Snapshots: The Coromandel Peninsula

The Coromandel Peninsula is pretty much the closest weekend getaway from Auckland. Less than three hours’ drive and you’ll find yourself dipping your toes in the ocean while admiring Cathedral Cove, patting pigs on road 309, straining your neck trying to glimpse the top of kauri trees, or watching the sunset on Whitianga beach.

Not pictured: the wonderful Hot Water Beach on Mercury Bay, where visitors can dig their own pools at low tide and paddle around in the natural spring’s burning hot water –  basically a free spa, but with the added possibility of a beer…

Five day trips to do from Auckland

I’ve been calling Auckland home for almost six months now. My affection for the city has gone up and down during this time. At first, I fell in love for it – it was the first ‘proper’ city I’d seen in months, with bars and cafés and shops, and it had the sea on two sides! Heaven.

Then I realised Auckland’s not that… that great. It’s a bit of a mess of a city, with heterogeneous architecture (if you can call it that), poor public transport, and very little to do on the cheap. Luckily, there’s plenty to do near Auckland to get some fresh air, so here’s a list of some of my favourite day trips I’ve taken so far.

Waiheke Island

Less than an hour’s ferry from Auckland CBD, Waiheke Island is the dream day out. You’ve got plenty of trails to walk (including the round-the-island Te Ara Hura track if you’ve got four days to spare), beaches for miles, a few lovely villages with numerous cafes – but mostly, you’ve got wineries. Oh, to wine on Waiheke. The climate of the Hauraki Golf makes for juicy and refreshing Savs, and tight, elegant reds. Have a drink at Mudbrick or Cable Bay as the sun sets; the views are splendid. As best said by the gentleman who poured me wine at Mudbrick while I admired the sun setting over the distant city skyline: ‘This is where Auckland should be – over there.’

The view from Stonyridge Vineyard

Oneroa Beach
The West Coast beaches: Piha, Karekare and Bethells

You’ll need to rent a car to make the hour-long drive to Auckland’s West Coast beaches. While Piha is the most popular, both for its seemingly endless black sand beach and its waves, I’m fonder of the other two. Karekare is huge and often deserted, and the short walk through the bush to get there makes it feel that bit more special. As for Bethells, it’s another good surfing spot, but still quieter than Piha.

Piha Beach seen from the Lion Rock

Karekare Beach

Karangahake Gorge

It’ll take you a bit longer to get to Karangahake Gorge – a good two hours in the direction of the Coromandel Peninsula. But it’s worth it: there’s enough trails for a good day’s walk, with a bit of mining memorabilia for those wanting to get to grips with Kiwi history, and stunning views everywhere. Try and keep the tunnel walk for dusk; you’ll see glowworms in the caves, then the light of golden hour fall onto the gorge. Glorious.

Waikowhai Walkway

Anyone else still not got their driving licenses? Fear not, for I have researched adventures accessible by bus that still feel like leaving the city! The Waikowhai coastal walkway starts near Onehunga and ends in Lynfield, with bus and train stops into CBD near both ends. It’s a beautiful walk, along several stunning beaches and through a few natural reserves, with a couple trails that made me feel like I was in the Coromandel rather than in Auckland.

Hobbiton

I’d heard the same from everyone who’s gone to Hobbiton: it’s too expensive for what it is, but it’s got to be done. And as a lover of The Lord of the Rings, books and films, I agree. It’s an expensive day out, and the visit is shorter than I expected, but I still got a massive kick out of seeing Hobbit holes, peeking into Bag End (although there isn’t actully anything to see inside) and having a pint at the Green Dragon.

Bring mates who’ll make you laugh for added enjoyment!

Have you got any other tips for day trips from the City of Sails? Let me know in the comments so I can keep busy over the next few months…

Mexico: Stories from its ruins

Mexico is a country that takes pride in preserving its ruins, because they tell so much about its history. The nation of Mexico was built overtime at the crossroads where various civilisations lived, grew, met, fought – and ultimately, were taken over by the Hispanics. But there is so much evidence of the lives of its various people in pre-colonial times, from the Zapotecs through the Mayans to the Aztecs.

I loved learning some of their stories as I visited some of the most important historic sites in Mexico.

Monte Albán

Monte Albán, a historical site near Oaxaca, is important for two main reasons: it’s one of the earliest cities in pre-colonial Central America; and it was the epicentre of the Zapotec civilisation for around a millenium, starting from 500 BC.

What impressed me most there (and, to be honest, in all sites I visited) is the sheer scale of those cities. They were built thousands of years ago, long before we had cranes, calculators, architectural firms and conservation policies – and yet the sites are huge, precisely designed, and show marks of skilful planning and advanced societies. For example, archeologists found some walls at Monte Albán that seem to indicate there was a separation between different social classes, with the ability for more prominent citizens to spy on the lower classes from above.

Teotihuacán

The ancient city of Teotihuacán is one of the most famous – and most visited – sites in Mexico. And it’s also one of the most confusing. No one seems very sure who built it; all that’s sure is that it was occupied by various indigenous civilisations along the years (and centuries), and that it was one of the most important cities in the region at its peak (around 300-450 AD), both by its size and influence.

What I found most interesting about Teotihuacán was the layout of the city. It’s got one massive main street, the Avenue of the Dead, with the Citadel at one end and the Pyramid of the Moon at the other end. The former is home to a temple to the Feathered Serpent, a site where archeologists found remains of many human sacrifices, which designates it as a religious and political centre (as religion was so prevalent in those days that religious leaders would also have the political power). Along the Avenue is the biggest pyramid onsite, the Pyramid of the Sun. The precise use of this one and the Moon isn’t known though.

View of the Avenue of the Dead from the Pyramid of the Moon

One thing we know is that people would have lived in building complexes across and around the city, with signs of different neighbourhoods for different ethnic groups. Walking along the Avenue, I could just imagine life there: people strolling by, popping into shops, visiting temples to give offerings, attending political gatherings. It felt almost like… us.

To add to the mystery, we don’t know what the city was called at its apogee; it only gained the name Teotihuacán after its fall. The Aztecs named it ‘the place where the gods were created’ in the middle of the first millenium AD, as they believe that’s where the gods made the universe.

Palenque

The ruins of Palenque, in the south-eastern state of Chiapas, are the smallest archeological site I visited in Mexico. And yet, it was the most beautiful – its architecture is sophisticated, and its sculptures and carvings stunning, with the lush surroundings of the jungle an additional advantage (although the vegetation did take over the ruins for years, making restoration a difficult job).

The site is decidedly Mayan, and owes a great lot to its most important leader, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (nope I can’t pronounce it either, luckily he also goes by Pakal the Great). He ruled for most of the seventh century, during which he rebuilt most of Palenque, an entreprise that his successors continued. Amongst other things, their work helped trace a lineage of Mayan rulers and record history – the most important building in Palenque is the Temple of Inscriptions, named after the high number of hieroglyphic tablets it contains, which tell stories of Maya civilisation.

It’s also the tomb of Pakal the Great – he had it built during the last years of his reign, with his son having to finish it off after he died.

The Temple of Inscriptions

Chichén Itzá

If you’ve ever seen a photo of a Mexican pyramid… No doubt it was of El Castillo, the towering peak of Chichén Itzá. Found in the Yucatán Peninsula, it’s one of the greatest Mayan archeological sites, as well as being a fantastic example of mixed-style architecture: while first a Mayan settlement in the second half of the first millenium, Chichén Itzá was conquered by the Toltec people around 1000 AD, and today displays a fusion of their styles.

I’m still no expert on the differences between the two, but what I can tell you is that El Castillo is the most breathtaking example on site. It’s more than just a pretty building, though. It’s also a temple to Quetzalcoatl (yes, like in Teotihuacán). And there’s more! See, the Maya were incredibly skilled mathematicians, and this is basically a calendar.

El Castillo

Each side of the pyramid has 91 steps. Adding to that the top step, that’s 365 in total, just like the number of days in a year. And twice a year, on the two equinoxes, the days when the night and day are the same length, the sun casts the shadow of a snake that seems to move down the pyramid.

Meanwhile, I still need to use my phone to calculate a 20% tip.

An inventive way to represent the Feathered Serpent: serpent head sculpture, with carved feathery-snakey body

Hope you enjoyed learning a bit more Mexican history, to complement my post on its urban stories. I tried my hardest to verify all these stories (thank you National Geographic and UNESCO), but may have gotten it wrong – feel free to correct me in the comments if so!

Mexico: Urban stories

My first impression of Mexico City was 100% pure backpacker material.

I’d just spent a few days in Lima, lying by the beach and recharging my normal-human batteries with fancy restaurants and big supermarkets. Then I got to Mexico City and decided to walk from the airport to the nearest underground station. Cue a confusing walk that led me down a hugely busy street, full of the sounds of cars and people chatting away, assembling around little food stands, balancing on small plastic stools as they ate from plates charged with tacos.

Smells, colours, noise, the tiredness of a flight and the confusion of a new city… Boom. Back into the thick of it.

That bold feeling of a city really, brightly alive followed me through my two weeks in Mexico. Everywhere I went, even in smaller towns, there was a sort of street culture – people walking, talking, selling. Most of all, people eating. There’s no doubt eating food on the street is a huge part of Mexican culture and oh boy, you have not tasted tacos until you’ve had them in Mexico City.

And so my trip started in the capital, alternating between taking in a silly amount of al pastor tacos, and the city’s rich history. First, because that’s where the country itself finds its beginnings. It is said that the Aztecs were told by their main god that their new city would be founded where they would find an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. And so they created Tenochtitlan, which would later become Mexico City – named after the Mexicas, the Aztec people that founded the nation and its capital.

The 16th century saw the beginning of the Spanish rule in Mexico, following Cortés’ conquest of the country, and much of the splendour of the capital lies in the buildings built in that time by the Spaniards. I got to see the cathedral, the Palacio Nacional, the Museo del Arte, as well as some of the many palaces; huge, impressive buildings that show the importance of Mexico City in the world then and now.

Inside the Post Office

I went next to Puebla, where I also felt that colonial influence, but sprinkled with more colours, and signs of slower life – its El Parian art market, especially, made that link for me. A space of trade growing thanks to tourism, but created and decorated with traditional patterns and colours; and the huge cross in the middle, to remind of the importance of religion in the country.

Streets of Oaxaca

Museo de las Culturas, Oaxaca

Oaxaca, where I went next, felt very different. Its cobbled streets and coloured facades felt more like the ‘traditional’ image of Mexico I’d had in mind – and still with the huge markets and street food stalls. But it also showed us the other side of Mexico that we see less. The troubles. In the state of Oaxaca, teachers’ unions have been fighting educational reforms from the government for a decade, leading to often bloody clashes. The unions argue the reforms would be detrimental to Mexico’s cultural diversity, and endanger indigenous practices – in a state where almost half of the population is of indigenous origin. And even though riots didn’t happen while I was there, they were made to be remembered… Tourism was less welcome there.

‘Tourist, go home – there’s a social war going on here’. One of many graffiti of the sort in Oaxaca

Meanwhile, at Playa del Carmen, tourism was more than welcome. It was needed. The whole city just runs on it; it feels like it exists just for it. Hotel after hotel, bar after bar after restaurant, and if you’re lucky like me and visit just at the right time, crowds of drunken spring breakers exorcising their drunken mistakes by burning up on the beach. Playa del Carmen, as you can tell, did not impress me. As proof, this is the only photo I have from it… from a night in a club in town:

But it’d be naive to overlook the importance of tourism for the Mexican economy, so I think it helped give me a near whole experience of Mexican urban life.

Now, in the next post… We’ll check out Mexican history by way of its ruins!

A day on la Isla del Sol

So… I’m still here!

Moving to Auckland and settling in a new city turned out to take a lot more of my time than I had expected. The plan was to work a lot, which I’m doing, and to blog a lot. Well, I’m halfway there, I guess!

I’ve started discovering bits of New Zealand and I’ll start sharing photos very soon. In the meantime, I’m going back to Bolivia for a last little taste of its high-altitude landscapes with photos of the beautiful Isla del Sol.

The island is on Lake Titicaca, itself on the border of Peru and Bolivia. What I’d always hear it called was ‘the highest navigable lake in the world’. It’s got a good ring to it but doesn’t give you much of a feel for it, even when you see it – a lake is a lake is a lake, etc. Until you make it onto Isla del Sol for a short day’s walk, fearless at the thought of yet another hike, and discover that hiking isn’t that easy when the altitude is around 3,800m.

The name of the island – Island of the Sun – comes from the Inca belief that the Sun God was born there. He would have emerged from the darkness after a great flood, and shortly thereafter created the first two Incas on the island. The legends are confused and confusing, and vary in precision, but there’s no doubt about one thing: there is something different about the island.

There is a calmness, a sacredness to it when you walk through it. It became even more apparent for me at night. I spent a couple hours sat facing the sunset, watching as the sky darkened more and more, until the rain came over the island and wouldn’t stop all night.

It felt like a place where the elements won; it reminded me of some of the feelings I’d had in Patagonia, but with the added bonus of spiritual mystery.

There is very little to do on the island aside from walking. It’s inhabited by families who mostly farm, although like everywhere else in Bolivia, tourism provides more and more income. I barely even saw the two main villages, rather choosing to directly walk the length of the island from Challapampa to Yumani.

On the way, me and my friends passed ruins of old settlements. People lived on the island from as long ago as 2200 BC. And as we walked, spotting farmers leading their sheep, nodding to girls in traditional outfits, I thought… On here, nothing much has changed.

The highs and lows of La Paz

Title pun alert! I’m probably the 7,846th person to make an altitude-related pun in a piece of writing about La Paz, but I’d hope you’ll soon have me forgiven. See, La Paz is 3,650m above sea level.

Read that again. I said 3,650m. That’s high. And everything about La Paz, everything that makes it what it is, reminds you of its altitude one way or another.

First, because it’s bloody difficult to breathe. I was told and told again about altitude sickness in Bolivia; gruelling stories of nights spent lying on a hostel bathroom floor vomiting, of endless headaches – even one horrific tale of altitude sickness pills that ended up in repatriation to Europe. So, naturally… I was completely unprepared.

Interlude: I KNOW that anyone who knows me back home would not find ‘naturally’ and ‘unprepared’ to be two words that’d fit in a sentence about me. But that’s the way travel was going in South America.

Anyway. I got into La Paz at 3am after a coach driver lied to me about travel times (‘you’ll get there at 7am,’ he said, bullshit much), had a long chat with an excited taxi driver and found myself in a hostel in Sopocachi, the hipstery-bohemian neighbourhood. La Paz is built like a bowl, with the fancier districts at the lowest point, in the centre, and the poorer areas at the very top of the mountains. Sopocachi is sort of in the middle of that, and I spent my days there struggling and panting up steep hills to get home, wondering how I’d got so unfit after weeks of hiking through Patagonia. I’d lay in bed at night, feeling a pressure in my chest that made it impossible to fall asleep even with YouTube’s extensive library of ASMR on hand. I also was a bit too casual with the tap water and ended up feeding myself on bread and rice… So that’s the lows of La Paz.

The highs… The highs are the highs. There’s a cable car in La Paz that isn’t for tourism purposes, but rather is an actual transport system.

I took it with a brand-new friend as we went exploring the town, and then again as I went up to the very top of the hill, to El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city – contrary to what it may seem (or what may be said), La Paz and El Alto are two different cities. Walking through it does feel like a different place, because almost all of its population is indigenous. I was actually shown around the area by an Aymara girl who wore the traditional clothes, and walking through the huge (huge) market of El Alto, we saw dozens and dozens of Aymaras and Quechuas selling potatoes and weaved colourful cloths and sparkly knitted gilets and tubs of quinoa topped with grated cheese (called p’esque). And also iPods and car parts and ripped DVDs – literally everything you can think of.

We shared an apthapi with our guides – in the countryside, Aymaras will meet up and everyone will bring different foods to share, mostly various potatoes and roots, but here also boiled eggs and a spicy eggy dip. It was one of those little experiences (food experiences) that I absolutely love and seek while travelling. Some of my fellow travellers were a tad unimpressed but I happily munched away on potatoes and spicy egg. It’s the little things.

In spite of spending quite a few days in La Paz and really enjoying the city, I have very few photos to share. But I’d highly recommend it, even more so as I’d heard mostly negative feedback about the city before I went. And yet I loved its mix of cultures and the contrast between its busy centre, hip neighbourhoods and historical areas. I loved its micros, the little buses (sometimes barely more than random white vans) that carry every and all Bolivians around, whether they’re carrying a briefcase or a large sack of potatoes. I loved its little markets, its cobbled streets, its hot salteñas, its friendly people, its never-ending markets and its little old men selling cinnamon sorbet in the centre.

And I loved loved loved that I found a crêperie there. You can take the girl out of France…