From Cusco to Machu Picchu-Mystical, mindboggling, marvelous, magnificent!

Leaving Arequipa was done so with huge excitement, for now we were heading to Cuzco-the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, and the gateway from which we would be visiting one of the most enigmatic sites of world archaeology, Machu Picchu. Through the process of accurate planning, it would also be where I would be celebrating my birthday-bonus!

One of the things that we have had to be mindful of as we have travelled is getting ahead of ourselves-yes Machu Picchu is just around the corner, but prior to that we have the quite majestic city of Cuzco to explore first. As mentioned earlier, the city was the capital of the Inca Empire between the 13th and 16th centuries-until the Spanish conquests of South America, although the actual date of construction of Cuzco is thought to be in the 11th century. As such, in the Old Town there are pre-Columbian buildings, plazas and churches round every corner, and the atmosphere feels thick with history. With the city being the gateway to Machu Picchu, its UNESCO World Heritage Site status and the numerous Inca ruins and wonders throughout the Sacred Valley, it’s no surprise that Cuzco is absolutely swarming with tourists like us…Yet somehow it manages to maintain its dignity and charm! Yes you will be pitched for food, massage, trinkets and alpaca clothing numerous times each day, but it’s ok-no problem!

At 3,400 m above sea level, altitude sickness is an issue for some and so you are quickly introduced to the wonders of chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea. And yes we are talking about the raw ingredient for cocaine, although it’s important to distinguish between the drug and the plant. Coca leaves are something of a national treasure in Peru, and for thousands of years South American indigenous cultural groups have used the coca leaf in many of their significant ceremonies, as well as using it as a day to day supplement. Everything from improving oral hygiene and alleviating altitude sickness, to increasing stamina and improving your all round work ethic(!). Indeed if you believe everything that Wikipedia has to say (as I am guilty of sometimes), then you will also find that the Spanish actually encouraged the use of coca leaves to increase the productivity and reduce the appetite of their newly acquired slave workforce!
From personal experience I can vouch for the fact that neither Jo or I had altitude sickness-and nor did we tire over the next week or so hiking up and down various Inca trails…Whether that can be attributed to the benefits of coca or not I cannot say, but it was the the only adjustment that we made to our diets-I’ll leave it with you to come to your own conclusions!

So, what about Cuzco then? Well it is everything that you will read about it! Enchanting, historic, beautiful, magical-there are many superlatives that you can describe this city, and it deserves each one of them. You simply have to look around you to see the mountains that surround the city, and then the historic buildings at closer quarters-there’s enough here to keep you captivated for as long as you may wish, with no fear of it losing it’s sense of mysticism.

And we only really scratched the surface of the city….


One thing that you are never going to struggle with in Cuzco is finding a tour operator to take you to Machu Picchu-there are LOADS of them! In fact, choosing who you are going to spend your money with is one of the most difficult things about the place….More specifically-finding a tour operator who will accept anything other than cash! Fortunately we were introduced to ‘a guy’ by our AirBnB host, and (spoiler alert!) it was awesome!

Ideally we would have like to have done the full Inca trail, but you really need to book that in advance and have a set schedule-as were prepared with neither, we had to go for an option that was feasible as and when we got there! On good advice from a friend from our first placement way back in September, we opted to go for the Inca Jungle Trek-which goes a little something like this:

DAY 1: CUSCO – ABRA MALAGA – SANTA MARÍA 65km Mountain Biking.

Starting at 6 am, we were driven by minibus through the amazing sacred valley of the Incas.  Passing the indigenous town of Chinchero with amazing views of Vilcabamba and Vilcanota mountain range, enjoying the panoramic views of the small towns in the sacred valley. Eventually you reach Abra Malaga pass at 4350m, and at this point we started the mountain biking down to Santa Maria town at 1435m. Biking starts high in the Andes with the majestic view of the snow-capped Veronica mountain.


Another 6AM start, although this time it is people power as you set off on the most challenging of the hikes. After just 45 minutes from our hostel we get onto the original Inca trail that used to connect Machu Picchu with Vilcabamba considered the last Inca capital, hiking through plantations of bananas, Coca, yucca, coffee, and many other ‘unknown’ fruits! 3 hours hiking on the original Inca trail with magnificent views of the Vilcanota valley and panoramic views of the hills before a lunch pit stop at Quellomayo. From there we continued the hike along the Vilcanota River for another 3.5 hours until we arrive at the ‘cable car’ to get to Colcamayo hot springs. The ‘cable car’ is actually a platform on steel cables across the river-and let’s just put it this way, it would never pass H&S sanctions in Blighty! Anyway, once you had braved the river crossing you find yourself at the stunning natural and outdoor hot springs.


After breakfast in Santa Teresa we set off on our hike to the hydroelectric power plant for 2.5 hour hiking on the road along the Vilcanota River. During the hike we see the power plant of Santa Teresa and Hidroelectrica. Before long you have the first view of Machu Picchu then we hiked along the train truck for 3 hours to Aguas Calientes town-the gateway to the mighty Machu Picchu.


The most important day, and the earliest start! Up before the crack of dawn (4.30AM) to start the 1.5 hour hike up to the hidden city itself. On arrival there is a two hour tour with the guide and then we had the rest of the day to explore. Then you have free time to explore Machu Picchu by yourselves. We booked to climb Machu Picchu Mountain as well, which is a further 2 hour climb to majestic views of the ancient city from above! Machu Picchu is located in the middle of nowhere and up on the granite mountain edge, there is no any records about Machu Picchu of the Incas time. It is not mentioned in any of the chronicles of the Spanish conquistadors and archaeologists. Machu Picchu was under the dense vegetation until July 24th 1911. When the American historian Hiram Bingham ‘discovered’ it and called it “the lost city of the Incas”. We spent 8 hours exploring the city, before reluctantly going back to Aguas Calientes town.


The entire 4 days turned out to be as amazing as you would hope, and we had a really great group of people to share our experiences with. It didn’t start out so rosy though, to begin at Abra Malaga we were met with heavy rain, freezing cold and limited visibility-not the perfect conditions for a downhill bike ride! Still, after about an hour and a half the weather started to clear and soon enough we were hurtling down the mountain roads with little/no fear! It was exhilarating, however the biggest adrenaline rush actually came that evening in Santa Maria when Jo and I were attacked by wasps! We had taken some time to walk around the village and explore the surroundings when we found a path that lead down to a bridge over the river. As we walked down the path suddenly I felt a sharp pain on my head, and then another on my hand-so I start thrashing around not knowing what was going on-and Jo was soon in the same predicament. As it turns out, Avispa’s (South American wasps) are absolutely relentless, and will dive-bomb and attack you fearlessly! Fortunately the stings die down pretty quickly, but we didn’t know that and were soon running for our lives! Obviously this kind of incident couldn’t go unseen, and as we hightailed it away from the wasps we turned the corner to find a group of elderly locals watching on with some bemusement…funny now, scary at the time!

Day 2 saw me begin a two day celebration for my birthday, for as it turned out I shared my birthday with one of the other guys in the group, and how lucky we were to be able to visit the hot springs! The days hiking was superb, our guide was super knowledgeable and shared a lot about the fauna and flora, local customs and lives of the Inca’s. The Inca trail itself was stunning, and after a full day of hiking arriving at the hot springs were absolutely magical-as you will see from the pictures. Having had a couple of hours to really enjoy, relax and soak, we eventually dragged ourselves away and ended up having something of a night out in Santa Theresa-the entire group insisting that we all party past midnight to see in our birthdays! And party we did…hard! It was great, a really good giggle, but it made day 3 a little more challenging given the huge hangover and long walk ahead! Still, we survived the hangovers and made it to the wonderful town of Aguas Calientes-with excitement levels at maximum for the culmination of our journey the following day. Jo and I made an effort to hit the hot springs in Aguas Calientes as well-although they turned out to be something of a disappointment in comparison to the gorgeous tranquillity of the previous day’s experience! With an early rise in order, bed time couldn’t come soon enough-for now we were here, and Machu Picchu was waiting… The hike up to Machu Picchu itself was a lot more challenging than I was expecting-and hour and a half of relentless ‘Inca steps’ at 4.30AM really does get the heart racing and the core body temperature up-it really feels like your ‘earning’ the right to see this wonder. Of course there are other options-you can take a bus, or even a train-but for us that wasn’t a consideration. Much can be said about how you feel when you finally arrive and look over the city for the first time, but no words would do it justice-it was quite overwhelming. Something that we had seen pictures of throughout our lives was finally in front of us-and it was majestic, emotional, magical…Something that we are lucky enough to now have etched into our memories…..Which is quite lucky really, cos my camera had started playing up and I had managed to get water on the lens! Still, frantic times trying to dry and fix my camera to get some shots to help with the aging memory!





Full of verve and visual-Valparaiso

Last year we were staying on a piranha farm in Northern Thailand, and Christmas day actually involved a pretty gruelling Thai boxing class….This year was not to be so strenuous! This year we would be indulging in cocktails, wine, food and street art in the enigmatic city of Valparaiso, Chile.

It is the 6th largest city in the country, yet the greater Valparaiso Metropolitan Area is the second most populous, and it lies just 70 miles from Santiago. Today it is the most important port in Chile, and indeed is one of the most important South Pacific ports, but a far cry from its signifiance pre Panama Canal. In the second half of the 19th century, the city served as a stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, earning it the names “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific”. All of this would change with the opening of the mighty Panama Canal-which had a huge impact on the ship traffic that Valparaiso would see, and ergo the port based economy took a heavy fall.Since then Valparaiso has reinvented itself, its myriad of mazy streets providing inspiration for artistic and cultural expression. In 2003 the historic quarter was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status due to its improvised urban design and unique hop scotch of hillside architecture sprawling away from the coast. It’s difficult to put into words the landscape that you are faced with upon arrival, the city literally leaps from the sea and crawls up the surrounding hillsides. A series of 26 old and rickety funiculars are scattered around the city giving your legs the option to circumnavigate the steep inclines that you face at every corner! Street art meets your gaze everywhere, a lot of it breathtaking, but equally so much of the grafitti is just a collection of banal tags. This explosion of colour on the walls, combines with the crazy streets and perilously balanced buildings certainly gives the city something of an ‘edge’, especially when placed against the contrast of previous experiences in the sleepy town of EL Monte, and the modern and cosmopolitan Santiago. But this is something that the city never denies, in fact this edginess is positively embraced. Probably the best way to describe to you Valparaiso is to quote the famous Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda, a hugely influential figure in Chile-and someone who had quite a magnificent home on the hillsides of Valparaiso. On visiting his home, one of the things that you have to do while visiting the city, you apprecite what an eye for design and detail that he must have had, plus the fact tht he was a bit of  party animal-with a pretty cool bar just off his living room! Wonderful art deco design features, couple with the most superb panoramic views of the quagmire of streets falling away down the hillside to the docks nestled far below-the perfect fodder for artistic inspiration I would think:

Ode to Valparaíso
by Pablo Neruda

(translated by Molly Allison-Baker)

what an absurdity
you are,
how crazy:
a crazy port.
What a head
of disheveled
that you never finish
did you have
time to dress yourself,
and always
you were surprised
by life.
Death woke you up,
in your nightshirt,
in your long johns
fringed with colors,
with a name
tattooed on your stomach,
and with a hat.

(read the full version of the translated poem here)

Christmas turned out to be a funny time to be in the city, the streets much quieter and calmer than we were expecting-as it transpired it was the perfect time to go on a tour of discovery of the balmy alleys and streets, in search of some of the much lauded graffiti that adorns the walls, roofs and passageways around the city…What you find is a myriad of amazing artwork:

I was reaching for my camera at every turn, always eyes wide open, a smile at the corners of my mouth. Valparaiso certainly isn’t a pretty city, but it is captivating!
As for Christmas day, we had rented an apartment for the festive period, so with the opportunity to use a kitchen we did what seemed most apt…..Cocktails, red wine, beer and steak and chips!

Aside from street art and steak, we travelled up the coast a little to Viña del Mar-the neighbouring seaside resort, a little bit like the younger yet more responsible sister…Which fails to charm in the same way as the gritty streets of Valpo-but would serve a purpose should you be seeking some beach time and a swanky night out!

Getting back to Valparaiso and I cannot help but feel that our experience of the city was somewhat an oddity-the Christmas period giving the whole place a much more lazy and sedate feel than the reports I hear from others. I think if you were to visit at New Year you would get an entirely different perspective-but for us a few days in our little apartment were perfect, a very Merry Christmas!

Scurrying into El Hormiguero…(The anthill)

From our first week in the bustling metropolis that is Santiago, we were ready to get ourselves back to volunteering in somewhat more sedate surroundings-and the El Hormiguero in El Monte proved to be just that! Another placement that we had found through the HelpX website, with the simple yet tantalising description:

In the midway between Santiago and the surf-paradise Pichilemu, we have our creative centre “El Hormiguero” (the anthill).

We are exploring in eco-building, natural pools, aquaponics crops, arts, music and any interesting expression of new lifestyles.

With our eagerness to find alternative lifestyles, building methods and my much coveted ‘life skill acquisition’, on the face of things this place looked like it could tick all of the boxes-and so we had three weeks or so to find out-El Monte here we come!

So then….where to start? Well as always, the adventure begins with a journey, in this case a mere 1 hour bus into the unknown. We managed to get on the right bus, we just had a little hiccup with getting off in the wrong spot-probably a twenty minute or so walk from where we should have been. In theory no problem, but with your backpacks on and the midday heat beating down on your head, that twenty minutes takes on a whole new significance! Still, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with an empanada and fresh juice stop-and so our first introduction to the charm and friendliness of El Monte washed over us. Yes that’s right, you wouldn’t expect a vendor of empanadas and fresh juice to be a significant meeting, but the man in the square of El Monte was an absolute ray of sunshine and he would continue to shine for our entire time at the anthill! At this point it’s worth pointing out that El Monte is not exactly a destination for tourists, or for want of a better word, Gringos! As such we kinda stick out like a sore thumb, but that only served to encourage kindness and warmth from pretty much everyone we met over the following three weeks or so.
I digress, back to our journey…once we had located the main square, we had basic walking directions that would take us to the anthill and so we hit the road for another twenty minutes or so until we saw the palm trees-the significant landmark that would signify our arrival at our destination. You see, the anthill, aside from the description as given above, is a palm tree farm!

Well baked, slightly sweaty and reddened in the face, we negotiated our way to the entrance to find our hosts for the build up until Christmas, and for sure what we found was both intriguing and bewildering. Soon enough we were offered a beer and set about getting to know Vicente and Martina, some German guys that were already there volunteering, and also the various animals that we would find ourselves growing to know and love. Alpacas, emus, a donkey, a peacock, two peahens, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats-to say there was some variety is an understatement! And all of this in the setting of a traditional adobe farm, albeit it with some wonderfully quirky design features. Impossible to describe effectively with words, a montage seems most fitting to give you an impression of the location:

As I’m sure you can see, this place was quite special, and it would only get more magical. It turned out that our period of volunteering coincided with Martina and Vicente’s wedding, which they were going to be having at the farm! So it was up to us all to landscape and decorate the grounds in readiness for 400 guests to celebrate their union-and what a fantastic few weeks it turned out to be. Initially we had to clear the palm tree forest of all debris as that was where the ceremony and meal was to be-and this was the worst job of all! It may surprise you to know that palm tree leaves are pretty damn sharp, and all of us suffered greatly with significant punctures and lacerations caused by these pesky leaves! Fortunately for us we were there at the tail end of this job, the German guys had been pretty much focussed on the forest for their entire stay, and it was really starting to take its toll on their enthusiasm!
Still, once the forest was cleared there was more varied work to do, and luckily for us it was the period of time where you could really see the transformation taking place.
After a few days of us being there, we were also lucky enough to welcome the arrival of a couple from Leeds, Rob and Charlie, a couple who happen to have extremely similar ideals and plans as ourselves-albeit they are a little further down the line than us. This proved to be amazing, we shared so much, and I would say that they have became close friends. They were both extremely knowledgeable about various alternative farming methods and construction ideas, and it was fantastic to just sit and talk about hopes and plans (not dreams, plans!).

Back to the work, Martina and Vicente have a booming landscaping business work on projects throughout Santiago…reason that their business is booming? Well, they’re pretty damn creative, that’s why-and so we were tasked with the job of implementing their creative ideas, on their property, for their wedding…No pressure! Working with Rob and Charlie was brilliant, and in our time there we managed to build two beached areas, a water garden, some mighty fine gates, got involved with some adobe walling, and an immaculately decorated venue for the wedding-as well as Rob and Charlie getting to grips with a number of bridges, sprucing up a gypsy caravan, relocating the aquaponics and generally being open to our constant questioning!

In addition to all of the work at the farm, we were blessed with the wonder of El Monte, for here we would find warm and friendly folk who would fall over themselves to make us welcome. The daily Christmas market in the local plaza, and free capoeira lessons at the wonderful local community centre. Despite the fact that there was no common ground in terms of language-it turned out to be possibly one of the most friendly martial arts clubs I have ever been to, they even started having lessons in the town plaza for eveyone to watch. We loved it, and soon enough Rob and Charlie were hooked as well-a welcome distraction from the work at the farm for sure!

Twice a week we would get our capoeira on, and the rest of the week was dedicated to graft, and the occasional two litre bottle of El Gato wine!! The work was full on, after all there was an immovable deadline to meet-so it wasn’t as if we could leave it to the next volunteers if we didn’t finish-so finish we did…Culminating in a spectacular wedding!

It was a fantastic ending to our time in El Monte, after three and a half weeks we had made some special friendships and enjoyed a magical time at the farm…Now Christmas was upon us, and the grafitti laden streets of Valpairiso awaited!

Salta, La Rioja and the Talampaya Canyon

Having said our farewells to the our ‘family’ at Aldea Luna, and having the fortune to get a lift to the bus stop from Martin and Anabella, our travels resumed and we set about having a few days of tourism before our next volunteer appointment in San Rafael. The unexpected expense in Argentina being a significant factor in restricting just how much sightseeing we were going to get to do. Still, we had 5 days and so we planned to go to the picturesque town of Salta, then onto La Rioja and the Talampaya National Park.
We easily managed to get ourselves back to Jujuy bus station and then a mere two hour wait for the bus to Salta-the perfect amount of time to catch up on a little bit of internet action-and eating some meat empanadas after our month of enforced vegetarianism!

Unlike the adventures across Asia, the journeys here lack much in the way of drama or terror-we soon arrived unscathed and not in the least bit stressed in Salta, and made our way to our hostel. It was here that we were greeted by the most delightful host, with no English and our very broken beginner Spanish-it was rugby that united us! As soon as I had managed to establish the fact that I was Welsh, the smiles were unstoppable as we shared in England’s demise at the World Cup, and Argentina’s emergence as an upcoming rugby superpower-oh how they are benefitting from inclusion in the Rugby Championship. Anyway, I digress, as it was late we managed to organise food to be delivered to the hostel and we ate and crashed, before rising early to discover the quaint and eerily quiet streets of Salta…It took a while for us to realise that it was Sunday, and not until the following day to understand that Sundays really are rest days in Argentina. It actually turned out to be to our benefit, as we explored Argentinian street vistas uninterrupted for the first time.

One of the ‘attractions’ of the city that we had highlighted as a must visit was the MAAM Museum, which is the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, and the home of the ‘Children of Llullaillaco’ in the Cryopreservation Laboratory. Basically these are mummified remains of Inca children that were sacrificed to the gods on the mountains of Lullaillaco 500 years ago, and as per the altitude and hence low temperatures they are the best preserved Inca mummies that have ever been discovered.
These remains are now actually kept frozen in the afore mentioned museum, and at any given time one of the mummies is on display. While it sounds pretty macabre and potentially bad taste, the exhibition is excellent-giving a real insight into the customs of the Inca’s and the background for these ‘sacrifices’. The children that were sacrificed were believed to have been the most intelligent and attractive, often from families of high standing in the communities. Even more surprising is the fact that the children were actually left on the mountain tops while they still alive, albeit sedated with coca leaves and a maize beer, and left to die in their sleep. Surrounding the bodies a number of artefacts and other offerings were found, rich collection Incan treasures laid out assumed to be part of the sacrifice to appease the mountain gods.
On our visit the youngest of the children to be found was on display, ‘El Nino’;

The boy
His age is around seven years. He sat on a grey tunic with legs bent and his face in-resting on his knees. A blanket of brown and red half covered his head and body. Like all men of the Inca elite he wore short hair and a trim white feathers, supported by a sling wool wrapped around the head.
He is dressed in a red garment; has in his feet leather moccasins light-coloured with brown wool appliqué; It has anklets animal skin with white fur on his right wrist and wears a silver bracelet.
His fists are clenched; The face is not visible and his eyelids are half closed.

With time limited before our start date at our next volunteering project-we left Salta after a couple of nights and headed onto La Rioja, with a view to visiting the Talampaya National Park-another UNESCO World Heritage Site for us to add to our already impressive list-the only place on the Earth’s surface where you can see all stages of the Triassic geological era, which witnessed the emergence of the first dinosaurs.
Our first challenge was getting there, as on our arrival in the pleasant surroundings of La Rioja we discovered, to our dismay, that any organised trips to the canyon were going to be way over budget! The canyon being around 3 hours bus journey from La Rioja, the trips we found were coming in at over £100 each-quite significantly more than expected. Not to be put off, we eventually found a way to get there for about half that cost-local style!! Basically this involved us getting a local bus and getting them to drop us off on the main road through the desert near the entrance, and in comparison to some of the adventures we had in Asia-it all went like absolute clockwork….Although not without a fair amount of apprehension on my part obviously!

So having negotiated our way there, we soon found ourselves amongst the sheered red boulders that had fallen from the walls of the canyon around us, upon which were a gallery of 1, 000 year old rock paintings, made by the Ciénaga and Aguada peoples who inhabited the area. The pictures ‘apparently’ depict various animals although I was pretty certain that they were more indicative of alien invaders….Riding llamas obviously!! At one point during the tour you are brought round to the botanical garden of the area where you find a huge carob tree, which is thought to be more than one thousand years old, as well as twenty or so different native cacti, shrubs and trees.
All in all the area was absolutely spectacular, as you will see from our photo journal…

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, our time was up and we hit a night bus to Mendoza ready to begin our next HelpX placement in San Rafael….La Carmelita here we come!