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.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Big smoke and poor man's Galapagos

After another night bus which was our most comfortable yet, on a flash new bus company called TRC, we made it to Lima. We weren't really expecting to like Lima as it's such a big city but we had decided to stay in the area called Barranco as we'd had it recommended to us and it was a great area, very bohemian with colourful, colonial buildings. Lima was looking up for us. We explored around the area and had lunch in a lovely restaurant overlooking the sea. Jonty tried the local speciality of cow's hearts which went down well although it was a mountain of meat.

Next we caught a bus into central Lima and walked around the plazas, had a look at the presidential palace and several impressive churches. We took a guided tour around the monastery called sanfrancisco which was fascinating. One of the highlights of the tour was the huge dusty library that really looked like something from the Harry Potter movie. There were also lots of frescos and courtyards. Then we went down to the underground catacombs which were quite creepy and mazelike. Thousands of people had been buried down there and there were so many bones and skeletons. Luckily we made it out alive!! We'd made friends with the Peruvian girl, only 28, who ran the hostel, she could be on The Apprentice, and enjoyed sitting in the hostel court yard eating, drinking and chatting to her and her friends.

The next day we went on a pretty cliff top walk and then went to see the ruins of Huaca Pucllana, a pyramid from Lima culture from Ad400. It was very interesting, there were main squares, buriel sites and of course the sacrificial area!! They were still excavating the site which was pretty interesting, so who knows what else they may find. We had a great final night in Lima. We had a tasty meal at a very local restaurant and then discovered a really impressive live Peruvian band who had this lead singer who could sound exactly like Bono, ACDC, the Gallaghers you name it. It was pretty entertaining, he could definitely have won Stars in their eyes as every performance was pretty energetic and committed. Jonty and I ended the night with a dance off in a rock/80's place round the corner.

Paracas was our next stop, a very cute little village on the sea with many pelicans just chilling out on the beach. As we couldn't afford a trip to The Gallapogos islands we took a boat ride to Isla Ballestos which is known as the poor man's gallapogos in the guide books although our guide for the day understandably preferred the name of 'small galapagos. It was fantastic, on the way to the rocky island we saw lots of dolphins, including baby ones, jumping up and doing backflips in the sea. Apparently we were lucky to see them and it certainly felt pretty special.

Isla Ballestos is a number of giant rocks in the sea absolutely covered with hundreds of birds that they looked like ants. There were cormorants, boobies, pelicans and very cute penguins. We also saw lots of sea lions soaking up the sun on the rocks and being surprisingly active jumping out of the water. But, we learnt that the jumpers had probably come from the 'maternity area' which was a mad sight. There were hundreds of sea lions playing on this beach and the noise was incredible-they were honking so loud-the newborn pups. The next part of our tour was a trip across the surreal desert landscape, it's part of the Atacama desert the driest place in the world, and to some of the nearby rocky beaches. And then it was dreaded night bus time again, dreaded simply because we can't seem to sleep on them although they are surprisingly comfortable!!