South America: Sacred Valley, Peru 

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This was my second time in Peru and I loved it even more the second time round! I completed the Salkantay Trek four years ago, which meant I had already visited Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu but I was so glad to be back in this amazing country.

I spent a day visiting the various sites around the Sacred Valley, as last time I only really hiked in the area.

The surrounding area of Cusco is at high altitude, however, in comparison to where we had just come from in Bolivia, it was so much lower. So my altitude sickness had gone and I didn’t feel out of breath whenever I had to climb stairs or walk anywhere. This was a massive relief for me but the rest of the tour group did struggle as this was their first stop in South America. I did empathise as I remember having terrible altitude sickness in Cusco on my first trip and had suffering quite badly in Bolivia the week before!

We were picked up at the hotel and made our way to Chinchero, the first stop. Here we visited a centre where we learned about the traditional techniques of dying alpaca fur and weaving it into beautiful clothing and homeware. We then visited the nearby Spanish church which was built over an Inca religious site.

We then visited Moroy to see the Inca terraces. The three that they have excavated so far are only a handful dotted around the region. Some more complete than others. The terraces being a large-scale experiment on farming using different altitudes to grow a range of crops – amazing that this was being done centuries ago.

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The next stop was the minas del sal where we learned all about the salt mining in the area – very different to the salt in Bolivia! It was so warm here and it was lovely to walk around in a t-shirt for the first time during the trip and not in a combination of thermals + t=shirt + jacket + coat!

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We then went to Ollantaytambo to climb up the ruins to the Templo del Sol. A lot of steps, but we made it to the top easily – thanks to acclimatising to the altitude! We would be back the next day to catch our train to Aguas Calientes.

It would have been better to have spent more time at this site, but our guide said it was a long drive to Pisac, and we were pushed for time as we didn’t want to get there for it to be closed! Some people in the group just didn’t care/listen to his instructions and took ages to get back to the bus because they were taking a million and one selfies.

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We got to Pisac and were the last ones allowed in, and we were chased out half an hour later by the security guards! Pisac is massive and unfortunately we were only able to see a small part to the ancient city.

In hindsite, the Sacred Valley has so much to see and do, and if I were to do this tour again, I would split it up into two days; this way there is more time to explore Ollantaytambo and Pisac without the feeling of being rushed. Either way, make sure you don’t miss out so that you can experience the beauty and rich history this region of Peru has to offer!

South America: the other Copacabana

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When I revealed the big itinerary to my family and friends of my upcoming South America trip, the one part where everyone stopped was – wait, Copacabana?! Isn’t that in Brazil? But you’re not going to Brazil?!

Copacabana, the Brazilian beach which even has a song named after it. However, the Copacabana I was going to was not in Brazil, it was in Bolivia. The more off-the-beaten-track kind-of Copacabana. It is only a few hours north of La Paz, and sits beautifully on Lake Titicaca and a short drive from the Peruvian border. It is a great stopover for travelers making their way into/from Peru and enjoy the laid-back lakeside lifestyle.

We decided to stay the night to break up the journey from La Paz before a long overnight coach journey to Cusco. That alone was worth it. After grabbing lunch when we first had to find our hostel.

The hostel was on an unmarked road and I couldn’t get online directions to it. After a lot of guesswork, asking anyone and everyone along the way, we climbed (crawled) up the massive hill to the hostel. Of course it had to be the one most furthest away! With a 20kg rucksack on and the high altitude, it was a struggle. Note: just get a taxi in future.

We dropped our bags off and had a quick look at the room. Although the climb up the hill was brutal, and we would have to do it later when we got back, the views were incredible of the lake – especially with our own terrace.

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We raced down the hill to catch the boat to hike the south-side of Isla del Sol. The sun was shining and the hike was beautiful. It was a one-hour boat ride each way, so by the time we got to the island, I was exhausted, and still had to hike an hour up and around the thing!

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Copacabana has many options for food and drink, and its restaurants on the lake-front with sun terraces are a big hit. The food is nothing special by any means – but it is cheap and the sunset was the best of the trip.

You could also just stay an afternoon in Copacabana between La Paz and Cusco to make the most of Isla del Sol – this is the most popular option; however we enjoyed having a extra day there to relax and enjoy a bit of the sun. Even though it was still not that warm, it was the warmest it had been of the entire trip as we were bit by bit edging farther north and closer to the Equator.

Next stop, Peru!

 

An Afternoon in La Paz, Bolivia

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When planning the itinerary with the intention to travel from Chile, through Bolivia and into Peru, it was difficult to avoid La Paz. It is the easiest and in our case, the most affordable way to cross the land border into Peru, coming from Sucre and the Salt Flats.

However, reading up about La Paz beforehand, and hearing accounts of travelers who had just come from there, it did fill me with a mix of wonder and anxiety about what I would find there.

We had an afternoon to see the main sights before continuing  on our journey to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. La Paz is a stark contrast with the capital, Sucre; poverty much more striking and its size is overwhelming. Only a 50 minute flight though, we got there very easily and the taxi drove us straight to our hostel no problem.

Our hostel was on the main street in the centre and close to restaurants, a church which we would visit and the market. The hostel was cheap but cheerful, and they cleaned our laundry which was in great need of being done!

An afternoon in La Paz was more than enough. Everything was in walking distance. Our first stop was the Iglesia de San Francisco – a guided tour was included and it was a fascinating place to visit, especially for its incredible murals and paintings. We also rode up the teleferico (cable car) which, for a few bolivianos you can hop on and really appreciate the grand scale of this city. We walked around the market but nothing stood out to us, except for the dead llamas hanging above one or two stalls…

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On the Church roof…

La Paz was the one place on the trip where I did not feel safe at all. A lot of poverty and you didn’t know who you were going to bump into on the street. There were political protests where people were sitting in the roads all day, meaning no traffic could circulate. Mostly peaceful except for one area where the protest was more lively. It came with some relief that our BoliviaHop bus collected us early the next morning to move on to our next destination…

We actually had a good time in La Paz, but I was very weary the whole time. I do urge anyone considering travel there to read up on what to expect and be prepared!

Next stop…Copacabana (the Bolivian one)

 

Mooching around Madrid [Part 2]

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Despite being a capital city, Madrid goes at a much slower pace than the likes of its counterparts. Weaving my way through the crowded pavements, the locals do not walk, they seem to wander aimlessly, with no destination in mind, and no awareness that there are other people trying to get past. They kept reminding me that I could actually take my time.

I did not pack my days with itineraries, but I had an idea of the activities I wanted to do. I have collected some of the highlights of my trip!

Highlights of my week

Spa afternoon

For my first day, I booked a trip the the Hamman Al-Andalus baths to de-stress and have a good start to the trip. My favourite spa in Spain, I have been to the Madrid location before as well as the one in Granada and I highly recommend going. Make sure you pack a swimsuit!

Day-tripping

Smack-bang in the middle of the country, Madrid is so well connected to other cities by public transport. I took a high-speed train to Córdoba in Andalucia; usually a 4-hour car journey, however after rolling out of Puerta de Atocha station, I was in the sunny south of the country in only 90 minutes! There are loads of other day-trip options, Córdoba is quite far! Most people go to cities like Salamanca, Toledo, Segóvia. However, I have been to these places before and Córdoba was at the top of my list.

El Palacio Real

During my first visit to Madrid, I had attempted to visit the Royal Palace, to only learn it was closed – it is often closed for important events. This time, better informed, I made sure I checked availability online and booked my tickets in advance. The palace is beautiful and fascinating if you are interested in Spanish history and the royal family. The armory collection is particularly impressive too. Don’t miss the temporary exhibition (this was an extra 1€ to my ticket). Not many people seem to choose this option as I was the only one in there when I went in, but I was glad I did; I learned all about Carlos III and the exhibit was brilliant!

Museo Reina Sofia

Free to students and there is a cat cafe next door. Definitely a good museum choice for people like me who still have a valid student card and are cat-mad. There are much fewer queues here than the famous Prado (which I still have not been to). It is a massive museum and has a range of temporary and permanent exhibitions. Most famous for the museum where you can see Picasso’s Guernica. Nevertheless, I absolutely loved the temporary exhibit about George Herriman and the Krazy Kat illustrations and from the permanent exhibit on war, I learned about the extreme poverty in Las Hurdes in the 20th century, through Luis Buñuel’s shocking documentary, Las Hurdes: Land without Bread (1933).

Opera

Researching online before my trip, I discovered that they were showing my favourite opera, Carmen (Georges Bizet) during the dates that I was there. Okay, I have seen this opera twice already, but third time is the charm, right? Plus, I had only just purchased some opera glasses in an antique store a few weeks prior and needed to test them out… I had a great time at the opera, and although it was the one thing I splurged on, it was absolutely worth it!

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Way, way, way up, but I had a great view!

Templo de Debod

I had been here before, but I loved the sunset over this Egyptian Temple that I had to go back. It is a popular place to see the sunset as it is so beautiful, so don’t be late!

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Madrid has so much to offer and I feel like I made the most of my time there. From the highlights mentioned above to the little things like: speaking Spanish with anyone and everyone, sitting outside a café munching on pan con tomate and sipping a warm Colacao for breakfast and walking everywhere – something I dont get to do much at home, made it a great autumn getaway.

What do you think of Madrid? Let me know in the comments!

p.s. apologies for the lack of photos, I had to factory reset my phone and lost most of my photos, including ones of all the cute cats 😦

Robyn

 

Mooching around Madrid [Part 1]

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Eight weeks long, the first and also the longest half term in the school calender finally came to a close last week. The first 2 months as an NQT have been tough,  but having my little trip to Madrid kept my head above water.

I booked cheap flights on a whim earlier in Spring, knowing very well that neither J. nor any of my friends would be able to accompany me. The Ryanair scare of thousands of cancelled flights did not affect me and I was still able to go.

This was not only my first time back in Spain since my Year Abroad and but also the first time I have done solo travel in two years. I visited Madrid on my own before flying home two years ago; three days in summer was not enough to make the most of the city, so this time I booked 5 days to make the most of my time off.

I have travelled alone so many times over the last 5 years and really enjoyed it: Paris, Madrid, Porto, Wroclaw, Warsaw, Lisbon… but admittedly, it was something that took a few days for me to get re-accustomed to. I chose my hostel in particular as from the reviews, it was very sociable and friendly, but unfortunately it was anything but. Frustrating, as when I have travelled alone in the past, the hostels have really been a highlight of the trip.

Even after having spent a total of 8 days in the Spanish capital, I cannot say I have done everything, but that was not my intention. I did what I wanted in my own time. I saw some museums, slept during siesta, did some shopping, did the day-trip I wanted, splurged on that opera ticket, went to a spa, went to the cat café. I actually did quite a bit but it was not rushed. That is the beauty of going to a place and having the time to do it slowly, you don’t have to rush and cram everything in.

So I am home now, mentally preparing myself to go back to work tomorrow and also for the next seven weeks before the Christmas holidays. At least it is Bonfire Night tonight!

Stay tuned for Part 2

Weekly blog posts about my South American adventure published every Sunday!

Robyn

South America: Geiser del Tatio

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Alarm ringing at 4am, it is freezing in our desert-home abode with no heating. I have thermals which keep me from being unbearably cold, J. decides he doesn’t need thermals and will be fine (that goes so well….).

The geysers are at the highest altitude yet of the trip, this means two things – freezing and altitude sickness. Unpleasant.

This tour is considered one of the most popular, so guesses are it would be the best. However, in comparison to the incredible geysers in Iceland (which are free by the way), I felt a bit disappointed – especially after the amazing Piedras Rojas tour the day before. The cost was considerable too (10,000 pesos each!).

We spent an hour at the hot springs area however the hot springs have been closed for the foreseeable future due to a health and safety issue. So we were stuck, waiting around in the cold for an hour doing nothing, as there was no alternative. You would have thought they would have considered an alternative arrangement?

Anyway, it was absolutely freezing, even with thermals, so I don’t know how J. survived. (note: he wore thermals for the days after this…).

The tour only lasted for the morning, so we had time to have lunch before our other tours. However, due to a sandstorm, they had to be cancelled, a real shame. Unable to reschedule as it was our final day in San Pedro, we were at least able to get our money back.

However, it gave us time to stock up on water, snacks, warm clothes and mentally prepare for Bolivia, which everyone kept advising us was going to be freezing, isolated and crazy – we couldn’t wait!

Vamos a Bolivia…

How to celebrate your birthday in the Atacama Desert

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We scheduled our South America trip for August. It was the summer holidays meaning I had the whole month off from work but also my birthday. I did not want to be on a bus/train/plane on the day, but rather doing something different.

The day was spent in the Atacama desert on the Piedras Rojas tour. This was the best tour of the trip, a whole day thing which was tiring but worth it.

We left at 7am, early but not as early as some other tours we did! Our first stop was the Miscanti and Miñiques lagoons which are home to three different types of flamingo. However, in the deep mid-winter, the majority of the flamingos had gone off to somewhere a little warmer, while the remaining few decided to hang out as far away from the humans as possible! (Entrance fee of 2,500 pesos).

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It looks warm but actually it was freezing!!

After a warm breakfast of eggs, coca tea and bread, we headed into the mountains to another lake. No flamingos this time, but it was spectacular. Surrounded by snow, it was freezing, but worth it (2,500 pesos entry again). Here James very kindly put snow down my back, what a nice thing to do on my birthday…. (hmmm…).

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Caught in the act!

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So much snow!!

The next stop was by far the coldest and most windy – las piedras rojas – which is where the name for the day trip comes from. This lake, so high in altitude, was frozen, and we spent half an hour jumping up and down on the ice.

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On the frozen lake!

After lunch, we visited a little church and stopped on the side of the road to take some pictures with a sign showing we were on the Tropic of Capricorn which was pretty cool! I was not expecting that to happen in the tour!!

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I made a wise investment in some baby alpaca wool gloves in Tacapao village, which would help me survive the cold days and nights in the Bolivian Salt Falts.

Dinner was going to be a fancy meal, but San Pedro was just a little too expensive. I was happy with our usual 5,000 pesos meal deal. Altitude sickness meant loss of appetite and I didn’t feel like I was missing out.

It was an incredible birthday, packed in with so much to see. It was really special. Exhausted but the alarm was set for 4am the next day for the Geyser tour…