Machu Picchu: 10 tips for a trip of a lifetime

For many, Machu Picchu is synonymous with “bucket list”. I’ve never been anywhere that has elicited such envy on social media. To be honest, I visited this awe inspiring historical site almost by accident.

Experiencing the Incan citadel was certainly a highlight of my Sth American odyssey. Here are my tips to make the most of this once in a lifetime experience.

  1. Book your ticket in advance. The UNESCO listed site is limited to 2,500 visitors a day and tickets are not available at the entrance
  1. Bring your passport. This is also needed for entry to the site. Since you have it with you, don’t forget to get the Machu Picchu stamp that is available just inside the gates.
  1. Get a guide. This truly enhances the experience. You’ll shortchange yourself if you see the site without learning the history. They also know how best to avoid the crowds and get the postcard perfect shot.
  1. There’s no shame in catching the bus. The four day trek to Machu Picchu is a rite of passage for many. It’s a tough walk, especially on the second day, topped off by freezing nights under canvas and even colder showers. Sacred Valley hotels can book a day guide, for a full day walk along the last section of the track. Or just catch the train to Aguas Calientes and jump on the bus the scours the hillside to the site’s entry.
  1. Miss the morning crowds queuing for the pre-dawn bus and go in the afternoon. Most tourists don’t realize that seeing the sunrise from the Sun Gate is a logistical impossibility, unless you’re trekking (and are a fast walker). For everyone else, even though the site opens at 6am (often later by the time the staff arrive and open the gates), the photo opportunity is well and truly over by the time you’ve completed the 90 minute ascent. The afternoon is usually the quietest time to visit and your best chance to take photos unmarred by crowds.
Where are all the people? The best time to visit Machu Picchu is actually in the afternoon

Where are all the people? The best time to visit Machu Picchu is actually in the afternoon

  1. Altitude is rarely a problem. While Cusco, the gateway to the region, is 3,400 m above sea level Machu Picchu is a mere 2,400 m. Altitude sickness is unpredictable and indiscriminant but it’s the flight into Cusco that’s a greater culprit.
  1. Take a sunhat rather than beanie. Even in the heart of winter, while the thermometer dips below zero overnight it’s often in the high 20s c during the day. There’s no shade at Machu Picchu and panting, overheated tourists kitted out in thermals is a common site.
  1. Drink water, but not too much. Speaking of overheating you’ll need to bring your own water, as there are no shops inside the historic site. Nor are there toilets so it’s a delicate balance. While people often plan an all day visit for their once in a lifetime Machu Picchu experience, for most mortals this will necessitate trekking back to the entry gates at least once. Not an easy feat, battling against the flow of tourists on often narrow tracks.
  1. Enjoy the region. Peru blew me away. From Lima to Lake Titicaca it’s full of wonderful sights, tastes and experiences. Cusco, Sacred Valley and Aguas Calientes (the closest town to Machu Picchu) are all worth exploring. Spending a few days enjoying the landscape between Cusco and the Mountain is also a great way to minimize the risk of altitude sickness.
  1. Do it now. With a new airport slated for Sacred Valley in the next couple of years, allowing fly in and out visits in a day, tourist numbers are expected to rise to 20 million by 2020. This is unsustainable and far exceeds UNESCO guidelines. According to local guides, if you want to visit Machu Picchu and actually walk through the site– do it before 2018.

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Six of the best: Chiang Mai

Snuggled within the ancient walls of the old city, it’s hard to believe that Chiang Mai is the second largest metropolis in Thailand. In the far north of the country, near Laos and Myanmar borders, Chiang Mai is a cool oasis in summer but even in the humid, rainy season offers a relaxing holiday destination.

Beyond the elephant camps, Hill Tribe villages and docile tigers, you can spend a month in this city without getting bored. Here are six of my best Chiang Mai experiences.

1. Noodles: There’s so much more to this food group than Pad Thai. You’ll find the regional specialty Khao Soi (curry noodles) on the menu from breakfast through to dinner. I’m of fan of ‘big noodles’ of wide, luscious rice noodles ‘massaged’ with soy and other sauces, served with stir fried tofu and vegetables.

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2. Markets: Chiang Mai’s markets are legendary. From the local produce markets that pop up everywhere to the massive Warorot markets, locals and tourists alike love them. Without a doubt, the sprawling Sunday Walking Market on Ratchadamnon Road is the best – great food, interesting wares and lots of happy Thai people enjoying their weekend ritual.

3. Wander through the back sois (lanes). Off the major streets lie dozens of meandering laneways. Observe local life and stop for a drink or meal at one of the many unnassuming cafes (like Natures Way and Peppermint café, open all day with free wife, fresh food and friendly service).

4. Hire a driver. We were driven in a spotless modern taxi for the day for a mere 1500 baht (~ Au$50, shared between three). If you want to do something other than Hill Tribes, elephants, rafting or zip lining – do your own research first and make a wish list. Our driver was a little resistant to our plans at first (so remember to negotiate itinerary as well as price before sealing the deal) but we managed to get him off the track for a swim in a waterfall and lunch at a health spa out of the city.

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5. Follow the monks. Take an early morning walk to watch the sunrise glint off the wats, monks walking the streets to collect offerings or to just sit in the grounds of a temple and listen to the chanting. My favourite pre-breakfast walks includes the river, being the only farang at the San Pakoy market and catching the sunrise at Wat Chedi Luang.

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6. Relax. As a massage slut from way back, I was in my element sampling the full spectrum from foot massages at the walking markets, to cheapies and luxurious spas.

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Coffee – an espresso to rival any in Melbourne.

Massage – go for broke and book a package, you won’t regret it.

Map/tips – you’ll never get bored with a Nancy Chandler map (but remember to check the website for updates)

Vegan/vegetarian visiting Chiang Mai – read my top tips.

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The Highline: the happiest mile in NYC

The number one recommendation from almost everyone I know who’d visited New York in the last couple of years was a unanimous, “walk the High Line”.

 

The most loved mile of NYC, has only been open for four years. It didn’t take much for me to join the legion of fans. The High Line had me at my first glance in Gansevoort Street.

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It’s hard to explain what makes a chunk of elevated rail line exciting. It’s a park, art gallery, café and general hangout. What’s more there are extraordinary views of the Hudson River, iconic architecture and one of the most dynamic city skylines in the world.

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I managed to walk five lengths of the High Line while in NYC and caught its many moods including a sunny Sunday stroll, midweek dash uptown and a perfect summer’s evening. Each time the park was populated by locals, visitors, date night couples, singles escaping their pokey rooms grabbing a bench and watching videos on their phone (and free wife). There were families, tourists and downtown diehards who rarely roam more than 10 blocks from home.

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What I loved the most: wild flowers, Chelsea Thicket, blossoms scenting the night, art everywhere and even the furniture. But equally it was what neighboured the park: glimpsing lives lived cheek and jowl, night clubs, restaurants, homes, graffiti, street scenes, the Empire State building but most of all the modern architecture. The curves of HL23, the Standard Hotel straddling the path like an open book and Frank Geary’s IAC (especially for the golden hour at night when it’s see through) are the new landmarks in the city.

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Every visit deepened my enjoyment of the High Line but our last one topped the lot. It was a stunning, June night, sated on great food and a proseco or two at a neighbourhood bar (West Village bless your organic cotton socks – restaurants and bars to die for AND an apartment a mere two blocks from the High Line!). Up the Ganesvoort stairs, even Hoboken and Queens looked magical across the Hudson, dressed in glittering lights. The warm air was perfumed by flowers in full bloom, music pulsed from exclusive penthouse clubs and the pop up eateries buzzed. I swear every single person was grinning ear to ear, with the full on sensory emersion.

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The High Line is barely more than a mile but it has to be the happiest mile in the city. It certainly gladdened my heart. Sure it doesn’t have the achingly wide spaces of Central Park but I’d take the grit of downtown over the exclusivity of Fifth Avenue any day.

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Brooklyn food and fleas

Not the jumping, biting kind.

Just across the bridge from Manhattan, Brooklyn has some of the best vintage and food markets in the state.

First stop, the Saturday flea at Fort Greene.

Some vegan ‘noodles’ as a palate cleanser.

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Followed by mahi-mahi tacos, that green apple salsa was a revelation.

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And everyone should have a rhubarb and Thai basil soda, at least once in their life (twice even better!)

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Then we hopped the subway to Wiilliamsburg, to catch Smorgasburg before it closed.

A market snuggled next to the Williamsburg bridge with million dollar views.

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For an ice cream.

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Mr Berrington could fool an omni – blackberry/chocolate a stellar combo on a hot day.

Don’t forget to check out the undercover weekend market on 7th Street on your way back to the subway. Full of new and used clothes and art, plus the cutest little toilet totem in town.

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Simple San Francisco style

 

You can tell a lot about a place by its food. Move away from the heart-clogging diners around Union Square and travel beyond the reaches of the cable car for a taste of the real Frisco.

Heading to San Francisco for my first visit, hippies, Haight Asbury and the Golden Gate Bridge are three images that immediately sprung to mind. For many tourists it’s updated with the tackiness of Fisherman’s Wharf, aggressive panhandlers downtown and of course, the interminable wait to ride on the cable cars.

I wanted to get back to the hippy roots of the city but in the opposite direction of Haight. Greens, an iconic vegetarian restaurant that opened in the ‘70s, called my name. Getting there turned out to be half the fun.

Skipping the hour queue for the Powell-Mason cable car, we jumped on the Market St tram all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. I love the old streetcars from around the world that whiz down the 6 mile route from the Wharf to the Castro, and travelled it most days we were in town.

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Once we headed beyond the Embarcadero, directions to the Fort Mason restaurant were sketchy. While the map, on paper at least, showed a clear route down Bay Street, on the ground it was illusive. Instead the footpath lured us over the hill to the marina, through the small national park. The ascent was bolstered by spectacular views of the bay and the Marina on the other side welcomed us. The sprawling Green Meadows Park felt a million miles away from the homeless in the city centre.

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With literally five minutes to spare before the end of lunch service we finally arrived at Greens, relieved to be welcomed to a table. The stress evaporated as we sat in the light-filled converted warehouse, watching yachts bob outside in front of the iconic bridge. The view is complemented by a spacious interior design using mostly reclaimed timber, high ceilings and large artworks.

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The food, crafted from organically grown produce was some of the freshest I’ve ever tasted (and I’m both a gardener and organic market shopper at home).  The menu has echoes of its 70’s wholefood roots but has swapped stodge for simplicity. The baby potatoes and corn in my grilled brochette is probably the most flavorsome I’ve ever eaten complementing, rather than competing with, the chimichurri sauce and spicy Mexican slaw.

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The ambience at Greens enhanced the experienced. While only a couple of diners remained so late in the service the staff didn’t hurry any of us, as if understanding the importance of atmosphere on good digestion.

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Calmed and sated by our lunch, we ambled back through the sculptures of Green Meadow Park and took in the views of Alcatraz, Fisherman’s wharf and the bridge once more. Without the pressure of time and unknown geography and buoyed by an organic beer with lunch, we could relax into the beauty of the national park.

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Greens is worth an excursion, so close to the hackneyed San Francisco tourist sights but a million miles away from the urban tension. Choose it for the sheer simple flavours of the produce, inspiring natural design of the restaurant and the iconic views. But also for the path less travelled, which was as refreshing as the meal itself.

How to get to Greens

The walk from Fisherman’s wharf should take about 30 minutes, when you know where you’re going. Click the link for directions.

 

New York highlights

Unexpected

Dogs – in Macy’s, on the street, in boutiques…

Pregnant women – especially at the Brooklyn markets, it’s a fecund borough

Frozen yoghurt – where our current epidemic started, let’s hope we find a cure…fast

Children playing in fountains on hot days

80s Brit pop – playing in stores and cafes, including quite a few indie bands from my youth, nostalgia city

Bipolar weather – either a chilly all day downpour or sunburn

Subway buskers – the best ever, amazing voices, strings and brass

Ten dollar psychics – on every street corner

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Art

Subway art – lovely surprises, including the subversive Tom Otterness Life Underground  bronzes in the nooks and crannies of ‘our’ 14th St station.

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Museum Mile – annual 5th Avenue street festival where 10 blocks are closed and museums open free for three hours. Visited the Guggenheim, The Met (including the Punk exhibition), listened to DJs, watched buskers and gasped at the glory of Central Park at sunset.

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Murals in the lobby of the Chrysler building (and you thought all the deco loveliness was on the outside?)

Dia:Beacon – perfect rainy day trip up the Hudson to Connecticut. For lovers of modern art only, this place is like entering the Tardis (“it’s a lot bigger on the inside”) Richard Sera, Warhol, Sol Le Witt all standouts as well as the most comfortable sofas ever experienced in an art gallery. Check out the Metro North Getaway Package for a reduced price train trip/museum entry.

MoMA PS1 worth a trip to Long Island, more modern art than you can poke a stick at, the eco themed Expo1 studded with gems from Meg Webster’s Pool to classic Ansel Adams prints.

 Food

Like the weather food is equally polarized. Equal number of vegan and porcine themed eateries, food stalls and products.

Markets – visited the Fort Greene and Union Square farmers markets, gobbled our way through the Brooklyn flea food stalls barely leaving room for a late afternoon trip to Smorgasburg in Williamsburg. IMG_2637

Food trucks – Van Leeuwen’s vegan ice cream was our fave.

So little time, so much amazing food to choose from !

 Architecture

The Empire State and Chrysler buildings around almost every corner. Viewed from Williamsburg, the Hudson, the Highline and all places in between.

Grand Central Terminus – best view from the mezanine Apple Store (tip: free wifi) at rush hour, watching all those busy little ants below and the star map above.

Frank Gehry’s IAC building – from the High Line, the Hudson, during the day, the magic twighlight zone when it’s see-through and at night.

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Ceilings to remember – Rose Main Reading Room and the NY Public library, Bethesda Terrace in Central Park and of course Grand Central.

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…and speaking of the High Line, it deserves it’s own post (here it is). We stayed two blocks from the start and walked 5 lengths of it during our stay. We were wowed during the day, loved it as a pedestrian express route uptown, a spot to drink an excellent morning coffee from Kava but it was on a summer’s night that it totally blew my mind and senses.

 Parks and gardens

While the High Line is a 21st century Central Park, it’s the pocket gardens the breath clean air into most neighbourhoods.

Jefferson Market Garden – a standout Greenwich Village green spot, lovingly tended by volunteers.

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Washington Square – for buskers, the fountain and food trucks.

And also

Happy Hour – what a wonderful institution. Cheap drinks, cheeky bartenders, chatting with the locals. Margaritas at Mole worth a detour. 

West Village – woke up to birdsong every morning, great neighbourhood bars and restaurants, espresso and a potential ‘Little Melbourne’ (can we start the trend and call it ‘LiMe’?) with Crumpler and Aesop around the corner. Plus the usual $10 psychics, healthfood stores and dogs.

Summer fruits, flowers and Tropical Storm Andrea.

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