A Peruvian love affair

Whenever I tell people I’m travelling for six and a half months with a boyfriend waiting for me at home, the responses vary from ‘that must be difficult’ to ‘you’ll definitely cheat on him’.

I’ve always been adamant that they were wrong – it wasn’t easy, but I could do it, there would never be a temptation strong enough to make me cheat.

Well, for 5 months I managed to stick to that, but I’m ashamed to say that Peru has been my undoing and I now have a new love.

 My two weeks in Peru has been a whirlwind love affair, with this crazy, diverse and amazing country which I’m more than a little sad to be leaving.

For some reason I wasn’t really that excited about coming to Peru. Cuba I’d always wanted to go to, whereas Peru I added into my travel plans purely to do the Inca Trail, which it turned out I couldn’t do because the 500 permit a day limit had been reached months in advance.

I didn’t make any plans in advance, because I had a strong suspicion that my travel agency in England was quoting me prices for tours far higher than I would find once I arrived in the country.

That suspicion was most definitely correct – had I booked with them I would have spent almost £1,000 on tours without things like travel, accommodation between tours and food included. I actually spent about £750 in total during the two weeks – so please never book a tour with STA travel!

After arriving in Lima, my vague plan was to go to Cusco and go to Machu Picchu. I decided to book a 4 day hop on, hop off bus instead of going there direct, and this is when the love started to blossom.

One if the things I’ve been most taken with in a Peru is the diversity of the landscape – it’s like nowhere else I’ve been with big cities surrounded by vast deserts, a stunning coastline, epic mountains and dense jungles

From Lima I travelled to Paracas, a coastal town with the best ceviche, boat trips to ‘the poor man’s Galapagos’ and some amazing native wildlife. Then it was on to Huacachina, a small town built around an oasis in the middle of the desert, where the main activity is sandboarding.

I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy it but it really was incredible fun – first a roller coaster ride on the dune buggies, where it feels like death is only seconds away at any given point, and then throwing yourself head first down the dunes on wooden boards, or attempting to stand if you’re good (or, like me, if you’re not good but don’t mind looking like an idiot).

After that it was on to Cusco, with a quick stop at a Pisco and wine vineyard where a tour included stomping grapes (feels strange but good) and having a few samples for the road.

We’ll gloss over the 24+ hour bus trip and get straight to Cusco, which is most commonly visited as a starting point for treks to Machu Picchu, but is actually worth visiting It’s own right. It’s touristic as hell, but it’s still a cute and friendly town, with a chocolate museum that is reason enough for staying longer in Cusco, as their DIY hot chocolates are out of this world.

I didn’t have to shop around much to find a four day ‘alternative’ trek to Machu Pichu for about a third of the price STA had quoted, leaving the next day – no time to think about how physically unfit I’ve become and how I most likely would struggle with anything more than a 20 degree incline on a mountain.

After a couple hours driving, our group were awake enough to start to get to know each other, and although I didn’t know if then I honestly couldn’t have asked for better people to do the trip with.

The first day we cycled 56km down winding mountain roads, with beautiful views I was far too scared to look at incase I went straight off the edge.    

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I’m not much of a cycler at home, and my housemate will attest to how grumpy I can get when I’m not enjoying it. It was pretty unlikely I would get through 56km with no mishaps, and true to form while going downhill at approximately 45-50kph I squeezed too hard on the front brake mad flipped myself right over the handlebars.

Luckily I was wearing my biking body armour and sustained no serious injuries. I say luckily – perhaps if I had I could have somehow gotten out of the 45 minute serious hike up a mountain which we had to do to reach our accommodation for the evening. Two of the other girls seemed to manage no problem, but I was close to death by the time I reached the top, and utterly convinced I wouldn’t last the four days.

Day two, the all day walking, was actually the easiest day of all, with a beautiful walk along one of the original Inca trails, a huge lunch and a visit to some hot springs. I didn’t injure myself and nothing went wrong – strange

Day three started with zip lining, in constant rain. While the rain was miserable, it did make the zip lines faster and more exciting, but it was actually the climbing back up the hills that was the biggest adrenaline rush, and not in a good way

Every single person said they felt terrified trying to navigate their way up the steep, muddy and wet slopes, and it we thought it was pretty unsafe. Unfortunately we were right, as just one day after we were there, a man actually died after falling from one of the platforms – so while it was enjoyable, I’d recommend going elsewhere if you want to zip line and stay alive.

The walking that day was just along a train track and not that exciting, but it got us to Aguas Calientes, the starting point for our final day at Machu Picchu.

 You can either walk up which takes an hour to an hour and a half, with tonnes of steps, or take a bus. I was realistic about my unfitness and took the bus so I would have enough energy to climb Machu Picchu mountain, and I actually ended up being the only one of my group to do it.

The mountain was to be honest, hell to climb, but with another girl I met along the way we got there, at a slow pace with many rests and it was absolutely worth it. When the clouds cleared the views was amazing, and we both felt pretty proud of making it to the top!

Back in Cusco, I had one day to make last minute plans for the rest of my time in Peru – a bus back to Lima and a flight to Iquitos, a town I reachable by land in the Amazon jungle. I also managed to fit one last night with my crazy new friends – waaaaay too many mojitos, lots of dancing, and no hangover. Perfect!

Once I got to Iquitos, I made another snap decision to join a jungle tour leaving the next morning – completely going against my usual path of indecisiveness.   

 It turned out to be absolutely the right decision – 3 days at a lodge on the river, 3 great guys with me, and amazing wildlife – we saw sloths, monkeys, macaws, lots of other native birds, a caiman, giant bullfrogs, water snakes and both grey and pink river dolphins.

I also got to cuddle two sloths and a baby monkey, and on the way back stopped at a manatee rescue centre to stroke and feed juvenile manatees, so cute!

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So after all that (if you’ve managed to stick with me this far), it’s safe to say Peru is one of the best places I’ve been. I would recommend it to absolutely anyone and I would definitely go back.

I know my boyfriend will be sad not to be my only love anymore, but maybe a three-way with Peru could work?!

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Why Cuba made me feel like a bad person

 

Before I started this trip, Cuba was the one country I wanted to visit above all others – for the history, the buildings, the cars, the salsa and the rum. And the rum. And a little more of the rum.

The country has absolutely lived up to my expectations in all of those aspects, but the one thing that has really exceeded my expectations is the goodness of the people here.

They say that it’s the people who have the least that give the most, and I would say that’s very commonly the case in Cuba. 

I find it upsetting to travel in a country where my taxi fare from the airport (US $25) is more than the average monthly wage, but there’s not a hint of resentment from the locals towards the disgustingly rich tourists who come and flaunt their money here.

 

Yes, the tourism brings them more money, but that’s not the reason you can’t walk down the street without people stopping you to talk, it’s because they are genuinely interested in speaking to you, offering advice and making friends.

One of the great things about Cuba is that ‘casa particulars’ are the most common place to stay, not hotels or hostels. These are houses where the family has two or three spare rooms, with anything from one to four beds in, to rent out to guests, and it results in a much more homely experience.

None of my casa owners have spoken English, and my Spanish would be basic for a four year old, but we’ve still managed to chat and they have all been incredibly kind not just offering a place to stay but advice about the local area, incredible home cooked food, and an insight into their lives.

 

My travelling experience has been incredible, but one of the bad things about backpacking is that you are always slightly on your guard, just waiting for the next person to try and scam you. 

Being in Cuba has made me feel guilty for having that cynicism, because here it seems that most of the time people really are just being nice.

There have been several occasions where I’ve hated myself for being so suspicious, and it actually upsets me now to think about how untrusting I’ve been.

 

For example, one day a man on a motorbike tried to start a conversation with me and I ignored him, thinking he was a typical sleazy guy trying to talk to a girl on her own.

The next day he approached me again, this time when I was sat on the edge of the road, upset because a taxi I’d booked hadn’t shown up and I had no way of getting to the next town.

He asked me if I remembered him, then proceeded to do his best to find me another taxi, and failing that gave me his drink, his food, and his extortionately expensive internet card so I could talk to my boyfriend.

He suggested I rent a bike for the day, told me all the best places to go, and introduced me to all his friends in the evening. And the catch? Well none, he was just trying to help and even told me I had to stop saying thank you because it was just what any good person would do.

A few days later I arrived in another town with no idea of where to go, what to do, or how I would spend my day. While getting breakfast in a bar a man started talking to me, who happened to be an English speaking tour guide on his day off.

 

He recommended I take a horse drawn taxi to some of the best sites in the city – but also came with me to explain all of them as we went. He took me to his friend’s salon for a manicure and pedicure, had lunch waiting for me when I was done, and took me for drinks with his friends. He didn’t leave my side until I was stood in front of the bus I was getting on at the end of the day, and once again nothing was asked for in return (although I obviously did pay my way throughout the day, I’m not that much of a scrounger).

It would be easy for a cynic to say well these are Cuban guys hitting on a young girl on her own, but for a start most of you haven’t seen jut how fat and unattractive I’ve become, and I genuinely think they would have done the same for anyone.

I don’t have and endless supply of money to just throw away, but being here has made me realise that it’s not always the most important thing and sometimes you should just let it go.

An argument with a bicycle taxi driver about the cost of a city tour actually ended up with me going back to find him later in the day to give him more money. Two or three dollars clearly means a lot more to him than it does to me, and he did spend two hours cycling his arse off to drag me around the city, to help fun him through university, so I felt like a pretty shitty person for even questioning the price in the first place.

Apologies to anyone who was hoping to hear how I had a new Latino husband, broke both legs trying to salsa or had got caught up in a drug smuggling cartel – there’s still plenty of time for all those things in South America – but I really want everyone to know just how amazing people in Cuba are, and hopefully inspire one or two of you to visit for yourselves.

Important lessons learned in LA

Having never been to America before I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but three days in LA has taught me a few key things which anyone else travelling there might like to know.

  • US airport customs officers don’t really like it when you try and cuddle their sniffer dogs
  • There is an exceptionally high number of sick people in LA, if the number smoking weed for ‘medicinal purposes’ is anything to go by

  • Willy Wonka is the friendliest of the Johnny Depps
  • Standing at the front of a crowd will lead to potentially embarrassing audience participation

  • No matter how much of a holiday tan I might think I have, when stood next to  black girl and a latin girl I’m still ‘milk of magnesia’
  • People moving to LA to ‘make it’ is not a cliche. Actors, singers, screenwriters – all about to hit the big time for sure, but just hanging out at a $30 a night hostel to keep it real

  • Tourists really do go crazy for a glimpse of Jack Nichlson’s tennis court from a mile away or Bruno Mars’ dustbins
  • I actually ❤ LA

Why sometimes you need a break from travelling

I know what you’re thinking – going to new countries and meeting new people isn’t exactly hard work, so why would you need a break from it? And what does a break from what’s essentially an extended vacation even involve?

Well for me, two weeks in Fiji with my increasingly beardy boyfriend was exactly what I needed to give me the energy and motivation to keep going on my trip.

Of course travelling has been amazing and I’ve been to some incredible places and made some really good friends, but there are a lot of things that after nearly four months were becoming pretty tiring.

I like meeting new people, and in general I think I’m fairly chatty. But you do find yourself having the same conversations over and over again – where are you from, how long are you traveling for, where have you been, where are you going…

I can’t even explain how good it is after that to be spending time with someone who actually knows you, where you can talk about topics other than the most obvious and superficial – or just not talk at all and be completely comfortable with no such thing as an awkward silence.

Similarly, no matter how much you love where you’re going, there will always be things you miss about home. It might be the place, your family, your friends, maybe even just the food, but I think for pretty much everyone there is something. If that something can come to you mid way through your trip, it makes it a hell of a lot easier!

The other big thing I really needed a break from is dorm rooms. Yes, they’re the best place to meet people, but they are for the most part tiny bunk beds with minimal space and limited storage, you can’t spread out your stuff everywhere, and it’s a gamble whether you get good roommates or ones who are weird, loud, smelly or who creepily watch you while you sleep.

Even the little things can be annoying, like not having enough plug sockets for everyone to charge things at once, not being able to turn the lights off when you want to sleep or keep them on when you need to see to pack, having to wait an hour to use the one shared shower…

Spending two weeks in private en-suite doubles was luxury, even when they were wooden huts with highly ineffective fans in the tropical heat. And when they were the good rooms – well, just take a look at these photos, I think I might miss this room with its beautiful air con even more than the boy I was keeping in it….

After having such an amazing holiday-within-a-holiday part of me does just want to fly home now and live a happy comfortable life. But the part of me which is getting it’s own way is the part that is looking forward to meeting new people again and happy to chat about travelling a hundred times over, and doesn’t mind a lack of luxury accommodation if it means seeing more amazing places.

So now I’m in Los Angeles for a couple of days, before I begin my Central and South American adventure – an update on this crazy country to come very soon!

An epic NZ adventure

In this post, I will try and explain why I haven’t had any time for blogging in the past month.

Everywhere I’ve travelled has been fun, with lots of things to do, but none of that compares to how full on four weeks in New Zealand (or as we came to know it, Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud).

On the recommendation of my well-travelled boyfriend, I chose to book a Kiwi Experience trip to get around both the North and South islands.

For anyone who doesn’t know what that is, imagine a school trip on a giant green bus, visiting all the best parts of the country, with discounted dangerous activities and lots and lots of partying.

It didn’t get off to the best start I have to admit, when I found out that being in peak summer season meant the buses were getting booked up fast and there was no guarantee of travelling when you want to. Lots of people found themselves on stand by, which meant waiting at the bus stop at 8 in the morning and hoping someone else wouldn’t turn up so you could take their seat.

Luckily I was able to book on to all the buses I wanted, which was good as I was on a relatively tight schedule, with only a few extra nights available on top of all the ones you have to do with the bus.

Part of the reason I haven’t had time to write is down to the bus leaving so early every day – usually between 8 and 9, sometimes earlier and very occasionally later. If you happen to have indulged in a glass or two of local Sauv the night before, that’s not so fun…

Normally hours and hours on a bus would suck, but the landscapes in NZ are so stunning it’s rare you get bored (and when you are on a dull motorway the drivers usually stick a movie on).

The drivers pretty much sort out your life for you on the bus, booking your hostels (at discounted rates) and arranging your activities (at discounted rates).

In my previous post I mentioned finding ways to cheat death – New Zealand is the best place for adrenalin fuelled activities, and I pretty much signed up for everything going (apart from grade 5 white water rafting, again on the advice of my girlboyfriend).

I threw myself out of a plane tied to a beautiful stranger, and off of a platform with an elastic band and bit of Velcro around my feet.

I discovered just how bad my claustrophobia is when I had a mini breakdown on a black water rafting caving trip and a full on panic attack when crawling through an ice tunnel while hiking on a glacier.

I challenged my now incredibly out of shape body by taking on the Tongariro Crossing, a 19k alpine trek which included a good 45 minutes if nothing but stairs and an ‘easy descent’ which was in fact just sliding down loose stone on my arse. My feet may never forgive me, but I’m absolutely glad I did it.

To celebrate not dying, I also had some pretty awesome times swimming with dolphins, sea kayaking, visiting cute baby Kiwis and eating the best meal ever at a traditional Maori cultural evening.

So to summarise, New Zealand was incredible, and maybe the best place I’ve been so far. You can see loads more photos on my Facebook page, and laugh at how ridiculous I look in the videos from my skydive and bungee jump…

I will endeavour to update on the next stage of my adventures soon – I have a feeling it could be the best instalment yet…

Australia in pictures

I know I said I’d do this ages ago, but wifi in New Zealand is rare and expensive, and I’ve been super busy finding as many ways as possible to cheat death (more on that to follow) so blogging hasn’t really happened.

Here are some photos from Australia to hopefully stop everyone giving up on me completely until I have a chance to update on New Zealand.image

How to blag free food while travelling

I thought it was about time I posted something a bit more useful than my usual ramblings, and really what could be more useful to a traveller than knowing how to score some free food?

In Asia it’s not really an issue as everything is so cheap, but in Australia unless you’re happy living on instant noodles and $5 pizza, eating is expensive.

Don’t worry though, finding free food is easy, if you follow my simple two-step process:

  1. Befriend an Italian
  2. Pretend you don’t know how to cook

Of course if you genuinely don’t know how to cook, you won’t need to pretend making this essentially a one-step process – even better!

So how does this work? Well the key is in every Italian’s conviction that as a nation, they are the best cooks, and it’s their duty to share this great food with the world.

My first taste of this phenomenon was in Brisbane, when after spending the day at a Koala sanctuary with an Italian chef, I casually mentioned that I’d made pasta with a bunch of leftovers, including tomatoes and peaches (actually really tasty).

He was so horrified by this flavour combination that he immediately vowed to cook that night and show me the true Italian way of making pasta. It was of course excellent, and as an added bonus he also made a courgette and parmigiana omelette because he was still hungry afterwards, which I also got to share – win!

The other great thing about Italians is that they love to cook in bulk. So when I recently sat down at a table with three Italian guys and showed them the microwaved meal of beef and vegetables I had (it was late at night, I just arrived in a new city) they were quick to offer me some of their giant pot of pasta – generosity is definitely another big Italian trait, thanks guys!

I don’t actually spend all my time trying to scrounge off other people, and I’m more than happy to cook for myself, but should you be in need of a good meal this is a tactic I would highly recommend.

Sorry for the lack of pictures to illustrate this post, was too busy eating to think about photos, but will make up for it with a post full of australia highlights soon!