South America’s 8 Must Visit Places…

My love of travel began back in the year 2000, and in the past seven years since then I have traveled to countless places, had numerous adventures and made many memories.  Over time the details of these trips can begin to blur and the emotion and excitement originally felt can fade into a distant memory. However my experiences in South America are made up of rare moments that I will hold in my heart forever.

It is a continent of magic, enchantment, inspiration & love and somewhere which evokes a great sence of wanderlust within me.  Though I have traveled there extensively it is a place I always long to return to and on trips back I have always had the feeling of my soul somehow coming home.  For me, that’s the bewitching allure of travel, and the thing that always drives me to keep exploring new corners of the world.

So here is my list of South America’s 8 must visit places… May they be as awe-inspiring for you as they were for me!

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1 – Cycle the ‘Road of Death’ in Bolivia.

‘The Road of Death’ is a twisting 80km mountainside trail, considered the world’s most dangerous road. Get a major adrenaline rush as you dodge trucks and local filled buses while admiring the incredible views of the sweeping mountains.

2 – Visit the Amazon Forest.

Bolivia’s ‘Las Pampas’ is one of the lesser visited areas of the amazon where you can get up close and observe capybara, monkeys and caimens in their natural habitat.  Plus hike through the forest, fish for piranha and swim with pink dolphins.

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3 – Samba Dance Around Colourful Brazil.

A visit to Brazil any time between Christmas and mid-February guarantees you a party as they prepare for, or celebrate, the famous Carnival. From Rio de Janiero’s Bloco Parties & Sambadrome, to all-night beach parties in Bahia, or the soulful drum beats of street parties in Salvador.

4 – Dance the Tango in Buenos Aires.

Explore Buenos Aires, the city of colour, vibrancy and romance offering incredible food & wine, beautiful architecture, fascinating culture and of course tango dancing.

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5 – Experience the Power of the Iguazu Falls.

A cascade of hundreds of waterfalls emerging from the jungle in a powerful mass over the Brazilian & Argentinian boarders.  Explore the falls by boat ride or walk up to ‘The Devils Throat’ and see views from the top of the biggest fall.

6- Get Lost in Bolivia’s Salt Desert.

Uyuni’s salt desert was once a great lake that dried into giant mysterious salt flats.  Stretching as far as the eye can see the white of the salt reflects light in an amazing way, making it appear like you are walking through the clouds.

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7 – Hike to the Ancient Aztec City of Machu Picchu.

Walk along Peru’s ancient Inca Trail which winds through mountains peaks, cloud topped forests and old Aztec ruins to finish at the ancient city of Machu Picchu.   

8 – Explore Hidden Islands on Lake Titicaca.

For an off the beaten track experience take an over-night trip to the hidden islands on Lake Titicaca.  Hike across the island by day and stay in family run guest houses by night to see beautiful views of natures and experience local life.

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A Weekend in Bogota – City Guide

The final destination on our Colombian adventure this summer was Bogota.

The city’s not so great reputation originally left us considering a one day stop over however after hearing the rave reviews from other travelers we decided to extend our visit to a full weekend and it turned out to be such a great decision.  Though Bogota can be a dangerous city if you don’t keep your wits about you, it is also artsy and colorful, with graffiti covering the buildings, creative restaurants, boutique shopping and cool culture.  The streets are bustling with vitality and the abundant architecture, museums and city life means there is so much to discover.

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Day One

Morning… Gold Museum & Colonial Architecture.

Begin your Bogota adventure at the ‘Museo del Oro’.  Voted one of the continents best museums it houses a collection of thousands of beautiful gold jewellery, animal carvings and trinkets all dating back to Colombia’s per-colonized indigenous period.

Afterwards, head up the main street ‘Carrera 7’ until reaching Plaza Bolivar.  This pigeon filled square houses four important architectural buildings: the Houses of Congress, City Hall, the Supreme Court and Cathedral Primada.  Afterwards stroll around the twisting streets of La Candelaria which are filled with colonial and cultural buildings, artsy plazas, cool shops and student bars.  Be like a local and stop for a glass of Chica (an indigenous beer made from corn) in one of the student bars on ‘Calle del Embudo’.

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(plaza bolivar)

Lunch… Try one of the local eateries dotted throughout La Candelaria.  We loved the set lunch menu of Cafe Cultural Tres Gatos which served filling, tasty, home cooked food.

Afternoon… Bogota Graffiti Tour

Most of Bogota’s buildings are covered in colorful murals and the city has is a huge street art culture so taking the Bogota Graffiti Tour is a must.  The tour is free (donations recommended) and guides, involved in the graffiti art scene, take you on a two and a half hour walk around La Candelaria, pointing out work from a selection of top artists and explaining political and historical references and technical details.  Make sure to bring your camera because their is so much to see!

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(bogota graffiti mural)

After the tour stop off in Ricardo Corazón de Papel, a book binding studio and shop who hand make beautiful, creative notebooks and diaries.  A must souvenir shop for stationary lovers!

Dinner… Local Beers and Tasty Steaks

Beer lovers have to visit La Candelaria’s ‘Bogota Beer Company‘ for pre-dinner drinks to sample their selection of locally brew beers.  Afterwards head down the street to T-Bone to try incredible steaks and red wine in a candle lit setting.

Day Two

Morning… Paloquemao Market

Spend the morning strolling around the sprawling Paloquemao Market where exotic fruits, vegetables and flowers are sold by local vendors.  Be prepared to discover colorful fruits we never even see in Europe and try some of the exotic offerings at one of the markets juice bars.

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(exotic fruit market)

Afternoon… Monseratte & Botero Museum

Take a break from the city’s chaos by climbing up to visit the Monseratte Church, perched on a 10,000 foot mountain overlooking the city.  It is possible to walk the 1.5 mile pilgrimage path leading up to the church or take a cable car.  From the top you can see incredible views of the city sweeping into the distance.

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(views from monseratte church)

Afterwards head back into La Candelaria and visit the Botero Museum in the free General Bank Museum Complex.  The museum houses a huge collection of chubby statues and paintings by Colombia’s most famous artist Fernando Botero.

Dinner… Andres Carne de Res

Finish up your Bogota experience with the cities most incredible site – the restaurant of Andres Carne De Res.  Think Alice in Wonderland and Moulin Rouge combined into an indescribable dream like world where costumed characters dance on tables, theater shows happen in the lifts, live bands and confetti throwers perform around the restaurant and anything really can happen.  It’s a magical atmosphere and the food is incredible! The menu is a 70 page magazine offering Colombian cocktails, cheeses, wines and streaks so be sure to go hungry and stay until the early hours for a party like no other.

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(performer at andres carne de res)

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7 Must-Do’s in Cartagena…

Cartagena is an UNESCO World Heritage site located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and is considered one of South America’s top colonial destinations, alongside Cuzco and Ouro Preto.

Though the most touristy place we visited in Colombia, the city has a lot to offer and I was drawn to promises of cobbled streets, sunny plazas and bougainvillea covered houses.  The magic of the old town conjures up feelings of romance, mystery and inspiration and our two nights spent here were filled with exploring the maze-like streets, photographing the beautiful architecture and drinking coffee in leafy plazas.

If you are planning to visit Colombia, a stop off in Cartagena is highly recommended.  Here are my 7 must-do’s while visiting the city…

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1 – Walk Along the City Walls.  Cartagena’s Old Town lies inside its 13km long city walls constructed in the 16th century to protect the city after attacks from Sir Francis Drake.  The walls are still well preserved and its possible to walk nearly all the way around, providing views into the old town on one side and the ocean on the other.

2 – Wander Around the Old Town.  The best way to visit Cartagena’s old town is to simply wander around and see what you discover.  As well as impressive architecture and cute cafes there is so much life in Cartagena’s streets so enjoying taking in the kids playing footballs, the fruit vendors wearing traditional dress or the families playing cards outside their houses.  There is always something exciting going on no matter what time of day or night!

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(cartagena’s cathedral covered with work from local artists)

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(flower filled balconies)

3 – Photograph the Bougainvillea Covered Balconies.  Almost all the houses in Cartagena’s old town have flower filled balconies spilling out into the street.  The colors create a beautiful, vibrant atmosphere and provide some great photo opportunities.

4 – Check Out Some Amazing Street Art.  Incredible street art adorns the walls around the cool neighborhood of Getsemani.  Still part of the old town, though outside the city walls, Getsemani has a more raw, gritty feel with colorful graffiti covering most of the walls.  Join the free Street Art Tour leaving each morning at 10am or walk around alone and see what you discover.

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(getsemani street art)

5 – Try Some Street Food.  Cartagena has a reputation for serving some of the best street food in Colombia and it’s specialty is Arepas – a deep fried bread made from maize and stuffed with cheese, egg or meat.  For something more healthy you can find fruit vendors all over the city.  Recognizable for their colorful, traditional dress they sell all kinds of fresh, delicious, exotic fruits.

6 – Soak Up the Shopping.  If you love bohemian fashion then shopping in Cartagena is definitely a must.  There are street stalls and boutiques all over the old city selling colorful jewellery, sandals and bags.  Make sure to check out Casa Abba Boutique for some unique accessories and clothes made by amazing Colombia’s designers.

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IMG_6693.jpg(casa abba gallery boutique)

7 – Find Local Life Depicted in Scrap Metal.  If you want to learn about local life, check out the series of statues dotted around the plazas of the old town.  The statues are made to represent the daily life of the Cartagenians with fruit vendors, shoes shiners, dominoes matches and guitar players all made of scrap metal.

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After ten days relaxing on the secluded San Bernardo Islands we loved the vibrancy and color we found in our two night stop over in Cartagena.  Have you ever visited Cartagena? Let me know what you thought in the comments below…

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How to Travel the San Bernardo Islands like a Pro…

San Bernardo is an archipelago of ten islands forming half of Colombia’s ‘PNN Corales del Rosario and San Bernardo’ and are situated two hours off the coast of Cartagena in the Caribbean sea.

The islands are a well known destination for holidaying Colombians however are pretty off-the-beaten track for the regular tourist trail.  While planning our trip to Colombia this summer I kept coming across mentions of them from backpacker friends but could find little information about them online.  All I knew was that they were secluded islands with paradise beaches and off the beaten track – exactly what I was looking for!

I read traveler forums which suggested staying on the main land in Cartagena or Tolu and visiting the islands on a boat tour.  The tours spend the day island hopping, finishing up on Isla Murcura for lunch and sunbathing time, before taking you back to the mainland before evening.

Following the crowds and organized tours aren’t really my vibe.  And I wanted to spend at least a week on the islands not one day.  So we decided to break away and visit the islands our own way.  Organization was a little difficult but the adventure meant we got to stay longer, bond with the locals and experience real island life.

Here is my guide to travel the San Bernardo islands like a pro…

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How to Get There…

From Cartgena take a two hour bus ride along the coast to Tolu.  (Side Note: Tolu makes a great place to spend the night if you want to see some authentic Colombia culture.)  From here jump on a morning boat tour visiting the San Bernardo Islands.  The tours last for a day but speak to your boat driver, explain where you want to be dropped off and schedule a day for them to come and collect you back.  It costs a little more for a ticket this way but the drivers are more than happy to oblige and its worth the extra cost to see the real beauty of the islands.

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(island vibes)

Where To Stay…

The main islands to sleep on are Isla Palma, Isla Tipitan or Isla Murcura and most of the accommodation options available are luxury resorts.  I much prefer hippie places with chilled out vibes, and after a lot of research I scouted out these three cool options.

Hostel Isla Murcura.   Our hostel of choice, we stayed here for ten days and loved it.  The hostel has a private beach and stilted cabanas overlooking the sea.  The bar and restaurant serve amazing food and the guys who work there are super cool.  There is no wifi so you can disconnect and spend the days swinging in hammocks and drinking fresh coconuts.

Casa En Nel Agua.  Located just off Isla Tipitan the hostel is build on stilts surrounded by sea and coral reefs.  This place looks cool if you want to stay somewhere totally unique.

La Playita Hostel.  Located on the more secluded Islas Furte this hostel is great if you want some adventure and action.  The hostel organize sufing, kite boarding and paddle boarding trips and offer private rooms, dorms and an open air restaurant and bar.

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(sunset views from hostel isla murcura)

What To Do…

Chill.  With no cars, roads or wifi there is little to do on the islands but chill, swing in hammocks and drink fresh coconuts.  Read books, journal, sunbath on white sand beaches and swim in crystal clear waters.

Discover the Beaches.  As well as our hostel’s private beach, Islas Murcura also has a public beach on the opposite side of the island.  Though it fills up with visiting tours over lunch the beach has a family fun vibe and come 3pm when the boat tours leave you will have the place all to yourself again.

Take a Night Time Plankton Tour.  Visit the mangrove lagoon on Isla Tipitan after dark and jump in the water to see the florescent plankton light up and glow around you.  It looks like your are surrounded by hundreds of tiny stars!

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(fishing and sunbathing on paradise beach)

What to Explore…

The Coral Reefs.  The islands are surrounded by coral reefs and it’s possible to see amazing marine life by snorkeling just off the island.  If you want something even more special organize a snorkel trip to ‘Chara’ an underwater gardens out at sea to view beautiful coral formations and groups of colorful fish.

The Coastline.  Isla Murcura is tiny and it’s possible get around the island pretty easily.  Go on foot to meet the locals and see the colorful shacks of the pueblo or rent a kayak and paddle around the islands for beautiful coastline views.  Bring a snorkel to see some fish or stop on the public beach for a coconut half way around.

Isla Sucre.  Neighboring island, Isla Sucre, is the most densely populated island on earth.  Its 350 sq m is occupied by 500 people who live in a mass of colorful shacks and concrete.  Explore the maze of alleyways weaving thought the community that is teaming with cooking smells, music, children playing, animals and generations of family living together.

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What To Eat…

Fresh Fish and Lobster Tails.   Head over to the public beach and try the delicious food being cooked up by the locals.  Choose from fish or lobster freshly caught and enjoy served with fried plantains, rice and salad.

Exotic Fruit Smoothies.  Visit the drink vendors on the public beach to sample delicious fruit smoothies freshly blended from fruits picked from the forest.  Choose guava, starfruit, passion fruit or mango – yum!

Local Seafood.  Befriend local fisherman and restaurant owner Joel who works on the far end of the local beach and organize a fresh seafood catch for dinner.  His home cooking is delicious and eating on the beach under the stars is a beautiful experience.

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What to Bring…

Money.  There are no banks or ATM’s on the islands so bring as much money as you need.

Snorkel and Mask.  The islands are surrounded by beautiful coral reefs and its not possible to rent snorkels on the island so make sure to bring one with you.

Sun Cream and Bug Spray.  Bring essentials like sun cream and bug spray with you from the main land.  There is a tiny shop in the Pueblo used by the locals but it isn’t always very well stocked so if you think you are going to need something, bring it with you.

Have you traveled to the San Bernardo Islands?  If you have any travel tips or fun experiences please share in the comments below…

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8 Reasons to Travel Colombia

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Since traveling around South America back in 2009 it has always been my dream to return to this magical continent and visit Colombia.

On our initial trip we chose to skip Colombia, feeling hesitant about the countries safely and political situation, and instead opted for the more central route of Peru, Bolivia, Brazil & Argentina.  I loved our trip and I would never wished to change it, but so many of the backpackers we met on route told us of the magic of Colombia and what incredible experiences they had there and the dream to explore Colombia was sparked in me.

This summer, nearly seven years after my first visit, we decided to finally make my Colombia dreams a reality.  We finished up work at the end of July, left our laptops at home and headed off on a three and a half week adventure that was one of the best experiences of my life.

It is an absolutely breathtaking place, full of colour, life, soul and some of the kindest people I have ever met.  Its a place of great contrasts, of poverty and wealth, creativity and corruption.  And it’s a place of awe-inspiring natural diversity with mountain ranges, amazon forest, cultural cities and Caribbeans beaches.  It is one of the best places I have traveled to, so I wanted to share 8 reasons to inspire you to travel to Colombia too…

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Unbelievable Bogota.

A city of contrasts, where anything really can happen, Bogota is exciting, lively, hectic and artsy.  Soak up culture in La Candelaria, see the cities creative side on a Graffiti tour, sample the incredible restaurants and bars or explore the markets and connect with the locals.  Bogota is a whirlwind that has so much to offer!

Beautiful Untouched Beaches.

Offering chilled Caribbean charm or rugged wilderness on the Pacific coast, Colombia’s beaches are a stunning mix of white sand, clear waters, coral reefs and aquatic wildlife.

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Some Incredible Coffee.

Colombia’s coffee is produced in the central ‘Zona Cafeteria’.  It’s lush, green landscape makes for some beautiful views and you can even have a relaxing stay in a Coffee Finca.  You can also find incredible coffee all over the country.  Try getting a freshly brewed cup from a street seller and drink it in a plaza watching the world go by.

It’s Home to the Kindest People.

Colombia’s are so friendly and kind.  They treat you like a family member and welcome you to their country with open arms.

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Inspirational Street Art.

Bogota’s legalization of graffiti in 2011 marked a creative boom for the city.  Sky scrapers, urban buildings and public walls are now the canvas space for street artists to express themselves and share their political viewpoints.  Everywhere you look, the city is an incredible mix of colors, patterns and murals.

Cultural Cartagena.

A World Heritage UNESCO Site, Cartagena is a colonial gem with cobbled streets, colourful houses, pretty plazas and a rich cultural offering of museums, churches and galleries.

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Diversity of Adventures.

Whatever type of adventure you like Colombia offers it all.  From sleeping in river-side lodges on Amazon excursions, climbing mountains in the Andes, trekking to the ancient Lost City or exploring one of the many National Parks, Colombia’s excitement and adventure comes in many forms.

Music & Dancing on Every Street Corner.

No matter where we were in Colombia there was always music booming from speaker systems and locals dancing together and having fun.  The energy for life is contagious and it’s one of the reasons why I love South America.

Have you ever traveled in Colombia? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below…

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