Argentina: Patagonia, penguins and Puerto iguazu

Overall we spent a month in Argentina and in true Trent and Jacqui style we covered significant ground on our favourite mode of transport: the bus. We spent a few days in tree filled Mendoza biking around the botanic gardens, sampling red wine in the famous Maipu valley and chasing criminals barefoot down the street. That is a blog post on it’s own. We had noticed that even though we were in what seemed to be a wealthy and flourishing country it was all a bit of a front for the gritty reality beneath the surface. We had discussed and learnt from many locals that as the economy drops the divide between the haves and the have nots was ever increasing, something we experienced first hand with our park robbery. Everything may be fixed at European prices but workers are still paid South American rate so how can they survive? Crime was skyrocketing as the division grew wider more people were forced to do what they had to, just to survive. We weren’t mad at the underweight teen that had stolen Trent’s phone but at the country that was leaving people like him behind.

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From Mendoza we headed 20 hours south to post card perfect Patagonian town of Bariloche. Beautifully located amongst crystal blue lakes, green mountains, alpine forests, wooden lodges and spas and wealthy holiday makers. It was here we spent a pretty uneventful New Years Eve, after being transported from our pre-booked ‘party’ hostel to a room in an industrial apartment complex we were quite isolated from the all of the ‘buzz’. Personally, the lack of fresh produce was playing havock on my digestive system and I fell asleep at 9pm whilst Trent drank red wine and watched The Rolling Stones in concert. Woo! We well and truly made up for it the next day as we bused out of town and cycled around the surrounding mountains. A challenging 30kms up and around the lakes was a perfect way to bring in the New Year and the alpine air was just the ticket. From Bariloche we were drawn to El Bolson, an apparent Mecca for hippies. Serves us right really , who would actually right that sentence down and put it in a guidebook (Lonely Planet of course). We were dreaming of farm stop cafes, camp fires and homemade jams but instead were greeted by busy streets and many tourists. A slight let down as we did spend a fare bit of cash (thank you MasterCard) to get there and had put all our hope on the idea of spending our time in Argentina working on an organic farm. Sadly after a few days of waiting, we had to move on as we couldn’t afford to bum around and stay in pricey dorm rooms and also feed ourselves at the same time. The surrounds were incredible however and not to be forgotten.

We next cut across the country on a 22 hours bus to Puerto Madryn in hope of spotting some Patagonian animals migrating from the South and stopping at Punto Valdes to breed. The tours to head out to the National Reserve on the coast were ridiculous, so along with two Israelis and a Frenchie we hired a Japanese car and headed out to see some Antarctic animals. Wow – wee how’s that for multi cultural? We spent hours driving along the coast and stopping to view colonies down below of Elephant Seals, Sea Lions and my personal highlight tiny men in tuxedos aka Magalanic Penguins. It was just coming out of breeding season and we were able to watch the Penguin babies make their way out of the burrowed nests for the first time. The little black and white fluff balls taking their first steps into the world was what dreams are made of. Can not describe how mesmerising it was to watch them waddle metres away. The rest of our car pool wondered how many photos Trent had to take of the Penguins and the answer was a whole lot. Could watch them for hours!

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Another 24 hours bus ride and we arrive in the extravagant and elegant Buenos Aires. A mix of many different cultures with an undeniable French and Italian influence (classic port city) and we soaked in the beautiful architecture, myriad of art galleries and exhibits, artisenal markets, cemetery city and squeaky clean green spaces. We made the most of the cities bus system and was able to see a lot of the city – including the other side of the aristocracy. It was in BA that we truly couldn’t ignore the great divide between the rich and poor. The side of Ba not listed in the guide books. They do really love the Pope though.

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24 hours later on a $150 bus that flooded and soaked our backpacks (thanks Andesmar), we arrived in Puerto Igazu in 100% humidity and 40 degree heat. Minusing the heat, our rebooked hostel no longer being in operation, the blackouts and the Israeli backpacker (fresh from compulsory military service) takeover – this was to be our Argentinian highlight. Parque Nacional Iguazu was stunning and for the first time we could see where our park fee was going. An informative visitors centre, well detailed map, brand new signs, helpful and friendly Rangers and staff, well maintained paths not covered in rubbish. We could tell that the park was deeply respected. There was also a train running throughout the park for those too lazy to walk the few kms to the different spots as well as many other tourist opportunities like boat rides and jeep rides to take advantage of the surroundings. The heat that day was like a sauna which made the mist from the falls even more special to embrace as you got closer. You start to hear the roar from the falls from kilometres away and as you get closer something inside you starts to bubble up like a little kid waiting for Christmas Day. Seeing them, standing under them was pure magic. We spent the day walking the upper and lower trails, wandering off on different tracks, spotting wild coatis, monkeys and beautiful birds and soaking in the awe of the Worlds Biggest Waterfall. The highlight of the day was walking to the Devils Nose, the falls epicentre. You can only access this point by train and walking a series of rails that float over the river. Words can’t express the sheer size of the falls, the amount of water plummeting down and the reaction of your heart with the sound of the water. Just go see it.

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Chile: welcome to the first world

When looking at a map of South America, you can see that the shape of Chile is geographically likened to a bean pole, very long and very skinny. Chileans refer to it as an ‘inland island’ as the country is totally surrounded by natural extremes. To the North, the driest place on earth lies the Atacama desert, to the East the Andes, the South is Tierra Del Fuego or ‘the end of the world’ and the West runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean. Totally surrounded. This explains Chiles pretty strict customs procedures. Due to the sheer size of the place and us not being millionaires we get didn’t get to see all that much. Maybe if Chile had Peru’s bus system or Bolivia’s economy we would have but unfortunately it was simply too expensive to venture far on cash. We hope to return someday with more pesos in our pocket and most likely a car – maybe even a trip to Antartica on assignment for Nat Geo and or Sea shepherd ? We can dream. But what little we saw of the country in our brief 2 and a bit week stint was beautiful and incredibly different to what we had so far experienced. We had definitely crossed over to a new South America.

After our crazy time in the Bolivian desert, Chile was a significant culture shock.When we crossed the border from Bolivia into Chile there was a noticeable change. This was the 4th time that we had crossed a border via land and usually you don’t start to see differences for a few hundred kilometres. But this change was immediate. Accent, cars, attitude, technology.. height. At the San Pedro de Atacama border the customs officials looked and spoke a lot different to their neighbours in the north. As we drove into town we passed classic adobe brick buildings which we had seen many times before, an ancient way of constructing bricks with mud and straw. But instead of unfinished housing for the poor, these adobes were filled with organic markets, gift shops, cafes and restaurants and had brand new Land Cruisers parked outside. What? Where are we? We had just come from the poorest country in South America and in a matter of hours had entered into a new world, a first world?

In 2012 Chilean Presidente Sebastian Pinera said: We will be able to show to the Chilean people that Chile’s a country which is absolutely able to defeat poverty, to overcome underdevelopment, and to join the First World… Chile will be a First World country by 2020.

So the big man has a plan, and from where we were standing Chile is certainly on its way into the first world. Paved roads, gourmet food, shopping centres, potable water the list goes on. My strongest memory of the Chile however will be the produce, being the best we had in any country most specially the FRUIT! Walking to the market one morning in San Pedro I noticed my favourite variety was everywhere so I stocked up on peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines and almost cried from happiness. I hadn’t had such amazing stone fruit in years and these were incredible. Trying to ignore the fact that everything was triple the price of what we had been use to and oh we hadn’t budgeted for this and oh had we made the right decision.. I ate my fruit in the desert sunshine, flesh dripping down my hand and thanked Pacha Mama. Whilst in SPDA we headed out, just for something completely different, to a salt lagoon. Ah but this time we could swim in it! It was the strangest feeling, swimming out to the centre lying on your back, or front and bobbing along like a duck. No matter how hard we tried you couldn’t sink or push your body down – the salt made you completely weightless. It was a very strange feeling, especially when we came out of water and noticed our whole body was covered in clusters of pure salt. As our bodies dried the salt hardened and tightened our skin and hair. Luckily we headed to a fresh water swimming hole where we could wash off our salt scrub. The next day our skin was muy suave (very smooth).

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From SPDA we headed 18 hours south to La Serena, a modern city located right on the coast. We walked through handmade Christmas markets, battled shopping crowds, ate cheese and drank Chilean wine on the beach unbothered by anyone. All firsts for this trip. Trent even had a Cappuccino made on a coffee machine served by an Italian. The European influence was very strong here especially evident in the accent. Apparently the Chileanos were speaking Spanish but not the Spanish we had come to pretend to kind of understand. It was Chilean Spanish, yup Chileans have their own language even their own language book! They talk a mile a minute, fill their sentences with informal slang and when asked to slow down and repeat they would just talk louder and faster which was a bit trying. We weren’t sure if it was all of the European influence or the impending first world status but Chile seemed to be a bit of a confusion and we were bit lost in this new place. Bright neon lights of shopping centres, expensive cars, the latest clothing and electronics, modern food you name it. The influence of other cultures meant it was proving difficult for us to feel like we were in South America until we realised something. We think Chile and Argentina are baby steps into Latin America for those a bit skittish. Countries where people feel safe, many people speak a bit of English and the food is the same as home. Where was the rich culture of the North, the indigenous people, the dress, the markets, chaotic transport and traditions we had come to love? We were feeling a little confused but decided to embrace the idea that we were now in the ‘Europe of South America’ and we had to dig a little deeper to find the real Chile.

So from La Serena we headed a few hours inland to the stunning Pisco Elqui Valley, famous for its production of the distilled wine alcohol ‘Pisco’. Desert and a grassy oasis meet and the sunshines til 11pm, pure bliss. We wondered around markets, people watched in the town plaza (one of our favourite South American pastimes) and went for walks in and around the valley. Some would say we were too young and too poor to be ‘relaxing’ in a winery region but we rocked it anyway. We went on a tour of one of the oldest Pisco Distillerys in Chile, made use of the free samples and finished off with a Pisco Sour in the vine draped courtyard with couples celebrating anniversaries and weddings – we were simply celebrating life it was all incredibly civilised. Whilst we were there we stayed in a little garden shed converted into a dorm at a fancy lodge filled with Chilean weekenders and beautiful German families. We lived off the most incredible avocados, beefsteak tomatoes and ate sun ripened apricots straight from the tree. Chile was when we really committed to our consumption of the ‘included breakfast’ as we would try and eat as much as we could for the entire day. It was generally unsuccessful as it would render us requiring a 10am nap. Our 4 days in the valley ended with a Christmas parade around the town as Spanish Santa yelled ‘Feliz Navidad’ from the back of a moving ute as he and other Disney characters pelted soccer balls and boiled lollies at the children in the crowd. A bit of a weapon once airborne yet incredibly entertaining and nice to have a touch of christmas whilst abroad.

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We kept moving and ended our time in Chile with 5 days over Christmas in Valparaiso. We managed to find a very cute and colourful studio apartment located half way up a hill in a great neighbourhood (barrio). We were yet to visit a South American city we truly loved and we had found it in sunny, port side Valpa. Valpa is like I mentioned a port city and along with Buenos Aires and Puerto Igauzu(other ports), locals refer to themselves as porteñas and believe they are a bit different – more relaxed, friendly and full of culture. This was definitely true as the porteñas we met were all incredibly lovely, chatty and welcoming. Valpa and also much of Chile has a very strong European influence and it was on our walking tour that we found out the reason. Before the Panama Canal was created and in turn establishing a pass between Central and South America, travellers by boat had to navigate themselves all around the base of the continent to come back up and around to North America. Many sailors didn’t make it as far as the California Goldrush and instead set up shop in sunny Valpa. They brought with them the music, art, dress, colour and music of their countries and a very multicultural and artistic city was created. Built on a series of cerros(hills) facing down towards the port means any height affords beautiful views of the mural soaked city tucked upon the hill side. The city has also been a popular destination for international and national street artists and anywhere you walk you can find hidden gems, big and small on streets, doors, houses and buildings covered in art. This was heaven and we spent hours walking around the free ‘street galleries’ taking photos and appreciating the work of the faceless artists. Valpo is a beautiful city and we truly fell in love. We spent our days enjoying our own space which was finally bigger then a dorm bunk: cooking, drinking, exploring the city and discovering its hidden secrets. Sadly due to funds and we can now say a lack of hindsight (not realising how expensive our next country would be) we made the decision to head to Argentina and bid farewell. But as we say in Espanol ‘Hasta luego Chile’ we will see you soon. Xx

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Bolivia: Meeting The worst tour guide in the world

The idea of heading to Bolivia was never really on the cards. That being said the cards were never laid out to begin with so everyday on the road was unplanned, that’s how we like it. Passing from the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca from Puno, we breezed through customs and entered into Bolivia through the Copacobana Border (not to be mistaken for the Gary Manolo type). Hopped on another bus, tiny ferry(which our bus also got on) and bus again to La Paz then boarded a 12 hour night bus for Uyuni. Feeling fresh! No. Feeling tired and ready for night bus sleep. By now we are pretty seasoned bus riders, we’ve had break downs, near crashes, chickens, military police searching for fugitives and salesmen but this one was up there with one of the worst. it began with 2 hours of stop-start La Paz traffic followed by 10 hours of unsealed desert road. Road so bumpy that my butt was lifting off seat continually and bus lights unscrewed from socket then smashed into the aisle floor. That plus random stops at chicken shops in the middle of the night and chorus of snorers led to zero sleep and bloodshot eyes. We arrived in Uyuni at 7am looking and feeling like zombies after over 24 hours of pretty bad travel. Pushing through the hord of ‘travel agents’ trying to sell salt flat tours to tired travellers, we bunked down and decided to check out the companies later that day after a nap.

There are a few key things to note before I dive into my story. Bolivia is an incredibly poor country and I can only assume that as a result of this the lines of what is right and wrong are a little blurred. For example, if you as a visitor are scamed, hustled, screwed or just plain bamboozled all you can say is ‘That’s Bolivia – what did you expect?’. Uyuni is the base town for the largest Salt Flat in the world and survives purely off the tourism of 4 day Land Cruiser tours through the desert, either ending at the Chilean border or returning to town. There are over 80 companies driving the EXACT same route and none – I repeat none – boast consistent positive reviews. I spent a good hour reading reviews (always a bad thing) of broken down cars, lack of food, zero communication and drunk drivers (that was the main one). A name and company that also consistently popped up in the bad books was ‘Fatima’ from Wara Altiplano Tours. With this is mind we wondered around the streets talking to agents, hearing the same itinerary over and over and having no idea who to choose. Whilst on the street a woman with a mouth of gold capped teeth approached us and walked us to her company. She said that it doesn’t matter who you book with, everyone goes the same way, sees the same things and at the end of the day it’s about filling cars. So you may book with another company but end up in a different car that needs the passengers. This is something other backpackers had told us so she wasn’t lying. Tired and sick of walking the streets we asked her two questions:
1. Will there be Vegetarian food?
– Yes, buffet options.
2. Is the driver safe and reliable?
– Ofcourse. Our drivers do not drink and drive. No way.
Ok – sounded good. As we paid and started to sign our names a weird feeling in my gut reminded my brain about the dodger reviews and the lady named Fatima not to trust.
1. What was your name?
– Fatima. She said with a gold capped smile.
Fuck. It was too late, we had committed. Knowing full well she wasn’t going to hand us our money back, we booked with Fatty and I remained anxious until our tour began the next morning.

We got off to a rocky start. We had been told by Fatty that our tour had 2 Canadians and a Spanish lady. Highly convenient as your driver/mechanic/tour guide and cook only speaks Spanish and he is your ticket in and out alive of the desert. However we were piled into a Land Cruiser and the door was shut behind us – where was the rest of our group? Only because I asked we found out the rest of our tour was 2 hours away and we would later pick them up. Confused, Fatty (who yesterday was fluent in English) decided that she didn’t understand what I was saying and Ai found someone to translate what the driver was saying. The rest of our group was already at the Salt Flats and we would pick them up later. We drove away and I hoped that this tour wasn’t going to turn out as bad as it already was in my head. Our first stop was the Cemetary of Trains, a strip in the desert were they had placed old steam trains to rot and locals had covered them in graffiti. We then headed off and eventually arrived onto solid, salty white road and all you could see was salt. Stopping at a few monuments, salt mines and open road to take photos the scenery was surreal.

After about two hours we arrived into a ghost town, built in the middle of the salt flat at the foot of a volcano. To our relief we were joined by two couples. Tim and Naomi (Canada) and Eric (USA) and Kana (Japan). They informed us of their bizarre last 24 hours – arriving in the middle of nowhere with no instructions and minimal food and we all found out we had booked with the same company and Fatima. Ah the reviews are starting to make sense. We headed out to the Island of Cactus – literally an island in the middle of the salt flat filled with Cacti and wandered around under the blast of the desert sun admiring the crazy scenery. When you start to look at the landscape it is ridiculous – salt out to nowhere as far as the eye can see, so white it almost burns your eyes. The air is very dry and the heat was incredible. We got back into the car with Rucio (our guide) and headed towards our accommodation for the night. We drove 2 hours into vast nothingness and arrive at an adobe building made of salt. We spent time walking around the dining room, hallways and bedrooms amazed at the oddity but decided it was ultimately very cool. Even the ground was made of soft salt to crunch around in, Trent and I were high on salt and just kept walking around the strange accommodation checking if things were made of salt or not. We convinced Rucio to drive us 5 minutes into ‘town’ (a few other salt hotels and a store) and bought some wine. That night we all chatted, drank, ate and eventually hit the salt sack with strict instructions that we were to be off by 6.30am the next morning.

The next morning Trent spots our guide hop into a car and head off at about 6am. Strange but not entirely out of the ordinary. We finish breakfast and watch all the other groups one by one pack away their things, meet their guide and head off on their day. By 8am we have packed and wrapped the luggage on the roof racks ourselves and wonder if our guide is ever coming back. Off into the distance, 2 4WDs speed towards the salt hotel and pull up. One of the passenger doors opens and out falls our guide. He stumbles into the kitchen and comes back out with our food for the day in hand. His eyes are glazed over, he struggles to walk properly and he can’t even open the boot of his car. He is drunk. At 8am. I’m talking can’t even remember his name drunk. Half way between disgusted and not surprised that everything I had read was coming true – we all agree there is no way we are letting him drive. As Rucio tries to put his keys in the car – we calmly tell him (it is Bolivia remember) that we will be driving today. The drunk mess submits, moves over to the passenger side and quietly passes out. Tim takes to the drivers seat (use to driving left side – stick shift – jeeps) and we head off on a self guided Bolivian adventure across the desert, no map and no gps and as our guide drifts in and out of laughter and sleep.

The funny thing about Rucio is, he has been doing these 4 day tours for 13 years – driving Gringos across the desert so you are bound to pick up so,e English. So I call his ‘no hablo Ingles’ bullshit. As we drove off we are thankfully behind another car as a guide and we start to talk about how hilarious/ridiculous/Bolivia this situation was. Funnily enough at the end of every sentence Rucio (now nicknamed Rusty after Russel Coight – Australia’s worst outback adventure man) would laugh perfectly on cue, he understood perfectly. We would talk about the ridiculousness of the situation and he responded perfectly. Im sure to him it was hilarious he was wasted, getting paid and now getting driven by Gringos.

And so we set off on our day, at first it was exciting and the situation kept us entertained. But as the trail got worse, the car stopped and started and Rusty started to sober up the tension got thicker. After one of our stops in the desert admiring Joshua Tree like rock formations, Rusty decided that he was sick of trailing behind the other guides (who had probably been making fun of him – they were also drinking) he was ready to leave – now! So now we were driving ourselves through the desert, alone, whilst our alcoholic guide described the route with shaky hand signals and started to get angry that some white guy was driving his car. By this time I pretty much thought Rusty was the biggest piece of shit I had ever met. A couple of hours of back breaking rock trails Rusty started to yell at Tim for not driving smooth enough and told him to stop the car so he could drive. Tim politely told hi that maybe if he wasn’t a drunk asshole we wouldn’t be in this situation. Rusty understood and was pretty quiet after that. A bit later we arrived at a glorious mineral Laguna home to hundreds of Flamingos and Vicunas (rare desert dwelling Llama/Alpaca type things). We all went for a walk whilst Rusty prepared our lunch. The stops is when you would run into the other cars and meet up with other groups. Our guide had become quite the story and many people would ask ‘how’s he going? Yeh pretty sure our guide is drinking too’. It was also at these breaks that you would see the divide between the better companies and well.. The ‘Fatima’ companies. Whilst other groups had table cloths, picnic tables and glass wear we had rock seats, plastic everything and Rusty. No matter how many times he says Bueno amigos, I’m still not tipping him – I think to myself as I stare at the incredible long legged birds. We eat our lunch and decide that after some food Rusty will be fine to drive. And he was, very chatty and informative straight back into guide mode with I’m sure some help from a white powdery substance. We spent the afternoon driving through the crazy desert, stopping at different mineral and salt Lagunas and clusters of petrified trees that have turned to stone. The landscape was mind blowingly awesome and it felt as if we were driving on Mars. That night we were dropped at a small cluster of brick houses in the middle of the desert. Rusty unloaded our bags then disappeared. The 6 of us shared a room, played soccer with the little boy that lived in the hostel with his family, made friends with some Chileans and had a merry old time. We also wondered whether our guide would ever come back and would we be stuck here forever? We had a 4.30am call the next morning and we were worried as he was again MIA. Around 11pm he fell into the hostel blind drunk and generally looking great. We sternly told him we were leaving at 5am and he agreed and gave me a sloppy kiss of the cheek. Ew.

The next morning we rose before the sun and headed to a thermal hot springs to bathe and watch the sun rise. After soaking in heaven and relaxing after somewhat of a tense time it was time to get out and get back in the car for the final time. Soon we arrived at the Bolivian border and I was happy to wave goodbye to Rucio/Russell/Rusty and softly mentioned he should give up the booze. We only spent 5 days in Bolivia, so I can’t make an fair assessment about the country. But our desert trip and the overall vibe of how things are done didn’t paint a great picture of the country’s relationship to visitors. We also were made to pay a fee to enter and exit which the customs officer decides on his mood at that time. When we hopped in our transport to the border, in a matter of minutes we went from desert roads to sealed bitchumen and bright green road signs. Borders are a strange thing. Adios Bolivia, Bienvenido a Chile! Phew

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Peru: which way to Machu Picchu?

Since brought to the attention of the Western World by John Birmingham in 1911 – Machu Picchu has been a site of international pilgrimage and for many it is the highlight/climax/pinnacle of their South American adventure. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of 7 Modern Wonders of the World and one of the most famous Peruvian icons is visited every year by thousands upon thousands of people from all walks of life and there is no question why. It is magical. The site is breathtaking and incredible and if you are lucky enough to find a moment of solitude whilst up there you can take a deep breath in, close your eyes and imagine Incan mountain life in 1450 surrounded by Llamas and Alpacas and breathtaking (have I said that one already?) Pacha Mamma (mother nature).

Often, just getting to MP is half of the adventure. Not just arriving on the other side of the world, getting to Peru and making your way to Cusco then choosing how you will get to the site. Arriving without breaking the bank was our aim and ultimate challenge and writing this blog to share that there are alternative ways, the cheap way. The most popular way to arrive is by train (half American owned Peru Rail), whilst apparently being beautiful at $320 for two people return from Cusco (2 hours one way) was WAY!! out of the budget. Numero dos, the ‘ultimate adventure’ option is to trek. Inca Trail or not, these can set you back anywhere between $300-$500 – depending on number of days etc. having heard lots of people doing both options and have heard great feedback – except for the cost. So, if you are on a budget and are visiting the continent on a long haul trip – spending big chunks in one go isn’t what you want. Having met many people on just add water diets (packet noodles) we knew we weren’t the poorest people in Peru so surely, there had to be another way! After a little research the real backpacker option was found. Although it seemed a lot more outlaw, which was to be part of the excitement, we found out you could simply walk the train tracks right into the town. Not from Cusco, that would have taken days and probably quite dangerous but from a train station 3 hours walk from the town of Machu Picchu. To us this sounded very exciting and like a fantastic adventure movie – which is how I base most life decisions, so we decided to go for it! After catching up with a family friend who was volunteering an hour outside of Cusco in Urabamba (Hey Andrew!) we caught a bus to the town of Santa maria (4.5 hrs $14 for 2) then hopped into a collectivo taxi (1 hr $10 for two) and arrived at the Hydro Electrico Train Station and began our O brother Where Art Thou montage as we walked the tracks. We stopped frequently along the way to take photos and soak in the magnificent scenery and I loved every moment of it. Even waving to the passengers on the train as it chugged passed I never once thought ‘shit, we are poor’ but ‘hell yeah this is incredible! And it’s free!’. The whole walk we were surrouned by the jungle and imposing mountains with the remains of Incan buildings scattered on top. We walked past train workers, little shops set up along the tracks offering drinks and snacks to the walkers and ofcourse other backpackers and Peruvians. Because the reality is there is no way a Peruvian can afford Peru Rail – it’s simply for cashed up tourists which makes sense once you find out that PERU Rail is half owned by an American company. Shocker! Our only wish is that it was completely Peruvian, the ride would have cost a dollar and they would have squeezed hundreds on including Llamas and Alpacas which would have been amazing. A couple of hours later, feeling energised from our walk and quite happy with our budgeting selves, we arrived into town as it was getting dark and set off to pre buy our entry tickets for the next day. The town is a product of fast tourism: expensive ski type lodges to the front and food, drinks and hostels to the back. Our tickets were $50 each and only included Machu Picchu city and the mountain. We ended up bartering for a private room at a Hospedaje (a low budget hotel – $11 together) and scored cheap set menu for dinner (3 course $12 together). If I said ‘winning’ this would be an appropriate time to put that in! Simply choosing the long way round had save us over over $130 yay- look at us go Mumma – we are budgeting!

The next morning we caught the bus ($20 each – VERY steep but we were exhausted) up to the Mp entrance and spent a couple of hours wandering around. We didn’t opt for a guide as our time in the North had prepped us to self guide – ‘Yes so that must be where they put the sacrifices, that would have been for the high priest, that was farming terraces’ etc. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about this postcard perfect national geographic place? It is epic, just it’s size alone is wow plus the backdrop of surrounding mountains leaves you with an unforgettable and memorable experience. And also very surreal after thinking you were never really the type to head to Peru and now I was standing on top of Machu Picchu. It was a cool moment. After walking around for a couple of hours and exploring the adobe city maize, we skipped the bus back down to save money and walked to the bottom by way of 45minutes worth of steps. Knees. Calves. Yep, they were feeling it. Feeling a little pooped, we decided to check out trains back to Cusco that afternoon to see if we could maybe, possibly, somehow snatch a deal. No luck – one way tickets were going for $80 each – WHAT! So we booked another night in the Hospedaje (bartered an even lower price) and followed our same route by the train tracks the next day. That day was Trent’s 25th birthday and we spent it doing what he loves – on an adventure. A beautiful morning walk, collectivo, bus and 10 hours later we were back in Cusco. It was definitely an adventure!

At the end of the few days we had definitely put in the extra effort to save the extra pennies and it had paid off. Our journey to and from Machu Picchu was special and felt as if we had undergone our own little pilgrimage. It wasn’t the Inca Trail but it was the Jacqui and Trent trail and it felt special and magical. In terms of money, if we had taken the train it would have cost at least $320 for the both of us. Our way had ended up setting us back $45 return meaning we had saved $275! That’s a lotta empanadas!

To anyone that may be reading this I highly recommend walking the train tracks if you are looking for another option – choose your own adventure, it’s definitely worth it! X

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Peru: a touch of the South

When we were in the north of Peru we often felt quite alone. As we went days on end without seeing another traveller. However, once we hit Lima, we were well and truly back on the gringo trail.

Gringo trail: noun ~ exists in Lonely Planets ‘must see’ places of South America. A gringo is generally described as a foreigner who identifies themselves as one or all of the following: professional climbing enthusiast, white water rafter, walking stick carrier, camel back wearer, sky diving instructor and marine biologist in spare time, (usually American)ready to take on South America with a KABOOM! Often outfitted head to toe in expensive, zippable? adventure gear, spotted wearing said gear in sports drink aisle of local super mercado.

Funnily enough, and I say this without judgement (honestly), we have met many of these people and have yet to see or hear them doing any thing that requires the outfit and equipment. But instead its the guys you see at the top of the mountain, carrying a swisse army knife and wearing sandals that are the real adventurers. Contrary to popular belief you don’t need a particular ‘adventure outfit’ to travel this continent – that is a BIG myth I like to debunk. Trent and I opt out of the adventure uniform and instead go for our usual look of homeless chic. You may judge but we are 4 months on the road and mugging free!

Anyway – after a luxurious 22 hour bus from Lima we arrived in world famous Cusco. We spent a couple of days exploring the old Incan empire which was beautiful, historic and still maintains a lot of ancient charm. Much of the old town is still uncovered by archeologists today as the city is quite literally, built on ruins. Our walking tour guide told us his friend was building a new house and they came across Incan ceremonial jewellery, of course the kept it and sold it on the black market. We spent a few days walking around the steep cobbled streets, learning the inside scoop from a dedicated and passionate Cusquenian, drinking potent Pisco Sours and eating delicious (non peruvian) food. We also reunited with our Danish friends from Merazonia which we didn’t think would happen so soon after saying our goodbyes! After a few days of exploring the city, we set off for Machu Picchu (see separate post) and returned on Trents 25th birthday after a long day in transit, not surprisingly all we could think about was a frosty beverage. We met up with the Danes for dinner, hoping to have a few drinks (get wasted) but alas to our utter devastation this plan was soon shattered. The hilarious and exciting lead up to the Peruvian election (which we had witnessed for weeks) had finally come to it’s main event – voting weekend. Voting is compulsory in Peru and the government are fearful that citizens would have one too many and forget to tick the right box so all alcohol is prohibited! The entire weekend! Even for tourists Cusco was dry as a bone, you wouldn’t even read about it! Safe to say the birthday boy was utterly devastated. Boozeless we still had a great eve and decided to head south as a group the next day.
Nb: We have since found out that Peruvians do a roaring trade on the black market to gringos during these weekends – damn!

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From Cusco, together with our Merazonia buddies we headed 8 hours south east to the city of Puno, located on the shore of Lake Titicaca – the largest navigable lake in the world and also the highest, at a whopping 3’800m above sea level. It is the main pull for the area as Puno is a shitty and dirty city. The next day we booked a cheap 2 day tour and headed out on a boat to visit the Floating Islands of Uros. Famous, shockingly, for being islands that float! Crazy construction process of tying, anchoring and weeving that is too indepth to explain but it is very cool! Especially to walk around on the tiny island, roughly the size of half a basketball court, and feel the reeds squish and squash beneath your feet. There is about a meter of reeds separating you from sinking into the lake! What wasn’t very cool was the ‘It’s a small world after all’ type cultural display to the tourists from the locals. There are a few things written about the islands, namely that tourism has destroyed them and the locals are an act (pretty rough) but it so hard to know the truth when there is different information everywhere. But when you are being shown the traditional terracotta pot and dried fish that they supposedly cook in, which are laying next to a pile of plastic Coke bottles and chip packets – you feel like you are being taken for a bit of a ride. After a talk from the ‘chief’, a sales pitch of wares from the women and a ride on the homemade reed boat, it was time to go. The song and dance type act is generally the type of tourism that Trent and I try to avoid and sadly, without knowing it, we had ended up encouraging it. We wouldn’t have cared if we simply sailed past the islands, or if the locals were in board shorts, watching tv and drinking beer just relaxing. But the costumes and performance was very forced and quite unsettling and the more we were there the more I saw the negative affects of tourism to the what I’m sure were once beautiful islands.

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Back on the boat and sailing deeper into the lake for a couple of hours we arrived at the Island of Amanti, home to the native Aymara people whose ancestors have lived here for thousands of years. The island is 3 hours away from the mainland and therefore the communities are very much isolated from the modern world. Stepping onto the island was like stepping back into time. Firstly we were greeted by our 4 and a half foot Mammi wearing traditional dress. Amanti is made up of 7 Aymaran communities and along with their daily life in the fields and around the home, there is a roster system for taking in homestays. We walked 45 minutes up through the island, which was pretty wheezy work at 4000m above sea level, to get to our house and our Mammi didn’t break a sweat. The women and men of the island still dress very traditionally: women wear white embroidered blouse, colourful shirt, sandals, long plaits and a shawl draped over their heads and the men wear colourful ponchos and warm hats as it gets very cold at night. Once we arrived at our home, we shared lunch in the small kitchen that was made on an open fire. Quinoa and vegetable soup, grilled andean cheese, boiled potatoes and rice. It was so simple but delicious and was served with andean mint tea in terracotta cups. Communicating with our host family was interesting at times, the Aymarans have learnt Spanish to interact with tourists but it is not their native tongue, at times it was difficult to tell if it was a comfortable or uncomfortable silence. But through broken conversations we learnt our host mum was 26 years old and had a four year old, and along with her mother they made textiles to sell to tourists. We met her husband once and lets just say ‘you are a lazy piece of shit’ is an international language and we were picking up some strong vibes. I think he needed to help out more around the house and spend less time drinking beers after work with his andean pipe band. He was in an andean pipe band and played for us. The Grandpa and only name we remember(Maximo) was lovely and very interested in interacting, whereas the women preferred to sit in the corner and talk to themselves. Don’t get me wrong everyone was lovely but Maximo was a bit warmer. Maximo (68 years old) who was shorter then most 10 year olds I know, spent his days chiselling rock down at the lake and walking all the way up the mountain (about an hour) with kilos of stone strapped to his back to create new pathways. His body had had a tough life but you couldn’t tell in his face, he was warm and welcoming and a real old dad. Maximo was very interested in knowing where we had been and where we were going and as we told him he responded with shock and excitement and laughed as he talked about how rich we must be. One of the things we are forever thinking of when we would meet locals interested in our travels, an overseas trip to a far away land like Australia will simply never be an option. This trip has taught me many things but most of all how incredibly lucky I am to be in the situation I am in. That night the community had a party for us, we were dressed up in traditional clothing and danced with our families to the sound of hits from the andes. The next morning after breakfast Maximo showed us gifts he had received from previous Australian home stays: a Swisse Army Knife and a Kellogs Cornflakes watch (we just smiled and agreed how Australian they were), having nothing on us Trent gifted his Aboriginal flag hat pin and gave it to Maximo. We let him know that it was the flag of our native people and we could tell it was a good gift. We said our goodbyes and made our way down to the port with Mammi leading and way and spinning her wool. Three long hours later we were back on the mainland in Puno and ready to move on. The lake was to be our last stop in Peru as we made the last minute decision to pop on over to Bolivia.

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Crossing the border into Bolivia I saw that we had spent just over a month in this crazy country. Woah – what a month. Altitude, beaches, mountains, deserts and everything in between Peru had been a treasure trove of adventure. It really is an incredible, mysterious, gritty, inspiring and beautiful country. There really is so much more to Peru then Machu Picchu and we definitely got to explore a little slice of that. Hasta luego Peru, I’m sure we’ll be back. Xx

Peru: Exploring the North

Peru is big. If you haven’t looked at it on a map before, I’ll wait. See? I told you! Peru. Is. Big. Like Australia big. Australia big in the sense that the distance from Point A to Point B on a map may be 5cm but will actually take 4 days of driving, a mule train and a river crossing on foot. Oh and pack some oxygen as it is highly likely you will be in altitude and experience varying degrees of sickness. From ‘Oh I am a bit out of breath’ to ‘I’m gonna need to stop for at least 30 minutes to regain consciousness’. Ofcourse being the prepared travellers that we are – we knew all of this months prior to arriving and properly planned how we would encounter this grandeous country. I’m joking. We discovered this on our night bus from Ecuador to Peru when we looked at our Lonely Planet, opened up ‘Peru’ and thought ‘Oh crap – Peru is big!’. And just so we could really appreciate its size – we arrived at the top. If Peru was a well dressed English man our arrival town of Mancora was the top hat, Lima is the elbow and Cusco is the knee cap. Now that isn’t completely to scale but you get my drift. Basically places are faaaaarrrrrrrr apart from eachother.

In the last 3 weeks we have spent over 90 hours travelling on buses alone. Some luxurious and spacious others not so. In between our bus marathons we have been climbing mountains at high altitude, watching local parades and election campaigns, talking to shamans offering hallucinogenic Ayuasca and San Pedro ceremonies, shopping at Witchs markets and regular markets, excavating Pre-Incan ruins (Indiana Jones eat your heart out), searching for comida vegetariano in a country of carnivores and working on our spanish in many weird and wonderful situations. Discovery a slice of the North has been spectacular and every town has been new and exciting and different. I am aware of how lucky we are with our open plan. Many travellers are time poor and are only able to scratch the (over scratched) surface of the Inca Trail. There is SO much more to Peru then Machu Pichu which we have discovered. These weeks have been some of the most eye opening, jaw dropping, ‘holy shit – THIS is the South America you dream about’ moments of the last 3 months. I am so grateful we decided to slowly make our way down the country instead of flying straight to the capital or Cusco/Cuzco.

We crossed the Peruvian border at the coast and arrived in Mancora at 11pm. We took a Moto Taxi to our Hostel which was all locked up and were suddenly stranded at midnight. Taking the advice of our 15 year old driver we were placed on the doorstep of a 5 star resort with no other option. We ended up paying a crazy amount for 8 hours of sleep, checked out the next day and boarded a bus to Chiclayo. Mancora is filled with Gringos and yeah it does sound kind of bad to turn on your own kind. But if I wanted to go to a beach and drink cocktails with loud Australians and purchase floopy hats and mesh bikinis I would go to the Gold Coast. I think we have become prejudice about our own country. Whilst volunteering in Ecuador one night around the dinner table we were talking about backpacker stereotypes of different countries. It came to Australia and a non-Aussie pointed out that Australia’s stereotype was that we don’t like other Australian backpackers. Yes, this is true. Anyway back to Mancora, beaches covered in plastic bags and black sand and the water temperature was below freezing. I am sorry Ok, I am a beach snob. But any Australian is. We are just ruined for tropical holidays – I have learnt this becoming an adult. The same way South America makes me appreciate clean air, clean water and not putting my poo paper in an open bin next to me. The little things.

From Mancora we boarded one of the not so luxurious buses to Chiclayo. When we arrived at our hostel our booking had been lost and they were full. It was 10pm and again, we were homeless. The Wikipedia page for Chiclayo lists the city’s nickname as ‘The Capital of Friendship’. A title I would be proud to endorse after our few days. Our taxi driver took us to 4 other hostels around the city until we found a place that had room – he was so delightful and city proud. When we arrived Chiclayo was in a ‘Code Yellow’ sanitation crisis. Rubbish had not been picked up for weeks. The city was growing quicker then sanitation could keep up and the mixture of dog poop and wee, weeks of opened/spilled/uncollected trash on the street and 40 degree desert sun made a beautiful welcoming scent. But we hadn’t come to Chiclayo to smell it we had come to introduce ourselves to the Pre-Incan civilisation the Mochicas. We visited the Tomb of the Señor of Sipan and saw jewellery, bones, pottery, textiles and artifacts centuries old in a pristine museum. We learnt about the Mochicas Adobe pyramids, similiar to the Egyptians, and their death rituals. Too bad for the royal family if the king dies, everybody (including royal Llamas and dogs) are sacrificed to all live together in the afterlife. We also learnt that all the jewellery that is now popular (turquoise costume jewellery, owls, aztec) were worn thousands of years ago. We also had a photo shoot out the front with locals who couldn’t believe how tall and white we were – one lady squeezed in between Trent and I and exclaimed she was in a ‘Blanco Sanduche’ aka white sandwhich. Her friends thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. I wish I got a photo of them, they were adorable. A reflection of how off the tourist trail we were.

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From Chiclayo we headed 12 hours North – East to the Andean town of Chachapoyas. The Chachapoyas region is an archeological DisneyLand and so much of the region is left undiscovered. Tombs and sites dating back BEFORE time was even recorded are left untouched as street dogs and cats make homes out of them and locals leave their rubbish in them. The fortress of Kuelap is the main reason to visit the area, its extensive ruins rivalling those of Machu Picchu in terms of scale, height and mystery AND without the crowds are truly an ancient wonder. Located 3’000m above sea level in the clouds of the Andes, the Fortress is an archeological marvel and I spent the whole day with my jaw dropped as we walked around the ruins, much of the housing and structures still in tact. It is said that construction started around the 6th Century and the Chachapoyas people ruled this area until the Incas took over in 1460. That’s a long rein! The site is incredible but a real threat to the ruins is the lack of funding from the Government as the site is not supported or maintained and you are allowed to freely walk around. An example of how much importance is placed on Kuelap is when you look at it next to Machu Picchu. Entry into Kuelap is around $5 whereas Machu Picchu is around $60 – seems a bit ridiculous to us considering the history of both. That day we also drove around the mountains and viewed burial sites built on the edge of a cliff. Some of those sites have been excavated and perfectly preserved mummies were found. These people would have had to free climb cliff faces thousands of meters high whilst holding onto their dead. And these sites were regularly visited every year to honour their dead. And all this was done without harnesses or The North Face jackets – incredible!

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From Chachas we headed back West and then South to the city of Trujillo which still retains some Spanish colonial beauty. We spent some time wondering around the Old Historic town filled with beautiful and colourful buildings and visiting the nearby fishing town of Huanchaco – known for their continued use of ancient boats made of reeds. But Trujillo is famous for its position next to the largest Pre-Columbian ruins in the Americas – Chan Chan. Hiring a guide to take us around one of the 9 Royal Palaces we learnt about the Chimu people – another pre- Incan civilisation that flourished until the Incans took over (standard). The site is incredible and freaking GIANT. Located in the desert but only a Kilometer from the beach – the Chimu people were great fisherman and worshiped the sea. The palace is filled with carvings of fish, fruits and vegetables and sea creatures. Our guide told us this was a reflection on the Chimu’s being a ‘sensitive and soft’ civilisation and favouring nature over war. This was a real juxtaposition as our guide at Kuelap had told us that the Chachapoyas were the fiercest warriors. The Chachapoyas and the Chimu people even traded with eachother even though they were WEEKS away from each other. Chimu shells were found at the Fortress of Kuelap and seeds and nuts only found at Kuelap were found in Chan Chan. Mind blown. We also visited the Temple of the Sun and Moon which was a place for High Priests to perform rituals and ceremonies – generally sacrifices to the gods, mostly women who were drugged and then killed. Seems like a terrifying way to die but the guide reminded us it was a true honour. This temple belonged to the Mochicas who we learnt about back in Chiclayo – they really spread them selves out. And to think the Incas get all the press?

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On the road again we continue to head South to Huaraz – which sits at 3’100m. Huaraz is famous for its incredible Cordillea Blanco mountain range filled with snowcapped peaks and Peru’s highest mountain ( Huascaran 6’700m) – we did not climb it. We did however climb to Laguna 69 and the highest peak was 4’700m. If you are wondering what it feels like to hike to 4’700m the day after coming from sea level I suggest you fill your pants with 10kg of rocks, imagine the worst buzzing headache of your life hit yourself in the head with a hammer and then get on a cross trainer for 7 hours. The end result is self inflicted pain. This hike took us over 7hours and was incredibly painful. It did include laughs, yells and tears but we got some great photos so it’s totally worth it, Trent professes that he ‘wasn’t as affected as me’ but I was there, I know. Honestly it was truly beautiful and stunning and I am very proud of myself BUT I don’t like feeling like I am on the biggest loser whilst exercising. When we reached the summit I soaked it all in then fell asleep on a pile of rocks. Safe to say we took a rain-check on the 4 day hike in the same range that we had planned. The next couple of days I was bed ridden from a bad case of exhaustion and altitude sickness and realised that hiking at altitude before properly acclimatising is dangerous stuff. My life long dream of being a professional snow climber would have to be put on the back burner.

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Leaving Huaraz and now addicted to bus travel we continued South to Lima. We originally were going to simply pass through the Capital but had been told it isn’t as bad as its reputation. Lima was a strange mix of Peruvian opulence and Western influence. For starters in the high end district of Miraflores which is located on the water, the boardwalk is lined with Californian Palm Tree’s and people exercising for leisure. We had not seen this in the North – it is simply not done. We had a strange twilight zone moment as a Peruvian roller-skated past us.. Were we in Santa Monica? We had just spent 8 hours driving through desert communities without roofs and sanitation and had arrived into a weird mix of Southern California and Sydney. The strangest thing about Lima was all of the English spoken. Waiters rudely corrected our Spanish asking us to order in English, guys trying to sell us drugs because we are ‘Ozzie and you like party party’ and hearing painful Australians just talking English at people who clearly didn’t understand them. See I told you we were prejudice. Just not what we had been around so we were having some Western culture shock. However the best thing about Lima was the supermarket – I stocked up on Gluten Free snacks – pasta yay!

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We boarded our 22 hour bus and ended up in backpacker central – Cusco. Travelling around the North of Peru has been wonderful and we have explored so many different settings I am amazed looking at my own photos. But we must continue to move on and explore more that this country has to offer. Hoping to visit Machu Picchu then onto Puno and the Lake Titicaca floating islands. Adios!

Ecuador: a touch of coast life

As I write this post we prepare to board a bus that will have us leaving Ecuador and entering our third South American country, Peru. For the last week and a bit we have been soaking up the sunshine on the coast. Unwinding after pushing our bodies quite physically at Merazonia and having some time to mentally relax also. I think this is very important whilst on the go in a foreign country. Often we go days maybe even weeks of being exposed to new sights, smells and sounds and it can be quite draining – it’s important to reset now and then. We arrived in Montanita, famous for strong cocktails and an even stronger Gringo presence. We checked it out, wasn’t too fussed then decided to head North.

Unfortunately the day we decided to move on, I woke up and was not feeling too great. We are a bit too laid back with our hygiene caution here. We brush our teeth with tap water, eat raw fruit and veg, I gnaw on ice cubes and cuddle street dogs and cats profusely – we aren’t too careful. So after such a great run I was pretty surprised to be ill from the ice in Montanita. Feeling dizzy we headed to the sleepy fishing village of Puerto Lopez, the perfect place to take easy for a few days. Once I felt better We were ready to do some exploring and headed to the Isla De La Plata – nicknamed the ‘Poor Mans Galapagos’. A small Island 40kms from Puerto Lopez which is home to many different species of birds but primarily Blue Footed Boobies. Our guide toured us around a small part of the island and spoke about their efforts of conservation and animal protection. A large part of the island is closed off in order to protect breeding pairs of Albatross – rare migratory birds. After a few cringe worthy moments in Colombia and seeing animals being mistreated in a National Park, it was refreshing to hear the passion our guide had when speaking about the island. Our day out was beautiful and it was fantastic to view some beautiful wildlife.

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Also whilst in Puerto Lopez we seemed to be magnets for adorable street animals and made quite a few new friends.

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The last few days we have been in Ayampe. A tiny town of bamboo shacks and dirt roads which we fell in love with. Not entirely sure how many people live in the town but we only saw about 15 in the 4 days we were here. It was quiet and peaceful and the perfect end to our time in Ecuador. We had a little place right on the beach where we drank coconuts ate bananas and trip planned. Trent was able to finally have a few days of surfing which he loved. As we look at a calendar and look at out ‘must see’ list which is ever growing, we know we need to keep moving. So on and down we go to giant Peru.
Adios Ecuador – I would have loved to have spent more time in your beautiful country. We did get a nice little taster in the 6 weeks we were here: a little jungle, some andes, some cloud forest and a touch of the coast. Hasta luego – Amor la vida. br />
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Ecuador: A month in the jungle at Merazonia

One thing that we really wanted to do whilst in South America was volunteer with native animals and thanks to Merazonia, we were able to spend a month doing so. Merazonia is a rescue and rehabilitation centre for trafficked and/or abused Amazonian animals located just 15 minutes from the tiny town of Mera. Mera, which you have probably never ever heard of as it minuscule is situated in an area where the Andes meets the Amazon and as you can imagine when mountains and jungle collide you get stunning mountainous jungle.

It was slightly stressful choosing where we would volunteer as there are many options with a limited number of those looking reputable. We had heard/read cases of centres with no plan at all to rehabilitate and release and solely used the animals as a source of tourism and revenue – yuk! Places that cuddled monkeys all day and housed animals in tiny enclosures whilst treating volunteers poorly – not fun. So by the time we had stumbled upon Merazonia we had done a lot and I mean a lot of research on animal centres and had our wits about us. We had a lot of questions, all of which were answered in a first email back highlighting what volunteering would entail. Long days, community living, no electricity, compost toilets and a ‘hands off approach’ to the animals in their care. We were sold – strongly due to the last part and set our arrival date and off we headed to the jungle.

Merazonia at first, seemed like a bit of a mission to get to. From Mindo we headed back on a 2 hour bus to Quito and then a 6 hour bus to the touristy ‘adventure oasis’ town of Banos. After spending a couple of days in Banos (Quad biking through the Andes, jumping off bridges etc) we followed instructions to board ‘any bus heading to the jungle and get off in the town square of Mera’. Having no freaking idea where Mera was located and a little too focused on not throwing up as our bus driver rallied around the mountain side (I get very dizzy if I am not in the front seat of a car) I wasn’t exactly looking out the window. Hence why we were a bit shocked as suddenly the bus driver shouts repeatedly from the front ‘MERA MERA MERA!!!!’ Shit – this is us! I look out the window and see what must be Meras famous town square disappear as we drive past. As we run to the front of the bus to jump off I notice our backpacks have already been hauled from the undercarriage and onto the road, meanwhile the bus didn’t even stop as we jumped off. Picking all our belongings up from the gravel we re-group and quote our next instruction ‘get a transmera (aka jungle cab) to Merazonia – they are white pick ups with green stripes’. As we look around the secluded bus stop on the main road 20 long minutes go past and all we see are buses heading back to Banos. Deciding we should walk back into town and by the looks and smiles the locals were use to the constant flux of Gringos – we find a Transmera and 15 bumpy minutes later arrive.

The next month we worked 6 consecutive days for four weeks, from 7.30am – 5pm. For two of those we lived in the volunteer house with 11 others. It was damp, dark and smelly but the beds were comfy and thats all that mattered. We struck gold at the end of our first two weeks when capacity was maxed and we were given the opportunity to move to Frank and Louisa’s (founder/vet) to the downstairs of their brand new cabin! Incredibly beautiful and we more then appreciated the privacy, I already miss the chorus of frogs at night. After our first week of introductory rounds – learning to feed and clean the cages of Capuchin and Woolly Monkeys, Parrots and various Macaws, we wanted to do more. We had noticed that the Capuchin enclosures needed a lot of love.The enclosures had turned into mudslides and mudpits and over our time were slowly transformed and filled with steps, retaining walls, rocks and many, many bags of sand. Whilst myself and other vollies assisted, Trent did much of the work on his own and I am incredibly proud. All construction materials were (painstakingly) sourced from the river, sides of the mountain and fallen down trees. We spent a lot of time up at the Capuchins and we fell in love with these incredible creatures as we were able to observe them out of their hyperactive feeding times. I’m going to miss them the most and primates are truly incredible mini humans. Meeting and interacting with the non-animal part of the refuge was also a joy and the communal dinners by candlelight were definitely a highlight. I also had the opportunity to teach two early morning yoga classes in the new long term volunteer cabin which was an incredibly memorable experience.

I learnt a lot from our month in the jungle and if I were to write everything down this post would be ridiculously long. But most importantly to summarise:
•Woolly monkey poo smells like human poo and 2 hours of picking it up in torrential rain, by hand, with a holey glove is real character building.
•We consume an unecessary amount of electricity as humans and I can easily (and romantically) live with candle light. And come to think of it, I wasn’t at all phased being so called ‘disconnected’ from social media.
*Re-introducing yourself to new volunteers can be exhausting and we often thought about making up new life stories – mainly that Trent was a woman.
*Water, lime and rum can be mixed to make a delicious and hydrating cocktail at the end of the day.
*Cooking for 17 people, without electricity and a fridge isn’t as difficult as it sounds.
*A Merazonia experience isn’t complete without March fly bites on the ass and doing a jungle poop.
*Riding in the back of a ute, wasted, through the jungle will always be amazing.

Thanks to Merazonia for letting us be apart of your project, maybe someday in the future we will return to see what you are up to. Please check out http://www.merazonia.org to read and learn more!

P.s
The photo you will see of a monkey on my shoulder is Ollie the Tamarin (not being pat) currently there is no way to trap him whilst cleaning his enclosure so he jumps on you as a tree – this is one of the treats of doing the solo animals. Also the other baby monkey (Seamus the Howler) is currently undergoing quarantine and received daily sunlight on the back of a long term volunteer or Louisa/Frank. Louisa and Frank are very passionate about the correct rehabilitation and release of the animals in their care: for example many of the Macaws are imprinted and have had their wings clipped – meaning their odds of survival in the wild would be low – so the refuge focuses on creating and maintaining a natural and comfortable enclosure. The similar rule applies for releasing monkeys in the areas, packs must be bonded in order to survive life in the jungle – a process that is long and often difficult. We admire all the work that has been put into the refuge and are proud to have spent a short time contributing. Currently the refuge was caring for a troop of Capuchin and Woolly monkeys, two Tamarin monkeys, 2 Howler monkeys, a variety of parrots and Macaws, a Guatin (adorable rodent type thing), a group of Kinkajus that were being soft released and a Puma.

Xx

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Ecuador: Quito and Mindo

We left the tapestry lined streets of Otavalo (vowing to return one day) and headed by bus to the Capital. By now we were getting pretty good at this whole bus thing and had already decided that so far Ecuador was far better and cheaper then Colombia. With Bus travel in Ecuador the general rule for cost is $1 for every hour that you travel. Coming from a city infamous for it’s overpriced public transport (Brisbane) this rule was music to our ears. After an estimated 2 hour trip that of course turned into 5 and 1/2 we arrived in Quito early one evening and descended 3 flights of stairs to our hostel room in the Old Town. Noticing that we were finding breathing a tad harder then usual, the 2’800m above sea level altitude had made itself known straight away. Ignoring the Lonely Planet ‘dealing with altitude’ tips to avoid drinking and rest upon arrival we bought a bottle of Rum and headed out to the bar/gringo district of Plaza Foch to toast our final night with our new amiga and travel confidant for the last 3 weeks – Queen Zohra. It isn’t often that you meet someone on the otherside of the world and feel as if you have known them for many years and Zohra’s friendship (and spanish) will be greatly missed by us both. The following day we bid farewell to our friend and spent the next couple of days recovering from colds , the result of a two day bus trip and a little bit of altitude sickness and managed to do a little exploring. Really testing our lungs with a walk through the hilly Old Town up to the towering La Basilica.

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Not being a fan of large cities we agreed that 3 days in Quito was more than enough and boarded a bus to the small town of Mindo only two hours away. Mindo was beautiful and completely exceeded my expectations. Set in the Andean foothills amongst a stunning cloud forest this quaint village of only 3000 people attracts birdwatchers from around the world. After only 5 minutes in the town it wasn’t hard to know why as we were surrounded by various species of hummingbirds. We spent 3 days relaxing in our forest cabin, visiting a cacao farm and factory (heaven), walking to cascades, riding in cable cars and zip lining over the jungle canopy. We were surrounded by butterflies, hummingbirds and even had our first Tucan spotting! Mindo was the perfect place to unwind and chill before we began our volunteering stint.

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Colombia to Ecuador: 28 hours on a bus

The morning we decided to leave Medellin I don’t think we quite realised how long it would be until our next bed. After changing our minds a few times along the way we bit the bullet and said f@$& it – let’s just go to Ecuador! Researching flights it seemed impossible to fly without spending $400 one way p/p and even though we weren’t on a crazy tight budget – that was ridiculous! So alas, we decided to begin our overland journey and cross one of the most notoriously dangerous border crossings in the world via bus – for $50! The night before I had nervously read accounts of lost/stolen luggage, broken down buses in the middle of the night and poor miscommunication from buses leaving travellers stranded. The main tip seemed to be ‘whatever you do – don’t cross the border at night!’. Leaving Medellin at 2pm we caught a very comfortable bus for 9 hrs to the city of Cali and from Cali boarded a sketchy bus at midnight to the Col/Ecu border. Well not exactly. The bus said it dropped you at the border which really means ‘we will drop you 2 hrs out so you’ll will need to get in a smaller bus, two taxis and cross the border on foot’. Breezing through immigration we were stamped out of Colombia and into Ecuador with no worries! Woo hoo! Changing our Colombian Pesos to American Dollars at the border was also painless – even if we did possibly, maybe buy black market currency. I am proud to say that 28 hours after boarding in Medellin we arrived in Otavalo, Ecuador with nothing but a few sore necks and tired eyes.

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We stayed the night in Otavalo, a small town in the Andeas famous for it’s (very short so we look like giants) indigenous community and their Saturday market. We were lucky to wake up market day morning and see the town turned into a labyrinth of stalls selling hand made souvenirs, fresh fruit and veg, raw meats and even live animals (we didn’t check that section out). As we walked through the maize of merchants we began testing our Spanish as we bartered to trinkets. We split from our translator Zohra with words of advice to ‘remember you’re a gringo so they will try and sell everything for double the price!’. Knowing this I was more then happy to laugh off some of the prices we were told and watch as moments later a much cheaper version was agreed upon. It took a lot of strength to hold back on buying 100+ hammocks and ponchos but I made a practical purchase of a 100% wool, handmade sombrero – a steal at $15! I loved these markets and they were a fantastic start to our time in Ecuador.

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