Sun, sea, sand and….sick!

Before I start writing this blog I want to stress that within this entry there is one day which was truly the most ridiculous day of our entire trip…you’ll see what I mean later!!

Anyway…

We were both really looking forward to our time in Cape Town. Even though it was the first place we were going to on our trip that we’d been to before, it would be nice to spend over two weeks in one place. But more importantly my Mum, Dad, sister Katherine (Frim) and her boyfriend Chris were coming to visit so I was really excited about seeing them.

After successfully negotiating the bus from the airport we spotted my Mum and Dad waving furiously at the side of the road, I hadn’t seen them for 10 months so there was a lot of hugging and general excitement. Last time we came to Cape Town we stayed at a place called Camps Bay Resort which is metres from what I think is the nicest beach in Cape Town. This time it was a little out of our price range but as my parents kindly offered to pay, we got to stay there again, yey.

Camps Bay is dramatically set at the foot of the Twelve Apostles Mountains and the beach front is full of lovely bars and restaurants. Straight away it felt like like a holiday from our travelling, thankfully with the help of the bank of mum and dad!! It was actually lovely not to do much apart from chill out on the beach for a few days and go out for amazing food. The meat and fish in Cape Town is incredible and luckily for us the exchange rate from pounds to rand makes everything really cheap! On the second afternoon after a lazy day on the beach we headed to V&A waterfront. It’s such a pretty place, and I knew my parents would love it. It’s still a working harbour and with Table Mountain in the the background and beautiful buildings all around with tons of bars and restaurants, it’s a great place to spend an afternoon.

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We went out for an amazing african meal and Tom had Ostrich, which was delicious. That’s one thing we vowed to do whilst in Africa, try as many different game meats as possible!

The following day arrived and with it the arrival of my sister and her boyfriend. Again we hadn’t seen them for 10 months so we were really excited to get everyone together and let the holiday really begin. Every year the six of us head to Cornwall and have a few days together on the south coast of England. Obviously myself and Tom didn’t make it last year as we were in Japan so when Fris (Frim and Chris) arrived it was like the six of us being back in Cornwall….just six thousand and five miles further south!! We had tons of stuff lined up to do so after another amazing meal out in Camps Bay we headed to bed ahead of our trip up Table Mountain the following day.

Fris are keen walkers so they decided to hike up to the top of table mountain whilst the rest of us got the cable car up, far more civilised! The views from the top are truly spectacular.

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Fris made is up about an hour later after their stroll up the side of the mountain in the 30 degree heat! Frim almost gave up but fair play to them both for doing it. I’d earlier asked Tom if he wanted to walk up and was met with a ‘what do you think’ stare…I took that as a no!

After a few hours at the top and a few photos of Dassies (big guinea pig like things) myself and Fris walked to the highest point, Maclear’s Beacon…just to say we’d been there.

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The next day was something Frim was really excited about, a trip to see the penguins at Simons Town. Back in 2008 when me and Tom were last in Cape Town we’d taken a trip there and I knew the Eccles’ and Chris would love it. After a stop off at St. James Beach to take some pictures of the brightly coloured beach huts we continued on to Simons Town, the home of Boulders Beach and the African Penguins.

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After a lovely meal in the harbour we headed off to see the penguins. We started off by doing the walk we did last time and saw tons of penguins hiding and nesting in the woods. I think everyone was excited to see them, but were more excited to see them on the beach…that was coming up. We arrived at Boulders Beach and I went for a swim. It was amazing just being in the water and seeing a penguin pop up next to me.

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I could have stayed there all day but the others had headed back to the penguin walkways on the next beach along so we went to join them. If we weren’t on a tight schedule I think we’d have been there for hours as penguins really amuse me, just waddling around in the sand!!

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We finally managed to drag ourselves away and headed down to Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Last time we’d visited South Africa we’d headed there for sunset but didn’t realise that they actually shut the gates at sunset and won’t let you in anytime after 5pm (we arrived at 5.02pm!) We didn’t take any chances this time and made sure we were there with plenty of time to spare. We headed to Cape Point first and took some amazing pictures.

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After we’d done there we headed to Cape of Good Hope and enroute stumbled across a herd(?) of Ostriches….as you do!

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Cape of a Good Hope was beautiful and we decided to stay as long as possible without getting fined for being out after sunset (apparently they do this and seeing as we knew from experience they were sticklers for the rules, we didn’t want to take the chance!) We were the last car to leave and it really was beautiful sitting on the beach watching the sun go down. After a speedy journey to the gate we luckily made it out with a minute to spare…

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Whilst my family were in Africa I really wanted them experience going on safari but unfortunately there aren’t any of the big national parks near Cape Town. I did a bit of research and found a place called Inverdoorn Game Reserve, and decided that was a good alternative. Inverdoorn is the largest private game reserve in the western Cape and is home to the big 5 (elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino, leopard) amongst other animals. Quite a few of the animals have been rescued and there is a cheetah conservation program which is pioneering the fight to save the cheetah and is home to 14 cheetahs, many of which have been rescued from horrific circumstances.

As we’d left it late to book there were only the deluxe chalets available, such a shame! It was like staying in a five star hotel. On arrival we spotted 2 small rhinos in an enclosure near our accommodation so headed over to see them.

We learnt that their mother had been killed by poachers so they had been rescued and brought to the centre. They were too small to be let out into the reserve alone so they had to be hand reared until they were 2 years old, then they could be reintroduced into the wild. Poaching is a huge problem in Africa and has now reached crisis point. In 2013 the recorded number of rhinos poached in South Africa alone was 1004 which was over double that off 2011. The stats are pretty horrific and if the killing continues at this rate, rhino deaths could overtake births in 2016-2018, meaning rhinos could go extinct in the very near future. All the rhinos at Inverdoorn had paint injected into their horns to try and stop poachers, it’s so sad the lengths they have to go to.

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After some lovely food and a relaxing time by the pool, we headed out on our first safari.
To begin with we headed into the lion reserve. All three lions at Inverdoorn were rescued and unfortunately they have to kept separate from the other animals as they have to be fed by the rangers. One of the Lion’s, Robby, was rescued from a terrible fate as a canned lion. (Canning refers to trophy hunting, trapping an animal in an enclosed space so hunters guarantee a successful hunt) So even though the lions aren’t completely wild they have a huge area to wander around freely and have a much better life now than previously.

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After visiting the lions we headed into the main reserve and went off in search of other animals. We saw found giraffes, rhinos and wildebeest as well as various other animals and birds such as kudu, impala and zebra.

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Next stop was the cheetah conservation centre. Sadly, there are less than 10 000 cheetahs left in the wild today. Their biggest threats are human conflicts, habitat loss and illegal trading. Inverdoorn runs the a Cheetah centre with an aim to raise awareness about the dwindling numbers of these beautiful cats.

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One of the aims of the conservation centre is to release the wild cheetahs into the main reserve. Many of the cheetahs have been rescued from dire circumstances so they have to be properly rehabilitated before this can happen. For example they have to know how to hunt in order to survive. This is one of the reasons for the daily cheetah run, to help the them get used to chasing prey. We were lucky enough to experience a successful cheetah run, (sometimes they can’t be bothered to run) it was amazing to see the fastest land mammal speeding past!

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As the sky started to change colour we headed back to the lodge to watch a beautiful african sunset from the comfort of our roof terrace, it’s a hard life!

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That evening we had a lovely meal by the swimming pool before heading back up to our roof terrace for some stargazing. As we were in the middle of nowhere the stars were fantastic and it really was the perfect end to an amazing day.

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The following morning we had an early game drive. We saw more giraffes just as the sun was coming up so got some stunning photos.

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We saw hippos and buffalo, found one of the two wild cheetah’s released into the main reserve, saw more rhinos and then much to my Mum’s delight we found the elephants. There are two elephants at Inverdoorn, Bully and Nduna. Both were bred in captivity and were working in films until they were transferred to Inverdoorn for a life in their natural environment. We spent loads of time watching the, and they seemed very happy in their new environment.

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After a lovely breakfast we went on our a cheetah interaction and met Velvet. The story of how she ended up at the centre was pretty horrific. As a cub she was being reared in a bathroom with her 3 brothers before being sent to the Middle East to be a rich person’s pet! The conservation centre tried to rescue the 4 cubs but it took the death of one of Velvet’s brothers for the owner to see sense and allow the conservation centre to take them away. Unfortunately for Velvet she has a broken tail which means she will never be able to be released into the wild. Cheetahs use their tails whilst running to help them steer and turn, so she wouldn’t be able to successfully hunt. The interaction though was amazing. We learnt all about the beautiful cats and also had the chance to stroke her.

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All in all it was a great experience and one which I hope my parents and Fris will never forget.

On the way back to Cape Town we decided to take a detour and drive through Stellenbosch, one of the biggest wine regions in South Africa. We’d done quite a bit of wine tasting on our travels and I was keen to let the others experience it. We decided to go to Ernie Els’ winery as it had a good write up. Well, it was interesting to say the least.

The setting was beautiful but we unfortunately met one of the rudest waiters I’d ever met in my life. Amongst many other things he blamed us for ordering food after the kitchen had closed, even though he had left us waiting for a table for half an hour and then went on to say that the wine we’d chosen to taste wasn’t worth tasting!! It was all bizarre and I managed to bite my tongue as I didn’t want to kick up too much of a fuss and ruin the experience even more than this idiot already was. Thankfully we still had a lovely time and after a few choice words from me he actually apologised, kind of! It did mean that he served me minuscule tasters of the wine compared to the others…oh well.

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After a day on the beach and one of Camps Bay’s beautiful sunsets it was time for the strangest day of our trip…

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The last time we came to Cape Town we went shark cage diving in nearby Gansbaai and as my Dad is really interested in sharks we knew he’d love it. There was no way in the world we’d get my Mum in the cage but we thought she’d enjoy the views from the boat. On arrival in Gansbaai we had a lovely breakfast before heading off onto the boat. Unfortunately for us we’d picked a day which wasn’t exactly ideal. The conditions out at sea were pretty rough and the visibility in the water wasn’t very good. It also started raining as we left land, but I was still confident we’d have a fun time.

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It took about an hour for us to find the first Great Whites but when we did they were incredible. They were coming up out of the water trying to eat the tuna head and the first divers went into the cage.

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I noticed that once people had been in the cage they came out looking a bit green and a few started being sea-sick. As the weather started to deteriorate the amount of people getting sick started to increase and before long about half the people on the boat we making use of the paper bags provided!!

Before long it was our turn in the cage and it didn’t disappoint. Just seeing the Great Whites so close and coming towards the cage under the water was amazing. I did try and take some photos with our underwater camera but the choppy conditions meant I ended up taking pictures of the ropes and side of the cage!! Oh well. When our time was up we headed back onto the boat and had just started discussing our experience when suddenly things took a turn for the worst. I didn’t actually see this incident occur but Tom saw it first hand. He was saying to Chris now he felt a bit rough but Chris said he felt fine. Then suddenly out of nowhere projectile vomit fired out of Chris’s mouth into a towel and the pressure of the spew went flying over the top of the towel and all over Frim’s head, face and shoulders (and onto the arm of the skipper!) I turned around to see my poor sister standing there looking shell shocked covered (and I mean covered) in bright yellow sick!! As I’d missed the main event I had absolutely no idea what had happened and was really confused…I actually thought she’d been sick on herself until I worked out it would be pretty tricky to be sick on the top of your own head!! Because I’m a lovely helpful sister I, along with the unfortunate skipper, helped clean the sick off Frim who still looked distraught.

This pretty much spelled the end for our shark experience as the weather was truly horrific by this point and the skipper called it a day. We headed back in treacherous conditions and by all accounts the upstairs of the boat was like a roller coaster. Thankfully we made it back to dry land without any other vomit related events occurring!!

Once back at the centre we wound Chris up with as many sick related puns as we could think of, ate some food and then headed off back to Cape Town. We stopped off to get some diesel and I spotted an off licence so we went to buy some wine for the evening. We were just getting back into the car when we heard this crash and the sound of broken glass. My Dad had fallen off the kerb and hit his elbow and knee at the same time as dropping one of the bottles of wine. Thankfully his injuries weren’t too bad but I headed to the pharmacy to get some antiseptic wipes whilst my Mum and sister went back to the off licence to replace the bottle of wine….priorities!! After cleaning him up we were back on our way laughing about what else could possibly go wrong!!

About twenty minutes later there was a loud cracking noise as a large stone hit the windscreen of our hire car! After close inspection there was a rather large chip in the windscreen…argh. This day was getting pretty ridiculous.
We continued on and as we were giving the car back the following day we had to make sure the tank was full so stopped off at another petrol station close to home. In South Africa there are attendants that fill the tank up for you. Unfortunately for us our attendant was also having a bad day and even though Tom asked for diesel and there was a huge sign saying diesel next to the petrol cap…he filled up with petrol…aaah. Our ridiculous day of projectile vomiting, smashed wine, injured limbs, a chipped windscreen and now useless car was complete! Thankfully the petrol station took full responsibility for the mistake and sorted it out with the rental company and we headed home in a taxi!!

That evening we “carefully” walked up the hill to an amazing grill restaurant near our apartments and ate one of the best meals of our holiday. The steaks were to die for and after the day we’d had we were just pleased that we didn’t all walk away with food poisoning!!!

Still laughing about the ridiculousness of the previous day we headed off to the district six museum. District Six used to be a vibrant centre close to the city but by the beginning of the twentieth century black South Africans were being forced out. Then in 1966 it was declared a whites area and 60,000 people were forcibly removed and their houses in District Six were flattened by bulldozers. The museum tells the stories of some of these people and has some of the original signs from the area. It was really interesting, if a little disorganised, but we were all pleased we’d visited.

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After there we headed to V and A ahead of our trip to Robben Island.
The island is most famously known as the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, but before it was a prison it had various other uses such as a leper colony and a military base.

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We were warned that the crossing was going to be a bit rough (so we obviously all looked at Chris) but compared to our shark adventure it was like a millpond! It was really interesting to visit the place where Nelson Mandela spent so many years of his life. I’d recently read his autobiography so it was great to visit the various places he wrote about, such as the limestone quarry, his prison cell and the yard in which Mandela and Walter Sisulu buried the manuscript which later became Long Walk to Freedom.

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After returning to the V and A in chilly conditions we headed out for the last supper as my parents were heading home the following day. The holiday had absolutely flown by and even though we’d packed so much into the 10 days it felt like they’d only just arrived. We went to an amazing restaurant at the V and A, even if it was way to dark for my parents and much to my amusement they had to read the menu with a torch!!!

It was sad saying goodbye to my mum and dad the following day but we were so pleased they’d come all the way to Cape Town to visit us. I knew they’d love it and I was so happy that we’d given them the excuse to come and visit this wonderful city. Tom and I also had to leave Camps Bay and find somewhere else to stay as the bank of Mum and Dad was now closed, so we needed cheaper accommodation! We found an awesome hostel near Long Street, the main street in Cape Town which was really homely and had lovely views of table mountain. Plus it was only £8 a night, bargain!

We headed back to Camps Bay for one last meal with Fris at a restaurant we’d not been able to go to with my parents as my Dad doesn’t like fish. It’s called Codfather and instead of having a menu you just head up to the counter and pick out the fish you’d like to try.

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Back in 2008 we’d visited the restaurant twice and once again it didn’t disappoint. It was the perfect end to the family trip to Cape Town.

We did head back to Camps Bay the next day to wave Fris off, and were greeted by the sight of a huge pod of dolphins swimming in the bay, this place never ceases to amaze me.

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Then the holiday from our travels was over, and it was amazing!!! We did have a few extra days in Cape Town but apart from searching for a sleeping bag for our trip to Namibia and petting Easter bunnies in a shopping centre we didn’t do very much.

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I loved every second of South Africa…actually I don’t mean that, cleaning sick off Frim’s head was definitely a lowlight…but apart from that the last two weeks were amazing and I was so happy my family came out and experienced this special place with us.

To see more photos please click here

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Breathtaking Bolivia

After our sensible (ish) behaviour at the fiesta in Puno we headed off to La Paz, a City with an elevation of 3,640 m (11,942 ft) with only slight headaches. We’d booked our bus through the hostel and generally whichever bus company we’d booked with in Latin America, that was the bus we travelled on. (unlike in Asia when it was sheer luck) The lovely looking bus we’d booked was nowhere to be seen and instead our transport was a bit rough around the edges. Apart from my seat being broken and seat-belt not working everything was fine!!
We arrived at the Bolivian border and realised that we (Tom) had lost my exit card from Peru…oops. Thankfully for us the authorities were willing to overlook this in return for a payment of about £6 so all in all it could have been a lot worse. Borders are generally a pain, and apart from the big queues this one was relatively straightforward and within the hour we were back on the bus continuing on with our journey. We stopped at a place called Copacabana and all piled off the bus and were told to meet again at 1pm to continue on to La Paz. Luckily for us Tom overheard the bus worker telling someone else that the time had changed and Bolivia was an hour ahead of Peru. Probably quite a useful thing to tell all the passengers!! That only gave us half an our so we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back to the bus.

We’d been on our new bus for about 20 minutes when the heavens opened and a hail storm commenced. Unluckily for us this coincided with the exact moment we reached the Lake Titicaca crossing and had to get off the bus and on to a rickety passenger ferry, it was very much like being back in Asia! The only slight problem being that our waterproofs were under the bus in the hold, aaah. We all huddled under a shop awning, attempting (and failing) to stay dry. As usual there were no instructions from the driver on what we were meant to be doing so we just followed some locals away from our rain shelter and onto the boat for the 5 minute journey across the lake.

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As our bus continued on I read up on La Paz. As Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America I wasn’t sure what to expect from the big city but my lonely planet informed me that the initial views were breathtaking, and not just because of the altitude…the book didn’t lie!!

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For some reason rather than going into the actual bus station our bus dropped us off just outside on a busy roundabout…why? After grabbing our bags and successfully negotiating oncoming traffic we headed towards the centre. We hadn’t actually got round to booking a hostel but I’d read about one near to the bus station so we decided to try there. It had a pool table, it’s own micro brewery and a free beer each day, you can’t ask for more from your lodgings!!

The hostel was actually great and they even had their own travel company so we could book our tickets for the death road bike trip!! Loads of people we’d spoken to who had already been to La Paz said that death road was a must see and to be honest, I don’t need much persuasion when it comes to extreme activities. There were umpteen companies to choose from for the trip but we decided a bit of research wouldn’t go amiss. Saving a few bolivianos wasn’t really worth the risk as we’d be hurtling down a mountain road at more than 30mph with vertical drops of 600 metres to our left…so we could probably do with a bike with working brakes!!

We finally decided on a company called Barracuda, they weren’t the cheapest but weren’t the most expensive and had excellent reviews. After booking the trip for the next day we headed into La Paz for a look around and to find some food. There was a nice feel about the place and we both liked it immediately. It did feel like a poorer city than ones we’d been to previously in Latin America but at the same time we didn’t feel unsafe. We’d heard reports of it being a bit dangerous but we didn’t get that impression at all. Tom read about a local steak restaurant up a hill so decided to go there and see what all the fuss was about. The steak was amazing and made us even more excited about the food we were going to eat in Argentina, a country famous for its red meat.

The next day was Death Road day and we were both really excited. Death Road was built in the 1930’s and earned it’s notoriety in 1995 after a study revealed that there were between 200-300 deaths a year on the 64 kilometre mountain track. Although a new road opened in 2006 there are still a few lorries and cars to contend with on the sometimes single track road, although not as many as in the past, thankfully. 18 backpackers have need killed since cyclists started tackling its hairpin bends 12 years ago, so it’s definitely not for the faint hearted!! We drove through some incredible scenery to get to our starting point, which wasn’t actually death road. We were going to practise first on a very steep downhill road but without the scary drops at the side!!

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It was great fun hurtling down these wide roads but it did make you realise the speeds you could get…we probably didn’t want to go quite so fast when there was a 600 metre drop at the side of the road!!

After the practice section was complete we got back onto the bus and drove up to the start of death road passing a sign with an arrow pointing to “the road of death”, lovely. Our guide was brilliant and gave us information on what to expect from each section along with his golden rule, don’t be a f**king idiot! He told us a story about a couple who’d been taking pictures of each other whilst riding and the girl turned around to smile at her boyfriend and went straight over the edge and died…note to self, eyes on the road at all times!!

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The whole day was absolutely amazing and actually wasn’t as scary as I’d anticipated. In parts the road was only the width of a single vehicle and was gravelly with large stones and rocks rather than lovely smooth tarmac like on our practice road. At one point a huge lorry sounded it’s horn, which was deafening as it came hurtling around the corner at us, that was pretty scary. There isn’t as much traffic on the road now, thankfully, I can’t even imagine watching 2 cars try and overtake each other. (There was a Top Gear special where they did this) The views along the road were amazing, although I only glanced at them very briefly for fear of ending up like the aforementioned girl.

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All on all it was a brilliant day riding through waterfalls and streams along the most dangerous road in the he world. At the end we stopped for some food and a well deserved beer and celebrated surviving a bike trip down the world’s most dangerous road!!

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The next day we went for a wander around the city. I wanted to go and see the prison (more about that later) and the witches’ market. The Witches’ Market is run by local witch doctors and sells weird and wonderful potions and powders used in Bolivian rituals. The most bizarre thing they sell are dried up Llama foetus which when buried under foundations of Bolivian homes bring good luck, it was so interesting to see. After that we headed to the main plaza where the pink prison was located. I can understand why people may think it’s odd to want to see a prison in Bolivia, but this is no ordinary jail.

San Pedro prison is the largest prison in La Paz and is renowned for being a society within itself. Inmates at San Pedro have jobs inside the prison community, buy or rent their accommodation, and often live with their families. The prison is home to approximately 1,500 inmates (not including the women and children that live inside the walls with their convicted husbands), with additional guests staying in the prison hotel. Within the prison walls there are shops and restaurants and it looks more like a town square than a prison. If you are rich you can buy a room in the 5 star area which has incredible facilities including jacuzzis whilst the poorer people are in the 1 or no star areas where they share windowless cells. Up until 2013 tourists could have a tour of the prison led by an inmate but this was stopped by the government because it was being used as a way to sell cocaine to tourists. (although apparently they can still happen if you bribe a guard) The weird part about it all is the guards don’t enter the cells. The prisoners basically do as they wish cook their own food and have to pay for everything within the prison. I was ridiculously intrigued by this place so wanted to go and see it. From the outside it didn’t look like a prison (probably because it was pink and right in the middle of the city plaza) and as we looked through the main door into the courtyard we could see a mass of prisoners just wandering around, bizarre.

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Our next stop in Bolivia was a place called Uyuni which was about a 15 hour overnight bus ride away. We’d heard reports that the roads were pretty bad and the bus journey wasn’t at all comfortable. We decided to try and counteract his by paying a bit more for a comfier bus but to be honest I don’t think it made much difference. The road seemed pretty similar to the condition of death road, albeit without the sheer drops, and we both got little sleep.

We arrived in Uyuni at 8am and headed straight to the office to pay for our three day two night salt flats tour which I’d booked the day before. This was the main reason we’d wanted to come to Bolivia as the famous salt flats and surrounding lagoons are said to be one of the highlights of South America. The problem was because there were so many people wanting to do the trip, there were tons of different tour companies with varying degrees of safety and reliability. I’d read stories of drivers bring drunk and falling asleep at the wheel, inedible food and disinterested guides to name but a few complaints. After scouring reviews I settled with a family run company called Quechua Connections, and kept my fingers crossed that I’d made a good choice.
First impressions were good and after paying for the trip we headed off for breakfast and to investigate the public shower. Uyuni was a very basic looking town in the middle of the desert so I didn’t hold out much hope for a decent shower in the public toilets, but I was proved wrong. Our standards are so low now that having a wash in an outhouse with stone floors, no roof and insects everywhere was actually an enjoyable experience all because there was warm water!!

Our tour began with with a trip to see 700+ year old cacti and the train cemetery. It was really odd to see so many abandoned trains in the middle of the desert. They were used for transporting mined minerals up until the 1940s but once they were no longer needed they were all dumped in the desert.

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From there we headed to the world’s largest salt flats, Salar de Uyuni, 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level. The flats are 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) and were absolutely beautiful. It felt and looked like we were driving on ice but obviously it was salt. As we were visiting in rainy season we were a bit concerned that we wouldn’t get the funny photos everyone had been showing us, we needed have worried. We started off at the wet ice and it was like looking at a giant mirror. The effect it had on the horizon was amazing and at times it was impossible to tell where the land ended and the sky began, just beautiful.

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After sitting on the beautiful wet salt to eat some food we sat on top of the van and were taken to the dry flats. There, along with two people from our jeep (there were 6 of us in the jeep but a spanish couple didn’t want to take part!?) we spent an hour and a half having great fun playing with perspectives. Luckily for us our guide/driver Dion had brought tons of props and was brilliant at setting up the photos, we had so much fun.

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After we felt like we had enough photos we headed off to watch the sunset over the reflecting wet salt flats. Our driver took us away from the crowds and found us a quiet piece of salt with no-one else around and we just sat and watched the huge orange ball disappear beyond the horizon whist drinking coffee and eating biscuits. It was honestly one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen

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That night we stayed at a lodge run by more members of the family and we were thankful for an early night after an unforgettable day.

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After breakfast we headed off into the desert to see lagoons, flamingos and breathtaking scenery.

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The pictures honestly don’t do any of it justice and we were all constantly amazed at the vastness and prettiness of our surroundings. That night we stayed at a very basic but rustic stone lodge in the middle of the desert. There were a few other tour groups there and this was when we realised that we really had lucked out with our company choice. Whilst everyone else was eating pasta and sauce we say down and tucked into a 3 course meal with wine and then Dion and the other guide from our group Jose built us a bonfire and joined us outside to star gaze and drink red wine around the bonfire.

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The next morning We had to be up at 4.30 am so we could watch the sun rise up over the geysers. Wandering around the smelly geysers was a bit like something from a horror film and I felt like the ground would give way at any moment and I’d fall in to the stinky sulphuric cauldron. Luckily this didn’t happen and we couldn’t stay for more than 10 minutes due to the harmful gases.

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From here we headed to the natural hot springs. Our guide told us to go in straight away before all the crowds turned up, it was relatively quiet at this point. It was still only 6.30am and pretty chilly, the last thing I felt like doing was stripping off into my bikini in what felt like sub zero temperatures…but the steam coming from the hot pools was too enticing.

It was like getting into a bath when you’re really cold and the bath is a little bit too hot! Once we’d adjusted though it was amazing, although getting back out into the cold wasn’t enjoyable!

After breakfast and a quick visit to the green lagoon our whistle stop tour of Bolivia was over and we headed for the Chile border. I wish we’d had more time to explore this amazingly beautiful and diverse country but I’m really pleased we had chance to experience what we did. Bolivia may be one of the poorest countries in Latin America but it’s blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.

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As usual we have lots more photos, please click here to have a look.

So much to do in Peru…

After our flight from Iquitos to Lima, we hopped in a taxi to the bus station as we’d read that it wasn’t in the nicest of areas. Most of the surrounding streets were gated and fenced off so we were pretty pleased we weren’t wandering the streets for once. We’d decided to get on one of the ‘nicer’ buses as it was a 21 hour overnight trip to Cuzco and once we arrived there the plan was to continue straight to the town near Machu Picchu. To sum up, we needed a comfy bus that we’d be able to sleep on. We hadn’t sorted out any of our onward travel so as usual we just thought we’d wing it!

The bus was pretty comfortable, we were even given a blanket and a pillow for our reclining seats and a waiter brought us food….fancy! We even had our own separate screen on the chair in front to watch films!!!! The only slightly annoying thing (I say slightly but at the time it was extremely irritating) was the man to the right of us who’s phone rang at least every 4 minutes for the first and last 5 hours of the journey. To make matters worse he was screening his calls so just let it ring and ring…thankfully it only happened in the daylight and not throughout the night or I may have thrown it (and him) out the window!

On arrival in Cuzco, which is 3,399 m (11,152 ft) above sea level we walked for ages to find a collectivo (local mini-bus) heading to Ollantaytambo, the town where the trains head to Machu Picchu. Normally, even with our big rucksacks, this wouldn’t have been a problem but the altitude had us properly huffing and puffing. After a bumpy ride in a van accompanied by a car-sick child we arrived in Ollantaytambo. As non-peruvian’s we weren’t allowed to travel on the local train (which costs £2) but had to buy tickets for the flashy tourist train (which cost £30!) The only way round this would have been to go the ‘back-door route’ which was another 3 collectivos and then a 3 hour walk (with our big bags) up a train track as we wouldn’t get there in time to get a train. This didn’t sound too appealing with our huge bags and also probably not very safe in the dark! So we reluctantly opted for the expensive route. We wanted to get to Aguas Calientes that night as it’s only 9km by road from Machu Picchu and we wanted to beat the crowds there in the morning. To be fair the train ride was impressive and the views out the window were spectacular.

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After securing lodgings for the night at a basic hostel we headed out to sort the tickets. In Ollantaytambo we’d tried to buy the Machu Picchu tickets online as we also wanted to climb Wayna Picchu and they only have a limited numbers of those. We had secured two but the internet decided to crash before we could pay for them and when we went back to try and buy them again it said there was only 1 left. Aaarrggghh. At the ticket office in Aguas Calientes the lady confirmed that Wayna Picchu was sold out. I was annoyed as I really wanted to go up there but there was an alternative, climb Machu Picchu mountain instead. I’d read this was just as good so we reluctantly bought tickets for that. Next stop was bus tickets and here the annoyances continued. After we’d bought and paid for the tickets the woman informed us that the first bus wasn’t leaving until 7am due to the landslides. Aaarrggghh. The whole point in getting to Aguas Calientes the night before was so we could beat the crowds to Machu Picchu before the trains turned up (the first train from Cuzco arrived at 7am). We were both a bit fed up by all this as we’d spent a fortune getting there and buying tickets and it looked as if we weren’t going to get the experience we wanted. I suggested walking but Tom wasn’t keen on the 8km hike at 5am and also quite rightly pointed out that I didn’t know how to walk there. However I got chatting with a couple of girls at our hostel who knew the way and suggested we walk with them. So the plan was set, we were walking.

After a few hours sleep we met our walking partners in reception and set off at 4.40am! We needn’t have worried about not knowing the way as there were quite a few people heading in that direction, I presume because of the landslides. As we didn’t know until the last minute that we were going to walk we were completely unprepared. All we had was water and two tiny biscuits to share. We had to climb over 1700 steps which isn’t that easy at high altitude.

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Finally at 6.15am we arrived and were amazed that the cafe wasn’t open. There was no one selling drinks or food (if this had been asia there we would have been inundated with snack options) nevertheless we’d made it and the entrance to Machu Picchu was just infront of us. Loads of people who’d also walked were sat recovering outside so we headed straight in, and everything seemed worth it. The ridiculous amount of money, the bottom lip out when Wayna Picchu was sold out, the faff of the bus, the ridiculously early morning and the steps were suddenly all forgotten as the view in front of us was truly out of this world. Plus as we were there so early there were only a handful of people in there.

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We had a little sit down, ate our 2 tiny biscuits and just stared at the view, it’s no wonder it’s one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Our tickets for Machu Picchu mountain were for 7am-11am and Tom had already expressed reservations and was happy not to bother with it seeing as we’d ended up walking from the town. For those that don’t know me, I am one of these people that doesn’t like to miss out on things so even though I was pretty tired and knew it was an hour and a half hike up the mountain my stubbornness kicked in and I managed to persuade him to go. I promised him that the views from the top would be worth it (at that point we couldn’t even see the top of the mountain due to thick cloud, minor details!!)

We were only the 4th and 5th people to start the climb up the mountain and I don’t think we were fully prepared for what was in store. We’d been up since 4.15am and all we’d eaten in the time was a tiny biscuit each. (I know I keep going on about how small these biscuits were but think 10pence piece and you won’t be far off…) The walk was pretty gruelling. We battled over 2000 steps and climbed over 650 metres at altitude. There were hardly any nice views on the way up as we were surrounded by cloud and I was getting a bit concerned about my earlier promise to Tom!

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We arrived at the top exhausted and hungry but I was confident the clouds would clear. An hour and a half later and my confidence paid off, the views were out of this world.

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Going back down wasn’t that easy either as the steps were ridiculously steep but once at the bottom we headed to the now open cafe and treated ourselves to a ridiculously expensive but well deserved sandwich and cookie.
Back inside we wandered around the ruins and took pictures of a 3 day old llama, so sweet. All in all it was an absolutely fantastic day, even if we did get drenched just before we left.

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We decided to spend a couple of days in Cusco before continuing on to Lake Titikaka. We desperately needed to do some washing as our backpacks were beginning to stink due to three quarters of our clothes being damp and dirty.

Cusco was actually a really pretty city with tons of old buildings surrounded by hills.

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We didn’t do too much though, it had been a manic week and it was nice just to chill out for a few days. I decided to sample a local cuisine whilst in Peru, guinea pig! It didn’t actually look very nice, but I thought I’d give it a go. It tasted quite nice (even with Tom telling me it was actually a rat whist I was eating it) but there was so little meat on it that the effort to eat it didn’t outway the taste, but it was worth a try.

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We were heading to Puno, a town on the edge of Lake Titikaka the next day so went to the bus station early to sort out tickets. In general bus stations are a bit hit or miss, sometimes straightforward and easy to buy tickets and other times near impossible. Luckily it was all relatively simple and after securing tickets for a third of the price of the tourist bus we sat eating grapes and sharing them with some old Peruvian ladies who found it hilarious that I couldn’t understand Spanish!

The bus was meant to take 7 hours but after an unscheduled stop and a loud banging noise, caused by the driver and a spanner, we didn’t hold out much hope. I much prefer a local bus to a tourist bus, where else would you see a lady wearing leg warmers and a bowler hat knitting gloves! Our bus seemed to stop about a hundred times enroute and each time I was amused by the local ladies running out of their houses with food to sell, throwing it through the bus windows!! The views out the window were beautiful as we passed through tons of tiny traditional villages.

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We did finally arrive in Puno and were only an hour and a half behind schedule, not bad considering. We found our hostel which was up an unfinished road high above the city and headed out for food, which wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been due to the festival de la Virgen de la Candelarian. Over 200 groups of dancers from villages and towns in Peru had taken to the streets to entertain the crowd. We realised quite quickly that we weren’t going to be able to get around very easily!

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The next day we headed to Uros floating islands, a group of 75 islands in Lake Titikaka which are made of reeds. Even though they are now very touristy it was still a really interesting place to visit. Most things on the island are also made of reeds including boats and houses.

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It was a pretty amazing place to visit and once again shows how diverse our world really is.

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Back in Puno the festival was well underway, which was great to see. We watched for a little bit but the main festival was happening the following day so we decided to save ourselves for that.
We managed to find a little local eatery where the food was 5 soles (£1) for 2 courses. We couldn’t really decipher the menu so we just guessed what things were. I learnt a new word that day, it turns out that cau-cau is tripe stew…it was actually quite tasty!!

The main festival day arrived which just so happened to coincide with our 8 year anniversary. We’d originally planned to head off to Bolivia but instead we decided to stay and experience the traditional fiesta which was apparently the 2nd biggest in the world after the Rio carnival (that’s we were told by a local lady). With 3 other people from our hostel we took to the streets and we were so pleased we’d decided to stay for the festivities. It was absolutely incredible. The costumes were a mixture between brightly coloured outfits to some that were just weird!!

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After a bit of wandering up the street and being squirted with foam by some kids (they probably loved getting the gringos) we found some seats and had a few beers. It was only £2.40 for a 6 pack but we had to keep reminding ourselves that altitude and beer don’t mix plus we all had to be up early the following morning, we were on a bus to Le Paz at 7.30am. That didn’t stop us having an absolutely amazing day though and it’s definitely an anniversary we’ll remember forever.

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As usual we have tons of photos. Please click here to have a look

Viva México!

We both had such an amazing last 3 months in NZ and OZ but both agreed that we were looking forward to a challenge again. One of the fun things about travelling is trying to work out how to get somewhere when nobody understands you and meeting people from a completely different walk of life. Even though Tom speaks basic to intermediate Spanish the next 3 months in Mexico, Central and South America were definitely going to be challenging.

On arrival into Mexico City we found a taxi counter (as it was 1.30am and all public transport had stopped) and headed out to find our lift into the big city. Unfortunately we’d picked the busiest company to go with and even though there was no sign of any taxis, the queue of people was getting bigger and bigger. Sssooo, back in we went to change our ticket to another company that had umpteen taxis waiting….and finally we were on our way. Apparently there aren’t many road rules in Mexico apart from; drive as fast as physically possible, get as close as you can to the car in front and definitely don’t stop at any red lights….the journey was eventful to say the least. Just before arriving at the hostel the driver had to ask a policeman to move a road block from his way as all the old historic centre of town was blocked off. We stepped out of the taxi to the sight of policemen guarding our hostel entrance and riot police on every corner…welcome to Mexico!! (We later found out that the police were everywhere as a precautionary measure as there had been some political rioting weeks before we arrived)

By this point it was about 2am and we quietly scuttled into our dorm and attempted to make our beds without waking up our room mates, we failed!

After sleeping through breakfast, oops, we headed out for a wander around the city. We both felt there was a bit of a strange feel about the place, I think it was something to do with the amount of riot police everywhere. We headed to a little cafe that had been recommended to us and Tom put his a-level Spanish to good use. We immediately realised that travel around Mexico was going to be tricky. Very few people spoke anything other than Spanish, and as I knew little Spanish communication was hard. Through Tom and our Spanish phrase book we managed to decipher some of the menu and ordered a few things. The food was lovely and the portion sizes massive. Everything seems to come with tortillas regardless of what you order. To be honest we weren’t sure what we were eating but it tasted nice.

Whist we were in Australia we were meant to sort out our malaria tablets for S.America and Africa but we completely forgot! Then when in USA we found out it would cost an absolute fortune so we decided to wait for Mexico. I’d done a bit of research and found out that if we went to a pharmacy with an attached surgery we could, for M$30 (about £1.25) get a prescription to buy the tablets, so off we went. Tom’s Spanish is good, but unfortunately the doctor thought we had malaria and started to bring out needles to take a blood test, Tom quickly explained that this wasn’t the case!! After a few lost in translation moments he agreed to write the prescription for us and we headed next door to pick up our tablets. Unfortunately they didn’t have enough so the poor but helpful pharmacist had to run between 4 different pharmacies to collect all our medication!! All sorted in the end though and at a fraction of the price we’d have paid in either Oz or USA.

Next day we had a load of stuff we wanted to do so there was no time for a lie in. After a breakfast of tortillas scrambled egg, pineapple, refried beans and various spicy sauces we were off. The first stop was very near to where we were staying in the Zocalo (main square) and was Museo del Templo Mayor, which was a partial excavation of “the great temple” of Hispanic origin. Neither of us were that bothered about going in, so we took a few photos from the outside and headed off.

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Next we went to the National Palace, which has been the home for the ruling class of Mexico since the Aztec empire and is now a government building. There were swarms of armed guards and army men with guns all around but we’d gotten used to this by now. This was actually really good with an amazing mural by Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico from 1521 to 1930. We’re not really into things like this but both admitted that it was pretty impressive.

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Next we had to attempt the metro. After our experiences in Tokyo with the most confusing underground system in the world we didn’t know what to expect. Thankfully it was relatively straightforward, and cheap. 25p for a ticket, bargain. We were heading to the anthropology museum which was highly rated by everyone we’d spoken to. There was way too much to take in in one day but we were both pleased we went as it was really interesting. One thing that stands out was information about a game that the aztecs used to play. I can’t remember all the details but it was a ball game with a heavy ball where you had to somehow use your hips to make the ball mimic the movement of the sun…something like that anyway. Anyhow the part that stands out for me was if you were the losing coach, you were decapitated!!! And this was a game…..

After the museum we headed outside and in the distance we spotted some kind of maypole dancing. Eager to investigate we headed over and the scene was fantastic. We’d missed all the dancing on the floor and as we arrived a man was climbing up a huge pole whilst other people were sat at the top playing flutes. They seemed to be wrapping the ropes around the top of the pole then all of a sudden they just fell backwards and span around upside down until they were back on the ground. If this was in England health and safety would have had some kind of heart failure!!!

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Next we wandered around an area of Mexico City called Coyoacan which was almost like a little town within the city. Even though Mexico is renowned for making travellers sick we decided to stop at a random street stall to get a snack…you can’t pass up the chance of a Quesadilla for 90p! Let’s hope we don’t live to regret it!

By now it was getting late in the afternoon so we headed to Garilbaldi (not the biscuit) where mariachi bands can be found playing gigs for visitors to the plaza.
There wasn’t much going on when we arrived so we thought we’d risk having some more food from a little street food place. The local grub was really good, but there was enough for about 5 people!! It seems that fajitas aren’t the norm in Mexico (well not so far anyway) and I ordered what sounded like something similar…and it was. Amazing little wraps with fillings of chicken, beef and mushrooms piled high on each of them. That along with the 8 homemade sauces on the table (Tom was in heaven) I could barely finish my plate, which is very unlike me!

Once back outside there was a bit more going on but the place seemed relatively quiet so we headed off a bit disappointed.

This was our last night in Mexico City. Neither of us were that fussed about the place so we decided to move on. I think the police presence on every corner just gave the place an odd vibe. Before leaving the following day we went to visit Teotihuacan, a city thought to have been established around 100 BC. It’s also home to the third largest pyramid in the world, the pyramid of the sun. I’ve never been to Egypt to see the pyramids there but I was impressed with this site. Plus the views from 248 steps up were pretty impressive.

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We were eventually heading to a city called Oaxaca but enroute we decided to stop off at a place called Puebla for a couple of nights. We arrived at the hostel to news that there was free beer and food on the roof terrace, we immediately loved the place. After exhausting all free supplies we headed out for a wander around. For some reason Mexico doesn’t seem to want Christmas to end (a bit like me) and the Zocalo was still covered in decorations, it looked so pretty.

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Tom decided he was hungry so we found a little restaurant that was still open, and they sold fajitas!! We tried to order one portion to share but somehow it was lost in translation and we ended up with 2 plates! I didn’t care, they were the best fajitas I’ve ever had!

We didn’t do much the following day apart from wander around the city, it was absolutely beautiful and kind of how we’d though Mexico City would be. All the streets were cobbled and the buildings all different colours.
We’d read about a little cafe that was an institution in Puebla with the locals, so we headed off to find it. For less than 5 pounds we feasted on mixed meat in corn tortillas and a chicken taco. Plus Tom had this weird cactus drink which I thought was vile, but he seemed to like it.

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Next we headed to Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-hah-kah) The state of Oaxaca is one of the poorest in Mexico and we were both keen on doing some voluntary work whilst we were there. After getting an extremely comfortable bus from Puebla (the buses are a far cry from the tin cans on wheels we travelled on in much of Asia) we arrived in our next city. It was Saturday night so we thought we’d head out. On our way towards the centre a couple who had just got married were being driven around in a car and were throwing sweets out to passers by, what a great tradition! Oaxaca is meant to be one of the culinary capitals of Mexico but we couldn’t really work out where to go. Because we arrived in the dark we couldn’t really get a feel for the place and we just aimlessly wandered around for ages, eventually finding a little brightly coloured restaurant to eat. As usual we weren’t 100% what any of the food was so we just ordered a few things and hoped for the best!! Afterwards we went to a few different bars, one of which had live music and gave you chilli oranges with every drink. I don’t really understand the obsession with putting chilli on everything. For me it totally ruined the oranges but all the locals seem to love it. After a stop off at a mezcal bar (a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant native to Mexico) where we sampled three different varieties, we stumbled across a salsa club. Not our music of choice, but we were intrigued so we headed in. It was amazing to watch everyone on the dance floor salsa dancing to all sorts of music. Such a different atmosphere to clubs in England but absolutely mesmerising. It was almost like we were going back in time and standing in a 1950’s club with people ballroom dancing. We both people watched for ages, it was great fun.

After a day of wandering around the town and the markets, Tom thought it would be a good idea to sample a local delicacy, fried crickets! As usual they were covered in chilli spices, which actually didn’t taste very nice. I nearly gagged when I ate the cricket, I don’t quite understand the obsession with eating bugs but the locals seemed to love them, each to their own!

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The following day we did something that I was really keen on doing whilst in Mexico, volunteering with local street kids. I’d read about a charity called Oaxaca street children grassroots, a charity where children from very poor backgrounds are sponsored and the money is used to pay for schooling, equipment and to give them a hot meal each day. The centre we went to work at was somewhere for them to do their homework/be in a safe environment/play before going to school in the afternoon. As I don’t speak much Spanish barring the odd word I didn’t know if I’d be much use but I managed to help a boy with his maths homework (and confiscated his calculator) The little boys who’d done all their work just wanted to play so Tom spent the morning being ‘horse’ and generally had 2 little boys hanging off him all morning. The place really was amazing and I chatted to the deputy manager quite a lot about the centre and all the good they were doing. He informed me that he didn’t want to stop the children from going out on to the street and selling things as their families needed that income to survive. The centre was there to help them see that they can do more with their lives and they can have a bright future. To keep on the program the kids know that they have to work hard at school and not waste the opportunity they are being given, otherwise it will be taken away. All in all it was an excellent charity and one that I hope we can help out again in the future. Please click here to view their website

We ate food at the centre and were planning on staying for the afternoon but one of the other volunteers told us about an orphanage she worked at in the afternoons and asked if we’d go along to help her. At the start of the trip I read so many negative things about going to volunteer at orphanages so at the start I wasn’t keen at all. But after hearing a bit more about it I felt the need to go and help out. The orphanage called children of the night (which I thought was a horrible name) was for orphans of prostitutes. The lady that ran it wasn’t very nice at all and barely spoke to the children, let alone played with them. The girl who asked us to go along said that she could do with extra pair of hands as the children were just left on their own all day. The conditions the children were living in was pretty shocking. When we arrived they were all outside playing and we helped them sit down and eat some food. The problem was that because they’d never been taught how to behave properly they were really naughty and it was hard work trying to get them to just sit and eat. The owner just sat inside and if it wasn’t for us trying to help some of the younger kids eat they’d probably have ended up eating off the floor. The inside of the orphanage was pretty grubby. There was one bathroom for all 20ish children and it was really dirty. All the kids lived in one bedroom and judging by how many beds there were I’m guessing it was 2 to 3 kids per bed. The conditions made me feel really sad. Outside there was broken glass on the floor and the metal swings were so dangerous. I wish we could have done more to help but just being there and playing with the kids helped in a small way. They just wanted and needed a bit of attention and we gave that to them. It was really hard to leave as it was obvious that as soon as we left the kids would just be left on their own until bedtime. It was a heartbreaking experience and one which will stay with us for a long time.

We spent another day at the streetchildren grassroots before heading off to our next destination. I taught them how to make snowflakes, something I loved to do when I was younger. The girls seemed to love it and spent hours decorating them, but the boys were more interested in kicking the beach ball around and riding on Tom’s back, oh well, at least I tried!!

We had two options on how to get down to the Oaxaca coastal town of Puerto Escondido. Either go to the bus station and get a big bus that took 10-12 hours and costs 360 pesos or, get a mini-van for 6-7 hours at a cost of 180 pesos. The difference being that the bus takes the long but main road around and it’s relatively comfortable and the mini-van takes the more direct route up and over the mountains!! So off to the mini-van we went! I don’t know why but we always have a story to tell when it comes to public transport, nothing is ever straightforward. Our driver who for the sake of this I’ll call Speedy drove our mini-van like a F1 car. I swear at one point he whizzed round a corner on a mountain road so quickly that the van was on 2 wheels!!! We drove through some really traditional mountain villages and it was great just to people watch as we sped by.
Eventually we stopped in a mountain town for some food just as it was going dark and I was thankful for a rest from the bumpy ride. Unfortunately once back in the van the engine wouldn’t start, typical. Speedy and the other driver found a spanner and hit something in the engine a few times, it seemed to do the trick! The other driver, who we’ll call Careful was now driving. I didn’t for a second expect speedy to slow down just because it was dark so i was pleased the other guy was behind the wheel. I thought I’d be able to get a bit of kip now but the van had other ideas. I was just drifting off when we suddenly stopped at the side of the road, and the engine started making some odd noises. We were in the middle of nowhere on the side of a mountain, not the place you particularly wanted to break down. Speedy, who’d been sleeping shouted a load of instructions to Careful and in the end they swapped seats and Speedy was back behind the wheel. After a bit of engine revving we sped off into the darkness…any chance I had of a quick 40 winks were now non-existent!!

Thankfully we arrived in Puerto in one piece and on arrival at our hostel the bumpy journey all seemed worthwhile. The place looked amazing, it was just a huge apartment with a lovely swimming pool and hammocks everywhere, a bed in a dorm was less than £5 a night, bargain.

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After a night in our palace we headed down to the beautiful beach for a spot of sunbathing. It was perfect…apart from being caught by a freak wave and my kobo (e-reader) ended up going for a swim…amazingly though it still works!

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Afterwards we walked into the town along the cliffs and sat watching the sunset on the beach, beautiful. (I wish we had pictures but unfortunately I was in charge of bringing the camera and I forgot to charge the battery!)

The next day was what we’d been waiting for, the boat trip to hopefully see turtles, dolphins and whales. We were down at the beach by 7am ready to head out. The boat we were on was just a basic 6 seater boat with an engine. Slightly different to the huge boat we’d been on in New Zealand when we went swimming with dolphins. Our guide, Roberto, kept saying that we would definitely see turtles and dolphins but whales were a bit more tricky to find but he’d try his best. Off we went and within about 5 minutes we’d found a huge turtle coming up for air. It was massive, but as you can see, it was pretty hard to photograph.

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We carried on and suddenly out of nowhere a huge pod of white bellied dolphins appeared. It was absolutely amazing to be out in the middle of the ocean, low down to the water watching dolphins leap about.

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There were tons of them but we couldn’t get too close as they just vanished under the water and would then pop up in a different location. We stayed there for ages just watching them, it was mesmerising. After a while Roberto declared that we were heading off to find a whale, so off we went. He explained that there were 7 different types of dolphin in these waters so we’d also look for those. By this point, there were no other boats around (earlier there were 2 small boats watching the dolphins with us) and in the distance we spotted dolphins doing amazing flips so we headed over. This time we’d discovered spotted dolphins and these were completely different to the earlier ones. They were very inquisitive and wanted to stay with the boat all the time. There were even babies, which were so cute. They put on an amazing display for us flipping and jumping out the water and it was absolutely breathtaking to watch. Because we were so low down in the water and it was so peacefully quiet all we could hear was them coming out of the water to breathe, it was amazing.

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We were enjoying watching these dolphins so much that we didn’t pay any attention to what was going on further afield and suddenly our guide shouted WHALE and the boat sped off in a random direction. None of us onboard had any idea how he spotted it but he’d seen a spout of water way off in the distance so that’s where we were heading. The dolphins came with us too which was amazing. Roberto explained that we had to wait until we heard or saw the water spout again so we knew which direction the whale was headed. This time we all heard it and off we went again. This happened a few times and then off of a sudden there is was next to our boat. A magnificent humpback whale. We stayed there for probably half an hour just watching and listening. The engine was turned off and the only noises we heard were the dolphins and whales (it turned out there were two of them) breathing. It really blew us away and was one of the most amazing experiences of our trip so far. At one point the whale ended up under the boat and the water was so clear that you could make out it’s huge frame. The captain quickly turned the engine on when it was under us though and manoeuvred the boat so it didn’t capsize us when coming up to the surface.
I still can’t quite believe how lucky we were to experience all that we did. We were just watching these amazing mammals in their natural environment and it really was a once in a lifetime experience.

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Still buzzing from our morning excursion we had a few hours at the beach in the afternoon and went snorkelling in the bay. We decided to have a few drinks in the evening and went to a bar where it was ladies night so ladies drank for free until 11pm, excellent news for our budget! The highlight of our evening was watching an old man, probably around 70 years old dancing with his cup of coffee. He kept challenging people to a dance off. It was highly amusing as he was by far and away the best dancer in the club!! We went to bed that night still on a massive high from our amazing day.

Our next destination was San Cristobal which I hadn’t really read much about but Tom was really keen to go so off we went. We got an overnight bus there so as not to waste a day and also save on accommodation. The 13 hour journey was one of the comfiest I’ve ever had on a bus and we both arrived fresh and ready to go. Unfortunately as we were now at slight altitude (7000ft) and as it was early in the morning it was freezing! We had to go delving in our big bags to find more clothes before heading out on to the streets. Even in the freezing temperatures we could see that the town was beautiful. Little cobbled streets and brightly coloured houses, exactly how I’d expect a mexican town to be.

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After grabbing some breakfast we headed to our hostel which was in fact a homestay. We decided to stay somewhere a bit different so we were staying in a family’s house for the next 4 nights. The family were lovely. Thankfully the Dad (Arturo) spoke English so I could communicate with him. They showed us up to our lovely little but very cold room and then chatted to us about what we wanted to do whilst in the town. Tom mentioned that there was a football match going on in a nearby town that we were keen to go to and Arturo gave us instructions on how to get there. The match was Jaguars v Cruz Azul and was to be played in a town an hour away called Tuxtla. Cruz Azul are one of the top 4 teams in the country so we thought we’d better try and buy tickets before heading there for fear of not getting in. We managed to reserve some online but only after buying them we got an e-mail saying we had to pick them up at one of four pharmacies in Tuxla…random! The match didn’t kick off until 9pm so we spent the afternoon wandering around the pretty town and investing in some knitted gloves. If the morning temperature was anything to go by we were in for a cold night at the footy.
Getting to Tuxtla for the match was easy, but I wish I could say the same for picking up the tickets. We traipsed around for ages and went into numerous pharmacies but none of them could give us our tickets. Eventually in pharmacy number 6 the guy behind the counter informed us that we could just pick them up from the ground, aaarrggghh. So tickets in hand and a newly bought Jaguars shirt (for £4.50) on Tom we headed in. The stadium was pretty big and apparently there was a crowd of over 25,000 there. Just before the match kicked off there was a firework display. I’m not sure if that was the norm but it certainly added to the excitement.

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It was just great to be watching football again. Plus you didn’t ever have to leave your seat as there were tons of people wandering round selling litres of beer and snacks. We were in the main stand at the side and the hardcore Jaguar fans were to our right and didn’t stop singing for the entire match. The atmosphere was electric, which made up for the standard of the match which we both decided was like watching a poor championship/good league one tie in the first half and league two in the second!! It started off ok but by the second half both teams were tired and I don’t think there was even a shot on target. As it was unallocated seating we just decided to stand in the second half to take in the atmosphere. Suddenly a couple of men came over to us and asked if they could have their photo taken with us. We laughed and said of course and then that was it, loads of people wanted a photo. One guy even pushed his child towards me and asked for a picture!! It was all very random, I think we were the only non-mexicans at the match which was why there was such a big hoo-hah!

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After the match we bid farewell to our new friends and headed to find our transport home. (the final score was Jaguars 0 Cruz Azul 1) On arrival at the makeshift bus station all was dark and there was no sign of a mini-van let alone one heading in our direction, aaahh. Luckily after a bit of wandering up the main road I spotted a van with San Cristobal on the front so we managed to head home without any more hitches. On arrival back at our homestay we noticed a little dog sat outside a house across the road. He got angry every time Tom tried to stroke him but we vowed to befriend him and named him Brian. (We ended up buying him doggy chews the following day and by the end of our time in San Cristobal he was happy to be stroked!)

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The following day I really wanted to visit some of the local villages. I’d been reading about them and they sounded really interesting. We decided to do a tour even though neither of us are keen on walking around in a group, the only way to understand the different cultures was to have a guide. The first village we went to was San Juan Chamula and was about half an hour drive from San Cristobal. On arrival we were advised by our guide that photos are only allowed to be taken in certain places and he’d let us know when we could and couldn’t take them. The leaders and any spiritual ceremonies must not be photographed. Honestly the whole place was intriguing and one of the most interesting towns I’ve ever been to. Our guide, Cesar, walked us around through the market and explained lots about the town and all about the rituals of the local inhabitants (Indigenous Tzotzil Maya people) They have their own police force, dressed in the traditional woolen outfits but with an added gun! Their own prison, where the maximum sentence is three days and even have capital punishment for serious crimes. (our guide told us a horrific recent story about this) As we were there on a Sunday the place was unbelievably busy and there was huge market spread out over most of the village.

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We visited a spiritual leader’s home before heading to the church and Cesar told us all about the different things we’d see in the church from chickens being killed, different coloured candles and the use of alcohol and fizzy drinks. I found it all so fascinating as it’s so different from anything else I’ve ever experienced. Once in the church (where photos are strictly forbidden) we saw everything he’d told us about including a live chicken in a bag which was being wafted over someone and would later be sacrificed (this is done because that person is thought to have lost their soul and sacrificing a chicken, amongst other things, is a way of retrieving their soul) The church inside was very smoky and dark and there were no pews, everyone was sat on the floor on pine needles. There were even Mariachis in there playing instruments. It was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited and really proves how diverse our planet really is!

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After a wander around the market to sample some local food we headed to our next town of Zinacantan. Cesar explained that even though the same Indigenous Tzotzil Maya people lived here there were many differences between the two groups. The outfits they wore were different for a start and rather than the fluffy woolen clothes the people of Zinacnatan wore brightly coloured cotton clothing. Whilst we were there the festival of San Sebastián was going on and the whole town was out drinking and doing traditional practices. One of the most interesting being a tradition that every year a tree in the town was stripped off all it’s bark and someone dressed as a Jaguar climbed the tree whilst other people with blackened faces threw stuffed squirrels at him which he caught and threw back. We asked Cesar why they did this and he said he’d asked many different people but the answer was always “because it’s traditional”. Unfortunately we didn’t see this in action but we did see the tree and people in the appropriate outfits.

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After this we went to a local family’s home which also doubled as a weaving shop and sat in their kitchen eating tortillas. All in all it was a unique day and so amazing to experience such culturally different people from us just getting on with their everyday lives.

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The next day was my birthday. Originally we were going to head to Guatemala but Tom decided we shouldn’t spend my birthday travelling so we decided to stay an extra night. We planned to go to another town nearby called Chiapa de Corzo where there was meant to be a beautiful boat trip through a canyon and also the finale of the festival of San Sebastián. After a breakfast of 2 birthday cakes and a slightly complicated journey in 2 mini-vans we arrived on the outskirts of the town and walked along the pretty streets which were just setting up for the festival. We decided to head out to the canyon first which really was beautiful. We also saw 2 huge crocodiles by the water.

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Once back on land we wandered around the festival where all the men from the village were dressed up in incredible outfits and all the females in brightly coloured dresses.

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We were only going to stay for a few hours but we got sucked into the excitement of it all and ended up staying all afternoon. There was loads of beer on sale everywhere (1 litre for £1.50) and once again all the locals had chilli stuff all round their cups and a shot of some weird spicy stuff in their beer. Tom, not wanting to miss out decided to give it a try and instantly regretted it. Just sipping it made me gag and his face was a picture every time he drank it. This is one tradition I cannot understand..why ruin a nice beer!!

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After a few more hours people watching and playing fairground games we decided to call it a day. We’d had so much fun and to experience a traditional mexican fiesta was fantastic. We hardly saw any other tourists and it really felt like we’d immersed ourselves into a local tradition, it’s definitely a birthday I won’t forget for a long time.

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Then that was it for Mexico. After not being keen on Mexico City things just got better and better and we had an unbelievable couple of weeks. A usual we were sad to be leaving but looking forward to our next country, Guatemala.

As always we have tons of photos, please click here to have a look

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