Over the Andes to Argentina

We almost missed our bus from Santiago to Mendoza because we had booked our ticket online but – critically, as we found out – hadn’t printed it out.   I can never understand why a printed ticked is necessary:  I have the booking on my phone, the company employee standing at the door of the bus has our names on a clipboard and we have our passports proving who we are.   It all matches up.  It all makes sense.   There is no crazy conspiracy or sordid smuggling going on here.  Why do they insist on you having to give them a tiny slip of paper, which they look at momentarily, tick the list on their clipboard, and then give straight back to you?   Pointless.

We were faced with this problem when we turned up at 7am with what we thought was plenty of time to spare before the bust was due to depart at 7:45.  I looked after the bags while Helena went looking for somewhere to print the ticket – there must be a computer with internet access and a printer attached to it in or near to this major bus station in this, one of the most developed capital cities in one of the most forward thinking countries in the entire continent, surely…  But no.  After a race around to various internet cafes and hotel lobbies trying to find a printer, Helena returned to the coach company desk with just five minutes to go, empty handed and desperate.  (I too was getting a bit nervous by this point as I thought it was a ten-minute job and I hadn’t set eyes on her for the last 40!)  Having no idea what Helena was up to, I’d had a go at remonstrating with the man with the clip board, but to no avail.

Unbelievably, it was only at this last moment that the woman behind the desk said that they could print the ticket off, but, and here’s the kicker, it was going to cost us a thousand pesos.  Seeing as that equates to about one pound (!!!) Hels decided to go for it, got the tickets, raced back to the bus, placated the power crazed clip board warrior, and we climbed aboard with the bus driver already selecting reverse.

So we enjoyed the scenic ride over the mountain range and across the border into Argentina.  At this point in the blog, I’d usually insert a suitable photo – we did take quite a few on this spectacular journey, of stunning snow capped peaks, and mountain lakes.  Unfortunately, I ended up leaving the camera on the bus, and despite a concerted effort to retrieve it over the next two days, we eventually conceded defeat and mourned the loss of two weeks worth of photos.

mendoza_22707619814_o
Helena enjoyed playing with the very friendly Rottweiler at Banana.  His name was Thor…

Banana Hostel

On the bright side, we had landed in a fabulous little hostel called ‘Banana’ in Mendoza, where we were greeted warmly by each person we met, and were soon settled in the garden, enjoying the afternoon sun, a craft beer and a chat by the pool.  We’d also spotted a few little hand-written messages on blackboards around the common areas saying encouraging things like, ‘BBQ tonight’ and ‘Free wine party at 8pm’.  Now, I’ve never known any hostel to truly give you anything for free – with the possibly exception of Jungle Jack’s in Borneo – but sure enough, 8pm came around and Steffi, the girl from reception, approached us with two large and inviting looking glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon.  ‘Would you like some wine?’ she asked.  Silly question!  There were nibbles too;  some excellent fried potatoes, a tasty guacamole, and a super-fiery salsa.   Add to that burgers from the barbecue, and we were having a fabulous evening.

mendoza_22708783853_o
Free Wine Party!   Just make sure you don’t accidentally pour it onto your Granola!

Then, a very friendly Jamie asked if anybody fancied a night out.   Yes, it was only a Wednesday, but there was reportedly one place where everyone goes on a Wednesday, a guaranteed good time party.  Since we hadn’t actually been out dancing for a while (we’d been doing lots of trekking, camping and sightseeing), we were both pretty keen to go.  So we drank a bit more wine, chatted with the hostel crowd for a while, and waited in anticipation for a call to arms.

When we got to midnight and we still hadn’t left the hostel, however, we were beginning to wonder if we’d missed something.  ‘Oh no,’ said Jamie, ‘we don’t want to get there too early…’   So, we had a bit more wine.

One am came around and there was still no movement.   Hels and I were unsurprisingly beginning to think that bed was more appealing than a jaunt out into an unknown city in the middle of the night.

At 1:30am, people were beginning to shuffle a bit.  At 1:45, the decision was made that we should probably leave now, and at 2am, we finally stepped out of the hostel into the cool Argentinian night air and off, following someone we’d only just met, with a group of people we barely knew, to a place that we didn’t know how to find.  It turned out to be just what we needed, and we had a lot of fun dancing the night away until the early hours.

This seemingly strange approach to time-keeping was just our first experience of the Argentinians’ way of structuring their day;  it wasn’t a super-late going out experience limited to drunken and wayward travellers, far from it!   If you go out for dinner at the reasonable hour of, say, 7:30pm, you’re likely to find yourself feeling rather conspicuous, sitting in a pretty sparsely populated restaurant, with a waiter shuffling around somewhere with a quizzical look on his face.  That same restaurant, however, will likely be heaving with customers at 11:30pm – yes, just before midnight – with people ordering drinks, selecting wines and perusing menus, wondering what might suffice for dinner.

We gradually got more used to it (we even considered setting our clocks back four or five hours to help) but on our second night in Banana, we found ourselves in a similar position to the night before.  A friendly Chilean couple had offered to cook ‘asado’, a traditional Argentinian barbecue.  As food lovers, we were very excited about this, as I’m sure you can imagine, and happily accepted the invitation to join in.  They had said to us in the morning to make sure we were there at 7pm – they seemed pretty insistent about that! – they would sort out all of the food, and everyone would just chip in with a bit of cash.  Helena and I spent most of that day in the bus station in a futile attempt to locate our camera and before we knew it, it was getting close to barbecue time.  We hadn’t eaten that day, having got up pretty late after our night out and then focusing on the camera problem, but as they had said 7pm, we thought we’d just wait and indulge in some hearty Argentinian barbecue as a reward for a stressful day…

mendoza_23309808286_o
A classic Argentinian asado – meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, sausages, more sausages, mushrooms and bell peppers.

Well, of course, we turned up at 7pm and everyone was there but there was no sign of the barbecue being lit.   There was only one option – stave off the hunger with wine!  A few hours later, the asado turned out to be a fantastic meal with waves of different meats being delivered to the table on small chopping boards.   Our favourite thing was a beautiful spicy red chorizo; it had a superb flavour and texture after being slow-cooked over the coals.  The wait made it all the better when the food arrived and we were in foodie heaven.  It was also in this moment that I was introduced to Choripan, an Argentinian bbq classic that I was to go on to order repeatedly despite it effectively being nothing more than a hot dog!

22744321853_c50f6cee4c_k
Choripan – simple, yet delicious!

Choripan is exactly what it says it is:  Chor-i-pan, or Chorizo-y(and)-pan(bread).  Don’t you just love the simplicity of it!  The Chorizo are always incredibly tasty, the bread crispy, and topped with a herby oil-based condiment that rounds out the flavours beautifully.  Who knew a hot dog could be so tasty?!

 

The other thing was that the whole experience was brilliantly sociable, with everybody sitting in the garden around one long table, chatting away over good food and a plentiful supply of wine from the gallon bottle.  (No joke!)  As I’m sure you can probably imagine, this wasn’t a particularly early night for us either!

It’s wine time, again!

Although our few days in Mendoza had been great fun so far, we hadn’t yet got around to our primary purpose for selecting it as a destination – wine!

image
There’s just something magical about the beautiful symmetry of vineyards.

Having visited various vineyards in Australia, California and Chile, we were keen to see how the Argentinian’s stacked up.  On our final day before heading across the country for Buenos Aires, and having taken advice on the best vineyards and how to find them from various people at the hostel, we tried to squeeze in a run around a few selected wineries.

Trying to avoid an expensive tour (as always) and preferring to do things under our own steam, we made our way across the city to where we had learned you can get a local bus for a few pesos that would take you right into the heart of the wine-producing region of Maipu.  We had been told to get the 171, 172 or 173 from a bus stop on Rioja, which we found without a problem and stood waiting. We were a bit pressed for time though, and so when the first bus came and it was 174, I suggested that we just got onto it.  ‘It’s got to be going in pretty much the same direction.  It’ll be fine,’ I said with a hugely misplaced sense of confidence.

As it turned out, the 174 did follow something like a route towards Maipu, but then proceeded to turn down every side street going, do circular loops around housing estates and stop at every. single. bus. stop. possible.  My time-saving suggestion had resulted in us being a long way away from where we were supposed to be, much later than we were supposed to be there.  mendoza_23227707962_oFeeling rather frustrated, yet determined to make it to at least one winery, we made a decisive call to get off the bus and make the rest of the journey on foot, heading for one of the biggest and most famous vineyards in the region, Trapiche.

Despite all of our mishaps, and baking under the heat as the sun rose to its full height, we soon noticed the classic and always beautiful rows of vines forming their perfect pattern on the level landscape.  In contrast to the bare vines of the Hunter Valley, these were in full growth and beginning to show some developed fruit.

Time for the next mishap:  we hadn’t booked ourselves on to a tour!  This almost posed a bit of a problem until we managed to convince the gentleman that we weren’t really bothered about seeing the vineyard and the wine-making process itself, we were more interested in just tasting the wine (the good bit!)  So we were ushered past some huge concrete distilling vats and on towards a tour group who were just about finished.   A quick visit to the impressive barrel room, and we were off to the bar, which had a superb balcony overlooking an olive garden, with vines in the distance and a clear view all the way out to the snow capped peaks of the Andean Mountain range beyond.  The wines lived up to their impressive setting and soon we were sipping away at a beautiful sparkling Rose which seemed just right in the scorching heat of the day.

What next?  I hear you ask…   Book a bus – hop on board, time to head to the colourful, chaotic, charismatic gem that is, Buenos Aires!

Trapiche_bodega
The imposing, prison-like fortress that sits at the heart of Trapiche.
image
The heavy set fermenting vats inside the solid central building.
mendoza_23309790896_o
My iPod camera didn’t really do justice to this amazing developing view, but we could see all the way out to the mountains – honest!
mendoza_22968049219_o
The Trapiche vineyards were an aesthetic delight.
image
Our classic shot to round off our time in Mendoza.

 

Advertisements

How do they do it?

How do people find the time to write?

I loved it last year: travelling, exploring, having fun and then finding time to write it all down and record it for posterity – and for my own pleasure.  But since my feet touched back down onto UK soil, I haven’t posted a thing.

I’ve even drafted the next edition of our travel blog, but I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to upload it.   The constraints that work places on your time are inconceivable really.  Although I’m not entirely sure it’s just time – it’s the brain space, the capacity for creativity.   I expend so much of my mental energy these days doing what I am told that I have little space left for doing what I’d like.

And I’m not really very happy about that if I’m honest with you!

So, here I am, spending just five minutes, jotting down a quick post whilst sitting on the top floor of my school, gazing out of the maths class room window at the gently rolling hills of East Birmingham.  To my left, there are four students working fervently on tasks I’ve set them to boost their chances of an exam grade, but all I’m really wondering is when I’m going to be able to bring writing back into my life in a routine way.

The mists, and the sunrise, and the views across the rooftop, even the low moan of planes overhead, the magpies fluttering through the sky, the warmth of the sun that comes and goes gradually as if someone has it on a dimmer switch… These are all things I would have noticed in the past and found a space to appreciate them and share.

It can’t all be doom and gloom though, because I found these five minutes.  That means I might, just might, find five more.

image
The sky was so spectacular on the way home, I just had to pull over. Just one more reminder to keep seeing the extraordinary things in our ordinary lives.

Take me to the vineyards, and give me wine!

Chile is a country of vast diversity; the slender strip of land stretching from one of the driest deserts in the world, all the way down the western edge of the continent to the spectacular yet potentially hostile landscapes of Patagonia. We’d arrived in San Pedro de Atacama at the end of our three day 4×4 trip through Bolivia, and were happy to find a quaint little oasis of a town that thrives almost solely on its high tourist traffic. Yes, so its streets are lined with guest houses, hotels and hostels, with myriad tour companies offering essentially the same trips as every other tour company in town, but it still somehow manages to retain its charm. More to the point, it was warm!!! We’d woken up to a freezing morning in Bolivia, and yet here we now were, having descended over 2000m from the altiplano, completely over dressed and sweating into our backpacks!

Reaching Chile was also significant for a number of other reasons: 1 -we were now going to diverge for a while from places that I’d been to before, so we were back into exploration; 2 – it’s a much more developed economy and infrastructure than you find in Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia; and 3 – we were now half way through our time in South America and only six weeks from the end of our trip.

image
There’s not a great deal out here!   San Pedro is the sliver of green that you can see; the volcanoes on the horizon had the distinct feel of The Truman Show about them.

I think I have already mentioned that before we left home, I had the entirely unsubstantiated and utterly naive notion that with a ‘whole year to travel the world’, we could not only go anywhere and do anything, we could indeed go everywhere and do, yes you’ve guessed it, everything. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. In terms of South America in particular, I was certain that we’d take a long sweeping journey down to the far south of the continent to explore the incredible landscape and the famous glaciers. Right now, in San Pedro, was where we had to start to figure out if that was both a possibility, and something that we still actually wanted to do.

You see, as I alluded to in our last couple of blog posts, we were beginning to struggle a bit. Initially it was a bit of home sickness, then Bolivia came along and compounded it with actual sickness. If you multiply that with altitude sickness … well, you start to feel a little under the weather.

And then you meet all of these people who ask you if you’re going to Patagonia, and you look at them with what you hope is enthusiasm and say, ‘Well, yeah. That was the plan,’ trying not to emphasise the past tense too much. And they get all wild eyed and dreamy and say, ‘Oh yes, you have to. You must go. You’ll regret it if you don’t.’ And you look at a map and think, well, it’s not that far… because that’s what you thought when you looked at the distance between Quito and Cusco, and only found out later that it would take you three days to make the trip. On decent roads. With established bus routes. And comfortable  buses. And obvious places to stop en route.

image
We were just pleased to be back in the sun and very reluctant to leave it!

Going to the south of the continent, you’re going into the wilds, literally to the ends of the earth. To places where roads just run out, and you’re faced with complex journeys involving numerous boats and jeeps and all sorts of other things. And then there’s the weather of course, that could delay any means of transport indefinitely, and in an exponentially increasing scale of liklihood, the further south you go.

So yes, we had the conversations with other people willingly. We smiled, nodded, made enthusiastic noises, while all the time knowing that it was unlikely that we’d ever make it past Santiago. We did consider it for a while – we even made numerous attempts to hire a camper van or car to go exploring – but when it was all booked up, we weren’t too devastated, and therein was the ultimate truth about our mindset: we wouldn’t be going to Patagonia.

I don’t feel bad about that either, for the very simple reason that we were exhausted. If we’d made the trek down there, we’d either have been stuck in some accommodation somewhere too ill to venture out, or we’d make it onto a mountain trek and immediately wonder what on earth we were doing there, question why we were putting ourselves through it, and risk not even seeing the beauty of the world around us anymore. If we do ever venture to that region, it will have to be fresh, with energy and vigour. It would be foolhardy to make the trip otherwise.

San Pedro de Atacama
So what were we going to do?? Well, the answer to that was easy – it was time to drink some more wine! Yes, we had finally made it to the epicentre of South America’s wine production industry, and we were going to make the most of it.

But first, San Pedro – they don’t grow wine in the desert…but they do sell it! We only stayed a few nights in the town, which in hindsight may have been an error, but we still had the sense that there was quite a long way to go, and we shouldn’t be hanging around too long. We did have enough time to enjoy a couple of excellent restaurants though, sharing a meal with Andrew to celebrate the end of our salt flats tour and discovering Carménère in the process (more on that in a minute).

image
In our excitement, we made the monumental error of forgetting to take water!  (To the desert, I know!)

Valle de la Luna
You also have a chance to explore some pretty other-worldly landscapes in order to work up a thirst! The impressive Valle de la Luna – the Valley of the Moon – is not named, as I thought, for something to do with moonlight, or a nocturnal occurrence, but rather because the landscape itself has a rather lunar-esque appearance.

image
Time for the GoPro!

We decided to get a bit active, hiring mountain bikes to cover the ten mile journey to the valley. Leaving at 3pm, we’d have enough time to explore a bit, before climbing up to one of the high ridges to watch the sunset. It is a stunning place, especially the salt caves. There is a section of what looks like a small mountain range that is made up of mineral and salt deposits, rather than rock. Then, on the occasions when the desert receives rain (which is clearly not that often), the resulting streams dissolve the rocks (for want of a better word) and create spectacular, sweeping and sprawling underground cave systems that you can crawl through, with a little squeeze.

The sunset across the valley is also fantastic, and you get a lot of people up on the high ridges, finding a little spot of their own from which to survey the scene. With the sun setting in front of you, and the panorama of volcanoes behind you, merging and blending their palette in the falling light, it is hard to know which way to look! Since we got up there on bikes though, we couldn’t hang around after the sun had set because in the desert, it gets very dark, very quickly!

image

image
We were joined for part of the afternoon by a friendly travelling companion.

 

image
I’m rarely happier than when enjoying a glass (or six…!) of wine in the dappled sunlight of a vineyard.

Take me to the vineyards!
Catching yet another overnight bus (this was our fifth in South America so far), we headed to the capital, Santiago, to be greeted by a vibrant, modern city.   Notably, it’s also a place where the cyclist thrives, with thousands people dodging the gridlocked traffic on their two-wheeled machines.  As much as it is a good place to explore for a few days though, let’s not pretend that we were there purely for cultural reasons; our main motivation was the world famous Chilean wine industry! We had such an amazing time in the Hunter Valley in Australia, that we were very excited to see what Chile had to offer.

Within striking distance of Santiago, you have three of the main wine producing regions: Maipo Valley, Colchagua Valley and Casablanca Valley. With a little research, we liked the look of Colchagua, but it was proving to be logistically difficult; either we’d have to book a wine tour, that was going to be expensive by anybody’s standards, or we’d have to try and hire a car and take ourselves around. Now, I don’t know about you, but for us, the merry bonus of a day out wine tasting, is returning home happily pissed. Hiring a vehicle for one of us to drive then, was ruled out. As were the all-in tour packages. In fact, Colchagua as a whole, seemed to be turning out to be a lot of faff.

Our other option, was to visit the Maipo Valley, which sits very close to the south of the city, and to which you can take much more reasonably priced bike tours: bikes and wine, a perfect day, surely? Well, despite being a better price, it still seemed a lot for what you were getting (especially since we still had vivid memories of the free tastings offered by all the vineyards in the Hunter Valley), and the brutal honesty of it was that we were not really that interested in a tour of the vineyard, and an explanation of the wine-making process … we just wanted to taste the wine! So, when we found that we could get to two of the largest vineyards in the region for about £2 on the metro, it was decision made!

image
Despite not really wanting to tour the vineyard, we’d have to admit that the Cousiño Macul cellar was pretty cool.

We hopped on to the tube, and forty minutes later, arrived at Cousiño Macul, a vineyard we’ve never heard of but is reputably a local favourite. We used the money we’d saved by not booking a tour … to book a tour! I know that sounds backwards, but if you get yourself to the vineyard, you can take their premium tour for less than the price of the bike/wine combo package. And it’s exactly the same except that you don’t ride a bike anywhere, but you do get to taste more wines, and they are combined with cheeses too. Saying no more about money, the premium tour at Cousiño Macul was well worth it: six beautiful wines, well explained by the guide, along with a cheese for each. Fabulous!

image
A lovely little selection of cheeses and wines.

Perhaps here is the point to bring up the Carménère. We had never even heard of this wine, and I’m guessing most of you haven’t either. Well, that’s not surprising, as although it was once a big grape in Europe, the entire variety was wiped out by a plague in 1867 and was presumed extinct. Over to my good friend Wikipedia for a moment:

Far from being extinct, in recent years the Carménère grape has been discovered to be thriving in several areas outside of France. In Chile, growers almost inadvertently preserved the grape variety during the last 150 years, due largely to its similarity to Merlot.  In 1994, a researcher at Montpellier’s school of Oenology found that “an earlier-ripening vine was Bordeaux Carménère, not Merlot”. The Chilean Department of Agriculture officially recognized Carménère as a distinct variety in 1998.

Put simply, the Chileans had imported Carménère vines, got them mixed up with Merlot and been selling the wine made from them as such for a hundred and fifty years – which I think is brilliant! Now, Chile produces the vast majority of the Carménère on the market, and you find it in on the wine list in almost every restaurant. Having discovered it, we also discovered a taste for it, going on to select it numerous times over the rest of our stay in Chile – a stay which, as I’m sure you’re beginning to realise, was heavily characterised by the consumption of red wine!

The Devil’s Cellar
After finishing the Cousiño Macul tour, we realised that we could reach Concha y Toro in the same afternoon – also on the metro! And since the only thing better than a trip to a vineyard, is a trip to two vineyards, we went for it. You’ll most probably recognise the name as their wines line the shelves of many a UK supermarket, particularly their brand Casillero del Diablo.

Once again, with little inclination to visit the vineyard itself and much more interest in tasting their produce, we managed to talk our way around the offers of a tour and into their wine bar, which is set in a beautiful paved courtyard.

image
The brownie we ordered for dessert was sublime; accompanied by a chilled late harvest Sauvignon Blanc of course.

Once there, you can order from their lunch menu and their extensive wine list. Putting the emphasis firmly on ‘tasting’ rather than ‘drinking’, we ordered their flight of premium red wines – which gifted us with a Merlot, a Syrah, a Cabernet Sauvignon and, of course, a Carménère – and a pair of Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon, one 2009 vintage and the other a 1991, reputedly ‘the best Cabernet in the continent’. Well, that was some claim!

image
Some may say that we’d ordered too much wine at this point, but I’d be inclined to disagree!   (Incidentally, this is the last sighting of my iPod.)

As it happens, it turns out our palettes aren’t quite ready for wines that are almost as old as we are, not really enjoying the super soft tones of the 24 year old wine. We much preferred the brighter, more robust, younger wines, the pick of which was probably the Carménère. I have to say, though, that the Concha y Toro experience was superb. We would usually be a little skeptical about such a large place, often preferring the smaller boutique wineries, but the people in the wine bar were so welcoming, so knowledgeable, so giving of their time, despite clearly being very busy, that we left feeling that we’d had an excellent lunch and a very genuine experience.

Then on the way home on the metro, a pickpocket stole my iPhone and my iPod. Damn. There’s no point in writing anymore about it, but it did leave a sour taste in our mouths.

An unexpected meeting
Keen to round out our experience of Chile a bit, and armed with three bottles of wine from Concha y Toro, we headed towards the coast to the chaotic but artsy Valparaiso. Checking into a bizarre little hostel, we wandered round the corner to a restaurant that had been recommended in the guide book. It was a bustling little place full of retro decor, but there was a table free by the window. As soon as we sat down, Helena, looking over my shoulder, said, ‘That’s Rob Mundy!’

Rob is a friend from the triathlon club back in Birmingham and he too had been travelling around with his fiancé, Jen. As they were just finishing their meal, and we’d only just arrived, we quickly said hello and shared a few, ‘Oh wow, that’s so random’ kind of sentiments, before arranging to meet up the following evening for drinks.

image
Sorry about the quality of the pic – the little pisco bar was a lot of fun though!

Which we did, in a pisco bar just up the road, where we proceeded to drink quite a lot of pisco before heading down into the town in a futile attempt to alleviate the impending drunkenness. It was a lot of fun, and we decided to go for dinner the following evening, which we did. We shared pizza and yet more Carménère, and chatted about travels, and home, and everything else.

It was such a good feeling to be with people that we actually knew! I mean, we love meeting new people, and we’d been meeting more and more as we got further into our travels, but there comes a point in every trip where the standard set of questions – ‘Where are you from? How long have you been travelling? Where are you going next?’ – get met with less enthusiastic answers than they deserve.

So our Valparaiso time was enhanced hugely by spending a lot of time with Rob and Jen, which was great. We did also do a fabulous cooking course, which involved a trip around the market, selecting produce, before returning to the kitchen to cook a selection of Chilean dishes, including an excellent Ceviche, a fantastic Pebre and some classic empanadas.  You can look forward to a recreation of some of these when we get home!

image
This pisco sour is not from Chile at all; it’s from Puno, in Peru.   But it was particularly lovely and it highlights what we were doing in Chile admirably.

This course also had a heavy influence on drinking, with Pisco accompanying the starter, white wine the ceviche and red the main course.

I wish I could share some pictures with you, but all of our stuff from Valparaiso and the cooking class were on the camera that we were to lose three days later. We do luckily have some excellent shots shamelessly stolen from Rob’s selection though, so I’ll share those below. As for our feelings about Chile … well, I’m not sure I’ve quite forgiven the pickpocket yet, and we know we barely scraped the surface in terms of the diverse experiences you can enjoy in the country, but we did enjoy it, and I should probably forgive and forget as, after all, they do make some amazing wine!

image
I have ‘borrowed’ this, and the four shots below, from Rob’s album – thanks mate, I owe you!

image

 

image

 

image

 

image

image
Hels and I share a pisco sour – again, this was Puru, not Chile, but the effect was the same!

Bolivia: dangerous descents and fascinating flats!

If we thought the altitude in Quito was a shock, La Paz was to be yet another step up – literally. Ranging from 3100m at its extreme lowest to 4058m at the airport, La Paz is widely recognised as the highest capital city in the world. The fact that it’s technically not the capital of Bolivia, doesn’t seem to matter of course! Flying into La Paz is renowned to be an assault on the senses, especially if you come from sea level (from home, or Lima for example), but luckily, we were coming from Lake Titicaca on a bus. We were fully acclimatised, battle hardened, mountain ready … or so we thought.

image
La Paz – a city in favour of huge flags!

Stepping off the bus, lifting our packs, realising that our guest house was a fifteen minute walk back up the hill we had just driven down, we set off, in a kind of baby step trudge that saw us arrive exhausted. We were grateful though; the place was lovely and we now had a few days to explore La Paz and sort out our two priority experiences for Bolivia: a tour across the Salar de Uyuni, and a trip down the World’s Most Dangerous Road.

Having been through Bolivia before in 2009, I had already done both of these trips once, but had no reservations about doing them again as they were both huge highlights of the previous trip for me.

But first, time to explore the city. Everything about your experience in La Paz is dominated by the altitude – you never walk anywhere very quickly, you often take breaks in cafés to rejuvenate, you seem to sit for a long time at any given attraction having a constant battle of wills, the voices in your head arguing between themselves: ‘We should probably go,’ vs. ‘Just give me one more second.’

image
The ubiquitous ‘minivan taxi’ that squeals around, with someone hanging out of the half open door, touting for fares.   They carry, oh, about 20 or more people at a time…

Mixed in with this you have huge volumes of chaotic traffic filling the streets and beeping in a way that is reminiscent of northern Indian cities, the pavements are filled with street vendors selling everything you can imagine, and no matter what time of the day or night it is, the place is always heaving with people going about their business.

image
Helena actually took this photo in Quito, but the women in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia all seem to look decidedly similar.

One of the most interesting sights is the women: dressed in tens of layers of clothing, often carrying a baby or small child wrapped in a colourful sheet that has been tied over one shoulder, with long black hair that has been centre parted and tied into two plaits, and almost without exception, wearing a small, bowler hat, perched on top of their head. They are an incredible sight and more often than not, they’ll stride past you uphill, carrying a full load while you are struggling to move just yourself and your camera.

So, after a day spent exploring the city, we booked our mountain biking trip with Gravity Mountain Biking.  We didn’t shop around on this occasion, despite knowing that Gravity were not the cheapest option out there, for two reasons: 1 – I’d been with them before and they were excellent, and 2 – You probably don’t want to go with ‘Cheapy Mcnasty Rip Roarin’ Death Road Bikin’ tours’ with the strap line ‘Look at me, hands free!‘ when the trip includes the words ‘dangerous road‘ and ‘world’s most‘!

image
It’s generally not recommended to ride off the edge…

Anyone for a ride down the death road..?

Gravity lived up to my memory of them being awesome – good equipment, good guide, safety a primary concern, and the best bikes on the mountain (with the best brakes, which is important!) The thing is, despite its billing, the ride isn’t actually that dangerous – the whole of the first part is on tarmac for a start, then once you hit the gravel road, it’s quite wide in bike terms (wide enough for a bus all the way down), and it’s not really that steep either.

image
High quality, well maintained bikes.

The only things that are dangerous are the surface on the gravel road, which is scattered with melon sized rocks that will throw you off the bike if you hit them head on, and, of course, the up to 600m drop that persists on your left hand side all of the way down. You really don’t want to ride off of it, given the chance.

It’s a spectacular experience though, and so varied. From La Paz, you drive for about an hour uphill to the starting point at La Cumbre pass, a mere 4650m (or 15260ft – yes, higher than the Salkantay pass!) where you put on all of the clothes you brought and an extra set of over clothes that Gravity provide. Believe me, at that height, you need it all, especially the gloves.

image
The view from the top – you can just see the beginning of the tarmac road curving off to the left.

After a briefing, and a quick ritual offering to Pacha Mama (which involved blessing the ground and your front wheel with near enough neat alcohol before taking a sip..!), we were off. The tarmac section gives each rider the chance to get used to the bike, while enjoying the sweeping bends and the changing views of the mountains as you drop into the valley. Soon enough, though, you enter the gravel road – the death road proper – where the instructions remain the same apart from one key difference. ‘On this road,’ said Kieran, our guide, ‘you ride on the left, not the right. It’s the only road in South America where that’s the case. Can anyone guess why?’ Having done it before, I knew the answer, and seeing as nobody else was forthcoming, I ventured forth with, ‘It’s because the road is so narrow, that when vehicles pass each other, the driver on the outside needs to be able to see how close his wheels are to the edge, so they swap so that the descending driver is sat on the edge side of the road. They can then lean out of their window and see exactly where they are.’

That any road ever constructed needs this kind of provision is a little baffling, nonetheless it not only exists, but is still in use as a public highway. Ironically, though, the new road that was built to replace death road actually sees way more deaths nowadays; not because it’s more dangerous, more that the crazy drivers just favour that route. It’s all statistics, you see.

image
All kitted out and ready to ride!

Back to the bikes – we had made it down the first section of the road unscathed, stopping at a mirador (viewpoint) to survey the valley ahead. Unfortunately for us, it was cloudy, and beginning to rain, so we couldn’t see a thing! You may think that this would make the experience more dangerous, but in actual fact, being completely oblivious of the sheer drop just to your left actually makes you feel safer; ignorance is indeed bliss, it seems.

And so we carried on, stopping at regular intervals for briefings of what was coming up, and chances to check all the bikes and riders were still all functioning correctly, but other than that, just riding. It is such a superb ride, a gravelly, sometimes rocky, perpetual downhill, that offers you enough cornering to be exhilarating, and enough gradient to keep your speed up to ‘oh man, I’m going to have to brake anytime soon’ levels throughout.

image
It gets a bit tropical towards the bottom!

When you hit the bottom, you’ve descended a jaw-dropping 3450m (11360ft) to a balmy, tropical jungle near the town of Corioco, where the layers are shed, high fives are offered and beers are shared. After lunch, you take on probably the scariest part of the whole day: driving back up the death road in the bus!

image
A bit wet and muddy, but that’s what mountain biking is all about, right?

Feeling a bit under the weather 

What I didn’t tell you, though, was that we had to delay the ride by a day. We’d booked it and gone to bed, but half way through the night I woke up to enjoy a pretty severe bout of vomiting followed up by regular toilet trips – that’s as graphic as I’m getting, honest! Despite trying desperately to get up and go on the ride, just the act of getting dressed left me exhausted. We resolved that Helena would go, explain the situation, transfer the ride if possible, but if not, she’d go on it alone (seeing as I had done it before). Luckily, we were able to push it back a day, which made me very happy indeed!

This theme of illness, though, seemed to have crept up on us. Hels wasn’t feeling good when we had got to Copacabana, now it was my turn. In the days that followed, we effectively tag-teamed which of us was being the most ill (I don’t think either of us were 100% at any point), and which was doing the looking after. The worst example of this was the 12 hour overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni, which we managed to catch despite Helena descending rapidly into weariness on the way to the station and eventual vomiting soon after the bus left. I looked after her at the start of the trip, but by the end, the situation had reversed and I was back to my regular toilet visits leaving me little energy to even carry my bags.

So when we made it to Uyuni, to start our three day tour across the salt flats, we were once again wondering whether to try to put it back a few days. Cutting a long story short, Fanta saved me. Yes, Fanta. And yes, I know; as much as Coca Cola, the company, the drink, and everything else that they make is probably an example of global industry at its worst, its sugar rich products are life savers when it comes to diarrhoea.

Time to tackle the salt flats 

So, we went for it. Two litre bottle of Fanta in hand, I clambered into the front seat of the Toyota Land Cruiser that was effectively to be our home for the next three days. I couldn’t remember who we had done this trip with in 2009, so after some research Helena and I chose Quechua Connection. Again, not necessarily the cheapest option out there, but there’s no point scrimping cash on a three day adventure, it’ll only ruin the experience.

image
Our first stop was a train ‘graveyard’ that was kind of like a playground for grown-ups!

As it was, we were a group of three 4x4s, which were almost entirely full of Brits: A group of 9 travelling together, me and Hels, a friendly chap named Andrew, and a couple from Romania. The three drivers (our was called Franz) added to the party and the final member was Nadia, the super conscientious, super enthusiastic, super knowledgeable guide who enhanced every aspect of our trip, despite worrying herself silly about the state of my health.

The thing I love about this trip, is that as soon as you leave Uyuni, you are off-road for three days. Not a hint of tarmac anywhere; at best, trails or tracks, but more often than not, the open salt plain or the desert. The drivers pick their way through the terrain, constantly trying to find the most solid ground, often inexplicably choosing a different route to the vehicle in front, regularly (at the encouragement of the passengers) gunning the throttle to stay ahead of the other jeeps. It’s not a race, of course … but then, when has driving off-road ever not been a race?!

image
I can offer no words for this one…

The other amazing thing about this trip, is the variety of landscapes you get to see. It’s not purely about the salt flats, although the Salar de Uyuni – or the Salar de Tunupa, as Nadia informed us it is more accurately called – is one of the most magical places we have ever visited. Stretching for miles, reaching out endlessly to the horizon, with only occasional floating islands and the backdrop of volcanoes punctuating the panoramic white, you can’t help but feel that Mother Nature had a very special day when she thought up this one.

image
Nadia demonstrates that although the salt flats have ‘dried out’, there is still a lot of water to be found!

It was actually formed as the continent rose out of the sea initially forming a lake before drying out, crystallising the salt into the perfectly flat crust.  It is the largest one of many salt flats in the area that actually have a geographical link back to Lake Titicaca.  But yes, in addition to the mystical Salar, you also get to explore the expanse of the desert, the superb lagoons in varied colours, green, red, white, often full of foraging flamingoes, the weather shaped rocks, the millennia old stone army that is actually coral, geysers that bubble like cauldrons in the earth and a fabulous hot spring, that remains hot despite the earth around it being well below freezing.

We stayed at two hostels in the middle of nowhere, the first a lovely set up where we had a double en-suite room with hot water (yes, it was worth the extra money!), and the second which was much more rough and ready, with simple dorms and shared facilities.

image
The second hostel was a pretty basic affair.   And yes, Helena’s wearing all of her clothes because it was freezing in the morning!

The second night saw another bout of dodgy tummy for me so I was up and down throughout, desperately trying not to wake the others.

One of the other reasons people love the salt flats, is that the white background creates the perfect setting to take ‘perspective’ photographs, where the creative minded come up with all sorts of amazing ideas for shots mixing the sixes of people and objects that have been brought along specifically for this purpose.

image
The old ‘Oh no, it’s a massive dinosaur’ shot; a salt flats classic!

Nadia was well versed in where to put the people and how to take the photos, so we spent quite a while in a sort of ‘photo shoot’ mode, stepping forwards, backwards, this way and that, to create the shots.

Camera disaster!

Our biggest problem right now – which didn’t happen until over a week after this – is that we lost our main camera on the bus from Santiago to Mendoza. As much as it’s heart-breaking, as it was a gift to Helena from her parents, the object loss is not the biggest thing; it’s the fact that we had a load of photos on there that we cannot replace. This doesn’t mean every photo from the whole trip, as thankfully we’ve been uploading as we go to a
Flickr site (highly recommended practice), it’s just that we could only back them up when we had decent wi-fi, so when we lost the camera we had uploaded everything except the second part of the salt flats, and anything we took in Chile. It’s a nightmare, but, as we’ve been telling ourselves, we could have lost a lot more. For now, I’ll leave you with a selection of photos we do still have, and a huge recommendation for visiting the Salar de Uyuni – it really is a spectacular place.

image
We quite like this one!
image
One of the first lagoons we saw, stunning (but smelly!)
image
I love this shot – the panorama is the only way to photograph the desert!
image
One of the downhill team on ‘postcard corner’.
image
At the end of our trip, with Franz in the centre, Nadia and Andrew.   Good times!
DCIM100GOPROGOPR1299.
One of my favourites of our entire trip: the steam rising above the hot springs in the early morning sun. 

 

It’s all about the altitude!

A week after leaving Cusco, we’d made it to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca – via a stop-over in Arequipa to visit the Colca Canyon – and it was hailing.

image
There really was a lot of hail!

I’d come out in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops and was now sat with Helena, huddling for warmth around a heater in a cafe, clutching a hot chocolate.  We were wet, cold, and wondering what the hell we were doing. ‘Is it time to go home yet?’ one of us said (although I genuinely can’t remember who).

So, in those situations, there is only one course of action: drink! Firstly hot chocolate, (which Helena has just reminded me actually had Bailey’s in it) but soon thereafter, Pisco – a grape based spirit enjoyed by Peruvians across the country.

image
Helena loving life in Puno…

Despite Puno being our last stop in Peru, we hadn’t actually had a proper Pisco Sour up until that point; a situation that was quickly, and repeatedly, rectified.

Colca Canyon
Before Puno though, we went to Arequipa, a city dwarved by the huge volcanoes, El Misti and Chachani.  We had neither a hostel nor any activity booked but we’d heard that the Colca Canyon was well worth a visit, and managed to find a tour agency that were doing trips every day. We could have done a single day excursion, getting a bus to the canyon, visiting all of the key points, and returning the same day. Tempting as that sounds, we were keen to avoid a repeat performance of our Grand Canyon experience (10 hours on a bus for 90 mins of frantic and crowded photo taking), so went for a two-day option where you trek down into the canyon on the first day, before climbing back out again on the second.

Now, we assumed that having done quite a lot of hiking by this point, that the canyon experience would be somewhat of a breeze. However, we totally underestimated the difficulties involved by inverting the gradients, i.e. by climbing down into the canyon and then having to climb back out again. Not only does the walk down dig into your legs way more than you think it would (or should), the next morning you get the joy of climbing back out of the depths to your start point.  Also, significantly, on this particular hike, the journey down is about 16km whereas the path back up is 6km. That means only one thing – it’s steep!

image

Despite all of this, we really enjoyed the canyon. We met an American couple, Mike and Ishel, who were great fun and the scenery was pretty stunning too. It was definitely worth taking the hiking option as we felt like we’d connected our experience of the canyon together with a more substantial amount of time and of course energy. Plus, the changing views were awesome.

image
Team Canyon Trek – it was a short-lived adventure but fun nonetheless!

Arequipa
Back in Arequipa, after a 5am hike up the canyon wall and a trip over a 4875 metre mountain pass in the minibus, we treated ourselves to a celebratory craft beer and hot chocolate (no Bailey’s this time) before heading back to our guesthouse.

The next morning, we decided to do something we very rarely do, despite often having the opportunity. Yes, that’s right, historical culture fans – we went to a museum.

This is significant, you see, as museums aren’t really our thing. At one time, I would have apologised for not wanting to visit some cultural artefacts, lovingly preserved in glass cases in hushed rooms across the world. The more we travel, however, the more we realise that you have to do what you want to do; not what the lonely planet tells you you should do, nor necessarily what another traveller recommends as a ‘you can’t possibly miss it’ kind of thing. And importantly, don’t apologise for doing (or not doing) whatever it may be!

image
They call Arequipa ‘The White City’ as all of the main buildings are covered in volcanic white ‘sillar’.

This particular museum, however, had an exhibit that Helena in particular, really wanted to see: the preserved frozen body of a sacrificed Incan girl. They have named her ‘Juanita: The Ice Princess’. A 20 minute introductory video tells of a girl who was effectively born and raised to be sacrificed. From a good family, virtuous, a virgin, she would (maybe?) have felt it a privilege to have been chosen as an offering to the gods in exchange for their mercy: which would come in the form of peace from the active volcano, Ampato. For me though, the most significant thing was that this girl was not only sacrificed, but she also had to hike her way to the summit of the 6310 metre summit in order to be so; in simple clothes and sandals. She would have been freezing, exhausted and possibly suffering from the effects of the altitude. A really inconceivable feat in many ways.

The idea was made even more impressive, if that’s the right word, when you consider what it would take to get up to that height. When we were talking with the tour guide about booking the Colca trek, I noticed that they offered trips to climb Chachani which, at 6075 metres, is apparently one of the world’s ‘easiest’ 6000m peaks. Tempted with the opportunity, and feeling rather confident having just been over the 4600m Salkantay pass with minimal issues, I rather nonchalantly asked about the price for the trek.

‘What kind of acclimatisation do you have?’ asked the lady. It was an interesting response, seeing as I’d asked about money. Nevertheless, I replied confidently, ‘Well, we’ve just spent about a week in Cusco and done the Salkantay trail. It goes to 4600m you know…’
‘It is not enough,’ she said, dismissing the request instantly, ‘You will not be able to climb Chachani.’ To be fair, she went on to explain that you really need to stay at or above 4000m for numerous days, taking in regular hikes even to be considered to start that sort of trek. It is good that the company take the issues of altitude seriously – but it made me think that poor old Juanita, who was actually pretty young, must have found it hard too.

Lake Titicaca
Back in Puno then, during the breaks in the weather, we did a little exploring, mainly to see Lake Titicaca the world’s largest high altitude lake. It seems like everything in this region is at altitude! Although we’d been given recommendations about visiting the famous floating islands, we just didn’t fancy it, so we relaxed in the town and planned our onwards travel.

image
The deep blue of Lake Titicaca was spectacular, but the weather above Isla del Sol looked rather ominous!

It was time to cross into Bolivia. We could have taken a direct bus to La Paz, but we felt that Titicaca deserves a little time so we hopped over the border to Copacabana instead. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, Helena was feeling pretty rough, and the concept of trudging around the town, carrying all of our stuff, looking for a place to stay was a non-starter.

So, depositing Hels in a comfortable cafe with a cup of tea, I headed out to find some accommodation. It is a testament to the learning that comes with immersion in a language that I was able to visit four separate places, check if they had available rooms, ask to see the rooms, discuss prices and even negotiate a discount at one – using exceptional Spanish along the lines of: ‘¿Cien treinta Bolivianos para noche? ¡Nooo! ¡Este muy caro! ¿Habla … er … discount?’

Surprising as it may seem, I actually located a decent room in a hotel just around the corner from the cafe and we chilled out there while Helena recovered.

image
The ladies sit on the grass in traditional dress, listening to the men.  Everyone is in a hat!

As she was feeling much better the next day, we hopped on a boat to Isla del Sol – the Island of the Sun – on which, ironically, the weather was horrendous! Definitely more of an Isla del rainingcloudyandprettydamnchillyifwe’rehonest!  We set off on a hike, not really knowing where we were going, and ended up having a lovely day. The weather brightened up; the island offered spectacular views of the lake from its spine ridge path; and we came across local town meetings where men and women were congregated in traditional dress talking through the issues affecting the community. Reaching Yumani at the southern tip of the island, we stopped for lunch overlooking the lake, before catching the boat back to Copacabana.

image
The ridge path offers great views out across the lake.

So that’s it for now – a short update as part of my attempt to get as much as possible written before we get home. We’re actually in Rio right now – crazy hey! – but you can look forward to blogs about La Paz, cycling down the World’s Most Dangerous Road, spending three days in a 4×4 crossing the salt flats, wine tasting and cooking courses in Chile, even more wine in Mendoza along with the friendliest hostel we’ve found since Thailand, the bright lights of Buenos Aires, the awesome natural energy of Iguazu Falls and the fun we had in Floreanopolis. I had better get writing!

image
Ready to go at 5am – breakfast is at the top of the canyon!
image
Such an incredible landscape.
image
The Incan Cross hung above the entrance to the town.
image
Hats, hats and more hats!
image
One of the awesome Condors you can see cruising around in the Colca Canyon.
image
We couldn’t leave the Peru blogs without a picture of a Llama.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The long road to Machu Picchu

Before we went to the Galapagos, we actually had four days in Quito. We had previously thought that we may stay one night, then head off to the jungle, or a river, or another town somewhere, getting the most out of our Ecuador experience. What actually happened, was that we found a friendly and comfortable hostel in the city and suddenly realised we were exhausted. The two month blast through Central America had really taken it out of us, so we decided to just stay in Quito for a few days and recharge the batteries.

Now, I know it sounds very ‘woe is me’ to be complaining of tiredness on what is effectively a year long holiday, and I should probably avoid writing about it because it doesn’t make for a very good story, but this blog is supposed to be a reflection of our experience, and I would be lying if I told you that this trip has all been plain sailing. I may elaborate on this in a separate post, but for now, let me summarise by saying that we were, after nine months on the road, beginning to feel a keen sense of missing home, of wanting to spend time with people who we actually know, of not having to begin every conversation with our life story, of wanting to follow through on budding friendships, sleep in our own bed, speak our own language, of wanting some freedom to drive ourselves somewhere, to cook, to eat, to go to work even! I never thought I’d write that!

image
The impressive double towered frontage of the basilica.   We climbed up to the top to enjoy panoramic views of the city.

Enough said – we needed some down time, and we took it in Quito, a city that challenges you with altitude, making even the slightest of hills seem mountainous, and there are plenty enough hills to come across. I will confess, the first night we made it as far as the local Chinese restaurant, before coming back to the hostel and digging into the extensive DVD collection, watching Jurassic World followed by The Grand Budapest Hotel. Because that’s what you do when you’re tired, you chill out in front of a movie. Or, well, two movies!

image
The inside of the Church of the Society of Jesus is a dazzling spectacle of gold, gold and more gold!

We did explore Quito of course, actually going on two fabulous walking tours run by Community Hostel. We weren’t staying there, but that doesn’t matter because the tours are open to anyone, and we’d highly recommend both. The first was a free city walking tour, taking in the main architectural and historical sights. Our guide Opi introduced himself briefly before saying, ‘How many of you have been on a free walking tour before?’ We raised our hands along with most of the rest of the group (we’d done one in Sydney). Opi then continued, ‘OK, good. So what do all you guys know about free walking tours?’ ‘They’re not free!’ came the reply in chorus from the majority of the group. His point, of course, was that the tours can only run if people give a tip at the end. It was a fair point, he didn’t labour on it, and as it was a really good tour we were happy to oblige.

image
The ‘hole in the wall’ sweet shop – Confiteria el Gato.

We visited the main sights in the city, which involved numerous plazas and even more numerous churches, but our favourite bits were the more local touches. Opi showed us to a traditional sweet shop where Helena bought some peanut brittle and some sesame snaps – don’t know if that’s what they’re called, but it sounds good to me! He also took us around the Mercado Central, giving tips for where to find the most authentic breakfasts, lunches and snacks. We tried Morocho, which is a warm corn based drink with cinnamon that tastes a bit like rice pudding; and Mori berry juice which is a sort of blackberry but mixed with a healthy serving of sugar. The Ecuadorians love their sugar!

 

image
Opi explains the menu at the first local food stop.

The second tour was even better – a Friday night stroll around some of the most authentic local food sellers. Now, Helena and I are big foodies, and we love trying loads of different things so we were pretty much in heaven at this point. We ate various dishes including seco de chivo (goat curry), a kind of roasted pork and vegetables dish, and a huge cheese empanada (with sugar on the top).

image
Sausage, served with sausage, with a side of, well, sausage.   Topped with a banana!

My favourite were the pinchos though which are basically three different types of sausages on a stick. Perfect!

Setting our sights on Cusco
Our trip to the fabled lost city of the Incas felt like it began in Quito. We’d completed our Galapagos tour and enjoyed a final meal with the Irish ladies and Becky before retiring for one more night of luxury in the Hilton. We had had to do some serious logistical planning prior to leaving Quito because we only had three days before we had to be in Cusco to begin preparing for our trek. ‘I’m sure we can get an overnight bus…’ I’d said nonchalantly when booking the hike (we were in Nicaragua at the time). Once in Quito, we realised a few things: 1 – there is no direct bus from Quito to Cusco; 2 – even if there was, it would take significantly more than one ‘overnight’ as it’s a cool 2928 km (roughly the same distance as our entire Australian road trip); 3 – we could fly, but it would cost almost $1000 each; 4 – we really hadn’t thought this through!

After a huge amount of logistical wrangling, Hels and I both arrived at the same flight + bus + bus combo, with overnights in Guayaquil and Lima that would get us to Cusco just in time to start acclimatising. The first of the two overnight buses produced a rather interesting blog that you can read now if you missed it: 28 hours on a bus. Against the odds, it actually worked out and we made it to Cusco with no problems.

Massage, señor?
There is a booming industry in massages in Cusco, soothing the legs of all the weary hikers returning from the Inca Trail. We hadn’t done our hike yet but having endured the last 22 hours from Lima, winding our way up nauseatingly into the mountains, I was sorely tempted. The altitude is even more of an issue here too – where Quito sits at a energy-sapping 2850 metres above sea level, Cusco nestles quietly at a lung-busting 3400m. To give you some perspective, Ben Nevis tops out at an earth-shatteringly meagre 1344m…(!)

Managing to avoid the massages, we began preparing for our trek, which effectively meant purchasing more batteries for our head torches and a bag of coca leaves. This natural plant is ubiquitous to both the region and the culture, offering sufferers much needed respite from the effects of altitude sickness. Yes, coca leaf is the main ingredient of South America’s top narcotic export, cocaine, and yes, chewing the leaves may have a similar if somewhat milder effect to snorting it’s illegal counterpart … but it really does work!

The Green Machine
Thanks to a recommendation from our friends Tony and Becky, we were spared the task of wrangling through the hundreds of companies in Cusco offering treks to Machu Picchu. We took their tip to go with Alpaca Expeditions and they were beyond excellent! Clad all in green and known as ‘The Green Machine’, the team led by our guide Julio César, was made up entirely of locals. They spoke very highly of Alpaca as a company; it was started by a Peruvian guy called Raul who used to be a porter on the Inca Trail. He worked his way up, eventually starting his own local company that secures good working conditions for his staff, and ensures all of the money remains in the local economy.

image
The Green Machine team and us at the start of the trek.   You should be able to spot the chef…!

We were not going to be doing the Inca Trail, however. We decided to go for the alternative Salkantay Trek which although not as hard, was longer than the classic Inca and took in the impressive Salkantay pass at 4600m. This would be the highest we had ever been since Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, which stands at 4095m.

Day 1 – all about the altitude
We woke at 04:00 am and were soon going through some bleary eyed greetings on the minibus, before promptly falling back to sleep as we were driven to our start point. Breakfast on the side of the mountain was a hundred times better than the bread and jam offering in the hostel, and with a cup of coffee in one hand, and a coca tea in the other, we had a much more productive round of introductions. We were to be a team of six: Canadian Richard, Brazilian Marcela, Scottish Matt, Aussie Jess, Helena and myself. I can’t remember all the names of the porters, but the most important guy was Casillas – he was the chef!

image
Helena was a huge fan of her green poncho!

Pulling no punches, we began the hike. Day one was to be an ‘up and over’, going straight up to our maximum altitude before descending to our campsite on the other side of the mountain.

Julio gave us a very important piece of advice for walking at altitude: ‘Go at your own pace, but don’t stop. Taking it slowly is fine, just keep moving.’ It was advice well worth heeding as our starting altitude at Soraypampa was already 3922m.

Since the porters had to carry all the food and equipment for the whole trek, they had two horse men for the first day and a half while the load was the heaviest. We became quite accustomed to seeing small herds of slim horses, packed up and making seemingly light work of the uneven trail.

The porters are also well accustomed to the altitude though; as we’re taking baby steps, just chipping away at the altitude, they suddenly come hiking past at speed, joking and laughing their way along the trek, overtaking us in order to be ready to give us lunch when we finally managed to drag ourselves up to the first stop.

image
The food was a costant source of amazement to us on the trek; plentiful and delicious.

I must say a little something about the food here. The breakfast experience – abundant fruit, traditional bread, pancakes, eggs, tea, coffee – was only the beginning. When we got hiking, Casillas really got to work. The first lunch stop, we were presented with a beautiful soup accompanied with garlic ciabatta and hot drinks. It was the perfect lunch for that moment (as it was wet and windy outside the tent) and we all commented on how tasty it was. But the soup was just a starter. The table was cleared and we were presented with huge platters of rice, halved avocados stuffed with vegetables and cheese, fried potatoes, fish in some kind of tomato based sauce, corn topped with cheese, and an incredible spicy salsa. We were stunned. He and the team had managed to prepare all of this from fresh at 4500m in a small tent on the side of a windswept mountain.  The superb lunch fuelled us for the pass and we all made it down to the camp site safely.

image
The Salkantay Pass: 4600 metres above sea level.  Unfortunately, the clouds were shrouding the mountains so we didn’t get any views from here.

Arriving at the campsite, we were treated to a three course dinner. We reflected on our achievements of the day, and took stock of our condition. Canadian Richard was beginning to suffer from an altitude induced headache and so began drinking coca tea made from fistfuls of leaves. Julio gave us his briefing for the next day which involved what was to become a standard kit list: ‘You will need rain jacket, rain poncho, sunglasses, hat of the cold, hat of the sun, gloves…’ The weather was very changeable, he was saying. Right now, all we were thinking about was the cold, but then, the porters arrived with the best present possible…actual, genuine, hot water bottles. The relief on Helena’s face in particular was tangible!

image
The Green Machine on the march with one of the horses.

Day 2 – the longest day
The 18km hike on day two was to be the furthest we’d go in one day. Looking at it, it should have been easy as it was all downhill, but persistently walking down takes its toll on your knees after a while. Descending throughout the day, the humidity increased, the terrain changed from bare mountain to mosquito abundant jungle, and we started our war against the bites; a fight that we were doomed to lose of course!

By the time we neared our end point at the town of Playa, we were all beginning to feel pretty sore. ‘How far to go,’ asked Marcela. ‘Twenty minutes,’ replied Julio, and we trekked on.

Twenty minutes later, the end was not in sight. We kept on walking, and Marcela asked again. ‘Julio!’ she said, pronouncing the ‘J’ in his name for comic effect, ‘I thought you said it was twenty minutes?’
‘Yes,’ he said, with a glint in his eye, ‘A tourist twenty minutes.’ ‘So how far is it now?’ Marcela asked, to which Julio replied, of course, ‘Twenty minutes.’

image
The mist was pretty persistent, but occasionally a break in the clouds cast light across the valley.

We did eventually make it and were treated to another exceptional set of meals, and even a cake at the end of the day. I let slip that it was going to be Helena’s birthday on day 3 so she got the pleasure of cutting the cake, although Julio was upset we hadn’t told him before, ‘We could have done something special!’ he said.

Day 3 – Up and over
18th October, Helena’s birthday, and I pulled out a little surprise proposal. I would like to say I made it down onto one knee but I was hampered slightly by the sleeping bag! Despite this, it was a pretty special moment, and Helena protests that she had no idea it was coming. I’d left her for the afternoon in Cusco so that I could go and buy a ring; I thought it was pretty obvious what I was up to. ‘No, honestly,’ she said, ‘I thought I was getting a cardigan!’

image
The lads surpassed themselves on Helena’s birthday.  We hadn’t even told them until the night before, and they still produced a cake … with piped icing!   Where they got a piping bag from, we will never know!

As excited as we were, we didn’t tell any of the other people on the trek as we wanted to have a bit of time for it to be just ours. We kept catching snippets of time where we could talk about it together on the hike, ‘It would have made the rest of this hike a bit awkward if I’d have said no!’ joked Helena. ‘Not to mention the rest of the trip around South America…’ I reminded her!

This day was exciting as well because we ended it with an incredible panoramic of the mountains view from our campsite, which included our first glimpse of Machu Picchu across the valley. We sat and watched as the sun went down and I took and re-took the panorama over and over as the clouds shifted and the light changed, constantly repainting the landscape.

image
The mesmerising Andes.   Machu Picchu is tiny, across the valley in the very centre of this photo.

Day 4 – Arriving in Aguas Calientes
This day was all about getting to Aguas – after a pretty steep descent into the valley, we followed the train line all the way from Hidroelectrica up to our final pre-Machu Picchu destination. This is the biggest difference between the classic Inca Trail, and any of the alternative treks: only on the Inca Trail do you get to arrive from the famous Sun Gate, viewing Machu Picchu for the first time from above, on the final morning of the trek. Every other trail ends up in Aguas, from where you can catch the bus!

Having been on our feet for so long though, and as tempting as it was to hop on the bus up the steep climb to the city, we made a unanimous decision that we wanted to finish the trek on foot. Over a final dinner and after a few celebratory Cusqueña (which is incidentally the best beer in the whole of South America), we bade farewell to the Casillas and the porters for the final time.

The magical city
So, at 04:30, we met once more in the lobby of our hostel, and began the final hike to Machu Picchu.

It was a pretty steep 1.7 km trail, full of flights of steps and with a healthy scattering of switchbacks. Impressively, we all made it to the top before the first bus arrived, which meant we had the chance to take some relatively crowd-free photos of the city as the sun came up over the mountains.

It was a pretty spectacular sight, and a felt like a reward for all of the effort of the last five days. Julio explained a lot of the history of the city, its architecture and ideas about its original inhabitants, its loss and its rediscovery. He proudly told us that despite the extensive Spanish colonisation of the region, they never found Machu Picchu!

And that was it! We’ll leave you with a few shots from our final day exploring the lost city of the Incas, and another recommendation for Alpaca Expeditions. If you’re thinking of doing the Inca Trail or any of the other treks in the region, you should definitely go with the Green Machine!

image
The light on the city at sunrise was beautiful.
image
A city full of nooks and crannies.
image
The awe-inspiring terraces provide both structural support and space for farming.
image
The sun temple.
image
Polished to a perfect fit.
image
Team photo at the end of the trek.
image
Me with our super guide, Julio!
image
The best guacamole in the whole of Peru!

 

 

 

Look at those boobies!!

Call me childish, but I couldn’t help sniggering as our guide Pedro exclaimed with glee, ‘Look, Blue-footed Boobies!’ as we walked carefully around the paths of Isla Lobos on our first island stop. And the amusement didn’t fade despite us seeing boobies regularly over the next four days. ‘If you see any boobies in a tree, they are red-footed boobies,’ he was saying, but all I could do was nudge Margaret, one of the Irish ladies on our trip and whisper, ‘God I’d love to see some boobies in a tree!’ delighted with myself and my high-classed wit.

image
This amazing shot of a booby mid-mating ritual was captured by the super-talented, Helen Black.

I suppose I should try and keep the boobie based humour to a minimum from here on in. I’ll do my best but I’m making no promises!

We were in the Galápagos of course – islands made famous by Charles Darwin as the location for his studies which led to his theory of natural selection as proposed in his famous, On The Origin of Species. I’d actually studied this work as part of my Masters in Victorian Literature so was very keen to see the lands that bore some of the most important scientific and philosophical ideas of recent history.

Our planning for this part of our trip had involved a few emails to our friend at STA travel back in March. We’d decided to go for a G Adventures package trip which involved daily activities led by a naturalist guide – ours was Pedro – and four nights aboard a boat, cruising to various locations in the Southern and Central Galápagos Islands. A tour is arguably not the absolute cheapest way to visit the archipelago, but now that we have done the trip, I can happily say it was money well spent. The sheer prevalence and diversity of wildlife we got to see, the variety of locations, the quality of the information Pedro was giving us, the food, the company, the transfers, the complete lack of hassle – everything added up to make it a fantastic experience.

And we got to stay two nights in the Hilton Hotel in Quito – what an absolute luxury! Hot showers, fluffy towels and not a bunkbed in sight!

image
I have no idea how or why they evolved with blue feet, but aren’t they just fantastic?!

So there we were: we’d been picked up from the airport on San Cristobal, transferred to our boat, the Estrella Del Mar, shown to our cabins, been run through an emergency drill, had lunch fed to us, and then, after a short cruise, been transferred to Isla Lobos to be greeted by Galápagos Sealions, bright red Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Magnificent Frigate Birds and of course, the delightfully comical Boobies.

image
We didn’t realise at the time that this slumbering sealion was to be the first of many.

Pedro had had a bit of a job getting us on to the boat initially as we were all transfixed by the nonchalant sealions lying all over the place at the dock: sealions on the pavement, sealions under the ramp that led down to the floating pontoon, more sealions on that pontoon, sealions on the boats moored in the harbour … you get the idea! ‘Come on, please. You will see lots of sealions,’ Pedro was saying as we were taking it in turns to pose with the first one we saw. ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ I was thinking, ‘but right now I want a picture with this one!’ Poor guy; he’d picked up a rather excitable, rather contrary group it seemed.

The excitement mainly came in the form of the three fabulous Irish friends, Helen, Angela and Margaret who had come for a month long exploration of Peru and Ecuador. It was so much fun getting to know these guys as they joked around, bringing banter and laughter to every situation (particularly when improvising comical scripts to accompany the behaviour of the animals we were watching). The rest of the group was also excellent though: Mother and daughter Julie and Emma from England, Kristina and Becky who were both travelling solo, Canadian couple Nelson and Christina, Judy and Angelo, and finally the two Australian friends Sue and Sally.

image
Team photo.  The guys in the boats behind wanted to be in it too it seems.

Sally deserves a special mention, mainly because she essentially made Pedro’s life so comically difficult. There are pretty specific rules about what you can and can’t do on the Galapagos, which are there to protect the environment and the wildlife. One of the main ones is: ‘Stay on the path’. There are black and white sticks that mark the edges of the trails and you are not supposed to go beyond them. We lost count of the number of times the phrase, ‘Sally, you are off the path. Again…’ was uttered, in increasing tones of frustration. I felt for Pedro though; often he was explaining some features of a particular animal or species, and we’d all be standing, looking and listening intently, except for Sally… who you’d find half way up the beach somewhere, camera in hand feverishly photographing something entirely different.  She was the same while snorkelling – despite Pedro’s best efforts to keep the group together, Sally’s fiercely independent streak saw her exploring whatever she could find wherever her legs would kick her.  At least she was wearing her swimming costume though; it transpired she’d bought it especially for this trip as apparently it wouldn’t have been appropriate to do what she would usually do, and would have preferred, which was to go in the nude.  I think that would have pushed Pedro completely over the edge!

image
Basking  Sealions on the beach; a taste of things to come.

The main thing I didn’t realise about the Galápagos was that they are volcanic islands. It’s obvious now I think about it, but I had this image in my head of an archipelago completely covered in luscious rainforest, teeming with life. It is not so; in fact, topographically, the islands themselves are quite bare, with only minimal elevation gains, very few plants of any real size and almost exclusively sandy rock underfoot. This is actually a huge bonus when it comes to wildlife watching, however, as there are no trees to get in the way of your view. I know that sounds rather counter intuitive, but actually spotting wildlife in the forests is always a mission in searching it out, often while craning your neck and employing massive zoom on your camera; our sloth spotting experience from Costa Rica would be a key example of this!

image
Boobies nest on the groud due in part to a simple lack of predation.   Though when I say ‘nest’, what I really mean is they sit enshrined in a circle of their own poop.

On the Galápagos, it is not so. There is a massive amount of wildlife and it just sits right in front of you, often paying you no attention whatsoever. In fact, one of Pedro’s other major rules is that you have to remain at least two metres away from the animals at all times. This actually involves the park re-routing paths on occasion as the Blue-Footed Boobies have a penchant for nesting on the ground which has been nicely smoothed over for them by all the visitors.

The two metre-rule is probably a good one when it comes to sealions, especially the mothers. They lie on the beaches looking peaceful while their cubs plod around them, nuzzling in search of a nipple, but if you get too close you’ll get barked at very loudly.

It’s harder to maintain a two metre gap in the water though, especially as far as the sealions are concerned. Swimming and diving around with the cubs was an incredible experience. Before leaving home, Hels and I had never swam with turtles, and when we got the opportunity in the Gili Islands, we instantly fell in love with their beauty and serenity. Now, however… the sealions may have trumped the turtles for the ‘favourite marine animal’ crown.

They are just so fast! Where a turtle will kind of meander around, nibbling the occasional bit of coral or sea grass, paying you little or no attention, the sealions come right up to you, look you in the eye and say, ‘Come on, come on, come on! Let’s play!’ Then off they go, whirling, spinning, spiralling at a phenomenal speed, coming right up close before zipping off again, diving, surfacing for air, twisting, turning, playing, playing, playing. They are sublime.

image
Just … so … weary!

The contrast between the sealions on land and in the water couldn’t be more stark; on land, they lump themselves around, walking on their front flippers while half-walking, half-dragging their rear flippers around behind them. This is clearly a massive effort as they never go very far or very fast. The cubs, particularly, seem to have a very limited amount of energy when it comes to walking, taking one, two, three, four … five steps … and then just collapsing, face in the sand, unable to go on. Then, a minute later, another five steps before being laid out flat once more. It’s pretty much the cutest thing you’re ever likely to see.

image
Just another day in paradise!

It’s very easy to get completely caught up in the wildlife on the Galapagos, but there are also some stunning landscapes. The beaches especially are fantastic; huge long sweeping stretches of white sand, pierced occasionally by black volcanic rock, but with a very pleasing, and very significant lack of development. No bars, or huts, or houses; just the natural landscape, being preserved exactly as it is meant to be.

Underwater was where we had our most fun though. The tour included numerous opportunities to go snorkelling, occasionally off the beach but more regularly in deep water. There were two significant locations that we loved; the first was ‘Kicker Rock’, so called because it resembled a football boot.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1276.
This beautiful creature is a Spotted Eagle Ray.  I had the GoPro on still photo mode for this one.

We jumped in and braced ourselves as the water was a little chilly, but two minutes later we were happily snorkelling along as a flight of Spotted Eagle Rays glided directly below us, ‘flying’ under the water in perfect formation. Hels and I had hoped to spot these rays in Asia, and then again in Belize but to no avail. But now, here they were, looking absolutely majestic. Once we’d got over the excitement, we carried on and were treated to views of turtles, sharks and a huge variety of fish.

The second location, though, ‘Devil’s Crown’, was even more special. The rocky remains of this volcanic cone stand alone in relatively deep water, providing ample snorkelling around both sides and in the middle. The amount of marine life here was simply staggering, with massive shoals and schools of fish (there is a difference, believe it or not!) providing a backdrop to some of the larger animals, not least sealions, turtles, sharks and yet more Spotted Eagle Rays. Hels and I were in freediving heaven, with just enough depth to make things interesting but not too challenging, and a never ending catalogue of fabulous creatures to observe.

But then came the real treat. We had to jump back into the pangas (the small launches they use to transport you to and from the big boat) because there is a strong current at the Devil’s Crown, so the guys would pick us up and transport us back to the other side of the rocks so we could drift past again. The first time I got out, I was saying, ‘Oh wow, that’s just incredible. The fish are amazing, and there were sharks, and sealions…’ Then Becky, the American, said, ‘Did you see the penguins?’

image
We were so lucky to see these little guys; very small, very fast!

‘I’m sorry, what? Penguins? Are you kidding me? You’re joking, right? Right?’

It was no joke, and luckily, a few minutes later, Hels and I were in the water as these small, dart-like Galápagos Penguins started flitting around us, putting even the sealions to shame for their speed and agility. Squawking away, they too seemed to be quite playful, taking the chance to show off their skills for the camera. I was so grateful I had the GoPro in hand. So now our only problem was what to look at: do we watch the mesmerising Galápagos Penguins dancing around us, or the Spotted Eagle Rays ten metres down, or the White Tipped Reef Sharks that were cruising menacingly below, or the sealion that has just turned up to join in the party? It was just mind-blowing.

image
Small animal, big picture.   I think it deserves it!

That sense of being absolutely overwhelmed by the experience never dimmed for our entire trip, and I feel like I’ve only given you a glimpse of a snapshot here, a mere glimmer of the actual menagerie of sights, sounds and smells. There’s been no mention, for example, of the extravagant mating displays we saw by the male Frigate Birds, or the wonderful walk of the Albatrosses that waggle their heads from side to side, looking like they’re wading into a Friday night bar fight. Nothing about the Marine Iguanas, that swim around in the surf holding their heads out of the water, before coming back on land and huddling together for warmth. I haven’t even described Darwin’s finches … although, to be honest, despite being the source of his groundbreaking scientific theories, they’re not the most interesting creatures on the islands! I have skipped over the Flamingoes, the superb sunsets, the Humpback Whales, the Red-billed Tropic Birds, the ever-present Pelicans, the cliff-dwelling Nazca Boobies, and the fantastically comical Swallow-tailed Gulls who regularly and repeatedly stand and stare at their own feet for no apparent reason. And, AND, Hels and I didn’t even get to see a Giant Tortoise as that particular island wasn’t part of our cruise.

I suppose there’s only one thing for it, we’ll have to go back!

If you’re thinking of going to the Galápagos, stop thinking and go. It is simply one of the most special places we have ever seen.

Oh, one last thing – we have a video of the infamous Blue-footed Boobie mating dance to share with you when we get home. You can of course see an example online if you like but I’d advise exercising caution if you’re planning on googling ‘dancing boobies’!!

image
I have no idea how Helen knew where to point the camera for this one!
image
‘Come on fellas, I’ve had enough of posing for photos.   Let’s go for a pint.’
image
Bright and beautiful – Sally Lightfoot Crabs.

image

image
Another nesting booby; you can see its egg poking out between its blue feet.
image
I absolutely love this shot that Helena took of a Pelican soaring above the ocean, searching for food.

image

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1254.
Margaret, Helen and Angela – absolute legends.   Huge thanks to Helen for letting me share some of her photos with you.
DCIM100GOPROGOPR1267.
School or shoal…?
image
‘This is tower to gold leader.   You are cleared for take off.’
image
Perfectly timed Pelicans – another one of Helen’s.
image
The sun sets on our time in the Galapagos.