Saturday
Jul092011

The beaches

After the humidity, the Dreamer hostel in Santa Marta was heaven.  The pool being the main attraction was the only reason why we stayed more than a night in that area.  As we were checking in, we searched the many young faces for Tom's cousin, Lara who'd been working at the hostel for a few weeks.  Whilst we looked for Lara we were both quite nervous about the number of gap year students staying as they screamed excitedly at each other from across the pool.  I know I sound like an old grump saying this, but we just didn't want to be the old Fogeys trying to relax around a pool whilst a group of young adults jumped in and out of the pool like the local swimming baths during the school holidays.  Luckily for us they were leaving, but we found it funny that they were good friends of Lara who'd she met whilst travelling.

For a few days we did nothing but swim, sleep and watch Wimbledon from the comforts of the pool whilst eating breakfast.

This part of the trip has also taken on a different turn as our funds begin to dwindle.  No longer are we eating out for breakfast, lunch and dinner, preferring instead to cook for ourselves.  Our time in Santa Marta saw us take many trips to the huge supermarket to try out the different fresh fruits for breakfast.  Giving ourselves a daily budget for three meals a day we would walk down the many aisles of the air conditioned supermarket trying to figure out why tin tomatoes and sausages were so expensive, but a five litre bottle of coke would cost pennies.

We left the delights of our swimming pool and headed to the beach on the Caribbean coast to sleep in hammocks.  We bought enough food for two days, preferring to eat at the only restaurant on the beach in the evening  The beaches in Tayrona National park aren't easy to get to.  We trekked 3½ hours through the jungle to get there and almost 5 hours back, but it was stunning.  We saw giant ants carrying food way beyond their body weight, we watched a huge lizard hanging precariously from a branch high in the trees until it fell.  Fearing the worst Tom and I rushed over to see if it was hurt only to be scared out of our wits when it jumped up and ran away.  The views between the jungle and beach were just stunning.  The jungle would open up and  you'd see beautiful beaches surrounded by huge boulders and palm trees surrounding a turquoise sea, but we walked on through the jungle to the next beach looking for the perfect spot.  The walk was a challenge at times especially when we had to walk through a mud patch that was knee deep.  Only wearing our flip flops, we secured them to our wrists and walked through the mud bare footed.  It wasn't my best moment.  Tom having walked through quite quickly had to coax me through when I got stuck in the middle unable to move forward and scared I'd go face down on my next step.  We walked bare footed the rest of the way washing the dried mud off our feet and legs when we finally got to the beach.

For two nights we slept in a hammock.  Not really liking the idea of swinging whilst lying down I've never really liked hammocks but I thought I'd give it a try.  It's not my preferred way to sleep but we were able to.  Swinging gently in the night breeze we slept on top of a hill overlooking the sea.  The mirador, where we slept, sat off the mainland beach a little walk away.  In the dark we had to walk through a little trickle of sea, which was ankle deep during the day and knee deep in the evening, before starting the short climb up the hill to our hammocks, our torches being the only source of light.  Waking a few times during the night we could hear the crashing of the sea below us and make out the shadow of the palm trees on the main beach.  By early morning we would wake and watch the sunrise over the sea from the comfort of our hammocks.  

By 7am we'd be up having a breakfast of jam on bread, a pear and a granola bar on the beach.  By 8am we'd had our first swim and would sit drying out in the early morning sun.  If I could start my day that way at home I'd never complain about early mornings again.  It was idyllic.

The beach where we had breakfast and the hut on the hill where we slept

Palm tree graveyard
After a couple of days beach hopping through Tayrona National Park, one being a nudist beach where only the men were naked, we moved to Palomino beach.

Palomino beach isn't as busy as Tayrona which is why we liked it more.  I left my main backpack at the Dreamer Hostel, Tom emptied his and left his clothes too and we filled his pack with food.  We didn't need much else apart from swimwear a pair of shorts and a t-shirt.  For three nights we slept on a hammock, although not as comfortable as Tayrona, we were literally on the beach as apposed to being above it.  During the night we could see the white froth from the tide coming in and the bright glow of the fire flies.

The place we stayed at had a kitchen that sold breakfast and lunch, and a wood/coal BBQ for the guests to use.  Having filled Tom's backpack with food we were more than happy to use the wood fire to cook our own meals which is what we did.  Tom being a cub scout when he was younger wouldn't let me help him build a fire and was mightily offended when I said I should try when his tenth attempt was unsuccessful.  It had rained the previous night so the wood we'd collected was still damp from the night before.  That was his excuse!  Thankfully the owner saw our failed attempts and helped us build the fire.  Tom was more successful the following days.  One evening we stood at the BBQ cooking our dinner when a storm broke out.  Luckily we were under a covering made from palm tree leaves.  We watched as the lightening lit up the beach and the thunder roared loudly.

We did nothing those days.  It was more relaxing than Tayrona somehow.  We would watch the fishermen taking their boats out in the morning and by early afternoon we'd visit them as their boats returned.  We bought a bag of fish one afternoon for £1 and was cooking it on the BBQ within an hour.  Our seasoning was simple, lime with salt and pepper.  We ate that with tomato and red onion salad.

Another visit to the fishermen and we returned with a bagful of langoustines for our dinner.  At sunset the owner had built a huge bonfire on the beach so we watched the sunset and waited for the fire to burn down.  By nightfall the fire had burned down enough for us to cook our dinner on.  The huge prawns we'd bought earlier on that day  (for roughly £3) sat seasoned in a bowl with garlic, lime, salt and pepper.  We fried plantain that we'd bought in the market then fried our prawns.  It was easily the best home cooked dinner we've had on this trip.  Cooking on the beach on a fire with our head torches for light was simply amazing.  It was hot work so we had to keep walking to the sea for a breeze to cool down, hardly anything to complain about.  Our dinner of langoustines, plantain and tomato salsa Tom re-created from a Brazilian BBQ we'd been too was divine.

By the fourth night we were done with the hammocks.  The romantic notion of swinging in the moonlight had worn off.  We moved to our own room (something we hadn't done for weeks, preferring the price of a dorm room instead) with en-suite and a good solid bed with a fan.

The only thing we had to worry about was falling coconuts

 

Tom practicing yoga

 

Drinking the water from the huge coconut we found on the beach

Saturday
Jul092011

Cartagena

Cartagena felt like Stone Town, Zanzibar.  Old, beautiful and rich.  I liked it.  It was hot and we were sweaty.  Tom and I left Matt in Medellin as he was about to indulge in one of his obsessions by going on a coffee tour.  We really wanted to end this trip the way we started it, just the two of us.  Maybe that made Cartagena feel special, or maybe it was our hostel that had an amazing lounge where we watched movies as it rained heavily outside after a very hot and humid day.  Whatever it was, we enjoyed our time there.

As our trip comes to an end we've really slowed down, preferring to relax or move at a slower pace.  We couldn't be bothered to visit Playa Blanca, a beautiful beach a short trip away from the old town of Cartagena.  The old town was beautiful enough to keep us for a few days, so we walked around only heading back to our hostel after a few hours to take a break from the humidity and to eat.

Saturday
Jul092011

Medellin

Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug lord was born in Medellin.  A no-go area as late as the early 90's, Medellin is now one of the safest places to visit in Colombia.  Completely transformed since his killing/assassination/suicide (dependant on who you speak to), Medellin can now welcome foreign visitors.  So that was our next stop.

We didn't do much in Medellin, we just hung out.  We ate good food.  Tom and I had a huge bowl of mondongo which is a Medelline speciality soup with tripe avacado, pork and rice.  I didn't tell Tom it had tripe in it until we left.

We went on a Pablo Escobar tour which was very very good.  I don't normally like guided tours but this tour was excellent.  It was inciteful and informative as our tour bus drove around the city showing us his old homes, places where his cartel would operate, and a field which held confiscated drug planes waiting to be used as evidence in future cases.

Thursday
Jun302011

Colombia - Cali

Our first stop had to be Cali, the salsa capital of Latin America.  I wanted to dance.  More to the point I wanted salsa lessons.  I thought it would be hard to convince Tom to take lessons with me but he was more up for it than I was.

An hour and a half later we had the basics steps mastered and were ready for the popular clubs that gave Cali the title of salsa capital.

Our hostel, where we had our salsa lesson was lovely.  It was cool in the humid heat and had a laid back atmosphere.  The garden wafted in the tropical scents into the lounge as we relaxed with other travellers drinking Colombian rum whilst enjoying the evening breeze..

It was a prefect way to start our first evening in Colombia.  By the time we left our hostel for dancing we were a party of 10.

Unfortunately, the club our hostel advised we go to (and the best for that night) would only accept couples.  I guess if we were going to dance then we needed to be partnered up as salsa isn't a solo dance.  As I was the only female in a large group it wasn't looking likely the bouncer was about to change his mind so we headed to the club next door.  It was emptier than our preferred club but I certainly got my dance lessons worth as I practiced with Tom and the other guys in our class then moved on to dancing with the locals.  I salsa'd and merengued and danced another dance I don't know the name of.  It was brilliant as I tried to learn these new dance moves accidentally stepping on toes and being spun around until I was completely dizzy.  By the time 5am rolled around my feet were sore and I  was ready for bed.  I think we did Cali justice.



Thursday
Jun302011

Ecuador - 10th June 2011

When I think back, Ecuador was done kind of quickly.  I loved Ecuador.  I love fish, more than meat so what's not to enjoy as a nation of fish lovers.

I wish there was lots to say about Ecuador, but there really isn't.  I want to go back as I feel we went through too quickly.

Our first stop was Loja, we were only there for a night.  Our hotel with satin pink sheets was huge for two people, but we liked it pink sheets and all.  Dinner was of course fish, Ceviche, which is a speciality in Ecuador.  Ceviche is raw fish marinated in lime or lemon juice and spiced with chillies.  Its like pickled fish and it is simply delicious.  I thought I'd tasted fish, I thought I knew all there was to know, but no this was like fish heaven.  I had it nearly every day for lunch or dinner.

Next stop was Cuenca.  We stepped off the bus and was approached by a nice man with leaflets for a hostel not far from the station.  I'm not sure why we decided to listen to him, maybe it was his gentle approach as normally we ignore all hostel touts, but he got us at the price and soon we were checking into our new room for the night.  We'd certainly been to cleaner places, but as it was only for one night we decided to stay.

That evening we ate at a British style pub.  That was a mistake.  After eating ceviche for almost a week we struggled to find anything decent on the menu to eat.  The only saving grace was the live salsa band that were playing.  They were excellent, but even better was the dancers.  We sat at our table slowly moving our chairs backwards giving space to the dancers as they twisted and swayed hips in front of us.  I really, really wanted to dance.  But I was certainly out of my league here.  Well me and the older guy who Tom had funnily described his dancing like he'd lost something, but you had to give it to him, he danced every tune like it was his last.  And it really looked liked it was.

Our next meal was in Guayaqil.  We turned up at this place that had been recommended by our hostel owner.  All the diners had hammers in their hands and were cracking open the legs of the massive crabs on their plates.  Happy is not a word that would properly explain how I was feeling.  More like kid in a candy store.  I ordered a crab, then a plate of shrimps with rice and plantain.  My family should visit Ecuador for the food alone.

Guayaqil was hot and humid so our next stop was to the coast, Ayampe.  For the next three days we did nothing.  Well not quite nothing.  We visited the beach where I literally got taken out by a wave.  One minute I was on my feet wondering if the current was too strong to swim in, the next my feet were above my head and I landed on my arse.  That answered my question.  I was straight out of the sea deciding sunbathing was much safer.

We wrote, read and relaxed in hammocks.  We visited the nearby town of Montanita where everyone goes to party.  It was like stepping on the Khao San Road in Koh Samui, Thailand.  Everything for the western traveller. Not really our thing but nice to have a cup of coffee and observe.

Our bus to Quito was an interesting one.  After picking up my dinner of fried fish, plantain and salad for £1 we were searched by the police before getting on the bus.  Our faces were then photographed.  Not sure why.  We guessed if anything happened en-route, they had our passport numbers but also a picture of each passenger.  It was a bit unsettling at first, but as we've done a few buses in Colombia now it seems the norm.

Quito our next stop was certainly a different experience.  Not wanting to sleep in the middle of a party we've always chosen hostels that don't have pictures of what look like gap-year students in huge groups with pints of beers in their hands.  This hostel wasn't quite like that but they certainly enjoyed a party or two.  We decided to join the party on the condition we could do it on the cheap.  So with our new friend, Phil from Texas, we bought a bottle of rum and finished it in our room before heading up to the roof terrace where the real party was happening.

They were have a speed dating night and were short a couple of women, so with Tom's permission I joined the women's team.  What a laugh we had.  It was like a gameshow with the contestants having to speak only in song lyrics , have a conversation in chat up lines only and talk incessantly about themselves for a full minute.  After that I'm afraid the party went downhill as we took the party bus into town and the gap-year students started with their football chants, then vulgar taunts at passing girls.  Unfortunately we were part of a group who were living up to the stereotypical British tourist after a drink.  Disgusting.

The next morning I couldn't have checked out more quickly if I tried.  I didn't want to talk to the same guys I'd been singing Spice Girls songs with the previous night who were then screaming get your baps out and worse to passing girls.

Otavalo was our last stop in Ecuador.  We'd been told by many travelers and guide books that this was the place to go for shopping.  Well they didn't have to tell me twice.  What a big disappointment.  There was nothing there, not that I thought was worth breaking our budget anyway.

What was good was the tacos.  Me, Tom, Phil and Matt spent two evenings eating Tacos, watching 70's and 80's videos and admiring the oddly placed Jennifer Lopez poster on the wall.  She's hot.

Wednesday
Jun222011

Peru for a day - 9th June 2011

We decided to leave Peru for another time.  We wanted to visit Ecuador and Columbia more and didn't have the time to do all three countries.

Unfortunately the border between Bolivia and Peru was closed due to demonstrations which was our only way to get to Ecuador so we had to fly.  The only way we could do this cheaply was to take three flights over fourteen hours.  This took us to the border town in Peru called Piuru where we stayed the night, before crossing the border into Ecuador the following morning.  Our only experience of Peru was a memorable one.  The people were very welcoming helpful and warm.

Wednesday
Jun222011

Amazon Basin - 3rd June 2011

We caught a flight to Rurrenbaque a small town in the Amazon Basin.  Our plane was tiny seating a maximum of 15 people.  Stepping on the plane was nerve wracking.  I have no idea why as I've flown on a smaller sea plane in the Maldives so my nerves were unexplained.  Thankfully I had a small bottle of rescue remedy which put my nerves to rest.

The short flight was loud, the noise worsened by the twelve excited Israeli tourists on board.  Handily I had my ipod to drown them out as we flew at a low altitude over mountains and rainforests.  Within twenty five minutes we'd landed in the amazon basin and it was hot.

We went on a 3 day 2 night pampas tour.  We were told to bring mosquito repellent, long sleeve shirts, lightweight trousers and a torch.  Equipped with our gear seven of us were put into the back of a canoe and took the two hour river cruise to our pampas where we'd be staying for two nights.  Our guide a very quiet but cool guy pointed out the different wildlife, from birds, turtles, crocodiles and dolphins and the most unbelieving rodent I've ever seen.  If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I'd have found it hard to believe.  Sat on the riverbank was a giant rat like animal.  It was huge and looked like something you'd see in a child's TV show.  It would've fit better in Narnia.  I kept expecting it to talk, that's how make believe it looked.

We stopped to look at monkeys at another boat behind us started throwing cookies at them to entice them onto our boats.  Needless to say I wasn't impressed, or was I impressed by the crocodile feeding outside our dining area to entice it closer for all to see.  Apart from those two annoyances we enjoyed the pampas trip.  It wasn't as good as we were expecting but we did enjoy the piraña fishing, wading through marshland looking for anacondas (only slightly enjoyed this) and being woken by the howler monkeys in the morning.

 

We also went on a one day jungle trip which was far better than the pampas tour.  It being just the three of us this time it was more personal.  We started the day with a walk through the jungle and into a local village.  There was fruit everywhere, oranges, grapefruit, apples, bananas, mangos and cinnamon.  He told us to take whatever we wanted.  Unfortunately for me it wasn't mango season.

 

We made sugar cane juice by pushing the sticks through an old fashioned presser, sieving out the sediment and adding lime.  It was delicious.

We walked through a tiny canyon.  Our guide told us to take our shoes and socks off as we followed him through the tiny pathway.  It was nervewracking and exciting at the same time as we walked through puddles up to our knees, moss between our toes and bats flying dangerously close to our heads.  We jumped up a little waterfall and almost fell down it on our return trip and held our breath as we tried to calmly walk past a giant tarantula.  It was so much fun.  Tom wore his hat he'd recently bought in La Paz and pretended to be Indiana Jones for the entire time.

 

Sweaty from the humidity and wet from the rain we returned to our hotel giddy from the days activities.

Our return flight was less eventful.  No longer nervous I sat through the journey staring at the disappearing jungle and the approaching mountains.  As we landed in La Paz I rushed off the plane needing the loo (no room on the plane for a toilet) and almost keeled over.  La Paz is probably the only airport in the world where the plane needs to ascend to land and we'd just climbed 4,100 metres in twenty five minutes.  Head spinning, legs wobbling, dry mouth and feeling like I'd been out on a all night bender I walked to the loo.  I felt rough.  Tom did too.

Normally adjusting to this altitude should take a few days, but thankfully we were flying out the next morning for an epic journey across the border into Peru.

Monday
Jun202011

La Paz

We took a bus to La Paz.  It was a nice bus that we'd booked the previous day.  Like a lot of the other buses we'd been on we were offered dinner, but as we'd just filled our bellies with pizza, Tom and I gave ours to a group of American travellers.

As the bus turned off the main street from Uyuni onto a dirt road it began to shake.  I've heard many people say many times that the roads in Bolivia are awful but I'd never experienced it until then.  For three solid hours the bus shook as it made its way down a poor excuse of a road.  I tried sleeping but my head vibrated against the head rest.  I felt like my brain was shaking inside my skull and I had the worst headache.

Halfway through our journey we stopped for a toilet break, so I went to put my trainers on but I couldn't find the right foot.  I had to crawl on my hands and knees using my torch to find my other shoe.  It had vibrated its way to the front of the bus.    I had to apologise to a sleeping passenger and ask for my shoe which had lodged itself underneath them.  Luckily they saw the funny side of it.

Thankfully we'd been ascending at a gradual pace since northern Argentina so we weren't too affected by the altitude apart from the cotton mouth and the shortness of breath.  At an altitude of 4,100 metres above sea level La Paz is the highest city in the world, so we were lucky to get away with the limited symptoms we had.  Maybe it was something to do with the disgusting garlic pills we'd been advised to take. 

We spent a couple of days in La Paz taking in the sights.  It's an amazing city practically clinging to the side of a mountain.  We walked around the many streets selling beautiful leather bags, walked through the witches market where they sold Llama fetus and ignored the many tour agents selling trips for mountain biking down down Bolivia's notorious death road.

Bolivia's death road was and probably still is one of the world's most dangerous roads.  It's now closed to vehicles as the road was never wide enough for two cars each other..  Many people were killed as their cars fell off the cliff edge.  It's now a tourist attraction where people mountain bike their way down.  In my opinion its probably more dangerous now as inexperienced riders make their way down the rocky road (it's not tarmaced in any way) skidding on pebbles and trying to avoid other cyclists by pressing on their bakes too many times and confusing other riders behind them.  It sounds crazy and whilst we were in La Paz we heard a young female traveller had just plunged a few hundred feet over the edge and died.  Terrible news.  So yes, we ignored the touts selling these tours.

Tom and I were also more aware than we have been during our whole trip of, of bag theft.  Our rucksacks never leaving our side even when eating as we'd heard too many stories on distraction theft.

Besides all of that, we liked La Paz.  It was a wonder to the eye as many Bolivian women wore their long hair in two plaited ponytails with bowler hats on top.

 

Thursday
Jun162011

Bolivia - 28 May 2011

Bolivia, north of Argentina was easy to get to.  We got a taxi to the border, had our books stamped and simply walked the short distance into Bolivia.  We were on our way to Uyuni, land of the worlds largest salt flats.

We'd decided to to spend a few extra bolivianos (Bolivian currency) to pay for a first class cabin on the train.  Our cabin was warm and cosy with a TV.  They'd provided pillows and a blanket for the journey.  Uyuni was meant to be cold at night, minus zero and we were due to arrive around midnight.

Around 6pm we were invited to the dinner carriage by our steward to eat.  Our carriage, only for those travelling first class was only half full.  We were asked if we wanted the chicken or vegetarian option which was served with a bottle of coke.  Our meal wasn't great but it was sufficient.  The views though were amazing.  The sun was just setting so we sat as the train ran through the Bolivian countryside with mountains on each side.

After watching another episode of The Killing, Tom and I slept on the warm train, our seats reclining back to a comfortable position.  We woke a few times to look out the window and wonder at the millions of stars across the sky.

Hat, fleece, jacket and gloves on we were ready when the train eased into Uyuni station.  Luckily we'd booked our accommodation ahead of our arrival as the town was completely deserted.  Our hostel manager had waited up, expecting our arrival.  Unfortunately, our room was absolutely freezing so Tom and I shared a single bed hoping to keep ourselves warm.

Waking early the next morning we walked across the street for breakfast.  Sitting in the sunshine we slowly took our layers off until we were left in our t-shirts and sunglasses.  A stark contrast to the previous nights temperature.

For the next few hours we discussed whether we should do the salt flat tours in one day or three.  We decided, after looking at the schedules and realising day one and three were the only parts that interested us, to do the day tour only. I'm really glad we did.  As much as I enjoyed the day, I don't think I could've done three days.  So five of us, me, Tom, Matt and another couple had a jeep with a driver, a guide and a cook.  We started out at the train graveyard, a deserted area full of old trains.  It was cool, but I was bored after ten minutes.  Tom took some cool pictures though.

We were then taken to a salt museum where we were shown how the salt was produced, then onto Fish Island which is right in the middle of the salt plains and full of cacti.  It was blindingly white and my eyes ached from the brightness even with my sunglasses on.  Tom and I walked the steep steps to the top.  At such a high altitude, over 12,000 feet, we had to keep stopping to catch our breath.  The views were literally breathtaking.  When we reached the bottom our lunch of lamb chops, rice and salad was ready.  Perfect.  We sat at small picnic table eating and watching as other visitors took their photos.  Because it's so white it's so hard to see the horizon so it eliminates the perception of depth.

When we took our pictures we were completely baffled.  Tom's slick camera was too advanced for the simplicity of our pictures so we gave up trying to be creative and took random pictures instead.

A day on the salt flats and we were ready for La Paz.

A cup of Hapi made me happy

Running through salt 

Thursday
Jun162011

Iruya

Matt arrived in Salta the next day so we headed to Iruya for two nights.  The journey was bumpy and dusty but beautiful.  We drove through mountains and dessert land with thousands of cacti as far as my eyes could see.  We drove not seeing the road clearly through the dust.  When we arrived my voice had disappeared, sore from the dust.  Our town in the the middle of a valley was simply amazing.  Our hostel sat on the side of a hill with the most stunning views.

We took a four hour walk through the canyon, two hours to the next town for a lunch of empanadas and a two hour walk back.  Our directions from the hostel manager was simply to stick to the left hand side of the river.  We used stepping stones when the river was impassable, we stood to one side when a couple of wild horses strolled past us and we tested the echos of our voices as we walked through the giant canyon.

Tired and hungry from our walk, we spent the evening in the dining room discussing our travel plans whilst granny cooked dinner.

 

Thursday
Jun162011

Taffi Del Valle, Cafayete and Salta

We left Matt in Mendoza as he was starting a week long spanish course.  We headed to Taffi del Valle on another long distance bus journey.  Our bus steward hosted a game of bingo on the bus.  With a bottle of wine to win we soon learnt our numbers!  We were one number out but someone beat us to it.  Never mind.  It's a brilliant way to learn your numbers.

We arrived in Tafii del Valle on a grey cloudy day.  A couple of travellers had heard the weather report before getting on the bus, so changed their ticket to the next town on.  We were the only tourists to get off the bus in that town so was slightly worried they knew something we didn't.  Well they didn't.  Tom had booked us into an estancia and requested that we stay in the old part of the house.  Our room opened up in to a grand dining room.


There was no one in the town.  We walked around looking for somewhere to have lunch.  It was cold and grey so we found a place with an open fire and had empanadas and Maté for lunch.

The manager of the estancia had advised us that the evenings were very cold so we needed to turn the heating on to stop the room from getting too cold.  When we returned to our room it was just about warm.  We sat in the lounge watching TV when an Argentinian couple arrived.  Marcia spoke a little english, but less than our spanish, so for the next hour we spoke only spanish (with a little assistant from Google Translate).  Interestingly she is a documentary filmmaker so we talked shop for a little while. We really enjoyed it.  We hadn't had the chance to speak at length with any Argentinians (they were from Buenos Aires).  It definitely helped our spanish along.  Tom's spanish is better than mine so we're regularly testing each other, well I get him to test me on my vocabulary which is quite basic.

We rented bikes again.  Taffi is known for its cheese, so we bought a few cheeses, some salami, tomatoes, grapes , bread and chocolate and set off for the downhill bike tour of the valley.  The other travellers were missing out big time as the day didn't have a cloud in sight just mountains and blue skies.

We cycled on the road with only the occasional vehicle passing by.  We passed gauchos on their horses and agonised over the perfect picnic spot.  We were very happy.  It was nice to be on our own.  We missed our own company and this day was perfect to spend together.  We finally agreed on a spot to eat and was lucky enough to happen on a spot where wild horsed were having a drink at a stream below us.  We couldn't have planned it better if we'd tried.  It was an absolute beauty of a spot.  In some ways this was also one of the best lunches we'd ever had.  As we sat preparing our simple sandwich I looked around us and thought how lucky we were to enjoy the sam thing and be able to enjoy it together.

 

 

A few days in Taffi then we moved onto Cafayete for more bike and wine tours.  We'd been spoilt.  The tours in Mendoza were amazing.  The tours we did here were okay, but not the best.  We'd somehow ended up as part of a bigger group of tourists who were clearly only interested in the free wine.  Tom was not impressed when he tried to get someones attention so he could talk about a bottle of wine he was thinking of buying and was ignored.  We left in humph and did our best to avoid the group so as not be be seen as a bunch of freeloaders, although that's what we were, but just with a bit more class.



We cycled the very empty highway with vineyards on both sides to a goat farm.  

Our guide didn't speak a work of english.  Our spanish had improved but not enough to understand everything he said.  Luckily, another couple on the tour wee able to translate for us.  Cori and Brandyn a couple from New York had been travelling for just over a month and were doing the reverse of our trip, starting in South America then travelling through Africa.

The goat farm tour was a lot of fun and a nice changed from the wine tours we'd been doing over the last few days.  A tasting session of goats cheese at the end was certainly a refreshing change.

We decided to have dinner together and swap advice on places we'd been to.  What a brilliant night we had.  We passed on advice about Malawi, Mozambique and Argentina and we received advice about Peru, Ecuador and New York.  A dinner of goats cheese, bread, olives and salami was more than sufficient.



Salta was our last major city before heading to Boliva and maybe the last place we'd have steak for dinner.  Tom and I headed out for dinner and got way more than we were expecting for an evening meal.  The restaurant, a warren of little rooms  each had a table of performers.  Diners sat and watched  as tables opposite sang songs and played the guitar.  What a brilliant way to spend an evening.

Our room had a table with six people, three men and three women.  The women chatted amongst themselves as the men sang song after song taking it in turns to play the guitar.  They drank and ate like the other diners.  Was this normal.  Did they arrange to go for dinner that evening, decide to bring a guitar along with them so became the evening's entertainment.  Were they singing for their supper.  Whatever it was it was brilliant and they could sing, it wasn't karaoke.

 

Thursday
Jun162011

Mendoza, Wine Country

Next stop was Mendoza where a huge percentage of the wine produced in Argentina is made.  We decided on a splurge day and visited a bodega (winery) called Ruca Malen for a tour of the vineyards and a five course meal.  What a great, great afternoon.  Each course came with a new glass of wine.  It was easily the best meal I've had on this trip.  Each course was explained with the accompanying wine fully described.  It was pure perfection.  As other diners sat enjoying their meal, we giggled excitedly like school children as one plate was taken away and replaced with another and new glass of wine.  I found it hard to finish the current glass before starting the new course so decided to return to the unfinished glasses after the meal.

If you love food and you love wine, then I'd see no reason why this wouldn't be the number one place to visit when in Mendoza.  The setting was beautiful. We sat outside in the glorious sunshine with the vineyards right in front of us and the Andes as a backdrop.  We ate and drank to our hearts content.
Mendoza

 

 

 

 

Post lunch

We hired bikes, took a picnic and visited a few bodegas the following day.  After Ruca Malen it was hard to find a place that excited us as much.  In fact Tom was quite down on the first place we visited, not really enjoying the tour or their wine very much.  At the end of the day we found a small bodega that'd been open for only five days.  Our tour guide was keen and knowledgable about wine, answering our many questions.  We arrived just before the sunset so after the wine tasting we bought a bottle of wine and watched the sunset.

Thursday
Jun162011

San Antionio de Areco

San Antonio De Areco is a few hours west of Buenos Aires.  It's a small town as Tom say that looks like it's straight out of a film set.  The house are cute and the whole town has very nice and warm felling about it.  Another place I could live if only it were by the sea.  We arrived at what seemed to be the beginning of autumn.  The leave on the trees were golden yellows, burnt reds and bright oranges, and the sun shone constantly.  Maybe that's why I loved it there so much.

We arrived at the weekend when families wee all lunching together. The park was full of kids playing and a young group, maybe a school had set up a few stall on the side of the park selling homemade knitwear, childrens paintings and arts and crafts.

After settling into our tiny apartment we walked through the town looking for the perfect lunch.  Not surprisingly we had empanadas at a lovely pub turn restaurant.  What started as a couple of empanadas and a coffee in the outside seating area, turned into dinner in the restaurant inside.  Our poor waitress was so patient with us as we desperately tried to make ourselves understood after only speaking spanish for a week.  She was nice, correcting us on our pronunciation as we flipped through the spanish dictionary whilst reading the menu.  

A few men walked into the restaurant after a long day at work, dressed in berets, a loftier style shoe (like the Tom's loafer of kung fu slipper) and a harem style trouser.  These rather dapper looking men were Argentinian Gauchos.  Cowboys.  They looked good.

After a lazy morning we spent the following afternoon in the park watching a live band and the local townspeople dance a well learnt folk dance.  First they danced, young and old, man and child, with their hands on their hips, then above their heads as they clicked their fingers in time to the music.  Then cam the handkerchiefs.  I wished I known the steps as I tried to imitate the moves from the grass verge.

Others came to watch, bringing  with them a lunch of sandwiches and maté,  a strong flavoured herby tea drunk in a special cup through a stainless steel straw.  Couples and families brought camping chairs and blankets enjoying the autumnal sunshine as they watched their loved ones dance to the well known folk songs.

Later on we headed over to a nearby estancia (farm) to book a horse riding session.  Tom stayed at this estancia a few years earlier with his friends and wanted to go back.  The manager he remembered was still there and was full of excitement that Tom had returned.  I think he remembered Tom, but as he was so excitable it was hard to tell.

He was just finishing up with a group of tourists who'd visited the estancia for the day on a day trip from Buenos Aires so he invited us for cake and beers.  He introduced us to the staff and joked that one of the gauchos has followed us into the bar to stare at me.  Apparently my skin colour was a rarity in those parts, so I was a welcome sight.  As the gaucho didn't speak a word of english, Manuel spoke openly to us about him liking me.  When he realised what was being said he embarrassingly joked that he was a married man.  It was weird, as from the moment he mentioned it, it became quite apparent.  I was being wolf whistled at in the street.  People came up to touch me.  A man almost fell of his bike looking at me.  Wow.  Another man at a bus station openly touched my face in a way an adult would lovingly touch the face of a child.  We'd gone into his office to ask for information and he spoke with us for twenty minutes (we couldn't get away) about the local area and how they didn't get many Negritas in the area.  He was nice.

We booked our session for the next day then decided we needed to take advantage of the amazing light so had a mini photo shoot.  I love this time of day when the light is golden.  This is how I saw San Antonio De Areco.

 


Not having been on a horse since I was 14, and that was only for half an hour, I wasn't sure what to expect.  What if I was allergic, what if it affected my asthma?  Antihistamined up and an inhaler  in my pocket I was ready.  Luckily Manuel had given us a couple of tips the day before, saying the less we knew about the British way of horse riding the better.  In my opinion the Argentine way is way cooler.  No so uptight and only using one hand to hold the reigns.

When our gaucho said to get on the horse I only had a small panic that I had no idea how to actually get on a horse.  I'm not sure who helped me or how I go on, but once I was on I love it.

I'd like to say I was in complete control of my horse, but the occasional whistle here and there from the gaucho proved otherwise.  Tom was convinced I was on the horse he had a few years ago (I think he was slightly jealous).  She was perfect.  We left the estancia and rode through a park and into an open green.  We slowly picked up the pace which I instantly disliked.  I wasn't dressed for this pace.  I needed sportswear, proper support.  I tried to slow my horse down, to which she responded only to speed up again a few moments later.  This wouldn't have happened in the UK.  I'd have a hat on, the correct boots and some fancy trousers.  Instead I had on the jeans I'd been clubbing in a few nights previously, a new shawl I'd just bought and my white rimmed sunglasses as Tom has lost or broken his sunglasses again, so he was wearing my appropriate looking ones.  Still, I was riding a horse and galloping after only an hour on it and was loving it.

It wasn't that easy at first though.  Luckily our very relaxed gaucho noticed when on speeding up I began to slip sideways of my cantering horse.  A sharp whistle and my horse came to a standstill.  A quick lesson how to control the horse and I was literally galloping through the fields.  Unfortunately for Matt his horse was having a right strop and refused to do anything but walk.  It was unfair but it was funny as Tom and I both noticed as we passed him that his horse was facing the opposite direction to us refusing to move.  Apparently he always gets the dudd horse when riding.  The gaucho eventually swapped his horse with Matt's.

Again it was a beautiful autumnal day.  the perfect day for a horse ride.

 

Friday
May272011

Next stop Argentina, Buenos Aires - 29th April 2011

We got a an overnight bus from Floronopolis to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

We spent four nights in Floronopolis and we were ready to leave.  We were never sure about it the whole time we were there.  We just didn't fall in love with it.  Never mind.  You can't love everywhere you go.

Our bus to Argentina was amazing.  It was like stepping onto a plane and flying business class.  The seats were twice the size of an aeroplane seat.   After 26 relaxing hours on the bus, stopping a few times for dinner and breakfast we arrived in Buenos Aires.  Meanwhile a very important wedding was happening in London.    To be honest, I was utterly frustrated I didn't get to see the wedding live.  We saw quick glimpses of the Royal Wedding when we stopped for breakfast but that was it.

After the formalities of checking into our rented flat for the week I switched on the TV in our new living room to search for the wedding.  Surely BBC World be showing it.  Well I'm sure they were, but I couldn't find the channel, so with a bit of a grumble I settled down to watch the wedding on E! Entertainment with Dermot O'Leary.  It wouldn't have been my first choice if I had the decision to make but I couldn't complain.  Matt and Tom who'd mocked me earlier for my enthusiasm in the wedding soon joined me on the sofa.
It was everywhereOur apartment was nice.  Perfect for what we needed and cheaper than a lot of hostels.



After spending loads of money on eating out for breakfast we headed to the local supermarket to stock up.  As Matt was the first up most mornings, he'd make us a breakfast of granola with yoghurt and fruit, toast, boiled eggs (we spent many a morning experimenting on how to boil the perfect egg) with juice, coffee and tea.  For seven days we'd start our day in Buenos Aires discussing our plans for the day over a healthy breakfast.

Our eating habits became a bit repetitive, but for good reason.  Our lunches consisted of a couple of Empanadas, a small pasty/pie filled with meat (normally mince beef), chicken or cheese and ham.  They were filling, tasty and cheap.  By the evening, and I mean about 11pm, which is when restaurants started filling up as this is the normal time when Argentinians went out to eat, we were ready to eat and drink.  Dinner was always steak.  Drinks was was always red wine.  It would've been wrong not to stick to this diet, although by the end of it my waistband was begging for a reprieve of a simple salad and water.

We ate at restaurants at the recommendation of our guidebooks at slightly inflated prices, although the food was always very good.  We walked into places off the street, lured in by the cheap prices on the board and the number of locals sat in eating.  We tried every style of steak going from rare to well done.  We studied an illustration on the cuts of meat and opted for different parts to taste the difference.  We argued over the wine menu, debating if the cheapest wine in an expensive restaurant would be any good, or if we should opt for an expensive choice.  We did both.  We ate our way through Buenos Aires and we loved it.

It didn't stop when Gareth and Marie (Tom's brother and his wife) came to town, we just included them in on the festivities.  Very excited to see them, it was more reason to crack open another fine bottle of Malbec and get the steaks in.  Heaven.

Eating and drinking wasn't the only thing we did in Buenos Aires, although it felt like that sometimes.  We went clubbing once.  Yep, just the once.  Well, we went out for drinks one night thinking we might get into the spirit and end up staying out all night, but we'd had enough by 1am and caught a cab back to our apartment.

We timed our evening perfectly so we didn't peak too early.  We started our evening by drinking cocktails in our flat then heading out for dinner at 11pm.  We'd chosen another recommended restaurant which didn't disappoint and was eating at midnight.  Two steaks between three people (they're ginormous), a couple bottles of malbec and dessert later we were ready to party.  It was 2am.  Being a Thursday night (or Friday morning) we headed off Niceto Club, apparently the place to be on a Thursday.  We paid our entrance fee, walked past the people hoping to be let in by VIP for free and walked into the unknown.  If I'm going out for an evening, jeans which I'd worn for the last few days, and trainers is not my normal attire.  Luckily enough I had a blazer which manages to jazz up any tired outfit.  It was strange the nightclub.  I'm not sure if I liked it or not.  I'm not sure if it was because I felt underdressed.  Or did I feel too old.  I'm not sure.  What I didn't like was the strobing.  I didn't like that everyone smoked inside the club (but I've never liked people smoking around me).  I didn't like the music, it was too repetitive.  I liked the show the dancers put on.  It catered for all, gay, straight, cross dressers and all.  We tried to enjoy ourselves, but when the dry ice machine came on we called it a night.



Preparing for our night out

The next day we hung out all day in the apartment.  Tom and Matt watched back to back episodes of MTV's 16 and Pregnant.  They were hooked.

I like Buenos Aires.  Tom and I think we could live there.  Maybe one day we will, but not before they do something about the dog mess on the streets.  It's everywhere and it's disgusting.  I didn't dare leave the house in a pair of flip flops as I was surely to return with it on my feet.

We walked all over Buenos Aires, watching the beautiful people getting on with their daily lives.  They were a pleasure to watch.

Empanadas

 You can take the girl out of Bristol....

Trying to Tango

 

One of the best looking shops I've been in in a long time

Tuesday
May242011

Jungle walk - 22nd April 2011

After many days of relaxing on the beach we took a long walk through the jungle.  We packed a small lunch, some water and was on our way just after 7am.  The walk started off at a good pace, our guide, the gardener for the apartment we were staying at and an experienced porter for jungle walks pointed out the beautiful scenery.

We climbed the steep climb on our hands and knees, sat on our bums to negotiate steep drops and jumped stepping stones over rivers, sometimes falling in.  Two hours into our walk our guide shouted cobra and asked us to stop walking.  Not knowing the Portuguese word for snake is cobra I thought he meant an actual cobra which stupidly filled me with wonder more than fear.  After flicking the snake over the edge of a cliff he mentioned that he'd only seen two snakes in the many treks he'd done over the years.  By the end of our trek we'd seen five snakes.

After a few hours we stopped at a beautiful waterfall to swim.  Hot and sticky everyone jumped into the freezing lake to cool off, but hearing their squeals as they hit the water, it took me 20 minutes to pluck up the courage to take a dip.  Whilst everyone jumped in the lake over and over I eased myself in slowly limb by limb.  After lunch we hung out on the rocks drying out and looking up at the perfect blue sky.  I couldn't have been happier.  It was perfect.

Our trek back was slightly tricker, the descent being very steep we would've taken twice as long as going up so our guide made us walking sticks to assist the walk.  Tom being Tom used his army knife to smooth out the edges of the handle so it was even all round.

We were hot, sweaty, hungry and very thirsty.  My trousers wet from the rivers dragged on the floor and got muddier and muddier, but all I could think about was my first drink when we got back to the apartment.

After nine hours of trekking through the jungle, my first drink was a can of beer.  Not quite the thing to drink when de-hydrated but it was pure bliss.





 

Tuesday
May242011

Brazilian beaches, bikinis and barbeques

We were heading to the beach.  Luana´s aunty had kindly said we could stay at an apartment she had in Ubatuba which is a few hours drive from Sao Paulo city.

I was excited, I´d heard about the beaches in Brazil. and had another legitimate reason to shop.  I needed a bikini.  Cheekily, someone had stolen my favourite bikini off the washing line in Zanzibar so I´d used my remaining bikini all through Africa.  If absolutely pushed I could´ve worn my old frayed one, but I wouldn´t have felt comfortable.  Besides the bikini style in Brazil is way different to what I had so Luana took me shopping.  What an experience.  First of all I had to get over the fact I had to wear a large.  I don´t consider myself a tiny person, but I also don´t think I´m large.  Oh well.  I then had to sift through the tiny triangle bikini sets.  Hilarious, and not a style I think suits my curvy shape.  We settled on two bikinis.  They are absolutely beautiful, a work of art I must say.  On one of the styles I decided to go for a typical Brazilian style bikini where the bottoms just about cover your bottom.  I spent most of the time trying to take them out of my bum and realising that´s where they were supposed to be.  Think it may take a bit of getting used to.

The house in Ubatuba was lovely, just the place for a beach getaway or family get-togethers, it even came with a resident dog.

I don´t think I´ve ever been to so many beautiful beaches in such a short space of time.  For three days we visited two beaches a day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

On day one after having lunch we visited one of the most stunning beaches I´ve ever visited, Domingas Dias.  At just 400 metres it was perfect in every way, lush green vegetation surrounding it, beautiful houses that unobtrusively backed onto the beach and large rocks that sat either side of the beach.  Tom and I have chosen the one where we´d like to live.  

Each day Mateus took us to two different beaches, each with their own style.  One of the beaches had a surf spot so Tom, Matt and myself hired boards for half the day.  Of course I ended up taking my board back early frustrated with my lack of surfing skills and completely battered by the waves.

We visited plain beaches, beaches with huge rocks on either side, beaches where we had to walk through a jungle to get to, then swim through a pool before resting on rocks, deserted beaches, beaches full of European tourists and beaches where it was just the five of us.  We didn´t tire, well we fell asleep in the back of the car on the way home, but Matueus always drove, never tiring.  What a legend.

 

 

 

Every evening we´d light up the BBQ and while the evening away playing monopoly, listening to music and eating.  Our first night Mateus gave us a lesson in making Caprinhi so every evening we´d come home with a new fruit to add to the cocktail.  Luana would patiently tell us what each strange looking fruit we picked up in the supermarket.

They both had the patience of saints.  Taking us to restaurants they´d go through each item on the menu then order for us.  They advise us on the tasty cold drinks in the corner shops or what tasty breakfast treats we should try.  We were thoroughly thoroughly looked after.

 



Sunday
May222011

Mateus and Luana

After a few days of samba bars and coffee shops we met Mateus.  Tom and Mateus used to work together in London.  Luckily for us, Mateus and his girlfriend Luana had just moved back to Sao Paulo after 11 years in the UK.  Excited to back in their home country and it being the Easter holidays they wanted to take us on a road trip.

I don´t know what it´d be like to move back home after being away for so many years, but we were all deeply touched that after being back only a few days they were happy to spend a week with us.  I´d never met Luana before, and had only met Mateus once before for five minutes.  Neither of them knew Matt.  Before the roadtrip we were to meet their friends.

Mateus had arranged for us to stay a couple of nights with his friends.  Tom and I stayed with Sassi and his lovely wife Mirela.  Mateus, Luana and Matt stayed with Caio and his wife Karina.  Again we were touched at the generosity of his friends.  Offering a bed to people they´d never met was extremely kind.

That evening we ate.  We ate late into the night in a true Brazilian BBQ style.  Everyone eats together at the same time not a burger with fake cheese in sight.  The sausages and steaks were well seasoned and were cut up into pieces for all to help themselves to.  The sausages had lime drizzled over them and the steak was cooked to everyone´s taste, simply coming off the BBQ a bit earlier for those who preferred it rare.  I ate it all.  When a joint of meat was finished Sassi simply put another one on.

Sunday
May222011

Havaianas

How I see it, if you´re in Brazil then you should visit the Havaianas flip flop store.  My current flip flops had more or less died a death having been worn every day through India, Nepal and Africa.  Tom´s were trying to kill him as the thong kept popping out of the hole tripping him up on a daily basis.  This was a genuine reason to shop, I didn´t need an excuse.

It was flip flop heavan.  I had five pairs in my hand at one point.  Tom had to pry three out of my hand and convince me that I didn´t need all five.  I still think he might be wrong about that.

After a full hour in the store, we walked out wearing our bouncy new shoes, the old ones disposed of in the shop´s bin.  I was giddy and exciteable and kept looking down at my feet now wondering where I could get a pedicure to fully show off my beautiful flip flops

Not sure why but Tom is trying on trainers!

The bag on Tom's shoulder is full of flip flops

 

Sunday
Apr172011

Brazil - 11th April 2011

Wow, another continent another adventure.  It's quite exciting.  

Tom and I spent the best part of forty five minutes at Sao Paulo airport trying to withdraw cash from the ATM.  We tried every cash point in the airport and couldn't figure out why it wouldn't give us any money.  A passerby took pity on us and told us that after midnight you´re only able to withdraw a maximum of  Rs100.  We were trying to withdraw Rs500.

Matt arrived the following morning.  It was weird to see him.  He'd lost so much weight.  Matt if you don´t know, is a friend of ours from New Zealand but lives in the UK but is heading back to New Zealand at the end of the year.  He´s a Kiwi-Brit and is excitedly travelling on his new passport for the first time.

So we three Brits are travelling around South America for the next three months.


First stop, Villa Madelena in Sao Paulo.  This was Matt´s choosing, as Tom and I couldn´t move our heads out of Africa so left the booking of our first few nights accommodation in Brazil to Matt.  It was a lovely place, very trendy.

It was weird being there for the first few days.  We had to switch our heads out of Africa mode back to western living.  Whilst having lunch a street-vendor tried to sell something to us and without skipping a beat I dismissed him with a quick flick of my hand and a ´Nao Obrigada´(no thank you).  Only when it was pointed out to me did I realise how rude I must have seemed.  In Africa, if you show even the slightest bit of interest you can have a hard time trying to convince the seller you´re not interested in buying anything.

It's not as hot here.  I'm not complaining though.  I'm still able to wear shorts and a t-shirt, so I guess what I mean is I don´t feel I´m about to pass out if I don´t drink enough water and walk in the shade.  I guess that´s a good thing.

Our first few days are spent wondering the city and visiting the amazing second hand shops that would´ve left our pockets empty had we been at home.

It was sometimes a gamble ordering from the menu in restaurants.  Tom and Matt got it seriously wrong on this order.  They thought they were ordering a simple burger.  Thankfully I ordered the chicken salad.

 

Sao Paulo is full of graffiti, not tagging but actual art.  It´s really quite nice and certainly isn´t seen as vandalism.  I´m sure it´s encouraged.

 

 

Sunday
Apr172011

Leaving Africa

I feel sad writing this.

I loved Africa.  I love Africa.  I miss it dearly and think about the next time I will be back because we will go back.

I think about the reasons why this part of the trip was so important to me.  I wanted to know a bit about the continent where my family originated from pre-slavery.  I wanted to know if I would fit in.  If there was a similarity to the people in Jamiaca, to my family.  I wanted to learn how to dance like an African woman.  I wanted to know if I would feel a connection some how, if I felt like I was home.

What I learnt is I will always, in some way, feel like a minority there.  I share the same looks and some characteristics, but being British born to Jamaican parents I suppose it was strange to think I could walk into a country and be one of them.

To everyone else, until I spoke, I was African.  I can dance like them, well a little bit any way as I still have to work on the bum movements.  My mannerisms are similar, my hair is the same, longer but the same, but as my Dred said it's not down to anyone else but me.  If I feel African then I'm African.

It got to me, it relaxed me.  I felt like I'd had the stresses of everyday life gently shaken out of me.  It was like being on a dance floor and not having to worry if you knew the latest steps, or if you knew any steps at all.  It never felt like we were being judged.  We wondered how we'd be accepted as a mixed-race couple.  If anything Africa was inquisitive about us as we were about them.    They have a natural curiosity about foreigners so we were welcomed with open arms.  It was truly heartfelt.  I don't know how else to explain it.

Anyone who visits Africa will come away with a different experience.  Mine was this.  I am who I am.  I am Afro-Carribean.  I'm British.  I'm black.  And I am extremely proud of my family and what makes me Charmin Smart.  There is no-one who can take my belief of my strong sense of being away from me.

Africa will always be in my heart.

My bracelets from Nepal, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique

 

 usual type of shop counter

Me in a traditional Tanzanian Kanga wrap