Category Archives: Travel Tips

Planning a 4×4 Trip in Botswana

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Earlier this year, we were made an offer we could not refuse when we were asked if wanted to join a 4×4 trip to Botswana and Namibia.

We had been to Botswana before and knew how incredibly difficult and expensive it can be, particularly if you don’t have the right equipment. If you don’t own your own 4×4 the best (and sometimes only) way to see the country is to join an organised trip. These seem to be run for people with lots of spare dollars or pounds and not for your average traveller! So… this opportunity – to jump in a ready-owned 4×4 and join a planned trip into unexplored Africa – was a definite yes for us!

For any of you wanting to do the same, here are some tips we picked up along the way:

1. Go in a 4×4
If you want the freedom of going anywhere then you will need a 4×4. If you don’t have one you can still see some spectacular parts of the country but be aware that you will be limited. There are 2 main tarred roads in Botswana – one to Maun and one to Chobe. When we first went to Botswana in 2009 we took my Ford Focus and easily made it to both these places. However, once we were there we had to rely on tours to explore the delta and the parks. With your own 4×4 you can seek out new spots and park yourself in a campsite in the middle of a game reserve for as long as you want.

The look on Chris' face says a lot about how he feels about this

2. Take plenty of spare parts and repair kits
Even the hardiest of 4x4s will take a beating on those roads and you do not want to be left stranded in the middle of nowhere trying to get help. We found having a someone with a keen knowledge of fixing cars also helped!

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3. Always have lots and lots of water
Be aware (particularly if you are wanting to stay at campsites within the reserves) that you run a high risk of ending up somewhere with no running water. The best thing to do is to have plenty of water with you at all times. Our trailer had a 50 liter water tank and we also took about 25 liters of bottled water in the car. What you need obviously depends on where you are going and how often you move.

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4. Find out where all the vetinerary check points are

Famously, Botswana is very strict on what you are allowed to take into the country – no meat, no oranges etc etc. However, once you are in the country, you can’t relax as you will be stopped at vetinary checkpoints along your route fairly frequently. These stops are desgined to stop the spread of foot and mouth so you can expect to drive/walk through a pool of some type of solution and to hand over all your meat (and sometimes fruit and veg). In order to avoid having all your supplies confiscated, find out where these are in advance. This will save you a lot of time and money.

Another tip, although raw meat can’t be taken through a checkpoint, they have no problem with you stopping on the side of the road and cooking it before proceeding. We had a very cheerful roadside braai on our way to the Okavango Panhandle.

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A checkpoint between Maun and the Okavango Panhandle

5. Invest in a rooftop tent
This is not an essential but for any of you who have a little bit of a fear of being trampled by elephant in your sleep or dragged out by hungry lions (disclaimer: I have no clue how likely either of these are) then the feeling of safety,  sleeping up above the animals is priceless! We spent many nights lying in bed listening to the hippos chomping and the elephants growling (yes, they do growl!) right next to our tent, able to enjoy it only because we knew we were not underfoot.

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6. Check whether or not you will have to pay park fees to transit through a game reserve.

Reserves are everywhere and sometimes your sat nav will suggest you drive through them en route to your next destination. We drove through one assuming we would not need to pay if we were just transiting – mistake. We ended up on a slow and dusty route through a reserve (with not an animal in sight) only to be hit with pretty steep park fees upon exit and then an extravagant ferry fee to get back onto the main road. If we had just stopped and asked we would have been told about the fees and could have taken the much faster tarred route around the edge of the park.

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Watching the unavoidable ferry between the reserve and the main road

7. Check the rules of each game reserve before you start exploring
Some of the reserves are much stricter than others. So, while you may be able to sit on roof racks and drive off road in the Caprivi, if you try that in Chobe you ill find yourself quickly removed from the Park.

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8. Book ahead!
Some game reserves (Suvuti, Moremi) require proof of booking before they let you into the park. These campsite are small and far between so don’t delay and make the booking with plenty of time to spare. Remember to carry printouts of all your bookings – internet access and cell phone reception are luxuies you won’t find in the African bush.

A map of the campsite - we were 'upgraded' to CK4 and were quite happy with it.

A map of the only campsite in Savuti

9. Be prepared to see lots of animals
These are wild animals but with a certain amount of luck and lots of respect you can have incredible encounters with a variety of animals. We had elephant walking though our campsite, hornbills landing on our laps, hyena visiting our campfire and hippo joining us at our dinner table.

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10. Be on the lookout for animals at all times
Sometimes the best times to spot wild animals – especially elephant – is while you are driving on the freeway. So keep an eye out even while you are doing 120km/hr.

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Savuti, Botswana

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Savuti, Botswana

Getting there:

The road from Chobe to Savuti is a proper sandy 4×4 African track. To make it across in 1 day you will need an excellent 4×4 vehicle, an excellent 4×4 trailer, an excellent 4×4 driver (good levels of concentration essential) and a strong bladder (those bumps do not make it easy). Luckily we had the first three elements and plenty of toilet breaks in the reserve to get us through the fourth element.  We left Chobe around 7:30am and were in Savuti by mid afternoon feeling quite pleased with ourselves at our speedy progress. However when we came to set up camp those bumpy roads came back to haunt us as we discovered that all of our food containers in the trailer had been shaken open and all our food had been broken up and dispersed across everything else in the trailer. With the high temperatures and dry conditions this was not a good start to our stay in Savuti. (Tip: Secure all boxes of food as if they are to be placed on a roller coaster)

The road from Chobe to Savuti

The road from Chobe to Savuti

Some of the food that stayed in the box

Some of the food that stayed in a box

Accommodation:

If you want to camp in the reserve then your only option is the SKL campsites. There are 14 campsites of varying size and a few tented camps.  Each campsite has their own braai area and a tap with fresh water – which was an absolute blessing with the ‘food splattered through our trailer’ disaster. There is one adequate communal bathroom but, unless your camp is right at its door, it is a long walk and is useless after dark when you aren’t supposed to walk around.

A map of the campsite - we were 'upgraded' to CK4 and were quite happy with it.

A map of the campsite – we were ‘upgraded’ to CV4 and were quite happy with it.

The view of our campsite from across the channel

The view of our campsite from across the channel

In our 3 week holiday this campsite was by far the most expensive. I can only think that it is because accommodation is in such short supply that they can up the price. In 2013 one night was R250 per SADC adult and $50 per international adult. This campsite really is in the middle of nowhere. There are no phones, internet, shops etc anywhere nearby. There is a tiny little supply shop open for a few hours during the day that sells the essentials like cold coke and “tinned stuffs”. They also sell firewood but we would recommend bringing in all of your the firewood you think you will need and only relying on this for emergencies. You are not allowed to collect firewood in the reserve so will face very steep prices for firewood (wood that other people have collected outside the reserve and driven to the campsite).

Rations at the tuck shop

Rations at the tuck shop

Wildlife:

The campsite is along the Savuti channel. When we were there (granted it was the middle of the dry season) there was only a single little watering hole and nothing as majestic promised by the word ‘channel’. However, just in the first few hours of setting up and cleaning out the trailer we saw elephant and buck coming down to drink so we were pleased it was there.

The campsite has no fences and is just plonked in the middle of the park. We had a rather terrifying moment when a large Bull elephant decided to wander through all the campsites during the time when 2 of our party had taken the only car out for a drive – there are high panic moments when there is no vehicle to hide in and elephant wandering up towards you! I had stupidly read that elephant had destroyed the last Savuti campsite and was concerned they were on their way to take on this one. Other than that our more regular visitors to our campsite were some very cheeky hornbills.

Elephant on the channel next to our camp

Elephant on the channel next to our camp

Little hornbill wanting to share my mom's breakfast

Little hornbill wanting to share my mom’s breakfast

We took several game drives around Savuti. The fabulous thing is that you hardly have to drive very far to see anything. We had been told that Savuti was cat country so we were desperate to find some cats. We didn’t have to wait long as mere minutes after driving out of the campsite we found a beautiful male lion. It was thrilling to know that lion was less than 1km from our home and we were constantly reminded of it that night when we were lying in our tent listening to him (and a few others) roaring nearby. This was a unique and unforgettable experience for me.  Another special moment was when we came across a huge clearing and were busy admiring a very definite elephant path when my mom pointed to elephant coming out of the trees along the path. She quickly maneuvered the car off the path but kept it close (closer than I would have liked but further than she would have liked) and switched off the engine. We sat there silently and watched the whole herd walk peacefully by us.

Lion

Lion

Elephant

Elephant

While you’re staying at Savuti or on your way out we would highly recommend stopping by the rock paintings not far from the camp entrance . The paintings themselves are small but scrambling up the rock while you look out for leopard is a lot of fun. Also, the views from up there are gorgeous – we watched giraffe and elephant from above.

Us and the rock paintings

Us and the rock paintings

(Em)

Buying fish in the Okavango Panhandle

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If you love fresh fish, the Okovango panhandle is a place for you. Forget about the local shops or even the local fisherman markets and head straight out onto the water. Without wanting to state the obvious, the freshest fish will definitely be the ones you catch but I have been on many a ‘fishing’ outing and never seen anyone catch a fish. So, ignoring that option, the next best thing is to simply relax on your boat and watch the wildlife while keeping an eye out for mokoros in the reeds. Here, you will find fisherman waiting with their rods in the water and fresh fish in the mokoro to sell to you. A small bream (to feed 1-2 people) will cost about 10 pula (80p)  and a larger bream or bass (2-4 people) will go for 20 pula (1.60) – what a delicious bargain!

Fishman amongst the waterlillies

Fishman amongst the waterlillies

Buying fish

Salvation our guide showing us a 20 pula bass

Salvation our guide showing us a 20 pula fish

Which is the best beach on Colombia’s Caribbean coast?

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Which is the best beach on Colombia’s Caribbean coast?

We didn’t have much of a set itinerary in our 4 months in South America but the one thing we did do, was set aside 2 weeks to explore Colombia’s Caribbean coast. After spending many months in mountains, deserts and cities, we wanted to end our holiday on a beautiful beach. Turns out, it is fairly difficult to know which of the many beaches along the coast would be the one we should visit. In the end we visited 5 beaches: 1) Cartagena; 2) Playa blanca; 3) Costeno beach, 4) Tayrona National Park; and 5) Palomino beach and loved them all for different reasons. If any of you find your self in a similar quandary, here is our comparison post to help you choose the best beach for you:

OPTION 1: CARTAGENA MAIN BEACH

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Getting there:
The main beaches in the city of Cartagena are located in front of the high rise buildings in the area of the city known as Bocagrande. This is a long hot walk or a short taxi ride (6000 pesos / £2.50) away from the old city.

Level of Isolation:
Weekdays are better than weekends (especially Sundays) but you don’t come to this beach to be alone. In fact, you come to sit yourself in one of the neatly lined shade cabanas armed with a strong willpower to be able to deal with the never ending line of vendors on the beach. Although, on the plus side, you never have to stand up as beers, fruit salads, coconut sweets, sunglasses, hats, fresh crab and even massages parade passed your cabana.

Swimming:
The sea is not the beautiful clear blue water you associate with the Caribbean and at times you need to dodge plastic bags and other litter but that didn’t stop us spending many hours floating in the water cooling off from the heat of the day.

Accommodation:
There is no accommodation directly on the beach but you can stay in one of the high rise hotels in Bocagrande or, better still, find a spot in the old town or Gethsemani.

Lunch (Fresh fish, coconut rice, salad and fried plantain):
15000 COP (TIP: Ask for a ‘medio’ and you will get half a fish and all the sides for 8000 COP – still enough for one person.) If fish is not your thing, fresh fruit salad is delicious and costs between 5000 COP and 7000 COP.

Activities:
After you have had your fill of the beach, head to Cartagena’s old town and explore the beautiful streets.

Final thoughts?
This is an easy beach to get to – great for those who want a bit of beach action in an otherwise city focussed holiday. But for those hunting for the perfect beach, you will need to explore a bit more.

OPTION 2: PLAYA BLANCA

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Getting there:
There are 3 ways to get there: 1) On an organised tour, 2) By boat 3) Overland. We went overland, which was relatively straightforward. On the way out, 4 of us shared a taxi directly from our hotel. This is the most expensive way to do it but by far the most convenient. This costs between 120 000 COP and 150 000 COP for the taxi. On the way back we went by public transport: – motor taxi from playa blanca to the ferry crossing (10-12000 COP, 20 minutes); ferry crossing in small boat (1-2000 COP, 3 minutes); and a public bus to Cartagena (1700 COP, 45 minutes).

Level of isolation:
Playa blanca is a popular spot for day visitors so between 10am and 4pm the beach gets busier and the number of vendors and persistent massage ladies increases. However, the further down the beach you settle (the further away from where the boats come in) and if you can stay the night then the beach becomes a lot quieter.

Swimming:
Swimming here is something else. The water is so blue and so clear that you convince yourself it must be painted – the beach seems like something off a postcard and not something you are actually sitting on! Simply paradise.

Accomodation:
There are plenty of cabanas, hammocks and camping spots along the beach. The best we found was Los Corales:- if you stand facing the sea, walk to your right until you find it. It has lovely cabanas (with lights!), clean toilets and fresh water showers. Cabanas are 50-60000 COP per night.

Lunch (Fresh fish, coconut rice, salad and fried plantain):
15000 COP. There are numerous restaurants to try. We recommend Chocolates (look for the pink tent). If you’re in the mood for langoustines try Hugo’s (look for the tree with the Christmas decorations). We got 4 huge and delicious langoustines with all the trimmings (enough for 2) for 40000 COP.

Activities:
Hire a snorkel and float around in the crystal clear water looking for fish or, if you feel up to it, pay for a ride on one of the many jet ski’s or banana boats on offer in the sea. The best thing for me was to find a sun lounger and relax under a tree reading a book, with the occasional stop to swim or eat, of course.

Final thoughts?
The sea is unbelievable. I would have liked a few less cabanas and a few less people on the beach but all that became so unimportant when I realised how amazing it was to wake up and be next to that perfect perfect sea.

OPTION 3: COSTENO BEACH

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Getting there:
Take a bus from Santa Marta heading to Tayrona National Park (6000 COP, 60 minutes), stay on the bus for 6-7 minutes after the bus passes the entrance to the Park. They will drop you off at the turn off to Costeno. Walk down the road for 10 minutes. When you reach the first house, turn right walk for another 15 minutes. Costeno Beach Surf Camp is the last place along the road.

Level of Isolation:
If isolation is what you are after then this beach is the place for you. The only people on this beach are those staying at Costeno Surf Camp (maximum 30?) and some local fisherman. You don’t have to walk far to be the only person in sight.

Swimming:
This is not a beach for nervous swimmers. Chris managed some swimming but got a few beatings from the waves. However, if surfing is your thing then this a great place to come.

Accommodation:
Costeno surf camp is lovely and offers hammocks, dorms, beach huts and rooms. The rooms are 80 000 COP and come with lights, bathrooms and a much needed mosquito net. The huts are 50000 COP and come with a mosquito net. Try and phone to book in advance (email is not very reliable) as it gets full quickly.

Lunch (Fresh fish, coconut rice, salad and fried plantain):
15000 COP. Although, if you’ve had enough of fish they do an excellent (and I mean really excellent) steak and savoury rice for 11000 COP. They also make a big communal dinner every night for 10000 COP – which is lucky, because there are no shops anywhere near.

Activities
Costeno surf camp offers surf lessons and hires out surf boards. For those not into surfing, you can walk for miles on beautiful isolated beaches or even have a massage.

Final Thoughts?
The whole set up is wonderful and you can see why many visitors get sucked into the laid back lifestyle and struggle to leave. The beach was beautiful and quiet and I loved sitting on the sand, reading a book and listening to the waves crashing. However, the days were stifling hot and I missed not being able to jump into the water to cool off.

OPTION 4: TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK

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Getting there:
Take a bus from Santa Marta to the main park entrance (6000 COP, 60 minutes). There you will need to hand over your bags for searching (no alcohol, drugs or plastic carrier bags allowed) and pay the entrance fee of 37500 COP. Take a minibus from the entrance to the start of the walking trail (2000 COP, 12 minutes). From here, it is a 2-2.5 hour walk through the reserve to Cabo San Juan (the place we stayed). If you have brought lots of bags with you, you can also hire a horse and forego the walking.

Level of Isolation
The cost of the reserve and the effort involved in getting to the beaches mean that it is not completely overrun by tourists. There are plenty of people around in the different camp sites but you don’t have to walk too far to get a beach to yourself.

Swimming:
This is my paradise. There is no better place. The sea is a deep bright blue, clear, litter free and the perfect temperature. The best swimming beaches have a narrow break point right on the shore and, once you are passed this line of breaking waves you simply float in the playful swells. (Please note that there are plenty of beaches in Tayrona that are not swimming beaches – these have dangerous currents and are clearly marked with severe warnings.)

Accommodation:
As you get to the beaches you will notice several places to stay. We stayed at Cabo San Juan because it as recommended to us for its swimming beaches. We would stay here again. There are plenty of accommodation options: 2 cabanas, tents, campsites and hammocks. We stayed on the hammocks (20000 COP for those in the campsite or 25000 COP for those hanging on the rock by the beach).

Lunch (Fresh fish, coconut rice, salad and fried plantain):
The standard fish and plantain is 15 000 COP. There are quite a few more options for food but they are all about 20% more expensive than you would pay outside the park. It’s not a bad idea to bring some of your own food into the park but remember the limitations: no plastic carrier bags, no alcohol and no fires.

Activities
The beaches are so beautiful that you will not want to move off them but if you feel compelled to do something active then there is a lovely walk to some ruins.

Final Thoughts?
This is the closest I have ever been to the perfect beach. Don’t be put off by the entrance fee, the hike to the beach or the limited food options – just go and stay as long as you can.

OPTION 5: PALOMINO BEACH

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Getting there:
About an hour up the coast (towards Venezuela) from Tayrona is Palomino. Take a bus from Santa Marta (2 hours, 9000 COP) and ask to be let off at Palomino. From there it is a 10 minute walk or a 2 minute moto taxi (2000 COP) down to the beach.

Level of Isolation
This is not the best beach on the coast so it is not as popular a tourist destination. It is a nice balance of not too many people so that it feels crowded but enough people so that you can have a drink and make some friends.

Swimming:
Swimming is dangerous as there are strong currents so its best to pick a place to stay with a pool.

Accommodation:
There are several small places on the beach offering cabanas or hammocks (hammocks are 15 000 COP with a mosquito net). For a bit more luxury (ensuite bathrooms, doors, lights etc) try the Dreamer Hostel (100 000 COP for a double).

Lunch (Fresh fish, coconut rice, salad and fried plantain):
15000 COP for the usual fish lunch. Otherwise take a stroll down the beach where you can find some delicious crepes and shrimps.

Activities
Palomino is next to a river so grab a tube and a bus and go floating down the river for a day. Also, the village of Palomino, although tiny, has some great street food for anyone wanting to try a cooked banana stuffed with salty cheese etc.

Final Thoughts?
After the beauty of the beaches in Tayrona and Playa Blanca I was not blown away by this beach. However, I loved hanging around the pool of the Dreamer hostal, drinking cuba libres and enjoying the sunshine. Also, I relished being able to go to bed without walking through sand to get to my bed.

5 Favourites- Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

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Cartagena was the first place we visited on Colombia’s beautiful Caribbean coast. We were lucky enough to have to spend 5 nights here and grew to absolutely love this quaint pretty city. Here are our 5 favourite things about Cartagena:

1. Walking around the old walled city

The tourist hub of Cartagena is the old walled city – a colonial center filled with cobbled streets, Bougainvillea, street sellers, restaurants, art work and lots of colour to catch your attention. Walking around here is an absolute delight. Although, we would suggest a calm evening stroll as the heat of the day can be quite tiring. If walking around lovely little streets gets too intensive, you can always rest in one of the many green leafy squares for a piece of fresh fruit or a tinto.

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Some of the best things about the old city are all the colourful street produce…

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2. Evenings in Getsemani

If we have to say one negative thing about the old city – and only if we have to – it would be that it is hard to walk around quietly without being hounded enthusiastically by hat (or insert any other tourist item here) sellers. This is why we were pleased to be staying outside the old city in (what I call) the more Bohemian part of Cartagena, Gethsemani. We stayed in a lovely hotel, Hotel Patio de Getsemani which we would thoroughly recommend. Our favourite thing to do in the evening was to stroll up to the square at Parroquia de la Santisima Trinidad – you can find it on Calle 29 between Carrera 10 and 10b. Here you could buy a variety of street food and cheap beer (remember to ask the shop for some ‘vasos‘) and then just find a seat in the square, relax and make friends.

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4. The mud volcano

When I first heard that ‘visiting a mud volcano’ was a thing to do in Cartagena I was sceptical. As I was told, there is a volcano about an hour outside Cartagena. It is volcano like in shape but not in that it is about to spew hot lava on you. In fact, in place of hot lava there is mud – to be more specific, a pit of mud that is 2.5 km deep! And, for fun, Colombians take tourists there to climb into the mud. Anyway, I put away all my scepticism and decided to try it out and to just relax and go with whatever happened. Good thing I did. This is a really silly and strange thing to do but if you put that out your mind then it is a lot of fun.

It is fair to say that the volcano is well set up for tourism. When you arrive there is a man who will take your camera from you and follow you around photographing your experience (and saving your camera from the mud). When you get in the mud, there are people waiting to give you a massage. Then, when you have had your fill of the mud and go down to the fresh water lake to clean yourself, there are some very efficient ladies that will help you get the mud off you and your clothes. (I have never known people to be able to get swimming costumes off a group of strangers in a public place that quickly.) None of these services are compulsory (3000 COP per person per service) but you need to be made of strong stuff to be able to say no and, really, they all are part of the fun so should not be missed out.

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5. The beaches of Bocagrande

Cartagena’s beaches are found in the area known as Bocagrande – a long hot walk or a short cheap taxi ride (6000 COP) from the old city. There seem to be many mixed reactions to the beaches in Cartagena. It is true that they are definitely not the quietest or the cleanest beaches you will find on Colombia’s coastline but their chaotic nature definitely brings its own charm.

Each beach is lined with cabanas that you can hire to sit in the shade. (The fee of these cabanas depends a lot on your face and your attitude but we found them to be between 8000 COP and 15000 COP.) From then, you may as well be sitting in a busy market. As frequently as every 30 seconds (we know because we timed it) you will be passed by salesman selling hats, sunglasses, coconut sweets, massages, fresh fruit salad, oysters, sarongs, crabs, lunch, beer, juice, toy aeroplanes… …. …. While some people find this annoying, it can also be very useful. You can stay sitting on your chair and every time you need anything there is someone walking passed to sell it to you. Very convenient. Just make sure that, before you go, you practice your stern (but friendly) ‘no’ and work out an exit strategy if a massage lady decides to give you a not-so-free sample while you are napping in the shade.

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3. The weather

We had spent the majority of our time in South America about 2500m so, while we still had many hot and sunny days, the evenings would generally cool down (in some places they were just downright cold). We stepped off the plane in Cartagena and knew that we had finally arrived somewhere where we would not need those alpaca wool leg warmers we had bought (this is Em writing by the way).

In Cartagena the sun always shines and the temperature hovers around 30 degrees day and night – bliss. Just remember, especially if you are only travelling with hand luggage, that you will be showering and changing many times during the day and will need to include a lot for ‘laundry’ in your budget.

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Beautiful Salento, Colombia’s coffee region – Part 2

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Beautiful Salento, Colombia’s coffee region – Part 2

The other amazing reason to visit Salento is to see Colombia’s national tree – the splendid wax palm trees (also known as the Palma de Cerra).

The wax palm is no ordinary palm tree. No. It is a miracle of a tree that grows up to 60m in height. Take a couple of hundred of these and dot them around Colombia’s amazing landscape and you get the Valle de Cocora – possibly my favourite place in Colombia. The best way to see the trees is to do the 5 hour hike through the valley. As a bonus there are also some exciting river crossings and hummingbirds along the way.

Getting to the Valle de Cocora

Jeeps (about 3000 COP per person) leave from the Salento plaza to the Valle de Cocora at the following times:

Monday to Friday: 06h10, 07h30, 09h30, 11h30, 14h00, 16h00
Saturday and Sunday: 06h10, 07h30, 09h30, 10h30, 11h30, 13h00, 14h00, 15h00, 16h00, 17h00

You may think that the jeep only takes about 5 people but you will be wrong. They can fit up to 10 people in there (including some hanging onto the back). It’s about a 30 minute drive so try and choose your seat carefully!

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Walking in the Valley – the farmlands and into the reserve

The jeep drops you off at the entrance to the hike. Take a right at the blue gate and follow the path. It is advisable to get a map from your hostal (no doubt it will be a badly drawn map like the one we had but at least it helps reassure you that you aren’t about to take the wrong fork in the road on an all day detour).

The first part of a walk in a leisurely stroll through farmlands. After about 30 minutes you hit the reserve – a lush green forest with a river running through it. The river provides endless entertainment as the path snakes back and forth over it with dubious bridge over dubious bridge. I am not a fan of crossing bridges where there’s a big ‘Peligro’ (danger) sign at the start! Chris was 100% man though and tested each one thoroughly before I crossed.

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The reserve office and the hummingbirds

After a few river crossings and some hills you get to a fork in the road. To the left you continue on the loop towards the spectacular wax palm section. To the right you can detour 1km to the reserve office where you can pay the park fee, enjoy “hot chocolate and cheese” and watch the hummingbirds. I was sold on the hummingbirds but for Chris it was the unusual combination of cheese and chocolate which meant we took the detour. The walk there is only 1km but it is steep so took us a fairly long time to get there. I am so pleased we pushed on. Chris enjoyed 2 hot chocolates and cheese (the hot chocolate was awfully sweet and the cheese was just rubber) and I took 100s of pictures of the hummingbirds – they move so fast that it is very hard to get a picture of them in focus.

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The return route through the wax palms

The 1km walk back to the fork in the road was a lot simpler – we basically ran down the hill it was so easy. When you get to the fork continue on the loop. The first section is pretty tough – it’s about 30 to 40 minutes of steep switchbacks but the views are so stunning that it is actually very enjoyable. I didn’t mind the excuse to stop and rest on the root of the tree just to admire the surroundings and watch the clouds rolling into the valley.

You get to the top and immediately start the slow descent down. This is the part of the walk I was waiting for – from here the wax palms start to appear with increasing frequency. We found a little spot off the path where we could sit alongside them and admire the valley – it was beautiful. They are pretty amazing trees. You can’t believe how straight their trunks are and how far they extend up into the sky above you. I couldn’t help wonder how often they tumble to the ground and hoped that it would not be when either of us were anywhere near.

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Getting back from the Valle de Cocora

Jeeps leave from the Valle de Cocora to the plaza at the following times:

Monday to Friday: 12h30, 15h00, 16h00 and 17h00
Saturday and Sunday: 07h10 and every hour until 18h00

Although, if you can get enough people together (or are willing to pay a bit more) then jeeps will leave when you are ready.

Paracas and the birds of the Ballestas Islands

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Paracas and the birds of the Ballestas Islands

South America is big and trying to see everything in 4 months is impossible – particularly when you look at the speed at which Chris and I like to travel. So, when we were planning (I use this in the loosest sense) our 4 month holiday in South America, I made sure I had a list of “Em’s must sees” so we didn’t accidently get to the end of the 4 months having missed out something crucial. My top 4 items (in no particular order) were:

1. Iguazu Falls
2. Bolivian Salt Flats
3. Amazon Jungle
4. Galapagos Islands

A little bit of research told me that the Amazon and the Galapagos were going to be a very expensive part of our holiday and I soon realised that if I wanted to ensure that we saw one, I would need to choose. So, we visited Iguazu, saw the salt flats on our Uyuni tour and spent our first wedding anniversary in the Amazon jungle but the Galapagos Islands fell off my list (at least for this holiday).

With this background in mind, you can imagine my excitement when I was doing some research on places to stop between Cusco and Lima and discovered that the Ballestas Islands – affectionately known as the ‘poor man’s Galapagos’.

Paracas is a strange little town halfway between Nazca and Lima. We booked 3 nights here but ended up only staying 2 – it feels like this really is a place you come to see the islands and then move on. The area is actually a desert so it was quite strange seeing desert and coastline directly alongside each other (but that might be because I am definitely a greenery girl).

Our island tour was cancelled the first morning because of stormy seas which gave us a chance to explore the coastal reserve and then spend an afternoon eating cerviche (no complaints from Chris). Luckily (because we had already booked our bus tickets out of Paracas) the tour went ahead on day 2. Needless to say, I had set myself up to be disappointed. All the tours offered in town were identical and I resigned myself to the fact that I was simply being pushed through a tourist factory on a boat of 30 people to islands that probably wouldn’t be amazing. Anyway, we made our way to the port bright and early and boarded a boat in glorious sunshine. I took the advice of some tripadvisor reviews and made sure Chris and I were sitting on the left hand side of the boat (excellent advice by the way).

Our first stop was the candelabra – a strange marking on the side of the hill with unknown origins – like the Nasca lines. Sadly, within the 10 minute journey to the Candelabra a heavy mist had descended and it was really hard to actually make out the Candelabra. Never mind though, I was here for the birds.

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We left the Candelabra and headed off for another 20 minutes in increasingly thick mist. The skipper seemed to have no GPS system or even a compass and we seemed to be navigating by simply following the co-skipper’s pointed finger. We come to a sudden stop directly in front of the islands. I was immediately excited – there were thousands and thousands of birds. Everywhere we looked (or peered through the mist) we could see them.

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I was particularly taken by the pelicans – while they had looked foolish begging for food on the tourist beach, they looked majestic and historic in their flocks around the island.

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I was pleasantly surprised by the number of sea lion. Initially we had seen a few dotted around on rocks or playing in the water next to the boat and then we stumbled on a little beach where they were all lounging and grunting and frolicking (as much as a sea lion can frolic) in the waves.

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My only complaint was that the actual time around the island was way too short. In fact, as the mist cleared and the sun came out, our boat turned to leave. At least our photos have a nice eerie quality to them. I am sure the Galapagos islands are absolutely incredible, but for now I am happy we got a taste in Paracas.

Nazca – spending the day exploring the lines without taking a flight

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The bus ride from Cusco to Lima is 23 hours so, being the hardy well-seasoned travellers that we are, we immediately started looking for places to stop along the way. The obvious choice was Nazca, exactly halfway between the two and a chance to see the world famous Nazca lines – you know, those ones of monkey’s, condors, hummingbirds etc drawn by unknown people or things at an unknown time in a desert, only visible by air. There was one catch, we had essentially blown our ‘treats budget’ on our extravagant trip to the Amazon so this, combined with Chris’ fear of non-regulated air industries, meant we would get to Nazca and not actually fly over the lines. Was it going to be worth it? In the end, I decided that as I had bought a Peru T-shirt in Arequipa with a picture of a condor and the word ‘Nazca’ on it, we had to go.

So…. what follows is how to spend a day in Nazca without actually flying over the lines:

We arrived on a very hot morning (we are definitely not in the Andes anymore!) and were greeted with a very welcome cup of coffee at the lovely Hostel Nasca Trails. There was no time for the usual post-night-bus-nap as we only had one day and had to get the most out of this dusty little town. Our first stop had to be to try and see these lines.

1. Visit the Mirador

If you’re not getting in a plane the only way to see some of the lines is at the mirador – a metal staircase in the middle of the desert. Buses leave that way out of town about every half hour. Just buy a ticket to “el mirador” (10 soles / £2.50) and after 30 minutes of driving you will be dropped off in the middle of the desert next to a metal staircase. Entry up the staircase is 2 soles (£0.50) per person and from here you can see two of the lines: 1) The Tree and 2) The Hands. Sure, they are not the most impressive of all of the Nazca lines but at least you get to see some of them in real life. The mirador is also the sight of The Lizard but sadly the Peruvian government built the freeway across it so it cannot be seen. (I was assured by the mirrador man that the freeway was built long before they knew of the existence of the lines.)

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The metal staircase

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The tree

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The Hands

You get back to Nazca by hailing down a bus passing in the other direction. To pass the time, an optional activity it to walk 1km back towards town and climb a little hill for a view of the desert. Chris is never one to turn down walks, especially when they involve hills, so that is what we did. A word of warning to any like-minded individuals. This is the desert. It is baking hot at midday and there is absolutely no shade. It took us 20 minutes to walk to the hill, 10 minutes to explore the hill and 25 minutes of waiting for a bus on the side of the road (when we eventually gave up and accepted a lift from a passing van). At times, I believed I was getting a taste of what being ‘lost in the desert’ would feel like. Looking back, I think I would have rather waited in the shade of the mirador!

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Chris walking in the endless heat of the desert

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Trying to make my own shade

2. Relax around the pool at Nazca Lines Hotel

Once you have made it back from your desert adventure, there really is not much else to do in the town itself (until the evening). We would recommend taking a stroll to Nazca Lines Hotel where for only 25 soles (£6.25) you can have access to their lovely refreshing swimming pool, get a sandwich of your choice (including chicken mayonnaise – yum!) and a cool drink. For an extra 5 soles (£1.25) you can even hire a nice big fluffy towel. There. Afternoon sorted.

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The beautiful, refreshing pool

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Chris enjoying the lunch

3. Visit the Planetarium

Having tragically missed out on the star gazing in the Atacama desert due to bad weather we were excited to see that Nasca had its own little planetarium in the parking lot of the same Nazca Lines Hotel. The English tour starts at 7pm and costs 20 Soles (£5). We had low expectations (because we were in the middle of a well-lit city and because we were in a parking lot) but it turned out to be really excellent. The presentation is about half an hour and takes you through Maria Reiche’s theory of how the Nazca lines were created in line with the stars. Afterwards we got a chance to play with the telescope and saw Jupiter, Saturn and our own beautiful moon.

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The moon

Machu Picchu – an awesome visit and our handy travel tips (April 2013)

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It goes without saying that Machu Picchu is incredible. It also goes without saying that it is incredibly touristic. Many people choose to do the Inca Trail, a 4 night hike into Machu Picchu, but this requires booking months in advance – way beyond our organisational prowess – and is very expensive. There are numerous tour options but we wanted to save some money and go under our own steam – this was straight forward but finding out how to do this was surprisingly complicated.

Here are some pictures of what we found along the way and how we went solo (and what we paid in April 2013).

OUR ADVENTURE TO MACHU PICCHU
Machu Picchu can only be accessed from the small town of Agua Calientes and this is only accessible by a very expensive (but fun) train or by foot along the train line. It is in fact the price of this train and the entrance into Machu Picchu which accounts for the high prices of many organised tours.

NOTE: Train and entrance tickets must be bought in advance and this is easily done both online or in Cusco. Train tickets can be bought at the offices of Inca Rail or Peru Rail on the Plaza de Armas in Cusco (or from their websites). Entrance tickets can be bought from the office on Wayna Capac near the junction with Avenida de la Cultura, also in Cusco.

Step 1: Minibus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (1.5 hours, 10 soles per person)
Ollantaytambo is the start of the train journey to Machu Picchu and is a quaint village in the Sacred Valley (the Sacred Valley leads up to Machu Picchu and contains many small villages and ancient ruins). There are other train options but the quickest and cheapest way is this one. The bus journey is really scenic and the bus can be taken from the intersection of Pavitos and Avenida Grau – they leave when they are full which appeared to be regularly.

Step 2: Train from Ollantaytambo to Agua Calientes (1.5 hours, $52 per person)
We chose to spend a night in Agua Calientes and so we took a a late train at 12:58. It is possible to visit Machu Picchu in one day by taking a very early train, these trains are more expensive (up to $80 per person). The train journey runs along side a rather aggressive looking river through an incredibly steep valley – no wonder this place was hard to find.

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Standing in front of the train on the track at the (clearly safety conscious) station in Ollantaytambo - it took me days to remember this name. The train has cheaper carriages for Peruvian people and posher, much more expensive ones for tourists - Peruvians and tourists cannot travel together. This seemed a bit wrong to us.

Step 3: Night in Aguas Calientes (night at Hostal el Mystico, 70 soles per room w/o breakfast)
Agua Calientes is an unusual place, remember everything gets here by train and it is really just the tourist stop of point for Machu Picchu. It has a strange charm and a thermal baths (hence the name – hot waters). The thermal baths were really not so hot and quite small, more a writhing mass of pink tourist flesh. On the plus side they sell beer and pisco sours. Apart from that expect average food, cobbled together buildings but an incredibly beautiful setting.

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The mysterious town of Agua Calientes. Touristic - yes, strangely charming - yes, awesome views - YES.


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Roads, where we're going we don't need roads. No really, Agua Calientes just has a train track. Ok, there is a road to Machu Picchu along with buses - I have no idea how they got them there.

Step 4: Bus to Machu Piccu (30 mins, $18 return per person)
A very early start, we left the hotel at 5.15 – we wanted to get our money’s worth in Macchu Picchu. We did not have to wait long for the bus which were leaving continously as they filled up from the line of people waiting. We waited for about 10 minutes. The bus then snakes up a large number of switch backs to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Keep your eyes closed if you don’t like steep drops!

Step 5: Machu Picchu and Huaynu Picchu (entrance 152 soles per person, guided tour 30 soles per person for group of 4)
It is hard to put this into words so we have included some of our pictures. All I can say is that it is just like the pictures you have seen but at the same time a million times more awesome.

There is so much to do here that you can easily spend a whole day. We entered at around 06:15 and left at 15:30ish. We spent the first 2 hours on a guided tour, the guide can easily be picked up in the queue to get in. In advance we also paid the extra $10 to climb Huaynu Piccu (only 400 people allowed per day). This is a steep uphill climb/scramble with some unbelievable views of both Machu Picchu and the steep drop down the side of the mountain – well worth it.

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Our first view on Machu Picchu. We could have done this in photoshop for a lot less money. That big mountain on the right is Huaynu Picchu which we climbed later.


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The Inca's were awesome at turning impassable mountains into livable and farmable refuges. These terraces were used for farming.


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The Inca's were also big fans of astronomy - however they were not supposed to look at the sky because this is where the gods were hanging out. This made astronomy a little difficult so they built these useful mirrors out of stone so they could look at the sky indirectly. Apparently this was okay.


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The Inca's were masters of working with stone. Many temples and habitations took advantage of natural features in the stone.


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Taking a stoll around the streets of Machu Picchu - we learnt that the people were short.


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Em conquering the route up Huayna Picchu. Machu Picchu and the switch backs from the bus route can be seen in the background. This walk was a good 45 minutes walking up hill. It is a good thing we got in some training at Colca Canyon.


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The route up was quite a scramble in places and included this rather narrow tunnel - fortunately only about 5m long.


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It was well worth the climb up for the great views of Machu Picchu. Also we do love a good picture of the two of us sweating profusely.


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In places the walk back down was a little narrow - nonetheless Em managed to stop for this lovely picture.


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After lots of walking around the site it was nice to take some time to chill out at the end of the day when many of the tourists had started to leave.


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I still managed to stumble across many groups of tourists - these ones had conveniently arranged themselves into a triangle.

Step 6: Bus back down to Agua Calientes (already paid for on the way out)
This seems fairly self evident.

Step 7: Train back to Ollantaytambo (1.5 hours, $77)
We came back on the slightly fancier ‘Vistadome’ train. Unfortunately the slightly later and cheaper train was sold out by the time we booked. However, we were treated to a ‘dance show’ and a ‘fashion show’ in the short journey.

We then chose to spend a night in the quaint village of Ollantaytambo – we don’t like to rush. It seems most people just come through here to the station but we spent a very relaxing evening at the lovely Casa de Wow. You could easily kick off a trip through the rest of the Sacred Valley from here.

Step 8: Taxi back to Cusco (1.5 hours, 15 soles per person)
You can easily pick up another minivan – there is a small car park near the train station where they leave from. We shared a taxi with another couple for a shared cost of 60 soles.

Total price including one night of accommodation in Aguas Calientes but not including food: 660 soles, $250, £170 per person (ouch)

Other options
– The super cheap way to get there is to take a bus to Santa Theresa (6 hours or more) and then hike (3 hours) the train line of catch one of the trains coming to Aguas Calientes from the other side. The people we met who did this started the hike in the dark – not ideal! This saves the expensive train fair which costs between $100 and $150 of the trip – if you do this both ways. It is possible to take the train in one direction – the one way train tickets are about 15% more expensive than when bought as part of a return.
– Jungle tour: this alternative to the Inca trails is a 3 night hiking, biking and rafting tour to Machu Picchu. The train only needs to be taken one way. The total cost for this trip was between $200 and $270 dollars – remember very little of this is likely to make it to the local community.
– There are numerous alternative tours through the scared valley or over the nearby mountains – shop around.

Hiking Colca Canyon, Peru

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Our guide book explained that Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world – in fact, it is twice as big as the grand canyon (which I had always thought of as pretty big). So, when we were thinking of things to do around Arequipa, the obvious thing to do seemed to be to hike down to the bottom of the canyon and then to climb back up again. How had can that be?

A note on our tour company:
There are dozens of tour agencies that offer 1 or 2 nights in the canyon but 1 company immediately stood out to us – Carlitos Tours. Carlitos is a former Colca Canyon guide who gained such a great reputation he was able to start his own company. His company has a very strong ethos of ensuring that the local communities benefit from tourism. Essentially, he involves the local people in his tours and makes sure they get properly paid for it. We could see that we were going to pay a little more for a tour with this company but we were going to be rewarded with a small tour group (only the two of us and a guide) and a few more authentic experiences once we were in the canyon. This was ideal for us – after all, we didn’t want to just walk straight through! If you are reading this and looking for a tour to Colca canyon – don’t bother looking, just email Carlitos and book it!

Day 1: The Decent

Our journey started at 3:20am – armed with as few clothes and supplies as we could survive on for 3 days (we were going to have to carry everything after all) we jumped into the minivan and headed off in the darkness up the windy roads to towards canyon county. We met our guide, Marcelo, on the bus. I immediately liked him because he handed us a lovely wool blanket to use for the 3 hour journey. This proved to be very valuable as the journey took us over a pass at 4900m where it was pretty chilly.

After a stop for breakfast in the town of Chivay, we drove to Cruz del Condor for condor viewing. This part of the tour as amazing. We stepped off the bus and 1 was already circling above the canyon. There were 2 sitting on the rocks nearby and then during the course of the hour there were several at a time soaring above us… they were spectacular.

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After our encounter with the condors, we headed to the start of our hike. Standing at the top one thing immediately struck me: The canyon was deep. Really deep. When Marcelo pointed out our lunch spot in the distance I wondered whether or not we could actually make it there before dark let alone lunch! It took us 3 hours to get to the bottom of the canyon. It is not a tiring walk and Marcelo and Chris (both verified mountain goats) could probably have made it down in two. However, I am ridiculously cautious and the steep trail covered with loose rocks and the sharp descent alongside the path made me a very nervous walker. Even with the help of a walking stick I opted to take it very slowly. Going a bit slowly also allowed me to take in the views of the canyon. Not through any specific planning on our part, we had arrived at the canyon right at the end of rainy season. So, while our walk was nice and rain-free, the scenery was beautiful and green and not yet the harsh brown that is evident in the dry season.

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Bright and ready to start the hike

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Chris and Marcelo - thank you Chris for carrying the big bag!

We had lunch down at the bottom of the canyon at a little restaurant in the village (what do you call somewhere smaller than a village?) called San Juan de Chuccho. We were very grateful for the extra energy from the food and for the fact that the locals had carried cokes down the canyon on mules so that we could by a lovely cold coke. From the lunch spot it was only 1.5 hours more to our host family for the night. Most of the walk was, as Marcelo described it, ‘Peruvian flat’ (i.e. it goes up and down in little bits) but the end was a fairly steep climb up the village of Cosnirhua. Not for the last time on the trek I thought I was going to die. Turns out, while Chris can skip up hills and continue to chat (in Spanish no less), I can’t take 3 steps up a hill without feeling like I can’t breath. (I guess my 20s are coming to an end and perhaps I should start exercising).

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Chris helping me down the hill

We spent that night on a farm with a local family – thankfully with two modern luxuries: a flushing toilet and a hot shower. (It’s the small things…)

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Our modern luxuries

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Chilling in the kitchen waiting for dinner...

Day 2: Exploration

We started the day bright and early at 06:30 to do the optional walk to another village in the valley Tapay. The walk consisted of 1 hour of steep climbing, a short stop for some juice and then 1 hour of steep descent. I was grateful for the breaks when I had to step aside for packs of mules to pass (and then disappear into the horizon). The walk was gruelling (only for me – it was a piece of cake for Chris and Marcelo) but I put it down to practice for the great ascent up the canyon we still had to do.

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Chris and Marcelo proud to have made it to Tapay

We returned back to our farm for well deserved chocolate pancakes and a lovely tour of the farm to try out all the fruit – including the best (and I mean THE BEST) oranges I have ever eaten in my life. Afterwards, much to Chris’ delight, we dressed up in traditional clothes and posed for photos.

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Not sure why Chris put the lampshade on his head?

Saying goodbye to our family we headed off on the easy part of the trek – a 2 hour walk of Peruvian flat. The only thing Marcelo failed to mention to me were that some parts of the trail were narrow sandy paths with huge precipitous drops on the side. (Deep breaths Emmylou.) The last part of our walk was a descent down into the valley – from the top we could see the crystal blue swimming pool of our hotel in Sangelle – perfectly known as ‘the oasis’. The perfect prize to encourage us to keep walking.

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Enjoying a nice flat walk...

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Chris in the pool with the canyon background

Day 3: The Ascent

Against my better judgment I refused the offer of a mule ride to the top of the canyon and decided to walk it. The path is 6km long and is a tight switchback ascending 1km up back to the top of the canyon. The path is steep and unrelenting – to be clear, there are NO flat sections and NO downhill sections. We left at 4:45am and got as high up as possible before sunrise – working on the assumption that I will feel better about walking as long as I can’t see how much is remaining. We made it up in just under 3 hours which just below average so I was very pleased. Phew… no airlift rescue required!

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So excited to have made it to the top I don't care how sweaty I look!

The rest of the day included breakfast, a trip to the hot springs, a few stops in little villages, lunch and a trip to a pass at 4900m to view the nearby volcanoes but, to be honest, I was so utterly exhausted from our morning exertion that I just wanted to sit in the van and sleep. I felt very sorry for our guide who kept trying to tell us facts while I lay against the side of the bus with my eyes closed.

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Visiting a colonial church

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Little Peruvian girls listening to Chris' story

Although (as I may have mentioned) I found the uphill sections of the walk absolutely exhausting – the walk was spectacular. The canyon was stunning, the people friendly and it really felt like we were wondering on our own far away from civilisation. We are so grateful that we decided to be spend 2 nights there so that we had the opportunity to get to know a local family and so pleased to have found Carlitos tours and met our wonderful guide Marcelo.