Category Page: Travel

The ‘Finest Walk in the World’: New Zealand’s Milford Track

In 1908, British journalist Blanche Edith Baughan  sat down at her desk and declared the Milford Track the ‘Finest Walk in the World’. That’s a rather bold statement in itself. Even more outlandish is the fact that Baughan had never set foot on the track herself. Still, like a newborn lamb grasping at its mothers teat, the Kiwis have latched on to this statement and touted it as a universal truth.

The reality is this; the Milford Track is a pretty damn fine hike. The finest? Who knows.. I don’t know what really constitutes fine in regards to judging a hike. If it’s related to the weather, the Milford wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. During the 3 days I experienced on the track, it stopped raining for approximately 17 minutes. That may be a slight exaggeration, though the clear weather windows were few and far between. Pretty standard for an area that averages 6-8,000mm of annual rainfall. Despite the gushing skies, it was an incredible hike and a thoroughly enjoyable experience overall.

I was joined on the trek by 3 buddies over from Australia; Eric, Matt & Nick, 2 of which I’d just completed the Routeburne with the day prior (stay tuned for the post- some of the best scenery I’ve witnesses). Now, I also want to preface this by disclosing that we did the ‘pampered’ version of the Milford walk, through a company called Ultimate Hikes . We stayed in lodges, had guides, ate like kings and had a drying room for our soggy clothes at the end of the day. Yes, you read that correctly. They have rooms to hang up your clothes so they’ll be crispy warm and dry in a few short hours. It was a guilty pleasure.

 

Day 1: Te Anau- Pompolona Lodge (17.5km, 4hours)

We caught the bus from the lakeside town of Te Anau and then took a short ferry ride through to the start of the track. Needless to say, it was already raining. The track starts off as a well maintained limestone path, leading to a little apprehension on my part that this was to be one of those near ‘wheelchair accessible’ walks, such as the Heaphy track further north.  Thankfully, we were soon walking through mud and my fears were relieved.

For much of the day the path winds through a relatively narrow passage skirted by high, waterfall laden valley walls. The prehistoric plant life is diverse and immense, multiple shades of luscious green, while the sky is blocked by thick fog overhead. It gives the feeling of enclosure, as though trekking through a Jurassic Park exhibit. The closest we came to spotting rare and exotic life was in the form of the elusive blue duck. For Matt, this was probably the highlight of his trip.

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Eric scoping out the scenery

Remember how I mentioned earlier we were staying in lodges? Well we strolled into our first one at about 2:30 on the first day and were greeted by fresh towels and the prospect of a warm shower. The guilt was oozing from my pores. That was soon taken care of by the perfectly pressured warm water… I honestly don’t know how I’m going to go back to multi-day tent expeditions after this experience. It may have ruined me.

After a little spiel about why we were doing the trek (we missed the introduction session on the first night, thank god) it was time to eat. Eat we did. Dinner was beef and rice with salmon balls for an entrée. That’s salmon meat rolled up into balls, not.. you get the idea. We promptly polished that off, got acquainted with a few of the other trekkers and hit the sack for an early night.

 

Day 2: Pompolona Lodge to Quntin Lodge + Sutherland Falls (20km, 5.5 hours)

Rising at 7 after a cozy sleep (bit warm actually. Too many blankets..) we hopped across to the dining area and made our lunches. Practically every sandwich making ingredient you can imagine was on offer and I attempted to use every one of them. We polished off a buffet style breakfast (no hashbrowns..) and took off on our way.

Today was to be the hardest of the trek. We were to make our way over Mckinnon Pass, a 600m odd elevation gain that was forecast to receive a smattering of snow the previous night. Leading us over the pass was our blonde, bright and bubbly guide, Veronica. Since this was technically a ‘guided’ trek, we weren’t supposed to be tearing around doing whatever we liked, a guide was supposed to be guiding us. Well, being tall and relatively fit young guys, we naturally liked to move rather quickly. This left Veronica in the position of having to stay ahead of us the whole way, which she handled well. Even more impressively, she was talking the whole time.. although I’m inclined to believe she would’ve pulled a Tonya Harding on us if given the chance.

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At the top of Mckinnon Pass, joined by our guides Veronica (left) and Adie (right)

The views from the top are spectacular.. so we found out in hindsight. It was completely fogged over when we were up there and visibility was about 30 metres. We raced down the other side (pretty fun decent down a small river bed) and rolled into camp (‘camp’ being a lodge with scones and coffee). We were ready for some waterfall action.

Sutherland Falls is New Zealand’s largest permanent waterfall, 580 vertical metres of H2O flowing over the side of a cliff. Of course, we had to get under it..

The waterfall attempted to intimate us with it’s roaring sounds and powerful winds we could feel from a good 50m away. We would not be deterred in our quest. We charged down the rocks (slipping several times) and planted ourselves at the base of the icy torrent, for about 3 seconds. We hastily retreated to the safety of the land above and posed for a victorious snap, like the conquering heroes we were. (Note: To be fair to Nick, he actually fully submerged himself in the small pool below the falls. Myself and the squid ran in after him, got blasted by the icy spray and sprinted back out.)

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The falls are home to a rare bread of squid, a species surprisingly efficient at running marathons..

 

Dinner that night was a Rib-eye steak with a mushroom soup as an entrée and crème brulee for desert. No, I’m not having you on.

 

Day 3: Quintin Lodge to Mitre Peak Lodge (21km, 5 hours)

The third day was more of the same; waterfalls galore. TLC should’ve hiked the Milford Track, she wouldn’t have had to chase shit..

Milford track

The sandflies were also out in force. Seriously, if you ever visit this region, be sure to pack a flamethrower of some sort. There doesn’t appear to be any other way to keep these little suckers off you. I had bites on my face over 2 weeks later from the sandfly attacks here.

We ventured passed waterfall 987 and were blessed with a truly rare sight in these parts. The sun. We basked in the golden rays of this celestial deity for a few moments before it disappeared for the day once more. Good riddance.. who needs it anyway?

We stopped at the end of the track for a lunch break before being herded onto a small boat which was to take across to our lodging for the night. Mitre Peak lodge is absolutely brilliant. It’s this old fashioned, timber based maritime style building which presents pretty incredible views from the majority of it’s twin-share rooms. It has a washing machine, the standard drying rooms and best of all, a pool table. This occupied us for much of the evening. Veronica partnered with me for a couple of games, appearing to deliberately sabotage the teams hopes of winning.. perhaps she was still harboring a little resentment from that day 2 escapade. Who knows. If you’re reading this Veronica, let it go.. Thankfully we still pulled out the win.

Oh yeh and most importantly; our dinner was a rack of lamb with potatoes and brownies with ice cream for desert. I have literally never eaten this well for 3 days straight in my life.

The following day was a cruise around the Milford Sound, taking in the sights that Captain Cook missed as he and his crew sailed straight passed the inlet. I’ll leave you with a couple of pics of the boat ride. Hopefully they’ll provide adequate justice to a setting my mediocre English would fail to sufficiently describe.

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Mitre peak and its reflection provided quite an eyesore..

 

Milford track

Hiking the Heaphy Track: Worthy of Great Walk Status?

The Heaphy Track was the second of New Zealand’s great walks to be ticked off by yours truly, having completed the Abel Tasman a couple of years back. I was up at the top of the South Island once again so I decided to give it a whirl; I’d heard positive reviews so expectations were high. The Heaphy also has a bit of history in my family; my mum, aunt and grandparents having completed the walk over 40 years ago. I imagine it would be almost unrecognisable today.

My very first comment: this is probably the cruisiest type of ‘trekking’ I’ve ever done (tramping as they call it over here).  The huts were perhaps the most impressive I’ve seen on this type of hike (although we camped), while the track was incredibly well maintained. There were machines in operation along the way that looked like they tidied up and compressed the path. I personally prefer a little more ‘wilderness’ in my hikes but I can imagine the work that goes into this track would appeal to many.

Secondly, I was expecting a little more in the way of the spectacular views I’ve come to expect of New Zealand. While the ocean vistas and tussocky planes were certainly appreciated, the vast majority of the walk took place in forest. Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE forest, it just gets a little repetitive after 3 days. There were none of those breathtaking mountain or lakeside views that can make up for hours of trudgery and make a trip worthwhile even for a brief glimpse.

With those observations out of the way, the Heaphy Track is still a pleasant hike, worth a look if you’re in the region. It’s a great fitness booster and could be a decent challenge if you took it on in 3 days or so. We chose to stick to the typical 4 day option and this is how it turned out…

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A map detailing all huts and elevations along the Heaphy Track

 

Day 1

Transport to the track from either end can be a bit of a pain in the ass. I was looking at shuttle options which run through Motueka (from Nelson) and cost around $65. Fortunately, I met a German girl who happened to be doing the trek at the same time I’d planned to. She had a couple of friends dropping her off and then picking her up from the other side. Absolute bonus.

I was picked up in Motueka around 10 and we were dropped off at Browns hut a couple of hours later. This marked the start of the track on it’s Eastern end. Practically the whole first day was up a gentle gradient to the Perry Saddle Hut and our campsite for the night. It took us around 4 hours to cover the 17.5km.

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This was the campsite for the night. The highlight came at about 8pm. An older English fellow who was hiking with his son decided it was going to be more comfortable sleeping in the shelter there than a tarp his son had set up. It was raining pretty hard at the time. About an hour after he’d hunkered down to sleep, one of the young girls staying in the hut came out to brush her teeth. She stopped just before the sleeping Englishman and shone her headlamp directly on his head for a good 30 seconds. This of course woke him up and he peered up in a daze to try and work out what the hell was going on. She finally realised what she was looking at and moved on. I’m in tears just writing about the incident.. I don’t know why but fuck it was funny.

 

Day 2

My new tent held up to the rain soaked night and we awoke on the second morning to find a relatively clear sky. This was to be a rare occurrence. There were very few stretches of sunshine throughout the whole 4 days, thick cloud hung about for the majority, usually spewing out hefty doses of rain.

After a light breakfast we packed up at a leisurely pace and were on our way for the day. 2 hours in we were still enveloped in forest and growing a little skeptical about the ‘views’ we’d read about on this track. A few minutes later we were out of the treeline and strolling through tussocked planes stretching across rolling hills for as far as the eye could see.
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There were also some pretty awesome swing bridges along the way…

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We covered the 24 odd kilometres to James Mackay hut in 5:45, stopping a few times along the way for snacks and pics. Now, I feel like I’ve already done enough complaining in this post already but I have 1 more to make. The ‘campsites’ at James Mackay are in fact elevated wooden platforms. Presumably they’ve done this to level out the fairly uneven terrain at this spot but these wooden slabs don’t make great sites to pitch a tent. Particularly so if you don’t have a sleeping pad..

Besides this minor grievance it was a nice venue with a distant glimpse of the ocean. The sunset was also pretty awesome..

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Day 3

Practically all downhill.. The 21km to Heaphy Hut took us 4 hours 45. Awesome campsite. Completely separate to the hut with a little shelter and fire-pit for those clear nights. We didn’t get one of those unfortunately, although we did get a fire blazing for a couple of hours. At this site, you’re camping in proximity ot the Heaphy river, making for a nice change of scenery. The river also provides a nice little refresher if you’re game. Be warned, it is damn cold.

This was the first time either of us were introduced to the little New Zealand terroriser known as the sandfly. Holy shit. Sitting here writing this 4 days after a night at this spot and I’m still scratching like a meth addict.Those little fuckers are fierce. Completely relentless. Make sure you pack the most powerful insect spray you can find.

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Day 4

The final day was probably the most impressive scenery wise. The morning had us walking through palm filled forests with abundant birdlife singing out harmonic melodies. There were also a couple of gigantic fig trees just off to the side of the track..

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Which meant I had to channel my inner Tarzan..

 

This forest trundled lasted about an hour before we finally reached the notoriously rough West Coast ocean.

Capes on capes on capes..

Capes on capes on capes..

Definitely the most scenic part of the trek. A day trek/overnighter from Kohaihai to the Heaphy Hut would be well worth it. A few more bridge crossings and we were finished.

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The final days hike took us 4 hours on the money. Our ride was waiting for us at the finish and we were promptly on the way to Westport. Just in time for a sneaky pint or two.

Machu Picchu : The Commercialisation of an Icon

I was never intending to visit Machu Picchu. Having seen literally thousands of versions of the famous shot standing above the ancient Incan ruins and the fact I knew every dog and his uncle would be there, I was skeptical that I would get anything significant out of the experience. In that assumption I was wrong.. Machu Picchu is a a truly spectacular site. Although there are more impressive ruins elsewhere, the location and surrounds give it a majestic and awe-inspiring feel. Seeing photos of a place is a ridiculous excuse for not visiting and I’m glad I made the journey. Having said that, I was disappointed to confirm my belief that it was over-commercialised, taking away from the aura of the site and the ability to transport yourself back in time, losing the ability to grasp what life might have been like all those years ago.

Discovered July 24th, 1911 by a Yale professor by the name of Hiram Bingham. The Incan city was established in the 15th century, the purpose of it’s construction remains unclear although many believe it was a ‘royal estate’, only meant for the elite members of the Incan empire. It sits 2,430m above sea level, perched atop a peak that drops off sharply down into the Urubamba river below. The whole site covers 32,592 hectares. Nearly 5 centuries after the fall of the Incan empire, it remains in tact as a world heritage site and one of the more iconic and frequented landmarks in the world.

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These days, the site can be reached in several ways. Firstly, you have the option to trek several days through various routes to reach the town of Agua Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. The most famous of these is the Inca trail, stretching 82km and typically taking 4 days. You then have the option to arrive via van or private taxi. These will take you to a place called Hydroelectrica, a 2-3 hour trek away from Agua Calientes. Finally you can arrive in style, via the long-established railroad that leads from Cusco right to the base of the ruins. From Agua Calientes you can either walk an hour or so straight up the hill Machu Picchu sits on or take a bus to achieve the same result. This is what greets you when you get there..

 

I feel people would get far more out of the experience if they had to trek to get into Machu Picchu. Soon after I had visited, I talked to a friend who had completed the Inca Trail. He was rewarded with a far more significant experience at the site of the ruins due to the hardship of reaching his destination. It was a reward to arrive at Machu Picchu. This will never happen of course. It would rule out the majority of tourists who visit and slash tourism revenue significantly.

Machu Picchu has become the symbol of commercialisation in Peru. So many Peruvian brands, from beer to universities tie themselves to the image of the landmark. Presidential candidates photoshop their head in front of the iconic image overlooking the ruins and then plaster it all over billboards. This is far from unique to Peru however, Everest labelled products run rampant in Nepal and Angkor gets it’s fair share of use over in Cambodia (it’s always beer brands that are the first to name themselves after these landmarks). I’m in no way blaming Peru for this. It’s a developing country that is in desperate need of tourism revenue but I don’t believe it’s all necessary. People will come either way. All it does is reduce the image to a mere marketing ploy.

I came across a Time article showing images of the historic site from 1945, decades before the mass tourism trade had begun. It looks a little run-down, overgrown, it’s features are undefined and yet magnificent. This was the state in which it was left by the previous tenants, centuries ago. There are no ladders set up to repair roofs, no signs telling you which direction to walk in and no fully grown men running around taking hundreds of selfies. It remains untouched, pure and majestic. I can’t help but think the majority of visitors would get a much more profound experience if it was left in this natural state.

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The ruins of Machu Picchu, taken in 1945

As compared with a photo I took in 2016..

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Little tidier..

I may very well be in the minority with the view expressed in this post. You who are reading this may prefer the cleaner, more detailed and restored version of the ancient ruins. I can certainly understand that point of view. The modern Machu Picchu is very accessible, allowing people of all ages and fitness levels the chance to experience the incredible destination that without the infrastructure and support currently in place, may not offer the same opportunity. I only wish they were granted the chance to experience the site in all it’s prestige, the way you can with those places which are not classified as such icons. They can transport you to a different time, if only briefly, and give a glimpse into another world. Just a little glance back in time.

 

 

Bodyweight Workouts on the Road

If you’ve ever travelled around for an extended period of time (3+ weeks) you’ll know how hard it is to stay in shape. Now this does depend on where you travel to. A backpacking trip to Peru (where you’ll likely be hiking for multiple days at a time) compared to a Contiki tour through southern Europe (where your main pastime is going to be consuming large quantities of booze) are going to yield completely different results for your fitness.

Below are a list of basic bodyweight workouts that require minimal to zero equipment. The only thing you need to access is a pull-up bar of some sort- be it a tree, monkey bars or overhead balcony somewhere (most parks around the world have either a suitable tree branch or monkey bars you can use.) You can do these in your hotel room, at a local park, in the middle of the town square, wherever you can find a small space to yourself.

All workouts are from a site called Darebee. Check it out for a full list of hundreds of bodyweight workouts and how to perform the various exercises mentioned.

*You can probably get away with choosing one of these workouts every second day. If you really want to ratchet it up a notch, you can train every day, just choose workouts that train different body-parts on consecutive days. Start at level 1 (depending on your fitness) and try and work up to level 3. As with all fitness programs, progression is key.

 

King of the Hill (Strength/Tone)

Difficulty Rating: 2/5

Bodyweight_Workouts

 

Power Mode (Strength/Tone)

Difficulty Rating: 3/5

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Dragon Slayer (Strength/Tone)

Difficulty Rating: 4/5

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Poseidon (Strength/Tone)

Difficulty level: 2/5

Bodyweight-Workouts

 

Orc (Strength/Tone)

Difficulty Rating: 3/5

orc-workout

 

Spartan (Strength/Tone)

Difficulty Rating: 3/5

spartan-workout

 

Now for the hard stuff..

 

Merc (Strength/Tone)

Difficulty Rating: 5/5

merc-workout

 

Uncharted (Strength/Tone)

Difficulty Rating: 5/5

uncharted-workout

 

Juggernaut (Strength/Tone)

Difficulty Rating: 5/5

Bodyweight Workouts

 

Gladiator (Strength/Tone)

Difficulty Rating: 5/5

Gladiator

8 Things to do in Mendoza : The Wine Capital of Argentina

Mendoza is without doubt, my favorite city in South America thus far. It’s a beautiful, tranquil (most of the time), cultured city with plenty to do in the surrounding region, particularly if you like wine and mountains. It is home to probably the best wine I have tasted (at least best value for money) and the surrounding Andes region is truly spectacular. I will surely be returning here in years to come.

Mendoza supposedly receives 223ml of rain per year. I’m not sure if it was due to El Nino or what but it was raining at least half the time I was there and I wouldn’t be suprised if it reached that figure within a couple of weeks.. Despite the supposed lack of rainfall, Mendoza is probably one of the greenest cities I’ve ever come across. The streets are lined with approximately 100,000 beautiful green-leaved trees which form a canopy over pretty much every main  thoroughfare. The water for the trees and the vineyards (bodegas) comes from artificial irrigation sourced from runoff from the nearby Andes.

So what to do in Mendoza..

Take a Wine Tour

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Mendoza is after all, the wine capital of Argentina. For good reason. The wine here is incredible, it’s very very difficult to find a bad Malbec, even the bottles costing you $3-4. Unlike the steak, the wine is certainly not overrated and a good way to really test it out, is to go on a wine tour.

You can choose the guided option, available at practically every hostel and hotel or you can choose to head out on your own. I talked to a lot of different people who did either one and there doesn’t appear to be a huge difference in the price. It appears you can get a slight discount at the wineries if you take a guide and it saves you the hassle of organising it yourself.

If you choose to do it yourself, the best way is to take a local bus out and rent a bike from Mr Hugo’s. The wineries are in fairly close proximity and well marked so you won’t have a chance of getting lost.

If you’re looking for something a little more upmarket, Trout & Wine tours comes highly recommended (as a 2-day option)

 

Make a Trip Up To Cordon Del Plata

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You can choose to camp up there, stay in a refugio or even just make a day trip to check out the sites (although I wouldn’t recommend this, it’s a long way to go for a day..) I’ve already written a fairly detailed post about Cordon Del Plata so check it out for tips and recommendations.

 

 

Have a Night Out on the Town

The place to kick off a big night out is Ave. Villanueva Aristedes. This street is packed with bars which flow out onto the street on both sides. You’ll usually find the locals sitting down to a meal and a few quiet drinks before getting a little rowdier later on. There are no clubs allowed around the main city area in Mendoza so you’ll find this street pretty subdued, even though it usually stays open until 4/5am.

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If it’s dancing and rowdiness you’re after, there are a few different options, but be prepared to travel! Ruta Panamericana near Chacras de Coria seems to be the most popular venue, it’s about 15km out of town and has quite a few different options. Otherwise they seem to be a little scattered around..

We had one ridiculous night out when one of the lads from the hostel we were drinking at decided to have a play around with his tinder account. He found a local girl who invited us all round to her place (there were probably 10 of us) with the promise of taking us to a local club later on. When we arrived, the place by all accounts appeared to be a brothel.. It was full of young Asian girls who each had a room with their name labelled on the door as well as designated fridge space. After a little detective work, I was convinced we were partying in an Argentinian whore-house.

Not to be put off by such trivialities, we played beer pong and other common brothel drinking games and even went for a stroll down to the local shop to stock up on supplies. One of the guys was so drunk he fell into one of the open gutters (which are a real hazard in Mendoza) and I for some reason, bought 48 empanadas. As my mum always says, it pays to be courteous at brothels.. After a few more shenanigans we were told it was time to head to the club. We were herded into taxis and driven at least 30 minutes to what appeared to be a park in the middle of nowhere. A park with a lot of security.. We got out and made our way through the entrance to what was probably the biggest club I’ve ever seen. It was huge! There were at least 7 or 8 different venues playing different styles of music all surrounding a huge outdoor setting in the middle. Problem was, we were the only ones there..

We had arrived at 12:30/1ish and it wouldn’t be until at least 3am when the club started to fill up. By the time we left at 4, there were still people flooding in, despite the fact it was belting down with rain. Such is the lifestyle in Argentina..

*I actually met one of the girls who came out with us at a bus station in Santiago a couple of weeks later. She insisted the brothel was in fact a ‘hostel’ but I still suspect otherwise.

 

Skydiving

Just like skydiving anywhere else except of course, being in Mendoza, you have the option of drinking win on the way down.

I can’t actually find any info about it online so you’ll have to book with your hostel or a local tour agency (you’ll see signs everywhere). It’s also incredibly cheap, around $100 for a 12,000 feet jump. (As a comparison, back home in Australia it works out to about $300)

 

Horseback Riding

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There are numerous options when it comes to horseback riding around the Mendoza region. You can take a winery tour, go on a half-day tour up to the nearby hills or take a multi-day tour exploring the Andes.

Your hotel or hostel should be able to organise any of these tours for you.

 

Visit Aconcagua

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Whether you plan to attempt to go to the summit or just want to take a bus ride out for a few snaps, the Aconcagua Provincial Parque is perhaps the number 1 reason why people flock to Mendoza between December and February each year.

If you are interested in climbing to the 6,962m summit, check out this guide I’ve put together on climbing Aconcagua.

If you’re simply interested in a day trip out there, or a trek up to one of the base-camps, it can be easily arranged through a local guide such as Inka Expeditions, or you can catch a bus out there and do it yourself. *Note you still need to obtain a permit even for short treks into the park. These can be obtained from Mendoza’s tourist office, San Martín 1143 (Bring cash).

 

Visit Parque San Martin & Plaza Independencia

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Plaza Indepencia is located right in the heart of the city and is often used as a central .. from which to find other destinations. On weekends it has a large market setup containing dozens of stalls selling crafts, artwork, bags, accessories and all kinds of other trinkets. (Be sure to grab yourself some caramelized peanuts, word of warning though, they’re addictive!) There are also bands that set up spontaneously by the main fountain which provide a little entertainment to a tranquil evening.

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San Martin is a huge park about 20 minutes west of Plaza Independencia. It contains a zoo, a botanic garden, a lake, a small stadium and around 20km of pathways to keep your legs pumping for hours. Be prepared for a very solid day out if you decide to explore this area on foot. There are small trams that can take you around if you get too tired.. (Note- consumed too much vino the night before)

 

Hike up Cerro Torre

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Catching local bus 20/21 will get you to the base of Cerro Torre, a small peak overlooking the whole city of Mendoza. It’s a fairly easy hike, taking around 1-1.5 hours with a word of warning- it can get hot. Take plenty of water with you and you should be sweet.

You also have the option of organising to paraglide off Cerro Torre through and arranged tour. I know a few people who did this but claim it was rather boring.. might be a better option to go with skydiving instead.

*You will see numerous signs offering guided tours up Cerro Torre. There is absolutely no need for a guide.. the bus takes you practically right to the base and there is nothing hazardous on the trek. It’s also practically impossible to get lost, the path is very clear.

Salaar De Uyuni: The Bolivian Salt Flats

I was in a conversation with a very well-travelled American gentleman over a few beverages one fine Argentine evening when we got around to the topic of ‘strangest places you’ve ever seen’. He had told me earlier that he’d visited all 7 continents so naturally, I assumed Antarctica would have to top his list of most unique landscapes.

“No Sir,” he informed me, “that would have to go to the salt flats up in Bolivia. They are completely out of this world dude, like you’re standing on another planet. The sheer magnitude and the fact they’re situated above 4,000m makes the whole landscape completely surreal.”

*We were a few beverages deep by this stage so I doubt the conversation was anywhere near as civilised as I’ve portrayed it here. Still, my curiosity was piqued. I was heading to Bolivia.

I had about 10 days before I had to return to Mendoza for an attempt on Aconcagua with a couple of buddies that were heading over from the States. I therefore jumped on the next bus up to Salta, a 21 hour ride that was extended after the route we were on was blocked by protestors. They had covered the road in trees and shrubs, then lit them all ablaze. Ever since arriving in Argentina, I’d seen more protests than in the previous few years combined. I saw 3 alone on my first day in Buenos Aires. Not exactly sure what the protests were about (if they even needed a reason..) but more power to them I guess.

I arrived in Salta, quickly departed again and was on my way to the desert landscape of Northern Argentina. (I’ve only met one person who liked the town of Salta itself. Hilda, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ve changed your mind by now..) Next stop was Tilcara, a small town steeped in history with human habitation in the area dating back more than 10,000 years. I was a big fan of Tilcara, although the town was pretty quiet due to it being the festive period and all, it had a lot of character, a little oasis in one of the driest parts of the world.

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In Tilcara I met my travel buddy for the rest of the trip, a hilarious Slovenian legend named Jure, and along with a couple of other South American stragglers, we made our way to the border town of La Quiaca. From here it’s a short stroll up to the border with Bolivia. You line up for 20 minutes, get 2 stamps (1 for leaving Argentina, 1 for entering Bolivia) and you’re on your way. Most lackadaisical border I’ve ever seen.

We decided to start our Salt Flats tour in Tilcara, although it may have been a little more expensive, we’d heard much better reviews of the services offered here than those in Uyuni. They also offer mostly 4 day tours as opposed to the typical 3 you’d find from the latter starting point. We walked into the first hostel we found and were discussing the tour options with a man who introduced himself as ‘Freddy Kruger’ and proceeded to talk nonsense for the next hour. We checked trip advisor and found an average rating of about 2 stars, including one review about the driver getting drunk and rolling the car. We decided another agancy might be the best option..

Luckily we scoped out the reviews online, finding the highest rating seemed to belong to a tour company called Tupiza Tours.  Having expereienced the tour with them, I can’t recommend the company highly enough. They charged us 1,150 Bolivianos for the 4 day tour (which was about 100 higher than another group we talked to but we figured you get what you pay for.) Twice we cruised passed their broken down vehicle, subtly ensuring they knew taking the cheaper option isn’t always the best option. By all accounts they had a great tour experience as well though so maybe the operator doesn’t make such a big difference after all.

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I didn’t realise how badly this photo came out (due to the condensation from the geyser). Will update when I can snag another group photo.

Overall the tour was an incredible experience. Over the 4 days we passed through such a unique and diverse series of landscapes, the likes of which I’ll probably never see again. From multi-coloured Lagoons filled with hundreds of bright pink flamingos, to steaming volcanoes & bubbling geysers, to vast herds of traumatised Llama and of course the other-worldly slat flats themselves. I am inclined to agree with the American who said this was perhaps the most unique environment he’d ever encountered. The one drawback was the amount of time spent in the 4wd, which was of course necessary to reach so many different places, spread over over such vast distances.

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We were also fortunate to have a great group, besides Jure (Slovenian) and myself (Australian) we had a Colombian, a Mexican and Frenchman. Diverse array of people and we all got along really well. No complaining, no disputes over itinerary and a lot of laughs. I think that is one of the biggest factors in ensuring you have a great experience. It wouldn’t have been the same if you had a group you didn’t get along with. 4 days trapped together inside a 4wd is a loooong time.

We were also travelling with a group of Germans in another 4wd, usually seeing them at the sights and having meals with them (they also travelled with Tupiza Tours). Not once did we see them without a beer in hand. It was impressive. Even on the first day, when there were supposedly no shops, there they were at dinner, beers in hand. 6am on the salt flats? Beer in hand. Good ol’ German ingenuity.

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Although we never had any problems ourselves, we heard one story of two unfortunate Brazilian guys. On Christmas day, their driver got drunk (after stealing their booze) and started driving like a lunatic, 100km/hr and all over the road. He then dropped them off at the accommodation, with no further word and drove off. They didn’t see him again for the rest of the night. We’d heard reports of these sorts of things happening before we arrived but thought it was a bit of a Salt Flats myth, until we heard about it first hand..

 

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The Salt Flats in Uyuni really are insane. Not only are they the biggest in the world, they are situated 4,000m+ above sea level. There were a number of people we met throughout the tour having problems with altitude (our driver was chewing coca leaves literally non-stop throughout the 4 days). We also saw the salt flats at possibly the worst time of year. During the wet season, they fill up with water, providing a mirror like display that I’m sure you’ve all seen pictures of. I’m sure you’ve also seen the different ‘perspective photos’ of people doing ridiculous poses that you can only get away with on the salt flats. We tried a few, but failed miserably. Those photos will never see the light of day..

Fact of the day: Bolivia holds about 43% of the world’s lithium reserves; most of those are located in the Salar de Uyuni. This could mean heavy scale mining in the near future as world’s demand for lithium increases.

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Flamingos were everywhere.. as were volcanoes.

 

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Andrea, being the only girl on the trip, copped a lot of shit. She handled it like a champ and gave as good as she got.

 

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Jure and myself decided to take off and climb 150m up a nearby hill to reach 5,000m.. without telling anyone. Needless to say, the guide wasn’t happy. I believe the phrase ‘Cabrone’ was used..

 

You can check out my travel buddies (Jure) account of the Bolivian Altiplano Experience which has much better quality pics than mine..!

 

 

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