A Travellerspoint blog

The End is Nigh...

Our adventures during our final few weeks: Ciudad Perdida Trek, Tayrona NP and the San Blas Islands...

The end is most definitely nigh...so I'm afraid to say, this one is a little long! If it helps, it's mostly pictures!! 😀

Ok so you thought our hiking days were done and dusted? Please no more tales of aching legs and blisters I hear you cry! Well, sorry to disappoint folks but with only 2 weeks left in Colombia, and of our trip in total, we decided there was plenty of time to fit in one final one - more specifically a 4 day hike to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in the Sierra Nevada mountains above the Caribbean coastal towns of Santa Marta and Taganga.

After a very bumpy ride in the back of a crammed jeep to our starting point for the trek, we met the group with whom we would share the next few days as well as our guides. The group seemed to be another good one, which was great. Our guide Luis, a stout little fellow with a rather sizeable pot belly who looked just like an overweight 'Super Mario' (giving us hope that if he can manage this trek, surely we'll be fine!) spoke no English whatsoever but seemed friendly.

After a lunch of stale rolls and processed cheese and ham (hmmmm, hopefully the food can only go up from here) we were off! The first days walk was understood to be a fairly short leisurely one (approx 4 hours walking time) so we weren't too worried...until about 5 minutes in when it hit us just how tough walking with backpacks in 35 degree heat and tremendous humidity is! Within a few minutes we were drenched in sweat (something that was to become a theme for the next 4 days) so it was a big relief when we hit our first 'swimming spot' - one of many natural pools/rivers found along the trek - and we gladly jumped straight in to the cool water.

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Happily refreshed we set off again, only to be quickly greeted by a long and arduous climb that seemed never ending (hang on, no-one mentioned this was coming today!), meaning that our clean and refreshed state was very short lived.

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Eventually we reached the settlement where we were to sleep for the first night, in a huge row of hammocks no less. Gladly this site also had a great swimming spot nearby (and this one came complete with a waterfall and necessitated a pretty high jump to reach the water, which was great fun) so we were able, once again, to sort of clean ourselves up and cool down. The hammocks were fairly comfortable here too, so we were sure we'd get a good nights rest here, well that was until Luis mentioned the snakes and scorpions that tend to come into the hut at night - yikes!

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Day 2 brought an early start ahead of a long, tough days walking (approx 8 hours, most of which was uphill) to get us to the campsite which is closest to the Ciudad.

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I don't think I have ever been so hot in my life during this day, however there were luckily a few more natural pools to splash about in along the way and the scenery was fantastic. We were now amongst the stunning tree covered mountains we had seen the day before and the path was a decidedly more rugged and jungley. Of course Shaun couldn't resist having a few Indiana Jones moments, swinging on vines and running across rickety rope bridges!

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We also started to meet people from the indigenous tribe (the Tayuna) dressed in traditional clothing, along the path, and passed several indigenous settlements and villages. It never ceases to amaze me how basic some of the conditions are that these people live in, yet it's a way of life that they choose to maintain and fight to keep alive.

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Our accommodation on this second night was, rather luxuriously, beds! Ok, so fairly damp and rather stinky mattresses placed in rows and built in bunk bed style in a wooden framed open fronted shell of a building with mosquito nets over the top, but beds nonetheless! The natural pool here was a 5 minute trek into the jungle and was truly a hidden gem if ever there was one.

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So hidden, so secret, so beautiful. Clear waters surrounded by lush green tropical forest, hanging vines ready for swinging on, which Shaun duly tried!

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Day 3 brought us to the highlight, indeed the purpose of the trek - after hiking for a further one hour into the jungle, we reached the base of the 1200 steps that would take us up to the Lost City. The Lost City was built in the seventh century by the Tayuna people and is a maze of over 200 terraces and structures, spanning 30 acres, and was once home to 2000 inhabitants. It was also a large trade centre and the Tayuna's prospered there for centuries until the Spanish invasion of Colombia. When the Spanish came to Colombia they brought with them European diseases, to which the indigenous people had no resistance or idea how to treat, resulting in the near extinction of the race. In fear of enslavement by the Spanish, the remaining Tayuna's abandoned the Lost City in around 1650 and, hidden so deep in the jungle it remained that way until it was discovered in 1976. Unfortunately many of the treasures that the Tayuna people left behind were looted but the city itself remains a very sacred place for the Tayuna people, who (along with machine gun armed paramilitary!) guard it preciously.

The steps were incredibly steep and it was certainly tough getting to the top of them, but we were rewarded once we arrived there with a view of the first set of terraces and the entrance to the city. We spent 2.5 hours exploring the city, which was fascinating (luckily a nice Argentinean in our group was able to translate Luis' tour into English for the majority of the group) and the views were incredible.

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Whilst the centre of the city itself may not be quite as spectacular as Machu Picchu, it is certainly still a very impressive site to behold and the lack of mainstream access to the site, and resulting lack of other tourists, made it feel more secret and special.

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This was definitely much more the Indiana Jones experience Shaun was after, although I'm not sure Indiana was caught doing a human pyramid at the temple of doom!

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Following our tour, we returned to camp for a quick lunch, before setting off to start retracing our steps back, happy in the knowledge that, having done so much uphill on the way to the city, the way back would contain a considerable amount of downhill. We spent a last night in hammocks at another local settlement site, where much to our delight, we were fed a great meal of pasta - woohoooo "not rice" we cried!

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On our fourth and final day, we completed the trek by around lunchtime, having set off at around 6am to miss the worst of the heat and having spotted some poisonous snakes, dodged some unruly cows and visited an indigenous cemetery along the way.

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The drive back to Santa Marta/Taganga was even more eventful than the way there, since, owing to lack of room in the jeep, we watched with horror as our guide Luis jumped on the top of the vehicle and clung on for dear life as the jeep bumped its way along the unpaved mountainous roads! Luckily he, and we, made it back in one piece and in time for us to enjoy a slap up meal of filet mignon at the hostel (as you do!) before crashing.

Following this we had decided that it was finally time for some proper R&R so we headed to Tayrona National Park, famed for its stunning Caribbean beaches (not to mention being on the front of the Colombian lonely planet!) for a couple of nights. Tayrona can be reached by a 40 minute bus ride and then a 2 hour hike from Taganga, or alternatively you can take a short 1 hour speed boat ride there. Having finally had enough of walking, and with our blisters still fresh from the Lost City, we opted for the speed boat option without a seconds thought. However, the downside of this option is the incredibly choppy waters and swells along the coast that the boat must navigate to reach the park. It certainly wasn't the most relaxing boat ride we've ever taken, to say the least, and we arrived pretty bumped and bruised. Nonetheless, it all became worth it as we pulled into the bay of Cabo San Juan and saw the pristine beaches and clear waters that awaited us.

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We quickly booked ourselves in to spend the night sleeping in hammocks in a hut that sits on the top of the rocks overlooking the sea - the prime spot. We had been warned it can get pretty windy and chilly up in the hut in the night, but we couldn't pass up the opportunity to sleep in such a perfect spot and see the sunrise over the bay, so we decided we would take our chances and it was definitely a good choice. After all it's not every day you get to sleep in such a setting for less than £10!

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Our couple of days at Tayrona were spent very lazily, soaking up the sun, enjoying the sea and drinking beers - just what the doctor ordered! I think the photos pretty much speak for themselves.

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After 2 nights, we took the very bumpy and incredibly wet boat ride back to the town as we needed to get ourselves back to Cartagena to board the last minute Caribbean sailing trip we had booked to finish our trip with a bang, which was departing from there the following evening....

Wanting to finish our travels with a spectacular grand finale, we had spontaneously decided to take a 5-night / 6 day sailing trip to Panama on a 9-berth 43ft yacht, the Perle de la Caribe, which sails via the idyllic San Blas Islands. We had looked at 3 boats in total, a catamaran (which would've instinctively been my first choice) which held 14 people at a push, however we were told (by the company selling the sailing trips!) "the 'El Capitan' is a pr*ck and crams the boat too full to make it an enjoyable experience". The other boat was a larger schooner type boat which slept 27, which was a straight out no from us. So we opted for El Capitan Fernando on the Perle de Caribe. And what a choice it was!!

We arrived at Club Nautico docks around 8pm where we met the rest of our fellow passengers and crew before setting sail at 9pm from Cartagena. I have to say, we lucked out massively on all fronts. Not only was the Perle de Caribe a great yacht, we also had a great crew and a good bunch of fellow sailors - we were all around the same age which meant any references to Natalie Imbruglia, Gameboys and any references to the 80's were immediately understood. Our crew were all Argentinian and were a great laugh, so easy going and easy to talk to. I don't think we could have picked a better crew.

Our journey started out with 3hrs sailing with the motor to get out of port, through the shipping channels and into the open sea. Given the time of year (it's windy season) Captain Fernando told us that some of the waves would be getting to 2-3 metres out at sea but fortunately we were going with the wind and not against it so it would be slightly smoother.

Now I'm not one for usually getting seasick but we were told to take tablets anyway as the first 2 nights and 2 days would be solid sailing on the open sea, no land in sight on the horizon and no stopping. Turned out this was great advice and was well heeded. Big swells and small boats don't do much for our stomachs. Neither of us were sick but when we went inside off of the deck, we felt so much more queasy. However, once we got into our double birth and were horizontal, we felt fine and quickly passed out, most likely from the drowsiness induced by the Dramamine. (This would also come in handy when we needed to sleep on our epic 36-hr journey home to the UK!) Doing the majority of the open ocean sailing at night was beneficial as it meant that we slept through most of it and would give us the maximum amount of time at the San Blas Islands.

After our first night, we woke up early to an amazingly deep blue ocean for as far as the eye could see in any direction - no land, no boats, nothing but the wind and the white sails. Sweeeeeeet!

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Breakfast today was freshly prepared fruit along with granola and milk and tea or coffee! Much of this day was spent sleeping as there was little to do apart from this. Reading was a little too much. Although we no longer felt seasick, the swells were still pretty big and as soon as you tried to concentrate on reading, the queasiness made a reappearance. I swear I didn't see some of our fellow sailors at all that day. It was nice to get a solid 13-14hrs straight sleep though, something we've not had at all this entire trip. Travelling is great fun but it is by no means relaxing...

During the second night, we saw one of the most magical sights of our trip. Whilst sailing in the pitch dark, the only light we had was the blazing stars above in the clear night sky (so bright that you could see the cloud of the Milky Way) and the bioluminescent phytoplankton being churned up in the wake of the boat. If you have seen the movie Life of Pi, you will know the scene I'm talking about. We spent about 3 hours genuinely deciding which was better, the skies above or the waters around us. We still don't know...

Awaking on our third day, we could feel no movement from the boat, just a slight sway from left to right...this only meant one thing, we had arrived! Leaping out of bed, banging my head on the ceiling of our berth, trying it again a little more cautiously, we got onto the deck and saw what I can only describe as perfection all around. Turquoise waters, pristine white sand beach with hanging palms only a 50m swim away and water so clear that you can see the bottom despite it being so deep that you cannot reach the bottom. Our quest to finish our trip on a massive high was fulfilled. We had absolutely nailed it!

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No time for breakfast today for me, I'm already in with my goggles and fins! The water was so warm, it was like jumping into a bath. El Capitan told us that just off of the starboard side of the boat was a small reef which everyone immediately scrambled to checked out. There was so much marine life down there - small fish, big fish, lobsters, eels, you name it it was there. One of our fellow passengers on the boat, Ben, had just finished his PhD in Australia in marine life so he was very handy to have with us pointing out all the different species. We called him Reef Man - seemed appropriate.

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The remainder of the day was spent relaxing in the waters and sunbathing on the boat or beach - this proved to be a tougher choice than you might think - boat or beach? boat or beach? So hard! For me, it was boat everytime. The gentle rocking of the boat always sent you to sleep.

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In the evening, by which time a few more yachts had arrived, everyone decided to head to the beach where a fire was started and time was spent sat around it, chatting, drinking (obviously rum, what else do sailors drink in the Caribbean?) and star-gazing. One of our group had brought his guitar so verses of Johnny Cash and Bob Marley came out too... Han and I immediately had a sense of being in the T4 show Shipwrecked, but with slightly less eccentric and stupid folk. The night inevitably ended when everyone had run out of booze.

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Our plan for the next day was to head to a shipwreck for more snorkelling but our morning was a much more sedate affair, many feeling the effects of last nights antics - no more so than our very own Captain Fernando. When he rose from his hammock which he had hung from the boom on deck, around lunchtime, his response to why we were no longer going to the wreck today was hilarious - with a cheeky smile and still looking half asleep, he said, "today we were going to go to the wreck pero (but in Spanish) it is now too late to go today pero what is done is done..." Nobody minded in the slightest because we were already in a beautiful spot. So after lunch, which consisted of freshly caught fish, salad etc we set off to the next island for more snorkelling and our next nights destination. This evening was a more sedate affair with more chat, music and cards. Booze? Obviously! More rum and more beer!

Our next few days really followed the above format, moving from island to Island taking in the beautiful waters, beaches and reefs. The food we ate was incredible. It was hard to imagine that all of it came from the tiny onboard kitchen. I have to say, Fernando and Boatsmen Luciano and Ariel (yes, as in the little mermaid!) were great chefs. We had ceviche one night, sashimi another from the fish we caught from the line on the back of the boat (tuna, snapper, sierra(?) and some other fish I've never heard of) and on our last night, our last supper, a humongous meze table with homemade humus, quacamole, sashimi, olives, carpaccio, garlic bread etc.

We did get to visit the shipwreck on our final day, which was great to see and swim around, looking through all the different rooms onboard and seeing what was inside.

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The highlights for us, as well as the pristine waters and stunning deserted island views, were that we got to see and swim amongst some big fish such as barracudas as well as what looked like small reef sharks, eagle rays (they look so cool!) and when on board, dolphins! What a way to end our incredible adventures.

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There is little more I can add to this, I think a series of pictures probably say much more than I could...

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On our last day, we said farewell to Captain Fernando, Luciano and Ariel and made our way by a much smaller speedboat to mainland Panama before a very hilly and speedy journey to Panama City (we both felt more sick after this journey than the 6 days on the boat) where we would spend the night before embarking on our 36-hr epic journey back to London via Florida(!?!), Colombia and Madrid. Fingers crossed it all goes smoothly.

Well, we hate to say it but that brings us to the end of our incredible adventures. We have had the most amazing few months, seen and done so much, met some amazing people and are devastated for it to be over, but all good things must come to an end I suppose... well unless this blog gets picked up by Lonely Planet, Rough Guides or Wanderlust and we snag our dream jobs as travel photographers and writers!

For now however, that's it from the Roundup. It's time for us to return to Blighty and plan our next adventures. We hope you have enjoyed this blog and we shall hopefully see many of you readers on the other side.

This is the Roundup signing off. Over and out.

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Posted by shaunandhan 14:07 Archived in Colombia Tagged me sunsets_and_sunrises beaches skylines people parties trees animals birds sky night boats snorkelling fish water sunset diving park beach trek city white island san sand sail national swimming tropical scuba dolphin yacht lost historic shark colombia cartagena ray turquoise blas rays lancha tayrona ciudad sunbathe teyuna perdida barracuda Comments (0)

Colombia: The Prohibition Era

Dry weekends but certainly not caffeine free...moving from the country's industrial heart to its silver lining.

sunny 32 °C

Our final country...or is it? Do we return home at the end? I can say with all certainty that our dream answer would be that we have many more countries still to go and that we are not returning home...yet. But sadly, it seems the end is nigh. We better make the most of what time we have left then shouldn't we?

Bienvenidos a Colombia! Home to coffee, cocaine(!), the largest exporter of emeralds and the Caribbean.

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With little over 3 weeks left and a lot of distance to cover in Colombia, we decided to make the most of our time and cut out the long bus journeys and fly from place to place. Internal flights in Colombia are pretty cheap so we made the most of them.

Having had enough of cities, on landing in Bogota, we immediately caught an internal flight to Manizales, a small city in the heart of Zona Cafetera or the 'Coffee Region' in Central Colombia. Our flight was only an hour but was in a small twin prop where you could feel every bump, every gust of wind, every single movement.

Manizales is described as having 'abrupt topography', built into the mountains with ridge lines and steep slopes. It is situated high in the hills of Colombia covered in lush green forest and coffee plants, as a result of the combination of hot sunny days and cooler, wetter afternoons and evenings. You can immediately see why Colombia is one of the biggest coffee growers and exporters in the world, with Manizales being the coffee capital.

We had booked a tour around Hacienda Venecia, a working coffee plantation and farm about 30 minutes outside of Manizales nestled in the bottom of the nearby valley. We also discovered that as well as being able to stay at the plantation house (which looked fantastic but out of our price range) they also had on site, a hostel which had all the same amenities and facilities as the house but slightly more basic accommodation. As such, for £20 a night, we got a private double room with ensuite bathroom, a swimming pool to use, more hammocks than you have time to sleep in and all the free coffee you can drink! And even better, hardly anyone was staying there so peace and quiet too (apart from the owners' pug which took an immediately liking to Han's socks and shoes and our Nikon DSLR)!

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On the morning of our arrival, our tour started with a brief history of where coffee originated and how it came to the Americas. We learnt all about the different types of coffee, as well as the different conditions required for growing them and the methods employed for farming, drying and roasting each.

Coffee can generally be split into 3 main bands - robusta coffee which accounts for the largest proportion of the worlds coffee (2% caffeine content); arabica coffee which accounts for the second largest proportion (1% caffeine content); and then speciality coffees such as Blue Mountain from Jamaica and the world's most expensive coffee Kopi Luwak from Indonesia, which involves an Asian Palm Civet eating the coffee fruits, digesting them and then pooing out the beans! Funny, what seems the easiest and cheapest method (less need for machinery etc), produces the most expensive coffee! Go figure... It also turns out London is the place where the price of robusta coffee is set. Who'd have thought!

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Colombia and Hacienda Venecia grow and produce only arabica coffee using the 'wash method' due to the high altitude and wetter conditions. The other method is called the 'dry method' used in areas of lower altitude and greater heat such as Brazil. If you are asking what is the difference between the two, all I'm going to say is book a trip to Colombia and stay at Hacienda Venecia...or google it. The former is much more fun though!

Colombia account for 7-10% of the coffee market and are the third biggest producer. Brazil is the biggest producer followed oddly by Vietnam, who account for 58% of the market combined. Coffee is also Colombia's third biggest export behind oil, minerals and precious stones, specifically emeralds.

When learning about the coffee making process, I was surprised to learn it is not that dissimilar to the wine-making process save for the roasting of course. As part of our 'classroom learning' we got to test out our noses once again trying to identify different 'notes' that might be present in coffee (just like in Mendoza). It turns out that my good nose for wine turns its hand at coffee too! I now have two possible career paths - a sommelier for a wine producer or alchemist for a major coffee producer. Both require a move abroad to somewhere sunny so it can't be that bad. (I recently saw that 'Winemaker' was on New Zealand's Required Skills List - still hope of owning that vineyard on Waiheke!)

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After learning all about the process, seeing some roasting and of course the mandatory tasting (wow!) we got a tour of the working farm buildings and the store rooms full of coffee sacks.

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Our second day at the Hacienda was spent lounging around the pool and walking around the plantation. Hacienda Venecia is large in size, covering 200,000 hectares of the valley floor and hillside. Although it is a working farm, they let guests wander the coffee fields to their hearts content. We decided to hike to the top of the plantation and see the view of the fields from the mountainside, which were outstanding. We also got to see many workers wandering the fields hand picking the fruits from the trees.

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Having had a short but amazing time here (anyone thinking of visiting Colombia, this place is a must), it was time to leave and catch our next flight to Cartagena on the northern coast - via Bogota - for more sun!

Our taxi to the airport was something straight out of the movie Romancing the Stone. Hopping in our SWB Land Rover Defender complete with soft top and snorkel, Han in the front and myself riding in the back with all our bags, our driver decided to take us on the back roads through the fields and tropical jungle. To say I got bumped around a bit was an understatement...but it was so much fun!!

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On our arrival at Manizales 'Airshed' (it's not so much an airport, just a single room with chairs and a little cafe), we discovered our flight was delayed by an hour due to poor weather. Ordinarily, this would not have bothered us but our perhaps somewhat over confidence in Colombia's airline efficiency meant that we had only left ourselves 1.5hrs between landing in Bogota (on time) and catching our connecting flight. So an hour delay was cutting it a little fine. Turns out, it was much worse as we only landed and arrive at the gate 10 minutes before our next flight was due to take off. Whilst we thought we could just about make it through security, the same could not be said for our luggage which was still on the plane and the airport staff had not even started unloading it off of our plane! With two minutes to spare, we made it to the gate. Only time would tell if our luggage also made it to the plane...

Fortunately, it is in exactly these scenarios that 'Spanish time' comes into its own...it turned out that our onward flight to Cartagena would also leave an hour late, giving our luggage time to join us on the plane, phew! Landing in Cartagena late at night, feeling tired, dirty and hangry (yes, that anger and frustration you feel about everything when you're hungry) the last thing we wanted was to find our luggage was stuck in transit somewhere. But appearing through the plastic gates of heaven, on luggage belt número 4, our faces lit up on seeing the safe arrival of our Golden Horde. Woohoo! Spanish time rules!!

Cartagena. The city of many names. The Jewel of the Nile, no sorry, Caribbean (since arriving in Cartagena, I have had a craving for watching 80's Michael Douglas movies - I'd just like to think Han and I are Jack T. Colton and Joan Wilder) or more popularly known as The Walled City.

Cartagena is a beautiful colonial city coupled with the laid-back Caribbean lifestyle. It is also another UNESCO World Heritage Site (it seems everywhere we go at the moment is a WHS).

Visiting a place famed for its historic 'Walled City', we did what anyone would do...stayed outside the city walls. As backpackers on a budget, staying 'inside' was simply not an option. As a fairly big tourist destination (sooooo many Americans) everything was tourist prices where you had to work hard to find somewhere cheaper to sleep and eat.

However, just outside the historic city is the area of Getsemani, a backpackers haven, as well as a haven for many other things too...but less said about those things. Our 'Casa' was just off a little side street, just 5 minutes' walk from the Clock Tower Gate. As soon as you opened the door from the street, it was like walking into a tiny riad, complete with a small but perfect swimming pool in the courtyard with the 'comes as standard' hammock next to it. Heaven!

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Arriving a little late on a Friday, we grabbed a bite to eat at a little restaurant called Cevecheria Wippy in the old town. Cartagena is a vibrant city with a great night life but knackered from all our travels during the day, we decided to call it a night and paint the town red tomorrow - it was the weekend after all.

The next day was spent wandering the historic city, doing some souvenir shopping (purchasing the absolute must - a hammock) as well as photographing some doors! As you do. I even found a peluqueria (barbers) and got a much needed haircut. When he pulled out the straight razor...gulp!

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We then spent some time chillaxing before going out for a few cheeky bevvies in town. Dolled up to the nines, we headed to a nearby lively looking salsa bar we had seen earlier for a couple of cocktails...only to be told they were not serving beers or cocktails. Upon asking in our now fluent Spanish (?!?) ("Tiene solo bebidas sin alcohol?"..."Si") it turned out they were not serving any booze. Thinking they were just being weird, we decided to head into town. We walked from one side of the old town all the way to the other passing numerous bars and restaurants and found it strange that we did not see one person with an alcoholic drink. I guess this is how alcoholics feel when they're trying to sober up - desperately searching for a drink where one is not in sight!?! Do they not drink in Colombia at weekends? Is there a local law against it? What the hell?!

We decided to continue our search for libations at a nice balcony bar overlooking a cute little square and when we asked for a beer, they duly said "yes, no problem". So what the hell was going on? Well, when our beer arrived, it looked like a slushie! Not the tastiest I have to admit so for the next round we opted for something a little more tasty looking, cocktails. It was then that one of the bar staff finally resolved the mystery...as it was the time of the Colombian elections, all over Colombia, the police were enforcing a 'dry weekend' from Sat morn to Monday afternoon! So nowhere was allowed to sell alcohol AT ALL! Not even to tourists! We couldn't believe it. Cartagena is such a lively place with what looked like a great nightlife - trust us to be there on the one weekend when there is no alcohol to be had. With baking hot sun in the day, where only an ice cold beer would quench that longing thirst and there was not a beer to be bought or bribed anywhere...I nearly cried.

But, the wonderful, amazing, best establishment in the world ever, that it was (name shall remain anonymous for fear of reprisals :-)) they agreed to ply us with booze, but any drink would have to be disguised as a soft drink. So rather cunningly, I duly ordered a cocktail usually served in a martini glass - a margarita (a-hmmmm, lemonade) knowing that to disguise it as a soft drink meant that it would have to be served in a bigger glass as a tall, long drink! Han had a strawberry dacquiri (erm, strawberry juice) and we now looked like everybody else.

The following day, after waking from our Sunday slumber, the morning was spent chilling around the pool. The afternoon brought a visit to the fort, which was pretty cool and very Pirates of the Caribbean. Built by the Spanish after they lost Cartagena to the British in 1586, who held the city for ransom (for only 107,000 Pesos or £30 - I could own a city!) and then again to the French before retaking it (the French got bored of the place and just left), the fort is built directly into the mound it is situated on, has extremely thick stone walls and a maze of tunnels beneath it which once led to different areas of the city. Whilst it seems their military weren't very competent, their builders clearly were as the fort and also the city has never been taken since it was built (it took around 208 years to complete the fortresses and walls). It became impenetrable despite the constant tide of pirates which tried and tried to sack the city which had grown quickly in size and wealth.

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Dinner and our evening entertainment in this time of prohibition was once again had at El Balcon (oops sorry, not so anonymous after all!). It seems lawyers stick together and are never too far apart, as not long after we arrived we met a lad from Linklaters who had just arrived in Cartagena and was also looking for a drink. We soon enlightened him about the prohibition times and how to ask for a drink 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' style. After an evening of "do you know so-and-so?" and how much we didn't want to go back to work and where else we were going on our travels and where we wanted to still travel to, we headed back to our Casa. Not before being stopped by police who insisted on searching us both, rifling through our pockets and Hannah's bag looking for cocaine. Disappointed by their negative search, they were not happy to let us go before they had seen our passports (which we had left at the hostel). Foiled again by the production of copies however, they finally let us go on our way. It certainly reminded us that cocaine is still a massive problem in Colombia.

Our last full day in Cartagena was spent at Playa Blanca where we opted to stay for the night. Dubbed the best beach in the region, we decided to check it out. No accommodation booked, we were just hoping for a hammock!

Our journey involved travelling in an extremely cramped minivan. The kiwi owner bought it as a 12-seater but didn't realise it was for 12 small Japanese folk, not 12 of Europe's finest! Needless to say, it was a sweat box! After a brief respite at the river crossing where we got to stretch our legs for a whole 3 minutes, we were packed back in the minivan for a further 30 minutes before arriving at our destination. I have to say, it was well worth it! White sands, calm turquoise waters and little beach cabañas towards the quieter end. We couldn't have asked for more. We found 'The Wizard' - a recommendation of where to stay - which consisted of several small shelters raised on stilts and directly faced the ocean. Nothing but a roof, a mattress and a small piece of cloth to provide the smallest amount of privacy but also not to spoil the perfect view straight from your bed. Waking up to the sound of lapping waves and a completely empty beach was one of the best alarms I think I've ever had.

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Much of the day was spent catching some much needed rays and swimming in the clear waters. Lunch consisted of grabbing the local fisherman as he walked past selling freshly caught fish and lobster and buying a load of langoustines which he duly cooked in a tasty garlic and white wine butter served with a small salad and plantain chips and brought to our sun loungers! We didn't have to lift a finger.

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Unfortunately, as the phrase goes, all good things must come to an end. Deciding to deliberately miss the clown car back to Cartagena, we caught a lancha (speedboat) back to the city which was a hell of a lot more fun and faster.

Playa Blanca is a must for anyone visiting Cartagena but don't leave it too long as it might not be the same for much longer. Sadly we were told that the Government recently tried to take the land from the locals by blocking the waters with 12 large boats preventing locals from fishing and also bringing in bulldozers, just so that they could build an awful monstrosity of a hotel complex come village on the back of the beach, targeting the many American tourists, more specifically the middle-aged 'all-inclusive-ers'. Having taken the boat back to Cartagena, a little further along the coast is one of these massive town-like hotel complexes which really is an eye-sore on the pristine coastline. Having spoken to one of the staff members at The Wizard, we understand it would've happened had it not been for one of them obtaining a court order preventing the Government from seizing the land, destroying all of the locals' homes and businesses and their community, which has been there for many years. However, many think it is inevitable and only a matter of time before they return and try again. It seems a real shame that this could happen as it is perfect as it is. Relatively untouched save for the businesses on the beach. Let's pray this never happens...

Anyway, from one great place to another, our next stop brings us to The Lost City Trek (yup, more hiking) an Tayrona National Park 4 hours further east along the coast...

...over to you Han.

Posted by shaunandhan 09:36 Archived in Colombia Tagged beaches boats water sunset beach sand historic walls coffee colombia cartagena hacienda colourful turquoise lancha manizales playa_blanca venecia Comments (0)

Rio de Janeiro - Carnival baby!

"Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl, with yellow feathers in her hair..." oh yeah, we're in Rio baby, and it's carnival time!!

So we arrived in Rio and checked into our fab hostel (the lovely Discovery hostel - one of our best yet). The sun was shining and the everyone seemed to be in the party mood and heading to the beach. We too were heading to Copacabana, but rather than to the beach, we were (for the second time this trip) off to the hospital since by now I was in a great deal of pain and feeling pretty unwell - not quite how we would have chosen to spend our first day in Rio but needs must! Anyway, it turned out I have shingles (for those who don't know this is essentially an infection in your nerves caused by the same virus as chicken pox and it manifests itself in adults who have had chicken pox as kids) and I was prescribed some (expensive!) anti-viral meds, painkillers and rest. It seemed I was destined to spend our time in Rio dosed up to the hilt and sleeping - again not quite what we had in mind when we booked to go to Rio for carnival!

Luckily the carnival celebrations didn't start until the next day, by which time I'd decided that, despite feeling pretty awful, I'd have to 'man-up' and try to put the pain out of my mind if I was to avoid it entirely ruining our Rio experience. Since today was the first day of carnival, our hostel was having a mini kick off party before all heading to a 'bloco' together so we joined in. 'Bloco's' are essentially huge street parties, which centre around a truck upon which a band will usually be playing music of some sort (usually samba but there was a Beatles bloco and a Michael Jackson bloco while we were there) and which supposedly moves through the streets for people to follow (although in our experience there were generally too many people for the bloco to move anywhere!). Our first bloco was in Santa Teresa, a bohemian area of Rio close to our hostel and, in preparation, everyone from the hostel donned their brightest outfits or best fancy dress and painted their faces/arms/torso/basically any part of their body that was visible and we were off!

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We had been warned that Rio carnival is "crazy" but I don't think anything prepared us for when we hit Santa Teresa. The streets were absolutely rammed full of people, so much so that it was impossible to get through and actually find the bloco truck! Londoners - picture the central line at 8am on a Monday morning, but 50 times bigger and busier, with everyone drinking beer and half the people in fancy dress and you may get some sort of idea! Despite the lack of music, everyone was still having a great time and the atmosphere was pretty awesome.

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The next couple days passed in a bit of a blur of blocos as we soon discovered that you didn't have to go far to find one (apparently over carnival week there were 147 across the city!) and that the entire city seemed to have turned into one big fancy dress party. It really is quite funny travelling on the metro in the middle of the day and it being completely the norm to be surrounded by 'Supermen', 'Wonder Women', fire chiefs, pirates and belly dancers (along with a lot of men dressed as women)!

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Something we hadn't appreciated when we had planned to spend 6 days in Rio over the carnival period was that these carnival events would be taking place all through the day, as well as in the evening (they often started at 10am!), which makes it hard to do all the carnival stuff as well as doing the tourist sites. So, after a couple of days, we "took the morning off" and took ourselves up to see Christ the Redeemer. As one would expect, the site is hugely touristy and absolutely rammed with people but I have to say was every bit as impressive as we had hoped and I was pretty much wowed by it.

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The next day, we spent the day in Ipanema, the upscale area of town home to the famous Ipanema beach, before (much to my excitement) heading to the Sambadrome in the evening to see the actual carnival parade! Over two nights, the Sambadrome plays host to 12 samba schools, each of which parades and performs along the stretch of the Sambadrome for around 80 minutes, displaying incredibly elaborate costumes and floats, which follow their chosen theme for that year, and demonstrating their most impressive samba skills for spectators and judges, vying to be judged as the winning samba school.

Being the thrifty backpackers we are, we had opted for the cheap seats with the locals so we weren't quite sure what we would get to see, but we have to say, this was absolutely the best £20 we ever spent!! The first school kicked off around 9pm and the atmosphere in the Sambadrome immediately became electric, with everyone in the stands singing, cheering and dancing as the parade made its way towards us. When the first dancers reached the front of our stand we were absolutely blown away by the size and opulence of the floats and the immense detail of the costumes - this was certainly what carnival was all about! Although I was still feeling pretty ropey (to say the least) health-wise, I was determined that shingles would not ruin this for me and I even went crazy and had a whole 3 beers!! Unfortunately though, when it hit 2.30am and we were still only halfway through the samba schools, I realised I wasn't going to be able to make it to the end, so we resolved to stay for one more performance and then we would make a move. We were glad we did though as this fourth school was fantastic, with some of the most brightly coloured and intricate costumes yet and, just when we were saying "these guys will definitely win", right in front of us their biggest float crashed into the concrete bridge above the parade stretch that was housing the cameramen, 'beheading' the giant fibreglass Indian character that was the main feature of the float! We couldn't believe it, somebody clearly hadn't done their height calculations very well! During this parade we had also realised that we had inadvertently sat in amongst the fans of this samba school, as were completely surrounded by people wearing their tshirts and waving their flags. These people were absolutely distraught at the 'beheading' incident; the woman next to us actually started crying. It certainly made us realise how seriously some of the locals actually take carnival! Anyway, we finally called it a night at around 3.30am, having loved every minute of our Sambadrome experience. This was definitely something which lived up to the hype and will go down as a trip highlight for sure.

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On our final full day in Rio, despite the abundance of blocos still going on in the city, we decided to tick off a few more sights, starting with the famous Selaron steps in Lapa.

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This was followed by a trip to Copacabana beach and then up Sugar Loaf mountain, having both felt like our carnival experience had reached its climax the night before. Copacabana beach was predictably rammed, but it's setting underneath Sugar Loaf is certainly impressive and it provided some great entertainment in the form of numerous volleyball and other beach games being played by men in the tiny speedos expected in Rio! Much to Shaun's disappointment, there didn't seem to be any women playing in their thong bikinis though!

We headed up Sugar Loaf late afternoon, in time to catch the sunset and then get a view of the city at night, and this famous view certainly didn't disappoint. Watching the sun set behind Christ the Redeemer, perched up on the mountains behind the city, with the city and the beaches in the foreground was truly magical. Seen from here it would be difficult to argue that Rio is anything other than one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

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Overall, despite my ailments, we still had a great time in Rio - in fact it's pretty impossible not to! Despite the horror stories at no point did we ever feel unsafe and the atmosphere in the city that came with it being carnival time was just fantastic.

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Having said that, by the time we left, the aftermath of the street parties meant that the whole city was starting to look a little like a rubbish dump, with empty beers cans and burger wrappers lining the streets, and smell a bit like a toilet (I'm sure you can imagine why...) so despite the fact we loved Rio and would definitely come back, it felt like the right time to leave.

And so, it's on to Colombia for us - our last stop on our amazing journey. Can't believe it's that time already - I guess (shingles or no shingles!) we'll just have to make the most of every minute in Colombia. Watch this space!

Posted by shaunandhan 16:08 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Brazil! Time to Paaaaaar-a-ty!!

The Road to Rio: Our journey along the Costa Verde...

sunny

12 weeks in...we have a confession to make. We must be the whitest people ever to travel South America for the length of time we have!! And we are not happy about this fact.

So heading further into Brazil, home of eternal sun, it's about time for some proper sunshine, a prolonged period of gorgeous weather...or so we thought!

For those of you who are aware of our route, we were planning on heading to Florianopolis, east of Foz do Iguaçu on the Southern Brazilian Coast. However after much thought and discussion, we decided that we were tired of long bus journeys and going to Florianopolis for only 2-3 days would've meant two 16hr long bus journeys close together and three in the space of 5 days. As such, we decided to head straight to Paraty and just relaxing in the same place for 5 days taking in the many white sand beaches that surround the area.

Our bus took us via São Paulo (16.5hrs) where we had decided to carry on through to Paraty rather than spend a night, so another (6-7hr) bus journey was on the cards with only a brief wait at the station. Two couples we had met previously told us that there was nothing really in São Paulo for tourists so we heeded that advice and moved on. It turned out to be a great decision as looking out of the bus window on our departure through the rain at the grey skyline, we decided it looked more like Birmingham than Brazil! We were also happy to be leaving the rain behind, or so we thought.

Did we heck as like...just wishful thinking. We arrived into Paraty in the late afternoon and it was still raining, head! But this didn't dampen our excitement at being out of a city and able to see the sea! Not the North Sea or the English Channel, an actual ocean! We had not seen one of these since day 1 in Lima! Where have you been?! And with it, we could see white sand. We were in for a good time...if it would just stop p*ssing it down!

On arrival at our hostel, which was a nice little converted house with plush green gardens, a horse(!) and a 20m laned swimming pool (I was a little excited), we dumped our bags and took a seat at the bar next to the pool in need of large ice cold cervejas (Portugese now - so confusing!). With our mood in a state of limbo about the weather, salt got well and truly rubbed into our wounds when the woman working on the bar said that it had not rained there for over a month prior to yesterday with temperatures around 50C! As such, they were all very happy about the rain - we were less so! On that note, we took our leave and crashed out in our dorm, absolutely exhausted from the long day travelling. Tomorrow would bring a new day...

The next morning brought more rain, though much lighter and we were buoyed by the fact that the weather was due to improve the next day. Taking a more positive attitude, we worked out that the weather has generally been good to us so far wherever we have been and so we figured it was only raining here because it [the weather] thought we were in Florianopolis at the moment. So when it gets to the day that we were actually due to arrive in Paraty, the sun would duly appear. Yes, that's it. That's what was happening. Just a slight miscommunication with the weather over our itinerary that's all.

So waiting for the sun's late arrival, we decided to take a brief stroll in the historic centre of Paraty. Paraty (pronounced Par-a-Chee) is the southern-most city in the state of Rio de Janeiro which lies on the Costa Verde, a lush, green corridor along the coastline. It sits in the Bay of Ilha Grande which is populated by many tropical islands and amid jutting peninsulas and secluded beaches with a backdrop of steep, jungled mountains. It is also a preserved Portugese colonial (1500-1822) and Brazilian Imperial (1822-1889) town as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As you can guess, we immediately loved the place. Aspects of it, particularly along the rivers, reminded us of South East Asia with the narrow brown-coloured rivers, the low-profile schiffs and the overgrown and overhanging palm trees and vegetation. What made you instantly realise that it was Brazil however was taking one look at the fisherman's boats, which were so brightly coloured, it was like seeing La Boca again, only this time on water! The historic centre is a beautiful maze of cobbled streets, the cobbles so big, you spend half your time looking at your feet and not where you're going (a bit like Bow Quarter). But, if you manage to look up every once in a while, you will see fantastic looking white stone buildings lining the streets with brightly coloured doors and window frames. Being a Sunday, and also that it was raining, meant that many places were closed, so we just casually wandered the streets soaking up the scenes before heading to our new accommodation and where we would be spending the next 4 nights, Pousada Bambu Bamboo.

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This Pousada (hotel) is owned by an Englishman, Ben, a very friendly and amiable chap who immediately and without asking gave us an upgrade! Woohoo! If any travelling couples or holidaymakers are thinking of coming to Paraty and are thinking of staying in a double room (rather than a dorm) then I cannot recommend any other place. For only a little more than a hostel (only 20 R$), the difference is huge and worth every single penny! Bambu Bamboo is a small place, just a 15-20 minute walk from the town centre, in the forest and next to the river. Our room was a minimalist looking, white room with a mezzanine level as the bedroom (reminiscent of our Bow Quarter flat) with ensuite and a second bathroom downstairs (I know!). With a free form pool and breakfast area next to the river, you couldn't ask for a better place to relax. This is the best place we have stayed so far and also the best breakfast we've eaten! Cereal, fresh fruits, yoghurt, toast, eggs, different cakes, juices etc. Amazing. Ben had just returned from the UK and brought back with him a load of Tetley's (and English magazines much to Han's delight) so a brew was the first thing on my breakfast table. I would've felt bad if I told him we drink Yorkshire Tea these days. Mmmmm...

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After a hearty breakfast, our first full day was spent trying to lounge around the pool, reading (I'm on my third book, the most I've read in 2.5 months in a long time...that's not a legal text!) and sleeping, but sadly it rained once again so we found a nearby bar and drowned our weather-born sorrows.

Deciding enough was enough, the next day we chanced the weather and caught a local bus to a nearby beach area called Trinidade, known for its white sand beaches. We headed to Praia do Mayo, a small bay with white sand beaches with a rainforest backdrop and blue/green waters lapping against the shore. It had all the makings of a great beach but the weather did not play ball. Clouds soon filled the sky making the sea look grey and not that inviting. As such, we didn't stay too long and decided to head back. However, in true style, Han had other ideas. Trying to climb a rock, she slipped and scraped her right knee right down the rock, removing a good chunk of skin from it! Not quite as bad as her arm in Peru, but enough to make her feel faint and leave another nasty mark! So Trinidade was topped off with a quick trip to the chemist to tender her wounds before we were back on the bus!

Our last day in Paraty. Today was the day that the weather should have caught up with our amended itinerary. Thinking there would be no more miscommunication, we booked a day trip on a schooner to visit some other beaches around Paraty and it's many Islands. The weather offered a humble apology and duly brought out the sun. Woohoo! Finally!! The day went much better, chilling on the deck with a beer/caipirinha in hand, snorkelling in the blue waters around the boat and when the speedboat took everyone to shore I decided to swim there instead. I wanted to see how much worse I'd got...(not too shabby I thought - winter 'hot weather training' not going too bad). All in all, the best day in Brazil by a mile! This was more like we expected.

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With the good weather finally arriving, we were a little reluctant to leave Paraty but we were due to head up the coast to Ilha Grande. Arriving in Angra dos Reis just in time to catch the next ferry, we took the hour and a half boat to the village of Abraao on the east side of the island, the main settlement on the island. Ilha Grande is one of the most pristine remnants of Brazil's Atlantic rainforest, one of the richest ecosystems in the world, and a hotspot for biodiversity and conservation. The island is largely undeveloped (it has no roads) and noted for its scenic beauty, which includes tropical beaches, luxuriant vegetation and a rugged landscape. The entire island is a protected area with a large part of it not accessible to the public and is solely reserved for scientific study.

But what about the weather you ask? AMAZING!! Scorching sun finally! Woohoo!!

Our first three nights were to be spent in the town, taking in its nightlife, it's many restaurants as well as the many walks and boat rides to idyllic beaches such as Lopes Mendes, a beach voted as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. And we did exactly that! The highlight? The $5 Real (£1.25) Caiprinhas from a mobile bar which was basically a man walking along with a cart full of spirits and mixers, a cocktail shaker and blender. They were the best Caiprinhas we've ever tasted!

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Our second three days were spent in Praia Vermelha (Red Beach) on the far west of the island, completely away from everything else. It was so remote that the only way of getting there was to get an expensive taxi boat from the main village or take the ferry back to the mainland and then get a smaller local boat to Praia Vermalha which only went at certain times and certain days. In true 'thrifty' traveller style, we took the latter option. On the boat across, we saw some HUGE crow-like birds circling above us. I don't know what they were waiting for, but I got a couple of decent shots of these massive creatures...

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As our schiff was approaching our final destination, we saw a tiny little cove to our left and immediately wanted to know where it was and how we got there from our lodgings. It turned out, our pousada was a 1 minute walk away. Hence, we immediately went straight there, strolling through a bamboo forest and it was more idyllic than any beach we had seen so far and it was all ours. Not a soul around!

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Our lodgings, Pousada Lagamar is built into the trees which cover the entirety of the island from coast to coast. Our 'chalet' was built on stilts almost into the canopy itself, overlooking the intensely blue and turquoise waters peeking through the lush green leaves. And my favourite perk, a hammock right outside on the balcony.

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They even had regular visitors from the forest who would come down and say hello and chew on a little snack...

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The next day, we joined some of other guests at the Pousada on 2.5hr picturesque hike to Lagoa Verde, a shallow(ish), natural and tranquil area of water between the main island and a smaller one - and in between - a floating bar! This area is one of the best places to find many species of fish and if you're lucky, turtles and dolphins. Sadly we didn't see either of them but saw plenty of colourful fish! What made it even better was that there was nobody there either! Just the barman who duly served ice cold cervejas and agua. Not fancying the 2.5hr hike back, we decided to get a taxi boat back to Praia Vermalha and our Pousada, only to find the whole area had lost all electricity. Dinner by candlelight...very romantic.

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For our penultimate day, we decided that there was to be no hiking, no boats, just pure relaxation on the little secluded beach we found on our first day in Praia Vermalha. That was until our hosts Luciana and Ezequiel said that there was a boat trip going that day back to Lagoa Verde but also Lagoa Azul for more snorkelling and also another place where there were frequent sightings of turtles...sold! On the boat we got. I didn't really think it could get much better than the day before but I was wrong once again. As soon as I jumped in, a massive shoal of fish swarmed around me so much so that I couldn't really see anything other than a wall of fish!! It may have had something to do with the fact that the Captain had just dropped some food right in front of my mask as I jumped in, not that I'm just a magnet for fish sadly!

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But I am a magnet for turtles it seems! Again as I jumped in, they just kept swimming right up to me. It immediately dawned on me I know nothing about turtles other than that they can be quite big. I had no idea what they ate (found that out pretty quickly!) or how they react around people. Save to say when one was approaching me, I freaked out a little at first. I then realised that my GoPro camera was glinting in the sun making it look like tasty fish food. Whilst filming one turtle and taking my eye off it for a second, another decided to sneak up behind and bite at my camera, which was in my hand. Although startling, it was incredible to be so close to these magnificent creatures and see them in their natural environment. Despite my right hand looking like the speciality of the day, I was able to capture some great shots of the turtles! Han practically wet herself with excitement on seeing them and it was truly the highlight of our time on Ilha Grande.

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Our final day on Ilha Grande was spent relaxing at the Pousada, reading and sleeping (especially me as I had been up until 5am with two great guys staying at the Pousada, drinking too much, trying to right the wrongs of the world and work out the meaning of life - as you do when you've had a few!). Han was also not on her best form so was happy to chillax also. Not only because she was feeling a little rough from the night before, but also was yet again in the wars!! This time, Hannah had managed to pick up some sort of rash on her back and neck, which appeared to be spreading and getting angrier everyday. Frustratingly, we were on a small island, in a remote area with no amenities around at all and no means of getting to the mainland until the day we were leaving. Having tried every cream, spray and tablet available to us (with the help of the Pousada and all of its guests) nothing appeared to have done the trick.

So, the next day, an hour and a half boat ride and yet another three hour bus journey later, we would arrive at 'River of January' where our first port of call would be to the doctor...then the Havaiana's shop(!), then the beach!

Posted by shaunandhan 20:15 Archived in Brazil Tagged water beach white island sand tropical brazil paraty turquoise ilhagrande Comments (0)

It takes 'toe' to tango!

Our escapades in and around Buenos Aires and Iguazu falls

Ok so after the cold of Patagonia, we decided it was time to head to sunny climates (we hoped!) and so made our way to Buenos Aires - the home of the tango!!

Our hostel was in an area called San Telmo. This is a great little area; an old part of town (but fairly close to the centre) which is filled with vintage and antiques shops, great little bars and the ornate, but often run-down, buildings and facades (often also covered in worn street-art) that BA is known for.

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On our way to the hostel from the airport, I noticed a familiar smell coming from Shaun...wine. Just as I was starting to wonder whether we had drunk so much of the stuff, that Shaun was beginning to sweat pure Malbec, he broke it to me that he thought one of the nice bottles we had bought in Mendoza had smashed in my rucksack in transit! True enough, after checking in at the hostel, we discovered this was the case, disaster!! Not to worry though as while I was busy trying to wash the entire contents of my bag in our small room sink to prevent everything from being completely ruined, Shaun was busy fashioning a makeshift wine glass out of a water bottle and salvaging the small amount of wine that had remained in the bottle. Talk about getting your priorities right?! :-)

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Anyway, on our first day in BA, after spending the morning doing some trav-min, we headed off on the obligatory pilgrimage to La Boca, the area of BA that contains the iconic brightly painted houses that BA is known for the world over. The area would have been incredibly pretty if it wasn't so unpleasantly touristy. It is absolutely brimming with its thousands of tourists, pushy touristy restauranteurs, ticket touts and those God awful wooden stands with pictures tango dancers with their faces cut out ready for you to stick your head through! Nonetheless, it does provide some great photo opportunities and is a must see in BA. We escaped the area for dinner though, instead finding a great little wine bar near our hostel called El Refuerzo, which offered an awesome cheese and meat plate and had a great selection of red wines. And so the Argentinian diet continues!!

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The following day we had decided to explore Palermo, known to be the trendy district of BA, great for shopping, bars and cafés. The day got off to bad start however as, almost as a soon as we arrived there, Shaun tripped and ripped open his toe. He complained he was in so much pain he thought he may have broken it! A pretty extreme way to get out of the tango lessons I was planning I thought!! Next mission was therefore to find a pharmacy. With Shaun patched/drugged up and limping, we did our best to still explore Palermo, which we loved. Tree lined avenues filled with gorgeous independent shops and delis/bars and restaurants. Very reminiscent of New York's West Village. Talking of delis we had our best lunch of the trip yet in Cafe Voltaire (order the Voltaire salad!). The afternoon brought more shopping than we could afford (but less than I would have liked!) and more great cafés (Bartoli Corner) before we headed back to the hostel to seek out a meal locally to minimise Shaun's walking time/distance.

The next day we woke to torrential rain (errr we thought it was summer here!) so we took the opportunity to do some more trav-min. When we finally headed out we visited the Plaza de Mayo; famous for the government building Casa Rosada (or officially Casa de Gobierno) situated on the east side of the plaza, which has provided the backdrop for many an important political speech/rally (as well as Madonnas rendition of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" in the film 'Evita', her controversial (in Argentina) portrayal of the much revered Eva Peron, who appears to have near god like status here - Evita that is, not Madonna!). Afterwards, we went back to Palermo to spend the evening there, since our plan to do that the day before had been scuppered by Shaun's injury. Palermo is brimming with pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants so we had a great evening although perhaps stayed out later than we should have done as the next day we had a very early start planned! We were getting up at 5.30am to catch a bus to Junin, approx 4 hours outside of BA, where we had arranged to go and stay at an Estancia (La Oriental - http://www.estancia-laoriental.com) for a night.

La Oriental is a 2,500 acre traditional estancia. Estancia literally means Estate, and is the word used for the traditional Argentine ranches, which were often gifted to esteemed servicemen and war heroes in the 1800s (in the Buenos Aires region in particular). The Estancias are particularly famous for the impressive colonial or renaissance style houses and gardens that were built on them, many of which endure today as monuments to those times, and for the gauchos that worked on them and their impressive horse skills (including polo which became a huge sport in Argentina after being established in the Estancias).

Unfortunately, we woke to an enormous storm, with deafeningly loud thunder and torrential rain. Not ideal conditions for a day out in the countryside! Almost the entire 4.5 hour bus journey we drove through horrendous storms and rain and I had to move seats after the rain literally started pouring through the a/c unit above my head! Amazingly, despite the weather and some of the flooded streets we passed through, the bus arrived in Junin only 30 mins late, where incredibly the sun was shining! We couldn't believe our luck! We jumped in a taxi and were at the Estancia by 1pm, where we were immediately wowed by the beauty of the place. A long tree lined driveway led us to the white facade of the French Renaissance style building, which is surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens, and were greeted by Marta, the lovely housekeeper who led us to our room. The owners have made a conscious decision to preserve the Estancia as it was when it was built in the late 1800's and the property contains furniture, paintings, books and original fittings from that period. Our room was a gorgeous mini suite which had one of the biggest beds we'd ever seen (I could roll over twice and still not kick Shaun out of bed) and was full of all original features. The bathroom too was quite extraordinary with its original fittings and plumbing. Our room was just off the main living area, which had equally been beautifully preserved and was peppered with original furniture, art and antiques, including huge tapestries, a 150 year old billiard table and an antique piano. Truly impressive.

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After we settled in, we were called for lunch, an incredible traditional Asado (BBQ) of some of the juiciest cuts of beef we've had yet.

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We were joined for lunch by Rafael, the owner, who gave us the story of the Estancia and a history lesson. La Oriental was built on land that was originally gifted to a General in the early 1800s but he died before he could claim the land. A few years later the land was bought by a rich Argentinian pioneer, who built and furnished the property in 1880 and was well known for building the first airport in the area, as well as for the raucous parties he held at the property where he entertained politicians, celebrities of the time and even presidents. After his death, the property was bequeathed to a nephew, who never came to live there, and so it sat empty until the family of the current owners took ownership in the 1940's. Today it remains a working ranch, which grows mainly grain and soya beans as well as providing grazing land for hundreds of cattle. The owner claimed the Estancia was cursed however because in its entire history, it had never followed proper lineage. We cheekily asked if that was the case, maybe he could give it to us seeing as his sons and daughters were pre-destined to never inherit it. He said no...

After lunch, we were taken around the estate on horseback which was great fun!! We rode out through the pampas with our guide, Miguel, visiting some of the many cattle who call the ranch their home and taking in the wildlife. This was also Shaun's first experience of riding a horse! I told him donkeys on a beach didn't count. Luckily the horses were really docile and well behaved so we both enjoyed it greatly. (Edit by SR - nailed it!)

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It soon became clear that, despite the Estancia having 9 bedrooms, we were the only people staying there and so had the entire place all to ourselves! The property was so peaceful and, with the wonderful Marta attending to our every need and waiting on us hand and foot, it all felt very exclusive and we felt very spoilt. It was like having our own exclusive stately home for the night. The evening turned out to be a stunning one, with a bright moon and perfectly clear sky and, much to our surprise, Marta had laid us a beautiful candlelit table for dinner under the stars. We really felt like we were getting the 5* treatment (although their prices are nowhere near 5* prices!)!

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Our second day on the estate brought lots of sun and another fantastic lunch (this time chicken done asado style). We had thought we might take the horses out again, but the day proved to be an absolute scorcher and we decided it was far too hot to be sitting on a horse, so we spent the day around the pool which was bliss, with it (and the rest of the grounds) all to ourselves - the owners having left for a party. Heaven!

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When it came time to leave, although we were very sad to go as we could have easily stayed there a week, we were happy to say it actually felt like we had been there much longer than one night and we had had the most wonderful time. I can't speak for other Estancias but La Oriental felt like a completely authentic experience and the hospitality of our hosts was second to none. We would highly recommend it for anyone considering a trip out here.

After our Estancia adventures, we headed back to the city for a final couple of days in BA. During this time we took in the famous Sunday market in San Telmo; a fantastic market full of antiques and vintage stalls, as well as many other souvenirs, with a great atmosphere. It is full of street performers and musicians and we even saw some people doing the tango in the main plaza. (Londoners - think Broadway Market meets Brick Lane on a Sunday with a bit of Covent Garden thrown in!) A must-do if you find yourself in BA on a Sunday.

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That night, seeing as we had been deprived of any opportunity to try the tango out for ourselves, we went to see a tango show at Cafe Tortoni, one of the oldest cafés in BA. The shows are mostly put on for tourists, but this one came recommended and certainly felt at the more authentic end of the spectrum (and was great entertainment in any event).

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Finally we visited the Recoletta cemetery, which is the final resting place of BA's rich and famous residents of the past (including the omnipresent Eva Peron). This might sound like a bit of a morbid place to visit but the tombs are incredibly ornate and wandering around the cemetery definitely makes for an interesting couple of hours.

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After nearly a week around BA, it was time to move on and we took (yet another!) night bus to Puerto Iguazú, a small town in the upper north corner of Argentina which houses Argentinas entrance to Iguazu Falls.

The day we visited the falls, the weather was absolutely scorching, with temperatures reaching 40C! Good job then that the falls were in full flow and we got absolutely drenched by the spray, as some of the photos below will show!

We are very lucky to have previously visited Victoria Falls in Zambia, which are incredibly impressive, so we weren't sure how Iguazu would compare. But, I have to say, we were both pretty much blown away!! The falls are 2.7km long and the rock formations around them direct the water into over 150 separate waterfalls and cataracts, varying between 60 to 82 metres high, although around half of the river's flow falls into a long and narrow chasm called the Devil's Throat. The comprehensive system of walkways that have been established around the falls on the Argentinean side (which houses more than 80% of the falls) allow you so many great vistas of the different waterfalls and to get as close to the water as possible. Walking around the park there is also lots of wildlife to see, with butterflies and birds everywhere, as well as monkeys and coaties (raccoon like creatures), making all the walks super pretty and interesting.

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The following day, we made the border crossing into Brazil, to start our Brazilian adventure by seeing the falls from the Brazilian side. We had heard that the experience from this side was quite different to that gained on the Argentinian side and that both were well worth doing so figured...when in Iguazu!

The Brazilian side of the falls certainly offered a better panoramic view of the falls in their entirety, but otherwise there is much less to see. I think it's fair to say that we both much preferred the Argentinian side, and not just because the sun was shining that day! Having said that, something that is pretty cool on the Brazilian side is a fairly awesome bird park full of Amazonian and other tropical birds, including macaws, toucans, parakeets, flamingos, harpy eagles and many others. We may sound like total 'bird-watchers' (we prefer the term ornithologists ha ha!) but we really enjoyed it as it gave us the opportunity to see a lot of the birds we'd seen in the rainforest up close and personal (as opposed to flying overhead). To make it even more reminiscent of our rainforest experience, the weather obliged and as we were walking around the park the heavens opened and we got absolutely drenched! Ring any bells?!

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Well that's it from Iguazu. Our next stop is the Brazilian coast for some long overdue beach time, so here's hoping that rain doesn't follow us there!

Hasta luego or, since we're now in Brazil, Tchau for now!

Posted by shaunandhan 17:57 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

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