“Sri Lanka is an island that everyone loves at some level inside themselves. A very special island that travellers, from Sinbad to Marco Polo, dreamed about. A place where the contours of the land itself forms a kind of sinewy poetry.” – Romesh Gunesekera

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An island of abundance, a gemstone rising from the Indian Ocean, the wonder of Asia. Calls, songs, voices fill land, sea and sky, telling stories of beautiful, bountiful Sri Lanka.

The island has evolved through many names: Serendivis for the Romans, Ceylon for the British, Lanka for the locals. The old Tamil word Cerentivu became Serendivis in Latin and Sielen Diva in Greek, which led to other European names such as Ceilão in Portuguese and Ceylon in English. The name Lanka comes from Ramayana, the epic tale of Sita’s rescue from the demon king Ravana by Prince Rama. Lanka can be translated as “that which glitters”; Serendivis is the root of the word serendipity. In words, as in life, Sri Lanka is a place of serendipity, an island that glitters. Waves shimmer over white beaches, jeweller’s windows gleam between the heat and horns of Colombo’s streets, golden sari’s glint in the sunshine lighting up the smiles of children and teachers. My days flowed into one another, often beginning in change and chance, and ending in connection.

Almost ten years have passed since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War that began in 1983. Nayomi Munaweera’s historical novel Island of a Thousand Mirrorsgives an extraordinary insight into the 25 year struggle between the Tamils and the Sinhalese: “A rifle-toting tiger. A sword-gripping lion. This is a war that will be waged between related beasts.” When the violence peaks, the character Yasodhara Rajasinghe is living in Los Angeles and tries to answer the questions from her American friends about her home: “They say ‘Aren’t the Tigers like freedom fighters? Aren’t they fighting for a separate homeland because they are discriminated against so terribly? Like our African-American friends here?’ I try to explain. There are no martyrs here. It is a war between equally corrupt forces. I see their eyes glaze over. I realise they do not desire a complicated answer. They wanted clear distinctions between the cowboys and the Indians, the corrupt administration and the valiant freedom fighters, the democratic government and the raging terrorists. They want moral certainty, a thing I cannot give them.”

The two families in the novel – one Tamil, one Sinhalese – are pulled into conflicts of birth, friendship, love, violence, death. Their stories are woven through the story of Sri Lanka, this teardrop Island that lost 80,000 lives to the Civil War; “Eighty thousand: it is a number beyond comprehension. I must mourn for them. I must cry and shake and tremble for them. I shall cry for a long time. And then when my weeping is spent, when I have no more sorrow to give, I shall celebrate peace. I shall wake up from these long decades of war and begin to see what we can do in peace, what sort of creatures we are when the mask of lion or tiger falls from us.”

I feel so lucky to have spent almost three weeks discovering a peaceful Sri Lanka, smiling when I pass waving flags which show how the people have come together.

Lion: Strength of the nation, bravery, Sinhalese ethnicity

Bo leaves: Four Buddhist virtues of kindness, friendliness, happiness, and equanimity

Orange: Tamils

Green: Moors

Maroon: Sinhalese

Yellow: Other ethnic groups

Colombo

The Island of a Thousand Mirrors begins in Colombo: “This is the humid and pulsating capital city where the crowd spills over the pavements and onto the belching buses that swerve around bullock carts, and every language and every god of the island is in attendance over the multitudes.” For those who chose to join the scuttling tuk tuk’s and racing buses of this overwhelming capital, I would recommend visiting the Museum of Colombo, filled with Buddhist sculptures and paintings. For more beautiful surroundings as well as delicious food, I would recommend Gallery Café and Barefoot Café near the Galle Road.

Galle

I have loved following the railways of Sri Lanka: Colombo to Galle, Galle to Matara, Ella to Kandy, Kandy to Colombo, Colombo back to Galle. My circle took me to beaches, National Parks and tea plantations before leading me back to Galle – my favourite stop.

Galle is a place to return to. The Sinhalese Gaala implies an enclosure – a cattle pen for Rama, a meeting place for traders from China, the Middle East and India, a sanctuary for travellers. The walls of the Dutch Fort embrace the quiet, stone roads where people wander to cafés and boutiques. At dusk, cricketers and travellers gather on the green as the sun sets over the water. Beyond the fort, Sri Lankan life hurries on, but within is a town of serenity and stillness.

The Fort was built in 1588 by the Portuguese, the first colonisers. It was later developed by the Dutch who arrived on Sri Lankan shores in 1658. One sailor who later became famous for his voyage to Sri Lanka was Robert Knox. The captain was captured by the King of Kandy in 1699 and only escaped 19 years later. His story inspired others including Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It also brought Sri Lanka to the attention of the British who gained control of the island in 1796 following the Napoleonic wars.

My first two nights at Pilgrim’s were spent as a guest, my last five as a workaway. I loved spending more time here and working with everyone at this hostel/restaurant/pizzeria. When I wasn’t trying more delicious pizza or seafood from the Pilgrim’s menu, I explored some of Galle’s many restaurants and cafés. For fresh salads try The Heritage Café or Calorie Counter, for homemade pasta go to The Pasta Factory, for unlimited rice and curry squeeze into Coconut Sambol, and for gelato head to Isle of Gelato or Pedlar’s. Exotic Roots and Poonie’s are beautiful shops with juice bars at the back and Stick No Bills sells gorgeous vintage postcards.

South Coast

Just outside of Galle are beautiful white tea plantations, paddy fields and villages filled with palm trees. Sri Yoga Shala is a stunning place for yoga in the morning, followed by a swim in their salt water infinity pool and sea turtle spotting at Delawella Beach.

When I came back to Galle, I visited Koggala Turtle Hatchery where you can learn more about their conservation and protection. Unlike the Elephant Orphanages which have elephants chained up for six months and seem to exist for tourist photographs not conservation, the Turtle Hatcheries seem to be committed to helping injured turtles recover and burying eggs that have been found or buying them so that they are not sold and eaten for ‘health benefits.’ The baby turtles are then released into the sea after one day – time which allows the shells to harden and therefore gives a greater chance of survival. Visitors are shown how to hold the baby turtles between forefinger and thumb and then walk the short distance to the waves. Incredibly, they will return to this beach to lay their own eggs when the time comes; researchers have shown how turtles ‘imprint’ on the unique magnetic field of the beaches where they were born and use magnetic features of the coast to find their way back.

The South Coast is also famous for whale watching which I did with Raja and the Whales, a company which has a reputation for being more respectful of the whales than other boats which are known to be more intrusive. Having said that, we were one of a crowd of large boats all frantically seeking the whales. I was happy that we turned away from them after one sighting, hoping to find another. Half an hour later the engine was turned off as we watched a blue whale dive beneath the surface, alongside only one other boat.

Sri Lanka is the only country where you can see the largest mammals on land and sea in one day – the blue whale, and the elephant. A few days after seeing the blue whale at Mirissa, I was lucky enough to see two elephants as well as three leopards on my safari in Yala National Park with Eco Island, who I would highly recommend.

Yala is one of twenty-six national parks in Sri Lanka. The park is almost 1000km2 and reaches down to the sea. Something I hadn’t fully realised until visiting Sri Lanka was that it was the one of the countries most badly affected by the 2004 tsunami. Forty-eight of the thirty thousand who died were at Yala. However, very few animals were harmed – elephants were seen running in land an hour before the tsunami hit.

Mirissa was devastated by the three enormous waves that hit on Boxing Day. According to Jeremy Laurence, two thirds of families lost lives, livelihoods and loved ones.

The 2004 tsunami was the most deadly ever recorded, yet the response was also the most generous and immediate act of collective generosity; $5.5 billion were raised worldwide. Across South East Asia, the scars have faded and thousands of travellers journey to Mirissa to surf and swim. I loved staying with Iona, a friend from Scotland, in Madiha – Mirissa’s less busy and equally vibrant neighbour.

She opened her gorgeous guesthouse and café earlier this year and I can not recommend it enough. Meraki is moments from the beach and has the best smoothie bowl breakfasts, as well as daily yoga. Morning yoga classes are also available at Beach Inns on their rooftop which looks out over the beach. I would also pass on Iona’s recommendations of aubergine fries at South Coast Tacos in Mirissa, and Saturday Market at The Doctor’s House in Madiha.

Ella

Four thousand rupees (about £18) saved me a squished, sticky, six hour bus journey and I whizzed up from Tissa to Ella in just over two and a half hours. After trying to crawl up the final stretch, the tuk tuk was defeated and rolled back down the hill and I made my way on foot up to Tomorrowland – the hostel with the best bar, curry and views. Travellers tumble into tents and dance round tables in the brightly painted bar.

On my first day I got a tuk tuk to the ‘Secret Waterfall’ (somewhere past Balleketuwa) and walked back after an amazing afternoon climbing up to the waterfall and standing underneath the beating water looking out over to the tea plantations.

The following day, I went to the Nine Arches bridge with Sofia, who I had first met in Galle where she had been working at Thomas Galle School for three months. ‘The Bridge in the Sky’ was completed in 1921, built by P. K. Appuhami in consultation with British engineers and has become one of Ella’s major attractions.

The next morning, I caught the train from Ella station with Joe, Jake and Kat who I met at Tomorrowland. The journey towards Kandy is unmissable, the train as blue as the sky above it. Sitting in the doorway, feet swinging over the tracks below, eyes gazing out over endless green – One Day like this a year will see me through.

Adam’s Peak

Joe and I jumped off the train at Hatton and were collected by Upul, the owner of Niwasa House. Upul was a such wonderful host, driving us and the other guests to the start of Adam’s Peak for a 2am start and waiting for us to return. We had anticipated the overabundance of steps (all five thousand, five hundred of them), we had not anticipated the overabundance of people. Even without it being a weekend or full moon, hundreds of tired feet followed the path which is a sacred pilgrimage all Sri Lankan’s must make in their lifetime. Every year twenty thousand people climb the mountain known as Sri Pada to the locals, meaning ‘Sacred Footprint.’ Each religion tells a story of the spiritual significance of the depression at the summit: Buddhists see it as the footprint of the Buddha, Muslims claim it as Adam’s, Hindus associate it with Shiva, and Christians link it to St Thomas. Moving with the swollen crowd past the fluorescent stands selling roti and wristbands, I began to wonder just how ‘spiritual’ the experience would be. But a few hours later, having rung the bell at the summit and settled on a rock to watch the sun rise out of the mist below, my mind had changed.

Kandy

Later that day, we were reunited with Jake and Kat at Slightly Chilled rooftop to watch the sunset over Kiri Muhuda Lake. Kandy was the capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka. The city fell under British rule in 1815. The Treaty that marked Kandy becoming part of the British Empire was signed not by the King of Kandy, but by the Kandyan Chiefs. The chiefs retained the “rights, privileges and powers of their respective offices,” as well as civil and religious liberty. The Kandyan Chiefs of the early 20th Century were often photographed with the British Governors, including Sir Everard im Thurn. Everard was an explorer, botanist and anthropologist, and the husband of my great great aunt Hannah Lorimer.

Together, they lived in Guyana, Sri Lanka and Fiji, documenting the flowers and plants and gathering a fascinating collection of slides and objects, which they donated to the National Museum of Scotland. Very little is know of their time in Sri Lanka, where Everard was Acting Governor in 1903. I often found that Hannah was in my thoughts as I made my way through the country, wondering whether I had traced part of her journey over a hundred years ago.

Avoiding the crowds of the Full Moon festival, we rented bikes and zipped out of Kandy into the surrounding hills. We zig-zagged up to Amaya Hunas Falls and continued on to more spectacular views over the tea plantations. Back in Kandy, we headed to Café Secret Alley for juice and iced coffee before going back to pack at Hipster Hideout’s Hostel.

Thomas Gall School

By 7am, I was on the train pulling out of Kandy beginning my journey back to Galle. Spending time with Sofia meant that I had heard all about her three months in Galle working at Pilgrim’s a few evenings a week, and Thomas Gall School each morning. Joe, Kat and Jake had also worked at Pilgrim’s and I reached out to Nadia who luckily didn’t have anybody working that week. Even more luckily, it was the last week of term which meant that they were happy to have an extra pair of hands to help with the preparations and celebrations for Puthandu, the Buddhist New Year.

It was such a joy to be part of such a happy school. I spent most time with the three year old Kindergarten’s, the ‘butterfly’ class, clapping along to Sansalie and Thuhansa in their dance, running away from Kahlan roaring like a tiger, and endlessly pushing Sethun and Sanaya on the swings.

When Friday came, all the classes knew the steps to their dance, including the teachers who were also performing. I was dressed in a sari, lent to me by one of the teachers Nayomi, and spent the morning singing, dancing and playing games with the children and their parents. I could not have imagined a better way to end my time in this country – unforgettable laughter, colour and happiness.

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“I think Melbourne is by far and away the most interesting place in Australia, and I thought if I ever wrote a novel…I had to set it there.” – Peter Temple

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Tram tracks criss-cross the city, food trucks line the river, colour fills the walls between noisy bars and little boutiques – Melbourne is a city of creativity.

My four days began with the I’m Free Walking Tour which led us past elaborate 1850s hotels built when the gold mines had made Melbourne the richest city in the world, down lanes filled with street art, and across the Yarra river where we finished with the city skyline. I would also recommend the 101 Walking Tour in St Kilda to experience more of Melbourne. Our guide took us through the beautiful botanical gardens, past the Luna rollercoaster which is the oldest (and bumpiest) in the world and along the esplanade where small models of the planets punctuate the journey along the water.

The tour finished at 29th Apartment in time for Kathy, Antoine, Keiran, Jeremy and I to wander down to the water to see the penguins begin to venture out from the rocks. We loved our evening at Amigo’s, opposite 7Apples where we had already picked up the best passion fruit gelato in the city. I would also recommend walking up to Pidapipo for gelato topped with melted Nutella, and Lune for the most indulgent almond croissant $9 can buy.

My second day in the city happened to be the first day of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. After finding tickets on Time Out, I caught the tram up to Brunswick to see a patisserie and chocolate demonstration at Savour where we sampled Saint Patrick’s Day green macaroons, salted caramel truffles and choux pastry topped with hazelnut cocoa curls. Being able to explore different neighbourhoods by tram is something I have loved about Melbourne, part of the reason it has been voted as the most liveable city in the world in previous years.

I also loved visiting the museums around Federation Square, the space designed to mark the centenary of Australia becoming a self-governed country of the commonwealth. The Triennial exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria is the best contemporary art I have experienced.

Each piece is both beautiful and interactive – the people become part of the art, part of its reflections, movement and growth. The permanent collection also holds wonderful pieces from Claude Monet to Mark Rothko. The Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI) records the history of film and television, from colour to sound to AR technology. The extended interview with Cate Blanchett, who was born in Melbourne, spoke of the theatrical aspect of Melbourne, adding another dimension to the creativity of the chefs and artists who make this city what it is. “When a gift is difficult to give away, it becomes even more rare and precious, somehow gathering a part of the giver to the gift itself.” – Cate Blanchett

“New Zealand is not a small country, but a large village.” – Peter Jackson

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A country for backpackers and bucketlisters, a country of adrenaline and adventure, loved by all who call it home, and many more who come to discover and rediscover it. New Zealand has brought people together from all over the world. Those who journeyed from Polynesia between 1200 and 1300 AD became the mothers and fathers of the Māori – the indigenous people of New Zealand. Centuries later, longer journeys were made from the British Isles, Europe, Asia, the Americas, adding to the fabric of the country, woven with threads of expeditions, stitches of battles, growing patches of peace.

In 1642, Abel Tasman became the first European explorer to land on New Zealand shores, leaving his name ‘Tasman’ to the sea which beats within the South Pacific Ocean. Tasman also left names such as ‘Murderer’s Bay’ – a clash of words voicing the violence that took place between the Māori and the Europeans. Fearsome stories returned with Tasman to Europe: Blasts of trumpets and cannons, angry cries and splintered wood, four sailors dead and two ships turning back to sea. It would be 127 years before Europeans entered New Zealand waters for a second time, led by Captain James Cook. When Charles Darwin visited in 1835, he remembered Cook’s experience, reiterating the European view of the Māori people, held at the time:

“a more warlike race of inhabitants could not be found in any part of the world than the New Zealanders. Their conduct on first seeing a ship, as described by Captain Cook, strongly illustrates this: the act of throwing volleys of stones at so great and novel an object, and their defiance of “Come on shore and we will kill and eat you all,” shows uncommon boldness.”

‘Come on shore and we will kill and eat you all’ is the name of Christina Thompson’s book which explores Māori culture in a thoughtful and personal way. Her own love story and life with a Māori man named Seven is told together with European legends, Māori myths and historical texts. Stories of blankets for land, guns for sacred heads (which became collectable curiosities back in Europe) heighten the poignancy of the Māori portraits by Charles F Goldie, displayed in Auckland Art Gallery. Titles such as ‘A Noble Relic of a Noble Race’ (1907) speak not only of Goldie’s reverence for the Māori, but his concern over the disappearance of their languages, cultures, people. Creased faces carved with traditional moko designs are illuminated by the lighting of tobacco pipes; weary bodies are shrouded by tartan blankets: European goods which became part of exploitative trade for deeds. On 6th February 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by representatives of the British Crown and over 500 chiefs. This agreement of Māori rights is seen as a foundation of peace not only between Europeans and the Māori people, but within clans. Goldie’s 20th Century portraits reflected that there were enduring issues which had not been ironed out. However, my impression of New Zealand today, painted from my experience of the 178th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi was of peace and progress. This year, Jacinda Ardern became the first prime minister in the last three years to attend the Treaty grounds at Waitangi on the National holiday, celebrated peacefully across the country. Her Labour government are especially committed to the teaching of Te Reo (the Māori language) across the country. They are the first major party to make Te Reo an integral part of all students’ education.

My Waitangi Day, beginning my five and half weeks in New Zealand, was an incredible insight into the culture and traditions of the Māori people. I listened to speeches in Te Reo, visited the marae, was greeted with a hongi, ate food from the hangi, watched the children from the local primary school perform the haka and rowed in a waka. The chief explained the meaning of the word Ngātahi which he defined as ‘coming together as one,’ words which captured not only that day, but my time in his country.

Te Reo: Māori language

Marae: Meetinghouse serving spiritual and social purposes

Hongi: Traditional greeting forehead to forehead, nose to nose, representing the exchange of the breath of life

Hangi: Earth oven made up of a pit filled with wood and a layer of rocks in which baskets of food are cooked covered with wet sheets and a layer of soil

Haka: Posture dance with chanting to display courage, anger or joy

Waka: Canoe, usually with a crew of eight or ten, steered with paddles

Manaakitanga: Making visitors feel at home by being a welcoming host showing kindness, generosity and respect

Waiheke Island

I celebrated my wonderful Waitangi Day with Janine, my brother’s godmother who I was staying with on Waiheke Island. I loved sharing this time with her – swimming at stunning beaches, meeting neighbours, exploring coastal paths, sinking into the sofas at the cinema, hiding from thunderstorms in the quirky cafés of the island including The Honey Café, The Annex and The Little Frog. We spent a beautiful afternoon at the family run restaurant and vineyard Casita Miro where the menu of delicious tapas is headed with the words:

Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters

Celebrating the simple, fresh and local

A love of cuisine and culture

Iberian peninsula and Mediterranean rim, Inspiration surreal.

From scratch a dish arrives, From the earth a wine arrives

Each the job of being together, Bringing together family

Your time, our time is to enjoy, Our pleasure is to

Be found here

The little house of Miro.

The extraordinary mosaic stairs and terrace brings the name of another Spanish artist to mind.

Barnett, who used to be a doctor and now runs the vineyard, took 8 years to complete the pathway which leads up to the bar serving the wine made from the grapes he grows.

Auckland

A half hour ferry brought us to Auckland for a wonderful evening of polpette at Beduzzi, comedy at the Auckland Theatre Company and scoops of chocolate-orange at Island Gelato.

A few days later, I returned to Auckland to start the Kiwi Experience tour. (This hop on hop off tour is perfect for anyone travelling solo. My advice is to keep to the minimum time recommended by Kiwi Experience which should mean that you travel with one group as you explore the North and South Islands. Even though you only spend 1 or 2 nights in each place, it is usually enough time, except in Wellington and Queenstown where I would recommend extending. If the weather is good, Lake Taupo and Wanaka are also beautiful places to spend more time.)

Waitomo

Exploring the caves of Waitomo was one of the highlights of the North Island. Drifting through the caves, limbs linked with eleven other girls, gazing up at the emerald, sapphire, diamond lights which blinked down at us was unforgettable. With celebrations of the Suffragette centenary at the top of my Podcasts app, and the books of Simone de Beauvoir, Naomi Wolf and Helena Morrissey on my kindle, the words that came to my mind were ‘Yes, it is A Good Time to be a Girl‘: Eleven twenty-somethings, almost all travelling alone on the other side of the world, experiencing the beauty and wonder of the country where women were first granted the right to vote. We have many more laws to change, voices to raise, attitudes to shift to reach equal opportunities for all women, but looking back at how far we have come inspires me when I look forward.

Beyond blue lakes and snow-capped mountains, New Zealand offers an incredibly inspiring political landscape. The centenary of votes for women was celebrated in 1993 before that group of girls were even born. New Zealand remains the only country in the world where all the highest positions have been simultaneously held by women. In 2006, the Queen, the Governor-General, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Chief Justice were all women. Jacinda Ardern is New Zealand’s third female Prime Minister after Jenny Shipley (1997–1999) and Helen Clark (1999–2008). When she took office in 2017 aged 37, she became the world’s youngest female head of government. She will be taking 6 weeks leave for the birth of her first child later this year.

Lake Taupo

Sitting beneath white sails looking out at the sun sinking over a rosy horizon, cold bottles on one side and hot pizza on the other, is Lake Taupo at its best. Yellow stars above us, blankets around us, we made our way round to the Māori carvings before diving into the dark water (and quickly returning to the blankets.)

Sunset from the boat was followed by a few hours sleep and sunrise from the bus. Dusty dawn rays followed us as we approached the start of the Tongariro Crossing. New Zealand’s oldest National Park was also the first to receive World Heritage status, protecting the Emerald Lakes, Red Crator and glacial valleys that we gazed at during our 6 hour walk.

River Valley

Our drive to River Valley was one of the most beautiful of the trip. River Valley is off-the-beaten-track to the point you walk the last stretch to the lodge. We spent our WiFi-free evening feasting on the homemade roast and filling our glasses with wine from their vineyards. Our last morning together before going separate ways in Wellington was spent in the sunshine by the river before a final stunning North Island drive to the capital.

Wellington

I was lucky enough to spend 5 nights in Wellington, staying with Lilias, my mum’s housemate from university. My mum joined us for her last three nights in New Zealand before flying home after her month of travelling and visiting friends. It was so special to share Wellington’s museums, viewpoint and Botanical gardens together.

Wellington is the Southernmost capital in the world, a city full of art, music and theatre. Te Papa Museum charts the history of the country, the people who have come and gone in boats, and in wars. From a population of just over 1 million, 100,444 men were sent to fight in the Great War raging 11,500 miles away. 41,317 returned injured and 16,697 did not return at all. New Zealand’s casualty rate of 58% has led historian Jay Winter to reflect that proportionally, New Zealand suffered the most of all the countries in the British Empire.

The other museum I visited was the Katharine Mansfield House. I loved seeing the doll’s house, the garden, the bedrooms that would later fill her short stories. Continuing into town, I walked past Old St Paul’s and the Parliament building known as ‘The Beehive’ towards Cuba St where I met Lilias’ daughter Eleanor at Scopa for my last dinner. We shared delicious pizza, wonderful conversation and molten Florentine hot chocolates. Other recommendations for food on Cuba St are Loretta and Floriditas.

Marlborough

After a clear crossing from North to South, my godmother Gillian and I met her university friend Johnny at Picton harbour to catch the Cougar Line to his house in the Malbourough Sounds. Our three days together were the best of my time in New Zealand – spectacular views from every window, long walks, longer lunches and Whittaker’s chocolate and cosy blankets for stargazing from the deck.

Monday morning brought rain sweeping through the Sounds as we heaved our bags down to Noeline’s Wharf (named after the 88-year-old who has had a backpackers next to Johnny’s house for 30 years.) Back in Picton I met another godparent Geoffrey, and his wife Belinda and I spent the next two nights with them in Blenheim. We visited the vineyard they used to run, and enjoyed tastings from several vineyards nearby. Our favourite was Whitehaven, a family run vineyard celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Wanaka

The Māori name for New Zealand is Aoetaroa, meaning “land of the long white cloud” – words which describe my time on the West coast back on the Kiwi Experience bus. Our raincoats survived a few forest walks in Kaiteriteri and Franz Josef. The rest of my time was spent huddled up with mugs of tea with Poppy, Sophie and Bella, who have been travelling around Australia and New Zealand for the last 2 months.

Our spirits lifted with the clouds when we reached Wanaka, set between lakes and mountains under a long anticipated blue sky. We went straight to Patagonia for dark chocolate and raspberry gelato and spent the afternoon in the sunshine by the lake (and repeated this the following day in Queenstown.)

Queenstown

The adrenaline capital of the world had many of us signing up for jumps at the bridge where the first bungee was completed, luge runs and tandem swings from the platform overlooking the city. Watching the others at the bridge brought back butterflies from my zipline/bungee/swing at Victoria Falls – those 111m leaps were once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Queenstown is also full of amazing restaurants, cafés and the notorious Fergburger with its round-the-corner queues even at 8am. Other recommendations include Halo for breakfast, Farelli’s Trattoria for dinner, and Attiqa for rooftop cocktails.

Milford Sounds

Few places are worth a ten hour round trip to reach. The Milford Sounds under a cloudless sky is one of them. Ever since I saw the fiords on a documentary about the Seven Wonders of the Commonwealth, I have wanted to experience it and we couldn’t have wished for a better day.

Christchurch

Christchurch is a city in transition, moving from loss to healing. The main square around the river is partly new shops and boutiques, partly shipping container cafés yet to be rebuilt.

The memorial further along the river bears the names of the 185 people who died in the 2011 earthquake. It is a place where families and friends can share stories and bring flowers, and a reminder to four British girls of how lucky we are to live somewhere without Earthquake sirens and safety instructions in every building. We spent our last evening together at Curator’s House in the gorgeous botanical gardens, before Sophie headed to Fiji, and Poppy and Bella set off for South East Asia. On my last morning in Christchurch, I walked to the Cardboard Cathedral, built near to where the original Cathedral was, badly damaged in the earthquake. Eighty six cardboard tubes make up this inspirational building, lit by beautiful stained glass windows and representing a place of hope for the city.

Kaikoura

After a final winding journey, we drove through tunnels to be met with views of teal water, home to hundreds of whales, seals and dolphins. I hadn’t originally planned to visit Kaikoura but I am so happy I did – the Kaikoura peninsula is absolutely stunning and my morning spent swimming with dusky dolphins is one of the most memorable of my life. As the darkness faded to grey, our group were bundled onto the boat and zipped into wetsuits, ready to brave the water.

Within 20 minutes, the sun was peeping over the waves and the dolphins were leaping along beside us. The instruction to be ‘as dolphin-like as possible’ was taken extremely seriously by our group who splashed, dived and continuously sang through snorkels in order to attract the attention and curiosity of these wild dolphins.

Laughing, humming and bobbing in the waves, I looked down to see two dolphins speed underneath and round me before continuing their journey – the perfect end to my own journey around this extraordinary country.

“If Paris is the city of lights, Sydney is the city of fireworks.” – Baz Luhrmann

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The South Pacific waves beat into harbours, break on beaches, curve through bays, rippling through Australia’s iconic city. Exploring Sydney by water is what I have loved most over the last two weeks. I feel very lucky to have been staying with Sophie, a friend from school, in Balmain East. This is not a city for a fleeting visit, this is a city to live in and learn over time.

Governor Arthur Phillip, who led the ‘First Fleet’ to arrive in Australia, originally named the city ‘New Albion.’ It later became Sydney, named after Lord Sydney, the British Home Secretary. Phillip and his ships arrived on 26th January 1788, the date which is now celebrated as ‘Australia Day.’ Controversy and concern around this celebration continued to grow this year and Bondi beach was less crowded than expected. There were several protests and marches around the country with people describing it as ‘Invasion Day,’ recognising the violence and cruelty towards the Aboriginal people that followed the ‘First Fleet.’ It may be that the spectacular fireworks which we watched from Balmain East will be moved to a different date in future.

The New Year’s Eve fireworks were watched by a billion people last year – the rainbow waterfall from Harbour Bridge celebrating the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2017.

Sydney Harbour Bridge is the world’s largest steel bridge, framing the view of Sydney Opera House as I crossed from Balmain on my first morning.

The Opera House was designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon. His vision for a sail-inspired, sculptural building in which the fragments would make a spherical whole was the clear winner of the government’s design competition. However, it was also vastly more expensive than $7 million budget (an estimated $102 million) and the government decided to cut costs but cutting out Utzon’s architect fees and removing him from the project. To add insult to injury, he wasn’t even invited to the opening ceremony.

Our I’m Free Walking Tour group were happy to hear from our guide Lisa that the recent improvements to the interior of the building include Jørn’s son Jan, able to carry on his father’s work. Sophie and I loved our evening spent watching The Merry Widow, conducted by Vanessa Scammell and starring Danielle de Niese – a glittering performance on the magnificent Joan Sutherland stage.

I spent my first evening sipping sunset, seaside drinks at the Opera Bar with my cousin Millie and her boyfriend Richard, before exploring Sydney’s underground bars including Baxter’s Inn. The backlit wall of whisky is well worth finding – down an unmarked lane off Clarence St, right through a courtyard and down stone steps to the basement. Glenmore Rooftop was great for catch up drinks with a view, with Anna and Byron who I met in South America.

Millie and Richard were staying in Manly – the peninsula known for sandy beaches and surfing. I met them at Hugo’s whose pizza has won awards for being the best in Australia, unsurprisingly. I also loved  Acai Brothers who serve delicious superfood bowls and smoothies.

Good food and beautiful beaches became a running theme: Hugo’s at Manly, Doyles at Watson’s Bay, Rocker at Bondi. Balmain is full of quirky cafés including Euforia, Kaffeine and Café Yvoire. I would also recommend About Life for a quick, healthy box lunch along from Campbell and Crown St where you will find all the best vintage and charity shops. I also loved going to Glebe Market on Saturday, full of vintage stands and street food to enjoy on the grass listening to live music. Sydney is not to be missed, not to be rushed, a city to return to.

“The drama, the charm and the beauty of Hong Kong is all here – just as is its breathless energy.” – Nury Vittachi

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Crowds of glinting towers reach between sea and sky – a vertical, international city. ‘Hong Kong’ comes from the Cantonese hèung-gáwng meaning ‘fragrant harbour.’ The scent of the sandalwood incense would flow down to the water from the factories. Since the 1970s, Hong Kong has been seen as an ‘Asian Tiger’ along with Singapore, Tawain and South Korea – the most advanced and expansive economies of the continent.

A 36 hour stopover between London and Sydney gave me time to explore parts of the city and learn about its history. Having arrived in Castaway Bay, I made my way to Victoria Park, named after Queen Victoria who wrote in 1842, “Albert is so much amused at my having got the island of Hong Kong.” At the time, Hong Kong was little more than a collection of villages. However, control of the ‘fragrant harbour’ became key for trade between the British and the Chinese. In 1898, a deal was struck to lease the New Territories together with 235 islands to Britain for 99 years. July 1997 marked the handover of Hong Kong back to the Chinese, the new flag representing ‘one country, two systems’ through the symbolism of the white blakeana flower.

I made my way from Victoria Park to Victoria Peak, taking one of the oldest and steepest trams to reach the top. The skyscrapers were even more impressive at night from the terrace of Sevva where I met family friends for dinner. The restaurant looked out on to the HSBC and Bank of China building, both designed with the practice of feng shui in mind – two rods on the rooftop of the HSBC building were included to deflect bad energy, while the sharp edges of the Bank of China building are believed to cut and dilute good energy.

The following day, I visited the Che Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Gardens – examples of Japanese influence in Hong Kong’s architecture. Without a single nail, the elegant wooden beams support the roofs which shelter Buddhist treasures and relics. Surrounded by bustling, busy high-rises, yet remembering the Tang dynasty style in a serene garden, this place seemed to symbolise this city of intersection – new and old, commotion and calm.

“Peru, Peru. My heart’s lighthouse.” – Steven Patrick Morrissey

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Peru is a rainbow – a country full of colours, diversity and beauty that continues to shine through the rain of the Amazon forest and Andean mountains. Blue, indigo and violet filled our skies as we travelled around this extraordinary country, learning of its history – a pot of gold which holds stories of empires, treasures, traditions.

Gold forms part of the history of the great Inca Empire and their Spanish conquerors, who returned to Europe with riches including gold, silver and spices. By the early 16th century, the Inca Empire had become one of the largest in the world. Over generations, the sons of the first Inca (God-King) Manco Càpac grew the Inca Empire to cover parts of modern day Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, northwest Argentina and southwest Columbia. The Spanish first reached the fringes of the Inca Empire in 1528, marking the beginning of decades of fighting which finally came to an end in 1572.

Unlike the Incas who allowed local religions and languages to continue as the empire extended, the Spanish conquerors destroyed temples and icons, replacing them with their own. The colonisers taught the Inca people their religion, traditions and language. Today, Spanish is spoken by hundreds of millions of people, the language of an Empire which, by the 18th century, was one of the largest in history.

Cusco

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Our time in South America began in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire. Bleary eyed, my brother and I peered out of oval windows to glimpse the city which the Incas named ‘the centre of the world.’ The terracotta roofs seemed to follow the curves and contours of the hills and valley, growing with them not against them. We later learned that the city was built in the shape of a puma, a sacred Inca animal. The ancient fortress of Sacsayhuaman forms the head of the puma and the Plaza des Armas marks the space between the front and back legs.

The Plaza des Armas is at the heart of Cusco, the source of the four roads which led out of the city and divided the four regions of the Inca Empire. The ancient Inca stonework can still be seen, blocks which remained unmoved by the earthquakes which caused elegant colonial towers to crumble.

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The magnificent cathedral holds a painting of The Last Supper, painted by Marcos Zapata. The young, beardless figure dressed in red and green is believed to be Mary Magdalene, mirroring the figure in Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco, also sitting next to Christ. The scene is recognisable as The Last Supper, yet Zapata’s brushstrokes also represent his own Andean heritage. The viszacha (an Andean chinchilla) placed in the centre of the feast was considered a spiritual guardian of the lakes and mountains. Before the introduction of Catholicism, the people worshipped the lakes and the mountains as their gods and goddesses.

The feasts and festivals which take place outside the cathedral each year also mark a blend of beliefs. The people celebrate Easter with processions and music, just as they dance and sing for the Incan winter solstice Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun.) On our second night in Cusco, George and I were swept up into the dancing crowd of women and children celebrating the International Day of the Girl, a day which promotes the rights and welfare of girls around the world.

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Peru only granted women the vote in 1955, 26 years after Equador which was the first country in South America to establish equal suffrage. In Inca society, the emperor had several wives and power passed to a son, yet it was the mother’s family who lived with the emperor in the palace, which we saw during our Cusco by Foot walking tour.

Our guide Elvis (as smooth as his name) guided us around the city, telling us all the stories of the Incas. He explained that the ancient language of Quechua, which is still spoken in some parts of Peru, had no word for money. Society worked on the principles of ayni, the foundation of exchange in society. M’ita, the time people spent on projects which would benefit the whole community eg. building a bridge, existed in place of a monetary tax. (One practical tip regarding money in Cusco is that the Banc de la Nation ATMs do not charge fees so combined with our Starling cards we remained fee free!)

We also discussed the traditional Inca food – ancient grains and vegetables which are now the celebrity superfoods of glossy recipe books back in Britain: quinoa, sweet potatoes, chia seeds, avocados, ginger, beetroot. These ingredients fill the menus of Organika and Rucula – their chefs run between the restaurants to create colourful towers of salads and plates of fresh pasta from the plants grown in their own Sacred Valley organic garden. We had our first South American meal at the renowned Morena Peruvian Kitchen where we devoured kiwi, pineapple and ginger juices and ceviche (fish marinated in lime juice and spices) and went back for our last meal before our flight home – the best dinner of the whole trip. We would also recommend Jack’s Café for breakfast and Paddy’s – the highest Irish pub in the world! One final recommendation for those hanging up their hiking boots after Machu Pichu treks would be a massage from Ajna to ease the torment of yet more Inca steps as you explore the city.

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The Andes

Inca philosophy can be compared to the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang: each element has a gender, a pair, a partner. Cusco is protected by its mountains, its Gods – Ausangate, feminine, fertile and gentle; Salkantay, masculine, rocky and wild.

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We were lucky enough to see both these sacred mountains – Ausangate on our tour with Rainbow Mountain Expeditions and Salkantay on our trek with Machu Pichu Reservations. We are so glad we met Roger (and Roger Junior who made sure the the office was smelling fresh by twirling around spraying febreeze.) Roger’s company Rainbow Mountain Expeditions offers an incredible alternative to the classic, crowded Rainbow Mountain tour (complete with 3am start.) Our group of five met at 6am, picking up some traditional Peruvian bread on our way to the Rainbow Mountains. The journey was as beautiful as the destination.

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We walked over layers of lilac, red, green, gold – mountains as vibrant as the bustling skirt of tiny Teresa, our local guide. Roger splashed a traditional flower extract on our hands – a remedy for altitude which was a necessity at an elevation of over 5000m. We were able to buy a bottle of the extract at the pharmacy back in Cusco before starting the Salkantay trek the following day.

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Cusco is crammed with agencies offering treks and tours, squeezed between the stalls selling mountains of bargain alpaca jumpers, scarves and socks. A recommendation from Mia who we met at the hostel, along with trusty TripAdvisor reviews led us to Machu Pichu Reservations. William encouraged us to do the Salkantay trek rather than a short part of the Inca Trail (for the full trek you have to book months in advance.) We paid a fraction of the £500-£700 which we had seen advertised online (£150 for 5 days, 5 nights including food and the train back to Cusco the following day.) At our request, he also booked us into the group guided by Renzo who had become a TripAdvisor celebrity after several rave reviews.

Renzo lived up to expectations, organising the group and activities and telling us all about the landscape we explored during our 5 day trek. On our first day we clambered up to Humantay Lake.

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The clouds drifted beyond the glaciers as we approached the sparkling turquoise lake. Perched on rocks above the lake, we listened to Renzo as he told us about the sacred mountains, lakes and animals of the Incas. The three most important animals are the condor, the bird which carries souls from earth to the sky, the puma, the strong animal living on earth, and the snake, able to journey below ground and a symbol of healing and wisdom. Later that evening at our camp, he talked of the way the Inca people see potential and purity in darkness: black is the colour created when all colours come together. For them, night was the indispensable partner of day, part of Pachamama (Mother Nature). Closing the doors of our cosy triangular huts before mountains illuminated by blinking stars, I felt we had such an insight into the way the Inca’s had lived and thought of the Andes.

On our second day, we conquered the ‘Gringo Killer’ switch back trail and powered on to the peak of the Salkantay Trek – 4360ft above sea level. The descent saw the transformation of rocks and streams to deep green forest and a great rushing river as we walked towards Chawllay on the edge of the Amazon.

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We woke up to a chorus of cockerels, pecking the gravel below the terrace where rain continued to hammer down on the tin roof. Looking like little red riding hood in my shiny new poncho, we set off further into the Amazon Forest. Following the crossing of the river over a perilous, muddy bridge, most rested, while others played an extremely competitive game of football. The match ended with a spectacular slide tackle from a member of my own team, a pile up, and laughter which continued to break out throughout our journey to Santa Teresa. In the afternoon we welcomed the trip to the hot springs to ease tired muscles and wash off the Inca berry war paint from our trek through the jungle.

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Our last day before reaching Machu Pichu began with an adrenaline-packed, high-speed morning spent zip lining across the valley. For our last run the harnesses were turned round so that we were supported on our fronts – we flew forward, backs arched to the sky, eyes on the horizon.

Back on the ground, we completed the final stretch to Aguas Calientes where we would stay before and after visiting Machu Pichu. We traced the train tracks, balancing on the wooden slacks reaching over lilac and silver pebbles between fiery flowers and enormous emerald leaves. Our group laughed along, George increasing his French vocabulary after swallowing a fly and proclaiming that there was a ‘mouche dans ma bouche.’

At 3.25am our alarm rippled through our room and we hauled ourselves out of bed, marching past reception and promptly forgetting our packed breakfast. Fuelled by a few biscuits, some avocado and challenges to be the first to the top given by our fellow trekkers, George and I were quick off the mark crossing the bridge when it opened at 5am. The race was on. We passed the others and continued to power up the steps, our rhythm matching the music in our ears. Glutes and thighs burning, we continued to climb. We were accompanied by Jack and Frank (George named all the dogs at the entrance – Claudia, Milo and Mr Darcey stayed behind), wagging their tails all the way. Our less welcome companion was a man in a white hoody which he was still wearing when he reached us with only 50m to go. Absolutely determined to get gold for the girls, I sprinted the last set of steps, first to the top at 5.30am.

Beating the boys and the buses meant that when the gates opened, I had also beaten the sun. It was only after my camera had captured the blue beauty of the magnificent Machu Pichu that the first rays beamed over the top of the surrounding peaks.

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We rejoined our group for our last Inca lesson from Renzo. He told us how the Inca people had sought to protect Machu Pichu from the Spanish who had destroyed so many of their sacred places. They abandoned their lives on the mountain and blocked the paths, an act which ensured that 500 years later, over 1 million people would journey from all over the world each year to marvel at their work.

Just as Ausangate and Salkantay form a partnership of feminine and masculine, Huayna Pichu and Machu Pichu form a pair of young and old. There are limited tickets to climb these mountains and we were so glad we had booked these in advance. Ignoring the complaints of our shaky legs and tired eyes, we climbed another 2139ft on top of the 1280ft we had already accomplished, to the summit of Machu Pichu mountain. The soaring sensation of being higher than the clouds stayed with me long after we returned to the ticket gate.

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After completing almost 50 miles in 5 days, George and I crawled to and collapsed into the chairs of Bistro Le Petit Paris. The owner was full of tips and stories and his skill at sourcing ingredients (including the best goats cheese from Bolivia) and creating delicious recipes has earned him the number 1 TripAdvisor spot.

The following morning we boarded the Inca Rail. The train rattled alongside the rushing river as we sipped homemade lemonade and fresh fruit juice, gazing up at the Andean mountains.

Huacachina

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From Cusco, we booked a bus to Ica, the nearest city to Huacachina, one of the only desert oasis´ in South America. The town is named for the story of a girl whose voice was so beautiful that people would cry when they heard her sing. When the girl was pursued by a hunter, it is said that her falling robes became the desert and her broken mirror the water which rests between the dunes.

Huachina’s story is far more romantic than the place itself. Backpackers stumble out of tiny taxis, immediately bombarded with requests for sand buggy tours – the cause of the screams of passengers zipping across the desert, as well as the pervading smell of petrol. Yet the pace of life is slow, still as the muddied water at the centre of the cluster of hostels with their perpetual happy hours. We explored several hostels during our time in Huacachina – we stayed at Wild Olive, swam at EcoCamp and ate at Banana Hostel, all of which we would recommend.

Our trip to Paracas was a good way to spend a morning and see some Peruvian wildlife including penguins, sea lions, pelicans and hundreds more birds, swooping and diving into the waves. We also saw the Candelabra shape imprinted into one of the islands, believed to be of the same mysterious origins as the famed Nazca lines.

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Back in Huacachina we booked onto Sandboarding – two hours of being launched off the dunes gripping a wooden board and keeping fingers crossed that you will remain on that board. We returned to the hostel grinning and graze free, for what we believed would be our last night in Huacachina. Little did we know that a Peruvian census would mean no buses and one more day spent stretched out by the pool listening to more vintage black eyed peas with Ollie and Owen, also travelling after graduating university. 24 hours later than expected and our tans even better from the extra day in the sunshine, the four of us squeezed into a minute yellow taxi and boarded the night bus without any further hiccups, bound for Arequipa.

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Arequipa

The white volcanic stones of the cathedral, the arches, the churches glow under the watercolour sky of Arequipa: The White City. The name Arequipa is believed to be derived from the words of Inca Mayta Capac who answered ‘Ari Qhipay’ (Quechua for Yes stay) when his subjects asked to remain behind in the sunshine, between the beautiful mountains. Arequipa is framed by the three mountains of Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu. The annual race to the top of Misti (5822m), beginning in the Plaza des Armas, has attracted challengers from all over the world. The current record from Arequipa to the summit is 4 hours, 36 minutes.

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Correctly remembering this fact when quizzed at the end of our Downtown Walking Tour earned us a hot chocolate at Chaqchao, one of several places we would recommend. Neighbouring Las Gringas serve focaccias, salads and wood fired pizzas from their rustic courtyard. Chelawasi plate up juicy burgers, chicken wings covered in mango and ginger sauce and Andean potatoes fried four times – the best chips we have ever tasted (especially when paired with their homemade pisco salsa and garlic mayonnaise.) For Peruvian food, head to Hatunpa where seven types of potatoes are covered with a topping of your choice – Rocoto peppers are a speciality of Arequipa.

The best songs of the 00s are played at Wild Rover Hostel. The unfortunate travellers to have booked a Colca Canyon day trip, up at 3am to catch the bus, were further traumatised by our group of Wild Rovers dancing back to bed, still spinning around singing Shakira…

The following day we managed to visit some of the sites mentioned on our walking tour including the Santa Catalina Monastery and the San Camilo market. The monastery, founded in 1579, covers over 20,000 square metres – a city within a city. Scarlet geraniums line the white walls which were home to 450 nuns. The monastery holds an extensive collection of religious paintings including a wonderful panel of John the Baptist by Teodoro Núñez Ureta. At the packed San Camilo market I wound my way between stacks of vegetables, grains and meat to sit at the fruit stalls where I sipped a huge glass of fresh papaya, mango and orange juice. Compromising on the quality of the drinks but gaining a spectacular view, we later watched the sunset from the balcony restaurant on the corner of the Plaza des Armas, looking over the cathedral.
Following our Colca Canyon adventure, we stayed at Los Andes B&B, even closer to the beautiful square which leads so many to call Arequipa the prettiest city in Peru.

The Colca Canyon

Having survived the frenzied taxi ride to the bus station, which included a truck, shouting and several hand gestures, we ran around the terminal trying to find our bus to Cabanaconde. We had been delayed getting our passports back from the hostel – who knew there were opening and closing times for the safe. At 9.28am we still hadn’t found the bus. We should have known that in Peru, when you think you have two minutes to catch the bus, you probably have twenty. It wasn’t until 9.48am that the Andalucía driver started the engine and we began the journey, cortisol lowered and anticipation rising.
The Colca Canyon slices through the Andes, the second deepest canyon in the world. It is 3400m at its deepest point making it almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Guided by Google, we had decided to escape the tick-box day tours and explore the Colca Canyon ourselves. Those who get the 3am tours not only miss out on sleep, but the scenery of the journey to the canyon – golden desert sand, grey volcano ash, stacks of stones placed at the same elevation as Mont Blanc.
Pachamama is one of the best hostels we have stayed in – past the crimson RV, we were greeted with colourful artwork, a cheerful pizza oven and a blue spiral staircase leading to rooms with tidy bathrooms and cosy duvets. Ludwig who owns the hostel is a very experienced trekking guide who has been incredibly generous in the advice he has shared, creating a detailed map with routes, viewpoints and distances.

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We reached the Cejana viewpoint before the sun set over the mountains, zig zagged with the paths we would take the following day to Llahuar Lodge. Beneath a brilliant blue sky, we headed towards the Achachiwa viewpoint, past the bullring which acted as a pen for several chestnut horses. We had met Gus, travelling in South America from the Netherlands, at the hostel in Arequipa and travelled to the canyon together. As we approached the viewpoint, we caught up with Tom and Issy, both from the UK but based in Mallorca where they worked together on the boats. Together, we navigated the ticket check point, a combination of terrible Spanish and exaggerated English and miming allowing us to the enter the canyon. Apparently student discount tickets are for Latin American students only – Issy’s suggestion to run for it would have been easier than trying to explain this mistake.
When we reached the river, we crossed the bridge and turned right towards the rocks and the steam rising from them. We followed Nick, travelling from Australia, into the river, passing his teal tent bag which matched the colour of the water. The sand below our feet bubbled and burst with the heat from the springs, hot enough for Nick to make two soft-boiled eggs for lunch.

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Laughing over what else he could rustle up, we continued to Llahuar where we spent the afternoon swimming under the stunning azure sky. We envied Nick’s personal hot spring kitchen even more than evening when we served a vegetarian dinner of milky quinoa and something fried, most of which we donated to the dogs and which we supplemented with Oreos and Sublime bars.
On day 2, we zig zagged back up the path, full of energy from our breakfast of pancakes and strawberry jam. Under another cloudless sky, we made our way through the mountains, walking in time to the hits of Now 64.

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After almost 10km, we wound our way down to Sangalle, passing the words ‘Garden of Eden’ scribbled on a rock. The dusty track became a green garden – tall yellow irises stand between wooden cabins, palm trees lean over a shimmering crystal swimming pool. Issy was right in encouraging us to resist the first place we came to – we had the next paradise all to ourselves, plus a football field surrounded by avocado trees. Our original plan was to spend a few hours in Sangalle, hike back up to Cabanaconde and take the Pachamama bus the next day to see the condors and cycle back down before heading back to Arequipa.

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Obviously, staying in Sangalle was irresistible. As were the mojitos. Aiming to catch the 9.30am bus from Cabanaconde we dragged our heavy heads from our beds and began the climb which we had been told by other travellers would take us an hour and a half. Turn after turn, step after step – the climb was infinite. Powered by Kelly Rowland, Issy and I went ahead to collect the bags, buy the tickets (and as much food as we could) and stall the bus. We were reunited before the minibus arrived and we waved goodbye to Cabanaconde, blissfully unaware that we had booked the tourist bus which made photo stops, a hot spring stop and a lunch stop along the way and would not reach Arequipa until 6pm. However, after a needed swim in the river and a huge buffet we were not so bitter. We even glimpsed the majestic condors, soaring over the crowds of tourists and their snapping, flashing cameras.

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Peru is about the journey – the roads to the Rainbow Mountains and the Colca Canyon, the rush across the Huacachina desert, the paths within the Andes leading to Machu Pichu and Sangalle are what make this country unmissable and unforgettable.

“Perhaps no country in Latin America is more picturesque than Bolivia.” – Nicholas Kristof

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Bolivia is a country of superlatives: the world’s highest lake, highest capital city, largest salt flats, driest desert and oldest man. Carmelo Flores Laura is said to have been 123 years old when he died in 2014, making his life the longest ever recorded. Over the last two weeks we have been able to experience the extraordinary landscape of his country.

Atacama Desert and Salar de Uyuni

Passports stamped, we warmed our hands on two welcome mugs of hot chocolate before clambering into the Toyota 4×4 which would take us to the Salar de Uyuni. Driving through cocoa coloured mountains, our driver Donelle turned up the volume for Mi Gente – the song which would become the soundtrack of our trip together with four girls from Chile.

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By the end of the day, our cameras were flooded with photographs of a tricolour of laguna’s: white, green and red.

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On the second day we continued North past the incredible ‘stone trees’ sculpted by wind and time. The Atacama Desert is said to have inspired Salvador Dali’s warped, barren paintings. The sapphire Laguna Catal was the most beautiful of all that we visited, resting between the amber stones.

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After another dusty and bumpy but beautiful day, we arrived at our hotel – a hotel made entirely of salt. Our game of hangman before dinner led to lots of confusion, laughter and a few more Spanish words to add to ‘que lindo’ (how beautiful) and ‘papas fritas’ (chips). The ‘papas fritas’ were a significant improvement on the powdered mashed potato which we had forced down for our first lunch. Crammed into the back seats with our stomachs complaining and our wallets much lighter than when we had arrived in Chile we felt that we had been oversold on the food, suspension of the car and value for money. However, the agency had been right about one thing: each day was better than before.

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Approaching the Salar de Uyuni from Chile meant that our anticipation to see the world’s largest Salt Flats built over the tour, just as it had on the Salkantay Trek to Machu Pichu. When we climbed into the car at 4.30am, the full moon was still glowing above us as the first orange rays peered over the horizon. Driving over the pure Salt Flats with the setting moon on one side and the rising sun on the other is something I will never forget.

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We arrived at the Isla Incahuasi before the sun had broken over the horizon and climbed up between the crowds of cacti with the sky growing lighter and lighter. The panoramas from the summit were stunning.

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La Paz

La Paz sits at an elevation of 3650m, stacked into the snow-capped mountains. The full name of the city Nuestra Señora de la Paz means Our Lady of the Peace, aligned with its motto: “The dissenters in harmony gathered together in peace and love, and a town of peace they founded for perpetual memory.”

We only spent a few hours in La Paz – not enough time to do the Red Cap walking tour which had been recommended to us, but plenty of time to go to Café del Mundo where George added another burger to his tally. This gorgeous café was opened by Elin who, by her 28th birthday, had travelled to 100 countries.

Lake Titicaca

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From the highest capital in the world to the highest navigable lake in the world – Lake Titicaca rests at 3812m above sea level. Yet what we found breathtaking was its size. Sitting on the rickety jetty, we watched the embers of the sunset glow in the rippling water. Like the Salt Flats, the water seems infinite, without a shore, without a boundary.

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As it was a Sunday, many of the restaurants we wanted to visit were closed. However we were able to pick up a slab of carrot and ginger cake from Pitstop who recommended that we try Puerto Viejo where we had fresh trout from the lake. The lunch we had at Hostel Joshua where we stayed was absolutely delicious, especially the homemade guacamole, salsa and hummus.

After reading reviews of the Isla del Sol and Isla del Luna tours which talked of uncomfortable boats, crowded, overpriced markets and disappointing Inca Ruins, we decided to spend our morning horse riding. We were the only two on the tour and absolutely loved trotting over the trails with views over the lake and surrounding mountains.

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We visited an ancient cave and shinned up a zig zag exit before seeing the remains of an Inca temple. Our guide Ronaldo showed us the paintings of sacred animals on a great rock shaped like an eagle, marked in places due to the Spanish who sought to replace indigenous religion with Christianity. He also showed us several spherical indentations in the rocks, filled with water which would reflect the night sky and allow them to read their patterns.