We left Rio early and boarded the flight to Lima where we had to change to arrive in Cusco around 7 hours later. What was annoying is that in Lima (which was clouded in depressing grey fog) we had to collect our bags, re-check in and go through security rather than just a straight transfer. An hour and a tiny wobbly plane later we flew into a sunny, colourful Cusco.
The airport is really small and seemingly just built near adorable little houses that line the hilly mountains. We were met by a transfer as we are planning to stay here for 5 weeks to learn Spanish and volunteer so had pre-arranged accommodation with the language school (which I will do a future post on).
The tiny taxi beeped its way past half-finished buildings, cobbled pavements and women in traditional Peruvian style clothes holding baby llamas. The thing that struck me straight away is that there are no skyscrapers or gleaming shiny high rises. Everything seems to be made in traditional stone and no higher than a few floors. It sort of reminds me of Nepal but much much nicer as for some reason I did not enjoy that place!
They are very proud of the Inca heritage and there are numerous museums dotted around as well as ornate stonework in this style. It is a world away from the cosmopolitan craziness of Rio as although the traffic is pretty manic here they seem to live very relaxed lifestyles with food, family and rest high on their agenda.
It was pretty strange how as soon as night falls most people retreat into the relative warmth of their houses/beds (as it is so cold here). At first we were wondering if we were missing out on something but after talking to a lot of other backpackers here it’s just that people get up early and go to bed early, especially if you are on a budget and can’t be dining out or clubbing every night. We don’t have any Wi-Fi where we are staying hence the random timings of my blog posts but this digital detox is both a positive and negative. It means proper sleep, great long conversations and less pressure to keep up with the Joneses but when I do find a good Wi-Fi connection I turn into some crazed crack addict whoops!
Did I also mention how cold it is here? Even in the blinding daytime sun there is a chill especially being so high up in the world. Both the icy temperatures and altitude sickness are nothing like I have ever experienced before. I will post on this in the future as it has been a battle to overcome both these things let me tell you!
After so much walking around Rio, adjusting to the heat and time difference we wanted to spend a day soaking up some rays on a Brazilian beach. The only question was which one? Even in low season it seems all the beach sellers swarm to Copacabana beach and make it their mission to harass you as often as possible. We were there for just ten minutes and had 8 different guys come up to us trying to sell us tatt so we soon made a swift exit to find a more relaxing haven.
This place was Urca bay. Just on the other side of Copacabana but a world away from insistent pedlars. This tiny golden sand cove is surrounded by hilly mountains nestled just under Sugar Loaf Mountain so as you sunbathed you would gaze up at the trundling cable cars. It was practically deserted when we arrived apart from the odd guy in uniform taking in the rays on their break as there is a large military school nearby making it feel extra safe there.
First on the agenda, as it is on some of the best days out, was to grab a bite to eat. Being such a small quiet area there were no cafes or shops just small beach carts selling drinks and snacks. We joined the queue at the busiest one behind the locals (always a good sign that it sells great grub) and just pointed to what the lady in front of us ordered, not having a clue what it was but it smelt fab.
The silver haired chef dived into numerous silver boxes and began to create a hotdog packed with onion, cheese, guacamole, relish, thin chips, and cream all topped with a quails egg. It was delicious and cost about a pound!
Padding on the soft warm sand we laid out our sarong (Giovanna told us that no Brazilian would ever go to the beach with a towel) and sat down to people watch as we ate. At times I didn’t know where to put my eyes as bums in thongs were everywhere. From pert and cellulite free (I know!) to enormous saggy bottoms it seemed that every derrière was on show with just dental floss bikini bottoms to cover up.
The water was so much calmer here than on Copacabana and so inviting but as soon as we dipped our toes in we soon understood why there wasn’t loads of people swimming. IT WAS SO FREAKING COLD! We forced ourselves to edge in but every new wave was like an electric shock of ice even in the strong midday sun. Eventually we braced ourselves and swam about but that was partly because we couldn’t feel our limbs anymore.
After finally stopping shivering on the sand we spent the rest of the afternoon snoozing and chatting. As our skin turned pink and the blood flowed once more in our legs we reluctantly packed up our things to head home promising that we would be back to this beautiful bay.
I know I know usually this kind of thing bores the pants off me especially as I am by no means green fingered or big on what’s going down in the horticultural world but some guys at the hostel had told us about this place and we thought sod it lets give it a go, and do you know what I am so glad we did.
It also meant our first experience of a Rio bus to get there. Imagine a dusty busy road add a clapped out noisy tin can bus, increase the speed and sweat levels and you get the idea. We literally jumped on as the driver stopped for a nanosecond and continued cutting in the tiniest spaces not batting an eyelid. We had to try and pass through a turnstile once we had paid the bored gum chewing teen conductor our cash as well as hold on as it sped along winding in and out of angry traffic.
Thankful to get off in one piece we stumbled into the calming oasis of the jardin botanic. Our ears were filled with exotic birdsong, monkey calls and people laughing. The lush green ceiling of leaves shaded our sun scorched skin in the stuffy heat and we walked through in a state of calm smelling perfumed plants and following winding paths around the place.
Sitting in an old veranda to eat our lunch we were quickly joined by a noisy group of Brazilian teenager school kids crowding round and staring at us. There goes the moment of tranquillity. However, as we got ready to leave in true grumpy old men fashion one of them asked if they could take a photo with us! Apparently the loud giggling girls were really excited to have a photo with an English person and within seconds we were shoved in for a group shot on numerous iPhone’s as their harassed looking teacher apologised for taking up our time. They were so lovely and made us feel like mini celebs we were happy to stay and try and talk to them.
There is more to see than just some pretty plants including an orchid centre, large greenhouse of rare medicinal plants, waterfalls, enormous palm trees possibly the highest I have ever seen, cheeky monkeys swinging through the trees over your heads, a huge collection of cactuses (cacti?) and large lakes with fat lazy fish swimming under face-sized lily pads. There is also a café and gift shop but both were quite pricey so we left a few hours later hoping to grab a drink by the heart shaped lagoon we had been during the free walking tour.
Well that was the plan but after making a few wrong turns and not understanding how huuaaggee this lake is we had walked for over an hour and still hadn’t done a complete circuit! We eventually fell into the bar that looks over the water which was so cool for school and had a cocktail list to die for before it slowly dawned on us that they didn’t open for another hour. By that point I would have drank the lagoon water I was so thirsty, so we cut our losses and headed back to have cocktails in the hostel with a lovely French couple. Sometimes it is easier to go with the flow!
A trip to Rio is surely not complete without getting to see this dude who spends his days watching over the city.
We took the underground to Largo de Marchado where there is a little kiosk selling tickets to get a minibus up the mountain taking in hairpin bends and awesome views to get to the steps of Christ the Redeemer.
You can also take the tourist tram which is more expensive and slower but this was out of service when we got there so bus it was. Clomping up the stone steps in the afternoon heat was a sad sign of our crap levels of fitness but pausing to slurp water overlooking Rio made up for our poor stamina!
We went on a Wednesday in the low season so there were hardly any crowds that I had anticipated for although you had to duck a couple of times as strangers thrust out their arms in the Christ pose. Of course we had to join in and almost took out a Brazilian guy’s eye in the process whoops!
For such an iconic tourist trap I was expecting more information on how the statue was created and actually got up the Corcovada mountain but there was just the odd sign telling you not to sit on the ledge (duh).
After a few more snaps and a coke at the little café on the way back down we made our way back to solid land. It was worth the visit but it didn’t have that wow factor that I experienced when I saw the taj mahal (there were no tears this time!).
It cost us 41rs (entry and return minibus) which is around £10 each. If you are ever in Rio then this is a must and another thing for us to tick of the travel bucket list! :)
Free walking tour is exactly what it says on the tin and is a popular scheme in loads of cities across the globe. It is free although tips are expected and you give what you think it was worth a concept, I struggle with as watching the pennies mean we can’t be over generous but don’t want to be a scrooge either!
As we had just arrived I made us tag along on one to help us find our bearings in the city as well as learn some insider info we wouldn’t have known otherwise. Our guide was a very energetic lady called Giovanna who was Brazilian with the cutest English accent and apologised for her pronunciation of the word beach.
We set off on the three hour tour taking in Copacabana beach, Ipanema beach, Lagoa lagoon and sights along the way including the famous Copacabana Palace Hotel, iconic black and white wave pavement and the bar where the guy wrote the song ‘Ipanema Girl’ which I can’t get out of my head!
She told us all about life in the favelas, cheap ways to see the famous attractions, how proud the Brazilians are of their caipirihina cocktail which started life as a flu medicine and how the city changed to gear up for the world cup such as introducing fines for dropping litter, which has remained as well as the large police presence which makes this place feel super safe.
At the end we sat down to watch the sun set over the heart shape lagoon and shared a picnic of local delicacies including brigadeiro which is a sweet gooey chocolate and sweet tea. Apparently this is an essential for all heartbroken Bridget Jones type Brazilian women who grab a bag of these than a tub of ice cream.
I would really recommend joining one of these tours even if it happens in your home city as I bet you will learn things you didn’t know before plus its free!*
Have you ever joined a walking tour?