A Travellerspoint blog

Peru: Cusco and the Inca Trail

From La Paz, Bolivia, into Peru and hiking up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

sunny 12 °C
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Our overnight bus was relatively comfortable. Although it had stopped every four hours, as they do for toilet breaks, it's broken sleep at best. We pulled into the bus station in La Paz at 6am, so it said on one of the big digital clocks outside. You know the ones, like they have in the Mediterranean to let you know that your tourist spending is worth it because its hotter than England. This one said 0 degrees. DSC08068.jpg

As previously mentioned in these scribbles, we have been using the 'Rough Guide to S.America On A Budget' as our bible. At the end of each accommodation section there is a 'splurge' option, which we've found still very reasonably priced (usually around US$35 for a double room with en suite) and much better than other budget rooms. Our place in La Paz was one of these and it's was lovely, as was the restaurant downstairs.

We were extremely tired travellers at this stage, after roughing it through Bolivia for a couple of weeks. Our plan was to crack on and get to Cusco as quick as possible as we'd heard it was a very nice city. We decided to only spent one night in La Paz, the highest capital city in the world, and the one thing we did of note was to wander through the witchcraft market. It's a bit strange when you see dried Alpaca foetuses hanging in the street!

The following day we caught an afternoon bus for the four hour journey to Copacabana, a small village on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Our bus was separated from us as it crossed the lake by barge and we went by speedboat.
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We 'splurged' again and for US$28 got a great room looking over the bay.
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For dinner we enjoyed a very tasty Lake Titicaca trout fondu. We got up early and caught a tour boat across the lake to Isla Luna. It took an hour to walk up and over the island, passed a small Inca ruins site.
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Then we were back on the boat and over to the Inca pilgrimage Isla Del Sol. Our final stop in the tour was a floating village entirely made of reeds. We got back to Copacabana, ordered a take away pizza and hopped straight onto another overnight bus bound for Cusco.

Our bus took us through the border and into Peru. This was a very smooth border crossing; we jumped off the bus, checked out of Bolivia, walked a couple of hundred metres down the road, checked into Peru, did a quick shady currency exchange and got back on the bus. We had to change bus at Puno in the middle of the night and the connecting bus was annoyingly delayed. When it did turn up the bus was full cama, with seats like flying business class, awesome!

Getting into Cusco at 5am there was nothing else we could do except go to our hostel, which was only booked for the following night. The Che Lagarto hostel made us pay for the extra night as we checked in when it was still dark - I hate it when they do that, if it's 5am and the rooms empty you can assume that you've not got a paying customer that night, so just let us check in super early for the following day please, we're staying in a hostel as these are lodgings that are supposed to sympathise with travellers potentially arriving at any hour. Anyone reading this, US$40 is well over priced for the double room here and, further, the owner tried (unsuccessfully) to stitch us on the exchange rate.

We got a couple of hours more kip and set off to find a better place to stay. As our Inca trail didn't start until 4 days later, for the first time in five weeks we were going to stay in one place for longer than 2 nights. Thus, we wanted to find a nice place to relax for a while, especially as the Inca Trail was going to be a tough few days. There are lots of hotels in Cusco, catering for the massive tourist interest in Machu Picchu. But it was low season and most of the hotels had discounted their rates. We went into the top 20 on trip adviser, checked the rooms, what was included and negotiated their best rate. In the end we managed to check into the Royal Inka hotel, in the centre of town, for 60% off their low season rate. The best wifi we'd used for ages, a huge comfy bed and hot water shower with proper pressure, it felt amazing to treat ourselves with a real hotel, all for an extra twenty bucks a night!

For the next few days we wandered around the pretty city of Cusco.
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It is quite possibly the most beautiful city we've ever visited, it looks like the set of a Shakespeare play.
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We stopped for coffee at lovely little cafe's, shamelessly had steak and kidney pie at a British bar, had the worlds most expensive can of Guinness in the worlds highest Irish bar, bought extra clothes for our trek, bought Alpaca wool hats for our nieces and watched a season of downloaded 'Outnumbered' in our nice warm hotel room.
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We needed to recharge and this was the perfect place to do it, a beautiful, relatively safe city with shops, cafe's, bars and restaurants. This city was the heart of the once great Inca civilisation, to us it was just nice to be back in a bit of civilisation.

We stopped by the office of the company who would be arranging our Inca Trail and chatted about the route. They arranged to meet us the night prior to leaving to introduce our guide and a give full briefing. They didn't show up for that meeting though and we were left wandering what to expect...

The Inca Trail:

Day 1; Up at 5am to enjoy getting a shower and feeling clean for the last time in a few days. We had breakfast and put our bags in storage at the hotel. Then we waited to see if our guide would turn up after the no-show last night. He did and we got in a bus that took us 1.5hrs to the start of the trail. We started the trail at 09:30 and ambled along.
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We stopped for a bit at our first Inca site, an ancient city control point. The trail was a little up hill but not too hard and the sun was out. We had lunch after a 4km trek, it was a three course meal! After lunch we did an easy 6km trek and the sun stayed out as we walked into camp for our first night. We lay out in the sun and did some stretches, before afternoon tea. Except we didn't know it was afternoon tea, we thought it was dinner. We had ham sandwiches and crackers, normally fine after a three course lunch. Half an hour after we'd filled our boots, a three course dinner was served! Our tents were big enough and we had a 'lounge' tent with a camping table for meal times, daily briefings etc. Our team consisted of a chef, four porters, a guide and two fellow trekkers.
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Day 2: We slept ok and were woken up for coca tea at 5am. Had breakfast and started the climb up to our highest pass at 4,200m. Our team mates had a rough night with the altitude, but we took an easy pace and all made it to the top. We felt good; it was certainly challenging, but we were acclimatised and fit enough.
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The trek was 12km and it was mostly sunny, only starting to lightly rain at the end. We arrived into camp at 2pm and had lunch and a siesta. Our camp was a beautiful setting in a valley next to a river at 3,600metres above sea level. Dinner was another three course meal and it started to rain so we headed off for an early night.

Day 3: We were woken early again at 05:30am. Had breakfast, left camp at 7am with a long day in prospect. We started up hill for a couple of hours before reaching the peak for the day. We had a snack at another Inca site and learnt about the history of the Inca empire.
Lunch was a further 3km on at 11:30am. Most of the afternoon was down steps, passing another couple of Inca sites, to our camp at 2,600m.
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It was a 17km hike and we arrived at camp just after 4pm, so it's a long third day. There was a cold shower on offer, but we opted to stay smelly for one more day and look forward to the hot springs tomorrow afternoon.
We are expected to be up at 3am tomorrow morning and there's no tolerance as the porters have to catch an early train. Big day as we head off for a 2hr trek to Machu Picchu. The Inca site names are too hard to remember, but we won't forget Machu Picchu! Must also remember 'Chocoquito' which our guide said is the next Machu Picchu, another mountain city currently mostly hidden beneath hundreds of years of forest growth.

Day 4: Got up at 3am and walked to the security gate, we were the second group in the queue. Mel and I killed some cold time watching 'Outnumbered' on the iPad! At 05:30am we were let through and began the 90min hike to the Sun Gate. I pulled the group along hiking a bit faster than perhaps they wanted to go, but when we got to the steps of the Sun Gates, Mel and I walked through together for our first view of Machu Picchu, it was stunning. The morning mist cleared and we saw a sunbathed Machu Picchu sitting in the mountains.
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We took in the view, took our photos and continued on just as the clouds rolled in, as did the rest of the hikers. It's another 30mins hike down to Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate, where we then had a two hour tour of the city. The achievement of completing the Inca Trail and the sight of Macchu Picchu was amazing, every bit as good as everyone says it is. A moment to remember forever.
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We left to climb up Huayna Picchu at 11am just as Machu Picchu started to get busy with day trippers. The climb was steep with many steps and took an hour to get to the top, but the view over Macchu Picchu is amazing. It's impossible to work out how they built this up here 600 years ago, bricks are inexplicably holding on to the vertical side of the mountain. It was quite vertigo inducing being up there, so we climbed down and went for a well deserved burger in the cafe (no rice today!).
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Afterwards we got the bus down to Aguas Caliantes, to soak the sweat off in the thermal baths (sorry fellow bath wallowers) our first cleansing bath/shower for four days. A 2hr train ride at 18:45 took us back to a town where we met another transfer bus. A further 1.5hrs later we were back in beautiful Cusco. Starting at 3am and getting to the hotel at 11pm, it's a long last day but another ambition has been fulfilled. We splurged on a room at the Best Western hotel to recover.

Posted by Graemeandmel 08.05.2012 12:34 Archived in Peru Tagged machu_picchu bolivia cusco la_paz copacabana inca_trail lake_titicaca witches_market reed_village isle_del_sol isle_del_luna peru_border_crossing huayan_picchu Comments (0)

Salar de Uyuni

Salt flats, flamingo's and crazy driving

sunny 7 °C
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After a short 4 hour bus journey we arrived in Uyuni town. The first impressions of Uyuni were not great. The road into the town was completely covered in litter. It looked like a rubbish dump! This was a shame as the scenery during the bus journey was amazing, so beautiful.  But I guess as we are in the middle of nowhere, we can't expect a state of the art recycling plant!

Uyuni is the main location where the Salar tours start from.  The town has a population of approximately 21,000. The streets are lined with tour agencies offering 3 or 4 day tours around the region.  Having researched the different tour companies and read hundreds of reviews on the tours available (mostly negative!), we decided that we would book a tour with a company that came recommended. We were keeping our fingers crossed that we had managed to book a "good" one seeing as we we going to be spending 3 days in a jeep!

Well, so far so good. Janet from the tour company met us off the bus and showed us to our hostel.  The guy behind the reception desk didn't look much older than 12! I guess they start work at a young age in Bolivia.

After a fairly good nights sleep and a broken mirror later, we headed to the tour company office to begin our tour, waiting with bated breath to see what our jeep would be like!

YES!!! Our jeep was indeed one of the nicer ones and actually looked like it would last the 3 days rather than looking like it wasn't fit for anything but the tip!  We had been teamed up with two French ladies and were due to pick up two further people at the salt flats.

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Day 1
Day one was a trip to the salt flats and visiting the salt hotel. Nothing can describe the approach to the salt flats. Thousands and thousands of kilometres of salt lake partly covered by water. It is bright, bright white and it feels like you are walking on snow. The lakes are farmed for salt and this is definitively apparent by the presence of huge trucks and guys dotted over the place making salt mounds ready to be shovelled into trucks and transported back for processing.
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We continued the drive across the lake arriving at the salt hotel. The salt hotel is built predominantly from salt bricks save for the roof and some other areas that do require a more substantial material to be used. Inside included salt made chairs and tables and where we would have lunch. large_IMG_3389.jpg
Our final tour mates, 2 young Japanese girls, joined us and after lunch and enjoying the scenery we left to drive back through Uyuni and to the train cemetery. This was weird! Lots of abandoned trains left to rust and turned into a tourist attraction. In between some of the trains, swings had been made from train parts. Although very strange, it was interesting to see and quite amazing to realise what some places will do to create a tourist attraction.
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A further 2 hour drive across dusty roads and a blown tyre later, we arrived to our first lot of accommodation. The accommodation was basic (which we expected) and after a long wait for dinner (chicken and chips, not so bad), we went back to our room to settle down for the night. Wondering why the beds were so hard, I looked under the "mattress" to find that bags of flattened straw was the base of what we were sleeping on. Straw that didn't look like it had been replaced for a long time!
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Day 2

Day two started off early with a breakfast consisting of stale bread, jam and "dulce con leche". We had a quick walk around the village, laughed at some alpacas looking in the window of a house and acting strange at their own reflection and quickly noticed that the blown tyre from yesterday had been replaced with a tyre with no tread whatsoever. I thought the spare tyre was supposed to be better that the one being replaced? Anyway, we had to accept that this is how things are done and hope we would make it to the next town!
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Today was a stunning drive through a variety of scenery. Huge rock formations, bright green valleys and desert like areas. large_IMG_3518.jpg
Out first visit to one of the three lagoons we were due to see. Approaching the lagoon we were faced with hundreds of flamingo's, well pink spots in the distance!
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We enjoyed a lunch by the lake, a drive through further spectacular scenery to arrive very early at out next accommodation (tyre intact) for the night. The village had around 6 or 7 basic buildings. After driving into each one, we stopped at the last as that was the only one with a kitchen available to use. Our driver Rodriguez was not only the driver but a guide and cook as well. The surrounding mountains looked amazing as sunset came in. Accommodation this time round was a dorm room for all 6 of us.....thank god I had ear plugs!! The beds were concrete bases but at least we had more comfortable mattresses compared to the night before. Wake up call was for 4.30am.....ouch.

Day 3
After our early wake up call, we were on the road (not on time - we could have had an extra half hour in bed!) for a 2 hour drive to the geysers. The geysers were very cool and smelly! It was freezing cold that day but an amazing place to see and experience. large_IMG_3719.jpg
A short drive and we arrived at the hot springs for breakfast as the sun was coming up. Some braved the cold and got into the hot spring. It was far too cold for me so I spectated and was kept amused by people running from the spring to grab their towels and clothes for warmth. large_IMG_3736.jpg
We then drove to another lagoon, Laguna Colorado which was another area for flamingos. This time we were much closer and had some time watching the flamingoes do their thing. Beautiful birds and it was fantastic to see them so close. We moved onto the Chile/Bolivia border to drop off our Japanese friends, pick up a couple of extras and start our long drive back to Uyuni.

The drive back was interesting. Our driver seemed to find his homing device as the driving got considerably more erratic and faster as the drive went on. Was this a result of his third day consecutive driving, lack of sleep or the readily accessible coca leaves he was chewing on? Probably all of it! I guess we should be pleased we would make it back to Uyuni in record time, but after sliding across gravel roads, through thick clouds of dust a number of times, I had hoped he would slow down a bit! Not to forget the bald tyre on one of the back wheels. Thank god we were due a lunch stop and a couple of sight seeing spots on the way!!
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We made it back in one piece including the tyre. We had a few hours to kill before our overnight bus to La Paz. We thought this would be a good idea to have sme internet time and to book some accommodation for La Paz. After 10 minutes, a storm came through and wiped out all internet access. Helpful! Luckily Janet was to the rescue and let us use the phone in the office. A quick dinner and it was off on our bus journey. We had spoken with a few people about the bus journey and heard that apparently the bus driver stopped their journey early in the morning and made everyone get out to walk across the river......I was hoping and praying that wouldn't happen to us seeing as it was freezing cold and pitch black. Luckily the bus journey went without incident and we had a nice bus. Quite surprising for Bolivia!

Posted by Graemeandmel 23.04.2012 11:11 Archived in Bolivia Tagged salt_flats salar_de_uyuni Comments (1)

Potosi

the day we nearly died three times.....!

sunny 12 °C
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Near death experience 1: Suicide Taxi Driver:

From Sucre to Potosi it's normal to share a taxi, it's only 4hrs away. We'd had enough of buses for a while so our B&B owner arranged our taxi ride. Our cab driver was mental. He must have got his license free with a box of cereal. As soon as we'd paid our 50 Bolivianos and passed through the town boundary military check point, he set off like it was the green light at Silverstone. He seemed to keep drifting to the side of the road, I was going to have to watch this idiot didn't fall asleep. The Chinese guy in the front seat fell asleep, as did the smelly fat Bolivian next to me and so did Mel. I envied her ability to assume an ignorance is bliss approach. The driver opened up a carrier bag full of coca leaves. We hadn't really read up on the effects of chewing coca leaves yet, but at least it might keep him awake. Woooa, swerve to avoid the pigs, well done. He was accelerating into corners on less than perfect tarmac, crazy taxi style. Nevermind the 300metre sheer cliff. The road itself was amazing, stunning scenery, winding through the mountains. It would have had Richard Hamond in a Zonda squeaking like a hamster. We passed a footy pitch in the middle of nowhere, pigs, cows and donkeys. We passed Bolivian women herding goats: why are Bolivian women always fat? -they are always working and they always wear aprons. Maybe that's it, they wear the aprons as they are always cooking and eating; one empanada for me, one to sell by the roadside, one for me, one for the roadside?! While the men are always asleep...maybe they have Spanish ancestry? We narrowly missed hitting a couple of guys on a scooter carrying 3 large wooden window frames. I thought about asking the driver for some of his coca leaves; if we were going to go off the side of this mountain, then I'd rather not be sober. Two hours into the ride and my arse was numb, I was drenched in nervous sweat and the fat Bolivian guy's knee was digging into my leg. Fortunately the Chinese lad's phone rung and he started speaking in Japanese to someone,.. At least I recognised the language. He then struck up a conversation in Spanish with the driver which seemed to wake him up and slow him down a bit.

When we arrived in Potosi the streets were closed off, so the driver dropped us in the middle of nowhere. We had to hike for 40mins (with back packs on) to find where we were and get to our hostel. This was hard work at 4,100m - Potosi is the highest city in the world. Lots of people were sat around next to signs, holding banners and streets were shut off. It was a bit strange for the middle of Monday.

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Near death experience 2: Van Attack.

Our tour started at 14:00hrs and we had to meet at the agency office in the main square. We were a few minutes early and waited for 3 others to join our silver mine tour. Our guide went off to look for the late comers and left us to go with bus driver. The van was old and from the back seat, I had to lean over and open the front door for the driver. We set off up a street to be confronted by three cars with flags on the roof and a few guys in the back of a pick up truck. Our driver started to reverse down the street (only wide enough for one car), but he hashed up the T junction and went into the curb. Suddenly three of the lads jumped out of the pick up and ran at our van shouting, I thought they'd slashed our tyres as the driver found first gear and just made the corner and sped off. As we reached a passing, our driver waved and shouted at the other cars 'attack, attack'. The cars were beeping and we were speeding up a dusty road away from town centre with hissing tyres, we didn't know what was happening. Our driver turned left and brought the van to a halt in an empty street. He was talking to himself and got out of the van walked down the road on his mobile. The cars with flags and the chaps in the back fortunately turned right and disappeared, as our driver walked off. So we're sat in an old van, lopsided with two flat tyres, a driver that doesn't speak English has run off and we are left sitting in the van, tired, confused and shocked, in an empty dusty street, in the highest city in the world, in Bolivia. Little bit scared. We got out, I didn't fancy hanging around. Then about 30 lads came out of a door on to the street behind our van and started chanting and running down the road?? Our way back to the main town square and the 'comfort' of a military presence, was the way that the attack had come from. It was the only way to go and we made it without seeing anything else of concern. The travel agency also wasn't concerned at our apparent shock and demanding to know what was going on. The guide was now there with 3 old Spanish ladies, who, had they been on time, would have meant we'd have been long gone before our van tyres were let down, bloody Spanish timekeeping. We never saw the driver again. The guide explained that there was a strike on that day, with road blocks, which meant we could only go a certain way. We were still not happy and a bit uncertain if we should go on; what if we met more idiots who wanted to do more damage than just to the tyres? Our guide assured us that there was no problem and we reluctantly went on, this was our only chance to do this.

Near death experience 3: Mine Shaft Collapse.

The mountain looked like a big pile of dirt, no longer covered with flora, just an inverted quarry. Holes peppered the slopes of the Corro Rico. This was once the treasure that enticed 300,000 people here and made it the largest city in South America. The Silver boom times of the 1500's brought wealth and with it fantastic Colonial architecture which looks beautiful in the town centre. The wealth that was created here is tainted with the hardship that the labourers endured. The terrible conditions that the slaves had to work in down the mines led to 9 million deaths. The silver was mined out and, even after a short period of resurgence for the town with tin mining, has left it with only approximately 30,000 remaining inhabitants. It's still a working mine but only with small operators, extracting small quantities of metals to scratch a living on.

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With a hard hat and head torch on, we walked into a hole in the mountain heading down a wet track.

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We carried fizzy soda, funky cigarettes, coca leaves, almost pure alcohol and dynamite sticks as gifts for the miners we were expecting to meet. I tried some of the alcohol and my mouth was on fire! We stooped our way underground for what must have been a good couple of kilometres. We met some miners filling trucks and chewing their faces off with coca leaves.

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I tried some, as I was starting to feel extremely claustrophobic, with no effect, it just tasted like chewing leaves. We pulled ourselves up and through tunnels in this swiss cheese labyrinth. We met a mine god statue which was decorated with coca leaves, cigarettes and alcohol, all good luck offerings. The wooden roof supports were broken, cracked and sagging. All the time there was the loud hissing of leaking oxygen pipes.

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Our guide asked us to stop as there were five or six loud explosions, the whole place shook. We were walking down a track passed an old blocked up truck filling shoot, when there was another explosion and the shoot began to unblock. Rubble streamed down on to the track and piled up,...we shuffled back. We thought of the 80 days it took to dig out the Chillian miners. Fortunately it stopped with only a quarter of the tunnel filled. At that stage we'd seen enough and made our way over the pile towards the light at the end of the tunnel. This mountain is literally collapsing: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2077641,00.html

What an amazing place to see and completely unexpected after the start to the day we'd had. Probably the most dangerous place we've ever been, but extremely interesting and certainly an unforgettable experience.

We had an awesome steak for dinner and restaurant called '4,060' in reference to its height above sea level.

Our bus to Uyuni took 5hrs through some incredible Andean scenery. It had been raining in the town. The place wouldn't look out of place in a news item about Afghanistan. Our Salar de Uyuni tour is booked for tomorrow.

Best travel purchase: Camera.
Most practical travel purchase: Dry bag.
Thing we regret not bringing: Corkscrew.

Posted by Graemeandmel 08.04.2012 19:34 Archived in Bolivia Tagged mines bolivia potosí potosi_mines taxi_to_potosi Comments (0)

Into Bolivia

Border Crossing and three day journey

sunny 15 °C
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We stayed at a hostel in Curumba, a Brazilian west boarder town for the night.  Everything we'd read advised us to get to the immigration centre as early as possible, but we had to wait for our train tickets to be delivered.  They were supposed to be deliver at 9am.  But this is Brazil, so it took a couple of annoyed phone calls before they eventually showed up an hour late.  We got a taxi to the border and sure enough the queue was huge.  We'd also read that the office closes from midday until 2pm for lunch, so it was a relief when they were still open for us to be seen at 12:10.  Obviously this was a stressful wait in the heat, as technically our passport exit stamp said we had left the country five days earlier.  Apparently one can get the exit stamp and remain in the country for a grace period of 7 days, so it was all fine and we were given the ok to walk across to Bolivia.  The walk accross was a five minute stroll up a dirt track.  Although, when we got there the Bolivian's had decided that lunch was important and were closed to visitors until 14:30.   There were two buildings, with various soldiers hanging around, that sided the road into Bolivia and one of these housed the immigration office.  When we eventually got stamped into Bolivia, we'd been waiting for 5hrs in the dust, heat, rain, no toilets, no food or drink, just mosquitos.

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We got a taxi to the train station about ten minutes away.  Our train left at 17:30 and we were looking forward to the full cama service.  The promise of cama tickets turned out to be bogus, so we only had semi cama.  We were served some horrible chicken and rice, which was impossible to eat anyway with the amount the train was rocking.  So Mel and I tucked into our emergency Pringles, sweets and chew bars.  It was a slow and unsteady 15hr overnight journey. Isabella asked me what day of the week it was.  We decided we were now officially 'travellers', as neither of us knew!

We arrived in Santa Cruz the following morning at 9am and spent an hour on the internet working out what to do next; we decided that we didn't really want to spend any time here, although we were tired, we'd push through to Sucre on another overnight bus.  There must have been 30 different bus companies with guys surrounding and shouting at us for our business.  It was easy to get caught up in it and look for the best deal, despite having read that you get what you pay for.  We plumped for one company, but another chap continued to tout us saying that the guy had lied about the type of seat we had bought.  They ended up having a bit of a barney about it between themselves, quite amusing.  The chap eventually admitted that both tickets were rubbish seats.  We gave up and decided to accept whatever we got.

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After negotiating over 20p, we took a cab to the 25th De Septembre main square, a lovely little oasis with fine Colonial architecture.  We found a great little cafe with wifi to pass a couple of hours in.  

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Our bus turned up 5mins before it was due to depart, presumably so that we didn't have time to change our minds, coz it was the oldest and most shabby looking pile of junk in the yard.  I wasn't at all sure about this, what were the options...Ah well, we jumped in.  Sat next to us was a lady with some sort of bird in a shoebox.  In front of her another lady had a chicken in a bag, that got a whack each time it squawked.  I guess that's how you keep tomorrows dinner fresh, keep it alive en route to the table.  So much for catching up on the blog, I wasn't getting the iPad out on this bus.  We stopped roughly every four hours, though the bano (bathroom) was just the side of the road, so we dehydrated our way to Sucre.  A tyre change on the bus (the roads were potholed dust tracks) delayed us by an hour.  17 bumpy hours later, we got to Sucre.  

Sucre is a beautiful colonial old city and our B&B was a haven, so we booked a second night to recover from our three day journey.  

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I was asked if travelling in a 34yr old body was harder than it used to be?  Yes, recovery takes longer, but at least these days we can afford a B&B which is a nicer recovery spot than a dorm bed.  It's not actually that travelling is much harder, it's just that we've become comfortable in our safe little worlds, so the prospect of an old bus, not knowing where you are going, somewhere in Bolivia, not knowing what the guy at the front is shouting etc makes one all the more nervous: we're not travelling with the same care free attitude as a 22 yr old lad on their own...but some level of hesitation is probably healthy.  We spent a couple of days wandering around Surce, stopping at cafe's, markets, town plazas, watching the locals go about their business and generally chilling out.

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It's a lovely city and we both wanted to spend a couple of weeks here and learn Spanish. Unfortunately time pressure dictated that we had to book a mine tour and we headed off in a shared cab towards Potosi.

Posted by Graemeandmel 06.04.2012 21:01 Archived in Bolivia Tagged bolivia santa_cruz sucre brazil_border_crossing formossa_train Comments (0)

Pantanal

Mosquito heaven

sunny 28 °C
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Our connection in Sau Paulo had the gate changed and we had to rush through the terminal. We arrived in Campo Grande about midnight.  Our transfer took another four ish hours before we arrived in Bonito, gateway to the Pantanal.  Our door was knocked on at 8am, saying we were booked on a tour leaving now.  We understood our itinerary was still to be confirmed on arrival, so after arriving four hours earlier we weren't compos when they said go.  We got to the office ten mins later and found out that we actually now had half and hour...?  So I asked the boss what the trip was, cancelled some boat ride and booked to go snorkelling down a crystal clear river for the afternoon.  It was a fresh water spring and filtered under the limestone. Floating down the river, the clarity was like being inside a giant aquarium.  

Afterwards we walked into town for the bank and got a hair cut.  First time in five years that I've actually managed to get a shaved consistent grade one back and sides, fantastic.  Why Hong Konger hairdressers feel they must actually spend ages cutting the back and sides, I don't know.  It took the usual 20mins, but cost $2.50.  He was shocked and very appreciative when I gave him a fiver.

We went down a cave the next day, with a pool at the bottom that looked deep blue.  Very pretty.  Other group members were a pain and we were left waiting around a lot.  Maybe we should start to do these trips without the organised tours, but then how do you get around and get in etc? Our afternoon tubing trip was cancelled because the incompetent receptionist booked the cave trip (second) that couldn't be cancelled and we'd be back too late for tubing, the one thing I was looking forward to here.  After they failed to book us a room at our next stop, we gladly left for our trip into the Pantanal.

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There's a lot of bugs here in the Pantanal.  More than in the Amazon.  Mel has been bitten so many times, that it's easier to ask where she hasn't been bitten than where she has.  Mel is my personal repellant. They much prefer her.  Graeme rode his first horse today, to be fair the horse was doing the driving, just following the horse in front of him.  But I did get him him to trot a bit and I was just getting the hang of rising trot by the end.  At one point the horse decided that he wanted to go under a low branch, which left me hanging on to the branch cartoon style while the horse continued.  No worries, I got back on, just like riding a bike...Anyway, after riding through some lovely landscape for a couple of hours I was still able to walk and less like John Wayne than I had expected.  There were a couple of Brazilian lads on the tour that were keen on footy, so we had a bit of a kick-a-about. I showed them how the English deal with their silky control.

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Afternoon walking safari was a nightmare in mosquito heaven.  We were driven a couple of hours from camp and led into a dense forest.  It started to get a bit surreal when a few of our group had been stung by wasps, caught on thorny bushes, stuck to plants etc.  There was a language barrier with the guide, so we didn't know exactly what was going on and he seemed to randomly change direction a few times.  Someone mentioned 'Predator' (might have been me) as another of the group at the back was stung and the guide showed us a tree that has killer ants living on it: when the tree is attacked, the ants will climb up and drop on the attacker to bite nastily and kill it.  Great.  So it started to get dark and thoughts of 'Predator' turned to 'Blair Witch'.  The guide stopped us all and asked us to walk in single file and in silence as the animals here were not used to humans and we were not on a walking track.  He said there were several animals here that would 'attack and kill' us, including wild boar and jaguar, if we didn't comply.  We shut up, but continued waving our arms in an anti mosquito perpetual dance.

A lad from East London told me today that the most poisonous spider in the world is the Daddy Long Legs.  Apparently the daddy of long legs can't use it's lethal weapon, but does actually carry it.  Seems pointless, maybe a tall tale (long legs)??  Will have to google that one up.

Saw a few Tucans, very cool.  Lots of Caiman alligators.  A South America fox and some Capybara's.  Plenty of Stalks, Herons, Macaws and masses of colourful flutterbys.

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Have eaten well here; they gave us steak, egg and chips tonight, bang on.  Washed down with a couple of beers, which felt deserved and may help as a local anaesthetic for the bites and aid sleep.

Mel and I both caught Piranha fish this morning.  Success!  We spent most of our time fishing six feet away from a 2.5m long Caiman alligator, who got thrown the odd fish to keep him full.

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As with China, a few nice city buildings and an Olympics will not make this country leap to the first world overnight.  It's a beautiful country, but it seems harder work than it could be by now.  Someone we met said 'Brazil is a rich nation pretending to be poor', referencing the corruption and how the people get a raw deal from the government. Maybe we should have visited Sau Paulo to change our economic impression, but unfortunately our time here is limited, there's so much more we'd love to see. For now, we'll be pleased to get into Bolivia and out of a week in mosquito heaven.  

When we caught our connecting flight at Sau Paulo the immigration lady stamped us out of Brazil (the flight was going to Santa Cruz, Bolivia via Campo Grande, Brazil) and she also collected our visa papers....  So we've been in Brazil for five days while our passports say we've already left.  How will Brazil or Bolivia immigration, if we get that far, deal with this?  We caught a bus for 5hrs to Corumba, a west Brazilian border town and found a hostel for the night.  We bought overnight train tickets from Puerto Surez, Bolivia to Santa Cruz for the following day, but they would be delivered in the morning. We went to sleep wondering what will happen with the train tickets and how the passport issue will turn out at the border...

Posted by Graemeandmel 29.03.2012 10:11 Archived in Brazil Tagged birds bonito pantanal Comments (0)

Amazon:

Spot the big beaked bird, it's a game Tucan play

all seasons in one day 25 °C
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When we walked through arrivals in Manaus, there was no one to greet us, but we noticed a chap holding a bit of paper chatting to his pal.  As we approached we saw our names and he said we had to wait an hour for another person to arrive on a different flight.  When an hour was up we eventually found him down the other end of the airport and we got a two hour bus ride to the Rio Negro.  From here we were ferried, or motorised canoed, up river for 45mins to our Amazonian lodge.

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We were met by the family and had welcome drinks of some local tropical fruit juice.  Mel and I dropped our bags in our spacious lodge and went to have a beer in the hammocks overlooking the river and sunset.  Dinner was fantastic, all made with locally grown ingredients, as were all our meals.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all huge meals, with fresh bread, fresh fruit juice and awesome cakes. We quickly buddied up with our fellow guests, a couple of Canouks, a French and German couple and a half Japanese, half French, Australian wannabe body building, bikini model, covered in tattoos.

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We went out for a canoe ride to an indigenous village of about 100 people.  The village was built around a football pitch, which was used when they played other villages, as a main community social event.  All over Brazil there are goalposts everywhere, on every beach, town square and in the middle of the planet's biggest forest, they really do love their footy.  There was a tropical thunder storm so we stopped for cover and Mel bought a bracelet and a coke.  The bracelet broke three days later, but I doubt there's a returns policy. The best bit of the trip was being in the canoe going through the flooded jungle channels.  At one point we saw a 2 or 3 yr old Jaguar running down a branch that we floated under, he could very well have jumped in with us.  

We also took a canoe ride to an area where Amazonian pink river dolphins play.  At first we all thought it a bit fake when a chap with a bucket of fish fed a few of the dolphins, but it was still great to see them.  We were close enough to be literally knocked off our feet a couple of times and have one breach and nearly bite my nose off.  The bloke and the bucket of fish disappeared and then it was just us swimming in the river and the dolphins came back.  They swam with and played with us for a couple of hours, it was a brilliant, once in a life time experience.  The sunset from the lodge hammocks was beautiful and we'd had a very memorable day.

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The lodge kept a pet Macaw, who ate Brazil nuts, and a couple of Dalmatians, one of which had a horribly disfigured head; she'd survived a fight with a snake.

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It was time to go jungle walking.  We stopped to see gum trees and their rubbery sap, we tried jungle fruits and learnt how to build a shelter to protect ourselves from predators. We learnt about jungle communication, basically banging on big tree roots, and how to drink water vines to survive.  We also saw how to make rope and how it helps (between your feet) to climb trees to see where you are.  After a demonstration I was first to volunteer to have a go, how hard could it be, after all, I've been climbing trees for 30yrs.  I managed to get up about 30 centimetres.  It was impossible.  I realised that I haven't actually climbed a tree for about 20yrs.  I still did better than the only other person to try :-).  Back at camp our cunning plan of always buying duty free wine paid off as a tropical storm set in.  With the rain still drizzling, we set out for a spot of piranha fishing.  One of our group caught three and another chap caught one, but Mel and I were unlucky only feeling a few bites.  We did get to see their teeth, but again it was just great to be out on the river ducking in and out of the flooded forest.  

Looking forward to a hot shower, we left in a canoe at 9am downstream, back to 'civilisation'.  The chap meeting us upon arrival in Manaus had said it was fine to visit the Opera House on our way back.  We told our lodge hosts this and arranged to leave half and hour earlier to accommodate it.  When we got off the canoe and into the transfer van, the driver also said fine.  We'd been recommended viewing the Opera House and as Manaus was the first place in South America to get an electric tram and impressive structures were built on the back of the rubber boom before the great depression, we wanted to check it out.  Our driver stopped at what seemed a random open shed front on the street where six chaps sat doing nothing (or 'South American working'!), he then stated it would cost us so much to go to see the Opera house...here we go again...Call your boss I said, I wanted to speak English to the guy I had arranged it with at the airport three days earlier, rather than a driver who had just joked with his mates how much he could screw these gringos out of.  The airport transfer chap didn't remember us of course, so I gave him a piece of my mind.  In fact he took the brunt of all my South American built up annoyances about miraculously appearing fees, trips being double booked, trips booked by someone else that cant be cancelled but other cheaper ones than can etc etc, scam scam.  This bloke got the full 'you've hidden costs, caused us wasted time, disappointing end to our trip' speech.  We got our free trip to see the Opera House and it was impressive, took the photo and continued to the airport.  Why does everything have to be so hard?  

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The flight was delayed for half an hour, of course.  As we flew out of Manaus we passed over the place where the Rio Negro (black water) and the Rio Solomines (muddy water) join to form the Rio Amazon, it's called the meeting of the waters. It's quite a sight as the waters don't immediately mix but run side by side for a couple of hundred metres. Our Amazonian experience was a truly amazing few days that we'll never forget.

Posted by Graemeandmel 26.03.2012 13:37 Archived in Brazil Tagged amazon tariri_lodge Comments (0)

Co,co,co,go bananas; Rio de Janeiro

City exploring and carnival craziness

sunny 32 °C
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A bus ride up the coast and we were back in Rio.  To orientate ourselves we took a cable car ride up Sugar Loaf mountain.  Wonderful views over the coastal setting of this city.

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We met Adam and Rubia (who helped formulate our trip itinerary) for dinner.  They bought me a stupid looking mohawk multicoloured wig and we hit the streets to get into Carnival fever.  This was Friday night, two nights prior to the Real start of festivities, but don't believe it, the place was crazy busy!  Thousands of people in the streets, drinking, samba dancing, all dressed up, music everywhere.  We danced in Ipanema square for a bit then walked along a couple of blocks and got into Banda de Ipanema, pushing the rope along with everyone jumping and generally going mental.

The following morning we met Hui, who pioneered handgliding in Rio.  He's been doing it for 30 years and holds various world records, including longest flight.  Last week he took Trevor Nelson out for a flight.  He took us to his studio flat (interesting to see living in Rio for normal people is similar spaciously wise to Honkersland) to see an instruction video.  Then it was our turn to run off the side of a mountain.  Slightly scary, but it wouldn't be an adrenalin buzz if there wasn't an element of nervousness.  It was beautiful soaring over Rio, very peaceful, very solid, very free, they say it's the purest form of flight.  We had a chance to learn about and use the controls then had a running landing on the beach.  While viewing our video and great photos, we shared some Acai berry sorbet.

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Now it was time to chill out for the afternoon, so we headed to famous Ipanema beach.  It was crazy town, there was no space between the sun brollies.  This is about 4km of beach and there was absolutely zero space.  I'm not just saying that in an English 'I require at least 8ft of clear sand between me and the next person' way, there was zero space, the beach was rammed.  There must have been half a million people on the beach.  I once got an email claiming to be a picture of a busy Chinese beach, this looked the same.  It certainly wasn't for relaxing, instead we strolled along the prom and took in the sights.  By 4pm, the party had started again.  We met our ship mates again and set in for a big night.  At around 10pm we ambled down to the beach, rented deckchairs and sat beside a party area.  A lad came along selling beers and patterned wrist bands; he said he was from Buenos Aires and was paying for his travelling by selling these along his way.  It was going to take him a long time, but we admired his industry and bought 4 beers.  After a tube ride into Central we ended up in Lapa for more crazy partying, passed under the Arches and sat for a drink on the mosaic steps of Santa Teresa.  

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Sunday hurt, but we manged to meet up with our scuba friends for afternoon tea, before the party started again.  The coach to the Sambadrome got lost on its way and a 45min journey took twice as long, which meant we were the last people in our section and there weren't any seats left.  But we stood up the back and despite the language barrier, got to know a local family to samba with through the night.  The floats and schools were stunning, absolutely incredible to watch.  But after standing for 5hrs and with the prospect of an hours ride to our Pousada, we left half way through at 03:30am.  After a while it's hard to remember all the different costumes and themes, but the event as a whole was incredible to experience.  

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After a lie in the following day, we walked along the prom at Copacabana beach and then met up with another ship mate for dinner and a singalong at an Irish bar. Rio had flipped our days, our 'events' now took place at night, rather than day.  Our final night in Rio was spent having a lovely dinner with our ship mates, hope to catch them again in South America somewhere...dinner was a buffet, paid for by weight.

Rio is no doubt a stunning location.  Even the townships look pretty at night when their lights illuminate the hillsides.  But in my mind it has fallen short of expectations as one of the greatest cities in the world.  I guess it should compare to Sydney for harbour setting and beach lifestyle, but comparing within South America, Buenos Aires seemed far more liveable.  You just can't get past the crime issue and the insecurity was similar to living in South Africa. It reminds us how fortunate we are to live in such a secure place as Honkersland.

The chap doing our morning transfer to the airport had been sleeping in his car outside our Pousada, grabbing a couple of hours kip between jobs.  He was very nice, telling us how he used to work in Southampton.  He promised us that the driver had fallen asleep as we passed a recent car crash where a bloke was sat with a bleeding head.  

Posted by Graemeandmel 23.03.2012 22:59 Archived in Brazil Tagged rio_de_janeiro sugar_loaf_mountain sambadrome handgliding Comments (0)

Paraty & Ilha Grande

Brazil's Costa Verde

sunny 35 °C
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Once in Rio, we were met by a bored looking transfer agent and got a four hour bus journey south to Paraty, we were the only people on a bus with space for 25 passengers, slept most of the way along the route of the beautiful Costa Verde in the dark and rain. We arrived in Paraty in ankle deep rain water.

The first morning in Paraty we met our guide, Michael, for a trek through the Atlantic subtropical forest.  He showed is the Acai berry tree and said that he knew one of the four surfers that started exporting them to the States.  After more conversation it turns out that Michael was brought up in Guernsey!! A small world for Mel. The forest was humid, but the hot trek was rewarded with the sight of a beautiful empty beach where we stopped for a swim.  We then had a great fresh fish lunch at a fishing village, watching the village's boys play footy on the beach. On the way back we saw how the 'other two percent' lived in a gated community with some lovely houses, ..one day.  There was a tropical storm in the evening, so we legged it to the closest restaurant and shared a pizza.  

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The following morning we had a 20min walk to a beach on the other side of Paraty from where we started our sea kayaking trip, another first time experience for Mel.  Four hours paddling in the heat for 15km was quite tough, but we visited some beautiful bays and had a couple of refreshing swims, none accidental!  We had a beer in the historic old town of Paraty with our trip companions Jim and Pat (both 60 ish).  Jim had been volunteering for 6 weeks 700miles in land building community houses and his tales were very interesting.  In the evening Mel and I went for a great dinner at a restaurant that we'd been recommended, including a big jug of Sangria!  Paraty was lovely little town with great old Portuguese architecture, but with the rain we had, we left thinking that we needed an extra day to see it properly.  

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Now we were being bused up the coast an hour to a port for the 90mims crossing to Ilha Grande.  We got there to a great Pousada Do Canto, with a nice swimming pool and front door that was accessed directly from the beach, where we spent the rest of the afternoon.  In the evening we had our first Caprihinia's in Brazil while sat watching the stars on the beach, relaxing after an exhausting few weeks on the go.  

Today we took a speed boat trip around the island.  We got on first and were thankful to get a spot at the back of the boat in the shade - the mental driver gave the guys in the front seats an arse bashing over the Atlantic waves.  We stopped at various different beautiful deserted beaches for swims and snorkelling.  An early night today, as we've booked to do a couple of scuba dives tomorrow.  

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Scuba was nice and easy, great to get back into it.  Only a max depth of 13m, but we saw a lot of different fish and a couple of green turtles.  Met a nice English couple on the boat and in the evening, shared a lovely meal with them on the beach, fish Calderon (like a paella).  

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Unfortunately we had to leave Ilha Grande, could easily have spent a couple of weeks in the sun here.  The island reminds me of Thailand, somewhere like Koh Lanta.  No development, lots of green forests, long stretches of empty beaches, no internet, no worries.

Posted by Graemeandmel 23.03.2012 19:47 Archived in Brazil Tagged paraty ilha_grande Comments (1)

Iguazu Falls

Fabulous waterfalls

sunny 30 °C
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We had the most amazing flight into Iguazu. The pilot zig-zagged the aircraft around the falls for a few minutes on the way into landing, giving us an incredible first view of the famous Iguazu falls. After landing, we were met by Rodrigo, a Brazilian guy who was dropping us to our hostel. An interesting (or not!) fact – due to Rodrigo being a Brazilian tour guide his car was unable to collect us from the airport. So we jumped in an Argentinean cab and switched cars outside the airport. A bit bizarre but there seems to be a little competition between these South America neighbours.

After our rubbish hostel in Buenos Aires, we were extremely pleased to arrive at the Hostel Inn, complete with pool and wonderful bathroom facilities! We were based between the national park and the town centre of Puerto Iguazu. It was a great location and very easy reach of the local buses to take us to the national park.

Trekking day – after deciding to catch the bus to the falls, we were approached by a taxi driver with a cheap offer of a taxi journey that we couldn’t refuse. No need to twist our arms! Luckily there were two Brazilians also at the bus stop who shared our taxi ride making it the same cost as the bus would have been anyway.

Arriving at the falls was hassle free. Tickets purchased we jumped on the mini “train” to the furthest station to reach the 'Devil’s Throat', a horse shoe shaped, most powerful section of the falls. Iguazu falls consists of approximately 275 falls over a 2.8km area. It is so difficult to describe just how fantastic the falls are. The Devil’s Throat section is the deepest and where the falls start. The river that runs through the falls belongs to both Argentina and Brazil with an imaginary border going right through the centre of the river. The Argentinean side consists of the most falls but the Brazilian side gives you a different perspective and view of the falls. The Devils Throat section of Iguazu Falls

The Devils Throat section of Iguazu Falls

The Argentinean side of Iguazu has around 3 or 4 different trails to walk through to see different angles of the falls. All in all it takes approximately 5 or 6 hours to get all the walks done. We stopped for lunch for our daily jamon y queso baguette which we ate in the quiet grounds of the Sheraton to avoid having to share our lunch with the very brave and particularly annoying raccoon type creatures!

A similar story to our journey to the falls, on the way back, after being pushed out of the queue for the bus, we jumped in a cab with a couple of Aussie lads. The two single Aussie boys were particularly pleased to hear from the driver that the hostel where they were staying was considered the “gay” hostel whereas where we were staying is where all the “hot chicks” are. Very funny.

Walking into town in the evening we found another amazing Parilla, which would be our last in Argentina – a very sad thought….

Day two of Iguazu and we were met by Rodrigo to take us across the border to the Brazil side of the falls. Another easy border crossing! The Argentinean side consisted of the border control lady peering inside the car to check us to our passports….no getting out involved! A quick stop in “no mans land” for a picture opportunity of the river 'T' junction border between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. Our way through the Brazilian border consisted of Rodrigo using the tour guide channel, him taking our passports and returning with them stamped and the relevant papers filled out. Graeme and I thought it was quite amazing that we had entered the country without anyone official having physically seen us….not sure if that is a good or bad thing but at least we didn’t have to get out of the car!

We had decided that if the opportunity arose, we would take a helicopter tour over Iguazu. That opportunity did indeed arise and after a half-hour wait to fill our helicopter, watching the safety demonstration on the screen about 5 times, watching others come and go we were finally ready for our first ever helicopter flight!
Helicopter flight over Iguazu Falls

Helicopter flight over Iguazu Falls


WOW!!! What a fantastic experience for both of us. It really is so hard to describe being up there and seeing the falls in all their glory. We hope the pictures we have taken will give people some idea of the scale and different perspectives. It was just incredible and definitely one of the (many) highlights of our trip so far. After safely landing, we headed for a walk around on the Brazilian side for more picture moments and a chance to get even closer to the falls, oh and a bit wet in the process! It was only a quick walk around but certainly enough to see it all. After a pretty amazing 2 days exploring Iguazu, we headed to the airport for a quick flight to Rio and a 3 hour bus journey South to Paraty.
View of Iguazu from the helicopter

View of Iguazu from the helicopter

Posted by Graemeandmel 17.03.2012 17:00 Archived in Argentina Tagged waterfalls iguazu brazil_border_crossing Comments (0)

Buenos Aires

A city stop

sunny 30 °C
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An early start in El Chalten saw us on a 3hr bus journey back to El Calafate and then a flight from El Calafate, taking off over the Patagonian hills to arrive in Buenos Aires late afternoon. After a bit of an issue with attempting to get money out at an ATM we were on our way to our Hostel in Palermo District. Palermo district is renowned for being a very pleasant area of the city so were had high hopes for our hostel…..

Those high hopes ended up being short lived! The Hostel itself was in a great location but unfortunately the quality was not on par with the location! We sucked it up and decided as it was only three nights, we would make do. If you are ever in Buenos Aires as a traveller, whatever you do, do not say at the Palermo Soho Hostel – Trip Adviser rating of 1.1 was well deserved!!

Dinner was spent in a typical Argentinean way at one of the local Parillas where we ate meat, meat and more meat! It was an amazing meal and after being suitably fed and watered (wine for good measure too), we called it a night.

The following day we decided to walk pretty much the length of Santa Fe Avenue (an all day walk!) taking us to the docks area to check out how we go about heading over to Uruguay for the day. A discussion with a non-English speaking ticket agent in our broken Spanish turned out to be a success! A bit more sight-seeing around the area and we decided we would take a chance on the underground to get back to the area we were staying. What an experience that was! Hundreds of people, no air, packed trains – I don’t think I will ever complain about the crowds on the HK underground again! I guess it was partly our own fault for braving it in rush hour…. … a beer and pizza made it all ok in the end!

An early start and we were on our way for our trip across the river to Colonia Del Sacramento, Uruguay. Quite possibly one of the easiest border crossings we have experienced. It goes something like this - finished with the Argentinean border check and move one person along at the desk to then have our passports stamped by the Uruguayan border control – that was it! Why can’t all border controls be that easy…? Colonia Del Sacramento was definitely worth a visit. A very picturesque town with a large café and outdoor eating culture. Our kind of town!! Graeme was particularly impressed to see that the Uruguayan national dish was none other than a Steak Sandwich! Best. National Dish. Ever. Sampling of the local beer was also a must. A wonder around town ended our Uruguay visit, and then back through another very easy border check, back on the ferry to Buenos Aires for a big night out with friends that we had met in Antarctica.

After a big (!) night catching up with Mark and Lucy and another amazing dinner, the following day we headed to the airport to catch a flight to Iguazu Falls nursing a bit of a sore head.

Posted by Graemeandmel 05.03.2012 17:44 Archived in Argentina Tagged buenos_aires uruguay palermo_soho_hostel colonia_del_sacremento Comments (0)

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