I’ve been fortunate to be well acquainted with the New Forest National Park in southern England for all of my life. It’s a place that feels like home to me, where I’m familiar with the tracks and the trees and the lifecycles of its animals. Here you’ll find the Three Bs – three key places which, if you visit them, will ensure that you’ve seen the best of the New Forest.
Named after the ruined abbey which was founded by French monks, Beaulieu is a small village blessed with cute cottages and with a large palace just the other side of a bucolic river. The palace is the home of Lord Montagu, and can be visited by anyone going to the National Motor Museum (full of motoring exhibits plus loads of fun rides for kids).
TOP TIP: Take the easy 7.5km walk along the Beaulieu River to Buckler’s Hard, where shipbuilding thrived in the 18th century
There’s much more to write about Brockenhurst. Most importantly; it’s the easiest place to reach in the New Forest thanks to its direct and frequent train connections to London (1h30m from Waterloo, at least two departures/hour). When you arrive you have the choice of hiring a bicycle, embarking on a horse riding adventure, chilling out at a spa or choosing from one of the many excellent hikes.
I’ll make a separate post about hikes from Brockenhurst, because there are quite a few and, because they deviate from the beaten path, I’ll need to include maps. But you should know that there are hundreds of miles of tracks and paths which lead to or around Brockenhurst, going deep into the woods, over marshes, past plains full of deer, over rivers, along disused railway tracks…it really is an amazing place for hikers.
As for bikers, there are a few places to hire cycles in Brockenhurst and the national park authority has mapped out a good range of routes from the village. Because the New Forest is relatively flat the going is easy, but it can be easy to get lost so do bring a map.
Brockenhurst has been described as the New Forest version of Monopoly’s Mayfair, thanks to the high prices of property here which reflects its place as the very best of the New Forest. With this fairly recent influx of wealth has come fine dining options such as The Pig on the edge of the village, plus a wine bar and upmarket hotels. For spa lovers there’s a choice of either Carey’s Manor or the New Park Manor. If you really want to splurge then Rhinefield House is just a few minutes’ drive from the centre and located in the depths of the forest.
Some believe that witchcraft has existed in the New Forest for many centuries. What we do know is that, in the 1950s, a White Witch named Sybil Leek lived in the cute village of Burley, which is nestled in a little valley surrounded by woods and plains. Walking in the depths of the New Forest you can sometimes see markings associated with witchcraft, but Burley is much more obvious about this association.
A Coven Of Witches is a delightful shop named by Leek, and it’s where you come for crystals, candles and other such paraphernalia. Burley’s other shops and tea rooms are sure to charm, and if you want to splurge then Burley Manor is a good place for afternoon tea with views across a field of deer. If you’re travelling by public transport then the New Forest Tour bus may be of interest.
A railway line once stretched from Brockenhurst to Bournemouth via Burley. Nicknamed ‘Castleman’s Corkscrew’ (after a railway planner, plus the shape the tracks take), it was usurped by the line you may have arrived by, and so it’s now abandoned. This is good news for cyclists and walkers who can follow the disused railway from Burley to Brockenhurst. It’s a very picturesque route and there’s even a tearoom in the old railway station halfway along.
Getting to the New Forest
Trains from stations including Manchester, London, Bournemouth and Lymington (for the Isle of Wight) to Brockenhurst.
Driving distance from London is around 90 miles (150km), mostly along the M3 and M27. Maximum speed in the New Forest is 40mph. Be aware that animals (ponies, cows, donkeys etc) wander across roads so please drive carefully.
The New Forest’s best accommodation
YHA New Forest Located in Burley with decent bunks, good-sized kitchens and a choice of cosy communal areas
PLEASE NOTE: A lot of time has gone in to researching this Best of the New Forest post. Some of the links above are to my affiliates’ sites and any purchases made via these links will help me to keep this blog going. The use of these links has not in any way influenced the recommendations I have made.
“Not all those who wander are lost” (JRR Tolkein), but if you find yourself more lost than wandering here are some useful tips on how to navigate a city which have served me well in the past:
Something I try to do early on in a city visit is get to a high point, such as a hill or observation platform. This helps me to figure out the layout of the city and to commit to memory where key landmarks are. Note that this isn’t particularly useful if you don’t have a great memory, or if you’re in a particularly labyrinthine city such as Venice (where getting lost is part of the fun anyway).
If you’re in a city with river/lake/sea frontage then, if the streets are sufficiently steep, you can make an educated guess that they will generally point down towards that waterfront.
Ignore subway maps
Although subway maps can be useful in figuring out which line to take where (although some aren’t all that useful…New York), they are rarely an accurate reflection of how a city is laid out. Although the London Tube map shows you the different stations on a particular line, the distances and locations of those stations are in no way mirroring what’s happening above ground.
Rush hour roulette
During rush hours see if you can figure out where the crowds are heading. Chances are they’re all aiming for the nearest bus stop, train station or subway. If you’re lost, get swept up in the crowd and no doubt they will guide you to where you want to be.
Did you know that the main entrance to a church or cathedral faces west, with the apse and altar facing east? This may not be true of some Christian buildings, but this knowledge can help you navigate, if you know where on the compass you want to be heading.
Wilderness survival tips can apply to city navigation too. Seek out the sun or moon and figure out where they’re rising or setting. Unless the wind changes direction, look up to the clouds to see where they’re flowing: if you don’t want to go around in circles then keep following the direction of the clouds.
If you feel safe enough doing so then simply ask where the nearest station is, or how to get to a particular street. It can be useful learning a few local words for asking directions, and if you don’t understand the answer people can at least point you the right way.
A short picture journey following my hike from the source of the Thames to Oxford
In need of a mild adventure, I booked a train ticket to Kemble, in the English county of Gloucestershire. At my side was my dog Bounty, in front of me was a 52 mile walk along the Thames, from its source to Oxford.
Day 1: Kemble to Cricklade
My train arrived at 08:39 and we set off straight away for the source of the Thames. 20 minutes later we arrived at the Thames Path, which runs 185.2 miles to the Thames Barrier in London. Our destination was to the right, but we turned left and walked about a mile to the source.
The Thames begins at a remote point beside a forest, and entirely underground. Having reached this point I turned around and retraced my footsteps to the edge of Kemble. All along the way I followed a ditch, I believe that the ditch fills with the Thames during rainier months but when I was there it was empty.
Small pools appeared where the ditch widened. The path was now in a small forest and, when it emerged in a little village, I at last saw the Thames begin to flow. During Day 1 the path passes between a series of lakes and the pretty village of Ashton Keynes. By mid-afternoon I had reached Cricklade.
Day 2: Cricklade to Rushey Lock
Although the forecast rain storms didn’t materialise, today did not begin well. The path downstream from Cricklade was incredibly overgrown and hard to follow. After Castle Eaton, though, things improved considerably.
At Radcot Bridge I stopped at an old pub to re-energise before the final push to Rushey Lock, where I set up camp for the night.
Day 3: Rushey Lock to Farmoor
There are a lot of old stone bridges carrying traffic over this part of the Thames. There are also a lot of attractive footbridges. The path passes through forests, lakes, meadows, and more than a few fields full of cows and sheep. In retrospect, 52 miles in 3 days with 11kg on my back was a bit too much, and I was grateful to hop on a bus to Oxford from Farmoor, and then a train home to London.
Read about some of the sacred Pagan sites in the UK capital
Britain is home to many famous pagan sites, including, of course, Stonehenge. These sacred sites are dotted throughout the land, including London.
Druids have been climbing Primrose Hill to mark the equinoxes for 305 years. At the top of the hill, along with breathtaking views of the city, you’ll also find a stone plaque which commemorates the Welsh Druid priest who organised the first ceremony here in 1717. Ley lines – invisible lines demarcate Earth’s ‘energies’ – are believed by some to run under the hill.
Druids once devised laws on this island, which was between the streams of the River Tyburn. The island disappeared along with the Tyburn, but you can visit the location at Thorney Street, a few blocks west from the Houses of Parliament.
Temple of Mithras
This Roman temple was discovered in 1954 during the construction of a building. It dates back to the mid-3rd century and is dedicated to Mithras, a cult which had feasting as one of its rituals.
Although probably originally part of a building (the Roman Governor’s Palace), this ancient stone is shrouded in pagan myth.
A pagan temple stood here until 597. Now all you’ll find there is St Paul’s Cathedral.
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.
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 Gorëme. 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 Gorëme 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 Ürgüp 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 Uçhisar. 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.
And now for something completely different. From Baños 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Misahuallí 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.
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 Baños, 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
– Argentinian Lake District
– Ecuador. Even though I’ve been here before it surprised me all over again
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.
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 Dalí 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We weren’t really expecting much of interest in Valdivia. It was merely a stop along the way between Chiloé 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.
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.
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 £10 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.
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.
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.
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.