Tag Archives: backpacking advice

Braving the Winter: A few days in Ushuaia, The End of the World

After our brief trip to Uruguay and an overnight wait at the airport in Buenos Aires, we arrived in Ushuaia. In a few hours we went from a lovely 25 degrees to something nearer zero. Ushuaia is about as far south as you can go in Argentina…next stop would be Antarctica! We were prepped for the cold weather and within seconds of landing we had dug out the hats, scarfs and gloves that hadn’t seen daylight since London.

Having glimpsed the mountains as we came into landing and having admired the lake on the walk from the airport we knew Ushuaia was going to impress. Ok so maybe not the city itself…it was pleasant enough but nothing to rave about. It is picturesque, situated amongst the snow-capped mountains but the centre can be covered in an hour or so…unless of course you want to traipse around endless outdoor stores…saying that Iain would have been quite happy too. But like most we had not come to Ushuaia to be wowed by what the city had to offer, despite the cold weather we were determined to see the surrounding natural beauty.

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On our first full day in Ushuaia, IMG_7498Argentina’s national strike was in full swing. No buses, no coaches, no flights, and officially no taxis or supermarkets. Thankfully however a few taxis and stores had persevered despite the burning roadblocks and picket lines throughout the country! A meal of pasta and stir in sauce was purchased for dinner…we wont lie its not the first…and a taxi would be our only hopes to escape the city.

 

IMG_7231We tourists found the strike fascinating and our evenings were spent exchanging stories of travel delays and cancellations. Some had spent several hours at the airports whilst others had to disembark buses and cross the burning roadblocks by foot. With our limited Spanish we never did quite get the full story behind the strike, but most Argentinians seemed more annoyed by it than rallied behind it. Unlike us most of the locals didn’t have the luxury of being on holiday and having time to spare. Many of our fellow travellers found themselves stuck in Ushuaia for a few days more than intended, but as we soon found out the end of the world was not the worst place in the world to be for a few extra days…

Like many who stay in Ushuaia, our intention had been to head to Tierra del Fuego National Park at the earliest opportunity. However with the strike in full swing a group of us from the hostel, settled on visiting the local glacier. Flagging down one of the scarce taxis, we headed off to Martial Glacier, about 15 minutes from town. In the summer months the taxis drop you off at the base of the ski lift however for us brave winter souls, we faced the short hike up the hill. Some say Ushuaia is best visited in the summer months but in April, with winter setting in, the trees or more importantly the colour of them, on the walk up were a sight in themselves…

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Some stunning forest and enough snow to sink in up to your knees, this walk was a pleasant way to spend what otherwise could have been a very dull day. It was made all the better as for one of our group it was the first time they had seen snow!

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The next day we successfully visited Tierra del Fuego. As a light snow fell around us we enjoyed a pleasant walk through yet more stunning forest, stopping at various coves along the way. Most importantly we got our passports stamped from the “End of the World” post office.

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We were amazed at the number IMG_6928of languages on offer in this tiny hut: they had no problem accommodating our friend from Hong Kong’s request as he established they offered stamps in both Cantonese and Mandarin. Although our trip to Tierra del Fuego was somewhat more expensive than the glacier (which is free, just the cost of the taxi) it is certainly worth a visit. Had the weather been better we would have likely spent another day here in order to make the most of the numerous hikes on offer.

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Not put off by the dropping temperature we also embarked upon a boat trip on the Beagle Channel during our stay. Regular trips leave from the port throughout the day, on vessels of varying sizes.

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Wrapped up in every layer of clothing we had with us we set off on one of the smallest in search of sea lions and cormorants. We were not disappointed. We smelt both before we saw them in vast their numbers, and our skilled captain got us close enough to almost touch them (though not advisable with the sea lions).

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Apparently in our pictures there are two types of sea lions, but at dinner with our fellow seafarers later we established none of us had actually understood the difference between them despite our guides thorough explanations – I think we were all too busy being snap happy…sorry Max we will listen better next time!

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Big thanks to Winnie and Danni for the picture! Read about their travels in Ushuaia at oliviaoyster.com

With a quick visit to one of the islands on the Beagle Channel and a quick hike around it we were amazed at Max’s enthusiasm for the wildlife and history of Ushuaia. So much so that we were inspired to visit the local museum when back on the main land that afternoon. Certainly worth a visit, this museum is vast and set in an old prison, however truth be told we would have probably rather listened to Max all afternoon.

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Best of all Max recommended the excellent Chiko for lunch that afternoon. Excellent seafood and with four meals sampled, which we all agreed were delicious, we highly recommended this place in Ushuaia. As for hostels you have to stay at La Posta. A lovely family run business with great facilities and a brilliant atmosphere…aided of course by all the lovely people we met during our stay!

Here are our final tips for Ushuaia…

Bring warm clothes – the wind can be brutal and a boat trip is a must.

Take a boat trip on the Beagle Channel – be wowed by the sea lions.

Eat at Chiko – great seafood. Its Chilean but don’t hold that against it!

Stay at La Posta – great all round hostel with private rooms too.

Change money at the Casino (just off the main street in town) – the southernmost place to find the blue dollar! Open 24/7!

City Travel: Bus or Metro?

In London its fair to say I was one of those Londoners who knew where they were going and used the tube (or metro) as a way to get there quicker. Failing that I’d always walk, preferring a stroll to a bus journey that would inevitably crawl along on London’s roads. However when I’m travelling it’s a different story.

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In a new city I will nearly always advocate mastering the bus system. Of course this depends on whether the city has a competent bus system worth mastering but bus travel in a foreign city is part of the experience. Yes explore the metro too, but like the London tube I find most metro systems lack the charm of a bus and here’s why…

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You get to see the city – with time to spare it is always worth making a few journeys on the bus even if the traffic is bad. You get to see more of the city than you would buried deep underground and I find it allows you to build a mental map of the city to use later when strolling around.

You meet people – even in Rio where we could barely communicate with anyone bar nods, smiles and shoulder shrugs, we still found people on the bus were eager to help and talk to us, even if the conversation was one way! Any experience of an underground system will tell you that you’ll be lucky to make eye contact with another human being let alone get a word out of one.

They usually get you to the doorstep – you can ask the driver to shout when you reach your destination and unlike the metro they usually drop you within metres of where you are trying to get to. If you’re lucky they sometimes even become taxis, as we found at 3am in the morning when we were the only passengers on the bus and the driver insisted on dropping us to our door.

They are cheap – enough said really…

They run all night – most metro systems stop at night but you will nearly always be able to find a bus home in the early hours of the morning.

The expanse of the network – certainly on this continent the bus networks far outstrip the reach of metro systems.

Do our readers agree? Or have any other tips and stories about transport?

Things to do in Colonia: Colonia Del Sacramento in the rain…

We have spent the last few days relaxing in Colonia. A short ferry ride from Buenos Aires this town comes highly recommended to any visitor to the area. Although we can certainly say it would only be improved by better weather it is still a great place to hang out for a few days even in the rain. We however wouldn’t recommend visiting if you have high expectations of there being a wealth of activities to occupy you. It’s a small place, somewhere a good friend admitted he would like to retire too, but it certainly has its charms. Here are our recommendations for what to do…

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Eat – food is noticeably more expensive here than in BA but there is plenty of decent restaurants and coffee shops to relax in. We highly recommend spending an evening at Buen Suspiro. Although guidebook recommended, and that doesn’t always guarantee good food or atmosphere, this place reminded us of one of our favourite wine bars in London. A laid-back atmosphere and delicious but uncomplicated food.

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Photograph – It is fair to say we are fairly snap happy with our DSLRs but certainly if you come here when its quiet (and unfortunately a bit wet) you can while away the hours photographing the streets and classic cars, and your pictures will nearly all be tourist free…

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Stroll – Although we were initially shocked at how small the old town is, when it wasn’t raining we enjoyed strolling around taking in a few ruins and admiring the boats and water. Pick up a dog as a companion (our new favourite thing to do) and explore.

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Failing that…read a book and take a few days to chill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Courgette and a Chandelier – San Telmo Market

Anyone heading to Buenos Aires is probably going to spend some time in San Telmo. Whether you’re coming for the antiques market on a Sunday, or just browsing the shops and cafes it’s a great place to hang out. When you’re there, make sure you don’t miss the permanent covered market in the middle of the Bario. Taking up nearly an entire block, with entrances on 3 streets around Calle Carlos Calvo and Bolivar, this massive market is capable of meeting all your foodie needs.

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Anyone spending time in Argentina will quickly notice that whilst the food is great, delicious and sizeable, you’re fruit and veg intake is falling far short of normal. Forget five a day, you’ll be struggling to get five a week. On top of this, the fruit and veg you’ll manage to scrape up at supermarkets, are overpriced and under-quality. A short holiday won’t be a problem, but anyone spending more than a couple of weeks out here will start to feel the loss. El Mercado de San Telmo to the rescue!

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Obviously this isn’t the only place to buy fruit and veg in the country, but out of everywhere in the previous month it had the freshest produce and the greatest selection (i didn’t even know there were five kinds of courgette). With five or six competing stalls keeping the price down, you can really save some money on some great produce. There wasn’t anything we wanted that we couldn’t get hold of and in most cases in multiple varieties. Whether you’re after cheese, meat, bread, pastries, herbs, grains or spices there’s somewhere to buy it at the market. There’s no need to rush and being a covered market the weather doesn’t matter, and there’s a great place to grab a coffee and an empanada right in the centre. Even if you’re not coming to San Telmo to scratch your vitamin itch, the market is still well worth a visit. Whilst the central area is mostly dominated by food the rest is in keeping with San Telmos staple product, antiques.

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I’m not going to pretend i know anything about antiques and i’m sure theres a good amount of junk/fakes here, but whether you’re looking for a bag of old snooker balls or massive ornate chandeliers the collection is extensive. Handbags, vinyls, old medical equipment or some really scary dolls, we found it very easy to just walk around and look at all the bits we couldn’t buy. That’s the problem with backpacking, if you buy something, something else is getting left behind…

 

Salta Sojourn

Nestled in the north west corner of Argentina, 20 hours from Buenos Aires and closer to the Bolivian border than it’s nearest Argentine city, Salta posses a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. Upon entering the Lerma Valley with its Andean backdrop, Salta looked like a relaxed peaceful city. Famed for its excellently preserved colonial architecture and great wines, we had been looking forward to Salta for quite some time. Upon pulling into the bus station Salta earnt its first kudos as unlike most places the terminal was within walking distance of the center. This may not seem like a big deal, but trust me when you’ve just spent a night on a bus the last thing you want to do is jump straight on another. Upon picking up a local map we got our first encounter of an interesting phenomenon, the map was not orientated towards north. As we’ve been working on the “North Principle” for some years now, and it was only after getting lost 3 times, most likely made worse by the lack of sleep on the overnight bus, that we discovered the “Salta Principle”. Rather than north taking precedence for orientation, the westerly mountains did, so in effect, west became north. In a place where enormous mountains are never, ever out of sight i suppose it makes some sense. It would have been helpful if someone had told us though.

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The center of the city, Plaza 9 de Julio is as impressive as it was made out to be. Flanked by colonial buildings, or tastefully done replacements, it is a wonderful place to sit and wile away the hours. The north side of the square is dominated by Salta Cathedral. Painted pink and white the interior is one of the best we’ve come across in Argentina and pleasantly those praying far exceeded tourists with their cameras. If you’re really after some down time then the plaza is the place to go. At lunch time there’s plenty of inexpensive restaurants to grab a snack and some wine, or in the evening a quiet stroll with an ice cream (and some wine.) Whilst there are many excellent museums in Salta we’d highly recommend El Museo Arqueologia de Alta Montana (archaeological museum) The controversial centerpiece of this museum is the three preserved Inca children found buried at the top of mount Llullaillaco. There’s a good amount of english for those without spanish and subtitles on the videos.

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Salta gets even more enjoyable when you head off the main square; small streets, interesting shops and great restaurants abound. Heading east brings you to the impressive church of St. Francis followed by a monastery, one of the oldest buildings in the city. For a truly relaxing afternoon though we’d fully recommend the cable car. Located next to the bus terminal this 5 minute journey takes you over 200 meters to the top of a hill overlooking the city. From here you get a great view over the city up into the mountains beyond. Take a book, grab an ice cream (maybe some wine) and sit on one of the shaded benches in the quiet gardens. However if you’ve found Salta too relaxing you can run up the hill and then have a crack at the outdoor gym, i can’t say we gave it a go though.

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South America is famed for it coffee and in Salta i had my best of the trip so far. I’d been having some serious problems getting a black coffee as i either got an espresso, double espresso, or a rather small, lukewarm, watery drink. Lauren had experienced similar but hers came in the form of warm milk with a hint of coffee or coffee that had been teased by a cow, a latte seemed impossible to obtain. It wasn’t just my spanish, as i’d had waiters with perfect english still bringing me disappointments. Salta finally changed all of that. A large black coffee, steaming hot, fresh ground beans, i’d finally got that coffee hit i’d been craving for the last month. Never have i been so grateful to find a Mc.Donalds…

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Salta is a wonderful relaxing place to spend a few days, and that’s exactly what we used it for. It is however also an excellent base to head out and explore the rest of the north west or even book onwards trips to Bolivia. There are loads of travel agents to book trips to Cafayate, Puna or Cachi, as well as horse riding, rafting and cycling. If you’re heading to the north west then you’re going to end up in Salta at some point, but don’t just rush on through. A couple of days relaxing in the plaza or walking the streets is a great way to unwind before that next long bus journey.

Rucksacks: The Osprey Farpoint 55

We spent months debating what bag and what size we should purchase for our year long plus journey. On our first trip in 2011, six months in length, we each took an 85L travel pack, with detachable day sack. Looking back we packed so much we can only describe it as everything but the kitchen sink! This time we vowed to pack far less…

So how is the Osprey Farpoint 55 holding up…

THE SIZEIMG_1192

We have been using the Osprey Farpoint 55 for over a month now and can safely say we have made the right choice on size. The bag itself is 55L in total; this includes a detachable 10L day sack. Does this fit everything we need…we can safely say yes. Buy a bigger bag and all you will do is fill it with unnecessary items that you will begin to resent lugging around.

THE DACKSACK

As mentioneIMG_1193d above, the daysack is detachable. At 10L it fits a laptop, a digital SLR and all the other little essentials you need to hand when travelling. When wearing the main rucksack the daysack attaches securely to your front. This means all your valuables are safely in sight whilst keeping your hands free…to hold on for dear life as that bus careers around the corner at breakneck speed! Also it has plenty of additional pockets and a handy whistle on one of the straps…to attract the attention of the coast guard, taxis, buses, attractive boys/girls, or perhaps your deaf grandmother…

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All the straps are adjustable and fit comfortably, so much so you almost forget you wearing it…well until you loose your footing and come close to doing that oh so stylish impression of an upturned tortoise…not that I’ve ever done it. There are also additional carrying handles on the side and the top; these are well made and do not cut into your hands should you choose to carry it with one for a longer period. The shoulder and waist straps all neatly zip away making it easy to store and to check in as hold luggage.

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PRACTICALITIES

The main rucksack has two internal pockets that prove vital for all the tiny bits and bobs you inevitably end up IMG_1185packing…torches, charger cables, anti-malarials etc. Compression straps and strong zips make the rucksack easy close…even when it seems like an impossible feat to fit everything in! Finally the zips are lockable, which ensures all your items stay safely packed away.

THE PRICE

At £90 (RRP £100 but shop around!) the rucksack wasn’t the cheapest on the market but nor was it the most expensive. And overall we would say its worth the investment.

*For more details on what we packed this time and what we left at home see our packing list.

How safe is Rio?

It may just be an impression us Brits have obtained of Rio de Janeiro but we were led to believe that our visit would undoubtedly be tainted by crime. It seemed impossible to us that, during our 9 days there, we would escape unhindered by pickpockets or some sort of corruption.

Truth be told we experienced nothing to substantiate Rio’s terrible reputation for crime. Any new city is intimidating when you first arrive…you have no idea what is social acceptable, where’s safe at night or even how to cross the road – in Rio most people just seemed to make a dash for it in a gap in traffic! I would never advise any backpacker to loose their initial sense of caution when arriving in a new city…its saved us from a few scams before now…but certainly Rio its not as intimidating as people might fear. I honestly think if you use the same caution and common sense you would in any major city across the world you’d be very unlucky to experience crime in Rio.

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Keep your belongings in sight, do as others do, wear your backpack on your front on busy transport, don’t flash your cash, or walk around with your Digital SLR swinging from your neck. When you get to a place of interest get your camera out and put it away after. At all the major tourist spots in Rio there will be plenty of others with the latest technologies on show to make it unlikely that you’ll be the victim of a crime.

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So how safe is Rio at night? About as safe as any other major city…everywhere has crime and areas that are best avoided. If you are off on a night out, leave your valuables at home and carry as little as possible. Ladies avoid handbags and invest in a “Cash Stash” which allows you to keep a few rolled up notes secure somewhere – I find attaching it to my bra strap works quite well.

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We travelled after dark quite a few times and escaped unscathed using the above advice. Ok…so there was one time when we felt a bit intimidated late at night. Having been to the Sambadrome, backpacks and DSLRs in tow, we travelled back at 4am on public transport. As the roads close around the Sambadrome when the Carnival is in full swing, the Metro was the quickest way to make an exit. Once off the Metro we decided a bus/taxi would be safer than the 15min walk to our apartment. No taxis in sight…surprise surprise…we stood at the bus stop and waited patiently.

After a few minutes a group of young guys turned up, obviously on their way home from a night out. Anyone who has stood waiting for a night bus in London in the early hours of the morning will have experienced similar and I think our feeling intimidated was purely down to the language barrier. True to form the boys were larking about, chattering away and standing just a little bit too close…one guy was so close, I was sure he was either trying to pickpocket Iain or fall asleep on his shoulder. Turns out said guy had just had a few too many like his friends and was absentmindedly waiting for the bus like any other. When the next bus arrived (not ours inevitably) he asked us (twice so we understood) very politely in his best Portuguese if this was our bus or if he could go ahead and get on in front of us…

Moral of the story…don’t believe the worst, don’t judge a book by its cover, use common sense and always form an orderly queue for the bus…

Christ The Redeemer or Sugar Loaf?

It occurred to us that despite being on a strict budget we were fortunate enough to be able to afford to visit both Christ The Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain during our stay in Rio.

Being budget conscious we almost skipped visiting one in favour of having an extra bit of cash. If you find yourself thinking similar during your visit we would highly recommend choosing to visit the Sugar Loaf if forced to only visit one.

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The Sugar Loaf is best visited a few hours before sunset when you can see the city in all its glory. Like us, grab yourself a few (yes slightly overpriced) beers, relax and settle in to watch the sun set over the city. The city slowly begins to twinkle as the lights are switched on…yes we realise it’s the pollution that creates this effect but it is nevertheless rather pretty!

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Best of all, we think standing on Sugar Loaf Mountain gives you the best view of Christ poised high above the city, and at night lit up he is even more striking. We enjoyed a few more beers once the sun had set, and then when ready; we enjoyed another trip on the cable car. The cable car itself is worth the ticket up and gives you equally impressive views!

Elbows at the ready we had tackled Corcovado earlier that day. Christ the Redeemer itself can be appreciated from all over the city. Whilst it was impressive standing at his feet and appreciating him close up…we have to admit the thought did cross our minds that he was a lot smaller than we thought he’d be. Once at the top of Corcovado most feel obliged to elbow their way through the throngs of tourists, to try and get into a prime spot to take that all important classic tourist photo. We found a quick selfie sufficed.

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Like us you might instead amuse yourself by watching the families and couples straining on tiptoes to pull the classic pose, whilst perhaps the dad or perfect stranger photographer lies on the ground to try and get everyone in the shot. Photo obtained back on the train they go.

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It’s impressive and worth a visit if you have cash to burn but honestly for us Sugar Loaf stole the show and the view was breath taking…

A Day in Trinidad

We had a lovely day in Trinidad, walking beneath the palm trees, soaking up the sun, no one around to break the idyllic silence. Ok…so we weren’t living it up in the Caribbean, but Paraguay is almost as good, right?

This Trinidad is actually a small village about 30 minutes outside of Encarnacion on the Paraguayan border and we’d decided to take a day trip there to visit the ruined Jesuit capital of La Santisima Trinidad del Parana. At the time we were staying in Posadas, Argentina, a perfectly pleasant little city to rest in for a couple of days on your way to or from the Iguazu Falls. Posadas and Encarnacion face each other across a huge expanse or river spanned at this point by a single bridge. As with all the best border crossings you just have to hop on a bus with “Paraguay” on the front and 30 minutes later you’re deposited in your intended country with those all important stamps in your passport.

Encarnacion, Paraguay’s third largest city, has a very relaxed feel about it. Whilst it didn’t have the same level of refinement as Posadas, it is meant to be another pleasant place to spend a couple of days. Due to a lack of research on our part we weren’t 100% sure on how much our little expedition would cost us, so we got out around £40 of Guarani from the cash point and headed for the bus terminal.

We were kindly pointed to a rickety old bus by a lady selling ice cream and 40 minutes later to a shout of “Ruinas” we found ourselves dumped at the side of a road next to a dirt track. This seemed to fit the descriptions we’d read online and so we headed off. Within 10 minutes we were standing, alone, at the visitor center, tickets in hand, so we headed into the ruins.

IMG_6723 IMG_6296What attracted us most to the ruins of the Jesuit mission was the advice that we’d likely be the only people there and this was indeed the case. Trinidad and the nearby Jesus are some of the least visited UNESCO World Heritage sites there are and in our opinion that makes them all the better. The ruins are pretty extensive and it’s easy to imagine what they would have looked like in all their grandeur. The housing is set around a large square, with stone carvings set above the arches; it must have been impressive in its day. The priests houses were of course even larger and the well preserved floor tiles (different in each house) showed how much effort had gone into the construction of the town.

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The star attraction is the remains of the Iglesia Mayor. This once mighty cathedral is of course now down to a few walls, despite this the stone work is wonderful. The carved sections above the doors and around the altar have survived the elements extremely well and we found ourselves walking around, heads heavenwards, just like you’d be in any intact cathedral, trying to take it all in. A few of hours of walking around in the sun, just us and the ruins was a great day trip and we’d recommend anyone in the area to stop for a tranquil afternoon.

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Getting back to Encarnacion was as easy as we’d hoped, waving our arms at the first bus we saw back on the main road got us to Encarnation and an hour after that we were back in Argentina. A relaxing and cheap day out. Too cheap in fact as we still had about £33 of our Guarani left…

Long Term Backpacker Travel Insurance

If any of you have started looking at your options for long term travel insurance, you will have found that it’s a little trickier than you first think.

First of all its worth pointing out that annual travel insurance policies will not cover you for long term travel – most have a stipulation that any single trip can only be up to 90 days in length.

Secondly the insurance companies that you would usually turn to for your two-week holidays, in our experience will quote ridiculous figures for any trips over a few months in length. For example when budgeting for a year long trip we were quoted figures of £1000+ each! Needless to say this was not an option.

An additional problem some of you might also relate to is that we needed a policy we could extend. When purchasing insurance most companies need to know you start and end date for travel. Most also require you to begin and end your journey in your home country. If like us you do not know when or where you will finish your journey, or might perhaps have already started travelling then you might want to consider some of the options below.

*Please note these are only suggestions and should be used as a guide only. We would recommend you do your own additional research and always read the full policy before purchasing to ensure its right for your circumstances.

World Wide Insure

  •  This is the company we chose in the end. We paid £620 (£310 each) for a 10 month policy that can be extended during the policy period. They also insure those who have already commenced travel.

World Nomads

Navigator Travel

 True Traveller

*Planning on doing activities and sports…always check what’s covered first!! Each company above varies so read up on each policy.

If like us you found the options above lacked the required amount of gadget cover then this policy might also be worth considering.

Photoguard

  • A £400 item limit on our policy failed to cover our cameras or laptops so we paid this company an additional £100 approx. to ensure we were covered.

We have (thankfully!) never had to claim on any of the policies above so unfortunately we are unable to comment on this aspect. However we hope you find the information above useful.