Mitch's Pictures

With not too many days to go in our epic adventure, the final big ticket item on our list was a tour of the Salar de Uyuni, the Bolivian Salt Flats. The tour generally consists of 3 or 4 days in a 4WD travelling across the salt plains and the surrounding national parks, stopping for the sights along the way. We were a bit worried about all the crazy stories you hear coming out of these tours… drunken drivers, car crashes, people being abandoned at the Bolivian border with no where to go… just stuff like that. So we took our time, did a lot of research about different companies (there seems to be a thousand of them operating out of the small township of Uyuni!) and finally decided with Red Expedition. Definitely more expensive then a lot of the tours but we thought the extra expense would be worth it… spoiler: it was!

We arrived in Uyuni, which reminds me of something out of a western movie, and beelined past all the touts trying to sell tours at the bus stop, straight for the Red Expeditions office. Within about 30mins of arriving in Uyuni we were signed up for the next days tour leaving at the totally respectable time of 11am.

Having gotten a good nights sleep and collected all of our necessities for the trip (toilet paper, water, snacks) we met up with our group. There was two cars heading out 6 people in our car (a Dutch/Swedish couple who have since basically convinced us that we need to move to Holland, two awesome Irish girls who kept getting offered whisky at our accommodation because they were Irish and isn’t that what they drink… and us). The other car had our guide, Gonsaloz (a Bolivian born, American raised guy who was awesome!) a New Zealander/Aussie guy travelling for two years after working in the mines in Western Australia, a newly married English couple who had food poisoning the whole trip, poor things, and an annoying Swedish couple who complained the whole time and were never impressed with anything!). Our car was awesome and we all got on like a house on fire!

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The first stop along the way was the train graveyard. Where they abandoned all the old steam trains back in the day… very cool, it was like a playground for adults with everyone clambering all over these old, rusting trains…

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From here we headed to the original (and one of few left) salt hotels. These are made completely out of… you guessed it, SALT! The bricks, the beds, the tables and chairs, everything. Pretty cool!

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Then it was onto the Salt Flats.

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Unfortunately, despite it being the wet season, there has been a drought over the salt flats and so there was no rain… no rain meant no mirror like surface which would have been totally amazing to see… fortunately this meant we were still able to take “funny pictures” as Gonsaloz called them. He was a totally pro and helped us all with our “funny pictures”.

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Next stop was the Isle del Pescado (the fish island). Absolutely covered in Cacti, this place gives you an awesome viewing spot for the Salar and you can see on for what seems like forever! Absolutely amazing!

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We continued driving until we reached our nights accommodation, a lovely salt hotel. One of the perks of paying a bit more is better accommodation on this first night – private rooms, showers etc. It was a pretty cool experience to stay of a salt bed, in a salt hotel, eating dinner off a salt table.

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The second day was filled with driving! so much driving! but thats ok as the scenery was incredible. Like nothing I had ever seen before and like nothing I expected to see on this tour. We went from a salt flat to lush green pastures filled with llamas! Which thankfully we were able to stop and wander around with for a while before our lunch break.

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After lunch eaten from the back of our 4WD we headed onwards and upwards, leaving behind our lush green llama filled paddock and heading into a dessert area made of the reddest of red earth with little to no vegetation and massive rock formations, some of which I swear looked like llamas… The picture below is of the famous stone tree.. I preferred the llama rocks…

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We headed on until the earth was just red dust and almost nothing else. In the distance we could see huge white lakes. As we got closer we realised these were lakes filled with water but the edges contained borax deposits which caused the colour. The lakes were filled with beautiful pink flamingoes! The were pretty amazing. It was the first time I’d ever seen them in the wild! But wouldn’t be the last as there were so many more over the next day and a half.

We eventually stopped at the entrance to the national park to pay our 150 Bolivianos. Whilst here we ventured to the Laguna Colorado, the coloured lake! From the viewing area up high you can see the many beautiful colours of this lake, greens, reds, blues. It was beautiful and complete with its own set of flamingos!

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The best stop of the day was definitely at the geysers. I had never seen geysers before and thought it was so cool! They smelt terrible because of all the sulfer being released! We ran between them as the mud boiled and they pumped out gases! Totally amazing!

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Next stop was the hostel for the night. This was much more basic then the previous nights, with our car load of people sharing a room, very little electricity, no running water at all and, obviously, no showers. The perk however was exclusive use of the natural thermal springs about a 50m walk away from the rooms! After a late dinner, in absolute darkness, we all headed to the springs. What an awesome way to end the day! We just hung out in the springs for ages, looking at the most incredible night time sky I’d ever seen (the stars were amazing!)  and looked for shooting stars. I think we would have all stayed in there all night if we could… The next morning we came out to find about half a dozen cars all arriving with heaps of people… we were so thankful not to have to deal with that!

Our third day was a pretty short one, with most of us having to make a transfer to Chile at 10am. We headed off early at 7am stopping along the way a the Laguna Verde, the green lake, which was beautiful but due to the lake of wind, which normally mixes different minerals into the lake causing its green colour, wasn’t so green. The Laguna Blanca, white lake, next door which also feeds into it, was much more impressive.

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By 9am we were at the border, stamped out of Bolivia and ready to head to Chile. There is almost an hours drive between the two borders so we jumped on a bus and headed onwards. The border into Chile was boring, despite being warned how strict they are, we flew through immigration (also didn’t have to pay the $130 US reciprocity fee that you have to pay if coming in by air!) and before we knew it we were hanging our having the best coffee we’d had in ages in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

We hung out in San Pedro for a few days, just relaxing in the heat of the dessert, as there isn’t much else to do unless you want to pay for expensive trips to the dessert.

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The one tour we decided to go on was the tour to the El Tatio Geysers, the third largest geyser field in the world. It was pretty impressive as the sun came up and you could really see the gases being released from all the geysers. It was quite a production with so many tour companies sending out buses every morning.

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Categories: Blog, Travel Blog

Dun dun dun… scary intro and all that to the world’s most dangerous road (~300 deaths per year)

All in all, the Death Road was a real highlight of South America. From awesome downhill mountain biking right into having a few drinks on the bus or a few too many for me (Mitch) and learning why it is a really bad idea to drink at altitude.

First things first, the company we went with was Barracuda biking which I highly recommend for a few reasons. Firstly our guides Andy and Willy are great fun, Andy is a pretty blunt kinda guy and loves dropping the occasional c-bomb to the horror of the girls in our group. Secondly despite being a fun couple of guys, they are really serious on safety… More on that later but lets say we saw the guides from most expensive/premium group (Gravity) abandoning their riders and causing accidents on the world’s most dangerous road. Not cool.

The guide had it timed so that “Eminem – Lose Yourself” would play as soon as we reached the road. Perfect leadup anticipation music as we just as we started to see the sheer dropoffs and the rocks and gravel we would need to navigate down. At first we thought it was accidental (until the next bus turned up playing “AC/DC – Highway to Hell”).

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At the top we started off with the safety briefings and gear checks. As well as a few group photos.

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One tradition before you set off is a blessing to the “Pachamama” the Andean earth spirit for protection. This involves taking some pure alcohol, pouring some on the ground, then your bike tyre and then take a sip. It tastes awful.

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To start you off there is a short section of regular road just to test out the bikes. But even here you start seeing the first memorials.

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The death road itself comes after this and is gravel all the way down. After another warning to watch out for the “baby heads” which are largish rocks that will shift under your bike and can throw you over the edge.  Also, the traffic on this road drives on the opposite side of the road to the rest of the country (so the driver’s side is on the cliffside and they can see how close they are…)

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The further you go in, the hairier it gets. And not far in you hit “postcard corner” which is a drop off cliff great for a few team photos.

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A few times we encountered the “Gravity” team – which is the most expensive and should be the premier provider. However what we saw was the guides abandoning their team and racing each other down the hill… at one point one of their guides did a jump, cut off one of our riders, clipped her front tire and caused her to fall off. Pretty unsafe team. Three of the riders in their group gave up and took the bus down (none of ours did) and I’m not surprised since their guides didn’t do much to keep their team safe.

And then onward down the hill. Past the graves and memorials.

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At points, the water comes over the road as a river, so you gotta watch that.

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Once you make it down, we shared a few good beers. At this point you gotta be careful because since you just descended 3.4km from 4,600m to 1,200m the oxygen can make you feel pretty good and have a few too many. In our group’s case we continued on drinking on the bus and it got pretty out of control.

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We took the death road back up to La Paz and it was good to see to road from another perspective. Fun fact about the Death road – statistically it is safer to take the death road back up rather than the new road. While the new road is fully paved and wider, everybody takes it now and there are many accidents there (Bolivians are not the best of drivers…)

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The next day I had the mother of all hangovers and learnt a valuable lesson about altitude…

Categories: Blog, Travel Blog

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(Just a bonus baby llama pic from Cusco)

We arrived in Cusco with nothing booked and one goal in mind… Make it to Machu Picchu… We were conflicted about how to do this however. We knew there was no way to make it onto an Inca Trek as they book out months in advance which left three options: the Salkantay trek, the Lares trek or the Inka Jungle trek. After much deliberation (and the recommendation of some fellow travellers we met in Arequipa) we chose the Inka Jungle trek and within a few days of arriving in Cusco we were off!

Our first day involved many (65) kilometres of mountain biking (something which we are becoming a fan of here in South America) down a mountain called Abra Malaga, outside of Cusco to the village where we would be spending our first night, Santa Maria.

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And then an afternoon of white water rafting (something I had never done before but absolutely loved!).

Our group was an interesting mix of youngsters, two Danish girls and a Scottish guy, all taking a gap year before starting university back home, a Canadian guy on a short break before heading back to work, two Argentinian ladies (I don’t know much about these two as they didn’t speak much English and kept to themselves mostly, they seemed nice though) and us.

On our second day we rose early and began a full day of trekking through the Peruvian jungle. It was pretty fantastic scenery and as we wandered along the path we were able to pluck fresh ripe mangoes from the trees that surrounded us. Pretty cool and probably the best mangoes I’ve ever eaten!
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(still not sure what this was, but he just hung out on a table at one of our rest stops…)

image(Coca leaves for a traditional blessing before walking on the inca trail)

image(Walking on the inca trail!)

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image(A river crossing)

We walked until about 7 or so at night, with a stop for a river crossing and some hot springs along the way – unfortunately this little stop over resulted in us being totally ravaged by sand flies! Evil little things caused my ankle to completely swell up over the next few days, making it pretty sore to walk on. That night we stayed in a small village called Santa Teresa. That night at dinner we joined with another group who would accompany is for the rest of our trek. They were a group of 2 Portuguese guys, 1 Portuguese chick and a Chilean chick as well… And thankfully they were all our age!

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The next morning we woke at a more relaxed time and just chilled out in the small town we were staying at whilst some of our group went zip lining. We met up and ate lunch at the Hydrorelectrica before heading out for a relaxing 3 hour hike along the train line that goes to the town of Aguas Calientes, our last point of call before heading to Machu Picchu the following morning. We really enjoyed this lovely town with a stream running through the middle of it and surrounded by beautiful mountains on all sides. It was filled with tourists heading up to, or returning from, Machu Picchu and had an awesome vibe to it. We spent our afternoon wandering around the town, enjoying hot chocolates and having our first hot showers since we left Cusco before joining our group for our last dinner together.

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After attempting to get some sleep (which wasn’t much as I was way too excited!) we got up before 4am and were on our way by 4.30am to Machu Picchu! There were two options for getting to the entrance at the top of the mountain, walk or catch a $10 USD bus… We walked… It took us an hour and every time the bus went past I think we all regretted our choice just a smidge. But it was a beautiful walk and we felt just a bit more accomplished when we reached the top.

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(One of the many dogs who joined us for the hike up to the Machu Picchu entrance)

Our guide met us at the gates to give us a tour and in we went! It was just as amazing as I had always imagined! We continued for about 30 minutes with the group before we had to leave everyone as we had Wayna Picchu entrance tickets and had to be in by a certain time.

Wayna Picchu is the large mountain that sits behind the Machu Picchu ruins. We were told along our travels to make sure we had tickets to this area and it was the best decision! This hike is difficult and steep but the views both along the way and at the top were absolutely phenomenal! It was a truly amazing experience!

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After making it to the top of Wayna Picchu we notice a sign pointing towards a cave and decided to check it out. What we didn’t realise was how far down the path it would be! By the time we made it to the cave, which turned out to be a temple and was pretty cool, we had descended below the level of Machu Picchu and almost back to the lowest point we had started at in the morning! The climb back up was exhausting and we were buggered by the time we reached Machu Picchu again.

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After a short break and some refreshments at a cafe just outside the entrance gates we headed back in and explored the actual Machu Picchu ruins, met some fabulous llamas who so kindly posed for photos with us, and took a crazy amount of photos! We loved it!

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After over 9 hours of hiking and exploring throughout Machu Picchu we headed back down to Aguas Calientes, making back just in time to grab a very satisfying beer and pizza before jumping on the train back to Cusco.

I have wanted to visit Machu Picchu for as long as I can remember and am so glad to be able to say that it lived up to and totally surpassed every one of my very high expectations.

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Categories: Blog, Travel Blog

Getting in to Arequipa was via the night bus so we were pretty tired in the morning. Grabbing a needed coffee, we ran into some fellow Aussies who we would keep running into thoughout our time here.

Despite coming to the region for the Colca Canyon we found Arequipa a great place to visit in its own right. Amazing plaza, great buildings and a laid back attitude. Also in the plaza we encountered somewhat a “battle of the bands” competition.

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Colca Canyon is fairly straightforward to attempt on your own, so Jas and I just took the bus over and stayed the night in Cabanaconde before the trek.

As a rule we generally ignore touts approaching us as we got off the bus and we ignored them this time too but it was a bit of a mistake here since that was the way you are supposed to get a permit to the park (we assumed there was ticket checking office on the way in). However the whole thing worked out okay since we ran into some Argentinian tourists who unfortunately had an injury and sold us their tickets. It was good for us since Argentinians pay half the price us gringos have to pay so we got in at a good price.

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Heading off we got out at about 7 and got some instructions on how to get to the start of the trail – which is good since it was a bit tricky to find.

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Since you are decending about a kilometer, getting in was easy on the oxygen but a killer on the legs. Beautiful all the way down, checking out the cliff formations, cacti and the river.

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image Once we crossed the river we took the a bit of an uphill section to a village where we had a couple (albeit expensive) well needed cold drinks.

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Heading on we wound our way along the canyon past a couple local farming villages. This part of the track is not well signposted, so we just asked locals we saw whether we were on the right track.

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On the way around it is very dry, so when we reached the Oasis it was definitely a spectacular sight – a definite Oasis in the canyon with Palm trees, green grass, colourful flowers and running clear water.

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Accommodation down there was pretty basic but the place we stayed actually had an amazing hot shower and pool. At this point we were pretty exhausted so it was a great place to relax for the night.

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Once you go in to the Canyon, you gotta get out – and it is one intense hike out! Departing at 4.30 is a good way to catch sunrise through the canyon and make it out before the sun hits you.

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We made it out in about 2 and a half hours and it was a big relief to be at the top – especially since there was a lady at the top selling nice cold powerade.

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Once we got back to Cabanaconde we ran into the Aussies again who had just been to the condor viewpoint. Being crazy, Jas and I decided to keep hiking to the viewpoint and try to make it back before the bus back to Arequipa. Unfortunately we did not see a condor but we did manage to catch the first bus back at 9.30am.

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Categories: Blog, Travel Blog

We always knew Peru was going to be a hectic part of our holiday but Jas and I were not quite prepared for how much stuff there is to do down here, nor the hit to our budget (we have pretty much given up on it while in Peru).

First part of the story was not great but an experience all the same. I needed to make an emergency visit to the dentist to get a root canal for a nerve infection that probably developed in response to being up in altitude. As soon as we hit Lima we camped outside the Australian Embassy for a while until it opened to get a recommendation on an english speaking dentist. My primary concern was finding a decent english speaking dentist in a developing country. The dentist recommended was excellent and had even practiced in Australia and the USA.

Apparently the root canal was a quite difficult one, since it was on a wisdom tooth and the roots were quite curved. But the doc did an excellent job while Jas cowered in the waiting room able to hear everything (there was only a curtain between the chair and the waiting room).

MITCHELL SWAN Canal

Moving right along. Lima is also a pretty cool city to explore. Especially around Miraflores, it is a very upmarket city. Even had the best coffee since Melbourne.

One interesting place we found was ‘Cat Park’ also known as ‘Parque Kennedy’ which is known for having more than 100 stray cats. Nobody is really sure how it started but the cats do get regularly fed so they stay. This is no Japanese ‘Cat Cafe’, these cats are pretty feral and not exactly friendly. Very strange park.

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Other than that, Lima was just a pretty cool city to explore. Every afternoon the paragliders flew up and down the coast line.

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One curious place in Lima was the San Francisco Ossuary – a very nice monastery with very eerie catacombs containing the bones of more than 70,000 people. As the anthropologists researched these graves they arranged the bones by type as a way of counting the number of people buried here. No pictures allowed inside, but here is one from outside.

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Next up was just random exploring through the old centre. Police checkpoints were up through out since the president was in and there have been a lot of protests leading up to next year’s elections. We have seen protests every single day we have been in Peru.

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Moving on from Lima, we had a particularly large day where we took the 3am bus out to the Ballestas Islands or as it is known the ‘poor mans Galapagos’ where we saw the ‘candelabra’,  many birds, seals and sealife. We even saw a whale – we knew seeing a whale was a big deal when the guide and boat captain stopped to try get a picture. Nobody did though.

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Next up on the same day, we boarded a different bus and made our way to the Huacachina oasis. Super cool place where we hit the sand dunes on buggies and boards. The oasis itself was really chill and whilst I wanted nothing more than a nice cold beer to wrap the day up – I was still on the antibiotics.

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After a good night’s rest we continued right on to the Nazca Lines. Something I have always wanted to see since I was a kid. These lines are seriously impressive and it amazes me that the Nazca people drew these shapes into the desert without ever seeing the whole. The animals and “the astronaut” were quite cool, but I was more impressed with the endless dead straight lines criss-crossing for kilometers.

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Categories: Blog, Travel Blog

After spending a while hanging out in Cuenca, enjoying the first good coffees of our South America adventure, we decided it was time to head across the border to Peru. We jumped on a night bus headed for the border and after what was supposed to be 14 hours (but turned out to be more like 24) we finally arrived in our first port of call, a small fishing town called Huanchaco.

Our journey into Peru was very different to what we had expected, especially when the sun started to rise over the Peruivan landscape to reveal a vast desert land. Having recently been in the Ecuadorian Andes, this was a huge, and somewhat unexpected change for us.

Huanchaco is set between the ocean and the desert behind it and has a lovely surfy chilled out vibe to it with a lot of hostels spread along the beach provided a great place to hang out for a while (all be it at expensive tourist prices!).

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The fisherman here are some of few in Peru that still fish on traditional canoe type boats. In the mornings we would come out and the ocean would be dotted with a mix of fisherman on their canoes and surfers catching a wave.

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Our main interest here was the old Chan Chan ruins set between Huacachino and Trujillo (the much larger town set next door). The Chan Chan ruins were the largest pre-Colombian city in South America and was built in about 850CE. Very cool! We spent a day here just wandering around the ruins. You start off in the main reconstructed area but we thought the coolest bits to these ruins were the outside complexes, away from this area, where there was no one else around, the ruins had yet to be reconstructed, there was no signs, and we just wandered through the remenants of this society. They go on for something like 20kms! Amazing!

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Chan Chan provided us a look into a society we had very little knowledge of and the ruins were completely different to anything we’d seen on our travels so far, especially. being set in the middle of a desert (something I had never really seen until then).

Our next destination was way up in the Andes, a smallish town called Huaraz. We left Huacachino at about 10pm and were dropped by a taxi in the main bus terminal. It was here that we realised just how serious bus travel in Peru really is. The terminal was better then some Australian Airports! and had security to get into the ‘lounge’ area where you wait for the bus to pull up. This was the first time we experienced VIP seating as well. The buses have seats that fully recline! and are super comfy like a lounge…. and they feed you!! An awesome way to spend 10 hours.

We arrived early the next morning in Huaraz, and upon leaving the bus station discovered an amazing country town surrounded by snow capped mountains!

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We were ready to explore! Huaraz is a town filled with ladies in traditional dresses, shawls to carry anything you can think of (including children) and the most amazing hats which appear to provided no sun protection but look so cool all the same. We wandered around the town finding ourselves at the town plaza (which we have since discovered EVERY city/town/village in Peru has! They normally have a water fountain, some grass, trees and a seating. Normally filled with locals just enjoying the outdoors).

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It was here we stumbled across the Llama lady as she has come to be known. From a distance we spotted her Llama… I was very excited… then we realised it had sunglasses and other decorations! Before I knew it she had seen us and I was having photos taken with her Llama (for a small fee of course!) but who could resist such a thing!

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Over the next week we saw her pretty much daily, looking out and following any tourists who entered the plaza! Her Llama was super cool.

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Whilst in Huaraz there was a few things we wanted to tick off the list. Number one on that list was the famed Laguna 69 trek set high in the mountains. We decided it would be easiest to organise a group tour to go with. This basically meant we had guaranteed transport to and from the start of the hike which was about 3 hours outside of Huaraz. We got picked up nice and early the day off and headed out of Huaraz with a group of about 10 people. After a short stop for breakfast and a lot of winding roads, we arrived our starting point (altitude 3800m).

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(Another beautiful lake we stopped at on the way to the beginning of the hike)

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The trail begins with a tiny descent into a valley where the path winds along beside a small river. We were surrounded by snow capped mountains on every side along and cows just lazily grazing on the lush green grass. It was an amazing beginning to what would be an incredible hike!

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For the next few hours we all plodded along at a fairly slow pace as the altitude was taking its toll on us all. We wandered through the valley, past some waterfalls and began the ascent up the first mountain. It was not too bad and Mitch and I coped pretty well (especially considering I was one of the oldest people on the trek… Sigh).

We reached and ridge and just over the top was a beautiful lake. I heard someone ask “is this it?” in a hopeful tone… It wasn’t…

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After a quick peanut butter roll stop onwards we went.

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Just past the lake was another ridge which revealed a huge green valley! And more cows! We still don’t know how they would have made it up there.

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Ahead of us past the valley was a large wall that I knew we would have to go up! This was by far the hardest point in the trek and I was definitely feeling the high altitude here. The trail zigzagged back and forth on this mountain ridge. We took our time and eventually got to the top. Hopeful, I peered past a large rock to reveal… More walking!

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But just a few more minutes and we were greeted with the sight of possibly the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen. It was a beautiful turquoise colour and surrounded by sheer cliff faces topped with snow. Amazing!

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(a crazy girl who decided to go swimming. the water was freezing!)

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We enjoyed our lunch with coca tea at the crazy altitude of 4600m and then made the long (and cold) wander back the way we had come to the bus…

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Everyone pretty much slept the whole way back to Huaraz, totally exhausted.

After a day resting our weary legs we set out to tick our second thing off the list, downhill biking through the mountains to get an awesome view of the Cordillera Blanca mountain ranges.

We hired some bikes from a local guide who set us up in a taxi ride to our starting point way up the mountains and off we went.

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The views from the top were amazing! It was a beautiful clear day.

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We put the tires back on our bikes and hit the road!

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Unfortunately within about 15mins my bike began to feel a bit slow and as I looked behind me I saw the culprit of my sudden speed decrease… A completely flat tyre! No worries, the guy gave us a tyre kit… Without tyre levers… Thankfully Mitch had it all under control and managed to get my tyre all fixed and patched up ready to get back to it!

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The rest of the ride went off without a hitch (apart from the odd dog gang that decided to make us their target), and before we knew it we were back in Huaraz, having just ridden 40kms and taken in some of the most spectacular views!

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We thoroughly enjoyed the week we spent in Huaraz – hiking, biking and enjoying the awesome cafes the city has…

Categories: Blog, Travel Blog

The bus from Baños was a very twisty route up through the mountains. It was some pretty incredible and ever changing scenery that left Mitch and myself with massive headaches and feeling a bit sick due to the huge altitude change we had experienced going over the mountains.

We arrived in Cuenca tired and ready for bed… our hostel receptionist had other ideas for us however and refused to honour our booking.com reservation, trying to get us to pay her more money! no thanks! so off we wandered… thankfully we found a place with a comfy bed just around the corner. Success!image

By the next morning we were feeling well rested and our headaches had gone away, we had found a fabulous hostel to stay at, and were ready to take on Cuenca!

Cuenca had a very different feel to the other places we had been in Ecuador, and definitely felt very safe. There is a huge expat community here, lots of retirees. We had no issues wandering around the city and so thats what we spent most of our time doing!

The first place we headed to was the Modern Art Museum. I’ll be honest in saying that our motivations here were based purely off the fact that it was in an old insane asylum… how could you not visit that?

As we pretty quickly discovered on our way over it was the Foundation Day for Cuenca, there were all sorts of celebrations going on throughout the city. People were everywhere. Parades were going on. Music was being played. The steets were filled with market stalls selling all sorts of organic produce, hand made furniture, jewellery, everything you could think of (I indulged in a cupcake, my first in a long time!). We were lucky to have seen it all as the celebrations and the markets were ending that day.

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There was even go-kart racing complete with police escorts at the end of the day!

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After wandering along for a while, enjoying the markets and celebrations we found ourselves outside of a pretty typical colonial style white building that housed the art museum… I’m not sure what I expected but maybe I thought it was be more creepy?

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We entered and came out onto a lovely courtyard with lots of rooms extending off the courtyard.

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Each was filled with strange and interesting art exhibits. All the descriptions were in Spanish so we had no idea what they were about. Still made for an interesting wander through. The building itself was made up of a number of these courtyards all connected through rooms, it was a lovely place to explore and kept us busy for a while.

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Being South America, Cuenca was FILLED with old amazing cathedrals. It seemed as though every corner had yet another incredible cathedral just as amazing as the last.

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The main cathedral in the middle of the town square, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, gives tours for only $2US and although completely in Spanish, you do get to enter into the crypts under the church. They are very pretty, with beautiful curved white walls and lovely statues. We may not have understood anything being said but it was interesting all the same. Especially given that we had just experienced the Day of the Dead in Baños and seen the graveyard there as well.

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And just to continue our theme of the dead, we also visited the Pumapungo Museum. The museum itself is ok, I think I now have high museum standards from all the amazing museums in Bogota… but what it does have is a collection of shrunken heads… which neither Mitch or myself had ever seen before. Super creepy, especially as they are in a dark room with very low lighting on them. I didn’t realise what was in there until it was too late and I managed to give myself a bit of a fright!

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The rest of our time in Cuenca was spent wandering through the streets, exploring the city. Cuenca was my favourite place in Ecuador. The people were lovely and the city is beautiful!

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Also coffee. Cuenca is the first place we have come across that has decent coffee! You would think being South America we would be swimming in fabulous coffee… or at least I did! But apparently they export anything thats good and most of the coffee we’ve been drinking has been instant…sigh

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Overall Cuenca was a great place to hang out in and wander the streets. We had only planned on spending one day there before hopping on a night bus to Peru… We stayed for five.

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The original plan for us was to leave Quito and head up to the Quilotoa Lake to hike around the crater of the volcano… Unfortunately as is the case sometimes when traveling, things get in the way of that and due to some unforeseen circumstances we made it to Latacunga but missed the only bus connection to Quilotoa for that day. Latacunga was a totally horrible place so we decided that rather then wait for the bus the next day we would just get on another bus headed for Baños instead.

Baños is a tiny town set in a valley with a beautiful river flowing to one side of the town and to the other, an active volcano!

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(Just in case the volcano erupts, these are on all the roads directing you to the evacuation areas…)

A truly beautiful and amazing place.

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You don’t even need to leave the town to see its remarkable scenery, there are waterfalls literally on the mountain directly behind the town!

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We decided our time was best spent in Baños by getting out in to the wilderness a bit and heading on a hike. We combined this with out desire to head to La Casa Del Arbol, the swing at the end of the world. We had the impression that this would be just a chilled out wander over a bit of a hill… what it Turned out to be was only about 4kms in walking but a gain of almost a vertical km in altitude (!) going over the mountain directly behind Baños. It was pretty hard, mostly due to the altitude! But we made it! And it was worth it!

The first part of the walk was pretty well laid out with stairs as its a popular path for locals going to visit the Statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks the city

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After this point the hike kinda goes a bit more cross country… And vertical! There was no longer stairs, just a not very well worn path through the bushes, with an occasional off shoot to small shacks dotted along the hill side. We didn’t see another person until we reached the top of the mountain and there was a farmer tending a paddock… And a cow…

After a fair bit of hiking (and a bit of getting lost!) we were pretty excited to finally see La Casa Del Arbol in the distance! And even more excited when we finally arrived!

La Casa Del Arbol is a treehouse and small, simple cafe set up on the top of the mountain affording the most incredible views of the surrounding scenery.

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We chilled out for a bit and grabed a coffee/beer and took it all in.

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Then it was our turn on the swing! So amazing! You really do feel like there is nothing below you!

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We were enjoying ourselves so much we missed the bus back to town by 10 mins… and had to begin the wander back. Unfortunately you can’t come back the way you came, its simply too steep, so we had to follow the road, which is a much longer way of getting back to Baños. This was going to take ages…Thankfully after only an hour or so of walking a taxi eventually came along and picked us up and took us back to town for not very much money… And it was a long way away!

Our next few days were… interesting… Mitch got pretty sick and spent a few days recovering and Baños embraced the three day celebration that is Day of the Dead (Halloween). It was pretty crazy stuff… actually it was more just noisy than anything! We had seen the preparations taking place since we arrived in Banos but on 31st October the town went into overdrive!

Starting at about 6am there was a full band in the back of a ute driving around the streets playing music.

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This did not stop for 24hours. And this turned into many bands, walking and driving, stopping out the front of houses, all day and night. People joined in and followed the bands. Some of them had groups of dances. It was pretty cool… And now I kind of miss the constant sound of music…

The locals had things going on all over the place… They were at the graveyard all day and night with celebrations and fireworks,  there was church services at the large cathedral in the centre of town, and they had a massive party outside the church in the town square…

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This was the first time we had had to deal with a lack of accommodation on our travels. The town (and most places in Ecuador) were almost at capacity with people travelling from all around for the celebrations. It was pretty crazy! And accommodation was ridiculously expensive as well!

The last day we spent in Baños we were going to mountain bike down to the waterfall known as the Devils Cauldron. But with Mitch being sick we thought it best to just go with a tour group instead. The waterfall was pretty cool but with all the extra people around for the holiday it was crazy busy! There were lines just to get down the stairs to the viewing areas… And I’m calling it – worst tour of the entire trip! The “bus” we were on was jammed packed… That’s fine… But what was not cool was the heavy base dance music that was blared the entire time we were on the bus… Omg horrible! Every bus we passed looked like that were hating it as much as we were …

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Categories: Blog, Travel Blog

After a few days hanging out in Bogota we jumped on a plane (the border between Colombia and Ecuador is not considered safe at the moment, so we thought it best to go by air) over to Quito, Ecuador. This was our first experience with a low cost carrier that does not reserve seats! VivaColombia saved basically half the cost of a standard flight and I must say, was pretty good! Mitch and I were the last group to enter the plane and still managed to get a row all to ourselves!

We arrived at about 6pm local time, hopped in a taxi and watched the scenery go by. The hostel we were staying in was located in the middle of the historical centre and it was a pretty amazing view from our window of the main basilica in Quito lit up at night with all the street lights up the hill in the distance. Very cool.

Upon arrival the hostel owner, Paul, asked if we were interested in a free day tour of the city in the morning. Of course we said yes!

Still jet lagged, we were up at about 5am, dressed and out the door by 7am, wandering the streets waiting for everything to open up and our tour to start at 10.30am. We eventually happened upon a bakery just putting out its freshly baked goods for the day including what has become my favourite here in Ecuador, croissants with a chocolate filling! Yum – especially when they are still hot!!

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10.30am rolls around and we go to meet the walking tour group. There was probably 15 or so people and two guides, one a local lady and another an English expat who lives here with his wife now. We wandered the streets of the old city, taking in the amazing architecture and beautiful churches. Not to mention we were lucky enough to be there on a Tuesday, which is the changing of the guard day in the centre of town! The president was there and everything… pretty cool!

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Quito also happens to be the place we discovered the fantastically economical, not too mention tasty, traditional set meals… breakfasts, lunches, dinners – theres always a set meal to suit! Our first set meal was recommended by one of the guides and cost us $2.85US. We sat down in the little restaurant and the waiter who spoke a smidgen of english gave us the option beef or fish? we both said beef.

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Out came an incredibly filling soup with potatoes and some other veggies and beef along with an amazing pineapple juice! Perfect! We ate that up and by the end we were both pretty full! Thinking that was it, we were about to get up and pay, satisfied with the cost of lunch in the city… when the waiter brought out the rest of our meals! A plate of rice and more beef! So good! but so full!

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And this was when we fell in love with set meals!

That afternoon after recovering from our food coma, we wandered back to the huge Basilica del Voto Nacional in the middle of town.

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For $2US they let you climb up to the roof and then explore all the clock towers and steeples, giving the best views of the city! I must admit some of the ladders left a lot to be desired, especially the last ladder to the outside steeple… But once at the top the views were worth the almost death ladder!

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One of the coolest things was crossing over the arched roof inside the church! It never occurred to me that there was a large gap between the arch inside the church and the roof on the outside! They had built a makeshift “bridge” over the arch to allow you to move from one side of the church to another set of viewing areas.

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We spent quite a while exploring this beautiful Basilica before heading out for pizza dinner with some other travellers we’d met during the walking tour and at the hostel. It was some of the best pizza I’d had in a while!

After a good nights sleep, we had planned to try and make it to the summit of Pichincha Volcano at an altitude of 4784m, with 3 others from the hostel. Unfortunately our weather apps were saying that it would be thunder storming by the time we summit (100% chance, it said!) and at that altitude we didn’t want to risk it. So instead we went out for a set breakfast at a cafe nearby and decided we would all walk up another hill to see the QUITO letter signage above the city.

It was a really lovely walk and the view was pretty good too! There was a running track and a large glass pavilion filled with bean bags to hang out it. Pretty cool!

Needless to say, it was a cloudless day with no rain and no storms… standard weather forecasting

Weary and jet lagged, we touched down at the surprisingly lovely Bogota International Airport in Colombia after I don’t even know how many days flying, a stopover in Los Angeles and many unclaimed hours of sleep.

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(Santa Monica Pier, Los Angeles)

We made it to our hostel (barely, I’m not actually sure how that happened as I was basically a walking zombie at the time…) and then I slept… For 16 hours…

I awoke the following morning not really feeling any better but determined to head out into the intimidating Colombian capital. We spoke to the hostel owner, a young local guy who had such passion for his city that we were filled with confidence about our location despite the things you read online.

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($0.50 fresh churros from a street vendor – Yum!)

It was recommended we spend a day wandering the old historical centre of Bogota and visiting some of their museums. The Hostel Owner directed us to the Museo Nacional, his favourite of the museums (that’s saying something, there’s like a thousand in Bogota!). It’s in an old prison building near the start of the old historical centre. The museum itself was a collection of historical pieces from Colombian history and was probably one of the best museums I’ve ever been too! What made this museum even more amazing though was its phenomenal building. Large brickwork on the outside and amazing white walls with cobblestone and wooden floors in the inside. The most beautiful building I’ve seen to date!

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From here we wandered further into the historical centre, a beautiful area filled with colonial buildings like nothing we experienced in Asia. Our next stop was the Museo del Oro, the Gold Museum. We simply stopped here to fill in our day and had completely written off this museum… Honestly how interesting could a gold museum possibly be!? The answer to that is very! 3 floors filled with gold work from the pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. Truly amazing! We wandering aimlessly through this museum for a long time, fascinated by the amazing gold work here.

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We continued our exploration and found ourselves in the Bolivar Square. This is an the area of town containing all the parliamentary buildings and offices, as well as a lot of pigeons! Like everywhere!! The old square is massive and the buildings all follow with that old colonial feel. There are police everywhere here with roads blocked off to traffic. We were actually searching for the Museo Historico de la Policia, the Police Museum! Yet another free museum in Bogota!

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After wandering the streets for ages we were about to give up when a young policeman approached us and asked if we wanted to go to the free police museum! He had a bunch of tourists in tow… I’m thinking it must be a common problem for people to get lost finding this museum…

Here we thought we’d just wander around this museum by ourselves… But they arrange guides for you (police that work there) to give you a fully guided tour… For free… And being the only English speakers there, Mitch and myself got a private tour! Our tour guides name was Brian and he was learning English to one day travel the world. The tour was really interesting and involved a lot of information about how the Colombian Police came to exist, eventually throughout all of Colombia, and a lot about their war on drugs, including a whole section relating to the infamous Pablo Escobar and his eventual demise. We must have spent over an hour being guided around. Yet another fascinating museum! At the end of our tour it came to light that this was the first tour Brian had ever given in English! His English was perfect! And he wanted to take a picture with us! Such a nice kid!

This ended our first day in Bogota. Being still jet lagged, despite my best efforts I was asleep by 7pm…

We spent the next few days attempting to adjust to our new time zone and spent a lot of time wandering around and drinking coffee, chatting with other travellers in the hostel. This is how we came to hear about a free graffiti tour put on everyday. We were told it was a must! And so on our last day in Bogota we headed to La Candelaria, the oldest of all the old parts of Bogota (some of the buildings in this area are more than 500 years old) to meet up with our guide, a Colombian born, American raised guy who moved back to Colombia just over two years ago to get in on the Colombian graffiti movement. He now runs a gallery displaying graffiti artists work in Bogota.

For over two hours we wandered through the old city, learning about the history of graffiti in Bogota, about the styles involved, the messages behind it all, the hierarchy amongst artists and about the artists themselves. It was an eye-opening tour, especially for me. The graffiti in Bogota is on a whole other level to anywhere I’ve ever been and at first I’ll admit I did associate it with the high crime rate Bogota is known for, but it is much more than that! And the community totally embraces it. In fact they are known to band together and hire a graffiti artist to paint a wall or building in the area.

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This tour was the best way to finish our time in Bogota. It was an eye-opening experience that made me feel much more comfortable in what is quite possibly the most dangerous place we’ve ever been … Or at least that’s what the guide books keep telling us…

Categories: Blog, Travel Blog