Getting a Brazilian visa in Puerto Iguazú

This is an especially boring advice post, even by my standards, but I’m putting it up in the hope it saves someone some trouble figuring out what they need to do in order to travel to Brazil – or, better yet, that it convinces someone that actually it’s not so hard to get the visa which would allow them to include Brazil on their South American tour after all.  Unfortunately, that means it’ll be largely useless and uninteresting to most people.  C’est la vie.

Another Iguazú Falls photo.  Just because.

Another Iguazú Falls photo. Just because.

Brazil is one of only two countries on this entire round-the-world trip for which my passport has needed a visa stuck in it before I turned up to immigration.  Brazil doesn’t work that way for many passports – for example if I’d managed to get around to realising that I’m theoretically entitled to a New Zealand one many years ago, instead of, say, in the middle of last December, then I would never have needed to discover the information below, since I would have been waltzing across the border visa- (and fee-) free.

But for us Aussies, as for the Canadians and Yanks out there (and obviously some other countries as well), a pre-arranged visa is required.  This is slightly annoying, as a quick bout of Googling will reveal that Brazilian embassies around the world (much like their population in general) do not have a fantastic reputation for getting the necessaries done quick-smart.

My initial expectation was that I should try to organise the visa while back in Australia last December – but the timeframes didn’t really seem likely to work out given that I was already replacing my passport at the time, and given that Christmas holidays were involved.  I don’t know whether Brazilians are big on Christmas or not, but I kind of assume that the existence of any sort of holiday period is unlikely to encourage speed and diligence.

So instead I got my Brazilian visa in Argentina.  I expected that this would be easiest to do in Buenos Aires – the point of my bothering with this post, though, is that that expectation turned out to be wrong.  Much easier – at least in my case – to sort it out in Puerto Iguazú.

Apparently the Consulate-General in Buenos Aires is actually not bad for visa turnarounds:  two to four days, instead of the multiple weeks typical of embassies elsewhere in the world.  But as it happened, there was a public holiday in the way when we would be in Argentina’s capital, so I looked for other options.  Thus to the rescue the embassy in Puerto Iguazú, which turned out to be faster in any case, and also happens to have a reputation for involving a bit less hassle.

(If nothing else, getting a visa from Buenos Aires is more hassle because you have to have an appointment to go submit your documents.  There’s a nice handy online appointment tool to schedule this for you, thankfully, but it has a minor drawback:  it flat-out doesn’t work.  To get yourself an appointment, phone or email the Consulate-General.)

Obviously I’m not the authoritative source for what’s required when you apply for your visa – you can find what the Brazilian government says about the matter here.  But in addition to the filled-out and signed form, the 2”x2” passport photo, the proof of travel to/from Brazil (telling them I planned take a taxi or bus from Puerto Iguazú seemed sufficient for “proof of travel to” in my case), proof of a hotel/hostel reservation, bank statement from the last ninety days, photocopy of a credit card and fee in exact change, be aware that you will be required to provide a phone number at which you can theoretically be contacted while your visa is processed, or they will turn you away.  So I suggest you bring the phone number of your hotel or hostel’s front desk.

The Puerto Iguazú embassy is at Avenida Córdoba #264, and it opens at 8am in the morning each weekday.  Get in early – right when it opens, if not before, to get in line.  They only accept applications in the morning, apparently;  you can’t turn up even at 1pm to try to get yourself sorted out.  Once you drop off your application and passport, you’ll still have plenty of time to visit the Argentine side of the Falls for the day, before you enjoy a relaxed final evening in Argentina and then return to pick up your visa whenever you’re told to return (sometime the next morning).  Then cross the border, visit the Falls from the other side, and head on into Brazil.

Easy.

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Bolivia travel advice

Another of those random straight-from-the-unsorted-chaos-of-my-memory-to-the-unsorted-chaos-of-the-intertubes advice/tips-and-tricks posts.  Feel free to skip if you don’t have a trip to Bolivia potentially pushing its way into your not-too-distant future, especially since there aren’t even any pretty pictures to distract you with.

Altitude

Most of Bolivia is high.  (Insert inevitable drug reference here.)  There are bits of it that are at, shall we say, normal altitudes (below two thousand metres) – in fact, Wikipedia tells me that two-thirds of the country is lowlands, and the lowest point is a delightfully oxygen-rich 90m above sea level.  But except for the areas you might visit to see the Amazon jungle, the bits you’re likely to encounter are all at three thousand metres or higher.

La Paz is the world’s most up-there (de facto / administrative) capital city, at 3650m, and when you fly in, you actually land at El Alto, La Paz’s higher next-door neighbour, so that you’re touching down at 4060m.  We came to Bolivia from Cusco and Machu Picchu, so had acclimatised to altitude a little – and our previous experiences with oxygen-deprivation in Nepal gave us confidence that we wouldn’t have too much trouble dealing with the thinness of air.  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t expect still to be puffing and panting our way around, and we were definitely on the money with that assessment.

Other likely destinations in Bolivia are not going to offer much respite:  sure, Sucre is lower, at 2750m, but at 3840m, Copacabana is even higher than La Paz, and the Uyuni salt flats are La Paz’s equal, at 3650m.  (The 4WD tours you do from Uyuni will have you sleeping above 4000m, and visiting as high as 4800m, so you want to be coping well with the elevation by the time you embark on one of those bastards.)  While we didn’t go there, you could get a bit of relief in Cochabamba (2570m), but don’t expect any such kindness while visiting the silver mines of Potosí, which at 4090m is one of the world’s highest cities.

So come to Bolivia expecting that altitude will affect pretty much everything you do:  walking up hills will be hard, and won’t be made any easier by the polluted air from the bus/truck thing that is having just as much difficulty ascending as you are.  Hell, even taking a hot shower will leave you short of breath by the time all the steamy goodness of a well-enjoyed hot water service takes over half of your lungs.

Long story short:  be prepared for shortness of breath, and make sure you know a bit about altitude sickness.  It probably wouldn’t hurt to have some Diamox with you, just in case, and you should definitely be willing to change your travel plans and seek out some low-lying rest stops if you start suffering the more severe symptoms of altitude sickness.

Cross-country transport

I get the impression that this has improved markedly in the last couple of years, but be aware that buses in Bolivia are, well, crashy.

Stories of drunk or drugged-up bus drivers abound – one girl we met on our tour of the Uyuni salt flats seemed remarkably sanguine about having just survived an overnight bus trip which included a group of other passengers having to force their way into the driver’s compartment at 4am when the driving became erratic, to discover that the driver had pissed himself, vomited, and more or less passed out behind the wheel.  It all ended well, with a replacement driver installed and the original shoved unceremoniously into the baggage compartment for a not-so-well-deserved nap.  But it’s one of those stories I’d rather hear than experience nonetheless.

If you’re bussing between La Paz and Uyuni, the Todo Turismo bus – while expensive by Bolivian standards, at Bs 230 (£22 / $US33) per person – is basically the only acceptable option.  It’s a perfectly comfortable trip, and nothing to worry about.  The alternatives, not so much.  Todo Turismo’s offices are at Avenida Uruguay #102, in a blue building basically across the road (and down a little) from the Terminal de Buses in central La Paz (not the one in El Alto, which Google Maps will happily direct you to if you’re not careful to distinguish).

After our salt flats tour, we took an overnight tourist bus from Uyuni to Sucre – there are a number of operators on this route, and we just went with the one that our salt flats tour company booked for us (6 de Octubre, I think it was).  Probably should have researched that a little more beforehand, but it was fine, and I get the impression that that route isn’t typically a problem.

We ended up flying from Sucre back to La Paz – partly to avoid yet another overnighter with little sleep, and partly because the research I’d done suggested that the buses on that route are historically more problematic.  If you’re going to bus it, there’s a few recommendations on this Lonely Planet thread (check out comment #10 in particular).  With little more to go on than appearance, I’d back the suggestions there:  of the bus fleets we saw, El Dorado and Bolivar did look to have the nicest buses.

Bussing between La Paz and Copacabana doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of a problem as other destinations:  it’s a shorter trip (three to four hours), and the buses run during the day.  We did have one nervous nitwit on our bus tearfully imploring the bus driver to slow down, citing fearfulness due to an overturned bus he’d come across elsewhere in Bolivia (he even had a photo on his camera to show the bus driver), but actually the driving was perfectly safe and reasonable.  We went with Diana’s Tours (getting there) and Tur Bus (coming back) – but basically any of the tourist buses would be fine, I’m sure.  I can’t vouch for the collectivos going from the cemetery area, but plenty of people out there on the interwebs do recommend them as a cheaper and more flexible alternative.

4WD tours of the Uyuni salt flats

Again, do your research to avoid drunken and drugged-up drivers.  There are plenty of horror stories out there:  crashes, drivers drinking while driving, drivers too hungover to drive the next morning, drivers too drunk to bother preparing meals, cars constantly breaking down, wheels falling off, etc.

Chris came prepared with a list of four of the more reputable companies:  Red Planet, Quechua, Cordillera, and Empexsa.  They all have their fair share of atrocious reviews, but they seemed to have fewer than the rest…

We ended up going with Empexsa, since we were hunting around on the morning we got to Uyuni and wanted to leave that day.  We were incredibly lucky:  we not only had a very safe, sober and reliable driver (Johnny – thanks, mate!) but we also had a great group of people in the other four passengers (a big thanks to you lot, too!).

So I can recommend Empexsa, especially if you have Johnny as your driver.

But one final word of warning:  even being selective about the company you book with might not be enough.  Companies will regularly offload their passengers into another agency’s car when they don’t have the right number of passengers to fill a car themselves – so the car you actually end up in might not belong to the agency you booked with.  Not really sure what you can do about that, other than book at the last minute, like we did, with an agency that’s looking to fill the last few spots in their car.

Internet

Bolivia has terrible internet access.  A fair number of restaurants and cafés do have the wi-fis, and almost all accommodation will too, but speed and reliability are nowhere to be found.

There’s enough that you’ll be able to touch base every so often and do a little bit of online research when you need it, but good luck trying to get a Skype call going.  And if you happen to be the narcissistic sort and have a travel blog, good luck getting new posts up – especially if they involve pictures.  (Sigh.)  Similarly, your legions of Facebook friends may have to wait until you make it to Chile or Argentina or Peru or wherever else you happen to be going next to see yet another picture of perspective feats and weirdness with giant toy dinosaurs on the Uyuni salt flats.

When you’re doing your normal research for accommodation, it’s worth seeing what the reviews say about the wifi.  And when you’re planning your trip, it’s worth saving information offline (on your phone – say with Pocket and/or Evernote and/or emails to yourself – or on your laptop) for future reference.  Don’t rely on being able to get it back out of the cloud when you get there.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu.  As seen shortly after you enter, with Huayna Picchu on the right

Machu Picchu. As seen shortly after you enter, with Huayna Picchu on the right

Machu Picchu is one of those destinations.  An iconic fixture of bucket list itineraries the world over.

And yet, this isn’t going to be a post about the historic details of the site itself…

The buildings are famed for the precision of their stonework:  apparently the perfectly fitting interlocking masonry (sans mortar) exhibited in some of the temples is an incredible display of workmanship not frequently seen elsewhere in the world.  But to me it looked more like evidence of patience rather than technology – and I couldn’t help but laugh to overhear a nearby tour guide claim that modern-day stoneworkers are not capable of such feats, when surely what he actually meant is that modern-day stoneworkers have better things to do, given that there have been a couple of advances in construction techniques in the last few centuries that have rendered such approaches somewhat pointless.  So the actual manner of construction of the site didn’t interest me much.

The terraced agriculture is well-known and much-vaunted, too.  And I’m sure that’s very interesting to a subset of visitors not including me:  for the possibility that Machu Picchu was a testing ground for new agricultural techniques and approaches to crop management, as well as for the more mundane earth-moving stability of the terraces and the effectiveness of the underground drainage mechanisms.

As for any other fascinating insights to be gleaned from a detailed examination of the ruins:  well, no one really knows much about Machu Picchu – why it was built, what purpose it served, whether it was even important to the Incans – so it’s kind of hard to get carried away with thousands of words of explanation of its historic significance.

Instead, Machu Picchu was cool for me because it’s pretty.  So I’m going to show you some pictures.

And because it’s a destination that’s special to a lot of globetrotters – one of the ‘must sees’ of the world traveller’s itinerary – I’m going to mix together a predictably incohesive account of what we did in our time in the area, and some mundane details that might help someone looking for some advice on doing it themselves.

(You’d think the internet would’ve covered the Machu Picchu advice category fairly thoroughly by now, but actually it took me a while to piece together the info we were after before we travelled.  So you can think of this as my half-arsed attempt at a slightly more one-stop shop type of how-to affair, deliberately-ish written in somewhat more rambling style so I can pretend there’s some sort of almost narrative.)

And because it’s me, well, that’s going to take a few thousand words.  Sorry about that.  Complaints to someone-who-cares@samroberton.com.

The ‘back’ of Machu Picchu – a little less crowded with buildings (and people, for that matter)

The ‘back’ of Machu Picchu – a little less crowded with buildings (and people, for that matter)

To get it out of the way, let me start by saying that we decided not to do the Inca Trail, or for that matter any of the other treks in the area:  partly it seemed overly touristy (it doesn’t strike me as a good sign that they’ve had to close the pub at the final campsite on the Inca Trail because people were too busy getting shitfaced on the third night of the trek to allow anyone else to have a reasonable sleep before their pre-sunrise start for the Sun Gate), partly it would have been expensive, partly it would have meant delaying other parts of our trip a little more and rushing through Bolivia (the Inca Trail is closed all of February, and we would therefore have had to push our plans back a crucial few days), and partly because we already did Everest Base Camp on this trip last year, so already had some creditworthy trekking under our (now slightly looser-fitting) belts.  And on top of all that, we were visiting at the end of the rainy season, and were a little paranoid that our probably-not-to-be-repeated trip might be rained out.  So we traded off time getting to Machu Picchu against time actually spent there, and bought site tickets for two days, separated by a gap day in the middle.  With any luck we wouldn’t have rain three days in a row.  (As it turned out, we were actually very lucky with the weather – it rained only on our gap day, saturating us nonetheless, but not in any sense ruining our trip.)

Since we skipped the Inca Trail – and similarly any of the other hikes in to the area, such as the very cool sounding Salkantay and Choquequirao treks (I’d have loved to do that last one, actually, but oh well) – I can’t tell you anything of use about any of the other Incan ruins to be seen along the way into Machu Picchu.  (I’ve heard they’re pretty cool.)  And of course you’re free to argue that having not done the Trail, we didn’t do Machu Picchu “properly”, and so I can’t tell you anything of use at all.  Hell, we didn’t even hike the train tracks in like real backpackers – we caught the damn tourist train!  Good for you.  Pat on the back.  Feel free to move on.

(That said, for all of the people we’ve run into insinuating that they did it properly because they did the Inca Trail, we haven’t run into anyone else who’s climbed Machu Picchu Mountain or Putucusi Mountain, barring the ones we passed on the way up and down each.  And there weren’t an awful lot of people we saw climbing up or down the hill between Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes, either.  (It’s a nice climb, by the way – about forty minutes up if quick-marched, and thirty minutes down.  Be prepared to be drenched in sweat by the time you make the top, though.)  So I guess we’ll have to square off our hardcoreness-of-visit credentials and just put that all to one side as we proceed…)

So anyway, many lengthy paragraphs of prefacing aside, let’s have a look at Machu Picchu, shall we?

Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu in the background, seen from the top part of the village

Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu in the background, seen from the top part of the village

It’s interesting to reflect on why it is that Machu Picchu is so revered by intrepid would-be modern explorer types.  (Including myself – I’m not being pejorative here.  Not yet, anyway.)  After all, it’s not actually very big.  Nor is it historically crucial in the sense of some major function it played in Incan culture:  it can’t be, because, as intimated earlier, no one knows exactly what function it played at all.  For all we know these days, it was just another unremarkable little Incan village on a hill.

Its location is certainly spectacular:  it’s beautifully situated on a ridge between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain, at an altitude which means that it’s frequently just on the edge of the clouds.  So there’s that.

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu seen from the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu seen from the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain

But the real reason that Machu Picchu is special is that it’s the only complete Incan site left:  the only one the Spanish never happened across, and therefore the only one they didn’t destroy.  It’s almost certainly not the Lost City of the Incas (which is what its ‘discoverer’ Hiram Bingham was actually looking for when he mounted his expedition to Peru).  But it might as well be.

Obliquely because of all of the above, you have to be careful with your expectations of Machu Picchu.  Obviously, you’ll hear and read much about it (if you care to – far be it from me to insist that you research the life out of anywhere you travel before experiencing it in the flesh).  On your way through South America, you’ll encounter many breathless tourists eager to know whether you’ve been already (it’s kind of assumed that if you haven’t been yet, it’s because you’re still on your way there), and equally eager to impress upon you how ‘blown away’ you’ll be when you finally experience it.

This may leave you with the distinctly false impression that Machu Picchu is large and overwhelmingly awe-inspiring:  it’s not.  Nor is visiting it even a particularly varied experience – especially since modern historians know so little about it, to the point that they can’t even tell you much about the different areas of the site.  (Apparently this is quite amusing for many Peruvians, who thereby realise just how much of what some of the tour guides tell their avid listeners is completely and utterly made up.)

In fact, touring the whole site – excluding Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain – only takes maybe a couple of hours, which explains why so many people do it as a train-in, train-out visit, arriving from Cusco in the morning, seeing the site, and catching the train back to Cusco again that night, without needing to spend any time in not-so-appealing Aguas Calientes (the town in the valley below).

That’s very handy, as it turns out, although not because I’d recommend doing that yourself.  It’s very handy because the big tour groups tend to turn up mid-morning and be gone again shortly after lunch time.  (Amazingly, that seems at least in some instances to be the case because having come to a once-in-a-lifetime breathless wonder, they walk around for a bit then leave because they’re vaguely hungry, so they decide it’s lunch time, and don’t come back.  Seriously, WTF?  You begged out of part of your bucket list visit because you were a tad peckish?!)

The Inca Trailers arrive at the Sun Gate at sunrise, so the site is busy-ish (and occasionally slightly whiffy and more than a little self-congratulatory) most of the morning, even before the Cusco crowd rolls in.  (Despite that, if you can, I’d still recommend getting there when it opens at 6am – if you’re bussing up, this will require getting on the 5.30am bus from Aguas Calientes, for which you will want to be in line by 5.15am.)  But if you hang around for the afternoon you’ll be rewarded, as we were, with a comparatively empty set of ruins to explore.  You can even wait everyone out while sitting in the actually quite reasonable open café next to (and just down from) the entrance turnstiles before heading back into the site once you’ve seen big hunks of tired-looking lazy people exit.  They’ll let you back in until 4pm (the site closes at 5), so there’s plenty of time for you patient folks after the early afternoon exodus.

(By the way, there is an exception to the morning deluge of smelly hikers, I should mention:  the Inca Trail is closed for the whole of February.  This meant that when we first turned up to the Sun Gate at about 7am on March 3rd, there was no one yet completing the four-day hike, so we had it to ourselves – and, because we got there before the guards who are typically stationed there to prevent you doing exactly this, we were able to go for a stroll down the Inca Trail the wrong way for a bit.  Not that there was much to see there.  But I guess we can always claim that we finished the Inca Trail.)

Anyway, the point is, the site isn’t very big, and doesn’t take very long.

Machu Picchu with Machu Picchu Mountain in the background, seen from Huayna Picchu

Machu Picchu with Machu Picchu Mountain in the background, seen from Huayna Picchu

What does take a little longer is climbing the mountains.  There are two:  the famous Huayna Picchu (which has its own set of ruins on it), and the not-so-famous Machu Picchu Mountain (which doesn’t – it’s just a big hill with a good view).  As I mentioned earlier, we’d bought tickets for two separate days, to guard against the possibility of a downpour ruining our visit, so as a happy side-effect, we had time to climb both mountains:  you can’t do them both on the same day.  Partly that’s because you’d be expending a lot of effort, but mostly it’s because you have to buy separate tickets.

By the way, this is important, and much of the information out there on the interwebs is out of date in this respect.  It used to be the case that a desire to climb Huayna Picchu required you to be one of the first into Machu Picchu on your chosen day, and then to race across the site to line up next to the might-be-sacred-rock (another one of those things they don’t really know about the place – was this rock actually religiously significant, or is it just a big flat bit of stone?) to be one of the first four hundred in line to be let up.  Sometime in 2011 (I think), someone realised how utterly stupid that was, and the system changed:  when buying your Machu Picchu ticket online (see later), you have to specify that you want a ticket that gets you access to Huayna Picchu as well, and you’ll pay a little more for the privilege.  Sometime after that (I think sometime in 2012?), they decided that money-extraction is fun, and so they’d quite like to do that for Machu Picchu Mountain too.

So now there’s 2500 tickets available for Machu Picchu, of which up to 400 can be tickets that will allow you to Huayna Picchu as well (in two 200-person groups, one entering between 8am and 9am, and another between 10am and 11am).  A further up-to-400 of those 2500 tickets can be ones which let you up Machu Picchu Mountain.  The Huayna Picchu ones usually sell out reasonably in advance (a week or so, earlier in peak times).  The Machu Picchu Mountain ones don’t (although don’t take my word for it – keep an eye on the website linked below to see how many are left for the dates you want).  Anyway, the point is:  you can only go up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain if you specifically bought tickets to do so in the first place.  We overhead a couple of groups in the days before we went up talking about how important it was to get to the site early to go line up for Huayna Picchu, and we also saw others disappointedly being denied entry to Machu Picchu Mountain (even though on the day we climbed it, only twenty-odd other people did, out of the potential allocation of 400).  So, y’know, get your shit together and get the right tickets.

Oh yeah, speaking of which:  getting tickets.  Also a bit of a hassle.  You buy them online at the official Machu Picchu site.  In theory, you can pay for them with a credit card.  In practice, you can’t.  (Well, not with a non-Peruvian credit card, anyway.)  What you can do instead is buy them in person at an appropriate government office in Cusco or Aguas Calientes.  Which is great, if you’re going to be in either of those places long enough before you reach Machu Picchu that you’re confident that there’ll still be tickets left.  Otherwise:  make a reservation online, print it out, and go stand in line with it outside a Banco de la Nación in Peru somewhere.  Like, say, in Lima, as we did.  Boring, and somewhat time-consuming.  But effective.  (A couple of well-meaning people that I generally trust, interestingly, told us that trying to pay at a branch outside the Cusco department of Peru wouldn’t work.  They turned out to be mistaken:  paying at a branch in Miraflores, Lima, worked for us just fine.)

(I should probably note for completeness that it is also possible to buy your tickets through a travel agency.  This is basically what happens when you buy them through a company organising your Inca Trail trek, if you’re doing one.  So far as I understand it, what actually happens then is that the travel agency gets someone to go buy them in person in Cusco and post them out.  Which is of course fine, but finding a travel agent who’ll do that for you obviously requires a bit of time and effort, and will cost you a bit on top.)

So, where was I before getting side-tracked on all that…

The wrong end of a llama at Machu Picchu:  the llamas are used to keep the grass down

The wrong end of a llama at Machu Picchu: the llamas are used to keep the grass down

That’s right:  we bought tickets for two separate days, with a gap day in the middle.  Meaning we caught the train up from Cusco and stayed three nights in Aguas Calientes.  Not the most interesting town in the world – every bit as much a tourist trap town as its reputation would have it – but we found some good accommodation at Pirwa Hostels, and we managed to find a couple of good restaurants in Chullpi and Toto’s House.  (TripAdvisor also recommended Inka Wasi for pizza – unfortunately that was crap, so I suggest you don’t go there.)

And the climbs up Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu were definitely worth it.  Machu Picchu Mountain has great views:  in particular, with the right weather, Machu Picchu really is a city up in the clouds, and we spent a good half hour just watching the wispy mist wafting around and forming and disappearing and reforming over the ruins – surprisingly quickly, too.  Huayna Picchu is just as interesting as the rest of Machu Picchu’s ruins, so without climbing it, you’re missing out on some of what makes the place special.  But I suppose it’s only fair to mention that both are occasionally tricky (and, in the heat of the sun, and with high humidity, somewhat exhausting) climbs.

Huayna Picchu, seen from the bottom, after the climb

Huayna Picchu, seen from the bottom, after the climb

(Oh, one other thing:  for Huayna Picchu, if you want to do the whole circuit and go right round the back to the Great Cavern, be aware that they close off the path from the top at 11am – so you need to go in the first batch of people up the hill.  So far as I can tell, they don’t tell you this anywhere, which is slightly annoying.  We found out when we asked the guards why they were telling us we shouldn’t be going round that way.  Or you need to ignore the guard calling out to you to stop going that way (we didn’t ignore him, though in hindsight we should have).  Or you need to go back to the bit where the Great Cavern trail comes back around towards the exit, rejoining the main path, and be very nice and smiley to the guard there, and explain that you promise to walk/run very quickly and be back – exhausted – at the exit by 1pm, when they close the Huayna Picchu section of the site.  We did that.  Not that the Great Cavern was very interesting.  But hey, might as well do it all, right?)

Of course, most people won’t do it all, at least in the sense that if you’re only planning on one day at Machu Picchu, then you have to pick between Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain.  I honestly don’t know which to recommend to you there.  Probably Huayna Picchu, I suppose, because there’s a lot more there.  It’s certainly the more popular option.  But Machu Picchu Mountain has better views – especially given that those views are the classic ones with Huayna Picchu in the background.  I guess it depends what you want.

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, seen from the Sun Gate

Speaking of which, at the very least you should get a distance view of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu behind it from the Sun Gate. I get the impression that many people don’t even venture out that far; you really do want to.

And aside from all that, there’s one other view of Machu Picchu you should consider getting:  the one from Putucusi Mountain, across the river.  It’s not technically open at the moment:  to wander up, you follow along the train tracks out of town (towards Machu Picchu) until you see the stairs going up the hill.  When we were there, they were pretty easy to find:  they were the ones with the “Accesso Restringido” sign in front of them.  Suffering a convenient momentary lapse in Spanish comprehension, we climbed up past the sign, and followed the steps up a slippery jungle trail towards a newly-constructed – but not yet in use – ticket booth and open gate.  (I have no idea whether it was all empty and with no one to stop us because it’s generally like that, or because it was fortuitously a Sunday.  Your mileage may vary.)  Anyway, beyond that there’s some nice big ladders up a stone wall.

Ladders on the climb up some rock faces on the trail up Putucusi Mountain

Ladders on the climb up some rock faces on the trail up Putucusi Mountain

Once up the ladders, there’s a few other vaguely tricky bits, then there’s the bit where the sky opens up in a torrential downpour just as you reach the top.  But even so, there’s a good view of Machu Picchu.  Unless the downpour also includes clouds obscuring your view.  Which mostly it did, on this particular occasion.

Machu Picchu literally in the clouds, seen from Putucusi Mountain

Machu Picchu literally in the clouds, seen from Putucusi Mountain

But still, it was a pretty view, and a fun climb.  If I’m honest, the rain made it even moreso – especially as we stood at the top, huddling under a tree, popping out for photos every so often when the deluge eased, and marvelling at our amazing luck that the bad weather was only rolling in for our day off, and not affecting our time actually at Machu Picchu.

So that, I think, is basically it for my story and my advice for Machu Picchu.  Congratulations on making it through that many words.  For those of you who did, a helpful summary:  essentially, if you have the time, check it out from every angle:  up any mountain you can manage to climb, across from the Sun Gate, and of course all over right up close from within the site itself.

Galápagos Islands: advice and costs

tl;dr:  We spent twelve days in the Galápagos for less than $US2000 per person including flights from mainland Ecuador – and about a quarter of that was my prodigious eating efforts, so you can definitely do it cheaper, especially if you’re not a glutton.  It’s not spare change, obviously, but it’s not as prohibitively expensive as you might guess.  And it’s worth every cent.

An AeroGal plane on the tarmac at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos

An AeroGal plane on the tarmac at Seymour Airport in the Galápagos

This one’s a nuts and bolts post for those of you potentially planning a trip to the Galápagos – now or sometime in the future;  if that’s not you, you might want to skip it.  It’s not exactly intriguing, and it’s not even funny, I’m afraid…  If you haven’t seen them, you might want to have a look at my posts about actually being in the Galápagos, instead:  one, two and three.  (If you haven’t read them yet, hopefully those posts might help you decide that yes, you do definitely want to plan a trip there, too.  Then you can come back and figure out how.)

So, if you are even vaguely interested in travelling to the Galápagos – even if you think it’s out of reach – then you might be titillated to discover that it’s possible on a more limited budget than you might expect.  It turns out that, while definitely awesome and impressive, the Galápagos doesn’t actually exist in a fairyland bubble of expensive perfection, and is just another destination much like many others.  One which can be travelled in all sorts of different ways, on all sorts of budgets.

To cruise, or not to cruise?

On the advice front, your biggest decision is whether to DIY like we did – staying in accommodation on the islands, in Puerto Ayora (on Santa Cruz), Puerto Villamil (on Isabela) and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (on San Cristóbal), and basing your activities from there, organising individual day trips and activities through agents and dive/snorkel shops on the islands – or to book yourself on a three-, five-, eight- or sixteen-day cruise.  (Or obviously you can also do some combination of the two, if you’ve got the time.)

Frigatebirds take to the air around a small cruise or day-trip boat at Isabela

Frigatebirds take to the air around a small cruise or day-trip boat at Isabela

The cruises are typically the more expensive way to do it, but not necessarily by a tonne, if you can get a good deal.  We ran into one guy who’d bought himself a spot on an upcoming eight-day cruise for $1300 – that was booked a few days in advance, while already in the Galápagos (so bear in mind that it didn’t include his flight costs).  Walking past travel agents in Puerto Ayora, we saw other signs promoting five-day cruises from as little as $550 (in the cheapest class, up to around $1100 for the luxury class).  Booking on the internet before getting here, or through a travel agent in your home country or in Quito, you could expect to pay twice those prices:  the last minute deals on the islands are definitely much cheaper.  That said, I’m told the best cruises all sell out months in advance, so the last minute option won’t actually be available for them anyway.  You can easily spend up to $5000 for good, luxury eight-day cruise booked well in advance before it sells out.  Expect the price tag for the good sixteen-day cruises to have five digits.

For the extra money you pay on a cruise, you get:

  • better food – from what I hear, the food on the cruise boats is generally fantastic
  • a guaranteed variety of sites and activities
  • someone else planning everything for you, with an itinerary that is bound to fit together neatly – no sitting around in Puerto Ayora all morning because your transfer from Isabela arrived at 8am but your follow-on to San Cristóbal doesn’t leave til 2pm
  • a guide for everything, even for those places where Park rules don’t specifically require that you have one
  • the ability to visit some places which just aren’t possible on a day trip:  for example, you can’t get to the island of Fernandina (off the west coast of Isabela) except as part of a cruise
A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Having said that, if you’re on a cruise and it’s not a dive cruise, then you won’t be able to decide that you’d like to go scuba diving tomorrow, please.  Nor will you be able to plan the last few days of your trip specifically to maximise your chances of seeing the things that you happen not to have encountered in the earlier part of your trip.  That sort of thing may or may not matter to you – we were quite glad, for example, that we could decide in the last few days to snorkel on Santa Cruz in areas where there were likely to be marine iguanas actually swimming in the water, since we hadn’t seen any of them leave the land yet by day ten.

A marine iguana crosses the beach at the far end of Tortuga Bay

A marine iguana crosses the beach at the far end of Tortuga Bay

Here were the things we would have liked to do while we were in the islands but didn’t – these are things that potentially doing organised cruises of one form or another might have helped us tick off:

  • see, and ideally snorkel with, penguins (we saw only one, on the rocks at Las Tintoreras) – we could probably have managed to get this one done on a day trip, though, if we’d been able to get one out to Bartolomé in the last few days of our trip (the only day trips out there from Puerto Ayora for those few days were full by the time we tried to book)
  • scuba dive at Darwin and Wolf – these are reputed to be two of the best dive sites in the world, especially for seeing big marine life, but they’re a fair way to the north, and only reachable on a liveaboard dive cruise
  • do a night dive – this would actually have been easily possible to organise, but unfortunately we’re not qualified for night diving, and I probably don’t have enough general experience that it’s a good idea to do without the qualification
  • visit Fernandina – apparently this is one of the iconic sights of the Galápagos, with marine iguanas, boobies and various other wildlife as far as the eye can see, but it’s only accessible on a cruise – and to be honest, we saw all the wildlife elsewhere anyway, just not necessarily all in one such iconic spot
A random seascape as we returned from Los Tuneles on Isabela

It’s a bit hard to find an appropriate photo to represent the things we didn’t see, so here’s a random seascape, taken as we returned from Los Tuneles on Isabela

But then, here are the things we wanted to do that we did:

  • scuba dive with hammerhead sharks, Galápagos sharks, eagle rays, sea lions, turtles and more
  • snorkel with sharks, turtles, sea lions, marine iguanas, crayfish, pufferfish, surgeon fish, etc.
  • swim through the underwater lava tunnels on the southwest of Isabela
  • see blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, pelicans, hawks, and other birds
  • see marine iguanas in the wild, including their nesting sites
  • play with crabs and marine iguanas up close and personal on the beach at Puerto Villamil
  • see giant tortoises “in the wild” on a reserve in the highlands of Santa Cruz, as well as seeing the breeding and research centres on Isabela and Santa Cruz
A giant tortoise in swampy water in Rancho Primicias, in the highlands of Santa Cruz

A giant tortoise in swampy water in Rancho Primicias, in the highlands of Santa Cruz

  • see the volcanos, and the volcanic wasteland, of Isabela
  • enjoy the beautiful beaches near Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil
  • see the sea lions all over Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
  • see the flamingos at the flamingo lake near Puerto Villamil
  • explore a few mangrove sites
  • see a reasonable variety of different islands (albeit that we were only on the big three populated ones)

So, y’know, I feel like we achieved a bit during our visit.  It felt worthwhile – especially for what we spent…

A hammerhead shark and a sea turtle (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A hammerhead shark and a sea turtle (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

For what it’s worth, if (when) I go back to the Galápagos, I think I’ll do a cruise – but largely that’s because it makes sense to do something different the second time around.  If I were doing it all over again for the first time, I’d probably do exactly the same again:  island-hopping and day trips.  So my advice for you if you haven’t been yet:  island-hop, like we did.

What we spent

All costs in $US, per person (I was travelling with Chris, so we were two people – maybe budget a little more on accommodation if you’re going solo, since a single room will probably be more than half a twin, and you might not be able to find hostel dorms all the time)

I didn’t keep exact track of what I spent on food and drinks, because, well, that seemed like a lot of boring effort for not a whole lot of return.  Also I was busy eating and ordering more tasty tasty food, not writing stuff down in a notebook.  But I know the price we paid for everything else, so…

  • grand total, excluding food and drinks:  $1420.60
  • grand total, including food and drinks:  somewhere between $1800 and $2000.
A gecko on the screen of an ATM on Santa Cruz

A gecko on the screen of an ATM on Santa Cruz

And the breakdown…

Getting there – total $560

  • return flight from Guayaquil to Baltra, $450  (note:  we bought our flights as part of a Lima-Galápagos-Costa Rica-Lima round trip, for about £400 each, but the Guayaquil-Galápagos round trip is pretty consistently priced from $450 to $500, so that’s what I’m counting)
  • mandatory tourist card (paid at Guayaquil airport, before checkin), $10
  • Galápagos National Park entry fee (paid on arrival to the Galápagos), $100

Accommodation – total $275

  • night one:  Puerto Ayora, Galápagos Best Home Stay (dorm bed in a hostel), $20
  • nights two to five:  Isabela, Rincón de George ($50/night for a twin room), $25/night, $100 total
  • nights six to eight:  San Cristóbal, Hostal Casa de Laura ($40/night for a twin room), $20/night, $75 total
  • nights nine to twelve:  Puerto Ayora, Galápagos Best Home Stay (dorm bed in a hostel), $20/night, $80 total

Transport – total $142.60

  • day one:  ferry (60c),  bus ($1.80) and taxi ($1) from the airport (on Baltra) to our hostel in Puerto Ayora, $3.40 total
  • day one:  transfer from Santa Cruz to Isabela, $30, plus 50c water taxi at Puerto Ayora and another $1 water taxi at Puerto Villamil, $31.50 total
  • day six:  transfer from Isabela to Santa Cruz ($30) and on to San Cristóbal ($30 – although I think it’s actually possible to get this for $25), with a water taxi at Puerto Villamil ($1) and two more at Puerto Ayora (50c each), $62 total
  • day nine:  transfer from San Cristóbal to Santa Cruz ($25), plus water taxi at Puerto Ayora (50c), $25.50 total
  • day nine:  water taxi to Finch Bay to walk to Las Grietas, by Puerto Ayora, 60c
  • day eleven:  taxi to Rancho Primicias to see tortoises and lava tunnels, $30 shared between two, so $15
  • day twelve:  water taxi to Finch Bay to snorkel there and walk to Las Grietas, by Puerto Ayora, 60c
  • day thirteen:  taxi ($1), bus ($1.90) and ferry (60c) from Puerto Ayora to the airport, $3.50 total
A sight from one of our day trips:  a fern manages to prosper in the volcanic dirt and rock of Volcán Chico, on Isabela

A sight from one of our day trips: a fern manages to prosper in the volcanic dirt and rock of Volcán Chico, on Isabela

Day tours and activities – total $443

  • day four:  morning tour to Sierra Negra Volcano and Volcano Chico (on Isabela), $35
  • day four:  afternoon tour and snorkelling at Las Tintoreras (Isabela), $30
  • day five:  full day snorkelling at Los Túneles (Isabela), $65
  • day eight:  scuba diving at Kicker Rock (off San Cristóbal) with Planet Ocean, $140
  • day ten:  scuba diving at Gordon Rocks (off Santa Cruz) with Eagleray Dives, $140
  • day eleven:  entry to Rancho Primicias, $3

While I decided against the monetary equivalent of calorie counting, I can tell you roughly what prices we encountered…

Mmmm, food.  A giant tortoise attacks lunch.

Mmmm, food. A giant tortoise attacks lunch.

Example food costs:

  • you can get a cheap eggs, toast and coffee breakfast at a number of places for $5-8
  • you can get a decent menú del día (set course menu of the day) lunch for $8-12
  • if you eat where the locals eat, you can easily get dinner for $10-15
  • eating out at a really nice restaurant like the fantastic La Garrapata in Puerto Ayora, you can easily spend $20-30 on an appetiser, main and drinks (hey, in Latin America that’s pretty damned expensive!) – but you’ll get a pretty decent amount of very good food for that
  • a large beer is $2.50-3 from a store – although when you buy it, it’ll be more, and they’ll give you some back when you bring back the empty bottles
  • a large beer is generally closer to $3 in a pub or restaurant

Based on how much cash I brought with me, how much I took out from the ATMs in the Galápagos, and how much I had left when I flew out, my best guess is that I spent around $500 on food and drinks over the twelve/thirteen days on the islands, so around $45 per day.  But I eat a lot (most times we went for breakfast, I’d order two of them, for example), and we certainly weren’t being careful to eat cheaply.  Most people (ie normal people) would spend a lot less than that, and it’s certainly easily possible to eat for $20 a day or less if you want to – especially if you cook for yourselves, obviously (our rooms on Puerto Ayora and on San Cristóbal both had cooking facilities that we were too lazy to bother using).

Miscellaneous other advice

A crab on volcanic rock on the shore, on Isabela somewhere

Miscellaneous other photo: a crab on volcanic rock on the shore, on Isabela somewhere

  • There are ATMs in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.  Beware, though, that they don’t always work well for international cards, often telling you that there’s insufficient balance available or that you’ve exceeded your daily limit.  After trying five or more different machines, I eventually managed to get my UK-based Visa debit card to give me cash out of one of the ATMs in Puerto Ayora (the rightmost one by the supermarket down by the port, for what it’s worth) – but that same machine had spurned me earlier.  Chris had an easier time with his Mastercard debit card, but he didn’t have a perfect track record either.  My advice is to bring a bit more cash than you expect to need, on the assumption that you may have difficulty getting money out.  Don’t expect to use credit cards much, either – most places won’t accept them.
  • If you think you might be susceptible to seasickness, be aware that the boat transfers from island to island can be a little bouncy.  We saw a few people emptying their stomachs into plastic bags or over the side, and while it was funny for us, they didn’t seem to be enjoying the experience quite so much.  If you think you might have a problem:  don’t eat before getting on the boat, that’s just stupid;  sit up the back, where the boat doesn’t bounce so much;  watch the horizon;  probably get hold of some seasickness tablets.  This public service announcement brought to you by Captain Obvious.
  • Tap water on the islands is not drinkable.  In other places around the world where that’s the case, I’ll generally brush my teeth with it regardless, but drink bottled water.  WikiVoyage suggests that the water is too iffy even for that in Puerto Ayora.  (Galápagos Best Home Stay – where we stayed in Puerto Ayora – provides free drinking water in the rooms, for what it’s worth.)
  • A lot of the cheaper accommodation on the islands isn’t listed online on Hostelworld or HostelBookers.  Often, you can just roll up and book.  But we did see a goodly handful of people being turned away by our accommodation on San Cristóbal, and the despondent looks on their faces tended to indicate that it wasn’t the first place they’d tried.  It turned out we’d booked the last available room in the hotel/hostel when we’d rung the night before, via a very dodgy Skype connection from our accommodation on the previous island.  Even if you’re organising things last minute, calling the night before to organise stuff is probably not a bad move.
  • Don’t expect good internet access.  Even in the paid internet cafés, net access anywhere on the islands is excruciatingly slow and frustratingly unreliable.
A giant tortoise couple, err, ‘participating’ in the breeding program on Isabela

And let’s finish on a positive note – here’s how we can be confident that the Galápagos Islands will still have a giant tortoise population for many generations to come. Good work, boys and girls, good work.

Any questions?  Ask me in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to give you a useful answer!

Scootering around South-East Asia: advice

Scootering into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

Scootering into the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City

Observant (or perhaps I should just say ‘persistent’) readers may recall that a while ago, I made fun of the traffic situation in Vietnam.  As you may have noticed from my other blog posts about our time in Vietnam, and in fact from Thailand as well, we actually spent quite a bit of our time riding around on scooters.  So I guess you can conclude from that combination one of two things.  Either (a) we’re just crazy and were happily exposing ourselves to risks we were lucky to survive, or (b) it’s actually not all that bad.  I’ll leave the choice up to you.  Arguing in favour of (a) there’s certainly the fact that as you wander around South-East Asia, you see a lot of blank-faced looking tourists sporting road rash or other evidence of recent scooter-related injuries.  On the other hand, in favour of (b), we didn’t have any problems at all…

Anyway, the decision of whether to scooter or not to scooter is entirely up to you.  All I’ll say is that if you’re game for it, it’s an incredible way to experience the area – and you can go a lot of places you otherwise wouldn’t, as well as going places you otherwise would, but under better circumstances (directly, at your own pace, and without with a whole other busload of people).

If you do decide to scooter around, here’s a random assortment of advice:

  • First and most important:  be aware that what you’re doing is probably not entirely kosher.  Unless you’ve gone to the trouble of getting a local Vietnamese licence, your scooter adventures in Vietnam will be not entirely above board.  That doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to hire a scooter – far from it.  Nor does it mean you’re going to get in trouble with the law – Vietnamese police are not going to pull you over for a licence check, and even if they did, a small handful of local – or better yet, US – currency would solve that problem.  But you need to be aware that if you’re involved in an accident, then (a) it will be your fault, even if it wasn’t, and (b) your travel insurance will not cover you.  Just for the sake of hammering it home:  by hiring a scooter and riding around, you are taking a risk, and it’s a risk that your travel insurance doesn’t cover.  If you’re not OK with that, that’s fine:  don’t do it.  Obviously it’s a risk that we considered carefully and decided we were willing to accept.
  • Next on the must-remember list:  get a decent bike!  There are an absolute metric crapload of bike hire places everywhere you go in Vietnam and Thailand – your hotel/hostel will almost certainly rent bikes, as will the café down the street, etc.  That means you have plenty of choice.  Take advantage of it.  The variety of rental places is matched only by the variety of quality in the bikes that they rent out.  Don’t sweat the little things:  very very few bikes will have a working odometer, for example.  But don’t rent a bike until you’ve checked that the brakes are genuinely useful (front and back – I kid you not, we had one rental place try to explain that it didn’t matter that the front brake didn’t work, at all, because the back brake was just fine, so where’s the problem?) and that the headlights, indicators and horn work.  A working fuel gauge is also a nice-to-have, but you can always look in the tank if you need to.   A working speedo is handy, although in any case you’ll be basing your speed entirely on what you feel comfortable riding at given the road and traffic conditions, not on the number on the dial, so it’s less important than you might think (coming from a driving-in-Western-countries background).
  • On a similar note:  if you are tall, be aware that some bikes will not be big enough for you.  It would be very embarrassing to fall over while turning left out of the rental garage’s driveway because the handlebars got stuck on your leg and you couldn’t turn back nor get your foot down onto the ground.  At least, err, I imagine that would be very embarrassing.
  • Just so you know what to expect from the rental process itself:  you will be asked to leave your passport as surety (normally one passport is fine even if there’s a group of you hiring bikes, although some places will want one per bike).  If that’s a problem (perhaps because you’re expecting to need your passport for your accommodation during the hire period, or perhaps because you’re unnecessarily paranoid about losing your passport), some places will let you leave large amounts of cash instead.  (Obviously if you do that, ask for a receipt so you can be sure to get your money back!)  Some places will have you sign a detailed contract for the bike hire – chances are that indicates that this is a fairly professional outfit, so that’s a good sign.  Other places will just hand you the keys.  No problem.
  • I recommend you take a business card or something else with the hire place’s details on it.  If something goes wrong with the bike, or if you have an accident, you’ll want a phone number to ring.  If nothing else, just take a photo of the store front (assuming that there’s a prominent name and phone number on it), so that you can look it up on your camera if needed.  While you’re at it, probably note down the address, or better yet, put a pin/star on the place on your smartphone’s maps application, so that you can find the damn place to give the bikes back once you’re done.
  • Before you even get on the bike, spend some time just watching how traffic flows.  Notice that when pedestrians cross the road, the traffic flows elegantly around them – you will be expected to do that too.  Notice that despite the initial appearance of complete and utter chaos, everyone is calm and proceeding gently, with deliberate movement and no sudden changes in course.  You will be expected to do that, too.
  • You will quickly observe that the concept of lanes is a relatively ephemeral one in South-East Asia.  The concept of a lane is really only important insofar as you need to realise that the verge is considered one too.  Do not think of a lane as “yours”.  If you are riding along happily as the only person heading in your direction, and there is traffic coming towards you on the other side of the road, don’t be surprised when that traffic pulls out onto your side of the road – on a direct collision course – in order to overtake, or to avoid a pothole, or possibly just coz your side of the road looks prettier.  There is a perfectly good verge to your right, and as a scooter, you are expected to veer onto it to avoid oncoming traffic in your lane.  Deal with it, and move on.  In fact, you will actually spend most of your time riding on the verge anyway.  It’s much safer there, and as an added bonus, it’s a good spot to overtake larger traffic.  (Well, undertake, strictly speaking, but that’s not an important distinction in this part of the world.)
  • Be aware that the road quality is generally terrible.  There will be a lot of potholes, and you will spend a lot of your time looking out for them.  It will be tiring.  Factor this into your planned itinerary – you will be thoroughly and absolutely exhausted after the concentration of a long day’s riding.
  • Speed limits are meaningless.  Ignore them – everybody else does – and ride at a pace that you feel comfortable and safe at.
  • Wear appropriate clothing.  Scooters are less bad than motorbikes if you fall off, since you typically won’t end up with the bike sliding over your ankle as the latter gets ground away into the asphalt.  But nonetheless, it’s a good idea to wear long pants and actual shoes.  Don’t be the dipshit riding around in board shorts, bare feet and no shirt.  Not only do you look like an idiot, but you are one.
  • The hire places will have a range of helmets for you to choose from.  They will all be shit.  Try to choose the least shit one that fits.  And wear the damn helmet on your head, you stupid git.  I don’t care that you don’t think you look cool enough unless the wind is gushing seductively through your hair.  Your helmet is probably not going to perform as admirably as you might wish for in an accident anyway, but it’s definitely not doing you any good on your arm.  If it’s not properly fixed onto your head, it might as well be shoved up your arse.
  • A helmet with a full face visor is a godsend, if you can find one.  You probably can’t, though.  If you don’t normally wear glasses, make sure you have sunglasses.  As the sun goes down, insects will come out.  Having insects flying into your eyes at 60km/h is unpleasant.  Even without the insects, there will be plenty of dust:  we’re not talking about autobahn-quality road surfaces here.  Without glasses, you will be crying.  A lot.  The absolute most difficult and dangerous experiences I had on a scooter in South-East Asia were shortly after sunset, when it was too dark for me to continue wearing sunglasses safely, and I had to keep riding despite all the shit flying into my eyes.  It was fine, but it was unpleasant and it was painful, and we would have to stop every half hour or hour just so that I could wipe the gunk out of my eyes and then sit with them closed for a while.  After a couple of our longer rides, my eyes literally didn’t stop watering for two to three days.  Aside from other safety concerns, this is an excellent reason to ensure that you have returned before sundown.
  • Make sure you know roughly where you’re going, and roughly how long you think it will take you.  When it takes you longer than that, adjust your estimates for the rest of your day’s travels accordingly.  Do not expect that you will be able to get to your destination as quickly as Google Maps tells you you will.
  • Speaking of which, have a local SIM card with data (they are stupidly cheap) and use a decent maps application on your smartphone.  (So, probably not Apple Maps.)  Google Maps is great, and for a lot of the world you can take maps offline.  Nokia Maps (called ‘Here’) is available for non-Nokia phones now too (iOS definitely as I write this, and probably Android too, by the time this post actually gets published), and is even better.  It is unbelievably liberating not to have to worry about getting lost because you have a smartphone and GPS.  “Hey Chris, were we supposed to take that turn about 3km back?”  “Dunno Sam, how about we pull over and check where the hell we are?”  …  “Well bugger me, how the hell did we get over there?”  *shrug*  “About face and take the next left, then?”  “Yeah, sounds about right.”
  • Don’t be scared when you hear honking behind you.  If you’ve watched the Top Gear Vietnam special, you probably have the impression that there are mad bus drivers swerving all over the road honking aggressively at everyone to get out of their way.  Actually, if you hear someone honking their horn behind you, they’re probably just letting you know that they’re there and/or that they’re overtaking – so that you don’t pull out in front and splat yourself under their tyres.  Far from aggression, the honking is actually to make things safer.  If it bothers you, just relax – you’ll get used to it.  Ideally, you’ll start doing it yourself when you’re overtaking someone and you’re not sure they know that you’re there.

Hope that helps.  Any other advice welcome in the comments below.

Safe travels, happy scootering.

Getting a Myanma visa in Bangkok

This is an advice post, for anyone wanting to visit Myanmar and trying to figure out how to get a visa.  If that doesn’t apply to you, don’t blame me if you get to the bottom of the following wall of text wondering why you’re incredibly bored and can you have the last ten minutes or so of your life back, please.

The south entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Superfluous photo of Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Apparently, most Myanma embassies around the world will take forever to process your visa application.  The one in Bangkok will not – they have fixed, reliable schedules (same-day, next-day and day-after, depending on your need and willingness to pay for expedited processing), and as a result, they’re a pretty popular embassy.

Sufficiently popular, in fact, that you will be waiting in a long line to get your visa.  The visa section is only open in the mornings for visa applications.  It opens at 9, and by then there’ll be a line along the street.  We got there around 9.15, and had to wait about 40 minutes in line.  Personally I wouldn’t bother getting there earlier – my uneducated guess is that you’ll be waiting in line equally as long, just trading off more time waiting in a shorter line that’s not moving (because the office isn’t open yet) for less time waiting for the people in front of you to pass through once it does open – but obviously plenty of people are more excited about the whole waiting-in-line process than I am, and so want to get started with it as early as possible.

But in any case, before you go jump in that line, you’ll want to go to the little photocopy shop round the corner first.  It’s down a little side street off Pan Rd, north of the embassy building.  Basically follow the line from the embassy door (which is on Pan Rd) up the road, and turn right where you see all the people with visa applications coming out of the side street.  Someone will be able to show you where – everyone goes there.

The reason everyone goes there is that for a run-of-the-mill general photocopy shop, they’re particularly specialised:  they basically major in helping people get together whatever they need for the visa application.  They can provide you with copies of the application forms for the visa even before you get to the embassy (in fact, well before the embassy even opens), so that you’re not hurriedly filling them out once you get to the front of the line.  Plus they can print off your other supporting documentation for you (you’ll want a printed flight confirmation if you’re going for a same-day visa), photocopy your passport’s photo page (yes, you need to hand this copy in with your application, even though you’re also handing them your passport itself – presumably this is to save the embassy staff walking around the corner to the same shop to use their photocopier themselves, or something), take your passport photos (you need two, one glued on the form, one paper-clipped to it), and even look over your filled-out form to make sure you’ve got it all right before you even get in line.  They’re exceptionally helpful, and they’re cheap.

Once you’ve done that and lined up, you’ll need to fork over some money to the government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar itself:  you can pay the minimum fee (800-ish baht, I think) and get the visa in three days (so apply Monday morning, get it Wednesday afternoon), or you can pay more and get it the next day, or even more (around 1100 baht, I think) and get it that same afternoon.  (Although note that to apply for a same-day visa you’ll need some justification for why you need it the same day – such as a flight confirmation for tomorrow.)

And then you’re done, until whenever you paid for your visa to be ready – at which point you line up all over again and pick it up between 3.30pm and 4.30pm.  It’s actually all particularly straightforward.

One final note:  on the application form, they ask for a brief employment history.  Apparently they have a history of refusing visas for people who’ve worked for NGOs or as journalists.  Mightn’t hurt to leave that off if it applies to you, I suppose.  They don’t ask for any proof of employment or anything, so you can put whatever you like, really.  I always liked the sound of “professional traveller”, myself.

Sula Paya in the centre of Yangon

And there you have it – enjoy your time in Myanmar

Trekking the Himalayas: advice

If you haven’t seen my posts about our trek to Everest Base Camp, you can see them here:  parts one, two, three, four and five.  Believe me, those posts are more interesting than this one.

This post is for anyone who is thinking about doing the trip themselves.  Or hey, maybe you just want the background on what was involved in planning and completing our trek, to aid with the whole living vicariously thing.

Me on the trail

Me on the trail

What type of trek?

There are a few choices you have to make for a trip to Base Camp and back, the first of which is how independently you intend to travel.  You have three options.

First, you can do it all yourselves, carrying all your own gear and finding your own way along the trails.  This is surprisingly doable, and we saw quite a number of people experiencing the mountains this way – especially groups of young Israelis, who, we’re told, like the Himalayas because it’s an interesting trip to do after their mandatory military service, in a country that’s easy for them to get to (no visa issues) and doesn’t hurt the bank account much.  Doing it all yourself is the cheapest option, obviously, since you’re not paying for anyone to help you.  But equally obviously, your lack of local knowledge may mean that occasionally you might not be able to get the cheapest rooms, flights, etc. – or, cost aside, you might not get the best experience you could.  (Worth bearing in mind:  some of the teahouses find people without local guides to be too much hassle – especially if they’re trying to haggle on price, like many of the young Israeli groups were – so will pretend to be full and turn them away.)  So who knows how much you’ll save in the end, and whether the sacrifice will be worth it.

The I-did-it-my-way approach is obviously also the most adventurous option, and the most flexible:  if you decide you want to take extra time or change all your plans completely, you can.  Or, you know, if you take a wrong turn and end up in the wrong valley, and so end up changing your plans accidentally, that’s OK too.  That’s unlikely, though:  the trails are generally easy to follow, and so as long as you prepare adequately with a bit of research on the route(s) you might want to take, and have some reasonable maps, then in most places you shouldn’t have too much trouble.  There are a few places where you benefit from local knowledge – especially for trails which change frequently over time like the paths over the glaciers – but once you’re in an area where that’s the case, you may well be able to hire a guide for the day to help you over the ice to get to the Chola Pass, for example.  And people are generally friendly – if you ask another group’s guide, or the owners of the tea house, about some detail of the path you intend to take tomorrow, chances are you’ll get a tonne of enthusiastic advice.  Or hell, just discreetly follow someone else at a distance:  it’s not that isolated up there, you’ll see plenty of other people (well, if you don’t, you’re probably not going the right way).

A stupa and Nepalese prayer flags on the trail on day two, on the way to Namche Bazaar

The pictures in this post have nothing to do with the text, by the way. But they’re still pretty, no?

The second option:  you can get your own version of Jay Ram and Lal, and go with a guide and porter (who might be one single person) for just you (and your friends, if you have any).  This is what we did.  Although this isn’t the cheapskate option, it’s still surprisingly inexpensive:  Chris and I paid about $US1650 each for a trip for the two of us for a total of twenty-one days in Nepal.  That included paying for the services of both Jay Ram and Lal, plus all accommodation and food in the mountains (although not drinks beyond a couple of cups of tea per day – you’ll need to buy or treat your own water, and if you can’t survive without a healthy accompaniment of alcoholic beverages, then the tea houses will certainly be happy to oblige you, but you’ll clearly need to take care of the cost yourself).  It also included four nights in a hotel in Kathmandu, plus a couple of meals there, plus a couple of guided tours around some of the sights of Kathmandu.  Also, flights to and from Lukla, for us and our guide and porter.  So, y’know, quite a lot of stuff, for not very many of your moneybags.  Nepal is an exotic destination, but that doesn’t mean it’s pricey.

If you’re interested in this option, the company we went with was Absolute Himalaya Treks & Expedition, on the recommendation of a friend who’d been with them before.  I’d highly recommend them too – if I go back to Nepal, I’ll be in touch with them without even bothering to look up any alternatives.  Email Kumar if you want to get in contact with them.  He was very helpful with advice and recommendations for us – I’m sure he’d be happy to help you organise your trip too.  (The company does other treks in Nepal, too – so even if you’re not heading for Base Camp, they’re still a good option.)  On top of the $US1650 or so, we also added tips for Jay Ram (around $US100, I think) and Lal ($US60 or 70).  I honestly can’t remember exactly how much we gave each of them, but the rule of thumb Chris saw mentioned elsewhere on the interwebs is that most people tip them roughly one day’s pay per week.  If I remember rightly, we tipped more than that, because they were great.

Our total spend in Nepal was a little more again than the $1650 plus tips, I guess, since we also bought and hired various gear for the trek, and there were some meals and more than a few celebratory beverages (for reference, after extensive research, we have determined that Gorkha is far and away the best of the Nepalese beer selection) to go with our meals in Kathmandu.  Still, all up the three week total would have been at most around $US2000, even including the annoying entry fee you pay at immigration on the way into Kathmandu.

I have found a rock to stand on.  Everest Base Camp is in the background, but you can’t really see it here.  Oh well.

I have found a rock to stand on. Everest Base Camp is in the background, but you can’t really see it here. Oh well.

And finally, the third option:  you can go with a full package trek.  This is what most well-off Western tourists do, and to be honest, it looked pretty shithouse to me.  Typically a group of ten to fifteen people – sometimes a group of friends, sometimes a random assortment of people who all happened to buy the same package deal – trudging single-file along the path, slightly faster than is comfortable for the slowest member of the group.  I’m sure plenty of people doing it this way have a fantastic time – and don’t let my obstinate pessimism stop you doing it this way if you think that’s your thing.  But it’s not for me.  If you’re trying to weigh up whether this might be the way for you, the things that turn me off about it, and that you should at least consider as possible negatives, include:  you can’t walk at your own pace;  if someone gets sick, either the whole group hangs back while they recover or the sick person drops off the trip;  you can’t change your plans if things are easier or harder than expected;  your chances of actually making the sunrise views on the peaks are much diminished if you are relying on all umpteen of your group being ready and able to make the climb up the peak before dawn;  and you won’t get nearly the same quiet serenity on the trail with twenty of your closest friends nearby.

Ok, so, you’ve picked from the above three…

Now you also have to choose the time of year.  The season really starts to get underway at the beginning of October.  (Well, the season we went in.  There are other times of year too, obviously, but if you want to know about that, well, you can do your own damned research!)  We went a little earlier than that, starting on September 22.  That worked out well for us, although we were lucky:  others suffered significant delays due to bad weather preventing flights into and out of Lukla.  (Of course, you could avoid this possibility by walking up from Jiri if you wanted – that way you don’t have to worry about flights into/out of the mountains at all.  You just need more time.)

And you have to choose how long your trek will last.  If humanly possible, I recommend giving yourself plenty of time:  we gave ourselves seventeen days planned in the mountains, and that still seems about right to me.  If I was doing it again, if anything, I’d allow even more time.  Hey, what’s another day or two added to the holiday, if it’s feasible, when lacking a day or two (if something goes wrong) could ruin everything?  And it makes the whole trip a lot less stressful if you know you don’t have to worry if there’s a delay or someone gets sick.  There were a lot of very fidgety people around when the bad weather came in, and a lot of people fretting that spending an extra day acclimatising, when they really would have benefitted from it, would have meant maybe not having time to make it to Base Camp.  (I have no doubt that some of those speedy people returned to Kathmandu the fastest way possible:  in a rescue helicopter.)  Save yourself the stress and give yourself the breathing space.

Whispy snow drifts being blown off the summit of Everest (right)

Whispy snow drifts being blown off the summit of Everest (right)

Gear

You’ll need some particular gear for the trip, but to be honest nothing espeically different from your average vacation, presuming your average vacation occasionally involves some cool-ish temperatures and a little bit of walking.

You’ll need clothes, and you’ll want layers of them.  It can get quite cold – especially overnight.  But walking in the sun on a clear day is really surprisingly hot, and you’ll want no more than a tshirt and light trousers or shorts a lot of the time.

Obviously you don’t want to take too many clothes, since you or your porter will have to carry them.  No, you won’t be able to wash clothes.  Yes, you’ll smell – especially your socks.  God damn will your socks smell.  So will those of everyone around you.  If you can’t deal with that, then maybe this isn’t the trip for you.  Take a couple of tshirts and a couple of long-sleeved shirts that you can wear over the top of them.  You’ll also need either a down jacket or a couple of lighter jackets (one windproof) that can be worn at the same time.  You’ll need thermals and at least one or two pairs of thick socks, and you’ll need a couple of pairs of trousers you can walk in (I had cargo pants and jeans – obviously jeans are not ideal trekking gear, but they’ll suffice if needed, and it’s nice to have some clean-ish dry trousers you can change into after wearing your trekking gear all day).  If you’re going over a pass, you’ll want some waterproof trousers too.

Obviously you’ll need decent hiking boots – although we did meet one guy who was doing just fine in his Vibram FiveFinger Trek Sports.  Good for him:  I left my FiveFingers back in Kathmandu, figuring that hiking over a glacier would be a great way to get very cold feet very quickly.

You’ll need a reasonable sleeping bag and may want a sleeping bag liner.  We had down bags rated to minus fifteen Celsius, and they were fine, but ask your guide.

You don’t need hiking poles.  If you’ve never used them before, chances are you don’t know how (I don’t either) and you’ll be plodding along carrying unnecessary sticks and generally looking like an idiot.  The trail is not treacherous enough that you require assistance supporting your fat arse – that’s what your legs are for.  (See below for fitness requirements.)

Hiking into the clouds, early in our trek, on the way to Namche Bazaar

Hiking into the clouds, early in our trek, on the way to Namche Bazaar

As far as all the above – you can get most of it in Kathmandu nice and cheap.  Sleeping bags and down jackets can be hired for very little (a dollar or so per day).  Your thermals and waterproof trousers can be cheap and crappy – they don’t have to last years, you’ll probably only use them a couple of days each, if that – and you can buy some very inexpensive ones in Kathmandu.  I also bought a water bladder, a keyring-sized torch, and a few other bits and bobs, and Chris got himself a good pair of socks as well.  If you need it for hiking, you can get it in Kathmandu.  And you can get a North Face logo sewn onto it to, if you want.

As mentioned before, I recommend Shona’s – they’ll help you out for anything you need to buy, and they gave us helpful advice too.  And their son can rent you sleeping bags and down jackets.

You’ll need reading material – you’ll have a surprising amount of free time.  Bring a Kindle or other e-reader.  It’s light, its battery lasts ages, and it can hold enough reading material for even the longest hike.  Probably bring a journal to take notes along the way, too – it’s a trip you’ll want to be able to remember in detail.  And hey, keeping a diary is a good way to fill your masses of down time.

Don’t bring much that requires power, and don’t expect to be able to recharge stuff all the time.  Even in teahouses where you can pay to recharge your gear, power may not be available at the time – they may be worried about conserving their reserves for lights, or their battery may have problems, or it may have been a cloudy day, or the power output from the battery might not be enough for your juice-guzzling SUV of a phone/laptop/whatever.  So bring a spare camera battery and spare torch batteries.

Speaking of which, bring a camera (duh) – preferably a decent point-and-shoot (I highly, highly recommend the Sony RX-100 – not that I had one while we were in Nepal;  Chris did, and I bought mine much later – but I’ll admit it’s a little on the expensive side) – and a torch.  Lots of people had headlamps, and if I were going again I’d get one too.  I’d also learn to walk up hills without shining it in people’s faces all the time, and without shining it intermittently in front of them so that even though there’s plenty of moonlight to find your way up the path before dawn without a torch, you’re completely ruining their night vision and making that impossible just because you can’t be bothered.  Dipshits.

Water is plentiful up in the mountains, but not safe to drink unless it’s treated.  There are no harmful chemicals, but who knows what a yak might have done to it upstream, and what bacteria it might contain.  Chris owns a SteriPEN – it’s basically a magic UV wand that you wave around in water for a minute so it can kill anything that needs killing – and we used that.  Most people used iodine tablets, and subsequently complained with what appeared to be genuine surprise that their water tasted like iodine.  Others bought boiled water from the teahouses the whole time.  The SteriPEN was definitely a good call.

Just for something different, here’s a shot without the snow-capped mountains.  Greenery instead.  But still just as a pretty, I think.

Just for something different, here’s a shot without the snow-capped mountains. Greenery instead. But still just as a pretty, I think.

You’ll probably want two water bottles, by the way, so that you’re not constantly running out and refilling.  Or you can use a water bladder in your backpack.  If you’re using chlorine/iodine tablets, you pretty much have to have two bottles:  one with water you can drink, and one with water that’s being treated (since it takes a while).

Health / medicine

Step one:  read about altitude sickness (Google is your friend).  I was amazed how many idiots were wandering around not really knowing anything about it.  Don’t be one of them.  You’ll need to decide in advance whether you want to take Diamox as a preventive measure.  We didn’t – I prefer not to load up on medicine to deal with stuff that realistically my body should be able to handle perfectly adequately by itself, thanks very much – but lots of people do.  Even if you don’t take it preventatively, you should have some with you in case you start to suffer altitude sickness and can’t immediately descend a couple of hundred metres.  (Say, in mid- or late afternoon or at night when it’s already too late to make it to the next lowest town, or when you’re in a town like Machermo where all the exits go up.)  You’ll need enough to take it for the whole hike, since once you start taking it, you’re supposed to keep on pill-popping until you descend.

There are not a lot of pharmacies in the mountains, so if you get some minor ailment, you’ll want to be prepared.  On the recommendation of a few people we asked, we took just-in-case supplies of paracetamol, cipro (ciproflaxin, for dealing with unwanted gastrointestinal bacteria – as an added bonus, the internet tells me it’s apparently handy in case of biological warfare), and azithromycin (an antibiotic for respiratory problems).  You should ask people more expert than me (you know, actual doctors) what might be appropriate, too.  You can get whatever you need over-the-counter in Kathmandu.

On a less sophisticated note, you’ll also want to take plenty of hand sanitiser and toilet paper, packs of tissues and/or wet wipes.  Toilets in the mountains tend to be BYO paper.  I bought a couple of six-packs of the ten-per-pack little packs of tissues, and ever since Nepal, I always walk around with a pack in my back pocket and one or two more in my bag.  I still have leftover hand sanitiser from Kathmandu with me months later.  On the very few occasions I’ve subsequently pulled it out to use it, it still reminds me of Everest.  You’ll want to use it a fair bit:  there’s often nowhere to wash your hands, and even when there is, as above, the water is unlikely to be parasite-free.  Again, normally I’m pretty blasé about that sort of risk of illness – after all, that’s what my immune system is for – but shitting yourself uncontrollably at altitude sounded like a pretty crappy outcome, so we hand-sanitised away.

You’ll want some chlorine/iodine tablets for treating water, too.  As above, we had Chris’s SteriPEN, so we didn’t need to treat water chemically.  But if the SteriPEN had died, we had chlorine tablets as a back-up.

A fairly typical section of walking trail

A fairly typical section of walking trail

Fitness

Some people suggest a program of exercise to build up to a trek in the Himalayas.  I’m not the fittest guy on the planet, but I’m in reasonable shape (better than when I spent my days staring at a computer screen all day, anyway), so that wasn’t an issue for me.  I will say it wasn’t a particularly physically challenging experience.  There were definitely some people we saw who were struggling – but then, those were people who looked like they’d struggle with more than one flight of stairs at sea level, so that’s hardly surprising.  I’m certainly not going to discourage you from getting more exercise, but you probably won’t need to:  it’s just not that strenuous.  I will say, though, that if you’re going to, contrary to most other suggestions I’ve seen, I’d focus on building leg and particularly ankle strength, not on spending hours on a treadmill, training your body to do little more than, well, I don’t know, run on a treadmill, I guess.  Leg strength will help your walking, and you’ll need it for the squat toilets regardless.

Random other stuff

And so that’s most of the advice I have, really, bar a sprinkling of random other bits and pieces..

  • You’re supposed to walk around stupas clockwise (ditto prayer stones).
  • A lot of the area you’ll be walking around has mobile reception, so if you want, you can get a local SIM card and be connected for quite a lot of your trek.  (People have made phone calls from the summit of Everest, for heaven’s sake.)
  • Take earplugs.  The mountains are quiet, but people in the adjacent room in your tea house aren’t necessarily.
  • Batteries do not like the cold.  Your electronics will die a lot more quickly up in the mountains than they normally would at altitudes where the night air is not so frigid.  When you go to sleep each night, it’s a good idea to throw your electrical goodies (or at least their batteries – including any spare batteries) into your sleeping bag.  Yes, it’s a little strange to roll over in the middle of the night and discover a camera wedged in your privates.  But it’s better than discovering that you’ve made it to Base Camp and can’t take any photos because your point-and-shoot is dead.
  • And finally, of course…  wear sunscreen.  No, really.  There’s a lot less atmosphere above you when you’re at five thousand metres.  Expect to have to grease up regularly.
Mountains in the clouds

Mountains in the clouds

[Note:  post edited to reflect that I originally got the price of our trip wrong.  It was $US1650, not $1500.  Still, cheap by any measure.]