My travel DNA

As I plan to embark on perhaps one of my biggest adventures, my thoughts turn to how I actually got here. I’m not sure when it happened. Or whether it was something that occurred suddenly. But, I definitely have a gene in me that is wired for travel. You could say that it is in my DNA. And has been for a very long time. Am I a “traveller” by definition? Is there even such a thing?

It wasn’t always like this. Up to the age of 23, I had only ever left the country twice on overseas holidays. And both for scarcely homesick inducing periods of 1 week each. Holidaying at Butlins through my childhood, I first ventured on a plane at 17 years of age for a week in Tunisia, followed by a week in Ibiza the year after.

So what happened to me? How did I develop into this itinerant nomad? Where did my peripatetic lifestyle come from? It could probably be traced back to a chance conversation in 1993 with my old mucker, Steve. “Fancy doing a bit of travelling?”, I asked. “Where to?” was Steve’s first response” After ruling out Europe, too close, we decided on Australia, on the basis that we had heard it was “warm there isn’t it?”.

And there we were, in the departure lounge of Manchester airport, Steve’s dad carrying his rucksack, and my mum worryingly checking out my fellow passengers. Astutely noticing that many of them were of a foreign appearance, I had to remind her that was because I was flying to Bangkok, the first step on a 12 month working holiday to Australia.

Almost 20 years later, my travel cravings remain hard to satiate. Long backpacking trips around South America and much of the rest of the world just leave me returning with an always-increasing travel bucket list. I meet people who have been to corners (metaphorically speaking) of the globe that just invite exploration. Lists of must see sights and cultures.

As I plan to make the move to start a new life down under, I muse whether this will be the start of the end of my constant global wanderings, or whether it will just be another start.

What happened to Peru? – part 2

My last post had us at the end of my short stay in Arequipa, my first stop in Peru. I had heard so much about Peru that I came with very high expectations. Maybe too high. Depending on which direction people were travelling in, seemed to influence their thoughts on a country.

This wasn’t just the case for Peru, it was everywhere I went. Travellers coming south from Colombia could not say enough good things about the place and everywhere else seemed to pale into comparison. Bumping into people who had come from Bolivia meant that anywhere that had a good bus service and decent food was Utopia.

I had travelled around and up through Argentina, a country that I absolutely love. A couple of weeks in Chile, including a blissful 4 days in Iquique, combined with Argentina probably wasn’t the best preparation. I had become spoiled by two of the jewels of South America. So Peru didn’t make the immediate impression on me that I expected.

Puno from afar.

And things didn’t get any better when rocking into Puno after a 6 hour bus journey from Arequipa. What a hole Puno is and if it wasn’t for the fact that it nestles the shores of Lake Titicaca, I doubt it would get any visitors at all. I got a taxi from the bus station and joylessly stared out the windows as I was driven to my hostel, Pirwa Backpackers. As with a lot of “budget” accommodation, I got a bad first impression of Pirwa, but the two days I had there were uneventful enough for me to forget my initial negative impression of the place. That said, there were no social areas so I didn’t see any other backpackers, and the breakfast was beyond perfunctory.

But the purpose of my visit was to get out to Lake Titicaca and see the floating villages, which I did on day 2. A half day boat trip ticked all my boxes and I thoroughly enjoyed the excursion, and knowing that this is how the islanders make their money, I had fun bartering with the locals as they displayed their wares. I did think to myself though, “would ever buy one of those mobile decorations?”, and I had my answer later that evening when meeting Vix and Hannah for dinner. You dumped them yet girls?

Whilst in Puno I also managed to tick off another item off my South American “must do” list. Eat cuy. Or more commonly known at home as guinea pig. I had to admit, it wasn’t a thought I relished but it was something I knew I had to try whilst in Peru so in i walked and order guinea pig and chips. I kid you not. And the all important question. What did it taste like? Yup, you guessed it. Chicken. I kid you not!

Another night in the soulless hostel and we were ready to move on. To a place that I was genuinely excited about. Cusco. Home of the Incas and gateway to Machu Picchu. As i boarded the 7.30am Inka Express to Cusco I had the sudden realisation that I was soon going to be visiting one of the greatest places in the world, one that I had thought about for many years.

What happened to Peru? – Part 1, Arequipa

Indeed, a damn good question. What did happen to it? Here I am, back home in the UK reliving my trip through the blogs that I wrote when something starts to look amiss. I have Argentina, then there is Bolivia, oh, and a bit of Chile.

But, where is Peru? Nada. Nothing. I must have completely forgotten to write a blog post about it. I don’t even have a draft saved anywhere in my files.

So here it is. From memory and from my notes. Apologies if I miss anything out and no doubt if I do, Spongebob and Squarepants (you know who you are) will correct the record.

My first stop in Peru was at Arequipa. When I finally got there. This was a trip in itself. Leaving Arica (on the Chilean side of the border) at 8am I had to share a collectivo (shared taxi) with 3 locals who were also heading into Peru. The first part of the journey took the best part of an hour, to the Chile border. We then had a long wait before clearing Chilean customs and off we went again to the Peru border, again for another wait. After finishing up with the formalities it was back in the collectivo and about an hour later we were in Tacna, the first town in Peru.

We got dropped off at the bus station and my first job was to find an ATM so I could get some Peruvian currency. After trudging around two bus stations I managed to find a working cash machine and got my all important Peruvian Soles. Now I had to lug my bag around the station as I found a bus that went to Arequipa, some 6 hours away.

After a breakfast of a croissant and a bottle of Inka Cola I found myself on the 11.45am Tacna to Arequipa bus, run by Flores. My first taste of Peruvian buses. I had been recommended to use Cruz del Sur but that bus didn’t set off til an hour later and I wanted to get back on the road.

The journey was pleasant enough, as much as a 6 hour (that becomes 8) can be and I was deposited in Areqiuipa bus station after night fall. This is where the fun began. I had read numerous stories, and been warned, about taking certain taxis in Arequipa. The town is renowned for taxi kidnappings, where you are taken to the nearest cash point and made to empty your bank account. The taxis to avoid were so-called “match box” taxis and I thought they would be easy to avoid. However, on arrival in Arequipa it seemed that all the taxis were of this variety. Shit, I’m gonna get kidnapped. It’s getting late, it’s dark and i’m tired. Please don’t kidnap me.

So, with bag on back, off I went, out of the bus station, into the street to find a taxi that I hoped would take me to the hostel and not the nearest ATM. And I found one thankfully. A bit more expensive that I wanted to pay but I was grateful to arrive safely at Arequipay Backpacker House in one piece, and with all my money.

And what a welcome. The hostel was one of the best I have ever stayed in. It was a large, modern house with all the amenities one could ever hope for. Large reception, pool table, table tennis table (at which I was later to show my prowess – you reading Vix?), a large TV in the lounge and a 52″ TV in the movie room. And wi-fi through the whole house. It was amazing and only a 15 minute walk to a large supermarket.

I was in a 3 bed dorm with two great English girls, Vicky and Hannah. It’s fair to say that they were engrossed in their Kindles for most of the time but when they got bored, and wanted to chat, they were good fun. We found ourselves travelling on together from Arequipa to first Puno and then onto Cusco.

Arequipa itself is a town with some great looking buildings but if i’m honest, I was expecting a whole lot more after the way that some travellers had talked it up. Yeah, Santa Catalina monastery is amazing, and the centre had some amazing buildings, but again i was a little underwhelmed. It may have been a bit of fatigue, or a case of “No More Rocks” (read this great blog post) but I was slightly disappointed. Traffic mayhem, people and touts everywhere, it was a relief to chill in the hostel in the evening. A cold beer, a takeout and a movie. Bliss.

Colombia and why you should go

Colombia is one of those countries that seems to get over looked, passed over by a lot of people on the basis of misplaced notions of how safe the place is. Mention to anybody in England that you are off to travel around Colombia and you are greeted with a “are you serious?” face.

Won’t you get kidnapped? Held hostage by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia)? Forced to become a drugs mule? Be held deep in the jungles and be made to work on a cocaine refining plant?

Well, no. Actually you won’t. At least I, nor any of the other travellers I met who visited Colombia did. And there was one recurring theme running through all the comments heard from people had had been to Colombia, “it is my favourite place in the whole of South America”. And you know what? I’m inclined to agree.

On first arriving in Colombia, after travelling through Argentina, Chile and Peru, I did experience a renewed sense of culture shock. Where were all the gringos that are synonymous with backpacking through South America? Maybe they had heeded the uneducated warnings received in their home countries about how dangerous Colombia is. Where are the buses catering for travellers that make life so much easier, such as Andesmar in Argentina and Cruz del Sur in Peru? And my first lunch stop highlighted how different and relatively untouched Colombia is from the tourist trail. Of all the food on display in the outdoor cafeteria, I could only recognise rice. I later discovered that the meal on offer was a Bandeja Paisa. A traditional dish from Medellin, a dish that I also discovered to be beautiful, cheap, plentiful (on every side street cafe menu) and filling.

South Americans do not speak much English. Why would they need to? But I also noticed that in Colombia, even the few words that were spoken in other, more visited countries, were missing. I really was on my own here, just me and my Spanish dictionary. And it times it was very hard which led me in the early days to feel that Colombia wasn’t as friendly as the other countries I had visited. How wrong could I be? Colombians turned out to be probably the friendliest of all the people I met. You couldn’t pass anybody without getting a friendly “hola amigo”, or a “que tal”, enquiring how you were. And always accompanied with a large beaming smile. I suppose they have a lot to smile about, they live in an awesome, beautiful country, one that I will definitely be returning to at some point in my future.

From the culture and numerous museums of cold, chilly and wet Bogota, through the beautifully preserved colonial towns of places such as Villa de Leyva, San Augustin and San Gil, upto the coffee zone and to amazing little places like Salento in the mountains, and further north, to the Caribbean coast where there are gems such as Cartagena and Santa Marta (home of Tayrona National park). Colombia really does have it all. In spades.

Yes, there is a gritty side to Colombia, how could there not be? Colombia still provides some 80% of the world’s cocaine. There is still a large, underground drugs trade which brings its obvious associated issues. There are police with large machine guns almost on every corner. I should know, I spent half an hour on one such corner one day, under the glare of about 8 machine gun toting police whilst I tried to explain in Spanish why I didn’t have a nice little identity card like all the Colombians had! That was fun!!!

And the drugs are plentiful. But if you go to a beautiful country like Colombia, and can’t have an amazing time drinking rum, taking in the sights and enjoying the glorious sun without the need for illegal drugs, then you are inviting trouble on yourself.

Looking for a holiday unlike any other? Somewhere you will never forget? Go to Colombia, now.

The Holy Grail(s) of South America

Planning this trip, it was suggested that I was heading to South America to search for the Holy Grail. But the question I often asked was, the Holy Grail of what? You see, it can mean many things to many people. We all have different wants and needs in life so one man’s Holy Grail could be another man’s…………well, just about anything.

This got me thinking, how about searching for my personal Holy Grail in a number of categories? As I travelled through the great continent that is South America I knew that I would be seeing some amazing sights, be having some amazing food and maybe, just maybe, also having a few drinks, just to complement the food you understand!

So, with the trip slowly becoming just a memory, here are my thoughts on my Holy Grails.

Holy Grail of……food

Without doubt, Patagonian spit roasted lamb. I had this in a restaurant in Ushuaia, ordering from the menu, as opposed to the “all you can eat” offer that was slightly above my backpacker budget. Taken fresh from the open BBQ, a hunk of meat was hacked off and served up. And as I tasted it, it was divine. Heavenly. Words could not adequately describe the taste as the lamb, so tender it fell off the bone, slowly melted in my mouth. And as I finished, the waiter asked, nay insisted, that I have second helpings. Go on then, I don’t want to be rude.

Holy Grail of……tourist sights

I could have gone for the obvious option, and it would have been here on merit, but the breathtaking sight that is Machu Picchu is a little too obvious. Instead, I am going for a place that I had never even heard of until I arrived in Argentina. The Glacier Perito Moreno is amazing. It is 3 miles wide and 19 miles long and is one of only 3 Patagonian glaciers that is actually growing. From the various viewing platforms in the National Park you get great views, which are at once peaceful and at the same time thunderous, as large chunks of ice regularly crash off the glacier as it continues to move.

Holy Grail of……wine

I hope there are no Chileans reading this, knowing the intense rivalry between the two very important wine growing countries, but Argentina just nicks it for me. The Carmenere grape grown in Casablanca, Chile is a very quaffable alternative but my vote goes to the Argentinian Malbec.
I had plenty of opportunity to sample a few Malbecs in my 7 weeks in Argentina, which included a cycling tour of the wineries in Mendoza, the home of Malbec. Bacchus Bike and Wine tours of Chacras, a 40 minute bus ride from downtown Mendoza. There are other bike tours of the various wineries of Mendoza but the others cater mostly to young backpackers and offer lower quality wines, focussing on getting the travellers inebriated. For me, it is all about the wine, and if you are going to drink only one, make it Malbec.

This post could have been so much longer, a top 5, a top 10, etc etc etc. And there are so many things that could have been included but I had to draw the line somewhere.

The things that have not made it into this top 3 include the beautiful women of South America, be they the flawless wonders of Argentina or the created, pneumatic beauties of Colombia; the friendliness of the Colombian people; and finally, the tackiness that is Hooters, that pervades picturesque cities such as Buenos Aries and Medellin. You understand that I only visited for research purposes, to benefit you guys, my readers.