Tag Archives: Hot Springs

There’s Always More To See (in Association with Emirates)

Nick & Bee Say: If there’s one universal acknowledged truth about travelling, it’s that it makes you want to do more travelling. It’s infectious. Once you experience the lifetime of adventure on a truly incredible trip, it’s only a matter of time before you start thinking about where to go next. Or as we’ve found, you start planning your next trip while still on this one! It’s impossible not too, we’ve met so many people out here who have all been to the most amazing places. It’s truly inspirational. So with this in mind, we were flattered to be asked by Emirates Airlines to explore our top picks for future destinations. And after roughing it on a tiny little 8 seater plane recently, just flying with Emirates is up there on our top things to do list!

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Image: Welcome Nepal

Nick Says: Nepal is right up there for me. Why? One of the main things extended travel does is give you lots of time to think about how you’d like your life to be. It puts things into perspective. One of my favourite activities back in the UK was climbing. I took it up a few years ago, and really got into it, visiting the climbing wall as often as I could. But if there’s one thing about London, it’s that it doesn’t give you a lot of time to pursue extra-curricular pursuits. Suddenly I was spending more time at work, had more ‘vital’ social functions to attend, and stopped being able to justify the cost. But it made me sad. My climbing shoes began to gather dust. I started making excuses not to go on the outdoor climbing trips I had planned.

But something’s happened on this trip. Perhaps it’s all the time I spent in the Andes at altitude. Suddenly all I can think about is climbing again, and not only that, but mountains. The Andes was ruggedly beautiful, and took a hold of my heart while we roamed them. I found my reading tastes veered towards outdoor adventure books, especially the masterful John Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams, a collection of essays about climbing. So where better to gain a sense of the sheer majesty of the mountains then taking a trip to the most impressive range of all – the Himalayas. Nepal seems like a crazy person’s idea of a country, mainly at altitude, cut off the rest of the world until the mid 20th century, and full of yaks. It promises chaos, adventure, and wilderness. It also promises Everest. The highest point on this planet, and the closest we can get to space without flying. While I’ve too much respect for the mountain (and also my safety) to want to climb it, I want to see it with my own eyes. I want to travel to Nepal and tackle an epic 17 day hike to Everest Base Camp. Everyone in the world has heard of this mountain, and so it seems right that you should want to see it. I had the opportunity to speak to a girl on our Galapagos cruise recently who had done the hike. Her verdict? The hardest thing she had ever done, but the one she was most proud of.

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Image : MTPA Tourist Office

Nick Says: I’m not just all about mountains and extreme environments though. Mauritius is also one of my next must-see destinations. Beautiful tropical paradise? Tick. A hundred things to do other than lounge on the beach? Tick. A completely unexpected side of Africa? Also tick. While many might just see the island as luxury destination of high-end resorts, I think it’s far more than that. Firstly, I’m inspired by my travel hero Simon Reeve, who visited during his Indian Ocean series, and showcased an island that was a melting pot of world cultures – African, European, Chinese, Creole, and Indian. I love these countries and places that stand at a cross-roads of everything. Hong Kong is one, but I think Mauritius might be a stage further. Countless nations have tried to leave their definitive mark here, but none have dominated. Instead you’re left with what seems to be the most interesting aspects of all. Secondly, I worked for several years with a girl from Mauritius, and she would wax lyrical about her home. This was as far removed from the mega-resorts as you could imagine, with stories about her sprawling family house (complete with cranky Grandma) and day to day life in a vibrant island nation. There’s nothing more compelling than hearing a first-hand account of somewhere to make you want to visit (I try and talk up Southampton on occasion, with difficulty) and getting an almost behind-the-scenes account of the place really inspired me.

Thirdly, it seems to have everything I enjoy about travelling. Interesting culture, trekking opportunities in the mountainous central region, an incredible variety of bird-life (RIP Dodo), and of course turquoise waters and white sand beaches. Because after all, who doesn’t want to send people at home pictures of you lounging around on the sand without a care in the world?
How to get there… Emirates.

Sun sets over Brahmaputra River in Guwahati.

Image : Eye on the World India

Bee Says: I was lucky enough to grow up in Bradford, Yorkshire (a phrase not many people who grow up in Bradford probably utter very often!) Due to Bradford’s position as a boomtown of the industrial revolution, during the 19th century it soon became “wool capital of the world”. Textiles continued to run through the heart of the city, and in the 50s and 60s attracted employees from many countries around the world; in particular India and Pakistan. This meant the Bradford I was born into in 1984 was one of the most multicultural places in the United Kingdom. Growing up I was surrounded by the beauty, the colours, the smells and the sounds of Indian culture. I practised Bollywood dances at school, I learnt to apply henna before nail varnish and I sighed enviously as my friends would board a flight to India for the summer holidays. Why then, has it taken me SO long to visit India myself? I can’t answer that, but it is number one on my top locations to visit next. I hope in a way, that a small part of my heart would feel like I was coming home, as so many of the customs and ways of life are familiar.

Whilst traveling has lit in Nick a lust for future adrenaline-led mountain treks, I think the part of me that has grown most in Latin America is my spiritual side. More than ever I have found my pilates, yoga, breathing techniques and meditation an anchor to my days and a strategy to process and soak in all the new experiences. With this in mind, I would start a trip to India with some time in an ashram, honing these skills and hopefully reaching some sort of Zen, in advance of stepping onto the bustling largest rail network in the world and heading out to some of the hill stations. A passion that both England and India (and me!) share is tea. I’d therefore spend some time in the fluffy green mountains exploring the tea plantations and slurping my way through a few cups of heaven… And by then it would be down to business; bazaars! Oh doesn’t the word just make you want to jump on a flight right now? I desperately want to roam through the piles of rainbow vermilion, the spices, the flowers, exotic fruits, exquisite textiles and glittering bangles. Safe to say this trip wouldn’t be done with my 35litre backpack, considering I would need at least an 80litre to fit all my shopping in.

To balance out all that materialism, I’d need to take some time exploring temples and monuments. Ideally I could time my trip with Diwali, the festival of lights, to feast my eyes on the fireworks, the small clay lamps and the five whole decadent days of celebrations. Before I left, I’d be sure to get out into the jungles and visit some of the 400+ species of mammals, 1260 species of birds and 460 reptiles. Who am I kidding? I think I need to plan multiple trips to India in order to see everything, so I better get started sooner rather than later…
How to get there.. Emirates.

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Image: Inspired by Iceland

Bee Says: When it comes to holidays, Nick and I take it in turns to chose the location. Well we will, we have only taken one holiday together due to travel-savings, and Nick picked Morocco. This means that the next holiday we take is my choice and I am choosing Iceland! I’ve dreamt of visiting this mythical kingdom for as long as I can remember. Now that we have spent the majority of our trip in the tropics, I feel like I have had my fill of being hot. The sun is wonderful, but the mozzies, sandflies, feeling every part of my body sweat including my lip… I am absolutely ready to visit somewhere that requires thermals and woolens and cosying up. What makes Iceland so curious is the festival of elements; fjords, stone towers, geysers, glittering ice caps and hopefully spotting a midnight sun. In South America I also discovered natural hot springs for the first time (the closest I’ve got to a much-lusted-after bath) and would like to continue this new found addiction with some dips in the thermal lagoons of Iceland.

When I imagine our holiday there, I can’t wait to snuggle into the pubs in Reykjavic, munch on rye bread, feast on smoked meats and pickled fish, oh and wash it all down with a ton of throat-firing schnapps. I already own more Fair Isle knitwear than one human needs, so I wouldn’t even need to do any pre-trip shopping. Oh, and did I mention the northern lights?

 

 

 

 

Machu Picchu and Other Majestic Marvels

Bee Says: I know this blog promises a whistlestop tour of Peruvian marvels, but first cast your mind back to where we last left you… loitering in the Lake Titicaca town of Copacabana, Bolivia. Our last meal in Bolivia, an early pre-bus breakfast, turned out to be one of the best ever. El Condor & The Eagle Cafe is owned by an Irish chap and his Bolivian wife, and if (like us) you are in dire need of a few home comforts… you will find them all here! We tucked into a feast of foods very absent from our lives lately including peanut butter, poached eggs, baked beans and SODA bread… a welcome change from Bolivian bread which is generally white sliced packed with so much sugar and chemicals, to keep it from going off, that it crumbles into dust under the knife/in your mouth. They also had BARRYS TEA! For any Irish readers, you will understand the importance of this. It’s the equal to Yorkshire Tea in my heart, and my beloved friend Chloe never fails to bring me back a box from her trips home to the Emerald Isle. It was a special moment as I slurped my first brew in seven LONG weeks!

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From Copacabana we hopped on an international bus to take us the 3 hour drive around Lake Titicaca into Peru. The border crossing was unbelievably lax, not even a vague look at our backpacks, and off we zoomed into Puno, where we had very excitingly timed our visit to take in their annual PUNO DAY festival. Listed in the Lonely Planet as one of the top´must-see events in South America, our brains were filled with dreams of street parties, late night Pisco Sour sessions, fireworks over the lake, parades, fiestas, costumes, music, dancing, lights…..

Nick Says: How can we ever sum up Puno Day? The day dawned bright and clear. We´d been told to go down to the lake early to see a recreation of the legendary first inca, Manco Kapac, emerge from Lake Titicaca. So off we set down the road. Our first indication that something was wrong was the road itself. What should have been a parade route decked out in colour was actually a smelly and trash filled route which was only home to a giant, stinking pig rooting through all the rotting garbage, and who growled at us loudly as we passed. Getting onto the waterfront wasn´t much better. A few people milled around (what we thought was a crowd… was only people going to the bus station) and some woman tried to sell us Ceviche from a cart. Declining her raw fish which had been sitting in the morning sun for hours, we turned away defeated. Puno Day was a poo day.

Later on we eventually found the parade, and it was much tamer than anticipated. Basically, the people of Puno had dressed their children up in various costumes and forced them to march through the town dancing to brass band music. We stayed for a while and clapped at the infants to dance for us before turning away. Puno had disappointed our expectations and it was time to leave.

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Our method for this was a bus service called Inka Express. About 10 times as expensive as a regular bus, it tackles the 6 hour route from Puno to Cusco in 10 hours instead. But what a 10 hours it is. And so worth the extra money. Rather than just a regular boring bus, Inka Express is instead an amazing tour of all the Inka sites between the two cities, MC´d by an amazing guide called Ronald. Ronald endeared himself to me within the first 10 minutes by theatrically intoning over the microphone that when using the toilet, ´ooo-ree-iny only. NO PO PO!´ A friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, he took us first to Pukara, the home of ceramic bulls famous throughout Peru.You put a pair on top of your house to bring harmony and balance to your family, so me & Bee got a couple of mini ones for our future Brighton house. I opted not to match it with a statue depicting a ritual decapitation also on offer, but I’m already regretting the decision. The Inka Express zoomed through the gorgeous natural scenery and we passed from the arid Alti-Plano into the more luscious Sacred Valley, where abundant agriculture fed the Inka Empire. But most importantly, we stopped at a high mountain pass where Bee got to hold a baby Alpaca, who proceeded to try and eat her. Heart melting.

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What was obvious from only a short time in Peru is a) how much more developed (in a Westernised sense) the place and people were than Bolivia, and b) how much more geared to tourism they were. Take for instance the scenic mountain pass. We had seen several such beautiful locations in Bolivia, with nothing more than the shepherds for company. Here there was an entire world of shopping possibilities, and eating options too. This is something that seems prevalent all over Peru. Enter a shop and they´ll be falling over themselves to see if you want to buy their goods. A lot of the time in Bolivia it seemed a mission to even find out who was running the shop (they were usually found glued to a telly novella), and if they wanted to sell anything to you. Tourism in Peru is big business, and just another example of how far this country has come from 20 years ago – as a local guy explained to us, the country was on its knees from terrorist attacks.

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Bee Says: The Inka Express dropped us in Cusco, which is basically the York of South America. Quaint, pretty, tourist tastic and jampacked full of foreigners on their way too or from Machu Picchu (it’s the closest big town with airport to it) – in fact people come here on week holidays from all over the world, so it’s less backpackers and more tourists. There is alot to like about Cusco, it is safe, friendly, and a novelty to be somewhere basically English speaking for a bit. We did some perusing of the artesan markets (both ending up with Inca Cola tee-shirts), had some wonderful meals and visited the Pisco Museum!

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Pisco is the national drink of Peru, a really strong grape brandy. Very excited at a museum based solely around an alcoholic drink, we arrived to discover that it is basically… just a bar! It notched up another cultural fail at visiting museums, considering that the only museums we have been to so far are:
1. The one in Sucre full of scary horror masks
2. The one in Isla del Sol which was meant to be about a giant frog but ended up just being a room with human bones in
3. The one Inka Express Ronald took us to, which was entirely dedicated to Incan babies being born with elongated skulls in Inca times and maybe being extra terrestials?
Anyway this was our 4th museum and then it turned out not to even BE a museum, just basically a Pisco bar.

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We really did need the alcohol though, as we made a horrific error in our hostel choice. We decided to save money by booking a dorm (which we did in Manaus and really enjoyed) but this one was a “party hostel” and full of 18 year old gap students raving all night, doing shots and running around our dorm at all hours. Every night was a different activity like “drinking games” and “karaoke” and there was a bar with photos of people being zany next to guides on how to say phrases like “mashed up” in spanish. They played “pumping ibiza anthems” all day long, until 4am with the speaker right outside our dorm, although that still didnt drown out the drunk teens yelling AAW MAHH GAWWWD at a million decibles at our door. Dont get me wrong, there is a huge target audience for this type of accomdation (and I would have loved it as a student traveller) but it certainly wasnt for us, and we set off from Cusco as bedraggled, sleep deprived wretches.

One thing to probably mention here, is that by this stage we had decided not to trek to Machu Picchu. We had both really fancied doing one of the 4 day hikes there, but my asthma was still being irritated by the altitude, and all the hikes took in mountains of 4500masl+. With only a certain pot of trek pennies to our name, we decided to save the dollars to instead do the Lost City trek in Colombia… which is nicely back on the ground and takes in some crazy jungle passes. Not hiking also gave us the opportunity to visit Ollantaytambo, an often-overlooked “taster” dish to Machu Picchu itself.

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Nick Says: If you ever find yourself in this part of the world, make sure you take the time to visit the village of Ollantaytambo. One of the few places where the Incans defeated the Spanish, Ollantay consists of a incredible Incan fortress on a hill overlooking a Inca town. History truly feels alive here, with tiny cobbled alleys spilling into tradesman yards, trickling streams, or crazy bars like the one we ended up at. Called Gansos, it was set up like a tree-house attacked by a multi-coloured streamers, and as we sat around sipping drinks on the swing streets, we figured life was pretty good. Ollantay was a tranquil oasis after the party hostel, and one of my favourite places I´ve visited. It also helped that I ate the best steak of my life at a restaurant not far from the main square. Considering I´ve not really felt like food recently (vomiting incident), I was so happy I had a huge appetite that night. The Incan Terraces create high walled alleyways, so after our beef and booze we had to scuttle through pitch black cobbled passageways to our hostel, lots of fun and a relief to be somewhere safe enough to do this without getting set upon.

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The next day (we wished we could have spent longer) we walked down to one of the most picturesque train stations in the world and awaited our locomotive. The setting was just a teaser for what was in store. Unable to do the trek, we thought the train was the booby prize. How wrong we were. For anyone who enjoys train travel, this is one of the best. Mile after mile of soaring peaks, tangled jungle, and glimpsed ruins kept our faces pressed to the window. We went the cheapest ‘expedition´ class, but didn’t feel we were short changed in anyway. A panoramic view enabled us to see everything next to and above us. Glorious. If you get the train, make sure you sit on the right hand side on the way there for the best view. But then all too soon we were there at our destination, Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo).

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Bee Says: Aguas Caliente has a bad reputatution for being a rubbish place you have stay pre Machu Picchu (if you want to get on site early you have to sleep here and then catch a bus at 5am, as you can’t stay at Machu Picchu itself) and accordingly we had pretty low hopes, so the town was such a pleasant surprise! Aguas Caliente has a really different look and vibe to anywhere else we’ve been in South America, with everything built on stilts and stacked up over the river that runs through it, very much like places in Asia. Sure it’s touristy, but we had a nice day pottering aroud and opted to visit the natural hot springs with the locals (Aguas Caliente means hot water! So it would be rude not to) but it started storming after 30 mins so we had to jump out. Lightening + hot spring = muy peligroso. Our alarm went off at 4.30am on the most important day of the year… nicks BDAY! We visited a bakery for pan au chocolate and present giving, trickier to organise than it sounds when we have spent about 5 minutes apart in the past two months.

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Nick Says: Birthday and Machu Picchu? What a combo. Leaping in the expensive bus there (you can walk, but it´s a beast of a trek uphill), the anticipation startled to tingle. I couldn’t believe I was about to visit one of the world´s greatest man-made wonders, and a place I´d been dreaming about since I was 18. And boy did it live up to the hype. The site itself is massive, far bigger than I ever thought. You could easily spend days there. In fact we spent hours circling the main site just soaking up the views. It’s iconic and you’ve seen it a hundred times, but nothing compares to actually seeing the place in reality. The photos will do it more justice than we ever could in words, so enjoy them. A little tip though, if you are unable to climb Huayna Picchu (the mountain in all the pictures) as only 400 tickets are allocated a day, then Machu Picchu mountain is a brilliant, and maybe even better alternative. It’s on the north side of the site, and offers you an incredible view of the Machu Picchu and the landscape it inhabits, as well as being a pretty tough and rewarding climb on its own. You need to buy tickets in advance, and its existance isnt mentioned in the Lonely Planet or …. well anywhere, except word of travel-mouth, so you will find it a tranquil spot to escape the crowds too. We were numbers 1 and 2 onto the mountain, what a birthday present.

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Bee Says: We spent 8 hours on site and were hiking or walking the whole time, I actually doubt we would have got the most out of it if we had arrived tired straight from a gruelling trek. I cannot stress enough the importance of arriving early doors – as by 9am thousands of people were milling aroud everywhere and it was almost unbearable. I recommend taking the extra hike to the “sun gate”, a testing hour each way with another breath-taking view on arrival and it meant we could walk part of the original “inca trail”. Machu Picchu lives up to every bit of hype, it has a truly other-worldy magnetic magical feeling, and it’s certainly a wonder of the world in my eyes. If it isn’t on your bucket list, zoom it right up to the top… especially as we are already hearing rumours that visitor numbers will be capped soon, as the site cannot maintain the physical strain of thousands of tour groups rambling through. If that happens, the whole experience may well become prohibitively expensive.

After a dreamy day, it was back to Cusco to celebrate Nick’s birthday night. Except… he had contracted the Inca Death and spent the night vomitting. Poor guy, he was really really sick and feverish and all I could do was keep him dosed up on rehydration sachets. Luckily for a birthday suprise I had booked us into a swanky 5* hotel Aranwa (imagining romance, flowers etc) so Nick could spend the next day in a king size bed, watching movies on the giant telly and ordering chicken soup on room service. It aided a speedy recovery, enough to even eat a slice of the amazing surprise birthday cake that was wheeled out at breakfast – the whole staff singing Happy Birthday in English AND Spanish. The staff couldnt have made us feel more special, and generously overlooked our scraggy stinky appearences and treated us like royalty! To add to the special moment, due to the fact I booked the room there was a name mix-up and Nick will forever be known as Mr Barker.

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Sugar to Salt to Stars

Bee Says: Non Geog-buffs might not realise that Sucre is actually the capital city of Bolivia, hiding slightly in the shadows behind the hugely popular La Paz. However, visitors to Sucre are never allowed to forget they are in the capital, as every opportunity is taken to remind re-inforce this fact! “Welcome to the Capital City” is written on buildings, cafes, walls and even a few peoples tee-shirts. Of all the places we have visited, Sucre stole my heart and instantly leapt to my top spot. I think this was mainly as it’s the first place I’ve been that I could imagine myself being happy living in. Sucre is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains that form a protective ring around the city, and make for attractive views from any street. Like Santa Cruz and Samaipata, we were surprised how European the vibe was. Sucre was super safe, really easy to navigate and with treasures to be found around every corner. One such gem was a cafe called Metro where the staff treated us like long-lost family and I discovered a drink called El Submarino which is essentially a big glass of hot milk with a chocolate bar dropped in it. Heaven! In Sucre we visited our first museum and what a beaut if was. The Ethnographic and Folklore Museum was FREE and basically consisted of a room of masks made by various Bolivian cultures. You walk down a long, near pitch black corridor, with the masks illuminated on each side. The fact many of the masks resembled horror movie characters (Saw, Sackface a la The Orphanage… and some that just appeared to be whithered skulls) led to some pretty hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments the deeper into the mask collection you walked. We both agreed it was the perfect setting for a horror story. The masks were beautiful, intricate and so detailed that you could spend hours just examining one. Well worth a visit! We also visited the Mercado Central, a huge market selling everything you could imagine. We settled on some Brazil nuts (thanks Tim R for your previous detailed answer to the Brazil Nut query, we took your advice!) and some jazzy Bolivian knitwear to ready us for the cold of the Salt Flats. Unfortunately we bought each item of knitwear seperately, and once we put our jumpers, hats, gloves and scarves on all together we realised we had given NO thought to colour coordination. We both looked like a multicoloured multipatterned Alpaca had thrown up on us!

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The highlight of Sucre definitely had to be El Parque Cretácico (Dinosaur Park!!!) although our journey there was just as memorable. In most of Bolivia one mode of transport is a “micro” – a small mini bus that drives a circuit of the town but that can drop passangers at other spots on route for a few extra Boliviano. The micro’s are varying in quality, we saw one with a hole in the floor through which you could watch the road zoom underfoot (!) but they are generally a cheap, safe and easy way to navigate the city. We knew the number 4 micro would take us to the Dinos, so hopped on and asked the driver, who nodded. Twenty minutes later, we pulled in to a millitary zone and it was clear this was the end of the line. The driver waved us off up a dirt path with no dinosaurs in sight. Eventually we stumbled across a beautiful palace like building, and as we entered we were told we were at The Castillo de la Glorieta. NO DINOSAURS HERE! I think maybe the driver had different ideas about the Bolivian culture we should be soaking up so had basically forced us to his favourite tourist spot? Either way we had a look around, meeting a group of school kids in there who ALL wanted their photos taken with the weird muy blanco foreigners! But, we really wanted dinosaurs, so we walked back to where our driver had dumped us and were told that yes, the parque was on the micro 4 route, but the opposite end of the line! We boarded a new 4 and 45 minutes later we had basically seen the whole of Sucre for about 60p and were finally at our desired destination.

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El Parque Cretácico isn´t just a bunch of life-size dino models (although they are pretty nifty). The main draw here is the fact you can see geniune dinosaur tracks, a definite “bucket list” item for me and something that didn’t disappoint. Over 450 prints, from various sized dinos, are impressioned on a 70 degree wall of a cement quarry. Although it’s a wall now, the huge slab of earth used to be a lake floor but over millions of years had been pushed vertically.

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A short guided tour taught us some fun facts, we watched an episode of Walking with Dinosaurs in a small theatre and then could scamper around taking in the incredible views of Sucre and… discover a, erm, dino-vagina (or just a hole for everything actually, as I have since been corrected!). Not something I expected to find in South America, but it made for some good photos.

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The girl in the photo above is Kim, and we met her and her boyfriend Tom in Samaipata. Although they left a day before us, we caught them back up in Sucre. Having no phones and no email, we had to arrange an old-school style meeting, basically “Be at the bar called Amsterdam on Wednesday at 7pm”. This was especially fitting as Tom and Kim are Dutch. It worked, and we were reunited, spending the majority of our time in Sucre with them. We really hit it off and they were the dream travel buddies, really enhacing the fun factor of Sucre for us. We made the most of Happy Hour both nights, but in a terrible badly translated “joke” Tom ordered us 6 Caipirinha´s one night (after already drinking two jugs of local beer) which ended up in headache horror all round.

Nick Says: Waking up the next day with a slightly sore head, it was time to take the bus to Uyuni. We huffed and puffed up a very steep hill for 15 minutes, where the friendly man who had sold us our tickets a few days before quickly ushered us to where we needed to be. For the first time on the trip, there were other backpackers boarding a bus with us. The Gringo Trail was calling us, and it wouldn´t disappoint… After our last ‘bus of terror’, we were a little bit leery about this journey, but Tom & Kim had nothing but good things to say about their night bus journey on the same Samaipata to Sucre route, so we just chalked it up to a bad driver and settled in to our seats. The 8 hour journey down was spectacular, and gave us a glimpse of what to expect. We were entering the Bolivian Andes. However, rather than enjoy the mountainous terrain, I found myself at the beck and call of a tiny Bolivian toddler. He was bored and crying through most of the journey, so I decided to make a few faces at him. The gringo being silly was a big hit, and in no time I was the difference between a screaming child and a laughing one. I think his Mum was appreciative, until I taught him to stick his tongue out. Which he bloody loved – especially constantly at his Mum. Oops.

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We arrived in Uyuni ready for adventure. The mythical salar de Uynuni beckoned. However, the town itself defintely doesn’t inspire much. Built by tourism for tourism, it’s piled high with tour operators and dime a dozen pizzerias. As ever, Bee insisted on seeing the positive, and in this case Uyuni had ‘amazing light’. The only good thing for me was the excellent Minute-Man pizza joint we went to. Tasty pizzas (including llama topping) made Uyuni just fine, although the first night I drank a beer and pretty much turned green. Thanks altitude. This wasn’t to be our last brush with the high elevation – our tour would take us to over 5000m above sea-level, with some dangerous consequences.

We booked our salt flat tour with Cordillera Traveller, a recommended operator who were good to organise a little extra we had decided to throw in after the tour (more on that later). We paid 850 bolivianos each (including sleeping bag and the extra at the end) but one guy on the tour only paid 650, so there’s definitely room to bargain. Setting off at 10.30am on a Sunday morning, we met our fellow salt tourers (the Lonely Planet tries to call them ‘Salterians’, which I think is a truly terrible name). There was Beau, a big hairy Canadian guy from Vancouver who turned out to be the guy we got along with best and travelled onwards wit afterwards (a very funny guy who dispelled the nice Canadian myth though), Paula & Richard, a Swiss couple who like to take exotic fortnight long holidays all over the world, and Frans, another Dutch traveller who is backpacking from Colombia to Argentina. Full of excitement, we set off crammed together in our Toyota Land Cruiser, together with our guide Silvio.

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Now, the basic Salt Flat tour takes in 3 days and 2 nights. The first stop is the antique train cemetery, the place where rusted locamotives last used in 1940 have gone to die. Rail travel was the brainchild of the then Bolivian President Acre who was desperate for Bolivia to install a good transport system, however it was met with anger by the indigenous people who even took to sabtaging the builld, as they felt the trains would intrude on their traditional way of life. After posing in a few olde junkyard trains, we whizzed on to the Salar de Uyuni itself, the world’s largest salt flat. The second and third days take you even further away in the spectacular scenery of south-west Bolivia, including lakes, flamingoes, volcanoes, hot springs, and geysers. It truly was like nothing we had ever seen before. Even trying to recall it in my head makes me think I dreamt the whole thing. Parts of it were like an alien landscape, as if we’d taken an accidental detour to Mars, while other parts made you realise the grandeur of Nature. It seemed impossible to take a bad photo, and we were presented with an endless conveyer belt of oppotunities to snap away. There was the island of giant cacti standing almost dead centre of the flats, the blinding whiteness which allowed to mess with persepctive in pictures, the soaring peaks and deep canyons which flowed by our car. Words can’t do it justice, but hopefully the pictures can allude to some of the majesty.

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Silvio proved a brilliant guide. We had heard horror stories about this tour, some the night before we set off. Guides who were drink-driving, others who crashed the car, some backpackers who had to walk for hours as their car broke down. Luckily for us, everything went super smoothly. Silvio took his work incredibly seriously, often petting his car (which he named Colonial Cowboy, and not Colonial Boy Cow as per our first misguided translation!). If we got dust inside, it would put him in a bad mood and he would glower until we gave him chocolate, which brightened him right up. He also kept us away from the “convoy” of other tour agencies and jeeps, making us really appreciate the remoteness of our environment and not feel like we were just on a package holiday. This is a common criticism of the tour in general; that you end up surrounded by so many other people at every stop point. We barely saw anyone else and even had the hostel to ourselves both nights! Although not an English speaker, thanks to Bee, Franz, and Paula we were able to understand Silvio’s very clear descriptions of just what we were seeing, and enjoy the brilliant lunches he claimed to prepare (he just chopped the fruit, the tasty food was cooked elsewhere). Our first night we stayed in a hotel made of salt (including the beds, and the floors were just piles of salt – handy for seasoning during our evening meal!) which caused us to wake dehydrated, but ready for more. However, the elevation was getting higher and more difficult to deal with…

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 Bee Says: We have both got off very lightly in terms of altitude sickness. Almost everyone else we meet has suffered with crushing headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting, dizziness etc. We were patting ourselves on the back and feeling seriously relieved that so far altitude had left us alone. On day 2 however, the Salt Flat tour goes turbo-high. Driving out to see lagoons in every colour (red, green, blue and purple) our jeep shifted into 4WD mode and we creaked up verticle rockfaces, getting higher and higher until we topped out at near 5000m above sea level (over half the height of Everest). As we walked up to some volcanic rock formations, even the boys in the group were panting with laboured breathing. It was at this point I realised well.. I wasnt really breathing at all. I have asthma, which I mostly try to ignore, but 7 years in London has left it in the chronic category. We would later learn that at 5000m up, you are breathing 50% LESS oxygen than at sea level, so hardly a shocker that for my withered lungs, it would feel pretty scary. My inhalers worked to a point, but mostly I sat paralyzed with fear as my lungs burned and wheezed. I was very aware we were in the middle of nowhere and that panicking only makes asthma worse, so I tried to zen out and we stuck my ipod on the car speakers creating a perfect alien-landscape soundtrack of Mogwai, M83, London Grammar and Adem. Luckily as soon as we left mas-mas (super high) altitude, I felt better and could get back on with having the time of my life! So the fear didn’t dent my adoration of all things salt flat, but I have learnt that altitude is not something to sniff at… it basically feels like a hipo sitting on your chest. We’re having to examine our future plans, such as trekking to Machu Picchu (waaaah) because currently breathing is tough just lazing around, let alone hiking 50k. I´m hopìng another week or so at altitude as we travel La Paz and Isla de Sol will miraculously toughen me up into some iron lunged hulk-bee but I have to at least consider the chance that this won’t happen, and anything over 4000m will continue to leave me a bit like a gasping fish. Anyway back to the tour…

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Nick already summed up the magical world of the 3 days Salt Tour perfectly, and all I can add is that it feels like you are seeing an absolutely secret world, hidden high in the sky and almost inccessable. Everything looks like a dream. The perspective, the light, the beating sun, the odd volcanic rock and higgeldy cacti… It feels like one long mirage, where you imagine you are seeing one thing and as you drive closer, it merges and molds into a thousand other things before you realise it’s just a piece of rock. Every second of taking in my surroundings felt like I was seeing the world for the first time. Its hardly surprising that the desert here apparently inspired Salvador Dali and is thus named after him. One unexpected treat was stumbling across a lagoon packed with flamingoes. One of my favourite animals for most of my life, I’ve never seen them in the wild before. They chirrup, they fight, they fly about. I could have watched them all day long! They certainly fitted in perfectly with the all-round surrealness.

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On Day 3 I was feeling fine again, despite a night in a hostel with no heating where the temperature dipped below freezing, therefore the six of us had to sleep in one room for warmth! We wore ourselves out pre-bed with hours of boisterous games of cards, where we were playing with two decks of cards: one Dutch, one British, leading to mass laughter and confusion as Jacks became Backs and Kings became Hings. Day 3 was the 22nd October, and a special day for me as it was the anniversary of having a beastly operation last year. We woke at 5am and raced up the mountain, in order to watch the sunrise over earth that was bubbling and boiling furiously and creating huge geysers. I’ve never seen one before, and I imagine this is the perfect way to see your first. It wasnt the altitude taking my breath away this time!

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Next up, my first bath of the trip! And what better place than in a hot springs, 4500m up a mountain? This was a first for both of us, and it is as wonderful as you imagine – stepping from 5 degree chill into bathlike water and lazing around until you are prunelike. It was in the hot spring that something very special happened to me too… I met another person from Bradford! I heard the dulcet tones of my beloved hometown accent and swizzled my head Exorcist-quick and yelled I KNOW THAT ACCENT! She was an ex head mistress who is now enjoying travelling the world and seeing everything there is to offer outside of our glorious BD. It was lovely to have such an unexpected encounter in somewhere so unexpected.

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In other proud Yorkshire lass-ing, in the exact middle of the salt flats there is a collection of world flags, dazzling against the white and blue backdrop. There was no Union Jack, or Swiss or Dutch or Canadian flag to pose with but by the time our group had started sighing with disappointment, I was RUNNING towards the flags and snatching the most majestic of sights. A Yorkshire Rose! In the middle, flapping in the wind happily. I have no idea how it came to be there, but it gave me a clutch of homesickness in the wilderness.

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I can’t imagine that anything will match Uyuni for being the best experience of my life, but at least we have 5 months to hunt for something. I would do it all again (even the muy asmatico) in a heartbeat, and would have been on a real glum downer if we hadnt added a little extra into the itinerary. We were meant to end the tour back in Uyuni… but during our Amazon boat tour, Nick made the mistake of napping and leaving me with our Lonely Planet and a can of beer. By the time he woke up I had come up with a cunning plan…. How about we go to CHILE?! And the plan grew and grew, ending on the salt flat tour where rather than go back to Uyuni, our tour guide dropped us at the Frontiera, where we could stamp out of Bolivia (and talk our way out of a bogus tourist tax to boot!) and hop into a shared bus to San Pedro De Atacama. CHILE!!!! As if we weren’t seeing enough countries already…? But we couldnt resist a peek, and obviously a sample of the wine whilst we are at it.

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Nick Says: Yep, why not just pop over to Chile? It’s one of the true joys of travel, the freedom and ability to go where you want, and when you want. The homeland of my friend Francisco (who’s rather inconveniently trekking in Nepal at the moment), Chile is a country 4000km long but only 180km wide at most. Bordered by the Andes in the East, the Pacific Ocean on the West, and the Atacama Desert in the North, Chile prospered in almost isoation from the rest of South America, and is now the most developed country in the region, and one where you can definitely feel the influence of Western countries. It honestly feels like you’re in a Mediterreanean country here, with simple joys such as the buses running on time.

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We arrived in the town of San Pedro de Atacama after descending 2000m. A really pretty town made of adobe single storey buidlings, San Pedro is 100% designed for tourists though. In fact we outnumbered the locals! It was also incredibly expensive, with our costs here even outstripping living in London. Waaah! While Chile as a whole is pretty pricey, it’s nowhere near as much as San Pedro. However, that didn’t stop us hunting out some local bargains for lunch, which meant eating in a cage for one meal. One thing I won’t regret spending money on though was on one of the best sweet pies I have ever eaten. In a cafe on the main plaza we tried to order panckaes, but were told they had run out. The waitress then told us mango something was very good, so we ordered one, without knowing what we would eat. A glorious mango meringue pie arrived, and every bite was heaven. I would go so far as to say a trip to San Pedro (and Chile) is worth it just for this pie. More often than not though, we could be found in the lovely garden of Hostal Sonchek, where we stayed. Drinking Chilean wine with Beau from the Uyuni tour while relaxing in hammocks was a pretty good life.

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San Pedro is also one of the best places in the world to stargaze. Due to it’s location at altitude and in the worlds driest desert, it offers almost guaranteed clear skies. Excited to have this unexpected opportunity, Bee & I wasted no time in booking ourselves on a tour. However, waiting for the bus Bee felt her lungs burn. Maybe standing in the cold for several hours wasn’t the best idea. Reluctantly, she turned back to go home. I wanted to go with her, but she insisted I went otherwise we would have wasted quite a lot of money. Driving out to the desert I wanted to be anywhere but on this tour, but it was still an amazing experience. A canopy of stars surrounded us, and our clever Canadian guide talked us through how to spot the different constellations before letting us loose on powerful telescopes which showed us dying stars, nebulas, planets, and even other galaxies. It was truly inspirational. However, the best was yet to come – the next night we left San Pedro on a night bus to the border city of Arica, and the stars from the bus were even better! This time Bee was given a full panoramic view of them, and I was able to point out the things I had been shown, including the constellation of Scorpio (the best) and Alpha Centurai, the closest star to our own, at a mere 4.6 light-years away… Arriving in Arica early the next morning, we breathed in the sea-level air and gazed upon the Pacific Ocean. We had crossed a continent to be here, from East Coast to West. It felt good.