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La Serena – Isla Damas Visit

This trip to an animal reserve was the highlight of our visit to La Serena.

La Serena itself is the second oldest city in Chile. This was the first town in Chile where I thought I could be back home. Everything here is familiar there is the same type of cars, fashion, food and prices that I would expect in a well off town back in the UK. It was easy to feel comfortable here, which felt unfamiliar. With the money also comes the arrogance and envy something I did not miss. Overall people were very kind and helpful.

The bay to access Isla Damas is a 2 hour drive out of the city across the desert. We stopped along the way when we spotted some desert foxes and llamas.

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When we arrived at the port we found our boat, Argos II.

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On the way out we were very lucky as we spotted a whale, we saw its tail and then appear on the right hand side of the boat. It was exciting as well as scary as it could easily overturn the boat to if it wanted. We did not manage to get a good photo.

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After the whale we headed over to where the sea lions bask, much easier to get a clear photo.

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We spotted a marine otter as well having a snack.

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All the penguins spotted were Humbolt penguins which are found down the coast of Chile and Peru. The number of Humbolt penguins has been declining due to a combination of over fishing and changes to the environment; they currently have a conservation status of vulnerable.

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There were also a number of different birds.

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This was a great day trip for the city and not too expensive.

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Exploring Chile – Pucon 

Well mixed feelings for Pucon. I fell in love with the place at first sight. On the road in it was impossible not to feel the presence of Volcano Villarica. It was enormous, and breath taking, and always in eyesight and just spectacular. 


Pucon itself was a little quiet town, built entirely of wood and surrounded by countryside. My idyllic location, horse riding or trekking offered at every corner and hot springs available day and night. John however felt it was a tourist honeypot which was kind of faceless and had no real history or depth to it. I guess it was sort of in the middle of these two views. It is a far cry from the culture and feeling of Bolivia that’s for sure but that’s what travelling is about after all. 


We hired some bikes that afternoon and planned a 4hr bike ride to see a waterfall in the area, but after John’s bike chain slipped off 3 times we turned around and went back to the bike place for a rethink. By then there wasn’t enough time to get to the waterfall and back so I kindly and graciously gave up my bike (……….) so John could go for a cycle to the river and I forced down an empanada and ice cream instead. Tough times. 

We had booked a trip to the Termas Geometrias at sunset. A hot spring bath system inspired by Japanese baths but fully using naturally hot water from the ground. It was an hour away from Pucon, we got there at 8pm and had 3hrs in the most amazing array of hot baths imaginable. There were cold natural plunge pools and hot pools of differing temperatures ranging from 35-45 deg centigrade. We got to soak in the hot pools as the sun went down, then got treated to an incredibly clear starry night before we had to leave this paradise and go back to real life. I slept all the way back in the bus and barely made it up the stairs to our room before I pretty much passed out from relaxation. Amazing experience! 

Our hostel was lovely and was also a cafe in the daytime, so after a lazy morning we scoffed down homemade bread and scrambled eggs then set off looking for something to do in the day. We’d booked a volcano climb (John) and horse ride (me) for the following day so had been warned by the volcano guys not to do anything to strenous before the 6hr ice hike the next day. We pottered around the town but there were so many places advertising horse rides I couldn’t help but jump on a short one to see a different waterfall as the option was there! 

This was a 2hr starter in preparation for the 4hr ride the next day. Was a bit of a cattle drive with 10 of us in a line to the waterfall. But the ponies were well looked after and happy and that’s my only criteria for horse rides really. 

We got an early night as one of us was climbing an active volcano in the morning. However we woke up at 6am to an overcast cloudy day and really unfortunately John’s volcano climb was cancelled as it would be unsafe to climb in that level of cloud. He was pretty devastated. I set off for my 4hr pony ride at 11am but it was still overcast so I knew there’d be no views of the volcano at all on the whole trek. 

I got to the stables and met Kim, the guide, who is taking a year out from studying veterinary science in Belgium and was so enthusiastic and excited about her job guiding it was infectious! I was asked about my riding experience as she explained they usually tack up a few horses for options depending on the riders. As I said I had about 20yrs experience and had recently broken in a baby her eyes lit up and she pounced on this little bay cutie stood next to me. A 5yo mare who had taken the last few riders on a bit of a ‘ride’ during their treks and needed someone to handle her properly as she needs the experience and miles to improve her trek pony status but was a bit of a handful at times. I glanced at this dosing sleepy girlie and saw how similar she was to azalea from La Paz and immediately fell for her. 


The ride was 4hrs, I’d been searching for another 8hr marathon like San Pedro but couldn’t find any so settled for 4hrs. It was a beautiful ride that took us clambering over rocks, ducking under branches and scrambling over streams (just an average ride with Wendy on Dartmoor!). Sadly the volcano stayed out of sight for the whole ride, but the rest was beautiful. Plus that naughty little girl behaved impeccably and even did her first trek gate! 


After I got back from my ride we met with a Chilean couple who we met in Brazil who popped to Pucon from their home town of Temuco to catch up with us and have a few days on the beach of the lake (one of the many reasons I could have stayed here!). We had some yummy pizza, got jealous of their impending year travels to Australia, had a walk along the beach then went off to bed for the next bus ride and the next city. 

Pucon was definitely a highlight for me. I’m planning on coming back one day for a longer time riding in this area. 

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Exploring Chile – Valparaiso 

From sitting in a boat in the Pacific Ocean miles from anywhere our next bus ride took us along Chile’s beautiful coastline to Valparaiso. A stark contrast! Valparaiso is Chile’s boho chic city attracting artists, musicians, actors and of course tourists from all over the world.

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The city is a maze of artist’s work on every wall of every jumbled street. It is still used as an active port and area where the Chilean Armada have a base so it’s a permanent hubbub of noise, movement, lights and energy and you can feel it in every corner. The city still has funiculars running from the early 90’s and they are a beautiful and rustic experience with amazing views from the top.

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It’s easy to see what attracts artsy types to Valparaiso and we felt quite photography (a word?!) while we were there and embraced the arty hipsters……for about 2hrs……

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then we had an amazing late lunch of Chorallena, the city’s favourite food (scrambled eggs with meat or seafood on a huge pile of chips) and ceviche and by then had our fill of bearded hipsters, the slight tang of urine and weed in the air and ukeleles so headed backing to our hostel and planned the next day on the beach at next door town Viña del mar.

After our pleasant beach morning in what could have been Alicante or Faro we wandered back to Valparaiso with an afternoon to waste. What better way than jumping on a quick tour boat for £2.50 each and seeing the fattest sea lion basking on his favourite buoy and piles of other sea lions just chilling in the bay.

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A few days well spent in the city but I am definitely ready to get back to the countryside!

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Climbing Lascar Volcano

With eruptions on record since 1848 with the last in 2007 Lascar is the most active volcano in the region.

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We booked a tour in San Pedro with one of the smaller tour agencies. On the day it was just the two of us and the guide in the jeep.

We set off at 5AM from San Pedro to the volcano which was about 2 hour drive across the desert. Our guide to set off earlier than other groups as there was a thunderstorm due later in the day and did not want to get caught up in it.

Before we started the climb we stopped off at the lake near the string of volcanoes. It had snowed over night, it was pretty cold at this altitude; such a change from the dry heat of the Atacama at lower altitude.

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There were some flamingos feeding at the lake.

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We drove over to the base of the volcano from the lake and started to ascend.

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The first part was not too steep and we had had some time at altitude so it was not too bad.

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The second half of the accent was more steep and it was slow going, at this point you could really smell the sulphur. As we neared the top the smell got stronger and stronger.

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The crater was huge! It has a circumference of about 3m, the other side of the crater could easily be mistaken for another mountain. The eruption that happened here was huge blowing a giant section of the mountain away.

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After the crater the summit of the volcano was up the right hand side of the crater, this was much steeper than the previous parts, after a rest it was time to get to the top.

From the summit (5592m) it was possible to get a better idea of the size of the crater. The small dots at the bottom of the picture are Amy and the guide Carlos.

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Some more pictures from the summit

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On the way back we also spotted some animals 🙂

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Atacama Horse Party!!! 

If you really want to experience any place in full immersion then you have to do it on a horse……is what I told John the day before we both signed up to an 8hr horse trek around the Atacama desert….. I fully stand by that sentiment in every place I visit and the option of a full day on a horse exploring the ‘Valle de la Muerte’, the ‘Devils throat’ and the 3000 yr old ruins was too good to pass up.

We got to the ranch having written our riding experience down for them on our booking form, met two girls, Swiss/Danish, who were volunteering for a month there (green eyed jealousy monster showed up then!), got our hats and chaps on and got given our horses to get on.

John was given ’18’ yes that’s his name as he was born on the 18th October, the national day of chile 🇨🇱. He is the boss of the field and somewhat the boss of John on our ride, but also a very calm and sensible boy who looked after his riders if they were novices.

I got this incredibly handsome beast! ‘Ese’ who is definitely at the bottom of the pony pecking order in the field but with rider is much more confident and brave. We hit it off as soon as I’d got the hang of one handed western riding!

There was another couple on our ride, same set up, girl wanted to ride a pretty pony and boy had been convinced to go too. He definitely had not embraced the ride though and spent the next 8hrs looking petrified……

The ride was amazing. We left the yard and headed for the valley of the dead 💀 climbing up sand dunes and crossing rock faces on the way.

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There are 3 legends about the name of The Valley.

In brief 1) many years ago a young boy was herding his animals along the edge and the mud rock gave way and they all fell to their deaths. 2) There is no sign of life and nothing can survive in The Valley (although our guide Juan disputed this as there are birds, foxes, lizards, snakes all living there). 3) That when Belgian scientists came to Chile to study the geology they named The Valle de Luna ‘Moon valley’ and the Valle de los Muertes was actually Valle del Martes as in ‘Mars Valley’ but the translation was misunderstood and the second name stuck.

We then headed up to have and amazing ride along the ridge of both the valleys with breathtaking scenery everywhere you looked.


Luckily all the horses have done this trek 100’s of times so putting beginners of live animals on the edge of a sheer drop wasn’t as mad as it could have been……we stopped and hopped off for lunch at a viewpoint in the middle of the desert.

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Shared our apples with our new horse friends and got our sore bottoms back in the saddle for the trip down the hill and through The Valley of the Devils throat.


The Devils throat is so named as it’s a thin fully formed though very rugged looking angry rocks that are too narrow and low for horses and riders to pass though together. So we hopped off our noble steeds at two points along the journey, and with a swift smack on the bum from cowboy Juan they bravely headed through the thin gaps to their riders waiting on the other side.

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It was stunning riding and a lot of fun. Once we came out of the rocks we were on the home straight with some pretty greenery and so little canters we were back at the ranch. Slightly achey but very happy and having had an awesome pony party.

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Exploring Chile – San Pedro de Atacama 

Second stop in Chile was San Pedro de Atacama a tourist hot spot full of thrill seeking adventure junkie gringos with a fair few bare feet and ukuleles thrown in. The bus ride in really had the wow factor before we even got to the town. Crossing desert and the mountain range into San Pedro at sunset set us up for what was an epic stop on our Chile tour. Our hostal was slightly outside the centre (chosen on purpose to get away from ukuleles) and as we walked over the brow of the hill we we greeted with a goosebumpy view which we could also see from a hammock at our hostel.



Wow. Just wow. We checked in to a beautiful hostel and had already booked a tour for the moon valley the next day before we’d put our bags down. There is just so much to do and we only had 5 days! We wandered out to the local restaurant and had a ‘menu del dia’ for dinner and crashed in preparation for a manic week.

We’d tried to give ourselves a bit of time on the first day to look around the town, get some ideas of trips to do and some quotes from different agencies. The whole town literally runs on tourism so there’s touts for agencies and restaurants everywhere each trying to get you to spend your money with them. Food prices were crazy high even for Chile, which is already high, but as we’d found a local outside of town for half the price we didn’t worry too much about having to eat £12 individual pizzas!

We’d barely got into the town when we got drawn into an agency offering volcano hikes of one of the 3 volcanos in the area. As we’d already read the guide book before we got to San Pedro we knew we fancied a volcano climb, it was just choosing which one and when. We met Carlos, one of the most enthusiastic mountain lovers I’ve ever met and we were drawn in to booking a hike up Lascar volcano, 5500m and the only active volcano in the area, in 4 days time! Eeekkk!

Then we headed off to find the horse riding place as the agreement was I’d drag myself up a hill if John rode a pony. We found the office for Atacamahorseadventures.com and found ourselves booking an 8hr full day horse ride the next day! Ouch!

We headed out that evening for our first jaunt of the week. To Valle de Luna, the moon valley. Our guide Diego was infectiously excited about rocks and sand but it made for a really interesting tour where we climbed up through a cave formed from salt rock, some salt sculptures that were worshipped in the past, up and along a huge dune with epic views of The Moon Valley and lastly to the wild coyotes park look out for a picnic and sunset. An incredible introduction to an incredible week.

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Exploring Chile – Ghost Town

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Fourty five minutes from the town of Iquique lay the remains of a mining community left to the sand and winds of the Atacama. Humberstone saltpetre works was named after a British chemical engineer who made a fortune from saltpetre after moving to the continent.

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Before the production of synthetic fertilisers the world depended on Saltpetre. The best Saltpetre came from Chile and was transported all over the world. The industry is Chile was so successful it accounted for 40% to 60% of the countries income. The ghost town is a reminder if this past, which is still in living memory for it’s youngest inhabitants.

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It’s hard to believe anyone could live under the harsh sun in the driest desert on earth. However a community thrived here. However it is the dry climate which has helped preserve the town. The community was a microcosm of Chilean society, the class divisions were clear in the types of housing provided to the different workers.

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The houses if the single male miners were cramped with dirt floors and had shared toilets at the end of each block.

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The houses if the executives were much larger and contained toilets and many rooms as well a wooden flooring. People lived very different lives in close proximity.

Facilities offered by the community included a swimming pool made from the bottom of an old ship.

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Some of the machine used to pump water in to the pool were still behind the seats

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There was also a basketball court

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One of the most eerie parts of the town is the abandon factory and workshop. Many of the machines had been shipped from Europe.

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Many of the corrugated iron panels swung freely in the wind, it was a little unnerving as they could injure you if you fall. There is pretty much full access to all areas but you are warned that you may be injured if you are an idiot.

One of the most impressive things was the chimney.

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The lot of forgotten engines.

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Also the old locomotives.

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This place is really worth a look if you like rusty old stuff! Good day out!

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Exploring Peru – Arequipa 

Our final stop in Peru was Arequipa. After waving Lu off at the airport in Lima, and a 3 day discussion about whether we should take a 18hr bus or a 1.5hr flight, we boarded the plane in Lima and headed to Arequipa. It did not disappoint. We got a taxi from the airport as there are no easily accessible busses and the airport funds taxis for this reason. Our driver was another wonderful friendly Peruvian who excitedly told us about the sights, the city centre, a bit of history of his city and about the local delicacies on offer (cheese ice cream being the one that stuck!).


Our hostel was a bit out of the city but only a crazy Peruvian bus ride away so we headed in straightaway to see the beautiful central square Plaza de Armas. We headed past the first church square (Arequipa is full of churches) and thought we’d have a peek in. The charge was 5pesos each and we weren’t sure why we had to pay as it didn’t look that big but we handed the money over and headed in, only to find we’d inadvertently paid for a tour…..which was really interesting. We got to poke around in the old quarters of the monks, saw the dressing room for the Virgin, her packed wardrobe and jewellery, the baby chair where baby Jesus sat while she got changed, and all the diplomas she’d since been awarded (?!), saw the library which contained lots of French cooking books. It transpired that this was a French monastery that due to all the earthquakes over the years had been rebuilt 4 times and was still receiving donations from France to keep it well looked after. Absolutely worth the approx 50p we spent on the entrance.

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By the time we’d finished the tour we were able to see the centre square, Plaza de Armas, lit up at night. It was beautiful. We ventured inside the cathedral which of course was also beautiful, and wandered around in awe for half an hour before our tummies got the better of us. We booked a quick bus tour for the next day, filled up on chiva, and headed back to collapse for a busy day of sightseeing the next day.


We booked the midday tour as recommended by the agency as that included a traditional lunch (not included in the price of course) but as Peru is comparably cheap we decided to push the boat out. Sadly as we were here in winter it was not possible to see the three famous volcanos from the two lovely lookout points on the tour no matter which angle we looked for them from. But we tried the cheese ice cream which was a surprising (maybe not that surprising) hit. We tackled fried yuca and fish ceviche as two other Peruvian dishes and the taxi driver was right to be proud of them all!

 

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Next up was the llama shop where everything was made of llama and said llamas were chilling out the back as part of the attraction.

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Then we went to a mansion outside of town that a king had built for his son who had Down’s syndrome in the ????’s. It was pretty fabulous but our guide pretty much ran round it gabbling so quickly in Spanish in each room it was tricky to get much idea of the place.
Last stop was an old mill where a pony ride was offered, but on checking the horses wellbeing and the outside of the mill, we opted for an ice cream on the bus until it was hometime. P1060637

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Arequipa was as beautiful as the guidebooks will tell you and we’re pleased we made a stop off there even if it was brief.

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Exploring Peru – Lima 

Lima has a bit of a bad rep for being dangerous and our past trips to capital cities hadn’t left us enamoured so we weren’t overly excited about this bit of the Peru trip. How wrong we were! 


We stayed in a lovely big appartment outside of the centre, surrounded by broaster chicken places and local tiendas. Really friendly and safe, everyone we passed smiled at us and wished us a happy new year. It was an hour (?!) into the city by bus as Lima is huge and very busy but the conductors told us when to get off the bus and where to head to in the centre. 


Lima city centre is absolutely beautiful and full of historical buildings and history of the city. On the second day there we took a private tour so we could get around easier to see the sights and with an English speaking guide. This also didn’t disappoint and we saw loads and learnt loads in a short time. 

“Lovers Park” where the artist had lived in Barcelona, Spain for 10 years so a heavy Dali/Gaudí influence. Every year they hold an annual kissing competition on Valentine’s Day. Record is currently 45mins! 


“Huaca Pucllana” one of 52 Huaca’s found in Lima in the last 20yrs and restored. They date back to pre-inca as a centre of religious rituals where they used to sacrifice women as an offer of fertility to the gods (?!). There have also been Incan reminants found suggesting that these temples were later used by the incans as well for burial sites.  They are made of mudstone so were all trampled over and largely crushed as worthless when Peru was colonised but recently the newly appointed ministry of culture has started to preserve and restore these temples.


San Martin Square is the stunning centre square of Lima. With a huge cathedral built with Saint Rose on the top looking out towards the coast as she the prophet who predicted a tsunami which hit Lima so now she watches the coast to protect the city. We saw the statue of San Martin with a helmet with a llama on. Legend has it that the artist making the statue asked his apprentice to make the helmet with a flame but it’s the same word as llama so the apprentice put a llama on the helmet instead. We also saw the last remaining stone from the Incan rule commemorated in the centre.


We went into Saint Francisis crypt and saw the ancient burial site from the colonial rule where bones of 24,000 people were buried under the church. 

So all in all we were very impressed with Lima! 

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Exploring Peru – Amazon 

What better way to see in 2017 than a trip to the Amazon in a luxury cabina and spend the days trekking round the jungle and boating up the Madre De Dios river. 


We spent two days in Puerto Maldonado the gateway town before we headed into the jungle. It was super hot and very chilled. We milled around the town in ‘motocarros’ effectively moto-trikes with a cabin on the back. Just flag down in the street and hop in.



We had some yummy food, nipped round the local sites and visited a small but impressive butterfly attraction.


Then we excitedly packed all our stuff (including the gring bag full of gring goodies we’d been lugging round since Bolivia!) and waited for our taxi to start our new year jungle trip. 


It was absolutely heaving it down as we ran into the taxi….but as we were heading to the rainforest we figured that was just as it would be. 


A 40min boat trip and a short walk and we were at the incredible luxury of the Inkaterra Hacienda lodge. Wow. As this was a Christmas present from mummy and daddy soust we were living it up in luxury for the first time in a long time.


Again. Wow. Super luxury. The only sounds were jungle sounds and we saw howler monkeys outside the dining area window within 10mins of arriving.


Oh and our room key was attached to a wooden carving of a sloth. What’s not to love. The sun came out and after an epic buffet lunch we headed out for our first walk around the jungle. 


Our guide was the Peruvian equivalent of Bear Grylls/Rambo who swotted Mosquitos with his fist onto his face while not even breaking his sentence. He ripped trees out of ground if they were across the path and used to catch caiman with his bear hands (until one got him back). We heard the story of the founder of inkaterra and saw the first steam boat they used to use for sustainable logging of rubber trees. 

Then we were back in the lodge for a 3 course a la carte dinner then a twilight river trip hunting for caiman, anacondas and anything else we could find with a spotlight from a boat. Then an early bed for a 5am New Years Eve day start for lake canoing, canopy climbing and a night jungle walk. 


The walk to the lake was a muddy one. We got wellies to wear and sticks to use and still all nearly went in the mud numerous times. A 3km hike took us to the edge of the lake where we hopped in a canoe to see what we could find. 



We rowed around the middle of the lake and got our first glimpse of the reason we were there. Giant river otters. Who doesn’t want to see giant river otters. We didn’t get closer than 50m but from the boat we could see them swimming and fishing before they retreated back to the edge due to the heat of the sun. After the excitement of the river otters we still managed to see caiman, bats, piranhas, birds and turtles before heading back for our 3km trek back.


As we headed back for our buffet gourmet lunch the heavens opened and we were all soaked.


After a yummy buffet lunch, a dry off and a nap we were off again into the jungle for a 30m high canopy climb! The guide explained that Inkaterra was also part of an ngo dedicated to looking after the wildlife and sustainability of the forest. They had built the rope bridges in the canopy of the rainforest to watch the animals, count the birds and keep tabs on the trees and plant growth. 


As it was New Year’s Eve we were treated to a traditional Quechua dance show, a pisco sour and a weird meaty appetiser then sat down to a 5 course dinner! Forgot to take photos of all the courses (as we’re enjoying them too much) but here are some highlights!  

The we headed out for a late night creature hunt…….


The highlight was the tarantula! She was about 4″ long just chilling on a palm leaf so we could catch her best side!

As it had already passed new year in England and we had another early start we headed to bed to the screeches of howler monkeys welcoming in the new year. 

Then we were up for out last short trip of the weekend which had gone far too quickly! An early morning canoe trip in the still water of the lodge. We spotted kingfishers, herons, caiman, hummingbirds, wrens, fish and butterflies. This chap was the highlight. 


Then we had a buffet breakfast, packed our bags and headed off to the town for our flight to Lima.