Thursday, March 31, 2011

Diving from the sky

Why jump from 12,000 feet when you can jump from 15,000?  I think they decided to use feet in this case because it sounds higher than 4,600 metres.  After we put on our flight suits, life belts (in case we landed on the lake), hats, goggles and oxygen masks (for all the passenger and divers apart from Thomas. Why? We'll never as Thomas only found out on 18/04!), 15 of us squeezed into a tiny plane.  At one point, Yumi was sitting in her tandem partner's lap to make more space.  At 10,000 feet the oxygen masks went on.  At 12,000 feet we had to wait 5 minutes for an Air New Zealand plane to pass before 2 people could jump.

Then it was our turn. 15,000 feet over the Lake Taupo area.  Thomas, his partner and the camera guy went first.  The plane dipped after they jumped off.  That's the first time Yumi felt a little nervous.

Then to the door, smile for the camera, lean the head against the partner's shoulder and Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

After a few seconds, it felt more like we were hovering than falling.  We did some turns, waves at the camera and unbeknownst to Yumi her partner was making all kinds of funny movements above her like pretending to fall asleep and flapping his arms like a bird.  It's hard to look good for the camera when the air makes your cheeks jiggle like jelly.

After a minute of falling, the parachute opened and we got to fully appreciate our surroundings as we gently floated along.  It was a beautiful, clear day and we could see both coasts.  It was a shame the ride had to end.  After a soft landing, our partners were off to do another jump.

It really wasn't as scary as we thought it would be.  The initial fall from the plane made our stomachs drop, but then it was just fun because it doesn't feel like you are falling.  And your partner does all the work so you can just enjoy the ride.

Would we do it again?  Definitely!    

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The first rule of "sledge club"

Don't let go of the sledge.

Sledging is like going down a river on a luge with flippers.  We thought it would be a fun challenge, but...well, it was  fun anyway.  We were a group of 9 with 3 guides.  They called people by their country of origin because they couldn't remember everyone's names, except for Yumi's because they have a friend named Yumi.  This is a common occurrence in New Zealand.  For once, Yumi is not being called "Yummy" or "Yo Me" or "Yoyo" or some other variation.

The Dutch guys in our group struggled with the instructions.  The first guy accidentally knocked one of the guide's flippers in the river.  Another jumped into the river the opposite way he was told.  Another ignored the first rule of sledging and let go of his sledge.  Yet another missed an "eddy", resting spot, and floated down the river sending a guide to follow.  The best was Yumi taking out a guide after "surfing" in a wave.  It wasn't until we finished that she found out that she knocked the guide in the head with her sledge.

Compared to South America, we pay a lot more for extreme activities, but it's probably because the health and safety standards are much higher here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Road sign humour-updated

We get a kick out of some of the road signs in New Zealand.

Like the 100km/h sign right before a curve that indicates 35km/h.  One of our favourites: "Merge like a zip".

We also have a sticker on our windscreen that states, "Keep Left."  Too bad it is placed on the passenger side.  At least the passenger is aware of where to be.

Our all time favourite sign welcoming us to a new town: No hospital, no doctor, one cemetary

Twinkle, twinkle little star in a cave

We just missed the last tour of a glow warm cave the day before, so we decided to try our luck with the Waipu Caves even though we were told that they were probably flooded due to the recent rains.  The caves are free (score!).

We went in the first time with our shoes and head torches.  We tried the second time with our flip flops because as we were warned, they were filled with water.  We walked through thigh high water while the ceiling of the cave was just above our heads.

Thankfully, the water wasn't too cold.  We didn't make it too far before we had to turn back.  But it was worth it because as soon as we turned off our torches we were treated to a spectacular light show.

The glow worms illuminate in the dark.  Unfortunately, the photos don't do them justice at all.  Just imagine that you are looking at the stars, but inside a cave.

We saw another car in the carpark when we arrived, but it was gone by the time we returned.  The odd thing was that we kept hearing voices or so we thought, but  we didn't see or pass anyone while inside the cave.

Souvenirs from our visit: a bruised elbow and knee from when Yumi slipped the first time and a mud mark on her butt from the second fall.

Escape to Tarawera

Our totally cool Escape campervan came kitted out with bedding (sheet, pillows, duvets), ice chest, kitchen stuff (pots, pans, plates, cutlery, cooking utensils), 3 folding chairs, a cooker, seats that turn into a bed and loads of hidden storage space.  Thanks to Thomas' negotiating skills, we also got a BBQ, fold out table and solar shower thrown in for free.

Yumi on Tarawera in front of the real Tarawera 

Tarawera, the name of our home for the next 25 days, was also an automatic, which meant that Yumi could drive  (Yay!)  But this would be her first time driving on the left side of the road (Eek!) in a bigger car (Uhhhh) through winding roads (Scary!) using the metric system (okay, so she has been living in London for 7 years, but 100kph still doesn't mean anything to her).

An easy way to spot a foreigner driving in New Zealand?  Cars that drive no where near the centre line and windscreen wipers going on everytime they are about to make a turn.

After navigating our way out of Auckland, we headed north to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to find out a bit more about Maori culture.  It ended up being more about the history of Europeans in New Zealand.  We also watched our first haka.  There were only 3 of us in the audience watching 5 performers in a tiny theatre.  It wasn't the big show we were expecting, but it was still a good time.

We spent the night on Uretiti beach.  Although clothing is optional, it was a bit chilly so we decided to keep our kit on.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


"Aotearoa" is the most widely known and accepted Marori name for New Zealand. That's just where we've landed.

March 23rd never happened for us: we left Santiago on the 22nd and landed in Auckland on the 24th. We "passed" the custom test: no fruits, no seeds, no nothing is allowed when you touch down in Kiwi Land otherwise you're on for a hefty fine. Many posters are on display to remind it to you.

We had arranged a shuttle service and our timing was perfect. Still fresh off the plane we jumped straight into the van and 30mins later we arrived at Hannah's house. It's 6am, everybody is asleep so we laid down and finished our night on the kitchen floor.
An hour or so later we meet Hannah, her housemate Steve and couple of girls from ... Argentina. It's a nice transition from South America and we get to speak a bit more Spanish Argentinian.

Hanna's house is in front of Kingsland train station, 18 minutes away from the downtown Auckland.
On our first day we walked around the city area and visited the war museum with a German student and a couple of girls we met on our way there. They are from ... Argentina and just found a job in the north. We decided to go for the guided tour with Nick, a funny 65yo + undergrad student who made the Kiwi history interesting. Not that it's not interesting but you know, it's usually easy to make any country's history boring.
On the 25th we went for the harbour cruise, hoping to hop on and hop off the many islands in the bay. Unfortunately the weather decided otherwise and we stayed onboard the whole time. We walked back home, passing by the very long Queen Street and its many shops. The end of it is full of sushi restaurants it feels like you got lost somewhere in Tokyo.

The weather was not the best over the next couple of days so we decided to start planning our rooooooad triiiiiiiiiip. There are so many things to do in NZ and we only have 23 days. As usual you need to make choices, accept that you'll miss out on nice places but at the end of the day there's no wrong decision. We know that every decision we take will turn into some kind of fun adventure, which is why we are travelling.

p.s. After South America, New Zealand seemed too "easy" in some ways.  The restrooms were clean, had toilet paper and running water and were free and Yumi could understand everything everyone was saying (instead Thomas would have to ask for translation of the Kiwi accent).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Toilet tips for South America

When going to the baƱo in South America, don´t expect:
  • to use it for free (always carry small change with you)
  • toilet paper (it´s a good idea to steal...uh, stock up when it is available)
  • to throw toilet paper in the toilet (the plumbing cannot handle it)
  • toilet seat covers (who knew they were a luxury)
  • toilet seats (you´ll build up your quads with all the squatting)
  • running water in the toilet or to wash your hands (who needs running water when a bucket will do)
Expect to be very impressed when you find a SSHH* with all of the above available

*the sign for toilets in Ecuador and Peru (stands for Servicios Hygienico) or as we like to think of it, the sounds you hear in the toilet

It´s expensive being an American...

As a US passport holder, Yumi paid:

In Argentina, a reciprocal fee of $140 USD
In Boliva, a visa fee of $135 USD
In Chile, a reciprocal fee of $140 USD
Total: $415 USD

As a French passport holder, Thomas paid:

In Argentina, $0 USD
In Boliva, $0 USD
In Chile, $0 USD
Total: nada, nothing, zilch!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Santiago de Chile - fact.

Megadeath, Alice in Chains and Metallica... doubt we are back in Santiago de Chile! I had noticed that when we first arrived in the Chilean capital last month. There is a large community of "Metal Lovers" here and they are easy to spot with their black shirts and long hair. It is the only country that we've visited (amongst Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador) in South America where there are so many you can't miss them. We arrived at 4am this morning from Lima. What a great time to land to split your night in half. We then slept until 1pm. Getting ready for our big flight to Auckland tomorrow! ciao

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Thomas' 30th b-day in Peru

We celebrated Thomas turning the big 3-0 in Lima with Yumi's family.  Carlos and Ana and their son Dany spoiled us rotten with massive delicious meals, tours of the city, letting us wash all of our stinky clothes and getting a chocolate cake for Thomas' birthday.  We definitely gained a couple of kilos each during our 3 day visit.It was so nice being taken care of...

We can't thank them enough for their generosity and kindness.

Some other highlights from Lima...

Peruvian dog
the Presidential elections are coming up in April

a Justin Beiber rally

Saturday, March 19, 2011


We stayed on the Santa Cruz Island and booked day tours to Isla Floreana, Isla Bartolome -our favourite- and Isla Isabela. Check the map below it will make more sense.

Wild life is amazing, many species of plants and animals are endemic and the people care about their environment. There's not crime or litter on the Galapagos islands, which makes it even more of a paradise on Earth.

 Isla Floreana. Apparently the first people from the Galapagos carved this rock. It doesn't look natural, does it?

 Still on Floreana, near giant tortoises. There are 12 species of giant tortoises in the world. 11 are endemic in the Galapagos.

A Galapagos hawk. We were very lucky to see it land right next to us!

 Mini Yumi hidding behind a giant tortoise on Santa Cruz

Getting the food ready on Calle de los kioskos in Puerto Ayora.

 For those who saw "Finding Nemo" it felt just like it

White tip sharks are harmless to the humans however it scares the s**t out of you when you see them for the first time just below you, when the visibility is just 4 meters...

It is hard to describe with words what we've seen during our 5 day stay in the Galapagos, so click on "BEST OF GALAPAGOS" to check out our pics.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Galapagos: Take 2

The 5 am wake up call was worth it as we were the first in the queue at the airport.  Unfortunately, no one seemed to have a clue as to what to do.  After a few minutes, we were given handwritten boarding passes.  Hmmm.....  Oh well, Step 1 completed.  We were happy, but don't get too excited as we still have fears that we might get bumped from the flight.

We boarded the plane, but there are people in our seats.  Oh no!  No worries.  Due to confusion, LAN has decided to do free seating, Ryanair style.  Step 2 done.

We had a stopover in Guayaquil and had to disembark.  Another chance to be bumped.  After 30 minutes we successfully boarded the plane again.  Whew.  Step 3 ticked.

After a bit of a bumpy ride, we touched down in Galapagos.  Step 4 finished!  We made it and it was sunny and hot.  Animals, here we come!  

Fly, no fly, fly?

After a long day and some intense discussions with the LAN personnel, it seems that we may eventually with a bit of luck fly, if there are any planes leaving to the Galapagos.

The way it works in LAN's world is interesting: as tickets' holders from 11/03, we would have priority over the passengers who are flying on 12/03... and kick them out of their seats.

It's a very much customer focused approach. We'll see how it goes.
On its side, the local competitor airline TAME has taken a boring approach by organising a couple of extra flights.

As of 11pm local time (4am GMT) we "will" fly as no tsunami will hit the Islands. See article in Spanish.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tsunami alert in the Galapagos - we are safe in Quito

We woke up this morning at 5 to head to the Galapagos.As we got to the airport, we first understood there would be delays because of "weather conditions".  A few minutes later we were told our flight got cancelled as an 8.9 quake hit Japan yesterday and a tsunami wave is now heading towards Ecuador.

We were obviously really disappointed and we only realised how bad it was in Japan when we left the airport. A taxi driver told us Ecuador as well as Chile, Peru, Colombia and Panama are in state of emergency

The isla Baltra where we were supposed to land is being evacuated and all the flights for the next few days are fully booked. It's not looking good.

We now have 4 options:
1- Lose our tickets, which is not really appealing
2- Postpone the flight until March 2012
3- Get lucky and manage to get a flight tomorrow if no damage is reported on the island
4- Take another flight to the city of our choice for the same price

We'll let you know how it goes.

We of course hope the Galapagos will be spared. Fingers crossed

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Trip to "middle earth" - Quito

2 months after we last sniffed kerosene, we are back to the airport.
Hugo, the owner of the hostal "El Mirador del Inka" in Cusco kindly dropped us off this morning at 6am. This hostel is really nice and the owners are really helpful and friendly. They also provide tours and we got a wicked one. The hot water was not working all the time but we survived without it.

Anyway... Our flight in Cusco was delayed from 8.15am to 10.30am and before we started worrying about our correspondence, LAN put us on another flight and we arrived on time in Lima. A few hours later we found ourselves in Quito, chatting to Manuel, the local cab driver who starts his days at 5am to finish them at 10pm. He advised us to visit "La mitad del Mundo", 20km north of Quito, the 0'00''00 latittude point.

Think about Greenwich meridian but this one is the main horizontal one instead. It is also called the "Equateur". On the equateur, the water doesn't rotate clockwise or anticlockwise and there are no tornadoes as the opposite forces of Earth cancel each other. That sounds like a film but it is called the acceleration of Coriolis effect. Read about it when you have a minute. It sounded cool enough to go straight there before even dropping our bags at the hostel. We also thought it was a good idea to leave our bags in the taxi, and let the taxi driver to look after it. It actually was a good idea. When we came back Manuel was still waiting and we were secretly relieved.

In the evening we met Yvonne from the Uyuni tour, as well as Dave and Kirsten whom we've met in la mitad del mundo, in Quito's Old town for dinner. It was nice to chill but the local groups came one after another and played a couple of songs before  asking for tips and leaving. It felt like a loud jukebox for which you have to pay for all the songs, but in some ways it gave us a real taste of the local culture.

We don't have time to visit Quito any longer as we are off at 5am to fly to the Galapagos. We can't wait to send you a post from there.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mist-ical Machu Picchu

Due to limited time and Yumi's constantly cramping stomach, we opted for the 2 day tour of Machu Picchu rather than the 4 day trek.  Along with our new Swiss German friends Adriana and David and a German lady Ute, we travelled by private car to the concentric terraces of Moray and the never ending salt pools of Maras.  

For those who want to know: Moray is an archaeological site located on a high plateau at about 3500 m and just west of the village of Maras. The site contains unusual Inca ruins, mostly consisting of several enormous terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is about 30 m deep. The purpose of these depressions is uncertain, but their depth and orientation with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C between the top and bottom. This large temperature difference was possibly used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops.  

Since pre-Inca times, salt has been obtained in Maras by evaporating salty water (provided by a nearby subterranean stream) in the sun, leaving the salt behind. 
The highly salty water has been flowing from this nearby stream for hundreds of years. A main channel flows across the mountain and trickles down to all the pools below. As the salt water becomes supersaturated, salt crystals begin precipitating out of the water. 

The farmers then scrape the salt to the side and collect it once a sizable amount has been gathered. Some salt is sold at a nearby gift store.

There are about 4500 pools. The salt is exported all over the world and apparently this is a salt is not special in any ways, it's just salt.

From Olantaytambo, we caught a surprisingly nice train to the town of Aguas Calientes.  After a quick briefing from the guide, we hit the sack as we needed to be up in 5 hours.
We were greeted at 4am by pouring rain.  Thank goodness we found an overhang to stand under as we queued for the bus.  Why so early?  Only the first 400 visitors can get tickets to climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain you see in the background of most postcards of Machu Picchu.   
The buses started making the journey down the narrow road at 5:30am.  Success!  We got tickets to climb Waynu Picchu at 10am.  We hoped the weather would clear up by then.  (NB you have to show your passport to get on the train and to enter Machu Picchu).

Machu Picchu is truly a mystical place, especially in the mist.  Every once in awhile, the clouds would part and we could see that we were surrounded by mountains.  It is amazing that this place was ever built and later re-discovered.  75% of the city is in its original condition and only 25% has been restored.  The craftsmanship of the Incas is remarkable.

The guided tour was very informative, but unfortunately we were a group of 20 taking the same route as all the other tour groups.  It was difficult to get a photo without other tourists in the background.  
The cimb up Huayna Picchu is not easy, but we found it to be a breeze compared to the climbs we had done at much higher altitudes.  We weren't out of breath after just a couple of steps.  The stone steps became slippery as the rain started pouring down.  Unfortunately, when we reached the top the view of Machu Picchu was obscured by the clouds.  

After 35 minutes of sitting in the rain, we decided to descend.

About 40 minutes later as we were making our way to the exit, we turned back to see that Huayna Picchu was clearly visible.  Doh!  Oh well, the climb was still worth it.

We debated whether to walk in the rain to see the Sun Gate and the Inca bridge, but we were cold and wet and couldn't be bothered anymore. (Hint: it's worth buying a plastic poncho for £1.  Waterproofs can only handle rain for so long).  Back in Aguas Calientes, happy hour started at 4pm!  Pina coladas for £1.  We were definitely happy.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Isla del Sol

Hey All,

Another day, another adventure. Today's plan was to go to Isla del Sol, "the birthplace of the Inca culture". It's not exactly it actually. The Incas came after the "Tiwanakus" -a pre-Inca culture- and the Isla del Sol is the capital of the Tiwanaku culture just like Cusco is to the Inca culture. 
At least that's what I understood. Ish.

The "Sun Island" is located on Lake Titicaca, about 2h by boat from Copacabana. We decided to be dropped on the north side of the island, get a guided tour of the ruins and walk 11km (7 miles) south where the boat would pick us up again.  Of all the people on our boat, we were the only people to walk! It was only a 3h walk at 4200m above see level. 

The island looks like Corsica, but not as nice. Of course :)

The weather was awesome and the mediterranean style landscape great. The highest point of the island is 4250m above sea level and you can feel it when you go uphill. It took our breath away to take the following picture!
The only "downside" of this stunning place is that we have to go through several "checkpoints" and pay an "entry fee". Each one of them (3) was 5 bolivianos (about 50p) so it's nothing much and by talking to the locals we understood this helps to pay for the kids' school and any needs they may have. We also learned that the locals' lifestyle has improved a lot since more tourists come to the island so we gladly pay for it. We had to convince some French and a German to pay the fee as they were trying to get away without paying. We try to stay away from these "tourists".
On the way we met Dan, Karen, Chris and Debbie from England. Chris and Debbie used to live about 3 minutes walk from our place in Clapham Junction and Debbie used to work with the person who helped us book our Round the World trip at Trailfinders! The world is such a small place.
We are now heading to Cusco...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

ruta de la muerte - death road

Built in the 30s and "closed" to traffic in 2005 (ish) more than 85.000 people have died on this road. That's about 5 deaths per day over 70 years, hence the nickname. It is also called the Coroico Road or the "Camino de las Yungas", but names like this are a bit boring.

Yumi, Yvonne and I booked a last minute ride with "Gravity" on sunday night for monday morning. Only a few riders (18) have died on this road since 1998 but to be honest, to fall of the cliff, you need to:
- be drunk
- not knowing how to use the breaks
- lack common sense
- think you are much better than what you are
- be really unlucky

Contrary to what people think, it is not a dangerous road if you are on a mountain bike. It is wide and not steep. If you want to have fun though, you need a double suspension bicycle otherwise you may walk funny once you reach Yosala, the little village at the bottom of the valley.

We started at La Cumbre ("summit" in Spanish) at 4650m, some 700m above La Paz. Just like London, it takes you ages to get out of the city and then if you manage to avoid dogs, oncoming traffic (the bigger trucks have priority), pedestrians, potholes and mudslides you'll get there.

We went downhill on paved road for about 1h30  -to get used to the bikes- before reaching the Death Road. I guess we reached about 60km/h, which is not bad on a double suspension mountain bike.

It will take you about 4h30 to do the 55km on The Coroico Road, some sections are really long and fun. You have to ride on the left hand side though, quiet close to the cliff, which makes it really interesting at some points. 

Overtaking is easy but make sure you tell other riders where you are going to pass, otherwise some may panick and crash.
Just like this:
we got drenched in rain, cycled under cascades, crossed rivers, crossed a mudslide with our bikes (we had signed a "if-you-die-it's-your-fault" form) and tasted tropical weather (as the bottom is at 1500m above sea level). 

The change of weather hits you at one corner, you feel like you are cycling into a hairdryer. It was an amazing ride, if you have the chance to do it: Do it!

PS: Thomas decided to accept the guides´challenge and go 45minutes uphill and climb "heartbreak hill". At 4200m above sea level. "That´s %&¿?$# hard", he later said. But he made it. :)