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The Wonders of Bolivia....

Discovering incredible Bolivia - La Paz, Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats), Potosí, Sucre and Santa Cruz.

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Bolivia....

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I spent just over a month in Bolivia and had an incredible time.
The terrain here is varied, extreme and nothing short of spectacular, especially at high altitudes.

La Paz

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La Paz is an enormous, sprawling city in the heavens and full of surprises.
La Paz's airport is at an elevated point even higher than the city itself. My flight arrived at 2am and my taxi driver zoomed down through the windy, narrow streets until we reached the hotel.
The journey from the airport in to town isn't the prettiest, but give it a chance... La Paz is a really nice city.

Graduation Day

During my stay, the entire city was celebrating graduation across their many tertiary institutions. They all set tp the same date, so students and their friends and families all over the city can celebrate together.
I visited the parades, and got talking to some newly graduated nurses and medical assistants. They had never met or spoken with a foreigner before, so there was a lot of intrigue on both sides.
They explained the whole graduation celebration to me and about the many places I should visit in La Paz, and other festivals around the country.

High Altitudes and Cable Cars

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Exploring the city is great exercise. Almost every street has a steep incline.
La Paz has the biggest, most comprehensive cable car system I've ever seen. It looks like an amazing feat, and Bolivians are justifiably very proud of it.
I travelled to all of the far reaches of the city this way, which offered some great photo opportunities!
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Uyuni

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I flew from La Paz to what felt like a lunar base, Uyuni. We arrived at night, to something like -5 degrees! As the shared cab left the airport we had a very clear view of the enormous moon, and many of the star systems.
When I arrived at my hostel, I was warmly greeted and taken to my dorm where I met my new roomies from the Netherlands. They suggested that I'd be able to book my trip for the following morning, and head out to Salar de Uyuni straight away. Bonus.

I hunted around the very quiet flat, lunar base for some dinner. The pizzas in Uyuni are really good regardless of which restaurant you choose.
Note, that the tyranny of distance means that everything in Uyuni is much more expensive, even water.

When I got back to the hostel, I made a pre-emptive pack for a four day desert adventure.

Salar de Uyuni

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I got up extra early and headed over to my target trip company....
Red Planet gets universally good reviews on Tripadvisor....
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They had space for the same day, so I was in luck. Bag packed, I stored my big backpack, got some supplies and joined my group.
Our group spanning Netherlands, Canada, Ireland and Australia were split across into two Landcruisers with three rows of seats.
We had a nice briefing about the trip and set off.... first to the train wreck...
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Basically a graveyard for old trains that once connected Uyuni to the world, and amazing photo opportunities to get us started.
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The desert is enormous and stretches far and wide, connecting Atacama in Chile for example.
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We drove for a good couple of hours before stopping for the mandatory trick photos!!!
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Words can't really describe the feeling of being within this place. It feels a million miles away from anything, and there's no 3G or wifi out there, so you really are isolated!

This part of Bolivia was once under the sea (yet it is now elevated at 5000 metres above sea level). So, occasionally you see bommie like formations of coral. We stopped at this beauty for a hike, and seriously amazing views!!
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There are several enormous lakes within the desert, most notably a big red one, coloured by a strange algae.
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Many kinds of birds live up here, especially pelicans and flamingos!
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We stopped at many gurgling geysers and truly boiling springs
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The rock formations here are truly unique too.
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Night Swimming

On the second night, we stopped at an accomodation centre with a naturally heated pool, staying at a consistent 40 degrees or so. At night the air temperature is -15 degrees, so the contrast is a bit of a shock to the system, both getting in an out. but oh so worth out.

Our group, plus groups from other companies congregated to the hot pool after dinner and enjoyed a swim and the incredible unobstructed view of the stars.
One of the guides treated us to a planetarium style explanation and guide to the star systems, with a bit of history related to naming ,etc. It was really fascinating.

The Salar de Uyuni trip was one of my favourites of all time. If you get the chance, don't miss it!
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Potosí

This town is known for being one of the highest on earth, and also for it's enormous mine. The Spanish knew of huge silver deposits here. Over 8million African and Indigenous slaves died pulling it out.
Today locals are still mining here, extracting whatever they can find, and send it down for refining.
I employed a local taxi driver to take me up and show me around. It's a courtesy to take gifts for the workers - stuff they need to get the job done - dynamite to blow up the walls, and coca leaves to keep them going throughout the day.
If you think you've seen hard yakka, wait until you see these guys at work. They graft in danger and dust all day for a pittance.
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Santa Cruz

This city is unique in Bolivia in so many ways. So much so, that many locals would prefer to secede.
The city sits closer to the Brazilian border and over many years attracted immigration from all over Latin America, Asia and Europe. It's truly a sub amazonian multicultural hub. I stayed here for 10 days and had a great time.

The main square is truly gorgeous and a nice place to be at any time of day or night. Police constantly patrol so it's very safe. Uniformed coffee sellers also roam the park so you're never far away from a cup.

I had the good fortune of meeting nice friends here to show me around.
We went to a great Caribbean disco playing Salsa and Bachata and visited many of the great cafes here.
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Sucre

I had a really nice time here. It's a fairly progressive, tranquil and safe city, with great weather and a ton of restaurants.
Many people choose to stay here and learn Spanish.

The city was in the midst of preparing for a huge national festival when I visited. The main park was filled with different dance groups rehearsing. It was really nice to see.
My hostel was the departure point for a really terrific walking tour. We got to visit and know about all of the historic sites, plus commentary on historical and current politics of the country.

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I had a great time in Bolivia. It was full of amazing surprises!!
On to Brazil....

Posted by SkinnyFists 13:56 Archived in Bolivia Tagged travel trekking deserts bolivia la_paz sucre salar_de_uyuni Comments (0)

How to spend a month in Peru!

My action packed month in Peru; Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu (via Inca Jungle Trek), Vinucuna, Manu (Amazon), Nazca Lines, and Huacachina

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Arrival Lima

I arrived in Lima late on a very brisk evening. It was stark contrast to tropical Curaçao where I had spent the previous, balmy two weeks.
Passing through the aiport is pretty straight forward. It seems getting a SIM card as a foreigner isn't though.
I rented a SIM card from Claro with a good amount of data for the month ahead.

Lima is enormous! The cab traversed struggling chaos and opulent suburbs before sailing along the sweeping cliff line and finally reaching my hotel.
The English speaking hotel staff were very polite yet curt, a seemingly common vibe for Lima.

Cool Threads

Peruvians are pretty funky, and very world aware when it comes to trends.
I browsed the incredible Larcomar Mall, built into the high cliffs, looking over the sea. It's really a must see, even if you just stop for a coffee to enjoy the views! I stopped at M.Bö. They make locally made high fashion from wool and alpaca.
I bought this jacket...
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City Roaming

I caught up with my local buddy Juan José and his girlfriend, who were kind enough to show me around.
We visited many of the squares, parks, bustling laneways and streets. It's a great city to explore by foot!!
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Cusco

I flew to Cusco in just under 45 minues.
It's a truly gorgeous city, and was the original Inca capital. It's also tourist mecca. Everything is easy here for mochileros; plenty of great food options, places to buy alpaca clothes, Spanish schools, etc.

I used Cusco as a base for all of my trips, and had a wonderful, hassle free experience...
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except for....

Aclimatisation

Almost everyone has the same experience when they arrive in Cusco. A sharp rise in altitude almost always results in some form of illness.
As extreme nausea and fatigue set in, the pharmacy next to my hotel were readily helpful. I took the medication they provided and felt better almost straight away.
I spent the next two days booking my trips, buying essentials and observing the unique and tranquil society go through a period of protest.

Protests

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In modern society, protests usually involve loud drums, loudspeakers, booming music, some degree of anger, etc.
Here, it's the polar opposite. Almost the entire workforce of Cusco took orderly turns in groups to march, take the stage and speak their case (largely over pay) as their peer groups sat attentively and cheered at the end. It was like the utopian view of conflict resolution. The world could really learn from Peru!!
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Sacsayhuamàn

Huge cascading walls that once formed an enormous fortress with huge silver blocks. Of course the Spanish took all the silver, but parts of the great walls remain. The area also provides amazing views of the city!!
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Nightlife

Peruvians love to dance and have fun. They produce a lot of cumbia music. Though it was invented in northern Colombia, made it's way south and found a home in Peru, Bolivia and parts of Argentina. They also have great timba bands which found it's way from Cuba.
In discos you will also hear a lot of music from other parts of the region:

  • Colombia / Carribean - salsa, bachata and reggaeton
  • Brazil - axè and samba
  • Argentina - rock and punk.

I had a great time at Mama Africa, which also has useful dance classes earlier in the evening!

Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu

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For me, the Jungle Trek seemed like the most fun and varied option for reaching Machu Picchu, and I wasn't disappointed.
It was a super fun, at times challenging and very memorable four days!

Cycle

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On the first day, I was picked up from my hotel at roughly 4am, and we gradually picked up comrades.
As a group we represented Australia, Argentina, USA, Canada, Israel, Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands.

We then drove through the gorgeous mountains to the peak of one,where we would begin our cycle.
We got into protective gear, adjusted our seats, had a prelimary chat, then launched for a 40 kilometre gradual descend through the mountains.
It was really great fun and a nice, peaceful way to see the scenery!!

Raft

The next stage was rafting. We split into boats, got our bearings, sdid afety/rescue rehearsals then set off through the rapids. I think the fiercest we passed through were level 6... fast and bumpy.

It was a lot of fun, and the boats worked well together as a team.
The valleys in the region are immense.

Trek

During our trek day we ascended to great mountainous heights over 10 leg-testing kilometres.
We passed through several small settlements where we drank coca tea, and learned about Incan traditions and history.
The views at the top were incredible!!

The day ended with a swim in some thermal pools, bringing welcome relief to sore muscles.
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Zipline

This was a highlight, and a great test for any fear of heights. The zip lines criss cross the enormously high valley, so looking down isn't really recommended. Each line is up to one kilometre long, which gives ample opportunity to build up a lot of speed.
For the final line, the guys offered an opportunity to go in "superman pose", face down, fist forward. I felt like Henry Cavil/Christopher Reeve. It was really amazing!!

As a final challenge, there is an elevated walking bridge where each step lands on a thin pole. It requires a decent amount of concentration and zen to finish.

Aguas Calientes

The walk to Aguas Calientes runs along an old train line through the jungle.
Because the whole region was in protest, some teachers had created blockades as a sign of solidarity. It was a little strange and they simply stood silently. The military police eventually negotiated with the group to let us pass.
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Aguas Calientes is a lovely, bustling little town, perfect for launching to Machu Picchu.
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Machu Picchu

We awoke at 4am, and walked down to the gates leading to the path up to site. There are two options, hike up the steep gradient or take the bus. We had come so far, why take the bus? My muay-thai trainers would have mocked me forever...
The walk up is pretty steep, we used it as a bit of a fitness test, reaching the top in just over an hour, a but sweaty, full of endorphins, and in perfect time to enter the park, just as sunrise was about to begin.

Watching the sun climb up behind the mountains and then gradually illuminate Machu Picchu was simply marvellous.
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Our guide then took us through Machu Picchu and explained the history, impetus, designs and significance of the site. Sadly, it wasn't inhabited for long as the Spanish soon came crashing in.

I climbed up to the Sun Gate for extra high views, a worthwhile climb!!
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Machu Picchu, didn't disappoint. It lived up to the hype for me!!
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Mountain of Seven Colours

Roughly 6 hours by bus from Cusco is the amazing geological anomaly, Vinucuna, otherwise known as the Mountain of Seven Colours.
It's a fairly short but challenging hike to the top, but definitely worth it!! The air is very thin at 5200 metres.
The views are nothing short of spectacular!!
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There are options to go by guided horse. With jelly legs at the top, a young lady and her trusty steed brought me back to the bus.
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Amazon Trek - Manu

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I spent three nights and four days on a trip through Manu National Park.
We hiked through the jungle, seeing many wild animals, flocks of incredible looking birds amongst the immense and dense mountainous jungle.
We also explored by raft through tranquil river systems, stopping occasionally to swim.
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Though we didn't see any jaguars or gorillas, it was still a worthwhile trip.

Nazca Lines

My bus from Cusco to Huacachina stopped here so we could see the lines. They are something of an anomaly, and testament to Incan intelligence and mapping.
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Huacachina

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Huacachina is an adventurers oasis in the middle of the dessert. Surrounding the small lake are a myriad of hostels, restaurants, cafes, travel agencies and discoteques. This is all dwarfed by the enormous, mountainous dunes that nearly every visitor will traverse in Mad Max style dune buggie, and return back surfing the dunes on a sandboard.
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I spent three days here, riding buggies, sandboarding, trekking and enjoying the awesome food and nightlife here. Plenty of vegan cafes with Thai spicy offerings and delicious coffee.
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It was a great way to say farewell to Peru.
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On to Bolivia.....

Posted by SkinnyFists 14:43 Archived in Peru Tagged peru trekking machu_picchu lima rafting cycling cusco huacachina alpaca zip_line aguas_calientes vinacuna mountain_seven_colours inca_jungle_trek aclimatising Comments (1)

One week in St Lucia...

Experiencing the tiny mountainous island that honeymooners and trekkers alike flock to...

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St Lucia

St Lucia is a small, gorgeous, mountainous island in the Minor Antilles region of the Caribbean.
I visited friends who were working on various volunteer programs, and also visited some of the many natural wonders of the island... including the exhausting but worthwhile climb of Petit Piton.

St Lucia is gorgeous and serene, and a popular spot for honeymooners.
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Culture

St Lucia changed hands between the French and British many, many times. As a result, the language and culture is equally influenced by both colonists.
The Creole language in St Lucia is dominated by French vocabulary and I really couldn't understand any of it. In shops, markets, the street... people speak the French Creole, though the official national language is English - spoken in schools and across tourism sectors.

Castries

The capital is a little rough around the edges, but has a very friendly vibe. Unless you have a specific reason to be there, I wouldn't bother.

Rodney Bay

This is the best spot in the island. A fantastic array of nightlife and restaurants, a marvellous beach, etc etc.
My pals took me to a tennis lesson at Hotel Blu there which run every Sunday morning - which was totally awesome.

Vigie Light House

We hiked up to the Lighthouse in Vigie. Some of the best panoramic views of the island can be found here.
The manager of the lighthouse is a really jovial fellow who can show you around to the best view points.
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Auberge Seraphine

This is a very posh hotel with a lovely restaurant, at the edge of a gorgeous bay. My pals and I enjoyed an amazing Sunday lunch there, and then explored the magnificent grounds of the hotel!
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Climbing Gros Piton

I climbed this magnificent wonder with a guide (you can't go without one). We reached the top in roughly 1.5 hours from memory, moving at a pretty swift pace. It's a steep climb, and difficult in parts, but the views are very much well worth it!!!
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Lunch at Ladera

The photo should say it all... yes that's Gros Piton that I climed the day prior to this lunch. Really amazing views, great food and amazing surrounds.
It looked like a really nice hotel to stay too.
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Thanks St Lucia

St Lucia is a beautiful mountainous island with many adventures to be had. One week was more than enough though.
If you're planning a holiday to St Lucia, you'll see how incredibly expensive it is. I had a great time ad glad I stopped by.

Posted by SkinnyFists 12:27 Archived in Saint Lucia Tagged trekking caribbean tennis languages saint_lucia castries st_lucia caribbean_islands gros_piton Comments (0)

Colombia: Parque Tayrona

Trekking through one of Colombia's most beautiful national parks set upon astounding coastlines; where many a music video was filmed.

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Parque Tayrona

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....is a stunning, well preserved national park with awesome terrain; stunning beaches, and a chance to camp under the stars amongst other intrepid travellers and local families alike.

Ask any Colombian for advice on where to visit, and they will undoubtedly mention Parque Tayrona amongst their very long list of places to go.
The gorgeous landscape and coastline features in many, many Colombian music and tourism videos:

Including this:

...and this amazing video from my favourite new band, Bomba Estéreo from Bogotá!!

Entry

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Before you can enter the park, visitors have to have to attend a briefing on rules, the tracks, accommodation, safe places to swim, etc.
There is a nice video (in Spanish) that goes with this.

You can book a tent / hammock at the entry point, though if you want alternatives (and there are a few), you can probably wing it (with one exception... mentioned later)

Security

Police take everyone's details upon entering the site and inspect ID's / passports.
They also thoroughly inspect all bags.
Drugs and alcohol are very sternly prohibited.
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My friend with a few tattoos was given very special attention by the police; though we both agreed it was more out of genuine intrigue.
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Trekking

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The walks are stunning in Tayrona, but be warned it is extremely hot and can be a bit of a challenge, so drink water!
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The hills aren't too steep though...
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You can also get around by horse!
Thankfully there are many breathtaking beaches to cool off in....
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Sleeping

You basically have three choices... hammocks or tents... or outrageously expensive cabins.
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Cabo San Juan is the most popular site camp site because it is set at the one of the best beach coves I've ever had the pleasure of chilling at.
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Tents and hammocks go very fast here, and most trekkers end up missing out.
The office starts registration at 1:30 or 2pm - you'll probably need to arrive an hour ahead to secure a spot.

If you have a silk sleeping bag liner and wondered when you're ever going to use it... this one of those rare occasions.
It was pretty apparent that the linen in the tents were not changed each day; and if you opt for a hammock, it'll fend off mosquitoes.

New Friends

Tayrona is really socially conducive without being too busy.
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We spoke with an Argentinian couple; the lady is a nuclear physicist who designs the complex systems that operate nuclear power plants.
She helped build a prototype for a proposed station in Australia, and was training Australians how to operate it (hope I haven't blown her cover)... interesting!_trek.jpg

Food and Supplies

The first night we stayed at the main camp site, where there are posh bungalows, etc - which is really nicely laid out and has a very nice restaurant.
I had this little beauty for lunch (fish and veggies cooked in banana leaf with salad thrown in)... seriously good!
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There is an awesome bakery on the beach about half way to Cabo.
They make their goodies in a wood fired oven, and have fresh orange juice and Colombian coffee on offer.
Their arequipe infused buns are muy rico!!

I'll be back

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With 19000 hectares, Tayrona is immense.
I hardly skimmed the surface, and will be going back to explore the more remote areas by boat next time...

The great state of Satander next...

Posted by SkinnyFists 09:13 Archived in Colombia Tagged beaches trekking parque_tayrona colombia_caribe colombia_beaches Comments (0)

Guatemala: Antigua & Climbing Volcano Arcatenango

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Arcatenango

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Climbing Arcatenango is a must do for intrepid trekkers!
It's a full day/next morning climb to the top.
To the most amazing views, I've ever witnessed.
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It's a tough trek, and I'd definitely recommend some training, or warm up treks before taking it on.
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The Trek

We took off from Antigua in the morning and arrived at the base of the hill.
Thankfully there were kids selling beanies and gloves, because I wasn't well equipped.
We then took on the steep ascent, almost 2700 metres in 1 day!!
There were a few times of struggle where I had to channel that relentless Muay Thai training months ago...
...go hard, and there's no way home, so keep going hard

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We finally arrived at the camp, lower viewing point for dinner and rest.

The views from here were truly incredible.

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With Pacaya errupting right in front of us.
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You get a real sense of height too.

Below we could see right across Guatemala... and we could see the sun continue to set far across the horizon, Guatemala was already dark below.
Just magic!

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It was a cold night in the tents, with really crumby sleeping bags.
Everyone wished they had brought more clothes, or even hired a proper down sleeping bag.
Some opted to keep the fire going and slept by it.

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We rose again at 3:30 a.m to continue the climb to the top.... arriving just in time for sunrise.

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Views From The Top

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Volcano Fuerte decided to go off just as we arrived!!

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The descent was the toughest part of the trek!
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We had to carry the tents, sleeping bags, etc down; coupled with the slippery, muddy and steep terrain, lack of sleep etc...
most of the crew were running on elation from the sheer magnitude of what we had just seen and experience!!

What to Take

  • More water than you think you'll need
  • Toilet paper
  • More clothes than you think you'll need (it's freezing at night)
  • Down sleeping bag (the ones provided are very thin and non insulating) or thermals
  • Travel friendly food - museli bars, etc....
  • Pre conditioned legs!!
  • Trail runners or hikers with good trail grip.

Antigua

Antigua is a lovely, albeit mega touristy city.
It's a nice haven for before/after treks, has a lovely general atmosphere, and feels pretty safe.
You'll find yoga retreats, gyms, health food shops, boutique hotels and spas, etc ,etc.
I recharged here for two days after the climb, and readied for the next adventure in Flores.....

I did the El Mirador jungle trek next, and will publish shortly!

Posted by SkinnyFists 13:44 Archived in Guatemala Tagged volcanoes trekking guatemala arcatenango Comments (0)

India: Kullu and Parvati Valleys (Himachal Pradesh)

Here is my tale of high altitude trekking, high altitude (and intriguing) communities and amazingly warm hospitality, in breathtaking shanti surrounds...

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View liftyrskinnyfists on SkinnyFists's travel map.

The wonderful valleys and mountains of HP

Wooziness from McLeod to Vashisht

McLeod to Manali was a pretty horrid journey; a true test :-)

We set off from around 8:30pm in the rusty old bus, swerving down the mountains at a pace that only Indian drivers can justify (and whilst smoking a chillum at the same time)... bound for Manali.
At around 10:30pm there was a loud BUMP and the bus stopped.
The driver got out, inspected the damage, came back in and sat down.... but said nothing to the passengers.
We sat waiting patiently waiting for an explanation or some kind of action.
It was pouring rain.
Eventually one of the Indian passengers made a call, and found that a public bus was departing for Manali, from a few minutes walk down the road.
Myself and about other passengers grabbed our bags and trudged to the public bus.

When we got there it was already full, but the conductor let us stand in the aisle. This is what I love about India, there is always room and people are happy to accomadate.

A swervy, sweaty, misty, smelly 4 hour journey to Manali ensued. I could sense that some of my Russian compadres were on the verge of technicolour yawns. Though we made it without incident.

Upon arrival I made a sharp exit to Vashisht via rickshaw.

Vasisht Vs Old Manali

Most folks I met who had been up here said Vashist is better than Old Manali. I beg to differ.
Old Manali is better equipped, has nicer guest houses and more atmosphere.
I recommend Geeta, opposite the English Bakery - where I am now, on a second pass through Manali, waiting for bus to Leh.

I didn't like Vashist. It was full conceited, antisocial western stoners!
If you want to smoke charras with a bunch of fascist hippies then go for it.
Yes, fascists they wear their dreads and faux Indian gear as uniform just as their corporate aggressors wear ties and fancy cufflinks..... When I had dreads hippies couldn't wait to chat... I see now how they grunt and scoff at folks who don't wear the uniform ;-)

I couldn't wait to leave Vashist and rejoin India!

Manali

Manali is a nice bustling town. There isn't much in terms of attractions or traveller friendly accomadation, but it is friendly and vibrant. There was an enormous influx of Punjabi tourists when I was there.

Manali
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Nagggar and Kullu Valley

I decided to venture down further down into Kullu Valley for trekking and shanti.
Some chums back in McLeod recommended starting in Naggar and staying at Pappu and Meera's guesthouse - two very good pieces of advice!

Pappu and Meera are amazing hosts - very gracious, serve amazing food and nothing is too much trouble. Their house sits high up the mountain of Naggar with amazing views wherever you look.
I had a great room with bathroom and balcony for Rp400 which is a super deal.
Meera's pranthas are delicious!

Naggar Town
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View over Naggar (from my balcony!)
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There, I met Jan - a long term stayer from Germany. He is writing a book about his experiences of living in India on and off for the past 20 years. His observations and insights were very interesting.
He get to know everyone in town, and introduced me to his card playing friends who could have easily been Khaderbai and his goons in Shantaram.
Naggar is a very friendly, jovial, gorgeous and shanti place....

Trek to Malana

I organised a trek through Pappu: 32kms from Naggar to Malana via Chandrakhani pass.
This is a very tough journey - with steep inclines and very rocky terrain. It gets more and more spectracular as you go further up though - up through the clouds!
There are high altitude farms and communities here.

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Amazing views on the way
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Being at the top of Chandrakhani Pass, among the clouds with wild horses running around reminded me of the dream sequence in Blade Runner
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On the way down to Malana we hit some trouble. It started raining heavily and this is the rockiest part of the journey. With low visibility it was difficult to tell how far we had to go in the dwindling daylight.
Luckily we slowly but surely made it to Malana before dusk

Tragic Malana

Malana is famous for charras (hashish), and this seems to be the primary industry of the village.
Cannabis plants grow absolutely everywhere!
Education, though offered is hardly taken up, with kids seemingly just playing, throwing rubbish at each other or filling their faces with sweets and crisps.
Most families make their living by rolling cannabis plants to extract the charras, and make a small fortune in the process.
Children are taught to roll charras at an early age, and I was told that during peak charras harvest (2 months) of the year, even less kids are in school because the family requires them to work in the family business.

Malana is probably the filthiest town I have seen in India.
People hardly wash, and the entire ground of the village is littered with candy and empty crisp packets.

Most families in Malana are very wealthy by Indian standards (we saw young children with Rp100 notes in their hands), yet their clothes are old, filthy and torn; plus their homes are falling down and unkept.

As we ate breakfast on the roof of my guesthouse (run by outsiders), I watched kids climbing into the town's water tank to swim, with their shoes and clothes on!
This is also what everyone in Kullu that I would see. It's a tragic but intriguing place to see.

To compound the absurdity, it is forbidden to touch any of the local people or buildings.
People of Malana consider themselves and their buildings holy. This adds a very comical element to the experience.
I could not shake anyone's hand or touch any buildings away from my guesthouse.
To make a purchase you must put your money on the ground or table where the vendor replaces it with the good(s).

Both myself and Amit, my guide (who has taken many many groups here) could not wait to get out of there.

The view of Parvati from Malana is nice though:
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Return to Naggar

On the way back to Naggar, we stopped in Kasol for a while.
This is a more extreme traveller spot - with trance parties, charras; whatever other contraband you like.

India being a largely conservative, caste conscious society do not like this kind of tourism. Locals very rarely participate in Parvati Valley shenanigans. Generally they are actively trying to attract a more genteel kind of tourist (I feel this will take time and better infrastructure though) but they tolerate/facilitate to make good money. Many, many people tell me this.

A friend once said to me - If westerners want to come here and impress Indian people, wear a neat shirt and present yourself properly. Walking in barefeet and smoking charras is not what we want from visitors!

It was great to get back to Naggar and shanti Kullu Valley for some of Meera's lovely home cooking, a chat with the other shanti guests and prepare for the next and final stage....

17 hour bus journey to Leh awaits.

Om shanti friends!

p.s. I took a ton of super snaps, you can see them all here!

Posted by SkinnyFists 08:45 Archived in India Tagged india trekking himachal_pradesh kullu_valley parvati_valley nagger malana Comments (1)

India: Darjeeling, Singalila Trek and Himalayan Views

Herein lies a tale of elevated social bliss and well earned, amazing Himalayan views; following exhilarating trekking.

all seasons in one day 10 °C
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Darjeeling

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Journey

The cab ride to Kolkata airport is long, slow, noisy and "aromatic".
My driver weaved in and out of congested lanes with similar daring as Han Solo and Chewbacca showed in their Millenium Falcon.
The flight to Bagdogra was a brisk 1 hour.

I took a taxi to Silgiri, then hopped on to a share jeep for the swerve-y 4 hour journey up the steep mountains to amazing Darjeeling.
Share jeeps are the primary mode of transport in these parts (the roads and inclines are too dicey for buses) - typically with 3 rows, and always crammed!

Next to me were a couple of local retired businessmen.
'Kumar' a retired military officer explained that he was stationed in Perth for a while.
He was born in Darjeeling and went to pains explain how much better it was when the "British were here". Elaborating that it was a much better run, cleaner and nicer place in those days, and that his home town had since fallen into decline.
Darjeeling isn't the glistening romantic hilltop station it may have been - but it is gorgeous all the same and has a warm, welcoming and vibrant charm.
I was so sad to leave when I did andmany other backpackers I met here expressed the same sentiment.

Kumar insisted on walking me to my guesthouse and to show me points of interest along the way.
Anyone might think he was leading up to a hard sell of something, but it became clear that he was a local dignitary. People stopped him in the streets to say hello and issue respect. I arrived at my guesthouse door very informed on my host town.
As Kumar went on his way he told me to ask around for him if I needed.
Darjeeling is that kind of place. You can afford to let your Varanasi or Rajasthan induced guard down a bit here.

Let's get trekking!!!

On my first day I roamed town and booked in for a trek, leaving the following day…

It was just myself, and another backpacker Sam (from London).
We took a jeep to the edge of Singalila National Park, which straddles India and Nepal.
As such we criss-crossed in and out of borders. At some points we had to pass through military check points to show our passports and visas - without much hassle.

This trek was pretty tough with some very steep gradients indeed!
The actual distance was somewhere between 35 and 45 kms depending on who you talk to.

Day 1
The views on the first day were very limited, as it was cloudy, but the weather cleared up pretty much for the rest of our journey.
For the evening we stayed in a home stay, along with another trekking group of gents from Kolkata.
We had a delicious veg curry with dahl for dinner, and a nice chat on Indian travel, Bollywood, and (of course) cricket - which I can only provide limited input on these days.

By 9 everyone was exhausted and ready to crash.
It reached bitterly cold temps in the evening, luckily there were nice thick down donnas at our beds.

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Day 2
The morning was clear and bright.

We soldiered on again. This was the longest leg - 19kms and some really steep gradients.
We passed through many small towns and villages.
One thing that puzzled me was - how the heck do they get supplies (building materials, etc) up here?!
Our guide really kept the pace going - which was good in a way, because we didn't dilly dally and got to our evening destinations with a good amount of light left.

We arrived at our hut within thick mist and cloud - we really couldn't see beyond 5 metres.
The night was cold and dark (no power in the huts), but the hut manager made us a hearty curry dinner, before a retreat to slumber under 5 blankets.

Gorgeous Rhododedrons amongst the mist:
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Day 3
The highlight!
The previous day, we climbed to the peak of Mt Sandakphu, though visibility was poor!
We had no idea of the view we would get in the morning.

At approximately 4:45am, our guide bashed on the door to tell us it was clear outside and to come and see the view.
When you see the magnificent Khangchengdzonga in clear view for the first time, your heart stops!

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To the left you could see Everest in the far distance:
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Absolutely mind blowing. Worth every step/climb/trudge!
(Link to full photo sets at end of this entry.)

Most of the final day was a decent, which uses completely different muscles. I felt my legs shaking about half way down!

This was a trip highlight....

Throughout the trek it was difficult to tell whether we were in India or Nepal!
Though, just before departing on a jeep back to Darjeeling we had to pass Indian border and passport control.
All in all it was a truly amazing experience.

Unforgettable Darjeeling

The rest of my time in Darjeeling was brilliant - it is one of those towns where you get to know most of the travellers there, and one where you could easily spend weeks!
My trekking buddy Sam and I went to Happy Valley tea plantation which makes tea exclusively for Harrod's. It was quite interesting, and definitely gorgeous! We also went for high tea at ……

Joey's Pub is a great hangout to catch up with other travellers. I had two good nights in there chatting with backpackers and locals alike. Sam and I got talking to a couple of guys who work in Bollywood as producers. They gave some great insights into Indian culture and the ins and out of the (enormous) entertainment industry.

Budgeteers - if you stay in Darjeeling - book Tranquility! It is one of the best guest houses I've stayed in India for the 500 rupee region.
The rooms have hot water, cable TV, comfy beds - and the front facing ones have unobstructed views of the lush mountains. The staff were excellent and the wi-fi was fast. What more could you want?

I left Darjeeling in a share jeep with great memories, new friends, sore legs and a smile!

Photos

You can see all of my Darjeeling photos here

Singalila Ridge trek photos here

Onwards and upwards to Sikkim……
Skinny Fists out.

Posted by SkinnyFists 19:32 Archived in India Tagged trekking himalayas darjeeling khangchendzonga singalila Comments (0)

Thailand: Chiang Mai - Culture and Treks

Exploring and the wonderful, serene and funky travellers paradise, and trekking the amazing jungles of the surrounds.

sunny 34 °C
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Chiang Mai

If I knew what Chiang Mai was like, I certainly would have come here sooner.....
It is the second biggest city in Thailand and capital of the north, however absolutely nothing like (if not polar opposite) to Bangkok.
It's quiet (even in the peak of tourist season where hotels are nearly all full), chilled, patient, friendly, health consciou and deeply cultural. It's hard to explain.
Everyone who comes here loves the place. There is plenty to do - yoga, meditation, cooking classes, cycling tours, trekking, museaums, etc. The tallest building you'll see must only be 4 storeys.

On a side note, it was great to see cycling fixie culture is popular here! The main square at the city wall was full of kids on fixies doing pretty impressive tricks!

Night Market

Close contender to Siem Reap as far as night markets go. Open air, sweet smells of incense, amazing works of art, light on trash, high on welcoming atmosphere. Just loved it!
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Trekking

I did a 1 night/2 day trek run by a truly great guide named Kai, and 9 other intrepid travellers of varying ages from USA, Korea and Netherlands.
It was a nice mix of people and great fun!
We were picked up at 8:30 and headed out to the maket to get supplies then on to a Burmese villiage, where the expats are allowed to live and make products (primarily for tourism). It did feel a bit fake - like the place was built for tourists to come and look, rather than a genuine village - with proper toilets, etc.
After that we went to an Elephant camp to ride, and learn about the elephants.
This part of the trip felt again a bit off, as the poor elephants were chained up, clearly in pain and hot and bothered. The fellows working there, were hitting the poor things with pointed sticks to make them walk when they gave up. We fed the elephants banannas as a reward, but I really felt like doing something to help them escape. It was awful, and I won't be supporting anything like that again. The sentiment was shared throughout the group, so I wonder why it is still included in the tour?!

From that point however things completely turned around and the remainder of the trip was a great and unforgettable adventure.
We drove to the base of one of the moutains outside of Chiang Mai, and did a 3 hour (pretty tough I must say) hike to the top, where an ethnic village live and farm rice and chicken, etc. This is the most scenic part of Thailand I saw - beautiful lush mountains, with rice paddies and flowing rivers and waterfalls!

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When we arrived, we were able to have cold shower sourced from their dam, and then a traditional massage (that almost sent me to sleep).

A well earned rest before dinner:
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Meanwhile Kai was busily making us a delicious banquet of fried chickn balls, green vegetables, masaman potato curry and rice. So much we couldn't eat it all.

Dinner! :
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Then we sat by the fire whilst Kai did his best to sing us some well known hits on with his guitar, and one of the village chaps cooked pork steaks over the fire for supper which were really yummy. A lovely evening.
We all slept on mattresses in the hut (a little chilly at night).

Supper by the fire:
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In the morning, Kai had breakfast ready for us - coffee, tea and continental brekkie, with fruits.

Breakfast:
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We then descended down the other side of the mountain (a little tough on the knees) to an enormous waterfall at the base.
Most of us ventured into the (very cold water) for a nice shower under the flowing waterfall - truly gorgeous!
After some sun bathing and chatting with other groups it was time to continue on.... this time on rafts down the rapids!
We split into two boats and learnt the basics of whitewater rafting (second time for me, and equally as fun as Borneo).
We got some serious pace, and kit a few tricky spots, but made it through unscathed.
(I'm guessing) a few kilometers down, we stopped to change transport. This time, traditional bamboo rafts.
Each group sits in a straight line down the raft. I was picked as captain, and hence charged with rowing / navigating the raft.
It was no easy task to steer, but one you get a bit of pace up, they are really fun!!

By the waterfall:
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Our fearless and jovial leader:
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At the end of our journey, we were met with some tasty pad thai to replenish our strength.
By this point everyone was tired, and we waded back into the truck bound back to town.
This is once of the best tours I have done, despite the false starts, and recommend Kai's tour to anyone!

Departing Thoughts

Chaing Mai is definitely in my top 10 cities list.
The people here are genuinely friendly, health conscious, and very gracious hosts for tourists. I saw a lot of signs and graffiti showing resistance to the emergence of bars and nightlife. They really don't want Chiang Mai to become a Bangkok, and it's so great that they actively retain their culture.
Thank Buddha that Julia Roberts didn't come here for Eat Pray Love, because this place feels a lot more genuine than Ubud and is certainly less crowded and touristy.
The fact that it isn't on the coast may also be a blessing. I fear a beach could have detrimental effects on the space, culture and state of the city.
Travellers here seem like the real deal, and again I met some great and wonderful friends here.
Sad to be leaving, but know I'll be back!

You can view all of my photos from Chiang Mai here

Posted by SkinnyFists 01:29 Archived in Thailand Tagged waterfalls trekking chiang_mai chaing_mai _trek village_trek Comments (0)

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