Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Where the kings watch

Touching down in Santiago a little after 2am, we had a few hours to wait around in the airport before our next flight – 5 hours out into the middle of the Pacific to Easter Island, or, to use it's local name, Rapa Nui.

We were slightly worried right up until we got into our seats on the plane – flights out are notoriously overbooked and we had heard stories of being bumped from a flight and having to wait until the next day for another. With only 3 days on the island, we were desperate to make the most of them. We checked in online in Lima as soon as we could, but even just one hour after check-in opened, we discovered only 6 or so seats left on the plane. I didn’t feel entirely happy until we were settled in, seatbelts on, and there was no way they could drag me off the flight!

And gosh was it worth it. Rapa Nui is one of the most beautiful places I have visited. Aside from the many proud Moai statues dotted around everywhere, which are far more spectacular in real life than I had ever imagined from the pictures I’d seen, the island itself is a rugged paradise. With waves crashing against black volcanic rock formations, gently rolling hills and a few extinct volcanoes, there’s plenty to do and see.

Arriving at 3pm, we didn’t have much time to do anything too heavy for the afternoon, so decided to walk the west coast of the island where a small concentration of sights are located. During just an 8km walk, we saw our first platform of seven Moai (the only to be looking out to sea intentionally, argued to be representations of the seven explorers who set forth and found Rapa Nui), a few caves created through lava tubes which you can crawl into (it’s pretty tight!) and emerge into large caverns, and some individual Moai right next to the island’s only town, Hanga Roa, where we stopped to watch the sun set, framing the Moai in gorgeous yellows, pinks and purples.

Although we spotted a few other people, it was low season on the island, and for the majority of our walk we were completely alone, enjoying the sense of peace the island provides in abundance. A perfect start to our short stay.

Monday, 30 August 2010

penguins, sea lions and lots of poo!

Our final excursion before arriving in Lima was to Ballestas Islands – dubbed rather unfairly ‘the poor-man’s Galapagos’ and located a way off the coast a few hours from the capital. A natural reserve for what seemed like thousands upon thousands of birds, plus a few colonies of penguins, large groups of sea lions and the occasional dolphin, the group of small islands provide a safe refuge which is untouched by humans for most of the year.

Tourists are not allowed to dock, and the only human interference comes for three or four months every seven years, when workers land and collect the bird poo which sits over a metre deep on the surface of the rocky landscape. The most expensive fertiliser in the world, it provides a good income for Peru, but my word does it stink! The smell, combined with the overwhelming stench of diesel from the boat engines, became a bit overpowering by the end of the trip.

We left on a small speedboat and stopped first at the ‘Candelabra’ – a large geoglyph on the side of a rocky hill near the dock. Similar in style to the Nazca lines, but probably unconnected, it sits proud on the bank. As we came nearer to the islands themselves, we began to see sea lions playing in the frothy water from our boat engine, and frantically grabbed our cameras, although there was no need for haste – as we edged towards rocks jutting out of the sea they lounged lazily, draped over each other and happily posing for our pictures. We also saw a couple of colonies of penguins waddling over the rocky heights, and as for the birds…they perched high on the rocks, looking down at us, thousands of them – pelicans, a range of different small sea birds, gulls – an incredible sight.

We stayed for around an hour before heading back to port, and took the bus to Lima for a one-night stopover. Although Peru's capital is filled with colonial buildings, lofty churches and modern neighbourhoods, it also has a melancholy air thanks to the heavy white cloud that blankets it during the winter months, and the intense pollution makes breathing tough, despite the fact that we had returned to sea level and no longer suffered any of the breathing difficulties associated with high altitude. Wandering around the city centre was nice though, and we had a glimpse of the famed culinary side to Lima during dinner in the coastal Mira Flores neighbourhood.

With such little time, F and I only managed one activity – a tour of the catacombs in the San Fransisco church. With an estimated 25000 skeletons contained within, we were looking forward to hearing it's history. Unfortunately, our tour was rather bizarre – the guide gave his well-rehearsed spiel at lightening speed, regardless of whether or not the whole group were close enough to hear, and when we got to the catacombs themselves, he wandered off completely, leaving us down there with no explanation either about the tombs or the reason for his disappearing act… we went around on our own, and emerged to find him and two Americans who had managed to follow him (who were very apologetic and explained that they had told him repeatedly that he’d lost half his group…). He didn’t seem particularly bothered that he’d lost us, and although rather funny it was a bit of a shame as the guides we’d hired throughout the trip had been so superb that to have such an awful one near the end was a little sad. At least we weren’t rushed through the catacombs – although please don't ask me anything about their origins...

After almost three weeks it was time to say goodbye to Peru, and to our tour group, as the tour finished and we made our way back to Chile for one final adventure...

Sandboards and dune buggies

I was a little apprehensive about the next planned activity after the lines – leaving Nazca we were heading to Huachachina, a town not far away, based around an oasis in the middle of the desert, where we had the opportunity to take a dune buggy and combine a rollercoaster ride up and down the dunes with a try at sandboarding – basically snowboarding but on sand. Reading about buggies flipping over and injuries during the boarding I was a little worried that I might not make it back in one piece, but it turned out to be one of the most fun days of the trip.

We climbed into our buggy and set off, zooming into the dunes and bouncing around inside, before arriving at the first of four dunes to try our hand on the boards. The quickest and safest way to get down is to lie down on the boards and launch yourself head first, which is quite scary when the dune looks vertical! However, it is fantastic fun – the boards go extremely fast, but the sand is soft and warm. We threw ourselves down straight dunes, dunes with bumps and turns and the finale – a dune that is as close to vertical as possible, and pretty high, allowing you to build up a lot of speed and finish basically eating sand. It was an amazing experience and one I’d definitely like to try again in the future. The ride in the dune buggy was also great – whizzing around the dunes at top speed, being thrown around inside and feeling the exhilaration of cresting the peak of a dune and knowing the buggy has to come straight down – huge fun!

After a quick swim to get (some…) of the sand off, we spent the afternoon at a local vineyard, where they produce the national drink of Peru – Pisco. We’d already had a number of pisco-based cocktails during the trip, but this time we had the opportunity to try different varieties straight up, which is, unlike the activity of the morning, something I’m not too keen to repeat – the spirit is strong and not particularly tasty on its own, and after 5 or 6 shots worth we all got on the next local bus feeling rather woozy and ready for some sleep…

Friday, 27 August 2010

Monkey, hummingbird and spaceman...

We hopped on our last (thank goodness!) overnight bus, and arrived in Nazca early in the morning, with a couple of hours to catch up on some well-needed sleep before taking our flight over the world-famous Nazca lines, a part of the trip that I had been really looking forward to. The planes are tiny, our only holding four people, and we were all excited about taking a trip in such a little aircraft. Well, we were until we actually got up into the air. The size of the plane combined with the winds in the area made the ride extremely turbulent, and the banking from side to side to get a closer look at each figure made our stomachs flip and I in particular felt quite sick as the plane swooped and turned over and over. Bleh. But that aside, the actual viewing of the lines was incredible – the simple beauty and startling clearness of the line figures was amazing, and spotting a new one from the plane led to excited shouts and frantic pointing. The lines were even more incredible in real life than I had thought, and I was very happy to spot the monkey (my personal favourite). We were all in awe at the abilities of the Nazca people to create such breathtaking images, and could easily see how they might have held such ritual significance at the time. We are very fortunate to be able to see them today, mostly complete and unaffected by time, in all their glory.

Back on solid ground, and feeling rather nauseous, we stocked up on souvenirs and had a few minutes to settle ourselves before heading out on our afternoon excursion to a local cemetery containing the mummies of a pre-Nazca culture. The cemetery is a unique experience, as the mummies can be viewed in situ, but unfortunately upon arrival we discovered just what this meant, as the bodies and their surrounding burial objects we left exposed to the elements for tourism. The tombs were open, with their contents sitting inside, and no protection over them at all. Our guide was very sensitive to this, explaining how when she started taking tour groups there, most of the mummies were still in an excellent state of preservation, with skin attached. As a result of exposure over the past 10 or so years, most mummies have lost this; their bones bleached white by the hot Peruvian sun. It was a political issue, with very little of the entrance fees going towards preservation of the site, and it was extremely sad to see objects scattered around the area, and other tourists picking up and fondling the artefacts (there was no security). As the cemetery is the most popular attraction in Nazca after the lines, it is such a shame that there is no warning that the money paid to get in is not being used to support the site, and we all left sad and disappointed in the lack of respect that the mummies had been shown. I really hope that the situation improves before all that is left is bleached bones and broken objects.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Colca canyon and condors

After leaving the beautiful city of Cusco, we travelled by plane to Arequipa, a good jumping off spot for the Colca valley and it’s canyon, the second deepest in the world (the actual deepest is just next door, and still part of the Colca valley). The spot is well known for its regular sightings of condors, a bird which is of central importance to both the ancient and modern Peruvian (and Andean in general) culture. We arrived at the valley in the late afternoon, and went for a nice walk to take a look at the Inca and pre-Inca terraces dotted around the area, before heading to some nearby thermal baths to have a soak – which were lovely until we had to get out and the cold winds that had picked up hit us!

We got up very early the next morning to drive a couple of hours to the actual canyon itself, where we waited for the condors to arrive. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really our morning – there are three main viewing stations, and whichever we moved to, the condors moved to the next one… we saw them pretty well from a distance, but always seemed to miss the swooping directly over heads that other people watching experienced! Finally, after close to an hour of moving from viewpoint to viewpoint, and just before we had to leave, we had some condors fly close enough to see them in detail. They are quite ugly – looking very similar to vultures, but their gliding through the air was hypnotising. The canyon itself was impressive – although it would have been nice to have seen the very deepest part – it was already rather dizzying where we were!

We drove back to Arequipa and had just enough time before our night bus to visit ‘Juanita’, the famous ice mummy found at the peak of a local volcano, in one of the city’s museums. The exhibition was respectful and very interesting, displaying the artefacts she was buried with as well as explaining the likely reasons and circumstances surrounding her sacrifice. With its well-presented displays and limited visiting numbers at any one time, it was definitely one of the best museums we've seen so far.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Machu Picchu: worth the pain!

The Inca trail is tough, there is no denying it. But our guide was spot on when he said that the first glimpse at Machu Picchu from above, tired and aching, makes you feel like you’ve really worked to see it. And it is worth every second. The city had always impressed me in pictures, but to be right there, watching buildings emerge from the mist, is breathtaking. The incredible architecture, the placement between mountains in every direction, and the craftsmanship involved in it's creation is absolutely superb. It truly is spectacular.

After the walk down from the sungate, we stopped to take the classic ‘postcard’ shots of the site, then showed our permits for a final time, had our passports stamped, and began our tour. Luckily, although there were people arriving every minute, the whole site stayed relatively empty until around 11am, and as we were there by 6.45am, we had plenty of time to explore. It’s a vast area, packed with things to see, from wide terraces to temples, and as we were walking around our guide spotted the chief archaeologist of the site, and stopping for a chat, explained that they were working on clearing the huge swathes of forest at the base of the site, which hide even more terraces and possibly further buildings. Yet again our guide was wonderful, explaining in detail the significance of certain areas, and after a couple of hours he left us so we could wander around on our own to admire it all, although I have to admit that by this point we were so tired and weary that there was a limited amount of extra walking we could manage!

Finally it was time to take the train back to Cusco, where we could relax, and have a massage. The icing on the cake (quite literally!) came on the way back, when our guide suddenly stopped in a small town where we were grabbing a bus for the last part of the journey, and pulled us into a café, emerging with large boxes of one of the most delicious pieces of banoffee pie I have ever had. A British woman runs this heavenly establishment, making the pie from scratch every day for hoards of admiring fans. Banoffee happens to be my absolutely favourite dessert, and temporarily helped me forget about my sore legs and feet.

So, now we leave the lovely city of Cusco, and catch a short flight to our next destination – the city of Arequipa, and the deepest canyon in the world.

Deep thoughts on human nature: aka the final stretch of the Inca Trail

Although the main body of the trek is over by the end of day three, there is one last peak (both literally and metaphorically) to reach on the morning of day four to finish the Inca Trail – the famous Sun Gate, situated high above Machu Picchu, where you can catch a first glimpse of the whole site. It’s 6km, mostly uphill, from the final control point, where your permit has to be checked and stamped before you can continue.

What is most bizarre about this final 6km of the trek is that it is something of a race for the 200-odd people who walk the trail each day. There is no logical reason why it should be so. The control station doesn’t open until 5.30am, so no-one can proceed until then, and it takes an average of an hour to reach the Sun Gate, by which time the sun has already risen at this time of the year, so no real reason to rush for that either. The only conceivable motivations for participating in this race, as far as we could make out, is that buses begin to arrive at Machu Picchu from the town below at 6.10, at which time the first tourists who haven’t completed the trek can go in. If you can reach the Sun Gate before then, the virgin site, devoid of any people, stretches out before you. But it’s risky – you basically have to run to complete the 6km in less than 40 minutes – there are lots of steep steps (including the 50 ‘gringo killer’ virtually vertical ones) and in the dark it’s easy to trip. And then of course, there is the element of competition – to be the very first that day.

If you are sensible, you can get up at a reasonable time, wander the 6km, arrive at the Sun Gate with a picturesque view of the site, and still make it down to Machu Picchu itself before most tourists arrive. Sounds nice, right?

At 3am our alarm went off. By 4am we were at the checkpoint, settling in for a wait of an hour and a half before the checkpoint opened. As soon as the guard had stamped our papers, we started running. Me. Running. We skidded and tripped over the flats and huffed up the uphills, whilst tree roots snaked across the path and loose stones caught the tips of my walking boots. By the time we arrived at the 50 steps, we had retained our the lead. By this time I was knackered. Couldn’t really breathe properly. Our guide, cheering us on, encouraged us to use any means necessary, so up the steps I went, scrambling on my hands and knees. Yep, hands and knees (bloody quick way to get up though!). All of a sudden, a guy came sprinting past, like a machine (we later learnt that he was a competition trekker and did this all the time). There was no catching him, but as he was clearly a robot, we discounted him. The final few hundred yards were the worst – I couldn’t breathe, the steps were looking steeper and I didn’t think I could keep up the pace. Our guide, and the guide of the next group behind, started cheering, no doubt recognising my delusional and desperate state, and with a bit of a push from F, I made it up there. We collapsed, sweaty but completely elated, just as the next group arrived, and soon the Gate was filling up.

We stopped for a quick photo before starting on the thirty minute descent down to the site. F checked his watch, and we realised that we’d arrived at 6.07, a mere three minutes before the first bus arrived (we could see it winding up the hill). We spread the message around so everyone up there by ten past could get the people-free shot, and finally made our way to the city itself.

And why did we get up at silly o’clock to race a load of strangers up a hill, nearly destroying our lungs in the process? Human competitiveness of course. But it wasn't really challenging others that drove me. It was myself that I was competing with. My pride and my determination. And ultimately that’s what gets you through the Inca Trail – and I for one am very pleased I have it, or I might just still be sitting there at the beginning of day two…

The Inca Trail or: how my legs and I had a falling out

Arriving back to Cusco after the jungle, it was time for some history – a day exploring the sacred valley of the Incas, and then straight into the Inca Trail for F and I. The sacred valley is packed full of relatively well-preserved Inca ruins, and we had time to visit two of the best, Pisac and Ollantaytambo, both displaying excellent examples of Incan architecture and city planning. Our guide brought the ruins to life with passionate talks, and the whole experience made us very excited for what we were going to see over the next few days.

At the end of the day we said goodbye to the rest of the group, and remained in the town of Ollantaytambo ready for an early start in the morning. Although we hadn’t deliberately planned it that way, we were the only two to have permits for the Inca Trail, so would have a private guide, cook and porters for ourselves (which seemed a little extravagant). We showed our permits at the first checkpoint, and set off for the four day trip.

The first day started well, and was a gentle introduction, with plenty of flat parts to break up the uphills. The views across the mountains were amazing, and after our first break, although we could see groups setting off one way, our guide took us another, explaining that the full Inca trail involved a route past a site, but that most groups avoided it as it was a steep half an hour on the first day. He insisted we went that way though, and we soon realised why – as we climbed up and over a hill we had an amazingly close view of Q’Entimarka, an agricultural area with vast terraces. Although the steep, scrambling route was shattering, the opportunity it presented was definitely worth it. From there the trail began to get tougher, with steep uphills exposed to the blazing sunshine, although our lunch stop in a small village (although the whole trail is now protected and no more houses can be built along it, there are still communities remaining) with lots of baby animals helped us to forgot our aching muscles. The evening was lovely – F was invited to play football with our guide and porters in the local community and we realised just how lucky we were with our team – the porters were relaxed and friendly, teasing us constantly and trying hard to communicate even with the language barrier.

The second day is hilariously described on the Inca trail map as ‘challenging’. Ha bloody ha. It is in fact one of the toughest hikes I’ve ever done. Over a thousand metres straight up, made up mostly of steep, deep steps (not ideal for little legs like mine…), without flat areas and exposed to the strong sun. Challenging is a bit of an understatement, and we saw a few fellow hikers go back, suffering from the effects of the altitude on an already exhausting day. The trekking was relentless, and the steps increasingly difficult to mount. The scenery was stunning, alternating between forested sections and panoramic views across the valley and mountains, but there were times when I didn’t think I was going to make it. For all those tackling day two, the pace was slow, and for the first time we could understand why some people have suggested that the one disadvantage of the trail is how crowded it is. For the most part I completely disagree with this – we found that groups spread out and we were alone for a lot of the trip, but for this one section, everyone is plodding along at a similar speed, so it does feel busier.

We finally made it to the 4200m peak of the pass – rather conveniently named ‘Dead Woman’s pass’, as this was exactly how I felt when I arrived, after 5 hours, and had a quick rest and some pictures before starting the second leg – almost the same number of metres but this time downhill, down steep steps and stony paths that were killer on the knees. After around an hour and a half just going down, we arrived at our campsite completely exhausted.

Day 3 was more accurately described on the map as ‘unforgettable’, and although it was the longest day (over 8 hours walking), it was certainly the most diverse in landscape, and the richest in Inca sites. We started with a steep ascent of around 450m to the second pass, stopping at the ruins of Runkuraky en route, a watchtower station with great views up towards the pass from yesterday, providing the Incas with a panoramic of the valley in case of visitors or attack. Coming over the pass, we hit Sayaamarka, a ritual site with an impressive stone wall cut to resemble (and dedicted to) the mountains, important objects of worship for the Incas. We continued on our way to the third and final major pass, a beautiful walk which led us down through an Inca tunnel and into a much lusher environment than we were used to, with a great diversity of plants surrounding us on each side.

After mounting the final pass we were faced with the most difficult part of the day – a steep 1000m downhill, mostly down steps. We had a short break at Phuyupatamarka, a very well-preserved arrow shaped site, but from then on it was down down down for almost two hours, knee jarring and extremely painful. We finally reached camp, everything aching once more and with sore feet, but happy to have most of the trek out of the way – it was definitely tougher than we expected, and the long steep ascents and descents at such a high altitude (average of 3000m, reaching up to over 4000), added to the strain on the lungs and legs. An unforgettable trek – but definitely one not to underestimate. We were extremely lucky – our porters, cook and guide were great sources of support and motivation, and after watching the incredible porters run up the mountains with upwards of 20kg on their backs, there was no way that we, with our little measly day packs, could ever have lived down not making it!

We relaxed in the bar, glad that the worst was behind us. Or, at least, we thought it was...

Monkeys, mozzies and grubs

After my slight disappointment with the trip to floating villages on Lake Titicaca, the time spent in the jungle was the complete opposite – it exceeded my expectations and then some! We began with a short flight over to the town of Puerto Maldonaldo bordering on the Amazon, and had time to adjust to dropping to just over 400m, and no longer wheezing after a short walk, before we hopped onto a small boat for a two hour boat ride down the river. The humidity hit almost immediately, and although it was warm (finally!), the heat wasn’t too overpowering and the breeze on the water made the journey very pleasant, watching the gold miners on their makeshift rafts and admiring the vivid vegetation.

We arrived at our eco-lodge, a huge area of jungle which has been rented out by the Peruvian government to the owner for tourism, with the agreement that he look after the land and wildlife within in return. It’s a great deal – the huts and main buildings are built with respect to the surrounding landscape, blending seamlessly, and the wildlife can roam freely with no division from the rest of the jungle. They maintain the area, including a small island near the centre which has developed as a wild sanctuary for monkeys abandoned as pets from across Peru.

Monkey island was our first stop after settling in, with the hope of seeing a few of the four types of monkey present. Almost as soon as we ventured into the trees the first made an appearance – a spider monkey with its long limbs and wide eyes. The monkeys live off of the local fruits and plants and are encouraged to learn to feed themselves, but with eager groups of visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the inhabitants, extra incentives are brought along in the form of bananas. Our guide began peeling, and within minutes our new friend was eyeing up his treat from an overhanging branch.

From there they came in hoards – white and black capuchins to add to the spider monkeys, howling in the trees and tentatively making their way down before realising that there was food on offer, after which time they were leaping around and showing off. One little monkey landed in front of me, and as I leaned down to take a picture, she jumped on my head and decided to take a rest there, leaning one arm on my head and wrapping her tail around my shoulder. It was sweet – she was warm and soft, and could only be coaxed off by F after a good five minutes.

The occasional feeding of the monkeys is, as ever, a controversial issue. I can sympathise with those who argue against it - the monkeys were a little too fearless in the face of complete strangers. On the other hand, the island relies on tourism to keep afloat, and the monkeys encouraged over time to forage for the bulk of their diet within the trees. It's all about balance, one which the centre seems committed to strike.

As we walked further, discussing the foliage, a tiny monkey appeared next to our guide on a branch – the final of the four, a tamarind. It was gorgeous – a little fluff ball eagerly looking for it's piece of banana. We were thrilled to have seen all four types, and returned to our huts excited about what the jungle might offer next.

After dinner, we went out caiman spotting on the river. Our guide used a low light to illuminate the banks, and we saw multiple baby caimans resting on the shores. Aside from the people using their flashes to try to capture pictures (unsuccessfully of course!), the trip was peaceful and calm.

The following morning was an early start (5.30am) for a 5km trek through the jungle behind the lodge. Our guide was fantastic, explaining the uses and properties of various plants, and spotting wildlife that I would never even have noticed – a whole range of brightly coloured birds, wild pigs, a tarantula and turtles.

We took a boat trip down a long swamp in a small canoe, then onto a lake with a viewing platform for watching the birds. The humidity was oppressive by the end, but our guide kept us alert and involved. We stopped by a tree littered at its base with nuts with a hard, hairy shell. Taking his machete, he lopped the top off, and explained how a certain type of beetle lays its eggs inside the nut, and when the egg hatches, the grub can eat its way out. Tapping the nut against a tree, the grub started to wriggle up a bit, forced by the violent movement, until we could see its fat white body. Our guide grabbed it, yanked it out, and held it up, gently squirming. ‘A great snack’ he explained. We thought he was joking – but apparently not, as he offered it out to F, who eagerly gave it a taste. It was my turn next, and I was given a broken nut, and had to first pull the grub out, then put it quickly in my mouth before I had time to think about what I was doing. It popped in my mouth as I chewed, and although the texture was awful, the taste wasn’t too bad – coconut with extra nuttiness. Not necessarily something I’d like to have again, but worth a try once!

After a quick break for lunch we were out again, this time to spot caimans in the daylight at another lake. We arrived in silence and were instructed to stay the same way, so we settled down on the platform and watched as the food was laid out and the caimans started to pay attention. Slowly and cautiously they approached, timidly at first, looking around, and only approaching the food one at a time, nudging the next forward if they weren’t being quick enough. Observing their behaviour was fascinating, as was seeing them chomp down the meat.

The jungle was a wonderful experience and one I hope I can repeat in the future, leaving me with many great memories (and a number of mozzie bites…)

Thursday, 12 August 2010

An ‘authentic experience’, aka the most touristy I have ever felt…

The last couple of days have had me quite torn about the way I feel about them. As part of the tour, one of the activities was a visit to the famous ‘floating islands’ on lake Titicaca, followed by a homestay with a local family on the island of Amantani, a community of agriculturalists who farm for 6 months of the year, then supplement their income during the dry season with visits and overnight stays from tourists.

The idea is sound – the families rotate who has visitors, and we are encouraged to bring gifts of useful items of food, bought from a market in Puno (the town we were based in before heading out onto the lake) as thank you’s for our family, and it was pleasing that we were discouraged to bring too many sweet products due to the poor dental hygiene, and focus on staples for the whole family.

We set off on day one, taking a boat for around an hour before reaching the floating islands. Their construction is genuinely fascinating – the community use naturally buoyant reed groups to lay multiple layers of reeds which have to be ‘topped up’ all the time as the bottom layers rot after being submerged in the water.

The feeling of walking over the bouncy, gently sinking reeds was strange, a little like a trampoline. The atmosphere was peaceful – the lake water gently lapping up against the islands, which move slightly with the wind (but thankfully anchored down so they don’t drift too far!). My concern with it all was the big show the community put on for us on our arrival. I’d have liked to have wandered around the islands, just seeing how things were built (everything was made of tightly bundled groups of reeds), but the influx of tourism has resulted in full shows from the islanders, pulling us into their houses and dressing us up, then leading us quickly towards their market stalls. Even an optional trip on a traditional boat turned into a show, with the children performing songs in several different languages. I can completely understand why they do it, and I don’t begrudge them making the extra money. I also see the demand for it and how it must have grown – some of the tourists on the islands were clearly very much into the performance, asking for more. For us though, it was a shame that we weren’t really able to see the islands at all, as the entertainment was constant and there was no getting away from it.

We got back on the boat, and a few hours later arrived at Amantani Island, where our host families were waiting. It was a steep and completely exhausting hike up to the community (not helped by the 4000m altitude), which had us all gasping for breath. The stay was advertised as a way to experience the genuine daily life of the community and the families within it, but again, the entertainment program was so heavy that we actually had minimal time in the house and with our hosts. It was a shame, as they seemed really lovely people and we would have liked more of a chance to speak to them (well, try to speak to them – our Spanish hasn’t improved that much!). Although I did appreciate the fact that our particular family got on with their lives around us, it made me feel a little less of a ‘tourist’, I would have liked to have spent more time around them, rather than the organised group activities on the island.

There were some great aspects though – the island, although lung-busting, was beautiful, terraces reaching up to the peaks and colourful traditional clothes contrasting with the yellows of the landscape that created bright bursts across the land. Lake Titicaca is stunning and huge, stretching out in all directions like a bright blue blanket. The food our hosts cooked for us was delicious, quinoa soups stuffed with numerous types of potatoes, soft cheese and fluffy pancakes. Watching our host mother juggle several pots at once over an interestingly shaped oven and create gorgeous tasting meals with few ingredients was a pleasure, and the home was cosy and warm.

Overall, I think the experience of the couple of days was a good one – the brief insight into the lives of some of the rural communities here was fascinating, and the atmosphere a peaceful break from cities and towns. However, I wish the companies organising these trips would recognise that many visitors are perfectly content just observing and learning about the lives the people live, rather than needing constant entertainment and put-on activities which left me feeling slightly uncomfortable.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Surviving the 'death road'

The morning finally arrived for the infamous mountain biking excursion trip down Yungas Road, and I have to admit that I was slightly nervous (read: very), having been on a bike a grand total of once in the past ten or so years. However, there was no way that I was going to let that stop me – I had managed to convince myself into it before we'd even left home, most of our group had already signed up, plus it is called the 'death road'; what greater motivation did I need?!

The track was given this ominous title as a result of the incredible number of deaths that have occurred upon it – either whilst cycling or in cars (when it was still open to traffic). The problem lies with the road's width (only a couple of metres in parts, and only 3 metres at its widest), the extremely sharp bends, and drops of over 600m at a time straight down. However, our cycle leader assured us that if we followed instructions, and kept vigilant, we’d be fine...

Our guide had recommended one company to us – they were pricier than many others, but their equipment and safety had a great track record, and as the day progressed we knew that we had made the right choice – we were kitted out with full face helmets, over trousers, protective gloves and dual suspension rocky mountain bikes, whereas other groups we passed only had minimal helmets, no other protection and rather dodgy looking bikes. On top of that, our guide was excellent – my back brake stopped working soon into the ride and he immediately fixed it with no problems for the rest of day.

Our route covered 64km, almost completely downhill. We started at 4840m, finally ending up at 1010m, and with the ride taking only 3 hours, this gives an indication as to how steep it was in parts and the speed our guide set. The first section was a tarmac road, to ease us in and build up some speed with confidence, although the traffic roaring by was a little intimidating, especially as I felt a bit wobbly to begin with. But soon we had all got the hang of the bikes and were eager to go faster – the speed was exhilarating and the bikes felt entirely safe.

Once we got onto the real ‘death road’ track, things were completely different – the road was dirt and stone; the drops increasingly sheer. With waterfalls hitting the path it was muddy and slippery at times, but nothing the bikes couldn’t cope with (another reason to go with a reputable company). The riding was exciting and thrilling – every sharp turn led us mere inches from the edge, and as our confidence continued to mount we got faster as a group.

But the real thrill was the scenery around us. As we set off at high altitude we were far above the lower lying clouds that ringed the tips of mountains just peeking out, tinted blue in the early morning sun. As we descended, the landscape changed dramatically, from barren high mountains to the lush green and humidity of the jungle environment that lay beneath. Waterfalls splashed over our heads into the drops beside us as we rode ever down, and the high cliff face to our right hung with mossy plants. By the time we were half way, the temperature had risen, we could feel moisture in the air for the first time in a couple of weeks (we hadn’t been below 3000m for a while) and all around us gorgeous butterflies fluttered. The only sobering thoughts came as we passed crosses clinging to sharp bends on the way down – although when we spoke about it over lunch, our guide explained that most accidents were the result of riders overtaking their guide, or becoming too cocky and not slowing sufficiently at corners; incredibly sad but unfortunately preventable.

We finally made it to the bottom, sore bums and shaky hands from all the jolting, sweaty and tired but thrilled to have made it down in one piece. The ride was an incredible experience, and one I would definitely recommend – the breathtaking scenery combined with the excitement of zooming down the narrow road (and the bonus of it being almost completely downhill – no heaving and trudging uphill!) made for a great day and a wonderful memory. And if I can do it, I’m sure anyone can...

Now we leave Bolivia – and just in time as it turns out, as apparently the borders are being closed tomorrow due to strikes (although this is still unconfirmed and with no internet access we can’t check it out, so by the time I post this it might all be okay again), so we are jumping on another bus and entering Peru – first stop Lake Titicaca…

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Marching bands and tear gas

After a night in the town of Uyuni, we were supposed to head across to Potosi, a town famous for its silver mines and architecture. However, upon arrival in Uyuni we heard the latest local news – a hill between Uyuni and Potosi had been found to contain a large deposit of minerals, and both towns were laying claim to it. The argument had turned into protests, and although there was a chance we would be able to get into Potosi, the likelihood of getting out again was slim. So we changed our plans, jumping on a bus to La Paz a couple of days early instead.

The journey was horrible – 14 hours crammed into a bus without suspension, so when we finally arrived in La Paz we were feeling rather irritable. The highest capital city in the world is pretty spectacular though, particularly on approach from above – many rows of houses line the high hills, culminating in the city itself situated in a bowl at the bottom. After settling into the hotel we went out for a wander, finding marching bands everywhere preparing for Bolivian independence day.

Unfortunately, a celebration about independence can sometimes stand hand in hand with political disputes. We had stopped for lunch after orienting ourselves when we heard an almighty bang and ran to the window – but what we at first thought were more band members was actually a little more serious – a group carrying an effigy of the Bolivian president and protesting in the streets had attacked a car, and the police had let off tear gas. Concerned about what would happen next, we waited a few minutes and then decided to leave the area – only we obviously hadn’t waited long enough as when we exited the restaurant our throats and noses were filled with the lingering gas, a burning sensation in our eyes and large bouts of sneezing.

We walked in the opposite direction, although that also proved to be a bad idea – a police car drove past and as it did so was chased by people throwing rocks at it which were bouncing off the car and the surrounding street walls and right by our heads. As rocks whizzed past our ears, we ran to the end of the street and decided it would probably be best to go back to the hotel before encountering more trouble. That incident aside, La Paz is an interesting city which I am very much looking forward to exploring over the next couple of days – there are many museums, local markets and winding alleys, and of course, mountain biking down the ‘death road’ (coming from the person who hasn’t been on a bike for years…)

Salt, salt and more salt...

Leaving the hotel in the morning, we finally came to the pinnacle of the trip – the salt flats. Although they exist in other areas of the world, this one is the largest, and with the salt reaching depths of 130 metres in the deepest parts, definitely spectacular. The salt is used for a number of purposes, and as we stopped at an area where salt bricks are cut out of the plain for building houses, our guide explained how the different layers are formed.

After this it was off to a clear white spot where we spent some time taking the classic photos without perspective – the white stretches so far in every direction that is no horizon (even the mountains edging the flats show mirages). It was a bit tricky to get the pictures right with all the glare from the sun, but I managed to use my little llama prop to some effect! The pictures certainly look impressive at the end but take a long time (and some frustration…) to set up.

We stopped at ‘fish island’ for lunch (oddly named as it holds no resemblance whatsoever to a fish), and climbed to the peak of the island to experience the amazing panorama across the flats, passing hundreds of cacti on the way up – some over 800 years old and metres tall.

After lunch we drove across the flats until we came to some holes which went metres deep, filled with milky water as the underlying pressure from trapped liquid had become too great in some areas and had broken through the surface. Within the holes were beautiful regular salt crystals, large and slowly formed.
We then headed to a small town which processes salt for selling – either as salt grain, (untreated) or table salt, and saw the triangular mounds drying out in the warm sun.

Our final stop was at the ‘train cemetery’, an area alongside the track just outside of Uyuni, our stop for the night, where out of use trains are stored and later stripped of materials, leaving an eerie line of old steam trains echoing and abandoned. Although trains aren’t really my thing, it was still interesting to walk among the rusty shells.

Across the Atacama

Our trip across the Atacama towards the salt flats would take three days. We started early on day one, stopping off at immigration to stamp out of Chile and then into Bolivia, before quickly ascending in 4x4s towards some of the beautiful wonders of the driest desert in the world. Our first stop was a green lagoon – literally green, due to the high proportion of arsenic in the water. It really was dazzling – a vibrant yet milky hue stretching out in front of us.

We continued climbing, stopping briefly for lunch before hitting possibly the most amazing sight of the day – boiling mud in volcanic craters. The liquid mud spat at us from their deep pools, colours ranging from a rusty red to a light grey as we walked between them. Our guide pointed out little craters that were beginning to erupt – the mud under the surface pushing upwards and creating movement on the top, just waiting for a chance to create a new hole.

Driving just a few minutes more, we ascended to the highest point of the day – 5060 metres, really feeling the shortness of breath as a result of the incredibly thin air. Our driver passed back a bag of cocoa leaves – the traditional remedy in South America for dealing with altitude. They help to absorb more oxygen through the act of chewing them, although it is tricky if you are not accustomed to it as the leaves are extremely bitter (and become more so the longer they are chewed) and break up into little bits in the mouth, and the trick is to keep them in a ball and not swallow any bits (which we found near impossible!), only the juice. Whilst our driver kept popping more and more into his mouth, creating a chewed wad in his cheek, we could only handle it for around 5 minutes before asking him to pull over so we could spit them out. A couple of our group stated an improvement in how they were feeling afterwards though, so I won’t count them out for the future if necessary.

Our final sight for the day was a red lagoon – this time coloured by chalky pink sediment dropping down from the surrounding volcanoes. Apparently during the summer the lagoon acts as a feeding and birthing ground for flamingos, although on our cold winter’s day we didn’t spot any – the sensible birds had flown elsewhere for some warmth.

We ended this part of the drive at our accommodation for the night - a building smack in the middle of the desert, with nothing around and minimal amenities, with a promise that the temperature would drop to its lowest yet on the trip…with the wind chill adding itself to the situation, we dressed ourselves up in all our clothes (3 layers minimum!) and prepared for a chilly night.

The following morning, after untangling ourselves from the mountain of blankets each had accumulated over the night, we set off for another day of driving. Our first stop was the rock formation immortalised by Salvador Dali – the ‘Tree stone’. Viewed from the right angle, the weathered rock was beautiful, with jutting 'branches' and soft colours. I had a go at being a ‘stone tree-hugger’, although without actually touching the fragile monument. Unfortunately, not everyone decided to play by the rules – soon after we arrived another group came along and one man actually picked up the sign and tossed it aside as it was ruining his picture, whilst another proceeded to start pushing the stone for a photo. Our driver explained that much damage (and not of the natural erosion kind) had already been done by visitors, drastically reducing the lifespan of this majestic and famous sight.

Moving on, we drove past another few lagoons, sharing our lunch spot with flamingos who had also stopped for a meal. Their vivid pinks contrasted wonderfully with the surrounding rock and icy lagoon, and we sat listening to their jabbering and watching them fly above us. I hadn't seen these graceful birds since our trip to Africa last year, and would have been content to stay all afternoon, but we had to set off again, and soon left the Atacama behind and began our drive across the first part of the salt plains (although not yet recognisable as such with a light layer of sand on top).

A couple of hours later and we had arrived at our hotel for the night – made entirely out of salt! As usual, it was lacking any kind of heat and I sat covered up with hat, gloves and numerous layers, but it definitely had the novelty value.