Tag Archives: World Heritage

The Top of Europe

You’ve got to love the Swiss. Only they would be crazy enough to build a railway tunnel through one of the highest mountains in Europe just to take you to a lovely view. But I love the fact that they did, because it makes a fantastic half-day out from Wengen if you happen to be there for the skiing (or walking, if you’re there in summer).

Trains at Kleine Scheidegg station on the Jungfraubahn switzerland

Kleine Scheidegg - start point of the Jungfraubahn

Based on my visit though, it would appear that the trip to the highest railway station in Europe is of little interest to skiers – as I was the only one on my train. Maybe they think they’re getting a good enough view from the slopes, maybe they’re enjoying the skiing too much to take the time out, whatever the reason, I think they’re mad, it was a trip I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

St Bernard dog on a railway platform

Aw, cute


Being the only skier didn’t mean I was the only tourist though – in fact the train was quite full with an entirely different group of tourists, who it appears to come to the area just to visit the Jungfraujoch – Chinese & Japanese tourists. I first encountered them at Kleine Scheidegg station (where you have to change trains if you’re coming up from Wengen). It was pretty early in the morning, as I wanted to have a full afternoon of skiing, and so there weren’t many skiers around – but the platform was full of these tourists, mostly being photographed clustered around a stereotypical St. Bernard dog (complete with mini barrel around his neck).
Jungfraubahn tunnel through the Eiger

The tunnel through the Eiger

The journey up to the Jungfraujoch – the saddle between the neighbouring Mönch & Jungfrau peaks – takes quite a while, as the rack railways climbs steeply, up past the highest ski lift at Eigergletscher before entering the tunnel through the Eiger and continuing its steady ascent, on the way pausing for a while at two stations. The first, Eigernordwand, gave me a chance to get out and wander out to three huge windows cut right into the legendary North Face of the Eiger. 64 climbers have died since 1935 attempting to climb it, and today the windows have a dual function – as well as allowing tourists like me to get a view across the valleys, it’s also the start point for missions attempting to rescue climbers in trouble. The next stop, Eismeer, has spectacular views out over the Lower Grindelwald Glacier – from where you used to be able to ski all the way down to the town of Grindelwald, until it retreated in recent years.

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, switzerland, from Eismeer station

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, from Eismeer station

Finally we arrived at Jungfraujoch station, which at 3,454m high is the highest in Europe (and cheekily named ‘the Top of Europe’ in their marketing materials, which it clearly isn’t). For such a remote and beautiful location, the complex itself is surprisingly tacky – there are several very touristy restaurants, and an ‘ice palace’ carved into the glacier, full of cheesy ice statues of polar bears and the like. These distractions didn’t detain me for long, for I was only really there for one thing – to get outside and see the view.

Corridor cut through Ice at the Ice Palace, Jungfraujoch

The least tacky bit of the Ice Palace


Jungfrau

The Jungfrau

It didn’t disappoint – with the Jungfrau and Mönch rising up on either side, and impressive views out towards Wengen and on towards Interlaken, and best of all, from the open platform at the top of the observatory you get a truly spectacular view over the start of Europe’s longest remaining glacier, the Great Aletsch.

Konkordiaplatz the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Konkordiaplatz - the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Right behind the Jungfraujoch, three small glaciers converge at the massive Konkordiaplatz, at which point the ice is estimated to be a full kilometre thick. The scale of it is ginormous – it covers a whopping 120 square kilometres, and bends away into the distance on its long, 23 kilometre descent towards the Rhone Valley. I’ve only seen tiny glaciers before elsewhere in the Alps & in the Andes, but this one is a monster, and it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Aletsch Glacier, by MrUllmi on Flickr

Further down the Aletsch Glacier (by MrUllmi, on Flickr)

I stayed far longer than planned, it was so breathtaking, and headed back down amazed that so few of the people visiting Wengen or Grindelwald for the skiing make the effort to go up, especially when you consider that the cheapest way to visit by far is if you’re already skiing. Non skiers have to pay €133 return from Interlaken, which must be one of the most expensive train fares in Europe. Skiers with a 6-day ski pass for the area pay a massively reduced rate – about €40, which is still pretty pricey considering the distance, but easily worth it.

You can see all of my photos from my visit to the Bernese Oberland here.

Getting away from the Split crowds

Split was undeniably stunning, but it was pretty crowded too, and after a couple of days of wandering around, I was ready for somewhere a bit quieter, and a quick flick through the guidebook revealed that it wasn’t the only World Heritage site in the area – just an hour up the road is the pretty little town of Trogir, which I hoped would be a little quieter.

Getting there turned out to be slightly more of an ordeal than I’d hoped – no-one seemed to know where the right bus station was, and when I eventually found an address, my usually good map-reading skills failed me, and I soon found myself wandering round the rather less attractive back streets of Split’s old town in circles. On the verge of giving up I started to head back towards town, only to walk straight into it. Doh!

Sod’s law inevitably meant that the bus to Trogir was the only one in the station that was old and non-aircon. Which would have been fine if it hadn’t been for the fact that temperatures were soaring towards 30 degrees. Meaning that by the time we arrived, I was a dripping mess – in fact it was a hotter and more unpleasant bus experience than any I’d had in Latin America or South East Asia, thanks to the fact the windows didn’t even open!

Trogir from above

Trogir from above

Luckily for me I’d already discovered that in Croatia you are never further than a couple of metres from a Gelato stand, so I didn’t need much of an excuse to stuff myself full of frozen fruity loveliness (why can’t we make ice cream like that in England??) and I was soon cool enough to go for a wander.
Trogir Cathedral

Trogir Cathedral


The main square

The main square


It turns out that the old town of Trogir turns out to be like a tiny, less busy version of Split, with a stunning little old town sitting on a small island. Like Split, the town has a beautiful cathedral sat at its heart, in a lovely little square, with a series of narrow pedestrian alleys running off in all directions. As I wandered round the maze, I barely saw another person, and yet there were fantastically well-preserved buildings at every turn.
One of Trogir's little alleys

One of Trogir's little alleys

Another highlight is the wide promenade that runs along the eastern edge of the island, lined with restaurants (mostly serving rather lovely Italian food, something I was quickly learning was the norm in Dalmatia) and with the shell of a massive fortress at one end, which gave a great view across the (empty) town. Which was bizarre. Just an hour away from Split, just as beautiful, and without the crowds. I do find it strange how people all flock to the same place and ignore somewhere just as nice just down the road. Still, I wasn’t complaining, and I dragged out my afternoon in a cafe as long as I could while I waited for the day to cool down and I felt safe to brave the furnace-bus back to Split.
Trogir Fortress

Trogir Fortress

You can see all of my photos of Trogir here

Which country is this again?

Before this year, about the only things I knew about Split were that it once hosted the European Athletics Championships and that it was the home town of tennis player Goran Ivanišević. But flights at short notice to Dubrovnik or Sarajevo, where I’d really wanted to go, turned out to be stupidly expensive, and so I ended up on a plane to Split instead.

The holiday was a very last-minute decision – my focus since getting back from travelling was to find a job; once that was sorted and I’d signed a contract, I decided to say farewell to my travels with a final backpacking trip before re-entering the world of the grown-ups. I’ve fancied seeing the western Balkans for a while, and I wasn’t sure where to start – but booking the day before I flew made up my mind – Split was the only affordable choice and so I soon found myself in the unusual position of heading somewhere I knew very little about.

One of the main narrow alleyways in Split

One of the main narrow alleyways in Split

With little knowledge I wasn’t sure what to expect as I got off the airport bus – and was instantly amazed. The shortish walk from the terminal to my hostel took me through the ginormous city walls, past the cathedral, and through a maze of narrow alleyways, down one of which turned out to be my hostel. The city was stunning.
Split Cathedral

Split Cathedral

I’d arrived in the city pretty late at night, so rather than explore I settled down in the hostel to watch the opening of the world cup over a beer or two, before retiring to bed, eager to explore the following morning. My first impression was overwhelmingly how Italian it felt – firstly, on a physical basis, the old town is formed around the remains of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace, and is fantastically well-preserved, with huge stone walls, and dozens of tiny, winding alleys squeezing between beautiful stone-walled shops and houses which occasionally surprise by opening up into cute little squares, or opening into little courtyards. The sense of confusion is heightened by the food – pretty much every restaurant in town serves pasta and pizza, and little stalls selling amazing gelati appear around every corner. The final element is the huge number of Italian tourists, meaning I heard the language everywhere. The main difference though was that I was enjoying myself far more than I’ve ever managed to do in Italy so far!SplitThe only downside was the sheer volume of tourists crammed into the old town’s walls – and this was in June, before the height of the tourist season – although I soon discovered they were quite easy to avoid by deliberately setting out to get lost in the alleyways, where I soon found peace and quiet and the chance to chill out and read in one of the many lovely little cafes.
Getting away from the tourists

Getting away from the tourists

A more surprising place to get away from the crowds turned out to be the cathedral bell tower – bizarrely, and inexplicably, I was the only person up there when I went, despite the cathedral and square below being thronged. The view from the top, across the red roofs of the city to the mountains in one direction, and out across the harbour to the islands in the distance is beautiful and one not to be missed.
Split from above

Split from above

After a hot day wandering around the city, the best way to cool down was to head just out of town and along the coast to the city’s beaches. It turns out that most of Croatia’s coast is rocky – but one immediate benefit of this is that the water everywhere is absolutely crystal clear, and it felt great to cool down by jumping in. One of the best bits about being at the beach in Split is seeing pretty much everyone in the water playing the local sport of Picigin, a marvellously pointless and very athletic game which consists of a group of people trying to keep a little ball in the air. Wearing Speedos appears to be compulsory, and it all looked rather fun with people leaping about all over the place. It’s mostly played in Split, but there are clearly enough players around the world that they were advertising the forthcoming world championships while I was there!

You can see all of my photos of Split here.

Cock Fights & Naughty Monkeys

Relaxing as it is to spend time diving, snorkelling and island hopping, even that gets a little strenous after a while (it’s a hard life), so it was time to leave El Nido for somewhere even more relaxing.

Picture of Port Barton beach in Palawan Philippines

Port Barton beach

Port Barton lies on the coast of Palawan, about half way between the tourist centres of El Nido & Puerto Princessa, and as soon as I arrived I fell in love with the place. While the beach was lovely, the sea inviting and the hotel pretty comfortable, none was the best I’ve seen so far – and yet there was something indefineable about the place that had me feeling at home as soon as I arrived. It’s a bit harder to get to than other spots in Palawan, which serves to keep it considerably quieter – and that suited me fine. I practically had the beach to myself that first afternoon, and I the sleepy atmosphere of the place soon had me feeling as relaxed as I have anywhere on my trip so far.

If that had been that this could have ended up as quite a dull post – but the repeated sound of cocks crowing quickly roused me from my slumber. A short walk into town revealed what I’d suspected – a cock fight (which is pretty much the national sport). It wasn’t just any old cock fight either – I’d stumbled into the town on the final day of their annual fiesta, and they were celebrating in part with a massive all day event.

Cock fight in Port Barton Palawan Philippines

3 cock derby

I really don’t approve of animals fighting for sport – but despite that I was drawn in, and in turned out to be every bit as barbaric as I’d feared. The arena was a small, square patch of dirt, surrounded by benches packed with most of the village’s male population, frantically shouting and signalling across at each other as odds were altered and money quickly and confusingly changed hands around the ring. Soon, after a period of taunting and winding up by other birds brought on especially for this purpose, the bookies and the trainers left the ring, with just the referee there to set the cocks at each other.

Pretty soon it was all a blur, as the cocks flew round each other, biting away, and slashing away with the sharp blades strapped to one of their hind legs. That first bout was all over pretty quickly as one of the cocks was slit right open across its chest. It doesn’t even end in a quick, painless death as I’d thought – fighting cocks are pretty valuable, so unless they’re killed outright, a vet is on hand round the back to stuff the organs back in, sew them up, and send them on their way to recover, ready to fight again some months down the line. I didn’t stick around after that. Not my cup of tea.

Elsewhere in town I got to have a more entertaining animal interaction. The best (and friendliest) place to eat in town is Judy’s, so I headed down there for dinner with my friends, which turned out to be a fair bit harder than anticipated, thanks to the resident baby monkey (named ‘Small Monkey’). Apparently she’d been recently rescued after hunters killed her mother, and now hangs out in the restaurant, harassing customers (but getting away with it by being so small and cute). It’s pretty tough trying to eat when at any moment you risk having something stolen off your plate (which Small Monkey will then proceed to eat whilst sitting on your shoulder. Half of it normally ends up in your mouth, and the rest scattered through your hair and down your back). It was all pretty entertaining, but I do hope that they end up taking Small Monkey to a rehabilitation centre soon – she may be cute now, but she’ll turn into a real handful as she gets older (and anyway, entertaining as she is, it’s really not best for her to grow up around humans).

Puerto Princessa Subterranean River UNESCO World Heritage Site Palawan Philippines

Entering the Subterranean River

Final stop in my trip through Palawan was Puerto Princessa and the nearby Subterranean River. Before I went to Palawan, this is the one thing I’d heard about the island, and it appears to be pretty agressively marketed as an attraction by the local and national government. It certainly deserves its fame – as the world’s longest currently navigable underground river it’s a very unusual attraction – but I must admit the boat road down the river was a little disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, it has some pretty spectacular formations inside, but ultimately it was just like being in a big cave, except with water underfoot rather than rock. I actually found the caving experience in Sagada much more fun (because it was more active, rather than passively sitting on a boat being rowed). I wouldn’t miss it if I was in the area and had time – but for me, the best bits of Palawan were quite definitely further north.

Puerto Princessa Underground River UNESCO World Heritage Site Sabang Palawan Philippines

...and coming back out again

You can see my Port Barton photos here and my Puerto Princessa ones here.

Next stop: Tracking down the world’s smallest primate in Bohol.

Sailing off in search of dragons

I was faced with three options when it came to getting to Komodo. Would it be the expensive flight on a dodgy Indonesian airline? Or maybe the uncomfortable 31 hour bus-boat-bus-boat overland option? Or perhaps the four-day all-inclusive boat trip island-hopping all the way from Lombok to Flores, taking in Komodo along the way?

The boat's route

It was a pretty tough choice as you can imagine, but in the end the boat won out and early on a saturday afternoon we set off from Lombok. We’d been promised many delights along the way, and the first of which turned up just a few hours in. We were all stood on the deck watching yet another gorgeous Indonesian sunset, and just as the sun went down, the sky began to fill with a huge flock of birds rising up from the mangrove trees on a small offshore island and heading back to the mainland to sleep. Except as we got closer, we soon realised they weren’t birds at all, but thousands of huge flying foxes. I’ve only ever seen tiny bats before, and these ones were a whole different kettle of fish. It was quite a sight watching them silhouetted against the red sky, and the spectacle continued for a good five or so minutes, as more and more made their way out of the trees and joined the migration.

The beginning of the nightly Flying Fox migration

Dinner (Nasi Goreng, of course) gave us an opportunity to get to know each other better, and I was once again lucky to be with a great little group. Alongside myself and Victor, the Swede I’d spent the week with in the Gili Islands, there were three more Swedes (you’re never very far from one in Indonesia), two Belgians, two Swiss, and one each from Germany, Holland & Quebec. It’s probably a good thing we all got on so well, as of course it being a budget boat (there are a few other options, but a bit too pricey for most backpackers) it turned out to be a big floating dorm, as the upper deck was completely filled with twelve mattresses with no gaps in between.

Tight squeeze on deck

It’s funny the things that travel agents miss out when they’re describing a tour to you – like the fact that the boat would be travelling all night on the first two nights. And of course the boat’s engine was the loudest imaginable, and was conveniently located right underneath the dorm. If the waves weren’t enough to keep us sleeping lightly, we all soon realised the engine would be. Predictably enough day two began by most of us being up and about on the lower deck soon after sunrise, everyone looking rather frazzled.

Perfectly calm sea near Sumbawa

Still, everyone was in good spirits, for as soon after breakfast we sailed up to a thickly forested, national park island, with its beautiful, white sandy beach, and inviting turquoise water. This was to be our first snorkelling stop, and it turned out to be fantastic. The coral here was far healthier than in the part of the Gilis I’d done it in, and the variety of corals and fish was huge. Best of all, I got to see my first ever sea snake, a huge black and white one slithering through the water looking remarkably similar to the way they move on land. That was followed by a quick trek through the jungle to a big waterfall with a huge pool for swimming in (and giant vines hanging over it that allowed all the boys to practice our best Tarzan impersonations as we swung into the water).

One of the things I’ve really began to appreciate on this trip is the miraculous healing power of salt water. No matter how tired (or indeed hung over) I am, all it takes is a quick dip in the sea and I feel completely restored. Getting back on the boat everyone had woken up, and we soon settled into a wonderful routine of sailing from island to island, occasionally hopping out for a quick snorkel or to laze on yet another perfect beach. It amazes me the effort people make to find the ideal, undiscovered beach in Thailand, when there are literally thousands in Indonesia, many of them on completely uninhabited islands – although other than doing a trip like the one we were on, getting there might be a bit of an issue.

Our own private beach

We realised we were nearing our destination when the boat hit the hugely powerful currents of the Komodo Strait – so powerful that you could see them on the surface of the water like rivers running through the sea, creating huge whirlpools whenever they hit an islet or some submerged rock. At one point we crossed into one and the whole boat lurched as if it had been hit by an object. Nature can be quite a powerful beast sometimes – something we were hoping to see in action again as we sailed into Komodo harbour. The big question was…after all the effort to get there, would we actually get to see any dragons?

Chilling out in Melbourne

On my previous two trips to Australia, I’d only made it to the East Coast states of Queensland & New South Wales, but I’d long heard from other friends who’d travelled to the country that Melbourne was easily their favourite city.

Melbourne Tram

After a hectic few months of travelling, I was really looking forward to spending a little over two weeks there – partly to relax and unwind, partly to catch up with Matt again, and for the practical reasons that I needed a bit of time to try and get my dead camera repaired and to apply for my sixty day Indonesian visa.

I wanted to get the dull stuff done nice and early, so on my first day I headed straight out to the eastern suburbs to visit the Canon repair centre. After being told by Canon Chile that it would take at least a couple of weeks, and probably cost a few hundred dollars, I wasn’t all that optimistic – but within five minutes of getting there, the camera was working again. It turned out there was just a bit of grit caught in the mechanism, and after a quick clean it was back to life. And the nice people didn’t even charge me a cent. Which was a fantastic start to my stay.

I was soon brought back down to earth after visiting the Indonesian consulate. Tourists only get a thirty day visa on arrival, and I want to spend longer there. But I couldn’t apply for my sixty day visa before leaving the UK, as I’d have needed to enter the country within ninety days, which wasn’t going to happen as I’d still be in Central America at that point. So I popped into the consulate only to find that they’ll only issue visas to Australian nationals and residents – so I was out of luck, and my plans to spend longer in Indonesia went out of the window. Time for a new plan – but as write this, on the day I’ll be flying into the country, I still have no idea what that plan is. Time for a little spontaneity, which is probably a good thing.

Federation Square

With all the dull stuff out of the way, it was time to explore the city. And I absolutely loved it. We stayed the first few days in the lovely beachside suburb of St Kilda, and spent our time wandering down the coast, enjoying the beaches and seeing all the Melburnians out enjoying their weekend relaxing on the coast. Highlight for me was getting to ride on the rickety old wooden rollercoaster at Luna Park.

Luna Park

St Kilda sunset

The rest of my time in the city continued in a similar vein, exploring the various different areas, just wandering round the city, doing a bit of shopping, stopping from time to time in some of the many cafes in town. I’d heard before I left that Melbourne had a great ‘European style’ cafe culture, and it’s so true. Melbourne doesn’t really have the famous sights like Sydney’s harbour bridge & opera house (and I have to agree with Gary from Everything Everywhere – the Royal Exhibition Building is easily the most disappointing World Heritage Site I’ve been to. It’s a lovely building and all that, but there is no explanation whatsoever about what’s so special about it that it deserves to be ranked alongside Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat) – instead it feels like a much nicer place to just relax and wander round. It was even better getting to see the city with a local, so I spent no time whatsoever in backpacker ghettos, instead getting to go to parties, and some much nicer local bars that I doubt I’d have ever found had I been on my own.

Royal Exhibition Building

There was one downside to my stay in the city, that I had thought would be an upside – my final weekend in the city was Melbourne Cup weekend, Australia’s biggest horse race and the first big public holiday of the spring. The first downside was that the weekend is so popular that all the hotels and hostels massively jack up their prices, meaning I ended up spending more than my total daily budget on accommodation alone (and more than three times as much as my previous most expensive accommodation, in Miami). The second downside was that the streets in the evening were full of drunken racegoers in suits and posh frocks, falling over and generally being rather annoying. (Although it certainly created a surreal atmosphere on the Saturday night, which was Derby day down at the racecourse and halloween for everyone else, meaning in the evening, the city streets were half full or racegoers in their finery, and half full of people dressed as zombies and werewolves).

All in all, Melbourne was one of my favourite stops so far. It’s been a long time since I spent two weeks in a place, and it was the perfect place to recharge my batteries after South America.

You can see all my photos of Melbourne here.

The Santa Cruz Trek

The Santa Cruz trek is the best known and most popular trek in the Cordillera Blanca, and for good reason. Over the course of four days, it loops around the highest part of the range, mostly staying beautiful alpine valleys, and giving stunning views of the range’s tallest and most beautiful mountains, as well as a series of spectacular lakes.

Cordillera Blanca

Cordillera Blanca

After successfully tackling a number of hikes so far on my trip (such as Volcan Santa Maria in Guatemala and the Lost City trek in Colombia), I had been pretty confident the Santa Cruz was well within my abilities.

Having completed the rather grueling Laguna Churup day hike, I suddenly wasn’t so sure. I had planned to do a second acclimatisation hike to Laguna 69 on my third day in Huaraz. Waking up that morning my legs were pretty stiff and my knee was still aching slightly. I decided I’d be better off with a rest day and prayed that everything would be OK for the saturday morning, although I decided to leave nothing to chance and spent an extra $12 hiring some good trekking poles, ideal for taking the weight of the knees on steep descents.

The road to the start

The road to the start

I was relieved to wake up early on the first day with the stiffness in my legs gone, and feeling pretty used to the thin air, both of which had me feeling more confident about the day ahead. Even better was stopping for breakfast on the way to the trailhead, as it gave me a chance to get to know the group a bit better – I’d be hiking with four couples (two fellow Brits, two Swiss, one British-Australian and one German-Peruvian), as well as a solo Brazilian guy. Quite a mix of nationalities and languages, but it soon became clear we all clicked really well and they’d be a great group to walk with.

View from the first pass

View from the first pass

The journey to the start of the hike was stunning enough in itself – as the bus climbed up from the village of Yungay (scene of the Western Hemisphere’s worst ever national disaster, the 1970s earthquake that buried the entire town killing all but a handful of the inhabitants) up into the valley, we were soon rewarded with a view of a beautiful turquoise-coloured lake, with Huascaran, the world’s highest tropical mountain towering above us. After that, the road climbed up a series of steep switchbacks towards a high mountain pass to take us over to the eastern side of the range where we’d start the hike.

We’d already been warned the first day was going to be the easiest of the lot, consisting of a pretty short, flat hike along the bottom of the valley. It was a nice gentle introduction to the walk, and all along the way we’d regularly be stopped by sweet local children begging us for our ‘caramelos’ (sweets). It was impossibel not to oblige. The biggest challenge on day one was getting used to the cold once night fell – at this latitude, the mountains are incredibly warm during the daytime (and the sun fiercly intense) – but with clear skies at night the temperature soon plummets and I needed every layer I had just to stay warm.

Day two was the hard one – and after Laguna Churup I worried how I’d cope, given we’d be climbing to 4750m, three hundred metres higher than I’d done a few days before. Luckily, my worst fears weren’t realised. It was pretty hard work, struggling up the steep slope, stopping for breath every few minutes, but I was determined to get there, helped along the way by the knowledge it would be a chance to stop for lunch, and then afterwards it’d be downhill all the way to the end of the trip. In the end, there was nothing as steep or as difficult as the final ascent at Laguna Churup, and I reached the top ahead of the rest of the group, giving my time to enjoy the amazing views all to myself.

View from the Punta Union pass

View from the Punta Union pass

The pass itself, called Punta Union, is a little notch in a high ridge dividing the two valleys, meaning you can’t see anything at all of what’s on the other side til you reach the final step. The second valley, Santa Cruz itself, is if anything even more beautiful than the valley we’d just left, looking down across yet more snow-covered peaks and towards another couple of bright blue lakes. After a slog like that, you really appreciate having donkeys to do all the hard carrying work (it’s quite an amazing sight watching them wind their way up the steep slopes with far more ease, and speed, than humans), as well as a chef to make nice filling meals on our return to camp – I can see the appeal of doing treks like this yourself, but the last thing I’d want to do is have to cook dinner once I’d finished walking for the day.

Donkeys arriving at the pass

Donkeys arriving at the pass

Soon we’d started the descent, this time with my fighting my natural instincts to race ahead, instead descending slowly making full use of my trekking poles to help my knee, which certainly helped – while I had twinges of pain it was nothing like as bad as it’d been on my previous day hike,
which came as quite a relief – I certainly wouldn’t have fancied three days of walking steadily downhill in constant pain.

The second night brought a little disappointment for all of us and quite a bit of discomfort for most. The disappointment was that Alpamayo, called the world’s most beautiful mountain (for its almost perfect pyramid shape) was shrouded in cloud. The discomfort was the fact that most of the group had fallen ill to diarrhea – whether it was brought on by dirty water or dodgy food we don’t know, but I didn’t envy the few who were up all night and then having to hike on the next day with depleted energy reserves. Yet again my iron constitution saw me through though, and I felt fit as a fiddle.

Alpamayo

Alpamayo

The disappointment continued the next morning, as Alpamayo sat stubbornly refusing to come out of the clouds properly. We got a brief, partial glimpse, but not enough to see it in its true majesty (although apparently we didn´’t miss all that much – it turns out it’s the world’s best when viewed from the other side anyway – you have to do the longer and tougher Alpamayo circuit to see that face). Still, the rest of the mountains did their bit to make up for it, and with their snow-capped peaks gleaming under the bright blue sky we certainly had nothing to grumble about.

The Santa Cruz valley

The Santa Cruz valley

The final couple of days follow the Santa Cruz valley back to civilisation, and it really is an awesome sight – the glacial valley has towering, steep-sided walls, with glacial waterfalls cascading down the sides at regular intervals, running into little streams that wind their way across the flat valley floor, and feeding the lakes we’d seen from the pass above.

Eventually we made it back, with tired legs but smiles on our faces, glad to be heading back to showers, beer and pizza. Turns out that my ‘acclimatisation’ hike to Laguna Churup had been more challenging than the Santa Cruz turned out to be, and I was extremely relieved that my knee had just about made it through without too much bother.

The hike gave me the best mountain views I’ve ever seen – it truly deserves the term breathtaking, and I have to say it was the highlight of my trip to date. The only thing that was worrying me was how on earth the Huayhuash circuit could live up to it (oh, was well as hoping that just the one rest day in between would be enough time for my legs to recover).

You can see all of my photos of the Santa Cruz trek here

Trekking to Laguna Churup

Arriving in Huaraz was just what I needed after six weeks in Colombia. I mean, I wouldn´t say I partied non-stop there, but it´d be fair to say it was my most sociable country so far. What I need was a bit of time up in the mountains to get away from it all, and the Cordillera Blanca seemed like the perfect place.

The Cordillera Blanca from the road to Huaraz

The Cordillera Blanca from the road to Huaraz

With the biggest cluster of 6000m+ peaks outside of the Himalayas, the Cordillera Blanca is the world´s highest tropical mountain range. Besthike.com claims the area offers the best Alpine hiking in the world, and that was enough to make me plan my trip around them – I wanted to make sure I was there at the height of the Andean summer, to make sure I made the best of the weather.

That was certainly the right decision – I stepped off the nightbus from Lima to find myself in a town ringed by some of the most beautiful mountains I´d ever seen, all lit up by bright sunshine and framed by a deep blue, cloudless sky, which was a godsend after the constant grey skies that hang over the capital at this time of year.

I was in Huaraz to do two multi-day hikes, the Santa Cruz trek & the Huayhuash circuit (trip reports on both of those coming soon), but the first step was to get acclimatised. Other than day hikes in Guatemala and Colombia to over 3500m, I´d never spent a significant amount of time at altitude before, so I made sure I built in a conservative amount of time to acclimatise before heading onto higher and more strenuous stuff.

Day one was spent chilling out and adjusting to the thin air of Huaraz, much of it spent enjoying the fantastic coffee at Cafe Andino. As I felt no ill effects, I was up bright and early on my second day to try my first spot of walking, on a day hike to Laguna Churup, which I´d been told was ideal preparation.

Coca tea in the mountains: perfect hiking fuel

Coca tea in the mountains: perfect hiking fuel

After a short collectivo ride to the trailhead, the walk started gently enough, winding its way gradually uphilll through farmland with lovely views of the Cordillera all around. After an hour or so I reached a little farmhouse where I was able to stop for a warming cup of coca tea (also handy for the effects of altitude) before starting on the serious ascent.

And boy was it a serious ascent. It was probably a combination of being unprepared for hiking that high up, plus a certain amount of unfitness, but every step was a bit of a struggle – I was constantly short of breath and going any distance at all was quite an effort, and I suddenly started to worry about what I was letting myself in for, with two multi-day hikes to come.

The final ascent

The final ascent

The worst was yet to come, too. The final hundred metres or so consist of a steep scramble up the side of a waterfall. It was pretty tricky, and very tiring, but it was all worthwhile as I rounded the top and the view of the laguna opened up in front of me.

Too tired to do much exploring, I plonked myself down on a rock to take in the views and enjoy a spot of lunch (made even better by an Israeli hiker who happened to have a little stove and was preparing fresh coffee just as I arrived…if only that always happened) and chilled out for an hour or so.

Laguna Churup - 4450m above sea level

Laguna Churup - 4450m above sea level

Eventually it started to get a tad chilly, so it was time to head back. If anything, the descent was even tougher, with the scramble down the waterfall being especially tricky.

After that I thought I´d be fine – until the thing I´d dreaded happened: my knee started to hurt. I injured it running about five years ago, and despite physio it´s never been quite the same since, but it´s been OK enough for walking up til now. On this particular day, it started to throb as soon as the downhill section started, and the pain got worse and worse on the way down. By the time I got to the bottom I was hobbling along with avery pronounced limp. Not a good sign at all.

I thought I was going to get a gentle acclimatisation hike – instead I ended up with the toughest day hike I´ve ever done. Worse, with my knee playing up, suddenly my plan to spend three weeks in the mountains, the single thing I´d been looking forward to most in my entire trip, was under threat.

Sunset over the Cordillera Negra

Sunset over the Cordillera Negra

As I sat in my hostel that night, enjoying yet another fine Huaraz sunset, I was praying my knee would get better…

Cartagena

Even though I’d just read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, with its vivid description of the heat of Cartagena in the summer months, nothing could prepare me for quite how intense the humidity would be when I got there.

Even just wandering around slowly, taking in all the beautiful colonial buildings, left me almost as sweaty as I’d been hiking uphill through the jungle on the Lost City trek. Which is a shame, as I could easily have spent all day every day just strolling around the streets of the old town – there are very few modern buildings, and it’s easy to get lost just taking in all the picturesque little lanes filled with colourful houses with pretty little wooden balconies.

Cartagena initially grow wealthy as one of the main ports for exporting gold and other precious metals from the colonies in South America back to Spain. Attracted by this wealth, the city was regularly attacked by pirates. Most succesful of these was Sir Francis Drake, who destroyed a huge section of the city, and who was only succesfully disuaded from doing so again by the payment of ransom that would be worth $200m in today’s money. I’d grown up knowing of his exploits in saving England from the Spanish Armada, so it was interesting to visit a place where he’s better known as a ruthless pirate.

After these attacks, the Spanish were determined never to let it happen again, so the city’s defences were boosted with huge walls and an imposing fortress overlooking the city. Even the Cathedral, destroyed in Drake’s raid, was rebuilt in unusually sturdy fashion. So I suppose you could say that the Colombians have a Brit to thank for the city’s current beauty!

If anything, the city is even more beautiful by night (sorry folks, you’ll just have to trust me on that one, as I forgot to take my camera out in the evening), as the walls and all the churches are lit up, highlighting all the beautiful colours, although unfortunately it’s still nearly as hot and humid.

One evening I finally got the chance to meet up with my first ever fellow travel blogger – Liz and her husband Adrian, who are on quite a similar trip to me, and whose blog, Where are Liz and Adrian? I’ve been following since the start. We’ve been to several of the same places already, although never at the same time, so it was great to finally meet, have a chat with Liz about the difficulties of trying to keep a blog up to date when there are a million more fun things to do all the time, and with Adrian about the various things he misses from the UK after living in Canada for so long. They’re now elsewhere in Colombia, but hopefully we’ll get to catch up again somewhere else along the way.

Luckily the city offered a couple of ways to escape the heat – my hostel (the beautiful Media Luna) had a pool which was the perfect way to spend the afternoons after a hot morning traipsing around. Even better was a trip to the nearby mud volcano.

I had no idea what to expect, and to be honest I was only going because I’d been told it was one of the area’s ‘must dos’ rather than out of any urgent desire to see it. There was no way I expected to enjoy it anywhere near as much as I did – it’s a truly bizarre and quite unique experience.

Just along the coast from Cartagena is a region where mud bubbles up from the ground, and in one spot it has formed a little mud volcano (which has actually been shored up by the locals to make it look a bit more impressive). It’s only about 15m high, and you climb up the side on a little wooden staircase before clambering down into the lukewarm mud.

It’s one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever felt. It’s a bit like being dunked in a giant pot of tepid chocolate mousse, and it’s so dense that it’s absolutely impossible to sink – despite not being able to touch the bottom, with no effort at all you can just stand there. In fact you’re so bouyant it’s quite easy to find your legs floating up behind you to the surface, threatening to leave you face down in the mud, so you have to get other people to push you back down. It’s hard to describe why it’s quite as fun as it is, but we spent an hour in there and spent most of it in absolute hysterics, particularly later on as we were almost packed in like sardines. In fact I had so much fun I enjoyed it more than Cartagena.

Which is a lesson I’m increasingly learning on my trip – there are plenty of places that are absolutely beautiful and worthy of their fame as tourist destinations, but more and more it’s the little unusual and quirky places like the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato and the mud volcano in Cartagena that are standing out as my favourites.

You can see all of my photos from Cartagena and the Mud Volcano here.

Guanajuato

Queretaro was picturesque. San Miguel was even prettier. I was wondering if could get any better. Well, it did: Guanajuato is my favourite place in Mexico so far.

Colourful houses on the side of the ravine in Guanajuato

Colourful houses on the side of the ravine in Guanajuato

It has all the features that made my previous stops so nice, but then packs them all into a steep-sided ravine that means there are stunning views in every direction. The ravine is so steep that there are just three parallel and interlocking main roads at the bottom, with all the major sites squeezed between them. These roads all run from west to east – there’s simply no room for two-lane traffic, so that all runs the other way in a series of tunnels underground. All roads perpendicular to these ones (i.e. up the sides of the ravine in either direction) are basically steep staircases. And every inch of the city is beautiful – in colonial times, Guanajuato was one of the richest cities in the Spanish empire, thanks to the rich silver mines in the surrounding hills.

Basilica & University in Guanajuato

Basilica & University in Guanajuato

On arrival, I was a bit disappointed to find out that my hostel was at the top of one of these narrow callejones, meaning a steep walk back home every day. I shouldn’t have been: the view from the roof terrace was amazing, looking out across the whole valley. It wasn’t just the terrace that was great – the hostel (La Casa de Dante) is easily the nicest I’ve stayed in so far. It’s a family-run hostel, and Dante himself is the eldest son. He was the perfect host, giving us perfect advice on all the best things to do by day, including clueing us up on the Good Friday procession, as well as helping us find all the best bars by night. The attention to detail was amazing – right down to putting flags up over the hostel for every nationality staying – and best of all, his mother, Irene, made the most fantastic breakfasts every morning – huge plates of fruit, amazing freshly squeezed juices, and plates of mexican specialities like chilaquiles and huevos rancheros. They really make you feel part of the family (and I loved the way Irene called me ‘joven’ (boy) – it’s a long time since anyone called me that!).

Apart from the Good Friday procession, the other highlight was the Museo de las Momias (the Museum of Mummies). A while ago, the municipal cemetary was running out of space, so they began to exhume some old graves, and were amazed to find that rather than finding skeletons, the chemicals in the soil had mummified the remains. Rather than cremate the remains like they may have done in many countries, they took a very Mexican approach and stuck them all in a museum. Mexico famously has a very different attitude to death (as shown by the Day of the Dead being their most famous holiday), treating it in a far more positive fashion. This attitude translates into quite an amazing atmosphere at the museum – rather than being a sombre place, everyone was laughing and joking, holding their babies up to the mummified babies and taking photos of them together. Quite an experience.

Museo de las Momias

Museo de las Momias

After six days in Queretaro & San Miguel talking mostly Spanish (which was both mentally exhausting and rather frustrating, as my vocabulary runs to about 200 words), it was nice to be in quite a social hostel where everyone spoke English. The city has great bars, so I spent a very pleasant few days with a mixture of Swiss & American people. Just what I needed after a quiet week (and which also explains why the blogging took a bit of a back seat for a while!)

You can see more of my photos of Guanajuato over at Flickr