Saturday

8 Amazing Experiences I Had in South America

I can't believe that today marks a whole year since we flew to Lima to begin our four month long adventure in South America. Visiting Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia I learned a lot about myself and for all the amazing things I saw and did, there were times when it was challenging and there was nothing I wanted more than to come back home.


I'm so jealous of past Sarah for the excitement and trepidation she was feeling this time year so I wanted to look back on some of the coolest things I experienced on my travels. 
8 amazing experiences to have in south america
 I got engaged at Machu Picchu - I think it probably goes without saying that this was one of the best days of my life. I worried that Machu Picchu would be over-hyped and underwhelming, but it was anything but. We climbed Huayna Picchu - one of the most dangerous hikes in the world - and made it to the top of the mountain just as the morning mist cleared to reveal an incredible view of the citadel from 1500ft up. Then back in our hotel room Tom asked me to marry him! 



8 amazing experiences to have in south america
I climbed Colca Canyon - If we thought Huayna Picchu was a difficult climb then nothing prepared us for Colca Canyon. One of the deepest canyons in the world simply getting from top to bottom was the most physically challenging thing I've ever done, never mind getting back up again. I'm still not sure how we managed it and the experience was mostly pretty horrendous, but the sense of pride at having accomplished it was so incredible. The views weren't too shabby either... 

Read more: Colca Canyon: A Worthwhile Ordeal (Probably)

8 amazing experiences to have in south america
I got lost on one of the most beautiful islands in the world - When we arrived on the Isla del Sol without a map, a plan or any accommodation booked we realised we might have made a slight error. After hours of trekking up hills and across beaches in search of the hostel we wanted to stay in we finally declared ourselves well and truly lost and spent the night in an old lady's hut. It was so easy to feel disheartened until we sat with our legs dangling off the cliffs enjoying the incredible views of Lake Titicaca. 

Read more: Stranded on the Isla del Sol, Bolivia 

8 amazing experiences to have in south america

I explored the Uyuni Salt Flats - Even though I was really ill when we visited the Salt Flats were one of the highlights of our trip. The landscapes were beautiful and often eerie, the sunsets were like nothing I've seen before and the thrill of having no idea where you were in the middle of the desert without seeing a single soul for hours on end was absolutely incredible. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the salt flats don't even feel like they should belong on our planet because they're so alien. 

Read more: Sunset Over Salar de Uyuni 

8 amazing experiences to have in south america
I experienced my first earthquake - Up until our second day in Ecuador I had never felt an earthquake. Tom felt a minor tremble in Arequipa, but nothing could have prepared us for being rocked by a 7.8 Mw in Montanita. Just after it happened we were laughing at how terrified we'd both been, not realising the full extent of what had happened and that while we were lying in bed in the darkness feeling very confused, most of the town were fleeing to higher ground because of tsunami warnings. Maybe calling it an amazing experience is a little inappropriate but it is one that not many people can say they've shared and I feel very lucky that the only scars we walked away with were mental ones.

8 amazing experiences to have in south america


I almost died on a mountain in Ecuador - The Quilotoa Loop is absolutely beautiful and our photos make it seem like we were having the best time ever, but in reality it wasn't always like that. We found ourselves caught up in a flash flood climbing up the mountain, watched lightning strike the ground right next to where we were standing, had to seek shelter for the night in a freezing cold stone hut with no running water or electricity and took a wrong turn that led us perilously close to plummeting hundreds of feet down to almost certain death. I have never been so cold, been so soaked to the bone or felt so scared and downtrodden, but the feeling of reaching the crater and being so taken aback by how beautiful it was made it (almost) worth it. 

Read more: Hiking the Quilotoa Loop (The Disaster That Was)


8 amazing experiences to have in south america


I visited the centre of the Earth - Sure Quito's Mitad del Mundo is super touristy, but being able to say you're standing (or sitting) in two hemispheres at the same time is pretty cool right? 

8 amazing experiences to have in south america
I slept in a cabin at the foot of an active volcano - You might have heard that Ecuador's most famous volcano erupted recently, and the national park surrounding it has only just reopened. Not put off by our near-death experience in Quilotoa we spent the weekend at The Secret Garden hostel trying activities like horse riding and mountain biking in the mornings followed by card games and lots of rum until the early hours. We couldn't access the internet at all for the few days we were there and so got to meet so many amazing people. I was devastated when we had to leave and say goodbye to new friends.


Today I am trying not to mourn and instead start planning the next adventure. The hardest part is just choosing where that will be...

Sunday

The Dos & Don'ts of Athens

things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog

If you read about why I'm trying to travel slowly in 2017 it will come as no surprise to you that I struggle to relax and take it easy when I'm travelling. I'm usually very regimented in my to-do list and like to tick off as much as I possibly can, even if - when I'm being truly honest with myself - I'm not having much fun doing it.  I like to be completely in control when I'm travelling so I knew visiting Athens on the Spotted By Locals Spotters Weekend and having someone else take charge of my entire itinerary was going to be a challenge.

In line with the Spotted By Locals ethos we stayed away from most of the really obvious places and instead met with local residents who could show us some of the lesser-known city gems. Turns out it's actually incredibly refreshing to let someone in the know dictate your itinerary, but it doesn't make it particularly easy to compile a city guide when most of the places you visited aren't easily located on the map. 

But then I'm guessing you don't come here to read rehashed articles from Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor. Unless you're heading to Athens specifically for the history, my advice is to leave the guidebook at home and go in with absolutely no plans or expectations but you didn't think I was going to travel somewhere and not blog about it, did you? So here are some dos and don'ts from my personal experience of the Greek capital.

things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog
things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog
DON'T pay to enter the Acropolis - when we walked out of the metro station and saw the Parthenon looming over us we were so excited to visit. It looked incredible from wherever we were standing so we thought it must look even better up close. In all honesty though I found visiting the Acropolis site pretty dull. It was packed, full of people taking pictures on their iPad (WHY do people do this?!) and the view is much better from Filopappou Hill. We visited on the first Sunday of the month when entry is free but I'd have been a bit miffed if I'd actually parted with 20€ for the fifteen minutes we spent there. 

things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog

things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog


DO make some feline friends. There are a lot of stray cats in Greece but unlike some horror stories I've heard from the islands, in Athens they seem to be pretty loved. Volunteers from organisations such as Nine Lives will feed and give medical care to some of the city's homeless kitties on the streets and you can tell when feeding time is near by the unnervingly large congregations of cats at various places throughout the city. You can also pledge to become a friend of Nine Lives and they will spay a cat in your name to help keep the population under control and reach even more felines in need. 

things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog

things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog

DON'T visit during peak season. I think this is pretty sound advice for travelling anywhere, but I think Athens is a particularly good example of a place best visited during the low or shoulder season. We were there in November when the temperature hovered consistently around the low 20s and we were able to admire the street art and pretty buildings of Plaka barely bumping into another soul. It's true that some bars and restaurants can lack atmosphere when there aren't as many bums on seats, but on the flip side I think you can really get to know a city well when you're dining out with the locals and jostling through crowds of other tourists. 

things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog

DO eat lots of falafel. Particularly before a night on the aforementioned raki. I found being vegan in Athens difficult so hummus and falafel gyros was pretty much all I ate for four days. I can't complain though, as the falafel I had from a dingy little takeaway in Plaka was probably the best I've ever had. Trust me when I say that is no easy accolade to earn.

It probably goes without saying but I obviously specifically asked waiters to hold the tzatziki to keep it vegan (and because it's GROSS).

Other honorable vegan mentions include a cannabis pizza (yep) from a restaurant called Mystic, 'Nutella' pancakes from an ice cream parlour near the Acropolis and soy meat gyros from a place called Smile. 

things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog

things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog
DO watch the sunset from Filopappou Hill. This spot will always have a special place in my heart after a really lovely evening watching the sun set with the other Spotters on our last evening together. I enjoyed the solitude and gorgeous views of the Acropolis against the dusky sky so much that the next time I took Tom with me to see it too. 

things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog


things to do in athens - uk budget travel blog


DON'T underestimate the strength of raki. Especially when you're already two bottles of wine down. Three months on and I'm still not over that hangover.

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Why I'm Reining in My Bucket List


Why I'm Reining in My Bucket List

I am very good at looking after myself when it comes to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I take sick days when I need them and am a firm believer in taking the day off when you feel a little under the weather so that it doesn't spiral into something worse. There's a heavy expectation that you should turn up to work unless you're bed-bound so this behaviour is probably frowned upon, but for me there's a  huge difference between being present at work and simply turning up. I'm no good to anyone if all I can offer is the space I've filled up at a desk. 

I take a similar outlook into my personal life too. I hate being busy so apart from playing in a netball league once a week, learning Spanish and writing this blog, I have very few commitments. I cherish and savour my own company, and spend a lot of my time horizontal watching YouTube. I'm not even remotely ashamed of that.

I work hard and my downtime is for doing things I want to do, not things I feel like I should be doing.  

So what does that have to do with travel you might ask? Well, I think I might be travelling for the sake of travelling. Or at least, I'm travelling in a certain way because I think that's how I should be travelling. 

I realised this most recently on a brief stopover in Sofia on my way home from Athens. We only had one full day to explore the city and I wanted to make every second of it count. But then we stayed up almost all night watching the world spiral into the apocalypse on Election Night, I was full of cold and it was absolutely pouring down with rain all day. Spirits were not high and all I wanted to do was curl up with my book and a cup of coffee.

I felt like I had to be doing something with my short time in Sofia so despite the lack of enthusiasm we joined the City Tour. Under different circumstances I'd have loved it as it was one of the better free walking tours we've been on (and trust me we've done a lot) but cold, wet and with a banging headache I just wasn't feeling it. So that afternoon we made no plans at all.

We warmed up at a vegan cafe and I got to relive my South America days with a bowl of Bolivian stew, followed by an insane coconut and banana cream cake. Then we followed the smell of freshly roasted coffee to a tiny, unassuming coffee shop which we ended up spending the entire afternoon in. I people-watched, I impressed myself with how much of the Cyrillic alphabet I can still decipher, and I finally got to read my book. 

Granted we could have done most of those things at home too, but I think there's something so special about getting to the heart of a new city and finding some lesser-known local haunts. I don't think we missed out on anything in Sofia despite spending hours in the same place and even in that one afternoon I felt like we got a real feel for the city. We also got a £40 fine for getting on a 'free' bus with no ticket, but that's a story for another day.

Sofia also taught me that it's okay not to burn yourself out for the sake of bragging rights. It taught me that you don't necessarily have to want to rush back to a place to be able to say you enjoyed it. It taught me that sometimes the best nights aren't spent at artsy bars, but rather in bed eating noodles and trying to figure out what's happening in the terrible Russian soap opera you've found yourself strangely invested in. 

I will always keep bucket lists and my 30 Before 30 is going nowhere anytime soon, but 2017 is the year of taking each trip one minute at a time, starting with a slow weekend in Hamburg for my birthday. I'll be heading in to a new city with no plans, my comfiest walking shoes and nothing but the recommendations of locals to guide me. It’s been a while since I’ve been so excited to travel! 

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*- Whilst I was writing this post I was also scrolling through Instagram and happened to stumble upon this post by Wanderluce, so it just felt so fitting to include it here - Why I Don't Count Countries
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