A Travellerspoint blog

June 2012

Canada, round 2!

Toronto, Quebec City, Montreal and the 5 day train journey across Canada back to Vancouver. Oh and Matthew's 40th Birthday! Seriously?

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For only a few bucks extra, we found out that the return flight we took to South America, did not have to return to the same place, namely Vancouver which you have read about at the start of our adventure. And so our flight north from Lima in Peru, arrived into the city of Toronto, in the east of Canada.

Starting our day's travel from Bogota in Colombia, made for a tiring day, but an ice cream stop in Lima airport put a smile on our face, our last taste of the delightful South American ice cream that has refreshed our palate on many a hot day!

Also a breath taking view of the New York city sky line, a first for me, as we stopped briefly at Newark Airport, Debs being the first to spot the Statue of Liberty! It was here Debs almost 'lost' me at passport control. What is it with Americans? Dare I say it as my visits have only been at airports, but they have been so stereotypical. Back in October I was stunned to see teenagers so large that they had to be driven to the departure gates! And this time, an American who simply could not understand why I was moving to New Zealand! The passport control conversation went a little like this:
'Good morning, where is your destination after Canada?'
'Good morning, New Zealand'.
'Why are you going there?'
'Because my girlfriend is a Kiwi'.
'What is a Kiwi?'
'Well, someone who comes from New Zealand'.
'And when are you going home?'
'I am not, I will live in New Zealand'.
'Why?'
'Well because me girlfriend is a Kiwi, I mean comes from New Zealand'.
'But after that, when will you go home?'
'No New Zealand will be my new home'.
'Why?'

And so it went on, I simply answered his questions straight, but he was just not getting the answers he either wanted or understood. It was so hard not to start becoming sarcastic and rude. He was so ignorant to the possibility of moving country. And he worked in passport control! Unreal. Debs was very quick to calm me down telling me, correctly, never to upset an American passport control person, they have a surprising amount of power to just turn you around if they do not like you!!

Anyway, safely arriving in Toronto, we were greeted at the airport by Lia. Lia and Mike and their gorgeous energetic daughter Anna, were to kindly put us up while we stayed in Toronto. And much to our delight, the cold spell of -20C had recently passed, and an unseasonably warm +15C was hanging around. That afternoon we were in our running shorts and jogging along the river!! So much for needing to buy a down jacket the moment we arrived!

Before leaving Bogota, we bought a cuddly fluffy stuffed horse we named Carlos in anticipation of sweetening Anna to our stay with her. (And luckily for us when we bought it, we found out it was 2 for 1 day at the kids shop, so we got Carlos's twin and gave him to our host there Elena, as we knew she had a 4 year old neice. Apparently there is no chance of the neice ever receiving it, Elena fell in love with him at once and wanted to keep him as a reminder of our stay!) Anna also fell in love with Carlos, and many a happy hour was spent playing with both of them in the lounge to squeals of delight from Anna!

Toronto does not have a huge amount to offer the casual tourist, but getting to know Lia, Mike and Anna was a joy. Lia's cooking kept us very well fed, and the highlight of our brief stay was a trip to Niagara Falls, just an hour away. Impressive, very impressive, and my first proper glimpse of America at ground level. We got thoroughly soaked in the spray from the falls, but enjoyed it none the less.

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Moving on from Toronto fairly quickly, we headed further east to Quebec City via train, and so the start of my mammoth, in every sense of the word, birthday celebrations. 40? Seriously? Every who knows me, knows how immature I can be, and I want to stay a teenager in my mind as long as I can! Debs started as she meant to go on with much generosity and surprised me with first class train travel! Amazing what telling people it is your birthday can do; I got a free bottle of wine, and a complete kids play pack! Told you I was immature! 40? Seriously?

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We arrived in Quebec city in the dark of the eve of my birthday, St Patrick's Day. Unbeknownst to us was 2 things, firstly that the Red Bull Crashed Ice was taking place that night, (try You Tubing that one, crazy wipeouts as skaters race each othere down the frozen steep streets!) and secondly that Quebec City has a lot of Irish influence. And so after dropping our bags, in the most delightful guest house of our entire trip (more generosity from Debs!) we headed into the old part of Quebec City to have a look around. There were huge dumps of snow by the side of the roads, and the gloves were definately needed, but everyone was in good spirit, and we finished the night with a couple of beers, and flaming sambuca shots in the appropriately named St Matthew's Bar!

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The morning of my birthday was one to remember. (Other than being 40 of course! Seriously?) I managed a SKYPE phone call to my family over breakfast which in itself was a feast, the breakfast that is! And Debs had kindly got some anecdotes from family and friends from over the years to make me laugh and smile as they could not be with me on this day. Later, a lazy day of exploring the beautiful town along the banks of the St Lawrence river, and a cheeky birthday beer, all followed by a yummy meal at Le Lapin Saute restaurant. Rabbit is actually quite tasty!

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Monday morning we awoke to the pitter patter sound of not rain, but melting snow, the warm weather continuing. And so arriving at the Ice Hotel at 5.15pm, very excited about staying the night, we were disappointed, but I suppose not entirely surprised to see a notice saying that from 5pm that day, the hotel has had to close early for the season due to melting starting. Gutted! Thankfully they were expecting us as our UK mobile had not been turned on for a while, and their sympathy meant we at least got shown around for starters. The structure is incredible. Each year they try to better the one before, and it was stunning to walk around even if we were getting dripped on! There is a church there that sees many weddings over the winter, complete with ice altar and pews, and a bar with its own ice slide! The rooms were equally impressive, with raised beds, yes, still ice, but with plenty of blankets.

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While this is something I particularly wanted to experience, I sensed Debs was quite glad when they said we were to be put up in a 5 star hotel nearby as compensation (as well a full refund, how kind!) And so after our initial disappointment, we made sure we enjoyed the evening and my birthday in style, warm style! A swim, a sauna, a paid for 3 course meal, and a bedroom suite so large, we got to choose which bed to sleep in! We went for the one in the loft!

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Next day we headed out into the country and stopped to try our hands, I mean feet, at snowshoeing. Lots of fun, and again so warm that we finished in only t-shirts! We soon got the hang of it, and thoroughly enjoyed the tranquility around the frozen lake (when we weren't snowbombing each other or being pushed into the deep, un-compacted snow).

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That night we stayed in a quaint small town called Baie St Paul. We awoke to blocks of ice slowly flowing down the river and could not resist going for a run, cold though it was.

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Taking the train back to Montreal, we looked up a good friend we met on our travels in Bolivia. Marie kindly put us up and we had lots of fun, along with her housemate Anya, exploring the city.

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Montreal has a good vibe, a fun atmosphere and we would have liked to stay longer. Again the warm temperature stayed, and after finding somewhere that sold South American empanadas once again for old time's sake, we enjoyed the first BBQ of the season with Marie and friends, as well as playing frisbee and trying Marie's hula hoop in the park!

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Back briefly to check that Anna had been looking after Carlos in Toronto, and to say goodbye to Lia and Mike's warm hospitality, we start, what was for me (and for Debs too, although she might not like to admit it) the highlight of Canada this time around: a 5 day train journey across the length of Canada. A birthday present of huge proportions, and one to savour and remember for years to come.

Although a bit last minute, taking this train is something I had dreamed of to get across Canada. In my mind the best way to see the country - so much better than flying. This legendary 5 day epic 4,466km journey actually travals across 3 time zones!

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We had a cozy little room with a bunk bed, and our own toilet and sink. Very private, and only a couple of carriages away from the last one which was a high glass domed carriage giving unrestricted panoramic views. Being able to see forward above the train, was new to me, and I loved sitting upstairs taking in the changing countryside.

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As with all long journeys with the same people for the whole way, you get to chat lots and get to know them pretty well which made the trip all the more enjoyable. There were many different people from different countries, but it was great to see so many Canadians enjoying their country too. And then the food. They managed 3 sittings per meal from a tiny kitchen, and we were immensely impressed both with the quality and the selection. Eating so well whilst travelling through the countryside was a real highlight.

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We passed through 3 main landscapes. Initially upon leaving Toronto, the train heads north and into the cold, before turning west through a landscape full of frozen lakes, in the Ontario province. This frozen landscape also continued through the next province of Manitoba where a long stop in Winnipeg gave us time to go for a morning run, much to surprise of our fellow passengers! Next was the vast open prairies of the province of Saskatchewan with little to see other than the odd beaver building its dam, but still very beautiful by their flat emptiness. And finally we awoke in the dark early hours to a blizzard in Edmonton as we progressed through Alberta and into British Colombia for the highlight, the Rockies mountain range. The blizzard had passed by mid morning, and soon the blue sky could be seen for a stunning day of viewing the snow covered mountains. Strange to imagine that this mountain range passes down the length of northern America, and then down the spine of South America as well, where not long ago, we were enjoying the views in Patagonia!

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Before we knew it, we were back in Vancouver and this time staying with a Couchsurfing host, Dean. Always a bit of a gamble saying yes to an area or part of a city you do not know. But we struck gold here, Dean's appartment was right in the centre, on the 8th floor, and spotless. We had a corner room with 2 walls being floor to ceiling windows! Dean was incredibly generous, and we loved chatting to him and learning the rules of curling, his winter pastime, and softball, his summer pastime!

Our last day included another walk around Stanley Park...

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...before heading to the airport for the long flight down across the Pacific, to Deborah's homeland, New Zealand. Our incredible, amazing and completely awesome adventures complete....

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Posted by DebandMatt 14:02 Archived in Canada Tagged travel train montreal quebec toronto falls canada vancouver niagara via across Comments (1)

Colombia

Mountains, beaches, jungle, cloud forest, quaint towns and cosmopolitan cities.

After a smooth flight enjoying watching the Amazon river snake its way through the forest below us, we start our time in Colombia in Bogota, couchsurfing with Elena, a Bogatano who has a great sense of fun and a fantastic circle of friends, who quickly become our friends too.

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We spend a couple of days checking out Bogota – both the touristy old city, up on the hill at Monserrate (where we got hailed on), and the areas where more of the locals live. We sample Colombia’s culinary delights at a food market that had set up outside the cathedral - stewed meat with yukka, plantain and salted potatoes, lulo, a fermented rice drink (which was a massive ‘yuk’ for me while M thought it rather tasty...), meringue, passionfruit curd, Colombian coffee and rice pudding with red fruits – yum yum!

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We are introduced to Tejo, Colombia’s national sport where you throw a lead weight at a box of clay containing small packets of gunpowder. The objective being to hit the gunpowder and make it go ‘bang!’. The danger element being heightened by payment for lane rental being made in the purchase of beer. M is in his element here and just gets better as the beer flows and the group starts chanting ‘Matthew, Matthew, Matthew, Matthew’ every time M takes up his tejo ready for a throw. M is the star of the show and is even complimented on his technique by one of the old boys playing in the next lane!

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And we get to see the party side of Bogata with a night out with Elena, Dario and Dimitrio at the Teatron. The aguadiente flowed and OMG can these boys and girls dance - salsa, techno, reggeton, no matter what, they can shake to it, and we had a good go at keeping up!

Next up was Villa de Leyva, a beautiful colonial town with a peaceful countryside hostel. Nearby sites included a massive fossil of an old swimming dinosaur...and ‘Colombia’s Stonehenge’ nearby.

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We discovered these attractions by bicycle and also found a bodega selling feijoa wine – yum! And then I found the feijoas themselves – more yumminess!! We were joined by Amanda (an American couchsurfing lady we had met while playing tejo) on a beautiful morning walk up to a nearby waterfall and onto the viewpoint over the town.

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San Gil gave me the chance to do a tandem paraglide. Soaring and swooping like a bird over the vast Chicamocha Canyon was magical! (M had done a fair bit of solo paragliding before, so just came along to check out the canyon and take a few photos). Unfortunately the drive up to the canyon and back wasn’t so pleasant with all the twists and turns, and so for the evening's night bus journey over the same roads we grabbed some heavy duty motion sickness tablets that also knocked us out for most of the 12 hour journey!

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Up to Santa Marta and Taganga we had the chance to enjoy being beach bums by day and dancing away the nights to a live 11 piece carnival band from Belgium that was in the area after playing at the Barraquicha festival. We loved the vibe in Taganga. OK, it is touristy and the beach isn’t the best ever, but everyone was very chilled, the food was great (Baba Ganoush did the best fillet mignon with red wine jus) and rum and coke in the evening on the beachfront went down very well.

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Tayrona National Park was a little piece of paradise. Big boulders on the golden sand of windswept Caribbean beaches, jungle filled with butterflies and monkeys, sleeping to the sound of the surf crashing onto the beach and the wind whipping through the palms...

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We also ate some of the best seafood here – prawns in tamarind, which was a new taste sensation for M, and seabass in a crust of plantain, yum! We also had a very sweaty hike through the jungle and clambering over and around massive boulders to Peubolito, a ruined city of the Tayronan people which was really quite impressive, even more so as we were the only people there! We then continued our hike another couple of hours onto the road, seeing some massive spiders and a snake on the way. This worried us a little as night fell and our last 30mins of hiking was done in the dark with head torches and the moon to keep us from treading on any of the nastier creatures. The jungle takes on quite a different mood as darkness falls, so many new sounds! But we were fine and were back to Taganga just before our local roast chicken restaurant closed for the night for a massive meal.

Onto Cartagena where our first impressions of a chaotic, grubby and sprawling town gave way to the charms of the old, walled city. Beautiful colonial buildings are sealed within the walls to keep the sea spray of the wild Caribbean sea out. Wandering around the city walls is a delight with the cooling breeze moderating the otherwise scorching heat of this city. I check out the modern art museum and the much better Oro and Zanu museum which tells not only about the history of gold in Colombia, but about the Zanu people and how they changed a large area of Colombia through digging well thought out irrigation channels to keep their crops and houses above water in times of flood and prevent drought devastating their crops too. My cravings for spice were tempered by a tiny indian restaurant and we had a delightful night in Cafe Havana sipping mojitos while a live band played some of my favourite cuban tunes. We explored one of the many local Forts....with its tunnels and turrets, got a little lost and found ourselves wandering through the back streets of Getesmani where the locals had pulled their chairs out onto the street to relax, chat to their neighbours and enjoy the evening breeze.

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Back up on the city walls Cafe del Mar was pumping out techno beats and as prices were also imitating Ibiza we hung out on the fringes of this open air bar with ice cream and our own drinks to dance and enjoy all that this bar had to offer, but on the budget of two increasingly skint travellers.

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An overnight bus takes us to Medillin which is back up in the mountains and has a beautiful spring-time climate - M is very happy with that! We use the cable car that is part of the public transport to see the city from the air, zipping up and down the hills and over houses (some are shacks clinging onto the hillsides).

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And we discover the yummy fruit salad in papaya/watermelon juice sold on roadside stalls which is the perfect healthy snack to combat the many '4 carbs' meals we've found ourselves eating. Also a visit to the botanical gardens is a highlight with a Butterfly House showing us even more stunning species of these beautiful creatures.

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Our bus to Manizales resembles a rollercoaster, but our manic driver somehow gets us there without incident. Phew. We stay at the mountain house hostel (highly recommended!), head out on the town with some fellow travellers, sample the local rum (way too easy to drink!) and chat to a few locals.

Next on our travels is staying in the mountains in Solento, a beautiful small town surrounded by coffee plantations, farms and with the Cocora Valley just down the road. Our first night is out on a farm where we spot fireflies in the fields, chat to our hostess Luz Angela in spanish and are woken early by the builders...luckily an early start is needed to get us up into town ready for our coffee plantation tour. Finca Don Eduardo is a small, organic coffee plantation where the weeding was all done by hand and the land was planted in layers with tall bamboo and bananas, then citrus and coffee, and pineapple lower down. We see the full coffee process, from the ripe fruit through to dried and roasted bean, and then we get to sample the freshly produced and ground coffee - Wow!! Even M enjoyed it! Buzzing, we head out to the Cocora Valley with Laura and Darra. Wet, but so beautiful!

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On our way back to Bogota, what we thought would be an inevitable robbery at some point on the trip, nearly happened. I took our two day bags onto the bus with me while M took the big backpacks to place in the hold. I take two seats near the front of the bus and am told they are occupied. The guy who has told me this grabs M's bag and heads towards the back of the bus. He shows me to two new seats and places M's bag above my head and reaches for mine. I decline and keep it with me, but in the barrage of spanish forget that M's bag is above my head rather than next to me. M gets on board and clocks that his bag is above my head but is more preoccupied with asserting his authority over the guy he thinks is having a go at chatting me up. Next thing we know, only seconds later, is M's bag appears at the front of the bus, held up by a security guard...It seems that the bag was wrapped in a red coat and escorted off the bus right under our noses, we assume by an accomplice. Luckily a security guard thought it unlikely that a Colombian would have a fancy green and grey Rohan day bag on his back and stopped him as he left the station! We're promptly had to get off the bus, grab our bags out of the hold and head to the police station where we were asked to ID the thief...but it's not the guy we're expecting and my 'police spanish' isn't up to much. They want us to say this guy took our bag, but we can't say it was him - we've never seen him before. And weirdly he's right there eyeballing us across the room. The police ask us to discuss the matter with him...what we would discuss and how I don't know... A couple of hours later and with the promised CCTV still not being available we've decided to call it a day. Using google translate 'Lord Matthew' has signed a statement saying he can't proceed any further...

By 10pm we are finally in Bogota. Elena takes our mind off the mornings events and takes us out to a friends birthday drinks. Sunday sees a relaxed brunch, lots of chatting, elevenses (well afternoon tea actually...) and helping Elena work out that she may just be able to travel to India and Egypt - it is easy to forget just how lucky we are to have citizenship of westernised countries and the opportunities that affords us. We have an amazing last supper with Elena, Dario, Domitrio and Carlos - which they sneakily pay for while M uses the bathroom taking the money with him...So we take them out for 80's style cocktails ;-) The goodbyes are sad - we never expected such generosity, hospitality and warmth and really hope to see our Bogatano friends again! Muchas gracias amigos!!

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Posted by DebandMatt 22:47 Archived in Colombia Tagged villa santa de bogota cartagena marta taganga san_gil leyva tayrona_national_park tejo Comments (0)

A brief visit to Uruguay and back to Buenos Aires

We return to Buenos Aires and visit Colonia and Montevideo in Uruguay before flying up to Colombia

After a whole day on the bus from Bariloche, we're happy to be back on our feet and in Buenos Aires. We meet up with Fabiana who has grabbed our bags from Carlos's apartment (although we later discovered that a few items including M's dancing shoes and my contact lenses had fallen out of the bags and were still under the bed...) and head over to Gustavo's apartment for pizza and a night in. Gustavo is an amazing host and we chat a fair portion of the night away :) This visit to BA doesn't see so much tango, but more bars, clubs and some great art at MALBA - especially the exhibition of Carlos Cruz-Diez's work!

It's a short boat ride over to Colonia and well worth the trip for the stunning sunset and peaceful ambiance of the town set on the banks of the estuary. There is a quaint little lighthouse to climb and lots of beaches to chill on. Our evening meal is accompanied by some very pleasant Uruguayan wine and we are serenaded by three classical guitarists :)

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Montevideo is a city, so not so peaceful. In fact as we walk through the old part of town down to the waterfront, a mad old man takes a dislike to us and starts throwing stones. Luckily, he's a bad shot! Down at the waterfront people are fishing and chilling as the waves crash against the sea walls. We stay for the sunset and then trundle back to our guesthouse - using the main roads this time!

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And before we know it, it's time to jump on our plane to Colombia...with a brief overnight stop in BA where we catch up with Gustavo, try traditional BA pizza and then head back to the airport in the early hours...

Posted by DebandMatt 04:01 Archived in Uruguay Tagged uruguay colonia montevideo Comments (1)

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