Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ar Ais Abhaile

So the morning after I typed the last post we packed up our backpacks (and 2 newly acquired suitcases to accomodate all the shopping we did in the States) for the very last time. We got a taxi to the airport and got on a plane to Heathrow. We had a bit of luck and managed to get our seats upgraded. Our flight was delayed but we arrived into Heathrow close enough to the scheduled time. We barely made our next flight though. We had 5 security checks to go through before we could board and eneded up skipping past the last queue and running all the way to the boarding gate. We just about made it and the flight took off just as it started snowing. We were really lucky because just after that the weather caused major delays everywhere.
I had hoped Dad might be working in the airport but since he wasn't we got another taxi instead. We met him just as we were letting ourselves in the door at home and he was coming down the stairs. Paul came home next and then Mum arrived in the door a little bit later. She definitely got a bigger shock than Paul and Dad. Lots of screaming and hugging.
We called up to the Foster's house in the middle of Caroline's birthday party. Lots more screaming and hugging there and Fossie finally got to hold his niece Lizzie for the first time.
It was a great surprise for everyone, and we were both delighted to be home and to see everybody after such a long time.

We had one more surprise in store though...

We got engaged when we were in the Grand Canyon. After we did the boat ride on the bottom and while we were waiting for the helicopter to come back and pick us up Fossie got down on one knee. Of course I was thrilled and said yes! We kept it to ourselves until we got home though.

So 335 days and 26 flights later, our little adventure is over. We had an absolutely amazing year, saw some spectacular sights, and had some amazing experiences. It really was a once in a lifetime opportunity and we're so glad we did it. Hopefully we'll have the chance to see a little bit more of the world in the not too distant future!

Jan and Paul

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mexico, Vegas and LA

Well it's been a while since the last post. The internet in Mexico was very hit and miss, in Vegas it was very expensive and in LA we've been very busy.
When we crossed the border to Mexico our first stop was at the Mayan ruins in Palenque. They were a bit similar to the ones in Tikal, but different at the same time.

Then we had a bumpy bus journey to San Criostobal, literally. They have so many speed bumps in Mexico, it's crazy! San Criostobal was a lovely little town up in the highlands. There wasn't all that much to do there but it was a nice place just to wander around. It was freezing while we were there though. In that region of Mexico (Chiapas), the Mayan culture is still really alive. We went to visit a Mayan village called San Juan Chamula. It was nice to see that although they have kept there traditions, and in many ways live similarly to their ancestors, they're not stuck in the dark ages. The church in the village was really interesting. Technically the people would say they are Catholic, but they banished the priest a long time ago. They don't celebrate any masses in the church, instead it's like a communal place for prayer. They have some very un-Catholic prayer rituals that involve lighting different colour candles in different arrangments what they're praying for, hanging mirrors around the Saints necks', and sacrificing chickens!!! Unfortunately we couldn't take pictures in there but it was very different to any church I've ever seen.

From San Cristobal we headed to Puerto Escondido on the Pacific coast. It was 6 days of nothing but sun, sea and sand. We loved every minute of it. The weather was perfect and the beaches were spectacular.

Our last stop was Mexico City. After getting so lazy at the beach we didn't really do too much for our 2 days in the city. We stayed in the Old Quarter and really just spent most of our time strolling around there. We were amazed to find out that because Mexico city is built on land reclaimed from the lake, it's sinking rapidly. Some of the buildings would rival the Leaning Tower of Piza. A disaster waiting to happen!

Two flights later and we were in Vegas. It lived up to up to our expectations. It's like nowhere else in the world. In one day you can climb the Eiffel tower, see the Empire State Building and  ride a gondala through Venice!
We just about managed to get out to the Grand Canyon. Our flight was initially cancelled due to SNOW but it cleared up and we got a later flight. Once our 18 seater plane toucher down we were straight into a helicopter that brought us down to the canyon floor.

The views down there as we floated along the Colorado River were breathtaking. It's really spectacular. After the chopper took back up we had a bit of time to admire the views from up there too.

The next day we took a spin out to the Hoover Dam. That was amazing too, and even more so when you think about how it was made without the technology and modern tools we have nowadays.

We did manage to squeeze in a little bit of gambling. Had a little bit of luck at the start but of course put it all back into the slots. Well, it was only $20. It was crazy to see some of the amounts that some people were gambling ... and losing.

We flew to LA then and landed to lovely Irish weather. A perfect day to hit the mall!
Yesterday we went to Disneyland. We both loved it. Our favorite ride was definitely Thunder Mountain. We did it 3 times. Meeting Mickey Mouse was another highlight.

The parade was wonderful too, really magical and Christmassy.

And they had a brilliant fireworks show to top off the day.

Today we took a tour of Hollywood. Got to see the homes of some of the stars including J-Lo, Cher, Justin Timberlake, the Spelling Mansion and the Playboy Mansion (no bunnies in sight though.) We did the Walk of Fame too.

So it we haven't too long left now. Let's hope it won't be so hectic. Can't wait to see everyone.

Jan and Paul.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Guatemala and the Amazing Technicolour Chicken Buses (& Nicaragua too)

After a long bus journey from Monteverde we arrived in Granada, Nicaragua. It was a really pretty little colonial city, but there wasn't really much to do there. We spent a day just chilling out in hammocks at Laguna Apoyo, a volcanic crater lake and then headed on to Esteli. It#s a real cowboy town that was significant in the civil war because it was the last town to fall, and forced the end of the Samoza rule, bringing democracy to the country.
Then we had to fly over Honduras becuase the political situation there isn't the greatest and they suspended all civil liberties about a month ago for a while, and we didn't fancy getting stuck there. It wasn't too bad though because we flew Business Class, it was US$50 cheaper than economy.
We spent only spent the one day in Guatemala city because of all the warnings about how dangerous it was. Our next stop was Antigua. It was so nice we stayed there a bit longer than we intended. It was all cobbled streets, cute little houses, and an overload of churches, some of them in ruins. The highlight there was probably the trip to visit volcan Pacaya. It's one of 3 active volcanoes in Guatemala. We weren't allowed to hike to the crater because it was so active when we were there, but we did get to within about 5m of a lava flow. It was amazing. About 20m up hill from where we were standing we could see red hot molten lava oozing out of the volcano.

It cooled quickly and lost it's redness but was still hot enough to toast marshmallows over by the time it reached us.

Our trip was cut a bit short when the wind picked up and sent some rocks/mini-boulders hurtling in our direction.

From Antigua we headed to Chichicastengo for the famous market there. We arrived the day before the market so we got to see all the vendors arriving from the nearby villages. They were carrying all their wares on their backs, as well as the sticks to assemble their stalls. They have such hard lives, we wouldn't work animals as hard at home. Most of the stuff there was handmade, there were some really amazing weavings and textiles. You'd be ashamed when you see gringos (like us) bargaing the prices down to a pittance, and you wonder how the people manage to survive on that sort of income at all.

From Chichi, it was a very long night bus to Flores, to see the Mayan ruins in Tikal. They were really impressive, some of them were huge. When you climbed up the tall ones all you could see was the jungle canopy with the tops of some of the other ruins poking out, real Indiana Jones stuff.

Ok so the chicken buses...
Chicken buses are what becomes of US school buses when they get too old or unsafe to transport American kids around. Central America is like the graveyard for these deathtraps, but somehow they manage to resusitate them and pimp them up to the last. Think lots of chrome, brightly colored paintjobs, and so many lights that at night time they're like a crazy funfair ride. Actually getting on one at night wouldn't be too different from a crazy funfair ride. They're bad enough by day.
Once they're all done up they're paired with drivers, whose only neccessary qualification for the job is that they were boy racers in former lives.
Anyway inside these beauties there are no individual seats, but two rows of bench type seats. Originally, one row was made for 3 schoolkids, but in reality only takes 2 and a half adult sized rears. The other would probably have fit 2 children but is only big enough for one and a half fully grown (or overgrown) behinds.
In Guatemala it seems to be the fashion to remove the smaller benches and replace them with the larger ones. This makes the aisle ridiculously narrow, and impossibly so if you've got a big backpack on, as we found out when we literally could fit on the bus from Guatemala City to Antigua. That was fun.
Anyway on our way back from Chichi, the bus was fairly full by the time it picked us up. This meant that we were the 3rd people on the 2 and a half seater benches. So only one ass cheek got a seat. There was 3 people on the bench opposite me so that meant myself and the guy on the opposite bench were actually propping each other up and stopping each other from sliding of the bench and crashing into the aisle, as our crazy driver sped around the hairpin bends without even considering slowing down. My hands actually cramped up from gripping the rail in front of me so hard.
But some people manage to get quite comfy on the buses. About an hour into the journey, the guy in the seat across the aisle from me, who is actually sitting next to me, decides he knows me well enough to fall asleep on my shoulder. I woke him up when I started laughing at him.
However, the real beauty of the chicken buses is that they have an unlimited capacity for passengers. Just when you think they're full (i.e. at least 3 people crammed into every seat and the tiny aisle full of people) they manage to squeeze another 20 people in. The upside to this is that you don't have to worry about sliding off the bench anymore, becuase you are jammed in so tightly that you couldn't move even if you wanted too. The downside is having someone's ass in your face for the last hour and a half of the journey.
I suppose for €2.50 for a 3 hour journey, we probably shouldn't complain!

Jan and Paul.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Panama and Costa Rica

Well after the Inca Trail we said goodbye to South America and boarded a plane to Panama. While we were in the city we went to see the Panama Canal. The whole set-up there was very impressive. We went to the Miraflores locks nearest the city. There's 2 lanes and both have 4 gates and 3 separate sections to change the water level. We got to see 2 big boats passing through them and were surprised how quickly they got from the first gate out to the ocean at the other side, only took about half an hour. Most boats pass through the whole canal in less than 24 hours.

You can see how the water changes level here.

After that we headed to a little town called Boquete in the Panamanian highlands. Apparently it grows the best coffee in the world (since the gold medal for coffee has been won by Boquete coffee farms for the last number of years.) We couldn't miss the chance to do a coffee tour there. We were both surprised by how interesting it was to learn about and see the whole process from picking the coffee fruit to grinding and packaging the beans. Needless to say we're both coffee experts now ( though I still take mine with milk and sugar, much to our guide's disappointment), so there'll be no more No-es-Cafe for us. (No-es-Cafe is the nickname for Nescafe, it literally means 'it's not coffee', they use the reject beans for that.)

Next it was on to San Jose (Costa Rica), obviously humming Do You Know the Way to San Jose all the way there. Didn't get up to too much there, just had a bit of a wander around the city.

From there we got a bus to La Fortuna to see the Arenal Volcano. It's the most active volcano in Costa Rica, a land full of them. But of course the night we went to see it it was too cloudy to catch a glimpse of anything, not to mind see lava pouring froming the crater like it had been the night before. At least we got to see some wildlife and nice plants on the way there.

See it smoking?

Part of that tour was to visit hot springs in the area too. Our tour company took the cheap option though, so we actually ended up in a hot river. It was something else altogether. In the darkness we made our way down to the river's edge, waded under a bridge and ended up beneath the canopy of trees with lightening flashing overhead, while we sat in the hot water of the river. It was such an unusual experience. All the more unusual when one girl shone her torch around and I spotted something on the tree trunk that had fallen over into the river. I very calmly got up and moved away (although Foss says my face dropped.) But when she screamed SNAKE Fossie was out of there like a shot - the fastest he moved since we've been away. Anyway the rest of us stayed there a while more, feeling a bit more reassured when the guide explained that snakes being cold blooded meant they wouldn't come into the hot water of the river.

From Fortuna we made our way across the lake to Monteverde, a town known for its cloud forest reserves. Last night we did a guided night tour through one of the forests. Unfortunately we didn't see all that much wildlife, I think the heavy rain scared them all away. We did get to see an Orange-Kneed Tarantula though.

We were told they sell for $100 as pets. As if that would be enough to make me put my hand into a hole like that and try to catch one!

This morning we headed to a different forest to do a Canopy Tour. This was sooo much fun. It's basically a series of ziplines through the tree tops. There were 12 cables altogether, the longest one was 1km, the highest 540ft, and there was a 90ft rappel too. We were like Tarzan flying through the forest.

Because we only have 5 weeks in Central America to get from Panama city to Mexico city we're moving quite fast. Tomorrow we have a bus to Granada in Nicaragua. Let's hope the roads aren't too bad.

Jan and Fossie.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Inca Trail

4 days - 23 hours trekking - 46 km - but worth every aching muscle to see Machu Picchu and some of the other amazing Incan sites along the way.
Our first day we got as bus as far as Kilometer 82 (on the railway line) where the trail begins.

We started off mostly flat that day with a few gentle uphill bits. It was nice to break us in gradually. After lunch was a different story though, especially the last 2 hours, they were tough going. But at least we knew we were finished for the day when we arrived at our campsite.

It was an early start the next day. Wake up call was at 5.30am and we were on the trail by 6.15am. I don't think I've ever been up and active that early in my life before! This was definitely the hardest section. About 3 1/2 hours to the top of Dead Woman's Pass (4215m above sea level). It was torturous. By the time we could see the top I was so worn out and it was so steep it was literally 20 steps, take a break, 20 more, catch my breath ...

We made it to the top just in time to admire the view before the clouds set in.

After the struggle to get to the top, what else would you do only go back down. We had about 2 hours of really steep down hill to our lunch spot.And of course that was followed by another massive climb to the second highest pass of the trek, where we had a break

before yet another descent. Crazy stuff! Why the Inca's couldn't just flatten it out a bit is beyond me.

It poured rain that night, but luckily we woke up to clear skies and a great view of the valley in the morning.

We started off with a nice gentle section that would have been easy if our legs weren't in bits after all the up and down the previous day. Luckily it was only a half day of walking until we got to the Intipata site, and our campsite was very close.

That afternoon we visited Winaywayna. This was my favourite site along the trail. we just rounded a bend and there it was. Really outstanding. All the terraces were for farming. Our guide told us they layered gravel, then sand, then soil to make it more fertile and improve drainage. At the top of the site is a natural spring and they built a seies of fountains and channels to bring the water down as far as the houses.

On the last morning we were up before the sun and started the final leg at 5am. At Intipunku (Sungate) we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu through the cloud cover.

We hung around for a bit and luckily it cleared up.

By the time we got down there it was scorching. We had a guided tour of the site first and then had some free time to wander around ourselves. It's a really amazing site. It's hard to comprehend the scale of it from the photo's and even in real life. They reckon that maybe 500 people lived there in the Incan period.

So that was the Inca Trail. A challenging but fantastic experience.

Jan and Paul

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quick Link

Here's a link to our Inca Trail Trek. We're starting it tomorrow.
Any thoughts and prayers on Thursday to help us get to the top of Dead Woman's Pass will be much appreciated : )

Jan and Paul.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Most Dangerous Road and on to Peru

While we were in La Paz (it seems like ages ago) we decided to cycle down the World's Most Dangerous Road. It is a 64km long stretch of twisting dirt road that is cut into the side of a mountain and descends over 3,400m from start to finish. To the right, there is a towering cliff face with occasional rock overhangs and waterfalls washing the road away, to the left, a sheer drop of over 1,000m (3,300 ft.) And as luck would have it, it's the only road in Bolivia where they drive on the left, meaning we had to ride along the edge of the road, right beside the death-defying drop!

We had a fantastic day, although we were aching the day afterwards. At least the only thing we had to do was sit on a bus that took us over the border to the Peruvian town of Puno. The main attraction there is Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake apparently. It's home to this wierd little group of floating islands, called the Uros Islands, made from reeds. The ground, the houses, everything there is made from reeds. St. Brigid would have been proud!

We also went to Amantani, one of the islands further out on the lake, not a floating one, and spent a night in a homestay there. It was really nice to stay with Peruvian family and experience a day in their life.

While we were on the island they had a 'fiesta' for us and we got to dress up in traditional island clothing.

After Puno we went to Arequipa and from there did a side trip to Colca Canyon, a well know trekking area. For some crazy, idiotic, insane reason one of the most popular treks is to hike it down to the bottom of the canyon there, a mere 1200m descent, have a swim in the pools down there, and then try to haul yourself back up again. Obviously that's exactly what we did! Even though we were kind of aware of the stupidity of it beforehand, the point was really hammered home as we tried to drag ourselves back up the steep, winding, dirt path. It took us about twice as long as it had to get down there!

On the way back from Colca Canyon we stopped off at Cruz del Condor to see the condors that live there. Amazing birds that drift on currents of hot air, really big once they get close.

After Arequipa it was on to Nazca, where we  flew over the Nazca lines, in what could only be described as a toy plane.

They're fairly certain at this stage that the lines were created by ancient Nazcan people, not aliens as once believed. But they're not 100% sure why they created these lines that could only be seen from the air in an era when there was no flying. One opinion was that they were for the benifit of the Shamans (ancient priests). When the priests got high they believed they could fly and so the people created the lines to provide a bit of scenery for these drug induced 'flights'.

After Nazca, we visited Pisco to go out to the Islas Ballestas. They're nicknamed the poormans Gallapagos, and that suited us fine since we won't be going to Ecuador.
The islands were literally covered with birds (we got to see penguins, pelicans, comorants and lots of others), and the rocks were dotted with sealions.

Apparently they make a fortune from collecting guana from the islands, that is they harvest the bird shit!

Our next stop was Lima. We've had a lazy few days here because we got here a bit earlier than intended since we didn't go to Rurrenabaque. To be honest it's been nice to laze around and not really do much. We saw some of the city sights, but nothing really stood out.

Tomorrow we head to Cusco and have a few days to try and get re-acclimatised to the altitude before we do the Inca Trail. Then it's on to Central America, scary hown close to the end of the journey we are!

Anyway would love to hear from anyone reading the blog, we're getting as little bit homesick at this stage.

Jan and Paul