The Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said,“Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.”
I adopted this as my mantra for a long-planned, month long trip to South America in November last year. Not literally of course, although such light packing would certainly have hastened my check-in at Gatwick airport and helped my posture but unlike the imprisoned Solzhenitsyn, I had the luxury of a decent-sized rucksack. However, I did keep the sentiment during a dream trip that would begin in Argentina, taking in the magical landscape of Chile and Bolivia and finishing with a four day hike along the Inca trail to Machu Picchu
So here I was at the start of my journey, the stereotyped long-haul traveller. Bleary-eyed from too many in-flight movies and re-circulated air, Spanish phrase book in one hand, Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries in the other, I was 6000 miles away from home and my world of tenancy agreements, sales viewings and property valuations.
Buenos Aires..or Paris?
I had arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina or the Paris of Latin America as it’s apparently known — at least that is what I caught an Ozzie telling a rather nonplussed French girl on the transit bus from the airport in a suspiciously recycled chat-up line.
He was right though, Buenos Aires is unmistakably European. It is a vast, bustling city, divided into 48 districts with a rich culture and eclectic architecture, a blend of elements of Paris, Madrid and Barcelona. It was tempting at first to dismiss it as just another smoggy metropolis but the more I discovered the better the impression it made.
The city is cosmopolitan and elegant but has a certain raggedy edge with areas as disparate as the architecture. Plush neighbourhoods of glamorous boutiques, cafes and parks nestle among equally downtrodden areas of unkempt streets and bustling fervour. Then again, that was very much part of the appeal, seeking out the diamonds in the rough.
Two wheeled tale
I was told that the best way to do this was by bicycle which was a fun, easy and, on the cobbles, a slightly saddle-sore way to see the city. Among the highlights was the neighbourhood of La Boca, famous for its colourful houses in pastel hues and the Caminito, a pedestrian street brimming with street tango artists, cafes and memorabilia . I encountered a pre-gastric bypass era Maradona look-a-like, whom I tipped a small fortune for a photo alongside him. It is also renowned for being home to Boca Juniors, one of the world’s most famous football clubs who I saw play in an atmosphere that may even rival the Liberty Stadium for frenzied support.
Two left feet
I had been told quite plainly before I arrived in Argentina that as well as learning the tango I must eat as much steak as my digestive enzymes could handle. The former was always going to be more of a challenge but I did manage a ten minute introductory tango lesson at my hostel. The results of this were more You’ve been Tangoed than Strictly Come Dancing so I took my two left feet off to a tango show where I could watch the professionals perform from the relative safety of an auditorium without the risk of inflicting further damage to myself or others.
Having failed miserably at the world’s sexiest ballroom dance, I set off in search of the fabled La Cabrera restaurant, highly recommended for its enormous steaks. Unfortunately for me, every other carnivorous tourist in the city had the same idea. After an abortive attempt at a reservation, I finally managed to secure a table at 10pm, chancing the bovine induced dreams that were sure to follow that night.
In a classic ‘eyes bigger than stomach moment’ or ‘comer con los ojos’ as the Spanish call it (thank you, phrase book), I opted for an 800g T-bone. This delicious monster was every bit as sumptuous and flavourful as the guides suggest. There is no room on the plate and no real need for sides: the steaks were served with all manner of condiments, dips and garnishes (beta blockers an optional extra). Delicious though it was, I believe my body was still trying to assimilate it on the plane ride home, four weeks later.
Since Argentina is famous for its horses, my final leap into the unknown in Buenos Aires was a polo lesson. I’m fairly sure this would have invalidated my travel insurance, although, as I was soon to find out, there was no real need for worry. Unrealistically, I was expecting a horse resembling Zorro’s steed. What I actually got was a something more akin to a Shetland pony and what followed was three hours of riding an understandably irritable horse in ever decreasing circles before a rather painfully slow game of polo.
Leaving the capital, I met up with my tour group and we flew to Salta in Northwestern Argentina, a much prettier, smaller city with plenty of colonial architecture and very Spanish in appearance.
Better than Joe’s?
We then travelled on to the town of Cafayette set in a backdrop of magnificent canyons and gorges. Famous for its wine production, particularly the Torrentes, the town had one particular hidden gem; a wine ice creamery! Not quite as good as a Joe’s but certainly a close second.
An eight hour bus journey took us through winding mountain roads over the border and into Chile, arriving at the tiny oasis village of San Pedro de Atacama. Positioned at the heart of some of northern Chile’s most spectacular scenery, the town is really little more than a handful of picturesque adobe streets around a pretty tree-lined plaza. and is a little like something out of a spaghetti western. San Pedro offered plenty to do, including sandboarding on the dunes of the Atacama Desert, which is similar to snowboarding but slower and thankfully with a much softer dismount. A visit to watch the sunset over the Valley of the Moon, was one of the most memorable experiences of my trip.
Bolivia – Bizarre and beautiful
A relatively short drive across the border into Bolivia and I saw the landscape transform once again into something even more bizarre and beautiful with delicately coloured mineral lagoons spotted pink with flamingos, steaming geysers and otherworldly, layer-cake rock formations.
Perhaps the strangest and most fascinating sight was the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. This is a vast expanse of immaculate, blindingly bright, white salt desert that covers over 10,000 sq km. The flats with their raised polygon craters of salt crystals, resembled something of another planet let alone another continent. Perhaps the main attraction is the photography. The all-white background of the salt flats provides a unique backdrop for taking false perspective photos that create illusions to fool the human eye. So proceeded two hours of what began as rather conservative posing only to rapidly descend into a frenzy of increasingly inventive, surreal shots with props.
Onto La Paz
Next up was the dizzying, sky-high capital city of La Paz, a stark contrast to the salt flats but every bit as quirky. The cityscape looked a bit like an illustration from a Roald Dahl children’s book as row upon row of buildings cling to the sides of the canyon and spill spectacularly downwards. The labyrinth of alleyways and lively markets were great for leisurely wandering and souvenir shopping as I stocked up on supposedly unique handmade Peruvian goodies,
only to see identical ones being sold in the next street.
I must premise the next part of my story with an apology to my mother who will be learning of this for the first time in horror. There was one box on the Bolivia checklist that I had been very keen to tick; to cycle the Yungas Road or the World’s Most Dangerous Road as this byway is commonly known. Featured some years ago on Top Gear, this is a stunning ride through some of the most dramatic scenery on the continent with a vertical descent of around 3500m over just 64km and a width of as little as 3m at times (and I thought Constitution Hill was steep). It is one of the longest continuous downhill rides on Earth, starting at an altitude in the icy peaks of the Andes where my fingers were so numb I could barely grip the handlebars and plunging through the clouds through the humid tropics of the Upper Amazon basin. Precipices dropped down hundreds of meters to the river below. The descent was intense and not helped by the sight of numerous stone crosses marking where vehicles had come off the road and our guide remarking that 28 tourists had lost their lives on the road in his eleven years in the business. Slow and steady was key as I made my way down at a pace that would probably have been sneered at by Clarkson & co. One exhilarating and gingerly negotiated cycle ride later and I had made it, brake pads well worn and my knuckles white.
And now Peru
After a brief home-stay on Lake Titicaca with a Peruvian family which saw me dressed in traditional garb consisting of a poncho, hat and what looked like pompoms and resembling a cross between a cheerleader and Woody from Toy Story, we crossed into Peru for the final and most eagerly anticipated instalment of the trip. Now for the most famous hike in South America and something I had dreamed about doing for years. The arduous four-day Inca Trail hike from the Sacred Valley near Cuzco to Machu Picchu, winds its way through the mountains, snaking over three high Andean passes. Equipped only with a light day pack, hiking poles, a packet of Skittles for E-numbers and a mild headache from the altitude, we set off on the gruelling 45km trek as a team of porters effortlessly marched on ahead with heavy backpacks to set up camp in preparation for our arrival at each checkpoint.
The first day of relatively gentle ups and downs or ‘Inca flats’ as they are affectionately known by the locals, lulled us into a false sense of security over what was to follow. Day two was the hardest and consisted exclusively of steep steps to the highest point of the trail. At times it was like being trapped in one of those Penrose staircase, optical illusion puzzles : just as you rounded a corner expecting it to be over, another set of rocky steps loomed ominously ahead. Thankfully it got easier and day three was altogether more scenic as we hiked through rainforests and ruins seeing grazing llamas and the occasional condor circling overhead.
A 3am rise on day four saw one last trek and a scramble up a devilish set of steps, aptly named the Gringo Killers, before reaching the Sun Gate to see the first golden rays of sunrise over the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu. A lost city that had somehow remained hidden from the ravages of the Spanish conquistadores, Machu Picchu is truly jaw-dropping and photographs cannot do it justice. I quickly forgot all my accumulated aches, pains and ‘Inca stomach’ of the last few days as I spent hours taking in the best-known archaeological site on the continent.
It has been said that all too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversation. A few of my friends might agree with this having been bored by one story too many from this trip since my return. However, it certainly opened my mind to the magic of
South America and indeed the rest of the world and left me with itchy feet to return one day to see more. For now though, it’s back to the sales viewings.
Managing Director of Bay Estate & Letting Agents