England was a bit of a whirlwind since we were only there for 4 days and a lot more expensive compared to what we were used too. We also lost our touch a little during our break at home because it cost us a lot just to get to our hostel since we didn’t do proper research and we spent a lot for dinner two nights in a row. So we had to buckle down a bit.
The first two days were used to explore the city. We walked to all the main tourist attractions such as Hyde park, Big Ben, St. James’ Cathedral, London’s eye, London Tower, Tower Bridge, the London Museum, Weschester Palace, Weschester Abbey, Buckingham Palace, etc. By the way, the royal guard (the guys in red) do move sometimes but barely.
Before arriving in London I was listening to the Harry Potter series on audiobook so everything was fresh in my mind. I made John go to King’s Cross Station where we found a huge Harry Potter store and a trolly disappearing into the wall for people to take pictures with for a price. It ended up being a really cool sight to see aside from the Harry Potter stuff.We also walked across Millennium Bridge when I realized that it was in one of the movies… so naturally I had to see the other sights! The third day was walking around seeking out movie sights. In the end we found Diagon Alley, the entrance to the Leaky Culdron, and Piccadilly Circus. Yeah yeah… I know I’m a nerd but I don’t care.
On the walk to our hostel on the third day I found a 50 pound note on the ground which is equivalent to about $65. I was stunned and even felt slightly bad for pocketing it without asking if anyone dropped. However, I did look around for someone but there were very few people around. I even thought that it could have been one of those social experiements that you see on facebook. With our newly found wealth we decided to go to Oxford on our last day in England. There we toured around the famous schools, museums, and some more Harry Potter spots.
All in all, the trip to London was a lot of fun and it seemed like the perfect amount of time for us. London and Oxford are truely beautiful and have an elegance and charm that South America lacks for obvious reasons. The architecture was a combination of new and old with splashes of a gothic flare. It was also geart to be in a place where everyone spoke English. My only complaint is the amount of stuff I got in my eyes. Even if it wasn’t very windy I seemed to manage it.
We were able to squeeze in a quick trip home! The prices for flights straight to Africa were close to the prices home, London, and then Cairo so we figured why not. It was amazing to see family and friends for a week and a half but sadly we didn’t get to see everyone. We also managed to get everything booked for London, Cairo, and tickets to Tanzania. I will say that it was an ongoing feast while we were home. According to family we had to eat some well rounded meals because we were looking a little sickly… grant it we were sick for a week before arriving. Overall, it was nice to see everyone and then off to London we go.
Lima probably could have been better than it was thats for sure. I was still recovering from my sickness and John came down with it too. We don’t know if it was food, water, or just a bug but it hit both of us. We did do a bit of walking around the city and on the beach though. Lima did have it’s own charm but it was tanted by the constant smell of urine and piles of doggy dodo. There was a fun park called John F. Kennedy (kinda funny) that was full of stray cats that were cared for by volunteers until they were adopted. There was also an awesome park that was close to our hostel that had a fountain and random events such as a pet festival and a strange lip syncing/group dancing competition. We did have breakfast every morning in that park.
We didn’t eat as much due to our unsettled stomachs but we did try some street sandwiches, tiny eggs, and chafe which was either rice or noodles with an oriental flare.
The last couple of days we were feeling better so we tried some surfing and ultimate body boarding. We were able to surf all day long for $10. I got my butt kicked by the water!! The paddling out was the worst… you would paddle and paddle and then get hit by a wave and end up back where you started. It was exhausting! But by the end we both stood up on a board and felt accomplished. It was a fun experience to check off the bucket list.
Lastly, the taxi drivers in Lima are terrible. One guy put the address into his phone wrong and didn’t know where he was going. He went the wrong way twice and complained about bad directions. Finally we told him to stop and got out. It was a set price of 35 soles and I gave him a 50… he claimed he didn’t have 5 soles for change and neither did we. After some bickering I just walked away frustrated. When we got to the hostel it was the address we gave him. The second guy took us on a wild goose chase for 30 soles! He drove around and asked a couple people for directions. Eventually we directed him to the hostel. He told us since it was far it was going to be 50 soles but it was only far because he made it that way. So I argued! I gave him 30 soles and told him that was all… he drove away bickering. In both cases we showed the drive the location on the GPS and they still managed to get lost or act lost. Beware of Lime taxi drivers!!
Puno was a smaller city that didn’t have much going for it. It is approximately 13,000 ft above sea level and is located right next to Lake Titicaca which the highest lake of it’s size. It had a nice boardwalk next to the water. There was also a market they had pretty much everyday but it was bigger on weekends.
We actually stopped in Puno twice in an attempt to get across the border into Bolivia.
In the first attempt we actually took a bus to the border and received an exit stamp for Peru. We walked across the bridge into Bolivia and went to the immigration office where we were informed that they required proof of entry/exit, proof of accommodations, proof of funds, and the completed application with a recent picture. These were the same requirements that Brazil required for their visa. We were told before we got there that all we had to do was pay the $160 each to get our visa… appearently that was not the case. We should have research it before going but everyone was sure we just needed to pay. I did walk around to try and find an internet cafe to print off what we needed but I didn’t find one. So we got our bags off the bus and walked back to the surprised Peruvian agent to get an entry stamp about 45 minutes after we got an exit stamp. From there we got in a van and rode back to Puno. When we arrived we immediately got another bus to Cusco.
During the second attempt about two weeks later we were going to go to the Bolivian consulate in Puno to get the visa and then cross over but that didn’t work out either. We don’t really keep track of what day it is on the road and we ended up arriving on Saturday. That means the consulate was going to be closed the day we were going to try to go and we were running out of time. To make us even luckier I got sick Sunday morning. We don’t know if it was from water or food or even just a bug but it hit me hard. I was tired, nauseous, and had stomach issues for two solid days and stayed in the room… John wondered around to kill time. I was still pretty out of it and continued to have stomach cramps and so we remained in Puno for one more day. Wednesday, I decided I was good enough to travel and we took a bus to Lima, Peru.
We did a lot of walking around Cusco but it was a bit of a challenge. Since Cusco sits at a little over 12,000 ft walking up a hill had us sucking air. However, as time went on it got a little easier. Cusco is a cool city with a lot of character in a valley that climbs up the edges giving it a bowl effect. We stopped at a couple of temples/churches while exploring the city. To please the tourist there were ladies dressed up in the stereotypical Peruvia fasion while dragging around either baby or young llamas for pictures. The last night we were there we went out on a date night where we had a good meal after receiving and hour massage. You could get an hour massage for about $7!!
We ate at a lot of pollorias where we got a salad, french fries, and 1/8 portion of chicken for a little over $2. We also discovered the super churro! It was a foot long of fried dough with a slight amount of Dolce de Leche (caramel type spread) and a dusting of sugar. It was fried deliciousness!!
The only excursion we did aside from Machu Picchu was Montaña de Siete Colores (Rainbow Mountain). We got on a bus that drove us for 5 hours before we hit the trailhead. We did stop for breakfast after about 4 hours. The local people had tons of horses on standby for the people who didn’t want to or simply couldn’t make it to the top. The hike took about 3 hours and peaked at 16,500 ft. It was pretty strenuous especially when you are dehydrated and racing to be in front of the hordes of people also visiting the site. I had to rest a few times so I didn’t pass out. By the end most people had opted to riding a horse but the last steep climb had to be on foot. The view at summit was pretty cool. The different color sediments were separated in very distinct levels. It was a very unique area that was beautiful to behold. The climb down was a lot faster… naturally. However, I was impressed by how many people had decided to ride horses back down. While we sat outside our bus waiting for everyone to catch up the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. When we took off it started to snow but turned to a drizzle when we stopped for lunch. 4 hours later we were back in Cusco. It was cool to see but the experience was tanted by the giant masses of people and the need to control tour groups.
We decided not to hike the highly overpriced and overcrowded Inca trail… plus permit were sold out anyways. The Choquequirao trail was not only less traveled but it also lead to Inca ruins that were recently discovered and are only 30% excavated.
The hike itself was challanging!! We would literally go down a mountain only to climb right back up on the other side of the valley. Let’s put the first 6 days out of 8 into perspective…
Day 1 = 9,450 ft start and 4,800 ft end.
Day 2 = 4,800 ft start and 9,551 ft end.
Day 3 = rest and ruins
Day 4 = 9,551 ft start up to 10,830 ft and then down to 6,250 ft and then back up to 9,692 ft.
Day 5 = 9,692 ft start up to 13,530 ft and then down to 11,588 ft.
Day 6 = 11,588 ft start up to 15,250 ft and then down to 11,000 ft.
Another aspect that made it challenging was all the mud!! We were slipping and sliding during most of the hike and not to mention camping in it as well. However, the scenery was spectacular!! The mountains we were climbing could only be described as green and awe-inspiring. There was a wide variety of plant life but sadly we did not see any of the bears found in the area. One thing I did find amazing were all the random houses, farms, and villages that were scattered on the mountain side. They were so isolated that the had to be mostly self maintaining. Otherwise, they got all of their supplies by hauling them in on horses. The ruins themselves were fun to walk through but it was a workout… the Incas had to be fit thats for sure. Their buildings and irrigation systems were fairly impressive considering what they had available. We also saw a deer grazing in a back section of the ruins!
Day 4 was the continuation of the hike to Machu Picchu. We ended in a town that day where we planned to take a bus/taxi to Hydroelectrico since the trail was following a road but the only two cars in the town either had no tires or had a dead battery. During day 5 we decided to walk until a car drove by or we made it to the other town which happen to be the latter of the two. Motorcycles were the only thing to drive by. Luckily, there were functioning vehicles in the second town… but there was a landslide the night before that took out the road. The driver said we were going to try anyways but when we got there there was no chance of passage since there were still giant rocks falling. It just so happened that there was a zipline trolley at that exact spot that took us across the river where we walked the trail for about 45 minutes. We then crossed the river again in a smaller zipline trolley to a different car that took us to town. Boy was that an adventure!! The next day we got a ride to Hydroelectrico where we hit the final part of the trail to Machu Picchu.
The hike up to Machu Picchu was a piece of cake compared to what we did before. When we finally got up there we were welcomed with a clearing sky and a perfect day. Machu Picchu was way more elaborate than Choquequirao but it seemed Choquequirao could potentially be bigger when it is completely uncovered. Machu Picchu was also way more crowded with more rules which was expected. It also had the stereotypical llamas that were clearly kept there for tourists. But like a tourist I took some llama selfies.
Lastly, we ran into a couple of French guys that we were stuck with us at 18,000 ft during Christmas on Aconcagua 5 months before!!! What are the odds of us running into them again!! So we took a picture with them to document the reunion.
We spent a couple days here and there in Iquitos before and after our time in the jungle. After getting back from the jungle we simply relaxed for a day and explored the city. It was surprising the amount of hippies that could be found walking around and selling things. Something about this area just draws them in. We found the Casa de Fierro (The Iron House) which was designed by Gustave Eiffel and decided it was not anything special. We actually walked by it multiple times without realizing what it was. We also visited Mercado de San Juan. I read that anything that was once alive was for sale in the market but we only saw the common meats like chicken, beef, fish, and lamb. I will say that seeing piles of chicken guts and bull heads for sale was a shock… people actually buy them. John’s favorite thing was the food carts found around the city. These carts sold delicious meals of rice, chicken, and an olive all wrapped in a green leaf. You could simply sit at the cart and eat your meal doused in homemade hot sauce and drink chicka morada (purple corn juice) for 2 soles which is approximately 60 cents.
The second day we decided to go to Isla de los Monos which means island of monkeys… I mean who wouldn’t go! The island is actually a rescue and rehabilitation center for monkeys that were victims of trafficking and poaching. The team would take the monkeys in and nurse them back to health before being released on the island and sometimes off the island. We took the required boat rides and showed up to eager and friendly monkeys! We managed to buy some grapes before we left Iquitos and so all the monkeys were our best friends. There were 8 different species on the island and we got to see and hold 7 of them. My favorites were the wooly monkeys which are endagered due to poaching for their furs. They were so soft and sweet I just wanted to put on in my bag and take it with me! The cutest one was name Pepino… he was the youngest of the group we were playing with. He clung on to the back of my neck and wouldn’t let go and actually fell asleep for a period of time. I will say that I did lose some hair to the death grip he had when we tried to pry him off me… he was very vocal about his discontent! The wooly monkeys and a spider monkey used us as a human jungle gym for 3 glorious hours! There were a few very large cages that held fairly aggressive males but otherwise the monkeys are free to come and go as they please. The guide walked us around for about 15 minutes to talk about the island and show us the different species and a talking parrot that constantly whistled and said “hola.” After that we were free to walk around and play with any monkey that would have us. The freedom was amazing! We would have been able to hold a sloth but unfortunately he disappeared somewhere on the island a few days before… again they are able to come and go as they see fit. I was disappointed but I appreciated the freedom of the animals.
Knowing that we had a flight to catch we reluctantly had to say our goodbyes where I got a couple light nibbles from the tarmin that didn’t want to leave my should and John lost some hair from Pepino’s death grip. It was sad to say goodbye! Had I known that we could have volunteered and lived on the island for 5 days I would have been all over it… next time!
One last thing I have to mention are the strange Peruvian hairless dogs that I thought were diseased. This breed originates in Peruvian pre-inca cultures and were kept during the Inca Empire. The dogs we saw were prodominatly black with tuffs of hair on the top of their head. I will admit that they were the ugliest dogs I had ever seen!!!
We had our hammocks, water, tickets, and snacks bought and ready for our adventure on the river. We were told it would leave at 3pm the next day and so we showed up a couple hours early to secure our spot. 3pm came and went with no hope of leaving. Eventually, we were sitting there for 24 hours, then 48 hours, then 72 hours. By the third day we had to get off the boat for a while and went to buy another 7L jug of water. When we came back I found my spot invaded by another hammock holding two young girls that were basically sitting in my lap when I was in my hammock. So I had to finagle my hammock to where it was beneath our luggage hammock so that I had more room. That night mutany was afoot and the locals that have been sitting there started yelling “vamos” and later the police showed up. Everyone was yelling about having to get home for work and school but the captain wasn’t leaving. After a lot of aguing we finally took off after 77 and a half hours of sitting at port. We were on the river for 20 minutes when they turned around saying there was engine trouble… great!! There was another uproar from the locals and the arguing started once again. Appearently, the president of the company showed up on the boat and was trying to talk to everyone. After about an hour or two of arguing the locals seemed more content and happy with the situation. I am still not a hundred percent sure what all went down but I think there was paperwork that was not sorted out and that was why we weren’t moving… and here I was thinking this much waiting was normal.
Anyhow, we started moving that night and made good progress down the river. There is not really much to do on a boat so we just sat around watching the trees go by. The forest on either side of the river was so dense and vast it was incredible but every once in a while we would pass a couple grass top huts or a small village. There was a cat onboard too that I made friends with that we called boat cat. As we progressed down the river we would stop to load and unload some people and cargo. At the smaller villages the crew would just load the small motor boat with people and their stuff and drive them to their village. This was a consant occurance causing a consant flucuation in the living conditions. We learned to guard our spot so no one could slide in to already close living conditions. Half way through the trip we had enough room that we could spread back out… it was magical! We even got off at two stops and walked around the village and bought fruit. Everyday on the boat we were able to see the famous pink dolphins of the Amazon and we even saw the second species of dolphins that were grey one night as we were pulling into the last port. The pink ones were kind of funny looking. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served every day and the food was fantastic! Breakfast was not my favorite I will admit but you can’t be picky when that’s all you have. Lunch and dinner were awesome and totally made up for breakfast. We did buy a piranha to try at the last port. It was seasoned really well and was good but the little bones were a bit much for me.
Everyday on the boat something interesting happened. The first night we got stuck in some shallow water and they had to work to get us going again. The second day we stopped at the side of the river to pick up a bunch of barrels of liquid and two bulls. The bulls were not liking the idea and were dragged for the most part to their make shift pen. The whole process was interesting and sad at the same time because the bulls were clearly terrified. The next day a storm came through and blew a bunch of stuff off the top of the boat and so the crew had to get in the small motor boat and pick it all up. The last night was the most entertaining. We actually hit one of the river sides! We were sitting in our hammocks and all of a sudden we were swaying back and forth and there was a lot of screaming. That’s when we heard the scraping of the side of the boat on trees and land. It wasn’t until later that I realized the kids were putting on life vests thinking we were sinking.
We did make some friends with some local kids after a family moved in right next to John. This was John’s worse night because they squeezed in a hammock when there was no room for one and then the mother and one son slept under his hammock. Appearently he got kicked a lot that night. Our friendship started when I made an Arnold Palmer and let the boys try some. They really liked it so I gave them a packet of their own. They drank it very quickly. John proceeded to pull out his phone and play games which attracted hordes of kids around him to watch. Eventually, he let the kids play the game. I was surprised how well they shared. From then on the kids were infatuated with us and loved swinging on John’s hammock…. it was tue best hammock 🙂
Overall, riverboating down the Amazon was a once in a lifetime experience. We were the only gringos aside from Les who was from the UK. If we were to do it again we would probably spend the extra money and get a cabin but we had to try the hammock experience first. Being surrounded by the jungle and locals was an experience I won’t soon forget and everything cost $160 for both of us for 8 days. Lastly, I should mention was that the mosquitos were nowhere near as bad as I anticipated.
We spent the first few days at 2tank Dive Hostel getting certified in open water scuba diving. So we spent 3 days in the water! It was a lot of fun. The first 2 days were skill days followed by a short dive off the beach but the last day we got to dive off a boat in two locations reaching a depth of 60 ft. During those dives, we saw a sea turtle, a nurse shark, tons of beautiful fish, lobsters, and so much more!! It was an amazing experience and I look forward to other dives around the world.
Later we met up with Jenn, Sarah, Nick, and Amanda. Lisa (from Australia) joined us for a couple of days as well. Cozumel was like a vacation from backpacking life. It was great seeing familiar faces and the Villa we stayed at was luxury! The pillows were absolutely amazing! On a trip like what have been on you learn to appreciate the little things 🙂 The week we spent with them was on the beach, snorkling, exploring Mayan ruins, eating taocs, and walking the city. Sarah did her magic and got a car with which we squeezed 7 people in. We did almost get a parking ticket but were able to talk our way out of it and then got in trouble for having to many in a car…. in Mexico (their ones to talk). So John and Jenn got out and walked a ways down and then got back in. There was one beach that we paid to get to and we had to correct the guy we were paying saying that we had 7 people instead of 5 and he was surprised to see Jenn and John on the floor in the back seat. He did comment that we were in a Mexican car which made us all laugh. Overall, it was a fun week with family and a good break from the hustle and bustle of our backpacker’s life.
We stayed in a hostel in Playa del Carmen for a night and then in Cancun for a night. I got a kink in my neck from the terrible pillows and the hostel in Cancun was just plain awful! People in and out all night and flipping the lights on and off… welcome back to hostel life!
We hit the ground running in Panama City. We had exactly three hours to go out and see everything before we had to be back at the airport to catch our connecting flight to Mexico. We left the airport and caught a cab for a tour around the city. He drove us through the old city and the new city followed by the Panama Canal. We spent an hour watching as two ship made their way in opposite directions through the canal… well at least part of the way. It took a really long time to move all that water. I was impressed to see how many tourists were there… most of which were older people. The old city had a charm that the new city lacked. It was packed with colonial style buildings in a variety of different colors. The new city was packed with skyscrapers both finished and in the process of being built. Some of their designs were really interesting and different. We made it back to the airport with an hour to spare! The whole five hour layover was more expensive than I anticipated but now I can say that I have seen the Panama Canal and got another country checked off the list.