Well, in short we have been pretty busy over the last two weeks. After returning from our weekend in Bremen, we jumped in the car and drove to Den Haag (The Hague), in Holland to visit one of Kerstin’s university friends, Caro, who is working there on a placement in one of the EU ministries. The place surprised us and we enjoyed it, finding it modern and pleasant. It is set right on the coast and nearby has some nice long beaches, which at this time suit a good wrapped up walk along the beach. We missed out on the nightlife, being quite tired after the weekend, but from what we heard, Den Haag has a great deal to offer. It is also not Amsterdam, so you get to see a bit more of what “real” Holland is like! We had a nice time with Caro, who was kind enough to put us both up for the two nights and we vastly enjoyed chilling out drinking beers, playing cards and hanging out.
After returning from Holland we had a weekend here and then went on our scheduled trip to Berlin. Courtesy of Kerstin’s brother we had two nights in a suite staying in the Marriott on prestigious Potsdamer Platz. Our other two nights were to be spent in a hostel “roughing it”!
We went to Berlin by train. The drive, though direct, is a long 6 or 7 hours from Dortmund, and after driving back and fore to Holland, I didn’t fancy it. We struggled to find cheap train tickets to start with, but lucked out with 1st class tickets at bargain prices (cheaper than the standard priced tickets) and with a journey time of 3 hours and 15 minutes it seemed to be the best way to get there, since flights seem to have become exorbitant recently to go anywhere! The journey there was a pleasure and we travelled at an average 250kph (155mph – get that British Rail!) and we arrived sooner than we had expected into the famous Zoo station in the centre of Berlin.
We made our way to our hostel called “The Circus“, which is one of two by the same name. Ours was the smaller one on Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse and it was a really good hostel. It was quite quiet and had a mix of young interrailing types and some older budget travellers, which I guess we are ourselves! The place was very clean, although a bit of a maze, the staff were very helpful and if anything could be said to be annoying, it was the showers, since you have to keep pressing the button to keep the water flowing. Very environmentally friendly though – thumbs up!
Our first afternoon and evening was spent wandering around Prenzlauer Berg, the place to be for the more alternative back when the wall had just come down. It was part of what was then the Soviet sector, and then the former DDR, and many of the buildings retain that crumbling, failing, unattended look that summed up social communism under the former East German regime. More recently become the place to live, and is the more trendy and cool part of Berlin. Great bars, cheap good food, fantastic one off clothing shops, no big brands and cool clubs all permeate through this area, and must be visited!
For the next day, we had planned to do a walking tour of Berlin, and we planned to go with Brewers Walking Tours since they offered an afternoon tour which takes about 4 hours. Early in the morning I was sitting in the reception of the hostel and the guy who’s namesake is “Brewer’s Walking Tours”, the one and only Terry Brewer, walked in to pick up people for the all day tour. Twigging that it was Terry Brewer, someone I had heard was quite an institution in Berlin and almost one of the landmarks himself, I enquired about the afternoon tour. To cut a long story short, we ended up taking the all day tour and rushed to catch up the group outside the Jewish Synagogue. If you are doubting which tour to take, I’ll be plain and simple – take the all day tour with Terry Brewer! It is brilliant and you will not see everything in 4 hours! You can walk for 8 hours easy, you get to stop for food, and the pace is leisurely. We had a fantastic time and I cannot recommend it enough!
Terry takes the all day tour himself, and is extremely knowledgeable about the city, after being posted to Berlin during the cold war, where he promptly started to show friends and embassy staff around when they came to visit. You will be amused at how everyone in the street seems to know him, his knowledge of geography is awesome and how he is greatly entertaining and thoroughly British to the core. The presence of Kerstin, a native German, I think was enough to calm down his jokes about the Germans, but they were still quite apparent!
Berlin is truly a fascinating city. The fact that it was once a divided city is visible but much of that is starting to disappear under the weight of a dynamic and changing population. It has history popping out of every nook and cranny of its ancient foundations. From the Prussians, to the Third Reich, to the Cold War, Berlin has it all, and you feel the history in everything you see. You also feel the pain the city has gone through. Many of the buildings, especially in the former DDR are still war damaged, unfixed from 1945, when Berlin fell to the Russians, and the sight of shrapnel and bullet marked walls is quite evident in the older parts of the city.
Our next day was a big move into the Marriott and we had been looking forward to it, since we had a whole suite to ourselves. Kerstin’s elder brother, Jan, had gifted Kerstin with the stay last year, and we had been planning our trip for quite a while. The Marriott sits on Potsdammer Platz, in an area that is filed with high rise hostels and office blocks in the centre of Berlin, which ten years ago, did not exist. After the wall came down, the area where Potsdammer Platz is now had been the wall and the various barbed wire fences and minefields, but then once the wall fell, the cities architects found something quite unique. They found a large amount of prime real estate, in the centre of a major capital city, which they could plan and build on to their hearts’ content! And that they did. Potsdamer Platz is impressive, there is no doubt about that, but it is dry, and generally characterless. The hotel was fantastic and we lorded it up in the Executive Lounge, took full advantage of the pool and the sauna too. Be prepared though, as us British find it a bit weird when people walk into a sauna starkers, but in Germany, as with most other European nations, nudity in the sauna is as normal as Brits drinking pints of beer and taking the piss out of “the bloody French”!
We went shopping on the penultimate day, and I bought some new trainers (Adidas Chile 62) to those of you with trainer fetishes, and wondered around parts of the city we had skipped by on Terry’s Walking Tour, but wanted to see again. We sat out for quite a while and enjoyed the sun in Alexander Platz and then went back to the hotel before going out for a few drinks at one of Berlin’s many bars. We didn’t stay too late, and went back to the hotel knackered!
The last day was spent in Friedrichshain, the new place to be seen. All the alternative people that started off in Prenzlauer Berg, started complaining that the “trendies” had moved in and had started to do things like re-render the walls of the houses and put central heating in, so they skipped east and went to Friedrichshain. We spent the Sunday morning wondering around the flea market there and enjoyed seeing the various people wondering around there too. A lot of people look like traveller and squat types, most seemed to be not from Berlin, but then many people aren’t who live in Berlin. Mongrel dogs were aplenty and dope could be smelt wafting in the brisk Sunday morning autumn air.
We stayed as long as we could, before we took the U-Bahn back to the hotel and onto the Zoo, making the train with minutes to spare. We got some funny looks from the posher first class travellers, since I looked like I had just been to a squat party (hoody, unshaven, etc.), but jabbering on in English just seems to get me that look of “oh, he’s just British, scruffy yes, but just eccentric like all the Brits”, which is often how many Germans seem to see me!
Berlin retains an alternative energy compared to many cities I think. It has an air of rebellion, of anti-normality. It seems to pride itself on a people who are not followers, but individual and down to earth. The people we met were friendly and helpful and did not seem to have that snobbish attitude many Londoners seem to have. We loved it and look forward to going back. Many of the museums and galleries we missed and they all looked good. This visit was really just a taster I think!
The fat lady sang and the journey drew to finality. Buenos Aires was that fat lady and boy did she sing her heart out.
On the last day waiting for my flight back to the UK, I sat with Tim, Karen (who had met us in Bolivia on Isla Del Sol), Lisa from Ireland (who we had met in Ushuaia) and another Lisa who just came for a pint, and shared a beer in the little restaurant across the street from our hostel.
They asked me what were the best and worst parts of the trip, the highs and the lows, favourite countries and the people that I had met who I had liked (and disliked). Several things stood out and in no particular order, (well, marginally chronologically) they are as follows:
- Watching comedy masked wrestling, Mexican style in Mexico City.
- The amazing ruins of Mexico, including Teotichuan, Uxmal, Chichen Itza and my favourite – Palenque.
- Travelling around the Yucatan Peninsula with Franco, Elisa and Sophie in the Argentinian mean machine with Che Gueverra stamped on the back and Manu Chau playing over the stereo!
- The idyllic island of Isla Mujeres, where I spent two of the best weeks of my trip, and met some of the best people travelling, including Kerstin! The snorkelling on the reefs stands out as a great experience there. Poc Na Hostel gets a huge thumbs up. Joav and Gill stand out as two Israellis who are totally off their heads, but great fun. Joav drank mescal during the breaks between snorkelling, drinking through the snorkel, and Gill confessed that the state of Israel is essentially the same as Star Wars and he and all the other young people who had been in the army were actually Storm Troopers on call at short notice to fight against those pesky Jedis. No, believe me, I’m serious!!!
- Languishing in Antigua, Guatemala where I got real sick (bad), met some great people (good) and learnt a bit of Spanish, which then helped me to talk to other people aside from other travellers! Climbing the volcano of Pacaya stands out as a cool experience, especially peering down into the active crater of the volcano, and then the subsequent running down the scree on the side of the volcano. Being the only foreigner out of 600 people at Ingrid’s university graduation in Guatemala City. The experience of the chicken bus afterwards plus meeting her really cool boyfriend Jack was a great day out and a really interesting adventure.
- Lake Atitlan, Guatemala and the village of San Pedro, with its funny hippies left over from the sixties. Phrases such as “no man, you mean the Beatles have split up??”, and “fancy some space cakes today guys, there reeeeeal good”, spring to mind. Great breakfasts and one of the best fillet steaks outside Argentina in a fab restaurant run by a Dutch family are fondly remembered.
- Costa Rica’s brilliant sunsets every night from the hostel, and great hospitality from Conrad who sat with us and smoked Cubans all evening.
- The horrendous Panama airport, with the five christmas carols in Spanish, loud and on repeat for ten hours, which in conjunctiom with the luminescent overhead lights left us unable to sleep and ready for the looney bin. Chatting to an old Argentinian guy, who was living in Bolivia and in Panama for “business”, then caused us to have the most thorough check of our luggage that we had during our whole trip. Then being asked by the Head of Airport Security if “we know this man”, and then watching him getting searched. The sight of how he had three empty suitcases inside each other, no clothes and was blantantly a drugs mule was quite scary. We scarpered as soon as we landed in Bolivia and avoided him after that!
- Arriving in Bolivia to see Kerstin again and having a wonderful time travelling together. Poor Tim played gooseberry quite noblely!
- Experiencing the inside of the working Potosi silver mine with Tim saving my bacon (we don’t like to talk about it, but yes he did save my life!), plus blowing up plastic explosive and our amusing guides with the car that wouldn’t go uphill. Okay if you live in Holland, but not so good where the entire city is set against a moutainside at a 25 degree angle.
- Travelling in the 4×4 with Kerstin, Tim, Wouter and Linda plus our coca-leaf-chewing guide Louis around the Salar De Uynui. Possibly the most amazingly bold and expansive, beautiful and barren landscape I think I have ever seen. Shit hostels and no showers. Bathing in hot springs at 4,500 metres. Lakes of deep green and pink flamingoes. Tim banging his head on the door frames, made for the short Bolivians, 5 times before 8am, and the subsequent barrage if swearing that followed. Unmissable!
- First views of La Paz cupped in the hands of the surrounding mountains. The interesting coca museum, and our great hotel where we bargained a 90 dollar room down the 45 and a 80 dollar room down to 30. Culminating in a truely 5 dollar shower that was so desperately desired after the showers in most Bolivian hostels (the kind that heat the water electrically as the water passes through the shower head and electricutes you every time you try to adjust the temperature! Putting Kerstin on a plane to Argentina was a sad moment.
- Isla Del Sol in Lake Titicaca. One great walk that took a day to see the fabled birthplace of some of the most famous Inca royalty.
- Cuzco in Peru for Christmas. Great restaurants, food and some lovely people. Will be remembered for the company over Christams of Helen and Joanne as surrogate family, plus our infamous hours of shithead that coined the “Cuszo Classic Rules” of Shithead.
- Inca Trail and Machu Pichu over New Year, possibly the most memorable New Year ever. the second day of hell on Inca Trail and the rewards of the first views of Machu Pichu from the Sun Gate stand out. Staying in the porter’s village was an excellent experience that you can only get with Wayki Trek in Gringo Alley.
- Arequipa was only memorable for both Tim and I being sick, and watching TV and reading books in the hostel whilst we recovered. I had problems breathing, literally pain when taking anything but a shallow breath and Tim had a “brown laser” problem.
- Peru is not going to be that fondly remembered with the exception of Inca Trail and Cuzco. Lima will be remembered for the hassle from taxi drivers at the airport, notably the one who tried to teach us how to use a payphone. (hhhmm, money in, dial number, talk into handset bit…). After the crap journey via Colombia from Ecuador in one day I seriously thought Tim was going to hit the guy.
- Having fun in Bogota with Andrea, Matt and Andrea’s family, combined with their amazing hospitality. We got to go to the best clubs and bars, none of which are in any guide book, and saved us from the shithole that is Downtown Bogota. The amazing Musee D’Ore with the Colombian gold artefacts.
- The beautiful city of Cartegena with an unrivalled early colonial architecture, beautiful people and great night life. Notable events include our meeting with a American Embassy “offical”, who advise us not to talk to women from Cali, as “it’s like the wild west out there, and the boyfriends and husbands are likely to shoot you”. This was followed the next night by being invited to join a group of friends for a drink by a Venezuelan guy, who then insisted that Tim dance with some of his female friends. “Where are they from?”, I asked. “Oh, from Cali”, was his reply. I looked at Tim’s face which seemed to be paling to the dilemma that he either dance salsa with one of them and risk the fabled “getting shot”, or not dance and risk offending them and “getting shot”. Turned out to be fine and everyone including the boyfriends were extremely friendly.
- Actually that summed up Colombia in a nutshell. Everyone we met was extremely friendly, and compared the Peru, where the locals treated you like a walking ATM, the Colombian friendliness was confusing at the beginning, however with all genuity was purely that fact that they were happy to see tourists in their country. We met a great deal of pilots, including the only female helicopter pilot and one unnamed and undescribed who flew paramilitaries in and out of the battle zones. Again which group remains a mystery. For Colombians everything they have is the best. This “we have the best…” statement we found highly amusing. The statement usually along the lines of, “well, we have the best tasting coffee, the best looking women, the best football and well, quite frankly the best drugs in the world. I know these guerrillas are a pain and cause alot of problems, but they are technically the best rebels in the world”.
- Ecuador stood out for further hospitality given by the cousins of my friend Marissa’s, who now lives in Reading . It was mainly Ana who took care of us and showed us around the city. Ana’s joke about the statue of the Virgin high above Quito and it being “the only virgin in Quito”, was quite funny too. Great standing on the equator too.
- We loved the white water rafting in Baños and watching Tim fall out of the raft and start floating off towards Brasil was amusing. It was a pity I didn’t get any pictures, but then I couldn’t have taken the camera along without getting it soaked.
- Chile, well, was just a downer. Couldn’t get to grips with it, and the people had the “best attitude” similar to Colombians but it wasn’t deserved. Expensive and the only thing I liked was the Santiago architecture. Couldn’t wait to leave and get to Argentina.
- Arriving in Mendoza felt like a breath of fresh air. Was excited to see Franco and Elisa again. Got a brilliant welcome from them and their families, who were so sweet to us, plus Lucy who was tagging along with us too. Loved Mendoza and it’s airy streets even though the weather was oppresively humid. It was notably the most southerly point of the Inca dynasty’s reach. Had our first Argentinian “parrilla” or BBQ, in San Rafael and had a great time. It was sad to leave Franco and Elisa and wished I could have stayed longer.
- Barriloche will be remembered for the kayaking trip that I totally enjoyed to the full. Our guide and his wife made the experience completely brilliant for us. Food was pretty good there too and the scenery amazing. Felt just like being in Switzerland or Bavaria.
- The Perito Moreno Glacier was the second natural wonder that took my breath away. The blue ice, the massive walls of ice that slowly creep and groan before spectacularly crashing into the lake.
- Seeing penguins lived and in the flesh near Ushuaia and reaching the “end of the world”. No comedy glasses or funny hats as desired, but a great experience.
- The Iguazu Falls or “Cataratas Iguazu” was the final natural wonder. I so nearly missed it and so glad I didn’t. An amazing day, with an amazing boat ride under the falls.
- The beautiful city of Buenos Aires. I have fallen in love with it and have vowed to return. Argentina in general is stunning. I love the people, the cities and the vastly different types of landscape you can see there.
I had a wonderful trip and amazingly for me, stayed out of trouble on the whole, didn’t get robbed, assaulted, arrested or set up on drugs scams. I went out not knowing what to expect and got everything I could have wished for and more. I loved that I could speak Spanish and interact with the locals by the end, although often parrying the question, “how much do people earn in the UK”, with the answer, “a pack of cigarettes costs $8.70 USD, a litre of petrol costs $7 USD and the average house price in London is $1.8 million USD”!
I am so glad I made the decision to go, and consider the money well spent. If you have the opportunity to go to South America then do. There is so much to see and to do. It is truely beautiful and so are its varied peoples. I will treasure those people I have met, the things I have seen and hope to always stay close friends with Tim who was the best travelling companion for 4 months (snoring excluded). I have been lucky enough to have found the most amazing woman, which has now inspired me to go and learn German and to be with her!