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.


Adios, Urubamba

As I prepared to go away on this trip, facing the thought of leaving my life and loved ones in London was hard. What I didn’t expect was that I’d have to do it all again once I was actually out here. Yet here I am, preparing to leave Peru having spent more than three months living in the little town of Urubamba. And I feel sad.

It’s so true that only when you face losing something do you realise how much you love it – now I notice how the sun falls in my pretty little garden at different times of the day; now I spot all the shop and café owners in town who I recognise and who recognise me; I realise all the places I know where to buy exactly what I’m looking for; I know what all the prices should be; I remember how much I’ve changed since I first arrived wide-eyed. Now it’s time to start again, to be the stranger flailing around in the foreign land. It’s time for new adventures, challenges and surprises.

And this time, I don’t think I’ll be coming back to this place that has so warmly been my home.

So adios, Urubamba, gracias por su hospitalidad. Thank you Carlos and Carlos for your hospitality at Kai and the little house in Chajhuar. Thank you Johannes for taking me there to start with. Hasta luego, Cristian (don’t drink or smoke); chau Patrick, thank you for the dinners and the laughs; see you later, Clayton, Shon, Jason, Ronnie, Fran, Elise, Mel, Melinda, Erin, Ali.

Bring it on, Bolivia!

Urubamba's main plaza

Urubambians enjoying sundown in the main plaza

How it happens

I have been in Peru for two months now, and for more or less most of that time I have been hanging out in a small, non-descript town in the Sacred Valley below Cusco. Bystanders might wonder why. I’m supposed to be travelling round South America, aren’t I?

While I was in Lima after my arrival from the UK, I was in a certain amount of turmoil as to how to start my trip. I had made no plans; in fact I’d not particularly given South America much thought in the months since I booked the ticket – I just had too many good things going on in London.

I was still at work right up to the day before my flight, so every minute of lunchtimes, evenings and weekends was spent in the good company of my lovely friends and family. I didn’t even pack until the morning before my flight.

It meant that when I finally arrived at a quiet hostel in a refined neighbourhood of Lima, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I knew I needed to catch up on lots of sleep. But I was still running on London adrenaline, plus I had the system of budget travel long installed in me: get going! See stuff! Do stuff! Don’t hang around wasting money on accommodation!

And I nearly did go after a couple of days of long lie-ins, languorous breakfasts at noon, and hours reclining on the hostel’s sofa with my laptop. I nearly stepped onto the backpacker conveyer belt. But something made me wait.

Somehow I calmed down, somehow I realised there was no rush; I needed to work out what it was that I truly wanted to do. And sure enough, good things happened.

I’m looking forward to discussing with you another time about the modern-day backpacker, sitting with their laptops connecting to WiFi but not to each other. And although I’m guilty as charged for being relieved that I brought my Netbook – after spending nine hours of every day of the past seven years as a web editor, I simply couldn’t unplug cold turkey – but I know when to put the machine down, to look up and smile at a real live person in my vicinity.

And this is how I met Johannes, who with a similar opinion, we got talking. He was heading to the Sacred Valley and I knew that’s where I was really craving to get to, too. So after nearly a week in Lima we flew to Cusco, then he generously encouraged me to join him to Urubamba, down in the valley, where he’d spent many times before.

It was hard at first – I knew no one, spoke no Spanish; in truth, I didn’t really know where I was or what I was doing. And Urubamba is not a tourist hub – it’s a real-life, hard-working town, so there are no hostels full of fellow backpackers, or cafes with WiFi to comfort and reassure in times of need.

I nearly left. Many times. But again, something made me wait. And that’s the one big dilemma of travel. I considered that if I move on, I’ll meet other people, have new and possibly better experiences. But might I miss out on opportunities here? By constantly moving, are travellers gaining experiences or losing out on others?

I went up to Cusco to stay with a local family while I attended a Spanish course. The end of the week was my chance to move on – Lake Titicaca, just over the border in Bolivia, beckoned.

But I did something I’ve never done before while travelling – I went back. As I rode the colectivo down the winding mountain road into the valley that night, and the familiar lights of Urubamba appeared, I almost wasn’t surprised when I saw a shooting star in the sky above the town.

I didn’t know what I was going to do, where I was going to stay, if anyone would care that I was back, and if I could actually use any of the Spanish that I’d studied. But something told me to wait – it was going to be wonderful.

I can, I do, I travel

Or, why I’m doing this.

I have spoken before about why I’ve set off to South America, but people have pressed me further and so I’ve thought hard for some more answers.

I am a traveller. I have the bug. The itch.

Why? I think it’s greatly thanks to my mum. Virtually a single mother, she scrimped and saved all year when my brother and I were growing up, but we always, always had holidays and day trips. Weekends were spent in the museums of London, or on country excursions; summers were spent on the beach, swimming in the sea, climbing rocks or walking through the meadows of Essex and Suffolk. Our first holidays were in the UK; then as we grew older and mum felt braver, she got us abroad – to Austria, Switzerland, and Italy a few times.

Her providing me these diverse opportunities gave me the invaluable traveller’s skill of being able to adapt. I can talk with people from any background or viewpoint, I can sleep anywhere I need to – a bus floor, the deck of a boat, under a tree, with rats crawling nearby; I don’t care. I enjoy experiences, good and bad. In cities, I love the excitement and possibilities; in the countryside I love the peace and the beauty of nature.

My mum’s passion for seeing places and doing things became instilled in me. I remember poring over pictures in holiday brochures and maps of unknown lands with her, and feeling a sense of urgency to be out there in the world, and that time is precious.

There was another significant influence, again thanks to my mum. She took me several times to the sadly now defunct Commonwealth Institute in London’s Kensington. This massive auditorium-style 1960s building on the edge of Holland Park had fantastic displays and exhibitions on the countries of the British Commonwealth. I remember looking at food packaging from Cameroon, costumes of Rajasthan, taking a helicopter simulator over Kuala Lumpur; and thinking “I want to go and see this for myself, for real.” My mind was opened wide to the world.

So now, some 20 years later, and with many of the places I wanted to see seen – and many more to come – I can only say thank you mum, because if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this in a mountain valley in Peru.

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



Inca japery

With all this philosophising, you might be wondering where I actually am and what I’ve been doing. No? Well I’m going to tell you anyway.

Cusco legwarmers

Cusco legwarmers and holey trainers

I’m currently in the town of funny woollen hats with alpaca patterns, ear flaps and bobbles. I’m in Cusco, the only city in the world where people – tourists and locals alike – are quite happy to look as ridiculous as possible. Every street, cafe and shop you see them bobbing around. Don’t get me wrong, I love a silly hat and I have partaken in the alpaca craze with a rather smashing jumper that will blast this Christmas out the window, some knitted legwarmers and a poncho. I just can’t help but wonder how it became acceptable for grown adults to dress in multicoloured wool and think they look cool.

Me in Cusco

Me and poncho in Cusco

Other than that, Cusco is not as tourist-battered as I had been fearing. Shops and cafes sit subtly among the colonial architecture and narrow cobbled streets. I’ve spent the past week and a half or so down in the Sacred Valley, staying with Peruvians in Urubamba, a small town where only one or two tourists stray for lunch inbetween treks in the surrounding mountains or sightseeing tours of the Inca sites that abound. So I was prepared for the worst coming up into such a tourist hub as Cusco – the centre for visiting the world wonder Machu Picchu.

Woman asleep in knitwear shop, Cusco

Spot the sleeping woman in knitwear shop, Cusco

It feels less intrepid to see parent-look-a-likes on their two-week adventure package holidays; it’s a shame that everything here is twice the price; and it’s a bit annoying when trying to learn Spanish that every shop and restaurant shouts out in English; but what I find most ridiculous is my fellow travellers in their gaudy knitwear who don’t make eye contact. Hello? We’re having an amazing time somewhere wonderful, can we not at least acknowledge each other with a smile of recognition, or do we have to pretend we’re not the only two Europeans standing in this queue?

I’m heading back down to the valley, where I can build some proper relationships with people who are here a bit longer than it takes the dust from the Inca Trail to blow off their boots.

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

Life learning

Every so often in my life, I find myself faced with a situation, that really I would rather not be faced with, but in time I find that I’m grateful for it in some way.

As I prepare for this time of my life (indeed I already believe I am having a time of my life, there’s no need to fly 10,000km to achieve that), the timing has coincided with the terminal prognosis of an old boyfriend’s dad. During my six-year relationship with Mark, his dad Bill became like the father I never had. Warm, kind and generous, and always up for a joke, I enjoyed spending time with him and missed him after Mark’s and my relationship ended. Bill since developed cancer that has now returned with full force that means he has been given three to six months to live. I went to see him for what is likely to be the last time just before I flew to Peru.

I found him in the corner bed of a hospital ward, the evening sun filtering through the vertical blinds. I had prepared myself for a change in his appearance, inevitable with such severe cancer and chemotherapy. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was that he would look like a small boy; it was as if I could see exactly what he would have looked like when he was 10 years old. Sitting in bed simply staring into space – the pain so severe he said that he couldn’t even bear to have the TV or radio on. The jolly, jokey man I used to know was no longer visible during my entire visit with him, replaced instead with a man that just seemed to be quietly shouting “Why me?”.

When I got up to leave, I told Bill I’ll see him again soon and slipped my arms round his sweat-soaked back for a long, meaningful hug. He just smiled faintly. I think him and I both know we won’t; but somehow we will.

And all I can do now is never, ever be afraid of anything – a dodgy flight through a mountain valley? Pah! A 12-hour bus journey on a non-existent Bolivian road with hairpin bends? Pah! Being a woman alone in a dark street in a strange city? Pah! I would rather do any of those than be sitting in a hospital bed asking why.

Why parents shouldn’t worry when their offspring head for far-away shores

I think my mum is not alone in trying to suppress her utter horror that I have set off alone to South America. Of our generation of parents, many have not travelled outside of Western countries, so simply cannot visualise nor comprehend what life is like for their son or daughter travelling in anywhere that’s developing.

So when I was sitting in the hostel lounge last night, chatting with young and old people from various nations, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of our parents’ and loved ones’ imagined fears. The traveller trail really is a bubble; it’s very rare you come into contact with any real danger, any more than you would at home. My brother instructed me before I left: “Don’t go getting into any sticky situations”. I explained just as I avoid these at home, I don’t intend to change this policy just because I’m in foreign climes, and start pursuing a life with gun-toting drug barons.

Backpackers have got it easy; we can move between hostels that are microcosms of home, our only real contact with local people being workers in the hostels and cafes, those herding us on and off the buses, and tour guides. There’s really not much chance of getting in to any more trouble than maybe getting ripped off a little.

So rest assured, dear loved ones, we will be back – a little worn after successive 20-hour journeys, a little smelly with a lack of hot showers, and probably quite poor, but we’ll have lots of stories to tell you. And we’ll be all the more grateful for that first cup of tea that only you can make taste so good.

Why am I going?

Why am I going?

What is your definition of travel?

What is your definition of a traveller?

Someone asked me the other night.

As a veteran traveller, I always thought the answers to these questions were easy. But upon deeper reflection, I’m not so sure. Or maybe it’s because this time, it’s different. This is not so much about the travelling. This is about making the life I want happen.

Do I want to do the travel cliches? Do I want to traipse round ruins and sites, just because they are ‘must dos’; because everyone else does? And then wonder why I am frustrated and exhausted.

The other week when I was back at my mum’s, I looked at my old photo albums of my travels in Asia. I’ve looked at them many a time before with nostalgic pleasure; this time all I could see behind every picture-postcard photo was the negative elements of travelling alone in a foreign country – the strain of the backpack straps; the sweating from parts of the body I never knew possible (backs of knees anyone?); the never feeling properly clean; the arguments over fares with taxi drivers; the inability to communicate with people properly; the sitting alone in cafes for dinner; the different bed each night. Did I actually enjoy travelling, or is it just something I have to do?

And that’s what I answered to my friend who asked the poignant questions – I think I’m going because I can.

Backpacking on a ferry in Sumatra, Indonesia

Trying not to let my backpacks unbalance me when boarding a ferry during previous travels in Sumatra, Indonesia