- Visited: 7 different countries
- Spent: 195 hours (8 full days and 19 different trips) on buses
- Went on: ferries, trains, buses, planes, car, bicycles
- Drank: cuba libres, dirt cheap beers, caprioskas, mojitos, coca tea, inca cola, heaps of bottled water
- Caught: 9 flights
- Dove: with hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos
- Partied: at Carnival, Cusco, La Paz
- Ate: guinea pig
- Enjoyed: some of the most delicious, gourmet and affordable food I have ever tasted
- Swam: in the Carribean, Atlantic, Pacific
- Jumped: off a bridge in Ecuador with a rope attached
- Hangglided: off a cliff in Brazil
- Survived: Death road in Bolivia
- Hired: Quads in Banos, Ecuador
- Admired: the Panama canal
- Met: heaps of cool people
- Made: some good mates
- Climbed: a volcano
- Had: my bag slashed on a bus in Ecuador
- Saw: many spectacular sights
- Hiked: in Vilcabamba, Ecuador
- Descended: a silver mine in Potosi, Bolivia
- Danced: Salsa in Cusco
- Stayed: with a family in Boliva (awesome experience)
- Laughed: lots
- Cooked: rarely
- Slept: in hostels, motels, homestays, on buses
- Learnt: A hell of alot
- Spoke: Spanish (or attempted to)
- Highlights: Carnival in Rio, Columbia, Galapogas, Banos in Ecuador, Inca Trail & Machu Pichu, Cusco, La Paz, Salt Flats in Bolivia, Buenos Aires
Tuesday 27th April 2010
Back in Argentina
The next day we transferred to a cheaper hostel and explored the city. Salta is a really nice little town with a beautiful town square and a modern mall. We found some cool little markets and bought some presents. The hostel had a cool vibe and we met some cool people. We spent the next couple of days eating empanadas, visiting the casino, watching soccer and hanging out with 2 Aussie twins Adam and Lucas who were loose as. The twins introduced us to the game of sting pong whereby you play table tennis but if you miss your shot your opponents get a free serve at your back with your tshirt pulled up. Funny stuff. It wasn't long before my back was covered in table tennis ball sized welts. On the second night the hostel put on a massive BBQ which was amazing. We headed out afterwards with a crew from the hostel and went to this Simpsons themed bar called Barney Gomez. From there we headed to a nightclub called 21 which was pretty cool. We bumped into Benny, Wif and Jordan who we last saw in Cusco and weren’t expecting to see again! Small world!
Woke up feeling pretty seedy so went for a lomito (steak sandwich) in the main square. We went to the archaeological museum which was really interesting. They found some ancient children high in the Andes and their bodies had been preserved due to the altitude and temperature.
Our overnight bus ride to Buenos Aires was the last of our journey and was pure luxury. We arrived in BA at about 11am and made out way to the Milhouse hostel. It was meant to be a party hostel so we thought we'd go out with a bang. Haha.
We walked around the main square and the weather was much better than our first visit which made it a much more enjoyable experience. We had signed up for a 5 a side soccer comp at the hostel so caught the tube to the soccer fields. We had an Aussie, Irish and a yank on our team and ended up coming third. I got taken out by a bloke and ended up winded and with a graze down my leg.
The next day we walked to Ricoleta to check out the famous cemetery. There must be some seriously rich and famous people buried there as some of the graves are so elaborate. We saw Evita’s grave which was interesting.
That afternoon we met up with Lucas who we had met on our Inca trail trek. We went for a couple of beers on the waterfront then to an all you can eat restaurant called La Bisteca which had been recommended to me by a work colleague (Christian). It was amazing. I had 5 plates of food and a dessert and it came to about $30AUS each.
We got a taxi to a cool pub in Palmero where we met up with some other Argentinians from our inca trail trek. Good times.
I booked a bike tour for my last day in BA. It was pretty good. We rode down the waterfront and then to La Boca which was cool. Got back to the hostel at about 5pm and bumped into Mark McDonald (a mate from Nelson Bay) who I knew was going to be in town. Mark, Clarkey and I went to our favourite steak restaurant for some dinner and a few beers. We went back to the hostel and met some other randoms at the hostel bar. From there we kicked on at a nightclub down the street and I got home at about 7am, just in time to get the 10am shuttle bus to the airport.
The next day we caught a bus to Uyuni which is where the tours of the salt flats leave from. After a long and slow bus trip we arrived in Uyuni at about 6:30pm and checked into a cheap hotel. We walked the streets looking for a tour company but there was so many so it wasn’t an easy decision. We had heard a few nightmare stories about broken down cars and drunken guides but eventually we settled on Neuva Ventura which we got a good feel about.
Our tour group consisted of two Danish girls Sarah and Karen and a Belgian couple, Bart and Birdy who were on their honey moon. Our tour guide was called Edgar and he seemed like a bit of a joker although he couldn’t speak any English. Our wheels for the next 3 days was a decent late model Toyota Landcruiser 4WD which appeared to be in good condition.
First stop on the tour was a salt processing plant which wasn’t too interesting really. After another quick stop at a hotel made entirely of salt we hit the salt flats. They are quite a spectacular sight. We were driving on an ancient lake that was now bone dry so there was long flat white plains in every direction and the sky was one of the bluest I had ever seen. Our lunch stop was at fish island and consisted of llama steaks, veg and quinoa (similar to rice) and was delicious. We climbed to the top of the island and took a million photos of the amazing landscapes.
Next we busted out the cameras and toys we had bought along with us to get some funny photos. Because the salt flats are so flat and there are no obstacles on the horizon, you can take photos that screw with sizes and perspective. Funny stuff, we got some good ones!
We drove for a few more hours and eventually reached the end of the salt flats where the terrain and vegetation changed dramatically. We continued on to the town of San Juan and arrived just in time to witness a truly spectacular sunset.
Our accommodation for the night was a little hotel built of salt bricks. Dinner consisted of delicious pizza and soup and was washed down with a few cervezas. We played cards and had plenty of laughs with the crew from our tour. They are a good group!
Day 2 commenced with a freezing 5am wakeup call and us piling into the Landcruiser and hitting the road. We spent a fair portion of the day in the car but saw some amazing sights including a lagoon filled with pink flamingos, the stone forest and the green lake. The green lake is filled with minerals that give it an amazing green colour. Very cool. We had a few car problems but Edgar jacked up one side and appeared to fix the problem.
On the way back to the accommodation we stopped at some thermal hot springs and went for a swim. Very relaxing indeed. We also stopped at some geysers which were cool too.
Dinner was pretty good and came with a bottle of red wine as it is our last night with the tour group. I ducked down the street and bought another bottle of wine and Clarkey and I played cards with the Danish birds. Good times.
We spent most of the last day in the car apart from stops at the red lake which was awesome, some rock formations which we climbed and a small town for lunch. At the lunch stop we played soccer with a local kid and ended up giving him the ball which we bought in Brasil. It served us well!
We got a flat tyre on the last stretch to Uyuni but Edgar fixed it without any problems. Arrived back in Uyuni at about 5pm, showered up and went out for a feed of MinuteMan Pizza with the Danes. We tried to kick on a bit but the crazy lady at the hotel wouldn’t let us out claiming that there was a midnight curfew!
Uyuni is a bit of a dusty crap hole so we were not keen to hang around any longer than necessary. We lined up at the train station at 11am to buy a ticket but the ticket man was playing soccer on a nearby field and didn’t show up for about an hour. Our train didn’t leave until 2:50am the following morning so we killed time on the internet and had a walk around the markets.
The next 24 hours was a bit of a transport nightmare. Our train to Villazon which is on the Argentinean border broke down and arrived 3 hours late. We then booked a bus from the Bolivian side of the border but when we crossed the border into Argentina we realized that we had been scammed and had to buy another ticket. After about 30 minutes on the bus it broke down and we all had to pile out and wait for anther bus to show up. We eventually arrived totally exhausted in Salta at about 1am. We got a cab to quite a nice hotel that was in the Lonely Planet as we were wrecked and needed a decent bed.
We got an overnight bus to Potosi which was quite luxurious. Arrived at Potosi at about 5am and got a taxi to the Koala Den hostel.
Potosi was once a booming silver mining town and its altitude of 4090m makes it one of the highest towns in world. It’s still a mining town but the money is now gone and all that is left to mine is low grade composites.
In the afternoon we went on a tour of a silver mine which was quite an intense experience. Our first stop was the miner’s markets where we bought presents for the miners to thank them for showing us around. We bought soft drink, pure alcohol and dynamite.
We got kitted out with overalls, helmets, dust masks and lights then headed down the mine. The passageway was extremely narrow and cramped and as we descended the air quickly became stale and dusty. We went down two levels via dodgy ladders so that we were 1.8km in and 200m below the surface and it was a very uncomfortable experience. In some parts it was extremely difficult to breath and there were times when the air was so thin that I almost hyperventilated as I felt that I just couldn’t get enough oxygen into my system. It was horrible. The guide talked to some of the miners that were working down there and they were thankful for our gifts. Some of them had been working down there since they were 12 years old and the conditions they work in are absolutely terrible. Most of them weren’t even wearing masks. Apparently the average life expectancy of a miner is only 48 years old. I was seriously glad to get out of there alive but it was also a good reality check and made me realise how lucky I am. I promise I won't complain about my job again!
Once on the surface we exploded some of the dynamite we had bought. It was massive!
Dinner consisted of a llama steak and then we just had a quiet one back at the hostel.
Saturday 17th April 2010
The instant we crossed the border into Bolivia it was obvious were were now in a much less affluent country. The roads were in much poorer condition and everything was just that little bit more dilapidated.
We arrived in the lake side town of Copa Cabana mid morning and checked into Hotel Mirrador which is right on the lake. It was the nicest hotel in town and only cost us $7 each. Even though Copa Cabana was dusty and run down I liked it as it had a bit of charm and character. Spent a few hours exploring the town and checked out the main square which was quite nice but there was not much action. Had a nice feed of nachos and watched some TV back at the hotel.
Our cash was running low and the only ATM in town was out of order so it was time to continue the journey to La Paz.
La Paz is the capital of Bolivia and is situated at an altitude of 3600m which makes it the highest capital city in the world.
We arrived in La Paz after a chaotic bus ride from Copa Cabana and checked into the Loki hostel. It was a party hostel so it was time to step it up once again. We befriended some cool Aussies at the hostel bar and spent most of our time in La Paz with them.
It is a very multicultural city and we ate at some world class restaurants that were ridiculously cheap. We spent the days exploring the city and the nights at some awesome bars. I found a camera repair shop which managed to repair my new camera which had broken after only 2 weeks use.
One of the main attractions of La Paz that it was near Death Road – the world’s most dangerous mountain bike ride.
There are numerous tour companies that offer guided rides down death road. After visiting quite a few of them we decided to go with Gravity. They are the original and most expensive company but also the one with the best safety equipment and record. An Israeli girl died whilst riding down Death Road only a week before we were there. Our tour guide told us that the rescue rope wasn’t even long enough to retrieve her body. Horrible.
We booked the ride with our Aussie mates, Tom, Dan, Shane and some of their friends so we had an awesome crew.
We woke up at 6am and made our way to the coffee shop meeting point. Had a croissant for breakfast and there was definitely a nervous feeling in the air as we all piled onto the bus.
The bus headed to the starting point but we had to pull over on the way for Clarkey to be sick. He didn’t look well at all and had most likely got food poisoning from the breakfast. Nasty!
We were issued with our bikes which were awesome - full suspension Konas with hydraulic disc brakes .... perfect! Well worth the extra money for such quality equipment.
The first part of the road was tarred and we absolutely flew down. We must have hit 70km/h on the steeper sections.
After about an hour of riding we came to the junction of the old and new roads which is where the real death road begins. It's a dirt road about 3m wide that winds down the mountain like a snake. There are no guard rails and in some sections there is a shear 100m drop on the side. The scenery is quite breathtaking.
We received a safety briefing, I strapped my helmet cam on and then it was time to go. It was so much fun and so exhilarating! I spent most of the time up the front of the group with Tommy and Shane and we were constantly pushing each other to ride faster. There were a couple of times that I felt myself drifting sideways towards the cliff which certainly got the adrenaline flowing! All in all it was fairly safe as you could just go at your own pace and there were numerous stops so we could regroup.
It sure was an epic ride! 64km and a loss of 3,000m in altitude. We eventually made it to the bottom at about 3:30pm and headed to an animal sanctuary for lunch. We got to see some cool birds and play with some cheeky monkeys that were very bitey indeed.
Hopped back on the bus and headed back to La Paz! Awesome day.
We spent another day in La Paz where we visited San Pedro prison but didn’t manage to make it inside and also the Coca museum. Apparently Coca Cola still uses coca leaves in their recipe.
Cusco is renowned for its party scene so it was time we got involved. We spent the next 4 days bouncing between Jacks breakfast cafe which was amazing, Nortons biker bar and the numerous night clubs around the main square that lure you in with free drinks. Some of Clarkey's mates from Coffs were in town (Wiff and Jordan) which ensured plenty of crazy late nights. Also caught up with Julie, Farina and Sylivia who passed through town while we were there. Cusco is like a spiderweb in that it is easy to get caught in the web of partying and hangovers which makes it difficult to leave as most of the buses depart really early in the morning. We managed to escape and got ourselves on a bus heading south to Puno. We payed for first class tickets but the bus was an absolute nightmare and was totally falling apart with broken seats and windows.
We arrived in Puno and checked in to the Point hostel which was extremely nice and friendly. We booked an island tour and then had an early night as our bodies were wrecked and were craving sleep and healthy food.
Puno is the gateway to Lake Titicaca so we caught a boat to the floating reed islands of Los Uros. They are quite amazing but also very touristy. They are the ones that you always see on the documentaries. The native people still live on the floating islands. One of the locals took us into her little hut and then it got really awkward as she expected us to buy something from her little stall. We hopped back on the boat and headed to the Island of Amantana where we were introduced to our host family for the night. Our host was called Francesca and at first she didn't seem interested in knowing us at all but she slowly warmed up. Noone spoke any English so it was a good opportunity to practise our Spanish. The son was friendly but it didn't take long for me to exhaust my Spanish vocab. The family lived such a basic existence, they got their power for lighting from solar panels and the kitchen was extremely basic. Living on an island meant that they relied heavily on trading food and vegetables with their neighbours. After a simple but delicious lunch we met up with the rest of the group in the town square and ended up playing soccer with a mix of locals and gringos. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world so Oxygen wasn't exactly plentiful in the air and damn did we feel it playing soccer. So breathless but so much fun!
After dinner the host mum dressed me in traditional robes (a colourful poncho) and we went to a fiesta. She taught me some Quechuan dances which were repetitive but quite fun. It was absolutely freezing and the stars in the sky were so bright. Amazing.
We woke to another beautiful day, said goodbye to our family and hopped back on the boat. Living with the family on that island really makes you realise how easy our lives are. We headed to the island of Taquile which wasn't too far away. It was quite a nice setting but wasn't that exciting really. We learnt that the colour of the beanies of the local people indicates their marital status and that married guys wear a belt that incorporates some of their wives hair instead of a wedding ring. Before getting married a couple has to live with the father of the bride which apparently leads to a 0% divorce rate. Interesting.
It was our last night in Peru so back in Puno we went out for a nice feed. I had cuy (Guinea pig) and it was delicious. It tasted a bit like duck.
Saturday 10th April 2010
The Inca Trail
Day 1 - Km 82 to HUAYLLABAMBA
We were picked up from our hotel at 6:30am and met up with some of the other people in our group before hopping on a large bus. Our tour was a bit of a mixed bunch, everyone was pretty young and the group consisted of heaps of Argentinians, some Peruvians, some Uruguayans and an American family.
We stopped at a little village to pick up some supplies including coca leaves for the altitude, snacks and some walking poles before continuing on to the starting point. It was all a bit disorganised and we ended up having lunch before setting off on the trail at about 2pm. The first day wasn't that bad, it was a good mix of ups, downs and flats and the scenery was very pleasant. We were responsible for carrying our own clothes and sleeping gear and the rest of the stuff was carried on the backs of the team of porters who raced ahead of us on the trail. They are absolutely amazing, they carry weights of up to 40kg and literally run the trail in sandals. We arrived at the campsite at about 6pm and the porters were already there and the campsite mostly set up. It was two people per tent with a common dining tent where the meals were served. Dinner consisted of rice and meat and was delicious. We were all pretty buggered so were in bed by 9pm.
Day 2 - HUAYLLABAMBA to PACAYMAYU
We were awoken at 5am by the Porters knocking on our tent with a cup of coca tea. That stuff is awesome! It calms your stomach and allows your blood to absorb more oxygen. It seems to fix every ailment in existence!
Day 2 was touted as the toughest day and it didn't disappoint. It was about 90% uphill. Clarkey set a blistering pace and I couldn't keep up so he raced on ahead. We were now at a decent altitude so it definitely wasn't a walk in the park. I teamed up with an Argentinian and fellow engineer Santiago and together we held a decent pace with plenty of stops to take photos of the panoramic vistas. We reached the top of the Warmihuañusca Pass at an altitude of 4200m in about 3 hours. We had a bit of a rest and took in the breath taking views. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped rapidly so we continued on over the other side and it took us another hour to reach the campground. The descent to the campground was quite testing on the muscles. We arrived at the campground at about 11:30am and Clarkey had already been there for an hour. The porters starting arriving and cooked us lunch. The rest of the afternoon was allocated as free time but it started raining so we just ended up chilling in our tent which was a bit boring.
Some of the other people in our group struggled with the altitude and the terrain and didn't arrive at the campsite until 5pm. We were all hanging for dinner by this time. It was a pretty cold night in the tent.
Day 3 - PACAYMAYU to WIÑAYHUAYNA
Another 5am coca tea wake up followed by a hot breakfast and we were on our way. Day 3 was the longest distance and consisted of a mix of ups and downs and the route took us past some inca ruins which were interesting. It was raining which made the first part of the walk a little cold and miserable. We stopped for lunch and it cleared up a little which made the last part of the journey much more fun. Arrived at the last camp site at about 4pm which was quite civilized and had hot showers! Pure luxury! The porters and guides put on a massive feast and we had a few beers. It was awesome! We had a bit of a ceremony to thank the porters and everyone threw some money in a hat. Top bunch of guys and such a tough job!
Day 4 - WIÑAYHUAYNA to MACHUPICCHU
Woke up at 3:50am, packed up our gear and had breakfast in the mess hall. It was overcast and rainy as we hit the trail so our ponchos were required.
After about 2 hours we arrived at the Sun Gate which overlooks Machupicchu. Unfortunatley it was still rainy and overcast so we couldn't see a thing but we were still able to appreciate the shear magnificence of where we were. We made our way to the entrance gate and checked our bags in. As we walked back up the path, the sun came out and it was magnificent! There was some confusion as to whether Huayna Picchu (the peak overlooking Machupicchu) was open but we managed to get some tickets and ditched our tour group to climb to the top. It was a fun climb and well worth the effort as the views were absolutely amazing. We climbed back down and managed to catch up with our tour group again for the last bit of the tour. It really is an amazing place and it is so well preserved. You really do get the feeling that you are in an ancient village. Machupicchu was the religious centre of the Inca empire and you really do feel a higher force while you are there.
Desmond the kangaroo came out to play but the security guard didn't seem to see the funny side and starting blowing his whistle so we ran and hid in some ruins and deflated him. It turned in to a beautiful day so we were able to get all the photos that we wanted. Our visit to South America wouldn't have been complete without hiking the Inca Trail and seeing Machupicchu.
We got the bus to Agua Calientes and met up with the rest of the tour group at the meeting point. It's quite a nice little town and is famous for its hot springs so we went for a dip which helped sooth our sore muscles.
The trip back to Cusco was a nightmare and involved a train then two buses. The second bus driver was very intoxicated and we didn't get back until 2am and were absolutely wrecked!
The company we did the Inca Trail with is called Inca Point and I would recommend them highly - http://www.incapoint.com
Julie and Farina were headed in the same direction as us, so together the 4 of us hopped on a bus headed for the Peruvian border. The border crossing was fairly uneventful and we arrived in Piura at about 9pm. It was a seriously dodgy place and we all felt unsafe. We had dinner at a dodgy Chinese restaurant and then caught another bus to Trujillo which left at midnight. The bus ride was full of smelly, sweaty, overweight snoring men and was an absolute nightmare! We arrived in Trujillo at about 7am and I was so buggered that I didn't know what was going on and had memory loss from the day before. Trujillo is located on the coast and is quite a nice little town. Clarkey and I booked a bus to Lima then the four of us got a cab to some nearby inca ruins called the Temple of the Sun and Moon. Until recently, the ruins were completely covered in sand and it's incredible how intact the buildings and sculptures still are.
The four of us had dinner together and then it was time for Clarkey and I to continue on South. We were now on a tight schedule to make it to Cusco on time for our Inca trail trek. We had booked an overnight bus to Lima and then another overnight bus to Cusco which means that by the time we got to Cusco we would have spent over 40 hours on buses in just 3 days. Nightmare.
The trip to Lima wasn't too bad. We had about 8 hours to kill in Lima so we got a taxi to a nearby shopping centre and I bought a new camera to replace the one that got stolen.The bus to Cusco was a nightmare, it was so slow and windy and we got stuck near some loud annoying Americans.
We eventually arrived in Cusco and got a taxi to the Point hostel which had been recommended to us. It wasn't a bad hostel but it had a pretty young bogan crowd and large over-crowded dorms. I suppose that's what you should expect from a party hostel. Had a fairly quiet night and it was so good to sleep in a bed once again.
We spend the next day exploring the city. With its cobbled streets, stunning architecture and beautiful setting, Cusco is an absolutely amazingly picturesque place. The altitude of 3400m makes even a brisk walk quite hard work. We called in at the office of our Inca trail company and paid our remaining balance. At one stage it started absolutely pouring so we sought refuge in a barbers salon so decided to get haircuts while we were there. Our haircuts cost 3 soles each which is $1.20AUS. Crazy. That night our Inca trail guide came around and gave us a briefing on the upcoming hike. The excitement was beginning to build.
The next night was time to celebrate my 30th birthday. We started the night by enjoying a delicious llama steak and hot red wine before heading to a cool jazz bar where the band sung me Happy Birthday in Spanish. We moved on and danced the rest of the night away at some bars in the main square. Awesome place to have my birthday!
Friday 26th March 2010
South of Ecuador
After a week in Banos it was time to start heading south towards Peru. My 7 nights at Plantos Y Blancos hostel including breakfast and bar tab only cost me $80US ... amazing! We decided to head to Peru via the mountain route instead of the coastal route as we had already had heaps of beach time.
After some confusion and being misadvised, we ended up on a bus to Riobamba where we had a few hours to kill before getting another bus to Cuenca. The bus was extremely slow, uncomfortable and seemed to stop every 4 seconds. We arrived in Cuenca around 5ish and checked into a hotel across the road from the bus station. It was a really nice hotel and only cost us $10US each. We ate dinner downstairs and it was delicious and cheap and the guy was so friendly. He even sent his son down the road to get us beers as he didn't have any in stock. My faith in the Ecuadorian people was slowly being restored after the bag slashing incident.
The next day, we had breakfast downstairs and jumped on a bus to Loja and then on to Vilcabamba which took most of the day. We got a taxi to Hostel Izhcayluma which had been recommended to us on numerous occasions and it didn't disappoint. It's set on an acerage on top of a hill with spectacular panoramic views. It's run by two German brothers Peter and Dieter and they have done an amazing job. It has a gourmet kitchen which serves meals from all around the world! We spent the next few days indulging in delicious food, good company and cuba libres at the bar. The bar staff were hilarious, 2 Irish girls had been running the bar for the last few months and were in the process of handing over to an Irish guy and his Peruvian boyfriend. It didn't take long before Clarkey and I were on first name terms and plenty of laughs were had by all.
The area is famous for its hiking and the hostel has developed a network of trails. We chose the Mandango trail which offered spectacular views but also came with a bandit warning! Apparently a few people had been robbed whilst on this trail recently. The start of the hike was extremely steep and we were sweating like dogs in our hungover state. Once we reached the top we continued along the ridge line and enjoyed some amazing views. In some parts the path along the top of the ridge was only 50cm wide with vast drops on either side. It was awesome! From the top we saw some potential bandits ahead of us so armed ourselves with the biggest sticks we could find in case a confrontation ensued. We were definitely on edge as we walked back through an overgrown gully which would have made a perfect ambush spot. Fortunately we made it back to the hostel without incident.
We made friends with some of the people in our room Julie (France), Farina (UK) and some Dutch blokes that I had met in Banos. Four of the six of us staying in our room had had their bags slashed on buses out of Quito ... crazy! We spent a couple of fun nights playing cards and pool at the hostel bar. We had learnt a new card game called 7 to 1 in Banos which was heaps of fun. Our last night was particularly loose as we ended up going to bed at 7am and getting up at 8am to catch a 10am bus. I think the bar staff were glad to see us go.
On the bus ride from Quito to Banos, my small backpack which was between my legs on the bus at all times was slashed and all the stuff in the front pocket was stolen. They got my underwater camera, normal camera, Lonely Planet, laptop charger (so laptop is now useless) plus heaps of little stuff. Could have been much worse as I still have my passport and bank cards. I found out later on that it´s quite a common crime on that bus route. They must have climbed under the seat in front of me and taken my stuff right before my eyes. Quite amazing really! Such an amazing talent put to such a bad use, they should be heart surgeons with those sort of fine motor skills. I was a bit shocked at first but didn´t dwell too much on it and was able to laugh about it soon after. I had backed up my photos the night before so it was more of an inconvenience than anything else. An American girl who was sitting across the isle from me also had her bag slashed and money and camera stolen. A couple of days later I had fun stitching up the cut with some metal thread and slashproofing both pockets by lining the inside with chicken wire. If they strike again, I´m ready! I was actually eyeing off a slash proof backpack before I left Oz but couldn´t justify the $250 price tag. Would have just payed for itself now! haha
Banos is an amazingly picturesque place. It´s a small town that is surrounded by mountains on all sides. Quite reminiscent of Banff in Canada or Bovec in Slovenia. It´s also a hub for action sports. I checked in to Plantos Y Blanco Hostel which had been recommended to me. It´s an awesome hostel with a sweet rooftop bar and was really easy to meet other travellers. I actually bumped into a girl (Sylvia) that I went to University with in Newcastle which was crazy! Small world!
My first day in Banos was spent chasing up a police report for my travel insurance. I went to the main Police station and got a ride in a Police car to another station where a helpful bloke wrote a short report for me. It was quite a funny situation and there was a bit of a language barrier but the cops were so friendly.
The next day I went white water rafting in the morning and canyoning in the afternoon.
The class 4 rapids ensured there was plenty of hairy moments and there were numerous times that our raft was so far up on one side that I couldn't even reach the water with my paddle. Awesome fun! One of the other rafts in our group capsized and the occupants got thrown into the icy water. I just happened to be the closest to the action and had to pull two people (a mother and her son) out of the water. It's not easy pulling the full weight of a person out of the water while trying not to get pulled in yourself. The mother was quite hysterical and in shock. She was also quite blue and for a second I thought she wasn't breathing. Was quite scary but worked out ok in the end.
Canyoning was also heaps of fun! The Americans that I had met on the bus from Quito came along as well. We went down 5 waterfalls and our guide was a champ!
After successfully climbing Cotopaxi Clarkey made it to Banos and we stayed there for a few more days. One of the best days involved us jumping off a bridge in the morning then hiring quad bikes in the afternoon. Jumping off that bridge was one of the dodgiest things I have ever done! They call it puenting (which is Spanish for bridging) and it's similar to bunji except the rope doesn't stretch and you use swing beneath the bridge to absorb the shock. It was a seriously dodgy setup ... two blokes had set up their business on the bridge and I'm assuming they had no council clearance or insurance and their safety gear consisted of some witches hats. It only cost us $15 each! I was deadset shaking as I climbed over the rails of the bridge on to the rusty makeshift jumping platform. The only instructions were we given was "Jump like Michale Phelps". Clarkey and I swung our arms and jumped simultaneously! The idea is that you dive head first and then somersault as you swing under the bridge and Clarkey managed to pull this off like a pro. Unfortunately I was still in the belly flop position when I hit the bottom of the rope and got absolutely smashed and went into a spin. It was quite terrifying! I'm glad I did it though and I'd probably do it again.
That afternoon and still buzzing from the bridge jump, we hired quad bikes and spent the next 4 hours zooming around like absolute maniacs. It was so much fun, they were pretty fast but became quite unstable at high speeds! We went to the top of 2 volcanoes and admired the amazing views. I ran out of petrol on the way back down the second volcano but luckily it was all down hill so I was able to roll back into town. The chick seemed dirty at how much petrol we had used ... gold!
We capped off an awesome day with an awesome night at the roof top bar at the hostel. Meet a bunch of Americans, Germans and Dutch and kicked on until the early hours of the morning. Had to drag myself out of bed for a 10am Spanish lesson that I had booked the day before. The lesson was pretty good fun and the teacher cleared up a few things that I wasn't sure of.
Flew back to the mainland and checked back in at the Backpackers Inn in Quito.
The next day we caught the cable car to the top of Teleferico which is one of the mountains overlooking Quito. From there we then hiked to the top of nearby Volcan Pichincha. It took us about 2 hours to reach the top which has an altitute of 4700m. There was a massive temperature drop and you could really notice the altitude and the thin air. At the peak, we were actually above the clouds and the views were spectacular. We couldn´t really hang around too long at the top as we were worried that the clouds might close in and limit our visibility.
We also visited the La Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world) which is a monument located on the equator. It´s quite funny as the monument is actually located about 100m from the actual equator because when the French calculated the position they got it slightly wrong due to primitive technology and instruments. The Americans came in later on with GPS and marked the real equator line. We went on a guided tour of the museum that is located on the real equator line a short walk down the road from the monment. They do some experiments to demonstrate the "Power" at the equator. One of the experiments that is obviously a trick and that I can´t work out how they do it is that they put a sink on the equator and pour a bucket of water down it and the water drains directly down without any whirlpool, they then move the sink a meter North of the equator and pour water down and sure enough there is a clockwise whilpool as the water drains, he then moves the sink a metre South of the equator and the whirlpool spins the other way as the sink drains. Damn good trick! Let me know if you know how they do it! They also claim that it is easier to balance an egg on a nail at the equator as the forces on either side of the egg are equal! I don´t buy it!
Clarkey and I were meant to climb a 5800m Volcano called Coto Paxi but my sinus infection that I got whilst on the Galapagos was still hanging around and I didn't feel fit enough to cope with that sort of altitude. As a result, Clarkey stayed in Quito to climb the mountain and I headed South to Banos.
Sunday 14th March 2010
Situated about 1000km off the coast of Ecuador and consisting of 15 islands, the Galapagos Islands are a truly unique and beautiful part of the world. They are home to a vast number of endemic species of plants and animals. Galapagos means saddle in ancient Spanish and the islands were given this name by early Spanish explorers because the shape of one of the species of giant tortoise shells resembles a saddle. Most of the islands are uninhabited but there a few towns scattered around the islands. About 23,000 people call the Galapagos Islands their home (I had no idea so many people lived there).
On the geological scale of things, the islands are quite young which makes them like a living scientific experiment. Each different island is home to unique species of animals each with slightly different characteristics that allow them to survive more effectively in that environment. An example is the 15 different species of Finches that are only found on the Galapagos Islands. Finches from adjacent islands have each evolved differently and exhibit slightly different physical characteristic (ie different shaped beaks) to make them more capable of survival on their respective islands. This is the land of evolution.
San Cristobal Island
We flew from Quito to the Island of San Cristobal where we met up with our boat tour. The tour group was a mixed bunch and consisted of a retired American couple, a retired Aussie couple, a British couple in their 30s who live in Oz, a Spanish couple who were in their 30s, an Israeli mother and son, a 78 year old French Canadian bloke who had a few screws loose and wasn´t very steady on his feet and an American mum who had recently discovered adventure sports and was very proud of her two sons and did´t mind constantly telling everyone about them. All in all they were a decent bunch of people and only a couple of them got on our nerves.
We got a last minute deal on the cruise which translated to a 50% reduction in the advertised price (it was still extremely expensive). It was a 5 day cruise although it´s more like 3.5 days by the time they stuff around. Our guide Juan Carlos was level 3 qualified (the highest level) which meant that he was very professional and knowledgeable of the area.
We hopped in a bus and after a short drive, a panga (zodiac/dingy) took us out to the boat. Our boat and home for the next 4 nights, The Queen of the Galapagos was one of the larger vessels around and was pure luxury. The meals were delicious and the crew generally went out of their way to make us feel welcome.
Our first excursion was back to San Cristobal where we hopped on a bus and were driven to a tortoise breading centre. It was a shame to only see the giant tortoises in captivity but was still worth it. Their shear size is quite amazing!
After dinner a rumour swept the boat that Clarkey and I were keen to check out the night life on the island. A small group was assembled and a panga dropped us off in town for a few hours. Our guide also seized the opportunity to get off the boat and donned his tightest muscle shirt and pants and accompanied us (nothing suss). There wasn´t much going on so we just had a couple of beers and watched the hundreds of sea lions gathered (mostly sleeping) on the beach.
While we slept the boat travelled to our next destination, the island of Espanola.
We awoke to quite a beautiful beach surrounded by a ruggered coastline. The first excursion of the day involved a walk along the beach and some snorkeling. The setting was reminiscent of the Whitsundays with turquoise waves breaking on perfectly white sand. There were heaps of sea lions lazing around the beach. In general, the animals here are fearless of humans so you can get up heaps close without bothering them. We also saw some marine iguanas and some colourful crabs. We snorkeled around a nearby island and saw some cool fish and even got to swim with some sea lions which was cool. They look so lazy and grumpy on land but once in the water they are so graceful. My underwater camera (my first one broke already) has proven to be a worthy investment!
After lunch we ventured back on to the island and went for a hike around the rocks. The wildlife was amazing! We saw seal lions, marine iguanas, blue footed boobies, lizards, finches and other birds. Along the way we passed quite an awesome blow hole. It was quite a rocky walk and the French Canadian bloke struggled big time and fell over numerous times. Both Clarkey and I had to catch him on a couple of occasions.
After another disjointed sleep due to the boat rocking all night (I swear I thought I was going to fall out of bed a couple of times) we awoke to the island of Floreana.
We caught the panga to the mainland and went on a small walk to a shallow lake that was filled with pink flamingos. They´re quite a majestic animal and we learnt that their pink colour comes from a chemical that is in the small shrimps that they eat. We did some snorkeling along the rocks and saw some more colourful fish and some penguins. Later in the morning the panga dropped us off at a volcanic rock formation called The Devils Crown where we did some more snorkeling. The current was quite strong so it was more life drift snorkeling. The water was crystal clear and we saw so many fish and even a few white tipped reef sharks which was awesome. Easily the best snorkeling experience of the trip so far!
In the afternoon we visited Post Office Bay which was the first post office in South America. The deal is that in the old days, ships used to leave mail in the box and when other ships passed by, they would stop and take any mail with them that they were able to deliver. The tradition continues today. I left a few postcards in the box and picked up some postcards that were addressed to Australia and will deliver them or post them when I get home. Pretty cool! I wonder how long my postcards will take to be delivered?
Next up was Isabella Island. After breakfast, we were dropped off on a volcanic island. It was ridiculously hot and the terrain was incredibly harsh and jaggered. We saw some marine iguanas laying eggs and some frigate birds trying to steal them. We also went snorkeling and were meant to see more reef sharks but didn´t see any at all.
In the afternoon we had free time in the town of Isabella. There wasn´t much going on at all! Desmond made the trip as well and I got some photos of him mixing it up with some marine iguanas. We found a cool little bar on the waterfront and drank delicious cuba libres (rum and coke) as the sun set over the water. Very spectacular indeed. It was emotional! We didn´t want to go back to the boat.
Because the Galapagos Islands are right on the equator you are able to see star constellations from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The sky is also crystal clear so it´s quite amazing. We were able to see the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper simultaneously.
The bar tender on board our boat was called Ernesto and our guide treated him like his little bitch. It was friggin hilarious. The guide would yell "Errrrrr-neeeessssto" from anywhere in the dining room and Ernesto would appear, snap to attention (not quite) and answer any questions. So funny!
Santa Cruz Island
It was time to leave the boat, so we packed up our stuff and got dropped off at The Charles Darwin Research Centre on the mainland. We saw some land iguanas and giant tortoises that were bred in captivity. We were also privileged to see "Lonesome George", the last of his species. They are trying to get him to breed with some females of similar species but have had no success so far.
We decided to stay a couple of nights on Santa Cruz so found a cheap hotel (Hotel Salinas) and checked in. In the afternoon, we rented bikes and went to Tortuga Bay. It was quite a beautiful beach and the sand was the finest and whitest I have ever seen. There was some decent waves and a few surfers were out. I had no idea you could surf on the Galapagos!
I woke up the next day with blocked sinuses but fortunately they cleared up a bit as the day progressed so I was still able to go SCUBA. We got a lift to the North of the island, boarded the boat and headed to the dive site Cousin Rocks. On the boat there was an Aussie girl, an American bloke, a German bloke and some American college students who were studying marine biology on the islands and also their mums who were visiting.
According to my logbook, I hadn´t dived for 2 years so was a bit rusty when we descended to 30m straight away on our first dive. By the second dive I was feeling much more comfortable and was able to relax more and enjoy the scenery. They were amazing dives! We saw heaps of fish, eels, a turtle, sea lions, spotted eagle rays and the highlight was a school of hammerhead sharks. Unfortunately I didn´t get that close to the hammerheads so only saw the outlines of them as they swam off into the distance. Amazing! My buddy (one of the American mums) disappeared during the second dive and there was a few nervous minutes while the dive master located her. Turns out she had issues with herbuoyancy and surfaced accidental during the excitement of seeing the hammerheards.
Met up with the dive crew for dinner and a few beers at a lively bar called The Rock. Who knew the Galapagos Islands had cool bars? We got talking to these American blokes who are pilots for this ultra deep submarine that can go down to 4400m to collect samples and take photos. Crazy way to earn a living!
I really liked Santa Cruz! It was such an awesome and safe little town!
I met up with Clarkey again at Quito airport and together we caught a shuttle to The Backpacker's Inn in Quito. We stepped out of hostel the following morning and were greeted by a vagrant hurling a brick at us! Fortunately it missed but we decided to head the other way down the street. Not the warmest welcoming to Ecuador!
Our hostel was in an area called Mariscol which has heaps of cool bars but is quite dodgy at night. We only stayed in Quito for 2 nights and took it fairly easy, only venturing out to explore the old town which is quite picturesque (but nothing too much to write home about) and visited some travel agencies to book a Galapagos Islands trip.
Saturday 6th March 2010
I did a solo mission to Panama for a couple of nights as it’s the only Country in Central America I hadn’t been to and I’ve always been keen to see the Panama Canal.
I stayed at an awesome party hostel that had been recommended to me by numerous people called Lunas Castle and it didn’t disappoint. Met a few cool people and at night the bar downstairs was going off so we didn´t need to venture any further.
I caught a taxi to MiraFlores on the Panama Canal which is the closest lock to Panama City. Watched a brief movie on the construction and history of the canal and then headed upstairs to the viewing platform. I saw two ships pass through the canal. The first was an oil tanker and the second one was a massive cruise ship. Apparently cruise ships don’t pass through that often so I was lucky to see it. The money involved is astronomical. The cruise ship paid $280K US to pass through the canal. The lowest fee ever paid was $0.36 by an American bloke (Richard Halliburton) who swam the 77km length of the canal. The yanks only handed back the Canal to Panama in 1999 which is why the city feels so Americanised.
Panama City is an awesome city! I stayed in the old town which was very safe as it was close to the Presidential Palace but some of the adjacent suburbs were very dodgy indeed. Panama uses the US dollar and appears expensive at times although I was still able to buy a meal (arroz y pollo - chicken and rice) for $0.80 at a local cafe.
We arrived in Colombia quite exhausted after the Carnival festivities in Rio. Clarkey’s uncle Peter met us at the airport in Bogota and took us back to his apartment. After a couple of good sleeps we were back in the game and spent the next few days relaxing and exploring the city. Bogota is nestled amongst two arms of the Andes and is a very cool city. Everyone is so well dressed and the city has a very European feel to it. The temperature was usually around 20C which was a nice change from Rio.
We checked out the old city and also the art gallery which has quite a few works of Fernando Botero who is famous for his sculptures and paintings depicting objects that are larger (fatter) than life. We also caught the cable car up to Monserrate which is a small mountain overlooking Bogota with a church on the top. The views from the top were very spectacular indeed.
Another day we caught a bus to the nearby town of Zipaquira which is famous for its underground cathedral built in an old salt mine. You walk down an underground tunnel for a few hundred meters then it all opens up to reveal a magnificent cathedral! Quite amazing! I’d never seen anything like it before.
Bogota was generally very safe although we did stick to the nice areas and avoided the dodgy areas. It wasn’t unusual for people to stop and stare at us in the street. Peter and his girlfriend Lucia live in a very nice part of town in a secure apartment complete with gym and squash court (we made good use of the facilities). We didn’t have any problems during our time in Colombia but a story that Lucia told us about how some bandits threatened to kidnap her children only 3 years ago reminded us that the threat was still real.
Our next destination was the town of Santa Marta located in the North of Colombia on the Caribbean coast. Santa Marta was quite poor and run down which was quite the stark contrast from the Bogota we experienced with Clarkey’s uncle. There are quite a few beggars and they hassle you while you are trying to eat your dinner.
Tayrona National Park was only a stone’s throw away, so we caught a bus there to check it out. We walked through the jungle for about and hour and eventually made it to the coast. The only wildlife we saw on the way was some monkeys. The beaches were quite spectacular and it was a beautiful day so we went for a swim. If we had know there were camping facilities there we probably would have stayed a night.
Another day we visited nearby Rodadero where we rented a little shade tent and chilled on the beach all day! Very relaxing indeed!
We found a cool bar and had a couple of fun nights out. Both times we ended up meeting some locals and having plenty of laughs. One night at dinner a local girl invited herself to our table. I saw it as a good opportunity to practise my Spanish so started firing questions at her but the situation turned awkward pretty quickly when she asked to have a sip of my beer, ate one of our slices of pizza and whispered some inappropriate comments in my ear. Funny stuff.
Cartegena was next on our list and the so called 4 hour “directo” shuttle service wasn’t very direct in the end and it took us most of the day to get there.
Cartegena is quite a large city with a very picturesque old town. Out first day was spent exploring the city and walking around the old town. There was an international film festival on so we checked that out as well. Saw a couple of “interesting” short films.
The next day we caught a bus to Volcan de lodo el totumo, a mud volcano. The “Volcano” actually looks more like a mound than a Volcano and instead of spewing lava, this volcano heats up mud. You ascend the stairs to the top and then there is a ladder that allows you to lower yourself in the luke warm mud. You get absolutely covered in mud, so you give your camera to one of the guys up the top and he takes photos of you while you are in there. There are also creepy looking guys waiting in the mud to give you a massage upon entry. I wasn’t up for a man-ssage but the girls on our tour who were got a little more than they bargained for .. hahaha. The mud volcano was like nothing I had ever experienced before, it’s extremely relaxing as you can either just lay back and float on the top of the mud or totally immerse yourself. Apparently there are over 50 minerals in the mud so it’s extremely good for you. After washing ourselves off in a nearby lagoon, we hopped back on the bus and stopped at a nice little fishing village for lunch.
Another day we caught a boat to Playa Blanca which the Lonely Planet described as one of Colombia’s most beautiful beaches. It was pretty nice but wasn’t worth the 2 hour boat ride each way. A better option would have been to get a speed boat there directly.
At the hostel in Cartegena we met an American bloke called Christian who over the last 14 months had cycled from Pantagonia in Southern Argentina all the way up to Colombia (12,000kms), and was continuing on through Central America. Quite amazing and inspirational!
Another overnight bus and a short ferry ride and we found ourselves on Illa do Mel, an island off the East coast of Brazil. The island is car free and is fairly basic and has a few surf beaches but unfortunately there wasn't a wave in sight. There wasn't much to do which suited us as sleep wasn't something that had dominated our trip so far. We spent the days exploring the island and swimming and the nights just chilling. Two nights on the island was all our tight itinerary allowed and before we knew it, it was time to move on.
Another overnight bus to Rio de Janerio was on the cards and upon boarding the bus there was a certain electricity and excitement in the air ... Carnival was going to be epic!
We arrived in Rio in the morning and made our way to the hostel which we payed a ridiculous amount of money to sleep in a triple bunk bed in a crowded dorm. All prices are inflated by a factor of 5 during Carnival but it had to be done!
Our time in Rio sure was an awesome and action packed 7 days. The hostel was in a secure lane with numerous other hostels and was located only a few blocks from Ipanema beach. We were right amongst the action. An old Aussie mate, Mick and his wife Kelly (who is from Brazil) lived around the corner from the hostel and Dane and Claudia were over from London so we had a good group to hang out with. Our days were spent chilling on the beach and exploring the numerous sights Rio has to offer. The afternoons and nights were spent dancing and drinking beers on the street at the numerous "Blockos" (a blocko is an organised street party with music, a couple of floats, thousands of people and blokes selling dirt cheap beers from large eskys). You can either follow the float throughout the streets or just go to the finishing point and wait for the party to come to you.
The weather was absolutely stunning and the temperature hit high 30s most days. One afternoon we caught the cable car to the top of Mount Sugar Loaf and watched the sun set over the city. It was just amazing. Rio truly is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to.
One of the highlights was going hang gliding over the city. Running down the ramp and launching off the edge of the cliff was extremely exhilarating and the first few seconds were quite terrifying. Once I got settled in I was able to relax and enjoy the phenomenal view!
We bought some tickets to the Samba Parade at the Sambrodromo (the big competition samba parade). It was totally crazy. The complexity of the floats and the costumes just blows your mind. Mick, Kelly, Dane and Claudia were actually part of the parade so we got to see them in action.
A Futbal (soccer) game was also on our to do list and we scored some tickets through the hostel to a semi final between two Rio teams, Flamengo VS Botafago. It was a local derby and the atmosphere didn't disappoint and came complete with flares, singing etc. Botafago ended up winning 2-1.
We did a tour of Rocina, the largest Favela (about 200,000 people live there) in South America. A Favela is a type of shanty town or urbanised slum that is controlled by the drug lords and consists of poor living conditions, limited access to services, potential involvement in the crossfire of drug related gang wars and high density illegally built adhoc housing. A bus dropped us at the base of the Favela and then we each hopped on the back of a motorcycle taxi which took us to the top. The group of us then walked through the streets back down to the bottom. It was quite an eye opening experience. Although there was quite an overwhelming smell of sewerage and plenty of rotting garbage in the streets, the people still managed to smile and make us feel welcome. Only about 10% of the people in the favelas are involved in the drug trade so most people work normal jobs but just can't afford to break away from the cycle of poverty.
We also checked out Copacabana beach, ate at a delicious pay by weight restaurant (twice) and went to Corcovada (the famous statue of Christ that overlooks the city).
All in all Rio was incredibly safe and we had such a cracker of a time. The best thing about Carnival is that you get out of it what you want to ie. if you want to party 24/7 you can but you don't have to to have an awesome time!
A funny story from Rio ... I was walking through a park when a bloke came up to me and said that I had dog crap on my thong. I looked down and sure enough there was a nasty looking substance on the toe strap. He had obviously placed it there while I was distracted and coincidentally had a cloth and some cleaning gear and proceeded to remove my thong and clean it. He wouldn't give back my thong until I had payed him about $10AUS ... gold!
After a slight detour to Santiago, Chille due to bad weather, our flight eventually made it to Buenos Aires. It was a long 20 hour journey. We made our way to the hostel only to discover that it was full of weirdos and had the atmosphere of a wet blanket. We were absolutely exhausted but managed to drag ourselves out for a delicious Argentinian steak and a couple of cervezas! Spent the next couple of days exploring the city and eating more delicious tender mouth watering steaks. Initially the weather wasn't the best and it wasn't until the sun came out that we realised what a great place Buenos Aires really is. It feels extremely European and had a very modern mall although is still quite the mix of rich and poor.
A quick look at a map and a calendar revealed that we had a quite a large distance to cover and not a lot of time to make it to Rio de Janerio in time for Carnival. As a result, we cut our time in Buenos Aires a bit short (we fly out of there at the end of our trip so we will have more time to explore later) and jumped on an overnight bus to Iguazu Falls. The bus took about 20 hours but was pure luxury with wide seats that folded almost flat to form beds and multiple hot meals were served including vino!
Iguazu Falls were absolutely spectacular and make Niagra Falls look like Bar Beach storm water drain in comparison! The falls are on the border of Argentina and Brazil and we viewed them from both sides which are equally picturesque and amazing. The Brazilian side allows you to get up and close to the base of the falls while the Argentinian side allows you to walk over the top of the falls on a suspended platform. Desmond the Kangaroo came out to play and received a warm reception from the crowd. Whilst in Iguazu we stayed at this crazy hostel that was an old converted casino complete with pool and multiple bars. We got amongst the atmosphere and met some cool people, ensuring we took note of their travel recommendations for our upcoming journey.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” --Mark Twain