After a recommendation from the B&B owner in Panama City (more on Panama City in a later blog), we booked onto a 2-night trip to the Kuna Yala region and the San Blas archipelago that is strung along its Caribbean coast. Access to the islands, which are owned by the indigenous Kuna people, is by 4×4 and then boat, but by late morning we’d arrived at our new island home.

We’ve never been anywhere that meets the stereotypical ideal of tropical paradise quite so well. Some islands are built up with houses competing for space and hanging out over the water, but most are still just piles of sand with coconut trees on them – perhaps with a bamboo-and-palm hut or two.

The island we stayed on was about 80m in diameter, took 5 minutes to walk around and had 6 huts on it. Our hut had a sand floor, a basic bed, a slightly damp and musty mattress, a mosquito net and 2 torches. Dinners (lobster – a delicacy in other parts of the world, but standard fare here) were eaten by the light of torches, the stars and the campfire we built!

In the mornings, we toured other islands by boat – one with starfish all around its sandy shores, one that was only about 20m across and just big enough for half a dozen coconut trees, one with a shipwreck just offshore. We snorkelled around the wreck for an hour or so, admiring the coral and fish that had gathered around it. In the afternoons and evenings we relaxed in hammocks listening to the sound of the waves and the thuds of falling ripe coconuts – one of which Alex laboriously husked & opened – or chatted and played cards with our new Israeli friends – the only other tourists on the island.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the area, but after 2 days and nights with no running water (fresh or otherwise) and no electricity (so no fans or A/C to keep us cool on the very muggy nights) we were quite glad to return to our excellent B&B (Mediterranean Dreams) in Panama City and have a much-needed shower. Who’d have thought that two days would ever be enough in paradise!

More photos here.

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Sunset over Miraflores (HDR)Well, only Miraflores really. We had a little over 24 hours in Lima and had decided to base ourselves in the Miraflores district after recommendations from friends. We saw our first proper supermarket in over a month, watched the sun set and ate pizza (which we have done more often than we thought we would on this trip). We had plans to head into the city centre to see some of the older buildings, but 14-hour days of travel before and after put us off such adventures and we just enjoyed those things within walking distance.

One more photo here.

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We were looking forward to a hassle and planning free 6 day tour of the Northern Highlands of Peru – the only tour we’ve booked on these travels. During a 10-hour drive from Tarapoto to Chacapoyas, we stopped briefly at an orchid farm (unfortunately, most of them weren’t flowering, but the hummingbirds were very impressive). We soon realised that if speaking Spanish hadn’t been that important before, it looked like it would be in the coming days. After an uneventful night in Chachapoyas, we were collected the following morning to go on a tour of Kuelap – a 1,100 year-old pre-Incan citadel on top of a 3,000m steep-sided mountain top. The three hour drive up, often with sheer drops to one side or the other, was picturesque if a little bumpy. Kuelap itself was very different from Machu Picchu – older and bigger but more overgrown and harder to appreciate its scale.

It was here that we met a German girl, Katja, who, whether through bad planning or bad luck, had missed meeting her friends for the trip. Not to be deterred, she decided to walk the “2 hours” to Kuelap on her own. After 4 or 5 hours of walking in intermittent rain, she arrived at a small village without a hostel, hotel or restaurant and realised she wasn’t going to make it that day and that she’d been misled as to how long the walk really was. She spent a very cold night in the house of a local who took pity on her and provided her with a straw bed. Leaving them the following morning, she realised that the money she carried in her purse was missing and so she set off- no food, no water, little money and no idea how she’d get back from Kuelap as it was Easter Sunday. We offered for her to join our tour and so we gained a travelling companion for a couple of days.

The ride back from Kuelap was made more interesting as not only did the car have non-functioning shock absorbers and a cracked windscreen but the wipers were partly broken – and it was raining. This meant that our driver had to physically push the wipers back down every wipe. As the ventilation was also broken and the windscreen was steaming up he was alternating between pushing the wipers back with his left hand and wiping the inside window with his right whilst still attempting to avoid the numerous pot holes and keep us from driving off the edge. Needless to say, the inevitable (but by no means worst) happened and we hit a pot hole and the front tire deflated. The driver quickly put on the spare (slick!) tyre and it was only a short while before we were off again, though none of us completely relaxed until we were back on sealed roads with no precipice to the side. The journey made arriving at Gocta, a gorgeous new lodge overlooking Gocta waterfall all the more rewarding (yes, we splurged on this). It’s not the kind of place to expect to find at the end of 5km of dirt road – a luxurious hotel whose comfortable rooms and infinity pool overlook the falls 3km away.

We spent the first full day at Gocta walking to the foot of the waterfall, which according to Lonely Planet is the third highest in the world at 771m but has only received around 2,000 visitors per year since its “discovery” in 2006. Katja joined us again and between the three of us, we managed to translate perhaps 60% of what our Spanish-speaking guide told us about the surrounding flora and fauna of the jungle/cloud forest. The information given at the hostel had said the walk was 6km return but this must have been “as the crow flies” because the one-way sweaty non-crow trip took us 2.5hrs. The return trip (much more uphill) took us much less time, but for unwanted reasons. Three quarters of the way back, Alex felt a sharp pain in his leg and looked down in time to see a small (80cm long) very dark green/black snake slither off into the undergrowth. On inspection, we could see two small blood spots where it had punctured the skin. After an agonising few minutes attempting to explain to the guide what had happened, he eventually seemed to understand and radioed the village. We were met further down the track by a man with a horse to take Alex more quickly to the village whilst Lizzy ran to the hostel to get insurance documents, phones and money. Lizzy met Alex at the local doctor’s “surgery” where we said lots of silent prayers and tried to convince ourselves that the snake probably wasn’t deadly and that, if it was, then we’d be able to get to help in time (which with hindsight, had it been, would’ve been nearly impossible).

Thankfully, Alex didn’t seem to have any immediate symptoms, which helped keep panic at bay, though this was counteracted by most of the village gathering to take a look at the gringo who’d been bitten by a snake – apparently a first for the village. Infuriatingly our guide kept trying to say that we didn’t need to worry or do anything but the village doctor, who we’d initially had little faith in as her first question was about money, agreed he should to go to the hospital. After more anxious waiting, a car eventually arrived (thankfully in much better condition than the last one we took) and we sped off to the nearest hospital an hour away. Once we had mobile phone reception, we got through to a helpful nurse at the insurance company who explained that the hospital needed to identify the snake and do a swab test to identify venom. She told us that although it was positive there were no immediate symptoms, some snake bites can take a while to kill you as they work by slowly congealing your blood (not what we wanted to hear!).

When we finally arrived at the hospital, we sat for an hour before someone wearing no uniform (doctor? nurse? patient?!) walked over, had a cursory look at Alex’s leg and seemed to indicate he was fine to go, having not followed any of the recommendations from the insurance nurse. Despite our protests, we were turned away until some people from the tourist agency (who had been called by a helpful lady from our hotel) turned up. Not only did they speak English but they ensured that Alex was seen. After the hospital staff (clearly grumpy at the tourist agency’s involvement) tokenistically cleaned the wound, they again sent us away. Giving up on the hospital and not willing to take any risks we went to a local internet cafe to try and identify the wretched snake. Whilst we failed to do so, we did manage to verify that it hadn’t been one of the 5 poisonous snakes in the region. Satisfied with that and happy that Alex was still symptom-free, now nearly 5 hours later, we returned to the hotel, physically exhausted, emotionally drained but VERY VERY VERY thankful.

More photos here (none of the snake – we weren’t that quick!)

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This high altitude Peruvian city, steeped in history and with beautiful colonial and Inca plazas was a great place to base ourselves to explore and absorb some of the local culture. It was also good to have a few days without bus trips! On our first full day we walked to two of the Inca ruins that overlook the city, Saqsaywamen & Q’enqo with their impressive 5-600 year old blockwork. After nearly 2 weeks at altitude, we both realised that we’d started to adapt as the walk didn’t leave us completely breathless. Another day was spent on a walking tour which ended at a food festival but perhaps the best day was spent at the Chocolate Museum where we did a chocolate-making workshop- complete from learning the history of chocolate, peeling and grinding the beans to choosing flavours. It was really interesting and a bonus to go away with some of our own chocolate to eat over Easter the coming weekend.

Choco-chefs!

More photos here.

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First view of Machu PicchuAfter two and a half nights in Cuzco (we had arrived at 4.30am), we caught the early bus & train to Aguas Calientes, the base for Machu Picchu. Arriving around 11am, we tried to figure out if it was worth heading up the mountain that afternoon (for an additional US$70 each) just in case the weather was truly awful the following day when we had more time to explore. In the end, steady rain was falling when we arrived at the ticket office, so we opted to save the money and take our chances the following day. As we sat reading our books that afternoon, the sky got bluer and bluer and we got less and less sure of our decision.
When we got up at 4am the next morning, the darkness obscured the mist that was obscuring pretty much everything else. The day grew lighter and the rain heavier as we got off the bus and walked to the first viewing point where we caught a glimpse of the impressive site between swathes of mist, cloud and rain. We quickly snapped some photos, hoping this wouldn’t be the best view we’d get.

First view of Machu PicchuInstead of doing the 4-day Inca Trail, we had opted to do the 2-hour ascent of Huayna Picchu which rises 360m above the famous site, offering a great overview of it (or so we hear). Arriving at the top after a steep climb, we were presented with a complete white-out and persistent rain. We sheltered in a relatively dry cave for about half an hour, but the views hadn’t improved and we were starting to get chilly from the water seeping in through our not-so-waterproofs, so we began the descent. We did snatch a few views on the way up and down, but they still didn’t allow full appreciation of the site.

Back at the entrance, we ate an early lunch and did our best to dry off in the shelter that was available. We watched as some equally bedraggled tourists headed down the mountain for a visit to the hot springs. Tempting as it was to join them, we decided to wait it out and hope for a turn in the weather. At about midday the rain stopped and the first few patches of blue sky appeared. We set off for another loop of the lost city and were finally rewarded for our early start and perseverance – amazing views across the site and the surrounding mountains. We even started to dry off!

Machu Picchu is one of those places where you keep looking up and seeing it in a different way: the clouds drop and you sense that the whole site is floating; the clouds clear and you get a view to the river, the last part of the Inca trail, the full extent of another sheer-sided mountain; you notice another set of terraces; you observe the 600-year-old intricate handiwork of the Incas forming walls and watercourses. We felt we could have sat and watched it for days – surprising for a place that hasn’t really changed much in so many years!

We soaked up as much of the views and atmosphere as we could before heading back down to catch our train & bus back to Cuzco, incredibly pleased that our gamble hadn’t back-fired and that we’d had the privilege to seen one of the new wonders of the world in all its glory.

More photos here.

First view of Machu Picchu

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Ruins on Isla del SolAfter reshuffling our plans somewhat, we arrived in Copacabana and checked into a hostel that we later realised was only half built – at least the rooms were new and relatively clean! The next morning we set off to Isla del Sol in the middle of Lake Titicaca (highest navigable / largest high-altitude lake in the world) on what seemed like the slowest boat in the world. 2.5 hours and about 500m later (some exaggeration perhaps) we arrived at the Isla and explored some underwhelming ruins – a little more information on them would have increased their whelmingness but this was mostly only available in Spanish and at extra cost. We spent the day walking and talking with some South Africans and a couple of girls from Norwich of all places.

 

Ruins on Isla del SolAfter enduring the trip back to the mainland we steeled ourselves for another night bus – this time to Cuzco in Peru (via Puno which we’d had to remove from our itinerary). The first part of the journey was highlighted by an impressive electrical storm and accompanying lightning, the latter part lowlighted by snoring, smelly people and sleeplessness.

As usual, more photos here. Our travel map is also looking good 🙂

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Illimani looks over the cityArriving at 6am from the overnight bus, we stumbled bleary-eyed around La Paz exploring the slightly unimpressive plazas but admiring the glimpses of the huge snow-capped mountain that overlooks the city’s steep, cobbled streets. The following day, feeling slightly more awake after a proper night’s sleep, we attempted to collect a package that had been sent to La Paz Poste Restante 3 weeks earlier (unsurprisingly it wasn’t there), explored the interesting coca museum (suggests it’s only since the West got hold of coca that misuse has been a problem), did some more planning and booked our bus trip to leave La Paz the following day. Unfortunately, Lizzy got food poisoning that night and our departure to Lake Titicaca was delayed by 36hrs.

A few more photos here.

Illimani looks over the city

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Our three day trip started with a slightly odd stop at a train graveyard followed by a more interesting visit to a small town selling salt products, after which we headed to Salar de Uyuni itself (the biggest salt flat). Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do the usual trip out all the way across the flat due to flooding. We had a lot of fun anyway on the accessible part (see photos!), though it was disappointing not to see some of the more famous sights.

Next, our jeep of seven headed south across dusty, barren deserts and passed snow capped mountains (snow and desert seeming an odd combination) en route to stay in a hostel made almost entirely of salt. There were storms to the east as we drove and we saw spectacular flashes of lightning as our jeep bounced along to the sounds of Bob Marley and Coldplay. Next morning, we went to visit a pre-Inca burial site. It was eerie looking into the tombs to see 800 year old mummies staring back at us – they’re all placed into a foetal position for reincarnation.

Continuing on towards our second night’s more basic hostel (no showers, no heating, limited electricity, roof held down with stones, sellotape-mended windows… but a better quantity of food than the previous night) we passed stunning scenery – orange, snow-capped peaks, lakes of red, white and blue – many with flamingoes – amongst miles of desolate rocks and sands, fields of quinoa, strange Salvador Dali-like stone formations all set against impossibly blue skies. It was beautiful in a way we’ve never seen before.

It was well worth braving the cold at 5am on the third day to go and see sunrise at the geysers. We soon warmed up with a jump into hot pools before breakfast, having peeled off our many layers of thermals, fleeces, down jackets and waterproofs and got our togs on. After visiting a few more stunning lakes, three of the group were dropped off at the Chilean border whilst the rest of us headed the seven hours back to Uyuni. We’d hoped to book onto an overnight bus to La Paz (Bolivia’s capital) a few hours later, but unfortunately all of the bus companies were booked so we had to settle for the following night instead.

More photos here.

 

 

    

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