Why you should just do it

I had put it off for years. I had made it into a bigger monster than it needed to be. I had missed out doing it in such amazing locations as Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Koh Phi Phi in Thailand. Then finally, at the age of 28, after a long, frustrated summer spent in the Greek Islands, I got back to London and marched myself into the local leisure centre and did it. I signed up to swimming lessons.

Searching for inspiration on Serifos

Searching for inspiration on Serifos

I don’t know why I had never learnt to swim properly – I grew up spending all summer in the sea and swimming pools. But I never really swam.

Then as I started stepping out into far-flung corners of the world, my lack of ability at staying afloat in water became more and more of a vital issue. What if this rickety boat that’s bouncing across the waves to an isolated Pacific island doesn’t make it? What about on that experience-of-a-lifetime Ha Long Bay trip where everyone else is ecstatically jumping off the wooden junk boat into the aquamarine waters while I dangle nervously from the ladder?

And as for the time just I and a boyfriend were deposited somewhere in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra to do some snorkelling, only to see our “tour” boat disappear into the horizon…

Waving, not drowning, off the coast of Sumatra

Waving, not drowning, off the coast of Sumatra

So that day back in London was a life-changing one. I had decided to bite the bullet and face those fears of feeling humiliated, of being too old to take lessons, of looking stupid, of wearing a swimsuit in front of the general public, and – naturally – of drowning.

Those 12 weeks I spent – at first thrashing and eventually swimming – under the watchful eye of a patient teacher in a Covent Garden pool were the best investment I ever made.

Being able to swim opens up another 70% of the world to you – how cool is that? And this time when I departed for my travels in South America, I knew I could happily and confidently jump off any boats and plunge into any pools that came my way.

Enjoying a mountain-side farmer's reservoir in a secret location in Peru

Enjoying a mountain-side farmer’s reservoir in a secret location in Peru

If you haven’t learnt to swim yet, just do it.

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A change

They say a change is as good as a holiday, don’t they? Well, after four weeks in Montevideo, I dusted the cobwebs off my backpack and headed up the coast to Buenos Aires – no, not The Buenos Aires, but a beach village with the same name, a few kilometres outside of Punta del Este on Uruguay’s coast.

Punte del Este is the celebrity hang out of this part of South America at this time of year – Brazilian and Argentinean stars and travellers alike flock to this Miami-esque city by the sea to pose and parade by the beach. Not for me. But luckily, Carlos had some friends who are working in the much more undeveloped and rugged Buenos Aires, and offered for us to stay with them in their beach-side house for a couple of days.

Buenos Aires village, Uruguay. Photo © Rachel Ricks

Buenos Aires village, Uruguay. Photo © Rachel Ricks

After an emotional few weeks, I was still feeling low and fragile and questioning this whole travel lark, but figured a change of scenery and some beach time should do the trick. After arriving at their house, however, I endured several hours of Spanish conversations and jokes, with me able to pick up only a few words, and too embarrassed or frozen or whatever to attempt any contribution, so I only descended into a deeper state of misery.

Buenos Aires beach, Uruguay. Photo © Rachel Ricks

Buenos Aires rugged beach, Uruguay

However – it would all be worth it and I’d soon be cheered up, as swimming in the sea and sunbathing on a beach are among my favourite things to do in the world. When we finally headed to the beach, I sat down and looked at the massive waves ripping and curling into the shore; I’ve only recently learnt to swim and have never encountered waves as powerful as these before, so effectively, I realised, the sea was inaccessible to me. As I watched everyone around me frolicking and enjoying the beach, I suddenly felt a bit isolated – I was not enjoying it, and felt guilty for thinking this way.

But suddenly something changed – Carlos, who grew up playing in the surf of Lima’s Pacific beaches, got me down to the water’s edge and slowly but surely led me in, teaching me how to read the waves.

The lagoon-like waters of Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands it was not – it was way more exciting. I spent the rest of the afternoon screaming and laughing as I dived into waves and let them crash me into the shore.

And suddenly from those small steps, everything was better.

From now on, I know that big waves don’t necessarily mean danger, but a whole lot of fun.  When we got back to the house, I even managed a few words in Spanish and understood a sentence or two.

And best of all, I’m excited about travel again.

Yep, all those philosophers are right; to really get the most out of life, we have to face our fears – just like I leapt head-on into those oh-so intimidating waves.

The unexpected city

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen I’ve been moving quite rapidly lately – through four different countries in as many weeks. And many of the places I’ve stopped, I’ve not particularly enjoyed – not only was the strain of budget travel taking its toll, but I just wasn’t seeing anything I liked. As you know, I didn’t warm to La Paz, and the cities of Argentina were loud, brash, scruffy and incredibly hot and sticky. Then I arrived in Uruguay and it was literally a breath of fresh air.

In fact, I like it so much, I think I’ve found the next place where I’m going to settle for a while. The capital, Montevideo, is one of the most pleasant cities I’ve been to.

My days here so far I have spent walking every inch of the city, and the more I see the more I like. For starters, its position on the coast is ideal – the old town and port area are on a promontory so when wandering the city streets, you regularly catch a glimpse of the ocean, or receive a fresh sea breeze as it whistles up the street.

One Sunday evening, I walked along the seafront Ramblas for about five miles, enjoying the sun lowering over the Atlantic, along with local families, couples and groups of teenagers civilly sipping their maté.

In the city centre, I keep discovering excellent-quality cafés maintaining their ‘60s décor and waiting staff, serving delicious pizzas, pastas (many Italians settled in Uruguay), chavitos (massive sandwiches filled with steak, ham and egg) and more, all coming in portions fit for four (which suits me – as anyone who knows me knows, I can eat).

People are cosmopolitan yet very amiable, and the streets, even in the centre, are spacious and crowd-free, while the traffic is light and – more importantly – polite.

There are plenty of museums I’m still waiting to investigate; I’m looking forward to dinner in one of the grills in the smart port market; and there are lots of bookshops in the University area begging to be rummaged through.

Best of all, Uruguay imports some of my favourite chocolate from England, along with its finest teas. Yep, I’m happy to stick around for a while.

Rachel Ricks in Montevideo's Plaza Independencia

Me in Montevideo’s Plaza Independencia

Bar-Grill in Montevideo, Uruguay

My favourite caff

Bookshop in Montevideo

Libreria Puro Verso, Old Town

Bookshop in University area of Montevideo

Bookshop in University area

Rachel Ricks in front of the 17th-century city gate in Montevideo

Me in front of the 18th-century city gate in Montevideo

Montevideo is the 2013 Ibero-American Capital of Culture – see what’s happening on their culture and arts website.

See my trio of guides to Montevideo.

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 walk that didn’t know it was happening until it did

Originally written by hand at 3.35pm, sitting by a stream at the side of a field.

It’s Friday night back in London. My friends there are heading out to pubs in the city for a night of drinking. I headed out with my book and notebook to sit somewhere quiet in the afternoon sunshine to read and write.

Urubamba doesn’t have many quiet or green spaces – apart from the cemetery – which, nice as it is and as comfortable as I am being around the dead, I fancied being around life on this glorious day.

So I started walking.

I walked to the edge of town, past the cemetery; the road turns to dust here. I walked past the foot of the first mountain outside the town. I walked past schoolchildren on their long trudges home. I walked through the next village. I walked ever upwards past farmers’ fields and nearer the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the Cordillera Urubamba that cut off the end of this valley.

I stopped to sit down in the shade by the roadside and a curious bull appeared on the other side of the road to look at me. I carried on, ever upwards. I stopped to eat the bread and cheese I’d bought in Urubamba. I stopped in another village to buy a 70c bottle of Kola Real. I stopped to write this.

Somehow the mountains have lured me to keep walking along the dusty, stony road in the beating sun, with quite a heavy rucksack full of books. I don’t know for how long or how far I will go, but I do know this must be complete and true freedom as any human being can expect to obtain in this life.

No one knows where I am or what I’m doing, apart from the country folk I pass. I can walk at the exact speed I wish. I can stop when I want. I can smile and greet anyone I care to. I can go on walking as long as I feel like it. I can return home and no one will ever know what I did and what I saw unless I want them to.

Unless I type this up and share it with you.

Urubamba's cemetery

Urubamba’s cemetery

The bull that looked into my soul

The bull that looked into my soul

The mountain valley with children on swing

The mountain valley with children on swing

Walking back

Walking back

Me

Me

Finding paradise

When I talk with friends back home, I get very much the feeling that they’re saying, “Oh you’re alright, you’re out there”. There’s a notion that because I’m in a tropical country a million miles from home, I haven’t got a care in the world. When, in fact, my problems came with me, and if anything they are more lucid. I am completely alone with nothing but them for company in a strange and unknown land. At home my friends have the comforts and securities of the people and places they understand and love all around them; out here it’s just me and my backpack.

Someone dear dying of cancer; the relationship with someone special that I started not long enough before I left, not knowing where it will go from here; my mum entering her 60s; my nan entering her 90s; the unsatisfying career that I need to change; the insecurities and fears that plague my mind…they’re all still here, no matter what amazing sights I might see and exotic experiences I might have.

I remember reading Alain de Botton’s take on this in his brilliant book, The Art of Travel, that I studied at university. When we imagine paradise, he said, we don’t imagine that our minds will be there too.

A couple of years ago I travelled for three weeks with friends in Costa Rica, leaving at home a boyfriend with whom I knew, deep down – though didn’t admit it – that our six-year relationship was breaking. Giving us some time apart, I thought, would help us. Looking back now, I think I knew the relationship was already over, as during the entire trip, I had an overwhelming foreboding feeling. Sitting on a Caribbean beach for the first time, my heart was heavy with memories of him and I on a tropical shore during the intoxicatingly happy early days of our relationship. At dusk, I felt panicked at the long hours of darkness ahead without him. The deeper into the luscious jungle of the country we travelled, the more I wanted to turn back, to him, to us. Now, when people ask if I liked Costa Rica, I say no. But I know it’s not the country’s fault, it’s just sometimes no amount of palm-fringed beaches, jungle canopy tours and baby sloths can help how you feel inside.

So now I will go back outside into the sun, look up and smile at the mountains surrounding me, wander down a colonial street, eat and drink whatever I want for lunch, whenever I want to take lunch, catch a bus to somewhere else if I fancy, but don’t think for one minute that I don’t have anything to worry about.

My bike on a lonely Costa Rica beach

My bike on a lonely Costa Rica beach