Monday, September 30, 2013

The road to Machu Picchu

I'm sitting in my hostel in Lima on my last day in South America. I haven't really done much here. Most people I've previously talked to about the city has said it's a bit boring and there's nothing to really do. That may be partially true, but I think my motivation levels after Cusco and the Sacred Valley is at a low; it's time now to just relax. Besides, Lima is constantly cloudy and hasn't really caught my attention in a touristy sense. The food has been pretty good, at least.

But the whole point of Peru was always the Inca Trail. Indeed, it was what the entire South American portion of my trip was leading to. Lima is, and I guess was always going to be, an epilogue, a bridging point for the next leg.


Apart from a couple of French backpackers overstaying their visa and having to pay a tax to Bolivian immigration, the crossing to Peru at the border town of Desaguadero was uneventful. I even got my bolivianos swapped for soles at the correct rate once on the other side.

After arriving in Puno, I caught a motorcycle taxi to my hostel, checked in, and had some arroz chaufa, the Peruvian take on Chinese fried rice. With only half a day in the city, I settled on minimal sightseeing. Fortunately, the spot I picked, a short but challenging hike up to Mirador Kuntur Wasi, afforded some great views of Puno and Lake Titicaca.

I've been travelling with a weird mix of thrift and splurge, depending on how I'm feeling. For the journey from Puno to Cusco, I decided on the latter and bought a ticket on Peru Rail's Andean Explorer. The train takes longer than the bus but is much more comfortable, includes some meals, and also has some on-board entertainment.

I'll admit that the scenery on the ride was not as exciting as I was hoping it would be, especially compared to the tour between Salta and Cafayate, but it was nice being able to relax in a luxury train car for once.

The price of the ride made me think about the disparity between tourists and locals; here was a train full of tourists who have paid for this luxury service while the people in the towns and villages it passed may not even make that much money in a month. But then I saw the smiles of the people, especially the children, as the train passed, they waving, me waving back. Perhaps I was thinking of it the wrong way.


In La Paz, I couldn't find any chicha de jora, an Andean fermented corn drink, so I made a point of finding a chicheria in Cusco. Following vague leads from the Internet, I naturally got lost as soon as I stepped onto the streets of Cusco. Even after finding my bearings, I could not find anywhere serving this drink.

The city was bustling with people, and was the busiest of anywhere I'd been on the trip with the possible exception of Buenos Aires. Its attraction of tourists no doubt contributed to this.

The next day, after a quick stop at an optometrist for new glasses, I continued my quest for chicha. Going in completely the wrong direction, I took a break for lunch at Waynapata Café Cultural, a nice little cafe uphill from the main square that served cheap, tasty food. The friendly lady serving the food pointed me towards a chicheria she knew, so it was a very fortuitous stop for me.

The chicheria was a very dingy looking one, patronised by locals. I asked the server for a chicha de jora, which cost me one sol for a large glass, called a caporal. It may be a low-alcohol drink, but it had a certain heaviness to it, and the corn flavour came through in a good way. There was also a slight tartness to it, which I found pleasant. Sadly, that place was the only chicheria I drank at during my trip.

I planned to spend just over a week in Cusco, and the main reason for that was more Spanish lessons. These ones, at the non-profit Amigos Spanish School, were held in small groups and were a lot better structured than the ones I took in Salta. It was also great to chat to the other students of the school during breaks (in Spanish or English, depending on how much our heads were hurting); there was a nice camaraderie there. I even attended a cooking class that taught how to cook ají de gallina, a tasty creamed chicken dish.

Having an entire week in Cusco meant I got to try a lot of different food. I had alpaca steak at Uchu, which was similar to a lean beef; a good pizza (my first good one in South America) at La Bodega 138, who even had craft beer (Sierra Andina Don Juan Porter from Huaraz); and a tasty Andean stew at Inkazuela. But what was probably my favourite meal in the city was a cheap (less than two Australian dollars) milanesa de pollo, a battered and fried chicken akin to a schnitzel, at one of the many places at the San Pedro market. The market had so many kitchens serving the same food and I must have picked just the right one because no other milanesa de pollo I had after that even came close to being as good.

The day before my final class, I had a quiet drink with Steve, one of the students at Amigos. This, of course, turned into a big night out, and my throat was hurting the next day. It didn't help that I woke up early to listen to the Hawks match the next day. It would only get worse, and just as my tour was about to start.

The Sacred Valley

The first day of my Inca Trail tour with G Adventures began with a van ride towards the Sacred Valley. We stopped off at Caccacollo, an Andean village that G help out through Planeterra. It was nice to learn a little bit about modern Andean life, including where the guinea pigs (to be eaten later) were kept; the process of dyeing, spinning, and weaving with wool; and how to tell a llama from an alpaca (alpacas have less wool on their necks).

The next stop was Písac, an impressive Incan ruin near the village of the same name with some agricultural terraces surrounding it. It was here that Sarah, one of the Australians, started to show signs of not being used to the altitude.

After a buffet lunch, we headed to Ollantaytambo, another town with Inca ruins inviting tourism, and our overnight stop. The ruins featured an incomplete temple that highlighted the impressive stonework performed by the Incan empire. On the top of one of the mountains near the ruins, a fire raged, making things a little hazy depending on the wind. It was a bit surreal looking up and seeing the fire at night.

Our tour guide Rosabeth recommended a place for dinner, which we promptly ignored in favour of more reasonable prices at a place called Sumac Mijuna Wasi. The lady seemed nice and ushered us in. Little did we know what a comedy we were walking into. After looking at the menu, half of the group left because they couldn't find anything to their liking. Those of us who stayed made our food and drink orders. After about fifteen minutes of waiting, the lady running the place came up to us and said, in Spanish slow enough that I could just understand, that the guy in the kitchen was used to cooking the set menu, not anything from the a la carte menu. When we expressed our disappointment/annoyance and asked for the bill so we could move on to another place, she panicked and assured us that our food was coming out. Maybe another fifteen or twenty minutes later, our food came out slowly, dish by dish. As I was eating my chicken, Amy, one of the Brits, noticed a cat eating leftovers next to the kitchen. How very hygienic. (Thankfully, I did not get food poisoning from this incident.) The food itself was not very tasty, and we had a hard time convincing the lady not to charge us for the food and drinks that never made it out.

Hungers not satisfied, we ended up having second dinner at another place before heading back to the hotel to rest for the next day.


The Inca Trail. As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, everything else in the tour and, I suppose, in the entire South American half of my trip, had been leading up to this; it was the blockbuster main event of a stacked card.

The group sat through an hour bus ride from Ollantaytambo to kilometre 82, prepared our duffel bags which our porters were to carry, took group photos, and queued up at the entrance for the formalities. Throughout all this, I imagine we were all a bit excited and perhaps slightly nervous or scared of what was ahead--a three-and-a-half day, 45km trek to Machu Picchu.

After what seemed like forever, we crossed the bridge and the hike began.

The first day of the trek was 12km of flats and rolling hills, with a maximum gain of about 400m. It was a training day to see if people could handle the long distance and climbs at a fairly high altitude, starting at roughly 2600 metres above sea level with camp site being at about 3000m. In terms of scenery, the highlight of the day was a view of Llaqtapata, which Rosabeth noted was the ruins of the largest Inca village before Machu Picchu.

My newly acquired flu was making this annoying--sore throat, leaky nose, and coughing probably slowed me down for the entire trek, and I may have infected a few others--but not unachievable. Sarah, however, was clearly struggling with the hike at altitude; she would end up having to turn back on the second day due to breathing problems. George from England and Philip from Northern Ireland also managed to get stomach bugs at the same time, so their energy levels were low for the first few days. The four boys from Perth, however, were storming through the terrain.

The second day was to be the toughest of the trek. It was 12km once again, but the first part was a 1200m climb up to Dead Woman's Pass, the highest pass of the whole Inca Trail at just about 4200 metres above sea level. To make things worse, what followed was about 600-700m of downhill to the campsite and lunch.

It had rained overnight and remained cloudy and misty throughout the day, which was a boon because we didn't have to deal with both the high climb and the sun; it was a good tradeoff for no nice vistas throughout the day, especially from the cloudy and cold Dead Woman's Pass.

Legs were starting to feel sore but spirits were up after successfully completing the difficult day of hiking, and even the two upset stomachs were beginning to settle. We were all getting along really well, too, which is always a plus with a big tour group.

Day three was not as demanding in terms of vertical gain, but had its own challenges. First of all, it was a 16km day of up and down. Second, it was a test for the knees, with the final descent, after lunch, being 1000m.

The cloud had cleared up a bit but my flu had not. After the initial 400m climb to the second pass of the trek, I formed a group with Jenny, a Melbournite, and Amy, collectively dubbing ourselves the Tres Amigos. We headed down to Sayaq Marka and then Qoncha Marka, two ruins on the way down before the next climb of the day, a beautiful section of the Inca Trail to Phuyupata Marka, where lunch awaited.

Our final lunch was capped off by a cake, ordered and delivered from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, to congratulate us on making it that far. We also had a ceremony with the porters and chefs, where we all introduced ourselves in our native language and Rosabeth translated both ways. It was great to learn the names and stories of all of these people who had been carrying ridiculous weights--20kg packs, including most of our stuff--and still beating us, even the Perth boys, to the end of each day. They all did a tremendous job, and it was their hard work, as well as Rosabeth's leadership of them and guiding of us, that made the entire experience that much richer.

The 1000m descent after lunch was nicknamed "the gringo killer", notorious for mentally and physically breaking tourists with its 2800 or so steps. The Perth boys kept insisting that running down the steps was easier than taking them on slowly. With the path drier than the day before, I decided to give it a go. I managed to keep with them for a couple of minutes until my cardio finally made me stop. Still, they were right about approaching the steps that way, and I found myself more confident the entire way down.

The visit to Inti Pata was the day's sightseeing highlight for me. At one point, the porters branched off straight down to our campsite at Wiñay Wayna. Once the split happened, it became so serene descending towards the terraced ruins of Inti Pata, and exploring the site itself with seemingly nobody else there. I eventually ran into James, one of the Perth boys, and we headed down to the campsite together.

A cold shower at camp made me feel better (and colder) and soon enough it was early dinner where Rosabeth briefed us on the early start of the next day. It was also the final chance to say thanks to the porters and chefs as they were headed off to catch a very early train back to Ollantaytambo the next morning.

At stupid o'clock the next morning, we queued up at the checkpoint for two hours to ensure that we were the first group to leave for Inti Punku, the famous Sun Gate where, on a clear day, you could get a spectacular view of Machu Picchu. Once the checkpoint opened at about half past five, we all headed off at a pretty fast pace on an hour of hiking before reaching the viewpoint. Unfortunately, it had been cloudy, foggy, and drizzling all morning, and when we got to the Sun Gate all we could see was cloud. Still, it was amazing to have trekked it all the way there the hard way (we saw some people hiking up from Machu Picchu on our way down).

Once we reached Machu Picchu, we tried (and failed) to get a group photo with the ruins in the background--I will say that it may not have been photography-friendly, but the clouds did make the place seem more mystical while it hung around--before heading down to the cafe at the entrance to the area. As we walked along, I heard tour guides talking about the crazy people that hiked four days on the Inca Trail, probably as an explanation as to why we looked so knackered and dirty.

I was almost overcome by a wave of different emotions--relief probably the most prominent--as I passed through that imaginary line at the entrance of Machu Picchu, just as other tourists got their ticket stamped heading in.

We had celebratory beers (at 8 in the morning!) before heading back in for a guided tour of the city. It was really cool to explore the ruins, though my legs were not enjoying it one bit. The seats on the bus down to Aguas Calientes felt like the best thing in the world. At the town, we all had lunch then caught a train to Ollantaytambo, where a bus back to Cusco awaited.

Lima (strike three, you're out)

On the way back to Cusco, Rosabeth mentioned that there was a general strike in Peru the next day--this was getting awfully predictable--and that I may need to organise an early taxi. This was confirmed by the G Adventures representative at our hotel, who said I should probably get a taxi to the airport at 5:30 to avoid any blockades. So much for a sleep in.

I stayed way too long at the pub for dinner and drinks and spent way too long packing and sending emails, and ended up feeling like crap after four hours of sleep, so I was in no fit state to spend nine hours at a small airport, but spend nine hours at a small airport I did. A lot of people were in the same boat as I was and the place was packed, especially in the morning.

I slept most of the way to Lima, and managed to haggle for an oferta discount cab fare from a cabbie named Jesus because I didn't have enough money in my wallet.

Lima has been relaxed, like I said. I ate at Astrid y Gaston and Alfresco, both really nice fine dining places, and explored Miraflores, Barranco, and Downtown, but I don't feel like I've really done much. My biggest night of drinking was heading to a rival hostel's bar to watch the Hawks win in an ugly grand final.

Like I said, it's an epilogue.

Goodbye, South America

So, that brings us to the end of the first leg of this trip. It's been a bloody good one. I'm currently waiting for the taxi to take me to the airport and then I'm off to the USA, which should be great in a completely different way.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


"Go with the flow" was to be the mantra for the middle part of my South American odyssey, and Bolivia did not disappoint in that regard. As you may recall, my plan to cross to San Pedro de Atacama was foiled by snow. That was just the beginning.

Before I begin: the photo albums for Chile and Argentina are now complete. Some pictures may have short or slightly-longer-but-not-too-long captions.

Do as the locals do

Full from a whole lot of barbecued meat, roasted vegetables, and a little bit of beer, I caught a cab to the Salta bus terminal and bought a ticket to La Quiaca on the Argentina-Bolivia border.

As I waited for my bus to arrive, I glanced at the different operators that still had agents working. On the very left, a couple of guys chatting, one with a cigarette in one hand as he typed with the other; in the next, a woman constantly checking her makeup in a hand mirror while the man in the same booth would laugh boisterously at something evidently amusing every minute or two; in the next, two very bored women, probably waiting for their shift to end; in the last, a computer screen with a Windows screensaver that I have not seen in almost a decade. In other words, fairly standard for a long distance bus terminal in any part of the world.

"You'll get a lot of sleep," Victor had said after our sizeable meal, of which there was still a lot left over. He was right. I fell asleep almost immediately after the bus left the terminal. I was woken up a few times when the bus stopped to pick up and/or drop off passengers on the way, but I managed to get a good five or six hours worth of shut eye out of the seven hours of the trip, which was a lot more than what I got on the flight from Sydney to Santiago.

Still, I was feeling a bit tired when we got to La Quiaca and had neglected to look up directions to the border in advance, so I caught a quick cab.

The border crossing was a bridge between the Argentine town of La Quiaca and the Bolivian town of Villazón. It surprised me how lax security was at that early hour, just after seven in the morning. Most people, presumably locals, were just walking across without going through immigration control.

I followed the flow of people and tried to find where to get my passport stamped. Before I knew it, I was past the sign that said Argentina on one side and Bolivia on the other. Hmm, I think I've entered illegally, I thought to myself on the other side of the bridge, and decided I better turn back. I was directed to the other side of the road, to the flow of people heading into Argentina, where the Bolivian immigration officer looked through my passport and asked me where the Bolivian stamp was. After a few attempts in broken Spanish to convey the fact that I was trying to get into Bolivia and not Argentina, he got the message and sent me across the road again, where I finally found the immigration office for Argentina. It was all very confusing, but I did finally get into the country legitimately after being an illegal for the briefest of moments.

On the other side, I couldn't find any ATMs on the way to the bus terminal, so I exchanged the small amount of Argentine Pesos I had left at an extortionate rate at one of the many money exchangers. On the lookout for a bus to Tupiza in the general area where coaches were parked (there was not much of an actual terminal), I heard screams of "Tupiza! Tupiza!" from a woman standing in front a share van. I was initially dubious of their legitimacy, but the price was reasonable and the woman quoted the trip time as an hour (lies) rather than the three to four that the bus supposedly took. The people taking the van were also mostly locals, and I figured following the locals worked out so well for me the first time around. I hopped on.

Just under two hours later, the van arrived in Tupiza, another dusty South American town, but smaller and much higher in elevation than Salta.

The thing that struck me straight away (especially after the share van) was how cheap things were. Checking into (the very bare-bones) Tupiza Hostal cost me the equivalent of less than six Australian dollars for a night. Having a set lunch, or almuerzo, was just a little over two dollars at a restaurant in the tourist centre of town. Food in particular was a stand-out for me; I wouldn't say it was the best I've ever had, but it was tasty and the value for money was incredible.

Of course, things still cost money, and I was running short on cash. Getting money out meant a roundabout trip in the centre of the city because, as it turns out, foreign cards will not work with every type of ATM in this part of South America, no matter what your bank claims. Days later, in La Paz, I spent almost a half hour trying to withdraw cash from various ATMs until one finally spat out some bolivianos.

Getting high

Another thing I quickly discovered in Bolivia was how easy it was to get tired due to the altitude. I think every place I visited in the country was over 3000 metres above sea level, and it showed.

Tupiza, where I spent my first two days, was at about 3160m, and after short strolls around town, I found myself heading back to the hostel for a nap.

During one of these naps, I was woken up by a marching band blurting out some music a few blocks away. I encountered more of these bands in Peru; it seemed so spontaneous but I never did find out their significance other than, perhaps, plain collective enthusiasm for music.

Anyway, my first hostel was a dud so I splashed out some money (still just over ten dollars for a night) for a room at Hotel Mitru. Conveniently, they also ran Tupiza Tours, who offered 4-day Salar de Uyuni Tours. They were well-reviewed, and Victor had recommended them, so that was enough for me to choose them over everyone else to take me to the salt flats.

After a couple of days of acclimatising to the altitude, I hopped on a 4x4 with a French couple and two Brits--some initial miscommunication from the agency portrayed the Brits as a French couple, the French couple as Germans, and me as a girl--to tour the sights of southwestern Bolivia.

Ascents, descents, flats

"It's going to be cold," said Charlie, one of the Brits, translating our driver's* suggestion of keeping warm clothes with our day packs (my day back being a plastic bag). This was not a good sign, especially since the woman who sold me the tour said it was fairly warm and I did not need to rent a sleeping bag.

Not messing around with rapid altitude changes, the tour started off with a climb up to a viewpoint of El Sillar. I think the guide said it was around 4200 metres above sea level, but I can't remember exactly.

Just before lunch, the driver noticed a flat tyre and stopped to replace it. We took this opportunity to take a bathroom break (which I needed thanks to the Diamox--altitude acclimatisation pills) and to take pictures of some nearby llamas, who promptly ran away to the other side of the road upon our approach.

After the change, we moved along a bit further for our first meal of the trip, which was a surprisingly delectable dish of rice and a vegetable sauce of some description. This signalled a theme of better-than-expected lunches and dinners throughout the trip.

While our cook prepared our food, the driver was busy replacing the tube in the flat tyre. Fortunately it was only a tube that needed replacement; something worse would not have been fun on the very first day of the tour.

The rest of the day took us through more of the area outside of Tupiza, heading towards the southwestern corner of the country. There was Ruinas de San Antonio, an eerie abandoned town on the foothills of the Uturuncu volcano, and a panoramic view of one of the first of many lakes of the tour.

As the sun set, we passed the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve checkpoint and headed to our bare-bones hostel where stone beds (fortunately, with mattresses and thick blankets) awaited.

Dinner was an opportunity to get to know my travel companions a little better - Hélène and Guillaume were a young married couple from Paris on a short holiday, and Charlie and Georgie were friends from England travelling through South America together.

We were the first four-wheel drives to set off on the second day, which meant an icy crossing through a few rivers before arriving at a natural hot springs for a quick dip. I hadn't intended to go in, for I hadn't brought any swimmers or flip flops on my trip, but peer pressure got the better to me so I waddled in in my underwear. The water was nice and warm but it made drying and changing clothes afterwards a little awkward. When in the Bolivian desert, I guess.

Speaking of deserts, the 4x4 headed through the Desierto Salvador Dalí, near the very bottom of the country, near the border with Chile. The story goes that this arid desert is so named because of its similarities to some of the paintings of Salvador Dalí.

Lunch was near the very windy but picturesque Laguna Verde, which gets its colour from a mix of elements, most notably arsenic (which means it is not a lake you would want to swim in).

We then turned away from the border towards the geysers of Sol de Mañana--not actually a series of geysers but a geothermal field--past some more unexceptional lakes (which were getting a bit repetitive at this point) and ending the day of sightseeing at Laguna Colorada, an iron-rich lake with a distinct reddish-orange tint. This lake was also home to a lot of flamingoes, and the animal lovers in the tour loved the sight of them. I must admit that I thought they were cool, though by the end of the tour, much like the lakes, I was getting bored with them.

The second night's accommodation was higher up than the first night's, which meant it was a lot colder, but also meant that, combined with the dryness and lack of city lights, we got some amazing views of the night sky, including the milky way.

There was a fireplace, which was a boon for us all, who were, even before night time, feeling the cold. In an attempt to warm my socks up a little quicker, I stupidly placed them on a very hot fireplace. Result? A sock with a hole in it and a pair of thick wool socks, which I had had since my Canada working holiday year, completely written off. What an idiot!

An early start on the third day took us to some cool rock formations in the desert, an abridged tour of a few more lakes with flamingoes (i.e. boring!), and a smaller salt flat that was not as pure as the Salar de Uyuni.

The pièce de résistance of the tour was, of course, Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flats. Upon entering the flats, you immediately felt a sense of otherworldliness about the place--a giant expanse of white with faint blue-green formations in the distance that might be mountains.

Our first stop was one of these blue-green blobs, but it wasn't a mountain. It was called an island, but it wasn't really even an island, though I imagine it might look like that after a downpour, when the salar would become a giant mirror made of water. Isla Incahuasi was a piece of land in the middle of the salt flats and attracted tourist because of its cacti and its two resident alpacas. It's also a good place to lunch in the middle of a tour of the area.

A trip to Salar de Uyuni would not be complete without some silly perspective-trickery photographs, and we spent more than an hour in the hot sun (and cool shade of the four-wheel-drive during breaks) coming up with as many silly ideas as possible. Our driver was particularly enthusiastic with the taking of these photos for us.

We ended the day on the base of Tunupa, an inactive volcano on the north end of the salar, where we watched the sun set behind the mountains.

Okay, so, the real reason we visited Salar de Uyuni on the third day rather than the fourth day was because, thanks to some more carefully-applied peer pressure, I was convinced to climb the imposing Tunupa the very next day. This was usually done in a fifth add-on day but our driver/guide offered to take us there--off the books, which is why I have not mentioned his name--on the fourth instead.

The climb was, well, challenging. Rewarding, yes, but challenging indeed. Starting off at just below 4000 metres above sea level and ending on the lower rim at about 4800m (or so said our local mountain guide), the climb began gentle enough for the first few hours before becoming ridiculous in the last, with a steeper gradient and some slippery rocks. I dreaded the prospect of heading down those rocks and said more than once that I did not want to go on. But go on I did, and it was a decision I was glad I made in retrospect. The climb was not only good preparation for the multi-day high-altitude Inca Trail trek but also afforded spectacular views from the top. Looking down at the salt flats from such a high viewpoint lent a surreal quality; it seemed like looking down on clouds with peaks of mountains popping out here and there.

The first part of the climb down, as expected, was a pain. However, the sense of achievement of reaching the rim of the volcano helped me navigate the tricky descent of sliding rock. We quickly visited a cave housing reasonably preserved mummies, and had lunch at the hostel before making our exit of the salt flats.

As we were heading out, there was a loud pop from one of the tyres followed by the unmistakable sound of a flat tyre (yes, another one). We stopped in the middle of nowhere so that the driver and the cook could inspect the damage, which turned out to be substantial. Something sharp must have been left on the "road" (I use quote marks because it's more of a set of tracks) out of the salar because there was a hole on the tyre itself. Fortunately, the flat from the first day had been speedily repaired, so a quick change was all that was needed before heading off again.

Our final stop of the tour was the Cementerio de Trenes in the outskirts of Uyuni, a place where old disused trains went to die. For whatever reason, I enjoy the sight of discarded, rusting machinery, so this was a treat. I even found a swing that somebody had fashioned out of spare parts hanging out of one of the trains. Lots of fun.

All in all, a great trip it was, with Uyuni and the climb to Tunupa the highlights. To be honest, it was great that we crammed this all in to the four-day tour because visiting in four days what we did in three would have felt dragged out.

We were dropped off in Uyuni, which exuded a negative vibe of dirty, dusty town, only serving as a jump-off point for tourists to explore the nearby salt flats--I was immediately glad I started in Tupiza instead. Not liking this one bit, I and the Brits hopped on an 12ish-hour overnight bus to La Paz.

La Paz

The first few hours of the bus ride was on unpaved roads, which meant a very bumpy ride getting out of Uyuni, much like sitting in a massage chair that had an unlimited stream of coins being slotted into it. Once things settled down, I got a bit of sleep, but not really enough for my liking.

I woke up just before we arrived in La Paz in the early hours of the morning, which was a good thing because I saw the lights of the city. Nuestra Señora de La Paz, or Our Lady of Peace, is situated in a kind of bowl, with the city centre at the bottom sprawling out into the surrounding hills. The view while heading down into the bowl when all the lights were still on was quite something. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I immediately liked the place.

Charlie and Georgie checked in to an Irish-run party hostel, while I checked in to a rival hostel, Loki, just around the corner. At reception, I met Pierre, a fellow Aussie (the first I ran into since Buenos Aires, almost two weeks prior--imagine that!) who had also just come from Uyuni on a different overnight bus.

I had the basic free breakfast at the hostel and rested a little bit then joined a walking tour of the city. La Paz was nice to walk around, though I had neglected to take into consideration the strength of the sun and brought along my leather jacket. The Google forecast of possible rain was nowhere to be seen, so I had to carry my jacket under my arms for most of the trip, and occasionally used it as a sun cover for my head. We visited the local markets, bustling with activity as it was Sunday, as well as the tourist-magnet Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches' Market, where they sold various traditional and alternative wares, such as llama foetuses, which our guide said were used in a Andean ceremony before any buildings were built. Another stop was the Basílica de San Francisco, a church with an intermix of Catholic and native iconography, a result of the Conquistadors' campaign to conquer the Andean people by conversion.

Our guide also told us a bit about the city's history; we heard about the infamous El penal de San Pedro, an overcrowded prison for drug offenders with its own micro economy and notorious past involving daring tourists (the jail is now quite illegal to enter let alone take a photo of); at Plaza Murillo, an important location in many key political moments of the country's history, we learnt the story of Gualberto Villarroel, a former leader who was killed and thrown from the presidential palace before being hung in the square, and much later celebrated with a statue in the very place he was hung.

I had lunch after a tour at a place serving chicharrón, a fried pork dish. I love the Filipino variety, so I had to try the Latin American version. Not as good, I must say, although fairly different as it included a lot of the meaty parts rather than focusing on the rind. It was cheap, though, so I couldn't complain.

Sunday evenings in El Alto meant wrestling with a Bolivian twist--cholitas (women in traditional dresses, often found in markets selling goods), or at the very least women dressed as cholitas, featured in several matches, sometimes against men and sometimes against women. Not wanting to miss this opportunity, I opted against getting some much-needed sleep. On the way up to El Alto, I got a great look at the city from on high for the second time in the day, which was almost worth the price of the ticket. Almost.

The wrestling itself was interesting though ultimately repetitive, with the same good-guy-versus-bad guy-with-a-biased-referee theme being played out over and over again. It was fun to see some of the matches--there was a couple of wrestlers who were thrown into the tourists in the ringside seats, and there was a character that appeared to be impervious to pain, so much so that he had to be set on fire to chase him out of the building--but at the ended of the night I just wanted to head back to the hostel.

I went out to dinner with Pierre and some friends he had met while travelling; we ate at Maphrao On, an Asian restaurant, which served good food, though was a bit steep in price. The drinks throughout the night got a bit out of hand and I found out for the first time how easy it was to get drunk at a high altitude. I fell asleep quickly that night.

Hanging out

Not really having anything to do on my second day and nursing a slight hangover, I opted for a chilled out day in the city. After a much-needed and much-craved bacon and eggs breakfast, I had a slow walk around the area, visiting Mirador Killi Killi, a viewpoint involving a short hike up, and checking out the football stadium area. For lunch I went into a little cafe on Calle Jaen called Etno Café Cultural, which the walking tour guide from the day before had recommended; it was one of the best set lunches I had in South America.

I was getting sick of my thermals, which were itchy on my legs, so I shopped around at the knock off adventure gear stores. I settled on a pair, which I suspect are not thermals at all, but instead are swimming pants. The cheap price and the need for swimmers for the trip helped justify the purchase.

The next day, I attended a FIFA World Cup qualifier between Bolivia and Ecuador at the stadium with a few of the people from the hostel. The crowd was sparse since Bolivia were at the bottom of the CONMEBOL table, but the passion was there, and it turned out to be a well-fought match that ended in a disappointing (for the home side) 1-1 draw.

Cause and effect (strike two)

I had found out before leaving for the football match that there was to be a general strike in La Paz the following day, with the people protesting against a proposed increase in taxes (or something like that). General strikes in South America, I discovered, were a bit more interesting than elsewhere I had observed such things. In particular, the protesters would barricade roads around the city, especially roads heading to and from the airport as well as other cities; La Paz would, in effect, be blocked off.

I was meant to be heading to Puno, on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the next day, but I decided I best delay my plans. One of the staff at the hostel speculated that the timing of the strike falling on the day after the football was no coincidence, and that it would probably be okay to travel on subsequent days.

Because of the extra day in the city, I decided to take my clothes to the laundry as most were dirty from the Salar de Uyuni tour. My jeans were part of this lot, so I had to wear my hiking pants for the day. Unfortunately, the pockets on my hiking pants weren't as secure as the ones on my jeans. With a few people from the hotel, I went to a restaurant and bar that night. It was only when I got back to the hostel that I realised my phone was no longer in my pocket. Dammit.

Anyway, let's focus on the good points. I checked out a couple of cool bars early in the evening with Pierre and Joe, a British stand-up comedian backpacking around South America. One was Etno, the cafe I had had lunch at the day before, and the other was Bocaisapo, a speakeasy that served Bolivian drinks and played music from a tape deck (pretty rad, right?). It was great to see where the locals hung out.

Oh, yeah, I lost my glasses too. This one was a bit of a mystery, because I know I had them when I got back to the hostel. I must have misplaced them somewhere there before I had gone to sleep, perhaps when I was brushing my teeth, but could not find them despite checking back again and again with lost property. I had prepared for the possibility of losing my glasses, so had brought along some contact lenses as backup. Still, it was a bit annoying, probably more so than the loss of the phone.

Of course, the lost phone meant a day wasted filing a police report--made easier with the help of an Aussie who was also at the tourist police station reporting his stolen backpack with all his valuables--and changing passwords. Throughout this, I saw the people on strike at various places; some were playing volleyball over the barricades while others simply sat around eating food. Maybe the guy at the hostel was right about the timing of it all. I knew I had made the right decision staying in La Paz an extra day when a girl arrived at the hostel with red eyes. It looked like she had been crying; it turned out that her bus had arrived that morning and the protesters had thrown tear gas at them as they passed through. Yeesh.

So, that was my time Bolivia. Perhaps too short, but certainly eventful and slightly unpredictable. I was starting to get the hang of vaguely-planned travel at that point. I will be back.

Next: Peru.

While you wait for that, I've uploaded some photos from Bolivia on my Flickr page. You can find them here.

*While I've mostly been using names here, I will not mention those of our driver/guide and cook, for it may get them in trouble for the change in itinerary. That said, if you care enough, it's probably not difficult to figure them out.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Meat me in Argentina

Argentina. Land of beef and football. I came to this country knowing little beyond its barbecues and its people's fanatic love for the world game; I will admit that that was reason enough for me to go. It is, I have since found out, a country of great diversity both in its culture and its landscapes*. I leave here knowing that one day I will come back.

(As a call-back to the previous post, you will see a lot of plans that get shifted around. Ahh, the fun of travel.)

Everything at steak

I had booked three nights at the Play Hostel in Palermo, a hip neighbourhood west by northwest of Buenos Aires's Centro. With little time to waste, I promptly crashed in my dorm bed, still exhausted from the night before.

My main goals for Buenos Aires was to get a steak, preferably several, and see a football match. I got onto the steak on the very first night. Less than a block away from my hostel was a parrilla called Don Julio. I quickly looked on TripAdvisor to make sure it wasn't completely crap. The reviews were generally good. Perfect. I headed there early to make sure I'd get a table.

"Sorry, we're closed."

Crap. It was only six and Argentinians do dinner very late. I went for my backup plan: beer.

Ok, so it probably wasn't a great idea to drink a lot after the previous night, but I had to check out some local beers. I headed to a place called Bodega Cervecera for a quick glass. It was a cool elbow-room type place (well, not at the time, as it was still early) with a few taps and a couple of fridges of mostly Argentinian craft beers. I still barely spoke basic Spanish and the barman had no English. Fortunately, beer is a universal language. Or something like that. I didn't actually figure out which beer I ended up having but it wasn't too shabby.

Seven thirty ticked over and Don Julio was finally open. I took my seat and ordered the entraña (skirt steak) with a side of vegetables. I asked the waiter, who spoke a little bit of English, what sauces were available, having forgotten that the word for sauce was salsa. He suggested one vaguely as being "very good" and I nodded my assent.

A short time later, the waiter came back with some sort of sausage. Oh crap. He thought I said sausage instead of sauce. Instead of complaining, I cut into it and ate a slice. It was the most delicious mistake I had ever made. It was so good that, for the rest of the trip, it became a pseudo-tradition to order a side of sausage with my steak.

The entraña came out perfectly cooked to my liking (medium rare) and despite being a half-portion--full portions are designed to be shared--it was quite an intimidating size, especially since I had already eaten the surprise sausage. Still, I was up for the task. Skirt steak is a bit chewy but very flavoursome and matched well with the (can't remember which because I'm not good with winery names) malbec, because of course malbecs match well with steaks. It was a good introduction to Argentinian barbecue. I also quickly found out that vegetables were far from a specialty here in Argentina, so I stopped ordering them with my meat.

The plan for the next morning was to take a walking tour of the city. As if cursed to be late for every single walking tour this trip, I got to the Subte (metro) station and found the doors shut. In a panic, I walked at a brisk pace to the next station on the line, which is not easy to do in Argentine traffic, far more aggressive than Chilean traffic. (It was only later in the day that I figured out the other end of the station had its doors open. Argentina. Seriously.)

I did end up making the walking tour, which was not quite as good as the ones I took in Chile, but were enjoyable and informative nonetheless. The tour group was pretty eclectic, and a few of us stopped by for (perhaps a few too many) empanadas afterwards. Two of the guys from the tour were also staying in Palermo, so I agreed to meet up with them for dinner.

Having some free time, I headed back to Bodega to check out more Argentine beers, which may have been a bad move.

Arriving at Campo Bravo for dinner, I was already a little intoxicated. The two guys from the walking tour were on a business trip, so they freely ordered more and more bottles of wine throughout the night. I devoured my steak while a couple of others struggled with theirs, to the point where I got a few free cuts from them. I wasn't complaining. The guys on the business trip insisted on footing the bill, which I also did not complain about.

The next bit is kind of blurry.

After dinner, we all headed to a bar and had several drinks. At a certain point, I said goodbye and headed off back to the hostel, where I found the party just getting started. There was, I think, a bottle of pisco going around, of which I was persuaded to do a shot. We all headed out but in bunches that were separated either by ill communication or on purpose. I couldn't tell and could not have cared less. The group I was with ended up at a bar and started chatting to some random Brazilian guys and it took me a few minutes to realise that it was the same bar from earlier in the night. It was probably then that I decided I better find my bed and lose consciousness there.

I woke up just before midday.

(The ojo de bife (ribeye) at Campo Bravo, was, incidentally, my favourite steak in Argentina. I think.)

Dropping the ball

Big city life in Santiago and Buenos Aires was great, but it was also starting to get to me. The nightly drinking was not helping matters. I ditched vague plans to take the ferry to Montevideo in Uruguay and instead booked a flight to Salta, a (literally) dusty desert city in the north of Argentina, in order to recharge.

Thanks to shenanigans of the previous night, my final lunch in Buenos Aires was at four in the afternoon. Erick had suggested a parrilla in San Telmo, so I decided to make it three steaks in three days. Sunday in San Telmo meant the markets spilled out onto the streets, with some roads closed off to vehicles. I strolled through the crowd of people towards Gran Parrilla del Plata. The cut for the day was a large chunk of bife de lomo (tenderloin). It came out a little more cooked than I wanted, but it was so damn tender that it didn't really matter.

That evening, I wanted to make my way to the River Plate stadium to experience first-hand the football atmosphere in Argentina. The game was at 21:30, so I had plenty of time to figure out how to get there. After a bit of time on the computer looking up maps at the hostel, I noticed a few of the people in the lounge room watching a match and realised, with a sinking feeling, that I had mistaken the GMT time for local time. The match had just started and I was at least a half hour away from the stadium. Dammit. I resigned to watching the match on the television, which proved to be very entertaining thanks to the overly enthusiastic commentators, especially when a goal was scored.

Later that night, I went out with a couple of people from the hostel and had some tasting paddles at Antares, a microbrewery chain venue (go figure) in the area. We would have stayed longer but for the early (two in the morning) closing time on Sundays. Not deterred, we had a "quiet" beer at the hostel kitchen chatting about all things backpacking. Before long, it was almost four, and my flight was at twelve. Typical.

LAN party

I got to the airport early despite the late bed time. There was a large throng of people crowding the LAN section of the check-in area so I got my boarding pass from one of the self-service machines. I hung around the monitor waiting for my gate number to show up.

After a while, I noticed that none of the LAN flights on the board had any up-to-date information next to them.

Almost at the same moment, the crowd began to chant some things in Spanish. Drums started thumping and the people began to march. It turned out the crowd of people were LAN staff members holding a protest, presumably for better work conditions. Brilliant.

The commotion went on for a while and eventually spilled out into the streets.

Meanwhile, apart from watching in amazement and taking the occasional photo, I began to wonder if my flight had been delayed. Someone was asking people in the LAN check-in line where they were headed and when he heard that I was going to Salta, he ushered me over to the front of the line, wherein another staff member discreetly told me which gate to head to. On my way to the security screening area, I noted that the LAN gate numbers had still not been displayed.

The flight boarded and left on time, and I was soon on my way north. I didn't quite understand the smoke and mirrors of it all--was the protest/strike just for show?--but it was a unique experience nonetheless.

Too much salt, not enough Salta

I checked into a hostel called Salta Por Siempre and spent the day trying to get a few things sorted. I was too tired to go out for dinner, so I ordered some empanadas at the bar. They were made by Victor, the resident awesome dude.

I didn't like the way I was barely getting along on the most basic of Spanish phrases, so I decided to take some private Spanish lessons. I won't pretend to be any sort of expert after just a week, but I am at least able to understand a little bit more now. Locals who talk fast and/or have a thick accent still leave be blank-faced regularly.

Another benefit of the Spanish lessons was that the tutors would occasionally tell me things about the country that I may not know, like how to make mate (the drink), the landscape and climate in different provinces, and where to get the best steak.

Speaking of which, I was still in Argentina, so of course I continued to try more steaks. The bife de chorizo (sirloin) at Viejo Jack was delicious, the restaurant being Victor's recommendation. La Monumental was suggested by both of my Spanish tutors, so I went there and had the picana (rump cap), which was gigantic, although the only reason I couldn't finish it was that it was salted far too much.

The find of the trip in terms of food was locro, an Andean variation on the stew. I ordered the locro at Doña Salta, which had chickpeas, beans, veal, and pork. Delicious. It's something I'd like to try making when I get back home.

Unfortunately, I was struck with a mild flu when I arrived in Salta. Between all the resting and the time spent at Spanish lessons, I barely had any time to do the things a tourist typically does in the city.

Salta itself does not have many attractions for the average tourist--a few nicely-maintained churches here and there is about it--but it is a jump-off points for many other locations, with many tour companies offering similar trips to places like Cafayate, Cachi, or Salinas Grandes.

On my second-last day, when I was feeling well enough, I went on a day trip to Cafayate, mainly because it included a wine tour. The wine ended up being the least interesting part of the trip--the winery was boring, but the torrontés variety, which I had never tasted, is a cracker and needs to be further investigated in the near future--thanks to the gorgeous landscapes on the drive down and back. It evoked memories of the deserts of the North American southwest. Stunning scenes.

Unfortunately, the steak I had in Cafayate was barely worth mentioning, and it was followed the next day by possibly the worst meal I had in Argentina, a very average fried fish. That'll teach me not to get red meat.

You shall not pass!

This makes it three for three.

It's now my final night in Argentina, and Victor has offered to BBQ some ribs and chorizo for me as a sending off. While I wait in eager anticipation, I will share this one last tale.

Apart from the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, the other major location I wanted to visit was Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat. The original plan was to head from Salta back to Chile, to San Pedro de Atacama, one of the starting points for Salar de Uyuni tours. I was going to say "vague plan" again but this wasn't overly vague, and I almost booked my bus ticket online well in advance. It was a good thing I didn't.

When I arrived in Salta, I'd heard a couple of German backpackers talking about the road being closed due to snow. I figured it'd pass by the time I left so I went to the bus station later in the week to book my ticket.

"The road is closed," said the agent. Poor bloke must have been asked for the same fare for the past few days; he seemed grumpy.

So there goes that plan.

The new plan is this: head straight up into Bolivia. I'll be getting the midnight bus to the border then head to Tupiza after that.

That's it for now. I'll try to get to some more photos in the next few days, but here are the first bunch from Chile in case you missed it.

*Chile very well may have the same cultural and geographical diversity as Argentina, but I did not get to visit enough places to come to that conclusion. Perhaps in a future trip. Definitely in a future trip.

Monday, August 26, 2013


I've probably said this before, but it's no less true today: the most interesting stories are those unplanned crises.

Santiago, Chile. It's 8am on a Friday morning and I've slept through my alarm. I've missed my shuttle transfer to the airport and I'm wondering how late I'll be. It's going to be a close one.

But let's start at the beginning.

I've quit my job to tour the Americas. Ok, that sounds a bit extreme, but it's been a long time coming. It's nothing against my employer but my heart just wasn't in it, so I've thrown myself into the deep end, the land of uncertainty and no income. But first, a holiday.

My friends and I had been talking about a trip to South America for over a year but it kept getting postponed. It's not easy to co-ordinate such a big trip to fit into everybody's schedules. At some point, I made the decision to just fly solo.

The upside of going alone was that I could slot in a beer-centric jaunt into the USA without anyone complaining. Most of that has been booked, and I'll go into more detail when I get into the States. The South American portion, however, is more of a vague plan. In my research, I remembered my first big trip, a semi-planned European adventure, and I wanted to capture that same spontaneity for this trip. After the first week, I've left a three-and-a-half week chunk unbooked, so it will be an on-the-go and (hopefully) fluid journey northwards.

I waited for a sale and bought an open-jaw ticket to Santiago, returning from San Francisco two-and-a-half months later. I noticed a sale for an Inca Trail tour at the local STA Travel; I booked that, too. The multi-day 42km hike at altitude is something I am both excited and slightly terrified about.

A week after leaving my job, I boarded a Qantas* 747 headed for a continent on which I have never set foot.

False starts

Take two parts jetlag, one part insomnia, and one part homesickness.

Jetlag was expected, insomnia has been ongoing, but the homesickness usually comes later in the trip. It happens, I guess, and on reflection, it's for the best that I got it over with early on.

The flight landed in Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport an hour before leaving (time travel!) with only a thirty minute delay for mechanical reasons on the tarmac at SYD. I left the flight full of optimism for what's ahead. I was, however, about to hit a wall.

After checking into the Princesa Insolente hostel in Barrio Brasil, I planned to keep myself awake by attending a free walking tour of the city. I find walking tours a good way to see some sights and learn some history in a short amount of time, and I try to go to one in every major city. Halfway there, the lack of sleep on the plane started to catch up to me and I headed back to the hostel for a snooze. Although I arrived in the morning, the day was a write-off in terms of tourism.

I woke up just as a group of fellow hostellers were heading to the supermarket to buy ingredients for dinner so I tagged along. Erick, a travel writer from America, offered to cook for everyone, so we all sat around in the hostel kitchen drinking, eating, and talking shit all night.

The next day, I climbed Cerro Santa Lucía for a nice view of the city against the backdrop of the Andes before once again hitting the wall and missing the walking tour. Another afternoon nap later, I had a wander around for dinner and a beer only to find that most places were closed on Sundays. I stopped at the first open place I could find, a Peruvian restaurant where I had a giant portion of ceviche that I got nowhere near finishing, and watched part of the (rather bad) Eddie Murphy movie Meet Dave dubbed in Spanish. Random.

The homesickness hit the next night. I had mumbled my way through dinner with barely passable Spanish and was beginning to question both my preparedness and my reasons for going on holidays in a foreign land. It's the same spiral of self-doubt every time, brought about by that certain lost feeling and of missing the familiar. The jetlag and insomnia certainly didn't help. I always get over it, too, and this time was no different.

At 2am, after an hour or two of being unable to get to sleep and trying to get myself out of that negative thought pattern, I finally picked up my laptop and chatted to a friend. The littlest, most mundane of conversations can do wonders.

"It's always about the people"

That's the kicker. You visit a place, and you see the sights, but what really completes the experience is the people you meet along the way.

I finally made it to the Tours 4 Tips walking tour on that third day, which took the group through the morning markets (sadly, not too lively on Mondays) and the Cementerio General (ironic in its liveliness). The tour was fun so I decided to come back for the second route in the afternoon, covering the more popular sights of the city.

I find comparing the different styles of walking tour interesting, and I imagine it takes a certain skill to strike the perfect balance between visiting places and recounting history. I still consider one of the very first walking tours I ever did, I think it was the Sandemans one in Berlin, as the gold standard. Berlin had gone through so much so the tour was rich in history, and you got to walk through the important landmarks of that history. The Santiago ones were pretty good, too, and the history of the short presidency of Salvador Allende, and of the Pinochet regime, were obviously still very fresh in the minds of the people.

Anyway, it was on the second tour that I met Jacqueline and Peter, backpackers from Australia and England, respectively, who turned out to be staying at the same hostel as me. They asked if I was Adrian and it turned out they'd spotted my name on both my bag in the hostel and the tour sign up sheet, and put two and two together. Along with Erick and Colten (another American), they became good comrades for that short overlap of time and helped lift my mood.

One night over drinks, chatting with another Brit, Rob, about the backpacking experience, we all agreed, "It's about the people. It's always about the people."

Bringing wine to a beer party

One of the reasons I stayed in Barrio Brasil rather than the city centre was so I could visit Cervecería Nacional, a craft beer bar in Barrio Yungay. Wine, bad beer, and other libations kind of got in the way.

La Bicicletta Verde is a company that does bike tours of the city, and it was highly recommended by Erick that I take at least one of them. Despite missing both of the city tours, I took a bike and wine tour of Viña Cousiño Macul.

The vineyard, located a subway ride and a 30-minute walk away, boasted some of the country's oldest grapevines, along which we rode on the tour. I imagine it would have been spectacular in season, when the colourful leaves are set against the Andes. In winter it was less spectacular, but still pretty cool. It was sad to hear that those very vines were being uprooted in a few years to make room for housing developments. Money really does talk.

Anyway, it was a good tour that delved into not only the history of the winery but also of the Chilean wine industry in general. The most interesting story was that of the Carménère grape variety, which was wiped out in Europe, and was rediscovered in Chile after an importation blunder; the wine growers had thought they had brought in Merlot when it was in fact Carménère. You can tell a good tour guide by how impressed you are with a story you already know.

After the tour, I had lunch with a couple of Brazilians who had taken the tour. We tried out chorrillanas, a Chilean dish of fries, topped with fried onions, topped with fried beef, topped with fried eggs. It's as ridiculous as it sounds.

My plan when I got back to the hostel was to relax, go through some photos, perhaps write a blog post, and start researching places to visit a little further into the trip. That didn't work out at all. Almost as soon as I took my laptop out, a group consisting of Erick, Colten, Jac, and Peter walked in to the hostel. They had gradually snowballed into a big group and were intent on visiting a Chilean institution known as coffee with legs. I joined in.

Spawning from a Chilean indifference to the beverage due to being a tea country, the way the coffee industry managed to get people, and, in particular, men, to drink coffee was to introduce attractive women into the equation. And so, coffee with legs was born. It has evolved into a weird amalgam of cafes and strip clubs, although we were told that the level of explicitness varies from place to place. The one we visited, Black's, was full of men sipping on (bad) coffee chatting to women in bikinis. Open only during regular cafe hours, I found it very strange indeed.

Our next stop was a random bar to drink cheap litre bottles of beer and then it was back to the hostel, where we opened a bottle of wine I brought back from the wine tour earlier in the day. A heated discussion of politics ensued, fuelled by even more wine, so of course the next logical step was a night out to a cool little salsa bar named Maestra Vida, followed by a karaoke bar, where I heard more Spanish-language songs in one night than I had in twenty-nine years.

Needless to say, the next day was a complete write-off.


A day-trip to Valparaíso was on my to-do list and it was on my very last day in Santiago that I finally got off my ass and on that bus.

Jac and I got to the bus station a little later than planned but we got to the walking tour meeting point just on time when we arrived in Valparaíso. The tour took us around the city's quirky and colourful streets while telling us of the brakes that were put on the city's port-based economy after the construction of the Panama Canal. There were a lot of formerly beautiful buildings that stood abandoned due to lack of money, which was a shame to see.

After the tour, we headed to a local place for chorrillanas--the Valpo variety seemed more like a proper meal than a drunken snack, although it was still quite ridiculous--and checked out a microbrewery called Altamira, who made some pretty decent beer. Exhausted, we caught the bus back to Santiago, both wishing we'd stayed longer.

All in all, I really liked the small slice that I got of Valparaíso, with its graffiti-d streets and its vibrant culture, and it's definitely a city I'd like to go back to.

That night was BBQ night at the hostel, which meant all you can eat meat and all you can drink terremoto, a local, potent cocktail named after the earthquakes that Chile so frequently gets. The price of admission also included a driver that took us to a few bars.

"It's my last night," I said in weak protest.

I went out anyway.

So, as I was saying...

I'm sitting in the hostel lobby, waiting for my decidedly more expensive, though still reasonably priced, ride to the airport, sweating it out a little bit. (Literally; I think I'm still slightly drunk.) My shuttle, as it turns out, was taken by a guy who thought it was his shuttle to the snow. While the hostel staff was looking for me, he'd already hopped on and headed off.

A Brazilian guy I had been drinking with the night before greets me with surprise. I tell him I missed my shuttle and I may yet see him later in the day if I miss my flight.

"I hope not," he says with a laugh.

I secretly hope that I do, just to make things interesting.

The driver arrives and the ride to the airport is without incident. I actually make it to the gate with an hour or so to spare. I contemplate the power of the unexpected, and am almost disappointed when I board my plane to Buenos Aires.

*Oh, remember how I was so pissed at Qantas that one time and swore I'd never fly with them again? I got over it. Their safety record is too good to ignore. (Funny how this came up in a post about unplanned events.)

Friday, August 16, 2013

It's been a long time

Yep, I dropped the ball in a big way. No two ways about it. Instead of cramming in everything since the last post into one big diatribe, I will just post links to photos from notable trips in the past couple of years. Some of the photos have longer captions than others so if you're jonesing for the written word, check the captions.

My main Flickr page, from which all the other links spawn

Southeast Asia (Feb 2012)

USA (June 2012)
Matt Cain's Perfect Game

Adelaide (November 2012)

Philippines (December 2012)

I'm off on a South American adventure tomorrow (with a month of the USA beer tourism at the end) so I'll try to keep up to date with that.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Europe 2010/11 final leg: Switzerland and ???

If you know me in person or online, chances are you've already been subjected to my post-trip rants regarding a certain incident that happened after my final stop in Switzerland. If not, you can scroll down for spoilers as to what ??? in the title stands for, or just keep reading to find out.

In transit: Chamonix to Zurich

We waited in the freezing cold for our shuttle back to Geneva airport and thankfully it came early in the pick up window. From the airport we would need to catch a train to Zurich. This was good in theory, but does not take into account any unforeseen circumstances, such as, for example, the train breaking down and the replacement trains being a convoluted mess of routes that involved no less than four connections. So much for an efficient transport system. We ended up arriving in Zurich in the evening rather than the afternoon as was planned.

Pro tip: Zurich is dead on Sundays

Zurich is situated in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and is the largest city in the country. It is a major transport hub for the country as well as for Europe, and it is for this reason that we chose it as the last city in our respective trips.

A cold, overcast day in Zurich

When we arrived in Zurich, I proceeded to immediately lose Morgan at the train station. Excellent start. 10 minutes later, I found him waiting for me near the end of the train, both of us clueless as to how we got separated. Well, okay, I do have a clue as to what happened, and it has something to do with Morgan's awareness and sense of direction.

One important thing to know when visiting Switzerland is that the price of absolutely everything is higher than most other places. Even one night in a hostel dorm set us back more than what it would probably cost to stay a couple of nights in a similar establishment elsewhere in Europe. We mostly stuck to low-cost tourist activities and made meals from things we bought at a grocery store.

We did want to do a lot more sightseeing than we ended up doing, but it turned out that most places were closed on Sundays, possibly because a lot of people were at church. That's the other important thing of note - don't plan to go out on Sundays when you're in Zurich. Stay in, or partake in a sufficiently interesting outdoors activity not involving the services of other people.

St. Peter

Fortunately for us, we found a liquor store open that carried craft beers from Europe and around the world, aptly named Drinks of the World. We raided the place and hunkered down at the hostel to escape the cold and boredom. We even played a board game (the hostel had a copy of Pandemic, which is a great game (you should get it)) and chess while we were sampling some fine ales and lagers. Well, ok, not all of them were fine. We did, for laughs, buy a can of Duff Beer and it was as horrible as you can imagine.

In transit: Zurich to Sydney

On the final day of our respective trips, it was time for our paths to diverge. Morgan had a Singapore Airlines flight that didn't go through Heathrow, and I had a later Qantas/British Airways flight that did go through Heathrow (because I'm cheap like that). When Morgan left I stayed at the hotel attempting to finish the novel I was reading until it was time for me to head to the airport. A little bit later, I got a call from Morgan. It turned out he had left his passport on the train and was going to miss his flight. I was not in any way shocked at this news. He was on his way to pick up his passport from another train station and was calling to ask if I could check on available beds at the hostel. It would seem as if I would beat him back to Sydney.

Connecting via Heathrow was uneventful enough. I wasn't able to change my seats due to the type of ticket, but I was happy enough with what I got. The flight from Heathrow would make a stop at Bangkok before continuing to Sydney.

An hour or so into the Bangkok-Sydney leg, the pilot made an announcement. "As you may have noticed, we have turned around and are jettisoning fuel from the engines." Hmm. News to me, I was busy watching movies on the in-flight entertainment system. It turned out that one of the four engines had failed, and they were going back to Bangkok for safety reasons. Fair enough. I wouldn't want my life endangered just to make schedule. The jettisoning of fuel was to make the minimum landing weight. I could imagine it to be a disconcerting sight to look out the windows and see a stream of white coming from the wings, but I was oddly fascinated by the whole thing.

I would have thought that Qantas would have us wait for another flight when we got back to Bangkok, but things started to look bad when they sent everybody from the flight to a five star hotel halfway to the city.

One night in Bangkok

It was the middle of the night in Thailand, and hundreds of us were shepherded into the hotel reception area, being processed two at a time and sent to our luxurious rooms for the night. The poor overwhelmed staff handled themselves great. We were given a complimentary dinner and were told to wait until morning when there would be an airline representative to update us on our flight. Fair enough, I guess. I mean, I would have preferred it if there had been an airline representative at the hotel to meet us all when we arrived, but whatever. I could afford a twelve hour delay in my schedule - instead of arriving in the morning I'd be getting in in the evening, and I would just have to go straight from Sydney airport to the Opera House, where I had an Amanda Palmer concert to attend. No big deal at all, I thought. In retrospect, I was perhaps a little too optimistic at Qantas's attitude towards its customers.

My hotel room had a window in the bathroom

I woke up early in the morning, at the time specified by the hotel staff the night before, to check up on updates on our rescheduled flight. The piece of paper left in front of our hotel room doors carried terrible news. Not only would we not be flying out that morning, we would also not be flying out at all that day. Our rescheduled flight would be early the following morning. We'd be stuck in Bangkok for the entirety of what was Australia Day. Bugger.

Ok, let's stop there for a bit. A piece of paper? I mean, c'mon, you have to do better than that, Qantas. If you're telling people their flight has been held up for more than a whole day, at least send a human being to break the bad news. A piece of paper adds insult to injury.

As they had still not sent a representative to the hotel, I tried to contact Qantas using the hotel reception's phone. Unfortunately, they told me, they wouldn't be able to guarantee anybody a seat in an earlier flight due to them being full, and that if I wanted to I could go to the airport and go on standby. I decided not to partake in that stressful exercise, and instead made arrangements to have my mum take my place at the Amanda Palmer concert. (She enjoyed it, by the way. Go mum!) I had a day to spend in Bangkok, a place I'd never been, so I may as well make the most of it.

Armed with a wad of local currency acquired by exchanging unused British pounds from the start of the trip (because I was far too enthusiastic in withdrawing cash), I caught a taxi to the city so that I could check the place out. Seeing the driver weave through traffic was terrifying at first, but eventually it became kind of hypnotising. Despite the long cab ride, I didn't have to hand over very much cash. I could get used to this.

The first thing I noticed was the heat. Coming from Switzerland in the middle of winter, it was equally unpleasant in the other end of the spectrum in Thailand. Cheap and really hot, so I guess it was the complete opposite of Switzerland.


I wandered around in the sweltering heat, checking out temples and other tourist attractions and eating street food. Every once in a while a local would approach me, giving tips on what I should be checking out, before suggesting that they take me on their tuk-tuk to the place they just mentioned. I would politely decline, saying that I was perfectly happy to go on foot. "Why you stupid?" they would invariably say to me when I began to walk away from them. It was a bit insulting, really. I meant no offence to them, and wasn't sure if they were scammers or genuine, I simply enjoyed walking around to explore a city, despite my maligned sense of direction. In the end, I was still too pissed off at Qantas that I wasn't in the mood to do very much.

I wanted to go to a Muay Thai event that evening, but the time it took to get from the hotel to the city was too long, and I was worried I might miss the bus to the airport when I returned. Instead, I had a nap before getting up for the mass exodus of tired and angry passengers.

In transit: Let's try that again, shall we?

Sorting out the buses to go to the airport was a mess. Once again, it was mostly the hotel staff that had to deal with all of this. We got to the airport ahead of time, and I went to get a meal at the food court. I was impressed - even the airport food was cheap in Thailand. I had some money left over, and I would have had a hard time trying to get rid of it all before the flight.

The final insult of the whole debacle was that we were made to wait several more hours at the airport because the plane, which was meant to take us back to Sydney, was carrying a fifth engine - a replacement for the blown engine from the original flight - and this had to be removed before the plane could be boarded. You'd think they would have factored this in when they told us what time to wake up to be taken to the airport. It meant that I would have had plenty of time to watch Muay Thai in the city after all. It also meant I'd be cutting it very close to see Gotye on the evening of my arrival - I was now in danger of missing a second concert.

A full day and a half after our scheduled arrival time in Sydney, we finally landed. Morgan, who had missed his flight, had arrived well ahead of me. Karma, perhaps, for laughing at him misplacing his passport. Thankful that I had no checked baggage, I hurried out of the airport to meet my brother at the car park and collect my Gotye ticket - the gig was in less than an hour - before getting on the train to the city. I arrived at the concert after two and a half songs had been played. I guess I should have been happy that I didn't miss more than that.

As an apology for the incident, each passenger on that hyper-delayed flight was sent a voucher for credit to be spent on future Qantas flights. I've still got a bit of credit left on my voucher, but once that's done I plan to avoid flying with them again if I can help it. I can understand the turning back of the plane due to safety concerns, but I do not understand nor agree with the extended turnover time to schedule a new flight for the stranded passengers. I also felt that, by not having a representative of the airline present at all times, Qantas did not really care about its customers. 36 was a long delay for a flight that was not hindered by natural disasters or adverse weather, and to convey updates via printouts in the hotel lobby without having anybody on hand to answer questions was an added insult to an already stressful situation. In light of the recent employee disputes dominating headlines, I wonder if Qantas management care about anybody at all. My guess is that they only care about themselves.

Final leg overview

Cities: Zurich (2 nights), Bangkok (1 nights, 2 if you count time spent in the airport)
Weather: Ridiculously cold, ridiculously hot
Arrival time in Sydney: 36 hours later
Concerts missed: 1 (and 2.5 songs)

Flickr set: Switzerland, Thailand

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Europe 2010/11 fourth leg: France (pt 2)

In transit: Venice to Chamonix

My bus to Venice airport broke down halfway, which would have been concerning had I not been paranoid and left super early. I still ended up at the airport with time to spare.

To get to Chamonix, in France, I first had to fly to Geneva in Switzerland before completing the journey on the ground. Venice to Geneva is not a busy air corridor and most flights require a connection, so I was fortunate to time my stay so I could catch one of the few direct flights per week. I love small planes - you get a better sense of actually being in the air, as opposed to just sitting down for a few hours - so it was great to see that our plane for the day was a turboprop. Despite the size of the plane - probably towards the larger end of the scale in terms of commercial passenger turboprops, but still small compared to the many of the more common jets - I counted probably less than twenty other passengers on the flight. The majority of the seats in the plane were left empty.

I took a shuttle bus from the airport (which wasn't large, but was nevertheless very busy) to Chamonix, the ski resort town that would be my destination for the next week.

Chamonix: Open wallet policy

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is one of the most well-known ski towns in France. It serves as a good base for several ski areas, including one in Italy. It can also boast to hosting the first ever Winter Olympics in 1924.

The sunset showcases several peaks surrounding Chamonix

I met up with Morgan at our hotel for the week - he was in Europe for a shorter period of time - and we set off to hiring some gear and me some clothing (as Morgan had packed heavier than I did and brought snow clothes). Being a shorter guy, it took me a bit longer to find everything that fit, but I eventually settled on an outfit, including women's snowboard boots and a helmet painted with silver reflective paint that would have fit in well in a ski-themed glam rock music video.

We tried to go to as many ski areas as we could so that we could make the most of the multi-area pass that we bought.

Le Tour was our first stop. There was no new snow on the ground, and it started off a bit icy, but did get softer as the snow melted away under the sunshine. I lost Morgan a couple of times, a result of his sense of direction, which was worse than mine. We went back there the next day and decided to take lessons since the conditions weren't really great for off-piste. As usual, I hurt myself during the lesson, I guess because I always push myself to try to improve whenever I take one.

We had a relaxed afternoon in Le Brevent and La Flegere, two connected ski areas, and the closest to Chamonix. In fact, you can walk from the bottom of one of the areas back into town, which is precisely what we did.

A few kilometres away from Chamonix is the small resort town of Les Houches, situated at the base of a more family-oriented ski area. It was the flattest, lowest altitude area covered by our multi pass, and also had the sparsest snow cover. Many of the runs were closed, and we mostly felt it worth the visit thanks to an oddly placed bathtub on one of the slopes.

Random bathtub in a ski run at Les Houches

Feeling optimistic about the AUD/Euro exchange rate, we decided to go on an off-piste tour of one of Les Grands Montets, one of the larger ski areas. The snow was icy and crusty at the top and the air was thin - I think it was the highest I've ever ridden before, and part of the route actually took place on a glacier. The beginning was very steep, too - it didn't seem like it when I was concentrating on sharp turns, but when I stopped to look at the horizon I was blown away at how vertical we were. The traverses were the hardest - very flat and at times uphill - and I wished, not for the first time, that I knew how to ski for tours like these (or, at the very least, knew how to snowboard really bloody well). It was tough work, but the views were worth it. Such a shame I didn't have my camera in tow.

The last ski area we visited was across the border, in the Italian town of Courmayeur. Its French-sounding name is likely a result of its proximity to France and/or due to past border disputes. I asked the guide but I've unfortunately forgotten his explanation for it. Chamonix and Courmayeur are connected via a tunnel that runs under Mont Blanc. The journey could take longer than the 11.6 km traverse through the Mont Blanc Tunnel due to strict border inspections at either end.

Courmayeur, the ski area, gave us the best ski conditions of the entire trip. We once again took a tour, and started off doing groomed runs. After lunch the group was split into two, with one taking on the easier off-pistes, while the other would tackle advanced terrain. I was feeling adventurous after the grappa we had had with our delicious meals, and I decided to join the advanced group. We did a lot of tree runs and hit a lot of soft patches of powder. It was tiring as hell but very fun. We ended the day with a long exit run - I suspect it was an out-of-bounds cat track, but I didn't question the guide, who seemed to know what he was doing - that led us all the way to the car park.

We spent our final ski day at Courmayeur, having enjoyed our time the previous day. Because we weren't with a tour this time, we had to take a large cable car the size of three small garages that connected the town to the ski resort. The icy path up to the lift was perhaps the most dangerous thing I encountered for the entire trip. The groomed runs were just that bit icier and the off-piste was just that bit more crusty that we didn't have as good of a time as the day before, and we ended up quitting early on, happy with the snowboarding on the trip overall.

Another thing covered by our multi-area pass was a cable car ride up to the top of Aiguille du Midi. The visitor centre at the summit gives some breathtaking (almost literally at an altitude of 3,842 m) panoramic views of the surrounding mountain ranges. In summer months, the Vallée Blanche Aerial Tramway crosses to the Italian side, and is an alternative way to get to Courmayeur. In winter, those skilled and brave enough can take on the infamous Vallée Blanche, a glacier route that is 20 km long with a vertical of about 2,700 m. It's something I'd like to do one day when I reach the skill level of awesome.

The view from Aiguille du Midi

A steep descent to get to the start of the Vallée Blanche

Being a ski town, it was not surprising that the night life in Chamonix was vibrant. However, being a couple of beer geeks, our main goal was to determine the best place to get some good, or at least decent, beer. Some Internet researched tipped us off to Micro Brasserie de Chamonix, more commonly referred to as MBC, a microbrewery started by some Canadian ex-pats. Sadly, the beers they made were mostly bland, probably so it would appeal to more people. On the other hand, we did end up going back there for the food, which was fantastic.

We stumbled upon another place called Berlucoquet, which stocked some French and Belgian beers as well as cheese and other goods. You could drink there or take away, and the owner was very hospitable, so it became our go-to for good beer.

As part of our extravagant spending, we also tried a couple of the town's fine dining establishments. The culinary highlight of the trip by far was dinner at La Maison Carrier. Our guide from the ski tours recommended it to us so I'm not sure if he was getting any commission from sending people their way, but it didn't really matter because the food was superb. My meal must have been the most perfect rack of lamb I've ever had. I can't even remember what Morgan had, but everything we ate and drank in that restaurant was amazing.

We went to another place our guide had recommended, but it was not nearly as good as La Maison Carrier. To be honest, we were more blown away by an appetiser from a Japanese place that consisted of green beans and what may have been peanut butter or sesame paste, or something similar. To this day I cannot figure out what that dish was, but I could have a main-sized serving of it any day of the week.

Of course, it wasn't all haute cuisine while we were in Chamonix. We'd found a central fast food place that served burgers and crêpes. The burgers were massive and the size of the galettes were almost equally impressive. I couldn't finish my burger, and Morgan was unable to get through his galette, but in a moment of glory I did manage to finish an identical galette along with some fries.

The most memorable thing from Chamonix happened when we were at the laundromat putting our clothes through a wash. We put the coins into the machine and as we were leaving to grab a bite while the clothes tumbled away, we couldn't seem to find the door handle. After several futile attempts to pull the door open in creative ways, we began to panic. There was a red button on a wall near the door that we thought may have controlled a mechanism to open it, but after pressing it we were still stuck. In the end, we only had our stupidity to blame. The side of the door, which looked like it was part of the door frame, was actually the handle, and we felt like idiots when we finally figured that out. I wonder what it must have looked like to passers by when they saw two guys by the door of the laundromat facing outwards and looking perplexed. That said, I'm probably more concerned that the red button I pressed set off some alarm in some guy's house and disturbed a nap or some sort of important task.

Fourth leg overview

Cities: Chamonix (7 nights), Courmayeur (2 day trips)
Weather: Ridiculously cold, mostly sunny
Times Morgan got lost in a ski resort: At least 3
Times stuck in a laundromat: 1

Flickr set: France