Saturday, 28 November 2009

From the Peruvian Andes to the Brazilian beach

The view of Cuzco
We arrived in Cuzco and headed for The Point, a recommended party hostel in the centre of town. Once settled in our dorm room (a first for the trip), I made myself at home by spreading our belongings over the other bunk beds, took a long hot shower and much to our fellow northerner’s amusement blow-dried my hair (another first for South America!)

With the Inca Trail set for the following morning – with a 5am start – we headed to the hostel’s bar, complete with alcoholic staff and other travellers in permanent states of drunkenness. Joined by Leanne - our Mancunian room-mate - two dizzy Aussie girls and a moody German we threw ourselves into the swing of things (some more than others...) Whilst I sensibly called it a night at around midnight (bearing in mind our 4.30am wake-up) I left Tom to his own devices. What emerged the following morning wasn’t pretty. It seemed Tom had embarked upon an all night drinking session, aided and abetted by the Manc and finally crawled into bed at 4am. The start to our 4-day Inca hike wasn’t a good one.

The Inca Trail lived up to all expectations. Tom, having already completed the alternative Lares trek, knew what to expect. I on the other hand, once again, had no idea. Four long days of walking with each night spent in a tent at altitude, following the Inca’s pilgrimage to Machu Picchu was a strenuous but rewarding adventure. We were part of a group of 15 with 21 very impressive indigenous porters and two guides – “Mucho Macho” Marco and “Mister” Edwin (Marco’s side-kick and continual butt of his crude jokes). Both were full of interesting facts and stories from Inca times and provided the group with a constant source of entertainment – mostly unintentional and often followed by Marco’s catchphrase “Oh my Christmas”. Finally arriving at the sacred site of Machu Picchu felt like a real “once in a life-time” opportunity. The site itself is pretty big, surrounded by lush Andean mountains and has been incredibly well restored. Of course the only annoyances as the morning progressed were the hordes of tourists which began to emerge from arriving train carriages (somehow it seemed unjust to be able to catch a train direct to the site following our 4 day mammoth walk).


A well earned beer


Following Machu Picchu we re-grouped for a final celebratory lunch in a village below the site before heading back to Cuzco. We joined another couple (Irish Jason and Australian Eleanor) and chose their hostel for the next few nights – a much quieter choice than The Point. We stayed in Cuzco for three more days - I explored the city and went horse-riding with what must have literally been an eight-year-old, Quechuan-speaking “guide”, whilst Tom tried to focus on his website. After deliberating we decided to take a hit on the bank balance and booked flights from Cuzco to Recife (a city on the north-east coast of Brazil and later according to a native Brazilian one of the country’s most dangerous cities) instead of travelling for days on end through Bolivia. Thank god we did. Following our rather unexpected encounter with Peruvian customs aka airport police who instructed us to empty our entire belongings so that an officer could sniff his way through our dirty laundry and Tom’s athlete’s foot powder(!) We’ve just spent our first day on the Brazilian beach with its warm turquoise water and delicious food & drink we can already see why the Portuguese didn’t bother exploring more of the South American continent!

Friday, 27 November 2009

Frog smoothies and giant canyons

We arrived late at night into Arequipa, one of Peru’s largest cities, and drove from hostel to hostel until we finally found one that was open and would answer the door (and fortunately had space).
The next day we did two things; book a three day trekking trip to Colca (the world’s deepest canyon) and visit the local market. The market proved to be a colourful experience. In addition to the usual varieties of potato, fruits and corn (yellow, red and black in colour) one half had been made into a gruesome meat market. The floor was covered in blood that made walking around quite slippy and everywhere we looked there were different body parts of different animals dumped on tables, attached to hooks and hanging on strings. Parts ranged from organs like hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs etc to the slightly more disturbing severed llama heads, cow heads (completely skinned apart from their black noses) and llama foetuses (some in a womb others ‘free-range’). The highlight came as we were leaving the market (Elizabeth practically running out) when we saw a stall with a tank of black and green frogs alive and innocently hopping around in a fishtank. A guy walked up to the stall and paid the woman some money, she then picked up a couple of frogs and, dangling them by their legs, threw them into a nearby blender and (as we watched in horror) pressed the “on” button! After some horrific blending and just when we thought things couldn’t get any more disgusting the resulting black puree was poured into a glass and the guy downed it in one!

The next day we woke up at 2:30am to get our bus at 3:00am to the canyon. We drove for a few hours through the mountains at altitude, the air temperature freezing outside, before arriving at the first stop an hour or so after sunrise in the hope of spotting some Condors (the world’s largest bird). The air temperature had warmed up (the sun was now blazing down) and we saw a few Condors soar past, up and down the canyon which was an impressive sight (they look massive and pretty mean, a bit like a giant vulture).

The condor (world's largest bird) at Colca (world's deepest canyon)

After a few more hours driving we stopped at a nearby town and met Alex, our guide as well as Karen and Gerald, a couple travelling around South America from Australia, the five of us being our group for the next few days. We set off on the long trek down into the base of the canyon and walked for about 4-5 hours in what was almost unbearable heat. Stopping every time we had a bit of shade and with our legs shaking from the descent we were happy to reach our first night’s stop, a quirky, small hostel made almost entirely from bamboo and wood and perched on the edge of a steep descent down to a blue-green river of rapids. After soaking in some natural hot springs we ate, had a few beers and chatted to Karen and Gerald. Before going to our ‘room’ (basically a bamboo hut with just a stone bed in the middle of it) I walked a short way from the lights (candles) of the hostel to look at the sky. It looked absolutely amazing, pitch black and filled with stars with the Milky Way a bright purple smudge halfway across the sky.

We woke at sunrise due to the bright light, a nearby cockerel and a tiny lamb that had been making a lot of noise outside Karen and Gerald’s hut all night long. After breakfast we had a tough walk in the baking heat climbing for a few hours then descending. Our hardwork was rewarded however when we arrived at the oasis at the bottom of the canyon which had been turned into a mini resort for the hikers with a couple of turquoise swimming pools and hostels. It was an oasis in the true sense of the word as the canyon and places we had trekked were like the desert, barren and rocky with the main vegetation being cactuses. The oasis was green with tropical trees and plants and there were nearby waterfalls.

We spent the rest of the day by the pool sunbathing and swimming. It was the perfect way to relax after all the hard walking. In the evening we joined forces with a couple of German girls and cooked a barbeque of llama meat as the sun set (llama meat tastes surprisingly nice although I had to tell Elizabeth it was lamb!).

We slept that night in another bamboo/mudhut ‘room’. Not long after we went to bed I heard rustling so grabbing my torch (there was obviously no light switch and it was pitch black outside) I looked and saw an opened Oreo packet on the floor with a long tail sticking out of it. My eyes couldn’t focus properly and I thought it might be a lizard. I wandered over to investigate but whatever it was kept on rustling (eating) inside the packet. As I approached the packet a big mouse popped out and just stared at me. I got closer to scare it and started clapping and making noise but it just looked at me and continued eating. Only when I pretended to kick it did it run straight between my legs and under our stone bed (prompting a sleepless night for Elizabeth). 

The final day we got up at 4:45am to walk from the bottom up to the top of the canyon in the morning. It took a few hours and we were all exhausted by the time we made it. We wandered back to the town we started at, had some breakfast and got on the bus. After a stop to swim in some more natural springs on the way back we eventually arrived back in Arequipa, exhausted and aching. Whilst everyone else sensibly headed back to their hostels to sleep Elizabeth and I headed to the bus station to get a 12 hour overnight bus to Cuzco (not something you want to do after three tiring days of trekking) but we had our Inca trail trek to make meaning we had to get to Cuzco the next day!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Time to chill!

Mancora was just what we needed – great beach, glorious sunshine, palm trees, tropical juices by the jug-load, cocktails etc. We stayed at a really nice beach bungalow, part of a surfer’s camp just off the seafront.

This inspired us both on our first morning to have ‘refresher’ surfing lessons in the aggressive waves conveniently located next to a very large cluster of rocks.

It was early morning, we were raring to go, it was just us and our surfboards taking on the mighty Pacific... and we got beaten...

Although I was managing to ride quite a few waves I fell off my board early on and slammed my right butt-cheek into a very hard rock (I’m still nursing a large purple/green bruise a week later). I then nearly decapitated Elizabeth with my board as I rode completely out-of-control, down a wave towards her. Then after just 30 minutes of surfing I was on the verge of throwing up with the amount of sea water I had already swallowed. I called it a day after an hour, happy with the waves I’d managed to catch.

Elizabeth however, persevered beyond the hour. This was a bad idea. She emerged (seaweed entangled) on the beach coughing and spluttering and claiming she had a “dislocated, chipped shoulder, with a torn tendon” (dubious self-diagnosis) and a cut, bleeding knee (accurate self-diagnosis). She had also eaten “some dodgy fish the night before” and wasn’t feeling too great (we had eaten exactly the same dish and I was feeling fine).

After the excitement of our first morning’s surfing we just passed out on the beach for the next few days doing nothing but lying in the sun, eating at the local restaurants by the sea and watching the sun set and the amazing surfers every evening. It was just the break we needed.

After a few days we decided to head down the coast for what was a painful 24 hour bus journey through the night and then most of the following day to Nazca. The Nazca lines are one of the main attractions in Peru and are very large, perfectly engraved images of animals and other things in the desert floor. They were created hundreds of years ago for some unknown purpose but possibly to act as messages of some sort to the Gods of the day (you can’t make the images out stood next to them but rather only from above). The best way to view them therefore is by plane so we took a taxi to the airport the next day, hopped into a Cessna with Fernando (our guide/pilot) and took off over the desert. It was cool seeing the lines from the air and I was also amazed to see how the Peruvians fly and interact with air traffic control - doing things that would probably have them banned from flying if they did it in the UK!

Everything was going fine and I was enjoying myself in the front seat when I turned around (smelling something suspiciously unpleasant in the air) to see Elizabeth throwing up into a sick bag. We’d been doing steep turns to get a better view and the higher g’s didn’t go down to well with her stomach unfortunately! There was a French girl with us as well who had gone a shade of green and was crouched over a sickbag for most of the journey.

Despite the vomiting incident I think we both really enjoyed it, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was a cool experience. Later in the day we bought bus tickets for Arequipa (a lovely, large Peruvian town) where we are now. The eight hour journey down the coast had some stunning scenery. To our left was the desert consisting of perfectly-formed, smooth sand dunes that had spilled onto the road (rendering a main arterial road in Peru to that of a dirt track, just half a lane in width) and to the right was the Pacific which was bright blue with huge, crashing waves. It was like having the ocean next to the Sahara and looked incredible.

Next update will follow in a few days...!



Heading south and leaving Ecuador

As Elizabeth said in the previous post, Cotopaxi was absolutely amazing. Trekking up impossibly steep slopes of untouched snow and ice in our crampons, surrounded by beautiful ice formations both in the moonlight and then the rising sun was a truly surreal and emotional experience.

The views were incredible on the way up and as we stood on the summit I really did feel like we were on top of the world. I have never seen anything like it in my life – from the top you can see all of Ecuador from the jungle to the Andes, the plains, valleys and the other ice-capped giant volcanoes We were so high above the clouds I felt like we were in Heaven with the world below us - scanning the horizon you can actually see the spherical curvature of the Earth! Elizabeth was crying her eyes out and (dare I admit it) I felt like doing the same! It was without doubt one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life and something I really will never forget.

Anyway, after all the effort and emotion we took a bus to Quito where the bus terminal (and most of the roads) were in complete chaos as a four day holiday weekend was just kicking off in Ecuador. After much queuing at the bus terminal and then several hours of deliberating over whether to turn the trip on its head and venture north into Colombia (this idea coming from Elizabeth following one conversation she had about the country with some traveller bum, and also coincidently at the same time half the Colombian football team had been kidnapped and beheaded by a guerrilla gang near the Venezuelan border), we eventually came to the conclusion that Colombia ought to be saved for another trip...

So instead we headed south where en route we made what initially seemed to be an annoying five hour stop in a town called Ambato. Actually it turned out to be a great place to stop – described by the guide book as ‘an authentic Ecuadorian town with no tourists’ we saw one of the country’s largest markets which was really interesting to walk around and found a great pizzeria where we went for lunch. We then stopped in Latacunga where we took a bus and a collectivo (like a small pickup truck) to Laguna Quilotoa, a beautiful emerald green lake that was once a volcano crater.

The following day we headed to Cuenca, a colonial city in the south of Ecuador. We spent a day chilling in the sunshine by the river and walking along the picturesque streets and plazas. Having been in some pretty poverty-stricken towns and countryside the last week it was amazing to see such a refined, European-like city which had an almost pretentious air about it in the same country – quite incredible.

Having had an awesome time in Ecuador we then travelled the next day towards the Peruvian border (apparently the most dangerous in South America), crossed over without any issues and travelled down the hot and picturesque Peruvian coast to Mancora, a popular party beach town and our next stop! By this stage we were both looking forward to lying on a beach in the sun and doing nothing for a few days!