Queenstown New Zealand

New Zealand: The Debrief

A quick guide to what we did and what you can do too…

Do: Hire a car

Or, even better, a campervan. It is absolutely the best way to get around. Public transport is basically inexistent so you’re reliant on tourist coaches and flying, both of which are pretty pricey. Meanwhile you can hire a small car for less than $50 NZD (£25) a day and the roads are beautiful and largely empty so you’ll be able to see far more of the country if you have your own wheels.

Hiring a car in New Zealand

You can read about our adventures in a campervan HERE.

Don’t: Always believe the hype

As Franki said in her last post, New Zealand has fantastic PR. Everything from the hikes to the wines to the mountains and lakes are billed as being the Best You Will Ever See In Your Life. And while many of the experiences you have in New Zealand will be one-of-a-kind, they won’t all be (after all, we have mountains in Europe too) so it’s important not to expect every waking moment to be a sensory rush. NZ is nothing if not laid back and it is totally okay to not spend your entire trip rushing around trying to have ALL THE EXPERIENCES and then ending up disappointed when that Mega-Extra-Stunning-Best-Ever view turns out to be shrouded from earth to heavens in thick cloud.

Marlborough Sounds

There are plenty of things to do and see in New Zealand. Some will blow you away (hello Tongariro Crossing), others will leave you feeling a bit… meh (Milford Sound, I’m looking at you). When it comes to deciding what to do, it’s always best to go with your own tastes and judgement and not what the tourist billboards necessarily suggest.

Try: An extreme sport

Confession time: We went to New Zealand and did NOT do a bungee jump. Neither did we partake in sky diving, jet boating, white water rafting, glacier trekking or any of the other adrenaline-fuelled activities on offer. To be honest, we’re surprised they didn’t deport us.

NZ has styled itself as the extreme sports capital of the world. Because simply looking at beautiful scenery isn’t enough, you have to leap off it, soar around it or otherwise conquer it with the combined forces of modern technology and your limitless enthusiasm. If that sounds like your bag then this is absolutely the place to get involved.

For us it wasn’t. This was partly to do with money (turns out jumping off a bridge with an elastic rope tied round your ankles doesn’t come cheap) but mostly to do with the fact that jumping off a bridge with an elastic rope tied round our ankles sounds a lot like our vision of hell. We did, however, go caving which was utterly exhilarating and you can read about that experience HERE.

Waitomo caves New Zealand

Buy: Internet time

When it comes to the internet, New Zealand seems stuck in the dark ages. Most hostels, cafes and bars will have WiFi but they’ll charge you to use it. Some will offer a preliminary half hour (or 50MB) for free but after that expect for fork out. Some charge by the minute, others by the megabyte and you can usually buy blocks of either (though be warned your MB may have a 24 hour time limit on them).

Eat: Seafood

Green-lipped mussels, fresh crayfish, Bluff oysters, paua, scallops, clams… New Zealand has a fantastic array of seafood available for pretty good prices.

Fresh Crayfish in Kaikoura

We didn’t actually manage to sample the oysters, though. These babies sell out the minute they come in so despite three separate attempts to procure them in Hawks Bay, Christchurch, and Queenstown we’re sad to say we left NZ un-oystered. Never mind. If in doubt, there’s always good ol’ fish and chips.

Fish and chips Kaikoura New Zealand

Drink: Pinot Gris

If you thought NZ was all about the Sauvignon Blanc, think again. By far our favourite tipple was the local Pinot Gris. The crisp, dry, acidic Italian version, Pinot Grigio, has long been a British pub staple (not to mention a regular in the Tesco half price offers!) so we were pleasantly surprised to discover this smoother, more aromatic take.

Sample it at Gibson Bridge, a tiny “boutique” winery in Marlborough where they specialise in the stuff. In fact of their eleven wines, eight are Pinot Gris. Yes please!

Gibson Bridge winery New Zealand

And not forgetting…

… the time when, stuck in traffic in Auckland, we were both near the ends of our respective tethers when Rob checks the rearview mirror and nearly has a heart-attack because it turns out the car behind is being driven by a clown in full dress and make-up, bobbing along to whatever he was listening to on the radio. Terrifying.

Milford Sound

Laters y’all! Next stop… Australia.

Kush coffee shop Nelson

8 cool things to do in New Zealand that have nothing to do with hobbits

Eat at Pedro’s House of Lamb

This Queenstown eatery does just one dish: slow roasted lamb shoulder with rosemary potatoes. But by God is it good. You can’t actually eat in, it’s take-away only. Pedro and the team start up the slow-roasters in the morning and come dinner time simply walking past is enough to have you keel over in a mouth-watering stupor. Which is why you should never walk past but instead go directly inside and pay $40 (£20) for a box of lamb and tatties that will keep you and a friend happy for… oh at LEAST twenty minutes. And if you’re lucky you might even have leftovers. Our next-day cold lamb was easily the highlight of our Milford Sound trip and I am NOT EVEN KIDDING.

Find it at: 17b Papanui Road, Merivale, Christchurch and 47 Gorge Road, Queenstown

Pedros house of lamb

Drive Arthur’s Pass

One of the on-the-road highlights of our New Zealand trip, this winding pass takes you through yellowed Canterbury fields, past the mysterious boulders at Castle Hill, across the gorge of the Waimakariri River, past the Alpine peaks, and down again through the now-verdant hillsides of the West Coast.

Arthur's Pass New Zealand

Instagram some art deco

I raved about Napier’s architecture in our last post on campervanning in New Zealand but it’s worth a second mention, not least because it appears to be somewhat off the beaten track. Tourists, desperate to get to the South Island often seem to bypass the East Coast of the North Island, heading straight from Rotorua and Taupo to Wellington. Don’t make the same mistake. Even if you can’t get there for the annual Art Deco vintage festival, it’s still well worth a visit to see the jaw-dropping 1930s facades.

Art deco Napier New Zealand

Visit a brewery

You’d have to be an idiot to come to New Zealand and not visit the wineries but what about the beer? There are tons of great craft beer breweries (see below for details on Nelson’s “beer trail”) which offer tours and tastings. We liked Monteith’s in Greymouth which provided some much-needed cheer after a long drive in relentless drizzle.

Find it at: 60 Herbert St, Greymouth

Hang out in Nelson

The geographical centre of New Zealand, this small town on the northern edge of the South Island is often used as a base from which to explore the stunning Abel Tasman National Park or the equally attractive gastronomic delights of the nearby wine regions. However a combination of crappy weather and time constraints put paid to our plans to do either and we ended up simply hanging out in the town, hopping between cafes, bars, and coffee shops.

Coffee shops Nelson New Zealand

As it turns out, we couldn’t have found a better place to do it. Nelson has long been a magnet for arty types and as a result it has a quietly hip, creative vibe. Plus, as the self-styled New Zealand “capital of craft beer” it has at least a dozen breweries to tour and try. We spent less than 24 hours there and even with the dismal weather, we really wish we’d had longer.

Spend a penny in a (designer) public loo

I can honestly say we’ve never recommended a public toilet to anyone before but New Zealand is nothing if not surprising. For those visiting the Northland, be sure to swing by Kawakawa for a toilet stop at the colourful public bogs, designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Hunterwasser public toilets Kawakawa

Oh and there’s a good coffee shop opposite.

Take a dip in the natural volcanic hot springs – for FREE

I wrote about all the free things to do in Rotorua at length in our last post but of these, our favourite was definitely Kerosene Creek, a natural hot spring complete with steaming waterfall, that you can paddle, swim and bask in for the grand total of zero dollars. Find it by heading south down SH5 from Rotorua towards Taupo for about 30km. Turn left at the sign for Old Waiotapu Rd then follow the gravel track down to the car park.

Kerosene Creek New Zealand

NB: Don’t put your head under the water in any thermal hot springs. The warm temperatures provide an ideal breeding ground for all sorts of amoebic nasties that absolutely want to get into your brain via your ears and nose and wreak havoc there. Not cool.

Party on Cuba Street

We loved New Zealand but as city-dwelling, chaos-thriving, grit-loving Europeans we have to admit we found it, at times, a little on the quiet side. So upon arriving in Wellington we were delighted to discover Cuba Street. With its vibrant cafes and bars, vintage shops, tattoo studios and possibly the only street art we saw in the whole of NZ, it provided a welcome hit of urban cool and a much-needed antidote to all that clean air and laid-back charm.

Cuba Street Wellington

Camping in Canterbury New Zealand

New Zealand is expensive. Get a campervan

Of all the countries I have visited in the world, New Zealand is the one with the best PR.

“LOOK AT THIS PLACE!” The tourist board screams, from the television, from glossy magazines, from billboards on the London Underground (and probably the metro or subway where you live too). “HAVE YOU EVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS!”

Lake Hawea New Zealand

We-ell… actually…

Bariloche Argentina

Ok, look. There are lots of beautiful places in the world, some of them jaw-droppingly so, and we’re not about to start trying to play them off against each other. The point is, we were well prepared for New Zealand’s scenery. What we weren’t prepared for were its prices.

Luckily I have relatives in Auckland who we were able to stay with – at least for the first and last parts of our trip – and who generously fed us up with delicious New Zealand lamb and fine wine. But for those lacking in a Kiwi branch to the family, I recommend hiring a campervan.

This was something we had been both looking forward to and slightly dreading. We’d already been travelling for five months and were definitely feeling the challenge of being constantly together. Now, instead of giving each other some space, we were taking things up a notch. For two weeks we would be eating, sleeping, and travelling all within eight square metres. Still, we would have our accommodation and transport covered. And providing we didn’t kill each other, it ought to provide the perfect way to explore this incredible country.

In terms of campsites, you can go from the full complement of facilities (pool, TV room etc) to nothing at all. For the occasional hot shower and communal kitchen we liked Top Ten holiday parks where a non-powered site costs about $40 NZD (£20). For the basic end, check out New Zealand Department of Conservation’s full list of rural camp grounds at www.doc.govt.nz.

Camping in New Zealand

Our “Spaceship” came with a small (let’s just say it’s a good thing we’re both under 5’8”) double bed, gas hob, fridge-freezer, a full set of crockery and pots and pans and an array of nifty fold-away storage areas and gadgets. It’s only the size of a family car although if like us you’ve never driven a campervan before, this is a serious plus point.  In terms of what they’ve done to make it work – everything folds up and packs away underneath everything else – it’s pretty nifty. But we quickly realised that we were going to have to establish a pretty strict regime if we didn’t want it to become a chaotic mess.

Spaceships campervan New Zealand

We began our adventure in Auckland, home to more than a quarter of New Zealand’s 4.5 million inhabitants. “This is the last you’ll see of the traffic,” my relatives laughed as we packed up the van. They weren’t kidding. The drive south to Hamilton is only an hour and a half but even on that short stretch we noticed the cars begin to thin out and the road open up before us.

My uncle lent us a GPS but to be honest once you’re out of the city, you don’t really need one – there are at most only two or three directions you could be going in and everywhere is well signposted. If you do go for it, make sure you get one that comes with novelty Kiwi instructions to help you learn the local lingo… who wants to be told “You have reached your destination,” when you could get “Sweet as! Grab your jandals and let’s go!”

That said, actually getting out of Auckland proved trickier than expected and by the time we’d heard the words “Turn around where possible, bro, and let’s go and get ourselves a mean steak and cheese pie,” for the ninth time, we decided to switch it back to plain old Brit.

Our first stop was the Waitomo glow worm caves. We’d heard so many stories about how incredible these caves are that we had decided to go full whack and fork out for the “Lost World” full day Epic Tour (or should that be “Ipuc” Tour?). It ain’t cheap – $412 NZD (£206) each but it does include lunch, a slap up BBQ dinner plus all drinks and snacks. And, to be honest, it is every bit as epic as advertised.

Waitomo glow worm caves

Decked out in wetsuits and wellies, we started the day with a 100-metre abseil down into the caves. After taking a last look at the sunlight we headed upstream, walking, swimming and climbing through caverns, past stalactites and stalagmites, around rocks and up waterfalls.

Waitomo glow worm caves New Zealand

Then – on the count of three – everyone turned off their torches and the cave was transformed into a magical grotto, dotted with tiny glow worms shining brightly in the darkness.

The following day we drove the two hours to Rotorua, the heart of New Zealand’s volcanic region and home to an array of geothermal attractions. As a self-confessed complete volcano geek this was one of the places I was most excited about. The town itself is not much to shout about and like pretty much every major attraction in New Zealand, it’s eye-wateringly overpriced. There are a plenty of visitor parks to go to but the entrance prices are extortionate and I’m not even going to bother recommending any of them. Those who want them will have no trouble finding them.

Pohutu geyser

We, on the other hand, were imposing strict austerity measures in order to make up for our blow out at the glow worm caves. Luckily there are plenty of ways to experience the volcanic wonders for free, some of which my family tipped me off about, some of which we discovered online but all of which I shall share with you, now:

  • Kuirau Park in the centre of Rotorua has an impressive collection of steaming rocks, sulphurous ditches and boiling mud pools. Oh and it’s completely free. They also have clean, purpose built foot spas, fed with naturally heated water, to dibble your feet in after a walk.

Kuirau Park Rotorua

  • The famous Pohutu geyser erupts to heights of up to 30 metres (100 feet) but to get close to it, you’ll have to fork out $50 NZD (£25) for entry into Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley tourist park. Head instead to the Silver Oaks Hotel on Fenton Street where you pay just $8 NZD (£4) for access to their viewing room. OR simply park up in the car park and catch a glimpse of it through the fence for FREE!
  • On the drive between Rotorua and Lake Taupo there are dozens of stopping points where you can see mud pools and steaming lakes, hot springs and volcanic landscapes, often for free. Just follow the signs. We stood for ages snapping pics of the boiling mud pools on Waiotapu Loop Road, just next to the Wai-O-Tapu tourist park.

Wai-o-tapu free volcanic mud pools

  • For free bathing in natural hot springs, head to Kerosene Creek, a hot spring 30km (18 miles) south of Rotorua on the SH5. Look for a sign to Old Waiotapu Rd, take a left here, and then drive straight down the gravel track until you reach a small car park with a toilet hut in it. There’s no sign but head down the banks and you’ll find the creek. Get changed in the toilet or else duck down behind your car.

Kerosene Creek Rotorua

After Rotorua we spent a couple of nights near Lake Taupo which I have to admit was something of let down. Even with our money-saving campervan we just couldn’t stretch to any of the nearby trips or activities, and apart from one frankly hellish excursion on a mountain bike (the track described itself as easy – it lied) we mostly spent our time drinking supermarket wine on the campsite and planning our next stop:  Tongariro National Park

[Side note: Wifi access in New Zealand is practically stone-age. Some cafes, hostels and campsites will give you a voucher with a code that gets you a handful of free MB but more often than not you will be expected to pay. It’s mad. We’d been all around Central and Latin America by this point where wifi is thrown at you from all sides so then to arrive in NZ and have to pay $5 NZD for 50MB or whatever was a bit of a slap in the face.]

The Tongariro Crossing is a 19km walk – or “tramp” as they say in NZ – across three active volcanic peaks. It’s completely free to do although you’ll need to stay somewhere nearby that offers a drop-off and pick-up because the start and finish points are quite far apart (we liked Discovery Lodge inside the National Park for its rustic vibe and beautiful views). Having not climbed a volcano since Nicaragua, there was no way I was going to miss out on this. But all the information I was reading was starting to freak me out.

DO NOT attempt the Tongariro Crossing without proper hiking boots. Hikers MUST have a good level of fitness and telescopic hiking poles. The weather could change AT ANY MOMENT, do not leave the house without a full complement of weatherproof Goretex. DO NOT attempt this walk without a full first aid kit and a helicopter on standby. Hikers without volcano permits and full geological qualifications WILL NOT be tolerated. TONGARIRO CROSSING IS NOT A JOKE.”

Tongariro Crossing New Zealand

Ok, it didn’t really say that. BUT STILL. By the time the morning of the hike came around I was convinced I was going to die or at the very least suffer a grievous injury or humiliation at the hands of a bigger volcano geek than I. Needless to say this was very very far from the truth. The Tongariro Crossing is… fine. Completely fine. I wore my non-proper hiking trainers, I wore trousers that DID NOT wick my sweat, let alone repel water, I took a handful of plasters and a lot of water and I was… fine. It’s just a hike. Well alright, it’s not just a hike.

Tongariro Crossing

Tongariro Crossing Emerald Lake


Obviously parts of it were steep and parts of it were hard but it wasn’t anything like I was dreading (and I can’t help thinking that meanwhile back in Patagonia there’s a hike that nearly destroyed me with only the words “Refugio Frey, 10km” and an arrow to prepare you for it). I suppose what I want to say is that while a lot of the NZ PR is designed to draw people to the country, I can’t help thinking that it might occasionally put people off. All the focus on “extreme” activities and the “action and adventure” theme they promote makes it seem like it’s non-stop adrenaline and… well, hard work.

Does this look like hard work?

Spaceships campervans

Next up was Napier. The charming – but somewhat sleepy – coastal town in the Hawkes Bay region of the north island, was razed to the ground by an earthquake in 1933 and rebuilt almost from scratch in the art deco style, popular in the early part of the 20th century. The result is almost unreal. In recent years, donations to the town’s art deco trust have allowed them to repaint some of the facades to produce some of the most striking – and colourful – buildings I’ve ever seen.

Napier art deco New Zealand

Weirdly, we noticed a lot of the stores were up for sale or rent which suggests the town’s economy isn’t quite as vibrant as its architecture. A shame, since it’s a sweet place and they hold an annual art deco festival where everybody dresses up in 1930s vintage and they drink gin and champagne and dance to jazz which sounds pretty much like my idea of heaven.

Napier art deco new zealand

Napier art deco New Zealand

From here it’s down to Wellington, the nation’s capital. Perched on a beautiful bay, surrounded by lush green hills, it deserves a few days to explore properly. It’s a cool little city although Rob’s family friends – who very kindly put us up for the night –  assured us we’d arrived in unusually good weather.

Sure enough when we woke up the next morning, the skies had reverted to form. Our experience of the Cook Strait – the body of water that separates the two islands and something of an attraction in itself thanks to breathtaking views across the Marlborough Sounds – can be summed up in one word: grey.

Cook Strait New Zealand

Still, we couldn’t feel too gloomy. We’d arrived in Marlborough and that could mean only one thing: wine times! After spending a night in Nelson and treating ourselves the next morning to a mini coffee-shop crawl through the town’s surprisingly charming centre, we head to Blenheim –  the capital of wine country.

There are loads of different wine tours to choose from but we went with Marlborough Wine Tours who do a four hour personalised tour – including all tastings but not lunch – for $55 NZD (£27) per person. That seemed like a lot after Argentina but looking at it a few months later, isn’t bad value. We had lunch at Giesen – a fantastic mixed platter of cold meats, cheeses, seafood and salad. They did veggie options and their wine isn’t bad either… although the last stop of a wine tour is always going to come off favourably, right?!

Lunch at Giesen winery Marlborough

Marlborough Wine Tours New Zealand

It’s fair to say that given the budget and the time we could have happily spent four or five days idling around the countryside in a semi-drunken state (See our Mendoza blog for evidence). But our two weeks were almost up and we had to get the campervan back so onward we went.

No trip to New Zealand would be complete without some wildlife spotting and so the next day we headed to Kaikoura in search of whales. As usual it’s prohibitively expensive. The surprisingly educational boat tour costs $145 NZD (£68) but they’ll refund 80 percent of that if no whales are sighted. Luckily for us no refunds were necessary…

Whale watching Kaikoura

…although on the other hand this did mean we could only afford half a crayfish between us for lunch!

Kaikoura crayfish

With (half) full bellies we began our final stretch down to Christchurch. Oddly, we discovered early on that most campervan companies only have depots in Auckland and Christchurch so if you want to continue to Queenstown you’ll either have to do a full loop and come back up to Christchurch or you’ll have to drop the camper and switch to a car. We opted for the latter and although it did seriously stretch our budget, it was a relief to be sleeping in a proper bed again!

For more on that leg of the trip, as well as what else we got up to in New Zealand, you’ll have to wait to check out our other posts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to grab my jandals and go get myself a steak and cheese pie…

Driving a campervan in New Zealand


The LBA Latin America awards

As the Latin American leg of the Let’s Be Adventurers world tour draws to a close, now’s the time to reward the best and shame the worst of our discoveries as latter-day conquistadors.

Best night’s sleep

Hostel Lao: Mendoza, Argentina

It’s just got everything. Hot water and decent pressure in the shower, good WiFi, convenient location to get the bus out to wine valleys, friendly and helpful staff, comfy beds, good social area and a nice garden, wine for sale and a great crowd of people. Fabulous place.

Highly commended

El Pueblito: El Bolson, Argentina

El Pueblito hostel, Argentina

A forest fire in the region gave the hostel an ethereal glow but it’s really not spooky, honest!

A beautiful old wooden chalet-style home from home in a stunning valley. It is nestled away from the main road, next to a clean and cool river that’s perfect for an invigorating dip before dinner. They bake incredible bread and the staff are simply wonderful, helpful, friendly, people. Rooms are a bit rustic, but that’s the charm.

‘What a dump’ award for shabbiest hostel

Favela Chic: Foz de Iguacu, Brazil

More favela than chic. The roof leaked so our bags got soaked through during heavy rain. The WiFi didn’t work, the food was garbage and the staff were beyond weird. The fact that there was no-one else there gave the whole place a desolate vibe and the owner tried to charge us twice. Click here for Franki’s amazing TripAdvisor review.

Best end-of-a-hard-day drink

La Vineria: El Chalten

After a long hard slog through the Patagonian mountains, enjoy their huge range of craft beers, a giant wine selection, brilliant music, friendly bar staff and tasteful decor, plus you can see Mount Fitzroy out of the window on a clear day. What’s not to love?

Highly commended

Havana: Cartagena, Colombia

OK, so it’s a Cuban theme bar with its fair share of tourists. But damn it’s fun. Salsa the night away among people who can dance much better than you, weaving around a huge well-stocked bar, to the sounds of a live Cuban band blowing their lungs out. Magica.

Worst hangover

Rio de Janeiro

After a night on the caipirinhas with a Polish pal we made that same night, Rio had us well and truly beaten. Some people talk about feeling like death warmed up. When it’s 40 degrees out, that phrase rings truer than ever. Ouch. Kill us. Kill us now.

Best street art

Valparaiso, Chile

A masterpiece on every flat surface, that’s the beauty of this soulful city.

Valpo, as the locals call it, is legendary for food and drink too. So there is plenty to look at as you reel homewards down its precipitous streets. Check out my blog featuring some of the best of Valpo’s open-air creations.


Highly commended

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Take one of the local street art tours and learn about the artists behind the giant, colourful murals found all over the city.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez award for magic realism

Salento, Colombia

Perhaps it ought to be sultry Cartagena, the fictionalised version of which is the backdrop for Love in a Time of Cholera. But for us, Salento was an other-wordly, dreamlike paradise.

Fog rolls through vivid green hills dotted with the world’s tallest palm trees, which look like they belong in a fantasy movie.

Highly commended

Trancoso, Brazil

A twinkly, groovy, tranquil, dingly dell of a beach town, the centrepiece a huge village green surrounded by ramshackle houses daubed in bright colours. At night the whole place is dimly lit with hundreds of lanterns, as overawed tourists and ageing hippies who came here long ago mingle beneath the stars. My sense of surrealism may have been enhanced by the strong muscle relaxants I was taking for a totally knackered back. Oh, the beach is gorgeous as well.

We spent Christmas there and you can read all about how wonderful that was – and see more pictures – here.

Best place to stuff your face

Siete Cocinas: Mendoza, Argentina

It ought to be good because it ain’t cheap. But if you’ve bought your pesos on the blue market, it’s not too bad. The concept is a mix of cuisines from Argentina’s seven regions. The tasting menu was exquisite and we finally achieved our ambition of getting through two bottles of wine with dinner.

Highly commended

Flor de Lis: Guatemala City, Guatemala

Confession time, this establishment is owned by our great friend Harold Caballeros-Arimany (pictured, with his lovely wife Monique) but we didn’t include it only for that reason.

Flor de Lis restaurant

When Franki’s hair was red and mine was plentiful.

Harold and his team of talented chefs have created an amazing degustation menu of genuine high quality, using Guatemalan ingredients in completely novel and delicious ways. A real treat.

Funniest menu translations

La Cevicheria: Cartagena, Colombia

What heart of stone could see “Lovely Wet Lobster Rice” on the menu and not order it.

Highly commended

Nice restaurant whose name we sadly can’t remember: Salvador, Brazil

“Chicken asleep on a bed of spices”. I don’t know how to break it to you guys but the chicken wasn’t just sleeping.

Hairiest moment

Threatened with police in Guatemala

You know you’ve said the wrong thing when a middle-aged woman starts filming you on her phone and says she has called the police. Run. Run really quite fast.

Highly commended

Running out of money in Patagonia


So…what now?

You have no cash, half a tank of petrol and you are 300 miles from the nearest working cash machine. Time to think laterally.

Catchiest tune

Rebellion by Joe Arroyo

If you spend any time on buses, you’re going to hear a lot of salsa and merengue and it’s going to get pretty tedious pretty quickly. But I just never tire of listening to this musical account of Latin America’s slave trade by Colombia’s Joe Arroyo.

OK, i’m basically obsessed with it. That whimsical piano solo, man…you can watch the whole video here.


Worst bus ride

Foz de Iguacu to Sao Paulo, Brazil

20+ gruelling hours. If you have any money at all, fly.

Best bus ride

Bariloche to Mendoza, Argentina

Bus bingo with a bottle of wine as the prize! We didn’t but the sheer novelty cheered us for the 13 hours of sadly bingo-less bus journey that followed. The trip through the Andes is pretty eye-catching too. Thank you Andesmar bus company.

Booze of the World ‘Tippler’s Choice’ award

Ron Zacapa, Guatemala

Repeatedly voted the world’s best rum for a reason. Pure, heartwarming joy in a glass. The original Booze of the World post about it can be found here.

Highly commended

Malbec in Mendoza. So much to choose from, so little time.

So that was the end of our time in Latin America. Now the small matter of a 13-hour flight across the dateline to New Zealand…hasta luego Latinoamerica!

Mount Fitzroy in the background, Franki and Rob

Bye bye to scenes like this…

Charquipunk street art

Chile: The Debrief

A quick guide to what we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Sandwiches

Did you know Santiago was famous for its gourmet sandwiches? No, us neither. But these are no ordinary sarnies. They’re at least three inches thick and packed with fabulous meat, veggies, sauces, pickles and preserves. The classic is the chacarero, a pile of thinly sliced, churrasco steak, tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, mayo, green beans and – because this is Latin America, baby – a good helping of aji verde chilli.

To my mind, there is not yet a satisfying round-up of all the best places to get sandwiches in Santiago (though I’m happy to volunteer!) but these blogs are worth a look if you’re heading that way.

On the Chacarero Trail: Where to Eat Santiago’s Favorite Sandwich

Chile Restaurant Guide by Nathan Lustig

We were only in town for a couple of days so didn’t manage to get round them all but we really liked Bar Liguria – both for its sarnies and its decor.

Bar Liguria Santiago

Drink: Pisco

Pisco is so beloved in this part of the world that Chile and Peru have actually fought courtroom battles over who can lay claim to it.

It’s a brandy, invented by Spanish settlers in the 16th century. The really premium stuff can be drunk neat but for the most part, the best way to enjoy it is in a Pisco Sour. It’s a simple cocktail of Pisco, sugar syrup and lime. In Peru they add whipped egg white and Angostura bitters, in my view the superior version. But never say that to a Chilean, they’ll go spare.

The best way to learn about Pisco is by doing a tour of the Elqui Valley near Pisco Elqui, covered, as you might expect, in the latest Booze of the World post.

Pisco tasting in the Elqui valley

Try: Your luck at whale watching

You can book a trip to see the tiny Humboldt penguins – residents of the Islas Damas – from the seaside town of La Serena, five hours north of Santiago. We almost didn’t because the price of the tour was out entire day’s budget and then some. But we can confidently say that it was money well spent.

Islas Damas tour

Don’t be put off by the weather… or the size of the boats. You’re guaranteed to see the cute little pinguinos (among the smallest in the world) alongside seals and a host of rare birdlife. If you’re lucky you might also get to see bottlenose dolphins and if you’re REALLY lucky you might even spy a humpback whale, flummoxing around in the chilly Pacific water.

We, as it turned out, were really lucky. We christened our whale Humpberto… because he’s Chilean and he’s a humpback whale. YES, we are that creative.

Buy: A Chilean phrasebook

OK, you probably don’t need a phrasebook but it is worth noting that Spanish speakers visiting Chile might be surprised by how different espanol chileno sounds compared to the accents and dialects used in other parts of South America.

It’s not just the pronunciation, either. Like Argentina, they frequently drop the esses (so desculpe becomes “de-culpe”) and both the (as in mayo) and the double ll (as in Guillermo) becomes a “sh” or even a soft “g” sound (so mayo becomes “masho” and Guillermo becomes “Guishermo”). In addition Chileans use a lot of words that derive not from castellano (“casteshano!”) but from the indigenous Mapuche language as well as chilenismos, their own idiosyncratic slang. Oh, and they talk really fast. Brilliant.

Mercado Central Santiago

Good luck in the market

Given that this was our last stop in South America, we were arrogant enough to think it’d be a breeze. Rob’s Spanish had skyrocketed from conversational to pretty proficient and even Franki, who spoke no Spanish at all before arriving was starting to be able to hold her own in basic conversations. So being sent straight back to square one in Chile was a bit of a shock! Luckily the Chileans are a pretty cool bunch and will do their best to help you out if you come to a comprehension impasse.

Do: A walking tour

We didn’t really consider ourselves walking tour people (perhaps due to the lack of gigantic trainers, khaki zip off shorts and bum bags?) but Chile really changed that. We booked onto the Where’s Wally tours in both Santiago and Valparaiso and found them excellent, both in terms of the information shared and the general ethos of trying to incorporate culture, history and a little bit of “real life”. The tours are “free” but you are expected to tip, and a suggested donation is around $10 per person.

Where's Wally tour Santiago

Can you spot him?

Highlights for us included the weird and wonderful stories told at the Cementerio General in Santiago and the fascinating history behind some of the street art in Valpariso (which was so impressive, we’ve dedicated an entire post to it!).

It also enabled us to find the best place to buy fresh fish at the Mercado Central in Santiago and discover the most delicious alfajores  made by this chap and sold from his front door just off a flight of stone steps in an alleyway in Valparaiso.

Alfajores Valparaiso

Don’t: Take your eyes off the pavement in Valparaiso

This quirky costal city is a joy to behold… except when it comes to the roads and pavements which is festooned with dog shit. It’s almost as though the neighbourhood canines have gone out of their way to liberally cover the place with crap in order that your every step be laced with hazard. By all means enjoy Valpo’s stunning street art and higgedly-piggedly UNESCO-protected buildings but never ever forget to keep an eye on your feet.

Valaparaiso Chile

Beautiful but treacherous

And not forgetting…

…the greatest ever name for a piece of art (and what, by the way, I am totally going to call my next band), discovered in the wacky Palacio Barburizza, Valparaiso:

Sex Eclair

The house – which is well worth a visit for the outlandish design, both inside and out – was formerly owned by Croatian Pascual Baburizza who had an eccentric flair for architecture and surprisingly conservative taste in art. The rest of the collection is dull as ditch water. In sum: Approximately 200 paintings of the ocean and two dozen dreary landscapes. It’s safe to say Sex Eclair is the highlight in more ways than one.

Want to know what it looks like? Well, you’ll have to visit and find out…


Adios Chile. Adios Sudamérica. A continuación… Nueva Zelanda!

Valparaiso Chile

Valparaiso: Where cafes come with toy monsters for you to play with


Valparaiso: Chile’s open-air gallery of street art

Valparaiso was already one of the most colourful cities in the world. And then the street artists came along…

I have never been anywhere quite like Valpo (as the locals call it) for street art. Nearly every flat surface boasts eye-catching works that make parts of the city pretty much an open-air art gallery.

Street art Valparaiso, Mr Papillon

You can see colourful, poignant and technically brilliant creations all over town, by artists including local heroes such as Charquipunk and Teo, plus collaborations such as Un Kolor Distinto. These are two of our favourites from the more tourist-heavy of the hills that characterise this town, Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion.

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Here’s one featuring the face and poetry of Nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, who lived in Valparaiso.

Street art, Valparaiso

But for the most densely-concentrated collection, head to the working class hilltop area of Cerro Polanco. You can access it via one of the city’s many ascensores and the only one that runs vertically. The area hosted a street art festival in 2012, transforming humble houses into beautiful works of art, with the consent of residentrs of course.

The entrance to the ascensor isn’t that easy to spot, so here’s a pic.

Entrance to Cerro Polanco lift

After a walk through a gloomy tunnel and a short journey in a dilapidated old lift, you’ll step out from this rather impressive structure.

Top of the Cerro Polanco ascensor

Many tourists only make it this far, fearing to tread in a non-touristy neighbourhood. We felt perfectly safe though. As in any area you don’t know, just keep your wits about you and don’t be stupid with your camera. We made our way down through the hilly labyrinth, enjoying the art as we descended.

Street art, Valparaiso

As you can see, it’s a mind-boggling mixture that is at turns surreal, political, whimsical and beautiful. Oh, and for some reason there are lots of works featuring cats.

Street art in Valparaiso

That’s it for verbiage from me. Just enjoy the street art…

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valaparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valpariso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

As someone who can barely draw a stick man, I was mightily impressed.

Booze of the world

Booze of the World 6: Chile

Sandwiched between the sparkling Pacific and the majestic Andes, Chileans are surrounded by so much beauty that it’s impossible not to raise a glass or two to Mother Nature

Pisco: Ah, Pisco. I first came to love Pisco in Peru but it wouldn’t do to admit that in front of a Chilean. The neighbouring countries have had a few beefs over the years, not least of which is the (at times legal) dispute over which country is the birthplace of the stuff.

Pisco is a type of brandy invented by 16th-century Spanish sailors and most commonly drunk in the form of my favourite cocktail, the Pisco Sour.

In Peru, the recipe is pisco, lime, sweet syrup, ice, egg white and Angostura bitters. The Chileans miss out the egg white and Angostura, a mistake in my view.

A Pisco sour

Pisco Sour WITH egg white. Sorry Chile, it’s just better this way.

A great way to find out more about Pisco, and enjoy some stunning scenery besides, is to visit the Elqui Valley near the seaside town of La Serena.

Here you can visit some of the oldest Pisco distilleries. I did the day trip alone, as Franki was feeling under the weather, but still had a marvellous day out. I mean…just look at the place.

Elqui Valley

Pisco vines in the beautiful Elqui Valley. Stunning.

OK, one more Elqui Valley picture because…well…damn…
I  took a cheap shared collectivo taxi to the town of Vicuna, from where you can get the bus to Pisco Elqui, or even further to the wonderful Fundo de los Nichos distillery, founded in 1868. Foolishly, I walked the three miles from Pisco Elqui in blazing sunshine, not realising that the bus route continues along the same road.

The distillery tour was in Spanish, as I happened to arrive at the wrong time for the English tour, but it was still fascinating. The place is dripping with tipsy history. Here’s a mural commemorating (if my Spanish serves me well) the day when women were allowed into the distillery for the first time.

Mural at Fundo de los Nichos

I’m not sure if this is a good advert for Pisco but why not?

A kindly Chilean family gave me a lift back to Pisco Elqui (having seen me tramping along in the heat earlier). There I also visited the Pisco Mistral distillery, named after Nobel prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral, who came from the Elqui Valley. This is a larger operation than Fundo de los Nichos, with a fantastic restaurant attached. Their English tour was a fascinating insight into the distillation process…

Pisco distillation vats

When the tour guide isn’t looking, you can dive right into those vats.

…and the tasting enlightened me to the fact that premium Pisco can be drunk neat, like any other brandy.

Anyway, the Elqui Valley: Education, booze and scenery, what’s not to love?

If you’re in Santiago, check out the Chipe Libre restaurant on Lastarria. The food wasn’t stunning but they offer both Peruvian and Chilean versions of the famous drink, plus a tasting flight for would be connoiseurs.

Wine: While Argentina is the home of Malbec, Chile is probably better known for reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere. It also has a reputation in some parts of the world (I’m looking at you, hypocritical Australia!) for producing some cheap and terrible wines.

Britons will probably be most familiar with Casillero del Diablo, famous for being the wine people bring to a dinner party chiefly because of its ubiquity on the shelves of every corner shop in the country.

Chile certainly does export some rubbish, as anyone who has travelled in Asia will know. But it’s such a large country (well, north to south at least) that it has plenty of top wine-making regions, such as the Maipo and Colchagua valleys.

We weren’t here for long enough to sample that many but one recommendation is this Novas Viognier from the organic Emiliana vineria.

Novas Viognier

My notes also include a smiley face next to a picture of Hoyco del Limor Reserva Especial Pinot Noir 2013. I can’t for the life of me remember anything about it and a Google search suggests it doesn’t exist. Perhaps I dreamt it.

If you’re in Santiago, do not miss the wonderful bar/resto Bocanariz, where delicate tapas dishes are paired with an excellent selection of wines from all over Chile.

Beer: Chile is a very wealthy country by South American standards and as such, it has a wealth of very good craft beers. One great place to sample them is the kaleidoscope of colour that is the UNESCO heritage town of Valparaiso (read about this beautiful town here).

The Casa Cervecera Altamira has a wonderful range from light ales to smoky German Altbiers, right in the bustling heart of Valparaiso and, thankfully, at the bottom of one of it’s extremely steep hills.Altamira beer menuMost bars also have a decent range of bottled craft beers, such as this crisp and refreshing Granizo, seen here being menaced by a two-headed dinosaur.

Granizo beer

Alcoholism, not meteorites, killed off the two-headed dinosaur. True story.

The verdict

Top tipple: Seeing as i’ve already declared it my favourite cocktail, the winner has to the Pisco Sour. I’ll confess to preferring the Peruvian version but the Chileans do a fine job too.

Bubbling under: Altamira’s American Pale Ale went down a treat with Franki so we’ll go with that.

Gourmet’s choice: Pisco Mistral 35. Dark yellow, woody, a very expensive and delicious way of clearing out the cobwebs from your entire respiratory system.

What to slur drunkenly: Pisco de Peru? Andate a la chucha! This is best left untranslated.

Next up in Booze of the World, it’s a 13-hour flight across the Pacific to New Zealand as the wine leg of our world tour continues…