Saturday 12 July 2014

Machu Picchu!!!!

After the Argentina mish, I had some unfinished business in Peru – Machu Picchu! I’d always been fascinated by this ancient city – no journey to South America is complete without seeing it.

I’m a bit restless after flying back to Lima and decide to try and find a local kickboxing club – after a bit of internet research I find out about Barranko Muay Thai – located in a slightly rough area of Lima. I catch a bus to the general area and after walking up and down the street it’s supposedly on I still can’t find the place. I’m a bit uneasy about being the lost looking gringo in a dodgy area with no other tourists. Fortunately I bump into a couple of English speaking locals who are heading to the same place – the first thing they say is “You shouldn’t be here – it’s very dangerous for you”. Right, so I wasn’t just being paranoid. Anyway, the entrance to the gym is through what is essentially a small hole in a wall – no wonder I couldn’t find it! The gym is pretty cool – everyone is friendly and it’s reasonably well-equipped – it feels great to be doing some pad work again.

Cusco, at 3,400m above sea level is the capital of the Cusco Region and the main tourist hub near Machu Picchu. To get there, option one is to fly directly from Lima, the other is to catch a bus. Flying is a quick, but slightly more expensive method (check out Peruvian Air and StarPerĂș -  a tip is to look for return flights which are often cheaper than one-way). If you take the bus, it’s well over twenty hours but the good thing is that you get some time to acclimatise to the change of altitude and the option of taking a detour to check out the Nazca lines – ancient makings in the ground that can only be seen from the air. Token pic courtesy of Google below:

 The astronaut

Why would they do this? Some believe that they were communicating with gods/aliens or perhaps they’d just been having way too much marching powder? Anyway, it does sound amazing but this bus trip is one of the most commonly robbed in South America. These bandidos are highly organised – they’re heavily armed and have been known to set up clandestine roadblocks on the most isolated parts of the road. It’s a brilliant plan – rob a whole busload of cashed up gringos and earn the equivalent of several lifetimes of wages in one night! Of course you still need to be on an unlucky bus for this to happen, but the risk/reward ratio just doesn’t stack up for me so I take to the sky.

I won’t be getting much use out of my surfboards on this leg of the trip, so leave them in the hands of Kokopelli hostel in Lima… and pray they’ll be here when I return! The flight into Cuzco is nucking futs – the runway is located in a valley flanked by towering mountains. I damn near shit myself as the plane lands at breakneck speed – along the edge of the runway the brick buildings become a blur and I’m freaking that we’re going to overshoot it! I guess they have to go faster due to the thin air at such a high altitude runway. Or they just enjoy scaring the shit out of tourists.

I evade the ubiquitous airport tourist scammers and take a short taxi ride to the Kokopelli hostel in central Cuzco. I’m warmly greeted and offered copious amounts of Coca tea to ward off the altitude sickness (made from leaves of the Coca plant – yep, the same stuff they use to make cocaine).  It doesn’t really do much – a bit like a mild coffee hit. They also have fresh chamomile leaves to make tea for relaxation. I find this a little ironic - if some of the hippies in this hostel relaxed any more they’d probably slip into a coma. A minority of people in the hostel aren’t of the hippie persuasion; my favourites are a travelling couple - Tim (a Kiwi from Wellys) and Liz (from the UK). Turns out they plan to move to Perth when they’re done travelling too so we have a heap to talk about. 

Cuzco is by far the coolest and prettiest city I’ve been to in South America. It has a rich history, with original structures in the area built by the Kilke culture around 1100AD, the Incans occupied it and expanded it from the 13th century before the Spanish invaded and took over, building massive churches and buildings on the site where modern-day Cuzco stands (thanks for the history lesson Wikipedia).  The Spanish did retain a lot of the old Incan walls; it’s pretty cool walking through the alleyways knowing the very walls you’re surrounded by were made by actual Incans.  If you have the desire to touch these walls (everyone does), expect to get scolded by the nearest tour guide (everyone does) as they don’t appreciate it. Not actually sure why as they seem pretty solid to me. The streets are also paved with stone, and stone buildings are everywhere you look. It looks even better at night under the streetlights. 


Peruvian food is amazing and there’s no shortage of it here – from the amazing fresh and ridiculously cheap smoothies and juices at the local markets to the quaint little restaurants (there are some awesome restaurants tucked up in the various nooks and crannies of Cuzco – go and explore!!).  One of the highlights is the discovery of Jack’s CafĂ© – owned by a lovely Aussie lady who saw the opportunity to offer up homesick Kiwis and Aussies a flat white fix. My little slice of Latin American coffee heaven – I’m so stoked to find our beloved flat white over 10,000kms from its home.  

 My favourite juice lady at the local markets

The traditional and most well-known route to get to Machu Picchu is via the Inca Trail; this requires booking months ahead. This is really not my style. Fortunately, there are a number of alternative Incan trails available at short notice for impulsive bastards like me. After a bit of research I settle on the Salkantay trek. This is the most extreme trek on offer and it sounds pretty awesome – five days long and the highest point is a mountain pass at 4600m ASL just below the glacier laden 6271m Mt Salkantay (the local Quechuan translation is ‘Savage Mountain’). I stock up on supplies and hired gear from Cuzco (you can hire everything you need there from boots to bags to hiking poles for a reasonable price). One of the most important supplies is a bag of dried coca leaves and a lump of ash – the idea is to wrap a small piece of the ash with a handful of leaves and chew the leaves into a macerated salivary ball and hold it in the side of your mouth while you walk – basically just pretend to be a human hamster. Apparently the alkalinity of the ash helps draw out the alkaloids (the good shit) of the coca leaves. You know you’re doing it right when your mouth goes numb and you feel like you’ve just beer bonged five red bulls.

The trek itself is amazing. Highlights for me: good crew, good food, bloody cold, having the guides bring hot tea to your sleeping bag for the frigid early morning starts, amazing views, reaching the summit, buying beers at the most unlikely place half way down the mountain (they’d been carried for hours up a trail by donkeys just to sell to thirsty tourists!).  Here are few photos from the trek that can explain things better than I can:

 Alpaca my bags

 The night before the push to the mountain pass - freezing!

 Coca leaves - traditional offering for good luck

 Annie living up to the blonde stereotype

 Wild strawberries

Coffee beans

After the trek, our hiking crew catches a train with to the small town of Aguas Calientes, located at the base of Machu Picchu, where we meet up for our evening pre-Machu Picchu tour briefing. Bea (one of the girls on the trek) and I are both into our photography and we’re absolutely spewing to hear that we’ve been booked in for a train that leaves in the early arvo; this means we’ll have to leave the temples at lunchtime, missing out on the late afternoon golden hour photo session! We’re gutted but the trains are supposedly fully booked and we have to suck it up. Time will be tight as we’re also both booked to climb Huayna Picchu, which is the mountain seen in the background of the stereotypical postcard Machu Picchu photos.

At around 4am we all walk the twenty minutes down to the main gates beside the bridge across the Urubamba River at the base of Machu Picchu. From here there are two options to get up to the main entrance to Machu Picchu – you can walk up the approx. 1600 steps, or you can do it the lazy way and catch a bus. The thing is, the gates open early for the walkers, which gives them the opportunity to reach the main gates at the top before the first bus gets up there. If you’re at the front of the line at the top gates you get the special opportunity to see and take photos of empty Machu Picchu before the hordes of tourists flood it. If you’re fit and fast you can bolt up the steps and beat the buses by up to half an hour. By 5am there are couple of hundred people queuing up at the bridge all champing at the bit to get to the top in as little time as possible. Being a competitive bastard I end up third in line at the main gate (I was in contention for first until some dodgy food caught up with me half way up!!).  The altitude is a lot lower here than in Cuzco or during the Salkantay trek; it’s also quite humid and after the mission uphill I am completely drenched in sweat; definitely recommend taking a spare shirt if you do the walk up.

As soon as the main gates open I bolt up the hill armed with my tripod and camera – I find a good viewpoint, quickly set up and snap off a couple of shots of completely human-free Machu Picchu. Within ten minutes the whole area is crawling with hundreds of people and I’m really glad that I made the effort earlier to get those empty shots. Unfortunately the light is a little flat, but hey, at least it’s not a complete fog white-out. I even bump into Tim and Liz up the hill!

Tim and Liz

Included in the Salkantay trek package is a guided tour of Machu Picchu. I meet up with my group but our guide reeks of booze and isn’t really making much sense so I decide to ditch the tour and do my own thing. This includes heading up to Huayna Picchu (everyone who opts to do it seems to rate it highly). You have to book in advance to access Huayna Picchu (they limit it to 400 people per day). If you’re not afraid of heights I seriously recommend this. The steps are incredibly steep and in many places they have steel cables to hold on to, but in other places you're free to roam to there’s nothing to stop you tumbling the few hundred metres below. I love the fact that it is so dangerous and raw! I’m really glad that it’s not located in a western country as there’d be handrails galore and a loss of that intimidation factor. I was simply amazed that these huge carved boulders had been not only carried hundreds of metres up the mountain, but then perfectly carved and placed in the most precarious positions.  There are places with narrow sets of stairs with a sheer vertical drop hundreds of metres below. You don’t have to walk on these ones if you don’t want to, but I can’t help myself. My heart is in my mouth as I carefully edge my way along these, hugging the walls. It’s so dangerous just walking these steps –there must have been countless deaths making it. These Incan builders had serious sets of gonads. Check the video below to give you an idea of what it’s like:

On the 2,720m ASL peak of Huayna Picchu I take a couple of hours to just chill and look out over the expanse of Machu Picchu below. No photos, other tourists or distractions. Just me sitting there taking it all in and trying to gain some appreciation of the amazing feat it was to build this joint. It’s so easy to get caught up trying to just take photos that you forget to enjoy the experience for what it is, and I’m really glad I did this. 

Due to my early train ride I decide to walk back down to Aguas Calientes around lunchtime, I’m a bit bummed I won’t get those evening photos but drown my sorrows with a Pisco sour at the bar. After this, I see my guide who gives me my train ticket. I can’t believe my eyes - my train actually leaves tonight, meaning I could’ve stayed up the mountain after all!! By now there’s only 45 minutes until Machu Picchu closes. I’m already physically wrecked but I’m determined to get those late arvo photos when the light is good and the llamas come down to feed on the grassed areas. I make the call and grab my gear and start jogging back down to the bridge. All the buses up the hill have finished for the day so the only option is facing that set of killer steps again. My legs are burning and I’m getting confused looks from the descending tourists who’re probably wondering why the hell this sweating gringo is heading the wrong way. I’m so physically wrecked from all the recent walking but I’m determined to get those pics and push through the pain. Sweating and sore I make it up to the top just as the place is closing and the workers are ushering people off the mountain. They begrudgingly allow me to snap off a few shots – including some with the llamas! I’m wishing I have more time but I’m stoked to get a few decent shots and go back down the hill exhausted but satisfied.

From Cusco, you can take a day trip out to the Saksaywaman and the Sacred Valley to check out other old ruins – I book mine through the hostel and have a great day out. Really informative and one of the highlights is visiting the village at the end where they give a demonstration of how they spin and dye alpaca wool and make clothing. They are super friendly and I obviously make a good impression as the women in the village keep asking me if I have a wife and will I marry one of their daughters!!!! 

Monday 6 January 2014

All Blacks and Argo's

Flying over the Andes is surreal.. I can't help but think of the guys from the famous book/movie Alive.. the rugby team that resorted to cannibalism to survive for months in these harsh mountains after their plane crashed.. heavy! Fortunately, our plane makes it to Argentina and I don't have to eat anyone. 

A tip for anyone flying into Buenos Aires - there are two airports - EZE (Ezeiza International Airport) and AEP (Aeroparque Jorge Newbery). Always fly to Aeroparque if you're staying in BA city as EZE is way out on the outskirts and will cost you around $100USD to get to a central area of BA (like Palermo).

Once I settle in I catch up with a mate from high school, Hosea, who is playing for the All Blacks in La Plata stadium, just south of Buenos Aires. Their hotel is on lockdown - guards armed with badarse assault rifles keep the fans from becoming too much of a nuisance at the entrance. Hosea hooks me up with some sweet tickets with seats right near the halfway line. It's a bummer they've chosen to rest him for this game as it would've been cool to watch him play. Still, I'm stoked for the tickets. Top man!

Upon arriving at the stadium I'm cornered by some Argentinian TV crew who proceed to drill me with questions about the All Blacks and the haka. I rattle off the legendary story  about Te Rauparaha busting out the haka when he was on the run which they all seem quite impressed with. The stadium itself is awesome - it's circular with a semi-enclosed roof and loaded with a capacity crowd and a perpetual Mexican wave flows around the stadium.The noise is deafening. They love the haka and they go even more ballistic when Los Pumas score the first try. They quieten down when the AB's answer back immediately with another try. Then another. And another. 

As the AB's dominate, the crowd goes completely into their shells.. So much for the Latino passion I was expecting!! By the end of the game I'm feeling a bit sorry for the Pumas.. they're attacking our line and giving it a solid go but the crowd is so quiet you could almost hear a pin drop. Not the intense match everyone was expecting but still a solid victory to the AB's and a cool experience for me.

 Crazy Horses!!

I'm staying at Palermo House, a small run-down hostel in a nice suburb of BA called Palermo. Two of the most important things you should do when walking through BA is 1) conceal your valuables (robberies are commonplace) 2) Watch where you step. The reason? Dog shit. It's fricken everywhere!! For some reason BA streets are littered with these canine landmines..

I touch base with Adrian - an Argentinian dude I surfed with at the start of my travels in Costa Rica, who happens to be part owner in a bar (the Mona Club) and a wakeboarding cable park called Bairex. He says to meet up at his bar around 12 or 12.30 as they'll be heading out afterwards. Twelve as in lunchtime? Nup. Around midnight is when these crazy Argo's start a night out! The whole of BA seems to work on this time.. early evening the restaurants are deserted, but come 9 or 10pm they're chockers! 

It turns out Adrian is a handy guy to know in BA - we jump the queues to the clubs and get a steady stream of free drinks, including the standard-issue champagne and Speed (an energy drink similar to Red Bull but with way more enamel stripping ability). The highlight was hitting up the Pacha Club; it's the biggest nightclub in South America with a capacity of 10,000 people. Cedric Gervais (a French DJ) is playing and the place is absolutely pumping!

The Bairex park is where I hang out for the next few days - there's a wakeboarding cable park, a half pipe,a standing wave and a few other extreme things to keep you amused. If you like wakeboarding and you're ever in BA, especially in summer, go and check it out. The few days I had there were awesome - after a few runs on the cable park I got a bit of confidence on the jumps and boxes, but the guys who hit it often were just mental!

One arvo I go on a street art tour run by a mob named Graffitimundo; apparently BA is famous around the world for it's street art. Some of it looks as though a spastic five year old has been given half a bottle of tequila and a can of spray paint, but some of it is really clever and brightens up otherwise dull areas of the city. Many of the business owners will pay the  artists to install pieces on and inside their buildings. I really enjoyed the tour - if you head there check it out at

Decision time - I have the choice to catch the ferry from BA over to Uruguay to catch up with Seba, a mate I surfed with in Peru, or head to Iguazu Falls.. With the Uruguay surf report looking pretty grim I choose Iguazu.
The bus trip there is a bit cheaper than flying but it's 17 hours or something stupid. I don't really want to waste my time so opt with the flying option. Internet research tells me that you really only need two days here - one day to check out the falls on the Brazilian side of the border, and one for the Argentine side. 

Day one at Iguazu is an epic fail. I'm told by a lady in my hostel (Hostel Inn) that it's easy to get to the Brazilian side of the falls on the bus. I'm confused as hell as there are heaps of buses going in both directions and so I try my best to ask a local for advice. My Spanish vocabulary doesn't extend as far as 'waterfall' so I resort to the trusty ol' sign language. I'm pretty sure that holding both arms above my head while twinkling my fingers and repeating "Iguazu, Iguazu" is the universally understood action for Iguazu Falls. The old lady nods in recognition and kindly points me in the direction of a particular bus. With a sigh of relief I'm on my way. An hour passes and I'm still on the bus. I'm getting that sinking feeling in my stomach as the bus starts emptying out. There are no tourists left and no waterfalls in sight. I realise my horrible mistake too late, another hour passes before I can catch the return bus. By the time I get back to my starting point all the buses which I could have taken have left for the day!!!

Still determined, I arrange a taxi to get me to the damned falls. Going over the Argentine/Brazil border is a bit strange as my passport is stamped on the way out of Argentina but I'm not stamped into Brazil. The taxi driver drops me off and says he'll be waiting at the same spot in three hours. He seems trustworthy, but as a bit of extra insurance I tell him I'll pay him after the second leg of the journey. I hope like hell he comes back as I have no idea what happens if you're busted in Brazil as an illegal immigrant!!

Once you actually get there, navigating your way around the falls is very straightforward -  free maps, signs and clearly marked paths make it virtually impossible to get lost, yet there are hordes of tourists paying for guides to show them around. Unless you were dropped on your head as an infant a guide isn't really necessary. The Brazilian side of the falls are supposedly inferior to the Argentinian side but I'm really impressed nonetheless. 

Next day is the Argo side of the falls - I team up with a couple of people from the hostel and we head off early to the popular 'Devil's Throat' to beat the hordes of tour groups. The falls are in flood and the sheer volume of water moving is amazing. The day is cloudy and I'm lucky to get the token waterfall rainbow shot when the sun pops out for a few moments.