Another month in South America is behind us and for the life of me, I don’t know where the time’s going!
As we have in previous months, this post is designed to give you a summary of our recent adventures and help those of you considering a similar trip plan your route and budget.
We’re a bit late on getting this month out so let’s not mess around – here goes!
Ilha Grande, Brazil
Not much more than a stone’s throw from Rio, Ilha Grande is an island lying just off the coast. Boasting gorgeous beaches (though due to the lack of beautiful sunshine, we didn’t manage to see them at their best), it’s a great option for some R&R.
Accommodation: 3 nights in a 6-bed dorm at Hostel Refugio @ BLR45 each/night (USD13.70/NZD19.80). A good hostel with a substantial breakfast included. A little walk out of town but as the centre is so small, it really isn’t far from the action.
Activities: We booked a day trip island hopping out to Paradise Island and back along Ilha Grande through Equipe Athos (and were put on a boat with Tubarão Tour). We were promised snorkelling gear and when it was withheld from us and we were instead greeted by a fairly aggressive skipper, it’s fair to say the day soured. Most of the spots we visited were over-crowded and as snorkelling was the main aim of our day, it’s fair to say it was a pretty big disappointment – at least we had our friends with us to make the day a good one!
Onwards travel to Paraty: We booked a private transfer for BRL50 each (USD15.35/NZD22.10) whilst on the boat heading over to Ilha Grande (with Easy Transfer). In retrospect, we could have arranged our own transfer ourselves but with absolutely no Portuguese and limited time, we were happy with our decision.
Our own private paradise, we stayed just out of the colonial centre of Paraty in a secluded bay, accessible only by boat.
Though we visited both Ilha Grande and Paraty, in our opinion one would generally be sufficient. We personally liked the laidback nature of Paraty and would pick it as our preference between the two spots.
Accommodation: 2 nights in a private room at Happy Hammock Eco Guesthouse (dorms are also available). Transfers in and out of the guesthouse are organised by Patrick and the team – contact them for further details. Happy Hammock was a real highlight of our time in Brazil!
Activities: From the guesthouse, we popped out on a number of free excursions – a hike to the neighbouring beach for lunch, swimming, snorkelling at night with bioluminescent plankton (wow!) and a day trip to the historical centre of Paraty. Not to mention all that hammock time!
Onwards travel to La Paz: Public night bus from Paraty to Sao Paulo on Reunidas Paulista (BRL92.60/USD28.25/NZD40.80 each) and then a flight from Sao Paulo to La Paz on Boliviana de Aviacion (BRL821/USD250.45/NZD361.85 each).
La Paz, Bolivia
We’d heard mixed things about La Paz – it seems it’s a place people love or hate.
Fortunately, we loved it! It’s a little grimy and a little mad but it’s got a whole lot of character and a neat buzz about it.
Accommodation: 3 nights at House Wonderful @ BOB60 (USD8.30/NZD12) each/night. The reviews online for this hostel were fantastic but unfortunately, reality didn’t match for us – when we returned to La Paz we found a different (and much better) place to stay so couldn’t really recommend a stay at Hostel Wonderful.
Death Road Biking
The main reason for our visit to La Paz, the Death Road did not disappoint! Hurtling down what used to be the most dangerous road in the world is not for the faint of heart but those that give it a go are rewarded with a tremendous sense of achievement. We’re yet to meet anyone who’s done it and didn’t love it! We rode with Barracuda and unreservedly recommend them. BOB570 each (USD82.50/NZD119.15).
Red Cap Walking Tour
Walking tours can be a great way to help find your feet in a new city and with Bolivia’s intriguing political history, we decided to explore the city with the help of a local. Red Cap are professional and affordable and do a great job of showing off the diversity of this unique city. BOB20 each (USD3/NZD4.30) plus a tip (and please do remember to tip, otherwise the guides don’t get paid).
Onwards travel to Uyuni: We’d heard horror stories about the night buses down the line so jumped at the opportunity to pick up reasonably priced flights. Boliviana de Aviación (BOA) @ BOB536 each (USD77.55/NZD112).
Uyuni (& the Salt Flats), Bolivia
The jumping-off point to the world-renowned Bolivian Salt Flats, Uyuni doesn’t offer a great deal to travellers but its surrounding area certainly does. Let me put it this way, nobody ventures down to Uyuni for the town itself.
Accommodation: 1 night in a triple room at La Rocka @ BOB50 each/night (USD7.20/NZD10.40). The rooms here were comfortable but the toilets weren’t kept particularly clean – more a reflection of the few other guests staying there but not very pleasant all the same. For the price though, we were happy enough.
Activites: We booked a 3-night/4-day tour of the Salt Flats with Jukil de los Andes and were very happy with our decision. The addition of an additional night (most people seem to book 2n/3d) meant we got a lot more time on the Salt Flats and our volcano climb provided us with the most amazing views out over the flats. Salt flats, train graveyards, cactus islands, volcanoes, lagoons, flamingos galore and more – these tours are diverse and so, so much fun.
Onwards travel to San Pedro: The tour dropped us at the border between Bolivia and Chile and included a mini-van transfer into the city at no additional charge.
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
One of the driest climates in the world, San Pedro is a stargazers paradise. It also offers a diverse range of day trips, but be prepared to shelter from the sun during the day – air-conditioning is unheard of (unless you visit a top-end hotel) and the temperatures there reach record highs.
Accommodation: 4 nights at Juriques Hostal. We stayed in three different rooms (because we didn’t book ahead so had to work around existing guests) – priced varied but we paid around CLP7,000 each/night to stay in dorms ranging from 4 to 8 people (USD11.10/NZD16).
Activites: With a range of affordable day trips on offer, San Pedro lets visitors pick and choose itineraries to best suit their needs. Though we’d planned on seeing more whilst in the region, we were pretty worn out after four days in the 4WD from Uyuni so instead opted to relax with just a few trips.
Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon AKA Moon Valley)
With little idea of what to expect, we booked an evening tour to Valle de la Luna for CLP10,000 each (USD15.85/NZD22.90). This included entrance to the park and a guided tour through this other-worldly landscape. Money well spent!
Food Tour – A Bite of Atacama
Throughout our travels we’ve joined numerous food tours but A Bite of Atacama offered something significantly different from the rest – a genuine taste of local food – both modern and ancient. We spent hours exploring the little town of San Pedro with Nora, soaking in her passion for local cuisine and incredible knowledge. Not only did we manage to get out an enjoy San Pedro during the day (most tours run in the evenings which can leave you at a loose end during the day) but we tried a host of new foods all whilst enjoying great company!
Star Gazing – Atacama Desert Stargazing
With unpolluted night skies and consistently good weather, San Pedro hosts a number of stargazing outfits of varying quality. With a love of the night sky, we booked in with Jorge, the best of the best in Atacama. He hosted an amazing evening, full of information, delicious food and of course, high-quality stargazing gear. Be warned though, we heard of one group that booked a cheaper tour only to have to wait for hours and hours for their guide. When they did eventually turn up, they were told to focus on the dark space between stars (because apparently anyone can look at the stars themselves). Potentially a case of ‘you get what you pay for’.
Onwards travel to Arica: For our return to La Paz we had three choices – a flight (which we soon ruled out due to cost), or buses, either back through the bumpy, dusty roads to Uyuni that we’d just endured or via Arica, a route that appeared to have many fans online. Unsurprisingly, we decided to head further north into Chile – first on a night bus to Arica and then continuing on to La Paz on a day bus.
A quick stop on our way further north, Arica is a lovely seaside city. Their weather is nice, the people are friendly and though we didn’t spend much time exploring, we did get a good feeling from the town.
Accommodation: 1 nights in a private room at Residencial Tres Soles @ ARS202.50 each/night (USD11.60/NZD16.40)
Onwards travel to La Paz: Local bus @ CLP8,000 each (USD12.65/NZD18.25) including a delicious lunch – the first proper lunch we’ve been served on a bus (and still, the only one to date!)
La Paz, Bolivia
Our second visit to La Paz, this time we weren’t there to tick off activities but to recharge our batteries and soak up the city. Our newfound hostel was a big improvement on the last one so we’d definitely recommend staying there.
Accommodation: 2 nights at Landscape – International B&B in a private double room @ BOB67.37 each/night (USD9.75/NZD14)
Activites: We caught the red cablecar up to the El Alto markets (BOB3 per person/per ride) and though it was a way to fill the time, it really didn’t compare to the Chichi Markets in Guatemala. The markets are worth a visit if you’ve got time on your hands but, to be honest, we preferred the tourist markets in the middle of town… that is unless you’re in the market for car parts, badly-made knock-off clothing and general household supplies!
Onwards travel to Copacabana: Bolivia Hop. This is a great service provided for travellers – for a set price, they’ll generally pick you up from your accommodation and will drop you at your next home-away-from-home. We picked up the full pass which includes our transport all the way from La Paz, Bolivia through to Lima, Peru (with the exception of one side trip up to the Amazon).
A cute little lakeside town, Copacabana doesn’t offer a heck of a lot more than relaxation but it does it well. It’s a nice place to spend a night or two and due to its size, it’s super easy to get around by foot.
Accommodation: 1 night in a private room at Hostal 6 de Agosto @ BRL40 each/night (USD5.75/NZD8.30). Basic accommodation but good value for the price – we had a private bathroom with warm(ish) water and relatively comfortable beds – be sure to take singles for everyone in your group though as the double beds weren’t as good.
Activites: Afternoon trip to Isla del Sol. We caught the Bolivia Hop ferry over to what was known as the birthplace of the sun during Inca times. The island itself was beautiful but the one hike from our dropoff point to that of collection was relatively quick – if you’re interested in seeing the island properly, we’d probably suggest spending a night there. BOB70 (USD10.15/NZD14.65)
Onwards travel to Puno: Bolivia Hop – they collected us from the big white anchor statue on the lakefront.
Puno was so much bigger than we’d expected! It’s not a particularly memorable city but did have a busy main street serving up reasonable food (a ‘tourist menu’ will get you three courses for approximately PEN20 (USD6.15/NZD8.90) and it serves its purpose well, acting as the jumping off point to the floating islands.
Accommodation: 1 night in a private room at Suite Independencia @ PEN30 each/night (USD9.25/NZD13.35). This was a special price availed through our Bolivia Hop passes.
Activites: Afternoon visit to Uros. Here we visited locals living as they have for generations (more or less) on floating islands made of reeds. I’m not entirely sure what I made of the experience to be honest – although the islands themselves were intriguing and we snapped some lovely photos we did feel very much like we were only welcome on the island if we spent up large. As with any experience like this, I would have much more interest in interacting with the locals than simply being seen as an ATM. Would I recommend others to visit? Probably, as I do think I’d have been disappointed if I’d not experienced the community for myself, but I’m not 100% sold on the experience. We’ll let you make up your own mind. PEN35 each (USD10.80/NZD15.60).
Onwards travel to Cusco: Good ol’ Bolivia Hop, by way of an overnight bus. Once we arrived into Cusco, they organised taxis to take us to our individual hostels.
The cultural capital of Peru, Cusco offers travellers so much – delicious food, unique cultural sites, unbeatable trekking and lots of adventure – it’s hard to tear yourself away!
Accommodation: 2 nights in a private room at Magic Cusco Hostel, followed by a break to visit Machu Picchu and another night upon our return. PEN20 each/night (USD6.15/NZD8.90). I returned from Machu Picchu unwell and Esperanza very kindly let me sleep throughout the day at no extra charge. She doesn’t speak a great deal of English but was very patient with us and incredibly kind. Though the hostel’s a little way out of town, Uber is cheap and it’s worth staying out of the city to experience her hospitality (and to get a real duvet – oh my goodness!)
Though there are plenty of reasons to visit Cusco, Machu Picchu really is the grand-daddy of them all. This incredible site reveals more and more of its secrets each year but so much is still unknown.
There are numerous ways of getting to this historic site, from a comfy train to challenging, multi-day treks. We opted for something in the middle – what we would consider the most exciting way to get to Machu Picchu – the Inca Jungle Trek.
We booked through Peru Andean Hop where our fee of USD240 each (PEN778/NZD348.45) included mountain biking, rafting, ziplining, accommodation for three nights, guides, food, transfers, entrance to Machu Picchu (along with a guided tour of the site) and the train back.
After biking, rafting, zip-lining and hiking our way to Machu Picchu (part of it along the original Inca Trail) we opted to catch the bus up to Machu Picchu (lining up from 3.30am – ouch!) for USD12 each. It was a fairly costly bus ride but considering we arrived at the top feeling fresh and in time to make our 6.10am tour, it was well worth it. At the end of our visit, we hiked our way back down the steps and our choice was totally reaffirmed – there’s no way I would have made it up all those steps at 5am!
With a new timing system recently introduced, we picked up some helpful tips (and almost came undone in the process) – stay tuned for our Machu Picchu post where we’ll fill you in on everything you need to know.
Onwards travel to Puerto Maldonado (the Amazon): After returning to Cusco and spending a night recuperating, we caught a night bus (the best salon cama we’ve experienced so far!) with Excluciva @ PEN50 each (USD15.40/NZD22.25).
Lessons Learnt on the Road
- Toilet paper is not a given. We’ve found hostels and guesthouses in the cities supply toilet paper but as soon as you get out of a city, it’s not guaranteed. We’ve always travelled with a little toilet paper as a backup but here it is sometimes an absolute necessity.
- Hot showers in Bolivia aren’t always so hot. Most showers in Bolivia employ a little electric water heater right on the shower-head. Aside from the risk of electrocution, they’re unreliable at the best of times.
- You do get used to putting your toilet paper in the bin! I didn’t think it would happen, but it kind of has.
- Bouncing around different currencies is difficult. Even as I write this, I find it hard to convert between Soles and Bolivianos – thank goodness for XE.
- We can afford to eat out again! Bolivia and Peru are both significantly cheaper than our original destinations (Chile, Argentina and Brazil) so we can finally afford to eat out. A good sized meal can cost as little as PEN8-12 each (USD2.45-3.70) if you look in the right places and even less in Bolivia. We had initially planned on cooking for ourselves sometimes but we’ve actually found it really difficult to source fresh meat here so it’s not happening at this stage.
I remember when Machu Picchu felt like a distant thought on our Latin American journey so to not only have visited but to have it behind us now feels totally surreal. We have lots more excitement on the horizon though with some more amazing hikes in Peru lined up and the most amazing cruise through the Galapagos.
Sometimes it’s hard not to pinch ourselves!
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