salmonella is inevitably going to put a downer on the occasion. But if all anyone’s got to worry about is shoving a bird in the oven and not bringing it out too prematurely, I don’t think we can complain.

So the magic might not be the same as when we were five, but it’s there nonetheless and, if you ask me, in a better way. Now we know our presents didn’t come from elves in the North Pole, we can thank the people who gave them to us – and be spared from insulting the apparent bad taste of the buyer who funnily enough happens to be sitting right there watching your face of utter disdain.

And there’s something magical about everyone doing the same thing, from spending five hours attempting to understand your cracker joke to busting out killer moves to Fairytale of New York and Mariah Carey.

Whether this year you’ll be building a snowman (a fake one, obviously – after 23 years I don’t expect a White Christmas to suddenly decide to show itself), taking charge of the cooking Bridget Jones-style (what’s wrong with blue soup?), or boogying around the Christmas tree to the dulcet tones of Cliff Richard, the chances are you won’t be the only one in the world doing so. And I’m quite sure that when I jump out of bed at seven in the morning, delve into my stocking, whack out the tunes on my Christmas album and eat number 25 of my advent calendar, I won’t be the only 20-something in the world acting like a twelve-year-old twat. Well that’s the hope, and if I’m wrong, who cares? It’s Christmas.

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2014 in Uncategorized