September 2015 - March 2016
  • Day204

    Tokyo, Japan

    March 25, 2016 in Japan ⋅ ☀️ 11 °C

    The final destination on the trip was Japan. I flew from Hanoi to Osaka with China Southern Airlines, with a five hour stopover in Baiyun airport, Guangzhoa, China. In Osaka, I got the Kansai Express airport train to Fukushima. The train system here is like one I've never seen before. Not only are the trains punctual and clean, everyone forms an orderly queue when boarding it and there is no manic rushing or pushing onto the train, unlike in other cities I've been to. I arrived at J-Hoppers Backpackers at about 10.30pm, and bedded in for the night. However, nature called and I headed to the toilet and to my amazement the toilet seat was heated! And then I noticed that the sink was on top of the cistern. Some unusual piece of technology! I knew then that this country was going to constantly surprise and amaze me.
    Next morning I got up to do the walking tour organised by the hostel owner, Mr Yoku. The 70+ year old man with a shuffling gait and an infectious laugh, showed us around the Temma area and teaching us a bit of Japanese along the way. First stop was Tenjimbashiauju Shopping Street which is the longest shopping street in Japan, measuring 2.6km with over 600 shops on it. Mr Yoku pointed out some of the local delicacies and the cheapest places to buy beer. Next we went to the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living, and learned about Osaka's Edo period (1830's), with models of the streets and buildings from that time. Then we entered a local restaurant to make the local dish of okonomiyaki. It is a savoury pancake make of cabbage, onion, egg, yam, pickled ginger, water and flour. You fry it on the teppan (hotplate) in the middle of the table and when cooked, the waitress dresses it with Japanese mayonnaise, otofuku sauce (Worcestershire sauce) and aonori (seaweed flakes). This dish was deceptively filling and we struggled to finish two between three of us.
    That evening, I went up the Umeda Sky Building and Floating Garden to watch the beautiful sunset over looking the Hokusetsu mountains. Then I walked to the colourful Ferris Wheel on top of the building HEP FIVE building. I entered my first Japanese style multi story shopping mall with 8-10 levels of various electronics and clothing etc. A vary daunting place!
    Next day, myself and Nadine from Beijing spent a day sightseeing around the city. First stop was Osaka Castle and we went up the main tower for a skyline view of the city. Then we visited some of the city's famous temples including Shitennoji temple and Hozenji temple. That evening the hostel held an International Party with Argentinians, Aussies, Brazilians, Israelis and Italians joining the locals for drinks and Takoyaki (battered balls with various fillings).
    The following day I headed to Miyajima Island and Hiroshima city with Sunrise Tours. We got the Shinkansan (bullet train) from Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima Station, taking only 75 mins to do the 330km journey. Here we were met by our guide for the day Mr Teddy and were brought to the ferry to Miyajima Island. We got a beautiful view of O-Toru Gate made from camphor wood which sits on the seabed making it look like it's floating on water. Next Mr. Teddy showed us around Itakushima Shrine and Daisha-In temple. We learned about the meanings of the various symbols and rituals of Buddhism and Shintu religions. After lunch we went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park where we visited the Atomic Bomb Dome which is one of the only few buildings in the city to survive the horrendous attack in 1945. The Park also contains various monuments and peace symbols to remember the 80,000 people who died during the attack. There was a definite sense of calm and tranquillity as you walked around the park. Next we visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum and saw some of the photos and items left behind after the devastating World War Two event. We then got the Shinkansan back to Osaka after another enjoyable and educational day.
    Next stop was Kyoto where I stayed in Hostel Mundo Chiquito. First I went to Kyoto Imperial Palace and Park and walked around the beautiful grounds with the gorgeous plum trees in full bloom. In the evening, I walked through the narrow streets of the Gion and Pontocho districts, where the teahouses and restaurants were decorated with lanterns and fairy lights.
    Next day I bought a one day bus ticket and did my own mini bus tour of the popular sights of the city including the Kinkakyi Temple (the Golden Pavilion), Tenryiyi Temple, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Kiyomizu-dera Temple and Fushimi Inari Shrine. These were one of my favourite sights and temples on the trip and a really enjoyable day.
    That night I got a night bus to Tokyo with Willer Express. I stayed in the Khaosan World Asakusa Hostel in Tokyo. I met Nat (of Shortland Street fame) and we went to @home Cafe. This is a quirky/unusual cafe where the waitresses dress in French maid uniforms and serve the food on cute plates and you have to sing a song together before you eat. All a very unusual and uncomfortable experience!
    Next day I took a two hour bus from Shinjuku station to Kawaguchiko station to see Mount Fuji. I walked around Lake Kawaguchiko and went up Mount Kachi Kachi Ropeway cable car for amazing views of Japan's highest mountain. Such a beautiful sight of the snow capped mountain. When I arrived back in Tokyo, I went up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for an great view of the city skyline.
    I awoke the next morning to a wet and cold Tokyo, so it was time for some indoor activities. I headed to the Miraikan National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. The demonstrations included the latest stem cell research, a model of the International Space Station and a large scale globe. I also took part in a gait analysis research project where they are looking at using a person's walking pattern as an identification tool in investigating crimes and missing persons. They were also looking at how much people can actually concentrate on another task while walking. Such interesting projects. When the weather cleared up, I headed to the famous Shibuya Pedestrian Crossing, the world's busiest crossing, where ten lanes of traffic and five pedestrian crossings converge. I sat and watched the coordinated passing of people and traffic at this mesmerising place. Final stop was the Yoyogi Park and the lovely Meiji Jingu temple built in 1920.
    My final day in Tokyo ran in line with the start of the cherry blossom season, Japan's national flower. So I headed to Ueno Park where there are designated areas to sit and have a picnic under the rows of the blooming trees. Next I went to the beautiful Imperial Palace East Gardens to see more cherry blossoms, spring flowers and fruit. I finished the day visiting the Sensoji Temple, Five Storied Pagoda and Kaminarimon on the Nakamise shopping street.
    That evening it was time to hit the airport one last time as I flew home with Emirates to Dublin. It's hard to believe that this amazing trip is over. I saw some amazing things and did some incredible things. So lucky to have had the opportunity to do it all. But it's back to reality now and try be a proper grownup!!
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  • Day195

    Hanoi, Vietnam

    March 16, 2016 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    Our Vietnam leg started with a stay in the Galaxy Hotel and Capsule in Hoi Chi Minh City. Due to the fact we had dwindled down to three people, we were able to afford and fit in a triple room. It was a bit of luxury having a room to ourselves and being able to spread our stuff around the room.
    Our first activity in Ho Chi Minh was a day trip to the Mekong Delta. We were picked up by our guide Tao at 7.30am and drove an hour and a half to the tour boat. We drove along the Mekong river which is the longest river in Vietnam and passed by the floating markets where they sold pineapples, watermelons and mangos on the boats. Families live on these boats all year round and the children go to school on the islands. They even manage to get satellite TV! We then stopped at the local market where we saw how they use rice to make rice wine (29% alcohol) and popping rice (an alternative to corn) which is flavoured with ginger and coconut. The coconut milk is processed into a paste and used to make chewy sweets wrapped in rice paper. We were also shown the honeybee hives, where the honey produced is used to make honey tea and honey ointments for the skin. Next we transfered onto a row boat and got to wear the traditional Vietnamese hats while the lady rowed us to our lunch stop. After lunch we napped on the hammocks before cycling alongside the river to our boat before heading back to Ho Chi Minh. This tour was an interesting one and it was good to see the local culture. That evening we had a brief reunion with Rebecca and Elliott having dinner and a few drinks.
    Next day we walked to the War Museum where we learned about the history of the Vietnam War with USA and saw the harrowing results and devastation caused by the events from 1959-1975. We walked around town seeing the Cathedral, the Opera House and the Saigon river before we got a overnight sleeper bus to Da Lat that night.
    We arrived early in the morning in Da Lat, so we checked into our hotel, Thien Kim Guesthouse, and caught a few hours sleep. We went for brunch in the amazing 'One More Cafe'. The staff were lovely and gave each of us a rose for International Women's Day. Such a lovely thought on an important day in this part of the world. Then we got a taxi to the cable car and rode it up through the beautiful mountains. We sat by the Xuan Huong lake and went in search of the local waterfall. After asking various people for directions we still failed to find it and headed back to the cable cars, only to miss the last one by five minutes. We tried to convince the cablecar operator to let us on but to no avail, so instead we got a taxi back into town. We stopped at the Hang Nga Guesthouse, also know as the 'Crazy House'. It is like an unconventional fairytale style house, with various shaped tunnels, caves, stairways and bridges. We spent about an hour here, exploring the area like little children.
    Next day was travel day to Hoi An. We were picked up by mini bus at midday and drove three hours to Nha Trang where we had a three and a half hour stopover before getting on the night bus. This was the last of 31 long buses together so it was time for some reminiscing about the various highlights of the trip.
    We arrived in early morning in Hoi An and got a motorbike taxi to the amazing Full House Homestay. We were met by the owner Lee who gave us lots of information about the area and gave us bicycles to use to get around the town. We cycled into town and had a lovely breakfast to celebrate Edel's birthday. We walked around the beautiful streets with little shops selling crafts and handmade clothing. After an afternoon nap, we cycled to the beach and had dinner in the highly recommended Cay Me restaurant.
    The following day was a day for the bikes. We were met by our guide and thrown straight in the deep end. With no demonstration we were just given our bikes and told to get going. This was never going to end well, as I started my bike and somehow ended up driving my bike up onto the kerb, taking out a few flower pots on the way! Not a great start but I just had to plow on with getting used to the bike. We headed out the main road of Hoi An towards Da Nang. It took us a while to get use to the road etiquette of overtaking, signalling and breaking. But we soon got use to it. Our first stop was Da Nang beach where we stretched the legs on a walk along the prom. Next we drove up the Son Tra peninsula to the large 67 metre high Lady Buddha (Bodhisattva of Mercy) statue. As we were driving up the twisty and windy road to Hai Van Pass, my bike broke down and needed roadside repairs by our guide. The bike was probably still in shock after the initial incident with the plant pots. After a few minutes repairs, we were all set to go drive to the top of the Pass, where we stopped for a mineral and had a beautiful view of the Da Nang beach. Next we drove down the mountain and through the busy Da Nang city traffic to Marble Mountain. We had a lovely lunch at the foot of the mountain before climbing up it through the various caves and temples. This finished off a fun day of riding the bikes. We drove back to Hoi An and went out that night to celebrate us all being in one piece after the day of adrenaline and adventure.
    Next day was the dreaded day where we said an emotional farewell to Nina who was staying in Hoi An a bit longer with her Mam and Aunt. Edel and I were driven to Da Nang airport where we got the hour long flight to Hanoi. We were picked up at the airport by our driver and dropped off at our hotel (Dahlia Hotel).
    In Hanoi, we did some shopping at the Dong Xuan market and on Hang Dau (Shoe Street) and Hang Gai (Silk Street). We went for dinner at the lovely Gecko restaurant, before tackling the night market on Hang Giay.
    Next morning we headed on our tour to Halong Bay, one of the Seven Wonders of Nature. We met our excellent guide Minh on the bus who entertained us for the four hour drive with various facts about the area and Vietnam. He was one guide who was passionate about his job and his country. An hour and half into the journey we stopped at a craft workhouse for people with disabilities. The paintings, embroidery, clothing and jewellery was all handcrafted and sold by these incredible people. After a bit of shopping here, we got back on the bus and headed to the port where we boarded the Majestic cruise ship. As we sailed into the bay, a large buffet lunch was served with various known and unknown fish and meat to us. Our first stop was the Sung Sot Cave, only discovered by a fisherman in 1992 during a typhoon where he sought shelter. We walked through the three chambers looking at the various stalagmites and stalactites. Next stop was the Halong Bay Pearl Farm. Here we were shown the process of fishing, growing and implanting the Akoya, South Sea and Talitian oysters to form various coloured pearls. Only 30% of oysters produce pearls and to demonstrate this, Edel was asked to choose a oyster which, when cut open, was empty. The shipped anchored down for the night in a quiet cove of the Bay while we watched the lovely sunset. We also got a chance to swim in the cold but refreshing water before dinner. Another big feast was served for dinner, this time in the form of a barbecue. This along with a happy hour at the bar lead to a lovely evening. Before bed we did squid fishing, well went in search of some squid but failed miserably. The only person to be successful was a local worker on the boat. He put the rest of us to shame.
    Next morning was an early start with some tai chi on the top deck before breakfast. We then went kayaking in the calm water around a local fishing village. We returned to the boat where Minh showed us how to make Vietnamese spring rolls which were fried and served at lunch. We returned to the port and got the bus back to Hanoi, where we reflected on a lovely trip and a bucket list item achieved!
    When we arrived back at the Dahlia Hotel, we were met with a lovely surprise by the staff who had upgraded us to the honeymoon sweet! This was such a nice treat for our last night together. We finished off with another lovely dinner at the Gecko restaurant where we had some long awaited steak and apple pie.
    Next morning we had another emotional goodbye at the airport as we went our separate ways (Edel off Downunder and I'm going to the Land of the Rising Sun). Vietnam was a surprisingly amazing and beautiful country and one of my favourites that we've been to. It helped me get over the emotional farewells over the past few weeks, with these amazing young ladies. Wouldn't have done it without them. Now it is time to dabble my hand at some solo travelling for a little bit. It's going to be a test after the incredible last six months with the best friends in the world!
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  • Day183

    Phnom Penh, Cambodia

    March 4, 2016 in Cambodia ⋅ ☀️ 33 °C

    After a long and tiring journey, we landed in Siem Reap and caught up on some much needed sleep in the Siem Reap Hostel. Next morning the five of us piled into a tuk tuk with our rucksacks and headed to Angkor Breeze Guesthouse. The tuk tuk driver had a bit of difficulty finding the hotel and we drove up and down the same road numerous times looking for the correct turn. After the third or fourth time, people sitting in the restaurants were laughing and waving at us, probably wondering what kinda crowd we were. To add to the dramatic drive, at one point when we were doing a u-turn, one of the rucksacks fell off the tuk tuk. As we shouted 'bag down', the driver jammed on the brakes so we could retrieve it. We were glad to eventually arrive in Angkor Breeze, with all our possessions intact! Next we went for brunch at the lovely 'Blue Pumpkin' before getting a tuk tuk back to the airport. We caused a bit of a stir as we stood in arrivals with our personalised signs, singing and dancing while we waited for Jess, Margaux and Mollie to arrive. After a beautiful reunion, we went back to Angkor Breeze where we sat and chatted for hours, catching up on all our life stories. That evening we had dinner in the lovely Khmer Family restaurant on Pub street, where we had our first taste of Cambodian cuisine.
    Next day, after returning to the 'Blue Pumpkin' for breakfast, Nina and I went for a walk around the city and visited the local markets and the Wat Preah Prom Rath temple. That evening we all got a tuk tuk to Angkor Wat and watched the beautiful sunset at the temple, built in the 12th century.
    Next morning, while the girls went to attempt to watch the sunrise on a hot air balloon, Nina and I got a tuk tuk back to Angkor Wat at 5.30am to watch the sunrise inside the temple. There was such a peaceful and spiritual atmosphere as we watched the colour of the sky change from purple, dark blue, red and orange as the sun rose. We walked around the temple and took in the amazing views. Next we got a tuk tuk tour with our guide Dara who drove us to various temples in the National Park. First stop was the Bayon Temple which was made up of pillars with four faces facing North, South, East and West. Next we visited Ta Keo temple which translates as 'crystal grandfather' with very steep steps up to the top. Then we visited Ta Prohm which was made famous in the Tomb Raider film with the tree branches and trunks growing through the walls of the temple. Our final stop before returning to town was the Banteay Kdei temple which was made up of multiple square chambers. It was really interesting visiting different styles of temples and seeing different features of each one. That evening we revisited the Khmer Family restaurant for another lovely dinner.
    After an emotional goodbye to Roisin, Margaux and Laura, we got the VIP minibus along the bumpy road to Phnom Penh, where we stayed in the Mad Monkey Hostel.
    We had an educational filled day visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum and the Chaeung Ek Killing Fields. During the audio tours we learned about the genocide that occurred from 1975-1979 during the Khmer Rouge Regime. The graphic details and stories were really stomach renching and upsetting, learning about how over 20000 people were killed.
    That evening we went to 'Friends the restaurant' for Asian and Western style tapas. The restaurant is NGO run and serve some amazing food, with the profits being invested into social projects for young people.
    Next day we hit the spa for manicures and pedicures, before we had another emotional goodbye to Jess who was off back to Singapore. That evening we had a cheap trip to the cinema ($3) in Aeon mall to watch Ryan Reynolds in 'Deadpool'.
    The following day, Nina and I visited the National History Museum where we learned about the ancient history of Cambodia. Then we went to the Royal Palace and walked around the beautiful grounds and visited various temples and buildings. That evening we went to the Mount Everest for a lovely Indian dinner. The staff were very helpful and we got lots of food. We were each given a glass of water which the staff were constantly refilling it. Once you had taken one mouthful the glass was topped up immediately. No trouble of being dehydrated anyways. To finish off the lovely meal, we were given free banana slices for dessert.
    Next morning after breakfast, we said farewell to Mollie, Kate and Rory before Edel, Nina and I got the Great Ibis bus across the border to Vietnam.
    Cambodia was a beautiful country and surprisingly one of my favourite we've visited on the trip. Obviously the uniting of old and new Irish friends made it extra special and fun times were had all round.
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  • Day174

    Koh Phangan, Thailand

    February 24, 2016 in Thailand ⋅ ☀️ 30 °C

    The journey to Bangkok started with a lovely surprise for Roisin and I as we were upgraded to Business Class for our Etihad flight from Sao Paulo to Abu Dabai. We were treated to fully reclining seats with a massage setting and spacious leg room. With one hostess for every four people, we were given great attention and drank the free champagne as we waited to take off. We ordered our dinner for the flight from the extensive menu and sat back and enjoyed the flight. The food came on real plates and cutlery with unlimited access to drinks throughout the flight. For me, the best part of the 13 1/2 hour flight was the breakfast, where I had real cornflakes and warm milk, (something we'd lacked on the trip) followed by scrambled eggs and a mango smoothie. Such a treat to have, before we returned to Economy Class for the final flight to Bangkok.
    We got through security with no problems before getting a taxi to Khaosan Immjai Hostel, just off Khaosan Road. The taxi was pimmed up in pink fury covers, flashing lights and various posters, all an unusual start to our time in Thailand.
    We had a day of site seeing where we got the public transport boat for €0.20 for the 20 minute journey from Pier 13 to Pier 8. We crammed onto the boat with the guy shouting out the various stop numbers while people scrambled on and off the boat. Our first stop of the day was the Grand Palace, built in 1972, where we hired some long robes and wandered through the beautiful buildings and courtyards. The main feature was The Emerald Buddha where we sat and enjoyed the amazing surroundings. To escape the heat, Nina, Edel and I got a tuk tuk to the Siam Paragon shopping mall where we had our now traditional visit to H&M to top up on some basic clothing. That evening, we went to the Asiatique night market. This was not like one we had seen before, with amazing lights and bright stalls. We got some Thai dinner, walked around the stalls and then went on the Ferris wheel to view the city night lights.
    Next day before getting the sleeper train to Chiang Mai, we got ourselves a Pad Thai dinner from a stall on Khaosan Road and sat on the kerb taking in the sites of the busy street. The overnight train to Chiang Mai was an interesting experience. With bunk beds running down either side of the old train, it felt like we were in an old war time movie. We lay there for the night trying to sleep and not fall out of the bed, despite feeling every bump we went over on the tracks.
    We stayed in Potao House just on the verge of the walls of the old town. We went to the Night Bazaar market and wandered along the blocks and blocks of stalls.
    Next day we went to the Art in Paradise museum where we posed for many photos at the amazing 3D art work. Then we walked through the old town visiting various temples including Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phantao and Pra Singh Voramahavihara and took loads of photos of the beautiful buildings.
    That evening we had a cooking class with Asia Scenic. Our teacher Tup first presented us with Meang Kum (Welcome Snack) that is used at all gatherings. Next we got a tour of the garden and the local food market, where Tup pointed out the various foods and ingredients used in Thai cooking. We headed back to the kitchen where we cooked various dishes including Red curry, Pad See Uw (stir fry with rice noodles) and Tom Khai Kai (chicken curry in coconut milk). Roisin and I volunteered to cook the filling for the spring rolls for the group, just like a Masterchef Masterclass.
    The following day we had a long day of travelling with a 20 hour bus to Surat Thani before getting a boat to Koh Tao, where we stayed in Koh Tao Central Hostel. After a busy few weeks it was nice to be able to chill out on the island, watching sunsets on the beach with a cool cider in hand. Edel and I decided to treat ourselves to a manicure and pedicure in a little spa, close to the hostel. Our feet have taken a heavy beating over the last six months and the poor ladies really had their work cut out to make them anyway respectable looking. Our final stop in Thailand was Koh Phangan where we stayed in Smile Hostel for the Full Moon Party. On the day of the party, we purchased brightly coloured tshirts and painted ourselves in florescent bodypaint, before heading to Hadrin Beach for the all night party on the beach.
    Next day, we had an epic journey taking various modes of transport (boat, bus, planes and tuk tuk) to Siam Reap for the highly awaited multinational reunion in Cambodia.
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  • Day159

    Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

    February 9, 2016 in Brazil ⋅ ☀️ 35 °C

    After an amazing final day in Argentina, we crossed the Brazilian border during a huge thunderstorm. The bus to Foz do Iguazu drove through the floods on the road before we eventually found a taxi to our hostel, Tetris Container. The hostel was made of large shipping containers, with each room and portacabin corresponding to a different colour.
    Next day, after a lovely breakfast, we got the public transport bus costing R$3.70 (€0.80) to Iguasu Falls. After paying the admission fee, we got a bus through the National Park to the walking trail around the Falls. We got more amazing views of the Falls before the heavens opened! However this didn't deter us from us from continuing to explore and enjoy the Falls. We walked across the bridge into the same Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat) as the day before, this time viewing it from the inside. The sound and sights of the water gushing down from overhead was incredible, but also a bit scary, giving us an insight into how dangerous Mother Nature can be. After another amazing day, we went back to the hostel to try dry out our clothes before getting the overnight bus to Florinoplolis.
    Unfortunately the weather continued to be quite miserable Brazilian style (i.e 20 degrees with drizzle) in Florinoplolis. We stayed in Tucano Hostel where we chilled out and played some pool on the wobbliest, uneven table I've come across. We went to Iguatemi shopping mall to stock up on some new essential and unessential items. One particular sales guy tried to convince me to buy a phone cover with a solar powered phone charger inside it. I don't think he was too impressed when I highlighted that there was no sun in Ireland (he clearly had the wrong target audience!).
    Next we went to the cinema to see the new Jennifer Lawrence film 'Joy'. Edel research had revealed a 2 o'clock viewing for only R$11 (€2.40). Unable to turn down the possibility of a cheap cinema date, we bought the tickets and headed into the screen. I noticed a unusually high number of buggies at the bottom of the steps and as we got to our seats, I soon realised that we had encountered a parents and baby viewing. I looked around and every adult had a baby or toddler with them. There was baby changing facilities and a little play area at the front of the screen. We sat there babyless and no shame. It took us awhlle to ignore the sounds of the young audience but we soon got use to it and enjoyed the film none the less. We found out afterwards from a couple from Tyrone, who were there with their twin girls, that this was a monthly event and an enjoyable social outting for the new parents.
    Next day, to mark Sophie's last day of her holiday and our final day in Florinoplolis, we took a beautiful boat ride out to Costa del Largo where we visited the waterfall and had a lovely dinner of breaded bass and chips by the lakeside.
    Next day after saying goodbye to Sophie we flew to Rio De Janeiro with GOL airlines. As it was the week of Carnival, accommodation was extremely expensive and booked out months in advance. We had booked an apartment, through Air B&B, last August before we left on the trip. The one bedded apartment wasn't really fit for four people and only had air conditioning in the bedroom, so we moved the mattresses from the sofa bed into the bedroom for a nice cosy stay!
    Next morning we got a taxi to the Corcovado train station and took the 20 minute trip up to Christ the Redeemer statue. It was amazing to be finally at the top of this iconic landmark that overlooks the city. When we had taken all our photos, we got the train back down before hopping in a taxi across the city to Pao du Acucar (Sugarloaf mountain). We got the cable cars up to the summit for more amazing views of the city. Next stop was the Escadaria Selaron steps in Lapa, where we climbed the 215 steps, decorated with over 2000 beautiful ceramic tiles from 60 different countries. We then walked to Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião, the conical shaped cathedral made up of four large stained glass windows, measuring 64 metres high. Unfortunately when we got there it was closed for visitors however the doorman allowed us to take photos through the little gap in the door. We finished off the day with an evening at the Bloco party in Lapa. There is a Bloco or street party organised by each suburb over the Carnival period. There was lots of music and drumming with people dressed in all sort of costumes and outfits.
    The following day we went to the world famous Maracana stadium where we did the stadium tour. It held the 1950 and 2014 World Cup Finals and is due to hold the opening and closing ceremonies in the Olympics and Paralympics later this year. We joined the stadium tour and were brought to the dressing rooms where we posed with the jerseys of various soccer players including Ronaldo, Messi and the current Brazilian favourite Neymar. The tour guide asked us all where we were all from and who we supported. To our amazement he knew all about Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers from home. Next we were brought out onto the pitch and got to sit in the dugouts and take in the incredible views of the inside of the stadium. We then got the chance to take a penalty. It may have taken me three attempts to score (one was saved) but still managed to mimic what Pele had done to score his 1000th goal.
    Next we took the Metro to the Scorial Rio hotel to collect the Carnival tickets before spending the evening at the Ipamema beach watching the sunset beside Sugarloaf mountain.
    Next day was Carnival at the Sambadrome. We arrived at spectacular stadium filled with 90,000 people over the 700 metre long stadium. We took our seats on the steps of Section 10 and watched the crowd singing and dancing while waiting for the show to start. Each samba school had 90 minutes to parade in front of the crowd, each with their own anthem and theme with floats, thousands of dancers dressed in elaborate costumes and finished off with a drumming band. The colours and lights were spectacular and it was amazing to see the amount of time and effort into it (definitely puts the Dublin Paddy's Day parade to shame). We managed to watch five of the six schools before the tiredness hit at 4am and we called it a day. It was such an incredible experience and another one of the overall highlights of the trip. One of the best ways to finish our time in the amazing continent of South America!
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  • Day149

    Puerto Iguazu, Argentina

    January 30, 2016 in Argentina ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    After a long, delayed journey, we finally arrived in Salta. Our first port of call was to exchange our money. Our research had told us that the best way was on the 'Black Market' to get a better exchange rate. The lady at the information desk in the bus terminal directed us to the guy at the luggage desk. All a bit jubious about the whole thing, we exchanged a little bit of money to start us off before we went to find out more information about the situation from our hostel, 7 Duendes.
    Next day was a day of errands. First was the laundrette where we had an argument with the girl regarding the amount of space Edel's clothes took up despite only having half a basket amount. After some discussion we realised there was no convincing her so we grabbed all our stuff and left to find another laundrette. The guy in this laundrette gave us a better deal where the five of us filled two large baskets for a cheaper price. Next stop was Plaza 9 de Julio where men stood on the corner, outside the national bank, calling out 'cambio' looking for US dollars, Euro or Sterling. We got out the currency converter app and managed to haggle for the best rates. After sorting out bus tickets we headed for a lovely dinner in the El Charrua restaurant.
    Next day, to burn off our dinner, we walked up to Cerro San Bernardo viewpoint passing the 14 Stations of the Cross statues on our ascend. At the top we were treated to amazing views of Salta and the surrounding areas. We availed of the small outdoor gym at the top doing a light core session in the sunshine!
    The following day, we hired a car to go to the Cerro de los Siete Colores (Seven Coloured Hills) in Purmamarca, two hours north of Salta. The mountains were formed from various different layers of minerals and compounds, over millions of years, each giving off a different colour which can be seen as the sun shines on them.
    That evening we got a 19 hour bus with AndesMar to Mendoza, where we stayed in the lovely Lagares Hostel. We walked to the Parque Generale San Martin, where we sat by the lake under the shade of the trees watching people running, cycling and rowing in the lake. It reminded me a little like Central Park, New York.
    The next day we did a wine tour of the famous Mendoza wineries. We took the public transport bus to Mr. Hugo bikes where we were given bikes and a map of the local wineyards. We first cycled to the Tempus Alba vineyard for a self guided tour where over four million litres of wine are produced annually. We sat on the terrace with amazing views of the vineyard while the girls tasted various wines. Next we went to Vino El Cerno vineyard where we got a tour by Anna, who told us about her philosophical view on the parallels between the maturing of wine and maturing as a person. Our final stop was the Museo del Vino La Rural, before we dropped our bikes back. We got on the bus to town, however due to the one way system, we lost track of where we were and where we had to get off. Before we knew it, we were nearly back to where we started. We quickly got off the bus and took another bus back to town.
    Next day we took a 24 hour bus to Puerto Madryn with Andesmar. This was our longest bus journey of the trip. The bus was two hours late which was not a great start however we got to play a game of bingo on the bus so that made up for it a little. Unfortunately none of us won, despite some local lads helping us when we had difficulty with our 60's and 70's numbers.
    We arrived at the Chepatagonia Hostel just one block from the beach in Puerto Madryn. We settled in for the day and organised our trip to Puerto Piramides. The hostel advised us that it was best to hire a car so they sent a lady over to us that evening. She arrived with her paperwork in a leather folder (old school style) and took our details, before giving us a vague map of the route we'd be driving (not a SatNav in sight!). Next up Nina and I inspected the car. To say the Renault Clio had seen better days was an understatement! There were multiple large marks and scraps on the bodywork, chips in the windscreen and part of the back bumper coming off. Nina double checked that the car actually started before we agreed to take the car for the 24 hours.
    We got up early the next day and headed on our way. We soon found out why the car was in such a state, as when we entered the National Park, the road was made of gravel and stones. The maximum speed limit was 60kph and even at that speed the car tended to slide around the road. Our first stop was La Loberta where hundreds of sea lions were sat on the cliff barking loudly. We sat watching them get in and out of the sea. Next we headed north to Puerto Norte where there were armadillos roaming around the car park and sea lions mating on the beach. We then drove to Caleta Valdes where we saw penguins on the beach and elephant seals in distance. It was such a lovely day out and great to see more animals in their natural habitat. We drove back to Puerto Madryn where the lady came to collect the car. I had parked it into facing the kerb for convenience sake but she informed me that it was actually illegal to park this way. She got in the car and turned it around before we finished our business with sorting payments of the car. All an unusual experience!
    We then travelled to Bariloche on the Don Otto night bus and stayed in the Hostel Inn with amazing views overlooking Lago Nahuel Huapi. Edel and I decided to go to the view point at Cerro Campanario. We walked up the steep 40 minute gravel path through the woods, with no sign posts or directions in sight. We found our way up the top and had amazing panoramic views of the surrounding areas. On our way down we got completely lost and off the beaten track and had to climb over and under tree trunks and branches before coming out on a private road about 1km from where we had started. Despite being really dirty and dusty from our adventure, we stopped in a little restaurant on the way back where we treated ourselves to a lovely steak dinner.
    The following day we were collected at 9am for a two hour drive along Route 40 to a ranch where we were starting our horseriding. We were met by Sebastian who brought us to his grandmother's house where we were treated to breakfast in her cottage before meeting the horses. We rode through the woods alongside and through the Rio Manzo, where the horses stopped for a well earned drink in the hot temperatures. We were treated to some amazing views of the Andes and such a peaceful experience. We stopped for lunch in a campsite where we had a traditional Argentine BBQ (Asado). In the afternoon, Edel and I continued with more horseriding while the girls chilled by the lake. Sebastian led the way with a machete clearing the low lying and overgrown branches along our route through the steep woody mountains. We arrived back at the ranch, were picked up by the others and headed back to the hostel after another lovely day.
    The final activity in Bariloche was paddleboarding on Lago Gurtierrez. Our instructor Chris introduced us to different boards and paddles used for various conditions and purposes. After about two hours of paddling, we managed to conquer the task of standing and turning on the different boards. My favourite was definitely the racer board, despite being the most unsteady but the thrill of the speed was brilliant.
    Bariloche is also famous for its chocolate so Edel and I went to a few of the shops to get a few samples. We entered del Turista and were overwhelmed by the amount of different types, flavours and shapes of chocolates on display. There was also a chocolatier making various batches of chocolate. On the opposite side of the shop was a large counter of ice cream with whatever flavour you wanted!
    Next day we flew with LAN to Buenos Aires where we stayed in Rayuela Boutique Hostel and were met by Sophie, who had flown over from Lancaster. Buenos Aires was very hot and humid but we still managed to fit in plenty of activities. We went to the Sunday afternoon San Telmo markets on Defensa. There were about 10 blocks of stalls selling various merchandise and foods. That evening we went for dinner at the recommended Cafe Tortoni, which was a Bewleys style restaurant with beautiful interior design and lovely food.
    Next day we did the first half of the city bus tour and got to view the many boroughs and sights of the city. We then returned to Cafe Tortoni where we watched an amazing Tango Show.
    The following day we finished off the second half of the bus tour before going for a walk along the waterfront. Inspired by last night's show, we had a tango lesson at La Cathedral Club. Situated an authentic room with antique furniture we learned how to follow and lead some 'serious' moves.
    For our final day in Buenos Aires we went for a lovely lunch in The Gibraltar pub before saying goodbye to Rebecca who was off to Bangkok. We then got a very comfortable night bus with Via Bariloche to Puerto Iguazu where we stayed in Bambu Hostel. Here we got the local bus to Iguazu Falls for an amazing experience. We did the Great Adventure tour of the Falls, where we drove along the Yacaratia Trail through the Atlantic rainforest. There is only 7% area of the rainforest left due to deforestation. Next we put our life jackets on and got a boat up the Lower Iguasu River, under the spray of the Falls and got absolutely soaked! Next we walked around the various trails to get different perspective on the Falls. We got the train to Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat) which was my favourite part. The sound of the water falling and the sheer volume of water was incredible and it added to the unbelievable time at the Falls.
    The day at Iguazu Falls was one of my highlights of the trip so far, an incredible end to an incredible time in Argentina.
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  • Day126

    San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

    January 7, 2016 in Chile ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    We arrived in the little town of San Pedro de Atacama where we had to go through passport control and got another stamp on our passports. Then we had to get our rucksacks off the bus and bring them into a little office to be passed through the scanner.
    After some confusion as to which direction we had to go and having to walk through the hot sun, we eventually found our lovely little hostel, Hostel Tatais, where we were staying for the night. After having a little rest and getting ourselves sorted, we headed into the town. The beautiful white painted buildings had the feeling of being on holidays in a Mediterranean country.
    Because we were only in Chile for one day and to avoid the fees for withdrawing money from the ATM, we went to a Casa de Change to exchange our leftover Bolivian Bolivanos for some Chilean Pasos. After separating apart our accommodation money, we were left with around €7 spending money to 'splash' out on food and snacks. We went to the local shop and bought some supplies for the bus the next day. We went back to the hostel for lovely hot showers and dinner before trying to settle the bill with the hostel. This was when we realised we had made a boo boo in our calculations. The hostel hadn't added in the tax the initial booking so we actually had less 'spending money'. We frantically went scrambling through our purses to see how much cash we had and how much was left over. When it came down to it we had to scrap the planned taxi trip to the bus station the following morning and instead went on foot.
    Our Andesmar bus to Salta in Argentina was due to depart at 9am however we sat on the bus for an hour before leaving. While waiting we were given so called 'breakfast and lunch packs' for the journey. Inside the brown paper bags were multiple cakes and sweets, great healthy food indeed!
    We eventually arrived at the Chile/Argentina border at midday, where again there was a lot of waiting around. It look us two hours to get out passports stamped and to put our bags through the scanner before we were finally were on the way to Salta along the apparent 'most beautiful road' in the road, so we sat back and enjoyed the views!
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  • Day125

    Uyuni, Bolivia

    January 6, 2016 in Bolivia

    We began our trip to Bolivia with a very comfortable seven hour overnight bus journey to Puno with Turisim Meru from Cusco. But that was a far as the comfort got! After a two hour stopover in Puno we got the PanAmericano bus across the border into Bolivia. Then we took the short trip to Copacabana, where we stopped or an hour lunch and a change of buses. Our next leg of the journey was the most unusual leg of all! We arrived at the edge of Lake Titicaca and were all told to get off the bus and purchase a boat ticket to cross the lake. We got on a small motor boat to the other side, wondering what is going to happen to our bus and all our belongings on it. Before we knew it, our bus was being loaded onto a barge and driven across the water. After about half an hour, it safely made it to the other side, where we boarded the bus and headed on our way to La Paz. We finally arrived at the Wild Rover hostel, five hours later, happy to have gotten there safely with all our belongings after a very unusual journey.
    Next day, was the nervously anticipated trip to the famous North Yungas Road, better known by the locals as 'El Camino de la Muerte' or 'Death Road'. We were picked up at 7.30am by Atlantic Tours and driven one hour to the start point at La Cumbre (4700 metres above sea level) in the Andes Mountains. After a quick snack and getting fitted out with our gear, we started our 63km cycle down the stoney, bumpy road to the start of 'Death Road' in Unduavi. After lunch we were given a briefing from the guides, where we were told to keep to the left of the road, close to the edge of the cliff, in order the avoid the oncoming traffic and allowing people to overtake you on your right. We tentatively headed on our way, single file down the narrow road trying to avoid the edge and the big rocks on the road. We stopped at various points along the road for some photos with our bikes with the views of the Amazon Rainforest in the background. As we grew in confidence, we picked up our speed along the road and got to enjoy the ride a little more. There were a few punctures and mechanical failures along the way due to the really bumpy road but we all reached the bottom of the road in one piece with just a few blisters on our hands for our sins. We were delighted to have completed 'Death Road' and it was worth the various feelings of adrenaline, excitement and nervousness during the whole experience.
    We were then treated to a buffet lunch in a nearby hotel before having a well deserved swim in the swimming pool. We headed back to La Paz in the minibus with a music medley made up of a vast collection of 90's and 00's songs, from various genres. We all sang along topping off a great day.
    We celebrated New Years in the hostel which had organised a masquerade ball. The place was decorated with black and white banners, ribbons and balloons. We had double the celebrations, as at 8pm Bolivian time, we counted down the Irish New Year with an excellent live band in the bar, before we brought in the Bolivian New Year. We had a good night all round and excited to see what 2016 had to bring.
    Next day we walked around the city and came across a military wedding at the cathedral. The bride and groom exited the church under a guard of honour before they slow danced to the little band playing. The photographer was there taking photos and then connected his camera to a printer which instantly printed off the photos.
    The following day we got a nine hour overnight bus to Uyuni with TransOmar bus. We arrived at 6.30am, however we were unable to check into our hostel, Piedra Blancho, until midday. So we made use of the wifi and sneaked into get some free breakfast. We walked around the lovely little town and visited the markets. That evening we went out for dinner at the highly rated Minuteman Pizza restaurant. There was no electricity in the town in the evenings, so the tasty pizzas were made in a stone fire oven. This was definitely one of the nicest meals we've had on the trip so far!
    Next morning we were collected by Quechwa Connections at 11.30 for our trip to the Salar de Uyuni, which is largest salt flat in the world at 10,582 square kilometres. Our first stop was the Train Cemetery, three kilometres from Uyuni, where the old trains used for mining were left when they were out of commission. Bolivia do not have the resources to recycle any of the materials and there is a law banning them from exporting the materials to Chile or Argentina. We posed for many photos on the old trains and carriages.
    Next up we stopped in a little village where they had various statues and monuments on display all made from salt. We learned about how the salt is extracted from the ground in large blocks, broken up, mixed and proceeded with iodine to make it edible, before being bagged in 0.5kg and 1kg bags and sold to the supermarkets and shops on Bolivia.
    Then we stopped at the salt mounds and parts of the plaines where the salt water was bubbling and rising to the surface, where it solidifies and forms small holes that look like 'eyes' (Ojos del Salar). From here we were given some bikes and cycled three kilometres along the bumpy salt surface to the Salt Hotel, where we had a picnic lunch.
    After lunch, it was time to get creative for our opportunity at the famous Salt Flat photographs. With various props at the ready, including Pringles can, cutlery, Edel's sunglasses and Ipod and a toy dinosaur, we stepped about 10 metres away from the camera and our guide Gonzalo took hundreds of photos of us in various poses and combinations. We could have spent hours here having fun taking photos but unfortunately it was time to move onto our next stop. On our way there, we got a puncture so we all had to get out of the car while the men changed tyre. This gave us another few minutes to take some more sneaky photos!
    We finally arrived at Isla Incahuasi, which is an unique island with cacti growing on it. The strong Bolivian winds blow the seeds onto the island and the cactus grow there. Gonzalo showed us some of traditional objects used in the area before, we got to walk around the island taking in the amazing views of the Salt Flats. Next we drove to another island where we were to watch the sunset. Just as we were arriving we saw another Jeep driving close to the island and Gonzalo grabbed our attention and told us to watch the Jeep. Before we knew it, the Jeep got stuck in the soft salty ground. We stopped about 100 metres from the Jeep and hopped out to see if we could help. For the next two hours or so we, along with the other people on the tour, tried to help the drivers get the Jeep out. We collected various sized rocks to wedge under the tyres and helped try rock and push the Jeep in various directions. However the more we tried the further the Jeep sunk into the ground. With the sun now set and the temperature dropping, it was time to call it a day on the rescue attempt and we headed off to our hotel, while the other group waited for a spare car to come and collect them. Large steel poles and large jacks would be used tomorrow to get the Jeep out.
    The drive to the hotel took about an hour with our driver doing an amazing job getting us safely there, with only his headlights to navigate his way avoiding the large mounds of salt through the bumpy terrain. On our way we spotted some of the Dakar rally cars out practicing, which was due to start here in the next couple of days. We arrived in the newly built community hotel, where we had dinner and rested for the busy day ahead.
    Next morning was a 6am start to a wonderful day of visiting various landscapes and viewpoints around the area. We stopped at an area with coral rocks formed millions of years ago when area was covered by the sea. We saw multiple lagunas which housed a large quantity of flamingos. This time of year is meant to be 'rainy season' in Bolivia, however this year it hasn't hit yet so the lagunas lacked a lot of water.
    We stopped at the Atacama Desert, which is the highest desert in the world and then at the Arbol de Piedra which is a tree shaped rock. We battled hard against the strong winds to get some photos by it.
    Our final stop was the Laguna Colorada in the Eduardo Avaroa National Park, where we saw more flamingos with beautiful views of the red coloured laguna. That night after dinner we went outside to see the amazing night sky with thousands of stars shining overhead.
    We had a 4am start the following morning where after having pancakes for breakfast, we drove for an hour to see the Geysers. We got to jump through one particular large one which left us smelling of sulphur for a few minutes. Our next geyser stop also had large magma pools with hot steam shooting up from the ground forming an incredible sight across the landscape. We stopped along the road for a view of the colourful mountains on one side of the road and the desert on the other. Our final stop was the Laguna Verde, which as the name suggests was green in colour when the sun shone on it due to the various sediments in it.
    After saying goodbye to Gonzalo and the other people on the tour, we were driven to the Bolivian border, where we had to pay 15 Bolivanos to get am exit stamp on our passports. We piled onto a minibus where the excess rucksacks were put down the middle of the aisle and one of the passengers had to sit on a small plastic stool. We sat back and enjoyed our ride to Chile.
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  • Day116

    Cusco, Peru

    December 28, 2015 in Peru ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    Our first experience in Peru was an interesting one. We arrived in Piura on Loja International Bus where we were met by multiple taxi drivers looking to bring us to our hotel. After some discussion, one driver decided he would take all five of us together in his small car. We were very apprehensive that we would fit with our backpacks but before we knew it, he was loading the backpacks onto the roof, securing them with bungees and ropes. Surprisingly we made it to our hotel, Hotel del Norte, together with all our belongings.
    Next day we flew to the capital Lima with Avianca. We felt like VIPs when we landed as we had a driver waiting for us in departures with Roisin's name on a sign. After the mandatory photographs with the driver and the sign, we loaded up the mini bus and drove to the Pariwana hostel. We stayed here for a few nights and did a bit of Christmas shopping in the Jockey Plaza shopping mall.
    From Lima, we took a 17 hour bus journey south to Arequipa on the Cruz del Sur bus. This was one of the nicest and well organised buses we have been on, so far. We had to check in our bags at the counter before embarking the bus. On board we had individual TVs, 140 degree reclining seats, blankets, drinks and dinner included.
    The first evening in Arequipa we walked up to the view point, Carmen del Alto, to watch the sunset over the city, before having dinner in the best Indian restaurant in town. On our way back to our hostel, Friendly AQP, we stumbled upon a wedding outside the Basilica at the Plaza de Armas. It was a beautiful setting with the Christmas tree lights in the background.
    Next morning we had a 3am start for our five hour journey to the Colca Canyon. First stop was Condor Cross where we waited for about an hour before seeing two condors flying overhead. We also stopped at various view points along the Canyon including Maca village where we visited Iglesia Santa Ana church and the markets with the ladies in traditional dress with their pet llamas. Our final stop of the day was at the highest view point of the Arequipa region where we could see various volcanos including the tallest one Volcan Misti (5825m).
    The following day we took the six hour Cruz del Sur bus to Puno where we stayed in the Cozy hostel for one night before our trip to Lake Titicaca, on the Peruvian/Bolivian border. After breakfast and gorging on some coca tea to help prevent the altitude sickness, we were picked up by our guide Ruben at 6.30am and brought to the port in Puno. We embarked the boat to the Uro floating island, where we got a presentation by the natives about the various traditions they have on the island. We also got to see some of the amazing craft work they do and entered their little houses to try on their clothes. Next we got on a balsa boat to another island where we got a Lake Titicaca stamp for our passports. Our final boat trip of the day was to the main island Amantani where we were greeted by the host families who speak Quechua. Due to being at high altitude (3950m), we walked slowly with Mama Rosa up to her house. We met the rest of the family and were shown to our rooms before our lovely home cooked lunch. In the evening we walked up to the Titimama mountain top to watch the beautiful sunset over Lake Titicaca.
    After dinner it was time to experience the local dance in the dance hall. We were dressed up in the traditional dresses and headpieces by Mama Rosa before she brought to the hall where there was a traditional band playing on stage. Everyone was up dancing and enjoying themselves and we even managed to get a bit of the 'Walls of Limerick' in!
    Next morning after breakfast, we said goodbye to Mama Rosa and the rest of the family before our boat ride to the next island, Taquille. There were strong winds that morning which made it a very turbulent trip so we had to stop at a nearer port. This left us with an hour hike up to the main square at the top of the island, where we had an amazing view of Lake Titicaca and had our first site of Bolivia. We then went to another family's house for lunch. We were given a presentation about the different types of clothing the locals wear and the colours depend on what area they live in. We were shown a sample of various colourful knitted hats and bags all handmade by the local people. After lunch we had a three hour boat journey back to Puno. At one point the driver put the boat on autopilot and went to the back of the boat for a few minutes. Seeing an opportunity, Edel hopped in the driver's seat and steered the boat home. This caused great excitement amongst all the passengers and topped off a great trip to Lake Titicaca.
    In Puno we treated ourselves to take away pizza from Machu Pizza restaurant and watched some films in Cozy hostel before our night bus to Cusco.
    We arrived in Cusco at 5.30am and checked into the Pariwana hostel on Plaza de San Francisco. After getting some sleep, we decided to do the walking tour as organised by the hostel. Just as we left the hostel, it started lashing rain and we ran for cover until it settled. We visited Plaza de Armas, Plaza de San Blas, Catedral de San Domingo and Museo Taller Hilaro Mendivil, which displayed statues with long necks representing lamas. We then climbed up to one of the highest viewing points of the city to watch the sun set behind the mountains around the city. We finished the tour back at the hostel, where we got to taste a Pisco Sour, which is a local cocktail made of egg white, lemon juice and pisco liquor. This set us up for our night of karaoke and we took over the music playlist, where 'Fairy Tale of New York' may have been played to help get us into the Christmas spirit!
    Next was the highly anticipated Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu. We had a briefing the night before at the Loki hostel where we met the guides Rene and Jhon. We were then collected at 5.30am the following morning, where we got a minibus to Ollantaytambo for breakfast.
    Next we drove up to Habra Malaya (4300m) which was our start point for the cycle. After getting fitted out with our full body armer, suits and bikes, we started our 53km cycle through the mountains with amazing views of the valley. We had great fun cycling through the waterfalls coming over the edge of the mountains and getting saturated! Just before the end at Huaman Marca, there was a big mudslide being cleared off the road, which just reminded us our dangerous it can be in this area during the rainy season.
    Next we got back in the bus to Santa Maria where we stayed the night. While waiting for dinner we played a local game called Sapo, where the aim is to throw the coins into the holes of the box to score points. Roisin blew us out of the park with her throwing skills!
    Next morning we were up at 7am for our buffet breakfast before our eight hour hike along through the jungle overlooking the Urubamba river. Along the way Jhon pointed out various coca and coffee plantations and mangos, pineapples and chillis growing alongside us. We stopped at The Monkey House where Jhon showed us more coffee and coco beans and potatoes that were all native to the area. Next we walked along the traditional Inca Trail to the highest point before stopping for lunch and a nap in the hammocks. We continued hiking in the heat and humidity alongside the river, over a suspension bridge and a cable car. We finished with a lovely treat of a dip in the hot springs in Cocalmayo before driving to Santa Teresa.
    The next day started with some ziplining across the valley above the Urubamba river before walking across the terrifying suspension bridge. Then we hiked for three hours in the rain along the train tracks to Aqua Calientes where we stayed in the Moseq hostel and which was our starting point of our hike to Machu Picchu the next day.
    After a 4am start we walked to the gates of Machu Picchu in the dark before the gates opened. We hiked up the 6km climb up the 1772 steep steps to the top of the mountain in the extremely humid weather. After a quick change, we met Jhon who gave us a tour of the park. We learned how Machu Picchu was only discovered 104 years ago by Halam Bingham, despite being built by the Incas in the 15th century. We visited various buildings, all the walls made from granite. The main building was the Tomb of the Sun, which is the equivalent of our Newgrange, where there is a window that lets the sunlight in during the South American winter solstice in June.
    After saying goodbye to Jhon, we were allowed to walk around and take in the amazing views. As it was Christmas week, we donned our Santa hats and took lots of photos. However this may have caused a bit of a stir amongst the security guards as they had us on their radios watching us wherever we went. After spending a few hours taking in the incredible views we walked back down to Aqua Calientes where we got two hour train to Ollantaytambo and a bus back to Pariwana hostel in Cusco.
    The next day it was time to get ready for Christmas. After buying some Alpaca jumpers at the markets, we headed to the supermarket to do our Christmas food shop. List in hand, we went from aisle to aisle getting all the ingredients for our dinner. Peru didn't seem to do the traditional Christmas dinner, so we had to compromise on some of the stuff, but we did manage to get a turkey. We stayed in a lovely cottage in Sacred Valley, Urubamba for the Christmas period where we ate and lots, watched multiple films and Graham Norton episodes and failed miserably at the 'Big Fat Quiz of the Year'. We were also treated to a firework display on Christmas Eve.
    It was nice to be able to Skype family and friends at home, catch up on sleep and recharge the batteries, after an amazing but busy few weeks in Peru.
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  • Day95

    Banos, Ecuador

    December 7, 2015 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    After crossing the border to Ecuador, we took a short taxi ride to the town of Tulcan before our five hour bus to the capital Quito and stayed in the lovely BoutiQuito Design hostel. We visited some of the beautiful buildings of the city in the Parque Garcia Monero, La Basilica, Monasteries De San Francisco and the Plaza Grande. At one point I was asked by some local nursing students to help them with their college assignment, where they interviewed an English speaking person (absolutely mortified!).
    Next day we headed to the Mitad del Mundo (Centre of the World) for an incredible day at the equator. We hopped on the local public transport, where the hour and half bus journey cost us a whooping $0.45 (nearly breaking the bank!). The lovely sunny day allowed us to explore the grounds of the site and pose for photos along the equator. Edel purchased an egg from the shop and we conquered the mind blowing experiment of balancing the egg on the head of a nail. Then we headed up the 30m high monument tower where we learned about the French exploration to discover the equator in 1736 and entered the museum with some experiments we could partake in. At the top of the tower, there was an amazing view of the snowcapped Cayambe mountain, (the only point on the equator that drops below zero degrees Celsius) and the Cotopaxi volcano (Ecuador's most active volcano). This was such an amazing day and a great start to our time in Ecuador.
    Our next stop after Quito was the highly anticipated trip to the Amazon Rainforest. We took a eight hour night bus from Quito to Lago Agrio. We stopped here for two hours and slept in the hammocks before the confusion hit! The organisers didn't seem to know what was happening so it was 'bags on bags off', 'get on get off' various buses before we were finally ready for the two hour bus journey to edge of the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. Here we had lunch and then embarked on our canoe ride down the Cuyabeno river to the ecofriendly Caiman Lodge. We saw various wildlife along the three hour journey, including flying monkeys, long nosed owls, spider monkeys, anacondas and herons. We arrived in where we snoozed before getting back on the canoe to go to the lagoon. That evening we swam in the water as we watched the beautiful sunset. Then torches at the ready, we scanned the waters edge for the reflection of the red eye of caiman. Before going back to the lodge for dinner.
    Next day we visited the indigenous people of the Siona Community. Our guide Miguel showed us the large Cliba tree where the locals come to get phone signal. One of the Swedish girls on the our tour actually received some messages on her phone! Miguel then let us taste lemongrass, ginger and chilli which are all grown on the land. Next it was time to earn out keep. Nina and Edel harvested a large yuka from the ground. This is a root like vegetable which tastes like a turnip when raw. We pealed and washed the yuka before grating it and draining the liquid off using a wooden woven type hammock. The remaining powder like substance was sieved before cooked on a hot plate into a tasty pancake like flat bread (casave). We ate it for lunch with a rice salad and for dessert with jam. This was such as treat and it was so interesting to see the way they use all of the materials and leave nothing to waste.
    After lunch we visited a Sharman in the Siona tribe. The leader told us about the history of the rituals of healing of locals from various illnesses and gave us an explanation of their dress. To finish off this wonderful day we swam in the lagoon to see another beautiful sunset before we went on a nighttime hike through the forest. Again with our torches in hand, we discovered various species of spiders, crickets, ants and boa constrictors. Then it was back to the lodge for dinner before hitting the hay for an early night as our alarms were set for 5.30 the next morning.
    I awoke next morning to the rain hammering off the roof of the lodge, and as thought Miguel came to confirm that it was too wet and cloudy to watch the sunrise. Disappointed, we turned over and got a few more hours sleep.
    After breakfast we donned our hiking shoes and ponchos for a daytime walk through the forest. This time we saw the forest differently and came across a wide variety of ants, bees, spiders and frogs. Miguel spotted the fresh droppings of a wild boar so we went on the lookout for it but we were unable to find it.
    In the afternoon we went for a final swim in the lagoon and what a treat it was! About 10 metres away from us was a family of pink dolphins happily enjoying the warmth of the water. It was incredible to share the water with these amazing animals and it was a definite highlight of the trip.
    After all this excitement we went back to the lodge where a group of monkeys were playing in the trees close by. Edel and I were given some bananas to feed them. The monkeys took a shining to Edel and happily took the bananas from her. As for me, they just ran away from me, probably thinking I was a bit dodgy looking up and rightly so!
    That evening we got in a paddle boat and rowed to the Laguna Grande to see another beautiful sunset. We then went in search of more caiman and nocturnal birds. We spotted the red eye of a caiman and paddled up close to it. Just as we silently approached it, Edel accidently knocked over her oat and frightened us all and the caiman fled the scene. We headed home with a magical thunder and lightning storm ahead of us, with beautiful fork lightening illuminating the sky. However we still managed to get a little lost on our way home.
    After dinner we were given a presentation about the Cuyabeno reserve and what type of flora and fauna you'd expect to see here at various times of the year. To finish off the night, we lined up before the local guides, who gave us natural henna tattoos from the actual seeds of the henna plant (don't worry Dad, they aren't real tattoos!).
    The heavy rain returned the next morning so unfortunately we had another failed attempt to see the sunrise. After breakfast we donned the ponchos for one final time for our canoe ride back to the bus to Loja Agrio, where we got on an overnight bus to Banos.
    We stayed in Hostel D'Mathias just around corner from the bus terminal and a perfect location for exploring the city. After catching up on some sleep, showers and laundry, we took an evening bus tour of Banos where we saw the sites of the city and the surrounding waterfalls. Our first stop was San Martin Parque Aventura, where we got a Tarabita (cable car) across the gorge and viewed the beautiful river and waterfalls below. Next we were brought to the most dangerous stretch of road in the area which is now closed for traffic due to the large number of vehicles skidding on the slippery road and falling over the cliff edge. On this same stretch of road there is a bit of road jutting out of the cliff, which looks like the face of Jesus. Visitors from all over the world come to visit on a pilgrimage to this part of the cliff.
    Our final stop was the amazing Cascada Pailon del Diablo (Devils Couldron). In the dark we walked along the side of the river and across the free swinging bridge where we saw the water cascading down over the cliff into the invisible pool below.
    To finish off the day we headed to the Termas De la Virgin hot springs. We had heard so much about the famous hot baths in Banos (where is gets its name) that we had to try them out. The water for the baths is heated by the local active volcano Tungurahua. Not really sure what we were meant to do, we headed straight for the hot bath. But a quick dip of the toe proved to be too much for us. The locals reacted to our screaming and shouting and directed us to the showers first to acclimatise ourselves, however the water was still roasting so we decided to bite the bullet and get in the hot pool. After about 5 minutes it was time to move to the cold bath, to cool down. We alternated between the two baths for a few cycles before we started to feel a little faint, and had to stop. It was a weird but wonderful experience and I think we provided a bit of entertainment for the locals.
    The following day was another day of site seeing with the first stop being La Casa del Arbol (the swing to end of the world). The swing was situated 2600m above sea level over looking Banos, however on the day we went it was very overcast so we couldn't see anything beyond 100m in front of us. Better luck next time!
    I also went to visit the cathedral in the city (Bascillica De Virgin De Agua Santa), which was completed in 1944 after 40 years of construction. It was a statue of the Virgin Mary which is to commerate the believed sighting of Mary and to where many ecuadorians also come to visit every year.
    The following day we had better luck with the weather with not a cloud in the sky and the sun shining, which meant that it was paragliding day! Our guide Henry picked us up from the hostel and drove us to his office where we were given a short briefing and practised the take off and landing in the harness hanging from the roof. Once we had mastered this we got back in the car for our 45 minute drive up to mountain to our starting point. When we got there the wind was too strong for us to safely fly so we had to sit and wait for it to die down. To pass the time Henry showed us some acroyoga which he says he does to 'warm up'. After about an hour and a half the wind had calmed down to the safe mark of 30kph, so we were given the green light to go. We donned our space suits and we each got 15 minutes flying time with amazing views of volcano Tungurahua and the sun setting over the valley. It was an incredible experience despite the motion sickness but a super end to our time in Ecuador.
    The next few days consisted of various bus journeys to the towns of Cuenca and Loja, before we headed to Peru for more exciting and interesting experiences.
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