Tag Archives: backpacking advice

Travelling with a Chromebook

My Chromebook was one of my last acquisitions before we set off, I dithered for about 3 months on whether a Chromebook would be able to handle everything I needed it for whilst I was away. Extensive googling gave me exactly what I expected, mixed reviews. Not on the performance of the machine itself but on whether it would even be useable whilst I was away.

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For those not sure what denotes a Chromebook, here’s a little info. A Chromebook is usually* akin to a netbook (small portable laptop) the difference that has to be made clear though is that the operating system is not Windows as you might expect but Chrome OS. If you’re currently reading this on a chrome browser, which I sincerely hope you are, then you might now be thinking “Google?”

Chrome OS is indeed designed by Google! For most of us the difference that is most stark is that rather than installing programmes like you would on your Windows or Apple computer, you install Apps like you would on your smartphone or tablet. This is where the Chromebook becomes a write off for some people. No you can’t have Photoshop, Word or Skype, sorry! The other big difference is that the OS is intended to be used with an Internet connection, when you open an App it launches as a new Chrome browser tab. If you’re now thinking “that sounds pretty useless” as I was at this point, please give my poor Chromebook a bit more time and attention.

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Right, my Acer only has 16gb Solid State Drive** so for most files, photos etc. i’m using an external HDD anyway. After research I worked out that the only things i’d be able to do whilst not connected to the internet were; write/edit documents, watch movies, edit photos, listen to music, write emails and play games. As I’m sure you can see, there’s not a lot else most of us do whilst not connected to the internet than that list. I’m not going to lie and say it’s a piece of cake and it does require some adaptation to new apps such as Google Docs and Hangouts, but all of these things are possible.

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Here are some bits you might like. I spent £199 on my Chromebook, Lauren spent the total yearly GDP of France on her 11” MacBook Air. The biggest considerations for me were battery life, price and weight. To the touch the 2 weigh the same, around 1.2kg** The Air is thinner at the front, but overall again they’re pretty similar. I’ve got a 9 hour battery life, the Air has 11 and finally my Chromebook cost £900 less than Lauren’s Air.

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I’m not trying to say that my Chromebook is superior to the MacBook Air, as Lauren has a huge SSD and is happily photoshopping as I write, but I’ve got a desktop at home to do all that. What I needed for the duration of our trip was exactly what I’ve got, a cheap, light computer with a great battery life!


Everything in the review before this sentence was written after 3 months of travelling. Here is the 14 month update as to how its held up!

I am still typing on my Chromebook, so as you can see it’s still going. The case has a few more scratches in it but the performance is still going strong. When I consider the body is plastic it’s actually done remarkably well. Whilst living in the rainforest for 8 months I did have some problems that meant the keyboard wouldn’t work. Annoying but not an issue most people will experience (it survived 6 months of humidity before this problem occurred.) On leaving the jungle some silica gel fixed the problem in under 12 hours.

Overall I would say that whilst the screen isn’t the best, it’s comfortable and the speakers whilst of lower quality have a superior maximum volume to Lauren’s Air. The built in webcam is terrible but since most of the South American internet connections are as well, a lower quality camera hasn’t been a problem.

Most importantly the OS. Have I found it a problem? Easy answer, no. There are still issues to be worked out, such as the fact that I can’t store music to device from my Google Music account, but hopefully this is just in the pipework for the imminent updates. You can still store music files and play them normally without a problem.


So yes i would suggest a Chromebook as a viable and good choice for a computer whilst travelling. I can only speak for my Acer C720 in terms of build and performance but I can say that Chromebooks are viable options for travelling.

*The Chromebook Pixel is much more heavy duty.
**With 100gb of free Google Drive cloud storage for 2 years.
***The Air weighs 1.08kg but we’re travelling so it’s aluminium needed a protector bringing the weight up

Money in South America

One of the questions we’ve found a lot of people asking before they go on a trip is “what’s the best way to take money abroad?” For a trip in South America ATMs are plentiful, except for a few, more remote places, so we’d advise using a debit card. Hopefully in this blog we can provide some useful advice as to why, based on our experiences. 

Worried about taking a card abroad

A prepaid cash card is an alternative that some travellers use to access their money abroad. Whilst they can be a useful backup we’d advise against them as your main access to money for a few reasons.

  • There are often quite a few fees involved in using a prepaid card abroad. Yes debit cards have them to, but they can be the same or lower than prepaid cards.
  • They can’t always be used for all types of transaction.
  • They have to be reloaded with money when you run out, which may not be as straight forward or cheap as it seems at first. Some cards can take up to five days to move the money around and charge you a percentage fee.
  • They come loaded either with your home currency, US Dollars or another currency that your provider offers. This means that you can suffer from bad exchange rates, especially if you’re travelling through multiple countries.

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Before you leave

There are several important things you should do before you leave your home country.

  • Work out which debit card has the lowest fees abroad
  • Get some US Dollars (USD)
  • Get some of the local currency of the first country you’ll be visiting. Or even each one you plan on visiting.
  • Tell your bank you’re going abroad and let them know which countries.
  • Make sure you have a reserve way of accessing money, another debit, credit or prepaid cash card.

 

Where to get the foreign currencies

Use the internet to look up the best foreign currency exchange office in your local area. If Google can’t help you out, ask some friends or go on a message board. We’ve found it’s often easier to get some foreign currency before you head abroad. It’ll also give you peace of mind that you’re not at some dodgy street vendor’s mercy. For people heading through London we’d definitely recommend Thomas Exchange Global on the Strand. You can order the money online through their website and it’ll be there when you turn up. They offer excellent exchange rates on commonly used currencies and pretty good rates on the more obscure ones.

 

Debit Cards

If you’re going to take a debit card (we suggest you do) then head on over to London and set up an account with Metrobank. When we first opened our accounts with them they offered free withdrawals abroad. They do now charge £1 per ATM withdrawal or transaction (outside of Europe). This is still far lower than any of the other UK banks, and there aren’t any confusing percentage fees that keep adding up either. For example Lloyds charge an additional 1.5-2.99% non-sterling transaction fee on top of a flat fee, so on one of my transactions i was charged a total of £7.89 on a £150 transaction. Nearly £8 versus £1 is a no brainer really… Of course if you’re not based in the UK, Google the best cards for travel in your country.

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Why USD

You should always have some USD on you. As the worlds base trading currency its easy to exchange pretty much anywhere in the world with good rates. After the USD then the Euro is probably the second best to have on you. Not only is the USD easy to exchange but in lots of countries, especially in tourist hotspots you can usually pay for a lot of things just with it without having to exchange to the local currency first. If you run out then many countries, especially in South America allow you to withdraw USD straight from ATM’s. As a rule your USD will be more useful in poorer countries or those experiencing economic instability.

 

ATM’s abroad

Withdrawing cash from ATM’s abroad isn’t of course as straight forward as in your home country and they react differently to different cards, so offering advice on which banks to use in various countries may not of course be helpful. The best thing to do is ask other travellers and use various machines until you work out which one is the best for your cards. Things to take into account are whether the ATM is going to add an additional fee on top of the one you’re already paying your bank and the maximum it’ll let you withdraw. There’s no point in saving a small amount of money on one withdrawal if you have to make three withdrawals instead of one from a different bank.

 

Let your bank know.

We’ve found a lot of people actually argued against this as they informed their bank they were heading abroad, only to find their cards blocked anyway. This is of course a worst case scenario which is why you should always have some local currency on you. With Metro Bank we have never experienced any problems with using it in over 20 countries. When you ring them up let them know your dates of travel (you can leave it open ended) and which countries you’re likely to be visiting. Lloyds did stop one of my transactions but sent me a text which would allow me to use the card unrestricted in that country if i replied by text. Annoying but i can’t complain too much for them being cautious and it only delayed me by 5 minutes.

 

Using your debit/credit card for payments.

We’ve only paid with card a couple of times as often there are hefty percentage costs for paying with your card abroad. It’s also worth remembering that some places only accept Visa or Mastercard, not both. If you set up a MetroBank account you’ll receive a Mastercard Debit card. Occasionally this can cause a headache as most people are only used to seeing a Mastercard Credit card and will try and charge you a higher credit card transaction rate. Just let them know it’s debit.

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What if my card gets cloned or stolen.

This a worry to everyone, and worse when you consider you could be thousands of miles from home. As long as you’re always safety conscious and keep your main card and your backup separate then the worst this should be is a headache without stranding you abroad. Card cloning is probably a bigger problem is your home country than in South America. In the UK we’re used to ATM’s dotted outside all along the high street.  In South America you’re more likely to find them inside a bank with a couple of security guards in constant attendance. This makes it much more difficult for crooks to set up a system to copy your card.

Some country advice

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Peru

We’ve found that Peruvian ATM’s don’t seem to charge for withdrawals as a rule. The maximum we can withdraw at one time in 700 PEN, equivalent to £150 GBP. ATM’s are usually found inside banks, if the bank is closed there will be a door accessed by scanning your card through a reader. If you’re worried about doing this, just wait for someone else to open the door on the way out. USD are easily exchanged, can be withdrawn from ATM’s and can be used to pay for tours and transportation such as planes and intercity busses.

Chile

Chilean ATM’s did charge us for withdrawals as a rule, but did allow us to take out fairly large amounts in one go. The USD isn’t as accepted as readily as elsewhere in South America due to the strength of Chile’s economy. In especially touristy spots such as San Pedro de Atacama or Torres del Paine national park USD can be used to pay for most tours and activities, just ask.

Bolivia

Some Bolivian ATM’s charged us but not all, other nationalities had different experiences. Your money will go a long way in Bolivia so you won’t be making lots of withdrawals. If you have a lot of USD then chances are you’ll never have to go near an ATM anyway, just exchange it for Bolivianos. Some places actually prefer you to pay in USD but be aware that the exchange rates can be pretty bad.

Argentina

At the time of writing Argentina has been experiencing a period of economic unrest. As such they have introduced numerous sanctions to try and stabilise their economy. These are aimed at their own citizens but affect  tourists just as much. If you’re really interested there are lots of economics articles that will explain it much better than i can. The point is you can’t withdraw much in one go from ATM’s and it’ll probably cost you a fair bit. Don’t be worried though as there is a black market for USD as Argentineans try and ride out the crisis. The Blue Dollar rate will save you 30% or more on your trip to Argentina. Take as many USD as you are comfortable taking and exchange them for the much better Blue Dollar rate on the street. If you run out of USD, pop into Chile or Uruguay to withdraw more. Be aware that the Blue Dollar trade is illegal but exists in a grey zone. As long as the police don’t physically see you exchanging the money they don’t care. They want dollars over pesos as much as anyone else.

Uruguay

We didn’t spend much time in Uruguay, only visiting Colonia. However the shops and cafes there allowed us to pay in USD, Euro, Argentine pesos as well as the local currency. We only tried one ATM and it did charge us quite a bit, but this may not be the rule.

Paraguay

Again we only visited Paraguay briefly. From what we understand the USD is easily accepted. We weren’t charged for our ATM withdrawal and we could withdraw USD. As with Bolivia your money will go a long way. We withdrew £40 for our day in Paraguay, we still had over £30 at the end of the day.

Brazil

Brazil gave us the most hassle when it came to withdrawals. Some ATM’s won’t allow you to withdraw cash. I don’t mean some banks i mean some specific machines. The best thing to do is to try every machine in each bank you visit, when you find one that works remember which one it was. Santander didn’t charge us for withdrawals. The USD is best exchanged into the local currency in cities but tours in more touristy areas can be paid for with it.

Colombia

You can usually withdraw between 300,000 and 600,000 COP in one go from an ATM (£75-£150) BancoColombia ATM’s were really easy to use and didn’t charge us any additional fees. They also allowed us to withdraw the upper amount of 600,000 COP. The ATM’s are nearly always inside a bank or a lobby for use after hours. These lobbies always have excellent air conditioning, great for cooling off when you’re out and about!

Finding a Volunteer Project in South America

Volunteering is something Iain and I spent hours painstakingly researching when we were preparing for our trip to South America. The obvious questions for us were: what type of volunteer project should we choose, where should we volunteer, and how should we begin organising our volunteer trip? It was a daunting task deciding where, not only, to donate our time, but also our money from the thousands of projects out there on offer.

How to choose a type of volunteer project?

For us working at an animal rescue centre, an orphanage/school, a construction project, or teaching English were all considerations. And really we made the final decision by being brutally honest with ourselves. What would we enjoy most and what type of project would we get the most out of? To all the selfless do-gooders out there, this might all sound a bit me me me, but really you need to be enthusiastic about a project to do any good.

The reality for me was: I wasn’t sure I was physically fit enough or skilled enough to be part of a construction project 24/7. Also having never worked with children before I couldn’t promise myself that after a week or so a group of them wouldn’t drive me crazy. I love kids but usually kids that I can look after for a few hours and then give back to their parents. An after our episode with Tannat the stray dog we picked up in Argentina, I’m sure you can appreciate why working with animals became the focus of our efforts. Choose something you love and you and the project will both be happy with your work there.

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Tannat

How to begin organising your volunteer trip? Cutting out the middleman.

When beginning our search online it was easy to be lured in by the glossy websites or middlemen offering “life changing experiences” all over the world. You’ll know ones if you’ve begun by typing “volunteer abroad” into Google. Tempting as the pictures of volunteers holding turtles or the close-up shots of jaguars seemed at first, with prices way over £1000 for 2 weeks these projects were an unrealistic option for us. Despite these companies promising pre-departure support and local orientation on arrival we like many had to question what justified these prices. From a little research and speaking with projects that had once been involved with these companies, usually only a small portion of what the volunteer pays actually goes to the project itself.

True or not, why would you pay £1000 when you can pay a tenth of that for virtually the same experience? We chose a project were we paid a little under £100 for 2 weeks directly into the hands of the project. For that our food and accommodation were included as well as a donation for materials for the project. And to top it off we didn’t have the nagging question in our minds as to what our money was actually paying for. The organisation was upfront about all the costs involved with the project and we could see exactly where our money went.

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Working with the materials, our money helped buy.

How to find the free/cheap volunteer projects?

Having ruled out going through ones of the large companies, we had to search a little harder to find and contact the projects themselves. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as adding “free” or “cheap” to your original query in the search engines. The commercial middle-mans still appear…£1000 is cheap in some peoples definitions apparently?! We luckily stumbled across this website which proved invaluable for our search in South America.

http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net/

Anything but glossy, this basic website offers a list of “grassroots” volunteer projects throughout South and Central America. Simply web-links but it allows you to contact the projects directly yourself.

Not travelling to South America? Don’t worry these websites/lists do exist for your chosen destination; you just have to be a bit more creative with your search. I suggest searching for “lists of free volunteer projects in …” or “volunteering aboard for free blogs”. For most travelling and backpacking, blogs and first hand advice are a vital source of information. Likewise when you’ve narrowed down your choice of project it is worth searching for a few blogs written by people who have actually volunteered there. They might simply have useful advice about getting there or what to pack but they may also help you avoid less authentic, money grabbing organisations.

Which volunteer project should I choose?

As I said before reading blogs on the projects can be really helpful, but here are a few of other tips for choosing the right project.

Read the websites – sounds simple but get as much information out of the website as possible. Read all the information available but don’t be afraid to contact and ask for further info if you cant find what you need. Reading newsletters and updates from the projects can be very reassuring.

Contact multiply projects – I’m not saying email them all, keep to those within your chosen field, but it’s a good idea to contact a few as they may not all have availability for your chosen timeframe. Also a friendly, enthusiastic email response from a real person goes along way to cementing your decision to volunteer. We emailed multiple projects but it was Olivia’s quick, personable response that ensured we were on the next plane to Esperanza Verde.

Talk to other travellers – if like us you were already on the road when you were finalising your decision of where to volunteer, other backpackers can be an excellent source of information. They might for example know of smaller/start-up projects that perhaps don’t have a web presence yet.

Use social media – you will find lots of projects have a Facebook page or perhaps a group set up by ex-volunteers. Most of the projects wont be on review sites, such as Trip-advisor, but it’s always reassuring to reach out to a few ex-volunteers if possible.

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Louie, a young male squirrel monkey rescued from the Black Market

There are thousands of projects out there, offering all sorts of different work as a volunteer. Research your project carefully; ensure you know what will be expected of you as a volunteer and what you will get in return. You don’t need to pay a lot of money to have an amazing and fulfilling time. Nearly all the volunteers I have met, whether they volunteered for 2 weeks or 2 months have come away with an unforgettable experience. Good luck with your search and do contact us if you would like any further help or advice.

Although this blog post was created to help you choose volunteer project in any field, but if like us you have an interest in animals you can read more about our experience at Esperanza Verde here or watch the video below.

Top Sights Bolivia

Uyuni Salt Flats
Uyuni Salt Flats

Uyuni Salt Flats
If you’re planning on heading to Bolivia then i’m sure a salt flats tour is already on your list of things to do. Driving across the salt flats or standing on one of the islands for sunrise is a truly unforgettable experience. If you’ve got the time we’d definitely advise that you do a 3 day salt flat tour with a border cross to/from Chile. Whilst the salt flats are great there is so much great scenery in the area that you really shouldn’t miss. The Bolivian altiplano with its sapphire lakes, smoking volcanoes, flamingos and llamas in droves are equally as picturesque as the flats. It’s cold, the air is thin, the ride is bumpy and uncomfortable and we’d see it all again in a heartbeat.

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The White City: Sucre
Sucre, the Bolivian capital city is definitely the nicest in the country. If you just woke up there one day you’d be surprised to find out you weren’t in a particularly beautiful Spanish city. The city received huge amounts of money when nearby Potosi was still producing silver and as such the entire town center is a UNESCO world heritage sight. Apart from the fact that the people are friendly and the food is good there are plenty of things to do in Sucre to keep you occupied. There is a chocolate factory, jurassic park and cemetery. A lot of backpackers choose Sucre as a place to stop and learn Spanish for a few weeks due to its inexpensive prices.

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El Cerro Rico: Potosi
The mountain that looms above the mining town of Potosi once produced most of the silver for the Spanish Crown. Whilst the silver has now been mostly mined out, the “mountain that eats men” is still the single largest employer in the city. If you fancy it, tours can easily be arranged all over town. If you don’t fancy going into the mines Potosi is still worth visiting. As one of the highest cities in the world the air can be quite thin but don’t let this put you off. The old Spanish mint, now a museum, offers excellent guided tours explaining the history of the city. There is also plenty of opportunity to tuck into Llama in virtually every restaurant.

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Death Road: La Paz
If you’re seeking adrenaline then Death Road is a must do. Even if you’re not an adrenaline junkie then death road is still a great day out, easily arranged from La Paz. The views as you shoot down what used to be the most dangerous road on the planet are breathtaking. If you’re used to mountain biking then this is not a particularly technical descent, I found the biggest distraction was the view. If you decide to do the road, then the only company we’d recommend is Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. Whilst they’re the most expensive, you’ll get great bikes and the guides take you through every stage of the descent. At the end there’s the opportunity to do a zip line and visit an animal rescue centre with excellent hot showers.

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The Pampas: Rurrenabaque
The Bolivian pampas are a quick 40 minute flight from La Paz, followed by a 3 hour bus and boat ride to get to your tour operators lodge. The amount of wildlife in the pampas is truly amazing. Whilst we were there we saw five species of monkey as well as caiman, turtles capybara, hundreds of species of birds, piranha and pink river dolphins to name a few. If you want to get some photos of amazing animals then the pampas is definitely the place to go. We spent three days drifting the rivers in our boat in brilliant sunshine taking hundreds of photos, stopping only to swim with the dolphins and catch some piranha for dinner.

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Lake Titicaca
The world’s “highest navigable lake” straddles the border of Bolivia and Peru. Whilst we found the towns around the edge of the lake to be fairly forgettable, Titicaca itself is beautiful. On the Bolivian side a trip across to Isla del Sol is the highlight. The small slow boats take quite a while to reach the island, but you can sit on the top deck and enjoy the sun. The island has a collection of incan ruins and there’s a pleasant hike you can do from one end to the other if you feel the need to stretch your legs. Don’t forget to eat some trout, available from every restaurant, cafe, house and street vendor…

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The Bolivian border
The border between Chile and Bolivia at Laguna Verde is an experience that we thoroughly enjoyed. Driving up out of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, you will arrive at a small concrete building in the middle of nowhere. It’s made all the more fun by the road barrier to stop you sneaking into Bolivia, as there’s unguarded open altiplano for miles all around the border post. As long as you’re not suffering from the altitude too badly you’ll find this is one of the more unique ways you’ll ever change countries. A short drive from here is Laguna Verde. At 4,300m with a towering volcano, flamingos and llamas it’s the best welcome to Bolivia.

Esperanza Verde: Volunteering with Animals in South America

In the last few months we had considered many times taking a break from life on the road and volunteering, preferably with animals. Finding ourselves in the South American city of Lima and asking ourselves the question “what shall we do next?” it seemed like the prefect time.

We found Esperanza Verde online, loved the sound of the project and pretty much jumped on the first plane to the jungle. When we arrived we fell in love immediately.

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Esperanza Verde is a Wildlife Protection Centre based in the Amazon Basin. It is currently home to an array of rescued native animals and the numbers are ever increasing. It was started 5 years ago by Olivia and Douwe, and with the help of their 2 children and an army of volunteers over the years, they have created something pretty special in their little patch of jungle.

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Day-to-day life varies and there is never a dull moment. The jobs range from feeding the animals, helping with the construction of new cages, carrying sandbags to assisting with veterinary work. It was rare that 2 days of the week would ever be the same as there is always a new job that crops up to keep you on your toes. Like bathing some baby squirrel monkeys for example…

Squirrel Monkey Bath

But of course a day doesn’t go by at Esperanza Verde without spending a good part of it with all the adorable animals. We hope to introduce you to a few more of the residents over the next few weeks but here’s just a handful that stole our hearts.

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Here is the resident sloth, Elmo. Raised from a baby and free to come and go as he pleases, the lure of a few carrot sticks and sliced sweet potato keeps him hanging around in the nearby trees.

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This is Nakoya the resident baby female Woolley Monkey. Along with Willow and Kamari the two male Woolleys, she enjoys the freedom of the jungle but is always hanging around ready to enjoy her milk three times a day.

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And this is the lovely Rincay, a tapir with rare blue eyes. He used to have the freedom to roam but unfortunately kept roaming as far the local village and eating peoples clothes off the washing line. Fearing for his safety he now shares a large enclosure with Pepito, a tortoise, but still enjoys eating the volunteers t-shirts when they are not paying attention…

The aim is with most of the animals to release them back into their natural environments but for a few this isn’t a reality. Many of the monkeys enjoy the safety of the nearby jungle but never roam far from the feeding table. Whereas some, like the Macaws, whose wings are broken and therefore cant fly, must instead enjoy life in the large aviary. But with ample food they happily shout “Hola” as we go about our daily work.

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When we weren’t doing all of the above you’d often find us on the construction site for Olivia and Douwe’s house. (They have spent 5 years camping in the volunteer house, poor things!) In just six weeks it was amazing to see the house begin to take shape, going from mere foundations to a structure with floors, a few walls, a roof and a working sink! Before we arrived an Ikea wardrobe was about as far as my construction skills went…but now sawing wood, sanding and (badly!) hammering in nails is all part of day-to-day life.

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Life is basic but in our eyes bliss. You’re kept fit and healthy running around after all the animals, the food is local, fresh and plentiful and there’s often a campfire and a few cocktails in the evening. So if you’re thinking of volunteering but not sold on the animals alone, you’ll be sold on the people and the lifestyle.

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We hope to keep you entertained with a few more tales from our time in the jungle soon but in the meantime if you’d like to volunteer or simply make a donation then get in contact with Olivia at info@esperanzaverdeperu.com or via the website at http://www.esperanzaverdeperu.com/

Lima to the Jungle

When we last wrote we had just left the Ballestas Islands and were making our way to Peru’s capital city, Lima. Once arrived and before we knew it we were saying goodbye to all our good friends. Sam, our dearest friend from London was heading home. With a new job to return to, our pleas for him to stay and carry on living the dream were outdone. The last two months together had flown by so quickly and we miss him. “Team Blue” a name coined by this picture is no more…

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At the same time we said goodbye to the rest of the group of friends we had acquired over the last few months. We were all heading off in different directions but we do hope all our paths will cross again in the future.

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So after a few days of fun and a farewells in lovely Miraflores we set out on a completely new adventure, just the two of us…oh and the ducks of course. When we first started planning this trip we had both agreed we would like to volunteer with a project somewhere on our travels and after 5 months of being on the road what better time. Being the disorganised people we are and far too much enjoying planning life a day ahead, we did a few days of research, approached a few organisations and pretty much jumped on the first plane to the jungle.

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Just 1 plane, 1 taxi, 1 mini bus, 2 river crossings, and a 5-seater car with half a village in it, we arrived to our new home for the next 6 weeks. And so begins our story of life at Esperanza Verde, working with all their beautiful animals…

I hope over the next few posts you will see just why we fell in love with this organisation and life living in the jungle. At the very least I defy you not to be charmed by the adorable creatures we had the pleasure of caring for. Look out for more soon.

Our Little Oasis: Huacachina

After our flight over the Nazca lines we decided to head for a bit of sun and sand in nearby Huacachina. Laying back on the sand, maybe a quick dip in the water and all over 25 miles from the coast. The oasis of Huacachina is now well established on the backpacker route for those interested in sand boarding and dune buggy rides.

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The Ica desert, whilst not enormous benefits from gigantic sand dunes that have attracted tourists seeking the thrill of sand boarding. Having done some in San Pedro, Sam and I couldn’t wait to give it another go. Lauren was more excited about lying back in the sun with the local turtles.

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Whilst all the hostels and travel agents in town offer sand boarding expeditions, we quickly noticed that the equipment was a bit rubbish. Most of the “sand-boards” on offer were in fact home made and you were meant to lie down on them like a sledge.

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Sand-board Peru is one of the only places to offer proper boards (well maintained) and the focus of the trip is the sand boarding. Most other agencies put their emphasis on the sand buggy rides. The buggy rides are good fun, but be prepared to be thrown about in the custom made vehicles. It’s not uncommon to turn up for a tour and find the police doing spot safety checks on some of the buggies.

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After a quick re-introduction, we set off to the big dunes. The size of these monsters made the ones in San Pedro look like a children’s play park. We spent 3 hours moving between increasingly large dunes in the sand buggy as the sun set. Sam and I were soon reacquainted with getting faces full of sand, but at least we had a set of wheels to get us back to the top again.  We finally finished with a bit of starlight boarding back into town.

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Even if you aren’t interested in sand based activities then Huacachina is still a nice place to stop for a couple of nights. All around the edge of the oasis there are plenty of bars and restaurants. The accommodation options aren’t great, but most places are fine for the short amount of time you’ll be there.

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It’s also a good place to go and visit a couple of Peruvian vineyards. Whilst no where near the scale of Concha y Toro in Chile these vineyards have plenty of history and are also all producers of pisco.

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After our wine tasting we headed for a pisco tasting, with everything from pisco cream to double strength pisco. In our group we had several Peruvians, two Aussies, three Brits and a Korean and as a result we all exchanged our words for “cheers” in various languages. However when we tried to teach the group the meaning of “bottoms up”, were pretty sure our Spanish translated as “arses in the air”…whoops. Ten glasses of pisco later we left (on unsteady legs) with several samples in hand.

 

Condors and Cliffs: Colca Canyon

After our days at Lake Titicaca we headed to the Colca Canyon, one of Peru’s most visited attractions. With a depth of over 3500m, Colca Canyon is over twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. Yet another high altitude and sheer cliff experience for Lauren!

The bus from Puno direct to Chivay at the end of the canyon is another great scenic drive where there’s a chance to see flamingos, alpacas, volcanoes and high altitude vistas. We must have finally reached our limit, whilst all the other tourists were snapping away on their cameras Lauren and I watched a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad. Lauren commented that snapping photos of llamas must be as funny to the locals as tourists taking pictures of sheep in Britain is to us.

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At the highest point on the journey there’s a chance to get out at an old Inca way station. The Incas used to leave small stone cairns to the gods here to ask for a safe journey. There are hundreds of them spread all over the top of the pass with towering volcanoes (worshiped as gods) in the background.

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Sadly they were all knocked over when the road was built and all the ones in the photo have been subsequently built by passing gringos. Go us!

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Colca Canyon has two main attractions, hiking and condors. This is one of the few places where you’re all but guaranteed views of Andean condors – you might see one or you might see a hundred. Whilst the hiking opportunities are meant to be great we weren’t all that interested so decided on just the condor trip.

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We imagined we were pretty lucky as within 10 minutes of us turning up there were over twenty condors flying directly over our heads on the thermals.

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The adults are black and white whilst the juveniles are a brown colour.

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With a wingspan of around 10 feet (Almost Iain and a half) it is one of the largest birds in the world. The Incas believed them to be sacred as they were capable of flying above the tallest mountains, which they considered to be gods, so the birds feature heavily in native arts and crafts. A final fact is that they are reported to live for over 70 years.

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There was also a hummingbird darting around. I was desperate to try and get a photo with one of the worlds smallest birds and biggest birds in, but alas wildlife just won’t pose properly.

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The Colca valley was one of the most important fertile valleys for the Inca empire, but habitation in the valley predates the Incas by thousands of years. Every patch of soil in the valley has been terraced and given over to farming for hundreds if not thousands of years. The word “colca” refers to a type of cylindrical building built into the cliff sides to keep grains and potatoes cold. There used to be hundreds all over the canyon, so Colca Canyon is literally the canyon of colcas.

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The town of Chivay is particularly small and most people just use it as a stop off before heading on a canyon tour. If you’re stopping by, make sure you head to the thermal baths. Ask the locals or a taxi driver, as you want to go to their one, not the tourist baths. Even at the local baths there are dedicated tourist pools. We managed to spend a good six hours lazing around, they’ll even serve you alcohol in the pools so you don’t have to get up for your pisco!

If you do a condor tour then you’ll probably get taken to one of the tourist baths for a quick thirty minute dip. It isn’t really long enough to enjoy such a nice experience, so we just went and sat by the river in the sun instead.

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Pink River Dolphins and Piranhas: The Pampas

After the wet days in the Amazon Jungle and the continuous downpours in Rurrenabaque, our journey to the Pampas was never going to be easy.

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Like in many rural areas in South America, the roads around the small northern town of Rurrenabaque are unpaved. What should have been a mere three hour journey along the dirt track turned out to be closer to six. In all honesty we were surprised we made it to the Pampas at all. But we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to attempt the journey…

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In three people carriers without 4WD, the journey was more chaotic than our trip across the salt flats! Each car took its turn to get stuck…ours was so deep in the mud, the doors were jammed shut and we had to escape though the windows…

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The farm animals and those on horseback trotted by, whilst we dug out the cars with pick axes and a ball of twine as a towrope. I say we…most of us tourists could barely stand up straight in the mud…thank goodness for the experience of our drivers…

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Instead we tourists made ourselves useful by playing with this little sloth by the roadside. He really didn’t seem to care as we stood below him snapping away and instead focussed his efforts on his afternoon nap. Way to live up to the stereotype, Mr Sloth.

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So was the journey worth all the trouble? Without a doubt! As we eventually disembarked the beaten cars, ourselves coated in mud, we were greeted by the second wildlife encounter of many. Our lodges were a little way up the river and as we waited for our boat to transport us, the playful pink river dolphins made their first appearance.

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Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to swim with them, we dumped our bags at the lodge and grabbed our trunks and bikinis and were in the water within minutes…

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Despite trying to entice them near to us with all the tricks we’d learnt from watching “Flipper” as children, these dolphins were very much disinterested in us. Instead they were fixated with the plastic water bottle toy our guide had made for them…

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Although our pictures do not show this well, they really are pink in colour! As we watched from the boat we could really see the various shades – as the dolphin gets older, the pink intensifies.

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As dolphins have been one of my favourite animals since childhood this really was a fantastic experience for me. Swimming with dolphins was certainly on my bucket list. Swimming with alligators and piranhas, however was not. As we travelled back up stream to the lodge our guide took this opportunity to point out the various caimans and alligators along the riverbank and also announced the river was infested with piranhas. Best we knew after our swim I guess…

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After a good rest and some wonderful food back at the lodge, on Day 4 we donned our wellies (or rubber boots to some of you) and set off in search of anacondas.

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Long story short we failed to find any but we spent a good few hours traipsing through mud, grass and ponds deep enough to almost render the wellies pointless…

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Somehow looking back walking in long grass looking for one of the largest snakes in the world seems like a bad idea, but at the time the intrepid explorer in all of us took over…and the ponds didn’t disappoint with other wildlife.

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IMG_4381Slightly disappointed not to have found an anaconda but relieved to have made it out of the bog un-constricted we set off once again up the river to see what other wildlife we could find. And wow…we could now understand why the Pampas is famed for the endless wildlife on show.

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We literally sat back and floated along, not knowing where to look first…

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After seeing the capibaras, caimans, alligators, endless birds, turtles and monkeys jumping tree to tree we finished off the day with a spot of piranha fishing. In a few hours our group had caught 24, enough for a decent dinner.

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Then we watched the sunset before returning to eat our catch.

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The final day finished on a high. We set off in search of squirrel monkeys and before we knew it they were in the boat with us. I’m not sure who found who more fascinating…

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Some admired their reflection in my lens…

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Whilst others were clearly in a stand off with the monkey looking back…

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When it was time to leave they looked at us blankly as we attempted to encourage them off the boat, but as we pulled away from the bank they elegantly jumped back into the safety of their tree. And with that the wildlife adventure was over.

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Sad to leave all the animals behind, that afternoon we made our way back to Rurrenabaque. Thankfully the mud had dried out so the return trip was less eventful than the previous…yet we still managed to bump into this anteater along the way….

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This was right before we ran out of petrol and had to flag down a passing car to beg for a loan. Who said travelling is easy…

Once back in the little town we relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon and the next day made our way back to the airport…if you can call it that…

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Although our fears of finding a tiny propeller plane waiting on the runway had been quashed on our outbound flight this time we weren’t so lucky!

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With just 20 seats and two captains that we could wave at from our seats at the back, the journey started off fine. That is until they announced our plane would be diverted, as there was an “incident involving a plane” at La Paz. As a result we experienced what we can only be described as a hair-raising near vertical landing into Cochabamba. Give me a muddy track and a people carrier any day.

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Studying Spanish in Sucre

After our stay in Potosi and our visit to the mines, our group, now numbering seven, decided to travel to Sucre. We travelled the three hours in two local taxis, as this was the cheapest option for our group. With Claire’s suitcase tied with twine to the top of the smallest taxi in the world and a few hairpin bends along the way, where we all feared the suitcase would end up at the bottom of the cliff, we were relieved to make it to Sucre in one piece.

Determined to improve our Spanish and learn a few more phrases than the overused “dos cervezas por favour”, when we arrived in Sucre we signed up for a week of Spanish lessons. Opting for one-to-one sessions at the Bolivian Spanish School, we spent our mornings studying and the majority of our afternoons doing homework and relaxing in many of the lovely cafes Sucre has to offer. So taken with our studies and thanks to another blockade we ended up staying for two weeks of lessons.

Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia. Although La Paz remains to official capital many Bolivians have campaigned for Sucre to take its place. With beautiful architecture, museums, cafes and friendly people it’s easy to see why we were more than happy to be stuck in Sucre for two weeks.

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They even have handy Zebras to help you cross the road too…

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So what else did we get up to during our stay? With an array of Musuems on offer in Sucre we opted to visit the Museo Universitario Charcas in our first few days in the city. Although much of the information was in Spanish (but hey we needed the practice!), it was worth a visit even if just to see the fascinating collection of mummies.

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After a while though some of us got a bit bored…

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On another of our afternoons we hiked up to the Recoleta Mirador and enjoyed a few glasses of wine in the sun…

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On the weekend we dodged the cars racing through the city in Sucre’s annual rally. Only in Bolivia would they host an event where the cars speed through the city without any barriers to keep the pedestrians out of the road!

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Taking our lives into our own hands we made our way to the city’s Cemetery. Walking around was a very different experience to the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires – the graves were brightly decorated with photos, flowers and often singing cards.

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On the Sunday in Sucre and after a brief visit to the Para Ti chocolate factory for a chocolate breakfast and tour (photos were forbidden sorry!), we made our way to Parque Cretacico to see the fossilised dinosaur footprints. We looked very fetching in our hard hats…

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It was a bit of a hike up and down, but was worth a look.

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You are not allowed too close to the fossils for their protection and for fear of falling rocks and this was aptly demonstrated by the security guard, who made sure we knew were the line was…

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And of course we didn’t miss out on the chance to pose with the many dinosaur models…

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But sadly the dinosaur play park was reserved for children only…

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During one of my Spanish lessons I was treated to a trip to La Glorieta Castle. Not really a castle but more of a palace, it grounds were home to an old orphanage that now forms part of the city’s military barracks.

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My tour of the castle was in Spanish, and my teacher tested my understanding after, but tours are also available in English. Although not recommended in my guidebook, it’s certainly worth a visit even if just to study the weird mishmash of architecture.

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And finally with the world cup in full swing and despite never watching football in the UK, it was easy to get behind Bolivia’s enthusiasm for the sport and spend many an afternoon with a few beers in hand!

Still not fluent in Spanish but greatly improved, Sucre was certainly a pleasant and worthwhile place to hold up for a few weeks of study.

We took 4 hours of one-to-one lessons each day Monday-Friday at the Bolivian Spanish School and at US$130 a week we would highly recommend it to any one who wants to improve their Spanish! The teachers are happy to adapt the lessons to your needs and with a few field trips thrown in, and a Friday night cookery lesson, we were sad to leave!