Tag Archives: argentina

El Viaje

When Justin and I were in Cordoba we went to the Evita Fine Arts Museum. on our way out our heads turned and our attention was drawn to a rather dark painting of a small bus filled with passengers travelling through the dead of night, traulling through empty land depicted by grey speckles. The only color on the painting was from the two yellow headlights beaming out in front. Somehow, we understood what the painter was trying to communicate. And then we saw the title: El Viaje.

It’s now been a week since we finished our Viaje (‘journey’ in Spanish). Our itineraries have slowed down to a virtual stop, Justin staying in Petaluma, CA and me in Bromsgrove, England. The music that entertained us on the streets, in the corner shops, and in the bars has been replaced with birds tweeting, the rumble of lawn mowers, and the friendly chatter amongst the neighbours (which we can now understand fully!). The views of beaches and small, rather sloppily put together red brick houses are now views of the English or Californian countryside with perfectly put together houses and manicured lawns. The temperature has now dropped so that rather than feeling like your brain is about to boil even at 4:00 in the afternoon, you can leisurely bask in the sun at all hours of the day (surprisingly I’m only talking about England right now since it’s been raining in California). And the ever-changing company of fellow travellers and South American locals is now the solid company of family and old friends.

I posted on Facebook before leaving that I was excited, scared and sad about coming home, and I think that relates to Justin as well. We had been saving for over four years to go on the journey of a lifetime, and the fact that it was coming to an end scared us. We wondered how we would adjust to the Western World after eight months in South America; would it be too quiet, would there be too much order, would we become bored with just being in the same familiar place? On the other hand, we were also excited, dreaming of the foods we would eat first, mine a Cornish pasty, his a deep dish pizza with extra sauce, being able to communicate without any effort, having our own beds and mostly seeing our friends and family.

Over this past week I think we can both say that coming back wasn’t as hard as we thought it would be and have fit back into the more orderly way of life pretty quickly. What does seem surprising is how the last eight months seems more like a dream. It’s crazy to think that last month we were at Sambodromo in Rio, the month before we were sailing around the Galapagos, the month before that we were visiting coffee fincas in Colombia (which makes choosing Colombian coffee a little more fun now), and the month before that we were hiking the Inca Trail. The list of adventures, experiences and journeys we’ve had goes on an on, and will be memories that we will cherish for a lifetime. As well as the adventures, the people we’ve met along the way have added so much to our journey, especially the Buus family, whom we lived with in Bariloche, Carina and Carolina our Spanish teachers in Argentina, Elizabeth our Spanish teacher in Bolivia, Fabiano and Lina who took us in over Christmas so we had a family to spend the holiday season with, and numerous inspiring other travellers. The two that stand out the most we met in Patagonia; one who sailed a small boat from France to Ushuaia with his wife, another is a back country skier who went alone to Glacier National Park and had to cross a treacherous avalanche zone to get to the slope he wanted to ski down. While we thought we were cool travelling around the continent, these guys brought adventure to a whole new level. Then there were the friends we made, some of them we may never see again. And this really is the notion of travelling. One day you could be sat in a hostel chatting away with someone from Israel and the next you could be hiking up a mountain with people from Denmark. Travelling not only provides you with fun memories, but also helps you to cease the day and meet people you may normally just pass on the street.  This is one of the reasons we just couldn’t carry out our original idea of having you help us with our journey, and vote on what we should do next. Our itinerary was too spur of the moment.

Along with the good there is the bad. South America is a third world continent and I feel so privileged to come from England where I can have pretty much whatever I want; clothes, a car, a house. Simple things that we expect, rather than hope for. The governments we have in both the States and the UK are more or less for the people, vs. for themselves. Yes we could argue the other way, but we are so lucky to have education, world class health care, well built houses, roads, and a well organized waste disposal system! I have seen poverty before, but have not had time to absorb it like we did in South America. Yes, there are areas where the standard of living is similar to the UK or the US, but the poor areas are much greater with locals living in tiny brick boxes, most with metal supports sticking out of the top while they save up for a second floor. They don’t just throw their washing in the machines but do it by hand and hang it out to dry by a smoggy road. They throw their rubbish on the floor because they don’t have the education to realize what it does to the environment. Sometimes they don’t use soap, because they don’t have the education to understand about germs. And some still live in fear of guerrillas.  It’s a shame that it is still like this now we are in the 21st century, but unfortunately they were part of the new world that had everything taken from them and left to deal with what was left. Hopefully one day they will be able to find their feet and become competing countries. Brazil is showing signs of change with the upcoming Olympics and World Cup and the fact that it is one of the BRIC countries, however they still have a long way to go.

One of the travellers we met described South America as a wonderland and I couldn’t agree more; from a continent long mountain range, to wide, flat salt lakes; from jungles to deserts; from the world’s largest glacier to tiny hot pools; coffee, wine and cachaca; friendly wildlife and unsure tribal people; South America has so much to offer. I hope that Justin and my journey has educated you, inspired you and one day maybe we shall meet somewhere in the world. We only get one life, and we only take with it memories so go Shadow Travellers and explore!


Back to the East Coast

Yet again it´s been a while since I last wrote, and yet again we´ve been busy with our adventure taking us back to Argentina, and on to Uruguay and Brazil. After having a blast with the wedding in Lima, we headed to Buenos Aires, the Paris of South America. Our first impressions were a little hazed. It was windy and rubbish was getting blown in our faces, we had to dodge piles of dog poo on the streets (a big problem in BA), and navigate ourselves around the sly little lily pads, the tiles that were not fully secured and if stepped on would reward you with little splashes of dirty rain water on the back of your leg. Not only did we have to navigate the pavements, we also had to be mindful of those annoying overhanging air conditioner systems that spit little droplets of dirty water on you from above.

All that aside Buenos Aires was a wonderful experience. Walking around the different little neighbourhoods feels like you have been transported out of South America with the sounds of tango music flowing around the Parisian style architecture. Our first night was stereotypical BA, sat in a plaza in San Telmo watching tango dancers provide entertainment to the locals and the tourists. Loving the dance we headed towards La Boca, a working class port neighbourhood where the dance originates. The buildings there are a palette of reds, yellows and blues, providing a vibrant background for the very sensual dance. Also in the La Boca neighbourhood is the home of the not so sensual Boca Juniors football club, where the massive stadium towers over the town. Later in the week we headed back over to the stadium to experience a game and watch Palermo´s last match. We were told that we would have a separate section for tourists to make sure we wouldn´t be in the middle of any riots, but no, we were in the bleachers! Fortunately it was just a friendly so the mood was more relaxed. There were fireworks, bands and chanting. There were even flares, although I have no idea how they got in as you aren´t alowed to bring in lighters! The noise and mood were incredible and we stomped and sang the night away.

Palermo, another district of Buenos Aires is the artsy, trendy district, filled with small boutiques and a smorgasbord of restaurants. We spent the day wandering round the friendly neighbourhood, tasting some of its cuisine (delicious tacos!) and went to the Evita Museum. The museum is well set up, describing her life and how she contributed to the Argentinians. It´s amazing what she accomplished, fighting for healthcare, orphans, and women, all before she passed away at 33. She is buried at Recolleta Cemetery, another place we visited. The cemetery is saved for the famous dignitaries of Argentina and is almost a town in itself. The tombs range in size, usually from medium to XXXL, and are ornately decorated. Imagine a town only compiling of tiny churches and this is Recolleta Cemetery. It was an interesting visit, but almost a little bit creepy too. Back over in Palermo, Justin and I took part in a tango lesson! It turns out that Justin does have some moves, and after a little direction by our teacher he was swinging me around the dance floor (well that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but he was doing well). After the lesson we watched the locals who had been mastering tango for most of their lives seduce their partners. After the tango, the salsa lesson started and I think Justin had enough of dancing for one night so we left. However there will be more dancing to come!

Avenida de Mayo, in the center of BA is also an interesting road, cutting by different government buildings, famous cafes and ending at Plaza de Mayo where the Pink House (President Cristina Fernandez´s house) is located. Close to here is Puerto Madero, which has recently been regenerated with new buildings and the famous Puente de la Mujer, a bridge straddling River Plata. Over here we thought we would give the Argentinian steak another go since the meat we have been tasting hasn´t been the best we´ve ever had. Going to La Cabana, the top place to go for steak in Buenos Aires it didn´t disapoint, however I still think the steak I have had in San Francisco is better. Sorry Argentina!

Finishing up with Buenos Aires, we headed by boat over to Uruguay. Our first stop was Montevideo, which turned out to really be just another big city. We stayed here a night before moving on. We did get to see a couple of movies being filmed, one a period drama and another for a video game. Next stop was out in the Uruguayan countryside that was reminiscent of California, rolling green fields with Eucalyptus trees. We stayed at an estancia and pretty much lazed around for two days and caught up on some sleep. I did get to do some horse riding, which was a fun experience. I went Guacho style riding with the owner. I know how to ride English style, but Guacho is a whole other ball game. I did however get to gallop and the horse I was on was brilliant, listening to my every move. When you see the photos please excuse my bike helmet. They hadn´t ordered the riding helmets yet!

Our last stop in Uruguay was in Colonia do Sacramento. The name says it all really. A beautiful colonial town with little restaurants and boutiques. The historic center is actually a World Heritage Site. Here we spent the afternoon wandering the streets and enjoying some Freddo´s icecream!

Done with cities and architecture, we headed north to Iguazu Falls, Mother Natures work. After another long bus ride, our 16th over-nighter, we arrived in Puerto Iguazu, a tiny town made for the tourists. After checking in to our hostel, we headed to the Brazilian side of the falls. That was a shock, the first time in 6.5 months that we haven´t been able to communicate a thing! We thought that with Spanish and English we would get by, but it turns out they don´t know much of either! Hey ho, it was a warm up before heading across the border for Carnival. This side gives you an incredible panoramic view of the falls and allows you to take in how enormous they actually are.

The next day we met up with my parents, Liz and Adrian and brother, Andrew, who had flown in for my Mum´s 60th birthday. Even though in mostly good spirits, they´d had an arduous journey from England, being told that they were on standby for their flight, most of their luggage being delayed by three days so my Mum only had a turtle neck sweater to wear, and then their landing being aborted when arriving to Iguazu. As you can imagine, they were ready to just chill. The following day we headed to the Argentinian side, which allows you to get up close and personal with the falls. You can even do a boat ride. If you think the Maid of the Mist at Niagra is a waterfall boat ride, you haven´t done the Iguazu Falls boat ride, which literally takes you right under the falls and gives you a proper soaking. Great at the start of the day to give you a break from the intense heat! Over on this side of the falls, you can spend the whole day hiking the different trails to get various perspectives. The most incredible was Diablo de Garganta, which allows you to pretty much stand on top of the strongest part of the falls. This is where you get a real appreciation of how powerful they are, and how you really don´t want to have a go at falling over the edge!

Finishing up our time in Argentina, we went out for another Parilla (a grill) and found that the chicken was extremely tasty.

Now on to Brazil for Carnival!

Flashpacking in the Land of the Inca’s

The Inca’s were the largest civilization in South America, their territory spanning 4000 miles along the Pacific coast of South America starting in Columbia and finishing close to what is now Santiago, Chile. What is amazing about this tribe is how much they accomplished in such a short amount of time. The civilization began in the 1300’s however their peak lasted less than 100 years from 1435 to 1531 AD. The first Incas were formed in Lake Titicaca on Isla del Sol (which I briefly wrote about in the last blog). Legend has it that the Incas began with Mama Ocllo (a woman) and Manco Capac (the first king of the Incas) rising up from Lake Titicaca with a golden spear. With their spear they travelled north to find the best land to call home. When they arrived in Cusco, they stuck their spear in the ground and named it the capital of the Incas. Mama Oclla taught the native women about sewing and weaving, while Manco Capac taught the men how to cultivate the land and build infrastructure and houses. They also formed the language Quechua, which is still spoken today in Peru and Bolivia.

After Manco Capac (also named the Sun God), there were nine official kings of the Incas. The incredibly rapid expansion of the Inca Empire began with Viracocha’s son Pachacuti (king number eight), who was one of the greatest conquerors. His son Topa Inca was also a powerful ruler conquering many lands as he built his kingdom. The last four kings were influenced by the Spanish and so are not regarded as worthy kings. Tupac Amaru was the last indigenous leader of the Incas and died in 1572. You may be interested to know that 2Pac (the rapper) was named after this Inca leader.

We left Lake Titicaca and headed to Arequipa, Peru, although we nearly lost our lives on the way there. Stupidly we took the ‘local’ bus, which turned out to be the fishmongers and sales bus. As the workers opened up the bottom of the bus to store our luggage the stench of fish that came out nearly made me sick. Then we had to endure 6 hours of salesmen nattering away in Spanish trying to sell the next moisturizer that will rid you of those annoying wrinkles. No thank you Senor! To top it off, the driver thought he was part of Formula 1 and we nearly had a head on collision with a truck since all of the drivers love to overtake going at top speeds, around bends, with steep cliffs on the side of the road. Fortunately everyone stopped when this truck decided to overtake on a bend and no one went over the edge, however our nerves were tested to the max. As you can imagine we were relieved when we arrived in Arequipa with all limbs attached. We spent four days in the white city calming our nerves, relaxing in the garden of our hotel, eating some delicious food (Alpaca!) and drinking some good coffee! We even found Starbucks! So we have decided that we are now flashpackers! We are travellers that would not dream of doing dorms, we now travel in luxury busses, we eat good food (well when we can) and when we camp we have room service! We saw the flashpacking phrase in a brochure talking about the hotel we were staying at and it kind of stuck…well for Peru anyway.

Arequipa was known as the White City originally for the Spanish white men that lived there. After a while the meaning switched over to the white buildings made of volcanic rock that decorate the plaza and its surroundings. The city is also home to Huanita, the famous Ice Queen. Typically the Incas did not sacrifice humans, normally choosing black llamas as the victim, however they did sacrifice about ten children that were the ‘chosen ones’. The most famous, the Ice Queen, was marched (not unwillingly) from Cusco to Arequipa and sent into the volcano to protect the communities from the Volcano Gods. She is special because when she was discovered her body was still fully intact with skin and hair because she was frozen. She is now on display in Arequipa. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see her.

After four days we decided we were ready to hit the road again and headed to Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world at 3269 meters (the deepest is close by Cotahuasi at 3535 meters, and Grand Canyon is 1800 meters). The tour took us through the antiplano which is surrounded by the three important volcanoes; Chachani, the largest, Misti, which is active (although the locals don’t like to acknowledge that fact), and Pichu Pichu. After a few hours we arrived in Colca Valley, a vast valley layered in terraces. We dropped some of the group off in the little town of Chivay, which to be honest I’m glad we weren’t staying in. It was all dusty streets and run down buildings. Because of our new flashpacker status and feeling like we needed some luxury, we had decided to stay at Colca Lodge and it was beautiful! We had a beautiful room with views of the valley, private hot springs overlooking the river, and a spa! I was in my element. I was almost tempted to skip the early pick up at 6am to see condors and just enjoy the hotel. Justin and I enjoyed the hotel for the afternoon, chatted with some fun Canadians and relaxed with a good glass of wine and some alpaca for dinner. After some convincing by Justin, we did decide to get up at 5 the next morning and headed on with the tour to see the condors soar down in the canyon and over us on the cliff side. If you’ve seen Grand Canyon then you need to wipe the meaning of canyon from your brain for about 30 minutes while looking over the edge of the cliff. It’s pretty yes, but stunning? Not really. To be honest I think the hotel experience really made our trip.

After having a taste of luxury we weren’t going back to the crappy busses and chose to travel with Cruz del Sur, a more expensive but less risky option. One that is less likely to turn you into a statistic (however we did break down for ten hours the other day on our 20 hour journey from Cusco to Lima; you do the math!). The busses are very nice and spacious, play good movies and the food isn’t half bad either. From Arequipa we headed to Huacachina, a small oasis town in the middle of the humongous sand dunes. The town itself is a cool little chill out spot for travellers, however the oasis has some pretty dodgy water and only the locals were splashing around in it. The reason to come here: Sandboarding and Dune Buggying. We signed up right away and were told we were going with the craziest dune buggy driver out there. I don’t think we got the craziest since I’ve had hairier experiences with my Dad doing the classic car trials. But I won’t say it wasn’t fun shooting over the dunes and doing a few jumps here and there. Sandboarding is very different to snowboarding. For one it is very sticky and hard to make turns. Justin took to it well, but I made a fool of myself face planting in the sand straight after I stood up. We started off on the equivalent of bunny hills and then by the end we were doing blacks! When signing up you can either choose the regular board or get the snowboard and boots. As we knew how to board we went with the snowboard, but it looked more fun and faster going down on your belly. Great experience, but I won’t be swapping it for snowboarding.

Next stop….Cusco! As mentioned above this was the capital of the Incas, however like much of South America, the Spaniards took over and it has a colonial feel with many churches. We spent five days in Cusco acclimatizing to the altitude and for me the food, or the pisco sours. After the second day I had a case of the Montezumas, which was three days before we started the Inca Trail so unfortunately I wasn’t able to explore as much as I’d hoped. Thankfully I was back to, well almost normal when Thanksgiving rolled around and we started the Inca Trail. However using the hole in the ground loos was an experience. Lets just say that you really have to make sure you’re aim is good.

So as not to be disappointed Justin and I decided to not read up much about the trail, nor had we looked at many photos. And we were not disappointed! The bus picked us up at 6:00 am and we headed for the town of Ollantaytambo. Here we ate breakfast and got pestered by the local women until we bought ponchos and sticks. Then we continued in the bus for another 30 minutes until we came to Km 82, the start of the Inca Trail. Packing up our things there was a sense of anxiousness, yet excitement in the air. The Inca Trail is the top activity to do in South America and you have to book it at least two months in advance, so this was a big moment for everyone. We were also walking the trail in the rainy season, but luck was in our favour and the day we started there were bright blue skies and the sun was shining down. After about 15 minutes the group was ready and the porters (chaskeys, which means messenger in Quechua) had loaded themselves up like donkeys. They are truly amazing. You read reviews about how strong they are, but it´s not till you see them carry a load probably as heavy as person and literally run by you do you realize their strength. There are actually three different trails to Machu Picchu; The sacred trail for the pilgrims, the commercial trail to transport food and other goods, and the military trail to transport messages between the rulers. We were walking on the sacred trail.

The first day winds you through the valley, by the river and by ruins. The first ruins we saw were Q’entimarka, which is shaped like a puma’s foot. All of the settlements built by the Incas were built in the shape of an animal. Machu Picchu is actually shaped like a condor. After a few hours of walking we enjoyed lunch in a small community. The chaskeys had set up a tent for us to eat in and cooked a four course lunch. They were so organized that we even had our own little bucket of warm water to wash our hands in. After lunch we worked our way up through the valley finishing at a campsite with views of Mount Veronica, a snow capped mountain sacred to the Incas. Machu Picchu itself was built with four sacred mountains in mind surrounding the settlement to protect the people; Mount Veronica, Machu Picchu, Yananti, and Pumasiyu. That night at camp we all got to know each other a bit more chatting over a beer. We had 15 in our group, four Columbians, two from Australia, six Americans and three from England. Amazingly we all got on very well and were laughing and joking the whole way. Our guides were great too, Percy the main guy who was very informational and Marcos who was there for you if you were ill. After another three course dinner we got ourselves into bed and just like it was timed the rain started to pour down.

The next morning we woke to cockerels and ducks walking around our tents, and to the beautiful view of Mount Veronica breaking through the clouds. Oh and don’t let me forget room service! Yes we were woken up with a choice of tea or coffee to be taken in our tent. Talk about service! The chaskeys had it all under control. Some of them have been working on the trail for 20 years and still continue to work at 67 years old! The second day of the trail was all up hill, ascending 1200 meters from 3000 to 4200 meters. We wound up from the valley to the cloud forest and then to the top of the mountains to Dead Woman’s Pass. Fortunately for us again the weather was perfect and we were able to siesta after lunch. Thank goodness as we needed all the energy we could get to hike to the top of the mountain. That night we celebrated Jami’s birthday and amazingly the chef was able to bake a cake for her. We have no idea how he did it other than the possibility that he carries a fridge and an oven on his back. This could be an option based on the size of his pack!

The third day was my favorite. Again waking up to views of snow capped mountains, waterfalls and the beautiful cloud forest below was a winner. This morning we had coffee in our tent. After breakfast we started heading up again. Our first stop for the day was the Runkuraqay ruins, which is a tambo, a resting spot for the messengers. They actually had tambos every seven km so the messengers could quickly relay messages either orally or using a quipu, a type of abacus using colored strings with nots which only royalty could understand. After finding out a little more about the Incas we carried on up to the first pass where we did a ceremony. This was a traditional ceremony that the Incas would do to make wishes and leave all of their bad demons behind. We had to find three perfectly shaped coca leaves and fan them out. We also took little pebbles from the river. Circling around a sacred rock, Percy made a speech and then one by one we all blew on our leaves, made wishes, layed them on the rock and covered them with our pebbles from the river. After the ceremony we carried on down the mountain to the sound of Percy playing his flute. It was such a special moment.

Reaching the bottom of the hill we explored another ruin and then crossed through the cloud forest once again. The cloud forest is so interesting, full of squishy mosses, tiny mushrooms, and colorful flowers. Mike, one of the guys in our group, teaches biology so was able to tell us about the different plants. Well he was able to do this on the second day, unfortunately he was suffering from altitude sickness on the third day and was doing everything he could just to make it through. We had our bought of rain this day too, which actually seemed quite suitable as we were hiking through the forest. And we got to use our colorful ponchos! After descending a while, the rain cleared up and the cloud started to disperse giving us a clear view of Machu Picchu mountain. Carrying on down we had just enough time to make it to the last ruin of the day, which was terraces upon terraces built into the side of the mountain over looking the vast valley and the river below. It was absolutely spectacular. We even saw llamas (apparently the park has pet llamas that can just roam as they please) and a fox roaming around the grounds. I wish we had more time because we really could have done some exploring there. After being called about five times we all came down and practically ran to camp so as not to get stuck in the dark! We made it and settled down to our last dinner with the group.

The fourth day, the final day, the Machu Picchu day. We woke extra early this day to get in line to enter the park. The gates open at 5:30 am but groups start lining up at 4:30. We were actually the last in line, which unless you are super bothered about seeing the sunrise at the Sungate works out because everyone is ready to move on when you get there and there is nobody coming up behind you. I feel like this is the way our trip was organized from the start. On the whole trail we hardly saw anyone and there were many times when it was only Justin and I, or us and a couple of others from our group. 12 years ago, the park was overwhelmed with visitors and the government decided to take it over, only allowing a limited number of people along the trail. Now only 500 people can enter the trail in a day, 200 tourists and 300 porters and guides, making it pretty easy for loosing yourself on the trail. As we were waiting, nervous chatter was in the air, then the gates opened and the nervous chatter changed to excited energy as everyone started hiking along the path. As we were walking the sun came up over the mountains and we had another cloudless sky. I seriously cannot believe our luck on this trip. I think the Inca Gods were looking down on us. I was up behind our guide as we were hiking, and he was unhappy at the pace we were going behind the other groups, trying to get us there before the place was filled with tourists. At one point, one of the other groups pulled over and we were off running along the trail overtaking anyone that had pulled over. We turned a corner and there were a set of steep stairs that you needed your hands to pull yourself up. Even with our backpacks on we flew up the stairs; I seriously thought my heart was going to explode! And then we came to the Sungate. There she was, Machu Picchu, prestigiously mounted on the hillside. We stood a while taking in the view, and taking numerous photos of the same thing trying to get the best shot. After a while we headed down and entered the park. We had completed the Inca Trail. The trail itself was amazing, but seeing Machu Pichu was the cherry on top. We spent the morning walking around the ruins, guided by Percy. It felt kind of funny to be mixed in with the nicely dressed tourists that had just come up for the day on the bus from Aguas Calientes. We almost felt like we deserved more recognition after exerting all of the sweat over the last four days. Maybe they could change their opening time for the other tourists to 11 am and the ones who actually hiked up a mountain to get there could enjoy it alone for an hour or two. But of course that couldn’t happen.

Machu Picchu was made public knowledge by Hiram Bingham, a professor at Yale, back in 1911. I don’t want to say he actually discovered it because of course the locals knew about it, there were even a few families that were living at the ruins when he arrived. Also, in 1902 a local farmer named Agustin Lizarraga also discovered Machu Picchu but kept the information to himself, took some of the treasures and sold them on the black market to an Italian. He even left his name and the date inscribed on a rock at Machu Picchu. The ruins were never found by the Spaniards during Spain’s conquest of South America since the kings led them along other paths.

In December 1908, Bingham attended the First Panamerican Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chile. It was there that he decided to follow the old Spanish trade route from Buenos Aires to Lima. Inspired by 17th century chronicles about the lost cities, Bingham headed to Cusco. In Cusco, Bingham made the acquaintance of J.J. Nunez, then prefect of the Apurimac region, who invited him on the arduous trip to the ruins of Choquekirau, thought at the time to be the site of Vilcabamba, the much sought after “last resting place of the Incas.” Bingham went back to the US and decided to organize another expedition to Peru in 1911. Interestingly he bought all of his equipment from Abercrombie and Fitch who sold him chocolate bars, leather straps to close chests and other interesting things. In agreement to the expedition, the Peruvian government elected Sergeant Carrasco as his guide and translator. One night they camped near the Urubamba river and met Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer. Arteaga told them of ruins on top of the mountain above the camp. Bingham paid Arteaga to take him and Carrasco to the ruins. Starting in the morning they climbed the mountain. At midday they rested with campesinos who had been living on the mountain for four years. They also knew about the ruins and elected Pablito Alverez, an 11 year old boy, to lead Bingham and crew there. They came upon the ruins almost immediately and were amazed at what they saw. Theories are still being found out about Machu Picchu to this day. The thought is that the city was a second capital. The people that lived their were royalty and metal workers. Vilcabamba has still not been uncovered and is located somewhere in the jungle.

After exploring Machu Picchu we headed down the mountain, had lunch in Aguas Calientes and enjoyed one or ten beers with the group before heading back to Cusco on the train. We were there for another day, then headed to Lima for our flight to Columbia. We are now in Bogota, where we are not having so much luck with the weather (there are constant torrential downpours), but we are enjoying the partying!

Ruta de Pinguinos, Vino y Artesanos

Ruta de Pinguinos:

Our last stop in Patagonia took us to Puerto Madryn, a seaside town abundant with wildlife, just south of famous Peninsula Valdez. We went in search of penguins!!! Fortunately we arrived at the same time as the male penguins. You can sign on to different tours around either Peninsula Valdez or Punta Tomba, but like with many other things you get charged a rather hefty tourist price which can be 40% more than the locals. Luckily Justin bumped into two girls from Alaska, Jesse and Heather, and a guy from Holland, Ruben who were on the lookout for ways to save cash too. We all rented a car, a Ford Ka, and the next day went on our wildlife adventure. We were told that only 20 penguins had arrived at Peninsula Valdez so we headed for Punta Tomba, about 200 km south of Puerto Madryn. Driving along the dry, desert, highway you would hardly believe that penguins were making their nests 5 km away. Unfortunately too, it is not unfamiliar to see piles and piles of plastic bags and bottles next to the freeway. The locals are starting to become more consious of the fact that this is damaging the environment and have banned plastic bags at the supermarkets. The national parks however, are very well designed and modern. The Punto Tomba park had clearly marked paths and informational signs about the wildlife.

After our long drive and the final 5km of unpaved bumpy road in our little Ford Ka we were ready for some fresh seaside air. Our first wildlife spotting was the quanacas, a type of llama. Justin and I had seen plenty from the bus, but finally I could actually get a photo of them without being behind glass. Then we followed the path to see the penguins. As soon as we entered the park we saw the first little penguin hiding in it´s nest, then we turned a corner and there was another, then following the path a bit further we could see hundreds of them dotted around. It was an amazing sight. Surprisingly they weren´t really close to the beach and preferred to be a little further up on shore. The females were just starting to arrive and we actually saw them swimming in from the ocean. The males were making an incredible sound, trying to find their mates. They would suck in air to blow themselves up like a balloon and then deflate themselves letting out squeeking sounds. They were  not at all scared of humans and freely waddled over the path in front of us without even a care. One even waddled straight up in front of me, took a big stare and then carried on its merry way. Quite an experience for us all, especially Heather from Alaska who is going to do her major in ornithology.

Next we headed north to find the famous Welsh villiage, Gaiman, that apparently Princess Di went to. After yet another 40 minutes along a dirt road we came to a town that did not resemble Wales at all. The ´thing to do´ here is take afternoon tea. We found the gaudy tea house, with its tourist sized tea pot, but they wouldn´t serve us tea and wanted us to eat a full 10 course meal. After a few broken words in Spanish from me telling them that a 10 course meal with Milanesa wasn´t afternoon tea, we headed back up north to Peninsula Valdez to see the other type of whales. The best time to see the ´real´whales is a couple of hours before high tide. We arrived right on time and were delighted to see a Right Whale just off shore. We waited for a while and saw another spraying water. Finally, after all the times I have been whale watching, I have seen a whale. Perfect end to our wildlife tour.

Ruta de Vino:

There are two main places in Argentina to go wine tasting; Mendoza and Cafayate. Now, this may sound a bit dim, but I didn´t realize that Mendoza was a big city and had images of the countryside and vineyards as far as the eye could see. This was not the case. We arrived to a hustling, bustling city which at first was refreshing after all of the little towns. However the hostal we stayed in the first night was kind of gross (when Justin took a shower water poured though the bathroom, through our room and out into the hallway), we got insulted by some clerk in a supermarket, charged the tourist price for a cab, heckled by some kids, and the streets are filled with endless shoebox shops selling the same market quality goods. Our experience did get a little better after we met Eduardo at hostal Trilogia. This guy was so full of energy and enthusiasm and went out of his way to help us get organized for wine tasting. After two nights in Mendoza we headed out to Maipu, where the vineyards are actually located, and stayed in a bodega at the Cecchin Winery. As soon as we arrived we were greated by Senor Cecchin, a ninety year old man who has owned the winery for the last 50 years. He still gets up at five in the morning and helps out in the field. One of his employees told us he still has the energy since he never married! We decided to rent bikes from Mr. Hugo to visit the wineries as we thought this would be relaxing and fun. Ummm well after a few glasses of wine it was, but we definately got off to a shaky start cycling along the small roads with trucks blaring past us. It definately wasn´t Sonoma. We visited four wineries, drank a lot of wine and then headed to Club Tapiz, a schwanky restaurant for some good grub, before heading back to our comfy bodega.

Cafayate up north, is definately more picturesque, a small town in the Quebrada red rock mountains surrounded by vineyards. The grape to drink here is Torrontes, and is a perfectly refreshing drink after a long hike in the mountains. This place is a must see for anyone visiting Argentina. The drive north to the town is spectacular, going from a green valley, to a vast dessert speckled with cacti, and then finishing with red rock mountains and canyons with green vineyards. Our hostal was comfy too, more or less, although the owner seemed to want to party more than the people staying there which was kind of annoying. We met a couple from France and ended up hanging out with them for the three days we were there. Our first night a large festival was taking place, people were all gathered in the plaza, vendors were selling tasty treats, and a procession with fireworks filled the main street. It was so fun to see so much energy and excitement.  The next day we rented bikes with the French and cycled up to the cascades trail. We rented a guide, Franco, who showed us the trail, clambering over the rocks, through caves, and under waterfalls. Franco, a native of the area, was brilliant, telling us facts about the region, the natives and even acted as our photographer. We finished the day with wine tasting, although it was difficult to find bodegas open on a Saturday afternoon (silly really) and the ones we found had big school groups going through them. Still, a glass of Torrontes was perfect after a day of hiking in the sun.

Ruta de Artesanos:

Cordoba, the second biggest city in Argentina, and for once, I think the Lonely Planet got it bang on. The city is full of universities so has a very young hip feel, paired with a rich history stemming from the Jesuits, so amazingly architected churches are pretty much on every corner. There are an abundance of museums, and the main park is full of many artsy sculptures. We stayed in Justin´s friends hostal which is located in the art district, the equivalent of a Soho. We arrived on a Sunday and an Art market was in full swing. The food here is also pretty good offering more of a selection than just Milanesa and Lomitos. This is probably my favorite city I have seen so far. We didn´t do too much while we were there, and pretty much relaxed on the porch of the hostal people watching, and walked around. We did a day trip with Mike, Justin´s friend out to a National Park, went to some creeks and a funky little museum in the middle of nowhere. A French guy had spent his life collecting items from mummies to type writers and decided to build a museum out of it. It was actually really interesting and amazing that this one guy had collected so much stuff.

In contrast to Cordoba, Taffi de Valle, a small town 8 hours north, was our next stop, famous for it´s artesanal beers, cheeses, and potteries. The drive here was stunning winding up through a forest. We were sat right at the front of the bus and could see the 100ft drops right in front of us as the bus was charging up the road. I definately had a few gasps!! The valley is beautiful and we spent our time hiking, renting bikes, and tasting the locals goods.

We said goodbye to Argentina in Salta, a city in the North, and arrived in Bolivia last night. From our experience so far I think we will have some interesting stories to tell. But fow now…Ciao!

Challenge in Patagonia

“Romantic visions of glaciers tumbling into fjords, jagged windswept peaks, gauchos and condors.” (Patagonia, 2011) We have admired the enormous mountains, marveled at the never-ending glaciers, gazed up at the star filled skies and been stunned by avalanches. No wonder why the founder of Patagonia Outdoor Clothing, Yvon Chouinard, chose this special place as the name for his company.

We left the comforts of our home in Bariloche and took a 30 hour (yes 30!) bus ride down south into the heart of Patagonia. I have to say that the bus ride, as terrible as it sounds, wasn´t too bad and they even served us meals. Our first stop was El Calafate, a small town originally for wool traders, now exists because of the Los Glaciares National Park and the Perito Moreno Glacier visited by an abundance of tourists each year. Fortunately we went in the low season and almost had the place to ourselves. However we were happy that our hostel, America del Sur, had a good vibe and was full of fellow backpackers coming and going with eventful stories. We took a tour to go and see the glacier which is considered the eighth wonder of the world spanning five km wide and 35km long. The size of this thing is incomprehensible and spans for as far as the eye can see. We met a friendly ozzie bloke (Ash) on the tour and spent the day walking the maze of balconies they have built in front of the glacier and trying to catch a glimpse of a piece of the glacier breaking off. If you didn´t see a piece break off, you definitely heard the thundering noise. It was stunning. That night we met up with Ash, had a couple very large beers and shared notes about our trips.

After touching the surface of Patagonia, it was time to get deeper into the wilderness so we headed to El Chalten, an even smaller town literally in the middle of nowhere. This pueblo was mainly built for climbers and hikers to explore Cerro Torre, Cerro Fitz Roy and the numerous glaciers. Or if you´re crazy, like one guy we met on the bus, you can do back country skiing and ice climbing. He ventured out there on his own and we found out later that he nearly got stuck in an avalanche! The area and especially Cerro Fitz Roy is so formidable that only two climbing trips actually summit the mountain each year. Fortunately for us we arrived on a picture perfect day (many others at the hostel in El Calafate had returned from El Chalten without even a peek at these majestic mountains) without a cloud in the sky and were welcomed with more glaciers, fresh air and the beautiful mountains. The town however, was like arriving into a ghost town, hardly anything was open because of the time of year and hardly a soul around. Perfect for us…we would have the trails to ourselves! We checked into our lovely little cabana atAnita´s Place, grabbed some grub at a very tasty rotiseria (so good we even went back for dinner) and headed for the Lago Torre trail. This was our favorite hike so far, winding by the river, up hills, through little groves and finally to the magnificent finish. Iced over Lago Torre, Cerro Torre standing tall and Glaciar Grande. It was a sight we will never forget and literally took my breath away. The next day was pretty cloudy so we hiked to a waterfall and then ventured to Lago Capri to get the tourist photo of Fitz Roy, however it was too cloudy so we headed back down to try to find some lunch. When we reached the bottom everything was closed except for the main hostel. We went in with our hungry stomachs but after watching the waitresses continue to clean glasses and talk to each other for about 15 minutes without even bringing our water we left and headed further down the street and found a gem of a place called La Lucinda´s, a grandma, mum and daughter outfit serving the most delicious food. The sandwiches were delicious and when we had dessert it came with two different liquors. With our stomachs full, feeling very satisfied with our trip to El Chalten, we headed for the bus station. Next stop Puerto Natales.

Puerto Natales is again another small town on the Chilean Border that serves as a base for tourists heading to Torres Del Paine National Park. Our original thought was to just do day trips into the park, however after our experience in El Chalten and speaking to other travelers we decided to be a little adventurous and do the famous ´W´ hike. The hike is meant to take 4 days in the best weather, leading you by glaciers, lakes, mountains and vast lands. Along the way you can either stay at refugios or camp. We opted to camp since we weren´t sure if the refugios would be open and it costs $40 per bed in the refugios.  Daylight robbery! We met another guy in the hostel, George from Brazil, who decided to join us…perfect someone else to help carry the bloody food. Our journey started bright and early with a two hour bus journey to the park. Well it was meant to be two hours but the drivers kept stopping to have breakfast or sip mate with the park rangers. Our plan was to start on the east side of the park and head west as we were told that none of the boats taking you to the start of the trail were operating. Fortunately we met some Germans who told us that one of the boats was working and so we could probably get that back otherwise we would have to walk for an extra day to even get out of the park. We checked times at the ranger station and they didn´t even know what was going on. This seemed to be the theme of the employees working within the park; we would get one answer from one employee and then get the complete opposite from the next. Always a reassuring feeling when you´re going into the wilderness. We decided to just follow the Germans and continued with them along the windy road to the visitor center. This took about an hour and within that time we saw about 3 other people. The land was covered in a fresh blanket of snow and the sky was thick with clouds, not exactly welcoming. When we were finally dropped off at the visitor center I think we were all feeling like we had been abandoned in the freezing cold. It was an exciting but weird feeling…that feeling would get worse. We took a transfer to the hotel where we could get the boat giving us a chance to warm up once more until finally it was time. We hiked out to a small dingy which then took us across to a larger boat. The views on the journey were beautiful with a glacier in the distance and icebergs floating all around. When we arrived at our destination we were dropped off on the side of the lake and had to clamber up rocks to get onto shore. Then they left us and this was the weirdest feeling ever. I don´t think I have ever been in that situation before where if you can´t hike out you are pretty much screwed. It seriously felt like we were the only people in the park, well we kind of were. Waving the boat good-bye and realizing our situation we decided to get a bit of food in us before heading for the trail; a lovely lunch of salami and cheese sandwiches. The trail was covered in snow so our feet were pretty cold and wet straight away. Along the way we could see the glacier and small lakes that were almost black. We made it to the first refugio just after dark and what a relief it was to see ¨civilization¨ in front of us. We were welcomed with a lovely fire and a huge kitchen to cook in. We put up our tents, made some tasty cheese quesadillas, and joined the 4 others warming their feet by the fire. We met another German who has been travelling for the past 5 years and has 4 years to go with the aim of visiting every country in the world. Sounds interesting but he was quite defensive in everything he said so he just became annoying. Loved Justin´s line of ‘So you´re just doing this just to say you´ve been to every country then’. After a while he left and we decided to make the most of a golden opportunity and camp in the dining room by the fire rather than head out to -7 degree temperatures!

 The next day was beautiful without a cloud in the sky and I think we were all feeling a little more motivated. We headed for the middle of the ´W’ called  Valle Frances. We set up camp at Chileno had an interesting lunch of tuna, wraps, mustard and raisins (it wasn´t too bad). George decided to stay behind as Justin and I headed up the valley. It was hard to see the trail as it was covered in snow and we had to climb over huge boulders. Looking across the valley we noticed that the snow was piled very high above the cliffs and we both even mentioned that it looked like it would avalanche. Right on cue, well five minutes later we heard a loud crack, then a thunder and then the snow started pouring down. A few seconds later an even bigger avalanche started pouring down the mountain. (See the photos above.) It literally took my breath away, and my hiking spirit. A little freaked out we decided to head back down to camp, pack up the tent and move on to the next refugio. So glad we did as we were welcomed by another toasty fire and showers. This night we camped and it wasn´t so bad, except when I had to pee.

 Our third and what turned out to be our final day, was a day of morals and ethics. It started off well. We got up early and Justin even saw a fox. Our aim was to try to make it up to the needles or at least a camp site just below them, however George, the guy from Brazil, was walking slower and just couldn´t keep up. We tried helping him out by carrying his tent but his legs were two tired. After about an hour we had to confront him and decided to leave him behind. We felt like crap and for the next hour and half kept trying to reason as to why it was OK and that he should be fine on his own. Further down the trail we ran into some other Germans (so many German´s in this park) who said the trail up to the needles was extremely difficult to finish with the time we had. So, along with the fact that we had left George and the news from the Germans made us realize we shouldn´t be rushing to do the needles and we should finish this thing as a team. George caught up to us after a little and then we carried on the trail, although this time funnily enough he had picked up the pace a little. We amazingly reached the last refugio 2 minutes before the shuttle and then headed home with a stunning view of the needles standing tall. That night Justin and I toasted our experience with the ‘W’ pizza at Mesita Grande. We never really saw George again. I guess we deserved that.

P.S. We decided against going to Ushuaia since we were ready for summer.