๐Ÿ‡ง๐Ÿ‡ช BELGIUM

Bruges Markt Square - Belgium itineraryA week visiting Belgium’s best cities? I have all you need to know below. Click for Luxury, Mid-range or Budget.

Here’s your Belgium itinerary:

Luxury Bruges
1 To Brussels
(โœˆ Book >)
(๐Ÿš„ Book >)
Dep: Evening Arr: Evening ๐ŸจHotel Amigo (Book >) All hotels >
Enjoy an evening stroll around the Grand Place before bed. Book a transfer to your hotel.
2 ๐Ÿš„Brussels to Antwerp train (Book >) Dep: 13:52 Arr: 14:27 ๐ŸจMaison Nationale City Flats & Suites (Book >) All hotels >
Spend the morning visiting Mannekin Pis and, on a much grander scale, Saint-Michel Cathedral and Place Royale. You may want to add a little more time in Brussels to see the excellent Belgian Comic Strip Center. In Antwerp you’ll have the rest of the afternoon to walk to the magnificent Zurenborg district, resplendent with Art Nouveau architecture. This Brussels-Antwerp train is on a high speed Thalys. Plenty of other, slower trains depart throughout the day. If you travelled by Eurostar your ticket is valid to any Belgian city within 24 hours of arriving into the country
3 A full day in which to marvel at Antwerp’s medieval buildings and ornate cathedral in the city centre. Nearby you’ll find the MAS Museum – packed with artifacts and with a free viewing platform on the top floor. Antwerp is famous for its Brown Cafes – so-named because of the walls stained from previous years of smokers.
4 ๐Ÿš„Antwerp to Bruges train (Book >) Dep: 10:06 Arr: 11:35 ๐ŸจHotel de Orangerie (Book >) All hotels >
Take a stroll around the Markt square and then climb the steps to the top of the belfry. The Basilica of the Holy Blood makes for a peaceful and interesting visit, as do the Church of Our Lady and nearbyย Sint-Salvatorskathedraal. The Markt square hosts a food and flower market every Wednesday.
5 See the city on foot a free walking tour (remember to tip at the end!), then by water on a cruise along the canal. Old Saint John’s Hospital – a building dating to the 12th century – makes for a fascinating visit. The Old Chocolate House makes superb hot chocolate!
6 ๐Ÿš„Bruges to Ghent train (Book >) Dep: 14:44 Arr: 15:07 ๐ŸจPillows Hotel Grand Reylof (Book >) All hotels >
In Bruges you’ll have time to walk to the windmills via Jeruzalemkirk and see any sights you may not yet have had time to visit, before setting off for Ghent. Taxi to the hotel should cost around โ‚ฌ27 (at the time of writing this Belgium itinerary).
7 A Ghent boat tour will take you past key sites and is a good way of spotting places to revisit (including quirky Baudelostraat warehouse). Try a raspberry-flavoured cuberdon sweet from a street stall
8 ๐Ÿš„Ghent to Brussels train
Brussels to Home (๐Ÿš„ Book >)
(โœˆ Book >)
Dep (SNCB): 16:25
Dep: Evening
Arr: 16:55
Arr: Evening
Connect this Belgium itinerary with the France or Germany itinerary >
If you’re travelling with Eurostar your ticket will be valid from Ghent.
Mid-range Bruges at night
1 To Brussels
(โœˆ Book >)
(๐Ÿš„ Book >)
Dep: Evening Arr: Evening ๐ŸจArt de Sรฉjour Bed & Breakfast (Book >) All hotels >
Enjoy an evening stroll around the Grand Place before bed. Book a transfer to your hotel.
2 ๐Ÿš„Brussels to Antwerp train (Book >) Dep: 13:52 Arr: 14:27 ๐ŸจHotel Indigo (Book >) All hotels >
Spend the morning visiting Mannekin Pis and, on a much grander scale, Saint-Michel Cathedral and Place Royale. You may want to add a little more time in Brussels to see the excellent Belgian Comic Strip Center. In Antwerp you’ll have the rest of the afternoon to walk to the magnificent Zurenborg district, resplendent with Art Nouveau architecture. This Brussels-Antwerp train is on a high speed Thalys. Plenty of other, slower trains depart throughout the day. If you travelled by Eurostar your ticket is valid to any Belgian city within 24 hours of arriving into the country
3 A full day in which to marvel at Antwerp’s medieval buildings and ornate cathedral in the city centre. Nearby you’ll find the MAS Museum – packed with artifacts and with a free viewing platform on the top floor. Antwerp is famous for its Brown Cafes – so-named because of the walls stained from previous years of smokers.
4 ๐Ÿš„Antwerp to Bruges train (Book >) Dep: 10:06 Arr: 11:35 ๐ŸจHotel Navarra (Book >) All hotels >
Take a stroll around the Markt square and then climb the steps to the top of the belfry. The Basilica of the Holy Blood makes for a peaceful and interesting visit, as do the Church of Our Lady and nearbyย Sint-Salvatorskathedraal. The Markt square hosts a food and flower market every Wednesday.
5 See the city on foot a free walking tour (remember to tip at the end!), then by water on a cruise along the canal. Old Saint John’s Hospital – a building dating to the 12th century – makes for a fascinating visit. The Old Chocolate House makes superb hot chocolate!
6 ๐Ÿš„Bruges to Ghent train (Book >) Dep: 14:44 Arr: 15:07 ๐ŸจPillows Hotel Grand Reylof (Book >) All hotels >
In Bruges you’ll have time to walk to the windmills via Jeruzalemkirk and see any sights you may not yet have had time to visit, before setting off for Ghent. Taxi to the hotel should cost around โ‚ฌ27 (at the time of writing this Belgium itinerary).
7 A Ghent boat tour will take you past key sites and is a good way of spotting places to revisit (including quirky Baudelostraat warehouse). Try a raspberry-flavoured cuberdon sweet from a street stall
8 ๐Ÿš„Ghent to Brussels train
Brussels to Home (๐Ÿš„ Book >)
(โœˆ Book >)
Dep (SNCB): 16:25
Dep: Evening
Arr: 16:55
Arr: Evening
Connect this Belgium itinerary with the France or Germany itinerary >
If you’re travelling with Eurostar your ticket will be valid from Ghent.
Budget Antwerp
1 To Brussels
(โœˆ Book >)
(๐Ÿš„ Book >)
Dep: Evening Arr: Evening ๐Ÿจ2go4 Hostel (Book >) All hotels >
Enjoy an evening stroll around the Grand Place before bed. Your hostel is next to Grand Place and easily accessible on public transport.
2 ๐Ÿš„Brussels to Antwerp train (Book >) Dep: 13:52 Arr: 14:27 ๐ŸจAbhostel (Book >) All hotels >
Spend the morning visiting Mannekin Pis and, on a much grander scale, Saint-Michel Cathedral and Place Royale. You may want to add a little more time in Brussels to see the excellent Belgian Comic Strip Center. In Antwerp you’ll have the rest of the afternoon to walk to the magnificent Zurenborg district, resplendent with Art Nouveau architecture. This Brussels-Antwerp train is on a high speed Thalys. Plenty of other, slower trains depart throughout the day. If you travelled by Eurostar your ticket is valid to any Belgian city within 24 hours of arriving into the country
3 A full day in which to marvel at Antwerp’s medieval buildings and ornate cathedral in the city centre. Nearby you’ll find the MAS Museum – packed with artifacts and with a free viewing platform on the top floor. Antwerp is famous for its Brown Cafes – so-named because of the walls stained from previous years of smokers.
4 ๐Ÿš„Antwerp to Bruges train (Book >) Dep: 10:06 Arr: 11:35 ๐ŸจSnuffel Hostel (Book >) All hotels >
Take a stroll around the Markt square and then climb the steps to the top of the belfry. The Basilica of the Holy Blood makes for a peaceful and interesting visit, as do the Church of Our Lady and nearbyย Sint-Salvatorskathedraal. The Markt square hosts a food and flower market every Wednesday.
5 See the city on foot a free walking tour (remember to tip at the end!), then by water on a cruise along the canal. Old Saint John’s Hospital – a building dating to the 12th century – makes for a fascinating visit. The Old Chocolate House makes superb hot chocolate!
6 ๐Ÿš„Bruges to Ghent train (Book >) Dep: 14:44 Arr: 15:07 ๐ŸจHostel Uppelink (Book >) All hotels >
In Bruges you’ll have time to walk to the windmills via Jeruzalemkirk and see any sights you may not yet have had time to visit, before setting off for Ghent. In Ghent take tram 1 from Perron 2, alight at Burgstraat
7 A Ghent boat tour will take you past key sites and is a good way of spotting places to revisit (including quirky Baudelostraat warehouse). Try a raspberry-flavoured cuberdon sweet from a street stall
8 ๐Ÿš„Ghent to Brussels train
Brussels to Home (๐Ÿš„ Book >)
(โœˆ Book >)
Dep (SNCB): 16:25
Dep: Evening
Arr: 16:55
Arr: Evening
Connect this Belgium itinerary with the France or Germany itinerary >
If you’re travelling with Eurostar your ticket will be valid from Ghent.

Not just your imagination

Close your eyes and imagine Indonesia. When you see this country for yourself you’ll realise that what you pictured is probably pretty accurate. In fact, the reality will likely exceed expectations. 

There’s the well-preserved temples of Borobodur, the alien landscape of Mount Bromo and the perfect, serene rice terraces around Ubud. And then, of course, there are glorious beaches.

Waking up before dawn to see sunrise at Bromo was both exhausting and incredibly rewarding. We only used buses to get about, but the railway on Java seems as though it works well and therefore a good option for travellers. 

For these itineraries I’ve tried to avoid the crowds in Kuta, but there are great luxury, mid-range and budget options available and so, after the idyll of Lombok, it seemed a good and sensible place in which to end this journey. Just a word of warming if taking bemos; hold on tight and prepare to have many conversations with locals.

The bad train which no longer runs

We thought it would be a romantic way to travel – sleeper trains usually are. The journey did actually start off OK, as you’d hope when departing from a station as opulent as the Ottoman-era Haydarpasa. On-board the cabin was as good as you’d expect, with narrow bunks and a tiny sink.

Following a rhythmically rocked-to-sleep night, we awoke nowhere near our destination. We should have been very near to our destination. Kayseri was, alas, still many hours away and when we did eventually arrive we had to sprint for a bus to Gorรซme. This overnight train no longer seems to run (the Vangolu Express now only runs from Ankara), I wouldn’t have included it in the Western Turkey itinerary anyway as it was clearly just too unreliable.

Now the romance really did begin. Capadoccia is famous for its rock formations and caves, the hotel in which we stayed had rooms carved into individual caves and overlooked Gorรซme in the valley below. I had to look up the itinerary I put together as I’d forgotten the name of the hotel (it was 9 years ago!) – it was the Kelebek Cave Hotel. I’d still highly recommend staying here, but in the itinerary I’ve advised that people stay in รœrgรผp as it’s more convenient for transport.

It was amazing to go on a hike and happen across Byzantine paintings in remote caves. It was also amazing when it started snowing on our walk to Uรงhisar. An eerily spectacular place made even more so when covered in white.

Istanbul was all you’d hope it to be; history everywhere, incredible architecture, breathtaking views and unforgettable sights. A highlight was taking a cruise up the Bosphorus and going down into the Basilica cistern – both had to be included in my recommendations. I’d have loved to have had the money to stay in the Four Seasons, this looked like one of those hotels that is as much a part of the experience as it is a place to stay.

Of course there’s much more to see in Western Turkey and, after much research, I added the highlights to the Western Turkey itinerary, trying to keep it within a two-week holiday period. Having now done this, I’m hugely tempted to visit Fethiye and its stunning coastline.

Barbados, St Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe

And now for something completely different. From Baรฑos we took a bus through mountainous regions of Ecuador to Guayaquil. From there we took a flight to Fort Lauderdale and then another to Barbados. Rural South America to quintessential Caribbean in one bus and two lost cost flights.

So here we are, beneath swaying palms looking at warm seas melting into talcum sand. Our first two nights are spent in an AirBnB as I didn’t want to book anywhere expensive only to find our flights didn’t work out. The luxury begins when we move into a lovely inland resort. Air conditioning! Large pool! Even larger breakfast buffet! Six months of backpacking quickly melt away like those waves.

What to do here? With snorkel gear purchased in Lima we explore the underwater world where we regularly meet turtles as well as large schools of garishly coloured tropical fish. In places the reef is dead, but it still thrives in others. We’ve unwittingly timed our visit with the English cricket team tour and so suddenly find ourselves surrounded by a familiar language, although when play is on we pretty much have the beach to ourselves.

Flying fish and rice and peas with gravy is a typical, delicious dish here. I enjoy the fresh catch of the day on a few occasions and couldn’t be happier, especially when combined with good quality, good value rum. 

We borrow the hotel’s bikes for our one inland foray, to St Nicholas Abbey. This isn’t an abbey, nor has it ever been, but rather a 450 year-old mansion built by plantation owners. Their portraits peer at you as you look around the opulent building (constructed on a hill at an aspect to take advantage of trade winds), in another room is an old list of slaves names and their value. In some outbuildings is a distillery where overpriced, fairly average rum is made. 

Barbados beach near Speightstown
Barbados beach near Speightstown
Barbados is a fairly flat island, the highest point being just 300 meters. Gullies run all over the island, pretty deep in places. Of much more geological interest is our next destination, just a short propeller plane ride away.

St Lucia’s forest-covered land is crumpled up by volcanic activity, particularly at one end – as if it has been driven into an invisible wall. Here the highest point is 950 meters and the island’s most famous view is of two dramatic pinnacles – the Pitons – jutting straight up from the opalescent sea. 

Our accommodation here was a large villa with an outdoor shower and infinity pool overlooking the smallest (‘Petit’ – St Lucia once belonged to France) piton. With such a stupendous view we spent many hours enjoying it, although on a couple of occasions we dragged ourselves away to nearby Sugar Beach which is idyllically located between both pitons, has an imported powdery sand beach and, at one end, a remarkable reef.

All beaches on St Lucia are public access. Armed with this knowledge we set ourselves up in a lovely shady spot. Moments later a security guard from the hugely expensive hotel surrounding Sugar Beach – which is covered in the hotel’s US$50/day sun loungers – told us we weren’t allowed on this part as it was too close to the hotel. We sent him away with our knowledge of local law and silently thanked the fishermen who had fought to retain access.

Sugar Beach, St Lucia
Sugar Beach, St Lucia
A short distance steeply up from paradise is a sulphurous place where Earth’s geological activity super-heats water and minerals and spews out hot steam and bubbling muddy pools. You can bathe in a cooled-down mud bath or, like us, simply marvel at the furious power of our planet.

I’m something of a connoisseur of rum, if ‘connoisseur’ means I really enjoy drinking the stuff. St Lucia is home to the distillery which produces Chairman’s Reserve rum, one of my favourites. We spent a very happy hour being shown around the distillery where I got to stick my finger into a waterfall of molasses (it was a bit like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for us rum connoisseurs). The molasses come by ship from Guyana, the ship anchoring close to the distillery and a diver plucking a pipe from the sea bed and plugging it into the vessel to extract the sticky goods.

After a stop in Castries – the uninteresting capital where leviathan cruise ships unload passengers miles away from the best parts of the island – we boarded the ferry to Dominica. It was a rough crossing, not helped by one of the most disorganised immigration and customs checks I’ve ever experienced when we arrived. Soon, though, all of that was forgotten.

On the bus ride to our hotel we soon realised how special this island is. The road climbed high enough to significantly cool the air down and to provide long views of the forested and mountainous interior. Our hotel here – the Wanderlust Caribbean – is perfectly situated on top of a cliff overlooking Atlantic waves crashing into the gorgeous coastline. It’s also dangerously close to a tiny chocolate factory which uses local cacao beans and flavourings.

The hotel owners match the incredibly friendly and welcoming people of this island. They helped us arrange a full day tour with a jovial guide called Nigel, who drove us to the Middleham trail. Here we hiked 45 minutes through lush and hilly rainforest to a spectacular waterfall which plunged into a cool pool – perfect for a refreshing dip.

Trafalgar Falls, Dominica
Trafalgar Falls, Dominica
Next we were taken to Trafalgar Falls, an extremely picturesque spot where two waterfalls tumble either side of a rocky promontory. Just along from here is the Titou Gorge, along the blue waters of which we swam to the end where yet another waterfall crashes. Here, as well as many other locations in Dominica, is where two of the Pirates of the Caribbean films were shot. The location scout did an excellent job!

Our action-packed day wasn’t yet over. For our penultimate stop we went to Scott’s Head where a causeway leads to a hill rising from the sea. Views back across the bay are breathtaking. Just below this we went snorkelling in water so clear I could peer down dozens of metres below. On the other side of the bay hydrothermal activity causes tiny bubbles to rise up from the sea floor.

In just one day we’d seen so much of this naturally amazing island. We’d also seen how devastating Hurricane Maria had been; tarpaulins from numerous aid agencies were being used as temporary roofs or walls, so many buildings were still missing parts of their infrastructure, roads and bridges had been swiped away and a significant number of trees had been decapitated. At Scott’s Head the small town of Soufriere had been hit hardest with abandoned houses that had their walls punched through by the storm.

We’ve unknowingly coincided our visit with Carnival. The island is infused with loud music, mostly coming from stacks of speakers being driven on flat-bed trucks behind which people dance. No costumes, no live music, not really something for spectators. We did, however, manage to find some fishermen who’d just landed their haul of large mahi-mahi and who chopped a couple of fillets off for us with a machete – it doesn’t get much fresher!

Sadly many people in Dominica see foreign tourists as bottomless money dispensers. On more than a few occasions we were conned into paying much more than the fair share. For the average tourist that’s probably OK, at the end of a six-month trip where every $ counts that can get frustrating.

Grande Anse Beach, Guadeloupe
Grande Anse Beach, Guadeloupe
Not in any way as frustrating as leaving the island – as chaotic as when we entered with added pushing, shoving and lack of crowd control. Arriving into Guadeloupe on a ferry that’s two hours late we discover that none of the telephone numbers for our car rental place are working. We’re therefore forced to walk an hour through a pretty grim part of the capital, at speed so that we aren’t walking along unlit highways after the sun goes down. Fortunately the car hire place is still open. That was the absolute worst day of travel on this entire trip.

We were now on an island where the first language is French, where the vast majority of tourists are French and, therefore, where few people speak English. Although I have a basic understanding of French, my more recent days of conversing in Spanish seems to have knocked most other foreign language words out of my head. However, our days on Guadeloupe mainly consisted of heading to the beach for some sun and snorkelling in the morning, hiding from the harsh sun between 11-3, then returning to the beach later in the afternoon.

In an attempt to make the most of having a car we did once venture up into the hills where we strolled through rainforest, admired a waterfall and hiked up to one of the island’s high points. This latter activity would have been more fulfilling had it not been cloudy. In fact, it rained every day in Guadeloupe. It’s rained pretty much every day of the three weeks we’ve had in the Caribbean. It turns out that this is actually a very rainy part of the world, even in dry season.

OK, I’m sounding a bit jaded after so many months of seeing new places. Here’s some good things about Guadeloupe; it’s French, therefore in the EU, therefore standards are more reliable and I can use my mobile data as if I were in the UK. It also means that it isn’t as abhorrently anti-LGBTQ as the other islands we’ve seen. The deliciousness of the food has also increased exponentially. The mountainous interior is easily accessible with good quality trails. The beaches are idyllic, apart from the bitey flies.

It’s time now, however, to start heading home. We’re returning via New York City – one of my most favourite cities – where we’ll enjoy a few days readjusting to cold temperatures and Western life. 

Inca Trail, Lima, Galapagos, Quito, Misahuallรญ, Baรฑos

19 years ago I walked the Inca Trail. Today here I am again, but this time in the excellent company of my wife and two friends from London. 

Day 1. We’re whisked away from Cusco in the early hours and arrive at a place called Kilometre 82. I recognise the suspension foot bridge which marks the start of the trail. With one of our number unwell and all of us suffering from the high altitude we set off slowly. Immediately the scenery has us in its thrall; the mountains growing taller and snowier, the river below growing distant as the path climbs higher.

At one point, after a particularly steep climb, our superb guide Henrry asks us to line up and look down at our feet whilst slowly approaching a ledge. When he tells us to look up we are greeted with the unforgettable sight of a massive Inca ruin far below. It all looks so neat – terraces perfectly aligned, buildings all very orderly and an aqueduct threading along the perimeter. This graceful abandoned town was once the meeting place of five trails from the five surrounding valleys. We viewed it from another, smaller ruin which served as a rest stop for travellers along our trail.

First major Incan ruin along the Inca Trail
First major Incan ruin along the Inca Trail
This is the last day we’ll pass by modern human civilisation, but our formidable porters ensure the rest of the journey is as civilised as possible. They run ahead of us to cook three-course lunches and dinners served in a cozy dining tent. They carry and erect our tents, as well as all the food, gas and other camping accoutrements. All we take is our clothes, water, sleeping bags and mats but after a few hours of walking even these feel heavy.

Day 2. Awaking to a view of misty forested hills and distant glacier-lined mountains, we enjoy a delicious hot breakfast and set out for the toughest day of the trail. Fortunately we’re all feeling a little fitter (thanks to some medicinal Andean tea), but after an hour we’re struggling up steep stairs. The temperate rainforest through which we walk distracts us with its huge variety of plants and colourful flowers attended to by humming birds.

Amongst the snapshots of the past I recall along the way, perhaps the most memorable is Dead Woman’s Pass (named after the womanly shape of the rocks) and most definitely the excruciating approach to it. With tightly packed high steps and an altitude of 4,215 metres, this isn’t a place to rush. Once reached, though, the rewards of the pass make the effort worth it. Looking back down the way we’ve come we see last nights campsite far below and surrounded by steep hills. In the other direction the trail tantalisingly stretched into the distance with yet more lofty mountains all around.

The Inca Bridge - an example of incredible Incan engineering
The Inca Bridge – an example of incredible Incan engineering
It’s 2 hours of nonstop down to the next campsite. This part of the trail is blessed with even more varieties of flower, even more hummingbirds and numerous tumbling waterfalls. On a far hill we spot a round ruin and – a long way below – the large site where we’ll be staying the night. It’s a site that reeks of poor plumbing and drips with rain and mist from converging falls. Not a nice place to sleep, but the clear starry sky is spectacular.

Day 3. This is my favourite day of the trek and it’s not spoiled by the constant rain and obscuring clouds. We enjoy the company of our friends as we struggle up to that ruin we spotted yesterday; a temple, it is supposed, and one with incredible views. Onwards to another pass where our guide performs a simple ceremony to Pachamama (‘Mother Earth’). Here it’s delightfully peaceful and there’s a strange light, as if we are on a film set. The serenity is aided by the fact that this is low season (not many are daft enough to hike in this rain).

Down we go along the trail and I begin to appreciate what an extraordinary feat of engineering it is. More impressive than the ruins, more impressive even than Machu Picchu. It keeps a steady line despite the many contours and cliffs. Effectively it’s one long wall either an inch above the ground in flat places, or dozens of metres high where it traverses precipitous slopes. It passes through the occasional ruined Incan town.

I forget the names of the towns (whoever named them certainly wasn’t monosyllabic), but it’s hard to forget the sheer engineering marvels to be found in them. Walls consisting of immense rocks perfectly carved to fit into one another. Aqueducts carrying water from distant sources to trickle through a series of elaborate fountains. Windows that align with temples atop the opposite mountain and through which the sun shines just so on the solstice. 

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
That the Incas were incredibly clever people is without doubt, so much so that some people suspect they had a helping hand from unearthly beings. Day 3’s walk took in some of the most impressive parts of the trail. I gazed in wonder at sections which had been built into cliffs, or which descended as a spiral staircase along a crook in the mountain hundreds of metres above the valley floor.

As I hinted at before, the Incas also loved terraces. They didn’t see steep slopes as unconquerable places, instead they cut wide steps shored up by those formidable walls. The best example of this terrace engineering was found close to our final campsite. 120 terraces had been constructed from a near-vertical mountainside and various vegetables had been grown on them. Agriculture was another Incan specialty with evidence showing that they’d engaged in genetic engineering and tested vegetable growth at different altitudes.

Day 4. Awaking at 04:00 we were made to wait in the cold and dark (and next to stinky bathrooms) until 05:30 until the trail reopened. The reason for this ridiculous situation was that the porters had to pack everything up and hurry down to catch one of the few trains returning home. As dawn arrived we hurried along the path, which in places narrowed perilously. The first stop for today was the Sun Gate, a small ruin from which you can catch a glimpse of Machu Picchu. Glimpses are dependent on clear weather, of which we had none, although the briefest break in the rain clouds allowed a short but fortunate view of the famous site.

Sadly our good fortune didn’t last and it continued to rain throughout the day. Henrry helped lift the mood by take us to see the incredible Inca Bridge where a stone trail clings to the side of a cliff. Vertigo sufferers would have fared badly in the Incan empire. Back in the main site we were shown important buildings and temples, marvelling at the sophistication of this civilisation.

I can most definitely not recommend the agency which arranged our hike. Whilst Henrry and the porters were excellent, the agency lied to us about not being able to take an early afternoon train back to Cusco – essential after a 4am start and after four days of hiking. With Henrry’s assistance we were able to secure seats on an earlier departure and soon we were relaxing as the train threaded between mountains beside the flooded Urubamba river.

Colourful parade in Lima
Colourful parade in Lima
After an easygoing day in Cusco (aided by the unparalleled hospitality at the Garden of San Blas hotel) we took a flight to Lima. Staying in the historic centre I was pleasantly surprised at how many grand old buildings had been preserved. Our visit also coincided with a festival which seemed to involve marching bands, women in skimpy and colourful outfits, and men dancing in outrageously flamboyant costumes. Immense fun.

Now to Ecuador, a country I feel a particular bond with having once spent a few months there. First stop: the Galapagos. Having once cruised these islands on a boat, this time I’m going to see how to experience them by staying in a few towns and taking tours out to sea.

These magical islands are full of wildlife. There’s so much that I occasionally tripped over a seal or iguana, the latter being a marine variety found only in the Galapagos. It’s the large numbers of other such unique creatures which makes this place special. Take a trip out to sea and I guarantee that every other minute you’ll see a turtle pop its head up, a seal taking a breather or a ray waggling its wings. Yes, really.

Giant Galapagos tortoise
Giant Galapagos tortoise
Our first two nights here were on Santa Cruz island, staying in Puerto Ayorta. From here we took a tour to Pinzon island; a small volcano that rises many metres above the waterline. Snorkelling is one of the best ways to view the aquatic life and through our masks we saw huge varieties of fish, a playful seal pup and a couple of adult white tipped reef sharks.

The next day we took a bumpy two hour ferry to the largest island here; Isabela (aka Albemarle). 60% of this massive isle remains unexplored and is likely to remain so under the excellent stewardship of the Ecuadorians. It is a beautiful island of large volcanoes, tortoise-trammelled brush and exquisite beaches.

Getting a good guide can really enhance a tour here. On Isabela ours was enthusiastic, imaginative and fun. He took us to a place called the tunnels where lava had cooled, formed gaps and bridges and then flooded with the sea. Here we swam with turtles and sea horses then found a cave filled with baby reef sharks.

Galapagos lizard (or possibly a baby iguana!)
Galapagos lizard (or possibly a baby iguana!)
From Isabela we returned to Santa Cruz then on to the final island; San Cristobal. The main town here has a beach which fills with around 409 sea lion. It has a boardwalk occupied by iguana. There is a pier from which you can watch rays. Spectacular.

Our final tour took us to Kicker Rock – a huge piece of stone thrusting 120 metres into the sky and plunging deep down into the ocean. Star fish and colourful corals clung to the walls as seals, rays and numerous sharks swam by. Just before we left I caught a glimpse of a hammerhead, though sadly didn’t quite see its eerie head.

Kicker Rock
Kicker Rock
Now to Quito, a city I became very familiar with half a lifetime ago. Parts of it haven’t changed much especially, thankfully, the old town. Almost 500 years old there are grand churches and cathedrals to be found here with incredibly ostentatious interiors. The presidential palace is almost as grand, thanks in part to the neat uniformed guards standing outside. 

A part of the city which was once extremely unsafe has now been restored and tourists are able to explore its quaint cobbled streets. One area (where I used to enjoy the nightlife) has seen an entire block pulled down and replaced with a lovely square surrounded by modern restaurants. Much nicer.

Two hours north of Quito – and back in the northern hemisphere – is the town of Otavalo which hosts South America’s largest indigenous market. This place most definitely hasn’t changed and there is still opportunity to pick up great value artisanal products.

What used to be the Bishop's Palace, Quito
What used to be the Bishop’s Palace, Quito
I was keen to return to the jungle to show Anna where I once volunteered, as well as the dramatic journey along steep, forested hills punctuated with waterfalls. Misahuallรญ is what you may imagine a jungle town to look like. It’s located on a bend of the mighty Napo river (a tributary of the Amazon) and surrounded by steamy forests. A suspension bridge dangles over the fast-flowing water. This wasn’t here 19 years ago. It was built ten years ago but, in this environment, already looks aged. 

A Tarmac road has also been installed across the river, as has a new international airport. Both have arrived in the years following when I was a volunteer at the Jatun Sacha reserve. Thankfully this modern progress doesn’t seem to have resulted in the destruction of the forest. Yet. The oil companies are circling.

The basic wood hut with chicken wire windows still stands. Here I lived with a couple of other volunteers as well as numerous cockroaches, rats and the occasional tarantula. Trails lead deep into the dense forest where bugs abound. I caught a glimpse of a snake and many glimpses of hummingbirds. Colourful butterflies are everywhere. This truly us a beautiful place.

The Napo River beside Misahuallรญ
The Napo River beside Misahuallรญ
Remembering a tower that once stood a 20 minute walk in to the forest, I asked for harnesses so that we could climb it as it is actually just a very narrow old radio mast secured to the ground with what I hope are strong wires. A 30 metre climb later and we can see for miles around the jungle, including the Napo river and huge hills. Best of all is the breeze which can’t be felt on the forest floor.

Next we hiked to the Napo. Walking in these parts isn’t easy; there are steep slopes, deep mud, branches in your face and spiders webs across the path. It’s all absolutely worth it though, for experiencing this perfect jungle and that sublime river. If you’ve ever wanted to visit quintessential jungle then go to Misahualli – a picturesque town close to Jatun Sacha (it even has a new bridge across the river).

Our final stop in South America is Baรฑos, up in the hills, above a deep canyon and beneath an active volcano. It has become an adventure tourism destination, we took the opportunity for one final white water rafting trip, hugely fun it was too. The town is famous for its hot springs, diverted into rather municipal baths. Here we soaked and reflected on our time in this incredible country and wondrous continent. 

After almost six months here, tomorrow we fly to the Caribbean. Some unexpected highlights of our trip:

– Paradaisical Ilha Grande in Brazil

– Buenos Aires

– Hiking near San Martin de los Andes in Argentina

– Getting very close to the whales in Peninsula Valdez

– Hiking in El Calafate

– The three day ferry in Southern Chile

– Our Christmas home of Pucon and its lovely lake

– Colourful Valparaiso and the great hotel we stayed in

Some expected highlights which exceeded very high expectations:

– The Brazilian Amazon

– Antarctica

– Argentinian Lake District

– Ecuador. Even though I’ve been here before it surprised me all over again

Baรฑos, Ecuador
Baรฑos, Ecuador

Atacama, Salar de Uyuni, La Paz, Lake Titicaca, Cusco

I’ll start this post with an ending. We’d been in Chile for almost two months and the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama was to be our last stop here. It’s high (altitude is over 2000m) and hot here – a big contrast to cool coastal Patagonia where we first entered this hugely varied and hugely impressive country.

Being somewhat foolhardy we hired bikes and cycled out in the midday sun to a place called Valle de la Luna. Here were multi-coloured rocks, stupendous views of miles around and a very narrow canyon which looked like a mini version of Petra. At the end of this one-person width canyon was a cave through which we scrambled and emerged gratefully into sunlight the other side. The rock here is mostly salt and it creaked and twanged in the intense heat.

Valle de la Luna, near San Pedro De Atacama
Valle de la Luna, near San Pedro De Atacama
From San Pedro we start to retrace the journey I made almost 19 years ago; on a tour into Bolivia and across arid highlands. Here there are lakes coloured green and infused with copper and arsenic, or white and full of borax, or red from microbes that flamingos scoop up in their beaks. 

It’s a place so surreal that Salvador Dalรญ came here and was inspired by the bizarre landscapes. It’s punctuated with geysers, 6,000+m volcanoes and sand dunes. At one point we were driving along at 5,000m high and having our lungs hammered by the lack of oxygen. 

Lava flows from millennia ago had been eroded into fantastical shapes. On day two of this tour we rose before dawn and soon were driving across the largest salt flats in the world. At this time of year the Salar de Uyuni is partially flooded and so the vast white landscape acts like a mirror and reflects distant hills and awe-struck tourists.
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One overnight bus journey later and we were in La Paz. Here there was an unexpected highlight of this trip; the cable cars which glide silently over the city giving passengers incredible views for about 30p a journey. Up here you can hear dogs barking, bands practising, birds singing and other such sounds usually drowned out by traffic. The cable cars (enjoy a video journey on the cable cars here) first started to be installed in 2014 and are designed to relieve congestion. 

President Evo Morales also launched the first Bolivian satellite and has overseen great economic growth and poverty reduction. He also renamed the country at the end of his tenure so as to constitutionally be allowed to serve another two terms. I learned this on a walking tour, as well as the fact that the inner-city prison I got an official tour of in 2000 is now too dangerous for intrepid tourists.

Night view from the La Paz cable cars
Night view from the La Paz cable cars
Post-independence, when Bolivia opened its doors to people worldwide, many British gentlemen could be seen in the city, sporting bowler hats. An enterprising local salesman ordered hundreds of these hats to sell in La Paz, however, when they arrived they were all too small for adult heads. This salesman then managed to convince the La Paz ladies that these hats, perched on the top of their heads, was the latest in fashion. To this day the native female inhabitants of Bolivia can be seen wearing this unusual headgear. True story? I hope so.

Our second Copacabana of this trip is a touristy town on the shores of immense Lake Titicaca. It’s worth mentioning here that, should you ever be in these parts, the excellent La Cupula hostel is well worth a stay. It’s quirky buildings reminded me of Portmeirion and the breathtaking views across the lake are worth the breathtaking climb up the hill. 

Isla Del Sol, Lake Titicaca
Isla Del Sol, Lake Titicaca
We took a boat across the lake to Isla del Sol where you can see an Incan ruin as well as distant snowy mountains across the deep blue water. As well as this island, the other thing I remember about this place is the trout. Happily it was still very much on the menu and as delicious as ever.

On the Peruvian side of the lake, in Puno, we met up with some friends and went to see the SS Ollanta – a large and handsome ship assembled by Anna’s great great uncle. He was sent to Lake Titicaca to put all the pieces (which had been shipped to the Peruvian coast then carried by train and mule) together.

Today the Ollanta is in need of some tlc but, as a security guard was kicking us out of the secure dock, a lovely lady showed us around another historic ship (also with numerous historic ties to the UK) and so we were able to get a taste of life on board, as well as a unique insight into lake life in the late 1800s.

Floating reed islands near Puno
Floating reed islands near Puno
The main reason we were here was to visit the floating islands. The Aymara people have created a town that floats on reeds and hosts a population of 2,500. Standing on the islands felt remarkably sturdy and it was a wonderfully serene place.

Our friends took a luxurious train ride from Puno to Cusco (lots of brass fittings, massive windows, an observation car and exquisite food), our budget meant we had to endure the abysmal Bolivia/Peru Hop bus. When we eventually reached the city our minds were blown by the exquisite grandeur of the place.

Cobbled streets, intricately carved church facades and solid Incan walls met our eyes. My memory of the ancient Incan capital didn’t do justice to its magnificence. Tomorrow we set off on the Inca Trail.

Cusco
Cusco

Valdivia, Pucon, Santa Cruz, Santiago, Maipo Valley, Algorrobo, Valparaiso, Zapallar, La Serena

We weren’t really expecting much of interest in Valdivia. It was merely a stop along the way between Chiloรฉ and Pucon. First impressions weren’t great but, as we ventured along the riverfront to the city centre, we saw that this was an attractive and vibrant city.

Something which the guidebook didn’t mention was the lively food market. Or, more specifically, the fish sellers and their sea lion companions. It required a second glance for me to believe what I saw, but yes; there was an enormous sea lion directly behind that man filleting fish. These gigantic creatures emerge from the adjacent river for the scraps the fishermen occasionally throw them, before slinking back into the water.

20km down the road is a ruined fort atop cliffs overlooking a wide bay where the river meets the Pacific. It was free to enter, cheap to get to and fascinating to look around – a very enjoyable couple of hours.

Villarrica volcano near Pucon
Villarrica volcano near Pucon
In need of a Christmas break from being on the road, we stopped in Pucon for several days. This turned out to be an excellent idea, for this touristy town is located next to a large lake, offers many superb restaurants and cafes and is overseen by a dramatic, smoking volcano. 

Our days here were spent enjoying a peaceful lakeside beach, hiking in a lush and scenic national park or, on one thoroughly enjoyable day, rafting down a crashing grade 4 river. Christmas Day came and went with a glut of food (with two hobs and a microwave our cooking options were limited but thankfully the supermarkets sold delicious roast chicken).

One overnight coach journey – our first in many weeks – later and we were in the metropolitan madness of Santiago. Here we met my parents and hired a car to drive a couple of hours back south to Santa Cruz, in the middle of a large wine region. The town itself is ugly, but the vineyards were typically beautiful and the couple of days here were a blur of wine tastings and tours.

Back to Santiago. Whilst many people we’d met along the way hadn’t been particularly enthusiastic about this city, we liked it. Staying in the plush Plaza San Francisco hotel, we started our visit with a walk up Santa Lucia hill for a view of the distant mountains. A walking tour here acquainted us with the historic buildings around the Plaza de Armas, as well as the president’s grand offices which had been bombed during the 1973 coup.

Santiago Chile
Santiago Chile
We were also shown around the trendy Lastarria neighbourhood which offered peaceful cafes, and then Bellavista which was more lively and seemed to consist mainly of restaurants. Here also was Pablo Neruda’s characterful house, built for views of the mountains which now seem obscured by skyscrapers.

Later that evening we returned to Bellavista to sample some typical Chilean cuisine. I tried Pastel de Choclo; minced beef, boiled eggs, raisins, chicken and olives with a mashed sweet corn topping and sprinkling of sugar, all in a clay bowl and baked in the oven.

One notable (but expensive – almost ยฃ10 entry fee) museum was the Museo de Arte Precolombiano which featured remarkably well-preserved pots, statues, jewellery, clothing and other such artefacts from the past three millennia and uncovered everywhere from Mexico to Patagonia. Everything was presented so that there was an explanation for why that pot had this design, or why these people had carved those statues.

Just a 90-minute drive from the centre of Santiago is the end of the arid Maipo valley, where 4000m mountains struggle to retain their snow in the heat. The main highlight here was our hotel – the Andino El Ingenio – a red-tiled lodge sat amidst lush gardens and walnut groves. It’s greatest asset was the talented chef who produced exquisite food for us as we sat in that lovely garden.

Worlds largest swimming pool, Algorrobbo
Worlds largest swimming pool, Algorrobbo
Skirting around Santiago our route dropped several hundred metres to the Casablanca wine region and once again we found ourselves in an elegant vineyard sipping on some delectable reserva. Just beyond these vineyards crashed the mighty Pacific. Our hotel (the Cinque Colori) was perched on cliffs high enough to be out of the tsunami danger zone. From its balconies we could look over the wide sand beach.

Down the road is Pablo Neruda’s Isla Negra residence; a delightful home designed to feel like an old wooden boat and filled with artefacts that made it seem as though this exceptional poet lived on through his collection. He, too, had a view of the sea, as well as a bed angled to get the best view. A man with an excellent outlook on life.

Most exciting for me was, just along our beach back in Algorrobo, the world’s largest swimming pool. At 19.77 acres, it looked more like a lake, albeit one lined with blue tiles. Unfortunately it was only accessible to residents of the large apartment complex overlooking it, but how wonderful it would have been swimming through such an large and empty waterscape.

Colourful Valparaiso
Colourful Valparaiso
A short drive from here is Valparaiso. This port city is built upon several hills and is a cornucopia of colourful buildings, retro trolley buses, rickety funiculars, cobbled streets and, famously, graffiti. The excellent Valpo Graffiti Tour walked us around various spray can artworks – in two non-stop hours we’d only just started to learn the complexities of this art.

Our hotel in this edgy, vibrant city was in a wonderful location right amongst the bustle, next to a 116 year-old funicular and with captivating views. Thank you Fauna Hotel!

Back to the beach. This time we stayed in an AirBnB with its own infinity pool. Such opulence seemed appropriate in the cute village of Zapallar, nestled along a small sandy bay with ridiculously expensive properties spreading from sea to hill. 

This is where Chile’s rich come to take in the sea air. The beaches nearby are joined by a stone path built along the rocky shore. On one island, close to a beach, we saw Humboldt penguins amongst the Pelicans and cormorants. 

Milky Way from the Atacama desert
Milky Way from the Atacama desert
Coquimbo – far larger and more lively than Zapallar – neighbours the town of La Serena. Both spill onto a massive sandy beach and back on to the edge of the Atacama desert. Drive 90 minutes north from here and you’ll find Choros, a small coastal village with a bustling pier where you can embark on a boat tour to nearby islands.

These protected islands are populated by huge numbers of birds, including those Humboldt penguins again. You can also spot seals, dolphins and – if you’re really lucky – blue whales. Inland from La Serena massive hills are occasionally topped with famous observatories. 

The air is so clear that about 60% of the world’s observatories are located here. On a visit to one we were given a guided tour of the night sky with spectacular close-up views of the moon, as well as clear sights of distant planets and space dust.

The moon through a telescope at Mamalluca observatory
The moon through a telescope at Mamalluca observatory

Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, Porvenir, Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine

It was a challenge to not see the world through Antarctica-tinted glasses. I had to frequently remind myself that the scenery around Ushuaia was still quite spectacular. Gradually I began to see spiky mountains, choppy lakes and the wide Beagle Channel with appreciative eyes again.

We had five more nights here, we had a lot more nights between Antarctica and our next major planned activity. This is a result of me leaving plenty of buffer time in case we booked a last-minute Antarctic journey that departed at a later date. There are worse places to spend some spare days.

One day we hiked through Ushuaia’s shantytown outskirts to a magnificent wooded valley through which threaded a rather full river. At one point the path turned steeply upwards until we eventually had to turn around at a frozen-over lake at the edge of a small glacier.
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Another day saw us hiking through a forest, past a river dammed by beavers and then – inevitably – upwards. This time the lake at the end was emerald green. The star attraction near Ushuaia is the Tierra del Fuego national park. Expensive to get to, expensive to enter but it rewards you with a lovely walk along the coast and an even lovelier walk along a large lake to the border with Chile. Everywhere you look there are mountains.

5AM coach journeys sometimes reward your early start with a spectacular sunrise and the journey to Rio Grande was no exception. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world and so today we would start travelling ever north. In Rio Grande we transferred to a coach for Punta Arenas in Chile. One border and one ferry later we arrived into this city of 160,000 people.

There is no Ushuaia-like scenery around Punta Arenas. In fact, unless you like seascapes, there really isn’t much to look at here apart from grand buildings constructed towards the beginning of the last century. These buildings reflect the wealth generated here by agriculture and a short-lived gold rush which attracted a sizeable Croatian population.
One of these buildings is still privately owned but – due to its historic value – the owners have opened the ground floor and the basement free for the public. Inside the rooms are perfectly preserved and there are exhibits on the native tribes which once inhabited this part of the world.

In this Punta Arenas building Shackleton planned the rescue of his men from Elephant Island
In this Punta Arenas building Shackleton planned the rescue of his men from Elephant Island

Chile is considerably more expensive than Argentina, but it is much cheaper to withdraw cash from an ATM. Public transport also seems reasonable and so we took the opportunity to cross back to Tierra del Fuego island, remaining on the Chilean side to visit a town called Porvenir where a mysterious people called the Selknam once lived.

We returned to Punta Arenas to catch a bus to Puerto Natales. On reflection Punta Arenas is more interesting than I first gave it credit for. The city centre is generously interspersed with buildings of historic value, each with a plaque describing the fascinating events that occurred within (almost all of which involved those early Antarctica explorers).

Whereas Punta Arenas’s interest lies in its buildings, tourists flock to Puerto Natales to hike in the nearby mountains. More specifically, they’re mainly here to do the W trek. The talk in our hostel? W trek. The number one subject in travel agencies? W trek. The granola sold in supermarkets and outdoor gear sold everywhere? All for W trekkers.

So what is the W trek? It’s a 5-day hike in the Torres del Paine (Paine means “blue” in the native Tehuelche) national park with refuges at each point of the ‘W’. At the Erratic Rock hostel there’s a daily 3pm talk on what equipment you should bring, what the trail is like, what to expect at the lodges etc. There was a lot of build-up to this walk and, one long coach journey and a catamaran later, we were at last on our way.

Near Refugio Grey, the Grey glacier and the Patagonian Ice Field in the distance
Near Refugio Grey, the Grey glacier and the Patagonian Ice Field in the distance

Day 1. This is an easy day, 6hrs of gentle uphill through a canyon and then up along a ridge with a glacial lake far below. There are so many people on this trek, but we often find ourselves alone. Soon a glacier appears and beyond that the edge of the Patagonian Ice Sheet. The proximity of all this ice and snow does not seem to effect the temperature. It’s warm, dry and sunny – not the wet, muddy mess we were expecting. 

Refugio Grey is comfortable, as is our 4-bed dorm. For the huge expense of doing this trek we get a tasty 3-course meal as part of the package. We felt we’d earned it today as we had decided to push on past the refuge to two suspension bridge which both hang terrifyingly high above deep chasms.


Day 2. Perhaps the easiest day began with a final close-up look at the glacier before returning to where the catamaran dropped us off yesterday. The Paine Grande refuge is as luxurious as Grey, but also comes with a bar that offers a breathtaking view of the mountains – one of the best bar views I’ve ever seen. This doesn’t feel like extreme hiking…but that’s OK! Two hours beyond the refuge is a spot that has even better views of the landscape – totally worth the extra effort.

Walking towards the Britanรญco mirador
Walking towards the Britanรญco mirador

Day 3. Early start as we had a long way to go today. An easy start, although extremely windy with gusts lifting water from the lakes. We crossed a rickety suspension bridge (one person at a time) over a raging river, dumped most of our equipment at a campsite then walked lightly up a path that gained several hundred metres in altitude and ended at a stupendous viewpoint amidst the mountains. Glaciers shed ice in thunderous avalanches and clouds obscured the view one minute then were swept away by that powerful wind the next. That night we stayed in a pre-pitched tent at Frances campground. It was not comfortable.


Day 4. We had a whole lot more hiking to do today. It started off well, the path following a cerulean lake and the base of the mountains. After an hour of this it turned away from the lake and it became a rather dull two-hour slog until we joined the main route to Chileno refuge. This route was shared with day hikers and was incredibly busy. It also took us steeply upwards so that, by the time we arrived at the refuge, we were exhausted. Nevertheless, after depositing our bags and resting for an hour we pressed onwards and upwards through a beautiful forest and then scrambling up a very steep, rocky incline until we arrived at the jutting pinnacles of the Torres del Paine. It was a magnificent view which we enjoyed for 30 mins before returning to the cosy refuge.


Day 5. A very slow descent today, back to civilisation. The peaks were at our backs, as was a mighty, gusty gale which at times threatened to push us over the ledge and down into a raging river far below. Crowds and crowds of hikers passed us in al out a continuous line for the two hours it took for us to reach the first car park. We hiked on another hour and back to the entrance of the park.

After that 90km hike we’re now back in Puerto Natales, showered and waiting for tomorrow’s ferry to Puerto Montt.

The famous Torres del Paine
The famous Torres del Paine

W tips:

– Ensure that everything is in waterproof bags and that your rucksack can withstand extremely high winds.

– Wear sun cream, even when it’s cloudy.

– You can top up your water in the streams, all of which are perfectly clean.

– Food can be bought at the refuges but it’s very expensive. Either bring your own or buy the food package (which is good and plentiful) in advance.

– This trek would be more interesting if done in four days, staying at Chileno refuge, then Frances (in a dorm!) and ending at Grey before walking back past Paine lodge to the administrative centre.

– Bring two sets of clothes; one for walking in, the other for the evenings. When you get to where the day hikers go you will be surprised at how pleasant humans can smell.

Antarctica

Early evening and the M/V Ushaia slips out of Ushuaia port. The 48 year-old vessel – once a US research ship but now converted to carry paying guests – offers few luxuries, but it’s passengers benefit from being only 88 in number, much better for…

…wait, let me take you back a bit, to better understand how we got here. A few months ago we contacted the excellent Freestyle Adventures travel agency in Ushaia. Specialists in Antarctic cruises, they added us to a WhatsApp group which would be kept informed of any last-minute bargains. 

One such bargain arrived whilst we were away from the Internet and we missed out on a perfect voyage. We contacted the agency again and then, several hours later, they replied to say that the other people had turned down the bargain (fools!) and it was ours for the taking.

$5,000 per person and one month later, we find ourselves amongst that lucky 88 gliding through the Beagle Channel, heading south. The M/V Ushuaia is one of the smaller ships plying these cold waters, thus the few passengers it carries benefit from disembarking onto the ice much faster than those on considerably larger ships.

The disadvantage of this diminutive ship’s size is that, when the gale force winds appear, the Drake Passage becomes temporarily unavailable. We waited out the storm in the shelter of the Beagle Channel. When the worst of it has passed the Ushuaia slipped out into the maelstrom.

Ten-metre waves slammed into the vessel. We had been briefed to stow everything securely away, but still chairs were dislodged and life jackets hurled across the room. The waves were so large that they passed over the top decks of the ship and all inside were tossed about as the craft bobbed along through the storm.

There is one large lounge onboard which accommodates everyone. Here we watch the sea as well as films or documentaries about Antarctica. Here also the onboard lecturers inform us about the fauna, geology, history etc. of the icy continent. In addition to the lounge one large dining room serves up food three times a day to anyone able to keep it down.

Being such an intimate ship, we’re also allowed on the bridge for one of the best views out to sea. At the height of the storm I thought of the crew there, steering us between waves. The next morning the sea was a little calmer and it continued to calm throughout the day. At one point in the afternoon we passed into the outer realms of Antarctica, where cold waters meet even colder waters, thus spawning new aquatic critters as well as icebergs.

As we drew closer to the South Shetlands two icebergs appeared – ghostly white giants on the distant horizon. I wasn’t prepared for how immense they were, even this far away. We’ve now been briefed and equipped and, after three days at sea, were more than ready to disembark.

The South Shetlands are just off the tip of the Antarctic peninsula. As soon as we arrived in their blessedly calm waters we spotted humpback whales – at least five in total. Soon after this the anchor was dropped in the crescent bay of Half Moon Island. This is a somewhat colourless land; white mountains, grey rock and deep blue sea. 

Zodiacs swiftly carried us to the shore where we were immediately greeted by Chinstrap penguins. A few colonies of these little cuties are dotted on the Eastern side of this small island. On the other side can be found an Argentinian research station, sitting squat in snow drifts.

Penguins are as entertaining in real life as they are on TV. They waddle to and fro, their little wings stuck out for balance and their webbed feet often slipping out from under them. We had almost three hours standing on the snow, watching in amusement as the birds squabbled, honked and wobbled. Providing a spectacular backdrop were ice- and snow-shrouded mountains at the edges of which thick glaciers spilled into the water.

6AM alarm. Outside the porthole white slopes and bluish white icebergs contrasted against the sea. After an early breakfast we were taken by Zodiac to a small island onto which I was one of the first to step and so, for a few blissful moments, I was able to enjoy the splendid isolation and vast silence of this empty continent.

Well, not strictly empty. Here once again were Chinstrap penguins, as well as a scattering of Gentoo penguins. On top of the thick snow with that awesome mountainous background we watched them play, flirt and frolic. One inquisitive little critter approached us and, no more than a metre apart, it stared at us and we stared back.

Cruising further south the sun appears and blue skies back those crisp white mountains. Epic peaks close in on both sides – the peacefulness and grandeur is magical.

Paradise Bay is aptly named. No sandy beaches or palm trees here of course, but rather a cul-de-sac of still sea, glaciers and icebergs in front of a huge mountain range, down which avalanches occasionally tumble. We stop at the Almirante Brown research station – still closed for the winter but all around are Gentoo penguins. 

Walk up one slope and there’s an ice-crusted bay populated with a few Crabeater and Weddell seals. Walk up another slope and the view back along the channel we travelled is breathtaking. This is continental Antarctica. I can walk from here to the South Pole (I doubt it would be a fun walk). On this continent – 50 times the size of the UK – stand probably no more than 3,000 other people. 

We return to the boat via a glacier and gaze up at its multi-storey columns of ice slowly tumbling into the sea. That evening at around 10pm Orca are spotted. Fortunately it’s still fairly light this far south and so watch what turns out to be one of my most incredible wildlife experiences. 

Other Orca appear and I watch one as it glides swiftly through the clear water. Then; a humpback whale shows it immense back and flicks up its tail. It’s surrounded by the Orca which seem to be pursuing it. One of the guides explains that there is probably a penguin using the humpback to shield itself from those killer whales. Yet the humpback doesn’t realise this and pops out again and again, tormented by those aggressive Orca. They disappeared into the distance and so we didn’t find out how the drama ended.

The next day turned out to be our final in Antarctica. Unfortunately the expedition company – Antarpply – neglected to tell us that our visit here was going to be curtailed by yet another storm in the Drake Passage. We therefore landed on a little island unaware that we would have no more time with the penguins. But they put on a good show with their usual antics.

Travelling here in a group of just 88 passengers allowed for the occasional moment of solitude to reflect on the desolation of Antarctica. We were finally told about the need to hurry back to Ushuaia before the Drake Passage became dangerously rough. Instead of visiting Deception Island tomorrow the ship steamed over to this large island today.

A heavy sea mist descended. Deception is a huge extinct volcano into which the sea had poured, crenellated peaks looming vast and black out of the gloom. The M/V Ushuaia slipped through a small gap in the rim and anchored beside a snowy shore. Zodiacs took us one last time to the shore where an old whaling station slumped. The weather made this feel like a very bleak and monotone place, not helped by the tiny cemetery and decrepit wooden buildings.

Along the shore there was a scattering of krill which had succumbed to the boiling water found deep in the caldera. Unfortunately that boiling water didn’t come close to the surface and so, when I joined in with a very brief dip in Antarctic waters, it was a very brief affair.

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Now it was time to hurry back to Ushuaia ahead of the worst of the storm. As we headed into open sea I happened to be outside and looking at a patch of water right next to the ship from which emerged three minke whales. Magnificent. We endured ten-foot waves overnight, which had only reduced to seven feet the next day. 

On the way over someone had been thrown out of their chair and badly cut their head. On the way back the injuries included someone needing the tips if their fingers stitched back on after getting them caught in a slamming door. This is extreme weather.

After such a tempestuous crossing, sighting land was to be celebrated. Soon after we were in the calm waters of the Beagle Channel. On our penultimate day we watched as dolphins played at the bow of the ship – at least seven zooming through the clear water and occasionally leaping out.

Early on the last morning we arrived back into Ushuaia. Sadly the storms in the Drake Passage had cut short our time in Antarctica by a day. Looking back now, the time we did have there feels like a dream; an eerily peaceful yet immense white landscape populated by comical penguins and giants of the sea.


This is a large (but must-see!) video so be careful not to use up too much data:

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Villa La Angostura, Bariloche, Peninsula Valdez

If you don’t like mountains or hiking then look away now (although there are some bonus whales at the end). As predicted at the end of my last post, we really, really have enjoyed our time in Bariloche, Villa La Angostura and San Martin. In the latter we spent our first full day hiking up to a lake from where snow-topped mountains peeked above forested hills.

On our second full day in San Martin we embarked upon a 29km hike which included a 1km height gain up to a 1,700m peak. It was an exhausting climb there, particularly through knee-high snow towards the top. But, when we reached the summit, in every direction we looked we could see more of those snowy mountains, as well as a few immense volcanoes. Beneath us was the verdant valley through which we’d just walked. I’d rate this hike as one of the best we’ve ever undertaken.

Another highly-rated hike came just a couple of days later. But first we were treated to a jaw-dropping bus journey from San Martin to Villa La Angostura. This route winds through the mountains and forests, passing turquoise lakes and rapid rivers. For three hours I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the spectacular scenery beyond the window. 

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โ€‹After we arrived we collected our escort dog (every time we go for a walk in this region a dog attaches itself to us for an impromptu walk) and headed to the large lake which was shrouded with woodland. A very small river connected this lake to another. This smaller – but still huge – lake had a magnificent setting amongst the mountains.

Now it was time for that other highly-rated hike. It was a big challenge, starting steeply upwards, traversing through an icy river (necessitating bare feet and rolled-up trousers), more uphill and then wading for an hour through waist-high snow. Exhausting but truly memorable.

The scenery and hiking here are on a par with the Alps. The fondue, however, is not, but I admire the effort to mimic all things Alpine. Another big difference is the Mapuche population. This indigenous tribe fought off both the Incas and the Conquistadors. Absorbed into the new independent countries of Chile and Argentina, the Mapuche folk found that they’d lost huge amount of territory. The tiny pockets which remain today feel as though they’re considerably more connected to the environment than the encroaching Western suburbs.

Cerro Negro, above Villa La Angostura
Cerro Negro, above Villa La Angostura
 
After so much hiking our muscles are sore and I’ve developed a bad cold. So, what do we do? Yep, more hiking. This time we headed down, towards the lake and where a large wooded peninsula is connected to the mainland by a tiny isthmus. We took a boat to the far end of the peninsula – a journey so gloriously scenic the time flew by – then commenced the walk back.

The road on which we came to this place took us onwards and didn’t get any less spectacular. We arrived into Bariloche and checked into Penthouse 1004, a hostel at the top of a ten-floor building and with incredible views over lake and mountain. The town itself is bursting with chocolate shops and cutesy Alpine architecture.

It began to rain. We thought it wouldn’t stop and would seriously dent our hiking plans. But then the forecast provided a brief window of sun and so we set off once again for the mountains.

One of the best hot chocolates I’ve ever enjoyed was served in the remote mountain hut Refugio Frey nestled in the peaks behind Bariloche. It sits surrounded by serrated peaks and we waded through thick snow, four hours uphill. When we arrived it looked closed but then a rugged mountain man emerged and told us it was open.

Refugio Frey in deep snow
Refugio Frey in deep snow
“Tea? Coffee?” the refugio manager asked as soon as we stepped in, exhausted and bedraggled.

“Don’t suppose you have hot chocolate?” I replied.

“Of course!”

Thus we found ourselves enjoying a hot, chocolatey delight in this small stone hut looking out on a view so incredible it seemed unreal. Sadly we then had to return, through deep snow, under dripping trees and over swollen streams.

Somehow I managed to book in advance the perfect place in which to recover from all this hiking. Our room in the Charming Lodge & Spa, just outside of Bariloche, came with its own steam room and sauna. It also had a large jacuzzi in the bedroom, which was wrapped in windows overlooking the lake far below and those multitudinous mountains we’d spent the past several days walking in.

Refreshed, well-exercised and blown away by Argentina’s spectacular Lake District, we went to the Tren Patagonico station. There were a few hours to spare before the train departed but, burdened with luggage, we had no choice but to sit in the waiting room, looking at old photos of the steam trains which used to ply this route. The room grew busier and busier, soon we were boarding the weekly overnight train to San Antonio Oeste.

Tren Patagonico from Bariloche to San Antonio Oeste
Tren Patagonico from Bariloche to San Antonio Oeste
Such a rare train has traffic stopping and people coming out of their houses to wave. The dining car was busy with passengers and served a perfectly decent steak. That night I fell asleep hoping that the partially buried rails wouldn’t result in too many derailments and that we would be delivered at least only a couple of hours late.

We were lucky. The train arrived at 07:05 and we were on a coach to Puerto Madryn shortly after 9. There we boarded a bus to Puerto Piramides on Peninsula Valdez. Here be whales. Lots of ’em.

We could see them from land (as well as a large colony of sea lions), but we could see them much, much easier from a boat. In fact, we watched as a mother and calf right whale appeared a couple of metres in front of us, the water so clear that we could watch the behemoths rise up from the depths then snort out water as they surfaced, soaking us in the process. Truly incredible.
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