New Orleans – Music wherever you look!

New Orleans the famous city on The Mississippi River in the State of Louisiana. ‘The Big Easy’ known for its vibrant live music scene and its lively nightlife! Notably Bourbon Street the famous street with bars aplenty. Anything goes in the evenings, people dressed to go ‘out out’ as well as those who’ve clearly been out all day and had a few drinks along the way!

The heart of the city is the historic French Quarter. You can see the influence in the architecture. There’s some beautiful streets to wander round and take in the city, obviously there are many bars for you to hop in and out of as you go!

Mardi Gras – the most notable of its history and celebrations is a late winter festival famed for street parties, parades and costumes.

A tree still decorated for Mardi Gras outside CVS

The more I’ve looked into the history of New Orleans the more intriguing I consider the place. I can’t do all the history justice in such a brief blog but I’ll do best at a whistle stop of highlights!

History

Indigenous people inhabited New Orleans for the same reasons that would later attract European settlers, an abundance of natural resources and a convenient network that could be used for transport in the local rivers.

Claimed for the French crown in the early 1700’s and later ceded to the Spanish, the influence of both nations is still evident. Architecture, wrought iron balconies, patios and courtyards; language, religion, customs, road and area names and of course food!

In 1800 the Spanish retroceded Louisiana back to France. Napoleon then sold the entire Louisiana colony including New Orleans back to The United States as part of the $15 million Louisiana purchase finalised in 1803.

Definitely head for a walk along the river whilst your there to take in the traditional paddle boats! New Orleans utilised the river network through history to transport agricultural goods like wheat, corn and potatoes.

The flow of goods between the Gulf of Mexico and the port of New Orleans attracted many pirates and smugglers. Jean and Pierre Lafitte were the most famous. Lafittes blacksmith shop on Bourbon Street is still a popular bar, said to be the oldest structure housing a bar in the US. Also said to be the pirates base back in the day. It’s a picturesque bar with a colonial architecture, you can feel the history in the place.

Rumoured to be haunted by both the ghost of Jean Lafitte, and a girl who committed suicide upstairs. The structure is also said to be built on the site of an old hospital where many people died from diseases that struck the area. A storm weakened the structure, and eventually its said to have burned down.

The city of New Orleans was the largest slave market in The US. As a result of the French and Spanish heritage slaves brought in by traders were predominantly from Senegal, The Bight of Benin and The Congo region. This differed to the local states of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee where the enslaved were culturally African-American having resided in The United States for at least 2 generations.

The constitution of 1864 abolished slavery and disposed of Louisiana’s old order of rule by planters and merchants. Though African Americans were not given voting rights until much later.

French Quarter

Also known as Vieux Carré is the oldest neighbourhood in New Orleans. The historic heart of the city the French Quarter is famed for its vibrant nightlife and colourful buildings with iron balconies. It’s known for it’s traditional style hotels often with a courtyard patio.

Many of the buildings were constructed in the late 18th century when the city was under Spanish rule. The district as a whole has been designated a national historic landmark. It’s a prime tourist destination in the city and also attracts locals.

It suffered relatively light damage in Hurricane Katrina in 2005 compared to other areas of the city and region. Partly due to the distant from where the flood banks breached and in part due to the relative height and strength of its nearest flood banks.

Cathedral Square is one of the most famous sites in New Orleans. Housing St Louis Cathedral in a beautiful square. It’s the oldest cathedral in continuous use in The United States and was founded in 1720.

Cathedral Square

I stayed in Place D’Armes hotel. A great location in the French Quarter within walking distance of plenty of the key sites and bars.

Cuisine

Two words come to mind in terms of food when you think of New Orleans – Cajun and Creole. They are two distinct ethnic groups with their own unique history, traditions and culture. Both have made significant contributions to both New Orleans and The State of Louisiana from cuisine to architecture, as well as language and culture.

Cajun is defined by most historians as Acadian descent. Acadians are French settlers who made their way to Canada. They were eventually exiled and made their way to lower Louisiana in the late 1700’s. Still distinguishable today with their Cajun-French accents and known for vibrant music and dancing, and of course, Cajun cuisine.

Creole is more difficult to define, the term is highly debated and holds no official definition. Historians have defined Creole as meaning anything from an ethnic group consisting of individuals with European and African, Caribbean or Hispanic descent to individuals born in New Orleans with Spanish or French ancestry. However someone defines it, it’s clear that Creole culture and heritage has made its mark on New Orleans through its impact on history, art and food.

This restaurant captured what I imagine traditional New Orleans to have looked like!

Cajun meals often have lots of smoked meats, or one pot dishes such as jambalaya. Creole often with tomatoes or rich tomato based sauces and the prominent use of seafood caught locally. Both tend to have chopped green peppers, onions and celery. Both types of cuisine are delicious and worth a try whilst visiting! There are restaurants and bars all over the area bursting with fresh food and flavours.

Spicy Shrimp Gumbo

Music

It felt like there was music everywhere! Lots of bars have live bands, and locals play throughout the streets!

Many famous musicians are also from New Orleans including Louis Armstrong, Allen Toussaint and Fats Domino.

Known as the birthplace of jazz, and famed for gospel music. Mardi Gras Indians inspired what is today known as hip hop and rap.

Local people care deeply about traditions, family, faith and food, but most importantly making joyful noise! Music is used in celebration of life and death, and everything in between!

Music is life itself.

Louis Armstrong

Cocktails

There’s a few famous local cocktails but they are strong! Be warned! You might want to share one! Here’s the details of a few:

Hand Grenade also known as a green grenade and easily recognisable as it’s usually sold in a bright green yard cup! It’s melon flavour with a blend of liqueurs and some secret ingredients. Sold frozen or on the rocks through a handful of licenced bars and clubs on Bourbon Street.

Hurricane another strong one.. ingredients consist of 3 different types of rum, a bit of passion fruit syrup and a drop of lemon, lime and / or orange juice.

Purple Daiquiri also called a Voodoo Daiquiri is the signature cocktail of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. It’s a grape flavour frozen daiquiri, spiked with bourbon and Everclear. Be warned everclear has a reputation as a very high alcohol content spirit!

One of many drinks I enjoyed whilst visiting, nice wine and delicious food here too!

Voodoo, Vampires and Witchcraft

Voodoo first came to New Orleans with enslaved West African who merged their religious rituals and practices with those of the local Catholic population.

Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau is the most infamous icon for this religion. She was the illegitimate daughter of plantation owner Charles Laveaux and his Haitian slave mistress. She’s known as a hairdresser and practitioner of elaborate voodoo rituals. Her final resting place is in St Louis cemetery no. 1. Though it is believed she materialises to lead voodoo rituals.

New Orleans Voodoo is a religion connected to nature, spirits and ancestors. The core belief is that one God does not interfere in daily lives but spirits do. Connection with these spirits can be obtained through rituals including dance, music, chanting and snakes.

Dolls, potions and talismans are found in shops and homes throughout the city. A reminder of the New Orleans fascination with spirits magic and mystery. Readings, prayers, spiritual baths and ceremonies are used to help with anxiety, depression and ill health.

The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum is in the French Quarter and a great stop to learn more about the rituals and artefacts, and the historic influence on New Orleans today.

During the 1930’s brothers John and Wayne Carter were executed for committing multiple murders. About a dozen bodies were drained of their blood. The Carters bodies mysteriously vanished from the family vault. Sightings of the brothers are still reported today.

New Orleans has always respected the dead, many burials are above ground. The burial plots have to be shallow as the water table is so high. Dig a few feet deep and the graves become soggy filling with water, the casket would literally float away. The wall vault system that was popular in Spain was adopted to overcome the issue.

There are a number of buildings with a reputation for being haunted. So many strange sightings and stories mean there is no shortage of urban legends or attraction for fans of the macabre.

Visit New Orleans!

There is so much more I could write about but this is just a whistle stop tour! I hope I’ve captured the history correctly from where I’ve researched and discovered.

Whatever your interests, there is something for everyone in New Orleans – I can’t recommend a visit highly enough! Enjoy and I hope this blog has been of interest!

For more photos follow me on Instagram http://instagram.com/mysolofootprints/

Things to do and see in Miami

South Beach

There’s more to South beach than just the beach – it can be as much or as little as you want! I stayed near 16th and Pennsylvania which is a great base to see more, and not too far to wander down to the beach, without being in the midst of the party area!

South Beach near 14th

It’s a gorgeous beach, lovely sand and clear water and plenty of space – something we definitely lack on UK beaches when the sun is out! Anything goes in Miami, beach wear, dress it up or dress it down!

Like most US places there’s a standard grid system making it easy to get around. There’s a free trolley to get around the area if you need it. Currently (early April 2022) masks are still required on public transport. This is the only place currently where masks are necessary whilst here.

The main party area with a large choice of bars is between 5th and 13th mainly on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue. Some of the best clubs are in the Wynwood area. In South Beach you have Story on 1st and Collins. Liv is on 44th and Collins.

Palace is also a lot of fun! Though it’s a gay bar with an amazing drag show so won’t suit all tastes but a great night!

In a bar on Collin’s Avenue

Shopping malls

Sawgrass Mills is a huge outlet mall that’s worth a visit. Some people turn up with a suitcase to carry all their purchases and I can see why! Outlet prices on sale items and sometimes current stock is cheaper too. Give them your email address and you’ll often get additional discounts. Coming from the UK fair to say I got some bargains!

There’s a food court with a variety of choices to refresh. It’s about an hour or so from South Beach and an ideal one to drive to.

Spread Love Not Germs

Aventura mall is in north Miami Beach, around 40 minutes drive, can be longer depending on the time of day. I got the local bus – definitely an experience! I witnessed an argument between two guys and the driver had to shout at them to calm down! A guy who got on and did not stop talking, except when he was singing. Then he tried to offer everyone around him some pills. Plus a drunk guy who refused to get off at the stop he’d specifically asked the driver to wake him up at so stayed on sleeping until Aventura mall which is the end of the line and he got kicked off, a fair distance away from where he wanted to be, let’s hope it was a good night!

Aventura has plenty of choice of shops, a food court and some lovely restaurants. Including some really good Peruvian restaurants. There’s also a small food market on Sunday’s.

Restaurants

There are choices aplenty and to fit any budget. It’s very multicultural in terms of food options.

As well as the usual taxes and tips that get added to your bill, it’s also worth noting that there is a beach tax added on certain roads. Restaurants on Lincoln Road, Espaniola Way and Ocean Drive add a further 18-25% to bills.

Party vibes on Espaniola Way

A few I enjoyed and would recommend are Ceviche 105 – delicious food and wine. Cuban Havana 1957, great food and cocktails. I recommend the pina colada! I love Thai food so also enjoyed Thai House South Beach.

Delicious ceviche from Ceviche 105

I also love Sushi and recommend Ginza Japanese buffet it’s in north Miami Beach and it’s 25 dollars each (plus taxes, tips) for all you can eat. Definitely worth it, loads of choice of sushi as well as hot food like egg fried rice, some choice of meats, gyozas and several desserts. Definitely ate my moneys worth there and the sushi was good!

A few places for lunch in South Beach I recommend are Juice & Java. Great for lunch, cakes and açaí! And Arepas & Sand Wish great for breakfast and lunch and generous portions. Arepas are a little like a pitta bread but corn based and a classic Columbian meal with your choice of filling. They offer a larger selection of food including burgers. Both are close to the beach meaning neither are cheap but portions are decent for the price.

Chicken and avocado Arepas

Sriracha House is a cheaper option for dinner but also good at lunch. Lots of choice of noodles or rice with your choice of meat or vegetables. Reasonably priced, informal and take away is also an option.

There is a Time Out food market on 16th usually open from 11-11. It has a bar and often a DJ with a cool vibe. And a great choice of food options, Peruvian, Vietnamese, Caribbean to name a few!

Wynwood Walls

Definitely worth a visit, accessible by bus or car from South Beach. There’s a museum there you can pay to access to see work by various artists. Or if you prefer you can just wander around the area which is a huge outdoor destination that features large colourful and varied street murals by artists from around the world.

Plenty of different street art to see and lots of instagramable venues to stop at throughout the day for food and drink!

If you enjoy açaí I recommend OOH RAW! Poke & Juice bar, where you can get your delicious açaí served in a pineapple. Cheaper than South Beach too!

Beautifully presented Açaí 🍍

Aubi and Ramsa makes alcohol infused ice creams and sorbets in a beautiful setting. You can enjoy one on a swing at the bar should you choose!

In order to keep your balance you must keep on moving

Albert Einstein

Bayside

A lovely little area with plenty of shops and restaurants with a great view of all the boats in the bay. Apparently manatees can be seen here at the right time of year if you’re lucky – usually November- March. Another place you might see them is Biscayne Bay.

There’s a few daiquiri bars and I concur they were nice and strong, unlike some of the seemingly watered down ones I got in South Beach! Bubba Gumps Shrimp restaurant along with gift shop and a bench where you can slip your feet into Forrest’s shoes!

I ate is Cafe Mambo which is a blend of Cuban and Caribbean food. Delicious and good portion sizes. Some great cocktails and you can keep your glass after!

More Sightseeing options

A few more great areas to visit or chill out day or night:

Coconut Grove is an upscale, leafy neighbourhood with a great choice of shops, cafes and restaurants. A number of celebrities live here including Serena Williams.

Little Havana is a vibrant Cuban area with plenty of history and a great selection of Latin American cafes, restaurants and Art Galleries.

Some beautiful spots to watch the sunset are South Point, Biscayne Bay and Haulover Park. For the park which has a beach too there’s a small entrance fee, or if you live close enough it’s $60 for an annual pass. Lovely to spend a day or afternoon there and catch the sunset in the evening.

A few other famous spots within South Beach include the stairs that feature in the 1983 film Scarface starring Al Pacino.

The actual staircase from the chainsaw massacre from the classic Al Pacino film ‘Scarface’.

Another spot is the iconic Versace mansion, now turned into an opulent boutique hotel with a gold lined pool.

Pride is early April, a multi day celebration of arts and culture, including a festival and parade.

Maria and I enjoying Miami Pride! Love the sunglasses 😎

There’s a food market on Lincoln Road on Sunday’s – the açaí is delicious from the stall run by a lovely guy from Rio!

Delicious Açaí 😋

There is plenty more to see and do, whatever your preferences, you’ll enjoy a stay in Miami!

A last shot of the idyllic beach!

For more photos follow me on Instagram http://instagram.com/mysolofootprints/

Off the Tourist Trail – Wine Tasting in Spain!

So the ironic thing is that beer and wine is generally cheaper than soft drinks in Spain. The government placed a sugar tax on fizzy drinks and juices, but no tax on alcohol – so I guess it would be rude not to!

Wine is the answer, who cares what the question is!

Quote found in a little wine store in Slovenia!

Bodega Protas, Penafiel

Protas in Penafiel is a large industrial vineyard and wine producer, opened in 1927 and located in the Ribera Del Duera region in Spain.

Protas means first in Greek, also termed Ser Primo locally. It is the oldest wine producer the area. It has the perfect soil and climate combination for vine production. A combination of clay and limestone soil with plenty of rain.

It’s an interesting place with a huge and impressive set up, but certainly not my favourite wine tasting of the tour. I think it was a little overpriced, it was more about the tour then the tasting. That said there wine was very nice and you get to keep your glass!

Personally I preferred the smaller, family run style places we visited.

Also some wine purchased locally in a little bar round the corner from Protas. Bargain at just over 2 Euro’s for a round including some complimentary tapas!

Bodega Vego Sauco, Toro, Zamora

Vego Sauco is a small and friendly family run bodega in Toro, Zamora. All of the wines tell a story. For example Tres Lunas, he has 3 daughters and his wife’s maiden name translated moon; so it represents his family.

A small tour here followed by a cosier wine tasting experience was much more enjoyable to me. Apparently Christopher Columbus took the Toro vines to South America. I generally love South American wines so tasted so its lovely to see some of where they come from!

Bodega Alma Roja, D.O. Arribes

Charlotte Allen’s winery in Fermoselle is an experience I highly recommend to anyone passing anywhere near the local area! Charlotte is an interesting and eccentric English lady from Rutland and fair to say she is one hell of a character! Her wine set up is run out of the local (now closed) disco! Disco ball and stage with palm trees painted behind still in tact!

There are more than 1200 wine cellars in the local area. Archeology indicates they are over 500 years old, though potentially closer to 2000 years old. The cellars are older than the houses so it is believed they might originally have been dwellings. Jews who ‘agreed’ to convert to Catholicism may have used them to practice Judaism underground. There are a lot of Jewish surnames in the local area.

The area has a lot of uneven terrain and granite which isn’t great for growing vines. However, as the rivers meet nearby it offers some protection. It’s also a beautiful area with plenty of walking opportunities nearby.

One of my favourite wines of the whole trip (and I tried a few!) was Pirita, which means fools gold. Its a delicious red with more vines than Chateauneuf du Pape! In fact Charlotte sells it to high end French restaurants. An English lady selling Spanish wine to the French..!

Bodega La Setera

La Setera – A lovely little winery run by another English lady Sarah. She’s just on the border to Portugal and we’d walked there from Fermoselle through the beautiful park along the river. Completely different in character to Charlotte, Sarah is very friendly and interesting to chat to. Born in Ireland and lived in Belgium and France prior to Spain.

I highly recommend the red La Setera, I really enjoyed the 2018 one! Sarah also makes some delicious goats cheese also available to buy.

As with almost everything else climate change is having a huge impact on the vines. With heavy rains and frost becoming more frequent and less predictable in terms of timings. Its impacting the volume and quality of the grapes. Also impacting on the timing of picking and producing. And as with everything else, in turn impacting costs for the producers which inevitably will be passed on.

Also moving with the times all of the bodega’s are producing, developing or investing in more organic and vegan wines.

A day without wine is like….. Just kidding, I have no idea

Enjoy and happy wine tasting!

Pretty and Picturesque Porto

I like this place and could willingly waste my time my time in it.

William Shakespeare.

I loved Porto, it’s beautiful and picturesque from every angle! A coastal city in North West Portugal, famed for the many stately bridges and of course port production. It has a palace and a cathedral, personally I loved wandering around the narrow streets and taking it all in. I’ve always loved a city break, seeing the architecture and just absorbing and ‘feeling’ a place.

The brightly coloured and also the stunning blue and white tiles is another thing Porto is famous for. Azulejos is the name for these painted glazed tiles. From the Arabic word az-zulayj, which translates to polished stone.

Porto Sao Bento train station is famous for its fantastic display of tiles portraying the history of Porto. One side is currently covered as its under restoration but when complete there are approximately 20,000 tiles displaying the history. It really is a stunning piece of art and worth a look.

Boat trips

I definitely recommend a boat trip, enabling you to tour up and down the river seeing Porto at its prettiest from both sides. As well as seeing the many bridges.

There are plenty of companies and you can buy tickets on the day. I went with Manos du Douro who I would recommend. It was a traditional style boat that used to bring the wine barrels from the Douro valley. They go on the hour, the tour lasts 50 minutes and cost 15 euros. Take cash for payment, and you get a free glass of port after at one of the local places.

I loved Porto it was so beautiful and the boat trip really allows you to take it in from a different view. A must if you’re visiting!

Burmester Port

Located just underneath the lower level of one of the famous bridges – Luis bridge – you can find Burmester. Well known as the best port tour and tasting in the area. Personally I’m not a fan of port, nonetheless it was one of the more interesting wine tours I did on this trip.

Established by 2 brothers from London in 1750. From Burmester road SW, turns out to be remarkably close to where I live! You can see the age and quality in the barrels made from French oak. The set up is impressive, partly inside the mountain with natural spring water flowing.

Luis Bridge is also known as Eiffel bridge, attributed to Gustave Eiffel. You can see the resemblance to the Eiffel Tower. Due to the height variation around Porto this is a double deck bridge where you can cross on both the higher and lower levels across the River Douro.

Eiffel Bridge

The most beautiful bookstore in the world

The Livraria Lello bookstore is one of the worlds oldest bookstores and often ranked as the most beautiful bookstore in the world. It’s worth a visit if you’re in Porto though I recommend getting there early in the morning as its now somewhat of an instagrammers paradise and queues can be extremely lengthy!

Restaurants

Porto entices with a great choice of restaurants, food and wine. I enjoyed every meal I had. Fresh fish is plentiful. My favourite was the seared tuna which was exquisite. I had delicious sardines and lots of fresh sea bass too.

Seared Tuna

Cais de Ribeira is a beautiful area on the waterfront with plenty of lovely restaurants where you can enjoy great views of the area. Its also a UNESCO world heritage site.

Local wine I highly recommend!

The Practical stuff

I stayed in hotel Moov – the central one, which is a great location and reasonably priced. It used to be a cinema! You might prefer to stay closer to the river, though nowhere was far to walk. Hotel Moov is near a lot of the shopping streets.

Do bear in mind how steep it is the walking round Porto. It’s very hilly! Though you can get the tram!

Another option is the fenicular railway. Takes you from the river back up to the top in a few minutes for 2.50 euros. They run every 10 minutes and a great view at the top!

You can also hire bikes, with or without a guide. I recommend hiring an e-bike given how steep some of it is!

Some restaurants require you to scan a QR code on your phone to read the menu. So carry your phone, and check your EU roaming / data allowance.

As always I recommend a Starling bank card for the excellent exchange rates and ease of use on the app. https://www.starlingbank.com/

Covid

Another annoying thing about leaving the EU is that our covid certificate is not part of the EU program and therefore not recognised locally. As I entered from Spain I didn’t need a negative antigen test to get in. Some hotels therefore make you do a lateral flow on arrival, they’re sold everywhere for a couple of Euro’s. Though some places will accept our NHS ones if you have any with you. Others will look at the certificate and check that the brand of vaccine you had and dates are ok. If you enter from the UK I assume you can use your negative antigen test for the first couple of days.

As with everything covid related it changes so frequently that this is correct at time of writing, but might not be by the time I’ve finished typing so please do check on this!

Also worth bearing in mind some restaurants will want a negative test or valid covid certificate too. Usually in the bigger towns, on the weekend, because covid doesn’t get you during the week.. or in small villages.. but worth bearing in mind!

Currently you also need to complete an online form to enter Portugal, this can be found on the FCO website. https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/portugal And also still need to complete a passenger locator form to re-enter the UK. You’ll also need a pre-booked day 2 PCR, you need to enter the reference code for it on your form. That said I believe this is about to change imminently so again please check!

Happy travelling – it really is worth the effort! And of course – stay safe! x

Beautiful Segovia – Spain

I’m not lost I’m exploring

The beautiful town of Segovia has plenty to see and if you’re in the area I would thoroughly recommend visiting. It’s a historic city north west of Madrid.

Segovia has very rich architecture, including medieval walls, Roman churches, a former Royal palace and a Gothic cathedral. It’s most famed for the iconic ancient Roman aqueduct. The aqueduct has 160 arches, most in the original granite, and stands above the square in the heart of the city.

The aqueduct was constructed in the 2nd century and given how old it is the condition is impressive. Made of stone and declared a world heritage site in the 80’s.

Exploring the beautiful streets of Segovia

The legend of the aqueduct

So the legend goes many years ago a girl had to walk 15km every day to collect water, then 15km back. She was tired and bored and prayed that she didn’t have to do it anymore.

One night she wished someone would create something so she wouldn’t have to walk and collect the water everyday. The devil appeared. He said ok I’ll grant your wish and build something to carry the water. I promise to complete it before the sun comes up, and if I do, in return you have to give me your soul.

He built the aqueduct and was almost finished just before sunrise. The girl realised what she had agreed too and regretted it, she begged the devil not to complete the aqueduct and told him it’s ok I prefer to walk everyday.

One stone was left incomplete and at that moment the sun rose so the devil hadn’t completed his end of the deal. The girl didn’t lose her soul and the aqueduct remained.

In the gap for the remaining stone, the local people put a statue of the Virgin Mary so the aqueduct can never be completed.

Some of the local restaurants give away a small jug as a gift after your meal, representing the girl in the legend.

If you walk up to the top of the aqueduct and get a view across the city, you can see the devil statue with his one remaining brick. Amusingly, and I presume more recently, an iPhone has been added to the statue and you can see the devil taking a selfie with the aqueduct in the background!

Things to see

It’s a beautiful city with plenty to see and lots of little streets to wander round. As well as the aqueduct you’ve also got the castle, cathedral, Jewish quarter and the Knights quarter.

El alcazar – the castle, famed for its Disney-esque style. You can go inside and take a tour of the internal of the castle.

El Alcazar

The Cathedral – a beautiful building, is in the old Jewish quarter and I think cost 3 euros to enter. It’s ornate inside as you’d expect from the exterior. The organ was played the whole time we visited so was relaxing to wander round.

It’s a traditional Spanish style cathedral built in the 6th century. Located in the ancient Jewish quarter, just off the main square – plaza mayor.

Restaurants

I definitely recommend Meson de Candida! it’s famous for its suckling pig, it’s so tender that they’ll chop it with a plate in front of you if enough people in your party order it. Portions are large! It’s not the cheapest restaurant but definitely worth it one night. They have a good selection of fish too, vegetarian options are limited.

They also offer an extensive choice of wine. Here’s a couple I recommend below:

Pesquera and Muruve – two delicious red wines I recommend!

The Practical stuff

Since covid most menu’s are a QR code so you’ll need a smartphone to view them.

Tap water is safe to drink so bring a bottle to refill.

The weather was a bit rainy and cloudy when we were there, the first rain they’d had in 3 months unfortunately! So I guess usually a more Mediterranean climate. It must have been unusual as when the rain got heavy one evening all the locals were out looking at it and taking photos!

As usual I recommend a Starling bank card for good exchange rates and ease of use on the app. https://www.starlingbank.com/

One of the local shops selling traditional and locally made produce

Finally travelling again! Madrid!

It has been a long time coming. For all of us. Around 18 months where life changed beyond belief. Travelling has been a huge part of my life for many years. It’s what I work for; as well as paying the bills etc of course. I hadn’t realised how much I missed it.

Everyone has had different challenges and struggles as a result of covid and it’s consequences. Travel was so easy before and I guess we took that ease for granted. So grateful to experience some normality. Even if there are a few more forms and admin involved, and we have to wear face masks in some places.

I don’t ever remember being this excited to get on a plane and I’m so grateful to have made it to Madrid, the starting point for a wine tasting and walking tour through Spain and Portugal!

Live life to the fullest because you only get to live it once.

Wandering through the park in the sunshine listening to this guy playing his music, made me so grateful to be lucky enough to see and experience new things again!

Retiro Park

Madrid

Spain’s capital city, full of shopping streets, parks, art and wonderful little streets to wander around.

I stayed in Hotel Ganivet on Calle de Toledo. A nice neighbourhood with plenty of local tapas bars around and some nice little back streets off the main road. It’s a central location that’s relatively near to the main sites without being too in the centre of it all.

Below map shows the hotel, a good walking route to see some key sites on the orange route. And the orange highlights on the right showing some of the other main places you can visit.

The hotel also has a very tiny pool on the roof. Very cold but great for cooling off, and a sun trap of a roof terrace with a few sunbeds and chairs if you want some sunny chill out time!

Things to see

There are many so I’ll just touch briefly on a few key ones from my perspective.

Cathedral de la Almudena is beautiful, in a classical style. The palace is just opposite and next to a great view overlooking the gardens.

Cathedral de la Almudena

There are many beautiful buildings and it’s great for viewing different architecture. And everything looks better with a blue sky!

There are many horse statues all around the city. Legend has it that they used to belong in the Palace. One night the queen had a nightmare that all the statues fell down and smashed and killed many people. Since then they were dispersed around the city,

There are a few parks and gardens also worth a visit. And the Egyptian Temple of Debod. An Egyptian temple dating back to the 2nd century BC. Transported to Spain and donated by the Egyptian government to save it from flooding. Though it does look slightly odd in the middle of Madrid, you can catch a great sunset there.

Egyptian temple

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor is the Main square in Madrid. Full of lots of good restaurants out in the square and some pretty buildings and arches.

Not far from here you can find the Bear statue eating from the strawberry tree. It represents the coat of arms of the city. Touching the bears tail or foot is supposed to bring good luck.

El Oso y el Madroño

Food and drink

I thoroughly recommend restaurant Gustos in Plaza Mayor. Paella is the speciality and I can confirm the seafood paella is delicious! Went down very nicely with a lovely bottle of Albariño.

Seafood paella at restaurant Gustos
Albariño – loved the label!

There are many delicious tapas bars and I’ve had some great calamari, tortilla and patatas bravas to name a few. Everywhere I ate portions were generous so no need to order too much.

There’s also Mercado de San Miguel, a trendy food market selling very nice tapas with a twist. Maybe a little overpriced but good food and a nice alternative if you’re looking for something a bit different.

As well as paella another local dish is huevos rotas. It means broken eggs and usually comes with chorizo or ham. Essentially it’s ham, egg and chips, but the Spanish version!

The Practical Stuff

Tap water is safe to drink and you can ask for it in restaurants, ask for ‘agua del grifo’. Madrid’s water is supposed to be the best tasting in the whole of Spain and I can confirm it is the nicest of what I’ve tasted so far.

Currency is Euro and most places now accept cards since covid, similar to the UK. Carry a little cash for tips etc.

As ever I still recommend a Starling bank card for good exchange rates and ease of use on the app. https://www.starlingbank.com/ Always select payment in Euro’s not £’s so you get Starlings exchange rates not the local ones. Works out cheaper! Revolut is also a great card. https://www.revolut.com/cards

The thing that annoyed me the most was having to go through the non EU queue in the airport. Still sad and angry about Brexit but something we need to accept and live with I guess. And I appreciate different opinions and views on it, that’s just mine for what it’s worth.

To get into Spain currently (September 2021), if you’re double vaccinated you just need to show your certificate. Download a pdf to your phone from the NHS app, just make sure it’s in date as they only last a month each time you open the app currently from England.

I’m heading through Spain to Portugal, where you can cross the border. Currently, but things change so frequently please check latest FCO rules, you need an antigen test prior to leaving Spain for the UK, and a pre-booked day 2 PCR. You need the code to complete the passenger locator form to get back into the UK. But I understand testing rules are due to change in early October. https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/spain

I also had to fill in a form on the Spanish travel website, link is on the FCO page, to get into Spain. It’s within 48 hours of travel and you’ll need your seat number on the plane. Once you get confirmation your documents are correct you can try to download your boarding pass. Many people for flights to Spain have to collect it in the airport so check in staff can verbally ask if you have the covid certificate and Spanish passenger form, though dependent on airline. And again, probably out of date by the time I’ve finished typing given how frequently everything changes!

Happy travelling! Take care and of course stay safe!

London in Lockdown

Walking down the street today to my hair appointment (excitement overload!), made me realise how much I’d missed the hustle and bustle of London. Supermarkets have obviously been open as have coffee shops for takeout. But there’s something indescribable about the feel and vibrancy now things seem more normal; the hairdressers, pubs and cafes are open for business. Rather than a few people queueing for the food shop or pharmacy. Or more likely sitting in the sun or park all day – We have been blessed with gorgeous weather during lockdown! There is a sense of normality that I hadn’t realised how much I was missing. And a sense of excitement in the air!

London Town.

Famed for the iconic Big Ben clock tower and Westminster Abbey. Across the River Thames the iconic London Eye, usually offering panoramic views of the city.

Photo credit: Fred Down

The capital of England and the UK. A vibrant city full of hustle and bustle with a history stretching back to Roman times. Empty and quiet. No tourists. No office workers. It was amazing to see London this way. Though I hope I never have the opportunity to see it like this again!

Everyone will have there own memories of lockdown but there are a few common things that will bind us all together. The zoom call: ‘Can you hear me?’. Tik Tok. Someone video calling you when you’ve just got out of the shower. More seriously the fear that you or that vulnerable family member might be affected by the terrible illness affecting the whole world. Our shared frustrations with The Government and certain politicians. The infinite memes that enabled the great British sense of humour to help me keep my sanity at the start!

For me it’s the fact I have a bike that helped to keep my sanity during lockdown. I struggled to start with, I’ve always liked living on my own. Then suddenly every single social contact is removed all at once. I had taken for granted how sociable working in an office is. I couldn’t meet friends or family. I couldn’t pop to a local cafe or go to the pub for a drink. I couldn’t even pop to a friends house. I hadn’t realised that work, no matter how busy my day was enabled me to chat to friends and colleagues. Even if it was a minute here or there before a meeting started. Or passing in the toilets, or while waiting for your water bottle to fill up. All of my social touch points were removed instantaneously.

My home that I used to like coming back to became my office, as well as my gym, and where I would eat every single meal. There was no differentiation between work and post work. The environment didn’t change. There was no change of scene. I didn’t realise that my commute home used to give me time to unwind. I said the words: ‘I miss commuting’. Never did I think I’d utter those words. And now I can’t imagine commuting 5 days a week, even though I’ve done it all my adult life. I also can’t believe how frequently the flat needs cleaning now I’m spending so much more time in it!

Time. Something that was always precious. I was always busy. I was always tired. Suddenly I had more time than I knew what to do with. As one of my friends who was on furlough told me ‘I’ve completed Netflix.’

Thankfully I have been working. Didn’t stop me being jealous at times of the people on furlough sitting in the park all day in the sun. Or going to the beach. But I think I’d have struggled more without some routine and security. As me and my team got used to a new way of working, having regular video calls.

I also lived through the brutality of 4000 colleagues in my company being made redundant. In my role the team reduced by 90%. My friends and team suddenly no longer expected back from furlough. Never coming back. Final. Im grateful to have a job but suffered survivors guilt. I’m not sure how long I have a job for but thankful to be earning money for now. I still feel bad for my friends. It’s getting easier as I start to see some people have jobs now and hopefully will go on to be successful.

My mums been shielding this whole time. In early April I decided to get my bike out of the shed and try cycling to hers. I loved the empty roads that made cycling so much more enjoyable. She was pleased to see me, being quite down at the prospect of staying indoors for so long.

Since then I cycle round to hers every weekend. Sometimes delivering paracetamol, chocolate, chewing gum. Things to cheer her up or keep her sane! I think the company and routine kept us both sane as we both live on our own. Though I think the traffic now is busier than pre lockdown as people avoid public transport.

I struggled a lot at the beginning. Then I found out that someone I used to work with lost her sister, a nurse with diabetes, to covid. A few days later, her mum who was in a care home passed away. No matter how hard I was finding things, there was always someone worse off than me.

My brother and his family had covid but thankfully they are all ok.

Cycling became something that could get me out and about. Further than just going for a walk round the park. The change of scene I’d been craving.

Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.

Lawrence Block

I didn’t realise how much time I’d spend in the garden. The hammock below – my best lockdown purchase! Also a photo of my feet with no toenail polish on! I can’t remember the last time this happened. But when you live in jogging bottoms, sportswear and pyjamas, and have no plans, it somehow didn’t seem important!

There’s a selection of photos on this blog from eerily quiet visits into central London. I always take photos and write blogs from places I’ve travelled to. Here’s some views from closer to home. That said, I can’t wait to get abroad and travel again. Though that will have to wait a bit longer. For now, I’ll be content with an appointment at the hairdressers and dinner out in a restaurant this evening!

And of course, enjoying some of the lovely weather with friends in the park once we were allowed to. Even better, pubs started to do takeaway drinks that you could enjoy in the park weather permitting!

The Road of Death! – Cycling in La Paz!

So I didn’t die, but I did get a concussion and some serious bruising! North Yungas Road, officially the most dangerous road in the world.

As long as we don’t die, this is going to make one hell of a story.

John Green

I’ll start at the beginning..

I booked the tour through my Gadventures trip before I left the UK, priced at £88, plus a local entrance fee of 53 Bolivianos (BOB), just over a fiver in Sterling. You can also book locally once you’re in resort, you have to pay in cash in Bolivianos.

Gadventures use Enhance as a tour company who were very good and provide you with a 4000 US dollar mountain bike. As well as some serious kit, including elbow and knee pads, a proper motorcycle style crash helmet, gloves and outer trousers and a jacket. Even if it does look like something out of an 80s ski catalogue! There are plenty of different companies you can book with locally.

The few of us that had opted to cycle Death Road got picked up early from our hotel. It was a half hour drive to pick up our bikes and equipment. From there a further one hour drive to start at the top of the mountain. I recommend you wear lots of layers, long socks, additional gloves or liners too. And sturdy footwear, waterproof if you can!

It was freezing at the top of the mountain, and snowing when we started. We experienced rain, hail and fog during our ride too. Wear lots of layers underneath the clothing they provide – you’ll need them! It gets warmer as you descend so you can remove layers as you require and put them in the van which follows behind at all times.

I’d also take sunglasses, in case its bright, or to stop small stones or bugs flying into your eyes. That said, for us it was so wet you could barely see through the glasses. We fashioned a method of resting them on the end of our noses! It prevented some of the spray and allowed us to see something!

You start at over 4000 metres above sea level. Being used to riding a very light road bike, just under 9 kilo’s, not only did I find the bike extremely heavy but with the altitude I was breathless trying to ride it until we started going downhill! There was a very, very slight uphill to start, between my lack of breath and the weight of the bike I almost couldn’t get the bike to move! But just about managed to keep it upright and moving! Unlike one of my fellow death road companions who went sideways into a puddle before we’d started!

The first 20km of the cycle are mainly on a road and you gradually descend along with some traffic, and some fog and heavy rain! The remaining 30km is all on track and arguably the more dangerous part of the road. The bikes are expensive, good quality and you have to trust them. You descend all the way down to around 1200 metres above sea level. It starts to feel tropical on the way down and you get chance to sunbathe and swim in the pool of a local hotel before heading back.

The Yungas road, to give it its formal name, links La Paz and The Yungas region of Bolivia. It was considered dangerous owing to the steep slopes, narrow track, lack of guardrails, rain and fog. Nicknamed ‘The Road of Death’. The original road was built in 1930. An alternative was built to bypass the most dangerous section over a 20 year period and completed in 2006.

The 30km track section that you enter is no longer used by cars and vehicles. Many tour operators offer downhill mountain biking tours, offering guides, equipment, information and transport. It draws around 25,000 tourists a year. At least 18 cyclists have died on the road since 1998. You have to sign a form before you start, basically signing your life away. If you die or injure yourself, you’re accountable.

The track section of the road is narrow in places, with water running in parts. Very few of the areas have barriers, if were to go over the edge its a long way down! That said it used to be a road, so is more than wide enough for a bike!

You go over a variety of surfaces including rocks which can be wet and slippy. The bikes will go over anything and you have to trust them. Easier said than done! Most accidents are from people braking too hard.

The guide will stop regularly at different sections where there is space to or a good viewpoint for photos. He will also take photos and some short videos that will be sent to you afterwards.

I remember going fast on slippy, wet rocks. I assume I must have hit a rock at a dodgy angle and came off. The next thing I remember is being on the ground, very confused. I felt like I’d just woken up from a dream, I didn’t know where I was and I had no memory of falling.

At this point I was at the back of the 5 of us in the group, with only the driver behind me. I woke up on the rocks with him trying to take my helmet off. I didn’t recognise him or know what was happening so I went a bit hysterical shouting various things at him. ‘What are you doing to me!’ ‘Who are you!’ ‘Where am I?’ ‘What happened to me!’ ‘Speak English!’ ‘Take me to a hospital!’

Then I gradually started to realise what was going on, I still wasn’t with it and was in a lot of pain and very confused. He called our guide and asked him to come back. And in the meantime he took off my helmet and stood me up. Not the best course of action but I wasn’t with it enough to realise at the time. I actually fell on one of the most dangerous parts of the road. It wasn’t too far from the Ambulance station. So our guide came back in the Ambulance. I was already stood up by this point. I also wasn’t aware an ambulance had turned up until some of the other guys told me later on!

I was still extremely confused and trying to work out what had happened. I had worked out that I must have fallen, but really wasn’t with it.

I had one hell of a headache. I later discovered I had a fair few bruises coming up down one side, down my leg and thigh, and on both shoulder blades – so maybe I bounced! They were starting to come up but appeared a lot more in the next day or so. It was really sore but I think because my head hurt so much, I didn’t really register the pain anywhere else!

That said I still think I was lucky. It could have been worse. I didn’t brake anything, and I didn’t go over the edge! It’s a good job they give you such good helmets, mine had a huge crack in the back. If it was a normal cycle helmet that would have been the base of my skull.

So I managed to do around 35km of the 50km route before coming off the bike and knocking myself unconcious! I’m still glad I did it, and I really enjoyed the part that I did do. I was a bit gutted that I didn’t manage to complete it all but I had a bad concussion and no memory of falling!

I went in the van for a bit and tried desperately hard not to fall asleep. One of the cyclists on my trip was a radiographer and asked me a lot of questions. She confirmed in her opinion it was concussion. I concur based on the pain in my head! I also felt sick and sleepy. Staying awake was priority number one!

I spent the 10km after that in the van. Then at around 5km from the end I decided to get back on and have a go. Part of me wasn’t thinking straight and part of me wasn’t really aware what was going on. I decided that for my own confidence I needed to get back on, even if just for a little while. Otherwise I was worried I’d struggle when I tried to cycle back home.

I only did about a kilometre or so and the guide stayed at the back with me. The surface was a little flatter and less rocky so it was more manageable. My head still hurt though so I decided that was all I needed to do and I got back in the van for the last few km.

Once you’ve finished the ride you drive a short way to a small town where you can get a beer to celebrate. With my very recent head injury I decided alcohol wouldn’t be the wisest thing I’d ever done so opted for a Fanta for the sugar. You give your equipment back at this stage and the bikes get a thorough cleaning.

We then had a further half hour drive to a hotel for a buffet lunch and a shower. There is a pool if the weather is good. It was a bit wet while we were there. Much as I usually love swimming I probably wouldn’t have been up to it anyway! Bring bug spray and suncream as well as swimwear just in case.

Snacks and water are provided throughout. The van and a mechanic are always with you in case you need anything. The guide is usually ahead and helps you on your way down. The van is always behind in case anyone needs it – like I did!

You get a t-shirt included, along the lines of ‘I survived death road’. My group told me I could wear it with pride!

We then had a 3 hour drive home, I took some paracetamol and did have a short sleep in the van. Then got back to the hotel, showered and went out for dinner as of it was a normal night!

With hindsight I should have gone to hospital. I didn’t realise how bad it was but thankfully I’m ok and recovered and back to cycling on my road bike.

I did visit my GP when I got home a couple of days later – having slept for most of the flight home. It’s a good way to get over jetlag as your body needs so much rest! The doctor gave me a link to a professional rugby website as they’ve done so much research into head injuries. I had to take it easy and not raise my heart rate for a couple of weeks to aid recovery. Then ease back into exercise gently. I still had headaches for about 3 weeks afterwards.

So I completed most of Death Road, but I am a bit gutted I didn’t manage to do it all! That said, it was an amazing experience. Stunning scenery and beautiful, breathtaking views! As I say I’m glad I did it, and enjoyed the part that I did manage to do!

The final word..

That concludes my South American trip. A fantastic experience seeing some beautiful sites and countries. And met some great people! I’m also extremely grateful I was able to complete by trip this year, 2020; arriving back in the UK after 5 weeks travelling in the middle of February. Shortly before Covid-19 changed our lives and the travel landscape so much. I appreciate I was lucky to complete the trip and enjoy so many amazing experiences.

My highlights: Sunrise on Easter Island, Iguazu Falls in Brazil, and The Salt Flats in Bolivia. And I think The Pantanal in Brazil features too; it put me out of my comfort zone but I look back on it as one of my best memories. See other blog posts in the South America section for more information and photos.

Sunrise on Easter Island
Stunning Iguazu Falls
Chilling in The Pantanal
Enjoying The Salt Flats

I enjoyed so many other amazing things throughout the trip. I will definitely be back to South America soon. As and when travel restrictions and funds allow. And I can’t recommend you visit highly enough! Until then I hope you all stay safe and well x

La Paz and Cholitas!

You’ll love and hate La Paz, where all the cultural diversity of Bolivia collides. A mad, bustling carnival of a city.

In The Andes some 3,600m above sea level. The highest administrative capital in the world. It stretches to the snow-capped El Alto in the highlands at 6,400m above sea level. The city’s dramatic setting can be taken in via the cable car system.

If you’ve read my Sucre post you’ll know La Paz is the de facto capital of Bolivia. Despite being home to Bolivia’s Government buildings and its financial centre, its not actually the country’s capital. Thats distinction goes to Sucre. Santa Cruz is the only place with a bigger population than la Paz.

San Francisco Church

From Uyuni we took an overnight bus to La Paz. This experience of the nightbus was less enjoyable than my last one. I was upstairs and seemed to feel every turn and the road surfaces are bumpy so I didn’t get a lot of sleep. Fortunately blankets were provided as it was fold but definitely have layers, for the sleep I did get I had my coat on! I was also sat on the left hand side by the window and everyone on that side got a nice drip of air conditioning on them throughout the journey! Happy Days!

We stayed in Hotel Las Brisas in the chaotic downtown area, not far from The Witches Market. There are ATM’s and a pharmacy next door.

My room at Las Brisas Hotel

Arriving off the nightbus our rooms weren’t ready yet so we headed out for breakfast. I highly recommend Cafe del Mundo. Great breakfasts and a good choice for dinner or a cake later in the day. They had loads of choices for breakfast including vegan options and it was very reasonably priced. Great for breakfast, brunch or more! The owners are Swedish and love travel. All the staff speak English.

Cake selection at Cafe Del Mundo!

Cable Cars

La Paz has the biggest cable car network in world. It’s used as public transport and is the most logical method to improve public transport given the height and peaks of the city.

There are 10 different lines. The Red line was the first one introduced in 2014. It’s a great city and this is the easiest way to get out and about and see the city. And it’s very inexpensive at around 3 Bolivianos per line. It’s also clean, safe and well staffed. It’s easy to use the mountains as a reference point so you won’t get lost too easily!

Cable car map

When the cable cars were introduced people initially complained about the lack of privacy. You can see why as you can see straight onto some people’s roof terraces and directly into some people’s apartments from the cable cars. Though I think most would now agree it’s a positive addition to the city.

The Red and orange line start from The Old Central train station, near where we stayed. Bear in mind a short walk in La Paz is hard work! It seems to feel like you are always waking uphill! Obviously you aren’t but between that and the altitude it can be hard work until you’re acclimatised!

The cables allows you to see the diversity of the city. It’s so different in each area. Some people have started to put advertising on their rooftops as people see it from cable cars.

You can see the social project, a poor area where the buildings are now brightly coloured to try and create more positivity. It looks impressive from the cable or you can head there to wander round and take photos.

From the silver line you can see a different part of the city, over the huge market. Usually there Thursdays and Sunday’s. Apparently it sells everything, it looked huge. It’s good for hiking clothes, the branded ones often aren’t genuine but are good quality.

You’ll see some little houses famed for sourcery and fortune telling too.

From the Yellow line you’ll see a lot of the embassies and plenty of stadiums with kids playing football.

The green line you’ll pass a wealthy area with some of the more expensive schools and extravagant homes. There’s also a good mall you can stop at.

We headed back on Green and then blue, for another walk back to our hotel. I think this while trip cost me 9 Bolivianos, and we’d used half the lines.

Things to do

There are numerous trips you can do from La Paz, as well as some key sites in the city itself.

Lake Titicaca, though this one is a long day. You can visit the Sun and moon gate, or Valley of the Moon. Easy to research if your interested and easy to book locally once you’re in La Paz.

The famous Witches market is worth a wander too. La Paz is full of markets that are crazy and disjointed, colourful and noisy, mad and stinky, and remarkable. You can spend hours wandering around and buy almost anything imaginable. Food, sorcery, clothes, flowers, even your stolen camera!

Llama foetus – a common purchase at The Witches Market

There is also the Church of San Francisco and numerous museums.

Cholita Wrestling

For something a bit different, you can try Cholita wrestling! Cholitas are riding a wave of resurgence at the moment. They were once seen as ‘maids’, stereotyped and discriminated against, and have seen a return to having clout in the economic, political and fashion worlds.

Cholitas have a very distinctive style with high bowler hats, puffed skirts and plaited hair. For generations they were not permitted to walk freely in La Paz’s central square, home to the presidential palace. Nor in the wealthy suburbs of the city. In 2005 the first indigenous president of Bolivia was elected. On the back of a gradual rise of grassroots movements lead mainly by peasants. The country has continued to transform since then and credit is due to Evo Morales for the ongoing transformation.

Poverty and inequality remain but Bolivia’s economy is growing. In recent years the Cholitas have shown there fortitude by battling in the wrestling ring. Usually on Sundays.

It cost 100 bob and includes a drink, some popcorn and a small souvenir. As well as transport to the venue in El Alto, on the edge of La Paz and high up in the mountains. It’s very cold – wear a lot of layers!

The wrestling is choreographed and is very amusing! The wrestlers are aged between 15 – 40.

Death Road

Is another famous option for a day out cycling on the most dangerous road in the world. But that’s another story – more details to follow in my next post!

Restaurants

There was an English pub next to out hotel, normally I wouldn’t be interested but the food was great. Plentiful and good value. It’s also a lot of fun, they do Happy hour drinks, and we did a few shots, some on the house! I tried Golden Tequila with cinnamon and orange, much nicer than your standard tequila!

Carrot cafe is upstairs near the Witches market. It has a good view and WiFi. The food is nice and they have vegan options.

Cafe Del Mundo I’ve already mentioned, great free WiFi connection here!

Breakfast at Cafe Del Mundo

I didn’t maange to eat there but Higher ground restaurant was also recommended to me. Its a popular Bolivian restaurant, serving great coffee and breakfast, its vibrant and eclectic and serves South American food all day.

The Practical Stuff

La Paz is not known as one of the safest cities, but like most cities in South America just be careful. Be mindful of pickpockets and just take out the money you need for that day.

There is a lots of contraband in Bolivia, electronics, drugs, cars. Selling coca leaves is an important job and requires a licence.

La Paz is cold! It has very high elevation so even though it’s close to the equator temperatures are cool. Check the average temperatures for the time of year before you go and take layers! And sunglasses!

In terms of what to wear Bolivia is a tough travel destination with a climate that can swing from very hot to very cold. For La Paz you definitely need warmth and layers. Practical and hard wearing sturdy shoes and a rain jacket no matter what time of year you go.

Give yourself time to acclimatize to the altitude. Take it slowly to start. You can pick up altitude locally in the pharmacy. I used Sorojchi pills – a red and white capsule. A little Spanish goes a long way. Allow time for delays.

Plenty of impressive graffiti in Bolivia and Latin America

Currency is Boliviano and its about 10 Boliviano’s to the Pound. Everything is cheap in Bolivia so your money will go a long way.

As usual I recommend a Starling Bank Card. Great rates and no fees for using and withdrawing abroad. https://www.starlingbank.com/

In restaurants tips are not usually included. Add 10-15%. Tips aren’t expected in taxi’s, but round up. Tip tour guides 10 – 20%.

Final installment of my South American trip to follow – Death Road!

Stunning Salt Flats – Salar de Uyuni

The site of the Salt Flats genuinely leaves you speechless. Salar de Uyuni is a truly stunning natural wonder of the world. Bolivia is a beautiful country, with so much varied beauty in terms of natural landscape – and the Salt Flats top it all! Definitely a bucket list must do and one of the highlights of my recent trip in South America!

Travel – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

Ibn Battuta

Salar de Uyuni is the worlds largest salt flat at over 10,000 square metres, located in the province of Potosi in South West Bolivia; amid the Andes with elevation of c. 3,600 metres above sea level. It was formed by a prehistoric lake that went dry thousands of years ago and the result is something otherworldly.

When its dry the surface is a pure white expanse, just blue sky, white ground, and you, as far as the eye can see. When there’s a little water on the surface its turns into the worlds greatest mirror! With a prefect reflection of the clouds and the sky, and the horizon disappears. Its surreal and hard to believe what you’re seeing. Its a stunning, beautiful site either way!

Uyuni

After travelling from a Potosí we spent a night in Uyuni before starting the desert crossing. It’s a small town that has everything you need including ATM’s, and South America’s best pizza place! You can also pick up snacks and last minute bits for the desert crossing and the salt flats – including dinosaurs if you need one for photos!

Minute man has a lot to live up to – known as the best pizza place in South America, and I concur with the reputation that precedes it – delicious, fresh, great quality and good value!

Delicious pizza as large as a wheel!

Minute man pizza place is in Hostel Tonito. It offers vegan cheese and gluten free bases if required. There are two sizes of pizza – most of us went for large – enormous would have been more appropriate! Fortunately you can get takeaway bags. Good wine and a good choice of beers is also on offer. I can’t recommend it highly enough while in Uyuni.

Desert Crossing

The landscapes in Bolivia are stunning and varied. The desert crossing was long, you spend hours in the car and get to know your travelling buddies well! It’s one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The memories of the outstanding views and scenes I saw will stay with me forever.

I admire the drivers who looked after us so well, cooking our lunch and dealing with our luggage as well as driving for hours day in day out for 3 days.

Valley of the rocks was one of the first highlights of the desert crossing on day 1.

Valley of the Rocks

We also stopped at Laguna Catal – The Black Lagoon. Mirror lake which was a short hike from the stop – very welcome to get out of the car and stretch your legs!

Little Italy – names as such because it was discovered by an Italian! We stopped in a little village called mallcu villa mar for lunch. The drivers cooked it from food they’d been carrying in the cars, along with us and all our luggage!

Little Italy
Little Italy

In the afternoon we headed to some amazing natural hot springs. We soon learnt that approximately a 2 hour drive across desert is more like 3.5 hours! The conditions are ever changing and you often have to drive around things to get there, the surfaces can be poor.

It was worth the long journey once we arrived at the natural springs. 6 Bolivianos entrance – try to have the correct change. Changing rooms are provided, though we’d been sat in our swimwear all day so were ready to go! The changing rooms were small so afterwards I changed inside my towel behind the car door on the road – traffic is few and far between!

The scenery is beautiful, and you can bathe in natural mountain spring water. With the mountains and flamingoes around you.

It was then further 2 hours drive to our home stay for the night! We stayed in a family home with 3-4 people in a bedroom. The family cooked us dinner, and we played Uno. Turns out The Southern Hemisphere has different rules! Disappointingly there was no wine or alcohol on offer! We’d all been thinking about a nice glass of wine for the final 2 hours in the long car journey!

On Day 2 we headed to the Red lagoon – Laguna Colorada – and this was well worth the long journey and time in the car! The lagoon contains algae with caratene creating the red colour of the water. It’s also known as The Nest of The Andes and has some 30,000 flamingos! This was one of the highlights of my trip and is another amazing memory I’ll recall forever!

There are several different species of flamingo, Andean and Chilean both have pink feathers. It’s breathtaking seeing so many beautiful creatures! And its so quiet and peaceful.

We also visited The Stone Tree which is a National monument, located in one Of Driest deserts in world. We stopped a few times to take in the stunning views of the mountains.

We stopped at the Stinky lagoonLake Hedionda – luckily the sulphur smell wasn’t too strong when we stopped! We had lunch at an Eco hotel. We then headed to a Volcano but unfortunately it was heavy rain and the volcano was covered in cloud.

Stunning landscapes

Instead we headed to The Quinoa museum. I tried some delicious dark chocolate with salt! They showed us how they produce darker quinoa for chocolate or beer. The Salt flats were too soft to cross so we had to border round a lot of it which takes longer.

Community lodge made from salt bricks

Our second night we stayed in a Gadventures community lodge. Made from salt bricks and sleeping on a bed made from salt. We drank a lot of wine before and after dinner and played Uno and Mafia. The lady who cooked us dinner had the most beautiful baby!

Salar de Uyuni

Day 3 and we finally head to The Salt Flats! Its actually only half an hours drive from Uyuni the town we started in, but the desert crossing is worth it if you have the time!

Overall I’d say we were lucky with the weather. We had some parts of the salt flats that were dry. Some that had a small amount of water to create the reflection where your photos looks amazing. We also had some rain but fortunately we made it work with timings.

Golden Tequila with Salt Flat salt!

The flats are completely stunning, the photos speak for themselves and they also as ever don’t to it justice. I shall treasure the memories forever.

Bring props, I’d recommend a bottle of wine or beer bottle, and a dinosaur! The dinosaur needs to be as big as a beer bottle for it to work in photos with the perspective. You can buy them in Uyuni but they aren’t cheap. Some of the drivers have them in the car if you’re on an organised tour.

Enjoying the South American wine!

Sunset and The Salt Flats by Night

I also cant recommend highly enough and evening tour of The Salt Flats with Extreme Fun Travel! This involved heading out to watch the sunset on the flats, with an optional extra of wine and snacks! The white table cloth was the finishing touch. https://www.extremefuntravelbolivia.com/en/

Roberto is such a character and his photography skills are amazing! As it started to get dark we experimented with photos and light.

Some lightning in the background!

Unfortunately an almighty storm cut our evening short so we weren’t able to get as many pictures but it was one hell of an experience and well worth the money. Apparently there are only about 6 storms a year so we were just unlucky, but the lightening was also impressive!

Take layers and wrap up warm!

The Train Graveyard

The Train graveyard is a strange yet impressive site. We went in the morning and having not seen many people for days it was unbelievably busy and full of instagrammers climbing all over the trains trying to get the perfect photo, but ultimately just all getting in each others shots!

We came back later on in the day and it was much quieter but unfortunately raining so it can be worth a second go, though I stuck with the photo I managed to get earlier in the day!

The Practical Stuff

The best time of year to visit, for the best climate is September – November. For the wet salt flats December – April. The great mirror, December – February. Also worth noting that during the rainy season some tours are limited, so worth looking into what your priorities are to see during your visit. Anytime of year is good though, and you’ll see different features and highlights. Each visit is unique and you’ll be awestruck no matter when you go!

Beautiful double rainbow 🌈

You most definitely need sun cream, and a good lip balm for both the Desert crossing and the Salt Flats. You need decent sunglasses too for the reflection against the white of the flats. For the desert I recommend a bandana for the dust, also can be used to cover your head to stop it burning! For the desert crossing take baby wipes, tissues and hand sanitizer too. If you can get hold of any with the current coronavirus situation! Small change is needed for most of the toilets too.

Days in the car are long if you do the desert crossing so take snacks. 

Do some research so you have an idea of what type of photos you’d like to try and get while you’re in The Salt Flats. Your guide and drivers will help, for some of them you need a lot of patience.

Make a decision over whether you want clothes where you’ll look nice in the photos or old clothes you don’t mind getting ruined by the salt. It wasn’t too bad when I was there so the salt washed out. But some people have had to throw clothes away after as they can’t get the salt out.

Flip flops is a good idea if there’s some water. Or you can rent boots. 

I visited in early February before The Coronavirus had such a sad impact on travel and everyone’s lives. I’m grateful I was able to complete my trip and wish everyone and their families well.

After Uyuni I headed to La Paz by night bus. Next post to follow shortly!