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.
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.
As compared with a photo I took in 2016..
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.
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.
Difficulty Rating: 2/5
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Difficulty level: 2/5
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Difficulty Rating: 3/5
Now for the hard stuff..
Difficulty Rating: 5/5
Difficulty Rating: 5/5
Difficulty Rating: 5/5
Difficulty Rating: 5/5
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..
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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).
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
You can check out my travel buddies (Jure) account of the Bolivian Altiplano Experience which has much better quality pics than mine..!
At the frontier of the Argentinian Andes, around 100km West of Mendoza (the wine capital of Argentina), lies a spectacular boot-shaped valley lined with an array of rocky, ice covered peaks. This place is known as Cordon Del Plata and it’s home to an array of peaks ranging from 3,500m right up to 6,000m. It is one of the more popular trekking destinations in this region of the Andes and it’s easy access and diversity makes it a prime training/acclimatisation ground for those looking to venture off to the larger and more challenging peaks such as Mt Aconcagua.
After catching a bus or organising a transfer from either Mendoza or Portrerillos (more details below) you will find yourself amongst the refuges at the start of Cordon del Plata. You can stay in one of these if you choose, they will cost around 150 pesos for a dormitory style bed and can provide food and any gear you need. I stayed in one on my first trip and although convenient, they are not ideal if you want to climb some of the peaks (but great if you just want to hike up through the valley for a day or 2).
If you have your own camping equipment, you will want to continue up an hour or so to the first main site, Vega. It’s up at 3,200m so it’s not a bad idea to stop here for at least 1 night to acclimatise. There are several creeks running through the camp that provide fresh, glacier run-off agua that is perfectly suitable for drinking. On another note, make sure your tent is sound. The ‘Katabatic’ winds here are FIERCE and I’ve read several accounts of trekkers tents getting torn up in the higher camps. The winds will literally come in from any direction so make sure your tent is secured at all sides. I made the mistake of getting one side down pat only to have the winds switch direction. My tent was completely lifted up and would’ve been carried off down the valley had I not had my bags inside.
I made 2 trips up to Cordon del Plata, the first to scope it out and the second to spend a bit of time there in the hope of getting some residual acclimatisation for an Aconcagua expedition. The second trip I spent 6 days there in total, with the idea of climbing some of the 4-5,000m peaks in the area. Unfortunately, the cheeky bastard ‘El Nino’ was in full affect, dumping a near record amount of snow on the Andes during that period. I didn’t bring crampons or an Ice-axe (my pack was already 30+kg) and therefore had to settle with one of the lesser peaks and simply trekking up to the highest camp. It certainly served its purpose though, I spent the whole period above 3,200m and felt a significant improvement when I trekked up passed camp El Salto, to around 4,350m on the final day.
I will have to come back at some point and climb El Plata, the 6,000m peak at the end of the valley that supposedly has spectacular views over the whole of the range. Quite a few people I had talked to either were attempting or had attempted the summit, not one of them having reached the mark.
If you are looking to do some climbing up there, I highly recommend you check out the Summit Post guide for Cordon Del Plata. They have detailed reports for each peak and from individuals with a lot more knowledge and experience than myself.
A few tips…
From Mendoza, there are a few different options.
*Bus tickets can be purchased from a particular stand at the main terminal. From memory there is only 1 or 2 places that sell them.
If, like me, you have come to Argentina inadequately equipped to tackle snow drenched 6,000m peaks, you will need to hire some to get the job done. Fortunately, Mendoza has plenty of options and makes it easy to travel light and only hire the necessary gear when you’re ready to climb.
The following companies are the best I found..
Here’s a guide as to the prices you can expect to pay..
After being herded through dozens of long haul flights over the years, I felt it was time to share a little of my accumulated wisdom on the subject. Most of you have 2 significant advantages over me in this department. Firstly, the majority of you are not 6’5 with legs the length of palm trees. Secondly, most of you don’t live in Perth, Australia, the most isolated city in the world. It’s over 2,000km to the nearest major population hub… If I can manage, you can too, if you follow the rules I’ve listed below.
Rule numero uno, never let no-one know, how much doe you hold…
When you book online these days, most sites will get you to try and book a seat right then and there, usually for an extra $20-$30. You don’t need to do it (unless you know the flight will be completely packed and you desperately want the emergency exit seat.)* Wait until you check your baggage and then pull out the charm card.
It’s as simple as asking.. you don’t ask you don’t get. 90% of the time I’ll get an emergency exit row seat or even just a regular isle seat in a certain spot if I ask for it. (Pro-tip: NEVER sit near the toilets. I like to sit at the back of the plane, near the flight attendants, where it’s easier to wander down and grab some extra food & drink)
Make sure you always dress well, despite what some people say, don’t walk up to the counter in track-pants and a singlet. There is always the possibility of being upgraded, but only if you’re not dressed like a hobo.
*Often times, I try and avoid the emergency exit seat on longer flights. Many of them won’t recline, at least not to the extent that a regular seat will, making it a real bitch to try and get any sleep. Not sure what the deal is with this, if it’s the manufacturers gig or the airlines..
They have one rough gig.. Sometimes spending 10 hours in a cramped cabin, day after day, tending to the every whim of whinging passengers. Sounds like fun huh? Make life a little easy on them.. Don’t press your call button every time your cup of rum & coke runs out. They are not butlers. Get up and walk down to the back to get the drink yourself. It will get the blood circulating at the same time.
Not only will it make life easier on them, they’ll appreciate you as a customer. A bit of friendly conversation and you are well on your way to extra food and drinks, maybe even an invite to their hotel after the flight 😉
1 Heavy: Book, 1 Light: Magazine. The first book should be something that really draws you in & captivates you. The hours will fly by once you get going. You can’t go on forever though, sometimes you just want to skim through and look at pics and what not. This is where the ‘light’ option comes in (think magazine)
(Best alternative are noise cancelling headphones). Absolutely essential. I’ve found most airlines will provide you with basic earplugs now though, however it’s best to have a spare pair just in case.
There’s always one dick who has his reading light on the whole flight (often me..) Although most longer flights seem to provide these for you in modern times, it always pays to have your own just in case.
Yes those U-Shape pillows look ridiculous, they are also very effective. I never used to carry one, now I don’t leave home without it.
You do get served snacks and drinks on most flights at regular intervals but it always pays to have your own. You tend to dehydrate very quickly on an aircraft so make to stay hydrated.
Whatever puts you to sleep. Whether it be sleeping pills, Xanax, Heroin.. bring plenty of it. Nothing makes an economy flight more enjoyable than not experiencing it at all.. (Sometimes a lot of alcohol can do the job, that’s why you make friends with the flight attendants)
Think about the passengers around you in cattle class. If you’re 400 pounds, don’t try and jam into the middle seat. If you have a baby, use the aforementioned drugs to make sure it doesn’t cry the entire flight. Most of all, don’t be this guy..