Monthly Archives: December 2011

Our Last Days in South America- Vina del Mar and Santiago

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The last pisco sours have been had; good-bye South America…

So the bus from San Pedro to Vina del Mar was our longest yet- 23 hours! We got on at San Pedro at 1pm and got off 12.30pm the next day. We went ‘cama’ (wider, more comfy seats) so it wasn’t as brutal as it sounds. Plus I got my second Christmas build up surprise from Hedd- the ‘Love Actually’ film on the iPod. So I got to watch that on the way which made me feel very Christmasy! However I had a nasty surprise when I collected my bag from the storage part of the bus. It was slightly damp and smelt like urine! Absolutely disgusting and definitely an example of the darker underside backpacking. Luckily the backpack cover bag that my backpack was in got the worst of it. Needless to say, the first thing I did when I got to our hostel was to wash the cover bag and empty my backpack and wash down the outside, then bleach dry it in the sun! Yuk yuk yuk! The hostel we stayed in was called ‘Little Castle’ and was in the Cerro Castillo area of the seaside city, up on the headland so we had a good view over the city centre. The hostel reminded me of university hall crossed with a rickety old London flat! Felt really comfortable and the owner Patricio was lovely. So Vina del Mar is where the city folk from Santiago come on holiday. The city wraps itself between 2 headlands and has a lovely beach and promenade. So the first afternoon we were there we of course headed to the beach. We strolled along the promenade lined with little stalls selling bits and bobs and settled ourselves on the very clean sandy beach to watch the waves. Now these waves were huge and broke and swelled really close into shore. Surfers actually stood on the sand and when they wanted to ride the wave, ran into the sea and jumped on their boards on the way; the waves were that close. We watched the sun go down whilst eating delicious ice cream on the sea front terrace of ‘Enjoy del Mar’ restaurant….very nice.

Tuesday was our first and only full day in Vina del Mar and we started off early walking along the main drag called Valpariso Street, to the main place- Plaza Jose Francisco Vergara, which had lots of native plants and trees planted within it. We then headed to Museo de Arqueologia e Historia Francisco Fonck which for 2000 pesos we got to browse exhibitions on Chilean early history and about Easter Island. And it was in English and Spanish so we could read all the information boards and know what we were looking at! The Easter Island exhibition was the best, and it was interesting to read that it is still a mystery how the Rapa Nui people got to the island. There has been no remains found of early man on the island so that means man must have sailed there later on. Chileans dismiss that Rapa Nui people sailed over from Indonesians and instead advocate that it was people from Northern Chile that sailed the un-navigational seas to the Island. However the Indonesians is the most likely! I also didn’t know that the infamous Easter Island stone men- Moari’s- started off really small but grew in size t0 22 meters tall as the Rapa Nui elders tried to hold on to their spiritual traditions in the face of greater dilution with more visitors coming to the island from Europe and the South American continent, carving the Moari’s larger and larger (as you can see in the pic). After the museum we checked out the local market which is in the now dried up river bed which ‘flows’ through the city. We picked up some über inexpensive beach towels in prep for our 10 days on the beach in Fiji…mine is extremely grown up with multiple colourful cartoon zoo animals on it, hmmm! After a siesta, we made vegetable fajitas for dinner and then headed to the beach again for sun set. Our bus to Santiago on Wednesday didn’t go until 1pm, so in the morning we took a last stroll along the promenade going from headland to headland. And on the way we found a free outdoor gym, with a rowing machine! So I got a bit of training in whilst admiring the seaside view…Duncan (my coach in Chester) will be proud!

So we made it to Santiago okay after only a 1hr 1/2 bus ride, which made a very welcome change from our 23 hour bus ride only a few days previous! We caught a taxi (5,000 pesos, but could get one for around 3,000 if you walked a bit away from the bus terminal) to our Hostel called Princess Insolenta in the Brazil district of the city. Brazil is a bohemian, studenty area of the city and has lots of colonial type buildings. Quite pretty in fact. Our hostel is super funky and very music centred with travellers strumming their guitars in the shared courtyard…gave the place a really nice atmosphere. We (well me mainly!) had collected a few presents and souvenirs on our 2 months around South America which were making our backpacks bulge, so we headed to the post office to send a few parcels home. The post office was packed! Everyone doing their last-minute Christmas card sending and there was a band outside playing Christmas tunes, which eased the long wait in the que. Luckily we were eventually served by a very efficient yet patient women who kindly guided us through the various custom forms and coped with our sheer lack of Spanish! Fingers crossed the parcels will make their way to their recipients in one piece sometime in 2012! We picked up some ingredients on the 40 minute walk back to our hostel and I rustled us up a good old spag bol for tea, with a glass or 2 of vino blanco to help with the cooking! Yesterday was our only full day in Santiago, but my gosh did we make the most of it! It was an early-ish start to get to the centre of Santiago (30 minute walk) on time for the start of a free walking tour with the ‘Spicy Chile’ company at 10am. The tour started at the Palacio de la Moneda which is Chile’s equivalent to the White House as it is where the President lives/works. We got there in time for the changing of the guards. This is a very elaborate affair which happens every other day. A whole heap of soldiers in their event uniform march across Avenue Libertador towards the Palace and there are soldiers on horseback in front and then a full army brass band behind. When they stopped at the back yard of the Palace (this was all open-no high gates or anything) the band then played Jingle Bells! So so Christmasy, it was lovely! Our tour guide was called Dani, and she was in her final term of studying Acting at uni. She knew her stuff and could answer all our questions. So a bit about Chile’s (scarily) recent history. In the 70’s a well-loved Communist President called Salvador Allende Crossens was overthrown by the leader of the army called General Augusto Pinochet who ran the country as a Dictatorship. For around 18 years the country was under this dictator and during this time human rights were squashed, there were frequent tortures and lots of people ‘disappeared’. The authorities are still finding the mass graves now- not nice. In 1989 the people revolted and the dictator killed himself. The people of Chile are politically passionate as a result and as Dani explained the history to us in front of the army display in the Palace’s back yard 2 local men pointed at the army and shouted at us “killers of the people”. In the 1990’s Thursdays were when the weekly protests took place. This isn’t so much the case now, but when we did see a protest on our walking tour when we stopped for a cuppa. It was a workers protest of factory staff of big multinationals such as Adidas and Loreal, protesting against the low minimum wage (200,000 pesos a month) and the big gap between those on the lowest and those on the highest wages in the company. Fair play I say, I wouldn’t be able to live on £250 a month!

From La Moneda Palace we walked towards Plaza de Armas and popped into the big catholic cathedral there. It was very ornate inside without being Gordy, and they had a fab nativity scene on display too which the photo opposite shows. Then it was onto the Parque Forestal area which is like Santiago’s equivalent of Central Park in New York. Within Parque Forestal we passed the Museo Bellas Artes which is a modern art gallery set up to help up and coming artists. The state do not subsidise art education at all in Chile. Actually the current President of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, sounds a bit of an arse as well. Dani told us that he isn’t well liked as he pledged in his election campaign that he would make public education free (even Chilean public primary/secondary schools, locals need to pay to send their children to), but instead he increased the price of schooling, out pricing many local families. He is a billionaire business man and apparently runs the country like an enterprise; i.e. just for profit.  That’s not what Government is all about. Hopefully the Chilean people will have better luck when it comes to Presidents next time round! We then made our way further east to Plaza Italia where there is a high-rise building which looks like an old mobile phone with an antennae and a big battery pack. It used to be the headquarters to Telefonics, the equivalent of BT in the UK…that’s taking corporate branding to the extreme! Then it was onto the bohemian (and posh) neighbourhoods of the city called Lastarria and Bellavista, which had lots of restaurants and cafes which spread out onto the streets- very nice. We passed Pablo Neruda’s house along the way who was a famous poet who lived in Santiago and won a Nobel Prize for literature. He loved the sea and all his homes he built to look like boats- La Chascona (his house in Santiago) is no exception.

We ended our tour at the bottom of Cerro San Cristobel which is a big hill which has a massive white Virgin Mary statue on top of it, “to protect over the city”. We took the funicular up to the top, (cost 1,800 pesos for a round ticket), to take in the view. The pic opposite is us at the top. As you can see the city is sprawling, only stopping when it hits the mountains to the South West. The virgin mary is beautiful up close, and the adjacent Chapel equally so. Plus Christmas hymns were being played out at the top which continued the Christmas theme of the day! After the funicular ride down the hill again, we had a quick-lunch, and then headed to the Santa Lucia area to visit the big artisan market there. It was also the place of choice to do a Christmas present buying dash for each other! Hedd started one end of the market, and me the other, and we met in the middle once we were done. It was really good fun hunting for pressies, at the same time as making sure we didn’t bump into each other! 30,000 pesos was the budget and I think I did pretty well with Hedd’s gifts…time will tell, hope he likes them when he opens them in 2 days time! After leaving the hostel at 9.20am we finally got back at 5.30pm. Needless to say our feet were aching and we crashed on the sofa with a cold drink! We were home just in time for my scheduled 6pm skype call home to my parents and Nan. It was my first time skyping and although I got the video call to work, I couldn’t get the headset to. So I had a visual but no sound! We ended up speaking on a mobile phone and watching each other on skype! Not quite how skype creators intended, but it was great all the same to see them all and see their lovely decorated Christmas trees. Ahh the wonders of technology…I just need to brush up on my technical ability for next time! For our last evening meal in South America we headed to a local restaurant, called Restaurant 69 on Ricardo Cumming Street, as recommended to us by our hostel owner from Vina del Mar. We had a traditional Chilean dish called Parrillada, which is essentially a simmering pot of different types of meat and sausage, served over a dish of hot coals. We got so much food for the price and as you can see Hedd struggled to finish his half of it! We had our last pisco sour too, to toast the end of the South American leg of our 5 1/2 month adventure.

So today we fly to Auckland, New Zealand. We have just chilled today, strolling around Brazil and sitting in the sun in Brazil square with an ice cream or two. I think we are good to go. We have scrubbed our hiking boots that we will be wearing on the plane. Apparently the immigration officers in New Zealand are really strict about foreign flora/fauna being brought into their country on shoes! Better to be safe than sorry! Just 1 hour until our taxi to Santiago airport arrives…can’t wait! Plus 2 days until Christmas Day, woop! Merry Christmas Eve Eve everyone!

Vina del Mar in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Warm with a lovely sea breeze
  • Food= Empanada’s and Ice cream
  • Drink= A glass of vino or two
  • Best fun had for free= Playing ‘chicken’ with the waves on the seaside (they only got me once!)

 

Santiago in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Scorchio! 30 degrees plus, but the buildings reflect the heat down so it feels like you are walking through a wall of heat
  • Food= Meat in the form of a Parrillada
  • Drink= Anything cold!
  • A ‘must do’ on your first day in the city= Spicy Chile’s free walking tour- you see so much of the city in one day and know all the best places to go back to.

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

So here we are, two months in South America completed. It´s been amazing, we have seen natural wonders, the remnants of ancient civilisations, incredible wildlife and met some wonderful people along the way. We have managed to do almost everything we set out to do (with the exception of the cancelled star tour) and although there is more we could have done here, I feel it´s the right time to move on and I{m looking forward to the next leg of our adventure. I am so pleased that we decided to do this, we have seen and experienced so much already and are not even half way through our trip. So as we sign off from South America and head to Auckland for our Christmas Day at the Airport, let me wish you all a “Nadolig Llawen”, “Feliz Navidad” or a “Merry Christmas”. See you in 2012…

 

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Back in Chile and a Hop Over into Boliva- San Pedro de Atacama and the Salar de Uyuni

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Salar de Uyuni- a mirror on the world.

So after over 24 hours on the go, starting with a bus from Ariquipa to Tacna (Peru), then a taxi collective over the border to Arica (Chile), then an overnight bus from Arica, we finally arrived in San Pedro de Atacama at 10am on Monday. The journey, although long, was bearable. Although we did have to get off the bus with all our bags to pass through a regional checkpoint once we got into Chile at 4am! I swear Chile is more fussed about travel within their country than across their borders, quite ridiculous! So San Pedro is a small travellers town, full of people in their 20´s, found either in the main square watching the world go by or on bikes peddling along San Ped´s dusty dirt roads. The town is within the Atacama desert, the most arid desert in the world, and the sun is strong, the air dry and the sky a perfect powdery blue. Most buildings are single storey and called ´adobe´ houses with interior yards and roofs made of clay and hay. Everything is either white or an earthy reddy-brown colour; against the bright blue sky, is a pleasure on the eyes. First night in San Pedro we stayed at Hostel Campo Base, which was a comfortable hostel with a lovely cleaner-come-cook-come-tourist-information-point called Marie who made amazing scrabbled eggs! We also found a great restaurant called ? on the plaza, where you can sit and people watch and which serves great comfort food in massive portion…very welcome after 24 hours travelling and 2 days of little eating after being poorly!

Tuesday marked the start of our 4 day, 3 night tour into Bolivia through Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and to Salar de Uyuni. Our tour company (Cordillera Traveller) picked us up from our hostel at 8am and took us through Chilean immigration which was 10 minutes out of town…yet another Chile exit stamp in my passport! It was then another 30 minutes to the Bolivian immigration point, in the middle of nowhere- desert all around with 1 stone building with ´Immigration Boliva´painted on the side! Needless to say the border crossing was easy, 1 form to fill in and 1 stamp in the passport. Then it was time to transfer our bags and ourselves from the mini bus into the 4×4´s which would be taking us through the reserve and salt plain over the next 3 days. We were a group of 11 so they split us up into 2 4×4´s. In our 4×4 we had Catalina and Fred from Portugal and are Ryan Air air stewards, and Rachel and Acil from Perth. Rachel we found was originally from Wales, moving over to Perth when she was 12. But she had Cymru tattooed on her wrist so I think she is still a die-hard Welshy! Our driver was called Celso and spoke no English, so Fred was appointed official translator and tour guide sitting in the front with Celso and asking our various questions about the landscape we were travelling through. He was a complete star the whole 3 days.

So the landscape in the Reserve is barren desert, but not in an ugly way. Like San Ped´everywhere was a reddy-brown earthy colour, with naturally coloured mountains of green, orange and red smudges and bright reflective lakes throughout. First stop on our tour of the Reserve was Laguna Blanco. As the name suggests it was a white lake, the bolsite mineral in the water making the water look white. It was so reflective that it acted like a mirror to the sky and the flamingo´s that resided there. Then it was back on the 4×4 to the next lake called Laguna Verde. This lake was a gorgeous aquamarine colour which looked extremely vivid against the sand colour of the mountains that surround it. The turquoise colour comes from the copper and sulphur minerals in the water. On the way to the hot springs, our driver pointed out an area of rock formations which had inspired a lot of the surrealist Salvador Dali´s paintings. There are 2 rocks standing tall which are called ´the twins´, and apparently Dali saw himself as their brother…odd if you ask me, but he was a surrealist after all! The hot springs, called Termas de Polques, were sulfurous water pools at 4200 meters, naturally hot at 30 degrees. We couldn´t spend too long in them (20 mins) as at altitude just sitting in the pools wipe you out. Although feeling exhausted afterwards, it was lovely sitting in them and chatting to the others on our tour. There was just one more stop before lunch which was at the Sol de Manana Geysers at 4950 meters- the highest point of the tour. These were boiling mud pots and sulfurous fumaroles which let off plumes of gas which smelt like rotten eggs! We had to be careful around them as the ground can be unstable and our driver told us a true horror story of a tourist who fell in and got burnt from head to toe and they had to send for a helicopter from La Paz, but that took 3 hours….needless to say we were careful! Our stop for lunch was the last stop for day 1, at our hostel for that night in the middle of nowhere! Our group of 11 spent the afternoon and evening playing cards. Food was pretty basic but not inedible. And after dinner we went outside to star gaze. One word, wow! The sky was packed full of stars, like a dome of stars surrounding you as you looked up. We saw the milky way too, it looks like a patch of cloud in the sky of otherwise canvas of sharp glints of light (the stars).

So day 2 began with a false start. Acil´s alarm went off and diligently we all got up and got ready for the day. 20 minutes later we realised it was actually 5 o´clock and not 7 o´clock when we needed to be up. So we all went back to bed in our clothes for 2 hours! Acil got confused with the Bolivian time difference (1 hour behind Chile time), bless her! Anyway when we then got up, it was a quick breakfast and back onto the 4×4´s to explore further the Reserve. First stop was to Laguna Colorado which got nominated for 1 of the new 7 wonders of the world. It didn´t get onto the final list, but it is easy to see why it made the shortlist. The lake is massive and a pinky-red colour due to the minerals in the water. It’s just 30 cm´s deep and reflects everything, and is full of flamingo´s. 1 million flamingo´s across the whole of the reserve, with the majority living in Laguna Colorado. We saw all 3 varieties of flamingos- the Flamenco Andino (with black tails), Flamenco Chileno (more white) and the rarer Flamenco de James (more pink). It was really cool seeing them in flight. They look super funny when they land; like they are landing on hot coals, their feet move up and down and you can imagine they are squawking “ooh, ahh, ouchh”! Next stop was at the Arbol de Piedra, which is a rock which has been eroded by the wind and now looks like a tree. It really did look like a tree, fair play, and was the nearest thing to vegetation in an otherwise arid landscape, even if it is rock! We then travelled across the Altiplanic (a platform at altitude) stopping off at the 3 altiplanic lakes called Canapa, Hedionda and Honda. They were much the same, but not as impressive as Laguna Colorado. After lunch (where I tried to pretended the grit in my pasta was pepper- inevitable hazard in a desert!), we stopped off at a view-point to see the Abaroa volcano. It is still active and had a small plume of gas coming off it which was a bit ominous. So we were quick to get back on the 4×4 to make our way to the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. This wasn´t before stopping within a mini salt plain, with a random set of train tracks running through it (I have no idea where it led or came from), and Fred taking a turn at driving the 4×4 (we stopped just before San Juan town so Celso, our actual driver, wouldn´t get in trouble)! That night we stayed at Hotel de Sal on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The whole building is made from salt blocks, including all furniture inside, and complete with a loose salt floor. It was pretty impressive, although the loose salt floor a little impracticable!

Day 3 of the tour and also Catalina´s 23rd birthday and we had cake for breakfast! Fred also, rather resourcefully, fashioned up 2 candles from a cork which was very sweet. We were off by 7am and right into the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar is the world´s largest salt flat covering over 12,00 square meters and rests at 3653 meters high. It was part of a prehistoric salt lake called Lago Minchin which covered most of South West Bolivia, and was fed by Lake Titicaca in its day, but which has now dried up. And this has created a massive white salt surface i.e. Salar de Uyuni! Now this is meant to be one of the dryest places in the world, but lo and behold it rained over night creating a shallow film of water over the salt plain. This only meant that the salt plain was even more reflective. You couldn´t see where the salt plain finished and the sky began and in the morning sun it looked even more spectacular. The place was horizonless. I can only imagine this is what people in the olden days felt when they set sail, thinking the world was flat. You really felt that any moment the 4×4 would just fall off the end of the plain! We all had fun creating novelty photographs on the plain as a group. Jumping, creating the evolution model all of us in a line and playing around with perspective so it looks like you were standing on people’s heads or sitting on people’s hands. It was good fun! As we continued to drive across the salt plain, we kept seeing graves marked with a cross. Our driver said that these marked places where people had lost their lives on the plain. For example, quite recently 2 american tourists who hired their own car to drive across the plain, got lost, decided to sleep in their car and died of exposure…nasty! Near the centre of the plain, it began to dry up as the sun had evaporated all the rain from the night before. The ground looked like icy snow and crunched slightly when you walked on it. We then stopped at the Museo de Sal which used to be the first salt hotel on the Salar called Hotel Playa Blanca. However it got closed down as its sewerage polluted the salt pan. Consequently the authorities banned the building of hotels in the middle of the Salar, and instead they are only allowed to build around the edges. Right outside of the hotel/museum was a mound of salt, upon which lots of flags from around the world were flying. The multi-colour of the flags against the blue sky and white plain looked out of this world. Very cool. Although the Union Jack looked like it had seen better days! Next stop on the Salar was to what they call the salt eyes, where water underneath the salt plain bubbles up creating little volcanoes of water. Right next door to this was a salt mine, where we saw a man with a shovel who´s job it is to scoop up the salt into piles which then get collected to be processed for table salt. Fred got talking to him and found out that he works 16 hour days in the same 5 meter by 5 meter area of the plain! When asked whether he enjoyed working mining salt, he answered “he has to eat”. We then left the plain and had lunch at the salt town called Colchani. Then it was off to Uyuni town, the last stop on our tour. They took us to the outskirts of the town to a place they call the train cemetery. It is the place where all the coal powered trans were taken to be dumped when they were no longer needed after the Pacific War and then again when electric trains were introduced. It was quite an unreal sight seeing lots of different trains, carriages and engines just sitting there in the middle of nowhere. However many of them had a lot of graffiti on them which made the place look even more neglected and the surrounding area was dotted with garbage which wasn´t very nice. So all in all we were pleased to get back to the main square of Uyuni (although the town itself is a bit neglected too!) for our debrief and good byes with the guys and gals in our group. It was just Hedd and I and a swiss lady called Astrid which was making the trip back to San Pedro, the rest of the group was heading further into Bolivia. So after 1/2 hour it was back into a different 4×4 with our new driver Ronald to head back to Chile. After 4 hours of travelling we arrived in a small town called Villa Mar where we were having an overnight stop over. By 8.30pm we were in bed to prepare for our 4am wake up to continue the journey to Chile. We went to bed with the stars and woke up with them. Sun rise was around 5.30am and only then did it start to warm up. It was a pretty chilly trip up till then! We got to the Bolivian border by 9.30am, got another stamp in our passports, said bye to Ronald our 4×4 driver and then onto a minibus to take us the rest of the way. Crossing the Chilean entry border was laborious but fine and we finally arrived in San Pedro at 1 pm. A long day and it wasn´t even past lunch time! But it was an ace tour and we chilled for the rest of the day looking over our pictures from the trip.

Our remaining time in San Pedro has been a very relaxed affair. Sleeping in, strolling around the dusty streets and lazing about in the plaza. We had booked to go on what they call a ´star tour´last night, where you got taken into the desert and shown the nights sky plus a trip to an observatory. However it got canceled at last minute due to over 50% cloud cover! Very bad luck seeing as most world class observatories are based in the Atacama desert due to its reliability of over 300 days clear skies a year! ´C’est la vie´ as they say. In conciliation, Hedd downloaded a Solar System Advent Calendar App on his ipod and I got to open 17 doors at once whilst listening to some Christmas tunes…I got up to the planet Saturn! So today we are off on a 23 hour bus journey South to a place called Vina del Mar, just north of Santiago. I feel like I´m on the wind down now after our gallop around South America. We´ve packed heck of a lot in and still 2 more places to see. But just 6 more days until we fly to Fiji…that´ll be a big change!

San Pedro de Atacama and Salar de Uyuni in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Fierce sun in the day but blooming cold at night!
  • Food= Basic but edible on the tour; big portions and hearty (Algarrobo restaurant) or yummy breakfast pancakes (Salon de Te) in San Ped´
  • Drink= Water, water and more water (the air is really dry here)
  • Salt plain tour highlight= Gazing at the endless horizon on the wet surface of Salar de Uyuni

Hedd´s word´s of wisdom:

When I decided a long time ago now that we should do the Salt Plains tour into Bolivia, I did so on the basis that we would be visiting one of the driest places on earth, it was even described alien environment. So on the 3rd day of our tour I was quite disappointed to be informed that there had been a lot of rain and that we would be unable to visit certain parts of the “Salar”. However my disappointment soon vanished as we drove into the Salar”, which covered in water, looked like an endless lake on one side and and like I would imagine the North Pole on the other side. When we stopped it was  surreal, the water reflected the sky perfectly to the point where it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the earth began. Magical. We were then informed that the tours would have to stop in a few days because the water would be too deep. So instead of feeling disappointed, I now feel lucky to have experienced something only a few people a year will get to see.

Lake Titicaca- Uros, Amantani and Taquile Islands

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A home stay with a Peruvian family…a great thing to experience, if a bit daunting!

So to get from Cusco to Puno we took a tourist bus, called the Inka Express, which made 4 stops along the way at tourist hot spots and included lunch. It took 3 hours longer than going direct but if you’ve got time to spare, the stops do break the journey up nicely. So first stop was in Andahuaylillas to visit the colonial church called San Pedro. It didn’t look much from the outside but inside all the ceilings and walls were painted in motifs and a lot of gold leaf over the wall behind the altar. It was being restored at the time so it was quite fascinating watching the restorers do their work on the mouldings and paintings. Then it was back on the bus to the next stop- and old Inca settlement called Raqchi, which means Ceramic in English. It was actually a really impressive set of ruins especially the principle temple (see pic), which was 3 stories high, with foundations in stone and then the 2 stories above built with clay and Andean grass. All of it original apart from the ceramic roof tiles they put on top. It was a shock to Inca buildings/walls so tall, but it made walking around the ruins like navigating a maze which was quite fun! After lunch the next stop was at the highest point between Cusco and Puno at 4338 meters high which is known as the line separating Cusco province and Puno province and called ‘Abra la Raya’. The last stop was at a town called Pukaro named after the pre-inka indians who lived there, 400 years before christ. They were famous for ceramics and worshiped not just the condor, puma and snake like the inca’s, but also water creatures such as the frog as they also recognised the importance of water to life. They also believed in human sacrifice and built pyramids to practice it which we also saw the ruins of along our journey.

Puno is not the prettiest city to look at. A lot of the houses remain unfinished with steel cabling poking up from the flat concrete roofs. Apparently this is intentional as it means the inhabitants and the house builders avoid paying tax on the property as technically the building is incomplete. Quite a saving I imagine but does make the area look a bit shabby! Adrian and Sarah from our Inca Trek group were on the same tour as us around Lake Titicaca so we got the same taxi, stayed at the same hotel and had a fun meal out that night at a place called Positive Rock and Reggae Bar…those 2 genres of music go surprisingly well together! The next day we got picked up and taken to Puno’s port. We picked up some wine on the way along with some fruit as a gift to our host families for that night in Amantani. On the island they find it really hard to grow fruit and the parents prefer it better than sweets for the children, so we got them some oranges and apples. Our guide for the 2 days was called ‘Bruno from Puno’ (a nick name he gave himself!) and was a little bit crazy, but it made for a lively trip. So a bit about Lake Titicaca…it is the largest, highest, navigable lake in the world and spans across Peru (60%) and Bolivia (40%). It is purely fed from the snow melt from the Andes and rain, and feds into one other lake over in Bolivia. So a pretty self-contained ecosystem. So back to the tour…the boat was small and went quite slowly, but after 25 minutes we got to our first Island community, the Uros Islands. The Uros Islands are floating islands made of reeds, each small island is home to one family (grand parents, sisters, brothers, children). The ones we visited were purely set up for tourists, out of choice the families set up home in this part of Uros to make their living. The tourist area of Uros is split up into North and South areas, and the tourist boats visit each area alternate days. The Uros island community as a whole get the money from the tour boats of which some is held centrally as a contingency fund in case of a disaster and the rest split equally amongst the families. The reed island we visited was called Santa Maria and as our boat pulled into the island all the ladies came running to the side singing to welcome us. The women all has their hair in two plaits with massive colourful woolen ball ball’s weaved into the ends of the plaits. It looked fun but quite heavy! We sat around a reed bench and the men of the island explained how the floating reed island’s of Uros are built (see pic above) . So the water around Uros is 11 meters deep and 5 meters down floats the mud and roots of the reed beds. The families harvest these in small cubes and then tie them all together to make a larger floating platform. Fresh reeds are then layered on top of the buoyant mud and root platform to make the island that we were then standing on. They then build their houses on top of this platform out of reeds and anchor the island down with ropes attached to rocks/stakes. It was really quite fascinating. And all the families were so happy, it rubbed off on you. The families also eat the reeds. We got to try some too. You take off the top, peel the outer layers and then bite a bit off. It tasted like cucumber! A couple from the island then took us into their reed home and put traditional clothes on us, and showed us all the crafts they made. We felt really pressured to buy something, but not in an aggressive way. Either way we bought a few things from them, knowing that at least that money will go straight to that couple and child and not via the Uros community leaders! We then got to ride on a big boat made of reeds to the next island Tupirmarka (see pic above). I’m first to admit that the Uros islands are completely touristy but they are really enjoyable to visit and the families who live on them are incredibly lovely and welcoming. I would definitely recommend a visit to them.

It was then back on our tour boat for a 3 hour sailing to our second island called Amantani. That was a long 3 hours! But again when we came into port ladies from the island were there in their traditional outfits to great us. We then got paired with our host families by the leader of the community. Sarah, Adrian, Hedd and I all stayed with the same family, headed up by mum, Rebecca, with 2 children called Loope (7) and Diago (15). It felt really awkward to begin with and we all didn’t speak Spanish so it was hard to communicate. But over lunch we got the jist of what Rebecca was telling us. The island doesn’t have electricity and the community are self-sufficient vegetarians. They keep sheep for wool and chickens for eggs and grow all their vegetables in a little plot outside their home. The toilet was an outside toilet, which we had to flush with a bucket of water each time so no proper drainage either. Rebecca had some lighting in her home from solar panels on the roof, and although had a gas canister, cooked most of her food on a wood fueled stove. We soon found that playing ball games with the two children didn’t require much language skills and proceeded to play volleyball and hand ball all afternoon with Loope and Diago, after helping Rebecca wash up of course! Early evening Loope led us up to the main square to meet up with the others to walk up to the Temple of Pachamama on the hill above the town (4150 meters above sea level), to watch sun set. It wasn’t the greatest as it was cloudy, but we watched all the same and then headed back down to catch the last half of a local 5 aside game, much to Hedd and Adrian’s delight! Then it was back with Loope to the house for dinner. We cracked open the wine and after glass 2 Rebecca, our host ‘mum’, was hiccupping around the kitchen! I think we got our host mum drunk! Very funny. She then dressed us up in traditional Amantani dress (see pic above) and then led us to the local ‘disco-tech’ (aka the school hall) for an evening of peruvian dancing and live band. Loope was allowed to come too and she was so excited! She had Sarah and I up and dancing every song. The pic opposite was pretty much us dancing on our own to the band. But Loope loved it so Sarah and I had to oblige. We left pretty early at 9.30pm, picking up the dad of our host family on the way. He was very intoxicated and proceeded to introduce his family to us 3 times on the walk home. Come the fourth time, he got a stern telling off by Rebecca! We can’t be sure exactly what she said but i imagine it went along the lines “shut up you silly man, they already know our names!” We got into bed just in time as then the island had a massive storm which sounded so loud on the tin roof above us.

The next morning, Rebecca made us pancakes for breakfast and then led us back to the port to our boat. After a quick cheerio and thank you’s we were on our way again on the tour boat to the adjacent island called Taquile. It didn’t look far away but still took us 1 1/2 hours to get across to the island. From the port we walked across the island for an hour to get to the main square. The islanders are infamous for their knitting skills. Both men and women knit and then they sell their products in a cooperative at a fixed price and then the profits are divided up amongst the contributing families. The men also all wear hats which mean different things. If they have a black bowler type hat on, then they work for the municiple government. If they wear a stripey beanie, with ears and a pom pom, then they are married. The same hat but white, then the man is single. So its like Taquile equilvalent of the wedding band! After lunch of steamed trout (very nice!), we were back on the boat for the 3 hour journey back to Puno. Sarah, Adrian, Hedd and I sat on the roof the whole way home which was a nicer way to travel than sitting inside, although we did catch the sun quite a bit-oops! After a shower and chill, we had a last evening out with Adrian and Sarah in Puno, before they went onto Cocacambana, and us to Ariquipa the next day. As it turned out, this ended up as a rather late one which involved a lot of 2 for 16 sole cocktails at the local club/bar! It was a great night, but the next morning our bodies did not thank us for it! Sarah and Adrian had to get a 7am bus the next morning. I have no idea how they did that….Hedd and I were still struggling with our bus journey at 3pm in the afternoon! We both felt pretty awful on the 7 hour journey. However I was soon distracted by an hour of snow on the highlands between Puno and Ariquipa, at which point Hedd gave me my first Christmas build up surprise of ‘Now that’s what I call Christmas’ compilation album on his iPod! It was such a surreal experience listening to my Christmas song favourites, in South America, with snow falling outside! But I absolutely loved it! 13 days to go….

Lake Titicaca in a snapshot:

    • Weather= Warm during the day but stormy in the evenings and at night
    • Food= Vegetarian!- rice, mixed vegetables, vegetable soup etc…
    • Drink= Cocktails, lots of cocktails (bleurgh!)
    • The cutest child we’ve come across so far= Loope from the host family
    • Lesson Learnt= No alcohol the night before a bus journey!

Hedd´s Words of Wisdom:

No words of wisdom today, only a few key lessons learnt from our time by the lake:

  • Drinking at altitude is dangerous;
  • Two cocktails for 14 soles may sounds like a good idea, but  at 3800m its a recipe for disaster;
  • Hangovers on peruvian buses are not pleasant;

 I should have probably known that already…

Machu Picchu and The Inca Trek- Absolutely Fabulous!

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Completely exhausting but 100% worth it!

Well what a 4 days! After a 4.30am start on the 2nd December, a 3 hour drive we arrived at our starting point at ´km 82´for our 4 days 3 night, 49 km, Inca Trek to Machu Picchu with tour company SAS. Armed with our day bags and walking poles we ventured off across the river and to our first of many hills to climb! We were a group of 9 trekkers, with 12 porters, 1 cook and our guide called Ruben. Our route to Machu Picchu is known as the Inca trek and would take us as high as 4200 meters, over 3 mountain passes and through 9 Inca ruins. There are however many access routes to Machu Picchu- ´the lost city´- and connecting Machu Picchu with all the different Inca settlements across Peru, Bolivia and Chile, creating a network of trails which the Inca´s used as communication channels with many messengers running along them to bring news and information between settlements. The trails are laid with granite stone and follow the contours of the mountains, using stone steps up and down, tunnels and bridges. The Inca towns are all made of granite, quarried from the mountains, and are all in the Highlands- closer to their gods, the highest Mountains. In Inca mythology there are 3 worlds- the upper world (represented by the Condor), the present world (represented by the Puma) and the inner world (represented by the snake)…this was inherent in the temples within the Inca places where things came in the series of 3. Also the sun was important in Inca times with settlements angling to the East. All this history was brilliantly explained to us all over the trek by our guide Ruben and listening to Ruben also represented a welcome break from the trekking!

So Day 1:

  • Km trekked- 14km
  • Hours of trekking- 6 hours, starting at 9.30am and finishing at 5.30pm
  • Altitude at start- 2650 meters
  • Altitude at end- 3300 meters
  • Highest point reached- 3300 meters
  • % of the trail which is the original Inca stone- 30%
  • Key sights seen- First Inca Place seen was called Canabamba, second Llacdarada and third Vvilcaracau

The first ascent was hard and I couldn´t get my breathing right at all. But after a few coca candies I was on my way and soon got into a stride for the remaining of the day where the trail took us up and down gradually getting higher each time. Ooh a bit about Coca- Coca grows naturally in Peru and is a natural stimulant that speeds up your heart rate so enough blood goes to your brain to combat altitude sickness which is when the brain lacks blood and causes you headaches. If you process enough of it (50 kilos) and add a load of chemicals you can also make cocaine!. We got to the lunch stop at 1pm and felt awkwardly like royalty with individual bowls and towels laid out for us to wash our hands and faces! However when the chef Mario came out with a chefs hat on we soon realised this was the standard they were going to deliver for the entire trek. And the porter team never disappointed and always went above and beyond what you expected. Along this part of the trek there were homes dotted randomly along it- only accessible by walking the trek. The families are farmers so are pretty self-sufficient and make their living from their front yard which they turn into campsites for us trekkers as well as selling chocolate and drinks. The funniest/scariest moment of day 1 was almost being taken out by 3 charging lama´s who came tumbling around the corner….I propelled myself into a bush!

Day 2:

  • Km trekked- 18km
  • Hours of trekking- 8 hours, starting at 6.45am and finishing at 5.15pm
  • Altitude at start- 3300 meters
  • Altitude at end- 3600 meters
  • Highest point reached- 4215 meters (Dead Woman´s Pass)
  • % of the trail which is the original Inca stone- 30% before Dead Woman´s Pass and 80%  after
  • Key sights seen- Dead Woman´s Pass, Inca place called Rumkuracau, Rumjuracau Pass (3900 meters) and another Inca Place called Sauacmarca

Tough tough day! Early wake up with a cup of Coca tea at 5.30am and off trekking by 6.45am up to Dead Woman´s Pass. The trek for the morning was all up hill, with the stone trail mixed with a lot of steep stone steps. After 4 hours of solid trekking, we got to the top at 10.15am knackered! The pass is called Dead Woman´s Pass as the shape of the Mountain looks like a dead woman´s face and torso with the boob creating the peak! This story was told with much amusement by our guide Ruben! Then it was 1 1/2 hours down the other side to the lunch stop, down very steep and deep stone steps…tough on the knees I can tell you. After yet another impressive lunch it was up and over the second pass Rumjuracau. This wasn´t as bad as Dead Woman´s and there was much more to see along the route which broke up the trekking. Plus the 2 hour down hill had great views of the valley and was in the shade so was actually really pleasant. When we (fell) into camp at 5.15pm our calves and thighs were screaming but we were happy that it was ´easy´ from now on. The most shocking fact learnt on the second day was about a race that is organised every couple of years along the Inca Trail, from km82 to Machu Picchu. There are 2 categories Porter and Athletic Tourist. The current record for the athletic tourist is 3.05 hours! 3.05 HOURS! Held by 2 crazy american women, must have been hill runners. I actually don´t know how they did it that quick. The up hills are killers and the downhill sections are so steep you´d risk going arse over tit every few steps. But fair play, what we´re doing in 3 days walking, they did in just over 3 hours! Crazy!

Day 3:

  • Km trekked- 10km
  • Hours of trekking- 4 hours, starting at 7.45am and finishing at 1.30pm
  • Altitude at start- 3600 meters
  • Altitude at end- 2650 meters
  • Highest point reached- 3740 meters (Puyipattmarca Pass)
  • % of the trail which is the original Inca stone- 70-80%
  • Key sights seen- Intipata Inca Place, Wianayhuayna Inca Place

So the massive Day 2 meant that day 3 was effectively a 1/2 day, starting late at 7.45am and ending at lunch at 1.30pm. The trek was much easier than day 2 too, but my calves felt like rocks so that hampered progress until they loosened up a bit. It was 1 1/2 hour trek up to the 3rd and final pass and then downhill for 3 hours, broken up with seeing Inca Places and going through original Inca tunnels which were really cool. Downhill was all stone steps and after the overnight rain still were quite slippy. I only fell on my bottom once though which was good going for accident prone me! So Ruben tells me, there are 127 micro climates in the world and 87 of them are present in Peru- pretty big number. And in this day the micro climate was high jungle. I got to see lots of really pretty and colourful butterflies which flew up at you as you walked past. Also lots of orchids grow out of the rock edges of the paths in extremely vivid colours. It was quite a delight. So we got to our final camp of the trek at 1.30pm for lunch and then had a big siesta afterwards (although this soon turned into a trumping competition between Adrian and the guys tent (Devin and Tim)…Adrian won by far!) Hedd braved the ice-cold showers whereas us girls wimped out and settled once again for our baby wipe bath! In the afternoon we checked out the Inca place right next to our camp called Wianauhuayna, which had super steep and lots of Inca terraces going down the mountain which was quite impressive to see. Then it was bed early in prep for our super early wake up call the next day for the final trek to Machu Picchu.

Day 4:

  • Km trekked- 7km
  • Hours of trekking- 3 hours, starting at 4.30am and finishing at 9.30am at Machu Picchu city
  • Altitude at start- 2650 meters
  • Altitude at end- 2400 meters
  • Highest point reached- 2720 meters (Huayna Picchu)
  • % of Machu Pichu city which is original- 60%
  • Key sights seen- In Machu Pîcchu city= Farming area, urban area, religious area (3 windows temple, temple of mother earth, temple of the sun, principal temple), the Principle square with the Intivvatana stone which is carved in a way that the shadows when the sun hits the stone show the timings of the summer and winter solstice). And of course the terraces and temples on top of Huayna Picchu.

So very very early start on day 4 with the wake up call at 3.40am and setting off at 4.30am to the check point. We walked 10 minutes and then hit the que for the check point which opened at 5.30am. The people at the front of the que had got up at 2.30am apparently- crazy! The waiting was pain staking but we saw the sun come up and there were 2 english women doing a finger puppet show of jack in the beanstalk, which was completely random but quite humourous at that time of the morning with little sleep! Once the gate was opened the que went through quite fast and we were off on the 2 hour walk to the Gate of the Sun. It was an okay walk, gentle (ish) up and down until the last bit which was 52 incredible steep steps which you basically scrabbled up. We got to the sun gate at 7.30am and it was still pretty cloudy over the city at this time. But the wind blew the cloud to and from the city so we got to see a good view with it being quite mysterious at the same time. We stayed there admiring the view for about 40 minutes and then took the last hour walk down to the city. So the city is between 2 mountains- Machu Picchu mountain (where the sun gate is) and Huayna Picchu mountain and was the principal city of the Incas. It is large with different areas and farming terraces to the front of the city going down the mountain side. All the buildings and paths and walls are made from granite. The ruins were discovered by Hiron Bingham in 1911 and have since been restored. But 60 % of Machu Picchu city is still original. The city is so well-preserved as it was abandoned when the Spanish first conquered Peru so they never found it to destroy it like they did with all the their Inca places. When Bingham found it it was covered by hundreds of years of jungle vegetation. Must have been quite a discovery! After a pit stop at the loo´s (first sit down toilet in 3 days- hoorah!) Ruben took us on a tour of the city. He showed us the different areas of the city and the various temples and the intivvatana stone which acts like a sun-dial showing the seasons. He also showed us the principle square which used to have a obolysk in the middle of it. However in the 1990´s it was temporarily removed so the King and Queen of Spain could helicopter into Machu Picchu and when the workers went to put the stone back it broke! So that was final rubbish thing the Spanish did to the Inca´s 500 years after the first colonisation! We left the tour and the rest of the group 30 minutes early to catch our 10am slot to climb Huayna Picchu. When we were waiting in the que for the check point I was honestly thinking I must be absolutely nuts to climb this mountain after 3 days of trekking. My calves and thighs were so tight….I was pretty worried. But as soon as we started the trek the adrenaline kicked in and we absolutely stormed the ascent in just 40 minutes (meant to take 1 hour). The climb is crazy steep in places and you have to haul yourself up the stone steps using the rope on the side with a sheer drop on the other side! But we made it and the view from the top is amazing- truly spectacular and much better than the view from the sun gate. Plus its super fun at the top too. Plenty of ruins to explore, crazy steep steps which you have to shimmy down, plus a tunnel which you have to crawl on your front to get through. We spent a good half hour at the top of Huayna Picchu and it was actually the highlight of the trek for me. Well worth that extra bit of effort, even after 3 days of trekking. After a slightly precarious slide down the mountain (!) we strolled through the city again to the exit and had a well deserved (but ridiculously expensive) cup of coca cola. And then it was a short 30 minute bus journey down windy roads to Agua Callenatis, arriving for lunch at 1.30pm. I was straight in the shower and on the Pisco Sours for the rest of the afternoon and enjoyed a spot of shopping in the amazing market they have there. Although during this trip around the market I did get poo-ed on by a bird, much to the local stall holders amusement! I burst out laughing too (after being horrified!) and after a quick change back at the hostel I was out again having a pisco sour to recover from the ´trauma´(of course!)

So this morning we caught the 8.50am Peru Rail train to Ollantaytambo and then it was a 15 sole taxi collective back to Cusco. And after a couple of loads of laundry later, the sense of accomplishment that I made it to Machu Picchu by my own steam, walking, hasn´t died down. For me it is definitely the highlight of our trip around South America so far and will be quite hard to beat I think. But we´re still yet to arrive at some amazing places on our 5 1/2 month trip, so who knows Machu Picchu and the Inca Trek might still have competition for their current top spot. Can´t wait to see what the rest of the trip has in store…

Machu Picchu and The Inca Trek in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Sunny by day, raining and storms at night (luckily when safely tucked up in our tent!)
  • Food= Oh my goodness, a feast for breakfast, lunch and dinner…our chef Mario is a miracle worker to produce such food in a campsite in the middle of nowhere!
  • Drink= Milo! (Hot chocolate with lots of vitamins in it- brought back fond memories of drinking copious amounts of it up Mt Kilimanjaro)
  • One thing I will not miss= Long drop toilets
  • One thing I will miss= Mario´s 3 course dinners
  • One thing that is truly unforgettable= The sense of achievement felt and the view of Machu Picchu- the lost city- after reaching the top of Huayna Picchu

Hedd´s words of wisdom:

So, we´ve just got back from the Inca Trek, Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu and it was amazing. Bloody hard at times, but amazing. I have been worried about this trek for the past few months ever since I hurt my back playing football and ended up with a prolapsed disk and the fact that i´ve been having a few problems with my left knee recently (I know, I´m getting old!!). So having completed the trek, I would like to thank the following for helping me through it:-

  • My back support belt;
  • My newly purchased knee support;
  • Clare and Ger for pointing me in the direction of Diclofenac drugs to help with my Sciatica;
  • Farmacies in South America for providing Diclofenac “no questions asked”;
  • My rented trekking poles;
  • The porters that carries the majority of my stuff;
  • All our fellow trekkers for providing such good company and banter;
  • and of course, not least, my wonderful Helen for being by my side throughout our adventure.

I read somewhere that people who suffer from back injuries fall into two categories, mopers and copers. Well I certainly coped and I suppose the point I´m trying to get to is that there are always ways to overcome setbacks and that if you really want to do something, you will find a way.

Peru: A Country of Colour- Ariquipa and Cusco

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Our 3rd country visited, and my favourite so far…

So first up, the Chile- Peru border. It was very efficient actually for what is a bit of a bitty journey. First from Arica we took what they call a ´taxi collective´ to Tacna, i.e. a 5 person car which has to be filled before it heads off across the border. Bus´s can´t cross the border Chile to Peru so that’s why you need to catch a taxi. You get them from the international terminal right next door to the bus terminal in Arica. So in ours we had 3 locals and all the drivers know exactly what to do so we felt quite looked after. So after 20 minutes travelling we arrived at the first immigration point and got our passports stamped out of Chile. Then it was back in the taxi for 2 minutes before getting out again to get stamped into Peru (I still wonder who that strip of land in-between belongs too!). And also to have our bags scanned. Then back in the taxi again for 40 mins or so until we arrived in the first city across the border in Peru called Tacna. In Tacna, its similar to Arica- the bus terminal is just next door to where you get dropped off across a small road. We had already bought our onward bus ticket which we had in our hands leaving the taxi and soon got swept up from a rep from the bus company who took us to a waited room and then onto the bus. The bus company we went with was called Transportes Ariquipa…not 1 of the companies recommended for travellers we later discovered and we can vouch for that! It was an incredibly uncomfortable 6 1/2 hour journey with no air con and stopping in very random places to pick up very random looking people! But it was an experience and we got to our final destination, Ariquipa, in one piece so no harm done! There´s quite dodgy taxi´s in Ariquipa and there´s lots of signs in the bus terminal to get a taxi from those inside the terminal not on the street so we took heed to the advice and caught a 5 sol taxi to our hostel- La Casa de los Pinguinos. Phew what a day!

I have nothing but good things to say about La Casa de los Pinguinos, and the owner, from Amsterdam originally, called Alex can´t do enough for you. Plus she used to live in Princetown for 3 years (right near where I grew up in Plymouth) so we reminisced about the various night spots (Union street!) and tors on Dartmoor which was a nice bit of familiarity. Ariquipa has a lovely feel to it. The main plaza is surrounded by colonial building with cover walk ways, on one side a massive Cathedral and in the middle gardens and a fountain. It wouldn´t have looked out-of-place in a European Capital City. That evening after the border crossing we pretty much found food and hit the sack. However Peru is 2 hours behind Chile which I really discovered the next morning when I was wide awake at 6am- my body thinking it was 8am. To my delight (Hedd´s horror!) I found the film Ratatouille on the Disney channel and watched that until it was a more godly hour! That Saturday was filled with seeing the sights of the city. First stop, Museo Santuarios Andinos (15 soles entry). The museum is all about the Inca children sacrifices that were made on the highest mountain surrounding Ariquipa called Ampato.  It started out with a 20 mins National Geographic film about the discovery of the graves on top of the mountain (by accident by a group of geologists!) and then a guided tour of the exhibitions  and ended with seeing the actual frozen body of one of the 4 children they found on Ampato. So the story goes that the Inca´s 500 years ago saw the mountains as their gods. And whenever there was a natural disaster or volcanic eruption the Inca people took the 3 to 4 month journey by foot from Cusco to Mount Ampata to make a child sacrifice to the gods so to appease their anger and didn´t bring natural disasters to the area again. The children were chosen at birth and were all sacrificed by the time they were 16. There is a really famous one called the íce maiden´which when found was perfectly preserved due to the low temperatures at the top of the mountain, only a lot smaller as she had shrunk over the 500 years 6288 meters up. Kind of freaky looking! We then took a taxi (5 soles) up to Mirador de Yanahuara to get a great view of Mount Mismi- the active volcano that Ariquipa wraps itself around. And then strolled back down to the main Plaza, stopping off for lunch at a traditional Peruvian restaurant called Sol de Mayo where you sit in a lovely garden and eat whilst listening to a live band playing Peruvian folk tunes. Very lovely and not super expensive either. We had the infamous Recodo Rellero- a hot pepper stuffed with meat and topped with cheese. We stopped short of trying the other infamous dish- roasted guinea pig! After a siesta we headed back out to the Plaza to check out the big cathedral (open 7am-11am and 17.00-19.30). Although it occupies one whole side of the square, its surprising small inside but it was worth a peek in. And then it was an early night in prep for the early rise the next day to start our tour of Canon del Colca.

So Canon del Colca. It’s still within the Ariquipa district but around a 3 hour drive from Ariquipa city and much higher so its worth if you have time, to take the tour over 2 or more days so you can acclimatize to the altitude. We went on a 2 day 1 night tour, starting off at 7.30am from our hostel. Our tour guide was called Nancy and we were a small group of 12 so didn´t feel so touristy and impersonal. So it was a 3 hour drive to Chivay which was our overnight stop but the drive was separated out with stops at nice view points and to see the Vicona´s (long-necked lamas), Lama´s and Alpacas…all extremely cute looking, especially the babies. At most of the stops there were ladies dressed up in the colourful traditional costume selling all sorts of souvenirs (clothing made from alpaca wool, bright patterned fabrics, figurines) but they looked so so fantastic.  They wear highly embroided skirts and waistcoats, with silk blouses underneath and  colourful shawls over the top. And all topped off with a great hat. Peruvian ladies know how to wear their hats…i´m quite jealous! There is a story about these hats too. There are 2 different types. 1- flat-topped and wide and highly embroided, and the second a white taller hat with sequins on it. They represent the 2 different ethnic groups from the Inca times 500 years ago and the hats back in the day were a way of discretely saying which group the lady belonged too after the Spanish had invaded and conquered the Incas and band most of their traditions. History or not, both hats are stunning. After lunch and a siesta (getting used to these afternoon naps now!) we got picked up from our hostel in Chivay and headed to the near by natural hot springs. It cost 15 soles to get in but it was well worth it. The pools are in the open air with mountains as their backdrop. The one we were in was 38 degrees with natural minerals in it and so so relaxing. It is recommended you only stay in the pools for a maximum of 40 minutes because of the effect of the minerals, heat and altitude. And its was true that when we came out we felt content but completely wiped out! So it was back to the hostel for a shower and an early dinner.

The next day we had our wake up call of a bang on the door at 5am, for breakfast at 5.30 and back on the mini bus for 6am….one word, ouch! The reason for the crazy early start was to get to the Cruz del Condor viewpoint within Colca Canyon for around 9am when it was more likely to see Condors. On the way to the Canyon we passed through Colca Valley and stopped off at various valley towns on the way. This included Yanque where at 6.30am there were Peruvian dancers in traditional costume in the square dancing round and round to remarkably loud music which left us quite stunned and we took sanctuary in the church. The Peruvian´s love gold leaf in their churches, and the backdrop of the alters are floor to ceiling gold leaf in most of the churches I´ve been in…very elaborate. Then it was onto Achoma, and then onto Maca which is apparently sliding gradually into the river due to tectonic plate activity underneath it…bad times. All through the drive we got a great view of the Inca terraces- the tiered agricultural system following the contours of the mountains. They made them by removing the soil, then putting a layer of rock, then small stones, then sand, then soil with irrigation channels weaving throughout the tiers. It’s a really impressive sight to see. The Inca´s were the engineers of their time and they carved terrace prototypes in stone before starting on the mountain for real. These prototypes are still dotted around the valley today and if you pour water in the pool at the top then the water will run down the carved prototype as it does on the actual terraces which are still being farmed today. Very clever and very cool! So we got to the Canyon at around 9.30am and went on a bit of a trek to the viewing platforms instead of driving so we could get a better look at the Canyon. Colca Canyon is the deepest canyon in the world…even deeper than the Gran Canyon in the states. But instead of a U shape at the bottom like the Gran Canyon its in the shape of a V. Around 60 condors live in the canyon but we only saw 4 during our 60 minutes at Cruz del Condor. We didn´t see many because it is the start of the rainy season and condors don´t fly, they glide using the thermal currents. In the rainy season the thermal currents aren´t so prevalent as it’s not so hot, therefore not as many condors. But we got to see 4 so not so bad. And then it was onto Chivay again for lunch before making the 3 hour drive back to Ariquipa city. The roads are incredibly windy but I still managed to sleep even if Hedd and I bashed heads a couple of times from the bends!

Although we´d already been up 12 hours by the time we got back to Ariqupa that Monday, our day wasn´t over! That night we caught the overnight bus to Cusco. This time going with a recommended bus company called Cruz del Sur! And it was a much more pleasant journey, with yet another Jennifer Anniston rom com movie for entertainment, this one called ´Rumour´. The bus journey took 10 hours and we arrived into Cusco at 7.30am and after a 4 sole taxi, we got to our hostel in time to catch free breakfast. Our hostel is called Ecopackers and is just 2 blocks from the main square- Plaza de Armas. Amazing location. The hostel is the biggest we´ve stayed in and has 18 person dorms! Must be a nightmare trying to get to sleep in those! They also have a Christmas tree with fairy lights up in the foyer which has  made me very happy over our 3 days here! Cusco is a great city, has lots of pretty squares with restaurants with balconies overlooking them. Lots of places to just sit and chill and watch the world go by. Our 3 days here in Cusco have really been to get acclimatised for our Inca trek and buy any last-minute bits for it. For me this was socks! Gotta look after your feet when walking, first rule of D of E! But yesterday we did go on a free walking tour of Cusco which runs each day from Ecopackers at 11.30am. Its well worth the 3 hours, and the guide (sense of humour comes free also!) takes you to the old town, the tourist centre and the bohemian part of the city. As well as into the Chocolate Museum (where we got a free chocolate tea- looks like tea, tastes like hot chocolate), stopping for a free frapichino at Cusco Coffee Bar and ending at a really cool bar called Fallen Angel. Everywhere you go you get a 10% off voucher so you can go back on the cheap later on. It was during the tour I had my first peculiar altitude sickness moment where I almost fainted but don´t worry after a bit of water and a sit down I was fine. The guide also showed us the hotel where Mick Jagger and his family had stayed 4 weeks ago to see the city and go up Machu Pichu. Apparently he bought all the Machu Pichu tickets for the morning he went up so him and his family could be the only ones in the national park for sun rise! Must have been amazing but he´s a bit of a sod because that meant that the everyone who was on the Inca Trek couldn´t get in for sun rise there wasn´t any permits left! I would have been so annoyed! Thankfully Mick Jagger and anyone else famous have now left Cusco so fingers crossed our permits will still be valid for our sun rise ascent into Machu Pichu on M0nday!

So we´re off on our trek tomorrow morning, being picked up between 5 and 5.30am so another ridiculously early start but it will be well worth it. I am so excited! We´ve got a pre-briefing with our lead porter this evening where we get to meet the rest of our group. There are 9 of us, all english speaking either from UK, US or Australia, so i´m sure there will be some good banter over the 4 days. I´ll let you know how we get on…Machu Pichu here I come!

(Sorry guys…major issues with uploading some pics to accompany the post. Will give you a bumper picture edition when I´m back off the Inca Trek!)

Ariquipa in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot but really cold at night
  • Food= Alpaca steaks (looks like lamb but tastes like bacon!)
  • Drink= Inca Kola (the locals fizzy drink of choice- it is bright yellow, tastes like bubble gum and you fear what it does to your insides…we only had 1 bottle!)
  • Number of Bride and Groom´s seen in 1 day= 5! (The churches acted like a conveyor belt with one wedding party entering the church as one is just leaving! The latest ceremony we saw was at 8.30pm! Great fun looking at all the dresses…didn´t care for them much though- either too shiny or too many pleats!)
  • Top tip= Don´t eat in buffet restaurants on the Colco Canyon tour…they leave the food out too long and travellers get poorly. Instead head for a local restaurant which sells meals of the day (soup, drink, meat with rice) for around 5 soles. Best to go with someone who speaks spanish though as there is no menu and the restaurant owners don´t speak any engligh (thanks Ana from Belgium…our translator for the day!)

Cusco in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Hot (really strong sun…where a hat!) but short sharp showers/ thunderstorms in the afternoon or evenings
  • Food= Afternoon cake at the lovely Chocolate Museum.
  • Drink= Pisco Sour (pisco alcohol, sours and egg whites)- yum!
  • Seen so many I´ve lost count= Vintage VW Beetles in all the different colours of a smarties packet!
  • Well worth the 3 hours= Free walking tour of Cusco ( every place you visit you get a 10% off voucher which you can use at a later time, including the chocolate museum)
  • Big smile moment= Receiving a phone call from Mum and Dad for the first time and hearing I got awarded a distinction for my Masters- woop!

Hedd´s words of wisdom:

I´ve really enjoyed Peru to date, especially after the desert that was Northern Chile. However, I am starting to grow very wary of all the touts that constantly harass you around the main squares to enter their establishments. To date, the most common words I´ve hear since being in Cusco are:

“Massage, no, maybe later?”

“Information, Machu Picchu”

“Restaurant, Tourist Menu”

So come to Peru, enjoy Arequipa, enjoy Cusco but be prepared for the hassle. I try to tell myself that they are only trying to make a living, and that´s fine, but it doesn´t make it any less annoying!!