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Backpacking South America: The Best Hostels – Tried and Tested!

March 3, 2018

If you’re planning a long-term trip through South America, or are simply travelling on a budget, you’ll need to keep an eye on your accommodation bill.  Thankfully though, backpacking doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be scraping the bottom of the barrel – quite the opposite!

Throughout our six months in South America, we were delighted to find a number of incredible hostels and would recommend each and every one of them.

The Best Hostels in South America – The Top of the Pack

Most Social – Chili Kiwi Lakefront – Pucón, Chile

Chili Kiwi was the first South American hostel to really win us over and it did it in a big way!  During our 2.5 week stay (that’s right, it was that hard to leave), we made friends for life.  With friendly staff, a great range of accommodation options (we especially liked the hobbit holes), a stunning lakeside location and enough activities to keep you entertained for weeks, you’ll find it hard to pull yourself away from Pucón’s best hostel too.

Whilst travelling, we’re always on the hunt for hostels where travellers are friendly and keen for a chat but happy to let everyone sleep when the time comes.  Chili Kiwi was the epitome of what we look for – a social hostel, yes, but not a party hostel – perfect!

Best Breakfast – Discovery Hostel – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Though Discovery Hostel is so much more than a fabulous breakfast, it’s hard to think of much else as you pull up a chair first thing in the morning!  With pancakes, cinnamon sugar french toast, fresh fruit, sauteed veggies and the most incredible fresh-from-the-oven banana bread, it’s an included breakfast that goes far beyond what you’d expect of a backpackers.

Aside from the breakfast (which we’re still dreaming of), we loved the location of the hostel (super safe, near the metro) and found the hostel itself to be very social.

Most Idyllic Location – Happy Hammock Eco Guesthouse – Paraty, Brazil

A 15-minute boat ride from Paraty, Happy Hammock, set on the shore of a semi-private beach, provides the most incredible hostel views imaginable.  With friendly hosts (who are particularly adept in the kitchen) and plenty of hikes and swimming spots close by, it’s the perfect place to relax.

Best of all though?  Once the sun goes down, Happy Hammock turns on the magic!  Guests are invited to done mask and snorkels and jump off the wharf where bioluminescent plankton light up the sea.  Though we only planned to swim on the first night, we couldn’t resist a dip on the second night too… Should you pay them a visit, you’ll see why.

Best City Location – BlackPine Hostel – Medellín, Colombia

Set in the leafy suburb of Poblado, BlackPine is the perfect hostel for travellers new to backpacking.  With incredibly respectful guests, comfortable beds, tidy bathrooms and smiling staff, you’ll get a great nights sleep without breaking the bank.

With hot showers (which are in short supply in Colombia) and a choice of yummy cooked breakfasts each morning, BlackPine is a great place to relax.  Should you wish to go further afield though, they’re well located close to a range of low-cost restaurants (hunt out the Mexican – you don’t regret it) and the metro.

Best Showers – Magicpacker Hostel – Cusco, Peru

Any stay in Cusco is bound to be action-packed with so many amazing hikes, archaeological sites and activities in the region.  At the end of a busy day, you’ll need somewhere restful to recharge your batteries and Magicpacker is exactly the ticket.

With some of the best showers we encountered on our travels, a massive TV set to stream NetFlix, social guests and the most fabulous dinners offered (on certain nights of the week), it very quickly became our home away from home.

Best Chill Space – Wild Olive Guest House – Huacachina, Peru

Situated right on the edge of South America’s only natural oasis, the Wild Olive Guest House is a super comfy option for travellers.

With comfortable sofas, another massive TV, friendly guests and a delicious included breakfast (you even get to order off their menu – oh the choice!) it really is a great place to relax in what’s considered a bit of a party town.

Most ‘Worth the Effort’ – Llullu Llama – Quilotoa Loop, Isinlivi, Ecuador

The first stop for us on the Quilotoa Loop, a three-day hike, ended up being a real highlight of our time on the trail.  The hostel itself was incredibly comfortable and served up hearty food and tasty cocktails, perfect to refuel our energy stores.  It also had a lovely spa (though we didn’t think to take our swimmers!), an unbelievably massive (and gorgeous) St. Bernard and best of all, it attracted a social, friendly group of travellers.

We hiked for the next two days with our newfound friends and though we didn’t find the hike itself to be quite as impressive as we’d expected, we had absolutely no regrets, largely thanks to Llullu Llama and the new buddies we made there.

Honourable Mentions

Snuggliest Fire – Margouya Patagonia Outdoor – Puerto Varas, Chile

There’s nothing like a roaring fire when it’s chilly outside… it’s even better when it’s right in your bedroom and lit by someone else each night!

Margpuya Patagonia Outdoor provided respite from the cold whilst being a comfortable, social hostel.  The rooms themselves were a fairly good size and there were plenty of activities on offer through the front desk, along with staff that were always happy to help with local bus information.

Most Helpful Staff – La Justina – San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina

Though we arrived late to La Justina, Leonardo, the manager, was ready and waiting with lots of information to help us make the most of our stay in Bariloche.  Throughout our stay, Leonardo extended every kindness to us, and to our two friends who were free camping in town – he didn’t need to but it was so very much appreciated.

The hostel itself was comfortable with a great chill-out area and an expansive kitchen.  The beds were comfortable and whilst we were there, the hostel was quiet enough that we got the dorm to ourselves – awesome!

Best Spanish Practise –  Hostal Princesa Maria -Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador

Though travellers are emersed in Spanish whilst in South America it’s remarkable just how little Spanish is spoken in hostels.  On the occasions when we did come across someone who only spoke Spanish, it was often fast and in unexpected contexts, making it difficult for us to understand.

What a treat it was then, to meet Victor, the owner of Hostal Princesa Maria.  He spoke Spanish slowly, simply and with a great deal of patience, making us realise that our Spanish really had improved, we’d just not had the chance to put ourselves through our paces at the right level all that often.

The hostel itself was well located, close to town but out of the noise of the main square, and provided access to well-priced activities with professional guides – really though, Victor was the shining light of the property.

Best Value – Landscape – International B&B – La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz was a city that really surprised us – it was a busy, hectic South American city but without doubt, it had a real soul.

Located a bit out of the tourist centre, Landscape International provided excellent accommodation at very reasonable rates; so much so that we didn’t have to think twice about upgrading to a private double room – a real treat on our trip.

Beautiful Location – Casa Relax Minca Hostal Boutique – Minca, Colombia

A 15-minute walk out of the centre of town, Casa Relax Minca was a lovely escape from reality.

With friendly guests and plenty of assistance from the staff in planning our day, it was the perfect base from which to explore the local area whilst chilling out.

Pro Tip:  If possible, request one of the rooms downstairs (if you’re there for the weekend) as the rooms upstairs don’t have their own ceilings, which means that the sound from the lounge transfers over.  Don’t let it put you off though, it’s a great hostel with respectful guests – just book a room downstairs if it’s Friday or Saturday.

Bucket-List Views – Refugio Paine Grande – Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia

Though it was far from our favourite hostel based on facilities, you just can’t beat Refugio Paine Grande for its incredible location.

Right in the middle of Torres del Paine, Chile’s iconic national park, we experienced some of the most incredible hikes we’ll probably ever have the pleasure of undertaking.  At the end of a big day out on the trails, there was nothing better than snuggling up, knowing that such incredible beauty was just beyond the window.

Backpacking in South America – You don’t have to rough it…

Accommodation in South America can be both cheap and cheerful.

Without a doubt, we encountered our fair share of disappointing hostels but with our tips, you can skip right to the best of the best!

Even if you’ve never backpacked before, we’d implore you to give it a shot.  With a real community of like-minded, respectful travellers on the continent, staying in South American hostels needn’t be a scary thought – quite the opposite, a great hostel is an opportunity to meet new friends whilst saving money and staying in comfort.

… and that’s muy bueno!

If you want to save travellers from bad hostels, pin this post so they spot the good ones! 

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Ditch the Cage – Shark Diving with One Ocean Diving, Oahu Hawaii

February 22, 2018

Imagine yourself, legs hovering tentatively over the surface of the water, knowing exactly what will greet you beneath the surface.  A wave of excitement washing over you as your last remaining nerves begin to slowly melt away.  The chill of the deep ocean splashing up against your flippered foot as you drift in slowly towards the others.  Days earlier, this water would have been a shock to your system but today, you’ve got your mind on other things.


Lots of them.

It’s a funny feeling intentionally getting into the water with dozens upon dozens of sharks, especially knowing everyone else on the island chooses to do so in a cage.

But you know what?  You don’t need a cage when diving with sharks in Hawaii.  Seriously, you don’t.

Free Diving with Sharks in Oahu – One for the Bucket List

When we last visited Oahu, cage diving with sharks was something that caught our eyes.  With limited time though, it wasn’t to be.

When we booked our return trip to Honolulu, you can guess which activity suddenly shot to the top of our travel wishlist!

There was no debating it; this time we were on the hunt for sharks – only not in the way you might imagine.

Anti-Jaws: The Natural Beauty of Sharks

Sharks may not be commonly found on the ‘most beautiful’ list within nature but having now swum with them on multiple occasions, this is something we’d seriously challenge.  With incredible grace, intelligence, stamina and curiosity, they are an absolute pleasure to observe in the wild.

On the surface, the fear that some people hold for sharks is understandable.  Dig a little deeper though and you learn very quickly that sharks don’t deserve the reputation that they’ve garnered in the media.

Cageless Shark Diving: Is It Really Safe?

Absolutely!  The team at One Ocean Diving have a 100% safety record and spend a great deal of time with these beauties.  They know many of the sharks well, check for signs of aggression before any visitors enter the water and adapt their programme to suit the animals on any given day.  Before diving, guests are loaded up with information, ensuring a safe and comfortable experience for everyone.

The second you slip into the water and look down upon these incredible creatures, I I’d practically guarantee you that any fear will slip away.  When you push misconceptions aside, you’re left with nothing but reality…

Sharks are seriously impressive.

At no point in the swim did any of us feel even remotely uncomfortable; quite the opposite!

If you closed your eyes and listened, you’d hear nothing but our gasps of excitement, non-stop chatter above the surface, the sound of bubbles rising through the water and the call of nearby whales echoing around.

There really isn’t anything to fear.

What Makes One Ocean Diving Different?

These guys know their stuff.

With a strong focus on education and conservation, the One Ocean team are serious about changing broad misperceptions about sharks.  They clearly live and breathe sharks and their passion for them is enough to convince even the most hesitant guest of the importance of their plight.

It’s incredibly obvious that a dive with One Ocean goes beyond your typical tourist activity.

With the attending marine biologist/specialist, you’ll learn about the physiology, biology and behaviour of sharks whilst learning how to read their body language and how to safely interact with them in their own habitat.

As the first and only cageless shark research programme in Hawaii, their first priority is protecting the numerous species they encounter in the region.  On any given day, you run the chance of seeing a range of pelagic sharks; sandbar, Galapagos, tiger, great white, hammerhead sharks and more are all potentially up for grabs.  That’s not mentioning any number of bonus mammals, fish and whales that you can expect to see too.

We were incredibly lucky to find our way to two massive schools converging – the more dominant Galapagos sharks rising to the surface whilst the less aggressive sandbar sharks intentionally lazed around below.  All in all, we shared the water with over 50 sharks whilst being serenaded by whales throughout the dive.

One Ocean Diving Hawaii: Everything you need to know to prepare for your dive

Getting There

To get to the harbour, you’ll need to head for the infamous North Shore of Oahu in a rental car.  We picked up our rental just after 7am (when they opened) and had enough time to stop in at a drugstore for supplies before heading to the dock at 8.30am.  It’s a comfortable drive over to One Ocean and there’s no need to pay for GPS at the rental agency – just preload either Google Maps or Waze and you’ll be set.

What to Take on Your Shark Dive

Fortunately, you’ll already have all of the required supplies with you on vacation and anything else you might need, One Ocean are able to supply.

We suggest you have on hand:

  • Flip flops (or jandals as we Kiwis call them)
  • A bathing suit (togs)
  • A towel
  • Sunscreen
  • A rash shirt and/or swim shorts if you’re looking for some protection from the sun.  The team do have rash shirts that you’re able to borrow onboard should your wish.  They don’t supply wetsuits but there’s really no need for them – the water is relatively warm and once you’re in, you won’t think twice about it.
  • Snacks and drinks.  Thanks to the early start (and even earlier breakfast), it didn’t hurt to have a chocolate bar on hand for the ride back.
  • Seasickness medication?  None of us got seasick but if you do, it’s something you’ll want to consider ahead of time.  You can pick up seasickness tablets cheaply from local drugstores, or, if you only ever experience very mild motion illness, ginger-based drinks can help stave it off.
  • A waterproof camera.  If you’ve got a GoPro, leave your bright floatie at home and instead opt for your standard extendable selfie-stick, preferably dark in colour.  If you don’t have an appropriate selfie-stick, the team will ensure you’re kitted out.  Body and hand mounts are not suitable as you’ll need to be able to hold the camera out from your body, just in case an inquisitive shark decides to check it out.  Without a camera?  The One Ocean team is able to provide videography for an additional USD50 (NZD68.35).

Though it was originally the manta rays that drew us back to Hawaii, it was our freedive with the sharks that really took our breath away.  Without doubt, our snorkel with One Ocean Diving was the highlight of our time on Oahu and one of the highlights of our six month trip.

If you find yourself in Hawaii, be sure to book a trip out with the team.  If you’re not booking a trip to Hawaii, what are you waiting for?!

Love sharks?  Help us spread the word by pinning this post!


Thank you to One Ocean Diving for having us out on their Shark Research Snorkel (AKA Pelagic Shark Program).  As always, all thoughts are entirely our own.  What an experience!!

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Six Months on the Road: Colombia and USA – San Francisco & Hawai’i

February 18, 2018

After countless night buses, flights, dorm beds, hikes, new friends and once-in-a-lifetime experiences our six month adventure throughout South America is over!  As I sit here, back in New Zealand, it’s hard to believe how many miles we’ve put behind us and just how much we’ve seen.

How lucky are we?

… but now we’re home, life kind of just goes on!  We’ve not forgotten about you though – as always, we’ve recorded our costings, route and suggested activities, only this time we’ve got a few stops up in North America for good measure too…

First time reading our monthly round-up?  We suggest you start with our first, second, third, fourth and fifth months on the road in South America before getting into this one.

Cartagena, Colombia

Our first introduction to Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, Cartagena was our favourite ocean-side spot (which I must admit, surprised us) in the country.  With colourful old buildings, an afternoon spent walking through its winding streets is a day well spent.  We found two nights to be more than we needed but there are worse places to spend a few days than Cartagena!

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm at Casa Torices Real @ COP29,450 each/night (USD10/NZD13.80) – we were lucky to have the room to ourselves but with a cold shower (that did actually come out with a touch of warmth), a dorm toilet with only a shower curtain to provide privacy from the rest of the room and a taxi required to get into town, it wasn’t the best value around.  Of course, hotels there would be much louder and more expensive, but we’d probably look elsewhere if returning.

Activities:  With such beautiful buildings, we spent the day wandering through the colonial streets, admiring Cartagena’s beauty.

Onwards travel to Santa Marta:  Organised through Juan Ballena, we got a shuttle from the office in Cartagena to the office in Santa Marta (USD23 each).  You are able to get a taxi/bus/taxi combo but it takes twice as long and doesn’t work out a heck of a lot cheaper in the end.  If you do decide to book, you can use the following promo code to save 5% on your booking ‘CARTAHELLYEAH!’.

Santa Marta, Colombia

Santa Marta is, for most people, a jumping off point to Minca and Tayrona National Park – for us, it wasn’t much more than that.  There’s a beach that’s flanked by oil tankers (doesn’t that sound delightful?) and a town that lacks the charm of Salento.  All in all, it wouldn’t be top of our list.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm at Mareiwa Hostel @ COP30,000 each/night (USD10.20/NZD14.05) – the hotel wasn’t anything special but was reasonably close to the action in town and did have a little warmth in the cold shower.  It didn’t have a great social spot to relax but the beds themselves were comfortable and the hostel clean enough.  It wouldn’t be our top pick in town, but the price was right, as was the location.

Activities:  Very limited – we took a wander down to the beach (which really wasn’t anything special) and picked up some food in town.

Onwards travel to Minca:  COP8,000 each for the colectivo from Santa Marta to Minca – you can pick this up on the corner of Calle 12 and Carrera 9 (and pay in the little office before boarding the van).

Minca, Colombia

Up in the mountains, above Santa Marta, sits Minca, a sleepy forested town, popular with tourists looking to relax.  It’s clean, green and a lovely break from the hustle and bustle of the neighbouring coastal area.

Accommodation:  4 nights at Casa Relax Minca Hostal Boutique in a 6-bed mixed dorm @ COP35,000 each (USD11.90/NZD16.40).  The hostel is a little way out of town but it has a lovely relaxed feel to it (though the rooms upstairs could do with proper ceilings to help cut the noise out).  The beds were super comfy, breakfast was tasty and the setting was perfect – we’d recommend a stay for sure.

Activities:  Minca’s all about relaxing and getting amongst nature.  Whilst there, we hiked to Cascada de Marinka (COP4,000/USD1.35/NZD1.85 each) and also to Pozo Azul (no entrance fee).  Both of these walks can be accessed by moto-taxi but if you have a little time on your hands and a reasonable level of fitness, we’d recommend you hike.

The walk out to Pozo Azul is slightly easier than that to Cascada de Marinka but both are totally manageable with only Cascada de Marinka have a decent dose of hill-climbing towards the end – other than that, both hikes quietly gain elevation on the way there and of course drop down again on the way back.

If you only have time to visit one spot, we preferred Casada de Marinka – the hike was a little more involved, there were fewer people there, and the two beautiful waterfalls are set in a lovely tropical garden.

Pro Tip:  Be sure to take your swimming togs (bathing suit) so you can cool off – both Cascada de Marinka and Pozo Azul provide opportunities for a dip.  Be warned though, they’re both pretty chilly!

Onwards travel to Palomino (via Santa Marta):  Collectivo from Minca to Santa Marta (where it dropped you off) for COP8,000 each (USD2.70/NZD3.75).  Once in town, round the corner at the bus station and jump on the bus from Santa Marta to Palomino for COP10,000 each (USD3.40/NZD4.70) – these buses run constantly and you just pay onboard.

Palomino, Colombia

Whilst travelling, a number of people exclaimed that we had to visit Palomino, so that’s exactly what we did.  We were told that Palomino offered much of the beauty of the Tayrona National Park, but with the added benefit of having more comfortable and affordable accommodation.  Did we find that to be true?  We planned on staying for four nights and ended up cutting back to two so we’ll leave you to decide.

Accommodation:  1 night in a private room at The Dreamer Hostel – Palomino (be sure to book the right one – we booked Santa Marta by mistake!) @ COP110,000 each (USD37.45/NZD51.60) and then 1 night at the Palomino Breeze Hostal in a 6-bed mixed dorm @ COP35,000 each (USD12.35/NZD17).  Though we loved our first hostel, it really did hurt our wallets (and even at that price, it was a cold-water shower)!  The second hostel was very basic but it had a pool and did the trick for one night.

Activities:  We chose to chill out beside the pool but you’re able to head out tubing on a local river and can also catch the bus to Tayrona (though it’s closer to Santa Marta).

Onwards travel to Barranquilla:  Bus from Palomino to Santa Marta (COP10,000/USD3.40/NZD4.70) each – speak to your driver as he’ll be able to drop you off at the big roundabout in Santa Marta where you can get straight on a minivan to continue on.  From there, head into the office of Berlinas where you’ll get a ride in the van to their main Santa Marta office and a ticket right through to Barranquilla for COP20,000 each (USD6.80/NZD9.40).

Barranquilla, Colombia

With flights out of Barranquilla, we always knew we had to spend a night there but we really weren’t planning any more than that.  In the end though, when we decided to move on early from Palomino, we figured we’d skip through Santa Marta and try our luck in Barranquilla – what a great choice that ended up being!  Our hotel was super comfortable and there were lots of yummy food options in the local mall.  Sure, it wasn’t what most of our travels were about but it was the perfect way to finish up in South America before flying on.

Accommodation:  3 nights in a private room at the Holiday Inn Express Barranquilla Buenavista @ COP78,375 each (USD26.79/NZD36.75).  This was the perfect spot to chill after a busy six months!  The beds were crazy comfortable and breakfast was filling – though it was a little bit of a splurge compared to the hostels we’d been used to, it was money well spent and great value.

Activities:  Absolutely nothing!  Though there are a few things to do in Barranquilla, it’s mostly an economic hub for the Caribbean side of Colombia.  For us, it was a place to recharge our batteries for a few days before heading up to the US.

Onwards travel to San Francisco:  Flights booked through Kiwi (click here to get a €20 on us!) at USD631.55 each (NZD870.40).

San Francisco, California, United States of America

Having visited the West Coast countless times before but never making it to San Francisco, we decided it was finally time to check out the city that we’d heard so much about.  Taking pride of place on the bay, San Francisco was everything that was promised to us and then some – it’s fair to say we fell in love with this incredible city.

Accommodation:  5 nights in a private room at the San Remo Hotel @ USD32.60 each/night (NZD51.80) and another 2 nights where we treated ourselves at Hotel Griffon.  Both hotels are well located, San Remo near Fisherman’s Wharf and Hotel Griffon being right on the water in the middle of town.

Make a difference.  Though we’ve seen homelessness elsewhere, we’d never seen it on the level that we did in San Francisco.  Expensive housing, a high cost of living, a relatively temperate climate and a lack of government support means the city has an exceptionally high level of people down on their luck.  You’re able to help though – when you leave a restaurant that offers free soft drink refills ask for a takeaway glass (commonplace in the US) or top your own takeaway cup up when you leave a burger joint.  Hang on to any leftover food, hotel amenities or articles of clothing that have been replaced on a US shopping adventure.  Anything you’re able to donate will likely be gratefully received.

Activities:   With so much to do in San Francisco you’ll be hard-pressed to tick all the boxes but if you manage your time well, it’s easy to fit a couple of activities into each day.

Alcatraz –  San Francisco’s most recognisable attraction,
Alcatraz Cruises is your go-to tour provider.  For USD37.25 per person (NZD51.40), they’ll take you over to the island and provide everything you need to explore the most iconic prison in the world… and yes, it really is a must do!  The audio tour that’s included in the trip is amazing – with background noises and sound effects, it genuinely transports you back to the prison’s heyday.

We considered both the day and night tours and found that each had their own pros and cons.  The day tour allows guests to explore the park on the island, giving them much more freedom to move about as they please.  By comparison, the night tour is apparently much more dramatic (can’t you just imagine the moody atmosphere in the old prison at night?) but it comes with a slightly higher price tag, less flexibility to do your own thing and that chilly San Francisco night air.

By the time we decided to book the night tour, the tickets had sold out!  Instead, we visited during the day where we happily spent half a day on the island and would suggest you combine it with a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf whilst you’re in the area.  There are also a number of other activities available in this part of town so no doubt, you’ll find yourself back there.

Biking the Golden Gate Bridge – Touted by friends as a must-do in San Francisco, we picked up our ‘deluxe infinity shifting priority hybrid bikes from
Wheel Fun Rentals and headed for the iconic bridge.  Though the names of the bikes sound complicated, in reality, they’re anything but; the gears shift smoothly, without any hang-time, allowing anyone to jump on and figure out the system quickly.  The bikes also come with a self-guided GPS system, taking riders through key routes and sharing interesting local information.  The ridge over the bridge itself is easy and bike lanes throughout the journey mean you’ll spend very little time on the road itself – yes, you’ll probably end up with a sore behind but the views are totally worth it.

Pro Tip:  If you’d like to cut the time you spend on your bike down, you can ride over to Sausalito (on the other side of the bridge) and catch the ferry back over towards the city.  Likewise, if you’re on a budget, simply turn around at the end of the bridge and bike back to save yourself a ferry ticket.  We really would recommend a trip out to Sausalito though, so if you don’t include it as part of your biking excursion, try to include it with another day trip (like we did whilst visiting the redwoods).

Muir Woods & Sausalito day trip – One of our must-do’s in San Francisco, we joined
Extranomical Tours to get up close and personal with the incredible redwoods.  The day itself was very relaxed, starting with a visit to the ferry building for breakfast and then a visit to the Muir Woods before heading to Sausalito and stopping off for amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and a breath of fresh air, making the whole experience a real highlight of our time in the city.

Big Bus Tours – For years Nathan has talked about jumping on a Big Bus Tour but it took us hitting San Fran for it to finally happen!  We loved the flexibility these tours offer – for 24 hours we were able to hop on and off again as often as we wanted, with entertaining, personalised commentary all the way.

Though it would be been great to have taken our tour on a fine day, it was a great way to see the city, even in the rain.  When you’re on the tour, be sure to jump off at Haight-Ashbury, the vibrant, summer-of-love part of San Francisco.

For those of you that grew up watching Full house, yes, you can check out the aforementioned houses whilst on the tour!

California Academy of Sciences – Not somewhere initially on our list, we were so pleased our CityPASS included tickets as it was literally one of the best, most interactive set of exhibitions we’ve ever seen.  With an incredible array of fish and marine animals, an amazing planetarium and exhibits to capture everyone’s attention, it was a fantastic way to spend an afternoon seeking shelter from the rain.

Even better, the Big Bus swings right past the entrance and continues on its way again so it’s easy to fit into your schedule.

Aquarium of the Bay – Again included in our San Francisco CityPASS, the Aquarium of the Bay is conveniently located at Fisherman’s Wharf and combines well with other activities in the area.  We spend around 1.5 hours at the aquarium, checking out their sharks, otters and other fabulous exhibits.

Scale-wise, it doesn’t compare to the Academy of Sciences but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially if you have a CityPASS and therefore, a free ticket.

AsiaSF – If you’re looking for a unique night out in one of the most liberal cities in the world, a visit to AsiaSF will tick your boxes!  Proud supporters of the transgender community, these stunning ladies are the epitome of ‘fabulous’, performing to enthusiastic audiences whilst serving up delicious Asian-inspired meals.  Go equipped with a sense of fun and humour and you’ll have the best night out!

Take in a basketball game – An easy subway ride from the city, a basketball game is a fantastic (albeit expensive) way to spend an evening!  With the Golden State Warriors in fine form and games running frequently throughout the week, chances are you’ll be able to pick up tickets to a game at a relatively reasonable price with advance notice.  We paid USD80.40 (NZD108.85) each to sit up in the top stalls – they weren’t the best seats in the house (quite the opposite) but allowed us to enjoy the game and unique atmosphere.

Pro Tip – Leave your big cameras and bags at the hotel!  The stadium has a strict bag-check policy and having to make use of it will cost you USD10.  If you’re able to, it’s best to pop the essentials in your pocket and avoid the hassle.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom – Never ones to turn down a good rollercoaster, a visit to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom was a non-negotiable for us (well mostly me) on our San Fran trip.  We had a great day out at the park with new friends, racing around all of the best coasters in the park.  Our top picks?  The Joker (an amazing wooden/steel hybrid with lots of airtime) and Medusa.  I also loved Wonder Woman Lasso of Truth (but couldn’t talk the others into joining me) and would have loved to have gotten on SUPERMAN Ultimate Flight had it not been closed for maintenance.

Headed out to the park?  You’ll need a rental car!  City Rent-a-Car will sort you out for the day from their central Union Square location for only USD50.

Pier 39 – Popular with tourists, a visit to Pier 39 can cost you as much or as little as you like.  We enjoyed strolling along the wharf, people watching and of course, checking out the Californian sea lions.

The San Francisco Dungeon – If you’re looking for a comical introduction to San Franciscian history, the Dungeon might be the place for you.  With a couple of rides and lots of theming and on-point actors, this immersive experience is entertaining, if a little different to your normal tourism activity.  The rides themselves were a little disappointing if we’re being honest but the experience as a whole was worthwhile, especially on a rainy day.

Onwards travel to the Big Island, Hawai’i:  We booked from San Francisco to Oahu (and then on to Auckland, New Zealand) through Hawaiian Airlines for USD625.10 each (NZD861.55).  We then connected from Honolulu to Kona for USD82 each (NZD113).

Big Island, Hawai’i, United States of America

Tropical beaches, near-perfect weather and all of the benefits of cheap American shopping; we didn’t need to visit the Big Island to know that we’d fall in love!  When tossing up between Maui and the Big Island (also known by the state’s name, Hawai’i), we elected for the later for one key reason – mantas.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Mauna Lani Bay and 2 nights at Hilton Waikoloa Village.  Both hotels were absolutely glorious!  Mauna Lani Bay has access to fabulous snorkelling just off the beach whilst the Hilton Waikoloa Village had a massive lagoon, perfect for guaranteed turtle snorkelling.


Manta Dive with Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii – The main reason we visited the Big Island, this is the best place in the world to swim with these gentle giants.  Absolutely massive, with an undeniable grace, these harmless beauties are attracted to the surface at night to feed on plankton – we were just lucky to observe them in their natural habitat for 45 minutes or so.  We tossed up whether we’d snorkel or dive with the mantas and in the end decided to snorkel to save a bit of money (it cost USD123.40/NZD167.10 each).  With amazing views of them throughout the snorkel, we were more than happy with our choice, though we’re sure the dive would have been amazing too!

Morning Snorkel with Fair Wind Cruises – Touted as the best snorkelling on the island, one of the only practical ways to get to Kealakekua Bay (home of the Captain Cook monument) is on a cruise.  Fair Wind provide so much more than just transport though – snorkelling gear, delicious food (breakfast, lunch and soft drinks all at no additional charge), a fabulous boat (complete the high-water dive platforms and two waterslides) and stand-up paddle boards.  We love that they really follow through on their eco-friendly policies, encouraging guests to do their bit to help cut down on waste and providing them with environmentally aware alternatives.

Onwards travel to Honolulu, Hawai’i:  Hawaiian Airlines, USD82 each (NZD113).

Honolulu, Oahu, Hawai’i, United States

Having visited Oahu before, we knew it would be the perfect was to finish up our trip.  Plenty to do should we wish but no pressure to tick activities off either – we’d been before and no doubt we’ll go again.

Accommodation:  1 night in a 4-bed mixed dorm at the Waikiki Beachside Hostel @ USD47 each (NZD64.75) and then 3 nights in a private room at the Surftide @ AUD65.20 each (USD50.95/NZD70.25 – booked through Wotif).  By far the most expensive hostel we stayed at on our travels, the Waikiki Beachside Hostel was also one of the most basic – with gaping holes in the glass, a ranchslider that barely closed and rubbish trucks passing by at all hours, we couldn’t say it offered particularly good value for money.  Our move to the Surftide was the best choice we could have made.

Activities:  As we’d visited Honolulu a few times before and were at the end of a long trip, we wanted to spend most of our time on Oahu relaxing and that’s exactly what we did.  We did, however, manage to squeeze in a few new experiences!

Discount shopping – The Waikele Premium Outlets are a little out of Waikiki but if you have a rental car, they’re well worth a visit.  With lots of popular brands (new Levis jeans, Ugg boots, Clarks heels and a whole lot more made their way into my bag) at fantastic prices, be sure to pick up an extra suitcase to cart all of your bargains home.

Cage-free shark snorkel – This is literally the best thing you’ll ever do on Oahu.  Jump in with One Ocean and leave the cages to everyone else – you don’t need one!  The One Ocean team is made up of scientists and environmentalists and is on a serious mission to improve outcomes for sharks and to educate people about their plight.  Even with 50+ sharks in the water and no real protection from them, we felt incredibly comfortable.  If you’ve never spent time with sharks and are a little nervous about doing so, we guarantee a morning out with these guys will change your thoughts on them!

Drive around the Island and check out the North Shore – Possibly the most famous surfing spot in the world, the Banzai Pipeline is the best spot to catch massive waves and surfers with equally massive amounts of courage to take them on!

Hanauma Bay – One of the most popular natural attractions on Oahu, Hanauma Bay is a great place to learn how to snorkel.  The protected bay attracts all sorts of beautiful sea life and calm water conditions means it suits snorkellers of all abilities.  Unfortunately, the fish weren’t as abundant as we remember it being in the past but we were told by a local that if you get out beyond the waves (where few people go), that it’s much more impressive.

Entrance is USD7.50 each (NZD10.25) and the bay is open every day apart from Tuesday.  To get there, jump on the 22 bus for USD2.75 one way.  If you have enough exact change, pay for the return ticket at once (USD5.50) and you’ll be given a day pass allowing you to ride the bus elsewhere at no extra charge.

Diamond Head Luau – Just how I’ve been to Hawai’i so many times without ever attending a luau is beyond me!  This time though, we changed that, heading along to the Diamond Head Luau just down the road at Waikiki.

With a new ‘farm to table’ buffet offering, the quality of the food was top notch and in typical American style, served up with a smile.  Tickets included a range of Hawaiian crafts and traditional skills, three cocktails to kickstart the night, a fantastic show, delicious buffet and entrance to the aquarium at the end of the night.

Though we didn’t visit any of the following attractions this time around, we almost always do – be sure to let us know if you’d like help planning them; Pearl Harbour, Ala Moana Shopping Mall and the Dole Pineapple Plantation.

Onwards travel to Auckland, New Zealand:   Included as part of our flight with Hawaiian from San Francisco to Auckland – we chose to add a stopover in Hawaii at no additional charge.

Lessons Learnt on the Road

  • Big expectations can be hard to meet.  Throughout our travels we heard practically everyone rave about Colombia.  To be honest though, it really didn’t live up to our expectations; there was a lot we liked about certain spots (Salento, Medellín and Minca for example), but the Caribbean coast was a surprising disappointment.  Colombia was far from a bad spot, I think we’ve just learnt to temper our expectations.
  • There’s nothing wrong with heading back to a favourite spot.  In fact, doing so can be a great choice!  It certainly wasn’t the first time we’d returned to a favourite spot but after 2.5 years of visiting places that were new to us, it was a lovely change to revisit a part of the world that we already knew we enjoyed.

So that’s us, all done!  Six months of full-time travel behind us and incredible memories to last a lifetime.

Machu Picchu, Patagonia, the Iguazu Falls, a luxury cruise through the Galapagos Islands, white water rafting, ziplining, scuba diving, sandboarding, shark snorkelling and more.  We attempted to learn a new language (and were relatively successful in doing so) and made it through a whole bunch of challenges, hopefully coming out the other end better off for them.

We’re so grateful for the last six months and looking excitedly into the future.

One thing I know for sure; this isn’t the end of our adventure.

Check out our Recent Posts

Our Previous Months on the Road

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Adventure Dubai Middle East United Arab Emirates

Flying with Falcons: A Serene Dawn Hot Air Balloon Experience Like No Other

February 13, 2018

Jade and Mark recently stopped over in Dubai as they flew through to New Zealand.  Top of their list?  A desert hot air balloon ride with a difference; retro Land Rovers, a luxe breakfast amongst the sand dunes, a glorious Arab sunrise and hot air balloons soaring alongside the iconic falcon – need we say more?!  

Join us as they review Balloon Adventures Dubai.

The Early Morning Hurdle

Getting up before 6am is only a challenge when it doesn’t involve something fun, right?

The only time I ever get up early without complaining it is when travel or adventure is afoot… and my dawn ballooning experience with Balloon Adventures Dubai was no exception. Struggling with jet lag, and a disorientating 4.30am rise, you still couldn’t take the grin off my face.

Hot Air Ballooning has been on my ‘must-do’ list since I was 8 years old and it was finally time to bring my dream to life.

Two alarms, a foggy brain and a cup of tea later, our friendly driver collected us at 5.20am from our hotel lobby.

Signing our life away on our hot air ballooning boarding pass (a standard practice for any activity in today’s world) we were told that there would be two balloons taking off that morning, each with 22 people on board.

Wait… 22 people? Was that even possible?  I had only ever seen small baskets bobbing under hot air balloons, perhaps fitting up to 6.

My imagination started to run wild on this incredible feat as we made the 40-minute journey out into the desert. Meanwhile, the other passengers in the minivan were more logical, getting a few minutes of shut-eye as we navigated out of the waking city and the vast beyond.

Arriving into the desert, the colour on the horizon just starting to change, we were quickly divided between the two balloons and belted up (imagine an airplane belt around your waist). While pushing the silky sand around underneath my shoes, we were quickly introduced to Oden, our stunning feathered guest for the morning and told we would hear more about our falcon friend once in the air. The take-off and landing position (basically a semi-squat while connected to the basket) was demonstrated with an example apparatus sitting in the sand, and before we knew it, we were ready for the air!

Positioned next to the gigantic balloon basket, I couldn’t help but marvel at the massive balloon as it sprung to life. Raging blue fire heated the air in the parachute and within minutes the balloon took shape; suddenly, I was snapped from my thoughts and scrambling over the high basket edge. Wishing I wasn’t so awkward, I was at least grateful for the stretch in my jeans and the help on hand to conquer the chest high basket!

Our previously introduced pilot, Richard, ensured everyone was comfortable in their squatted position.  Ready for take-off, we waited with anticipation.

A further blast from the flame above us and we heard, ‘ok, you can stand normally now, we are in the air’.

Really? Wow! I had felt nothing as the basket shifted off the ground, but looking over the edge, we were inches from the ground and rising rapidly.

Into The Atmosphere

As the horizon shifted, our view of the ground widened. We were overlooking the beginning of a stunning sunrise and beautiful windswept dunes; peaks reaching out to touch the morning light. The second balloon hung in the air against a murky morning haze. Flames continued to fire above us as we rose.

I could barely believe I was finally in a hot air balloon!

Climbing higher still, I became fascinated by the changing backdrop of the beautifully patterned dunes below.  If you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting a desert, take it from us, it’s absolutely stunning.

Pleasingly, the continual climb higher wasn’t causing a stir as I thought it might. It was as if I was looking down on a green screen almost as if we had never left the ground; my calm matched our tranquil surroundings.

One Kilometre Up And Ready For A World First

Once at height, our pilot pointed to the second balloon. Hanging in the air, we watched as a spot soared across the horizon. Juliet the Peregrine Falcon had been released, and was dancing in the troposphere, toing and froing from the basket of the other balloon. While we watched Juliets dance, Oden’s trainer explained all sorts of interesting falcon facts and detailed how prestigious falcons are to the people of the UAE.

Being hunters and sometimes territorial creatures, we waited until Juliet had completed her demonstration before Oden’s hood was removed and his impeccable sight regained. With his tiny tracking device (ultimately the trainer’s insurance) secured to his back, Oden took several short and aptly described lazy flights from his perch on the basket’s edge. Enticed back only by his relationship with food, Oden didn’t fly far, wanting his breakfast more than he cared to fly, giving an incredible encounter for all of those on board to view the falcon’s precision and beauty.

Being able to watch this display at such close range was impressive, certainly more intimate than any other bird shows I’ve ever had the opportunity to experience.

With Oden’s trainer satisfied he had done enough for his food, it was time for his reward!  Oden obviously appreciated his breakfast as he ripped gulp sized pieced from the quail offered from a tightly grasped, gloved hand.

What a place for an up-close animal encounter!

A romantic adventure to remember.  Oden’s show, combined with my own view of a vibrant sunrise across the desert, meant this unforgettably serene dawn experience couldn’t help but lift my spirit and give a moment to pause and appreciate the incredible atmosphere.

Adrift Above The Crown Prince’s Palace

Casually drifting down from a great height, our pilot skilfully guided the balloon to bob between dunes parallel to the second balloon as a slight breeze stopped us, hanging dutifully in mid-air.

As luck would have it, our journey took us over the only visible property covered in greenery, capable of existing in the desert due to human intervention; the property of the Crown Prince of Dubai. Teeming with life, the property was incredible to fly over – flocks of birds took to the sky surrounding us, whilst happy workers on the property waved from between the irrigated foliage. Gazelles startled below us and even a cheeky giraffe was spotted strutting in the distance.

Where else in the world would you expect to find such magic in the middle of a desert?!

All too soon the flight was nearing its end. On the edge of the property boundary, the landing crew were ready and waiting for us. We prepared for landing, attaching our belts to the basket attachments and bending our knees. With a shout and a sneaky look over our shoulders we watched the unsuspecting crew scramble to move one of the parked utes before its deck accidentally became our landing site!

With only two slight jolts as we skimmed dune tops before coming into land, the basket finally found its place to rest. Tipping to its side as the parachute followed us down and we found ourselves on our backs, facing the sky before unclipping and scrambling out once more onto the silky sand.

While a dedicated team masterfully packed away the gear, we were able to take a moment with our perched, feathered friend Oden for a photo.

Isn’t he gorgeous?

1950’s Land Rovers And A Divine Breakfast

To finish off the morning we were taken on a short journey through the desert in old-school, open top Land Rovers to a luxury desert Bedouin camp. Blitzing around the dunes in these vintage vehicles was a blast.

Pro Tip:  Ladies with luscious locks, I recommend a scarf to cover your head for this part of the morning to avoid tangles.

Inside the camp, we were greeted with a smile, sharp Arabic coffee, beautifully sweet dates and a full spread of breakfast delights. Cold cut meats, cheeses, fruits, and perfect eggs benedict found their way onto my plate before I settled with my back to the sun at one of the tented tables.

News of congratulations for a perfectly planned and happily accepted marriage proposal on the other balloon reached our ears followed by the sound of a champagne bottle popping. It had been such a beautifully romantic morning, you couldn’t help but smile for the happy couple.

I enjoyed being able to soak in the desert atmosphere a while longer before reluctantly being guided to start our return journey.

Things To Take For Your Dawn Hot Air Balloon Experience

  1. Camera and/or phone – of course, you need evidence of your incredible morning adventure!
  2. Jacket or long sleeve top – it might be chilly in the desert in the morning, or you might appreciate cover from the sun or breeze whilst in the Land Rover/at the camp.
  3. Cap, hat or scarf (certainly for ladies with styled or long hair) – to save sunburn, tangles and a ‘Bridget Jones Diary’ hairstyle situation on your trip through the dunes.
  4. Sunglasses – an absolute must for viewing everything on your journey. I took my glasses off for some of the photos and was squinting and blinking through tears due to the intensity of light.  Sunglasses are definitely best left on.
  5. Snacks for pre-flight – if you are like me and struggle to function on an empty stomach, take a few snacks to munch on before breakfast. It is a few hours between wake up and the delicious spead and you don’t want to be more focused on your stomach than the view!
  6. Wear something you can move in, like a pair of jeans or shorts with stretch. Scrambling over the side of the basket at the start of the journey and then out of the tipped basket at the end would not have been fun in inflexible clothing or a skirt or dress. Sometimes you just have to be practical.

Would We Recommend a Hot Air Balloon Ride Whilst in Dubai?

Having tried multiple aircraft carriers and flight paths, skydiving, parasailing, bungy jumping and other high-altitude experiences, in my opinion, hot air ballooning is certainly the most serene adventure available at height. Hot air balloons will only operate in the mildest of breezes on perfectly calm mornings, so even wind noise will not register on your experience.

Without doubt, Balloon Adventures Dubai was one of the best tour companies I have ever had the chance to join on an excursion. Safety, communication and guest comfort was obviously paramount to their efforts throughout the morning.

Although there were several complicated elements involved in the morning (technical gear, unpredictable weather, landing locations, timings, animals, transport and food) the morning ran like clockwork. Team members were perfectly positioned to care for guests needs, always ready with a smile and would find any way to accommodate requests.

… But Is Hot Air Ballooning For Me?

If you’re looking for an excuse to go hot air ballooning, look no further – we’ve got your back!

How about:

  • A unique exploration of your next overseas adventure
  • An unforgettable marriage proposal or anniversary experience
  • Or a surprise gift for that person who already has everything?

No matter how or where you choose to experience this activity, it should be on your bucket list !

Even better, book yourself in with Balloon Adventures Dubai next time you find yourself in the United Arab Emirates and prepare yourself for a uniquely local adventure with the best of the best.

Colombia Ecuador Itineraries Monthly Round-Up South America

Five Months on the Road in South America – Ecuador & Colombia

January 7, 2018

Our penultimate month in South America (that’s right, five down, only one to go!) was a welcome change from the backpacking we’ve been enjoying for the majority of our trip.  We returned to our Abu Dhabi roots and soaked in the more luxurious side of Ecuador – after all, nobody has the budget for five-star hotels for six months at a time but everyone loves a good treat every now and then!  For those of you operating on more of a budget though, don’t worry, there’s something in here to suit you too.

As always, we’re all about those ‘bucket list adventures’!

If you’re new around here, we suggest you check out our first, second, third and fourth months on the road in South America before starting on month five.

The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

The highlight of our entire South America trip (and there have been lots of highlights so that’s not an easy feat) and potentially of our travelling career, our time in the Galápagos was incredible.  We’re not going to go into a tonne of detail here as there will be plenty to come, but you should know that it’s worth scrimping, saving and bending over backwards to make a cruise around this incredible islands work!

Accommodation:  7 nights aboard the MV OriginEcoventura‘s luxury ship.  Followed by 2 nights at Casa de Jeimy in a private room @ USD22.40 each/night (NZD31.55) on San Cristobal.

Activities:  Incredible animals and nature galore!  If there’s one place in the world where you can see a massive range of animals in their natural habitat, the Galápagos is it.  We swam with sea lions, sea turtles, marine iguanas, reef sharks and marble rays.  We also got up close and personal with massive land iguanas, tortoises, whales, hummingbirds and my favourite, the beautiful boobies, all whilst relaxing on a luxury vessel with the most fabulous guests and staff.

We also intentionally checked out a day trip (as lots of the backpackers we’ve met along the way have talked about them as a cheaper alternative).  To be frank though, it didn’t compare, even remotely.  If you’re able to, we really would recommend saving more and getting yourself aboard a ship to see the outer islands.

Onwards travel to Quito:  Flying TAME from San Cristobal (SCY) to Quito (UIO) for USD193.30 each (NZD269.75).  It’s important to note that Ecuadorian’s get a discount on flights – don’t tick this box unless you’re eligible for the discount, otherwise you will be denied boarding.

Quito, Ecuador

The capital city of Ecuador sprawls out from North to South but it’s the historic town centre where you’ll want to spend most of your time.  Though the traffic is, at times, a real nightmare, we enjoyed spending a few days in the city.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Casa Gangotena.  Absolutely old-school charm, this hotel is a must in the city if you’re looking to splurge.

Activities:  A guided tour that took us through a local neighbourhood within Quito, showing us a side of the city that few visitors get to experience.  It was followed by a visit to the most iconic spots in the historic centre and the most fabulous museum.  If you’re in Quito, we highly recommend this alternative walking tour, ‘Live Quito like a local‘.

Onwards travel to Mashpi:  Organised by Mashpi Lodge – we joined a mini-bus of other guests, stopping at a local museum on the way.

Mashpi, Ecuador

Having already immersed ourselves into the jungle in Peru, we knew we wanted another experience along the same line.  Masphi offered the opportunity to do exactly that, but this time in the lap of absolute luxury in the cloud forest.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a private room at Mashpi Lodge – a National Geographic “Unique Lodge of the World”.  As you’d expect, it was absolutely incredible!

Activities:  Night cloud forest walks, a ride on their very own cable car (known as the ‘dragonfly’) and their skybike, along with hikes to cascading waterfalls, hummingbird spotting, toucan sightings and more.

Onwards travel to Baños:  Mashpi Lodge took us back to Quito and from there, we boarded a bus to Baños for USD4.40 each (NZD6.15).  We got our ticket at the Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe and jumped on the next available bus – they run frequently, all day.

Baños de Agua Santa, Ecuador

The adventure capital of Ecuador, Baños was always a must-see in Ecuador as far as we were concerned.  We loved it so much that we spent a full week there checking out all this vibrant little town had to offer.

Accommodation:  7 nights in a private room at Hostal Princesa Maria @ USD10.50 each/night (NZD14.80).  A quiet hostel, as long as you ask for a room upstairs.  Victor was an incredibly friendly host!  He didn’t speak a great deal of English but was happy to go out of his way to help.

Activities:  Our hostel organised for us to go whitewater rafting (USD20/NZD27.90 each) and canyoning (USD25/NZD34.90 each) with Expediciones Amazónicas – both were great fun and excellent value for money.  The team also had high-quality gear and well-trained, English speaking guides.

We also took local buses around town – we went up to Casa Del Arbol where we swung at the end of the world and also visited Pailon del Diablo (the Devil’s Cauldron – a stunning waterfall).

Onwards travel to Latacunga:  Again, buses are easy to organise on the day.  We caught the bus from Baños to the turn-off (a big roundabout) of Latacunga – just be sure to let the attendant know that you want to get off at Latacunga and he’ll point it out to you.  From there, taxi’s will take you into town (no more than USD4).  Unfortunately, I lost our receipt but the bus Quito-Latacunga was only a couple of US dollars each.

Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador

Though we weren’t planning on hiking in Ecuador, we decided to make a move to the Quilotoa Loop for Christmas, rather than spend another week in Baños (though we did love it there!)

We caught a local bus in the morning from Latacunga to Sigchos (USD2.30/NZD3.20) each and from there, hiked to our next stop for the following three days.

At the conclusion of the hike, we made the decision not to stay in Quilotoa (though it looked like a great little spot on top of the mountain), instead catching a ride with in ute back to Zumbahua (USD2 per person) and then a bus to Latacunga (another few dollars).

Accommodation:  3 nights in total across the loop in the following spots:

Activities:  Hiking, hiking and more hiking!  We hiked from each location to the next, always with the fabulous new friends we made on the loop.  Compared to the scenery we’ve seen on other hikes (and let’s face it, we’ve been spoilt by Patagonia and Peru), it wasn’t as spectacular but the people we met really made the trip!

Onwards travel to Bogata:  We were planning to catch a bus (all 34 hours of it!) but when it sold out, some of our new friends very kindly came to the rescue and helped us by letting us fly standby with them.  The flights are expensive normally so if you’re planning on taking one, definitely book in advance.  Alternatively, if you do plan on catching the bus, Cruz del Sur will take you all the way through (which was our preference to save on accommodation and lugging our gear from bus to bus), or you can take a combination of local buses (which would be cheaper but would take much longer).

Bogota, Colombia

After five months of travelling, all we’ve ever heard people do it rave about Colombia!  After a night in Bogota, I must admit, we were starting to wonder why.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the city (in fact it was nice to get back to the bright lights again), but it just didn’t wow us.  Rio?  You bet!  Lima?  What a pleasant surprise.  Bogota?  Aside from the gorgeous street art, it didn’t do a lot for us.

Accommodation:  2 nights in a 5-bed mixed dorm at Hostel Casa 32 DC @ USD7 each/night (NZD9.75).  The beds were comfortable but the bathrooms and kitchen were an absolute mess (and I’m not the cleanest person in the world, so that’s saying something!).  The people were lovely so it’s a pity that we can’t really recommend this hostel.  On the upside though, it was cheap!

Activities:  We joined the Bogota Graffiti Tour which was a fabulous way to see the more authentic side of Colombia’s capital city – it’s a tips only tour and certainly something we’d recommend doing whilst in town (just book online ahead of time if possible).

Onwards travel to Salento:  We caught a local mini-bus from Bogota to Armenia and then on to Salento.  It was straightforward but we learnt a few lessons on the way.  If you’re making the journey, we have full instructions for you here.

Salento, Colombia

A colourful little colonial town, buzzing with New Years excitement, wax palm trees reaching high into the sky, coffee plantations and hummingbirds buzzing around – what’s not to love about beautiful Salento?

Accommodation:  3 nights in a private room at Walker’s House Hostel.

Activities:  We hiked the Cocora Valley, completing the full loop (starting at the fish farm, taking in the hummingbirds and finishing with the palms).  It was a full day and relatively challenging due to the massive amount of rain they got the night before (and unbelievably muddy conditions) but it was well worth it.  Rides out to the Valley (and back) are COP3,800 each way (USD 1.30/NZD1.80 per person), the fish farm is COP3,000 each (USD 1.05/NZD1.45 including a bag of food), entrance to the park itself is COP2,000 (USD0.70/NZD0.95) and the hummingbirds are COP5,000 each (USD1.70/NZD2.50 which includes a drink).  Food and drinks are available at a few different points on the walk but we packed sandwiches and drinks to take with us, making for a reasonably cheap day out!

Onwards travel to Medellín:  Again, we bused but this time on a direct service which made life so much easier!  COP47,000 (USD15.75/NZD22.15) was all it cost us and full instructions can be found in our guide.

Medellín, Colombia

Ah, beautiful Medellín!  Colombia’s second largest city really is a world away from Bogota and an easy place to spend a fair amount of time in!

Accommodation:  1 night in a 4-bed dorm at the Samarian Hostel @ COP23,300 each/night (USD7.95/NZD11.20) with lovely travellers (but small rooms and cold showers!) before moving into a 5-bed dorm at BlackPine Hostel @ COP33,300each/night (USD11.35/NZD16) for 7 nights.  We loved BlackPine – a great location, clean and tidy, comfortable beds and awesome staff.

Activities:  Paragliding with DragonFLY (normally COP130,000) – absolutely amazing!  We also toured both Comuna 13 and La Sierra in what were memorable and interesting visits (COP70,000 each, all inclusive).

Finally, we headed out to Guatape with VIT Escobar Paintball and though we wanted to love our day, practically everything that could go wrong, did!  I’m sure a normal tour with them is great, but when things go wrong, they really do and for this reason, I’m not sure we could recommend them (more on this soon).  Guatape is lovely though and well worth a visit, either with another company or independently on the bus.

Onwards travel to Cartagena:  Flight with VivaColombia from Medellín to Cartagena.  Though we’re flying with a discount carrier, we have a fair few bags now (those llama blankets were too hard to ignore) so we’ve paid COP260,291 (USD89.60/NZD125.05) each.  This will be our last flight before leaving South America behind!

… and that’s all for another month!

Lessons Learnt on the Road

  • Always preload maps onto your phone.  I generally do but occasionally I forget.  We got a reality check in Quito though where we had no choice but to get into an unmarked, unregistered taxi.  Initially, the driver said he knew where he was going but 1/3 of the way into the trip he kept asking if we did (even though he had working sat nav).  We realised at that point in time, how vulnerable we were – for all we knew, he was driving us in the opposite direction in the dead of the night (as he continually said ‘two people, two people’ on the phone in Spanish…  I was terrified we were about to be mugged!  Had we had our maps loaded, we’d have been able to follow along on our phones and the ride would have been much more pleasant.
  • Long-term travel is tiring!  I’m not sure if it’s just because the end is near or because we’ve picked up the speed of our travel but we’re pretty tired now.  We’re making sure to allow ourselves some ‘down days’ where we just vege out because at this stage, we need them!

It’s hard to believe our time here is coming to an end.  With a month to go, we’re starting to think about jobs, housing and life back in New Zealand but the fun’s not over just yet… stay tuned for the rest of our Colombian itinerary along with San Francisco and Hawaii in the US.

Check out our Recent Posts

How to Get to the Swing at the End of the World: Baños, Ecuador

Salento Travel Guide: Buses to/from Medellín and Bogota

Comuna 13: Touring What Was Medellín’s Most Dangerous District

Our Previous Months on the Road

A Month on the Road in South America – Chile & Argentina

Two Months on the Road in South America – Chile, Argentina & Brazil

Three Months on the Road in South America – Brazil, Bolivia, Chile & Peru

Four Months on the Road in South America – Peru & Ecuador

Activities Adventure Baños de Agua Santa Ecuador South America

How to Get to the Swing at the End of the World: Baños, Ecuador

December 23, 2017

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen carefree travellers flinging themselves off what appears to be a swing perched precariously on the top of a mountain – feet danging right off the end of the world, so to speak.

In reality, the swings are nowhere near as dangerous as they might appear.  They’re also easily accessible from Baños de Agua Santa (more often simply referred to as Baños) and make for a cheap day out in Ecuador.

So, what are you waiting for?  Grab your camera and get ready to swing your way to that perfect Instagram shot!

How To Get To the Swing At the End of the World

  • Local bus.  Our preferred method, buses in Baños are reliable and easy to use.  For only USD0.50 you’ll be dropped at the entrance to the original swing at the end of the world, La Casa Del Arbol (The Treehouse), which is approximately 40 minutes from the centre of town.  Buses depart at 5.45am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm and 4pm from Baños (on the corner of Pastaza and Rocafuerte).  If you ask the driver, they will happily point out the correct stop for you up the top and advise you of the return times.
  • Hike.  There are two main trails that will take you to the swings but neither are particularly direct.  Choose to hike towards either Mirador Virgen and on to Runtun or towards Bellavista (before again turning off to Runtun).  Regardless of the path you choose, you’ll then continue the hike along the same path to your destination.  Allow approximately 5 hours to hike up and back.
  • Taxi.  Official taxis are available from Baños but be sure to negotiate a price before you leave town (or insist your driver turns the meter on).  Also, decide whether you’d like the driver to wait for you at the top or if you’ll find your own way back down.
  • Hitchhike.  Though we don’t normally hitch rides, we started walking back down and a lovely couple kindly offered us a lift.  If you’re keen, there will be people going both up and down in private cars.
  • Guided tour.  Tours are available from town but there’s really no need to book yourself on one as the area is safe and the other transport options work so well.

How Much Does the Swing Cost?

There are a number of swings sitting above Baños but La Casa Del Arbol is probably the one you’ll want to make a beeline too.  They charge a very reasonable USD1 per person which will give you access to two sets of swings (one more scenic than the other) and a relatively small zip line.

What Should I Expect?

First of all, the swings really aren’t as bad as they look!  Nathan’s not a fan of heights but was more than happy swinging away.

During the peak season, we’ve been told each visitor gets a couple of swings and is the ushered off for the next person to jump on.  The beauty of being there in the low season meant we actually got a proper chance to swing (and multiple times at that).

It’s worth noting that the back of the swings are a little high – this makes it hard to get momentum up as you would on a normal swing but the concrete ramp below helps with that.  Be sure to take shoes with good grip so you can get yourself to the top of the ramp.

There’s also a belt which keeps you relatively secure so you can swing without a care in the world!

That’s it – no excuses now!

Looking To Up the Excitement Factor?

Alternatively, there is a larger swing (that accommodates up to three people at a time) on the same mountain.  Just start the walk back to town and after approximately 2km, turn left… follow that road for 800m (there are plenty of signs) and you’ll find the massive structure that you’ll easily see lit up at night from town.

This monster is less playground-swing and more fun-fair ride so we’d still suggest riding the bus up to the original swing first and then walking down should you want more of an adrenaline rush.  Don’t pick this one over the classic.

Apologies – we can’t remember the name of the larger swing but you can’t miss it.  If you do make it there yourself, we’d love an update please!

Baños – More Than Just a Swingers Paradise

Though Baños de Agua Santa originally came to our attention because of the ‘swing at the end of the world’, we soon realised there’s so much more to this buzzing little city!

Whitewater rafting, canyoning, zip lining, paragliding – there’s lots on offer in the region and all at unbelievably affordable prices.

It was incredibly easy to spend a week in Baños, the perfect mix of small-town relaxation and world-class adventure.  Make sure to include a stop in this part of Ecuador when you’re planning your trip to this diverse little country!

Whilst in Baños, we recommend staying at Hostal Princesa María.  The team there offers some of the friendliest service around and will happily point you in the right direction for the bus and anything else you’d like to do in the city.

Ecuador Itineraries Monthly Round-Up Peru South America

Four Months on the Road in South America – Peru & Ecuador

December 17, 2017

We’re a little over four months in and a have a little less than two months to go on this massive, diverse continent!  It’s hard to really comprehend just how much we’ve seen but at the same time, the more we speak to other travellers, the more we realise there is to see.

With flights home booked though, all good things must come to an end, so you can bet we’re making the most of the next couple of months.

As always, this post is designed to give you practical tips for your travels through Peru (and the Galapagos) – information regarding costings, transport, accommodation and activities – it’s all in there.

Isn’t it time you began planning your adventure through South America?

If this is the first monthly round-up you’ve read, you may like to check out itinerary and costings for the first, second and third months we spent in South America first.

Puerto Maldanado (the Gateway to the Amazon), Peru

An easy overnight bus (or short flight) from Cusco, Puerto Maldanado is the closest jumping-off point to the Peruvian Amazon.  A visit to the Amazon was always a ‘must-do’ in our eyes and as we made new friends and explored the jungle, there was no doubt we made the right choice in visiting.

Accommodation:  3 nights in a private bungalow at Amazon Planet.  We joined them for the ‘Native Program’ but they have a range of options available – all including food, basic drinks, a guide and activities.  The accommodation itself was comfortable (but not lux) – exactly what you’d hope for in the Amazon.

Activities:  Night jungle treks, boat floats, a visit to a local tribe and plenty of hammock-time, the activities at Amazon Planet were varied and interesting whilst still providing enough downtime in the heat of the day.  Read about our first Amazon experience here.

Onwards travel to Cusco:  Another night, another bus.  This time we paid PEN40 (USD12.35/NZD17.85) each for a salon cama seat (the equivalent of business class on a plane) on Superciva but weren’t quite as impressed.  The toilets were smelly from the moment we stepped aboard and the snacks were very basic.  If Excluciva is running that night, you can definitely expect a much improved service for only PEN10 more – with that said though, there’s not much to do in the centre of Puerto Maldanado so we wouldn’t consider staying an extra night to catch the nicer bus.

Cusco, Peru

With Machu Picchu behind us, we had a few last activities and hikes to tick off in Cusco before moving on.  A uniquely beautiful city, and one that we came to know fairly well, it was a pleasure spending more time in the cultural capital of Peru.

Accommodation:  Though we enjoyed the first hostel we stayed in, Magic Cusco, it was a little out of town, so upon our return we decided to check another option out – Magicpacker Hostel.  They’ve got a great range of bed configurations available and it’s another example of a perfect social-but-not-party hostel – just what you need after a long day of trekking.  4-bed mixed dorm @ PEN35 each/night (USD10.80/NZD15.60) – fabulous hot showers and the biggest TV you’ve ever seen (running Netflix) included!  Don’t miss their PEN10 optional dinners too – it was one of the best meals we had in Cusco and not much more than USD3.


Via Ferrata and Zipline

High above the Sacred Valley you’ll find the Skylodge Adventure Suites.  These infamous glass pods are attached to the cliff, providing brave guests with a chance to sleep under the stars in one of the most unique locations imaginable… unfortunately for us though, we weren’t the only ones that thought this sounded like a good idea – the pods were booked solid for months!

If, like us, you’re unable to spend an evening in the pod, there’s a great alternative available in the form of a day trip.  Geared up, you’ll climb over 400 metres, above the glass lodge and then zipline your way down through 6 different exciting lines; if you’re in reasonable shape it’s easily achievable (and the via ferrata can be substituted for a hike up should you prefer).

Humantay Lagoon Hike

A relatively easy hike, Humantay is one not to be missed!  For those not keen on the uphill hike, horses are available for a reasonable cost.

Rainbow Mountain Hike (Take One)

Before visiting, we’d heard a lot about the hike to Rainbow Mountain – some saying it was a must-see from Cusco whilst others said the colours are nothing like the over-saturated ones you’ll see floating around the city as touts try to book travellers on tours.

Keen to find out for ourselves (but not so keen to experience the altitude sickness we’d heard so much about) we’d initially joined the alternative trek which gets hikers much, much closer to the top of an different mountain in the same range.  Hikers here only have to walk for 45 minutes up (and 20 down) and have the space practically to themselves.

Unfortunately for us though, the mountains saw one of their first snows of the season which meant our private tour couldn’t even make it to the carpark, let alone to the infamous rainbow.  Instead, we spent the day checking out local historical sites and an awe-inspiring canyon.  Sure, it wasn’t what we went to see, but the canyon did go a way towards making up for that.

Would we recommend the alternative Rainbow Mountain trip?  As long as the weather is clear, absolutely!  At this point in time though, there is no way for tour providers to check the conditions up the top of the mountain – this means that some guests will find themselves on a long car ride (at a relatively high price compared with the original Rainbow Mountain) that results in a distinct lack of rainbow at the end of it all.

Rainbow Mountain (Take Two!)

Returning to Rainbow Mountain, but this time the original version, I had another crack at making it to the top and this time was successful!  With the help of a horse (for PEN60/USD18.20/NZD26) and a bit of trekking, I summited in time to soak in the incredible views.

Though some rave about Rainbow Mountain, the valley that it sits within really is just as incredible and well worth a visit.  Glaciers hang not far from the summit, the Red Valley peeks out from around the corner and, of course, the rainbow coloured mountainside takes pride of place.

Onwards travel to Arequipa:  Rejoining Peru Hop we travelled overnight, leaving Cusco late and arriving into Arequipa in the early hours.  Our Peru Hop tickets were organised ahead of time in a package so none of our travel with them had a standalone price.  If this is your first time in South America or you’re just looking for an extra touch of safety, comfort and convenience (sounds good, doesn’t it?), they’re the way to go.

Don’t take our word for it – Find out what another traveller thought of the Peru Hop experience too.

Arequipa, Peru

With our plans to hike the Colca Canyon dashed thanks to a couple of head colds that we just couldn’t shake, for us, Arequipa became a place for some serious R&R.

The town itself is gorgeous and a significant departure from the hustle and bustle of Cusco so it ended up being a great place to spend some time.  They have plenty of pubs and little restaurants serving up great food at reasonable prices and some beautiful old architecture, so it’s definitely a spot that deserves more time than the quick connection some give it.

Accommodation:  3 nights in a six-bed mixed dorm at Flying Dog Arequipa @ PEN26 each/night (USD7.80/NZD11.30)

Activities:  Known for it’s relative proximity to the Colca Canyon and for affordable and fun rafting, there’s plenty of reasons to stop for a few nights in the city – both to enjoy the outdoors and the lovely township of Arequipa.

Onwards travel to Huacachina, Ica:  Peru Hop once again.

Huacachina, Peru

A mega-touristy little town, built around South America’s only natural oasis, we didn’t really know what to expect upon our arrival.  We’d been warned off staying there over the weekend due to the all-consuming noise that emanates from a few of the bars so intentionally planned our stay to avoid Friday and Saturday night.  In doing so, we found Huazachina to be a surprisingly charming place to spend a night – yes it’s set up for tourists but sometimes there’s no harm in that.

Accommodation:  1 night in a 10-bed mixed dorm at the Wild Olive Guest House @ PEN29.65 each/night (USD9/NZD12.85).  A great hostel with comfortable beds, clean bathrooms, great showers and a massive Netflix-playing television – our favourite hostel in Peru.

Activites:  After relaxing around the oasis, we hit the desert for some serious dune bashing and sandboarding fun (booked through Peru Hop at PEN50/USD15/NZD21.45 each).

Onwards travel to Paracas (via Nazca):  Good ol’ Peru Hop to the rescue again – this was a long day on the bus but thankfully it was broken up with a few strategic stops (lunch with a view and a quick look at some of the Nazca Lines).

Though we didn’t take to the air, we’ve heard great things about jumping on a Nazca fight to see the Nazca Lines in all their glory!  If you have the time and the money, it sounds like it would be a great addition to your itinerary.

Paracas, Peru

A quiet little seaside town, Paracas is home to a national park and is one of the best place to break the long journey from Huacachina to Lima.

Accommodation: 2 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm (one of which we were alone and the other there were four of us) at Los Frayles @ PEN30 each/night (USD9.10/NZD13). Though we didn’t use it, the property has a lovely pool and Peru Hop’s passenger discount means you get a much nicer hotel for the price of a hostel.

Activites: Quad bike tours of the national park are available, as is paragliding off of the sand dunes. We relaxed for a couple of days choosing only to join Peru Hop’s free tour out to the park.

Onwards travel to Lima: Our last journey with Peru Hop went smoothly, as did all the others – they really made getting through Peru easy for us! Again, we had a short stop on the way through, this time to visit a colonial homestead that was once involved in the local slave trade – it was hard to imagine life in the tunnels (and nor would anyone want to) but it was eye-opening to gain some insight into the history of the area.

Lima, Peru

Though we’d heard people rave about many cities in South America, Lima isn’t often one of them… but it deserves to be!

Accommodation: 3 nights in a 6-bed mixed dorm at HosteLima @ PEN23 each/night (USD7/NZD10). The staff at the hostel were lovely but it had a slightly strange vibe about it when we were there – if returning to Lima, we’d likely look elsewhere (but the price was right so we wouldn’t rule a return out).

Activities: We spend our days in Lima recharging our batteries after a serious of quick stops on our Peru Hop journey. The city has some great shopping (and we were well due some new clothes after months of backpacking), vibrant communities, fabulous food and beautiful views.

Looking for more adventure? We’d have loved to have gone paragliding off the clifftop but at USD80 for less than 10 minutes, we decided against it – if your budget allows, it looks like great fun!

Onwards travel to Huaraz: Another overnight bus, this one on Cruz del Sur (booked through BusBud, 10.30pm departure) for PEN80 each (USD24.30/NZD34.70). For once, all of the seats on the bus were salon cama and cheaper tickets were available for those that booked earlier, so if you see them online, be sure to snap them up!

Huaraz, Peru

A buzzing town, Huaraz’s streets really came to life in the evenings. Huaraz itself isn’t much to write home about but it is home to some of the best hiking in Peru.

Accommodation: 3 nights in a private room at Hostel Akilpo @ PEN35 each/night (USD10.60/NZD15.20). A super comfortable guest house but there was a fair bit of noise outside most nights (as I’d imagine there would be in many parts of Huaraz).

Activites – Hiking:


Totally unknown to us before our visit to Huaraz, Churup will forever go down in my memory as being home to some of the clearest water we’ve ever seen!

The hike itself starts with a reasonably steep ascent up a neverending set of steps before flattening out and then finishing in another climb. The steeper parts of the track feature rubber covered ropes which can be used to hoist yourself up and though it would be a relatively easy hike (climbing aside) at sea level, it’s a bit more difficult at altitude.

Laguna 69

The hike that brings many travellers to the region really was one of the most beautiful day hikes we’ve ever seen. Cascading waterfalls, impressive cliffs and an all-consuming valley, we couldn’t believe nobody had told us just how amazing the hike to the lagoon actually was!

Though the hike itself was longer than Churup, the include was much more steady. Don’t let the lesser slope fool you though – it’s still a challenging trail due to the high altitude at which you’ll find it.

We suggest you book all your hiking through Abel at Caleb Expeditions – they’re by far the most recommended agency in town. Abel is generous with his time and information and knows the region like the back of his hand.

Onwards travel to Guayaquil, Ecuador: Getting to Ecuador was quite the journey but catching buses saved us a lot of money. Again, both buses were booked online through BusBud.

  • Day bus from Huaraz to Trujillo with Linea. PEN40 each (USD12.15/NZD17.35)
  • As we arrived into Trujillo in the afternoon and didn’t leave until close to midnight, we popped into the Ugarte Guest House between buses. For PEN10 each (USD3/NZD4.35) we were able to store our bags, relax using their internet and have a shower before continuing our journey.
  • Night (and day!) bus from Trujillo, Peru to Guayaquil, Ecuador with Cruz del Sur. PEN150 each (USD45.55/NZD65) for 18 and a half hours aboard. The seats in salon cama were comfortable and included a basic breakfast and reasonable lunch. Though it was a long journey, it was much more manageable than it might sound.

Guayaquil, Ecuador

The largest city in Ecuador and the gateway to the Galápagos, Guayaquil doesn’t exactly inspire visitors to the region. Maybe we were just staying in the wrong part of town but based on our experience (and that of every other traveller we’ve spoken to that’s been to the city), we’d encourage you to skip on through as quickly as possible.

Accommodation: 1 night in a private room at Residencial Turistico Guayas @ USD11.20 (NZD16) each.

Onwards travel to San Cristobal (Galápagos Islands): Flying Avianca, AV1636 @ USD207.58 each (NZD296.75).

The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

The Galápagos, what can we even say?

A bucket list destination for many, it far exceeded our expectations to the point that I would easily call it my favourite travel experience to date – not just within South America but of anywhere I’ve been.

We sailed aboard the MV Origin for seven glorious nights and then enjoyed another two staying on San Cristobal.

Because the cruise fell in the middle of this monthly round-up, I’m not going to include all of the details here (as this post is already well overdue and an experience as amazing as this deserves our full attention) but in the meantime, here’s a sneak peek of the photos from our first day of cruising.

Lessons Learnt on the Road

  • Orange juice can be hard to find! In cafes and restaurants you’ll likely find freshly squeezed fruit juice (and it is a treat) but it’s next to impossible to find in supermarkets and small stores – nectar instead is preferred in South America, and though it does the trick in a squeeze, it really doesn’t compare for us.
  • There’s a knack to sleeping on night buses… sleeping pills. Initially, we tried not to take anything to help us sleep but after a few restless nights, we gave in a picked up some sleeping pills. They’ve made all the difference and make these journeys much more manageable! We’ve found availability to be significantly different between countries and even within them – in Peru, for example, we struggled to get anything other than herbal options in some pharmacies whilst others would supply us with medication normally only available with prescriptions.

As with all of our months on the road, there have been some real highlights but the highest of them all was, without doubt, our cruise through the Galápagos.

Stay tuned for more on that soon!

Check out our Recent Posts

Hiking Laguna Humantay – Cusco: More Than Machu Picchu

Amazon Planet: Your Ticket to the Peruvian Amazon

and one of my travel related musings – Oh, You Count Countries, Do You?

It’s been a quiet month on the blog as it’s been a busy month of travel – stay tuned for further updates!

Our Previous Months on the Road

A Month on the Road in South America – Chile and Argentina

Two Months on the Road in South America – Chile, Argentina & Brazil

Three Months on the Road in South America – Brazil, Bolivia, Chile & Peru

Accommodation Eco Tourism Peru Puerto Maldonado (Amazon Jungle) South America

Amazon Planet: Your Ticket to the Peruvian Amazon

November 26, 2017

The Amazon, without doubt, is a real bucket list destination for any nature lover.  With an ecosystem like no other, it’s one of the last true wilds in the world.

When we initially planned our visit to South America, we did so with a loose plan and a number of must-see spots in mind – Patagonia, Iguazu, Galapagos and of course the Amazon.

Did it live up to our expectations though?  We spent three nights at Amazon Planet putting them through their paces to find out.

Into the Wild – Activities Galore

With a range of programmes available to guests and a well-structured timetable, there’s plenty of time to make the most of your Amazon experience whilst still unwinding in this gorgeous jungle paradise.  Every morning an activity heads out whilst hammock-time is scheduled following lunch until the day cools down when a number of afternoon/evening activities come into play.

Books and board games are available throughout the day and happy hour does an excellent job of helping to form new friendships amongst fellow adventurers.

Let’s face it though – nobody’s in the Amazon with the main goal of playing cards, and good thing too – there’s plenty to do!

Upon arriving, we were introduced to Alejandro, our guide for the duration of our stay.  Throughout our time at Amazon Planet, he proved himself to be approachable, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable.  Alejandro had an incredible knack for recognising distant birdcall and barely noticable creepy-crawlies, bringing the jungle to life for us.

Jungle Walks, Day and Night

Throughout your stay at Amazon Planet you’ll be presented with many opportunities to head into the jungle – take them all!  With unique plants and incredible wildlife, you ever know what you’ll see whilst wandering the jungle.  The guides are exceptionally talented at identifying the vast variety of bird calls out in the jungle and easily spot the smallest of creatures, making every jungle walk a real chance to see new treasures.

When night falls, it’s time to grab your flashlight and go hunting for creepy crawlies!  Tarantulas, scorpions, frogs, caterpillars, snakes, lizards and more – there’s no shortage of beasties to catch your attention.

Alternatively, hop aboard the Amazon Planet boat on the hunt for caimans, the shy cousin of the alligator.  We were fortunate enough to spot a number of these small reptiles!

Generally, the animals we spotted in the wilds near Amazon Planet were smaller than we’d imagined – it’s not the place to find anacondas, for example, and though sloths are known to hang about in the region, they’re notoriously hard to spot.  Unfortunately, piranhas aren’t generally found in the fastmoving Madre de Dios River (but they can be spotted on the Tambopata programme!), nor are the pink river dolphins, but the few animals we didn’t see were soon forgotten in the buzz of excitement as we uncovered new ones.

And best of all, even if you don’t see much (though we promise, you will), Amazon Planet has a fantastic way of guaranteeing you’ll meet a bunch of local cuties – the Taricaya Ecological Reserve.

Taricaya Ecological Reserve

The only Amazon property in Peru to have their own ecological reserve, Amazon Planet really walk the talk when it comes to conversation.  Attracting biologists, vets and volunteers from the world over, they work together to ensure that local animals that are in need of some extra TLC are well looked after at Taricaya.

Not only do they release populations of native animals back into the wild, but they give those that are unable to reintroduced back into their habitats a fantastic life.

For visitors, it’s a real treat knowing that you’ll have the chance to see a variety of incredible animals, regardless of whether or not you spot them in the wild, but it’s even better knowing that some of the funds from your stay go towards running such a worthwhile operation.

Canopy Walk

Looking for an adrenaline rush (beyond tarantula spotting)?

Take to the skies, or the top of the Amazonian canopy to be exact, for a birdseye view of the surrounding rainforest – just remember to check your fear of heights at the door.

Nestled into the top of an ancient kapok tree, a 90-metre long suspension bridge stretches out to the viewing platform, 45 metres above the ground below.  The views out over the surrounding area are fantastic and being amongst the canopy really gives you a sense of the scale of the jungle.

Visit the Ese-Eja Tribe

A short ride upriver from Amazon Planet, lives Enrique, his wife and sometimes, his children.  Enrique and his wife span two very different generations – his father lived within the Amazon, completely immersed in a traditional, native way of life, whilst his children live during the week in the city, attending school in the hopes of joining the modern workforce as well-educated individuals.

We’ve attended a number of ‘community visits’ like this one now and, to be honest, some have been incredibly worthwhile and some have, quite simply, felt uncomfortable or inauthentic.  It’s fair to say that although we give these experiences a fair go, we are somewhat skeptical when approaching them – you just never know what you’re going to get and we certainly don’t like intruding where we’re not genuinely welcome.

That couldn’t have been further from the truth in this case though!

Enrique and his wife, despite the language barrier, did an amazing job of sharing their culture and customs with us, all with the biggest, most welcoming smiles.  Of course, we couldn’t communicate directly (as they spoke Quechuan) but a good giggle is universal as it turns out.

Over the course of the morning, we learnt how to make a bow and arrow (and eventually got better at shooting them), watched them start a fire using traditional methods, and learnt about their local foods, medicines and clothing – all of which comes directly from the rainforest.

Best of all, we left feeling connected to the local people, which is what an experience like this should be all about.

Boat Float

With the sun slowly disappearing over the horizon, where better to be in the Amazon than drifting gently downriver in the current?

The team at Amazon Planet organise for inflatable kayaks and boats to be taken upstream where guests jump in and spend put in some serious relaxation time.

Hunger Pangs – Food at Amazon Planet

Though you’ll be square in the middle of the jungle, the food at Amazon Planet is anything but rustic.  Banana pancakes and scrambled eggs for breakfast, fresh fish (caught locally) and delicious yuca fries for lunch and delicious steamed chicken and rice parcels for dinner.  Every meal is fresh, locally sourced, hearty and served in multiple courses.

As we near the end of our time in Peru, we can comfortably say it was amongst the best cuisine we’ve had during our time in the country!

It’s hard to go hungry out there but should you, additional snacks are available.  That’s not to mention the soft drinks and selection of beers and cocktails, all available at very reasonable prices.

A Place to Rest Your Head – Accommodation

With a busy day of jungle adventures behind you, a comfortable place to unwind is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Each bungalow at Amazon Planet is set back, away from the main dining quarters, along wooden boardwalks (perfect on those rainy Amazonian days).  The rooms are relatively basic but include high-quality mattresses, private bathrooms and a space to relax – ours had both a sofa and a little balcony with views out to the river.

Every day our room was cleaned and our water bottled topped up – a service that far exceeded our expectations in the middle of the jungle!

Transport: Getting to Puerto Maldonado from Cusco

Getting to Amazon Planet from Cusco is a relatively straightforward process and with the option of both buses and flights, there’s something to suit all budgets.

Overnight Buses

If you’re looking to save some money and have plenty of time on your hands, there is now a direct bus route servicing the region. Years ago it would have taken days to reach your final destination but now the journey runs a relatively comfortable 10 hours.

The route between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado is operated by Civa and Cruz Del Sur – both of which can be booked online through BusBud.  We rode with Excluciva (PEN50/USD15.40/NZD22/65 each) on the way there and Superciva (PEN40/USD12.35/NZD18.15 each) on the way back.  On both occasions, we booked the 1st floor (which is their salon cama offering – similar to business class on a flight) but found the Excluciva service to be far superior.  If you have the option to book on Excluciva, we’d definitely recommend spending the few extra dollars.


If you’d prefer to get to the Amazon via a more direct route then flying becomes your most efficient option.  A number of airlines offer fares to the Amazon, including StarPeru, Avianca, and LATAM, but we suggest you check SkyScanner to ensure you get the best price available.

Regardless of how you choose to arrive in Puerto Maldonado, Amazon Planet will organise someone to meet you at your point of arrival and for your transport to their offices on the outskirts of town.

Amazon Planet – Your Home in the Peruvian Amazon

Our stay in the Amazon was all about getting back to nature; to lay in bed with the sound of the evening jungle rains beating down, to explore the undergrowth, hunting out unique animals and simply soaking in the sights and sounds of one of the most incredible ecosystems in the world.

Amazon Planet offers all of the personal, homely touches that you’d hope for in the jungle but would never really expect.

Sure, the lodge isn’t the pinnacle of luxury, but it does exactly what it sets out to do – provide an amazing experience with caring, knowledgeable staff and many of the comforts of home.

The Amazon was on our South American bucket list, and for good reason, it’s retaining its spot there as a real once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Only, is it once-in-a-lifetime if you’d go back in a heartbeat?

Thank you to Amazon Planet for hosting our stay for the purpose of this review.  As always, all thoughts are our own.  We joined them for the 3 night ‘native’ programme which we highly recommend.


Oh, You Count Countries, Do You?

November 24, 2017

Like the ongoing debate as to whether you’re a traveller or a tourist, others also debate whether counting countries has value or is a shallow pursuit.

For those days do count countries, does stepping foot out of an airport count? Maybe spending a night?  Are you really seeing a country if you fly from point of point or does it take months of over-landing to really tick a place off? Will buses do the trick or is one required to hitchhike to really travel like a local?

What’s to be gained by keeping a record of how many countries you’ve been to?

I don’t know about you but I really couldn’t care less.

Some days on the road are incredibly hard work but I’m learning to wear them like a badge of honour.

Some days you argue, some you miss the bus. Sometimes the language barrier is just too great, others it feels impossible to get a good nights sleep – inconsiderate roommates, plasticwrapped  mattresses and noisey roads – take your pick.  Difficulties abound – nonexistent toilets, upset stomachs, scams, robberies.

Big or small, travel really can be challenging.

But ‭often in retrospect, the difficulties become one of the best things about the journey; it’s all about learning.  Sometimes when things go wrong it ends up with a result that’s unexpectedly right.

Patience, resilience, empathy, kindness and respect – all values you’d be hard-pressed not to deepen over an extended period of travel.

Regardless of how long you travel for or how you choose to do so, there are opportunities everywhere for self-improvement; to better understand how others live and to grow in the process.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

– Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

Does keeping a record of the number of countries visited have any impact on this potential for personal growth?  Does the process of counting countries (or not) matter in the big scheme of things?  Does the manner in which we choose to travel make a difference?

Of course not.

Some opt for all-inclusive trips, in which they never step foot outside of the resort, but for the shuttle that brings them to and from the airport, whilst others trapse around far-flung countries on the tightest of budgets. Some immerse themselves in a new language, culture and food whilst others prefer visiting countries that feel a little more like home.

Do we have any right to judge?  What’s a walk in the park for one might be a massive step out of another’s comfort zone.

Do I count countries?  You bet.

Am I afraid to revisit somewhere I’ve been at the expense of adding to my count?  Never.

We travel for the love of it – for the places, the food, the people, the experience (and sometimes, yes, the shopping).

Life’s too short to worry about what other people think.

Whether you choose to travel fast or slow, whether you count countries or not – you do you and have a fabulous time in the process.

Because at the end of the day, what should it matter to anyone else?

If you would like to track your travels, we love Been!

Whether you agree or disagree, pin this post to get the conversation going…

Do real travelers count countries? How long do you need to be in a place for it to count? How many cities? What even makes a real traveler a real traveler? Do real travelers count countries? Join us as we debate both sides of the argument - where do you stand on it?

Photo Supplied: Flickr

Activities Cusco Hiking Peru South America

Hiking Laguna Humantay – Cusco: More Than Machu Picchu

November 23, 2017

Cusco is known across the world as the gateway to Machu Picchu, the most iconic of all the Inca sites.  With so much to see in this region, those skipping through whilst only visiting the Lost City of the Incas are only tapping the surface of what’s on offer.  

Join us as we explore many of the day trips that Cusco has on offer and prepare to extend your time in this amazing city! 

First up, Laguna Humantay (also known as the Humantay Lagoon).  

Can’t wait to find out what else we did in Cusco?  You’ll find more ideas in our monthly round-up (our Machu Picchu itinerary and the other amazing activities we did.  Looking for more still? Check out this fabulous guide to Peru’s historic capital.

Nestled into Humantay Mountain, under towering mountain peaks and hanging glaciers, sits Laguna Humantay – one of the most incredible bodies of water we’ve ever seen.  Unbelievable hues of bright blue and green shimmer in water that feels somewhat out of place sitting atop a mountain.  This otherworldly sight

It’s little wonder that centuries ago, the ancient Inca’s believed this to be a sacred place – even now, with tourists gathered around, you can still feel the magic.

What to Expect on the Hike to the Humantay Lagoon

I have a real love-hate relationship with hiking.  When it’s flat or sloping gently downhill, I love it.  When I’m clamping up steep, unending tracks – well, I don’t need to tell you how I feel about it.  I’m not the fittest person around and I really do find it a challenge.

Without a doubt though, the views at the top of Humantay are worth the relatively short slog up to the top.

Leaving the mini-van at Soraypampa (3,900 metres above sea level), the hike begins, varying from a gentle slope to fairly demanding until trekkers come across the lagoon at 4,200 metres above sea level.

As you hike, you’ll enjoy views out over the surrounding valley and Salkantay, the namesake mountain of the popular multi-day hike in the region, headed for Machu Picchu.  The area itself is gorgeous which certainly makes the hike all the more manageable.

The altitude and elevation gain is enough that hiking is more challenging than at sea level but if you take it slowly and stop for breathers along the way, it really won’t feel any more difficult than any other uphill hike you’ve done.

As always, after a couple of breaks and a good chance to catch your breath at the top, any suffering is soon forgotten!

Top Tip:  Should you require (or just prefer) assistance to get to the top, horses are available and as a local leads you up, you don’t need any riding experience.  The horses in all of Peru were in great condition, the service is reasonably priced and you can decide when you arrive (both at the base of the trail, and part way up), making this a great way to get to Laguna Humantay should you need a hand.

Practical Details Relating to Your Laguna Humantay Hike:

  • Pick up is offered if your accommodation is relatively close to Plaza de Armas.  We were amongst the first to be collected at 4.45am from Magic Packers (a hostel we highly recommend).
  • The total drive is approximately 2.5 hours in each direction – this is broken up with breaks for meals.
  • Both breakfast and lunch are included for participants in Mollepata.  Breakfast included bread, fruit, fresh eggs and tea/coffee/juice whilst lunch was a delicious buffet.
  • Take plenty of water as there’s nowhere to refill bottles or purchase new ones once you start the hike.  Drinks are available for purchase where you stop for breakfast though and also at the base of the trail; they’re surprisingly affordable so don’t race out to stock up the night before if you’re short on time.
  • A hiking stick is offered to each participant but as we had our own hiking poles from our Patagonian hikes, I used those.  Nathan decided not to use either and was absolutely fine.
  • Drop off is to a central plaza, not far from Plaza de Armas – your guide will point you back in the direction of your accommodation or help you hail a taxi if required.  Cabs in Cusco are affordable and generally reliable so getting around is easily done.  Uber is also freely available should you prefer.
  • When you book through Exploor your voucher is issued and you have five months to decide when you’d like to book your hike in, making it the perfect way for friends and family to gift you an amazing experience (rather than more stuff that you don’t need).  At only USD45 including breakfast, lunch, transport and guide, this is amazing value too!  You’ll just need to allow PEN10 (USD3/NZD4.50) each for entrance to the community.

If there’s one day hike you do from Cusco, we highly recommend you make it Humantay.

Bang-for-buck, no other hike has ever compared to the beauty of this track and with the addition of horses, it really is attainable for the vast majority of travellers.

The views speak for themselves and if the water looks like this on an overcast, gloomy day, imagine them on a beautiful clear-sky day…

Off to Cusco or know someone that is?  Pin this post to refer back to it!

An easy day trip from Cusco, Peru, Humantay Lagoon is easily the best short hike in the region. The stunning blue green lagoon becons hikers after approximately an hour of walking uphill and the valley throughout rewards with incredible views. Definitely one to include in your Machu Picchu itinerary (or if you're doing the Salkantay Trek you'll have the pleasure anyway)!An easy day trip from Cusco, Peru, Humantay Lagoon is easily the best short hike in the region. The stunning blue green lagoon becons hikers after approximately an hour of walking uphill and the valley throughout rewards with incredible views. Definitely one to include in your Machu Picchu itinerary (or if you're doing the Salkantay Trek you'll have the pleasure anyway)!

Thank you to Exploor for hosting us for the purpose of this review.  All views, as always, are entirely our own.  We highly recommend you book your trip to Humantay Lagoon through Exploor.

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