Category Archives: places to stay

Budgeting Tahiti

Be prepared: paradise costs a small fortune. Luckily, I was somewhat prepared for the pain. Over ten years ago some friends of mine were on a round the world ticket when they flew into Tahiti to surf, realised the cost of accommodation and living, and nearly hotfooted it straight out of the place. Beach sleeps led to police warnings but kind local bailouts meant that they ended up staying a while: surfing, fishing, catching wild pigs; all the idylls of island life.

But for most of us, accessing this reality of island life is a little more tough, and a more modern climate means accepting that everything here is a little on the pricy side.

Frustratingly, many of the trails and activities around the island have also been made into paid experiences that require a guide or a group excursion, and even a couple of the free ones require permits (see the tourist information centre for lots of information on island hikes and other activities).

In short, people have moved into Tahiti and the surrounding Society Islands and atolls and have commercialised the experience of paradise (in some places to a point that it pretty much stops being paradise, to me in any case). You can’t blame them for capitalising in on an exotic experience; it is after all, what our current world tells us to do.

Walk down the main streets of Papeete and you’ll pass by many designer shops and jewellers. Who comes here to go shopping? All the people moored up in fancy yachts, maybe, or the people who’ve jetted in on business class, or honeymooners on a romantic escape. Or regular, middle class folk who have scrimped and saved for a once in a lifetime taste of paradise. (Whether it’s actually paradise or not is a different matter). Or me and my crew. Hmmm… less likely.

I was lucky to be able to stay on board the boat for a few days because when I checked with the tourism agency about budget accommodation options, they came back to me with a guest house costing 7,200 CFP. That’s £49.07, or US$78.87. Not really budget, in my opinion, but maybe budget for the people who are more likely to frequent the Society Islands. I did some online searches, having paid a minimum of 3euros per hour for internet (no free WiFi available at all, and charged in Euros because of links with France), and I did eventually find a few backpacker friendly paces.

One little food fact that helped to keep costs down (alongside The Trucks experience) was the discovery that there is a policy on keeping the price of baguettes below 85 CFP (£0.58 / US$0.93)  so that every member of the society there has the opportunity to buy bread. Stock up on the carbs, then, and free, fallen coconuts. Maybe not the healthiest, but it’s a diet that will keep you alive. For a little while, in any case. Or go catch a fish (just be careful with those coral fish).

Here’s an idea of some costs:

Cour   de Franc Pacifique British Pound US Dollar
Cheapest hostel bed 2,000 CFP pppn £13.63 $21.90
Budget hotel bed 8,000p CFP ppn £54.52 $87.62
Taxi 1,000 CFP per km £6.82 $10.95
Sandwich 450 CFP £3.07 $4.93
Cheap roadside meal 1,200 CFP £8.18 $13.14
Water (1.5 litres) 104 CFP £0.71 $1.14
Coca-cola can 200 CFP £1.36 $2.19
Beer (50Cl) from supermarket 300 CFP £2.04 $3.29
Icecream in a cone 300 CFP £2.04 $3.29
Loaf of bread 450 CFP £3.07 $4.93
Chocolate bar 350 CFP £2.39 $3.83

Realistically, though, Tahiti and the surrounding French Polynesian islands are not the smartest place to visit if you’re travelling tight, and budget backpackers may well want to avoid the place.

Money matters momentarily put aside, solo travellers – and especially single travellers – may also want to avoid this honeymoon area. Even if you can afford it, having constant reminders of stereotyped romance mixed in with pitying looks will ultimately grate on even the most established solo adventurer and happy singleton.

Or you can just enjoy it for what it is, accept that everything is expensive and that you’ll blow your budget, and indulge in being surrounded by snippets of paradise and luxury and love.

It’s really pretty damn special.

But it’s time for me to leave. I’m all spent.

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Filed under activity & sport, beaches, costs/money, food & drink, hikes, moorea, pacific, places to stay, solo travel, tahiti

Is paradise in Bolivia?

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Are you wearing anti mosquito spray?’ Cris asked suddenly in a curt manner, ‘because we don’t do that here, we’re an organic farm’. I flinched. Yes, it had been one of the occasions that I had used some of the dreaded DEET, but feeling ill and in real need of a hug, this question felt like an attack that put me into a naughty child headspace. This happy, hippy experience was threatening to be a whole lot less healing than I had hoped.

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The red rock face just above Ginger's Paradise

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The shaky bridge over to the start of the path to Ginger's Paradise

Twenty minutes earlier, together with four other travellers, I was dropped off after a two-hour journey on the verge of the Santa Cruz-Cochabamba Highway alongside a lone motorbike and a handcrafted sign set against a backdrop of red rock face mountains. We crossed a rickety wooden bridge that hung lazily across the Bermejo River, the gateway to a scattering of habitations, pretty mud pathways and a little organic idyll known as Ginger’s Paradise.

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The gringo house at Ginger's Paradise

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Downstairs sleeping options at Ginger's Paradise

We dropped our bags at a deserted, colourful house and, following instructions left pinned to the front door, walked deeper into a jungly landscape that started to twinkle with fireflies as dusk set in.

Cristobel, dressed in off-whites dirtied with smudges of soil met us along the path. His work on the land was nearly over for the day and he welcomed us with a smile and a handshake. And that cutting comment. I had to make a conscious decision not to let it affect my stay and my judgements, which was actually fairly easy because I did understand why it mattered.

During my short stay in Ginger’s Paradise I ate great, wholesome food and sung along silently to well-known songs and improvised guitar strums in the evenings. I listened to the chatter of insects and to the stories of my host and other travellers. I bathed in the river, dunked my head in fresh water and watched locals wobble across the bridge on their way to school and work. I got my elbows deep into soapy suds whilst I washed a stack load of sheets to part-pay my stay, and I played dominos with one of the children and a gentle, volunteering French couple.

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The bathroom at Ginger's Paradise

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Part-paying my way at Ginger's Paradise

Before I had decided to go to Ginger’s Paradise I did a little research on the place and most reviews I read were damning.

To clear a few things up, there is a cow that you can milk at the farm and chickens run around the grounds. There are compost toilets on site that are cleaned every day and as electricity is generated by solar and a bike hooked up to a charger, at times it can be temperamental. There isn’t a shower easily available (and it is a bit awkward to ask to use the shower in the main family house) but providing you embrace this rustic lifestyle, the river really is a beautiful place for a refreshing, calm morning wash. Foodwise I really can only be positive: I ate three hearty meals per day with predominantly home-grown and homemade ingredients.

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Hanging out with the chickens at Ginger's Paradise

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Outdoor toilet with views at Ginger's Paradise

Cris and Sol (the couple who run the place) are friendly but I assume that the constant turnaround of visitors has meant that at times they have to be direct, however, once you get involved and show some interest in what’s going on, they are chatty and warm and interested in people’s journeys.

Some people online complained about the constant pushing of products and activities that demanded an additional payment. There are indeed extras that you can buy and do at Ginger’s Paradise, including chocolate, Lulu hairwraps and jewellery lessons, and there is an additional cost for these. If you expect this, it’s less of a surprise or a problem.

Cris himself has come under some criticism. In response: he is undoubtedly a talented musician, he does love his chess, and in many respects he is pro-drugs, possessing a considerable understanding of weed culture.

Being so far from civilisation with a guy who declared his admiration for the serial killer Charles Manson (stating that he understood Manson’s reasons for killing soap stars in an effort to stop the dumbing down of society) was not something that made me particularly comfortable, but I quickly realised that Cris seemed to get a kick out of being controversial.  It certainly stirred up conversation. Really, in my humble opinion, his heart is in the right place, even if he indulged in playing Devil’s advocate. Some critics have been pretty harsh. I say just open your mind to different people and enjoy the eccentricity.

Some people stay a good few weeks or months working and living at Ginger’s Paradise, something Sol and Cris suggested helps one to really experience the spiritual and lifestyle benefits of the place.

A few days was the right amount of time for me. For now.

And the DEET spray didn’t make a reappearance during the rest of my stay there, although I did leave with some fat, raised mystery itches the width of my arm.

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The etiquette of staying with friends

I was spending over a month living with friends and their children in Suffolk Park near Byron Bay, avoiding nits, going for runs on a beautiful, wide sandy beach and getting in the water whenever the mood took me. I was also rather unsuccessfully searching for work.

I made friends with other backpackers, people I hitchhiked with and via CouchSurfing. I went climbing and met a good little crew of mixed souls, friends of my friends took me out (out of pity or novelty, I’m not sure), and I drank and danced and hung out on the beach until the early hours with groups of lovely locals and traveller types.

It was when I realised that it was the third time in less than a week that I was sneaking into a dark, quiet house that I thought: I need to be a bit careful. Comments had been made about my love of sleeping in. How it was like living with a teenager. And although I just needed to let go, have some fun, I knew that I also needed to better fit with where I was staying.

Last year, apart from a stint in Lima where a great-aunt kindly opened her doors to me and a travel buddy, I hostelled it through Ecuador and Peru. Since I arrived into Australasia, however, I had been incredibly lucky to predominantly stay with a host of wonderful, familiar people. It was a much needed change from hostel life and the constant stream of strangers.

In a hostel, you can do whatever the hell you like: go to bed at 04:00am, miss breakfast, wake up at midday, sleep in the afternoon. Your bed even gets made for you. You can cook if you like, eat out when the fancy takes you. In short, it’s quite a selfish existence.

When staying with family and friends, their routines are already set. In order to stay on good terms, it’s pretty essential to be considerate and not treat their place as a hotel.

My friends in Byron are some of the most relaxed people I know. They wanted me to have fun, to enjoy myself. They were glad that I was making friends and socialising and seeing the area. They were grateful when I did the washing up, happy when I got involved with family stuff.

We came up with some agreements about what I could do to earn my keep. I picked the kids up from school every now and then, stocked up on groceries, cooked at least once a week. I did some babysitting, insisted the couple went out on a date or two whilst I kept the kids entertained.

It didn’t feel enough. From my point of view. Here I was, staying with people who knew me better than most I’d met on my journeying, chatting about things other than my next destination. I had my own space, somewhere to hang up my clothes. And a warm welcome to help me relax into stopping for a moment.

So I made sure to do little additional tasks: washing up, hanging up the laundry, little jobs around the house. I tried to be aware and helpful. I kept my room tidy, replaced toilet paper when it ran out. Small things to keep the cogs of the family machine running smoothly.

And then I realised: when I’m next settled somewhere, I’ll be in a position to do this for someone else. Maybe that’s what it’s all about. Being considerate in the now, but passing on the welcome in the future. Book in now for your bed.

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A message to you, backpacker

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The things people travel with and leave behind in hostels

You get some idea of a hostel and its clientele by the way that the place is treated and decorated, how chaotic and clothe covered the rooms are, what bits and bobs travellers leave behind, whether there are knickers hanging in the bathroom from someone’s late night drunken shenanigans. (I found a pair. They were red and lacy. Classy.)

I’ve stayed in some beautiful, clean hostels but I’ve also stayed in some dives. Whilst NOMADS in Auckland was a pretty spot-on place with friendly staff, clean sheets and comfy beds, the wooden slats for the upper bunks were more often than not grafittied and me and my dorm buddies would enjoy sharing the words of wisdom that were carefully inscribed and printed. Here are some of my favourites:

  1. The direct fun-time message: Rock out with your c**k out!
  2. The statement: Sophie’s a gay. So what?
  3. The bizarre: Help! I’m lactating. Go get yourself checked, I say.
  4. The affirmative: You are beautiful xxx. It’s true, you all are.
  5. The downright cruel: There is no Santa. Are you sure?
  6. The mind messer: If you’re reading this… your bed has bugs.
  7. The love memory: SABS+MIK. Or lust. It won’t last.

And then, just in case you were missing out on something truly poetic, there was this, um, inspired little ditty designed to bring out the trust and friendliness amongst roommates:

BEWARE
The Irish Girl She
Choked a man with a clover leaf
Drowned a man in Guinness
And she sleeps in the bed
next to you

One of the guys in the dorm debated whether to add some Keats’ quotes or the definitions for some highbrow words. Call it a balancing act, if you like. But not being one of the younger crowd, he never did pick up a pen. Pity.

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Can I stomach the stench of Rotorua?

How do you choose where to go when travelling? Interests, hobbies, archaeological and geographical wonders? As I’m travelling through New Zealand without a guide-book, I’ve been relying on local information and recommendations. So far it’s worked out well. Going to Rotorua was not a decision based to the volcanic activity of White Island or for the alleged health benefits of the many naturally heated spas and baths of the area; it was simply recommended as  a nice stop off on my way down to visit friends in New Plymouth. But I was warned: it was a stinky place, sulphur fumes from hot muddy pools perfuming the air.

I arrived into Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand late afternoon. It had been a drizzly journey down from Auckland through rich, green countryside; acres of flat farmland and forests with rolling hills in the far distance.

The bus skirted the industrial outskirts of the city. I was surprised at the size of the place: I had expected a quaint, little place yet here were all the usual city trappings of McDonalds and Subway and KFC. I held back judgement. Thick white puffs rose into the damp sky and the little kid in front of me exclaimed: ‘Look mummy! Steam!’ My ex’s voice rang loud in my ears: ‘It’s not steam, you can’t see steam!but I bit my tongue. No need to say a thing.

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Little white wisps of.. steam!

It was only a five-minute walk from the bus stop to my CouchSurf where I dropped down my bags and got ready to do some exploring. My host, Susanne, pointed me in the direction of the waterfront, a ten minute stroll from the city centre through the museum gardens full of flowers and statues and clipped lawns, and alongside the stinking heat and scalding temperatures of the Whangapipiro pool (also known as Rachel’s Pool after ‘Madam Rachel, a notorious English cosmetician who promised youthful complexions because of the softening effect of silica water on the skin).

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Rotorua Museum - is entry really more expensive than the Louvre, Paris?

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Whangapipiro or Rachel Pool - scorching hot

The lakefront itself was a bit wild, wet and windy, but a few people were out and about and ignoring requests not to feed the birds. Black swans paddled around in the water that lapped in over the pavement, and sea planes lifted off of the greyness of Lake Rotorua.

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Black swan at Rotorua lakefront

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Don't feed the birds! Rotorua lakefront

The following day brought with it the promise of better weather so I stepped into my walking shoes and jumped on the No. 3 bus to Long Mile Road and the impressive forest of redwood trees. The afternoon was spent exploring more of Rotorua itself.

Rotorua, with its population of about 70,000 is a small city. The streets feel spacious and shrubbery is dotted around all over the place. Crossing a road isn’t a problem at all, big gaps in the gentle flow of traffic. Rotorua has been voted New Zealand’s most beautiful city on six occasions, and if you are able to ignore the sulphuric smell and taste of many a breath that you take, then yes, it’s a lovely, lovely place.

I went and had a chat with Pa outside the Rotorua Arts Village (RAVE) where he was carving bone combs and other decorative trinkets. ‘I can’t afford whale bone’, he laughed when I asked him what bone he was working with, ‘This is just beef bone’. He told me about the Treaty of Waitangi and the British-New Zealand connection, and the ongoing fight to have the treaty declarations honoured. And he recommended Te Hira Toi – Ta Moko Studio when I asked him about Maori tattooing. ‘They’re family. Tell them I sent you’.

In the centre, the main street of Tutanekai Street is crowded with souvenir shops, cafés, clothing shops and a bundle of traditional craft places. ‘Quite a few shops have moved into the new mall’, said Susanne, but it didn’t feel too dire, – there still seemed to be life on the streets and a welcome absence of boarded up buildings.

Outside the info and events hub of City Focus under the rain/sun protection of a stylised covering, handfuls of young people sit tapping on laptops and smart phones making use of a free Wi-Fi hotspot, courtesy of KapuaNET. Music plays between 8:00am and 5:00pm and one day I found myself listening to lovesick slush and being serenaded by a high (on life?) guy when everyone else was having their breakfasts. You can’t pick your playlist and it was a slightly sickly way to start the day, but free WiFi to allow me to check in with people back home? I’m not going to complain. I can deal with some schmaltz and crazy characters.

Cafés with outdoor seating are scattered around the city centre. There seems to be a lot of independent places, non-chain, but it doesn’t always ensure quality service. I walked away from the prospect of a lazy afternoon coffee when after more than ten minutes I still hadn’t been served, despite  the café being pretty empty (I have since found out that it is in fact a self-service place! – but why then did the group who came in after me get served with a flourish almost immediately?).

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No entry to the hot pools, Kuirua Park, Raglan

Another afternoon I spent wandering the Kuirau Park, joining families and couples as they walked by steaming cauldrons of hot bubbling water and on to the cooler, bearable foot pools where people sat chatting and dipping their toes in the warm water. The surrounding air hung thick with the smell of sulphur and I tried to imagine actually being resident in this city. ‘I don’t notice it anymore’, said Susanne when I asked her about living with these constant fumes. For me, a newbie, it wasn’t so easy: there was the odd moment where I was distracted or forgot, but then a sudden waft would hit me and I would involuntarily scrunch up my face. I wonder what the effect is on people’s health?

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Hot springs in the Kuirua Park

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Kuira Park, Raglan

The park, on the whole, is much like other parks with benches and colour coordinated flower plantings and rich grassiness perfect for lounging in the shade of a tree. Birds hop around and ducks patter about on the little lake, and the air is filled with song: chirping, crowing and the harsh, raspy interruption of gulls. There is a background baseline hum of after work traffic, and drifting over from the other side of the park is the sound of a guitar and a man singing. A perfect day when the rain has taken rest and the sun forcefully kisses one with some of its vitamin D magic.

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Kuirua Park, Raglan

My time in Rotorua concluded with a trip down Eat Streat (yes, Eat Streat and not Eat Street) at the far end of Tutanekai Street where I ate a delicious Greek pizza in Café Ephesus with my CouchSurf host, chatted about life, love and travels and enjoyed a chilled bottle of white New Zealand wine. And for a moment, again, I forgot about the smell.

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Kia ora, Auckland

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Auckland Queen Street goes Christmasy

I was back in a Westernised world, that was for sure. The ride on the AIRBUS from the airport into Auckland, New Zealand passed by structured, tree-lined streets, boutique shops and money dressed people, and cost $16NZ for the fifteen minute privilege.

I hopped off at Mount Eden shops and with the help of stranger with a clarinet, I found my hostel. ‘No beds’, said the girl on reception. ‘You’ll struggle to find anywhere in the city tonight’. ‘What do you recommend?’ I asked. ‘I’d suggest getting the hell out of town’. Helpful. I could have cried. All this travelling and flying, and now this? – this broken promise of a bed in this cute little hostel put me in a negative mind-set. Thanks very much, Foo Fighters, so damn inconsiderate (that, and the fact that tickets cost over $100NZ so I couldn’t even drown my sorrows with a beer and bounce about to Monkey Wrench, although they probably don’t even play that song anymore and I’d just get more pissed off).

There turned out to be no room in any inns, until I finally stumbled upon a girls’ dorm in NOMADS. Last couple of beds in a party hostel extraordinaire filled to the brim with a younger travelling crowd with a taste for liquor and late nights.

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Auckland Sky Tower

I wandered around Auckland, up streets full of Louis Vitton and Subway and Rip Curl, passing by the Sky Tower and pondering why the hell I had left South America for such a nondescript city. I could have been anywhere really, but dammit! – it was raining and England felt like an all too recent memory. I wasn’t ready for this.

My netbook had broken in Peru and the nearest service centre to Peru was in Brazil. Repair over there, therefore, wasn’t an option. So now, here in Auckland, the time had arrived to finally get it fixed. I jumped on a train at the Britomart Transport Centre and headed out into the industrial suburbs.

Two somewhat worse-for-wear guys got on with a bicycle and a bottle of wine, one wearing a raincoat made from a black bin bag. ‘Do you want me to teach you to talk more intelligent so that people understand you?’ said one to the other, ‘Do you want to do some rapping?’ They started with some Dr Dre lyrics, breaking to laugh and chat in a slurred Maori-English mix. The drunker of the two suddenly got to his feet, tangled up in his bike and fell to the floor. ‘I need you to take a seat, please’, said the conductor, ‘so you don’t fall again and hurt yourself’. Not ‘so you don’t hurt others’ (it was close) but ‘yourself’. Caring, non-judgemental. Felt good.

Twenty minutes later I was in Penrose, or rather I was in the middle of nothing save a few random industrial buildings. A garage worker pointed me on my way. ‘It’s about 3km down the road and over the bridge,’ he said, ‘are you walking?’ ‘Uh huh.’ I was walking, of course. No taxis for me anymore, no siree.

The return journey was delayed. Melancholia was trying to befriend me. My clothes were damp, I was jet lagged and I’d had a fight on to get my computer mended under warranty. And everything was so damn expensive. Not a happy head space.

Pleased to have you on board!’ rang out a chirpy voice over the speakers, ‘Merry Christmas! If you’re going away, be safe, if you’re staying in the city, it’s all good.’ Another happy conductor. ‘Relax and have a fantastic afternoon’, he continued, and people on board smiled at each other and I thought, yeah, snap out of your misery girl, this is all good indeed, you’re in Auckland. Enjoy it.

Auckland as seen from Devonport (www.kiwiwise.co.nz)

A new challenge: get over my sadness at leaving South America prematurely, manage money without obsessing and damn well enjoy what promises to be an amazing country. Yep, New Zealand, I am ready to meet you with a smile. I just need a good sleep before the adventures begin.

_____________________________________________________________________
Ka ora
means a number of different things but in this context it means ‘hi’ or ‘hello’. For some more Maori words, take a look at 100 Maori words every New Zealander should know.

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Taking a holiday in Arequipa

Most travellers go to Arequipa for the Colca Canyon Trek or the Santa Catalina convent. I did as many Peruvians do and went for a one week holiday. I wanted to hang out with a friend, to get over a bad belly and just relax.

My stay in Arequipa started badly with yet another tired hostel decision resulting in a damp, dingy room in an otherwise empty place. Situated in the desirable area of Yanahuara on a beautiful, tree lined road across from the bridge – Puente Grau – it had so much potential, but inside it was tired and in the midst of a load of building work (a disadvantage of travelling in low season is that hostels do their upgrades during this time so wires and cables and bricks lying around the place shouldn’t come as a surprise).

The next hostel, Bothy Hostel, was closer into town with clean dorm beds starting at S/.18 (£4.31). It was much more of a traditional hostel setup, one which I can imagine in high season is a crowded mass of travelling bodies and flirtation with its schedule of party activities and drink deals. In late November, however, it was nicely populated, enough to be social without the mess. And quiz night and all the other daily activities? Forget it. Nothing to be had in low season. But I truly didn’t mind spending lazy evenings swinging in a hammock on the roof terrace watching the sun set through the haze over the surrounding volcanos. It was more than enough to satisfy my lethargy.

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Views from the roof terrace, Bothy Hostel, Arequipa

Arequipa, the ‘White City’, feels like a big place and it is: the second largest city in Peru (after Lima) with over 800,000 inhabitants. In terms of infrastructure, to my untrained eye, it appears to be somewhere between Lima and Cusco, obviously a city with big roads and high buildings and shopping malls but mixed with some appealing, cultural elements alongside a little bit of rough.

The central area is clean and appealing, two main roads – Santa Catalina and San Francisco – leading up off the main plaza, both streets with appealing architecture and visual pleasantness. Archways into houses spread out into cute little internal courtyards decorated with flowers and colourful paint jobs. These little pockets of prettiness are everywhere. Arequipa, it would seem, works on multi-levels of beauty; look beyond the obvious and it reveals itself to you.

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Arequipa archways

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Santa Catalina street, Arequipa

Up at the top of San Francisco street is the Plaza San Francisco, a small affair where people sit on the steps in the shadows of the Iglesia San Francisco, seemingly just lounging, little other purpose or rush. I did the same, kicking off my shoes and having a drink. A group of young guys walked by and pointed at my feet and wafted their faces, grinning cheekily. (I know I’m travelling but on the subject of hygiene, I’ve found keeping my clothes clean is not that big a deal in South America with plenty of opportunities to get laundry washed and dried for under £1 per kilo).

Plaza de Armas is the busiest of any plazas and parks that I’ve seen in Peru or Ecuador. Heaving with people of all ages at most points of the day, I wish you good luck trying to find a spare bench. Pigeons and people crowd the central area, businessmen take time to catch up on the day’s news whilst getting their shoes buffed and polished, and tourists and kids enjoy generous dollops of rich, tasty ice-cream from nearby Artika and Ice Palace.

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Plaza de Armas, Arequipa

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Catedral de Arequipa

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Social time and shoe shine

I walked south and east of the plaza, down Peru passed scores of little shops spilling out onto the street until I reached San Camillo and the local indoor market with sections for fresh juices and meats and household goods and more. Cats slept cuddled in sacks of pet food, traders scooped out ample servings of caramelised peanuts and police patrolled the perimeters of what is known as a prime spot for thieving. There was very little at the market in terms of artisanal goods, in short, this isn’t a tourists market (there are a few shops around Plaza del Armas and along San Francisco and Santa Catalina that offer the typical Peru t-shirts and llama chullos – woolly hats with ear flaps – and ponchos and postcards).

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Cats having a cuddle and snooze

 

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The start of the juice bars

 

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Fresh(ish) fruit ready for juicing

I discovered a penchant for pedestrianised streets and Arequipa centre boasts two lovely options for lazy strolls. Simon Bolivar runs from up by Puente Grau and right down until it merges with Sucre and reaches Iglesia La Merced. Benches and shops and eateries are scattered along the street but nothing is of significant interest. It is quiet, save for when the school children spill out of the colegio and attempt to practise their English on you. The second area dedicated to those on foot is Mercaderes off of San Francisco and Jerusalen. Much shorter and busier with posher shops and chocolatiers, it was the atmosphere that I enjoyed as people strolled arm in arm and window shopped.

So other than wandering around pretty streets and eating ice-cream and hanging in the parks and plazas and watching the world’s population of Beatles drive by, what else did this lazy holiday entail? I feel a bit of a backpacker travel cheat admitting it, but I also spent time roaming the malls up in Real Plaza and Saga Fallabella up in Yanahuara, and working my way through giant servings of popcorn whilst watching some truly terrible movies. Yes, this could be done in any large city in the world, it’s not a unique travel experience. The way people bought their tickets and watched the film was, well, as expected. Why wouldn’t it be?

It was a ‘break-from-travelling’ trip, a week of passively engaging with the high and low culture of the place,  and a chance to psyche myself up for the long journey back to Ecuador. Arequipa as a place to visit? Absolutely. In terms of activities? No idea.

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Downtime in downtown Lima

I’m sitting in Plaza San Martin, my head protected from the beating sun. The plaza is framed by high, off-white neo-colonial and baroque buildings with fat pillars and stone balconies, Father Christmas in red, garish plastic hangs from one of the wide windows on the corner of the plaza. To one side of the square, a statue of Saint Martin sits astride a horse. Friends gather for a lunchtime chat, munching on choclo (corn on the cob). A couple sit arguing on one of the curved, stone benches whilst children chase pigeons, jumping and shrieking when they come close to catching the birds. Horns honk continuously. The traffic is busy and people are impatient. This is one of a few significant plazas in downtown Lima, reached easily from Estacion Central.

I lunch at Don Quto. Down a little alley off Plaza San Martin, it feels like a temporary restaurant stuck on to the side of a building. The almuerzo menu is the most extensive I’ve seen yet in Peru and I settle for a Sopa de Moron as my entrada, a cereal, stock and parsley based soup with chicken legs and some other meat which I think is liver, settling at the bottom of the bowl. I leave the chicken legs. There’s barely any meat and I don’t fancy chewing on bones. My travel buddy opts for Crema de Rocoto, a cold starter of potatoe slices covered in a creamy, orange, chilli pepper based sauce. We both divert from the Economico menu and go for the Arroz Chaufa con Pollo (Asian style rice with spring onions and chicken), a generous, hot dish. No drinks are included on any of the almuerzo menus, but at S/.8 (£1.89) for central city food, it seems a pretty fair price. I try to get through the pile of rice but it barely seems to shrink and I eventually admit defeat, grease sitting heavily in my stomach.

Wandering the streets of downtown Lima is pleasant enough. There are plenty of shops for those who want to splash out on something new, nice stops for ice-cream, and casinos to duck into if you’re feeling a bit flash. The buildings feel quite imposing, reaching up to a high skyline. Up by Plaza de Armas is the Catedral de Lima and a little further along is the Palacio de Gobierno – the governmental palace – a strong, grand building with guarded entrances. I headed along Junin to the Museo de la Inquisición to learn about the treatment of Peruvian prisoners during the Spanish Inquisition. The entry is free and includes a guided tour of the exhibits; however, on this particular day it was only available in Spanish. Typical. I got a feel for it though, the cramped cells and life size wax works in various states of contortion providing sufficient information to understand the horrors of the time.

Most backpackers stick to Miraflores or close by Barranco because they’re convenient and familiar and full of hostels and places to make merry. The party hostels, such as Loki and Pariwana are in Mirafores where they stack you high and provide and organise everything from food to tours to happy hour and evening entertainment. For many 18-25 year olds travelling through Peru, these chain hostels are the default places to stay. But if you want something a bit more cultural, historic and interesting then try a hostel or hospedaje in the historic centre of Lima.

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How was Huaraz?

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Outskirts of Huaraz – view from Andes Camp

Sitting at an altitude of 3,100m, Huaraz is a stop-off for travellers wanting to do some serious hiking and trekking, with options like the Santa Cruz, Huayhuash and Laguna 69 being very popular.

I arrived early in one October morning and already, at 7:00am, the streets were full of moto-taxis and vehicles and honking horns. The place felt alive. I hadn’t read much about Huaraz beforehand but for some reason I had expected it to be a fairly small place.

Wrong.

With approximately 100,000 inhabitants and a sprawl of buildings, it wasn’t the quaint, little town that I anticipated.

Huaraz is busy and chaotic, especially around the market area where you can buy anything from clothing to vegetables to live cuy (barbequed guinea pig is a South American delicacy).

The main street is full of tour agencies, all trying to sell you trips and treks at ‘best price’. There are plenty of warnings and rumours about dodgy dealings, about collaboration between agencies to push prices upwards. I went directly through Franck at Andes Camp and felt confident that he was being fair and honest. He wasn’t the cheapest but was also far away from the higher quotes.

Alongside tour agencies are places to eat and banks and pharmacies and loads of shops offering photography services (triple check costs! – I ended up paying what felt like an extortionate amount after mixing up a quote for one photo and fifteen photos).

Something that I noticed was even more evident than in other parts of Peru was the massive Italian influence with pizzerias on every corner and shops dedicating entire shelves to pannetone of all different flavours.

But the architecture of Huaraz is distinctively un-Italian, full of blocky buildings and unfinished construction work. ‘Huaraz is Peru’s ugliest city’, joked Franck of Andes Camp (and Italians surely wouldn’t dare to create anything lacking in aesthetics).

Indeed, it is not the prettiest of places. To be fair to the city, as Franck explained, Huaraz has had to try and rebuild itself following the devastating 1970 earthquake which killed around 70,000 people and destroyed nearly all of the buildings.

What saves Huaraz from being truly ugly is the striking, beautiful backdrop of snow-capped mountains that reach high into the bright, blue sky and glisten in the early morning sun. The light here, like much of Peru, is penetrating and brilliant.

After a week in Huaraz, I wouldn’t say that I had fallen in love with the place but I was really quite comfortable there, although much of that was to do with the hostel and the host himself. Andes Camp was a friendly, social place to hang out, – use of the kitchen and free movie screenings being a definite draw. Watching Touching the Void in the actual area that it was set added to the intensity of the film.

And it put me off ever wanting to do any serious mountain climbing.

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Time out in Trujillo

Trujillo, Peru is a six and a half hour bus journey south of Piura. ‘Trujillo es muy peligroso’, said the taxi driver who dropped me at Itka’s terminal in Piura. ‘Es muy peligroso’, said the taxi driver who took me from Trujillo terminal to my hostel.

Great. Danger, danger all the way. I debated whether to just move on to Huaraz but then thought better of it. I’d prefer to figure this place out, and its dangers, for myself.

El Mochilero had been recommended to me as the only real hostel in town (many of the other places being more hotel based). Only a few blocks from the shops, cafés and parks, it was a convenient spot.  I was craving company so some social space was a must and this place offered it with hammocks, sofas and communal kitchen. Messy beds and a few belongings scattered around signified that there were people there. It was a good start.

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Trujillo centre has a real charm with blocky, colourful buildings and churches that poke out of a relatively low skyline kept to three storeys. The streets are busy, the pedestrianised Francisco Pizarro acting as a nice starting point to explore the city centre. The streets are lined with ice-cream parlours (with the first mint choc chip ice-cream I’ve found in South America) and eateries and fashion shops selling branded trainers stacked high to the ceiling. And pharmacies. (My experience of Ecuador and Peru thus far is that you’re never far from a pharmacy and if everything else is closed, a pharmacy is still likely to be open).

Near the top of Pizarro is a park pequeña with some small statues and benches that serve as a place to take a pause from the day, but further down at the opposite end by Diego de Almagro you have the more impressive Plaza de Armas. Flanked by wide roads, this is the place to sit and eat toffee apples (maybe part of the Halloween efforts that have taken over this town?), meet with friends for a chat or pose in front of the Freedom Monument. Traders of all sorts attempt to sell you chocolate, books, drinks and tour to surrounding attractions, such as the Chan Chan mud ruins. Yellow, blue and white buildings stand out against a bright sky, the strong and consistent breeze blowing in some occasional cloud cover. Sweepers quickly brush up any litter from the smooth, stone pathways. I get told off for lying back and putting my feet up on the bench. My shoes weren’t dirty but it simply wasn’t allowed. It’s a clean park, a clean place and obviously I was negatively affecting the image of their town.

Walking through Trujillo, I was approached by four different Peruvians, all who wanted to chat and help out with directions or practise their English or tell me about how their parents were forced to leave China due to communist rule and ended up here, happily. They all seemed friendly enough. In fact they all seemed really friendly. None of them tried nick my wallet or hold me up at knife point. The stereotyped dangerous Peru? Nah.

But I was also approached many times over by people asking for money: for their children, for their families, for treatment for their infected leg (and it was horrific and would surely needed amputating if he waited any longer). Some traders were really pushy, shoving chocolate bars in my face, refusing to accept a firm ‘no gracias’ and only leaving once I adopted and held an averted gaze. It wasn’t comfortable.

But then why should it be? I might feel poor and on a tight budget but the fact I am here, travelling, having new adventures and seeing the world, well, it does highlight a massive disparity.

Trujillo also seemed to have a real disparity of wealth amongst its own population: fashionable folk wandering around buying up S/.50 goods without hesitance and paying with S/.100 notes, others bedding down for the night wrapped up in makeshift blankets of cardboard pieces left out by the shops.

And the dangers? I’ve read about them, been told about them, but thankfully did not experience any trouble first hand. I couldn’t decide whether the high presence of park wardens and ‘securidad cuidano’ and police officers made me feel safer or more nervous. I left feeling positive; the people had been kind, friendly and welcoming and the town itself was a pretty place to get on with normal life.

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