The Best and Worst of South America

So we did this for Central America and kind of enjoyed it. It was also a good way to pass a bus journey. Some things were impossible to pick, some an absolute piece of cake. We did not fall out about any of these, honest.

Top 10 Cities (in no particular order):

  1. Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  2. Bariloche, Argentina (Definitely a town not a city, but it has an airport so shhh).
  3. Pisco Elqui, Chile (Ok this is a tiny village).
  4. Ilha Grande, Brazil.
  5. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
  6. Valparaiso, Chile.
  7. Mendoza, Argentina.
  8. Cartagena, Colombia.
  9. Florianopolis, Brazil
  10. Arequipa, Peru.IMG_20170529_230008

Top 10 Experiences (in no order):

  1. Standing in the Devil’s Throat at Iguazu Falls getting utterly soaked.
  2. Pre-Carnaval in Florionopolis and Rio.
  3. Seeing bottle-nose dolphins off Isla Damas in Chile
  4. Visiting the penguin reserve in Puerto Madryn, Argentina
  5. Seeing the clouds clear over Macchu Picchu, Peru.
  6. Sunrise at Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia
  7. Visiting the vineyards, the Andes and Aconcagua around Mendoza, Argentina.
  8. Stargazing in the Elqui Valley, Chile
  9. Seeing the world’s largest flying birds, condors, in the Colca Canyon, Peru.
  10. The Gray Glacier in Torres del Paine, Chile.

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Top 10 Meals:

  1. Steak at Alto El Fuego, Bariloche, Argentina.
  2. Five course lunch at Bodega Domaine Bousquet, Mendoza, Argentina.
  3. Ridiculous steak lunch at Bodega Lopez, Argentina (There is a theme developing here isn’t there?).
  4. Picada lunch at Mendoza, Argentina.
  5. Hungover steak in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
  6. Street BBQ in Florianopolis, Brazil.
  7. Oysters in Florianopolis, Brazil.
  8. Fabiano’s Pizza in Cuenca, Ecuador
  9. Ceviche and Sushi at Jack Fish, La Serena, Chile.
  10. Moqueca in Salvador, Brazil.

Top 10 Regional Foods:

  1. Acai: The best thing ever. All over Brazil (and mystifyingly nowhere else).
  2. Acaraje, Bahia, Brazil. Spicy prawns in a deep fried bean roll, utterly filthy street food.
  3. Ceviche; Chile, Peru and Ecuador. These three countries squabble over who makes the best (especially the first two) but honestly they are all pretty damn good.
  4. Corviche, Ecuador. Admittedly we only found this in one place, but it was a deep fried plantain ball filled with either prawns or fish, served with coleslaw and spicy aji sauce.
  5. Empanadas, specifically baked ones. These are everywhere all over SA but Argentine ones took the metaphorical biscuit.
  6. Stuffed arepas, Colombia. A Thick, grilled corn tortilla, filled with guac, cheese, spicy sauce, sour cream… pretty much anything you can imagine.
  7. Moqueca, Bahia, Brazil. Spicy seafood curry. Best served sizzling with a limitless side of beer.
  8. Morcilla, blood sausage, Uruguay and Argentina.
  9. Coxinha, mashed potato balls stuffed with chicken and breaded. Sound disgusting but they are brilliant road-food.
  10. Fusion sushi, Peru and Chile.

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Top 5 Hostels:

  1. La Cupula Hostel, Copacabana, Bolivia.
  2. The W Circuit Hostel, Puerto Natales, Chile.
  3. Casa de Mathilde, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
  4. Hostel e Pousada El Shaddai, Iguazu Falls, Brazil.
  5. Hostel Achalay, Bariloche, Argentina.

Top 6 Historic Centres

  1. Cusco, Peru.
  2. Colonia, Uruguay.
  3. Pelourinho, Salvador, Brazil.
  4. Cuenca, Ecuador.
  5. Cartagena, Colombia.
  6. Bogota, Colombia.18816568_10154791785014075_404692381_n

5 Worst Experiences:

  1. Food poisoning, Bolivia. When your chef is also your driver and he uses “Inca toilets” without hand sanitiser, you should be wary of your food. We suffered the consequences of this and felt crap for weeks.
  2. Sadie’s useless tooth. A persistent infection coupled with drastic changes in temperature and altitude does not a good combination make. Thank god for cheap over-the-counter antibiotics.
  3. Cancelled flights. Take this as life advice: NEVER FLY WITH VIVA COLOMBIA. Our first flight with this airline was cancelled without our notice at all, we actually made it to the airport to find it simply didn’t exist. Our second flight was cancelled 12 hours before we left for the airport (how courteous of them), and took forever to sort out. An absolutely useless, shambles of a company.
  4. Getting to the top of the Salkantay Pass and seeing precisely bugger all. 2 days of hiking up to the 4700m summit revealed a view of, well, fog. And drizzle and sleet.
  5. Getting washed out of the Torres del Paine National Park. This 5-day adventure cost us an absolute fortune and for the first 4 days of it it rained endlessly. There were landslides, path closures, raging rivers where trickling streams used to be, the works. In fact, it was the worst in-season rainfall in over a decade. Lucky us.

 

It’s been emotional.

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Snapshot of the Week – Saying Goodbye

We are no longer in South America! Four and a half months, eight countries and god knows how many miles later, we flew out of Cartagena in northern Colombia to the Caribbean and the USA, our hearts full of both sadness that we were leaving and excitement for the next leg of our trip.

Following our last post, we had about a week left in Colombia. We’d heard bad things about Bogota – it’s reputation is of being a boring, dirty and crime-ridden city – but we really enjoyed it. It helped that our apartment was gorgeous and the weather was better than we dared hope for, but we spent our days wandering the streets of the historic centre… and shopping for tons of souvenirs. We bought a hammock for crying out loud.

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Our view. Not bad, eh?

From Bogota we headed to Santa Marta, but not before another cancelled flight with the always entertaining Viva Colombia. You will remember last time that our flight simply didn’t exist when we got to the airport. This time they had the courtesy to let us know our flight was cancelled, and instead we would have to take the afternoon one instead – as long as we confirmed of course. For this change they gave us a whole 11 hours notice. Nice, eh? A few hours on the phone, some passive aggressive tweets and some actively aggressive emails later, our itinerary was changed and we would leave a few hours later than we planned. Ah well, more time for shopping.

When we landed in Santa Marta we noticed one thing – the heat. We were back in the tropics, that was for sure. It was overwhelming, and even by the time we got into the taxi a whole 15 yards out of the terminal door we were dripping with sweat. Thank god for air conditioning. Santa Marta wasn’t the most amazing town in the world but it was pretty in places, and the nightlife on the Friday we arrived was fun, featuring street BBQ and a live band whose frontman went nuts on some kind of South American giant recorder. We actually went to Santa Marta to visit nearby Tayrona National Park, but the insane heat and corresponding hordes of mosquitoes put us off doing a hike, so we spent our last day on the beach instead. We had such a nice day that we didn’t even feel guilty about it.

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Sick clothing. Skin cancer is a serious business, folks.

Our next and final stop on the continent was Cartagena. It’s an absolutely beautiful colonial town, and as a popular cruise stop, it has long been considered a tourist hotspot, unlike the rest of Colombia. Even my Nana has been there (on a cruise, she isn’t exactly the backpacking sort) back in the 90s. It is easy to see why. The old town is full of tiny little streets just begging to be wandered, brightly coloured houses with slanting roofs, draped in ivy and bougainvillea. In fact the only thing that stopped us staying in the old town non-stop for three days was, once again, the blistering heat. The mercury nudged past 35°C every day we were there, and the humidity was well above 80%. This caused forays out of the shade to be actually painful and thus it limited our time that we could spend exploring a place where we could happily have got lost for ever. Luckily, we met a couple from London at our Airbnb who were more than happy to knock back the beers with us, so chilling at home in the shade was fun anyway. These guys had done a very similar trip to us, but with one notable difference: they had done it in a campervan. They were in Cartagena to arrange the shipment of their van (they called it “the Bongo”) back to the UK, which sounded like a colossal bureaucratic ball-ache, but I must admit I felt a pang of envy at their adventure.

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Cartagena you pretty.
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Posing twerp #1.
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South America’s final selfie.
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Posing twerp #2.

We also had to spend a good chunk of our last day once again re-arranging a flight. Our next stop after Colombia was the Bahamas, but to get there we had to get to Fort Lauderdale first. Originally we had 2 hours and 45 minutes to make our connection in FL, which would have been tight but do-able. However, JetBlue Airlines decided to move our flight back just over an hour, meaning that there was no chance of us making our second flight on to Nassau, so we had to cancel and book a different, more expensive flight. Even after we did this, the joy that is US customs and immigration nearly caused us to miss our connection anyway. 1 hour and 45 minutes after landing, we finally were able to grab our bags and sprint through the airport to our check in desk, where we made our flight by the skin of our teeth.

A night in Nassau airport and a flight on a washing machine with wings later, we arrived in Deadmans Cay, Bahamas. Of all the places we have been in over 50 countries around the world, this has by far and away the best name of all of them. It is also one of the most beautiful. We are staying with Sadie’s aunt (which is a relief as the hotels on this island are insanely expensive) and being spoiled rotten. We plan on chilling out, snorkelling and drinking rum for the next week or so before heading back North to the USA – and through their delightful customs and immigration again. Yay. Next time you hear from us will be in New Orleans, where jazz and gumbo will be the order of the day. Take a look at our personal highlights of South America for some ideas if you fancy a trip!

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Hey Bahamas!

Snapshot of the Week: Ecuador-able.

Ok, we play pretty fast and loose with the definition of “week.” Never mind. We have blasted our way through another country so it’s time to write some inane crap about it so you can laugh at us. Our Lego chaps took this time to find Jesus, hence the giant and rather beautiful church behind them.

Our story picks up where we left off, in Cusco, Peru. Specifically at the airport, where we managed to miss our flight. Did you know that flights close an hour before departure in Peru, even domestic ones? No, me neither. Anyway, some begging and gentle bribery later (we gave him sweets), the nice chap from Star Peru popped us on another flight and we were on our way to Lima. From there we headed to Mancora, which was honestly kind of a disappointment. We were looking forward to getting our beach and party on, but the town was pretty dead and unfortunately still deep in recovery mode from the recent floods. Consequently, the town was crawling with bugs and swarming with mosquitoes, which is never pleasant. Still, we made the best of it before leaving in the middle of the night to head to Cuenca, across the Ecuadorian border. Incidentally, at this border – one of the most prolific drug smuggling routes in the world – the police searched people’s bags. This is understandable of course. It took bloody ages, and all the more so because they DIDN’T HAVE A BLOODY DOG. Honestly, I swear they don’t actually give a shit about the drugs, they just have to look like they’re doing something. (In fact, that is definitely the case).

Anyway, Cuenca. Cuenca was back up at altitude and very pretty. We’d checked the forecast in advance and were prepared for a solid few day of rain, but shockingly (for us at least) we actually had a couple of lovely sunny, cool days, wandering the streets and visiting the nearby national park…which looked strangely a lot like the Peak District. This experience was marred somewhat by one big error in judgement on our parts – we went for a hair cut. In Mark’s case, it went pretty well, albeit rapidly (seriously, like 5 minutes), so I made the unwise decision of saving a few pennies ($5 as opposed to the god-knows-how-much I would have shelled out in the Bahamas in a few weeks). THIS WAS A BAD IDEA. I asked, repeatedly, for just a couple of cm off. I’ve been growing my hair for donkey’s years and only needed a little off to freshen it up. Unfortunately, the mean bad lady decided she knew best. In under ten minutes of dry cutting, I lost about 4 inches of hair. If you’re a boy reading this, you may shrug. If you are a girl, FEEL MY PAIN.

Anyway, we moved on (geographically speaking – I’m still crying inside) to Montanita a few days later, with more than a little bitterness and some anxiety about the bug situation which lay ahead. Luckily, we had no need to worry. Despite being insanely close to the equator, Montanita was a much cleaner, less buggy, altogether way more fun version of Mancora. Now we are not ones for “party towns” as a whole. Although we both like a night out (well, I do) and a beer or two (well, Mark does) our travel style is less “lash lash lash” and more “bit of culture, then Netflix and bed”. It’s not the drunken revelry as such, or even the accompanying overpriced food/beverages/clothing. It’s more this feeling that we Westerns have taken over a town and basically replicated our home countries, complete with chips, sex and shitty 90’s dance…only with less laws and less clothing (I’m looking at you Koh Phi Phi). Now, no one is going to call Montanita the cultural capital of anywhere – it is a partying surf town after all – but thanks to an avoidance of tack and the inclusion of a bunch of Ecuadorian tourists, it managed to get the balance just right. We had a cracking time, met a delightful Bostonian-cum-Texan called Chris, and had our usual night out followed by Mark drunkenly wandering off. The latter bit was less fun.*

We spent our last day in Montana visiting Isla de la Plata, which are supposed to be like a mini-Galapagos, or a Galapagos for poor people. We saw sea turtles, and exotic birds aplenty, included the hilarious-looking and equally hilariously named blue-footed booby. We also took this opportunity to get sunburnt to shit.

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Don’t know if they were kissing or fighting but we are going to assume the former.

Our final stop in our brief Ecuadorian adventure was 24 hours in Quito, which was basically a break in our journey on to Colombia, but a very pleasant one. Now, here comes the shameful admission: as you guys know, I plan ahead like the OCD madwoman I am, and generally this has worked out pretty damn well. Other than the odd “I wish we had another day here” or “I wish we had known about that place/could change our plans”, up until Cusco we didn’t really regret travelling this way at all. Given our vague disappointment with Mancora (and the forced flight we needed to get there in time) and the glowing reviews people had given Colombia, we were already somewhat regretting not allocating a bit more time there. Add in that we had booked a very expensive and entirely unnecessary flight from Quito-Bogota months back (we trusted the British Government website when it said the border was insanely dangerous – apparently it really isn’t anymore) and we were feeling REGRETFUL. We even tried to get a refund on the flight – intending to sacrifice a solid 24 hours on a much cheaper bus journey – but could only get about 75% of it back.

You can imagine the irony then, when we turned up at the airport, for our unnecessary, overpriced and regretful flight, only to find out IT NO LONGER EXISTED.

That’s right folks. Our airline hadn’t just cancelled the flight, they had terminated their entire contract with Quito Airport. Sadly for us, we had booked through a third party, Kiwi.com, who allegedly knew nothing of the sort, and thus didn’t let us know. In fact, they had confirmed the flight a mere 72 hours before. Very generously, they booked us on a flight 15 hours later (ha) and gave us a few dollars for a room and some grub. No refund for our accommodation in Bogota, no compensation for the 5 hours we spent chatting on the phone to them, the day we had lost in Bogota or the fact that had we known a few days earlier we would have got the damn bus and saved a fortune! Forgive my French, but what a bunch of fucking cunts.

Anyhoo, we finally arrived in Bogota yesterday. The sad part is, although the Quito hotel we were forced to stay in was absolutely beautiful, the apartment we had booked in Bogota rivalled it entirely. Seriously, look at that view.

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Coming soon to an IKEA catalogue near you.

Lastly, our next week in South America is our last. One week today and we’re leavin’ on a jet plane and heading North, via the Caribbean. Be rude not to, wouldn’t it?

 

*He’s sorry. Very sorry.

 

 

 

Snapshot of the Week: Macchu Pissing it down

As those of you who have been following our story know (and if you haven’t why not?), we haven’t had the best of luck when it comes to the persistent scourge of the British – the rain. Thankfully, as we headed to Cusco, the dry season was in full swing, so our 5-day hike across the Salkantay Pass to Macchu Picchu would be unaffected by drizzle and downpour, and instead we would bask in glorious sunshine as we soaked up the scenery. Probably.

As we arrived in Cusco, we were pleasantly surprised. What we had half-expected to be a small mountain town, famous only as a gateway to Macchu Picchu and the surrounding Sacred Valley, turned out to be a fairly large city, with a stunning historical centre full of churches, little cobbled streets, great restaurants and beautiful plazas. The only downside to Cusco was the fact that there are so many tourists. I appreciate the irony of a tourist complaining about this but bear with me. There are two types of traveller in this part of the world: Backpackers and holidaymakers. Where there are the former, prices are low. Where the latter tread, prices correspondingly rise. In Cusco, there were both types present, meaning that we (who are most definitely in the former category), have to battle with the prices that those on their 2-week holiday have brought with them. Bearing in mind how poor Peru is as a country, some of the prices in restaurants, bars and shops in Cusco were not a long way shy of disgraceful. That said, there were still plenty of bargains to be had, it just took a good Google before leaving the apartment.

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Before our trek, we had a few days to acclimatise to the altitude before heading off on the hike. Cusco is at 3300m above sea level, so not as high as Lake Titicaca or the Salt Flats that we had previously visited, but more than enough to make you think twice about the six flights of stairs up to the apartment (*wheeze*). We spent those days in the Sacred Valley, at the Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo, Chinchero and Picay with our Canadian friend, Obaid, as well as buying yet more crap made of alpaca fur. We also got our first glimpse of Peruvian rain the day before we left, which was a little surprising as we were in dry season, but it was only a temporary blip, best get it out of its system before the hike. We bought some snacks, rented our gear and went to our ridiculously late briefing before our 4am pickup the following day.

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Sacred Valley

Day one was a cloudy affair, but we had the novelty of sleeping in an igloo under the stars which kind of made up for it. A trek up to Humantay lake was enough to test our legs on the first day and, although the view was stifled by low clouds it was still a very pretty lake. Anyway, it was only a practise for the following day, the 4620m Salkantay pass.

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We awoke at stupid o’clock the following morning to see a blanket of thick, swirling pea soup over the mountain. Trudging up the valley at a glacial pace, it soon became clear that this would not be lifting any time soon. 4 hours later, at the summit of the Pass, we saw absolutely fuck all. What should have been amazing scenery was completely obscured by fog, and to add insult to injury it started hail-stoning through the drizzle. Dry season my arse. Not only was this incredibly disappointing and disheartening, it was depressingly familiar after our misadventures in Patagonia. Surely this couldn’t happen twice?

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Our view of the Salkantay Pass…
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… and what it’s supposed to look like

Unusually, the summit was nowhere near the day’s end goal. We had at least another 7 hours to go, most of it downhill, which sounds easy. Sadly, as we got over the mountain, it became evident that we had been in something of a rain shadow on the ascent side, so on the descent it absolutely threw it down. At the lunch stop 3 hours later, everyone was drenched and miserable. Why had we paid for this? Our waterproofs had long given up the fight and we had still seen nothing of the scenery. Still another 3 hours from our end camp with the rain firmly set in, we departed our mess tent in low spirits, for the first time ever seriously contemplating quitting a hike. We weren’t physical wrecks, but we were so miserable what was the bloody point?

We were heading down to our camp in the jungle. Our guide had warned us that this place was full of insects and therefore had strongly recommended that we get there before dark. This brought us up against the next obstacle of the day – the group’s pace. We were clearly the fastest two of the eleven of us in our party (along with a Canadian girl named Britany who seemed to find the whole thing a piece of piss.) It soon became obvious that if we waited for everyone else there was absolutely no chance we would get there before sun down, and we were not having that, so at the halfway point we told the guides we were off and blitzed it down the mountain.  The day’s rain had turned the paths into something Glastonbury would be proud of, but we were racing the sunset and we had no intention of losing. As we sped off through the quagmire, the rain mercifully slowed to a drizzle (that fine rain, soaks you through, worst kind of rain that fine rain), and we ignored our rapidly-growing blisters on our toes to arrive at the camp just as the last rays of sunlight dipped over the top of the valley. Success. We had a hot shower (amazing) and were clean and dry by the time the rest of the group arrived an hour later.

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Occasionally rain is pretty.

Thankfully the next day was dry, and was only a short one. A five-hour hike along a flat road, the only excitement coming from running over a recent landslide site for fear of death by tumbling boulder. The real problems were from the previous day’s efforts, Sadie’s feet were riddled with blisters and my shins were throbbing with shin splints. Hardly ideal. We arrived at the camp by lunchtime a little battered, and said goodbye to half the group who were doing the four-day version of the trek. Still we had a lazy afternoon which was pleasant, and made the decision not to do the optional Llacapata hike the next morning, simply due to the state of our feet and shins. This unfortunately meant some waiting around the next morning but there was not a lot we could do about that. We then hiked to the pretty (but again incredibly touristy) town of Aguas Calientes, our base for the night before Macchu Picchu the following morning.

4.30 am and we are queuing for the bus to MP, as I shall now call it. The only reason anyone is in this town is to visit the famous Inca city, so by 5am there is a line 500m long, 3 or 4 people wide, waiting for the first buses. I don’t know what the solution is, but this system is absolutely nuts. The only alternative to this is to walk and climb the almost 2000 stairs up to MP, but somehow at half four in the morning we didn’t fancy it, so the overpriced bus it was. I say overpriced, this bus was US$12 and took 20 minutes or so. In Peru you can get a three course lunch for US$3, so it was a bloody scam.

As the bus twisted and turned its way up the mountain, something became quite apparent – we could see jack shit out of the window. Our old friend fog was at it again. What made this even more heart breaking was that the previous day had been absolutely gorgeous. We had bumped into the four-day trekkers from our group at the hotel the night before, and they were all sporting some impressive-looking sunburn to go with their glorious photographs. This would obviously not be the case for us. We were given a tour around the city, unable to see anything more than 20 yards in front of us. Extremely pissed off, we made the decision to head up to the famous Sun Gate, the end of the Inca Trail, where the view is meant to be stunning. Obviously, we could see nothing. There was more fog than a Pink Floyd concert, and now it was cold and raining, so at the top we found a little shelter and waited. And waited. The cloud had to break at some point, right?

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Amazingly, it did. 2 hours of freezing our arses off later, the swirling mist lifted, and the famous view of the city materialised. We were left speechless, not to mention incredibly relieved. We took, at a conservative guess, one billion photographs, met a lovely American bloke from Portland called Steve who insisted we stay with him when we are in the North Eastern USA, and headed back down the mountain much happier. As we troped towards the exit alongside a few thousand other relieved tourists, the fog descended again and the city was lost again. It was visible for about an hour. Only this time with the fog, we got rain. We made the decision to return to town on foot, and arrived absolutely drenched once again. Kind of fitting really.

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