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

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

Returning to Peru: 3 things I’m looking forward to

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When I visited Peru back in August 2013, I did say to myself that I would return one day, but I didn’t think that day would come only four years later.

In less than two months, I will throw my backpack on and return to South America, on a journey which will not only cover Peru but also parts of Chile and Bolivia. I absolutely loved Peru, although it doesn’t always bring back fond memories, considering the terrible altitude sickness I suffered from on our treks.


I am looking forward to exploring more of this country, and returning to some familiar places.

Practice my Spanish…

When I first visited Peru, I had only been studying Spanish for one year at university. I managed to hold conversations and barter in markets but it will be great to go back and hopefully speak Spanish with more confidence.

Visit some new places…

I’m looking forward to spending a few days in the capital, Lima, at the end of our three week trip – all I saw was the chaos of the airport, which is making me nervous about stepping out of those airport doors again! We will also be visiting Lake Titicaca which I didn’t see last time either.

 Retrace my steps…

As well as seeing some new sites, I am really looking forward to returning to familar ones. We are spending about 4 days in Cusco. I loved Cusco as it had such a great feel to it and the markets were incredible. It will give us some time to chill and see the sites and maybe do a day trip somewhere.

I am also returning to Aguas Calientes (love the eggy hot springs!) and Machu Picchu. J. really couldn’t go to Peru without seeing Machu Picchu, now could he? It did mean forking out a fortune though for the train tickets but it had to be done.

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Machu Picchu

I wish I didn’t have to do the early morning hike there though from Aguas Calientes. I have done it before, and I don’t need to prove I can do it to anyone, not even myself, as I have already done it. The bus this time is appealing, but J. wants to experience it himself, so he is going to have to deal with me whining and complaining all the way up there!


There is so much more of Peru that we aren’t exploring this time, as we are wanting to see the Atacama desert in Chile before working our way up through Bolivia circling round again to Peru, but that only gives me the excuse to go back…

What do you love about Peru?

2017 Travels Update

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2016 was an incredible year. Not only did I have the opportunity to spend a week in Brussels and Amsterdam, a month backpacking across South East Asia, and also a week in Italy, but it was also the year that I graduated from university and embarked upon a new career; I started training to be a qualified Modern Languages Teacher.

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Hoi An, Vietnam

Since plunging head-first into the world of teaching, I have not had much time to look back. Days are spent planning, teaching, reflecting, going to meetings, training sessions and at night I toss and turn, making lists in my head of what photocopying I need to do in the morning at 8am. A life centered around work does feel very sad, as I don’t have much else in my life right now. Still, if I were not 100% motivated to teach and work with young people, it would be almost impossible to get anything done.

Reassuringly, experienced teachers tell me that this is the most difficult year of teaching. I spend more time planning for each lesson that I do to deliver it, but this won’t be the case forever. Luckily I have a supportive network of other trainees on my course and great mentors and colleagues to get me to the end of the academic year in one piece.

Despite the lack of a social life this year, fortunately to keep me somewhat sane, I have plenty of trips abroad to look forward to.

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Amsterdam

One of the best thing about this profession, of course, is the long holidays! In 4 weeks time I am spending the February half term in Berlin with my boyfriend, to visit one of my old housemates from uni who decided to move far, far away to Germany for the year. 7 months apart is a very long time! Not only did she move abroad, but so did the majority of my uni friends (the problem with befriending people who love languages and travel!). This gave me the great excuse, however, to also book flights to Tokyo for Easter to see my other old uni housemate who is living and studying there now.

The travel does not stop there; in August, my boyfriend and I are planning 3 weeks in Peru, Chile and Bolivia. It will be his first time in South America, and my second time to Peru. This trip is proving to be much more complicated than South East Asia with regards to getting from place to place as it is just so massive! It’s also quite a bit more expensive. Luckily, our budgets are a little less constrained in comparison to our student trips in previous years and flights from A to B are not too expensive, and much more welcoming than the alternative – 24 hour bus journeys! I’m really looking forward to returning to the continent and being able to converse with the locals in Spanish, maybe having a go at some Chilean slang too. So far, the highlights are looking to be: the Atacama desert, the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, and Machu Picchu (second time!).

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Graduation day

I wish I could update this blog as regularly as I used to, but the daily grind leaves me with very little energy on evenings and weekends. More posts will be added slowly but surely and I do still enjoy reading many of your blogs even though I am not myself writing my own as often.

Robyn

 

Llamas, quinoa and not enough oxygen

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Okay, does anyone know where I may have taken my pictures that are showcased on my blog? Right, I’ll tell you: Peru.

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I went to Peru last year with a group from The University of Sheffield for the charity, Childreach International. I decided to do something completely crazy and different! After taking up Spanish at university, I thought this would be an unmissable opportunity to go to South America, something I wasn’t going to do on my own anytime soon, learn more about Hispanic culture outside Spain and practice some Spanish.

Together, our group raised an amazing £33,000 for charity over the year and challenged ourselves to trek the Salkantay Trek in Peru, i.e. a much MUCH harder version of the Inca Trail, to reach the beautiful Machu Picchu, one of the 7 Modern Wonders of the World! It took us a flight from London-Madrid, a 12-hour flight from Madrid-Lima and then from Lima-Cusco, but we got there and back with lots safe and sound with lots of souvenirs to take back and tighter thigh muscles for a few weeks.

I knew it would be challenging, but perhaps I didn’t realise just HOW MUCH. It was mostly because I suffered quite badly from altitude sickness; symptoms included shortness of breath, lack of appetite and dizziness which was pretty rubbish when we were trekking all day every day. We were warned of this many times before we left but I didn’t actually think I would be the one to suffer so much. Altitude sickness is so bizarre: you get short of breath after only walking a up a flight of stairs for example. You feel like you are really unfit, but it may just because there is less oxygen in the air than what you are used to where you live, e.g. the UK. When walking around Cusco, I saw some people jogging who were obviously used to the altitude – it looked like torture as there was no way that I would have been able to jog in those conditions!

It was an incredible experience and I am so proud to have achieved what I did. I guess, finding it so difficult made it so much more rewarding for me. I look back on what I achieved and I am so glad I persevered and pushed through to the finish line. I managed to crawl up the steps to Machu Picchu at 4am in the morning, something I felt I would not be able to do at the beginning of the trip. When I got to the top, all short of breath and near collapsing, some tourists looked at me in disgust; they believed I had suffered just walking from the coach drop-ff point to the Park entrance (I am not THAT unfit! #insulted, some of us climbed our way up!)

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Machu Picchu: The most beautiful view 

I took selfies with llamas, ate alpaca salad and LOTS of quinoa (quinoa porridge, quinoa salad, quinoa breaded chicken, quinoa quinoa…).

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Alpaca Salad/Ensalada capestina

I haggled in Spanish; much to my surprise, the Peruvians have a very lovely accent that I found no problem to understand after only studying Spanish for one year. In fact, speaking to the locals in Peru was easier than going to Valencia during Easter this year where they spoke so quickly and I felt out of my depth. I think that all I understood was when some people walked past commenting on our pasty legs, saying ‘que blancos están!’ (yes we know, this is why we are here – to get a tan!)

Peruvians are lovely people and very welcoming, I would love the opportunity to go back and discover other parts of South America sometime in the future. Especially now I speak Portuguese, Brazil would be amazing to go to as well.

If you have the opportunity to do something crazy yet incredible, something you think is too challenging – do it! You’ll never know unless you give it a try and it will be all the more amazing when you have crossed the finish line. 

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Me with a llama friend at Machu Picchu 🙂

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Mountain sketches in stone at Machu Picchu

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