Wednesday/Thursday Feb 22/23, 2011


All good things come to an end. And, from this point on, it was (literally) downhill all the way for our very satisfied Mad Midlifers: a return train-journey along the Sacred Valley … a couple more nights (plus a city-tour and some alpaca-shopping) in Cuzco … a short flight back to sea-level and Lima … a longer three-and-a-half hour flight to Santiago (Chile) … a 4-to-5 hour sit-around at the airport (yawn) … and, finally, a 13-and-a-half hour flight to Auckland (arriving while you were still asleep, at 4:40am Thursday morning).

Phew, what an adventure we’ve had! And what stories we’ve got to tell! We’ve seen so much, done so much, learned so much, gained so much and laughed so much that we don’t know where to put it all!



P.S. If following this travel diary has whet YOUR appetite and got you thinking, “Hey, I’d like to go on one of these Mad Midlife adventures!” … click on the TOURS list/logos on the right of this page, and read all about our upcoming schemes and dreams. Or go to our website: http://www.johncooney.co.nz. Or phone our travel colleague and booking agent, Roger Glynan (Lion World Travel) – tollfree 0800 277 477.

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Tuesday Feb 22, 2011


This blog-entry (a long one and a late one) has been greatly overshadowed by events that happened this day in Christchurch. News of the awful earthquake reached us in Peru – and it was with sad and anxious hearts that we began our homeward journey. By the time you read this, we’ll be back in New Zealand. Our thoughts and prayers go to all those caught up in this tragedy …

I’m not often lost for words. But, as I sit here at a café table in Santiago Airport (Chile), attempting at last to give you that full report I promised on magical Machu Picchu, I truly don’t know where to start. I mean, like the Peruvian Andes, the Sacred Valley and the Lost City itself, the scale of what we’ve seen over the past few days is so vast that it’s hard to get your head around.

So, if you don’t mind, I’ll take it in stage-by-stage bites …


Our extra-early Friday morning flight from Lima to Cuzco took us up-and-into the rugged, cloud-scraping Andes – and, from my window-seat, I got a bird’s-eye view of what was in store for us, as coastal plains gave way to ever-steeper mountains, ever-deeper gorges, and (in the far distance) ever-higher snowy peaks and ridges.

Hard to imagine a more spectacular setting for our about-to-start Andean adventure …

Cuzco, set in one of those valleys, was once the foremost city of the Incan Empire – but today it plays host to hordes of tourists (just like us) who pass through en route to Machu Picchu. Massive Inca-built walls line steep, narrow, cobblestone streets … plazas and markets are thronging with local Quechua Indians, all decked out in colourful garments (and all trying desperately to sell us the same range of souvenirs and postcards) … and ancient treasures are carefully guarded inside colonial mansions and churches.

This city of 400,000 residents sits at 3200 metres (10,600 feet) above sea-level. Machu Picchu’s a little lower, at 2400 meters (7900 feet). And, within minutes of getting off the plane, we were feeling the affects of altitude – wheezing like asthmatics after the slightest exertion, and feeling like concrete-blocks had somehow been tied to our shoes.

But there was no lying down and resting for us Kiwis: we had places to go and people to see!

We dropped our big suitcases at the Costa Del Sol Picoaga Hotel, grabbed a quick breakfast, and piled into a small bus for a two-hour trip along the Sacred Valley to the Indian town of Pisac and its famous market.

From there, we pressed on (past rumpty roadside shop-fronts and mud-brick houses) to the remarkable Incan fortress of Ollantaytambo – accessed by a steep staircase, and featuring the massive Temple of the Sun (formed from six huge rectangular monoliths weighing 50 tons each). Finally, en route to dinner and bed at the lovely Casa Andina Sacred Valley Hotel, we were overtaken by a noisy, colourful street parade – and given an up-close example of local Indian culture.

Wonderful? You bet!


Saturday morning saw us out of bed early (again) for our pick-up-and-transfer to the railway station – where we boarded a luxury tourist train that carried us alongside the cascading Urubamba River through heart-stopping, vertical-sided, neck-straining gorges. Then, leaving the train, we rode one of a fleet of small buses up a twisting, edge-of-the-cliff dirt road (around no less than 22 hairpin-bends!) to fantastic Machu Picchu, set on a green saddle between stunning high peaks.

Mere words and photos can’t possibly convey what we saw and learned up there. But, for what it’s worth, here’s a little history …

Six hundred years ago, at the height of the Incan Empire, Machu Picchu was a bustling centre of culture, cultivation and worship. But this vast city-of-stone was never quite finished – and, today, it’s a silent shell: narrow stairways and alleyways wind among empty homes, temples, town squares, and astrological sites … and a still-functioning water system bears witness to lives long departed. In the late 1400s, something disastrous happened – and Machu Picchu was abandoned!

Nobody knows why, for sure. Best guess? The city’s leadership got news that the Spaniards had landed down on the coast – and while Incan warriors went to meet the invaders, the remaining population simply melted into the jungle. And no-one lived here again until an American explorer, Hiram Bingham, cleared away the encroaching overgrowth and exposed this astonishing sight in 1911.

We oohed and aahed and puffed and panted and climbed and clambered all over the ruins. And then, as light rain fell following our buffet lunch, we did more of the same.

An unforgettable day? You’d better believe it! The Lost City of the Incas will have us enthusing for many years to come …


This tour (like our African safari) has been a nature-lovers treat. And I can’t help adding a mention (plus a few pix) of the stunning birds we’ve encountered here in the Peruvian Andes.

While driving from Cuzco to the Sacred Valley, we spotted an adult woodpecker perched on a fence. (And, nearby, we spotted a baby, peering out from its nest-hole in a cliff.) But it was in the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel and its surrounding acres of flora and fauna that we Kiwis got serious about bird-watching.

This fabulous eco-hotel, established deep in the ‘cloud forest’ behind the village of Aguas Calientes, is home to a gorgeous collection of native orchids and birds – and we spent much of the next day watching tiny, multi-coloured fruit-eaters, fly-catchers and nectar-drinkers flit and dart and feed amongst the branches just above our heads.

Of special appeal to me and my assistant-photographer were the extra-tiny hummingbirds: their delicate wings doing a blurring 100 beats per second as they hovered over feeders the staff had hung in the trees!

Cock of the Rock

And then, a rare treat: a brilliant orange-red Cock of the Rock (Peru’s national bird, bigger than a Tui) decided to touch down in the garden, right before our eyes!

Lost for words? Almost!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN



Sunday Feb 22, 2011

Magic! There´s no other word for it. It was just magic! Better than the articles I’d read, the photos I’d seen, the travel programmes I’d watched. Better than any of us had ever expected. Machu Pïcchu, the Lost City of the Incas, has to be seen to be believed … and we Kiwis saw it yesterday in all its glory!

You’re gonna have to wait another day or two for a full report on this remarkable part of the world – and you’re gonna have to wait to see the take-your-breath-away photos Robyn and I have been snapping: of Cuzco (Peru) where this all started … the Sacred Valley of the Incas (teetering mountains, vertical cliffs, deep dark gorges and raging torrents) … the vast unfinished 600-year-old Inca construction perched high on the slopes at Machu Picchu, surrounded by sick-making sheer drops … the stunning birdlife we’ve eyeballed in this rainforest (woodpeckers, hummingbirds, the brilliant red Cock of the Rock (Peru’s National bird) … and lots more.

I can’t show you now, because I left my laptop back in Cuzco with my big suitcase, not expecting to get connected to the Internet in such a remote place in the middle of the Andes. But I was wrong – and this is coming to you courtesy of the free access available in our hotel.

As expected, the high altitude (and lack of oxygen) got to us, especially over the first day or two – leaving us all a bit breathless, headachey, heavy-footed (especially when walking uphill or up steps, etc) the usual symptoms – but most of us have adjusted well.

Regrettably, Jackie and Peter ended up going back to Cuzco (Jackie couldn’t shake the cold/cough/chest infection that she’d picked up on the ship) … but we expect to be reunited with them tomorrow.

Enough for now! We’ve got to go on an eco-walk through the ‘cloud forest’ … and then catch a mountain train.

Later … JOHN



Thursday Feb 17, 2011

Phew! Things have gone crazy-busy these past few days – so crazy-busy that I haven’t had time to blog you! Apologies are hereby offered … and a catch-up is hereby happening.

We were in scenic Puerto Montt last time we talked, about to make our way out of the Chilean Fjords and into the big blue Pacific. Which is what we did – except it was a big grey Pacific, for much of the final leg of our cruise to Valparaiso. Despite its history of nasty earthquakes, this enchanting port is a mad jigsaw puzzle of rumpty, brightly-coloured houses clinging to impossibly steep cliffs, bisected by twisting footpaths, stairways and a unique 100-year-old system of funicular cars.

Valparaiso (Veendam in background)

We disembarked on Wednesday morning, saying our final goodbyes to the Veendam and its super-friendly crew. Then we grabbed a quick squiz at Valparaiso before heading to Santiago (90 minutes down the motorway), where we coach-toured the main avenues of Chile’s impressive capital (pop 6.5 million) – taking pot-shots as we went of the city’s civic centre (La Moneda Palace), the traditional Plaza de Armas, and the huge Central Market (where we paused in mid-flight for a delicious seafood lunch).

Just a few hours later, over dinner at a superb restaurant on the slopes of Santa Lucía Hill, we said a fond farewell to seven of our number who aren’t continuing on to Peru and Machu Picchu. Their late-night departure back to New Zealand departs in a few hours (as I write this) … whereas the rest of us were rudely woken at 5:00am this morning for an early flight to Lima and Cuzco.

Well, that was the theory.

What actually happened was, our plane to Lima had “technical problems” … which delayed take-off for a couple of hours … which meant we missed our connecting flight to Cuzco … which is why we’re about to spend an unscheduled night in a Lima hotel (courtesy of Lan Airlines).

But wait, the worst is yet to come: we’re having a wake-up call at 3:45am (aarrgghh!) … because we’re leaving the hotel at 4:30am … so we can be at the airport in time at catch our replacement flight at 6:30am.

So, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna sign off now, don my nightshirt, and crawl into bed beside my co-photographer and lovely wife.


Okay …

PEOPLE NEWS: There’s been so much going on that our Midlife Madness Awards have been sadly neglected. But two people have been honoured of late …

  • John M received the ‘Wounded in the Course of Duty’ Award – following a nightmare he had in his ship’s cabin, during which (in a brave attempt to rescue Diane from a fate-worse-than-death), he whacked his head on the pelmet above their curtains, almost drawing blood.
  • A consolation prize goes (reluctantly) to Yours Truly (the writer of this blog) – who, after dishing out frequent warnings, like “Don’t leave anything on the coach!” … went and left his precious camera on the coach yesterday. The camera travelled all the way back to Valparaiso before being restored to its grateful owner late last night. The cost of this folly? A mere 60,000 Chilean Pesos (US$120)! Ouch …

TOMORROW: With any luck, we’re landing in Cuzco (once the foremost city of the Inca empire) – then motoring on to the Indian town of Pisac and its famous market. This final chapter in our South American odyssey could well prove to be the most exciting, because guess what’s waiting for us up there in the Andes? Mysterious Machu Picchu! So don’t disconnect, whatever you do …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our Mad Midlife group, just click on ‘COMMENTS’ (or ‘NO COMMENTS’) beside the title for the day’s blog, and type away!