Thursday, 16 December 2010

Sumatra: Do's and Don'ts!

It's incredible to think that nearly two months have passed since we were standing in dense jungle, watching the orangutans swing from tree to tree overhead. Sumatra was an amazing place, and here are my tips for visiting...


- See our gorgeous relatives. Although the orangutan population of Borneo receive more attention and visitors, our time in Bukit Lawang was amazing, and the lack of other tourists really worked in our favour. The village was quiet, we didn't see anyone else on our overnight jungle trek, and there were plenty of orangutans to see. Pick a guide carefully and the experience will be educational and magical.

- Spend a while exploring the island. Although we had a good amount of time, it still wasn't enough! Although I was grateful for a hot shower and a soft bed on our return, the island is full of contrast and a range of incredible areas to explore, from nature and wildlife to friendly villages and towns.

- Consider using taxis. Usually on trips we try to experience as much of the local transport as possible, be that buses or tuk tuks or hanging off the side of minibuses. However, although there are coaches available between major towns, public transport is lacking in other areas, and for a minimal amount more, a nice clean (and often air-conditioned!) taxi will go pretty much anywhere quickly and efficiently. Never underestimate the power of cool air in heavy humidity!

- Chat with as many local people as possible. Without a doubt, Sumatra has to be one of the friendliest places I have been to. Directions were given freely, frequent 'hellos' in the street common, and many people were happy to talk and spend some time.


- Get too close to the wildlife. It's really sad to hear of stories where people have touched the animals, particularly the orangutans, when the slightest cold or virus can cause so much damage. Please encourage the guides to stick to the rules in the national parks and keep your distance!

- Expect any luxury. The toilets are basic, there is, on the whole, no hot water, and electricity is lacking in many smaller villages and towns. Just something to be prepared for! Wet wipes are an ideal packing item...

- Miss out! Sumatra is often overlooked in favour of the more popular Indonesian destinations. But its beauty, wildlife and spirit really shouldn't be missed. It's cheap and easily accessible, so go!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The day the heat became just too much...

I am generally an enthusiastic traveller. Everything about being somewhere new is an experience worth having, be that the sights, smells, sounds, people or activities. Even if, on occasion, that means grotty places to sleep, busy, dirty cities, or getting caught up in riots in South America. However, when reflecting back on Medan, for the first time I am struggling to find real recommendations, or many positives. Don’t get me wrong, the people in Medan were just as friendly and generous as those everywhere else in Sumatra. Getting slightly lost in the winding maze of the city centre, there was always someone happy to point out the right way. Similarly, our accommodation was lovely, with the first hot showers for nearly two weeks, so no complaints there.

On the flip side, Medan is incredibly humid, and very hot. It’s oppressive, not helped by the copious car fumes, and filthy river. The city centre, whilst not huge, is riddled with long streets and winding side roads, without signs or any other clues (although our rather basic map probably didn’t help!). It’s not set up in any way for pedestrians, and it is difficult to navigate through the traffic and haze of pollution.

On top of this, there is not very much to do. A couple of museums, a palace, and some mosques make up the bulk of the attractions, and can be done in a day at a push. After a short, hot walk through the centre, dropping in on a couple of attractions but beaten down by the continuous avoidance of traffic, the smell and the humidity, we eventually gave up and fled back to our room.

I’m not saying that Medan hasn’t got anything to offer, or that it is worth missing entirely. But I think a day is enough, and for us, two was a little too much.
We flew back to KL, and with just a day before the flight home, spent our last few hours in that vibrant, busy city, before saying a temporary goodbye to Asia…

Friday, 12 November 2010

Danau Toba - where time stops

Not far from Berastagi is the beautiful and vast Danau Toba, an incredible expanse of water with one of the most relaxed atmospheres of anywhere I’ve ever been to. Taking the ferry across to the island in the middle of the lake, we settled into our guesthouse for a couple of days of relaxing and soaking up the calm.

Our accommodation was a traditional batik house right at the water’s edge, extremely peaceful with only lapping water and the enthusiastic singing of the local residents to break the silence. Despite our initial plans of exploring the island and going out on the water, our recent pace finally caught up with us and we were content just swimming in the lake (which was cool but thankfully not cold), wandering around town, and eating the most amazing BBQ fish and pork which seemed to be the local speciality.

During the whole of our time in Sumatra, everyone we met was kind – giving directions and advice freely, smiling and greeting us warmly – but none as much as on this lovely island in the middle of the lake. I wasn’t surprised when I read that travellers ‘get lost’ for weeks or even months there – I would quite happily have stayed for longer (and probably have doubled my body weight with all the delicious options on the menu…).

All too soon it was time to return to Medan and the fast-paced life of a city, although the ferry ride back was certainly a jolt to the senses – the wind had picked up and the boat pitched sharply with the increased waves, giving everyone on board a rollercoaster ride. Getting back onto solid ground was definitely appreciated, even if it did herald the start of a 5 hour car journey.

Clambering up a volcano

Winding up out of the jungle, we headed slightly south to the volcano district of Berastagi. Situated at over 1000m above sea level, the temperature was still warm but lacking the intense humidity we had just left – a refreshing change. The main reason to stop at the town (except of course to see its giant cabbage statue…I’m not kidding!) is to climb one of the active volcanoes, which we set out to achieve the very next morning.

We had decided on Sibayak, which at 2094m was an accessible option even with the changeable weather conditions, and wouldn’t require us hiring a guide. We set off early, hoping the heavy mist of the morning would clear as we ascended, walking 45 minutes through the town and the outlying areas to the starting point of the hike. In retrospect, and if I were ever to do it again, I probably would have hopped on a local bus to the starting point – although a pleasant walk, it was 45 minutes of uphill, and had us puffing before even beginning the walk proper!

After paying a nominal fee for our permits we started off, and the path quickly and steeply twisted up the side of the volcano – it was quite hard going at times, particularly with the combination of heat and rain as constant companions. There was a moment of panic when we lost the next section of path – although the map our hostel had provided and my guidebook assured us that it would be easy to follow, the path had deteriorated terribly, and was broken and slippery in many places – so broken in fact that we hadn’t recognised it as a path at all! Later, on the summit, we spoke to someone who had been walking the route for years, and he confirmed that it was worst he had ever seen it.

We eventually made it to the top, and in brief moments of clarity between the thick mist we saw the bright yellow sulphurous fumaroles dotted around the crater, and the lush green valleys and fields below. A bit of a slog to arrive, but definitely worth the effort. Everything about the volcano suggested activity, with pillars of thick smoke drifting up from small holes, and ashy sulphur deposits mingling with the loose rocks.

The descent was just as tricky in places and took longer than we had expected; a nice cool drink back at the hostel was definitely appreciated. We spent one further night in Berastagi to rest our aching muscles, and then it was time to get back on the road again.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Taking a bath...

After being awoken by monkeys jumping around on the aluminium roof above our room the following morning (the sound better resembling a herd of elephants than light-footed primates), we set off on a two-day jungle trek through the national park.

Fortune on our side, we glimpsed more orangutans on our way up into the thick foliage, and this time they were far more playful (clearly more awake in the morning!), swinging around on the branches overhead and coming ever closer – one older female settled herself in a tree merely inches from my face. Even one of the babies seemed to have found her confidence, leaving mum behind as she attempted a few jumps and swings of her own. We reluctantly left them to begin the trek, which, following the pattern of every hike I let myself in for, was a combination of steep uphill’s, followed by equally steep downhill’s, then repeat until you collapse.

The humidity and slippery jungle terrain left me exhausted, although there was plenty to make the hike worth the pain – as well as the incredible trees and flora around us, we also spotted a variety of wildlife, from the cute Thomas Leaf monkey who became curious whilst we were having a break and literally came to sit right next to us, bringing a few friends (and one very sweet baby), to the soft-shell turtles resting in a stream, the huge tortoise blocking our path, and the massive monitor lizards crashing through the undergrowth.

We arrived at our camp in the late afternoon, next to a river which proved very inviting after our sweaty day’s walk. The murky water was cool and perfect for swimming, and spending the night exposed to the jungle (no tents, just a bit of waterproofing over a bamboo frame) and all its noises was remarkably peaceful and relaxing (even if the hard, bumpy ground did my back no favours!). In the morning we had a final swim before tubing back down the river to the guesthouse and getting ready to move on.

After a two-hour off road trip, we arrived at our next destination, the tiny village of Tangkahan, a small and out-of-the-way place, but absolutely worth visiting for the main attraction – an elephant centre. Run by a group of passionate rangers, the centre looks after the non-wild rescued elephants, and tourists can visit, helping to wash the elephants in the river and then go on a trek through the jungle, with the money raised helping to support the centre. It truly was an amazing experience – washing the elephants was a huge amount of fun, the large animals splashing around in the water, enjoying the rough brushing (mimicking the way they rub themselves against trees after a wash in the wild).

It was incredible how gentle they were, carefully walking and swimming around us and then accepting some food at the end. There was even an extra treat in the form of a baby elephant born just a month prior to our visit, who was a real joy to play around with (and, just like many babies, really did not want her bath!). After washing it was time for our jungle ride, and again we were reminded of both the power but also the grace of the elephants – walking along narrow trails and up muddy hills with steep vertical drops was at times a little worrying, but the elephants were completely in control at all times and we felt safe.

With a final bunch of bananas for our beautiful hosts, we left Tangkahan and the national park to head up, up and up out of the jungle and it's oppressive heat and towards cooler climbs.

Off to visit some relatives...

Most of our holidays have one main purpose, usually falling into two categories: wildlife we would like to see in the wild, and natural or archaeological areas of beauty. This trip was based around the former, and so we jumped on a plane from KL straight to Sumatra, one of the few homes of wild orang-utans. I’ve longed to see these incredible apes for years, and was becoming increasingly excited as we drove to the town of Bukit Lawang after landing at Medan airport, the gateway to Gunung Leuser national park.

The jungle hit us with its humidity, sounds and staggeringly tall canopy as soon as we arrived, and as we settled into our room we saw a first brief glimpse of our red-headed cousins in the dense forest opposite. Soon after we headed up to the rehabilitation centre, where orang-utans slowly weaned off of human dependency to live wild in the jungle, for the afternoon feeding of the semi-wild inhabitants. Here we struck gold – as well as a couple of females who had come for their supplemented diet, we found ourselves surrounded by several curious new friends, including four babies clinging to their mothers and tentitively exploring their surroundings. A few even came down from the trees and walked right past us, barely half a metre from where we stood. They were even more spectacular then I had possibly imagined, and definitely made us even more excited for the two day jungle trek we had booked for the following morning.

The town of Bukit Lawang was also a real delight, with friendly locals greeting us as we explored, reflecting the laid back and relaxed atmosphere. There were small cheeky monkeys everywhere – clambering on the top of buildings, swinging across the river and trying to get into our belongings. But I think what made the place really special (and would be the trend across the island) was the lack of a touristy set-up – we only saw a small handful of other tourists and everything had a far quieter and authentic feel to it. You could lose weeks just hanging out, watching the river rush by and the gentle beauty of nature all around.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Temples, skyscrapers and a whole lot of humidity...

Welcome to Kuala Lumpur! This trip is my first real taste of Asia, and with only a very short amount of time, we are determined to make the most of it...

Our first stop is this amazing city, with its incredible combination of futuristic skyscrapers and jungle landscapes, all contained within the geographical limits. It's only really a stopover, with many cheaper flights coming in and out of KL as a jumping point for the rest of SE Asia, resulting in us having only two days in the city itself (and then another one day on the way home), but it would have been criminal to have flown in and then straight out again without the slightest taste of Malaysia.

Arriving late at night, we dropped our bags at the guesthouse and headed out to experience the city after the sun sets. After a delicious meal from a nearby street vendor, we wandered around to get our bearings, amazed by the bright lights and the sheer scale of the buildings surrounding us. Although not a city person by nature, even I couldn't help but be awed by the size of the Patronas towers, the landmark of Kuala Lumpur, lit like a beacon and illuminating everything around them.

The following morning we started early, determined to visit the Batu caves before the crowds arrived. The cave complex, discovered in the early 20th century, is host to a number of Hindu shrines, brightly painted and surrounded by a cloud of thick incense. The humidity makes the climb up the 200-odd steps to reach the shrines hard work, but the result is definitely worth the trouble. Avoiding the scavenger-like monkeys darting around everywhere, we found a lovely quiet spot to sit and relax. Arriving early was a good decision - as we left the coaches had begun to arrive in droves and the area was filling up fast.

After a quick taxi ride back into town we took a stroll through Chinatown (stopping off for a quick fish pedicure - a bizarre but interesting experience!), with its many shops, restaurants and temples, although eventually we realised we were going round in circles, lost in a maze of deceptively similar streets, and decided we might get a better overview from above. The Menara telecommunications tower, nestled in a jungle reserve in the middle of the city, offers a 360 view from 270m high, and is the perfect position to appreciate the scale and size of the buildings stretching out as far as the eye can see.

Tomorrow it's back on a plane to the main destination of our trip, although I will be sorry to say goodbye to KL - although it's a busy, bustling and developing city, with an excess of skyscrapers, neon lights and noise, it's also aware of its roots, with many busy yet peaceful temples, and kind and patient locals (as demonstrated by the cars - we made the mistake of crossing the road as a car came round the corner a couple of times today, and instead of beeping as they do nearly everywhere else, the cars just slowed down). Strangers in the street have instructed us on how to reach the places we wanted to get to, the taxi drivers have given us good advice (and without a price!), and when my food was taking longer than expected to come in a cafe earlier today, the owner offered me a free snack to tide me over.

Humidity aside, I think this is a place I would be happy to spend a lot longer exploring...

Monday, 11 October 2010

Packing essentials

It’s just over a week until the next trip, and my mind is fixed on packing, one of those double-edged jobs – it’s exciting as it heralds the beginning of a new adventure, but when you actually have to do it, it’s one of the worst tasks of travelling (mostly because as you pack you realise that you will be repeating exactly the same job every day or two for the length of the trip…).

Anyway, the frustrations of packing aside, over the past few years I’d built up a collection of items that have become essentials – either because they have made life easier for me, or because they have aided in capturing the wonderful (and not so wonderful) moments as they happen.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’ve bundled together all your clothes, have bought all the ‘mini’ versions of essential toiletries, have a sturdy bag and the ‘every eventually covered’ hiking shoes and flip flops combo (the grand total amount of footwear I ever travel with!). What else could you cram into the rucksack that makes travel complete?

Well, there are obviously lots of things, each depending on individual choice, but here are my top 10 gadgets/items for making life easier and more fun on the road:

- Packing cubes. These little objects from heaven are a very recent discovery for me, but will be accompanying us on all our trips in the future. I was a bit sceptical at first, reasoning that with some regular tight packing, there was no way that they would actually save enough space to be a good investment. On a whim I saw some on sale and thought they were worth a look (if only to satisfy my smug assertion), and when put to the test, we realised that they did, in fact, live up to their promise. Granted, it’s not a huge amount of space saved, but the added compression, plus their useful way of dividing up different types of clothing make a winning combination. In South America, after finishing with our winter clothes, we tucked them all into a couple of the cubes and didn’t have to touch them again, which made the daily re-pack easier and quicker.

- Netbook. For me, blogging and uploading my photos helps me to reflect and put into words my emotions and experiences when away. I have a notoriously poor memory, particularly when it comes to the names of towns and accommodation, and jotting things down has always been an important part of travelling for me. Being able to immediately label my photos and record adventures online seemed a natural transition, and I have the added security that should anything happen to my camera or computer, everything is backed up remotely. Despite being by nature a ‘holiday-means-no-technology-don’t-show-me-emails’ type of person, I’ve come to grudgingly (at first) admit that having the netbook with me has actually encouraged me to take the time to record thoughts and share experiences with my nearest and dearest while they are still fresh (and I can still remember them fully!). I don’t carry a mobile phone when away, so this is my big concession to modern communication.

- Camera. If I could only take one thing away with me (apart from my passport!), I think it would be my camera. I can spend days in the same set of clothing, go without most luxuries, but my camera is always with me and is a crucial visual memory which allows me to re-live experiences again and again. Although I’m not the world’s greatest photographer by a long shot, taking pictures always makes me happy and I hope to improve in the future.

- Spare camera batteries and memory cards. See above for the explanation – there’s nothing worse than running out of memory in an area where a card can’t be purchased easily and having to make the tough decision about what to delete to make space (I’ve been there – it’s horrible).

- Universal adapter. This one is common sense really, but I’ve managed to forget it a couple of times and find that when you really need one, there’s never one to be found… essential for all electrical items, it’s worth getting a half-decent one to ensure that all those can’t-be-without gadgets continue to work wherever you are.

- A washing line. This might seem a bit of a silly one, but in fact it’s been a real life saver on many trips. Not only is it good for the obvious – hanging up those bits and bobs washed hastily in the sink when you realise you really can’t wear that top for yet another day, but also as a way of securing bags that little bit more, a cord for fastening items to the front of bags when space gets tight after a major souvenir shop, an emergency tie cord to replace broken zips/string/handles – really indispensable without taking up hardly any space.

- Universal plug. Again, seems a minor worry, but when you’re faced with yet another room without a plug for the sink/bath, forcing huge wads of tissue/flannels/whatever else you can find into the hole and miserably watching it leak within seconds, a universal plug makes things that little bit easier. Cheap and easily tucked away into a small space, they are wonderful little things!

- Pens. Lots and lots of pens. The type of thing that always seems to fall down the black hole of doom whenever you need one; I tend to take upwards of 10 pens with me at all times. Excessive? Possibly. Being the most popular person around when it’s time to fill in the visa form? Definitely.

- Sealable waterproof bags. Be they plastic, or more eco-friendly alternatives, small-ish bags can hold still-damp clothes, electrical equipment when travelling in the rain, leaky bottles of shampoo/shower gel, important documents and countless other bits and pieces. I always carry a few different sizes, and always end up using them all.

- A cheap, water-resistant watch. This might not make much sense at first, but hear me out: firstly, it’s a security risk wearing a more expensive time piece, particularly if it’s a loved one. Secondly: A good one is bound to get damaged at the first sight of an adventurous activity. If it’s an ultra snazzy, can take anything watch, it was probably expensive, leading back to the first point. Thirdly: when haggling at a market/shop, the most common thing I’ve been offered is an exchange – what I want for my watch. Why watches? Who knows. Maybe because they’re visible. Fact is, it crops up often as possible payment. At the end of a trip, when that final souvenir is screaming for me to buy it, an exchange for my inexpensive watch seems like a pretty good deal to me.

(all pics google images)

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Rapa Nui: Do's and Don'ts!

Well, it's the last in the series - a summary of what I learnt about visiting Rapa Nui, a major highlight of this summer's trip and somewhere I really hope I can return to one day.


- Explore the island without a map! It’s difficult to get lost with very few actual roads, and everything eventually leads to Hanga Roa anyway, so put on some walking boots and head out there!

- Watch some hypnotic dancing. The traditional dance show is a fantastically fun evening out, keeping musical traditions alive. Definitely well worth it!

- Check, Re-check and check your flight again. Flights to Rapa Nui are notoriously overbooked, and the queues build up fast at the airport – the key is to re-confirm a couple of days prior to flying, check in online, and then arrive at the airport early regardless (we’d heard of people who had checked in online, strolled up to the check-in desk and been told they were too late and their seat had been passed on…). Anything to get on that plane! (Coming back is no problem however, no over-booking in the other direction)

- Hire a local guide one day for some of the big sights. We booked one day with a guide after realising that our time was short and there was so much more to see, and it turned out to be the best decision we made – our guide was knowledgeable not only of the sights but of the landscape, political situation on the island and some of the less-visited areas, which made for interesting discussions and a wonderful day.


- Touch the statues. After an awful incident a couple of years ago when some idiot tried to crack off an ear, there is huge concern over the welfare of the artefacts – please be aware and keep a reasonable distance.

- Just stick to the main sights. They are fantastic, but there are also loads of small caves, petroglyphs and other hidden treasures to find if you have the time.

- Expect a tropical island! Rapa Nui is rugged, quite bare and hosts only one beach. But it is one huge open-air archaeological site, and is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.

- Forget your camera! Around every bend is a great photo opportunity, with the overwhelmingly powerful Moai, volcanic landscape and gorgeous sunsets. Take an extra memory card…

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Peru: Do's and Don'ts!

Peru completely exceeded my expectations and then some...I'm probably a little biased as the country hosts some of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world, which is always enough to make me happy, but the diverse landscape and exciting range of activities on offer add even more to its charm. Here are the must-do's and please don'ts!


- Hit Machu Picchu as early as possible. If not on the Inca trail then jump on the first bus available - until around 9am the site was relatively quiet, but soon after thousands descended and some of the magic was lost.

- Bring some anti-nausea tablets/wristbands for the Nazca flight – nearly everyone we spoke to felt ill, and it’s not surprising – who knew a tiny plane could flip so much in just over half an hour…?!

- Shop around for a good guide for the major sites. It’s definitely worth the money having one, but walking around Machu Picchu I heard a couple of guides telling their groups what I know to be incorrect information. A good, passionate guide can make or break a visit, and we were very lucky with all of ours.

- Go sandboarding. Some of the best fun I’ve had, the sand is warm and soft and the descents steep and fast – a great combination!

- Try the local delicacies. Llama, Alpaca and Guinea pig are all common and cheap in restaurants and all worth a try – especially the delicious and tender Alpaca.

- Help the environment. We were appalled by the amount of litter we found along the Inca trail and at some of the major sights. It was really upsetting, and by the end of one day alone, we had picked up 10 large plastic bottles, not to mention the numerous wrappers and plastic bags we found tossed aside.


- Scrimp on time in Cusco. There is so much to do and explore that a few days just isn’t really enough – I wish we had been able to spend some more time there.

- Forget the mozzie repellent. The Inca trail was probably the worst as I kept forgetting to top up, but the Amazon, Machu Picchu and around the sacred valley all added to the ever-increasing itchiness covering my body.

- Say to any Peruvian: ‘I thought Chile was the birthplace of Pisco?’ Just don’t...

Bolivia: Do's and Don'ts!

Bolivia was a country I was very much looking forward to visiting, but knew relatively little about compared to Chile and Peru. We ended up enjoying our time there immensely - the beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the people. Here are the do's and don'ts!


– Get tacky! A small fluffy Llama is perfect for those all-important salt flat pictures – let your imagination run wild!

- Spend some time in La Paz. One of the loveliest capitals I’ve been to, with lots to do and see, La Paz is warm and welcoming with plenty of Bolivian spirit.

- Be respectful. The landscape around the salt flats and Atacama Desert is incredible, with spectacular rock formations – please don’t contribute to the mindless erosion of the natural treasures by climbing on top of rocks (as we saw a couple of times…)

- Try coca leaves to help with the altitude. If you can get over the intense bitterness they do have an effect! Just try not to swallow…

- Go against your flee instinct. Take a ride down ‘death road’, but with a recommended tour company – the lack of helmets and body protection we saw on some groups was very worrying, whereas we felt completely safe for the whole time. It is worth it though!


– Go rushing around. The altitude increases rapidly and can hit anyone at any time – there’s far too much to do and see to be stuck in bed ill!

- Be surprised if you have to alter your itinerary. We were caught up in two protests in the space of one week, and we heard of many more in the weeks/months prior to our arrival – stay flexible!

- Underestimate the weather. It is difficult to imagine just how cold the salt flats really are at night – take a good sleeping bag, pile on the blankets and prepare for anything up to -20…

Next - onto Peru!

Chile: Do's and Don'ts!

With the trip all over, it's time for the obligatory do's and don'ts...first stop: Chile.


- Take some extra thermals. It gets cold (and if you are there around July/August time, I mean cold) at night and hostels/hotels rarely have heating so unless you want to get yourself in the unfortunate position we found ourselves in, wearing the same thermals for days on end, pack an extra set! (In fact, this is the same for Bolivia too)

- Explore using local transport. Chile has a great bus system and the Santiago metro in particular is fantastic – take advantage of the cheap fares and see where you end up!

- Say hello to the galaxy. The star-filled skies in Chile are incredible, stretching out as far as the eye can see – a trip to one of the observatories is truly a highlight.

- Try out your Spanish. A little goes a long way and is always appreciated! Even if it’s just the token few words that I picked up during our trip.

- Guzzle some wine. Chile is home to many fine wineries, all offering tours and tastings at good prices, so take advantage and find out firsthand what makes the growing region here so good!


- Expect Chile to reflect ‘typical’ (or perhaps I should say stereotypical...!) South America. It’s very westernised, particularly in the bigger cities, and this is reflected in the buildings, transport, shops and interests of many of the locals. Chile has its own charm, but it was only once we headed north that I saw the picture I’d always had in my mind come to life.

- Be put off by the huge hordes of tourists in San Pedro. The jumping off point for the Atacama, San Pedro is absolutely heaving, but walk just 10 or 15 minutes out of town and you find yourself alone, in a beautiful desert landscape littered with archaeological memory.

- Get too upset by the number of stray dogs. From what we saw and heard during our time in South America, the dogs are another part of the community, with locals feeding and often clothing them, and in fact most looked lively and healthy and were extremely friendly.

So there you have it! Chile was a great starting point for our trip, although I would have loved to have been able to head south to Patagonia which is supposedly incredible - perhaps next time...!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The last day on a wonderful island...

Next stop on our whirlwind stay on Rapa Nui was the ceremonial village of Orongo, situated 400m high on the top of one of the island’s volcanoes. Walking along the coastline and up to the summit, we passed a cave cut into the shore with some well-preserved rock paintings painted in a rich red hue, before heading up for our final hike of the trip. The crater of the volcano was amazing – it looked like some prehistoric algae pool, all green and set deep within the near-perfect crater (it is often described in guides as a ‘witches cauldron’ and I can definitely see the resemblance!).

Orongo itself is an interesting place – some of the houses have been reconstructed and the use of different materials and building practices to those we had seen at sea level to withstand the harsher weather was fascinating to see. There were petroglyphs everywhere – nearly every large rock we saw had some sort of carving showing details of the birdman ceremony that took place there every year (the village is dated much later than the main periods of Moai construction). I could have spent much longer wandering around but the weather got the better of us – after two days of glorious sunshine it was a little overcast, and although there was no rain the wind at the top of the volcano was fierce, and after threatening to take our information sheet, jackets and food out of our hands more than a few times, we gave up and started back to town. Even the stray dogs who had attached themselves to us on the way up seemed relieved!

The walk down was very pleasant and offered great views over Hanga Roa, and after arriving back, our legs complaining after being lulled into a false sense of relaxation (i.e. no uphills!) over the past couple of days, we treated ourselves to huge ice-cream sundaes by the harbour.

After reading plenty of recommendations for the Polynesian dance shows that a local dance troop put on, we decided to go for our last evening. Settling into the small theatre, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect, but it was worth every penny. The dancers threw themselves around the stage in an explosion of dance and music, dramatic warrior performances in traditional costumes (which for the most consisted of some sort of loin cloth, a bit of body paint and not much else) which were absolutely incredible. Definitely worth going to see!

It was time to say goodbye the following morning, and I was very sad to do so – Rapa Nui is one of the most interesting and relaxing places I have been to and I hope to have the opportunity to go back again one day.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Magnificant Moai

For our second day on the island we decided to take a tour to tackle the site-filled south coast, hoping to benefit from the expertise of a local guide. We were extremely lucky to be given a guide who had an absolute wealth of knowledge, and offered plenty of fascinating information about each area we visited.

One of the wonderful things about the island is that it is basically a giant open-air museum, and the south coast has some of the best examples of Moai, evidence of their construction and erection, as well as gorgeous coastlines and crystal clear waters. We stopped at the biggest reconstruction of a Moai platform on the island (15 in a row), foundations of the boat-shaped houses of islanders, petroglyphs carved into rocks, and possibly my favourite area – the quarry where the Moai were carved, which still holds hundreds of Moai, some complete, some buried, and some still joined to the rock, frozen in time in the middle of construction. It was an amazing area – so many statues dotted along the hillside in various states and forming out of the rocks. We climbed up a steep path to see the largest Moai ever made – at 21 metres it was never finished, but the scale seemed almost impossible.

As we travelled through the south coast we saw numerous other platforms which were unrestored, their Moai lying face down over or next to them. The statues are so impressive it is quite moving to see them toppled over, face down. Towards the end of the tour we stopped at ‘the navel of the world’ – a sea smooth large stone with a high iron content and a magnetic field which was sacred to the islanders and apparently still exudes energy (although I didn’t feel anything when I touched it unfortunately!). Arriving at the only main beach, with a small platform of six Moai, it began to rain, which was disappointing until we saw a beautiful rainbow arching over the platform which looked spectacular over the statues and was a picture-perfect ending to the day. Taking a tour turned out to be a great decision – our guide was incredibly informed and very passionate about both the history and modern life of the island, and really made everything come alive even more for us.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Where the kings watch

Touching down in Santiago a little after 2am, we had a few hours to wait around in the airport before our next flight – 5 hours out into the middle of the Pacific to Easter Island, or, to use it's local name, Rapa Nui.

We were slightly worried right up until we got into our seats on the plane – flights out are notoriously overbooked and we had heard stories of being bumped from a flight and having to wait until the next day for another. With only 3 days on the island, we were desperate to make the most of them. We checked in online in Lima as soon as we could, but even just one hour after check-in opened, we discovered only 6 or so seats left on the plane. I didn’t feel entirely happy until we were settled in, seatbelts on, and there was no way they could drag me off the flight!

And gosh was it worth it. Rapa Nui is one of the most beautiful places I have visited. Aside from the many proud Moai statues dotted around everywhere, which are far more spectacular in real life than I had ever imagined from the pictures I’d seen, the island itself is a rugged paradise. With waves crashing against black volcanic rock formations, gently rolling hills and a few extinct volcanoes, there’s plenty to do and see.

Arriving at 3pm, we didn’t have much time to do anything too heavy for the afternoon, so decided to walk the west coast of the island where a small concentration of sights are located. During just an 8km walk, we saw our first platform of seven Moai (the only to be looking out to sea intentionally, argued to be representations of the seven explorers who set forth and found Rapa Nui), a few caves created through lava tubes which you can crawl into (it’s pretty tight!) and emerge into large caverns, and some individual Moai right next to the island’s only town, Hanga Roa, where we stopped to watch the sun set, framing the Moai in gorgeous yellows, pinks and purples.

Although we spotted a few other people, it was low season on the island, and for the majority of our walk we were completely alone, enjoying the sense of peace the island provides in abundance. A perfect start to our short stay.