South America Post 16 – Perfect Peru 4, Lima and Farewell.

Our last night in South America was spent in Lima, a huge city of over 10 million people. We had heard conflicting reports, from “Don’t go there”, to “You will love it”. Certainly, it is a troubled city. Like Rio and B.A, it has large shanty towns which are trouble hotspots, exacerbated by Peru opening it’s doors to Venezuelan refugees, and admitting over a million, with, apparently, no background checks at all, so most people we spoke to, feel that a large criminal element have entered as well.

I had found a small B&B in Barranco, a safe coastal part of Lima, famed for it’s architecture, and artistic background.

The B&B was called Second Home, and was exactly that, the second home and studio of artist Victor Delfin. He had sadly died a few years ago, but his wife still lives there. The building is full of his very distinctive artwork, and we were also to find some in Lima the following day.

Our room was lovely, with a view of the Pacific Ocean. Looking along the coast, we decided Lima is very like Bournemouth! Both set on cliffs, with deep Chines cutting down to the sea at intervals, and even a pier!!

Next day we had booked a 1 day tour of Lima before our transfer to the airport, with Peruvian Local friend, Cindy. She was remarkable. So enthusiastic and knowledgeable about her city. We saw Miraflores, full of early 20th century, European summer houses,

and the famous Garden of Love, with Gaudi style walls, and a Victor Delfin statue.

A festival of Love is held each year, with a competition for the longest kiss. 45 minutes is the record! Then onto the Olive park, planted as an oil crop by the Spanish, where some trees are over 300 years old.

Most remarkably, in the heart of the city, are the remains of some huge pyramids, Huaca Pucllana and Huallamarca, built by the Wari people around 500 AD. Built wholly in mud (adobe) bricks, they were solid inside, with a flat top, and were not burial chambers, but probably for meetings, rituals and sacrifices.

The largest would have covered 15 acres! They could be made of mud because they hardly ever get rain here. Also, mud is flexible if earthquakes strike. Lima is the second driest capital in the world, after Cairo. Water shortages are common, and over 10% of the city is not connected to running water. 20% of the city is classed as shanty town.

Then we headed downtown to the old heart of Lima, which was a wonderful surprise of elegant plazas and beautiful colonial buildings.

Founded by Spanish Conquistador, Pisarro in 1535, This city was the most important in South America for many years, controlling trade and Government in all the other conquered countries.

One week previously, the Government had made the central square, Plaza des Armas, pedestrianised, so it was even quite peaceful.

The fountain is very famous. Throughout the trip we have drunk many Pisco sours, based on the grape brandy Pisco. In July, peruvians celebrate Pisco day, when the fountain runs, not with water, but Pisco, and people queue for a free drink!

Government house reminded us of Buckingham Palace… and then we were told they have Changing of the guard each day!

The other main square is Plaza San Martin, named after Jose San Martin, who liberated them from Spanish rule in 1824.

Many of the old houses in Lima were famous for their beautiful wooden balconies.

We also visited the ornate church of Las Nazarenas,

and the Santo Domingo convent, which is where this first University of Lima was founded.

The convents all had beautiful ancient libraries.

This dais is where students had to read out 3 hour, prepared dissertations to their examiners!

The cloisters were beautiful, with original Spanish tiles dating from 1606.

Our next visit was to a the oldest private house in Lima, which has been lived in by the Aliaga family since 1535. It is a living museum, and was beautiful.

Much of the wall covering, and chair backs, was tooled leather.

We visited the old railway station,

and an old hotel bar, with Spanish wall paintings, photos of old Lima, and a barman who has worked there for over 70 years!

The final highlight was the church and monastery San Francisco, with it’s moorish influenced architecture.

It is most famous for the catacombs. Their construction is so strong, that they are a designated earthquake shelter. Tens of thousands of people are buried here, and the bones are all grouped in rather weird ways!! This intricate pattern is in a huge well, and is composed of femurs and skulls!

Despite this rather macabre spot, we loved Lima, and our guide Cindy said she has seen many improvements here during her lifetime.

We knew that in the 70s 80s and 90s Peru was in the dark period of attacks from its rebel Shining Path terrorist, communist party. However we didn’t realise that tourism in Peru did not really get going again until 2007, so is relatively new.

Sadly, now it was time to head to the airport for our flight home, ending this amazing trip.

We know we are so lucky to have been able to explore this captivating and diverse continent. On the flight home we discussed our overall impressions.

Everyone we met was friendly, helpful, proud of their country, and interested in us. We never felt unsafe.

No upset tummies or nasty insect bites!

We met very few other British people, suggesting it is not a mainstream destination for us, which is a shame.

Most countries were similar in price to home for food, accommodation etc.

Travelling was easier than we expected, and food was great however there is immense poverty, and a huge divide in living conditions etc.

Corruption seems to be rife at all levels in society, from Governments downwards.

Women often seemed to work ridiculously hard, but are a long way from having equality in financial remuneration or status.

Despite the vast size and diversity of the continent, we felt we witnessed more similarities than differences between countries!

We covered 29,358 miles and enjoyed everywhere we visited.

We have tried to pick some favourites because that it what everyone asks us, but it is so difficult.

Favourite countries?

Chris: Chile, Ecuador

Anne: Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Cuba, Bolivia… all of them really!

Best overall moments?

Chris: Cape Horn; Under Iguasu Falls in a rib; Machu Pichu; Cloud forest rare birds; Perito Moreno glacier;

Anne: Seeing Machu Pichu from above; Cape Horn in Force 10; Snorkelling with sea lions and sea turtles; The colour, noise and vivacity of Cuba; The remoteness and solitude of Tierra del Fuego/Patagonia.

Favourite Wildlife experience?

Chris: Swimming with sea turtles, Galapagos

Anne: Frigate birds, Galapagos

Favourite scenery experience?

Chris: Iguasu falls, Glacier Alley

Anne: Perito Moreno Glacier,

Where would you most like to go back to?

Chris: Chile

Anne: Argentina and Bolivia

Thank you for reading our diary, and we hope you have enjoyed coming along with us on our trip.

We would recommend any of these countries for a visit, just use common sense, and please, use local tour companies, guides, accommodation and transport whenever you can, so the local community benefit from your visit. See you next time! XX

South America Post 14 Perfect Peru Part 2 – Cusco and a special train!

Sad to leave the Sacred Valley, we headed for Cusco, located at 11,510ft, staying 1 night at the lovely old Andean Wings hotel, formerly a Spanish villa. Breathing was noticeably harder here, and most hotels have oxygen available.Cusco means navel, because it was the centre and capital of the Inca kingdom, which at it’s height stretched to Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina. We had just 1 day, so chose to do an excellent walking tour with Inka Milky Way! Our guide was excellent, it is a beautiful city and we learned so much.There were once 15 Inca palaces in Cusco, but when the Spanish came, they demolished them, and used the stones to build Spanish colonial style buildings and churches.One Inca wall remains, plus recently discovered Inca Palace foundations, showing a symmetrical pattern of rooms, and a water system.Outside town is Sacsayhuaman, an Inca citadel with amazing walls all with the mortar less construction.Later, I visited the Cathedral, which is really 3 churches in one. The Gold and silver decoration is dazzling, as were the intricately carved wooden choir stalls and screen.We have been learning how, when the Spanish invaded, they imposed Catholicism on the local people. Many adopted it, but retained their allegiance to their original deities, gods of Sun, Moon and Patcha Mamma, or mother earth. So it is not unusual to see Inca imagery and local customs entwined with Catholic symbolism in churches. In Peru, Guinea pig, or Cuy, is a very popular food. (We have eaten Llama , Alpaca but resisted the temptation of Cuy..partly because it is very expensive!) To return to the cathedral, inside is a huge painting in Rennaissance style, done in about 1750 by local artist Marcos Zapata.However the food in the painting is not fishes and bread, but Guinea pig and potatoes!! No photos were allowed, but I sneaked these!Following our tour, we embarked on a cookery course. Jesus took us on a very informative tour of the market, which was built by Gustav Eiffel! Outside, he explained that street food is a main way to eat in Peru, and many people will take meals this way, especially breakfast.Inside the market, masks were popular. These were designs from the past when the locals mimicked their Spanish rulers, depicting them with big noses and moustaches!These were some of the highlights:The jelly stall… including a creamy cow bone marrow one!Many different potatoes… including ones which are freeze dried by being left outside, high on the altiplano, where it is hot in the day and below freezing at night. They keep forever. Just rehydrate and use.Drying is a very popular method of preservation. This rather unappetizing stall sold very dried fish!Every part of the pig is eaten.And not for the squeamish, aborted Llama fetuses are dried, and sold to be used as offerings to the Gods.Many varieties of Quinoa…. (now we know it is officially pronounced ‘keenwah’), which we saw growing everywhere…it is very pretty crop.55 varieties of corn, and popcorn is hugely popular (excuse the pun!)We bought many exotic fruits and vegetables, and returned to his studio for our cooking class.First, and most important how to make the perfect Pisco Sour.Then we made: 3 types of Ceviche.. raw fish cooked simply by placing it in citrus based marinade. All were gorgeous.Then, a potato souffle, Quinoa Risotto and a 3 fruit dessert.It was good fun and yummy!Next day and another adventure. I had booked tickets on the recently revived 10.5 hour train trip up through the Andes from Cusco up to Puno, on Lake Titicaca (12,650 feet). We splashed out at £150 each, but we had no idea what to expect, and as you know, Chris loves trains, so it was an early Anniversary present.It was fantastic. The time literally flew by! A beautiful train with a partly open observation car made viewing the stunning scenery a real pleasure.As we travelled there was frequent tooting, as there are no level crossings, and people, animals and vehicles freely cross the tracks. Not everyone was happy… dogs howled and many children covered their ears!!Plantain and corn nibbles, plus tea coffee and water were freely available. Then, welcome Pisco sours (at 10.30 am!!), really superb local musicians and dancers who did 2 different shows, and a fashion show of baby alpaca clothing!Audience participation was actively encouraged.The guitarist was a secret rocker, and we had the slightly surreal experience of him launching into Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry numbers between the Panpipes!!A great 3 course lunch, with wine, and afternoon tea were all included in the price.And, the loveliest toilets, kept spotlessly clean throughout. Take note British railways!We also stopped at the highest point on the route, at 4,139 metres or 13,698 feet where we were able to buy some handicrafts made by local people.We passed through Peru’ Guinea pig breeding heartland, and learned that 65 million are consumed here each year!We literally drove though the market in Juliaca, and as we passed, stalls were re-erected on the track. Many things were left between the rails for us to pass over. As soon as the train had gone, the track was filling up again. But Peru, like most South American countries, has a massive poverty problem. A close look showed large sections of the market selling things we would throw away as rubbish.Decrepit housing – 22% of peruvians have no direct water supply! And these shacks are the toilets for the nearby housing.We also saw people washing clothes in the rather murky river.Throughout our trip we have seen terrible poverty, and social divisions, but again in Peru we were told that by using local firms and small businesses, we were helping the economy, and reaching the lower paid in the society.Still, we felt guilty, returning to our lovely journey! We arrived in the city of Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in the dark, and were taken by taxi to Mirador de Titicaca… our hotel. We knew it was a little out of town, but not that it was up an almost vertical dirt road!!We knew we were high, as we were out of breath just walking to the loo!! It turned out we were just over 4,000 metres! Luckily, apart from a slight headache, tiredness and breathlessness, we escaped the worst side effects of being at such a high altitude. It is a very real problem, and most hotels, and the train, have oxygen cylinders at the ready.Apparently, at this height, oxygen saturation drops to 65-75%. Normally, doctors get worried below 94%! The hotel was lovely, but we would have to wait until morning for a view of the highest navigable lake in the world!

South America Post 13 Perfect Peru Part 1

Arriving to Lima late in the evening, I had booked a night at an airport hotel before our 08.00am flight to Cusco, high in the Andes. At Cusco, we were met by Pablo, who taxied us 90 minutes into the Sacred Valley.

We were staying at a B&B called Lizzi Wasi, in Urubamba. Lizzi, from the US, is married to a Peruvian, and has created a fabulous oasis of rooms in lovely gardens, centrally located in the Sacred Valley.

It is a perfect base from which to explore this Inca heartland, using fairly inexpensive taxis. Located at over 9,000 feet, we ‘rested’ for a few hours before our first trip, to Pisac. A charming village of cobbled streets, gardens and colourful local markets.

After a great lunch at Bistro Terra we drove up the steep valley sides until some remarkable Inca terracing came into view.

We climbed impossibly higher until we reached the old Inca settlement. Walking to the top made us feel about 120 yeas old, as we huffed and puffed due to the altitude. It was incredible to see.

The Incas were active here between 1425 and 1540. They had no written language, and had not invented the wheel, yet their settlements involved transporting building materials over great distances, and up huge mountains, and were quite sophisticated, especially in their water transportation and bathing arrangements! This was a line of separate pools!

This hillside was the cemetery. Each hole is a burial site.

Back to Lizzi Wasi for a good night’s sleep, but en route we also saw many Adobe blocks and Adobe houses being built in the countryside.

Next morning, off to see 3 major Inca sites. The fortress and town at Ollantaytambo was huge and impressive. Climbing to the top was exhausting, but rewarding!

Again, the bathing areas were sophisticated.

The most remarkable structure is the temple de la sol which was never finished. Unused granite slabs litter the ground, and 6 huge monoliths create a wall. However did they get these up here?

This is the huge wall which was built to block the valley, and which they used to dam the river and then flood the valley, in the Incas only significant victory over the advancing Spaniards.

Here we also visited a charity for girls that a friend had worked at some years before. Girls in poor, remote communities in the high Andes often receive no education at all. Thanks to the Sacred Valley Project, they can stay in dormitories under the care if a house mother, go to school and have help with their homework. We were made really welcome!

We also drove high into the mountains again to visit 2 incredible sites. Firstly the Maras Salt mines. A spring here has an unusually salty composition. Since 200 AD local pre-inca people have recognised the potential, and created over 5000 mini salt pans, in terraces down the mountainside.

Over 3,000 are still worked today, and demand is now global. Pink Himalayan salt is hailed as the most healthy, and a recent study has shown that the Pink salt from here is even better! All the pans are still worked by hand, and it was like taking a step back in time nearly 2,000 years! The photos do not do the enormous scale of this justice. From here, we drove to Moray, where another remarkable Inca creation was cut into the earth.

To Get an idea of scale, look for the people in the above picture!!

Much larger, and deeper than the pictures show, this incredible construction appears to have a scientific purpose. It is exposed to all aspects of the sun, shade and wind, and has temperature differences of up to 15 degrees difference from top to bottom. There are various theories as to its purpose, but soil, seed and plant traces have been found on different levels, and different orientations. Most scientists believe that this was an agricultural laboratory for testing crops in different soil’s and microclimate, so they could make the best use of each part of the empire. Even more remarkably, there is evidence that they practised hybridization, developing new strains of vegetables like potatoes that were better suited to prevailing conditions. The outcome is that Peru has over 4,000 varieties of Potato, and they feature in some way in most meals. We were left so impressed by everything we had seen today.

An early start on Wednesday saw us driving back to Ollantaytambo to catch the train to Aguas Calientes, and Machu Picchu. The weather forecast was bad so we prepared ourselves for looking at low cloud and rain and saying “Well that is where it should be!”

The train journey follows the Sacred Valley and was stunning at every turn.

Aguas Calientes reminded us of an Alpine village with cute bins!

It’s little church had an Andean take on the traditional Mary and Jesus statue!

We had to queue for buses to drive up the mountain at our set entry time. The flow of visitors is always increasing – potentially over 2 million visitors per year – and the authorities and UNESCO are constantly battling between protection of this modern wonder of the world, and commercial profitability. We could see the clouds gathering as we ascended and we just hoped the rain would hold off for a while. The road twisted and turned, climbing steadily for 30 minutes. Surely nothing could be up here?

Then, we glimpsed a few terraces, still high above us, with the valley far below.

On entering the site, we chose to climb high above it, up towards the Sun gate, and then walk in down the old Inca trail, seeing it as the original visitors would have done.

This was a great choice. The view from above really gives you a sense of how remarkable this lost city is. I confess, I became quite emotional!

The city was abandoned in 1572 as the Incas fled from the Spanish, who never found it, and it remained undiscovered until the American, Hiram Bingham arrived in 1911. Well, undiscovered except for the 2 tribal families who were living here, totally unaware of it’s significance!! Sadly, during excavations, the treasures were removed and taken to museums around the world, but the city is still remarkably complete.

As we descended to the city itself, the heavens opened, but it allowed us to see Machu Picchu in all her colours, and it was truly atmospheric as cloud swirled around.

Our guide thought looking for shelter was unnecessary, so we learned about life here while getting progressively wetter.

(It didn’t help that one of my boots had torn in Tierra del Fuego, and the repair was failing, AND my trusty Berghaus waterproofs decided 12 years was enough and sprang some leaks!)

Machu Picchu contains housing, temples, meeting areas and an extensive agricultural section of terraces cascading down. They had complex irrigation and drainage systems which we witnessed in action, as water cascaded through gullies and into a central canal. Inca building techniques are remarkable. Machu Picchu was built without metal tools, the wheel or mortar! Granite is cut along natural fault lines, and then polished into blocks using coarse sand. They are smooth, and are fitted together with no mortar at all. The walls all recline slightly, for earthquake resistance!

Astrology and earth rhythms play a huge role in Inca culture. Temples are built to receive shafts of sun through windows on solstice and equinox days . These were used as signs for the next agricultural season. Planting, harvesting etc.

This immense sundial was used in the same way. Unfortunately visitors cannot get close to it, after it was broken by a crane falling on it during the filming of a beer commercial in 2000.

This was a sacrificing table.

This was the temple of the Condor.

This huge slab is cut to be the shape of the sacred mountain behind.

We left this amazing site in mid afternoon, completely awestruck. We had 3 hours to wait for our train back, so we found Mapacho, a recommended cafe / craft brewery, and decided to have a 3 course meal, to spin out the time and let us warm up. Chris was very happy!

The Urubamba river was roaring past the open windows, adding drama!

We moved to the station waiting room, still dripping, and suddenly heard our names being called. On reporting to the man with clipboard and microphone, he told us with great delight that we had been upgraded to the first class carriage. ‘Ooh, comfy seats’ we thought! That was just the start. We were escorted to a Pullman carriage, luxuriously furnished…. and to a table set for dinner! We were served a complimentary 3 course dinner, with Pisco sours, wine and after dinner drinks all included! Despite having eaten a few hours before, we did our best!

It was a delightful end to a wonderful day. We ❤ Peru!

South America Post 12 Whistlestop SW Patagonia

Landing in remote Ushuaia, we were greeted with….Fog. Bad news because we had a 90 minute internal flight at 10.45 to El Calafate. We had just one afternoon there, and so we were being met by a taxi who was driving us 90 minutes to see the Perito Moreno glacier. Cutting the story short, we landed at 4pm, 4 hours late and had given up all hope of the glacier. But we had underestimated Nico, our driver. “Of course we go to glacier” he said, and we roared off across the Patagonian desert! He also gave us a running commentary on nature, geography, history and glaciation!! We drove alongside stunningly blue Lake Argentina, 500 metres deep and 80 miles long!!

When we got to the glacier, we said we would just grab a few photos. Nico was horrified, and, thankfully, sent us off on the 90 minute marked hike, saying he would be waiting at the end. The hike was amazing, especially when we realised that what we had been looking at, was just one third of the glacier.

For us, it was one of the highest high spots in a high spot filled trip.

The glacier covers 35 square miles, is 3 miles wide, and is 240 feet high. It is advancing, which is good, but losing density, which is bad. It created, groaned and fractured, making us jump with sounds like rifle shots. It calved, with huge splashes creating large waves, and I could have watched it all night.

We left at 7pm for the return drive. When we tried to thank Nico, he answered “No. I should Thank You. I haven’t been here in the evening for a long time, and I had forgotten how beautiful it is”. How lovely was that!

Back in El calafate we stayed at La Cantera hotel which was cosy and warm! Out for supper to a traditional Disco restaurant. Nothing to do with 70’s dancing! A disco is a casserole dish, and the pan cooked dishes are made to share. Our beef disco was delicious!


We fell into bed, ready for another early start, including a breakfast whose buffet included lemon meringue pie – apparently a Peruvian national dish!

Then a bus trip 250kms across the border into Chile, and a tour of the stunning Torres Del Paine national park. The low cloud meant we didn’t see the really high peaks, but this amazingly remote place is so beautiful.

The waterfalls were wonderful,

We saw lots of guanaco. Related to Llama, they are fascinating. You often see single guanaco on hilltops.

They are older males who can no longer reproduce, and who taking on the role of sentinels, warning of predators. You also come across large piles of poo, because the whole group choose, and use, 1 toilet area so that they don’t contaminate the grass. We also saw rheas, and this lovely red fox, who seemed bemused by us.

We stayed in the national park, and had a final morning trip and walk in this super landscape.

before catching 2 buses to travel 300km back to Punta Arenas. We stayed at our lovely Air bnb again, and were greeted with hugs, like old friends! Next day, a flight north to Santiago, and on to Lima, Peru for the last part of our adventure!

South America Post 8 Rio de Janeiro

From lush greenery and peaceful bird filled mountains, we took connecting flights via Bogota to Rio de Janeiŕo. We flew in over the huge bay, at 5.30am on a cloudy rainy morning. We had just 1 night in Rio so had to make the most of our time here, despite a serious lack of sleep. We got to our hotel, the lovely Ipanema Inn, at 8.20 am. Our guide Marcio, who I had found on TripAdvisor, arrived at 8.50! The rain stopped. “Come on”, he cried, “I have booked the train up the mountain to see Christ the Redeemer!”. We sped off in his car, driving past sandy Ipanema beach and then the more touristy Copacacbana beach, which still had some sand sculptures from Carneval. As we drove, Marcio shared his wealth of knowledge about the history and culture of Rio.

The girl from Ipanema, who inspired the song, is apparently still alive and in her eighties! Each neighbourhood has it’s own pattern of mosaic pavements

The cloud was slightly higher, but then a sudden rain shower would explode from the sky. We caught the funicular train up the 2,400 foot Mount Corcovado expecting to see very little. As we reached the top, the clouds parted, and there it was. The 100 foot high statue that has looked benevolently down at Rio from on high since 1931.

Its arms span 92 feet and had to be built without scaffolding! It is impressive, and a close look shows it is covered with a mosaic of soapstone tiles. The view is amazing, although Rio’s other famous high point, the Sugarloaf mountain, remained shrouded in cloud.

Also through cloud we saw the famous Maracana football stadium which holds the record for the largest attendance at a football match… 200,000 who watched the Unthinkable. Uruguay beat Brazil in the World Cup Final in 1950. Apparently the end of the match was characterised by stunned silence!!

Rio the city has a population of 6.4 million, and it threads it’s way between many high, forest clad mountains, a fact we had not appreciated. Many parts are white, highrise blocks, or houses, which contrast with the distinct, large, lower rise clusters of reddish buildings, which are the Favelas, there are over 100 of these districts in Rio.

Favelas are historically where the poorer people live, and their key feature is that the people ‘squatted’ on the land, built a shack there, and then, after a certain number of years, gained the right to the land. Many of them built upwards, one room at a time. The favelas are mostly in less desirable parts of town, often climbing up mountainside, with just paths, not roads, although one ended up surrounded by grand buildings, and the land is worth a lot! Favelas were dangerous places, where cartels and gangs ruled, but a recent police initiative has apparently improved things in some of them. Favelas were also home to the Samba, and most dance schools are still located there. Marcio drove us through a favela as we went to Barra, a beautiful beach, which hardly anyone goes to because there aren’t enough bars and restaurants, and for the Brazilians, beach going is a big social event!

We visited Parque Lage , now a national park, a garden designed for a French family in 1840 by English landscape designer John Tyndale. He used local rainforest plants, but incorporated the very Victorian features of follies and grotto, complete with fake stalactites!!

The house was lovely, with Christ the Redeemer towering behind it, and is used as an arts centre. On to Leblon, a lovely beach area, for lunch at a Kilo restaurant.

A huge serve yourself buffet, where your plate is weighed at the end, and you pay per gram! Desserts too!

Fun and delicious! Then, as we walked and drove, Marcio pointed out beautiful churches, art deco buildings, museums, schools and military buildings, and the stunning theatre colon, many in grand architectural styles with heavy Spanish influence.

He explained how different groups had colonised the city over time, each bringing their culture and food. Tapas from the Spanish, different grains and breads from the native people . After Marcio left us, we walked on Ipanema beach under dramatic skies, and paddled in the south western Atlantic Ocean!

Then a fabulous supper at Zaza’s Bistro, and we collapsed into bed at 10.00!

Next day, Marcio was back at 8.00am! We headed straight to Sugarloaf Mountain. So lucky. Today this was in clear sky, but Christ the Redeemer was completely hidden.

Two cable cars take you up 2000 feet to a great viewpoint over the bay, city and beaches.

We then witnessed a miraculous apparition!!

Then, we were taken to the centro, business district where modern skyscrapers mix with old streets and churches. The modern cathedral is, well, weird! Meant to represent a modern take on Mayan architecture, to us it was ghastly from outside, but strangely peaceful within, and holds 20,000 people!

In contrast, we went to the Sao Bento church, built around 1600 as part of a monastery. It was stunning.

Then we visited the famous tiled steps, created gradually by artist Escadaria Selaron, who lived in a house on the steps.

He became obsessed with his task, tiling the side walls as well, often with tiles from all around the world, sent by visitors. Sadly, a few years ago, he committed suicide on the steps, but they are hugely popular, (especially apparently since Snoop Dog visited!), and serve as his rather bizarre memorial.


A quick dash back to collect our cases, then off the the airport by 1.30!! We loved Rio, and, thanks to Marcio, saw an amazing amount in our short visit here!!

South America Post 6 The Amazon Rainforest.

(Please allow time for photos to load!!)

‘Amazon Rainforest’ evokes wonderful images of a huge, fast flowing, muddy river surrounded by towering, dense rainforest teeming with life. We knew we had to visit. Although the fact that the teeming life includes a vast array of insects, spiders and snakes was slightly disconcerting.

The Amazon basin is vast, covering an area nearly equal to the whole USA. It extends into 8 countries. The Amazon river is formed from several main rivers and many small tributaries, all originating in the Andes.

There is some dispute as to which is the longest river in the world between the Amazon, Nile and Mississipi. The Amazon is over 4000 miles long. What is not disputed is that in terms of volume of water, the Amazon wins hands down. It’s estuary is 205 miles wide, and it discharges over 200,000 cubic metres of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean PER SECOND!!

Our easiest access point was in Ecuador. Easy being a relative term.

We took a local flight over the Andes to Coca. There we were met by the wonderful staff from La Selva eco lodge. It was Carnaval fiesta day. The locals were enjoying themselves, spraying foam and water everywhere!

For us, the next 4 days were to be some of the most amazing travelling we have done.

Firstly, 50 miles down the huge, brown, fast running Napo river in an open sided motorised canoe dodging sandbanks and floating trees!

Then a walk through jungle to a still and silent chocolate brown creek, where paddle canoes waited to take us on a mystical 20 minute ride into a huge lagoon.

Our lodge was at the far end. This is the only way here. No roads. Everything, supplies, water, fuel, laundry is transported by boat, 3.5 hours to Coca.

I will confess that after reading horror stories of people waking up with tarantulas on their pillows in the budget rainforest accommodation, I did go for something a bit more comfortable, but didn’t realise how super La Selva would be.

All staff were Ecuadorian, and many were from the local community. Our room (and loo!) had no windows… just mesh to let air in and keep bugs out. Temperature is between 75 and 95 degrees F all year round. Humidity is 80% plus.

The food was amazing, and locally sourced. Everything was quietly organised like a well oiled machine. We were issued rubber boots which hardly left our feet for the next 3 days.

The high humidity meant we got used to a permanent damp feel to both us and all our clothes!

The solitude and silence were immense. Especially at night. It was almost overwhelming. Then it would be broken by bird song or the eerie sound of the Howler monkeys, or warring Caymans in the lake.

Every day, and night, we were taken out in our small group of just 7. Us, and 5 lovely people from Massachusetts, USA. Hello ladies!!

We had Edwin, a Naturalist, plus Medardo, an unbelievably eagle eyed native guide, with us all the time.

They pointed out things we would never have seen, and constantly explained fascinating details about the wildlife, and also the plants and trees, and their uses, especially in natural medicine. This fungus is peeled apart to reveal a cool gel used to treat burns.

This black sap heals wounds.

This seed case is a comb, and the leaf below can be folded and twisted without it breaking. One use is to wrap food before cooking.

This is a place for people who can be ‘Wowed’ by tiny things and details. There are relatively few mammals, many of which are highly reclusive, so sightings are unlikely.But the tiny things are incredible. Tiny frogs and toads with amazing leaf coloured camouflage….

Then turn them over and WOW!!

We loved the fact that nothing was stage managed. There was no point where we felt that we saw something because it was enticed by food. Medardo would swiftly pounce and suddenly be holding a frog, but never harmed them at all. Everything was wild and natural. The guides were as excited as we were when something was spotted.

I had to curb my natural desire to jump up and down and squeal with excitement!!

We started in at the deep end with a night walk. Head torches and bug spray on, we set off.

Our photos often don’t convey size, but believe me, some of the insects were HUGE… just as many frogs were tiny.

These bugs were 4 inches long!

This was the weirdest Caterpillar ever!!!

We saw capuchin monkeys, too fast to photograph!
The highlight was 2 Tarantulas. The bigger one scuttled into it’s hole, but this one was more obliging!

At about 5 inches across, I mentally thanked myself for booking the better accommodation. Phew!

The next few days were spent doing various jungle walks and canoe rides. Here are pictures of some of the creatures we saw.

This is a Howatzin, a large and very unique bird. No links to any other species, they eat semi toxic leaves, and therefore exude a terrible smell! They can dive underwater to escape predators, and young birds have hooks on their wings so they can climb around in trees!

The great Tinamou is very elusive. This one was asleep…with eyes open.

These were Howler monkeys, hanging on with long prehensile tails. Their eerie calls could be heard echoing around the forest.

The Great Potoo…

A spectacled owl!

The jungle is a place of survival. Camouflage is one defence. This is a toad!

Large numbers and team work are another. These ants worked as a team to carry this insect leg.

Some ants were huge. The bullet ant is feared. It is an inch long.

This Is a huge Owls eye butterfly…. confusing to predators

Or Maybe have viciously sharp spines….

Or enough poison to put a human in hospital, although you are less than 1cm long….

Or Just be horribly sneaky… this fungus seeps in through the insects pores, grows inside it, reaches it’s brain and turns it into a sort of zombie. The insect then walks to the sort of location which is ideal for the fungus to grow, and dies. 😱

Or just walk away! This is the walking tree. It apparently searches for light by casting fast growing roots in the direction of the light. It then loses the roots on the darker side and literally ‘walks’, possibly up to 8 metres in a year.

The lodge has a tree top tower which was so much higher than I expected, and every step and landing was metal that allowed you to see down.

My vertigo screamed NO!However I used NLP and somehow got up all 120 feet of it. We still weren’t at the top of the canopy but it was sensational.

There was a beautiful double toothed kite building a nest in the Kapok tree we had climbed, and we saw lots of birds around us! Magical. Getting down was accomplished by following Chris and singing ‘Walking on Sunshine’ to myself! My mantra song!

When rain or land slips occur, they sometimes expose mineral rich seams in the clay riverbank. These ‘Clay licks’ are then frequented by hundreds of parrots, who use the minerals to counter digestive disturbances brought on by consuming certain seeds and fruits.

We were lucky enough to witness this, and also stunning Macaws visiting a freshwater spring. Beautiful but unbelievably noisy and argumentative!!

We also visited the local community, and amongst other things, tried blowpipe blowing!

Our lodge leases land from them and supports their education and health programmes. Many of the lodge staff are from the village.

Our final night included a canoe paddle in pitch darkness to see night fishing bats and the Caymans, …or at least see their eyes reflecting back in the torch beam. The largest can grow to 9 feet long and they hunt at night. Rotten picture but you can see the body outline and the eyes!!

The lake also contains Pirhanas. We tried fishing for them, with beef as bait! Despite lots of nibbles, and a nearly catch for Chris, I have to show you the one caught by our guide! Eek! Those teeth!

Now we are being paddled silently along the chocolate creek for the last time.

Everyone seems lost in their own thoughts, genuinely sad to leave this magical, faraway place.

(Our remoteness was brought home to us when, after nearly 4 hours boating upstream, we arrived in Coca to find our flight back to Quito was cancelled due to storms. Edwin organised a bus, and within 30 minutes we embarked on a 6 hour road trip across the Andes!!

Our transfer to our next destination, in the cloud Forest, had waited at the airport, and then drove us through torrential rain and lightening for 2.5 hours. We arrived at 9pm after 14 hours of adventure!!! )

South America Post 5 The Galapagos Islands

Leaving Cuba, we had a stopover in Bogota, Colombia where we sampled some traditional food and beer!

Then, off to the Galapagos Islands……. What can I say? Well, being me, lots, of course!!

Our desire to visit was mainly fuelled by awesome documentaries, and impossibly close up photos of unique birds and animals made famous by Charles Darwin among others. There are really just 2 ways to visit. Water based on a cruise, or land based. Anyone who knows me will know that, despite having the best travel sickness pills ever, 9 days on board a very small boat (many have just 8 or 10 small cabins), in notoriously rough seas, 24/7, is a step too far! Water based tours also start at about double the price of land based, so it was an easy choice. We chose a smaĺl, locally based company – Guiding Galapagos and together planned an itinerary mixing geography, local culture and of course wildlife.

We were based on 2 different islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela, a 2 hour high speed ferry ride apart. The ferries are somewhat cramped,

On transfer day we had 2 sudden tropical cloud bursts. One as we were going to the boat on Santa Cruz, and one as we arrived on Isabela island. Everyone, and their luggage, were drenched both times!

We were shown to our new hotel room as the staff were mopping up a large pool of water from the floor, smiling and saying “The rain sometimes comes in!!” Trying to dry our clothes was tricky in 80% humidity, and we were a bit fed up, until we saw this sign in the beach bar.

So true, and it put a few wet clothes back into perspective.

Our accommodation was in small locally run hotels, both clean and comfortable. On Isabela it was the Volcano hotel, almost on the beach, renowned for sunsets. It did not disappoint!

The Galapagos archipelago comprises 21 islands, mostly uninhabited, which straddle the equator, so tropical insects can be a problem. There were actually very few! Another invasion of minuscule ants in true Tom and Jerry style lines was passed off by our hosts with… ‘Don’t worry, they are not offensive’. Well, true, they weren’t hurling abuse at us, but we didn’t want them in our bags, so we used our Boots non deet eco friendly insect repellent at the entry point which seemed to deter them!! We also had the tiniest in room gecko on patrol. Spot the gecko!!

It is amazing how something so tiny can make so much noise!

The islands are in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 1000 km east of mainland Ecuador. They are heavily influenced by prevailing sea currents. The cold Humbolt current coming from Antarctica brings many fish, and this encourages the birds etc. El Nino years are disastrous here, because it prevents the cold current reaching the islands, so there are many less fish, birds cannot breed, and the food chain is in trouble.

There is no drinkable freshwater on Galapagos at all, which is probably why it was not really settled until the 19th Century, despite being ‘discovered’ in 1535. All water here is either bottled or purified.

Darwin came in 1835, and his observations that the animals and birds were unique, and appeared to have adapted and evolved according to their island environment, led to him proposing the theory of evolution, and writing The Origin of the Species. And the rest, as they say, is history!

The islands are now a National Park, full of wonders. Not always the most colourful or dramatic creatures on earth, but definitely unique. For example 15 species of little Darwin finches, each adapted to have a different food source and habitat to ensure survival. This is the nest of a cactus finch.

There are few natural predators here, so many creatures are fearless. We were standing within a few feet of many of the birds and animals we photographed.

The biggest predators were, and are, man himself and his introduced creatures… rats, dogs, cats etc. 35,000 people live on the islands, and balancing their needs with the protected National Park status is tricky and at times, controversial. For example local people are resentful that they are no longer allowed to fish from their own islands due to the protected status, so must pay high prices in the shops.

The wildlife are the stars. Giant tortoises are incredible.

He is eating apples!! Some live to be 150 years old. However they have a managed breeding programme, because in the wild less than 1% of eggs will reach maturity, mainly due to the predators I mentioned. Amazingly, eggs incubated at 28°C will be Male. 29.5°C, female!! Large Male tortoises can be 4ft long, weigh up to 350 kg, and walk several km a day!

The Galapagos islands are volcanic, and are moving eastwards by 5cms a year, as the Nazca plate drifts. Some Volcanoes are active. We climbed to the rim of Sierra Negra, the 2nd largest Caldera in the world. It erupted just last year, for 54 days, and fumaroles were smoking on our visit.

We visited 6 islands, using boats every day. Sea lions are everywhere, literally!!

We also did some hikes, and kayaking, with sea turtles popping up around us!

Amazingly, my vintage 1990’s swimsuits were worn almost every day, and I gradually became more adept at snorkelling. I jumped off the side of boats and RIBS, and paddled around in deep, open seawater, with big waves! I even swam around an island…. with a life jacket on! The fish were lovely.

but we also snorkelled with huge Sea Turtles, 1.5 m sharks, Rays, Sea lions, and even saw an incredibly well camouflaged Sea horse. It was fantastic.

This is a trench where sharks come to rest during the day!!

Some of the most astonishing creatures are the Iguanas. Living dinosaurs. Marine Iguanas blend in with the black lava rock, or grey stones.

They sleep a lot, often in bunches! They sound as if they are hissing at you, but in fact they must regularly sneeze out salt!

Land Iguanas are golden yellow. They frequently shed their skin, so look rather threadbare, but I thought they were stunning.

They have no predators as adults, but are prone to dehydration…. this one literally dried out in the heat. 30°C most days.

There are some gorgeous beaches – Tortuga and Bachas were our favourites, complete with fresh turtle tracks, and newly hatched eggs.

Crabs abound and are a food source for the super seabirds.

One of the most unlikely is the unique Galapagos penguin which has adapted to live, not in Antarctica, but on the equator!

There is also a Galapagos flamingo. Both sexes of bird have the amazing capability of producing milk to feed their young.

We never tired of watching Brown Pelicans, Blue footed Boobies, Noddies and Terns diving into the sea a few metres away.

On Isabela island, we visited Los Tuneles, an other world landscape of hollow marine lava tunnels and cacti!

There we encountered a female blue footed Booby a few feet from the path. She was singing for a mate.

Amazingly, a Male arrived and did his courtship dance right in front of us! It obviously wasn’t good enough, because she didn’t respond, so he flew away dejectedly (we assume!!).

The next day, this encounter was topped. North Seymour island is home to the Great and Magnificent Frigate birds. Last season’s young were everywhere, being fed by parents who regurgitate food for them.

It was breeding season. The males spend 2 hours inflating a huge red neck pouch, and boom with it to attract a mate. It is exhausting!

They were everywhere, and remarkably were within feet of us. Breathtaking!!

Our visit to Galapagos was wonderful. We had good food, (especially fish), met some lovely people from many countries (hardly any fellow Brits!), and were blown away by the wildlife. There were some quirky things… the in car phone for example!

I even managed to take a Turner-esque sunrise shot!

One word for Galapagos… Incredible!