Friday, 30 July 2010

The cold and the hot

One of the major attractions in San Pedro are the geysers situated in the volcanic area high above the town. At 4500 metres we were a little worried about the effect of the altitude, although that was all forgotten in the effort of dragging ourselves out of bed at 3am to get ready…

The geysers are at their most visible when it’s cold, and with the temperature hovering around minus 18 we were certain to get some great views! Having never seen this natural phenomenon before, I wasn't sure what to expect, and was startled by the sheer number of them - over seventy in total. Plumes of smoke billowed out, blown by the light wind and filling the early morning sky with pillars. The geysers here don’t spurt water (only the odd short launch like a mini firework), but the overall effect is eerie and atmospheric. And although the air was very much thinner, we didn’t experience any adverse effects from the rapid change in altitude, which was encouraging for future trips. We wandered around the area, watching as the sun rose and the colours of the surrounding peaks gradually emerged.

After spending over an hour observing the geysers steaming away, hearing how they were created and learning a little about the surrounding volcanic area, we jumped back in the bus to warm up (even with thermals and three layers we were still frozen through!), and drove a little further to some natural hot springs. By now the sun was warming the air and we could begin stripping down again, and as we headed back down towards town we caught a few glimpses of the local wildlife. A brief stop at a small village to buy a Llama kebab, and it was time to return for a quick nap.

After lunch F and I broke away from the rest of the group, having chosen to take a guided tour to the Valley of the Moon to learn about the rock formations and watch the sun set over the dunes. The whole area is a stunning site of natural activity, with rocks formed from salt crystals, curving sand dunes and 360 views across the Atacama. We climbed high into the Valley to look down across it all, as our excellent guide described the geological history of the area. We even managed to pick up a dog who accompanied us on our hike, happily overtaking us as we struggled up the thick sand and wandering confidently close to the sheer drops onto sharp rocks below.

We mounted the final hill as the sun began to set, sat in the middle of ‘death valley’, and watched the sky light up with pinks and purples before making our way back as the cold began to set in and the tiredness from the day took over.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Into the desert...

As we approached San Pedro de Atacama the landscape became increasingly beautiful – huge swathes of desert rocks in vibrant reds, and perfectly-shaped volcanoes hanging over us. The bus very kindly stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the Valley of the Moon so we could grab some pictures, and for the first time as we exited the bus we could feel the first effects of the altitude – even at only 2500 metres the air was noticeably thinner. We continued into town, a cute little place filled with shops and restaurants catering for the groups of tourists (and the first town we have been in so far in which we have heard lots of English).

After lunch and a bit of shopping, a few of us wandered out of town and towards the valley, discovering spectacular views, and as we chatted and walked around, the sun began to set and the changing colours of the landscape burst into life – so much so that F and I are hoping to take an excursion out there tomorrow afternoon to watch the sun set and wander around the rock formations after it gets dark.

The temperature is at extreme ends up here – the days being wonderfully warm and bright, and the evenings bringing the temperatures down to minus degrees – we’ve been warned that for one of our trips tomorrow which starts at 4am we should expect -10. In preparation I bought a woolly hat at a little shop on the main strip – I might look completely daft but hopefully will stay a bit warmer!

We have a few days here before heading on, and there are lots of activities available, our options only potentially limited by how we respond to the altitude. So for now we’re keeping flexible and will see what catches our eye tomorrow.

Heading north

At the end of our time in Santiago we met up with a group for our tour part of the trip, and started a long set of bus journeys, travelling ever north. The local buses were surprisingly comfortable – plenty of leg room, reclining seats and snacks throughout the journey – with no train service and only expensive flights as an alternative, the buses had upped their service throughout Chile whilst still retaining the low cost.

We arrived at our first stop after seven long hours – La Serena, a small coastal town with beautiful post-colonial buildings and clear blue skies. It was only a short stroll to the beach, where we spent a couple of hours taking photos and walking along the coastline.

In the evening we headed an hour out of town to a local observatory to hear about the extensive astronomy research taking place in northern Chile and to view some constellations. It was a full moon, which resulted in a lot of light pollution, but we still saw a reasonable amount, had a look through a few telescopes and got some wonderful photos of the moon as a bonus. Standing on the top of the hill late at night, staring up at the stars was a great experience, although I’m not sure I’ll be able to pick out the constellations again on my own…!

Next up was a longer bus journey – 12 hours overnight. Rather, it would have been 12 hours if the bus hadn’t have broken down halfway through, with a swap between buses and an extra few hours on the trip as a result. We arrived in Antofagasta tired and with aching muscles, but with just enough energy left to have a short glance around the second biggest city in Chile and a gorgeous dinner of local fish and a quinoa risotto.

There was one final bus journey to go – just 5 hours this time, straight into the desert and finally a chance to crack out the flip flops!

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Exploring the middle of no-where...

After a few days in Santiago, we were ready to escape the city and see what lay outside. I'd read about a gorge - Cajon del Maipo - a couple of hours south of the capital, so using some decidedly iffy instructions for getting there, we hopped onto the metro to the end of the line and looked for a bus going in the right direction. We finally located one that looked promising, jumped on, and started a journey through some amazing landscape, driving parallel to the mountains and through small towns. There were no sign posts or indications of where we were, so we made the decision to just ride it out, and stay on the bus until it terminated, hoping it was near the gorge. We ended up in a tiny town called San Gabriel, very close to the Argentine border, with nothing in it, no shops, very few houses and people, just the bus stop and the occasion horse grazing in nearby fields.

Snow lay all around us as we wandered the lanes, but we were rewarded with a wonderful view of the gorge and the mountains enclosing it - snow covered peaks, ragged and imposing. Although completely in the middle of no-where (we were hoping there was a bus back but had no guarantees…) San Gabriel was peaceful and rural, and didn’t seem to ever get any visitors by the confused looks we received from the friendly locals.

We strolled around for a while until our feet were beginning to freeze, then found completely by chance a tiny cafĂ© which sold us the most amazing hot chocolate to kick start our blood once more. We gulped it down, and went back outside just in time to catch the bus back (well, with a bit of running after it first!).

Arriving back at the first metro station an hour and a half later, we realised that we were not too far from the biggest winery in Chile, so managed, with a bit of difficulty, to find another bus and rode to the town of Pirque, home to the Vina Concha y Toro. As we headed in, F realised that we had actually had some wine from this winery back at home – the Diablo brand. We paid for entrance, and spent a lovely hour being told how the wine was produced, with a tour around the currently sparse vineyard and sampling a couple of the wines, which were delicious. By this time we were frozen through, so with our free logoed wine glass in hand, we made our way back to Santiago and a huge hot dinner.

It's rather chilly in Chile...

Before heading off this summer, I was checking the weather forecast for some of our destinations as a guide for packing when I saw a headline: ‘Antarctic winds hit South America’. One of the coldest winters for a long time, many parts of South America were experiencing the force of icy climates pushed up from the south.

On arrival we felt that climate. Santiago was bitterly cold, and although that itself isn’t a problem – it’s no colder than most ordinary winter temperatures, although a bit of a jolt after coming from summer - the issue lies with the fact that no-where in Santiago seems to have any available heating for the nights. We should have realised something was up when we sat down in the reception area of our hostel and everyone else was wearing woolly hats and heavy coats inside. But we didn’t. We only realised when we finally got into our room, and the temperature inside was actually lower that of the outside. It was freezing cold – teeth-chattering cold, even under the blankets of the bed with our coats on during mid-afternoon. Dreading what it was going to be like in the early morning, and envisioning spending our remaining three days trapped in the bed as it would be too cold to brave the room without the protection of at least three layers, we asked to move rooms (ours opened up onto the courtyard and a gap in the door was allowing the icy draft through).

Unfortunately the hostel couldn’t offer us any other room for all three nights as they were fully booked, so we made do with a basic room they had for that first night and looked for somewhere else to stay the next morning. After a bit of searching we struck gold – a lovely hostel in a different part of the city, warmer and more comfortable, with an owner who offered lots of advice regarding restaurants, buses and hidden gems. We couldn’t have been happier!

However, although the accommodation was a bit of a disaster to begin with, our time in Santiago has been really nice so far. We wandered around the central area, admiring some of the impressively large and ornate buildings, and climbed a number of steps winding up in a small central park to reach a fantastic viewpoint over the city. Although I wouldn’t describe it as ‘beautiful’ compared to some other major cities, Santiago is easily assessable by foot, relatively simple to navigate, and has some fantastic features tucked away. The only part I found heart-breaking was the sheer number of stray dogs wandering around. Completely unlike the diseased animals usually found wandering streets, these were made up of majestic breeds – Alsatians, Labradors, all very street-savvy and gentle but still a shame to see so many without homes. Maybe I’m just a big sucker. F was not quite as affected…

On our second day we continued with the theme of lofty sights – at the Cerro San Cristobal, Santiago’s largest park. A high peak sits at the centre of the gorgeous landscape contained within, culminating in a crowning Virgin statue which overlooks the city. With glorious sunshine streaming down (bringing with it a bit of temporary heat!), and completely clear skies, we were able to see across the whole of the city and the Andes beyond. It was fantastic, if a little tiring on the feet with the uphill slog and getting a bit lost on the way.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Touching down in Santiago

Well, here we are, having touched down at the beginning of this year’s ‘big trip’. Where are we? Currently in Santiago, Chile. We’ll be here for a while, before heading up and through Bolivia to Peru, before flying back down to Chile again at the end. With one final stop left, we’ll then fly home.

I’m hoping that with the wonders of modern technology (aka my netbook and the odd sprinkling of wireless), I’ll be able to update every so often on the road. But we’ll see as the trip progresses.

So, why South America? It’s hard to get across on paper (or the virtual form of anyway…) but I have been really really excited about this trip. It’s been at the top of my list for years now, and although more recently I have started to set my sights further and further than I would have allowed myself to imagine five or ten years ago, the beautiful and diverse South American countries have always remained in the forefront of my mind. Deciding where to go was trickier, although the top position that Peru held helped to form the itinerary. The Inca trail has always been a dream (although my fitness level is somewhat suspect!) and the availability of a range of activities, sites and different cultures throughout Chile and Bolivia completed the route.

Although we’ve discussed this trip for a few years now, this is the first time we felt in a position to do it properly – flying to South America is very expensive for us, and the length of our stay and intended activities help rack up the cost further. If we were going to do it, we wanted to make sure we wouldn’t miss out on anything.

Arriving in Santiago was relatively easy – the flight is long and therefore of course uncomfortable, but the entry into Chile was fast and straightforward; we were through immigration and baggage reclaim in a matter of minutes, onto a bus and then the metro, and into the centre in under an hour!

So, now a few days to explore what (an extremely cold…) Santiago has to offer! Now, where did I pack my scarf??

Thursday, 15 July 2010

On cheaper travel

I was recently talking to someone about trips, only to have them declare ‘do you have a stash of money you aren’t telling anyone about? How can you afford all this??’

I was suddenly struck by how many people might think the same way. The fact is, neither F or I work in particularly well-paid jobs, and although we are very blessed with our accommodation situation currently, we certainly don’t have lots of spare cash to throw around. We are however, in jobs which afford us a lot of holiday time, and we are determined to use it. So how do we manage it?

One of the benefits of being a 3 or 4 times a year traveller versus a ‘round the world’ trip (and there aren’t that many!) is that there is time in between travels to build up a bit of money, budget the rest and spread out payments. We are also becoming quite good at bargain-hunting, although it can be time-consuming.

So, here are our tips for affording great trips without having to win the lottery:

- Flights. This, for us, is nearly always our biggest expense. Unless we are travelling locally, flights often take up a third to half of our overall spending on trips. For us personally, booking early is essential. We tend to try to book at least 6 months in advance, guaranteeing us the best price (especially on long-haul). We are at a slight detriment with regards to buying plane tickets, as our travelling dates are fixed for us, without much leeway, but if you can be flexible, then signing up for email alerts from different airlines will let you know when sales are on, and you could snap up a real bargain. Price comparison websites are useful for comparing prices, and sometimes booking direct from an airline can be cheaper than other options, but the overall tip is: hunt around until you can find the cheapest option. For us, booking 6 months before we go means we have the flight paid off, and have 6 months to save for the trip itself.

- Accommodation. Can be another expensive element of any travel, although for us it is usually the cheapest. Why? We stick to hostels almost exclusively (or camping!). Rather than the flea-bitten pits that might be imagined, we’ve never (touch wood…) stayed in a terrible one. Yes, they can be noisy, the bathrooms aren’t great and the rooms are a bit sparse, but what do you really need when you’re out most of the time? We don’t scrimp too much – we nearly always go for a private room, with an ensuite if possible, yet rarely pay more than $20 a night (and that’s only in bigger, more expensive cities). We also try to book places that are family-run, or tucked away slightly, to help support local businesses rather than international chains, and have found that we get lots of extras – friendly conversation, lovely home-cooked breakfasts, and plenty of advice on things to see and do. When booking, some places might ask for a night’s payment in advance (booking through hostelworld or other such websites insist on this), so if you book a month or two in advance, then that’s a bit more paid off gradually rather than in one go.

- Food. F and I love food. Really love food. But we don’t need to go to gourmet restaurants when abroad to experience great cuisine. The local street stall is often delicious, and reflects the local diet. Price for a filling meal? 2 or 3 dollars. Why not treat yourself to seconds…

- Getting around. I have to admit, we do have the occasional splurge here – we often take a taxi to and from airports (only at our destination, not at home!!). The reasons for this are simple: at the beginning of a trip we are somewhere we don’t know, often at a funny hour of the day/night, carrying most of our cash for a trip. Getting a taxi is safe, and we know we’re going to find our hostel! At the end of a trip, we want to make the most of our time, not spend hours before our flight finding a way to the airport. However, for the rest of our time, we always opt for local transport. Buses, trains, carts, boats – all are cheap and fun ways to explore the local area, meet locals and experience daily life of a country. As a result, travel within countries barely costs us anything.

- Tours. This is a tricky one. We have done some tours, and loved them, and also travelled around completely on our own. When deciding, we tend to weigh up the pros and cons and make a decision based on that. For example, if we have limited time somewhere, know it’s unlikely we are going to go back, and have lots of things we want to do/see in a large geographical area which we are unlikely to be able to do ourselves, we tend to go for a tour. If we are doing an activity where it is tricky to sort out permits/permission independently (tracking gorillas in Rwanda, Inca trail) we’ll join a tour. Apart from that, we tend to go it alone. If we feel we would benefit from a guide for a day or two, or it supports the local community, we’ll find one, but most good guidebooks/internet sites can give excellent information about a range of sights. Tours can be expensive, so for us we need to weigh it up against the benefits, and the amount we would pay (roughly) if we did it independently. If a tour is the way to do, then shop around – lots of operators offer deals and some are specialised in particular areas of the world and committed to supporting local businesses/employing local guides.

- Visas. An unavoidable expense in some countries. But the price can be spread out again – with enough planning visas can be obtained in advance from embassies a month or so before travelling, so there’s less cash to pay upfront upon arrival.

- Sights/activities. I can’t be of much help here – sights and activities are the one area in which all our hard-earned savings disappear rapidly! However, there are still deals to be had – combination tickets for a number of sites in an area are often available; if you choose to do 2 or more activities with the same company haggle for a discount – 10 or 20% off is not uncommon. Also, although it is hit or miss (use your common sense), booking through locals can work out a lot cheaper than using major companies – when in Turkey we picked up all our activities from a street stall, and when we got on the bus we found groups on our bus, on the exact same tour, who had booked through their hotel and paid over twice as much! Do we careful though – look for popular/ permanent booths and ask around for recommendations.

In conclusion: If you fancy a big trip on the cheap, remember: bring flip-flops (for the showers. Yuck), pack some earplugs. Search around for great deals. Sign up for email alerts (you may want to create a specific email account for this – they come thick and fast!). Don’t be intimidated by local hostels/transport – but do prepare to be uncomfortable at times (3 and a half hours in a bus, without doors, holding 5 times its maximum number of people, with rap blaring out at top volume was an interesting, and certainly unforgettable way to travel up the Kenyan coast – but at only a few dollars, who cares?!). Be willing to haggle over everything.

Of course, saving on the holiday itself probably isn’t enough – needless to say we also deprive ourselves of a fair amount in between holidays in order to afford multiple trips!

So, there are my tips for travelling a long way on a short budget. We’ve found that when discussing trips and costs with others, what one person has paid for a one week all-inclusive package is the same amount that we might spend for 2 or 3 weeks somewhere else. Looks can be deceiving…

Friday, 2 July 2010

Rome: Do's and Don'ts!

So, with Rome over (I can't believe its been three weeks since we got back already!), what are the must-do's and the please don'ts...?


- Explore the side streets and many Piazzas. Although they might not have the presence of the Roman sites or the scale of Trevi, the smaller fountains and squares are beautiful, each unique and often less busy

- Eat ice-cream. Lots and lots of ice-cream. It’s gorgeous, creamy and often very fresh. With hundreds of flavours, be adventurous (or be like me – find one you love and try as many versions of it as possible…)

- Talk and ask. We found the Italians we encountered to be very friendly and helpful. Whether it was the police helping up to interpret our map (without as more success than we’d had!), the waiters in restaurants or the sweet owners of small gelato cafes, we had a great experience.

- Climb. Rome has a wonderful skyline – whether it’s from the dome of St. Peter’s or one of its outlying hills, get yourself a birds-eye view!

- Take time to just sit somewhere and enjoy the atmosphere. Rome has plenty of outdoor cafes and restaurants, stylish bars and steps and fountains to plonk yourself down and while away some time. It’s worth the break from busy itineraries to soak up the feel of the city.


- Be paranoid. We’d heard of so many instances of pick-pocking before leaving, we probably went a bit over the top with gripping our bags to us at all times! The key here is just being sensible. Keep bags shut and tucked under arms when on the metro and in busy areas, and don’t flash wallets around. We had no problems whatsoever and it’s no different to any other big city.

- Follow the guidebooks to the letter. The maps in guides are very handy for thinking about how to make the most out of days, but don’t walk around with the map glued to your face. Get lost – go down that side street. It might not take you anywhere (we found ourselves at dead ends a couple of times!) but then again, you might just find something you would have missed otherwise…

- Feel like you have to spend a fortune. Yes, Rome is expensive, the drinks in particular. But wander around, look at a few menus before sitting down and you’ll find something fantastic for a smaller budget. I actually spent a lot less than I had expected and was prepared to.

- Be on a diet! Rome is a carbohydrate fest and the pasta and pizza are fresh and delicious. So eat, eat and then eat some more.

p.s. If you hadn't already realised, we all loved Rome! Contrary to some of the reports we'd heard before leaving, we found the city to be friendly, with a great atmosphere and plenty to do. Let's hope my coin thrown into Trevi fountain ensures a return visit one day!