Buenos Aires: Exploring the urban art scene

We all know that feeling of the unknown when arriving in a big new city - not knowing where you’re going, using a dodgy-folded tourist map to locate your hotel/hostel and unsure where the best places to eat, drink or shop are (because you don’t want to use your expensive phone data). And that’s why walking tours are great! A chance to literally 'find your feet', learn about the place you've landed in and get an understanding of the local environment and history. You can find a decent walking tour in most tourist hotspots, the majority of which rely on guides doing a good job to earn their tips but don’t necessarily give you insight into what goes on under the surface – the day-to-day life, the culture and the real feelings of those who pound the streets. In Buenos Aires, I discovered a new way of exploring a city – a tour with an artistic twist - I introduce to you Graffitimundo: a not-for-profit organisation that offers a deeper insight into the rich history and culture of the Argentinian capital through the expression of street art. 

Formed in 2009 by two English girls who, when travelling through Argentina, were fascinated by the local street art covering the walls of the city and became passionate about communicating the political context behind the urban art scene. Embraced by local artists and art lovers, Graffitimundo quickly grew into a network of galleries, museums, universities, charities and media outlets, sharing the inspiration and meaning to murals around the city to locals and tourists. Kudos, too, as it's the first of its kind in the world (apparently). 

For most, you'll think of graffiti as a) gang tags, b) vandalism or c) illegal. But there's a difference between graffiti and street art. Whilst according to Argentinian law both are, indeed, illegal, street art is 'tolerated'. How so? Well, in Argentina many of the political parties often commission street artists to paint their campaign propaganda around the city walls and use popular district hotspots to promote their slogan or party name. With that in mind, the police have bigger fish to fry. Interestingly, by law, large-scale buildings (such as the one above) are required to have one side left completely blank reducing windows and sunlight for residents. In the process, they’re creating huge canvases for artists to bring the city to life through colour – perhaps the city planners are secretly big art fans?! 

In 2001, there was a huge economic crash with the majority of Argentinian services being nationalised and the peso falling to $1 USD = 1 PESO. Add to the equation five different presidents within two weeks and Argentina saw 50% of its 37 million population fall below the poverty line overnight. In that situation, street art blossomed as an expression of political unrest and economic distress. It's not vandalism that homeowners despair at; it's admired by residents and even paid for by local businesses to renovate their premises' exterior, transforming the dull social outlook with bright, vibrant artistic flair.






Commissioned by the local football team, Boca Juniors (or La Boca), this mural depicts the heritage of La Boca when back in 1884 a volunteer fire brigade - the first in all of Argentina - was formed after a harsh fire broke out in the barrio.



So why choose Graffitimundo?
Having been highly recommended (and with time on our side), we chose to see the best of both sides of BA and booked onto the North and South City tours. We were accompanied on the North Tour by Benjamin, a photographer by trade, and the South Tour by journalist Anna, both of whom got involved in the project through their love of street art (and their city!). Both tour guides were incredibly knowledgeable sharing the historical, political and artistic background to the creative backdrop in front of us and spoke with real passion. With four tour options to choose from, you can explore multiple areas of Buenos Aires; it's the perfect way to see the city through the eyes of the locals (plus a minibus to save your feet). Check out their tour options here.

You can book online and pay by card so no worrying about carrying cash or running all over the city to find an ATM that actually has funds (welcome to Buenos Aires). Planning ahead is advised as spaces are limited. Book a second tour and get 20% off!
Anyway, enough of the talking. Now for a sneak peak of some of the fantastic artwork you'll see...



An incredibly lifelike piece by Martin Ron for the recent Color BA festival de art in barrio de la Boca.  Can you believe this is all created with spray paint? What precision must be required. www.martinron.com.ar
Can you see spot the three symbols that make up the Incan Trinity?
1. Snake. 2. Condor. 3. Puma
Art-in-progress. On a bank holiday Monday, it was quite a treat to stumble across two artists in action. Late arriving to the 2016 street festival, these two artists (one from France and the other from Japan) often collaborate but prefer to improvise on arrival rather than pre-plan a creation. 
Magee Homeless Man. Painted in January 2014 (one of the more recent pieces we saw, although the scene is ever-evolving!) to represent the struggle of flooding in the artist's life. Pictured carrying a 'Queenslander' - a typical Australian home for the poor - it represents the struggle with flooding that plagued his childhood. The impression is brought to life not just in the subjects drawn (including the tree from the very footpath in front of it) but also with a dripping effect created from the paintbrush being submerged in water. Poignantly, the location of this mural was chosen as the landlord had evicted its long-standing tenants as Palermo's rising popularity drove rents above what the locals could afford.
Gaucho (the name for an Argentinian Cowboy)
Created by a British artist, Jim Vision, who flew into Buenos Aires to embrace the art scene during the 2011 street art festival 'Meeting of Styles'. Back in London, he owns a creative agency in Shoreditch. The piece was completed in three days and required over 200 aerosol cans.
Teta and Salta. The artist, Jaz, completed this in three days and didn't agree that not having money was a reason not to paint. Therefore, this piece was created from the cheapest paint mixed with tar and gasoline - the literal meaning of "street" art.
So, there you have it! A sneak peak into some of the amazing pieces of street art that Buenos Aires has to offer. What is your favourite piece? Have you been on a similar tour elsewhere or do you know of any other cities with incredible street art?


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Machu Picchu: The Ultimate Packing Guide

Considered one of the most popular bucket list items for the intrepid traveller; Machu Picchu is the holy grail of South America’s tourist hotspots.  The iconic footsteps to the top of the mountain hold so much regard that our trip to South America would have been incomplete without it. In fact, our trip to South America may not have happened if it wasn’t for it.

There are a number of trekking routes you can take to Machu Picchu, the traditional Inca Trail (4D/3N in a tent and walking up a lot of Inca steps), the Inca Jungle (4D/3N for the adventure seekers who fancy some biking and ziplining added into the mix) and our preferred option, the Lares (4D/3N; two nights in a tent and one night in a hotel). You can read about these and a few other routes in more detail here.

In the days leading up to our four day expedition to the Incan summit, there were a few shopping trips required to ensure we had sufficient supplies packed into our backpacks and 6kg duffel bags in order to ‘survive’ three nights in the Peruvian wilderness. So, with that in mind, if you do find yourself on a flight to Cusco, here are my top packing tips before you depart…
This backpack comes Absolutely everyBear with me.
BACKPACK
The most obvious one, but if I haven’t raved enough about Absolutely Bear all over Instagram… well, then you’re clearly not following me because I’ve raved LOADS! It’s my pride and joy that arrived only a few hours before our departure from the UK and has been with me everywhere ever since. This trek was going to be no different so I made sure it was lined with a plastic bag in case of a downpour and stocked with my most essential items to carry on route.

Mr A has his trusty GoPro Seeker backpack fitted with all the ‘gear’ to ensure the GoPro can capture every moment without getting a dead arm or having it strapped to his head (imagine the dodgy tan lines). Instead, Mr A was arm-free as the backpack did all the hard work capturing our journey.

Check them both out here:
Absolutely Bear’s Cedar Backpack - £40.00
GoPro Seeker Rucksack - £189.99
As you can see, it's no catwalk.
THIS ISN'T A FASHION SHOW…
Maximise space and chuck out the wardrobe options. Believe me, no part of your experience is going to be a fashion show. Pick your favourite walking leggings and layer upwards. I love H&M’s sports leggings for aeration, warmth and a degree of making my bum look good. Nike’s range of sports leggings are also a perfect option if you’re happy to spend a little bit more. Include waterproof trousers, something preferably fleece-lined for the evening, several pairs of socks and a couple of tops of varying sleeve-length. To put it into perspective, as the sun sets and the temperature plummets to below zero, I was wearing two pairs of trousers, three pairs of socks, a sports bra (that never came off the entirety of the trek), a cami top, flannel shirt, my Lorna Jane ‘Katie’ jumper (my pride & joy) and a hoodie. The partridge in the pair tree/cherry on top/final straw(!) was the fleece lined woolly hat, scarf and llama-made gloves. And I was still cold. So, one thing you certainly will not be inclined to do is strip off in your freezing cold tent unless absolutely necessary; I’m talking a wet-wipe wash > new pants > back into the same stuff.  Our entire group rocked out both mornings in the same kit as the day before and guess what? Nobody cares… It’s what you sign up for after all!

WET-WIPES (and lots of them!)
If you opt for the Lares Trek, there is a shower block at the campsite on night one but hot water isn’t one of the luxuries included. At the risk of getting hypothermia, I opted for a full-body wet-wiping session and several applications of deodorant to assist with Mission Impossible: Rogue Smell. It’s alarming how much dirt you accumulate across your sock line! Sandy paths, wobbly rocks over fast-flowing streams and falling ankle-deep in muddy puddles* are all part of the ‘fun’.
*Luckily you won’t be following in Mr A’s footsteps like I was…He has a wider stride than me as the evidence suggested when, trying to follow him and jump a stream, I landed literally six inches deep and had to be pulled out!)
Our horses did most of the legwork (they do have four so a slight advantage)
FLORIDA WATER
This is a ‘magic’ liquid that will clear your nose quicker than I can say Olbus Oil. And it costs less than £1. Find it in any one of the twenty-odd minimarkets in Ollantaytambo when you’re stocking up on snacks. I discovered this little potion thanks to our G Adventures tour guide, Karina, whilst I was having an allergic reaction to a horse up at 5,200m on Rainbow Mountain. The symptoms? A completely blocked nose, tight-chest and gasping for oxygen (the altitude played a part role in that). Pour 1-2 teaspoons worth into the palm of your hands, rub together and hold over your nose and mouth and inhale.  And *poof* suddenly you can breath. Mr A seemed sceptical at first, but now he ‘nose’ it really does work!
The local Quechua children who know the art of layering!
BANDANA OBVS.
I spent most of my time trekking with a bandana draped over my face (to keep my nose warm), hanging over my head (to shield from the sunlight) or over my mouth when the horses (transporting the tents and food) walked past - allergies are a [bleep]! For £4 / 20 soles this was the best money I spent in Peru. With several options of how to wear it (as listed above just 3 of 20), you get you money’s worth and sometimes you just need something other than a woolly hat or a cap to keep you warm in the early mornings or from sunstroke from midday onwards. On that note, the weather changes rather quickly in Peru; as soon as the fresh morning fog has cleared, you’ll be stripping down to bask in the midday rays – but beware, at that altitude the sun is so much stronger, so cream-up!   
CAMERA
Yes, a camera is an obvious one if you’re visiting a Wonder of the World but hear me out! People get nervous taking their expensive cameras into the wilderness, worried they may be lost, broken or for a lack of packing space. There were times I wanted to punch Mr A in the face for flashing a big camera lens before my red, puffy face as I caught my breath. But whilst I was focusing on not passing out, looking back I am so grateful he had the initiative to capture footage of the trek. Much to my mother’s approval, I had a few ‘mindfulness’ moments on the trek (notably on the way down). There was a particularly magical part of the trek that took us down a steep valley, along a stream and a full coverage of trees overhead – felt like a scene out of The Secret Garden or a Tim Burton film. But whilst I can revisit that in my mind’s eye, I have 10GBs worth of photographs of the stunning view and a victorious grin at the summit. Thank you, Canon / Mr A.
If you didn’t want to take your hefty/expensive D-SLR, why not take a disposable Kodak with you! This way, you can happily snap away with the knowledge that you wouldn’t be throwing away hundreds of pounds if it was lost or broken. Plus, it fits nicely into your shorts or jacket pocket… And if not, well, there’s normally about 10 other people next to you along the route or at the summit taking the exact same shot and uploading to Facebook or Instagram which you can claim as your own!
SNUG AS A BUG IN A RUG SILK LINER
You’ll most likely be renting a sleeping bag, sticks and padded mat (that’s your mattress for the next two nights) for approx. 110 soles depending on your travel company. If you’re not a fan of hopping into a sleeping bag that has most likely had the Peruvian standard of cleaning (Febreeze sells well here), I highly recommend a silk liner. I had one tucked into the depths of my backpack and it was the most satisfying treat at the end of an exhausting day to not have to think about whether I had the same sleeping bag as the night before or how many people had slept in it since it was last cleaned. Or you can be a real smarty pants if space is not an issue and pack your own sleeping bag for your entire trip, as a couple did. I would have felt very smug if I was them but for a fraction of the space and cost, my silk liner did just the job for a peaceful and reassuringly cleaner night’s sleep.
(Bath)room with a view!
A SENSE OF HUMOUR, OH, AND LOADS OF TOILET PAPER! 
If, like me, you wouldn’t put yourself in the bracket of a ‘happy camper’, you’re reading the right blog. Whilst many a childhood family holiday was spent walking up and down Snowdon in North Wales, my motivation as I grew older was more focused upon the hot chocolate and sausage roll I could get from the cafĂ© at the summit. Not to mention the flushing toilet and option of catching a train down if I got a blister. Apparently this little tourist moneymaking idea hasn’t reached as far as Peru yet so, whilst you’re in for a treat of unspoilt areas, stunning scenery and interesting wildlife, there’s nothing much man-made! Time to limber up and get ready to squat in ‘nature’s bathroom’. Tips? Always carry toilet paper in your pocket, get a buddy to guard your privacy from other trekkers and… enjoy the view! I wouldn’t recommend dehydration or an Imodium overdose, though I believe a few tried that in our group and it didn’t end well for them.

ALARM CLOCK & HEAD TORCH
If you do the Inca Trail, on the final morning you’ll be rising from your tents at a harsh 3:30am to begin the final ascent. If like us, you choose to do the Lares trek or have made your own way to the small town of Aguas Calientes (final stop before Machu Picchu and where the train from Ollaytaytambo ends up), you’ll have the option to rise early and climb the steps or catch an early bus up to the entrance gates. If you choose to do the hour walk/climb (like Mr A), you’ll need to leave at around 4am to get in line for the initial bridge crossing/gate control to the stairs which opens at around 5:15am – there is normally a pretty big queue of people who all have the same idea so leave early! Alternatively, the first bus up to Machu Picchu is around 5:30am from the town centre and takes about half an hour but, again, beware that queues start from the very early hours so be prepared to wait a while! Either way, make sure your alarm clock is set and you have a head torch at the ready. The earlier you arrive, the more beautiful (and less populated) the Machu Picchu site is… And if you’re really lucky, you’ll catch the sun rising above the mountains – which makes a cracking picture!
And we made it! 
SO…

Aside from feeling sufficiently cool enough during the trek and warm enough at night, everything else is pretty much a luxury. We carried a couple of cans of Coca-Cola, which felt like Champagne at the end of an exhausting day. A few sugar hits for the daytime are also advisable – Nature Valley bars are always a good option and extremely popular in Peru. Other than that (!), enjoy being at one with nature (and if not, it’s only four days) but trust me, the reward of Machu Picchu mountain at the end of it is well worth all the effort!


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