Iceland

Iceland: a one week road trip adventure!

Nature is the greatest artist. Never has that expression been more true of a place than of Iceland. From epic rainbow-pierced waterfalls to  geysers that shoot hot water twenty feet over your head, frozen lava fields, endless snow-topped mountains, and a glacier lagoon where you can get up-close to giant, glittering icebergs that seem to have been pristinely carved by the hand of god themselves, each day will bring you a WOW moment around every corner.

Fitting in everything Iceland has to offer in one week is a challenge, but it is possible to see all of the above if you are willing to do a pretty intense itinerary, with lots of driving. I’ll lay out what we did below, but first, some practical points:

  • Transport: You are going to need to rent a 4×4. While there are some busses, they’re very expensive tourist traps that only go to highlights like the Golden Circle. If you want to get out into the wild (and you should) and away from other people, the flexibility of your own car is a must. You will need a 4×4 because apart from the one main road, a lot of the driving is ‘off-road’ or on unpaved roads that will bust the tyre of a normal car immediately. We rented a Suburu Forrester which also came with a tent that popped out of the roof, offering greater protection from the winds while camping than a regular tent and meaning we woke up to mornings like this.Helen in car
  • Equipment: we hired cooking gear, and a table and chairs from https://www.iceland-camping-equipment.com/ . It was super easy to pick it up in Reykjavik, everything was in good condition and they even gave us some spare extra gas.
  • Weather: Bring a very thick sleeping bag, and lots and lots of sensible layers. Even travelling in summer, my sleeping bag, which is supposed to be warm to 0 degrees, was not sufficient. While some days can be sunny and mild, the wind can be biting at times.
  • Costs: Everything in Iceland is very expensive. Even paying for camping spot is around $15 (per PERSON). A beer is about £6-7 and a gin and tonic, £22. So bring booze from duty free, and pack food to cook with if you and make picnic lunches if you can.
  • Back-up funds: (related)- have more cash available than you think you need in case of emergencies. One night we were unable to camp because a storm, glacier eruption and 90mph winds made it impossible (the government safety website was advising against it) and had to hire a cabin at the last minute. Hopefully it won’t happen, but it’s better to be prepared.
  • Photos: bring a good camera. Believe me, you are going to want to take photos, and although I got some good shots, I got some major camera envy. If you are thinking of upgrading, this would be the trip to do it on.

Itinerary:

Day 1: Starting from Reykjavik, pick up your rental equipment and car and get on the road to Þingvellir where Europe meets North America. This National Park is literally the point where the two tectonic plates meet. There are lots of beautiful places to stop for a picnic lunch. Then make your way to Kerið Crater, a volcanic crater lake of intensely blue water that formed inside the collapsed volcano.

From there, make your way to Seljalandsfoss, my favourite of the very, very many strikingly beautiful and unusual waterfalls in Iceland. Not only is it dramatically high, if you get there at the right time of day, rainbows form in the spray where the water meets the light from the sun. You can walk and scramble right around the back of the cave that is formed behind it and look out at the sheer force of the waterfall. Just remember to wear waterproofs and keep your camera and electronics in a dry place or they WILL get too wet and shut down, as I found out.

Day 2: The Jökulsárlón glacier lake was the most incredible moment of this trip, and one of the most mind-blowing moments of my whole life. DO NOT MISS IT. Tired from a rough night of camping in poor weather, when we drove over the bridge and the lake came into view from behind the ridge, we literally could not believe our eyes. It was like walking into your vision of the arctic and the photos do not do it justice; a piercingly blue lake in which floated vast, imposing sculptures of ice. A seal swam near the bay. You suit up in proper arctic gear and can go right out into the lake to float amongst the glaciers and gawp at the structures, wrought by nature that tower over you in glittering ice. I have never seen anything like it.

Then, camp at Skaftafell National Park, it has the most stunning landscape and some of the best camping facilities I’ve ever experienced. From here, you can also do a short hike to see the Svartifoss black waterfall.

Day 3: Fjadrargljufur Canyon is the dramatic sort of place that is used as a backdrop in movies. Literally, it was apparently the backdrop of a Bieber video which I have never seen but I can see why. It’s a very short hike around to take photos, but you will want to factor in longer for gawping. Then head back on the road to see the Skógafoss waterfall. If you are luckier with the weather, you can even camp right by it with it in view.

Day 4: Did you know in Iceland they bake bread in a pan under the earth in the heat of the volcanic springs? Well, they do. And it’s delicious. At great expense you can visit Laugarvatn Fontana, see it being made, and try the bread yourself. It’s really interesting and the bread is sweet and delicious (it later turns out it is not suitable for vegans which I did not realise, whoops). Then, head to the black beach around Vik. Whatever happens, do not camp in Vik. However, the black beach was more remarkable than I was expecting, and with puffins swooping over you from the dramatic and unusual cliffs behind, it’s a great spot for nature photographers.

Day 5: Drive to Landmannalugar to fit in a bit of the highlands. To get here, you have to go seriously off-road, driving through an alien landscape of frozen lava fields that make you feel like you’re on another planet, ford a couple of rivers, and scale some seriously steep and windy mountain paths. It is worth it. From the campsite, you can do a variety of hikes in the mountains around including the famous Laugavegur trail if you have more time. We did the ‘Brennisteinsalda’ route which is long and challenging enough to give you a work out but easy to do within 3 hours, or 4 including time to take photographs. I would recommend camping here because waking up to this site in the morning is quite something. There is also a hot spring on the campsite which you can use, though the temperature fluctuates rather dramatically.

Day 6: Drive back to Reykjavik, and of course you have to at some point do the Blue Lagoon. I’ve been to a fair few natural hot springs but with the mountains framed all around behind it, perfect blue water, and natural mud facemasks this might be my favourite. It’s the perfect place to treat your aching muscles after the camping and hiking, and your skin that will have taken a beating from the wind. In Reykjavik, I strongly recommend eating at Kaffi Vinyl, a jazz café and record shop that offers up delicious vegan nosh and wine at decent enough prices for Iceland.

Day 7: the ultimate sadness of returning equipment and flying back home. If you can spend longer than a week in Iceland, I would strongly recommend 2-3, in order to take a slower pace, hike more, and see more of the highlands than we were able. That said I have rarely seen so many dramatic and life-altering landscapes in such a short time as on this trip, so if you only have a week, do it anyway! Iceland, I will be back, and next time, I hope, for the Northern lights.

Ecuador, South America

Wild Ecuador:  you’d be mad to skip it.

You’d be mad to miss out Ecuador on a long term travel trip through South America. Yet nearly everyone I met travelling early in my trip did- hopping over it to get to the up-and-coming, cooler travel destination, Colombia.  Now I’ve been to Colombia as well I can see why they’re so excited. But skipping Ecuador means missing out on so much incredible wildlife, I can’t understand why anyone would do it. And I couldn’t even afford the Galapagos….

Sure, culturally, it’s a dud compared to Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Whereas Bolivia and Peru retain their cultural heritage in every corner you look, and Colombian people ooze a positive energy and vibe unique to them, Ecuadorean culture seems a bit… bland. By which I mean Americanised. I was gutted when I arrived and the first thing I saw was a Dunkin’ Donuts. This was not what I travelled thousands of miles for…

So. Skip Guayaquil. Most people’s entrance into the country as the largest city, but also the ugliest place I’ve ever set eyes on. Get out into the wild. There I saw things I’ve never seen in my life.

4

My first stop was in Montanita, a surf/party  beach town on the southwest coast. I’d been gagging for some hot weather after the freezing climates of Bolivia and Peru, but sadly was disappointed as for several days it just…rained, and rained, and rained…  the party was kind of fun still in spite of this (apart from the more hippie vibe it felt like you were in Malaga or one of those dreadful places) but we didn’t see the famed hardcore drug culture and it wasn’t as wild in that way as we expected. BUT we saw whales. And that made up for everything.

Taking a tiny boat smashing (literally) out into the ocean, my friends and I tried not to hurl for over an hour before we gave up hope, and then- there they were. And it sounds stupid to say, but. Wow. Whales are big. I mean really, really, really, really, really big.

8

To start we just saw the spurts of the blowhole shooting out of the water a few hundred feet away. And then we were among them. You don’t even get to see them whole, but the peaks of their fins rising out of the sea, higher than the length my armspan and so close I was worried they were going to come under the boat and flip us. Their skin was rough and barnacled.  In one moment they seemed to obscure the skyline entirely- and then- they flipped upside down and we were given a wave of the famous tale on the way down. I’ve never been so in awe at the size and strength of an animal.

From Montanita I went to Banos,  (a town not a bathroom) famed for its natural hot springs and extreme sports.  The bus ride there was the most beautiful I’ve ever taken in my life, like travelling through a fantasy wilderness from Lord of the Rings. The town is set amongst mountains with waterfalls cascading down at all sides. Here, if you can think of a death-defying activity, you can do it.

20246391_10213188392400318_1802391420899977820_n

I did paragliding. I’ve always wanted to and it’s one of the few extreme sports I hadn’t checked off my list yet. And actually, it was beautiful- like the best bit of skydiving where you’re drifting through the air looking at the incredible view below, without the terrifying falling through the sky part. And the view…

My friends Sophie and Jim and I attempted a bike ride in the pouring rain the next day… and we don’t speak about that now. But we did get the worst ever picture at the Casa de Arbol, (‘swing at the end of the world’).

20864027_10213392268497093_741640110_n.jpg

Next (when we eventually were taken back to civilisation by a kindly local) the immensely powerful  Pailon del Diabalo (devil’s cauldron, see first photo in this blog), and going ziplining over waterfalls. Sophie did not enjoy ziplining.

Sophie ziplining

After Banos I spent one of the weirdest weeks of my life at a Hare Krishna eco-community in the Amazon rainforest… but that entailed so many new experiences it merited another blog.

I finally returned to civilisation in Quito, and as much as I hated to admit it, was far too excited to get back all the comforts of the modern capitalist world. I was surprised by how much I liked Quito since I usually loathe capital cities. It’s modern (if expensive) but the historical centre has loads to look at, particularly if you love really blingy churches. I’ve never seen anything like them, and Latin America generally is a bit nuts for OTT churches. Iglesia de la Compania is apparently made from over 70 tonnes of gold!

20840497_10213392458181835_809317974_n.jpg

Quilotoa has to be my highlight of Ecuador. The Quilotoa loop is a famous four day hike through Andean villages, ending up at the phenomenally beautiful Lago Quilotoa- a collapsed volcano that has become a lake- of the most dazzlingly blue shade you can imagine. Having run out of time, I took the lazy option of the day hike- and it was so worth it. I met a friend there and we just sat looking at it for two hours in the perfect Andean sun.

0.5.jpg

My last stop was the Mindo cloudforest, a place rich in natural beauty and positive vibes. Here I got up at the crack of dawn to go bird-watching, and although I was disappointed to not see a toucan, did get to see this fellow- a ‘cock of the rock’ and various other brightly coloured flying things.

4.5.JPG

I visited the Mariposario, a butterly house where you can sit transfixed for hours as butterflies of all shades flutter past you.

1.JPG

And I spent a magical day hiking the trail through the cloudforest  that passes through seven waterfalls, cooling off in the last one for a swim, totally alone in paradise. I was splashing around like a happy duck and whooping when the peace was disturbed by a girl laughing at me. Not so alone then. But she did insist on taking this picture, while I tried to feel less like a dick…

7.JPG

So Ecuador. If you like nature, you’d be a fool to skip it.

South America, Travel

The country of wild bears, seals, dune buggies, the Inka trail and Rainbow Mountain… Peru, I love you!

Peru is a phenomenal country. I loved it a hundred times more than I was expecting it to. The people are incredibly kind, the nature is fantastic, and the cities are fascinating and steeped in culture. After one month I boarded my plane to Ecuador wishing I didn’t have to leave.

Peru’s Arequipa is called the ‘white city’ because of the number of resplendent colonial buildings, which gleam against the perpetually blue sky, and it might be my favourite city in Latin America (so far). I spent a week here having Spanish lessons, visiting museums, and partying on the weekends. One thing you shouldn’t miss is seeing Huanita- the mummified body of a young Inka sacrifice, whose body was found frozen and well-preserved on the side of the mountain where she was left to the gods.

2.5.jpg

The main reason most people come to Arequipa is to visit the spectacular Colca Canyon, which, after much refute, has been proved by National Geographic to be the world’s deepest canyon.

The hike is hard.  Though the views of the dramatic rock faces, sudden drops, and wild landscape descending into the valley below are worth it, you basically have to descend very far, very fast- to get to the bottom on the first day. The Canyon itself is like nothing I have ever seen, particularly because of the famous condors which circle high over it. Condors, a kind of vulture, are the largest flying land bird in the western hemisphere… and they really are huge. Even from a distance they’re quite intimidating when they swoop over you when you’re not expecting it.

Colca.jpg

After an overnight stay in the little valley at the bottom of the canyon, it’s a 5am start and a hike three hours straight up a steep zig-zagging path through the rock face to reach civilisation again. Which would be hard at the best of times, but given the horrendous altitude (which makes a lot of people ill staying still) it was the biggest physical challenge of my life. .  I deliberated before booking it because of the reputation it has of challenging even experienced hikers (which I decidedly am not), but it was good experience prior to the Inka Trek, and actually, I think it was harder.

Huacachina is known as the ‘oasis’- a town which seems to have been dreamt out of the sand in the middle of the Peruvian desert. There’s only really one reason to come here: sandboarding. I was a bit apprehensive given that when I tried this last year in Namibia, I managed to be the exception to the instructor’s promise that ‘it’s literally impossible to fall ALL the way down the sand dune’. Nonetheless, I’ll given anything a second chance (except bungee jumping).

19578081_10212918200165681_870903985_n.jpgIt was totally worth it just for the epic dune buggy ride to get to the top of the dunes. Our driver said for a small tip he would go ‘mas extremo’…and he meant it. Like a real life rollercoaster, I regretted sitting at the front as we hurtled up over peaks we couldn’t see the other end of and came crashing and swerving back down and up the next dune. The sandboarding itself was actually fun- but tame compared to Namibia. We were only allowed to go on our front, and the peaks were considerably less high. I also wasn’t (quite as) hideously hungover, which I suspect had a lot to do with how much more I enjoyed it.

We briefly stopped in Nazca to look at the famous ‘Nazca lines’, but since I suspect it’s a scam I couldn’t be bothered to pay for a flight up to see them.  So my next stop was the little beach town of Paracas. There’s not a lot to do here except to visit the nearby Ballestas Islands. So called ‘poor man’s galapagos’, I actually loved this trip (since I am too poor to visit Galapagos) and was ecstatic to see penguins and seals thriving in the wild, instead of a zoo, for the first time. I especially enjoyed meeting the world’s smuggest sea lion.

DSCN8260 (2)I hated Lima. It was the only place in Peru I hated. I’m not really a fan of big cities anyway, and it lived up to its expectations of being ugly, grey, expensive, ugly , and grey. It didn’t help that I got hideously ill here, and had my first experience of having to pay for a private doctor in South America (£80 and an injection in the butt later and I wasn’t that impressed).

However, from here I flew to Cusco for the main event- the Inka Trail!  It was four of the best days of my life. Seriously. I’d started to regret having forked out so much to do the official Inka Trail when I learned how much cheaper other options were, but it was so, so worth it. I’ve never seen so many beautiful, varying views in one day in my life. I’ve also never had the chance to completely cut off from modern life, communication, and just be in nature with my own thoughts for so long before. I came out genuinely feeling like a different person.

The first day is relatively easy, as you get into the pace of the trail, wending your way over beautiful rivers and streams, slight inclines, but nothing hard. The second day is known as the toughest, because you have to conquer ‘dead woman’s pass’- an extremely steep trail ascending to an altitude of 4,200m. It was hard- but I was not as dead a woman at the end as I anticipated, which thrilled me. I must have somehow got a bit fitter! Fat teenage Helen would not have believed it. And the view here was PHENOMENAL. However the best part for me was recognising the shout of ‘Oso! Oso!’ and getting an (apparently extremely rare) glimpse of a real life Paddington-  a baby Peruvian spectacled bear!

DSCN8350.jpgDay three was actually the toughest for me; though you don’t go as high as rapidly, there is a lot of ‘Peruvian flat’ (i.e. constant up and down) which is hard on the feet and the knees. You finish at an Inka ruin that is a taste of the next day- complete with llamas.

The last day you get up at the crack of dawn, and everyone literally pelted it the last 5k to get to Machu Picchu. This is rough after three days of walking, and I had to literally drag myself up the scramble at the end to reach the Sun Gate.

19389437_10212806658897219_220602567_n.jpg

I can’t really express how I felt to see Machu Picchu actually spread out before me. I often think you get over-exposed to ‘wonders’  of the world from TV and postcards, so nothing as impressive when you see it in real life as it would be without the anticipation. This was not so here. After our guided tour, I spent a good hour just sat looking at the view- not just the ruins of an ancient civilisation- but the depth of the landscape around that is impossible to capture on camera. Jagged, rugged mountain faces, piled layer on layer into the mists that shroud the rest of the landscape. It was hard to leave.

19401257_10212806659057223_1344888174_o.jpgThere was one more thing I wanted to do before leaving Peru… visit the so called ‘Rainbow Mountain’.  I geared myself up for one last push, having had one day of rest after the Inka Trail, and left at 3 am to get to the village where the hike starts.

I’d been quite lucky with altitude sickness until now, but I guess everyone has a tipping point, and mine is over 4.5k above sea level. I’ve never felt so terrible in my life. I managed to hike half the way, then gave up and took one of the many offers for a caballo  (horse) to the top. Which was an adventure in itself- the last time I rode a horse it had thrown me off and I’d not trusted on getting one since. Thankfully this girl was a lot more chilled, and I had the luxury of watching the view to the top of the mountain. So, thank you Peru, you wonderful country, I will leave you with this last view before I continue on to Ecuador.

DSCN8459 (3)

Peru, South America

Peru: Bears, dune buggies, inkas and a rainbow mountain

Peru is a phenomenal country. I loved it a hundred times more than I was expecting it to. The people are incredibly kind, the nature is fantastic, and the cities are fascinating and steeped in culture. After one month I boarded my plane to Ecuador wishing I didn’t have to leave.

Peru’s Arequipa is called the ‘white city’ because of the number of resplendent colonial buildings, which gleam against the perpetually blue sky, and it might be my favourite city in Latin America (so far). I spent a week here having Spanish lessons, visiting museums, and partying on the weekends. One thing you shouldn’t miss is seeing Huanita- the mummified body of a young Inka sacrifice, whose body was found frozen and well-preserved on the side of the mountain where she was left to the gods.

2.5.jpg

The main reason most people come to Arequipa is to visit the spectacular Colca Canyon, which, after much refute, has been proved by National Geographic to be the world’s deepest canyon.

The hike is hard.  Though the views of the dramatic rock faces, sudden drops, and wild landscape descending into the valley below are worth it, you basically have to descend very far, very fast- to get to the bottom on the first day. The Canyon itself is like nothing I have ever seen, particularly because of the famous condors which circle high over it. Condors, a kind of vulture, are the largest flying land bird in the western hemisphere… and they really are huge. Even from a distance they’re quite intimidating when they swoop over you when you’re not expecting it.

Colca.jpg

After an overnight stay in the little valley at the bottom of the canyon, it’s a 5am start and a hike three hours straight up a steep zig-zagging path through the rock face to reach civilisation again. Which would be hard at the best of times, but given the horrendous altitude (which makes a lot of people ill staying still) it was the biggest physical challenge of my life. .  I deliberated before booking it because of the reputation it has of challenging even experienced hikers (which I decidedly am not), but it was good experience prior to the Inka Trek, and actually, I think it was harder.

Huacachina is known as the ‘oasis’- a town which seems to have been dreamt out of the sand in the middle of the Peruvian desert. There’s only really one reason to come here: sandboarding. I was a bit apprehensive given that when I tried this last year in Namibia, I managed to be the exception to the instructor’s promise that ‘it’s literally impossible to fall ALL the way down the sand dune’. Nonetheless, I’ll given anything a second chance (except bungee jumping).

19578081_10212918200165681_870903985_n.jpgIt was totally worth it just for the epic dune buggy ride to get to the top of the dunes. Our driver said for a small tip he would go ‘mas extremo’…and he meant it. Like a real life rollercoaster, I regretted sitting at the front as we hurtled up over peaks we couldn’t see the other end of and came crashing and swerving back down and up the next dune. The sandboarding itself was actually fun- but tame compared to Namibia. We were only allowed to go on our front, and the peaks were considerably less high. I also wasn’t (quite as) hideously hungover, which I suspect had a lot to do with how much more I enjoyed it.

We briefly stopped in Nazca to look at the famous ‘Nazca lines’, but since I suspect it’s a scam I couldn’t be bothered to pay for a flight up to see them.  So my next stop was the little beach town of Paracas. There’s not a lot to do here except to visit the nearby Ballestas Islands. So called ‘poor man’s galapagos’, I actually loved this trip (since I am too poor to visit Galapagos) and was ecstatic to see penguins and seals thriving in the wild, instead of a zoo, for the first time. I especially enjoyed meeting the world’s smuggest sea lion.

DSCN8260 (2)I hated Lima. It was the only place in Peru I hated. I’m not really a fan of big cities anyway, and it lived up to its expectations of being ugly, grey, expensive, ugly , and grey. It didn’t help that I got hideously ill here, and had my first experience of having to pay for a private doctor in South America (£80 and an injection in the butt later and I wasn’t that impressed).

However, from here I flew to Cusco for the main event- the Inka Trail!  It was four of the best days of my life. Seriously. I’d started to regret having forked out so much to do the official Inka Trail when I learned how much cheaper other options were, but it was so, so worth it. I’ve never seen so many beautiful, varying views in one day in my life. I’ve also never had the chance to completely cut off from modern life, communication, and just be in nature with my own thoughts for so long before. I came out genuinely feeling like a different person.

The first day is relatively easy, as you get into the pace of the trail, wending your way over beautiful rivers and streams, slight inclines, but nothing hard. The second day is known as the toughest, because you have to conquer ‘dead woman’s pass’- an extremely steep trail ascending to an altitude of 4,200m. It was hard- but I was not as dead a woman at the end as I anticipated, which thrilled me. I must have somehow got a bit fitter! Fat teenage Helen would not have believed it. And the view here was PHENOMENAL. However the best part for me was recognising the shout of ‘Oso! Oso!’ and getting an (apparently extremely rare) glimpse of a real life Paddington-  a baby Peruvian spectacled bear!

DSCN8350.jpgDay three was actually the toughest for me; though you don’t go as high as rapidly, there is a lot of ‘Peruvian flat’ (i.e. constant up and down) which is hard on the feet and the knees. You finish at an Inka ruin that is a taste of the next day- complete with llamas.

The last day you get up at the crack of dawn, and everyone literally pelted it the last 5k to get to Machu Picchu. This is rough after three days of walking, and I had to literally drag myself up the scramble at the end to reach the Sun Gate.

19389437_10212806658897219_220602567_n.jpg

I can’t really express how I felt to see Machu Picchu actually spread out before me. I often think you get over-exposed to ‘wonders’  of the world from TV and postcards, so nothing as impressive when you see it in real life as it would be without the anticipation. This was not so here. After our guided tour, I spent a good hour just sat looking at the view- not just the ruins of an ancient civilisation- but the depth of the landscape around that is impossible to capture on camera. Jagged, rugged mountain faces, piled layer on layer into the mists that shroud the rest of the landscape. It was hard to leave.

19401257_10212806659057223_1344888174_o.jpgThere was one more thing I wanted to do before leaving Peru… visit the so called ‘Rainbow Mountain’.  I geared myself up for one last push, having had one day of rest after the Inka Trail, and left at 3 am to get to the village where the hike starts.

I’d been quite lucky with altitude sickness until now, but I guess everyone has a tipping point, and mine is over 4.5k above sea level. I’ve never felt so terrible in my life. I managed to hike half the way, then gave up and took one of the many offers for a caballo  (horse) to the top. Which was an adventure in itself- the last time I rode a horse it had thrown me off and I’d not trusted on getting one since. Thankfully this girl was a lot more chilled, and I had the luxury of watching the view to the top of the mountain. So, thank you Peru, you wonderful country, I will leave you with this last view before I continue on to Ecuador.

DSCN8459 (3)