Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sneak Preview ...

First Glimpse of Machu Picchu

Stay tuned for the story behind the trip ...
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Back Home !

It's probably not news to anyone - but I got back to Sydney a few weeks ago. Since then, apart from settling back to Newtown life and work - which has been remarkably easy - I've also been trying to work out what to do with my photos (surprise !) and find time to finish this blog - at least as far as Argentina and Peru are concerned ! Given that it's taken me 5 years (and counting) to sort out Cuba, I'm not too worried yet - but I am hoping to finish while the stories are fresh.

The last leg of my travels threatened to be very painful. The joys of South American airline scheduling had lined me up with a 54 hour trip home from Cusco to Sydney, with a 7 hour stop-over in Lima, before leaving at midnight and arriving in BA at 7am for the ... 3am flight to Sydney the next morning (no qualms about curfews for the Portenos) - via Auckland of course !

The reality was a lot less harrowing. For a start, four of us from the Peru group were on the same LAN Chile flight back to Lima (all with similar waits until post-midnight flights) - enough to form a quota for a trip to the centre for one last Ceviche. As seasoned Peru travellers (after a week there) we negotiated a decent rate in a hire car and strapped ourselves in for the never dull dodgem ride to Miraflores, roughly 45 eventful minutes from the airport. During the trip we arranged for the driver to pick us up a couple of hours later - imagine our surprise when he waved away our attempts to pay for the trip, saying we could settle up after the return. Such trust !

Last sunset in Lima

Dinner was sensational - and with the backdrop above and great company it was infinitely better (or very nearly infinitely) than 7 hours waiting at the airport. Of the four of us I had the earliest flight at half past midnight, and only 5 hours later I was lucky enough to be met at Buenos Aires international airport by a friend who'd kindly offered to pick me up and offer me a place to shower and change on my 20 hour stop-over.

Unfortunately my dreams of one last 1kg steak - not too mention shopping at the Sunday San Telmo markets and generally enjoying one last day in BA - were cruelly thwarted by an untimely and embarrassing (especially the public train chunder) attack of food poisoning, which at one stage threatened to delay my trip.

Drugged up, I arrived at the airport around 1am, checked in and got through customs in about a minute and a half, and looked for ways to kill 2 hours, too weak to walk and too tired to read.

There was time for a further surprise however, with a most unexpected and welcome upgrade to business class as I boarded, and even though I wasn't capable of profiting from the fine food and wine on offer, the almost horizontal seat was just what the doctor ordered for the 13 hour flight across the pacific - and I can thank that for the complete absence of jet lag since my return, not to mention my complete return to health in 24 hours.

There was time for one final surprise back in Newtown Tuesday morning (after leaving Cusco 3pm Saturday) - my coffee mug, purchased in the sacred valley in Peru, was just a little worse for wear ....

Carefully Wrapped Peruvian Pottery

So what's next ? Well, I've uploaded most of my photos now - on my fotki site (Argentina and Peru), cut down from 2000+ digital photos to less than 600. I still need to caption most of them, but feel free to have a snoop around. I'm also planning to write up the rest of the trip (on this site), to present some of the best photos in context, and share some more stories. And finally I have 11 boxes of slides to start scanning, which should help keep the post-trip glow glowing for some time yet ! I'll share the best ones here, of course.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Jumping to Salta

The next stop after my Mendozan flying experience was the north-western town of Salta, a mere 16 hours away by bus. Salta is not immediately captivating the way Mendoza is, but has a quiet elegance and easy-going feel; and with a large indigenous population in has in many ways more in common with Bolivia, a few hundred kilometres to the north, than Buenos Aires nearly 2000km to the south-east.

While town itself has a certain colonial charm, the real attraction of Salta is the landscape of the surrounding landscape, with stunning multi-coloured gorges (Quebradas), picturesque Andean villages, salt planes, wine districts and cacti-filled national parks all competing for your attention. I opted for two all day tours to try and maximise my appreciation of the area.

The first trip was a monster 14 1/2 hour epic, and followed the route of the famous Tren a las Nubes (train to the clouds), which was an old railway track built to service the borax mines in the salt flats high in the Andes.

The train line has been closed for repairs for a while, but in many ways the mini-bus is a better way to see the line, as well as stop in some of the cute villages along the way and generally admire the scenery.

After winding through the valley outside of town, the road leads up to the High Planes - Altiplano - or Puna, as the Argentineans call it, where horizons go forever, and you never know who is watching you:

After crossing a pass at over 4000M, our lunch time destination was the sleepy mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres. As can be seen -

Peak Hour San Antonio de los Cobres

- not much happens here, although at the table next to us, two people fainted from altitude sickness. After another two hours in the bus, we arrived at the stunning Salinas - or Salt Plains. More photos here.

Believe or not, there was still more to see, and after crossing another high pass

we dropped back down the Cuesta de Lipan, to the UNICEF World Heritage Quebrada de Humahuaca - destination of my next tour -

Cuesta de Lipan leading to Humahuaca Gorge

before arriving at the town of Purmamarca, ostensibly to see the beautiful (from bus window) Seven Colour Hill, though in reality we were subtly dropped at the craft markets. Another 2 hours later, at 9:30pm, it was a relief to finally get out of the bus that had been home all day, knowing that dinner was only 2 hours away !

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mendoza Wine and Flying

I could get used to luxury wine touring the way they do it in Mendoza. On Mendoza day 3, for a decent fee, we had a minibus limited to 8 visitors, along with a driver and guide (trained enologist), and private tasting rooms in all 4 wineries that we visited, where we got to taste better wines that what are normally offered to passing tourists, as well as a 4 course lunch with matching wines.

9am Tasting

The first winery we visited was the Bodega Mendel, a modern winery that left most of us a little flat - not sure if it was the 9am start of the fact that the winemaker himself preferred to drink wines young, and the wined we tasted really lacked depth and character; especially for the prices that were being asked.

The next vineyard, Bodega Sottano, was also very modern, and our host highlighted the advantages of the steel vats over the more traditional French style concrete ones. This vineyard was architect designed and pretty fancy; and as well as an excellent if traditional Malbec, provided a tasty Cabernet Sauvignon that I most certainly would have purchased if I wasn't lumbered with a backpack.

Modern Vats Good - Concrete Bad

At the penultimate vineyard, the Spanish operated Bodega Belasco de Baquedano, apart from the excellent wines, there was an aroma room, complete with tubes containing every possible odour that could be present in a wine - including bad wine (corked, mouldy ...). At the end were 6 test tubes (pun intended, sadly) where visitors could guess the odours stored in the unlabelled tubes.
Odour Room

As well here we were provided with the 4 course lunch with matching wines, which created quite the wine glass forest:

The final Bodega, Bodega Benegas, was my favourite. It is based in a 120 year old vineyard that a previous bankrupted (in the 70s) winemaker, Federico Benegas Lynch, had bought and lovingly restored, maintaining the original cellars and building and keeping much of the original equipment as museum pieces. For a change we didn't try the Malbec; instead tasting a very dry Chardonnay and an unusual pure Franc, as well as a Cabernet Franc.

Old School Concrete Vats

Para Man

What better way to follow up a day in the vineyards than by learning to fly ? Paragliding is something I've always wanted to do and finally I got my chance on my final day in Mendoza. Ultimately it was far easier and less scary than I expected, for whatever reason the only reason the only time I was nervous was on the road up; possibly due to the driver, in true Argentinian style, facing me talking animatedly while opening a pack of cigarettes and navigating the 4WD by what must just have been experience.

The Road up seen from above

As far as the actual gliding was concerned, the instructions were ridiculously simple. 'Just start running and don't stop until I say'. 'What about landing ?' I ask. 'Don't worry, I'll tell you when we get there'. So I'm running off a cliff, feel a great whoosh, and I am them suspended, running road-runner like over (very) thin air ! Once up, the views (up, down, left, right) and the sensation of freedom and flying were just sensational, and this won't be the last time I do this.

Looking Down

Looking Up

Landing, when it came, basically involved standing up as I hit the ground, two steps forward on my safety boots (sandals) and it was all over.