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: 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.

Snapshot of the week – Into Argentina

20170220_164647.jpgSo when we left you last time we were about to head off on a ferry across the Rio de la Plata into Argentina. We were both a touch nervous, with our money having being severely challenged by Uruguay’s daft cost of living, and with the slightly strained reputation of Anglo-Argentine relations. Within minutes of arriving in Buenos Aires however, our fears were allayed.

Our digs in BA were amazing. We stayed, as ever, in an Airbnb with an Argentine couple who had a beautiful house just out of the centre. As nice as the house was (with free espresso, a pool and Netflix – literally could have stayed there forever), the real stars of the place were Juaquin and Olivia. Not our hosts, but the resident Beagle and kitten. We both instantly fell in love with them, making it even harder to leave after our 6-day stint.

BA was a wonderful surprise. We were expecting a bit of a sprawling metropolis, complete with Latin America’s usual aversion to waste management. Instead we were greeted with what can only be described as a French-Spanish-Italian-English-Argentine fusion of architecture, food and people. A city founded largely by European immigrants, the sparkling tree-lined streets of its prosperous Northern neighbourhoods are filled with neoclassical buildings, with enough French balconies and cute little café’s to make even the almighty Paris a little green with envy. The city’s abundance of pizzerias and distinctive pizza style – a mixture between stone baked and deep pan with a LOT of cheese – are a huge source of pride and an everyday reminder of the city’s Italian heritage. Argentina’s three greatest loves – wine, beef and tango – were abundant and as brilliant as you would expect. You can even see our Lego selves doing a little Tango, unsurprisingly they were braver than we were.

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Unsurprisingly, given our status as stoic Europhiles, the city was just our cup of tea.It was one of the few places we have visited where we could utterly imagine living, and we were very sad to leave, but leave we must. Puerto Madryn’s wildlife-filled coastline beckoned, along with another delightful 19-hour overnight bus. But this was a different bus. This was a fancy bus. Mark begged us to book ‘Executivo’ – first class seating with comfier chairs and ‘dining service’ – I was too intrigued to resist. The experience started off well enough, with a very comfy reclining chair and suitably empty bus, but as dinner time rolled around, and we were greeted with a little snack pack of various biscuits and a cup of tea, we started questioning the hefty price tag (£100 for a damn bus journey). But, in true Latin American style, of course something else was in store. As the bells of midnight chimed (there were no actual bells, only a less ominous digital clock) we shushed our growling tummies and pulled the blankets over our tired heads, only to be greeted by, what else, our dinner. At 12.30am we tucked into a hot dinner with red wine aplenty, as you do.

On arrival in Puerto Madryn, slightly bleary-eyed but not too horrendous, we decided to spend our day planning how to see all the wildlife the area had to offer. Unfortunately, we were kind of stopped in our tracks by one small problem. Everything cost a bloody fortune.  Argentina’s continually turbulent economy has resulted in massive inflation across the board. Awful for locals, and cataclysmic for the country’s budding shoestring tourism. In Autumn 2016 the tour we wished to take was £35pp. At the date of writing, it is now £75pp. Thankfully, we met two brilliant English lasses who had sensibly rented their own car, and were willing to share. We had an incredible day frolicking with the Punto Tombo penguin colony, and our wallets breathed a sigh of relief. Due to our time and budget restraints, we were unable to visit the other major national park – Peninsula Valdes – which was a real shame, but the penguins alone were well worth the journey.

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Alright fella?
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One tiny bit of the colony.

Another 18 hour bus journey later – this country really needs to invest in a budget airline – and we found ourselves smack in the middle of the Argentine lake district, in the delightful town of Bariloche. This was an extreme source of relief, as at 7am the same day, swaying with sleep deprivation in the Esquel bus station, we made the startling realisation that Mark had printed off the wrong tickets, and our bus, for which we had no tickets, was leaving. Thankfully our bus driver understood our desperate pleas, and off we popped for a stunning journey through the alps.

Bariloche, our current residence, is simply beautiful. It looks like a little Swiss/German Alpine town, complete with St Bernard dogs and Milka. (Somewhat uncomfortably, this Germanic influence is at least in part present due to Bariloche being the desintation of choice for justice-fleeing Nazi war criminals, but we can gloss over that). The town itself is not the highlight though, the surrounding national park is what attracts travellers from across the globe. The pristine blue lakes, dense forests and dramatic mountains, interspersed with hiking trails are the perfect combination for those, like us, seeking a bit of fresh air and exercise, but not enough to batter our bodies into submission. That comes next week, when we hit the Torres del Paine. Watch this space.

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Snapshot of the Week (Part II) – A Brief Stint in Uruguay

First up, a confession. Our Lego photo here is not in Uruguay. We couldn’t find a decent spot to take a photo of them so instead this is our Lego guys getting serious suntans in the dunes of Florianopolis. I’m sure you don’t mind. Read Part I or check out Sadie’s Instagram to see more photos.

After a cracking few days in Floripa (or Flo, as we took to adoringly calling it) it was time to cross over the border into our second South American country – Uruguay. It was another pretty comfortable bus journey (albeit a 19 hour one) to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay and as we now dub it, the MOST OVERPRICED CITY IN LATIN AMERICA (thus far). Now don’t get us wrong, we generally enjoyed our 3 days here, in large part because we had an absolutely wonderful Airbnb stint in an adorable apartment with an equally adorable Grandma, Marisa. (If you stay in Montevideo we would highly recommend her place as your homely port-of-call, which can be found here). Incidentally, Airbnb has been a lifesaver on this trip, it’s often cheaper than hostels and so much better. If you haven’t signed up do it through this link to get discount off your first booking (in fact, even if you have, use a different email address. They make enough money, right?)

Montevideo is a nice enough city, with pretty good crime rates, a decent night life and a nice little old town and promenade. Like its neighbour Argentina, it also does two things very well and affordably – cows and wine. If man could live on steak and merlot alone, he would do so very contently in Uruguay. The real problems arise when you want to do anything else. Despite a perfect agriculture climate, Uruguay grows very little and imports expensively. At a supermarket, mushrooms cost £3, peppers were £1 each and god forbid you even look at beansprouts – £4 a packet. Tampons were £5 for a pack of ten and even a bottle of coke (the universal budget standard) was £3. Likewise, a meal out would typically cost around £15pp just for a main course (typically consisting of the aforementioned red meat), with a small can of beer setting you back £3 a go. Everything we read likened Uruguay’s cost of living to that of Brazil, but whether it is the Real’s continuing instability or Uruguay’s continuing economic recovery, it was a real shock to our purse strings.

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Despite this, and a few extremely grey weather days, we had a nice enough time in the little capital. We spent our eighth Valentine’s Day together eating (guess what?) red meat and drinking (guess what?) red wine, and soaking up the baking hot Uruguayan sunshine, in between the torrential downpours. The next day, today in fact, we headed off to Colonia, a little colonial (duh) gem of a town 3 hours down the coast. We get the ferry to Argentina at a godless hour tomorrow morning, and we can’t wait. Steak and red wine await. Oh, right. Well, I’m sure they do something else well, too.

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See what we mean about the meat?