Saturday, 26 April 2014

Machu Picchu, Peru - April 2014

The City in the Clouds 

As luck would have it, the Spaniards never discovered Machu Picchu. To be honest, I'm not surprised after the arduous hike up the mountains - that nearly killed me off! The allure of this city comes from its inextricable link with mystery, despite its current tourist infestation. Once upon a time, it is thought to have been a university; the perfect place for youths to mature and develop into future rulers or 'inkas'. Just how they managed to bring gigantic rocks up the mountains to create a city in the skies, is still unknown. The secret would still be hidden in the hearts of the locals - if it wasn't for a 10 year old boy leading a Yale graduate right into the heart of the ruins. That's right, in exchange for just 1 sol (about 20p) Pablito led American scholar Hiram Bingham to one of the modern wonders of the world. 

Nowadays, the entrance fee is more like 150 soles (€50), and people all over the world make their pilgrimage to this sacred place. The majesty of the mountains, the sheer height of the city and the intricate architecture of Machu Picchu make it a sight to behold. I had waited years and walked for days to get to this place, the city amongst the clouds. The locals managed to keep the secret until 1911, after which the place was excavated - thanks to the funding and publicity of National Geographic and Yale University. 

One of the most astounding thing I found about my trip to Machu Picchu was the undeniable intelligence of the Incan people. The intricate design of the citadel really takes your breath away, when you think that they never had access to any of the moden gadgets that are used nowadays. The whole city has been preserved against earthquakes as the walls are at a slight angle, sort of like the base of a triangle for extra stability. This means that despite being built on an earthquake fault line, the infrastructure is so secure, that Machu Picchu will stand tall despite the challenges that present themselves. The attention to detail goes as far as to eliminate the need for mortar between the bricks in the already anti-seismic walls, as they fit together perfectly. Especially in the walls of the most important temples, the skill that must have been involved in this is spectacular. What´s more, underneath the city there are a series of aqueduct channels that ensure the water from the source at the top of the mountain reaches all of the people living in the city, via a series of water 'fountains'.

Safe to say, the whole city left me spellbound, like many others before me. The impossibility of constructing a city so high up in the mountains only makes the accomplishment even greater. The ruins blend in with the stunning scenery that surrounds it, the stone walls blossoming in the fertile valleys of the Andes. The more I learn about the Incas, the more they incaptivate me. They knew about the stars, the timing of the seasons, architecture but they never wrote a single word down. Killed off by the Spaniards, their story has been cut short and so we must continue to follow into their footsteps to find out more about this incredible civilization. A new archaeological site called Choquequirau has recently been found that is thought to be four times the size of Machu Picchu. Some day I must come back and walk the trail towards this other city, lost in the mists of time.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Ecuador, February 2014

Ecuador, Land of Diversity

Ecuador, Land of Diversity From the frozen, majestic heights of Cotopaxi to the tropical shores of the Galapagos and the dense jungles of the Amazonia, Ecuador can certainly be considered a diverse country. 

However, not only is the landscape a wonder, but the people of Ecuador are, in my experience so open, kind and also pretty religious. You are never without a friend in Ecuador. This was a little unsettling at first for the famously understated British traveller but I've found that as long as you keep an eye on your valuables you're alright. For example, at Tonsupa beach in the Northern region of Esmeraldas we met up with a group of people who had set up camp next us, sharing food, drink and songs together - accompanied by guitar playing until after the sun had set. 

But it seems that the attitude of the people is pretty much the only constant. Ecuador may be a tiny country, but it's diversity and richness cannot be denied. It is actually considered the most diverse country in the world per unit area. President Correa (now in his second term) has drastically changed the country for the better, and from what I am told, Ecuador is now much safer and developed country. Correa has overhauled the transport, education and health care systems and despite his criticism for being too extreme, he has obtained investment from world superpower China to further improve the lives of Ecuatorian people. Especially in Guayaquil (the largest city in terms of population, which stood at 2 million in 2010), the country increasingly resembles the United States. This was evident even from the traffic lights and road layouts to the restaurant chains that dominated parts of the city centre, like Pizza Hut and Subway - also found in most of Ecuador. 

That is not to say that these chain restaurants have taken over the local cuisine. Rice and beans reign over each meal, for example 'seco de pollo' and 'carne asada con menestra y arroz', the latter typically found in Guayaquil. The national dish is 'ceviche', a kind of seafood soup usually served at breakfast time. I found the flavours of onion, prawn, salt, lemon mixed with a generous helping of herbs and tomatoes quite overwhelming, even more so first thing in the morning. Safe to say, I didn't enjoy ceviche - much to the disappointment of my hosts. Another of the more ferocious national delicacies is 'cuy', in other words that little fluffy guinea pigs that many children in the UK keep as pets in ridiculously expensive hutches. Instead, I found myself tucking into guinea pig with a side order of chips. Much to my surprise (and shame) I did enjoy it. Like a sort of mustardy chicken really. It pains me to say it, but it did taste good - and at the sour price of €20 per skinny little rat-like guinea pig. Other gastronomic highlights include 'empanadas' (a bit like a Cornish Pasty) and 'Tripe' - otherwise known as barbecued animal innards. 

My favourite place in Ecuador (besides the Galapagos islands which deserve separate attention) was Cuenca, without a doubt. Although it is the third largest city in Ecuador in terms of both size and economically, it feels like a small countryside town. Rivers flow right through the city, and it is a popular retirement home for people from around the world - far from the pollution and traffic of the Capital, Quito. The centre of Cuenca is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Trust site, between the river Tomebamba and the street Gran Colombia. 

Highlights included the New Cathedral, which in spite of an immense architectural error in terms of sticking to the original design of much higher towers, it stands proudly over the Park Calderon below. The park is full of exotic plants and people conversing on the park benches whilst enjoying a spectacular view of the Cathedral's three domes. At first, I thought that these formed part of another building because they are so strikingly different, but it seems that the German born architect Juan Baustista Stiehle was just feeling super creative the day he decided to design the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception! The domes of the Cathedral have become a symbol of the city, in fact when it was first built, 9,000 of Cuenca's 10,000 inhabitants could fit inside the building. 

Another religious building, the Basilica Del Voto Nacional, was a highlight for me in Quito.  It left me almost speechless due to its enormously complex design and immense size. A stunning neo-Gothic style that exuded elegance and majesty. Upon climbing the towers, it boasts amazing views stretching over most of Quito. Towards the south of the city, there is an area called 'La Ronda'. Having maintained the essence of the colonial style it is best enjoyed at night. This is when the cobbled streets (well lit, and full of police) are filled with the aromas of local delicacies, and live music flows from the windows of the historical buildings found all along the streets. Locals bring handicrafts, freshly made empanadas and their delightful charm to this enchanting part of the city. 

However, the county was conquered by another empire, long before the Spaniards arrived. The largest remains of the Incan empire in Ecuador are found in Ingapirca, in the Cañar province, near Cuenca. It is actually more of an Inca-Cañari site as it was originally inhabited by the Cañari people before the arrival of the Incas. Complex systems of underground aqueous and an intricate calibration of the complex's religious buildings with the constellations of the night sky demonstrate the astonishing sophistication and intelligence of the Inca/Cañari people, leaving me hungry for mor!e Incan treasure on my upcoming trip to Peru. 

In short, Ecuador is a paradise for beach lovers, mountain trekkers and jungle explorers alike. It is simply bursting with life and standing testament to both the Incan and Spanish empires. Ecuador promises itself a bright future, striving for greater independence and stability. An increasingly modern country, with a lot to offer not only for tourists but also for its inhabitants. A delight and a treasure for my first stop in South America.

Thank you so much to everyone who made this trip possible for me. I was staying with friends the whole time in Ecuador, and this meant so much to me. I have met new friends, and caught up with old friends. Thank you so much for making it happen.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Madrid, Spain. December 2013

Expect the unexpected

As you no doubt will have realized by now, I visit my friends in Spain multiple times a year - and this time was no exception. I love going back to my 'second home', and seeing my friends again. We have such a great time and I wouldn't change it for the world. Not only this, but the location is absolutely stunning, in the rocky mountains - the town Aspe is just half an hour from the beach front! It was quite strange to be on the beach just a few days before Christmas though.

I had a fairly relaxing week away, just relaxing and catching up on the gossip that I've missed... However, we did squeeze in time to go to my the local school's Christmas show, because my friends' younger siblings were starring in the show. I thought that the show was really interesting in the way that many of the children sang Christmas carols in English - with only about 20% of the singing actually in Spanish. I was also surprised to learn that the children expected their presents not from Santa Claus, but instead from the Three Wise Men/Kings who would arrive not on the 24th or the 25th but instead on the 6th of January. Other than that, it seems that Christmas in Spain is pretty much the same.

After seeing my friends in Aspe (near Alicante) I then travelled by train to Madrid. Although this seems like a very long way when you look at a map of Spain, in reality it took less than three hours. The train was really efficient and after sitting in my designated seat I felt that I was on an aeroplane rather than a train - free newspaper and movie entertainment included!

Upon arrival, I checked into Uhostels in the city centre - after battling my way through the Metro system. Navigating my way around the city was my main concern before leaving, but in actual fact Madrid feels much smaller than it is - and the Metro is of course identical to the London Underground which I'm already familiar with. The hostel also proved nothing to worry about, as it was clean and warm with friendly staff and areas to hang out and socialise - but also your own personal space. I would really recommend Uhostels, only 15 euros a night!

After dumping my stuff in the hostel, I set out to explore the city. To my surprise, it was only a short walk right to the heart of Madrid, near the Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol and the Palacio Real. My favourite place that I saw during the day was the Royal Palace (pictured below). The gardens surrounding it were stunning, and I could have lost myself for hours in the mazes. Not only this, but the area surrounding the palace was decked out for Christmas. There were churro stalls, street entertainers and to top it all, a huge ice rink had been set up for people to enjoy. I preferred this to the Plaza Mayor - an open square with a statue of King Philip III on horseback (pictured right). Although the Christmas lights did look lovely, I didn't feel that it impressed me as much as the Royal Palace, which was truly magnificent.

All in all, it seems to me that Madrid is a city that should be visited at night. I thought the Christmas lights in the Puerta del Sol were amazing - in a place that didn't really register during the day. However, I did expect more people to go out in the late evening. To my surprise, most of the Christmas lights (including the stunning Christmas tree pictured above) were turned off at around 10:30pm. This was to discourage people from being in the city centre late at night, avoiding both costly electricity bills and drunken violence. Still, it was something I didn't expect and did bring the reality of Spain's financial distress to my attention.

The following day, the heavens opened. I couldn't believe how much it rained, which was a real shame for me because I was constantly trying to move from one shelter to the next. Despite the weather, I made it further out of the centre, near the Museo Del Prado and the Plaza de las Ventas. First on my list of things to do - see the infamous bullring. Although I didn't enter the bullring, I did walk around the outside area and visit the museum there. I was fascinated by the personal histories of the matadors, and finding out more about what inspired them to enter into the 'battle of death' with a ferocious animal. Mostly men from Andalusia, I found that it was perceived as a sport, a spectacle of art and even a duty - detracting from the torture that was carried out in the ring. On the walls of the museum hung the mounted heads of bulls and the posters advertising as if it were 'the greatest show on earth'.

Another place I visited that day was the Museo del Prado (free student entry!). The piece that I was most looking forward to seeing was Velazquez's Las Meninas, and I was not disappointed. I cannot profess that I am any art expert, but this painting was amazing. The perspective of the work is a sort of 'behind the scenes' snapshot of what the monarchs (who were being painted) would see. Therefore, when looking at the painting, you assume their position, looking at the painter himself and the maids of honor, chaperones, two dwarves and a dog. This complex composition amazed me, as I found that there was so much detail - so much to look at and too little time! When I was walking around the museum, there were also art students painting from the originals in the gallery. I stood awhile and watched an artist paint, allowing me to appreciate how much time is invested into art - something that I would not have the patience for. Having said that, during my trip to the gallery I did find out that many famous artists would only paint the main focal points of a portrait (e.g. the face), and then leave the rest of the work to their assistants...

After that, I was homeward bound. I always like to arrive at any station to catch a bus or train SUPER early because otherwise I panic - so I arrived with an hour to spare in la Puerta de Atocha train station. And boy am I glad! There was so much to see - a whole host of plants, a small pond with turtles and a vast array of market stalls. I couldn't believe my eyes when I arrived, and I really enjoyed looking round. Another thing I didn't expect from my time at the train station in Madrid!

 My trip to Madrid brought my travels in Spain to a close. As always, a huge
thank you to my 'gilis' in Spain, without whom so many adventures would not have
been possible. Thank you, thank you and thank you again. I had such a great time.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Uber Travelling!

I’ve always wanted to have a big chunk of time to just travel to the places that I want to, but I’ve never had the time, because I’ve been at school and had to make do with going in the holidays. The exciting news is that now I’ll be having a gap year and will therefore be able to visit some of the places that I’ve been longing to visit. I can hardly contain my excitement to get on that plane and have a whole host of adventures.

I think that a gap year is a pretty tough decision to make for anyone. Next year, I’d like to study Spanish at university and felt that the best preparation for this would be to actually see what Hispanic life is like, and to fully immerse myself not only in the language but also in the culture. Inevitably, this means that my career will always involve travel or overseas communication and I think it’s important for me to have this time to explore at my own pace, throw myself in at the deep end, get some potentially life-changing experiences and learn more than I’ve ever imagined I could.

A lot of people go on gap years, and I have never heard of anyone who came back disappointed or regretted their decision. I’m fairly well travelled already, so I feel ready to take on the challenge. Although I am slightly fearful about all the many things that could go wrong, I’ve organised it in such a way that I’m never without support or other people to help me out. I think it will be really great to see some of the places that I’ve read so much about, and to have a proper glimpse into cultural traditions and perspectives of the world. My ability to communicate with others in their own language will be invaluable and I just can’t wait to get started! I’ve got a lot of ideas swimming around in my head at the moment and I’m known to change my mind but here are some of the highlights that I would love to experience… 

Friday, 30 August 2013

London, Buckingham Palace August 2013

A Royal Day Out

I think with many travel blogs, a lot of people forget about the beauty of their own country and it's all about jumping on a plane to find somewhere exciting, interesting and new. However, I'm really proud of living where I do, and popped on the train the other week to London, stopping in Buckingham Palace of all places. It was really easy to book online and get the tickets, and the whole thing was seamlessly organised. Although I wasn't able to take photos of some of the main exhibitions - e.g. the Queen's very own coronation gown(!) - in hindsight this is probably best, everyone should try and get there! I went with my mum and the staff there were great in providing her with a wheelchair and everything that we needed.

Every cloud has a silver lining - the wheelchair access to Buckingham Palace is right through the front gates and into the courtyard round the back. If you watched the Royal Wedding (which most of the world should have done!) then you may remember the route that the royal carriage actually took - well, we were given the royal treatment and little me and my mum went through the very same way. Admittedly not in a carriage or a wedding dress, but all the same.

And now I'm going to go all un-patriotic and negative, sorry. I have to say that I was fairly disappointed by the Palace. I'd never really looked at it properly on TV, just as a large building and I was concentrating on part of it, like the balcony and the people. This meant that I never noticed how dull the exterior of the palace is. It was initially built for the Duke of Buckingham, then Queen Victoria decided that she would make it the official residence, or indeed palace, of the monarch. I'm not quite sure why she made that decision. If you look at some of the great palaces of the world, like the Taj Mahal or some of the impressive jewel-encrusted palaces in Asia you begin to wonder why Great Britain doesn't seem to appreciate the monarchy as much as you would hope. On the other hand, I think that the gates and the mall are spectacular - especially with an eager crowd just waiting to see the royal baby news for example!

Then of course we proceeded and went inside to look at the Queen's Gallery and the State Rooms. It felt amazing to be in the same rooms as some of the most important people in British history, even though most of the palace is set aside for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and no doubt filled with thousands of secret passages. My favourite part was seeing the Queen's actual coronation dress - and I don't mean to be rude here - but I never realised how small her Royal Majesty is. Tiny. I'm a fairly small person so I was quite pleased, after all, they say that the best things come in small packages. ;)

 As you can see in the photo above, the Royal Mews Exhibition was absolutely breathtaking. This enormous Gold State Coach is used by the Royal Family and is simply magnificient. It was the highlight of my day, and so worth going to see. The back wheels are basically the same size as me, and a stepladder of some description would be essential to clamber inside. It is beautifully decorated with a whole host of mythical figures and because we had opted for an audio guide, I was able to understand a huge amount about how important this was. A triumphant, ornate and truly royal way to get from A to B!

Just a short walk away from the Palace is Trafalgar Square (for those unfamiliar with London). As you can see, it's a really beautiful square that attracts a lot of people like bees to honey. On the very right hand side of the picture, you can see the plinth. Although originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV, now it is an art showcase - literally on the doorstep of the National Gallery. At the moment there is a huge (almost 500m) blue cock(rel). I've done my homework and it's a feminist statement, presenting a male stereotype but designed by a woman. It's by Katharina Fritsch, a modern German artist and I really like what she's done. (Shoutout to her!)

Overall, a great day to be had in London, and this will only be the first of many London posts I'm sure because I'm slightly in love with going there. My next plan is to go to the Tower of London to see the Crown Jewels, and again have a bit of a general mooch around and see what interesting things there are to see because there's always something going on in London. I've returned from London full of patriotic spirit and with a spring in my step. I had a lovely time and have come to realise how much national treasure there is!

Again, love to my mum who is the best companion any traveller could have.

Thursday, 29 August 2013


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Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Murcia - Day Trip, July 6th 2013

Meandering around Murcia (مرسية) 

Whilst I was staying in Aspe, Alicante (see blog post!) I was thrilled to take up the opportunity to go to Murcia, and visit some friends. The weather was even hotter than in Alicante, and Murcia is somehow even more beautiful. The streets were really wide and clean, lined with trees and of course in the sunshine everything looks that little bit more romantic. I was keen to explore the city, renowned for agriculture but also the University of Murcia. First stop, the Santa Maria Cathedral.

After walking in the hot sun, we arrived at the ornate and baroque-esque style Cathedral, despite having initially been designed in the Gothic style. Inside it's definitely more of a Gothic style and is bigger than I expected - containing the largest altar I think I've ever seen. Murcia was originally founded by the Moors in 825 and with this Catholic Cathedral now boasts a uniquely Spanish blend of Moorish and Christian architecture. The 'Catedral de Santa Maria' was actually built on the site of a mosque in 1394. I love the majesty of the exterior, and the light colours really contrast with the dark wood and Gothic forms that you can see inside - worth a Google that one as I didn't take any photos inside. I wouldn't take photos because I would feel as though I was violating a religious sanctuary. Call me weird if you like, but that's just the way I feel about it. Overall, the cathedral is definitely worth the visit, the enormity of such buildings always brings me a sense of calm. Even if you're not religious, it must be one of the first stops that you make!
In Spanish, 'Puente de los Peligros' means 
'Bridge of the Hazards'. This bridge is named after our Lady of the Hazards, a statue just upstream of the river. It's actually more commonly known as simply 'The Old Bridge', being the oldest bridge in the city. Just a stone's throw away from the Town Hall and a square in the city that features patio areas very similar to the fountains that can be seen at the Alhambra Palace. A beautiful area that is not to be missed. Also, on the bridge are a multitude of padlocks bearing the words 'Te quiero' or 'I love you', with initials and names. I was captured by the romantic spirit of Murcia, and I'd definitely go back. One of the easiest cities to just have a meander round and absorb the scenery.

Again, I must say a huge thankyou to my 'Murcianas', I
had a great day which, without you simply would
not have been possible.