Posts tagged ‘Trekking’

The backpack diaries – our top ten South American experiences

So this post is a little late – over a year late to be precise – but that’s okay because we still remember every miniscule detail of the trip as if it was yesterday. We’re determined to get back on the blogging horse and we have a few great European posts up our sleeves for you, including (home sweet home) Dublin, so don’t go away yet. To get the ball rolling here is our long overdue Top 10 of South America, it took almost a year of arguing, biting and scratching to compile so you had better enjoy it…

10. Paraty, Brazil
Pretty little Paraty may not make it onto many Top 10 of South America lists but this picturesque gem of a town beat tough competition from Ilha Grande to appear on ours. The reason is its unusual charm, the product of pristine beaches married with a picturesque historical centre. In town you have uneven cobbled streets lined with white-washed cottages, windows and doorframes a flipbook catalogue of bright blues, reds, yellows and greens. Outside of town there are endless perfect beaches backed by rainforest that get quieter and quieter as you trek through the forest, away from parents sipping beers on plastic chairs and kids playing football. Walk far enough and you’re sure to find your own deserted patch of sand.

9. Colca Canyon, Peru
Hidden away from the world by towering canyon walls is a tiny gem of a place. Giant cacti bearing bright red fruit, birds with a three metre wing span, terraced fields, well tended orchards, winding paths sheltered by overhanging fruit trees and little girls chasing stray sheep. This is where the mighty Amazon begins as the gurgling stream we dipped our toes into after the long slide downhill. The only problem? What goes down must come up. It was a hike that for me at least, was more difficult than the three day Lares trek – but we did it in two hours.

8. Wineries in Mendoza, Argentina
Take six wine-loving backpackers, six dodgy bicycles, one hand-drawn map and dozens of world-class vineyards, chocolatiers, olive oil producers and absinthe brewers. Throw in a dash of sunshine, a sprinkling of local characters and you have yourself one hell of a day.

7. Trekking in Tupiza, Bolivia
Who would have thunk it? In the arse end of Bolivia, itself the (lovely) arse end of South America, we found the whirlwind adventure we had been chasing all this time. Our reluctant partners in crime, advertised as Argentinian stallions, turned out to be a bunch of fat, grumpy Bolivian mules. Together we cantered across arid scenes of red-sand cliffs and rocky terrain worthy of John Wayne, we crossed railway tracks, fast-flowing rivers and fields of waist-high grass. When we slept it was metres away from them. When we ate they were tied to the trees under which we sat. We wore cowboy hats, chewed coca leaves and spat a lot. It was breath-takingy beautiful and eventually, bum-numbingly painful and it was our biggest South American adventure.

6. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You don’t walk in Rio de Janeiro, you dance. You tap your toes as you sit in a restaurant, wiggle your bum on the beach and shake yo’ thang at the Lapa street party. Here salsa is king but caparinhas shaken by large-bottomed women with infectious smiles are a close second. Rio lives up to the hype. We came expecting endless white sand beaches with beautiful people playing volleyball, City of God slum towns where kids wandered alleyways with guns slung over their shoulders, skyscrapers that winked in the sunlight and entire neighbourhoods that spent all night dancing in the streets. It was all of that and more, so why isn’t it better than Buenos Aires? Because we were expecting it.

5. World’s Most Dangerous Road, La Paz, Bolivia
At certain points, if you go over the edge of the World’s Most Dangerous Road you fall 600 metres before there’s anything to grab hold of. So obviously we had to try it. And obviously we were bricking it. The start was a fantastic warm-up – smooth tarmac road, a metal barrier and space enough for everyone – but eventually the road changed into a narrow, gravelly track that wound blindly around corners. Then came the trucks, hurdling towards us at video game speed. They took the inside lane while we spun out to the very edge, our toes teetering over a vast drop where birds circled above a rainforest canopy far below.

4. Iguazu Falls, Argentina
At Devil’s Throat it wouldn’t be hard to convince yourself that the waterfall is actually inside your head. With the way it thunders and pounds, sheet after sheet of white noise, it’s hard to think of anything else really – just the waterfall and those suicidal little sparrows that nose dive into huge clouds of spray. Foz Iguazu is actually 275 waterfalls spread over 2.7km in two countries. At it’s highest point it drops 83m, that’s 29m more than Niagara and at one viewpoint, visitors can enjoy 260 degrees of waterfall – a fact that prompted Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sigh “Poor Niagara!” on her first visit. Poor Niagara indeed. Surrounded by national park, the Argentina side has a fantastic array of wildlife too, from rainbow coloured butterflies to (reportedly) tigers. And no visitor should miss a chance to take a speedboat into the waterfall either – all those screams you hear are happiness at it’s most hysterical. Just leave your clothes on dry land.

3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Since we’ve been home people have asked us time and time again where did we like best. Now we don’t like to play favourites but if we were to pick just one place where we could stay suspended in time for ever and ever, it would be Buenos Aires. Maybe it was because we had a reunion with a long-missed friend or maybe it was just because Buenos Aires really is just that good. It has tango dancing in the streets, steak you can cut with a spoon, a nightlife that never seems to stop, real life cowboy markets, a cemetery you could easily build a home in and so much to do that you could never get bored here. Buenos Aires is all that and a bag of chips.

2. Lares Trek, Peru
Okay so there was a little bit of altitude sickness but there was also a team that sprinted ahead of us to cook four course meals three times a day in an oven made from stones, a guide that made us giggle, hours of singing The Sound of Music while we skipped down mountain sides, and eye-opening visit to a Quechun village, beautiful scenery, much coca leaf chewing, a night spent drinking macho tea under the stars and of course, the star of the show, Machu Picchu. I defy anyone not to include this beauty on their top ten of South America list.

1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
For two days we saw nothing. The sandstorm was so bad it tore the roof off a hostel (the temperature was -20°c), so bad that it blasted all the paint off one side of our jeep, so bad that we couldn’t see to the end of our bonnet. Then we arrived at Salar de Uyuni and it stopped. At first it was just a mirage glimmering on the edge of the desert but as we got closer it sucked all the colour out of the world until all that was left was a bright blue sky and a ground so dazzlingly white, we needed sunglasses. This wonder of nature is one of the few places in the world where you can clearly see the curve of the earth.

 

There are more pictures from South America available in the gallery

December 21, 2011 at 11:44 am 10 comments

Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my! Khao Sok, Thailand

I don’t know what I had expected from Khao Sok. The guidebooks had been sorely lacking in details so I had put together my own image. It would be a lush tropical jungle, thick with fat, dripping palm trees and flowers bursting with colour. Within ten minutes of hiking we would find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, trying to locate the source of monkey calls while dodging our way around pythons and deadly grass snakes. Sweating through our clothes and jungle hats (á la Eliza Thornberry), we would make our way through the thickets, eventually arriving at a thundering waterfall and emerald rock pool. After a refreshing swim amongst schools of colourful fish and bathing elephants we would spread the contents of our picnic hamper across a flat rock, sharing ham sandwiches, Tayto crisps, coke and a flask full of Barry’s Tea with a family of hungry monkeys.

Our first 20 minutes in Khao Sok only built our expectations up more. After hitching a lift from a taut with a pickup truck (who also moonlighted as a guesthouse owner, taxi driver, tour guide and the love of your life for the right price) we arrived in Art’s Riverview Guest House, Lonely Planet’s most enticing recommendation. Tucked in off the main strip, the guesthouse was the absoulte picture of serenity – all varnished wooden staircases, restaurant tables overlooking a sluggish river and rope swings delivering sceaming children into the water. We almost tripped over ourselves in our rush to get to the booking desk. Unfortunately it was not to be and our taut (obviously well aware that Art’s was fully booked) enticed us over to his guesthouse where we had to make do with mediocre raised stilt huts with mosquito nets.

That was just the first in a string of compromises. What the guidebooks don’t tell you is just how limited Khao Sok National Park really is. Covering over 700sq km, you would imagine that the trekking possiblities are endless. Not so. Due to a large concentration of rivers in the area, much of the park is inaccessible so tourists have the option of two short-ish walking routes or a handful of package tours that offer different combinations of tubing, canoeing, elephant trekking, a trip to the lake and rafthouses, a visit to Bat Cave and a night or morning safari.

Undeterred we headed for the Visitor Centre to pick up our hand-drawn map and set out on our first jungle adventure. After all, inaccessible or not, Khao Sok is still home to tigers, elephants, monkeys, maques, snakes, spiders, lemurs, wild pigs, bats, lizards and God knows what else. Surely if we hung around long enough some part of my fantasy trip would have to come true.

Taking it in turns to lead (the person in front had to shoo away all the snakes), we picked our way through the bamboo jungle, waiting excitedly for our first animal encounter. We weren’t waiting long before Gary let out a hysterical wail (almost female in pitch) as he came face to face with his first snake. No doubt sensing his raw masculinity and predatory instincts, the snake retreated into a nearby hole and Gary, trembling at the knees ever so slightly, marched on.

A few minutes later, as we were starting to despair of ever seeing more than a pretty butterfly, vivid flower, babbling brook or some fleeing snakes, we heard a familiar noise. “That’s an elephant,” said Gary breathlessly as we started to creep a few metres in every direction looking for the source of the sound. Twenty minutes of intrepid exploration left us in no doubt that there was an elephant nearby (we found fresh droppings and newly broken bamboo trees) but we were no closer to any major wildlife spottings. The rest of the day was much the same – lots of beautiful forest, towering ancient trees, refreshing rivers and even a flying lizard but nothing bigger than a python.

Trying to mask our disappointment (after all, it was a beautiful hike and a lovely experience), we booked ourselves in for a tour the next day only to be introduced to compromise number two. Where we wanted a two day tour with a night safari and overnight camping trip, we had to settle for a one day trip with no safari for much the same price because during the low season, there aren’t always enough tourists around to make up the required numbers – even if all of Germany seems to be knocking about.

Thankfully the trip turned out to be worth every single penny and every pain we had gone through to get to Khao Sok. The first part was a one-hour ride across the lake in a longtail boat. While the karst scenery in the Krabi region is often quite pretty, we had never imagined that an artificial lake in the area could be so beautiful – possibly even more beautiful than Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. With its hunched grey humps rising out of the still water, the lake was a stunning setting and the perfect habitat for the resident monkey population which emerges from the trees in the evenings to take a cooling dip in the lake.

The first leg of our journey (second if you count the 1½ hour drive over) brought us to the rafthouses, where a swim in the lake and a ridiculously large lunch left us ready for the afternoon’s adventure. Full as ticks and rearing to go, our longtail dropped us at a bank across the lake and we started to make our way through the jungle, wading across rivers, breaking up swirls of vibrant butterflies, cowering before huge spiders (“Why,” asked Gary, “are the bugs in Asia so much bigger when the people are so much smaller?”) and craning our necks to watch monkeys swing from branch to branch 20m above ground.

Eventually we got to the cave where we donned our headlamps and tiptoed in, trying not to wake the bats and toads up. Again, no such luck as our guide shone his torch on everthing that slithered, hopped, creeped and flew in the cave. All the previously sleeping inhabitants were at once roused to life and we had to duck our heads to avoid some of the less impressed residents. Relieved to be done with that particular chamber, we made our way onwards through freezing water that started at ankle depth and eventually crept up our thighs until we were frantically dog-paddling through a tight corridor, humming the Indiana Jones theme tune.

Although Khao Sok National Park didn’t fulfill my inflated expectations, solitary treks through the jungle and nights spent listening to insects and toads from inside a mosquito net ended up being exactly what our trip had been missing. One way or another we had sought out our own slice of Thailand – one we didn’t have to share with every topless Scandanavian and her blonde boyfriend.

More pictures from Khao Sok are available in the gallery

March 26, 2010 at 4:12 am 2 comments


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