The Transmongolian

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

There and Back Again

Perito Merino Glacier - El Calafate

We were happy to have a few days to relax in Ushuaia and some time off driving.  Ushuaia is characterised by bad weather and cloudy skies - however it would typically only rain for a couple of hours a day and the rain was never heavy.  So while we were there we went on a 4x4 adventure - which involved impressive 4x4 off-roading, a nature tour identifying beaver dams (beavers are a real pest in Tierra del Fuego), a boat trip across the lake and an Argentinian BBQ for lunch.  

Monday, December 5, 2011

Journey to the end of the world

From the Argentine border with Bolivia, the country spans a massive 5,171km to its Southern-most point, the world’s southern most city, Ushuaia.  Our goal was to traverse this distance through a combination of bus and rental car, to travel to within only 1,000km of Antarctica.

White marks on the bus and road from where the fire extinguisher was employed
The journey didn’t exactly start well.  It was a 7 hour bus ride from the border to Salta, a tourist town in northern Argentina.  We had been looking forward to getting back onto the Argentinian buses and once again enjoy the superior levels of safety, service and comfort that they offered.  However, about 4 or 5 hours into the trip the bus caught on fire.  Panic inside the bus ensued and people were clambering over one another to exit the bus.  Even I moved quickly!  With the fire extinguished we re-boarded the bus (I’m sure this was entirely safe) and made our way slowly to the next town, where, fortunately a replacement bus was made available.  

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bolivia - Magnificent Desolation

The city of La Paz, in a bowl framed by mountains in all directions
Bolivia is stunning.  Its natural beauty, absolutely vast assortment of varied landscapes and desolation makes it perhaps the most picturesque country we have visited to date.  Lamented as South America's poorest country, Bolivia is painted in an unjust light when we consider the true beauty of its countryside.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Southern Peru's Secret Treasures

Moray agricultural incan ruins

We’re writing this on the bus to Potosi, Bolivia and Jen is typing as Matthew had a little incident on death road... but more on that later (M - don’t worry Mum, just a sprained wrist).  
After Machu Picchu we caught the train to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley.  There we found great quiet hostel to spend two nights in this little town.  Ollantaytambo’s chief attraction is an inca fortress built into the hillside and at the edge of the town, about 10 minutes walk from where we were staying.  We explored these ruins early the following day after arriving in town.  Still sore from our Machu Picchu trek we were happy to call it a day after a couple of hours looking around.  
The town was gearing up for its anniversary celebrations, which really kicked off the day that we left.  However, the town looked great with banners and streamers hung between buildings and through the streets and all the beautification projects taking place.  We decided to commission a taxi driver to take us back to Cusco via some more inca ruins at Moray and the Salt Pans of Salinesa.  The Moray ruins consist of 3 large circles of terraces each about 8 terraces high and about 50m across at their widest point.  Standing on the rim of the circles it was cold, yet because each terrace is said to be a microclimate it was noticeably warmer as we descended down into the terraces.  The terraces are said to have been used for agriculture with different varieties of maize grown on each level.
The Salt Pans are really quite spectacular.  From a distance it looked like snow or ice but as we came closer you could see the almost 5000 individual pans.  Water from a salty stream is directed via a series of rivulets that have been cut into the rock face into the pans (each of which might be around 2x2m).  The water is then left to evaporate and salt is scraped into piles, bagged and sold.
We arrived in Cusco late in the afternoon and left early the following morning en route to Puno.  We took a tourist bus that stopped off at a number of attractions between the two locations including a magnificent old church full of gold and huge murals, inca ruins including a temple and storage huts, the highest point at 4,300+ metres above sea level, a buffet lunch, and a museum displaying ceramic findings from the pre inca civilisations from the area.  The scenery was spectacular from high Andean passes to vast antiplatos.  It reminded us both of the Tongariro National Park and Central Otago.
At about 3800 metres above sea level, we figure Puno is actually higher than Mt Cook.  The air is incredibly thin and we often find ourselves having to stop to catch our breath.  We booked ourselves onto a 2 day tour of Lake Titicaca and some of her islands.  The first stop was at the Uros Islands, or the Floating Islands as they are sometimes known.  These manmade islands, made out of reeds, have to be seen to be believed.  We stayed here for about an hour while the President of the Island showed us how the island is made.  The reeds are layered about 2m thick and have to be maintained monthly.  Next we visited the island of Amantani where we spent the night with a local lady at her house, which was converted into a tourist-friendly 2 bedroom hostel.  We climbed to the second highest point on the island for a spectacular sunset view, from 4200m above sea level!  The next day we said goodbye to our host (who had also cooked us lunch, dinner and breakfast) and headed to the Island of Taquile.  There we walked around the island, visiting artisanal markets and the main square before enjoying a lunch with an amazing view across the lake.  After this it was time to head back to Puno for our final night in Peru.
We both had a great time in Peru.  The people are very proud of their country and deservedly so.  From harsh flat dry deserts, to dense jungles, from fantastic inca and pre-inca ruins to spectacular geography.  The people are friendly, inter-country journeys are easy, and accommodation and food is generally of both a comfortable standard whilst being highly affordable.  
Ollaytaytambo valley

Salinesas salt pans

Highest point en route to Puno

Uros floating island

Sunset at 4200m 

Lunch view on Taquile Island

Ollaytaytambo and ruins at the rear

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Inca Trail - of a sorts...

At 3,300 metres above sea level, the hardest thing about Cusco was adjusting to the altitude.  We were also both pretty tired having not got too much sleep on the bus from Nazca.  The windy roads and smelly toilet that we were sitting next too (now we know why the seats we purchased were cheaper than the rest!) made sleep a little hard to come by.  So we were both pretty happy to settle for finding a place to stay and to book the train ride to Machu Picchu before turning in for the night.
We got up at 3.30am to watch the All Blacks play France.  We were both quite on edge and very nervous given the closeness of the scores, but obviously very proud kiwis when the 80 minutes were up.  A short nap was required before setting out to explore the city.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Peru - the first 1,500km

Picture of the Sun God (Huaca de la Luna)
 We crossed the border into Peru as the sun set.  The border crossing was straightforward and uneventful and about 3-4 hours later we found ourselves in the city of Piura.  After 13 hours of bus rides that day, we were keen to rest up before pressing on and found ourselves a rather basic place to stay across the road from most of the bus terminals.  
Peru has a much more lively feeling to it than Ecuador.  There is a real hustle and bustle to the cities with many more cars prevalent (albeit largely very small cars like Daihatsu Charade’s).  Everyone is busy honking their horns, either at you (to ask you if you want a ride) or as they approach an intersection to warn other vehicles of their presence.  

Monday, October 17, 2011


Aside from our time in the Galapagos, we have spent a little over a week exploring Ecuador - a very pretty, friendly and inexpensive (Galapagos excluded) country to visit.  Most of our travel was originated from Ecuador’s capital, Quito.  Nestled in the valley between the mountains and volcanoes of the Andes, Quito is more than 2,800m above sea level.  At this altitude it does take a little while to fully acclimatise to the altitude.  Most of the time it is a shortness of breath after a very small climb up a flight of steps which takes you by surprise.  
At 4,100m above sea level!

Cape Town to Cairo - our trip