Part VII: Panama

Saturday 9th – Friday 15th March

It is nigh on impossible to cross the border on foot between Colombia and Panama (and indeed South America and Central America) unless you are pretty handy with a machete and fancy your chances in the 160km long swampland that is the Darien Gap. I didn’t…plus I was loathe to get on yet another flight. So, from the comforts of my sofa back in Blighty, blissfully unaware of what I was letting myself in for, the decision was taken to sail across instead. Easy right?

In Cartagena, I meet Captain Jules Garzon Contreras who is to be the man for the job with his 42 foot sail boat the Perla Del Caribe. He spent some time navigating in Chile and Europe before settling into life on the Caribbean and has been plying this route on this vessel, and the Stephanie, for the last four years.

By the time I book the sailing, I have heard all sorts of stories about the crazy captains, oversold cabins, reef crashes and the terrible swell that plagues that route. So, it is unsurprising that when I show up to Club Nautico in Manga at 5.15am to board the Perle, I have packed more than a dash of trepidation in my backpack. As for the vessel, and in the words of Interpol’s Paul Banks ‘You’ve never seen a finer ship in your life’

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Somehow, sitting on the jetty watching the sunrise with the gentle clinking noise of the sailboat masts calms me though. I will look back on this as, quite literally, the calm before the storm.

My shipmates start to surface at 6am; German couple Jessi and Hendrik, Chris and Jay from New York, Norwegian pals Magnus and Ask plus Dutch Rob who will also be my cabin mate. I load my bags into our compact bunk bedded cabin and without (much) further ado, we head off, setting sail for pastures new and in turn waving farewell to South America and half of my entire trip.

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We motor out of the calm Cartagena bay, and hoist the sail for the first time.

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At this point, everything changes and it starts to feel decidedly rougher. My rule during flights is, if the attendants don’t look nervous, then neither should I be. I apply the same logic here. Jules and first mate Jose are so laid back they are practically (and literally at points) horizontal. Here we all are looking fresh faced and hopeful that the sea will look kindly upon us.

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Within the first hour, two big waves hit; the first soaking everyone in the boat, the second throwing me from my seat onto the deck. “Disfrutar! Será así durante las próximas 36 horas!” laughs Jules, which basically means we are in for another day and a half of this before we hit Panamanian land. Oh dear.

The first full day and night is brutal, people start to feel decidedly green around the gills (thank Cristo for my seasickness pills) and it’s hard to focus on anything but the power of the waves. After we see a cargo ship outside the port, we don’t pass a single other ship the whole way. We are joined by some bottle nose dolphins though who gracefully speed to the front of our ship to catch the fly fish swimming/flying there. I find a spot in the corner of the deck with a panoramic view of the waves coming towards us and it helps to steel myself for the expected onslaught of each one. Some of them, we are essentially surfing over the top of. Jules insists that this is relatively calm weather…I would NOT like to be out here on a bad day.

We settle into it a little more on the second day, filling the time by idly playing ‘Would You Rather’ (oh yeah Paul Valentine, we’re going global!), the Name Game, Dream Dinner Party and Country Capital Currency. This, at least, takes our mind off the waves and soon enough…land ho! Just as the sun is setting, the stunning, unspoilt and idyllic islands of Panama’s San Blas come invitingly into view.

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On the approach however, two very big waves head towards us, we estimate somewhere around the four metre mark, and even Jules has a fearful look in his eyes as the ship bobs around defenceless in their power. With a huge sigh of relief, and some rather nervous laughter, we survive to tell another sailor’s tale.

And with that, we all relax..

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Now we have three days to look forward to cavorting in San Blas’ crystal clear turquoise waters, exploring her reefs and devouring her seafood. There are 378 islands and cays in total, but only 49 of these are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people.

The first item on the agenda is conquering the smallest island we have ever seen. With only two coconut trees and a makeshift thatch lean-to, it is straight out of Castaway. We paddle out in the zodiac, by we I mean Hendrick and Jay (solid work gents.) Magnus swims across and makes it there ahead of us.

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There is little to do here but crack open fresh coconuts…

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Drink aforementioned coconuts…

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Grin smugly at finding paradise…

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Capture paradise…

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Lounge nonchalantly on driftwood

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And of course, stare at the sea.

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Some of us even somersault with glee.

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We lift anchor and sail away to the next islands two hours away and make our home there for a couple of nights, spending our hard earned cash at the island’s only bar owned by the delectably named Jonny Maracas. Here we stock up on rum and Balboa beers for the nightly aftershow. We even invent a brand new drink, which is a twist on the Coco Loco. The recipe is complicated but for those of you who want to try it at home:

1, Simply cut off the top of a ripe and juicy Maracuya (passion fruit to you and I)
2, Fill it full of golden rum
3, Eat eagerly with the biggest spoon you can find

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you, the Maroncuya. (Do you see what I did there?)

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Hendrik and I are its biggest fans.

It wasn’t long before talk amongst the boys turned to speargunning fish, but Jay was the only one to come up with the goods slaying a huge and ridiculously delicious Red Snapper. Jules was beside himself with glee and set about gutting it for our lunch.

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We were also introduced to our dinner before we ate it in some cases. Lobster tails anyone?

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Snorkelling was another favourite pastime, the best of which was around a 20 metre shipwreck seconds from the bay which hosted hundreds of colourful fish including my personal favourite the Giant Damselfish (juvenile) The were plenty of shipwrecks in the area serving as a warning to captains navigating the shallow bays and reefs.

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And so, the pattern continued. Exploring the islands…

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Eating very well and speargunning fish, some of which unfortunately could not be eaten. (Warning: Please do not look at this Angel Fish for too long or you might die inside)

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Snorkelling, and larking around on the boat…

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Sunbathing…

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Then sunset with a few rums.

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All too soon it is time to leave our island paradise behind, and head for Panama City and a brand new stamp on our passports by way of a little skiff boat and an overly air-conditioned 4×4. (Note the maracuya lollipop, Ask and Magnus had us all addicted to these by the time we reached terra firma. I am still twitching now…)

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Getting to Panama City is something of a rude awakening. Not only is it a far cry from the San Blas islands, but it is also the most built up capital city I’ve seen in South or Central America. It is beautiful in its own way, but coming to it from La Paz, Lima, Quito and Bogota shows just how Americanised it has become.

It is a whistle stop tour for me, as I have only two nights before flying north to Belize. So, I have to make it count. First things first, transiting the Panama Canal’s famous locks in a boat. It is a 48 mile canal which connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean, and it’s completion in 1914 meant saving sailors up to four weeks sailing time and allowing them to cross the Isthmus of Panama avoiding the longer Cape Horn route and the dangerous Strait of Magellan. Here is the Isla Morada, the vessel that would take us from ocean to ocean. Thankfully I still had my sea legs on from the sailing.

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One careful owner, only the world’s most famous gangster Al Capone! It has also been chartered by Steve McQueen. Wowzers.

Being dropped and raised up 85 feet as you cross the the Pedro Miguel locks and the Miraflores locks is quite something.

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It is hard to get across in photography, but look at the water line on the wall in the last shot and it will give you some indication.

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There is time only for a night on the town in Panama City.

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I meet up with Inca Trail partner in crime Kim Sumner at the hostel, and we scoop up Jessi and Hendrick from our boat trip alongside new pals Lucy, Luca and Brett amongst others and head out for dinner at Lebanese joint Habibi’s complete with belly dancer. Afterwards, we head to the old town for a drink in Relic Bar and Mojito Sin Mojitio (you will never guess what I ordered) The latter provided particularly amusing reading material in the bathroom. Note sexual preference of the quail.

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En route, we re-enact what I’m sure is the punch line to a classic gag, how many gringos can you fit in a taxi? This many.

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Then it is a fond farewell to Kim, but only until we meet again in Guatemala.

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And another fond farewell to yet another country. Thanks Panama, promise I’ll come back and spend more than five days in your slim-hipped lands again. Honourable mentions and special thanks to Jules and Jose…for getting us across those seas in one piece. We salute you.

And the soundtrack was:
Interpol ‘Take You On A Cruise’
Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’
The Clash ‘London Calling’
Primal Scream ‘Screamadelica’
The Antlers ‘I Don’t Want Love’
Foo Fighters ‘Pretender’
Mos Def ‘Miss Fat Booty’
Jay Z ‘I Just Wanna Love Ya’
N*E*R*D ‘Lapdance’
Dave Matthews Band ‘Crush’
Kaisers Orchestra Various
The Doors ‘LA Woman’
Steely Dan Various
The Kinks ‘The Kinks’

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Part VI: Colombia

Thursday 28th February – Saturday 9th March

Step up Colombia, for your time is now. The splendours of the Galápagos Islands were always going to be a hard act to follow, but Colombia did indeed step up. I fly into Bogota with grand plans of travelling overland by bus north to the Caribbean coast before setting sail for Central America. In actual fact, extending my stay in Ecuador puts an ever so slight squeeze on my time in Colombia which demands that I take a flight north rather than suffer 18 hours in a bus. Watch me as I kick and scream…

Colombia has a chequered past of corruption and violence, and most people’s view of the country will involve a combination of illegal drug cartels, guerrillas and paramilitaries. It was the only country on my list to produce a gasp from those incredulous that I would dare to travel alone there. In fact, the security situation in the country over the last decade has shown signs of real improvement, and tourism has picked up significantly in the metropoles as a result. It is a very beautiful country, and doubtless I will be back there to get to all the places I couldn’t cram in on this trip. But first, the story of Bogota.

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Yes, Simon Bolivar, liberator of Colombia (among other, chiefly Andino, countries) is ever present here in Bogota with countless statues and museums devoted to him, the places he lived and even where he took his last breath. Plaza Bolivar is also in his name, but is less stunning due to the disrespectful, and quite talentless, graffiti art that festoons it.
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The first job on my list was to buy a new camera, so I go forth to megastore Akosto to upgrade from my measly Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ7 to a SZ20 (the South American equivalent of a TZ30) Suffice to say, I am happy as Larry with this upgrade.

A trip to the Museo Del Oro is a must to see how metallurgy developed in Colombia against a timeline of its South American neighbours. Of particular interest was the tribal significance that the headresses and burial jewellery had. 20130326-184839.jpg20130326-184849.jpg20130326-184855.jpg

Central Cevicheria is the first dinner stop for an outstanding Cazuela de Mariscos which is like a thick and creamy coconut seafood stew.

Aside from illegal drugs, Colombia is also famous for emeralds so I spend the next morning shopping for one. There is a whole shopping centre slap bang in the middle of the city dedicated to nothing but the stones in their natural and pure form. The first shop I step into I enquire to the female attendant as to the price of a dainty little necklace. It’s 8.3 million Colombian Pesos ( around £3K.) What’s Spanish for “I’m in the wrong shop love…” Once I find my own level, I settle into the haggle nicely and come away with a beautiful ring.
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Then, onto art of another kind. Graffiti art is completely legal in Colombia making its capital a hotbed of global talent. Street artist Christian Petersen, known as Crisp, takes a brilliant tour through the city’s best walls, which also tell a very interesting socio political story of the country. As luck would have it (set up) prolific Argentinean artist Rodez is finishing a wall as we amble by.
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We also see great work by Pez, APC (the largest graffiti group in South America), Crisp, Miko and Kochino.
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But my favourite is DjLu, who includes the phrase ‘Always Play’ in his work and has shied away from commercialising his work despite his fame, and earning power, in the country.
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It is a fascinating way to spend an afternoon in the city, and can be booked at Bogota Graffiti Tours

The walk works up an appetite, and I get more than I bargained for with restaurant/nightclub Andres Carne de Res (literal translation….Andy Beef) which the Footprints guide describes as ‘like being in a Tim Burton movie’ Boy, they hit the nail on the head
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Before dinner, I am propositioned by these three women…20130326-192603.jpg

…mesmerised by this dinner guest…
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…and bamboozled by a 50 page menu. My partners in culinary crime for this outing were the lovely Cindy, Jen and David from the biggest of big apples, NYC. Outstanding drinking partners they made too.
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So, following a sumptuous shrimp cocktail and a chargrilled Argentinean steak, the cocktails flow.

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The only slight black mark on the night was when the DJ played The Wanted’s ‘I’m glad you came’ How on earth did they make it all the way to Colombia?… Then we all bowl home in the wee small hours.

The phrase ‘No rest for the wicked’ also applies to tourists who evidently are paying off some bad karma in a previous life and force themselves to sightsee on the wrong side of a bottle of rum. We choose to take ourselves up to Monserrate, the mountain that dwarves Bogota, for unrivalled views of the city. Cable car up, and funicular down. That’s how we roll.
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It is Sunday so the sinners are out in force, having walked over 1500 steps uphill to repent and/or be thankful
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One of the best things about Bogota are the little art installations of people that stare down at you from above the shops and houses. Here are a collection of my favourites.
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So, a hop skip and a flight later, I land in Cartagena, undisputed heavyweight of the Caribbean coatline and the town most associated with pirates in the Caribbean. It is a very important city to the country’s economic development and has a beautiful fortressed colonial old town at its heart which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its beauty, I don’t take many photos of Cartagena, mainly because I was exploring it with a guy who’d had his camera stolen whilst snapping happy a few days previously in Bogota (Hi Viv if you’re out there) So, let’s all take a minute to imagine colonial architecture at its best…..

…hang on, I did take one photo, although it is taken from the old town, so is not of the old town. Sorry.

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Anyway, one of trickiest tasks in Cartagena was watching Manchester United crash out of the Champions League…oh wait, that was easy. Trickier was trying to find a sailing from Cartagena to Panama City that suited my travel dates and my incurably high requirement for actual information. Turns out all of the (mostly European) captains that ply this route don’t have commercial licences, and as such it is all a bit underground and they are, it is fair to say, flahool with the safety standards including double booking cabins, drinking behind the rudder etc. Along the research path, I hear many horror stories including that of infamous captain Fritz who crashed and sank his 40 foot sailboat Fritz the Cat off the coast of Panama just last year because he was allegedly too shitfaced to see the reef. Right so. My expectations are low. Finally, I get some sense of impartial and genuine information from Lauren at Blue Sailing and meet Colombian captain of the Perle del Caribe, Jules Contreras. She’s a fine vessel, and he’s a fine captain having worked that route for five years. Plus, the dates work for my connecting flight to Belize and will ensure I have hang time with the delectable Kim Sumner when I get to Panama City. More on what happened next in the Panama chapter!

With this out of the way, the path is clear for a final few days in nearby Santa Marta which is the jump off for the stunning Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona along the coast to the east. Firstly, I have to commend La Brisa Loca for being the all time best hostel I have ever stayed at. I was not used to its super plush standards at all having come from Peru and Bolivia. Looky look, there was even a pool!

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Anyway, Tayrona is an area of stunning natural beauty and dual ecosystems as jungle meets beach. Think stunning sea birds alongside howler monkeys and iguanas. Full exploration requires a good four hour trek of the grounds but the rewards are stunning unspoilt beaches. I start off with Canaveral, then Arrecifes but decide to settle in a hammock on the coarse sand of little known Playa Arenilla.

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On the trek back to the park entrance, this little (possibly rabid) dog keeps me company. Thankfully he does so without licking my hand or biting me so the haemoglobin is safe for another day.

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Then, it’s back to Cartagena to prepare for the sailing trip when not only will I leave Colombia, but also South America for pastures new. Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, I doff my (sailing) cap to you.

And the soundtrack was:
The Maccabees ‘Given To The Wild’
Local Natives ‘Gorilla Manor’
Idlewild ‘The Remote Part’
Jurassic 5 ‘Jurassic 5’
Mogwai ‘Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will’
Captain Beefheart ‘Bluejeans and Moonbeams’
Crystal Castles ‘Not In Love’
Hooray For Earth ‘True Loves’
Editors ‘In This Light And On This Evening’

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Part V: Ecuador (first instalment)

Monday 18th – Thursday 28th February

You might remember that when I was planning this round the world trip, there were two things I knew I had to see before I even picked up a guide book for research purposes. The first was Machu Picchu (check) and the second was the Galápagos Islands. Around seven years ago, my sister and I travelled to Ecuador as part of a bigger trip including Venezuela and Brazil, but our funds wouldn’t stretch to the islands…so I knew it was a must this time round.

So, before we leave for the islands, I have a couple of days recovery time in Quito after a rather large ‘Farewell Bolivia’ party. I am travelling to the islands with a company called G Adventures, they organised our Inca Trail trip and did a rather good job…so I figure I am in good hands.

As I’ve learnt, day one of the trip always means meeting the group in the hotel the night before the off. When I walk into the room, I am surprised to see how diverse the age range of the group is. The nearest to me is English Matt in his early forties, but the eldest people are an American couple from St Louis called Pat (89) and Betty (85) In between, there are some lovely couples, mostly retired, including Anne and John from Toronto, Barbara and Colin from Toronto plus Mike and Janet from Birmingham. So, I figured, is wasn’t going to be quite the party cruise…however at the last gasp, two thirty-something’s Nick and Jo walk in the door late to the meeting. Hurrah! Now don’t get me wrong, I can relate to people of any age, but of my many interests on vacation, going to bed at 10pm isn’t one of them especially when there is paradise to be enjoyed.

The next day is my birthday, and what a way to spend it…en route to the most beautiful place on the planet. The other excitement is that Quito is opening a brand new airport and our flight will be one of the first out of it. So after the 1.5 hour journey to the airport, rather amusingly, a news crew follows us through check-in interviewing some of our group along the way. Due to my line of work, I find the whole thing rather entertaining watching the news anchors preparing for their live broadcasts when the first flight leaves. It turns out broadcast journalists are the same the world over.

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On arrival, we’re greeted by this hugely encouraging sign

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So it looks like we are set for delays. It’s quite exciting being the first in the airport though. Matt uses some sort of snazzy card to get four of us into the VIP lounge where we gorge ourselves on teeny tiny savouries and fresh fruit juices (no champers as it’s 8am!) we mark this historical occasion the only way we know how

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After a few false starts, and our body weight in pastry, we’re finally off to San Cristobal on the islands via Guayaquil.

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At the airport on San Cristobal, we are joined by another four guests destined for our boat, Aussie Claire, who is to be my cabinmate, Swiss Andy (dead ringer for Roger Federer) and two Finns who collectively bring the average age down significantly.

Here comes the science bit…the Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed either side of the equator approximately 926km from Ecuador, of which they are part. There are 18 main islands, 3 smaller islands and 107 rocks and islets. Charles Darwin visited here in 1831 during his second voyage on the Beagle, and his learnings formed his theory of evolution which he published thirty years later Origin of the Species. Many of the species found there are endemic, that is to say they can’t be found anywhere else on the planet.

Our first stop is to a tortoise sanctuary to see some of Lonesome George’s cousins in the wild. They really are remarkable creatures, and very much a sign of things to come

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Afterwards, we make a mad dash to the local shop to stock up on champagne and rum. Before long, we’re in a zodiac travelling to the G4 boat called ‘Xavier’ in Puerto Ayora which will be our home for the next four days. We meet the crew including Wilo, our naturalist guide, and Wilmer, our bartender, and then we have dinner together. At the end, they bring out this huge birthday cake for me which was so very sweet and unexpected. Champagne, cake and the Galapagos Islands…not a bad way to start the year

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And so, life on the boat takes on the rhythm of breakfast, island exploration, snorkelling, lunch, lounging, snorkelling, sunset with piña coladas, dinner, drinks on the deck…and repeat. Each night Wilo gives us a brief for the next day’s activity, the key info here being what footwear we’ll need for a dry or wet landing and what we should expect to see wildlife-wise. Other than that, assume factor 50, bottle of water and camera. I should say at this point that we saw so much more wildlife than we ever expected, we had lots of sightings that were remarkable even to Wilo…so we must be a lucky lot.

Day 1
We head out to zodiac around Santiago where we spot our first Galápagos Penguin (first solo, then a fleet of them swimming together) Wilo tells us how rare it is to see this. Later, whilst walking on Chinese Hat island, we also see incredibly colourful crabs, sea lions, a blue footed boobie, iguanas and a Galapagos Hawk. The latter is ready for his close up, and doesn’t even flinch as we snap away in front of him. We take a snorkel by Santiago and swim with Marine Iguanas, Parrot Fish, Surgeon Fish and Golden Rays.

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In the afternoon, we head out in the boats to Black Turtle Cove for our first sightings of the Pacific Green sea turtles. It’s mating season, and I’m afraid our presence does not put them off their four to six hour sessions at the top of the water. It’s quite a slow show!

Wilo is a great guide, and he really opens up to us about his life. His mother had always wanted him to be a guide, and she had passed away before he qualified. So this place is very special to him, and it really comes across.

On the way back to the boat, a bigass wave approaches us soaking everyone and everything in the boat including my camera…which ceases to be. In a place as entirely amazing as this, it is hard to be upset. I take it much better than I would had disaster struck back in London. I even surprise myself with how laid back i seem to be about it. The worst thing will be not being able to take photos in the most beautiful place on the planet, but I will need to rely on the kindness of others. Everyone promises to share their shots with me. A moment’s silence please for the last shots captured by the Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ7…

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To be continued once I have everyone’s photos. It is such a visually stunning place, I just can’t put you through a blog without any images. Hold that thought…

Part IV: Bolivia

Friday 8th – Monday 18th February

And so onwards to Bolivia, the first stop is Copacabana. We bus over the border, and it is fairly straightforward but brings about the greatest test of my Spanish so far…trying to explain what/where Scotland is. The immigration officer had never heard of it. Needless to say I stopped short of discussing Independence referendum dates. That will teach me for being patriotic on my immigration form!

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Copacabana is a sleepy little town on the south western banks of Lake Titicaca, serving as a jumping off point for many of the nearby islands. So after a little mosey around the town, I head out onto the Lake once more, this time to Isla Del Sol.

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There are differing schools of thought amongst the indigenous people on how the lake was created, depending on who you talk to. The Tiwanaku people thought that the Gods had cried the lake when they saw the plight of the people they had created, saving only his son Inti to bring civilisation to the land. The Incas thought that the daughter of sun God Viracocha had been running carrying a pail of water, and when she fell it changed the landscape. Either way, it is a beautiful walk from Challapampa in the north of the island up to the site. My guide Juan Carlos greets everyone he meets in Aymay, which joins Quechua and Spanish as the languages spoken on the island. The views from the mountain as we escalate are stunning.

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When we reach the top, we find the Puma Stone (which is basically the translation of Titi Caca in Quechua) The puma is a significant symbol of power for the Incas, so this stone is revered by their people.

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The idea is that you touch the stone to draw power from the mountains and the Gods. When in Rome right?

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The Inca site itself is very tranquil, set high up looking over the lake.

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Once again, the spirituality of the Andino people and how connected they are with nature is apparent. So it is a good spot to take some time to reflect.

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Then, after lunch in the southern part of the island, it is time to head back to the pretty port town.

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The next day I am greeted by this beautiful view from my bedroom as I am set to spend my last day by the lake. One of my good friends, and top notch travel buddies Tree is getting married in Scotland on the same day. So I need a view like this to keep me from being glum about not being able to be there.

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La Paz, highest capital de facto city in the world, is the next stop. At 3650 metres above sea level, it is the seat of Bolivian government and its second largest city. By this point, I really have gotten used to the altitude so this doesn’t feel nearly as tough as arriving in Cusco did.

On the bus, I meet a lovely Northern Irish lass called Johanna who lives round the corner from me in Wood Green! It really is the same small world at our heels. We end up travelling together, getting to know the city before heading down to Uyuni to tour the salt flats. Also on the bus, we have to jump out to cross the lake once more. The passengers jump in speed boats while the vehicles are put on these particularly high tech car ferries…

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La Paz is a cracking city with a bustling old town, witchcraft artisan markets and great nightlife.

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The Feria is on whilst we are there which is a very important carnival in the Bolivian calendar. It is celebrated by kids dressing up, taking part in processions…and pelting people with water balloons and silly string. As gringos, we are prime targets so we take refuge with the other backpackers in the Adventure Brew Hostel’s Sky Bar to watch the madness from a safe distance.

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Of course this leads to quite the party as almost every backpacker piles in, and free shots are doled out. We hang out with lovely Bryan and Leslie who live near Seattle and will be back there by the time my boat rolls in.

Dring the Feria, everything is closed for three days and there are no buses out of the city…so there is nothing else for it but to head off on a mountain biking tour of ‘Death Road’ which is around 35 miles north east of La Paz in the Yungas region. Around 300 people die on it every year, so it has been called the World’s Most Dangerous Road. You start at 4650 metres above sea level, up in the clouds, then descend over around 40km in distance to 1200 metres in altitude. In some places, the width of the road is only 1.5 metres, it is covered in sizeable boulders too, for you to navigate over and around, and there is a sheer drop of hundreds of metres on the left side. Sounds easy right…right?

Our group were a grand bunch, lots of Aussies, a few English people and Spanish too.

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You’ll probably notice at this point that I am a bit light on photos of this experience. Frankly, staying on the bike was difficult enough with both hands on the handlebars…never mind shooting at the same time! Before we start, we bless the bikes and ground with pure alcohol, offering a swig of it up as a nod to Pachamama, a goddess revered by the Andino people. Pachamama translates as Mothr Earth…so I am all for having her on our side.

We have three incidents along the way, I’m pleased to say all were relatively tame on the injury front. However I can count myself in that number as I had a spectacularly girly fall just after we started. Bruised knees were my only complaint…and perhaps a little dent in pride at being the first off the bike. There is a couple with us called Tim and Naomi from Melbourne. Within about 500 metres of the starting blocks, Tim comes off his bike and drops spectacularly over the edge on a sheer drop into the undergrowth, his bike flying a good 15 metres in the opposite direction. He is a very very lucky boy, and had only a few scrapes to show for it managing to walk from the crash site and get straight back on his bike. Natch, we rebrand him Timvincible, and I was really amused to recently hear another backpacker recounting the story to me as it had been passed from backpacker to backpacker and has since become the stuff of legend.

This fall sets the tone for the rest of the day and we mostly, particularly me, take our time on the way down. One of the English guys Jon also has a fall, and ended up in A&E. So, I am pretty happy to have escaped with my extremities in tact! It is certainly one of the moments where you look back and wonder what the hell you have signed up for. It was a great day out though with good people. And I hope to see Tim and Naomi when I get to Vancouver in May as they are moving there.

Having survived Death Road, the Feria and an almighty hangover, it is time to see some of the rest of the country, so Jo and I make a beeline for Uyuni to see the world’s largest salt flats, situated in South West Bolivia and known locally as Salar de Uyuni. Having come from Peru where the buses were perfectly acceptable for those inter town trips…the buses in Bolivia were a rude awakening. We rattle along on the night bus for 13 hours, often not even driving on roads, the driver opting to cut through fields instead!

When we arrive in Uyuni, we meet our guide and tour group. It is a 4×4 tour so the group is small, made up of three Canadians (Sean, Josh and Cody), Aussie Owen, Jo and myself. First, we stop off at a train graveyard in the desert. Here there are tens of old steam trains, originally built in Sheffield, that now rot in the desert. Apparently, the steam trains struggled at this altitude in terms of the conditions required to create the steam therefore making them redundant. It is an odd stop on the tour, but interesting enough to kick us off.

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Then, we drive onto the nearby market village of Colchani where we learn more about how the salt is extracted from the salt flats, and how it manifests itself as a source of income for the local residents. The Salt Museum is full of sculptures fashioned by the locals, like this lovely little Llama.

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Then, we head on of the the flats themselves and it absolutely blows our minds. The sky is reflected completely in the layer of water sitting above the salt, and it is genuinely hard to see where the ground stops and the sky begins. It is stunningly beautiful, but it messes with your perspective so we had a little fun with the photos…

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I’m the weakest link in this chain!

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Origin of the Species

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Guitar windmills

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Wise buddha (think that role was mis-cast…)

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Moody band shot for the cover of our album…

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Cody adding to the reflections

We spend the coming days touring around, exploring the lagoons and rock formations in the Atacama desert where it borders with Chile. Talking of rock formations, we also manage to fit in a night out to a local gig.

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In the evenings, we drink rum and play cards….the obligatory game of Shithead, but also a new game we were taught called Presidents and Assholes (sorry Mum, sorry Dad…very blue names but I didn’t name them I can assure you!)
On the final day, we are up and out jumping through warm volcanic fumaroles and bubbling lava pools at sunrise at 5000 metres, then we plunge ourselves into the hot springs nearby to keep the blood pumping. It is seriously cold at those heights.

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Then our guide Oved takes up back to Uyuni, and we get another death defying night bus, this time bak to La Paz, where there is time for one more night out at Loki hostel with our new tour buddies from the Salt Flats and the Death Road biking. It is great to get everyone together again before I flit off to Ecuador and it is certainly a memorable night sampling the La Paz culture. I don’t think I will be back to Bolivia though, as beautiful as it is I feel like I have seen enough. It is definitely edgier than any of the countries I have visited so far, but what would life be without a challenge right?

Special props to the Adventure Brew Hostel for this hilarious poster in reception…

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And the soundtrack was:
Beatles ‘Here Comes The Sun’
The Antlers ‘I Don’t Want Love’
M83 ‘Midnight City’
Modest Mouse ‘We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank’
Minnie Ripperton ‘Les Fleurs’
The National ‘Boxer’
The Strokes ‘This Is It’

Part III: Peru

Thursday 22nd January – Thursday 7th February

So, when I started planning this trip, there were two must-do’s on the list. The first was Machu Picchu in Peru. I know it is a path oft travelled, hundreds of thousands of backpackers before me have taken the same trip, but having heard of their tales I knew it was a sight I needed to see. So, when I flew to Peru, I sidestepped Lima and flew straight to Cuzco, the jumping off point for the most famous of all the Inca ruins.

There are two ways to access Machu Picchu; you can either get the train or you can trek one of the many trails for four days camping on the mountain each night. Of course, I have never been known to make life easy for myself…so I have opted for the latter. It makes sense right? I am such a hugely keen camper….

The flight from Auckland also marked my first crossing of the international dateline. I arrived two hours before I even left…a fact which mashed my spuds somewhat. It was a good flight, but I fully expected the onslaught of powerful jet lag.

Cuzco is at an elevation of 3,300 metres above sea level, and as such, the highest I will have been at for an extended period of time. Supposedly, the best thing to do with altitude is to rest for a few hours upon arrival. I did just that, however fell asleep for around 6 hours which of course meant the jet lag was even worse. Cue two hours sleep per night for the coming few days….

To compound this, altitude sickness did grab hold of me in the form of intense headaches. Needless to say, on the first day I was not fit for much. Once recovered, I explored the city’s cathedral and the Pre-Colombian Gallery with it’s beautiful Inca and Pre-Inca carvings and totems, but with every step up your lungs seem one step closer to explosion. I wonder quite how I am going to manage 1500 metre inclines up the mountain.

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Then it is time to meet the team I’ll be trekking the Inca Trail with, including the guide Roger, and we are given duffle bags and a strict 4kg weight limit on our bags! How the flip am I going to manage that…serial overpacker that I am.

So, our group is really mixed in age and nationality, but thankfully early impressions are good. Roll call as follows! Kiwi/Brit Kim (she hasn’t committed herself yet), German couple Olav and Barbara, Norwegian upstarts Robert and Magnus, Aussie brothers Jason and Ron, Canadian buddies Sarah and Jess, English lass Suzette and three Aussie pals who join the group late on. Marvel below at how fresh faced we are before the astounding ascent into the mountains!

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Before that though, we have a day of ‘rehearsals’ where Roger puts us through our paces at two other steeply inclined Inca sites. It’s enough to let the gravity of what I have signed up for sink in… Also, we visit the Cristo Blanco…as no South American metropolis would be complete without a gigantic white Christ staring down upon the town! We also visit the Sacred Valley, an injured animal sanctuary and a local community in the area ending up in Ollantaytambo for the night.

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After my first much-needed good night’s sleep, we’re off, and our lives are now in the hands of this man…

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So, full of trepidation and a healthy dose of fear, we set off from Kilometre 82, the classic staring point for the full four day trek, 82 kilometres from Cuzco. Roger is great, as he always tells us what to expect of each stretch of the path…unfortunately little of the path is undulating…and much of it is a steep incline. The Incas love a step, so they do.

Needless to say, the views are breathtaking…pun intended.

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There are a team of porters accompanying us who carry our gear and all the equipment needed for camping. They swiftly become our new heroes as they race up the hill past us in flip flops carrying up to 20kg at the same time as we struggle with our 1kg day packs and our walking boots. Each time we reach a destination for lunch or dinner, there they are with the tent already erected and a wholesome two course hot meal waiting for us. We couldn’t do it without them, so a team photo is entirely necessary.

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After a solid first day, we arrive at our first camping spot for the night. Look how gleeful we all are to not be walking…

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Rather sensibly, we all stretch down and Canadian Sarah leads us in an impromptu yoga class at 3,800 metres.

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We are rewarded with dinner…but the shattering news that we have a 4.30am start the next day, our toughest as we will reach the peak of Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of the trail at 4,215 metres above sea level. So, after a few rounds of international card game Shithead, it is early to bed for the intrepid explorers and nature dazzles us with a late night lightning show to rival any I’ve seen.

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We wake to this view, and to llamas calmly grazing at our campsite. It is remarkable.

It is going to be a tough day, not just due to the height but because we are doing the four day trek in three days. This is due to landslides in the traditional camping site for the third night. This means that we have a ridiculous amount of ground to cover today, but it will make tomorrow slightly shorter.

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Nobody is exited at the prospect…

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The incline is excruciating, but the group finds a good rhythm and helps each other along the way. I am in the ‘little breaks and often’ group…rather unsurprisingly. At last, the peak beckons us and everybody makes it to Dead Woman’s Pass. Here, Roger encourages us to leave offerings to the mountain gods of three coca leaves and llama fat to ensure our safe delivery to Machu Picchu. I really like this, whether you believe in it or not, I love how connected Peruvians are to spirituality.

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Then, it is a long way down…before going up again…then down again…

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Despite it being rainy season, we very lucky to only have had around one hour of rain whilst we were trekking. But to be honest, this allowed us to break out our designer ponchos. Who says the Inca Trail isn’t a fashion show…? (Adam Freedman, I’m looking at you)

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At the second camping site, we’re virtually on a cliff in the clouds. It is beautiful, but treacherous getting around after dark. Cue more rounds of Shithead, and an interesting boozy version of coca tea before bed.

Then, we are on the home straight on the next day. It is still a solid trek, but we have less distance to cover. So we’re a little demob happy…

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Limbs and joints are starting to struggle now. I seem to have a gammy hip. Roger gives me snake oil from a tiny whiskey miniature bottle to rub on it. I take a couple of ibuprofen too, but I’d like to think it is the former that heals me. We are encouraged to soldier on with every marvellous vista we pass on the way.

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Then, it is time for that sun gate moment, when we finally see Machu Picchu for the first time. That moment will stay with me forever, I could feel myself welling up. It was absolutely amazing, made even more brilliant by the sense of achievement. I’ve never completed a three day hike in my life. We arrive as the sun is thinking about going down, and the site is closed…so completely empty but for the resident llamas.

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And here is the classic shot…

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I took quite a few…knock yourself out…

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And then we reward ourselves with a shower, yards of ale and a bucket load of Pisco Sours in nearby Aguas Calientes.

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After the shortest night’s sleep I think I have ever had, we head back to Machu Picchu at the crack of dawn for more exploration of the site. Roger encouraged us to feel the energy from the mountains when we were struggling through the trail itself. Now, after a heavy night on the sauce, some need it more than others.

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I love that last shot as it looks like Kim, Magnus (aka Mangoose) and Robert are about to step off the edge of the world.

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Then it is time for a well earned rest and recharge on the Inca terraces, and a relaxing plate of…guinea pig? Yeah, we did.

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Then we train and bus back to Cuzco for the last supper together. The Inca Trail was definitely the most difficult thing I have ever done, I think it even knocked my marathon into a cocked hat. But honourable mentions must go to the dream team who completed it with me. Just goes to show, you can do anything if you keep a smile on your face – and this lot kept me laughing. Here’s to new friends…and this guy…

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The next few days would be spent in the Peruvian Jungle, the Amazon basin, near Puerto Maldonado. I stay at a lovely little posada, my room has only three walls which means I will be sleeping in the jungle, the mighty jungle. I have mixed feelings about this but I am comforted by the gigantic mosquito net around the bed. That’ll keep snakes ‘n’ that out too right? RIGHT?

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This guy Jony will be my naturalist guide, and he consistently wows me with his knowledge throughout my stay.

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The purpose of this part of the trip is to take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony. For those of you to whom this is new, everything you need to know is here…

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Now, I was in two minds about whether to do this, or to get involved in some jungle yoga. I threw it open to Facebook to gauge the response…it was overwhelmingly in favour of the organic and entirely natural drugs (my own Mother was even convinced.) So, in the interests of investigative micro-bloggerism, I signed up.

The experience itself was amazing, but the events preceding and following it were less so. Firstly, you have to follow a strict regime for three days in advance and three days afterwards; no red meat, no spicy food, no alcohol, no sex, no papaya. This is something to do with the contrasting toxins thy have in them. Basically, I ate chicken and vegetable soup for a week. Peruvian food is ace, so this was a bind.

Then, after the ceremony I stayed at the ethnobotanical centre in the nearby village on the Tambopata river. An army of ants found their way into my backpack and travelled back to Cuzco with me. Plus a cloud of fruit bats (if this is not the collective noun, could someone shed some light on what is please?) were feeding in the roof above where I was sleeping. That would have seemed hallucinogenic enough…even without the drugs.

Anyway, I met Honorato my shaman and he talked me through what would happen at the ceremony. Here he is…actual size…

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Basically, we would sit in a Maloko deep in the jungle by candlelight, and if I am lucky I will have a good four hours enjoyment from the Ayahuasca. The Maloko is a hut with a circular roof leading up to a funnel-like chimney in the centre through which it is believed spirits are channeled. There is a young local family joining us with their six month old baby. The little one is not well, and the parents have brought him here so that the shaman can perform prayers to heal him.

Earlier I talked about how connected the Peruvians are with spirituality, and this is another great example of that. It is exactly why I am here to try this, and I am delighted that I am not sitting in a Maloko full of tourists. That said, I am absolutely petrified. Principally by fear of the unknown, but also a little bit by the vastness of the jungle I am sitting in in the dark…and how many animals there are that can kill me. Jony insists I shouldn’t worry, saying that a liana would not hurt another Liana. Let’s hope his logic works.

Honorato ceremoniously opens the bottle of Ayahuasca, chanting and puffing tobacco to expel bad spirits from the bottle neck. Then I am passed around half a pint to drink. He advises that I shouldn’t take my time with it. Don’t worry Honorato, I get that this isn’t a garden party. The Ayahuasca tastes despicable, kind of like I would imagine mud would taste but it has a very chemical aftertaste. And away we go…

During the ceremony, I have the most overwhelming feeling of well being and happiness, complete and utter satisfaction with the world and all in it. I do have some visions: men on horseback, wild cats. But I don’t try to channel these too much, apparently it is difficult to do that on your first try and I want just to enjoy it. It is really amazing lying there with the sound of Honorato chanting and singing in Quechua in complete darkness, and even in my reverie I know I will likely never have another experience like this again in my life.

Another symptom that people often have is a surprising and overwhelming need to either vomit or go to the toilet. Many don’t make it. I am delighted to say that I have neither, which I am told is rare. I wander to my bed in the middle of the night and see pleasant tracers and images on the inside of my eyelids as I drift to sleep.

Of course, the jungle is not just for intense legal chemical experiences. It is also for spotting wildlife…from a safe distance, and there was plenty. Stunningly plumed macaws, spectacular butterflies, a jungle full of liana vines, monkeys, toucans and pirañas!

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We also visited the nearby Lago Tres Chimpadas at sunrise in this impressive catamaran…

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In between times, there was a lot of dozing in hammocks, reading and Brazil nut oil massages. Sleeping in the jungle was beautiful, fireflies danced around the room once the gas lamps went out at 9pm and red howler monkeys were our 5am alarm call…letting the jungle know that it was time to wake up.

Soon, it was back to Cuzco to meet Barbara and Olav and head south to Puno and Lake Titicaca. We took a tour onto the lake visiting Uros (floating islands), staying on Amantani with a local family and then visiting Taquile. There are hundreds of floating islands and we visit just two. They are quite remarkable, built with earth and reeds which are tethered down to the lake floor by rope. You can feel them bouncing as you walk.

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They show us how they are built then, of course, offer us the opportunity to buy their handicrafts. This has been a running theme in Peru (but I would later learn what the ‘hard sell’ really is in Colombia.)

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Later on Amantani, we cook with the local family who are hosting us for the night before a rather forced and tacky, supposedly ‘local’ party…which is clearly arranged for the gringos and feels about as authentic as Wayne Rooney’s hairline. We are even encouraged to don the traditional Peruvian island attire. Basically, the tourists are all invited to dance in a circle…kind of like Ring a Ring o’ Roses. I would like to believe that the Peruvian islanders are more cultured than a three year olds birthday party.

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So we are pleased to get up into the island for a trek to their Pachmama temple, built in honour of Mother Earth, a goddess revered by people from across the Andes. The views are beautiful.

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The local speciality is coca tea with pisco, mint and sugar cane…it would be rude not to.

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Then our group join the rest of the boat to visit Taquile. Our group were this lovely lot.

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And Taquile looked a lot like this.

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After lunch, it is time to head back…so we stop to check we are going on the right direction. Look how far away from Lundris I am!

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Back on the mainland, my post-Ayahuasca booze ban has thankfully come to an end. So, me and the Germans celebrate a cracking couple of weeks together the only way we know how…Pisco Sours and Shithead.

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With a hand like this, it did not end well for me…

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Then, all too soon it is time for a fond farewell to Peru. What an adventure it has been, and what amazing people. Onward to Bolivia for chapter IV.

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And the soundtrack was:
Snow Patrol ‘Hands Open’
Survivor ‘Eye of the Tiger’
The Antlers ‘Burst Apart’
Tennis ‘Young and Old’
Casio Kids ‘Togens Hule’

Part II: New Zealand

Thursday 10th – Tuesday 22nd January

I left Australia with a heavy heart, but New Zealand was just the tonic. I arrived in Christchurch, picked up a nifty little Mazda and set off to explore the South Island.

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First stop – Queenstown. Thankfully, they drive on the same side as in the UK so, aside from the indicators being rudely switched around, it’s straightforward and enough and I am out on country roads faster than you can say ‘Kia ora’. The drive is stunning, and I thoroughly enjoy the road tripping element giving my iPod a good work out along the way. During a particularly anthemic track, Lake Tekapo drops into view between two mountains…and it takes my breath away.

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Crystal clear blue waters surrounded by rugged snow-capped mountains. It’s the perfect place to stop for a stroll and some lunch.

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I arrive in Queenstown, adventure capital of New Zealand, as the sun is setting and settle in for the night. Later, I have my first taste of Steinlager alongside some scallops on the Wharf.

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The skyline cable car is the first item on the agenda the next day, taking an All Blacks branded car up the 500 metre incline for the view over the city. Of course, at this point, it would be rude not to have a glass of champagne. Every good vista deserves some bubbles.

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The viewing platform is mind bogglingly beautiful in every direction. Mountains, water, ice, repeat.

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Next up, it’s wine tasting! New Zealand wine is something I know little about so it was a treat to sample the Pinot Noirs, and meatier Syrah and Malbec variations. Of course, I am slightly tipsy by the time I make the decision to ship a crate of wine back to London…but I will endlessly regret not being able to take some of these gems home. I reward my hard day’s work with dinner at the Botswana Buchery before flopping happily into bed.

Milford Sound is one of the three Sounds in this region, Milford being the easiest to access. Despite bad weather in the area, I manage to get out to see it. First, a scenic flight to Milford followed by a nature cruise on the Sound itself, which has been formed from glacial activity.

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Once on the boat, the rolling clouds bring real majesty to the views. Really, I think more Directors should think about filming motion pictures here in New Zealand….

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We speed past gushing waterfalls, each named after the captains who discovered them. The fur seals even come to say hello.

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Not long afterwards, I am back in the trusty motor (this time a Rav4) and blasting through the Crown Range en route to Franz Josef.

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Once again, I am greeted by a stunning sunset…

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The lovely Julie Morrison is living here for now, and after a hearty breakfast at The Landing, her brother Danny manages to get us up onto the glacier in a chopper including a snow landing… The catch? We have to go right now. No time for nerves, we’re up and away in minutes.

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The view from the glacier is beautiful, the pure white snow setting off the blue of the ocean behind it. Julie is totally hardcore, on the glacier in her flip flops!

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Then it is off to explore Okarito for a walk along the beach…where we stop to ponder what land we would hit first if we swam due west…(geography fans, it is Argentina!)

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Then, there is time for a knees up, Franz Josef style with the Morrison’s lovely pals.

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Next day, I am back on the road again to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass and Castle Hill. The drives here are just wonderful, and the pass seems to dwarf everyone on the road. Just as Julie said it would, it makes me feel small.

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This time, I spend some time driving around the city centre of Christchurch and I am shocked by how devastated the earthquake has left it. Even two years on, buildings still hang and miles of the centre are still cordoned off. Almost every restaurant I try to get to for dinner has been obliterated. It makes me sad when I think that this city is somebody’s hometown. I chose not to take any pictures as it didn’t quite feel right.

Up with the birds the next day for the 7am train to Picton where I catch the ferry to Wellington.

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The ferry takes around three hours, and is made far more bearable by a screening of Argo in the cinema. Then lovely, windy, Wellington rolls into view. It’s a great city, and I easily keep myself busy over the three days. First, there is the cable car from the city centre up to the Botanic Gardens for beautiful views out over the city and the bay.

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The Gardens are vast and beautifully kept, they are even setting up for a summer music festival when I happen along….

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Further exploration of the city reveals the Cathedral, the Beehive (where the politicians do their dirty work) and an amazing little bookshop called Unity books. I take the opportunity to stock up for the next chapter of the trip.

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Te Papa is the national museum of New Zealand, and in a very interactive way, it tells of the country’s history from the Maori settlers to the Waitangi Treaty and onwards into the present day. It is really interesting as I’ve known little about the Waitangi Treaty between NZ and England. I’ll come to know more when I head north, but the museum is a great start.

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Under cover of darkness, Cuba Street is a bustling, creative, vibrant neighbourhood stuffed to the brim with music venues, thrift stores, record shops and bars. Props to Matterhorn and the Hawthorn Lounge for being amongst the fines drinking establishments I have ever frequented. And the Wellington institution Lido Cafe for providing the healing breakfasts….

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When I can tear myself away from the bar-hopping, it’s time to head north for some serious sun and a history lesson. Paihia is the destination in the North Island in an area called the Bay of Islands. This is where the Waitangi Treaty itself was signed, so I head out to the grounds for a tour. The guide patiently answers my questions, and musters great diplomacy when I ask him if the treaty with England was viewed as a positive. It was a necessary evil, so the Maori people had to agree to keep trade links strong. He does concede though that they have been able to keep their culture, customs and language alive in a far stronger way than some other indigenous people worldwide. He has travelled extensively, and has seen a far more diluted situation on other continents. Either way, it is hugely interesting.

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The flags above mark the exact spot, and a prayer house has been erected nearby to encourage reflection, meditation and…well, prayer. The guide explains the meaning of the welcoming sculpture and all of the carvings within.

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Soon after it is time to get out on the water for adventures, so I catch the ferry to nearby Russell which was known as the hellhole of the Pacific when Australian convicts we brought here from penal institutions. Henceforth the town was brought into great disrepute until the English swooped in to clean things up and get all religious on the convicts asses. After a gander at the museum, dinner on the wharf is a giganta-pot of mussels and a ridiculously beautiful view.

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In the coming days, I am all about the adventure. I swim with Bottlenose Dolphins in the bay, learning all about how randy they are…turning even to their own brethren for sex. Thankfully, they keep the incest to a dull roar whilst we’re splashing about next to them. From the three thousand photographs I took, THIS one worked out.

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Then there is time for a cheeky wee paraglide across the bay (significantly calmer than it sounds) before a fond farewell to New Zealand, a stunning country full of rugged mountains, verdant countryside, ethereal fjords and glistening lakes. I’ve got a feeling I’ll be back…E noho ra NZ…or other Maori words to that effect.

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Onward…to Peru!

And the soundtrack was:
Yuck ‘Yuck’
Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘It’s Blitz’
Youth Lagoon ‘Posters’
Yeasayer ‘Odd Blood’
Metric ‘Live It Out’
Florence + The Machine ‘Shake It Out’
Gangstarr ‘Full Clip’
TV On The Radio ‘Nine Types of Light’