Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Machu Picchu Anniversary Magic

Machu Picchu

The day began customarily with the alarm at around 4:30am as we had to be out by 6. Whew being a global traveller is hard work, I got more sleep working for a living. Transport did not turn up but after a hastily arranged taxi at the equivalent price of about $1 we got to the bus station on time. The drive and train ride to machu picchu could only be described as magical. With the traditional Andean pan pipe music playing in the background we drove firstly through the hilly town of Cusco with its rich charm of cobbled architecture, dogs and people going about their lives, markets where the purchases of whole animals occurred on the streets and opening into a countryside with donkeys eating by the side of the road and oxen being pulled by father and daughter and the amazing views of mountains in the distance. I remember remarking to Elizabeth how magical it was looking at snow topped mountains with clouds speckled above, at eye level and below our view, we knew this was going to be a special day.

Elizabeth making her way from the Incan Bridge
We travelled though towns where the main form of transport seemed to be a three wheeled scooter with a body. Then transferred to a train for the rest of the trip to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town). This has to be one of the great train trips with its magnificent scenery and windows in the roof for seeing the mountains. Arrived, stowed our gear in the hotel, and took the bus to the incan ruins. I had seen pictures of this place and expected a fairly small motley collection of crumbling walls. Well pictures cannot do this place justice it was way bigger than I expected and was a fully organised city, with lookouts, houses, spots for worship and sacrifice, terraced areas all built on top of a mountain. How they built this place is beyond my comprehension, especially considering it was like 6 - 700 years ago. We wandered about trying to discover every nook and cranny and after 4 hours still probably missed spots. We did accidentally find the incan bridge, where you have to leave your name with the guard so he can tick off that you made it back, as the path meanders around the mountain with a sheer drop to a quick descent.
Sorry Adrian but at 15 years, I had to

Back at the town we grabbed a meal at a recommended restaurant (Hot Springs II) that was brilliant with superb service and Elizabeth ate wood-fired guinea pig (poor little guys). The street outside was actually a train line and 2 trains went past while we ate, a weird experience. Afterwards we wandered the streets absorbing the peace and ambience of this remarkable little town. No traffic at all and the main square was full of adults and children having a good time. Our hotel room had a balcony that overlooked an angry (passionate?) raging river and forested mountains. I slept longer than I can remember sleeping for a long time (normally only 5 hours) at over 9 hours with the only sound ALL night being the raging river. The date for this most amazing of all days was the 2nd March 2012, completely coincidentally (organised by our travel agent) our 15 year anniversary. The anniversary continued the next day with a visit to the hot springs for a soak in the warm waters, followed by an amazing 1 hour Inca Massage that Elizabeth had bargained down to 35 soles (about $12 aust) but told me to give them full price of 50 soles afterwards it was so good. A long lunch followed at the same excellent restaurant of yesterday, then a walk through the town before our train & bus trip back to Cusco.

Nightlife in Aguas Calientes
 We considered not blogging about this place so as to keep it our secret but relented in the end. Who needs Paris when we will always have Machu Picchu.

The Main Street, our hotel was halfway down on the left.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The day we took on the volcano...

The bottom of the volcano
26/27 Feb 2012 - 

The atmosphere felt surreal as we travelled up winding roads in a full 12 seater van, the weather cloudy and U2`s song 'with or without you' playing through the stereo system, on the day we took on the 2800m Villarica volcano in Pucon, Chile. 

A brief glimpse to the top
We had been playing the maybe, maybe not game since we arrived but the guides had decided on our last day that the weather was good enough to give it a try. We arrived at the chairlift and piled out of the van. We were explained the risks and likelihood of making it to the top of the volcano. At this point we can turn back and no charge, one step up and it is full charge of $50,000 Chilean pesos (roughly $100 US). We looked up to see the sky open up and glimpse the top of the volcano seeming to invite us (taunting us?). Most of us decided to go forward, having been provided with plentiful guides, clothing, and a backpack with all the equipment we might need. 

Its a long slog but amazing views
Next bit of bad news, the chairlift wasn't working, this meant over an hour of extra climbing, all uphill. By the time we got to where the chairlift would have taken us we still had at least 3 hours of climbing and my legs were already burning. We ate and drank and took our last modesty intact toilet break. Off we went at a gruelling pace to try to beat the weather. One foot in front of the other became the goal until we got to a glacier for another rest and decision point. The weather looked threatening but we decided to keep going. 

During a small break on a moderately flat area a shout went out. I looked up and a large boulder, larger than me, was rolling down the mountain towards us. I picked up Elizabeth's backpack and ran to the left with everybody else. Nobody was hurt as it rolled past us. Elizabeth remarked that she might put her hard hat on, I remarked that it wouldn't have mattered. Someone had an asthma attack and some others decided not to go on and were escorted to a waiting spot. 

We kept going and started walking on snow around this point. We were told what to do if we started sliding down on the snow and how to hold our pick axes. It goes in the hand on the uphill side of walking (you walk in a criss crossing diagonal pattern) holding it by the end with the blade, if sliding you swing the handle into your other hand, twist over and dig the blade into the ice. The wind was getting fierce. 
Weather going bad.
 We kept going, and at times the views were breathtaking. One view I will never forget is looking down on the clouds, an amazing feeling, and seeing the top of another distant volcano pointing through. The weather started closing in as we got to another sheltered area and the guides started discussing the situation. At a height of 2500m and with only 300 more to the top it was recommended to abandon the attempt. Visibility had gotten to 10s of metres and the wind was getting fiercer. To say it was cold was an understatement, most of us were happy to accept the guides` recommendation.

Time to give up.
...and holding the axe correctly
Coming down was a whole different ballgame on the snow. You don't walk down. In our packs was a contraption that attached to the front waist strap on the backpack and then went between your legs to be used for sliding down. The guide would go first making a groove in the snow like a water slide and then you would perch in the groove on your paddle and slide down behind each other. We were whooping and crashing into the slow ones just like a commercial slide but wayyyy longer and in snow. In some parts we just sat on our bums without the paddle as those bits would make us go too fast otherwise.

We nearly made it...
At a spot past the snow we were told to wrap a protector around our legs that looped under our shoes to stop sand getting in. Then we were taken down a track where the sand was of a soft slightly moist texture and each step would take you half a foot into it. We got down in a third of the time it took to get up, exhausted and sore but proud of the accomplishment and richer for the experience. At some point on the volcano I turned 51 in Perth time (1pm Chilean time the day before). 

The paddle used for sliding down on the ice.
In our 2 days here we also got to go to the hot springs and rejuvenate our tired bodies (the day before the volcano) but we missed a lot of sights. Music from buskers played until late in the streets (specifically drumming and a trumpet) and the people were friendly as we fell in love with this tiny charming town. This place feels like unfinished business. So a warning to that damn volcano (shakes fist in general direction of volcano shouting "Villllarrrricccca"), we may be back.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ode To The Road

Peggy on the notorious route 40
The following 2 days were on the notorious, long, rough, dusty and winding route 40 to Barriloche. A couple of moments of excitement were had when Peggy`s battery blew up with a bang and when we stopped to look at the cave of hands. While bumping along the road Elizabeth wrote the following:

Perfect Patagonia with Tucan Tours, or Ode to the Road:

The whole tour group.

Robust Ritchie rewards us with a spectacular skid across the spacious sandy Steppe on the rollercoaster ride that is Route 40. He should be richly rewarded for ensuring our safety in such startling circumstances as should you, Peggy, our big beautiful yellow daytime home.

I find this infertile landscape fascinating. But for those who yawn at yet another yellow desert mound in the dusty distance, magnificent mountains, lazy lakes, glorious glaciers and graceful guanacos are never far from view. And sediment-stained milky rivers still sparkle in the unusually endless sunshine. 

Meanwhile marvellous Marika ably arranges our sustenance and shelter, and beautifully balances nineteen different needs. 

Pity you don`t have a privy, Peggy, to make our comfort complete. We with tiny tortured bladders wait worriedly for you to find us a wee break in the windswept wilderness with enough cover for us to pee in privacy.

Cave of the Hands, south of Perito Moreno
Landscape leading down to the caves

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Not another f@#$%&g glacier

19th February 2012
Another day and another glacier but we experience each one in a different way. Today it´s personal, the actual walk on a glacier itself. Our choice for this closest of all activities is the Viedma glacier at El Chalten. This glacier is the 2nd largest in South America at over 900 sq km in surface area and 150 to 200 m deep.

Attaching crampons
First off after being dropped on the bank by the boat is a 30 minute walk to the glacier along a landscape of very smooth colourful boulders of reds, oranges, pinks and browns. We are told that only 22 years ago that landscape was covered in ice, that is how fast this glacier is shrinking and adding to rising sea levels. Once at the glacier we attach crampons to our shoes, large spikes that sink into the slippery ice and provide grip as we walk at angles of 45 deg and more. We are taught to waddle like ducks with bent knees and thump our feet so that the spikes get deep and grip.

Standing on the glacier
What followed was an hour and a half of walking on a totally alien and unique landscape, both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Around spiky and over smooth ice, through ice tunnels where it was raining on you and the surface was a fascinating translucent smooth deep blue, and stepping over crevasses where you could not see the bottom. There were even lakes, caves and waterfalls. This is definitely one of the coolest things to do (pun intended).

An ice tunnel
A fascinating landscape

Enjoying a Bailey´s with 500 year old ice cubes
At the highest point on our journey the tour guides used a pick axe and plastic cups and we drank Bailey's cooled by vintage 500 year old ice, nothing tasted better or cooler. Special mention to the guides who were excellent, and seemingly everywhere as they virtually ran around the ice watching us all. I especially worry about Elizabeth as she has a habit of watching the scenery more than her feet, but at one point when she seemed off balance a guide came from nowhere lending a hand. Even though at times I was scared silly, this activity was amazing and goes down in my top three of things I have done, the other 2 being scuba diving at the barrier reef and flying an aerobatic plane.

The first video below is of Elizabeth as she enters a tunnel in the ice and the second she is stepping over a crevasse.

Mount Fitzroy
The next day was a more leisurely trek (only 6 hours) to get a better view of the impressive Fitzroy mountain. Sheer solid granite going straight up, it is an imposing site. You would think little toilet breaks in the wilderness would be simple but groups of trekkers seem to be only minutes in front or behind you, it is amazing how busy the wilderness is. This is an amazing world, and a month into my travels it has already exceeded my expectations.