Snapshot of the Week: Rushing through Russia

It’s safe to say that Russia does not have the best reputation internationally. Barely a day goes by without some scary story out of the Kremlin: an election rigging here, a corruption scandal there, a political assassination the other way. Nearly every documentary you see about the country involves the journalist being harangued by the police at some point, regardless of whether they are attempting to show Russia in a positive light or not. With Anglo-Russian relations at something of a low point, and given the painstakingly difficult process to get a Russian visa in the UK, you can imagine our nerves before our border crossing into the world’s biggest country.

Just to get this far had been, frankly, a pain in the arse. Due to the aforementioned geopolitical shenanigans between our two respective nations, each country has seen fit to punish the inhabitants of the other by making international travel between the two as difficult as possible. Consequently, to get a Russian Visa, we were require to fill in a stack of paperwork dozens of pages long (each), get a letter of invitation from a travel company, get new passport photos (in Sadie’s case a new passport because hers was full), declare all our social media profiles and assure the Kremlin that we had not ever, nor had any intention of overthrowing the Russian government or doubting the sovereign integrity of its territory. The paperwork also required us to list every country we have been to in the last decade, including when and why, which as you can imagine for full-time wanderers, took a while. Lastly, we had to go to bloody London to give our fingerprints and retina scans, which actually cost us more than our bus into Russia itself.

Anyway, I digress, but you can imagine how welcome we felt as we rocked up to the border. Our bus from Helsinki was full of Russians, all of whom seemed to know how to “do” the border, and they pointed us in vaguely the right direction. Eventually, with a bit of a scowl, they let us in. Success!

Our first stop was St Petersburg, Russia’s most popular tourist city. Within moments of arriving in the centre, we could see why – it was stunning. St Pete’s was designed by the Tsars over the centuries to impress upon people the grandeur of Russia, and it worked. For whatever reason, St Pete’s also escaped the ravages of the two great scourges of Russian architecture: war and Stalinism. Either that or after it was destroyed by the Nazis they painstakingly rebuilt it. Still – beautiful city. We spent days just wandering around the place soaking it in (literally – it rained every day). We went to the Winter Palace, an insanely opulent former Imperial residence, so full of gold and priceless artefacts that it made you realise why the Russians overthrew their royal family a century ago. We met an old friend for breakfast and made a new friend over drinks. We went to see a ballet (when in Rome) which I’m pretty sure was aimed at children, but never mind. All in all it was just a brilliant place.

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The Winter Palace
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Night streets
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Celebrating a break in the rain
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Palace Square

An overnight train later and we found ourselves in Yaroslavl, self-proclaimed capital of the so-called Golden Ring – preserved Russian towns which are essentially open air museums to Russia’s past. Yaroslavl was absolutely full of beautiful churches, to an almost ridiculous extent, and all of them were adorned with the famous “onion domes” which make them so unique. We really enjoyed walking around the town and probably would have done even more so, had it not been for the incessant rain that was becoming more and more a feature of our Russian experience.

Next stop: Moscow. We’d planned the last leg of our stay so we had a night in Moscow, then a one day trip to Vladimir, another Golden Ring town, then back to Moscow for a couple more nights before leaving. On reflection it was a bit thick, because it severely limited our time in Moscow itself, cost a pretty penny to visit, and was (quelle surprise) a bit of a washout. It was frustrating because you could tell the town was beautiful, just underneath a thick blanket of fog and drizzle. We also tried Russian wine there, which was sadly terrible. We headed back to Moscow, damp and praying that our last few days would be drier.

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I’d had enough of the weather

They weren’t. We really tried to make the best of Moscow but the rain finally got the better of us. We spent a night at the opera at the iconic Bolshoi Theatre, which was a heck of an experience. We saw the Red Square, the Kremlin and its most famous sites, and spent a freezing afternoon at a colossal souvenir market, but it simply would not stop raining and there is only so much sightseeing you can do when you’re piss wet through and shivering. We got our taxi to the airport a little sad that we hadn’t made the most of Moscow, knowing how hard it is to get in the country that we likely will not be returning to for a while, if ever.

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The stunning St Basil’s Cathedral by day…
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…and by night

I’m writing this from Beijing, jet lagged and somewhat irritable due to the annoying-as-hell great firewall of China. This basically means you can’t use Google (and therefore Maps, Translate, Chrome, the Play Store, YouTube), Facebook (and obviously therefore Instagram, to Sadie’s dismay), Twitter (wtf?) and a whole host of other things. You can’t even get on Pinterest for fuck’s sake. I mean really, who is going to bring down the government with a mood board? Anyway, more on that next time. If they don’t block the post, that is.

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A night at the opera

 

 

 

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Snapshot of the Week: Finnish Friends and Ballin’ in Tallin

We’re back! Aren’t you glad? Haven’t you missed our self-congratulatory yet somehow self-pitying rants, observations and witticisms? No, obviously you haven’t, because a) it’s only been like 3 months and b) we only have like 50 followers, which is depressing. Hell, never mind, onwards and upwards.

So after a long, wet English summer, taking in two weddings, an engagement party, a funeral and two broken bones (Mark fell off his giant friend’s shoulders at our engagement party, utterly shitfaced, the dick), we packed up and left the UK again. This time, however, we weren’t heading for perpetual summer as we usually do. We were heading north to Finland to reconvene with our friends whom we had last bumped into, also shitfaced, in San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, way back in November last year. You know when people say “Yeah you have to come visit us!”? But you both know it will never happen? Well, we aren’t really the type for missing an opportunity to visit chums in foreign lands (complete with free digs), so 10 months later we rocked up at Helsinki airport to be greeted by Karoliina and Juha, our incredibly welcoming and obliging hosts.

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Finnish Friends!

Helsinki is a lovely little unassuming city. Despite being hampered by fairly shocking Baltic weather for over half the time we have spent here, we’ve really enjoyed our brief stay. We’ve also managed to do some really Finnish things – we went to a herring festival, as you do, we went to a sauna, jumped in a lake which was about 7°C and ate reindeer.

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We swam in this bad boy (briefly).

As an added bonus we spent a day in Tallinn, Estonia’s pretty little capital, courtesy of a bargainous €10 return ferry. We were a little surprised at how hipster Tallinn was outside the Old Town’s walls, but pleasantly so. The old town is as pretty as you would expect for a historic European capital, which thankfully escaped the ravages of the Soviet era’s architectural policy, if you can call it that. We rounded off our day in the most oddly-decorated bar possibly in the entire world. I can’t even begin to explain it, but there was one room decorated in foil and another with headless dolls dangling from a chandelier. Think a Salvador Dali-inspired acid trip meets 60-Minute Makeover and you probably won’t be far wrong.

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Look at that mental room.

We leave tomorrow for Russia, feeling a pretty familiar combination of excitement and apprehension. Russia is the first place we have been to where we can’t even read the alphabet and we can’t really expect any of the locals to understand a word of the Queen’s. We’ve also heard slightly unsettling whispers of the fun that can be had with corrupt Russian officials and incredibly tedious border crossings. Still, should be fun!

The Americas: Number Crunching

So here we are in Gatwick Airport (delayed, obviously, it seems appropriate really), and we have bid a sad farewell to the Americas. Since we last did a blog we celebrated America’s Independence from the nasty Brits on 4th July at a kindly strangers rooftop party, got stuck on a bus for what seemed like eternity on the way to Washington DC, further celebrated America’s Independence from the British in Boston with an old friend and did a lot of New Yorky things in New York.

The last 6 months have been, in no particular order: challenging, scary, tiring, fun, eye-opening, leisurely, cultural, beautiful and pretty damn amazing. There have been ups and downs, a lot more work than we anticipated but just as many rewards. We’ve met so many wonderful and generous people who we owe so much to, and cannot thank enough. We can’t quite believe that it was 9 months ago we quit our jobs and went on this trip, but thank goodness we did. It felt right, being on the road, just as it feels right to be heading back to the UK for the summer. We might get itchy feet, but right now they’re pointed towards home.

To try and sum it all up would be impossible, and frankly, very boring for you to read. So below is our last 6 months in numbers:

186
 Days (4464 hours, 267840 minutes, 16070400 seconds).

£19,375 spent (ouch). Inc of all flights, shopping and daily spends. This works out as….

£95 spent on average per day, for both of us. The complete cost per country can be found here

12 Countries
3 Continents
2 Hemispheres
20 US States
6 Timezones

55 beds
28 Flights
11 Overnight buses
2 Airport overnighters

1 Case of food poisoning (both of us)
1 Root Canal
1 Road trip
1 Booked wedding 🙂
6 Visits from/to friends & family
2 Multi-day hikes which both ended in torrential rain
We’d also like to sign this off with a massive thank you to so many people. Firstly and of course most importantly, thank you to you for reading our rambles. Then thanks to everyone we’ve met along the way: our friends and our families who gave us a bed and a roof over our heads, all our Airbnb hosts, hostel owners and all the random strangers who have pointed us in the right direction, invited us to parties, helped us with our bags and all the random acts of kindness that go unmentioned but not unappreciated. It’s been a hell of a trip and we couldn’t – and wouldn’t – have done it without you. We won’t be boring you for a  short while as we try to undo the financial damages of the last 8 months, but we’re back on the road in the autumn and we’ll post more of our self-indulgent babbling then.

We can’t wait.

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Snapshot of the Week: Kings (and Queen) in the North

Where were we? Right, San Francisco. Since then we’ve been north of the border and back again, met up with friends old and new, said goodbye to Steve and drank far, far too much.

So we left San Francisco a little sad. It was possibly our favourite city so far, absolutely full of charm and packed with stuff to see and do. We took an early morning flight to Vancouver, only slightly complicated by the fact that none of us were aware that we needed a visa to get into Canada now (rude). Luckily we were able to do it over wifi in the airport and we were all, to our immense relief, granted one instantly. We arrived in Vancouver to be greeted by absolutely beautiful blue skies – the first of the year according to the locals – and a view out to snow-capped mountains beyond. We were going to like it here.

Our first full day in Van City was spent with Mark’s best friend’s parents who just happened to be in the city at the same time as us (stalkers). We wandered, ate a lot (who knew the Canadians could do good chippy?) and had some great beer. It really was a lovely introduction to a fantastic city.

We were in Vancouver, among other reasons, to reunite with an old friend, Luke. He volunteered to be our tour guide for a few days and did a brilliant job. He took us to the surrounding mountains, to Whistler, to beautiful waterfalls and stunning viewpoints. He also claimed to be a “rubbish” guide, which was utter bollocks. We had a blast in Vancouver and our 6 days there absolutely flew by, again it was difficult to leave. It also meant saying goodbye to Steve, who has been our companion these last few weeks. He was London-bound while we were heading back to the USA.

Chicago was our next stop. It was only a very short one, as we had arranged to meet up with Josh again in Nashville and someone (Mark) got the dates wrong, so we had 2 and a half days to blast through the Windy City, so blast we did. We had a Chicago tick list of pizza, architecture and blues, all of which we accomplished with aplomb. A particular highlight was a night spent at a blues club, where the bands played amazing music all night, with the added bonus of being free since we had student cards with us.

There was actually only one downside to Chicago, which was our neighbourhood. We stayed in a place called Garfield Park, which is one of the most dangerous ‘hoods in one of the most dangerous cities in America. There were constant drunk and cracked up people on the street, crime was rampant and sirens wailed non-stop. While we were there, there was a fatal shooting one street away. Dead bodies turn up in the park frequently. Honestly, after dark it was pretty damn terrifying. We did not know this before we stayed (obviously) and would have avoided the area like the plague otherwise. Luckily, other than some kids throwing fireworks near us (at us?), nothing bad happened and we were able to take our night bus to Nashville unscathed.

We are now in Nashvile, Music City USA. We’ll write about this next time, once our livers have recovered from the experience.

Snapshot of the Week(s): Drivin’ USA

We haven’t written anything for a good while now. We haven’t just been lazy bums, we have been stupid busy since we left the Bahamas just over two weeks ago. We’ve been to seven states, three National Parks, driven 2316 miles (I counted) and had nowhere near enough sleep. You can see our Lego selves in our first stop, New Orleans, in the famous Jackson Square.

It all started back in Florida, where we spent our first night in the US of A sleeping on a bench in Fort Lauderdale airport. As far as airport sleeps go it wasn’t actually too bad, but it was hardly a glamorous introduction to our US adventure. From there we took an early flight to New Orleans where our tour could start in earnest.

NOLA was everything we hoped it would be. It’s very difficult to portray the feeling in the city without resorting to cliché, but the best word I can think of for the place is that it’s fun. The famous French Quarter positively buzzes with live music; jazz and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, street performers and artists decorate every corner and smells from the incredible Cajun and Creole cookery are almost as intoxicating as the liberal amounts of alcohol flowing day and night down Bourbon Street. We spent pretty much all our days wandering the streets, dodging the baking heat as much as possible and avoiding the occasional torrential downpour. We took a cookery class, did a graveyard tour and did a late night bar crawl, taking in the full range of opportunities the Big Easy has to offer. We were sad to leave when we ran out of time there, but we had a Steve to pick up in Vegas.

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St Louis Cathedral.
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Bourbon Street.
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A rather revolting “hand grenade.”

When we arrived in Vegas things got a little interesting.  Steve arrived, quite a bit little later than planned but otherwise in good health, but his bag (which included some clothes of ours also) had not made the connection. Luckily the nice chap at JetBlue customer services assured Steve that his bag would be on its way to our accommodation the next day. Reassured, but no less tired, we made the 3-hour journey to our lodge in Utah which neighboured Bryce National Park, arriving at a solid 4am. Although we had kept the lodge posted on the delay, it seems sleep had overcame them, resulting in some very ungainly banging and shouting on our parts. We managed to wake the poor owners and get a solid 3 hours’ sleep. The most frustrating part? Mark and I had booked the more expensive flight, so we arrived at a similar time to Steve and with plenty of wiggle room to get to the lodge at a reasonable hour. OH THE IRONY.

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Wow.

The next day revealed two things to us – 1) even with minimal sleep Bryce is an absolutely stunning destination, and we had a cracking day. 2) Steve’s bag wouldn’t be joining us in Utah that day. Or the next day. Perhaps the day after, when we’d already left though. 3 further hours on the phone later, and we were reassured that the bag would be with us in Vegas, by the following day, at 5pm. Definitely. Totally. 100%.

We spent the next day at Zion National Park, which though very busy – cleverly I arranged for us to visit on a Saturday in the Kids’ holidays – was absolutely amazing. Sadly, we had to leave fairly early to pick up Steve’s bag.

You can guess the rest I bet. Long story short: We didn’t get the bag back until two cities later, in San Francisco. On the plus side, Steve got some sick new threads at JetBlue’s expense.

As we’d dithered at the airport for so long, and then went shopping to replace our party clothes (Vegas is notoriously picky about these things) we arrived at the Strip after midnight, and proceeded to spent the next 7 hours, not clubbing or gambling (not quite budget traveller pastimes, after all), but drinking tinnies, people watching and climbing into fountains. It was a blast.

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The infamous strip.
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A sunrise dip.

One hungover day visiting the Hoover Dam, followed by another delightful 3am wake-up for the 5 hour drive to San Diego. San Diego was a combination of marine life watching and eating Mexican food, but sadly we didn’t have time to check out the city itself. I think the lack of sleep and the sheer amount of driving had caught up with us a little. This in mind, we awoke the next day at 4am to drive the 540 miles up the coast to San Francisco. We were supposed to be going to see a baseball game in the evening but the start time had changed to lunchtime, so we stood no chance of making it. Instead we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway and made a day of it. We drove through Los Angeles at rush hour, enjoying (not the right word) its notorious traffic, then cruised up the coast through Malibu to Santa Barbara where we stopped for an insane breakfast. From there it was another few hundred miles up the beautiful coast to San Fran, where we were staying with our friend Josh who we met down in Patagonia back in March. The drive itself was one hell of an experience, something of a bucket list moment for me, but I was glad to arrive in the city, over 12 hours after we set off. We watched Josh play softball (he won, convincingly), had a few beers and some incredibly spicy hot wings and passed out, somewhat exhausted.

As well as doing all the touristy stuff (a hell of a lot of Golden Gate Bridge photos), Sadie had the delights of a dentist appointment to deal with. As South America does not have a reputation for particularly safe dentistry, she had held off until she could see a clinician without the risk of infection/death. As much as nobody wants to go to the dentist when visiting a city, it was a huge relief to get rid of the pain that had been bothering her on and off since Christmas. Once the (hilarious) anaesthetic had worn off, we could still spend a productive afternoon in the city, capped off by an evening watching a pod of passing humpback whales off the shore.

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See? Bridge, innit.

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From San Fran, we had a lovely jaunt to Yosemite planned, which (of course) meant another ridiculously early start. Yosemite is only about 200 miles from San Fran but the roads aren’t great, meaning that it takes a while to get there. It is an incredibly beautiful place but it is SO busy, especially on weekends. Even with this in mind, it was one of the most beautiful places we have ever been to.

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After an incredibly sweaty evening in a nearby lodge, complete with a tarantula spotting, we were more than happy to return to Josh’s beautiful San Francisco flat (sans Josh sadly, as he had departed for Italia, until our reunion in Nashville in a few weeks). Words cannot really describe how grateful we are, not only to have been able to stay with Josh, but to have had the opportunity to kinda play-act living in the city for the last week. We’ve spent a lot of time people watching, drinking in parks and wandering around beautiful hipster neighbourhoods. Tie dye and flowers are everywhere, being a foodie is seemingly obligatory and colourful bongs line shop windows. Honestly, the only downside to SF is the price tag – I can only imagine what hippies of the past would think of an eight of marijuana selling for $60.

Originally when we first planned our great USA jaunt, we both said San Francisco was somewhere we would happily have stayed for a couple of weeks, but after a quick peek at the accommodation options (£70pp for a crappy dorm bed!) we quickly realised this was not within our budget. To have met Josh back in Chile, and has the opportunity to stay with him was beyond lucky, and as a result this city has rocketed to the top of both our lists (and Steve’s). So THANK YOU so very much Josh, for showing us your beautiful home and current hometown. We’ve both mused about returning for a workaway stint, so I’m afraid you haven’t seen the last of us yet (sorry).

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Next stop avec Steven: Vancouver. Poutine, maple cinnamon whisky shots, the infamous Grouse Grind… it’s gonna be sweet.

Snapshot of the Week: Bahama Dreamin’

The last week has, without a shadow of a doubt, been the easiest week of our 8 months or so on the road. But for the generosity of Sadie’s Aunt Barbara, it wouldn’t have been possible. As it stands, we have spent 7 nights on Long Island, what Wikipedia calls “the most picturesque island in the Bahamas,” (quite an accolade), and we are not going to disagree with them.

Getting to Long Island was an interesting experience. After an overnight stay in Nassau airport, we walked to our gate to see what was essentially a large tin can with wings. There’s no way we’re on that, we thought. We thought wrong. The plane was so small that passengers were arranged according to weight to keep the balance right. There was no separate cockpit so you could see the pilots from your seat – apparently hijacking isn’t really a thing in the Caribbean. Still, it was probably the most interesting flight we’ve ever been on, and arriving at Deadman’s Cay (how cool is that name?) airport was definitely the least stressful airport experience we’ve had, as the terminal is the size of a petrol station all-night shop, and someone brings you your bag on a hand-pulled trailer. They even have a picnic table next to the runway, to have a cheeky beer while you wait. We knew then that it was going to be good.

Our days here have consisted of being chauffeured around the island by our hosts, seeing stunning beach after stunning beach, napping and drinking rum. I am struggling to think of a better way to pass a week. The beaches come straight from a holiday brochure – all white sand, water so blue that it looks Photoshopped, sunny skies and palm trees at a rakish angle like they too are getting into the relaxed, Caribbean spirit. The best thing about them, though, is that they are completely deserted. These beaches in other parts of the world would be teeming with tourists, touters and tat-merchants. Here you have them entirely to yourself. It is bliss.

 

We paddled with piggies, strolled down beaches and enjoyed Long Island’s regatta and my aunt’s adorable little boat. We also dived into the world’s deepest blue hole, which was more than a little heart-pounding.

Unless you have a fat wallet, Long Island isn’t somewhere you’d generally visit. Of the total population on the 80-mile-long island (less than 3000 people) we could count the tourists we’ve seen on two hands. Bahamas isn’t exactly a cheap destination to begin with, but Long Island and the Family Islands (i.e. the quieter, smaller islands) are pretty much reserved for the honeymooners and the wealthy Americans (God bless that almighty dollar). Combined with my aunt’s beautiful home, brilliant tour-guiding skills and endless supply of liquor, we feel incredibly lucky to be here.

Now, we will be the first to correct anyone who says our daily life is just like “a holiday”. It’s not. Although I happily spam social media with gorgeous photos, and feel incredibly lucky to see the amazing things we have, for obvious reasons we omit the bad stuff.

The days we spent willing the electricity, the water or the Wi-Fi back on. The overnight stays in airports, bus stations, and quite memorably, the street. The 24-hour bus rides or the days locked away in a hostel room with catastrophic diarrhoea.  The hours spent planning, working, or generally doing chores. While some days ARE absolutely holidays, a lot have just become…well…life. We don’t expect sympathy – we chose this, absolutely love it, and would much rather be here than working – but it isn’t all fun and games all of the time.

(Note: The next time you see a boastful, beautiful insta-traveller, showing of her perfect manicure and beautiful villa, just remember that 90% travellers get the shits. It makes me feel better anyway.)

HOWEVER, this week, we will eat a massive slice of humble pie and admit that this has been one hell of a holiday! Backpacking is hard? Pfffft.*

It’s time to move on tomorrow and return to budget travelling. We have an overnight stay in Fort Lauderdale airport (see?) and then on to New Orleans. I think it’s safe to say we’re both crazy excited to start our USA tour, as well as a little nervous at what this country will do to our poor, battered bank balance. We’ve got gumbo, voodoo, jazz and ghost stories to sample, then it’s onto the Sin City and its surrounding natural beauty. Next time you hear from us we’ll be in Nevada, shooting dice and with money burning holes in our pockets*, as well as with our good friend Steve in tow. It’s going to be a blast.

 

* We would also add how wonderful it has been, just to exist in a normal, family home for a little while. Sitting on the sofa, making dinner in a proper kitchen and going to the same bed every night has been honestly, pretty glorious.
**We will not be doing this. Our budget does not cover gambling, despite Mark’s assurances to the contrary.

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.

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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