North America, South America · 300 Days · 188 Moments · January 2015

Travels in the Americas

17 November 2015

And the final chapter, a stopover in LA for a couple of days! The chance to reunite with Cyrus, our friend from the Lima days. The incredible LACMA and a well-timed special exhibition on the works of Frank Gehry (my favourite). And as we watched the sunset over the water in Santa Monica just before we headed to the airport, we couldn't help but appreciate the symbolism. Hopefully some more exciting adventures just around the corner!

16 November 2015

The thing I'll miss the most about the Yucatan is the deliciously refreshing feeling of swimming in cenotes. Thousands of natural sinkholes formed due to collapse of limestone bedrock are found in the peninsula. Ik Kil, Samula, and Xkeken in central Yucatan are deep caverns with light streaming in from a hole in the roof and slender tree roots reaching to the water below. Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos on the other hand are large sheltered pools with underwater caves just waiting to be explored!
Our year of "Adventures in the Americas" started off way back in Toronto with Nick, Mekalie and Lachy! It seemed like a fitting end that Nick and Mekalie joined us in Tulum for our last weekend (Lachy, you were missed)! While the weather was not always picture-perfect, our friendly bar tenders were up for the piña colada challenge! A great weekend with dear friends!

12 November 2015

The thing that struck me most about the Mayan cities of the Yucatan Peninsula is that each has a unique character. While Ek' Balam lacked the grandeur of Chichen Itza, it did have a giant jaguar mouth adorned with stucco skulls and winged human figures! And just as we were on the brink of "ruin fatigue", Coba surprised us with its many kilometres of bike paths through the jungle, perfect for breezy cruising from ruin to ruin!

11 November 2015

The Yucatan Peninsula is jam packed with an incredible array of sights and experiences. One of the highlights has been the opportunity to see the gorgeous American flamingoes in the wild. The Rio Celestun Biosphere Reserve is accessed from a sleepy fishing village on the Gulf Coast. Flamingoes start arriving in November, escaping cooler climates. Rio Lagartos is at the northern tip of the peninsula and home to flamingo colonies year round. It was wonderfully peaceful cruising along in a boat and admiring these graceful creatures. We also saw one of my favourite bird discoveries of the year, the roseate spoonbill!
Valladolid, with its wonderful palette of pastels, was a great base for exploring eastern Yucatan State. After the collapse of the henequen industry (agave rope fibre), hundreds of plantations were abandoned and entered a period of inexorable decay. A recent restoration boom has seen many haciendas resurrected as grand hotels. Great places for enjoying lunch or a cocktail. And when we were in the mood for more sightseeing, there were plenty of tranquil towns with gorgeous churches and local Maya women weaving colourful hammocks!

9 November 2015

The Mayan City of Chichen Itza, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, is justly one of the most famous sites in Mexico. In a wonderful fusion of Late Classic Period Maya and Toltec architecture, the city does not fail to impress. El Castillo is the awe-inspiring centrepiece of the complex!

8 November 2015

Izamal, the Yellow City, is one of the Pueblos Magicos of Mexico... And I wholeheartedly agree. You could wander for hours along the narrow cobblestone streets admiring the colonial architecture. Or if you're feeling lazy, you could catch a lift in a horse drawn carriage (still the official town taxis)!

6 November 2015

Heading south from Uxmal, we explored the magical Ruta Puuc. Filled with archeological sites amidst the lush scenery of southern Yucatan State, it provides a wonderful insight into the ancient Maya civilisation that inhabited this region of the peninsula. Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labna are each richly decorated with carvings depicting the rain god, Chac, with his long nose reminiscent of an elephant!

5 November 2015

Western Yucatan was dominated by the Puuc Maya civilisation, who built beautiful cities with smooth walls, ornate friezes and decorative columns. Uxmal was the biggest and most splendid city, connected by ancient roads to other sites in the region. The elegance of the architecture and the relative lack of tourists definitely place Uxmal high up on my list of favourite ruins!

4 November 2015

Merida, the capital of Yucatan State, is the largest city in the Yucatan Peninsula. It has a wonderful colonial centre and grand mansions dating back to the 19th century, when the previously impoverished region prospered from the production of henequen (agave fibre). Nowadays, Mayan hammocks are a more successful export. They are hand-woven in Merida and surrounding Mayan villages using a special loom and cotton or nylon thread in myriad bright colours!

2 November 2015

Zombies snacking on burgers, elegant skeletons in European fashions of the 19th century, and macabre mariachis. Truly a festival like no other!

1 November 2015

On the 1st and 2nd of November, comparsas (carnival-like parades) erupted throughout the streets. Even the staff at our favourite craft beer bar joined in the festivities, donning zombie-like face paint for the evening!
The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember their deceased loved ones. The candlelit graveyard vigil in the nearby town of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán is particularly beautiful. The mood is festive rather than somber, as families entice the souls of the departed with their favourite foods and music!
Panteon San Miguel, the oldest cemetery in Oaxaca, comes alive on the 31st of October. Thousands of candles beautifully illuminate niches which are testament to the smallpox plague of the early 1800s. Concerts take place in the central courtyard, graves are elaborately decorated and costumed revellers wander amongst the tombstones.

31 October 2015

Market stalls are filled with chocolate skulls, pan de muertos (decorated sweet bread) and marigolds (flowers of the dead). People prepare for days in advance, buying offerings for their dearly departed! The surrounding villages of Ocotlan, San Antonino and Tlacolula were buzzing with activity on market day! It was particularly fun exploring on two wheels and seeing the beautiful scenery (and marvellous churches) of the region in the lead up to this unique celebration!

30 October 2015

We made our way back to Mexico in time for Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities. This holiday is celebrated throughout Mexico, in particular the Central and South regions, with Oaxaca famed as being amongst the most colourful. Dia de Muertos developed from ancient indigenous rites fused with Catholic celebrations of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. Homes and public spaces are decorated with elaborate altares de muertos (altars of the dead) and celebrants parade through the streets in ghoulish fancy dress, even before the official festivities have begun!

27 October 2015

Market day is an exciting affair in the highlands. In particular, Chichicastenango draws a crowd from all over the region for the huge Sunday market. Women gracefully carry heavy loads on their heads, while impeccably dressed in their most vivid huipils. All manner of produce and the finest textiles are bought and sold. A spectacular sight!
The women of Santiago Atitlan wear woven blouses adorned with birds and beautiful multicoloured hair adornments. Santiago Atitlan is also renowned for jaspe, an ancient Japanese method of tie-dye, which was introduced after the conquest. The women of San Juan La Laguna can be recognised by the geometric patterns around the collar of their blouses. In Santa Cruz the huipils are distinctive for the brocade only on the back, the design of which mimics the reflection of light off the surface of the lake. But it is the nearby highland town of Chichicastenango that wins the fashion award, with bright multicoloured geometric designs brocaded on the front, back and shoulders and the silk appliqué of radiating points around the neck opening which represents the sun!

25 October 2015

Indigenous Maya people have lived around Lake Atitlan for centuries. Due to the terrain and the presence of geographically dispersed communities, the area was difficult to conquer in colonial times. As a result, many contemporary towns on the lake still carry on a strong indigenous tradition. The Maya are master weavers, and the use of the backstrap loom dates back to ancient times. They cultivated cotton and used natural dyes from minerals and plants to create vibrant colours. Spinning whorls were used to create thread applied in intricate brocade on ceremonial garments. Despite the introduction of bright artificial dyes, wool and silk after the conquest, the art of fine weaving has changed little over time. Many weavers still create a rich rainbow of colours from natural dyes and weave patterns that are particular to each village on the lake.

24 October 2015

Lago de Atitlan, a volcanic caldera which has filled with water over the millenia, is a place of rare beauty. Younger volcanoes (only 60000 years old) rise splendidly from the southern shore, forming a breathtakingly picturesque backdrop. There are a number of lakeside towns, some of which can only be reached by boat. Fibreglass "lanchas" ferry people and produce across the lake. Our wonderfully recommended hotel even had a private dock, a very exciting arrival indeed!

22 October 2015

As if dilapidated grandeur isn't enough of a charm, Antigua is an elegantly restored colonial town bursting with colour. Indigenous Maya women sell handmade textiles on the square, rescued macaws screech in shady courtyards and the volcanoes are always peering in the background.
Perhaps the most captivating experience in Antigua is the Municipal Market. People from surrounding towns arrive in packed "chicken buses", colourfully decorated retired school buses, carrying baskets of fresh produce and sometimes even live chickens (not sure if that is how the buses got their name)! The indigenous peoples in the region are predominantly Maya, and traditional clothing (traje) is still prominent. Cortes (wraparound skirts) and huipils (rectangular garments worn as tops or dresses) are still worn by many women, often with designs specific to a particular indigenous community. One could spend hours wandering the markets and admiring the intricate fashions!
Antigua, in the central highlands, was once the capital of Guatemala until a devastating earthquake in 1773 left the town in ruins. The remnants of imposing and ornate churches allude to the former riches of this beautiful city. Quite a surreal experience walking among collapsed pillars and underneath vaulted ceilings open to the elements!

20 October 2015

Lying among the tropical rainforests of northern Guatemala, Tikal was one of the most important Mayan settlements in the Americas. The city covers a vast expanse of jungle, with evidence of continuous construction over the course of a millennium. Although the exact reasons are unclear, the site was eventually abandoned in the 10th century AD. Arriving before dawn, we wandered through the darkness to Temple IV, the tallest structure in Tikal. The eerie mist is all that we could see from the towering 70 metre temple, but the birds and howler monkeys igniting the forest made the early start worthwhile! Hundreds of buildings are dotted through the jungle, but only a small fraction have been excavated. Marvelling at these ancient structures in beautiful surroundings was such a memorable experience!

19 October 2015

In search of the roots of the ancient Maya, we crossed the river to the Peten region of Guatemala. The border crossing was an interesting experience, in true Latin American fashion. Our travel companions in the wooden longboat were a father and son from Holland and a young French woman braving the wilds on her own. The population of Bethel, the Guatemala border town, doubled with our arrival. After several hours of enjoying the local beer in anticipation of the bus that was arriving "any minute", we embarked on a five hour bus ride on rough unsurfaced roads. Flores, a delightful little island town on Lake Peten Itza, was a great place to relax at the end of the journey.

18 October 2015

The small site of Bonampak was dominated by the military prowess of its neighbour, Yaxchilan. Nowadays it is famed for the best preserved Maya murals in Mesoamerica and a window into an ancient world. The Lacandon Maya, who still performed rituals at the site, showed the ruins to the outside world in 1946. Located in a long narrow building with three rooms, the huge frescoes date back to the 8th century AD, and depict a battle and the subsequent celebration by the victors.
Yaxchilan sits atop riverside terraces on the bank of the Usumacinta River, the natural boundary between Mexico and Guatemala. After an hourlong boat ride (the only way to reach the site) the structures on the lower terraces can be glimpsed as the boat rounds a horseshoe bend. As you step on the bank, the jungle is dense overhead and the howler monkeys warn that this is their turf. You start to feel a little like Indiana Jones as you enter the main plaza through a well-preserved ruin that is home to hundreds of tiny bats. Yaxchilan was frequently at war with Palenque, and reached its greatest power during the reign of ruler Bird Jaguar IV in the late Maya Classic Period. With a name like that you would surely be destined for an illustrious future! The most impressive legacy of this kingdom is the richly carved lintels and stelae which have been preserved to this day!

17 October 2015

The ancient Maya civilisation ruled an extensive region of Mesoamerica, including southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Maya states were located in geographically diverse environments, including the lush jungle of southern Mexico and El Peten in Guatemala, the plains of the Yucatan Peninsula and the Highlands of Guatemala. The dense jungle of southern Chiapas state serves as an enchanting backdrop to Palenque, the archeologic remains of a prominent city from the Maya Classic Period (200 to 900 AD). During this period, Mayan creativity and political power was at its peak, and the hieroglyphic system of writing was developed.

15 October 2015

Chiapas has a strong indigenous identity, and the highlands around San Cristobal are home to Tzotzil Maya communities which have maintained ancient customs and beliefs. In San Juan Chamula, the main church is starkly white and only the bright green archway hints at a unique form of Catholicism. Stepping inside is like a portal to another world. Pine needles cover the floor, with small clearings for gatherings of the faithful in traditional woollen tunics. The heady scent of copal resin incense (sacred to the Maya) permeates the air, and women kneel over hundreds of candles stuck to the floor with wax. The altar has offerings of soft drinks and other treasures. San Lorenzo Zinacantan, a Tzotzil village famed for cultivation of flowers, has a more traditional take on Catholicism but with their own local touch. The church is filled with hundreds of flower arrangements. The men wear pink tunics with rich floral brocade and the women wear colourfully embroidered blouses.

14 October 2015

Our penultimate overnight bus ride (one of the things that shall not be missed) took us to San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas State. The southernmost state of Mexico was part of a large region dominated by the Mayans during the Classic Period, and most of the indigenous groups in the area are descendants of the Maya. San Cristobal de las Casas was the former capital of the state, and retains a charming colonial layout and architecture. Our visit happened to coincide with the start of the "Carrera Panamericana", a classic car rally which originated in Mexico in the 1950s and has since been revived. It is considered one of the most dangerous races in the world, apparently, which explains why all the teams had their blood type printed on the side of the car! Safely viewing from the sidelines, the only danger we faced was remortgaging the apartment to buy a Mercedes 300 SL (who could resist those gullwing doors)..

13 October 2015

After tasting our way around Oaxaca we signed up for a cooking course in the hope we might replicate some of the regional delicacies at home. Chef Oscar helped us design a menu focusing on ingredients which we may even manage to find outside of Mexico, followed by a tour of the local produce market to pick up supplies. A mind boggling number of chilli varieties, and lots of colourful mole pastes were a feast for the senses. Back in the kitchen, we made tortillas, tamales, salsas (including one flavoured with agave worms of course) and mole with chocolate. And after a hard morning of cooking we got to enjoy a four course meal accompanied by beer and mezcal!

11 October 2015

In the Sierra Norte mountain range near Oaxaca City, a group of Zapotec villages run a wonderful ecotourism initiative which helps fund education and infrastructure in the region. The area is one of the most biologically diverse places in Mexico and offers hiking and biking trails, as well as the opportunity to overnight in indigenous communities and interact with the locals. The Camino Real, an ancient route linking former Zapotec settlements, was a particular highlight due to the incredible diversity of fauna in the cloud forest microenvironment. And after four days and 65 kilometres of hiking, we felt that we'd earned our upcoming cooking course back in Oaxaca!

8 October 2015

The Zapotecs and the Mixtecs were the dominant indigenous cultures in the region of southwestern Mexico in ancient times. The Zapotec capital of Monte Alban emerged in 600 BC, and flourished from 200 to 500 AD. It lost the local power struggle and lay abandoned after 800 AD. Common to a number of Ancient Mesoamerican cultures was the "ballgame", played using a heavy rubber ball which was struck with the hips or upper arms. The stepped ballcourt at Monte Alban is magnificently preserved!

7 October 2015

In addition to colonial architecture and beautiful textiles, striking street art adorns the cobblestone backstreets and the food is the most varied in all of Mexico. Oaxaca might just be my heaven on earth! The regional specialties include the famous seven moles of Oaxaca, chocolate, stringy cheese sold in ribbons, tlayudas (like pizza on a tortilla base) and tetelas (delicious triangles of tortilla dough stuffed with various ingredients and cooked on a clay barbecue). Oaxaca is also the home of mezcal, tequila's more refined cousin. While there are numerous agave farms in Oaxaca, the fancy stuff is made from the heart of wild agave cactus.
The southwestern state of Oaxaca is home to more than half of Mexico's indigenous peoples. The tradition of artistic expression through textiles, pottery and wooden carvings has survived since pre-Hispanic times. Vibrant red dyes are produced from cochineal bugs which infest the nopal cactus. Intricate weaving techniques tell stories of past generations. Even the popular Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations blend ancient indigenous traditions with Roman Catholic religious observances, in a very festive display of syncretism. Preparations are already underway, with colourful decorations sold everywhere (including the somewhat gory Christ figurines used to decorate ceremonial bread). The beautiful capital, Oaxaca de Juarez, was recognised as an UNESCO World Heritage Site for its incredible colonial era architecture. Richly gilded churches and wonderful museums of local culture and crafts kept us entertained for days.

4 October 2015

Puebla, two hours south of Mexico City, is famous for Talavera ceramic and delicious regional food. Authentic Talavera Poblana is unique to this region, with the traditional technique and stylised decorative designs used for household pottery and tiles. Azulejos, Talavera tiles, were used to decorate the facades of churches and mansions in the colonial period. One of the most beautiful sights was the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, the oldest public library in the Americas. Some of the regional culinary highlights include rich dark mole sauce, stuffed chillis, cemitas (giant sandwiches filled with stringy Oaxacan cheese, avocado and your choice of meat), and my absolute favourite, taco arabe (spit grilled pork in Middle Eastern style flatbread)! The nearby town of Cholula is home to the world's widest pyramid, unfortunately in ruins, topped by an ornate Catholic church in a rather "subtle" message of conquest!

30 September 2015

San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, is a town rich in history and superb colonial architecture. The winding cobblestone streets of the historic centre are a delight to explore. Beautifully dressed indigenous women sell local crafts, homemade icecream comes with a hint of chilli and a beautiful church awaits around each corner!

29 September 2015

Teotihuacan was the first city to arise in Mesoamerica, in a valley about 50km north of modern day Mexico City. The rulers of this magnificent site reigned supreme from 100 BC to the 8th century AD, and influenced subsequent civilisations as far south as El Salvador. The core of the city still stands today, including the gargantuan Pyramid of the Sun and smaller Pyramid of the Moon. It was fascinating to visit a textile workshop in the nearby town, where cloth is still made using a traditional foot-treadle floor loom!

27 September 2015

A network of small canals and floating gardens created by the Aztecs on Lake Xochimilco, the southern remnant of Lake Texcoco, serves as a reminder of pre-Hispanic life in the Valley of Mexico. Nowadays, families enjoy weekend cruises on colourful gondolas in this intriguing man-made landscape!

26 September 2015

The UNESCO World Heritage historic centre of Mexico City has more than 1500 buildings designated as artistic or historic treasures. There are many wonderfully preserved colonial-era treasures, however, my favourites were the Palacio Nacional and Palacio de Bellas Artes which date back to the early 20th century. The despot Porfirio Diaz had a thing for Parisian-style grandeur, and commissioned many of the city's masterpieces during his SEVEN terms as President! The Bellas Artes is home to a second rendering of the controversial mural "Man at the Crossroads" by Diego Rivera. The original fresco was commissioned for the Rockefeller Centre in the 1930s, and destroyed because of its socialist themes. One of the unexpected highlights was the Popular Art Museum, showcasing wonderful crafts from different regions of Mexico! Alebrijes, the brightly coloured wooden carvings of fantastical creatures, are slowly taking up the leftover backpack space!
The list of foods we've never heard of has gotten a little out of hand in Mexico. Every restaurant, market and food stall seems to offer something new and delicious! Gorditas (literally, little fatties), tlacoyos, chapulines (turns out those were garlic grasshoppers) and the most delicious lime and salsa drizzled potato chips that $1 can buy!

25 September 2015

We channeled our inner tourist (not that tough given the matching Birkenstock sandals and top knots) and visited Plaza Garibaldi, the home of mariachi music. The mariachis, dressed in their glittering finery, play on the plaza and surrounding bars. Salon Tenampa, the most historic establishment on the square, has hosted major mariachi bands since the 1920s. The music was beautiful, even if none of the musicians looked like Antonio Banderas in Desperado!
There are few Mexican artists more emblematic of national and indigenous culture than Frida Kahlo. What has always fascinated me about her art is its introspective and intimate nature. Frida once said, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best". While Mexico City has dozens of art museums and galleries, visiting Frida's lifelong home Casa Azul was such a wonderful insight into her life and work. After surviving a serious accident as a teenager, Frida had lifelong health problems. However, her passion for art and for life was palpable throughout her home and studio. The city also pays homage to Diego Rivera, the most renowned member of the muralism movement in Mexico, and husband of Frida Kahlo. His works are displayed in numerous buildings in the city, most notably at the Palacio Nacional. The couple were passionate collectors of pre-Hispanic art, and after Frida's untimely death, Diego designed Museo Anahuacalli to display the collection.
The Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlan in 1325, on an island in the centre of Lake Texcoco, at the site of present day Mexico City. Armed with guns and smallpox, the Spaniards defeated the Mexica in 1521. Preferring to redecorate in a Spanish style, they practically razed the city to the ground in the final siege. The remains of Temple Mayor were rediscovered underneath the historic centre, and excavation work commenced in 1978. Lake Texcoco was drained starting from the 17th century, however the soft base of clay on which the city rests is slowly collapsing (in some areas, as much as nine metres over the last century). Quite an experience, walking uphill in some of the colonial buildings! Apart from the splendid architecture, the historic centre boasts many markets selling specialty food items, crafts and my favourite, the Jamaica Flower Market.

24 September 2015

The delectable diversity of regional cuisine is what we most look forward to in Mexico. Traditional Mexican food has even been recognised by UNESCO as an "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity". In the capital, Modern Mexican Cooking has emerged, creating incredibly tasty (and fancy) dishes using traditional ingredients. Escamoles (ant eggs), rich mole sauces and cactus are just a few of the unusual and delicious items we have sampled!

22 September 2015

Mexico City, or known simply as DF (for Distrito Federal), is the largest Spanish speaking city in the world (over 21 million inhabitants at the last census)! Although we arrived in Mexico a week ago, the post was delayed by some intensive sampling of the local cuisine, craft beer, wine (yes, Mexico has some great wine) and mezcal! After some introductory late night tacos al pastor (the meat is spit-grilled) on our first night, we spent the next day exploring the neighbourhoods of Condesa and Roma. The highlight was Mercado Roma, where dozens of food establishments offer delicious Mexican cuisine, and the sweets stall is just in front of the craft beer stand (and yes, even the sweets are covered in chilli). Heaven! The most shocking part is that we didn't just settle in and eat all day. The Museum of Anthropology was a very worthwhile detour, with thousands of pieces showcasing Mexico's rich history of pre-Hispanic civilisations!

21 September 2015

Well over a decade after the founding of Santa Marta, the conquistadores finally reached the interior, to the site of modern day Bogota. After a wonderful month in Colombia, we thought it fitting to finish on a high note in the capital. Perched on a high plateau of the Andes, Bogota is flanked by the Monserrate and Guadalupe mountains which run north to south and dominate the city's skyline. The colonial centre has some fantastic museums and colourful doorways with giant paddocks!

19 September 2015

Bogota, our last stop in South America before heading north, embodied everything we've loved about this diverse, chaotic and beautiful continent. Great contemporary takes on traditional cuisine, artistic expression on every blank bit of wall and friendly people who love to show you the best of their country. And the free Botero museum was a special treat (repeated multiple times)!

18 September 2015

Santa Marta provided much needed respite after the gruelling four day trek. The city of Santa Marta (always knew you were a saint, Marty) was founded in 1525, making it the oldest city in Colombia, with fine examples of colonial architecture. It is where Simon Bolivar, the "Liberator" of South America, died before completing the long journey to exile in Europe. And it is home to what might just be the coolest airport in the world (figuratively rather than literally, given the lack of AC). Open air hall overlooking the water, with planes taking off over the Caribbean!

15 September 2015

Ciudad Perdida is reached after two days of walking through the jungle terrain of the Sierra Nevada. On the third day we rose early and tackled the 1200 stone steps to the ancient city. The emerald green central terraces, surrounded by dense jungle, are a magical sight to behold! Ciudad Perdida is a sacred site for the local indigenous people, and the impact of tourism is not negligible. While there is at least one indigenous-owned and operated tour provider (our guide and the rest of the team are from the Wiwa indigenous group), it sounds like there's much more negotiation needed before the indigenous people have autonomous control of the area!

14 September 2015

After our rigorous training on the beach, we set off on a four day hike into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to visit Ciudad Perdida, the "Lost City". Built by the Tairona people more than a thousand years ago, it was "rediscovered" by tomb raiders in 1972. The descendants of the Tairona never lost the place, but rather wisely didn't broadcast its existence! The indigenous Kogui, Wiwa, Arhuacos and Cancuamo people are direct descendants of the Tairona, living in small communities dispersed through the Indigenous Territory of the Sierra Nevada. Turns out hiking through the jungle in sweltering heat and humidity is pretty tough work, so it was a very welcome distraction to see some cute little faces along the way.

12 September 2015

The incredible diversity of Colombia's flora and fauna puts its best foot forward in Tayrona National Park, on the Caribbean coast near the town of Santa Marta. The cotton-top tamarin is one of the rarest primates in the world, so we felt pretty lucky to spot a few of these playful little guys just along the walking trail. In fact they were quite the attention seekers, throwing fruit at Pete and Steve! And not to mention the beaches, the loveliest we've seen in South America!

10 September 2015

The walled Old Town remains largely unchanged since colonial times, and wandering the streets in the warm Caribbean evenings is quite a sight. Visiting outside of peak season has its perks, like not being disturbed from my historic reverie by hordes of other tourists! The neighbourhood of Getsemani, just outside the city walls, is a grungier and less touristy version with all the requisite crumbling decadence, and some street art to boot!

9 September 2015

After months in the mountains, we headed for the Caribbean coast! Cartagena, founded in 1533, rapidly became one of the most important trading and shipping ports in the Americas. Plundered riches from the continent were sent home to the mother country, and at the beginning of the 17th century the King of Spain granted Cartagena the exclusive right to slave trade. Subsequently, the city grew in prosperity and the wealthy locals built beautiful homes and mansions. The promise of gold and other riches attracted repeated pirate attacks, eventually prompting the Spanish crown to fortify the city.

7 September 2015

Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia, once had the dubious claim to fame of being the home of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. Nowadays it is a buzzing metropolis that is home to Steve's favourite coffee shop in South America (Pergamino, in case anyone is heading there). Notably, it is also the birthplace of Fernando Botero, whose unmistakeable sculptures bring a larger than life presence to the main square! His paintings in the nearby Museum of Antioquia are even more spectacular.... It takes supreme skill to make flowers appear chubby!

6 September 2015

The art of coffee is serious business in Colombia, so much so, that the main coffee growing region is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Colombia is the third biggest producer in the world, and 100% Colombian coffee is popularly marketed by the fictional character Juan Valdez and his mule, Conchita. Travelling with three passionate coffee drinkers, I went along for the ride to check out the coffee growing region near Manizales. We stayed at Hacienda Venecia, a working coffee farm set in a picturesque location of verdant hills and impossibly tall palm trees. The homestead is more than one hundred years old and built in the traditional style utilising bamboo support beams for the colourful verandah. During our stay, we had the chance to visit the farm and learn about coffee production, which was fascinating! The experience was certainly a highlight, only marred by the fact that Gringo, the Basset hound couldn't fit in my backpack!

2 September 2015

Cali is the largest city in southwestern Colombia, and more importantly, is where our friend Johanna grew up. We really enjoyed exploring Cali with good friends and sharing in Johanna's first trip back!

1 September 2015

It is Tuesday, which means market day in the nearby town of Silvia. The Guambiano people ride the colourful chivas (local buses) to town and add some sartorial splendour as they peddle their wares! The traditional dress consists of blue skirts with pink trim and ponchos for the men folk. The ladies wear a double-layered woollen shawl of blue, crimson, hot pink or magenta trimmed with turquoise and pink for an even more striking effect. All perfectly accessorised with white beads and bowler hats. They sell exotic fruits and even more exotic potatoes. One lady chuckles in surprise as Johanna explains our limited potato repertoire in Australia.

30 August 2015

Popayan, nicknamed the White City, is a beautifully preserved colonial town in the Andean cordilleras of southern Colombia. The local architecture of whitewashed haciendas surrounding colourfully-tiled courtyards transports you back in time (until you are brought back into the present with the arrival of a deliciously cold cerveza)!

28 August 2015

A plane, three buses, two taxis and a pedestrian border crossing later, we had arrived in Colombia! We met up with Johanna and Pete in San Agustin, a town famed for its megalithic archeological treasures. More than 500 statues carved from volcanic rock dot the landscape. The now vanished pre-Hispanic tribe that built these monuments as tomb-keepers of complex underground burial sites flourished from the 1st to the 9th century AD. This northern region of the Andes is particularly beautiful, with coffee, tropical fruits and sugar cane growing along the precipitous hills rising from the Magdalena River. Large blocks of panela, unrefined cane sugar, are made locally by the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice!

25 August 2015

While the Galápagos adventure is over (for now), it certainly finished on a high note. At sunrise on our final day, we visited North Seymour Island, a nesting ground for frigatebirds and blue footed boobies. The male blue footed booby does a funny little foot-lifting dance and whistles to attract a mate. The impressed female honks in encouragement! Male frigatebirds have a red throat pouch which they inflate during breeding season to attract females. While there were many nesting pairs with baby frigatebirds, we had the opportunity to see a few of the bachelors still showing off in the hope of finding a lady friend. As we headed back towards our landing site, the Galápagos gave us one last "best of" tour with some colourful iguanas and sea lions coming out to say goodbye!

24 August 2015

Far too quickly, our last full day in the Galápagos arrived. We visited the islands of Santiago and Bartholomew where we admired ghost crabs, fur seals, Galápagos hawks, baby pelicans and white-tipped reef sharks (underwater camera now topping the wishlist)!

23 August 2015

Each evening our guide would give a briefing on the planned activities for the following day, and tell us about the animals "we might see"! The Galápagos never cease to amaze - instead of maybe spotting a few marine iguanas, on Fernandina Island we watched hundreds of them sunbake on the rocks while some of the more energetic ones had a swim. As if the scene wasn't quite entertaining enough, in paddle the Galápagos penguins and the hilariously cute flightless cormorants. And then the truly unexpected, a pair of pygmy blue whales following alongside our boat as we sailed on the western side of Isabela Island!

22 August 2015

While the animals definitely steal the show, the landscape of the Galápagos is certainly impressive! Isabela, formed by the merging of six volcanoes about one million years ago, is one of the youngest islands. The lava rock forms a surreal landscape that looks like it cooled into those myriad patterns only days ago!

21 August 2015

Wishing time could stand still, we were already on day four of the adventure. The people of Isabela Island share their home with sassy sea lions, marine iguanas, lava lizards and splendid American flamingoes. And if the baby sea lion decides to show off in the middle of the path, you just have to sweep around him! But the real showstopper was Donatello, the three week old giant tortoise!

20 August 2015

Until our visit, I had no idea that almost 27000 people call the Galápagos Islands home! The biggest settlement is on Santa Cruz Island, which we visited on our third day. The local seafood market is particularly fun, with pelicans and sea lions hanging around for a stray morsel. Our first stop was the Charles Darwin Research Station, home to several species of endangered giant tortoises which are being bred in captivity. The fantastic news is that their numbers are growing and several species of juveniles are being released into the wild! We were also fortunate enough to see the domed giant tortoises in the wild. These gentle giants live a simple life, napping for hours on end, munching grass and playing in the mud!

19 August 2015

We sailed westward, in eager anticipation of our first contact with animals in the wild. We visited the island of Santa Fe, home to the eponymous Santa Fe iguana which only inhabits this island. The nearby island of South Plaza is home to another species of land iguanas, a rather charming sea lion colony and many species of birds. The spectacular cliffs were a wonderful vantage point for admiring blue footed boobies, pelicans, swallow-tailed gulls and red billed tropicbirds!

18 August 2015

Visiting the Galápagos Islands was a truly unique experience. The curious creatures endemic to the Galápagos Islands are a spectacle like no other! From the moment we landed on San Cristobal Island, on the eastern part of the archipelago, we were greeted by sea lions at the port as we waited to board our cruise boat. We also had our first, albeit brief, encounter with a giant tortoise at the local breeding centre on San Cristobal.

17 August 2015

Quito, nestled in the Ecuadorean Andes, is the highest official capital in the world. The historic centre was declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978, and is lovingly preserved! The Basilica definitely takes the prize for the most interesting church in the Americas, with native animals rather than gargoyles guarding the spires! Tomorrow we head off to the Galápagos Islands to acquaint ourselves with their real life counterparts. Expect lots of animal pictures in the near future!

14 August 2015

After spending almost half of our trip in Peru, it was finally time to say goodbye for 2015. Our last stop was the northern beach town of Mancora for a few days of lazing in the sunshine. I felt we had earned a little splurge on the hotel after our countless long-haul bus rides. And in Peru, a little more goes a long way! We spent a few very relaxing days drinking cocktails, eating seafood and reading on the comfy lounge chairs!

11 August 2015

The magnificent fortified citadel of Kuelap is their crowning achievement. Built in stages from 500 AD until the Incan conquest in 1493, the fortress is surrounded by a 20 metre high wall and contains the remnants of over 400 circular dwellings. Unlike Machu Picchu, which has reached mega stardom, we shared Kuelap with only a handful of other visitors. The citadel was hidden in the clouds, an enchanting time to wander the ruins!

10 August 2015

After Trujillo, we went on a quest deep into the cloud forest of the tropical jungle in the Amazonas district. Chachapoyas, named after the dominant civilisation of the area, is at the end of a long and windy 12 hour bus ride from the coast. The Chachapoyas, or "People of the Clouds", ruled this area of high altitude cloud forest from 500 AD until they were conquered by the Incas in 1493 (noticing a pattern here). Their funerary practices were particularly elaborate, including a second burial of the bony skeleton in ornamental structures such as sarcophagi or tombs high up in the cliffs. These were reserved for warriors, shamans and other VIPs of course! The sarcophagi at Karajia stand tall on a cliff face 20 metres above the mountain path, where they have watched over the valley for centuries.

7 August 2015

The Moche culture, active from AD 100 to 700, are most renowned for their beautiful and detailed ceramics. They built a series of religious sites in the eponymous Moche Valley and had a habit of renovating every century by building on top of existing structures. As a result, the colourful decorative friezes on the outer walls of older temples have remained intact. The pyramids were built from millions of adobe bricks, and each family of artisans left their own mark on the bricks they created. My favourite is the smiley face!
The coastal civilisations have relied on the fruits of the sea for thousands of years. In the village of Huanchaco, locals still use reed boats for fishing.
Northern Peru has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years, and the Incas are merely the most recent in a rich history of advanced pre-Colombian civilisations that have left behind impressive monuments. The Chimu civilisation ruled the coast from 800 AD until 1471 when they were conquered by the Incas. Their imposing capital, Chan Chan, is the largest adobe city in the world. The mouldings on the walls of their metropolis show that they venerated the moon and the sea. The Rainbow Temple, which was a religious site near the capital, is remarkably well preserved after lying hidden under sand until the 1960s.

6 August 2015

Moving north, we reached Trujillo on the Central Coast. Founded by Francisco Pizarro in 1534, it is an elegant town where colonial mansions and colourful churches abound. The intricate wrought-iron flourishes on the windows and elaborate frescoes are all original and impeccably preserved.

4 August 2015

It is hard to choose a favourite, but day three definitely put in a good bid. For starters, there were no more crazy uphills (although even moderate incline isn't a walk in the park at altitude)! We took a side trip to the base camp of Alpamayo, once voted the most beautiful mountain in the world because of its almost perfect pyramidal shape. It was indeed a beautiful hunk of ice! As we descended into the valley towards camp, the scenery changed dramatically, giving way to cactus-dotted sandy beaches and alpine streams. Certainly a memorable trip!

3 August 2015

The second day was challenging and absolutely beautiful. After some huffing and puffing, we crossed the 4750 metre Punta Union Pass and were duly rewarded with a most spectacular view of alpine lakes and snowy mountains!

2 August 2015

Huaraz is the gateway to Huascaran National Park, in the Cordillera Blanca range of the Andes. The region is home to magnificent snow-capped peaks including Huascaran, the highest mountain in Peru, standing at a towering 6768 metres. We set off on the Santa Cruz trek, looking forward to some "breath-taking" scenery. In a remote hamlet along the trail, we met a few cuties with a natural aptitude for technology. The iPhone turned out to be quite a hit, and it took them all of five seconds to learn how to take photos and use the touch screen!

31 July 2015

Drawn to Huaraz for the spectacular scenery and archeological treasures of ancient civilisations, we have not been disappointed. Chavin de Huantar, built around 900 BC, served as a religious and ceremonial centre to one of the most ancient civilisations of the Peruvian Andes. The now extinct Chavin culture worshipped serpents, pumas and birds as evidenced by the intricate zoomorphic carvings which adorn the site. And while the folk here share many customs with their southern Andean neighbours, the women of Ancash province definitely deserve to win the best hat contest!

28 July 2015

We celebrated Peruvian National Independence Day back in Lima, over some delicious cocktails and ceviche! Two days was not enough time in what has become our second home, but our wallets and waistlines are grateful. The prolific street art scene continues to inspire, with a stunning new piece by Jade Rivera.

26 July 2015

Machu Picchu was built around 1450 under the reign of Pachacutec Inca. It was abandoned just over a century later as the Inca Empire succumbed to the Spanish conquest. The citadel was never discovered by the conquistadores, and hence remained intact until 1911, when the site was brought to the attention of the outside world by the American historian Hiram Bingham! Reportedly, while in search for the Lost City of the Incas he was instead shown Machu Picchu by a local farmer. Watching the sun slowly light up the citadel surrounded by those magnificent mountains is truly marvellous.

25 July 2015

Meeting up with the rest of the group halfway through the hike turned into quite an adventure. After a very scenic train journey to Aguas Calientes with Perurail, the local train to our intended rendezvous spot was sold out. There are no roads connecting the two towns, but it is possible to get there by foot. "Just follow the train tracks" said the nice lady at the train station! The track followed the river through lush cloud forest, and given the foolproof directions I even made it to my destination. Reunited with the team, I got to enjoy the latter part of the hike. We walked among the clouds, and past an old Inca lookout which served to protect Machu Picchu. The unexpected highlight was the little shop at the top of a mountain pass, where every item sold had been carried up by the astute businessman himself.

23 July 2015

The Salkantay route is one of the Inca roads that lead to Machu Picchu. The trek begins with a high pass and spectacular views of the snow-capped Salkantay Mountain. While the Francis family set off with their adopted son, Esteban, I had the excuse of a job interview to get out of the tough climb on the first part of the hike.

21 July 2015

Following in the footsteps of the Incas, we returned to Cusco, the centre of the Inca Empire. It was wonderful to be back in a place that holds so many memories for us. After our travels in the rest of the continent, we returned to Peru to hike the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu with the Francis clan. Fortunately, there was a little time for shopping! The very sweet-looking lady in the stylish hat was all smiles but drove a hard bargain when it came to antique textiles. I can understand why the Incas treasured these designs almost as much as gold!

16 July 2015

After three days of driving through the Bolivian high plateau, we reached Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. The endless expanse of white was rather impressive, and lent itself well to some silly photos. We finished the trip with a visit to the ghost trains, left abandoned for over 100 years!

15 July 2015

The true stars of the show were the flamingoes, resplendent in their pink costumes. It is said that you are what you eat, and in the case of the Andean flamingo it is most certainly true. They gain their beautiful pigmented feathers from lagoon plant matter, which is rich in carotene!
Waking up to blue skies and above zero temperatures, we descended to lower altitudes (a mere 4000m) and drove through the surreal scenery of the Bolivian high plateau. We met some furry friends along the way, including domesticated llamas, wild and graceful vicuñas, Andean foxes and the incredibly cute, bunny-like viscachas! There were some really lost seagulls, swooping around the lagoons looking for stray chips. And internet in the most curious of places!

14 July 2015

The following morning we set off on a guided tour from San Pedro to Uyuni, in Bolivia. We set off before dawn (which is at 8:15, my kind of schedule) and crossed into Bolivia at the Hito Cajon mountain pass. The Bolivian side of the border is in the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. First attractions on the freezing, "I refuse to get out of the car" drive by tour were the Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca, brilliantly coloured due to mineral deposits washing down with the snow melt. The geysers looked eerie in the snow, and were even graced with a proper photo from the outside of the vehicle! We eventually reached our accommodation for the night, a lodge overlooking the Laguna Colorada. The lake is home to two species of flamingoes, the brilliantly coloured Andean flamingoes and their less attractive cousins, the Chilean flamingoes. The icicles hanging from the washing line hinted at the cold night ahead!

13 July 2015

After a teeth-chatteringly cold night we got a chance to warm up again by getting bogged in our sandy camp paradise. Nothing a few pots and pans come shovels and rubber floor matts couldn't sort out! A cold, windy day on the Atacama Salt Flats and sand storm on the way back to town made it easier to part with our trusty van. A very memorable few days in the Atacama Desert!

12 July 2015

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth, and yet the landscape has such a diversity of flora and fauna. We came across a curious Andean fox at the foothills of the volcanic range. After enjoying the beautiful mountain views, we escaped to the lower altitude of the Salar de Atacama to set up camp for our final night.
To best explore the area and channel our inner hippie, we hired a Wicked camper. Our first afternoon on the road took us through the Valley of the Moon, and ended with a spectacular sunset overlooking the valley. From our very own private campsite, we enjoyed a bottle of Chilean wine and an exquisite palette of purples and pinks. And then, as night fell, that incredible sky!

11 July 2015

We reached San Pedro de Atacama by (a surprisingly comfortable) overnight bus. San Pedro is a small town in the middle of the Atacama Desert, in northern Chile. Despite being a tourist hub, it retains a certain desert charm. Mud-brick buildings, cosy fireplaces, tasty restaurants and the occasional surprise llama sighting. Most impressive is the night sky, which lights up with more stars than I ever thought possible...

9 July 2015

We arrived in Salta, the capital of the province, in time for Independence Day celebrations. The rock formations on the way from Cafayate to Salta continued to impress, especially "The Obelisk". Salta has a beautiful main square lined with orange trees and handsome churches. However, the highlight was finding this handsome gaucho in one of the local shops.

7 July 2015

Continuing our travels from Cachi, we ventured deeper into the Calchaqui Valley along dirt roads into almost lunar landscapes. We stayed at a lovely property, "The Tranquil Cow", owned by a Belgian couple. Salta Province produces only 5% of Argentina's overall wine production, but is renowned for excellent Torrontes grape varietals.

5 July 2015

Our final destination for the day, the quaint town of Cachi, in Salta Province. Whitewashed houses and tiny churches, with curious village elders in the square surveying the comings and goings of amusing tourists. Friendly street dogs waiting for a food morsel to drop from the table. Ornaments and furniture fashioned from desiccated cacti. And the Andes, always showing off in the background!
After overnighting in the quaint village of San Lorenzo, we set off through the spectacular scenery of the Calchaqui Valley. A colourful palette of rock formations marked our ascent to 3500m above sea level. When we reached the high plateau, the landscape changed to open expanses of dry scrubland and towering cacti in the Los Cardones National Park. According to Inca legend, the giant cacti were formed when a pair of young lovers asked Pachamama, the earth goddess, to protect them from their disapproving family. She wrapped them in a green poncho, where they remain united forever. And as the road signs promised, we even spotted some llamas!

3 July 2015

In Argentina's northernmost province, Jujuy, the Quebrada de Humahuaca is a colourful mountain range dotted with small towns and big cacti. The multihued rock forms an impressive backdrop to the desolate landscape! Tilcara was the biggest village en route, providing the perfect stop for some hearty food and pretty local crafts. At times I had to remind myself that we were still in Argentina, as the people and landscapes are more like those of neighbouring Bolivia.

30 June 2015

Valle de Uco is home to fine wine production at vineyards of up to 1200m elevation. The region is prone to earthquakes, which is reflected in the sleek, low-set architecture of the wineries. We visited the striking Bodega Salentein, where the owners have tried to showcase their two passions - wine and art. The cellar can accommodate 6000 oak barrels of delicious wine! The entrance to the tasting room looks like a medieval Dutch castle gate, reflecting the owners' heritage. Lunch was perfectly complemented by the view and a bottle of rose (which set us back a hefty $7).

29 June 2015

Mendoza Province, located on the eastern foothills of the Andes, is the largest wine-producing region in Latin America. While I knew that it was renowned for Malbec and high altitude vineyards, I wasn't expecting the breathtakingly picturesque landscape. A semi-arid white wash of sandy soil, with the pink and blue backdrop of the Andes! On our first day, we visited Lujan de Cuyo, an appellation wine region with vineyards from 800 to 1100m altitude. We had a lovely tasting menu lunch with (a rather generous) wine pairing at Bodega Ruca Malen!

27 June 2015

The grandeur of years past was most apparent when visiting the Teatro Colon and the Recoleta Cemetery. Teatro Colon is a beautiful opera house, with the fifth best acoustics in the world (as voted by important people who know about these things)! The Philharmonic Orchestra did sound incredible (even at altitude)!
Never afraid of a challenge, Steve and I set out on the quest to find the perfect empanada! There are many versions of these delicious doughy pastries throughout Latin America. The style varies considerably even among different regions of Argentina! Some dedicated sampling was required - fried or baked, meat or vegetarian filling? The best were those shared with old friends! Maria Sol introduced us to Argentine empanadas over a decade ago, and this time we got a few extra pointers from her gorgeous kids!

26 June 2015

We were greeted with unseasonably warm weather and our very own parilla (Argentine style coal barbecue)! With an array of unrecognisable cuts of beef there was really only one option... To try them all before deciding on the best!

25 June 2015

Anna timed her entrance perfectly, joining us from Australia for our grand finale weekend. We brunched (at 2pm in the true Argentine style), enjoyed tango in the sunshine and coveted some antiques in San Telmo! We celebrated the start of our travels together at a "closed door restaurant", dining in the home of a young foodie couple. We were greeted at the door with a cocktail, and ushered out to their gorgeous herb garden for canapés. The tasting menu was absolutely delicious, and it was such a novelty dining in someone's living room!

24 June 2015

In BA, the culture of street art has flourished, attracting local and international street artists to adorn the city walls! Wandering the streets of Palermo and Colegiales would bring surprises at every new turn.

21 June 2015

It is hard to believe that we have been away from home for five months! We have seen many picturesque places and met some inspiring people. But there is nothing better than sharing these joys with friends! We were so excited to share some of favourite places in Buenos Aires with Penny and Rory, who visited us on their honeymoon travels! One place in particular will always be remembered fondly... Freddy and his boys know how to do a mean BBQ!

18 June 2015

We took Spanish classes at El Pasaje Spanish School, located in the city centre. It was so much fun going back to school (not just my inner nerd coming out, Steve enjoyed it too)! We even managed to fit some sightseeing into our busy schedule! The mechanical flower and the obelisk are quirky symbols of the city! Puerto Madero on the Rio Plata is a former naval yard with wonderfully restored brick warehouses from the turn of the 20th century. The cultural highlight was arteBA, an annual art festival with exhibitors from the whole of Latin America!

7 June 2015

After being on the move for several months, we decided that Buenos Aires would be the perfect place for an extended stay. As it was our first stop back in Spanish-speaking Latin America, we decided to stay for a month and go to school!! We found a great little apartment in Palermo, a suburb so hipster that Steve's little man bun didn't even raise an eyebrow. Wandering the streets in search of tasty cafes and interesting street art, we started to feel at home. The waitress at our favourite restaurant, Las Pizarras, started to understand our limited Spanish by the third trip. Steve found himself a decent coffee place! I found an excuse to be a nerd yet again.... Life could not be better!

27 May 2015

We celebrated our two month adventure in Brazil with a wonderful meal at D.O.M. on our last night. Exotic ingredients from the Amazon, warm service and even a tour of the kitchen and photo op with the head chef Alex Atala and his team. And yes, they were ants covered in gold leaf - they tasted like lemongrass!
São Paulo's reputation preceded itself - big (19 million if you include the metropolitan area), dangerous and lacking in character compared to Rio or the North. Many people (Brazilians included) told us to bypass it altogether. And I think Sampa (as the locals call it) has been unfairly judged! A cosmopolitan city with the largest Japanese community outside of Japan (1.5 million), fantastic food and even better street art...what's not to love?!? There are even quiet oases where you can escape the hustle and bustle - Oscar Niemeyer (that guy again) was the mastermind behind Parque Ibirapuera and its modernist landscape luckily has a colourful facelift through the work of (internationally renowned) local street artists!

24 May 2015

Once you get comfortable in your beach chair, it is hard to tear yourself away (and it has nothing to do with the delicious hand-delivered passionfruit caipirinhas). I can see why cariocas (Rio's residents) flock to Ipanema on the weekends. And just in case you aren't head over heels, as you fly away you are teased with the most breathtaking view! Rio, we will be back!

20 May 2015

It is the natural wonders of Rio that are most captivating. The view from Corcovado mountain is nothing short of spectacular (don't be fooled by Christ Redeemer's casual expression)! Short cab ride down the hill, and you find yourself on the surprisingly pristine sands of Copacabana beach enjoying a caipirinha in the sunshine. Pretty tough not to be charmed!

19 May 2015

Although famous for beaches and bikinis, there is so much more to Rio! 2015 marks its 450th birthday. It even served as the capital of the United Kingdom of Brazil and Portugal in the early 19th century, and some of the grandeur of that period remains. Mostly, the architecture is dominated by the modernist works of Oscar Niemeyer and his contemporaries. And there's the fervent building of new infrastructure for the 2016 Summer Olympics. New museums, including Santiago Calatrava's yet unfinished "Museum of the Future" and facilities for water sports are changing the face of the city!

17 May 2015

We arrived in Rio de Janeiro, aptly named the "Marvellous City" on the weekend. We stayed in the beautiful neighbourhood of Santa Teresa which is a maze of narrow streets and historic villas, atop a hill overlooking the city. Through a wonderful recommendation from Saschy, we were fortunate enough to stay with Anna and experience a time in Rio that will always remain dear to us. Anna is an artist and visionary who has transformed two old mansions into a gorgeous home, and now rents a few rooms through Airbnb. Her hospitality and generosity made Rio our favourite stop on the tour! It got off to a very good start on that first day by doing as the locals do - we grabbed some fried prawn and cheese pastels and caipirinhas and joined the crowds on the curb, eagerly awaiting a table at Bar do Mineiro!

16 May 2015

Paraty is a wonderfully preserved colonial town with cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses. It lies roughly halfway between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and attracts both foreign and Brazilian tourists. We were fortunate enough to visit during a quiet weekend and had the sleepy streets to ourselves. The little details were spectacular, from the colourful paintwork to the red velvet caps adorning the street lamps!
From the Big Apple to colonial charm in Brazil! Paraty is located on a bay dotted with dozens of islands and backed by impressive mountain ranges covered in lush Atlantic rainforest. One of the highlights of our time in Paraty was cruising the bay in a traditional wooden boat, admiring the pristine water and colourful traffic.

10 May 2015

And most importantly, the delicious food and craft beers! Steve was in heaven (touring the craft breweries in Brooklyn) and I found my slice of paradise at Smorgasburg (in brisket form).
Steve's first visit deserved a tour of all the major attractions which gave the new camera a great workout!

8 May 2015

Our visit to NYC coincided with the opening of the New Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking District - love the colourful outdoor seating - and the exhibition "China Through the Looking Glass" at the Met Costume Institute. The fashion displays were so mesmerising that even Steve was happily snapping away at all the beautiful gowns.

7 May 2015

The promise of quirky street art on every corner! I ❤️ NYC!
Spending my birthday in New York was such a treat! Spring in full bloom, cherry blossoms on the High Line and the streets buzzing with people enjoying the sunshine and warm weather!

3 May 2015

When we left home bound for South America, we knew that untold adventures were in store. In these last four months we have been fortunate enough to experience some unforgettable places and meet many kind and wonderful people. Travel opens your eyes to new cultures, and other lives. Some of the beautiful places we have seen are plagued with social inequality, so we weren't shocked when we were robbed a few weeks ago. The most important thing is that we have our health and each other. And thanks to our little side trip to New York, a new camera as well! Even though travel sometimes comes at a price, as Aesop (apparently) said, "adventure is worthwhile". I leave you with some postcards of Salvador, as all we have are memories.

26 April 2015

Sundays are a lively affair - after church, Olinda and nearby Recife are abuzz with music and dance. The lovely churches of Olinda (almost as many as there are residents) are adorned with painted tiles in the Portuguese style. The music, however, speaks a different language of rhythmic and tribal drum beats!
Old meets new in the most striking fashion in Olinda, with colonial architecture and modern face paint!

25 April 2015

Picturesque Olinda captured our hearts with its colonial charm and music heard throughout the streets! We stayed with a lovely family - Sebastian, the Austrian expat and professional cellist, his wife Yolanda who made the best tropical fruit juices and their gorgeous daughter who found our lack of Portuguese most disappointing! We spent hours wandering the streets of this gorgeous seaside town and snapping photos of the colourful houses (all of them, it seems)...

22 April 2015

Meandering southwards, we stopped at Praia da Pipa to enjoy a spot of surfing! The magnificent cliffs served an impressive backdrop to the endless expanse of sand! Some continued to hone their skills from the Lima days, while others were pretty excited if they managed to catch a wave and stand up 😉... Pipa is also known for its gourmet offerings - the shrimp moqueca (a regional stew of seafood in coconut milk) was incredible!

21 April 2015

It seems like an eternity ago that we left the surreal sandy plans of the Lençois Maranhenses and headed for Natal. We had a wonderful time in our roomie's home town and were well taken care of by her friends Clementino and Fernando. When we realised we all shared a fervent love of food (about two minutes after we met for the first time - at a restaurant) we got along like old friends! The coconuts were cheap and plentiful, the water was like a warm Atlantic bath and cocktails come with an ice cream.... Heaven!

17 April 2015

The warm, aquamarine lakes all to ourselves, the shifting patterns of the sand and the ever-changing colour palette of the sky... An experience I'll never forget!
Day 3 - Well before sunset, we farewelled the oasis and started the long journey back to civilisation. Feet so sore at this point, that I was wearing my Birkenstock sandals and deliriously threatening to write a letter to the company to congratulate them on their life-saving product! But the spectacular views as the sun slowly came up on the horizon, illuminating the dunes and the lagoons. The feeling of peace, isolation and adventure. Knowing that a swim would reward us during the heat of the breaking day! Every little ache and pain was worth it!

16 April 2015

Day 2 was incredibly challenging, with aching feet and soaring temperatures making us both wonder whose bright idea this was?! The rigorous training from our days in Lima (pisco and ceviche) really paid off at this point! We started before sunset and walked along the sparsely populated Atlantic Coast for four hours before heading west into the dunes. The effort was rewarded with some fantastic swimming lagoons and an overnight stay in an oasis, that is home to five families. Our host family asked us if we would like chicken (I would have eaten anything at that point, so chicken sounded delightful), and when we nodded a weary 'yes' promptly killed and freshly prepared one for us. And after our royal feast, a hammock never felt so comfortable!

15 April 2015

The Parque Nacional dos Lençois Maranhenses was what drew us as far north as Maranhao. After hiring a guide and buying some basic provisions, we headed off (barefoot) for a three day trek through the rolling sand dunes. The seasonal rainfall creates crystal-clear lakes between the sandy hills.The landscape is otherworldly, and after escaping the crowds at the lagoons on the edge of the park (no vehicles allowed inside) we had the place to ourselves! Day 1- 4WD transport to the edge of the park, and the start of the trek. We quickly left the crowds behind us and did not see another soul until we arrived at our accommodation that night. We headed through the dunes towards the Atlantic Coast and the town of Atins. After five hours of walking (and a couple of heavenly swims), we arrived to much needed refreshments and hammocks (our beds for the night)!

14 April 2015

São Luis typifies dilapidated grandeur. Justly so, the historic centre has been named an Unesco World Heritage Site, and restoration work is ongoing.

13 April 2015

The next adventure took us to the northeastern state of Maranhao, in search of Lencois Maranhenses National Park. We arrived in the state's capital, São Luis, at 1am on Sunday and awoke in the morning eager to explore. The streets were almost deserted.... Except for the lavishly dressed performers rehearsing for the Bumba Meu Boi festival. Wow, what a spectacle of colour. Definitely made our day!

11 April 2015

We departed the Fazenda feeling like we were leaving behind old friends. Hugo and Carol were fantastic guides, and even better hosts! On the advice of Hugo, we made a detour to Bonito before heading to the northeast. Bonito is an ecotourism hub popular for its crystal clear rivers and caves with incredibly blue lagoons. We snorkelled down the Rio do Prata, admiring dozens of species of fish! Seeing the photos of the lagoons has inspired us to learn to dive!

6 April 2015

After the excitement of the jaguar encounter, we thought that could never be equalled. Later the same day, the majestic giant ant eater slowly meandering through the grass proved us wrong. As long as we walked quietly downwind, he didn't mind us getting to within a few metres of his path. We walked along with him for what felt like a thrilling eternity! Truly a magnificent creature!

6 April 2015

The Rio Negro was teeming with caimans, but fortunately they scare easily and pose no threat to humans. Quite a surreal experience, going for a swim with a caiman in plain sight. Giant otters are also native to the area, but they don't like to pose for photographs. Unlike the river otter, who kept posing during his lunch only metres from our boat!

5 April 2015

One of the breathtaking highlights of our visit to the Pantanal, was a face to face encounter with a jaguar. Jaguars are the third largest cat in the world, and the largest in the New World. This large male was lazing on the river bank when we spotted him from the relative safety of our boat. While our guide was taking a few excited photos, he handed Steve the paddling duties. Planned or not, Steve managed to get us to about two metres from the riverbank (and well within jumping range, which our guide Hugo kindly pointed out only after the cat retreated into the forest). It was plain to see that this sleek predator knew he was king of the world. He barely stifled a yawn while the mesmerised humans gawked at him!