Living with Georgia and Shane

Hello, this is Laura (Georgia’s Mum). Georgia and Shane have kindly agreed to let me write their latest blog post to give my perspective of what it’s like to have them living with us, now that they’ve returned from their epic honeymoon adventure.

Peter and I came back from our own travels on 9th September, after spending a month travelling from Calgary to Seattle, via the Rockies and Vancouver Island. I was ready to come home, despite travelling with British Airways, being chauffeured by Peter in a comfortable hire car and staying in Tripadvisor-recommended hotels. Our worst overnight experience was a small shack in a National Park, and even that had a King size bed and a full ensuite bathroom. So, I can only imagine how Georgia and Shane were feeling after their extraordinary adventure, together with the many hardships, challenges, discomforts and exhausting schedule they had experienced over the course of their 14 months away.

The shack

Georgia and Shane flew in to Dublin from New York on Thursday 6th September and spent some quality time with Shane’s family, including Shane’s niece Áine who was born just before they left over a year ago. They were due to return to the UK later in September, but as Georgia was invited for a job interview in London, I found myself on the way to Luton airport to pick her up just a few days later. Although I had been lucky enough to see her twice during the time that she had been away – in Japan/China and then in California – it felt as though she had been gone a very long time, and I had missed her enormously.

Thanks to Ryanair’s failure to arrive on time combined with the terrible car parking situation at Luton airport, our reunion was less emotional than it might otherwise have been. We were both rather fraught after trying to find a way to meet in the only part of the airport where it is free to park for the small window of 15 minutes. We then went straight to Watford so that Georgia could find some clothes to wear to her interview the next day, which was quite a surreal (and expensive) experience. However, I was blissfully unaware of just how costly the day would ultimately prove to be as I subsequently received a £60 fine for parking illegally in the Luton Ibis Hotel car park.

Shane arrived a week later, and so Peter and I have found ourselves once again running a household of four, and occasionally five when Tom returns for short visits, after ten years of either being on our own or a family of three. And even when Tom has been around, he is rarely a presence in the house as he is either out working, socialising or in bed asleep. While I was excited and thrilled that Georgia and Shane would be living with us, I was also a little anxious about how they would adjust to life here in Pinner, which is somewhat lacking in spectacular scenery, world heritage sites and unique cultural experiences. The most interesting new developments in Pinner since they left have been the opening of a Turkish restaurant and the re-siting of a zebra crossing. However, I needn’t have worried. No sooner had Georgia arrived, than she had immediately written herself a comprehensive “to do” list, embraced the opportunity to lie on the sofa in her PJs watching Dance Moms*, and reacquainted herself with all the wonderful food and drink (well, Pepsi Max) available in Tesco’s. While Shane may have been happy to have continued travelling, he has proved to be his usual cheerful, resilient and easy-going self, and appears to be content with the change of pace at his in-laws. He may tell a different story, of course!

Georgia’s To-Do List

Dance Moms*

When I meet friends for coffee, (Tom says that this is all I do, but that’s something of an exaggeration), they are usually intrigued to know how I’m finding life now that Georgia and Shane are living with us. From my perspective, it’s overwhelmingly positive to have them here. Spending time with my darling daughter every day is still a novelty after the many months when she was away, and I find that I miss her more than ever when she’s not here. I had so missed her quick wit, intelligent banter and unique perspective on life while she was away, and I think she may even have mellowed a little as a result of her travels. Shane is the perfect son-in-law, and he is unfailingly helpful, good-natured and a joy to have around. He has proved himself to be a significant asset to the household in many ways, whether it is helping with supermarket shopping, washing up, taking the car for its MOT, fixing the car when it fails the MOT, lugging heavy boxes to the charity shop – you name it, he does it.

Shane peeling potatoes


However, anyone who knows Georgia and Shane will know that they are not the tidiest people. I had been slightly concerned about the possible mess that would follow their arrival, especially as I already live with the untidiest man in the history of the world. In the past, whenever Georgia would visit, there would be a trail of discarded possessions (shoes, coat, bag, scarf, book, phone etc) which she would abandon on her journey into the house, from the front door to the sofa. However, possibly because they have been used to living out of a rucksack for the best part of a year, I have been very impressed with just how tidy they have become. Any mess is confined entirely to their room, and it’s only untidy because they don’t have enough storage space, which is hardly their fault.

I love having them around. One of my friends put it perfectly when she said how wonderful it must be to have the company of young people in the house, and she’s absolutely right. Their energy, enthusiasm and excitement about what lies ahead is infectious. They have prompted me to stop procrastinating about setting up my own private practice as a therapist, and have even created the website for me – see – which is something way beyond my IT skills. I feel sad for Olive and Henry, Shane’s parents, as I understand how much they must continue to be missing Shane, and I’m glad that he has several visits back to Ireland planned over the next couple of months. We would be delighted to welcome anyone from Shane’s family here to visit at any time – it would be a pleasure to reciprocate for the wonderful hospitality we have always received in Slyguff.

None of us know how long we will all be together under one roof. Georgia and Shane have put their flat on the market with a view to moving closer to London. Georgia is working for the NHS in Harrow until the end of March, and at the time of writing is wondering whether to accept a job she has been offered as Senior Policy Adviser in the Department for Exiting the European Union (in other words, the Brexit Department). While this sounds like a terrible job, she has the insight to see that she may be able to be a force for good by influencing the outcome of Brexit, and make it the best that it can possibly be. Meanwhile Shane has had to choose between a number of potential job options, and next week he will be temporarily relocating to Swindon from Monday to Wednesday to work as Principle Project Engineer producing new electric cars, and so it looks as though they may be about to enter the next phase of their return to the UK.



Georgia’s new cactus on her new desk at work

I’m in no hurry for them to leave, but I do appreciate that they will soon want to be independent once again, enjoying their own space and having more time to themselves. I’m enjoying it while it lasts, and I recognise that it’s a privilege to be able to spend this special time with two of the most remarkable people I know.

Fam reunion


*Dance Moms is an American reality TV show about a ruthlessly ambitious dance teacher, the talented children in her class and their eye-wateringly competitive and bitchy mothers. It’s horribly compulsive viewing. Luckily there are only two episodes per day on the Freeview channel Five Star, which probably gives you an indication of the quality of the programme.

New York and the journey home

While leaving Cuba was fraught with challenges (there were no immigration staff available, no money changer available, and using the toilet cost 25 cents, which I didn’t have), landing in Newark Airport was a delight. Following 17 days of meagre minimarkets and antiquated systems, as well as four months of basic South American services, I was incredibly excited by the extensive food and drink options available, as well as the moving walkways and the sky train to transport us around the airport. My first trip to the toilet was a thing of wonder. “Shane!” I exclaimed excitedly, “the toilets are AMAZING. There are locks on the door, there are toilet seats, and there’s toilet paper. When you’ve finished you can flush the toilet paper DOWN the toilet! And there’s running water, so the toilet actually does flush! Then there’s water and even soap to wash your hands with, and a hand dryer! Can you believe it!? I think I’m going to like New York.”

Budget accommodation in New York is pretty much an oxymoron. As this was the last week of our honeymoon, we decided we would “splash out” (a relative term), and find somewhere to stay in a central location that wasn’t horrible. We settled on City Rooms NYC, which I wouldn’t describe as a hostel or a hotel, but more as something in between. We were lucky to get our own room (though not our own bathroom) within walking distance to the Empire State Building, Macy’s, and Times Square.

On our first evening we walked along the busy, vibrant streets towards the lights and the buzz of Times Square. While clearly a bit of a tourist trap, it was fun to see all the billboards and people in fancy dress!

Times Square

The next day we took the subway to the World Trade Centre, and the 9/11 memorial and museum. Having negotiated several public transit systems all around the world over the past year, we weren’t expecting to struggle with the New York subway.

Google maps helpfully told us we needed to catch the red line (the number two or three) from 28th Street to Park Place, so we duly arrived at the 28th Street subway station. It didn’t take long for us to get confused. According to the sign, only the number one red line stopped at the station. When we got underground and went through the turnstiles, we failed to realise that the side of the road you enter the station on above ground determines which direction you can travel on (it was just luck that we had ended up on the right side). The first train to stop was the number two, despite the fact that apparently only the number one stopped at the station. The announcements on the subway were incomprehensible, and the one map in our carriage didn’t match up with the stations that we were stopping at.

Nevertheless, we managed to get off at the right stop, and made our way towards the September 11 Memorial Museum. I last visited New York with my family in 2004, when the site where the twin towers once stood was a huge, empty void. Since then, the area has been transformed. Shiny new skyscrapers tower over an elegant memorial, a modern transportation hub and the underground museum.

September 11 Memorial

After an hour-long wait, we entered the museum. We started by watching two films, one about the events of September 11, and the other featuring George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair, justifying their actions after the terrorist attack. Then we started to explore the vast underground complex. The museum contains more than 40,000 images, 14,000 artifacts, 3,500 oral recordings, and over 500 hours of video. It was well done, powerful and moving. The admission fee and queuing were well worth it, and Shane and I spent the whole afternoon reflecting on the terrible events of that day, and the subsequent impact on the world.

After five or six hours of walking around the museum, we expected it to be dark once we got outside and back to ground level. In fact the sun was still shining, so we decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and watch the sun set over the skyline.

Brooklyn Bridge

Sunset over Brooklyn Bridge

The next day we took the subway to Central Park. We had decided to do a free, self-guided walking tour of the main sights, but had somehow failed to completely grasp the scale of the park. Three hours and six miles later, we were still only halfway through, but it was great to see lots of hidden gems that we wouldn’t have otherwise known existed. Highlights included the beautiful Bethesda Fountain and Terrace, the sea lions at the Central Park Zoo, the chess and chequers house filled with board games, Cleopatra’s Needle (an ancient Egyptian obelisk) and an Alice in Wonderland statue.

Cleopatra’s Needle, Central Park

Central Park views

As we approached the upper end of the park, we made a slight detour to visit the Museum of the City of New York. The museum contained various exhibits about the history of the city, as well as an interesting interactive section where you could design a city for the future. We then spent the afternoon visiting the shops and walking along Fifth Avenue, before ascending to the top of the Rockefeller Centre for a sunset view of the city.

View from the top of the Rock

We also visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island – a whole day trip that involved packed ferries, an interesting audio tour inside the statue, and information overload at Ellis Island. It was interesting to think about the number and the range of people who came to the United States from other countries, and were processed at Ellis Island. The museum emphasized the importance of immigration to the development and success of the United States – something which seems to have been forgotten or lost in more recent years – and it was interesting to reflect on the changes that have taken place since so many hopeful immigrants journeyed to across the Atlantic looking for a better life all those years ago.

Statue of Liberty

Our final days in New York involved walking along the High Line (an old elevated railway line that has been redeveloped as a kind of sky park), visiting the Tenement Museum (which shows where and how the poorer immigrants lived when they first arrived in New York), and seeing the new Broadway musical Mean Girls. Although it was no Wicked (my favourite musical of all time), Mean Girls was quite hilarious in its own way. I particularly enjoyed the social media references, classic lines, and the fact that I got to know the plastics on a whole new level.

Ready for Mean Girls

After our whistle-stop tour of New York, we boarded a bus bound for New York Stewart airport (if you haven’t heard of it, that might be because it’s nowhere near New York City), and hopped on a Norwegian Airlines flight to Dublin. Norwegian Airlines is a no-frills airline: flight prices don’t include baggage, food, drink, films or blankets, and clearly they fly from an airport that shouldn’t be allowed to use ‘New York’ in its name, but as the flights only cost £98, we couldn’t complain. Before we knew it we were back in Ireland, where we watched a couple of Americans struggle to work out whether they should be in the EU or non-EU passport queue (“I’m American, so I guess that means I’m European, right?”), collected our bags, and saw Shane’s parents for the first time since we left home.

We spent the next week catching up with friends and family in Ireland, spent time with Shane’s niece Áine, and started to adjust to the time zone and climate. We are now back in the UK, right where we started, and ready to commence the next phase of our lives.

With Shane’s sister Laura and niece Áine

It’s now more than 14 months since we drove Martha out of Goodwood, crossed the English Channel and started our honeymoon adventure. In that time, we have managed to travel all the way around the world. It has been the trip of a lifetime, and I feel so lucky to have seen so many different countries, have had so many incredible experiences and to have spent so much quality, uninterrupted time with my husband in the first year of our marriage.

Over the last year and a bit, we’ve camped in tiny, remote villages on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border in the Pamir Mountains. We’ve raced through the vast, empty, Mongolian wilderness in a tiny and inappropriate car. We’ve watched the world go by, and made friends with Russian miners on the Trans-Siberian railway. We’ve devoured Korean BBQ in Seoul, and learned to scuba dive in Thailand. We’ve spotted orangutans and Komodo dragons in the far corners of Indonesia. We’ve camper-vanned our way around Tasmania and New Zealand. We’ve visited some of the most remote islands in the world, and sampled paradise in Bora Bora. We’ve hiked in Hawaii, and experienced the original Disneyland in California. We’ve walked with giant tortoises on the Galapagos Islands. We’ve trekked up mountains and down valleys to get to Machu Picchu. We’ve marveled at Iguazu Falls in Argentina and Brazil, and we’ve enjoyed the ultimate city break in New York City.

We’ve also dealt with unimaginable bureaucracy. We’ve survived some of the worst boat, bus, train and plane journeys I’ve ever known. We’ve managed power cuts, language barriers, extreme temperatures, high altitude and challenging borders. We’ve coped with the world’s most unreliable ferry, an airport sleepover, a stolen phone, some of South America’s most dangerous cities, and continuous driving, flying, camping, and packing. We’ve argued with each other, but we’ve also supported, respected and been there for each other when it mattered most. We’ve questioned what we want from life, and how we want to achieve it. We’ve had the best of times, and the worst of times, and we’ve done it all together.


A few memories

After 14 months of seeing the world and thinking about what is most important to us, we now feel ready to create a home, to find meaningful and fulfilling work, and to develop lasting connections to places and people. While I am pretty confident that Shane feels just the same as ever (“just fine”), I feel a great deal happier, healthier, more self-assured and more self-reliant than when I left, and I can confirm that I have no urge to ever go on holiday again.

Thank you to everyone who has read this blog and followed us on our journey. We plan to post at least one more update in the coming months to share what we plan to do next, and any insights or amusing anecdotes about life after travel, but for now, job applications and rightmove await. To catch up on any blog posts from our adventure, click on the relevant country in the map below, or click here.



The Bureaucracy Diaries: Travelling in Cuba

Cuba. An interesting combination of perfect sandy beaches, cheap rum and lively salsa, with austere ration stores, bureaucratic processes and a flavor of totalitarianism. “Imagine a poorer version of Russia, with nothing in the supermarkets, two currencies and on a Caribbean island with lots of salsa and music”, is how I described the country to some of my friends. Cuba was a total paradox and completely unique. It was interesting, thought provoking and unbelievably frustrating all at once.

The difficulties started well before we landed on Cuban soil.

To save money, Shane and I had the genius idea to use our American Airlines airmiles to fly from Rio to Havana. We found a very convenient flight with just one short stopover in Miami, and apart from the negligible cost of taxes and charges, it was free.

Unfortunately, the United States government does not permit people to travel from the USA to Cuba for tourism purposes, and this applies to everyone – not just American citizens. To travel to Cuba, the purpose of our visit had to fit within one of 12 categories, such as visiting family, official business of the U.S. government, or humanitarian projects. We chose “educational activities”, and then booked a cheap tour with local company Cuban Adventures, which promised to satisfy the U.S. regulations and involve some sort of educational experience. If anyone questioned our reasons for travel, we could produce our itinerary.

To make matters worse, as we were not travelling to Cuba for tourism purposes, we couldn’t buy the normal tourist card (which usually costs about £20 from the Cuban embassy in London). Instead, we had to buy a special American Airlines approved visa, which was pink instead of green, cost $100 each, and still said “tourist card” on it, even though we were (officially) not tourists. Having purchased our Cuban Adventures tour and our pricey visas, suddenly our “free” flights no longer seemed like such a good deal.

On the plus side, the process of flying to Cuba was fairly smooth. We checked in for our flight using a self-service kiosk, which asked us to declare our reasons for visiting Cuba, but asked no other questions. When we dropped our bags off, the check-in assistant seemed surprised that the machine had allowed us to check in for a flight to Cuba. “Did the machine ask you questions, like why you’re going to Cuba, what you’ll be doing there, and where you’ll be staying?” he asked, looking perplexed. We tried to dodge the question,  as it had only really asked us one of those things, and repeated several times that it had asked us about “the purpose of our visit to Cuba”. He eventually seemed satisfied, if a little surprised, and checked in our bags. Somehow we had escaped through the net with minimal questioning, and were on our way to Cuba.

We arrived at Havana airport – a utilitarian building, described by one internet commentator as “a kind of warehouse” – and were actually pleasantly surprised. Immigration was fast, and although our bags were not, it appeared nothing had been stolen from them, which is always a plus. We didn’t have to stop at customs, and quickly found ourselves in the arrivals hall.

My Cuba-related research had led me to believe that accessing cash in the country might be a problem. Tidbits of information I read included “nowhere takes credit cards in Cuba”, “ATMs frequently don’t work in Cuba”, “ATMs won’t accept mastercard in Cuba” (our only international fee-free ATM card is a mastercard), “YOU NEED TO BRING ALL THE CASH WITH YOU IN CUBA”, and “There is a 10% tax when you exchange US dollars, but not when you exchange pounds or euros in Cuba”. While my Halifax Clarity credit card has been unbelievably reliable, working in every single country on pretty much every single occasion around the world over the last 14 months, I didn’t want to rely on it completely, and so it was that I ended up carrying around £500 GBP for the last four months, specifically for the purpose of our trip to Cuba.

This turned out to be for nothing, as I went straight to the ATM at the airport, found that because the banks (along with everything else) are owned by the government, there are no extra charges for withdrawing cash at the airport (thank you socialism), and withdrew plenty of money on the first try. Getting a taxi to Havana was also simple. The price was set by the government at about one Cuban convertible peso (equivalent to one US dollar) per kilometre, so it was refreshing not to have to haggle, or to worry about being ripped off.

Driving into Old Havana was like travelling back in time. The city was beautiful if a little crumbly, the roads were virtually empty, and where we did see cars, they were beautiful, old classics. We stayed in a “casa particular” – a private house run by a local family, like a B&B or guesthouse rather than a government-run hotel – and started to explore the city.

Pretty Havana streets

Classic cars

We visited the Museum of the Revolution, which turned out to be half empty, and half full of communist propaganda, recounting endless attempts by the CIA to destroy Cuba. We also wandered the streets, visited Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts, and had our first taste of Cuban music. We were quickly taken in by the charm and beauty of old Havana.

Museum of the Revolution

But it wasn’t long before we started to encounter the trials and tribulations which plauge Cuban people in their daily lives. Cuba’s socialist system is successful in many ways. Free and good quality healthcare and education combined with subsidised housing, utilities, entertainment and food programmes have led to successful social outcomes. Life expectancy and literacy are higher in Cuba than in the USA, while levels of homelessness, inequality and crime are much lower. At the same time, Cuba is a one-party state, and the government controls all aspects of people’s daily lives. No political parties are allowed to exist (except the Cuban Communist Party), and criticising the government is a serious offence.

Our first challenge was to try and communicate with the outside world. We wanted some access to wifi, so we could tell our families we were still alive, and access information about the places we would be staying and things to do. Getting access to wifi, and other forms of communication (like public phones) is a convoluted process, which, like everything else, is controlled and administered by the Cuban government.

Our attempt to get on the internet went something like this:

Step 1: Find an ETECSA centre (a communications centre run by the government where you can buy a special card to access wifi, a different special card to access pay phones, use a computer, or do various other communications related things. We found there was usually one in each town.)

Step 2: Find out that the ETECSA centre has closed early / wifi cards are unavailable / there is some problem.

Step 3: Return to the ETECSA centre at another time and hope that the problem has been solved.

Step 4: Wait in a long, disorderly queue outside the building for about an hour.

Step 5: Eventually get to the front of the outside queue, go inside the building and join another long, disorderly queue with no clear system in place for about half an hour. Notice that there are about ten members of staff hanging around, but only one or two are actually doing anything useful. The rest are chatting, looking at the floor, shuffling papers around or just waiting for the day to end.

Step 6: Eventually make it to the front of the inside queue (whatever “the front” is, when there is no real queue) and go to see the one member of staff that seems to be doing something.

Step 7: Ask to buy a wifi card, hand over passports, and wait another fifteen minutes while nothing happens.

Step 8: “Computer says no”. For some unknown reason, there is a problem, and wifi cards cannot be purchased at this time.

Step 9: Wait.

Step 10: Wait a bit longer.

Step 11: See a different person and try to buy a wifi card. Have the following conversation in a mixture of Spanish and English (but mostly Spanish):

Georgia: “I would like to buy a wifi card please.”

ETECSA employee: “Would you like a five-hour card or a one-hour card?”

Georgia: “I would like two five-hour cards please” (so I never have to do this again)

ETECSA employee: “We only have one-hour cards.”

Georgia: “OK, I’ll buy ten one-hour cards.”

ETECSA employee: “You can only buy three.”

Georgia: “OK, I’ll buy three”.

Step 12: Handover passport and three Cuban convertible pesos (equivalent to US$3), and buy three hours’ worth of wifi.

Step 13: Leave the ETECSA centre, thinking about the hours spent in the endless queue that I’ll never get back, and vowing to be less dependent on the internet from now on.

Step 14: Look for a place where I can actually use the wifi card and access the internet. This could be done outside most ETECSA centres (though, conveniently, not the one in Old Havana), in some public squares, and occasionally at hotels.

Step 15: Log in and discover that the wifi is really slow or doesn’t work at all.

Step 16: Log in again and discover that somehow the card doesn’t work properly and all the wifi I bought has now disappeared.

In the “queue” for wifi

In Havana, we also met with the rest of our Cuban Adventures group (Sarah from New Zealand, another Sarah from Malta, and Jane from Australia), and travelled to Havana’s domestic airport to fly to the town of Baracoa at the eastern tip of the island.

‘Airport’ turned out to be a generous term for the small building where we waited to board a tiny plane, complete with propellers and plenty of people who had never been in an aeroplane before. The “safety demonstration” consisted of nothing more than advice to “look at the safety card in the pocket of the seat in front of you.” I always like to pay attention to the safety demonstration on a plane – just in case – so duly reached into the pocket of the seat in front of me. I found nothing whatsoever. “Nice try”, said a German tourist sitting next to me, and from the rapturous applause that erupted when the plane touched down in Baracoa, it seemed that I wasn’t the only one who had felt a little nervous about the plane’s safety standards.

The “airport”

Detailed boarding pass

Busy day at the airport

Baracoa was a small, peaceful town, surrounded by luscious jungle and a pretty beach. While Shane ventured out exploring the nearby gorge, a local fishing village and a chocolate plantation, I had developed some kind of stomach bug, so stayed at home trying to recover. When recovery stalled, I ventured out to the local pharmacy, and had an interesting time trying to buy some medicine.

The pharmacy looked like it was 100 years old, and there was barely anything on the shelves. I used my best Spanish (combined with a little help from google translate) to explain that I wanted medication for diarrhea that did not contain penicillin. The pharamacist produced a small bottle of something that looked suspiciously herbal and probably ineffective. I politely asked if she had anything else, and she found some tablets. I had no idea what they were, but she assured me that there was no penicillin in them, and that they would do the job. I said I would take them.

The problems started when I tried to pay. There are, in fact, two currencies in use in Cuba. The cuban convertible peso (CUC) is designed to be used by tourists, and its value is pegged to the US dollar. One cuban convertible peso = one US dollar.

When I asked how much the antibiotics were, the pharmacist told me they were 1.50. I assumed this meant $1.50 CUC, and duly handed over the money. $1.50 seemed like quite a good deal, considering  that the prices we had been paying for food in restaurants, or water in minimarkets (where we could find it) were quite high.

Unfortunately, the pharmacist was not happy with my offer of $1.50. It wasn’t until she said “moneda nacional” that I understood the problem. The price – 1.50 – wasn’t 1.50 CUC. It was 1.50 Cuban pesos (of course, Cuba has two currencies, and both are called “pesos”). Cuban pesos, or moneda nacional, is Cuba’s other currency. Most people are paid their salary in Cuban pesos (CUP), most local shops only accept CUP, and apparently, this pharmacy would only take payment in CUP. The good news was that the cuban peso has a much lower value than the cuban convertible peso – 1/25 in fact – so instead of costing $1.50, my antibiotics cost $0.06. Bargain. The bad news was that I didn’t have any CUP.

What followed was a long and difficult discussion, which ended in me giving the pharmacist CUC $0.10, and her being sort-of-happy-but-not-really. When I got home, I googled the tablets she had given me, and found out they were really for treating amoebic dysentery rather than traveller’s diarrhea. I took them anyway.

Feeling a little better the next day, I joined Shane and the others for a walk through the jungle to a waterfall. This involved crossing rivers, spotting hummingbirds, swimming in the waterfall and a nearby river, eating delicious fruit, and generally soaking up the relaxed atmosphere of Baracoa’s surroundings.

Green Baracoa

Who needs a bridge?

Crystal clear water for swimming

But the relaxed atmosphere evaporated when we reached our next destination Santiago de Cuba (with a quick stop at Guantanamo Bay on the way). Cuba’s second largest city is known for its role in the Cuban revolution, and so we set about exploring the Moncada barracks where Fidel Castro launched an attack in 1953, and Santa Ifigenia Cemetry, where Fidel Castro and Jose Marti are buried.

As we approached the Santa Ifigenia Cemetry, we were stopped in our tracks by four or five people in police uniform. While they weren’t unfriendly, they were very clear about where we could and couldn’t stand, and the route we needed to take to get into the cemetry. As we followed the route, we encountered more and more police, who seemed to have nothing to do other than direct people along the path. “Wouldn’t a sign have been cheaper?”, I pondered, as we made our way into the cemetry.

Once we were finally inside, we were stopped again. This time by a woman with a special badge:

“Where are you going?” she asked irritably.

“We’ve come to the cemetry”, we explained, in case that wasn’t clear. “We’re going to see the graves.”

“Well you can’t be here without a ticket. You need to pay.”

“OK, where can we pay?” we asked, as we had carefully followed the directions of about thirty policemen and women to get into the cemetry, and hadn’t seen anywhere that it might be possible to buy a ticket.

“The only ones you can see if you don’t pay are those ones”, she replied, pointing us towards the grave of Jose Marti, the main feature in the middle of the cemetry.

We decided to just visit the graves of Jose Marti, Fidel Castro, and the mother and the father of the nation, as there was nowhere to pay, and apparently no way we were allowed into the rest of the cemetry.

Fidel Castro’s memorial

The off-limits cemetry

Our experience at the Moncada Barracks wasn’t much better. We bought a ticket, roamed around the museum, and then tried to explore outside. Suddenly, members of staff seemed to appear from nowhere, telling us “no”, that despite buying a ticket, we would not be allowed to wander freely, and cajoled us back into the building..

Our next stop was Camaguey, another pretty city with old buildings, cobbled streets and pretty churches. The city was built with a deliberately confusing layout. There are plenty of blind alleys, squares of different sizes and streets that look the same, apparently to stop pirates from finding their way around. If this is true, it definitely worked – we spent two days struggling to navigate – and even Shane managed to get lost.

We started our day in Camaguey with a bicycle taxi tour, which was included with our Cuban Adventures trip and was very informative. We stopped at a number of churches and some interesting art galleries, and learnt about the history of Cuba and Camaguey. We then visited a couple of historic houses, which again contained twenty or thirty members of staff who didn’t seem to have a lot to do, and tried to have dinner in the evening. It was at this point that we came unstuck again.

The first cafe we tried claimed to have no water, no cola, no juice, and no wine, despite serving Cuba Libres (rum and coke), and glasses of wine to the table next to us. We then ordered chips and fried plantain as a snack, and again, despite the table next to us receiving massive portions of the same, we were given tiny plates and then told they had run out. It’s hard to know whether they genuinely had run out of everything (as they have little control over what deliveries they receive from the government), or were just being difficult.

We tried another restaurant, and found the same. They claimed not to have anything on the menu (although we could see other people eating the very things we had asked for), but were also unnecessarily rude. We wondered whether we had done something wrong by trying to eat in ‘local’ restaurants rather than ‘toursit’ restaurants – and so were taking resources away from local people unnecessarily – and decided to try somewhere else so as not to upset anyone. The difficulty of getting food – either in a restaurant or even in a minimarket – was a common problem during our time in Cuba. Bottled water was particularly scarce, and we never saw snacks like crisps or chocolate. One day I saw some cans of diet pepsi in a corner shop, and was so excited that I bought five.

At the same time, we were often successful in our search for ice cream – one of the staples of Shane’s diet – and on one particular occasion on the way to Trinidad, we found a local ice cream parlour. A government-run ice cream parlour seems strange in itself, but what was even stranger was the amount of ice cream people seemed to be eating. The couple next to us had three bowls of ice cream each, plus a huge slice of cake. When Sarah pointed at their table and asked for “what they’re having”, she didn’t expect to get the same quantity, but that’s exactly what happened. While Sarah did well, Shane was an ice cream champion. One huge slice of cake and four bowls of ice cream later, we waited nervously for the bill. At four cuban pesos ($0.15), it wasn’t exactly outrageous, and so I left the ice cream parlour with one happy Shane, and one slightly queasy Sarah.

Our next stop, Trinidad, was a definite highlight of our trip to Cuba.  We encountered musicians playing in the streets, found people dancing salsa, ate some good food and took a very interesting walking tour around the city. The walking tour was a “free” (tips-based) walking tour, which we learned technically wasn’t allowed to operate in Cuba. Our tour guide explained that while education and housing are free, and food, rent and utilities are subsidised, the government wage of $20-$40 per month doesn’t go far enough for Cuban people. If they want to buy anything classified as “non-essential”, they need far more money than the government pays, and so many Cubans have a second job, where they can earn cuban convertible pesos, and buy some “luxuries”.

Pretty Trinidad



While the government turns a blind eye to many of these second jobs, tacitly accepting the fact that government wages don’t go far enough, our tour guide explained that others who work in the (government run) tourist industry didn’t appreciate him providing “free” tours, which enabled him to make a lot more money for a lot less effort. To stay out of trouble, he deliberately acted and dressed like a tourist – from the way he cut his hair to the way he spoke English! It was great to get his views on the negative side of living in Cuba, although I couldn’t help but feel that he had a slightly rose-tinted view of the rest of the world. “We’re 200 years behind everyone else”, he claimed, and while the buildings, cars and furniture are certainly older than in many other places, they are also rich in character. While Cuba’s system no doubt has its flaws, it seems that many Cubans are presented a very positive image of life in other places, which doesn’t match reality. Hollywood films and music videos show only the glamourous and wealthy side of living in a capitalist society like the United States. They don’t show the number of people living on the streets or being shot in schools. Most Cubans have never travelled outside of Cuba, and don’t have reliable access to information. While people in other parts of the world may have more freedom and in more opportunity, many are also poor, starving and homeless. Not everyone who lives in the USA lives like Beyonce, but the average Cuban only sees Beyonce, and (understandably) feels that they are missing out.

From Trinidad we made our way slowly back to Havana. We stopped in Santa Clara to visit Che Guevara’s grave and went snorkelling in the Bay of Pigs, where the CIA tried and failed to invade Cuba in 1961. Our last day in Old Havana was spent walking around the city one more time, appreciating the beautiful buildings and the old classic cars.

The Bay of Pigs

Our 17 days in Cuba gave us a good taste of the country, but I left feeling more confused than when we’d first arrived. How important is freedom? Is it more or less important than equality, health and wellbeing for all? What would Cuba be like if the United States embargo were lifted? What would Cuba be like if the CIA hadn’t tried to destroy it at every opportunity? Would I be happy in a socialist society, if it meant giving up my non-essentials? 17 days without chocolate, decent wifi or a proper supermarket suggests probably not. But what if I’d never got used to those non-essentials in the first place? Would the inefficiency and lack of productivity eat away at me? Are inefficiency and low productivity inevitable in a society where everyone is employed by the government on a low, fixed wage? Did we even experience the “real Cuba” anyway? Or did we just see the toursity side that the government wanted us to see?

There’s no doubt that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, life in Cuba was very hard for many people. But somehow Cuba has survived, with its regime more or less intact. How many other countries would be able to say the same, if they had been deliberately economically isolated by the largest economy in the world (which also happens to be one of its closest neighbours) for nearly 60 years? Yes, the buildings and cars are old, yes the regime has had to adapt and become more flexible with the introduction of toursim and limited private enterprise, and yes, the Cuban society is far from perfect, but what is amazing is that the people are still healthy, still safe, and still dancing.

I am glad we visited Cuba. It really is a beautiful country, with so much character, an interesting history and a very different way of life. It left us with a lot to think about, and it challenged both my patience, and, to an extent, my view of the world. It wasn’t all salsa, cocktails and beaches – at times it was frustrating and maddening – but it was an experience which I won’t forget any time soon. It also revealed that I was getting worn down by the trials and tribulations that come with travelling the world, and that I was nearly ready to go home.


The road to Rio

Crossing from Argentina into Brazil was so easy that we barely noticed it happening. Spongebob needed to go to the garage, so James drove him separately, and the rest of the group took a minibus across the border. At one point, the driver stopped, got out with our passports, disappeared for no more than five minutes, and then came back. We had left Argentina without even getting out of the bus. A few minutes later, the driver stopped again. “Did you need the Brazil stamp?”, he asked. We looked a little confused. “Yes…” answered Gayle, our tour leader, and she went with him to get our passports stamped. After another few minutes they were back, all our passports were decorated with a dubious looking stamp, and we were in Brazil, where apparently passing through immigration or customs is unnecessary, and a stamp is a nice extra.

We spent two nights near Foz do Iguacu, and as it had taken us about ten minutes to get from Argentina to Brazil, we found that we had plenty of time to see all that the area had to offer. Shane, Andrea and I started by visiting Iguazu Falls again, entering another theme-park style national park (I wondered whether Brazil and Argentina were competing to provide the nicest Iguazu Falls experience), and walking along various paths to catch another glimpse of the falls.

From the Brazil side we got a completely different perspective. While in Argentina we could peer over the top of the devil’s throat and walk right up close to the falls, in Brazil we enjoyed panoramic views from every angle, and were able to appreciate the size and scale of the falls in a whole new way. In some ways, the falls were even more spectacular from the Brazil side, but I was very grateful we had had the time to visit both sides.

The next day we took a bus across the border into Paraguay to wander around the shops, as Paraguay is known for its cheap electronic goods. It was even easier to get into Paraguay than it was to get into Brazil – the bus went straight across the border, we didn’t stop for immigration, passport stamps or customs. We then progressed from shop to shop, looking at everything from clothes to iPhones, comparing prices and considering luggage limits. Getting from shop to shop also involved walking along the street, where we had to dodge various people selling us tasers (hearing the buzzing noise of the taser coming towards your head does not make you want to stop and buy one), and refusing the many people who tried to sell us packets of plain white socks (it turns out that if you say “yes, I would like to buy these socks”, that is actually code for “please can I buy some drugs”). Eventually Shane purchased a tube-shaped JBL speaker that he was very excited about, and they had it in a turquoise colour, which I was very excited about, and then we went back to Brazil.

In the afternoon we decided to visit the Itaipu dam, an impressive feat of engineering and symbol of cooperation and partnership between Brazil and Paraguay. The dam is eight kilometres long, and in 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers elected it as one of the seven modern Wonders of the World. Despite its size, when we got off the bus at the end of line, a forest and a large security block meant that we couldn’t actually see it.

We tried to pass through security and walk up to a viewpoint, but were stopped and directed to a tourist office on the other side of the road. We went across and asked a helpful member of staff how we could see the dam. “You can book a tour”, he explained. “It takes two and a half hours, includes a short documentary presentation and takes you to several viewpoints.” By this time it was nearly 4pm, and none of us really wanted to spend two and a half hours looking at the dam. “We don’t really want to do a full tour, we just want to see the dam for a moment”, Andrea explained. “Is there somewhere we can go just to get a quick view?”. The answer was no, so we took a map and resolved to give it some thought.

While I remained reasonably ambivalent about the dam, I knew Shane was keen to see it, and Andrea didn’t want to miss out either having journeyed all the way there. We studied the map, but could see no obvious place on our side of the security zone where we might manage to see it. Eventually Andrea decided she would go back to the security checkpoint, and see if there was anynway we could get in.

We walked back up to the security checkpoint, which completely took over the road and was patrolled by a several security officers. From looking at the map, Andrea had noticed that the dam wasn’t the only thing of interest within the security zone – there was a university there too – and when Andrea was redirected to the tourist office, she explained that, in fact, we had no interest in the dam at all! We simply wanted to visit the university!

Whether she believed us or not, the security officer directed us into a small office where we had to present our passports and some paperwork was filled out in order to grant us some sort of temporary access pass to the area. It wasn’t a quick process, and at some point Andrea was handed a phone, and had a conversation with someone at the university about what we were doing. “We just wanted to visit the library”, she said, and with no more questions asked was told to take the orange bus from the security zone to the university, and to meet someone called Newton in a specific room.

Following this conversation we were handed a temporary access pass, which got us through security with a knowing nod from the lady who had sent us away earlier, and waited at the bus stop for the orange bus. From the bus we caught a slight glimpse of the dam, but arrived at the university without getting any good views or photos. We found Newton in the middle of a dissertation meeting which made us feel very guilty, but it turned out he was secretary for his department and he was happy to show us around. I have no idea what he thought three European tourists were doing there, or why we might have come all this way to see the university library, but he didn’t ask, and we didn’t explain.

By the time we got to the library it was 5.30pm, and 6pm was closing time, so (luckily) we only had a short window for our tour. As Newton explained to the library staff in Portuguese that we had come from the U.K. to look round the library, I could tell by their confused faces and questions that they were wondering why, but thankfully they either didn’t speak enough English or were too polite to ask us directly. We spent half an hour pretending to be amazed by the library, expressing enthusiasm for the fake degrees we were pretending to study (engineering, maths and geography), and learning interesting facts, such as:

– The library was featured in a Brazilian magazine for being a really nice library
– The library was completely empty because it was August and all the students were on holiday
– The library has ten copies of every book, so students don’t fight over them

After our enlightening library tour we bid Newton goodbye and pretended to board the orange bus back to the security checkpoint, changing course at the last minute when Newton was out of sight. Aware that we weren’t really supposed to be anywhere other than the university library, we quickly and stealthily walked for about a kilometre to a viewpoint of the dam, which was marked on our tourist map. It seemed further to get there than the map had suggested, and by the time we reached the viewpoint the sun was setting over the dam.


Shane at the university with his coveted access pass

Shane and Andrea waiting to meet Newton at the university

The dam

Including the first bus from Foz de Iguaçu it had taken us about three hours to reach the dam, and despite being huge, it was somehow underwhelming. It just looked like a big dam. Even Shane failed to be impressed, and so after a quick picture we tried to walk back to the nearest orange bus stop. We looked at the times on the bus stops all around us and found we had missed the last one. To get back to the security check point we would need to walk back to the university and catch the orange bus, or try and flag down a bus from the main road.

As we were deliberating which way to go, a security vehicle passed by us, stopped, turned around and came back down so that we could talk. We were very clearly told that we weren’t supposed to be there, and we needed to go back to the university. We did as we were told. As we walked back up to the university, we spotted the orange bus coming straight towards us. As it was now getting dark and we really, really wanted to get back, sp we waved our arms and, thankfully, it pulled over. We got back on the bus and in no time at all were back on the right side of the security fence, and back on the bus to Foz do Iguacu.

From Foz do Iguacu, the plan was to drive up the coast to Rio, camping for a couple of nights at Santiago beach, and then another couple of nights in the historic town of Paraty. We arrived at Santiago beach to find that the place where we had planned to camp was reached only by driving down a very narrow, muddy road, which was barely big enough for Spongebob. To make matters worse, the campsite itself was a mudbath, with chickens running riot and no one around. Gayle and James quickly decided to abandon the plan, and drive along the road until we could find a suitable bush camp. Eventually we stopped close to the beach, where we could see the sea from our tents, and were visited by a few inquisitive locals who wanted to talk to us (unperturbed by the fact that none of us could speak Portuguese), and take a few photos.

Sea views from our tent

The next day we pressed on straight to Paraty, where we found a proper campsite and wandered around the town’s quaint, cobbled streets. We attempted to book a boat trip for the following day, but woke up to find torrential rain pouring down around us. The rain barely relented, and so I spent two days cooped up under cover, venturing out only for necessities. Some of the rest of the group headed further afield, but their attempts at watersports were thwarted when they couldn’t find anywhere to hire a kayak in the rain.

Wet but pretty streets in Paraty

From Paraty it was a relatively short (250 kilometre) drive to Rio de Janeiro, the final point of our South American adventure. We gathered our belongings, said a final goodbye to Spongebob, and then headed out for our last group dinner at a typical Brazilian buffet restaurant where the amount you pay depends on the amount you put on your plate!

Our next few days in Rio were spent sight seeing, relaxing and starting to think about the final phase of our trip. Our first stop was the pretty hillside neighbourhood of Santa Teresa, which felt eerily quiet as we climbed the winding streets up to the vintage shops, galleries and street art on top of the hill. We wandered around for a while, taking in the scenery and trying to get a good view of the city below.

Pretty views in Santa Teresa

Eventually we stumbled across the famous Selaron Steps, 215 steps which have been covered in tiles, ceramics and mirrors by Chilean-born artist Jorge Selaron. The steps are a beautiful work of art – they are covered in 2,000 tiles from over 60 countries across the world – and they are a very popular visitor attraction too. We managed to arrive mid-morning, which seemed to be a terrible time to be looking at the steps as  there were hundreds of other tourists around doing the exact same thing, and it wasn’t really possible to get a good view of the steps without spoiling someone’s photo. It also didn’t help that we managed to approach the steps from the top rather than the bottom, meaning we didn’t actually get to see them until we’d managed to dodge all the people/camera/selfie stick obstacles and made it to the bottom.

With everyone else at the Selaron Steps

The next day we took an early train up to the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer, a huge, concrete statue of Jesus who watches over the city. It was good to get there early on a clear day, as we managed to get a few photos and take in the beautiful views before the crowds became overbearing, but eventually it became impossible to move without bumping into someone, walking into a selfie stick or ruining a photo, and we took the train back down the steep hillside.

The crowds at Sugarloaf Mountain were no better, and despite arriving with almost two hours to spare before the sun was due to disappear over the horizon, by the time we took the cable car to the top of the mountain, it was getting dark. Again, the views were spectacular, but after two hours of waiting in various queues for the cable car, it didn’t take long for our patience to wear thin, and we faced more long queues to get back.

Sunset, halfway to Sugarloaf Mountain

Night time view from the top

When we weren’t trying to take in Rio’s beautiful views, we were admiring its beautiful beaches. Once the Oasis trip finished, we stayed in a lovely pink hostel in Ipanema, which happened to be the building where Antonio Carlos Jobim, the singer and composer who wrote ‘A girl from Ipanema’ had lived while he wrote the song. We were just a couple of blocks from the beach, so enjoyed various relaxing strolls along the sand to Ipanema and nearby Copacabana.



As our time in Rio draws to a close, we are gearing up for the final phase of our adventure: two weeks in Cuba, followed by a week in New York, before we fly back to Dublin in September. Over the last three months we’ve driven nearly 7,000 kilometres in Spongebob, snorkelled with sea lions and hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands, tubed down the river in the Amazon rainforest, sandboarded in the Peruvian desert, trekked through the Andes to Machu Picchu, roamed the salt flats of Bolivia, appreciated the magnificent Iguazu Falls, and taken in the views of Rio de Janeiro.

Shane being a Galapagos tortoise

Snorkelling with sea lions


Meeting Spongebob

Tubing in the Amazon

Swinging in Banos

Peruvian sand sports

Camping in the Andes mountains

Machu Picchu

Lake Titicaca

La Paz

Biking down death road

Playing in the salt flats

Iguazu Falls

Rio de Janeiro

Our South American trip has been tough at times, but it’s also been interesting, adventurous and exciting, with something new around the corner almost every day.

Tomorrow we fly back to the northern hemisphere and back to the endless summer, taking one step (or 6,000 kilometres) closer to home.

Eating steak, drinking wine, and dancing the tango in Argentina

With just one stamp and minimal bureaucracy, we left Bolivia and entered Argentina. We drove down from an altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level in Potosi to just 1,100 metres in Salta, and it immediately felt warmer and easier to breathe.  As we crossed into Argentina we noticed other differences too: cars were newer and less battered, public toilets had amenities like running water and toilet seats, and a more diverse mix of people wandered the cities. Even with Shane’s ever-so-slightly ginger hair, we no longer stood out as strange and unusual specimens.

Our first stop was Salta, a pretty city with old colonial architecture in  the north west of the country. We camped at one of South America’s biggest swimming pools, which sounds more exciting than it was. While google images shows a giant swimming pool, drenched in sunshine, surrounded by greenery and filled with families and friends having fun, what we found was an eerie, empty crater. The facilities at the campsite included the worst toilets of South America so far, some old, rusty playground equipment and non-existent wifi. After several days of reasonably nice accommodation in Bolivia and the promise of more sophistication in Argentina, it was a bit of a disappointment. Being a richer country, Argentina was also significantly more expensive, and so the group’s spending power had taken a nosedive.

It looks like a beautiful campsite

Everyone having fun in the swimming pool

The sad, empty reality (spot Spongebob in the distance)

Nevertheless, we had a good day in Salta, and journeyed to the Juramento river for a spot of white water rafting. Excited to make the most of the warmer climate, I turned up in a shorts and T-shirt, which turned out to be a dreadful mistake. As we listened to the safety briefing (all in Spanish, followed by a quick “do you need me to translate into English”, to which someone from our group unhelpfully replied “no”), I started shivering, worried about how cold I was going to get in the rafts and the water.

I needn’t have worried – as well as a wetsuit, we were each given a fleece and a windbreaker jacket to wear. We met our guide, an enthusiastic man from Germany who had quit the rat race to live in the mountains and raft down the river for a living, and explained that we had managed to miss the entire safety briefing due to our failure to understand the Spanish version, and our second failure to say so.

Although the rapids were “only” class III, the rafting turned out to be adventurous enough for us. We paddled through rapid after rapid at speed, and found ourselves powering down waterfalls and over rocks. At one point, Andrea fell out, but was back in the raft in no time, and at the end, everyone (except me) jumped out for a swim, while I happily stayed dry(ish) and warm(ish) in my own personal raft.

Image result for salta rafting

Not us (we were too cheap to buy the photos), but this is what we looked like

After getting dry and making the most of an all-you-can-eat BBQ (which included some of the most delicious steak we have ever had), we headed back to the town center and explored the city while trying (and failing) to track down an ATM that didn’t charge an extortionate amount to withdraw a very small amount of money. With inflation of around 30% per year, the government have tried to stop people taking out large amounts of money – setting low limits for withdrawals, and adding big fees (around £10 per withdrawal) – to keep cash in the banks and help the country to stay afloat. While ATMs have big queues and big costs, exchanging money is often no easier, with more big queues and bureaucratic processes. Luckily, we found a man on the street who offered to exchange his rapidly-depreciating pesos with our American dollars at a better-than-XE exchange rate; a transaction which I hope benefited him as much as it did us.

From Salta we had a relatively short drive day to Cafayate, famed for its vineyards and winemaking. On the way, we stopped at a couple of viewpoints to enjoy the scenery, when driver James realized that our lovely yellow truck (Spongebob) had a problem. Spongey was leaking oil everywhere, and the official diagnosis from Shane was that a gasket between the oil cooler and the engine needed replacing. After a bit of a debate about whether to stop and fix it, or try and complete the remaining 40 kilometers to Cafayate, James decided to push on. We made it into Cafayate in one piece with the sun setting over our next campsite, and Jess and I got to work cooking paella for our group dinner.

Views over Argentina

The next day, while I went off with the rest of the group to explore the local bodagas, buy some cheap wine (starting from just £1!), and to gather picnic supplies for our planned cheese-and-wine evening, Shane stayed with James to help him fix Spongebob. They worked all day, got very oily, and at the end of the day still didn’t know whether they had solved the problem. “I think there’s a 60% chance it’s fixed”, said Shane, which seemed good enough, so we ate our cheese, drank our wine and hoped for the best.

Shane getting a little oily

The next day Spongebob started happily and progressed all the way to Cordoba with no issues. While most of the rest of the group went skydiving, our day in Cordoba was a little more mundane. Instead of jumping out of a plane, we navigated the public bus system to head into town, got Shane’s phone fixed (his screen had been completely dead for at least a week), tried to explore the top sites (they were all closed), and tried to explore some of the town’s trendy shops and bars (they were all closed). Slightly deflated, we headed back to our hostel and went for an amazing steak dinner to cheer ourselves up.

Delicious, cheap wine

Delicious, cheap steak

It took us two more days of driving, with a bush camp at a service station in between, to reach Buenos Aires. In those two days, I had managed to come down with a nasty cold, and so took to my bed almost immediately while the others went out exploring.

Driving into Buenos Aires

We stayed in Buenos Aires for four nights, which gave those of us who weren’t stuck in bed plenty of time to see the city. Shane, Andrea, Marisa, Holly and Ryan went for a walk to the Evita graveyard and a giant theatre which has been turned into a giant bookshop during the day, and in the evening I managed to join the rest of the group for a tango lesson, a delicious dinner of steak and unlimited wine and a very impressive tango show.

Theatre / bookshop

The next day we said goodbye to Marisa, who was leaving the trip and flying back to Switzerland from Buenos Aires, and headed off on a day trip by ferry to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. What sounded like a great way to get a taste of a new country turned out to be an enormous effort for little more than a passport stamp. We arrived at the ferry port in Buenos Aires two hours early, checked in, passed through immigration, waited for the ferry and then boarded. Once we arrived in Uruguay, we were greeted by grey skies and rain. We managed to survey the two main sites in the town (the lighthouse – closed, and the church – unremarkable) in about ten minutes, and then wandered around looking at the menus in overpriced cafes. Eventually, we got on a bus for a short tour of the surrounding area, where the first point of interest was identified the town’s shopping centre, and spent the rest of the day in said shopping centre, waiting until it was time to get the ferry back to Buenos Aires. We had only experienced a tiny snapshot of Uruguay, but it didn’t leave any of us feeling particularly inspired to return.

In the morning we tried to say goodbye to Will, who was also flying home from Buenos Aires, but found he had already disappeared. While I continued to rest and recover, Shane headed back into the city with Andrea, visiting a cathedral and getting caught in a women’s march. In the evening we had more steak for dinner, and then met up with another Oasis Overland group. This group was also travelling from Quito to Rio, but they had started earlier than us and would be arriving later than us, because they had travelled through Patagonia. We knew the driver – Adam – as he had been the driver on our previous overland trip from London to Sydney in 2009, so it was nice to see a friendly face and catch up after nearly ten years.

Women’s march

While Adam had enjoyed his trip so far, the others didn’t seem to be having the best of times. Tales of the freezing temperatures they endured in Patagonia and group divisions and arguments left us feeling relieved that we hadn’t chosen that particular route, and lucky that we got on with the rest of our group.

From Buenos Aires we drove north for two long days to reach Puerto Iguazu, a small town near the famous Iguazu Falls, which sits on the border between Argentina and Brazil. We were over 1,200 kilometres north of Buenos Aires, and the temperature change was dramatic. We peeled off our layers, Ryan cleaned out the slightly grim looking swimming pool, and we spent the evening BBQing our own delicious meat and soaking up the tropical temperatures.

While we’d packed in several unforgettable experiences during our week in Bolivia, up to this point our time in Argentina had been a little more humdrum. Rafting in Salta was fun, the wine in Cafayate was excellent, Buenos Aires was a lovely city and the steak was great everywhere, but we hadn’t seen or done anything truly memorable or thrilling since we left Bolivia behind.

As soon as we first caught a glimpse of Iguazu Falls, that all changed.

It’s fair to say we’ve seen our fair share of waterfalls – both on this trip and on others – but they all (perhaps with the exception of Victoria Falls) pale in comparison to Iguazu Falls. Iguazu Falls are not the tallest waterfalls, and they’re not the widest waterfalls, but they are some of the most impressive waterfalls in the world.

We arrived at the Iguazu Falls National Park early, and it almost felt like being at a  theme park. There were maps, a small train to take us to the sights, and little fast food kiosks dotted around. We ventured out on a giant walkway over the top of the waterfalls and peered over a viewpoint at what is known as the “devil’s throat”. The waterfalls were truly amazing from this perspective – there was water as far as the eye could see – and we walked around in awe.

Our first glimpse of the falls

Shane peeping out over devil’s throat

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the various trails in the park, taking in the waterfalls from different perspectives. It’s hard to convey the sense of scale in pictures, but we took plenty anyway, and the waterfalls seemed to go on forever. The views just kept getting better with every corner we turned.

The park itself was also stunning. It was set amongst beautiful rainforest, with wildlife around every corner. We did have to watch out for the mischevious coatis – raccoon-like animals – which might have looked cute to unsuspecting visitors but which frequently stole food and, if provoked, would bite humans and pass on their rabies.

Image result for coatis at iguazu falls


Despite the presence of the coatis, we had a phenomenal day exploring the views of Iguazu Falls. While the wildlife on the Galapagos Islands was unique, Machu Picchu was magnificent and the salt flats were out-of-this-world, visiting Iguazu Falls was the highlight of my trip to South America. We had a blast white water rafting, learning to tango and eating huge volumes of steak in Argentina, but I must admit that I couldn’t wait to get to Brazil, just to see the waterfalls again from a whole new perspective.

Cheating death in Bolivia

For anyone who is settling down to read another one of Georgia’s well-written and accurate descriptions of our journey, I’m sorry. This time it’s my turn to write the blog. I don’t have a degree in English but hopefully with a little effort from me and a little editing from Georgia, you’ll be able to read this.

The last chapter of our adventure was our trek to Machu Picchu. After this we had one final stop before we left Peru for Bolivia; a visit to Lake Titicaca. It is the largest lake in South America, and at 3,800 metres above sea level, it is the highest navigable lake in the world. It was believed to be where the sun originated and is also considered to be the birthplace of the Inca people. In the local language “titi” translates as “puma”, and viewed from above the lake does resemble the shape of a puma, although it is not known how the ancient Inca people could have realized the lake was that shape.

After spending one night in the nearby town of Puno on the edge of the lake, we woke up early to take a boat out to visit the lake and some of the islands. First we visited the floating islands; small islands not far from Puno made entirely from reed beds. The islands had a spongy feel because of the various layers of reeds, and if a boat passed nearby at speed, the whole island would rock. We visited a number of the houses on one of the islands and although the island, the houses, the mattresses, and pretty much everything was made from reeds, they still managed to have TVs and satellite dishes powered by solar panels, so could keep up to speed with the world cup.

We also watched some traditional weaving and crafts, went for a short trip on a traditional boat (made from reeds) and learnt about the local way of life. We also learnt about the continuous construction of the islands, which sounded exhausting. New reeds have to be added to the top of the islands constantly, and the islands can last about thirty years, after which a new island has to be constructed. While it seemed like a lot of effort just to maintain a place to live, there were some obvious advantages, such as being able to hide from Spanish invaders in the past, or these days just floating away if you fell out with your neighbours.

While interesting, the islands also had a very touristy feel, and it was difficult to get a sense of how much of the way of life we saw was ‘real’ and how much was a kind of performance for visitors. While tourism no doubt provides a valuable source of income for the people of the floating islands, it must also cause a fair amount of damage to these precarious places. Overall, while Georgia thought living on a floating reed island seemed like more hassle than it was worth, I think they could provide a nicer, cheaper alternative place to live than some of the unfinished redbrick apartments in the nearby town of Puno.

Floating reed island in Lake Titicaca

Taking a small, traditional reed boat around the islands

Learning about life on an island made of reeds

After the floating islands we continued on our boat trip to the island of Amantani, where we were going to stay the night with a local family. Once we arrived on the island we were divided up between houses and introduced to our new “mothers” who would be looking after us for the next 24 hours.

Amantani was a natural island rather than a floating island made of reeds, with more substantial houses and infrastructure (though no cars), and plenty of space for tourists. Our room was basic but had lights, and lots of blankets for the cold night at altitude. The food was largely potato-based (in fact one meal consisted of five different potatoes, one of which looked like a grub) and was tasty with lots of coca, mint or wild lemon tea to wash it down. Coca tea is drunk a lot in Peru, but as it’s a source of cocaine it is illegal in many other countries and just one cup of tea could cause you to fail a drug test.

In the evening we climbed to a temple at the highest point of the island where we watched the sunset, and then got dressed up in some traditional clothes in the evening to participate in some local dancing.

The next morning, after breakfast, we returned to our boat and said goodbye to our temporary mothers. We then stopped at another nearby island and enjoyed a walking tour with stunning views, which finished in the main square of a small town. Once again we had an opportunity to buy various knitted and woven items, although on the island the men completed most of the knitting. Over lunch we learnt how the men court the women based on the quality of a hat they have to knit. The knit has to be so fine that the hat will hold water when filled.

Lake views

Watching the sunset from Amantani island

James, Shane, Georgia, Ryan, Holly, Will, Jess and Andrea

Climbing up to see the view

Georgia ready for the cold

Andrea, Holly, Jess and Georgia in their traditional clothes

Great views of the milky way

Once we’d completed our island tour and said goodbye to Puno, we continued to drive along the banks of Lake Titicaca passing trout fisheries and small villages until we reached the border with Bolivia.

Apart from a tourist bus, which crossed before us, the border was completely deserted. The buildings were brand new, and it looked ready to deal with ten buses at a time, but apart from us there was no one else. It was a relatively quick and straightforward crossing, and then we continued straight to the sprawling city of La Paz, described by Jeremy Clarkson when he visited as “horrible, dirty and too high up.”

The city is on two levels and moving between them is like driving off the side of the cliff. The city centre is at 3,650 metres above sea level, while the second part of the city (El Alto, meaning “high”) is at 4,150 metres. To get between the levels you can either take a taxi or bus down steep, twisty roads with many switchbacks, or get one of the public cable cars, which are very modern and good value at around 30p per ride.

Flattering view of La Paz from El Alto

Jeremy Clarkson and the Top Gear crew were in Bolivia to drive the Death Road, otherwise known as the The World’s Most Dangerous Road. We were also here to see the road but instead of driving we were going to cycle down it. The cycle would start at 4,700m surrounded by snow down to 1,100m into a tropical jungle. This is the main reason I am writing this blog, as Georgia did not feel her cycling skills were up to it. She did still travel down the road in a minibus, which might have been even scarier. On a bike you have to trust yourself, while in a bus, you have to trust the snacking, fidgeting, distracted driver.

The World’s Most Dangerous Road is a narrow, rough track on the edge of a mountain, which used to be the only road joining La Paz to the north of Bolivia. Lots of trucks, buses and cars have collided and / or plunged over the edge, and around 300 people used to die either on or falling off the road each year. While normal driving in Bolivia (as elsewhere in South America) is on the right, on this one particular very dangerous stretch of road, the rules switch and driving is on the left. This is to allow the driver to lean out of the window to see where the edge of the road is when meeting other traffic, but adds an extra ounce of confusion to an already dangerous road.

In recent years the traffic on the road has dramatically reduced. The government have built a new road which now handles the traffic going to and from La Paz, leaving the “death road” quieter for crazy tourists like me.

On the morning of the cycle we drove one hour from La Paz, put on all our gear, (jackets, gloves, helmets and optional knee and elbow protection), tried our dual suspension bikes out for size and had a quick pedal around a car park. Once we were all ready, with go-pros in place and saddle-heights adjusted, we formed a circle and listened to instructions from our guide. The main rule: “don’t be an idiot”. Cycling the death road is not straightforward and carries certain obvious risks. While bikes are much narrower than trucks, there is still a 400+ metre drop and the road conditions and surface are still poor. There have been around 30 recorded deaths from cycling over the last few years, which is a lot, but also a lot less than the numbers who die on the roads in the U.K. every year.

We were given our rules, promised not to do anything stupid, and were then given 96% alcohol to drink. Yes, that’s right, we were about to cycle down the “Death Road”, but here we were drinking alcohol.

In fact the alcohol is not meant to be used for getting drunk; it’s a ritual, which is done to appeal to the ancient gods and ensure our safe return after the cycling. We had to pour a little on our bikes, a little on the ground and have a sip. I hoped that good bikes and common sense would get us down safely, but there was no harm in a little extra help.

The first section of our cycle was a tarmac road. It was all downhill, and so we went very fast, as fast as the bikes could go. The only things that slowed us down were the wind and a little bit of fear.

There were some bends, which I did have to slow down for, as well as bumps in the tar, trucks to pass, sections in the shade and some in bright morning sunlight. We had regular stops to regroup on the way down. All was going well, and we stopped for photos at a viewpoint. This was the first time we really became aware of what we were about to do, as even at this viewpoint there were about 8-10 crosses, and we had not even reached the death road yet.

Warm-up cycling on the tarmac

After this point we had some more fast downhill sections, and it was on one of these that the first accident of the day occurred. Will’s bike started to wobble, the front wheel snapped sideways, Will went over the handlebars and slid for about 40 metres. Thankfully there was no drop off the edge here. Traffic behind started backing up, and Andrea had to make an emergency stop and also went over the handlebars. Once the traffic moved off it became obvious that Will was hurt. Andrea was bruised, but was able to continue riding, while both Will and his bike were clearly injured.


After some discussion it was decided that Will should go to hospital and an ambulance arrived to transport him back to La Paz. There were mixed emotions in the group as some were worried about continuing, and everyone was worried about Will. It was a huge shock, and it slowed the pace down before the next section: the start of the Death Road.

As we arrived at the start, we saw a twisty, wet, rocky path snaking alongside a cliff. The road was shrouded in cloud, and while we could see a sheer drop, the view was obscured with mist, which gave the place an even more ominous feel. “If you go over the edge”, the guide warned, “we do have ropes, but they are only 100 metres long”. Not much use if you fall 400 metres down. We geared up again, our bikes were checked over to ensure they were all working correctly and set off into the mist down the mountain. The speed was good and as I do like mountain biking I really enjoyed it, and it wasn’t long before we were passing other groups.

Ready for the Death Road

At the same time we still had to be careful. Right hand bends were tricky because if you came off or couldn’t make the turn you would go over into the abyss. On left hand bends there was a risk of hitting the cliff wall or an oncoming car or motorbike. Thankfully, during our full day of cycling we were lucky enough not to meet a truck.

We had a few more slips and slides from the group on the way down and another bike out of action, but in the end we all made it down safely. The ride finished at a rescue centre for wild animals where we had a tasty meal and watched the photos from our day’s exploits. Apart from some sore arms (from the continuous vibrations) sore bums and a few bruises we all made it back in a good mood.

On the edge

Speeding along

A particularly nasty spot where others have perished

So now you may be wondering, what about Will? Later in the evening a few of us went to the hospital to bring him some clothes and items. He had a broken his collar bone and would require surgery to have a plate fitted. This was scheulaed to happen the following day and he was in good spirits. At the time of writing is back with the group but will have to stay in a sling for a number of weeks.

While Death Road was the highlight of La Paz, we also spent some time exploring the city. We went on a walking tour where we saw the prison made famous by the book Marching Powder, learnt that it was once the producer of the finest cocaine anywhere in the world and, importantly, were told that we shouldn’t take a tour of the prison (these are not officially offered any more, and recently some tourists ended up locked in until they agreed to pay prison guards a few hundred dollars to let them go). We also visited the witches market, which had a number of dead llamas and llama fetuses as offerings to the gods. We learnt that when someone wants to build a house they bury a llama in the foundations to protect the house in the future. When someone wants to build a bigger building (such as a large hotel maybe), they bury a human alive as an offering. Hopefully this is just an urban legend, but apparently there have been human bones discovered in the foundations of many large, old buildings…

Llama fetuses at the witches market

We also enjoyed a trip on the famous cable car, visiting the El Alto area of La Paz for a view. Trying to get on an escalator to the cable car proved to be an interesting experience, as crowds of people gathered at the entrance to the escalator, seemingly unsure of what to do or where to go. While at first this was a little frustrating, we then realized that it was because many of the local residents had never seen or used an escalator before! On our last evening in La Paz we went out to a delicious steak restaurant for a group dinner, as we were saying goodbye to Hattie. After two weeks of struggling on through illness, Hattie was going to rest and recover at home.

Views from the cable car

The hanging mannequin acts as a warning: this is a “neighbourhood watch” area of La Paz where the police will not visit. The residents police it themselves and this is what they will do to you if you commit a crime!

The next day we left La Paz and drove to the famous Uyuni salt flats, where the land is flat and white from salt as far as the eye can see. We headed onto the salt flats early in the morning in two 4x4s. The salt was very smooth to drive on and it wasn’t long that people were drifting off to sleep in the cars! Our first main stop was the cactus island, near the centre of the salt flats. This was an island in the middle of the sea of white, which was covered in cacti, some of which were 900 years old. We climbed to the top of the island for a magnificent view. 10,000 kilometers of salt stretched all around us.

Cactus island in the middle of the salt flats

After this we had time to use the expanse of salt to play with perspective and take some obligatory tick photos, then visit a hotel made of salt. The trip finished at a train graveyard where many of the steam trains, which were used in Bolivia, have just been parked up and left to rust at the edge of the salt flats.

Looking salty

Shane, James, Georgia, Andrea, Marisa and Holly recreating the stages of evolution

The dinosaur is coming, everyone is terrified

Squishing the rest of the group


Flags of the world

Dakar monument

Trains stuck in the ground at the train graveyard


From the salt flats we went to laugh in the face of danger again, as we visited the most dangerous mountain in the world. You may have thought that the most dangerous mountain in the world was Mount Everest, or maybe K2, but in fact it is Potosi in south Bolivia, and not from people climbing it but from people going inside it. This mountain, which towers above the city has been mined for five hundred years, and it is said that enough silver was removed from the mountain by the Spanish that a bridge could be built from Potosi all the way to Spain. Over the years it is believed that nine million people have died inside the mountain. The mountain is shrinking every year due to cave-ins, and the government have stopped mining operations due to safety concerns, but mining still continues today. After a lot of thought, discussion and investigation as to the safety of the mine (there is a lot of toxic gas in the air, and a risk of a cave-in is real), we decided to do a tour of the mines.

The tour started with us getting suited up in waterproof overalls, helmets and torches. We then headed to the miner’s market and a small shop where we could buy coca leaves, alcohol, and dynamite, and get some gifts for the miners we would be meeting. As it was Friday, it was suggested that we buy them a bag of coca leaves, a bottle of 96% alcohol and some fizzy orange to mix it with, as many drink early on a Friday to celebrate the end of the week. A stick of dynamite could also be bought for 20 bolivianos (about 6$).

Stick of dyanmite

Not far from the entrance to the mine, there was a statue of El Pio or uncle. This is a human type figure with the head of the devil and a large manhood. He was decorated with brightly coloured flags and coca leaves. Here we learned the daily tradition of giving offerings to the gods, which included sipping alcohol and pouring some on the ground, as well as letting the statue smoke a cigarette.

After this was done (it didn’t fill us with anymore confidence going into the mine!) we started to progress deeper into the mountain. We didn’t have to go far before we saw broken supporting timbers and parts of the tunnel where the timber overhead had already buckled with the weight. In many of the tunnels you were unable to stand up straight, had to splash through puddles and crouch down. After a while we were introduced to some miners who stopped working to sit with us and tell us about the mine and how long they have worked there.

Going in

We then headed deeper into the mine and had to move to a lower level, climbing down ladders or using rocks. Will had joined us for the tour and although many of these maneuvers were tricky for someone with two working arms he managed quite well just one. From here we went to where miners were working, covered in dust from head to toe. As we climbed further in, we started to feel and hear the first explosions. The whole tunnel began to shake, and the blasts continued. The guide said the explosions were happening around 100 metres above our head, but they create so much dust that work in the mines can’t continue for a number of hours.


Meeting the workers


After more moving from tunnel to tunnel we were (to some people’s relief) told to follow a set of tracks, which would lead us out into daylight. After walking for nearly a kilometer through the darkness and crouching in tight spaces we eventually saw daylight. After nearly two hours underground it was nice to be able to breath the fresh air and not dust! For the people who live down the mine this must be a great relief after up to 14 hours of working in the mines.

We left the mine and headed back to the town where we got to remove all our protective clothing and become normal tourists again.

That night, as I hadn’t seen Georgia for the day, we decided to go out for dinner and found a really nice restraint which was named after the height of the town and planned our visit to some of the sights of the city the next morning. We had time to visit the city’s mint in which millions of coins were forged and sent all over South America. The tour was interesting and much of the building and equipment remained intact. Rather than replace the existing equipment they seemed to just install the new equipment in a different area. It also helped that as they progressed from mule-powered production to steam-powered production to electricity-powered production the size of the equipment also reduced.

Views of Potosi

The mint

On leaving Potosi we headed towards the Argentinian border and had one bush camp along the road on a dry riverbed with some bulls which looked on with intrigue as we put up our tents.

We left Bolivia after only one short week, but our time was packed with adrenaline, history and salt. Despite the fact that the Lonely Planet describes Bolivia as “a country that should never have existed”, and La Paz as a “gritty city of diesel, dust and detritus which amazes and appalls all who enter”, we had some very memorable experiences of a different kind. At the same time, we couldn’t help but look forward to steak, wine and a calmer time in Argentina. Thank you Bolivia, for letting us avoid death and allowing us to pass through safely.


The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail is probably the most famous trek in South America, winding up and down the Andes mountains, through coud forests and Inca ruins, and ending at the spectacular once-forgotten city of Machu Picchu.

The Inca Trail is also carefully controlled by the Peruvian government. Only 500 people each day (including guides and porters) are allowed to start the trail, and permits are issued to tour operators on a first-come, first-served basis. The most popular time to hike the trail is between June and August, and while Oasis trips from Quito to Rio usually include the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, by the time we booked our trip in February, the permits for the Inca Trail were long gone.

We weren’t the only ones out of luck. From our group only Holly and Hattie booked far enough in advance to secure a permit. For Andrea, James, Jess, Marisa, Ryan, Will, Shane and I, an alternative trail was offered: the Salkantay Trek. While this isn’t as iconic as the famous Inca Trail, the premise is similar (a difficult, mountain-based walk to Machu Picchu), and what it lacks in Inca ruins along the way it makes up for with spectacular views, variety and tranquility.

With the Lonely PLanet describing the Salkantay Trek as “incredibly demanding”, featuring several days of solid walking and reaching heights of 4,600 metres above sea level, it’s fair to say I was a little worried. Trekking to Machu Picchu isn’t compulsory – it is possible to get the train straight there from Cuzco – but I couldn’t help feeling that I should participate in the trek. Partly because it was included in our Oasis trip, partly because I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that taking the train was somehow cheating, and partly because I knew that even my Dad had managed to complete the Inca Trail a few years ago. I mean, if my Dad could do it, how hard could it be?


We arrived in Cuzco with a day to spare before we started our trek. It also happened to be Shane’s birthday.

In the morning we met our guide, Christian, who would be with us all the way from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. He gave us an outline of the trek, told us what to bring, gave us a special duffel bag (which we could fill with seven kilograms of our belongings, and which would be carried by horses), and answered our many questions.

We then started to pack our bags, venturing to the local market in Cuzco to repair and replace Shane’s only pair of walking trousers. In the afternoon Shane led Andrea, James and I on a walking tour of Cuzco. We visited various churches and cathedrals, the trendy San Blas area, an old Inca temple (knocked down by the Spanish and now also a church), and watched a parade marching through the square. In the evening we went out for a group dinner to celebrate Shane’s birthday, but headed to bed early in preparation for an early start to our trek the next day.

Historic Cuzco

Celebrating Shane’s birthday



Christian came to pick us up at 4.30am. We drove for two hours to the town of Mollepata, where we were dropped off at a restaurant for breakfast and it quickly became apparent that Jess was quite unwell. Christian told us we had 20 minutes for breakfast, but the service was so slow (even by South American standards) that after 20 minutes no one had even managed to place an order. Eventually we had to give up, and after some bread, some coffee and some trips to the toilet (mainly for Jess), we bundled back into the minibus and drove for another hour to Saraypampa to start our trek.

It wasn’t a great start for me. As soon as we started walking I realised (not that it came as a surprise) that (apart from Jess who was suffering), I was the slowest person in our group by quite a large margin. I knew that Andrea was super fit from her intense army training, and that Will had recently run the San Francisco marathon in a speedy time, and that everyone apart from Shane was significantly younger than me, but their pace still came as a bit of a shock.

Climbing up (slowly)

Alpacas at the bottom

Views on the way up

The first part of the trek involved a 900 metre climb up to the Salkantay pass at 4,650 metres. As the others bounded up the mountain I tried to run in order to keep up. Obviously that didn’t work, and I quickly found myself worn out and frustrated.

Climbing through snow and ice

Shane stayed at the back with me and murmured encouraging words, as I slowly plodded up the mountain. While the air became thinner with every step we climbed, the views also became more beautiful and dramatic. Rivers turned to ice around us as we climbed higher and higher, and after about three hours of climbing we reached the Salkantay pass at 4,650 metres. The sun was bright, the views of Mount Salkantay were spectacular, and even though I was the slowest to reach the top (apart from Jess who had ended up riding a horse called Fecundo), I still felt a great sense of achievement. I also felt a huge sense of relief; it was all downhill from here.

At the top

Love at 4,650 metres

Our group

Downhill didn’t mean a slower pace though. As the group rushed down the mountain, I slipped on the rocks and gravel trying to keep up. At one point I ended up at the back of the group,  flat on my back and unable to get up. I felt like a tortoise, with my head dangling over the edge of the path. I had to wait for Shane to realise I was gone and to come back and help me in order to continue.

By this time it was about 1.30pm, and after a very early start , no real breakfast to speak of and a lot of walking, the whole group was starving. Christian reassured as that lunch was a mere half an hour away, and we continued to walk and slide down the hill.

What goes up…

On the way down

Valley views

Of course, “half an hour” never actually means half an hour in South America. What it actually means is “at some point in the future, probably at least an hour or two from now, you may get lunch”. In our hunger and tiredness, we had forgotten this crucial fact, and so were quite disappointed when half an hour came and went, and there was no sign of lunch on the horizon. We had no choice but to continue climbing down into the valley, and eventually, maybe an hour and a half later, met Christian. He pointed at a small building a long way off in the distance: “Lunch!”

Once we arrived at the lunch stop, the food was quick and delicious. We had a vegetable soup followed by lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian stir fry with marinated strips of beef with onions, tomatoes and rice. It was delicious, and gave us a renewed sense of energy, ready for the next stage of the journey.

The only problem was, we had a lot further to go than we thought. Christian had told us it would take three hours to get to the top of the mountain pass, and then three or four hours to get from the top down to our campsite in Chaullay. It had indeed taken us three hours to get to the top, but we had been walking downhill for nearly two hours, and yet still had another three or four hours of walking to go. “We’d better get going”, Christian nudged. “If we leave now we can get there by 6.30.” Great.

I was already exhausted, but with no option but to continue, I found my headphones, grabbed my walking poles, put on Beyonce and marched as quickly as I could towards the campsite. At this point I think it’s fair to say that I had stopped really enjoying the scenery or the surroundings – I just wanted to finish the day’s walking.

As a group we were managing a good speed – walking around one kilometer every ten minutes – but as the path narrowed, the drop steepened and the light began to disappear, it was getting harder and harder to walk without fear of falling off the edge. The last three kilometers seemed to last a lifetime, and we couldn’t believe we still hadn’t got to the end. As it got darker and darker, I began to worry. What if Christian’s “it will take three hours” was another example of South American timing, and we were nowhere near the campsite? What if the light disappeared completely and we all plunged over the edge of the path to our deaths?

Thankfully, we eventually spotted Christian and the rest of the group in the distance. We’d made it to the campsite in the nick of time, and could look forward to some food and rest.

The campsite in the village of Chaullay was nicer than we had been expecting. There was electricity, wifi (for a fee), and we arrived to find our tents had been put up for us with our mattresses inside. Our belongings were by our tents, and it didn’t take us long to retrieve our sleeping bags and get ready for bed.

We were treated to some hot drinks, popcorn, and a delicious dinner, and we fell asleep as early as we could, ready for another early start in the morning and another day of walking.



On paper, day two should have been much easier than day one. With no mountains to scale and a much shorter total distance to walk, Christian promised we would be finished in just five hours, and would have the afternoon to relax in the hot springs in the small town of Santa Teresa.

Perhaps it would have been easier if my legs hadn’t felt like jelly and my feet didn’t hurt so much that I wanted to cry. As it was, I hobbled along with the rest of the group, down into the valley, and across a flimsy bridge to the other side of the river. To be fair to Christian, the first few kilometers weren’t too bad – we followed a wide path, the views were beautiful and the weather was warming up. Once we crossed the river though, the path began to snake up and downhill, sometimes steeply, the mosquitoes began to bite, and at times the path was so narrow and uneven that I had to hold on to rocks on the edge to stop myself falling to my death.

Crossing bridges

The rest of the group appeared unchallenged by any of this, and once again they bounded off into the distance. I now found myself unable to keep up at all. If I tried to go faster, I risked tripping and falling off the edge. If I tried to slow down, I risked getting further and further behind the rest of the group.

Thankfully, the rest of the group waited at a nearby tree house so I could catch up, and we managed to finish the walk without any further mishaps or near-death experiences.

After a delicious lunch of ceviche, fried chicken and rice, we were driven to Santa Teresa, the small village where we would be camping, and taken to the local hot springs to soothe our sore muscles.

In the evening we reluctantly danced around a campfire with Christian and two other groups who were also taking the Salkantay route. The quality of the music left a lot to be desired, but we did our best to take part by demonstrating our knowledge of the Macarena dance routine (about five times), and making up our own dance moves (such as pretending to be a condor) to some local latin tunes. Once again, we were exhausted, and with the exception of Ryan who stayed up late into the night, we headed to our tents as early as we could, and put in our ear plugs to block out the noises of other people having fun.



We started the day with a welcome break from walking. Instead, we went ziplining. For just 100 Peruvian soles (about £25) we were able to zip over the river and back again several times, at significant height and speed. A terrifying walk over a huge rickety suspension bridge and rock climbing was also included, and we made the most of everything on offer.


After a couple of hours of zipline fun, we remembered that we still had to finish our trek, and were taken to Hydroelectrica, a nearby train station where we would start our day’s walking. After lunch we began our “it’s only three hours” walk.

The walk along the train tracks wasn’t difficult, but our feet and legs were tired. As we neared Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu, we bumped into more and more people on our walk. We caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu in the mountains, and enjoyed some green views around us, but once again I was too tired to really appreciate it.

Dodging the trains on day three

Army Andrea

We continued to dodge more people and more trains as we got closer and closer. Eventually I saw some small buildings nestled in the mountains in the distance. “Aguas Calientes”, Christian said, and pointed ahead. We were almost there, and I couldn’t have been happier to get to the end.

In the evening we were reunited with Hattie, who had been stuck in hospital in Arequipa and acclimatising in Cuzco, and hadn’t been able to complete the Inca Trail. She didn’t seem in a particularly good state, but we managed to get her to the nearby restaurant where we all enjoyed a delicious three course meal (including steak!), which was all included in the trek.

Enjoying a well-earned meal in Aguas Calientes

That night we stayed in the nicest hotel we have seen for a while (again, included in the Salkantay Trek), and prepared ourselves for yet another early morning. This time, to see Machu Picchu.



We woke up at 4am, got dressed in warm clothes, and headed down to reception ready to meet Christian at 4.30am and get in the queue for the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. Despite the fact that the first bus wasn’t due to leave until at least 5.30am, the queue for the bus was already lengthy, so Marisa got a head start on the rest of the group and saved us a place.

Having spent so much time in the middle of nowhere on the trek, it was strange to see so many people in such a small town. It was even stranger to see them all up at 4.30 in the morning, and jostling for places in the queue for the bus. We eventually met Christian and most of the rest of the group in the queue, and firmed up our place. After a while, we realised we were missing Will and Ryan, so Christian went up to their room to look for them. Sometime later they emerged, and confessed to over-sleeping, which wasn’t all that surprising after three long days of trekking. Eventually people started to pile on to the buses. We all squished on, and patiently waited as the bus climbed up the mountain to the entrance to Machu Picchu.

Once we reached the entrance, we found another, less orderly queue, and did our best to move slowly through it into the site. As we waited, Christian warned us we might want to use the toilets, as there were none inside Machu Picchu, and (as of the 1st of July 2018), our tickets only allowed us to enter the site once. If we needed the toilet and had to leave the site, we wouldn’t be allowed back in. Our tickets were valid from 6am to 12pm, which seemed a long time to go without using the loo, but with no other choice we took some last toilet breaks and then headed inside.

Hattie was still feeling poorly, so Andrea and Will took it in turns to give her a piggy back to the top of the site, where we watched the sun rise and took some photos. We then followed Christian on a semi-guided tour of Machu Picchu, where we learnt that the city was built around 1450-1460, was home to around 750 people, and was abandoned in around 1520, during the Spanish invasion of what is now Peru.

Although it is located only 80 kilometres from the Inca capital in Cuzco, the Spanish never found Machu Picchu. Over the years, the site was overgrown with jungle, and very few people outside the area knew it existed. It wasn’t re-discovered until the 1900s, when a local farmer came across the ruins. In 1911 American explorer Hiram Bingham brought national attention to the site, and since then it has been cleared, excavated, declared a “historic sanctuary” by Peru, a “World Heritage site” by UNESCO, and most recently, one of the ‘new’ “seven wonders of the world”, by the public.

The iconic view

We made it!

Christian led us around some of the sites on his tour, and then bid us farewell. Andrea headed off to climb one of the neighbouring peaks, Machu Picchu mountain, and the rest of us looked for somewhere to sit and take it all in. It was during this little rest period that one person in the group (who shall remain nameless) began to feel suddenly unwell. With the ONLY toilet back outside the entrance to the site, no easy way to get in or out, and the urge building, immediate action had to be taken.

Chilling at the edge of Machu Picchu

There is no easy or polite way to write this. One member of the group had to do a poo ON Machu Picchu. Yes, the “wonder of the world” that is Machu Picchu now contains a poo on one of its many terraces. “So I left some of my DNA on Machu Picchu”, our friend said, trying to make light of the horror that had just unfolded. As soon as our friend felt well enough,  we moved from our spot and tried to get ourselves through the rest of the site as quickly and discretely as possible.

A little time passed before our friend started to feel very unwell again, and had to be sick. Again, ON Machu Picchu. By this point it was clear that we needed to leave, but the extensive, one-way system around the ruins made it difficult to make a quick exit. We did our best to find our way out, and took a bus back to Aguas Calientes.

Once back in the town, a few of us (not the Machu Picchu DNA dropper) found somewhere to eat and watch England narrowly beat Colombia at football. All was going well until we got the bill, and realised the had been charged an additional 20% ‘service charge’ which wasn’t mentioned anywhere on the menu, and given the generally appalling service (sadly usual for South America), the already exhorbitant prices, and the limited amount of money left in our wallets, we weren’t too happy about it.

Will argued for a long time, but ended up paying it in the end. Then Shane ended up arguing about it for even longer, and refused to pay it. “It’s a gringo tax”, Shane whispered to Will, “basically a scam”, so Will went back to try and retrieve his money. “I don’t want to pay gringo tax”, he said, and after a long, drawn-out argument, which mainly involved Will standing there and the waitresses ignoring him, somehow, he got his money back. After that, no one paid the gingo tax, and eventually Shane and Holly were asked to leave the restaurant.

With Christian long gone, and two members of our group (Hattie plus the Machu Picchu DNA dropper) quite unwell, it was a little stressful finding our way on to the train, and then the bus back to Cuzco. The train wasn’t exactly the speediest mode of transport, taking about two hours to travel less than 50 kilometres, but the mountain views were pretty and free snacks were provided.

Big windows on the train

We then faced into a two hour bus ride, where we managed to sing songs continuously all the way back to Cuzco. Once we arrived it was getting late. We checked in, grabbed some painfully slow ‘fast food’ from a local takeaway, and headed to bed.

It took four days, two 4am starts, 100,000 steps, one high mountain pass, and one emergency poo on an ancient Inca site, but somehow we survived the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. Despite the leisurely trips to the hot springs and the ziplining, as well as the hotel stay in Aguas Calientes (none of which occurs on the classic Inca Trail), I still found the four day trek very challenging. Getting up early, scaling mountains and walking for what felt like days on end did not come naturally to me, but I am pleased I got to see Machu Picchu, and that I took the scenic route.

While spectacular, Machu Picchu risks becoming a giant toilet if the Peruvian government fails to provide adequate facilities or re-think its policy on ‘one entrance’ only. If nothing changes, the once celebrated Machu Picchu may well become something else entirely. Machu Poochu, perhaps.






Having a sandy time in Peru

As we left Ecuador behind and entered Peru, the landscape began to change dramatically. The green, mountainous terrain fell away and we descended into a dry and sandy desert. Our first impressions of Peru were not overly positive; it seemed grey, barren and covered with rubbish. We drove along the coast, and eventually stopped at a beach near Punta Sal, a fairly isolated and chilled out spot where we put up our tents and watched the sunset.

Camping on the beach near Punta Sal

Recreating the ‘Simba Circle of Life’ moment from the Lion King

Our next stop in Peru was the town of Mancora, which was also by the beach but much less chilled out. We stayed at ‘party’ hostel Loki del Mar, where every other hour was happy hour and two super-strength cocktails cost 10 soles (about £2.30). With little to see and do around the town, a few of the girls decided to take part in the daily volleyball competition, and were rewarded for their efforts with copious amounts of alcohol.

Marisa, Jess, Andrea and Holly drinking between rounds of volleyball

Over the years I have had many terrible alcohol related experiences (and some really terrible hangovers), and as a result I don’t drink particularly often these days, but with very little else going on and very cheap drinks available, it seemed as though the best course of action was to embrace the party atmosphere and have a couple of cocktails. Giant games of jenga and a UV party inevitably followed, and at one point I found myself dancing with the local drug dealer. Thanks to Shane I made a quick escape, but there was still plenty of drama that night as certain members of our Oasis group took advantage of their single status (and took advantage of the availability of certain substances, thanks to said drug dealer) and mingled with the other hostel guests. I think it’s fair to say that no one got too much sleep that night.

The next day we had to get up early for a long drive day to the town of Huanchaco. According to google maps, the drive was about 600 kilometres, and should have taken about nine hours, but we were travelling in a 17-tonne truck and averaged about 50 kilometres an hour on a good day. The chaos of the night before meant we inevitably set off late, and then around half an hour into our drive, Holly discovered she had left her camera behind at the hostel in Mancora. We turned around, retrieved the camera, and started our very long drive all over again. It was a very long day with a lot of very hungover passengers.

We took advantage of a free day in Huanchaco to explore the Chan Chan ruins. With an area of 20 square kilometres, Chan Chan is the largest mud brick city in the world. We took a guided tour of the site and enjoyed looking at the carvings in the mud bricks, which resembled pelicans, fish and various other animals, and learning about what life would have been like 700 years ago in Chan Chan.

In the afternoon, we visited a local shopping centre to stock up on supplies, and managed to stumble across a large group of people watching Peru play Denmark in the World Cup on a big screen. Unfortunately Peru didn’t win, but that didn’t seem to dent the excitement of those watching, who erupted in huge cheers every time Peru took possession of the ball. Back at base, some members of our group made the most of Huanchaco’s reputation as ‘surfer’s paradise’ by renting a couple of boards, and Hattie discovered a new talent for surfing.

Fish patterns at the Chan Chan ruins

Watching Peru not win the World Cup

Hattie making it look easy

From Huanchaco we had two days of driving to Lima, the capital city of Peru. We broke the drive with a bush camp by the beach, where we had a BBQ, watched the sunset and toasted marshmallows by the fire. Shane and I also climbed a nearby hill to check out the view, which started off well but resulted in me breaking my one and only pair of flip flops, meaning I am now down to one pair of shoes for the rest of the trip.

Lima itself did not help to improve my overall impression of Peru. With a reputation for being dangerous, boring and ugly, my expectations weren’t high. As we drove through the dirty and dusty streets, Lima didn’t seem particularly inspiring. We took a free walking tour of the city with the cute but perhaps not particularly knowledgeable Franco, where we learnt interesting facts about Lima, such as “people like to dance”, and “you can get the train from here to Cuzco”. We saw various sights on our tour including the Palace of Pizarro and the train station, where were reminded once again that we could take the train out of Lima if we wanted to.

In the evening we met two new members of our group; 19 year old Will from Wiltshire and 21 year old Ryan from Northern Ireland. To welcome them to the group we decided to switch our names around (I introduced myself as “Holly”, while Shane became “James”), and invented some fictional background stories. I upped my age a bit, while Hattie (from now on known as “Mary”) pretended to be younger, and Shane and I introduced ourselves as her parents. Ryan didn’t buy this for one moment, and still thought I must be lying when I told him my real age (28).

The name-switch started off well, but quickly began to unravel when we took a taxi to Lima’s ‘Magic Water Show’ and the real Holly left her phone in the taxi. Some frantic whatsapp messages, phone calls and general panic followed, and both Will and Ryan sussed that we weren’t telling the complete truth about our names. Nevertheless, the ‘Magic Water Show’ turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in Lima, with elaborate water features and bright projections. We also had some fun when Ryan decided to lower the tone and climb into one of the fountains, and when we had to fit ten of us  (plus the taxi driver) into a seven-seater car on the way home. Once we arrived back at the hotel we had our faith in Lima restored when the taxi driver from earlier in the night came by to return Holly’s phone.

Andrea balancing in front of the water

Ryan giving in to peer pressure

We left Lima and drove further into the Peruvian desert. Our next stop was Huacachina, a small oasis surrounded by towering, dramatic sand dunes. Our whole group elected to take part in dune buggying and sandboarding across the dunes, which was far scarier than I anticipated. Our driver raced up and down huge sand dunes as fast as he could, and we screamed as we plunged over the edge. Sandboarding was even more terrifying; it involved lying on a small board and racing head first down some huge, steep sand dunes.

Our dune buggy

Will, Andrea, Hattie, James, me, Shane, Holly, Jess, Ryan and Marisa ready to board

Having a go at standing up

On one occasion I managed to come off the board, and lay in a crumpled heap on the ground. Will and Andrea had to come and pick me up and dust me off as there was sand everywhere, all over everything. Moments later the same thing happened to Hattie, who ended up vomiting sand because she swallowed so much. As the days passed after sandboarding I continued to find sand everywhere – in my ears, in my hair, in my clothes and between my toes.

Hattie eating sand

Once we’d had enough of the sand based adventure sports, we continued on our sandy trip to Nazca, famous for a series of large, ancient geometric figures marked in the sand. The Nazca Lines are made up of over 800 straight lines, 300 geometric figures and 70 animal and plant drawings. They are estimated to have been created between 500 BCE and 500 AD, but at up to 370 metres long, they are best seen from the air.

The Nazca Lines remain one of the world’s great archeological mysteries. No one knows who made them, or how or why they were made. One theory is that the Nazca people knew how to construct hot-air balloons, which allowed them to observe the lines from the air. Another idea isthat the lines formed a giant running track, and one particularly popular theory is that they are evidence of a visit from an alien civilization.

With a hefty price tag, a reputation for inducing motion sickness and a fatal crash occurring almost every year, Shane and I opted not to take a flight over the lines. Instead we climbed up a rickety tower in the middle of the desert to look over the ‘lizard’, the ‘tree’, and the ‘frog’, which cost only 2 soles (40p) when we managed to produce some fake student cards (thank you out of date EHIC). Marisa, Will, James and Ryan took one of the little planes and reported that it was a worthwhile experience.

View of the Nazca lines from the small metal tower

Spongebob (our truck) checking out the Nazca lines

From Nazca we continued our drive through the Peruvian desert, stopping for a guided tour of Chauchilla cemetery where observed various ancient mummies and bones. In the evening we bush camped on the beach, and said a final goodbye to the Pacific Ocean. The next time we see the sea we will be back at the Atlantic.

Mummies at Chauchilla cemetry

Sunset over our desert / beach bush camp

Eventually it was time to leave the desert (and sea level) behind us. We drove from the coast to Arequipa, Peru’s second most populous city. Set in the mountains at a height of 2,300 metres above sea level, Arequipa was prettier and more relaxed than Lima, and we quickly settled in to exploring the city. We took another free walking tour, visited the well preserved frozen body of an Inca girl who was killed at the top of a mountain as an offering to the Inca gods around 550 years ago (ice maiden Juanita) and enjoyed a delicious meal of alpaca to celebrate Marisa’s birthday.

Sunset over Arequipa

On our second day in Arequipa we decided to take a tour to “nearby” Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world, famed for being home to the Andean condor. As we had to get up at 3am and drive for four hours to get there, it turned out that Colca Canyon is actually not that close to Arequipa, and that a one-day tour from the city is not, in fact, particularly practical or desirable. We drove along some very twisty roads, up to a height of over 4,000 metres, and the result wasn’t pleasant. While the canyon and the condors were suitably spectacular, I got car sick, Jess got car sick, and Hattie got really sick. So sick, in fact, that she had to be taken by ambulance to hospital, where she remained for the next few days.

Watching condors fly over Colca Canyon

Views of Colca Valley

Spotted an alpaca!

Wearing an alpaca!

Leaving Hattie and our tour leader (Gayle) behind us in Arequipa, we continued our drive through the mountains to Cuzco, where we would start our trek to Machu Picchu. We took turns to sit with our driver (James) in the front of the truck, and bush camped at 4,000 metres in a disused quarry. That night Jess took control of the cooking, making a chilli so spicy that no one could stomach it. On the plus side, it warmed us up ahead of a night so cold that night that we were greeted to a layer of ice on the outside of our tents.

Meeting the locals on our way through

Watching out for llamas with driver James in the front of the truck

Bush camping in the mountains at 4,000m

After another long and winding drive day, we finally arrived in Cuzco, the historic centre of the Inca Empire, and our gateway to Machu Picchu. The dry, dusty desert was a distant memory and snow capped mountains, beautiful valleys and ancient Inca ruins beckoned as we prepared to start our trek to one of the new seven wonders of the world. While our first impressions of Peru were underwhelming, we were starting to see a different side to the country. Rather than a barren plane of sand, Peru is rich with history, natural wonders, and plenty of llamas.


Starting our South American road trip

In a move reminiscent of our early days together, Shane and I jumped on a big, square, yellow truck in the middle of Quito with eight complete strangers.

We had signed up for a ten-week overland trip with Oasis Overland, which would take us 7,000 kilometers from Quito, Ecuador to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Overlanding is a unique form of travelling. It involves cooking, camping and spending large amounts of time with a group of other people, which can be good or bad, depending on the people! We have taken overland trips before, and written about the pros and cons of overlanding here, but overall it is a good way to see a lot for very little money, and we were excited for a change from more traditional backpacking.

Before we joined our trip, we spent a couple of days of sightseeing in Quito. Having read numerous accounts of travellers being robbed and warnings about the high crime rate, I was feeling a little on edge. We tried to take sensible precautions – we took small amounts of cash with us (no phones and no credit cards), we didn’t walk around at night, and we read up on the various scams commonly used to separate tourists from their money. Luckily, we survived.

In fact, we really enjoyed our time in Quito. We took a free walking tour around the city where we met Marissa from Switzerland, who was also about to embark on the same overland truck with Oasis. We wandered around the old city, visited various churches, tried the local food and climbed up to a viewpoint where we enjoyed a panoramic view of the city and the mountains, followed by a torrential rain shower.

Views of Quito

Quito streets

In Quito

After a couple of days exploring Quito, we took a taxi from our hostel in the old town to a slightly ominous looking hotel in the new town, where we met our truck (named Spongebob  after its yellow colour and square shape), our tour leader Gayle, and driver James. The taxi ride in itself was an adventure, as the driver took us miles in the wrong direction, while claiming he knew exactly where we were going. Shane had to salvage the situation, and thanks to our trusty app and some interesting hand signals, he managed to help get us to our destination.

That night we met our fellow Oasis Overland passengers. It was a nice surprise to see Marissa again, and we also met Hattie, Holly and James (three nineteen year olds from Surrey taking some time out between school and university), Jess (a recent graduate from St Albans) and Andrea (a physiotherapist from North Wales with some time to spare between jobs). We were surprised by the lack of diversity in the group (almost everyone was under 30, and almost everyone was British), but with a small, cohesive group, we got to know each other quickly and easily.

The next day we hopped aboard Spongebob (our truck) and drove for a few hours to Otavalo, a town famous for its giant, colourful market. On the way we stopped at the equator, where we learned that the map of the world is the wrong way round, and took a few photos.

Having lunch by Spongebob

With Andrea, Jess, James, Hattie and Holly at the equator

In Otavalo we quickly set about discovering the market’s many treasures, and looking for clothes that would keep us warm in the mountains in the coming weeks. I managed to snag a huge pink blanket, a jumper and a wooly hat, while Shane found a beautiful blue rainbow poncho, all made from alpaca fur, and all for bargainous prices.

Shane, his poncho and his new friend from Otavalo market

The next day, Shane and the “kids” (Hattie, Holly, James, Jess and Andrea) went for a walk to a nearby waterfall, while I stayed at our hostel, hoping to recover from a tummy problem I’d been suffering with since Quito. Unfortunately no amount of rest or starvation seemed to fix me, so I trundled off to the pharmacy to buy some mystery antibiotics with the hope of curing myself before we headed into the Amazon rainforest.

Our accommodation in the heart of the jungle could only be reached by boat, so after a long drive, we left Spongebob at a riverbank and boarded a narrow dug-out canoe, which brought us along the river and eventually to our secluded jungle lodge. We met Tom, a cheerful American who now called the rainforest his home, and found our rooms in a wooden building, which looked a lot like a tree house. As ‘honeymooners’ (technically still true), Shane and I were given the nicest room at the top of the house, complete with its own bathroom, balcony and hammock. With no TV, no wifi and no other civilization nearby, it was lovely to relax on our balcony and listen to the sounds of the jungle all around us.

Travelling by boat

The next morning we embarked on our first jungle activity; a walk through the rainforest. This started off well, as we learnt about the different flora and fauna, and worked our way deeper into the jungle. We also saw a poisonous frog hopping around on the forest floor. However, at some point I started to feel unwell. It was now five days since I’d eaten a proper meal and I was feeling weak, dizzy and sweating buckets of liquid that I couldn’t afford to lose. Shane kindly offered to take me back, and as we left the group we ended up on our own special adventure, which involved hacking our way through the forest and destroying spider webs with sticks.

Later on, the rest of the group went back into the jungle to visit the local community and learn about an old way of life (including eating the local delicacies and witchetty grubs), while I continued to rest and recover back at the peaceful jungle lodge. By the evening, I was feeling much better, and was able to stay up while the rest of the group had a few drinks and a bit of bonding time.

The next day I felt well enough to join the rest of the group on the next jungle activity: a visit to the Amazonia rehabilitation centre, where various animals who had lived difficult lives were being looked after before they could be released back into the wild. We saw lots of beautiful birds; tucans, parrots and macaws, different species of monkey, and even some big cats roaming around.

Monkeying around in the Amazon rainforest

In the afternoon we went tubing down the river, which turned out to be a more relaxed affair than our most recent tubing adventures in Sumatra, and then came back to the jungle lodge for delicious food and more time to relax.

Tubing with James, Jess, Holly, Hattie, Andrea and Marissa

By this time, I was feeling a lot better, so by the time we reached our next stop (the town of Banos, famous for its hot springs, giant waterfalls and adventure sports), I could participate fully in the group’s activities.

Banos was the first place where we had to camp and cook for ourselves. Shane and I put up our tent, and then Andrea and I were the first “group” to cook. Luckily we were staying at a campsite, so we had full use of a kitchen, and managed to make a delicious lasagne for the rest of the group.

The next day we set out to tick the big Banos attractions off our list. We took a bus from the campsite to the centre of Banos, and then another bus to the top of a mountain, where we could “swing off the edge of the world”. For just $1, we were allowed into a park where we could take turns on various swings and ziplines. Swinging out from the top of a mist-covered mountain, the ground disappeared from below your feet, and it really did feel like you were swinging off the edge of the world.

Shane swinging off the edge of the world

As if that wasn’t enough of an adventure for one day, we then walked along a mountain ridge to another, bigger, scarier swing, which also involved swinging off the top of the mountain.

An even bigger swing off the edge of the world

We spent the rest of our time in Banos getting absolutely soaked visiting the different (and very impressive) waterfalls, and relaxing in the hot springs which made Banos famous. We even found time to indulge in some tasty guinea pig, a South American staple that we had all wanted to try. Thankfully it tasted better than it looked.


Yummy guinea pigs

Our final stop in Ecuador was the pretty and historic town of Cuenca. We arrived in Cuenca with little knowledge and no expectations of Ecuador’s third largest city, but were pleasantly surprised to find old, beautiful buildings, narrow, winding streets and flowers on every corner. We started our day in Cuenca with a free walking tour of the city, which allowed us to get our bearings and pick out the top sites we wanted to see.

After the walking tour we headed to the market, where we ate some delicious hog roast with potatoes and rice for lunch, and bought some even more delicious Ecuadorian chocolate. We also visited the Panama Hat museum (despite the name, Panama hats actually come from Ecuador), and the city’s cathedral, where we climbed the tower for an excellent view of the city.

Views of Cuenca

Flower market in Cuenca

After three fantastic weeks in Ecuador, it was time for a change of scenery. After fighting our way across the border (we had to contend with a large group attempting to push their way to the front of the very slow queue and a broken photocopier, which delayed the truck’s entrance), we noticed some dramatic changes as we arrived in Peru. The landscape looked much drier, the people seemed much poorer, cars had been replaced by tuk-tuks, and rubbish littered the side of the road. At the same time, people waved and shouted as Spongebob thundered down the road, and beautiful beaches beckoned in the distance.



The Galapagos Islands

Lying 1,000 kilometres to the west of mainland Ecuador are the Galapagos Islands. These volcanic islands are famous for being home to some interesting and unique species of wildlife, for inspiring Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution, and for being one of the most expensive places to visit in South America.

There was no getting around the cost of return flights from Quito (around $330 each), or the national park entry fees (another $120 each), but thanks to my friend Clare, who wrote a blog post about her travels to the Galapagos Islands as part of her trip to South America a few years ago, we knew that once we reached the islands there was no need to take an expensive cruise. Instead we could travel independently, organise our own “land-based” itinerary with day trips to other islands and diving spots, and stay within our budget. Or at least stay close-ish to our budget.

As well as being expensive, getting from Los Angeles to the Galapagos Islands turned out to be fairly time consuming. Our journey took a total of four days.

First we flew from Los Angeles to Dallas, where we were greeted with much excitement about the upcoming royal wedding (“You guys must be SO EXCITED”, “this is going to be the best weekend OF MY LIFE”, “wait, why are you here? You should be at home! YOU MEAN… YOU’RE GOING TO MISS IT???”), which we returned with some confusion and bewilderment.

We spent 17 hours in Dallas, waiting for our next flight to Quito, Ecuador. This was partly because we wanted to save money and book flights using our air miles, which limited our options, and partly because I made a slight timing error – we landed in Dallas at midnight, and left again at 5.30pm the following day (not 5.30am, just a few hours later, as I had originally assumed).

When we arrived in Quito, it was nearly midnight. I had arranged for us to be picked up at the airport (“I will be there with a sign for your name”, I was told via email), and to stay in a cheap hostel a few kilometers away. When we cleared immigration and collected our bags, we were greeted with several people brandishing signs with names on, but unfortunately no one for us. We waited patiently for half an hour, feeling tired and a little disorientated. Eventually, I phoned our hostel, only to realize that the Spanish I’d been trying to learn on duolingo was completely inadequate, and besides repeating my name and “aeropuerto”, there was nothing else I could think of to say in order to communicate the predicament.

Shane took over the conversation, and despite knowing no Spanish at all, seemed to salvage the situation. “His brother is coming, and will be here in five minutes”, he said confidently. I had no idea how he had managed this, but was very grateful and relieved. That was until five minutes, ten minutes, 15 minutes went by, and still nothing. “Maybe he said 25 minutes, not five”, said Shane. I started to consider that perhaps Shane’s translation and communication skills were not as extraordinary as I had thought.

As more and more time passed, we started to wonder what to do for the best. We took turns watching the bags and pacing around the airport; looking at the people waiting at arrivals and checking for signs with my name, the hostel’s name, or anyone who was also looking for someone. We wandered outside, inside, tried to get wifi to check or send an email… but nothing.

Eventually, I decided to make another (probably pointless) phone call to the hostel, but realized my phone was now out of credit. I looked for a payphone, but couldn’t see one anywhere. Instead I found the information counter, and did my best to ask about a possible payphone location.

Luckily, the woman working at the information desk spoke English and offered to make the phone call. As she watched me struggle (again) to communicate with the hostel, she took over and managed to translate. “Someone will be here in fifteen minutes”, she told me. I looked a little disappointed, and explained that we had already been told someone would be here in “five minutes” an hour ago. In response she got the number of the driver who was meant to be picking us up, and called him instead. It turned out he wasn’t far away, and Shane and I went outside and bundled into the car. While we were grateful to be finally leaving the airport and heading to somewhere we could rest for the night, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in my woeful Spanish skills, and concerned that had it not been for the kind woman at the information desk, we might still be at Quito airport.

We spent a full day in the small town of Guayllabamba, a few kilometers north of Quito airport, where we tried to rest and acclimatize before our flight to the Galapagos Islands the following day. We were both feeling a little worse for wear, so after a brief explore we had a long nap, which stretched into a long night’s sleep.

The next day we were up bright and early for our flight to Santa Cruz, the most populous island in the Galapagos.

Thankfully our transport back to the airport went without a hitch, and we arrived with ample time to check in for our flight, complete some Galapagos-Island related paperwork, pay an extra $20 tax, have our bags checked for anything that might endanger the eco-system of the islands, pass through security and have something to eat.

The flight took two hours, and before we knew it we touched down at Baltra airport, located on a tiny island a short distance from Santa Cruz. It didn’t take long to realize that we really were in a wildlife paradise; a large iguana greeted us as we stepped off the plane.

Airport iguana

We then had a long wait to pass through a special Galapagos Island immigration system. Once it was our turn, we were processed very quickly; our passport was stamped, we handed over our $100 entrance fee, our bags were checked once again, and then we were in.

To get from the airport to our accommodation in the main town of Puerto Ayora, we had to take a free airport bus (ten minutes), a short ferry ride (five minutes, $1), then a longer bus ride (45 minutes, $2-ish), and finally a taxi ($2). When I communicated this to Shane he was slightly puzzled by the various steps, but I maintained (as stated in our trusty Lonely Planet), that the journey would happen like clockwork:

“All the transport people know when the flights come in, so they time the buses and ferries accordingly. We should just walk straight off our plane and onto the bus to the ferry port, and so on from there.”

Despite our long wait at mini-immigration, the journey to Puerto Ayora did start like clockwork. A bus was waiting for us outside the main airport building. We got on, and once it was full, the bus drove us to the ferry. We all boarded the ferry, and for the price of $1 each we were taken to Santa Cruz.

So far, so good.

Then we got off the ferry and looked around for the bus to take us to the bus terminal outside the main town of Puerto Ayora. I saw a bus, and begaun to walk to it when a man stopped me.

“Taxi?” he offered.

“Isn’t there a bus?” I asked.

“No bus”, he replied.

“But that looks like a bus”, I said, pointing at the bus.

He shrugged his shoulders and moved on to someone who did want a taxi, and I carried on walking towards the bus.

As we tried to get on, we were met by the bus driver, who shouted “no, no, no, no”. This was some kind of private bus, and was not for us.

As we waited around for the elusive bus, the remaining taxis disappeared, leaving us and half a dozen other passengers with no transport options at all.

A young Ecuadorean couple (also stranded), approached us and asked if we wanted to share a taxi, if or when such a thing re-materialised. We explained that we had been hoping to get the bus, and they explained that the last bus had gone.

Shane didn’t want to be defeated and continued to hope for the bus, while I didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere at the edge of the island all night, so accepted their offer on our behalf. The only problem was that the offer was hypothetical, since there were no more taxis, and so we waited with the other passengers for some time.

Eventually a taxi turned up. We tried to ignore the fact that the driver was drinking a beer as he pulled up and let us in, and instead focused on looking out at the island that it had taken us four days to reach. It wasn’t long before Shane spotted a giant Galapagos tortoise walking up the road, and I felt pleased with myself for remembering that the Spanish for tortoise is “Tortuga”.

Roadside tortugas

Useful, but not quite as useful as “we are stranded at the airport, please can you come and pick us up like we arranged?”, or even “where is the bus?”

We spent eight days on the Galapagos Islands, and most days were dedicated to wildlife watching. We stayed on Santa Cruz for our first four days, and made the most of the free opportunities to see some animals.

We didn’t have to go very far. The Galapagos Islands live up to their reputation: they are bursting with wildlife. From the pier in Puerto Ayora we watched sea lions, sharks, sea turtles and rays darting through the water. We walked to the beach and saw brightly coloured crabs scuttling along the rocks, and dozens of marine iguanas lazing in the sun. We walked to the Charles Darwin centre and saw giant Galapagos tortoises, as well as some little baby ones. Lizards of various shapes and sizes followed us everywhere we went, and pelicans flapped around near the sea front.

A little crabby

Marine iguana on the beach

Collection of marine iguanas

Hanging out with a pelican

As well as watching the wildlife on our doorstep, we also took a taxi into the highlands to visit some big sink holes, lava tunnels and a ranch area where giant Galapagos tortoises raom freely. The lava tunnel experience turned out to be less about enjoying the lava formations, and more about getting from one end of the tunnel to the other in one piece, as we had to crawl through small gaps in the lava on our hands and knees and at some points even wriggle like a worm to make it though.

On the plus side, wandering around the ranch and watching the giant tortoises was a joy. The more we watched them, the more they looked like a biological anomaly – more like dinosaurs than tortoises – and every movement seemed to involve a struggle. We were also delighted to try climbing inside the old tortoise shells lying around the ranch, and to realize that Shane is about the right size to be a giant tortoise!

Giant tortoise

Georgia meets tortoise

Perfect size to be a tortoise

Georgia being a tortoise

A little bit stuck in the shell


From Santa Cruz we also took a snorkeling trip out to nearby Pinzon Island and a diving trip out to Bartolome Island. The snorkeling was expensive (welcome to the Galapagos Islands), but definitely worth it. We snorkeled with sea lions, turtles, sharks and I even saw an octopus slithering along the rocks!

Sea lions


Sea turtle

The diving wasn’t quite as remarkable, but that was in part because our diving options were limited due to our lack of experience. To visit most sites in the Galapagos, you need to have at least 25 dives, and / or to be an advanced diver. To visit some of the best sites, or to take a ‘liveaboard’ multi-day diving trip, you need 100 dives. As open water divers with only ten dives (never mind the fact that I would not describe myself as confident), this was never going to apply to us, so we could only visit certain ‘easier’ sites. Nevertheless, we had a good day in Bartolome, and spotted rays, turtles and even a hammerhead shark under the water, as well as some Galapagos penguins swimming in the shallows.

Hammerhead shark

After some busy days on Santa Cruz we took a ferry to the island of San Cristobal, where we spent the rest of our time.

San Cristobal was smaller and less populated than Santa Cruz, a fact the sea lions seemed to make the most of by colonizing the entire sea front.

San Cristobal

Many sea lions

Again, we made the most of the free activities on offer, visiting the island’s Interpretation Centre which gave us a detailed overview of the history of the islands and the impact of colonization (not good) and tourism (better, but still not great) on the delicate ecosystem of the islands.

On another day we rented snorkel gear and wandered down to a secluded bay, where we could snorkel and play with the sea lions. Galapagos rules mean that you can’t touch the sea lions (and I would not want to), but that didn’t stop them touching me. Or splashing me. Or forming and circle around me and clapping. I don’t know why.

Snorkeling with a sea lion

Our final activity in San Cristobal was a 360 degree tour of the island. We visited various snorkeling spots including kicker rock (a rock shaped like a shoe), a beach nearby where we spotted the endemic and so-far elusive blue footed booby (a bird). We also saw a red footed booby, some puffer fish and the biggest sea turtle I have ever seen. It was bigger than Shane!

Beach time

Blue footed booby

At kicker rock

On our eight day self-guided, land-based tour, we managed to see numerous sea lions, turtles and sharks, several rays, dozens of iguanas, giant tortoises, beautiful crabs, pelicans, boobies (red and blue footed), a hammerhead shark and even an octopus or two. The rumour that the Galapagos Islands are some kind of wildlife paradise is absolutely true. The rumour that they are time consuming to get to and expensive (by South American standards) is also true, but it is possible to travel independently, save a small fortune, and still see the animals the Galapagos is famous for.