7 Months in OZ – Life in Alice Springs

Home celebrations!

Home celebrations!

Farewell Breakfast

Farewell Breakfast

After a hectic 6 weeks back in England, catching up with friends and family I was back at the airport and on my way to Australia. Luckily I love flying so I was ready for the 27 hour-long journey. We stopped at Shanghai for enough time to have a cuppa, a quick meal and even getting to know a really nice girl from Sheffield who was visiting family in Aus, plus it’s always nice to have someone else around to make sure you don’t miss the connecting flight!

All Packed Up

All Packed Up

Best Green Tea in China

Traditional Green Tea in China

I am so glad I got a window seat because as we came into land it looked as though the flight path went straight over Sydney and the harbour view from above was an awesome sight and got me super psyched to go and explore the city.

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I arrived at the hostel and felt instantly at home in my 4 person dorm. As I arrived in the morning I attempted to cheat jet-lag by staying up as long as possible. For me this involved staying as far, far away from my bed as possible. I walked to the nearest shopping centre hoping the excitement of exploring Australian shops would be stimulating. Consuming lots of coffee and discovering totally delicious Australian chocolate biscuits, Tim Tams, I made it to the evening before crashing out.

The fact is I didn’t have time to be jet-lagged. I started a short course in hospitality basics along with gaining the qualification to serve alcohol in Australia. The course was over 2 weeks. In that time I refreshed my coffee-making, cocktail making and waiter skills. In between lessons there was plenty of time to check out the sights of Sydney. Of course the iconic Sydney Harbour is a must see that didn’t disappoint. The city tour I went on showed me what else Sydney had to offer. It’s a seriously cool, slick city with an interesting history and mash-up of cultures. I explored as much as I could along with my friend Jesse from the Hostel and quickly began to feel at home in city.

Iconic Harbour Bridge

Iconic Harbour Bridge

 

Blue Mountain Outside Sydney

Blue Mountain Outside Sydney

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My goal however was to secure a job quickly. With the help of an agency I had an interview set up with a hotel as a food and beverage attendant. The next day I signed a contract and booked the one way flight to Alice Springs, a town right at the centre of Australia in the desert. My main reason for choosing the outback location is that figured it would be a good place to save money as there wouldn’t be a lot do except work!

It's the Red Centre for a reason!

It’s the Red Centre for a reason!

Room with a view

Room with a view

During my first 10 days I had a room and meals at the Hotel whilst I settled into the job and found a place to live. It was a steep learning curve as I began very early morning breakfast shifts, late nights in the restaurant all whilst trying to find a flat. With the amount of hours I was doing at least I picked up everything quickly! Luckily with only a few days left at the Hotel and after seeing a few dodgy flats and tiny rooms I found the perfect place, only a short walk from work, in a gated block, a nice housemate, a big room with the huge plus of having my own bathroom. I set up my room giving it a few personal touches and my favourite thing, I got to buy kitchen ware! After living in hostels for nearly a year it was so nice to have things of my own and my personal space back!

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

My lovely bike. Great for cruising the commute

My lovely bike. Great for cruising the commute

I had good intentions when I first arrived in Alice to have a life outside work. I made a good effort during the first month finding out what volunteer groups I could join, getting my library card, going to the Sunday market and even joining the local roller derby team.

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View of the town from Anzac Hill (war memorial)

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However as my training progressed at work and the busy season began I was doing more and more shifts, longer and longer days to the point where if I wasn’t working I was sleeping, food shopping, doing laundry or as a treat relaxing at the cinema!

I also was still not feeling 100% from my illness in Mexico a few months before, so I was having tests run with the local doctor. For a few months the work load and lack of energy with feeling ill was pretty tough to handle at times, but I eventually got my diagnosis of IBS (irritable bowl syndrome). Even though it may not be curable the medication and changes in diet, including no more dairy 😦 are helping for now. Fingers crossed I will be able to eat cheese again!


So with everything going on, 6 months went by scarily quick.

Working at the Hotel has certainly been an experience. I still find it strange to think of myself as a bartender, but really enjoy it, especially the cocktail making! Over the months I learnt so much, got some amazing opportunities to work at events, weddings and various functions both at the hotel and off-site. What made it though were the people I got to work with. I have made some great friends and they have given me awesome memories from my time in Alice.

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View from behind the bar- Where the magic happens!

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Uniform Selfie!

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Perks of the job – use of the pool!

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Function I helped set up in an unused quarry

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I set up all this on my own!

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Team cutlery cleaning – behind the scenes!


One of the most surreal moments was on my very last shift. I was waitressing in the restaurant, had to help serving behind the bar when a large tour group arrived. I looked up to serve the next customer and had an instant flash of recognition. It really threw me. I managed to get their drinks whilst trying to verify with my own usually poor memory if this person was in fact my secondary school science teacher, or I was going mad! On handing over the drinks I decided just to ask him if he happened to teach at Steyning Grammar School. He looked pretty taken aback and said yes! It was such a lovely shock and on giving my name he remembered me and Nicola as his students. Now that is a small world scenario! We had a nice catch up and it was just really nice to see someone from home, especially on my final shift.

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Relaxing after work

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Colour Smash – Where we walked around a 5km circuit and got smashed with paint powder!

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It is difficult to sum up what it is like living in Alice Springs. I’ve only been here 7 months and even though I didn’t get the opportunity to really get involved there is strong sense of community here, which you can sense just by walking around town and interacting with the locals. There is always something going on if you look for it.

“The town’s focal point, the Todd Mall, hosts a number of Aboriginal art galleries and community events. Alice Springs’ desert lifestyle has inspired several unique events, such as the Alice Desert Festival Camel Cup, the Henley-on-Todd Regatta, Beanie Festival and the Finke Desert Race. The Finke Desert Race is some 400 kilometres (250 mi) south of Alice Springs in the Simpson Desert.” (Wikipedia)

The other side of Alice is that of the Aboriginal community. I’m not going to pretend I understand the history and politics of the situation but just my experience of it is that on the whole, the Aboriginal people here don’t bother you if you don’t bother them. It is also a confrontational gesture to look them in the eye in their culture. This was a little difficult to get used to as I just felt rude not acknowledging them, but in the end you get used to it. The main problems arise due to alcohol. The Northern Territory has the largest alcohol consumption in Australia, by an enormous margin. For me this meant not walking around at night on your own and always get a taxi home on a night out and in general just be wary of attracting unwanted attention. As with every place there are safer and not so safe areas and just being aware of these meant I haven’t seen much of the negative side of the Aborigines here.


Finishing work at the beginning of November I had another month before Mum and Dad came to Alice. I decided to stay here for the month as the flights to and from Alice are expensive. During the month I thought I could get another job, however helping to organise the month-long trip around Australia with my parents along with trying to figure out my plan after the trip, took more time than I anticipated. I was worried the weeks would go slowly, on the contrary it is only 2 days until I leave Alice and I still haven’t got everything sorted!  I have started to pack up everything and get ready to leave Alice.The month long trip begins with a road trip from Alice to see Uluru, down to Adelaide, along the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne. We then fly to Tasmania for Christmas, on to Brisbane and the Gold Coast for New Year, heading south along the east coast before finishing in Sydney in time for my Birthday!

Busy Organising the holiday

Busy Organising the holiday

After the holiday and I say goodbye to Mum and Dad I have 3 months left on my work visa, unless I decide to complete my 3 months rural work which is required to apply for a second year visa. I haven’t got a plan as yet but sure that by my next blog entry I will be able to update you all.

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and happy New Year!

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Best of the Rest – Nicaragua to Mexico

Ok so I haven’t been that up to date with my blog. In fact I’ve now been in Australia for nearly 7 months, but before I let you know about my current adventure I thought it would be best to summarise on my last two months in Central America.

After leaving the Hostel in Costa Rica I had a pretty epic journey of waving down buses on highways, being hungover on cramped hot chicken buses (old American School Buses) for several hours, finished off with luckily a smooth ferry crossing and I had made it to Nicaragua and the island of Ometepe.

View from my hammock

View from my hammock

Here I stayed at a jungle hacienda in the hills of the island. It was very remote as I needed a few days to chill out and re-group. I planned to stay here for my birthday and had visions of spending my birthday reading in a hammock and going for nice walk in the jungle up the volcano and enjoy the quiet atmosphere. It turns out it was a bit too quiet and on the morning of my birthday I made the decision to get off the island and make the trip to the capital of Nicaragua, Grenada. As it was my birthday I treated myself to a 2 hour taxi ride (instead of a possible 5 hour bus ride) to the city. Arriving at the hostel in Granada I knew it was the right decision and got to hang out by the pool and found a lovely French patisserie for a birthday treat.

My Birthday Sandwich

My Birthday Sandwich

After a nice few days exploring Granada I was so keen to get on and learn to scuba dive that I decided travel straight to Honduras and onto the island of Utila, which is know as the cheapest and best places in Central America to complete the PADI training. With a plan in place I left Nicaragua and travelled overnight to the capital of Hondorus, also technically the most dangerous city in the world, San Juan del Sur. As I had already pre-booked a taxi through the hostel and only staying the one night, I didn’t encounter anything that made me feel unsafe and apparently it’s based on murder per capita and even the murders tend to be concentrated within the criminal community, which made me feel a bit safer!

The next morning I boarded my bus set for the ferry to the island, followed by one of the most nauseating ferry crossings I’ve ever experienced! You know you’re in for a bad ride when the locals are getting there sick bags ready.

Finally back on land I checked into my scuba diving school and got reading ready for the theory lessons the following day.

I was in a group with four others and over the next 4 days we all made qualified for our PADI open water scuba diving certificate. After the first dive honestly I didn’t really enjoy it. The whole sensation of having the heavy uncomfortable gear on you, the mask and the bulky air tank then breathing underwater did make me panic initially. Plus I had an overwhelming urge to get back up to the surface and really had to make a big effort not to just surface and rip my mask off. Overcoming this and getting through that first session was a challenge but I’m proud I did it as the second trip underwater already felt more normal and I even began to feel comfortable, so when it came to going through the open water tests we had to complete, which included having to take your mask fully off, putting it back on and emptying it of water came a bit more easily. In-between the underwater lessons getting familiar with the equipment, breathing techniques and hand signals we went on fun dives and got to explore the surrounding reef. This is what makes everything else worth it. The reef life was amazing and feeling weightless swimming around it was a truly awesome experience. For anyone who hasn’t scuba dived, the best way to describe the sensation is if you can imagine what it’s like being a fish extra in Finding Nemo.

Diving Crew!

Diving Crew!

So now finally qualified to scuba dive I left the island and headed to Guatemala. I stopped off in Guatemala City to indulge in a day at the mall, checking out the food court and the cinema. After a nice normal day I got on a bus to the city of Antigua. Here I learnt all about the Maya culture and really enjoyed the atmosphere of the city. The highlight was the nearby volcano, Pacaya that had started erupting the week before. The Pacaya volcano is one of Guatemala’s most active volcanoes, and its frequent eruptions are often visible from Guatemala City. Typical activity in recent years includes strombolian activity, lava flow emission and intermittent violent phases of lava fountaining.

Pacaya Volcano

Pacaya Volcano

There was a night excursion that took you right up to the lava field and a stunning view of the bright red lava running slowly down the hillside into a valley, forming fresh lava fields. Another experience to tick off the bucket list and one I will never forget.

In the back of a truck to get over to the volcano

In the back of a truck to get over to the volcano

Glimpse of the Lava flow

Glimpse of the Lava flow


Unfortunately I picked up a nasty stomach bug in Antigua which influenced my decision to head to a relaxing island known to be a hippie chill-out hangout only accessible by boats.

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Lake Atitlan is recognized to be the deepest lake in Central America with maximum depth about 340 metres. The lake is shaped by deep escarpments which surround it and by three volcanoes on its southern flank. Lake Atitlan is further characterized by towns and villages of the Maya people. The lake is surrounded by many villages, in which Maya culture is still prevalent and traditional dress is worn. There is no road that circles the lake. Communities are reached by boat or roads from the mountains that may have brief extensions along the shore.

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I spent the next few days in a lovely hostel on the shores of Lake Atitlan taking time to write a few blog entries, doing some yoga lessons my the lake and walking around part of the lake. Even stumbling across an exclusive hotel with an infinity pool, which just helped with my relaxation expedition all the more! It was really nice to get away from the cities for a while and enjoy having nothing to do but relax and certainly helped my illness improve.

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If I had stayed any longer I was at risk of becoming a yogi hippie who didn’t shave, wear deodorant and played a ukulele wherever they go (not a stereotype but an actual eye witness account). So I continued on my journey through Guatemala onward into the centre of the country and the highlands.


Here there is a very remote natural attraction called Semuc Champey. The area is only accessible along a dirt road and requires a night stay at one of the lodges built nearby. The tour starts with an adventure through the limestone caves where you make your way through the darkness by candlelight. It involves wading and swimming through water, climbing rocks and waterfalls and jumping into natural pools.

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The next stage is a nice little ride down the river on rubber tubes and then onto the main attraction consisting of a natural 300 m limestone bridge, under which passes the Cahabón River. Atop the bridge is a series of stepped, crystal clear turquoise pools where the guide took us through along the natural slides and jumping off ledges to reach each pool.

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Pools from the viewing point. Worth the 45 min hike up!

Pools from the viewing point. Worth the 45 min hike up!


My last stop in Guatemala was the epic Tikal National Park.

In the heart of the jungle, surrounded by lush vegetation, lies one of the major sites of Mayan civilization, inhabited from the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. The ceremonial centre contains amazing temples and palaces along with remains of dwellings scattered throughout the surrounding countryside.

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The reserve contains the largest area of tropical rainforest in Guatemala and Central America, with a wide range of unspoilt natural habitats. Tikal protects some 22,100 ha of rainforest where over 2,000 plant species can be identified and Fifty-four species of mammal occur. In the heart of this jungle, surrounded by lush vegetation, lies one of the major sites of the Mayan civilization. The ruined city reflects the cultural evolution of Mayan society from hunter- gathering to farming, with an elaborate religious, artistic and scientific culture which finally collapsed in the late 9th century. At its height, AD 700-800, the city supported a population of 90,000 Mayan Indians. There are over 3,000 separate buildings dating from 600 BC to AD 900, including temples, residences, religious monuments decorated with hieroglyphic inscriptions and tombs. Excavations have yielded remains of cotton, tobacco, beans, pumpkins, peppers and many fruits of pre-Columbian origin.

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Tikal has also featured in some of my favourite films; Indiana Jones, Star Wars and Monsters! Finally getting to explore and learning about the Mayan civilisation was another highlight for me with the eerie jungle atmosphere playing a big part in the experience along with the cries of the howler monkey, which is the noise used in Jurassic Park for the T-Rex. When we first heard the noise from the jungle I was pretty convinced a dinosaur could appear at any moment and that I was in fact in Jurassic Park! Climbing through the ancient city made me feel like I could also find Dr Jones scavenging for artefacts in the temples. I think I just made it sound like Disneyland!

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Next it was an eight hour dirt track minibus ride to a river crossing on a pretty sketchy boat to an even sketchier border crossing where I had now become used to the obligatory made up border crossing ‘fees’. But I had finally made it to Mexico! Still suffering from my mystery digestive illness I checked myself into a Best Western and spent the following few days feeling rubbish, but finally made it out to explore the town and most importantly sample my absolute favourite cuisine, Mexican food!! It didn’t disappoint. Here I had the BEST nachos, guacamole and tacos I’ve ever tasted. They also made an insane chicken, lime and avocado soup which was also luckily a bit more tummy friendly.

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After a nice rest it was off North to the city of Merida. It is the cultural and financial capital of the Yucatán Peninsula, as well as the capital city of the state of Yucatán. Still feeling ill I got an amazing deal on room at a Hilton hotel (I was not ready to slum it in a hostel dorm again just yet). I had 5 days here until I met Nicola in Cancun so my priority was to rest up and get better. Merida is also something of a Hospital hot spot so I made my way to the free public hospital, was seen straight away by an English speaking Dr and within a few minutes was given some medication. Not wanting to really miss an opportunity to eat lots of Mexican food I made daily trips to the local Wall-Mart for the awesome delicatessen adventure, although I found the only thing that I could really eat without any major repercussions were twix bars! The town itself was full of culture and was really vibrant, plus the people were all lovely.


Feeling a bit better and obviously very excited to see my sister I got to Cancun airport and stood waiting outside arrivals with my home-made sign.  After 10 minutes of sign holding and thinking I’d spotted her, incorrectly 3 times, I headed instead to Margaritaville (a American chain restaurant famous for Margaritas!) It always looks good in films but in real life sign holding is pretty tiresome! Also it turned out Nicola’s flight was delayed by three hours, so on her arrival there was time for a quick hug before I dragged her to a taxi and on to the hotel in Playa del Carmen, just south along the coast.

We spent the next two nights in Playa Del Carmen catching up, checking out the surrounding shops, coffee shops and restaurants while planning the rest of our trip.

Deciding to travel to Belize first we got a bus to the border, stayed for one night in border town of Corozal before getting a boat to the island of San Pedro. Here we spent a lovely few days exploring the island by foot, bike and boat.

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Manatee Safari

Manatee Safari

Manatee Spotted!

Manatee Spotted!

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Helping the local Humane Society by taking these cute puppies for a walk

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We then headed to the neighbouring island of Caye Caulker. Again spending our days snorkelling around the reef, lounging on jetties and sampling the local food. On what happened to be valentines day we had a lovely evening watching a film in the open-air cinema. There is nothing like watching a film in a deck chair surrounded my trees, wildlife and the night sky.

Relaxing on the jetty

Relaxing on the jetty

View from the Hotel

View from the Hotel

The next stop was back on the mainland, south of Belize city to a picturesque beach town called Placencia, at the southern tip of a sandy peninsula. It’s a sleepy beach town with plenty of cafes, restaurants and shops along the broad-walk, so again we spent the days taking in the chilled out relaxing atmosphere.

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A local had mentioned there was a top Belizian restaurant in one of the resorts just out of town. If you ate there you also were allowed to use the resort facilities including nice pool and loungers. Fancying a slight change to the beach Nicola and I rented a pair of beach cruiser bikes, advised it was about 30 minutes up the road and were on our way.

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It made for a perfect ride, following the main road along the coast, completely flat with a cooling sea breeze. Thirty minutes into the ride and Nicola cycling in-front with the map, it soon became clear we hadn’t even reached halfway. With only Hotels for markers it was taking a lot longer to cycle from one to the next and on the map they looked so close together! With the promise of amazing poolside cuisine we kept going, imagining we were only around the corner Eventually over an hour after starting and  cycling at least 20km we made it. Bright red and sweaty we set up on some loungers and went straight for refreshing dip in the pool.

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Luckily the food and location was totally worth it. It was then time to head back which involved a mad sprint at the end to reach the rental shop in time, justifying an ice-cream treat!

Cerviche and plantain treat

Cerviche and plantain treat

Post epic bike ride ice-cream

Post epic bike ride ice-cream


Coming to the end of the trip it was time to get the long bus journey back to Mexico. Over 10 hours, several buses, sitting at the back on a tractor tyre, having to bundle with our rucksacks to get on the bus we eventually made it to our hotel in Cancun.

The last few days in Cancun could not have been more fun. With a lovely Hotel in the city centre we got to explore the areas away from the big resorts, even stumbling on a cool local night market and top rated Mexican restaurant.

Beach Club Luxury!

Beach Club Luxury!

The Hotel also had a free shuttle to the resort area and free entry to one of the beach clubs. It was nice to not have paid anything and still get VIP treatment, even though they insisted on blasting out rubbish music all day and the pool was just surrounded by people drinking and worried about how they looked so me and Nicola ended up having a good splash around in the kids pool instead but still made the most of the hospitality. If anything it was an excellent few days people watching!

On our last free day we headed to Wet n’Wild for a totally awesome day of water slides, lazy rivers and the wave machine plus free food and drinks all day. Making the most of free cocktails may have cut our time on the slides short but the best end to an incredible trip.

Last meal

Last meal

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The morning of our flights we spent as many hours as possible in the Hotel pool, contemplating plans to ‘accidentally’ miss the fight and stay forever but sanity prevailed and we made it to the airport for our flights home.

Touching down at Gatwick I was already planning my first British meal in 9 months. I had been craving a good curry the whole time I was away, so a few hours after I landed dumping my stuff at home, it was a quick shower and off to the curry house and the best curry ever!

Home after 9 months!

Home after 9 months!

I spent 6 weeks back at home catching up with friends and family along with planning my trip to Australia. I will be updating you all with my Australia trip so far on my next blog entry.I promise it won’t take me as long this time!

Thanks for taking the time to read about my travels through South and Central America.

It ‘s nice being able to share it.

Beginning my Central America Journey – Panama and Costa Rica!

It’s scary to think this was last year but I figured it was about time I got up to date with my blog, so here are the missing entries!

November 2013

I caught my flight from Quito to Panama city to begin my four months travelling north through Central America.

Panama city was always going to be a quick stopover but in the 2 days I was there I was really impressed by the city and it had a really cool atmosphere. To make the most of my time I went on a hop-on/hop-off tour of the city. The Panama canal is the main draw for tourists here, not knowing what to expect the whole experience was really interesting and enjoyable. Unfortunately I was too early to watch any of the large cargo ships go through the canal but just seeing the structure was impressive, along with the museum and information centre it made me really appreciate the importance of the canal. 

Panama Canal Info:

The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade, making 2-4 Billion Dollars annually and employing 9000 workers who help guide about 12-15 thousand ships a year across the Isthmus. There are locks at each end to lift ships up to Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal, 26 metres (85 ft) above sea level. The current locks are 33.5 metres (110 ft) wide.  It was one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken but an invaluable short-cut that greatly reduced the amount of time taken for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route. 

Panama Canal

 

After my brief stay i got an overnight bus to the Caribbean coast and the small town of Bocas del toro. Arriving at 5:30am I got a quick taxi ride to the dock in time to catch the first boat to Bocas. Watching the sunrise as we sped across the bay certainly made the previous uncomfortable bus journey worth it.
Here I also got to catch up with Laura and Will again and over the next two days we visited nearby beaches via water taxis that were truly idyllic.

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Courtesy of Laura and Will

Bocas was also having it’s independence day celebrations. This meant all day and night parades through the streets. The processions were full of dancing, bright costumes and lots of drumming. Honestly it was all great initially but after a few hours the constant loud drumming and xylophone playing did get a little too much and complaining about the racket made me feel old! It was a great time to be in Bocas but after a bit of partying it was time to move on.

Next stop was a nice little town in the centre of Panama, close to the Costa Rican border, called Boquete. Basically we heard it was a nice place to serve as a stopover to then get the bus to Costa Rica. It was a quaint little town and a perfect place to do not a lot. I spent my day chilling out and much needed planning time to research where to go next in Costa Rica. Although it was a quiet town there was a brief flurry of excitement one afternoon when someone in a 4×4 managed to drive through the entrance of the supermarket and into the vegetable display! This being central America they just rearranged the veg and roped of the area, which left for a most surreal shopping experience.

I left for Costa Rica in bit of a rush as I had met a girl, Amanda, in Ecuador who was working at a hostel on the Pacific coast in Cost Rica. I was looking to try and spend some time in one place again and doing some volunteering, ideally in hostel so I could work in exchange for accommodation as Costa Rica is an expensive place to travel. Whilst in Panama, Amanda contacted me and offered me a position at the hostel. It sounded perfect and it meant I would have a place to stay over Christmas and New Years. On different itineraries again I said goodbye to Laura and Will and set off for San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica).
I had a week of travelling before I needed to start work at the hostel and I had been recommended two places in the highlands to check out.
The first the small town of La Fortuna. It sits underneath the volcano Arenal. It is known for it’s thermal springs, rafting and hiking. With it being similar to Banos in Ecuador I decided to just visit the volcano. The whole trip I had been waiting for a good time to go horse riding and they did a horse riding trek on the volcano which was ideal for me. Only having done the odd pony trek I was a bit nervous about getting on an actual horse. Luckily as a beginner I got given a horse called Grandma, which gives you an indication of the speed she went! Getting some brief instructions on steering we started on the path around the volcano. We actually went on a trek across some beautiful farmland with the volcano in sight the whole time. After few shaky uphill sections and unintentionally getting a bit of speed up me and Grandma made a good team and by the end I actually felt kind of comfortable with her. 

Me and Gradma

Me and Grandma

The next stop was accessible from La Fortuna on a jeep-boat-jeep excursion. Half a day travelling and I arrived in the small highland town of Monteverde. The main pull here is the canopy tours they offer and the only reason I made the journey here.

The Canopy zip-lining  trail comprises of 24 platforms and 15 cables, 5 of which are incredibly long: 467m, 425m, 600m, 750m and ultimately the 1 km cable, as well as a 30 metre vertical Rappel and a Tarzan Swing. The Tarzan Swing enables you to free-fall a few metres before the harness safely lifts you into a relaxing swooping swing of up to 50 metres high amongst the trees. The grand finale is the Supercable which stretches the distance of 1 kilometre, at a height of 180 metres, the highest and longest zip line in Monteverde. On clear days you get stunning views of Volcan Arenal, the Pacific Ocean in the Nicoya Gulf and the Guanacaste area in the North of the country.

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Link To My Superman Zipline Video!

From Monteverde I then made the journey by a few buses to Playa Samara, my home for the next six weeks.

I ended up staying at the Hostel, Las Mariposas, for 6 weeks. These were some of the best weeks of my trip. I worked at the Hostel for 5 hours a day, 6 days a week in return for free accommodation. The work itself was cleaning rooms/social areas, laundry, manning the Hostel reception and checking guests in/out along with helping organise social events or at least making sure everyone was having a good stay. I worked along side 3 Dutch girls and an Aussie girl who all became great friends. I really embraced the slow paced beach lifestyle. With the beach on the doorstep and pristine ocean I would go for a daily swim and hang out on the beach in between cycling around town to the shops or simply laying in a hammock with a fresh coconut nursing a hangover! Part of entertaining the guests also meant a fair bit of group meals and social drinks in the evenings followed by a trip to one of the 5 bars/clubs or the weekly open mic night. Even though it is a small town, the main industry is tourism so there was plenty of things do, so checking out all the amazing restaurants was also a plus and of course getting familiar with Costa Rican living. This included a rodeo over Christmas with locals getting into the arena with a bull and trying to outrun it! New Years celebrations were an amazing evening of beach bonfires, fireworks, music and a lot of dancing on the beach.

It would be difficult to write every experience I had here but it was a really special place where I met amazing people and it was very difficult to leave, but an awesome start to 2014!

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Day trip to a waterfall

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Helping at a local wedding where we ended up not only waitressing but setting the table and even laying the roses on the aisle!

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Spending an evening watching turtles come to shore to dig a hole and lay their eggs before returning back to sea

the hostel

The Hostel

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costa rican breakfast Gallo Pinto – The traditional Costa Rican Breakfast

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hostel dogchicken laying egghostel workchristmas decorationsnew years Samara Beach, The Hostel Dog, the fresh egg I used to find in my clothes, Hostel Work, Christmas Decorations and the New Year Party Crew!

christmas morning!

Banana Pancakes and fresh Coconuts on Christmas morning. Sorah, Amanda, Eefje, Me and Kat.

 

 

Nature month in Ecuador

After the hectic month of ORCA followed by the Inca trek I continued at this pace by following my flight from Cusco to Lima with a 28 hr long bus journey from Lima straight along the Peruvian coast, into Ecuador to Guayaquil (nothing special but good for a normal day at the big shopping mall and a trip to the cinema – my first in 5 months!) Laura and Will had recommended a hostel here that was also a good tour agency for Galapagos trips. I had written off any chance of going to the famous Darwin Islands as I kept hearing how expensive it was (over $2000). So I was surprised when I enquired about a trip to find one of the “first class” cruises wasn’t that more expensive than the lower class “tourist class” (which is smaller quarters and less included in the price). After some serious number crunching I booked flights and the “first class” four day cruise (which although didn’t go far around the islands it went to a good mix of places for which the island is famous for). The following morning I was on the plane for a short flight to one of the biggest islands, Baltra island. Everyone on the flight had grey hair and I was a little apprehensive as to who would be on my cruise. Arriving at the small airport I caught the bus and ferry to Santa Cruz Island and stayed at a lovely hostel and explored the island for two days before the cruise began.

Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay

Finches getting up-close

Finches getting up-close

Big freshwater canyon

Big freshwater canyon

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Rays swimming under the pier

Rays swimming under the pier

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I then had to return to the airport to meet for the cruise and find out who I would be spending the next four days with. I think due to the relatively bargain price of the cruise, it attracted a good range of nationalities and ages. There were several older couples, a group of three 50 year old ladies from Delhi and a group of four lads from London.

The Galapagos Voyager

The Galapagos Voyager

We were taken to the boat and assigned rooms. My roomie was one of the Indian ladies. She was definitely the best roomie. A lovely sweet lady with a wicked sense of humour, thirst for knowledge and a love of travel.
After settling in we assembled in the lounge area and met our guide and crew. The boat was super luxurious, especially compared to some of the hotels I had stayed in. The cabins had 2 single beds and were decorated every day with a flower or swan shaped towel, the bathroom was similar to that of a luxury hotel and the shower was the best on my trip hands down. We were served a delicious breakfast buffet, a hot lunch, snacks throughout the day, a huge dinner plus a bar (no free drinks except for complimentary tea which I made the most of).
We were given our itineraries for each day the night before.
That afternoon we explored Black Turtle Cove which is a red mangrove lagoon perfect for spoting turtles from a dingy.

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Day 2 we visited Puerto Egas and Espumilla Beach on Santiago Island. Hiking along the black beach shore we saw different species of birds, such as hudsonian whimbrel, Galapagos dove, Galapagos mockingbird, the blue footed booby bird, Galapgos hawk, marine iguanas, sea lions and the Galapagos fur sea lion followed by snorkelling at Buccaneers Cove in the afternoon.

Marine Iguanas

Marine Iguanas

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Sea Lion pups!

Sea Lion pups!

P1000136P1000190P1000193P1000208P1000195SAM_1314On day 3 we started by visiting Bartolome Island. It has an altitude of 114 meters, from where we observed one of the most beautiful sceneries of the Galapagos Islands: Volcanic cones, lunar-like craters, lava fields and the famous tuba formed pinnacle eroded by the sea. There is very little vegetation on this island. It has two breathtaking beaches where marine turtles exist. At the base of the Pinnacle rock we then saw a very small colony of Galapagos penguins. The afternoon we went to Sullivan Bay and got to walk on old lava flows and learn about volcanic activity and formations.

waking up to Bartolome Island

waking up to Bartolome Island

Walking to the summit

Walking to the summit

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White tipped reef shark

White tipped reef shark

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Getting the dingy back to the boat

Getting the dingy back to the boat

It was a truly awesome experience. The amount of wildlife and the close proximity with which you could get to the animals was incredible. Our guide was very knowledgeable and was genuinely interested in everything related to the islands.

The snorkelling was the best experience for me with turtles, sea-lions, big schools of fish and even a white tipped reef shark. My favourite animal was the Manta Rays. They would appear with their fins coming up to the surface looking like shark fins. They would then do these huge leaps out of the water (not for fun but to remove a small painful parasites or suckerfish off their bodies) but it was lovely to watch especially one evening at sunset we were sailing to our next stop and a big group of manta rays came along side the boat. In the light of the sunset it was a really special site to see.
The lava formations, volcanoes and craters we saw were another highlight.
After four days on the boat and with the last evening luckily being the only rough night at sea; but suffering from sea-sickness and also being in the company of the same people for four days (the London lads were particularly getting very tiresome) I was ready to leave but the whole experience was worth it and I would definitely love to go back.

Ecuador is such a vibrant country and full of super scenic areas. From the Galapagos I flew back to Guayaquill and bussed it to my next destination, the thermal springs town of Banos.
Here I got to go whitewater rafting one of the best activities I have done and chilled out for the day at a lovely spa hotel with the best views of the valley.

Security Briefing

Security Briefing

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Spa Day!

Spa Day!

Banos from above

Banos from above

Banos is famous for it’s waterfalls. Lots of people hike or bike to them but short on time and wanting to see them all at once I went on a local bus tour. This turned out to be a sort of party bus and a big attraction for locals. I reminded me of being on a theme park ride. On entering a tunnel through the mountains disco lights and strobes would light up the bus to accompany the loud house music already constantly playing. Despite this it was a good tour and I got to see all the big sights and waterfalls just with added style!

Party Tour Bus

Party Tour Bus

On the bus...Tunnel time!

On the bus…Tunnel time!

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After Banos I continued north towards Quito to Latacunga. I chose this tiny colonial town popular with American retirees as it is a great place to start tours from and there are two star attractions close by;
One was a day trip to Lake Quliotoa…a relatively newley formed crater lake (800 years old). Quilotoa is a 3km wide water-filled caldera and the most western volcano in the Ecuadorian Andes.

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The other was Volcano Cotopaxi. One of the worlds highest active volcanoes. The hike took a good hour and at 4800 m was quite tough but taking a few steps at a time it was manageable. The surrounding scenery was stunning and a thunderstorm rumbling with occasional fork lightning in the distance made the climb feel pretty epic.

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I reached the refuge point in good time and waited for the rest of the group in the lodge with a delicious hot chocolate and packed lunch. It was then time to visit the glacier.

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An amazing sight plus we got to see a few ice-climbers practising making their way up the glacier before their early morning ascent to the summit (only for serious climbers).
My next and final stop in Ecuador was the captial city of Quito. Here I stayed in the old historic centre. There are some lovely buildings and churches in the city but my highlight was definitely the equator line.

The equator monument, but not the actual equator. The real equator is 300m up the road!

The equator monument, but not the actual equator. The real equator is 300m up the road!

The real equator!

The real equator!

Experiments at the equator...at midday here there is no shadow! We also witnessed the coriolis force on the earth, where water doesnt spin down the plughole on the equator and spins in opposite direction on either side of the equator!

Experiments at the equator…at midday here there is no shadow! We also witnessed the coriolis effect on the earth, where water doesn’t spin at all down the plughole on the equator and spins in opposite direction on either side of the equator!

A whole lot of walking…

Both times I made the visit to Cusco I had a great experience.
The first being a few chilled out days exploring the historic Inca city of Cusco, getting to meet up with a friend, Carolina from University, who had been in the city for a month so I had some great insider info on the best places to check out. I also got to catch up with Katherine, who I met in Bolivia and along with another New Zealand girl, Briar staying at the same hostel we all spent a nice few days just hanging out.
One of the nicest days was when Katherine, Briar and I went for a small hike on the outskirts of the city to the Jesus statue overlooking the city and was meant to have awesome views. After a few miss-directions and going the slightly dodgy route to avoid the entrance fee we reached the top. Our route came out 5 minutes away from the statue and onto a field by the main road. To our surprise the field was covered with families enjoying a sunny Saturday afternoon and nearly all were out to fly their kites. Everyone looked like they were having such a good time we decided to join in. Luckily there was a guy selling kites and we began putting together our pink kite decorated with dolphins. We all forgot how much fun it is to fly a kite and spent a few hours soaking up the sun and perfecting keeping the kite up in the air. It was nice to be involved in something not touristy and completely unexpected for an afternoon.

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My second visit to Cusco was specifically for the Inca trek (4 days walking 42km, seeing Inca ruins and finishing with Machupicchu).
Because the visitor permits are limited daily you have to book your trek six months in advance. As me Laura and Will booked it long before the start of our trip it meant I got to catch back up with them for a few days.
After meeting a lot of people who had already completed the trek I was always asking about their own experiences, which was usually “It was the hardest walk I’ve ever had to do”, “ You’ll never want to walk again” and “You won’t go to the toilet for 4 days, they’re gross”. So with this in mind I honestly wasn’t looking forward to it, but really you can’t be the only traveller to be in Cusco and not see Machupicchu and we had already paid so really no going back!
Laura found a really good company called Incatrekkers. We simply went with them as their website was good and the guy who set it up was originally from Cusco so made sure his workers received a decent wage.
Our briefing was two nights before the trek. Nervous and excited to find out who else would be in our group (I was hoping for someone less fit than me!) we arrived at the meeting to find that it was just us three in the group. At first I was a little disappointed as its always nice to meet new people, however one day into the trek I was happy it was just us.
We were given our own duffle bag to limit our stuff to 5kg, which a porter would carry and after asking a lot of questions I felt a bit better about the whole thing. Plus Briar had done the same trek a few weeks before and gave me a kinder description of her experience along with some good advice of just stick to your own pace and it’s totally doable.
All packed up and ready to go we were driven to the starting point, given our walking sticks and were ready to set off.

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On the first day we walked (12km). Luckily the terrain was mixed, the weather perfect for walking and the views were amazing as we made our way along the valley.

One of the most surprising aspects of the trek was the service from our porters. It was a bit daunting having so many staff for our group. porters They were an amazing team and made the whole experience.
They all worked really hard, always being the first porters to reach the resting point or campsite to set up the dining tent and our tents before we arrived. They started the day by waking us up with a cup of tea and a basin of hot water for washing. Once we were dressed and packed for the day of hiking they would disassemble our tents while we sat in the dining tent and tucked into breakfast (usually banana pancakes, omelettes, fruit or toast). Once finished with breakfast they would clear up and head on to the first rest point to set up a snack for us (mainly tea, biscuits or popcorn). Again they would set off atleast 20 minutes before us and pretty much run the trail carrying 25kgs on their backs. On some days we would stop for lunch and then finish at the campsite where pre-dinner snacks were waiting or we would finish at lunch and have the whole evening to relax.

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After worrying if we would be hungry on the trek, there was in fact maybe too much food! All delicious so nothing to complain about really!
After a long day walking and usually very early mornings, we just chilled out in the evenings, usually just chatting after dinner and listening to some music. On our first evening Bruce (our guide) got us listening to some music of his. Mainly with a salsa beat we asked if he could dance salsa. It turns out not only could he dance but he also managed to teach us some steps too, so each evening we had a post-dinner salsa lesson and by the end we had learnt seven basic steps and even a couple of turns! Wanting to show off our skills the night we got back from the trek we headed with Bruce to a Cusco salsa club for a free lesson and a chance to practice. In the end it was more better watching more accomplished dancers but it was fun having go to.
On the 2nd day we climbed another 12km and is considered the most difficult day as it includes the highest point of the Inca Trail – Abra de Warmihuñusca or dead woman pass at 4215m but we made it in good time to start the 2 hour decent to the campsite in time for lunch and an early end to the day.

At the top of dead women's pass

At the top of dead women’s pass

The 3rd day we walked 15km with views of snowcapped mountains and ended at an amazing Inca ruin of Wiñayhuyna.

Poncho on to battle the rain!

Poncho on to battle the rain!

View from Wiñayhuyna

View from Wiñayhuyna

The final day was only a 6km walkand after a good nights sleep we woke at 4am to make our way to Machupicchu at 5.30am. We woke to torrential rain and sat under a shelter, ponchos on and still half asleep we were more than ready to make our way on the last leg of the trek to the sungate. It wasn’t too much of a strenuous walk and even the ‘gringo killer’ (a section of very steep steps where you had to scramble up on hands and knees which lead to the sungate) didn’t turn out to be that bad, so we made it to the entrance on the Machupicchu site at the sungate in pretty good time.

Arriving at the sungate

Arriving at the sungate

It was such a good feeling to be at the finishing point especially as I had manage to save a small bar of dairy milk chocolate to eat whilst taking in Machupicchu to look forward to! We had some time to catch our breath and take in the view then it was off to have a tour of the site.

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Finishing point

Finishing point

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Initially the wow factor of the site wasn’t as great as I thought it would be but on walking around, knowing some of the history plus getting to take in the surrounding views it was definitely the highlight of the trek and I was so glad I made myself do it. Standing 2,430 m above sea level, in the midst of a tropical mountain forest in an extraordinarily beautiful setting, Machu Picchu was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height. Its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. The natural setting, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, encompasses the upper Amazon basin with its rich diversity of flora and fauna.

Some of the history of the Inca’s beliefs were also explained such as the 3 commandments of Incas: don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t be lazy and their human principals: love and well doing, knowledge and work.

The final part of the trip was a train journey through the mountains back to the starting point. The train was in the style of an old steam train and even made the steam engine sound even now and then. Really an amazing experience and an excellent way to end a great trip.

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My ORCA internship

After a few nice chilled out days exploring Cusco for the first time, getting to meet up with some old friends and making some new ones it was time to get the 24 hour overnight bus down through the mountains to Lima, the capital of Peru.
Even when planning the trip I wanted to try and incorporate volunteering or work alongside just travelling. I found a volunteer opportunity and signed up as an intern as it was aimed at future professionals looking to develop a specialized career on the research and conservation of marine mammal species. With having studied oceanography I thought it would be a good opportunity to find out more about environmental impacts on marine life.
Little is known about marine mammal species in Peru, and much is
needed to be done to protect them. ORCA (Organisation for research and conservation of aquatic animals) supports activities related to
the research and conservation of marine mammal species (whales,
dolphins, porpoises, sea-lions, and marine otters) that inhabit the
coastal waters of Peru. These species are monitored all year round by
researchers and international volunteers/interns. As an intern I was trained to participate in the rescue, rehabilitation, and biological follow up of sea-lions, dolphins, whales and marine otters following specialized protocols. I also got to help organise volunteers at the centre, help with school group tours and be left alone with the animals!

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Geronimo!

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Sleeping in the enclosure

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Family visit the centre

School group visit

School group visit

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I was met in Lima by  Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos (the president of ORCA) and Nico (the ORCA driver and volunteer). As we made our way to the centre and my home for the next month, 45 minutes south of Lima in a sleepy village called San Bartolo, I was briefed with the latest rescues they’d had; there were already six lions that were in various stages of rehabilitation and a penguin, which meant I was thrown into it quickly and the pace never slowed all month.

Carlos with the gang

Carlos with the gang

If I wrote everything that happened during my month it would be a book but I’ll give a taste of what it was like!
As an intern I got accommodation at the centre. This meant I was pretty much on call all hours for helping with the animals and also being ready for rescues. ORCA has set up a stranding network along the coast of Peru and could be called to rescue a stranded mammal anywhere along the coast. In the month I was there several rescues occurred, one of which I go to. Luckily it was a straight forward stranding. The young sea-lion had stranded on the beach in a gated housing estate just 40 minutes north from us. On arriving to the scene we were escorted to the sea-lion by the local police. I had been trained already so was able to help escort the sea-lion from the beach into the rescue kennel, into the car and back to the centre where she was assessed by Carlos (who’s a veterinarian specialised to marine mammals). We started treatment which including the need for me to restrain the sea-lion, now called Serano, so a drip could be placed in her neck supplying much needed fluids.

Drip Treatment given to Chocolate the sea-lion

Drip Treatment given to Chocolate the sea-lion

A typical day went something like this; wake up, wash and de-scale fish, weigh out the correct breakfast for each sea-lion and the penguin, make sure that each sea-lion received breakfast in their specific bowl, add medication if necessary to the fish (involving hiding tablets inside the fish), fill up fish breakfast bowls with temperate water, with the help of Carlos or another volunteer set up the bowls in the enclosure, open each of the sea-lion rooms where they slept, try to get them out the rooms and only feeding from their bowl (with the aid of making sea-lions noises and the trusty wooden board), then retrieve each bowl once empty or they would knock over the fish bloody water all over themselves and the floor ( a pain to clean!), keep the sea-lions in the enclosure so their rooms could be cleaned, first removing any excrement (usually A LOT and always very messy), removing the small fleece they slept on and cleaning off any further excrement and rinsing ready for washing, then mopping the floors with chlorine for the final clean…this was then followed by having to then clean the after-effects of breakfast from the enclosure floor (usually a mix of wee and excrement) which was always a fight to get to before the sea-lions started walking through it adding sea-lions showers to the list! And that was all before 9am!
Luckily the penguin, Geronimo, was a lot easier. Just take him out of his kennel and release into his enclosure, occasionally taking him down to the beach for a walk along the sand and a feed. Plus he loved the attention from the locals and holiday makers.

Day at the beach!

Day at the beach!

My day activities were pretty mixed depending on the stage of treatments required for each sea-lion. This ranged from feeding assessments, giving medication, operations, swimming assessments and towards the end making sure they were ready for release back into the wild so trying to simulate a more realistic daily experience so toning down the obvious reliance on humans for food. Carlos didn’t want them being too friendly with humans as this would be bad news in the wild because fishermen in Peru believe sea-lions are an enemy as they believe they steal their fish.
Every few days it was necessary to re-stock the fish supply. This meant getting up at 4am and driving with Nico and Carlos to the Lima fish market. I have never experienced a market like it. It was huge with hundreds of stalls all selling fresh fish and all types of sea-food. Prices varied a lot on the weather but one lady always gave Carlos a good price so luckily we never had to wander round searching for the best deal. Once the fish was back at the centre it had to all be washed, weighed and put into bags for refrigeration. The first time I had to do it I put on my coverall, plugged in my ipod and spent the next 2 hours staring at fish. Not that I didn’t mind it but I always hoped we had re-stocked on a day a volunteer was due so I would get them to do it!
Volunteers were mainly from the Lima University (where we went one day with a sea-lion and penguin in tow for volunteers day to subscribe more people. This included a brief walk around from the animals in the University courtyard of which I am sure there are numerous you-tube videos of!) On weekends there were usually around 40 volunteers across both days. They were set to work on deep cleaning the whole centre, helping out with any rescues, operations and odd jobs that needed doing.
The release of the six sea-lions that were at ORCA before I arrived was being planned and a Peruvian news channel were making a short piece on their journey from rescue to release.

Carlos and the TV Presenter

Carlos and the TV Presenter

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On the film crews first arrival we were caught a bit of guard and I was furiously cleaning the enclosure and sea-lions ready for presentation. This also meant I tried to avoid the cameras as I was in my work clothes, absolutely filthy and sure I smelt like sea-lion poo (now actually my normal state – I didn’t get out much!). On top of being TV ready there was also a local issue with ORCA. The neighbours of the centre kept making noise complaints to the local police and security force, so much that I now knew most of them to say hi to in town. One of the neighbours was a crazy little old lady who happened to know the mayor and unfortunately she used this to make it her mission to shut ORCA down. So we then had to be ready for a possible surprise inspection of the centre along with Carlos and Elena (the director of ORCA) having a lot of extra paperwork to do, stress and otherwise unnecessary visits to law offices and government officials.

Newly painted enclosure

Newly painted enclosure

It was all hands on deck. Everything had to be super clean and tidy and I even had a go at DIY, helping to paint the enclosure and sea-lion rooms and organising the weekend volunteers to finish the paint job on time. As the volunteers were all from quite privileged backgrounds and not used to taking directions it proved difficult to actually get them to do a decent job, but with my limited but now superior painting skills I managed to tidy it up.
As I was an intern I also got to have evening lectures and had reading material to learn. With everything going on there wasn’t always too much time left but I did get a lot more practical experience than most and still got to read the material plus got to watch some really interesting films which really made realise how important the oceans and sea life are. I would recommend starting with the film ‘The Cove’.
Obviously there are some serious consequences to the miss-treatment of the ocean. I got a first hand experience of this. Serano, my first rescue was doing well for the first few days. She was on regular fluids and within a few days we were putting a tube down her stomach and feeding her a blended fish and glucose mix (Serano was the first sea-lion I got to tube feed myself with the help of Elena’s son Felipe who despite only being 17 was the most experienced volunteer, helping out at the centre since he was a young kid). It was a lot of work with tube feeds 2 or 3 times a day along with Carlos giving twice daily drip medication and cleaning wounds (all of which you had to restrain her for). It was worthwhile and after a few days we began to see improvements. Unfortunately this was short lived. One evening she took a turn for the worst, beginning with being very sleepy, getting cold and eventually having small seizures. We put her on a drip and covered her with blankets and hot water bottles to improve her temperature. There is a point at which further treatment is putting the animal in more pain. We reached this point and Serano stopped breathing an hour later.
It was really sad to see my first and only sea-lion death but what helps for future cases is to fins out how and why she died.
That evening Felipe got ready the Necropsy kit and Nico came to pick me Carlos and Felipe up. Leaving Serano in her kennel we put her in the car and went to the next beach, 20 minutes away, which is the sight of the intended new ORCA centre and the burial place of all deceased sea-lions.
It was 9pm and the beach was empty. We reached the site and Nico got started digging a hole for Serano.
I held a torch while Felipe and Carlos got everything ready. Placing Serano next to the hole Carlos began the Necropsy. I was in charge of taking pictures for further investigation. I watched with intrigue as Carlos cut down the belly of Serano opening the body up. He inspected every organ and took tissue and blood samples. It was as he opened the stomach that we saw the bright yellow bile like substance. Carlos pointed out the stomach ulcers and the cause was due to pollution (a common cause of sea-lion death). It was a really interesting experience, one I thought I would never get to see and done with real respect for the animal. Once all the samples had been collected we buried Serano. I was a bit afraid to say the next thing due to it being in bad taste, but after watching the necropsy I really had a hankering for a burger. I mentioned it on the way back to the car and luckily it is a common reaction! So on the way back we stopped of dinner and maybe the most anticipated burger I’ve ever had.

Heading to the pool

Heading to the pool

Eating fish in the pool test

Eating fish in the pool test

After this sad event it was nice to have the release to look forward to and the completion of the successful rehabilitation of six sea-lions.
Carlos and Elaina had been working tirelessly to organise the release, trying to get the help of the Peruvian Navy and getting the sea-lions ready. Finally the day came. We got all six sea-lions into their kennels, loaded them into the volunteers cars and drove to the Peruvian naval base in Lima. On arrival we were greeted by the press who were granted access for the release, including Peruvian daytime news and Peru Reuters. I was given my security clearance and marvelled at the huge navy war ships in the dock.

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We were escorted to the ship. Smaller than some it was still pretty big and even had a gun on it. The Peruvian navy captain greeted Carlos and the officers helped move the sea-lions onto the ship. Carlos was busy for the whole journey out to the sea-lion rockery giving interviews and for newspapers and TV. Me and the other volunteers just got to hang out on the ship and have a chat with some of the press people, the Navy even provided a packed lunch!

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On arrival to the rockery Carlos gave us the brief for the release. It all happened really quickly. We lined up the kennels, waited for the cameras to get into place opened the doors and the smallest sea-lion, Teva, made a run for the edge of the boat leaped of the side.

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She was followed quickly by three of the others leaving a nervous Rocky and Yalagai on the edge looking over. Carlos then managed to say a few words about the release and they were nudged over the edge into the ocean.

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We then watched as the six of them went as a group to the rockery. A successful and emotional release. It was definitely the highlight of my time at ORCA and a once in a lifetime experience. It was in fact a landmark release. The first time six sea lions were released at once in Peru. This made global news and even made it on Newsround! I was briefly interviewed after the release by the Peruvian day news team, which I hope never made it to air as I’m certain I kept looking down the camera.

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My month at ORCA was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done but also the most rewarding and gave me a real appreciation for charity organisations like ORCA that have no government support. If you want to find out anymore check out their website http://www.orca.org.pe and a video report of the release is available at; (all in Spanish though) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Inj44Wk2jXA

A taste of Bolivia – Sucre, La Paz and Lake Titicaca.

I made the decision to visit Sucre because I had heard from other travellers it was really good (and cheap) for Spanish lessons. Due to my own laziness and lack of willpower I didn’t keep up practising my Spanish I learnt from Buenos Aires and really needed a refresher. On arriving to the hostel I ventured to find a nearby Spanish school. I found the perfect place just a five minute walk away. The school gave the perfect mix of 2 hours theory followed by 2 hours practical lessons. I found this helpful because we got to practise what we had learnt in lessons with real situations. During the week we went to the market, cafés and museums. In the afternoon after lessons I went back to the hostel to study and complete the homework. This turned out to be especially easy here as most other people staying at the hostel were also learning Spanish, which created this nice chilled out atmosphere where everyone was helping each other with their Spanish. As a break from studying the town itself was a great place to wander around and had more of a European café culture feel to it.

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Main Plaza in Sucre

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Always a parade in Sucre. This was celebrating a Saint’s Day by driving in a procession with the car covered with soft toys!!

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The market was a familiar place to practise some Spanish and pick up an awesome fruit juice on a daily basis. Another Bolivian speciality was called a Saltenas (little Cornish pasty type snacks filled with chicken or beef and totally delicious) however it is sacrilege to eat them anytime after midday, I found out when faced with looks of dismay and confusion as I sat eating one at 5pm!

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Sucre was famous for being home to a few traditional makes of chocolate. One called Pariti seemed to be the most popular and didn’t disappoint. The shop was filled with delicious chocolates of all types and with no dairy milk available it was nice to finally have some decent chocolate.
I met some really great people at the hostel and at the Spanish School so most of my time at Sucre in-between lessons and studying was meeting people in cafes for lunch or going out for dinner and drinks. Luckily the exchange rate was really good so getting to divide everything by 10 meant you could easily get a decent meal for £1.50!
The school also organised evening activities. One night we sampled the Bolivian game of Walley, which is essentially volleyball with a lighter ball and the court has to be inside so you can use the walls plus you can even kick it. It was great to learn after a good few hours we even managed to get a bit competitive! We also had a free tour of Sucre, a cooking lesson at the house of the principle and also a meal out on our last day of lessons .meal

I felt really settled in Sucre and enjoyed having the structure of the Spanish lessons, hanging out in the numerous cafes around the plaza and of course the nightlife. The bars shut at 1am as per the legal requirement but we found out that there were illegal underground clubs which opened to serve the late night crowd. We heard of one on the down-low that was a club secretly open above the supermarket and another only accessible by taxi; which on first arriving looked like a house, apart from a couple of inconspicuously dressed bouncers at the door. Past the bouncers was another very un-club like room. Looking more like an office reception, we payed quickly and were sent downstairs. Suddenly the room opened out into a big dance floor and bar. The only disappointment was we thought we were going to a secret local club, when in fact every other traveller had also been told and there were only 1 or 2 locals in the packed out club. It felt a bit sketchy but was still a fun experience!
After 2 weeks of lessons it was time to move on. Sucre was a very comfortable place with many people not being able to leave, but with a lot more places to see I packed up and got on a bus to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia.
What was supposed to be a straightforward overnight journey turned out a nightmare one.
Boarding the bus at 8pm I got comfy in my seat, which reclined into a bed, was given a pillow and blanket and following a quick dinner I fell straight to sleep. I woke to notice the bus had come to stop. Not thinking much of it I got up to use the toilet. Trying to open the toilet door I was told it was locked (stupid but surprisingly common). I asked when the toilet break was and the driver opened the bus door. Outside all I could see was a solid white blanket of snow! Inspecting further, I then saw the stationary line of about 20 cars and buses curving up the mountain road. With snow still falling I decided better of the outside toilet break and as it as only 1am I tried to go back to sleep.
Waking again to the sunrise I noticed we still weren’t moving. People on the bus were getting restless and wanting answers. It transpired there had been a lot of snowfall during the night and the mountain road had been shut. With no alternative route and no snow ploughs to clear the road, the only option was to wait for the sun to melt it! We then had to wait another 3 hours and with no toilet I eventually had to give up and go outside. All layered up I was helpfully directed to the only small bit of shrubbery which was right next to the road and in full view of not only my bus but the surrounding line of traffic, including 5 other full buses. Not the best moment of the trip but needs must and luckily I was too tired to care!

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DSC_0248 Finally the first buses started to make a move. Very slowly the bus made its way precariously along the mountain road. The worst realisation was that we had stopped only a few hours into the journey and given the still poor road conditions, it then took us a further 10 hours to reach La Paz!
Making things worse, we arrived in the dark which meant I had to take a taxi to the hostel I knew was close to the bus station. This transpired to be a very sketchy taxi experience. After a pretty scary moment when he drove out of the city centre and down some very unsavoury looking areas, stopping and telling me he didn’t actually know the way to the hostel, was lost and wanted me to get out…I managed to use my new but still limited Spanish skills to convincingly argue and eventually he drove me to the hostel. I arrived to luckily a nice single room and I got some much needed sleep.
Not having the best first impression of La Paz, I made an effort to change it. Finding the free walking tour I had a nice afternoon finding out about the history of the city.

From the witches market in La Paz. Llama Fetus and candies plus your wishes for the future -used for an offering to pachamama (mother earth)

From the witches market in La Paz. Llama Fetus and candies plus your wishes for the future -used for an offering to pachamama (mother earth)

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Mirador of La Paz – The highest national captial in the world!

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View of La Paz from the top

But being the only person on the tour and there also being no-one else in the hostel plus it not being safe to walk around at night I grabbed some food, went back to my room and watched my cable tv while planning the next bus journey.
So the next day I was picked up on a tourist shuttle bus and had a nice relaxing journey to Copacabana (still Bolivia), on the edge of Lake Titicaca, which is the closest town to a ferry point for a place called Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun).

Why Lake Titicaca is so important in Inca culture taken from Lonley Planet; “When you first glimpse Lake Titicaca’s crystalline, gemlike waters, beneath the looming backdrop of the Cordillera Real in the clear Altiplano light, you’ll understand why pre-Inca people connected it with mystical events. Those early inhabitants of the Altiplano believed that both the sun itself and their bearded, white god-king, Viracocha, had risen out of its mysterious depths. The Incas, in turn, believed that it was the birthplace of their civilization.”

I met really lovely NZ girl (Katherine) on the way to the hostel and together we then got the afternoon ferry over to the island and checked into one of the hostels on the south island.

With another guy we met on the ferry, we spent the afternoon exploring the southern part of the Island, walking up to the mirador to take in the view, visited one of the Inca temples of the island, enjoyed a nice dinner and got an early night.

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Inca Temple of Pilcocaina

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Me and Katherine at the top of the South Island

Lots of people hike to the north side of the island. But the weather wasn’t great and personally I felt 1 day on the island was enough. So we headed back to Copacabana, where I said goodbye to Katherine and I stayed for the night getting the morning bus to Cusco, Peru!

Chile and I’ve never been so cold…

Because I extended my visit in B.A. I made my way straight across the border to Santiago Chile and then onto a small city in the north called La Serena, where I was told there were lots of observatories nearby worth visiting.
Straight away at the hostel I met a lovely Mancunian girl called Ruth who was also planning a similar route north. We took in the sights of La Serena but unfortunately the weather was cloudy so we didn’t get to do an observatory tour. On a recommendation we travelled instead to the nearby area of Elqui Valley, or Pisco Elqui – the home of Pisco drink. A scenic area with some really nice walks around the nearby mountains. We spent one night here in a cute hostel that had a pet calf!

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We then cycled to a nearby Pisco distillery and managed to get in for free! From here we continued north to San Pedro de Atacama. A place I’ve been looking forward to visiting since booking Then went on a nice walk to the in the mountains and in the evening I enjoyed my first Pisco Sour in a restaurant so kitsch it was outside with only the warmth of some log fires.

From here we continued north to San Pedro de Atacama. A place I’ve been looking forward to visiting since booking the the trip, only because as it’s the driest place on the planet with no clouds it’s the perfect place for observing space. So it’s home to many deep space observatories and renowned for stargazing (A really good film about the area is called Nostalgia for the Light – well worth a watch).

So basically San Pedro de Atacama is in the middle of the Atacama desert and on arrival we managed to find a nice hostel, dropped of our bags and went into town to investigate the day tours we heard you could get from here.

Obviously my main interest was to get on a tour of an observatory. It turns out that the big scientific observatories were out of bounds to the public, however we managed to find a tour at a facility which had the largest amateur collection of telescopes in South America, which they also use for scientific research. Our guide was one of the researchers at the base so was really intelligent and gave an amazing talk and explanation on the southern constellations using a green laser which seemed to touch the sky. We learnt all about how the constellation got there names, how to differentiate stars and planets (stars twinkle, planets don’t) and how to locate the constellations. After the talk we went onto the telescopes which had all been set up to focus on different objects in space. One was pointed at Saturn and it was so clear you could even see it’s moon Titan. Another was pointing at a double star and you could see the two stars orbiting around one another. My favourite views were the jewel box constellation where you could see several stars in a cluster but all different colours, red, green and gold along with a view of deep space where there were hundreds of stars all together in one place surrounded by the darkness.

Also a nice little fact for anyone 25 years old, the light from the star Vega takes 25 years to reach earth so when you look at it that light would have started it’s travels when you were born, unfortunately only in the southern hemisphere that one though! A really great tour, just wish it could have been longer but still plenty of time to really geek out!observatory

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The next day we went on a tour of the surrounding desert, one part called the lunar valley where we went sand boarding.

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So you use a snowboard but just have your normal shoes on, put them in the bindings, buckle up and nudge the board over the top of the sand dune. It was good fun, however I think it’s better if you’ve never been snowboarding. It was difficult to get speed up, pretty difficult to turn and if you got sand on the top of your board which seemed to happen easily it was impossible to get going again. Plus no ski lifts which meant walking back up to the top of the sand dune after the 10 second ride down. Glad I tried it but not sure I’ll be doing it again, just made me want to be on snow. To finish of the tour we enjoyed a beer whilst watching the sun set over the valley.

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The main problem with San Pedro is that there are so many tourist attractions surrounding it as well as being the main hub in Chile to start the Salt Flats tour, that the town is just a whole lot of tourist agencies with people outside and all over the streets constantly trying to sell you tours. I found it really overwhelming and didn’t enjoy the seemingly endless traipsing around town trying to find the best deals, so that night we managed to find a tour leaving the next day for the Salt flats tour. It was a 2 night and 3 day tour that took you over to Bolivia, whilst passing a multitude of sights in the Bolivian national park.
The first morning is an early one. We were picked up from our hostel and taken to a small cabin just outside the park border for breakfast. Getting out of the mini-bus I realise what I was in for then next 3 days. I had all my clothes, jacket, gloves and hat on and I was shaking with the cold with only a brief relief by putting 2 hot bread rolls on as gloves! We were then assigned to our 6 person jeeps, introduced to our driver and a group a 2 couples from Luxembourg. Luckily the jeep warmed up as we make our way into the reserve. The first morning was full of stunning scenery from the white lagoon, green lagoon, Dali rock desert and hot springs, where it was definitely a good time to relax in very hot water, although getting out was a bit more tricky!

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                       Thermal Bath

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                          Dali Rock

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                      White Lagoon

 After lunch we then visited the Morning sun gaiser basin which was really interesting.        

geizersIt was also at this point of the trip I realised the lack of toilet stops and with the desert climate we were advised to be drinking at least 2 litres of water a day.toilet

Adding to it the very rough and bumpy jeep ride the need for the toilet seemed to be never-ending. So while everyone was occupied seeing the gaisers I snuck off to find a decent rock to pop a squat behind. All was going well and I felt pretty confident I’d found an excellent rock…then people started to go back to there jeeps and before I knew it 2 jeeps made there way past my secluded rest spot just as I was pulling my trousers up, so my first attempt ended in flashing 14 people. But after losing any dignity I had I was a lot less bothered for the rest of the trip!

The next site was the red lagoon which apparently gets it colour from micro-organisms.

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After a fully packed day we headed to the first hostel before the sun set so the cold desert wouldn’t be too much to bear. We arrived at what appeared to be a building in the middle of know where but dinner was waiting for us and with the rest of the group suffering badly from altitude sickness it was up to Ruth and I to eat the whole lot! After our best attempt we retired to the dorm room to get some much needed sleep. The big problem was the hostel had absolutely no heating. I was in about 4 layers of clothes plus my hat and gloves in a sleeping bag and a few blankets. Even that wasn’t enough to ward off the cold night and lets just say everyone needed a lot of tea the following morning. Definitely the worst nights sleep I’ve ever experienced.

Wearily we stared on the 2nd day. The day was filled with seeing various lagoons, all really pretty especially the ones home to the flamingos.

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We finished the day seeing the Ollegue volcano where it even had a few puffs of smoke escaping from it. Unfortunately nature called again and with only 15 minutes at the stop, by the time I had found a decent rock I had to admire the awesome volcano site from a squatting position!

Luckily got to stop for another photo op a bit further away from the volcano!

Luckily got to stop for another photo op a bit further away from the volcano!

After another busy day we arrived at the second hostel. It was actually in a small village this time where all the hostels were built from salt bricks which seemed to provide a bit more insulation but still a lot of tea was required. That night it was also the celebration for Bolivian independence day where we got to join in and were greeted by a brass band, a weird warm alcoholic drink like a hot toddy with egg whites on top, a traditional Bolivian band and dancing. 

With some of the others in our group enjoying the local brew!

With some of the others in our group enjoying the local brew!

 

I took advantage of the fire and alcohol, timed it well with being nice and toasty then rushed back to get into bed which worked a treat and felt a bit more refreshed for the final morning. 

For the third and final day we began the drive onto the salt flats. Starting off at the eerie Fisher Island which is made of fossilised coral and covered in 1000 year old cacti.

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 It was then onto the Salt flats. A vast expanse of dry salt reaching 10 meters in thickness. A really strange landscape plus you can get some really weird pictures;

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We had our last lunch stop sat on the salt then it was off toward the final destination Uyuni via the train cemetery

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Arriving in the small town Uyuni it was straight to finding a hotel with heating (only 1 in town). Luckily I managed to get a room and basically had a nice 2 nights relishing the fact I was actually able to warm up, because honestly I couldn’t think of anything else I rather be doing.

All nice and toasty I planned my next bus journey and got the next bus to Sucre in Bolivia (based on some recommendations and quick Google of the weather there!).

The Big B.A!

So far Buenos Aires is a city I have researched the most and have high hopes for.
Described as a mini Paris I couldn’t wait to explore it and see for myself.
Unfortunately the first few days we had torrential rain and it was pretty chilly, however we still managed to go on the free walking tour. In the three-hour tour you really got a good feel for the city and its history, plus plenty of places to go back and really explore.
The first real adventure in the big city involved the ‘blue market’. Basically the Argentinian currency isn’t worth a lot, however the government try to cheat the system and make inflation look better than it is. The US dollar on the other hand has a really good street market value and if changed for pesos at the right place you can get nearly double for your dollar. Even better for Brits as the pound is stronger than the dollar!
So a person we met in Brazil advised us of the following; Go to a street in the business centre called Florida street and there will be guys standing around shouting ’Cambio’ (change), who you then approach and find out what the rate is for US dollars and maybe try haggling. Once you’ve decided on a rate they then lead you off the street to an ’office’ which in one instance was under a shopping mall in a shady looking area; you then do a quick exchange then hope not to get mugged on your way back to the hostel! It all sounded really dodgy and a disaster waiting to happen, but with such a good rate available it was worth a try, plus we had heard that everyone does it and people who stay here longer actually have regular contacts like a local grocer although all the guys I saw all wore leather jackets and reminded me of Del Boy.
After successfully figuring out the shady dealings of the ‘blue market’ we headed back to the hostel where we wondered past my first sighting of chocolate and Churros, a traditional snack, made up of doughnut like cylinders covered in sugar accompanied with a cup of thick hot chocolate, so definitely worth stopping for and it was wasn’t a disappointment.

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Of course no trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without sampling same tango dancing. We went down to the famous tango area, La Boca. Here there is also a small street museum called Caminito which is an alley with brightly coloured apartments filled with gift shops and artist galleries.

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The great thing about Caminito is the restaurants have a small stage where you can watch a tango show and only pay for the meal. So here I got my first taste of Argentinian steak along with an awesome tango show.

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The tango performances were amazing as was my first taste of melt in the mouth Argentine steak, which I was happily tucking into when, as part of the show they required some audience participation. Unfortunately me, Laura and Will were sitting right at the front. After all my attempts to avoid eye contact with the dancers I was unwillingly pulled up on stage. Cue tango music, followed by 2 minutes of me trying to follow the male dancers lead, trying not to look like I was taking it seriously whilst attempting not to look like a total idiot! Definitely didn’t achieve the latter, however on taking my bow in front of an applauding audience, I did feel for second like I could dance the tango!

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Even after some mild humiliation I was still really enjoying Buenos Aires and with the ever-growing need to learn more than ‘hello’ in Spanish I decided to stay and sign up to a weeks long Spanish course. To really get into it I also opted to stay with some locals. I stayed with the two Buenos Aires women, who worked all day and studied all evening, which apparently is very common here with lots of 30 somethings furthing their degree level education with ongoing studying. They were both lovely and welcomed me into their home and even to a party they hosted for a celebration in Argentina called ‘Friends Day’. Basically an excuse to have all your friends over, drink lots of wine and feast on a big spread!DSC_0097As for the Spanish lessons, they were really helpful, but not naturally good at languages it was also pretty hard work with lots of hours spent studying. But after realising how much I had learnt in just one week I extended my stay by another week. Not being able to afford the homestay this time I checked into a hostel. Here it was a bit more difficult to do homework but luckily I had the safe haven of a star bucks always nearby.
With classes in the mornings I had the afternoons to carry on exploring the city. In an attempt to be cultured I managed to fit in art galleries, museums, gardens and zoos.

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However one of the most scenic tours was of the richest area, Recoleta. Here most of the buildings were inspired by French design giving the area a more European feel. The evening tour took our group around the very kooky bars and upmarket bakeries, however even though being in the posh area it never seemed very flashy. Apparently most people in Buenos Aires say they are middle class, even if they are really well off, so the general attitude here is people don’t like lording their wealth around and also actual middle class or lower classes don’t try to make it look like they have more which was really refreshing.

Another culture difference is that here, because private health insurance is big business, it is common for companies to tempt customers with offers of free plastic surgery included in their insurance policy. This you really notice, especially in the more well off areas, with older women passing you with a fixed grin or a frozen surprised look on their face!
So, after a very busy two weeks I was planning my next move, but feeling exhausted and not getting much sleep due to a noisy hostel I found a great deal online and checked myself into a lovely four star spa hostel in the centre of town. Going from hostels to having a bell boy was a nice change and I really enjoyed those 2 days living a life of luxury including a massive breakfast spread, which I’m fairly certain I was the only guest there longer than 45 minutes (trying to fill up to save on lunch!), access to the spa with even my own robe and shoes, plus room service. Continuing my splashing out spree teamed with my new Spanish skills, the first night I attempted ordering room service. From my point of view apart from saying hamburger 10 times until it was understood I thought it went OK. Two hours later, still no food and I gave up for a dinner of coca-cola and m&m’s courtesy of the mini-fridge! Not deterred the next night I tried again, this time ordering in the restaurant and 20 minutes later I got a knock at my door…my hamburger had arrived and it didn’t disappoint! Dinner to my door and Kick-Ass on tv. A perfect ending to my three weeks in Buenos Aires.

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Just a little something about the Iguaçu Falls

After a pleasant overnight bus journey to Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil we made our way to the hostel which had laundry service, free breakfast and dinner, which after the Pantanal experience was a much needed pick me up.
After a well rested evening we went by local bus to the Brazil side of the Iguaçu falls.

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The Iguaçu falls are a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. They are taller than Niagara Falls and twice as wide with 275 cascades spread in a horseshoe shape over nearly two miles of the Iguazu River, where on average, 553 cubic feet per second of water thunders down the 269 feet drop.

On our travels there was split opinion between which side was best to view the falls from but we tried to go with an open mind.We got of the bus and made our way to the main entrance. From here we were escorted to the first viewing platform by bus.

We then had to walk up to get the full view. On our way we spotted one of the native animals, the Coatis – also known as Brazilian aardvarks.SAM_0407

Our first impression was that they were very cute and cuddly, cooing at them and trying to get close for a picture, when suddenly one of the Coatis reared up on its hind legs, out came its claws and lunged at Laura and her packed lunch! The only thing we could do was scream and surrender the food. Not so cute after all. After our vicious attack experience I then thought it was a good opportunity to lurk with camera on record to try and film a similar attack…mainly looking for small children with food on them but I had no luck hunting for a youtube clip.

But back to the waterfalls. Basically it’s hard to sum up the experience in words apart from (excuse the swearing) Fucking Awesome!

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All along the pathway you could see this epic view and hear the tonnes of water going over the waterfall. However the best part of the trip was going to the viewing platform which extended out over the waterfall at the Devil’s Throat, where fourteen falls drop 350 feet with such force that there is always a 100 foot cloud of spray making constant rainbows overhead.

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We walked out over the falls whilst getting completely drenched but feeling the awesome power of the falls was worth it, then making it to the edge and looking over the barrier you could see the water tipping over the edge, making the huge drop to the SAM_0435river below along with a vertical rainbow that reached from the waterfall edge and plunged into the river.

After feeling completely exhilarated we couldn’t wait to see it from the Argentinean side the following day.

Making our way to Port de Iguassu in Argentina we were excited to see the much larger park and explore. The park itself was really nice for wandering around however it was packed with tourists so getting a solitary view was out of the question, or if you did you would be quickly barged out the way. DSC_0084

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The views were really impressive however you are on top of the falls instead of being able to view them as an overall view like on the Brazil side. I also think that whatever side you experience first is your favourite just because of the initial view of the falls. But I would definitely recommend checking both out, just watch out for the coatis!

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