We’ve had a hectic schedule in South America, particularly in the last few weeks! It has left very little time for blogging. I write this the day before we leave for home after 18 months away, which seems crazy and not yet real.
I hope to continue blogging once we get home as I have an awful lot to catch you up on! Many more of our adventures in Chile, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil are to come.
I also intend to give a more logistical breakdown of our trip if you’re planning a RTW tour of your own. Right now I’m just trying to wrap my head around the idea of finally being home! Excited and nervous all at the same time. It’s going to be weird…
We came across cholitas before we’d even arrived in Bolivia – their style seems to have been adopted in certain Peruvian towns. What is a cholita, for those who have never heard the term? You’ll probably recognise their style immediately if you’ve ever come across South American travel guides or documentaries….
The most striking element of their outfit has to be a bowler hat, followed by a skirt of many layers. These ladies pull it off like nobody else. There are a number of theories behind how this sense of dress evolved, namely the influence of the colonial Spaniards, and the BBC has a great piece describing the discrimination endured by las cholitas. The name itself was something of a dig (meaning ‘halfbreed’ or ‘civilised Indian’) but has been reclaimed by these awesome ladies.
What better way to reclaim this title than to demonstrate exactly how tough they can be? We found out for ourselves by watching the ‘Flying Cholitas’, cholitas who wrestle other women or even men. It was an experience I will never forget!
The crowd, which contained a large number of gringos, also included a number of enthusiastic locals (one of whom threw himself into the ring) as well as kids, who ran up to the barriers after each match for photos and signatures. The costumes were pretty impressive, ranging from werewolves to some truly creepy Bolivian baddies.
Of course, the main reason we sat inside a chilly futsal stadium on a Sunday night was to see the cholitas…and they didn’t disappoint. Before they started, of course, they had to remove their snazzy bowlers and jewellery. Then they threw each other around the ring by the hair.
As a sidenote – there was a bit of gore and an accident in which one wrestler jumped out of the ring and landed on his head. The two Bolivian ghouls brandished severed lambs’ heads (real) and guts (also real). If you were lucky enough to be sat in the front row, as we were, these were literally shoved in your face! Spectators on the other side were also throwing potatoes (?!) and water bottles during the last fight, which also involved fire (as you can see in the above picture).
As you can imagine from the jumble of words and images above, it was a pretty unusual and, at times, intense experience! For our first ever wrestling match, it’ll take some beating. Would you go and see cholita wrestling?
There are actually a few ways to reach Machu Picchu, but the most famous has to be the Inca Trail. This classic route spans 26 miles, which doesn’t seem like much when spread out over three-and-a-bit days, but the change in altitude more than makes up for it! The highest point on this trail is 4,200 m (the charming Dead Woman’s Pass) and is the main reason the tour agencies recommend a couple of days acclimatising in Cusco prior to the trek.
We were fortunate to arrive in Cusco four days before our trek started, especially since I wasn’t entirely over a nasty stomach bug that made a reappearance two days before we were due to leave for the trail. Cusco is quite a hilly city, and just walking to and from our hostel was good practice for things to come! It was probably the most touristic city we’d encountered in Peru, and it was where we did most of our souvenir shopping. We haven’t had the chance to do much of this because a) budget and b) space, but we were very fortunate to have the company of both Faye’s mum and my sister! Faye’s mum was kind enough to take all of our gifts home with her. My sister, like us, bought too much and had no room!
In addition to shopping and visiting museums, Cusco can also be used as a base for a number of trips and tours, excluding Machu Picchu – for example, trips to Rainbow Mountain, the Sacred Valley, the salt mines of Maras, and Moray, to name just a few. We were hoping to visit Rainbow Mountain after Machu Picchu but a combination of illness and exhaustion ruled that out. Next time!
After paying the rest of our trek fee (the deposit held our place) all that was left was to set an early alarm and prepare for pick-up at 4:30 Wednesday morning. The hostel in which we were staying was quite exposed to the elements, with an open central courtyard, and it was freezing cold. Given that Cusco lies at 3400 m, it only occurred to me that morning just how cold things were going to get – tents do not quite hold heat the same way!
We were incredibly lucky with our group – in total, 10 absolutely lovely people with whom it was a pleasure to spend our downtime (we ended up walking right at the back due to our stupidly large bags!). The three of us (Faye, me and my sister) had decided against hiring porters as we weren’t sure how well they were looked after. There’s a bit of useful blurb here if you’d like to read more or are interested in doing the trek yourself! In fact, the agency we chose seemed reluctant to recommend hiring them but it turns out that most people do actually hire a personal porter. There are pros and cons to both approaches – the main con being that carrying 12 kg up and down hundreds of steps completely knackered me out. Whatever you choose to do, you’ll see the porters carrying absolutely massive bags (apparently they’re limited to 25 (!) kg) speeding past you. They are superheroes.
After being collected from our hostel in Cusco, we had a 2 hour drive to Km82, the start of our walk. This was just outside the town of Ollantaytambo, no doubt worth a visit in its own right! We only stopped there for breakfast but it seemed lovely. As a side-note, my sister was also able to buy an inhaler there first thing in the morning.
Once out of the bus, everyone received their sleeping bag (if rented) and roll mat, which could either be attached to your bag or given to your personal porter. The weight allowance for personal porters was 6 kg, which I imagine would soon fill up given the weight of the sleeping bag alone! My bag felt more uncomfortable than usual, partly due to the massive water bottles I carried in the middle. Unlike our Torres del Paine trek, fresh/clean water was not available during the walk and water had to be carried. We ended up carrying 4 L for the first two days. It’s also possible to buy water from little stands, run by locals, up until Dead Woman’s Pass on day two.
The first day was our ‘warm-up’, but I still found it hard-going with the water weight, especially. Nevertheless, the scenery was stunning and the route was actually pretty flat, minus a couple of steep sections. Our two guides, Janeth and Darwin, would take it in turns to lead and bring up the rear. They used this day to judge our pace and, therefore, our wake-up time for the next morning!
Our campsite for the evening was essentially somebody’s back garden, complete with ducks and donkeys. The toilet was actually built inside the donkey pen. By the time we arrived, the porters had already set up our tents, as well as the dinner tent (which they would later sleep in). Darkness fell quickly, although it didn’t stop numerous games of UNO, using headtorches, and after an early dinner we had an early night – I think I was asleep before 9, which is highly unusual!
Distance walked: 12 km
Altitude gained: 400 m (2600 – 3000 m)
This was the big one. Today we had to ascend over a kilometer, up to Dead Woman’s Pass. Our guides had budgeted five hours to achieve this, and I honestly can’t remember how long it took. All I remember is a LOT of steps. A lot of steep, steep steps. The first half was spent walking through the Cloud Forest, which was sheltered but contained a lot of those steps. The latter section was more exposed but less steep – the wind was picking up by this point and it kept us fairly cool. We were very lucky with the weather on this trip – not a spot of rain. I can only imagine how slippy some of those sections are if it does rain! While I don’t normally like using walking poles, I definitely would recommend at least one for this trek.
We had heard horror stories about this section – people throwing up, needing oxygen, and even being carried by a porter. Luckily, nothing like this was required, although by the time we reached the top, Faye and I could probably have done with a pint.
Distance walked: 11 km
Altitude gained: 1200 m (3000 – 4200 – 3600 m)
After a very cold shower and a fairly decent night’s sleep, we were ready for day three. As with the previous morning, we were awoken at 5:30 with a cup of tea in our tent. Most mornings we didn’t leave until 7ish, but that time was very much required given that our bags seemed to explode in the tent every night. That, and breakfast (we don’t normally do breakfast so a half hour sit-down was a bit unusual!)
After the previous day, we were relieved that the going was to be slightly less intense. Still, we had two passes to reach and about 10 hours until we reached camp, so it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park! I was particularly excited about this day, however, because we were actually going to be walking on the original Inca Trail. On the two days prior, we’d been walking on a path that had been recently constructed – the original route was visible on the other side of the river but was off-limits due to falling rocks.
We also got to see quite a few awesome ruins: Runkurakay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca and Winay Wayna. Winay Wayna had to be my favourite, and you’ll see why below…
There were a few theories regarding the function of these ruins – some of which were not completed. It’s possible that messengers used them to rest; VIPs could also have used them while on their pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. Some contained temples. The surrounding mountains and glaciers would have been very important to the Quechua people.
The views during this day were breathtaking, particularly on the way to the third pass:
For the first time on the trek, we were actually chivvied along by Janeth and Darwin. Their reason became apparent as soon as we got to our lunch spot, on the third pass of the trail…
The view at lunch was amazing. Of course, I can’t find a picture…so here’s a local llama instead:
After a massive lunch, we just had to descend to our campsite for the evening. We could actually see the back of Machu Picchu from the Phuyupatamarca ruins and it was tantalisingly close, but it was still surprising that we’d be able to reach it within an hour of that night’s campsite.
We continued to descend past these ruins to Winay Wayna, which also included a very cool spiral staircase!:
We were fortunate to make it to our final campsite – another group with our agency had to walk down to Aguas Calientes (the nearest town to Machu Picchu) then come back in the morning. I say lucky…in order to make it to the Sun Gate (Inti Punku), we had to get up at 4am the next morning. Our descent into the forest meant a rather hot and sticky night.
Distance walked: 16 km
Altitude lost: 900 m (3600 – 2700 m)
This was it…the final push to Machu Picchu. The atmosphere was a bit strange this morning, partly because we had said goodbye to our porters before dawn and also because we had to sit and wait at a gate until 5:30. As soon as we could walk, we found that the last leg of the trek had turned into something of a race. The group behind us had an obnoxious guide who kept telling us to hurry up. People in other groups seemed reluctant to stop, as if Machu Picchu was going to disappear if they didn’t make it there in time. In the end, we walked at a blistering pace and got to the Sun Gate in about an hour. We were expecting 90 minutes, so this came as something of a surprise! If a pleasant one, after we encountered these steps and anticipated 20 minutes’ worth of climbing upwards:
Due to our early arrival, reaching the Sun Gate was a bit anticlimactic if I’m honest! Machu Picchu was still a way off and it looked quite small. Still, I can’t complain about a view like this!
After dumping our backpacks and meeting up with Faye’s mum, who had taken the train to Aguas Calientes, we set off on our two hour tour of Machu Picchu. I think everyone was pretty exhausted at this point – I struggled to take in most of the information, especially since the sun was beating down on us by this point. Given how tired we were, I think it was a real achievement to make it. I don’t think I’d ever do this route again, but I would certainly recommend it to those who want to ‘discover’ Machu Picchu for themselves.
Have you done the Inca Trail? Would you like to?
The weather is VERY changeable – hot in the day and cold at night. Make sure you take enough layers, but don’t overpack! Either you or your porter will be lugging it up and down these hills.
Take some extra cash: we ended up chipping in for a bottle of rum! You may also have to pay a sole (20p) to use some of the toilets. On the last night you will also likely be asked to tip the porters and chef – this is completely up to you, of course, but you don’t want to be caught short! There is also the option of hiring a local porter on day two (Dead Woman’s Pass), and you may want to take it. My sister and I ended up splitting a porter on this day (10 kg for 100 soles).
The campsite toilets can get pretty disgusting, especially since a number of people get ill. Hand sanitiser, loo roll and a head torch will come in handy here.
There are cold showers at Pacamayo and Winay Wayna. Alternatively, you may want to pack your bathers for the hot springs at Aguas Calientes, at the end of the trek.
Make sure you acclimatise to make the most of the experience! Obviously you can’t predict what will happen at altitude but you can do yourself a favour by giving your body a chance.
Stay hydrated! The only criticism I’d have of our company was that they didn’t quite give us enough water on day three (this had to be obtained from a stream and then boiled). By the time we’d got to lunch, water levels were running very low and we were pretty thirsty.
If you’re not in a rush, consider staying the night in Aguas Calientes after you’ve finished the trail. Your ticket to Machu Picchu can actually be used twice. As we killed time waiting for our train that evening, we wished we’d booked a hostel and gone again the next day!
A pack of cards (particularly UNO!) will be a useful investment 🙂
Let me just put this out there…Faye and I love pizza, to the point where we are very particular about it. We’ve eaten our fair share of local delicacies but every now and again, we crave a slice of crispy, oven-baked perfection. This has led to a number of disappointments – largely due to over-enthusiastic TripAdvisor reviews raving about ‘the best pizza I’ve ever eaten’ (to these people I say: where are your tastebuds?!). However, we’ve also come across some delicious pizza and in no particular order, here are our top five pizza places from the past year.
St Kilda, Melbourne – Renix
We were a bit bummed out in Melbourne due to our choice of Airbnb accommodation. This place more than made up for it, though, especially since it was a five minute walk away! Australia can be expensive but we enjoyed pizzas and a bottle of wine here for a very reasonable price.
Cusco, Peru – Bodega 138 In a land of thick, cheesy pizza, this place was a godsend! South American pizza isn’t really to our liking but these guys do a great job and the restaurant is always packed. Top tip – go for the pepperoni, pineapple and bacon pizza – heaven! They also have a comprehensive craft beer list.
Vientiane, Laos – PDR
Funnily enough, this place also rescued our stay from a rather unpleasant Airbnb. Packed with expats, as well as some locals, this little joint churned out some seriously tasty pizza. They also had some lovely wines, which we did our best to sample 🙂
Bagan, Myanmar – La Pizza
Who would have thought that such good pizza would be found in the dusty streets of Nyaung-oo, Burma? We were the only people eating here but when we spotted the wood-fired oven (literally sitting right next to the street, it’s hard to miss) we knew we were in for a treat. A welcome change from some of the more questionable local food we’d been eating.
Luang Prabang, Laos – Pizza Phan Luang
Yes, Laos again! Don’t get me wrong, Laotian food was delicious. This place rated so highly that we had to give it a go and we weren’t disappointed…that is, until we returned and it was shut. Still, getting there is an adventure in itself, involving a river crossing on a narrow boat in the dark (petrifying). Worth it for the pizza!
La Serrana, Santiago, Chile: after losing our pizza mojo in New Zealand, we found this on our first night in Santiago and returned more than once. They’ve recently added alcohol to their menu, too. Winner.
Francesca’s Pizzas, Wanaka, New Zealand: hidden away next to the mini golf, opposite Cinema Paradiso, is a little food truck serving lovely wee pizzas. Worth splitting one after movie night!
And of course, I have to give a special mention to Pizza Hut, Lima: this practically saved our lives after a heavy night of Pisco Sours.
Apart from the exceptions above, most New Zealand pizza joints. Seriously, if you have a wood-fired oven there’s no excuse to dish out half-baked pizzas!! Some of the soggiest, blandest pizzas we’ve eaten.
Are you as big a fan of pizza as we are? Where in the world serves your favourite pizza?
Patagonia…a destination that seemed far-flung before we left and still remote even when we were in the country! Situated at the bottom of Chile and Argentina, it covers a huge chunk of southern South America and once we’d visited Santiago, we made a b-line for it.
The reason for our haste was largely due to weather, because we’d arrived in South America later than planned and the end of March/early April marked the end of the walking season in Torres del Paine. In addition, there were other walks we wanted to do prior to our multi-day trek so a number of overnight buses were on the cards.
As an aside: towards the bottom third of the map above, you’ll see a black line into Argentina labelled Moreno Glacier (this is a glacier near the town of El Calafate). A few hours north of this town is El Chalten, which shall be getting its own post as the scenery and walks here were comparable to Torres del Paine!
Anyway, onto the walk in question and the reason for our hurry south – the ‘W’ in Torres del Paine. Most people will be familiar with this part of the world thanks in no small part to magazines like National Geographic, which feature glorious, full-spread articles of Patagonian peaks, tempting budding trekkers half-way across the world to see this spectacular scenery for themselves. Expectations rarely live up to reality, but the enormity of these landscapes was such that we weren’t disappointed!
I didn’t plan for this trek. I just knew it was meant to be scenic and memorable, and that was enough preparation for me. However, be aware that those people who tell you it’s an easy stroll are lying! That is, unless they stayed in refugios and didn’t have to carry all their food, sleeping bags and a tent for the duration, which will make quite a significant difference.
Here are the basics for those interested in tackling the W trek in Torres del Paine National Park.
Why the W?
There are actually a few different routes you can tackle in Torres del Paine (TdP), depending on how much time you have and how fit you’re feeling. Most people go for the W, a 5 day trek that follows a W shape. You’ll see what I mean if you have a look at the map below:
The route is symmetrical and most people start from the west and work their way east, ending at the Torres on their final day. However,when we arrived at the entrance to the park and could see the towers clear as day, one of the rangers we asked suggested we start at the east end – after all, who knows if we’d see the towers by day five? In the end we were very lucky to do so as rain struck on the second night and continued until the finish.
However, this did mean climbing all the way up to the Torres campsite with all of our food. And wine. Here’s an idea of what that looked like (excluding the bottle of wine!):
Doing the trek ‘in reverse’ also meant we were in the company of a number of day-trekkers with tiny backpacks, who had just come to the park to see the Torres del Paine and were returning home that evening. At points I felt quite jealous! We did quite well at keeping up with them, though, which I was surprised by. We also met other trekkers, some of whom were finishing their trek, and some of whom were doing the ‘O’ (self-explanatory – a whole circuit). Yet others we met were doing the ‘Q’, which added even more days and kilometers to the whole circuit! Ouch.
We tried to tough it out as much as possible by camping, rather than using the available refugios. These were very expensive (or at least, they were for our budget) and we figured a bit of mud and sweat wouldn’t hurt us. In fact I’m pretty sure it made me ill on the last day, but otherwise we had a fairly okay time of it. Obviously rain makes camping a little unpleasant but by day three or four we’d learned to ignore it in favour of the consistently beautiful scenery. Also, due to the nature of the route, our days were broken up into fairly manageable chunks. Those two factors alone gave this walk an edge over our Kepler experience.
For some examples of the scenery we witnessed…well…
If there’s any interest in a more logistical-oriented post then please let me know!
Queenstown, New Zealand, has a reputation for adventure sports and good burgers, something I can definitely agree with (I would pay quite a lot of money for a Fergburger right now). Faye had added Queenstown to our itinerary so that we could bungee jump here, but I chickened out when I heard that there was a ‘swing’ option instead.
AJ Hackett Bungy are one of the biggest operators in town and we opted to use them also because Faye had bungeed (is that a word?) with them before. After skydiving in Fox Glacier, I wasn’t sure bungee jumping was going to quite match up and it didn’t really appeal as much as it had prior to throwing myself out of a plane; the world’s biggest swing, however, did! Especially because we could actually do it together 🙂
To appease Faye’s inner adrenaline-junkie, we spiced up our swing. We were the first to go, so we had no idea what we were in for – this may have been a blessing in disguise as I was already bricking it just walking out to the platform!
There were a number of possible swinging permutations, but we opted for upside down and back to front. The best way to demonstrate this is by way of Faye’s video, where you can have a laugh at us attempting to get into position:
Would I do it again? Yes! But this time, I would wear shoes – I’ve only just got rid of the burn on my foot/leg from the harness.
A lot of people visit the South Island without spending much time in the North Island. The South Island is arguably the more scenic of the two, with a number of tourist attractions and popular towns that draw larger crowds than those in the North. After a couple of months travelling in the North Island, we thought it was time to compare and contrast the two for ourselves!
Our time in New Zealand was a little longer in duration than anticipated, thanks to a longer stay in Asia and expensive flights to South America. As a result, our budget for six weeks had to make do for four months – although we obviously couldn’t survive by sticking to that budget, we made a fairly successful stab at limiting our expenses by doing HelpX.
HelpX (also known as wwoofing if done on an organic farm) connects travellers with hosts in the country who want help with whatever they need – be it gardening, farming, or help running their business. In exchange, helpers get an insight into life in the host’s country (well, in theory), accommodation and, depending on the number of hours worked per day, their meals.
On January 2nd, after a fun time celebrating the New Year in Wellington, we caught the Bluebridge ferry to Picton, from where we drove to a town called Blenheim. There, we were to spend the week on a fruit farm just outside of town with Jess and Dean. Jess and Dean had a lovely house on a large plot of land and our time there was largely spent gardening and painting the outside of their house.
As we worked for five hours a day, they gave us lots of delicious home-cooked food and we enjoyed learning about their experiences in the Navy and running their own business. During our free hours between lunch and dinner, we visited a number of local wineries including Peter Yealand and Spy Valley. Blenheim is in the Marlborough region, which is especially famous for its Sauvignon Blanc and we were fortunate to sample (and buy) a fair few different bottles!
Next, we headed to the north-west, to Golden Bay. This part of the country was beautiful! It’s home to the Abel Tasman great walk, but a lot of people visit just to relax on the coast. We worked for a week in a campsite in Collingwood; for two hours of work per day we got our own cabin, which was lovely! Our free time in the afternoons meant we could visit local sights, such as the Farwell Spit and Te Waikoropupu springs.
Thus far, we’d tried to commit to only one week in each place but as we headed south, we spent two weeks working in a hostel in Greymouth. This was actually quite hard work but we enjoyed it quite a lot, even though there isn’t that much to do in Greymouth! Our host was a nice guy and I was sad to leave.
Finally, we had a wonderful time helping out at some kennels near Christchurch. Our hostess, Angela, was a truly lovely lady and her dog, Queenie, was a character! Here we helped maintain the grounds and of course, help out with the dogs, which involved lots of walking (and a bit of running!).
All of our experiences were totally different to what we’re used to – normally, sitting behind a desk – and it was really nice to work outdoors for a change. It was also nice to get to know people living and working in NZ and learn about how they made a living. Judging by the number of adverts on the HelpX website, it seems that a lot of people have bought a plot of land with the goal of becoming self-sufficient and living off the land. A lot of these people are also in the middle of nowhere and live quite a simple existence – no phone signal or internet, for a start – and while I must applaud their commitment we tended to steer clear of these! NZ is quite remote enough as it is and when staying with strangers it was quite nice to have the option to be near civilisation. Luckily for us, all of our hosts were lovely and we wouldn’t hesitate to go back to any one of them.
By working as we travelled, we stretched our budget and I would definitely consider doing it a bit closer to home – there are adverts all over the world! One piece of advice I would give for anyone considering HelpX is to read between the lines on the reviews left by other helpers of their experiences with hosts. If you sign up, you have a profile under which you can apply to listings and where hosts can also leave a review of how good a worker you were!
You may find it a little difficult to get started as a new helper, with no reviews, but after one or two stints it should become a lot easier to sign up to jobs. Some hosts advertise weeks in advance, but others may look for helpers at quite short notice – Faye was very organised and managed to book all of ours in advance.
Finally, don’t forget that HelpX is primarily a cultural exchange. If you think you are being exploited for free labour then you can always leave! We always got a bit nervous before starting in each place but I think it’s only natural as you have only a vague idea of what you’ve signed up for. Saying that, we definitely learned a lot and thought it was a great experience!
Have you ever used HelpX? What were your experiences like?