Snapshot of the Week: Bye to Bolivia, Hello Peru

So when we last posted we were in a little hippy town in Bolivia. Since then we have spent an ungodly amount of time on buses, been to the highest navigable lake in the world, crossed into Peru, seen some condors and got drunk. It’s been an interesting week or so to say the least. Our Lego amigos can be seen at the staggeringly beautiful Colca Canyon in southern Peru, home to the giant Andean condors.

Our journey out of Samaipata to Copacabana (on Lake Titicaca, not the one in Rio de Janeiro) was a monster. A sweltering shuttle bus, a taxi that smelled rather alarmingly of petrol, a ridiculously long and winding coach ride, a freezing cold wait in a bus station and a minibus journey including a perilous-looking water crossing, and we arrived in Copacabana 30 hours later. Not only were we tired, dirty and  dishevelled, but also out of breath due to its not inconsiderable 4000m altitude. Still, our hostel was absolutely beautiful, the view was stunning and there were llamas in the garden (although these turned out to be evil), so we were pretty pleased with ourselves.

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View from our balcony of Copcabana town.

The pretty little lakeside town was the perfect cure for our travel-weary souls. Cheap, chilled and gastronomically varied, Copcabana overflowed with bargain alpaca goodies and hipster travellers. For the first time in our wanderings, we were absolutely surrounded by English accents and an all-too-familar herbal scent. Honestly, how they partook I cannot imagine, I could barely breath at that height never mind share my precious oxygen with a joint.

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Bitches love alpacas.

A few quiet and wonderfully cosy days spent recuperating were followed by a jaunt to Isla del Sol, a stunning island on the Bolivian side of the lake which served as a holy place for the Incan Empire. Bordered by azure waters, the island is dotted with llamas, terraces and preserved Incan steps, with the odd overpriced cafe selling local trout. We spent the day mosying around with an amusing 19 year old Croydon boy who was slowly partying his way across South America. The only downside to the day was the 2 hour boat ride to and from the island – devoid of travel sickness drugs, a speed over 10mph or a roof. BRR comes to mind.

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Gateway to the Incan Kingdom of Isla del Sol.

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Originally we had planned to make our way to Puno, the Peruvian town on the opposite side of the lake, before moving on to Arequipa, but last minute we decided to ditch the allegedly underwhelming Puno in favour of one more night in Copacabana and a “direct” bus to Arequipa. Now, I don’t know about you fellows, but paying double the usual rate for two bus journeys and a ninety minute wait in Puno, followed by an additional 3 hours of traffic jams, did not feel particularly direct. In the end we arrived at Arequipa late at night, tired and more than a bit irritable. The latter was probably not helped by the fact we had agreed to leave at 3am the following morning for a tour of Colca Canyon with a couple of Aussie mates we had met back in Mexico.

The Canyon itself was worth the ludicrously early start. The reason we went was for the condors, but the scenery was gorgeous, and we had a cheeky dip in some natural hot springs as a bonus. That night we were utterly knackered but glad we had done it.

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Colca Canyon.
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The world’s largest flying bird.

We spent Saturday here drinking, and Sunday suffering (well, Mark did anyway). Tonight we head off to Cusco, back in the mountains, to prepare for our Macchu Picchu trek for which we are woefully unprepared. Five days at altitude, in the cold, in tents, with big old bags, upset stomachs and a hell of a lot of steps… doesn’t sound too fun. We are both wondering why we signed up for it in the first place to be honest. That said, it is meant to be one of the most scenic treks in the world (however I believe we heard that about the W and look how that turned out…) and obviously Macchu Picchu tops a lot of travellers’ bucket lists, so the dread is tinged with excitement.

Whatever happens, it will be interesting to say the least. Wish us luck.

Oh yeah, and here is some photographic proof of the aforementioned llama attack:

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The best thing that ever happened. Ever.
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Snapshot of the Week – San Pedro, Salt Flats, Sucre and Sickness

I love alliterative titles, is that sad? Probably. Do you know what else is sad? Missing a whole town on your tour because you can’t leave your hostel due to food poisoning. More on that later. First, look at our little Lego chappies enjoying the staggering, other-worldy scenery of the Atacama desert. Behind them are the Tres Marias, pillars of sandstone in a salty plain which… well I don’t know what they represent because I don’t speak Spanish, but they look cool.

We enjoyed San Pedro de Atacama and its surrounding desert, but the real reason we were in the Northern-most tip of Chile was a stop on the way to Bolivia, and the ridiculous natural beauty that this country possesses. After an early morning start (and a terrifying minibus ride later), we found ourselves at the rather chilly (or Chile?) and very casual Bolivian border, ready for a 3-day adventure. We were going to see some salt flats, but before that we had red lakes, geysers, altitude sickness, flamingos and multi-coloured deserts to look forward to.

So day one. Starting at 2500m and peaking at 5100m above sea level, we felt light-headed and then some. The locals recommend chewing coca leaves, which does help, but nothing can prepare the body for this kind of change in oxygen levels so quickly. Ploughing through the astoundingly beautiful Salvador Dali desert, both of us struggled to hold down our breakfast. Still, the natural scenery blew our minds a little. Photos don’t do the place justice, but frankly nor do my powers of description. Seeing a lake that is bright red, full of flamingos with an active volcano behind it is one of the highlights of our entire trip. A low point however, was our accommodation that night. 4200m above sea level, it was absolutely FUCKING FREEZING. It also wasn’t very soundproof, so we could hear the delightful effects the altitude was having on our fellow guests’ stomachs in the nearby bathroom. Lovely.

On the plus side – we watched Moana, the new Disney flick. Highly recommend.

The next day was also pretty amazing, with a variety of odd rock formations and llamas aplenty. That afternoon we arrived at the entrance to the flats and the famous ‘Salt Hotel’, which, unsurprisingly, is made almost entirely of salt. It was a massive step up from the previous accommodation (although technically it was a step down, at a far more palatable 3800m), complete with a private room and salt crystal floor.

We awoke at 4am for the sunrise. Now, for anyone who knows me, it is a fairly common fact that I a) love my sleep and b) could probably count the number of sunrises I have seen on two hands. However, I can honestly say I have never been more pleased to have been awake at such an ungodly hour. It was amazing. Wonderful. Mindblowing. Just look at the photos for goodness sake. LOOK AT IT.

 

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The day consisted of slack-jawed admiration, ozone-free, cancerous sun burn and the optical illusion poses now mandatory for this particular trip, taken with the help of our new Brazilian friends with whom we shared our 4×4.

We ended in Uyuni, with a plate full of chicken, which we were soon to regret. Oh so much regret.

During our thrilling eight hour wait in Uyuni for our overnight bus on to Sucre, Mark’s stomach started to rumble. Growl. Bellow. He then made very good friends with the restaurant toilet, and mid way through our – otherwise fairly comfortable – journey, he projectile vomited through the bus doors and set off a series of crying infants.

Arriving in Sucre worse for wear and definitively smellier, I was feeling smug. For once, I had not succumbed to the dreaded traveller’s diarrhoea, the bane of every backpacker. My stomach had finally developed into an iron clad cave of strength and digestion.

A little over an hour later I was bent over a toilet, and there I remained for the best part of three days. Sadly this meant I couldn’t even get through a dinner with a couple of brilliant Aussies we had met back in Mexico (who we persuaded to join us early in Sucre) without cuddling the nearest basin.

Thankfully, after a long day of travel, some SuperNoodles and a New Girl marathon, we are both on the mend and looking forward to exploring our home town for the next four days, Samaipata. Delightfully quaint, this wifi-free hilltop town is the new Mecca for hippies (AKA hipsters before hipsters were cool) and is the ultimate chill destination.

Essentially, the perfect place to nurse our shattered souls and battered bowels (apologies for the visual) get some much-needed miles in our legs and watch season five of New Girl. Hell, we may even do some yoga. Watch this space.

Snapshot of the Week(s) – Taking a Holiday from the World’s Biggest Holiday

We are getting super lazy with these blogs. We have an excuse though – we’ve been entertaining. In the verb sense of the word, not the adjective, although hopefully we are a little of both. As you can see, our Lego chaps are taking this to heart too, enjoying themselves at a lovely vineyard, savagely using pint glasses for a 2013 Malbec.

Last time we wrote a blog we had just done the W, were heading to Valparaiso and we were excited to be welcoming Mark’s parents to Mendoza a few days later. We are now back in Chile and the folks have been and gone, and we’re preparing ourselves for a new country tomorrow, Bolivia, which is Sadie’s 50th country!

I know this will make you roll your eyes at our #firstworldproblems, but non-stop travelling is actually pretty damn tiring. After the W trek we had a whirlwind few days in graffiti-laden, multi-coloured Valparaiso with our friend Josh who we met on the hike. Valpo was a wonderful surprise, a city where street art is on every single corner, funiculars run up and down the perilously steep hillsides and breath-taking views are around every corner. Even an enormous forest fire in the region couldn’t spoil our enjoyment. Two days later, we had to say our goodbyes as we headed to Argentina and Josh headed back to California.

We arrived in Mendoza and breathed a sigh of relief. Due to sharing with 4 people, we had a really nice apartment, and nine whole days in a town, so we could unpack, shop for more than one day at a time, do our washing, and just generally live rather than be on the go all the time. It was Sadie’s idea to stay for that bit longer – largely because juggling her work with being on the road can be somewhat frustrating when you only have a few days to experience a place. As a result, we made the most of our first few days there by doing precisely nothing, other than working and planning our Asia trip for Autumn (now all booked). We also solely ate in and did bugger all in the way of activities, in preparation for the pounding our wallets would take once the parents arrived.

We spent the week in Mendoza as a four being, frankly, ridiculously indulgent. We were spoiled rotten with the food, the wine (obviously) and the sunshine. We had enormous lunches, incredible steaks, toured vineyards and drove to the Andes to see Aconcagua in all its snow-capped glory. We drank more wine and ate more red meat than we had in all our previous weeks on the road combined. It was amazing.

 

All too soon, it was time to leave and head back to Chile. La Serena was a beach resort with not a whole lot going on, which was fine by us. We wanted a pool, a beach and a balcony, which we had. We broke up our week by taking a trip up the the unbelievably beautiful Elqui Valley, spending our days at what has to be the most stunning poolside I have ever been to, and our night stargazing at an incredible starry sky. Our cameras were incapable of capturing the night sky, but it left all four of us speechless and feeling very, very small.

We also had the opportunity to scratch something off Sadie’s bucket list. We went on a two-hour, twisty, bumpy drive to Punta Choros to go to the Isla Damas marine reserve. Here we spent a good chunk of our time on the boat being surrounded by a playful pod of bottlenose dolphins. The penguins, otters, sea lions and pelicans were all amazing, but the dolphins really were a highlight of our entire trip so far.

Our last few days by the Chilean seaside really flew by, and it was with more than a little sadness that we said goodbye to Mark’s parents. We had become used to our luxury, to our slower pace of travel, to a break from being on the go non-stop, and to having company. It also made us realise what we missed about home. When you’re travelling it is so easy to forget that your friends and family are continuing their lives without you. That although people may take a polite interest in your trip, when you are 10,000 miles away you don’t really play a part in their lives any more. The stark realisation made both of us quite homesick, and the only way we knew how to deal with this was to crack on Northwards.

We are writing this from the Atacama Desert in Chile. It’s a landscape like nothing else on earth. Honestly, it looks like the moon – and it’s at such an altitude that you get similarly light-headed. We head off to the salt flats of Bolivia in the morning, so we’ll see you on the other side.

As always, thanks for following, and sorry for being lazy bloggers.

P.S We only have 8 weeks left in South America before heading Stateside. Insane.

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La Serena and the Elqui Valley: Travel Guide

La Serena was a bit of an odd one for us. We sort of ended up going by default, as we needed somewhere for Mark’s parents to have a a chilled-out week as the second half of their visit. As there are no beach resorts in Argentina worth noting, we decided to head to La Serena, as it had a) a pool, b) a beach and c) as close to guaranteed good weather as you can get. Due to its proximity to the beautiful Elqui Valley, we spent a night there too. Neither of these destinations are particularly “backpacker-y” but they are worth a visit, even if it’s just to chill after exploring the rest of the region’s natural wonders. Here’s some tips:

La Serena

  • Getting to La Serena is a piece of cake, as it has its own airport. Flights from Santiago to La Serena cost next to nothing with Sky.
  • There are loads of option for sea-front apartments if you’re feeling flush, or hostels in the town itself if you’re not. We stayed in a beautiful apartment on Avenida del Mar but it wasn’t half expensive. The sunset from our balcony was unbelievable too.
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See?
  • The town itself doesn’t actually have many attractions, it’s more of a place to chill. It has a few colonial style buildings and a very underwhelming lighthouse. The beach is miles long and lovely to walk up and down, but be prepared to freeze your toes off if you decide to paddle in the Pacific. Braver souls than us were swimming, but it isn’t recommended unless you are really, properly hard.
  • There are some really good restaurants hidden in the town. Jack Fish, a heavy-metal themed sushi bar (yep, it is as weird as it sounds) is a great spot, as is Ardento del Mar down the coast towards Coquimbo. We also loved HUG Cocina y Color, another sushi spot which was brilliant for lunch and really reasonable to boot.
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SUSHI.
  • If you are bored, the mall is worth a visit. There’s loads of western brands but at a considerable knock-off.
  • It’s actually quite difficult to get around the town, as it’s bigger than it looks on the map. There are collectivo taxis running about the place, but if you can figure them out you are much cleverer than us. Luckily, Uber came to the rescue quite frequently.
  • About a two-hour drive from La Serena is Punta Choros, the starting point for wildlife tours around Isla Damas. Be warned, if you drive, the road once you get off the highway is a gravel track, and it’s very bumpy in places. However, the tour we went on was worth every bouncy yard. For $12000 (about 15 quid) we had an hour and a half on a boat around the marine reserve, where we saw sea otters, penguins, sea lions and dolphins a-plenty. Don’t expect anyone in Choros to speak English, at all, as it is on the edge of bloody nowhere.

Elqui Valley

  • The Elqui Valley is an hour or so north of La Serena up the “Route of the Stars” Highway (n’aww), so named because of the reknowned clarity of the skies in the region for stargazing. It’s a fairly straightforward drive and it is doable by bus, but the roads are very twisty so be warned if you get travel-sick. A hire car made life much easier and the views on the way were beautiful.
  • We stayed in Pisco Elqui, one of the few towns dotted up the Valley. It was a cute little town with a few restaurants, bars, shops and a pisco distillery.
  • Our lodgings were some cabins called Cabinas Elquimista, and they were fabulous. We sat by the pool, barbecued on the terrace and watched the most incredible sky unfold above out heads as the sun dropped below the mountains. Our cameras were not capable of capturing such a spectacle, but it left all four of all speechless.
  • If you have multiple nights in the Valley, you can arrange to go to one of the may observatories in the region to look through their telescopes. You have to book these in advance. We only had one night there, which was not enough by far. If you have a week or so in the region I would recommend at least three if not four nights in the Valley, with the remainder of the time in La Serena itself.

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Mendoza: Travel Guide

“What the hell is Mendoza doing on a blog like this?” You are entitled to ask. Mendoza is Argentina’s wine country, and by consequence it doesn’t come cheap. However, it is pretty damn amazing. Surrounded in pretty much all directions by mountains and vineyards, it is a gastronomic heaven nestled in some of the most beautiful scenery in South America, nay, the world. And although it isn’t cheap, it still represents good value compared to what you would pay in for the equivalent experiences in Europe or the United States. Here’s some tips:

Getting There
For once in Argentina, flying is actually an option… but only from Chile. Flights from Santiago are frequent and reasonable with LATAM, especially if you get a return ticket. Failing this, you’re back on the buses again – Mendoza is connected to Buenos Aires, Santiago, Bariloche… pretty much anywhere by long distance coach. Don’t forget to get Cama Ejecuutivo or Salon Cama seats if you plan on sleeping! Internal flights in Argentina are prohibitively expensive, unless you happen to be Argentine and then you pay half of what us extranjeros do.
Getting Around
Getting around Mendoza itself isn’t very tricky, as the city centre is reatively compact, so you can walk most places. There are also cheap buses and a tramway which runs to Maipu – you need to buy a travel card for these, but it only costs around AR$20. If you’re lazy, or in a group (or both, like us) taxis are a reasonable option. To Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo a taxi costs around AR$200 and takes about 15-20 minutes, which is a fracition of the time it takes by public transport. Taxis (or remises, the grey taxis you see driving around) to/from the airport are around AR$150. It’s worth noting that, unusually for a city its siza, Mendoza doesn’t have Uber.

Of course, many of Mendoza’s attractions lie outside the city limits, including some of its best wineries and natural beauty. For this, you will need to hire a car. If you plan on doing this, DON’T WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE! The prices soar if you leave it within a week or so to book your car, you get the best value a month or more in advance. If you have the flexibility, try to avoid weekend days as they are often twice as expensive. Once you have your car, driving within the city limits can be a little trying, but once you are on the open road it is easy as pie. Download the area on Google Maps or use Maps.me on your phone to avoid the criminal rates the car hire companies charge for GPS hire.

Accommodation
Unfortunately, wine country will attract posh wankers and rich Americans. It’s just one of life’s inevitabilities, like taxes, or an elderly relative saying something racist at Christmas time. Because of these two core demographics, accommodation in Mendoza is not cheap. The best deal we found was on Airbnb, as ever. We shared a two bedroom apartment with my parents and ended up paying 50 quid a night between all four of us, so actually we got a steal. If you go, I’d heartily recommend the apartment we stayed in, and if you sign up to Airbnb here you get some cash of your first booking.

Activities, Eating and Drinking

I would normally separate these two sections but in Mendoza the two are so neatly intertwined it seemed somewhat superfluous. The wineries are Mendoza’s most famous attraction, and with good reason. The ones we went to are:

  • Bodega Lopez, Maipu. A large winery in quite an industrial area, it is one of the oldest in Mendoza. If you go for lunch there (and you should, it is incredible), you get a tour and a small tasting included. An added bonus is that it is easily accessible by public transport so you don’t need a designated driver.
  • Carmelo Patti, Lujan de Cuyo. A small-scale winery that everyone in Mendoza knows, due to Carmelo’s legendary passion for his wine. You get shown round the winery by Carmelo himself or one of his children, in a combination of English and Spanish, and you get to try some of the special reserves with no pressure to buy any. We did, because it was bloody delicious. While you are in the area, be sure to go to the Cava de Cano restaurant about half a kilometer down the road (make sure you pre-book) and prepare yourself for a colossal, traditional Argentine picada
  • Bodega Domaine Bousquet, Valle de Uco. I’ll start with the downside, because there is only one – it’s a bit of a trek, about an hour and a half’s drive, and of course that means a designated driver. Everything else, however, is a fantastic. The tour was informative without being boring, and it is included in the price of your lunch. Lunch here is an indulgence, that is for sure. 6 courses, matching wine, and each of them as delicious as the last. It comes to AR$580 a head, which sounds a lot but it’s actually less than 30 quid, which is an utter bargain for what you get.
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Look at it.
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The view from the restaurant over acres of organic vineyard.

Aside from the wineries, you have to get out into the Andes. We drove to Aconcagua National Park, where you can find the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas. The drive was nearly three hours but the scenery on the way was nothing shy of stunning. Be sure to stop at the Punta del Inca nearby to see the multicoloured sandstone caused by the mineral-rich hot springs.