Down at Golden Rock…

Myanmar was certainly a pretty special place. Following on from Mawlamyine we decided that it would be a great idea to go several hours out of our way to visit a rock. Not just any rock though, the Golden Rock atop Mt. Kyaiktoyo is a large rock at the top of a small mountain, teetering on the edge having survived several earthquakes to stay put at the top. It has also become something of a pilgrimage for Buddhists, and has as a result been completely covered in gold leaf. It also has a small pagoda perched atop, said to contain a strand of the Buddha’s hair.
The signs for this little side adventure were ominous from the start. After asking for a taxi to take us to the bus station, the lady at our hotel pointed us to a 15 year old on a scooter. “But we have huge bags, 4 of them?!”. This was met with a shrug. Ah well, “When in Rome…” and all that. We somehow made it, bags and all, to the haphazardly put together bus station. This was more a kind of dirt clearing, with chickens and soup pots everywhere, but mostly shouting. A huge amount of shouting.

Here’s where we realised how spoiled we were in South America and down under. Whilst we’re by no means proficient in Spanish, at least they use the same alphabet. Getting across to people where you want to go with no common language, a completely alien alphabet and bizarre pronunciations (we needed to get to “Kyaikto”, turns out this is pronounced “Chatcho”, no “K’s” required) is pretty difficult. Cue Laura crudely drawing a big rock at the top of a mountain. Unsure of where we were going, we boarded the party bus to “Kyaikto”, “Chatcho”, who knows.

Incredibly we made it! Unfortunately this was just half the battle. The place we needed was in fact a small village called Kinpun. According to our 2013 Lonely Planet, “local transport cruises the road between every 30 minutes or so”. What they neglected to mention was that the transportation is actually a lorry carrying rice, beer and everything else into the village. After another comical attempt at communicating with anybody, we were piled into one of these trucks, being careful not to sit on the crisps, and were sent on our (hopefully correct) way.

 

Our bus to Kinpun

How we made it to the right place, I’ll never know. But we did! The journey was actually pretty fun, Burmese karaoke videos to accompany the bus, and the truck was an experience I guess.

The “base camp” village is unlike anywhere I’ve ever visited. Honestly, the closest comparison I could draw would be perhaps Glastonbury. With this being the aforementioned pilgrimage that it is for many, everybody is in high spirits and there are street vendors, music and the smell of food everywhere. Our afternoon was spent exploring and, because of the 40C heat, hibernating.

The next morning was our trip up to the rock. We decided to get up early and beat the heat, but we certainly didn’t beat the masses. Even at 6am there were queues, pushing and general rabble, everybody excited for their day at the rock. One thing that quickly struck us, everybody was immaculately dressed. We tried our best, but after 10 months living from a backpack we don’t really have anything that could be described as Sunday best. The truck up the hill was a trip to remember. Narrow roads, fast speeds and vomit everywhere. I escaped, but Laura was sat a few rows back and had to deal with one poor child’s futile wrenching.

Atop the mountain, I have no idea how to describe this. Kind of like an ultra religious Alton Towers with crowds to match. As two of the few westerners in attendance, we were definite curiosities with people queuing to have pictures with us. One adorable little girl even gave Laura a necklace (and refused to have it back).

 

A-listers

The rock itself is quite cool, it’s definitely fairly miraculous that it’s managed to stay in place for so long, and the gold leaf and pagoda give it an edge over other, similar rocks. Here though it was definitely about the atmosphere and the people, with the rock just providing the comparatively small focal point.


This was awkward and difficult to get to, and would never stand up as a landmark to many of the other places we’ve visited. But it was actually fascinating, and was a strangely unique little side trip that was really tempting to overlook for the above reasons, but I’m really glad we didn’t.

Steve

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Arriving into Myanmar: pagodas, smiles and more pagodas

We really didn’t know what to expect of Myanmar. A late addition to our travel plans all we’d heard was “you must go now before its spoilt”. Not so long ago tourists couldn’t visit at all and even now there are significant areas that are closed but the country has generally opened up hugely in recent years. 

Our first impression of Myanmar was indicative of the recent rapid changes the country has seen as we came overland from Thailand using the newly opened Mae Sot- Myawaddy border crossing. When we reached the small immigration office there were numerous buildings still being built with local workmen laying the bricks. The “friendship bridge” as the crossing is called is certainly the busiest overland crossing we have seen with people who seemed to have popped into the neighbouring country to grab a juice and many people taking the unofficial crossing route wading through the river. 

Our experience in the immigration office itself was also pretty unique. We were greeted first by a travel agency who have recently opened in the adjacent hut, a perhaps rather unfair arrangement stifling any potential competition. In immigration itself we waited for over half hour with only one person ahead of us as the one Windows 95-98 computer had broken and all variety of cables and switching on and off was tried to resurrect it! With the TV on and midday beers flowing the guys at immigration weren’t too concerned.

Post immigration we booked a share taxi to take us 4 hours to our first stop, Mawlamyine. First impressions down a road only completed in 2015 were pretty good. After the first 40 minutes or so the rest of the journey was on the worst road I have ever travelled. A dusty, bumpy single track road with 2 way traffic and standard Asian aggressive overtaking, we had to stop twice to get the car washed so the driver could see! Outside we passed stunning countryside dotted with golden pagodas everywhere we looked. I contemplated keeping count of how many pagodas we would see in Myanmar. Given that this probably ran into hundreds if not over a thousand it’s probably for the best I decided against this!

Spot the glints of gold, beautiful golden pagodas everywhere

Our route through Myanmar involved starting in the quieter areas of the south-east and ending in busier, more touristy places and in this way was very special. 

There isn’t a lot to see in Mawlamyine a mid-size town that comparatively few foreigners visit. Here, far more than anywhere else we visited, we were looked at with intrigue and shy smiles from the local people. The reception we got from the locals was always warm and friendly. There is very little tourism infrastructure: we asked for a taxi to go to the bus station and were told no, we could take a motorbike taxi instead. At the time with a large and medium backpack each this seemed like an impossibility but we were given no other option. We would have to travel how the locals would. After successfully making the journey (I was sceptical before of my balance) I realised I quite liked this, the rarity of no special treatment is quite refreshing.

We soon had to get used to moti-taxis to get around

We took a day trip to nearby Bilu Island one day. Despite researching boat times and departure points the day before our moto-taxi dropped us at completely the wrong dock and so it took us hopping on and off several boats, 2.5 hours (including a breakfast stop when we were giving up on the idea) and many conversations in mime (few speak English) till we finally got on a boat! 

 

Does anyone have a boat we can get on please?!
 
The other side we hired a moto-taxi to take us around the island and show us the various cottage industries. Slate boards and pencils for schools, rubber band making, bamboo hats, cigarette rolling, wooden carvings, the island is full of interesting things. 

 

Bamboo Hat making
 
 
Beautiful colours, rubber band production
 
We headed off next to see a big rock but Steve will talk about that one.

-Laura-

Running Amok

I liked Cambodia. It was nice to have a change of scene after 2 months in Australia and New Zealand, and one good reason for this was having decent food back in budget. The food down under wasn’t bad, but it was very expensive, so to be paying comparative peanuts for rice and noodles was a neat proposition.
Whilst not as famous (or as tasty) as Thai cuisine, we thought that the food of Cambodia was good enough to warrant an afternoon in a place called Battambong dedicated to trying out the art of Cambodian cooking.

 

“Am I right in saying only a swine would drink this?”
 
Our first call of the afternoon was a trip to the local market with our chef, “Nani”. We were shown various different fruits, herbs etc, and the process for making coconut milk. Apparently the tinned stuff at home is “filth” and would be used “just for the pigs”. Everything had already been bought by his mum earlier in the day (tourists and men pay more apparently).

On the menu for the afternoon was spring rolls, green mango salad, a chocolate jelly kind of thing (not very Cambodian) and a coconutty fish curry called Amok, which seems to be sold by every restaurant in Cambodia.

First up was dessert, which was largely Nani stood over a pan with chocolate, milk and gelatine. That was that really, and it was straight in the fridge. Next in line were the spring rolls. This involved mixing up sauce and vegetables, placing on rice paper before rolling up to save for later. We later saw some people in a small shack making the rice paper itself, which was fairly interesting. 

 

Spring rolls
 
The fish amok took a little more preparation. A number of spices (lemongrass, garlic, chilli, shallots, shrimp paste) needed to be ground up using a mortar and pestle, which was actually pretty difficult. Going back to a similar thing we did in Thailand a few years ago I’m sure we just threw everything in and picked it out later, but here it needed to be ground as finely as possible. Next up our aching arms needed to chop the fish and mix the spice mixture with coconut milk. Once everything was mixed together the amok was placed in a banana leaf bowl ready for steaming.

 

Amok curry in banana leaf bowl
 
Last preparation of the day was a green mango salad, similar to the Thai green papaya salad. Essentially this involved grating strips from an unripened mango and a carrot, before mixing with fish sauce, garlic and chilli. Simple enough.

After deep frying the spring rolls and steaming the amok, our self prepared (kind of) Cambodian meal was ready to be enjoyed. Everything was good, with the amok the standout dish. It looked pretty good as well in it’s little banana leaf bowl. The one thing I wasn’t sure about was the chocolate jelly, it wasn’t bad, but was essentially an angel delight. Chocolate isn’t too common in Cambodia, so I think this one was added to the menu for our benefit. Apparently the traditional fruit version of this dessert takes hours to prepare, so probably for the best.

We had previously taken cooking classes in Peru and Thailand, and this was probably the least exciting of the three as Cambodian cuisine seems to be the least distinct of the three. Still though a fun afternoon, and just to be back in noodle and rice country is pretty exciting in itself.

It’s a Bug’s Life

Trying the local cuisine I find to be one of the most interesting things about travel. In Cambodian cuisine insects are regularly eaten in the countryside areas where people either cannot get hold of or afford to eat meat. These form a good, cheap and sustainable source of protein. 

We had been in Cambodia only a few days when we first saw insects being sold in Siem Reap. A local man had a stall at the night market selling crickets, tarrantulas, snakes and a few others. All for tourists. Try offering local people living in the city a bag of crickets and they will laugh and then their noses up. As would be the reaction of most of us it just isn’t seen as a “normal” food, we have preconceptions that are hard to beat! On the other hand in Phnom Penh we saw many locals happily munching down a pic n’ mix bag of bugs at another market!

I was curious about the taste and texture but wasn’t sure if I could get myself to give it a go. 

It was shortly after we discovered the most fabulously inventive restaurant “Bugs Cafe”. French owned this place serves “insect tapas” and looks to use insects in tasty dishes to show their potential. We went on our last night in Siem Reap and I was not disappointed. The quality of the food was fantastic and of course the special ingredients made a great talking point!

  

I ordered the “discovery platter” which consisted of spring rolls with ants, samosa with feta and tarrantula, pastry swirl with pesto and ants, a veg and insect grilled skewer with grasshoppers, a tarrantula and a water beetle and finally a silk worm and cricket curry. This was really good gourmet food, just with insects! Of these dishes I would happily eat all of them again except perhaps the skewer where the insects were a bit too “in your face” and lacking in sauce/flavour. Mind you the crispy grasshoppers were pretty good, could have been savoury popcorn (with eyes and legs). All the insects I ate with the exception of the water beetle, which was a little too juicy… And the silk worm and cricket curry was truly one of the top dishes I ate in 3 weeks across Cambodia eating amazing food everyday! 

Waterbeetle pre-juice

For me this was truly a unique and not to be missed experience in Siem Reap.
-Laura-

When taking the scenic route isn’t the best idea 

After several days temple hopping around Siem Reap in Cambodia we decided to take the “scenic route” to our next destination Battambong. This involved a riverboat trip passing floating villages, local fisherman and beautiful scenery but was 5 times more expensive than the bus and 4-5 times as long, expected at 8-10 hours. Still, a day chilling on a riverboat and passing beautiful scenery sounded worth it. 

The morning trip armed with a good book to read was blissful and fascinating to see how people in the river villages live.

On our trip there are things that we research a lot and others where we just embrace them with a spontaneous spirit. This journey was the latter but had we done a quick search we would have soon discovered that during low season the river becomes impassable.

As it was when we were told that we would be making the rest of the journey on land this came as rather a surprise. 

And so it was that we found ourselves piled 21 people into a Toyota Hilux pick up truck travelling for 3 hours along a bumpy dirt track. Getting up close to our fellow travellers sweaty leg to sweaty leg we found ourselves ducking down to avoid bruises and cuts from the foliage and leaning in the opposite direction to the vehicle to help balance it as we trundled along some perilous angles whilst trying not to look at the drops on either side of the road. 

Then the vehicle spluttered to a stop and started steaming. Fantastic. No water in the radiator, great move with the car piled high and in 30oC heat! After pooling our drinking water to pop in it we were off again. Progress was slow and we stopped several more times. Steve and I had become separated from our luggage which was a concern as we had been told by the boat owner in the morning of some thefts of bags in the area (I’m now doubtful as to the truth in this, I think the boat owner was trying to scare us into using certain tuk tuk drivers in Battambong).

We found ourselves (and our bags, thankfully) arriving in Battambong late afternoon and thinking in hindsight the $5 and 2 hour bus journey might have been a better decision. Then again the children waving by the river, cutting through rushes with the boat nose and staring in wonder at the floating houses atop tin cans in the morning were kind of worth it…
-Laura-

Sailin’ the Whitsunday’s

Our trip to the Whitsunday Isles off the east coast of Australia started a little chaotically. We arrived in Airlie Beach, the mainland gateway town late in the evening with an admin day scheduled in the next day for amongst other things, a much needed laundry load. In the morning however we were told of a good deal on “Condor”, a former racing boat, but that it was leaving in 2 hours time. This meant a frantic half an hour trying to figure out the most clean (or least dirty) of our clothes, some frenzied packing and some snack/goon shopping. We made it to the wharf with a healthy ten minutes to spare. 

Sunset, funset!
 
Not entirely sure what we’d just paid for, we boarded the boat with really no clue what to expect, but in fact we both would rank the next few days as some of the best of the trip to date, and certainly one of the highlights of our time down under.

I must admit, I’m really not sure why this is. I’m not entirely sure what exactly we did over these three days and two nights on board. We did go snorkelling a few times, which whilst pretty it didn’t rank up with our trip to the Great Barrier Reef just a week or so previous. The water was a little more murky, and there wasn’t quite the same array of fish here. Did see another turtle here though, and there was a small group who scrambled out of the water after spying a reef shark. One girl also lost her GoPro in the water, which I guess must’ve been annoying for her. The two sunsets we saw on board were pretty spectacular.

We were given little jobs on the sailing side of things which was fun. I helped with hoisting the sail, whilst Laura worked the pedally things that I think moved the sail. I think this makes us certified sailors, even if the terminology isn’t quite perfect yet. The feeling when sailing was quite incredible, with everybody sat off one side of the boat as it zipped silently across the water.

One morning we visited Whitehaven beach, which is incredibly beautiful and quite probably the best looking beach I’ve seen to date. Went for a swim, amble and saw some stingrays frolicking in the shallows. Later on the boat we saw some dolphins (including a mother and baby, though some of the stories we heard about dolphins make them appear far less adorable), what appeared to be more sharks (just big fish though apparently) and a small squid managed to jump from the water on to the deck. Some jerk also handed me a full cup of tea under the guise of an empty one, leaving myself and the deck covered in boiling hot tea, disaster. 

This was a low point though on an otherwise great few days. Whilst it doesn’t seem as though we actually did that much in our time on Condor, it was a really idyllic break from buses and hostels. The captain of the boat, “Chopper” (nickname I assume), just seemed the most content guy on the planet, and with good reason. The crew seemed to do everything, while he assumed the role of giving orders and steering with a beer, not too bad a job.

Overall, a nice getaway. 

Steve

East Coast of Australia

Australia was a country that yo-yo’d on and off our itinerary a number of times. Finally we decided that as we were passing through from New Zealand anyway and neither of us had been before it would be crazy not to and so we planned a month to travel down the East Coast from Cairns to Sydney.

Starting our trip with a couple of days in Sydney we had a somewhat interesting first impression. We arrived at our hotel a few hours before check-in so went for a walk along the main through street down to see the opera house. Less than 10 minutes walking on the streets of Sydney and Steve pulled me back to stop. In front of us on the pavement closest to the road a lady had stopped, popped her shopping bags down, pulled her pants down and was giving us the most full-frontal view of her taking a piss! She then just picked up her shopping bags and walked right on like nothing unusual had occurred. When you gotta go and all that… Eww, all we could do was wait back to avoid being caught in the cross stream and try to erase the mental image (unsuccessfully).

After that Sydney turned out to be a lot more as expected. We were immediately captivated by the buzz of the city activity. The opera house and harbour bridge were every bit as impressive as their iconic status and I loved the beautiful botanic gardens that look out onto them. When we returned to Sydney at the end of the month we went to see an opera “The Pearlfishers” at the opera house but I did find the venue considerably less impressive internally. Still the show was good with useful subtitles so we all knew what was going on and colourful costumes and the “limited view” seats would have been fine if it wasn’t for a young lady in front spending the entire time wriggling around and leaning forward in her seat to massage her boyfriends shoulders!

For our East Coast trip we used Greyhound buses to hop on-hop off down the coast. I was pretty impressed these had usb charge points and wifi but the poor comfort levels were quite a shock after the South American buses that were designed brilliantly for long journeys. We had 2 night buses which were both terrible for a nights sleep. 

Starting at Cairns the highlight of this area was unsurprisingly the Great Barrier Reef where we spent a day snorkelling and searching for Nemo and even both tried an introductory scuba dive that was pretty amazing.

Magnetic Island, a tiny little tropical island was next up and full of beautiful bays, beaches, a large colony of wild wallabies and we even spotted a koala! 

 

Koala on Magnetic Island

 
Sailing around the Whitsunday Islands was another top pick of the East Coast and I could easily have spent more than 3 days here! We loved it so much Steve has a whole other blog coming on our time there.

 

Stunning Whitehaven Beach, Whitsundays
 
In Agnes Water I learnt that the best time to try a surf lesson for the first time is not straight off a night bus. 

Fraser Island, seemingly a highlight for many people travelling the East Coast route, was for us unfortunately a disappointment. A good group can really make any group tour but ours were the kind to spend the bus journeys shouting over each other and set off fire alarms at 2am. We visited clear blue lakes, beaches, forest and it was all beautiful but here is where a downside of lots of travel comes in, it just wasn’t that spectacular or wow compared to other places we have been recently. Surrounded by people saying how places were the “most beautiful” they’d ever seen I couldn’t help but feel guilty but it’s only possible to view the world with your own eyes.

 

Shipwrecked boat on a beach on Fraser Island
 
After Fraser Island we stopped by Noosa and the beautiful national park. In Brisbane we spent much of our time riverside by the South Bank and in galleries. Finally Byron Bay finished up our trip, this hippie-ish surf town had a cute old guy singing “come and shake your pineapples here today, come shake your pineapples at Byron Bay”. Try and imagine a little sing-song tune to that for full affect!

Our trip finished in wonderful Sydney with no unusual encounters this time!
-Laura-

New Zealand Road Trip

It would definitely feel fair to say New Zealand felt like home away from home. The country was largely populated by British immigrants originally and during our month there we met more people who have emigrated from the UK in the recent past than those born in New Zealand! Plus we found plentiful fish and chips (although we overheard ourselves being described as “odd” for asking for vinegar with this) and baked beans (yes, I know, a strange thing to miss…). 

We hired a car and spent a month driving around both the South and North Islands, camping in a little tent. After months of backpacking and making our way to and from bus terminals this was fabulous! Independence and flexibility to set our own schedule. Road tripping is THE way to travel New Zealand and it really is set up so well for this. In a month we only paid for car parking twice, everywhere was easy to find, loads of campsites around (we didn’t pre-book any), we only encountered heavy traffic a couple of times (New Years Eve in one of the busiest towns which was a foolish mistake to attempt and when we drove to Auckland airport to fly out). Plus, best of all, the scenery is so varied and so beautiful. Road tripping in New Zealand for me was so much more about the journey than the destination. 

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

We arrived just under a week before Christmas and our first week was a pretty laid back affair catching up with some old friends and enjoying stunning coastal scenery as we made our way down to Invercargill in the far South for Christmas. 

Christmas we hired a lovely little cottage and made valiant efforts to go for Christmas with all the trimmings! New Zealand lamb for the main event made a local twist on our standard turkey dinner and we bought our vegetables from producers in different locations on our drive south to keep it local. I’m not sure I could get used to Christmas in the warm though, the snowman decorations in the shops don’t exactly sit right against the sun shining outside!

New Years on the other hand was also our first one with sunshine and I could totally get used to that. Relaxed and chilled, we spent our New Years in the beautiful lakeside town of Wanaka. The local band playing us into 2016 slightly messed up on their timekeeping though and we had the following sequence to see in the new year: song playing-fireworks-song abruptly stops-“oops, well it’s still a minute away according to my watch, let’s count down anyway”-3,2,1-Happy New Year! Totally cringeworthy!
Our time in New Zealand was a little tainted by unseasonal heavy winds and rainfall so we spent a fair amount of time seeking out rainy day activities or looking for formations like the glaciers from afar. Discovered the downside camping in a tent at this time too… It was only when we were in Wellington and saw rubbish bins flipping over and dancing down the street that we couldn’t brave the camping anymore and had to seek roofed refuge!

Steve whipping us up a storm

Most of our trip was spent hopping from place to place and taking in the places we passed but particular highlights of New Zealand were:

*Abel Tasman national park, spent a day beach hopping along stunning coastline 

*Skydive over Lake Wanaka got 2016 off to a great start, most exhilarating feeling ever!

*Waitomo glow worm caves, they look like sparkly fairy lights all over the caves as these larvae use the glow in their tails to capture their prey. So pretty too!

*White water rafting near Rotorua with a 7m drop waterfall. 

*Stunning geothermal landscapes around Taupo and Rotorua on the north island

 

Orakei Korako thermal park
 
*Te Papa museum in Wellington, diverse and super interesting, could easily have spent many days here if had the time!
Okay so you can probably tell by this blog that I’m pretty enthused about New Zealand. It’s another country that we didn’t originally plan to go but followed our instincts to change our flights and it certainly delivered.

-Laura-

South America: Thoughts etc.

6 and a half ace months and 7 countries later and our time in South America has come to an end. It’s all gone by so quickly, it seems just a few weeks ago we were stuck on the M1 wondering whether we would actually make it there at all. Whilst not everything went to plan, overall we had a fantastic time on an incredible continent.
Biggest surprise was by some way Colombia. This was a country that we never planned to visit at all due to the usual concerns over safety etc. but so glad that we added Colombia to our list. Whilst the people here freely admit there are “no-go zones”, these are generally miles off any tourist’s radar anyway. The areas we visited were full of amazing, friendly people and incredible landscapes. We went from being apprehensive to not wanting to leave, eventually spending 5 unplanned weeks here. I can’t even say at any time we felt unsafe here, of course we heard on the grapevine of the occasional incident, but generally when we were approached by locals it was for a chat or a photo, not the stereotypical offer of cocaine. A beautiful and fantastic country that I would recommend to anybody, just a shame about the food.

The only trouble we experienced on the whole continent was an ill fated trip out for apples on a quiet Sunday night in El Mariscal in Quito, Ecuador. This was a quick stopover en route from the Galapagos to the Cuyabeno rainforest reserve, and we were low on food and nutrition having come from the fruit starved islands. El Mariscal is usually described as the more lively area of Quito, however on a Sunday night, much like everywhere else it seems to be closed. We did however find a couple of apples. On returning to our hostel, a running car was waiting for us from which emerged two burly gents carrying what I thought was a large screwdriver, but turns out it was a knife and they weren’t just wayward repair men. Ah well, we lost $8 and a useful fee free credit card, but I guess we can probably class it as a cultural experience. Thankfully, they didn’t take the apples.

Peru is the country to which most Western visitors flock for the world wonder status worthy Machu Picchu, and it certainly shows. English is abundant here, and it’s really easy to get from one place to the next. For the majority of our time in Peru we used the “Peru Hop” hop on hop off bus service, but certainly found the public buses pretty easy to navigate when we did use them. Whilst we didn’t manage the Inca Trail (it books up months and months in advance), we still had a great time here, and Machu Pichu is definitely worth all of it’s hype. I imagine arriving via the Inca Trail at sunrise is pretty special. Other Peruvian highlights were the Colca Canyon trek (including a nonsensical and terrifying night that required sleeping in an abandoned village). Lima was also a really cool city, though it seems a little bit of a Marmite city with plenty of fellow travellers telling us just how much they hated it. It was here that we did our Peruvian cooking class, and it has to be said that Peruvian food was a breath of fresh air after the “pollo con arroz” dominated menus of Colombia and Ecuador.

Speaking of cities, our favourite South American city would have to be Buenos Aires. This place was really different to any other city we had visited on this trip, and actually felt far closer to London or New York than to any of the South American cities we had visited up to that point. The history of the place is really interesting, and the tango scene was actually really fun, which surprised me (wasn’t exactly a natural at the dance itself though). Our biggest regrets from Buenos Aires were that we didn’t make it to a Boca Juniors game ($200 US was a little steep for a single ticket), and secondly that we didn’t stay longer, we will definitely be going back at some point. Argentina generally had a much more European feel about it, and again was somewhere where we felt pretty safe. Apparently bag snatching at restaurants can happen, but we didn’t come across anything of concern. The money situation was also a little more difficult here, with official money changers effectively outlawed and ATMs giving out terrible exchange rates, it did make the need to get money more of an inconvenience than it should have been. Argentina in general though is a great country to visit, with the amazing city of Buenos Aires contrasting with the stunning landscapes of Patagonia.

Our two more whistle stop countries were Bolivia and Uruguay, spending around 10 days in each. I think we perhaps visited Uruguay at the wrong time of year. There were few people around, and the majority of attractions seemed to be closed. That said, Colonia was a really fun town, and if anybody wants a weird few days then the remote beachside hamlet of Cabo Polonio should certainly top their list. I’m sure we could have spent more time in Bolivia, but by this point we were getting a bit anxious to reach Chile and Argentina. La Paz did have a bit of an edgy feel to it, but it certainly has it’s quirks. The witches market, specialising in dried llama foeti is a perfect example of this, as are the zebra costume clad lollipop men who help you to cross the terrifying roads. The Bolivian salt flats, Salar de Uyuni, are a surreal landscape that I would recommend to anybody, and lapse safety standards bizarrely make for a maximum feeling of adventure.

That leaves Chile, which is similar to Argentina in many ways (not that anybody from either country would like to see me write that). Chile’s share of Patagonia is again stunning, with the exhausting “Torres del Paine” the jewel in its crown. Valparaiso (incredible street art everywhere) and Santiago (again a really European feel) were really fun, cosmopolitan cities, and I’m sure we could have happily spent more time in either.

So that brought our time in South America to an end. As you may have noticed reading that, I ran out of superlatives for the continent pretty quickly, and would recommend anybody considering a visit to just book it and go. We will definitely be back in the future, as for one thing we were unable to make it to Brazil, a game at the Maracana being the continents initial draw. Never mind, we had a great half year, and were only robbed once, contrary to the popular belief that we wouldn’t be able to leave the hostel. An amazing continent, and our next stops of New Zealand, Australia and Asia have a lot to live up to.

-Steve-

Patagonian Adventures

After Buenos Aires we embarked on two 30 hour journeys within a week to reach Southern Patagonia, ouch! Travelling around South America has certainly changed my perspective on time and distances. Our last 3 hour bus journey I didn’t even recognise as a real journey at all, a 5-6 hour journey is now “nice and quick” and even 12-15 hours is okay if it is a night bus. 24 hours+ though I don’t think I could ever get used to. We have easily lost a week of our lives to Argentinian bus travel!

Our first 30 hours took us to Northern Patagonia and a little town called El Bolson. This place was the polar opposite of Buenos Aires and the tranquility came as a real shock after the bustle of the city. El Bolson is described in the Lonely Planet as a “hippie town”, but this seems to be a touch of creative writing. People mostly come here for the surrounding countryside, which is lovely. We visited some sculptures carved into trees at Bosque Tallado, which we had heard before going were from the 70s though in actual fact the majority seemed to be from the last 10 years, a self made tourist attraction, bizarre…

image
Tree carvings

The highlight for us of this area though was an overnight visit to nearby Rio Azul, stunning clear blue waters in a beautiful valley. We stayed in a refugio (lodge), which in high season would have been pretty cosy with 20-30 mattresses arranged head to toe. On the night we went though we had the place to ourselves and dinner brought to us so it was pretty awesome!

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Clear waters of Rio Azul

Next up, after another 30 hour journey, was El Calafate. The main thing we were here for was the Perito Moreno Glacier. This was breathtaking and so surprisingly blue due to the way the light reflects though the ice. We were led on a 2 hour walk over the glacier wearing crampons, an experience in itself. This was brilliant for seeing all the different features and formations of the glacier and getting up close.

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Perito Moreno glacier

Next stop, El Chalten, was a tiny (by my new standards) 3 hours drive from El Calafate and so I was horrified when we had a 20 minute break half way through! This demonstrates how popular and touristy this area is though, accommodating the bus travel for those less used to long journeys. El Chalten is a trekking hub, with many day treks options starting from the town. 90km was walked over 5 days here, hiking out to see lakes, glaciers and mountains. The view of the Fitz Roy mountain range was both Steve’s and my top view of South America: dramatic snow capped peaks with a snow covered lake in front.

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Standing on a snow covered lake in front of the Fitz Roy

After crossing the border to Chile we took some time to chill out and buy camping supplies before embarking on any more hikes. We took a day trip from Punta Arenas to Tierra del Fuego to see king penguins in their only colony outside of Antarctica. These guys are 2nd only to the emperor in size and were awesome to watch, I’ve also never heard penguins make so much noise before!

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King Penguins

Our time in the Deep South culminated with the 5 day “W” trek through Torres del Paine National Park. In comparison with other multi-day treks we have been on whilst in South America this definitely tops the list for me. The scenery every day was beautiful and so varied. Glaciers, snow topped mountains, lakes, dramatic peaks, meadows, lush vegetation and stark, stripped bare, tarnished trees from a fire (caused by a camper several years ago). We were lucky enough to have beautiful dry weather for the majority of the time too, which I’m sure helped! Carrying camping stuff and food for 5 days though was pretty hard work though. Incidentally, food wise, I’m pretty sure there aren’t many other times you can fully justify peanut butter and chocolate chip sandwiches… Well we were burning a lot of calories…

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Energy food

-Laura-