Photo(graphic) Memory 2

Round 2 of Photo(graphic) Memory and I couldn’t resist this picture – it’s one that makes me chuckle and reminds me of a truly unique experience. 

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This photo was taken during a 5 day trip up onto the salt flats in Bolivia, which involves long Jeep rides up into the mountains; a steady ascent into worsening and worsening altitude sickness!

After several days of travels and staying in small mountain accommodations, we stopped at the side of a lake for some lunch and were watching the flamingoes dotted across the water. Then my sight fell on this sign and I just found its placement in front of the vast landscape and huge mountains extremely ironic and highly amusing! 

It seems that no matter where you are in the world, and no matter how remote, someone always needs to know where the nearest toilet is! 

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2014 Jaunts – Ideas Please!

Happy New Year to all bloggers and readers – I hope you survived the turkey time and didn’t overindulge on New Years Eve!

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So I’ve been thinking about the various trips I want to do this year and trying to work out the best way to save for them (don’t you wish you had all the money in the world?!). But more than anything I need advice and ideas for what to do and see in each of the places – even any good deals anyone has had before.

I thought what better way to get those ideas than from the blogging community! So if you can check out the places I am going and give me some tips – I would consider that a fantastic New Years gift!

1. Barcelona, Spain.

To start, I will be attending a friend’s wedding in Barcelona in July this year. I think this will be a four-day trip, over a weekend. We have checked out various flights and there are some great cheap airline options available, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

But we haven’t booked anything in the way of accommodation yet – we aren’t dependent on hotels or apartments and will consider all options.

My boyfriend has been to Barcelona before and is keen to show me the sights – but if anyone has any specific recommendations for restaurants or locally renowned places, please let us know!

2. Marrakech, Morocco 

A friend of mine is really keen to head to Morocco for a long weekend later in the year (we were thinking around August or September time). The plan is to stay in a hotel, visit some bazaars, eat some lovely food and have a few cocktails!

Again – we have nothing booked here at all yet, no accommodation, flights or knowledge about the local area. It is very much in the ideas stage! If anyone has visited before, please pass on the travellers knowledge!

3. Colombia

Finally, towards the end of the year, my boyfriend and I are debating a trip to South America to visit the highly recommended country of Colombia. A family friend lives in Bogotá, which will probably help when flying in and out of the country, but otherwise we are not tied to any specific route or location.

We are not thinking this trip will include expensive hotels, so we are more likely to stay in hostels and independent guest houses. But we are definitely going to be looking for exciting things to do and see, so if you have been to Colombia and have anything you can recommend, please make your recommendation known!

Thank you! 

That’s it for now – there will be a few other small trips in between and most likely in the UK, but they are my main focus for the year. I thank each of you for taking an interest in the blog and for any thoughts and ideas you are happy to part with for my benefit!

Happy New Year all!

 

Top Tip Tuesday – Learn the lingo!

Time for another Top Tip on a Tuesday – Why not gain a new skill and learn a language?

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When travelling abroad it is really important to immerse yourself into everything and the best way to do that is to try to learn the local language. In some cases this is much easier than others – Catalan will not come easy to many people! But if you can learn the local lingo, I guarantee it will enhance your experience ten-fold!

Learn before you go

For many people, going on a long trip involves a lot of planning and saving of money, for many months beforehand. So why not use that time to also get a few language lessons in? You could try a local night school or even check out online selling websites like Gumtree (in the UK) or Craigslist, where local people might be offering their linguistic services.

Alternatively you can buy an online/CD based language course, like Rosetta Stone. They provide you with discs of courses to work your way through, with tests to complete in order to advance further. They even give you a headset which works through voice recognition, so that you can practice pronouncing each word or phrase.

Happy locals

The reaction you get from local people when you speak their language is one of the most uplifting you will experience. Several times in South America I engaged in conversation with locals and they were so enthusiastic!

You’ll find people are often more helpful and kind too – they stop viewing you as a wealthy tourist and instead see you as someone who has taken the time to learn to converse with them.

School time

If you don’t have the chance to learn before you go, you can always stop at a school while you’re on your trip. This is obviously more viable an option for people on long trips! Many places will have a local school who will open up time for travellers to stop in and do a few classes.

I did this in a small town in Bolivia for a week – attending classes in a local children’s school, using spare classrooms. The lady teaching us was very patient and her efforts were rewarded when we found ourselves at the local market throwing out Spanish phrases left, right and centre!

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In our Bolivian school

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With our teacher Gavi

So get yourself prepared for those travels and learn the lingo! 

Buenos Aires – Eat, drink and Tango!

During my 6 month trip around South America I stayed in many wonderful and exciting places, but Buenos Aires by far was one of my favourites. It truly is a magical city and you have to experience it for yourself.

Travelling to Buenos Aires

I travelled to Buenos Aires by bus from Puerto Iguazu, taking 17 hours. I was looking forward to my first Argentinian bus experience, because I’d heard so many good things about them, but it turned out to be disappointing. My seat was broken, so every time I lowered the seat down flat to sleep, it slowly rose back up into a sitting position. I would fall asleep laying down and then wake up 30 minutes later sitting upright!

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My self-elevating bus seat

I had also heard good things about the food on the Argentinian buses, so for that one trip I took very limited provisions – I would usually pack some snacks and water to get through the long hours. I started to get worried when they still hadn’t served anything at 10pm – I was worryingly trying to work out how I could ration my 4 remaining pieces of a mini Toblerone to last 17 hours! At 10:30 they finally served food…and it was worse than aeroplane food; some kind of indescribable meatloaf and rice…ugh. If you’re travelling in Argentina by bus, make sure to pack provisions!

Beautiful BA

Buenos Aires (or BA, as travellers call it) has such a lovely atmosphere for a city; it’s infectious and you can feel it the moment you arrive. It’s an extremely easy place to navigate; a huge 20 lane highway runs right up through the middle to a huge obelisk and dotted around are beautiful palaces and stately buildings. A pretty decent subway/underground system runs to most areas of the city and cabs are decently cheap. The best form of transport is by far the city buses, from which you can see BA in all of its eclectic wonder!

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The obelisk

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A government building

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Casa Rosa – the pink palace

The architecture is very European influenced, with tall grand buildings with ornate sculpturing and iron balconies. But everything has a slightly rougher edge to it, with unkempt shutters and walls adorned with political graffiti. At the Eastern edge of the city is a brand new district called Puerto Madero, which sports huge glass skyscrapers and a modern marina, with restaurants and up-market shops. Beyond this, out into the water of the Rio de la Plata river is an ecological reserve and across the river, Uruguay! You literally have everything you could think of, all in one amazing city!

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BA street

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Graffiti of Che Guevara

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Ecological reserve

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San Telmo street

San Telmo

I stayed in a hostel called PAX in San Telmo, which is the bohemian district – you can wander through street after street of markets and strange little indoor bazaars. They sell everything from old doors and benches, to huge swords and old foreign currency (I found an old 50 pence coin from England whilst digging around).

I wandered these markets with an Australian guy called Daniel who I first met several weeks before in Brazil and who happened to be staying in the same hostel as me; such is the coincidental life of a traveller. We were both pretty disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to buy a sword as a souvenir!  Following the markets, we strolled down to the marina and looked around an old Argentinian Naval boat from the 1800s – it is easy to while away hours just walking around the city – you never know what you’re going to find!

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The marina

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Aboard the naval boat

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Blue skies and the mast

In the evenings in San Telmo there is a lot of activity and live music on the streets – I walked through the district one evening and saw an 8-piece salsa band, a Brazilian drumming band, and a spontaneous tango dancing session. The tango was breathtaking to watch; someone had simply lain down some cardboard as a dance floor and strung a set of fairy lights from a lamp-post in a small plaza. The music came out of a little boom box and soon various couples stopped to show off their tango skills. They would hold each other close, cheek to cheek, but their bodies would move so smoothly across the floor, and the women did lovely ‘flicky’ motions with their lower legs – it was so romantic!

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Tango in San Telmo

Cycling the city

I spent the most part of one day in BA out cycling with a couple of other guys from my hostel, Simon and Gustav. We hired bikes from our hostel for less than £5 for the day and decided to take a look at the ecological reserve. We cycled out in the reserve, to the beaches of the river, stopping for a snack from a food van and passing the huge glass towers and the marina in our loop. I clearly had no luck with seats because my bike seat kept tipping backwards until I was cycling with my knees around my ears, clown-style! We negotiated a crossing of the 20 lane highway in the centre of the city by closing our eyes and wishing for luck!

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Cycling in the reserve

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City beaches

Recoletta cemetery

Another day I decided to take a bus down to a district called Recoletta. I wasn’t too sure about the route I had been given so I asked the bus driver in my limited Spanish if he stopped at Recoletta. He said he did and I was happy with my first real communication in Spanish being such a success. This soon turned to embarrassment when the driver pulled the bus over in the middle of a street (holding up traffic!), called me to the front of the bus and pointed enthusiastically at the street ahead of us. It was very sweet of him to give me such special treatment but I’m not sure the crowded bus of busy Argentinians appreciated it as much!

The main draw for Recoletta is a huge cemetery full of mausoleums for many of Argentina’s most prominent citizens, including presidents, politicians, and (most notably) Maria Eva Duarte Peron – otherwise known as Evita. As I neared the entrance, I was approached by a man collecting money for children with Aids; I felt I should contribute and so gave him some of my spare American currency. However, he then proceeded to grip my hand, kiss my cheeks SIX times, touch the side of my face, and tell me I was beautiful…only in Argentina can you get propositioned outside a cemetery for handing over less than $10! However, you notice how tactile the people are in Argentina – even the men kiss several times when they greet each other.

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cemetery lanes

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Memorial statue

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Mausoleum

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Eva Peron’s resting place

The cemetery was beautiful, which sounds like a strange thing to say. The mausoleums are absolutely huge; some the size of small two-storey buildings. They even have staircases inside that go downstairs to underground crypts. They have glass doors in the fronts and the coffins are prominently displayed inside, with alters containing photographs, personal items and religious offerings. Evita’s mausoleum was surprisingly small and understated, considering her popularity in both life and death, but it is apparently the only one that is always covered in flowers.

La Boca

In the South Eastern edge of the city is a neighbourhood called La Boca, which carries with it a real Bohemian vibe with wide pedestrian streets and brightly coloured houses. The area is quite a tourist haven, with many places selling tango-related objects and there are many bars, restaurants and taverns. You’ll also find a lot of street artists selling their wares and street performers to entertain you.

I took a train down to La Boca one morning and spent the day wandering the area – at first I was a bit unsure, as people told me that the area had been considered unsafe for tourists. However I found it felt safe to walk about the area alone and the people were perfectly friendly! If you like trinkets and an arty vibe then this area is definitely for you!

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La Boca

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Street artist

Goodbye to sandals!

I stayed in BA around August time and the weather had been great; bright blue skies and clear days, with plenty of sunshine. But it was still absolutely freezing! Gone were the flip-flops and shorts that I had been living in for the previous month in Brazil – that 17 hour bus ride had definitely taken me south into the cold.

At one point I thought I had gotten used to the weight of my backpack, because it was surprisingly easy to lift…then I realised it was because I was now wearing half of my clothes in order to keep warm! I went shopping in the Centro district to get some new clothes because the people in BA dress really well and I was sick of looking like a typical messy traveller. I braved the nice shops and worried about having a pretty woman experience, with glamorous shop assistants who would be  mean about me – but the women couldn’t have been nicer! I had an amusing experience asking for skinny black jeans in Spanish and one assistant groping me to figure out my size!

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Shopping district

The BA way

My evenings were spent either socialising in the hostel or heading out to restaurants, bars and dance halls with people from my hostel. One thing that surprised me about the city was the timeline of an evening; no one eats until after 10pm at night and people sit in restaurants and cafes eating food and drinking coffee until gone midnight. They don’t tend to drink alcohol very early in the evening. Clubs and bars open at around 2am and that’s when the Argentinians start to drink – they pace themselves a lot better than people back in the UK!

People never really get home or to bed before dawn. Needless to say, I did not see my bed before 5am for several days in a row and my body clock officially broke!

Visit if you can!

Life in Buenos Aires is a crazy ride but you can’t help but be swept along with it; the place is addictive. Sadly, as is the case with travellers, my little group of friends at the hostel started to disperse, moving on to various other destinations following a week of BA life. When travelling you become attached to people so quickly, getting to know them in a blink of the eye and bonding through shared experiences. Then all too soon it is time to part – it is such a mixture of up’s and down’s. I left the city and moved West into Argentina for more rural experiences.

If you’re visiting Argentina then BA is a must-see stop – even if it’s just to watch the Tango! 

Outback escapades – Pantanal, Brazil

If you’re a regular to my posts you will have heard me mention my 6-month travels around South America in 2010. The first 3 weeks of the trip were spent in Brazil and primarily in city-scapes – Rio, Sao Pàulo. The cities of Brazil are vibrant urban jungles but I was eager to get into the wilderness and use my walking boots; to do what I personally termed ‘real travelling’. So, leaving the South East region, I hopped a bus out to the Brazilian version of the outback – the Pantanal.

The Pantanal

The Pantanal is one of the world’s largest areas of tropical wetland and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is so large it covers an area approximately 200,000 square miles and stretches into Bolivia and Paraguay. During the rainy season (November – March), most of the area floods with water which makes for incredibly diverse eco-systems. I visited the area in the dry season (July) when there are vast swathes of land to trek – perfect to test my walking boots.

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Pantanal outback

Be prepared for a long trip

To get to the Pantanal I left Sao Pàulo late in the evening on a bus, experiencing the usual randomness of travel that occurs in South America – stopping along the way, dropping people off in what looked to be the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. At one stage we hit roadworks on a massive stretch of road and had to wait an hour before the cars from the other direction could get through. People were getting out of their cars and chatting on the side of the road.

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Road works, Brazil-style

We rolled into Campo Grande, one of the towns that acts as a starting point for Pantanal trips, at around midday the following day. I had booked my tour on the internet prior to leaving Sao Pàulo, using a recommended company from a fellow traveller. However, due to the roadworks I had missed my tour which left at half past ten. A Dutch couple on the same bus had also missed the tour group, so the company offered to drive us out to the Pantanal especially (for a little petrol money). So after a 14 hour bus from Sao Pàulo, the three of us then completed two and a half hours on a minibus, two hours on a different minibus, and one and a half hours on a 4×4 jeep across rough terrain. Tiring didn’t begin to describe it.

The minibus journeys were pretty uneventful but the 4×4 Jeep looked to be quite exciting. It was an open sided Jeep, with canvas roof and hard wooden bench seats. At first I loved it because the air was warm and the scenery at sunset and by moonlight was incredible – like I imagine African landscape to be, with far-reaching plains and tall trees. But after one and a half hours of trying not to swallow bugs the size of small birds and I was ready to get off!

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Sunset in the Pantanal

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Our 4×4

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All smiles!

Lodges and night walks

We were introduced to our guide Gabriel and the rest of our tour group, a friendly group of people in their 20s and 30s. But there was no rest for us, as Gabriel announced that we would be going out on a night hike. We put on long trousers and hiking boots before we set off walking in the moonlight. It was nerve-wracking walking around in the dark – there were huge spiders on webs in the trees and the cayman (small ancestors of alligators) were out of the lakes, laying on the grass. You could see their eyes shining in the dark. But I was happy to come across a cute anteater outside my dorm room!

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The caymen

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An anteater outside my lodge room

Trekking and tattoos

The next day, at Gabriel’s suggestion, we woke at sunrise to watch the macaws feeding – they were a brilliant dark blue colour and really, really noisy but incredible to watch so closely. We then went on a 4 hour hike, seeing a host of wildlife, including monkeys, raccoons, boar, and loads of tropical birds (heron, flamingo, jabaru, parakeets). Gabriel took us through such a variety of landscape, from dense trees and undergrowth to wide open wet lands, telling fascinating stories about the foliage and birds nesting habits. We were encouraged to get into nature and walk barefoot through muddy water up to our knees – following Gabriel’s barefoot example.

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Macaws feeding

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Dawn sunrise

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Tree tops

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Undergrowth

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Jabaru nest

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Tree vine

Gabriel stopped in front of a fruit tree and plucked a small plum-sized fruit, telling us that the juice is like a temporary tattooing agent – like henna – so he cut it open and drew small tattoos on us. Mine was a butterfly – and god bless him, Gabriel is a great guide but an artist he isn’t! I was glad when it wore off because I didn’t want to be stuck with it for life!

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Gabriel

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Tattoo fruit

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Drawing my butterfly

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Temporary tattoo

Sting in its tail

As we were walking through a section of thick undergrowth, two girls on our tour started shouting in pain – they had been stung by a huge black insect that looked like a beetle. The younger girl was stung on the hand and the older woman had it go down her top and it stung her just under her breast (very unfortunate). Gabriel told them not to panic – he took the young girl’s hand, reached behind him, and pulled out his massive machete!! This was one of the funniest moments on the trip because the girl thought he was going to chop off her hand!

But Gabriel used the machete to mark the bite (which was swelling rapidly) with a cross and then cut into a nearby tree and spread some of the sap on the bite. It stopped the pain and the swelling went down, acting as a natural anaesthetic. The other woman had the same treatment for her bite, but we gave her some privacy for that!

Lunch at the lodge

The lodge we were staying at was absolutely beautiful – like a farm house with out-buildings, stables, a lake and gorgeous verandas with hammocks. We spent much time relaxing in those hammocks.

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Lodge building

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Hammocks

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View over the lake

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Lake

Following lunch back at the lodge we were all given horses and went riding through the Pantanal for the afternoon. I really enjoyed this part, as we covered a lot of ground and the horses were beautiful. The only drawback to riding in the Pantanal is that the horses tend to scare a lot of the animals away, but you still see lots of birds and tropical plants.

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My beautiful horse

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Horse trekking

Piranha fishing

Later that afternoon, Gabriel took myself and one of the other couples out onto the lake to do some piranha fishing. The boat was like a tiny tin can and we had these huge rods made from sticks of bamboo. Gabriel used meat as our bait and we hooked the pieces onto our lines and swung the rods into the water. Literally the second the meat touched the water, one of us had caught a piranha – they are incredibly fast! Many times they managed to get away with our bait before we even realised – you have to yank the pole out of the water really fast to keep them hooked. This meant that we were all wildly swinging our poles around and narrowly missing each others faces with either empty hooks or freshly-caught piranhas!

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Sunset fishing

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A cayman after our fish!

As the sun fell, more and more bugs appeared around us and this in turn brought out the bats, who were chasing the bugs. The bats were swooping so low that we kept hitting them with the fishing poles! We were also surrounded by caymen, who were sitting in the water watching us fish their dinner! We drank a few cans of beer while all of this was happening, which just added to the general madness of it all. That night Gabriel gutted and cooked up the piranha for our dinner – they’re reasonably tasty fish but there’s not a lot of meat on them.

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Darkness falling

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Caught one!

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Piranha!

River cruising

The next morning we were piled into the Jeep and taken down to a river for a boat ride in the sun. The river birds were out in force – kingfishers, toucans, and heron. We also saw a boa constrictor and some iguana sunning themselves on the banks.

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Kingfisher

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Boa Constrictor

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In the boat

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Iguana

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Drying his wings

Too soon it was over and we were on our way back to Campo Grande – our Pantanal experience was over. If you are an animal lover, this trip would definitely be for you – the guides are absolutely wonderful with their knowledge of the ecosystems and you will come away with some David Attenborough-worthy facts!

Visiting the Pantanal soon? Feel free to ask if you’re curious about anything!

Wine and Walking in the Andes – Mendoza, Argentina

Mecca in Mendoza

If you knew me personally, you’d know of my love of wine – even when wine isn’t particularly nice to me back, I am a loyal and faithful servant. So in 2010, whilst touring around South America for 6 months, I was eager to stop in one of the wine capitals of the world – Mendoza in Argentina.

Mendoza is nestled into a series of high plains in the crook of the eastern Andes, and something about the climate here (I was listening on the wine tour, honestly!) means they produce some of the best red Malbec wines. The region is the largest producer of wine in the whole of Latin America – basically, it was my Mecca!

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Internet pic of a Mendoza vineyard

Home away from home

As a backpacker, I was making my home in hostels – in Mendoza, home was the Hostel Lao. This hostel was recommended to me by fellow travellers and I was so glad to have taken their advice. The place is owned by an English man and his Argentinian wife, and they created one of the most homely hostels that I had stayed in throughout my trip – the hostel was peppered with comfy sofas, armchairs, and a real log fire (which was lovely in the dreary rain Mendoza was suffering from at the time). As a traveller, finding places where you feel truly comfortable is like gold, as it means you can bed down for a few days and relax.

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Living area

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Garden

The staff at the hostel were incredibly helpful, especially a guy called Herman who answered about a million of my questions during my stay. He advised on the best things to do while I was in town and of course the first suggestion was a wine tour. I booked onto a day excursion to several boutique ‘bodegas’ (wineries).

World of wine

The excursion was a unique experience – there were about 15 people on the trip; a family of four from the USA, two Mexicans, and the rest Argentinian. We toured around three bodegas and sampled several wines in each.

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Malbec wine barrels

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Enjoying the tour!

My resistance to wine can be low (despite the quantities I have consumed!) and so I was in need of some food to soak up the alcohol. I couldn’t have predicted a bigger lunch. We arrived at a local restaurant and were put on a large, long table that was laid out to every possible square inch with food; meats, cheeses, pickles, rice, lentils, vegetables, salads, breads, dips…you name it, it was there in four different varieties!

As we tucked into the food, a waiter informed us that this was only the starter! They kept bringing more dishes out as the meal went on – various types of empanadas (a traditional Argentinian pasty), a rice dish, and a pasta dish. The copious foods were watered down with much more red wine!

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Our never-ending lunch

At lunch I was seated with the Argentinians, who didn’t speak much English. Add that to my rubbish Spanish and I wasn’t holding out hope for much lunchtime talk. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Argentinians continually practised their English on me and encouraged me to use my limited Spanish by pointing at the various foods and asking for translations, then providing them back in Spanish. It made for much hilarity – they loved the word ‘chickpea’!

Taking on the trek

The second suggestion from Herman was a day trek up into the ‘Chico Andes’, which is what the locals call the smaller mountain ranges in the Andes that border Argentina and Chile. When I say smaller, I mean 3500 metres above sea level, as opposed to 6500 metres – so they’re not so ‘chico’ in reality!

Two guys from my hostel joined me on the trek – Jonathus (from Brazil) and Quentin (from France). We were taken to a rental shop to get equipment, which included these huge moon boots and some walking poles. We met our guide, Fefi, at the base camp in the morning and began hiking up the range to one of the peaks in the Cerro San Bernardo elevations.

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My attractive moon boots

It was a bright, clear day with the sun shining – but the snow that had fallen recently did make walking really difficult. You would step forward and not know if you would sink a few inches or a few feet into snow. Every step forward would also see you slide back half a step each time, which felt so defeating after a few hours.

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Lake at base camp

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Some of the shallower footsteps

I wasn’t sure how I would be affected by the altitude but I was soon to find out. As unfit as I am (a semi-regular exerciser), I could happily walk uphill in normal circumstances – but every step at altitude is like a marathon. It’s hard to describe – it’s not like you can’t suck in air, it’s just that every breath doesn’t feel like it’s enough.

About half way up I had started to feel queasy and got a little light-headed. Jonathus, Quentin and Fefi were OK and powered on ahead – in fact, due to my level of fitness and the altitude sickness, I fell behind my companions and remained that way for most of the hike. But I was keen to keep my own pace and not overdo it, having suffered with many a knee injury in the past. I spent 90% of that trek reciting ‘left…..right…..left……right’ just to keep myself going.

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Staying cheerful on the climb

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The boys rounding a ridge

All of the hard work is worth it for the scenery on the hike – it was absolutely breathtaking. There were frozen waterfalls, snow drifts, and we hiked to a level above the clouds – absolutely unbelievable. When I had finally neared the top, the boys were waiting and they cheered me on – we all hugged and took group pictures at the top. We stayed up on the peak for about an hour, taking pics, sitting and having a packed lunch – Fefi had carried up a gas stove and made us hot soup.

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Reached the top!

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Above the clouds

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Group hug!

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Loving being at the top

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Soup at the summit

The trek back down took only half the time it took to get up because we just stood into the snow and let ourselves slip down the mountain. The boys loved this part and I soon got into the rhythm, with our various falls into the snow keeping us amused all the way down to base camp. That night we celebrated our achievement with a huge steak dinner – I won’t get started on the steaks in Argentina…they need their whole own blog post!

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The survivors

 

Are you a wine fanatic? Does Mendoza tickle your taste buds? 

If you’re in the area, consider staying at Hostel Lao – http://www.laohostel.com

 

Get to the Galapagos

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Galapagos at sunset

Darwin and the Roaring Pacific

When Charles Darwin stopped in the Galapagos islands he was so inspired he wrote the Origin of the Species and founded his theory of evolution. Following my visit in 2010 I was so inspired I could have stayed! It is truly one of the most unique places on this planet – a must-be-seen if ever there was one.

I wandered into the trip to the Galapagos slightly naively – thinking that we would be staying on a boat that would travel around close to the shores of islands just off from the mainland, in smooth, calm waters. The reality is very different, but it was the best kind of surprise. The 28 islands that make up the Galapagos are more than 600 miles from the shore of Ecuadorian mainland and requires a 2 hour flight to reach, and they’re parked in the middle of the roaring Pacific Ocean. You haven’t seen waves until you’ve seen the mighty Pacific.

Meeting Mum 

I began my trip from Quito in Ecuador, where I awaited the arrival of my mum, Linda. I was at the tail-end of a 6-month trip to South America and she decided to come and join me for the Galapagos experience. Being a wildlife photographer, she was desperately excited to see what the islands had to offer in photo opportunities – and it turns out we weren’t to be disappointed!

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Mum and me – Galapagos sunshine

We were recommended to buy our tour through a family-owned and -run business that was still controlled locally in the Galapagos – they owned a boat called The Samba. We paid around £1100 for a week aboard the boat, with full meals and tours. This was much less than many other people we met in Ecuador and even people on the same boat, who had booked from back in the UK or other countries. If you can – travel to Ecuador and book your trip locally to save yourself a lot of money – one woman on our boat paid upwards of £7000 for the trip!

To say that this recommendation was a good one is an understatement, and not just because of the money it saved us. From the moment we met our guide Juan at the airport on Santa Cruz island we were bathed in his enthusiasm for geology, animals, birds, climate and history. Point out anything – rock, mammal, mineral – and Juan could tell you a never-ending list of facts about it, with the zest of someone who was telling it for the first time, instead of the 1000th.

The Samba

The Samba

Boarding the boat

The Samba was a medium-sized vessel with a quaint air about it. It accommodated 14 guests (2 to a cabin) and housed a further 7 staff members, who cooked, cleaned, served and drove the guests from the boat to the islands on small inflatable dinghies. The boat was furnished with beautiful oak panelling and had a vast deck on the front and an upper deck where you could wander at the views in the day and the stars at night. Our cabin was more than comfortable, with bunk beds and our own private bathroom with hot, fresh-water shower.

The food on-board was incredible – I must have gained half a stone in that week! All meals were at least 3 courses and included platters of the most beautifully cooked and exotic vegetables and fruits, as well as succulent fish and meats, and breads and pastries.

The Samba - Dining room

The Samba – Dining room

The Samba - Our Cabin

Our Cabin

The staff and Juan were genuinely friendly and interacted with each and every guest throughout the trip – even joining us on jumping off the top of the boat in a ‘bombing’ contest. When we sailed across the equator they arranged for us to have a champagne toast as the dials all hit 0. We had a real mixture of ages amongst the guests – from myself as the youngest at 27 to the oldest at 68 – and hailed from countries all over the world, including the USA, Canada, UK, The Netherlands, and Denmark.

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Our boat buddies

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Juan and the amazing staff

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The Captain at the Equator

Day tripping

Our days were meticulously planned so that we could get the most out of our time on the islands – believe me, a week passes quickly. We rose early for breakfasts around 6am and were on the islands most days by 7am. Some nights the captain navigated to a new island while we were sleeping so that we could start early again the next day in a new location – the longest distance between islands requiring 12 hours of sailing.

Relaxing while navigating between islands

Relaxing on deck while navigating between islands

Landscape and lizards

All of the islands in the Galapagos are different – from sand, black lava flows, and huge volcanic rocks – having been formed from various volcanic activity. It is incredibly diverse. The vegetation on each island also varies hugely, some being incredibly baron and others having a lush cover of bushland and trees – however almost all are punctuated by huge iguanas and tiny lava lizards. On one island we went to visit the giant land tortoises. who meandered around a field while we sat and watched in awe. They are truly magnificent – as it most of the wildlife on the islands.

Giant tortoise

Giant tortoise

Juan crawling with a giant tortoise

Crawling with a giant tortoise

Seven days in the Galapagos will literally change your life – one of my favourite memories is Juan leading us on a snorkelling trip into a deep cavern amongst some underwater rock formations. As we floated on the surface, being as still as possible, the cavern below us filled with sea turtles, swimming in glorious, slow circles below us.  The guides don’t encourage you to approach the animals but you really don’t need to, as they approach you. Having not become accustomed to human contact, the animals are curious and will come to explore if you sit still and quiet.

Sea turtles

Sea turtles

Up close and personal with a baby sea lion

Up close and personal

A snapshot of the animals we saw includes penguins, reef sharks, turtles, giant tortoises, sea lions, seals, iguanas, lizards, crabs, flamingos, albatross, pelicans and the famous blue footed booby. The colours and vibrancy of these animals will live with me forever.

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What are your thoughts on visiting the Galapagos? Are you a wildlife person? Afraid of boats? Let me know your thoughts!

Prices are correct as booked through Carpe DM Travel in Quito, Ecuador (http://www.carpedm.ca/) in November 2010.