The worst travel day ever…

I’m taking the approach of a tabloid sub-editor and using outrageous hyperbole for the title of today’s post. But this was not a fun journey.

The theory was straightforward enough. We were scheduled to leave Lima at 13:05 and arrive in Cancun at 18:42. The plan was to sped a few days on the island of Cozumel, and do some more diving while we were there. I had checked that the ferry to Cozumel from Playa del Carmen on the mainland ran until 11pm, and it was a 45 minute to 1 hour taxi ride from Cancun airport to the ferry terminal. That all sounded like a reasonable contingency cushion so I went ahead and booked our Cozumel hotel for the Tuesday night.

I was aware in advance that this would be our least comfortable flight, since it was the only route in our RTW trip where business class wasn’t available. We were in economy and when I booked it back in October, I knew I’d be able to deal with a single economy flight with all the rest in business.

We were ready to head to the airport on Tuesday morning when Ishbel, jokingly, said “Maybe you should check your email to see if we’re delayed.” After arriving at the airport for our previous flight, from Buenos Aires to Lima, just as we received an email informing us of a 7 hour delay, we thought it prudent to check anyway. And, as luck would have it, we had an email saying we’d been delayed by two and a half hours. This was going to make it tight for the ferry, but still manageable assuming reasonable immigration and baggage experiences.

We delayed our departure by an hour then Uber’ed out to the airport. No priority check-in are bag drop for us so we queued up and, fairly quickly, handed over the bags then headed through the exit formalities to wait airside. We killed some time with window shopping but, eventually, our flight was called.

We were instructed to form two lines: Rows 1-14 and rows 15-29. I could see our plane n the runway and it had steps at the front and back. I also noticed it was an Airbus A320. I’ve flown in this plane many times because BA use it between Glasgow and London, but I always thought of it as a short-haul craft. Interesting that we have it for a five and a half hour journey. Anyway, I assumed that they would start both lines and our line would board at the front and the rest at the back. But no. Everyone from the other line boarded first the we got on. Luckily, there hadn’t been too much use of the overhead bins, so we got my mandolin and Ishbel’s camera bag in there.

We had been allocated seats 11A and 11B, which I hadn’t really thought much about. I let Ishbel take the window seat since she may want to take photos. I was in the middle. Not great, but it’s not the end of the world. Fully loaded, the doors closed, the safety demonstration was performed and off we soared into the wild blue yonder. And, as we soared and with the seat belt lights still illuminated, the lady in front of me decided it was time to recline. She remained in that position for the entire flight. I don’t usually recline my seat but I decided to give myself that extra bit of room and lounge back myself.

I’m in 11B. The emergency exits are in Row 12. You may or may not know that the row in front of the emergency exit – in this case Row 11 – has its recline function disabled so that a reclined seat does not block the exit in the event of an emergency. So I was stuck there with the lady in Row 10 luxuriating in her semi-recumbent position while I sat hunched up for the rest of the journey.

The captain made up some time on the journey so that we landed shortly after 8:00pm in Cancun. And then we waited 20 minutes before a pier became available for us and we trundled over there and finally got the doors open. Ishbel and I are expert in power walking from the plane door to the immigration queue and we were doubly motivated today by the possibility of missing our ferry. There was a short line when we got to immigration and there was one Mexican lady in particular who was the most efficient official we have seen in our travels. She was speed reading and stamping passports at an incredible rate and, before we knew it, we were at her counter and being stamped with alacrity. Excellent. It was now 8:30pm. We can do this!

All we had to do now was wait for the bags to start appearing on Carousel number 2. So we grabbed a couple of baggage carts and scoped out the optimal waiting spot and stood in anticipatory tension, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Another flight arrived and their passengers started coming through immigration. And their bags started appearing on Carousel number 3. Questioning of the nearest unfortunate in a high-vis vest revealed that all the bags from our flight were being checked by customs officials. At 9:40pm, the familiar siren and flashing light signalled the intention of the carousel to start up. And start it did. Bags appeared. Five of them. Then it stopped again. A further five minutes of mounting tension and rising blood pressure and the siren sounded again. The lights flashed and the carousel finally started disgorging its precious cargo. Our bags weren’t the first out, but they arrived.

We loaded everything onto our trolleys then bounded hell for leather towards the exits. Where we encountered another queue. Every single bag, including hand baggage, from every single passenger, was being passed through an x-ray machine before we could exit. We finally reached the front of the queue and hefted our bags onto the belt then scurried round to pick them up again. Charging on, we encountered one last obstacle. There was a random baggage check and you had to press a button. If it was green, off you trotted. If red – a full open bag check lay in your immediate future. My head may have exploded if the red light had come on but fortunately, it was green. It’s now 9:55pm.

The first thing I see upon exit is a currency exchange. Conscious that I have no pesos, I rush towards it in time to see its sole occupant exit and rush towards the toilets. OK – no time to wait for him. Ground transportation is a priority. Ground transportation that will take a credit card. There are counters. I decided randomly on one. It’s just on 10pm.

“I want to get to the ferry terminal at Playa del Carmen. Can you get me there by 11pm?”

“Sure,” is the suspiciously casual reply. Either I’m worrying needlessly or this young lady doesn’t give a damn whether I make it or not. I don’t have time to analyse the nuance of her tone. I pay what she asks and rush outside to find my allocated car. We load all the luggage in the boot and dive into the back seat ready to be whisked ferry-wards. The driver appears to have found some paperwork that needs to be completed before the engine can be turned on. Apoplexy is only just around the corner for me.

Finally the key turns and we’re off. I tell him we need to make the last ferry at 11pm. He wants a good tip if he makes it he says. I agree, without necessarily explicitly revealing that his tip will be paid in a combination of leftover Chilean Pesos and Peruvian Soles. We arrive at the entrance to the terminal at something like 10:53pm. We disgorge ourselves and our luggage and I thrust some random currency into the driver’s hand. Then we start running. And running.

It turns out that the nearest vehicular traffic can get to the ferry is the entrance to a mall which is around 500m from the ferry itself. Eventually, we see a sign pointing up an escalator for ferries to Cozumel. Onward and upward we race and reach the entrance.

“Two returns to Cozumel,” I proudly say.

“No. Ticket office downstairs.”

Ishbel waits with the luggage and I take the stairs two at a time, locate the appropriate booth and acquire the tickets. Back up I go, heart pumping and every ounce of fluid in my body pushing its way through the pores in my forehead. We have tickets!

“You’d better hurry,” say the helpful ticket collectors. We pass through the ticket barrier, then have to go downstairs again. It’s a long pier, and the ferry is at the very far end of it. More running. More sweating. As we near the ferry, they pull up the gangway nearest us. Bastards! We run on. We check te two suitcases and we’re on board. We made it, with the gangway being pulled up behind us. We find seats with a table and slump down. We deserve a beer so I pop to the bar to acquire a couple. It’s cash only. And I still don’t have any pesos. They take US money, but can’t change the $100 bill which is the only thing I have. OK, the beer can wait.

It’s a 45 minute ride to the island and all goes smoothly. We disembark, collect our bags, walk to the exit, then ponder our options. There are no ATMs in view. This doesn’t look like the kind of place where te taxis will take cards. We consider walking. We dismiss walking. Fortunately, there’s a taxi marshal who speaks English. He agrees that we can get a taxi who will take us to an ATM on the way to the hotel. This part of the journey goes smoothly and without a hitch.

We pick up pesos and we drive to the hotel. The check-in process is straightforward and we’ve arrived.

“One last thing,” I say to the gentleman at Reception. “Where can I get a beer?”

“Sorry, sir, but the bar’s closed.”

 

 

Pachacamac and the Incas

We had taken a look at the urban sprawl that constituted Lima, and we’d identified some of the things we wanted to see outside the city itself. We’d also taken a close look at Peruvian traffic and driving practices and determined we didn’t want to engage in them at first hand. We looked online for some tours that would best meet our needs and settled on a company called Haku tours. We signed up for a visit to Pachacamac on 28th March.

Pachacamac is a name we were not familiar with before arriving here, so we did a little bit of pre-reading before setting out on the Thursday morning. The site was settled in about 200 AD and grew in importance under the Wari empire, eventually holding status as the home of an oracle under the Inca empire.

The site is about an hour’s drive away from our base in Miraflores, passing a number of interesting points. Our guide, Amadeo, drew our attention in particular to the many shanty towns that have sprung up around the city. In the 1950s, Lima was a city of one million people in a country with a total population around 8 million. It now hosts 11 million citizens, representing one-third of the Peruvian population of 33 million. As with many Southern hemisphere countries, economic growth has been associated with increased industrialization and, as a direct result, people move from the country to the city. And their children tend to stay in the city.

Although he describes them as shanty towns, the literal translation would be “Young Towns.” The owner of Haku Tours grew up in a shanty town and everyone in the company gets two days off every month to go and do volunteer work in the towns.

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When we got to Pachamac, I was surprised at how huge and well-preserved the site was. There are a number of distinct areas which supported different activities. The Mamacones complex was an educational establishment for the female children of the elite of the Wari culture. Although Wari men filled the role of leaders as warriors, true political power resided in the women.

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At Mamacones, the girls were taught how to govern by senior women. They spent their formative years learning and drinking beer and, at the end of their education they were offered three choices: marry, stay and be a teacher, or become a sacrifice to the gods. Apparently, enough of them chose the last option to keep the gods appeased. Possibly in part due to the permanent state of intoxication in which they existed.

As the Incan empire expanded, it adopted many of the existing belief systems of the conquered peoples and incorporated them into their own. Thus, Pachacamac continued to be a place of pilgrimage for individuals who wanted to consult the oracle who, in turn, continued to dispense enigmatic and ambiguous predictions.

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They even constructed a road that ran direct from Pachacamac to their showpiece capital at Machu Picchu.

From my European perspective, I’ve always thought of the Incas as the dominant pre-Columbian force in South America so it’s interesting to discover that their period of dominance lasted only around 100 years. In fact, the Spanish conquistadors exploited the resentment of the peoples conquered by the Incans. This was in part what allowed them to overthrow such a huge empire with a small expeditionary force.

 

 

In the absence of an appropriate frog*…

…we crossed the Andes in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Latam airlines are using this plane on a few of our flights with them, and so far it’s been a very pleasant experience. Ishbel wasn’t entirely happy with our proximity to these mountains, but it was a clear day and the view was wonderful.

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It’s only a two hour flight from Santiago to Buenos Aires and everything went smoothly. The immigration procedure was straightforward and the queues were nothing like as bad as they were on our arrival into Santiago. So we emerged quickly from the formalities to be greeted by a disappointing absence of our pre-arranged hotel driver. We communicated with our hotel only to find out we wouldn’t be picked up.  The driver had been unable to make it out of the city due to some major protests and the associated police presence. We made our own arrangements and headed into the city.

We were booked into L’Hotel Palermo for our Argentinian stay. I’d read good reviews of the place and it was situated in the part of town where we wanted to stay, Palermo Soho. Palermo is BA’s largest barrio and has a couple of different designations: Soho is named because it’s alleged to resemble its NY namesake, while Palermo Hollywood is the more upmarket part, with designer shops and achingly cool cocktail bars. We were happy with our choice of area and, when we eventually got there, with our choice of hotel. The rooms were subdivisions of a number of townhouses, gathered around a central courtyard, with a small pool. It was perfect for us. After checking in and watching the poor concierge lug our weighty bags upstairs (there were no lifts and he insisted) we unpacked then headed out for a look at the ‘hood.

What we saw mostly were bars. We were one block away from Plazoleta Julio Cortazar which is bounded on all sides by bars and restaurants. The roads that radiated away from the plaza appeared also to be lined with bars and restaurants. We were going to like it here. We had a couple of beers and a bite to eat at a little place looking out over the square, which my Revolut app informed me cost GBP 13. At the current exchange rate (ARS 40 to one USD) living is cheap here.

From our vantage point, we identified a place we would definitely be visiting. It advertised “Wine Tasting” on a cinema marquee so we decided to make our way over there and find out more. The first thing we noticed was that the legend above the door was actually picked out in wine bottles.

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We found out that they offered tastings at 5pm and 7pm, so we booked ourselves in for the early slot on Sunday evening.

Thursday was our first full day in Buenos Aires, and I wanted to visit the Cathedral. Of football. The stadium of Boca Juniors – La Bombonera – was first on our list. The iconic Boca shirt has been worn by some great players over the years – Maradona, Batistuta, Riquelme and more – and they are identified as the working class heroes of Buenos Aires, as opposed to the more refined air that surrounds their great rivals, River Plate. La Boca itself is an interesting area, but not one where the unwary should wander too freely.

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They have a nice museum at the stadium, but limited English language interpretation of the exhibits. An enjoyable visit nonetheless for anyone with an interest in the beautiful game.

We used Uber to get to and from Boca and the journey took between a half hour and forty-five minutes, costing six dollars each way. This was very cheap, but as you will know if you’ve been keeping up with our progress, nothing stands in the way of Ishbel’s drive to utilise the public transport systems of our host cities. But that was an adventure for another day. For the moment, it was back to Palermo and another wander around the streets.

Over the course of our travels, we have been pretty much two meals a day people, occasionally taking a lunchtime snack if we’d breakfasted early or planned on dining late. Buenos Aires is designed to thwart that plan. In the evenings, restaurants don’t open until 8pm and stay open into the wee small hours to serve the needs of their clientele. By 6pm we were starving and went on a hunt to find somewhere that might be open. We did eventually track down a place that was accepting diners at this unfashionably early hour so popped in, looked at the menu, and decided what we would be having. We had been warned that you should always ask in BA whether cards are accepted. I’d forgotten to do this on the way in, but had the presence of mind to inquire before ordering. “No. Solo effectivo,” was the response, meaning cash only.

We hadn’t yet picked up any Argentinian money so made our excuses and left. Eventually, we did track down a restaurant that was both open and accepting of plastic. It was a tapas place and we were so relieved that we forgot to ask what size the tapas portions were. They were huge. One of the problems with the restaurants being cheap is that you have an expectation of value in this type of place. While your mind expects a small dish of patatas bravas for two quid, the Argentine reality is that you’re getting a lot of food for that price. Needless to say, there were a lot of leftovers and a lesson learned.

We did eventually manage to find a cash machine and withdraw money, but the charges for doing so are frighteningly high. If you find yourself in need of cash in Argentina, you should definitely convert currency rather than use an ATM.

 

*If you’re wondering what the title is all about, it’s a reference to an episode  of the Michael Palin/Terry Jones series Ripping Yarns: Across The Andes By Frog.  

Scream if you wanna go faster

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to visit many different countries, sometimes for pleasure and sometimes for work. The corollary to this is that I have also had the misfortune to experience many different approaches to best practice among the world’s taxi-driving communities. Nothing prepared me for my drive from the airport to the centre of Santiago – not even India.

We arrived from New Zealand on Monday, three hours before we left. The international dateline is a confusing thing. Already befuddled by this, we were treated to an immigration process worthy of Heathrow at its finest, as we spent 90 minutes waiting in line to present our credentials to those worthy men and women who guard Chile’s borders against an influx of mountebanks and ne’er-do-wells. After eventually negotiating the border, we changed some money so that we had walking about money in Pesos and avoided the many unofficial drivers to ensure we booked an official, fully licensed Santiago taxi to get us to our AirBnB.

Our driver proceeded to demonstrate his Formula 1 credentials as he weaved between and across traffic at high speed with millimetres to spare. I spent the ride with a fixed smile on my face, radiating to Ishbel a confidence I did not feel on the inside. I was delighted when we reached our destination and departed the cab with unseemly haste.

We were booked into a flat on Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins in the city’s Lastarria district. The entrance to the block was unprepossessing and the door didn’t open fully due to some hinge problem which also produced a painful, grating screech as its lower edge dragged along the floor. Despite the unpromising first impression, our sixth floor flat turned out to be lovely. We had a large living room with a small kitchenette in one corner, and a snug bedroom. Perfect for our needs.

Google maps was, once again, our friend as we located a nearby supermarket and launched a sortie to acquire necessary supplies. Tea and milk. We also bought ingredients for a simple relaxing meal. We decided to eat in as we couldn’t make up our minds as to whether or not we should be jetlagged. The bottle of Carmenere helped.

The following day we had a relaxing start to the morning. With lots of tea, despite the barriers thrown in our faces by science. Santiago is at about 600m elevation above sea level, which means water boils at 98°C (150m = 0.5°C). This means we don’t get quite the full infusion necessary for a perfect cup, but it was adequate.

Replete with tea, we decided to start our exploration of the city slowly and visit the most local tourist attraction to us: Bellas Artes – the National Museum of Fine Arts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There were some quite striking works on display in here, and we started to get our first taste of Chile’s determination to meet head-on certain sensitive eras of its past, from the Conquistadors to the Pinochet regime, through art and other media.

The building itself was very impressive, and we were also able to see an exhibition with a splendidly punny name: From here to modernity. I can only assume that the old movie ‘From here to eternity’ had a literal translation as its Spanish title.

After the gallery, we had a walk around the neighbourhood to get our bearings and came across a park slap bang in the middle of it. Not so much a park as a miniature hill that climbed steeply straight up from street level to be topped off eventually by a shrine. This was the Cerro Santa Lucia. By this time, however, we had gone several hours without a cup of tea so headed back to the flat to rectify that situation and to play our instruments for the first time in a few days. There were clear signs of rustiness there, so we spent  while trying to improve our respective techniques.

Eventually, we headed back out to the park to ascend the hill and see what the view was like from the top.

IMG_2320 Flights of stairs led to the peak, but they would have been condemned and shut down had they been in the UK. The uneven steps and low barriers added an unnecessary element of excitement to the climb but the view from the top was magnificent.

After this, we once again called into our local supermarket. We ate at home again, despite the siren cry of the many restaurants within walking distance. We decided we needed to do some planning and wanted to book a wine tasting tour.

A quiet evening and some research was the plan to end our first full day in Chile.

Unillustrated Auckland

Saturday, 23rd February saw us take flight once again. We were flying Qantas to Auckland. This would be our 8th stop of the 15 permitted on our RTW ticket, so a halfway point in a sense.

There was a little excitement in the air as we arrived in New Zealand because, as luck would have it, our initial brief stay in Auckland coincided with a decent size poker tournament with a NZD 500 buy in, which is around GBP 250. This was a single day tournament so it fitted perfectly with our schedule. We were planning only two nights in Auckland before flying south to Christchurch as part of our extensive tour of New Zealand.

The SkyCity Casino was hosting the tournament so, for convenience, we stayed at the SkyCity Grand Hotel.  We arrived in the early evening so didn’t get much chance to explore the city. The one sight we did see, since it was slap bang between the hotel and casino, was the Sky Tower.

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This is yet another tower built on exactly the same lines as the Stratosphere in Vegas and the Macau tower which we photographed back in January. We made it our mission to find out who was first.

The Macau Tower was completed in 2001 and is 338m high. Auckland’s Sky Tower was completed in 1997 and is 328m high. The Stratosphere Tower was completed first, in 1996 and is the tallest, at 350.2m. I’m sure that will settle lots of arguments around family dinner tables.

We called it a night at this point – there’s only so much excitement we can handle – and rested ourselves in preparation for Sunday’s tournament.

We had breakfast in a place just next door to our hotel – and across the road from the casino’s front door – called the Federal Deli, which was delicious. We registered promptly for the 12:30pm start and, like so many tournaments, it started a half hour late. Also in common with many tournaments, I busted out early and it was left to Ishbel to fly the flag for Scotland. There were 70 entries in the end and a five figure sum was on offer for the eventual winner. They were paying only 8 places in the tournament, so Ishbel was disappointed to eventually bust out of the tournament in 11th place.

After she finished, we had a late dinner and since we’d enjoyed breakfast there so much, we went back to the Federal Deli again.

So almost all of our Auckland activity took place in one small street in the centre of town. And that’s why this post is mostly unillustrated.

The following morning we re-packed our gear and stowed a suitcase and both instruments at a storage facility called The Luggage Hotel. We would be moving around a lot for the next week or so and decided to travel light.  Then it was off to the airport for a budget one-way flight to Christchurch. Ishbel’s camera should be back in action for the rest of the trip.

The Planning Stage – Flights

Foolishly, I believed that after I had finished working my project planning days would be over. But travelling round the world is a major enterprise. Of course, the first thing that I launched into was planning the trip itself. That, after all, was always going to be the fun part.

I’ll be honest and admit that it was never my intention to rough it round the world. This isn’t going to be a late life gap year trip where we travel on budget airlines and sleep in backpackers’ hostels. I decided early on that business class was the way to go, if I could get it at the right price. The easiest way to achieve that was to look at the major airline alliances and decide which would be able to support the kind of itinerary we had in mind. In the end, we settled on the One World Alliance.

The conditions on a RTW ticket are very specific. You need to keep going in (roughly) the same direction: East-West or West-East. (North-South doesn’t seem to matter much.)  You need to cross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans once each and once only. And you can only have 15 stops before returning to your start point. Even if you make your own way between two points – say land in Sydney and depart from Brisbane, that counts as one of your 15. Also, if there’s no direct flight and you have to make a change to get from A to B, that counts as 2 flights out of your 15.

These conditions don’t seem particularly onerous and leave plenty of scope for seeing a lot of the world, but we were surprised by how much it forced us to compromise on where and when we visited. The best way to maximise the 15 stop condition is to run the RTW planner side by side with the route map tool, so you can see whether your flight will be direct or require a stopover.

The planner allows you to save itineraries as you go. We ended up with five possible routes before finally settling on this one.