Egypt, Israel and Jordan (Part 1)

*Made a clean start to the Egypt tour, which will make it easier to finish off writing on the hoof, as travelling to India tomorrow 🙂

 

It had been my aim for as long as I could remember; to visit the seven man made wonders of the world – and preferably the natural ones too – before my time was up. So far I’d been to three man made and three natural, so was nearly halfway. This trip would promise two in one fell swoop – the Pyramids in Egypt and the Treasury of Petra, in Jordan. The Pyramids and The Colosseum are both contestants as world wonders, depending on which source you visit. Technically the Colosseum wins because it is included as one of the new wonders, whilst the Pyramids is one of the old, but it doesn’t really matter. Originally, I had thought I’d see them all faster than I have, I’ve had to cancel some trips because life, but that’s just the way it is sometimes! The fact I get to see them at all is fortunate enough.

Egypt

It was September 2018, and I was booked on a weeks tour of Egypt with Contiki. Not really wanting to hang around in Egypt on my own for a week after, I flew home for that week and back again into Jordan, for ten days there and in Israel with a different tour company, Top Deck. The distance isn’t far, three or four hours flight maximum, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Our group was fairly large, granted not as huge as the Canadian and Scandinavian ones were, and most people on it were American. We deduced that this is because the poor bastards don’t get very much holiday time per year, so the week in Egypt was an ideal short time frame. What an incredible amount of stuff we managed to fit into those seven days though! A mind boggling amount of culture, history and sights. The places that we’d cover would be Cairo, obviously via Giza, then an overnight train to Aswan, before boarding a vessel and cruising down the Nile for three days and nights – through Edfu, to Luxor and then the seaside town of Hurghada before winding up back at our starting point in Cairo.

Arriving into Cairo airport, I was met by a tour rep who helped me get my Egyptian visa sorted – it’s really fast, 5 minutes if that, tiny queue, they barely look at you or your passport, STAMP, done. He told me to meet him down in the luggage hall while he went back upstairs to wait for some others getting off a flight. I went down, got my bags and sat on some seats next to some American’s who also appeared to be waiting for something. It very quickly dawned on me that they might be part of my tour group, and introducing myself, I found they indeed were. I laughed, saying he had just gone to look for them but they said that it wasn’t them and that there were apparently even more arriving at the same time. That is, until he emerged alone and shrugged his shoulders, saying he guessed it was just our small group for now. After waiting for us to sort out money and sim cards, our rep led us to a van which we jumped in to get a ride to our hotel.

The scenery was amazing, very dry and desert-looking, as somewhere by a desert should look really. Half the buildings seemed to be falling apart and there was a fair amount of construction going on. Our guide explained that they had planning permission to build a vast building for the new Egyptian Museum, which is going to open in 2020. Guess they must still be finding more tombs and artefacts, I told myself.

When we reached our hotel, security was evidently pretty high as there were bag scanners and passport checks, which felt a little like being back in an airport. We got our rooms sorted and I requested a towel three times before I could have a shower, then went to hang out by the pool and use the wifi. We met the rest of the group and our tour guide a little later, who gave a very long introductory talk and dealt with a lot of paperwork before we had dinner and drinks and got to know each other a little. The hotel pool and gardens were lovely, with some karaoke going down in the evening. Whilst the bar did try to rip us off a bit, we found this was pretty customary practice everywhere in Egypt. Still surprising, nevertheless, to get this from a professional hotel.

I met my lovely roommate, Bobby (Canadian) at around 3am when she entered our room. Bless her, she had had a bit of a horrid journey getting to Egypt and arrived a lot later than expected. It was quite funny because we briefly introduced ourselves… and said we’d talk properly in the morning after some more sleep.

The next day would be a very memorable one – as it was time to see the Pyramids! I was actually very impressed with them in person, after hearing quite a lot of criticism about being let down upon first sighting, next to a pizza hut/KFC, rubbish whizzing through the air etc etc. But it seemed clean, fast food joints weren’t in the way and the pyramids themselves absolutely dwarf you. I couldn’t believe we were actually allowed to climb on them – surely, but hopefully not, one day this will be banned? They did this with Chichen Itza in Mexico, you used to be able to climb up the steps to the top until 2006. Anyway, we got some great shots; cheesy and otherwise. Be prepared for the sellers though, I mean, they are everywhere anyway, but it’s particularly irritating when you’re trying to absorb the splendour of a world wonder and someone is shoving necklaces and hats in your face. Our Egyptian guide said that from birth, everyone in Egypt is practically trained to be a salesman.

Authorities open one of the three pyramids on a rotational basis, and we were there when probably the shittest one was open. Splitting into two groups, we descended the steps of the pyramid at an almost vertical and awkward angle. It’s quite eerie filming it, until you arrive into a tiny empty tomb at the end, with a bit of graffiti on the wall along the likes of ‘Bez Woz ere 2009’  – bit of an anticlimax. From that perspective, I could sympathise with the critics 😉

After this it was time for a camel ride, which was mildly thrilling and scary in equal measure (flashbacks of the Sahara desert in Morocco returned to me). Without meaning to sound all self righteous, I wasn’t overly thrilled about the way the camels seemed to be kept and treated either, so not sure I’ll ride anymore animals again full-stop. Something tells me none of them particularly enjoy it, even if we do. Then it was time for a group photo in the desert before heading off to the impressive Egyptian Museum. The place is massive, and to be honest you could probably spend a whole day or two there, much like the British Museum or V&A back home. An amazing amount of interesting, historical artefacts to look at. The mummies room, which you have to purchase an extra ticket for, were particularly intriguing – in a sort of morbidly curious way.

As for the giant 4,600 year old Sphinx, well, absolutely incredible. It’s mind boggling how well preserved everything is here, no doubt helped by an incredibly low rainfall.

Our day, however, was far from over yet as we had an overnight train to Aswan, on the other side of the country, to look forward to. After waiting a good hour at the station for the train, buying bog roll and bottles of water in the shop and getting stared at unblinkingly by every Egyptian, we boarded our ride. It was incredibly cute, small and compact but clean. There were two to a room – with a bunk bed, a fold out sink and about 1 square metre of floor space 😛 But we loved it. Everyone hung out in the corridors drinking and chatting merrily for several hours before we got served our cardboard dinners and the staff made up our beds for us.

After a very bumpy nights sleep we arrived into Aswan, with a sightseeing tour of the famous Obelisk and High Dam. Next up, after a round of shopping, we jumped into our swimwear and hopped onto a wooden Felucca sailboat for a small dip in the Nile, where we posed with the sign ‘I’m in the Nile’. That night would welcome us onto our luxury cruise liner down the Nile and also our base for three nights, as we covered Edfu to Luxor. I was so impressed by the quality and variety of food on that cruise, the staff clearly took pride in their cooking and you could tell the extra effort and attention to detail in each dish. The boat also had a fantastic large viewing deck up top, with a small swimming pool, sun loungers and beautiful panoramas of the surrounding landscape as you glided on past.

Tomorrow would see us dock in Edfu during the afternoon, after another heavy sightseeing morning in Aswan 😉

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South Africa and Namibia (the first half)

* NB This is my most recent trip to date, so that leaves the second half of this to finish and then a longish post on Egypt, Israel and Jordan – so that means I’m nearly up to date! But for now, I need to go and pack for India. Will post more in the next couple of days if there’s time 🙂

 

It was Christmas time in Joburg, but you would be forgiven for not realising this. In stark contrast to home in London, decorations were sparse and consumerism was limited to the shopping malls. I had been invited over for the festive season by my friend and her family, and, despite needing a travel break for a few months – who in their right mind would turn down South Africa?

As I was over in that part of the world it made sense to book a tour and explore some more of the country, even surrounding countries. The place didn’t matter so much to me as to what would fit in time wise with the New Year, so I browsed some G Adventures tours and a two week jaunt to Namibia, ending in Cape Town, SA, beckoned. It was to start four days after Christmas Day and end on the 11th January, which was really perfect. An additional bonus was that we would get to go on safari, a must-do here and something that had been on my to do list for as long as I could remember. Camping, however, wasn’t, and this tour would be focused around just that. Perhaps I would hate it or perhaps I would love it but there’s no other way to find out than to take the plunge.

The adventure began in the capital city of Windhoek, and first travelling through Etosha National Park, would wind its way through the scorching hot Namib desert all the way to Cape Town. Stops along the way would include the rocky character of Spitzkoppen (with a chance to sleep “out outside”) the German colonised town of Swakopmund, attractively situated by the sea and a cool respite from the blistering heat, complete with a break from the great outdoors and a couple of nights in a hostel (with WiFi). Sky diving and sand boarding also reared their opportunistic heads here, which we took advantage of. Both fantastic activities – particularly the former – and ones which gave us a terrific high. After this it was back on the dirt road amongst the Namib desert, which measures the size of Switzerland and contains world famous highlights such as the Sossusvlei, Deadvlei with 900 year old dead trees, dunes named “Big Daddy” and “45” – and Fish River Canyon just ten hours down the road. From the Canyon it was a sizeable drive to the border of South Africa, where we would pick up the trail to Orange River and wine country (hello wine tours) before ending up in Table Mountain territory.

Day One – Windhoek

After a two hour flight with no problems, I arrived in Windhoek and caught a ride to our camp site where we would begin our trip. Most people had already arrived by the time I got there in the afternoon and after I’d checked in, it was time to meet my roommate and get acquainted with our tent and the campsite.

The conditions were pretty good for camping, I thought, before it was then time to be confronted with my first experience of an outdoors bamboo shower. It was actually quite a pleasantly interesting time, with the facilities in decent working order and the company of five beetles, two millipedes and a multi coloured lizard.

Showering over, I left my newly jet lagged roommate Megan passed out in the hammock and made my way to the bar to order a beer with Lemonade and a Greek salad. I was already boiling hot when it was time to meet a few of our crew and get acquainted over some drinks. Our kick start meeting was to be held, as usual, that evening, before an early morning departure on the road.

Our dream team crew was Ansie and “Medicine Man” – otherwise known as Eddy – both experienced in the way of roughing it on the road. The group itself made up to twenty people, which I thought was a perfect number, and about 3/4 of those were German/Swiss, which was a surprising one. No Australians!

After the briefing for the next fortnight, we headed out to a restaurant for food and some more local beers, the most renowned being Windhoek lager. A few people tried the multiple meat dishes of Namibian speciality – namely, Springbok, Oryx, Kudu and Zebra, conveniently lined up with a named flag sticking up out of each chunk of meat so you wouldn’t forget what is what.

Day Two – Windhoek to Etosha National Park

Our first official day on tour today as we set off on the road to Etosha National Park, stopping off en route in Katutura township at a local craft initiative called Penduka. This charity helps local impoverished women make a livelihood by teaching them craft skills.

We got given a talk by one of the women and shown around the premises, seeing how things were made. Finally we got to see the completed objects, which ranged from jewellery to dolls to bags and tablecloths, of which most of us purchased something in support. The view surrounding the workshops was stunning, with a large crystal blue lake dotted with little huts and a jetty.

A few hours later we arrived at Etosha National Park where I was to have my first experience of putting up a tent (in the rain) Most of the mattresses were wet, which led to the ingenious idea by – I think it was Barney – to fold the mattresses around the stone circular camp fire to dry them. Ansie got to work on dinner with the “dinner group” (us) helping to cut up the vegetables. Our group of 20 has been split into five smaller groups, each with the name of an animal, assigned different chores on a rotational daily basis. My group is elephant which I’m more than happy with.

After we had finished this duty we headed down to the watering hole at the edge of the park, a few minutes walk from our tents, to watch the sunset and perhaps hopefully catch a glimpse of some large animals. Luck was on our side that night! Throughout the sunset we had giraffes prancing around on the horizon, with further treats awaiting us after dark in the form of elephants, a family of rhino and a few long distance sightings of roaring lions. Even a rabbit appeared, seemingly unperturbed by the giant cats lurking in the shadows. “Mr Tiddles”, the house cat, sadly did not make an appearance. The hideout area was surrounded by barbed wire, floodlighting and lots of shushing grannies, of which the animals seemed not to care. Barney smashed a drink on the floor and made the grannies tut more.

We slept soundly that night, satisfied by a good round of animal spotting, rising early the next day (New Years Eve) to head out on a traditional drive through safari plains across the vast National Park.

Day Three – Etosha National Park (New Years Eve)

I think luck must have been on our side regarding animals, as the next day we headed off first thing for another safari, this one lasting six hours. We were fortunate enough to see four of the big five, plus one of the rarest animals going, the honey badger. The leopards were definitely one of my favourites, especially considering there were two spotted together, when even seeing one alone is rare. Eddie said they were usually solitary animals and he had only ever seen five in his life.

Roads are very bumpy in the National Park and you must be prepared to weather the jumps and jolts. However, it is more than worth it for the big game.

Back at camp and everyone chilled by the pool, sunbathed, shopped, unpacked or otherwise lounged about. Most went out for another safari but Christian, Martin and I decided we were all safaried our for one day and continued to hang by the pool until dinner time. Turns out we made the right decision as everyone else came back after three more hours on the bumpy roads and said the only extra thing they saw was a lion (in the distance 😉)

Later that day we gathered together again at the watering hole to see if we could spot any more animals. The giraffes were back, alongside a herd of elephants which showed up later on in the evening, yet we had to tear ourselves away to begin our midnight New Year celebrations at the bar. These festivities involved playing cards and stacking up various objects as high as they would go – finally, midnight arrived, I had lost a nail in a vigorous game of snap! And everyone was nicely oiled. There have only been a couple of other times in my life where I’ve celebrated NY abroad, the first was in the Caribbean and the second with family and friends in New Zealand. It makes a novel change from the usual cold routine back home.

The next night would see us having a bigger (and arguably, better) New Year celebration mark two in Damaraland, where we would be allowed to make much more noise than in Etosha National Park with its collection of grumpy oldies.

Day Four – Etosha National Park to Damaraland (second New Years party)

True to form, the next day we woke bright and early to pack up our camping gear, only to get told off by one of the grumpy oldies – who claimed we were waking everyone up and making far too much noise for 6am. To be honest, there isn’t much else you can do when you’re packing up twenty tents, multiple boxes and communicating about breakfast with two dozen others, but I’m sure the car alarm that went off after her speech would’ve done the trick anyway 😉

En route to our next destination – a lot of camping is about driving huge distances and well, setting up camp – we stopped for a tour around a small tribal village to get a feel for their work and livelihoods. The tribe still lived very traditionally and simply with not much clothing and many pieces of jewellery. We were again shown the different production stages of jewellery making as well as how to sharpen tools, start a fire and choose a wife. The cherry on the cake was a dance performance by the tribe and getting taught how to play a game of stones (name?) A good start to the New Year.

Our second New Year celebrations that night would involve another bar, a falling apart pool table (complete with crumbling cue and dented balls) and several dozen rounds of Monopoly cards, which were to become a thing on our trip. While it was still light, we decided it’d be a good idea to take a ten minute drive to the nearest bottle shop to stock up. Without quite knowing what to expect when we arrived, a small, caged bar saw the owner serving somewhat shadily behind it, a drunk local swaying in the background and Westlife blasting through the speaker to a bemused queuing crowd.

The night ended on the dance floor, as it should, to much drinking, dancing and revelry, only interrupted by drunken stumbling in the dark later on to find our tents.

Day Five – Damaraland to Spitzkoppe

A bit of a mission to get to our next stop, in Spitzkoppe. The usual routine here is as follows; rise at 5am on slightly dirty mattresses, change hurriedly in the cramped tent and stumble out to the bathrooms to chuck some water on your face or shower then brush your teeth. I’ve actually found as well, that it’s easier getting all your clothes ready the night before as then you can just get them out and go, not faff around climbing over ten people in the “Lando” to get to your massive suitcase which has to be kept onboard most of the time as it is completely impractical for camping. Also, note to self, do not get fake nails beforehand, even if it is Christmas themed.

The next step is breakfast, usually prepared by Ansie, like all other meals. She’s a very good cook and seems to enjoy doing it, at least that’s what we tell ourselves.

There are several different boxes for separate things, cups and plates in one, utensils in another, breakfast cereals in yet another. Because we’re a team of twenty we get everything unpacked and packed away into the Lando again pretty quickly. The final step involves dismantling the tents and stacking up all the mattresses inside the vehicle, followed by a civilised scramble as everyone climbs over each other to get things out of their bags and find room for all the belongings.

Twyfelfontein was the first stop before Spitzkoppe for a guided tour around the area to look at ancient tribal rock art, mainly of animals. Fascinating stuff.

It was our intention to sleep outside under the stars at Spitzkoppe, without pitching a tent. This place was about as near to great adventure and the outdoors as you can get (complete with drop toilets), with the boulders and rock formations reminding me strongly of central outback Australia. There were a series of walks you could do, which to be honest were more like massive treks in the heat. One was two and a half hours practically vertical and another an hour and a half. About half the group spotted the five minute scramble up to the rock above our campsite and sensibly opted for that to watch the sunset. And what a sunset it was!

Later on, after dinner, card games, alcohol and cigars around the fire, some people scrambled back up here in the dark, whilst others picked their other favourite patch of rock to sleep on. Ansie had slightly unnerved us with stories of cockroaches and snakes, so a few of us cowards set up tents – Ali G and I preparing an extra one incase people decided they couldn’t face outdoors and wanted to crash with us. They didn’t, but we slept better and had first dibs on the outdoor showers the next morning 

Day Six – Spitzkoppe to Swakopmund (skydive)

After showering amongst the wilderness and performing our usual daily morning routine it was back on the Lando to Swakopmund. For once the drive was relatively quick and leaving early meant we were also early at our next destination, with plenty of time to panic about that afternoons sky dive. It turned out we were getting treated to actual – gasp – hostel accommodation with a break from the tents for two nights. Most of us put in upgrade requests for single or twin rooms, but as it turned out many of us ended up sharing dorms one night and in our case, a twin the second night. The first night in the dorm was fine, we had a lot of space and to be honest it seemed luxurious after what we’d been doing. Plus I was flat out drunk, so pretty much passed out straight away.

After settling into our rooms and unpacking the Lando again, groups of us headed out into Swakopmund town centre for lunch. It’s quite a strange looking town right by the beach, with the desert not far away. The streets are wide and in general everything feels very spaced out. Not surprising given Namibia is one of the least inhabited countries in the world. The architecture was an intriguing mix of colourful German colonialism and plainer facades. Our cafe of choice delivered a typically modern, hipster vibe with decent coffee (hurrah!) but none of us ate much on account of skydiving nerves.

1pm soon rolled around, and after reading through all the various jump packages and signing our lives away, it was time to hop into some 4X4s and drive through the sand to get to our base for jumping. “Have you told any relatives?” someone asked me. I made a face.

The staff couldn’t have been friendlier; with a great mix of professional reassuring chat and your mate down the pub banter, they helped us into our attractive coloured suits and helmets, making endless jokes. There was even a bar on site, which they encouraged us to use beforehand and this certainly went down well. We were split into five or six different helicopters with ours third. Mesi went about interviewing some of us about our thoughts and feelings on the jump – and in the background of my recording you can see some old perve checking me out from behind in my unattractive gear. Whatever works for some, I suppose.

Everyone was filmed walking to their helicopter like some army recruits going off to battle and Christian, Martin and I semi reluctantly headed up up and away. Watching the dial climb 1, 2, 3000 feet and beyond was quite surreal and after my initial nervousness an odd sense of calm descended upon me. I couldn’t decide if it was my natural state or the three beers inside me. Before we knew it, we were strapped to our instructors with our reactions being filmed – and then it was time. I’m not entirely sure what my brain was thinking as the pair of us perched precariously on the edge of the helicopter, feet tucked up and head held back, probably something along the lines of you mad shithead what are you doing. And then we jumped.

Well, what can I say? There are many adjectives I could use to describe this AMAZING INCREDIBLE experience but I don’t think my heart had ever beaten so hard from such an adrenaline rush. It was positively euphoric and out of this world, so if any part of you is curious, for the love of God do it! I’d go again in a heartbeat, it feels like you’re flying, not falling.

Upon landing we were greeted to many cheers and more filming, with our good selves appearing to be in a slight mania – grinning like Cheshire cats, jumping around like hyperactive children, squealing and talking nineteen to the dozen.

Much celebratory alcohol was consumed that night. Much. Sand-boarding the next day wasn’t difficult, not at all.

Day Seven – Swakopmund (sandboarding)

I lie. It was ridiculously difficult. So difficult, in fact, that I nearly threw up climbing one massive sand dune and experienced some interesting movements in trying to stay balanced on the board going down. But nevertheless, it was a lot of fun, and being a keen skier I would give boarding another go (but maybe on snow next time instead of sand, it’s considerably easier to walk in).

Sandwiches and soft drinks followed, then we headed back to our accommodation for some chill time and a free afternoon. 


Deciding I’d skip a nap and try to soldier on through the day, Megan and I checked into our new room and spent the next two hours arseing around repacking, showering and doing laundry. Eventually we were ready to go to the beach! Namibia is not really a country you’d expect for nice beaches, but this one was lovely and relaxing – even if we only spent an hour there before heading back to the hostel to watch our embarrassing sand boarding videos and go through all the photos.

Dinner that night was in a big pub-esque place which specialised in grills. I tried the Springbok, not half bad. I didn’t try anymore alcohol. The next day was going to be a very long day of driving and hot dune climbing, so we’d need all the energy we could get…

Costa Rica; San Jose, Tortuguero, Sarapiqui, Arenal, Playa Tamarindo, Monteverde & Manuel Antonio

 

NB Will finish writing up the last couple of days tomorrow, my hands and arms are about to fall off 😉

Next up, as I was in the general area, it was time for Costa Rica. 2018 really was turning into an epic travel year; my best so far, in-fact.

Day 1 – Havana to San Jose, Costa Rica

Day One isn’t really Day One but Travel Day, as I caught two flights from Cuba to Costa Rica to begin my next tour. They were pretty short, simple flights with a connecting flight in Panama. It takes about two hours to get from Cuba to Costa Rica so no hassle. It was raining when I arrived at San Jose airport, and already starting to get dark at 5pm. The coolness was refreshing. There was a horrible guy at border control but I can’t be bothered wasting energy telling the story, people at borders are so often control freaks that it’s nothing new.

As rush hour had started I decided to wait at the airport a little while, have a coffee, use some wifi and check out our itinerary for the next tour. The ride to the hotel was fine, although we did still get stuck in some traffic. As for the hotel itself, simply amazing. I’d booked in for a pre night before the tour started but hadn’t been expecting the high standard of the hotel rooms. Mine was a king room – and it came with fancy coffee making facilities, a mini bar, tangerine smelling toiletries and a wide screen TV placed strategically in front of the massive bed. That’ll do.

Official Day 1 – San Jose

Today was to be the first day of tour, and I’d be meeting the group and ™ as usual in the afternoon for an introductory meeting. I grabbed some free (late) breakfast at the hotel and bumped into one of the girls on tour in the coffee shop next door. We started chatting and eventually a couple others joined us. Suddenly it was the afternoon and it seemed as if half the group had rocked up, so we sat in the bar and ordered some food and drinks.

At 4pm it was time for our introduction, and to meet our super cool tour manager Gustavo – a Costa Rican wildlife photographer, who has multiple tattoos and wears shades indoors. His English is superb, considering he can talk a million miles an hour in a minute. After our talk, all 29 of us headed out for a tour of San Jose proper. I’m going to be honest here, the city isn’t exactly inspiring 😉 It’s got a few museums and galleries it seems, but not much else aside from a collection of parks. And a glittery building.

Dinner had already been included, so we had chosen our options during the meeting. Many of us listened to the live band and dined on pasta and Sangria before collapsing into our luxurious beds.

Day 2 – San Jose to Tortuguero

It was time to head towards our first stop on tour, Tortuguero, which involved an hour bus and boat ride to reach. This little tropical paradise is set in the middle of the rainforest, so I was slightly disappointed to note that the humid heat had returned here and in-fact would be sticking around for most of the places we were due to visit. Many of us in the UK have forgotten what it feels like to be cold, due to the current extreme heatwave, which is one of the most unheard of things ever. Global warming for you.

During our ‘second breakfast’ stop we were fortunate to see some sloths in a tree – another one to tick off the bucket list. There were also a few stalls set up with a glassblowing demo going on, which of course got filmed. Luckily the WiFi in Costa Rica is much better than Cuba so hopefully it shouldn’t be too hard to keep on top of photos and stories while I’m out here.

The final accommodation where we were to stay the next couple nights was raised wooden huts in a covered area right by the wilderness. Rooms were clean and comfortable and poolside was a dream (equipped with a small man made waterfall) Additionally the views by the dock looked out over the water to Tortuguero Island, which we would be visiting later. Some of us saw a raccoon just outside our rooms as we were checking in, casually meandering around the foliage. We also saw some large spiders crawling around in their webs, which we weren’t so keen on. To keep them friendlier, they were named ‘Nigel’ and ‘Boris’. Not my choice of names I may add. I called mine Bruce.

Our first priority was to jump into the pool to cool down, armed with a beer from the bar of course. I loved how relaxed and friendly this place was, although we aren’t sure the same can be said of the bar staff 😉

After lunch we caught another short speedboat ride over to Tortuguero Island which is populated mainly with bars, restaurants, a few shops and local residences. I bought a Costa Rican bracelet to add to my ever growing collection and later that night, as it was a Saturday, a few of us returned to the Island for some drinking and partying. It was giving off a vibrant vibe and one of the fish and chip shops had kicked off with people going mental to some music. They piled out onto the street and tried getting us into the dancing.

I loved getting the speedboat back and forth from the Island – it’s not every day you do things like this and it’s definitely a healthy, relaxed way of life out here.

It was for this reason that I almost felt a bit guilty producing a Cuban cigar for the group to try. However it went down pretty well, with many praising it for its “caramel undertones” and good pairing with rum. We stayed up till about 2pm, figuring that it didn’t matter if we drank as tomorrow there was no travelling.

Day 3 – Tortuguero

A full day in Tortuguero which was great news for most of us as this place is the bomb. We got up fairly early to grab yet another open boat ride searching for the local wildlife. The search proved lucky as we spotted a number of monkeys (luckily didn’t hear the Howlers) birds and reptiles. I honestly don’t know how the tour guides manage to spot these creatures from so far away, and considering they’re camouflaged too it’s extra impressive.

Bit of drama when one of the girls got bitten by a flying black bug thing, had a reaction and ended up having to lie on the bottom of the boat due to feeling faint. In true Baywatch style we super revved the speedboat and shot along back to base camp to get her some treatment.

She ended up being fine, and I don’t think the heat had helped, which was a relief. We spent the rest of the afternoon chilling by the pool, reading, drinking, chatting and catching up on messages which was really nice.

After another round of showers and changing we had dinner and then prepared for our nighttime turtle egg laying watch. This would involve trekking for 35 minutes through the rainforest in the dark to get to the beach where the turtles were. Little did we know that out of three groups, ours would be the one to have the long power walk, and we were sweating like nobody’s business by the end. It was a pretty incredible experience, dark clothing was required so the turtles couldn’t see us, and no lights from torches or phones were allowed. The only light permitted was a red light used by the guide, as this is the only colour turtles can’t see.

We watched about 15 small white eggs, the size of gold balls pop out, before turning our attention to the water’s edge where two turtles were sliding their way into the sea. Then it was back to the hatching mother who was now busy burying her eggs with sand. It was interesting to learn that the gender of the hatch is dependent on temperature – so males need a lower temperature than females and so the ratio of male/female eggs could be any number in a batch. This means in a global warming situation females would fare better. For a while anyway, until they died out from a lack of males.

Getting there meant getting back, so began the long trek to our boat base. We arrived back at our accommodation at least half an hour to forty minutes later than the other two groups, who cheered when we turned up. It quickly became apparent that they’d walked five minutes, turned a corner and there the turtle and eggs were. Brilliant.

Day 4 – Tortuguero to Sarapiqui

Time once more, to hop on the boat back to the bus depot for a ride to our next destination, which was to be Sarapiqui. To be honest, many of us didn’t want to leave, but the promise of a chocolate tasting tour got us inspired.

We were shown the cocoa making process from bean to bar and even got to sample some of the chocolate, first in drink form and then thick mixture. Unsurprisingly we went back for a few spoonfuls of the latter, and then very generously got given some beans to take home to make our own.

En route to our accommodation we stopped at a supermarket to stock up on supplies, namely booze, for later.

Our night stay was to be camping in the rainforest, but a very stylish ‘glamping’ version of this. All covered and bug proof with decent doors and netting. We even had patios and deckchairs to sit out on, but to be honest many of us spent most of our time in a common area next to the kitchen. Everything you could need was there, table, chairs, a large TV playing the Simpson’s and even ice coolers for our drinks. We set up our cards and played for a few hours, beers in hand. Dinner was the usual – a selection of grilled meat or fish, rice and vegetables or salad. It’s been a pretty good diet the last couple weeks, as that’s really all that’s around.

Later we decided a bit of time was needed sitting on Verity’s balcony drinking alcohol and discussing Brexit. Standard topic of conversation these days when Brits are on tour.

Sleep was good. I’ve been sleeping really well here, mainly because of being absolutely buggered from the heat by the end of the day. Neither have I been bitten at all so far, as the biters prefer the blood of other people in the group, which suits me fine.

Day 5 – Sarapiqui to Arenal

Probably good that we only had one day in the rainforest last night as so many had never had this experience before and didn’t get on well with it. Too freaked out by the insects and such. Haha.

After lugging our suitcases down a steep stony path and onto the bus we headed out for our white water rafting adventure. It was a lot of fun, possibly the wildest one I’ve done mainly due to the fact that our guides were absolutely bloody mental. Our raft crashed into another one and two of our girls fell into the water, which was very dramatic but they were fine. Our particular guide got us doing superman and guitar poses with our oars and making primitive wild calls, so you can see what we were in for. At the end he had us all stand up on the edge of the raft, holding hands in a circle, to play a ‘game’. That game was actually to try and push or pull one of us into the water. He told me to lean back which I wasn’t falling for so he then picked on the 18 yr old who he successfully pulled in.

Halfway through this performance we stopped, climbed some rocks and jumped off into the water, with one of the guides taking photos. Afterwards we had some fruit and one of the guides pelted people with pieces of pineapple.

Dripping wet, we partially dried and got onto the bus to head towards our lunch stop and a dip in the waterfalls after.

Well the waterfalls didn’t happen as there was a flash flood and the water turned brown, so the park closed up. Photos of the falls were allowed but it still cost the entrance fee of $9 so we decided to skip it and check into our next hotel.

8 of us got changed and had towels ready for another fun, water based activity – the hot springs park! Complete with water slides! Inflatable rubber rings! A large bucket that poured and drenched swimmers! And a bar in the hot pools! With coloured lights! We enjoyed being big kids again for a few hours.

Back at the hotel we decided to have round two of hot springs, coloured lights and drinks in the water. They were lovely but not as good as at the other place and we were glad we went. Dinner that night was a short bus ride away in town – at a restaurant where the owner had rescued bunches of dogs, with a couple wandering around begging for scraps. I was glad to order the sushi and hot chicken wings for a slight change in diet. Afterwards pretty much the same group as the one who took the boat over to Tortuguero Island went out afterwards to have some drinks in a couple bars. We stayed out till about 1am and raced home in a taxi that drove in the middle of the road. Fast. At speed.

Day 6 – Arenal

Most people were up fairly early today to give canyoneering a whirl after breakfast. I decided against this, due to my last experience in Ecuador where I went and really didn’t get on with it. But for others it’s definitely worth a try and most get on with it and have fun, so good for them.

Instead a few of us decided to hang by the hotel pool and while away a few hours, which was super nice. Catch up on phone stuff, pay for a trip, drink cold coffees, you know how it is.

In the afternoon most of us boarded the coach for a cultural trip into town to see how the locals lived and worked. Our first trip was a school where young kids put on a dance show for us, so cute. They even got us roped into a bit of dancing and we had question and answer time in Spanish.

Next up was a ride in a tractor, as you do. We piled into the cart behind and set off at 2mph, until we reached a tree with loads of lychees growing on it. Our trusty driver hopped out of the tractor seat, ran across the road and proceeded to climb the tree to fetch the fruit for us. Back on the tractor and a slow approximately 15 minute ride later took us to a farmhouse, where the owner had made us dinner along with a team of cooks.

Before dinner we had a tour of the farm and the garden, being shown all the various fruit that grows and even getting to sample some. The star fruit is lovely but so bitter. Then our guide took us to where two bulls had their heads taped together to a plank of wood, attached to a pulley system that ground large plant stems to make juice. They had to walk around in a circle to exert squeezing pressure to extract the juice. I really wasn’t wild about this idea, they didn’t look comfortable at all. In Cuba they at least had humans doing it.

We donned aprons and made our own empanadas before dinner, snapping photos of the gorgeous views as we went. What a lovely day.

Day 7 – Arenal to Playa Tamarindo

Half a day on the road today as we wound our way to our next destination, Playa Tamarindo.this would mean some beach time. Or at least so we had planned until we saw the pool at our next hotel.

Lunch was in Tamarindo town centre where we picked up some supplies from the supermarket and dropped in on an Asian restaurant that specialised in Thai and Vietnamese food.

Without a doubt the accommodation in Tamarindo topped all the others by a million miles. There were amazing views from our hotel out over the valleys and the beach in the distance, we got our own balconies to look at it all from and the cherry on top was the infinity pool on the ground floor.

Naturally once we had arrived we spent a good few hours hanging out in the pool, ordering cocktails from the bar.

Then it was time for dinner in town (I had the chicken fajitas) before hitting a fairly dodgy bar where a guy was walking around in high heeled white boots, pulling strange dance moves. We got some free drinks and left.

Day 8 – Playa Tamarindo

Up reasonably early today to try our hand at surfing! I was quite excited and nervous as have wanted to do this for years and years and finally have a chance to without rushing around like a headless chicken.

It was as I had hoped, so much fun. But bloody hell is it a workout. Most of us did pretty well I thought, up on the board standing and even surfing for a bit, though there was also a lot of falling and swallowing of sea water. Not bad for first timers.

There was a photographer snapping pics of us in action, so some of us stayed  behind after to have a look through them while others went back to the hotel on the bus. We decided to walk back after the shuttle didn’t show up; in the intense heat and sun, up four hills after surfing, this didn’t prove to be the smartest choice.

Time for a quick shower and change to wash off the sand before we headed out again for our catamaran cruise. Lasting six hours, we had the best time drifting along, lying on the tarpaulin on top deck, drinking from the bar below, whale spotting and snorkelling.

I decided to put my iPhone X into a special plastic case I’d bought for water based activities and must admit it was slightly nerve wracking jumping into the water with it around my neck. This especially after dropping and smashing the last one in Canada on a zip line. The visibility wasn’t great but the views were and I still managed a short underwater video (my first) which was good.

The only part of the cruise that wasn’t good was us girls discovered a bunch of dirty old perverts taking photos of our bums and other intimate areas on their phones. Some of these men were probably old enough to be our dads. The worst thing was that they had mainly targeted the youngest amongst the group. A few of the girls kicked off and made them delete the pics (and the backups) but even though the guys had been discovered they had no shame (but here I am now shaming you on a public blog) one swore derogatorily and the rest even seemed to find it funny. We had to share a boat back to shore with them from the catamaran and once we had landed on sand I yelled at them to get off first because we wanted to take shots of their arses as they left the boat.

After all this drama we got back and changed for dinner at the hotel. By this stage we were so knackered and practically falling asleep at the table that we decided not to go out for the final night and hang by the pool instead, smoking cigars and making the most of the gorgeous views. Eleven of our crew are leaving tomorrow morning as we have been joined by five new people, a guy and four girls. They all seem really nice, but I am going to miss the old crew.

Day 9 – Playa Tamarindo to Monteverde

Gina and I struggled to wake up today, feeling as if we had been in a boxing match from surfing the day before – so decided to drink the leftover coffee on our balcony to try wake up. It sort of worked. At 8am we went down for breakfast to begin the process of saying goodbye to people, which is never easy.

As today was mainly a travel/recovery day we really only stopped off roadside to grab drinks and snacks. We were preparing ourselves for Monteverde to be colder than the previous few places, by about ten degrees. To be honest I was glad to be escaping the wet heat for a couple days. On the bus the optional activities for the next few days went round and most of us opted for the croc spotting boat ride and the horse riding. A few went for the night safari once we had reached Monteverde but especially for those of us who had power trekked through jungle in Tortuguero to see turtles, we had had our fill 😉

At one of the roadside breaks we spotted some birds – a Great Courazel, a brightly coloured toucan perched cheekily on somebody’s balcony, and some parrots in a tree.

Once we reached Monteverde a warmer change of clothes was needed (it was still 22 degrees so we had obviously acclimated to the extreme heat) and as happy hour was on at the hotel bar we took advantage of the two for one cocktails while Marshall produced Cards Against Humanity. That occupied us until dinner which saw us jumping on the bus into town and into a noisy restaurant\club for food. The food took ages to arrive for some (most notably Verity’s salad sandwich) whereas the tortilla soup was speedy – it was also delicious.

Tomorrow would be a full on activity day in Monteverde’s infamous cloud forest so we headed for zzz when we got back.

Day 10 – Monteverde

Woke up today feeling as stiff and sore as a board – no change from yesterday then. Got Gustavo to crack me and it transpired everyone else had had weird nights sleep with disturbing and/or vivid dreams. After this we became convinced that the place was haunted, especially as I had dreamt that a crazy lady had broken into an abandoned building where we were and started shooting people.

Breakfast was more pleasant with pancakes and strong coffee on offer and then it was time for a nature walk through the cloud forest, with a climb up to the top tower for view shots. It was really misty and atmospheric, living up to its name. Rain was falling but Gustavo tried explaining that it wasn’t rain but ‘vertical precipitation’, which became a joke for ever after when it was wet. “Is this horizontal dry rain?” Molly asked. “No! It’s not rain! It’s God’s tears!” Etc etc. The cloud forest was beautiful, with many large, different types of trees and plants. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such large leaves in my life, bigger than a head.

Zip lining was next, which I think pretty much everyone had signed up for. Nobody had any idea it would be such a workout, though. Still recovering from the previous sports activities, we donned helmets and climbed endless processions of hills and steps to reach each zip line. There were 16 in total, with one being in tandem and the last two coined ‘Tarzan’ and ‘Superman’. We did exactly what it said on the tin – swung off a high balcony for Tarzan and lay down with our arms out for Superman. The guides, clearly having fun, thought it would be funny to keep shouting out ‘NO!’ every time we jumped, giving us small heart attacks. After a while, this technique failed to have any kind of reaction. However, it was a lot of fun – very fast and furious.

Next on the adventure agenda was the butterfly dome, humming bird area and swinging suspension bridges hike. The butterfly dome was beautiful, although we kept finding dead ones. The humming bird area was my absolute favourite. I honestly think it was one of the favourite things I’ve ever done. There were multiple posts set up with nectar inside the plastic flower feeding holes, and perches for the birds to land on. We discovered that by placing our fingers just below the feed hole the birds would perch on our finger, being so tiny. I couldn’t believe how speedy and small they were, buzzing around our heads like bees. There were many of those too, also trying to get in on the sweet nectar, which at times made it hard to keep our fingers in place. Many good photos and videos were produced because of this, with the hummingbirds coming in many different vibrant colours.

The swinging green suspension bridges felt much like the zip lining – arriving in multiples and climbing endless steps to get to each one. Totally and absolutely worth the views though 🙂

We headed back and played more Cards Against Humanity before heading off to a lovely Italian restaurant with pretty white tea lights hanging everywhere. It was just the food we craved – sweet dirty carbs. Or just something that wasn’t meat, salad and black beans with rice.

Another game of cards followed suit in the evening – which Laura won again, of course.

Day 11 – Monteverde to Manuel Antonio

Back to the moving vehicle today and onto our final destination of the tour, Manuel Antonio, where we would be spending the next few days. It was quite nice to get back to the warm beach environment, and our main activity of the day aside from travel, was a boat tour to look out for crocs…

Cuba – Havana, Vinales and Trinidad

Evidently I’m very keen on the America’s in general as my next trip was to the elusive Cuba. It is starting to open up to the outside world; and now is the time to go, before it becomes too touristy. Hopefully, it won’t completely lose its individuality and complicated political links to the past, as it’s that very essence which has made it so charming. I was to be testing out a new tour company called G Adventures, which specialise in smaller groups, sustainable travel and community projects.

Day 0 – London to Trinidad

The first leg of the long flight was a quick one, after a late night delay and watching a pigeon trapped in Heathrow airport flapping around and crapping everywhere. We flew from London to Moscow, which was a novel way to get to Cuba, considering that’s in the wrong direction. After hanging out in Moscow airport for a couple hours we boarded the 12 hour flight to Cuba.

No sooner had I sat down than I realised I could be in for a double long haul as the Italian couple next to me were in the middle of an argument. She cried for about a quarter of the flight but by the end they’d made up and were cuddling and smooching. Surprisingly my sick bag remained untouched.

Customs and border control is quite a simple but drawn out process with three ‘tests’ to pass before you get to walk out of the elusive exit doors. Through to the other side and I was having trouble locating my G Adventures tour guide. This is my first tour with the company so I wasn’t sure what to expect and it was quite pleasant to think someone would be meeting us to drive us to our start point, which happened to be a ‘Casa Particular’ in central Havana. Wondering what to do I asked a few people and eventually someone directed me to the tourism office outside. It didn’t take too long from there to locate my guide who had his sign and as it turned out had already been there two hours.

The guide, Angel (and his ride, a super cool 50s number) were amazing and it was amusing to discover that my blue suitcase matched the blue car. It took a few minutes of pinching myself to realise that this wasn’t a dream and I was actually inside one of these dream cars. Of course I snapped a picture, and by the end of the ride I’d secured myself a husband in the form of the guide, listened to Cuban music and got a good eyeful of all the other cool, stunning cars on the road. I also apparently had a date the following night with Angel – he offered to pick me up at 8pm from where I was staying, drive to a salsa dance hall and teach me salsa. It all felt so old school. Mojitos would also be thrown into the mix. He was quite young and rather beautiful too which helped. I mean how could I refuse?

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Later on I met my roomie, Ria, our tour guide Carlos and the rest of the group, of which there are only 8 of us. 7 girls and 1 guy, haha. We had our introductory talk, much like Contiki, and then went out for a group meal to get to know each other a bit. It’s a nice group, and being a lot smaller everything feels way more chilled which apparently is the general vibe of G Adventures. I’m looking forward to experiencing my first tour with this company and seeing what they’re all about. Dinner was nice, tried some of the local ‘Old Clothes’ – it’s basically beef (cows are kind of a sacred thing here) and usually served up alongside rice, black beans and teeny tiny pieces of vegetables. Cubans are sick of vegetables apparently, our guide was saying, as all they could eat for twenty years was pretty much that. The mango mojitos were nice too.

Walking the streets is incredible. It feels like something out of a movie set. A time capsule. Stylish, gorgeous dilapidated buildings, classic cars, vibrant colours and friendly people. And it is boiling. Absolutely muggy boiling. I thought our recent heatwave back home was intense, no….here it is blink and you’re drenched in sweat.

Then it was bed. Much needed bed for a jet lag respite.

Day 1 – Havana to Vinales

Today was to be spent on the road travelling outside of Havana and onto Vinales, through a rich sugar cane and tobacco grown area.

The first stop of the day en route was at Las Terraces which is a tight knit community of people living and holidaying in a beautiful little area full of lush valleys, good coffee, zip lining, flamingos, monkeys and horse riding. Our first refreshment was a rum drink before our coffee and a couple of photo stops for all of the above.

Very pleasant so far.

We arrived into Vinales for lunch, a cute little town where we would be staying in another Casa Particular for two nights. It had cooled a little since Havana, which was a welcome relief, although by no means anywhere near cool. I was also relieved to see there were ATMs, as originally my bank had declined my card in Havana and cash monies were really needed – not many places in Cuba take card. Not many places use internet, either, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a rest from social media from time to time.

After lunch Carlos took us to a ration shop that every Cuban – regardless of income – still uses weekly. They also have a ration book each and I couldn’t believe this existed, it was like something out of World War Two and we were fascinated.

A cigar residence was on the list after – where we smoked, had shots of rum, took photos of a pig and fed giant rats.

Next it was time to check into our home-stays and meet our hosts. Laura and I had a lovely host who had one son and some odd photographs up, but made us feel very welcome. Our room was boiling so we whacked on the A/C and the fan and got ready for dinner. It was such a relief to shower, change my broken flip flops and spray mozzie bites.

Dinner was quite a romantic affair with simply stunning scenery to gaze upon. We sat outside on a balcony overlooking lush forest and raised mounds as the sun went down, dining on a selection of fruit, meats and rice. It reminded me a little of Indonesia or Halong Bay in Vietnam.

Our ride dropped us back into the centre of town where a sound system had been set up in the middle of the street, people of all ages were dancing with numerous drink stalls dotted along the sides. There was also a traditional Cuban band which started up once the sound system had been switched off. After a couple of drinks sitting outside a restaurant we walked back to our home stays.

Day 2 – Vinales

Day on the beach today which we were all very excited about. It was only an hours drive away, followed by a slightly longer boat trip to the Island. Before long we were lounging in Luke warm waters, sipping on Pina Coladas and exploring the Island for a decent place to take ‘candid shots’. A couple of us ordered lobster for lunch which was deliciously fresh. I had another rum espresso, nice.

Originally it had been planned that we would go on a snorkel excursion, but there was only one boat that day which was leaving after we had barely arrived, and we wanted to enjoy the beach. So we spent several hours doing just that. And got sunburnt, despite applying sunscreen and largely staying in the shade.

Reluctantly, we queued up for the boat back to the mainland later which took an age. While we waited on the dock, some lively people started playing loud Spanish music which of course we had to compete with so we could hear our own. By the time we had been on the boat with them for ten minutes the enemy became the friend, as we teamed up together to play some kind of quick jive bunny mix of random tunes.

The sun must have gone to our heads too much, as back on the bus we put on the TV karaoke selection and blasted out some hits – the options were all pretty much from the 80s.

As we were back quite late and had a table booked for an included dinner, we skipped going for showers and went straight there. There was more meat (including lamb) multicoloured rice, avocado and beans with a starter of – crisps. The lemon daiquiri was delicious and the lemonade was to die for. Like most South American countries, they are very generous with their alcohol distribution in drinks, which is just as well as you sweat most of it out anyway.

Day 3 – Vinales to Trinidad

Another lovely breakfast spread from our delightful host, who had even lent me a beach towel the day before. It turned out a German guy was also staying there and we had accidentally woken him at 6am, which he was perfectly happy about and seemed to want to chat over breakfast.

Suddenly it was time to leave and say bye as we would be back on the road again and heading to Trinidad for a couple days and nights.

During our first road stop we used the bathrooms and I made friends with the most adorably tiny kitten who climbed all over me.

On the bus once more and Carlos gave a talk on Fidel Castro, his rise to power and the Cuban-American war. We also watched an interesting DVD on it and were better able to understand the long lasting tension between the two countries.

Lunch stop was a sandwich and an interesting toilet break with child size cubicles. Dead lobsters littered the drive way as we headed off to our swim point in some outdoor caves and snorkelled our way through the crystal blue-green waters of the sea.

The last break of the day was at a history museum and a tour around by Carlos.

After a long day of driving we eventually arrived in our destination, beautiful Trinidad, with its cobblestone streets and multicoloured houses. Once again we didn’t have any time to get ready before dinner so just went straight there. It was a lovely little spot on a rooftop, and a storm was brewing, which just added to the atmosphere.

Day 4 – Trinidad

Breakfast was decent, served up by our host, a guy with short dreadlocks, a broken piano and egg boxes taped to the wall downstairs.

We had ummed and erred about what activities we would like to do that day, and as it was so hot in the end it was decided to do a several hour bus/walking tour of Trinidad (mainly bus) and skip all the various sporting/hiking options. Stopping off at multiple points to sweat – and listen to the fascinating history too of course – we covered a hell of a lot in several hours. One place was an old sugar mill/slave buildings – complete with a free range pig – another was a tower at the Valley of the Sugar Mills where the allegedly prettiest woman in town (she really wasn’t, we saw the portrait) had been imprisoned for cheating on her husband with a slave.

Lunch was at a local cafe and took forever to arrive, because let’s put it this way, service in Cuba is relaxed.

Afterwards it was time to head back for a quick shower and change before our salsa dancing class on the very rooftop where we had eaten the night before, just opposite where we were staying. I think we all did pretty well, and had a funny teacher who made it known when you got a move wrong 😉 It was absolutely sweltering, so when a thunderstorm started up halfway through and the heavens opened it was a welcome relief.

Time for yet another shower and change with some speedy clothes washing in the sink before dinner. Only a short bus ride away – and we were glad for any bus ride, however short, for the air con – we tucked into paella before heading to our first party stop for the evening. This was outside in the piazza with hundreds of people piled up the large set of steps to listen to the live band and watch people salsa dance. The steps themselves reminded me of the Spanish steps in Rome, and I wondered whether they took any inspiration from them for these ones.

An uphill cobbled street walk later saw us arriving at “Disco Ayala” or “The Cave” – pretty much a cave that had been converted into a nightclub and was ultra cool. Two blaring TV screens showing music videos, flashing strobe lights and cheap drinks made up the arrangement and we stayed for about three hours dancing. I like to think we burned a fair few calories and surprisingly even managed the walk back to our home stays fairly successfully. Hangovers the next morning didn’t exist, as they don’t in Cuba due to sweating everything out.

Day 5 – Trinidad

Another lovely breakfast served up by egg box man and then we had a free (ish) morning to climb the bell tower for photo shots and Kathryn produced her lonely planet book and acted as our tour guide for a photogenic walk around town after. We visited another church for its altar and a colourful yet impoverished neighbourhood called the neighbourhood of The Three Crosses, before finishing up at the Lacanchanchara, named after the local drink.

We met the others back at our homesteads for our ride to the beach! For a chilled afternoon, with a beach picnic to be held later for dinner. It was our driver’s birthday and he had shaved his head, so we almost didn’t recognise him and got onto the wrong vehicle.

The beach, “Sancti Spiritus’, was a dream, and we relished the chance at being able to spend another day by the sea. It was the usual round of swimming, drinking Pina Coladas, sunbathing and taking photos – hard times. A storm was brewing but it was merely the threat of rain and moody grey skies with an eerie light. No matter, this made for excellent shots. I think the birthday boy enjoyed his cake and we had set up the food tables near the edge of the water, so at sunset it all looked very picturesque.

We came back, showered and redressed again to head out for a few drinks as it would be our last night in Trinidad. The first place was at a bar which boasted having the best strawberry Daiquiri’s in town. They were OK. Afterwards we dropped into Terraza Gourmet for another round of drinks and to watch a seriously good live cover band. In fact they were so good that a couple of us bought their DVD – which I virtually never do if I don’t already know the artist. After the performance a Frenchman told us his life story and then it was time to hit the hay before our last day driving back to Havana tomorrow 😦

Day 6 – Trinidad to Havana

Fairly early start and onto the tarmac for us G Adventurers. We stopped today in Santa Clara to visit the Che Guevara museum and memorial square, complete with giant statue. The museum itself held many interesting artefacts and information on this inspiring man, whom we learned much about that day. On the bus we also got to watch a DVD on his life and influence during the Cuban revolution, with Carlos filling in the gaps.

My favourite Che Guevara memorial was a very touching, talented and life-like statue of him holding his young son. The detail of the sculpting was extraordinary, with many tiny models representing scenes of his life clinging to different parts of his body. As an example one rested on the shoulder, while his son held another.

Our last stop before we reached Havana was at Villa Clara, where we had a buffet lunch and wandered the grounds containing a swimming pool, ducks, a turkey and a crocodile. Yes, I know.

By the time we had reached the edges of Havana the sky was turning moody again, which was perfect for a panoramic view out over the city from a hilltop.

In Havana central once more and we had a walking tour of the city. I was glad we did this as it felt like we hadn’t had much time in Havana at the beginning of the trip. This is definitely one of those places you need to revisit just to spend a week there let alone half the country.

It being our last full day of the tour before flying off the next day, I was anxious to salvage some scrap of the Internet to check my flight time. Eventually I was able to do this after dinner, sitting outside a large hotel with a drink in front of a square. The connection only lasted about 10 minutes but this was enough time for the necessities. I couldn’t believe this was our last evening and that the tour had come to an end already. Our group was pretty awesome and I am honoured to have gotten to know eight fabulous people, four of whom were actually Brits.

Cuba, with your ration books, you cars, salsa, Pina Coladas and rum coffee, you stole my heart and I shall be back. Preferably before five years is out and it all changes completely.

Canada & The Rockies

Canada eh. Another one of those oft visited places where it was about time I checked out. Where better than the west coast’s glorious scenery? To date, I’ve still to find anything to match its natural beauty.

Vancouver

The flight was simple and straightforward, but tediously long as usual at 9 hours. I tell myself I should be used to it by now, but I’m really not 😉 With the last three or four hours to go I’ll find myself getting up and periodically pacing the plane and willing the flight to be over.

Canadian border control, let’s put it this way, does not match the famously friendly nature that Canadians are well known for. The young woman grilling me was actually pretty rude and unpleasant, asking unnecessary questions and making me feel like a criminal. Through to the other side, I got coffee at Tim Hortons, a well known Canadian fast food company recommended by a friend.

The drive to the hotel from the airport was quite short and in no time at all I had been warmly greeted by reception (outside border control, everyone lives up to their reputation) checked into my room and got showered and redressed ready to meet a Contiki friend from a previous tour for dinner.

We walked around a few blocks nearby to the hotel and eventually settled on Rocky’s burger bar (super healthy eating that day) where we ordered burgers, cocktails and the renowned Poutine made famous by Quebec. It was lovely to catch up with her, and I couldn’t believe that it was still the same day as when I had left London.

I had one night in my own room at the Granville suites hotel – gorgeous, by the way – before swapping over to a twin room the next evening when the tour meet up would happen. It’s always a tradition, meet in the evening with the group and tour manager before the tour kicks off properly the next day. Leaving my luggage behind reception, I headed out for some food.

Brunch was in a lovely little place called the Twisted Fork, recommended by reception this time, and where I spent a couple hours sending messages, writing, and mapping out what I would do for a few hours that day. I finally decided to settle on going to Stanley Park, a huge park with an aquarium, as it was such a gorgeously hot sunny day.

That evening it was time to meet the group and new tour manager, also to find out that there would be 54 (!) of us. Generally a bit too big for most people’s taste, but hey ho. We went through the usual paperwork (the sign up sheets for various activities were made much more lengthy and complicated due to there being so many of us) before heading to a cowboy bar/restaurant across the road for some dinner and drinks. It even came equipped with its own rodeo, which you could ride, and line dancing public participants. In-fact it felt more like being in the deep south of America than Canada. Food was nachos and margaritas then we headed back for a nice jet lagged sleep.

Day One – Vancouver to Whistler

A nice quick and easy drive to Whistler today as we had our introductory talk and marvelled at the beginning of the amazing scenery. Once we arrived it was time to head into Whistler Village for our brief orientation tour and some of us to wander around and have some lunch before our zip lining adventure.

Amazing fun was to be had as we donned those sexy helmets and drove up the mountain in 4x4s to where we would begin the first zip line activity. It was a great adrenaline rush, especially when the first zip came to a crashing end and the force of it made me let go of my phone. Watching in slight stunned horror as it catapulted through the air and ahead of me into the beautiful undergrowth somewhere, I thought there’s no way I’m seeing that again.

Not only did I see it again, thanks to one of the guys on tour, but it miraculously still works! Granted the screen is now pretty cracked. Originally the charging point was slightly dented so the charger wouldn’t go in, rendering the whole idea of a working phone pointless, but our tour guide Alex managed to fix it by sticking a butter knife in the slot and pushing, as you do.

Incredibly grateful, I settled down to food at the spaghetti factory and a couple of celebratory gins. Afterwards it was time to hit the bar next door and show our multiple forms of ID to the bouncers. Canada is super strict and usually needs to see two, your passport and drivers licence.

A glow in the dark party at a club nearby followed the bar, where we donned glow in the dark sticks and got our faces painted with, you guessed it, glow in the dark paint. I’m pretty sure, unlike my Aussie tour, that most folk remembered to wash it off before bed 😉  

Day 2 – Whistler

Busy day for some but not for me, who had booked her good self into a Scandinavian forest spa in the morning.

So while everyone else tried to cram in dirt track driving and canoeing (been there done that multiple times on previous tours 😉) I had my back pummelled and body plunged into a series of hot and cold pools and mini waterfalls, saunas and steam rooms.

Emerging very spaced out, I had some Thai vegetable salad and pretentious juice, then headed back to jump on the gondola for the Peak 2 Peak experience between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains. It’s unnecessary to state that it goes incredibly high with spectacular views, as the pictures speak for themselves.

Sushi and beer was needed after that experience as I felt somewhat lightheaded, and then more lightheadedness was to follow as we had our pub crawl that evening. After a quick hair wash in which the hair dryer broke half way through, I met the others in our first pub and we got cracking with some drinking games. One of these was peg the peg on somebody’s clothing without them realising, shout 5 4 3 2 1 and then laugh as everyone in the immediate vicinity frantically checked themselves. If they found it before we got to 1 then they wouldn’t have to drink and if they didn’t then drink they must. Other games included limbo and downing shots from a wooden ski (shotski) 6 of us got lucky as we had matching cards and therefore gained a free drink. Partying went on into the night and a fourth bar/club where I filmed a man dressed as Mario pole dancing.

This is the life.

Day 3 – Whistler to Kamloops

Today was mainly a long driving day with a couple of scenic photo stops, the first of those being at the lookout point to the Tantalus mountains, and the second that of Shannon waterfall.

Lunch was wonton and vegetable soup before the final stop at our accommodation for that night, in Kamloops.

Ah, Kamloops. It was an interesting semi falling apart affair. When we rocked up a random old guy was standing on the balcony shouting down questions at us. Later that night, after we’d had dinner in a nearby pub/restaurant and had a couple more drinks after wandering around the town (tumbleweed) we settled down in our beds only to hear a sawing sound above us from yours truly. No doubt dismembering his latest victims.

We were looking forward to being on the road to Jasper the next day.

Day 4 – Kamloops to Jasper

Early start this morning with a healthy muffin and bagel breakfast then on the road again for a slightly more energetic start to the day than the previous one.

Our tour guide Alex gave us the low down on all the various different animals and then we had a stop off where we bought coffee milk and chewy chocolate rice bars  – not that inspiring to be honest, but it was made by little old ladies who had risen at 5am so we felt obliged to pick that over Tim Hortons.

Mt Robson was absolutely stunning and where we breaked for a lovely lunch, snap Sound of Music-esque pictures frolicking amongst the scenery and sign our waiver forms for rafting – you have to sign a waiver for everything here, even pub crawls.

Many of us were signed up for white water rafting later in Jasper, on the Fraser river, which was a blast. We even got to hop in the water after for a freezing “swim”.

Slightly aching and sore, we headed out after for dinner and a bit of a dance off in one of the night clubs. Sadly Mario wasn’t there but we were treated to a coked up girl grinding against everyone instead. I felt that night I got to talk to more people from our massive group and so had a better idea of who everyone was. Gin and tonic got the better of me so by the time I got back to the hotel we had to be up again in 4 hours.

Day 5 – Jasper

Today was a scenic heavy sightseeing day as we took in the sights of the multiple lakes that this gorgeous country has to offer. First up was Patricia lake, where I attempted to perch on a rock in the water. Not wise when you’ve been drinking the night before.

We also got to see some more black bears which was incredibly fortunate as it must have been for about the seventh or eighth time on tour so far. Still holding out for a grizzly, and we have a few days left…There’s a thing in Canada called “Bear block/jam” which is when the – usually tourists – stop their cars and get out to snap pictures of the bears. It really pisses off the locals and also just everyone else on the road to be honest.

The second stop was for a hike around Maligne Canyon, which took about an hour and was full of rocks, waterfalls, thick vegetation and trails. There really is such a rich abundance of scenery to gawp at, plenty of Instagramable moments and endless angles of the same spectacle.

Medicine lake was the third stop and yet another stunner. Probably my second favourite lake, it’s really difficult to pick a favourite to be honest, as it had an extra edge – pollen that had landed on the shallowest surface of the water and just stayed floating there, so it gave a rippling yellow mirage effect.

Next up was lunch in a cabin overlooking Maligne Lake before taking a short cruise through the lake and Spirit Island. Spirit Island is literally a tiny little mound with pretty trees on, where our local tour guide gave us the low down. It made for some of the best photos going and is also a very famous spot.

By the time evening rolled around we were desperate to just get some food and go to bed, but the town of Jasper had other ideas as there was a power cut. All the shops and restaurants shut except our hotel, as it had a spare generator, so you can imagine the whole town came to us. Before very long even the hotel shut its restaurant because it had run out of food. There was nothing much to do except wait for the power to come back on.

Rachel and I hit the vending machine and met a really charming American man. Diddums was hangry because he hadn’t had his dindins and thought he was worse off than everyone else. He reminded me of the doctor in Fawlty Towers who wanted his sausages and in a dystopian scenario I could see him being the first to resort to cannibalism. He proceeded to ask us where we were from. London, UK, I said. Hmph, said he. Colorado, Rachel said. Finally, I run into someone from my own continent! He answered, which made no logical sense anyway. Lovely to meet you too, I replied drily. Under my breath of course, I am half British.

When the power eventually returned we literally ran to either the local pizza joint or subways before hitting the hay. I am going to be obese by the end of this trip.

The next day we would be back on the track to Banff!

Day 6 – Jasper to Banff

Early rise the next day which meant getting the bags to coach at least 25 minutes before the stipulated time in order to get the best seats, and a Tim Hortons breakfast.

Athabasca Falls was our first stop and involved getting marginally drenched to achieve an awesome snap. Everything seems to be Athabasca themed in these parts, it being the name of our hotel as well as the glacier which we got a ride onto during our next stop. The transport was huge trucks with even bigger wheels. In fact one wheel must have been the size of an average 4×4, and was more than ready to take on the ice and sharp incline/decline. We had a competition to see who could stand up in their seat for the longest time, initiated by our French driver.

Walking on a glacier was a first and another tick off the bucket list, it’s also a lot harder to walk on than you’d imagine. It was magnificent and definitely equalled the NZ Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, I won’t say ‘surpassed’ or that’d be disloyal 😉

Next was a spectacular line up of 10/10 lakes. The day was a little rainy and misty, which in all honesty only added to the overall appearance and atmosphere. Pictures will do more justice than these words ever could. Peyto Lake was stunning, but Moraine Lake was out of this world and my favourite. Wasn’t it everyone’s? I’m pretty sure it was, judging by the feedback, and the climb to get there made it even more worth the time.

Back on flat land and Lake Louise was gorgeous. It didn’t quite have the X factor that I felt Moraine Lake possessed but we were higher up there which gave an advantage. By Lake Louise we managed to get in some T-shirt advertising and a couple of us snuck into the hotel bar for a ‘Flaming Dr Pepper’ shot. I never knew you could light Dr Pepper on fire and plunge it into a beer – we are forever learning.

By the time we got into Banff town centre time was pressing on a bit so we had our speedy included dinner at a place a short drive away from the hotel, followed by a group photo shoot in front of – another – lake.

Back at the hotel later and it was the usual drinks and cards in the bar. Some even popped into the hot pool downstairs as it was free to hotel guests. Card games included Poker, Rummy and Kings and Arseholes (of course) where, after a group of us were convinced Shady would win, he actually became the arsehole 😉 BANFF!

Day 7 – Banff

Today several mentalists got up hungover and went mountain climbing at some ungodly hour, a few others did a hike. They said it was worth it though, so good on em for the effort. Some of us did some shopping in Banff town centre, which doesn’t take long to circle as it’s pretty small, before vegetating in the hotel hot pool.

Next it was time for horse riding along the beautiful forest trails with the Rocky Mountains as backdrop. I had a feisty horse called Tamale, I mean of course I did, and it kicked the one behind in the face when he got too near. Otherwise he was well behaved. Our steak dinner in the middle of nowhere was delicious and then it was time to head back to base camp.

Karaoke that night was wild, loud and messy. It would mean another hungover morning for most of us the next day as we headed off on the road to Vernon. Vernon, we prayed, was a stopover point that would be nothing like Kamloops!

Day Eight – Banff to Vernon

Quite a drive heavy day today with a few scenic stops along the way as usual. First up was the Banff gondola with splendid views out over mountains, thick forests and lakes – definitely worth the admission price to go up as they have several different floors and viewing platforms, not to mention an exhibition and Starbucks. The glass bear at the top adds an extra special touch.

Next up was Yoho National Park and Takkakaw Falls which Alex sprung on us as our surprise visit of the trip. Simply amazing. It’s been a bit of a mission to keep on top of all the names of lakes and parks on this tour but I think I’ve done it now…

Our last stop off point that day was at a place called 3 Valley Gap. It had a beautiful lake to gaze out on and came complete with its own attractive Lake Chateau. A great place to stay in no doubt if you are spending longer here. It is also reported to be haunted, so that should add in a bit of excitement for some of you 😉

Glacier National Park had some breathtaking glaciers and mountains to gawp at, and then before we knew it we were in Vernon. Very relieved to see that our rooms were nothing on Kamloops, we had a quick change and headed out for a Chinese all you can eat buffet. Being Sunday in Vernon it was a bit of a dead town so most of us had an early night for another sparrow fart start tomorrow, as we would be winding our way back full circle to where it all began in Vancouver.

Day Nine – Vernon to Vancouver

Bags to coach at 7.45 today, which meant that most of us were down there at quarter past like keen beans with our luggage.

Breakfast was next door in Denny’s diner, amazing food and great service. It reminded me exactly of an American diner, with the red leather seats and waitresses coming around with coffee pots to top you up.

Arriving into Vancouver, we had a little city tour from Alex via bus (courtesy of “bus daddy” John) before stopping off at Stanley Park to take photos of the Totem poles and a tiny dog standing on a table in a onesie eating an ice cream.

It was Alana’s birthday so that evening we went out for dinner and drinks at a brewery, and everyone got covered in confetti during the celebrations. Afterwards a group of us decided to head out to snap pics of Lionsgate bridge in Stanley Park at night, as it was lit up spectacularly with multicoloured bulbs. We even managed to catch people having sex in a car and a rukkus on the bridge with police and a car pile up. More eventful than the peeps who went to a bar/club after food and by the sound of it had another weirdo grinding up against them.

We couldn’t quite believe that tomorrow was to be our last full day.

Day Ten – Vancouver

Most of us had booked tickets to see the Capilano suspension bridge and treetop forest walk, so that’s where we headed in the morning. The bridge was very high and rickety and quite a thrill to cross. Apparently it can also hold 94 elephants crossing at any one time, which Rachel and I thought was complete bullshit.

Afterwards we decided to take a ‘quick’ detour up to Grouse mountain, where we got in a good climb with the hope of seeing some Grizzlies. Unfortunately the bears were hiding away in their enclosure but we still got a good workout and some amazing views of the city. Figuring we had loads of time left we settled on having some lunch up there with more 10/10 scenery.

Suddenly we didn’t have enough time, as we found ourselves waiting in the endless queues for the cable car back down, and the bus we took at the other end…dropped us by the harbour alright… but at the wrong end of town that we needed. We had a dinner cruise to get to, it was the last hang out with the group on tour and certainly didn’t want to miss it. But at this rate we would. So there was nothing for it but to RUN. Run, across the entire width of Vancouver to get there. Practically dying at the other end, we caught a small boat over to the island where we were going to meet the others and board our cruise boat. By this point both our phones had died so we had to dash into a restaurant to charge up and check where the exact meet point was. We made it with minutes to spare. Onboard, I ordered a triple gin and tonic.

Dinner was lovely, drinks were better. We took photos, laughed, chatted, played music, danced and reminisced over our ten days in Canada. It had been such a short time since I was in Peru and Bolivia (2 weeks previously, in-fact) that the two tours almost merged, and I couldn’t believe it was already over, but then again, I could. Experience of touring has taught me this, you blink and it’s done, the people you meet and love, everything comes to an end and you have to let go and say goodbye. In some ways it gets easier saying adios to a new bunch of friends and in other ways a little bit more of me goes with them each time 🙂

Something tells me, though, that it won’t be all that long until I see this lot again as most of us have already looked into Canadian visas.

Bolivia, Chile and Argentina

Day Eight – Cusco to Copacabana, Bolivia

Not too much happened today except drive, drive, drive. I think our epic road trip with equally epic music (of course) covered about 9 hours in which we got to see some of the amazing landscape of Peru, not to mention the shanty towns that most tourists would probably not get to visit. This is the great thing about Contiki, and other tour groups, is that you get to travel to some far flung places.

The downside of the day had to be seeing a dead dog in the middle of the pavement, which made us all wonder why somebody didn’t just bury the poor thing. Organised chaos seemed to rule the roads and street corners, which reminded me a little of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Easily the most shocking cultural difference I had first come across was over there.

Our guide told us that people didn’t pay taxes in Peru, which meant that many had houses without roofs. This seems absurd – a house with no roof surely defeats the purpose of a house, no?

On the way we stopped for some lunch in the middle of nowhere and Chris had a llama burger. He doesn’t like llama yet keeps eating it, to test his limits I think. On site was a small museum, randomly containing a couple of mummies and some ancient Peruvian artefacts. Honestly, if this was back home it would have been whacked in the British museum or something, not hidden away in the backroads.

We arrived at immigration, which was a relatively simple process, except that border control wasn’t the friendliest, and Ada had an issue with her visa and two passports. Luckily nobody inquired about yellow fever which was what Scotty and I were particularly worried about so that was a relief, as we haven’t had the injection.

Dinner was next to the hotel that night, where we all picked either the beef or chicken to make it easier for the staff and then it was pretty much the end of the day, finishing up at our hotel opposite the beautiful Lake Titicaca.

Day Nine – Copacabana to La Paz

We had a quick tour of Copacabana city centre this morning, which seemed to be mainly centred around a cute little square. A bizarre event was going on, where people brought along their new cars and parked up, in order to dress and bless them. They’d get right into it, adorning the front with flowers and confetti, even letting off fireworks. This contrasted with the toilets, which weren’t, let’s put it this way, in the best condition and toilet paper was confined to a few measly sheets which may or may not be handed out upon payment. This is why our tour guide advised us to always carry around our own, just incase. Endless stalls selling junk food also sold paper, so we were never short. One stall was even selling fake dollar packs, so we wouldn’t be short of money to buy paper either 😉

After this it was time to get back on the road and head to La Paz. Bustling La Paz was easily the highest altitude place that we had been in so far, higher even than Machu Picchu. The whole city is built in the gulley of mountains and staircases upwards which no doubt makes the people of the city super fit.

En route to la Paz we first hopped on a boat across Lake Titicaca while our coach travelled across on its own containing Isabella and her crutches (I think she found the journey a little bumpy)

A really interesting stop further down the road was at a boat workshop where they make the impressive boats out of reeds, and we had a group picture with a cool dragon head one.

Dinner later was included after our check in to our hotel in La Paz, and then after that a group of us headed to a “secret” bar (I’m giving away no more details) and proceeded to drink and party on into the night.

Day Ten – La Paz

It was a good decision to go out the night before, as we weren’t going anywhere the next day and had two nights in La Paz, meaning a lack of the mad rush and pack that we had been accustomed to being on the road.

There was a walking tour of La Paz in the morning, but being a bit hungover, I decided to skip it and get my laundry done, try catch up on messages and chill in the room for a bit – you have to think about these things, you know 😛

The afternoon brought in an amazing visit to the renowned Moon Valley – literally old mountains that had been formed over time and worn down into a series of spiky mounds and points, deep crevices that dropped down and rose up again. We walked for about 45 minutes among them, being careful not to step into any of the potholes.

Our guide for the day was great, definitely our favourite so far and a resident of La Paz, but also half Canadian with a cool hat. He took us on the impressive cable car system of La Paz, which was probably the best way to see the city and involved multiple coloured line changes. We were amazed at just how many people had built their houses on cliff edges and there were some that had been dubbed ‘suicide houses’.

Dinner that night was at a place recommended by our guide and had to be the most eccentric, old school restaurant we had visited, with a collection of antique everything dotted around the place alongside ancient wallpaper and objects adorning the walls. Not to mention the food was also very tasty.

Day Eleven – La Paz to Sucre

An early morning start was back on the agenda as we rose to catch two flights to Sucre. Luckily there wasn’t too much waiting around and the recent strikes didn’t affect us so we arrived safe and sound. After hopping on the bus to our hotel we were introduced to the next tour guide. He wore a leather jacket and was full of good advice on how to take ‘proper’ photos as he was a ‘professional’ photographer.

En route we stopped at the Parliament plaza for fantastic views out over the city. I also managed to pick up a bracelet with the word “Bolivia” on it. Score. Missed out in Peru. Sucre is full of white Colonial architecture and a world away from bustling La Paz. It’s much more relaxed and reminded me of a town in Spain or Portugal, especially with the sun and rise in temperature. Parque Simon Bolivar, otherwise known as “Love Park”, was our next stop. It had European influences – Greek statues in a fountain and an orange mock up of the Eiffel Tower in the centre which you could climb.

Japanese lunch was very much welcomed and the food was delicious. The city also feels quite cultural and cosmo with a mixture of different cuisines and styles. I even spotted a library and coffee place in one. Very ugh, hipster 😛 Many of us tried out the chocolates that the city is renowned for.

After lunch we climbed up to the rooftop of Felipe Neri, a monastery which had been converted from a school. “Squatting” contests also took place up here…

The afternoon was pretty exciting as another big protest was going on – a dispute over gas which led to a wider socialist protest in the streets, trying to overthrow the government. Streets, markets and at one point even the airport was blocked off. Some of us had popped into a pharmacy and the owner proceeded to lock us inside as the worst of it went past. She didn’t look impressed. Especially since fireworks were being let off.

Eventually we were let out and ended up walking alongside the march and filming it, as well as a team of noisy motorbikes going past.

That evening we went to a place called “Joyride” for dinner and three of us ended up ordering the biggest plates of Spanish/Italian tapas we had ever seen. They also had Salsa dancing classes in the next room so after food and drinks some of us got our moves on.

Day 12 – Sucre

Got to sleep in today, which was a first on tour and then a chill breakfast before hopping on the public bus to go see dinosaur footprints.

Situated in a massive valley, time had changed the landscape so much that the footprints went upwards instead of flat. We had fun taking loads of photos with a toy dinosaur as well as the footprints and the landscape. It was also very dusty and we had to wear sexy helmets as were walking amongst a construction site.

Bolivia seems to have churned out a fair few unexpected and unusual sights which we just weren’t aware existed. A very surprising country in many ways.

Once we got back we returned to the lovely Japanese place we went to the day before for lunch. Then a visit to the best chocolate shop/cafe was in order. I can honestly say that it was the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. After our sugar fix Bec and I nipped into a restaurant to buy a couple bottles of red wine – one for the sunset on top of the monastery that we had, again, visited the day before and the other in anticipation of the salt flats. (We are all trying to come up with as many creative ideas as possible before then).

Sunset on the monastery roof was spectacular, to say the least, especially with wine. Very continental. Our trusty guide seemed to be best friends with the nuns so had no trouble whisking us in and up there. Dinner that night was booked for 8pm at a French restaurant down the road – it seemed our bodies couldn’t get enough of any cuisine that wasn’t Bolivian.

Day 13 – Sucre to Potosi

Another day, another place, which saw us rising late and travelling to Potosi. This ‘city’ is considerably smaller than Sucre and while physically pretty, seems to lack the charm of the former. The main square has some quite impressive architecture – and in the evening there was some impressive dancing going on.

When we first turned up, an orientation walk around the shops (I bought some red gloves for the salt flats) was in order and then lunch.

After refuelling we hopped back on our coach and went to pick up some gifts for the miners of the town. Strong cigarettes, dynamite, 90% alcohol and coco leaves are probably not the healthiest gifts to give – bar the leaves – but hey ho. Next stop was obviously the mines, where we got to see the workers and their lifestyle. An old woman was selling coloured minerals from a box so we bought a few and took group photos with her and her cute little granddaughter.

We had a quick walk around the town on the way back where we visited the black market and had the unfortunate experience of seeing a bunch of cow heads unloaded from a van into a wheelbarrow.

Once we’d arrived back to the hotel three of us decided to go ‘toy shopping’ and pick up some bits for the salt flats. It’s a surprise for now what I got 😉 Then it was to the recommended cafe for some strawberry cheesecake and coffee – the best in town apparently. Except we got the wrong place and ended up with lemon meringue and shit dishwater coffee.

Dinner that night was included and most of us had opted for the vegetarian option after the earlier experience – quinoa soup and vegetable lasagna.

The plan to buy some alcohol after and take it to the hotel was thwarted when we discovered all the shops had shut – bit of a dead town this one, bless. A bar was open though so we ordered the worst mojito we had ever had, then went back and tried to watch An Idiot Abroad. However with the lack of decent WiFi, eventually gave up and went to sleep, with nothing else to do. Tomorrow would see us travelling to Uyuni in the afternoon to visit the train graveyard!

Day 14 – Potosi to Uyuni

Two weeks on tour now! This morning we ate the tedious breakfast on offer then had a run of the mint building with an eccentric guide. He was fun but hard to understand and many of us spent a good time trying to avoid the cracks in the floorboards and not fall through.

We had some time to kill before getting on the bus to begin our five hour ride to Uyuni so considering a lack of activities we decided to try our luck and get the right cafe this time. With success most of us ordered coffees and churros. No WiFi though, so here I am catching up on this diary 😛

(Later) It wasn’t a bloody success as the churros turned up one and a half hours after the coffee which meant we were nearly late getting back to the hotel. Poor Jess didn’t even get her food! Killed time successfully though 😉

(Much later) We arrived, somewhat excitable, into Uyuni and the train graveyard. It’s safe to say we spent a good amount of time there and got dozens of amazing pics, as our visit had been timed perfectly with sunset. It’s an incredible place, as well as highly unusual. Not only that but I don’t think most of us had practised our gymnastics skills that much since we were about 5.

It’s madness how quickly the temperature turns cold in the desert, as it was a mere ten minute drive back to the hotel and already we were shuddering. Our rooms were freezing even with a radiator and one of our curtains was missing – however the fast WiFi made up for it – a good start 😉

Pizza and hot chocolate was for dinner as we prepare ourselves for the great salt flats tomorrow!!

Day 15 – Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia continued to churn out mind blowing scenery as we hopped in our 4x4s (Hola Chicaaaaaaaaaas) and began to make our way to the salt flats.

Wow. What can I say? It was spectacular, driving through an icy looking landscape that seemed to go on forever, and even charging through large puddles of crystal clear water. To say we were visiting the Arctic or Antarctic wouldn’t have been far off appearance wise.

We stopped at a couple of kick off points on the salt flats to gear up for the main parade, where we would be showcasing our photo skills (both the taking and posing with toys) All the flags of the world were stuck into a raised mound, and as we posed with our respective countries, I thought how coincidental it was that this was the day of the wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and how patriotic I was unintentionally being. The Daily Mail would’ve loved me.

I could’ve easily spent all day there, it wasn’t easy though getting the right angles, and we found lying down on the salt to be quite painful, but we had so much fun coming up with creative ideas.

Lunch was a fairly elaborate affair, as our guides had very kindly set up an entire table for a mini feast, and I confess it was here I was finally “forced” to eat llama. It’s actually quite nice…(still refuse to ever eat guinea pig)

If you thought it was impossible to see cacti amongst the Salt Flats, then you would be mistaken, as there were hundreds upon thousands of them. We even climbed to the top of the hill and posed with the Bolivian flag – a sign of victory, obviously.

Driving through sunset after was beautiful with all the different lights and colours, and we froze our hands off trying to get a decent jumping shot.

Our first night was at basic accommodation in a hostel (as we expected) BUT all the rooms were made out of salt which was pretty awesome, and considering we were in the middle of nowhere it felt reasonably clean and comfortable. Dinner was an interesting mix of sausage and onions with chips at the bottom served in a casserole dish, and some of us accompanied it with red wine 😉

After food we gathered around a large fire pole inside the main dining area, as it was absolutely freezing (still being in the desert and all) talked, drank and played Kings and Arseholes – there was no WiFi, of course.

The water was turned on between 8-10pm so most of us crammed in showers and half of us had issues with our bathrooms flooding after, but considering we had candles by our beds and salt flamingoes carved into the walls to look at, couldn’t really complain.

Day 16 – Salar de Uyuni to Avaroa National Reserve

Breakfast was short and sweet – a roll with margarine in some sort of cup and shit coffee (as usual)

After this it was time to get back on the road in our 4x4s (some of us girls decided we needed a break from “Chicaaaaaas, quinoaaaaaa, Pachamamaaaaaaaa” and hopped in a different car. We got to play our music via Bluetooth and it was great alongside such a surreal landscape.

There was a hell of a lot of stopping and starting and getting in and out of the vehicles to take photos, but it was worth braving the freezing cold for the views, which covered coloured lakes, mountains, geysers, volcanoes and hot springs. Our first stops were to cover the last part of the salt flats before going onto Avaroa National Reserve, which to be honest felt even more remote than the salt flats.

The first of these was the archeological Necropolis of San Juan – pretty eerie but also fascinating, little caves with curled up mummies that once belonged to nobility. Skulls of infants had cruelly been cracked and moulded to make a certain shape that defined their ranking. Joel gave us a blessing with three of the best coco leaves that we had picked out of a bunch, and then stood in a semi circle while he spoke and kissed the leaves. The last step was then placing the leaves under a chosen rock as a dedication/blessing to “Pachamama” which would guarantee our protection for life wherever we went.

The second stop was the “Coral desert” or “Valley de los Corales” which was basically volcanic lava that had immediately frozen into impressive patterned mounds due to the extreme cold, before becoming coral. Strange to think we were standing on what was once ocean, and equally strange to think we were 4,500 odd feet up now too.

Our next stop was for lunch at the first beautiful lake with flamingoes “Laguna Canapa” containing a sign telling people to keep off the grass (they didn’t) and also where we had a chat about how we’d survive in such remote conditions.

The second lake was “Laguna Hedionda” and this also had flamingoes.

“Stone park” was our last port of call before reaching Avaroa National Park and most of my memories of this place were the “stone tree” and having to run up the hill with Rikki to find a decent enough large rock to pee behind, as the free public toilets were disgusting and if we weren’t up high enough half the park would have seen.

The seven coloured mountains marked the beginning of Avaroa National Park as well as the red coloured “Laguna Colorado” shortly afterwards – so many lakes!!! It was a trouble remembering them all especially as we stopped approximately every half an hour. I reckon this was most people’s favourite lake. Tomorrow we would be visiting the famous large green lake, “Laguna Verde”.

Eventually we parked up at our accommodation for the night, Polques Piedras, which was literally a poky little hotel with a couple of shacks next door. A hot spring was a fairly long walk away (it wasn’t really, but just seemed like it due to it being so cold) so after we had dumped our stuff in the room and got changed it was a hurried run down to the huts to pay and undress. Bec and I came equipped with bottles of red (of course) and the whole group spent a good couple of hours in there before reluctantly getting out for dinner in the hotel. The hot springs were very welcomed after our long day and watching the sunset and stars appear was pretty spectacular – again, I was reminded of Iceland.

However we didn’t realise just how much the drink and altitude affected us until we hopped out, tried to change in the dark and made our way back up the hill. To speak for myself I was pretty far gone, only just made it through food before having to go and collapse 😛 Our last bottle of red had disappeared before one of the guides discovered it in the men’s changing rooms (not sure what happened there, and neither did we dare drink it)

The rooms had no hot water but at least this time they didn’t flood and we got given sleeping bags for extra warmth.

Day 17 – Avaroa National Reserve to San Pedro de Atacama

Pancakes for breakfast this morning before Rikki and I hopped in 4×4 No 1 (our favourite) with one of the guides and we blasted out 90s music before continuing along the reserve to reach the geysers. They were spectacular despite smelling very much of sulphur and someone pretended to fall in (naming no names).

The Dali Desert was our second stop and I couldn’t really believe I was there. It was where he set his surreal famous melting clocks painting that everyone knows him for, and it didn’t disappoint.

Finally it was time for the glittering Colorado Verde lake before lunch (as well as the usual animalistic crap toilets) and the small faff of crossing over the Bolivian border and through into Chile. The former was a piece of piss and didn’t even look like border control – one semi falling apart hut where the guy barely blinked as he flicked through our passports in a bored manner and gave out the large, deciding stamp in a matter of seconds.

Chile wasn’t hard either, although they muck around for a while going through all your luggage to check you haven’t smuggled through any Coca leaves. The contrast between the two was striking and you immediately noticed the country’s monetary difference due to no real road (Bolivia) and a marked road with lines (Chile) right next to each other. Bizarre.

Over the other side we got introduced to our new guide. The weather had warmed up considerably to the early 20s which was most welcomed and we marvelled at San Pedro, our new Atacama desert home for the next two days. It’s also the driest in the world which explains the nose blowing, however the altitude had dropped considerably (to around 2,400) so we started feeling a fair bit livelier again.

The town of San Pedro de Atacama is gorgeous, a cute sandy little town where no doubt hipsters would feel at home, as it has plenty of trendy cafes with WiFi, pizza joints, rent-a-bike companies and wandering dogs. We even spotted two poodles attempting to hump a large dog from both ends but didn’t get a picture in time. The things you see travelling eh.

Our hotel comes with a pool (!) a bar (!) and fast WiFi (!!) A world away from where we had just come from. The bathrooms also have paper and soap – shock horror!

 Day 18 – San Pedro de Atacama

A much needed chill morning today until the afternoon when we would visit the second moon valley of our trip (this one is reportedly bigger and better)

Most of the boys went sand boarding in the AM while most of us girls had a long breakfast and sunbathing time by the pool. Being in the desert it still felt pretty cold even in the sun, despite the temperature being around the early 20s.

Lunch was more hang out time in the cafe where we went yesterday for coffee and WiFi – how predictable – but this time we ordered panini’s and crepes. It’s extraordinary how we seem to be hungry and nearly constantly eating crap on this tour, yet still losing weight. Guess it’s all the exercise, excessive moving around and stomach bugs.

The second Moon Valley was indeed impressive and we climbed through some fairly treacherous caves, before uphill hiking it through sand for views out over huge sand dunes. Luckily we had a small van as our last stop for the day was right at the top and this was where we perched for sunset – so apparently, had everyone else, as there were countless tripods set up and even a guitar going. The views looked a little like a miniature Grand Canyon.

We all fancied pizza again for dinner that night so off we went through the maze of dog laden streets to a cute little joint that made its own from scratch. Beers in hot chocolate mugs may have accompanied that and a few beers more were consumed back at the hotel where some of us played (more) Kings and Arseholes.

Day 19 – San Pedro de Atacama to Salta (Argentina)

A long day of travel was ahead of us – 9 hours of driving to be precise – as we geared up to go to Argentina. Another day, another country, more boring border control, you know how it is. Except we were quite sad to note, that despite finally escaping the freezing desert and reasonably high altitude, it was to be our last stop on tour. At least we had a day and two nights here to explore the city, which was great.

En route we stopped in a small town to get money out, use facilities, get drinks etc, however the owner of a cafe wasn’t very impressed we used the bathrooms and attempted to barricade Joel in until we’d all bought something. Some of us refused because he was very rude to Bec, so you know, principles and all…

Dinner was paella and red wine, and it was yet another night of drinking and playing cards despite attempting not to 😉

Day 20 – Salta (the last day)

We kicked off this auspicious day with a walking tour of the city with our local guide. It’s very pretty and definitely seems to have colonial and European influences. Not only that but it’s also another city of dogs. Dogs in onesies, literally everywhere, following you about all over.

Our excitement reached fever pitch when we finally discovered a cafe that did decent coffee and so hung there for a good 45 minutes. Afterwards a group of us popped into the Mummy Museum. It was fascinating but also disturbing as the mummies were all child sacrifices from the 16th century. I couldn’t believe how well preserved they were, and neither could I believe that the parade of children earlier in the square, dressed to the nines, were imitating this ancient practice.

As we had a free half day until our wine tour later, and with not much else to do, we hung out at a different cafe for lunch and ordered a bunch of beers and empanadas. Then it was onto another coffee shop/chocolatier for a dessert of sorts. I finally washed my hair back at the hotel before joining Bec and Jacob in the courtyard for wine. You have to kick start a wine tour with wine, you know.

The wine tour itself was good, three wines only one of which I didn’t like, and we got to sample the fifth best white wine in the world, apparently. Cheese, meat and olives also accompanied this and on our second stop – after a 20 minute walk – we were offered more food. Unfortunately most of us weren’t hungry and it was a repeat of lunch so only sampled a little.

By the time dinner came round we still weren’t hungry and it was yet another repeat of empanadas and meat. Phew. I managed to break my shoe on the walk to the restaurant, so Bec was my trusty arm hold on the way there and it was taxi back. Our last night was pretty chilled as we drew rude objects and memoirs of our trip on paper left on the tables, and I thought just how much I would miss this group. They really have been one of my favourites and I’m honoured to meet them all. Until we meet again… 

Peru – Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu

The next trip of 2017 was in the Balkans, but since I’ve done a few European tours and have a lot to say in general about the continent, thought I would link them all together at the end of these. For now, there is 2018 to cover. By this time, I had wisened up and started writing daily on tour, so these are write ups, with photos to gradually trickle through. Hope you enjoy 🙂

First up sees another return to beloved South America, with a grand tour around Peru, Bolivia, Chile and a brief stop in Argentina. I was excited to be seeing my third world wonder, Machu Picchu, and all the other sites that would follow on this great adventure.

Day One: Lima

Met our awesome group, and possibly even more awesome tour guide, Joel! Today we had a walking tour of Lima, where we looked at some gorgeous architecture including the catacombs in San Francisco church and the House of Literature. Then it was on to check out some graffiti and avoid a freaky street vendor before heading to Love Park for the coastal views, the Paddington Bear statue and some beach and shopping time. Multiple Pisco sours and free balloons greeted us by the end of the evening, which was a friendly – but lively – first night out on the town. Not bad for a jet lagged bunch, I was proud of us.

Days Two and Three: Puerto Maldonado

An early morning flight to Puerto Maldonado via Cusco was underway after a slight delay, and after a rushed re-pack at jungle headquarters, (followed by travelling via boat and rickety van) we arrived at the accommodation. Our epic stay in the jungle lodge saw our log cabins opening out into the wild (no wall) complete with mosquito nets, lemon repellant sprays and hammocks. I even heard the dreaded Howler Monkey again, bringing back memories of Guatemala. 

After exploring the premises and having some dinner, we grabbed our torches (or iphones) and headed out into the jungle for a night safari walk to find bugs. Spiders, giant ants, stick insects and frogs were just some of the specimens found. This would continue on into the next day when we got up at 3.45, I repeat, 3.45am, to hike to a spot where we hopped on a boat and – somewhat  – silently tried to see what animals we could spot in the wild. It appeared we got lucky as otters, monkeys, various birds, snails,  giant rats (!!!) piranhas, and even anteaters (!) showed their faces. Everybody was pleased with the opportunity to take dozens of photos and show off their David Attenborough style skills. A mini monsoon also erupted so a few of us hid amongst the foliage for a bit.

Afterwards it was back to the lodge for a short while and then we were out there hiking to reach the mouth of the Amazon river. Here we donned attractive lifejackets and hopped in our kayaks for another hour of exercise. One of the girls fell in straight away and had to be hauled back in horizontally, by her lifejacket, onto the main boat which filled us all with the greatest confidence. I jumped in my ‘Brexit Boat’ and Irish and my good self headed off to stop at the nearest “beach” for a swim. (No piranhas in here, we were reassured)

Following more walking and a lunch stop we whacked on wellies and went to check out some natural medicinal plants. Quite a few attractions spelt out the route, one of those being natural ‘viagra’ – an energy plant – which the boys posed with. Meanwhile we ate the leaves of another, making our mouth semi numb and giving our teeth and tongue a strange tingling sensation for a few minutes. Turns out it’s some sort of natural ibuprofen equivalent. I snuck back for another leaf.

Back at the lodge and most of us showered (again) washed hair, changed clothes and cleaned shoes etc. After a much needed dinner some went out for another night safari to see if they could spot a Jaguar (unlikely) although they did only come across the most dangerous snake in the Amazon randomly sat in the middle of the path hunting an armadillo, while others stayed for cocktails (me).

Sadly it was our last night there so we made the most of it by getting up again at 5am, this time to go do some bird spotting.

No birds showed up but we still enjoyed rising two hours earlier than necessary and spotting another giant rat 😉

Day Four: Puerto Maldonado to Cusco

Bit of a shock this one, as we headed to Cusco (12 degrees) from Puerto Maldonado (30) The flight was delayed slightly, again, so we entertained ourselves with the local delicacies on offer in the airport – empanadas, skittles, Inca cola and alcoholic coffee shots. 45 minutes later we landed in Cusco and got given coco leaves to chew on as we walked off the plane, as apparently they help with altitude sickness. I googled altitude sickness and was interested to see that it includes a whole range of symptoms that aren’t just queasiness.

After a short drive we arrived at the hotel and got given a sweet tea with some more of those coco leaves plunged inside. Delicious. Then we had to arrange laundry which was an interesting process as later we found out that they’d mixed all the bags up and so our washing was mashed in together with each others at random. Great value for money 😉

Some of us went out for some food as we were starving by this point – it was about 5pm – and that was when the altitude sickness started. Quite bizarre as we all suddenly started feeling off balance and swaying, then freezing cold. When we got back there was about 20 minutes to get ready before our talk. The included dinner was that night after our talk and walking tour of the city.

The talk included an intro to Machu Picchu by our local guide and the handing out of maps and bags to hike with.

Walking around Cusco was lovely, it’s an amazing historical town, containing some beautiful centuries old architecture (particularly the churches) with cobbled streets and a laid back vibe. The only fault we could find with it was that there is a KFC in the main square. Many pictures were taken of the central church, complete with creepy Jesus and Virgin Mary statues perched at the top. The lighting was fantastic, and it was around the corner from here that we headed to our included cookery class and dinner.

Everything had been set up for us, Chilcano drinks were ready and even hats and aprons for us to wear. Our host for the evening talked us through the various drinks and foods that we would be sampling and working with. The first course was a plate of potato, chicken with mayo paste, tomatoes, olives and herbs. Our challenge was to build something with it, and the head chef would come around and judge his favourite to win. The winner won some fancy water container with a pretty pattern.

The next stage was a selection of shots in green, orange and yellow shot glasses (they were all extremely strong) followed by our main course – which we didn’t make, by the way. Before dessert we had the chance to create our own Pisco sours, which tasted very nice if I do say so myself. Then it was wine with dessert. Many of us were quite giggly and merry by the end, with one of the boys saying as we headed outside that as he was ‘half asian’ he was ‘off his face’.

Our evening wasn’t quite over yet as Sarah managed to spy an alpaca down one of the side streets and before we knew it we were all down there, taking photos with the family of three women and their two alpacas – one bigger, one baby – and resident baby lamb. We were in hysterics for quite a while and it made a good end to a long day.

Day Five: Cusco to Ollantaytambo via Sacred Valley

We had something of a sleep in (7am) this morning before taking our bags down to breakfast. Our day would mainly see us hopping on and off the coach, seeing a variety of sights and taking endless selfies –  many with llamas. One stop was for the breathtaking views of Sacred Valley and another was a llama farm, complete with huts, shop and work stations where the Peruvian people made their llama fur products. The majority of us bought something, mostly clothes related. I got a colourful scarf, a Christmas tree decoration and a tiny ornamental alpaca, just because.

Lunch was pleasant, a tasty set menu catching up on writing and swapping alpaca stories.

After this we had to skip the markets as we had spent too long shopping at the first place, and head straight to Pinkuylluna instead so we could climb to the top for fantastic views and photos out over Ollantaytambo. What struck me most about these mountain ranges were the buildings that had been carved into them, in the manner of Petra in Jordan.

On the way to this attraction, we did manage to make a quick stop to look at some guinea pigs and the fantastic house that they lived in. Despite this, they had a wood fire oven going right above their pen so it was anyone’s guess how long their life would last. We also got to play a game outside which involved throwing some coins at the open mouth of a stone frog from a distance and hoping it would go in.

Fast forward to Ollantaytambo, and at first we thought we were going to die because the climb up was really hard due to high altitude, but we passed the test needed to climb Machu Picchu the next day. Thanks Joel 😛

Afterwards we had a quick scoot around the markets below and some of the girls haggled a few items of clothes. Then it was hotel and a quick rest up before casual dinner at a local restaurant a short walk away. Early nights were needed as tomorrow would be a big exciting day – HIKING TO MACHU PICCHU!! I had dreamt of doing this since I was a teen and couldn’t wait…

Day Six: Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu!

Rising in the dark to catch the train to Machu Picchu, complete with tickets and passports, was step one of the day.

The train itself was surprisingly cute with unsurprisingly gorgeous scenery to gawp at, and not only that but we had the privilege of another free Coco tea. It’s quite pleasant in a way to realise you’re sort of drinking a cup of cocaine on the way to a world wonder.

We got dropped off in the middle of nowhere, a path in the forest to begin the trek. It was pretty exhilarating to walk along beside the train track with our bags having been abandoned by the train and all the lazy people in it who were going direct to Machu Picchu. I began my first small film clip, intending to record the progress of our journey as we went on.

And boy was it a journey! The first three hours of it was uphill. Some of us put headphones in for inspiration.

Our stop for lunch hinted that we had finished the worst part of the hike and would be on more even terrain after. Well, slightly. The second part of my filming included us crossing a bridge really high up and a random runaway llama charging down the path from out of nowhere.

I was interested to know how many calories we had burned by now and it was pretty much a days worth.

Suddenly, we rounded a corner and climbed up to a higher point and there it was – Machu Picchu. My breath caught a little as it looked even more stunning than I had imagined or seen on documentaries/in photos. It just kept getting better the nearer we got. Our first stop for hundreds of photos started here. Eventually we were coming up with all kinds of creative poses to break up the standard ones. Thankfully nobody did pinching or cupping the tiny wonder in the distance with their large hand. SO 2009.

The weather was also perfect for the occasion, sunny and clear but with perfect cloud formation and not too hot. It would be fruitless to say that our photos were stunners 😉

Once we reached the nearest point we could for that day, everyone was exhausted but jubilant. Had we really done it? We had!

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