San Pedro de Atacama: the final frontier 

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Descending into Calama airport in Northern Chile, the Atacama desert lay before us. A dramatic landscape of mountains and endless desert – otherworldly.

Calama is the smallest airport imaginable, but it is extremely modern and efficient. We grabbed our backpacks and were out of the airport doors within minutes, a relief when we compared it to the hours of queues upon arrival at both Lima and Santiago.

We had organised a shared transfer to San Pedro by ringing our accommodation that morning, and we spent the 90 minute ride chatting to our new Brazilian friends who we would bump into for the next few days. Chile was full of Brazilian travellers, so it was great to practice speaking Portuguese!

Our accommodation was on the main road, however it was the last house at the very end of town, right by the edge of the desert. It did not take more than 5-10 minutes to walk to the main restaurants and bars; but at night, with no streetlights and only our torches, it did feel a bit unnerving. Luckily San Pedro is very safe, so I shrugged off that feeling and allowed myself to be amazed by the incredible views of the stars instead!

On the Friday, San Pedro was hit by a sandstorm and so,  with regret, our tours to the Valle de la Luna and stargazing were cancelled and we did not have time left to re-book for the next day. As we were staying on the edge of town, we had less protection from the storm. Walking back from lunch, face entirely covered by my sunglasses and neckerchief, I made it back, but not without sand all in my hair, nose, ears and eyes! After a good shower, it was time to go out again, for it only to happen again! It’s hard to live in the desert…

Food was a challenge at times in San Pedro as you are limited for options and therefore prices for a decent meal in a restaurant were costly. However, if you walk around the corner from the main square, we found several places offering a main and a soft drink for 5,000 pesos. We didn’t eat amazing meals, but were well fed and it didn’t break the bank.

Definitely shop around for tours, as we found that if you book several tours with the same company they will give you incredible discounts than if you were to book separately.

In the next blog… find out how I spent my birthday in the Atacama Desert!

 

Robyn

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Travel Update: Autumn in Madrid

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My travels from South America this summer are still making their way onto the blog but I am also looking ahead at my upcoming adventures! 

The next trip will see me going back to Madrid for 5 days during half term. I haven’t set foot in Spain since completing my Year Abroad – which feels like a million years ago by the way!

I am going back to the Al-Andalus baths to relax on my first full day – wash away the stress from work – at least for a few days.

I will be catching the high-speed train to Córdoba another day, somewhere I have been dying to visit for too long. Then, for my final night I have managed to snap up a ticket for my favourite opera, Carmen! It was too perfect an opportunity to miss. I bought some opera glasses in an antique shop this weekend so I’m glad to be getting use out of them so soon. 
There will still be plenty of time for delicious food, shopping and hopefully I will make it to some museums and the Royal Palace which I skipped last time. 

I haven’t travelled solo for quite a while now, so it feels a bit strange, but I am excited to do whatever I feel like doing, having some me-time and more Spanish practice!

Any recommendations for Madrid/Córdoba? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Robyn

Adventures at Home: Pembrokeshire, Wales

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It was the first weekend after school broke up in July and I was geared up for a nice, weekend break in sunny South Wales. Of course, things didn’t go to plan! First, J. and I were planning a weekend camping together, but this soon became a group thing with a few of his old coursemates and housemates. Luckily we are all good friends…

I spent a lot of my childhood exploring North Wales, living only a short drive away in Merseyside. Many memories were made getting lost in Snowdonia on expeditions for The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, so it was good to go south for a change.

We stayed at a campsite only a short drive away from nearby Pembroke which has an impressive castle and a high street with some shops, pubs and restaurants. A little further along was Tenby; with its pastel-coloured houses along the harbour, it is a picturesque little seaside town, which we enjoyed going to on both Saturday and Sunday morning for a stroll along the narrow streets and get a spot of breakfast.

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J. and I arrived early on Friday afternoon to the campsite, well before the rest of the group. We were welcomed by nothing less than torrential rain. Looking forward to a ‘summer holiday’, and definitely too optimistic in our choice of clothing (jeans – what was I thinking?!), we were very unprepared to put up our tent and regretting everything.

Sitting in the parked car for a few minutes we agreed we were not going outside. A lady knocked on my car window and asked me to meet her in the reception to check-in. Poor thing had got soaked for that! J. said he was staying put, so it was up to me to brave the weather. It’s not like we don’t have the equipment – I have waterproofs and everything but didn’t bother to pack them. Definitely the wrong decision.

The rain was not subsiding even after quite a while, so we agreed we would just have to put the tent up and get soaked. Get soaked we did. Two hours passed and still the rain was hammering down on the tent. We were getting hungry so it was time to once again get wet, just when our clothes were starting to dry! I called my mum and said suggested we just put the tent down and go find a B&B. It was so tempting but we were too stubborn for that!

There was not much parking in Pembroke. But by the time we got there, we found some free parking only available after 6pm (hooray!). Unfortunately, the main pubs and restaurants were about a ten minute walk away – of course! Walking down the street, we were turned away by a few places as they stopped serving at 7pm and were closing up. So odd as it was a Friday night! Eventually, we found a pub/restaurant/hotel which did food, so we sat down at last. We looked out the window from our table, jaws dropped – it had stopped raining the second we found shelter – typical!

After being well fed, our clothes were drying quickly and one of our friends finally arrived to join us. We were waiting for three more, but after horrific traffic all the way from Sheffield and 2 hours of stagnancy on the roads, they arrived in the thick of night at 11pm. Car lights were useful in helping to put the tent up!

After the nightmare of the rain on Friday afternoon, we were grateful that there was no more for the rest of the weekend! We spent Saturday afternoon relaxing on Stackpole Beach which is known as the best beach in Wales! The walk along the clifftops makes for a dramatic arrival to the beach, but because of this, it is not very accessible for those with restricted mobility. There were a lot of sand-flies as well which wasn’t great, but the views were spectacular.

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On the way back to the campsite, we stopped in Pembroke to pick up food for a BBQ which was a great way to spend our only real proper night together there.

Pembroke is a beautiful, little corner of Wales which has some lovely villages and beaches to visit. Luckily, after a terrible start weather-wise, we were treated more kindly for the days that followed, with some sunshine. Although, this is Wales, we should have known better! Next time though, I think we will rent a cottage together, or at least go glamping/book a B&B. I think my DofE days are past me!

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Santiago: I loved the Wine Tour, just not the 🍷 

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I don’t really like wine and spending $14~ on a wine tour just seemed like a waste of money for me. But I went anyway and it was great! Let me tell you why…

Summer is the best time of year to go to a vineyard, as you can see the vines and all that. However, we went in the Chilean winter – not much point in going to a vineyard when the branches are empty,  is there?

So we didn’t go to a vineyard. We went on a wine tour only a few metro stops from Santiago city centre – way easier to get to than most wineries! That winery is called Santa Carolina, and it is one of the top wineries in the country. They export all over the world.

We were a bit disorientated on the map coming out of the metro exit but some friendly road workers shouted us across to them to offer us some assistance. When we said ‘Santa Carolina’ they said that it was ‘the best wine in all of Chile’ and that they were proud of it, before pointing us down the correct street.

Basically, Santa Carolina’s original set up was right here in Santiago. They have kept the original colonial buildings and cellars for events and tourism but have moved the vineyards further out of the city. It was fascinating to learn the history of the company and see how it has expanded. There is a palm tree in the colonial house which was planted by the founder in the 1880s – it is still there and is the most incredible thing to behold. Just like the company, the palm tree has stood the test of time!


Our hostel had called up to reserve a place on the English-speaking tour at 11am. Out of 20 people, we were the only two English speakers – everyone else was Brazilian! So the tour was done in Portuguese. I was not so fluent in my translation so I don’t think J. would have been able to put up with it for the entire tour. Luckily the guide also spoke English. After giving all the info in Portuguese, everyone would move on and she would do a little private English tour for us two which was great.

The views of the snow-capped mountains nearby was breathtaking.


On to the wine! So, we had three tastings – one white and two red which went up in quality/price each time. Quite frankly, the wines were not for me, but I was not the only one to not finish my glass in the group. There is never any pressure to drink the wine anyway which is good. I was actually asked if I was 18 so I could participate…. I just had to answer that it was my 23rd birthday in two days…

We finished in the gift shop where we paid for our tour and you could purchase wine. However after paying, we were offered two small bottles of red to take as a gift! So James carried these wine bottles for three weeks of our trip around South America.

The low-down:

booking: book through your hostel/hotel to reserve in advance. Tours in English, Spanish, Portuguese

how to get there: the Santa Carolina winery is a short walk from the Rodrigo de Araya metro stop

South America: Santiago, Chile 

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Before our trip, I heard that some locals call Santiago ‘Santi-asco’ – ‘asco’ meaning ‘disgusting’ in Spanish. Air pollution, traffic, not a very pretty city, okay, I get why some may call it that but it was one of the most surprising stops of the trip because we loved it!


We took a minivan shuttle service called Transvip to our guest house for 7,000 pesos/each. The first to be dropped off, we wondered where on Earth they had taken us. This did not look like the central location we were expecting and it appeared like a rough area. 

Fast-forward later that day and our guest house was fab, we were just a ten minute stroll on the main road to the centre and the area was actually really decent with some incredible food. Santiago just isn’t that pretty but it still has its own charm. 

Food

Upon arrival, food was of importance. The lady at the homestay recommended two places which we ended up eating at during our stay. The best food we ate in Chile! They were the wonderful Juan y Medio and Las Vacas Gordas. Juan y Medio had great local cuisine and at Las Vacas Gordas I had the most amazing steak! We learned to order the cheapest, local wine in Santiago, because it did not disappoint. Anyone who knows me, knows well that I am not a wine drinker, or a drinker at all really, but the wines they served there were not only drinkable but also delicious! 


We did not have time to explore any museums, but we did see the Cathedral (free!), the Plaza de Armas  and the San Cristóbal hill for views which is a must. 

Next time… I talk about visiting the Santa Carolina winery in Santiago.

Santiago: I loved the Wine Tour, just not the wine

What places have you visited that have surprised you? Let me know in the comments!

Robyn 

South America Series: Intro

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The summer holidays are almost over; the back to school adverts are filling me with dread or excitement for my NQT year – not sure which one. I’m up during the early hours of the morning due to jet lag from a 6 hour time difference and I can’t help but feel like I was travelling for so long but not long enough. 

I backpacked South East Asia last year which was a blast. South America was incredible in its own right but this time we were tired – tired from a stressful year at work and not our final year of uni. After five years and lots of travel together, a beach holiday is now the top of our list. Something we have never done. I love active holidays but maybe staying in one place for a week or so may be nice and relaxing. Somewhere warm too! No regrets though.

It’s difficult to pin-point which was my favourite country/place that we visited on this trip. It was all so different. There are so many funny stories too.

Surprisingly, things went a lot smoother than I could have hoped; to be able to communicate with everyone in Spanish helped so much and there were so many travellers speaking French and Portuguese to talk to. J. said my language skills came in useful for this trip 😌.

I hope you enjoy the South America Series. Starting in Santiago, Chile 🇨🇱 we made our way up to the Atacama Desert, through Bolivia 🇧🇴 and the salt flats, Sucre, La Paz and Copacabana, across to Cuzco and Aguas Calientes in Peru 🇵🇪 before we finished in Lima. A lot of ground was covered in only three weeks but we felt we had enough time in each place. 

Vamossssssss 🎒🇨🇱🇧🇴🇵🇪

Jewish Heritage in Prague

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As mentioned in my previous post, Czech-ing Out Prague, the Jewish Museum was one of the highlights of my trip and cannot be missed in any trip to the city.

The Free Walking Tour showed us around the area and gave some information about Jewish life in Prague over the course of history, but this is just a starting point. Grab a ticket from one of the ticket offices to really appreciate the rich Jewish heritage in this city.

There are several ticket options with discounts available. We chose the second one where we had access to all but the Old-New Synagogue. There is A LOT to see. What is great is that your ticket is valid for one-entry to all the sites but you can use it over the course of two weeks (check your ticket just in case though). This was great for us as we were able to spread out seeing the sights over two days instead of packing it all into one.

We had access to and visited: Maisel Synagogue, Pinkas Synagogue, Old Jewish Cemetery, Klausen Synagogue, Ceremonial Hall and Spanish Synagogue. Many of these sites are Shoah memorials and religious buildings, so it is important to be respectful and wear appropriate clothing.

The Spanish Synagogue is by far the most beautiful Synagogue I have visited. The wall and ceiling decorations are remarkable. I overheard a tour guide say ‘this is the most beautiful synagogue in Central Europe’ so it is not just me! In a separate entrance you will find the permanent exhibition on ‘The History of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, Part 2.’ It’s special focus is on the Shoah of Jews from Bohemia and Moravia, and the Terezín ghetto.

Pinkas Synagogue was a very solomn space. Much older, built in the 16th century, it is now a memorial to the nearly 80,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah (Holocaust) from Bohemia and Moravia. It is one of the earliest memorials of its kind in Europe, it is the work of two painters, Václav Boštík and Jiří John who painted the names of the victims on its walls. After the Soviet invasion of 1968, the memorial was closed to the public for more than 20 years. It was fully reconstructed and reopened to the public in 1995 after the fall of the Communist regime.

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A heart-wrenching exhibition, located on the first floor, gives us a glimpse of the fate of Jewish children who were incarcerated in the Terezín ghetto during the Second World War. It is based on the children’s drawings that were made in the ghetto between 1942 and 1944 under the supervision of the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. The pictures document the transports to Terezín and daily life that these children faced, as well as their dreams of returning home and of life in the Jewish homeland. For many, these dreams remained just that. Very few survived, as the majority of the children perished in the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Old Jewish Cemetery is among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in the world. It is fascinating to see the old tombstones and see nature take over this place. It was founded in the first half of the 15th century with the earliest tombstone dating all the way back to 1439! There are about 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery. However, as this was the only place where Jews were allowed to be buried for centuries, space was extremely scarce and bodies were buried on top of each other, with graves layered up to 10 deep. Now the cemetery is quite built up from street level.

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