Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Wining and dining in Argentina

As we had initialy planed to fly straight to Buenos Aires from La Paz we were now well and truly off our original itinary. Instead we were working our way down Argentina by bus.

Our first stop was a town called Salta. One of the most famous sites in Salta is the museum holding the findings of archilogical digs at the top of the sourounding mountains. The Incas used to burry offering at the top of the mountains to unite the different communities and appease their gods. The Incas used to pick the child who they considered the most pure and beautiful from each community send them to the capital in Cusco to get married with a child from another tribe. Unfortunately once the children returned from their communities the incas used to get them drunk on beer and then bury the poor children alive at the top of the nearest mountain. Because the mountains are so cold, the children were perfectly preserved and one was on display in a specially sealed cabinet. It was really freeky seeing the little kid with his hair and skin looking just as it would on the day he was burried. You just have to hope that he never woke up to realise what was happening to him.

While that might sound all a bit morbid our next stop in Argentina was much more cheery. After being told, when we were in Bolivia, by a couple of drunken Australians that we would love it we decided to go to the small town of Cafayata. The town is in the heart of Argentina´s wine country so we thought it would be rude not to sample what they had to offer. We started off going to a wine museum so that we could know a bit more about what we were drinking. The museum was beautifully put together and all of the displays were written in poetry. Off the top of my head, the one fact I can remember is that the wine is so good because the sun is always shining during the day but it gets cold at night. What we also learnt from the tasting sessions is that we like drinking wine, but I suppose I already knew that.

To have a break from drinking wine we decided to rent a couple of bikes and go on a bike ride that we had been recomended. We jumped on a bus with our bikes and set off to a local landmark to start our ride back into town. The bus kept going and going and I started to realise that a 48km bike ride was not going to be that easy for someone like me who has barely rode a bike in years. Fortunatley we met some nice people on the bus who were doing the same ride and agreed to join them . On the way back we stopped at a number of sites including a gorge where you could here your voice echo off the rocks and a giant rock shaped like a toad. Half way through the trip we found a little house by the side of the road selling wine in unmarked bottles and decided that we it was probably time to sample the loca drink again. Posing for tourists at the wine stop was the best looking lama we have ever seen. He had the funniest goofy and pomposs look on his face as if we were disturbing some very important work he was doing but he would deem to allow us a photo. By the end of our ride I was completly broken I felt far worse than after the Inca trail but it was worth it for a great day.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Gaining perspective...salt flats, flamingos, cacti and canyons

After another night bus we arrived in the dusty very cold town of Uyuni which literally felt like it was in the middle of nowhere and it pretty much was! It was the gateway to the 3 day salt flat tour which we hadnt intended to do originally but we had had it recommended by so many people that we thought we couldn't miss it out. we spent ages trying to decide which tour to go with as we had heard that the quality of them can vary so much but we finally settled on one and we were in luck - we had four other people in our jeep and they were great fun - a couple from Australia and a couple from London like us. it was a good thing we all got on as we would be in the jeep for hours on end for the next 3 days as we had such big distances to cover. we also had a friendly driver who only spoke Spanish so Millie and i were the translators which was generally successful with one very funny mis- translation which i"ll get to later.

Our first stop was at a site with loads of abandoned trains hundreds of years old. it was pretty surreal walking round the train grave yard and it definitely looked like a film set or music video location. Next we headed on to the salt flats. The flats go on for miles and it was hard to make your brain understand that it isn"t snow and that it is in fact salt. They are the largest salt flats in the world. we all got stuck into trying to work out how to do the perspective photos and got more and more inventive as we went along with different props coming into it. The salt flats completely mess with the perspective and as you can see you can make yourself look smaller than an apple or a toy dinosaur or even look like you are standing on somebody's tongue (like I am on Jontys)!!

After hours of driving across the white expanse and feeling like we were never getting anywhere we made it to our hostel made out of salt - of course!! Jonty and I hiked up a hill with cacti and got a great view of the flats and then as the sun was setting we walked across the flats. We felt like Arctic explorers as it was so cold and the whiteness just stretched on for miles! We had a fun evening chatting with our group and the other people staying in the hostel.

Our second day was a day of lakes and volcanoes. we had breakfast at sun rise and then set off in the jeep. The landscape was incredible - desert with massive mountains and rock formations and no roads - just occasional tracks our 4wd could follow. It also felt like you were never getting anywhere as the landscape just stretched on for miles and miles. We got to this stunning lake which was full of flamingos and it was here that jonty and i turned into wild life photographers or thought we had! We couldn't stop taking photos of flamingos so i challenge whoever is brave enough back home to sit through the medley of flamingo images!!! We visited two more high altitude lakes and spotted lots of llamas and vicunas - the posh llama.

It was as we were singing along to some driving music that we spotted another creature on the side of the road and this is where the language miscommunication started. I got out to look at and take a picture of it as it looked so cute and rabbit like (in the attached photo) but i then heard panicked shouts from the other 5 in the car telling me to get back into the car quickly as the creature is highly dangerous. i couldnt believe it, as they looked so cute, so i stayed outside but at a safe distance. Admittedly i was slightly prepared if they did spring at me and bite me, which had entered my mind after the frenzied warnings from the others. It turns out that the guide had mimed eating because he was suggesting that we could feed the creature if we wanted to but the others had thought that he meant that it was a 'killer rabbit' and would attack me! We all found it absolutely hilarious that we had been worried about this fluffy animal. Luckily our spanish served us better over the next couple of days.

That evening it was unbelievably cold and a few hours in we were wearing pretty much everything we owned. Cameron even had his board shorts on over his jeans! But, despite the cold we had a fun time playing cards and drinking warming red wine.

Up at 5am on our final day and it was still sooo cold but after a short drive (to 4950m) the sight of bubbling mud pots and incredible geysers and sulphurous clouds really woke us up! It looked like an alien landscape and it was strange as nothing was roped off and you could get as close to them as you wanted to or were prepared to. The Bolivian safety systems, this and what we saw on the death road, were vastly different to the cotton wool safety of the UK!! But, we of course didnt go crazy and get our early morning shower there. Instead we visited some hot springs a little further on. After a few more stops at some striking rock formations we made it back to Uyuni and relative warmth of a hostel with heating!

Up at 5am again and we caught a slightly scary bus to Tupiza a town famed for being where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their makers. It was a big bus that didn't have much room to spare as it wound its way along cliff hugging roads. We frequently had to do 3 point turns on the side of a cliff and one Australian couple, sat at the front of the bus, woke up and shouted as they were stunned that they couldnt see the ground!! Luckily the driver was very used to these roads and we made it there safe and sound. It was hot and sunny in Tupiza and Jonty and I were so happy to feel warmth again. We checked into what has to be one of my favourite hostels so far, that even had a swimming pool and spent a lovely 3 days in Tupiza relaxing by the pool, walking through the impressive red canyons and dry river beds and visiting the markets. Cameron and Millie from our Uyuni tour were also in the same hostel so we had a fun meal out with them too one evening.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Stranded high and dry in La Paz

Getting to La Paz was a bit of a nightmare. When we went to book our ticket some companies told us there was a strike in Bolivia so no buses were going to run, others told us not to worry but that we would need to change bus in Puno. One man however offered us a bus which for a little bit more money would take us the whole way on luxurious seats which were more like beds. Of course when it came time to leave the bus was nothing like the picture and more like an old national express bus. At about 5.30am we were told we did have to change bus after all and this time we were put on a cramped rickety old mini bus and driven to the boarder. There we were told to make our own way to La Paz and were given 10 Peruvian Soles to get a taxi. Thankfully we had already got some Bolivia money as the Soles were quite useless in Bolivia!!

We finally arrived in La Paz smelly and tired mid afternoon admiring the strange looking city perched in a valley 3660 meters above the sea. Unfortunately we had to go straight to the Argentinian embassy to sort out Katie's visa as she needed one to go with her emergency passport. The Argentinian consulate was however very helpful and we managed to get our application in that day.

We decided to wait in La Paz for the Visa application to go through but the whole process was delayed when the bus drivers in the city decided to go on strike. They managed to blockade the entire city preventing anything from getting in or out for two days. It was surreal wandering around this normally hectic city with no traffic on the road, the place almost had a festive atmosphere as everyone walked around town.

Fortunately there are lots of fun and random things to do in La Paz while waiting for a visa. One evening we managed to get our fix of South American football going to watch the local derby between a team called the Strongest and their bitter rivals Bolivar. While you get a good atmosphere at a Spurs Arsenal match these fans were CRAZY. The two rival groups were singing and bouncing up and down, lighting flares and constantly firing fire works off. We were worried they were going to hurt themselves but it turns out it was the players who were in danger. Mid way through the second half the Bolivar goal keeper was hit by a firework thrown from the crowd and looked like all hell was going to break lose. The ref considered calling the game off, the Strongest players had to beg their fans to calm down while the Bolivia goalie made angry gestures at them. However everything in the end calmed down and the match continued. By the time we left everyone seemed to be good natured and we walked home in a happy crowd.

On the Sunday night we were tempted to go for an even stranger experience a night of Cholita wrestling. We were driven to this big warehouse with a wrestling ring in the middle and a mixed crowd of locals and tourist watching. The star attractions were not the typical men wrestlers in their lycra outfits and masks but the cholitas, women in traditional andes dress. It was a surreal experience cheering on the 'goody' Cholita as she acted out her fight with the 'bady' Cholita. With the fights occasionally moving out of the ring and even one point one trying to strangle the other with her long braids of hair.

One activity in La Paz I never thought I would do was the Infamous death road. This is a downhill mountain bike ride made famous for the number of people who have plunged to their death into the valley below. For months I had said I was not going to do it as I had said the clue was in its name and that I would much rather do the sprained ankle road. Throughout La Paz we kept meetings people with their arms in plaster casts who had hurt themselves falling off their bikes. I therefore surprised myself when I decided I was going to do it after all. Fortunately the company we picked, Overdose, supplied us with very good bikes and full protective helmets and clothing. The ride itself was pretty exciting on a narrow gravely road cutting back and forth down a steep mountain. It was not however too dangerous as long as you were sensible enough to use the breaks a fair bit. The views were incredible as we went down 3600m from a cold early morning start to ending up in hot jungle like conditions. To celebrate surviving with our limbs in tact we joined the new friends we met on the ride for a night drinking in the fun backpacker bars of La Paz.

Fortunately the next day Katie's visa was ready the bus drivers strike was over and we were ready to head off to our next adventure on the Bolivian salt flats..

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Trekking Inca style!

We'd booked the Inca Trail 5 months ago now and it was the one fixed point in our trip...and it was now here. As we stood by the entry check point we couldn't quite believe we were about to start. We were a little nervous, we'll very nervous to be honest, about whether we would be able to complete it, if we had the right kit and whether the huge blister I already had would hold out!!

Day 1 was the easiest day and good training for the rest of the trek. The scenery was beautiful already with high mountains and the Vilicumba river flowing below. We saw the Inca ruins of Hullca Raccay, a hill fort, the incas used as a lookout and the Patallata ruins. We had a friendly local guide called David and a fun group of 16 people. We were lucky with our group as everyone got on and we all had lots of good chats along the way and over food which I think kept us all going. It was quite a international group with Australians, Canadians, Irish, Americans and chilean/swedish! We'd each hired a third of a porter thankfully which meant they carried our sleeping bags, mats and some clothes. The porters really were superhuman, they were small local people known as chuskis, and would carry huge packs of 25kg up the mountain and would often even run. They really were amazing as each time we would get to a lunch or overnight spot the food tent and all the tents had already been set up and they would greet us with a drink. Now the food...where do I start it was some of the best food we'd eaten and was amazing considering it was all prepared on a gas ring at a campsite. We had four courses almost every time and had soups, lasagne, stews you name it. The food definitely kept us going. With day 1's walking over we all chilled out in the campsite and looked at the blanket of stars as we seemed to have some amateur astronomers with us!!

Day 2, the hardest day of the trek and the one that everyone warns you about - especially dead woman's pass. We were lucky though as the weather was dry and sunny again and after a filling brekkie we began the 51/2 hours climb up to the peak of 4,200m. Everyone took it at their own pace. The first section Jonty and I powered up through pretty cloud forests and a bubbling river - I think it was the thought of the second breakfast that spurred us on!! This was the only time we had a second brekkie and it was to give us energy for the remaining climb. There were thousands of steps but they weren't the original steps yet as the incas destroyed the first part of the trail as they didn't want the Spanish conquistadors to find Macchu Picchu. The scenery was spectacular, icy peaks and massive mountains. It was a very tough final push to the top but we surprised ourselves at how much energy we still had and how ok we felt. Our other treks at altitude really must have helped us a lot, thankfully. Some people in our group were suffering, especially one guy who hadn't had time to acclimatise in cusco. But we all made it to the top and celebrated by having a cup of wine and splashing some of it on the ground for Paccha mama (mother earth)-a big tradition in Peru. We then began the long descent down 1000 + steps to our next campsite which was on the valley floor. After another delicious dinner our guide told us a ghost story about the toilet block, being built on a burial ground, and people being pulled out of their beds in the night!! Just what we needed-the upshot was that no one went to the toilet in the night and maybe that was the plan!!

After another fairly good night's sleep in our tent we began day 3 by climbing up to the circular ruins of Runkuray. The inca paving was original here and there was a deep precipice on one side and stunning scenery. Today was the day of Seeing lots of Inca ruins along the way and it was fascinating walking around and imagining what it must have been like to live here or be the look out person there. Unfortunately though people don't know that much about the incas as they destroyed everything when the Spanish arrived. So David didn't have that much he could tell us which was a little bit of a shame as we often wanted to know more. The trek was so pretty today. We descended through cloudforests full of orchids and inca tunnels carved in the rock and then climbed up to the 3rd pass at 3700m. We then made it down the path named the 'gringos killer' but Jonty and I were still in good form and the steps didn't beat us-thankfully. And I truly believe in the power of compeed as my blister wasn't causing me any problems. The final ruins at the base by our camp were really out of something from Indians Jones and there were llamas roaming round the walls!

We couldn't believe that the next day we would be seeing Macchu. Picchu and we were already feeling a bit sad that it was almost over, as this had been a big focus of our trip. We had a fun final evening, finished off with birthday cake, for a fellow trekker, and a song that we'd been asked to make up to thank the porters. Luckily we had a song writer in our group which helped make us sound just about passable. It was then off to bed at 10pm as we were having to be up at 3.30am to get in line for entry to the final part of the trek.

It felt like a little bit of a race this morning as we'd been told that we need to be one of the first groups in line tomorrow to make sure we get to the sun gate for sun rise. Our Group made it to the check point gate for about 4am and then had to queue until it opened at 5.30am. We had done well though as we were the third group in line out of over 30. But it did feel a little surreal and silly as I expect soon people won't go to bed and will just queue there overnight!! We were allowed through and then began the final, exciting hour and a half walk to the sun gate. We all celebrated at the first sight of Macchu Picchu. It was amazing and we had all made it!! We began our descent and then had a guided tour of the site.

What an incredible place to have lived, with the views of the massive mountains all around and it really did just feel magical. We walked all round the site several times trying to take it in. Our favourite spot was at the top of one of the terraces overlooking Macchu Picchu. We must have sat there for hours in the beautiful sunshine and it was there that we rested our feet and really drank in the site below. We really couldn't tear ourselves away. We arrived at 7.30amish and then caught one of the last buses back to the nearby towns at 4.30pm. What a trip!! We eventually made it back to Cusco at about 11.30pm and we were all absolutely exhausted. It had caught up with us!!

Had a lazy day in cusco straight after the inca trail and then the next day, our final day in Peru, we caught a bus to the nearby towns of Pisac. We looked round the local markets then armed with a picnic walked the Pisac inca ruin trail. It was a pretty walk with about 10 inca ruins, terraces and sun temples, to look at along the way. Jonty had a bit of an accident falling into a cactus bush though and had to pull out needles from his shins. Ouchy but he was ok! We celebrated our last night in Peru by having a really fitting 'last supper' of cuy guinea pig. Jonty and I had struggled throughout Ecuador and Peru as to whether we should try it. I wasn't sure as I'd had a guinea pig as a pet, what would George think, but we figured we probably wouldn't get the chance again so we went for it!! It did look pretty grim when it arrived on the platter, with its little face staring out, but it actually tasted quite like duck or game. It didn't have a lot of meat on it and was fairly fatty! Let's just say it was an experience.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The centre of the (Incan) world

It felt really odd to be finally in Cusco it was the one place we knew we had to be at a fixed time as we had booked the Inca trail before we left. It also meant we only had two months left. Cusco is a beautiful city with a large squares surrounded by quaint colonial buildings. One our first day we took a free walking tour of the city led by a cool local guide. It was not however your typical historical tour which was a bit of a shame as we would have liked to hear a bit about the history but we still it was good to get a better idea of the city. The best and strangest part of the tour was when we were taken into an archaeological site in the middle of the city. While the site itself was not that memorable the vicunas certainly were. They are similar to lamas but smaller and more elegant looking. These ones however may have taken a disliking to our group, first they spat at us then one kicked one of the girls on the group and finally when we decided it would be better to leave they kind of chased us out rearing up on their hind legs when they got close.

That night we decided to check out one of the places that our guide had recommended. It was a bar called the 7angles which had a different live music act each night. When we got there was a Janis Joplin cover act, although she did other acts songs as well and to be honest was equally bad at all of them. This did not however stop us from having a great night and we even stopped off at a club on the way home to dance surprisingly soberly to some cheesy tunes.

While in Cusco one of our plans was to visit the Incan ruin Saqsaywaman or sexy woman as all the gringos called it. On our first attempt we got distracted by an incredibly local dance competition. Different groups took it in turns to put on a show in beautiful local costumes. The main themes of the dances were either two groups throwing stones then whipping each other or groups of women whipping men who are trying to pick them up. The best groups managed to combine both themes into one big dance routine.

Our second attempt to see Saqsaywaman we were joined by Sarah the nice English girl we had met in Ecuador. Although once we actually got to the ruins we were put off by the pricey entrance fee. As we had to inca trail the next day we thought we would soon have our fill of inca ruins.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Lake side at Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world, at over 4000m, was our next destination. We stayed overnight in Puno the town on the lake on the Peru side and the next day we went on a two day tour of 3 of the islands on the lake. What was great was that the Polish couple and the Irish couple from our Colca Canyon were also doing the tour. We caught a boat with a nice outside upper deck to the first island Uros which is a floating island all made out of reeds. It was fascinating and quite surreal as everything was made out of reeds-the huts, the dragon boats etc. They had to cover the islands in fresh reeds every week to make sure they don't disappear. It was fairly touristy as they get visitors most days but it was definitely worth seeing.

The women on the island were in brightly coloured traditionalbdress with pom poms in their hair which are used to signify if they are single or not. If the pom poms are black they are married but if they are orange, yellow or pink they are single. Wonder if that would catch on in London!! One of the ladies dressed me and Emilia up in traditional dress which was pretty funny!!

After taking so many photos as the lake and the sky just seemed so vast and bright we motored on for 3 hours to the island of Armantani where we were staying overnight. We got chatting to this really lovely family from Canada on the boat who were pretty inspiring in that they had taken their 9 and 11 year old kids round the world for a year. The kids were getting schooled online and were loving it. At the port of Armantani we were lined up and distributed to local families for the afternoon and night. I think we struck gold as we were placed with such a lovely family - mum, Jenny, gran and grand dad and 4 year old Luis and baby Sebastian. Luis was so sweet and was fascinated by us as they only had tourists to stay once a month. He kept by our side most of the afternoon and was very happy with the colouring book and pencils we had brought as a present on the off chance there were kids. He proudly wrote his name in the book so many times!! After a filling lunch where we loved and tasted ochre for the first time we met up with the other groups and went for a hike to the top of the mountain with great views of the Island.

Jenny prepared us another great meal and we sat down and ate it in the kitchen with gran and grand dad watching from the corner. Had a good chat in Spanish with Jenny who was very sweet but unfortunately gran and grand dad only spoke Quecha. After dinner Jenny brought us some traditional clothes for us to wear for a party the locals were putting on in the local hall. Jonty was decked out in a poncho and I was in the bright skirt, embroidered shirt and head dress. There was a live band and traditional dancing at the party. It was fun but grand dad who was our chaperone didn't want to be too late so we headed back in the dark just after 10pm.

It was a little sad saying goodbye in the morning to our family but next stop was the island of Taquile. Here we hiked round the Island and had a yummy fish lunch overlooking the lake. The people on this island had some fascinating customs too to do with clothing. The men can only get married if they learn to knit themselves a certain woolly hat. I felt a bit sorry for those guys who are bad at needlework. Apparently its only the men here who sew really. The mens hats therefore signal if they are single or married. We were imagining how they could get into trouble if they picked up the wrong hat. All couples also have to live together for a year before getting good married to see if they can live together-quite a modern concept for very traditional people!

We motored back to Puno, chilled out, and then in the evening we met back up with the Canadian family, the Polish couple and Cesar and had a very tasty Pizza meal. After dinner everyone, apart from the family, went on to a bar where we tasted Pisco Sours - the local drink which is very tasty. It had been a fun couple of days.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Extra grand canyoning

Arriving in Arequipa our first challenge was finding our hostel. Our taxi driver did not know where it was and despite the fact we had given him the address dropped us off a few streets away. As Katie took a stroll around the pretty historic streets of arequipa I settled in to the important business of watching spurs in FA cup semi final. I probably should have gone with her as Spurs were thrashed still can't sulk when on such a great adventure. Had a quiet couple of days in Arequipa in preparation for a three day hike through an area known as Colca Canyon.

The canyon is the second deepest in the world at 3191m and is an incredibly beautiful place to go walking. We decide to join an organised three day hike which unfortunately picked us up from our hostel at the ungodly hour of 3am. With very little sleep we set off on an uncomfortable mini bus journey with our group. Once we had all woken up at breakfast we got to know our group who were from all round the world (Peru, Poland, Germany, Israel,Ireland and Brazil.) and all very friendly. Before we started on the hike proper we stopped off at a view point to take some photos. At first we could see nothing but clouds, but when they cleared the view of the canyon was breathtaking. As exciting as the view below was the sight of three giant condors flying just over our heads. Our guide told us that they have a win

gspan of over 3meters and can live over 70 years.

The first day of the trek was pretty easy as it was all downhill into the canyon. Katie was struggling to save the battery on her camera as we had forgotten to charge it fully before we left, as Katie hadn't been very well the night before, but it was so hard with so many great views in front of us. We stopped at a little village for lunch and all went to bed for a siesta to catch up on our sleep and in the evening we taught some of the group Yachtzee


The next day our trek wound its way along the canyon along what our guide Sandro called Peruvian flat which basically meant a lot of ups and downs. Along the way Sandro pointed out all the local fauna and even took us to a little museum which consisted of a small room where an enthusiastic local told us all about local traditional customs and gave us Chicha the traditional Incan beer. Fortified we walked on to our next stop a place called the Oasis. It really did look like an Oasis with lush grass, flowers and a swimming pool all fed by the mountain springs. After seeing Katie splashing about in the pool I knew I had to join her even though it was a bit cold and I had to swim in my pants as I had forgotten by swimming shorts. The only thing that broke the image of paradise at the oasis was our visitor in the night. Katie spotted something crawling on our wall above the bed and when I checked it out I found it was a scorpion. After I had tried a few times to knock it into a bag Katie decided to call a member of staff who expertly disposed of it for us.

Our last days hiking while only 3hours was by far the hardest. We set off just as it was getting light at 5am and started scaling the steep side of the canyon. Each step we had to remind ourselves that it was good practice for the inca trail. At the top we felt a sense of satisfaction and we're rewarded with yet more great views. We also bumped into our old friend Sarah from the hike we did in Ecuador. Which was especially good as we had lost her email address. As a reward to our bodies for getting us through the trek we had a massive buffet lunch, tried Alpaca for the first time, and soaked ourselves in the local hot springs. It had been such a great trek and had surprised us as it wasn't one of the highlights that we had been looking forward to but is now perhaps up there on the list of top things we've done so far. And we'd made some good friends, a fun Irish and Polish couple in particular.