Archive for the ‘Timeline’ Category

Lonesome no more …


Its is probable that no extinction event in history has been as well flagged or indeed so well-defined. Lonesome George, the last Pinta giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni ) was found dead in his pen on the 24th June 2012. The species has been functionally extinct for decades: one member is by definition the last of his kind.

Our trip to the Galapagos, three years ago it shames me to say, has remained unblogged not because I didn’t have anything to say but because I couldn’t think of what to leave out. It was an extraordinary week of tortoises and turtles, seals, snorkelling, a submarine environment that seemed to have been taken straight out of the Pixar archives, slave traders, volcanoes, forest, beaches, iguanas, excitement, adventure and really wild things. Maybe even more importantly the people of the Galapagos seem to have huge pride in the unique place in which they live and its scientific importance and this really came through to me as a visitor: I felt privileged just to be there.

Even in the midst of all of that the Darwin Research Centre is an extraordinary place, with breeding programmes in place to preserve the many species and subspecies of tortoise and allowing us to see all stages of the process, and this was a highlight of our second-last day.

The star of the show, George, wasn’t in a co-operative mood and my memory of him is of a back view as he disappeared into a thicket. It wasn’t me apparently, he just didn’t like people very much. Or other tortoises, and he probably wasn’t a great fan of most other life forms either for that matter – as a fellow grump I sympathised.

Compañera(?) del Jorge Solitario

One of his companions, females of a different but closely related species, did deign to have her photo taken. Although a clutch of eggs was found in 2008 they all turned out to be infertile.

Many factors contributed to the collapse of these unique populations of tortoises, many thankfully brought back from the brink of extinction. They were seen as walking larders by the sailors exploring the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: they could survive for a year with no food or water making them ideal fodder for a long sail voyage where it was quite uncertain when you would next spy land, let alone find a supermarket. It was this ability, ironically, that helped them get to the Galapagos in the first place, adrift on rafts of vegetation washed out to sea millions of years ago. After millions of years as the only large species on the islands they were unprepared for the arrival of rats (which eat the eggs) and goats (which tear the vegetation up by the roots). And of course it takes a long time to grow a giant tortoise, so the populations never had time to recover.

Another subspecies, the Hood Island tortoise, provides a more cheerful story.

Diego = Hood Island tortoise

In the early 1970s there were only 13 of these tortoises known, and only two males, which didn’t augur well for the gene pool. A cry for help went round to the world’s zoos and San Diego zoo replied that yes, they did have a Latino male in custody. Diego, as he was inevitably christened, was duly deported back to the Centro Darwin where he has for forty years led a pampered existence. He is rather less shy than poor old Jorge, and quite happy to pose.

Diego in profile

Later in the day we headed up to the mountains of Santa Cruz where we drank local coffee and came across the local Santa Cruz tortoise – which likes to use the roads to get about but then sits down in the middle of them as soon as it hears a car coming.

Éanna and Ailsa with Santa Cruz tortoise

George may be gone, but the effort to understand and preserve the fantastic laboratory, the unparalleled window on evolution, that is the Galapagos continues.


Lazing on a Tuesday afternoon.

Vista al lago / View of the lake

Wind from the Andes brings clouds and waves

I have no notes for the 10th February and all the indications are that we had a great day doing absolutely nothing. The photos tell me that it was a windy day, and I remember we jumped – oh, ok, tiptoed – into the lake for a swim but the wind was pushing a current that made it quite difficult, especially for the smaller ones.

So we chilled, and pottered among the rocks.

Vista a Bariloche desde el lago / View of Bariloche from the lake

Waves on the lake.

The Fogarty-Collises were still with us – I’m trying not to feel jealous that as I write they are actually off to India, but then they weren’t away all last year.

David on the rocks

David on the rocks

Ailsa, Julie and Síle with the wind in their hair

Ailsa, Julie and Síle with the wind in their hair

Swinging through the trees.


There must be something quite primaeval about swinging through the forest, calling to us from the distant origins of our evolution. Or possibly its just the effects of Disney and the Jungle Book: we all see ourselves as Mowgli even while heading for the size and shape of Baloo.

So it was that we decided to spend a hot summer’s afternoon on what was advertised at the time as the world’s (or possibly South America’s) longest canopy adventure, a 2 1/2 excursion involving a drive up the side of a mountain – it was hardly even a track let alone a dirt road – in a well-worn jeep followed by a series of 10 James Bond-esque swoops down cables, covering a total distance of 2.5 km.

Síle gets ready for the canopy

Maybe it wasn’t quite Daniel Craig, who would presumably have eschewed the helmet, safety harness and all those hooks and pulleys, sliding down on his wolfish grin while fending off all manner of strange assailants whose bullets could never quite penetrate the sang-froid of a British secret service agent, but it was fun nonetheless and we were, as promised, treated to some breathtaking if fleeting view through the trees and over the Lago Nahuel Huapi and on to the mountains beyond.

View of snow capped Andes behind the Lago Nahuel Huapi

It was great fun, if not excessively challenging. After sliding down ten different wires I was feeling that, while each was certainly different, there was a certain generic similarity and I could have done with some variety. I remember doing a series of tree-top courses in France that included the wire descents as part of a much more complex (and difficult) tour and felt that this facility could have done with branching out a bit, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Ailsa disappears from sight.

Tired but happy, we headed back to our lakeside apartments to watch the moon rise over the mountains after another glorious day

The moon over Lago Nahuel Huapi

Las Torres: majestic towers and raging floods.


21st January 2009:  Éanna and I spent the day climbing in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, in Chilean Patagonia. Windswept, desolate and utterly majestic the Torres themselves dominate the landscape but the attraction doesn’t end there. Glacial lakes, rivers that can turn from gentle streams to roaring torrents in the space of a few hours and peaks that remain snow-capped even in midsummer.

There are those who like to climb to see the sunrise on the Torres, we were not in their number. Teenagers are generally allergic to early mornings and in the refuge – chock full – even a few minutes extra sleep leaves you at the back of the queue for the bathroom and indeed for breakfast, so by the time Éanna had roused and I’d had the obligatory second cup of coffee we could tell ourselves that it was cloudy anyway, so getting up earlier would have been pointless.

The path continued along by the river whose waters had created a thin green corridor quite distinct from the desolate rock of the mountain-sides.

It was an hour or so’s walk to the next camp, a very basic site used by the real hard trekkers that consists of a few small tents, one basic latrine and a bored park warden who informed us that the longer route we’d planned was closed, and that even if it wasn’t we’d have needed a permit, which we didn’t have. Nor did we have climbing equipment, knowledge or ability so the closure on the whole probably saved us a good deal of embarrassment.

Not that the next stage of the path was particularly easy as it took a sharp turn up the mountain, at first following a small mountain stream but then emerging on to a wide, steep scree.

This seemed to go on forever, and the cheery greetings of our fellow hikers on the way down telling us we were nearly there and that it was all worth it was no help.  Eventually they were right, and it really was worth it.

Lunch, maté, and photos and some quiet chats with other hikers but unlike being on the trail itself, no-one was very communicative. There was a communal sense almost of awe, people sat and lunched and enjoyed the serene beauty of the place in a companionable silence.

All good things must, eventually, come to an end. The descent was much quicker and easier of course (at least, once off the scree) and we felt we would have time to drive to one or two other lookout points before heading back to join the others. But Patagonia had other plans.

The road – the only road – from the trailhead back to the park entrance crossed, near the entrance, three separate channels of the same river via two rickety bridges and one ford. No longer 3 separate channels, the unseasonal snows of the previous week had melted in the equally unseasonal heat of the last few days and the resulting flood had turned the mild mannered river of the previous day into a raging torrent. The road was completely submerged, much of it under fast flowing water.

The hotel, itself cut off, began ferrying its guests to and from the tour buses by boat.  As the evening wore on and some slight ebbing of the water became apparent a truck driver decided to try it out and made it across, though with water well above the axles. With our low-slung hire car this was clearly not an option, but with a place booked on a ferry the next day and the car needing to be returned to the hire company in another country and 3000 km away nor really was waiting it out.

Still there was nothing to be done that night, so we headed to a refugio to try and get more information and ponder the possibilities. There was little enough of the former, but we did discover that the nearby hotel’s transport department could probably organise a transporter to get us out. For a price.

With this comforting yet worrying thought, we retired to bed.



Guangzhou, originally uploaded by Bass Tyrrell.


It is now two days since we arrived in China proper, on the train from Hong
Kong, and it seems very difficult to even access the blog. Whether this is
because the Chinese firewalls see wordpress (at least my blog) as
subversive, because the internet connections are poor or – more likely –
because the combination of controls that China imposes actually just slows
the whole thing down to such a crawl that connections are timing out I don’t
know. I do know my email client is not working properly, WordPress is
inaccessible and sites requiring secure access are slow and time out, making
life quite complicated as far as banking or most importantly booking hostels
is concerned.

We are happily installed in the Riverside Hostel located, unsurprisingly, on
the banks of the Pearl River with glorious if smoggy views across the city
and close to the old foreign enclave of Shimian Island. It’s not exactly
central but then Guangzhou doesn’t really seem to enjoy all that much by the
way of a centre and the metro – clean, modern and efficient – is a ten
minute walk. Even quicker, and landing us directly on to Shimian, is the
ferry that chugs regularly back and forth across the river.

Our three days here has worried us a bit that we are running out of steam:
where is that family that back in Ecuador and Perú never had a day without
something organised and some radically new experience? Here we planned a
side trip to Foshan, overslept, got to the station to find the Lonely Planet
was right when it referred to the station as a seething mass of humanity,
managed finally to organise tickets and then, after the train was delayed
for an hour, abandoned the effort as a bad job.

And went to Starbuck’s for a coffee. Oh the shame.

Still, today has been fun, despite a downpour of rain that has made the city
look more than a little like West Cork (wet and with no taxi to be found).
As we arrived on the far side of the river, the fish market was just getting
going with live fish being tipped into baskets, some landing on the floor
desperately thrashing to find water before the fishmongers pick them up. A
few steps further on, we enter a market area full of the smells of eastern
spices. The stall fronts – neat and nearly identical – on the main road,
full of saffron and turmeric and chilli and huge bags of rice are only the
most visible part as tiny alleys wind their way back into a maze of small
shops, restaurants, and businesses that could be almost anything: a counter
selling chickens next to a man repairing bikes. As in Vietnam, anyone who
finds business a little slow for a few minutes just puts their heads on
their hands and goes to sleep where they are. Then, as suddenly as it
started, we were out of the market and in a bustling pedestrianised shopping
street, lined with clothes shops. At least for that hour or so we felt we’d
seen something of, maybe not the real China of 2009 – the shopping malls are
just as much the real thing – but of a China that is disappearing into the
globalised mass.

Tonight we try Chinese trains: an overnight to Guilin where we hope to see
something more rural and will be staying in a small village called Xingping.
We have yet to see if the Chinese definition of a “small village” chimes
with the Irish one, and unfortunately tomorrow’s weather looks like being
awful so it could all go wrong. I think a few cycles and a crawl through the
mud in the Black Buddha caves may be just what we need to put a spring back
in our step!

IMG_1329 Stitch.jpg

Pearl River by night.

A tale of two restaurants.


Arriving in Hoi An late in the afternoon heat Ailsa and I let Julie and Síle explore the city a little while we explored the hotel pool, or at least that part of it not threatened by loose tiles on the roof, after which we had little energy for anything other than heading 100m down the road to Café 43, a very pleasant, good value small restaurant on the same quiet street as our hotel.


A quiet Hoi An street.

We went to Café 43 because it was recommended by a number of guidebooks, and it is a recommendation that I can heartily endorse: for the most part the food was excellent – the exception being the girls’ pizzas that I strongly suspected of being ordered in – the service good and the ambience extremely pleasant. It is also excellent value in a country where eating out is generally cheap but the quality varies widely.

But such listings, especially when as in this case there seems to be a chain of guides that follow each other in recommending a particular restaurant, do not always represent good news for the neighbours . Café 43 was busy: not overflowing but with a constant stream of both drinkers and diners that kept them occupied. In the meantime, several other restaurants in the same street, offering similar menus at similar prices, languished empty, suffocated in effect by the same reviews that breathe life into Café 43.

So the following night we decided to take our custom across the road, to the Sun Shine restaurant.


The Sun Shine restaurant.

We sat at the table nearest the entrance in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to encourage others to follow our example. There was a small family crisis when the menu came out, there was no spaghetti bolognaise (only spaghetti with beef and tomato sauce :(  ) and this was just too important an omission for one child to overlook, but a promise from Hoi (owner, chef and waitress) to provide a cooking demonstration and the discovery of pizza bolognaise (definitely ordered in this time: it was served by a girl wearing a scooter helmet who then disappeared as quickly as she’d arrived) eventually calmed the situation and we ordered.

Very nice food it was too, washed down with a few glasses of the local beer at 3000 dong a glass (that is about 12 cent). Hoi cooks the Vietnamese meals from scratch on a two ring stove using all fresh ingredients, many of the vegetables grown by her husband on his plot. Even the chips were proper chips, cut from a potato and fried on the spot. If the presentation lacked a little compared to their neighbours – who again had a nearly full house while we were Hoi’s only customers – then that may have as much to do with the fact that they can afford the extra staff as anything else. Hoi and her husband were charming and welcoming hosts, happy to invite us into their kitchen and show us how to prepare the food – we left not only well fed but also with a daughter promising to cook chicken with chilli and lemongrass at the first opportunity she gets, which seems an excellent investment.

Hoi is probably typical of many Vietnamese struggling to make a living on the edge of the tourist boom. Honest, hard-working and kind, she is putting two children through university in the hope that they will have a better future. It is difficult to make ends meet, and she is hopes daily for that lucky break that will see her too mentioned in one of these books and the steady trickle of tourists might turn their heads to her side of the road. She deserves it.

Settling in to Saigon


Saigon (still the correct term for the area of what is officially Ho Chi Minh City we stayed in) is an absolute madhouse: like nothing we have seen so far even in Latin America. There are apparently 3 million scooters in the city, and they all seem to converge on any road we are trying to cross: it is a bit like swimming through a shoal of fish with the added spice that if they hit you it’s going to hurt. They’ve heard of traffic lights but seem to regard them as a general guideline rather than a rule as such – they hoot the horn more often and for longer when they go through a red light.

Each block behind the main streets is a rabbit warren of tiny alleyways (scooters head down here too) where people live, eat work and sometimes even sleep in the street (I don’t mean the homeless: some people just put a bed outside their door). Walking through the streets is to be accosted by a constant stream of street sellers offering anything from food to tours to books to occasionally themselves – I’m the one who needs a protection after dark! None of it is aggressive, but the sheer persistence gets annoying. (“Why not?” I was asked by a young woman whose offer to go “you me one hour hotel boom boom” I had politely declined. Does that actually need a reason? Well, actually, charming though you appear to be I am not quite ready on the basis of our 15s acquaintance to take the relationship forward quite that fast and anyway since I am carrying two pizzas do you not think maybe the other one might be for someone?) Julie bought a couple of books off a girl in a restaurant and two minutes later another woman – who we’d earlier refused to buy from because we were in the middle of our dinner – came back in to berate us for not having bought from her.

The real pity maybe is that this all distracts from the many Vietnamese who genuinely want to talk: to practise their English, help out – open a map on a Vietnamese street and within a minute someone will ask where you want to go, tell you how to get there (so far about 2 out of 3 get it right) – or simply find out a bit about you without taking the opportunity to try and sell you marijuana. The Vietnamese seem to love to talk: those tour guides that we’ve met certainly prefer it to listening. There is a cheeky sense of humour and willingness to be familiar as well – in one museum the guide greeted us by congratulating me on being “the most handsome man in [my] family” as I waited with Julie and the girls.

Saigon alley

A Saigon alley.

The city itself is generally quite clean and well-maintained: there are people sweeping the streets, trucks washing them down and gardeners weeding the flower beds on the roundabouts

Municipal gardener

A municipal gardener

Uncle Ho’s lop-sided beard does peer down from a few billboards, but apparently nothing like as many as in Hanoi. His statue, with his arm around a small girl carrying what appears to be a machine gun, gazes down a broad boulevard in front of the city council building: it’s probably good that his gaze is fixed because I am not sure that in life he would have approved of having a stock market ticker display just to his left, or a huge new gleaming HSBC office block on his left shoulder for that matter. Reminders of the war are all around and generally rather less thoughtful than that in Hiroshima: there is a good deal of “look at all the ingenious ways we had for killing Americans”. The Cu-chi tunnels, while providing an interesting insight into why the US was more or less doomed from the start, was a bit full of this kind of stuff (some peculiarly unpleasant man-traps on display with some almost pornographic commentary about exactly how long and how painful the resulting death and dismemberment was likely to be) and I declined the option of shooting 10 rounds from an M-16 in part because that all seems to validate this Boy’s Own view of war.

Cu Chi tunnels

In the Cu Chi tunnels. There are over 240 km of old tunnels in the area, including one that led into a US base.

Man-trap at Cu-Chi

Ingenious ways of killing intruders – often quite painfully

The girls have, naturally enough, been a bit nervous though they seem to be relaxing a little after a few days. They’re happier with the food than they were in Japan anyway: the lingering French influence means you can get good bread and coffee, both of which have been lacking since we left Argentina, and the centre of Saigon has a huge variety of restaurants so we’ve filled them up with pizza and spaghetti knowing that further north they might have to learn to love Vietnamese food. Next stop, Hué: ancient imperial capital and just hit by Typhoon Ketsana. No idea what we will find when we get there.



Narita has been known to me for the last 20 years or so only as Tokyo’s new (ish) airport though, at up to an hour and a half’s travel by train from Tokyo itself it wouldn’t have been at all surprising that only Ryanair called it that.

So despite picking a hotel in Narita city so that we wouldn’t have to move bags and baggage on the last day, we fully expected a dreary airport town with little to recommend it, a sort of Crawley with Japanese food. Certainly our guide book not only didn’t recommend it it didn’t even mention the place.

On first inspection though, once away from the station and its attendant convenience stores and that ubiquitous fast food establishment (they are not restaurants, whatever they may like to pretend) whose name begins with an “M” and ends with an “cDonald” it turned out to be a pleasant enough place with a nice main street with attractive shop fronts, traditional and more international bars and restaurants and was, in short, not a bad place to wander around.

On second inspection, we found the temple.

Now, this is Japan. Of course we have visited several temples (the Buddhists) and shrines (Shinto) on our travels around the country: not to do so would be like visiting the Vatican without ever going in to a church. But, beautiful though some of them are and although each is unique in its own way they do have a certain generic similarity and so, philistines that we are, we weren’t actually dying to see more. This seemed quite modern, modest in size and generally unpromising apart from a spectacular pagoda. But it was there, it was free, and I wandered in through the elegant, and apparently quite recent, gates to discover that this was the Nakitasan Shinshoji Temple and is one of the oldest, possibly one of the largest and certainly one of the most impressive temples in the whole country.


The three-story pagoda, 25 metres high and dating from 1712.

External appearances are quite deceptive: what the site lacks in width at the street entrance it makes up for in depth. You get drawn in: at every step there is another building or path lying behind draws you in to see more. This temple continues building – the current main hall is an enormous, cavernous building built in 1968 but at least two of its predecessors, from 1858 and 1701, are still there. The site has been in use since 940, and they are not in a hurry to throw anything away.

Perhaps the most unexpected feature of all – because from the street all you can see is a few trees on the top of a small hill – is the park: 16.5 hectares of garden with ponds, streams and waterfalls (what Japanese garden would be complete without them) in a small valley completely hidden from the main street.


The hidden forest – invisible from the road.

Now we have a tendency in the west I think to romanticise Buddhism: a religion of peace, we say. No, scarcely even a religion, more a system of philosophy. Barefoot smiley monks in orange robes, who eat lentils and won’t step on a cockroach in case it is their dead aunt reincarnated. That sort of thing,

But of course humans have an uncanny ability to make their gods in their own image, and Shingon Buddhism is no exception. The temple’s main deity, Fudomyo-o, is a cranky looking character altogether and carries a sword in one hand (to “cut away hindrances of passion and false knowledge“, apparently) and a rope in the other (“to draw in beings to the enlightenment“). Enough to send shivers down the spine.

But despite this rather belligerent aspect, Fudomyoo today presides over the peace pagoda that is the single most impressive building on the site:


The peace pagoda

It contains, apparently, a time capsule with wishes for peace from world leaders, though the leaflet is strangely silent on the question of whether they were cut from those leaders with the sword and then drawn in with the rope …


Cleaning duty

All in all, this was a fascinating stop. The temple has a steady stream of visitors, but nothing like the hordes we found in Kyoto or even Miwajima. And it’s even free.

Just watch out for the sword …



Of all the pieces of advice we never received about Japan, probably the one we missed most was IF YOU ARE THINKING OF GOING IN THE THIRD WEEK OF SEPTEMBER, DON’T‼‼ This year the juxtaposition of the autumn equinox and another holiday on 19th September, together with an official bridge day to make it all a five day weekend, left this as possibly the worst time to head off on our rail passes: no spaces in the hotels, everywhere thronged with tourists and even some difficulties making reservations on the trains we wanted have made the trip run somewhat less smoothly than we would like. In particular, the hours spent on the internet and phone finding all the accommodation booked solid have made us seriously reconsider our policy of being spontaneous and going with the flow.

So from now on instead of being a spontaneous ad booking at the last minute we will revert to being completely disorganised and booking at the last minute. Ah well.

A second piece of useful advice might have been “if you must travel then, avoid Kyoto at all costs!” Hiroshima was crowded, but manageable. Kyoto was mobbed and is less easy to walk around. The buses were packed, with long queues, and the very nice people at the “foreigners'” Tourist Information (not to be confused with the normal Tourist Information Centre, which has little information not in Japanese) advised us to get a local train to a spot about an hour’s walk from the Golden Pavilion rather than wait what promised to be the same amount of time for space on a bus. The information centre, incidentally, is a bit of an oasis. On the ninth floor of the station building (in a department store so busy that the lifts down were full and skipped the 9th floor altogether) it is quiet, light, roomy, equipped with free internet and a variety of newspapers and magazines (in several European languages) and space to sit and read them.

It was a good choice, although I had to be deliberately vague about the length of the walk in order to avoid a mutiny. It was a hot afternoon – the morning having been stolen by accommodation searches, breakfast and the strangely magnetic attraction the shopping centre under the station seemed to exert – and small legs did not appreciate the exercise as much as they might. Still, we wandered not quite randomly through quiet residential districts and streets lined with small local shops and restaurants, all a far remove from the manic bustle of the centre. Stopping at one of the ubiquitous vending machines looking for water, the owners of the property rushed out, eager to help. But there was no water in the machine so, in a very Japanese way – courtesy being extremely important – they rushed off to get four glasses of water for us, the whole exchange being managed with many bows, lots of “arigatoo”s and not a few “onegai shimasu”s.

Finally we emerged on to the main road at the Ryoanji Temple (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon), another popular destination in the series of Kyoto’s endless series of huge and impressive temples and shrines (and a UNESCO world heritage site), but, philistines that we are, gave it barely a passing glance before continuing up the road to join the throng queuing for Kinkaku-ji Temple, best known for the Golden Pavilion.

The pavilion itself is stunning, no question, especially when seen from the far side of Kyo-kochi (the “mirror pond”), with its reflection in the calm waters. A place of peaceful reflection and contemplation, at least in another universe or at another time when there aren’t 10000 people fighting to get a photo of their friends or family in front of the classic image, we couldn’t linger if only because the movement of the crowd was bringing a new meaning to going with the flow and we duly ooh-ed and ahh-ed our way around the grounds before being spat out the far end.

The Golden Pavilion reflected in the mirror pond

The Golden Pavilion reflected in the mirror pond

By this time hunger, as well as tired legs, was taking its toll. The restaurant we selected (using the criterion of the first open place we saw) gave us another new experience. Rather than going to all the trouble of telling the staff what we wanted, we put our money into a vending machine and selected the appropriate button for our meal. Then – wonders of technology – an electronic voice told the staff what we had ordered. So much simpler than us just telling the servers ourselves. All cynicism aside (not an easy task for me) the result is good value: tasty, reasonably priced and as it seems with most Japanese fast food served on reusable crockery rather than stuffed into polystyrene boxes whose useful life is destined to be about 30s before they are abandoned to lie in landfill for a couple of million years.

An hour back on the bus gave us some idea of the size of the place, and took us past more huge temples and the Imperial Palace, but by then we were more than happy to head back to our Japanese-style room – futons on the tatami mat floor, or as Julie dubbed it “very expensive camping”. A good day in the end, if not quite the one we had planned.

On the Inca trail over Salkantay – day 1


I’ve decided: the official “camino de los Inca” (Inca Trail) is clearly a tourist trap designed for over-organised under-achievers: who, seriously, knows what they are doing six months ahead of time?

I was feeling quite virtuous and well-organised when, two weeks before we were due to arrive, I contacted a travel agency (Incapoint) only to find that the official trail was booked out for several months: there are though a number of alternative trails set up since numbers were restricted in 2002: you can mountain-bike parts, take a series of ancient Inca paths at the other end of the valley or, and for some reason this caught our eye, get up at four in the morning to start the four day climb over the Abra Salkantay (Salkantay Pass) that the more adventurous Inca used to reach Macchu Picchu. You need to be young, adventurous and in good physical condition to attempt this trek, and ticking none of those boxes I decided to do it anyway. Seriously, it is described as challenging and although the distances sound quite modest for hiking over flat ground 17km is a long way when you are chasing one of the few available oxygen molecules at 4600m above sea level.

So it was that Éanna (17), Síle (11) and I found ourselves on a bus that was slowly filling up with other passengers while porters and guides outside threw luggage – we hoped ours, but it seemed quite random – up onto the roof. A long bus journey later we were dropped in the village of Mollepata, where we were to breakfast in one of a series of restaurants that, miraculously, seemed prepared with very similar and similarly priced menus. This breakfast is not included in the package (causing our party the first of a number of rows with the tour companies: it had been made clear to us but not to everyone) and was twice the price we had been told by the agent. Still, we ate gratefully and quickly, keen to move on.

The outskirts of Mollepata

The outskirts of Mollepata

Leaving Mollepata and starting to climb.

Mollepata is at 2900m, a height where in Europe we are used to finding glaciers or at least pockets of left-over snow but here in the tropical Andes it is a different story and the town nestles in a fertile green valley, not exactly rich farming country maybe – it is arid, sandy and many of the fields are perched vertiginously on the edge of a cliff – but you can see how it is possible to live and even make a profit from the land.

Setting out

Setting out

Setting out.

Starting out, we introduced ourselves with names and ages, my admission of being a lad of 48 summers provoking a sharp and rather unnecessary intake of breath. Most of the rest of our multinational group – 2 Poles, 2 Belgians, 3 Australians and one New Yorker completed the team – were in their twenties and thirties and appeared to regard such an ancient as a liability rather than a source of wisdom and knowledge.

The first days walk was mostly on a rough dirt road, with occasional shortcuts as Edwin our guide termed them: steep, winding paths that cut off a few bends in the road while also robbing us of breath. It was uphill, not usually steep while following the road but hot, dusty and relentless. Still, slowly but surely the mountain tops that had surrounded us in Mollepata were shrinking to the point where we were looking down on them from a considerable height, though the ones in front of us didn’t appear to be getting any smaller at all.

Mirando atras

Looking back.

Enterprising locals had set up a number of stalls on the route to sell water, fizzy drinks and snacks at reasonable prices (especially considering the effort involved in getting the supplies up there): much welcomed but the accompanying rubbish was a real disappointment. A continuous trail of plastic bottles, wrappers and other detritus lines the route. Mostly, according to the guide, this is not the fault of the hikers but of the support teams: the cooks, the porters and the local traders. I don’t know if the hikers can be absolved quite so easily but it is certainly true that the campsites and lunch stops were not well-maintained and it was depressing to arrive at a stop and leave the rubbish we’d collect on the route in a bin, only to find an open tip on the slopes as we left the stopping point.


One of many stalls servicing the hikers.

As day turned to evening, we continued the relentless climb, the temperature began to plummet and we finally caught sight of the peak of Salkantay and, nestling beneath the glacier, the campgrounds for the various tours.


The snow-capped summit of Salkantay finally appears behind the valley walls.

By the time we reached the camp, at some 3600m above sea level, it was close to freezing if not already below. Any expectation anyone might have had of a session round the camp fire was quickly dispelled: we had neither fire nor energy: we drank tea, ate wearing gloves and collapsed into the tents to try to sleep on the hard stony ground, though not before we managed to gaze in wonder at the stars: the Milky Way lit up the night sky in a spectacular display that far outshone the best I have ever seen it achieve in the north. Little wonder the Incas knew a thing or two about astronomy.