A survival guide to Buenos Aires’ La Boca

When I was in Buenos Aires, I kept putting off going to the area with all the multicoloured houses that is such an icon of the city. People kept telling me scare stories about the dangerous neighbourhood it’s in, but one day I plucked up the courage to go…check out my experience of La Boca on Stanfords’ blog.

Rachel in El Caminito, La Boca

Rachel in El Caminito, La Boca

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The hotel that went POP

After months staying in bare-basics hostels through South America, when I arrived in Buenos Aires I decided a couple of nights in a decent hotel were in order. Luck was on my side when I found a great deal online for the intriguing-sounding Pop Hotel.

Lush furnishings, plush carpets and sturdy oak furniture you will not find at Pop. This first budget boutique hotel to open in Buenos Aires was designed with slick minimalism in mind – modern lines and built-in furniture keep the rooms functional yet sleek, with splashes of primary colours or monochrome to make it go pop.

My room and the lobby of Pop Hotel, Buenos Aires. Photo © Rachel Ricks

My room and the lobby of Pop Hotel, Buenos Aires. Photos © Rachel Ricks

Mine was a junior room, which to my surprise incorporated a mini kitchen – a black faux-granite worktop with sunken bowl sink, a kettle, two mugs and a mini fridge, all of which were really useful, particularly as the hotel doesn’t serve breakfast. After a while travelling, it’s the simple things that mean the most and it was a nice treat to come back to the hotel in the afternoon and be able to make a cup of tea and curl up on the bed with a packet of biscuits and the TV remote in-hand. I was lucky as I had a corner room, so the L-shaped layout meant my kitchen area was tucked away out of sight from the bed, making it feel almost like a mini studio apartment. Being on the corner also meant I had no less than four windows with pleasant outlooks on leafy Palermo.

There was everything you could need, but no fuss: cable TV; telephone; air con; safe; hairdryer: check. Toiletries were a bit different to appeal to younger tastes: funky little bottles of shampoo, soap, and dehydrated face cloths that came in the size of pills that expand to full size in water.

The decent-sized bathroom had floor-to-ceiling white brick tiles with black grouting, maintaining the urban living vibe, and a contrasting red bowl sink on a black stand, which provided useful resting space for my toiletries.

I can see why ‘pop art’ or ‘urban’ style is an increasingly popular choice for hoteliers – you can cut corners and your décor budget considerably, without losing on style and credibility. There was a small black table in my room that, although useful, was made of flimsy MDF wood and steel legs that gave it an Ikea-cheapie feel.

The room did the job well though – the jumbo-sized bed had crisp white bedding, a fluffy duvet, though only two pillows. An alcove fitted with a clothes rail above a built-in desk with two deep drawers provided the alternative to a musty wardrobe.

The room lighting was alternative, with a bendy reading lamp attached to each side of the bed-head and a low-hanging lampshade on the overhead light.

The only problem was, everything was so trendy and immaculately clean and contemporary that it only further highlighted the objectionable state of my backpack and its contents after six months on the road.

Pop Hotel
Juan Ramírez de Velasco 793, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Best for:
Pop art-loving minimalists.
What I paid: Around US$30, through a special offer on Expedia.com.ar, otherwise the rate is US$110 +21% tax for a junior room.
Showers: Gas heated; you wait a while for the hot water to come through, but when it does, it’s excellent.
Internet: WiFi throughout; the enthusiastically named ‘Business Lounge’ has a desk with two PCs on the second-floor corridor.
Other facilities: The corridors on the other floors host the ‘Movies Lounge’ and the ‘Library Lounge’. I’d rather stay in the comfort of my room to watch a film or read a book, though. Rooms also come with iPod docks. Daily housekeeping. Laundry service.
Website: www.pophotelsbuenosaires.com

I went to Machu Picchu at last

As you may have read in my blog previously, I have become somewhat cynical about ruins, so after craving to see Machu Picchu for nigh on 15 years, I was apprehensive whether it would live up to the hype.

I rose at 4.30am to get to the site for sunrise. It had rained heavily all night, and sure enough when I eagerly went to the window, clouds hung low and a fog saturated the valley in which Machu Picchu Town sits. Trying to remain hopeful for it to clear later on, I busied myself with acquiring a lunch pack from the town’s handy 24-hour shops, and getting to the bus stop as quickly as possible.

The bus wound up the mountain towards the site entrance, and ever-thicker clouds. After we piled off the bus we joined 20,000* other people in a wide and long queue, and shuffled through airport-style gates to have tickets and passports scanned. We were then unleashed on to the site. Like animals released from pens, we all scattered around, bumping into each other, in an almost panic as to which way to go would be best.

We started climbing a set of wet stone steps; some of the tourists in inappropriate footwear slipped and struggled, while the rest of us barged upwards, no idea where we were headed, but knowing we had to get somewhere good, and fast.

I had a ticket that included entrance to Machu Picchu Mountain – I had been disappointed when the more popular Huayna Picchu Mountain tickets had sold out for the week. So I decided to head for the mountain and get away from the masses. Admittance to the mountain is only between 7-11am and I had some time to wait for the gate to open, so I sat on the edge of an Inca terrace, to breakfast on a ham and cheese croissant, alone at last in the peaceful fog.

Climbing Machu Picchu Moutain through the fog

Climbing the first of many steps up Machu Picchu Moutain through the fog

By now I had pretty much given up on the idea of seeing the sunrise, and concentrated instead on ascending the mountain. After 30 minutes of climbing, an opening appeared on the side of the path, just as the clouds began to lift off to reveal the mountain range opposite. I sat a while watching this beautiful phenomena of the sun slowly burning through. Then suddenly, magically, Machu Picchu began to emerge. The ruins on Huayna Picchu became visible first, on a craggy mountain. Then, below, the citadel now so familiar in my mind’s eye revealed itself in the flesh. The sun burnt harder and soon just a wispy cloud frame remained round the site. From this mountain, you get the classic view of Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu behind it, so in the end I was glad I got to climb this peak instead.

Clouds framing the site of Machu Picchu

Clouds framing the site of Machu Picchu

Satisfied and awe-inspired, I continued upwards. I didn’t know how high Machu Picchu Mountain is. I didn’t know how the rising sun would start to make me steam in the semi-jungle climate, nor how many increasingly vertiginous stone steps I would have to mount. I didn’t know how many times I would collapse on a step and vow not to continue.

But somehow I did, and every step was worth it – it was exhilirating to reach the summit with 360° views of the mountains all around, putting the site of Machu Picchu into its perplexing perspective. Here the Andes meet the High Jungle of the Amazon Basin, so the mountains pour with jungle down to the Urubamba River that swerves round the peaks that Machu Picchu straddles. The mountains are voluptuous with trees and life, making delicious viewing. The path all the way up had been buzzing with hummingbirds and butterflies.

Me atop Machu Picchu Mountain

Me atop Machu Picchu Mountain

When I descended and went to sign out at the warden’s cabin, I asked the time – 12 noon – we had been five hours on the mountain.

Now the site was completely different to how I left it early in the morning – the sun was blazing, and everywhere was brimming with brightly dressed tourists freshly bundled in off the train. I headed towards the ruins – I was to get close to them at long last!

My first impression? They looked fake. The buildings have been so extensively reconstructed and polished, they looked to me like Lego houses, and being surrounded by pristinely trimmed, lurid green European lawn grass doesn’t help the feeling of authenticity. I couldn’t help thinking they would have been better left how Hiram Bingham found them, with the jungle encroaching all around.

I veered off from the crowds to walk to the Inca Drawbridge. This for me was probably one of the most effecting ruins of the whole site – one I’d never heard of nor seen pictures of before. The Incas, in some miraculous feat, built a ‘road’ – a narrow path for us, but no less remarkable – clinging to a sheer mountain face. After following the path (trying not to look down to the thundering river below) for about 20 minutes, I stepped through a large rock chasm to see the road continuing round a curve in the mountainside, and almost opposite was the bridge – simply a gap in the stone road that would have been traversed by wooden planks.

Nowadays you’re not allowed to continue to the bridge as someone fell to their death from it some years ago. I was left unconvinced by the bridge itself, but for me, the thought of men constructing a road, with nothing but stones, suspended thousands of metres up this vertical rockface, some 550 years ago, was mind-blowing.

The vertigo-inducing Inca Road on Machu Picchu mountainside

The vertigo-inducing Inca Road on Machu Picchu mountainside

It was time to explore the citadel. Despite my first impression, I was still taken aback – these must be the most astonishing ruins I have ever seen – and I’ve seen a lot. The scale of the site is something I wasn’t expecting – this really is a city on a hilltop. I wandered narrow streets and broad plazas, admired temples and stood on top of rows of terraces that descended the mountainsides as far as the eye could see.

So did Machu Picchu live up to the hype? The moving way in which it appeared for me out of the clouds in the morning is one of those experiences of a lifetime; its spectacular location appealed to the mountain-lover in me; the sheer size, scale and quantity of ruins is extraordinary. What’s there not to like?

Me in an Inca window, Machu Picchu

Me in an Inca window, Machu Picchu

How to do Machu Picchu
By a trek:
various treks, including the four-day Inca Trail, can be arranged in Cusco or through tour companies from your home country.
Independently: by train (www.perurail.com; www.incarail.com; 1 hour 30 mins) from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley or organise a car from Cusco (approx 7 hours) through travel agencies there. You’ll arrive in Machu Picchu Town (commonly known as Aguas Calientes) where you can find accommodation ranging from innumerate hostals to select hotels. The town exists solely for tourists, so you’ll find everything you need here, from ATMs to bakeries, and the streets are lined with restaurants serving everything from Peruvian soups to Mexican enchiladas, and from English breakfasts to pizzas.
To get to the site: if you want to see the sunrise over the site, you’ll need to stay in Aguas Calientes the night before as the first trains don’t arrive until around 8am. You then take a bus (from right by the train tracks, the bus ticket office is also nearby; US$14 return; US$9 single) up to the site. You can walk if you fancy more exercise.
You must buy your ticket for Machu Picchu at least one day in advance – there is a ticket office just off the main plaza in Aguas Calientes.
Machu Picchu entrance fee: S/.128 basic entry; S/.142 to include Machu Picchu Mountain. There are discounts for children, students with ID, and Peruvian nationals. The site is open from 6am to 5pm every day.

My top tips for Machu Picchu

  • Contrary to what I read in my guidebook and other sources of information, you can take your own food and drinks in to the site – just be discreet and courteous about it. You can get a lunch pack from plenty of shops and cafés in Aguas Calientes.
  • There is a storage facility at the entrance gate for larger pieces of luggage at S/.3 a piece.
  • Be sure to take 2 litres of water if you’re spending the day there, and especially if climbing one of the peaks.
  • There is a café outside the entrance to the site, plus a café in the Sanctuary Lodge Hotel. Both are, as to be expected, overpriced.
  • Carry as little as possible.
  • Be sure to use plenty of sunscreen and reapply after every few hours; sunhat, sunglasses and a waterproof jacket are also essential.
  • Toilets are outside the entrance (S/.1).
  • Give yourself plenty of time in the site – there’s tonnes to see and a lot of ground to cover.
  • Before you get the train back home, unless you’re sunburnt like I was, stop for a soak in the hot springs (S/.10) in Aguas Calientes – you’ll deserve it!

*Not true. The Peruvian Ministry of Culture manages the site impeccably and with a limit of 2,500 people being allowed into the site each day, you never feel too encroached upon.

All information is correct as of the time of my visit (19/11/12).

The not-so relaxing hot springs of Lares

While I was living in the Sacred Valley in Peru, I took a trip to the famous hot springs of Lares, however, it wasn’t quite as relaxing as would be expected…read my article on Stanfords’ website.

Lares hot springs. Photo © Rachel Ricks

Lares hot springs. Photo © Rachel Ricks

Lima – misunderstood city

Peru’s capital, Lima, is often presented as a dangerous and generally unappealing city. Here’s my take on it, published on Stanfords’ blog.

And here are some of my favourite pictures I took of the city:

Three Irish girls and a church in Barranco, Lima

Three Irish girls and a church in Barranco, Lima

Kissing the silver cross of Padre Urraca in the Iglesia de La Merced in Lima, Peru

Kissing the silver cross of Padre Urraca in the Iglesia de La Merced in Lima, Peru

Lima's Plaza de Armas with taxis

Lima’s Plaza de Armas with taxis

Lima's Plaza de Armas by night

Lima’s Plaza de Armas by night

Mujer mural in Lima

Mujer (woman) mural in Lima

Piano player in Tram cafe, Miraflores, Lima

Piano player in Tram cafe, Miraflores, Lima