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Joe Keats

South America

Happy Like a Little Kid – Travels in South America – Machu Picchu

It was around the time I turned 39 that I thought “Bugger it. I’m going to have my midlife crisis on another continent. I think I’ll trek Machu Picchu for my 40th.”

I chose the Salkantay trail, and we started our 5 day / 4 night trip from Cuzco on the day I turned 40. Bamba offers around a dozen or so options to get to Machu Picchu, all via Cuzco. For the most part, Bamba Experience operate their own trips here, seeing an opportunity to provide better value and quality options than existed previously.

Treks range from one day up to ten or more days if you string a couple of the routes together, and for those that prefer to take it easy, there are also several options by train. The Inca Trail is easily the most famous, but I chose the Salkantay for the extra stunning mountain scenery. And the fact I didn’t want to share the Inca Trail with 499 other people – there was a total of 35 people on the Salkantay when I trekked, including 8 support staff. Our group had five trekkers, a superb guide, Frankie, two miracle working chefs, and a horseman to carry the bulk of our gear.

Day One

A very early start took us out of the city in a van, before stopping for breakfast in a small village, and a last chance to buy supplies. A little further on we met our horses and the start of the trail proper. “Any chance of seeing Condors Frankie?” I asked as we unloaded our gear. “Maybe, but it’s quite late in the season, you’d have to be lucky.”

“Um… is that one there?”

“Wow. Yes. Can you ask for beautiful women next? That was a good trick.”

So it was a good start – sunshine, and birds to look at. Cuzco is at over 3400m, and Machu Picchu only around 2400m. But to get there, we had to cross the Salkantay pass at over 4600m. In the rainy season. The first day was relatively gentle uphill, great scenery, a little sprinkle of rain, and at our campsite by early afternoon.

All the other operators or tour companies had lumped their clients into one big group of 22, with the same amount of support staff that we had for our group of five. On paper I guess the itineraries looked about the same, but as each day passed the larger group was more and more envious of our experience. Not that theirs was bad – just little details on our trip made it better. Frankie was amazing, talking and encouraging us the whole time. He made sure we got to know our other staff by ceaselessly translating for us. They dined with us, pointed out things we wouldn’t have noticed ourselves, and worked their arses off making us as comfortable as possible.

The afternoon was a rest and acclimatisation period before Day Two. (26 kilometres, 6am start, more than 2000 metres of altitude gained by lunch, 4600m pass to get up and over).

In our group we had German Nick, who was 19 and a serious, but really nice kid. Then we had Edward, a tall ginger English Engineer / farmer, and a Swedish couple Abdi and Yazemin. Abdi was originally from Somalia, and Yazemin was from Turkey, and they had recently married in Sweden. Abdi makes films, and had a kick ass drone that he used to take seriously good footage during the hike. Also, an all round top bloke.

Campsite on day one, Mt Salkantay looming.

 

The two of us decided to hike up a side valley during our rest afternoon, to a glacial lake that was about 500m higher in altitude, so close to 3000m. There was a storm threatening but we took our chances, as did a number of the other group. And this was our reward.

 

 

 

I decided to get down to my boxers and swim, which lasted about 1.8 seconds. I was feeling pretty accomplished until a blond Swedish guy with an eight pack of abs did the same, but swam around leisurely as if it was a heated pool and not a lake fed by the glacier about 50 metres above it. He didn’t get bumped off a cliff, but I feel like he deserved to.

Best birthday cake ever (sorry Mum)

I had accidentally let slip, repeatedly, and to anyone within earshot, that it was my birthday. We were already on a hike in the Andes though, but somehow our wonder chefs whipped up a damn tasty cake. Plus a hearty soup as an entrée, meatballs and pasta as a main, a salad, and some fruit.

We watched the glaciers turn orange in the sunset, and headed to bed to ride out a night that dropped to minus ten degrees Celsius. Comfy enough with the rented sleeping bag, and our tents were pitched for us under the thatched shelters shown above. There was at least a western style toilet at every campsite, so we weren’t roughing it by any stretch, but the attitude and cold were definitely noticeable!

Day Two

Not gonna lie, this is a tough day. You NEED good footwear including proper socks, ideally a bit of fitness, and layers of proper outdoor clothing. We were woken with hot coco tea, and while we had a cooked breakfast the crew packed up our tents and gear, and wrapped them against the elements for their journey on our horses.  By noon we had all reached the pass, at our own pace. Yazemin was struggling but showed inspiring stubbornness to get through the entire trek, especially with a soft tissue injury to her knee that she picked up. You’re sweating heavily on the walk up, even though it drizzled most of the time and was pretty cold.

There is  horse rental available for the climb, but happy to report we all declined it and had immense satisfaction reaching the pass. We also had a little swig each of Johnny Black Whiskey that someone had thoughtfully packed, including a small offering to Pachamama, (Earth Mother / the mountain) and then got the hell down the other side, as it had started to snow.

This guy was at our campsite on day two 🙂

It’s all downhill from here

 

By late afternoon we had descended down to below 2000m, and the air was warm. Lunch was in a freezing (but dry) hut, and we were all soaked to the bone, starving and absolutely stoked.  Hot soup and solids never tasted so good, and we all drunk a couple of coco teas to help with warmth and altitude. The constant rain meant the path was basically a stream for the whole afternoon, but the scenery evolved beautifully from alpine to grasslands, forest then almost a jungle like canopy.

Our campsite again had a little shop, and we pitched our tents on the second floor of a basic structure giving us the chance to dry some wet gear. A beer or two and another three course dinner (turkey drumstick casserole) and we all slept VERY well.

Days Three and Four

Mostly fairly gentle up or down hill, walking on a combination of dirt roads and paths. Evening of day three was a small village, camping in an enclosed property, and an optional visit to local hot springs. Optional. As if anyone was going to say, ‘Na, I might just sit here and ignore the chance to soak muscles and have a shower.’ It was great until the local kids turned up and were noisy, boisterous and childish.

Then we went back to have dinner, a bonfire, and discovered ‘Inca Tequila’, and proceeded to be noisy, boisterous and childish. Andrew fell asleep OUTSIDE his tent. It was fairly warm. Bugs like warm too. This is Andrew. Don’t sleep like Andrew.

Morning of day four, we blew away the cobwebs by ziplining. The longest was 900m, and highest was 600m above the canyon floor. A van transferred us to lunch at the tiny town – a few restaurants and a parking lot really – of Hydroelectrica, where we had lunch, and then walked along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.

We had farewelled our support crew, and just had Frankie for the last 24 hours or so. The lunch was fine, but by the high standards our chefs had set, we were slumming it 🙂 This guy didn’t mind though, and I may have taken a bullocking from the restaurant for letting him eat my leftovers…..

 

 

 

Day Five – Machu Picchu

You will not be disappointed. No, you’re not going to have the site to yourself, but get up early enough to catch opening time and you can easily get pictures like these.

 

 

 

 

 

We took a shuttle bus to the entry, and Frankie showed us the main sights and gave us a good rundown on the little that is known bout the ruins. Then he left us to explore at our own leisure. We had a return shuttle back to Aguas Calientes, where the train leaves from, and a late afternoon train booked back to Cuzco. We wandered around for as long as each of us desired, then made our way back to town for lunch and to board the train.

One thing Frankie told me that day is burned into my memory.

“Machu Picchu means Old Mountain. It is sacred to us. It is pronounced ‘Ma-chew Pick-chew’. When you say ‘Ma-chew Pee-chew’ it means ‘Old Dick’. I’m not sure what you came to Peru for, but I’m hoping it was the mountains.”

South America

Happy Like a Little Kid – Travels in South America – Buenos, Buenos Aires

For a long, long time Prague has been my favourite city, with Sydney a close second. But finally it has been usurped by BA…. what a city!

I would fully understand if somebody told me they didn’t like BA – it’s not middle of the road, it will inspire passion, in either direction. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. The architecture, the atmosphere, the nightlife, the restaurants, the locals, the tourists, the edge.

Naively, I was rather miffed when Aerolineas Argentinas cancelled my flight on Saturday from Ushuaia to BA, thinking “Well there goes my night out.” I was staying six nights, and had my first night pinned as my late night, a Saturday in one of the world’s great party cities. I needn’t have worried – 5am was the EARLIEST I got to bed between Sunday and Thursday nights.

But there is so much more to the capital than nightlife, the city literally pulses with an energy that is utterly intoxicating, exhilarating and Latino chilled all at the same time. European architecture fills the centro, football is omnipresent, particularly their beloved Boca Juniors, and the locals are as gorgeous as you’ve heard. Portenos / Portenas (literally port men / women) stroll the streets with a confidence that comes from knowing that you’re part of something special. Taxi drivers intersperse their horn blowing and attempts to sell you cocaine with the occasional burst of appreciation for an attractive lady that they are passing. It’s definitely not PC, but nobody seems to be perturbed.

There are people from all corners living in BA, and it is the very definition of cosmopolitan, but lined with an abrasive underbelly of poverty that is never too far from the surface. The regime of Videla still echoes through the city, and a fantastically informative and sensitive bike tour of the city lent real insight as to how it was during those years. We stop at a motorway underpass at a spot that was a bar that was turned into a detention / torture centre, and are shown a basic but incredibly moving monument to some of the many people who were ‘disappeared’ during the regime.

Uruguay is just across the Rio Plata (Silver River) and Montevideo or Colonia can both be easily visited as a day trip, although the ferries are not as cheap as you would expect. Milhouse Hostels (there are three – two in BA, and one in Cuzco) are legendary on the backpacker circuit in South America. Their travel desks can book everything from Tango Experiences to Guacho (cowboy) stays and tickets to La Bombonera to see Boca Juniors play. They also have daily activities that include Spanish lessons, cooking lessons, nightclub excursions, wine tasting and volunteering programmes.

Milhouse manages to balance the fine line between providing first class tourist services and an authentic local experience. The private rooms are better than most three star hotel rooms, the dorms are as good as it gets globally, and the included breakfast (assuming you’re up early enough) is pretty decent too. They’re big enough to provide everything you need, but retain a ‘cosy’ feel where you feel like the bar and reception staff are new friends. And no, I’m not being paid to write this, and I freely admit Bamba Experience works closely with Milhouse, but I’m not just doing a plug here – these guys get it – they understand the joy and hassles of travel, and have done everything they can to add to the experience. I spent time at all three of their hostels, and they all have their own flavour, but do a great job at enhancing your travel experience. Genuinely impressed.

Tango. Not just a part of the travel agent and fighter pilot alphabet 🙂

I hate dancing. I also hate lessons, or generally being told what to do. But BA is nothing if not seductive, so I found myself grinning like an idiot and actually enjoying the rhythm of the city as I tried to move to her steps. We had lessons, then practice, then a show with dinner and drinks…. my annoyingly good looking English companion was ‘randomly’ selected out of the crowd by the dancers all night, and wound up leaving with one of their hats. It is a city so sexy, so oblivious to your existence, that you find yourself swept up in the energy every evening. It looks forward to the next evening, not back with regret. You have to dance with BA, not watch from the sides. My favourite memory is dawn conversations with prostitutes at a late night cafe, over a bottle of Malbec. Completely safe, utterly fascinating and totally Porteno.

Legendary Boca Juniors stadium, La Bombonera (Chocolate box) The colours area a result of a dispute with other clubs -as Boca was the working class suburb near the port, they decided to adopt the colours of the next vessel that sailed in – which was from Sweden.

Some of the Centro’s stunning architecture

A street shot of San Telmo, BA’s oldest neighbourhood, and home to Boca Juniors.

Eva Peron

Best meat of my life – huge call – at La Cabrera. BA’s most iconic restaurant definitely lived up to the hype. Can not wait to go back!(Coincidentally or not, Porteno is my favourite restaurant in Sydney!)

Typical local restaurant – food weighed to determine price, and every cut you can think of on the grill. Cheap, cheerful, and fantastic.

 

@MilhouseHostels

However long you were thinking of spending here – spend longer. You still won’t want to leave.

 

 

@MilhouseHostels

South America, Uncategorized

Happy Like a Little Kid – Travels in South America – The End of the World

Volcano near Puerto Varas, Patagonia, Chile

Ushuaia, Patagonia – southernmost city in the world. Next stop, generally Antarctica. Chile and Argentina have carved up the wilds of Patagonia between the two countries, and there are smaller settlements further south – none of which you’re likely to want to visit however.

Getting here doesn’t happen by accident, you need to really want to get to Ushuaia. In my case, it was an 18 hour bus journey from El Calafate (Argentina) through a decent chunk of Chile, and back into Argentina. During this, you and your bus board a ferry for a short hop across the legendary Magellan Strait.

That’s a lot of bus, but they’re comfortable, and the journey is broken up by the various crossings and a bus change at Rio Gallegos, so not bad on the high quality busses.

 

 

The Bar at the end of The World…. or at least at the southernmost train station

 

 

 

 

The Beagle Canal. Named for Darwin’s ship, not because it’s a suitable place for aqua dog racing. Whoops….

 

The scenery on the journey varies hugely, and most of it is pretty stunning.

 

 

Ushuaia, as viewed from the sea. Many visitors join Antarctic expeditions here, and there is an international airport for those that don’t want to bus!

Church in Ushuaia – note that the weathervane is a whale, reflecting the importance of wind and whaling, arguably over worship.

The extreme southern latitude makes for gorgeous long evenings if the sun is out. IF 🙂 Taken after 10pm, on a November day that registered around 24 deg C.

 

 

 

The Terra Del Fuego (Land of Fire) national park protects the fragile ecosystem at the bottom of the world, and anyone who has visited the South Island of New Zealand will be struck by the similarities. And not just because it’s usually bloody windy and cold.

The trees, even the grasses, are often exactly the same species as found in southern NZ, and much of the wildlife too – penguins, seals, birds and sea lions. Terra del Fuego was named for the fires that were kept burning by the native tribes, and spotted by early European explorers. (The Selk’nam and Yaghan groups)

These semi -nomadic people would carefully carry fire with them to new campsites. Inside the national park, a visitors centre gives a good insight as to their lifestyle, before western introduced diseases and lifestyle changes wiped out the populations. A small part of the park is open to tourism for camping and hiking, but most visitors stay one night at most inside the park. A decent visit is easily done as a day trip from Ushuaia.

Europeans used this area primarily for whaling and sealing in the earliest days, and this distinctly seafaring city has a real air of frontier to it. Like Australia, much of the early population stems from a penal colony. A population of around 60,000 means there is decent infrastructure and nightlife, mostly centred around the Dublin Pub.

There’s a golf course, and even a couple of rugby clubs – my guide to the national park tried to get me a game with a local club, but then a German suggested morning beers. Let’s face it, I know where my strengths are at this stage of my life….

The Pan American Highway terminates here, and it is a great place to meet incredible people, who have just completed, or are about to embark on, some pretty amazing adventures.

 

South America, Uncategorized

Happy Like a Little Kid – Travels in South America – Ica and Huacachina Xmas

Hola amigos, and Feliz Navidad 🙂

Ica dunes, Peru

Christmas for me was spent this year at the very unique desert oasis of Huacachina, near Ica, in Peru.

Huacachina (wok-a-cheena) has a permanent population of around 96, but is always swollen with tourists who’ve sought out this off the beaten path little piece of paradise. It’s only about 5 kms from Ica, which is a decent sized city, but the feeling of isolation makes it seem much further.

This is serious desert, sand dunes stretching to the horizon, and even Ica has major dunes right near downtown, and in the suburbs. In Huacachina there is a bright green ring of vegetation around a spring surrounded by dunes, and in turn surrounded by a small ring of restaurants, tourist companies, and accommodation.

 

There’s not much to do- explore the dunes, or visit nearby Nazca.  (The tourist flights over the famous lines can be booked from here) But it has a charm that used to draw the Peruvian elite from Lima in the early part of the 20thC. The waters and accompanying mud are said to have healing qualities, although most visitors now are content to rent a paddle boat or go for a wade.

Although most of us pay around $20 AUD for two hours at sunset of dune buggy riding, with the options of sand boarding, or tobogganing down dunes. And it is pretty damn fun 🙂

 

This video (below) shows sunset on Xmas eve for me. No reindeer or snow in sight, but still a very enjoyable time. Ecocamp gets a massive thumbs up for their facilities and hospitality – definitely my pick for the options that surround the oasis. Great pool, with swim up bar and restaurant. I’d show you photos, but my spectacular stack whilst sandboarding didn’t agree with my camera…. Hope you all enjoyed Xmas as much as I did – around the Ecocamp pool, eating, drinking, and getting ridiculously sunburnt. Also got to share traditional Peruvian chicken Xmas dinners with the staff. Makes missing friends and family that little bit easier 🙂  See you after New Years, keep smiling, Joe.

 

 

South America, Uncategorized

Happy like a little kid – travels in South America – Patagonia

Patagonia sunrise

Patagonia sunrise

 

About four days into this trip, my first to South America, a beautiful young German backpacker asked me what was so funny.

I was standing on the deck of a cargo ferry, gently heading south through the Patagonian fjords, and I realised I had a big stupid grin on my face. The sun was out, but the wind was fierce, and most of the other passengers were cosy in one of the lounges inside. I had on a layer of merino, and another of Goretex, and yeah, it was still a little brisk.

“Um, nothing. I mean…. I’m just happy. Like, look at this.” I nodded to the vista of calm seas leading to dense green islands, with the snow-capped Andes poking up from behind them. We both stared at the view for a couple of minutes, and an albatross chose that moment to seemingly hover next to us. Neither of us reached for our cameras, and I noticed Marina had the same stupid grin that I had.

“I feel ‘little kid happy’, you know? So simple, so happy, but no real reason. Just genuinely so happy to be here, doing nothing.” She nodded, and she understood. We had the best weather in two years apparently, dolphins, sea lions and bird life made regular appearances, the crew were great, and our fellow travellers were lovely. It would have been nice if the orcas reported in the area showed up, but I guess they were busy elsewhere, the little monochrome bastards.

To make the ferry sailing I had raced through Santiago, Pucon and Puerto Varas. Volcanoes, lakes, and super comfy busses all blur into a bit of jetlag and a new found appreciation for stray dogs. Chile has the best looked after strays, and the hostel I stayed at in Santiago told me how the barrio (neighbourhood) had all chipped in to get surgery for one of the dogs – he had the cone of shame on after his surgery, so they put out special water containers for him, so that he could still drink.  Aside from cute strays, there is a stack of outdoor activities down this coast, rafting, trekking, even a volcano hike where you put on an oxygen mask and enter the crater after using crampons and ice picks to get there. (Pucon)

We were on board the MV Evangelista, travelling from Puerto Montt, to Puerto Natales, both in Chile. She is a 120m long ferry, (Evangelista, not Marina) that can carry up to 200 passengers, but the priority is cargo. The trip is roughly four days, depending on tides and weather, with just one stop – if that – scheduled. The remote outpost of Puerto Eden relies on Evangelista to supply everything the town needs, except for seafood. That, they load on to the ferry when she is moored off the coast.

A small armada descends on us at dusk, and the crew rapidly transfer seafood on, and a huge range of other goods off. Two policemen have just finished a posting of  several months, and they proceeded to celebrate by completely ignoring the no alcohol rule on board the boat. I can’t blame them, and they may not have been the only ones who smuggled booze on board 🙂

One extremely happy looking gentleman puttered away from us with nothing but a massive grin and a boxed 50 inch flat screen TV that was half the length of his boat. I’m guessing movie night is every night in Puerto Eden. I reckon he was little kid happy at that moment too. Maybe even little kid on Christmas morning happy.

There were around 100 travellers on board, mostly Europeans, Antipodeans, or Brazilians. We had daily talks from Percy, the on board naturalist. I think that’s the term. He didn’t get nude, but he did tell us about the flora, fauna, history etc. Percy, whatever he is on, deserves a raise. Each talk was done in perfect Spanish, then in perfect English. He would clarify in Portuguese for the Brazilians, and make fun of the Germans. In German.

Those talks were the only daylight hours I spent inside, except for meals. For once jetlag was a good thing, I would wake up at 5am, and be out on deck pre-sunrise. The cold doesn’t bother me, one of the few good things about being raised in Invercargill, so I became somewhat famous for always being on deck. And I mean always. I got sunburnt on cold days, and was in shorts and a t-shirt on sunny days, one particularly lovely afternoon even getting around in bare feet, much to the horror of the mostly middle aged Europeans.

As I’m trying to escape the fact that I turn 40 on this trip, (today in fact in NZ/Aust, tomorrow in Peru) I hung out with the two beautiful Germans, a lovely couple from France/Morocco, and Mederic, an impossibly tall and good looking French lad who had hitchhiked and camped his way south down the west coast. FROM ALASKA. I really wanted to hate him, but he was too goddamn nice.

When he asked how I was traveling, I was literally embarrassed to tell him how easy I was doing it. “Well, there’s this company called Bamba Experience, and they book everything for me. Yeah, in English. No, I don’t speak Spanish. Everything gets emailed to me as I go. No, actually all the busses have been great, they only book the good ones. Hitchhike? Why the hell would I do that? Camp? I have friends who are, but I’ll be sleeping in a real bed thanks very much.”

After four beautiful days of scenery, conversations, wildlife, and really, really, cold wind, we docked at Puerto Natales. The town itself is mostly used as a base to tackle Torres Del Paine, a stunning national park. The most famous trek is the ‘W’ but you can always try for the big “O” if you’re feeling frisky. Both can be accomplished on your own, but it’s always more fun with company. Ahem.

In fact, as of 2016, you are now required to book in advance, even if camping, to ensure that each part of the circuit doesn’t get overcrowded. There are some pretty lux refugios (hostels) in the park, some of which greet you with a cocktail, and have hot tubs. I’m guessing Mederic camped, and probably carried humanitarian aid supplies and three elderly people on his back too.

I had decided to skip a trek in the park, which I will admit I regret, but the weather turned to shit, so, winning. Instead I bussed through to El Calafate, a lake side town in the Argentine part of Patagonia. The big, and I do mean BIG, attraction here is Perito Moreno glacier. I’ve trekked on glaciers before, I grew up in the South Island, so I’m sure it can’t be that impressi……. wow.

This is a monster, and you get right up close on walkways built beside the glacier at the edge of  the lake. It’s almost constantly calving chunks of ice into the water below. It really is amazingly beautiful, and yes, you can trek on it. Perito Moreno was an explorer who mapped a lot of Patagonia, and helped draw up the complicated boundaries between Chile and Argentina. There are streets, a town, an airport and a glacier named after him. These things are not necessarily close to the others, so if you fly into Perito Moreno airport, you’re still over 4ookm away from the glacier –  a very common mistake. Fly into El Calafate – one of many reasons to use a travel agent!! There’s also a great bird sanctuary near the lake in El Calafate, Laguna Nimez, with a 3km loop where you can see flamingos, hawks, ducks and other things with wings and long names. The far side has gates where you can walk out onto the shore of the lake. Unmanned, two way gates. Entrance through the front is around $13 AUD.

The border procedures are pretty easy, if slow. KEEP THE PAPER THEY GIVE YOU AT THE BORDER. Sounds obvious, but a lot of people hadn’t, which is maybe why it was a bit slow. Toilets are basic or non-existent, so as always in Latin America, carry some loo paper with you. Paperwork is important sometimes.

Right, it’s beer o’clock, or in this case Champagne o’clock, as Vanessa and the lovely crew I work with at V Travel surprised me with a bottle when I arrived in Cusco yesterday. This may be the first time Veuve Clicquot has been opened in a hostel. And since that gave away it was my birthday, Melina, Melissa and the rest of the amazing staff here at Milhouse have been looking after me ridiculously well. Milhouse has two hostels in Buenos Aires (more about that in another post, which will need to be HEAVILY edited) and a gorgeous old monastery in the centre of Cusco which is one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in.

Keep smiling 🙂