Stepping back into film photography …

Back at Christmas I decided I was getting more and more into this photo malarkey and wanted a film camera. Thankfully Katrina duly obliged and got me a Lomography Fisheye camera. It came away with me on my last trip, has been used now and then over the past few months and now I’ve got the photos back….with mixed results.

Upon seeing the results, I’ve learnt a few things:
- They’re really dark unless the flash is used
- Close up really helps, after all that is kinda the point of a Fisheye camera
- Don’t get the wrist strap or your finger in the way, I love the rainbow in the first shot but I’ve kinda ruined it

Southwark
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My little Irish niece
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Prague Pedestrian Crossing
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Prague TV Tower
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Geese in Telford
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Trabant in Budapest
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Budapest Memorial – you wouldn’t believe I took this in daylight!
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While away I got a bit addicted and bought two more film cameras for practically peanuts in Prague. One is a Smena 8 which seemed pretty archaic and temperamental but somehow works (with the exception of the winding on function, causing some blurry London shots). I have to admit I kinda like them

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Roupell Street
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Bermondsey Street / St Mary Magdalen Churchyard
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The other, a beautiful heavy Zenit E turned out an almost blank film. Back to the drawing board there then. To be continued ….

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Rails behind the Iron Curtain

This is a possible front runner for laziest blog ever. It’s been a while since I got back from a pre-new job trip to Belgrade, Budapest, Prague and Berlin.

To summarise, it was wet, I travelled by train, drank a lot of Pilsener, took pictures – some of which are below and others on 35mm film still to be developed. Enjoy.

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Recipes from the Road

A few weeks ago Katrina posted a list of some of the best food we’d had on our trip through Central and South America and in my last blog I mentioned the amazing Chicken Parmigiana we gorged on in Paraty, Brazil.

I’m not sure how this recipes has become associated with Brazil but we saw it on menus all the time, while the breaded chicken it’s formed of is pretty much the milanesas that form part of cheap set menus throughout Latin America.

Chicken Parmigiana as we had it is effectively a breaded chicken breast smothered in cheese and a tomato sauce, so a really simple first recipe for this blog.

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To make this recipe you will need:

Fresh chicken breasts (1 per person)
2 slices of white bread
50 grams of plain flour
1 egg
150 grams of mature cheddar cheese
1 tin of tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
A good handful of fresh basil
1-2 fresh chillies
A splash of balsamic vinegar

How to make this recipe

Flatten the chicken breasts with a mallet or rolling pin. Beat up the egg and dip the chicken breasts in it. Make breadcrumbs by putting the bread in a food processor, season well and coat the chicken breasts.

Fry off the chicken breasts on either side until cooked through and the outsides are nice and golden, add any leftover egg and bread to the top of them. Pre heat the grill to finish them off.

To make the sauce, fry off the garlic and chillies in a pan with a little oil. Add the tinned tomatoes and simmer for 10 minutes or so. Add the vinegar and basil towards the end of this process.

Cover the chicken breasts in the the sauce and liberally cover with the cheese. Grill until the cheese has melted and is starting to crisp on top.

Serve with chips and salad.

 
 

And finally….Brazil

After about 8 months of travelling we reached our final country, Brazil. This presented a problem as despite looking very similar in writing, Portuguese is spoken completely differently to Spanish!

Our main reason for visiting Brazil was the lure of Rio de Janeiro and the cheap flight back home however we took in a couple of other places along the way. First a stop in Sao Paulo before stopping in the colonial town of Paraty on the way to Rio.

Our patience for long bus journeys was wearing thin, and the thought of a 16 hour schlep from Foz do Iguacu to Sao Paulo wasn’t attractive so for the first time we booked a one way flight to Sao Paulo. The sun had not even come up as the flight took off, and having spent the night in a tent in the back garden of a hostel to save money we were already wondering if it was such a good idea.

The famed traffic jams of Brazil’s economic capital didn’t help the grogginess as the bus into the city centre crawled along the highway into the centre, I still chuckled upon seeing it was named after Ayrton Senna as we struggled to get over 15 mph at any moment. Several hours after landing we reached our bed for the night, soaked to the skin due to the torrential rain. Despite just 24 hours in the city, a nap was in order!

Fully refreshed and ready to explore we went to check out the city which although not full of sights and attractions is an interesting place to get a feel for modern Brazil. Busy, bustling and fueled by immigrant labour Sao Paulo has a very cosmopolitan feel about it. Our highlight was the Liberdade district, historically the hub of the huge Japanese population in Brazil and now home to many other Asian migrants. A huge Japanese torii or arch marks the entrance to the neighbourhood while street lamps and signs point to a world many miles from Brazil.

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Missing Asia a little bit myself we sought out some amazing food, possibly the best Katsu curry I’ve ever tasted and perused the shops and supermarkets, picking up some pork steamed buns we hadn’t seen since Panama. Perfect to cook in the apartment we had booked in our next destination.

That destination was Paraty, a small colonial town by the sea of which we’d heard many good things. Upon our visit we had found it was a national holiday weekend and every hotel and hostel in the town was booked, thankfully we booked the last two available bus tickets the night before and arranged accommodation through Airbnb.

Paraty was supposed to be our relaxing coastal town where we could relax on the beach, top up our tans and chill out before heading home. Unfortunately the torrential rain that was hitting Sao Paulo was also hitting Paraty and the next 5 days were pretty much a washout.

Even so I’m glad we visited Paraty, the old town is incredibly quaint and attractive to wander around without feeling too overcrowded as most of the tourists are domestic. Despite its colonial past the nature of the town felt very different to many colonial towns we’d visited on the other side of the continent in terms of the architecture, the food, sounds and atmosphere of the place.

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And then we come to the drinks where Brazil is the home of the caipirinha, a concoction of cachaça (a sugar cane spirit similar to white rum), lime and a lot of sugar. Drinking these from street stalls in the town square in the evening when the rain had calmed will bring a smile to anyone’s face.

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Despite the washout, we’d still loved Paraty and made the most of the time to chill out, read, eat (I’ll post my recipe for an incredible chicken parmigiana we had in Paraty on here later), sup cocktails and on our last day we bit the bullet and took a boat trip off the coast on another grey, wet day.

Incredibly we had an awesome trip despite the weather getting to know some Paulistas who were keen on a party whatever the weather! We must have been so out of touch with music while travelling as this was how we were introduced to the infamous Gangnam Style, and I’ll never forget it!

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With a touch a sadness but a lot of excitement we boarded our final bus (hooray!) and headed for Rio.

We were told the weather in Rio is usually pretty similar to Paraty and we could expect more rain so we couldn’t be more surprised to arrive in glorious sunshine! We booked a ticket on the last Corcovado train of the day for the Cristo Redentor statue that watches over the city.

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This left us time to explore the area around our hostel for a few hours as the queues on earlier trains died down but by the time we returned to the station the fog was rolling in. The statue as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog is amazing up close and the view from the top of the mountain is breathtaking, especially when you can see through the breaks in the cloud!

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Thankfully that wasn’t our only chance to take in the views of Rio and does give me the opportunity to bombard by blog with photos of such an amazing city. Just a couple of days later we were heading up Sugar Loaf mountain on the 100 year old cable car to check out the view from there.

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Sugar Loaf mountain is perhaps the most striking of the peaks surrounding Rio for its viewpoint over the beaches as it juts out over the Atlantic. From here you can check out the Botofago area and watch the planes coming in and out of the nearby domestic airport. We took a slightly different flight from the helipad halfway up the mountain.

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Ever since seeing the Idiot Abroad episode in Rio where Karl comes to see ‘the Jesus thing’ I have wanted to go in a helicopter over the city. With some birthday money from Katrina’s parents towards the cost of the flight we took off from Sugar Loaf Mountain, along the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, over the lagoon in the middle of the city and around the Cristo Redentor or ‘Jesus Thing’. I’m lost for words to describe it, but it was incredible and put our flight over the Nazca Lines a few months previously to shame.

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After Rio’s views from above we can get to the sights on the ground and for us that was on the beach. We couldn’t have been more keen to get some sun on our backs at the beach and after all Rio is famous for them. Walking down Copacabana one gets the idea how on days off most of the city comes here packed close together to relax, drink caipirinhas, show off their football skills on beach volleyball courts and generally just be cool. I’ve pretty much decided I have to live there at some point in my life!

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We spent quite a few afternoons chilling out on Ipanema beach and like to think we found the right spot. Different social scenes choose different parts of the beach, many on Copacabana will consider themselves more working class while there are sectors for the cultural crowd, gay community and very pretty girls on Ipanema, I like to think we found the latter. If you love cities with a cafe culture for people watching, well Rio tops that by a long way! Even the vendors on the beach all have their own fun character selling everything from iced tea (mate) to bikinis and inflatable balls.

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Ipanema is also where to congregate to watch one of the great South American sunsets as beachgoers congregate on the rocky headland at the end of the strip to watch the sun go down and even applaud as the last sliver disappears on the horizon.

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On our last day on the beach the sea was incredibly rough, leaving it open to only the strongest/bravest/most stupid swimmers. While cooling off I had the awkward British moment of handing a Brazilian girl her bikini top back after she was knocked over by a wave while moments later a rescue helicopter was summoned to fish out some kids who had been caught by the current.

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One other place in Rio I need to talk about in this blog is the Escadaria Selaron. These stairs are named after a Chilean artist who started decorating them over a period of about 20 years as a labour of love to the city of Rio. The steps constantly changed over time with new tiles sent from all over the world as the work gained popularity while much of the work was funded through sales of one his favourite paintings. Sadly in January 2013, the creator Jorge Selaron was found dead on these steps and it is not entirely clear it was from natural causes. I hope his work will be taken on by somebody else as the Escadaria Selaron really is a great place to visit in Rio.

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So we’ve done the sights and the beaches. Next is the nightlife. We felt we were missing out while we were there despite it not being carnival time as Rio felt a bit quiet at night. To put a stop to this we headed to the Friday night street party in the Lapa District (quite close to the Escadaria Selaron). Around midnight the streets are filled with caipirinha vendors making the biggest, best, strongest and cheapest cocktails you are likely to find in any city – ours were about £1 each for something the size of a pint.

The bars, music, dancers and drink spill onto the streets and gave a great taste of what the city must be like during carnival, a real shame I’m not there as a write my blog!

Shortly after that night and another afternoon on the beach it was time to head to the airport and home with mixed feelings. Great to end to the trip on a high and take some rest from travelling (sounds crazy I know but it is true) but really sad to end what will go down as one of the best experiences of my life.

Basil Pao Photography Exhibition

A very short notice more than anything else. With some spare time on my hands and while  in London yesterday I went along to the Royal Geographic Society to check out a photography exhibition by Basil Pao.

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For those not familiar with the name, he’s a photographer and friend of Michael Palin who has accompanied him on all his big journeys, hence my interest.

It’s just a small exhibition with around 40 or so photographs, including aerial shots of waterfalls, stunning portraits of people in tribal attire as well shots of Palin on his travels. I actually found it quite good for new ideas and learning about my own photography.

It’s on at the RGS in London (Kensington) and free to visit until the 25th January 2013. I really recommend it.

Argentina: A Note of Caution

I was going to bring a couple of slightly negative things about Argentina into last post but thought I’d save them for a separate post which might be helpful for visitors.

Bus Station Scam

The first of these is a long running Buenos Aires scam, commonly found near the main Retiro bus station, typically situated in a rather downtrodden area.

Backpackers are often targeted by people who will squirt a foul smelling liquid on them and their belongings. This is rumoured to include sewage, vinegar, chemicals, rotten eggs and other nasty delights. Once hit, people will offer to clean you and your bags and while distracted these will be stolen.

This happened to us but we ignored some shouting outside the bus station only to notice the foul smell inside. This was probably for the best. Though sitting next to Katrina’s hair for the next 6 hours wasn’t pleasant.

Since this happened to us, I’ve heard stories of tourists being mugged and even a rumour of a French tourist being killed. I’m not sure it’s true but given the police aren’t prepared to stop this scam in the area I don’t recommend fighting back.

If it happens to you, just keep walking and clean up later.

Where are you from?

This is more of an irritation to British tourists in Argentina. The Falkland Islands or to the locals, Las Malvinas.

These islands have become a bigger issue in the last year or so due to the 30th anniversary of the conflict and the desire of President Cristina to distract attention away from some of the national economic problems.

Personally, it’s an issue for the islands residents, not centralised governments of whom one has little in common while another is located thousands of miles away. Oh well.

Many curious Argentinians, like most Latin American people, will ask where you are from. Upon saying “Inglaterra” or “Reino Unido” we would be met with the response of “Las Malvinas son de Argentina”. Despite a friendly smile back trying to deflect the issue the conversation would end or be elaborated on the issue.

This happened more than we expected and was a little unfortunate. In the end, we discovered it pretty useful to say we were Scottish. Seemingly Scotland isn’t associated with the conflict!

So there we are, that’s my little warning done. I’ll finish with some nicer stuff about Argentina and Iguazu Falls later.

Happy travels!

The (very long) Road to Rio: Part 2 – Argentina

Following on from my last post about the final weeks of my Latin American journey, I thought I’d quickly follow on from Chile to Argentina.

Many travellers rave about Argentina, they talk about the passion of the place and how much a backpacker can enjoy Argentina on a budget. Well right now, it isn’t. Let’s get that out the way straight away. As you may have seen in the news, Argentina is currently battling the onset of another financial crisis. Recently there have been strikers, protests, the nationalisation of a major oil company and a ban on the withdrawal of US Dollars from ATMs. Throw in some more fuss about the Falklands to try and dilute the bad news and you’re there or thereabouts.

As a backpacker, the main impact on us was the rate to withdraw pesos being artificially high and increasing the cost of everything to us. Anyone reading this before visiting Argentina might like to know that you can get more bang for your buck if you take in cash and exchange it on the black market for a 50% premium.

Like this blog, I didn’t warm immediately to Argentina either following a rather scenic final trip back over the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza – the next time I do a trip like this I want a car or a motorbike to take advantage of journeys like that. Alas, upon arriving at the bus station in Mendoza I set about task number one, find cash! With some spare Chilean Pesos, the tourist information kiosk seemed a sensible option to ask about a currency exchange. The result was a grumpy look from the woman behind it, a grunt followed by her returning to staring into space. Ho hum.

Next to search for an ATM which after a very long queue decided not to work with any of my bank cards. Great. Katrina however did manage to elicit some money from it, in huge denominations, which left us wanting some smaller change for the cab journey into town. Attempting to do this by purchasing something of low value like a Coke was utterly useless, one shopkeeper slamming on the counter, shouting something I couldn’t understand and putting the item back in the cooler. By this point I just assumed I’d got out the wrong side of the bed that morning. A feeling only reinforced by almost all the hotels and hostels in town having no vacancies.

Mendoza’s major attraction to backpackers is wine. Having decided to skip a wine tour it would have been rude not to do one in Argentina, especially being a country whose wine I knew virtually nothing about.

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I probably learnt more Spanish than I did about wine on our tour, with it being taken almost exclusively by domestic tourists from Buenos Aires. Any tour was going to have a hard job living up to my last wine tasting experience in South Africa and that’s perhaps why I didn’t get into this one as much. Compared to Chilean reds I found Argentinian Malbecs less appetising, some of them even vinegary. Our final tour stop was situated next to an enormous oil refinery, now I’m not a sommelier but I think that impacts the terrior. Mmm….sulphur.

Moving on from Mendoza to Buenos Aires on board a rather plush yet ludicrously expensive bus. They seriously need to get Megabus out here when bus fares, albeit for 13 hours approach £100 each way. In the UK journeys of that length can be had from £1 up to about £50. Despite the comfy bus I still didn’t sleep thanks to a man who snored like a hippo with a cold. The relief upon reaching Buenos Aires was immeasurable.

Buenos Aires is a soulful city, something that I always talk about loving. There’s a kind of grungy, faded, hipster type scene to much of the city against a backdrop of European style architecture. It’s a port city with rougher, working class suburbs as well as wealthier areas like Palermo that have prospered from the trade. I liked it, another city to wander and take it  all in.

The spirit of Evita still lives on in BA with a large iron cladding on a skyscraper looming over the massive main boulevard through the city, as well as her tomb at the impressive cemetery in leafy Palermo. Much of the time in the city I was whistling “Don’t Cry for me Argentina”.

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This all completely contrasts with the areas of San Telmo and La Boca, more traditionally down to earth and working class neighbourhoods. With a cafe culture (albeit heavily tailored towards tourists), some cool antique markets and an interesting back drop makes for a really interesting place to explore. We took in some tango dancing in a square, some fairly mediocre and some incredible to watch. Despite being a bit of a cop out when it comes to dancing I kind of wanted to have a go, were it not for my ankle.

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Moving into La Boca, a more working class neighbourhood than San Telmo (read rougher round the edges), my first thoughts were to head for La Bombonera – home of Boca Juniors. It really has the feel of an old fashioned football ground in the heartland of its supporters and had me wanting to go to a game but I’ll get to that.

Heading further into La Boca I was taken by the colourfully painted houses and the local pride in their area, something not so common in places like that in the UK. Past that and we came to another touristy area with more cafes, shops and tango before hitting the old harbour and checking out the Transporter Bridge, a bit like the one back home in Middlesbrough.

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There is such a difference between the Palermo area of Buenos Aires compared to La Boca, and hence part of the reason for the big football rivalry. But the next day we felt like going posh again to take in one of Argentina’s most famous sports, Polo. Tally ho!

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Wealthy British expats brought Polo to Buenos Aires in the late 19th Century and the game is still played today by wealthy Argentinians at the same members clubs as set up by the British. We took in a match at the Hurlingham Tournament, one of the big 3 events of the year at the club of the same name. Despite now understanding the rules, it was a fun new sport to watch with a rather different sort of person in attendance in comparison to anything else we’d see on our entire trip. High scoring, fast paced, with regular intervals it seemed something ice hockey or football fans could enjoy, albeit while rather well dressed and soaking in the gorgeous grounds of the club. Catching the commuter train back into BA afterwards did feel like a bit of a come down.

That said, Argentina does have the perfect evening pick me up. Steak. Really, really good steak! Whether it’s the quality of how the cows are raised, how the meat hung to mature or the way it’s cooked, I’m not really sure. What I do know is every time I had steak throughout Argentina it was incredible. Just a little tip for those like me who enjoy a nice bloody steak, you’ll need to emphasise ‘azul’ or ‘con sangre’ to the waiter, Argentinians often like a steak well cooked through. Sadly, I haven’t got a clue for the name of the place we liked best in BA – but it’s in San Telmo and you’ll get an huge steak with some delicious sides to compliment.

After wandering around La Boca a few days earlier and admiring La Bonbonera, the home of Boca Juniors, I wanted to catch a game. Football withdrawal symptoms were kicking in having only seen only match in months, back in Medellin.

There’s lots of stuff out there about watching a Boca Juniors game, which I read before we started our ticket mission. To cut a long story short, football violence in Argentina historically has been shocking and government efforts to curb this require clubs to control who can attend games. In the case of Boca, this has landed with their ‘football mafia’ – a collection of armed, wealthy and aggressive gangs who control ticketing, security and allegedly with threaten their own players and families should they perform poorly while receiving a cut of their salaries.

When it comes to actually purchasing the ticket for Boca, you can’t directly without a membership. This leaves two options as a tourist, pay an eyewateringly high fee of around $100 each to a tourist agency to attend in a group or purchase a ticket from a tout. So many conflicting things are said about these tickets so feeling a bit nervy we set off to the stadium early. A look around showed a few touts circling the stadium and after a little checking and negotiation picked up 2 tickets at a much lower cost than the tour. To confirm their authenticity, we even gave them to one of the mafia stewards to confirm and all seemed well.

Until we started waiting and waiting, to discover kick off to be two hours later than advertised. As the queue started to be allowed through the first security checkpoint, Katrina filtered through the shorter entrance for ladies with no issues. As I reached the front of my queue the steward took my ticket, mumbled ‘No’ and refused to acknowledge my presence no matter what I said. To the confusion of another steward who pointed out Katrina entered, the steward desired her ticket, took that too and no matter what was said I couldn’t get a word out of him. Irritated, we gave in, and can only speculate that the tickets many felt were authentic were fakes or the ‘mafia’ have a preference for tourists to be managed within authorised groups.

At this point, I just wanted to see a game and having bought an Arsenal di Sarandi shirt a few days previously back in Mendoza decided to take in their game at a nearby suburb. Arsenal in fact were the champions for the first half of the local season despite coming from relatively humble backgrounds and taking on title challengers for the second half of the season, Velez Sarsfield, also from Buenos Aires giving us a local derby.

The atmosphere couldn’t have been anymore different to Boca. The suburb of Sarandi is similarly working class but without any feeling of being on edge. Purchasing tickets here proved to be incredibly simple, seating or standing choice and girls go half price. Great idea!

After a quick choripan (sausage sandwich) we entered the stadium where fanaticos were dancing on banners hung upon the standing barriers. From the full to capacity Velez end came a mighty roar giving this a real football feeling. Arsenal fans took a more laid back approach, probably an effect of the intensive odour of marijuana filling the vicinity! That was probably for the best as during the game, despite their team playing the nicer football, suffered catastrophically in defence as they crumbled to a 5-1 home defeat. With the goalkeeping, defending, manager being sent to the stands and louder away support it was much like their more famous namesakes in London!

And that pretty much brought BA to a close for us before heading north towards Iguacu Falls with stops along the way into Uruguay and Paraguay but more on those next time.

The (very long) Road to Rio: Part 1 – Chile

Rio was never part of the plan, but I’m so glad it changed thanks to some extra time, being under budget and a very cheap flight home from there. This gave us time to take in some of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil over the space of the last 4 weeks of the trip.

Exiting Bolivia on the top of the Andes after a 3 day trip across remote salt flats and lagoons we were in need of a warm shower. As we sat in the bus down the mountains from the border into the town of San Pedro de Atacama we realised how much we were going to miss Bolivia. Driving down the Chiliean highway we could have been back in Europe, it all looked too sterile. The desire to return to Bolivia was reinforced further upon discovering the prices of basics like food and accommodation in Chile. A decent room for 2 in Bolivia would typically cost $15, in Chile a rough room approached triple that price! Our budget was in for a kicking over the following weeks.

At this point, I wasn’t too impressed with Chile – I’m northern. Now that doesn’t mean I’m cheap, I just like value for money! We decided not to spend too much time in Chile and hopped on a bus to Antofagasta the following day. After catching a movie and gorging on some fast food, there wasn’t too much more to keep us occupied in this company town and with a big gulp boarded a 21 hour bus to Valparaiso. Yes, 21 hours. I can barely do a 7 hour flight so can you imagine the moaning on a 21 hour budget bus? Feel very sorry for Kat.

Arriving in Valparaiso late the next day felt like an achievement (surprising considering all we’d done was sit on our backsides for nearly a day)! Valpa was one of those cities I’d always wanted to see and it really didn’t disappoint. Built on steep slopes overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the city grew exponentially through shipping and the attractiveness to European immigrants through the 19th Century. Were it not for the Panama Canal I’m sure Valparaiso would have continued to grow and rival places like San Francisco.

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The buildings in Valpa reflect the European history of the place alongside a sizable British influence including a British Arch and handy funiculars to take people up the steep slopes. They’re not actually that tough to walk up but I suppose that was typically British for the time. Add to this some of the best chips I’ve ever eaten as part of local dish, chorrillana, topped with steak, sausage, onions, eggs as well as chilli and ketchup. Ideal for a carbohydrate binge! To top it off, we could also get proper, tasty, dark beer. Just the change we needed.

I’m a bit of a wanderer and can happily kill time getting aimlessly lost in a city, watching the world go by. Valparaiso was the perfect city for that. Away from the colonial architecture, Valparaiso is brightened up by vibrant street art and an edgy side that gives the seaside city a real soul.

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Which is more than can be said for our next and final destination in Chile, Santiago. From the soul and attitude of Valparaiso, Santiago isn’t so fun. Writing this a few weeks after being there I’m actually struggling what to say about the place but for one thing that springs to mind…..coffee.

It’s not the quality, it’s not local sources, it’s about where it’s served. The world over you will see the typical Starbucks sign where you will be served a perfectly adequate cup of coffee (or other tasty beverage) in a homogeneous setting. I say that as a fan of Starbucks. You can do this in Santiago if you like, or you can go to a ‘legs cafe’.

In a legs cafe, found all over the downtown area, your coffee will be served short, black and with a glass of water, by a lady wearing a very short skirt and a rather big smile (enough to make even the British leave a tip)! I don’t know why we don’t haves these in the City of London.

And that was a quick blast through Chile. I’d love to return one day and see more but we had to move on, to Argentina! To be continued….

As Seen on TV

When travelling we all love to find those cool little hidden things in any place that people don’t necessarily know about. Sadly this isn’t always the case and when visiting a new place you need a little nudge in the right direction.

In South America I’ve not been the biggest friend of the Lonely Planet, to be honest it’s an extra kilo I’d rather not bothered with. There have been some good travel blogs (sadly the best one, This Battered Suitcase, appears to be written by someone travelling a similar route to myself but always a place or two behind where we are). However one our most followed ways has been a couple of things we’ve seen on TV.

Before this trip we knew we’d be heading down through Peru and Bolivia. I used to love watching Michael Palin shows as a kid so Full Circle which took him to Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca has always stuck in my head for this trip.

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It really didn’t disappoint, we marvelled at the beauty of the lost Inca city (more on that in my last blog). The scale of the place is incredible while the scenes of the ruins on the mountain top encircled by a river thousands of feet below are really did live up to my massive expectations. Of course Full Circle wasn’t the only way I knew of such a place but it was the clearest image in my head before out visit.

A week or so later at Lake Titicaca I was reminded of the boat called the Yavari – as seen on Full Circle, it was manufactured in the UK in pieces, then lugged up to the world’s highest navigable lake by llamas from the now Chilean coastline to be reassembled in Bolivia. Given walking a few hundred metres at a normal pace can leave you a little breathless at this altitude it really is amazing. Other boats like this were also taken up here but the Yavari has been loving restored and maintained via donations from tourists.

For a moderate fee we were shown all over the boat but kept coming back to admiring the logistics of getting it here. Well worth the short stop before heading to the floating islands. Yeah you read that right. Out in the lake are islands made of the local reeds, continuously replenished and anchored to the lake bed on which houses are built of the same material. Well you’ve got to see that haven’t you?!

Our second televisual travel inspiration came not quite from a travel program but the love or hate chaps from Top Gear. Personally I love them but I know many others have less kind words to say about it. I’ve previously been inspired to ride a motorbike over the Hai Van Pass in Vietnam that is to one of their Xmas Specials. On this trip we’ve watched their Bolivia episode which only served to make us more excited to visit the country.

They traversed this hugely varied country from the jungle in the east, up the treacherous Death Road, through La Paz and over the Andes into Chile. We didn’t have wheels for the trip (think bureaucracy and cost) but wanted to see what we looked at in awe on TV.

On a boat into the jungle it actually felt just like what we’d been watching. The butterflies as big as bats, fish jumping into the boat and weirdly coloured trees. Thankfully we didn’t freak out like Hammond with the insects!

Later in La Paz (following an incredible painful accident with my ankle) we took on Death Road – top to bottom by bicycle.

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So called due to the people who died building it, as well as having accidents on the perilously narrow unpaved road, this was probably pretty daft in the circumstances.

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From the breathlessly high start all was looking good. With a quick blast down a paved section to get used to the bikes we took on the gravel, stopping for the occasional photo and gawp down the sheer drops. Then ….

“BANG! OWW. FUCK!”

In no time approaching a bend the front wheel locked when not even touching the brake, I flew over the handlebars. With the only aim not to land on my ankle I walked off with just a few bruises and in a bit of pain. Much more careful now.

Despite that, just minutes later Katrina had gone down too in almost identical circumstances. Sadly for her this stopped her ride, her wrist was much worse and couldn’t grip the handlebars.

Thankfully I survived the rest if the ride on the spectacular road. And when receiving our t-shirts afterwords found we had both fallen on the part if the road called ‘the corners of death’. Phew.

In the days afterwords we heard of many more injuries, so lucky us.

The final spectacular attraction of Bolivia was to be the high Andes. We crossed via the Salar de Uyuni – a bit different to the programme and even more spectacular! A bit more of them later.

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The final personality to influence is an unlikely source – An Idiot Abroad – Karl Pilkington. Having changed our plans to end in Rio, I’d recalled I had his episode there on my laptop so we took a look.

It didn’t give us much more than we already knew about Rio – Karl mostly being there to be annoyed and see ‘the Jesus thing’ or Cristo Redentor towering over the city. He wasn’t too stunned by the sculpture, remarking on the chin/beard looking weird.

He was however given a chance to see the wonder by helicopter – something he enjoyed more than the sculpture itself. Ridiculous but funny travel programming at its best. And enough to make us want to take a flight.

Our first visit up the Corcovado mountain where the sculpture sits saw the cloud roll in at sunset, spoiling the view a little but providing an alternative atmosphere. It did however leave us wanting more.

With some money towards the cost from my birthday. We took a flight from Sugar Loaf mountain over the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema and around the mountain. And it didn’t disappoint, I loved the experience!

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The perspective provided by the flight is totally different to any other angle. Swooping around the statue I’m so happy with my photographs. And on a clear day I could admire the clean lines of an incredible piece of architecture. If you’ve got the money (or want a treat to end your trip) it’s well worth it.

I’m yet to see much of the Michael Palin series on Brazil, but I’m sure it will only add to my desire to return there very soon.

Machu Picchu by Train

I’ve not really been in for writing a guide type article on here but this was something I spent a lot of time researching and thought I would put together what I found.

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We decided to take the train instead of the Inca Trail for 2 reasons, firstly we seem to be under the weather a lot just before a physical activity (Climbing Volcanoes in Nicaragua) and we heard a lot of bad reviews from travellers saying the trail was expensive and overhyped.

This left the train to get to the ancient city (already an expensive day out with the entry ticket). A bit of shopping around on the internet and we’d found 3 companies with the most convenient trip being with the newest company, Machu Picchu Train, at $58 each way.

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Visitors to Machu Picchu are limited to 2,500 each day so to be safe we made our way to buy the ticket at the office in Cusco the day before. Once this was reserved we went to the train ticket office in Cusco on Avenida del Sol and found the tickets are cheaper booked there in cash at $50 each. US Dollars can be withdrawn from the cash machine a few doors down the street.

The train leaves from Ollantaytambo station around 11.30am, about 1hr by car or 90 minutes by bus from Cusco so plenty of time to get there. The bus is crowded, local and fun and leaves from a local bus station a couple of blocks behind the train office to Urubamba. It cost 6 soles each. From here you must change to a minibus or colectivo for around 5 soles each to reach Ollantaytambo.

A collectivo from central Cusco all the way to Ollantaytambo will cost around 15 to 20 soles each depending on your negotiation skills.

Our train was virtually empty, just 2 of us, 2 Japanese tourists and 4 staff! We were served a drink and sweet snack while watching the view of the valley. Really rather relaxed and a little bit colonial. The train should get you to Aguas Calientes, the modern town beneath Machu Picchu itself. Here you can buy all sorts of tourist stuff and get a quick but pricey meal.

There are regular buses up the mountain the the park entrance, at a pricey $16 return. However once you see where they go you will not begrudge it. You can walk the route, we heard of people doing it in an hour and some said two. I believe the latter more. If you take the train this will cut you short on time at the ruins.

By now you should have about 4 hours to see the site. It closes around 5.30 or 6pm. I suggest you head for the famous vista for the postcard shot by taking a path to your left soon after entering. At this time it should be quite quiet, especially in lower seasons away from summer holidaymakers. From here you can backtrack to the sun-gate where hikers enter the site or the Inca Bridge, one of the former residents entries and security measures.

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As you stroll around you can pick up tit bits from overhearing late running guided tours, though they often seem to tell different and contrasting tales that sound pretty made up to me. We didn’t bother with a guide and chose to enjoy the place with our existing knowledge and imagination. One tip all prospective guides will give you for free however is this – USE THE TOILET BEFORE ENTERING THE CITY! Machu Picchu has no public conveniences and instead nooks and crannies or alcoves (laugh if you’ve seen the movie In Bruges) will substitute. On hot days it can smell quite potent.

We wandered the city till closing time, by which there were just a few llamas and Peruvian school children to share it with. If you’re lucky (or unlucky) you’ll be harassed for photos with them – actually quite fun! On your way out don’t forget stamp your passport if you want a cheap memento of the trip.

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We decided to stay in Ollantaytambo for the night and caught the 7.15pm train back, a little busier this time with about 12 passengers. You could stay in one of the many hostels and hotels Aguas Calientes if you wished to revisit the city the next day to climb the mountain Huayna Picchu above it. Or you can catch a late return taxi to Cusco, if one is close to full you can share for a good price.

I recommend stopping in Ollantaytambo however for a chance to see a slightly less touristic town than Cusco. The hotels are clean, comfy and quite cheap. Below the ruins of the same name (access with Boleto Turistico) is an interesting a cheap souvenir market. We both bought a couple of cool ornaments to take home. Further away from the tourists is a fully functioning local town with connections back to the Incas and friendly local people. I didn’t spot many tourists exploring far off the beaten track.

Hopefully if you’ve stumbled on this little account it will be of use to you on your visit. If you’ve found something different, want to correct anything or add your own little account please do comment.

Otherwise, enjoy your trip!

The Variety of Peru

I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time but call it laziness, having too much of a good time or lack of decent internet connections has deterred me for doing so. That and part writing on an iPad and netbook leads to things getting lost in the ‘cloud’. So I’m going to make this more of a photo blog and talk a little more about a couple of specific things in Peru later.

In short, I expected little of Peru, I’m not sure why but I just couldn’t feel very excited about it compared to other countries on this trip. Wrong. In this massively diverse country I chilled at the beach in Mancora and Huanchaco, got dizzy at dazzling high altitude blue lakes in Huaraz, celebrated my birthday in Lima, saw Penguins in Paracas, sandboarded in Huacachina, rotter my teeth with Inca Cola (an excellent Irn Bru substitute), flew over mystical ancient lines in Nazca, took the lazy route to Machu Picchu and followed in Palin’s footsteps on the floating island of Lake Titicaca. More on the latter two to come later.

I’ve picked some of my favourite photos of Peru and hope they’ll encourage you to visit such an amazing country!

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Ecuador without the Galapagos

Most people think about visiting Ecuador and head for the Galapagos Islands for animals galore. Sadly on our budget we left out a visit there for a time in later life and we’ll do it the luxury way. Despite that, our trip to Ecuador was incredible and my addiction to Instagram kicked in all over again!

If you’re thinking of a trip there then you’re in for a treat.

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First stop for us was Quito, one of the highest cities in the world and it showed! With a hostel up a very steep hill, we were pretty breathless whenever we returned back to our room. However, instead of taking it easy we decided to go higher, firstly by going up a very long cable car for a view of the city and later improving that by climbing to the top of a gothic church.

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If you’re ever in Quito, find the large gothic church and scale the ladders to the top – no health and safety rules to go with the holy view!

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From Quito we headed south to take in a bit of the countryside. Firstly by mountain biking down the side of Cotopaxi through stunning scenery and later by heading up to the incredible crater lake of Quilotoa. Upon reaching the edge, not only was I breathless from the altitude but by the the scenery too. I’m sure you’ll agree.

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The surrounding alpacas were pretty cool too.

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Our next stop was Banos, one of Ecuador’s most popular local tourism spots. The hot springs from where the town gets its name are an experience. Packed full of local families with a different idea of personal space and water predominantly a sludgy green colour we didn’t stay too long.

The highlight of Banos came from renting an off road buggy to drive down the valley past tens of waterfalls until we reached the crescendo of noise from the Pailon del Diablo. Not quite as good as a Honduran waterfall that you can walk under, although the approach right up to this one left me absolutely soaked through!

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Despite not visiting the Galapagos we wanted to see some wildlife so chose to visit the next best thing, Puerto Lopes, referred to as the Poor Man’s Galapagos. For just $20 we signed up to a whale watching tour on the way to Isla la Plata, home of the Blue Footed Boobies (feathered kind, not ladies with cold feet)!

The experience was incredible, for about an hour we saw several whales jumping right out of the water. Sadly each time I tried to snap a photo I seemed to miss. In the end it was almost better to watch, and thankfully Katrina got a great shot. Here’s my best effort.

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The whales may have been the highlight of the day but there was still great wildlife to come. We saw hundreds of boobies – incredibly strange birds with no fear of people walking within inches of them.

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To cap it off as we left green turtles circled the boat to see us off back to the mainland.

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After some time to chill out by the beach (literally – Puerto Lopes is hit by cold currents from Antarctica) we started to make our way to Peru via Guayaquil, the biggest city in Ecuador. Guayaquil was just a short stop but we couldn’t visit without seeing the so called Iguana Park – yes they have a whole park in the middle of the city filled with tame and curious Iguanas!

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In all we had an awesome time in Ecuador, and I could say so much more but these are my highlights and favourite Instagrams. Don’t just visit for the Galapagos, see a great country too!

Top 3 Travel Journeys (so far)

Low Cost Holidays are running a competition for travel bloggers to write about their top 3 travel experiences (gold, silver and bronze …get it) before passing on the baton to tell about theirs and so on. I’m a bit late on the band wagon for this having only just discovered it but have chosen my top 3 travel journeys (so far).

In reverse order….

3rd and Bronze Medallist – Road Tripping Around the Southern US States

In 2011 to escape the endless obsession with the Royal Wedding and take advantage of the glut of British Bank Holidays myself and Katrina grabbed a cheap flight to Texas and a hire car to explore the Southern States.

I’d never really seen much of the real America, mostly just Washington, New York and Florida so this was a bit of new one to me. The America I knew was one of stereotypes from modern media but the America I found was so much different.

We took in Houston, New Orleans, Montgomery (well you’ve got to see the city with your surname), Nashville, Bowling Green, Memphis, Hot Springs in addition to small towns galore. We ate big plates of soul food, dodged huge tornadoes, cruised long interstates and explored backwaters when we tired of the highway. I discovered a love for American microbrews when before I expected to be inundated with weak light beer.

As a Burnley football (soccer) fan I took pleasure in watching minor league hockey and baseball games as well as the passion of the crowds attending them. We met some of the friendliest people on earth who were fascinated with all things British (especially Simon Pegg it seemed) in the same way we were becoming engrossed in America.

In short I saw a chunk of America and fell in love with it.

2nd with the Silver – Hitchhiking to Morocco for Charity

During my first week at University at one of the many freshers events I was asked a bit out of the blue “have you thought about hitchhiking to Morocco?”

Funnily enough I hadn’t but over the next couple of days I couldn’t get the idea out of my head which made the answer obvious, “I’d love to hitchhike to Morocco!”

The event is actually a little more common than you’d think. Organised by a charity, Link Community Development, students from all over the UK raise money thought sponsorship and over the Easter break (2007 in my case) set off with whoever is brave, crazy, stupid enough to give them a ride along the way.

In my case I hitched rides with truckers, OAP coach tours, train companies, French driving schools, and most weirdly a very romantic French couple on a second honeymoon – awkward!

My highlight wasn’t arriving in Morocco (although the 2 weeks I spent exploring there after was incredible) but a Moldovan truck driver who took me through the south of France while he was travelling to Portugal. At first sight he could have been an Eastern European gangster with scars and tattoos. He spoke almost no English and a very small amount of French – my Romanian and Portuguese weren’t very good at this point (and to be honest still aren’t great today :p ).

However despite this, I couldn’t have met someone more heartwarming. He shared his food, showed pictures of his children at home and souvenirs of his his days in the Soviet Special Forces. In return I tried to explain more about me but I don’t know if he understood so I tried listing footballers from Romania (close enough to Moldova right?) That said, he did get very excited about Dan Petrescu and Adrian Mutu.

Hitchhiking to Morocco was probably my first big travel experience and played a big part in me wanting to explore the world today, I think about how crazy an idea it was but how incredible an experience it turned out to be.

In 1st place to drumroll, cheers, applause and tears is the winner of the Gold – Sailing from Panama to Colombia

A more recent experience and part of the journey I’m currently on, from Cancun in Mexico to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. With it not being possible to cross the Darien Gap by road (the only gap in the Pan American highway) you need to look for alternatives – fly or one of a number of different boat crossings.

In Panama is San Blas or Kuna Yala, effectively a collection of paradise coconut palm islands, surrounded by electric blue sea and inhabited by a tribe that escaped other tribes in the jungle many years ago. Pretty much incredible.

To see these and get across to Colombia we booked 2 places on a sailboat to see the islands and make the 2 day crossing. To get to our boat we took a jeep through the jungle from Panama City and a small lancha out to where it was moored. The boat was called Sacanagem, which upon boarding we were told by the eccentric French / Colombian captain means a sex act in an orgy in Portuguese. Lovely.

As our lancha left to return to the mainland he also informed us the boat was currently broken and we would have to wait while he installed a part to fix it. Not a problem at all in paradise.

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A couple of days passed, the boat was not fixed and a storm was passing through the Caribbean causing the solar panels not to work and meaning we had no electricity. Therefore we would have to abandon ship to a nearby island (it didn’t feel it as our little boat there crashed through the waves) and wait while the boat was fixed (a job that seemed to be getting ever longer).

With no idea how long we were to be stuck in paradise, those of us who decided to wait it out settled in for the long haul and plundered the supplies of rum – no burying it for us! 2 days later we were told the Sacanagem was still a week or so away for being fixed but we could ride with another lady making the voyage – saviour.

4 more days sailing around islands and 2 nights at sea later we were to arrive in Colombia. In that time we ate lobster, snorkelled to our hearts content, sunbathed on deck, staved off seasickness, tried our hand at sailing and marvelled at dolphins. The experience made all the more memorable by the extra days on our first boat and being stranded.

There’s a bit more about this journey from earlier in my current trip – here.

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I’m going to nominate Katrina Mackey who writes Dollface Travel to continue what is currently a very short relay chain!

You’re going to Colombia!?

After a fantastic few months in Central America, a few people were asking if we dared go to Colombia next. Of course was the answer!

Colombia doesn’t have the best reputation in the world, thank Pablo Escobar and the cocaine trade for that! However what we found was totally different, I’ve added a new city to my all time top 5, experienced incredible scenery and extremely friendly people. Here’s a little run through of our time there.

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We arrived in the city of Cartagena following our eventful sailing trip through the San Blas islands of Panama. The first thing that struck us (apart from being back in civilisation) was the heat, Cartagena is a HOT city. Just a few yards of walking down the street and you’re ready for another shower!

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We only spent a couple of days here enjoying the old town and taking in the nearby mud volcano. Yes that’s right a mud volcano. The basic idea is a small hill that looks a little like a volcano that you can bathe in – grey, sticky mud. I managed to drop my camera in it, thankfully it’s waterproof (and it seem mud proof).

Although we were able to wash off the mud in a nearby lake, we didn’t have the opportunity for a shower before catching a night bus to Medellin. Not great.

Most people who know of Medellin associate it with Pablo Escobar, the drug kingpin of Colombia during the late 80s and early 90s. During this time Medellin was under siege by the US and Colombian governments vs. Escobar’s ‘sicarios’ who would carry out vicious murders on anyone deemed to be against him. Locals found themselves caught in the middle of this.

Since such dark times, Medellin has rejuvinated itself in terms of housing, transport and cultural buildings. I absolutely loved our time here.

After arriving we were a bit grumpy following a long bus journey and upon arriving our hostel we weren’t much happier. It’s not often a shower following a mud volcano will leave you feeling dirtier – but when the water comes out brown and you’re sharing it with a pair of giant cockroaches, it isn’t a pleasant experience. I therefore don’t recommend the Pit Stop Hostel in Medellin. For less than a couple of skanky dorm beds there we found a spotless hotel with a rooftop jacuzzi – go figure.

The perfect pick me up was however found that evening – beer – and not just the typical lager found all over Latin America. Real beer! I’d been craving a proper pint for months so when we found out about the 3 Cordilleras brewery and their weekly tasting nights we were there instantly! For about $10 you get 5 beers and a souvenir glass to take home with you. I was in heaven with their dark Porter and American Style Amber Ale – the perfect Thursday evening.

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The following day we took the chance to explore the city. Medellin has the feel of a working class city with a lot of soul, a bit like a Glasgow or Manchester in the UK, Nashville in the USA or Kaunas in Lithuania. Downtown there are huge sculptures by the famous artist Fernando Botero, as well as a museum exhibiting his paintings, in the same area as locals working and shopping.

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While cooling off with a raspado we chatted to a local guy who worked as a truck driver, learning English ‘for fun’. We also found a park for bare feet with fountains galore – one of them caught Katrina out!

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Medellin as a city is very narrow, hemmed in by the surrounding mountains on which neighbourhoods sprawl up. To connect these to the city more easily the government has built cable cars. That afternoon we rode up one to see the view and it was breathtaking. In a day it was great to get a flavour of an entire city, rather than of just one small and probably touristy part. To end it, and rest our tired feet, we retired to the jacuzzi on the roof of our hotel – bliss.

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We spent quite a while in Medellin as the city just lured us to stay longer. One day we heard of a parade through the city so went to watch, it turned out to be the end of the flower festival which is marked by the Cabalgata, a long procession of horses.

To many, 4 hours of horses passing by would be pretty dull, not in Medellin. The city has a reputation for ladies taking advantage of cheap plastic surgery, so many horses were ridden by beauties that we just couldn’t take our eyes off! Many locals couldn’t take their eyes off us and were eager to share Aguardiente (the local spirit) and ask why we weren’t back in London watching the Olympics.

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Another highlight (literally) of Medellin was paragliding, the city has a reputation for it. We drove up one of the surrounding mountains, strapped ourselves to a pilot and ran off the edge of a cliff! It’s not as exhilarating a feeling as I expected, there’s no huge adrenaline rush that I’d experienced from skydiving or bungee jumping, it’s more pleasant.

For about half an hour we floated with the birds taking in the view of the city from even higher than the cable car. However towards the end with all the circling around we did start to feel a bit queasy, though I think that has more to do with excessive drinking with some Colombian girls the night before!

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I’d been missing football a little while travelling, less so as I write this following Burnley’s poor start to another season, but had to see a football match in Medellin. We took in DIM vs. Patriotas in the Colombian Premier League which DIM won 2-0. The noise from some of the home ‘fanaticos’ could teach English clubs a thing or two about noise despite the rest of the stadium being quite empty.

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After adding Medellin to my top 5 cities list (alongside Glasgow, Shanghai, Brussels and Hanoi in case you were wondering) we left for Cali.

Now anywhere after Medellin was going to have a hard act to follow, but I just never warmed to Cali. It could have been a few rude taxi drivers or irritating hotel workers but I just didn’t such a good feeling from the place.

Despite that we did love being big kids and taking tonnes of photos at the zoo, one of the best in Latin America I’m told.

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Close to Cali is the village of San Cipriano where they have quite possibly the most brilliant railway in the world. The trains here are powered by motorbikes! There is no road to the village of San Cipriano, just an old railway line, so local people have made their own transportation service by attaching some homemade wheels to a wooden bench upon which they strap a motorbike. The back wheel sits on the track and pushes the unorthodox vehicle along the track. The experience was awesome!

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From Cali we made for the border with Ecuador stopping on the way in the pretty little town of Popayan and the chilly border town of Ipiales. Close to the latter is the spectacular church, Santuario Las Lajas, built across a gorge.

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From there we headed across the border into Ecuador. We’ve had a great time in Colombia, I’d definitely return and suggest anyone with a bad idea of the place come see such different country.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Backpackers Quest

These last couple of weeks I’ve been getting excited about the journey from Panama to Colombia. This is a border that takes a bit of thought as although 98 years ago man was able to build a canal across Central America, he still has not managed to build a road through the Darien Gap. Nor has a ferry service been able to operate for any significant period of time – despite many attempts.

We decided on taking a sailboat from San Blas in Panama to Cartagena in Colombia. It’s a route that’s been operating for a few years and seemed somewhat well travelled. Despite that, it comes with many warning of unscrupulous captains overfilling sailboats which in the worst case scenario can sink. A nasty reminder in the recent case of Fritz the Cat!

We felt pretty secure in the thought of taking the Sacanagem, a boat with a great many good reviews to be found on the internet. Kinda funny really when you consider the boat is, according to its captain Federico, named after a sex act during an orgy! Nice.

Arriving at the boat on a sunny Saturday morning off the coast of Panama among tropical coconut islands surrounded only by shocks of electric blue water, all seemed well.

As our lancha left us on the yacht to return to the mainland, Federico introduced us excited tourists and travellers to the luxury boat and we all settled in. Even as he told us his engine didn’t work and we wouldn’t be going anywhere till it was fixed. An easy job apparently but we were warned about arriving a day late in Colombia. Do you think I cared from the photo below?

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Two days passed where we enjoyed the sun, sea and generally life. Who can really complain when the clear waters are teeming with fish? Strangely however, we hadn’t eaten any of them but we did have some of Federico’s slightly odd but very tasty spaghetti with papaya. Tastes better than it sounds!

Sadly poor Federico was starting to look a little stressed with his attempts to fix his engine. Not a good sign. Even less so when bad weather set in – especially bad for a sailboat with no engine as it means no power from the solar panels.

The diagnosis was not good. We would have to abandon ship. 4 of our group decided to take a refund and return to Panama City. The remaining 4 took a chance and Federico’s kind offer to leave us on a nearby island while he fixed the boat … for “maybe a week”. Oh dear. The weather didn’t help, somehow the tranquil blue Caribbean had turned into a merciless beast of swell and spray. Silly to say but I was more bothered about keeping my electronics dry – the youth of today!

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However, unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the rum was not all gone so we settled in for the long haul. To be honest I still didn’t care.

2 …maybe 3 days passed where we sat in hammocks, played volleyball, read books, ate fish (at last) and watched Pirates of the Caribbean 3. If Carlsberg did airline delays they’d be this good!

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One day (I’ve genuinely lost count) we were awoken from our hammock slumber by an English accent asking if we knew Federico. This was Alice who had a boat leaving for Cartagena that day with conveninently … 4 spaces! It seemed Federico was still having trouble fixing the engine and had transferred us to Alice’s boat, the Odyssee II.

After 3 more days of island hopping we would set sail for Cartagena. Now when things work out well, they work out well. The Odysee was much more of an old fashioned boat, made of steel with a wooden interior it felt like a proper boat. And for dinner that night? Crab and Lobster. I mean, come on, I am one hell of a lucky sod.

The area itself is governed independently from much of the rest of Panama under the local tribe, the Kuna. The Kuna are a tribe who it is believed fled their homelands in the jungle of Colombia due to incursions by other tribes. They cleared much of the islands of natural mangroves and planted coconut palms to create the idyllic looking islands there today.

Much of their livelihood depends of this as they barter coconuts with passing ships and other Panamanians. Tourists for example are not allowed to touch fallen coconuts. Tourism provides a welcome bonus to the Kuna through a tax levied on entry and relatively high prices of souvenirs etc. From my experiences they are doing relatively well to minimise the impact of tourists on their home, however you can see the incursion of paved roads, new airstrips and US television impacting some of the younger generation.

The Kuna maintain their own law and culture, for example Kuna are not allowed to marry foreigners, minor law breaking is dealt with by their own courts and much of the society is matriarchal. During our (extended) stay in the area we were able to gain a little insight into life here.

Our 3 days on the boat were just incredible, blissful, beautiful, relaxing, the pictures say more than I can put into words. We sailed around the paradise islands of San Blas taking the chance to snorkel, sunbathe, swim and generally just relax.

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With the possible exception of when I took the tiller with a bottle of rum. Arggh me hearties.

Alice and her captain Umberto (it helps to have a Colombian national as captain for entry reasons to Colombia) decided for us to leave for Colombia at sunset, giving us extra time in the islands and helping us get through any seasickness by sleep.

Katrina was especially worried about the crossing as she has felt the onset of seasickness during a couple of boat journeys on this trip. Thankfully, the Caribbean was a great deal tamer than the day of abandoning the Sacanagem and plenty of deck space allowed for fresh air. Nobody chundered.

After our days in the island which on reflection passed by far too quickly, our only full day at sea of the 40 or so hour crossing did drag a little. It’s a bit strange seeing nothing on the horizon all day. My highlight was small pods of dolphins swimming up to the boat, sadly they departed as quickly as they arrived without the chance to take a photo. We did however get an amazing sunset.

After another night on the ocean and with dawn breaking over the southern Caribbean we were greeted with an incredible view of the city of Cartagena and my first glimpse of the South American continent. A perfect way to say hello to a new country and end what has been one the most enjoyable journeys I have ever taken.

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If you’re considering this trip yourself I highly recommend Alice and the Odyssee II. If you decide to take the Sacanagem, then despite the engine trouble it is a very nice boat and Federico is a very friendly and humourous captain. He also has an adorable little Poodle called Reina.

If you decide to take a different boat then read the reviews online. Check you are happy with the boat before you hand over your cash. If you’re fussy over food it may be best to take some of your own as well as any alcohol you may want as it is expensive in the islands.

Further, as we left Panama we heard of a new $100 tax soon to be enforced on all passengers leaving for Colombia. It remains to be see how this will impact the route. I have also heard stories of Colombian authorities looking to take a piece of the action.

The bottom line is this however, if you have the chance to take this trip. Go.

Killing time in Panama City

Having arrived in Panama City just over a week ago, we’ve had quite a bit of time in the city. It started off pretty lazily with time to relax in the luxurious Trump Hotel for Katrina’s birthday and it’s continued as we await our boat that will take us to Colombia via the San Blas Islands.

In my last blog post I mentioned all I really knew of Panama as a country was the canal prior to my visit. Well the same applies for the city, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After 3 months in Central America, plus a couple of weeks in Cuba before that it came as a shock to the system as the bus rolled over the Bridge of the Americas and the city skyline came into view. No other city so far has had buildings like this, nor have we seen anywhere as much construction work as appears to be taking place here.

As part of our stay in the Trump (which is also the tallest building in Latin America – for now), we were lucky enough to be taken to the top floor and shown around the penthouse apartment. 5* Birthday Service and the view wasn’t too bad either!

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I’ll be honest, we didn’t do a whole heap in the Trump with the exception of lazing by their infinity pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean and eating one the best meals ever in their restaurant, Tejas. If you like fish and you’re in Panama City then treat yourself. There’s more about that in Katrina’s blog here.

Following our weekend of luxury, I admit to feeling like it was back to reality with a bump as we left the Trump and found a hostel in the old town, Casco Viejo. It’s a very pretty part of Panama City that in ways resembles bits of Havana. However, at the moment it’s … well … a bit of a building site.

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Despite the workers taking breaks to play football they’re pretty hard working as the noise goes on quite late and starts rather early. That said, you have to appreciate the effort to restoring buildings that are near to collapse and in time I’m sure it will be gracing the cover of the Sunday Times Travel section and so on.

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After all, how many other cities in the world can you see a Sunday afternoon baseball game on the beach?

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Throughout this trip, we’ve been rather laid back when it comes to planning ahead. This kind of showed when it came to looking for a boat to Colombia. Following a trip to the canal I was pretty convinced we’d be able to blag our voyage on a container ship. That turns out to have been a bit optimistic, though I still have hopes of doing so one day.

The way we finally decided on is by sail boat from the reputedly gorgeous San Blas islands for a few days followed by a 2 day open sea crossing to Colombia. The sea sickness pills have been purchased. By being slow to organise this, it left us with several days still in Panama City.

So what to do? Well I’ll be frank here, my clothes smell a bit and it’s really hot and humid. So we went to the mall. Blah blah blah – you’re not seeing the local culture etc. Well there’s lots of malls in this city so there.

One of the things that I liked the most (in my geeky business graduate way) was the targeted advertising many big brands had to their stores in the city. This one for Converse stood out to me as well as another for Hermes featuring an old Red Devil bus (sadly I didn’t have my camera for that one).

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Sadly a few months travelling has made me a cheapskate so half the items I actually bought in Panama City have come from Avenue Central and feel like they’ve fallen off the back of a passing container ship. For example, a $3 bright red digital watch. If it lasts 2 weeks I’ll be stunned.

The mall wasn’t a total waste however, we were able to bask in the gloriously over air conditioned cinema to see The Dictator. If you love crude comedy by Sasha Baron Cohen then I recommend you watch – a bargain here at just $2.50 each. Further, we got to go bowling at the world’s most slippery alley – well that’s my excuse anyway for not scoring over 104.

I’ll return to the more unique aspects of the city shall I? Well following a feeling of guilt from being lazy and gluttonous it seemed a little walk was in order. This took us to Parque Metropolitano on a swelteringly humid day. The park is more of a mini jungle in the middle of the city where there are deer, monkeys, sloths, 250 types of birds and so on. We saw a weird guinea pig type creature, a woodpecker, several butterflies and a grasshoppper (what can I say – I’m not David Attenborough).

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Despite our efforts are nature watching, we were rewarded with an amazing view of the city skyline. Though it seems from the picture I was more interested in the clouds.

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As if to enhance the point about Panama City’s skyline and the nearby Canal, we also went for a walk along the Causeway. A 3km long strip of land reclaimed from the ocean with material from digging out the canal. From here you are provided with another beautiful view of the skyscrapers as well as ships entering and exiting the canal.

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To cool off from wandering around Panama, street vendors have the perfect treat – Raspados. Similar to a snow cone, these cups of shaved ice are flavoured with fruit syrup then topped with condensed milk and/or honey. I’m addicted, so it’s fortunate they’re only 50 cents.

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Our final little exploration in Panama City wasn’t quite so successful. We thought we’d try something a little different a get a taxi up to a temple atop a hill on the outskirts of the city. Panama City is home the Latin American centre for a religion known as Baha’i (I hadn’t heard of it either).

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As you’ll see it’s a rather curious looking building shaped like an egg. Sadly this is as close as we got to the temple as we were told it was closed for renovation work. We did however get to watch a video that made us feel like we were back in Religious Education classes at school – we giggled inappropriately.

And that pretty much brings us to a close with Panama City, a beautiful city (albeit much of it still being built!) that I am sure in years to come will be an even bigger tourism and business destination.

I say Panama, you say Canal!

Before coming to Panama, all I really associated with the entire country was the canal. Now after being here for a couple of weeks of which I’ve spent time on the beach, diving with sharks off an island in the same underwater mountain range as the Galapagos and staying in Latin America’s tallest building for Katrina’s birthday. I now know the country has a lot more to it!

As they say – “when in Rome, do as the Romans” – well in Panama I followed the many tourists to Miraflores Locks close to Panama City to see this amazing 98 year old feat of engineering in action. It was incredible.

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I’m a big kid when it comes to these things. I’m fascinated by big stuff whether it’s buildings – like the Trump Tower I’d earlier be escorted to the top of – or planes, trains and automobiles type things. I wish I could have been an engineer but sadly I’m not really blessed with the mathematical nor scientific skills so it’s the consultants life for me!

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The incredible view from the top of the Trump Tower. The canal has been the catalyst for such huge development.

The canal itself spams the isthmus of the American continent at its narrowest point and is vital to world shipping – without it much of the world would find Chinese manufactured goods more expensive to come by while boats would take the more dangerous and costly trip around Cape Horn or by railway across the States.

As we arrived at the Locks which host a slightly pricey museum ($8 for full entry and $5 to just watch the boats pass through the locks) a ship almost as large as the canal can take was midway through its passage. The canal is actually being expanded to accommodate larger and more lucrative ships – 80% of Panamanians (I think) were in favour, nice to see democracy at work!

The Miraflores locks are the last set of 3 locks from the Atlantic to the Pacific side of the canal. The ship must descend by about 54ft to reach the bottom. I was in awe watching the ship process through. Locomotives are attached the the ship on either side, slowly keeping the vessel in line, something I hasn’t expected but cool to watch especially when they descend like a roller-coaster to meet the level of the ship.

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The spectacle of the boat passing through wasn’t just of interest to the tourists but it seemed much of the crew of the ship turned out to wave and watch as their office squeezed through tight walls of rock.

I’m equally fascinated by the whole organisation of the process. Ships often reserve their slot through the canal over a year in advance with the passage costing an average of $54k. A Disney cruise ship recently paid over $300k to pass through. From Panama City it is possible to see the ships queuing to make the passage. If you miss your slot, you’re I’m trouble. An empty tanker vessel once paid over $200k to skip a 90 ship (3-4 day) queue when typically the trip would have been 20 times less. FYI, the lowest fee paid for the trip through the canal was $0.36 in 1928 by Richard Halliburton, he swam.

C.15,000 ships per year use the canal and this is expected to triple following expansion works making the locks 60% wider and 40% longer. Even at the cost of $5.5bn it’s not a bad investment!

If you ever find yourself in Panama – I strongly recommend you see this.

Capture the Colour

Following my my last blog post I received an email from someone about a photo blog competition by Travel Supermarket called Capture the Colour. The idea is you post 5 pictures, each focusing on a particular colour – Blue, Green, Red, Yellow and White.

Here’s my selection from a variety of my travels.

Green – Lizard in Costa Rica.

This cute little fella was seen while canoeing in the waters around Tortuguero and featured in my my recent blog post. These lizards are known locally as Jesus Christ Lizards for their ability to run across the water. After taking this photo he made a speedy getaway across the plants!

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Blue – Love is in the Air in England.

Possibly my favourite photo taken in the UK during a ‘Staycation’ in 2010. While working for BAE Systems I scored some tickets to the Royal Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford. This incredible display by French version of the Red Arrows, the Patrouille de France, took my breath away. Taken on a (sometimes rare :P ) clear summers day!

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Red – Bruce Lee Warriors at the Shanghai Expo.

On a dull, grey, wet and smoggy Shanghai day during the 2010 World Expo these artistic statues depicting Bruce Lee as the Terracotta Warriors supporting iconic Chinese buildings brightening the gloom. I love art that mimics or references things. And after all, Red is the colour of China.

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Yellow – Belizean Sunset.

Another photo from my current Central and South America trip is this stunning sunset that welcomed my arrival in Dangriga, Belize. After a long and sweaty afternoon on buses it was a welcome relief to chill out with a cool Belikin Beer (“drink but don’t get drunk man”, said passing Belizeans on bycycles) and watch the light fade. A little stereotypical for Yellow, but sunsets are the best!

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White – Mini Romanian Snowman.

We all love making snowmen in the Winter right? I spotted this cute wee snowman on a short trip to Bucharest a couple of years ago. As I was walking down the avenue a little boy was killing time to make this on a bench while waiting for his mum in a shop. I snapped the photo just after he was dragged away home.

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As part of the contest I now need to nominate 5 other people to take part. So here goes.

Dollface Travel - Myself and Katrina get quite competitive about photography!

Hazell Eyes - I’m sure Hazell can come cup with some good ones of SE Asia.

The Adventures of a Dr - There’s been some amazing Latin American photos on his blog lately.

Chasing Horizons - I just love the photo on their home page.

Heather on her Travels - I’m sure Heather has a ton of cool photos and she gave one of my posts a nice mention here.

It’s amazing what you learn in less than 2 weeks

I didn’t decide to go travelling for a bit of a jolly. Though I admit lounging on tropical beaches and climbing volcanoes certainly isn’t without its charms!

Travel has its charms.

Part of the reason for choosing Latin America was to learn Spanish and it’s going relatively well. Less than 2 weeks ago my Spanish was pretty much limited to “Dos cervezas por favor” following spending time in English speaking Belize and the formerly British Bay Islands in Honduras. Now however, I’m relatively confident to attempt a conversation with local Guatemalans about last night’s match vs. the USA as well as the ongoing Euro 2012 tournament while getting a pretty decent hair cut this afternoon!

I’ve not been in the learning mode for a while, probably since University or a few CIMA exams until I decided accountancy wasn’t for me. I expected it to be tough to get back into the discipline of learning but it’s been relatively easy.

I’m currently in Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala, which is a bit of a hub for those wishing to learn Spanish. For $100 a week I’m receiving one on one tuition 8am to noon from Rolando at the Antigüeña Spanish Academy and I couldn’t make a better investment. I can now pretty much converse in the present (and some basic future) tense with a small Spanish vocabulary which is growing with time. By the end of the week I should be able to use the past tense as well.

Time to hit the books.

I’ve long been embarrassed that my foreign language skills have been limited to some basic French and a few words of Mandarin.Following my crash course in Español in Guatemala I’m not only feeling confident about the rest of my trip from here to Chile but also (fingers crossed) utilising what I’ve learnt in the future.

Gracias Guatemala, yo estoy aprendiendo mucho aquí!