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Trip Report Back to South America

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This is the beginning of what will probably be a very long trip report spread over the next few months. We leave Heathrow on Sunday for Quito and six months in South America, a continent we fell in love with when we spent some time there on our travels back in 2008. This time we are travelling with the primary objective of deciding whether we would like to settle in this part of the world, if not permanently, then for at least part of the year.

We are basing ourselves in Quito, Ecuador for the first two months where we will be taking intensive Spanish lessons in order to build upon the language skills we have been developing over the last six months we have been living in Spain. We have rented a room in the South America Explorers Clubhouse and from there we will explore the northern and central parts of the county from the Andes to the beaches and "El Oriente, Ecuador's piece of the Amazon basin.

From Quito we will work our way south through the country and into Peru searching out paths less travelled and places we have not visited before as well as revisiting some old favourites. Continuing south we aim to cross into Bolivia via Lake Titicaca and from there head to La Paz and hike, bike and canoe our way down into the Amazon basin probably to Madiddi national park before continuing on a rough circuit of the country with a possible side trip into Argentina and Salta province ( who knows, we may even meet up with flintstones - is there a fodors prize for meeting both her and avrooster??). we plan on crossing the border into Chile via the Atacama desert and San Pedro, a place we sadly missed on the last trip.. We will then head back north along the coast stopping at various places along the way until we reach Lima and our flight back to London. We are hoping that our eldest son will be joining us for a couple of weeks somewhere along the way.

Our aim this time is to experience some of the more out of the way places. Our "bucket list" of things to do/activities/places to go etc. now runs to over 30 items and is still growing. Once again, we plan to carry out some voluntary work along the way as and when the opportunities arise.

Last time we travelled for a long period we made the mistake of taking everything but the kitchen sink. Having learnt our lesson the hard way by humping ridiculously heavy backpacks around for a year and barely using 75% of the contents, this time we are travelling with hand luggage only and are limited to 10kg apiece by the airlines. Despite the usual packing stereotypes, my wife is finding this new packing regime easier than me!

I will be blogging this trip and will post a link here and on my profile page once I have finally decided whether to use Travelpod or Wordpress ( Thursdaysd - still struggling with the latter!). I will post an abridged version of the blog here as we travel along. Many thanks to those of you who responded to my request for information during the planning of this trip, , notably mlgb and Thursdaysd, much appreciated.

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    Sounds like a wonderful adventure. Look forward to following it - especially that Madidi part!

    The two of us geezers have whittled down our luggage for two month winter trips to a single weekender softside bag each and smallish hand bag for use on the plane etc. We couldn't be happier - and still each trip we find an article of clothing or two never used and a candidate for abandonment next trip. . .

    Buen viaje!

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    Crellston and Mrs. Crellston: this made my day. I was so enthralled with your reports the last time you ventured into South America - and DH and I made good use of so many of your suggestions, that I am chomping at the bit to get you on the road and me onto your blog.

    Safe and wonderful travels !

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    Crellston,

    Great update on what's to come. I am really looking forward to reading your updates because as you know I am heading off at the end of the year for similar travels!! one thing I am really working on and changing my mind constantly is what to take... It would be an awesome help if you could give a run down on gear your packing and pack size etc.. I have hiked a lot in the past but always seem to take too much and definitely don't want to be overloaded for the whole year.

    You mentioned you are staying at a room in the South America Explorers Clubhouse.. are these a cost effective way of travel in South America?

    Cant wait for your updates.

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    Many thanks to all of you for your kind words!

    A few specific replies ( in no particular order)

    Glover. The primary reason for including Madiddi on the itinerary was reading that article you posted previously, so many banks for that. Can't wait as the current plan is to start our trip there by a 3 day mountain bike ride from Sorata in the Andes to Rurrenbesque in the Amazon ( all downhill fortunately!)

    Thursdaysd and mlgb thanks for the additional info on Wordpress etc. I think I need to give both WP and Travelpod a shot this trip. I have gotten used to TP I suppose I just need to give WP a fair chance and will probably post in parallel for a short while jus to see how I get one ( Thurs - I will probably take you up on your offer and email some questions.)

    Brenden - I will certainly post a packing list in a few days. Having jus got here and unpacked I have already come across a few things I am thinking " I didn't really need that!" In the meantime, our packs are Lowe Alpine 40 litre TT Carryon. We are really pleased with them and have now used them on several long trips. They fit within the max allowance for 95% of airline for carry on luggage so we don't get the hassle of check in baggage and all that that entails.

    SA Explorers has 3 rooms for rent here in Quito. We are paying $300 US per month for a large double room with shared bathroom and a very comfortable bed. At $10 per night for the two of us, it is a bargain. I think they have a reduction for single occupancy. It compares very favourably with hostels on price and quality and is clearly outstanding in terms of traveller facilities. I AMS not sure hours whether there other locations have rooms. I will ask the manager here.

    colduphere - stop posting for a month!! As if! If I do, call the British embassy as I will almost certainly have been kidnapped and send for Avrooster as an interpreter.

    Anyway, we arrived safe and sound here in Quito albeit very tired after exactly 24 hours travel door to door. The journey was fairly uneventful but involved an 80min Tube raise from Cockfosters in north London along the whole of the Victoria line to LHR terminal 5 ( one of the most impressive airports I have ever flown from!). From there it was a 2 hour flight to Madrid on Iberia, which is now apparently a no frills airline for short haul which I wasn't aware of. A good flight on a brand new plane - very impressed. Even more impressive was the Spanish pilot who broke into song as we took off with his rendition of Come Fly With Me. On landing we were treated to Dancing Cheek to Cheek ?? Presumably his two favourite Karaoke songs..

    After a wait and a very long ride through the tunnels underneath Madrid airport, we checked in for our Lan flight to Quito. The good news was that they gave us a centre row of three with the middle seat blocked off - very thoughtful. The bad new started when we boarded. As I approached my seat a lady was already sitting there and clearly reluctant to move. After a while she moved to her correct seat in the row in front - next to a mother with two very small and very loud children? I could see what she was reluctant to move! After a while, I was alerted to that fact that there were also two small and very energetic children in the row behind by the incessant kicking of the back of my seat. The mother had already lost control and the father, very sensibly, has secured a seat in another part of the plane. I attempted to keep one of the kids occupied by playing peekaboo for a while but clearly would not be doing his for the next 12 hours. Usually, I have found that kids tend to play up for a while and then sleep on long flights ( mine certainly used to) but these just didn't stop, much to the consternation of all those around. We had found ourselves in a sort of badly behaved kid sandwich where we were the meat and from which there was no escape!

    Earplugs and a little meditation lessened the kid problem but the service on this Lan flight was something else. We were fed soon after take off with a choice of veggie pasta or chicken but even though we were amongst the first server, they ran out of chicken! During this 12 hour flight, not once did they offer a drinks or snack service. Getting dehydrated on planes is a problem for me and I lost count of the number of trips I made to the back for a glass of water ( no way to summon cabin staff") . The drinks offered with the meal were very limited soft or wine, nothing else. They did offer another meal service before landing, again, chicken or pasta, again they ran out of chicken.

    I could not fault the quality of the aircraft, the in flight entertainment system or the seating, but this level of service is simply not acceptable and I doubt that I will ever choose Lan again for intercontinental flights. Such a marked contrast to the last time we flew with them from New Zealand to Chile in 2008 when they were excellent.

    Enough of my ranting. I am going for some breakfast and then to have a look at some language schools. Hasta Luego.

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    Thanks yestravel, I really enjoyed your SEA odyssey TR. good to read about some of my favourite places from another perspective.

    Brenden. As requested, I have posted my packing list here http://www.fodors.com/community/travel-tips-trip-ideas/packing-list-6-months-with-carry-on-only.cfm

    Believe it or not it does all fit in to a carry on bag, whether it will all go back in now I have unpacked is and entirely different question!!

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    Crellston- Ha ha its always the case when you remove things and try to get them back in. Hope it all worked out. Thanks very much for the list I will head over and check it out.

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    QUITO - FIRST IMPRESSIONS
    We decided to take it easy for our first few days in Quito so as to get used to the altitude (2800 m)although this hasn't affected us too badly, we just get a little breathless going up hills etc. The new town, where we are based, is not the prettiest in South America and has a reputation for being a little dangerous ( but it seems perfectly ok to us so far). I would say that most of it was built in the 60s & 70s, not the greatest architectural period in many countries, but this is where the tourism infrastructure is.

    We have been wandering the streets In search of a language school of which there are many. Eventually we narrowed it down to four, La Lengua, Christobel Colon, Simon Bolivar and Yanapuma. In the end, La Lengua impressed us the most, so we went with. at $6.75 per hour with our SA Explorers discount, it was pretty good value.

    Apart from seeking out opportunities for further education, we have been exploring the city on foot, trying to gain understanding of its layout. It is a long (35kms) city surrounded by mountains including the, still active, Volcan Pinchincha. With a population of 2.5 million it is a busy place and already we are growing to like it a lot. The street maps seem only vaguely accurate so finding our way around has been a challenge but we are getting there.

    Three different bus and trolley-bus systems plying the main routes throughout the length of the city. This is in addition to the local buses which seem to go everywhere else. So far we have only used Trolebus which was to go from where we are staying in Mariscal Sucre to the Centro Historico or Old Town. Having seen the how busy the buses are in the rush hour and how they are apparently infested with pickpockets I think we will give them a miss for now!

    Our first foray into sightseeing involve jumping on the said Trolebus and 15mins later jumping off at Plaza Grande in the heart of the Old City. After wandering around aimlessly (often the best way to get to know a place) for an hour or to we went into the tourist office to grab some details of walking tours we will take over the next few weeks. the primary tour seemed to be one conducted by off duty policemen, but then Carolyn discovered Quito Eterno, an organisation of actors and scholars which provide walking tours conducted by guides who dress up and act as either historical or fictional characters, which sounds much more fun, so I think we will go for that.

    The Centro Historico proved to be much more like the Quito we were expecting, lots of very impressive colonial architecture and elegant squares. After grabbing a drink in a cafe on Plaza San Francisco and people watching for a while we head off into the maze of smaller streets surrounding the main Plazas and, almost immediately, we leave the sight-seers behind and are amongst the local people going about there daily life. After a while we stop for lunch in a cafeteria type place, Menjages de Higos, which was very busy with local workers. Excellent and inexpensive food.

    Apart from wandering the streets in search of further education, our only other foray out has been to Santa Clara, a traditional market here in the new town. This was at the suggestion of Javier, a tango teacher who has been teaching Tango to a few of his students here at club. We were chatting over a bite to eat and he came up with a wealth of suggestions, much better than any guide book, one of which was this market. Santa Clara is the premier vegetable market in Quito and has lots of stalls piled high with geometric pyramids of a huge variety of exceptional fresh vegetables and fruit, some familiar, some entirely new, all looking as though they had been picked that morning. I think we have found our new local shop!

    Also in the market are lots of food stalls offering all manner of soups, chicken, pork, fish etc. all looking delicious, especially the pork which comes in the form of whole roasted pigs laid atop the counters from which the proprietors were carving off hunks of pork and crackling and served with with rice, potatoes, mole ( a traditional sauce) and whatever else takes their fancy. It all looked fantastic, but just looking for something light we shared a plate of Corvina ( aka Sea Bass) and patatas fritas with a free bowl of ceviche de camarones thrown in for good measure. It was simply delicious and at $ 2.50, a bargain

    Elsewhere, we have been sampling the Almuerezos, or meal of the day, at the many small restaurants that are everywhere around the city. They all seem very busy, but few tourists seem to frequent these places, which is a shame because the food is excellent and very cheap at between $2 and $4 and consist usually of a hearty soup, a main course, usually, meat, fish or chicken, with rice, potatoes, salad or veggies, all of which can be spiced up with the ubiquitous Aji salsa which is on every table and ranges from mildly spicy to blow your head off. All this is rounded off with a fresh juice and a dessert. Incredible value. So far, the food here has been a very pleasant surprise.

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    TELEFÉRIQO

    Waking to blues skies, we decided today was the day to take a ride on the Telefériqo, ( cable car) up the slopes of Volcán Pichincha to the peak of Cruz Loma at 4050 metres above sea level. The cable car ride starts at the base station on the lower slopes at 3050m and the ascent, in six person cars, takes 8 mins., which, given the foreigners fare of $8.50, works out at $1 a minute. Expensive by Ecuadorian standards but still a good deal.

    Before we get on the cable car we have to pass through VulQano Park, surely one of the highest fun fairs in the world? Upside down in a roller coaster at 3050m? I don't think so as I am not great with heights at the best of times.

    Once in the cable car we begin to see the true extent of the size of Quito, a long thin city sandwiched between the two mountain ranges and creeping up the sides of the mountains. When reaching the top, the difference in altitude is not immediately noticeable, but as we start to walk upwards along the pathways away from the cable car station, we do notice the 1200m difference in altitude from Quito city.

    We all slowly along up the ridge passing an enterprising local selling photo opportunities of her llamas to passing tourists for 50 cents a shot. A bit further on there a coral full of horses with there owners selling rides around the mountain. The horses look so miserable we decide to give it a miss. Close to the horses is a ramshackle hut housing a parrillada selling all manner of grilled meat, but, bearing in mind the proximity to the horse corral and the recent horse meat scandal back home in Europe, we decide to forego the delicious aroma of grilling meat and eat when we get back to Quito (plus, the meat and charcoal seemed indistinguishable!)

    After a couple of hours we head back into Quito and wander back down through the residential neighbourhoods we passed through on the way up. Even in the residential areas, every fourth building along the main streets seems to be a restaurant. We settle on a small place and are seated at a small table with two other diners, 5 minutes later, another two join us around the VERY small table and we all tuck into the best locro, we have had yet. Followed, by Corvina ( Sea Bass) and a dessert of cheese and blackberry at. $ 2.50 one of the best meals we have had to date.

    All in all a great day out and a rest from the intensive Spanish lessons. A must do for any open visiting Quito, although bearing mind the altitude at the top, best left for a few days after arrival unless acclimatised. We chose to walk from the club in Marisacal as we do enjoy walking and find it the best way to get to know a city. However, my pedometer informed me that we had walked a total of 8 miles ( my feet told me long before!), I could now see why others suggested we get a taxi to the base station..

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    Sounds like you are enjoying Quito so far! I have been studying abroad here for almost five months and will be leaving on Wednesday, May 22nd. If you have any questions about things to do/see/eat in or outside of Quito, just let me know! I'd be more than happy to give you some advice and pointers. Safe travels!

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    Many thanks Drew, I have just read your suggestions on Brenden's thread, some are already on our list, the others have just been added!

    Any suggestions for places to eat in Otavalo and places to stay in Latacunga & Banos would be appreciated.

    Also, do you have any experience, knowledge of the border crossings from southern Ecuador into Peru? We are thinking maybe via Macara or Zumba.

    Have a good journey tomorrow.

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    Love your report so far. I am heading to Puerto Cayo, a small beach town next week. I will be baking for a small hotel on the beach starting June 1st. Be sure to stop by if you swing through that area. The beaches are gorgeous!
    Martha

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    OTAVALO

    After a couple of weeks studying hard at our Spanish school right in the hustle and bustle of central Quito, we decide it is time for a break and head off to the town of Otavalo, famed for its Saturday market which attracts vendors from as far away as Columbia.

    Every guide book tells you that it is a couple of hours by bus from Quito, but what they tend to omit is that it first takes an hour to get from Mariscal to the northern bus station at Carcelen in the national holiday traffic! After around 4 hours we arrive and, before heading off to our Hostál in the mountains outside of town, we decide to wander around and get a feel for the place. Walking through Plaza de Ponchos and its' surrounding streets the main sound we hear is of the many street vendors shouting " blah, blah, un dollar, un dollar!" seemingly, every 10 seconds or so. After a while we retreat to a small cafe for a beer before heading off to our hostal. Sitting a table in a courtyard savouring our beers, a VERY small and elderly Kichwa lady (and I do mean small, sitting down I am still taller than her!) stands next to us bowl in hand clearly looking for scraps of food. As we're are not eating, we have none so, against all our volunteer training, we give her a dollar coin. This elicits the biggest smile I have seen in a while. She then smothers me in kisses and strokes my, almost non existent, hair before wandering off into the streets, no doubt in search of her next target gringo.

    We grab a taxi and head off on a $4 ride 4 kms into the mountain overlooking the town to our home for the next three nights, La Luna, http://www.lalunaecuador.com/ . A small but beautiful place, set in its own gardens with horses, chickens, dogs and cows all around. The views from the property are breathtaking as is the silence. It is a long, long time since we have been anywhere so quiet.
    Our room in a small bungalow away from the main house. Small but nice with beamed ceilings and its own log fire, an unexpected bonus as we have become used to some very cold nights in Ecuador.

    On the Friday before the market we get a lift up to Lagos Mojanda about 10kms further on into the mountains. We agree with the driver to return to pick us up in 5 hours which should be enough time to hike around the lake and around Cerro Negro, one of the highest peaks in the area. The lake itself is at an altitude of 3700m people and Cerro Negro even higher at 4300m. Even though we are now acclimatised, we notice the difference in altitude, especially as we climb higher on the walk.

    It is a cloudy day so the peaks of the mountain are shrouded in cloud so we take the decision not to climb to the peak of Cerro Negro because there would be no view ( OK, that and because the pathway to the top seemed almost vertical!). Instead we set of around the lake, more or less on our own. It is an incredible walk and relatively flat and an easy around the lake and so, so quiet!

    After an hour or so we start to climb inexorably higher up and around Cerro Negro and once again the effects of the altitude become more noticable. Every so often we get a waft of Eucalyptus, the tree which is spreading everywhere in South America after being introduced from Australia. Walking ever upwards we finally reach the Mirador or viewpoint on the ridge close to the summit of Cerro Negro which is still in cloud and even steeper close up! It is now three hours since we started off so we stop for lunch and meet up with another hiker walking the same route in the opposite direction - we later realise that this would have been much easier as the really steep parts would have been at the beginning! We always seem to follow the natural inclination of those that drive on the left to go clockwise around route as we would drive around roundabouts. Why?

    On the way around the mountain thankfully much of the route is downhill but by now are legs are starting to feel the strain (first long hike for a few months). A kilometre or so along the track we stumble upon a VERY large fox playing on the track. It seems a bit shy, but playful as we approach. Maybe it is a youngster. If so, it is much bigger than a fox back home and I am not sure I want to meet its' daddy!

    The views on this walk are amazing and it really is so peaceful. In parts it gets very cold because of the altitude and especially so on the windward side of the mountain. Having walked around most of Lago Mojanda and all of the mountain we finally head back down to our starting point to hoping that the taxi driver who dropped us off remembers to return to pick us up, otherwise it is another 10 km walk back to the hostel. My pedometer registers a step count of 20,000, not that I need to look as my feet are already telling me this! Thankfully the taxi arrives just as we do and we head back down to the Hostal and a very cold beer.

    MARKET DAY

    Saturday is THE market day we have heard so much about that we wonder whether it will live up to the hype. First, we head off to the animal market market on the outskirts of the town. Still in full swing, there are auctions of pigs, who, judging by the squealing, don't seem to happy about their imminent fate and, cows who could couldn't care less. All around the market are vendors selling Guinea pigs and chickens from large plastic sacks ( not sure the animal welfare people would approve!). After chatting to a few vendors to ascertain the going rate for pigs, guinea pigs etc., we set off for Plaza del Ponchos, the main square in town. The market has extended from the square along several locks in each direction and the streets are jam packed with people. Along the way we encounter our first attempted pickpocketing as four fat women sandbag us from all sides. Hands firmly on our valuables we survive the attempt unscathed and carry on looking around the countless stalls a wide variety of artesiania. The goods on sale are of pretty high quality, particularly the knitwear and leather goods but it does seem to be the same stuff on every other stall.

    In essence, the artesania markets have not lived up to the hype so we head off to the food and produce markets which make no allowances for tourism. The stalls here are piled high with pyramids of the freshest fruit and vegetables and again, every stall holder is shouting ...... un dollar, un dollar! Getting hungry after an early start we settle down at one of the many counters in the "restaurant" section which is sporting a whole roast hog. The aroma is just too good to pass by. A generous portion of roast pork, accompanied by 4 types of corn, salad, potatoes fried in the pork juices topped off with the crispy pork skin. Probably not the most healthy meal in the world but very tasty!

    All in all a nice experience but the market, although apparently one of the largest in South America has become a bit too heavily focused on tourists ( although the quality is very high) and we much preferred the food and animal markets. The true beauty of Otavalo is to be found in the surrounding countryside and it would be a shame just to come here for the market although the food and animal markets are definitely worth a look.

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    Thanks for the report. Pity about the market but the pork sounds delicious.

    "the natural inclination of those that drive on the left to go clockwise around route" - also the inclination of Buddhists, right? Need to keep the right, not left, shoulder towards the sacred object/statue.

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    Enjoying reading about your trip. You are more adventurous with food than we were in Equador but our trip was so short we were overly cautious I imagine.

    In Banos, have a look at La Chimera - people we met raved about the place.
    We also liked the feel of La Posada del Arte.... Ate there and enjoyed their small gallery and had them ship a painting to us in Canada after we were home and realized we could not live without it. Free movies at Cafe Hood in the late afternoon if you get a rainy day there.

    I am looking forward to hearing about Cuenca. And some of the beach towns. So much to see and do in Equador.

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    Hola Crellston,

    So glad you are enjoying this year's SA adventure...and letting us readers enjoy it with you.

    I agree with you that the surrounding countryside near Otavalo is truly a highlight for any visit there...but, as a market enthusiast, I do have to tell you that whatever I bought in that Market (as the one in Guate)have been real treasures, once you get them home and out of the area of glut (on the market...:)

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    Marnie, I hope I did not seem unduly negative on the artesania market, we found the quality of the goods on offer to be really excellent, unfortunately, travelling light and for a long time, the opportunities to buy stuff are necessarily limited, as it was, i had to restrain my wife from buying a handkinitted sweater she fell in love with! What I did find a little off putting was when we walked back to the bus station though the side streets we passed dozens of wholesalers stocking a lot of the stuff we saw in the market stalls. We are off to Saquisilli market this week and will see how that one compares.

    Rivet, we do enjoy sampling the truly local cuisine in markets etc. I tend to throw caution to the wind when travelling on the basis that I usually get a stomach bug anyway so I might as well be adventurous. As an aside, the sickness I ever got was in a 5 * hotel in Hue, Vietnam where I was sick for days after eating a dodgy shrimp! Having said that, so far I have been absolutely fine in Ecuador ( touch wood!)

    Many thanks for the info on Banos hotels, this is most opportune as we are going down that way next week. I had just finished sourcing accomodation for Latacunga, the Quilatoa loop and Cotopaxi and was just about to start on Banos, so those suggestions are really helpful.

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    Hi rivet, our Spanish lessons went OK thanks, but not without one or two minor problems. Here is a link to my post on Trip Advisor which provides some detail on our search for a school:

    http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowTopic-g294308-i2254-k6545429-Spanish_Lessons_in_Quito_our_experience-Quito_Pichincha_Province.html

    There are lots of schools in Quito choosing one is difficult as, even if you do ask clear and concise questions, e.g. What qualifications do your teachers have? It is unlikely you will get anything like a straight answer!
    Having studied Thai for 2 years in the formal environment of evening classes at a university language school, I found the teacup hong methods a bit haphazard. In total we studied for around 40 hours and I felt my Spanish improved considerably although for the last few lesson I asked my teacher to concentrate on " travellers spanish" so I could get my in most situations more easily and this seems to have worked for me. My wife tended to spend more time on grammar and vocabulary ( and is now correcting me constantly!)

    A lot of the schools seem to be linked to tour operators and so seemed determined to sell tours combined with lessons, not something that we were interested in, but may be attractive to some. Rates are cheap at $6-8 per hour. On balance, our Spanish skills have improved considerably and I think we will probably continue with some more lessons, probably when we get to Bolivia.

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    Susan, glad you are enjoying my reports, we move on this week from Quito so hopefully my posts will become more varied over the coming months! I am sure you will love Ecuador, we certainly do. The people here are so friendly and there is so much to see in a relatively compact country, choosing where to go is not easy! Good luck with planning your Feb trip.

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    One month was enough in Quito. We did enjoy the place but it is not the greatest capital city we have visited and the time had come to move south.

    We decided to catch the bus down to Latacunga, a mid sized provincial city and the main jumping off point for Cotapaxi, the highest active volcano in the world and the Quilotoa loop, a little visited part of Ecuador, famous for its beautiful mountain scenery, its hiking and Laguna Quilotoa, a lake in an extinct volcano crater some 3900m above sea level.

    Bus travel in Ecuador is amazingly cheap and and works out at around $1 an hour and sure enough after $1.50 and an hour and a half we arrive in Latacunga. During that time around 20 vendors have gotten on the bus to sell there wares. Everything from one guy selling pencils ( it took him 15 mins of continuous sales chat) to someone selling miracle cures for prostrate troubles and period pains!!. However, what really did appeal was the lady that got on to sell her chicken wings and papas fritas which smelled and looked delicious. Unfortunately we had just eaten- maybe next time?

    We had heard great things about the Thursday market in Saquisilli, a small town nearby, so we jump on a local bus and head there early in the morning to catch the animal market before it winds up at 9.00am.

    The market is spread over seven Plazas throughout the town and we make it to three of them all selling mountains of vegetables from around the Sierra as well as fruit, I presume from the coast. I have never seen so many bananas in one place! It is quite a walk to the edge of town where the animal market is still in operation with deals still being struck on pigs, cattle, llamas, poultry, sheep. etc. it is towards the end of the market so we see lots of farmers struggling to persuade their purchases on to their trucks for whatever fate awaits them. Walking through the middle of the market we manage to avoid most of the chaos that is going on, apart from getting tangled up with one lady's piglets on ropes and almost getting in the way of a clearly horny bull who spies an attractive cow being led in front of him!

    Having had our fill of markets for a while we grab a snack of corn fritters stuffed with local cheese form one of the market stalls before heading back to Latacunga to get sorted for our trip to Quilotoa.

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    THE QUILOTOA LOOP

    Next morning we set off bright and early to find our bus for Quilotoa. At the bus station we are immediately accosted by one of the bus jockeys who sells us tickets for a somewhat less than pristine bus which is already almost full, but we find a couple of seats and 15 mins later we are off on the 2 hour journey into the mountains. On the way out of Latacunga we stop to pick up more passengers, and more, and more! Eventually there are around 20-30 people standing in the aisle most carrying sacks of vegetables or babies. The livestock, apart from one crying kitten in a bag, is stored under the bus.

    Only when the bus is , absolute full does the vendor get on to sell some a sort of herbal Viagra. Thankfully his, very loud, sales patter only lasts for 20 mins but he does a roaring trade with many men and even more women buying his wares!

    Lucky to have seats for the 2 hour ride, I still get crushed by the people standing next to me as we wind around the mountain roads and they take it in turns to try and sit on my head! I could take the 25 yr old woman leaning on me for a a few kms but when she is replace by the 80 yr old man in a poncho which had not been washed since he bought it, almost certainly in his twenties, it was almost too much to bear. I realise now why Carolyn always seems to prefer the window seat?

    Probably our worst bus journey to date but our reward is some truly spectacular scenery as we approach Quilotoa. The village itself is not attractive concrete block buildings and one of the most windswept and dusty places we have ever visited. There numerous hostals in town some are pretty grim but we find Hostal Chukiwara, one of the better looking ones and the couple running it seem really nice so we check in, dump our bags and go off in search of the lake. It turns out that the Hostal is virtually on the edge of the crater so we only have to walk 20 m or so and we are there. The view is just beautiful, certainly ranking in the top ten most impressive we have ever seen. The crater is an almost perfect circle and the lake, Around 400m below changes colour from black to blue to green constantly as the clouds move across the sky. We walk around a small part of the crater ( the whole crater takes around four hours to circumnavigate) and walk part of the track we will take tomorrow when we walk the 10 kms to Chughilan.
    The wind is now incredibly strong and there is a sheer drop next to the path into the crater so I guess we will just see what the weather holds for us in the morning.

    After over dinner in the hostal (a bargain at $15 per person, dinner, bed and breakfast) we get an early night and ask the guy on duty to light our wood burning stove which he does. 10 minutes later it has gone out so Carolyn returns to the restaurant to ask him to relight it. He is watching the football and is clearly reluctant to move, in fact he completely ignores her (not a good move!), persistence pays off and he returns to our room. There are only a few embers still glowing in the stove so he decides on to employ radical action and stuffs some more cardboard into the fire, lights it, and then places a plastic bottle of what looks like paraffin on top, shuts the door and then crouches down in the corner of the room for a few seconds, clearly decides that his job is done and runs out of the room! A few seconds later there is a big whoosh as the paraffin ignites. Job done! Not sure my father in law, a retired fire station chief, would have approved and for a few seconds, we were wondering which window we would be jumping from!

    The wind just gets stronger and stronger roaring around us all night but at least the relighted fire does the job and warms up the room nicely.

    Morning comes and I get up to watch dawn rise over the crater. The wind is still blowing and it is difficult to stand up on the ridge and I do wonder whether it is sensible to make the hike to Chughilan as the first 2 kms is right along the ridge with a very steep drop down to the lake!

    We have breakfast and decide to go for it. we meet up with Tara, and Aussie backpacker who joins us and the three of us set off armed with a line drawn map of the route (the local guides, keen for business have ripped up most of the direction signs along the way!

    Despite the wind we make good headway and once we drop down from the crater edge the wind all but disappears. The track dwindles to nothing so we have to improvise and sure enough, get lost fairly quickly. We come across a couple of 8 year olds looking after some sheep and ask then for directions. They point to a "path", which is invisible to our gringo eyes and incredibly steep. We take them at there word and set off and, sure enough there is a path which takes us back onto the ridge and the proper track.

    The three of us walk along admiring the incredible views until we reach what can only be described as a beach. Why or how it got there I really don't know but we quickly move on as the wind is still gale force and is whipping up a sandstorm. We begging to head down on the other side of the volcano through less inhospitable countryside, more like farmland down some very steep slopes to a small village consisting of some concrete block houses, a school and a soccer field. By this time we are still only a third of the way but could really do with some food so we sit on a bench at the side of the football field to eat some fruit, only to be enveloped in another dust storm.

    Moving ever down the mountains we eventually reach the halfway point and are in sight of the massive canyon which separates us from our destination of Chughilan. We now have to descend to the bottom of the gorge and up the other side. In total we descent around 1000 metres to the bottom of the gorge and 700 m up the other side!! By now all three of us are really tired and praying for a camionetta to come along and whisk us away to our destination. Of course it doesn't, so we continue on down into the canyon, mostly on our feet but occasionally on our backsides, much to the amusement of some Kichwa people we meet along the way. The men all tell me how lucky I am to have two women!!

    Eventually we do reach the bottom of the canyon and cross over the piddling little river before ascending the 700 metres and three kilometres to our hostal for the night. I won't describe the rest of the ascent - just too painful to recall! We arrive at the hostal all desperate for some food, a cold beer and a hot shower. The food was crap, the shower was cold but at least the beer was cold. My priorities were met but somehow the girls didn't seem to happy!

    I would like to say that we slept the sleep of the exhausted that night but unfortunately, a group of partying US college students had other ideas at least until the beer ran out in the early hours.

    This hike is very hard at times, but all things considered, the spectacular views, the amazing Quilotoa crater lake, the spectacular scenery and the wonderful people we met along the way made this one of the best hikes we have ever done. Quilotoa should be on everyone's list when visiting Ecuador.

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    Smeagol, "travel hero" I have been called many things in my time but that is a new one!!

    Rivet, many thanks for the Baños recommendations. We are currently staying at La Chimenea and are loving it. Really good vfm and well run. Also popped into Casa Hood for a bite to eat another good rec.

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    Believe me, if I could have found a porter at the bottom, he would have been considerably richer by now! Thursdaysd, I would definitely put Quilotoa lake on the list but only include the hike if you have masochistic tendencies - after 4 days my legs have finally recovered!

    "Look forward to the photos when you are back on the internet." - sadly that is not going to happen. Despite our eternal vigilance and paranoia, On the bus s from Amabato to Banos ( or at one of the bus stations) my wife got pickpocketed and lost both the camera and some cash. No idea how it happened as we didn't notice a thing. Be warned these guys are experts!

    Both the. camera and the cash can be replaced but what are irreplaceable are the photo we took on the hike and in Saquisilli market. Fortunately I had backed up all previous photos to the cloud.

    My wife is trying to source some photos of the route from the web just to give a flavour of the scenery etc. but not really the same!

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    That is tragic, crellston. As you said, those guys are good and it is easy to get distracted.

    However, "The best pictures are always in your mind", as a birding guide once told me.

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    Thanks for your commiserations all. In the words of Forrest Gump "sh** happens" a police report was made, a new camera acquired and on we go...

    Baños is a small town nestled in a beautiful valley right next to an extremely active volcano. Last time it erupted was in 2006, when the town had to be evacuated. Lately, it has been rumbling away every few months and the last time fire and smoke was spotted was 4 weeks ago. Hopefully it will keep reasonably quiet for the next 4 days! One of the first things we do after visiting he police commissioner, is to wander around and exhibition of paintings of the last volcano activity by the local school children. The pictures are quite something and we would have been tempted to buy one had they been for sale.

    Baños is a quiet enough place most of the time but does get very busy at weekends when both foreign and domestic tourists flood the place mainly to take extended soaks in the hot springs and baths for which the town is famous (Baños is Spanish for bath). We are here midweek so it is relatively quiet.

    Still aching a bit from our exertions around Quilotoa we make maximum use of the baths and get up at dawn each day to join the locals in the baths in the early morning mist and drizzle. It is quite cold in the mornings but the baths range in temperature from 28c to 40c. The water is a muddy brown colour due to the impressive list of minerals it contains which allegedly cure just about every ailment under the sun. Not too sure about the validity of these claims but an hour or so soaking in the waters does ease our stiff muscles considerably. 15 mins or so is about as much as we can take at a time in the hot pools so we cool off intermittently with a dip in the icy cold pool or by standing under on of the pipes spurting out cold water directly from the mountain. At $2 a head, incredible value and we could really get used to this!

    Baños is a great place just to wander around and there are some really good places to eat around, serving everything from Ecuadorian to Mexican, the inevitable Italian and Chifas to hamburgers. In fact one of the best hamburgers I have ever eaten is here from a small shop front stall just off the main plaza, called Hickory Hamburguesa. The one thing we can't seem to find is the Cuy Asado, or roasted guinea pig for which Baños is renowned. Maybe we will have to wait until Peru?

    One evening we have drinks with a couple of Canadians we had met up in Quilotoa who were raving about a bike ride they had just done, so the next day we hire a couple of mountain bikes from one of the ubiquitous bike shops around town and set of 25kms down the valley to Rio Verde towards the jungle town of Puyo on the edge of the Amazon basin.

    The trip is virtually all downhill on tarmac roads and thankfully, the drivers here are a lot more considerate than the homicidal maniacs that occupy the streets of Quito. We navigate one long dark tunnel through the mountain and after that, there are diversions for cyclists around the outside which take us by (and sometimes through!) some really beautiful waterfalls along the way. Adventure travel is big business around here so there are lots of place along the way to try zip lining, canyoning etc. (not great with heights so I will give it a miss for now but it is on the bucket list!). We get up a fair speed going downhill certainly keeping pace with the buses but at times, the wind is so strong we have to start pedalling just to keep momentum even downhill.

    Eventually we arrive in Rio Verde, not the picturesque town we had been led to believe, indeed, we were not sure at first that we had found the right place. We head off down a dusty side road in search of the waterfall for which the village is famous but we can't find it and are about to turn back when we ask a small boy who tells us that it is the right place and so we carry on

    We eventually find the entrance to the 1 km trail to the falls, pay the lady her $1 and set off through the forest seeing loads of orchids, humming birds along the way. After crossing a rickety old cable bridge which swings around from side to side above the gorge we get to the falls which are indeed spectacular and well worth the trip. Climbing down, we get right behind the falls which must be at least 100m high. After staying around fro a while to admire the falls we head back up the way we came and do consider carrying on to the next village or beyond but, after chatting to an Ecuadorian guide leading a small group he tells us that this is the last point we will be able to get a camionetta back to Baños until Puyo which is another 40kms on. Not relishing the thought of a 25kms uphill bike ride back, we load the bikes into the back of the truck and head back. Later that evening we bump into a couple of Norwegian girls we met on the bike ride who tell us that they went all the way to Puyo, 65kms and arrived just as it was getting dark and starting to rain. Luckily they managed o get a lift back.

    All things considered we like Baños a lot. O.K. it is a bit touristy with some 400 hostals in such a small town but It is quiet during the week and seems very safe. But where are the guinea pigs?? Heading off to the station to jump on a bus to our next destination of Riobamba we find out as we pass by half a dozen restaurants who have all put BBQs outside and are busy roasting away for what is obviously a weekend only treat. Sadly, we have just eaten breakfast so the Cuy will have to wait for a while. I do stop and ask the price and it is very expensive for Ecuador at $4 for one eighth of a guinea pig!

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    crellston, we only saw the guinea pigs roasting on the weekends also! we too were surprised at the high price for bbq rodent. Better choices elsewhere for dinners in Banos.

    One question: was it chilly in the evenings and mornings. We were in Banos in Sept and the temperature really dipped.

    Looking forward to your report on Riobamba - when we were in there, Riobamba was covered in ash from the lastest eruption of Tungurahua so we didn't travel there

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    Rivet, thanks once again for your suggestions re Baños which we followed and stayed al Hostal Chimenea and loved it. We had booked in to Magic Stone but the wifi was hopeless so we moved on and spent 4 nights there. Great location close to the thermal baths and the town, great staff also.

    We also paid a couple of visits to Cafe Hood a great place to meet people - we bumped into two sets of friends we had met elsewhere in Ecuador so a great place to meet people.

    The weather in Baños had just changed and move into their wet season. It wasn't too bad though. We had a couple of sunny days and a couple of grey, drizzly days but it didn't get too cold at night - no need for a fleece.

    Really liked Riobamba and will post very shortly

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    We had heard conflicting reports of Riobamba, some people love it, others seem to be ambivalent. We liked it. We booked into Hostal Tren Dorado for a couple of nights, which as the name implies, is right next to the train station. Unfortunately the train to the famous " Nariz del Diablo" hasn't run from here for a couple of years as the track is being repaired ( it now runs from Aluasi). As a result there are few visitors to the town and the tourism industry is suffering. We are the only people in the Hostal which probably has a maximum capacity of 40 guests!

    We wander around the city centre and explore the markets and squares and it seems a very relaxed kind of place, much less frenetic than some others we have stayed. As it is a nice sunny day we get tantalising glimpse of Volcano Chimborazo which, at 6300m is the highest mountain in Ecuador, the peak of which is allegedly a couple of metres higher than Everest when measured from the centre of the earth?

    After lunching on the roast pork for which Riobamba is renowned, we set off in search of a biking company called "Biking Spirit" which, our guide book tells us is just around he corner from our hotel. Unfortunately, despite being dated 2011 our guide book is already way out of date as we later find out that they moved five years ago! A little online research and we find the phone number and call the guy and arrange a trip to Chimborazo for the following day.

    Edison, the owner and a dead ringer for Robert Downey Junior, picks us up in his 4WD at 8.00am sharp and off we go to Chimborazo. The drive there takes around 90 mins and we pass through the suburbs of Riobamba ( which is bigger than we thought), through the outlying villages and then rising into the Paramo (moorlands). We continue ever upwards, passing into the altiplano where there is little or no human habitation, indeed, the only signs of life are alpacas and vicuñas. Eventually we reach the ranger station at he entrance to the Chiborazo NP, stop for a break, and then continue on ever upwards along gravel and sand tracks until finally we reach Hermanos Carrel refuge at 4800 m. Here we take a break for some coca tea to help with the altitude (illegal in Ecuador, they have to import it from Columbia)

    After, our coca tea break we set off on foot to the Whymper refuge, which is where the mountaineers ascending to the peaks spend the night before their final ascent. We chat with the man that looks after the refuge who tells us that he spends two weeks at a time here looking after the place before going back home for a week at a time. A lonely existence in the quiet season!

    We set off on the climb to the Whymper refuge, named after the English mountaineer who first ascended to the peak. It is only 1 km away and a 200m increase in altitude to 5000m but it is hard going. Another group is making the ascent at the same time and some of them decide to turn back after a short distance with the altitude taking its toll. Edison tells us that it normally takes 45 mins for this ascent but it seems like forever. Eventually, we do make it to the refuge and Edison tells us we managed it in 38 mins which apparently is pretty good going. Either we are getting fitter, more used to the altitude, or both. Either way, it is and amazing feeling to have made it and the views are simply wonderful!

    The return journey takes a mere 15 minutes and we are back at the lower refugio and Edison is setting up our bikes. Biking Spirit sensibly offers three options when it comes to routes back down the volcano depending upon experience and, I suppose, desire for an adrenaline rush. We choose the middle option of around 36 kms., of which 8kms. is on Tarmac the rest on dirt tracks. As we will find out later, a proportion is uphill as well as down!

    Our only experience of mountain biking is around the gently rolling farm land around our home in England. Carolyn's brother John is an adrenaline junkie and a very keen mountain biker so I am keen to see what all the fuss is about. It doesn't take long to find out!

    The first section of the route back is around 8kms back down to the NP entrance zig zagging down the dirt track which in places has been corrugated by the effects of the wind and feels what is perhaps best described as like siting on top of a pneumatic drill! We soon learn to avoid the worst patches when we can.. As the road winds back down the mountain the wind gets quite strong and blows sand into our faces which stings a bit at times (now understand why we were told to bring sunglasses). After 20 mins or so we are back at the park entrance and we are yet to actually pedal our bikes. A huge thrill and I can now see why my brother in law is hooked.

    The next section of the route is on nice smooth Tarmac and takes us down through the altiplano and paramo whizzing past the alpacas and vicuñas along the way. This is really smooth cycling and although we are going downhill, we still have to pedal away quite hard to keep going when the wind is against us. We stop briefly for some water at a big gorge part way down and just marvel at the wonderful scenery. We continue on down until we reach the point where we leave the road again to head uphill on a dirt track. We are still at high altitude, maybe 3600 m so this is really, really hard work partly beacause of the altitude but also because we are trying to ride through volcanic sand (imagine trying to ride along a beach uphill and you will get a general idea!). We carry on, at times pushing our bikes through the worst bits but the views make it all worthwhile. After what seems like forever, we come to the end of the uphill sections through the paramo and come to a crossroads from where it is all downhill through the villages. Edison warns us to go carefully through the villages, partly because the many dogs like to chase cyclists and partly because it is Sunday afternoon when most of the villagers will be busy getting drip ink on Chicha ( beer made by chewing corn, spitting it into a bucket, topping up with water and leaving it to ferment - sound nice? It certainly didn't look appetising! We pass through a few of these villages managing to avoid the drunk pedestrians and eventually, 35kms later, we arrive back in a small village which is just packing up after its fiesta. For a small village they have clearly been doing a lot of celebrating!

    We load the bikes back onto the 4WD and, completely exhausted, head back to Riobamba, totally understanding why brother in law John is addicted to mountain biking. Death Road in Bolivia, here we come... maybe...


    For anyone interested in a bike trip
    http://bikingspirit.com/2013/index.php/en/

    Some photos of the trip are on our blog


    http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/candcthai/6/1371924442/tpod.html

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    Crellston, you mention that you didn't stay at the Magic Stone in Baños. That was the place that I had thought about booking when we go to Baños. Do you know if the wifi is always a problem? It sounds like maybe we should be looking elsewhere.

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    Wifi in Banos is generally not that great anywhere it seems but we got a decent, but not perfect service at Hostal Chimenea. I had asked in advance about the wifi as it is important to me for a variety of reasons and was assured that it was ok. The owners of Magic Stone where very helpful and even asked the wifi provider to come out and have a look. He suggested that a bush between the house and the block where the rooms are was over grown and causing the problem - I really doubted that! The only way I could get a signal was to stand in the door way - not great solution, so we decided to move after one night.

    The owners assured me that they had not had problems before that didn't help me much. Our equipment has worked fine everywhere else so it wasn't that.

    I am no expert, but I suspect that Banos is overrun with wifi hotspots and the infrastructure just can't cope. That coupled with the other factors meant that we got virtually no access. We are in Cuenca at Casa Cuencana, a small Hostal and the wifi is superb, even allowing us to stream movies etc.

    MS It is a nice, if expensive place for Banos and the hosts are really nice but there are some 400 places to stay so you won't be short of choices

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    expensive for Baños. Hostal Chimenea cost us $19 per night for a similar sized and nicely decorated double ensuite room. Breakfast ran to around $2.50 for juice, coffee, toast, jam eggs etc. if i recall correctly MS were charging $2 for a pot of tea.
    Absolutely nothing wrong with the place, it just seemed expensive by comparison with other places we have stayed in Ecuador.

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    DOWN TO THE COAST

    Having heard tell of $3 lobsters we felt it was about time to explore the coastal area so we set off on a marathon bus trip from the lovely city of Riobamba to Puerto Lopez, which, apart from cheap seafood, is famed as the pilace for whale watching and the jumping of point for Isla del Plata aka - "the poor mans Galapagos".

    Riobamba has a new bus station and we find a bus to Guayaquil straight away. Thankfully it is a relatively modern bus with decent sized seats for the 4 hour journey. As usual, the bus picks up more and more passengers as we moved out of the city. A new one on us is that after about 15 mins the driver stops at a bakery to eat his breakfast!! Oh well, it is only 7.30am and I suppose the poor guy needs his sustenance. It only adds another 30 mins onto our journey so I don't suppose we should complain ( not that it would have the slightest effect!)

    After a long journey through some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen so far, as we wind our way down through the Andes towards the coast, we eventually reach Guayaquil, the largest city in and economic powerhouse of, Ecuador. A brief stop for lunch in the food court and we buy tickets for the next 5 hour leg to Puerto Lopez, this time in the oldest, most decrepit bus we have encountered to date. The scenery becomes much less interesting, mostly fruit and vegetable plantations and more bananas than I have ever seen (or want too see again), in my life. As we approach the coast it becomes grey, very grey and the mist rolls in from the sea.

    As we roll in to Puerto Lopez, first impressions are not great. Even charitably it could only be described as ramshackle, with half finished buildings and mostly dirt roads for streets. Even though we are on the equator, it is cool and damp and very, very grey. Apparently the weather stays like this from May to November not great if you have SAD syndrome, but I a sure it looks much better in the high season when the sun comes out.
    We check quickly into our Hostal, whose first impressions mirror those of the town itself and go off in search of a beer and some food.

    We order a couple of beers at a likely looking place called Spondylus. After seeing some of the giant prawns someone else has ordered we try to order some food. No chance! The waiter tells us they have a group booking and won't be serving food to us. We try to order more beer, and no, they need our table straight away! After making the dregs of our beer last as long as we can and watching them place reserved signs all around us we move on to another place. I doubt we will return anytime soon.

    The next day we shop around for boat trips to Isla del Plata ( so named because all the bird crap makes the island look silver from a distance). All the tours start off at the same price and end up after negotiation at $35. All said they had 8 people booked on their tours and all that we saw had at least 16!

    The food around the town is obviously heavy on fish and, fresh though it is, it is not as cheap as one might think, at least in the beach front restaurants. Restaurant prices here were higher than elsewhere in Ecuador. That said, we did eat some great meals, notable the best seafood pizza ever at Casa Vecchia on the Malecon (beachfront). Unsurprising really as the owner was Italian. The best meal we ate however was in a roadside stall just outside of the market. The best fish soup ever, (including bouillabaisse in the south of France) followed by fried bonito, with rice, plantain and veggies all for $2.50!

    We arrive bright and early, too early as we forget about "Ecuadorian time"! So head off for breakfast to wait for the boat. We leave about 30 mins late and join our boat which is a veritable United Nations, Argentines, Ecuadorians, Germans, Swedes etc. and set off for Isla del Plata about one hour away. It is still dull, grey and quite cold so not the greatest sea journey we have ever experienced. We are just in sight of the island when the engine breaks down, thankfully down wind from the bloating rotting carcass of a huge sea lion we passed a few minutes earlier! After some banging with a spanner the engine is persuaded to restart and we reach the island. Just as we dock, we are surrounded first by pelicans in search of fish and then by a group of turtles who spend ages investigating the boat no doubt hoping for some tidbits over the side.

    After landing the 16 of us set off into the interior of the island along a number of trails. Everyone elects to go on the longest "red" trail in search of blue footed boobies. The trail takes us up to the centre of the island and a round by the cliffs. These weird looking birds are everywhere. Not usually interested in birds, but it was fascinating to watch the interaction as they prepare to engage a mate. The other main type of bird here which seemed to hang out near the cliffs were the Red Breasted Frigate birds. The males have bright red breasts which puff up dramatically when they try to attract a female ( some traits just seem to transcend the species!).

    The walk lasts about 2.5 hours and the guide, having warned us at outset that we need to keep up a brisk pace and he is certainly true to his word as it is, a times, more like a forced march around the island.

    Back at the starting point, we re board the boat and head to a cove for lunch and the next activity of snorkelling. We are both keen divers but are used to tropical waters. Here it is more like England in the spring i.e. bloody cold! We forego the opportunity but others partake. Some stay in quite a while. Most do not. The Argentinian guy hold the record of about 30 seconds. The guide tries to persuade us that he can see a Manta Ray but, convinced he is bluffing we ignore him.

    With everyone back aboard the crewman gets out his fishing line and promptly catches 5 large Bonito in as many minutes ( one for each crew). That done we head off back to port in search of whales along the way. The weather closes in a bit, we get some rain and rougher seas and don't hold out much hope of whale spotting as the season has barely begun. Halfway back, the skipper cuts the engine and, sure enough, we spot a couple of pods of humpback whales, about 4 in each pod. They come within 50 metre of the boat which is plenty close enough to see how huge these animals are. Hard to imagine why there are still nations that insist on hunting these magnificent creatures when there is absolutely no necessity to do so.

    We head back to port after a very long and very grey day but it has definitely been worth it as far as the day is concerned but I can't say were were sorry to be leaving PL as it is not the most attractive town in Ecuador. Nor was the Hostal where we stayed Yemaya. It was very noisy, despite being almost empty ( the staff made all the noise). Worst of all, we woke up on our last morning covered in ant bites as the room had been invaded overnight. Yuk!

    Keen to get back into the mountains, we catch a bus along the coast to the major resort of Salinas, Ecuador's answer to Monte Carlo. We had planned to stay at some of the small villages along the way, but the weather just persuades to head on back to the Andes.

    Salinas is the upmarket beach resort in Ecuador and is where the wealthy Ecuadorians have there beach homes. It is also a favourite with North Americans in the summer months. It is winter now and therefore comparatively quiet. We have nowhere to stay so we wander around the streets to check out a few places. The first two hostels are a bit grim and not especially cheap an then a hotel tout hands us a card for a nice looking hotel so we go and have a look. It is very nice and modern, has a swimming pool and is clearly expensive but after some, not too strenuous negotiation, we get a very nice room for a third of what they initially asked and stay for three nights.

    Whilst here we explore the town, its beach, and very expensive yacht club and pass some property agents so we spend a day looking at few properties. Even though this is one of the most expensive places in Ecuador, it is still very cheap by UK standards. We look a couple of great places. One is a penthouse apartment on the Malecon which is brand new and has fantastic views along the coast to he yacht club and beyond and another is right on the beach and reminds us of Charlie Sheens place in "Two and a Half Men" all very tempting but I am not sure we could cope with the 5 months of grey skies each year.

    The food here is good, if somewhat expensive for Ecuador. There is a place towards the end of the Beach called "cevechelanderia" which is a whole block of cevecherias clearly aimed at the high season tourist market and triple the price of anywhere else and, by all accounts, not that great. There must be 40 restaurants here, all empty and walking along we encounter dozens of waiters all beseech inn us to eat with them as we are the only potential customers in sight. We move on and find a small place close to the hotel and try out their almeruezo ( set lunch) for $2.50 which is very good. we also try and a couple of places on the sea front which may have better surroundings but the increased prices are not reflected in increased quality. One place where we did succumb to a taste of home was "Big Ralph's " a fish and chip shop run by an English expat which was fantastic, serving the best fish and chips in a long, long time in absolutely enormous portions.

    Salinas was a pleasant enough place and Puerto Lopez was a nice experience for a few days but we doubt that we will be hurrying back to this part of the coast anytime soon. To be fair, we may have had a more favourable impression under blue skies and sunshine, but we did know that it was going to be damp and grey this time of year. We failed in our search for the $3 lobster but did find live king crabs on sale in the road, but for $55!

    Back to the highlands and to Cuenca. Another long bus journey!

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    For some reason, I didn't see this until this evening. Very interesting to read. We had thought about going to Puerto Lopez when we visit Ecuador in February, but with only 18 days, we've decided to spend our time in the interior.

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    Glad to hear you're still going strong.

    Based on your report I think I'll hold out for the real Galapagos - friends of mine cut the price by waiting until they got to Quito and negotiating there.

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    Susan, I think that is a good decision. I am sure PL will be a lot better in Feb when the weather will be nicer but it is a long way from the highlands. There is so much to see in the mountains that I think you will find it difficult to leave!

    Thursdaysd, I would definitely hold out for the Galapagos and wait until Quito to book. We saw some terrific offers just walking around the Mariscal tour operators. All had plenty of deals at quite substantial discounts if you could leave in a couple of days , though the airrfares will stay high I imagine. The amazon trips also seemed a bargain, much cheaper than Peru or even Bolivia.

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    CUENCA

    We had heard so much about Cuenca before coming to South America we wondered if it would all be a bit of an anticlimax. It wasn't! It is a beautiful city and very different from other big cities in Ecuador. The Centro Historico area where we are staying was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status a few years ago and was quickly followed by being nominated as the best city to retire to by International Living magazine. Which I am sure is why their are so many North American expats living here. The streets are clean and safe, the buildings are well maintained and it is very evident that the city council take a great pride in improving the city and its environment. It is altogether more relaxed than many South American cities and we instantly feel very at home here.

    After a very long, hot journey from the coast we were looking forward to a good nights sleep which sadly, was not to be. I had not chosen our our accommodation well. Hostal Hogar Cuencano was in a good location but that was all. We had asked for two things when booking, a quiet room and good wifi. The wifi was didn't work and as soon as we tried to sleep, the noise started and didn't stop until 4.00am, mainly drunk backpackers coming back from a concert in the city who either forgot their keys or, more likely, were too drunk to get their key in the door. The manager, who was in the room next door to us went into the kitchen every 30 mins or so to get another beer. Every time he did, he switched on the light which lit up our room like a football stadium as our one and only window was internal, straight into the kitchen. When I complained to the manager who happened to be in the room next door to us he really was not interested and simply said "it is a Hostal, what can I do?" I could have told him but decided not to waste my breath. Having resolved not to lose my temper on this holiday, we just decided to cut our losses and checked out first thing. We moved just across the street to a very nice place called La Casa Cuencana. The owner Marta welcomed us like long lost friends and gave us a really nice, very spacious (and quiet!) room with access to a kitchen and we stayed longer than we had planned. Why can't all places be like this?


    It is rare that we ever go on organised tours but after visiting the Officina Turistico we jumped on an open topped bus for a tour of the city, just to get our bearings and to see a few of the main sights. At just $5 it is good value and we got a good idea of where we would explore over the coming days.

    Cuenca, although the 3rd largest city in Ecuador only has a population of 0.5 million and is relatively compact and the centre is easily seen on foot. We spent many hours and walked many miles exploring the place which served only to reinforce our initial positive impressions.

    Food, if anything, is even more varied and less expensive than other places in Ecuador. Jus around the corner from us is a Cuenca institution, Moliendos, a Columbian restaurant. It is small and its clientele is a mixture of locals and travellers and it is always packed. The speciality of the house is "Arepas" a thick flatbread made of ground corn dough which is then piled high with meat, chicken, vegetables beans or just about anything you can think of. We each went for different toppings, both were simply delicious and immediately made us regret not going into Columbia when we were in the north! Maybe another time? The food was so good here we returned time and again and the owner and his wife began to welcome us like old friend. They have a brass bell in the middle of the room and a sign asking customers to ring it when they have enjoyed their food. it gets a lot of use!!

    Elsewhere around town we just wander admiring the Spanish colonial architecture, some restored other buildings still in the process. What is nice is the way the buildings have been incorporated into daily use without losing their charm.

    The central market was an entertaining place to visit with huge variety of fruit piled high, choosing our breakfast fruit was always difficult because it was all so good. The meat and poultry were also very good and probably a fifth of the price we would pay back home. Also a great place to eat, very tasty food, notably the ubiquitous roast pork and the encebollado or fish soup is so good!

    After a few days we stumble across a property agents office and after a brief chat, the main man Jhon, shows us a variety of houses and apartments over a couple of afternoon. Some good, some not so much but this is certainly on the list of places we would consider living and it has provided us with a good idea of prices and the sort of place we may like. We also have a look in a number of brand new apartment blocks, some still in the process of being built. One involves us climbing 13 floors to the penthouse to see the view ( spectacular) because the elevators have not yet been installed. Not great at this altitude and, not being overly fond of heights, I really wish they had finished building the walls on the balcony!

    We like Cuenca a lot, whether it is a place for us remains to be seen, but we can certainly see why so many expats have made it their home.

    Anyway, enough for now as I will get back to watching the Rolling Stones live at Glastonbury. Still the greatest rock and roll band in the world!

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    Interested to get your take on Cuenca, as I have been reading International Living again, and it is still high on their list. (But I am really thinking Europe - even UK! - not SA, for settling next.)

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    Thursdaysd, back to the UK!! You must be homesick. After 6 months of living in Spain we came t appreciate how expensive the UK had become. Spain was nice but its possible exit from the Euro is a concern. Cuenca was the sort of place where we felt instantly at home. The downside is that it has already been "discovered" and already has an abundance of expats bringing with them and increase in property prices and other accompanying problems like a gring ghetto opinion part of the city where few Ecuadorians now live.

    You should come smeagol, it would provide a nice contrast to SEA.

    Thanks, live42day, I am sure you will have a great time here.

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    It was hard to leave Cuenca, it is such a laid back, easy sort of city to spend more than a few days in and we could easily have spent a lot more time there. No doubt we will return at some point.

    We are now approaching the end of our time in Ecuador and so, staying in the Andes we head on down to the far south of the country where we will cross the border into Peru avoiding the somewhat hectic and main border crossing at the coast. Apparently this crossing is not without its problems as the roads are very basic and frequently get washed out etc. so it is not always straightforward, but we will give it a go.

    The only other alternative crossing is via the Amazon which involves a week long journey on a basic cargo ship down the river. Having spoken to a few people who have taken this route it seemed a step too far. Sleeping three high in hammocks on deck, surrounded by livestock and sweaty Peruvian sailors maybe somebody's idea of a good time but it is not mine and, I am pretty sure, is not Carolyn's!

    Instead we set out on another long bus journey from Cuenca to Loja, a decent sized town and the gateway to the south of the country. It is quite remote from the rest of the country and, apparently once declared independence but is now firmly part of Ecuador. We stop only briefly just to buy a ticket in the station before running ( literally) to jump on the bus to Vilcabamba our home for the next few days.

    Vilcabamba is set in a "magical" valley and is famous for its long living residents. Scientists have apparently studied this phenomenon an found that there is no basis in fact for these assertions but that the 70 and 80 year olds here do seem to enjoy better health and are more "sprightly"! Perhaps the herbal Viagra the bus vendors were selling so well on the way here has something to do with it.

    What we do notice here is not the long living residents but the abundance of gringo hippies in the town, both new age and sexagenarians and septuagenarians apparently still hankering after their sixties heydays of peace and free love. I have lost count of the number of balding men with long grey ponytails or pigtails which seem de rigueur here and I am half expecting The Grateful Dead to put on a reunion concert here in the town! On arrival at the hostal I immediately change out of my retro tee shirt with "Woodstock" and psychedelic logos emblazoned across the chest lest I get mistaken for one. My hippie days are long gone!

    On arrival a the bus station we jump in a camionetta, a sort of communal taxi which is in fact, a pick up truck and head up to the valley and Hostal Izhcayluma
    http://www.izhcayluma.com/ which will be our home for the next few days. More expensive than our norm, but a nice treat for our last few days in the country and by far, the nicest place we have stayed so far. As I sit here on the terrace writing this I am watching the sunrise over the mountains across the valley right in front of me. The birds are singing and the butterflies are starting to come out. The peace and tranquility is broken only by cocks crowing and donkeys braying but even that is seems quite musical in its own way. I can quite see why the hippies have migrated here.

    The town may have a hippie vibe, as indeed does the hostal, but it is owned by a couple of German guys who run the place with typical Germanic efficiency and, unusually for Ecuador, everything works, Good wifi, hot water and given the somewhat remote location, reasonably priced and pretty good food.

    The Hostal sells itself on its hiking so we try out the easiest one as a taster. It should take us in a loop around the valley to a village called Chaupi and last for around 3.5 hours. We manage to get lost as we are still walking and only halfway after 4 hours. So we concede defeat and hitch a ride back to town. The walk that we do make however is really nice taking us along narrow pathways along the sides of the valley where our only company are the occasional groups of cows ( and a few bulls) which block the path. We see lots of different birds along the way but the only ones we can identify are the mocking birds which have been pointed out to us previously. Most impressive of all though are the thousands of butterflies we see of all shapes and sizes. Some smaller than a little fingernail, some several inches across. All in a variety of beautiful colours. Even though we got lost we have had a great day.

    We have been lucky with the weather to date so we can't complain when on Sunday it starts to rain. We decide to walk down the hill into the town and have Sunday lunch at one of the many restaurants around the Plaza. It was a tourist orientated place and really not that good for the price. Not the first time we have found this to be the case so we resolve to stick to local places in future where we always seem to find great food.

    We did toy with the idea of taking a horse ride into the forest for which this area is famed but the weather put paid to that and we will leave that for another place. Instead we get a lift in a pick up truck to the refuge in Podocarpus National Park a few mile away and take a hike around the park. The drive there is, once again through spectacular scenery which never ceases to amaze us. Once at the park we check in with the ranger who explains the various hiking options to us. It was hot when we left the Hostal and, foolishly, we didn't appreciate the increase in altitude so we were totally unprepared for the fact that it was now drizzling and cold and, as the ranger pointed out to us, we were dressed in tee shirts!

    The drizzle didn't last for long and once we got walking we were warm enough, almost! The trail we chose was relatively short, about 3 hours, but very, very steep in places. The trail is very well marked and leads us up through the Podocarpus (Ecuador's only native conifer) cloud forest into high páramo. Apparently, there is a huge variety of bird life and animals in the park but we see few birds as we are not nearly early enough and the animals are nowhere to be seen. We have the place to ourselves, or so we thought until we bump into the guy from the room next door to us at the Hostal, accompanied by his guide.

    As we head on up the trail the route gets steadily steeper, and a lot, lot muddier. Keeping our footing is extremely difficult but we manage to stay upright by hanging on to vines, roots, branches or anything else within reach. Despite all this we stop to admire the views and the vegetation which changes constantly as we ascend. Looking closely, we see many different lichens, mosses, ferns and thousands of orchids. Just walking 10 metres, we could fill a garden centre back home with plants that would be incredibly expensive there.

    Eventually the cloud forest thins out into rocky páramo as we reach the mirador at the peak to briefly admire the views to Loja in the distance and we immediately think of Rob and Sue, Carolyn's Aunt and Uncle in Wales who have a holiday home in Trabuco, close to another Loja in Andalucia where we spent a few months earlier this year.

    After just a few minutes on the peak, the winds starts to blow very strongly and the clouds start rolling in very quickly. No relishing a mudslide all the way back down we head off down the trail back to the refuge to await a pick truck to take us back to Vilcabamba. Whilst sitting on the steps we meet an inquisitive Andean Fox who kindly poses for a few photos.

    Exhausted once again, we jump into the pick up and head back to the hostal for probably our last night before heading to the border and into Peru.

    P.S. After some searching for information regarding the claims to longevity in the valley we discover that after many years of research by many professors from universities from far and wide, it turns out that it is not the water, not the climate but simply that the people had been lying about the ages to the many researchers that have investigated the claims!!

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    I see from your blog you are in Loja. Looking forward to the details of your border crossing.

    Hopefully you will soon be giving some reports from the Chachapoyas-Leymabamba area.

    I don't think I ever wrote up a trip report from Chachas but really enjoyed it. Some of my reviews are on TA.

    Great hikes around there, Gocta falls, Revash. I would like to go back even though I spent nearly a week there.

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    Mlgb, now in Jaen, Peru having survived the border crossing. Details herewith,



    Having read about the "less used" overland crossing from Ecuador to Peru via the grandly named " international bridge" al La Balsa highlands we knew it wouldn't be straightforward. Our objective was to leave Hostal Izhcayluma in Vilcabamba and to wait for the bus which would take us to our first stop at Zumba at 9.00am. We had no trouble waking up in time as the owners decided to have a party for all their friends to celebrate one of their birthdays. The entertainment was a rock band which finally finished playing at 5.30 am. I wouldn't have minded so much if they had been any good but they weren't, making up for their lack of skill with extra volume!

    We waited and waited for the bus which didn't come so we walked the 2kms into the village toward the bus station. Just as we got there the bus pulled in ( at 10.30) so we had to sprint the last few yards and even so we still didn't get seats and had to stand. We prayed that someone would get off but no one moved for the first hour until at last the bus guy told us to get ready for when the bus stopped as the people at the front were getting off. We quickly jumped into their seats before the new passengers got on, thankful that we did not have to stand for the next 6 hours.

    We soon found out route is "less used" for good reason as the nice Tarmac road quickly ran out as we ascended into the mountains. The compensation however was more spectacular scenery, unblemished apart from the monster gold mine along the way. Tarmac gave way to rock and compacted earth which in turn gave way to thick mud as streams ran across, along, over and underneath the road. All the way road crews were busy clearing landslides and on a couple of occasions, the earth was still sliding down the mountainside. It seems that the road is just dug out of the earth along he side of the mountain and every time it rains, parts just get washed away. We had been warned a couple of days previously not to attempt it if it rained too much as the buses just wouldn't get through. Fortunately we did but not before some pretty scary moments as the wheels of the bus were right on the crumbling edge of the road alongside a precipitous drop into the valleys below.

    At first I was appreciative of the seats at the front where I was almost alongside the driver and had a great view to the front, but after a few hours of watching the intense concentration on his face in the mirror, I had the greatest admiration for his driving abilities and stamina. I was more concerned however with the frequent expressions of abject terror which crossed his face at frequent intervals. At one point the driver had to jam on his brakes to avoid two donkeys wandering in the road. Half a mile further on, with the windows open we start to notice an appalling smell. A few yards further on the driver jams on his brakes again to avoid a donkey, this one in the middle of the road, dead and half rotted! At least he didn't have to get out an move it!

    After more ups, downs, sharp bends and crossings of streams and rivers than I care to recall ( but no more donkeys), we eventually rolled into Zumba, a one horse town if ever there was one. We had planned to spend the night here but really don't relish the thought. It is now 4.30 and the next bus to the border is at 5.30 and it get dark at 6.30 so we rent a camionetta ( share taxi). Once we two gringos make the decision, the locals decide to take advantage and jump in, clearly pay a lot less than we do. Not happy, but there is little we can do as we just want to get moving. Again, wonderful scenery and this time, no donkeys. Although the driver does manage to obliterate a chicken en route and seems to find it hilarious?

    An hour and a half later we arrive at the international bridge having gone through a military checkpoint along the way. We now need to find the Ecuadorian immigration guy who is not in his office. After searching for a while, he eventually saunters back to process our papers. We then walk up to the bridge and duck under the pole blocking the road. It is a bit like one of those old spy movies where the hero escapes from East Berlin. Fortunately, no searchlights come on and no machine guns are in evidence. Once on the Peruvian side of the bridge we now have to search out their immigration office. You would think that toeing a border, they would have clear signs, but no, people just point o a row of nondescript huts and there we find the most miserable immigration official I have ever met ( and there have been a few!). Clearly having a bad day she takes ages to do her stuff with our passports etc. all the time it is getting darker and we really wan to get out of this place soon. We think were are done then she tells us we must take our passports to the police station across the road for stamping. Of course that policemen has gone walkabout too. The office is open so we have a look in and all we can see is the iron barred door to the cells. Not a particularly welcome sight on arrival in a new country!

    I search around and find him chatting to his mates in another building and ask him to come back to stamp our papers which he does and welcomes us to Peru. We then have to go back to the miserable woman in immigration who is busy chatting on her cellphone. It is very tempting to interrupt but many years of travelling has taught me not to p*** these people off.

    Passports, duly stamped, we now need to exchange some cash and haggle with a taxi driver to take us on the next 2 hour jaunt through the mountains, in the dark to San Ignacio where we will spend the night. After long and protracted negotiations in Spanish where teh price changes up and down at least a dozen times, we settle a deal. Fifteen minutes into the journey the driver takes a detour into the back streets of a village and starts to ask us for the cash up front. All very concerning given the circumstances of where we are etc., but we just feign ignorance and pretend we do not understand what he is saying and he eventually gives up and we continue on our way.

    Driving in the dark on narrow mountain roads is no fun and, in hindsight is not the cleverest thing we have done and we resolve to try and get to places before dark if at all possible in future.

    We arrive in San Ignacio at 8.00, tired and hungry, not having eaten since breakfast. We check into Hostal La Posada and go off in search of a pollo asado.

    to be continued..

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    Wow! And July is not supposed to be the rainy season.

    I am not a fan of night-time buses after my Bolivian bus ride from hell back in 2011.

    If you decide to head to Cajamarca from Chachapoyas that road is supposed to be particularly dicey in any kind of wet.

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    I laughed when I read your report of Vilcabamba. When I read about it earlier, it sounded like an appealing place to visit, with, as my husband says, the opportunity to see hippies in their natural habitat. (Given that he's well into his 60's and is bald, I can only assume that he's envious of those who can still grow ponytails!) Anyway, we are definitely planning to spend a few days in Cuenca, as both of us are interested in finding a place where we might want to spend a few months in the winter. I don't want to leave Toronto for good, but I would love to spend winters somewhere else. Who knows, maybe we'll get to Vilcabamba on a future trip.

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    Crellston I'm expecting photos from your stay around Chachapoyas. If you have not gone to Kuelap, the guide Agosto at Hostal Revash is good (although the rest of Hostal Revash is pretty rubbish, hope you are not staying there!) If you see Agosto in the lobby (wearing his signature scarf) ask him if there is anywhere good to get cuy.

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    Mlgb - photos are almost loaded up. Wifi is hopeless in Peru ( probably worse in Bolivia though) . This is a first for me posting on Fodors as we drive through the desert in a Peruvian bus. Bizarrely, this is the best wifi we have had here!
    BTW my wife is eternally grateful for the recommendation of the coffee place in Chachapoyas - the only decent cup she has had since we arrived in South America!

    The next installment:

    Having spent few Nuevo Soles we managed to exchange on the pollo asado last night, my first task was to find an ATM or money exchange to get the bus fare for the next stage of the trip to Chachapoyas. We wanted to start early as there is still another 8 hours of hard travelling ahead of us before we would reach there. Unfortunately, after searching for an ATM for ages, it doesn't take my card so the only other option is to exchange US$ at a cambio. These don't open for another hour or so but eventually we find one in an agricultural feed shop of all places. He doesn't have enough Soles to exchange $100 so we have to walk to his warehouse around the corner where he has his main stash. We do a deal, carefully checking the notes as forgeries are rife in Peru, then, cash safely in wallet, we then head to the collectivo station about 1 km away where we wait another hour for the guy to fill up his mini bus for the trip to the agricultural centre of Jaen.
    l
    The drive there is not a great experience. The road is falling to bits for most of the way and we have to stop frequently for road crews to finish repairing parts. The road is rough and mostly dirt track added to which our driver is a complete lunatic who seems to prefer driving in the wrong side of the road at ever opportunity. Despite the bus being full, we still stop to pick up extra passenger and i begin to wonder why every one of them seems to want to rest part of their body on part of mine! Peruvian people it seems have no concept of personal space. We eventually arrive in Jaen at yet another ramshackle bus station where jump into yet another mototaxi in search of a hotel as we really do not relish the thought of more cramped buses today.

    We find a pleasant enough place to spend the night and next day we get a mototaxi to the collectivo station to wait for the minibus to fill up and leave for the next stop of Bagua Grande. It take 1.5 hours to fill the bus and we climb into very small seats in the back and we are on our way. Thankfully the roads are better on this stretch. On arrival we are immediately accosted by a tout who takes us across the road to an adobe built courtyard where we wait again for another collectivo to get enough passengers to leave which is does another hour or so later. Fortunately for us this is a bigger, more comfortable bus and we have spare seats and the luxury of not having our packs on our laps. We travel along better roads, even with Tarmac for some of the way and eventually arriving in the mid-afternoon. I leave Carolyn in the Plaza with the luggage and go off in search of a hotel for the next few days.

    Hotel found, bags dumped, we trawl around the many tour offices around the main plaza. The tours out of Hostal Revash seem ok but the owner seemed very pushy which is a big turn off for me so we tried a few others and then settled on Jose from Chachapoyas Backpackers who is a really nice guy and displays a huge amount of knowledge of the Chachapoyas area, culture and people, being Chachapoyas himself, he was actively involved in the archaeological projects at Kuelap. His enthusiasm, knowledge and pride in his culture is infectious.

    Next morning we set off for the Chachapoyas citadel of Kuelap, high on a mountain top about 2.5 hours drive from town. Along the way we stop and wait for an Australian / Canadian couple who missed the bus bit we are soon on our way, 4 gringos and 16 Peruvians. The guide Victor did very well to switch constantly from Spanish to English throughout the day. All the Peruvians on the bus are very quiet and barely say two words to each other, let alone us. For us, meeting the Aussie and Canadian couple was a stroke of good fortune as they had just spent several month travelling from places we were headed to and vice versa. We were able to exchange lots of tips on what to do and not to do, places to stay etc. sometimes half the joy of travelling this way is as much the people you meet along the way as the places you visit.

    Once again it is a long drive along steep, winding and dusty roads into the mountains. Once again the landscape is spectacular. Our guide provides a commentary on the background to the history of the Chachapoyas people and the mystery surrounding exactly what happened to these people.

    We arrive at the entrance to Kuelap and then have to walk for a further 20 mins up to the entrance to the fortress. To say that this place is impressive is an understatement. Maybe not as majestic as Macchu Picchu, or as dramatic as Pisac but, largely unrestored, it is arguable more impressive in its own way than both of these more famous sites.

    Chachapoyas architecture is very different from that of the Inca. The stones are much smaller and they used a form of cement to fix the stonework, unlike the Inca who built without any form of mortar. Most noticeable of all is that all the houses are circular with and have no windows.

    We enter the fortress through the "llamas" entrance which is quite wide to start with but as we ascend the steep steps, it gets narrower until is is only one person wide. Apparently this was a defensive measure so that the occupants could pick off any attackers one by one with their slingshots!

    Once inside the citadel we are treated to panoramic views of the surrounding countryside including the road winding through he mountains along which we have just driven. Our guide then shows us around the site explaining what they believe each part to have been. Although, as we would later find out, archaeologists are still not really certain as to what happened here to wipe out these people. Theories range from internal strife between two of the most powerful families (exploited by the Spanish colonists to make their job easier), epidemics of smallpox and other diseases (again introduced by the Spanish), to an Inca invasion.

    Whatever did happen, our guide Victor, brought it all to life with his vivid, if sometimes OTT explanations. Listening to our guide and others around Chachapoyas, one can't help wondering that if these people had spent less time worshipping their gods, making human sacrifices etc.. And more time getting on with life, they may well have lasted a lot longer.

    The other mystery lost in the mists of time is the exact purpose of this fortress/town/palace/place of religious worship.

    As we explore this place atop the mountain admiring the, largely unrestored stonework, it is very easy to imagine the life people here probably led, whatever its purpose may have been. Much of the place is still over grown but the authorities seem to have got the balance about right in terms of not over restoring to the extent of similar places such as Macchu Picchu and Angkor etc. impressive though those places undoubtedly are, they are in danger of becoming like a theme parks with way to many visitors to enable the sites to be really properly maintained ( IMHO). I much preferred this place to Macchu Picchu as it is relatively unspoiled, unsurprisingly perhaps given the remote location, lack of an airport and the dire roads one needs to travel to get here.

    We spend a 2 or 3 hours wandering the ruins during which time our guide points out various places where human remains have been found notably the circular burial chamber at the very top of the mountain. It is a hugely impressive place and we feel privileged to have been able to come here and feel it was definitely worth the three days of bus hell to get here.

    On our way back, it starts to rain and doesn't stop all the way back and all night. The next day we spend deciding what to do next. We did plan to do some hiking to the Gocta Cascades, the third highest waterfall in the world and to the mountain top sarcophagi, but the weather is a bit of a gamble so we decide not to wait for the weather to clear and head on down to Trujillo on the coast in search of sun and ceviche. Once we have bought our tickets for the overnight bus we head back to meet with Jose who had promised to show us a National Geographic film of the archaeological works carried out at Kuelap a couple of years ago. We stay and chat with him for a couple of hours and he share his knowledge of his people's history and culture.

    It seems that whilst archaeologists have found out a great deal about the site, they appear to be no closer to determining its real purpose or what happened to its people. The bodies of men and children found there appear to have been the victims of violence, either war or sacrifice. The Chachapoyas and the Inca both used peculiarly shaped clubs which matched holes found the skull which seemed to indicate the cause of death.

    A fascinating guy whom we could easily spend a lot more time talking with but we have a bus to catch. If ever you get a chance to visit the area, go and find Jose, he is well worth talking to.

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    Glad you thought it was worth the hassle of that crossing! I'm still a bit surprised you are having so much rain. We had a pattern of dry mornings and the rain building in the afternoon due to the topography.

    The frieze of a diamond pattern was told to us to be of feline eyes. The other common pattern of snake eyes.

    https://picasaweb.google.com/kiwifann/Chachapoyas#5838938721910959650

    Glad you got to enjoy good coffee. Peru produces some of the best but much of it is exported. It took me a few days to find that place. I was surprised to see that fancy espresso machine.

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    Several people we spoke to coming down from southern Ecuador into Peru mentioned that the weather was unusual for the time of year ( whether better or worse than normal). I don't think that the weather was especially bad around Chachapoyas, it was just rained about 50% of the time we were there, although we did get some sunshine. I guess we just wimped out not wanting to hike in the rain as we will have plenty more opportunities for hiking as we move on.

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    I see you are headed to or in the city of Lima. I hope you have a few days to explore one of my favorite cities. There are some hostels in Barranco, a nice low key district.

    I posted a report of some rec's a few years ago. Unfortunately the churro place downtown has moved on.

    http://www.fodors.com/community/south-america/some-recent-recommendations-for-lima-peru.cfm

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    Having secured seats on the Movil bus out of Chachapoyas we boarded at 7.00pm to enjoy our first "luxury" overnight bus trip since Argentina, 5 years previously. Not quite to the standards of Argentina but light years away from the buses we had endured to get to Chachapoyas. This time we had wide seats which reclined to 140 degrees, food and a very comfortable ride. After dinner we settled down to watch Jeremy Clarkson on a Top Gear Special travelling around Africa and couldn't help wondering how much easier it would have been if BBC production team had organised our travel from Ecuador into Peru!

    It was a fairly uneventful trip as we drove over the high Andes pass where we did notice the increase in altitude even though it was completely dark. We continued on over the Andes and down towards the coast passing through the town of Chiclayo at 4.30am when Carolyn noticed that the streets were full of people all out enjoying themselves queuing at street stalls and outside clubs as though it were midday. Unusually for me, I was asleep throughout all this. Later, as dawn breaks we find ourselves driving along the road through the coastal desert which looks a bit grim to put it mildly as it is shrouded in mist as it always is at this time of year.We eventually rolled into Trujillo at around 9.00a.m. jumped into a cab and went in search of somewhere to stay.

    We ended up at Hostal Colonial, close to the Plaza de Armas in the centre of the historical district. It took us about half an hour to go through the usual ritual of selecting a room, negotiating a price before noticing that all power to the city had been shut down, apparently for the power station's annual spring clean - only in South America! Rather than hang around in a darkened Hostal, we decided to take a tour out to some of the ruins outside of the city and after another period of haggling, we agreed a price with the hostal's travel guy, to spend the day visiting Huaca del Sol y La Luna (The Temple of the Sun And The Moon) and the famous Chan Chan ruins.

    We set off in a minibus, once again mostly populated by Peruvians as there don't seem o be many gringos around in the city, to Huaca del Sol y La Luna. These are the are adobe brick temples built by the Moche civilisation in the coastal desert a few kilometres outside of Trujillo. The constant mist makes it all look very grey from a distance but once we get up close it is very impressive, particularly the sheer size of the main temples which are built of just adobe bricks and have been covered by the desert for centuries.

    Our guide has been showing people around these sites for some 20 years and has lost none of her enthusiasm for the place. She is extremely knowledgeable and speaks excellent English and greatly enhances our experience of these sites ( which doesn't often happen).

    After spending a couple of hours learning all about the ruins, their proximity to she sacred mountain which, even now, no one is allowed to climb, we head back to the city for some lunch. Most of the restaurants are still dark but we find a small Italian place offering an inexpensive menú del dia and enjoy a great lunch.

    The second trip of the day involves driving out of the city to the north this time and stopping off first a the Chan Chan museum before carrying on to Chan Chan itself nicely situated on prime real estate right on the beach. I had read about this palace years ago and had long wanted to visit. It is the largest pre-Columbian city in South America and the largest adobe built city in the world. It really is a massive site with no less than ten palaces spread out over a huge area of some 20 km². Chan Chan was constructed by the Chimor a civilization which grew out of the remnants of the Moche civilization and was built around AD 850 and lasted until the Incas came along and sacked it in AD 1470.
    At its peak it consisted of approx. 60,000 people housed in nine cities ( or royal compounds) all of which contained a huge wealth of gold, most of which was stolen when the Spanish sacked the cities. Each city contained a massive funerary mound in which was found many ceramic funerary offerings, jewellery etc. as well as the remains of many, many young girls offered as sacrifices.

    Wandering around the site with our guide and two Canadians we gain a very good impression of what life may have been like for these people back in the day (probably not greats you were a young girl!) . We learn from our guide that once again it is a civilisation that seemingly focused upon religion, the afterlife and human sacrifice. Perhaps if they had concentrated more on the here and now, the Incas may not have found it so easy to come in an conquer them?

    It is incredible to think that this city was constructed entirely of mud bricks and has lasted for centuries. As we walk through the reconstructed ruins it leads us down to a square lagoon beyond which is the beach. This place is hugely impressive and we are so lad we came.

    To round off the day we drive out to the beach resort of Huanchaco and have a beer at a beachside bar and watch the surfers at sunset. A nice enough place for a beer but we are glad we decided to sty in downtown Trujillo. On the drive back into the city we pass by what must be the biggest ceviche place in South America. It is absolutely huge and must have at least 500 diners here eating ceviche even though it is traditionally a lunchtime dish. We return to the hotel where, thankfully, the power is on but not the hot water. The Spanish phrase "no hay aqua caliente" is one which should be embedded into the vocabulary of anyone visiting South America! Suitably cleansed, we head of in search of food and end up in Pollo Asado place for chicken, chips and a jug of Chicha Morada, a soft
    drink make by soaking purple corn and pineapple skins in water for a few days then adding lime juice, sugar, cinnamon and cloves. It looks like blackcurrant juice and tastes divine. So refreshing it has become our new fav soft drink.

    The rest of our time is spent wandering around the Centro Historico looking at the colonial architecture etc. quite frankly it is not the beautiful colonial city we had been led to believe by our research but a pleasant enough place nevertheless.

    Having spent enough time here we set off on a Linea daytime bus to the capital Lima again through a lot of desert but only a mere nine hours away.

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    It was another long trip from along the coast from Trujillo to the capital, Lima. The scenery was just desert, more desert with occasional glimpse of the Pacific Ocean when the fog cleared enough for us to see it. Winter is definitely not the time to visit this part of Peru, at least for the weather!

    We arrive in the Linea bus station in Lima at 9.00 pm, exactly on time ten hours after departure. A feat of punctuality matched only by Japanese railways in my experience. Bus stations after dark in Peru, or anywhere else, for that matter, are not the safest places so we had arranged for the Hostal to send a taxi to collect us. After 15 mins, still no taxi so we approached a friendly looking driver outside and jumped in his cab for the 30 min ride to our Hostal in Miraflores. We rang the bell and eventually a woman answered and when I told her we had a reservation she said she was full, clearly she did not like the look of me as, as soon as she saw Carolyn she was happy to let us in. Eventually the mix up was sorted and we went to our huge room ( a nice surprise), dumped our bags, went in search of food, couldn't find any and so settle for a couple of beers in a nearby Chinese restaurant.

    We weren't that keen on Lima when we stayed here 5 years ago but really couldn't recall why exactly, perhaps it was because it was our first time in South America and then it did have a bit of a bad reputation for safety etc. However, this time we love the city.

    Lima is renowned for its culinary scene with a number of world class restaurants like Astrid y Gaston which can hold their own with those in any city in the world. Miraflores, where we are staying has great restaurants all over the place so we are spoilt for choice.

    Ceviche, the national dish of raw fish marinated in lime juice, chilli and coriander is mostly served at lunchtimes anywhere from street stalls, to some of the most upmarket places in the city. The owner of the guesthouse recommends a number of places to us so we decide to take a walk along the ocean front to Punta al Sol which has great views from its three storeys. We are greeted by a doorman in a wide brimmed straw hat and go inside to be shown to a table on the 2nd floor. Almost immediately the doorman's hat lands on the roof by our table! A waiter climbs out to retrieve only to see it reappear minutes later. This is repeated throughout our lunch and each time the doorman is grinning from ear to ear at us. Maybe it is a show of appreciation from happy diners? We were certainly happy as two huge bowls of ceviche were placed in front of us. Certainly the best ceviche we have ever tasted!

    At SA Explorers Club in Lima, we ask the manager for his recommendations and immediately he points us to La Lucha, a sandwich stall on Parque xxxx. Actually a bit more than a sandwich stall as it does have tables inside and out. We arrive at around 8.00pm and the place is heaving with people and we have to queue. It only takes five minutes of so for us to be served and to find a table. This place is really buzzing and it is an entertainment in itself just to stand and watch the servers, waiters and chefs at work. We choose a hot roast beef and cheese (a Philly in the US?) and Lechon (suckling pig) with avocado accompanied by their signature fries, apparently made from a rare strain of Peruvian potatoes. Both are delicious and probably the best sandwiches we have ever had. So good, we do return to this place just to make sure..

    Bars seem hard to find in Peru so after La Lucha we walk past "The Old Pub" apparently and English style pub frequented by expats. Nothing like an English pub back home but it is full of expats, some probably English and some very sorry looking individuals looking like they have lost there way from a Bangkok girlie bar! Still the beer was good.

    Superlatives abound when describing food here but the best restaurant we have tried so far is Punta Azul on Calle San Martin, specialising in fish and seafood. Again we have to queue, this time for around 20 mins but it is so worth it. We ordered and are immediately told by the waiter that we have ordered to much. So we reduce our order to share a plate of scallops baked in Parmesan followed by grilled fish in wine and seafood sauce and fried fish stuffed with crab in a crab and seafood sauce. When the food is served we understand why the waiter cautioned us. We get a dozen decent sized scallops that are superb. Each main course could easily serve two. The seafood sauce alone, full of clams, prawns, squid etc. would have made a main course if just served with pasta. The fish itself was enormous and all for the price of a fish and chip takeaway back home. If visiting Lima, this places should be high on anyone's restaurant list.

    Lima is certainly a gourmets paradise and so inexpensive when compared with other capital cities around the world, particularly our own, London. Definitely worth spending a bit of time here if you are into food, whether it be fine dining or street stalls

    Apart from eating, we did actually get to see a bit of the city. Miraflores is the sort of place one can wander around for ages without actually doing much. The cafes and restaurants are always inviting and for shopaholics, it has some of the best shopping in South America and Carolyn even manages to tempt me into a few places which doesn't happen often!

    On our second day we jump on to the Metropolitana bus line to go into the centre of Lima to explore the buildings and streets of Centro Historico around the Plaza De Armas. The bus system is incredibly quick and efficient, largely due, I suppose to the fact that it has its own road system and so avoids Lima's notoriously awful traffic. The bus whizzes through the city streets, passing through the exclusive residential area of San Isidro past the, very impressive, national stadium which is pointed out to us by a fellow passenger who also points out a few other sights along the way. Not often you find your own tour guide on a bus in a strange city! He asks where we are going and when we say Plaza de Armas, he suggests we get off at the central bus station and walk the rest to so as not to miss the sights along the way. Taking his advice, we alight at the central station we appreciate how huge this place is and it is all underground! Very impressive.

    As we walk from the station to the Plaza we get to appreciate the colonial architecture in this part of town, particularly the ornate wooden balconies jutting from the upper floors. The lower floors are occupied by a wide variety of shops and restaurants, small and large. Certainly much more impressive than central Quito and , dare I say it, on a par with Buenos Aires, one of over favourite capital cities.

    Finally we arrive in the Plaza de Armas just at the end of the changing of the guard which takes me back to my daily commute in London where most days, I would walk through Green Park, across The Mall crossing in front of Buckingham Place on the way to the office. These guards are guarding not a monarch, but the presidential palace but are almost as impressive as we recognise the tune they are playing as El Condor Pasa. We can't get too close to the action as this is probably the only place in the world where soldiers are being protected by a cordon of armed police??

    Some museums we like others we do not. At 30 soles a head, Lima's prime museums are not cheap so we decide to give those a miss and instead wander some of the narrow streets behind the convents and museums surrounding the Plaza. We stumble across some inviting restaurants and bars that look as though they haven't changed since the 1930s. Unfortunately we had eaten previously at a not very good place close to the plaza. Maybe when we return at the end of this trip?

    As I said previously, we were not fans of Lima before. Now we very definitely are and are already looking forward to exploring further when we return before we fly back to London, later in the year. For now we need to sort out our onward travel to Cusco. We briefly looked at flying but at around $190-250 a head it was too expensive and, as we have the luxury of time, we buy a couple of bus tickets on Cruz del Sur for 190 soles each ($65 US) . The trip will take 21 hours but much of that is overnight so it shouldn't be too bad as we have "CruizerSuite" tickets which gives us more or less, lie flat beds and food and this is Peru's premier bus company. We will see..

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    Great reporting. Sometimes it's handy to have a nice wife/SO along for those grumpy señoras.

    Your perceptions about Lima from your first visit may have been correct. There has been a tremendous positive change in the last 5-6 years.

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    CUSCO

    We arrived at the Cruz del Sur bus station in plenty of time to catch our 15.30 bus to Cusco. The bus journey was fine, at least as fine as any 21 hour journey can be! Wide reclining seats, which in my case were a mixed blessing as the woman in front of me reclined her seat so far it was trapping my legs - not the best designed luxury bus in the world and not a patch on those in Argentina even if it is the best Peru has to offer. Still, can't complain as it is way, way cheaper than flying, especially when taking into account the saving in accomodation costs.

    The last few hours into Cusco really drag and we arrive mid afternoon and decide, that after sitting down for 20 odd hours, we will walk the 2kms up into town from the station.
    As we spent so much time here on our last trip it all seems very familiar. Despite being at sea level for a week or so, the altitude 3300m doesn't affect us too much, which is more than can be said the last time we were here when we flew in and I really did feel quite bad.

    After exiting the bus station to avoid the taxi touts offering rides at five times the going rate we decide to carry on and walk the 2 kms into the centre. Unfortunately, once again we get caught in unseasonably bad weather. It is supposed to be sunny and clear blue skies at this time of year but after a few minutes we get caught in a shower which quickly turns to a hailstorm. Welcome to Cusco!

    We arrive at our first choice of hostel which is booked solid, so I mind the bags whilst Carolyn goes off in search of another. She soon returns having secured both a nice room just around the corner and a 20% discount on the rate for one night. We only need a night as we are staying a The South America Explorers Clubhouse in San Blas for the next week.

    Bags deposited in our room, we head off out to reacquaint ourselves with one of South Americas most iconic cities. The historical centre of Lima is pretty much unchanged since we last visited 5 years ago except that even more of the Inca building have been converted into upmarket shops and restaurants and the numbers of tourists swarming around the narrow, cobbled street seems to have increased exponentially over the years. It is all very familiar and, having spent so much time here on our last trip, is a bit like coming home (except that prices for food and accommodation have more or less doubled!)

    The next day we transfer to the SA Explorers Clubhouse which is to be our home for the next week. We meet with Lina and Alex, the very nice Russian couple who manage the club as well as some other residents and volunteers. Austrian, North American, Mexican and Peruvian, they are all here. We also meet up again with Louis, the Belgian explorer whose lecture we attended in Quito. http://www.louis-philippe-loncke.com/ . This guy leads quite a life. Having trekked alone across the Australian desert, pulling a self designed all terrain trailer, he arrived in South America and walked alone across Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the largest salt flats in the world. When I say that we were doing the same trip by jeep, he simply says "too easy, walk". His next trip is to kayak around Lake Titicaca ( he has already kayaked from Bruges all the way to the north sea!)When asked what his biggest problem would be he replied " getting shot by either drug smugglers or the police" apparently each side would think he belonged to the other! A very nice guy but obviously completely mad!

    Miguel Jove RIP

    The last time we were in Cusco we went trekking in the Lares valley with Miguel and had one of the best experiences of our travelling lives. We had tried to contact him without success, hoping to arrange another trek. Shortly before arrival in Cusco we had been corresponding with SA Explorers and found out that Miguel had died two years previously.

    Whilst out trekking in the mountains he loved, he was caught in a rockslide. A large rock hit and killed his horse and another hit and killed him.

    One of the best things about travelling as we do are the people we meet. Miguel was an incredible character and a very warm human being who did a lot for his community as well as running a thriving trekking business. We only knew him for a couple of weeks, but in that time he become a friend. I know he is sorely missed by his family and friends and our thoughts go out to them.

    When last we met, Carolyn wrote this short bio of him:

    http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/candcthai/1/1219417260/tpod.html

    One of the great things about SAE Club is that all the information is on hand for research on what to do, where to go, where to eat etc. and there are lots of travellers around with first hand and recent information. We sort out a few walks, treks and places to go, and then head off out into Cusco to explore a few of the places we have seen before and to search out a few new ones. One of the first things we notice is that Macdonalds on Plaza de Armas has now been joined by Starbucks and KFC, such a shame as the food here is so good and these places are so expensive by Peruvian standards. Why anyone would eat at any of these places is beyond my comprehension.

    Having purchased our Boleto Turistico and, determined to get every sole's worth of value for its exorbitant price, we set off to visit a few of the museums and galleries on the ticket. These included:

    Museo de Artes Popular
    Museo Historico Regional
    museo de Artes Contemporaneo
    Museo de Sitio de Qoricancha

    All had something to offer but only the two art museums are really worth the time. The main reasons for spending the 130 soles on the ticket are the site outside of Cusco such as Sacsayhuaman, Pisac, Ollantaytambo etc.

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    Still following along with your travels. I love Cuzco as well so looking forward to seeing how much it may have changed since I was there last five years ago. We may go again in March.

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    live42day, it was about five years since we were last in Cusco. It has definitely moved upmarket and with it , the prices! Lots more shops, restaurants and hotels and of course tourists. Still a great place though!

    PISAC THE HARD WAY

    The last time we visited Pisac was during an epic, whistle stop tour of the Sacred Valley by taxi. This time we jumped on a collectivo and 40 minutes and 3 soles later we were the town famous for two things, its Sunday market and its iconic ruins. Today was not a market day so it was supposed to be quiet but instead we happened upon a fiesta in full swing.

    The square and surrounding streets were full of people, marching bands and dancers most in costume, most totally bizarre. The whole town and indeed the whole valley was filled with the sound of the music. We stopped awhile to enjoy the fiesta and then went to the tourist office to buy our " bolleto touristico" which would give us access to most of the sights in Cusco and the Sacred Valley that we wanted to see, including the ruins here.

    Last time here we got our driver to drop us off at the " top car park" avoid the long hike up a very steep mountain to the ruins. This time we were doing it the hard way by hiking straight up, exploring the ruins and then back down. Although lower than Cusco the walk involves ascending about 600 metres and believe me we do feel it!

    Tickets purchased we set off initially through a series of stone terraces before taking a slightly wrong turn for an alternative route to the top. Our route is quieter and we see few other people along the way. The climb is estimate to take about an hour and we make it in about that time so I suppose we were not to far off track. Along the way up the views alone are spectacular and the walk would be worth it even without the ruins at the top. Eventually we get to the mirador at the first summit. Here the ruins really start and, once again we marvel at how the Incas could have built such an impressive edifice in such and awkward location. The ruins are in really good condition and, in my opinion are arguably even more impressive than Machu Picchu. We are glad to have reached the summit as it has been really hard but so worth it for the views along the way. This first "peak" seems to be mostly about lookout posts and defence and there are superb views along to both ends of the Urumbamba valley.

    Wander around the ruins for a while we admire the temples, priest quarters and the inevitable sacrificial altar complete with channels for the dispersal of blood.

    We then move on around the mountain on precipitous paths with sheer drops of hundreds, of feet ( guard rails are few and far between!) until we get to the next peak where we go through a tunnel to the next peak where we get great views of the agricultural terraces, the residential area and the, very tempting, taxis waiting in the car park. Resisting temptation we retrace our steps back to the Mirador where Carolyn decides we should take an alternative route back. I am convinced that this route was intended for donkeys only, but we do eventually make it back to the terraced area even though it is extremely steep and rough in places.

    We make it back not the town, tired and hungry but can't find anywhere we like the look of to eat so head back to the collectivo stop. By a stroke of good fortune we see a bus stopped at the traffic lights, the bus driver has popped into a shop for to by a drink so we jump on and head back to Cusco. Another great but exhausting day out.

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    Catching up and enjoying your report. Next to MP, Pisac has the best ruins - just loved them. Intresting to hear your changed opinion on Lima. I didn't care for it at all when we were there maybe 6-7 years ago, but perhaps if its changed I will feel differently on our next trip to Peru.

    Did I miss how long you will be away?

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    We will be away for 6 months yestravel. Having said that we have been talking about delaying our return and maybe helping out in a Hostal in the sacred valley for a few months. Will see how it goes once we are in Bolivia.

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    Apologies for several posts in quick succession but I am trying to catch up before getting the night bus from Cusco to Copacabana in Bolivia.

    SACSAYHUAMAN HIKE

    There are many, many tours to be had around the streets of Cusco. Throw a ball in any street and it will almost certainly hit half a dozen tour agencies, a few good, lots bad and most, pretty average. They all however, are expensive. With a little bit of research and some most places can be visited on public transport and do not require a guide, unless of course you are really into Inca history. Personally, my attention span wanes rapidly after a few minutes so a guide is sort of wasted on me. Having said that, we did have a great guide for a day in Trujillo and our experience there was greatly enhanced by her services. Our first full day out will be to Pisac, one of the greatest sites in the Sacred Valley but I will deal with that in other entries.

    Our trip for today is to the Inca sites in the hills outside of town involves walking to the collectivo stop to get a bus to Tambo Machay. Fifteen minutes walk and a short wait and we are on the, already packed bus. One seat is left so I take it and Carolyn sits on my lap. A short while later, a seat becomes available to a mother and daughter so Carolyn transfers and immediately strikes up a conversation with the 3 year old daughter ( mum completely ignores her). They then start a game of poking one another which continues until our destination, still ignored by Mum!

    Tambo Machay

    Alighting at Tambo Machay we walk up hill to the site which is also known as Los Banos del Inca (Inca Baths) was basically a spa retreat for high priests and Inca nobility. The site is quite small consisting of a few Inca buildings built around a stream. On the way up we do notice the change in altitude as we have now ascended some 400m to 3800m asl. Wandering around the site we are soon surrounded by a busload of people on a tour so we make our retreat down the road to the next site of Puka Pukara.

    Puka Pukara

    This site is a lot more impressive and was more of a working fortress with great views over the valley to the snow capped mountains beyond. In Peru, we find ourselves in constant wonder of the spectacular scenery. This site has a lot more to see and we spend some time just wandering around the rooms and walls admiring both the stone work and the views.

    Passing by the inevitable hawkers selling everything from Alpaca knitwear and artisan jewellery to photo opps of themselves and their baby alpacas, we head on down on our cross country walk back down the mountain to Cusco. Armed only with a pencil drawn map, which turns out to be wrong anyway, we quickly get lost. Soon after we take a wrong turn in open countryside we are approached by a couple of French girls who ask us for directions. Inclined to reply that we don't know where we are going either, we have noted our mistake and point them in, what we think, is the right direction and end up walking with them for a lot of the way. The countryside around here, only a few kms from Cusco city is really beautiful. Sprinkled with farms, Inca ruins and a few lakes it makes for great walking country. Old Inca pathways, still in use today, crisscross the countryside and I assume most lead back to Cusco, so even if you do get lost, it is no big problem.

    Eventually we find our way to Zona X a big rock riddled with tunnels and caves, beloved of hippies as a mystical site and local couples as a place to "be alone". We see some of each! We stop briefly to eat our sandwiches and move on to the next site a few kilometres distant, of Q'enko.

    Q'enko

    An even more impressive site. An amphitheatre and temple, it includes an altar where sacrifices where made and you can still see the channels carved into the rock to drain away the blood! Judging by the size of these channels there must have been a hell of a lot of blood flowing! The site has a number of caves inside the rock inside which are yet more altars. The most impressive site so far.

    Sacsayhuamán

    The greatest and closest to Cusco of all the Inca ruins, this site is just 10 mins walk from SAExplorers, a good job because after 10 kms of walking, our legs are beginning to feel the strain. This site really is impressive and exhibits some of the most impressive Inca architecture in the Sacred Valley. The experts don't seem too sure whether this was a temple, a fortress or both. Whatever it was, it is certainly impressive, sitting as it does, high on the hill overlooking Cusco. From here the views of the Centro Historico, the Plaza de Armas, the airport and greater Cusco are simply breathtaking.

    The ruins are built of the tradition Inca block work precisely fitted together without the aid of cement. Some of these blocks are 4 metres high and weigh 120 tons. How they got them into place is an incredible feat of engineering. After exploring the ruins we head on back to the clubhouse, a few minutes down the very steep hill.

    This evening after resting awhile back at the clubhouse we wander out to the suburbs of Cusco in search of some non- tourist food and beverage. First stop is a very small local bar complete with two barflies who, clearly having been there all afternoon, welcome us like long lost friends. The barman, complete with Stetson hat and shoulder length hair has the best collection of blues music playing on the sound system. All my favourites from Robert Johnson and Howling Wolf to Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. He even had a Captain Beefheart CD behind the bar ( Robert Ivey, where are you? You are missing out!). We have searched high and low for this sort of place since arriving in South America,

    Due to a communication mix up I unknowingly order 2 litres of beer, "fortunately" Carolyn spotted my mistake which was quickly rectified. After savouring the ambience, the beer and the music for an hours or so off we set down the street to find a local Polleria. We order two meals which consist of salad, roast chicken, fries and a whole array of sauces, some extremely fiery. The food was delicious and extremely filling. The bill? 11 soles for two, about $3.50 US. It sort of brings into context the prices in the tourist areas where a main course for one goes for approx. 25-30 soles.

    Heading back into town, we pass by our new local bar where our new found friends are leaving, struggling to stay upright they bid us a cheery buenos noches!

    The total cost for our day out is 22 soles, 3 for the bus, 11 for dinner and 8 for beer. Not bad for an excellent day out.

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    Cusco markets and food

    Having explored most of the usual sites around Cusco over a period of a couple of days, we decided to venture just a little further into the markets and local areas around the centre, mainly because markets fascinate us and partly because this is where some of the better, more typical local food can be found. We had visited Santa Clara market many times before as it is just beyond the two main Plazas and in famed for its freshly pressed juices. Venture anywhere near the dozens of stalls and expected to be shouted at by all of the stallholders at once, begging you to patronise their stall. The juices are really good and for 4 soles you get two large glasses of just about any variation of fruit you can think of. I recommend zanhoria con naranja ( carrot and orange), delicious.

    A little way from Santa Clara on are some smaller markets where the stalls are jam packed with fruits, vegetables and meats of all description, including some quite gruesome cuts we and never seen before, cow faces!!! Apparently used for soup. Sadly, the food here is not to the standards we found in Ecuadorian markets, so we move on and eat in a small local restaurant, but not before we stumble into a couple of subterranean drinking holes which were signed as restaurants. One o'clock in the afternoon and they were full of Peruvian men, absolutely legless!

    Another day, we head of to Wanchaq market on the other side of the centre. This is a more refined market with a huge food court on the upper floor but we opt for a ceviche mixto on the ground floor, very good it is too. Not up to the standards of Lima but less than 20% of the price. To follow, we head off to one of the juice stalls where a couple of young ladies are holding court as the mix and pour juices for a group of admiring men. Good juice but that did not seem to be the main attraction for the remaining customers! A little later we pass by the stall and a whole mariachi band has stopped to serenade them (see photo).

    Cusco is a fascinating, if somewhat busy city and despite being heaving with tourists, somehow manages to hang on to its charm.

    For our final night in town we decide to treat ourselves to a wedding anniversary dinner, we tend to spread our celebrations throughout the year regardless of the date. After some deliberation we choose to push the boat out at Chicha, a restaurant by Gaston Acurio, who is the Peruvian equivalent of Gordon Ramsay or Michel Roux. The restaurant specialising in his take on Andean food with a bit of fusion cooking thrown in for good measure. There are a few photos here that show the food far better than I could describe, but the food really was special.

    Briefly, we shared two appetisers and and two mains:

    -Fried guinea pig with purple corn pancakes (a take on Peking duck?)

    -Causas with four sauces ( four varieties of potatoes with different sauces and toppings)

    -Crisp roasted belly of pork

    -Pachamanka, lamb, pork, chicken, sausage, potatoes and cheese, baked in an earthenware pot and served with a delicious sauce.

    All the food was amazing, definitely worth splashing out if in Cusco. We rounded off our meal by toasting our friend Lesley as it was her 60th, many happy returns Lesley!!!

    Our final day in Cusco marks the start of Peru's Independence Day celebrations. The Plaza de Armas and surrounding streets are heaving with marching bands ranging from the Girl Guides and WI to the army. Quite some sight!

    Tomorrow we head off up the Sacred Valley to our old haunt of Ollantaytambo.

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    Returning to Ollantaytambo after five years felt like coming home as we had spent a month there in 2008 when we volunteered with Hearts Cafe. We lived in a bungalow in Urumbamba and commuted daily by collectivo. In our spare time we took Spanish lessons from an Argentine woman in the town. The town itself had changed little in the last five years, it is a lot smarter with more restaurants and hostals all of which seemed a lot more upmarket than before. The biggest change however was the massive increase in the number of the visitors to the town. I feel partly to blame as I have been recommending the place for years as a place to stay when visiting the Sacred Valley.

    We left Cusco on a minibus after wandering the streets for an hour or to find the minibus station which had been shown in completely the wrong place on the Cusco map - a common problem!!

    As soon as we get out into the Sacred Valley we remember why we love this part of the world. The two hour drive takes us along the Urumbamba river between the snow capped peaks of the Andes. Spectacular by any measure!

    Despite the increase in visitors, Ollantaytambo still manages to retain its innate charm and the local Quecha people seem blissfully unaffected as they go about there daily business. As we spent so much time here before, this is very much a flying visit as we just hang out in the town for a couple of days and wander around the ruins which we manage to do just before the tour buses arrive from Quito. If you do want to visit Ollantaytambo it really is best to stay overnight and hit the ruins as early as possible, say 7.00 - 9.00am before the buses arrive. Later on it gets really crowded, especially in the afternoon.

    Visiting Ollantaytambo is not just about the Inca ruins, impressive though they undoubtedly are. The town itself is the most complete example of an Inca city in the Americas. Built on a grid system with lots of cobbled streets with many original Inca buildings it is still inhabited by many direct descendants of the Incas. It is easy to spend a pleasant couple of hours just wandering the streets.

    We stayed in Casa de Wow!!! run by Winn, a great hostess from the Southern United States who shows us what the legendary southern hospitality is all about. Good breakfast, hot water ( luxury indeed after the last week) and THE most comfortable beds to date.

    In the evening we set out in search of a meal which takes a bit of time as every place we go to seems to be taken over by tour groups. Looking for something a bit quieter we settle on a small, local Pollo Asado. The usual chicken, roasted over an open wood fire is always a safe bet. This place is not the Ritz by any stretch of the imagination and, apart from us, is full of locals. We sit a at able next to one of them who must have had a really hard day as we watch him slowly fall asleep until he ends up with his face in his plate full of chips. One of the ladies in the restaurant wakes him up and he continues on with his meal. Minutes later he is face down in his food yet again, this time with a half chewed drumstick, sticking out of his mouth! Great entertainment for all in the restaurant but then the guy wakes up, picks up his sack of vegetables from the market and leaves for his walk home, which, in these parts, is quite like
    Ybto be 10 miles or more. It is a hard life for most in these mountains.

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    I laughed when you "unknowingly order 2 litres of beer". On our first day in Buenos Aires a couple of years ago, I ordered a beer and got the biggest bottle ever. My husband doesn't drink alcohol, and the waiter couldn't understand why he was ordering a coke. The waiter had the top off the bottle before I could say no. Needless to say, I wasn't able to drink the whole bottle.

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    Crellston, thank you for your fabulous trip report. I'm considering a trip to South America around this time next week, and you're giving me tons of info to help me think about it. Right now, I have sights set on Peru and possibly Brazil, Chile, or Argentina.

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    Many thanks to you all for your kind comments. We are almost halfway through this trip and made it to Bolivia. Here is the first installment...

    It is time to leave the familiar environs of Cusco and the Sacred Valley and head off to Bolivia, a new country for us. Our bus leaves Terminal Terrestre at 10.00pm so we spend the evening at The SA Explorers Club before taking a taxi to the station. Bus stations are never great places to hang out but this one is not too bad. We had booked "full Cama" seats on VIP bus with La Luis line, direct from Cusco to Copacabana. We board the bus more or less on time, only to discover that our seats 51 and 52, do not exist. Just as bad, the seats that are there are not full Cama but normal bus seats, not great for a 14 hour overnight journey. The bus guys don't seem to give a toss and just point us and other passengers to any seat. They have effectively managed to p*** off an entire bus load of passengers at a stroke. Given that it is now 10.30pm in a not very nice neighbourhood in Cusco, none of us have any real choice but to go with the flow.

    To add insult to injury, it turns out that it is not a "direct, non stop" service as it stops many times along the way and we have to wait 90 mins in Puno to get a connecting bus. After many years of travelling we had forgotten the essential rule when dealing with bus companies - TRUST NO ONE!

    We arrived in Puno bus station just as dawn was breaking over Lake Titicaca ( yes, a bus station with a view!). After the horrendous journey in a cramped, uncomfortable and hot bus, surrounded by people snoring, coughing and farting all night, we were rewarded by one of the most beautiful sunrises we had ever seen ( and there have been quite a few!).

    As soon as we entered the bus station we were immediately accosted by a guy from the Panamericano bus company who would take us on he next leg of the trip to Copacabana. He pointed us to the desk where we had to exchange our tickets and then we waited. This guy was terrific, he was buzzing around the station picking out his passengers and directing them to the right places and he even came on the bus with us to Copacabana, a journey of around 3 hours through some pretty desolate countryside, giving us instructions en route on how to get across the border, deal with immigration and the police on both sides etc., all in Spanish and English. We had heard many horror stories about crossing the border from Peru to Bolivia, but this one at Yunguyo was a piece of cake ( the one at Desequero is apparently a nightmare!). The immigration was cheerful, helpful and even gave us a 90 days visa when asked, the norm is 30 days. When Carolyn went back to the bus for a few minutes, I got chatting to one of he border guards for a while in Spanish, when he realised I was English he asked if we could speak in English so he could practice. When he then went off to open the border gate, he thanked me, welcomed me to his country and shook my hand. I doubt I will get he same reception when returning to Heathrow!

    Arriving in Copacabana was a very pleasant surprise. Set on a bay, right on the shores of Lake Titicaca it is a delightful place, a little like a quaint Cornish fishing village, if you ignore the snow capped mountains, the Bolivian women in their bowler hats etc...

    Carolyn had booked us into to nice Hostal called Las Olas. Of course, it has to be one of the highest in the town. Despite the total lack of street signs we manage to find it after consulting a few locals. Turns out they don't know either, but within minutes of asking a couple of people, a guy on a bike chases after us and points us in the right direction, up a very steep hill. Even though we have been at high altitude for quite a while, Titicaca is even higher than most places we have been at 3850m asl and we really notice he difference as we walk up the hill. Las Olas has been built in a sort of "Flintstones" style. We have a duplex suite with kitchen facilities, a wood burning stove and a bathroom built out of rock ( a little like showering in a cave), masses of really hot water (a real luxury after Peru) and, best of all, a double height picture window overlooking Copacabana bay and the Lake. All this for $42 per night, around double our normal expenditure, but a special treat and wonderful value for money.

    We spend some time wandering the streets and markets just taking it all in and already we as beginning to love this country. We find our way, by accident, to the Cathedral which dominates the town with its colourful domes, tiled in the Portuguese style. Inside is equally impressive, in fact, although it is not the biggest, it is certainly one of the most beautiful churches I have seen anywhere in the world! Definitely worth a visit if passing through.

    Having shopped for produce in the market for dinner tonight we book a boat trip on the lake out to Isla del Sol, which according to Inca legend/ religion was the birthplace of the sun. Because of the altitude, Titicaca gets clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine most of the time but this doesn't stop it being really cold, especially out on the lake. As we sit on the top deck of the boat on our way out, I don't think I have ever been so cold! The views however, more than compensate as we look out over the lake to the snow capped, high Andes peaks that surround the lake. Surely one of the most impressive sights anywhere in the planet?

    Isla del Sol was to be frank, as expected, a bit of a tourist trap. We had the opportunity to walk up to the top of the island to have a look around the ruins, but having seen so many ruins over the last few weeks we were "ruined out" and, instead decided to just sit on the grass and watch the islanders unload the boats and load up their donkeys to cart their supplies up the very steep cobbled paths to the top of the island.

    On the way back to Copacabana we get chatting to a couple of students from the USA who are working in La Paz as part of their masters degrees in community health. They are a mine of information on what to do, where to go and what to watch out for in the capital city. They recommend some places to stay which is really helpful as wifi is all but no existent here and we haven't been able to book anything. This is not usually a problem for us as we are happy to find something on arrival but, prefer to at least have a vague idea of where we are going on arrival in a big city in the late afternoon.

    All things considered and despite the awful bus service, we are glad we chose this route into Bolivia rather than stopping overnight in Puno which is not the most attractive of Peruvian cities ( although great for visiting the floating island of Uros etc.). We could easily stay a lot longer here but Bolivia is a big country and there is a huge amount to see.

    Sunday morning and we make maximum use of our cooking facilities before leaving for La Paz. Carolyn cooks eggs tomatoes and chorizo which we eat whilst looking out over Lake Titicaca below. Sunday brunch doesn't get much better than this!

    The wifi in the hostal is not working so we head off to an Internet cafe before catching the bus as we haven't anywhere booked in La Paz and we will not arrive until late afternoon. We fail in our quest to secure a bed for the night and will just have to find somewhere on arrival.

    The bus trip from Copacabana to La Paz must surely be one of the most spectacular in the world. As we climb out of Copacabana back into the mountains we get a true idea of the size of this lake. It seems to go on forever. As we skirt around the lake we climb ever higher and get great views of the Cordillera Real. Titicaca is already at 3800m but these snow capped peaks soar even higher. Even as we drive through the barren and desolate altiplano, we see families scraping a living in this hostile, desolate but still beautiful environment. Amazingly, there are people tending herds of cattle, sheep and donkeys at what must be over 5000m above sea level, even though there is very little grass. After an hour or so, we descend once again to the shore of the lake where we disembark at a dock and get on to a very small boat for the 15 min crossing of the lake. The bus is taken separately across on a barge. On the other side we jump back on and continue our journey. The remainder of our journey takes us through a slightly less interesting landscape until eventually we hit the outskirts of La Paz.

    Never before have I seen so many minibuses. They are everywhere jamming up the roads in and out of the city. Eventually we get through and continue on to the centre of La Paz and start to descend. Only then do we appreciate the spectacular setting of this city, set as is on the sides of mountains. I don't think I have ever seen as impressive a cityscape, there actually audible gasps from the passengers on the bus.

    Eventually we arrive at the bus station. Time to find somewhere to sleep tonight...

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    Following along with great interest, Crellston - so excited that you're now in Bolivia and maybe on your way to Madidi before too long. You two are SO intrepid. We've done a few buses in SA and CA, including a couple overnight ones, but nothing compared to what you've described. I love how the fabulous sunrise on Titicaca overshadows the night enduring bad seats, coughing, and farting. ...... looking forward to more!!

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    Thanks so much for these posts, we will do the opposite, from Bolivia to Cuzco so really interested in your blog.
    "I don't think I have ever been so cold!"
    I remember when we stayed on an island, cant remember the name, on Lake Titicaca I felt the same way. It was lovely during the day but that night I slept in all my clothes including gloves and tuke!. I still have never been that cold to this day, and I live in Canada!!

    I am hanging on for more.

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    Thank you all once again for your kind comments! Posts may become more sporadic as the Internet and wifi deteriorate as we travel round Bolivia. Even in La Paz it is not great.

    Glover, Madidi is now booked, can't wait, see below:

    LA PAZ

    We didn't get a chance to look into the actual bus terminal in La Paz as, when we alighted from the bus, the driver asked us where we were going and he told us that Plaza San Francisco in the centre or the city was only a fifteen minute walk. Needing to stretch our legs and looking at some of the very dodgy taxis around, we heeded his advice and set off down the very steep hill in search of a bed for the night. We had a couple of places in mind but both turned out to be full.

    Eventually we ended up in Calle Illampu in the Rosario/san Pedro area of in the centre of the the city close to the witches and other markets. We eventually secured a room in a not too bad place from where we moved on a couple of nights later to a much nicer place, Hotel Berlina where our luck was is as we got a newly created penthouse room for a very good rate. As it turned out, it was very newly created ( as in half finished!) but still very nice with spectacular views of the city.

    We spend the next couple of days wandering the streets of the central area of the city to get our bearings and get totally lost in the process (all part of the fun!). Our first impressions of La Paz are very positive. Yes, Bolivia is one of the poorer, less developed countries in South America and this is very evident in the poverty and begging on the streets which is far more prevalent here than anywhere else we have visited. But in some way La Paz seems far more "South American" than any other major city we have visited on the continent. The streets are teeming with people many of them indigena people in their traditional dress. The "Cholitas" or indigena women in there big skirts, bowler hats and shiny shawls are quite impressive and obviously extremely proud of their culture. Nice to see in this ever changing but increasingly homogenous world.

    At around 3600 metres above sea level, La Paz is the highest de facto capital city in the world. Built as it is, in a valley between the mountains (one of which until global warming changed everything, housed the highest ski slope in the world) it is also probably the steepest city in the world. Given these two factors, we are really glad we are properly acclimatised. I certainly would not want to fly in here from sea level and have to cope with the steep streets. Virtually nothing seems to be flat here. The upside of this of course, is the incredible cityscape all around as the buildings climb high up the mountainside to El Alto, the indigena city high above on the altiplano at around 4000 metres.

    One of the overriding impressions of La Paz is how busy it all is. Wandering around the markets which are just a few streets from the central area, they are heaving with people. Each area seems to sell one particular type of goods. Toiletries, clothes, vegetables, fruit, meat etc. we walked along one particular street and saw nothing but toiletries for 15 mins. Similarly with jeans street. All very confusing and one afternoon we get totally lost, but, contrary many guide book comments, it all seems very unthreatening and very friendly. There is one incident where a guy treads on my foot to distract me whilst his accomplice a very small, very fat, very old, woman feels up my pocket for my wallet. Safely zipped away, I realise immediately what is going on and, to her surprise, we end up almost holding hands! A most unlikely pickpocket, but I suppose they often are!

    Much of our time here is spent sorting out the rest of our time in the country. Internet facilities in La Paz are better than in much of the country ( still not good though!) and much of the jungle and trekking stuff we need to sort out can be done here with the many tour companies that seem to be in every other shop.

    First job is to sort out our trip into the Amazon basin. After a LOT of research, we decide on Madidi Jungle Ecolodge - http://www.madidijungle.com/ owned by the local community it has a lodge deep in Madidi national park about 3.5 hours up river from the town of Rurrenbaque. We have decided to take the long road to Madidi. Rather than take the 30 min flight, we will fly to Santa Cruz and then spend a couple of weeks coming back upriver to the national park, More about that in a few weeks..

    One of our overriding impressions of La Paz is the incredible number of minibuses that transport people around the city. For around 2 Bolivianos you can get just about anywhere. Travelling in these buses is an experience that everyone visiting the city should try at least once. Much more fun than a taxi. There are no stops for these minibuses, one just hails one on the street. However, people always seem to want to get on or off right on the "esquina" or street corner which means that at every crossroads traffic is snarled up with people getting on and off. This of course means that every other driver immediately hits their horn. La Paz is not a quiet city!

    We have been to absurdly busy cities before, Bangkok, Saigon, Hanoi etc. All have teeming street markets and manic traffic but La Paz really does take the first prize. Every street seems to have a market and, where they don't, they always have an array of street sellers. August is Pachamama month where everybody makes offerings to the earth mother. This takes the form of visiting shamens and then, on their advice, burning certain items in the street. Almost always, these items will include rice cakes, copy money and, bizarrely dried alpaca foetuses. The stalls in the streets are stacked with these somewhat gruesome items and there are a lot of stalls in this city! Now, on the first day of August, people are starting to burn their piles of stuff, usually in the middle of the street, adding to the traffic chaos. If walking along the street, it is also highly likely that you will get dragged into dancing around one of these mini bonfires as I did! Tomorrow, El Alto.

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    EL ALTO

    Always keen to support fledgling businesses and looking for something a bit different we discovered www.banjotours.com Run by Ben a Bolivian guy born and raised La Paz, Ben provides a different sort of tour, seeking out som of the more unusual aspects of this fascinating city that it would be difficult to search out no matter how intrepid one is. Ben met us at our hotel, apologising for turning up a few minutes late as he had been delayed by some barricades set up across the roads as some people had not had there gas deliveries!! That's Bolivia!

    We set off on our alternative tour of La Paz starting by walking down to Plaza San Francisco through to Plaza Murillo and the government house. Along the way Ben explained something of the history and politics of his country, both recent and way back to colonial times. He had a knack of bringing all to life and making it genuinely interesting, more so than any other guide I have met. He points out the bullet holes remaining in the facade of one of the buildings in the square where the Army fought with the police in 2003. further back he related the tales of how numerous presidents were hanged in the square. It seems politics is a thankless job here. Usually I get bored very quickly on organised tours but Ben has a knack of making it all very interesting and left me wanting to learn more of the history and politics of the country.

    After a while, Ben takes us to a salteños place for the best salteños in La Paz, explaining how they arrived here from Salta in Argentina and are an adaptation/improvement on the empanada. Delicious they certainly were, albeit a little messy too eat!

    We then moved on to San Pedro prison, the only prison in South America run by its inmates. Apparently the prison houses 2500 inmates and is controlled by just 25 guards whose job it is to facilitate the entry and exit from the prison, nothing else. Everything else is controlled by the inmates who run shops, barbers, restaurants and produce goods for sale outside the prison. When we where there, Coca Cola was making a big delivery!!

    The prisoners also control the justice system in the prison, meting out "an eye for an eye punishments" to inmates that breach their own rules. The prison houses everything from petty criminals to drug barons all of whom can bring their wives and children to live with them in the prison. The wealthier inmates can purchase and equip there own cells, some with jacuzzis ( allegedly). Some live a life of comparative luxury, whilst the poorer inmates have to scrape a living as best they can, either relying on those outside or by working for the wealthier neighbours. There is quite a class system within the prison.

    A fascinating place which, it has just been announced, is to close. It was discovered that a 12 year old child had been systematically abused over a period of 5 years by her father, uncle and godfather. It is not going down well with the prisoners as many have a really easy time and the wealthier drug lords have paid up to $ 25 k for their cells and are not happy at losing out on there investment and moving to a stricter regime. Riots are expected as many of the more powerful inmates live a life of luxury inside.

    After the prison we jump into a cab to El Alto, the indigena city high above La Paz. We stop a couple of times en route to admire the spectacular views before arriving in the massive market area. High above La Paz it all seems more spacious than the main city below. As we wander along the market stalls we notice how much cheaper and fresher al the produce is. Stopping at a juice stall we all take a glass of the juices on offer. I go for the mandarin a which was out of this world. Very welcome on what, despite the altitude, is a hot day. Ben stops a a stall to buy some peaches and when the deal is done, explains how to ask for a "yappa" which is an extra piece of fruit. Apparently, it is not done to haggle over prices in this market and this another way of getting a little extra.

    The market seems to go on for miles and the array of foodstuffs appears endless but eventually we find our way to the witches market. At a stall Ben explains what everything means and does and the reasons for which people make there offerings to Pachamama by burning stuff on small bonfires all around the two cities. Some people are buying individual items others are buying package deals. Also on the stalls are various "traditional" remedies, many of which seem to originate from China? At one stall we have a chat with the stallholder who gives each of us a bag of lucky charms, covering everything from luck and health to money and travel.

    Our last stop in in the market is the street where all the shamens operate. This very long street is lined with small huts where the witches operate. Outside are small stoves where the offerings are piled up and burnt, it can get quite hot walking along this street in the August Pachamama season! We wait outside one hut for the shamen to finish her session and then the five of us enter. The shamen asks a few questions about what we want to know about our futures and then, individually proceeds to read our futures (well not mine as I was the only one who didn't partake!). She lays out three lines of coca leaves and then throws a few more over the top of them, chanting as she goes. All very evocative in the small, dark and hot confines of the hut.

    Fortunes foretold, we then hop into a collectivo for the ride downhill back to La Paz. Our first collectivo in the city, it seems all very civilised and everyone one appears to observes each others space. Then a very old lady gets on, I am guessing aged 90, who has everyone rushing to help her onto the bus to her favourite seat. En route, she asks Ben if she can have the bag of peaches he bough earlier and, when it is time for her to get off she offers 50 cents for the 2 boliviano journey, leaving Ben to help her off the bus and pay the balance. She walks off cackling with delight, much to the amusement of everyone on the bus ( apart from the driver). I doubt this was the first time she had pulled this stunt.

    This was a great day out and highly recommended. If you do nothing else in La Paz, take this tour.

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    Great tip on the tours of El Alto. Glad to hear that you are enjoying La Paz as much as I did (and in the same hotel). I had a good chuckle about the two old ladies.

    One of the expert posters on SA (qwovadis) always used to say that the old ladies were the ones to watch out for!

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    SANTA CRUZ

    Unable to book our preferred dates in the jungle with Madidi Eco Lodge we formulated a plan B, to fly to Santa Cruz in the lowlands and then work our way back upriver to Rurranbaque, only a plan at this stage as we have not booked anything and are really just making it up as we go along!

    Jumping into a taxi we head up to the airport in El Alto for our flight from one of the highest airports in the world. Soon after take off which seemed to take a lot longer than normal, presumably down to the aeronautics of the thin air at altitude we were flying through the Andes. The views of this most impressive of mountain ranges were breathtaking and for the first time, at least on this trip, we gain a true impression of how massive this range is. The flight lasts an hour and after a while we are over the lowlands and can see the many rivers snaking below us. It will seem really odd not to be cold at night and wrapping ourselves up in fleece jackets at night, at least for a while.

    On arrival we decide to jump into a taxi rather than the bus, on the basis that we haven't a clue as to where we are going and taxis are cheap anyway. Thirty minutes later we are in our hostal, ResidencialBolivar. A marked difference from our room in La Paz, this room is tiny, hot and stinks of drains, back to reality! The best things about this place are the pleasant courtyard gardens with hammocks and the resident toucan that will come and sit on your arm (and eat your breakfast given half a chance!). The staff are basically sullen and unhelpful, more interested in playing computer games than helping guests and as for the breakfasts! I have rarely seen scrambled eggs that bounce of the floor when dropped! At least the toucan likes them, although I doubt he will ever fly again...

    Having consulted our, next to useless guidebook, we venture out in search of a parrillada for a serious meat fix ( this area is the big beef ranching part of the country). We grab a taxi and head off to El Arriero, one of the more well known. It takes the driver many wrong turns and a lot of stops before WE find the right place (these drivers would not last an hour in London!). We arrive early at around 8.00 pm and the place is only just getting going. I guess they keep Argentine hours here where most people don't even think about eating until 10pm.

    Seated at our table we forego the extensive wine list in favour of a couple of beers and share a delicious and huge steak but not before we have consumed our starters of chorizo and antichuchos (cow heart), the latter being a first for us and now a firm favourite! An expensive meal by Bolivian standards but incredible value when compared with Europe.

    To be frank there is not a whole lot to do in Santa Cruz it is short on tourist sights but big own places to eat which seems to be the main occupation of the locals here. Apparently, there is a big Japanese community here, although we have yet to experience it and have seen no evidence so far. Some sashimi would be great but as it is difficult to imagine anywhere further from the sea, I fear we will be disappointed.

    There is not a whole lot to see in the city in terms of tourist attractions, it seems mainly to be a commercial centre. It is so very different from La Paz and the highlands, not so much the scenery, although that is a given, but more the attitude of the people. Out on the streets, everyone seems much more laid back and ready to party. Maybe it is the weather?

    One thing we do notice immediately is the increase in poverty and begging on the streets compared with elsewhere in South America. There is a lot of it happening in La Paz but even more here, which is urprising, given that this is one of the wealthiest cities in the country and the economic powerhouse of the nation. Lots of elderly people on the streets but, perhaps even more concerning are the number of children, sometimes with, sometimes without, adults. I went out for a walk one morning and came across a street off the main Plaza where children as young as 3 were being made to dance every time someone walked past. Late in the evening, I returned the same way only to see the same kids, still jigging away on the sidewalk. Further along, young mothers, some no more than 16 years old, are curled up in doorways, trying to get their kids to sleep. Heart rending to see all this going one in a clearly, otherwise affluent city.

    be frank, I think we made a bit of a mistake coming here as we would have been better going straight to Madidi had they had the space available for us? I was following a suggested route in Lonely Planet, the first and last time I shall do that as, unless, i am missing something, there is not a whole lot here o hold ones interest for more than a day or two. Incidentally, i know our Lonely Planet guide is a couple of years out of date, butvit really is not very good at all. Wrong addresses, incorrect websites and the maps!!! Even if you have the eyes of an eagle and can read them, they bear only a tenuous link with the reality on the ground!

    Santa Cruz is a pleasant enough city, some decent food, particularly in the Parrilladas but we have had enough so are heading up to the hippie hangout of Samaipata and the nearby ruins of El Fuerte.

    Samaipata is a very small town up 1600m up in the hills a 2.5 hour drive from Santa Cruz. It is popular as a weekend retreat from Santa Cruz and a significant number of foreigners, mostly from Europe who have set up home here. Its main attraction is the pre Inca ruins of El Fuerte, high on hill 10 kms away. The town is situated where the rainforest meets the Chaco and the Andes and has quite a temperate climate, one of the reasons so many foreigners have set up home here I suppose.

    We start by getting a taxi to the collectivo point on a street near the football stadium. Naturally, the taxi driver does not have the faintest idea where it is - Santa Cruz surely has the most clueless taxi drivers in the entire world! Not one has known even the most straight-forward of places and has to stop to ask several times before we each our destinations! Unsurprisingly, they still manage somehow to quote a fare even though they haven't a clue where the destination is!

    Eventually we find the street where the collectivo stop is supposed to be. There is virtually no activity around here, probably because of the Independence Day national holiday. We really haven't got our timings right in his country yet!! I manage to find a guy loitering around his taxi who agrees to take us to Samaipata but, because of the holidays, no one else is around to share the collectivo so we get off straight away, although we do end up paying to have the car to ourselves.

    Loading our bags into to back of the car, we nearly squash a chicken in a bag, lying on he floor with just his head and feet poking out. It The driver is a nice chap who wants to practice his English and along the way he passes me a book, an encyclopaedia of about cock fighting around South America. Suddenly the trussed up chicken in the back makes sense. It is a breeding bird used for fighting!

    The drive takes us along the plains out of the city through a number of villages on a dead straight, wide metalled road for most of the way but interspersed with pieces of dirt track and sleeping policemen, just to keep the drivers alert along the way!

    The sunshine turns to rain along the way and the temperature drops considerably. The plains give way to the hills and gorges, waterfalls etc. it really is a quite a pretty drive, but seems to go on forever but eventually we reach our final destination where the dusty streets have turned to mud, hopefully temporarily.

    Posada del Sol, the place where we are staying is a pleasant place to while away a day or four as we will do. Owned by a Texan/Bolivian couple it has pretty good food which we sample on arrival as it has been a long time since breakfast. Fed and watered we head off to explore the town. Not a lot seems to be going on presumably because it is a national holiday and the streets seem deathly quiet. When we reach the main Plaza, the whole of the town seems to be in there knocking back beers like they are going out of fashion and dancing the afternoon away. By South American standards it is still a pretty quiet affair. If ever there was at own where not a lot happens, this is it!

    We spend some time wandering the town and the surrounding countryside and pleasant though it is, it does not live up to Lonely Planets enthusiastic descriptions. As we continue our walk, Carolyn gets stung by some sort of giant wasp so it is a quick trip to the pharmacy for a remedy. Usually, when we are travelling it is I that am prone to accident and disaster but this is the second time in the space of a week that she has been bitten or stung by these vicious Bolivian insects!

    The weather improves somewhat so we decide to visit El Fuerte. As is often the case, debate continues as to the purpose/ age/ significance of El Fuerte. Whatever the age and purpose, it is quite an impressive site. Lots of zoomorphic carvings of serpents and pumas etc and it is all quite nicely laid out. Some say there is evidence of Inca activity, some argue that carbon dating put human habitation at some 1500bc. More recently, new age hippies have claimed it is a landing ramp for ancient spacecraft!

    We spend a couple of hours at the site and have it more or less to ourselves. Some beautiful scenery around and the ruins are very well looked after but I am not sure it is worth the trip to get here. We stop for a drink in a very nice bar in the corner of the plaza and get chatting to the Australian owner who has settled here and is building his own place out in the countryside. He has been here for a few years and confirms that we have seen pretty much all there is to see in the few days we have been here so we are minded to return to Santa Cruz.


    The Posada we chose to stay in, started off so well but then the owners went away for a few days and the place seemed to go to pot. The food, which started off so good, deteriorated, as did the service and indeed the weather. Huge thunderstorms took hold overnight and, in the morning, having had our fill of Samaipata we decide to head back to Santa Cruz mainly to organise our ongoing travel into the jungle, which seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time. Our first leg involves an overnight bus to the jungle town of Trinidad from where we get a small plane to Rurrenbaque. That at least is the plan. If it all works out, I shall be amazed!

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    Thursdaysd, luckily I am not too bad with the heat, less so with the humidity though. The weather here has been bizarre. We left Santa Cruz with 30c and arrived in Trinidad to 8c at 5.00am. No hotels open so we had to wait in the main square huddled in our jackets and fleeces! Next day, back up to 30c??

    Mlgb, after days without Internet we are in Rurrenbaque with occasional access. We get the boat to Madidi tomorrow morning. If I don't check in in a week, send out the search parties!

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    Yay indeed, Glover. But first we need to get there....


    After hanging around at the hostel for the afternoon we walked the 2 kms or so to the "Bimodal Terminal", the combined bus and train station, to get the night bus to Trinidad, the first stage of our journey to the jungle town of Rurrenbaque. After calling at a couple of bus company stands, only to find that no seats were available we were getting a little concerned, but a nice lady pointed us in the direction of one of her competitors and we secured the last two seats on a Cama bus out of town.

    Most of the Bolivian bus companies operate old, second hand Brazilian buses. Our was very old and very secondhand! It rattled as though it was going to fall apart and some of the windows were held in place by gaffa tape, but at least the seats were comfortable. The journey took around nine hours including a rest stop in a town in the middle of nowhere (the toilet facilities there were not for the fainthearted!). We arrived at Trinidad bus station at 5am and jumped into a cab for the short drive into town. We asked to be taken to one hotel we knew of, but at 5am on a Sunday morning, of course it wasn't open so we sat down on a bench in the main square and waited for a couple of hours. We expected Trinidad to be very hot but we have been experiencing some freak weather conditions offer the last week and it was really cold so we ended up donning fleeces and jackets to keep warm!

    Dawn eventually broke and spectacular it was too as the sky gave way from dark blue to brilliant pink, all accompanied by a cacophony of tropical birds and some less impressive, tape recorded bells from the church tower. After trying around for an hour, we eventually find a reasonable hotel at a reasonable price and get our heads down for an hour or so before heading off to explore the town.

    Trinidad reminds us a little of Bo in Sierra Leone where we lived for a while possibly because it has the same sort of buildings etc., but also because it has the same open sewers running alongside the streets. The smell in places is quite overpowering but despite that it is quite a pleasant place but I would not want to stay here for more than a day or two.

    Being Sunday, the airline offices are closed so we need to walk out to the airport to reconfirm our flight to Rurrenbaque. That done, we head back into town for lunch at Brasileno, a Brazilian place we noticed earlier which advertises a buffet "by the kilo". Sure enough, we fill our plates from the buffet and take them to be weighed at the till. A novel system we have not seen before but it seems to be popular as the place is packed. That night the town comes alive as all the kids take to their motorbikes and circle the main plaza and surrounding streets for hour after hour. Apparently it happens every week and seems to be the preferred method for the young men to get to meet the girls with many of them deep in conversation as they ride side by side around the streets. It reminds me a little of Saigon when I first visited Vietnam twenty odd years ago.

    The next day we arrive back at the airport for our Amazsonas flight to Rurrenbaque.

    Flying in Bolivia is essential if you want to avoid the very long and sometimes uncomfortable bus journeys. Amazsonas seems like a pretty reasonable airline, the others being Aerocon, the government owned BOA and the military airline TAM.

    We board our Amazsonas plane only to be told to disembark 10mins later as the engines won't start! As we get off, we notice that the fuselage is badly dented and scratched, almost as though the plane had been flying through the trees, not a reassuring sight! After wait of 20 mins in the terminal and a jump start from a tow truck, the plane is ready to go and we eventually take off with fingers crossed that we actually land ok!! The plane is very small and very hot as there is no air conditioning so we are very glad to finally disembark at one of the smallest airports we have been to.

    Rurrenbaque is a small town of some 15000 people and is the main business centre for the Beni province. Our hotel is quite nice, situated as it is on the banks of the river. The towns other purpose is as a transport hub for getting to both the pampas and deep into the rainforest of Madidi National Park. We have chosen to go with Madidi Jungle Ecolodge a place some 3.5 hours upriver by boat which is run and owned by the indigenous community so all the profits and employment opportunities remain with the community rather than benefitting outside investors. Really looking forward to this part of the trip!!!

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    Fantastic, Crelleston...You are two really adventurous and adaptable travelers. Kudos !

    BTW: There are several cafeterias (including some in hospitals) in the WDC area that charge by the pound (lb - not sterling :)

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    Hmm. . . yes, your transit thus far toward Madidi sounds ever bit as daunting as I'd feared .. . . But still you're my role model and if you survive . . maybe we could too. Looking forward to more!!

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    glover, you can also fly La Paz to Rurre if you are not quite as adventurous as crellston, but they will still be Bolivian companies!

    I think I've decided to go to Ecuador in my upcoming trip, after starting out in Lima..for a few days at Mistura.

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    Glover, as you can see, we did survive!! , mlgb is perfectly correct you can fly to Lima and that is what I would suggest as it is only a 30 min flight. The only reason we went the long way around was that we found get space at the lodge when we originally planned. The only other reason I can see for going the way we did was if you used Snata Cruz as thee try point into Bolivia or, you wanted to do the "Jesuits Mission Circuit" and then go by cargo boat to Rurrenbaque, the JMS was hugely expensive if done on a tour and too long by public transport.

    Mlgb, it was indeed Amazsonas! Thankfully, our flight out of of Rurre was less problematic (although on arrival in LP en route to Sucre one of our two checked bags magically made it onto the carousel despite being checked through to Sucre!! Hopefully both will arrive when we get to our final destination ...

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    Good news crellston you are still alive. Are you in Sucre now?

    The stalls upstairs in the market have some pretty good food (the mondongo is a pork stew with red chili that is good).

    Do not bother with the dinosaur park. You can get just as good a view from the parking lot with your own binoculars.

    I enjoyed the market in Tarabuco, there is a tourist transport that is scheduled every market day.

    Will you be going on to Potosi and then Uyuni from there?

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    Just arrived in Sucre - good job we didn't fly Aerocon as when we landed we passed by a previous flight that had skidded off the runway into a ditch!!!!!

    Not sure where we are going from here. Maybe ton Uyuni via potosi and then down to tupiza / villazon and into Argentina or straight to Argentina via Villazon and back to Uyuni. Either way we want to go to SPdA in Chile afterwards. Decisions, decisions!!

    Thanks for the heads up on the dinosaur park.

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    I really liked the colonial center of Potosi..they use color on the buildings. Not all white like Sucre. Best $1.50 meal at El Encuentro Cafe Restaurant.

    I vote to go to Uyuni. I have not done SPdA but understand it is significantly more expensive and you see the backside of the same volcanoes. I don't know that they have a Salar there.

    I am sure you will find lots of travelers in Sucre to get opinions on the relative merits of the two.

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    Mlgb Your opinion of SPdA is matched by that of a very helpful Swiss guy in the tourist information place here. We have decided to head to Tupiza via Potosi for one night spend a few days exploring the Tupiza valley area ( maybe some horse riding in the footsteps of Butch and Sundance!), sort out a tour to the Salar returning to Tupiza before heading on to Salta and from there into Chile. We plan on spending only a couple of days in SPdA just to visit the valley of the moon before heading on to Iquique which I am told is very nice.

    BTW tried the Mondongo in the market as suggested - delicious!

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    Madidi was simply fantastic, didnt want to leave! I am busy writing it all up and hope to post in the next few days. Thank you glover for posting the link to the story of the Israeli guy a few months ago which inspired our decision to go!

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    I followed a Gecko tour group who I met in Uyuni, their Bolivian guide had booked them into Hostal Cerro Rico Velasco, now on Booking.com. It is uphill from town center, but not too steep. They are now on Booking.com, previously it was only email or telephone.

    I recall the breakfast being pretty decent. Luggage storage. An upscale small grocery store between plaza and hotel. We arrived at the end of the "bus ride from hell" journey in the wee wee hours of the morning after a terrific storm (which means snow at high elevations) so I wasn't shopping around. Luckily they had a triple room left and myself and two other "independents" shared it. The hot water was working in the middle of the night which as you know is quite impressive.

    http://www.fodors.com/community/south-america/bolivian-bus-ride-from-hell.cfm

    Possibly if you walk in or contact them directly you can get a better rate than on booking.com

    http://www.bolivia-online.net/en/potosi/135/cerro-rico-de-velasco-hostal-potosi-bolivia

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    MADIDI

    We leave Rurrenbaque at 9.00am for the 4 hour journey by boat up the River Beni to Madidi Jungle Ecolodge deep in the Madidi National Park, one of the most untouched and bio diverse places on the planet. First we must cross the Beni river to San Buenaventura to buy our park tickets and from there it is a further hour to the park entrance where we must register before continuing on into the park proper. The entrance to the park is marked by us passing through a gorge through a range of mountains which mark the eastern boundary of the park. In the far distance we can see the foothills of the Andes which mark the western boundary. In between there is nothing but rainforest and river.

    We have been fortunate enough to travel in rainforest and wilderness areas in Asia, Africa and Australia, all have been exceptionally beautiful but this really does take the prize as the most unspoilt and pristine area we have yet visited. As we meander up the river, the forest just seems to go on forever. We see very few other boats or people and feel very privileged to be in such isolation, so far from any real impact of man. We are in a large motorised canoe which, because it is the dry season and water levels are low, has to wind its way through the shallow areas. The river varies in width from around 50 metres to over 300 metres and it is very easy to see the flood plain where the river reaches in the rainy season when the level rises by 2 or 3 metre and the width of the river quadruples in places. All along the river there are giant trees semi submerged in the river where they have been washed away in previous season. On virtually everyone of these trees, large and small are perched cormorants waiting to catch fish.

    One thing which is immediately noticeable and a bit of a surprise, is how cold it is. The sun is shining but we are wrapped up in fleeces and jacket as it is so cold on the river. The weather seems to fluctuate between very hot (30c) and very cold (10c). Thankfully though, the humidity appears to be very low. Not at all what we were expecting.

    The boat is manned by two people, the guy operating the outboard motor and the man at the bows whose job it is to spot the shallow parts and direct the driver using barely perceptible hand signals, to avoid the places where the boat would bottom out. In a lot of places the water is to shallow for the outboard to operate so the guy at the front has to use poles to punt the boat through. In one part the water is just too shallow for us so we have to disembark and walk a while.

    Along the way it is incredibly relaxing just to sit and watch the rainforest slip by as we move up river, although there is one bit of excitement as we spot a family of wild pigs swimming across the river. The boatman stops a while to let us watch as the family of three pigs, mummy, daddy and baby pig swim across the fast moving river. It is touch and go for a while but all three eventually make it only for baby pig to go off in an entirely different direction from mum and dad!! How it turned out we will never know!

    The trip up the river has been an event in itself but eventually we arrive at our home for the next 5 days which is only marked by a giant tree trunk on the bank which is used as a landing stage. A short walk up the bank and we are greeted by our guide, Raoul who shows us around the lodge which is basically comprised of four buildings, two for bedrooms, one shower block and one for a kitchen dining block. The accommodation is basic but very comfortable and very well run by the San Jose community who run and own the other lodges in the park including the famous ( and expensive !) Chalalan Lodge.

    After a very welcome lunch (the food here turns out to be really very good!) we set off with Raoul for a 3 hour walk into the jungle along one of the dozen or so trails which lead out from the lodge. Our first task is to learn to walk quietly so as not to frighten away the animals. Not easy given that the forest floor is covered with leaves, twigs, branches and just about everything else that makes a noise. Gradually, over the next few days we manage to get the hang of it and it becomes a bit of a competition to see who can make the least noise.

    Unlike, say Africa where the animals are abundant and are mostly to be found on open plains, spotting the wildlife here is a lot more challenging and we watch and learn as Raoul showed us how to identify the animals usually by sound, sometimes by smell and ultimately by sight.

    Sighting the animals, exciting though it is, is not the main reason for coming here. Just being able to walk in one of the few, virtually untouched, areas of rainforest in the world, is, in itself reason enough to come just to marvel at the incredible diversity of vegetation that surrounds us. Over the coming days we will get to walk in many different areas, all of which are a little different. Different types of trees, plants and vines etc. as well as different habitats for the various animals and birds. One area seems to be the domain of howler monkeys, another capuchin monkeys etc.. The one thing they all have in common however, is insects, particularly mosquitoes ( although, nowhere near as may as we had feared). Having contracted malaria once before, I am in no rush to experience it once again and fortunately it is not prevalent in this area, although dengue fever is so we are ultra careful to spray deet copiously over our exposed skin.

    As we hike, increasingly quietly through the forest Raoul explains to us a little of his culture and how his community is spread out in settlements throughout the entire park, the furthest being some 9 hours upriver close to the Andean foothills. Communication between the communities is by shortwave radio at set times throughout the day. Some settlements have only got electricity (via generators) in the last year or two. All this adds to the feeling of splendid isolation, no telephone, no Internet, no post! All the supplies for the lodge are brought in by boat along with the guests from Rurrenbaque and all refuse is taken out the same way meaning that the environment is maintained in pristine condition.

    Despite having to bring everything in by boat an cooking over a combination of open and gas fires, the food here is the best we have experienced in Bolivia, a country where, in many places, customer satisfaction or service standards are not high priorities. This small, community run lodge could teach the rest of the Bolivian tourism industry a great deal on how to look after guests. Nothing is too much trouble and everyone we come into contact with has a smile on their face.

    After a couple of days we head out for a night hike into the jungle ( it reminds us a little of our very first night scuba dive- very spooky!). Before we set of Raoul tells us to tuck our trousers (pants) into our socks so as not to allow any spiders etc. to creep into any places we wouldn't want!! With this in mind we are ultra cautious not to brush against any leaves which, on closer inspection are home to some very large spiders and some enormous ants some 2 cms long! The walk is short and only lasts and hour or so but even so, it would be completely impossible without a guide as even after 50 metres or so it would be very difficult to find our way back to camp as the forest is so dense and completely disorientating.

    When we arrived at the camp on our first full day there was just us and three American women, the next day we were joined by a German couple, a Greek couple and two Aussie girls. So for a couple of days only the lodge was 75% full. For our final two days we were on our own (a bit like the final days of "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!") apart from Antonio, the semi-tame Tapir who, having been rescued by the camp staff from the river as a baby, is now a regular visitor to the camp. He usually visits around breakfast time and often creates havoc by running madly around the outdoor cooking area until he is given some bananas. When he is not doing that he like to swim with the staff in the river at sundown.

    We have seen lots of animals during our hikes into the rainforest and trips on the river. The monkeys we stalked included Red Howler Monkeys, Brown Capuchins and Saddleback Tamarins, all completely different and all living in completely separate parts of the forest canopy. Raoul was able to find these mostly just by listening to them chatter far away in the forest canopy. Also in the forest we we able to find many wild pigs or "white Lipped Peccaries" to give them their correct name. these are found in herds of up to two hundred, usually by listening for the very loud sound of them crunching a particular type of nut, which at first sounded like a machine gun! On the riverbanks we came across Capybaras and a few pigs swimming as well some Brocket Deer.

    Around the camp we often saw Antonio the tapir as well as red squirrels, numerous lizards and lots of birds, butterflies.

    This place is a paradise for bird watchers we saw countless different birds including:

    Dusky Billed and Amazonian Parakeets
    Blue and yellow macaws
    Green and red macaws
    Serary
    Ringed Kingfisher
    green Kingfisher
    Stink bird
    Orinoco goose
    Orupendula
    Grey black hawk
    Snowy egret
    Anhinga
    Aracari
    Guan
    Red necked woodpecker
    Black, King and Turkey vultures
    Tropical king bird
    Social flycatcher
    Cormorants
    Capped and white necked heron
    Great tianoli
    Swallow tanager
    Parakeets

    Our guide was able to identify all of these without batting an eyelid and would give us a rundown of the background of each species.

    The animals we did not get to see but live in the area included, ocelots, puma and jaguar although we were shown their hideouts in old tree trunks. Armadillos, although we did see many of there burrows as well as evidence of anteaters digging holes all around the lodge in search of their prey.

    Throughout our walks we would come across the "highways" created by the armies of leaf cutter ants carrying pieces of leaf 10 or 20 times there size to their nests. These highways were around 4 inches wide and often stretched for a very long way into the forest until they reached their giant nests. We were also shown the giant ants sometimes 2 cms in length and very poisonous with the excruciating pain from the bites lasting up to 9 hours.

    Despite the abundance of insects in the forest, I managed to escape without too many bites ( v. unusual for me) Carolyn was not as lucky with around 200 on her legs at the last count!

    Tomorrow, even further upriver to Santa Rosa Lake..

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    Oh this is so great, thanks Crellston - even a bird list! Sounds just like I had imagined. Glad to know there a less expensive alternative to Chalalan too. Sorry to hear about those insects, though. . ..

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    SANTA ROSA LAKE

    On our penultimate day we have decided that rather that more hiking, we will take a boat ride a couple of hours further upriver to Santa Rosa lake. Along the way we see yet more beautiful amazon basin vistas along the river. I don't think we could ever get tired of this scenery! Eventually we arrive at our base for getting to the lake a disused lodge owned by a Frenchman who died 10 years ago. This was the first lodge in the region and probably pre dates the national park itself. I can totally see why they decided on this spot, on a hill overlooking the lake as the views are spectacular out across the lake and up the river to the Andes.

    We spend an hour or so exploring this forgotten lodge and its grounds which still contain lots of coffee bushes and the drying sheds which are still used to produce a small amount of coffee. Around the grounds are lots of wild fruit trees, orange, mandarin, grapefruit etc. We pick a couple of grapefruit from the tree and they are so juicy and sweet! Never before have I seen so much juice come out of a fruit. Just by cutting it in half the juice was running down our arms! These fruit trees also attract hundreds of butterflies in all shapes and sizes as well as many different varieties of birds we had not seen before.

    After a while, we return to a disused hut to eat our picnic out of the sun. The weather has been getting hotter and hotter over the last couple of days and today it is up in the 30s but still low humidity.

    After lunch it is a short walk to our dugout canoe on the lake for some piranha fishing. The lake really is beautiful and so very quiet. The only noise was the swish of the paddles in the water and the breeze rustling in the trees at least it was until a flock of blue and green macaws flew over. For such amazingly pretty birds they make the most awful noise!!

    We try several fishing spots around the lake but after an hour or two, absolutely not a hint of a fish. We do however see a couple of caimans ( alligators) slinking around. Maybe they have scared off the fish or maybe it is just not our day.. We decide to head back across the lake back to the jetty and a short hike back to the boat to try our luck fishing on the way back down river to the lodge.

    We stop a at a couple of The boatman's favourite fishing spots along the way. At the first spot, nothing. At the second I catch a huge ( well huge to me!) stingray about two feet across, honestly! Sadly, or luckily for the fish I suppose, it is not edible so back he goes. The boatman catches two huge catfish, both escape before being landed but not before one has bitten his finger. We move on again this time the boatmen manages to land a big catfish which we take back to the lodge for dinner.

    Even though the fishing wasn't a total success, we have had a thoroughly enjoyable day and our now looking forward to barbecued catfish for dinner.

    Our last dinner in the lodge was every but as good as anticipated. The weather obliged by being cool and dry with totally clear skies which brought out the stars in force and later a full moon which cast the most incredible shadows across the camp.

    The next morning we take a short boat ride up the river for another hike into a different part of the forest after which we return to camp for lunch and then to return to Rurrenbaque with the rest of the staff as they have no more guests after us for a few days. We have enjoyed all the places we have visited on this trip so far, some more than others obviously, but this is the first time we have both been sad to leave a place. Maybe its the people, maybe the place. Probably both. so glad we came to Madidi and that we chose this lodge. I have no doubt that Chalalan would have been more luxurious ( at a price) but I doubt the service and experience could have been any better.

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    Susan, prepared? Who said I was ever prepared? I suppose I just sat down and worked out, with the help of people here, a rough itinerary with the intention, not only of travelling but of seeing whether we could find anywhere in SA that we would like to live and maybe start a business ( a guesthouse or similar). I don't use the"R" word as it all started off a few years ago as a career break to do some voluntary work in Africa, I just never went back!
    No we don't really have a permanent home as such, although we do pop back to England from time to time.

    Mlgb. You really are a hard task master!! It has been a bit of a challenge sorting out where to go next but here is the next installment ( un-edited ). Having just returned from Uyuni to Tupiza I have lots more to write up before heading off to Argentina but am in desperate need of a shower right now...

    SUCRE


    There are a number of ways to get from Rurrenabaque to our next chosen destination of Sucre, the capital of Bolivia and a UNESCO World Heritage site on the basis of its colonial architecture. Unfortunately all of these involve long and uncomfortable bus journeys. I am all for land travel and always avoid flying where possible partly to reduce my effect on the environment, but mostly because land travel is a far better way to see the country and meet its people. All bus options would have involved journeys of around 24 hours or more so we chickened out and decided to fly.

    We having purchased our tickets before going into the jungle, we turned up at the appointed hour a the Amazonzas office in Rurre Main Street to catch the bus to the airport. It took us by surprise when the entire staff of the office shut up shop and jumped in the bus with us. On arrival, they jumped out and hurried to the "terminal" (small shed) to check us in! Thankfully this aircraft's engines started and we were on our way to Sucre via La Paz. The flight takes us from the jungle to one of the highest airports in the world and the flight seems to skim the Andes along the way. Quite spectacular, or at least it would have been but we could barely see out of the windows as they were so scratched!

    We had a couple of hours wait in El Alto airport and were a bit concerned about the altitude as we had been down at virtually sea level for a couple of weeks. Surprisingly, we were not affected in the slightest even though the airport is at 4000m above sea level. Maybe it was because we had been a altitude for several months beforehand. Anyway, after sorting out a mix up with our luggage by Amaszonas ( we had checked it through to Sucre but a sixth senses told me to go and wait by the carousel and, sure enough one of our bags turned up there!) after a surprisingly good lunch in the airport and catching up on a few emails, news etc., we jump on the 40 minute hop for an uneventful flight to Sucre. Or so we thought!! Upon landing, about halfway along the runway, everyone's head snaps to the right, there is a sharp intake of breath from every passenger on the plane as we all see the Aerocon plane, a bit bent, at right angles to the runway, pointing downwards by about 30 degrees into a ditch!! And we thought Amaszonas were a rubbish airline! We see in El Correo the next morning that the flight a few hour before our veered off the runway upon landing due either to mechanical failure or pilot error ( either way the poor pilot wasn't having a great day).

    Finally we arrive at our hostal for the next week, La Dolce Vita. Run by a Swiss couple , Jacqueline and Oliver, this is a really pleasant surprise at a bargain price. After showing us to our very spacious room on the first floor around a very pleasant courtyard ( with absolutely the best showers in the whole of Bolivia!), Jacqueline gives us a map an provides us with a pretty comprehensive run down on what to see in Sucre and where to eat etc. without a doubt the nicest hosts and the best hostal we have stayed in so far.

    Sucre is a very pleasant town with a great vibe to it and we feel instantly at home. Loads of restaurants to choose from, the central market is just around the corner and we have the use of a nice kitchen in the hostal so at least we won't go hungry here.

    On the subject of food, we missed going to Cochabamba the gastro capital of the country but this place must run a close second. In addition to shopping in the market and cooking for ourselves we eat out at a variety of restaurants from the very cheap $1.50 Almuerezos in the market to the excellent Nouvelle Cuisine - never before was a restaurant more misnamed. The decor is no great shakes. White plastic outdoor table, grubby tablecloths and an interior that may well have been a converted garage, but the food is exceptional, pretty much all meat, but exceptional meat with obligatory fries and cheesy rice and a great salad buffet. An enormous fillet steak, costillas ( beef ribs) - 9 ribs which must have weighed at leas a kilo, a bottle of very good Bolivian wine all for 100 bolivianos about £10 ($15). I confess we did return more than once.

    Apart from the food (did I mention the fantastic chocolate shops all around the city?) Sucre is the sort of place you can just wander around popping into museums and churches or just sit in the main square or one of the parks with an ice cream ( food again!). We visited a number of museum but the one that really stood out was the Museo de Ethnografia and Textiles. The area surrounding Sucre is surrounded by villages which are famous for the best handwoven textiles in South America and this museum really brings to life the beauty and intricacy of those textiles. It inspires us to go and visit one of the villages out in the countryside, but more of that later.....

    Another memorable visit was to San Fellipe Convent in the centre of town, not so much for what was inside (no offence to the resident nuns intended) but more for being able to get on to the roof of the building, itself very impressive, arched and domed but you are still able to walk over virtually all of the way around. best of all are the the magnificent views of the city and the cordillera beyond.

    MANAGUA CRATER

    One of the most popular tours on offer from agencies in the city is to Managua Crater combined with a trip to a "weaving village" in the crater and a 2 hour hike down the Inca Trail the crater. After checking out a number of operators we settle on dealing with Eclipse Travel, seemingly nice people and a reasonable price.

    On the night before the tour there are massive thunderstorms and torrential rain but, as agreed we get up to meet the guide as arranged at 6.30pm. He arrives on the dot to tell us that it is not safe to go because of the rain and that he will return at 11.00 and if it is ok then we will go, if not we will postpone till another day.

    We meet at the office of the tour operator and it is still looking grim but the owner assures us that it is safe to go as the weather is always different out at the crater. Five set off to the great, still not entirely convinced that it is ok but the guide assures us that it will get better (why we believed this BS, I really don't know as were are not usually that gullible. Anyway, you guessed it, we arrive at the start of the trail and stand around a church, probably built in the 70s, in the the pouring rain and low cloud while our guide tries his best to convince us it is in the slightest bit interesting. He fails miserably, we ask again if it is ok to go on. Of course it is! Off we set in the gloom and ever darkening clouds down the Inca trail.

    On the way down the trail I asked why there are lots of areas of scorched grass and exploded trees all over the place and a smell of smoke in the air. Pedro explain that this is due to the thunderstorms last night and this particular mountain being renowned for attracting lighting as it is "magnetic" due to the iron in the ground. Hello Pedro!!!! What about the pouring rain and the rumblings of thunder??? There must have been literally hundreds of lightning strikes last night from the top of the mountain virtually to the bottom?

    We are not by any stretch of the imagination "nervous travellers" having travelled to some of the most remote areas in the world and having taken more risks that is perhaps sensible, but I really do object to other people taking risks on our behalf. Another couple had started the trek by saying that "the weather doesn't bother us" etc.. After 20mins, after we had all slipped over on the wet rock and the rain got worse, they changed their viewpoint somewhat.

    We eventually made it intact to the bottom, cold and wet but looking forward to lunch and the trip to the said weaving village. First, we had to get there. This involved a trip in a mini bus (did I mention that it had 4, not 5 seats?), so I had to sit on the edge of two seats sandwiched between Carolyn and a Belgian lady, normally I would not have complained but we were travelling up, down and around sharp bends on the worst mud roads I have yet experienced in this country, all the time literally on the edge of two seats! as the rain poured the streams started to flow across the road. Eventually we made it to the "weaving village" in the middle of the crater. The crater was one of the most desolate places we have yet visited dark brown mud as far as the eye could see and the village was just collection of concrete block buildings, rather than the quaint collection of adobe houses we were expecting.

    Pedro announced that it was time for "lunch" and suggested we sat down on the floor outside one of these buildings ( in the pouring rain) . He then passed around our "lunch" one hamburger bun in which was one, almost transparent slice of some unknown fluorescent pink processed meat. This was the point at which I lost it! Those who know me well will probably ask why it took so long. I really don't know the answer to that, perhaps I was subconsciously trying to attune myself to the Latin way. Anyway after suggesting to him what he could do with his sandwich I asked him to let us back into the minibus where we could sit out the rest of the tour in the dry.

    When the others went of for an hour to wander around the village we sat in the bus with the driver and had our very own Spanish practice with him as we discussed everything from our families to Bolivian politics, his culture and the places we had been in his country. By far the most enjoyable part of the day.

    The others returned and we headed back the way we had come to Sucre. The rain was worse, the clouds had come down making visibility around 10m and the streams were now gushing across the road. As we were going up the mountain around the many hairpins the minibus was sliding all over the road coming very, very close to going over the edge into the valley below on more than one occasion. We got stuck several times and the driver and guide had to get out and clear the mud off the tyres. By this time I was getting a tad concerned as were the other passengers judging by the white knuckles gripping the seats etc.

    Throughout all this the windscreen was steamed up making it impossible to see out. When. Told the guide to clear the window, "no problema, tranquillo" ( it's not a problem, keep calm) I wont write my response hear for fear of upsetting the moderators)

    Eventually, we did make it back to the city where there was a complete power blackout! What's that Lou Reed song? Perfect day...

    When we relayed the tale to Jaqueline our host, she volunteered to come with us the following day to the tour operator to explain what had happened and hopefully get a refund. She warned us that the Bolivian way is to deny everything, even the weather, which of course is exactly what happened!

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    I had white knuckles just reading this, Crellston. Very glad you made it back in safety...and didn't deny it all to us :-)

    Such a fascinating report; this installment as the others. Gracias.

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    Wow, "guide" should be in quotes, eh?

    I listened to a lady on the tourist bus to Tarabuco who had been on a trek from Sucre. Late start, bad weather, "guide" got lost, etc.

    Bolivia can definitely be a challenge. Some days chicken, some days feathers, as they say.

    Hope your Salar tour went better!

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    Glad you are enjoying the TR. thankfully the Salar tour was less traumatic but much more memorable. But first a few days in Tupiza..

    We decided not to bother with Potosi and got the bus straight to Tupiza which passed through the town on the way. Famous as a silver mining town it was once the richest city in South America, now the silver has long gone, it is much as one would imagine a derelict mining town to be, dusty and run down. It is still possible to go down the mines to watch the miners working and there is apparently a nice colonial centre to the town but we have seen enough of colonial buildings for the time being and were keen to get back to nature.

    Our 8 hour journey to Tupiza was not on one of Bolivia's finest buses and to say it dragged was a major understatement! After around four hours we arrived in Potosi for a 5 minute toilet break (not a minute too soon as far as I was concerned!). Carolyn was not so lucky as all the women's toilets were locked so she had to dash around the station looking for one whilst I and and American guy prevented the bus from leaving. Travel in Bolivia is never dull.

    Surprisingly, there was a lunch break 30 mins out of Potosi. Having come prepared with sandwiches we just sat on the bus. However, I could not resist a peek at the toilets by the side of the restaurant. The worst ever! No doors ( which caused the Bolivian lady sitting there, no small embarrassment when I walked past!), facing directly on to the highway 10 yards away as buses and trucks zoomed past and they had not seen any cleaning in at least a year. We saw better facilities in the back streets of Bo when we were in Sierra Leone.

    We arrived in Tupiza and headed to Hotel Mitru which we had booked for the next couple of days while we sorted out a tour of South Western corner of Bolivia and the legendary Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world.

    After a very welcome shower we head straight out to explore the town and get a beer and something to eat. Tupiza it turns out is a very pleasant little town and the main activities seem to be centred around the provision of tours to the Salar as an alternative to the usual base of Uyuni itself. Lots of small restaurants around offering the usual overpriced pizza but we settle on a bar/restaurant/karaoke place called The Alamo. We stay for a few hours, The food was ok but mainly because showing on the massive TV was a concert in the White House hosted by Barack Obama honouring Sir Paul McCartney who was being receiving his Gershwin award. Not a great fan of his but the guests were very good and included two of my favourite artists, Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello. A quite unexpected treat.

    The next day after visiting the the shortlist of two tour operators we decide to go with Tupiza Tours the oldest established operator in town. That safely booked for the next day we head off into the Quebrada de Palmire outside of town on a couple of horses. With the memory of our last horse riding experience still firmly fixed in my mind we opt for the gentle 3 hour ride rather than the all day excursion. The horses are placid enough and our guide takes us out into the canyons just out of town. The desert scenery is remarkable, weird rock formations carved by the wind like something out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, unsurprising really as this is where the two of them met their end at the hands of the Bolivian army!

    Our ride takes us out to the dead end of a canyon where our guide announces that we have 20 mins to explore on our own. He then lays down to take a nap whilst we explore on foot for a while. We sit and enjoy the silence and then decide to head back. We first have to wake our guide who, by now, is fast asleep! Now extremely confident of my horse-riding skills, I attempt to mount all by myself and end up doing a virtual somersault over the horse, much to the concern of both my horse and our guide!

    As we ride back we pass through the Valle de Macho (valley of the males) also known as the Valle de Penes because of the rock pillars shaped like...... Interesting scenery bit we have only just scratched the surface of what Tupiza has to offer. The surrounding scenery truly is world class and I am sure it won't be too long before Bolivia and the world catches on to this and develops its tourism infrastructure more.

    A great way to spend an afternoon and a very nice way to enjoy the scenery although I manage to allow my horse, though my own inattention and lack of riding skills, to take me through a very prickly thorn tree on the way back. Paul Newman and Robert Redford never had to put up with this, i am sure! Next, the southwest circuit and Salar de Uyuni.

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    I am ashamed to admit that I am laughing out loud imagining the summersault over the horse.

    I'll bet I know where those loos were. We were warned away from some at a rest stop between Potosi and Uyuni on the bus ride from hell. Locals suggested it would be better to go round the far side of the bus instead. Luckily it was dark and had not started to rain/sleet/hail yet.

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    "Laughing out loud" mlgb, I bet not as much as my wife was at the time!! The guide was mostly with pacifying the horse. Much happier when the saddle is attached to a motorbike!

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    Oh no! I've decided that we're going to go horseback riding in Ecuador and I was already nervous!

    Mind you, your somersault doesn't sound as bad as the toilets - I mean, really - you'd have to be desperate to use them.

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    Bolivia is a wonderful place, "intriguing" yes, harder to travel around also. . Madidi was excellent and the Southwest circuit inc. Uyuni exceeded all expectations and defies description, although I will try later!

    Crosscheck, we are already in NW Argentina and loving it. We spent a couple of days in Salta before driving the southern circuit. The food here is SO good, it will be hard to leave.

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    Are you still alive crellston, your fans await.

    When you return to Lima, I recommend a visit to the Barranco neighborhood and my favorite sandwich spot, Monstruous. They have no seating, it is amusing to see the nice cars lines up outside and everyone eating the sandwiches. I may have to hit them up once more before I leave. My preference is pavo.

    The are right on Ave Grau at Pierola.

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    I am still alive mlgb. I have been too busy eating steak in Argentina and be amazed at the high prices in Chile to post much np but am now getting back on track!

    Monstrous is now on the list! Shame our visits did not coincide, it would have been good to meet up. Maybe next time ..



    At 8.30am we meet Alfredo and Liboria our guide and cook for the next four days. We have deliberately not chosen an English speaking guide so as to improve our Spanish. As it turns out, Alfredo is a great guide and takes the trouble to speak slowly so we can understand and, as we will find out later, Liboria is a great cook. We take our seats in the back of the Toyota Landcruiser and off we set into the wilderness. Leaving Tupiza at 2600m we will ascend a further 2600m to our highest point on the altiplano. We are also expecting much lower temperatures than the 30c we are leaving behind.

    One of the reasons for choosing to tour the south west circuit of Bolivia from Tupiza, apart from being close to the Argentine border, is that we will be going against the flow of other travellers who mostly start of in Uyuni and so will see fewer travellers at the major sights along the way.

    On the first day, as we head out through the Quebrada de Palala certainly seems we see virtually no one as we continue on and upwards through the mountains and high plains towards El Sillar, The Saddle where the track straddles a narrow ridge between two peks and two valleys stopping now and again to admire the spectacular views, the first of many amazing places we will pass through.

    After a few hours we eventually arrive at our lunch spot of a small, desolate village ( not even sure it had a name!) of adobe houses surrounded by sand, rock, desert scrub and a few alpacas. We are sent for a walk while Liboria prepares lunch. It takes all of 5 minutes, so we stop and play with some of the kids, who, despite their desperately poor living conditions, seem to be perfectly happy playing with and old bike.

    Lunch is really excellent, chicken potatoes, quinoa and one of the best salads we have had in South America. After lunch we ask Alfredo where the toilets are. Stupid question apparently! There are none. We are advised to "go natural". Only then, when in search of a spot safe from prying llama eyes do we appreciate how poverty stricken this place really is. No sanitation whatsoever means human waste spread everywhere around the village. Not pleasant for us, but a major health hazard for the inhabitants. Very sad and very concerning in a country that has abundant natural resources. No wonder there is a revolution every other year on average.

    We are making good progress so Alfredo decides we should push on and get some more miles on the clock so as to get an early start on the next days sights. We drive on for another hour or so before reaching the deserted city of San Antonio. Some walls are still standing, notably parts of the churches (why so many we wonder?). We explore for 20 mins or so and it is easy to see why the Spanish built a town here as the views are spectacular. Apparently they deserted the place be cause it was too cold. Something you would have thought they would have thought of over the years spent building the place! When exploring the ruins we came across the one of the few signs of life so far, two "viscartus" a bit like large rabbits with very bushy tails who were playing in the rocks. They seemed not at all bothered by our presence and we could get quite close to them

    As we drive on through the mountains we are well and truly into the altiplano at around 4000+ metre. As the sun sets, the views are even more incredible and we roll into the village where we will be staying for the night, again , not sure of its name or even whether I has one. Alfredo leaps out of the jeep and bags us the only double room with, astoundingly, an en suite bathroom. What a star this guy is!

    Liboria comes to find us and tells us to go to the comedor where she has set up a table for afternoon tea and coffee. How very civilised! Soon we are joined by another jeep from Tupiza tours containing an Irish couple, an English girl and a French Canadian guy and all of us sit down and swap experiences for the day before and excellent dinner cooked by our excellent cooks. After dinner there is a briefing on what we will be doing for the next day and then off to our rooms for an early night. Unfortunately for Alfredo he has been having a few problems with the engine so he has to spend a few hours fixing it in the dark and freezing cold.

    Back in our room where there is no heating the temperature is much the same as outside (-8c as we will find out the next day). Not to worry as we have loads of blankets, sleeping bags and thermals, which, it turns out, I will not remove for the next four days!!! Overnight we were perfectly cosy and were relieved to find out that the accommodation was nowhere near as basic as some had led us to believe.

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    I am sorry too but your report on Ecuador has motivated me to go there, so I have just a few more days in Peru.

    I am now in Ayacucho which is fantastic, very few other tourists and beautiful colonial center (less the excavation for a new flood control viaduct thru the center). Perhaps you can work in a few days on your way back to Lima. Molina has at least two day buses that leave from near Pisco at 11am and 12 am approx. I will write a little report to inspire. Maybe this will be your dream home?

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    Your post is very timely mlgb. We find ourselves with some time to fill between Arequipa and Lima and I was just looking at options today! I was thinking of maybe flying up to Columbia for a week or two but flight are so expensive. Will have a look at Aycucho. Also, am I right in thinking you did a homestay out in the. Colca canyon area??

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    UYUNI DAY TWO
    We woke early, partly because of the cold and the altitude but mainly because at 5.30am on the dot, some lunatic started playing Amazing Grace over the village public address system. This was quickly followed by a sermon, then something remarkably akin to an Islamic Imam's call to morning prayers and the the sort of chanting one hears from a Cantor in a synagogue. Seemed like whoever was responsible wanted to cover all the possible bases. When I mentioned it to Alfredo, who was clearly unhappy at being woken well before dawn, he grumbled something about protestors ( I think he meant Protestants!)

    A nice breakfast and were off again into the wild blue yonder. If we thought the scenery yesterday was impressive, today's proved simply breathtaking. Our first stop, after an hour or so way at a sort of corral for llamas and alpacas. They were all hemmed in by drystone walls, ready for what I am not sure? There didn't seem to be anyone around to look after them but, given they had nowhere to go, it was a good opportunity for some close up photos. We had seen hundreds, if not thousands of Alpacas, llamas and vicuñas the previous day but this was the first time up close.

    We explained to Alfredo and one of the other guides how popular alpacas farms had become in the UK and how much an animal would cost (up to £7000 for a prime breeding animal). Within two minutes they were planning how they could get some animals from Bolivia to England!

    After a short while we set off again through what I can only describe as a swamp area. Lots of grassy tufts surround by water, some snow and a lot of ice. Indeed, were warned before we set out that we may not be able to follow our set route as the previous week there had been heavy snowfall on some of the passes we would be travelling. As it turned out, although there was still a lot of snow and ice around in places, we were able to get through ok.

    Moving on we pass pass by many lagoons surrounded many volcanoes. Lagunas Morejon, Hedriona, Kollpa to name but a few. Some inhabited by thousands of flamingoes, most edged with mineral deposits as this is one of the most mineral rich areas in the world. We stop at one lagoon, the Salar de Chawari surrounded with massive deposits of blindingly white (praise be to Raybans!) Borax, left behind by evaporation of the lake which, I am reliably informed is essential in the manufacture of everything from gunpowder, to makeup to detergent.

    On the subject of evaporation, whilst many people suffer from the effects of altitude at these heights, what the guide books largely fail to mention are the effects of the incredibly dry atmosphere. At virtually zero % humidity the air seems to suck the moisture out of your body, leaving very dry eyes, noses, throats etc. which coupled with the aforementioned altitude can make sleeping very difficult. I seem to be getting through at least a litre of water throughout the night with the inevitable side effects! Not a great experience, nipping to the bathrooms at -10-20 degrees centigrade!

    We were expecting a lot of Salar de Uyuni, but hadn't really given much thought to the other sights along the way. As we approached Laguna Verde for the first time at 4530 metres above sea level it quite simply took our breath away, both literally and figuratively! One of the most beautiful sights we had ever seen! The green colour is due to the concentrations of Sulphur, Lead, Magnesium and Arsenic ( not great to drink then!). as the wind gets ups and blows across the surface the water seems to change colour. the constant wind, combined with the very high mineral content means that the lake stays liquid even at tempertures as low as minus 70f. Immediately behind the lake, Volcán Licancabur rises to a spectacular 5960m. The photos we have taken really do not do it justice. Truly one of the most memorable places we have ever visited.

    Reluctantly leaving the lake we backtrack to the hot springs we passed along the way for lunch Alfredo suggest a dip in the springs prior to lunch but we all wimp out as, although the water is warm there is a strong and very cold wind blowing which sort of negates the purpose of a soak in the water ( although a few hardy souls did try it).

    After lunch we continue on our journey around the circuit in the afternoon our first stop is the Geisers Sol De Mañana. These geyser are bubbling various coloured muds and spouting steam all over the place. The sight is impressive but the smell, I could well do without. The inevitable sulphur in the mud and water really does smell like rotten eggs and takes me back immediately to chemistry lessons at school. A group of us spend some time wandering around admiring the geysers, one or two (i.e., me) narrowly miss slipping into the boiling mud.

    Our final stop of the day is to visit Laguna Colorada, the red lagoon. This fiery red lake covers some 60 sq. kms. but is only about 80 cms deep. The red coloration is derived from plankton an algae. The edges of the lake are fringed brilliant white with deposits of sodium, magnesium and borax. After walking around part of the lakeshore we head off to our Hostal for the night which overlooks the lake itself.

    After dinner, a few of us take a short walk out from the hostal away from the lights to admire the stars. At this altitude there is little or no industrial pollution, humidity is zero and there is next to no light pollution. All these factors combine to make this one of the best palaces in the world to stargaze. I simply cannot find the words to describe the night sky here. As a our eyes become accustomed, we can actually see that what we at first assumed was wisps of cloud, was actually the Milky Way! A few meteors streaked across the sky and Carolyn is chatting with one of the guides who then points out the various constellation ( some of which seem very familiar even though this is the Southern Hemisphere) and Jupiter, shining very brightly, something, I at least have never seen before.

    After a while, the temperature begins to drop rapidly and when I mention this to a to a Canadian guy I have been standing with he simply says "cold? don't ever come to Canada in winter"!

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    Really, Crellston, you should be publishing this beyond your blog and Fodors...it's a page turner of a TR, and your loyal fans await each installment eagerly. So many will benefit from your able descriptions.

    Bravo ! Keep it up, please.

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    crellston are you a bit accident prone?Gkad thecflamingos were around for you. The Laguna Colorado was my favorite, I would have loved to stay somewhere with a view. It was a bit less frigid when I went and the hot springs were well worth the dip.

    I did not do a homestay in Colca. The price offered by Giardino was too tempting at the time , approx $50 for transfer, guide and hotel. I spent a second night in Yanque where there are several hotels and smaller lodgings. However I am betting that prices have gone up since my visit since CC seems firmly on the tourism circuit. Eg they tripled to boleto to 75 soles pp just to enter the canyon! I will write a little trip report know but it is hunt and peck on the IPad. I have decided my next excursion is to return to Ayacucho and go onward to Huancavelica (reputed to be spectacular) and then Huancayo.

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    Marnie, you are too kind ( but maybe Fodors editors will read your comment and offer me a job!)

    Susan, the guy was French Canadian, not sure if that makes a difference!

    You area welcome glover and thanks! If it wasn't for your post I would never have considered. Madidi.

    Mlgb, yes I am accident prone. On our RTW trip five years ago my wife started compiling this list,

    http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/candcthai/1/1199245860/tpod.html

    Thankfully she gave up adding to it or it would now be much, much longer!!

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    Your list of mishaps is hysterical! You are brave to solider on despite the cuts and bruises and of course the embarrassment. I considered myself amazingly lucky not to have had some sort of accident in VN -- crazy drivers.
    Continuing to be fascinated by your TR.

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    UYUNI DAY 3

    After another very cold night ( -18c) another early start as we head of to the Piedra de Arbol, not so much a petrified forest as a lot of stone columns carved into some impossible shapes by the desert wind and ice. These monolith are very imposing and it almost seems like a set from one of the Star Wars movies. There is just so much to see on this plateau!

    We move on, running more or less parallel to the mountains along the border between Bolivia and Chile when Alfredo insists we stop so Carolyn and I can "jump over the Andes into Chile". In other words he wants to take one of the freaky photographs that are de rigueur on these trips. We oblige and sure enough he manages to capture us jumping over the mountains ( or in my case, almost! I had sprained my ankle a few weeks previously tripping down some steps in La Paz!).

    Back in the jeep and we continue across the altiplano to the series of three soda lakes, all famed for their resident flamingo populations. Along the way we drive along a dry riverbed which is now solid ice because the recent snowfalls which prevent travellers taking this route only last week have thawed and refrozen. The snow in parts is still quite deep and, driving along a mini canyon we get to examine some giant icicles.

    When we reach the three lakes, all are stunning and all contain thousands of flamingos. We arrive so early in the morning that the flamingoes have yet to wake up and are mostly standing, huddled together in the centre of the lake. After 20 minutes or so they magically wake up, stretch their wings and fly off to a different part of the lake. By the time we get to the third lake they are all well awake and feeding around the edges of the algae and plankton rich lake. Even in Africa, I don't think I have seen so many flamingoes.


    We spend quite a bit of time admiring the lakes and the resident avian populations and then wind then head on to the "Dali desert" and its otherworldly rock formations of lava erupting from the volcano and huge lumps of rock blown miles away then carved by the desert winds. We park the jeep under one of these formations and wander off into the desert whilst Liboria prepares lunch of a delicious chicken salad. We eat lunch whilst looking out over the desert and its surreal rock formations and to the still active volcano puffing away a couple of miles distant.

    The distances here are simply vast and we drive for several hours without seeing a soul. Somewhat bizarrely we pass through and army checkpoint which must be hundreds of kilometres from any town or village. Quite what they are checking for I really don't know until we pass over the railway line. Even more bizarrely, there is a large stop across the track. This must be the most redundant stop sign in the world bearing in mind that you can see for 50 miles in any direction and trains only pass a couple of times a week!

    As we passed through the army checkpoint a pack of dogs appear and start Chiang the jeep, barking their heads off! We stop and get out to take photos and to feed our leftover lunch to dogs which have left the comfort of the army buildings in search of some light relief from what must be a pretty boring existence, even for a dog.

    Dogs fed, we carry on to the petrified coral forest. This was quite something. Being keen divers we could easily recognise the reefs and various types of coral covering a vast area. About 60 million years ago place was once a sea before the continental plates collided to create the Andes, leaving behind the coral which, after the water evaporated, I suppose just turned to stone. It really is like diving off of a massive reef, except that there is no water and of course, no fish!

    Driving yet further towards the Salar de Uyuni we hit civilisation again in the form of a very nice lady in a hut on top of a small coral hill. She is the keeper to the coral caves which were discovered in the 1970s by a couple of Bolivian guys. This is the only hill for miles around and as we climb up to the hut we can see for miles and miles. The lady invites us in and sits us down whilst she gives ten minute presentation on how the caves were discovered and the supposed history behind them. All in Spanish, we we quite pleased that we understood most of it!

    Inside the caves, it is much like diving in a coral cave with the different corals all clearly identifiable and, sadly, in much better condition than some undersea dive sites we have dived. On the floor of the caves are dozens of holes which have been dug out and used as burial chambers. All still contain bones and skulls.

    Our next stop is our home for the night, a "salt hotel" built entirely of salt right on the edge of the Salar. Almost everything is built of salt, the rooms, the beds, the tables and benches. The first thing most people seem to do on arrival is to lick the walls, just to check I suppose?

    This place does have the added luxury of hot water which we are assured is both very hot and plentiful. Everyone is desperate to avail themselves of the supposedly copious hot water and immediately jump in as soon as the hot water is switched on. I am naturally cynical of such claims and decide to wait and sure enough, people emerge complaining of the lukewarm water. Oh well, what is one more day without a shower!

    An early dinner and and early night as we are to rise at 5.00 am tomorrow to drive on to the Salar to watch dawn break.Before retiring we take one last stroll outside into the darkness to take a peek at the stars. Sure enough the Milky Way is still as incredible as it was yesterday and tonight we get the added bonus of a few meteors streaking across the sky.

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    UYUNI Day 4

    We get up at 5.00 am and leave the Salt. Hotel to drive out on to the salt flat just as the night sky, almost imperceptibly, starts to change colour. After driving for about an hour across the white expanse we stop and get out of the jeep to watch dawn break. In the space of 20 minutes the sky changes colour through all shades of blue and indigo to bright pink until the sun actually peeps above the horizon. Only then do we get to appreciate the vastness of this place.

    The pure white salt flats cover and area of some 11,000 sq. kms all ringed by mountains in the far distance. The salt is pure white but is tinged pink in the early morning light. Apparently it is 2 metres thick and sits on a sea of salt water. We just stand and marvel at this amazing sight and listen to complete silence, one of the few places in the world where this is still possible.
    We head of deeper into the Salar to Isla del Pescado a small hill/oasis where we and several other jeeps all stop whilst our respective cooks prepare breakfast. Whilst the cooks are about their business we climb up to the top of the hill for spectacular 360 degree views of the Salar. The hill is around 200m high and, I am not sure but was probably once a coral sea mount. Now it is covered with giant cacti, some apparently 500 years old.

    After breakfast we head off in splendid isolation into the salt flats.we drive for an hour or so across the perfect white plains seeing no one else. We eventually stop to take some of the photographs which are de rigueur on a trip Uyuni. Most of the photos on the blog were taken by Alfredo who must have done this hundreds of time before. Some were more successful than others but judge for yourself.

    We continue on our journey to the edge of the Salar, stopping at a small museum ( closed). As we get out of the jeep we meet a couple of cyclists cycling across the Salar from end to end which seems a bit crazy but then we remember our Belgian explorer friend that we kept bumping into around the continent who actually walked from end to end! (I wonder how he is getting on kayaking around Lake Titicaca.)

    We finally reach the edge of the salt flats around midday and head back to civilisation in the form of. Uyuni town. As we drive into the dry dusty town we immediately think that we made the right decision to use Tupiza as our base. It really is a much nicer place to spend a few days. The first thing we notice is that the entire town is surrounded by piles of litter. Why do the people allow their town to get into such a state?

    We drop Liboria off at a small hostel so she can prepare lunch whilst Alfredo takes us off to the "Cementario del Tren", the train graveyard. On the outskirts of the town this dusty place houses countless derelict trains dating back to whenever trains were first used here. A must for any train enthusiast. The trains are in a pretty sorry state but are fascinating nonetheless. Apparently one of the trains bears the bullet holes inflicted by Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, try as we might we couldn't find a trace!

    After our final lunch our tour officially ends but we are hitching a lift back to Tupiza with Alfredo and Liboria. The drive is long, taking around 6 hours. We are happy but exhausted and REALLY looking forward to a hot shower! I can only imagine how tired Alfredo must be feeling having driven all that way with virtually no roads to speak of or indeed, any signposts. I have the greatest admiration for the guy.

    In all, one of the most amazing four days we have spent in many years travelling.

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    We must be on the same wavelength mlgb, just this minute finished! Yes still in Arequipa and loving it!

    Avrooster, no not kidnapped but did serious think about staying around to search for Sundances gun - apparently there is a $2 m reward for the person who can find it - seriously!

    Anyway, the next episode

    FROM BOLIVIA TO ARGENTINA

    We have enjoyed Bolivia immensely but it is time to head on south to Argentina and Salta, a place we loved the last time around. would it be the same?? It is a long journey so we decide that rather than waiting for a bus, to jump in a taxi and get a head start to the border some two hours away. Thankfully, the road to Argentina is one of the few in Bolivia that is halfway decent. We hit the Bolivian border town of Villazòn ( not the complete dump we had been told,) where we change what left of our Bolivanos into Chilean pesos and then cross the bridge on the border.

    We queue for ages as we watch the hundreds of traders carrying all manner of large sacks across the border from Argentina and get chatting to a German couple who seem a bit lost as to where to go next. Eventually we all get to the immigration window and get our exit papers stamped by the Bolivian police. All very straightforward but where to go next for our Argentine paperwork. Everyone else starts to walk off across the bridge towards the Argentine border town of El Quiaca, but, out of the corner of my eye I catch another policeman in a different uniform behind a glass counter, tucked away around a corner next door to the Bolivian guy. No signs or other indications but this is indeed the Argentina immigration office so I call everyone back to get there stamps. We met an Irish couple in Bolivia who were worried sick that coming the other way, they forgot to get their Bolivian stamp. We were all taking the mickey, but so easy to see how that could happen!!

    We walk the mile or so to the bus station to get the bus to Salta. At the station there is the usual bunch of con men all trying to persuade us that their bus was the best/quickest/ cheapest. Eventually we select a "direct" bus to Salta. Five hours later and of course it is not direct and stops in Juyjuy where we have about two minutes to change buses for the next leg to Salta where we will spend a couple of nights sorting out car hire etc. before heading off on a trip to Cafayate and Cachi etc.

    Salta does not seem to have changed much at all. Still one of our favourite cities in South America. Our first job is to change some US$ at the "blue dollar" rate which is some 60% better than the official rate. All highly illegal of course but, given the state of Argentinas economy, all the locals are busy exchanging their pesos into hard currency to protect their cash from yet another catastrophic devaluation that wiped out their savings a few years ago.

    An Argentinian friend had recommended a money exchanger to me so we went to visit him in the back room of a coffee shop to change some $$$ all very easy and much better rates than from an ATM or bank. It makes Argentina an affordable destination. Having said this, we did find out later that the police and security services had organised a crackdown in this area a few weeks ago and were arresting the money exchangers and their customers and carting them of to jail in a fleet of vans!

    Having had a couple of not very good meals in Salta we decided for our last night in town to cook ourselves at the hostal. We went to the supermarket and bought a very large chunk of fillet steak for an absurdly low price of around £5 the same piece back home would have costa round £30! It was superb!

    In the Morning collect our rental car from Hertz and head off to Cachi. The journey takes around 4 -5 hours and the scenery gets more and more interesting as we wind our way into the mountains, stopping along the way to admire the views that so impressed us the last time we visited. Unfortunately, although the skies are blue,everywhere is very hazy due, we think to dust storms blown up by the stronger than usual wind which seems to be affecting the region.
    Parque Nacional los Cardones, a semiarid landscape filled with cacti, sage, and limestone
    Cachi is a small town/large village which has a very pretty plaza surrounded by white buildings including a small church which is standing room only on Sunday morning. We stop for a quick lunch of empanadas before heading of in search of a place to stay. We drive about 10 kms out of town to Finca la Paya, a beautiful place we stayed at on our last visit. Unfortunately it was closed. Worse, although it still seemed to be operating as a hotel, it did seem to have decline somewhat and now looked a bit down at heel. The swimming pool was dirty and the place generally looked a bit scruffy. Not at all how we remembered it. We head back to town and look at a few places before settling on a small hospedaje,Don Arturo. As son as we walk through the door I realise that we had stayed here before! Cachi is more touristy than we remember but we still struggle to find a place to eat. It is not high season and some places are closed. We settle upon Oliver's on the main square and have a really great pizza and a bottle of Malbec. One of the few places in the world I suspect where a great bottle of wine is half the price of the pizza!

    In the morning we decide to head on down Ruta 40 but not before we have visited the cemetery atop the hill outside of town. The road winds around the hill all the way to the top. Along the way there are signs depicting Christ on his way to the crucifixion which gradually get more gruesome as you ascend. Once at the top the views of the town and the quedabra are spectacular, or at least they would be if not for the dust haze.

    The cemetery itself in pretty impressive covering most of the flat top of the hill. Lots of ornate family crypts, some in a good state of repair, some have fallen down exposing the contents!!! Definitely worth a visit but it doesn't always pay to look too closely!

    We leave Cachi on Ruta 40 which is the longest road in Argentina and runs from El Quiaca on the Bolivian border to Ushaia at the southern tip of South America. This is one of one of the greatest drives in the world and we will cover only a small section as we head off towards Cafayate, one of the premier wine growing areas in Argentina.

    The road out of Cachi is just dirt and gravel but in pretty good condition. Nevertheless I am happy we got the additional insurance for the car as stones are flying up and taking chunks out of the paintwork! All good fun pretending to be a driver on the Dakar rally which follows this route along the Valles Calchaquies (even if the car is only a Chevrolet Corsa, at 1400cc, hardly the most powerful car on the road!). An hour or so on we stop off at Molinos, a one horse town if ever there was one, just to admire the church and the Hostal opposite. The church is very pretty and, as it is Sunday,is packed out with people standing outside the doors but as the church only holds about twelve people! it is hardly surprising.

    Continuing on along the winding road, we stop at various places along the way to admire the views which are amazing. Eventually we reach arguably the most scenic part of the route the Quebrada de las Flechas ( the ravine of arrows) where the rocks have been formed by erosion into arrowhead shapes. We climb up to a mirador to take in the views and take some photographs of this incredibly beautiful but barren landscape.

    It is now late afternoon so we press on to Cafayate to find a place to stay for the night. Eventually we leave Ruta 40 and get back onto Tarmac roads. The drive has been fun but it is such a relief not being shaken to bits!

    We decide to spend a couple of days in Cafayate to chill out and sample some of the fantastic wines in the vineyards for which the areas are famous. We find a nice Hostal, La Penable in the corner of the main plaza, dump our bags and head off to a bodega to sample some wines.

    Unfortunately, we have hit Cafayate on a Sunday and Monday when not too many of the bodegas are open. We start off with a small bodega in town, Nanni. One of the cheaper vineyards we sample a number of their wines including a Torrontes, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Malbec. All are pretty good, especially the Torrontes so we buy a bottle for later!

    Over the two days in town we check out a few bodegas and vineyards including;

    El Transito - organic but not great wine
    Dos Hermanos - hugely impressive vineyard and hotel complex out of town, sadly the vineyard was closed!
    El Porvenir - the nicest of the wines we tasted and the most friendly, entertaining guy to show us around.

    Favourite wines? Torrontes reserva and Tannat reserva, both from. El Porvenir

    The next day we decide to walk to a goat farm out of town have a look around. We arrive too early for the tour but they kindly let us have a look around on our own. I am not sure whether there is a breeding season for goats but there are hundreds of baby goats all over the place! In amongst the goat pens there are lots of chickens and ducks as well. The baby goats, some only a few days old, are really cute. Afterwards we spend half an hour chatting to the woman in the shop and sampling some of the numerous varieties of cheese on sale. They are all delicious and quite unlike the goat cheeses we have had back home.


    The last time we stayed in Cafayate, I can recall not being that impressed but this time we really did enjoy it. Not often that the second visit improves ones opinion of a place.

    From Cafayate we return to Salta along RN 68 heading north through the Río Calchaquíes Valley and on to the Quebrada del Río de las Conchas (Canyon of the River of Shells). Lots of interesting crimson covered rock formations, the most interesting are Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat), El Anfiteatro (the Amphitheatre), and Los Castillos (the Castles) all are a lot busier than the last time we were here as we seem to have hit them as the tour groups from Salta arrived.The scenery on this section of the route is particularly impressive.

    Heading back to Salta we have decided to stay with Alex and Rejike at Casa Hernadez in Salta. We stayed with them on our first trip to the region five years ago shortly after they opened and loved the place. We were welcomed like long lost friends and had a really great time staying with them.

    We had one of our best meals on this trip so far at a restaurant recommended by Alex, Tosca, a new parrillada restaurant in San Lorenzo. Highly recommended is their Bife de Chorizo (tasty, tender and enormous!) and their degustation menu, a normal argentine parrilla or mixed grill but delivered piece by delicious piece!

    Returning our rental car, we book our bus tickets to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Thankfully, the mountain passes which had been blocked by snow the previous week have now reopened and we are able to get a bus out early the next morning.

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    A FLEETING TRIP THROUGH NOTHERN CHILE

    An early start to get the bus from the station in Salta to our next destination of San Pedro de Atacama. Fingers crossed that the passes have remained open.

    We head off towards the Andes once more stopping off at Purmarca renowned for its wonderful scenery before windingever upwards through the mountains and crossing the. Salineras Grande the spectacular salt flats ( although not a patch on Uyuni!). As we continue onwards towards the Atacama desert and the border we get to appreciate what a spectacular journey this is. Clearly the guy in the seat in front of us thought so too as he did not stop taking photos for the entire journey ( I do mean entire - 20+ photos before we even left the bus station???).

    Eventually we reach the border. Strange that in the middle of nowhere this is one of the most modern border crossing we have experienced. Just like a modern airport. Once through the immigration procedures we continue on to San Pedro passing through yet more stunning vistas, quite similar to those we experienced in Bolivia which is unsurprising as it is all part of the same geographical area, political borders apart.

    Eventually after a very long journey we arrive in San Pedro, a dusty desert town if ever there was one. The adobe building all look the same and we haven't a clue which way the main square is so, together with a Portuguese woman, we jump into a cab in search of the town plaza. It turns out that the driver doesn't have a clue either so we drive around on a tour of SPdeA for 15 mins!

    Eventually we find the plaza and set off to find a place to stay for the night. We immediately appreciate just how expensive this place is. $75 a night for a place which would have cost $10 in Bolivia and, even in Argentina only $25.

    This place is only small but is heaving with backpackers the "awesome" count as we wander the streets rockets! Eventually we find somewhere to stay, not great but will do for a night or two and then head off for a long overdue beer.

    We find a place on the main square and order two beers. The waiter seems a little put out that we don't want to eat. Halfway through our beers the police arrive and send the entire staff into a panic. Our waiter reruns and begs us to order a bowl of French fries as, if he is caught serving alcohol without food it is an on the spot $200 fine! Seems a bit harsh but we comply anyway.

    We check out a few tours but these seem extraordinarily expensive i.e. three or four times the price of tours elsewhere - welcome to Chile the most expensive country in South America ( although SPdeA is probably the most expensive place in the country). We decide to go with our original plan which is to head straight on to the coastal town of Iquique before heading north to Peru.

    We head off to a couple of bus company offices to buy tickets, checking the prices at a couple. We quickly realise that they are selling out fast and, having put a couple of seats on hold we literally run back to that office ahead of a group of six French backpackers who are also looking for a way out of San Pedro. We get the last two seats to Iquique via the mining town of Calama.

    We had read about Calama and how it was the site of the largest open cast mine in the world but were not prepared to the reality and the sheer size of the mine. It took almost an hour for us to drive past it. The tiny vehicles we saw in the distance, we later saw up close and even the wheels were something like 5 metres in diameter.

    Basically, the drive from San Pedro to Iquique is a drive through the Atacama desert, the driest area on the planet, some parts of which have never seen any recorded rainfall. At first the desert scenery is fascinating, but after. A while it does become a little tedious. The road is at first pretty good but as we approach Iquique, it turns into a very rough road again and we arrive in Iquiue about10.00pm after a 10 hour journey. We dump our bags and immediately head out to a Sushi bar for some much needed raw fish and Sauvignon Blanc.

    Iquiue is a great town to spend a few days. Quite a culture shock aftersome of the more remote places we have been to. This is a modern thriving city with a terrific seafront area complete with pacific rollers crashing in and the usual complement of surfers riding the waves. There is also a nice colonial area not far from where we are staying complete with vintage trams, period casinos and a plethora of nice restaurants. In all a nice place to spend a few days

    Our hotel is in the centre one block back from the sea and we are awoken to the sound of military bands parading up and down practicing for the Independence Day celebrations. Thisturns into a full blown military parade so we go outside and watch for an hour or two as Chile's finest parade up and down strutting their stuff. There seems to be a mix of regular and reserve forces, old and young, male and female, some far more fearsome than others! All very stirring stuff.

    We stay for a few days to sample the terrific fish here and eat several times in the food area of the Mercado Centenario. One stall we go to has a terrific set lunch including the best fish soup we have ever tasted.

    Iquique is definitely worth a visit if travelling through Chile if only for a night. It is time for us to move on for us and we jump on our next bus to Arica, close to the border with Chile. The bus journey was scheduled to take 5 hours but the bus arrives in Iquique 2 hours late. No explanation, but we later found out that the highway from Santiago had been closed due to a large lorry falling over on top of a cabineri car!!! We finally arrive in Arica around 1.00am about three hours late. Thankfully, our hostal owner is around to let us in and even gives us a glass of juice and a slice of cake. Even more surprisingly, when we are shown to our room, we realise that we have stayed here before!!

    In the morning we get our bearings and head off into town which, due to the continuing Independence Day celebrations is closed for three days!! Everybody is busy partying or parading. The army and navy are very much in evidence but are nearly outnumbered by the gauchos and their horses. Quite a mixture and a real party atmosphere which, as we will find out, will continue on until dawn for the next few days. Chile is not the place to catch up on sleep around Independence Day.

    Arica seems a little more grubby than we remember from our last visit with quite a few homeless people on the street, surprising, given that Chile is one of the most developed nations in South America. Nevertheless it is a nice town with a fascinating port and dock area with fish markets and street stalls all around. One of the first stops we make is to see the pelicans and sea lions which inhabit an area right inside of the docks just next to the area where the fishermen clean and prepare their fish. It is possible to get within a couple of feet of the sea lions although anywhere within 10 yards the smell of their "fish breath" is pretty overpowering!

    The fish here is as fresh as it gets and very inexpensive and, despite the aforementioned fish breath, we search around and select a couple of tubs of freshly made ceviche for lunch and a swordfish steak for dinner back at the hostel. The freshest and best fish we have had since a sashimi breakfast in Tokyo's Tsujuki fish market a few years back.

    Over the next couple of days we check out the various sights in Arica, or at least those that are open. One we enjoyed was a walk up to El Morro de Arica a hill right next to the dock area which, after a steep climb, affords great views of the city, beaches and surrounding desert.

    Only a brief vist to Chile and it is time to head for the border once again. We walk to the bus station early in the morning to avoid the Independence Day crowds and get a share taxi to the border where we will cross to the border town of Tacna in Peru. This border crossing has a bad reputation for scams and rip offs but the border post is all very modern and the process of getting through all seems very straightforward. Taking our passports, our taxi driver even fills in all the forms for us! Once through the immigration formalities she then drives us to the bus station for our onward bus to Arequipa.

    Choice of two buses and boy do we pick the wrong one. We choose the lower deck and end up surrounded by a variety of Peruvian youngsters all of whom insist on playing music on their phones ( all different of course) at the same time as the movie was playing. It was not a relaxing trip but during the 7 hours that followed we managed to tune out and I resisted the temptation to collect the phones and throw then out the window. I must be getting more tolerant...

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    I do think it is a shame you didn't take a tour or two in San Pedro. Despite the prices and the number of visitors, more so because of the holidays, there are tours which are unique to the area. Most places in Chile offer a much wider variety of pricing for lodging but San Pedro is a one business town.

    Just to add a side note, Fiestas Patrias is not Independence Day. The 18th celebrates the first meeting to consider and plan for independence (much like the Continental Congress in the USA?) and the 19th is Army Day. Independence Day is actually in February.

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    Huentutu, Thanks for correcting my misunderstanding re Fiesta Patrias. It makes a bit more sense of the celebrations now. The "army day" particularly when we saw a huge variety of armed forces, many of whom were receiving medals etc. it was one hell of a party with music going on until dawn for the whole three days.

    You may well be right regarding missing out on some of the tours but on a long trip such as this we have to pick and choose the the tours we go on in terms of cost. Having seen a wealth of amazing sights in Uyuni coloured lakes, volcanoes etc. etc, I rightly or wrongly felt that it would be much of the same in Atacama. The two tours which did tempt us were the Taito geysers ( but we had seen many of these in New Zealand) and, the stargazing tour but we vacillated over the cost ($38 pp for a few hours) and when we returned to book they were full)

    I was aware that San Pedro would be one of the most expensive places, even by Chilean standards but was still quite shocked by the cost / quality ratio of accomodation there.

    I think we will save our pesos to return and visit Patagonia and the far south next time!!

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    UP to date at last! I am posting aboard an Oltursa bus from Arequipa to Lima ( and it works!)

    AREQUIPA

    The bus ride from the border was not the best we have had so we were relieved to finally arrive at Arequipa bus station even if we had read the dire warnings of how dangerous it was and how we should never get into a taxi outside the station for fear of kidnap and robbery. It all seemed very peaceful and organised, at least for South America.

    As we had rented a small apartment for a couple of weeks rather than a hostal, it presented a challenge to explain to the taxi driver exactly where it was. We eventually found it but not before we had 20 mins of the taxi drivers very strong opinions on tourists, the government and other taxi drivers!

    We arrived an hour early and Sod's law dictated that the person who was meeting us had gone out to lunch. With an our to kill we did the same and ended up at MamaCocha, a cevecheria, just around the corner. As it turned out this happened to be one of the better restaurants in Arequipa, serving up a modern twist on Peruvian cuisine. We chose a fish and seafood parrillada. Delicious.

    Having been on the move for 4.5 months we had decided to stay put for a while. The apartment is basically a converted and extended garage in the garden of a large house in the upmarket suburb of Cayma/ Yanahuara. Small but comfortable with everything we need includingour own kitchen so it will be nice to cook our own meals for a while. We also have use of the garden and barbeque, all forr much the same cost as a nice hostel in this city.

    Unbeknown to us, when Carolyn booked this place, Cayma and Yanahuara districts are home to some of the best restaurants in the city, some of which we will get to try out over the coming weeks. First, we get to reacquaint ourselves with. Peru's second city.

    We walk the 20 mins from the apartment into the Plaza de Armas, still one of the most attractive plazas in South America. Unfortunately, it is still heaving with touts trying to sell tours and restaurants and souvenirs! Best just to ignore everyone and keep walking, even if it does seem rude at first.

    We do pop in to one reputable agent that we know of just to get some information on treks into the Colca. Canyon. He advises us that the canyon is off limits at the moment due to recent volcanic activity in the area and, as a consequence they are only running an "emergency" programme which didn't actually go into the canyon for safety reasons. We decide to leave it a few days and check the situation again.

    A few days later we are sitting in our apartment and feel what we think is our neighbours moving their furniture around. This goes on for few minutes and gets stronger until we feel the floor shaking. We then realise that as the floor is concrete not wood, that this must be an earthquake. Later on which switch on the TV news and see that Arequipa region has suffered a quake registering 7.0 causing some damage to buildings and destroying a number of highways! Suddenly, hiking in a canyon 3000 metres deep doesn't seem such a great idea! Speaking to the local people we find out that this volcanic activity has been going on for several months and that the canyon has been closed on and off throughout this time.

    Our time in Arequipa is quite leisurely and is mostly spent walking the streets exploring some of the churchs, streets, and markets of the city. The architecture here is unique in Peru, mostly colonial in style but built of the "white" ( grey really!) volcanic stone known as Sillar. Indeed Arequipa is known as the white city.

    Arequipa is surrounded by mountains most around 6000 metres high which makes for a spectacular backdrop to the city. Just about everywhere you go in the city there are fantastic views, although the recent eruptions have made those views a little hazy and, apparently have caused some breathing difficulties for some people in some areas. The best views of the mountains are around sunset when the snow capped peaks turn a vivid pink.

    There are dozens of churchs in Arequipa and we visit but a few of them, all are worth a look but the most spectacular of all is the famed Monasteria de Santa Catalina which is in effect a city within a city. It occupies a whole block just north of the Plaza de Armas.

    There are swarms of guides hovering around the entrance all eager to show visitors around but we decide it would be more fun to wander around alone ( and listening to a few of the guides explaining stuff to visitors,it was the correct decision!).

    The complex covers an area of some 20,000 m2,most of which is open to visitors. The current complement on nuns is housed in a separate, new part of the convent which is off limits. We explore all the parts of the convent, from the comparatively basic and ascetic novices quarters to the more ornate and elaborate chapels.

    A great way to spend a few hours but I do feel that the 35 soles (approx $14) is a bit steep, but that seems to be the way things are going in Peruvian tourism at the moment - i.e. charge as much as it is possible to get away with! The fee to enter the Colca Canyon doubled a year or so ago and is now 70 soles and has to be paid by everyone even of just visiting Chivay the town at the head of the Canyon.

    On our many forays into the city centre we come across many demonstrations, usually against the government and usually about something over which the government has little or no control but such is the way in South America. The last time we were here was when Arequipa was hosting Peru's national marching/ dancing band competition which went on for a couple of days and was great fun. This time, we happen across something a little less grand but just as much fun, the local catering and tourism college annual parade. We found it quite by accident, first we hear the band and then around the corner come the students all dressed in their chefs whites, followed by the receptionist in their smart suits then come various troops of dancing girls and boys. All are having a really great time. What the musicians accompanying them lack in musical ability, they make up for in unbridled enthusiasm! This is what Arequipa is all about!

    The area we are staying, on the border of Cayma and Yanahuara is a really buzzing area with lots of shops, markets, restaurants and street stalls. Yanahuara particularly has some great little streets and alleys to explore as well as some pretty little churchs, but most tourists probably come here for the great views of El Misti, the cone shaped volcano which dominates the city.

    Having come to the end of our two week stay in Arequipa it is now time to move on so we buy our tickets for the overnight bus to Lima. At 15 hours, it is not the longest bus journey we have taken on this trip but we have opted for the Cama service which provides bigger, lie flat seat/beds, a food service and even wifi, so it should not be too onerous.

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    Sounds like a nice stay in Arequipa. You will just have to return to visit Colca Canyon. can't believe I have been following your TR for four months already. Time sure does fly. your reports have fascinated me.

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    Glad you are enjoying the TR yestravel as I did yours around SE Asia. Time does indeed fly ever more quickly!

    Mlgb, I think I did cry when we did the hike around Mojanda lakes which is in the same sort of area as Cuyococha. I remember praying that the taxi driver would return to pick us up otherwise it was another 10 kms back to the hostal.

    Barranco is great although we are having to move to another apartment as the owner of this one failed to mention she is building another floor on top of this one!! Quiet and restful it is not!

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    Oh details, details. Minor construction.

    Time for a Lima/Barranco update? Have you managed to try emolientes, picarones and yuquitas (cart near the Balta station)?

    Hope you are still going to Ayacucho and that the weather holds out, cusp of rainy season now.

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    Also although you do not sound like musem people, I hope you make it to the Amano. It is free, only two rooms and by Spanish language tour weekdays at 3 pm.

    Call (51)1-411-2909 to reserve M-F. Follow up with expensive ice cream at 4D.

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    Been to Balta station many times but have not noticed any carts! Will keep an eye open for them next time.

    Arrived in Ayacucho this morning exhausted after very little sleep despite travelling Cruz del Sur Suite class! Why is it that every time I get on a bus I get the family with the screaming kid in the seat behind?? Mind you, I can't really blame the child as we were being thrown from side to side for most of the trip! At least no one needed to use the complementary barf bags,

    I don't know what the town was like when you were here mlgb but the authorities have decided to dig it up! All the major streets around the main square have had 10 feet deep ditches dug down the middle of each street and the main square itself is about 30 % under rubble. At least it hasn't started to rain - yet!

    Been to few museums in barranco. The contemporary arts place had only one room open but that was quite an interesting photography exhibition and Testino is on the list for next week. Will add Amano to said list..

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    There was only one ditch on one side of the plaza when I was there. They said it had to do with upgrading the storm drainage system. Hope they get further along before the rain really starts.

    I thought you were going to fly to Ayacucho?

    Yuguitas were usually there in the morning. Stay on the right hand side of the street, they were nearly at the end of Pierola as it reaches the big street that separates Balta station from the Metro store.

    Picarones Mary in Park Kennedy are the best.

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    BARRANCO

    Five years ago our first taste of South America was in Barranco after a very long flight from New Zealand via Santiago. We loved it the first time and, having stayed in Miraflores a few month ago we decided that for our final month in South America we would try to get back to some form of normality by renting and apartment here.

    After yet another long (15 hours) overnight bus journey we arrived at the Cruz del Sur bus terminal jumped in a cab and eventually found the apartment we had arranged, tucked up an alley behind security gates next to the biggest Chifa ( Chinese restaurant) in Barranco. A pleasant enough place even if it did have a faint aroma of special fried rice! We quickly unpacked and decided to catch up on some sleep for a couple of hours. After 30 mins we awoke to the sound of a pneumatic drill right above our heads. The owner of the apartments had omitted to tell us that she was adding another floor and that the work would be going on for the next week. Oh well, no sleep and time to search for another apartment!

    Luckily the search did not take too long and we found a nice, brand new apartment in a ten storey block close to the border with Miraflores. A bit out of the centre but very convenient and, nobody drilling away above our heads.

    Barranco has changed quite a bit. It is now much more gentrified and less run down than on our previous visit but still retains that village within a city feel. Lots of artists around, art gallery's, nice restaurants, bars and coffee shops abound. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean it is a great place to stay and we like it a lot.

    Nice to finally unpack and having access to a kitchen means that we can do some proper food shopping so we head of on a reccy of the local supermarkets, food stalls and market to stock up on supplies.

    Not exactly living like locals but we are certainly getting to meet a few and, considering that Lima is a huge city it is amazing how friendly the Limeños are. Everyone, even people in the street will smile and say buenos dias or tardes. Much more polite and friendly than most other major cities. There is however, one exception, the Limeño lady "of a certain age". It seems that past that certain age they have their good manners surgically removed. Give up a seat for one on a bus and expect in return, not a smile or a thank you but a scowl. Stand in a supermarket queue and don't be surprised if some little old lady barges in front of you without a moments thought. Bizarre and more than a little annoying. Rant over.

    We had originally planned to stay at the South America Explorers Club but they had recently move premises. We had a quick look at the rooms which were not great and the shared bathrooms which were disgusting and moved quickly on. Not sure what is going on with SAE but apart from the Cuzco clubhouse which is run by a delightful and efficient Russian couple the rest have been pretty dire in terms of the facilities and services they offer. Oh well! We I've and learn...

    Barranco is stuffed full of museums and galleries which we plan on exploring over the coming weeks but to get our bearings we walk to Miraflores and to the Larcomar shopping mall to the iPeru tourism stall. Built into the cliffs overlooking the ocean, this is a spectacularly located bunch of shops and restaurants. They have a La Lucha outlet ( our favourite sandwiches) where we stop for lunch. Across the road is the JW Marriott hotel, one of the best in Lima. We pop in to book a table for their renowned "all you can eat" Sunday buffet that weekend.

    Lima is the largest city in the world not to have a mass transit system and, in a city of 12 million souls this means that getting around is a challenge. There is the Metroploitano bus route which runs in its own lane more or less a straight line through the city meaning that to get anywhere else not on that line means jumping off at the nearest point and getting on one of the 6000+ collectivos ( old battered buses of varying sizes. Once you get to grips with the system it is surprisingly effective although still taking a long time to get around it is perhaps arguably quicker than taxis which tend to get snarled up in the horrendous traffic. On the subject of taxis, it seems impossible for one to drive past us without blasting there horn! Bearing in mind we like to walk a lot, this can get more than a little wearing. Even when walking against the traffic in a one way system they will still blast away and try to pick us up?? One thing I will say in favour of Lima's taxis is that they are the only one who don't deliberately aim for you when crossing the roads! Zebra crossing here seem to be a sign for drivers to accelerate, especially if a pedestrian is crossing!!

    Since being here we have tried a number of restaurant and bars with varying degrees of success. We have now learned to completely ignore review sites as few bear any resemblance to reality. However, one place I would recommend for anyone coming to this town is the JW Marriott Sunday buffet - great food, unlimited Pisco sours and superb views over the Pacific Ocean. However, do be aware that this place is frequented by the aforesaid Limeño ladies and they allow NOTHING to get between them and their food....

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    Very funny re the "ladies" although I cannot recall having any run-ins.

    How did you find your new apartment, just walkabout and look for signs?

    Hope you are enjoying Ayacucho despite construction.

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    We are still in Lima having returned from a midweek visit to ayacucho which was also great. Enjoyed Ayacucho a lot despite the very long times to get there and back. We leave next week for London. Will we return? Well, there is a possibility we may well pass through on our way to the sacred valley next year where we are considering helping out at a guesthouse. We will see....

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    Catching up on your journey. Thanks for sharing and letting us travel along with you. Your descriptions of NW ARG bring back memories of our time there also about 5 years ago. The drive from Cachi to Cafayate was jarring and I remember all too well welcoming the paved road outside Cafayate. We loved Cafayate and glad you enjoyed it this time.
    Have a safe trip home.

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    AYACUCHO
    Ayacucho

    We debated whether to get the 1 hour flight from Lima or the 11 hour overnight bus journey. Eventually the bus won, partly because of cost ( a quarter of the airfare ) but also because the flights leave at 7.00 am meaning a 5.00 am departure for the airport. So off we set from Our Barranco apartment to get the 10.00 pm bus. Fortunately the Metropolitano line leaves not far far from the apartment and takes us straight to the Cruz del Sur bus station in San Isidro.

    We are booked into the "cruzeiro suite" service, big seats that convert to virtually lie flat beds and are looking forward to a relatively relaxed trip. Unfortunately, our hopes of that are soon laid to rest as, as is almost inevitable on this trip, a family with a young child take up the seats behind us. The peace is soon shattered with the kid playing Angry Birds at full volume on an iPad. This is soon replaced by constant whining as mum takes it away after 30 mins.

    The scenery on this route is supposed to be quite spectacular but, being night time of course, we don't get to see it! We do however feel it in the form of being thrown around from side to side over some pretty rough roads as we wind our way back up into the amazing Andes. We arrive totally exhausted through lack of sleep. Hope Ayacucho is worth it!

    Hostals are busy in the town and we have a place to stay for the following night but our first job is to find a place for tonight. We wander around the streets surrounding the main square and find a decent enough place and manage to negotiate a 25% discount on the rate. We get to the room and just crash out exhausted on the bed but are unable to sleep so set off to explore the town.

    Not too many foreign visitors get to Ayacucho which is a shame because it is quite a pretty place with a lot going on in terms of scenery, restaurants, culture, artesania etc. few people speak English but everybody is really friendly and welcoming.

    The wet season in the mountains is rapidly approaching and the streets around the centre of town have all been dug up an now consist mainly trenches of 3 metres wide and deep along many of the streets surrounding the main plaza which is in similar disarray. It seems that they are installing new drainage and sewage systems. Hope they get finished before the rains start in earnest!

    Late afternoon and we hit the streets in search of a travel agent who can arrange a trip out to the Pampa de Ayacucho and the Wari ruins about 35 kms out of the town. It is possible by public buses but involves numerous changes of collectivo to get to the places we want to visit so we take the easy option. First stop is Willy Tours. The guy isn't there but some ageing Peruvian hippie guy is hanging around the office and engages us in a conversation covering everything from the power of the church, the army, "what a terrible state the country is in" to which churches we should visit. He calls the owner and we wait around for him to turn up during which time he tells us he is a musician and will be playing that night in the Negro Magica ( Black Magic) Club and would we like to come along, fortunately the tour guy then turns up and we don't have to make a decision. We tell the tour operator where we want to go and he quotes a price of 200 soles per person. Having found out from the local tourism office that the going rate is 35 soles pp, we make our excuses and leave...

    We check out one more tour operator who sells us a tour for the said 35 soles for the next morning and we return to our hostal, Via Via Cafe for a drink in the balcony bar overlooking the square. We sit down order our drinks and then the said rains arrive and boy, does it rain! For a couple of hours we watch the heaviest rain and hail we have seen for a while. Seems like the wet season has arrived. What a day to book a tour!

    The next morning arrives and it is still looking a bit grey but we head off to the tour office to get the minibus and join the rest of passenger, a family group of Peruvians from Trujillo ranging in age from 70-90 all very chatty and friendly and, during the rest of the day we will find out a lot about them. They are delighted that we have spent some time in their home town and question us on where we went, what we did and what we thought of the place. They are really great company and such a refreshing change from the miserable young French backpackers we shared our last organised tour with in Bolivia!

    Half an hour outside of Ayacucho on our way into the mountains we meet our first set of roadworks. Told by the lady holding the stop sign that we will be here for 40 minutes we all decide to get out an walk through the road works rather than sit in the bus.

    Along the way our new Peruvian friends are chatting away and point out various plants and fruits along the roadside, explain what each is used for. One of the fruits we ask about is the "Tuna" a fruit of a cactus. Having expressed an interest and saying that we had not tried one, they all set off up the hillside in search of a good specimen. When they return, the peel it for us to try ( very nice!) and a heated discussion then ensues as to which variety is best. We explain to them that we were a little bemuse when we saw signs in the juice stalls for "tuna juice" explain that in English this would be a fish juice which they found hilarious.



    Our first stop is at the ruins of the Wari city. A civilisation who inhabited the area a few hundred years before the Incas. The ruins are quite interesting but have been and are being restored pretty badly. We spend an hour or so here wandering the ruins and, even though the guide speaks only Spanish, she is very good. We wander around the ruins and the museums before heading on up to our next stop of Quinua and Pampas de Ayacucho.

    Pampas de Ayacucho was the site of the final battle with the Spanish colonial forces which saw the end of colonial rule in Peru when the Spanish were finally defeated in 1824. The site is marked by a 40m high white obelisk and a few souvenir and food stalls. Much as we love store food, one look at these stalls and we decided to forego lunch...

    Another opportunity we passed on was the horse riding, partly because my last experience of riding a horse in Bolivia did not do a lot for my riding credibility but mostly because these poor creatures looked half starved.
    On the way back we stop in the village of Quinua which is famous for the ceramic models which are place on the roofs of houses for good luck. These range in size from a few inches to several feet and the subject matter is wide and varied covering everything to elaborate castles and happy pigs to condors eating bulls and graphic representations of babies being delivered by Caesarian section!!

    Our Peruvian friend love all these and buy several each. How many houses do they have.

    Time to return to Ayacucho and, as we reach the roadworks we walked through on the way up, we encounter the biggest traffic jam we have seen in almost a year of travelling in South America. We get stuck in traffic for around two hours and, I guess around 15 kms. Worse still this road is effectively a dirt track winding along the side of a mountain valley with crumbling rock on one side and sheer drops on the other. To add to our concern, we see a number of rockslides that have happened since we made our way up!!

    The somewhat precarious state of the road only seems to add to the excitement for all the drivers partaking in Peru's national sport - getting in front of the next guy in a line of traffic at any cost! In any other country this road would barely qualify as a two way road. Here, drivers are three, sometimes four abreast each trying to gain a few inches on their competitors. Some, mostly owners of new 4WD cars have fearful expressions on their faces, but most are caught up in some sort of euphoria. Our own driver is laughing maniacally as he weaves between the other cars and occasionally takes us within inches of a drop of several hundred feet to the valley floor below! Our normally quiet, shy guide changes personality instantly and shouts encouragement to our driver. We watch as drivers deliberately force others closed to with the rock face or the cliff edge. A somewhat worrying insight into the national psyche!!!

    Eventually we make it back to Ayacucho sort of glad that we are getting the night bus back along similar roads and that at least if we do go over the edge of a cliff, being night time we will probably know very little about it...

    We have a few hour to kill before getting on the night bus back to Lima some of which we spend at El Niños a nice restaurant we have found in the town. Given the large size of portions here we opt for two of our favourite starters, anticuchos ( grilled beef heart kebabs) and beef short ribs and salad. All are delicious and amongst the best food we have had in Peru to date.

    The bus journey back is uneventful but we arrive back in Lima exhausted. Two overnight bus journeys in four days, coupled with a return to altitude means that we have had very little sleep. Our original thoughts were to spend a little more time in this region visiting some of the other towns nearby. But our visit coincided with the beginnings of the rainy season and, given the state of the roads we feel we made the right call.

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    Not the first time that has been said mlgb! I arrived in Thailand the day before the Tsuamami, in Sri Lanka in the middle of the worst flood in decades. I am only surprised the Arequipa earthquake wasn't worse!

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    We did indeed stay at SA Explorers Club. I would not recommend it unless you like roughing it and sharing a house with some "characters". They usually on let rooms for a min of a month, sometimes a week. If I returned I would stay in one of the many places in Mariscal, rather than the old town as there is much more going on there and it is easy to get the bus into the old town. Lots of places to choose from but I hesitate to recommend anywhere that I haven't stayed.

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    Thanks avrooster, missed that. Crellston thanks for the tips. We need to book something before our Amazon trip so need to tell them where we are staying so they can pick us up from our hotel, otherwise I would wait until closer to the time.

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    Hanging on every word!

    Wondering how you had U.S. Dollars to change to blue dollars in Argentina.??...

    Also wondering how much time you ended up staying in each country and if you had a daily budget worked with a total trip budget?

    Working now on our general timeline. We (me) usually plan our trips in a detailed way but realizing this trip will be different. We have one way tix at this point but will be using miles and can't buy our tix home for a couple of months, so at this point we are trying to guestimate a return date with an agenda of Peru, Chile, Argentina (patagonia included) with a possibility of Equador or Bolivia. I am thinking 4 months minimum.

    It seems you did not plan for seasonal changes and took your chances. Is this true? Seems like the most weather important will be crossing the Andes and Patagonia.

    Anyway, loving this report as well as your previous one. Thank you so much....

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    US Dollars are easily obtained from ATMs in Peru and Bolivia so it was relatively straightforward to work out how much we would need and withdraw sufficient for our needs in Argentina and exchange on arrival in Salta we were only there for around days so it was easy enough to calculate hotels, car hire food etc. and we had plenty to tide us over. As, I suspect, you will be spending more time you need to calculate in a bit more detail.

    My wife used an iPad app called Trail Wallet to keep track of expenditure in multi currencies and our home currency and converted stuff along the way which was really neat. I will have a look when I have more time and provide some rough figures for costs in Argentina. I would estimate at c $120 per day all inc. it was still one of the more expensive countries we visited even with the blue dollar.

    Although Stirling is our home currency I planned in $$ and allowed for $100 per day based on some very basic research on, room, transport and accommodation costs. This proved an over estimate and does include everything except international airfares. I would say we ended up paying around $80 a day. Less in some countries more in others. We stayed in nice hostals ( mostly) with private showers etc. meals were a mixture of markets, street food ( quite frankly the best food in many places) costing around $ 1-3. We also did some home cooking when we could and ate in some very nice restaurants as well fairly regularly.

    The figures above also include entrance fees etc. tours etc. Peru particularly can be expensive in this respect, Bolivia, very cheap.
    "It seems you did not plan for seasonal changes and took your chances. Is this true? " believe me I did try! In the end it proved impossible to get everything scheduled perfectly. We decided that the most important for us was the mountains and our timing worked out perfectly for that ( well, almost). One thing we have noticed is the unseasonal whether that is becoming a norm according to some local ( climate change??) the coastal areas would have been much nicer I an sure with blue skies and sunshine ( although there are place where you can seek these most times of year.

    We spent 2 months in Ecuador, 2 months in Bolivia, 3 weeks in Peru, 10 days in NW Argentina, a week in Chile and our final 5/6 weeks were in Peru.

    Of the two possibles, Bolivia gets my vote as it fits in geographically with the other countries you are visiting, it is cheaper and, basically it is amazing , probably my new favourite country in South America.

    In terms of time, 4-6 months is the optimum I feed for a journey of this type as you will want to add in a week or so here ant there just to kick back and rest up.

    You are beginning to give me itchy feet!!!!

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    Crellston, do you mind sharing the details on the location for money exchange (for blue mrkt rate) in Salta? We arrive in late March and will be tapped out of pesos. Understand it's sensitive so no worries if you cannot share. Thank you...while we are doing your trip in reverse, the TR is most helpful!

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    Hi Crellston, I was reading your South America post and I was just curious. You studied Spanish in Quito but loved Cuenca. Could you have spent 4 weeks studying in Cuenca? We have narrowed studying Spanish down to Ecuador but are now choosing between Quito and Cuenca. Cuenca sounds really beautiful and there’s a lot to do outside of the city. Quito sounds great too but with a bigger, dirtier city feel. Just wondering your thoughts on spending this much time in Cuenca. Cheers.

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    I know that Crellston will answer this, but my two cents worth, there are a lot of expats living in Cuenca and everyone that I met was taking Spanish lessons and so it would not be a problem in my opinion. We only spent a week there but it is a lovely city and four weeks would be great

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    Greens - so sorry but I have only just come across your post and it is probably too late. All I will say here ( for obvious reasons) is that the money exchangers hang out on Espana St close to the corner of the plaza and in one or two of the cafes around there. The official Bureau de. Change office on the corner, somewhat bizarrely also offer the blue rate. If you require any further infor please PM me on Trip advisor or via my blog.

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    Kangagirl80 - live 42 has summed it up very well as have you in your descriptions of. Cuenca and. Quito.

    Much as we liked Quito it is a bit dirty and chaotic at times but on the plus side it has the best and most varied restaurants in Ecuador. In retrospect a month in Cuenca would have been preferable but we did want to start our studies as soon as we arrived in SA so as to derive max benefit from them and get practising.

    If you are only intent on spending a little time in Quito, then yes, I would head to Cuenca for my study.

    If staying for a longer period in one place, I would strongly suggest either renting an apartment or staying somewhere that will allow use of a kitchen so you can prepare your own meals from time to time. Sometimes, after a hard days studying , the last thing you want to do is to go out again in search of a meal. We stayed in a nice place in Cuenca which allowed us to use their kitchen and we had a large en suite room. In Quito we stayed at the SA Explorers Club and had the run of the house. Reading live42days Try , I think she rented an apartment in Cuenca ( as one would expect from Fodors own Lady Gaga!) :-)

    Choose your school and teacher carefully. Many offer the "immersion" method of teaching but I found that at least in the early stages, I preferred a teacher that could speak at least some English. Once I gained experience, this became less important. Don't be afraid to request a change in teacher if you are not happy, your are the one paying! I had to change one teacher because, no matter how hard he tried, he just spoke way to fast for me to follow anything.

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    I highly recommend the rental we stayed at. On Flip Key it is a 2 bedroom (we only needed one)
    http://www.flipkey.com/cuenca-vacation-rentals/p532802/
    John and Barbie are so great and full of local information. The apartment was fully equipped and very comfortable
    there are others on flip key as well however.

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    Thanks a lot for your replies. I'm edging towards Quito now. We love big cities and we don't mind if they're dirty. I think 4 weeks here will keep us pretty occupied. Also we want to see Galapagos so Quito's perfect for that. We'll make it down to Cuenca for sure though.

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    kangagirl80, I didn't make it to Cuenca but I liked Quito. Quito is a good hub for taking the bus out to other parts of the country for excursions. Food and dining out is not expensive and the produce is amazing. Loved the fresh fruit juices, sorbets and soups.

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    Another question! Crellston, you booked Spanish lessons when you arrived in Quito. I understand why, in terms of making sure that the school/teacher fit with what you're looking for, but you weren't worried that when you arrived they would not be able to take you due to other students already booked? You think there is always plenty of room in the schools (in general) to make a decision when you arrive? We're looking at studying in July/mid August and I've been researching schools, narrowed it down, but I don't want to get there and they say sorry, we're full! Sounds like you didn't have a problem.

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    We arrived in early May and really didn't have a problem. All the schools we looked at had places and we could have started at any of them. This does of course make one wonder about the quality and experience of some of the teachers employed. If you decide to book a course in advance, fine, but I certainly would not part with any Mahoney in advance.

    Not sure which schools you are considering but here is a link to a post I made on TA re our experiences looking for a school
    http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowTopic-g294308-i2254-k6545429-Spanish_Lessons_in_Quito_our_experience-Quito_Pichincha_Province.html

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    Though I have only partially read through your posting at http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog/candcthai/6/tpod.htmlt -- so far it has been extremely helpful in considering our own trip.

    The specific experiences you relate about places and experiences you had are interesting, but the overall lessons and generalities about traveling in this region are most valuable to me. You do a great job of fleshing out details about the range of experience to expect using various modes of transportation. Also your first-hand descriptions of hikes, bike rides, treks helps us consider the difference between guide-book descriptions and actual experience. I think that you and your travel companion may have a higher tolerance level for long-haul bus trips and remote border crossings than we do, but your descriptions add perspective for us in planning our own trip. It's worth doing some things that take a challenge. Thanks, I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the trip.

    I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the trip--- as this is the same corner of world that we're trying to narrow down.

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    mlgb and crellston, have another question for you. We keep reading horror stories about the safety in Quito. Is it really that bad? How did you find it? I know you need to let common sense prevail and give little reason for someone to steal something from you, be on guard etc etc but is it really that bad? As mentioned before we plan on starting off in Quito to learn Spanish but if we're constantly going to be worried about going out at night and during the day, not sure it's the best place to start our travels. I've read about public transport and pickpockets and that sometimes it's just easier to take a taxi. Have also read that in touristic areas the police presence is high. We're Australian and we're not sure if everything you read about Quito is a bit like Australia and shark attacks - there's one shark attack and then people think they happen all the time and you can't go in the water! Maybe we're just being overly paranaoid but just curious to get your opinions.

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    Hi Kangagirl. We spent around a month in Quito and used public transport exclusively. The only taxi we took was from the airport to the South Amarica explorers club where we were staying. The Trolebus and metro bus systems will get you most places you will want to go. Pickpockets can be an issue on buses etc. as they get very crowded, especially in the rush hours. Don't carry valuables, use a money belt or "secret pocket" and, like us, you are unlikely to experience any problems.

    Use ATMs inside banks rather than on the street. Don't use them at night. Most banks have armed guards by their ATM ( both reassuring and disconcerting). Do have a look around before getting out your card, wallet etc.

    The streets of Mariscal empty out at night after about 9.00pm and we were advised to take a taxi then. We didn't venture out that much at night except for a few meals but when we did we walked and were fine, but ist probably is more sensible to get a taxi. If you do get taxis get the restaurant to call one for you rather than hail one on the street.

    Now that those words of "wisdom" are out of the way, we felt as safe in Quito as anywhere else we have travelled in South America. I really wouldn't be concerned that much about what you read as, in my opinion, most of it is out of date and exaggerated. We met lots of people travelling around Ecuador and nobody we came across had experienced any problems. The only problem we had was in a bus station in Ambato where my wife had a camera stolen.

    Just be aware of your surroundings and I am sure you will be fine.

    PS my son lives in Sydney and swims every morning at Manly Beach and has yet to get bitten by a shark!!

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    Thanks again Crellston and mlgb. You've put our minds at ease. We know we have to be mindful, just don't want to have a bad time that's all. I've never been to Manly Crellston but I hear it's beautiful (we're from the other side of Australia, Perth). My gran grew up in Manly though and used to swim every day too.

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    BTW supposedly they've cleaned up the taxi safety issues. I was looking at my old trip report about how to tell a safe taxi.

    Orange box, two cameras and red panic button in the back seat. My friend's uncle suggested just sticking your head in and checking. I had one taxi speed off when I did that!

    Within a few blocks of the Plaza Grande is fine, as you go east and south beyond that it starts to deteriorate. I tend to blend in (especially from the back) but if you are tall and fair I would be a bit more cautious.

    I recommend taking the Quito Tour bus circuit shortly after you arrive. It is great for orientation and it will give you a good feel for the boundaries of the safer areas.

    http://www.quitotourbus.com/en

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