Travel Baptism of Fire – Ho Chi Minh City

If you read my last blog entry here you will know that I was once rather scared of overseas travel. A 7 month trip around the world put paid to that though and I know enjoy being immersed in foreign cultures and get a strange satisfaction from the problems that travel can throw my way.

But this transformation wasn’t an overnight thing. It took time. And during this period of metamorphosis I made many mistakes and endured various sticky situations. So what better place to start the journey. Hi Chi Minh City in Vietnam. What could go wrong?

So this is how they roll on the other side of the world is it?

The temperature once hit 35c in the UK. I hid in the coolest room I could find and drank lots of cold drinks until the sun went down. So the minute I emerged into the oppressive heat of HCMC, backpack weighing me down, I was worried. “How could anybody achieve anything in this heat?” I muttered to myself, as a handful of taxi drivers rushed over to prove I was being melodramatic.

Fortunately my paranoia had led me to research how much a taxi should cost. So soon enough we were in a taxi. It had no air conditioning, but nevertheless I relaxed.

Then I noticed the motorbikes. “Look at all the motorbikes” I said to my worryingly calm girlfriend. “It must be some sort of procession.”

Anybody who has been to Vietnam will probably be smiling to themselves at this point. It was not a procession. Everybody in Vietnam seems to ride a motorbike. Often with their entire extended family along for the ride, hanging on for dear life as the  husband and father of the family weaves in and out of the few cars that dare to venture into the sea of bikes.

I spent the first 5 minutes becoming more and more amazed that none of the bikes seemed to be colliding with our taxi. Or each other. So much so that I reached for my camera. Sadly I deleted all of the shots I took, because they were blurred and wonky. By the time we reached out hotel I realised that all these motorbikes were perfectly normal.

After a few hours sleep, somewhat aided by the air conditioning, we decided to venture out into the city. It was dark by this point so I lathered on the 100% Deet spray, put on some long trousers and a long sleeved top and headed out into the unknown.

Heading Out Into The Unknown

Spurred on by the fact that we managed to book a tour with the hotel receptionist on the way out we ventured all the way to the main road. It was wider than the widest motorway/freeway I had ever seen and was filled with speeding, weaving motorcycles. We tried for 15 minutes to cross, but despite seeing some locals and even some westerners make it to the other side we gave up. It was like this but with bigger penalties for failure  and the lily pads.

Like Vietnam but without the hospital visit

Luckily we found a food market around 120 seconds walk from our hotel and decided we had ventured far enough. It smelt nice so we sat down and I enjoyed the feeling of achievement that was washing over me.

The food was great. The culinary options would plum to unprecedented depths in the days that would follow, but on that first night it was superb. I ate the lot and ordered more. Then we headed back to our hotel, which was easy as we never really lost sight of it.

Another thing that had worried me prior to departure was the thought of being robbed. In my mind the robber would have a weapon to my throat and a crazy look in his eyes. What I wasn’t expecting was the opportunistic Vietnamese with their impressively efficient way of extracting money from tourists. I suspect they drew lots for the pleasure of relieving me of my cash.

This started in HCMC when I bought a hat. It would have cost less in London, and probably would have been genuine too.

Taxi Trickery

When we arrived in Hanoi the taxi driver from the airport drove a hard bargain. Strangely he seemed to speak a fair bit of English but then forgot and reverted to Vietnamese when we realised we were being ripped off. I didn’t cotton on to what he was doing until it became a little unusual that every 3 minutes we drove down a road where every single shop sold bamboo ladders. I started taking photographs on the third lap, amazed that Hanoi had such a need for ladders, but by the fifth I realised what he was doing. Despite his sudden inability to speak English (we had been engaged in a rather detailed conversation about Manchester United at one point) we suddenly arrived at out Hotel.

I did get this great shot during the taxi journey which I think sums up Vietnam perfectly. Yes that is a fish tank on a bike, but also check out the phalanx of motorcycles about to run down the posing tourist in the background!

CHARGE!!!!!!!

What Happens When You Try to Cross the The Language Barrier? A Child Rides off on a Motorbike Of Course.

My confidence levels were soon sky high. Aided by my girlfriend’s experience of South East Asia we managed to complete a walking tour of Hanoi and even ate in the most surreal cafe I had ever visited. No menus, no cutlery and only one dish that was plonked unceremoniously in front of me whilst I tried to establish where the menus were. It all went fine though, The food, Vietnamese Pho, was excellent.

That didn’t stop my girlfriend from blaming the pho for her horrendous stomach problems that started during the night though. By the end of the next day we had nearly run out of re-hydration solution (i.e. we didn’t pack enough) and I was faced with the challenge of venturing into Hanoi at night searching for a chemist. Most of my worst fears were being realised.

But I am pretty good in a crisis. So I reached for our trusty laptop and translated my needs into Vietnamese. I wrote the words onto a piece of paper. In English it said something like this…

“My wife is sick and I need something to stop her diarrhea. Please. Thank you.”

I climbed down the four flights of stairs to the reception and then had a brainwave. If the happy smiling man who spoke no English on the desk could understand my amateurish scrawl I was in with a chance.

I approached and handed him the piece of paper. He read it and laughed. Then he called his young son of about 8 years of age over. He read it and laughed. Then the man pointed at me and then pointed at his arse.

Success! He understood! Kind of. “No not me!” I protested, provoking more laughter from the boy. “My wife” I said, pointing upwards.

Then the man asked me for some money. Hoping he had the medication I needed I handed over a handful of notes. The man gave the notes to the boy along with some speedily spoken instructions – possibly “steal this stupid man’s money” – who then ran outside, started up a motorcycle and rode off into the night with what may have been a large amount of money.

That Child Took My Money!?

I sat down on the comfortable seats and waited. The man showed no more interest in speaking with me. Just as I can was beginning to think that I had experience the most relaxed of robberies the boy returned, clambered down off the bike and ran inside. He handed me the plastic bag he was carrying and what looked to be all of the money I had given him. He reached into the bag and handed me another piece of paper upon which were dosage instruction in English. The bag was laden with boxes of French medication.

Somewhat confused but with a happy feeling in my heart I returned to the room and my sick girlfriend. For a while I considered letting her think that I had ventured into the city alone but I couldn’t be bothered. Though I soon wished I had when she found out that the hotel staff all found her predicament hilarious.

Something to Say? Does This Ring Bells With You? Get In Touch and Tell Me….

Do you remember your first foray into the world of overseas travel? Was your deep end deeper than mine? Let me know, because I like nothing better than to hear people’s travel tales…

 

My 7 Tips To Help You Only Do The Bare Minimum of Travel Planning

Once upon a time I was not a traveller. I remember clearly being somewhat terrified that I had just bought a 7 month round the world ticket. As I sat on my bed, laptop on my lap, guide book to Argentina in my hand, questions rampaged through my mind.

What happens if nobody understands me?

Will I get ill?

What if I hate it?

What happens if this bus service that this guide book tells me about stops running before I get there?

I am almost embarrassed now when I consider how I used to be. Luckily I don’t really do embarrassment and this is the transformation that any new traveller has to go through.

Wind forward 4 months and I was carefully packing my detailed plans for South America safely in my bag. The notes were neatly written, with a useful map on each page, lists of “safe” hostels for every location along with a few well reviewed eateries. I even worked out where the bus station was for each city and town. It took hours. Luckily I had time as I was housebound recovering from an appendectomy at the time.

Who needs all this nonsense?

South America was the second half of my trip. My girlfriend (a somewhat more experienced traveller than I at the time) had chosen to plan the first half through South East Asia and New Zealand. Her idea of planning was to work which were the best beaches and book a flight here and there. Her blase attitude towards foreign travel hardly helped to calm my worries.

The Moment of Truth

Our first destination was Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Which with hindsight is probably not the best place for a painfully pale, under travelled and nervous Englishman to begin his travelling education. The traffic was insane. The motorbikes were really insane. people were hacking up chickens on the pavement. They dug big holes in the pavement for me to fall in! It was incredibly hot and I had no hat.

In for a penny, in for a pound 

By the time we had traversed South East Asia I had got used to being misunderstood. I had dealt with illness. I had eaten and enjoyed weird food (pig penis anybody?). I had even survived the Thai Minibuses of Doom between Siem Reap and Bangkok!

In New Zealand I learnt that you don’t really need to book a hostel. We in fact took to driving aimlessly around ithe delightful roads of New Zealand. Unknowingly we had shaken off any plans that entered our minds

Some 2 months later, as we bused our way around Bolivia I found my notebook, tucked safely in the same place I had put it when we set off. I flicked through it, laughed at how awful my plan had been, and put it back in my bag never to be touched again on foreign soil.

Lesson Learned

And that is why I don’t plan things. The truth is that once you have covered off the basics, like visas, inoculations and flights, any sort of long term travel just looks after itself. Buses got you places…eventually. Hostels are just where you need them to be…there or thereabouts. Food is edible…mostly. And no matter where you go you will probably find like-minded people who can recommend, help and even join you for a while.

Travel is easy. Why ruin it with all that dull planning? That said, let me backtrack a little. Some planning must take place. Luckily it just easy stuff.

How Much Planning is That Then?

It makes sense to do the basics. Some surprises are best avoided. Here is my list of pre-travel checks :

1. Check the weather at the time of year you will be going.

I saw a really cheap flight to Korea a while back. It turned out that it was the coldest time of the year. And by cold I mean COLD!

2. Get inoculated

Some people like to wing it. I don’t, and I really hate needles. If you are in the UK check out the NHS Fit for Travel site.

3. Get Travel Insurance

This happens to be my area of specialism. And like most insurances, people don’t fully appreciate them until they need them. Travel Insurance can get you out of a really big hole.

And whilst I am at it. Buy your Insurance when you book your first flight so that you have the cancellation cover in place. A close friend of mine failed to heed this advice and lost a lot of money when ill health meant that he could not take his flight.

Money Saving Expert has some good tips on this.

4. Save copies of your passports, visas and travel insurance documents to your email address.

Scan them and email them to yourself. If you lose them you will not believe how useful this is.

5. Book (at least some of) your flights

You can get some great flight deals if you book well in advance. Maybe not all of your flights. For example, I just checked and I found a return flight from London to Ho Chi Minh for GBP399 in a couple of months. That’s the sort of flight that dreams are built on!

There are plenty of websites that can do the searching for you, but I particularly like the deals appearing on Holiday Pirates at the moment.

6. Pack the right type of clothes.

I didn’t do this. I was too busy plotting the walking route to Salta bus station probably. So when I got to South East Asia with improper footwear I found out that UK12 size shoes are not easily found in that part of the world.

7. Get your finance solutions sorted

Travelling may be easy but you don’t want to be caught out with no money. I tend to carry 3 credit or debit cards if I am travelling for a long time. One on me, another on my travelling partner and a third well hidden back at the hostel.

I also hide a small amount of cash on my person (I won’t tell you where…..no not there!) just in case.

At present, in the UK the best overseas card option is Halifax Clarity which does not charge a fee for overseas cash withdrawals.

Other than that I might take a pre-paid travel card like FairFX and also my debit card for my UK account for absolute emergencies.

Actually that makes me sound like I do plan!

Well yeah I suppose it does. But some things are just common sense I suppose. Buy you still wont catch me reading hostel reviews when I’m in the UK!

I would love to hear your tips. Get in touch and let me know. Am I mad? Am I missing something?

The cheapest, and probably the most perilous way to get to Machu Picchu

There are a few different ways to get to Machu Picchu. The most popular way is to walk the Inca Trail, the original Inca route to the city. If you don’t fancy that you could catch the train from Cusco. For a bit more adventure you could take one of a few tours which include mountain biking, motorcycling and hiking and will deposit you at the foot of the elusive Inca city. But if you want to save your pennies and immerse yourself some Peruvian backwaters read on…

Our journey started with a shared taxi to Pisac in the Sacred Valley. From there we took a local bus to Urubamba at a cost of about 40p each. This was a typical local Peruvian bus. Despite being hardened backpackers we still looked hilariously out of place if for no other reason that we are a lot taller than the average Peruvian.

Then we hired a local taxi for less than a pound to take us further in the valley to the Inca village of Ollantaytambo.

(Ollantaytambo with Inca ruins in the hillside beyond)

For a brief moment we considered catching the train from Ollantaytambo, but that didn’t work out so whilst we readied ourselves for the next stage of our journey we looked at the impressive Inca Ruins at Ollantaytambo. This was another important Inca site and the extent of the ruins was impressive, although not quite as impressive as those that can be found at Pisac.

(Inca baths…still working)

The next day we boarded another local bus to Santa Maria. Reports as to how long this would take differed wildly between 2 hours and 4. We learnt some time ago that in in this part of the world people will often tell you what you want to hear. The journey in fact took 5 hours as the bus was delayed by various road works. With the perilous mountainous road and the condition of the bus this was at times far from emjoyable.

(the town centre at Ollantaytambo during rush hour)

When we reached Santa Maria we needed to hire a car to get to Santa Teresa. We joined forces with 4 other backpackers and soon struck a deal involving what I refer to as “tactical nonchalance”. £2.00 each for another 2 hours of driving was the result. Some other poor chap was thrown out of a taxi to make room for us too. Ruthless stuff.

The road between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa was frightening at times. The road was dug into the side of a mountain and for most of the drive a perilous vertical drop was just feet from the car and and a vertical cliff face towered above us. Add to this the fact that our driver was at least 75 and appeared to be startled by the appearance of oncoming cars made for a nerve wracking 2 hours. I was in the front and sat perched ready to grab the wheel at any moment.

Nevertheless we arrived safely at Santa Teresa. The next leg of our journey was to walk to the hydro electric power station. Luckily our driver offered to drive us there for another £1.00 each which we thankfully accepted. This drive took another hour and would have been a hellish walk…despite us being assured by more than one person that it was an easy short walk.

The final leg of our now understandably cheap plan was to walk along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu. Despite the heat and thin air this part went nicely to plan and a couple of hours later we arrived at “tourist central” just after sunset.

(The train is coming!)

Total cost…virtually nothing. And a great (if scary at times) experience to boot.

Museums, Climbing and Weddings in my own big smoke – London City

For some bizarre reason, I have always found visiting London a bit of a chore. I think this is because it usually is a chore. Despite living so close to the big smoke, a train fare from our part of Kent can cost as much as £36 and it takes at least an hour. But over the past month I have found myself visiting London as a tourist.

My first port of call on this tourist adventure was the Natural History Museum. A perfect antidote to the train fare as this wonderful museum is completely free.

I actually visited the museum to see an exhibition by photographer Sabastiao Salgado entitled Genesis. Which was travel related photography of the highest order. The photographs were of spectacular wildlife, landscapes and remote communities.

Sebatiao Salgado

I have never been a major fan of black and white photography but this guy is clearly talented. If you ever get the chance to see his work I would highly recommend it. Or you could buy his book.

After this I took a stroll through the museum itself. I am a bit of a science geek so I was in my element. I got to see the dinosaur, which I am pleased to report was not missing.

Up at the o2

Next I headed off for our second tourist activity of the day at the o2, or as it used to be know, the Millennium Dome.

This upturned wok of a building was constructed for the millennium celebrations. I never visited in the lead up to the year 2000 as I was too busy worrying that all of my gadgets would cease to work. So this was in fact my first ever visit. The dome now contains many restaurants, some shops and a cinema, and is used to stage music concerts.

I was not here to explore the interior of the Dome however. I was going to climb over the Dome.

After completing a disclaimer, the likes of which would never stand up in court, the group was ushered into “base camp”, which was a room with flimsy walls and lots of seats. We watched a “comedy” introductory video before being issued with footwear, jump suits and a harness.

The route over the Dome is in fact on a suspended walkway which is a bit like a very long trampoline. After being shown how to use the harness I was volunteered to be the responsible leader on the ascent. Which doesn’t really say much for the rest of the group as I am not famed for my ability to act responsibly in situations such as this..

Up at the o2

Nevertheless, it seems I am good with mildly complicated safety clips and found myself making good progress. The rest of the group got held up by somebody with no ability to carry out simple instructions so I reached the summit and had the viewing area all to myself for a few minutes.

At first the climb is quite steep and it takes some effort to progress. But as one starts to climb higher the the slope shallows. Not really very difficult..

The views were great, and it occurred to me that there can’t be many places in London that afford a 360 degree view such as can be enjoyed from upon the Dome.

The View from the o2

Eventually the rest of the group arrived, most clearly fed up with being behind the person that could not operate the clip, and who it also transpired was entirely petrified of heights. Which kind of begs the question, why climb up the Millennium Dome. It isn’t like the Dome creeps up on you and before you realise it you are halfway up. It can be seen from quite a long way off.

Anyway, after enjoying the view for a while we started to descend. This was incredibly easy with gravity on my side so I put the hammer down and bounded like a new born giraffe so that I could capture a photograph of the group as they descended. Some of the group inexplicably got stuck behind the now hysterical fearer of heights again.

Descending the o2

Tickets to climb the o2, or “Up at the o2” as it seems to be know, start at £26.

Seven days later I spent two more days in London as part of a family wedding.

I was fortunate enough to be offered the chance to have a tour of The Houses of Parliament. This was somewhere I had never thought of visiting, but it was a thoroughly interesting and at times breathtaking experience.

Sadly no photographs are allowed, but we visited most of the important rooms, including the House of Lords and the House of Commons. We also saw endless photographs, statues and our guide, a jovial scouser with a hit and miss sense of humour had plenty of interesting bits of information to tell us.

Tours can be arranged as follows (click on this link for info).

The following day I attended a fantastic family wedding at The Swan at the Globe , which is the brilliant restaurant at the Globe Theater. The location of the restaurant is superb, just a short walk from London Bridge railway station, and it enjoys this astounding view.

St Pauls Cathedral - View from The Swan at the Globe

I have visited a fair few cities over the past 4 years. So it was really interesting to look upon London with the eyes of a tourist.  I can now see that it really is deserving of it’s status as one of the greatest cities in the world. It may be expensive, but on the flip side a large number of museums are free to enter. Street food is very big at the moment which makes eating almost reasonable. Transport around London, whilst a little expensive, is incredibly easy. And the sights are actually pretty astonishing.

So I will be back, as it would be rude not to.

Tafraoute – Carpets, Boulders and Tagines amongst the Anti Atlas Mountains

Tafraoute is a town in the Anti Atlas Mountains and is a bit of a tourist magnet. We decided to go for a look and planned to do some walking and see the local sites.

To get there we needed to use another Grand Taxi so we started the morning again at Mirleft chatting to locals. Soon enough we were back at Tiznit in the big dusty wasteground full of Mercedes 240’s. We then took a Petit Taxi to a bus company office but found the only bus to Tafraoute didn’t leave until late afternoon. We didn’t want to wait for hours which left us with one other option. Another Grand Taxi, and this time all of the way into the mountains.

Mountain roads aren’t straight. And they tend to be rather precarious. Because of this they are often pretty frightening and we got pretty fed up with them when we were in Peru and Bolivia. So the prospect of undertaking this trip 7 up in a Mercedes 240 driven by a guy who most likely was in a rush (or a race maybe) was rather daunting.

To build ourselves up we went in search of breakfast. We sat down in a smokey cafe (they smoke everywhere and endlessly in Morocco) which looked to be pretty uninspiring, but the waiter pointed us next door to a shop selling an amazing array of cakes and pastries. So that is what we had for breakfast, along with mint tea and coffee.

Well fed and ready for action we headed back to the Grand Taxis. Just to prove it really is a dusty wasteground full of clapped out Mercedes 240’s…

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Tiznit Grand Taxis” src=”https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-IUrx0fJe6hc/UXbp_lhCWhI/AAAAAAAAFNQ/gx9jYULX4yY/s912/P1060364.JPG&#8221; />

We took the sensible decision to pay for three seats for this journey so we had the incredible  luxury of only having to share the back seat with a guy who didn’t use deodorant. The most sensible decision of all would probably be to drive the thing myself but that wasn’t something our basic grasp of French would allow. The journey was a sublime mix of white knuckle inducing fear and stunning scenery. At times it reminded me of the Sacred Valley in Peru. The whole journey was made all the more entertaining by one of the passengers in the front arguing passionately with the driver. Much gesticulation was used and at one point the driver took to calling somebody on his mobile, presumably in an attempt to settle the dispute. He had no luck though and the argument raged on as we climbed and descended numerous mountain passes. The argument may have been light hearted, but I reckon any sort of dispute in Arabic would sound heated.

Here is a photograph of the scenery out of the side window and another out of the front window. If you look closely you can just about make out my sweaty white knuckles in the second picture.

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Scenery on the way to Tafraoute” src=”https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-AWmahus8sTg/UXbqHWxirXI/AAAAAAAAFN4/RyXcAJBHBNQ/s640/P1060369.JPG&#8221; />

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Inside a grand taxi on the way to Tafraoute” src=”https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-xiOss8k2f18/UXbqIqvFexI/AAAAAAAAFOA/FRMVWblPMkA/s640/P1060371.JPG&#8221; />

Tafraoute is a pleasant little town surrounded by mountains on all sides. It is small enough to be easily explored on foot but is well stocked with pleasantly persistent salespeople. More on that later. But all in all it is fair to say that Tafraoute is very picturesque, especially from the roof of our Hotel at sunset.

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Tafraoute at sunset” src=”https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-T17LqN3IBXs/UXbsmAX638I/AAAAAAAAFXY/dK9H9elpQfY/s640/P1060451.JPG&#8221; />

On the way to our hotel we were hassled by a guy who sold carpets. We dismissed him with aplomb…or so we thought. That evening as we walked the streets he appeared from nowhere…possibly from a lamp..and compelled us to take a look at his wares. His sales pitch was slick and within 2 minutes we found ourselves in his inner sanctum. The Carpet Room. First he presented us with a long decorative wooden stick type thing and asked if we knew what it was. We didn’t and he explained that it was a Berber tent peg. Then he joked that it is also used by Berber woman to punish husbands who roll in late and drunk from a day of whatever one does all day in a desert. We laughed. Then he proceeded to unroll carpet after carpet on the floor explaining each as he went.

It was relentless and we could not stop him. We explained we had small bags but he explained they could ship to our home. We tried claiming to have no home but he offered to ship to friends and family. Then he demonstrated how he could roll a small carpet up so it was easy to carry. Finally I hit upon a solution and promised to give him publicity in our world renowned traveling and carpet buying blog. Amazingly this did the trick, though he did sulk for a few moments before we bid him farewell.

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Tafraoute carpet man 1″ src=”https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-4-DdjWo8juo/UXbsh3VbAPI/AAAAAAAAFXA/T56PPBjlNDg/s512/P1060448.JPG&#8221; />

Our full day at Tafraoute was spent touring some of the sights in the surrounding area. Our driver Ali first drove us to see the “Painted Rocks”. A Belgian artist for no clear reason decided to paint some bloody great rocks in the late eighties. They have been a tourist attraction ever since and even though it is claimed that they have never been repainted we very easily discovered they are repainted every 2 years by locals.

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Painted Rocks at Tafraoute” src=”https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-DwrAsnS5l7M/UXbq0s9ILNI/AAAAAAAAFRA/Iu4PBiN7oIg/s512/P1060398.JPG&#8221; />

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Painted rocks at Tafraoute” src=”https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-RTacWIqVYew/UXbrDcPJMsI/AAAAAAAAFSA/hkgl7-MVUWc/s640/P1060407.JPG&#8221; />

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Painted rocks at Tafraoute” src=”https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-p6qN0av_2-g/UXbrFHwfwWI/AAAAAAAAFSI/LDFRil3rixA/s640/P1060408.JPG&#8221; />

After the painted rocks we climbed up and over some mountains towards the Ait Mansour Gorges. On the way we saw some stunning scenery and this amazing village on a hillside.

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Moroccan Village” src=”https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-9-EOY9h9ukU/UXbr_NaTs-I/AAAAAAAAFVI/2FfY7xtfaTs/s640/P1060433.JPG&#8221; />

Once we reached the gorge Ali dropped us off so we could walk for an hour. The gorge was an oasis of green in an otherwise stark but impressive scene.

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Ait Mansour Gorge” src=”https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-Y4lFoEfTUWY/UXbrsJX9Z7I/AAAAAAAAFUQ/YYxjbtmpjQ4/s640/P1060426.JPG&#8221; />

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Ait Mansour Gorge 2″ src=”https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-L4PoGkTmziU/UXbsPIN45nI/AAAAAAAAFV4/tm8JktFSp7E/s640/P1060439.JPG&#8221; />

There were also some settlements in the gorge which we walked through. The river through the gorge was virtually dry but the extent of the irrigation system created to carry what little water that was present was highly impressive. At times the side of the gorge towered above us on both sides to the extent that it would be impossible to climb out.

It was a great day seeing the amazing scenery of the Anti Atlas Mountains. I honestly had no idea what to expect and I was quite taken with the raw beauty.

Upon our return to Tafraoute we were quickly accosted by a young chap asking us to come and look at his shop. We fended him off and he shouted the usual response that comes in Morocco/Thailand/Just about everywhere….”Maybe later?”.

Later that evening, after another delightful sunset we headed out to eat. On our way to our chosen restaurant the same young chap pounced upon us. We fended him off this time by explaining that we were starving. Undettered he staked out the restaurant, even coming in for a drink with the owner at one point and waving to us. As we ate our tagines we resigned ourselves to another lengthy sales pitch.

Upon arriving at his shop we went through some general chit chat and soon enough we found ourselves in his carpet room. He reached for a shelf and retrieved a Berber tent peg and asked us if we knew what it was. Claire stifled a laugh whilst I gave a superb impression of a man racking his brain for some distant memory. “Is it maybe something like a tent peg?” I asked. “Yes” he replied and then proceeded to tell us how Berber housewives also use them to discipline husbands who come home late and drunk.

Then he launched into a word perfect re-enactment of our earlier carpet room experience. Here it is. As you can see we let him get a fair way into his sales pitch, but you will also note he has enough carpets to keep him talking for a week.

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Tafraoute carpet man 2″ src=”https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/–YCuqmmrdnE/UXbsslj8vmI/AAAAAAAAFX4/91odUQ_hFvY/s640/P1060457.JPG&#8221; />

I waited patiently for the right moment and delivered my “world famous travel and carpet blog” line. He sulked. We wished him well. We left and laughed hysterically in the street.

At this point in our trip we had eaten 4 tagines – probably the most famous of Moroccan dishes. Like much of the great food we discover and eat they really aren’t lookers. Take this effort for example.

<img class=”aligncenter” alt=”Tagine at Restaurant Marrakech in Tafraoute” src=”https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-WT4y3aF2hKQ/UXbspdZvVvI/AAAAAAAAFXo/n-yUM9N5i9M/s640/P1060455.JPG&#8221; />

I can assure you that it tasted great, as did the olives and the beer. But no photographer could make this look good.

All in all we really loved Tafraoute. The town has a vibrancy which reminded us of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile – it has that same vibrant buzz as tourists set off or arrive back from tours.

Tenerife – The West Coast and Mount Teide

A lot of people were a little surprised when we said we we were going on holiday to Tenerife. The Canary Islands are a haven for beach lovers and beer guzzlers though, so I suppose it did seem rather far removed from our usual adventures. But we had undertaken a smattering of research and we knew that the volcanic Spanish island could offer more than beaches, beer and fry ups.

We have a slightly strange love of local transport. There is something quite rewarding about successfully negotiating foreign lands by local bus, shared taxi or worse. But we also have wonderful memories of our time in New Zealand, where we hired a car. Having the car gave us the freedom to explore thoroughly, and it was this sort of licence to roam that we wanted for this short break. So we hired a car.

I was very proud of myself when I found a great car hire deal online 3 weeks before we left. The company I found offered a mid sized car for less than £20 per day. On reflection I think we will return to “making it up as we go” next time. We queued for 3 hours for our car at the Goldcar desk at Tenerife South airport, whilst the other more well known providers sat and twiddled their thumbs. If you take one thing from reading this blog, it should probably be that you never ever use Goldcar if you travel to The Canaries.

That said, the car itself was fine. I had never driven a left hand drive car on the other side of the road before, and despite assurances from many people who have, I was still a little apprehensive. I promptly hit the kerb as I drove out of the car park and Claire had to politely suggest I drive on the correct side of the road shortly afterwards. I also had an annoying habit of trying to change gear with the door handle at the most inappropriate moments.

After leaving the airport the quick run along the motorway went well, but then we had to climb up into the hills to our hotel in Vilaflor. Driving along the endless switchback roads to get there was a baptism of fire that would set me in good stead for the week.

Our hotel, Alta Montana, was an absolute gem. We had a wonderful room with a curving balcony looking out across the hillside and down towards the south coast. At 1,400m above sea level Vilaflor is the highest village in Tenerife, and after a couple of hours sleep we awoke to see the sun setting across a beautiful layer of cloud below us.

Sunset over Vilaflor

The staff at Alta Montana were great. Faultless in fact, and though they spoke only a few words of English my limited Spanish was enough to plug the gaps. Our conversations left things vague enough to make our evening meal at the hotel a bit of a surprise. We had Canarian Soup (meat, noodles, chick peas) and then a hunk of slow cooked beef with big lumps of vegetable placed around the plate. That may sound like a lazy description, but that really does sum it up. I forgot to take a photograph, but rest assured that it ticked all of the claireandmarkgotravelling boxes. Tasty. Ugly.

Whilst staying at Vilaflor we wanted to explore the western area of the island, including the Volcano of Teide, which looms over the island when it isn’t hiding in the clouds.

When we woke on our first full day we decided to explore the west coast first. As we descended the perilous roads I was a little more relaxed and able to take in the surroundings. The south coast is quite arid, and the locals use agricultural terracing for growing crops. Claire and I both agreed that it reminded us a little of Peru, without the hair raising bus journeys.

The road descended through small settlements before eventually reaching the resort town of Puerto de Santiago. This was a place that was recommended to us by friends, on the basis that the town was fairly low key. It apparently has a large British Ex-pat community, but they were presumably all in bed hungover when we were there. We had breakfast at a slightly dubious bar, received some alarmist advice from the English waiter – “don’t drink the tap water here mate” (he was selling us drinks at the time) – and then walked to the edge of town to see the real draw.

Los Gigantes are the highest cliffs in the Canaries. In places they reach the staggering height of 500 meters. One can take a boat trip to see them, but we were happy to see them from afar and then head off into the hills above the cliffs.

The roads were again challenging but my confidence was growing so we decided to press on to the isolated town of Masca. The western area of Tenerife is a fairly dry mountainous region with patches of strikingly green vegetation against the backdrop of the volcanic debris. This area is accessed by winding roads which patiently make their way up and over steep mountains. We first reached the town of Santiago del Teide, which looked sleepy and pleasant, before turning left for Masca.

Thereafter the road was more often than not balanced perilously on steep hillsides. Gradually it climbed, through endless switchbacks, up and over the highest point. From here we could see the tiny town of Masca far below, balanced on a steep ridge, and beyond, the Atlantic and the islands of La Gomera and La Palma.

The road to Masca

We descended carefully into the village and parked up to explore. The village of Masca is said to be the most spectacular in Tenerife and it is very hard to disagree. The few buildings seem to be placed in positions which defy gravity, and the main street winds it’s way along the ridge line. We strolled, admiring the views and then bought some fruit from a local guy. His family had been residents of Masca for many generations and their garden was positioned right in the middle of town. He proudly pointed out some of the various fruit trees from where he had plucked the fruit that morning. He was selling mandarins, cactus fruit and persimmon fruit, all of which we tried. There is something very satisfying about eating fruit so fresh. We bought a bag of mandarins and some almonds for our onward journey.

Masca

We followed the road northwards and eventually reached Buenavista del Norte, and from here we had hoped to drive to the most westerly point on the island, the remote Faro de Teno. We had been warned that the road to Faro is often blocked in bad weather. As the road signs had all been removed and warnings put in place we decided it was probably best we not continue.

Instead we set off along the northern coast to Garachico, undoubtedly the unluckiest town on the island. It’s history is one of storms, floods, fires and epidemics, and then in 1706 an eruption buried a large part of the town in lava and destroyed the port which gave the town it’s livelihood.

Now, however, the town is a lovely example of what a small settlement in Tenerife would be like without the tourist resorts and bars. It sits below a high cliff, and has wonderful cobbled streets and a delightful plaza. The inhabitants speak very little aside from Spanish, which was pleasing as I was enjoying having the chance to practice my Spanish. We strolled and then had lunch in a restaurant which served nothing but Canarian food.

The most famous of Canarian foods is the Papas Arrugadas, which translates as Wrinkly Potatoes. These are quite salty and pretty non descript until you eat them with Mojo. The Mojo is a salsa, of which there are many types. coriander, chilli and parsley appeared to be the most popular. All three are delicious and would bring life to any meal.

The other amazing gastronomic discovery of this meal was bread with fennel seeds. I love the aniseed flavour of the fennel seed and when baked within the excellent bread of Tenerife they seem to work some magic. I try not to eat much bread, but this bread was irresistible.

Garachico has no beach or large hotels, which is no doubt why it feels so authentic and genuine. It does have some natural swimming pools within the lava on the shore though. Not that swimming would have been sensible on the day we visited.

The Plaza at Garachico

The Lava Rock Pools at Garachico

This was turning into an epic day. I was now enjoying the driving and the climb back up into the hills backs to Santiago del Teide weaved gradually up and over the cliff above Garachico. The view back down to the town was fantastic.

The next day we awoke early to make our to the top of Teide, the highest point in all of Spain. Due to some confusion as to the time difference (there was one it transpired) we actually got up an hour early.

To get to the Teide we had to climb a further 1,500m in the car. This road weaved it’s way into the forests above Vilaflor, where the harsh volcanic ground has a soft brown coating of pine needles. As a mountain biker (of sorts) it looked so appealing. But we pressed on, eventually clearing the tree line and passing through and then above the clouds before driving into the caldera of Canada Blanca. This was the original volcano, which collapsed inwards and from which Teide eventually grew.

Looking down from above the tree line

The collapsed caldera stretched out in front of us. On a larger scale it is essentially flat, but the ground is strewn with jumbled lava flows and scattered rocks. Navigating across the caldera would be impossible without the road, which itself seemed unique in Tenerife for its straightness.

The day before we departed my Mum brought my nephew William to see me. William is 5, and when I explained that we were going on holiday he did that thing that kids do when they are not interested. He just completely ignored me. In an attempt to get a reaction from him I introduced a little drama. “We are going to climb a volcano” I said. He turned to look at me, suddenly interested. In his mind a volcano violently spews molten rock high into the air. Then I went and committed myself. “I’ll bring you back a rock” I said. He was happy.

So when I found out the night before our climb that stealing a rock from the volcano is a criminal offense I had a dilemma on my hands.

From around 2,350m there is a well established climbing route. There is also a cable car. We took the cable car, which deposits passengers 200m short of the summit.

This was the highest we had been since we left Peru in May of 2011. Back then Claire had absolutely no problems with the altitude whereas I struggled to adapt, suffering headaches and extreme lethargy. So I was a little concerned as to how my body would cope.

Once we exited the cable car and set off, Claire once again showed a seemingly incredible ability to perform at altitude. After 30 seconds of trying to keep up my lungs were crying out for oxygen and I had to stop. It is an unsettling feeling to be breathing as hard and fast as you can but to feel no better. Slowly though I started to catch my breath and I set off again, this time much slower. My legs were feeling weak and I was slightly dizzy. A couple of times I missed my footing.

The top of Teide

Nearing the summit

Claire, no doubt out of sympathy, slowed and waited for me. She was struggling too though. In South America we made our way to altitude slowly, which allows the body to adapt and makes the whole process easier. Here we had gone from sea level to 12,000ft in less than 24 hours.

Another couple were also climbing at the same time as us. They too were struggling but in the end the four of us reached the peak. The view was breathtaking in every possible way. A 360 degree view is not an easy thing to attain and the feeling of not knowing where to look takes a few moments to pass.

The Ginger Beard and Hat Combo Return!

The Spanish Government only allow 200 people to go the summit each day and it necessary to arrange a permit in advance. The permit is free, though the cable car costs 25 Euros. Our twenty minutes at the peak were nice and peaceful as a result though. We then picked our way down, chatting to a German couple as we descended. They had spent the previous five hours climbing without the aid of the cable car, which probably explained why they weren’t that interested in the view. I felt awful having climbed for only 20 minutes!

That morning before we set off, blessed with more time than I needed to get ready, I read about the Spanish Guardia Civil opening a UK diplomatic bag at the Gibraltar border. This was a rare breach of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. As we descended in the cable car I ran my thumb over the rough surface of the small rock in my pocket. My small act of defiance felt justified, and William would get his rock.

Straying from the path in Bolivia – Our Journey to Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is a source of great pride for Bolivia and quite rightly so. It is the world’s largest high altitude lake and sits at 3,808 metres above sea level. The Bolivian Navy has been based on the Lake since they lost their coastline during the Pacific War with Peru, a very sore point to this day.

The bus journey from La Paz was short by South American standards – a mere 4 hours. We were deposited on the streets of Copacabana, the main border crossing between La Paz and Peru. Because Titicaca is a big draw the town is crawling with tourists. It is clearly a backpacker bottleneck and not surprisingly on the night we arrived we bumped into some people we knew – an English couple and 2 German girls who were on our Salt Flats tour 3 weeks earlier. As is traditional on the Gringo Trail, they told us what they had done and then suitably inspired, we then changed our plans.

They explained that they had spent a night at a tiny village by the name of Sampaya, further round the coast, sleeping in lodgings built to attract tourists to come and see the town. They described beautifully their evening eating with the villagers and dancing the night away. The town sounded well off the tourist trail and a great way to immerse ourselves in Bolivian culture.

The next day we found a taxi to take us to Sampaya and set off. The road was nothing but a dirt track and in places it was blocked by landslides. These were quickly cleared though and we soon found ourselves in picturesque Sampaya. The high street was grassy, the houses were all built of stone and not a soul was in sight. The taxi driver was very obliging and led us through narrow passageways and up the steep hillside to the lodgings. He then had a brief shouted conversation with a guy who was struggling to control his 3 donkeys. Despite the language barrier we became aware that we may have to wait around but we were confident that the donkey man was seeking the people responsible for the lodgings. So we sat down to wait, drinking in the views out across the lake and to the Island of the Moon.

The Island of the Moon - seen from Sampaya

After an hour or so we started to get bored. I wandered off, Spanish dictionary in hand, to find somebody who might be able to help. The town was fairly large and the distinct lack of people gave it an eerie atmosphere. The first chap I found had an aggressive pig and he told me that the people we needed were in Copacabana for the day – the irony of which was not lost on me. But he pointed across the valley to a house before returning his attention to his troublesome swine.

I climbed carefully down the stony cobbled footpath and crossed the main street before climbing cautiously up the other side. I had been concentrating hard upon not slipping and now that I was amongst the houses I had lost my bearings. I couldn’t find the house but I did find a woman who must have been 90 years old who was leading her flock of sheep down the narrow footpath. After realising she was hard of hearing I shouted loudly in her ear and she pointed me towards the town museum, but alas this was also locked up and deserted.

Yampaya High Street at rush hour

I returned back to the other side of the valley to Claire who was by now sunbathing atop a rock wall. As I was about to join her a man who, was also herding sheep. shouted from across the valley. I shouted back in my finest Spanish “I ONLY SPEAK A LITTLE SPANISH.” He waved his arms in the air in frustration and continued on his way.

I concluded that sunbathing was a good idea and joined Claire. But a short while later we realised that given the lack of phones, people and taxis in Sampaya there would come a point where we could become stranded in what seemed to be an almost abandoned village with nowhere to stay and limited food and water. We had been in the town for four hours by this point and had only seen 4 people and it was now nearing mid afternoon.

Faced with the worrying prospect of a night in the open at altitude we quickly came up with an alternative plan. We would hike north along the road to reach the small village of Yampupata, from where we hoped find a boat to take us to the Isla del Sol, the large Bolivian island on Lake Titicaca. If that failed we would seek somewhere to stay. A simple plan based upon a lot of guess work and a shoddy map in our Lonely Planet guidebook.

We set off and immediately had to climb a big hill. At this point we were still struggling with the thin air so it was slow going. Gradually we reached the top only to see a descent and another climb followed by another descent and a climb. It was an exhausting walk but we eventually staggered into the outskirts of Yampupata. We had already realised that not many tourists come this way and this was demonstrated when a young boy of about 7 ran out of his house and hugged my leg. He was happy to see us!

We pressed on to the port where we found 2 men and nobody else. One was in his 20’s, was dressed in sports clothing and was holding an ipod. Fortunately the both owned boats and the youngest offered us a ride in his motorboat for about £8. The other guy looked to be in his 70’s and for £5 he would row us the 3km to Isla del Sol.

This was an interesting dilemma. The motorboat would get us the island quickly and in comfort and the difference in costs was of no concern. But the young guy was dressed in flashy clothes and had an iPod…he looked more out of place than we did. So despite iPod Man’s protestations we struck a deal with the old guy and clambered clumsily into his rowing boat.

We set off and after 2 minutes our Captain stopped rowing, picked up the second pair of oars and shoved them at me. Despite his toothless grin, it was clear that he expected help and I was more than happy to oblige. Claire immediately pulled the camera out which prompted him to retrieve a Bolivian flag from his pocket and proudly tie it to the mast.

Rowing out to the Island of the Sun

After a while I tired so Claire had a go and we swapped a couple times more before we reached the island. On the way our captain spoke a lot of the sea and was clearly interested in the fact that we came from an island. The landlocked status of Bolivia was clearly the source of much sadness to him. But we had a laugh when the tourist ferry came past us, music playing, and the tourists started waving and taking photos of us in our little boat. At that moment we were only 10 meters from the tourist trail but the contrast was stark.

As we disembarked our Captain asked for his fee, but I insisted he take more. I told him to finish early and go home for a beer, which he appreciated greatly.

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