Mountains, Moche and Margaritas (Cordillera Blanca, Trujillo and Máncora)

12 Sep

I am so ridiculously behind with this…sorry peeps! 5/10…really must try harder!!! ;) Anyhoooooo, here’s the latest instalment….

So having relaxed in Lima, it was time to head back up into the mountains. I had decided to base myself in the heart of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, about a 45 minute drive from the nearest town, called Huaraz. The village I was staying in was so small it didn’t have a name. It was known as the one next door to Marian! Although getting a taxi driver to take you there was nigh on impossible – no matter how much money you offered them! They would drop you of in Marian and then up to you to slog up to the village with no name! Typically, as with everything else in Peru, it was uphill all the way!!

They get very few foreign visitors in this particular part of the world and I was told by the lady running the local school where I had offered my services, that in many cases I would be the first foreigner they would encounter! Poor people! I had better be on my best behaviour then!!

On the first day I took it easy and went for a gentle stoll into the nearest canyon. On my way I came across an elderly lady doing her washing in the local stream. On seeing me she got all animated and started saying something with many a hand gesture going on. Unfortunately I had no idea what she was saying. Was she speaking Quechua perhaps? She repeated the phrase a few times, each time getting louder (I see it’s not just a ‘Brits abroad’ trait then!)…but I still had no idea! I put my camera away just in case she was reacting to that, but it didnt seem to change anything. We stood there, eyeing each other up for what seemed like the longest time…I didn’t want to just walk off, that felt rude but I wasn’t too sure what to do! Luckily we were saved by a local girl taking her cattle for a walk to fresh pasture. She was to be our translator. Turns out the lady thought I might be lost and was concerned that I was walking the wrong way for town!

We chatted for a while as she wanted to know all about where I was from, where I had been and where I was going!! She told me I had fire in my soul as well as on top of my head (!!!)…I have no idea if that’s a good thing but I’m taking it as a compliment! Also explains why I don’t feel the cold…insightful wee lady!! :)

I spent many a day exploring the surrounding canyons either on foot or horseback, my inner gauchita revelling at the chance to get back in the saddle again! But the highlight of my stay in the Cordillera Blanca was to be a hike to Laguna 69. Yes, that’s it’s name. Originally all the lagunas in the area were identified by numbers, but then, over time, indigenous names replaced the numbers… apart from in good ol’ 69’s case! The weather had other plans though! In the days before, during my wanderings in the surrounding countryside, I realised that from about 2pm the weather started closing in. I was going to have to get up early for the big trek then. I didn’t care if the weather turned whilst I was on my way back, but I wanted to see the jewel in the Cordillera Blanca’s crown with a clear sky.

So, at 6.30am, the taxi picked me up to take me to the start of the trailhead, a mere hour and a half away!! The day started off well, a few clouds but mostly blue skies! Hooray. I had been told that it would take me around three and a half to four hours to reach the Laguna, which by my calculations had me getting there around lunchtime! Marvellous! And off I set with a spring in my step!

It was a really lovely walk, gently climbing through a lower meadow to arrive at some spectacular waterfalls. I decided to have a break once I reached the top of the big waterfall, so I attacked the first set of switchbacks with gusto…Barry’s tea is a great motivator!! At the top, I had to do a double take as I was greeted by what I would call a small pond…this can’t be it, surely I said to myself. Definitely not no. 69 – the glaciers were still miles off, the water was anything but emerald green, but more importantly, I had only been walking for a couple of hours and quite frankly, the Usain Bolt of trekking I am not. So I wandered off the trail, hopped on to a rock, poured myself a cuppa and looked back on where I had come from. I could see more people on the trail further behind, but more worrying I could see grey clouds forming. Uh-oh.

When I rejoined the trail I met a young French girl, who quite honestly looked like death warmed up. Turns out she had only arrived in Lima the day before and had headed straight to Huaraz. She hadn’t really thought about the whole acclimatisation thing and was suffering badly. Being the good girl guide I never was when I was an actual girl guide, I also had coca tea with me so I offered her some and we chatted for a while. The tea seemed to take the edge off and we continued on together.

We meandered through a second meadow, which I am sure would have been just as pretty as the first but the weather had turned rapidly and the heavens had opened. Time to put the camera away and get the waterproofs out. This did not bode well and it was only 11.30am!! A curious cow, clearly thinking we were bonkers to be out in this weather came with. We had almost come to end of the meadow but still no sign of the Laguna 69. We kept saying, maybe it’s around the next bend, though we were rapidly running out of bends…and then we saw it – the little handmade sign pointing up the side of the mountain in front of us. Oh arse, it’s up there. Of course it is, this is Peru remember.

I had a real interior battle going on. The weather was bloody awful and the visibility shocking. I knew that there would be no view of the emerald lake surrounded by glaciers at the top. No postcard ‘I was here’ shot. And yet I had come this far. I decided to have a cuppa and think about whether to attack the second set of switchbacks or not…! Virginie, my walking buddy had absolutely no qualms about abandoning me and turned back. Can’t say I blame her!

I was probably perched on that rock for about 10-15 minutes (curious cow still ever present) and during that time, I saw a keen bean (hiking poles surgically attached) male duo from Switzerland not even bat an eyelid and proceed up the switchbacks, a group of French girls arrive, take one look upwards, groan and turn back…followed by a couple of Brits with no rain gear, absolutely soaked who appeared to be having the same internal argument as me. I offered them a cuppa too – to be honest, they looked frozen. The guy was amazed. “Who takes tea with them on a hike?” he said. I wanted to reply “what muppet goes hiking in the mountains without a raincoat?!” but I held my tongue as I could tell he was grateful really! When they finished I had decided to go on and they had decided to turn back. Just as well or I was convinced hypothermia may well have set in.

It took another 45 minutes to get to the top of the switchbacks, with the rain getting heavier and the temperature dropping, but there she was in all her glory…apparently! I couldn’t see a damn thing, well, apart from the grey mist in front of me. I was gutted. Everybody had told me how beautiful the setting was…I was just going to have to google it when I got back!! By this time I was starving so I plonked myself down on a rock, put my fleece on and tucked into my lunch! I must have looked a right sight, sitting crossed legged on the rock tucking into my sandwich and drinking my tea whilst the rain poured down! I didn’t care though, it would have been physically impossible to get any wetter!!

The wet, greyness accompanied me on my way back down, past the second meadow, the first set of switchbacks and then when I reached the first meadow at about 3pm, the sun started to peak out from behind the clouds! Not enough to dry me, but enough to warm the bones and that was a very welcome feeling! On the return to the village with no name, I googled Laguna 69 and it is indeed beautiful. Oh well, maybe next time!

The following day I was off to the school to help out. The children in the local villages are not allow to go to school in Huaraz as they don’t speak Spanish. So with the help of an ex-pat Canadian couple, a local school was created with library and computer complex attached. And that was where I was helping out. I was to show the future generation how to get to grips with using a pc. Although they were far more interested in me than the computers initially…I had made the mistake of wearing my hair down which always draws more attention. After fielding questions such as “is your hair made of gold?” – wouldn’t that be nice…I introduced them to my secret weapon in the form of my iPhone and the Talking Tom cat app! The kids were hooked. From then it was an easy transition to the computers…phew! I was worried I would be sacked from volunteering on my first day!

That evening, I had been invited around to one of the neighbours to eat Guinea Pig. I wasn’t a huge fan of the idea, but this particular family are well known for cooking a damn fine ‘cuy’ with a sauce to die for. So off I went praying that my facial expressions wouldn’t give me away if I didn’t like it! It wasn’t hideous, very gamey and luckily it didnt arrive looking like a rat on a stick with teeth showing etc as I had seen all too often in Cusco! That said, I wouldn’t be in a rush to have it again. The sauce however was dee-lish!!

My next stop was Trujillo. A pretty enough town in itself but not much to keep you there past a couple of days. To be honest if I hadn’t met Sabrina, Luis, Marcelo et al on day one I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did. But they were great craic and soon plans were being made for them to come to Máncora with me (but more on that later!).

The real reason for coming to Trujillo lies in the surrounding desert. Marcelo had some free time on his hands, so I had my very own tour guide complete with transport. I didn’t know myself!!

First stop in the Moche valley – giant sandcastles in the desert, better known as Chan Chan, the vast capital of the Chimú, and once the largest adobe city in the world. Made entirely of sand, the structure is unfortunately at the mercy of the elements and the previous el niño phenomenon and associated flooding had caused major damage, so little remains today. I read somewhere that unless some significant investment is made fairly sharp-ish, then any evidence of the Moche settlements will have disappeared entirely within 7 years. Sad.

After that we headed to see the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna (Temples of the Sun and Moon) which date back 1500 years and are equally as impressive size wise, though again they too have been badly damaged by the weather over the years. She’s a fearsome adversary ol’ mother nature! To round off the day, we stopped at the small town of Huanchaco where a more contemporary form of sun worship plays out on the white sandy beaches. The town is also famous for its reed boats and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of local fisherman paddling and surfing the boats like seafaring cowboys, but I think we arrived too late!

The following day we headed further north into the desert to see the tomb of the Señor de Sipán. Not the actual tomb but a custom-built museum, where no expense has been spared to showcase all the findings from the tombs at Sipán, with the icing on the cake being that of a royal leader of the Moche people, the Señor himself. No photos were allowed though, so you’ll just have to trust me that it was an impressive exhibition!

Back in Trujillo and my curiosity had well and truly been piqued. During my time in Peru, Facebook had been on fire with comments relating to the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy. So, as I was coming to the end of my book, I decided to hot foot it to the bookshop to purchase a copy and see what all the fuss was about for myself. After all it would be perfect for my lazy beach time further north.

I was greeted by an affable middle aged man, eager to help so I asked him if he had the books in stock. “Hmmm, doesn’t ring a bell, what’s it about” was the reply. “Errr, I’m not sure about the actual plot line, but sex basically ” I replied.” “Oh, oh no, we definitely don’t have any books about sex here” he said. Then rather perplexed, “but what do you want to read about sex for? At your age you should be out there having it.” And with a roll of his eyes I was dismissed!!

However, one of my Buenos Aires buddies came to the rescue and emailed me all three books! That was the reading material sorted. Now all I needed was a beach.

Word had gotten out about my departure to Peru’s northern beaches and my buddies in Trujillo had decided they were coming with…and some of their friends wanted in on the action too! In the end, a 3 car convoy headed north, along the Pan-American highway, destination Máncora, where we had hired a house complete with pool on the beach for next to nothing!! It was going to be hard to go back to dorm living after this!!

Máncora is nothing to write home about. The town has pretty much grown around the highway, but it’s an essential stop-over on the gringo trail before Ecuador and as such has a very vibrant nightlife. Plus I have to say, some of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen…which I would watch every night, sitting on the beach, margarita in hand. Perfect!

I didn’t do much in Máncora, but swim, laze, doze, read, drink…repeat ad infinitum…!! ;) But there is only so much non-tanning a girl can do, so all to soon it was time to say good-bye to my buddies, good-bye to Peru and head onwards and upwards to another country. Ecuador was giving me that come hither look and it would have been rude to ignore it!! ;)

Oh and will upload the photos in the next few days, when I have a better internet connection!

Majestic condors, joining the circus and big pictures in the desert! (Arequipa, Lima and the Nazca lines)

19 Jul

Arequipa, the white city, and Peru’s second city which surprised me to be honest as it seemed smaller than Cusco and was definitely more town like in feel. It’s a pleasant place to while away a couple of days though, or longer if you’re surprised by a friend and treated to breakfast in a hot air balloon (…more on that later!). So, the white city…so-called because of the volcanic rock, sillar, used to construct everything and anything in the centre of town. The result is postcard pretty and the two dormant snow-capped volcanoes sitting majestically in the background frame the picture nicely.

To be honest, apart from general wandering, admiring the architecture and taking in the laid back vibe over a pisco sour or two, there’s not a great deal to see in the city itself. I was lucky enough to be there during festival time though and witnessed lots of dancing, singing and general merriment courtesy of the residents from numerous villages in the nearby Colca Canyon. And of course, it would have been rude not to join in!

However one of the highlights for me was an afternoon spent in a convent bizarrely enough! It was a cool wee place, though I’m sure if I’d been one of its inhabitants back in the day, despite it being a privilege ‘an all, I’d have been hatching several escape plans all at once, whilst apologising profusely to the man above!

Essentially Santa Catalina convent is a citadel in a city, with its own streets, plazas and of course, churches. The convent was only opened to the public in 1970 to pay for much needed modernisation work, and as you meander around you can get a real feel for what is was like to live completely cut off from the outside world. Everything is there for you to see; the private rooms, each with their own courtyard, the huge kitchen (complete with well!) and brilliant outside laundry where huge earthen storage pots serve as wash tubs! There are still a few nuns in situ today, though they are now housed in the modern wing next door.

Actually, I came over all religious during my first month in Peru, which shouldn’t be too surprising, me being a good Catholic girl ‘n all. Whilst in Cusco, I went to church…! Twice!! (…parents, pick yourselves up off the floor!) Ok, ok, it was the only way to get in to see the Cathedral and the Church of the Compañia de Jesus without being part of a paid tour! I enjoyed it though. Mass was half in Spanish and half in Quechua, a language I find a particularly enchanting. And despite being given a ‘hymn’ sheet and being told that words in Quechua are pronounced as they are written by my very friendly pew neighbours (I wonder how they knew I wasn’t a fluent Quechua speaker?), I decided to save my clearly heavenly, dulcet tones for the shower only and listen to the choir and congregation work their magic!!

And then, whilst I was in Arequipa, Corpus Christi was celebrated with an open-air mass in the main square so naturally I mosied on over to have a wee nose. During the day, the main square had been closed off to traffic and schools and other religious organisations were busy filling the road space with collages made using petals, coloured flour and other natural ingredients in honour of the Corpus Christi celebration. The work that went into some of them was phenomenal and the end result was very cool indeed! It seemed a shame that they were only kept overnight and the following day normal service was resumed.

Actually, I had to smile. A day earlier, a stage was being set up just in front of the Cathedral on the main square, for the masses to worship at the altar that is football – Peru were playing in some (clearly very important) football tournament. Following day, new stage, different type of worship…pulled the same crowd though! It’s true what they say about football and religion in South America!! :)

But whilst all that is very well and good, what I really wanted to do was get up close and personal with the majestic Andean condor. And I did. A little too close for comfort in fact. Part of my visit to the Colca Canyon (deepest canyon in the world…twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the good ol’ US of A), included a stop at Cruz del Condor, a viewing station perfectly placed to see the condors soaring on the morning thermals.

When we arrived (around 8am), there was already a good crowd in place but not much in the way of condor activity, so I took myself off for a meander along the edge of the canyon. I found a spot that appealed and just sat, basking in the morning sun waiting for the condors to appear. Some time later I was vaguely aware of the crowd above getting agitated but I’d been up since 5am so was feeling a little dozy and the sun was so warm on my face… I opened my eyes to see what all the commotion was about and about two metres or so in front of me was a huge flippin’ condor. I almost jumped put of my skin! I just stared for the longest time and then the brain clicked into action…camera, camera…!! By this time of course she had turned back towards the masses. For the next 40 minutes or so we were treated to an enchanting aerial display by these magnificent and ridiculously large birds…and then all too soon it was time to leave. Apparently condors live to the ripe old age of 45, helped of course by a lack of predators, but a pretty good innings all the same!

The rest of my visit was taken up with a trek to the oasis at the bottom of the canyon and of course, what goes down, must come up, or in this case up and out again, though believe me there was a moment there when I was weighing up the pros and cons of making the oasis my home para siempre (for good!). I made it out alive though…just…and decided there and then that I’d had enough of trekking for a while…it was all too much like hard work! Honestly why did everything worth seeing in this country involve climbing up a ridiculously steep hill (for hours…!) at one moment or another!?!

Oh, oh,…almost forgot. Balloon ride. I knew you were itching for the lowdown! Well, a friend I made in Buenos Aires was in Lima doing some thing or other…I’m always bad at asking for the details…and in true (good-) stalker fashion knew I was a mere hop, skip and a jump away down the road in Arequipa (gracias Facebook!) so decided to come and join for the weekend! My initial joy at seeing him turned into a frown when I was told that I would have to get up at stupid o’clock the following day and no further details were being released…despite threats of torture (tickling) and the good ol’ ‘I won’t be your friend anymore unless you tell me’ type of emotional blackmail…all of which failed miserably! The clever wee boy had arranged a balloon flight at dawn with breakfast thrown in! It was great and the views were terrific…not that you’ll be able to share the joy as I left my camera at the hostel. Grrrrrrr. His fault! If he’d told me…… ;)

From Arequipa I headed to Peru’s capital, Lima. Shrouded in fog for 8 months of the year, Lima seems an odd choice for a capital city, but maybe the Spanish arrived during the summer months when apparently there are clear blue skies for as far as the eye can see. I didn’t think I would like Lima – other travellers I had met told me to not bother spending any time there and the guide books don’t exactly sing its praises, but to my surprise I enjoyed my 5 days there. Clearly being next to the ocean helped, which, as I was staying in an area called Miraflores, was only a 10 minute walk away, but I met some great people there (Limeños, though I kept calling them Limoncellos…oops!) which of course changes everything!

Naturally, I did the tourist thing, walking into the city centre to see the main square, cathedral etc, making a quick detour to see the Huaca Pucllana, an adobe temple in the middle of a housing estate, and generally looking in wonder at the diverse architectural styles on display, most of which are looking more shabby than chic these days unfortunately.

On the way back to the hostel one evening, I stopped off to enjoy the madness that is El Circuito Magico del Agua – a dozen or so different fountains all splendiferously (love that word!) illuminated and accompanied by a laser light show! The whole display is set to music ranging from traditional Peruvian walzes to Abba! So over the top and so, so cheesy, I loved every minute!

From Lima, I took a day tour down to Nazca and the famous Nazca lines – an elaborate art canvas in the desert. The lines are made by removing the reddish topsoil to reveal the whitish ground beneath and given the arid climate have been remarkably well preserved. There were 6 of us on the plane, luckily we all had a window seat but the viewing experience was almost comical. The pilot would scream (apparently, we were all deaf) monkey two o’clock NOW…and all necks would crane right in perfect unison. You could almost feel the plane lean from one side to the other as we passed over the different forms below. With absolutely no hope of getting a decent photo, I put the camera away and became a synchronised head instead! We saw the monkey, lizard (which has the pan-American highway running through its tail), astronaut, spider, condor and the frog (which looked more like hands to me) – the most well-known, though there are more than 70 in total.

Historians are still not 100% sure why they were built, and whilst I’m sure the ‘why’ is interesting, I’m more baffled by the ‘how’. The lines are almost imperceptible from the ground and the designs are huge and for the most part fairly elaborate so how did they do it? How did they know what they were doing when the designs can only truly be appreciated from the air? Our guide was about as useful as a chocolate teapot where this was concerned…so answers on a postcard please…!

Back in Lima and en route to the laundrette one day (yes, my life is rock’n’roll 24/7), I stumbled across a circus school. I could hear ‘stuff’ going on behind a big red curtain and me being me wanted to try and get a closer look. Seeing my curiosity, a girl having a cigarette break asked if I wanted to watch them practice. I didn’t need asking twice and two minutes later I was behind the curtain! We got chatting and I told her I had always quite fancied a go on the ol’ trapeze and to cut a long story short, I was invited back the following day to have a go!

The day was hilarious…and a little bit scary to begin with! My biggest issue was trusting someone else…with my life! A small exaggeration perhaps as there were enough harnesses, ropes and big bouncy air mattresses to alleviate any concerns, but the “trust me, I’ll catch you” didn’t sit well with the stroppy independent type on the other trapeze (moi!) initially! By the end of the day though I was flying through the air with poise and grace (in my head!) and a ridiculously big grin on my face! I was even leaping into Ricardo’s outstretched arms with wanton abandon…(-ish). It was so much fun!! They were a great crowd too and we got along famously. From then on in, I was part of the gang and they took great care of me, taking me out and showing me the best their city had to offer. It really does make a difference to the whole experience. I had the best time in Lima.

Finally, before I take my leave…I thought I would share my ‘why me?’ moment no. 542… (warning the following paragraph contains references of a sexual nature, avert your eyes now if you are shy, easily offended…or are either one of my parents…!)

One evening, whilst out for dinner in a packed local restaurant with my new Peruvian buddies, Ricardo asks in his fog-horn voice “So Amanda, Europeans and sex”, at which point his girlfriend shoots him an evil look, “I need to know something…”
The restaurant falls silent and I almost choke on my wine.
“Why when you are making love to a woman does she say ‘oh God, oh God’? Seriously, what does God have to do with it?”
Random stranger from another table: “yeah, that’s right…the gringas always do – it really puts me off…why bring God into it? I’m having fun…the last thing I want to be thinking about is God.”

By this time the whole (albeit small) restaurant is looking at me expectantly…and I have absolutely no idea what to say..I want the ground to open and swallow me up. My mind is working over time trying to think of an explanation that will cut the mustard but no, I have absolutely no idea…so I turn the tables and ask what would be more appropriate, to help improve Latino-European relations so to speak. What follows is a ‘When Harry met Sally’ type scene from almost every table (I kid you not….!), followed by loads of laughter as each table tries to outdo each other and then as if nothing had happened, everyone goes back to their own conversations!!

Ricardo then instructs me to tell all my European friends that should they find themselves in flagrante with a Latin American, to avoid all reference to the man above. So there you go. My work here is done – please spread the word…! :)

…and here’s the link to the flickr page if you fancy a wee nose at the photos:

Cusco and the Sacred Valley

19 Jun photo

When I arrived into Cusco, it was 4am, pitch black and I was as tired as a tired thing. Luckily the lovely man on duty at the hostel I was staying in ushered me into an unused room and told me to rest up until breakfast. I hadn’t quite accounted for the hour going back on arrival into Peru and so thinking that it was a respectable 8am, I headed down for breakfast. My heart sank when I realised that it was in fact only 7am…
However, I was soon cheered up by some of the best scrambled eggs I’ve tasted…ever! Almost made up for the lack of sleep! In fact, that particular hostel was one of the few where I have forced myself to be up in time for breakfast every single day! Yes ladies and gentleman they were that good!

I was staying in an area called San Blas – the old quarter and it was such a lovely surprise to see the whitewashed buildings, the narrow streets and cobbled roads when I finally headed out to take in my new surroundings – I had no idea such quaint beauty was awaiting me on my taxi ride in. Love surprises like that!

The first few days I spent exploring the city – familiarising myself with the streets, the shops, the markets, the all important ‘wifi friendly’ coffee shops…as well as getting lost down alleys that would lead to yet more artisan markets. I also spent time honing my Paddington hard stare (appropriate I thought as the bear himself was from deepest, darkest Peru! :-)) as the very persistent street vendors would flock to me like bees to honey in an attempt to sell everything from massages to woolley hats. And the sheer number of painters called Pablo Picasso roaming the streets around the main Plaza de Armas belies belief! It’s their real name though…honest! Just as they would have you believe the work they want to show you is all their own handiwork too! A ‘gringa’ I may be (and an obvious one at that… dammit!) but stupid I ain’t!

Cusco is the gateway city to the Sacred Valley (home to Machu Picchu) and as such is a tourist Mecca. Despite this, it’s easy to distance yourself from the backpacker crowd (very easy to spot as they all wear the same stripy trousers and alpaca jumpers bought either in Peru or Bolivia) and the ubiquitous American tour groups. The city is postcard pretty and it’s easy to see the Spanish influence throughout the city; be that in the architecture, the colours or just the sheer number of churches! But for all its history, it has a young and vibrant heart, which makes for a great combination…and the odd sore head the morning after living it up Cusqueñan stylie!

Unfortunately only a few ancient Inca walls remain in the city itself and all the temples have long been destroyed and replaced by churches. But if you are a fan of big stones or history and you have an active imagination it is still possible to see how impressive the ancient Inca city and surrounding sites once were. Although trying to imagine one particular temple, the Qorikancha (Sun Temple), challenged even my active imagination! During the reign of the Incas, the temple was covered in sheets of gold each weighing 2kg each, with solid gold alters and a replica of the sun…clearly that all was melted down and disappeared back to Europe when the conquistadors arrived! Now all that remains are a few token walls and not even a hint of gold…and a church (surprise, surprise). The circular Inca wall, which forms the base of the current church is quite impressive though – it really showcases the Incas architectural prowess and has outlasted all of the earthquakes which have levelled most of Cusco’s colonial houses!

So having made like a tourist in the Inca capital, it was time to go in search of some big stones in the Sacred Valley…and there was the small detail of the trek to Machu Picchu to consider. As some of you are all too aware, I have been both looking forward to and dreading that particular trek in equal measure. I was convinced that the “gringo killers” as the locals affectionately call the steps on the Inca trail would indeed kill me. I was a man(da) with a plan though….I signed up for the Inca jungle trek as a warm-up before tackling the biggie, the Salkantay trek. I had convinced myself that by doing that, I would be fitter, stronger and ready for the challenge…and myself can be very gullible at times!! :-)

The Inca jungle trek turned out to be great fun – day 1 – 72km of downhill biking followed by 2 days of walking (42km in total) with the optional extras of rafting and zip-lining thrown in. Although the safety aspect of our adventure was called into question more than once – walking on narrow paths with a sheer drop to one side was more than commonplace. However our dear guide, Rolo had thought ahead and brought a piece of rope with him. I kid you not! We were all to hold on to said piece of rope “for safety” as we walked along a path no wider than 12 inches – a cliff to our right and nothing to our left! Clearly the rope would have made efff all difference if anything had happened, but our guide was adamant we hold on tight! So hold on tight we did whilst muttering “only in South America…!”

I was sharing the experience with 2 other girls who were great craic but we were not alone in the grand scheme of things. A number of other groups were walking the same route so the same old faces kept popping up again and again. My favourite of the other groups (for maybe obvious reasons…!) was an Argentine couple and Porteños to boot! (love them!) They were like chalk and cheese but the banter was thick and fast and on day two, they took great delight in telling us just after lunch that they had had enough with walking, so were going to laze in a hammock until a minibus came to pick them up and take them to the thermal springs…the very welcome end of the trek for that day, and for those of us walking…a mere 3 hours away! The uniquely Argentinian statement of “tener fiaca” (lacking the energy to do anything) was them to a tee!

Salkantay however was an altogether different experience. My guide for this particular trek was a lovely smiley man called Jesus. Hooray I thought. I’m saved! If I get into any difficulty, Jesus would surely be able to perform a minor miracle and teleport me up the mountain without too much exertion on my part….Errrr, that’ll be a no then!

Two days of gruelling up hill walking, freezing nights during which the temperature dropped below zero, followed by a day of switch backs and a day of dodging trains as we walked along the train tracks sums up my Salkantay adventure in one bite sized chunk…though at least I had a mule to carry the weight of my pack this time and boy oh boy was I grateful. Day 2 of the trek was hideous…really hard graft and I didn’t enjoy one single step. Jesus was very encouraging, but there was no sign of any miracles…maybe Monday was his day off? Although of all the days in the week, surely Miracle Monday sounds the best, no?

One of the girls in the group gave up and spent the afternoon lying belly down on a mule as she was carried up towards the camp site. I could have done that too…but no, my stubbornness kicks in and I’m determined to make it to the top under my own steam if it takes me all night, nearly kills me or all of the above…though quite what I was trying to prove and to who, I’ve no idea. From then on in it was downhill, and to be honest, I’m not sure which is worse, going up or down! Thankfully my trusty hiking poles which I had hired helped take some of the strain…and at the end of day 3, I swore I would stop taking the rip out of the keen bean hikers who seem to be surgically attached to theirs, as I now see their usefulness…apart from in cities where it’s just plain wrong!

Hmmm, just reading that back it sounds as if I hated every minute of Salkantay…I didn’t…not EVERY minute. It was just day 2 that made me want to get out the ol’ wellie boots and stamp my feet like a tired 5 year old who just didn’t want to play anymore… But the views were truly spectacular and the different landscapes we walked through, learning about the flora and fauna along the way, helped keep our minds off the aches and pains that were slowly starting to come through. I’d have made a rubbish Inca though – at times it felt as though I would have to choose between walking or breathing as doing the two together seemed impossible!

We were also extremely lucky to have clear weather when we reached the Salkantay pass at 4600 metres and saw the snow capped Andes mountains and the valley laid out before us in all her splendid glory…just as well or those wellie boots would have been coming out again and I would have refused to leave until I got my view! Spoilt brat, moi?? Just a little!! :-)

One thing I have learnt from my two trekking trips is that from now on in, if anybody ever says to me ‘this next part’s flat’, I’m only going to believe them if they’re from Holland!
Let me recall a conversation…
Guide: “well done guys, rest up here for a few minutes. The worst is over, this next part is flat.”
Me: “happy days! So, which way are we headed next?”
Guide: “that way.”
Me: *confused look* “…you mean up that eff-ing big hill?”
Guide: “yes, but then it’s flat…”
Me: (muttering) “kill me now”

But all this paled into insignificance when I finally got to see and experience the wonder that is Machu Picchu. I arrived at 6am, having been up since 4am to make sure that I was one of the first to enter the site and I was tired, properly tired but for that first hour or so, you almost have Machu Picchu to yourself, and that’s special. There’s no other way to describe it. But what can I tell you that you don’t already know? The setting is majestic (perched on top of a mountain…it doesn’t get much better), the site is huge (well, it was an ancient city) and the photos I took will be familiar too as it’s been photographed over and over and by those much more capable than I.

The feeling once you’re there though is quite unique. There is a quiet nobility about the place, especially first thing in the morning…less so when there are 500 + people jostling to get the postcard shot…a subtle, underlying energy that permeates through. You can admire the Incas for many things: their architectural endeavours, the agricultural experiments they carried out on the terraces (each terrace having it’s own micro-climate), being able to run up and down the steps hundreds of times a day and breathe at the same time… but I was just in awe (and a tad jealous) that they got to live their daily lives in such an incredible setting!

Weather wise I had been told that Machu Picchu has two settings: glorious sunshine and full-on rain. Luckily we had the former, though that meant I ended up with a touch of heat stroke as I stayed practically all day, leaving at 3pm when I had finally finished exploring all there was to explore! Thankfully I had my trusty hat with me or it all could have been so much worse…

Once the masses start arriving the tours start. Mine started at 7.45am and lasted for a couple of hours but so worth while as you really get to understand the layout of the ancient citadel and appreciate how advanced the Incas were in certain areas. Then you have until 4pm, when the site shuts, to do as you wish…to pick a spot and just take it all in or run yourself ragged up and down steps all day, stopping to catch your breath every now and then!

Interestingly, Machu Picchu goes quiet again after 2pm when all the tour groups head back to Cusco and I really enjoyed that last hour. I left on a high – having heard and seen so much beforehand, I did wonder how it would be and I wasn’t disappointed. I can definitely say that it’s one of my top 5 experiences so far. If you have the chance, go. You don’t have to trek to get there – there’s nothing wrong with letting the train and the bus take the strain… :)

But Machu Picchu isn’t the only ‘big stone’ show in town…the Sacred Valley is littered with them! I took my time and visited each village and accompanying attraction a day at a time using local transport, which was an adventure in itself! But they’re a friendly bunch the Peruvians and when you’re up close and personal with a bunch of strangers for upwards of an hour each time, you always end up bonding…usually over your desire to stay alive as the driver takes on the hairpin bends…and only just wins!!

I inevitably ended up being invited for a chica (drink made from purple corn) or even lunch on occasion with my new found friends! Some of them even tried to teach me Quechua – one of the indigenous languages in Peru that has about as much similarity with Spanish as Gaelic does with English. The only word I can now remember is ‘sulpayki’ (thank you)…but much more useful than say, the only 2 words I know in Swedish (apart from ‘cheers’), which are knife and fork! And they don’t tend to crop up in everyday conversation much! :)

Out of all the villages in the Sacred Valley, I think Ollantaytambo was my favourite. This pretty little town is different to the others. It maybe set amongst beautiful mountain scenery like the others, be inhabited by indigenous locals going about their daily business like the others and be surrounded by ancient ruins like the others…but it is different. Stepping into Ollanta, as it’s affectionately known locally, is like stepping into a living, breathing Inca town. Little has changed in 600 years; the same streets lined by the same buildings, albeit slighty modified to look more colonial above the the first couple of metres! Water flows down the old irrigation channels that still work after all these centuries and from which today’s residents still receive their water. During the day the town is awash with tourists but in the evening when most of the tourists have gone, you can get a real sense of what life was like in a typical Inca town.

I had wanted to do one more trek (why, why??) to another Inca site called Choquequirao – a fairly recent discovery which is still being excavated. Apparently, it’s 4 times bigger than Machu Picchu, maybe more, and still only 30 % uncovered. Also, because access is difficult i.e. you can only get there via an arduous 4 day trek, it’s relatively tourist free. However it was not to be as 3 bridges collapsed after heavy rainfall rendering the access impossible for at least another 3 weeks. And as much as I loved Cusco, it was time to move on.

So, I have another reason to return…as if I needed one…but who knows they may well have built a cable car to take you to Choquequirao by then! Though the masochist in me would probably still walk…Dad, I’m blaming you and your PTI genes…damn them :-) !!

All in all an incredible experience and I left Cusco a fully paid up member of the Inca fan club!

(photos have been duly uploaded…! enjoy!)

In the jungle, the mighty jungle…

23 Apr

I have to admit, I wasn’t too sure how I would get on in the jungle. Without knowing any better, I saw the jungle as hot and humid and home to lots of nasties that take great pleasure in biting you as well as having its fair share of things that can kill you. I guess I was worried that I might turn out to be a big girl’s blouse about all things creepy crawly! I surprised myself early on though when I arrived at my cabin and was greeted by a tarantula, albeit a small one. I decided to nickname him Larry, so he wouldn’t appear so scary. Larry had his favourite place in the sun and would disappear at night, though I tried not to think to where. But sure enough he would be back again the following day. He was jet black and very furry and, on the surface, seemed to have a nice, easy life.

Anyway, enough about Larry…back to me! The gateway to the Bolivian Amazon basin is a town called Rurrenabaque and from La Paz, you get there either by a hideous 24 hr bus ride or by flying in the world’s smallest plane! I chose the latter and for the first time in my life, had to crouch as I made my way inside. The sign saying that only authorised personnel were allowed on the flight deck was a tad overkill to me, seeing as there was no door and you could quite happily press all the buttons in the cockpit from the front row! The flight to Rurrenabaque was great though – we flew so close to the mountain Huayna Potosi (6100 metres high) you could almost reach out and write a message in the snow.

On the approach to Rurre, the captain muttered something about having the wrong type of cloud hovering above the town (British Rail announcements blaming delays on the wrong type of snow sprang immediately to mind). Anyway, we would try to land twice but if we weren’t successful on attempt no. 2 then back to La Paz it was. There was a collective sigh on the plane and we all willed the captain to make it. He did. Hurrah! The adventure could continue.

We stopped briefly in the town to pick up some wellie boots before heading to the wee wooden motor boat that was to whisk us to the the Parque Madidi mosaic, a mere 3 hours away down the River Beni. The leisurely cruise down the river also provided an insight into local life on the edges of the jungle – from women doing their weekly washing in canoes on the river’s edge, to fisherman and their make-do shacks used to provide a bit of protection during the hottest hours of the day.

When our boat finally stopped, the only clue that it was time to get off was the group of people with rucksacks standing amongst the trees. It was time to change into the wellies and head deep into the jungle! Our guides were there to greet us and lead the way to the camp – we had a 40 minute hike through the very muddy rainforest accompanied all the way by the constant high-pitched buzzing only associated with pesky mosquitos!! Damn them, they just laughed in the face of my super dooper tropical strength repellent! “This is nothing” said Choco, my guide. “You should try being here in December or January, they really are unbearable then.” “I’d rather eat my own arm” I replied cheerfully!

First things first, we were shown to our accommodation where I was greeted by Larry. Bless! There was also a small green frog in the shower but he soon disappeared. Talk about getting up close and personal with nature. I decided that as long as they didn’t try and get into bed with me, we were going to get along just fine! The accommodation huts were situated about a 5 minute walk from the Casa Grande (also known by me as hammock heaven!), where we would spend mealtimes and the down time in between trips into the surrounding jungle. Situated on the bank of the San Francisco lake, it was also one of the best places for spotting wildlife, ironically enough!

That first afternoon we headed out onto the San Francisco lake for a couple of hours. We saw lots of birds along the side of the lake and could hear the crunching of caiman feeding in the long grasses and reeds alongside us. I have to admit my heart would beat a little faster when I heard that sound. :-) But as the sun started to set, we made our way back to the safety of Casa Grande!

The following morning I was up bright and early to go on an early morning hike. I met Choco at 5.30am and off we headed into the forest in complete darkness. We heard wild pigs and deer in the vicinity but didn’t actually come across any. Mind you, they could probably hear us a mile off – it’s hard to walk quietly through the mud in wellingtons that are slightly on the large side! As dawn was starting to break, we picked a spot next to a huge Bibosi tree and listened to the jungle coming alive. The morning howler monkey chorus was spectacular and very loud! They are funny ol’ monkeys the howlers – they don’t like being watched and as soon as they catch sight of you watching them, one of them sends a signal to the rest of the group and they all disappear into the surrounding trees! On the way back to Casa Grande, we saw a couple of fresh jaguar prints – less than a few hours old!! This got me very excited! That meant there was the faintest of possibilities of spotting one!! Choco told me not to get my hopes up, he’s only seen two in the past 7 years…but I didn’t care – they were there!!

After breakfast, we took a walk to Gringo Lake, hopped into a canoe and paddled out to the centre – it was time for me to try my hand at fishing…for piranha! Not as easy as it may sound…they are damn tricky buggers to catch let me tell you. Initially it was more a case of me feeding the piranha than any actual fishing taking place. But, all good things come to those who wait and after about half an hour of nothing, I was suddenly on a role!! Well, I caught two! One yellow-bellied and one white-bellied piranha! The cook at Casa Grande had told me that he would show me how to cook them the traditional way i.e.wrapped in banana leaves if I brought any back. That was supper sorted for tonight then. All of a sudden, I was feeling all Indiana Jones-like, capable of anything!! :-)

For the walk in the afternoon, we headed across the San Francisco lake to the forest on the other side. We were heading to the orchard to drink some fresh grapefruit! On the way we saw a load of very nosey and funny brown capuchin monkeys. It was only a short walk and once there, Choco got busy with a long pole and caught a couple of white grapefruits and a couple of pink grapefruits. He then proceeded to peel the skin off them with his machete and cut a hole out of the top. He then told me to squeeze the sides and drink away!! Bloody gorgeous! A bit of rum and I’d have been in seventh heaven! The grapefruits were much sweeter than they are back home and packed full of juice. I decided to save the pink one till we were back at the ranch.

Throughout the afternoon, there had been distant rumblings of a storm brewing somewhere off to the east and when we were in the orchard the wind started to pick up and howl through the trees! Me, the tourist, loved it – it sounded so wild! Choco however, was more concerned about trees falling down on our heads as we made our way back to the boat! Drama queen!! :-) I have to admit though, the wind did make rowing the short distance across the lake hard work! The oars, carved in one piece out of a small tree trunk are heavy enough on their own without fighting the wind too! Thankfully, we made it to the other shore just before the heavens opened!

With the rain coming down in droves, there would be no night-time walks, so after dinner I headed back to my cabin to read by candlelight! The rain didn’t last long though and soon the jungle noises started to return…along with lots and lots of fireflies! Apparently this is a common occurrence after a heavy rain fall. I just lay in bed watching them dance in the foliage around me before drifting off to sleep!

The following day, I woke up with the sun and it was a very surreal experience. As the sun shone through into the room, the screened walls appeared to have disappeared and the shadows from all the trees and plants surrounding my cabin were playing out on my mosquito net. It was as though the jungle was in the room with me!

Choco decided that for the morning hike we would be going on an adventure…and we may not make it back for lunch! Instead, we would live off the land! I was thinking that’s fine, a couple of bananas would do me…he was thinking more termites and grubs! Hmmmmmm….! So off we headed into uncharted territory! Choco spent most of his time hacking down leaves and vines with his machete as the path he had chosen hadn’t been used in over a year! It was nice to see a different part of the forest though. We walked for about 5 hours in total and yes, I did have a nibble on a termite…didn’t taste of much though! I left the grubs for Choco; even the ones inside the palm nuts, which he insisted tasted of coconut. Maybe I’m not quite up to Indie’s standards after all!

It’s amazing the different varieties of ants that you can see in the rainforest – I’m convinced they make up about 80% of the population! Alongside the leaf cutter ants, we saw 24 hr ants – huge black and mean looking, if you get bitten by one, you’re in a bad way for 24 hrs! His smaller brother, the 12 hr ant, the spider ant which turns its body into the shape of a spider when it feels threatened and venomous red ants that live inside what is known as the Devil’s tree locally. I don’t know quite how it all works but theres a symbiotic relationship between the ants and the tree. The ants live inside the tree (tap the trunk and they coming rushing out in droves!) but when they leave, the tree dies. In some tribes, people who have been very bad, would be tied to the tree and left there. Choco said people have died from an overdose of the acid injected by the ants when they bite….I’m not sure if I believe him, he had a taste for the dramatic my dear guide! Other guides, made their groups put their hand on the tree to get a bite (a single bite is apparently very good in relieving arthritis) but Choco made me avoid the tree like my life depended on it!

Having walked my legs off in the morning, Choco decided that we should spend some time on one of the viewing platforms that night. Apart from being bitten by lots of mozzies, we didn’t see much. Apparently it’s the wrong time of year – June would be better, as it’s the middle of the dry season when the viewing platforms are that much further from the ground. We did however hear lots of lovely jungle animal noises and just as we were about to call it a night, a tapir mooched on by.

On the way back, Choco spied a fresh jaguar print. Super fresh in fact which put my dear guide on edge ever so slightly. I, however, was beside myself with excitement, doing an internal happy dance though trying to appear calm and collected on the outside! Apparently jaguar like to follow people so I was told to shine my torch behind me regularly until we neared Casa Grande. I did as I was told (first time for everything!), though quite what that would do to deter a big cat with supper on his mind, I have no idea!!

On the final day, there was time for one last walk into the surrounding forest in the morning. The inhabitants were clearly feeling very social as I saw loads!! Howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, a couple of poisonous snakes, 2 very big tarantulas (much, much scarier that Larry!), an iguana, another lizard type thing and a caiman! We were also accompanied by the loveliest of butterflies – the iconic Amazon blue butterfly. With it’s wings closed it looks nothing special, but as soon as it takes flight, you see the brilliant iridescent blue wings. Such a striking colour. Could I get a decent photo? Could I heck. The one I did manage to take was through the mosquito mesh but it’s pants quite frankly!

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the jungle but the highlight of my stay was a baby spider monkey called Chico. Cheeky, curious and brilliant to watch, he kept me entertained for hours during the down time. Chico, along with his mum and sister had originally been captured by poachers for their meat but Chico being too small had been kept alive in the hope of finding someone who would buy him. The group at Serere don’t like to buy animals as a rule, as that encourages the poachers. But equally, they couldn’t face the thought of him being killed so they agreed to take him and introduce him back into a new family. Well, that was the plan. But Chico, despite two attempts to integrate him with another group of spider monkeys near Lago Gringo, keeps coming back to live around Casa Grande. The staff are constantly chasing him out the house but he always finds a way back in – usually through the roof! I think it’s all just a big game to him!

I didn’t particularly help their cause though! Whenever I would come back from my morning walk, he would come and find me and curl up in the hammock and go to sleep beside me or sit on my lap as I was trying to read…all of which I naturally encouraged! He was just too damn cute to say ‘no’ to. As I would be lying in the hammock, the end of a tail would appear and wrap itself around the edge, then a hand would join the tail and seconds later he would be in! And that would be the end of my siesta! Not that I’m complaining – I loved every minute! Spider monkeys are now my favourite type of monkey and I am particularly jealous of their tail – Chico would just hang from his for hours!

Unfortunately my camera was not a huge fan of the hot and humid conditions and I’m not too sure what happened, whether there was condensation on the lens or something, but most of my photos are blurred. :-( Mind you, I was being a rubbish tourist again and spent the majority of the time taking my camera for a walk in my backpack as opposed to actually using it!! Oops. A least I have the mental pictures – you will just have to use your imagination! :-) Failing that, I have uploaded what I could to Flickr!!

So, it was hot, humid, noisy, smelly, no wait that was me (!) and full of annoying mozzies but it was an amazing experience. I’ll be back…I’ll definitely be back!

Sweet ol’ Sucre and (probably) the best trek ever!

13 Apr

Remember when you were growing up and you were told the story about the tortoise and the hare? Well, I think that parallels can be drawn with travelers! Many travelers I meet have a fixed schedule and race from place to place at a speed that exhausts me just thinking about it. I, however, am more of a tortoise of the traveler world. I like to spend time in a place, soak up the atmosphere and get to know the locals. There are times though, when I run the risk of turning into a local – Sucre was one such place.

Sucre, the country’s most beautiful city, is the constitutional capital of Bolivia, but it feels much more like a small town. Built on a grid system, it’s really easy to navigate, and with each street lined with beautiful white-washed colonial architecture, it’s a lovely city to meander around and lose yourself in. And if that wasn’t enough, the climate is pretty perfect all year round too – sunny, mid to late 20s during the day and a little cooler in the evenings…I could so live there! :-)

It was also the city of choice for the wealthy Spanish families who had an interest in the silver mines back in the day, in nearby Potosi. In fact I heard a great story about how these families, instead of using banks, would hide their gold or silver somewhere in the family home but usually only the head of the family would know the location and often when he died, the secret location would die with him. Over the past decade though, people who have bought these old colonial homes and carried out renovation work have been stumbling across the hidden treasure!! In fact, one of the high end hotels in Sucre owes it’s presence to such a find! How cool is that – it’s like finding a Ming vase in your attic!

I decided early on that I would be staying a while and there was plenty to keep me busy. A plethora of museums, a host of pretty churches, some great local craft shops and a lovely park, complete with mini Eiffel tower built by the man himself – days were easily lost!

One Sunday, I headed out to a nearby (well, an hour and a half away!) village, Tarabuco – famous throughout Bolivia for its textiles, and best known locally for its Sunday market and March dance celebration, the Pujllay. Admittedly the market is a little touristy, but if you venture away from the main square, you can easily find yourself in the hustle and bustle of locals doing their weekly shopping. What I loved though, was getting to see the men in their traditional dress. All of them. Not a sight you see in the main towns and cities – the women yes, but the men have become more ‘westernised’ for want of a better word.

Our guide let us in on some of the secrets of the different types of dress on display too. It was fascinating and something as an outsider, you would be completely oblivious to. For example, the way the ladies wear their hats displays their relationship status. Straight & centered meant they were married. Tipped to one side meant single and looking for a husband, tipped to the other, single and not looking! Brilliant!

Of course I got sucked in by all the brightly coloured weavings on sale and ended up purchasing a couple! I have absolutely no idea what I am going to do with them…but I’ll work that out when I actually have somewhere of my own to put them! Can’t quite see myself bundling my Sainsbury’s shopping into one and sticking it on my back…but you never know!!

I had missed the Pujllay by a week, as this year it had fallen on St Paddy’s day but before heading back to Sucre, I had lunch in a restaurant, which also put on a display of traditional dancing so I got a little taste of what I had missed! All in all, a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday.

Back in Sucre and I had decided to sign myself up for a two day hike along the Inca trail to the Maragua crater, with the opportunity of getting up close and personal with dinosaur foot prints on day two! It turned out to be one of the best treks of my trip so far! Our guide, Jorge, was one of the funniest people I have ever met and our group despite being a real mix of ages and nationalities just bonded brilliantly.

I booked the tour through a company called Joy Ride, a massive operation in Sucre, offering travel services and local tours as well as having their own bar/ restaurant, cinema and gift shop. They weren’t my first choice as they have a reputation for underpaying their guides, but they are the biggest operator and the other tour companies I went to see didn’t have enough people to make up a trekking party. So if I wanted to go, which I did, then it would have to be with Joy Ride.

Joy Ride’s slogan is very Carlsberg-esque – the bar advertises itself as “probably the best bar in town”. The tour guides wear shirts saying “probably the best ride of my life”… You get the picture. This “probably” was to become the brunt of most of our jokes over the following 2 days as the difference between the pre-trip sales pitch and reality was huge. For example, one of the girls (an experienced hiker with all the kit) asked if there would be any river crossings as she would wear a different type of shoe if there was. The answer was a categorical “no”. However, three hours in on day 1 and we were wading thigh high through a river…. This was then turned into “there probably won’t be any river crossings”. And the theme was set. You probably needed to be there to appreciate it, but trust me, it kept us amused for hours!!

So, the hike. From Sucre, we caught the local bus to a mountain village called Chataquila, 25 km north west of the capital. The bus journey was an adventure in itself, with the bus skimming dangerously close to the cliff edge whenever we passed traffic coming the other way. We arrived at the rocky ridge top at Chataquila safe and sound though and first things first, we paid a visit to a stone chapel dedicated to the Virgin, and an area to the side of the chapel dedicated to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Here, our guide Jorge, performed a ritual offering coca leaves to Pachamama and asking her to bless our journey and give us good weather (forecast was looking a bit ominous when we first set out).

Then it was our turn to chew on a few coca leaves. Given that we would be hiking at around 3700 metres, it was a precautionary measure to ensure nobody would suffer from altitude sickness. So, looking like a bunch of chipmunks preparing for a harsh winter with a squash ball equivalent of coca leaves pouched in one cheek (it’s an attractive look, believe me!), we hit the Inca trail.

I was quite surprised, the Inca trail is an actual stone path – not quite sure what I was expecting!! It had the look of the yellow brick road to it in parts too! But anyway, we followed the trail as it descended steeply for 6km and arrived in a tiny village called Chaunaca. We took a wee break here, in the courtyard of one of the local residents, a 96 year old lady with the most piercing blue eyes and a big, shy toothless grin and who is quite the local entrepreneur. She runs the local shop and a little cafe out of her front room, rents out rooms to travelers and still tends her own small holding! Bless her, she has so far outlived two husbands but is happy to entertain the idea of a third!!

From here we continued going down hill until we reached the river. “Ah” says Jorge, “it’s a little higher than I expected.” “Wait here. I’ll go first and pick out a route.” So, we stood on the bank and watched as our dear guide took on nature and almost disappeared. Now I always thought that rivers were shallow at the edges and deeper in the middle but as Jorge continued across, he seemed to be gradually sinking! At one point, near the other bank, the water was up to his chest, but then he’s not exactly the tallest of chaps, so that would be thigh height for you and I. Given that he was already soaked we spent the next 5 minutes telling him to try further upstream and downstream until the optimal path was found! Then it was feet into the squelchy mud and over we crossed!

For the next however many hours (5 or 6 I think), we walked up hills and down mountains, snaking our way through the Cordillera de Los Frailes, praying that round the next bend, the distinctive and gracefully symmetrical pale green arches surrounding the Maragua crater would be that much closer! We arrived as dusk was falling – apparently we were a group of fast walkers as normally the groups arrive when it is already dark. So, given that we had made good time, we decided to head off and see the ‘Devil’s Mouth’ before heading to our camp as that would mean that we could have a lie-in the following morning! Music to my ears!

To reach Devil’s Mouth, we passed through the ‘cursed’ and therefore deserted side of town and a particularly eerie looking church, which hasn’t been used for hundreds of years. There’s a story there and I’ll get to it in a minute! The Devil’s Mouth was a place that was used for human sacrifice way back when, but it still has a hold over the village today. We were to find out more after dinner when Jorge gave us the low down in true ghost story stylie with the lights switched off and a torch illuminating his face!

So, if you’re sitting comfortably I’ll share the story with you…
A long, long time ago (I can’t remember the exact dates), a Spanish priest settled in Maragua and set about trying to convert the locals to Catholicism. All didn’t go according to plan though as he fell in love with a local cholita (a girl who embraces the traditional way of life). She too was madly in love with him and he decided that he would go to Sucre and renounce his vows to be with her, and off he set on his long journey. Weeks passed and the cholita, worried about her love, started looking for him everywhere. One day she was walking along the path above the Devil’s Mouth calling out for her beloved when she happened upon a tall, good-looking gentleman. “Why are you crying cholita” he said. “I am searching for my true love and I can’t find him anywhere” she replied. “I can bring him back to you, but in return you must do something for me” said the man who’s eyes started to turn black and twinkle maliciously. “No!” she screamed, I will not do a deal with you” and ran as fast as she could to get away from the man, the devil himself. A few days later there was a knock on her door and when she opened it, she found the priest standing there. “Hello my love” he said, “I have renounced my vows so we can be together but I have to go away for a few days. Wait for me.”

With a lightened heart, the cholita continued her daily life, and a couple of days later, whilst walking near the Devil’s Mouth, the distinguished looking gentleman appeared again. “Did I not keep my promise cholita, did I not bring your beloved back to you? he said. “Now you must do as we agreed, you must bring me souls”. “No, never, I never agreed to go into business with you” she screamed and ran away as fast as her legs could carry her. Yet more weeks passed and no sign of the priest. The cholita feared he was lost forever and was heartbroken. In an effort to bring him back, she did as the devil had asked.

Men on their way home from a days work as the sun was going down, would come across a pretty young cholita crying. When inquiring after her welfare, she would reply that she was scared of the dark and would they accompany her home so that she gets there safely. How could they refuse? She would of course, escort them to the Devil’s Mouth and they were never seen again. No one has any idea what actually happened to the priest.

To this day, men in the Maragua crater never walk around alone after dark. If there is a party or a ‘boys night’ the women will wait patiently for them outside until the party’s over and see them safely home. Up to you to believe the story or not, but the locals certainly do. In fact we were told that the bones of a young man were found in the Devil’s Mouth as recently as two months prior to our stay.

Oh and the church…well, the locals believing that the priest had cursed the village, stormed the church one Sunday and massacred every one inside. The church hasn’t been used since and nobody lives on that side of town anymore! Stories abound about strange goings on by people (outsiders) who have stayed the night there, but the overall consensus is once but never again!

Day two started with a steep climb to get out of the crater. Terribly rude if you ask me. What happened to easing into the day gently? Spot the non-morning person!! But we had woken up to beautiful weather so that eased the pain. As we made our merry way to the dinosaur tracks, young children (who had clearly spotted us from afar) would pop up on random bends, offering to sell us fossils that they had found nearby. One family even offered us lunch! The land is surprisingly fertile around the crater and there are lots of small farms growing everything and anything. They still farm the old-fashioned way though – no chance of getting a tractor up on these hills!

About half way through the day, we reached the dinosaur tracks but the weather was starting to turn so we didn’t stay too long. We still had another 3 hours of walking to reach Potolo, the village where our chariot would be waiting to whisk us back to Sucre, and walking in the rain is not the most fun of pastimes though you could argue that I should be used to it by now!! Luckily we had more of a light drizzle than full on rain so it didn’t put a dampener on our enjoyment of the surrounding countryside. Terrible light for taking photos though!! :-)

We finally arrived back in Sucre at about 6pm in the evening and we all piled into the nearest pub to have a much welcome glass of wine or beer! Desperately needed lubrication as the hour and a half sitting in the mini bus on the way back had left us walking like grannies! I had had THE most amazing two days though. I don’t think I’ve laughed that much whilst exercising…ever! Definitely the best trek so far, no probably about it! :-)

WARNING – the latest upload contains a photo showing my very white legs. Proceed with caution. Sunglasses are advised! :-)

Adjusting to the high life (my first few days at altitude in Bolivia)

9 Apr

One of the most popular ways of passing from Chile to Bolivia is by taking a pre-organised tour, which culminates in the salt flats just outside Uyuni, so that’s what I did. As luck would have it, I bumped into a fellow traveler in San Pedro, who I had previously met in El Chaltén (Argentina) and Pucón (Chile) and we decided to do the tour together. The minibus taking us to the border picked us up at ridiculous o’clock from the hostel and we were on our merry way. But not for long. The Chilean border control is only about 500 metres outside the town of San Pedro, so a few minutes later, we all piled off the bus and stood in line for what seemed like forever whilst the border police, with the efficiency of a chocolate tea-pot, stamped our passports and allowed us to officially leave the country! Although the stamp in my passport says I left the country a day earlier than I actually did…muppets!

The journey to the border with Bolivia only took an hour but it was up hill all the way. At one point there was a fork in the road…with the Tarmac-ed road continuing on to Argentina and a dirt road leading to Bolivia. This did make me smile – I mean they could have continued to asphalt the road to the official border! Ah well, might as well set expectations early I suppose!

The Bolivian-Chilean border is at 4400 metres above sea level, which meant that we had climbed 2000 metres in only one hour and boy did the altitude hit when we got out of the minibus – just walking a few steps at my normal walking speed left me out of breath! I would be living in slow motion for the next few days then! With the official formalities out of the way, it was time for breakfast and then to the 4x4s for the adventure to truly begin!

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from Bolivia. I mean, you hear all the time that it’s the poorest country in South America but not much else. However, during the first few hours sitting in the back of the Landcruiser, I stared out of the window in awe. The scenery was absolutely stunning; we were traveling through the desert, accompanied by snow-capped volcanoes on either side. I would never have thought you could put snow and desert in the same sentence, but when you do, it’s a visual feast!

The first stop on our 3 day tour was Laguna Blanca (white lagoon), which gets it’s colour from the high amount of minerals in the water. And just next door is the smaller, jewel coloured Laguna Verde (green lagoon). Between the two, we spotted our first pair of flamingoes, but they were far too busy with their heads in the water looking for food to pose for photos. Not to worry, there would be plenty of opportunity later on! :-)

Then it was on to the steaming geysers complete with bubbling mud pool. They were a bit smelly though so we didn’t stay too long! Just enough time for the obligatory photos and we were on our way again. We continued climbing and at one point, I felt as though I was on top of the world as we were practically the same height as the tops of the volcanoes surrounding us! And those mean boys are 5000 metres plus!!

At some point during the day, our driver told us that we were standing at the same height as Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. Oh well, don’t need to climb that then!! :-)

Our next stop was to see the Salvador Dali stones – a smattering of volcanic rock formations which appeared to have been ‘dumped’ in the middle of a sweeping expanse of sand and had been sandblasted by the wind over time to produce some very unusual shapes. Very Dali-esque indeed!

The highlight of the day for me, came at the end of the afternoon, when we stopped at Laguna Colorada (coloured lagoon), home to hundreds upon hundreds of flamingoes. The water is a reddy-pink colour from the algae and minerals it contains and this particular species of flamingo gets it’s pink colour from eating the algae in the water! Plus they fulfilled their tourist pleasing obligations brilliantly so I was able to get lots and lots of photos!

That night we slept at 4800 metres – the highest we would be during the whole tour. Travelers who had come from Uyuni to San Pedro had warned that this particular night was freezing. So, I wasn’t taking any chances. I had my thermals on, plus my fleece, a wooly hat, wooly socks (funky lime green llama ones!!) and I slept in my sleeping bag liner under the blankets provided. Some of the others even hired sleeping bags. And guess what…yes, I woke up in the middle of the night, roasting! Cold wasn’t a big issue. The altitude however was. I had a thumping headache the following morning…as did the rest of the group. We had climbed so high, so quickly our bodies were struggling to adjust! Thankfully Nurofen came to the rescue and I was ready to take on day 2!

On day two we saw more lagunas sitting majestically at the foot of yet more snow capped volcanos – a view I could never get tired of! But in contrast to the first day, we seemed to have ventured into the heart of the desert, with sweeping sand dunes and a massive expanse of nothingness (well sand, obviously!) for as far as the eye could see! Riding the dunes was like riding a roller coaster, so it seemed only fitting we stick our hands in the air (yes, inside the jeep) as we headed down the almost vertical side of the dune. We refrained from screaming though – didn’t want to scare the driver!!

The latter half of the day, we drove through some very tricky terrain – we appeared to be in the heart of a rocky canyon and recent heavy rains were testing our driver’s skill to the max. There wasn’t exactly a road so to speak, more of a case of picking the best route between the boulders and the pot holes!! Exciting stuff though…when you’re in the passenger seat!

We eventually arrived in the Valle de las Rocas (Rock valley) – here the main highway (read dirt road) bisects an area of volcanic boulders about 10 miles long and twice as wide! Again, the wind and rain had sculpted the rocks into some very funky shapes.

We overnighted in a small mining village named Culpina K and I never did get to the bottom of the K…anyway, when we arrived, the town was like a ghost town. All the men were at the mines, the children in school and the women at home. When school finished though, the town came alive and it was the first time I saw the Bolivian ladies in their traditional dress, carrying their children, food, market produce or anything else they need to carry on their backs, wrapped in an aguayo – a brightly coloured sling made from woven fabric. They looked brilliant and Bolivian children are amongst some of the cutest in the world…especially with their little heads poking out of the aguayo!

Day 3 and there was real excitement in the air. This was the day of the salt flats, the day we had all been waiting for….play time!!! We started at the train cemetery, which as it’s name suggests is where former mining trains were abandoned and left to rust after the collapse of the mining industry in the 1940s. These days it makes a damn good playground, with swings, see saws and trains as climbing frames! So, having released the inner child, it was time to hot foot it to the world’s largest salt flats!!

We spent the best part of 4 hours at the salt flats, playing with perspective to get some fun shots and of course the obligatory group jumping shot. I had hoped that as we were there during the rainy season, I would get a shot of the clouds reflected in the water on the salt flats but it wasn’t to be! Oh well…maybe another time!

The tour ended in the town of Uyuni – a funny little town teaming with more tourists than locals! But for me Uyuni = a hot shower and boy was I looking forward to that.

It was a great trip, with some truly spectacular scenery. The group I was with was a lot of fun too which helped ease the pain of the long grueling hours in the Landcruiser!

The following day, I took the bus to Sucre, the nation’s capital and a gem of a place but you’ll have to wait for me to get my derriere into gear to hear about my adventures in that wee city!!

Until then, the photos of the salt flats trip have been uploaded to flickr for your visual delectation! Enjoy!

Stargazing in the Atacama desert

26 Mar

Having survived the 23 hour bus journey, I arrived just after 10pm in the dusty, desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. Although street lights are practically non-existent and street numbers appear to be optional, luckily the streets do actually have names so I didn’t have any trouble finding my chez moi for the next few days…and very lovely it was too!

San Pedro has the enviable location of being on the doorstep of some of nature’s best sights: salt lakes bordered by volcanos, huge sand dunes just begging to be surfed, pretty antiplano villages trapped in time, steaming geysers being ridiculously selfish with their heat in the freezing dawn and a plethora of otherworldly landscapes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Salvador Dali painting. All of this against a backdrop of azure blue skies…no, I wasn’t going to enjoy this place at all.

On my first day I took it easy. I headed into town to have a wee nose around, get my bearings and find out what there was to see and do. The town is postcard pretty, with adobe white-washed low level buildings and dirt streets. I doubt it’s changed much over the years, despite the ever-increasing influx of travelers. By mid-afternoon though, it was like being in an oven, so I decided to make like a local and headed for a hammock in the dappled shade of the orchard next to my hostel. Chileans are a pretty relaxed bunch in general but the Atacamanians are practically horizontal! My kinda town! :-)

One of the highlights during my stay in the world’s highest desert was a night spent staring at the stars above. It was enlightening stuff and I now understand how easy it is to become an astronomy geek, though I doubt I’ll be turning into one anytime soon!

Our ‘star-gazing for dummies’ guide was a very funny Canadian called Les, who shared loads of fascinating facts about the earth and stars with us, the majority of which I have of course now forgotten. Though I can tell you that the earth moves at 1500km per second!! AND, I can identify the location of the north and south poles with only the stars as my guide! I tell you, I’ll make an explorer yet! I was most impressed however with Les’ sparkly laser pointer which reached all the way up to the stars! Actually that’s a lie, as much as I would love a sparkly laser pointer all of my own, the best bit was seeing Saturn and her rings of ice through a telescope despite it being billions of light years away (or some very large number ending with an ‘_illion’). The shooting stars were pretty damn impressive too!

So, having enjoyed the desert by night, it would be rude not to pay a visit during the day, and off I ventured into one of the driest places on earth, Moon Valley (where NASA tested their moon buggies) and the Valley of Death. Amazing scenery. I’m not too sure whether I thought that all deserts would be Sahara-like with sweeping sand dunes for as far as the eye could see but I wasn’t expecting the diverse rock formations that can be seen in the Moon and Death Valleys that’s for sure. Have a look at the photos and you’ll see what I mean! There were the obligatory sand dunes though too. In fact I climbed one to get a better view of the valley below. Walking down is no where near as much fun as sand-boarding down…not that I have tried the latter, but I was very tempted! If I had stayed longer, I probably would have!

But all too soon, it was time to hit the road again and head north to explore the dizzying heights of Bolivia. I had even bought a pair of lime green wooly socks complete with crazy llama design to mark the occasion! Go on, admit it…you want a pair too!! Well, who knows, if you behave yourselves, Santa might be good to you and give you your very own pair!! :-)


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