Pucón and Bariloche: the Patagonia hiking adventure begins

This is the start of my Patagonia hiking adventure. Until this point I’ve felt like an authentic backpacker travelling around South America: getting an impression of the local culture, tasting the traditional food and learning about the history of each country. For the next month in Patagonia I feel like my trip will be more of a hiking adventure than a cultural one. Patagonia is very highly influenced by European settlers and in the ‘Lake District’ (where I am now) I feel like I’m staying in alpine resort – they cost almost as much too.

To continue a logical path for my trip, I’m travelling through Patagonia from north to south, exploring both the Chilean and Argentinean sides. Three weeks isn’t a ton of time to spend here and thankfully I’ve managed to find some competitively priced flights as days can be lost here catching buses between destinations. Still, I’ll be missing out a lot of really nice places to visit and go hiking. The best way to see Patagonia, I think, is to hire a car. It’s not cheap but you have the freedom to see a lot more of the area than you do if you are constricted to public transport. Hopefully at some point in the future I’ll be able to come back to do just that. But for now, I’ll just be doing a highlights of Patagonia or you could call it a best bits trip.

Pucón: luxury hot springs and solo hiking

Pucón was the first stop on my Patagonia adventure and, despite the difficulty of getting a bus ticket there before the Chilean Independence Day holiday, it was worth the wait. It’s a small to medium sized mountain town in the north of the Lake District which sits by the Villarrica lake and the spectacular snowcapped Villarrica volcano. The Lake District area in Patagonia is nothing like the Lake District of Cumbria in England. The rugged mountainous and volcanic countryside covered with a blanket of snow is so peaceful and natural; it looks like it aught to be taken from a remote ski holiday catalogue. People do come to ski and snowboard in Patagonia but much of the quality snow is back country skiing and a very difficult level.

One of the main attractions for adventure-seekers in Pucón is climbing the Villarrica volcano. But once again penalised by the national holiday, the hike wasn’t taking place during the two days while I was in town (just my luck). This was mostly a safety precaution to ensure drunk guides weren’t taking people up an active and potentially dangerous volcano but it was disappointing all the same.

On my first day, after a 12 hour night bus, I decided I would take the day to relax in the luxury hot springs situated an hour from the town. I know I’ve been to a lot of different hot springs on this trip but I’d been assured by the hostel staff that these were really worth it and I was keen to do something with the half day.

The Termas Geometricas are the nicest hot springs I have ever seen or could even imagine. The trip costed £37 (entry and transport included) and although this is a hefty price tag, especially for a backpacker budget, I am so glad it did it. The beautiful setting of the hot springs is a mountain crevice surrounded by a misty forest with lot of different waterfalls. There are 20 man-made steaming pools heated between 35 and 43 degrees centigrade, lined with slate tiles and cute little changing huts. There is also a cosy, modern lodge with an open fire and restaurant where I got a quick cheese and ham toastie. We had three hours to relax here and I made the most of this time by trying out five of the pools. I had planned to try out more but I got talking with a girl from the hostel and so ended up just relaxing.

After a lot of discussion with other travellers at the hostel the night before, I set off the next day to visit El Cañi Reserve and hike the trail. This would be my first solo hiking adventure and I was quite nervous of getting lost or being attacked by a puma. The park ranger at the entrance gave me a map and explained the route. Unfortunately it would be too cloudy to go up to the mirador (viewpoint) but I could go the rest of the way.

It’s meant to be a three to four hike to the top and it was certainly a steep walk for the first two hours. I was going slow and steady but listening to a travel podcast the whole way up (The World Wanderers – highly recommended) made time pass without me noticing. The views were good on the way up but I had a feeling without the clouds they would have been much more impressive.

After about two and a half hours I reached the snow and from this point on it was hard to tell where I was going or where I had come from. The white has a magical way of making everything else disappear; each of the trees looked so similar and I wasn’t even sure if I was walking uphill or down anymore. At three hours I saw my first other hiker, a 60-something American I later found out was called Kevin. He was on his way back from the furtherest point and told me there wasn’t far to go. It was kind of nice to know I wasn’t entirely alone – just in case I did get lost.

I continued to follow the path to the frozen lake and up to the bottom of the mirador where the footprints ended. By this point fog was setting in and I decided it wasn’t worth hanging about. I quickly ate the empanada I had brought in my backpack for lunch and started the return journey.

Not paying close attention to where I was walking, I managed to stumble onto a side trail at one point. It wasn’t until my boot fell through the snow leaving me with one leg buried to the hip and the other bent crouching above the snow that I realised I had gone the wrong way. Luckily this has happened a couple of times snowing before so I wasn’t scared, I just knew it would be wise to climb out of the whole as soon as possible.

Back on the main trail, I started to speed up my decent as it was starting to rain and I didn’t want to get stuck at the top of the mountain if the weather turned. Once I lost the snow, I started jogging my way down through the mud, now very damp and slippy. I caught up with Kevin and walked the rest of the way back with him. We were even lucky enough to catch a return bus after only 10 minutes of waiting. In total it took me six hours: four up and two down, so I was quite happy with that. The walk was challenging and peaceful – a great introduction to Patagonia.

This tree is as old as the dinosaurs and only survives in the snow
Bariloche: a waterfall, chocolate and hiking El Parque Municipal Llao Llao

My next day was spent catching two buses across to San Carlos de Bariloche in the Argentinean Lake District. Bariloche is a well-known stop on the Patagonia traveller route and a great starting place to hike from. It’s a medium sized city and loses some of the alpine charm in its bustling centre but I stayed in a wooden lodge-style hostel (41 Below) so it still felt outdoorsy and relaxing. In fact without realising it I had selected a vegan hostel. I don’t particularly believe in the idea of being a vegan but it was nice to stay somewhere that was at least trying to be eco-friendly and the other travellers were really friendly.

On my first day I joined a group from the hostel doing a short walk to some waterfalls nearby. This gave me a chance to experience the local buses system that uses contactless ‘sube’ cards which are very similar to Oyster cards in London. The walk wasn’t challenging but it was nice to chat to some new people and enjoy the countryside.


I spent the next day trying out the famous Bariloche chocolate in Rupa Nui, a chocolate shop version of Harrods. It had a very nice cafe which served delicious raspberry hot chocolates and they let me sit there for a few hours typing away to update this blog. This doesn’t sound like much for a whole day’s work but with the quality of the WiFi in Patagonia and a fair amount of travel planning to do, it took up most of my day.

Finally a full day of hiking came after this. I asked around the hostel about nice hikes and decided that the route in El Parque Municipal Llao Llao (pronounced like Jao Jao) would be a good circuit that is well-signposted and had the added bonus of no park fees. Well lucky it was well-signposted because I brought the wrong map and had no clue where I was going. I took a picture of the map in the window of the closed tourist office and used this as my guide for the whole route.

To be honest I’m not sure how long the route was in total and I wasn’t walking very fast, but it took me about five hours. It was a shame I’d forgotten to take lunch because there were loads of great picnic spots. Instead I ate the rest of my packet of biscuits and thought of the sandwich I would get from the bakery once back in town.

I started by walking through the forest to a clearing with some Arrayan trees which were sandy yellow colour that waved and wound in strange directions. These are special in Argentina and you can see why because they are quite unusual. After this the path continues on to the beach of the lake with a number of different viewpoints. The beautiful snowcapped mountains surrounding the lakes have a real sense of calm and the route for this hike brought you close to lots of the different peaks.



Towards the end of the circuit, the path leads off steeply to climb the Cerrito Llao Llao. It’s not a difficult path to climb and I was surprised that it was so quiet (I only saw two ladies on the hill) because the views were truly spectacular. You could see a long way across the Nahuel Huapl National Park and little islands were dotted across the lake like a sprinkling of floating trees. The green of the surrounding forests against the dark blue of the lake and the white of the snowy mountains was mesmerising and I’m not sure there is a better view of the area. Even without the sunshine, I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect sight.

From Bariloche I’m skipping out a chunk of Patagonia to fly to El Calafate and visit the world famous Los Glaciares National Park. Expect ice, ice and more ice for the next post!

Santiago and Valparaiso: a cultural explosion

Having spent a more than a week away from civilisation in the Bolivian salt flats and the Atacama desert, arriving in Santiago and later moving to Valparaiso felt like a cultural explosion I hadn’t experienced so far in my trip. I had intended to only spend a day or two in Valparaiso but due to the Chilean Independence Day celebrations, I was unable to buy an earlier bus ticket so ended up staying four days in total. Instead of writing about the eight days in full, I’ll focus on the highlights and similarities between these two colourful cities side by side.

History and politics

My second day in Santiago was marked by a well-known turning point in Chile’s history. September 11th has a different meaning for most western countries, but for Chile this is the day that marks the beginning of the military coup and the Pinochet dictatorship in which 50,000 people went missing or were exiled from their country. I had read about the history of Chile in my LP Bible (Lonely Planet guidebook) and so I knew the basics of the history but visiting the huge cemetery of Santiago (the size of 200 football pitches) and taking a historical walking tour on this special day brought extra significance to this history.

Chile was torn between communist and socialist ideas, and a capitalist economic approach led by the military. I found it very interesting to hear the different sides of the argument. In Valparaiso I met the son of the butler to Pinochet (the dictator and president of Chile) and he told us another side to the story; how in private he had been a good man. The country is clearly still divided and although not a nice topic to discuss, Chileans are happy share their opinions on this controversial chapter in their history.

On my last day in Santiago I visited the Human Rights Museum which explains the violations the Junta (the military group in charge during the dictatorship) committed including torturing, abduction and imprisonment. Many thousands of people who went missing from Chile at this time have never been found. This museum is a must-see in my opinion and despite most of the exhibits being in Spanish, the free audio guide does a great job of documenting the turbulent period.

Architecture

I am no expert in architecture, in fact I know very little about it but it does interest me and it’s always one of the first things I notice about a new place. The architecture of these two cities is very different but still striking. I preferred the variety of Santiago to the famous colourful and distinct buildings of Valparaiso. In Santiago you can walk down a street and see 10 different styles of buildings all lined up next to one another, modern glass structures followed by colonial designs followed by ugly concrete flats.

The same goes for Santiago’s beautiful and eerie cemetery. I only spent a short time walking around this quiet and peaceful place but the differences between each tomb and memorial was fascinating. To begin with I felt very uncomfortable walking around and I didn’t want to be considered disrespectful to the mourners by taking hundreds of pictures. It was very easy to get lost in the maze of graves and memorials but this was part of the beauty and I left feeling that this seemed like a nice place to rest.

The architecture in Valparaiso throws a stark contrast on the colonial and sophisticated architecture of Santiago. The typical buildings are covered with corrugated metal sheets like you would expect to see used for make-shift roofs. The style is now protected by UNESCO and considered distinct to the city’s culture.

Valparaiso is a sprawling city build across more than 20 cerros (hills) and many have old elevators that you can ride to the top (only 5 are still in action). Made famous and rich as an important sea port for those on their way from Europe to California for the gold rush, Valparaiso is now quite a poor city struggling to recover from economic difficulties. The plan or flat area of the city by the port retains some of the early colonial buildings used during these stopovers and their antiquity is out of place now in comparison to the ‘modern’ bright and colourful residences.

Graffiti and art culture

Art and graffiti are the most striking aspects of Chilean culture in these cities. This is perfect for me as I’d always choose an art museum over a science or history museum.

It’s almost impossible to avoid the art and it’s importance in Chile; graffiti and murals cover most large walls and available spaces. In Santiago I stayed in Barrio Bellavista, the new bohemian area of the city with graffiti on every street surrounding the hostel. You only have to walk to the metro to see countless pieces and different styles. I had intended to search out more graffiti in Barrio Brasil but ran out of time as it was across town from my hostel. But even without trying I saw a lot of great artwork and whetted my appetite for Valparaiso.

Valparaiso is famous for its graffiti and it rivals Bogota for its frequency when walking around the city. Almost every building and wall has some from of graffiti, from tagging to huge, world famous murals. It’s embraced by the city and used by many businesses as a way to attract attention and increase tourism. I went on another graffiti tour here and I was lucky enough to get a solo tour as no one else signed up that day. I don’t think the tour was as informative as the one in Bogota but it was still very interesting as the guide was an artist himself so he was able to explain some techniques and styles with a lot of detail. I’d definitely recommend this over some of the other walking tours and you get a lot more graffiti-specific information and context.








In both cities I visited art museums or exhibitions – there were more that I wanted to see in Santiago but I ran out of time. On Monday all museums are closed in basically all of South America (very annoying for tourists) but luckily an Andy Warhol exhibition was open and free before 12pm. I’m not extremely knowledgable on Andy Warhol but I know his style and could name some of his works before entering the exhibition. Although most of the signs were in Spanish, I learnt quite a bit from the few English signs and the development of his work over time. His use of colour is so popular and this especially appealed to me.




I also visited the Museo de la Moda in Santiago which, although in the guidebook, was very quiet, almost deserted, and not the easiest to get to. This was a fantastic museum held in a house that a stylish family used to own. The museum was a mix of an exhibition from a Chilean designer, a showcase of the house as it was originally decorated and an exhibition of Princess Diana’s most famous dresses, including her replica wedding dress from Madame Tussauds in London. I loved this museum and I felt like I had uncovered a treasure many tourists don’t get to see. Perhaps it was because I felt like I had the museum to myself, but this was one of my highlights of Santiago. In the entrance hall there is a wall covered in video tapes and this really struck me as an innovative design idea – I’d love to try to recreate this in my own home.



In Valparaiso, with my extra, unplanned time, I visited the Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes held in the Palacio Baburizza. I had been told on a walking tour that the museum’s collection was formed by the second owner of the palace who had brought back art from Europe after each of his business trips and holidays. The museum has a large collection of impressionist and 20th century art which, although not mostly famous, is still very impressive. This museum was right up my street and I could have probably gone around twice the pieces were so good. Thankfully I was allowed to take lots of pictures though so I’ll be able to keep a good memory of them.




I did also visit the Noble Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda’s house, La Sebastiana, but unfortunately I had a screaming child following me around the whole time who ruined the experience for me. It is quite small and very expensive to visit, and although it’s well-known, I don’t think it’s worth seeing. Perhaps save it for a rainy day.

The culture of both of these cities made the extended period of time I spent between them worth it and if I had more time and money, I would have liked to have seen more of Santiago. I could see myself returning here in the future, perhaps to study or just to explore the city more. It’s metropolitan and yet the snowcapped mountains and city parks give you more than enough space to escape.

A good thing I’ve had my fill of culture as for the next month of travel I’ll be in the countryside exploring Patagonia!

Atacama de San Pedro: desert adventures take two

My trip across the Bolivian salt flats and lagoons led me to the border of northern Chile, just a short distance from Atacama de San Pedro – the driest desert in the world. Having been in the desert in Peru a few weeks before and really enjoyed my time there, I was looking forward to the warmer climate and obscure landscapes. I didn’t get off to the best of the starts after finding I had booked the wrong dates for my hostel and so was made to pay for the night before my stay as well as three more nights (in the most expensive town of my trip so far). But the hostel was at least a nice place with an eclectic style and friendly staff. More bad news came when I was told that the full moon was making it too bright to do the popular stargazing tour throughout the entirety of my stay. Bummer.

Except for Chile turning out to be a very expensive country, this was the end of the bad news. My hostel had heaps of information on day trips and expeditions you could do from the town and fortunately some of them were half day trips so I could pack quite a lot into my three and a half days. The first thing to note is the food is much better in Chile than Bolivia (and more expensive) and I ate really well the whole time I was in the desert – lasagna, pizza and a BBQ. It’s funny how in remote places like the desert you can easily find some delicious food but in big cities like La Paz it’s really difficult.

Valley de la Luna

In the afternoon of my first day in the Atacama desert, I signed up to do the Valley de la Luna tour (it was highly recommended by the hostel and also the cheapest). If you’ve been following along closely you’ll know I have already visited a place with the same name in La Paz. I was assured that it was very different and that’s certainly what it was. The Valley de la Luna (Moon Valley) in the Atacama is a magnificent range of rock formations and sand dunes surrounded by so many different mountain ranges. With the guide, we hiked up the ridge of one of the rock formations and walked along the top surveying the amazing panoramic views. It felt like a scene out of The Martian, if you haven’t seen the movie it’s about a man who gets trapped on Mars, with the deep orange-red sands and the desolate landscape all the time framed by endless mountains. I think they should rename it the Mars Valley.




We also visited the Three Maria’s, a famous rock formation that looks like three Mary’s praying to God. It’s surrounded by a strange area of the national park which looks like it’s been dusted with snow, but it’s actually salt formations. After that we visited a canyon where you can hear the salt stalactites being formed, like a ticking or crunching sound, by the thermic energy from the volcanoes nearby.


The day finished with a stop at the Piedra Del Coyote lookout point to watch the sunset. I’ve watched more sunsets in this trip than I have in my whole life and some have been nothing too special but this wasn’t one of them. The pinks and peaches thrown across the horizon in the shadows on the mountains and volcanoes surrounding the canyon were beautiful and the perfect way to finish my first day in Chile.

Sandboarding take two

The next day I was up early, ready to tackle my nemesis from Huacachina, the illusive sandboarding. Yes, I signed up to have another go at the activity I had least enjoyed in Peru, not because it wasn’t fun but because we weren’t given a proper chance to try it out. I was determined not only to have another go, but to master it. In San Pedro you don’t have a buggy ride included in the package, just an instructor, a helmet, proper boots and an actual snowboard/sandboard. This was exactly what I wanted. To safely learn how to actually sandboard.

You are driven to a place called ‘Death Valley’ (very reassuring) and helped to choose a board and learn how to mount it. You’re then made to climb the sand dune with your board in hand – this was the only bit I didn’t like. Once you finally reach the top, the instructor explained some basic techniques and then one at a time you take your first ride (or slide in most cases) down the sand dune.

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Although a little tentative at first, I soon got the hang of it and people were even beginning to ask me if I had been snowboarding before! I got more and more adventurous, going from steeper and steeper parts of the sand dune. I was disappointed to be coming to the end of the session all too soon (time flies and all that) and tried to really enjoy my last go down the dune. Relaxing just a little too much near the bottom I had a massive wipe out that later caused me a lot of neck pain – thank God for the helmet! I think it’s fair to say that sandboarding take two was much more successful, despite the big crash at the end.

Hot springs

In the afternoon I had booked to go to the hot springs which was definitely necessary after repeatedly walking up the sand dune and crashing at sandboarding. The hot springs were in a really nice location, in the bottom of a volcanic valley, and they had several different pools you could try out. Unfortunately at this time of year they weren’t very hot and the cold wind outside the pool meant I ended up staying in the same one for the whole time (nearly two hours – I was very wrinkly at the end). It was kind of like being in a wam natural swimming pool, very relaxing but not like the hot tub I was expecting and hoping for. Still I enjoying floating about there and I was glad of the excuse to do nothing else.

Piedras Rojas

The next day I was up early again for a full day trip to see the Piedras Rojas (Red Stones) which also included seeing some other landscapes such as more lagoons, salt flats and mountains. You’d think I’d had enough of seeing them but the hostel staff had also really recommended this tour so, after seeing some pictures, I booked it too. It was quite a long day trip starting with smelly, sulphurous salt flats before breakfast which looked completely different to Bolivia’s. They were dark in colour and if I remember correctly formed by the volcanic matter instead of an evaporated sea like Bolivia’s.

Next we drove on to a lagoon that had snow around its edges. It was extremely windy which meant that the water’s surface that was normal like a mirror was rippling instead of reflecting. It was a very light blue in colour but still pretty to see even when it wasn’t at its best.


On to the main attraction, next we went to the red stones lagoon. This was without a doubt the best lagoon I have ever seen. The water was a bright blue with touches of turquoise in the light. It was actually a salt water lagoon so that’s why it was so blue and the crusty salt shore formed amazing crystals. The red stones themselves were great but not as fantastic as the pictures I had seen. Apparently this is not the best time of the year to see them. I mean, they were red, but also a bit salty and dusty. The mountains that were the backdrop to the beautiful lagoon and red stones were amazing too. They looked like they were taken straight from a chalk drawing, with smooth lines that faded into nothingness. If you imagine the most ragged rocks imaginable, then these were the complete opposite. It was worth the whole day trip, just to see the mountains almost.




After this is was finally lunch time in a local village and we were shown how the local community uses cactus wood for building – I didn’t even know there was wood inside a cactus!

There is so much more to see in San Pedro de Atacama but as it was so expensive, I couldn’t afford (time or money wise) to stay there any longer. Next stop, big city time in Santiago and Valparaiso!

The epic Salar de Uyuni: Bolivia’s world famous salt flats

For the entirety of my trip, even during my planning before I left the UK, I’ve been excited about going to the epic Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats and Bolivia’s most popular tourist attraction. Just from searching the name on Google images you can see how awe-inspiring the landscape is. I’d been quizzing each traveller I’d met who had already been there on what it’s like and which tour company they went with to make sure I had a truly amazing experience when I reached the salt flats myself.

Getting to Uyuni and choosing a tour company

Catching a bus from Sucre was the start of my adventure to Uyuni. Bolivia has a national holiday which basically translates as ‘no cars day’ – due to high pollution levels, one day a year there are no cars, buses and lorries on the roads in all the towns and cities across the country for 24 hours. This day was planned for a Sunday that I had intended to use to travel so I was forced into getting a night bus the Saturday before. I was on the second bus leaving Sucre at 8:30pm and was lucky that my bus was practically empty, giving me two seats to spread out on. I had expected the journey to take about 10 hours, arriving around 6:30am so it wouldn’t be worth booking a hostel for the night. I fell asleep without much problem and hardly realised when we’d stopped around 4am. I assumed this was a toilet stop as we didn’t have one on the bus, little did I know we had already arrived in Uyuni and I needed to vacate the bus asap. I wandered around in the freezing cold ghost town wearing thin cotton trousers and flip flops thanking God I’d downloaded a map and had my Lonely Planet bible on hand to find a hostel nearby.

After lying in until just before 10am, I ate the hostel breakfast and made some plans for finding the right tour provider to suit my needs. Uyuni is a very small town in the desert where most tours of the salt flats start from and consists of hostels, restaurants and hundreds of tour operators all offering variations on the same trip. So I did some research and made a list of my requirements.

I was looking for:

  • A 4 days trip
  • An English speaking guide
  • A transfer to Chile included or available as an optional extra
  • A sleeping bag included or available to hire
  • A company with good reviews and reputation

With the help of the LP bible and TripAdvisor I set out with a list of four operators to talk to, but seeing and it as a Sunday and a national holiday, this was harder than I thought it would be. My first stop, Cordillera Traveller, had a charismatic sales attendant and a good price (1220 bs) but no English speaking guides available so I unfortunately had to rule them out early on. Next I spoke to Red Planet, a high-end tour operator. They only did 3 day trips but had everything else on my list for 1450 bs. Next up on my list were Esmeralda Tours but their office was closed all day so I couldn’t get a quote from them in time to compare them with the rest. Finally, Salty Desert Aventures, number 1 on TripAdvisor, offered the same as Red Planet for 1250 bs. I wasn’t as convinced by their sales advisor but the reviews were really strong so I decided after comparing them with Red Planet to go with them. This took up most of the day and wasn’t an easy choice but I hoped I had made the right one.

Day 1 – The salt flats

The trip started at 10:30am the next day when I met my group for the next 3 days who I’d be sharing a jam-packed Toyota Land Cruiser with. My group was made up of a Belgium couple, a French girl and a British guy – we were all aged between 21 and 26 years old. Thankfully they turned out to be a great bunch of people and we all got on really well, mostly bonding through our dislike of the tour guide. This was probably the only negative of the trip for me – our guide was an idiot – but at least it kept us laughing for most of the trip and we had a great driver so we could fact check his information at least.


The route for the tour is pretty standard and you soon realise that all the cars go the same way and stop off at the same places for the majority of the three days. The first stop is a train graveyard which was really interesting to walk around and people were climbing on top of rusty trains in all directions. We only spent a short time here before driving to Colchani where the local community manufactures salt from the salt flats. We were briefly explained how the process works and watched a local man package salt. I would have liked to know more about this but the manufacturing isn’t done on a industrial level so perhaps there wasn’t that much more to know.

After lunch in Colchani, we headed off to see the salt flats themselves. I was so excited to finally see them after months of anticipation and they did not disappoint. It’s dry season in the salt flats at the moment so we could see the amazing polygon shapes formed by the salt crystals and had ample opportunities to take lots of fun perspective pictures. I could have spent hours taking pictures here and not gotten bored of looking of the amazing salt planes. I can’t describe how truly spectacular they were but hopefully some of the pictures managed to capture their magic.



Next we went to Incahuasi Island which I would rename cactus island because it was covered in hundreds giant cacti – apparently they grow 1-2cm a year so they must have been hundreds of years old. The salt flats are caused by the evaporation of what would have been a sea within Bolivia so although not technically an island now, Incahuasi is surrounded by the salt flats like an island. We had plenty of time here to enjoy the amazing views, take pictures and relax in the warm weather before heading off to take sunset pictures on the salt flats. 

Although it was cloudy, I took some great pictures here and I was sad to leave the salt flats so soon; the day had felt like a matter of seconds for me. Too soon we drove out of the salt flats and onto our accommodation for the first night, a hotel made out of salt with salt bricks and a crumbly, salty floor.




Day 2 – Lagoons, flamingos and the desert

The next day we were back into the car and off driving south, away from the salt flats and towards Chile. I was disappointed to only get one day, basically half a day, in the salt flats but that’s just how it is unless you book a bespoke tour and I don’t think I would have enjoyed this on my own.


Now we were driving through high-altitude desert to lagoon after lagoon and rock formation after rock formation. The scenery was really impressive and like nothing I’d seen before on my trip or in my life. Although it did feel repetitive, they were all as amazing to see as the last and the novelty didn’t really wear off as they all had their own distinct differences. If I’m honest I can’t remember the names of all the lagoons but looking online, I think, we went to Laguna Cañapa first and saw loads of flamingos which we were able to get really close to. The lagoon was highly reflective and I could take some beautiful pictures of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes. At this point I wished I had my proper camera with me. Next we went to Laguna Hedionda (I think) which was similar but a much lighter colour of water so the reflection was different and the lagoon was larger. We had lunch here and the views were so tranquil that I almost forgot about missing the salt flats.


More lagoons followed after lunch with Laguna Honda up first and this was an even paler blue lagoon. The light sandy coloured shores made the lagoon look different to the previous two and I think this one was close to my favourite, despite or because of the lack of flamingos, I can’t decide.

Next was a quick stop at the Rock Tree, basically some rocks in the Desert of Siloli that look like a tree, but I thought the bigger rocks formations were more impressive.

Then we went onto the Laguna Colorada or Red Lagoon (much more helpfully named) and spent an hour walking around the large lagoon in the strong wind. The red colour is caused by the high concentration of red algae and sediments. It was distinctly different to the other lagoons and the offset of red with the surrounding yellow-green shrubs bordering the lagoon made the colour stand out beautifully.


The last stop before our accommodation was the Sol de Mañana Geysers. I’ve never seen geysers before and despite their being quite small, they were still quite impressive. We were free to walk around them however we pleased and I was quite nervous of tripping and falling into one. It was around this point that I realised I’d broken my Kindle, a generous donation from my brother for the trip. I was gutted but it is as least seven years old and had made it all the way around Russia and Asia, and now most of South America so it’s had a good life. Near our accommodation there were hot springs which we went to at night in the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen. This soothed the loss and my aching knees from being cramped in a car boot for two days.

Day 3 – One more lagoon then onto Chile

On the last day, which turned out to be a couple of hours really when you’re getting a transfer to Chile included in the trip, we went to see the Dali desert, named after Salvador Dali. The barren landscape was quite beautiful so I can see why people thought it had inspired his work. Our final lagoon and my final stop before heading across the border to Chile was the Green Lagoon, only it wasn’t green. It was pretty but apparently there needs to be a wind creating a current to see the green colour and the colouring more obvious between 11am and 3pm, not 9am when we visited.

It was just a short trip to the border after this, where I said goodbye to my fellow travellers and joined a bus to the Chilean border. I gave my remaining Bolivianos to the driver instead of the guide – he deserved them more – and waved goodbye to Bolivia, five days ahead of schedule.

Was the salt flats all it cracked up to be? (Excuse the pun)

In my eyes yes it was, and more. I hadn’t expected to see all the lagoons, flamingos, volcanoes, deserts and geysers, as well as the amazing salty landscape. I’d like to go back in the future with my family to see the salt flats in more detail for a couple of days and learn more about the origin, formation and composition. But at least I’ve left something to come back for. Now onto my last three countries of South America: Chile, Argentina and Brazil – the most expensive places on my list!

Sucre: the real capital of Bolivia

Before coming to Bolivia I had never even heard of Sucre. I thought La Paz was the undisputed capital of Bolivia and when I heard people talking about the city I thought it must just be another popular place tourists visited. I decided to add it to my itinerary just because of that and I choose a hostel from Hostelworld without much thought. I even managed to fly there because the last minute flights were so cheap. Little did I know that Sucre would turn out to be my favourite city in the country and one of my favourite cities from my entire trip so far. 

When I look back on my time in the charming city, it’s hard to pinpoint what it was I enjoyed so much about it – I only visited one museum in the five days I was there, the food wasn’t anything special to talk about, I didn’t do any exciting day trips and even the walking tour I paid for wasn’t that good. What I really liked about Sucre was the relaxed, sunny atmosphere and the heritage of the city reflected in the architecture. Although not a huge city centre, it had a calm and welcoming feeling that you’d expect to find in a European city. The people are used to having tourists wandering around and our activities don’t disturb their daily lives. I felt perfectly safe strolling around the city, sitting about in parks reading on my Kindle, getting juice in the market and catching the local buses (they only cost 15p!).


The one museum I did visit, Casa de la Libertad, was really interested and taught me loads about the history of Bolivia. The guide spoke perfect English and shared a lot of information that I hadn’t been able to find elsewhere in the country. Sucre holds the oldest university in South America, dating back to the 1600s. The city used to be the capital until a civil war with La Paz; it lost and subsequently lost it’s power too. The city still retains the national Supreme Court – the judicial centre of the country but the political power and the president’s palace moved to La Paz. The museum also holds one of two original Argentinean flags from its creation. The guide also explained about the many international wars Bolivia has had with this neighbours, Peru, Chile, Brazil and Paraguay, losing all and shrinking land mass considerably over time. The history of the country has interested me throughout my stay in Bolivia and Sucre was the answer to a lot of questions I’d had.


The hostel I stayed in also made my stay in Sucre relaxing and helped me to get over the illness and fatigue I’d picked up recently. Villa Oropeza Guesthouse really felt like a villa instead of a hostel, the staff were helpful and friendly, the rooms were nice and clean, the WiFi was strong (especially for Bolivia) and the bunk beds even had curtains for privacy. Most of all it was easily affordable at £5 a night. Finding a nice hostel is definitely an art and although I’d like to stay somewhere sociable, I’ve decided I like quiet, sophisticated hostels too.

Sucre is definitely a place I would recommend visiting and there’s possibilities to do a lot more with treks starting here to some great scenery nearby – unfortunately there weren’t any groups going on the day I signed up so I had to move on to the next stop on my trip. But getting ahead of the schedule leaves me more time for Patagonia so I’m happy about that.

10 best things to do in La Paz (and the surrounding area)

I spent four days in La Paz, the political capital of Bolivia. I had expected something quite different from La Paz but now that I’ve been there I can’t quite describe what that was. It’s not a metropolis like Lima and it doesn’t have the architecture of Quito. I’d probably say it’s closest to Bogota but without the economic development. Maybe a mix of Quito and Bogota. If I’m honest, I was probably a little disappointed by La Paz, although it was still interesting and unique in its own way.
Here’s my highlights of the best things I did while in La Paz:

1. Visit Chacaltaya and walk to the top – Okay so this first one isn’t technically in La Paz city centre but it’s on the outskirts and was part of a day trip I did from the city. It’s one of the impressive snowcapped mountains in the Cordillera Real range nearby. The minibus drives you almost to the top, passed colourful lagoons and wild flamingos. Then you have a short walk to the summit for amazing panoramic views. The glacier is melting there because of global warming but apparently people do still ski there – it used to be the world’s highest altitude ski area.

2. Go to the witches markets – La Paz is famous for it’s witches markets which sounds quite spooky – I had imaged dark shops with women in black robes and pointy hats. Other than the dead, dried baby llamas, it wasn’t too gross. It’s mostly filled with “potions” to help you with any problems you might be having from love life to cancer. There is an interesting tradition of hang your wishes from a little statue of a local man and burn a cigarette from his mouth to bring good fortune.

3. Watch the Cholitas wrestling – although the Cholitas wrestling is completely touristy and staged, it’s still really funny to watch. The local women who dress in the traditional outfits are called Cholitas. The outfits include big skirts, two plaits and a black hat – not exactly the best fighting attire. But the made-up arguments and difficult stunts make for an exciting viewing experience and a fun yet cold evening out.

4. Stay at the Wild Rover for a night – The Wild Rover is a popular, Irish, party hostel. I’d recommend staying here for at least one night because it’s really sociable and busy. I met lots of nice people here and watching the boxing match with an Irish fighter in an Irish hostel had a great atmosphere.


5. Get a smoothie in the market and ask for yupa – I love smoothies and in the markets here (and in most of Bolivia) you can ask for any combinations you want – my favourite is strawberry, blackberry and pineapple. Once you’ve drank about half, you can ask for your yupa which basically means extra smoothie for free! They are so fresh and cheap, I went a couple of times.

6. Ride on the cable cart – La Paz has four different lines of cable cart and they are considered public transport across the city. The cable cart isn’t anything too special but it gives you good view of the downtown and the line I took (orange or red – I can’t remember) goes over the city’s huge cemetery.

7. Go to El Alto and see just how big the market is – El Alto is a large district in La Paz and considered by the local people a city in its own right. It has a huge market which runs everyday across the whole area with thousands of stalls – you can find everything here from car parts to hiking gear. A lot of the products are second hand or imitations but that’s not important to the local people who need low prices.

8. Search for interesting graffiti – I saw a lot of great artwork and graffiti in the city and I would have really liked to have done a graffiti walking tour here if there had been one like Bogota. You get the impression they have the same tactics to cover large walls with commissioned work to improve the environment rather than having lots of tagging. Look out for some of the creative artwork here, ot’s really high quality in places.

9. Go to the Valley del Luna – I also visited the ‘Moon Valley’ as part of the day drip with Chacaltaya. It’s located in the south of the city and it surrounded by loads of deep red and yellow mountains. The rock formations are really interesting to see and walk around. They’re made of clay and caused by erosion of the softer sand over time.

10. Ride on the old local bus – They have some funky looking local buses which are the oldest and cheapest type of local transport in the city. You can hop on and off at any time and flag them down on the street without being at a bus stop. They look a bit like jazzed-up American school buses from the 80s but they’re a fun ride if you know where you’re going.

Mesmerising Lake Titicaca and crazy border hopping

Lake Titicaca is famous for being the world’s highest altitude lake (3,812m) but once you visit, you soon realise there’s much more than just a lack of oxygen to make you breathless. Luckily for me, I was still mostly on schedule with my route so I could visit both the Peruvian and Bolivian sides of the lake – oddly the border crosses the middle of the lake, cutting it in half. I started out in Puno on the Peruvian side with a day trip offered by my hostel before heading across the border to Copacabana (not to be confused with the popular beach in Brazil – a momentary lapse of brain power).

The day trip from Puno included a boat trip to the Uros islands – famous as the floating islands with over 2,500 indigenous people still living there – and Taquile island. Having scrimped on a cheap bus to Puno (20 soles for 10 hours) I was able to cover the cost of the whole day trip in the price it would have cost to by a tourist bus ticket (80 soles). This made me quite smug, like a proper traveller rather than a tourist. However, the island trip definitely makes you feel like a tourist.

The Uros Islands

The Uros islands are becoming less authentic as time passes and their main income becomes tourism. I had been warned by my trusty Lonely Planet bible that some travellers don’t enjoy the commercialisation of these islands and I have to agree with that – although it was still a truly interesting experience to visit the islands. All the women are dressed in bright, traditional clothes and welcome you to the islands with waves and singing. After a brief look around you’re given the option of a short boat ride in a traditional boat made of totora reeds powered by hand. This is probably just another way for them to gain a bit of extra cash as it’s hard to believe the locals actually still use these but it was still nice – when it only costs about £2.20 it’s hard to turn it down.

After the boat ride you go back to your island and are given a short talk by the tour guide and island president on how the islands are built and maintained. This was probably the most interesting part of the visit for me. The base is constructed from blocks of roots from the totora reed plants – also used to create the homes and boats. The blocks are tied together using large bamboo rods that are stuck through the blocks. On top of this they lay many layers of the reeds in opposite directions which are replaced every 15 days. When you walk about on the islands they feel spongey and kind of wobbly – definitely not like any other islands I’ve been to before.

It was interesting to learn how the Uru have lived on these floating islands since the Incas invaded their lands but the historical important of these islands is steadily flushing away. It’s hard to see how fixated these communities are by monetary opportunities and in part I did feel guilty for contributing to this.

Taquile

Next we hopped back onto the boat and went to see Taquile, one of the northern islands of Lake Titicaca (not a floating island, just a normal island). This island gives you a much more comfortable feeling about the tourism here. It a naturally beautiful place and the terraces and stone archways add to this. The clear blue waters and bright blue sky trap the dusty yellow and green island in the horizon. Other than a small square and crumbling church, there isn’t much to see other than the stunning views. We had a traditional lunch on the island and learnt about the local weaving and marriage customs.



Copacabana and Isla del Sol

The next day I was up early to take a short bus journey across the border to Copacabana on the Bolivian side of the lake. This border crossing was my quickest so far, taking less than half an hour in total. Copacabana is the main Bolivian town to visit the lake from and boats depart for the Isla del Sol twice daily. Most travellers skip Copacabana entirely, heading straight for the island and then straight to La Paz when they return. Although this wasn’t my original plan, it did turn out to be what I ended up doing – other than stopping for lunch at a nice gringo cafe called La Choza.

The Isla del Sol welcomes you with a very steep climb up the restored Inca stairway. With my main backpack and day pack it was quite a climb but since the north of the island was closed due to protests, I wasn’t in too much of a rush (most of the interesting ruins are in the north). I wondered around for a while looking for a hostel (Hostelworld is a real let down here so I pitched up without accommodation). The hill is filled with hostels and hotels though, in fact this is basically all there is on the island, except for restaurants. I put my Spanish to the test finding a room for one at a reasonable price but managed to find a nice double room for £6 a night – probably more luck than skill.


I walked to the viewpoint at the top of the island for the beautiful sunset and somehow didn’t find the altitude all that hard – maybe I am getting used to it. I met some Aussies also enjoying the sunset who had just finished ski seasons at Whistler in Canada which was great for me as that’s where I’m hoping to go in November. So I bombarded them with lots of question while we waited for the sun to go down. The stunning views were some of the best I’ve seen and the weather was clear so you could see across to the snowcapped mountains near La Paz and probably back to Peru if I knew where to look. On the way back to my hostel I was also lucky enough to see the stars as clear as I had in Colca Canyon too.

Crazy border hopping

In the end I only stayed on the island for one night and arrived back in Copacabana by midday. I went back to the same cafe for lunch and bought a bus ticket to La Paz. This is where the madness started. The road to La Paz was blocked by protesters so the simple three to four hour journey turned into a five to six hour journey, including driving back to Peru, around the lake and then back into Bolivia. Well, I’d only been in Bolivia for about 20 hours by this point so it felt weird to know I was going back to Peru so soon. Very luckily for me, being British means I don’t have to pay for a visa or entrance fees so other than three times the paper work, it didn’t cause me too many issues. But for the South Africans on the bus this was a nightmare as they’d have to pay again to enter Bolivia, and it’s not cheap for them.

I was very glad that the Puno border is so easy to cross because I would not have wanted to queue for hours to get back into Peru and then back into Bolivia. There was once hairy moment getting out of Peru the second time where the immigration officer wasn’t happy with my passport – probably because I had so many stamps for the same border in the space of two days. But after 10 minutes of awkward waiting around, he decided it was fine so I ran off with my stamp and bags to Bolivia before he could change his mind. Now I have two pages in my passport dedicated to this crazy border hopping experience but at least it’s a relatively new passport so there’s still lots of space for the adventures still to come!

Understated Arequipa and great Colca Canyon

My whistle-stop tour of Peru continued with Arequipa and Colca Canyon in the south of the country.

Arequipa

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Often overlooked by Cusco, Arequipa is a world heritage city and Peru’s second largest. There is some stunning European-style architecture (especially the arched main square and cathedral) and even more impressive surrounding views of snow capped volcanoes and mountain ranges. I only had one full day to spend in the city before starting the standard backpacker Colca Canyon trek, so I tried to pack as much as possible into my one day – despite only having four hours sleep because of bus delays the night before.

The day didn’t begin so well with me losing my walking tour group within 15 minutes of starting the tour. I was pretty miffed by this after I had made it clear to the guide I was popping to the bathroom quickly and I spent the next hour or so wandering aimlessly around the city. This actually turned out to be quite a good thing though because it meant I got my bearings of the city quite quickly.

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With this “free time” in the morning that I had set aside for the walking tour, I went to the main local market and it was huge! They have everything you could possibly want there: all types of meat, fruit, vegetables, spices, everything. My favourite was the juice isle though, you can request any combination of juice (I had pineapple, orange and strawberry – amazing). Although South America has an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, they’re not often used in restaurants and local cooking so I welcomed this boost of vitamins and minerals.

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After drinking this in the main square – another beautiful, palm treed plaza – I visited the cathedral. It’s 10 soles for the tour (plus tips) and includes a guided tour of the main cathedral, museum and an opportunity to see the view from the roof of the cathedral across to the famous Misti volcano.

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This was a really impressive church, one of the best I’ve seen in Peru and the tour guide was extremely clear and informative – I almost felt glad I’d lost the walking tour after this. As the only English-speaking member of the group, she translated each part of the tour and explained a lot of the religious meanings for me. A special part of the tour was seeing the famous organ which has over 1,000 pipes and is the only one of it’s kind in the whole of South America (in fact only 10 were ever made).

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Next I went for a lunch at a place made for me, the Pasta Canteen. They serve affordable, yummy, fresh pasta where you can choose the type, sauce and toppings – definitely recommend.

In the afternoon my enthusiasm and energy levels were really beginning to deteriorate. By chance I stumbled across the Museo Santuarios Andinos and having read about it in my Lonely Planet guidebook decided I would visit this before heading back to the hostel for a well-earned nap. And I’m so glad I did. It is famous because the museum holds the refrigerated body of Juanita or the Lady of the Mountain who is one of the best preserved sacrifices ever discovered – she still has hair, flesh, muscles and blood. (Sadly no pictures are allowed but I’m not sure I want a dead body on here anyway.) It was really interesting learning about the history and ritual of the Inca human sacrifice – the honour of being selected and their journey from selection age, around four years old. This museum is 20 soles (plus tips) and in my opinion better than going to the monasteries for 50 soles – but as I didn’t want to pay that much I can honestly say.

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I would have liked to spend an extra day in Arequipa but I ran out of time, as always. It’s an interesting and beautiful city, perhaps the prettiest in all of Peru, and anyone who skips it on their trip is truly missing out.

Colca Canyon

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For my trip to Colca Canyon, the world’s second deepest canyon which is also double the depth of the Grand Canyon in America, I booked a trip through my hostel. I was sceptical after my experience in Huacachina but everyone in the hostel spoke highly of the tour and I decided it would be much easier than finding a tour myself without any recommendations. I’ll say upfront that our guide wasn’t very good – he didn’t add anything to the trip at all – but the tour in general was good value – decent transport, food and accommodation.

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The day starts at 3am with a long drive to Chivay. After my lack of sleep the night before this was quite difficult for me and I actually picked up a mild illness because of this. But I didn’t have time to be ill so I just carried on anyway. First we went to the Cruz del Condor to see the world famous condors – with a wingspan of up to 3 metres. Annoyingly we had to get there early because of protests on the roads which meant we didn’t get to see very many. I struggled to get many pictures but just as we got back onto the minibus lots came out and were flying over head – and annoyingly we weren’t allowed to get out again and see them.

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Next we went to the start of the trek, an impressive 3,100 metres high. I was part of a large group of 16 young travellers which definitely compensated for the lack of guide. The first part of the trek was a three hour, steep descent into the canyon (down to 2,100 metres). But what really made it all worth it was the amazing views – the pictures speak for themselves but the brilliant blue sky against the rugged golden canyon is one of the best natural sights of my trip so far. After a short lunch, we walked along the other side of the canyon for a further three hours before reaching our lodgings for the night (very basic but good enough). At this point it was interesting to see the contrast between the dry side we had descended and the lush, green side we were now walking along (this is because of the melting glaciers creating a source of water). We also saw some impressive Inca terraces here which added to the natural beauty of the place.

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The next day started at 4am with a very steep, zigzagging three hour trek out of the canyon, beginning in the dark with flashlights. I was feeling even more ill at this point and without help or encouragement from the guide decided I would walk at my own pace – even if it meant I was 40 minutes behind the rest of the group (there were lots of other groups so it wasn’t as if I was walking on my own anyway). This was hard work and the altitude and illness combined to make me feel pretty weak but I was determined to continue. I stopped to take some pictures along the way and absorb the picturesque sunrise. The last 20 minutes were very hard, mostly because I had no clue how close I was to the top – I could no longer tell how long I’d been walking and the path was so similar the whole way I felt as though I was in a trance climbing to the top. When I finally reached the top I was very sweaty and tired but pleased with myself for enjoying the scenery and not giving up or even taking many breaks for the whole three hours.

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After a breakfast at the top of the hill, we were taken to some nearby hot springs. After the great hot springs in Baños I was excited for my second experience, and my legs definitely needed it. They were a lot more rustic than the previous ones but quickly filled with other tourists who had also finished the trek. I probably preferred seeing the locals in Baños enjoy the springs but it was still a great experience.

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On the way back to Arequipa, we stopped off to see some llamas and alpacas grazing along the roadside. I actually think I was wearing my new alpaca jumper at this point which probably wasn’t very sensitive – no wonder a llama tried to spit at me. We also saw the Ampato mountain where Juanita’s body was found which added an extra something to the trip for me.

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All in all, I had a great time in the south of Peru. So many tourists come to Peru just to see Manchu Picchu but hopefully I’ve shown that there is so much more to see. I have been to Machu Picchu and Cusco before with my squash team and family nearly nine years ago. They are both amazing place and well worth seeing but definitely not the only stars of the show.

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Desert days in Huacachina & Nasca: the good and the bad

I’d never been to a desert before and to be honest I didn’t realise there was so much desert in Peru. But there is, in fact Nasca’s highest sand dune is taller than England’s tallest mountain! I’m going to spell Nasca as the locals do in Spanish instead of with a ‘z’ as English speaking countries do – just in case you were wondering. Before I go into detail about these two stops on my trip, I want to let you know that I was really disappointed by Huacachina – a place I had really high hopes for – and I was really impressed by Nasca – previously only known to me vaguely because of the world famous Nasca lines. This post will be one of contrasts, the good and the bad (but not the ugly). I don’t want to dwell on the negative too much but I would like to share some of the lessons I learned.

Huacachina

After three days in Lima, I caught a six hour bus to Ica, the nearest city to Huacachina. I decided to stay in Ica firstly because the buses stop there and it would be easier to get to a hostel than taking a mototaxi to Huacachina in the dark. And secondly, because I thought it would be easier for me to look at the options for sandboarding and buggy ride trips in town.

A few weeks ago someone showed me a video of their friend skiing down the sand dunes and I really wanted to try this. I did ask one tour company in town but I soon gave up and booked the standard trip with my hostel – later realising that it was much better to speak to the tour operators in Huacachina instead of Ica. I also let the language barrier get to me, instead of sticking to what I really wanted to do, I gave in because I didn’t want to struggle in Spanish, even though skiing is the same in Spanish. This was a big lesson for me because as it turned out the trip I booked wasn’t very good and certainly not good value.

So the trip costs 60 soles which is about £15 (this probably should have been a giveaway) for a 2 hour buggy ride and sandboarding combined trip (this is a pretty standard package). The hostel minibus drops you in Huacachina two hours before, a nice idea if I had known about this free time I wouldn’t have rushed to eat my lunch before. Here I had some time to take picture of the amazing sand dunes and the oasis in the middle of the small town. It’s a great view and probably the best part of the trip.

When I went to the tour operator for the start of our trip we had to wait quite a long time for a group who were running late – the first occasion of time lost from our 2 hours. Then the tour operators spent some time rearranging everyone to balance out the buggies but finally we were off. The buggy ride was exciting and our driver was zooming up and down the dunes – at this point I was having a pretty good time. We stopped to take loads of pictures and the sand dunes looked amazing.

We hopped back in and after a quick run up went off a huge dune – this is where the problem started. It was like something out of a comedy sketch. There was a loud bang and the driver turned his head to the left to see if the wheel had gone flat and at the same time the wheel and the axel bounced passed the buggy on the right. Not an easy fix. The driver rung for another buggy to come pick us up and this meant more waiting and more time wasted. At the time it felt like it would be a funny story to tell but not so much after. We could see a group nearby taking turns to sandboard down a huge dune and I was excited to get a go myself.


When the replacement finally came we hopped in, went over a few more dunes before stopping at the top of a beginner slope to collect our boards. Most people go down lying on the board head first unless they know how to stand up. I laid down for my first go and it was really fun. On my second I wanted to try standing up even though I had no idea what to do. I lasted about two seconds before slipping onto my bottom. I slid most of the way down. But I was ready to go again and master the technique. Disappointingly, just like that our time was up and we were rushed back into the buggy to see the sunset from a viewpoint. I didn’t want to see the sunset, I wanted to sandboard. I wasn’t quite aware that it was the end, I thought we might get another go after the sunset but no.

I got some great pictures but I felt like a phoney to say that I had been sandboarding when it only lasted for 10 minutes. I was definitely disappointed by the trip to Hucachina and although I didn’t stick to my initial idea of independently finding a tour, I don’t feel like it was my fault that I had a bad time. What makes it even more annoying is that I spoke to a couple recently who had stayed at the same hostel as me and managed to go skiing with help from the hostel staff!

Later in my trip I’m planning to go to the Atacama desert in Chile so hopefully I’ll get another chance to try and master the standing technique.

Nasca

My trip to Nasca started much better with a 10 soles (£2.50) bus along the coast. I arrived in Nasca at lunch time and although I got massively overcharged by the taxi to my hostel (rookie error forgetting to ask the price before the journey) I was excited to book my flight over the Nasca lines as soon as possible. The host at my hostel in Nasca, Nanasqa Hostel, was great! A super accommodating, 30 something, local guy who was still building and improving sections of the hostel. He booked the flights for me straightaway and even ordered me a takeaway lunch to the hostel – a delicious quarter of chicken and chips.

In the afternoon there was a trip on offer at the hostel and because I didn’t want to just have spent the day travelling, and I was still annoyed about Huachina, I signed up. It included tour of the Cantallo aqueducts, the pyramids of Cahuachi and the Cemetery of Chauchilla. If I’m honest I didn’t know much about what I had signed up for but I was glad to get out of the hostel doing something – and they were mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. 

Our tour guide turned out to be our host’s father who drives you to the sights, says some information in Spanish and waits in the car for you to have a look around. Luckily there were two Venezuelans in the group who could translate for me and even without the translations the sights were really interesting. And without a story behind them I was free to invent my own, imagining the people of the time building and using the aqueduct, trading and doing business in the pyramids and preparing the burials at the tombs. 

By the time we finished the five hour tour, a beautiful blue and orange sunset led us back to the hostel across the bumpy desert track – the drive was as good as the tour. The pyramids and tombs were completely in the middle of nowhere so there’s no way I would have been able to get to either on my own. This trip was a great example of expecting nothing and seeing loads of really intriguing ancient sights instead. 

The next day I was up early for my flight and despite a slight hiccup where I needed to transfer some money to my bank card to pay for the flight on the sketchy airport WiFi, it went without a hitch. I paid $90 for the flight and airport transfer in total. Due to safety concerns I was happy to be going with the most established company flying even if it wasn’t the cheapest.



The flight lasts just 30 minutes but you get to see 14 signs and some extras that the pilot points out. The plane looked the same as the small plane I’d taken in Venezuela to get to Canaima national park so I wasn’t worried about the plane sickness. This time we had headphones where you can hear one of pilot’s instructions as he points out the lines and figures. Each figure is circled twice so both sides of the plane can take pictures which is great – I didn’t want to miss a single one.








When the flight was over I was sad because it had been so much fun to tip right over in the small plane and see all the amazing markings with my own eyes instead of photographs. Although it’s a super touristy event, I would 100% recommend it. I flew with AeroParacass and they were really good. Until you see it for yourself you can’t truly understand how fascinating the lines truly are and a big thank you to my Uncle Phil who suggested adding it to my list!

Next I’m going to Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, before doing the classic tourist 2 day trek in Colca Canyon – it’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and the second deepest in the world (so my guide book says). Expect amazing pictures!

Lima: the old and the new

To follow neatly on from my last post, if I thought the night bus from Ecuador to Peru (Cuenca to Máncora) was going to be long then the bus from Máncora to Lima was going to be mammoth. 23 hours is a long time to be on a bus with complete strangers where you have to watch your possessions all the time. Thankfully I’m a great sleeper so I did manage to snooze through most of it and I actually spotted some friends from Colombia on the bus so it wasn’t all bad. With severe sunburn (typical gringo) and sand literally everywhere, I was looking forward to getting to Lima – the only place on my trip that I’ve actually been to before.

Lima is the most developed capital city I’ve visited yet and the prospect of being somewhere more cosmopolitan was definitely appealing after two nights in a beach hut with rumours of mice. It’s been a great adventure going to lots of different kinds of towns and cities but Lima felt much more in my comfort zone. Although I have been to Lima before, it was a long time ago and I stayed inside the sports complex for almost the entirety of my stay. Now free to explore for myself, I decided to split my stay between the centre of Lima in the historic part of town and Milaflores, the sophisticated, modern area.

The Old 

From my Lonely Planet guide and Hostelworld research, I found a converted 20th century mansion turned hostel to stay in for the first two nights. Always a risk going by the pictures, I was delighted to find the hostel just as fancy and antiquated as I had hoped. It had wooden panels, original black and white floor tiles and high ceilings with detailed coving. I felt like I was staying in a boutique hostel for the price of a budget hostel.

The hostel also had a great location next to the MALI (Museo de Art de Lima), one of Lima’s most impressive and popular art museums. This was my first stop and it’s clear why it’s so famous, even the building housing the museum is a work of art. If you follow me on social media then you might have seen a preview of the museum at the time. It’s packed with art from pre-colonial times right up to modern art. I learnt a lot about the Inca and Wari cultures and the free audio guide app and WiFi really enhanced my experience of the museum. They also had a temporary exhibition about Nasca and the lines which I’m hoping to visit during my time in Peru. Even if museum’s aren’t your thing, I’d definitely recommend visiting this one.



In the afternoon I had signed up to the free walking tour offered by the hostel. By a random turn of fate, I was the only person who had signed up so I got a personalised, solo walking tour. Pam, who does the tour, showed by around the historic centre, suggested street food and drinks to try and explained about the politics behind the protests in Peru at the moment. I even got to see some of the protests while I was there, but this did mean we couldn’t go to the main square because the police had closed it.




The next day, following Pam’s suggestions, I went to visit the Catacombs under the city at the Convento de San Francisco. Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take any pictures and I’d accidentally joined a Spanish tour group so I can’t share that much about it. There were a lot of skulls and bones lined up in graves under the church. If my translation is correct (my Spanish is still awful), people often think they were tortured or prisoners but they’re not, it was an honour to be buried here. There is also a dusty, decaying library which has a copy of the bible dating back to the 14th century and looked like it could be in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

After this I went to explore China town. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was, my maps seems to be contradicting each other but I just kind of wandered around. Once again I was the only tourist bumbling around but Lima is quite a safe city so I didn’t feel too concerned. It’s nice to be able to explore without time pressures or feeling anxious about getting lost. By this point it was lunchtime so I went to a Chifa (Chinese restaurant) and had chufa (chicken fried rice, basically). It also came with a chicken noodle soup and dumplings so for just 8 soles (£2) I was very happy and full. On the way back I visited the main square which was back open and saw the cathedral and president’s palace – both stunning buildings set around a beautiful square lined with bright flowerbeds and palm trees.

The centre of Lima was really interesting and bustling – the closest place to London so far. I’m really glad I stayed here for a few days because most tourists just stay in Milaflores and miss a lot of the culture and heritage of this 500 year old city.

The New

Even just from stepping out of the taxi by my next hostel I could tell I was in a completely different part of town, with shopping malls, skyscrapers, expensive flats and touristy restaurants on every street corner. The department store nearby was even selling MAC make up.

The hostel staff suggested one of the best sights was walking down to the clifftops where there’s a large shopping mall built into the cliff and you can walk along the top to a park and lighthouse. I’ve been struggling with the suitability of some of the clothes I packed for hiking and my pack-a-mac has a hole already so this sounded like a good idea. It was a great shopping mall with amazing views, all the best hiking shops (Colombia, North Face, Salomon and more) but what I realised was that I couldn’t really afford to buy any of the things I wanted. It’s not that I don’t have the money now but I don’t have a job or any income. One of the cheapest coats was the same price as 10 days of accommodation here or a three day hiking trip. And when it comes down to it, I know which one I want more. This was a sobering fact and made me feel a quite downbeat. I love shopping and the feeling when you buy something new that you really like; I’m a consumerist at heart and it’s hard not being able to afford anything expensive. But that’s the price to you pay to have every day as a weekend and it’s definitely worth it.

I did continue walking along the cliffs to the lighthouse, views are free after all, and despite the grey, cloudy skies it was a beautiful view. The drop to the beach is quite steep and so you have a clear sightline out across the sea and along the clifftops. A sense of calm returned as I remembered how nice it is to just walk along without worrying about your possessions or the evening closing in.

The next morning was my last few hours in Lima and so I went early with a couple of Americans from the hostel to see Huaca Pullcana, a pyramid-shaped temple dating back to 400AD in the centre of the city, only recently rediscovered in the last 20 years. We managed to successfully join an English tour group this time (yay!) and we learnt all about the Lima people who lived here before the Wari tribes. It was such an interesting contrast to see such an important and interesting archeological site surrounded by modern skyscrapers and glass building. The old and the new continues to battle for prominence through out the city and it’s so interesting to see both sides. 



Once again I had a great time in this capital, despite others telling me there wasn’t much to do or see here. On the way back to the hostel I had an amazing ‘firewood’ chicken sandwich with the best chips ever and a yummy smoothie at La Lucha, and I left Lima feeling sad to go. But it was time to move on and wow have I got some exciting things planned for the next week or so. Stay tuned for sandboarding in Hucachina and a flight over the Nasca lines.