Sunday, April 26, 2009

Peru, adrenaline & giardia...

G'day bloggers... Jon here. Afraid it's my turn again. The blog seemed like a great idea, and still does i guess, but when it's your turn to tap away with two fingers on a computer that is likely to crash at any second whilst everyone else chills out and drinks nice coffee... it becomes a bit of a chore. OK... moan over... let's begin.

I am following on from Claire and Bolivia. As already mentioned, we chickened out of chancing our arms with the road blocks and opted for the flight to Cuzco. Despite an early start this went very smoothly. The hostel in Cuzco proved to be a winner - newly done up room with mezzanine level. Posh! In honour of this we spent the majority of the day wrapped in very comfy rugs watching classic movies (including Jaws... yeah!). Following day we wandered around the sights and watched a variety of processions. Really really nice place with llama products to purchase at every turn. Next day we headed into the Sacred Valley, on a day trip to Pisac. Yet another (huge) market, which was initially met with frowns by myself and Andy as the ladies bought scarves, rings, and necklaces, but we quickly got into it and spent most of our time haggling for ¨art¨- much good cop/bad cop later - and one large canvass each was obtained. The evening was spent at a briefing for the Inca Trail and lots of packing.

So, the Inca Trail.... Day 1

We met up with our group at the early hour of 0550 and set off for the start, a 2 hour drive away. All were massively reassured of what was to come as a monster breakfast was served, which was touted to be a ¨quick snack¨. Our group was a good mix: father and son Swedes; 2 American girls; a Kiwi; and a couple of young Brits - all led by 2 fantastic guides, Paull and Amilka. The days walking was a fairly steady 5 hours through pretty villages and ruins, with a heart rate raising climb at the end (which Andy and I thought would be good to stride out... sweat inducing to say the least). Greeted by applause from the porters (we thought we were really special 'cos we went so fast, then realised the next day that they always do that) and tents already set up. Amazing! Within 5 minutes there were ladies selling beers, and within 15 there was fresh hot popcorn and snacks served in our mess tent. Heaven! The evening meal was a breath taking 3 course meal (with at least 4 different mains to choose from), made even more ridiculous given the fact that they carried everything, including the oven!!

This was the general gist of the whole trip: 19 porters woke before us; carried all our food and tents really fast; prepared awesome food; and never failed to smile the whole time. Incredible.

Day 2

My night was slightly marred by coming down with, at that point only suspected (later confirmed by my personal gastroenterologist - Dr Nick Bosanko - many thanks), Giardia. Messy. But hey ho... As helpfully pointed out by the elder Swede, ¨s**t happens on the Inca Trail¨. Woken by the porters offering bowls of hot water to wash with, this was actually heaven according to Gill. The icing on the cake, literally, came when we gathered around to present the birthday boy of the group (younger Swede) with a freshly made and iced cake! In the middle of nowhere!! Then we set off for a hard days walking - up Dead Woman´s Pass. 2 and a half hours up hill. The rain started early in the day and did not let up until day 4. I think it was half way up that Gill announced that this was no longer heaven and that she was never camping again. Bless her, she carried me emotionally the entire day and luckily the porters were able to carry my bag. Andy and Claire were the racing snakes of the group and pushed the pace the entire day up at the front of the pack. We should have been greeted by breathtaking views at the top of the pass, but with the cloud and rain obscuring the view and my burning desire to push on to the next toilet we plodded on. Pity. All apart from from me lunched on gorgeous morsels whilst i was given a special Incan drink to help with my bowel issues. Walked on for another few hours stopping at a few ruins on route. Still raining. Got into camp, and again the tents were all there ready and popcorn followed shortly thereafter. Awesome food and lots of card games due to the rain outside, followed by bed.

Day 3

Commenced with hot water. Always a good start. But still raining. Gill reconfirmed that she was never camping again. My previous days special tea must have done something as things were looking up for me. Nice. Made nicer by an easier day of walking to follow, albeit in the rain, mainly downhill with ruins on route. Culminated by a visit to Winawayna - really cool ruins next to the campsite. The promised Day 3 hot shower was tragically only tepid, but it did the job. More great food and lots of cards (Addendum - being day 3, most had picked up the card game we learnt on day 1... but not Claire... I have never seen such card incompetence! Sorry Claire...) in a mini night club serving beer. Surreal but really good fun. Prior to bed we had a goodbye to the porters ceremony with the handing over of very very well deserved tips.

Day 4

(In case you were wondering I am finally on fully solid food at this point...)

This was it, what we had all been waiting for... the day of Machu Pichu. Early start - 0400 - no hot water and it was still raining. You can probably guess Gill's sentiments regarding our situation. Moral soon lifted with fresh pancakes and coffee however, and we set off. The first goal was the Sun Gate - the main viewing point of Machu Pichu - where all gather to watch the first of the sun's rays to hit one of the wanders of the world. Complete white out. And still raining! Moral dropped. Really dropped. Much positive self talk and hopeful words from our guides and we again pushed on. It worked... the sun came out halfway down the track to Machu Pichu. There she was in full glory. Spectacular. We had a fascinating tour around the ruins, a bit of free time to wander, then on a bus to Aguas Calientas. We said an emotional goodbye to our leaders over lunch, then headed off by train and bus back to Cuzco. Straight to bed after eating in a secret destination.

Slept very well...

A relaxing few days in Cuzco was cut short by talk of more road blocks, so we booked a night bus to Arequipa for the same evening. Very pleasant Easter Sunday in Cuzco with good coffee and cake and processions around the square.

Arrived in Arequipa (nearly didn't as the locals had a mini riot about the standard of the bus) the following day and checked in to a hostel with penguins in the title and pictures of them everywhere. Really nice place though, made all the better by the fact that we could check in early and catch up on a few hours shut eye. Later strolled around the lovely sights of Arequipa, went to a museum with an Incan mummy in it and booked up our tour for the following day.

Following day we commenced a 2 day tour to the Colca Canyon. We were greeted by our mildly manic guide Irene and set off on the drive to the canyon, stopping a lot (maybe too much) on route. A huge buffet lunch was followed by a lovely walk to some pre-incan burial caves up a hill. Then the highlight of the day - hot springs at dusk with waitresses serving beer. Heaven was re-discovered. Dinner was followed by much local dancing. Andy's natural panpipe rhythm and associated pelvic thrusts were the highlight for me.

Another early start, and we drove out to the condor viewing point, via churches and more dancing (bit early if you ask me). We saw approx 6 condors swoop overhead. Really really stunning. Then set off back to Arequipa, with a few more stops on route. Spent the evening with a take out pizza watching Notting Hill. Nostalgia.

A well deserved lie in, followed by a stroll up to the look out point. Not much to look out upon (may have been in the wrong place). Then an incredible luncheon of the specialty of the house prawns. And lots of them. Washed down with pisco sours. Very pleasant. Then went to the Santa Catalina Convent - huge place, almost a mini town. Interesting. Then spent nearly 2 hours in the LAN office bringing our flight to BA forward... we got there in the end. Then on to another overnight bus to Nazca.

Think the bus was driven by a drunk or someone with little experience. Cornered at serious speed. Still alive to tell the tale we headed for the Nazca Lines airport to board a 6 seater to view the breath taking Nazca Lines. 45 minutes of stiff banking turns and lots of G force was slightly hair raising but brilliant (Claire's stomach took a turn for the worse, but the plane was so loud we didn't hear a thing!). Then onwards again, on a very hot bus and taxi to Ica and Huacachina - a small oasis town surrounded by sand dunes. A crazy day full of adrenaline was followed by a long siesta by the hostel pool and a relaxing evening.

Someone came up with the idea of climbing the huge sand dune overlooking the hostel prior to breakie. Half way we all thought we had bitten off slightly too much, but we all got there, and were rewarded by fanatastic views. Then a chilled morning prior to more crazy adrenaline packed activity.... Sand-boarding and sand-buggying. BRILLIANT! The buggying half was essentially us being hurled around massive dunes by a half crazed driver in a ridiclulously powerfully motored vehicle. REALLY BRILLIANT! Then the boarding bit was us laying down on a bit of MDF and flying down dunes the size of ski slopes. REALLY REALLY BRILLIANT!! One commando roll by Andy, a grazed elbow for me, much screaching and breaking by Gill and swearing like you have never heard by Claire and it was over. We came back down to earth helped by many pisco sours and beers back at the hostel.

Another lazy morning was spent beside the pool prior to heading to Lima on a measily 5 hour bus ride. Highlight of the bus was ¨bus bingo¨. Claire was robbed... having clearly ticked off all her numbers and correctly pushing her light on whilst exclaiming ¨BINGO¨, a local scallywag jumped up and also proclaimed victory. The stupid bingo hostess then said they should draw lots.... they are not the rules! Needless to say poor Claire lost, and waved goodbye to her prize. Gutted. Arrived in Lima. Quick stroll around the Miaflores district and then to bed.

Morning spent in Lima seeing the sights: plazas; churches; changing of the guard. Then back to Miaflores. Lima has a lot of smog. Bit of shopping with bargains a plenty, then evening wine, nibbles and dinner.

A hurried packing session in the morning was followed by a taxi ride to the airport for our plane to Buenos Aries...

That is where i finally finish. Again, very verbose. Apologies. I also apologise for frequent mention of my bowels, but for me it is my lasting memory of days 1 to 3 of the Inca Trail! Love to all. Not long to go now...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hi folks...with ten weeks and four countries under our belts we have come full circle, and its Claire here with the next chunk of activity! We have just spent an awesome, action-packed three weeks in Bolivia. Unfortunately internet connections were rather more miss than hit which has left me with a rather mammoth task...I promise to try and be brief (not something I am famous for!).

From Humahuaca we caught our last argie bus for a while and crossed the border into Bolivia at a fairly rough place called Villazon. After the colonial elegance of Salta it was quite a culture shock...dusty, smelly and very noisy as hundreds of Bolivians in traditional dress, carrying huge bundles on their backs herded north! After a long queue and some unintelligible spanish our passports were stamped and we were legal.With an hour to kill before our bus out we found ourselves in a local eatery ready for lunch...the plate of the day (infact the only dish on the menu) turned out to be fried chicken with pasta, rice and potatoes. Bit of a taster of what was to come really...the Bolivians just love their carbs!! Our afternoon bus was a 4WD job...just as well given the road was a very rough, muddy track but fortunately for us dry. The journey to Tupiza took us through vast areas of rough agricultural land with people living alongside the track in muddy shacks with very few facilities.

Tupiza was a quiet little town...we checked into a lovely hostel and spent 24 hours watching CNN in bed and eating lentils (as you do!). Our main reason for coming was to join a tour of Bolivias salt flats...and two days later after some not very convincing haggling we found ourselves on the most expensive tour available. "Will the guide speak english?"...we asked nervously. "Of course" replied the sales lady..."but I would not say he is fluent!".

The next morning saw us packed up and eagerly awaiting departure. It was not an auspicious start...our cook and driver arrived over an hour late and when the key was finally turned in the ignition our jeep gave a few rather pathetic bleats and died. Barnaby...our ever cheerful driver...lept from his seat, lifted the bonnet and blew on the ignition cable with almost immediate success...and we were off. "I Barnaby" he informed us once underway and with a big smile managed..."one, two, three, four, five!"...not fluent proved to be a fairly generous description of his skills. Combined with our appalling spanish it made for a very entertaining few days with lots of gesticulating, smilling and nervous laughter on each side! That said Barnaby and Martha (our cook) were absolutely delightful and went to huge lengths to ensure our comfort and share their country.

Day one seemed to be fraught with mechanical issues...the ignition problem recurred each time the car was stationary and we also managed to pick up a strange knocking sound and sustain a flat tyre. At regular intervals Barnaby would slam on the brakes, leap out of the car, don an overrall and crawl under the jeep. Not to be outdone on the man stakes.. Jonny would leap out after him, wave his hands in the air and shout "auto kaput" whilst nodding knowingly! Clearly the Subaru is not quite a forgotten memory! The boys both had a crash course in car maintenance..the pinnacle being fixing the ignition with the lid of a beer can we found on the floor. All of that said, it was a lovely drive through the hills with awesome scenery and lots of wildlife (llamas, vicunas and chinchillas). Accommodation for the first night was a bare stone hut with no electricty or did however come with its very own dead condor! The bird, which looked to have recently passed on, was massive - wing span approaching 2 metres and ever so slightly wiffy!!

A theme for the tour were freezing cold nights (most sub zero) and enforced 4.30 am departures. At times it felt like boot camp but once snuggled in the warm jeep watching sun come up we realised Barnaby had a point! The first night we lay in bed listening to the rain and after climbing nearly 1000m the next morning it became clear that at altitude this had been a fresh snow fall. In fact we crossed the highest pass in a blizzard...stopping every so often so that Martha could jump out, grab the shovel and clear our way (dressed as she was in the traditional plaits, skirt and open toe sandals!). Even the llamas were covered in snow and watched enviously as we sailed past!

The next couple of days were spent driving through snowy mountains, visiting beautiful lakes, watching huge flocks of flamingoes and listening to Barnabys truly terrible music! We also managed to swim in some thermal pools and visit some puddles of bubbling mud. The beauty and diversity of the scenery is very difficult to describe..needless to say we will bore you all with the photos when we get home!

Day four saw another pre dawn departure...this time for the gem of the tour...the world famous slat flats. They were simply incredible...12,000 square km of salt crust, at points up to 12m thick, left behind by a huge inland sea that dried up. Vast and eerily beautiful at sunrise! We spent the morning taking lots of silly photos of each other using the perspective bending nature of the vast flat horizon...heaps of fun. The salar was definitely one of the highlights so far...we all escaped serious altitude issues and had an unforgettable trip!

Our next stop was a mining town called Potosi...a very poor community built around the Cerro Rocco mountain which has been steadily stripped of all silver and minerals over the last 450 years. The mines are open for tourist tours and to be honest it was a fairly harrowing experience. The work is totally unmechanised...using turn of the century techniques with men dragging huge carts of rubble in and out on rough tracks. The shafts are about 5 foot in height and the mountain has been so extensively and haphazardly worked that collapses and deaths are commonplace. Boys as young as 10 work in the mine and most develop severe respiratory disease within 20-30 years and retire in their 40s as invalids. The men drink 96% proof alcohol and smoke almost continuously underground...not sure health and safety has reached Potosi. The highlight of the tour for the boys was being allowed to buy their own stick of dynamite and blow it up!!

From Potosi we headed to Sucre... a much more affluent city, and historically the countrys capital.We did a lot of recouping after our week on the road but managed to squeeze in some churches and museums. We also had some great meals out including a giant fondue!! The market in Sucre was fascinating...particularly the butchery section where you could buy almost any part of any animal imaginable! The last tourist attraction we visited was a dinosaur theme park...built in a local quarry where excavations revealed rows and rows of fossilised dinosaur footprints. All very jurassic park...and made all the more entertaining by our very over enthusiastic spanish guide who announced "You can call me JC..but I am not Jesus Christ!".

An overnight bus then took us on to La Paz. A sprawling and dirty metropolis, frenetic with activity. Feeling a little homesick(?) we opted for an all english day on arrival...heading to the english pub to watch the England footie match, eat pie and chips and drink beer..before stumbling on for an authentic english curry on the way home!! We managed to stop short of singing "Vindaloo" all the way home...

For the first time during our travels, we decided to split forces in La Paz. Andy and I had met an english lad who recommended a mountain climb to us and we were both keen to give it a go. I think it was the "200m near vertical ice wall at the summit" that put Gilly off!! Turns out it was a very sensible decision.

Our trip was a 3 day effort with the aim to summit a local peak called Huayna Potosi. We set off fairly optimistically, rucksacks laden with climbing gear and chocolate. Our first day was great fun...we met our guide Eulogio at a mountain hut at 4700m and spent the afternoon ice climbing on a nearby glacier. Kitted out with crampons, ice picks and huge lengths of rope he taught us to scale a 30m ice wall, and then abseil down it...awesome! The refuge facilities were extremely basic...essentially sleeping in a large empty barn with sub zero temperatures at night. Fortunately the new sleeping bags were toasty! Day 2 began slightly ominously with Andy complaining of a bad headache...commonly due to the altitude. That said we both enjoyed a beautiful walk up to our second refuge...a tiny hut perched on the edge of a precipitous drop at the edge of the snow field. Shortly after arriving Andy became very nauseous and was sick. Never one to give up on a physical challenge he declined to walk down the mountain and spent the afternoon sipping coca tea in preparation for our summit attempt. We were woken at half past midnight to don our climbing gear and have a speedy breakfast before departure. We set off at 1am and to be honest it was incredibly beautiful. A huge peak of pristine snow with more stars overhead than I have ever seen, and the lights of La Paz twinkling in the valley. It was a fairly tough climb given the altitude and the cold but an incredible experience. Unfortunately the altitude got the better of Andy at 5900m..just 180m short of the summit. Extremely faint and nauseous the only option was to turn back for a long climb down to our sleeping bags. Returning down at dawn afforded us beautiful views across the neighbouring peaks...We have crossed Everest off our "to do in life list" but both loved the challenge (right Andy?).

Hello, quick insert from Jonny and Gilly here. We were not nearly as adventurous as the Shorters and had a far more civilised few days.....

Day 1 alone was spent walking aimlessly around La Paz. On reaching the local park a clown with an audience of thousands (well, maybe hundreds) proceeded to make "Jonny the gringo" the butt of a lot of spanish jokes much to the amusement of the crowd and our bemusement. I am sure he was only being nice. Hmm... We also breezed past the infamous San Pedro Jail much to Jonnys delight. Day 2 was our cultural excursion to the ancient pre-Incan ruins of Tiwanaku- very interesting but I wont bore you with the details. Day 3 we stepped up the altitiude to a pathetic 5300m climb on a guided hike up Austria peak. Fantastic views and a great walk marred slightly by the altitude induced nausea and fatigue! At least we summited....ha ha ha. Back to Claire now.

Reunited as a team we celebrated with tickets for the Bolivia-Argentina football match. I dont know a lot about footie but essentially there were men in green, men in blue, yellow cards, red cards, corners, penalties and goals...lots of them. In fact Bolivia, the touted underdogs, thrashed the argies 6-1...the argies worst defeat in 60years! The atmosphere in the stadium was just incredible with the bolivians going crazy. Diego Maradona (the argie coach) stood on the sidelines with his head in his hands...maybe some recompense for the "hand of god"?? We are all affirmed converts although andy tells me not all games are that good!

Next stop was Copacabana, a very pretty town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It was a stunning spot and perfect for some "r and r". Unfortunately Jonny wasnt well and spent 36 hours in bed! The rest of us had a great day visiting Isla del Sol. After the slowest boat journey in history we enjoyed a beautiful walk across the island...only to arrive at the ferry jetty to find El Presidente had dropped in for lunch! There was a full-on political broadcast in full swing on the beach and we sat and listened to Evo Morales for about half an hour. Fascinating experience as all the locals had turned out in full traditional dress, and after the speeches a full beach party/ BBQ kicked off. Keen to catch a photo we were almost mown down by the president and his entourage, on their way back to their boat...with lots of totty in tow as Gilly noted!

So...after three weeks in Bolivia it was time to move on. We celebrated our last night in La Paz by ordering the largest pizza any of us had ever seen! Measuring 70cm across it was delivered on a roofrack!! Yummy but not sure I will ever eat another pizza to be honest!

Over the last two weeks we have heard tales of transport strikes in Peru with roads blocaded against tourist buses. We decided to play safe and book a flight to Cusco in order to make our inca trail connection on time. After that fingers crossed for our journeys across Peru! Anyway...have failed miserably at keeping it brief so had better dash. Love to all friends and family in the UK and make sure you check out the new photos!