Monthly Archives: March 2016

From magical floating islands to luxury living in Sucre

Just Chilling

Although it will be met with howls of derision from those of you with real jobs, Laura and I are pretty exhausted from all this travelling.  We’re 9 months in now (and over half way in our South America trip) and the slog of night buses and changing beds is taking its toll.  So, to try and mitigate it we’ve had a rather relaxing week!

As Laura mentioned we weren’t fans of La Paz, but it did pick up a bit with the cable cars. It’s the only city in the world with cable cars as the primary form of transport (I’m full of fascinating knowledge) and they’ve got to be one of the most beautiful commutes to work anywhere.  Plus, each part of the journey only costs 3 Bolivianos (which is about 30p). We spent about 2 quid total riding the whole line for well over an hour!

Laura is happy we found something in La Paz that was fun

A small section of La Paz

We also found some nice sections of La Paz, the old Colonial bits which were much nicer to walk around and explore.  The apartment we were in was incredible though, and was well stocked with DVDs and we took advantage of having a living room to relax a bit and do some cooking.

Following this we jumped in a cab for about 40 minutes to go and stay in a Teepee! I’m still not sure how Laura found this place but it was very nice.  Quiet and peaceful and with plenty of hammocks around, and a kitchen so that we could cook for ourselves which is always welcome.  We’ve been exceptionally lucky with the weather (seasonally it should be chucking it down, but the El Nino phenomenon means the weather has gone topsy turvy in our favour) which meant we could catch some rays and do some reading.  We also managed a walk to “The Devils Tooth”- great for me as a taxi takes you to the top and then it’s a downhill walk, but Laura wasn’t as keen. The path was quite overgrown, we got lost in places, and there were some parts where the path had split leaving a cavernous gap to be overcome.  We got back safe and sound (if not a little grumpy) though.

The Devil’s tooth

Our teepee, which surprisingly fit a large double bed with space for our bags. Just.

Our next destination was Sucre, which involved another night bus.  We’d splashed out for the Cama seats (“180 recline” my arse) which were relatively nice, however we’d accidentally chosen the seats right next to the stairs which meant I spent the night worrying about people going through our stuff.  We had extra fun as the driver was whipping around corners at incredible speed which at one point sent Laura’s yoga mat torpedoing at the assistant conductors head downstairs. Oblivious Laura slept quite well. I did not.

Fortunately, we had a big treat waiting for us at Sucre.  Our guide book had said that this was the place to splash out as you could do so cheaply and boy, they were right. We went to stay at the number one hotel on Trip Advisor, a luxury place about 40 minutes out of town. It only has 2 rooms and there was no one else staying and we had the place to ourselves! It was built and run by a US/UK couple, Ed and June, who couldn’t have done more to help us out.  June acted as our personal chef and went all out- we got Shepherds Pie on the first night which I was really chuffed by as it’s always the first dish I request when we head back to the UK.  We had a giant room with robes (something me and Laura always love in a posh place,) a huge shower room, a proper bath, and panoramic views of the mountains.  We also had a huge swimming pool and hot tub, along with hammocks to lounge around in.  Best of all they had 2 dogs and a cat who were all really needy which we enjoyed having been so long without pets!

The pet whisperer

We sunk a few of these

3 days really wasn’t enough but Laura couldn’t be persuaded to stay longer (neither could our budget.)  However all is not lost; we’ve come to the best hotel in town now, which is still cheaper than most of our accommodation in Chile was.  It’s a beautiful old Colonial building and we have views across the whole of the town.  We’re about to go down for breakfast so fingers crossed.

Beautiful architecture

The town itself is a Unesco world heritage site and law specifies all the buildings be whitewashed annually (although the flaking paint and graffiti tell another story.)  It is a compact grid system and very pretty, and as usual with these places it’s packed full of nice churches. We’re here during Easter weekend which is a very big deal over here apparently, so hopefully we’ll see some fiestas whilst we’re around. So far though we’ve discovered that most stuff has been closed, and that was just on a Thursday. Today is the bank holiday so I can imagine there’s going to be even less open.  Hopefully that means more relaxing for me although Laura is keen to get running around again.

The plan today is to go and see dinosaur footprints; Sucre has one of the biggest collections of them in the entire world just out of town.  Should be exciting!

Well, hello there Sucre. We’ve been looking forward to you.

At the Copa, Copacabana…..

View from Cerro Calvario- a punishing walk up at an already high altitude of 3800m.

After a couple of weeks in Peru, we’ve (temporarily) left to zoom on over in Bolivia. First stop was Copacabana- no, not the Copacabana from Barry Manilow fame, but rather a small backpacker hangout 9km over the border. This felt more like SE Asia than anywhere we’ve been so far (apart from actual SE Asia.) Lots of 21 year olds (“oh my god, I was literally so wasted last night. I just have so much love to give when I drink.” Get a grip. Wake up. Stop irritating the rest of us. Noone cares.) There were loads of terrace cafes, average Mexican food, exceptional pizza and good vibes, as well as beautiful coast lines such as this:

Copacabana sits on the other side of Lake Titicaca, which is where we were when we went to the floating islands last week. This lake is so big that it’s shared between Peru and Bolivia. The water was gorgeously clean although very very cold.

The main reason we stopped in Copacabana was to visit Isla del Sol- described by many people we’ve met as a ‘must do.’ Like the Inca trail, it did not disappoint.

We took an incredibly badly organised but cheap boat out to the island, which sits 2.5 hours out into Lake Titicaca. From here, we hiked around 5 hours from north to south via another Inca trail and were treated to views like this pretty much everywhere we looked:

I know, I know, I look so stylish.

In hindsight, we should have stayed over on the island as there were some lovely looking hostals but due to our poor planning, we were unable to cancel our hostal booking back in Copacabanaa (a very very nice little place that was only $25 a night inc breakfast. My, how we’ve changed!) We’ve got to pass back through Copacabana when we go back to Peru so we might come back to the island again and stay.

After a couple of lovely days, it was time to catch the bus to La Paz, the de facto capital of Bolivia. After about an hour on the bus, we were told to get off so that we could cross the lake in a speedboat whilst our bus went on this:

Hhhm, safe.

It wasn’t until we were on the speedboat that I realised all of our luggage was on the bus. I could see this also dawning on other people.

Nothing could have prepared us for La Paz. It’s been about 8 weeks since we were in a busy city and we’d somehow forgotten what they were like. La Paz is BUSY. To me, it’s on a par with Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam although Sam doesn’t think it’s as bad. Luckily, we’re staying in a really nice leafy part, called Sopocachi- a mostly residential area with nice cafes and AN ACTUAL SUPERMARKET (at this point in the trip, we actually miss ParknShop in HK.) We found an amazing Airbnb, which Sam is in love with. It’s a 3 bedroom apartment with so much light, a welcome basket, A WASHING MACHINE (unheard of) and a gorgeous terrace. All this for only $35 a night. Bargain!

Right now, that’s one of my only positive impressions of La Paz. We walked for hours and hours yesterday exploring the city, only to find it was dirty, polluted and crazy busy. Some friends had recommended a walking tour so we joined that in the afternoon and, in fairness, there are some interesting parts such as the witches market (dried Llama foetus anyone?) but overall we just weren’t impressed and actually left the tour early. We didn’t even take any photos- this NEVER happens. Even in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, we took a few (read our post to find out the striking impression it left on us.)

Today we’re going to take a cable car and explore the area we’re staying in- there’s no way I’m going back into the craziness of the centre. Tomorrow it’s (thankfully) out of La Paz into the mountains to stay in a teepee for a couple of days before we head down to Sucre for RELAX time!

Some great news- USA is booked! 6 weeks of adventure to finish our trip in style- NY (with the Dixons in tow to hopefully treat us to some nice meals- hint hint Mum and Dad,) Washington DC to catch up with some lovely people we’ve met over the past few years of travels, New Orleans, Santa Monica and San Fran! Yippee!

Following the Inca trail into Bolivia….

Life on a floating island

Hello again,

It’s been a nice mix of quiet and busy days since we finished the inca trail. We spent 1 more night in Cusco after the last post which was lovely; we got to go for a meal and drinks with 6 of the people from the Inca trail who were still in town. It’s been a long time since we went out for drinks with other people and was a really nice treat (even if we went to a vegan/veggie restaurant, not in line with my carnivorous sensibilities).

We also went for our first massage in South America! It was only 14 quid each and was absolutely wonderful and much needed after all that walking.  It was a great couple of chill days in general, with us mostly lounging around and drinking coffee/hot chocolate.  Our AirBnB host even let us stay in the apartment till 9PM on the checkout day which was really helpful.

To get around Peru and Bolivia we’ve signed up to PeruHop and BoliviaHop, effectively a tourist bus that shuttles people between La Paz in Bolivia, Cusco and Lima in Peru with lots of stops in between. It’s exceptionally good value, but at the cost of sleeping well- it’s a regular bus so when the journey is a night bus it’s really uncomfortable! We were travelling from Cusco to Puno, the border town to Bolivia and situated on the wonderful Lake Titicaca.  At least the bus wasn’t busy and we got 2 seats each which helped.

Our main objective in Puno was to visit the floating islands of Uros.  On Lake Titicaca they’ve built over 80 floating islands, effectively made up of mud block covered with 3m of reeds.  We’d booked to stay the night at a hotel-cum-homestay to discover how it all worked and we were not disappointed!

Having jumped on a little boat for 30 minutes we arrived to our island. It looks like something from the caribbean, as there’s wood and reed everywhere.  It’s hard to explain. The island is really very big, and had about 8 or so rooms plus “restaurant” (the eating room.)  All power comes from solar, so its basically used for lighting and nothing more. Toilets were composting, but there was a hot shower (also solar powered.)

Side view of the island: that’s all just reeds piled up.

Having slept terribly on the bus (and still exhausted from inca trail and weeks of uncomfortable beds) I proceeded to spend the rest of the day napping in between the various activities. Fortunately Laura was in a better state and was able to shepherd me round.  First of all we got to go with the owner out into the reeds-  to collect the fishing net (only had a few small fish in this time, but apparently it’s used to catch everything including the local specialty of trout,) and then to show us how they collect the reeds (effectively cutting it down with a home made scythe.) As with everything in Peru, part of the reed can be used as medicine apparently. The majority of the talks whilst we were here were done in Spanish, and both of us were very impressed that we understood about 70% of what was said.  It helped that he spoke really slowly, as his first language wasn’t Spanish but one of the local languages, Quecha.

Nap Time


Following lunch and a more substantial nap, it was dress up time. We were given local Peruvian clothing to put on for photographs. We both look ridiculous but it was surprisingly fun.  This is genuinely the clothing we’ve seen people wearing around. The only thing missing is a pork-pie hat that a lot of the local women seem to wear. Laura would have looked so stylish!

We were then given a short talk (again in Spanish) as to how the islands are built.  It’s effectively a combination of squares of mud from under the reeds, and about 4 meters of reeds piled on top. Voila, floating island! Last year they actually moved the whole thing to somewhere quieter which I find very impressive. It’s kept in place by 11 anchors, and it felt completely stable during our time there.  Wouldn’t like to try it out when it got windy though.

View of the island from one of the “watch towers”

We were then treated to a beautiful sunset with colours to rival our favourite sunset of the trip on the Mekong Delta.  It was getting really chilly at this point but fortunately during dinner they’d gone to our room and given us a water bottle each under our 5 or so thick blankets.  It’s the best nights sleep we’ve had in weeks and weeks!  I wish we could have stayed longer just for another night in the bed.  Alas, we had to head back to the mainland the following morning.

Don’t we look stylish?

Peruvian Laura demonstrates our tiny door


Continuing our action packed schedule we were then back on a tour bus for the afternoon to visit Silustani, an ancient pre-inca burial site about 45 minutes out of town. The reason it stands out is because the graves are cylindrical towers atop a large hill, a style the inkas then copied when they arrived.  The photos hopefully do it better justice than my explanation!  Each tower had between 20 and 50 people in it, and the oldest have been around from 500AD or so.

All the houses nearby had 2 bulls on top to guard from ghosts.

Inkan Burial Columns

Puno from up high

Today though we have a chill day. Due to the bus timetable there’s none going today, forcing us to remain in Puno another day. There’s really not much to do here, so we’re both catching up on various work before we head across the border to Bolivia tomorrow.


Getting into the spirit of all things Peruvian

Acclimatising in Cusco

Following in the trail of the Incas

We’ve finally done it! 9 months in the planning…..

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is complete and ticked off our bucket list.

Peru is finally here! I’m so excited- I’ve wanted to come here for so long and we actually made it. Peru has fascinated me for a long time and the Inca trail even more so. We arrived in Cusco from Chile, 2 days before the trip began as it’s necessary to adjust to the high altitude for a few days beforehand. Although we’ve been at altitude in Chile, this was on a different level- as soon as we stepped off the bus it was harder to breathe and even a 10 minute walk into town was hard work.

The Inca trail is a 43km ‘path’ that leads to the spiritual home of the Inca people, Machu Picchu. The trail is the original path that the Incas built so that pilgrims could visit Machu Picchu around 500 years ago. It’s a 4 day/3 night trek that’s only accessible with a guide- new restrictions means that everyone needs to have a permit which is linked to your passport.

We’d planned our SA trip around this as you have to book around 7 months in advance to get onto the trail. The government limit the number of trekkers to 500 per day (including all staff) so that means only about 60 trekkers can start the trail each day. For months we’d been looking forward to it and it did not disappoint.

We decided to go with Peru Treks, which we thoroughly recommend to anyone- they were absolutely brilliant from start to finish. Originally our friend Mab was supposed to come from London and and walk it with us but unforseen circumstances meant he had to pull out last minute- we were all gutted as we were looking forward to catching up, but c’est la vie.

In our group there were 15 trekkers, 2 guides (the very enthusiastic Ernesto and Edy,) a chef and 19 porters. The porters carry pretty much everything except your personal items- they had massive packs full of tents, folding chairs, pots, pans and food. Recently the government has imposed a limit on porter carrying weight so that they now only carry a maximum of 25kg- they used to carry upto 60kg! These men are seriously superhuman and without them we would not have been able to manage. Some people on our trek also chose to pay for an extra porter to carry their sleeping bags, mats and personal items- we didn’t and on reflection we’re glad we didn’t because we felt a huge sense of achievement at the end.

This is one of the lighter loads we saw!

Day 1

We were picked up at 5am and taken by bus with 13 other trekkers for breakfast in the little town of Ollytatambo, around 1.5 hours from Cusco. We stocked up on snacks and coca leaves (great for altitude) and zoomed off to km 82, the official start of the world famous Ina trail.

The other people in our group came from all over- Finland, US, Ireland, NZ, Nederland’s and Belgium.

Our two guides, Ernesto and Edy had given us a briefing the day before so we knew that day 1 would serve as a training day for the next few days- only 12km today and it was fairly flat in places with only a few steep ascents and descents. The scenery was incredible but so far, no Inca ruins in site. Our guides stopped us often to tell us interesting facts about the Incas. After around  4 hours hiking, we stopped for lunch- we expected a sandwich and sitting on the grass, but this what we got instead:

This tent appeared at every meal time, thanks to the porters. We felt so spoilt and ridiculously well looked after. The food itself was incredible. I have no idea how our chef managed to prepare 3 courses for every meal, but he did and it was fab. He put on his chef outfit and went into his little kitchen/tent and managed to cater for so many dietary requirements- I’m really fussy about where meat comes from so opted for vegetarian the whole trip whilst Sam obviously went full on meat mode. There were some gluten free and soya free people on the hike also- none of us ever had cause to complain.

We camped in a really pretty field in super roomy tents. Was lovely. Due to the high altitude (we were camping at around 2700m above sea level,) we were all exhausted and went to bed super early. The higher the altitude, the more oxygen you require so the harder your body has to work. We knew we were going to be climbing upto 4200m the next day and were all slightly wary, despite taking altitude sickness tablets.

Day 2

What was not so lovely was the 5am wake up the next morning- although they did bring us coca tea when they woke us up so it wasn’t all bad. Coca tea is most similar to a bitter green tea and Andean people drink it in copious amounts. At 6.45, we set off for the most difficult section of the trail- a 1500m ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass. This was not easy. We had to keep stopping every couple of minutes to adjust to the altitude, which meant it took a lot longer than we would have liked to make it to our first resting spot. Luckily, the tent was up and brunch was served, yippee! This gave us all the energy to reach the top. In our group there were some people who shot off super fast and others who needed to take it slower, so each break was a chance to regroup and catch up with everyone.

We made it!

From Dead Woman’s Pass, we then descended steeply around 700m to our campsite.This took around 2 hours and surprisingly for us, didn’t affect our legs as much as it did others. Usually I have issues with steep descents but was actually ok for this one. I think it was the knowledge that my sleeping bag was waiting for me!

Down we go!

Day 3

Another 5am wake up! If we’d been able to sleep, this would have been bearable but none of us slept well- there were frogs singing really loudly the whole night, an uncomfortable concrete floor and a slanty camping spot which meant I ended up rolling into Sam a few times. Day 3 was llonnnggggg- only 15km but it took a long time because of the terrain. 2 more steep ascents and the ominously named ‘gringo killer’ steps- over 1000 steep steps down. Painful. This was when it started to really feel like a path the Incas would have taken though, so many beautiful original ruins along the way.

Our guides let us stop at each one to explore and give us information so even though it was a long day, it was brilliant. Our final campsite for the trip finally came into view at around 5pm. This was a really busy site because everyone camps here on the final day as it’s only 2 hours from Machu Picchu itself. Along with this, people who do a 2 day/1night trek also camp here (weaklings.) Chef outdid himself tonight by making us all a huge cake to celebrate the end of the trip (where did he get the oven from? We don’t know.)

The final day

5am? Too late apparently. A 3.30am start followed by 4am breakfast awaited us as we struggled through the torrential rain to get ready for the final hike. The weather so far had been amazing, with fantastic visibility but now it seemed the rainy season had caught up with us. As soon as breakfast was over, the porters dismantled tents and rushed off to catch the 5.30am train back to Cusco, leaving us standing in the dark with our torches, backpacks and very wet feet. Regulations state that no one can walk the trails before 5.30am because it’s too dangerous in the dark so we queued up with what felt like hundreds of other people at the control gates.

When we finally got through, all of us were really excited because it was only a 45 minute hike to the Sun gate, where all of the famous Machu Picchu photos are taken. On a clear day you can see the whole city below you. This is what we saw when we finally got there:

Not exactly postcard material is it?!

You could almost hear a collective sigh of disappointment from everyone. We’d trekked so far to get this view and all that was there was clouds! Never mind, it was still amazing to be there and we hiked down into Machu Picchu itself. It was absolutely staggering to see and as we descended it was hard to take it all in. It was like when we went to Angkor for the first time- so incredible and although you see it on TV and in photos, nothing prepares you for it.

The city was discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham and was in disrepair when he got there. I imagine it was like whats some of the Angkor temples are still like- overgrown. However, the government decided to ‘fix’ it, and although what they’ve done is very impressive, the repairs do look like a rush job compared to the skill of the Inca people:

Beautiful, precise Inca stonework compared with rush job of modern day Peruvians

Only the most important Inca people lived in the city- the king, priests, royal attendants etc. It’s so impressive how they’ve made this whole city on a side of a mountain. The photos really don’t do it justice.

We dropped our bags into storage and our guides gave us a 2 hour tour of the main sites. Just as we were about to leave and explore on our own, something totally unexpected occurred- one of the guys, Nick, proposed to his lovely girlfriend Danielle right amongst the ruins! It was so great to be a part of- what a fantastic way to get engaged! It was crazy busy as it was the first week of the season and made it quite frustrating at times.

After a couple of hours exploring, we headed to the town of Aguas Caliente to meet up with our group for celebratory drinks and food. Then it was back to Cusco we went, via train and bus, all exhausted, dirty and having had the best experience.

Although Machu Picchu was spectacular, it was the trek that made the trip. This was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and it’s hard to imagine how we’re going to top it. A definite highlight of the trip so far.

We did it!