Category Archives: museums

5 things to do in London in a day

Over 30 million tourists visit London every year. 30 million. That’s nearly half the UK population (and doesn’t even take in to account the residents). One city with so many people? Somehow it works.

As a Brit, I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the city, and after brief breaks to the place I’ve always been happy to retreat back to ‘normal’ England. Now, though, I was seeing it through tour guide eyes, showing D-man around and trying to pack in as much as possible within a short amount of time.

So here is a list of what you could do in a day. More realistically, you will probably want to spread the activities out over a couple of days. I’ve not even included museums or galleries, gardens or markets or shops. The Science Museum, Tate Modern, Kew Gardens, Brick Lane, and more and more and more. So much more. Ah, another time, another list.

For now though, let’s run with this very standard tourist list of things to get the London experience started:

1. Start your day by swinging by some famous streets, sights and places

Watching the shooting of a Bollywood music video in Trafalgar Square

Watching the shooting of a Bollywood music video in Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square cliché?

Trafalgar Square cliché?

Picadilly Circus curves

Picadilly Circus curves

Of course it exists. At King's Cross train station.

Of course it exists. At King’s Cross train station.

Big Ben put into perspective

Big Ben put into perspective

2. Squish in amongst the crowds to watch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace

When did this become such a HUGE tourist attraction?

When did this become such a HUGE tourist attraction?

Crowds start to gather outside of the palace

Crowds start to gather outside of the palace

Fighting our way through the crowds at Buckingham Palace

Fighting our way through the crowds at Buckingham Palace

Perfectly in time.

Perfectly in time.

3. Boat trip down the River Thames

Let's go join to procession

Let’s go join to procession

Spying St Paul's Cathederal

Spying St Paul’s Cathederal

Tower Bridge and the Shard

Tower Bridge and the Shard

One less thing to worry about at the Tower of London

One less thing to worry about at the Tower of London

Every room has a river view

Where every room has a river view

4. Watch the sun set over the city from high on board the London Eye

Ready to join the queues?

Ready to join the queues?

Views down on to the South Bank

Views down on to the South Bank

Time it right to get the best dusk views.

Time it right to get the best dusk views.

5. Wind down in one of London’s many theatres

Cultured. We can but try.

Cultured. We can but try.

And then you could finish the day and party on until daybreak at Fabric or one of London’s many clubs or squat parties. We didn’t. Wiped out from a day of flights and now a day in London, D-man, me and my mum headed back to our comfy airbnb find.

My guess is that at the end of the day you too will be tired. Your feet will hurt. You may decide that you don’t like the shuffling crowds, that this city of 8 million people and hoards of tourists is too chaotic and the depths of London’s underground belly too claustrophobic. You may groan about high prices, about sold out shows, about the fact that this city doesn’t seem to sleep.

But stop. Take a breath. You can’t really deny that London is a bold, beautiful city, alive with diversity and culture, can you?

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Melbourne in a day

Image from wikipedia.org

Image from wikipedia.org

I’d never really rated city tours, but then I’d never really rated cities, and yet the times that I’ve merged these two personal indifferences, things have changed and I’ve changed my mind.

Would it work for Melbourne?

Back during my travels to Peru in 2011, I had bussed into Cusco full of apprehension, excited to immerse myself in the oft reported beauty of this Incan-colonial UNESCO World Heritage city, but Cusco just confused me. With a scruffy exterior that seemed no different to other South American cities, dingy hostels and streets of competing touts and tour agencies, it took Yonathan from Free Walking Tour Peru to show me the snippets of the other Cusco before I started to even like the place. I ended up staying for nearly two weeks.

Then, when I first arrived in Australia and had only one day in Sydney, Max from one of Sydney’s free walking tours gave me my city bearings, a condensed (yet relatively comprehensive) history lesson of the city and an introduction to an end-of-day-glass-of-wine buddy from Sweden. Sydney suddenly seemed to make sense and I was comfortable and ready for the city

So Melbourne. Should I do a tour? Wander around by myself? How would I get to see snippets of Melbourne that would show me why the city is so popular?

It’s really European’, said a friend, ‘there are all these cafés, and the music scene is great. The creative scene is great’. Push. Pull. Why would I chase Europe when I was in Australia? I love Europe in Europe. I want to see Aussie in Australia. But a vibrant creative scene? Music? Art? Yes, please.

I was staying at the Pullman on the edge of Albert Park, a twenty-minute tram ride from the city centre up the wide, tree-lined grandeur of St Kilda Road. Crammed in amongst tourists and sharp suited and booted business types, I watched how people scanned in and out with myki cards, I listened to an English couple tell their young boy that his grandparents would soon be visiting. And then I was there: Federation Square.

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Arriving into the city

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Federation square entertainment

I skirted a group watching a contortionist climb into a small glass box and made my way downstairs into The Melbourne Visitor Centre, an underground hive that swarmed with adults and teenagers and children, with Spanish and German and English, with leaflets on the Comedy Festival, on city eats, on tourist buses. It was almost too much. I took a ticket and waited to talk to an actual person and shut out the hum of confusion, indecision and excitement that was going on around me.

Twenty minutes later I was on board the free Melbourne Visitor Shuttle. Relative calm returned.

But there is only so much sitting and looking through a smeared window that a girl can do, so it wasn’t long – maybe two or three stops – before I stepped off the bus and walked through the Carlton Gardens towards Fitzroy. A couple posed for wedding photos in amongst the elm and English oak trees. Virgin whites against lush leafiness. It definitely was a visual contrast to the dry, barren browns of Far North Queensland scrub, or the eucalypts and pandanus of tropical northern New South Wales.

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Carlton Gardens, Melbourne

In Fitzroy itself, I ambled along terraced residential roads and down boutique-lined streets, feasting my eyes on textiles and crafts and arts carefully arranged in window displays and drinking in the smell of freshly ground coffee rising from the cups of cool cats sitting outside indie cafés.

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Terraced Fitzroy life

And then I seemed to go wrong because somewhere along Smith Street it all stopped being cute and cool, and signs and shops started to sprawl into a bit more of a chaos (or maybe it was just normality, but I wasn’t chasing normal-anywhere life in Melbourne).

I headed back towards Gertrude Street. Despite feeling a little intimidated by the trend on display, I took a seat inside Sonido, only to realise that – even in Australia – I had again been drawn back to South America. I ordered a black bean and feta arepa, and it was beautifully simple. And filling.

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South American dining @ Sonido, Fitzroy

After handing over the solo experience baton to another female traveller I got back on and off the tourist bus a couple more times. I looped through the areas surrounding Lygon Street, up past shoe stores and pizza and gelati parlours, and then on through the grounds of the University of Melbourne .

In an effort to keep the day cheap I didn’t get out at the Queen Victoria Markets nor the harbour area but instead watched women, men and children clamber back on board laden down with bags and bags and bags of new purchases. Sculptures down the Harbour Esplanade distracted me from any further thoughts of retail therapy, particularly the upside down Cow up a tree sculpture said to draw attention to the issue of flooding and droughts in Australia.

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Ready for some modern art?

Ending my Melbourne day tour down in the Arts Precinct was possibly a bad idea. I wandered around the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) and I stood and stared, tried to make sense, to understand obscure splodges and installations, but clearly my creative evolution has some way to go as I remained baffled about what constitutes art in a modern world.

It seemed, although at times beautiful, to be a party of concept driven madness, and I wasn’t cool enough to get an invite to that party. Nope.

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Capturing the sound of crystals. Interesting and thought provoking, but art? Okay, maybe.

And so I got back on a tram with a fair idea of where I’d head the next day for a follow up snoop around. I fumbled with my myki card, held it up against the scanner. This time it beeped, and I saw a load of credit disappear in a flash. As we trundled back down St Kilda Road, past the Royal Botanic Gardens and La Trobe’s cottage, I felt that end-of-city-day weariness and then, there it was, a teeny bit of homesickness, of longing for my family and friends.

Had Melbourne – with its café culture and the leafy façade, with its spacious layout and cultural buzz, with its European association – gotten under my skin and reminded me of a world I once loved? Or, was it showing me that I could maybe love a city, after all?

I stepped back off the tram into late afternoon sunshine and wrapped myself up in a scarf to fend off the fresh autumn breeze. Back at the hotel I took the lift up to the eighth floor, flung myself and my aching feet onto the bed and into the simple luxury of a nondescript hotel room. This, I thought, could be pretty much anywhere. It’s nice, sure, but nothing special. That, out there, however, is Melbourne. And Melbourne is, well Melbourne. Not England or a Euro blend, but Melbourne, familiar yet unique.

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Because everyone likes talking on a dinosaur phone

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Hello…? Anyone home?

Sucre might be a Unesco site full of colonial architecture and little pockets of beautiful surprises, but it is also known as the home of the ‘world’s largest collection of dinosaur footprints‘ in the fairly new site of El Parque Cretácico (Dinosaur Park). Here you can see over 5,000 ‘authentic dinosaur tracks‘ as well as lots of dinosaur replicas. Big ones.

If however, like me, rather than make the 40 minute trip out of the Sucre you decide to stick inside the town itself, there are still plenty of paleontological hints in the form of various dinosaur models that are scattered around the place, including down the steps at the Black Market.

And of course, there is the odd dinosaur phone box, which after a few drinks out in the town becomes everyone’s favourite toy. And friend. Pretend conversations? Really?! A load of nonsense! And a load of copycatting.

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Maybe I should I have waited for an English speaking guide

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Let sleeping dogs lie outside of my room in La Higuera, Bolivia

IT SOUNDED AS THOUGH THE entire village had gathered outside of my window for an early morning chat. I checked my watch. 6:25am. Surely it couldn’t be morning already? I was having such a delicious night’s sleep after a few days on La Ruta del Che that had thus far led me to La Higuera, a hamlet five hours from Samaipata, Bolivia.

I dozed a little while longer, laughter and chatter mixed in with half-cooked dreams.

By the time I got up, the old school house was deserted save for a few stray dogs who wondered around Che’s room and sat guard in front of his mural.

I spent an hour walking back and forth through La Higuera looking for my alojamiento hostess and the woman with the key to the museum, but both were elusive. I guessed that, like the trip to Che’s execution site, this was another of those things that wasn’t meant to be.

Maybe I should have waited around a few days in Vallegrande for an English speaking guide to be available? Maybe I would have actually got to experience something a little less hit and miss?

But no, this was actually far more fun, more random, more adventurous. The experience of being in places and close to places where Che and his men had hidden and hung out was good enough to get me into a reflective headspace.

I still felt close enough to the story.

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Inspired and protected by the man himself

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Views from on the road to La Higuera

I think it would be better for you to return here’, said an Argentinian I met in Casa la Cultura in Vallegrande. He’d just got back from La Higuera, which he said was well worth the two and a half hour journey but where he could not recommend spending the night.

It’s very, very basic’, he told me. ‘Are there places to sleep? Somewhere to eat?’ I asked. ‘Sure’, he said. ‘Then I’m all good with it’, I said. I guess I didn’t fully anticipate just how rustic things would be.

There wasn’t a guide available for my trip from Vallegrande to La Higuera but Gonzalo at the Casa la Cultura sorted me out a taxi and assured me that the driver would take me to all the places on the Che Guevara trail, most importantly the school house where Che was held captive for a couple of days, and the execution site to where he was marched off, hands tied, to face his shotgun death.

Would organising it independently work out for me? In a way, yes.

The journey over to La Higuera took me along pitted mud roads, making for a bumpy ride. Dust swirled around inside the car, coating my teeth and skin and drying my eyes. Upfront, the woman covered her babies face. Once again I had a driver with a partner in tow.

We climbed higher and higher, winding up into the mountains, driving close to a steep drop edge. Painting views stretched out into the far distance, a vast, green mountainous vista that my little compact camera failed to capture with any conviction.

I realised that had I wanted to trek this stretch of trail, as I’d initially hoped to do, it would have actually been pretty straightforward due to the regular signposting for La Ruta del Che. But at a distance of 58km it would have required at least one camp out. I had no gear (and very little idea) so maybe the recommended way of the taxi was the best way after all.

At around 2,500m the road flattened out to a rocky, tough shrub landscape peppered with little yellow flowers and dead trees. Cows paused in our path, skinny donkeys munched on foliage and the occasional pig ambled along the roadside.

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Dead trees on the road to La Higuera

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On the road to La Higuera

We stopped by some guys carrying farm tools heading home after a day’s work on the land. The driver and his wife started a shout conversation with a guy belted on to an electricity pylon, doing some repairs I guessed. Or just hanging out. Who knows. Smile sounded speech got the driver’s eyebrows twitching before they all exchanged goodbyes and we continued.

Just before La Higuera, the driver stopped at a little shrine with three plaques. Our first stop-off. It was a little underwhelming, predominantly because I didn’t really understand what I was looking at. An English speaking guide at this point would have been great.

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A random little memorial outside of La Higuera

And then we were in La Higuera, a little cluster of fifteen houses, nearly all bearing homemade signs offering beds for 20Bs. but few showing any sign of being open for business.

The driver turned off the engine at the top of the village close to the statues of Che Guevara and buildings grafittied with quotes and stencilled images. He went on the hunt for the key to the museum.

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Statue at top of village of La Higuera, Che’s place of capture and death

Two young girls approached me about a place to stay. Their mother came out. ‘Tomorrow is better for the museum’ she said, ‘Do you want a bed?It was in the old schoolhouse, right in amongst history.

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Che´s room on the left and my room on the right

After an impossible attempt at trying to ask where Che’s assassination site was and trying to ascertain whether the driver would take me as intended, I gave up and the taxi driver, his wife and their three month baby set off.

Dusk was falling and I was hungry. ‘Is there somewhere I can get some food?’ I asked my hostess. ‘Si’, she said, ‘come with me’. I followed her through the village to her friend’s kitchen and sat down to a candlelit meal of rice, eggs, chips and sliced tomatoes – a tasty, plain dinner that more than satisfied my unintentional day of fasting. All was silent save for the chatter of insects, the sound of me eating and the occasional clanking of cutlery as the owner pottered around the kitchen. Her husband sat close by, watching, occasionally talking quietly.

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Waiting for dinner as dusk sets in

I was glad that I’d replaced the batteries in my head torch back in Samaipata because the walk back was country dark and unfamiliar. The warm glow of candlelight shone out of some houses and a small generator disturbed the peace in one place. Along my way I passed a few villagers. ‘Buenos noches’ was repeatedly exchanged.

Just before I got back to my private six bed dorm, I saw a little shop sign. Craving some sweetness, I stepped inside to see someone’s living space and a few shelves to the side stocked with basics and biscuits. Dessert came in the form of some coconut wafers which I sat and munched sitting on the step between my room and the open fronted school house room where Che spent his last couple of days.

Bed time came early. I blew out my candle and lay wrapped up cosy in the dark, imagining how not that long ago, in 1967, Che must have been lying next door in his cold, concrete room with an undoubtedable awareness that he was about to die. I wondered if he was ready for death; whether he was scared; whether he felt he’d made his mark or whether he felt that he’d  failed.

Sometimes I’m scared of the dark and quiet, but not this night. In a room full of Che pictures, with a doorway by which is painted a rainbow representation of Che, I knew that if any ghost haunted this place then I’d be able to learn even more and count myself privileged for having the experience. I almost wanted to believe in ghosts.

And that night I felt calm, centred and open to life. I slept heavily, dreamt lots and my mind was filled with great ideas about where my future could lead and what little bit of good I might be able to offer the world. One day.

This place had some power. Che might have been killed but somehow his energy lives on in the walls and in the earth of La Higuera, and I was lucky enough to tap into it for a split second in time.

So, another random day filled with precious moments. And you know what? The complete lack of tourists, of electricity, of warm showers, of English ability; it was all wonderful.

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The taxi ride through the Casa la Cultura in Vallegrande cost 300Bs. but I had been approached by another street taxi driver who said he’d do it for nearly half of that. Under the promise that I was going to be shown ALL of the sites, including the execution site, I did feel a bit short-changed when it was pretty much a pick-up and drop-off situation.300Bs. covers a return, although I decided to continue on a different route to Sucre. Food in La Higuera cost me 10Bs, and the alojamiento 20Bs. Had I been able to access the museum, it would have also cost 10Bs.

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Where Che lay rotting, lost in a shallow grave

I WAS PARTLY FOLLOWING La Ruta del Che, the trail within Bolivia that Che Guevara is said to have taken shortly before his capture and execution at the age of 39. Che and his men were in Bolivia to try and win support from Bolivians and the surrounding countries, but overall reports suggest that his efforts weren’t wholly successful.

After Che was killed, his body was moved from La Higuera to Vallegrande where it was laid out across the hard, concrete basins of the hospital laundry, the lavanderia. He was half naked, his eyes were forced open, his body mutilated. A warning to other wannabe political rebels.

I stood for a while in front of the open fronted room and took in this scene. Graffiti covered every inch of the walls, messages of appreciation amongst modern day fighting talk. The simplest scribble states Gracias Che.

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The hospital lavanderia in Vallegrande where Che lay for a couple of days on display

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Painted on the outside of existing hospital buildings

A small group of us headed to the next part, the memorial. Why we needed three guides with us, who knows. Maybe they just wanted to visit the site again themselves?

The memorial, under lock and key, is a well preserved little place only accessible through booking with the Casa de la Cultura. Inside the light building are carefully framed photos from throughout Che’s life and newspaper clippings from various events connected to Bolivia.

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World class sign for Che Guevara’s memorial, Vallegrande

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Che and his crew’s well-maintained memorial, Vallegrande

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Che photos in the memorial building

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The guides tried to convince me that this was Che shortly before he died.                         He sure looks old for 39!

The centre piece is the shallow grave where Che and six of his men were hidden for thirty years before being discovered and sent back to their respective home countries. In 1997, Che’s body was exhumed and repatriated back to Cuba.

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The shallow grave

Not really the place for big smile or thumbs up photos, one of the guides was insistent to photograph me in front of absolutely everything. ‘Now here’, he’d say, grabbing my hand and dragging me to the next part of the room to stand awkwardly in front of yet another a photo display whilst he took ownership of my camera. ‘And now here, he said physically positioning me in front of the grave, ‘now outside’.

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Me and a load of revolutionaries. Oh yeah.

I felt that this little part of the trip was partly being hijacked by a snap happy helpful, so I turned the camera on him, and he loved it.

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Drama and more with the additional guide

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The Casa de la Cultura is located on the main plaza, Plaza 26 de Enero, and is full of Che cuttings and information. Here they can provide you with a wealth of information and help to organise onward trips to La Higuera (the place of Che’s capture and execution). Entrance the memorial and the lavanderia costs 30Bs. It is possible to book tours that take in the two Vallegrande sights and then explore the other places en route and within La Higuera, but costs are high and it can be worth organising your own transport, as I did.

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Exploring El Fuerte (and why it’s worth paying for a guide)

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Setting off from the little bit of bliss a.k.a. El Jardin in Samaipata

Together with three German backpackers, I set off on foot along the road out of Samaipata through a landscape of mountains and greenery. ‘It could almost be Germany’, said one of the girls, ‘and that could easily be my home town’, she said, pointing at buildings nestled in an arboreous valley.

We turned off on to a dusty road and before long reached a junction. ‘If we want to go to the river, we need to go down here’, I said. I’d forgotten my map but it seemed right.

It wasn’t. After a kilometre of steep climbing a woman stopped us. ‘Go back and continue on the other road’, she told us, so we backtracked and walked a while longer, breath short at times.

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Continuing the climb to El Fuerte

Yesterday’s dull skies and drizzle had made way for a brilliant blue sky. Bright green plants clung to red rock faces and rough emerald coloured stones popped out of the red road dust. Sun and full colour saturation and fresh, mountain air. Stunning.

A little downward respite took us to the Rio El Fuerte. A woman pointed to where we could swim. ‘Dos bolivianos’, she said, hand outstretched. We each dropped two coins into her palm and headed off upstream.

Whether we reached the right place or not, who knows, but the smooth, stone landscape through which the river had carved a course proved to be a perfect stop point. We dipped into plunge pools, dunked our heads under miniature waterfalls and lay out on flat, warm rocks to dry off. We chatted and then were quiet, listening to the gentle rush of water and watching blue and yellow butterflies and little fluffs of cloud and the feint, slim crescent of the moon in a midday sky. Our own private paradise.

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River and plunge pool find before finishing the climb to El Fuerte

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Dip, dry and relax

But it was time to push on and continue the climb until eventually we arrived at the entrance to El Fuerte, no other tourists to be seen.

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The final push to El Fuerte. A flat bit. At last.

A guide approached us and spoke in English. ‘I’m Cecilio’, he said, ‘I can show you the ruins for 70 bolivianos’. The others declined and we all started to walk away, but then I stopped.

A few days earlier I’d chatted to Olaf at Roadrunners and his words were now screaming at me: ‘…get a guide, it’s a much better experience… you get a better understanding…’.

I knew he was right. Without the information I’d be looking at piles of rock, I’d fly around the site and it would only hold my attention momentarily because, well, I just wouldn’t get it.

So I retracted and paid up and for the next hour and a half Cecilio accompanied us around partially reconstructed ruins and the main hunk of rock known as El Fuerte. Regularly he stopped us and drew in the sand to help illustrate his explanations.

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Cecelio’s lessons at El Fuerte

He pointed out the stark, unusual geographical meeting point of mountains and jungle and rolling hills, and he described how cut-out doorways were used as lookouts by the Amazonians whereas the Incas used them to display their dead.

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The main El Fuerte rock

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Reconstructed ruins at El Fuerte

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Ruins at El Fuerte

Cecilio also stopped at various points to show us South American medicinal plants, including the carqueja used for liver treatment. ‘First a few beers’, he said, ‘then carqueja tea. It’s good’.

The echo point was fun, the views spectacular and the walk was varied and definitely not difficult, whilst Cecelio’s talks were enlightening and entertaining. He clearly loved the Incas for their organisation and significant progression of the site into a structured, well-built place where society was carefully managed (including assigning defined roles working the land or weaving or knotting alpaca wool, or sending girls of eighteen to marry into a different tribe or village to avoid inbreeding).

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Views from El Fuerte

And we stifled giggles when not only Incas were praised for the hundredth time, but we left with confident knowledge that it was German archaeologists that had discovered many of the buildings and artefacts. And it was in 1995. It has stuck. Thanks Cecelio.

Whilst we had barely noticed the climb up to El Fuerte due to Cecelio’s regular stops and energetic explanations, the bounce back down was still a relief. We were last out, gates were locked behind us.

We could have walked back to Samaipata but the offer of a ride back to town – 50Bs. (US$7.29/£4.51) for the four of us – was too tempting. We clambered on board a bench seat ride with some of the guides.

The car rattled and bumped down the dirt track. ‘Us poor Bolivianos’, said Lenny, an older woman whose eyes danced mischievously, ‘we can’t even afford a good car’. She grinned and then chatted away, keen to practise her English.

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The wonderfully warm and chatty Lenny and a journey of laughter from El Fuerte to Samaipata

Back in Samaipata we jumped down from the back of the vehicle. ‘Gordo’, said Lenny, ‘I’m fat and old. It’s difficult’. And with another big smile she said goodbye.

Could I have done this without a guide? Sure. There’s a clear route to follow with signposted lookouts. But, there are no information points or plaques and even with the pre-information from the museum, I would have struggled to make sense of the place.

For me it was worth it. For someone simply wanting to tick something off a list, or a history buff with a lot of reading under their belt, maybe not.

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How to piss off historians

I don’t really care too much for archaeological sites and museum full of excavated relics. In all fairness, it’s probably ignorance, although I also think it’s a lot to do with the lack of interactivity. I like to do stuff, not just see things.

But I was staying two and a half hours from Santa Cruz in the little Bolivian town of Samaipata where their top attraction was the nearby historical site of El Fuerte (The Fortress). To bypass the whole shebang would be wrong.

But first: a trip to the Centro de Investigaciones Arqueológicas y Antropológicas in Samaipata itself where I paid 50Bs. (US$7.29 / £4.50) for joint entry to the museum and the site.

The curator unlocked door after door for me to reveal rooms full of cased cultural artefacts dating from 200-1550AD. Fragrance burners, double handled bowls with faces, drinking vessels used for rituals and a host of ornaments didn’t hold my attention for long. I’m sorry. I really tried to study the pieces, read the accompanying plaques, appreciate the handiwork but overall it was only marginally more interesting than I anticipated.

Am I really just a product of the push buttons, flashy lights and visuals generation? Or is that too easy a cop-out? I want to be interested, I want to discover, I want to learn. So why wasn’t I in love with this experience?

The film screening, again to a solo audience of me, was thankfully subtitled (any curious information in the museum was written in Spanish where I could just about pick out the odd comment but missed the flow of discussion and full meaning).

The film was actually pretty interesting, outlining El Fuerte’s strategic position between Asunción, Paraguay and Lima, Peru, and talking through the different occupations of the site from the Chané people of the Amazonian time through to the Incas and the invading Spaniards.

But it was still a lot of watching and listening and I wanted to be doing.

(Okay, I confess. In truth I was glad to gain a basic understanding before seeing the actual ruins. And actually, I only wish that I’d had a guide with me to translate and retell the stories of the various museum pieces).

I hoped, then, that the site itself would inspire some history love in me. Positioned 8km east of Samaipata, UNESCO certainly thinks El Fuerte is worth the hype having awarded it with World Heritage Site status back in 1998.

Time to get strapped into well-worn walking shoes, hike the rugged hill and find out why the place is so popular.

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Sydney in a day

What I first noticed about Sydney was legs: lots and lots of legs and tanned skin. Short shorts and short skirts were in, apparently, as was immaculately applied make-up and carefully considered outfits that I can only guess were the latest fashion. Regardless, I felt positively shabby, although I’m not sure that’s a feeling unique to Sydney: many a city with its slick citizens does that to me. I guess I’m just not a true city girl. But despite being on the road for five months where my limited wardrobe was starting to bore me, I didn’t feel ready to trade up to business suits and high heels. Nope, I’ll leave that to the professionals. So I retreated away from the lack of eye contact and the busy streets, away to teeny Belmore Park where I sat and wrote and watched Sydney walk by. And then I spotted a young girl wearing an I LOVE NZ top. Blatant and brave. I had been well-informed about the rivalry between Australia and New Zealand.

After the high of getting to Australia, I came crashing down to reality when my home sweet hostel turned out to be a bit of a dirty dive. (And they had lied online about having free WiFi). Pity. At $29, this wasn’t even the cheapest hostel around, so I hate to think what some of the others were like. On the plus side, the location was central and my roommates were lovely, albeit ten years younger than me.

Having found the free city tour in Cusco to be a winner in winning me over, I joined Max and more than twenty other tourists on a free three hour walking tour of Sydney. Max, having grown up in the city, really knew his stuff, introducing us to Bob in Australia Square, telling us stories of the Brits arrival at the Rocks, showing us the 3D model of Sydney (located in  Customs House) and of course taking in all the famous landmarks including the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.

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Me and Bob, Australia Square, Sydney

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Hyde Park, Sydney

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3D map of Sydney in Customs House

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Circular Quay and Opera House, Syney

The Rocks

This is the rocky part of Sydney where the military first arrived and created barracks. Some horrible stories of the time include a 17 year old boy who was hung for stealing some food. Make an example of him, why not?!

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John Cadman’s place – oldest house in Sydney, the Rocks, Sydney

Something quite shocking is the devastating impact that the British had on the indigenous culture and people, particularly in terms of diseases which wiped out much of the Aborigine population (who are thought to account for only 1%-2% of Australia’s current population).

Nowadays, the Rocks is a much more quiet, quaint part of Sydney. It’s older and lower and with a cuter vibe and small cafés dotted about. There’s also the free Rocks Discovery Museum where you can find out more about the history of the area.

I’m glad that this part was preserved and not ripped down to create a more bog-standard cityscape. Luckily the Green Ban worked so rather than demolition, it ended up in regeneration.

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Argyle Cut – dug out by convicts, The Rocks, Sydney

Making our way down through the Argyle Cut and onto Argyle Street, we heard stories of gangs (such as the Forty Thieves) who used to roam the streets, battering and bruising people with socks stuffed with sand. Times were truly horrible: not only was there the threat of being bashed about, but also that of being press-ganged. This is said to have happened in a few places, including one of the oldest pubs in Sydney, the Hero of Waterloo: they would give you lots of free drinks and once you were suitably inebriated, a trapdoor would open, you would fall through, pass out and wake up a slave on-board a ship far out at sea. Nice.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Nicknamed The (Ugly) Coathanger by people who were moved out of buildings when the bridge was being built, it isn’t actually possible to just walk across it without booking onto a tour. And at $200-$300 (depending on which of the climb experiences you choose) it’s not cheap. There’s also the option to do it at night. Spot the Luna Park in the distance, reached easily by catching a ferry from Circular Quay.

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Sydney Harbour Bridge and Luna Theme Park, Sydney

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People walking the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Nice outfits.

The Opera House

The sail design for the opera house was thought-up by a young Danish guy, beating 232 other competitors. The story has a few bitter touches, though, and whilst visually it is so distinct and unique, it fails to do its job in terms of sound quality.

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Manly ferry passes by the Sydney Opera House

Near by the Opera House is a blocky residential building which is often cited as one of the ugliest buildings in Sydney, particularly as it blocks the views to the park. But it hasn’t put people off paying up to $16.8m for an apartment there.

Overall, Sydney felt like a proper city with its high skyline and people rushing around and smart suits and dresses all over the place. And high heels. The centre didn’t feel too big though. And I can’t even support the city of legs statement. The idea of getting the camera out to shoot lots of slim girls in short skirts felt totally wrong, I’m sure you’ll understand. Just take my word for it.

Free Sydney Sights Tour every day at 10:30am and 2:30pm meeting at the big anchor statue by the Town Hall on George Street. There is also a free Rocks tour at 6:00pm every day. It is usual for there to be about 25 people in a group, but it can be much lower. Guides make money through tips with $10 a recommended amount for the three hour tour (tours could otherwise cost you at least triple). My guide, Max, has a blog on all things Sydney. Take a look at www.maxfranklinssydneyjungle.blogspot.com.

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Super views from the Sky Tower

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Up close: Sky Tower

Visible from afar, the Sky Tower in Auckland is said to be the tallest building on the southern hemisphere boasting views of 80 kilometres in all directions on a clear day. At 328m, it didn’t sound too high, but I knew that glass fronted lifts and see-through platforms would add to the fear factor. Not a great one for heights I thought that this could be another opportunity to challenge any vertigo issues I might be carrying around with me.
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Views down from the lift (and someone elses shoes!)

The first lift up with its glass floor worked my stomach into a bit of a frenzy, and all in the space of forty seconds. The second lift spat me out at the highest observation platform – the Sky Deck. At 220m, this allowed for spectacular views out over Auckland and its surrounding areas, it was just a pity that it was all indoors, the experience somewhat affected by finger smudged window panes (I was there at the end of the day).

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Viewing 'tubes', for want of a better word

I did love the viewing devices that they had installed to pinpoint specific landmarks: little hexagonal tubes that exactly framed the building or landscape feature, isolating it whilst providing some historical context in the plaque below. So simple to use (perfect for me) and so effective.

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Auckland from the Sky Deck at 220m in the Sky Towers

I didn’t get involved in the adrenaline side of the Sky City activities, but there is the opportunity to scale the tower’s exterior whilst harnessed up or to do a Sky Jump: a comic hero, 11 second descent whizzing down wires whilst wearing an orange jumpsuit.

And on my way back down, the lift stopped momentarily at the Sky Lounge Café & Bar. If I hadn’t already been running late and if I had been with someone to share the moment with, I would have stopped off for a sunset cocktail. If you get the chance, do it and make me jealous.

A ticket that takes you to the 220m high Sky Deck, the highest platform costs $28 (£14.50). Sky City is open to the public from 8:30am every day, closing at 10:30pm Sun-Thu and 11:30pm Fri and Sat.

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