Return to Minnesota

It has been over 3 years since I first hopped off the plane in Minneapolis/St Paul airport and I was excited to be back. I have so many great memories from this special place and Minnesota will always hold a special place in my heart. My friend Allison suprised me by meeting me at baggage claim and I hastily pulled a happy birthday banner out of my bag, my arrival coincided with her birthday and I think she appreciated her kiwi birthday present. We lugged my ever growing bags to her car and drove to a Mexican restaurant for lunch and then went for a walk around lake before sampling some cider at Sociable Cider Works (seems like cider is finally becoming a thing in the states!). There was a mobile blood drive parked at SCW’s and they had partnered with them to give donors a free drink (at a later date) – I like their style! Later that night we met up with some of Allison’s uni friends for her birthday dinner and then drove back to her parents place in Sartell where we were staying. I was very very thankful to be staying in my own room, in my own bed for the first time in over 2 weeks.

The next morning we headed to Savers to do some thrift shopping. Op shops are amazing in the states, they are filled with so many cool find and we spent a couple of hours searching through the store. I only walked away with a couple of items due to my limited bag space. We went back to the Ley’s for lunch and on the way we spotted a few garage sales. Garage sales are a big thing in Minnesota it seems. They start on Thursdays andn through the weekend. We went to 6 just in one small area of Sartell that day. My favourite one was an estate sale that had a lot of cool old items, like old medicine bottles and soda cans. We went back to the Ley’s for a delicious dinner and then headed out for cheap drinks with Allison’s flatmate Krista.

The next morning we headed back to the cities to pick up my friend Erena who had flown in from Colorado for the weekend to visit. After a quick stop in Sartell for lunch we headed to Nisswa, which is where the summer camp we all worked at is. We checked into our motel that stunk of cigarettes (in our non smoking room) and then headed into the town, wandering through the many gift shop and getting some of the famous Chocolate Ox icecream. For dinner we had another walk down memory lane with Rafferty’s Pizza and then headed to Ye Olde Pickle Factory for drinks. It was a very fun day and very reminiscent of days off spent during camp.

Erena and Allison enjoying some Chocolate Ox

After a truly awful motel breakfast the following day, we headed back into Nisswa where we met up with another camp friend Kate and then drove out to camp. It was very weird being back, nothing had really changed except all the people were different. We stayed for lunch and had one of the exact meals (cesar salad with biscuits) that we used to have 3 years ago – athough the salad bar had got significantly better. After lunch we walked around the grounds and reminisced a bit before heading to Grandview Lodge for some more Chocolate Ox. That night we went to another old haunt for dinner, Zorbaz. Zorbaz was packed and we had a great night, joined later by another camp friend Patty, who was actually in the same cabin as me.The following morning we headed into town for breakfast as we weren’t willing to put ourselves through the motel breakfast again. After breakfast we went for a walk to the Nisswa lake and along part of the Paul Bunyan trail (Paul Bunyan is a giant who has a pet Ox named babe, his footprints are what shaped all the lakes in Minnesota…or so the story goes). We then met up with Kate again and she took Erena back to the cities to catch her flight while Allison and I drove back to Sartell and had dinner with her family.

On the shores of Bass Lake where I spent many hours in canoeing or kayaking classes

The infamous Camp Lake Hubert sign

The next day was the 3rd of July, so Allison’s friends had the day off. We drove to a nearby “beach” with her friends Emily and Mallory and spent the day there sunbathing and swimming. That night we drove to the next town over where they were having a festival. We Hing out with some more of her friends, listened to music and watched the fireworks display.

The 4th of July, or Independence Day, is a big deal in the states, so I was excited to be in the country for it. We were spending the day with Allison’s extended family at their lake house. Our first stop was to the town of Crosby where they always go watch the local parade. This was a very small town parade, where the polce, fire brigade and local businesses drive past and hand out lollies. After the parade we headed to Allison’s uncle’s cabin on Dam Lake for lunch. Dam Lake was really pretty and there were a whole lot of humming birds buzzing around. We also took the pontoon boat out onto the lake and went swimming before a thunderstorm rolled in. We had to head back reasonably early as Allison’s dad had to work the next day. When we got back we drove to Emily’s house in St Cloud to watch the fireworks display. Before the fireworks started there was an awesome Minnesotan lightning storm. I love the storms in Minnesota, they have awesome for lightning and are very dramatic. The fireworks displays in the States are also pretty epic though.

Typical small town parade float

The view from Allison’s uncle’s lakehouse

Allison’s mum had the following day of, so we hung out with her for the morning and headed into St Cloud to go shopping and run errands. Later that afternoon our friend Becca arrived from Iowa. We had dinner with Allison’s family that night and then headed to a bar in St Cloud with Mallory and Jeff to try their famous Buffalo drinks.

Sadly, the next day was my last full day in Minnesota. We got up early and drove to a place called Taylor’s Falls. When we got there we had lunch in a drive in restaurant where the waitresses serve you in your car. It was a pretty cool experience, but I think I prefer eating at a table. Afterwards we killed some time looking at some glacial potholes before renting a canoe and canoeing down the river. The canoeing was a lot of fun, we sang songs the whole way. Unfortunately when we got to the pick up point the company forgot about us and we ended up waiting an hour in the heat to be picked up. Because of this we didn’t get back to Sartell til later so we ordered some food (which was also an hour late) and went outside to have a campfire with some of the Ley’s neighbours.

Canoeing down the Croix river

We had to leave reasonably early to catch my flight the next day, so that was the end of my time in Minnesota. It was so great to go back and even better to see some of my friends who I talk to all the time on Skype but hadn’t seen in person for 2-3 years.

But it was time to move on to the third phase of my trip, next stop…California!

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Arcadia, Boston and New York (part two)

After not nearly enough time in Canada we headed back to the States. Our first stop was Arcadia National Park in the state of Maine. There was another Trek America group staying at the same campground as us, so once we set up camp (and played a bit of frisbee) we got to know them. They were doing the Great 48 trip, which goes through all the the States except Alaska and Hawaii – in about 80 days…I cannot think of a trip that sounds worse than that to be honest. They were a group of 5 guys and were 3 weeks in… That afternoon there was supposed to be a kayaking trip, but it go cancelled due to bad conditions, so instead we explored the town of Bar Harbour. They ordered pizza for dinner that night, but an Ice Cap from Tim Hortons meant I was feeling too sick from dairy to join in sadly.

Bar Habour

The next day we got up early, and by early I mean 3am. We drove up to a spot in Arcadia called Cadillac Mountain to watch the sunrise over the ocean – the first sport in the US to see it. Afterwards we set off on a hike up the Beehive. This was a clamber up rocks using bars and chains and was a lot of fun. We took the long way down which lead us by a lake. The leaders asked who wanted to jump in but everyone wimped out except Laura, Grace and I. We then continued on back to the van, refreshed and slightly uncomfortable in our wet clothes.

Sunrise from Cadillac mountain

Sunrise

Part of the Beehive Trail

On top of the beehive

I really like puffins, not really sure why, but I have always wanted to see one. So when I heard that Bar Harbour had puffin tours I was adamant I wanted to go on one. Unfortunately, that day all of the boats were cancelled due to weather – so I still have’t seen a puffin. Instead, I went and had breakfast with Seth, Laura, Laura and Ben (the other tour leader). This was a very classic American breakfast place and was exactly what was needed after after a very long morning, and almost made up for not seeing puffins. We then headed back to camp for a bit and attempted to sleep before deciding that swimming in the pool was a much better idea. Later that afternoon we headed back to the park and hung out on the beach for a bit before going for a walk along the coast.

Maine is famous for its lobster, so for dinner that night we decided to cook some. It definitely wasn’t the best lobster I’ve eaten but it was a lot of fun and a fantastic end to my favourite day on the trip.

Getting the lobster for the pot

We said goodbye to Maine the next day and made our way over to Boston. This was a really long drive with traffic and our planned stop for the journey ended up being a non-existent dud. We were staying out of Boston in a State Park, so it was back to being eaten alive by mosquitos (although nowhere near as bad as Algonquin). That night while we were eating our dinner (breakfast for dinner) we heard a noise and saw a raccoon trying to get into our rubbish.

The next morning we headed into Boston. Laura and I decided to make Harvard our first stop for the day, which was a short metro ride away from the centre of Boston. We wandered around campus for a bit before finding a cafe in a student only section and impersonated being Harvard students for a while. Afterwards we jumped on the end of a fully booked walking tour which showed us a around the campus and was actually really interesting. The day continued to get hotter and hotter, and it was incredibly humid. So, by the time we got back to Boston Laura and I were really not wanting to be wandering around learning about the history of Boston. Instead, we went shopping and made a thank you card for Seth as this was our last night of the tour. Later that evening we went out to dinner with the group at a nice Italian restaurant.

The statue of John Harvard – also known as the statue of three lies, as the date is incorrect, John Harvard didnt actually found Harvard University and the statue is not actually modelled on John Harvard

The next morning we packed up our tent for the very last time and made our way back to Newark in New Jersey. There we said goodbye to everyone and went inside to book an Uber. However, when I googled the address of our hostel it said that it was permenantly closed. I then went to search for our booking email and found one that I had missed from the booking company saying that the hostel has closed down. Unfortunately, it was also Gay Pride weekend in New York City and everything was booked out or well over $600 a night. We managed to find accommodation for the rest of our stay in NYC, but nothing for that night. In desperation, we contacted Laura’s cousin Cainneach who she had met only once before (Laura’s mum is from a very big Irish family). Thankfully, he and his wife Kristen were more than happy for us to stay and even had a spare room. So we got a very expensive Uber to Queens. 

Cainneach and Kristen and their dog Mercy/Murphy live in a really cool apartment in a very pretty area of Queens called Forest Hills that has more of a London vibe than an NYC one. When we arrived, they plied us with wine and asked if we wanted to go to a night market in Queens. We willingly obliged and had a great time sampling the food and even giving those bubble soccer balls ago. A few bruises later we headed to Brooklyn and spent the rest of the night there. We were also convinced to cancel our accommodation and stay with them for the remainder of our time in NYC.

The next morning, Laura and I got up early and headed to the laundry-mat to do some very overdue washing. While we were waiting we got our very first New York bagels (which we unfortunately didn’t realise we needed to ask to be toasted) and sat outside minding people’s dogs and chatting to random strangers. With our washing finally clean, we caught the train into Manhattan. We had arranged to meet our friend Grace from the trek for lunch. She had spent the morning up the Empire State building so we decided to meet there at 12. It turns out, the Pride parade also started at midday right next to the Empire State Building, so all of a sudden we were packed in like sardines trying to move against 1000s of people. It was very overwhelming and I was pleased to finally escape, but it was pretty cool to see the start of the parade and the atmosphere surrounding it. For lunch we headed to the famous Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This is where quite a few Broadway stars have had there big break and it involves your servers singing and dancing showtunes and pop music inbetween serving you. It was pretty expensive, but a lot of fun. Afterwards, we said goodbye to Grace and decided to catch the subway to the bottom of Manhattan. Unfortunately, the train we got on didn’t stop where we though it did, and we ended up in Brooklyn. Unfased, we changed our plans and instead decided to walk back along the Manhattan bridge which gives fantastic views of the city. By the time we got back to Manhattan it was time to head to the theatre to see Chicago on Broadway. This was really good, they incorporated the band into the musical and Velma was incredible. Then it was back to Queens with a quick stop in Buffalo Wild Wings for some really terrible food.

Making our way through the pride parade

A performer/waiter at Ellen’s Stardust Diner

NYC

I love it when characters break character

View of Manhattan from the Manhattan Bridge

The next day was another bright and early start as we had a lot to fit in. First up was the Museum of Natural History. Last time I was in NYC I didn’t go as I didn’t think I would have enough time to do it justice, and this time we only got through a few of the exhibition halls. There is just so much to see, but it was all fascinating and I will definitely be going back one day. We checked out the animals of North America, The evolution of Man, the gems and the dinosaurs. There was still so much to see, but it got pretty exhausting. We then tried for a second time to get to the bottom of Manhattan and, this time, we succeeded. We jumped on the free ferry to Stattan Island to see some great views of the Statue of Liberty and then headed to the 9/11 memorial museum. We didn’t really get enough time to do this museum justice, but it was very busy and quite pricey. It was interesting, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you only have limited time in the city. The reason we ran out of time is that we had to get back up to Broadway to see our second show off the trip, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This was so good, it was funny and very well done (the oompa loopas were people’s heads with puppet bodies) and definitely worth seeing. We then caught the train back to Queens after a very long and tiring day.

Laura chilling with a mammoth at the American Museum of Natural History

The Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island ferry

View of Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry

The next day was our last in NYC and we wanted to slow the pace down a bit. We had our last NYC bagel in Queens and then explored Forest Hills before taking the train in. In the city, we walked around Central Park for a while before heading to the MET. The MET was not quite what I was expecting, it was more a collection of ancient art than a typical art gallery and it was quite confusing to know where to look – there was a lot going on.

Central Park

We couldn’t leave NYC without trying Artichoke Pizza again, so we caught the subway back to the Meat Packing District. We ate some more delicoius pizza, then met up with Cainneach and walked along the Highline to the site of the night’s activity. Here we met Kristen and had a drink on a rooftop bar before heading down to line up for Sleep No More. Sleep No More is immersive theatre that is loosely based on Macbeth. It is located in an old warehouse and set over 5 floor with different parts of the play happening over the floor. All of the audience wore masks and wandered around the different levels, each having a completely different experience. It was really cool, but not quite what I expected. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was supposed to be doing and there wasn’t any dialogue (more dance) so I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening. But the attention to detail was incredible and I am glad I did it. Each room was decked out differently, one was a child’s bedroom, one was a candy shop (with lollies you could help yourself to), one was a cemetery, one a hospital… and you just wandered between them in near darkness looking at the details or watching the perfomers who would come in and out. Definitely worth doing, but be prepared for a weird night,

And so ends my time in NYC. It is safe to say I love this city and that I will be going back one day. But it was time to move on and return to Minnesota…

Apologies for any typos, it is not easy to blog in your phone!

The Adventures Continue….New York (part one), Ontario and Quebec

After being back in NZ for over a year and a half, I decided it was definitely time for another adventure. It didn’t take long to settle on the states as my next destination (Harry Potter World was what sold it really), but deciding exactly where took quite a bit longer. In the end, I decided to join another Trek America trip with my friend Laura for the first two weeks that would take us from New York, into Canada and back again. This would be followed by a couple of weeks visiting friends in Minnesota and finally, a two week road trip in California with my friend Natalie. Travelling with friends has meant I have had to be a lot more organised than I usually would, but it has been quite nice having everything all planned out (and even paid for) in advance.

Laura and I flew to Newark, New Jersey via LA. It took us over 25 hours from the time we arrived at Auckland Airport until we got to our hotel in Newark, so we were pretty exhausted by the time we got there at 2am local time. We didn’t want to waste our first day in New York though, so we dragged ourselves out of bed at 9am the next morning and caught the train to Manhattan. A friend of mine from Camp Hubert (also alled Natalie) lives in New York now, so she showed us around for the morning. Our first stop was to Artichoke Pizza for some genuine (and seriously delicious) New York pizza. We then made our way to the Highline Park. The Highline was a railway line that was used for tranposting goods in the meat packing district. Several years ago it was donated to the city and turned into a raised park. The whole area was designed so well. The space is very long and narrow, as most railway lines are, but they had incorporated different rest areas and artwork into it, which made for a really nice walk. The gardens were also very “organic” looking, utilising different green plants, rahter than flowers. This place is definitely a contender for my favourite spot in the city. We said goodbye to Natalie and then attempted to find a Target (kind of like the Warehouse) in New York to get pillows to take camping with us. This took quite a while and afterwards we were ready to catch the train back to Newark and relax in our hotel for the night. 

Walking down the highline

The following day was the first of our tour. We made our way down to the hotel lobby bright and early and met the rest of our group. There were 10 of us in total, Laura and I from NZ, 1 from the Netherlands, 1 from Swizerland, 5 from the UK, and our tour leader from Texas. They seemed very quiet, but were all really nice. After some quick introuductions, we all piled into the van and made our way to our first stop of the trip, the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Here we set up camp and made our way down to the lake for a freezing cold swim. The Finger Lakes were made by glaciers retreating, so they are very, very cold. After our swim, the over 21 year olds headed to the Americana Vineyard for some wine tasting. The wine snobs out there would probably not agree with me, but I thought the wine was great. My favourite was called Crystal Lake which basically tasted like grape juice, but they also specialised in some really delicious blueberry wines. Laura and I did buy a couple of bottles, but those are long gone. 
 bit tipsy from the wine tasting we headed back to camp for dinner, where Seth the trek leader was making his infamous “Spoon Burgers”. The way Trek America trips run is that you all put in $10 a day into a food kitty which is used to buy the for meals and things like firewoord and ice. You are in cooking groups and take turns to prepare dinner, with breakfasts and lunches serve yourself. This means that every 5 or so days a supermarket run is made and we divvy up a shopping list and hunt down our grocery items. It definitely save a lot of money not eating out all the time, and it is actually quite nice to cook once in a while. The “Spoon Burgers” had some very odd ingredients, including nearly an entire bottle of ketchup, but they actually tasted pretty good! Laura and I volunteered to do the dishes and everyone else sat and watched us in silence, which was definitely a bit strange.

Wine tasting

Setting up camp

The Finger Lakes were just a quick stop on our way to Canada, so the next morning we had to down our tents and pack up the van. Our first stop was the American side of the Niagra Falls. While the falls are neither the highest not the largest falls in the world, they are still very impressive. They are actually three falls, Horseshoe Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and American falls. They are also receding by an impressive 70cm a year. We took the Maid of the Mist boat ride to the bottom of the falls and got soaked from the mist coming off of the falls. We also tried this weird space-age icecream called “Dip not Dot”, which was tiny balls of (I think) freeze dried ice-cream. 

At the bottom of the falls

In our fabulous Maid of the Mist attire

Our second night was to be spent in the outskirts of Toronto, so after the falls we made our way there through some very slow traffic. My friend (yet another Natalie), who used to live in my flat in Aukland, is from Toronto so she picked Laura and I up and took us to dinner that night in Burlington and showed us around the area that she lives. Once we got back to camp we were pleased to see that the awkwardness seemed to have broken and everyone was hanging out and playing games (and talking!)

The next day we drove into the city and spent the day exploring the city. First stop was the Kensington Markets, which are a collection of Bohemian shops. Unfortunately we were there a bit too early for the shops to be open, but it was still a very cool and colourful neighbourhood. We then split up into smaller groups and Laura and I hung out with Saskia (from the Netherlands) and Mike (from the UK) for the day. We stopped at the Toronto sign first and got some stereotypical tourist pictures before heading to the underground mall. Because Toronto gets so cold in winter, they have a whole city under the streets that means you can go in between stores without having to go outside. After the mall we found a rooftop bar and made ourselves at home for a few hours, drinking giant bucket margaritas. We then headed to the waterfront, passing through Grafitti Alley on the way. Here we relaxed for a bit before meeting back with the others to go and watch a baseball game. The Toronto Blue Jays were playing the Tampa Bay Rays. Unfortunately the Blue Jays lost, but it was still a fun game – even if it did drag on a bit.

One of the stores at the Markets

Saskia and I on the rooftop bar

Graffiti Alley

At the Blue Jays game

The next day we got up bright and early and headed to Algonquin, a provincial park in Ontario. We arrived early afternoon and quickly set up camp before heading off on a hike. It was a really pretty area and nice to get out for a walk. That night was my groups turn to cook and we made a Thai green curry – not the greatest, but edible. We also got savaged by mosquitos the entire time at the park.

Group shot on the hike

Seth making S’mores

 The next day we headed out for another hike in the morning before a canoing trip in the afternoon. The highlight of the canoing trip was, without a doubt, that we got to see a moose. The guide said they aren’t too common to spot on trips, so we were pretty lucky. When we got back to the rental place Laura and I decided to go for a swim in the lake. Back at the camp Laura’s group cooked up some pasta and then we headed to bed to escape the mozzies.

More hiking

Moose!

Canoeing to the moose

Next up was Montreal. This was a very long drive and we stopped in Ottowa on the way, so once we got there there was not a lot of time left in the day. Here we were staying in a hostel, so we didn’t have to put up a tent! Laura and I were sharing a room with Grace, who was also our canoing buddy from the day before. Because this was the only place on the trip that we were staying in town we decided to go out. We started off with the pub crawl that the hostel had organised, but after spending an hour at the first bar and not getting served we split off from the group and started out own pub crawl. Slowly our trek group split off and went to bed, until it was just Laura, Seth and I. We ended up watching a band perform and didn’t get home until 4.30.

After a lesisurely sleep in the next morning, Laura and I headed out to explore Montreal. Our first stop was to climb Mont Royal for a view of the city. After quite a few stairs we made it to the top for a great view. There was also a communal piano at the top so we hung out here for a bit listening to some incredible pianists. After here we made our way to the old Town which has a very Europeans vibe to it (or a very Northern American vibe according to the Qubecqois people we met). On the way back to the hostel we grabbed some really delicious poutine from a dodgy looking liquor store. For those of you who aren’t aware of this particular delicy, it is essentially fries covered in gravy and cheese curds – and it is seriosuly good. That night we had dinner at O’Noir, which is a dark restaurant. This means that you are eating in the pitch black, you cannot see you hand in front of your face. The staff are mostly vision impaired, so are very good at navigating the restaurant. This was definitely a unique experience, when I first got in I freaked out a bit, but once you got used to the surroundings it was a lot of fun. Some people opted for a surprise meal so they had no idea what they were eating. I wasn’t that brave, but I did have surprise dessert. The food was really good, and noone had any idea if you you were eating with your hands. Win-win all around really. Laura, Grace and I decided to walk back to the hostel after dinner. On the way we passed a street art festival and a free concert. Montreal was buzzing and a really fun, exciting place to be during the summer.

View from Mont Royal

Walking through the old town

The following day it was on to Quebec City, our last stop in Canada. On the way we stopped at the Mont Morrency falls and had a very sweaty climb to the top.  It was back to camping in Quebec, so we set up camp and had burritos for dinner. The next day we headed into Quebec City and wandered around the old Town. Quebec felt even more like Europe than Montreal and it was a nice city to look around. That night we came back into the city for a ghost tour, which took us around the city and shared some of the stories of it’s history.

Inside the old town

The tour guide for our ghost tour

And that is where I will leave it for now. Apologies for any mistakes, this was typed on my phone which is not the easiest thing to do. Next stop: Maine.

Sunset in Quebec City

Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Cesky Krumlov & Vienna

From Amsterdam it was on to Berlin. Berlin was never somewhere I was particularly inspired to go to, in fact the only reason I went was because it was on my Busabout route. So I really did not expect to love Berlin as much as I did. I think partly this was due to my ignorance of Berlin’s history. I knew the wars had happened and the wall existed but I didn’t know a lot more than that. Actually learning about it all where it happened was so interesting and Berlin truly is a fascinating and incredible city. I only wish I’d had longer there to properly explore it.

I did two walking tours while in Berlin. The first was an alternative tour of Berlin and was the most unusual walking tour I’ve been on. While we did look at street art and the sites in the up and coming neighbourhoods, we also had in depth discussions on topics like politics and the gentrification of Berlin. And I think it was this tour that made me appreciate just how cool Berlin is as a city. After the wall came down people fled to the west, leaving whole apartment buildings deserted. Young people who wanted to live a non-mainstream lifestyle began squatting in these, creating vibrant and artistic neigbourhoods. While many of the squat houses have been shut down, there are still are few that exist today – and apparently they have epic parties. However, these “cool” neighbourhoods have unfortunately caused their own downfall. With the rich wanting to cash in on the appeal and buying the existing apartment blocks or demolishing local hangouts to build new ones. Gentrification is an issue in most cities, but unlike most cities, Berliners have fought very hard against it, and in some cases even won. One example was when the land a local reggae beach bar was on was sold for riverfront apartments. The backlash from Berliners caused a longterm lease to be granted just up the river as the new home for the bar. Berlin is definitely a city for free thinkers and one where the rich do not have all the power.

Yaam Berlin

Yaam kind of like a little commune with lots of little shacks selling food, a music venue and a beach bar with actual sand. I can understand why Berliners would not want to lose it.

Berlin Street ArtSome of the street art in Berlin, apparently at night a Flag from a local car delarship shadows this wall so the spaceman is holding it.

The second walking tour I went on was a more traditional one, looking at the main sites and history of Berlin. It began to rain just as the tour started, and I was in shorts and a teeshirt. Halfway through I was drenched and freezing and ready to call it a day. The tour guide had given me and another girl an umbrella to share but it was doing much against the torrential rain. We even looked at going to buy some warmer clothes, but it was Sunday and everything was closed. Thankfully the weather cleared while we were having our half time break, and I am so glad it did – this walking tour turned out to be one of the (if not the) best ones I have done. The guide was involved in theater so he was very dramatic, tearing up several times during the tour and culminating in a 15 minute monologue.

East Side GalleryPart of the East Side Gallery, a section of Berlin Wall that has become a gallery for street art. Such a shame to see a lot of it spoiled by shitty, talentless tagging!

Berlin WallThe largest remaining section of the wall as it was.

AmplemannAmplemann, the communist traffic signal that was so beloved it has now spread throughout Germany.

Holocaust memorial BerlinThe Holocaust memorial, one of the most moving memorials I have seen. The architect has left the interpretation open. I see it as the obvious coffins or a graveyard, but also with the differing heights it gives a sense of chaos and confusion in something that looks conforming. It is also a memorial that you can move through and reflect.

Berlin is known for its nightlife, and after dinner with some friends we checked out one of the clubs, Matrix, which is located in the basement of a train station. It was very big, and very cool but not really my thing. I wish I’d had time to check out some of the smaller bars. There is so much in Berlin I didn’t get to see though, definitely have to go back there!

The next stop on the bus was the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. Prague is chaotic collection of architecture who’s end result is quite simply, stunning. I was staying near the castle – which is not really how I imagined a castle would look (basically like everywhere else in Prague) but does have an awesome Gothic cathedral. Definitely my favourite building in  Prague.

Prague gothicGothic architecture

Prague isn’t one of those places were there is a lot of things to tick off. Instead, my time in Prague was mostly spent hanging out with Busabout friends. The first night I took part in the infamous Prague pub crawl, which is supposedly the largest in the world (although I went on an earlier one which  was a bit quieter). The following day I met Tegan & Sean and James & Francesca for an interesting walking tour of the old town.

Prague astronomical clockconstructed in 1410 this is the oldest working astrological clock in the world. Legend has it that the designer was blinded so that he could not repeat his work and in retaliation the designer jumped into the mechanism of the clock stopping it from working for years until a clock maker of equal caliber could be found.

charles bridgeThe Charles Bridge connects the castle area to the old town.

After the walking tour we headed for a local bar where the boys tried some beer that is made without preservatives so only keeps for a few days after the brewing process. That night we checked out another fine Prague establishment, hooters, before going out for dinner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My favourtie part of Prague was all the street performers. There were your usual singers and human statues but there were also puppet shows, pianists, a crazy band who played the weirdest instruments and much much more. And they were all ridiculously talented.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Bridge Band were usually playing as I made my way from my hostel into town.

From Prague I had to leave all my busabout friends behind as I made a detour to Krakow in Poland. My journey from Prague to Krakow was my first using the train system and not a very good one. The aircon was not working for the first few hours and it got hot.  We were  all dripping with sweat and some people were starting to get very anxious in the stuffy, airless carriages. It was also a night train so I arrived feeling very sticky and tired. Thankfully, my hostel in Krakow was amazing, definitely the best in Europe so far, they even let me have the free breakfast when I arrived! Also checking in were two girls I had met very briefly on a tram my first day in Prague, Keisha and Ally. They recognised me (and after a minute I remembered them) and I ended up hanging out with them most of my time in Krakow.
Unfortunately, a few sleepless nights meant the traveler’s bug that everyone seems to have over here got on top of me and I was sick the whole time I was in Krakow. I did mange to see some of the city though in between naps, the Jewish quarter especially was very cool.

KrakowKrakow has the most glamorous horses

One of my main reasons for going to Krakow was to visit the Auschwitz concentration camps. These were the biggest network of camps during Nazi occupation and more than 1.1 million people were murdered here. Visiting a concentration camp is one of those things you have to do. It’s definitely not a fun day out, but I think it is important to truly understand what went on in these horrible places. I was quite surprised how many people felt okay taking selfies or posing for photos, they are not the kind of photos you want to stick in the family album. I didn’t even feel right taking photos inside the bunkers (although this was allowed), I think I took about 3 photos the whole time I was there, and all outside.

Auchwitz

The thing that hit me the most there was a display showing the massive amounts of hair found at the liberation of the camp. Hair was removed from the victims by the Nazis on their arrival to the camp and after death, it was then used in manufacturing. There were piles and piles of hair, some still in their braids and this was only what was still at the camp at the time of liberation. It gave a real sense to the extent of loss that occurred here.

After the original Auschwitz camp, we also went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was the largest concentration camp during the Nazi occupation. The original Auschwitz had been a Polish army barrack before WWII and one thing that surprised me about it was how nice it looked. If you didn’t know the atrocities that went on here, and the barbed wire was removed it would look like an old fashioned school or something similar. Brikenau had none of this. This purpose built camp was an enormous, barren, prison. no doubt about it.

BirkenauAuschwitz – Birkenau

The following day Keisha and I decided to go find a spot to go swimming. We went to Zakrzowek Lake, which was beautiful, but unfortunately the locals are not looking after it. There were piles and piles of picnicking rubbish everywhere. It was disgusting. There was one guy there who was spending his Saturday trying to clean it up. While we were there he took away around 8 sacks of rubbish. He told us that it would take all day just to clean one area and the next time he came back it would be filthy again. I think part of the problem is that you are not technically supposed to be there, you have to cross a torn down fence to get in and there are signs saying not to enter which is probably why the council does nothing about it. But it still doesn’t explain how people can be so feral, why would you want to sunbathe next to a pile of filth?! We left with a small bag of rubbish after a storm came in and spoiled our afternoon, at least we left it cleaner than we found it. If anyone from Krakow ever reads this please do something about it, it’s such a disgrace to your beautiful country!!

krakow lakeKeisha in the lake

Our afternoon turned bad after the storm set in. On our way back we didn’t validate our tram tickets, which lead to a 60 Euro fine. Then when we were walking back to the hostel (we didn’t want to go back on the tram even though we still had a valid ticket) someone spat out of a window and it landed on Keisha’s head. Not ideal. Still, despite all this, and even though I spent a lot of my time there in bed, Krakow is an awesome city and definitely worth a visit!

After a much more pleasant night train back to Prague I hopped back on the bus to Cesky Krumlov, a town in the Czech Republic. I was a bit nervous about re-joining Busabout, as all my friends had moved on. However, it couldn’t have turned out better. The hostel was a cute, homey place where you had to take off your shoes and there were 6 busabout girls staying here, 5 in the same room (which didn’t have bunk beds!). We cooked together both nights we were there and it was great to have some healthy and cheap food!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASarah and the meal in progress

Sadly I only had one full day in Cesky Krumlov but I definitely made the most of it. In the morning we hiked up Mt Klet. This was a really pretty walk through the countryside and then forest. One of the girls was walking ahead and missed a turn off, luckily she realised after about 20 minutes and made it to the top just before we were about to leave! Dena, Sarah and I ended  up walking a much longer way back and we were pretty exhausted by the end of it. But I’d already agreed to go rafting, so 4 of us piled into a raft and made our way down the river. It was very calm apart from a few man made rapids, but a lot of fun!

cesky Krumlov BearsThe castle in Cesky Krumlov has two pits outside it with bears living in them

castle cesky krumlovPart of the castle, a lot of the buildings here had painted brick work on them

Hiking cesky krumlovWalking up the hill

Top of Mt KletDena, Sarah, Myself, Larissa and Tara at the top

Rafting Cesky KrumlovThe river we rafted down, you can see the man made rapids we went down on the right

From Cesky Krumlov it was on to Vienna and straight into a walking tour. Unfortunately not one of the better ones I’ve done. The guide was difficult to understand and would start talking when he reached a spot, not when the whole group had. When I asked him to please wait for everyone to get there he told me we needed to walk faster (I think trying to get a large group of people through a crowded street was the bigger problem, not our walking speed). It did end however, with a big plate of Wiener Schnitzel and Apple Strudel!

Vienna Trafic lightsEven better than Amplemann are the Vienna crossing lights which have all sorts of couples in love

One of the tours that was being sold on the bus was a biking wine tour, it sounded awesome but at 50 Euro was a bit out of my budget. So we decided to do the next best thing. We hired bikes, each bought a bottle of wine and some snacks and biked along the Danube sampling each others wines along the way. Highlights were wine #3, swimming in the river and taking our cruisers on a BMX track.

Wine on the Danube

Danube wine tasting

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur last bottle, we never made it to number 6 – this is the spot we went swimming.

I didn’t have long in Vienna and it while it wasn’t my favourite city I think it would be an awesome city to live in. Right by my hostel was an awesome market filled with deli food, so good!

I know I’ve been slack, so behind on my blogs, this one has been half done for 17 days apparently. I’m gonna blame the bad internet and the constant moving. But anyway, next stop… Budapest!

Back on the road (Paris, Bruges & Amsterdam)

I’m back on the road again, after only spending about a month at home after trips to Christchurch and Fiji. Unfortunately at the end of this trip I have to get back to the real world so a lot of my journey is being punctured with thoughts of “what am I going to do with my life”. Still, I can definitely procrastinate these decisions a few more months and, in the meantime, this is what I’ve been up to:

It was significantly cheaper to fly to London through Aussie, so I took the opportunity to visit a couple of friends living in Melbourne on the way. I stayed with Matt, a friend from Hamilton my first night, he lives in a really cool area of Melbourne which I got to explore quite a bit of after being given wrong directions from someone at the train station. Eventually I found Matt’s place and we went out for dinner with his flatmates. My friend Rosa (from camp) picked me up the next day and we spent the day seeing some of the different suburbs of Melbourne going to a drive -in movie and chilling at Terry’s (Rosa’s Boyfriend) family’s house which was in nice, quiet, lifestyle area of Melbourne.

My second day in Melbourne we decided to check out Kinglake National Park with one of Rosa’s friends, Emma. Kinglake is the site of one of the Black Saturday fires, 1800 homes were destroyed in this area and 159 people killed during the fires. The area has largely regenerated and been rebuilt but many of the trees are still scared black. We did a few walks in the park to some underwhelming waterfalls and to what would’ve been an awesome view of Melbourne, had the day not been a miserable day.

We got up bright and early and went to a Lake near where Rosa lives to see the Kangaroos.

Kinglake National ParkOne of the underwhelming waterfalls (we’d googled photos earlier that looked awesome)

We then made our way to the town of Marysville, a cute little town that was basically burnt to the ground in the fires. This rebuilt town has a ski-resort feel to it and it was here we finally found an impressive waterfall.

MarysvilleThis one we liked!

That night Rosa, Terry and I hit the Casino and had a great night learning roulette and watching Terry win a decent sum (I doubled my $10 at black jack).

My final day in Melbourne we decided to find a flying fox colony that lives in one of the city parks. I quite like bats so I was pretty excited to see hundreds of them roosting in the trees. Afterwards we went to my first AFL game.

AFL gameAfter the game. AFL is a strange game and the fans are even crazier. Lots of fun though!

Hosier LaneHosier Lane – a street art lane in central Melbourne.

My trip to Melbourne was a short one, but it was so great to see Rosa again and meet Terry and his family. Melbourne is an awesome city and I will definitely have to be back to check it out more one day soon!

I flew Malaysia Airlines to London, this did seem to concern a few people but my theory is that lightning won’t strike 3 times. Although in saying that, I didn’t have a great flight. Perhaps I have been spoiled flying Air NZ, but the seats were very hard and uncomfortable and they turn the movies off 40 minutes before landing. The second leg of the trip had basically everything you hate on a plane trip: an hour on-plane delay, screaming babies, the person next you wanting to get out all the time (mostly when I’d just fallen asleep) and the guy behind you violently and loudly throwing-up for half of the plane ride. But I survived and even managed to navigate my way to my friend Jess’ flat. Unfortunately Jess had forgotten I was coming and the people home in the sharehouse where she lives weren’t sure if she actually lived there. Luckily Jess’ roomate Erin turned up after a bit and she broke the news to Jess that I had arrived.

Jess left for the UK around 2 years ago, right after our trip to Hawaii, so I hadn’t seen her in ages. This was just a quick stop in London to say hi (and I was a bit jetlagged) so I didn’t get up to much in London, but I did manage to see a few of the sites.

Kensington GardensKensington Gardens in Hyde Park

wimbledonWimbledon was on at the time so we went for the evening. I’m not much of a tennis fan but it was cool to see. And the ballboys are hilarious.

After a short but sweet catch-up I caught a very early train to Paris. I was kind of nervous about going through the tunnel, however I must have slept through the whole thing because I have no recollection of being in the tunnel. When we arrived at Paris I was hesitant to get off the train as I was convinced we were still in England. Once I got off the train though, it was very clear I was in Paris.

Paris has a reputation of being this beautiful, romantic city – and a part of it does evoke this; but a much larger portion is a rough, dirty city with the same chaos and stench as any in South America. Still, it is hard not to like Paris, with its quaint streets and little surprises.

Paris

My friend Natalie was in Paris as well so we hung out the whole time I was there. The first day we met up with a colleague of Natalie’s and her sister who is living in Paris. We went for a drink near the Moulin Rogue and then they took us to look at Sacre Coure. While we were there we decided to ride the merry-go-round, which was pretty exciting after not having been on one in probably decades. For dinner that night I tried snails for the first time at a little cafe where Picasso’s mistress used to live. They were okay, probably wouldn’t order them again though.

Sacre couerSacre couer on another grey day

EscargotTime for snails!

Day two in Paris started with the city’s most iconic attraction, the Eiffel Tower. It’s funny how many people come to take photos of this structure just because it’s something you’re supposed to do. Obviously we still took a lot of photos though, including the usual ‘tourist touching the tip of the tower’ etc. photos. I didn’t however want to wait hours in line just to go up it, so we moved on to another famous site – the Arc du Triomphe and Champs Elysees. Here we did queue for a little bit in order to try the famous Laduree macarons. These were incredible and definitely worth the wait.

Eiffel towerTour Eiffel

That night we took part in a night bike tour of Paris. This was pretty scary in points, we were at the back and taxis and trucks would get impatient and cut us off from the rest of the group frequently. It was a lot of fun though, our guide was hilarious with Beyonce impressions and dancing at traffic lights. At the end we took a cruise down the river and saw the Eiffel tower all lit up.

Eiffel Tower at night

Day 3 in Paris we made our way to a ferris wheel that gave a pretty decent view over Paris, but unlike most views of Paris, didn’t have a queue. The Paris Catacombs were our next stop and here we did queue for 2 and a half hours in the hot sun. Turns out that because we had already bought our tickets we didn’t need to queue at all. Whoops.

Rue de Paris

catacombesIn the late 1700s the remains from Parisian cemeteries were moved into an abandoned mine. Here the skulls and femurs were arranged in patterns for privileged Parisians to come and see. It was cool and very damp in the catacombs and quite creepy. It was enormous compared to the one I visited in Lima, and that one held 25000 bodies. The Paris catacombs apparently have the remains of 6 million people in them.

My last day in Paris w returned to the Champs Elysses and looked around the shops here and then had a relaxing afternoon in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

Jardin du LuxembourgThe city of Paris seems to hate people waking on the grass.

And so ended my love/hate affair with Paris. I bid au revoir to Natalie and started my Busabout trip. Busabout is a hop-on hop-off bus service, this means that while there is a set route the bus travels, you can stay as long as you want at each stop and that you are traveling with like minded people. My first stop was Bruges (or more correctly Brugge) in Belgium.

Belgium is basically known for two things – beer and chocolate. And as I am not a connoisseur of the former and don’t wish to pay exuberant prices for the latter I did not make the most of these Belgian delicacies – Although I did have one Belgian beer (it was Hoeggarden Rosee and it was pink and tasted delicious and not like beer at all) and one Belgian chocolate (it was a free sample in a shop). What I did do in Bruges was wander around the beautiful streets and stores and my second (and favourite) bike tour of the Brugge countryside.

Bruges

Unfortunately the weather gods were not in my favour in Bruges, and it rained almost the entire time I was there. My bike tour was no exception to this and we were soaked through by the end of it. The ride was still amazing though, we rode along the canals and through cute little towns, and just when we started to get over being cold and wet we stopped at a local pub for a drink (hot chocolates all round). While we were in the pub two people rushed down the stairs, someone commented on this and I said “yeah, where’s the fire?”. Then we realised we could actually smell smoke. Turns out the chimney of a house a few doors down had caught fire. In the 20 or so minutes from it starting until the time we left the whole roof was gone.

Bruges FidelThis dog sits in the window every day posing for tourists – he is known as the most photographed dog in Bruges and was even in the movie ‘In Bruges’.

Canal BrugesCanal in Bruges

Fire in BrugesFire in Damme

I am in love with Bruges. Bruges is what you imagine Europe to be like as a child. It is cobble stone streets and medieval houses, it is canals and tree lines paths, it is dark pubs and shops selling Christmas ornaments. Bruges is the kind of place you could happily spend a week or two doing nothing but enjoying it. Returning here at Christmas time, when the canals are iced over and the streets decorated to perfection has now made my bucket list.

From Bruges it was on to Amsterdam. Amsterdam is essentially very tall people riding  alongside canals on black bicycles. While the drug and sex culture that Amsterdam is known for is there, it is evident that this exists solely for the tourist trade. We had an awesome busabout guide for this leg of the trip and she offered to take a mini tour of the red light district followed by a show. The show was actually pretty boring with the exception of a few skits that were designed to give people doing Contiki tours stories to tell their mates back home.

20150714_211645The condomerie

My first day in Amsterdam my friend Annalise and I joined another one of those crazy European queues (only this time in the rain) to visit the Anne Frank house. I read Anne Franks Diary years ago so this had always been a must see for me. You couldn’t take photos in the house and the rooms were unfurnished at the request of Anne’s father so it wasn’t quite what I had expected. But it was still fascinating to see where her she had lived, where she had written her story. I’m currently rereading her diary. In the evening I went with two Aussies, Tegan and Sean, to a comedy show called Boom Chicago. This is put on by Americans living in Amsterdam and was very well done and a lot funnier than I had expected it to be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe cars in Amsterdam were either super expensive or super small (except for the ford focus in this pic). One of these cars was the subject of one Boom chicago skit.

Day two was yet another bike tour, this time of the Amsterdam countryside. Amsterdam is so well designed for cyclists and drivers have a much better attitude then they do at home – it’s a shame that NZ can’t embrace this a bit more. We cycled out to a dutch cheese farm where a creepo dutch guy showed us how to make cheese and how to make clogs. Afterwards Annalise and I wandered around the city and went for a walk through the park by our hostel.

Asterdam

clogsTrying some clogs on for size

Amsterdam is a cool city but probably not one I would go back to. The tourist emphasis here detracts a lot from the vibe of the city . I would, however, like to see the rest of the Netherlands one day.

Next stop….Berlin

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHouse boats on Amsterdam canals

Return to Peru, the States and NZ

I’m back in New Zealand now and the last year feels more like a dream. If it wasn’t for the tan-lines and mosquito bite scars I could almost be convinced it was one. It is crazy how little has changed and how easily normal life becomes the reality again. I’m not quite ready for this reality though and have booked tickets to Europe for 2 months time – so their will be more posts after this one! My last blog left off in La Paz, Bolivia from where I took a seriously long bus to  Arequipa, Peru. First I had to get back to Copacabana, then cross on the water taxi again (I asked a stranger where the toilets were after I got off the boat and somehow ended up in a bathroom in the middle of a naval base). Then it was an overnight bus until we finally made it to Arequipa.

Getting back to Peru signified the start of my homeward stretch. I suddenly had a deadline and a number of places I wanted to visit in that time. The city of Arequipa was first on that list. Arequipa is a beautiful city surrounded by volcanoes and is nicknamed the white city, due to the frequent use of volcanic stone in buildings. I arrived here at 5 am and, while I would have dearly loved to sleep, my limited time meant I had to make the most of the day. My first stop was to a museum that housed the Ice Maiden Juanita. Juanita is a a frozen sacrifice victim from somewhere between 1450 and 1480. At the time of her discovery in 1995 she was the the best preserved example of an Inca “mummy”, although more well preserved “mummies” have been found since. Unlike most mummies around the world, Junita and those like her were naturally preserved so all of their internal organs, hair, skin and clothing remain intact. The first stage of the museum was to watch a fascinating video about Juanita’s discovery. In 1990 the volcano Sabancaya began erupting and continued doing so for the next 8 years. This caused the Ice cap of neighbouring Mount Ambato to recede, exposing long hidden Inca burial sites. Juanita was found in the crater of Ambato, having fallen in a few weeks earlier with the collapse of her grave. Unfortunately the veil covering her face had moved, meaning that while the rest of her body was perfectly preserved, her face had dehydrated from exposure. Juanita was carried back to Arequipa and a further expedition uncovered two more frozen bodies on Ambato – although these were lower down the mountain and thus less well preserved. Juanita was likely drugged with Chicha (maize beer) before being struck on her head and buried in her frozen grave. The second part of the museum showcased the artifacts found with Juanita and the other two children. It was incredible to see the detail in these items, especially the fabrics which you don’t often see in such perfect condition. The last stage was to see the frozen mummy. Unfortunately I came a few weeks to early and Junaita was at the university for several months undergoing tests. Instead there was another “mummy” on display, this was a lot less preserved than Juanita and more mummy like than human like but still very cool to see. The best examples of preserved Incas are in Salta and I heard from other travellers that these just look like children who have gone to sleep.

You couldn’t bring cameras so these are off the internet. The first photo is Juanita, you can see her face is not so well preserved. The second is one of the Salta mummies for comparison.

Later that day I went on a free walking tour around the city. This one was supposed to take two hours – it took four. We had lost most of the group by the end, but for those who lasted the distance there was chocolate, Arequipan potato, and pisco sour tasting! We also had a friendly stray dog accompany us for most of the walk.

This is a park designed for children, but it is locked to the public most of the time.

The walking tour included an Alpaca farm/manufacturer

At 3am the following morning I left to go on a two day hike into Colca Canyon. Colca Canyon is several hours out of Arequipa and is one of the deepest canyons in the world – at twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. It is also where the Amazon river starts. Being 3 am, we all tried to sleep on the way there until our first stop, where we stumbled bleary eyed out into a frozen vista and snapped a few quick photos before retreating to the warmth of the van.

The next stop was a quick breakfast of the usual jam and bread and then we were on our way to Cruz Del Condor. Colca Canyon is home to the Andean Condor, a huge bird with a wingspan of over 3 meters. Cruz Del Condor is a lookout point over the canyon where you can watch these magnificent birds playing in the thermals.

It was then time to start our hike. My group consisted of our guide Honorio, two Americans, Maia and Rob and one Brit, Becky. None of our group new each other at the start and we all got along great, making this one of my favourite hikes of the trip. On the first day we walked down into the canyon and then along it until we reached our nights accommodation – a place called Oasis. This meant the following day was all uphill. Honorio was in a bit of a bad mood and powered off at an unmaintainable pace. Maia and I decided to do our own pace until we stopped for a halfway break. After this Robert was really burnt out though and struggled for the rest of the climb. In the end we left Honorio to wait for Robert and us three girls made our way to the top to wait for them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is where we stayed the night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking  over the canyon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stopped at the market on the way back and i met this guy (Andean Eagle)

I made it back to Arequipa that afternoon and then had another 5 am start for my PeruHop bus. I needn’t have got up so early though, because the bus was 2 hours late. The journey to Huacachina took the whole day, not aided by an hour stop at roadworks. We had very bad timing , we were at the front of a very long queue so a few minutes earlier we wouldn’t have had to wait at all. We were trying to make it to a viewing tower that overlooks three of the Nasca Lines before the sun went down, and we only just made it – getting there just in time to watch the sun set. We then continued on to stop in the town of Huacachina for the night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe lines

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASunset over the lines

Huacachina is the only Oasis in South America and it was seriously awesome. Huge sand dunes and seemingly endless dessert wrap a small lake surrounded by hotels. Our hostel was unfortunately not an Oasis however, Huacachina is known as a party town and even though this was not a night that the nightclubs were open, people had clearly still been in a party mood judging by the revolting state of the bathrooms the next day. It definitely took top spot for worst hostel on my trip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Oasis

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe went on a Pisco tasting tour – I wasn’t a fan

While beautiful, Huacachina is known most not for it’s Oasis but for sand boarding – or probably more accurately the insane dune buggy ride before and after sand boarding. A group of 8 of us were strapped into the back of a dune buggy and our truly loco driver proceeded to hoon around and over the sand dunes. Racing up with out being able to see what was coming up and then  jumping off the top. It was absolutely terrifying, I was screaming a large portion of the time. The closest thing I can compare it to is like being on a roller coaster, with the sudden drops, changing path and seeming like you are going to hit something. Except unlike a roller coaster, you are not on pre-determined tracks with impeccable safety, you are in a roofless car, driven by a driver who has to have a few screws loose, surrounded by other roofless cars with other borderline crazy drivers who you only just keep missing. Terrifying, dangerous, but oh so very very awesome.

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Dune buggy coming over the dunes

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After the thrill ride I was very hesitant about going sand-boarding, especially as you had to go down head first. I took a bit of convincing, but as soon as I was on it I realised it was actually pretty tame and you don’t go nearly as fast as it looks.

After another death-defying ride back to Huacachina we hopped back on the bus and on to our next destination, Paracas. Paracas is a coastal town and gateway to the Ballestas Islands, which are also known as the “poor man’s Galapagos”. These islands are home to penguins, sea-lions and marine birds and every 7 years bird poo, known as guano, is collected from them to be used as fertilizer. They were our first stop, and to be honest the tour was a bit disappointing. We were crammed onto a tourist boat and drove around the islands. I was on the right side of the boat and as everyone would stand up to see, and the driver only went one way, I could not see anything most of the time. On the way there we past a shape carved into the hillside known as the Candelabra and we saw dolphins – so not all bad!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALa candelabra – noone knows who made this

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWharf on the Ballesta Islands

After a lunch of incredible ceviche we spent the afternoon at Paracas National Reserve, which was a really lovely, wild spot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAParacas national reserve

We were then on our way to Lima, with a stop on the way to check out a cool old mansion and explore the slave tunnels underneath it.

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Back in Lima I didn’t get up to a whole lot. I managed to catch a cold from one of the guys on PeruHop so didn’t feel like exploring too much. I was reunited with a good traveling friend from Ecuador and we spent our few days together exploring Miraflores, getting pedicures and buying a few last souvenirs. Right by our hostel was a park that was filled with stray cats. Local groups feed and care for the cats and in an average walk through the park you would spot 50 to 70 cats. It was awesome, people having picnics or sitting chatting would be patting a cat or even have one on their knee. On my final walk through the park I came across a free walking tour and decided to join them. This was mostly through historic centre where I had already been, but we did arrive just in time to see the changing of the guards at the presidential palace. This was quite the display, there was a very good band playing to one side and the soldiers slowly pranced, with high kicks and flamboyant sword movements in time with the music. The whole thing took around 20 minutes and was very professional.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALook closely and you’ll see some very high kicks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcatacombs at the San Francisco convent

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis park is full of cats

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The next day I flew to New York via Ft Lauderdale, Florida. The flight was slightly delayed so myself and an Aussie guy were moved to the front of the plane to ensure we would make our connecting flights (seat 1A – sadly no first class on this plane though). When we got to Florida though, a lady at immigration told us to go into the wrong line and we spent 40 minutes waiting. When I finally got to the bag check the lady there told me to run. I did make it, but only just – the passengers were just finishing boarding as I raced in behind them.

New York is an incredible city and I will definitely have to return to see it properly, 24 hours was just enough to become completely enamored with this city. There is a reputation surrounding New Yorkers that they are rude and impatient, but I found everyone very helpful. You only had to look slightly confused on the subway and someone would come up and offer help. With a bit of help I got from the airport to my hostel and saved myself $70 in taxi fares. My first venture was to Times Square and I spent the rest of my afternoon shopping and exploring and booked tickets to see The Lion King that night. The musical was incredible. The costumes, the music, the sets, the cast. I wanted to see a whole lot more musicals after that but at $100+ a ticket it wasn’t a possibility.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATimes square

The next morning I’d planned to do a whole lot of touristy things but I was feeling pretty ill. Instead I spent the day at the beautiful Central Park, walking around and even having a nap at one point. I was surprised at the number of children there were in the park, there were several school groups that had been bused there from other boroughs to play and i even saw a 6 seater pram.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACentral Park

From New York it was on to Denver to visit my camp friend Erena. Spring had arrived in New York but hadn’t quite made it to Denver. Erena’s car was covered in snow when she came to pick me up. Erena is studying at the moment so in between classes we explored Denver.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI spent a day in Boulder window shopping, this was the hills above Boulder

One day we walked to the top of this

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the top!

Denver was a fantastic to end my trip and it was great to see Erena again, hopefully she will be in NZ sometime soon.

Next stop New Zealand!….and then Fiji!

Bolivia

The peru-bolivia border is the first I’ve seen with an actual marker separating the countries,  not just a control point, but a big arch signifying the line between the two countries. From the border it was a quick 15 minutes to the holiday town of Copacobana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. From here we took a boat to Isla del Sol, an island in the south of the lake. We’d decided to stay the night on the island so left the rest of our Bolivia Hop group and found a cute Hospedaje to stay in, overlooking the lake.
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at 3800m above sealevel and covering 58000 sq km. This is almost as high as the top of dead woman’s pass on the inca trail, and lugging our bags up the hill was definitely a challenge!

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There is not a lot to do on Isla Del Sol, but it is such a beautiful relaxing place. We spent our day there exploring and getting very sunburnt in the patches we’d missed with sunblock. The majority of the island is farmland, with a few houses and a lot of pizzerias. My favourite spot was a patch of gum trees (definitely not native) surrounded by rock walls, i read in the sun here for quite a while (hence the sunburn).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReed boat on Lake Titicaca

We hopped back on the Bolivia Hop bus in the late afternoon to continue to La Paz. At one point, to save around two hours of driving, our bus was put on a barge and ferried across part of the lake (we went in a separate water taxi).

La Paz is a big dirty city with not a lot of charm, the traffic is chaotic (even more so than the normal chaotic traffic of Latin America) and while there were some beautiful old gothic buildings, there was no real historic centre like other big cities in this area (that I saw anyway.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey did have something called the Witch’s Market, which was basically like every other market in South America except that along side the alpaca clothing/llamasutra tee-shirts/llama keyrings there were also things like foetal llamas you could buy.

The highlight of La Paz was definitely mountain biking down the death road. This isn’t actually as scary as it sounds. While this was once named the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” (and rightly so with 300 deaths a year, including whole buses plunging off cliffs) it is nowadays rarely used by cars. The Death Road used to be the only road from the North of Bolivia to La Paz. This lead to large numbers of people driving down this twisting road  which is barely (and sometimes isn’t at all) wide enough to squeeze two cars past one another – with a cliff on one side and a very long drop on the other. This is the only road in Bolivia where the legal side of the road to drive on is the left – this is so drivers can see just how close to the edge or the cliff they are. Thankfully another road was built in the 2000s and the Death Road is used only by a very few daredevil drivers and a whole lot of mountain bikers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPart of the new road

Our death road experience didn’t start off so great. There was snow at the top of the New Road which meant we were stuck in  the back of a van for 2 hours waiting for the road to open. We finally made it to the new road though, and the snowy peaks made for a pretty spectacular view. To get used to the bikes, the first part of the ride is on the sealed new road (which is a lot faster but not nearly as fun as the death road). During our safety briefing (in which we had to repeat the mantra “I promise not to be a fucking idiot”)  in began to rain. It was so cold, the pants they gave me were too short so my ankles were numb and my hands were struggling to brake. In the end I got back in the van to warm up. Once we got to the actual Death Road (which is at a lower elevation) it was much warmer and the weather began to clear up. The ride was a lot of fun, and as long as you avoided the  big rocks (baby heads) and didn’t brake to suddenly it wasn’t too scary. The views were incredible and I had to keep reminding myself to concentrate on the road and not on the pretty flowers/coolest butterfly I have seen. My whole  group go to the bottom without any mishaps. They do happen though, around 20 people have died mountain biking on the road and an Irish guy we met showed us a video from his go pro of the guy in front of him clipping the tire of the bike in front and sending both of them painfully onto the ground.

IMGP3404Safety briefing

IMGP3455Don’t wanna fall off here!

Our next stop after La Paz was to the town of Uyuni, the gateway to Bolivia’s Salt Flats. Salar de Uyuni is the largest Salt Flat in the world, covering 10000 sq km. None of this salt is exported though, as after the war with Chile Bolivia became land locked and the cost of exporting it would drive the price of salt to un-marketable levels. For this reason the salt here is all obtained without the use of machinery, in order to ensure there is not an oversupply in the Bolivian market. From Uyini we were doing a 3 day tour of the area. The first day was incredible and packed full of stuff.

IMG_1912We started by visiting a place called the Train Cemetery

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe then learned about their processes for making salt and had lunch in a hotel made of salt.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe visited a few monuments on the salt flats.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe then had a go at taking perspective photos (our guide was really unhelpful though so unlike the other groups most of our photos didn’t turn out great)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd finally we went to a random cactus island in the middle of the salt flats.

The second day involved a lot of driving with short stops for photo-ops.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe flamingos of the colorada lagoon were my favourite stop.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stayed in a hostel that night beside these hotsprings.

The final day was mostly driving as it was 7 or so hours to get back to Uyuni. While I did enjoy the tour, in retrospect I would definitely just do a one day tour, as the first day was by far the best. Our guide was also quite disappointing and barely spoke to us (our driver Edwin on the other hand was awesome but only spoke Spanish).

Next up was the capital of Bolivia, Sucre. Sucre was much nicer than La Paz and felt a lot safer and smaller. There were lots of nice parks and great street food. Sucre is also the site of one of the best examples of dinosaur footprints. Over time, they have been verticalised and there are a dozen or so different tracks running up and along a cliff wall. As a minor dinosaur geek I though it was pretty awesome!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStreets of Sucre

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADinosaurs!

Sucre was my last stop with Maddy and Julie as they were continuing south while I needed to get back to Peru  to fly home. I took a night bus to La Paz, stayed a night there and then took another night bus to Arequipa in Peru.

Next stop.. Peru (again)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAView from the La Paz cable car in my last day there

Peru take one

My journey to Lima began with a very long bus ride. What do you do on a 28 29 1/2 hour bus ride? The answer is not a whole lot, you watch a lot of bad movies (each one progressively worse as you run out of the mildly good ones), you eat a lot of snacks (because the ¨meals¨are inedible) and you sleep a lot. You also spend a seemingly unnecessary amount of time (several hours) at border control and police check points. While most of the journey was at night, during the day, a large portion of the road was through barren dessert, which after a few hours dropped stunningly into the sea. We then drove along the top of steep sand dunes until we arrived in the city of Lima, Peru. Lima is a huge city, with a population of almost 10 million but most of the hostels are in the area of Miraflores. This meant that even though I couldn’t book the same hostel as them I was only a few minutes away from Julie (my old flatmate) and Maddy (Julie´s high school friend who I hung out with in Honduras) and after nearly a year I finally got to see a face from home! We only had one day in Lima before we flew to Cusco and we spent it walking around the historic centre and the foreshore.

20150313_134142Julie and Maddy

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Cusco is a pretty tourist town with a few too many street hawkers to be able to peacefully enjoy it. It is the gateway to Machu Picchu and, because 2500 people visit the site everyday it is packed with foreigners. This also means that there is a lot of incredible food on offer. We had a mixture of Peruvian and International food while we were there and it was all incredible. Peruvian food is really good and is probably the nicest cultural food I have had since Mexico. Aji de Gallina (chicken in a spicy yellow sauce), Rocoto Relleno (stuffed peppers) an Lomo Saltado (beef stiryfry) were my favourites. We also tried Alpaca (still haven´t tried guinea pig!) and I finally found somewhere selling cider!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcuscos’s main plaza

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne day in Cusco we were in the main plaza when a street parade of dancers in traditional regalia started

Of course, the main reason for our being in cusco was to get to Machu Picchu. We’d organised to do the classic (and expensive) Inka trail, a 4 day, 42km journey right into the heart of Machu Picchu. Our Inka trail journey began bright and early with a 2 hour bus ride to the town of Olaytantambo where we stopped for breakfast. We then drove a little bit further until we reached the start of the classic Inka Trail, a place known as kilometer 82. The first day was fairly easy, and was what our guide referred to as Inka Flat – or gently undulating. The only issue I had was that my pack is a travel pack and is not designed for hiking, this meant it wouldn’t sit on my hips, and after several hours of walking my shoulders were very sore (unlike most people who had hired porters, we were carrying our own stuff). On the way to our camp we stopped at a few outlooks over other inka site and at one got to try the Prickly Pear Cactus fruit. After around 6 or so hours we arrived at our first campsite and had lunch. The food on the whole trail was incredible – especially considering it all had to be carried in. On that first day we had corn chips and guacamole, soup and fried trout. One day they even baked a cake! After lunch we got introduced to our porters. This was a bit awkward with the 15 of us standing in one line and the 22 porters standing in another, introducing ourselves one by one. The poor porters looked so uncomfortable, and to make it more awkward there was a distracting 3-against-one doggy mating session going on next to us. Dinner followed not long after and then we headed to bed, ready for our early start.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur group at Km 82

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trail begins

Day two began in the dark with a cup of coca tea brought to our tents. In our briefing back in Cusco we had been quite intimidated with what to expect on day 2, I’d also heard from other travelers that day 2 was the horrible. Combined with my pack issues, this convinced me to hire a porter to take some of my stuff for the second day. As it turned out, day 2 was nowhere near as bad as they had made out. I took it pretty slow, and it was great not having all the stuff in my pack. But I found it quite easy, the only really tough bit was the last few minutes until the top of the highest point of the trek, Dead Woman’s Pass (4200m). This was a lot of steep steps and you started to really notice the altitude. Once we got to the top a couple of poor porters were waiting in the cold to give us cheese sandwiches and Julie, Maddy and I celebrated with a snickers. After this it was a lot of (slow) down hill until I reached that nights camp. The guide told us a story about a girl who had been shot by her boyfriend at this campsite and was said to haunt it – we thought it best to have all 3 of us in our tent that night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADead woman’s pass

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALlama in the bushes

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the top of Dead Woman’s Pass

Day three was the hardest day for me, I had my pack back and we started straight into steep uphill. Also, unlike the rest of trek the weather was not on our side and rained constantly the whole day. However, once we got to the top of the pass it was mostly Inka flat until we stopped for lunch. On this day there would have been fantastic views of mountains and glaciers but unfortunately the weather never cleared up. We did pass through some cool tunnels and explore some ruins on the way though. After lunch on the trail, it was a long steep decent (known as the Gringo Killer) until we got to our last campsite. Our camp was located next to the ruins of Winay Wayna.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASayacmarca ruins

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWinay Wayna

We got up at 3.30 on the last day, not so we could get to the sungate for sunrise, as the control gate didn’t open until to 5.30am. But so the porters could get down to meet the only train they were able to catch. The poor porters really get the raw end of the stick, you would think that they would find it easy doing it every day, but their loads are just to heavy and their equipment not appropriate. It is common to see them collapsing there packs against a hill, drenched in sweat. And then to top it off they have to run down to the tracks on the last day or risk missing the train.

We waited at the control point for an hour or so, and then made our way to the sungate. When we got there it was pretty foggy, but we stayed a little bit longer than the rest of the group and actually got a quick glimpse of Machu Picchu below. Machu Picchu was full of people, and while I expected that I wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer number. It was still pretty spectacular though and well worth the four day trek.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAnot much of a view

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then it cleared a bit

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMachu Picchu

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Afterwards we made our way to the town of Aguas Calliente where we were staying a night and met some of the rest of our group at the hot pools before going for a well earned drink. The following day Julie and I got a manicure and massage before taking the train back in Cusco.

It was then time to make our way to Bolivia and we decided to try a new hop-on/hop-off bus running in Peru. This wasn’t the most comfy bus but it was nice being able to stop for excursions on the way. After a night on the bus we arrived at the town  of Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and took a boat to visit the floating islands. The Uros are people who live on Lake Titicaca on a series of islands made of reeds. It was interesting to see the way they made the islands, but the whole thing felt like a bit of a tourist trap.

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Next stop.. Bolivia

(I’ve had terrible internet for the last month hence the delay!)

Cotopaxi, Baños, Cuenca and Montañita

The terrace of my hostel in Quito was covered in photos of their sister hostel in the Cotopaxi region, with spectacular views of the volcano. After starting at them for quite a few nights, there was no way I couldn’t check out this magical looking place. It was a lot more expensive than I’m used to, and definitely out of the way, but I am so so glad I went.

When I arrived at the Secret Garden Cotopaxi the mountain was obscured by clouds but the rest of the outlook showed beautiful farmland. We were greeted with a mug of mulled wine and shown to our electricity free dorm with a huge fireplace in the centre. The altitude was really getting to me though (the hostel is at 3500m), and I was feeling very dizzy. I skipped the afternoon waterfall hike and spent the rest of the day relaxing and reading. Because the hostel is so far from anywhere (about 1hr from the closest town) all your meals are included in the price, so everyone staying would eat together at a long table – and the food was really good. When you weren’t out on adventures there wasn’t a lot to do but relax. So afternoons and evenings were spent reading, sitting by the fire chatting, playing cards, lying in hammocks, drinking wine, using the hot tub or playing corn hole. It was so peaceful and relaxing and definitely my favourite hostel of the trip.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAView from the hostel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHot tub with a view!

My first full day I signed up to go horse riding. There was a group of 5 of us and we rode along the road for a bit until we made it to some farmland at the base of the National Park. This was a really beautiful area to ride through, with tussock and scrubby wildflowers  everywhere. I really enjoyed the first part of my ride, but once we got to the open areas my horse stopped listening to me. Clearly this was the area he was allowed to run in and he resented me for trying to stop him. I don’t mind running for short periods and when I know that the horse will stop. But he wasn’t listening to me at all, and I started to freak out a bit. By this stage I had trailed behind the rest of the group and just wanted to get off – but the guide was at the front with the others. By time I caught up to them I was pretty distraught, but the guide said we were stopping for a break in 5 minutes so I figured I could last. After some sweet, hot tea and cake we started off again but my horse bolted and I completely lost it and had the guide tie my horse to his until we got back to the road. With the exception of the middle part, I did really enjoy the ride. Although the next day I was very sore.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhere we went riding

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMe and my horse

That afternoon I went on the waterfall hike that I’d missed the day before. A whole lot of new people had turned up, including a group I’d met in Quito and a girl, Tricia, who I had met in Mindo. The hike was fun and we spent a lot of scrambling up the creek bed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPart of the track

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the two waterfalls

The next day I hiked to the glacier on Cotopaxi. Volcan Cotopaxi is said to be the highest active volcano in the world (unless you live in Argentina, not Ecuador, and then it is likely you consider the highest active volcano to be there). The carpark is at 4500m, from here we walked up to the refuge which is at 4800m and then to the glacier at 5000m. It was very hard to breathe, but the views were incredible and definitely worth it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe road to cotopaxi

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we got to the car park there was a wolf!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe refuge

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAView from the refuge

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe glacier!!

My last full day at Cotopaxi I did nothing, I walked around the property, talked to the animals and played games.

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The day I left there were 5 others leaving as well, 4 were going to do the Quilatoa loop, and Tricia and I were trying to get to Banos. We got dropped off at thee side of the Pan Americana to catch a bus. But all the buses were full and none were stopping. After around an hour wo of the guys decided to try hitchhiking but the rest of us weren’t so keen. We’d just given up and decided to try and get a taxi to the next town when a bus pulled up. We quickly climbed on and it wasn’t until I got on that I realised there were only 2 people on the bus and they were in military uniform – we’d basically hitchhiked with the military (although they still charged us)

After a long day of bus travel we made it to Banos. We went out to dinner at a local brewing company and I got really excited when they had cider on the menu…and then really disappointed when they were all out. I´m just going to have to wait until I get home for my cider fix.

The first day in Banos, Tricia and I decided to go hiking on the Los Sauces trail near the town. We got lost on the way there and ended up doing it backwards – which meant a lot of steep, hot up hill. There was a great view of Banos from the top though. That night we went to watch the sunset from a cafe in the hills. The sunset was a non-event, but afterwards we made our way to the El Refugio spa for a steam bath. We were shut in a wooden box with only our head poking out and the box filled with hot steam. After 5 minutes of this a guy opened up the box and threw cold water on us. This was repeated several times, although with variations like being dropped backwards into a tub of cold water and being hosed with cold water. I screamed like a little girl everytime. I did feel very relaxed afterwards though.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHiking in Banos

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Day two in Banos I went canyoning. This is basically abseiling down waterfalls. There were two guys on my trip, Mike and James and it was a lot of fun (and maybe just a little but scary at points. My favourite waterfall was the last one we went down, I think by that stage I´d got the hang of it a bit more perhaps. At the very end we had to slide down a waterfall. That was the only time I screamed.

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In the afternoon decided last minute to go rafting. It didn’t start off well, with the company being 1 hour late. And the rafting itself just wasn’t as fun as in Honduras. I didn’t scream at all so it can´t have been too scary!!

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That night Tricia, James and I went to the thermal baths that give Banos its name. These were packed and you had to hire these weird little swimming caps. They were also insanely hot, you could only spend a few minutes in it at a time. I think the idea was to go from the hot pool to the freezing cold pool continuously, I decided I´d had enough of this hot-cold combo though!

We had one more day in Banos before Tricia, James and I caught a night bus to Cuenca. We left reasonably early for Casa de Arbol which is a treehouse above Banos. It was a fantastic decision and we were the only ones in what we´d heard was quite a packed  place. There is a swing here that swings out over the edge of the hill, and if you get the right angle it looks like you are insanely high.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAup in the clouds

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot so bad from this angle!

Later that day Tricia and James decided they wanted do a bridge swing. I volunteered to watch.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t think so!!

That night we caught a bus to Riobamba and then had to wait until 11.30 to catch our next bus to Cuenca. The bus ended up arriving in Cuenca at 5.30am so we begged our hostel to let us crash on there couch (we had to pick the hostel with only wooden furniture! – the one couch they had was insanely comfy though)

There wasn´t a whole lot to do in Cuenca, but it was a very pretty town with good food. Someone told me that it is becoming the new Panama City for retiring Americans. We mostly just walked around, although we take a double decker bus tour one day. Tricia and I decided to get pedicures as a birthday treat. It was the most terrible job ever, it took hours and Tricia ended up re-doing hers in the shop. Tricia also shouted me a slice of cake as a treat and later that night the hostel gave me one as well!

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From Cuenca I took a bus to Montanita. Montanita is a beach town with a party reputation and I decided I wanted to be somewhere fun to turn 25. My dorm had 3 other girls (Miriam, Amalie and Ferida) in it and we all hung out the whole time. On my birthday we went out for brunch and then tried our luck at surfing. We were all pretty terrible and I only managed to stand up for a second. We went out for dinner that night and then made the mistake of having a nap before going out. In the end only Ferida and I managed to drag ourselves out of bed to go out. The town was packed with people and there were street stalls selling cocktails.

20150307_161236Surfs up!

20150307_213659The streets were lines with these

20150308_114907or food ones during the day

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMontanita beach getting ready for a party

From Montanita, Ferida and I went back to Guayaquil so I could get my bus to Lima and she could get a flight. We went to the movies that night (something I haven’t done since the States) which was a nice change. The movie Theory Of  Everything was really good by the way. The next day I went to the bus station to get a 28 (or 29 1/2 hour) bus to Lima. I’m very glad I payed the extra for VIP seats, but even so it was a very very long way.

Next stop… Peru!!

Quito, Mindo and the Amazon

Ecuador is definitely shaping up to be one of my favourite countries so far, for such a small country it is incredibly varied with the Amazon, the Andes and the coast only a few hours away from each other.

From the Galapagos Islands I made my way to Ecuador´s capital, Quito. Quito is the highest ´official capital´ in the world, sitting at 2800m above sea level. This is the highest altitude I have been at (Bogota being around 2600m and Mexico City 2200m) and while the effect of the altitude is not too bad, I am definitely noticing it. I´m not sleeping so great and having digestion issues which are apparently both symptoms of high altitude (not to mention walking up stairs is a bitch). I´ll have to get used to it soon though, because I´m only going to get higher!

The hostel I am staying in is 3 stories high and has a roof top terrace bar that overlooks the city. It´s gets pretty cold at night (especially after being in Central America and Colombia for the past few months) but the view is spectacular. It is a really nice, relaxed hostel and they serve dinners which has so far been most foods I am missing from home (I even saw Pavlova on the menu one day! – sadly the day I was leaving).

My first day in Quito I went to the ´Centre of the World´ with a guy (Ian) I had shared a taxi with from the airport and his friend Lindsey. We ended up getting a taxi driver to take us there and he stopped first at this volcano..

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Then at the real equator (as determined by GPS). Here there was a little museum and we were shown things like the process to making shrunken heads (cut off the head, scalp it, boil it basically) before we were taken to the equator line. Here the guide showed us experiments, and while there is some debate as to whether they were legit or not (basically it was all lies), I was still fascinated. He filled up a sink with water and showed us it draining in the southern hemisphere (clockwise), the northern hemisphere (anticlockwise) and then over the equator (straight down). He also tested our resistance on the equator vs. off it and got us to walk in a straight line along it with our eyes closed (you are supposed to veer to the hemisphere you are from – I stayed on the line though, which we decided was because I´m from the South but have been in the North for a while). I´m not sure how I feel about them embracing the mis-beliefs people have about the way water drains, but it was still pretty cool.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMe, Ian and Lindsey.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApparently you can also jump higher at the equator!

The last stop was where all the equator monuments are…240m from the actual equator.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlmost worked…

The following day I flew to the town of Lago Agrio to get a 2hr bus and then 2hr boat ride to the Cuyabeno reserve. Unfortunately I left my only warm jumper (my trusty flannel!) and my hat on the bus (they said ´you can leave your things on the bus for now´ while we had lunch and they, and the bus disappeared. The trip started off great, jungle was really beautiful and the water so dark it reflected everything. It was such a beautiful day and we stopped along the way to watch monkeys, snakes and birds. We even saw a flash of a Giant Otter. When we were about 20 minutes from the lodge it started absolutely pouring with rain so the rest of the journey was spent huddling under ponchos.

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My room at the lodge was a little hut, I´d been hoping to find a tarantula in my room, but sadly there was only a frog who hung out the whole time I was there. There was only two other people in my group, two French girls. They didn´t speak much English, so along with the guide (who also spoke only a little English) conversation was a little strained the whole time I was there and meant it got a little bit boring just hanging out by yourself sometimes!

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In the afternoon we were supposed to go looking for Pink River Dolphins, but it was still raining and the other two decided not to come. I decided to brave the rain (they gave us really good ponchos to use), unfortunately, I didn´t zip up my camera case and when I was getting into the canoe my camera fell out into the puddle of water in the bottom of the boat (at least it wasn´t the lake!!). I quickly rushed back to the lodge to try and dry it but it still had water in it and the screen was flickering and the camera not taking photos during the boat ride. To top it off we didn´t even see any dolphins! We did see a sloth, but he was a sleep and just looked like a round blob. The following day my camera was still being funny but I spent a long time on one of the boat rides trying to dry it fully and it seems to be working fine now thankfully!!

We got up early the next day to visit a local community. On the way we managed to get a glimpse of a young river dolphin before it swam away.We visted relatives of our guide Veronica, who is a memeber of the Siona community. Here we made bread called Casabi from Yuca plants.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFirst we pulled up some roots.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen we peeled the yuca.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen we grated it (and for all you naysayers, this wasn´t a staged photo, we grated they whole lot).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen we squeezed out the moisture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen we sieved it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was cooked and made into bread.

The bread was really good and afterwards I played hopscotch with Ariel (the guide Veronica´s son who was with us the whole trip) and his cousin David, i didn´t win.

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That afternoon we went looking for dolphins again and didn´t see any again, but did see a huge Anaconda!!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUhoh!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also saw this baby bird who was pretending to be a tree.

We then went to another lake to watch a really pretty sunset before we went looking for Camians. We spent a long time looking for them before the guide gave me the torch and I actually managed to find one (I am not very good at spotting animals it turns out, people would be pointing and I couldn´t see a thing). Once again though, we only got a glimpse before it was gone.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe water is so reflective!

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The following day we went for a walk through the jungle, with Veronica pointing out different plants and there uses in jungle medicine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you hit this tree it makes a big booming sound that can be heard 1km away.

That night we went for another dolphin search, and actually saw one (very briefly) before returing to the lodge where we found a Caiman lurking right beside the lodge. Once it got dark, we went on a night walk to look for spiders. Sadly no tarantulas – but we did see a wolf spider!

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The last morning we got up super early to go bird watching on the lake. We spent a couple of hours out here and didn´t see a single bird (except Jungle Chickens).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJungle Pollo

I have mixed feelings about my stay in the Amazon. I did really enjoy it, but I had hoped to see more animals. The ones we did see were very far away or were gone in a second. I´m not sure if we were just really unlucky or if that is pretty standard for the area. Either way, I will have to go back into the Amazon one day with a good pair of binoculars and a good zoom!

I flew back to Quito for a couple of nights and then caught the bus to the town of Mindo. My main reason for going here was to see hummingbirds and I was not dissapointed. The garden of my hostel had several feeders and there were hummingbirds everywhere!

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I met a girl from England here called Sarah and we hung out for the afternoon. We had planned to go to a butterfly house but were told it would be better earlier in the day so decided just to relax for the afternoon and went out for dinner that night with a group of people. The next day it started raining. it cleared up a bit midday and a group of five of us braved the butterfly house. There were lots of the beautiful blue butterflies I had seen in the Amazon, but they close there wings to a camouflage pattern when they land.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALook at the cool old cocoons!

That night we went out to dinner with a Swis and a German guy Fabian and Timon for Fabian´s birthday.

It was still raining the next day which put a damper on our plans to walk to some waterfalls. Instead we hung out at the hostel and someone pulled out a ukelele and we had a bif sing along. In the afternoon we were getting a bit of cabin fever so Sarah and I decided to walk to the waterfalls (around 8km up hill), we actually made pretty good time, but the cable car thing you need to cross to the waterfalls closed about 15 minutes before we got there. It was a nice walk though and we had a friendly little dog accompany us most of the way.

Of course the next day, the day I left, was beautifully sunny. Despite the weather, and the fact I didn´t do much, I still really enjoyed Mindo. It was so nice and relaxing, with a fantastic group of people and lots of hummingbirds.

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From Mindo I went back to Quito to do a series of day trips. I thought I wouldn´t have enough time to stay at these places but in retrospect it would´ve been a lot cheaper and easier to stay there there was a lot of driving for not much activity.

The first trip was to the Otavalo markets, the biggest in Ecuador. We stopped at an animal market first. Here there was a section for cows, a section for pigs and a section for small animals. There were animals everywhere and all just chilling on leashes and people were walking around holding their sacks of live ducks or their new chicken purchases by its feet.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPoor kitties

The Otavalo market was really big, but by the time you looked at a few stalls everything started to look the same. I got an Alpaca jersey here for $15 and it is so cozy and warm!

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also stopped at a waterfall

The next day was a trip to the Quilatoa Lake, a crater lake at 3800m above sea level. We stopped first at another market (I have found my exotic fruit tasting tour has come in very handy over the last few days, being able to tell people what certain fruits are!).

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We then stopped at the house of indigenous man Jose Julian. His home was made of mud and inside there were guinea pigs everywhere (guinea pigs are commonly eater over here). The family was very welcoming and the little baby loved making faces at me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAView from Jose Julian’s

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJose Julian and is wife

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInside the house

Quilatoa Lake was very beautiful, the walk down was very steep and slippery and when we got to the bottom we basically turned around and walked back up. A lot of the group paid for a mule to take them back up but I decided to walk. The altitude here was really tough, but the guide and I walked with a lady who was struggling up the hill so I found it really easy.

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Last night in the hostel a guy pulled out his mandolin and we all sat around singing for hours. I love people that travel with instruments! Today I have been trying to post a parcel home without my passport on me which took a very long time and involved running back and forwards trying to download my passport copy before my battery died. I got it done in the end and have been walking around the historic centre which is very nice. Currently I am in an internet cafe because I can´t cope with my lack of G and H and backspace right now.

Next stop… Cotopaxi!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAView from the hostel – of course I keep forgetting to take my camera to the terrace, and now it is pouring with rain. I had to take refuge in that church (note that refuge now costs $2)