10. Plenty more fish. Peru 2: Nazca, Huaccachina, Pisco, Paracas, Lima, Amazon

In a coincidence calling free-will into question, we decided to leave Arequipa on the exact day that, unbeknown to us, the coastal road reopened after an earthquake had closed it for 2 weeks. The pristine beaches and rocky scenery were mesmerising and, after numerous hours of sleepy bus window gazing, we arrived at the gigantic and mysterious pre-Colombian sand geoglyphs that Nazca is famous for. With not a single alien in sight but a rapidly setting sun, we sprinted up the observation tower before continuing on to the desert oasis of Huacachina for a cheeky gluten-filled pizza.Built on a picturesque green lagoon with supposed healing properties, the palm tree lined tiny village of Huacachina is completely surrounded by enormous golden sand dunes. Thanks to the Dutch courage gained from a local vineyard’s numerous free samples of Pisco (local liquor), we jumped aboard dune buggies for an exhilarating (aka terrifying) roller coaster ride on the dunes. Feeling elated at surviving the high-speed sudden twists, turns and free-falls of the ride, we waxed our boards (not a euphemism!) and tried our hand (or rather feet) at sand-boarding. After surprising even ourselves and somehow managing to remain standing whilst sliding down the dunes, we took in the incredible view before an even more nerve shattering ride back!

Thankfully, just a short journey further north, the beautiful scenery of Paracas’s nature reserve was calming before our adrenaline levels were pumped back up by a horrendously claustrophobic tour of the Chincha slave tunnels. Whilst in 18th century Peru slavery was legal, to avoid paying import taxes, these secret tunnels were built to smuggle over a thousand slaves into the Hacienda (plantation) to work on the cotton and sugar cane fields. Whilst nervously walking the completely pitch-black windy tunnels, the horror stories of people forced to spend weeks crammed into these tiny, airless, dusty spaces were enough to get my heart racing back to dune buggy levels.Managing to escape confinement, we took our final Peru Hop bus (highly recommend) and journeyed to the capital. With confidence at a high from our recent sand-boarding success, we arrived in Lima and headed to the beach to catch some waves… aka participate in a woefully inadequate surfing lesson followed by an hour of a lot of this:a little bit of this:but mostly this: 

In need of less sea water and more sea food, we tested Lima’s reputation for gastronomical excellence and were not disappointed. From the best grilled fish we’ve ever eaten courtesy of “Pescados Capitales” (so good we had to return… twice), to delicious vege pizza (and gluten-free) from the aptly named “Vege Pizza”. After eventually being too full to eat anything else, we hired bikes and toured Lima from the huge mud brick pre-Inca temple of Huacachina Pucllana to the street art of Mira Flores and Barranco. With Shabbat rapidly approaching, we headed to Chabad where, along with unexpectedly bumping into a friend from home, we were overjoyed by the meat and tahina despite several days of glutinous gorging. To misquote Mother Goose, then these little piggies went to the Amazon.Iquitos is just a 2 hour flight from Lima but is worlds apart from the temperate, urban settings we’d visited this week. Sitting on the banks of the Amazon river, our initial elations at the rainforest’s higher temperatures were quickly drowned out by the pools of sweat emanating from… everywhere! With no air-con, fans, or even electricity for most of the day, our stay at the cheap but very “rustic” Jacamar Lodge was somewhat warmer than us Brits were used to. Whilst the accommodation and food were nothing to write home about (#irony), our guide Juan and our group of Ozzies made it into the great experience that it was.After days of swinging on Tarzan style vines whilst trekking through the jungle and bakingly hot mud baths on the banks of the river, we’d fall asleep to the surprisingly loud buzzing of the forest fauna (and yes, a lot of mosquitoes). Helped of course by the powerfully strong jungle “wines” aka sickly sweet alcoholic concoctions of either:

  • Highly concentrated ginger that burned all the way down to the stomach
  • Tongue numbingly sour berries “packed full of vitamins”
  • Tree barks akin to what I suspect would result in taking a blender to Cinnabon
  • Or a mixture of all three which surprisingly was the most palatable!

Wildlife was everywhere, from the plethora of exotic colourful birds swooping and diving in search of food, to the waters teeming with fish, alligators, turtles and snakes.Monkeys cheekily jumped from tree to tree after stealing items from unaware humans, and swarms of colourful butterflies fluttered all around. Even the local pets were somewhat different from the norm. Meet Slothy McSlothface (patent pending):For me, one of the most standout moments was fishing for piranha which it turns out are kosher! The thrill of a catch quickly washed away our initial hesitation and, despite it being our first time ever fishing, we successfully landed numerous fish with the most basic of equipment. With the sun setting we contently sailed back where, thanks to being attracted to the light of our head-torches, we were amusingly pummelled by small jumping fish which we’d then scramble to throw back into the water. Eating our catches that evening was incredibly satisfying (despite being packed with tiny bones) and a nice change from the rice and jungle “spaghetti” aka shredded palm trees.All jungled out, we had one last game of spot the Roamington before the 2-hour return journey along the amazon, this time during an epic tropical storm. Whilst the boat’s tiny engine chugged along at a painfully slow pace, it did result in finally spotting dolphins, before arriving back to civilisation and much welcomed air conditioning.

Up next: The Galapagos, where the range of wildlife and proximity to it was insane. More on that next time…

9. Machu and Macho! Peru: Cusco, Machu Picchu, Colca & Arrequipa

On crossing into Peru we discovered that, much like in Bolivia, protests are an extremely popular pastime. After learning of impending road blockades, we decided to skip Puno, pull an all-nighter and head directly to Cusco, the heart (or rather the belly-button to Liv’s disgust) of the 2,500 mile long Inca empire. In Incan mythology the three levels of existence are represented by animals: the snake for the underworld, the puma for the world of man and the condor which soars up into the world of the gods. Attempting to ignore our lack of sleep, we joined a free walking tour and roamed the streets of the puma shaped city.

From giant multi-faceted polished Inca stone foundations, to Spanish invasion, revolution and Peruvian independence, our sleep deprived brains were overwhelmed with the flood of insightful information. 

Luckily we had incredible gluten-free crepes from Qucharitas and delicious meat from Chabad to fuel us.

The main tourist draw of Cusco is it’s proximity to Machu Picchu and whilst it is possible to get there and back by train in just one day, most sadistic tourists opt to spend a few days following in the footsteps of the Inca and trek there via one of the many trails. 

As the official Inca trail is booked up 6 months in advance, we opted for a 4-day Salkantay Trek with the aptly named and highly rated (even with a 4am pick-up time) Salkantay Trekking company. Whilst steep hiking was made even trickier by the 4,600m high altitude, the traditional remedy of chewing coca leaves, along with great food and even greater company (#teamsexyllamas) kept us going throughout. Inca smiles all round!

The scenery was also incredible, from the snow capped mountains of Salkantay and Humantay, to the colourful rocky valleys and the lush green dense jungle of the “cloud forest”. This of course provided a great excuse to “stop and admire the view” aka catch my breath. The most spectacular view though was of the stars on the first night when falling asleep in the less than private but picturesque glass domes of the sky lodge accommodation.

From summit to valley, the lower altitudes of the jungle made breathing a little easier, however the heat and the mosquitoes provided new challenges for us weary hikers. Luckily a brief stop at a coffee producer perked us up with some cheekily numerous free samples of coffee and cacao liquor. After finally managing to pry ourselves away from the intensely intoxicating aroma of grinding coffee, and all caffeinated up, we had time for one last chivalrous carrying of bags (#herohubby&machomatt) whilst munching on sweet and fragrant local grenadillo fruits.

Liv even managed to get a quick yoga session in whilst I kept an eye out for local wildlife. 

After a tough few days, we arrived into the town of Aguas Calientes (literally meaning hot water) for an ironically cold shower and a few hours sleep before our 3am Machu Picchu ascent. 

Alas, our guide suffering from shock at getting his first “good” rather than “excellent” review (mostly down to how awkward he made our group feel about mandated tipping), overslept and turned up an hour after the “beat the queues” time. With a gigantic line of tourists waiting to get the pricey coach, we split from the rest of our group and set off by foot where 20 minutes later we arrived (to our despair) at an only marginally smaller walking queue.

Thanks to the guide’s impressive trickery worthy of an episode of Hustle, we were whisked to the front and began climbing the 1500 Remi sized steps still in complete darkness. 

39 minutes later we emerged at the top feeling accomplished but mostly relieved. With the rest of our group yet to arrive (literal slow coaches), we entered the site and had our first views of the sun rising over the astonishing Machu Picchu.

An hour later (and with a now very grumpy guide), we began our tour of the Condor City. From an Inca compass rock shaped like the southern cross (a star constellation), to the water channels, numerous temples and stepped sides, it really was an impressive site to see.

When booking our tour, I for some reason thought that after hiking for numerous days, climbing the steps to Machu Picchu and walking around for hours, it would be a good idea to also tackle the Machu Picchu Mountain. With Liv’s back having had enough, we successfully managed to sell her ticket to a passer by who turned out to be an Israeli mountain hiking extraordinaire called Amir. Ruud (fellow Salkantay trekker), Amir and I then set off on the 1.5 hour roastingly hot and very steep climb (652m elevation gain) to the summit. Whilst the views from the top were spectacular, this was one hike I definitely could have done without! 

Liv (being wiser than me) made the better call hiking to the Sun Gate which was free, much gentler and also offered great views of Machu Picchu.

After an amazing but gruelling four days, we descended the steps of Machu Picchu and returned to Aguas Calientes where thankfully it finally lived up to it’s name with an extremely welcome hot shower. All scrubbed up, we returned back on the fanciest of  trains, complete with a full dinner service and amusingly a fashion/cultural show.

Back in Cusco and after binging out on excessive amounts of meat from Chabad, we once again headed out at 3am for a Winicunca (aka Rainbow mountain) hike. With multi-coloured layers of rock due to the oxidation of different minerals (#science), the climb (1km elevation gain) up to the summit was beautiful but tough, especially considering the 5km high altitude.

Having hiked all that we could, we treated ourselves to a relaxing day of food, more food, massages and a somewhat less relaxing overnight bus to Arequipa. Wanting to make the most of our time, we jumped straight on a 2-day tour of the Colca Canyon. The views from the different miradors (viewpoints) of the stepped hills, deep canyon and soaring condors were beautiful and validated us shlepping round a long zoom lense. The thermal pools in Chivay were also nice and soothing on our sore muscles although a little on the toasty side.

After an achingly active 2 weeks, we returned to Arequipa to treat ourselves to some relaxation and fine dining before, in the words of the M People song, movin’ on up the Peruvian coast and exploring the Amazonian jungle. More on that in the next post…

8. Olivia in Bolivia: Sucre, La Paz, Death Road, Copacabana

After 2 months of rapid roaming and excessive Google Translate, we decided to hunker down and “estudiar espanol”. Once the capital of Bolivia (and still the constitutional capital), Sucre is a pleasant, mild climate, mid-altitude (although we still struggled up the hills) city located in the south-central part of the country. We settled in to the genuinely delightful (although a little fascist re rules) Casa Verde hostel and with writing implements in hand, we summoned our inner students and signed up to classes at the Sucre Spanish school. 

Whilst initially confused at paying to spend our evenings doing homework, it was made worth it by the vast improvements in our Spanish and the delicious 3-course £3 lunches at vege restaurant Cafe Condor. We even found time between shopping for weirdly shaped fruits at the markets, and moaning about man-flu, to make our own gluten free bread. 

 The key tourist attraction of Sucre is the Parque Cretacico aka Dinosaur Park which is home to one of the largest collections of dinosaur footprints in the world (over 5,000), as well as some impressive life size models of the dinosaurs themselves. It was fun stepping back in time (pun always intended!) however as the tours only run at lunchtime we could only view the actual footprints from afar. 

Armed with a new ability to almost communicate with locals, we took a nerve shattering flight from Sucre to La Paz which, unbeknown to an asleep Liv, eventually arrived at the 4,100m high airport after multiple attempts to land. La Paz, the highest administrative capital in the world, is a hectic, bustling, noisy, dirty, sprawling mishmash of a city which, like marmite, divides people into love it or hate it categories. For us it was more of the latter although Friday night at chabad filled with travellers, chicken shnitzels and an incredibly drunk Rabbi was great fun. The vege food at Namas Te was also amazing and they even sold jars of tahini. I think we must be the only travellers in history to travel with two bottles of olive oil and a jar of tahini!

 One of the stand out moments of the whole trip for me was Camino de la muerte aka…Death Road! The world’s most dangerous road gains it’s name from the ~300 people killed yearly from car accidents along this narrow winding mountain road with blind corners, overhanging rocks, waterfalls and of course a 1000m sheer drop. Thankfully, a new road was built in 2006 and since then, the old one is primarily used by crazy, thrill-seeking tourists (and us) on bikes looking to descend the 64km rocky dirt road from 4,700m high to 1,200m. Whilst we were frequently reminded that several cyclists still die each year, even I (the nervy-wobbly cyclist) felt safe in the hands of our Gravity (highly recommend this company) guide Scott from Scotland. The scenery was spectacular and my nerves quickly faded away as my confidence grew. Starting to believe that I may in fact survive the day, I even started enjoying myself and, whilst there were a couple of hairy moments, we both arrived back injury free and elated. We thought it best to wait until this point to let our parents know what we had just done!

After an exhilarating adrenaline pumping day, we thought we’d take it easy and unwind with… a series of 50mph zip wires several hundred meters above the jungle floor. The views were incredible and, after reaching terminal velocity, the ride was strangely serine. Vast coca plantations swept across the mountainous terrain and the cool air refreshed our tired faces.   

 With our feet firmly back on the ground, we joined a walking tour of La Paz from San Pedro prison which operates like an enclosed community where convicts pay rent for cells, live with their families and run businesses. The most notable of these were the prison tours (historically one of the top attractions on lonely planet) and the finest cocaine production in South America…hmm, I wonder if they could be related?!

From inmates to insanes, the Witches Market was seriously weird. Dried llama foetuses for use in rituals, sweets made with poisonous glues and “love potions”. The stories that accompanied them were even creepier, with tales of homeless people being buried alive as offerings to Pachamama (Mother Nature) to protect their buildings.

Weird did eventually turn to wonderful when hearing about traditional Bolivian courting practices (the age old tale of men throwing stones and women revealing their calves if they’re interested) and explanations for the unique female dress code; an over order of bowler hats that were accidentally too small for the men’s heads. My personal favourite story was that one of the many protests in La Paz was actually due to The Simpsons being taken off air, and resulted in it being shown 3 times a day. 

To celebrate the independence of La Paz, the whole city was having a party and the streets were crammed full with marching bands, parades and a lot of drinking. Thankfully being about a foot taller than all the locals meant getting a good view wasn’t much of a challenge.

 After a hectic few days, we opted for simplicity and boarded a Bolivia/Peru Hop bus tour headed to Copacabana (the beach in Brazil is named after this town) which lies on the banks of Lake Titicaca; the worlds highest navigable lake. Las Olas hotel was truly spectacular, from a gigantic round bed to a wood burning fire, not to mention the incredible sunset views over the lake. 

Feeling refreshed, we said goodbye to B-Olivia and crossed into Peru only to discover that chaos awaited us. More on that next time… 

7. Re-roaming! B-olivia: San Pedro de Atacama & Uyuni

Sometimes when travelling the stars align, other times, the only way to avoid eye wateringly expensive flights is to go the road… already travelled. The re-roaming(ton) began in Iguazu Falls and arrived into San Pedro de Atacama (aka northern Chile) 4 flights and 48 hours later after: a delicious steak in Buenos Aires, a picturesque sun rise in Mendoza and a relaxing shabbat in Santiago. With just a day in the Atacama desert before touring into Bolivia, we decided to rent bikes and cycle to the Valle de la Lunar (Lunar Valley) which gains it’s name from it’s mysterious moon-like landscape. Equipped with terrible bikes but directions for a “nice flat route”, we set off in high spirits and high vis.

After an hour of steep hill-climbing whilst being battered by a sand-storm (imagine the feeling of a thousand tiny needles stabbing into any exposed skin!) we were informed that our route should have included turning left 5k earlier! 

With our skin looking radiant from a level of exfoliation that only sand-blasting can achieve, and our lungs filled with dust, we dejectedly turned around and headed back. Decision time: to continue home or to take that left turn and see the valley? 

Yep, you guessed it, we trooped on and arrived at the start of the valley… completely zonked. Facing yet another 20k worth of cycling to descend into the valley and return, Liv graduated from the Kazza school of shmoozing with first class och-nours and made friends with some Chileans with a car! I was jumping with joy at ditching our bikes… 

From squeezing through narrow salt caves that made Liv feel tall, to the beautifully vast desolate landscapes, the Lunar Valley was incredibly diverse. 

Giant sand dunes flowed down into rocky plains and salt flats stretched for miles. 

Pictures captured, we profusely thanked our impromptu drivers and achingly cycled back. 

Thanks to the worst ice-wind in 30 years closing the standard border crossing, we met our multinational group of travellers at a chilly 4am and headed north into Bolivia for a 3-day Uyuni tour. 

From the moment we stepped off the 4×4 the altitude hit us. A bizarre feeling of breathlessness that made gentle walking a challenge let alone jumping selfies. All stoked up on coca tea/sweets and with our hearts pounding, we toured the rugged landscapes and lagoons of Bolivia. 

After a day of llamas and quinoa (they even had quinoa beer) we arrived at the spectacular salt flats of Uyuni where, after overcoming the sheer amazement of the place, we managed to get a few amusing photos thanks to the vast flatness distorting perspective. 

Following a freezing night in a “hotel” made “completely out of salt” (#pedanticquotations) and with all running water frozen solid, we headed back to the salt flats for sunrise and to see the oasis of Incahuasi, some more local wildlife and a museum on… yep you guessed it, salt. 

All salted out, we finished our tour with an evening relax at the outdoor thermal pools where, after summoning the courage to de-robe in minus 8 Celsius, we were rewarded with delightfully hot water and an incredibly clear view of the stars. Southern hemisphere constellations learnt and shooting stars seen, we settled into another freezing and this time vertically challenged hostel. 

Uyuni tour completed and excessive photos taken, we bid farewell to our fellow international travellers and, in the land of seemingly extreme temperature changes, departed on the worlds hottest local bus towards central Bolivia where we’d soon learn some very valuable lessons… 

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1. Buenos Dias from Buenos Aires

Alcohol and sleeping tablets made light work of the 14 hour flight, and before we knew it we were arriving in to Buenos Aires and were ready to face our first set of challenges…money, transport and mossies.

Argentina at the moment is facing unusually warm weather leaving a swarm of mosquitos alive and hungry much to my dismay. Weirdly, after travelling to the other side of the world, we bumped into a guy from Manchester who shops at Yates and Suddell, went to the same school at Liv, and thought we were 24 (win!). We dropped our stuff at the Chillhouse youth hostel which is a quirky no frills hostel with an open courtyard in the centre of the building and a nice roof terrace at the top. As usual, food was the first thing on our minds (after overcoming the shock of a life size cutout of a girl on top of our bathroom) and so we headed into the city centre to the infamous Cafe Tortoni (which comes with it’s own frame outside for tourists to take photos of it).

To orientate ourselves, we joined a walking tour with our guide Lollie (yes that’s actually her name!), however I did zones out slightly when the political monologues went on and on. 

Planning on getting a nice early night after our long journey, we went from Peron to prime grilled steak however soon discovered that Argentinians eat late….very late! At 7.30 we turned up only to discover nowhere was even open until 8.15! Sadly (for me) we also discovered that Argentinians eat their steaks fully cooked (Liv loved it!), and that our Spanish is somewhat lacking! 

Al Galope had the feeling of being in Golders Green, and following our first Argentinian steak, we heading for our first Argentinian sleep.

The next morning we realised that we needed to have a serious planning session as we had no idea where we were going next, and so after many an hour we headed to the Japanese gardens for a bit of peace and tranquility (and weirdly found gluten free pizza). 

The gardens are a series of well tended trees, shrubs, ponds, bridges (it seems constantly used for people to pose for weird pictures) and water features. Gigantic fish swam in the waters and a number of different bird species fluttered around.

From there we attempted to go to the planetarium only to find it shut and the surrounding area contained swarms of mossies. 

We ran away and headed towards chabbad in an attempt to figure out our Shabbat plans and met the daughter of the Rabbi there who was extremely helpful and even sorted out our SIM card for us. From there we found a great coffee shop with delicious coffee and custard pastry balls and hunkered in for another planning sessions. Flights booked, plan sorted, and so all that was left was to wander the streets of Palermo towards dinner another kosher restaurant called Asian. S-take two! This time it was incredible. Perfectly cooked Argentinian steak, amazingly crispy potatoes and delicious chicken. With our bellies full, and our wallets empty, we headed back for the night and even managed to find gluten free bread along the way.

From the vastness of the ecological reserve complete with it’s own beach (and funny frummers on bikes), through to the botanical gardens and the Rosendal (Rose Garden), the next two days involved getting acquainted with the greener side of Buenos Aires.

  Whilst all good in their own way, the Rosendal with it’s arrays of brightly coloured aromatic roses, lakes, and public Zumba (so random!) was our favourite.  Buenos Aires really is the city of colours and no area represents this better than La Boca. Famed for being the birthplace of Tango, it’s now known as the shadier side of town and tourists are advised to stick to the main streets to avoid being mugged. Thanks to a misjudgement on my (David) side we failed to do this and then spent a nervous few minutes wandering the backstreets before emerging relieved at the main area to a sight of colourful buildings and live tango. 

With just an hour till Shabbat, we were surprised to find out that Uber does not operate in La Boca; instead we found the craziest taxi driver who, in a driving scene worthy of a Fast and Furious film, managed to narrowly avoid a crash per minute and got us back in half the time it should have.

From uber fail to uber frum, Liv and I became the centre of attention at a chabbad shul (being dressed somewhat different from the norm), but definitely enjoyed the Shabbat experience and dinner that followed; they even brought out their posh tea set for the occasion! After Shabbat, we were treated to dinner and Tango by Kaz and Stu (aka Karen and Stuart aka mum/dad/in-laws) who’d been to this one a few months earlier. When travelling it’s strange how often you bump into people you’ve seen previously, however being sat down right next to a couple from London who we’d met on the walking tour was bizarre. Following dinner, were impressed watching talented dancers showcase how tango has evolved through the ages. 

With our first destination complete, the only thing left to do was get a cliche mandatory selfie of us with our backpacks on, before heading to the airport.  Our next destination was Patagonia where we would see one of the most incredible views ever. More on that in the next post…