A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: mattld

Brazil

sunny 28 °C

Hola guapos y guapas! You can see below the map which shows my route through South America. I'm afraid I haven't suddenly developed better artwork skills over night, I've got Intrepid Travel to thank for it. ;) The last three weeks have gone by so quickly that I can't believe it's the very last day. But I am excited for Europe and what lies ahead.

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My expectations couldn't have been any higher for Rio and it's been a place on my hit list for many years. I thought Sydney was the most beautiful city I've ever seen but Rio has eclipsed it. With its vast ocean views and staggering mountains Rio really is a jaw dropper. I've not been to Cape Town or Miami yet and I've no doubt they're well regarded for a reason but I'd be surprised if anywhere else will have me smiling in admiration as much as Rio has. Landing into its domestic airport we were treated to this view on arrival. It's as if they've gone and built a city on the set of Jurassic Park!

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We arrived a couple of hours before dinner so as a group we headed straight for the famous Copacabana beach for sunset, dinner and some Caipirinhas, the well known Brazilian cocktail.

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The first full day was action packed. First up was the Rio de Janeiro Cathedral. It was built between the 1960s and 1970s and can hold up to 20,000 people. Brazil is very much a Catholic country and I've no doubt they've had many nights where this church was at full capacity. Our group weren't too impressed however with its architecture and I must admit it looks a little dystopian on the eye.

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We next visited the Escadaria Selarón, also known as the 'Selaron Steps' and world famous. Unfortunately with so many people there I couldn't get a great photo of the steps, but here are two snaps to give you an idea. There's some really cute art work featuring everything from countries all across the globe to a homage to the Simpsons.

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We were all eagerly awaiting our next stop, the iconic Christ Redeemer statue. It towers over the city of Rio as if it's protecting everyone who lives here. Constructed between 1922 and 1931, the statue is 30 metres high, excluding its 8-metre pedestal. Despite its obvious religious connections I had that same feeling of awe that I've had when visiting the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House or the Pyramids of Giza.

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This is our tour guide Luciano. We couldn't have been better looked after, not to mention as well fed and watered.

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We then paid a visit to the Santa Theresa district which is well known for its hipster vibes, colorful buildings and funky artwork.

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The day was ended with a trip to the Sugar Loaf Mountain for two cable car rides which brought us to glorious panoramic views of the city. Rio really is a stunner and to get a better idea check out some videos on YouTube as it's hard to capture its beauty in these stills.

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Our trip with Intrepid Travel had officially ended by the following day and with a just a few of us left we spent it by the beach and pool. By Tuesday afternoon I was the last one left so I decided to book an afternoon tour on a jeep safari through some of Rio's forests and its botanical gardens. I passed by waterfalls, monkeys and more spectacular view points of the city on the way.

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The botanical gardens were particularly impressive. It was starting to get dark by the time I had arrived so the photos weren't great but you can see some of its trees below and the Christ Redeemer which is ever present from many parts of the city including its outer suburbs.

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My final day has been spent in the Copacabana area close to the beach where I was able to enjoy one last swim and a stroll along its promenade. We've been told it can rain an awful lot here but June is one of the best time to visit as it's dry, comfortably hot during the day and the ocean is still warm.

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Rio has been awesome and as with Argentina I'll need to return and explore some more. I'd love to check out the Amazon region next time. I couldn't recommend Intrepid Travel highly enough and whether you're travelling alone or just through a tricky part of the world check out what tours they have on offer. Right then, in a few hours I board a flight directly to Lisbon. I'll soon be reunited with Alberto and from there we'll travel east and over the Spanish border to spend time with his family and explore his home province of Extremadura together. I won't be blogging about it as my 'backpacking' days are officially at an end for now :( BUT I will be back with one final retrospective entry on my return to Dublin. :)

Posted by mattld 08:54 Archived in Brazil Tagged brazil rio riodejaneiro christredeemer intrepidtravel santatheresa Comments (0)

Argentina

sunny 22 °C

When I look back on Peru in the future the first thing that will come to mind is its history and culture. When I think back to Argentina it's going to have to be the wonderful food and drink, more specifically its delicious meats and Malbec wine! The Argentinians certainly know how to dine and it would have been rude to say no, so in the past week it's fair to say most of our group have overindulged. I can hear the gym calling out my name at this stage and I am looking forward getting back into my routine. Having said that we have been doing our best to take in the sights and sounds of a country which we've only scratched the surface of. First up was its capital Buenos Aires. The city has a very distinct central European and cosmopolitan feel to it. Given its architecture you could easily think you're wandering the streets of Paris or Madrid and I really enjoyed an all too brief couple of days here. It's almost winter time in most of South America but the weather has been very pleasant and I don't think we'll see a drop a rain outside of some initial drizzle back in Lima. With only one full day on our trip in BA we were taken on a guided walking tour. There was an international day for Paraguay taking place and you can see some of the Paraguayans dressed up for celebrations in the second photo.

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As mentioned in my last entry we said goodbye to most of our group from Peru as only five of us remined... myself, Dan & Amy from Melbourne and Neil & Linda from Dunedin in New Zealand. We were joined by three brand new faces and our tour guide Luciano who was responsible for bringing us to some of the best restaurants at the most reasonable prices. You can't beat local knowledge. On Monday we took a flight south east to Posades and from there we drove to a small town known as Ituzaingo. There's little to see here but it served as our base to explore the Ibera Wetlands region. This national park is more than 15,000 square km in size (the same size as Belgium)! We spent the day driving through it in a couple of jeeps passing by swamps, lakes and lagoons spotting all kinds of birds, caimans (small crocs) and caponatas which are like a mix between a wombat and a beaver.

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That afternoon we were treated to an Argentinian BBQ and Luciano our guide gave us a taste of 'Mate Tea' (pronounced as ma-té) which has enough caffeine to keep you buzzing for the entire day. As a non coffee drinker I found it quite strong but it was good to try it.

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On Wednesday we spent most of the day on the road as we travelled north to Puerto Iguazu which is just past the Argentinian border on the Brazilian side. Iguazu Falls is regarded as one of the 'New Natural Wonders of the World' and is the most impressive and striking waterfall I've ever seen. Its sheer power is incredible and the panoramic views were stunning.

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After our morning on the Argentinian side a few of us took a short ten minute helicopter ride over the Falls. It's been more than 10 years since I've been in a helicopter and I forgot how much fun it is.

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On our final day we travelled back across the border from Brazil to visit the Argentinian side. They compliment one another very nicely but the high speed boat ride we were able to take (which resulted in an absolute drenching) gave Argentina the victory! I wore a travel poncho I've been carrying around with me for months but it did absolutely nothing. Oh well.

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On a side note both parks are packed with these little critters. Cute eh? Be careful though they can bite, and may carry rabies! I didn't fancy recreating that infamous scene from the movie Outbreak so I did my best to keep a relatively safe distance.

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After the falls we were taken on a visit to a native tribe, one of the largest in the country. Retaining their identity and way of life is of utmost importance and it was great to be able to see how they hunt and live their lives.

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I enjoyed my time here, perhaps not as much as Peru but I'd like to return and spend more time in the capital and explore other parts of the country. Well it's almost home time folks... next up and last on the list (but by no means least) is Rio De Janeiro. It's day sixty six on the road and I just have five more to go...

Posted by mattld 14:54 Archived in Argentina Tagged argentina iguazufalls beunosaires ituzaingo intrepidtravel Comments (0)

Peru

semi-overcast 20 °C

My first few days in Peru were pretty uneventful. Lima is a heavily populated capital city and there isn't a whole lot to do. There appears to be a problem with air pollution and even though I spent a week in total here I never managed to catch a glimpse of blue in the sky. After the long flight from Tokyo I was content to do some badly needed laundry, sleep in and gorge myself on 'laptop tv' knowing that my 18 day tour with Intrepid Travel was going to be action packed. This was my first time travelling with Intrepid and I was looking forward to experiencing group travel and distracting myself from thinking too much about the fact that Alberto was no longer with me. Given that we're moving back to Dublin rather than Spain it was only right that he should spend this time with his family. This was my third genuine attempt to visit South America... the first time I backpacked I ran out of money and the second time a job came up in Sydney cutting our previous travels short so it's been a case of third time's a charm.

Friday 24th was the first day of the trip. There were 12 of us in total, an ideal number with an eclectic mix of personalities, ages and nationalities. It didn't take long for us to bond and before we knew it we felt like a family on the road. It's true what they say, every stranger is just a friend you haven't yet met. The group was predominantly Aussie and Kiwi... these very familiar accents were a welcome reminder of my former home. Our guide Cris is Peruvian and it was great to spend time with a native with so much local and national knowledge. In the first few days I contracted a serious dose of food poisoning but she was wonderful in arranging a doctor to visit and ensuring I was looked after. We travelled on every major mode of transport you can think of and Cris took care of everything so it was a welcome change being able to set back and literally enjoy the ride.

After our welcome meeting and introductions we took a taxi to the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco. Photographs were mostly prohibited but this is one of the best religious attractions I have ever visited. I must admit I'm not a fan of religion but from a historical point of view it was fascinating to almost travel back in time to the 18th century exploring its church, convent and a library that wouldn't be out of place in Hogwarts' school of wizardry. The catacombs underneath were pretty spooky and we were allowed to capture some of it which you'll see below. I've never seen so many skeleton pieces and bones anywhere else.

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Afterwards we were taken on a walking tour around some of the city and it was a good chance to observe some of Lima's best architecture.

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The next morning we had an early start for our flight to Cusco. I was happy to be leaving Lima and looking forward to experiencing the 'real Peru', at least from a tourism perspective. We were told by Cris that the weather here is far better and we certainly weren't disappointed. Despite being almost winter it was hot outside of the shade and on recommendation I purchased my first ever bottle of factor 100 (!) given our high altitude of 3,450m and intensity of the sun. Alex H. if you're reading this you'd be proud. ;) We spent our afternoon walking on foot and paid a visit to a chocolate museum where we had the chance to sample some of Peru's finest which was delicious.

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On Sunday we took a coach through the Sacred Valley on the outskirts of Cusco. This lush valley was known as Wilcamayo to the Incas and has long been the main source of food for the high Andes. We visited a small community in the valley to learn about their lifestyle. It also involved the whole group dressing up in traditional clothing... how authentic do we look?!

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Later that afternoon we boarded a train to Aguas Caliantes and its scenery on the way was just beautiful and reminiscent of Jurassic Park. Aguas Caliantes is nestled in a cloud forest at the foot of Machu Picchu and from there we made the short trip early the following morning. Machu Picchu is best known as one of the 'New Seven Wonders of the World'. Spectacular just about does Machu Picchu justice and I couldn't have been more excited to visit it in person. Built in the 15th century the 'lost city of the Incas' is the best known site of the Inca civilization and was abandoned a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest.

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Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its three primary structures are the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of how they originally appeared.

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After the buzz of Peru's star attraction we had a change of pace the day after with a free day to ourselves. Most of the group took on additional sightseeing but myself and Omar from the group decided to spend the day with the Peruvian Shamans where we took part in a number of spiritual rituals including an Ayahuasca Ceremony. For those of you that know me, ask me again in person and I'll tell you all about it. It's a difficult one to explain in writing but suffice to say it was a fascinating journey of self-reflection and gratitude for everyone I have in my life. For me the opportunity to experience this ancient Peruvian tradition was too good to miss but I'll caution it's not for everyone and thorough research is strongly advised.

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Our next stop was Puno. The highlight was without a doubt the evening with a dinner and dancing show followed a trip to the local bar and several hours of karaoke. Well of course! I also tried some Guinea Pig. It was not good. Our penultimate day was spent on Lake Titicaca. We were collected from our hotels on a rickshaw before we took a tour of the lake by motor boat.

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From here we were able to visit the Uros floating islands. Using the versatile totora reeds found in the shallows of the lake, the Uros originally built their islands to isolate themselves from rival tribes. Their live their lives in a completely different way to us so it was really interesting to learn about their lifestyle from how they build their islands and boats to food and relationships.

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That night we took part in a homestay with a rural Peruvian community nearby. We were split up into different groups and met by our 'Mama' on arrival.

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The accommodation was basic as expected but I had my own room and that day we helped Mama by moving bricks and picking vegetables. That evening we met up at the community leader's home for a few games of volleyball followed by dinner which we helped to prepare. After a couple of rounds of the card game 'Shithead' featuring 14 players (!) it was time for bed.

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The temperature drops quite significantly at this altitude but thanks to a combination of leftover Diamox from Nepal and perhaps my recent trekking experience breathing was generally fine. You could definitely notice the difference in oxygen in the air and any physical activity required a lot more effort. The next morning we had a 6.30am start to help Mama prepare breakfast and wash up after.

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I really enjoyed the homestay and love the fact that Intrepid Travel partner with rural communities and allow us to give back. On our final day in Peru we visited an ancient burial ground which was also used by the Incans and the area offered breathtaking landscape views.

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Most of our group would soon be heading back to their home countries so that evening we got together for the final few hours. We had fun at the local casino enjoying black jack and the free drinks on offer. Peru has been the surprise package of the last ten weeks and I look forward to visiting again with Alberto and hopefully taking part in the Inca trail hike. The Peruvians are simply wonderful people and I couldn't have asked for a better group of strangers (now friends) to travel with. I'm onto the final lap now and next up is Argentina. Hasta luego amigos.

Posted by mattld 20:08 Archived in Peru Tagged peru lima machupicchu cusco Comments (3)

From Fukuoka back to Tokyo...

semi-overcast 20 °C

Well after more than ten weeks on the road it was bound to happen... I'm a little behind on my blogging. I'm writing this from Lima in Peru. I had hoped to get this written before departing Japan but the days just got away. We've now completed our time in Asia :( and you can see our route below starting in Tokyo, making our way south before a few days in South Korea and then back to Japan as we made our ascent from Fukuoka up to Hiroshima and Nagano before our final few days in Tokyo.

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We spent our first few days back in Japan in Fukuoka, primarily as it served as cheap hub to re-enter the country. And honestly there isn't a whole lot to do so if you're travelling through the southern part of Japan by train you can probably leave it off your list. It was nice to spend a few days in a lesser known city and with an apartment in the middle of town we almost felt like bonafide locals. They've got a lovely park here known as the Marine Park Uminonakamichi which is located on a narrow cape. Its colorful and exotic flowers are its main attraction.

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Next up was Hiroshima. As you probably well know Hiroshima is regrettably best known for the atomic bomb dropped on it during World War Two. The Peace Memorial Park is not an easy place to visit emotionally speaking but it is a must in Hiroshima. It houses a collection of items salvaged from the aftermath of the bombing and features videos of Japanese civilians who survived but lost many family members and friends. I remember learning about this in school but being here in person it really hit home just how much suffering these people went through. 200,000 people died as a result of the bombing and even though it was more than 70s years ago their memory is alive and well thanks to people who live here and its visitors. You can see below a photograph of a woman paying her condolences and below that a memorial service at the Genbaku Dome, the only building that was purposely left unrepaired afterwards. We were fortunate to witness a school memorial with songs sung by children who made paintings and candles in memory of those who lost their lives. It was very touching and we were glad we could pay our respects.

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Hiroshima has much to offer as a destination. We enjoyed a really nice trip to Hiroshima Castle and a day at Miyajima, a small island off the coast and one of Japan's most visited tourists spots.

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It was a long trip north to our next stop in Nagano. It didn't help that our train got stuck by an hour and a half and although we had Game of Thrones to keep us company it took us a good eight hours to get there. It was well worth the trip though as it's a beautiful town and it gave us the opportunity to experience one of Japan's mountainous regions. Its home to the Zenkoji Temple, one of Japan's most famous temples.

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We were also able to visit the Snow Monkey park in the Joshinestu Kogen National Park. It's a conservation area that provides refuge to the monkeys and allows visitors to observe them up close without any cages or space restrictions. They are free to leave at any time but generally stay close by for the local onsens/outdoor hot spa! During the winter they bath in the water and although we had hoped to see them indulge in a natural jacuzzi we were out of luck given that summer is only around the corner. The monkeys are adorably cute and it was heart warming to watch them in action.

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On our final day in Nagano we checked out of our hotel in the city and took a bus into the mountains to a Ryoken, a traditional Japanese homestay. We had been really looking forward to this and it didn't disappoint. Sliding doors, matted floors, beds on the ground... it was as Japanese as we could have hoped for. We had the most wonderful host who cooked us a delicious dinner and breakfast the following morning.

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Say cheese... I think my clothing added about thirty pounds. #Don't judge me...

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The next day our host gave us a departing gift of matcha Kit Kats (green tea flavour) and then took us to a beautiful nearby lake and then a Ninja museum/escape house which was challenging and a lot of fun. She even took part too.

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Our host insisted on paying our entry fee into the Ninja attraction and drove us back to the city at no extra cost. This was Japanese hospitality at its finest and we couldn't leave our 10/10 review on Booking.com quick enough afterwards. If you're ever in the Nagano region check out the Yadoya Shiroganeya you won't be disappointed. There's even a little onsen so you can relax in a hot Japanese bath.

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Our final few days were spent back in Tokyo. We had packed so many things in only a few weeks earlier we very happy just to revisit some of our favourite areas in Shibuya, Shinjuku and Akihabara. We also checked out the restaurant where part of Kill Bill was filmed, very thrilling if you're a major fan like we are!

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And that concludes our time in Japan. We had the highest expectations and they were definitely met. There's such a variety of attractions, history, culture and quirky experiences on offer all we can say is get Japan on your travel bucket list if you haven't yet been! The Japanese people are the most polite we've ever met and as I said in a previous post you'd struggle to find litter anywhere, not to mention crime (not to say it doesn't exist). We could learn a lot from them when it comes to honour and respect.

So what's next? Well it's the tail end of the trip and as mentioned in our first entry Alberto is spending the next few weeks with his family and friends in Spain before we relocate home to Dublin. I've had South America on my list for quite some time now so I've signed myself up for a three week group tour with Intrepid Travel. I've been in Peru just a few days mostly relaxing but tomorrow is the first day of the trip. Sayōnara for now.

Posted by mattld 14:35 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo nagano hiroshima fukuoka ryoken Comments (1)

South Korea - Seoul

sunny 20 °C

I mentioned at the end of our last entry it was frustrating not being able to find accommodation in Japan during 'Golden Week', essentially forcing us to take a temporary detour outside of the country. On a brighter note we've ended up here in South Korea, a country which we probably wouldn't have visited for another ten years. I'm a self-confessed planning addict (surprise) so this was a welcome reminder that sometimes it's nice to go with the flow and see where life takes you! A really good friend of ours from Sydney has also been here so it's been great catching up. Seoul is the capital of South Korea (SK) and home to almost ten million Koreans. Surrounded by a mountainous and hilly landscape the city is densely populated with skyscrapers not to mention what feels like an unlimited amount of restaurants, bars and shops. Given SK's strong history and relationship with America its own Western vibe is quickly evident from a capitalist perspective. I must admit initially I had wondered if that had come at the cost of their own identity and culture. However once you take a peak beyond the surface both aspects shine right through.

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We spent Thursday evening with our friend Sonia where we had a chance to visit Gwangjang Market, one of the oldest and largest traditional food markets in South Korea. It recently featured in Netflix's 'Street Food' series including this lovely lady below who tells her story behind her restaurant and how it important it has been to her family. We can confirm the noodle soup was delicious.

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The next day we paid a visit to the Korean War Memorial, built for the purpose of preventing war through lessons learned from the Korean War. If you're in anyway interested in the division between the North and the South than this is a must visit. We were lucky to witness a show and demonstration outside prior to entry which included a band and singers.

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Friday evening was a messy one with Sonia... Korean BBQ (rude not to) followed by lots of drinks let us to the best retro game bar I've ever visited and of course some karaoke. Because one can rarely get tired from out-of-tune karaoke!

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On Sunday we spent the day with Sonia on the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) tour. We were driven to the border between the South and the North and had the opportunity to learn more about the creation of the North. I went through a slight obsession phase (!) with North Korea last year so this was a great opportunity to see a glimpse of the country in person. If you're not familiar there is plenty of information available online and it's pretty fascinating. There were a few different stops in the tour including a look at one of the tunnels the South Koreans had discovered in their territory by mistake and was in fact built by the North Koreans to invade long after the ceasefire of the original Korean War.

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Below you can see North Korea in all its glory! There are binoculars available to look through but we weren't able to spot anyone unfortunately.

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We also had the dubious honour of trying North Korean wine, aka the worst wine we've tasted in our ENTIRE LIVES. And that's say something... Blossom Hill come back all is forgiven! To our dearest Kim Jong Un & associates, please don't give up the day job lads.

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Today we visited the Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395 and home to the Joseon dynasty. It reminded us a little of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

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'Children's Day' is celebrated here on the 1st May and although we're not sure if it's completely related there still appears to be celebrations and festivities taking place around the city.

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This is our final evening in South Korea and we've thoroughly enjoyed it. The weather has been ideal at a very pleasant 20 degrees and there's not been a cloud in the sky. Five days has been enough to get a good taste but we'd love to head back in the future and explore the rest of the country. For now though we're heading back to Japan and tomorrow we fly south east to Fukuoka.

Posted by mattld 02:27 Archived in South Korea Tagged seoul asia northkorea southkorea Comments (0)

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