351 days, 16 countries, 4 continents, 30,000k by land, 60,000k by air, 6500 photos (viewing is optional) – the last week and closing chapter of our year long adventures

New York and Iceland shared our last week. It was cold in NY but absolutely freezing in Iceland. The hot Caribbean coast was becoming a distant memory along with my disappearing tan.
 Having previously seen the sights of New York we stayed in Newark, New Jersey and we immediately thought we were back in Latin America. An abundance of Portuguese and Spanish shops, restaurants and bars and English language schools, we hardly heard any English during our stay. We visited a mall to buy some suitable footwear for Iceland and after many different shops I secured my first pair of DMs (never too old)! After a day of walking the streets of Manhatten we finished our brief stay exploring the amazing Natural History Museum. It was a perfect way to spend a cold day and so often overlooked in favour of the typical tourist stops.

Flip flops now firmly locked away and donning our new boots we landed on Iceland on a cold dark morning, our body clocks still at 1am and accommodation not available until the afternoon we drove round for a few hours with intermittent coffee stops at the numerous bakeries dotted around. When the sun finally rose at 10am the incredible scenery kept us going although it was great to finally crash out late afternoon. Layered up, we ventured out for our first attempt to see the Northern Lights. We were advised on the tour bus that the previous 3 nights there had been no show and so off we drove hoping and praying that could we please be lucky. Our luck held out and despite crazily cold temperatures we braved the elements and saw this natural phenomenon unfold in front of our eyes. Hundreds of us crazy humans stood, cameras clicking, icy winds biting around us while green lights appeared above us. As they disappeared we jumped back on the coach and then they reappeared so we all jumped off again. This happened a few times until finally the great light show was over and coach heaters were turned on, layers peeled off and we all dozed on the return.  
The blue lagoon was next, courtesy of my lovely daughters and partners and the hot thermal pool was a real treat. Sipping prosecco and applying face masks all added to the experience and so feeling relaxed and invigorated we explored the local areas as dusk was falling. Twinkly fairy lights on trees gave a Christmassy feel and the coloured houses and snowy streets added to a magical experience. It really is a truly beautiful country. 

Our final day was supposed to be driving the Golden Circle but adverse weather caused roads to be closed so instead we made up our own spectacular east coast drive and were rewarded with stunning views the whole way including two lighthouses on the eastern tip for a final climb. 

So our amazing journey finally comes to an end. With so many countries and so many places it is hard to name favourites but here is a brief (I promise) summary. 

New Zealand and Iceland were stunningly beautiful but the Iguazu Falls were breathtaking. The Asian temples were incredible but the salt flats of Bolivia were so much fun. 

We have danced, we have sung, we have laughed, we have cried. We have wanted to come home, we have not wanted to come home. 

Asia was as cheap as chips (or should that be noodles and rice) but South America has me craving for more. I fully intend to find Spanish lessons beforehand! 

We have relaxed on beautiful beaches, we have climbed mountains and canyons. We have been hot, we have been cold and unfortunately we have been wet (far too many times). 

We have seen penguins, sea lions, dolphins and seals, kangaroos, koalas, emus and kiwis, lizards, iguanas, llamas and alpacas, condors, frigates, hummingbirds and toucans to name but a few. 

We have seen temples and mosques, churches and cathedrals, castles and lighthouses and monuments and statues in all their splendour. 

We have seen sunrises, sunsets, sunbows and rainbows and experienced an earthquake and a cyclone, not all in one day! 

We have covered so many miles and seen so many amazing people, incredible wildlife and scenery and learnt so much, I never want a “normal” holiday again. 

Despite the bugs and stray dogs, dodgy toilets and crazy drivers, we have had such a blast and so somewhat reluctantly tomorrow we take our final flight homeward bound. See you all very soon!! 

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12 destinations, 3138k covered, 39 days – our Colombian travels

Colombia by its sheer location was our last Latin American stop and also our longest stay. It is a pretty vast country with massive variations so we were sure we could easily fill our remaining few weeks. 

We had crossed by land throughout our trip and border crossings were becoming pretty straightforward. No visa required, another stamp to the collection, we had almost got a bit blasé! Peru and Ecuador border staff even shared the same office. As we arrived at the Ecuador / Colombia border it soon became apparent that this was not going to be so simple. Hordes of people loaded with enormous luggage, the queues were snaking round the buildings in all directions it seemed with no obvious indication of where we should join. Finally finding ourselves in the right queue, we shuffled along at snails pace. It was hot and uncomfortable and when we finally turned a corner into the shade the chaos still continued. We all had to abandon our bags and we reluctantly placed them in a hopefully safe place while we edged slowly forward eventually obtaining our exit stamp after 2 hours. Retrieving our bags and walking the few hundred metres to the Colombian side it was pretty much identical. No shade, hundreds of people shuffling round a building it was totally insane. Another 2 hours passed before our entry stamp and with a 9 hour bus journey ahead it was going to be one very long day. We arrived at our hostel at 2am. Welcome to Colombia! 

Popayan our first stop was a beautiful colonial town and although very busy a few days before Christmas it was easy to navigate and enjoy the architectural delights. A young local historian gave us a fascinating walking tour accompanied by a selection of old photographs so you could almost imagine the scene in days gone by. Pretty much the whole town had been flattened by an earthquake, the main casualties were those attending mass in church when the domed roof collapsed. They certainly had a quick entry to heaven. 

We arrived at our Christmas destination in Cali. Christmas was always going to be difficult being away from family and it was all very strange for us all. The hostel prepared a meal Christmas Eve and we all exchanged travel stories and different nationalities customs at Christmas. The big day arrived and with no presents or cards, Colombian post had not delivered, it just felt like another travel day.  

Cali is known for its salsa and there was a week long festival starting on the 25th and we got tickets for the salsadromo, the opening parade. It was an amazing spectacle with incredible dancing on the packed streets. It was all going so well until the rain arrived. The grandstand mesh roof soon started leaking and we were all pretty drenched as it got heavier and heavier. Amazingly the dancers kept going but with some pretty impressive acrobatics thrown in, eventually it was cut short due to safety concerns. We emerged from the grandstand to rivers instead of roads and waded ourselves through the enormous crowds still dancing and partying totally oblivious to the horrendous conditions. Walking back drenched it was certainly a Christmas we will not forget. 

Between Christmas and New Year we squeezed in a trip to the coffee region and visited Salento. A fantastic coffee tour was run by our hostel and donning wellies for the muddy walk we slipped down the trails while the great Australian guide went through the whole process. The roasting of beans at his coffee plantation was amazing to watch and the tastings even better. Unfortunately the best Colombian coffee is exported so we were warned we may not get a decent coffee in many places. 

A trip to the Corcoran Valley to see the biggest palm trees in the world was a great trek the following day. Jeeps ferry visitors to and from the town crammed full with some brave people hanging onto the outside. The trails were very very muddy and we got yet another drenching. I just about managed to stay upright on the extremely slippery paths shared by horses in many cases. Slipping on horse muck was not something I wanted to experience! We had a couple of stops for a hot drink to warm us up and for the first time had hot chocolate in a bowl with a piece of cheese and a slab of bread, a local meal/drink. It was pretty strange but also very tasty and kept us going. The rain subsided for the grand finale of the palm trees which are truly enormous and all in all it had been a great day despite the tough terrain in the conditions. 

New Year was spent in Bogota, another capital city I was not really that keen on visiting. We stayed in the Candelaria district and as in Cali it was the pretty historical centre with cobbled streets and coloured buildings. We climbed all 1500 steep steps up and down to Montserrate which towers over the city. Other easier options are the cable car or funicular railway but on the last day of this amazing year it had to be a challenge! 

With 5 hours time difference we were just chilling in our hostel when everyone back home was partying at midnight. We decided at 10 to grab a snack and a drink and opened the door to be greeted by yet more rain. A local place was one of the few places open and we huddled inside watching the clock. We emerged onto the eerily empty streets just before midnight. A handful of other travellers were dotted around all looking slightly bewildered. A few fireworks in the distance entertained us for a few minutes but we were back in the hostel by half past. It turns out Colombians party at home. On a positive we awoke on the 1st with no hangover, ready to embrace whatever this year is to bring. 

The main draw to Bogota for me was the underground salt cathedral at Zipaquira some 50k out of the city. We mastered the local bus system and three buses later we arrived. An hour tour around this beautiful place gave you all the basics and then you could explore at your leisure. The mine is still an active one and the miners had created this amazing cathedral over several years. The crosses and chapels were stunning and we spent several hours admiring this very unusual place. 

Another very informative walking tour combining politics, street art and history and a visit to the very well designed gold museum concluded our mostly enjoyable few days in the capital. It was time to start heading up north to hopefully some sunshine. 

We stopped at San Gil on our journey northwards. Another place which will not win any awards for attractiveness but again a base for sights nearby. Local buses regularly went to neighbouring Barichara which definitely is one of the most beautiful towns in Colombia. Cobbled streets, white washed buildings and red tiled roofs it was like stepping back in time. The central square and church were equally as attractive and after a delicious iced coffee we explored before heading to the start of the Camino Real trail. This cobbled walkway wound through the stunning countryside ending in the smaller but equally beautiful town of Guane. It was like Barichara in miniature. After refuelling we walked the 10k trail back, this way mainly uphill and very hot but definitely worth it. 

On our second day we again headed to a neighbouring town, again a pretty one and despite locals persuading us to take taxis, we chose to walk to the river where 5 natural swimming pools are the free, unbelievably, local attraction. Heeding the advice of Lonely Planet, we ignored the first packed ones and continued walking to the furthest one where only a handful of locals were swimming. Clambering over the rocks was a challenge but we were soon enjoying the refreshing water and drying out on the rocks in the sun was gorgeous. On returning to the town the square was buzzing with activity and we chilled with an ice cream people watching and soaking up the atmosphere whilst waiting for our return bus. 

It was then time for another, hopefully final, night bus to Santa Marta on the north Caribbean coast. Arriving at 8.30am and with no check in until 3pm, we dumped our bags in storage at the terminal and headed into town for breakfast. Feeling slightly more human we strolled along the seafront promenade admiring the fancy yachts in the marina and then explored the small historical centre. A couple of nice squares and the cathedral kept us amused for a bit and then the gold museum which being Sunday was free. Expecting a miniature version of Bogota’s we were pleasantly surprised that this one was mainly about the indigenous tribes and their customs and artefacts collected from the region. A few coffee stops and a bit of lunch later we finally retrieved our bags and checked in to our Airbnb apartment. 

It was a slightly strange set up with the owners living in one and renting out the other two bedrooms in a very small apartment with a minuscule kitchen. Despite previous reviews they spoke no English and our brief stay there was somewhat challenging and made increasingly so by no wifi. No internet is lovely to escape properly but we had nowhere booked for after check out. Using local cafes and restaurants we managed to book somewhere further down the coast praying that we would have better luck there. 

Palomino was meant to be a tranquil escape. Unfortunately in January there is no such place in Colombia. It’s pretty much like our school summer holidays. The beach was totally packed and with music blaring from the bars, Colombians only have 1 volume, mega loud, it was not quite what we had imagined. We made the best of it and had a great trek in the Sierra Nevada national park. The steep ascents were rewarded with great views and the equally steep descents were rewarded by a dip in the river. We braved the beach and found by wandering away from all the bars the people disappeared, strange how that happens and we chilled for a few hours under the palm trees. 

We moved along the coast again to the somewhat quieter Riohacha for a couple of days. The malecon (promenade) was our favourite place for a walk with its attractive mosaic statues and pillars and local tribal ladies crocheting their colourful bags for sale. 

With only two weeks left in Colombia we wanted to see as much as possible so we were moving around quite frequently and our next stop was Valledupar. A bit off the tourist trail we stayed in a gorgeous colonial house, very posh for us, although still only cold showers. It may be hot in the north but please let us have warm water at least, it just reminds me too much of school showers after PE! We only had one day here and pretty much tramped from one end to the next and a lot inbetween taking in all the monuments and wearing out the shoes a little more. It is famous for being the birthplace of vallenato music which comprises an accordion, a drum and some other weird looking instrument called a guacharaca, a wooden stick played with a fork to create the sound. 

We got to sample this music the next day on our minibus to our next destination. The screen played vallenato music over and over again and believe me after one round I had heard enough. The accordion was great for a while but every track sounded identical to the previous one. It was stopped eventually for the usual dubbed film in Spanish. It was a long 5 hours! 

We had read about Mompox and even though challenging to reach we went for it and of course it was worth it. A beautiful old colonial town on the banks of the Magdalena river it was seeped in history where time stopped still. We stayed in one of the beautiful colonial riverside homes and the owner told us it was his grandfathers house where he had lived and died, his father had been born there and with the family all scattered round the world, it was left abandoned and starting to decay. He is lovingly restoring it as a very successful Airbnb venture and with hammocks aplenty it was a real chill out place. The intense heat means you can really only slow down and stroll the streets admiring the pretty plazas and stunning churches and watch talented locals create the beautiful silver filigree jewellery, a Mompox speciality. I did not take much persuading to buy a piece. 

Sipping a cold drink in a gorgeous rocking chair on a peaceful square overlooking the river is like something you read in a novel but it really was very idyllic here. We finished off our lovely couple of days here with a lazy trip down the river admiring the wildlife and scenery until we reached the marshes when a combination of the boatmen pushing the reeds with punts and us “crew” rocking the boat from side to side to get us through. It was all good fun and added to the enjoyment of a peaceful few hours culminating in a stunning view as we came into dock with the pretty coloured churches illuminated against the red night skies. 

It was just as challenging getting away from Mompox and meant an early start of 6am. Our journey consisted of 6 different sections, including a boat, a bicycle taxi, a bus and three different cars. Surprisingly it was one of our easiest journeys and we arrived in Tolu nice and early. 

A Colombian favourite beach town it was not exactly pretty but we managed to find a quieter end away from the usual thumping music and chilled for a few hours. The nearby San Bernardo islands was the real reason for our visit. We had a great boat trip which enticed you with some of the many idyllic Caribbean islands by circling them before finally stopping at one where we could swim in the crystalline clear blue sea and doze on the perfect white sand before a fresh fish lunch. Even better was the absence of the usual pumping sounds and stray dogs. Apart from the annoying flies circling our fish as we ate it could have been perfect. Cannot have everything I guess! 

Last stop was Cartagena, the Jewel of the northern coast. It was indeed and a perfect place to enjoy our last few days of South America. This walled city is seeped in history and a very beautiful place to wander around the streets and admire the coloured buildings. We walked the city walls and visited the impressive fortress overlooking the city. A fort that was impenetrable even from the attacks of “pirate” Francis Drake amongst others , it gave great views of both the old city within the walls and the skyscrapers of the new alongside the coast.  

We certainly made the most of the sun (yes we know that the UK does get it sometimes but we are coming home in February)! and our last days in Colombia were either beachside or strolling the historical walls topping up our Vitamin D for the long stretch ahead. 

So Colombia, we have loved your many impressive colonial towns, enjoyed your beaches (the ones less crowded), been deafened by your music but you are indeed great dancers, admired your beautiful women and your cute children and seen the many different sides to this colourful country full of noise and attitude, the doors are now firmly closed on its dark dangerous past. 

South America has been our home for 5 months and so now it is time for a couple of new places to wind up the trip. 

8 destinations, 1 earthquake and an abundance of wildlife and diverse scenery – our 24 days in Ecuador

So Ecuador was country number 13 and unlucky for me as I picked up a bug during the border crossing from Peru. It took 10 days before I could eat properly but hopefully got rid of any extra pounds I may have accumulated during the year! 

Undeterred by illness we started our journey in Guayaquil, the largest city and a very photogenic one at that. A very impressive malecon (seafront promenade) stretched along the front and we spent a few hours enjoying the views. With warm temperatures, or was that just the fever I had, it felt quite tropical.  

The Iguana park was close to our hotel and on first appearance it seemed just another park and not particularly big at that. However following others we looked upwards and saw that many iguanas were in the trees dozing. As we continued walking more and more appeared and it certainly is aptly named. Munching on the country’s favourite, bananas, they were more than happy to pose for photos.

Our stay in the big city ended with our first and hopefully only experience of an earthquake. As we watched yet another movie on the iPad, the whole room started shaking and the mirror rattled. I, being me, was petrified, convinced we had to get out but Gary calmly carried on watching the film. The following morning we discovered it was only 6 miles away and was a level 5 so luckily not damaging. The breakfast lady said it was earthquake season and following the previous year’s larger one, we should always get down to street level. Our room was on the sixth floor!

Our next destination was the coast, Puerto Lopez. Signs on arrival alerted us to tsunami procedures, great news following our earthquake experience! Luckily our hostel was way up in the hills past the tsunami evacuation zone. It was a pretty uninspiring town with a beach that looked very tired but this was just a base for two great day trips.

The first was to the beautiful national park of Machalilla. A short bus journey and we signed in at the entrance and followed the trails. It was so peaceful and we spotted many scampering lizards along the way. The trail takes you to two very tiny scenic coves and a few lookouts which all deserved a few photos and a breather. We finally descended down onto the most beautiful beach of Los Frailes. It was certainly worth the long walk and the sun even came out as we enjoyed the tranquillity and soaked up some rays.

The other trip which is the reason all us “backpackers” descend on Puerto Lopez is to visit Isla de la Plata, otherwise known as “Poor Man’s Galapagos”! Our boat left in the morning and it took over an hour to reach the island. Travel bands and motion sickness pill again saved the day on the somewhat choppy route. At least with the ongoing bug I was not eating much and definitely not drinking so had a clear head and empty stomach to start with. Just before we arrived we were given banana cake, pretty hard to eat while bouncing in the waves and then bananas too. We obviously needed lots of potassium for some unbeknown reason.

We were divided into two groups, Spanish and non Spanish speaking and the two guides set off. The trails round the island were determined by the wildlife. The island is populated by hundreds of blue footed boobies and they were often sat in the middle of a trail and there was no way that you could pass. Boobies are the strangest creatures going. They look just like any other bird or duck when seated but as they stand you cannot help but giggle. Their bright blue feet look like they have either stepped in a big tub of paint or are wearing little wellies. It just looks so wrong. The babies are gorgeous tubby white fluffy things with white feet. It really is a case of the ugly duckling in reverse! We also saw a whole community of frigates up close and our first mockingbird. The island is very protected and one trail was closed as two rare albatrosses were mating. There was no rubbish, no cafe, no tacky tourist attractions and we really felt at one with nature.

Back in the boat we were delighted to have enormous sea turtles circling the boat giving us amazing views together with many types of colourful fish. I may have not done the snorkelling but it was nevertheless an amazing trip despite not being 100%. 

Next stop was the gorgeous city of Cuenca. We spent a few days just admiring the many churches and architecture of the old buildings including a long trek uphill to the first church which gave magnificent views. It was a beautiful small city and was definitely my favourite one in Ecuador. We were also staying in an old colonial building which was stunning and enjoyed some lovely morning chats with the owner. We have indeed met some lovely people along the way and they have always been so friendly and given us great tips on where to go next.

Many months ago before we even arrived in South America I had read about the Devils Nose train ride and this was how we ended up coming to Ecuador. It is the most incredible engineering feat building a railway through the mountains and we had to see it. We stayed in the tiny but picturesque town of Alausi where our hostel was only a few yards from the station. We booked the 11am train and boarded the wooden carriage where our guide talked us through the journey. As we chugged along the mountain the views were gorgeous and then we saw the tracks way below us by the river. How on earth were we going to get there soon became apparent as we started a series of switchbacks, going into reverse and then forward to descend down the tracks. It was amazing to witness and although not as long a journey as I had hoped for it was still well worth it.  

We were now well acquainted with the local buses and finding them comfortable and cheap it was the perfect way to keep moving up north. Next stop was Riobamba to walk on the highest mountain of Chimborazo. The summit is 2.1k farther from the Earth’s centre than Everest. We ascended to nearly 5000m which was a round trip of 10 miles, not bad at high altitude. I did want to reach the next level but unfortunately Gary was really struggling to breathe and so being sensible we descended. We then waited over an hour for a bus before finally giving up and hitching a lift with a fellow walker the 30k back to town. We got lucky as he was a young local doctor who spoke perfect English and it sure beat a ride in the back of a truck that I was fearing. My first and probably only hitchhiking experience although very common here it seems. 

We finally arrived at the capital of Quito and on first impression it felt a bit rough and not that safe to wander too far. We discovered the nicer side on a walking tour around the historical centre and saw all the impressive churches and cathedrals and being a Monday we were also able to watch the changing of the guard at the presidential palace where the president himself appears on the balcony! 

We could not come to Ecuador and not visit the middle of the world so two bus journeys later we arrived at the place 00° 00′ 00″. The French scientists who discovered this was the place then constructed a massive monument which is actually in the incorrect place. I had read this and so we first visited the amazing Intinan Museum where the real middle of the world is. It was a beautifully designed area and a guide showed us many interesting things before we enjoyed all the fun of pictures on the line, admiring the sun dials and trying unsuccessfully to balance an egg and walk in a straight line. The gravitational forces were incredible and apparently you are at your lightest there so we had a cookie with our coffee! We did also visit the main site which actually is not tacky at all with some great sculptures and dozens of stunning hand painted hummingbird seats and it was indeed a great place to spend the day and only a short trip from the capital. 

After so many stops in such a short time, it was time to relax and what better place than the beautiful cloud forests of Mindo. It was birdwatchers paradise with hummingbirds galore along with so many others. Coupled with hundreds of butterflies it was a perfect spot to get away from it all. We enjoyed many walks in this tranquil area including a long hike to the waterfalls, not quite Igazu Falls but stunning nevertheless and deserted too. The cable car / cage contraption that whizzed you high across the forest canopy was an experience in itself.  

We spent an hour or so in a hummingbird garden mesmerised by these beautiful tiny birds, their wings fluttering so rapidly photographs seem impossible. Their beautiful colours add to their attraction and with the benefit of special feeders, we finally got to see them close up and relatively still. We were also fortunate enough to spot a toucan and a parrot during our stay. Sorry birdwatchers but I have no idea of the names of all the others we spotted.  

One final stop in a very diverse Ecuador was Ibarra surrounded by volcanos and nestled in a valley, it was that one step close to the border. Another uphill hike to the town’s mirador, it seems that every South American town has someone or something overlooking the town, in this case a gigantic Angel. Trying to think of what Yate could have, a coffee bean symbolising all our coffee shops maybe! It is always a good viewpoint and burns a few more calories too. 

We also walked to the giant lagoon just outside the town. The legends that surround this claim that 30,000 were slaughtered in a battle many moons ago and all buried in the lake. The name translated means blood lake. Not much red to be observed on our visit, unless you count our Christmas hats for our photo shoot here. We happily strolled round a section of the lake admiring the views and minding our own business until a stray dog decided we were on his patch. I certainly will not miss stray dogs on our return. They are everywhere and often quite intimidating especially in packs. 

So Ecuador ends on our 10 months travel anniversary and tomorrow we cross yet another land border. Colombia will be our home for Christmas and New Year and in fact our last South American country. Let’s make it the best one yet! 

100th bed is a bus

So many places, so many beds! Every now and again to keep the old grey cells from fading, I memorise all the places we have stayed and count. There is often one or two that I forget but eventually starting from the beginning I get there.

There have been beds on planes, beds on trains, a bed on a boat, beds in a campervan, beds on buses, a bed made of salt and beds in accommodation of varying standards.

Probably my favourite was the night boat sailing from mainland Thailand to the beautiful Koh Sumai. Sleeping on a simple mattress only on the upper deck of a cargo ship we bobbed along the waves gently rocking us to sleep. Sleeping in what can only be described as storage container / garage in George Town, Penang was my least. The tiny room with sliding door was certainly unique but combined with the minute dirty shared bathroom / toilet it was definitely not my cup of tea! 
We have travelled extensively overland both in Asia and now South America so long distance travel has now become a necessary element of this trip. The cost of these buses and sometimes trains have been so cheap there is no point in flying. It is not only our travel, it is our bed and often includes meals too. Mostly we have slept well and waking up somewhere new while still on the move all adds to the experience. We have seen incredible scenery on these long journeys, crossed borders, changed time zones and met some lovely people. I will certainly consider a journey back home in a totally different light after all this.  

So bed number 100 is another moving one. We leave at midnight for our 18 hour journey (allegedly) from Trujillo in Northern Peru to Guayaquil in Ecuador. Travel pillow packed, toothbrushes and wet wipes to hand it’s not exactly a 5 or even 4 star hotel but then who said backpacking would be.  

After sleeping in so many places and on so many beds it will be strange to sleep in our “own” bed again. Our mattress was dumped in the storage process so I guess bed shopping may be pretty high on the priority list on return. Well there is always the tent I suppose! 

2 hours speedboating, 40 minutes looping the lines, 2 nights in a canyon and 1 night on an island – our Peruvian adventures

Lake Titicaca was where we both finished Bolivia and started Peru. The Peru town of Puno definitely lost in the beauty stakes, a sprawling mass of ugliness, the lake was its saving grace. We had been recommended a homestay experience on the islands on the lake and so set off early the first day for the boats. A local musician kept us entertained until the crew were ready to depart. The rest of the boat were mainly French, as is becoming the norm on our travels. There cannot seriously be anyone left in France this year!  

First stop was the intriguing Uros floating reed islands. Small communities live on these tiny moving grasslands building everything out of their natural available resources. The ladies greeted us enthusiastically in their stunning costumes and we were shown how they constantly keep their homes afloat and refreshed. As boats passed by we were suddenly aware of the constant movement and how delicate their lives are. Simple but effective but no good for those without sea legs! In one of their tiny huts I was dressed in the local outfit only to emerge and discover I was the only “gringo”. Oh well it makes a good photo! Back to normal attire and we were taken to the “biggest” island for coffee on the locals boat. We were soon overtaken by neighbours boats who were cheating by using engine power rather than oars although our captain soon switched so maybe he wasn’t that fit either. 

Our home for the night was the idyllic Amantani Island, less than 10k square it is occupied by about 800 families across 10 communities who provide a unique homestay experience on a rotating system. Once we were divided into our family groups our lovely host Nicholasa took us to her home. We were shown our basic but pretty spacious room. The shared bathroom had a toilet but no flush and no sink so wet wipes would be our shower again! Surprisingly we had electricity and a mirror in our room. No excuses for bad hair day then. After a delicious lunch we played volleyball in the courtyard with the two children of the family until it became quickly obvious that they were so much better then me, I helped clear up the dishes. Old habits die hard!

We were taken to the main square and joined everyone else for a challenging hike to the two temples of Pachatata and Patchamama. The whole island has been beautifully maintained and paved paths with occasional drawings marked out the routes. We reached the first where a ritual of three circular loops of the temple is a good luck omen so naturally everyone did that even though still pretty exhausted from the climb. It was pretty chilly but we decided to visit the second one to view the sunset. We only just made it in time but the view and the obligatory selfie were worth it. As we headed back to the main square the light was fading fast and our host guided us back home by torchlight. 
Dinner soon warmed us up and I was then dressed again in the islands local costume. It felt like a corset as she pulled it tighter and tighter and I was disappointed to see the other Belgian ladies in normal attire. Gary donned a poncho and hat and we all headed to the community hall for party night. As we entered the hall all the other travellers had dressed up too much to our relief. The musicians started up and our host grabbed me and for what seemed like an eternity we were spun around the room. Feeling dizzy and suffocating in the costume I am amazed I kept going but it was actually so much fun and we all had big smiles on our faces. 

We certainly slept like babies that night and with no dogs on the island it was extremely peaceful and it was a shame that after breakfast we had to leave. A final island to visit on the return was Taquile Island a much smaller but equally pretty island. With a few shops and restaurants it is more geared up to tourists and after another tough hike up to the main square from the harbour we were ready for lunch which of course had to be trout. 

Next after dragging ourselves away from the delights and sights of Lake Titicaca, we found ourselves in the beautiful white city of Arequipa. The buildings were exquisite and our hostel was gorgeous with the biggest room ever and a stunning rooftop terrace for breakfast. We enjoyed exploring before and after our next Peruvian experience, the Colca Canyon. 

We opted for the 3 day hike and surprise surprise we were the only English in the group and yes the rest were French, all in their 20s, maybe I should be learning French rather than Spanish! We set off on a relatively flat section admiring the views. This canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and so it was going to be a long way down. It was not long before I rediscovered my fear of downhill, we descended 1100m in 7km. It was extremely tough and with the canyon switchbacks it felt like the bottom was never getting nearer. I just about managed to stay on two feet and when we reached our stop for the remainder of the day my legs were shaking and my heart beating. Food and an afternoon sleep revived us from a very early start of 3am – it’s a long way from Arequipa! With no electricity in our rooms after dinner we all made the most of an early night. 

The middle day was far less strenuous but very enjoyable. Our guide gave us a nature tour showing us the variety of plants and their many properties. Herbal remedies are still used by many Peruvians especially here where the only transport is by mule and conditions can be pretty harsh. As we walked on through two larger villages we were given a taste of the local tipple, chica, corn beer although we had the non alcoholic version. Our guide obviously didn’t want us falling yet deeper into the canyon. An uphill section was far more to my liking although seeing our destination for the second night, I soon realised there would be another dreaded downhill. It was known as the oasis, a cluster of hostels at the base all with pools enticing you down. With nerves shot again I landed on flat ground but the sun, a cheeky cocktail and some good food all helped me feel normal again. We had made it to the bottom and that night were rewarded with an amazing starry night.  

There was of course only one way out of this canyon and that was back up 1100m. It was like climbing a mountain in reverse. We set off at 5am with the promise of breakfast when we finished. Our guide estimated 3 to 3.5 hours with rests. The challenge was on! Now this was so much better, powering up we soon caught up other groups that had left at 4am and some even at 3am. Stopping occasionally for water and the odd snack the summit was reached in 2 hours 5 minutes. If only Gary had not wanted that last stop to catch his breath! It was a great feeling and we sat and enjoyed the views waiting for all those “youngsters” to arrive. Some other groups took the “easy” route of a mule but hearing how they make their own path and seeing the little control the guides seem to have over them, I was glad my 50 year old legs did so well. 

Once recovered from the Canyon it was time for another scary thought. Getting into a tiny aeroplane was one thing but a roller coaster ride was another. As this was the only way to see the famous Nazca Lines I was going to have to be brave again. No alcohol the previous night, no breakfast,sickness pill popped, travel bands on, I was risking nothing.  

Suffice to say all the above worked and it was amazing. The tiny plane was indeed very tiny, 4 passengers and two pilots. The co-pilot explained all the lines brilliantly and as the plane swooped down the early morning clear skies and some very skilful flying meant we all had amazing views of these very unusual markings although I am not sure we would have got any photos if I had the camera.

A final stop was the beach town of Paracas. It was not quite the idyllic setting I had imagined but the Ballestas Island trip was the main reason us travellers stop here. Referred to as poor man’s Galapagos they would certainly satisfy our needs and even two hours on a speedboat did not deter me. Well now I have the tablets might as well use them! I was promised penguins and yes my little friends were there waiting and even formed an orderly queue before jumping into the ocean right in front of our boat! It was magical and combined with the numerous sea lions it was a great trip. Thousands of birds swooping overhead was not quite so appealing and I don’t think the young girl on our boat who got pooped on would have considered it lucky. 

So Peru is proving to live up equally to its neighbours and our adventures continue. We have reached the capital of Lima on our 9 month anniversary and will therefore reward ourselves with the national drink of Pisco Sour. Onwards and upwards to travel!

2 capitals, an airport at 4100m, a lake at 3800m – Part 2 of our Bolivian high adventures

 Bolivia continued to be well worth visiting as we left the salt flats and headed to a lower altitude to one of the two capitals, Sucre.

We took some time here to enjoy the actual city and live at a slightly more sensible height, although still some 2,800 metres. We seem to be coping reasonably well at altitude, drinking coco tea like the locals may have helped us and going up, down and up again definitely acclimatised us.  

Sucre was very hilly and our base was pretty high up. Walking up and down the very steep cobbled streets certainly gave us a good work out on a daily basis. The pretty white buildings and very narrow streets were like a maze but it was great to just stroll around and eventually all routes led to the central plaza. 

We were highly amused to see on the four corners of the plaza zebras helping visitors across the zebra crossings. Presumably a bunch of students practising their language skills but they were an enthusiastic bunch leaping around. They must have boiled in their full furry suits! 

The buildings were all very photogenic and the local ladies continued to delight us in their highly colourful outfits selling all their wares literally everywhere you walked. Their massive colourful bags on their backs did not seem to hamper them on the hills and often a baby’s face would peer out from the bundles too. 

We hiked to the highest point one early morning. Hundreds of very steep steps that seemed never ending led to a religious shrine on the summit. It was however littered with lots of empty bottles and burnt out fires and looked more like the remains of a teenage binge party then somewhere serene. All good exercise though and the views of the surrounding areas were worth it. 

The house we had rented on Airbnb had a fantastic roof terrace which was a real sun trap so most mornings we made full use of it. The house itself was stunning and I just wish I could take it home. It was cheap as chips being Bolivia and meant we could enjoy some home cooking and it felt so much more homely than a hostel. 

We then had our first internal flight for six months to the other capital of La Paz. The overnight bus journey had such bad reviews and the thought of no toilet or toilet stops for 12 hours versus a quick hour flight sealed the deal for us. It was also an opportunity to fly to the highest worldwide airport at 4060 metres, El Alto. We had been expecting a rough landing at this altitude but were surprised by how smooth it felt. The taxi drive down to the hostel was incredible, viewing the city beneath you from the dizzy heights of the airport. It was truly enormous and the traffic was crazy. Buildings hugged the sides of the mountains in every direction and you could not believe how people lived that high up. All the streets were so so steep and you could instantly see why people say you must visit this incredible city. 

We only stayed for a few days but it did actually grow on me after my initial impressions of “get me out of here”. Walking up and down the massive hills constantly remembering to breathe we again survived the altitude. There are six cable cars covering the massive expanse of this city with a few more still in planning stage. These were a great way to view the vast expanse and we travelled on most of them marvelling at the sights below. They are so cheap and spotlessly clean, unlike the city itself and obviously a lifeline for people living on the outskirts.  

Our final trip in Bolivia was to another high, Lake Titicaca at 3800 metres, the highest navigable lake in the world. This enormous beautiful lake is 118 miles long and 50 miles wide. You can access it from Peru too, watch this space! 

As we arrived into the small lakeside town of Copacabana the sheer size of the lake was apparent. It really does not look like a lake at all and with the gorgeous sunshine we enjoyed here, it felt like we were at the coast. All the restaurants advertise pretty much the same menu so we felt we had to sample the local trout and it did not disappoint. However on subsequent days the same menu boards remained and although a very cheap deal you really don’t fancy quinoa soup followed by trout and then banana with chocolate every day! I guess most travellers only spend a day here. 

With several islands on the lake we took a full day boat trip to the two closest ones of Isla del Luna and Isla del Sol. We had a fantastic day, a very gentle journey across the lake firstly to Isla del Luna where we hiked to the summit for some of the best views of the lake in its splendour and the islands. A sharp descent down and we were back on the boat for a somewhat shorter journey to the bigger island Isla del Sol. We joined a guided tour with a local who luckily translated everything into English for us two lone non Spanish speakers. It was another hike up to some 4,000 metres before an enjoyable flat plateau where we learnt all the Inca history associated with the island and were surprised to hear 1200 people live here, astonishing considering it is only 14k by 9k. It had some very pretty buildings and was obviously well looked after. The 100 plus very steep Inca staircase descending down to the waters edge was far harder than the ascent but a nice coffee and sandwich in the sun replenished us before the journey back. 

So we have now finished enjoying Bolivia and remaining with this beautiful lake we cross to neighbouring Peru next. I knew nothing about Bolivia before this trip but we have enjoyed all the colours, the people and the stunning scenery. Our second South American country has continued to impress us and I am certainly loving this part of our trip. Long may it continue! 

5000m above sea level, 1200k travelled, 4 days in a jeep, hundreds of flamingoes and so much fun equals the Bolivian Salt Flat Tour

Our main reason for visiting Bolivia was the Salt Flat Tours. We had, just for a change, researched loads and read guide books and blogs aplenty. I was apprehensive about spending so much time, up to 10 hours some days, in a jeep on dirt roads and with horror stories of drunk drivers and awful food it was a bit of a gamble. It was however a gamble that paid off massive dividends and we had the most amazing four days. 

We had crossed the border from Argentina, the easiest yet, stamped out at one control, we walked the few hundred yards and suddenly we were in Bolivia, an hour behind and a new flag flying high. The border control just waved us through, no Bolivian stamp in our passports required, much to our disappointment. We were immediately aware of all the beautiful colours of Bolivia. The women in particular often wear the traditional outfit with full pleated skirts with masses of petticoats, two very long plaits and bowler hats. It is a very unusual yet quirky look with the colour of the ribbons in their hair indicating their marital status and the angle of the hat also. They come across as quite a sombre nation but once approached they are as friendly as can be. 

We walked to the station and caught a train to Tupiza, our starting point for our salt flats tour. The track winds through the mountains and the scenery was gorgeous pretty much all of the way of the 3 hour journey. As we alighted the train we were delighted to see the town had sent out a welcoming committee. A full procession was taking place with majorettes, drums, trumpets and a variety of other instruments. We stood and watched before another short walk to our hostel and finally relieved ourselves of those awful backpacks. I swear they get heavier each time we move! 

The hostel was run by a lovely family, the son Frankie holding fort at front desk, his mother helping with the cooking and his father running the attached shop. We went out on one of their “triathlon” tours with his father, a day of jeep, trek and horse riding. It was incredibly good fun and we were so well looked after, we booked the salt flat tours with them too.  

The night before the tour the town was shut down due to a protest by all the locals over their waters supplies. They literally blockaded all entrances to the town and lined up like picket lines at key junctions. A mixture of rocks, trees, barbed wire and anything else available was used to stop any vehicles including the train! It was incredible to witness this but also caused a problem with our tour. The jeep was not in town so we had to send all our bags the night before by motorbike to be loaded up and then trek to the jeep in the morning. We were joined by a lovely French couple who would be our partners in crime for the four days and young Frankie introduced us to our great driver Hector and amazing cook Julia who would look after the four of us. Alice, our new French friend did speak a lot more Spanish than the rest of us so became the translator a lot of the time. I definitely think my Spanish is improving gradually and each day we are learning new words by all this exposure. 

Travel bands on and all loaded up, we set off on our great adventure along with three other jeeps. We soon realised we had made the right choice with this bunch as he drove so well for all of the time I never felt ill once even cramped in the rear tiny seats. The views on the first day were just the start of even better scenery as the trip continued. It was all about llamas to begin with. These pretty creatures with their ribbon tags on their ears were everywhere along the route. We stopped many times for photos and even found local women selling llama wool accessories. I just had to buy a pair of llama gloves, they would come in handy as we climbed in elevation and temperatures fell! 

We stopped at a tiny mining village for lunch with local children greeting us enthusiastically. We were introduced to the first of lovely Julia’s cooking. It was different every day and so tasty and plentiful. Another difference to many accounts we had read, we had definitely chosen well. 

We visited an abandoned ancient mining town, an impressive selection of inca ruins, the whole town had fled when a mysterious lady had apparently arrived infected with disease. It was almost like it stood still in time. Even better it had proper toilets, these were very few and far between in the four days, probably the main negative but somewhat inevitable given the remoteness. 

Our first night was very basic as expected and we all huddled up eating our dinner in a very cold room. With no showers, once fed, it was a very early night. We shared our room with the other couple, our first experience of a dorm. Undressing was fun, wriggling in my sleeping bag but I soon got cozy with all the blankets provided. It was a somewhat restless night, a combination of cold and altitude but not the worst sleep by a long shot. 

Day 2 was all about lagoons and pink flamingos. It was brilliant blue skies but very cold and to see these beautiful birds on enormous lagoons seemed wrong at this altitude. We had fantastic walks round the lagoons and to see the flamingoes in their natural environment and especially in mid flight was amazing. They are so much bigger than I had imagined and so pink. It was a great spectacle and I even found two pink feathers as a special souvenir. The lagoons were mainly brilliant blue but we were also taken to a green and a black lagoon, the colours all stunning. Bolivia is certainly a country of many colours. We were also lucky enough to have a gorgeous dip in a thermal pool. Overlooking the lagoon and flamingos and with snow caped mountains it was pretty much perfect and the only downside was the hasty dressing afterwards in the cold. The final bonus of the day were sightings of the bubbling geysers, the smell reminding us of our days at Rotorua in New Zealand all those months ago. Alongside these were a strange spectacle of towering ice shards which made yet another great photo opportunity. 

Another dorm room for night 2 but a lot better sleep meant we were fully refreshed for day 3. This was all about the stunning rock formations. Like Argentina they were incredible to see and we spent much of the day clamouring upon them for the best pictures and views. Hector came into his own that day jumping around and getting great shots of us all having great fun. It was definitely not for the faint hearted as we clamoured up to view an impressive canyon. We kept meeting up with the other tour groups and I can safely say we were by far the oldest but hopefully still agile and fit enough to enjoy it all.

Our final night was at a salt hostel. This was pretty special and so surreal. We crunched along the salt floors admiring the engravings on the salt walls. We slept on salt beds, ate on salt tables and sat on salt stools. It was so pretty and actually surprisingly warm. After a quick cup of tea we had our first drive onto the salt flats to see the sunset. It was as spectacular as sunsets usually are but the vast expanse of salt feels like you have somehow arrived at Antartica and I kept writing ice rather than salt in my daily journal. Our final dinner back at the salt hostel was as great as ever and we even got to share a bottle of wine. One glass at altitude certainly sent me to sleep with no trouble at all. 

It was a rude awakening at 4.30am on our final morning. Thirty minutes later we were all loaded up and back onto the salt flats. As we drove in darkness armed with lots of warm clothes ready the enormity of these really became apparent. There is no less than 10,000 square kilometres, that is half the size of Wales! Suddenly we appeared at an cacti covered island and as we hiked to the summit it really felt like an expanse of sea on all sides instead of salt. We had timed it to perfection thanks to Hector and it was not long before we watched the beautiful sunrise in this amazing setting. An outdoor breakfast at another salt table was somewhat chilly but the sun soon started to gain strength and we went for an early morning wander practicing a few photo shots and I even did some morning exercises and a slightly breathless jog, all to keep warm of course. It seemed a bit crazy but the craziness was definitely going to increase hundred fold as the morning continued. 
We drove further out onto the flats and Hector and Julia finally got to have lots of fun too. The poses and photos were all slightly mad but have all turned out so great thanks to their experience of props and angles. We all had so much fun on that morning even hauling ourselves up onto the jeep roof for group photos as a grand finale.  

A final very early lunch and a rather strange stop at a train cemetery, yes lots of old trains laid to rest, and we had arrived at Uyuni our dropping off point where we were looking forward to a well earned hot shower. 

It had been a truly amazing few days with fantastic company and incredible scenery and wildlife along every inch of the journey. It was certainly not just a salt flats tour, it had been so much more. It was time to say goodbye to the rest of the party as they were headed back to our starting point for their onward travels to Argentina and we have a lot more of Bolivia to discover yet.