As Seen on TV

When travelling we all love to find those cool little hidden things in any place that people don’t necessarily know about. Sadly this isn’t always the case and when visiting a new place you need a little nudge in the right direction.

In South America I’ve not been the biggest friend of the Lonely Planet, to be honest it’s an extra kilo I’d rather not bothered with. There have been some good travel blogs (sadly the best one, This Battered Suitcase, appears to be written by someone travelling a similar route to myself but always a place or two behind where we are). However one our most followed ways has been a couple of things we’ve seen on TV.

Before this trip we knew we’d be heading down through Peru and Bolivia. I used to love watching Michael Palin shows as a kid so Full Circle which took him to Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca has always stuck in my head for this trip.

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It really didn’t disappoint, we marvelled at the beauty of the lost Inca city (more on that in my last blog). The scale of the place is incredible while the scenes of the ruins on the mountain top encircled by a river thousands of feet below are really did live up to my massive expectations. Of course Full Circle wasn’t the only way I knew of such a place but it was the clearest image in my head before out visit.

A week or so later at Lake Titicaca I was reminded of the boat called the Yavari – as seen on Full Circle, it was manufactured in the UK in pieces, then lugged up to the world’s highest navigable lake by llamas from the now Chilean coastline to be reassembled in Bolivia. Given walking a few hundred metres at a normal pace can leave you a little breathless at this altitude it really is amazing. Other boats like this were also taken up here but the Yavari has been loving restored and maintained via donations from tourists.

For a moderate fee we were shown all over the boat but kept coming back to admiring the logistics of getting it here. Well worth the short stop before heading to the floating islands. Yeah you read that right. Out in the lake are islands made of the local reeds, continuously replenished and anchored to the lake bed on which houses are built of the same material. Well you’ve got to see that haven’t you?!

Our second televisual travel inspiration came not quite from a travel program but the love or hate chaps from Top Gear. Personally I love them but I know many others have less kind words to say about it. I’ve previously been inspired to ride a motorbike over the Hai Van Pass in Vietnam that is to one of their Xmas Specials. On this trip we’ve watched their Bolivia episode which only served to make us more excited to visit the country.

They traversed this hugely varied country from the jungle in the east, up the treacherous Death Road, through La Paz and over the Andes into Chile. We didn’t have wheels for the trip (think bureaucracy and cost) but wanted to see what we looked at in awe on TV.

On a boat into the jungle it actually felt just like what we’d been watching. The butterflies as big as bats, fish jumping into the boat and weirdly coloured trees. Thankfully we didn’t freak out like Hammond with the insects!

Later in La Paz (following an incredible painful accident with my ankle) we took on Death Road – top to bottom by bicycle.

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So called due to the people who died building it, as well as having accidents on the perilously narrow unpaved road, this was probably pretty daft in the circumstances.

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From the breathlessly high start all was looking good. With a quick blast down a paved section to get used to the bikes we took on the gravel, stopping for the occasional photo and gawp down the sheer drops. Then ….

“BANG! OWW. FUCK!”

In no time approaching a bend the front wheel locked when not even touching the brake, I flew over the handlebars. With the only aim not to land on my ankle I walked off with just a few bruises and in a bit of pain. Much more careful now.

Despite that, just minutes later Katrina had gone down too in almost identical circumstances. Sadly for her this stopped her ride, her wrist was much worse and couldn’t grip the handlebars.

Thankfully I survived the rest if the ride on the spectacular road. And when receiving our t-shirts afterwords found we had both fallen on the part if the road called ‘the corners of death’. Phew.

In the days afterwords we heard of many more injuries, so lucky us.

The final spectacular attraction of Bolivia was to be the high Andes. We crossed via the Salar de Uyuni – a bit different to the programme and even more spectacular! A bit more of them later.

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The final personality to influence is an unlikely source – An Idiot Abroad – Karl Pilkington. Having changed our plans to end in Rio, I’d recalled I had his episode there on my laptop so we took a look.

It didn’t give us much more than we already knew about Rio – Karl mostly being there to be annoyed and see ‘the Jesus thing’ or Cristo Redentor towering over the city. He wasn’t too stunned by the sculpture, remarking on the chin/beard looking weird.

He was however given a chance to see the wonder by helicopter – something he enjoyed more than the sculpture itself. Ridiculous but funny travel programming at its best. And enough to make us want to take a flight.

Our first visit up the Corcovado mountain where the sculpture sits saw the cloud roll in at sunset, spoiling the view a little but providing an alternative atmosphere. It did however leave us wanting more.

With some money towards the cost from my birthday. We took a flight from Sugar Loaf mountain over the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema and around the mountain. And it didn’t disappoint, I loved the experience!

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The perspective provided by the flight is totally different to any other angle. Swooping around the statue I’m so happy with my photographs. And on a clear day I could admire the clean lines of an incredible piece of architecture. If you’ve got the money (or want a treat to end your trip) it’s well worth it.

I’m yet to see much of the Michael Palin series on Brazil, but I’m sure it will only add to my desire to return there very soon.

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Machu Picchu by Train

I’ve not really been in for writing a guide type article on here but this was something I spent a lot of time researching and thought I would put together what I found.

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We decided to take the train instead of the Inca Trail for 2 reasons, firstly we seem to be under the weather a lot just before a physical activity (Climbing Volcanoes in Nicaragua) and we heard a lot of bad reviews from travellers saying the trail was expensive and overhyped.

This left the train to get to the ancient city (already an expensive day out with the entry ticket). A bit of shopping around on the internet and we’d found 3 companies with the most convenient trip being with the newest company, Machu Picchu Train, at $58 each way.

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Visitors to Machu Picchu are limited to 2,500 each day so to be safe we made our way to buy the ticket at the office in Cusco the day before. Once this was reserved we went to the train ticket office in Cusco on Avenida del Sol and found the tickets are cheaper booked there in cash at $50 each. US Dollars can be withdrawn from the cash machine a few doors down the street.

The train leaves from Ollantaytambo station around 11.30am, about 1hr by car or 90 minutes by bus from Cusco so plenty of time to get there. The bus is crowded, local and fun and leaves from a local bus station a couple of blocks behind the train office to Urubamba. It cost 6 soles each. From here you must change to a minibus or colectivo for around 5 soles each to reach Ollantaytambo.

A collectivo from central Cusco all the way to Ollantaytambo will cost around 15 to 20 soles each depending on your negotiation skills.

Our train was virtually empty, just 2 of us, 2 Japanese tourists and 4 staff! We were served a drink and sweet snack while watching the view of the valley. Really rather relaxed and a little bit colonial. The train should get you to Aguas Calientes, the modern town beneath Machu Picchu itself. Here you can buy all sorts of tourist stuff and get a quick but pricey meal.

There are regular buses up the mountain the the park entrance, at a pricey $16 return. However once you see where they go you will not begrudge it. You can walk the route, we heard of people doing it in an hour and some said two. I believe the latter more. If you take the train this will cut you short on time at the ruins.

By now you should have about 4 hours to see the site. It closes around 5.30 or 6pm. I suggest you head for the famous vista for the postcard shot by taking a path to your left soon after entering. At this time it should be quite quiet, especially in lower seasons away from summer holidaymakers. From here you can backtrack to the sun-gate where hikers enter the site or the Inca Bridge, one of the former residents entries and security measures.

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As you stroll around you can pick up tit bits from overhearing late running guided tours, though they often seem to tell different and contrasting tales that sound pretty made up to me. We didn’t bother with a guide and chose to enjoy the place with our existing knowledge and imagination. One tip all prospective guides will give you for free however is this – USE THE TOILET BEFORE ENTERING THE CITY! Machu Picchu has no public conveniences and instead nooks and crannies or alcoves (laugh if you’ve seen the movie In Bruges) will substitute. On hot days it can smell quite potent.

We wandered the city till closing time, by which there were just a few llamas and Peruvian school children to share it with. If you’re lucky (or unlucky) you’ll be harassed for photos with them – actually quite fun! On your way out don’t forget stamp your passport if you want a cheap memento of the trip.

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We decided to stay in Ollantaytambo for the night and caught the 7.15pm train back, a little busier this time with about 12 passengers. You could stay in one of the many hostels and hotels Aguas Calientes if you wished to revisit the city the next day to climb the mountain Huayna Picchu above it. Or you can catch a late return taxi to Cusco, if one is close to full you can share for a good price.

I recommend stopping in Ollantaytambo however for a chance to see a slightly less touristic town than Cusco. The hotels are clean, comfy and quite cheap. Below the ruins of the same name (access with Boleto Turistico) is an interesting a cheap souvenir market. We both bought a couple of cool ornaments to take home. Further away from the tourists is a fully functioning local town with connections back to the Incas and friendly local people. I didn’t spot many tourists exploring far off the beaten track.

Hopefully if you’ve stumbled on this little account it will be of use to you on your visit. If you’ve found something different, want to correct anything or add your own little account please do comment.

Otherwise, enjoy your trip!

The Variety of Peru

I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time but call it laziness, having too much of a good time or lack of decent internet connections has deterred me for doing so. That and part writing on an iPad and netbook leads to things getting lost in the ‘cloud’. So I’m going to make this more of a photo blog and talk a little more about a couple of specific things in Peru later.

In short, I expected little of Peru, I’m not sure why but I just couldn’t feel very excited about it compared to other countries on this trip. Wrong. In this massively diverse country I chilled at the beach in Mancora and Huanchaco, got dizzy at dazzling high altitude blue lakes in Huaraz, celebrated my birthday in Lima, saw Penguins in Paracas, sandboarded in Huacachina, rotter my teeth with Inca Cola (an excellent Irn Bru substitute), flew over mystical ancient lines in Nazca, took the lazy route to Machu Picchu and followed in Palin’s footsteps on the floating island of Lake Titicaca. More on the latter two to come later.

I’ve picked some of my favourite photos of Peru and hope they’ll encourage you to visit such an amazing country!

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