Location: Cook Islands
Right....it has been an absolute age since I've written here - so apologies to everyone who has been eagerly awaiting the next instalment of our adventures (probably nobody, I know, but still...I like to imagine that at least a couple of people have been interested in what we've been up to!).
So...where did I get to last? Leaving South America and heading to the Cook Islands via a short stop off in Auckland (New Zealand). The journey itself was a bit bizarre, as we lived the same day twice. Sounds a bit odd I know, but having arrived in Auckland in the early hours of the morning and spending the whole day there, our flight left at 21:45 at night....only to arrive a few hours later in Rarotonga at 4am in the morning of the same day (due to crossing the international date line during our flight). So that confused us no end as to what day we were actually on for the next week or so....it's hard enough keeping tabs on the day/date when you are travelling without these additional complications!
The Cook Islands are made up of a group of about 15 islands, the largest (I think) being Rarotonga, which is where we were to spend the next week and a half. The hostel we had booked into was on the beach of Muri Lagoon - a sheltered spot on the south east of the island with shallow reefs and heaps of colourful marine life...all in all not a bad spot at all.
The island itself, and the surrounding beaches, were pretty stunning - lovely white sand and crystal clear waters. However, it seemed we had managed to bring a bit of England along with us as it decided to throw it down with rain fairly regularly for the majority of our stay. However, in the true English style ("it's only a spot of rain") we didn't let it get in the way too much, and so manage to fit in a healthy serving of snorkelling around the lagoon, along with a bike ride around the whole island (32 km in total...all nice and flat though!), some kayaking, scuba diving, and the 'cross island trek'. This, surprisingly, involves trekking across the circumference of the island....which, on a nice day is I'm sure a very pleasurable experience. However, due to the excessive rainfall over the previous few days, many of the streams and rivers had significantly increased in size, so our nice potter across the island in the sunshine turned into a mammoth battle against the driving wind, rain, thick mud and deep streams. All quite good fun though, and despite a few wrong turns along the way, me losing my footing and sliding down a bank in to the river, and both of us getting completely drenched...it was actually quite good fun.
By the end of our week and a half in Rarotonga though, we were looking forward to a change of scenery....and hopefully a change in the weather! So we hopped back onto a plane and headed back to Auckland....
Our first couple of days in Santiago turned our to be lazy ones, which was actually really nice since the past few weeks had been so hectic being on the move all the time. We spent our first day wandering around town getting our bearings, taking in the sights and indulging in ice cream (oh the joy of being back in near-civilisation and not having to worry about being struck down by sickness from eating dodgy ice cream!!). Day 2 in Santiago ended up being a bit of a non-event, courtesy of some fellow Irish guests in our hostel who convinced us to join in their game of 'Ring of Fire' (for those who aren't familiar, it's based on a card game). So after managing to sneak off to bed at 2:30am, I (surprisingly) awoke the next morning with a bit of a sore head (damn you alcoholic Irish who drink like fish!!).
But what better way to rid yourself of a hangover than to go and see the Chemical Brothers live at Creamfields in Santiago?!? We managed to get tickets for that evening and it was absolutely awesome.....Jules is a bit of an old hand at the whole gig/festival thing, but having never really been before I wasn't sure what to expect. Armed with my can of Speed Unlimited (a fantastic energy drink that I discovered that night) my hangover was history and I easily made it through to our 4am taxi home....and had a whale of a time! For those of you on Facebook I've posted a mini-video of 'Hey Boy, Hey Girl' (Sarah....it wasn't the same without you there!!!) ;o)
The remainder of our time in Santiago turned into a bit of lazy affair, including lots of table tennis (the hostel we were staying in had a table), eating, and even a trip to the local cinema (the popcorn was absolutely amazing......so good in fact that I had to indulge in an extra large box!).
One of Jules´s friends from back home now lives in Santiago with his Chilean girlfriend, so for the last half of our time in the city we had our own personal tour guide to show us around (thanks John!!). We managed to squeeze in a day/overnight trip to Vina del Mar, a beachside town about and hour and a half from Santiago, which included an evening excursion to the local casino. A couple of hours later and having lost all our money (yes, we were completely rubbish!) we limped home, crestfallen and penniless....
Well, that just about draws to a close our time in South America. I think we could really do with at least another 6-12 months to explore more fully, as we´ve only really touched on the surface. But then I guess we both have to come back to England and start earning some money again at some point.
So, to our next stop of the Cook Islands, via a short stop off in New Zealand and a 13 hour flight... bring it on!!
Our arrival in La Paz after a 7 hour bus journey from Peru marked the near end of our GAP Adventures tour. Our itinerary had a 1 day tour of some pre-Inca ruins scheduled for our first full day in La Paz, but after sitting in a bus for so long the previous day we couldn´t face another 4 hours of travelling, to see more ruins (and after a full week of visiting ruins in Peru!). So we ditched that idea and decided to hire some mountain bikes and spend the day cycling down "The World´s Most Dangerous Road" - a 64 km route which plunges down 3600m...starting at an altitude of 4700m, with sheer drops of several hundred feet to your left for a good few kilometres down the track. We passed several little monuments on the way down marking point where cyclists had fallen over the edge and died (it´s not called the World´s Most Dangerous Road for nothing you know!), but luckily, despite reaching speeds high enough to warrant a change of underwear, we all managed to make it down unscathed (Mum, I thought it best to tell you about this AFTER the event, as I know you would have just worried!).
The following day we bid farewell to the others on our organised trip, checked out of the nice hotel we´d been staying in, and found a hostel to stay in for the night before we jetted off to the rainforest the following day. We just found time to visit the witches market in La Paz - a small gathering of street stalls selling all kinds of lotions and potions, along with a substantial selection of dried Llama foetuses.......urgh. We thought they were just a gimmick until one local guy strolled up to a stall and bought one!
For the next leg of our Bolivia adventure we hopped on a little 12-seater plane for a flight to a small town called Rurrenabaque, which is situated in the middle of the Bolivian jungle. After a nights stay there we had a 5 hour boat trip up-stream to reach the Chalalan Ecolodge, where we would be staying for the next 3 days. The Ecolodge is located right in the heart of the rainforest, hence a huge number of bugs and creepy crawlies! During our stay we did several treks through the rainforest with our guide Sandro, along with a night hike (where we stumbled across a tarantula!), a night time canoe trip on the nearby lake to try to spot Cayman (which are similar to alligators/crocodiles), and a morning of piranha fishing (although with very limited success i.e. we didn´t catch any piranha!). Was a fabulous place to stay though and I can highly recommend it to anyone wanting to get a bit closer to nature.
After another lengthy stint in a boat to get back to the town of Rurrenabaque, we hopped on another plane for the short flight back to La Paz. To make the most of our final few days in Bolivia we decided to take a short 2 day tour to Salar de Uyuni, to see the salt flats, which included an overnight stay in 'The Salt Hotel' (which, as I'm sure you can tell by the name, is a hotel completely made of salt). We booked the trip through a local travel agent which, unfortunately, turned out to be a bit of a rip off as the trip only really ended up being a 1 day tour.....the second day consisted of waiting at the salt hotel until 1pm to be picked up by a jeep, then a 1 hour drive back to town before being dropped off to wait another 6 hours until our coach left to return us to La Paz. Thus after an 11 hour overnight return bus journey, the 4 of us who had booked a 2 day tour revisited the travel agent's office in La Paz, and after an hour of ranting at the manager, emerged with a refund for the second day of our trip. Nice one! Saying that, the first day was actually really good fun, and we all did the obligatory silly perspective photos on the salt flats......you can see all of them on Jules's Picassa website (the link is in my intro above).
So, having exhausted our time in Bolivia, we hopped on a plane to Santiago in Chile for the next leg of our adventure.......
When I first arrived in Peru I thought all the local women were short and very dumpy, but having to go through the humiliation of being dressed in local Peruvian clobber, I have come to the conclusion that they´re all just very short.....
We arrived in Lima to begin our 2 week organised tour with GAP Adventures, which would take in the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu as well as travelling down to Lake Titicaca and then through to finish the tour in Bolivia. We had 6 others in our group - one other Brit, 3 Canadians and 2 Americans.
After flying down to Cusco we then battled with the altitude for a couple of days....not really too bad but everything ended up being a bit puffy for a while. So what better way to see the sights of Cusco than to spend an afternoon roaring around on quad bikes??! Seemed a little odd speeding past ancient little archeological sites on the bikes, but it was amazing fun. I was obviously getting more confident riding this thing as the day went on, but a little too much enthusiasm on the accelerator almost saw me go head first into a field, so I slowed down a bit after that :o)
The next couple of days took us through the towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo where we could peruse the local markets and visit a couple of tiny villages, and then the proper hiking on the Inca Trail began. Out group for the trail consisted of 14 people, plus guide, assistant guide, cook, assistant cook, and a bit team of porters, the latter of which made you feel completely pathetic as they RAN past on the trails carrying mahoosive bags of stuff on their backs, whilst we were all puffing and panting up the steps. We trekked for 3 full days, arriving at Machu Picchu in the morning of the fourth. Accommodation each night consisted of a leaky tent and a sleeping bag, with no opportunity to wash. Nice. But the trek was fantastic, finished off with some stunning views over Machu Picchu (albeit a little on the cloudy side!) On the downside, the day we arrived in Machu Picchu was also the day of the Rugby World Cup Final......this would be the only England game of the world cup that Jules physically couldn´t get to a TV to watch......but then again, given the final score I don´t think that was such a bad thing....!
We spend the next couple of days in Cusco, but by that time I had been cursed with poorly tummy syndrome, so couldn´t really stray too far from a local convenience (!) Saying that, at least we were staying in a nice hotel with en suite at that point, so I didn´t have to endure illness with only a manky squat loo for company! Luckily my lurgy seemed to clear up enough for the 9 hour bus journey to Puno, and our subsequent visit to Lake Titicaca - the highest navigable lake in the world. We spent one night staying with a local family, which was a challenge as they spoke no English and our Spanish and Quechua is a little on the non-existant side! But with lots of flappy hand signals and pigeon Spanish we managed to have a few basic conversations. We managed to squeeze in a football game against the locals (mental note: never engage in exercise at altitude....you will feel like your lungs are about to fall out of your body!). This was also the night of the aforementioned dressing up in the traditional Quechua outfits - you´ll see what I mean about humiliation when you see the photos :o)
On our way back to Puno from Lake Titicaca we stopped off to visit the floating islands of the Uros people - little communities that live entirely on floating islands made of reeds that grow on the lake. Very weird....intersting, but weird. Can´t say I´d ever get the urge to live there myself! The following day we embarked on another long coach ride - 7 hours which would take is from Puno in Peru to La Paz in Bolivia......
Location: Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, Argentina
So happy to arrive in Buenos Aires after the 2 day delay in Sao Paulo! We found a funky little hostel in San Telmo to stay in, which is an old quaint area of Buenos Aires, with cobbled streets and loads of little cafes, shops and galleries. We arrived on a Sunday which was when the huge weekly street market takes place - literally hundreds of little stalls set up along a long cobbled street, as well as street acts and bands and stuff. Good to wander around lazily in the afternoon sunshine.
Thanks to the flight delay, our time in Buenos Aires was a fairly limited since we'd booked a last minute flight to Iguazu Falls the previous week. Iguazu was amazing....massive waterfalls which stretch across the border of Argentina and Brazil. We spent a day on the Argentinean side enjoying the views, along with a jet boat ride into the bottom of the falls resulting in lots of wetness and soggy knickers (from the waterfall that is, not me getting over-excited....although it was very exciting nonetheless). We journeyed over to Brazil the following day to view the falls from a different perspective, and although it was still hugely impressive, the torrential rain that accompanied us throughout the day resulted in everything being just a bit too wet.
After our stint in Puerto Iguazu we returned to Buenos Aires for a couple more days. Unfortunately the rain seemed to follow us and it rained pretty much continuously for the rest of our stay in Argentina. Great - almost seemed like being back in England! The amazing food in Argentina more than made up for it though.....huge steaks and grills are the speciality here, and the meat is fantastic. Think I managed to almost double my bodyweight in 2 days through steak alone. Mmmmmmmmm..........
In between eating and the rain, we managed to squeeze in a trip to see Evita's grave, and also managed to find some dodgy underground tango place in a disused building which a friend took us to. We didn't arrive till 1am in the morning (nobody goes out for their evening meal until 11pm or 12 here!), and the place was full of locals dancing, some guy doing a comedy act, another guy singing with a mini-orchestra....all very random. Am sure the main stream touristy tangos shows would have been a lot more as I'd have expected, but maybe not quite as authentic.
But anyway, next stop Peru............!