James and I had had quite a long discussion about exactly how to end our trip. I mean, there have been so many amazing, incredible highlights: how can you possibly find something to cap it all off?

Then we had a brainwave. Easter falling unseasonably early this year, as it did, mean that the Lent period also started strangely early. And of course that means only one thing: Carnaval. Perfectly timed to fit in with our planned South American trip and a fairly big, blowout ending to the trip.


Of course, being us, we came to the rapid conclusion that just being in Rio, the mother of all Carnaval cities, at the time to enjoy the Carnaval festivities, wasn’t enough. Sure, we could get tickets to watch the Samba parades and maybe take part in some general all round town partying, but we needed something more. I mean, you’ve seen our trip, and it’s been pretty world class. We wanted something extra special, just for us. That’s right, we wanted to PERFORM in Carnaval. Which, a short internet browse and a hefty download of cash later (ouch) we realized was perfectly possible. So we booked it all up, sometime back in December or so, and carried merrily on with our trip.

So we were kind of excited to arrive in Rio. We started off quietly enough, with a nice dinner (and a couple of caipirinhas) and a lovely day down on Copacabana beach, with some more caipirinhas to get us in the party spirit. Plus some good espresso, of course, I mean it was only 11 in the morning after all…… And we started to practice our Samba song (four verses, all in Portuguese, insanely dull) in earnest (once getting a standing ovation from our audience in the bar. OK, it was just the barman, but it still counts!).

Then we went to pick up our costumes. Reader, they were BIG. And GOLDEN. And very very very GLITTERY. It was love at first sight. (They were also extremely large, unwieldly and heavy so we were cursing a little by the time we got them back to the hotel, but hey, I’m a lover of insanely high heels as well. A little inconvenience does not in any way diminish the love).

We were really excited by now, but as yet still had little idea of what we’d actually be doing in said costumes. So we headed to the Sambadrome that night to see our first Samba parade and find out what it was all about.

The Samba parades are actually very carefully structured, rhythmed, and rehearsed events, with thousands of people participating and maybe another hundred thousand watching. In essence, though, it’s basically about one thing: glitz’n’glamour. I was in heaven. Oh, and bottoms. Lots of big wibbling bottoms. James was in heaven. For those interested in the technicalities, each school (they’re called schools rather than clubs because it means they don’t get taxed!) has a strict format to follow, with 2-3 flag bearers (ladies in ENORMOUS skirts accompanied by their “prince”), a set number of floats supported by wings of samba-ing performers, 2-3 sets of whirling ladies (more enormous skirts), the drummers and, of course, the drum queens. They’ll be the ones you instinctively associate with Carnaval, the ladies clad in nothing other than enormous amounts of body glitter, a bejeweled pair of knickers and several ostriches worth of feathers. They of the enormous wibbly bottoms. They’re absolutely gorgeous and more than a little terrifying.

It’s an incredible sight to see and I can’t recommend it enough. We watched until our eyes started to glaze and heads explode from the sensory overload of hypnotic samba drums combined with the whirling, glittering colourful onslaught that is a parading school. We left at three in the morning.

Exhausted, but very very excited. We’d just watched one of the greatest shows on earth. Next night, we’d be part of it.

Critterwatch! Iguazu

Of course the Iguazu falls are absolutely spectacular. But strangely, half the reason we ended up having such a happy time in the national parks surrounding the falls was as much about the surrounding jungly stuff as it was about the falls themselves. This is the closest we really got in South America to full on Amazon style jungle intrepidness, and we were lucky enough to see all kinds of cool stuff. No, unfortunately no jaguars (though I did do my finest jaguar attracting call several times a day) and not even any tapirs. But we did see pretty much all the other very typically Amazonian forest dwellers: a caiman hanging about conveniently just underneath the bridge we were standing on; a toucan posing nicely in a tree just above us. Also a very Iguazu only sight – an enormous big predatory fish whose name I can’t recall, bit like a catfish but bigger, which only dwell in the river beneath the falls – the falls act as such a massive segregator that essentially there are two entirely different ecosystems above and below.

Then of course there were the park’s resident menaces: monkeys and coatis. Or as I call them, attack coatis. Yep, that branch of animalhood that is sufficiently cute that all the park goers feed them junk food and them wonder why the animals turn vicious and try to bite anyone with food. Or anyone who doesn’t try to feed them. Or basically anyone who comes a bit close and looks at them funny. It’s one of my major pet hates in life (not just because of the time in Gibraltar when the monkey stole my ice cream although that does still rankle. I mean, I was 25!!) and poor old James got treated to extensive discourses on the subject. In between having to protect me from the sharp teeth and ravening claws of the attack coatis, of course. Just because they’re only 12 inches high doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be scared of them.

I think what I’ll remember most about the park though is wandering through the forest’s dappled shade surrounded by butterflies. There were THOUSANDS of butterflies. Butterflies EVERYWHERE, on our clothes, our shoes, our hands…..

Absolutely incredible.

My Hero…

So, hiking in Torres del Paine like the intrepid adventurers we are. Hurrah for us!

Only on the last morning there, I did something epically stupid. I left my passport, safely wrapped up in its executive money belt, underneath the pillow of my bunk bed in the hostel. The hostel that is a 2 hour hike up a mountain. And then a further half hour bus ride away to get to the exit to the park. And then a further hour and a half or so bus ride from the exit of the park to the point where I realized that I didn’t actually have my money belt on, and stopped breathing for a moment or so.

Of course, what with there only being 2 buses a day to take you out of the park, by the time I realized this, it was 3.00 pm. By the time we got back to the hotel at the start of the hike up to the hostel, it was about 5.15 pm, and the last bus out of the park leaves at 7pm. And of course, we had a fairly hectic schedule of travel lined up over the following days, starting with a 12 hour bus ride leaving at 7am the following day, and a plane ride the following day at 8am. So without a passport, we were at the very least in for a few days of intensive hassle and several hundred dollars in travel cancellation fees. At the worst we’d (well, I’d) have had to go to Santiago to collect an emergency travel document…travelling by bus. For approximately 40 hours.

Oh and I’d been on the phone to the hostel a total of 3 times by this point. First time to hear that they hadn’t seen anything, but that they’d go and take a look for me. Second time, to assure me that they had now cleaned and searched the entire hostel top to bottom and still not turned up a passport. Third time to re-iterate that they had of course looked everywhere, including underneath the pillow of bunk 18 as I’d asked, and that the passport was nowhere to be found.

Safe to say that life was not looking good. I mean, what’s the chance of completing a 2 hour hike up the mountain, searching a rather large hostel for a rather small money belt that hasn’t been turned up by a team of hostel workers in 2 thorough searches, successfully discovering such passport, then hiking another 2 hours down the mountain, all within the just over hour and a half we had left before the bus left??

Enter James, in future to be known as My Hero.

He did it. RAN up the mountain in about 45 minutes. Spent 10 minutes scoffing chocolate to recover, before finding the passport…..yes, you guessed it, underneath the pillow of bunk 18, right where I’d left it, ran DOWN the mountain in half an hour and made it to the bus with 5 minutes to spare.

I’d say no sweat, but that might not have been ENTIRELY true……

Still, I think that that’s pretty darn amazing and I owe my lovely husband-to-be an epically sized thank-you!

Worst EVER location to forget one's passport... 2 hours up a VERY large hill.....

Worst EVER location to forget one’s passport… 2 hours up a VERY large hill…..

A brief update….

Well, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks.  Rio, New York, London.  Hiking, parading, and generally strutting our stuff.

But not much time for blogging.  Sorry.

AND we’re fast approaching the end of our trip and, with that, the end of this particular series of blogs.  Fortunately, whilst we weren’t blogging over the last couple of weeks we were doing some pretty fun stuff so hopefully we’ll go out with a bang!

And hey, you only need to keep on reading our drivel for a few more posts… hang on in there!!

Polar Plunge!!

James is much braver than me. Also much less susceptible to the cold and with less heebie jeebies about deep water.

So he got to do the polar plunge, whilst I relied on the protection of needing (needing I tell you) to be our photographer for the occasion to avoid having to dive off the ship, into the ocean, just off the Antarctic peninsula. Water temperature: oh, about 2 degrees Celsius.

And just for added fun, he knew that from where I was standing (armed with camera. Did I mention the importance, nay vitality, of recording this occasion?), it was actually quite tricky to see the people diving into the ocean until they were quite far out, so he made an extra special effort to do a really long dive so I’d be able to catch him. In fact, he probably spent the longest in the water of anyone on the ship.

Crazy mad fool.

[Manly voice] "AAAAAGGGGHHH. It's FREEZING!!!!!!!"

[Manly voice] “AAAAAGGGGHHH. It’s FREEZING!!!!!!!”

Five hours later...

Five hours later…

Day Two: The Antarctic Strikes Back

Apologies for the slight delay in the next installment of our coverage of the Antarctica cruise – we’ve been hiking for the last week and hence rather out of email and web contact.

So. Where were we?

Ah, yes, we’d had day one (of three) of our landings, which had all been in the South Shetland Islands, a hundred miles north or so of the actual Antarctica peninsula. Whilst we’d had a lovely time and seen oodles of penguins we were both, at this point, slightly ambivalent about whether or not the trip was all we’d dreamed of…..

Maybe the expedition team sensed that too. The ship we happened to be on had a very short itinerary – 3 days of landings as opposed to the usual 4 days – and the expedition team had decided during the day that they were going to try to step things up a bit. As we arrived back on ship, they told us that for the next 2 days, we’d be going on 3 landings / zodiac trips per day (usually it’s just two), and that we could sensibly expect to be pretty darn knackered by the end of it all….but also pretty darn happy with all we’d seen.

So we went to bed feeling a little more optimistic….and woke up feeling really a LOT more optimistic. To be precise, what woke us was an announcement over the PA telling us that a humpback whale was close to the ship, and those in cabins on the starboard side (ours) might contemplate looking out their windows. Four bleary eyed footsteps later, we were about 50 foot away when the whale next breached and spent the next 5 minutes generally hanging about the place looking whale-y and waving its fin at us. The best and certainly biggest alarm call I have ever had!

Things were looking up.

As importantly, overnight we’d travelled to the Antarctic peninsula itself, so the scenery now was kind of what you expect: snow; mountains; glaciers; icebergs. Lots of icebergs.

So, off for excursion one: a zodiac cruise in the brilliant sunshine, gliding through fields of icebergs all gleaming blue with the snow-capped mountains sparkling in the background. For company, teams of penguins flying through the water next to the boat and the occasional elephant seal. It was without doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever been; alone, for me, it would probably have made the entire voyage worthwhile. And that was just half of our first excursion of the day. As we came ashore to Cuverville Island we were greeted by a penguin tobogganing down the snowy slope towards us which, for whatever reason, was one of the things I’d really wanted to see (and it’s just as cute in real life as on TV). The sense that someone, somewhere was coordinating all of this to give us some kind of uber-Antarctic experience was only heightened as we watched a penguin fight off a skua that had just killed its chick (did I mention that the penguins all had chicks? Have you any idea how RIDICULOUSLY adorable a parent and chick penguin are??).

A little time back on board to cruise through the (spectacular) Gerlache straits before we headed off for our next trip, to Neko Harbour. More penguins, of course, and some more chicks, but the main attraction is both the harbour itself – very scenic – and, of course, bareback tobogganing (well, hey, the expedition team didn’t want us getting bored now). And yes, it’s pretty exhilarating to slide down a 100 ft snowy slope ending up close to a beach which is deserted other than for a few penguins and a resting seal.

How do you top all that?

A post dinner zodiac cruise, apparently. Again, this was more about the scenery and the general atmosphere than the wildlife, and so we didn’t take our camera just so that we could both relax and appreciate the view. Sorry about that – it was rather spectacular, particularly the part where a glacier calved a couple of large icebergs, whilst we were quietly resting in our zodiac, engine off, a few hundred metres away, sipping our mugs of warm mulled wine and listening to the icebergs crack. A bit more time to enjoy the sun setting over the ice, then back to ship for a well earned rest before tomorrow’s escapades.

We’d had the most amazing day and any doubts we’d had about the cruise were long gone now. Looking forward to the next day, we kind of figured that anything else from here would just be gravy – I mean, how much more amazing could things get?

An Antarctic Adventure

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (otherwise known as New York City, c. 2009), James and I met up with an old colleague / friend who was on his way back home from an amazing round the world trip. His personal highlight from the entire period of globetrotting? A voyage to Antarctica. A continent unexplored – we listened, amazed and somewhat saddened by the thought that we were perhaps unlikely ever to make it that far.

Roll the clock forward to 2011 when we were planning our own amazing adventure – scheduled to depart in late February 2011 for 6 months or so. Of course, that put us firmly outside the Antarctic season so, once more, we heaved a small sigh of regret at an opportunity missed.

Then came the slight shift in our plans that resulted in us moving our trip start date to late May. At the time we were pretty devastated and looking everywhere we could for small silver linings to brighten the cloud a little. We also figured out that a RTW ticket is SUBSTANTIALLY cheaper starting and finishing in South America rather than the USA or UK. So much cheaper, in fact, that it might even pay for a trip to – you guessed it – Antarctica. A plan was born.

Of course, at that time we had no real clue how much an Antarctica trip actually cost….

When we found out, after a long and laborious day’s research in Bangkok, we were a bit less certain about this whole affair. Rack rates were pretty pricey – I mean sure, penguins are cute and all, but can anything be THAT cute? We came to the conclusion that we could only really justify this part of the trip if we managed to find ourselves a good deal in some way. Cue many months of finger crossing, followed by some frantic trading of emails with various cruise agents as soon as we arrived in South America.

Result? We got lucky (of course!!), and set sail for the seventh continent. The sun was shining for us, both metaphorically and physically speaking, as we embarked on the first step of our voyage: the Drake Passage, notorious for 15-20 metre swells and the quite spectacular seasickness that accompanies them…. We on the other hand hit a sea high of about 1.5 metres, laughing cheerfully for our entire trip across the Passage, with interruptions only to indulge in our nightly 4 course dinners.

All in all then, we were feeling pretty chipper as we made our first landings of the trip, in Half Moon Island and Deception Bay, in the South Shetland Islands. And there were, indeed, many penguins And some whale bones. And some cool geological stuff that made the beach steam.

Pretty cool.

BUT: On the other hand, just how cute can penguins (even on a steaming beach) be??  I mean, even with a good deal, this trip is pretty darn expensive. And you can see penguins in Chile. And the 4 course dinners were great and all, but…..

Did we make the right call??

Don’t Cry for Me Argentina…

…The truth is, I’ve been quite happy
On an estancia
Near Buenos Aires
Just riding horses…..and eating sausage

A key part of Argentina’s heritage, estancias are the big old farm estates where Argentinian cattle are lovingly reared on an all grass diet to make them into the tastiest beasts in town. Believe it or not (and this is a Lonely Planet stat so maybe take it with some salt), Argentines each consume on average about 70 kilos of beef per year. That’s a lot of cow. Meat is something of a religion here and the cow is certainly pretty dominant in the national identity.

So we figured we’d best go see these cows on their home ground, as it were, by means of a visit to a working estancia, where the farmhouse has kindly been converted into a pretty darn luxurious hotel whilst still retaining the feel of a family house (helped not a little by the eight dogs lolling around the place and generally making a nuisance of themselves).

Life on the estancia is tough:

  • Get up, leisurely breakfast.
  • Horse ride round the estate to go look at the cows (fat, glossy, happy). There’s bulls too, which apparently are far too chilled out to be considered dangerous. The gaucho (yes, a real live gaucho, with a beret and EVERYTHING) laughingly told me that the bees were far more of a menace. You can take the girl outta the city…..
  • Laze round the pool and maybe even do a bit of hardcore swimming / yoga to try and create room in your poor beleaguered tummy before
  • Lunch. This will last most of the rest of the day, being a multi course grill extravaganza. Grilled pig (chorizo, blood sausage). Grilled chicken. Grilled cow (any cut you can think, of). Grilled lamb. If there happened to be any road kill that day, they’d probably chuck that on the grill too. Wash all the above down with some good local plonk and try not to doze off
  • Horse show. This was one of the weirdest things I’ve seen horse wise – basically a horse / gaucho bonding thang where they get the horse to lie down with them, then sort of stretch out the horse’s legs for it whilst it’s lying on its back. Check out the photos, they kind of do it more justice than I can
  • You must be pretty hungry / thirsty by now. Time for a light 3 course supper with some more plonk
  • Bed. You need it.

Repeat until full relaxation is achieved. Took all of about 45 minutes for us!
What can I say. This traveling gig can be a pretty tough job at times, but someone’s gotta do it.

Little Big Apple

Ahhhh, Argentina.

We arrived in Buenos Aires on 3 Jan after a long but rather lovely flight from London (first class! Yeah!!!). We feel we did a pretty good job in terms of value for money, all told, consuming sufficient champagne even before the flight to make us a tad on the late side for boarding….to the extent that they threatened to not let us on the plane….. Hmmm. Fortunately, they relented, and on we trotted to enjoy more vintage Bolly, the occasional movie and some well earned rest, Though for those interested in these (clearly key) matters, the BA pyjamas are a distant third vs. the Cathay and Qantas numbers.

First surprise: it’s warm in Buenos Aires in January, so out with the fleece and rain jacket and on with the sundress (James looks great in his). Even better, Buenos Aires is renowned for the excellence of its ice cream, a reputation which we put to quite some testing in the days we were there, and found to be entirely justified. Compared with a rainy January back in the UK, we started to feel quite smug.

In some ways, BA is a slightly strange town to visit when you’re traveling in a couple; the day time scene is not that hectic (other than all that ice cream eating), and rather more focused on strolling around the place, trying to get a feel for the city they call the Paris of the South. It’s the perfect excuse for leisurely strolls around the city, pausing only for the occasional recuperative cafecito. And more ice cream. But BA is far more famous for its nightlife, centred around the great triumvirate of techno, tango and, ummmm, meat.

But travelling with just the two of us makes the techno scene rather unattractive – there’s noone to persuade you that staying up until 3am to get INTO the club and then boogying until 6am sounds like a great idea, really, and James has seen all my best dance moves so many times as to no longer be that excited by them (fool that he is).

That’s ok though. We’re both great at eating meat. Or we thought we were, before our second steak dinner here. The steaks are huge (NY steakhouses seem like healthy eating paragons by comparison) and the sense of sheer weight on the old digestive system after a couple of those puppies had us signing up for a life of vegetarianism and exercise pretty fast. Still, we can enjoy tango with the best of them….just as long as we don’t try to actually dance it, that is – I’ll need several more joints in my legs before I can even begin to emulate the Argentine style with anything resembling grace. Hmm, we don’t have this BA nightlife lark as sussed as we thought.

All told? It’s town of culture and style, great food and wine; and plenty of ice cream. A great post Christmas destination to reacclimatize us to the harsh realities of life on the road.


Ballooning over Bagan

Some experiences, as they say in the Mastercard ad, really are priceless. Although disappointingly often, you need some dough to be able to afford them.

Point in case: ballooning over the temples of Bagan. I mean, there are literally hundreds of temples in the Bagan plains (yeah, I know thousands sounds better but I’m not sure there are actually thousands of the buggers – meaning I wouldn’t be able to use the word “literally” there with any kind of sincerity. And I think the literally added a certain something, y’all feel me? Not to mention the sincerity, which of course goes without question. Anyway. I digress. At this rate you’ll all start thinking this is a James blog post. Hmmm.). One could never see them all on foot. Well, obviously one could, but unless peering into hundreds of near identical temples in the stinking heat of a full Myanmar summer is really your thing, then I’m pulling the “life’s too short” card.


The total wow factor of Bagan, pretty much unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, relies on volume. The temples in themselves are wonderful, but not something you’d necessarily travel out of your way for. The temples, scattered across the plains in their hundreds (thousands? Some literary leeway here??) feel like an absolute testament to the will of man. Or maybe an act of God. Although when you look closer, you realize that the temples themselves are all really badly built – the work of the dodgy eastern European builders of a millennium ago, still standing proud after a fair old passage of time and only a small number of millions of UNESCO funding. So that should make you feel better about your downstairs extension.

And the best way to see this spectacle in all its grandeur is, without a doubt, from the air. We did this from the roofs of some nice tall temples that we spotted along the way, and that was pretty cool. And then we spent $300 each (ouch!!) and went up in some balloons, shortly before sunrise and that was completely, mind-blowingly AWESOME. Worth every penny, and this despite the fact that they made me get up at like 5 am.

Why so amazing? Well, a combination really. First the incredible view of all those temples – for the first time you really get a sense of the scale of the site. Then there’s the light – both the beautiful glow of sunrise and also the early morning river mist providing a sense of uniqueness to everything you lay eyes on. Plus the fact that you drift on by all these amazing sights with almost no noise.

It’s a verging-on-the-spiritual experience. Which is quite something given that the other occupants of our particular balloon were shooting a Digicel (mobile phone company) commercial, so our experience in the clouds was punctuated from time to time with the glorious sounds of “yeah, baby, make like you just got that text from your man”, “talk into that phone buddy” and, of course, amusing ring tones.

Travel. You can’t make this stuff up.