Day Trip: Hadrian’s Wall

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There are many ways to visit Hadrian’s Wall. There are one-week walking holidays across the entire length of the wall, cycling holidays, day trips, tours – the best thing to do is research before you go what you want to see and how you want to do it. We had a weekend in nearby Hexham, and spent the Saturday visiting some of the main sites.

We were ready to set an early alarm to seize the day, but our first port of call, Vindolanda, did not open until 10am;  so instead we enjoyed a more relaxed start to the day with a tasty breakfast at the hotel.

Vindolanda

Vindolanda is an easy 20 minute drive from Hexham. All the sites are well signposted en-route, which made navigating really simple. We arrived at Vindolanda – the first ones #keen. We bought a combined ticket to also visit the nearby Roman Army museum which is worth going to.

Vindolanda is an impressive site and what is even more staggering is that only part of the site has been excavated and there is still plenty more history to be uncovered. After making your way through the archeological site, you come down into the gardens and towards the Vindolanda museum which holds a large collection of objects discovered at the site: shoes, coins, weaponry, beauty products all the way to a calendar device and the pride and joy of the museum – the famous writing tablets.

Length of visit: 1 hour

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After a short detour to the Roman Army Museum, make your way back past Vindolanda to Housesteads, the best preserved Roman Fort along the wall.

Housesteads Fort

We were delighted to find out that this is a joint English Heritage and National Trust site, so our NT membership cards came in handy here with free entry! What was a shame was that parking is not free, even for members and was £3 for 2 hours (quite expensive!). Housesteads has its own little museum which is worth having a wander around and this is the first place where I got up close with the Wall! The car park and Visitor’s Centre is a 5-10 minute walk from the Fort which is uphill, so it is not the most accessible site.

Length of visit: 45 minutes

Sycamore Gap

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We were keen to visit the nearby Sycamore Gap, a 1 hour 30 mins walk from Housesteads or a 30 minute walk driving to Steel Rig – we chose the latter! Jumping back in the car, we parked at Steel Rig, only a few minutes down the road. £2 for 1 hour parking (again, not cheap) but this is ideally located along the path to Sycamore Gap and only a moderate 30 minute walk to the tree. The car park is small, so parking would be difficult in busier months.

The walk is only an hour in total. We did it in layers, jeans and walking boots. I forgot to leave my handbag in the car, so that came with me. The terrain was very muddy so I was more worried about falling and ruining my nice handbag more than anything – I looked quite ridiculous while all the other walkers had proper gear on! Luckily I didn’t fall…

The route is not easy, and there were a lot of undulating hills to go up and down. I am so glad I have been going on the stepper regularly at the gym! The views were breathtaking though and it wasn’t long before the Sycamore branches were reaching out to welcome us. This is when we realised…there was a much easier route – a flatter route which cuts out most of the climbing! On the way back to the car park, I was grateful for the gentlier walk but glad I had managed the trickier one on the way there.

After a busy day of sight-seeing and walking, a pub lunch down the road at the Twice Brewed Pub was a great reward, before heading back to Hexham.

Have you been to Hadrian’s Wall? Have you seen any of these sites or different ones? Let me know in the comments.

Robyn

 

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Hiking up to Machu Picchu

This was the one thing I was dreading on the trip. The possibility I would have to hike up to Machu Picchu again. I remember just how long it took me and how difficult it was four years ago. And then, no break, having to then climb even more steps for two hours as we had a guided tour of Machu Picchu!

However, this time I would know what to expect, I had James who would drag me up if necessary and I was not concerned about getting up for sunrise – not the end of the world if I didn’t make it.

We left at 3:45am from our hostel, plenty of time for a leisurely 30 minute walk to the park entrance – yep, you have to walk for half an hour before you even start the ascent! It was pitch-black, so my head-torch came in handy, but it wasn’t cold at all! I ended up just wearing a t-shirt and leggings – my jacket stuffed in my bag. It may have just been because I had acclimatised to the colder weather in Bolivia, as everyone else was wrapped up warm!

The gate doesn’t open until 5am, but when we arrived a little after 4am, we were already standing in a long queue! Queuing to hike up?! This isn’t something I remember from my first trip. After waiting around a while, an official checked our tickets and passports – make sure you have these otherwise you will be denied entry! Then we started moving. It wasn’t long until we were all slowly but surely climbing the steps.

After ten minutes, the line started to break up with people going further ahead while other people were taking it slower. I tried to keep a steady pace and for the first half of the ascent I did well.

After the first half was completed, the buses started to leave and get to the top of the mountain. It was around here that my stops were becoming longer and I was starting to struggle. J. wasn’t having it and was having to pep talk me all the way up after that – even though he was the one wearing the backpack and carrying all the water!

Eventually, we got to the top, somehow, and in record time! It took me 90-minutes last time. Our hostel receptionist said that it would take an hour – but this time we did it in 50 minutes which was amazing!

When we got to the top, it was all quite hectic, with bus groups arriving, people queuing to get in for sunrise, so we joined them.

I had wanted to change in the toilets into a new outfit as I was so sweaty and gross and didn’t want to look that way when I got in. Not the case, due to all the craziness, but I found somewhere nearby to change my t-shirt and put some make-up on. J. said it made me look like ‘I hadn’t just climbed a million steps’ which was the look I was ideally going for, so that was good!

We bumped into a few people we had met in Cusco and on the Sacred Valley tour – they had all got the bus but had arrived later than us – this was good, it means that we were very speedy!! They were impressed by our commitment to not spend a ridiculous amount on the bus…

Unfortunately the mist covered the mountains but it did make the views very atmospheric. It wasn’t long for the mist to lift and the sun flooded the Inca city. As we had arrived so early, the site was still very quiet and in some places we didn’t come across other people!

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After taking plenty of photos and making the most of covering the entire place, we were getting hungry. There are no facilities for food/bathrooms once inside Machu Picchu – so it was time to leave.

There is a café and a restaurant by the entrance. We didn’t need a lot, but we had our eye on a massive slice of over-priced chocolate brownie which was the perfect reward for all that hard work!

Before we left we made sure we stamped our passports with the Machu Picchu stamp. We overheard a girl say there was one you could stamp in the Bolivian Salt Flats. J. flared his nostrils at me, as it was something we didn’t realise when we went there – oh well, next time?!

We were originally going to hike up and bus down, but we were feeling good, and the hike down wouldn’t be as difficult as the hike up, right? Plus it’s 12$ we could save. The hike was fine; it took us an hour, this was longer than the way up but we really took our time as we were in no rush, plus we had the sun beating down on us. Not many people hiked down with us.

The main issue we had was when we got to the bottom as we then had to hike the 45 mins back to Aguas Calientes. This was downhill on the way in, but it was now uphill on the way back – by this point we were so exhausted, it was hot, my feet were hurting and it was a struggle. I was tempted to beg the empty coaches going past to pick us up!

Anyway, we made it back, feeling rough, and a tasty, cold jug of lemonade was required, lunch and then sleep on the train.

However, sleep was not an option on the journey back to Cusco as it turned into the most exciting train journey imaginable – our train conductors treated us to a traditional dance show – of course I was the only one who was dragged into the aisle to join in the lively dance – very difficult to dance in walking boots, I learned that day.. and they also had to put on a fashion show, bless them.

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Exhausted, we made it to Poroy station, and all I had to do was haggle for a 25 minute taxi back to Cusco before I could go to sleep! Very thankful I had paid extra to go there instead of Ollantaytambo which would have been another long, bumpy 1h30 mini-van journey.

We enjoyed two final lazy days in Cusco – lots of good food, an Inca massage which was the most painful massage I have ever had – but it stopped all my muscles from aching and meant I could walk up and down stairs normally again! The final day involved lots of bargain hunting in the markets!

Next and final stop….Lima.

Top 4 Tips for your Machu Picchu Adventure! 

I am very lucky to say I have visited Machu Picchu not once, but twice! The first time was on a guided tour, but this time, I organised everything myself.

Guided tours are efficient but they are costly, however if you research in advance, you can book Machu Picchu without forking out for a guided tour.

1. Book your train tickets well in advance

This is going to be the most expensive part. Most people start their adventure to Machu Picchu in Cusco however the main train station is a 90 minute drive away in Ollyantaytambo. It is very easy to get a cheap shared transfer there and back.

It’s important to decide which train company you want to go with and what you are willing to pay. You can splurge all out with some companies, but we went with PeruRail, which still set us back nearly £200pp for a return ticket! Luckily we got an economy comfort ticket which included food/drink and a glass roof to soak in all the scenery. The return train went to Poroy station, which is only a 30 minute taxi-ride to Cusco, which was a relief as Ollyantaytambo is much further.

Note: there are multi-day hiking opportunities to get there as well if that’s up your street.

2. Book your Machu Picchu entry tickets through the official website also well in advance

There is only one official website to buy tickets. There is a limited number of tickets to enter Machu Picchu each day. Choose either to go in the morning or the afternoon. You can buy tickets when you get to Cusco, but it is worth to have this organised so not to disappoint.

3. Stay overnight in Aguas Calientes

It is majorly touristy and more expensive than Cusco, but it is important to get a good night’s rest before you explore one of the Wonders of the World! I returned to the hot springs (where the name Aguas Calientes comes from), however the price had doubled since I went four years ago and I also got a rash when I went in the water…so I had to get out after 15 minutes. Not sure whether I would recommend that one…

4. Are you bus-ing it or hiking it?

I hiked the many many steps up the mountain to Machu Picchu the first time – it was brutal, and I had no intention of doing it again. However, the bus situation has become out of control; instead of a few soles to catch the bus up or down, it is 12€ EACH WAY for a 20 minute journey. These buses are the only transport to get up the mountain. They have obviously found a way of milking the tourists’ money. Anyone with mobility issues, young kids, or who just doesn’t want to hike has this as their only option. Not only this, but if you’re getting the bus to get to there for sunrise, you are going to have to queue from 2am for a 5:30am departure!! We saw people sitting in the queue all the way up the main street in town! I could hardly believe it…

After hearing all this, and debating it for several days, of course we hiked. I did it once, I was sure I could do it again. It was just a shame that the bus situation was the reason why.

See my next post for the hike up to Machu Picchu!

 

 

Hiking on a Glacier

The day after our exciting snorkel adventure at Silfra and a one-night stop-over in Vik, we continued along the Ring Road, an easy two hours drive to the Skaftafell Visitor’s Center.

On the approach, we knew we had made the right decision to come here; in the distance we saw dramatic mountains hiding behind curtains of clouds with glaciers carving their way the the massive rocks. This truly was a spectacular view, and it made us even more excited for our next activity, a glacier hike!

Skaftafell is located inside the Vatnajökull National Park, which is so big, it covers 14% of Iceland! It’s special in the sense that it has a great variety of landscape features, created by the combined forces of rivers, glacial ice, volcanic and geothermal activity. Iceland is concerned about the protection and conservation of this area, but also makes it accessible to nature lovers and hikers to make the most of it. There is an informative 15 minute free documentary about the region in the Skaftafell Visitor’s Center which I’d recommend you watch when you arrive.

We arrived at 11:30am, and it wasn’t long before we were given our crampons and pick-axes and jumping into an American yellow school bus to head off to the starting point. Interesting fact: apparently Iceland is the easiest place in the world to obtain a bus driving license.

All in all, the hike lasted about 3 hours, but it was a definite highlight of the trip (along with everything else!).

Short hike to get to the glacier

Short hike to get to the glacier

From the bus, we had an easy 30 minute-ish hike before we got on the ice. This was due to the fact that the glacier we were visiting (Öræfajökull) was a retreating glacier, and so over the last few decades it has considerably shrunken and it now takes longer to get on the glacier than in the past! There is actually a then and now photo in the Skaftafell Visitor’s Center on the wall, and afterwards, we took a look at it and were shocked to see just how different it looked in the past (early 1900s).

Along the way, it was interesting to spot some icebergs in the glacial lake, a newly formed ice cave and the moraines that have been created from where the glacier carved its way into the rock. I studied Glacial Systems during my A Level Geography, but it is so very different to see these formations in real life compared to reading about them from a textbook.

The glacial lake, moraines in the background (left) and glacier (right)

The glacial lake, moraines in the background (left) and glacier (right)

Ice cave, recently formed

Ice cave, recently formed

Soon, we were putting on our crampons and being given advice on how we should use them and our pick-axes, so we would walk on the ice safely! Normally, if you walk on ice you would fall flat on your face, but with crampons, you are defying everything. It was at first a little weird, as walking confidently on ice isn’t something I was used to, but I was stomping around comfortably very quickly.

Looking back on where we walked from, view of the glacier's retreat and

Looking back on where we walked from, view of the glacier’s retreat and

Along the way, we stopped and peered in (not too far though!) into some crevasses and learning some horror stories of what could happen if we were to fall in. Word of advice: don’t fall into a crevasse! There was also some glacial water flowing on the top of the glacier at one point, and we were given the opportunity to drink it. It was very clean water, but as it has no minerals in it, it is not recommended to use as your only source of hydration.

Our guide was full of wit and had many anecdotes to share of his life and times on the glacier, and the glacier’s history. Unfortunately, not all the information was pleasant, and we learned about the terrible occurrence of what happened to two university students, Ian and Tony, from The University of Nottingham in 1953. The young men went missing on the glacier and although they say ‘the glacier gives up what it takes’, their bodies have still not been retrieved. However, since the disappearance, some of their equipment, clothes etc. from the expedition has been recovered from the surface of the glacier in recent years. The items are in a display cabinet in the Skaftafell Visitor’s Center. This article is an interesting read to find out more.

Items retrieved from the 1953 expedition

Items retrieved from the 1953 expedition

Before we left the glacier, our guide offered to take group pictures of us on the glacier which have given us a fond momento of our time there!

Conquerers of the ice

Conquerers of the ice

We walked back to the bus to head to the Visitor’s Center, where we were offered a hot chocolate which was very welcome after being on the ice.

We stayed overnight at the campsite at Skaftafell, next to the Visitor’s center, and it was an excellent base to visit Jökulsárlón Glacial Lake and Beach (45 minute drive) and a short hike to Svartifoss (Black Waterfall), a popular hike which starts next to the campsite, which we did the following morning.

Svartifoss, Black Waterfall, featuring basalt columns

Svartifoss, Black Waterfall, featuring basalt columns

Two minutes down the road is a Gas Station which also has a café, where we dined that evening. Unless you are staying in the hotel, take note that there are not many other food options in the area.

Glacier Guides were informative, professional and concerned about our safety on the ice. It was such an enjoyable afternoon and Skaftafell is a wonderful area in Iceland to explore, and a favourite among the places I visited during the trip!

Tour Company: Glacier Guides

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Llamas, quinoa and not enough oxygen

Okay, does anyone know where I may have taken my pictures that are showcased on my blog? Right, I’ll tell you: Peru.

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I went to Peru last year with a group from The University of Sheffield for the charity, Childreach International. I decided to do something completely crazy and different! After taking up Spanish at university, I thought this would be an unmissable opportunity to go to South America, something I wasn’t going to do on my own anytime soon, learn more about Hispanic culture outside Spain and practice some Spanish.

Together, our group raised an amazing £33,000 for charity over the year and challenged ourselves to trek the Salkantay Trek in Peru, i.e. a much MUCH harder version of the Inca Trail, to reach the beautiful Machu Picchu, one of the 7 Modern Wonders of the World! It took us a flight from London-Madrid, a 12-hour flight from Madrid-Lima and then from Lima-Cusco, but we got there and back with lots safe and sound with lots of souvenirs to take back and tighter thigh muscles for a few weeks.

I knew it would be challenging, but perhaps I didn’t realise just HOW MUCH. It was mostly because I suffered quite badly from altitude sickness; symptoms included shortness of breath, lack of appetite and dizziness which was pretty rubbish when we were trekking all day every day. We were warned of this many times before we left but I didn’t actually think I would be the one to suffer so much. Altitude sickness is so bizarre: you get short of breath after only walking a up a flight of stairs for example. You feel like you are really unfit, but it may just because there is less oxygen in the air than what you are used to where you live, e.g. the UK. When walking around Cusco, I saw some people jogging who were obviously used to the altitude – it looked like torture as there was no way that I would have been able to jog in those conditions!

It was an incredible experience and I am so proud to have achieved what I did. I guess, finding it so difficult made it so much more rewarding for me. I look back on what I achieved and I am so glad I persevered and pushed through to the finish line. I managed to crawl up the steps to Machu Picchu at 4am in the morning, something I felt I would not be able to do at the beginning of the trip. When I got to the top, all short of breath and near collapsing, some tourists looked at me in disgust; they believed I had suffered just walking from the coach drop-ff point to the Park entrance (I am not THAT unfit! #insulted, some of us climbed our way up!)

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Machu Picchu: The most beautiful view 

I took selfies with llamas, ate alpaca salad and LOTS of quinoa (quinoa porridge, quinoa salad, quinoa breaded chicken, quinoa quinoa…).

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Alpaca Salad/Ensalada capestina

I haggled in Spanish; much to my surprise, the Peruvians have a very lovely accent that I found no problem to understand after only studying Spanish for one year. In fact, speaking to the locals in Peru was easier than going to Valencia during Easter this year where they spoke so quickly and I felt out of my depth. I think that all I understood was when some people walked past commenting on our pasty legs, saying ‘que blancos están!’ (yes we know, this is why we are here – to get a tan!)

Peruvians are lovely people and very welcoming, I would love the opportunity to go back and discover other parts of South America sometime in the future. Especially now I speak Portuguese, Brazil would be amazing to go to as well.

If you have the opportunity to do something crazy yet incredible, something you think is too challenging – do it! You’ll never know unless you give it a try and it will be all the more amazing when you have crossed the finish line. 

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Me with a llama friend at Machu Picchu 🙂

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Mountain sketches in stone at Machu Picchu

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