Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hook, line and Inca (Peru Part II)

Back in Peru, I decided to find a tour that went to Manu National Park whilst killing time before doing the Inca Trail. I had some bolivianos (the Bolivian currency) left over, so first things first, I went to get my money changed at one of the many "cambio" booths in Cuzco. But as I went to pay for my lunch with one of my nice crisp 50 sole notes (about $16 AUD) the lady informed me that they couldn't accept it because it was a photocopy. A really bad photocopy; I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed earlier, it was so obvious once she pointed it out. It wasn't even the same size as a normal note. In short, a really bad forgery. Not one to take this lying down, I stormed back to the man at the cambio booth and informed him that I had received a photocopied note from him and I wanted a real 50 sole replacement. Of course he denied everything, but I knew it had come from him because the only other money I had was from an ATM. So I threatened to go to the police and to my surprise he offered to come with me. We found a policeman on the street, but he only spoke Spanish, so the he called the "Tourist police" who rocked up in a shiny car and told us to hop in. I don't normally get in cars with strangers, but they were wearing uniforms and the car was clearly an official one. After much toing and froing, the cambio guy offered me 40 soles. I laughed in his face, as to me this was clearly an admission of guilt and told him firmly that I wanted my full 50 soles. Eventually he caved and I got my money... my REAL money. Cambio guy 0 persistent gringo (me) 1! I love when the good guys win. And I still have the fake note as a souvenir.

So I booked a three day tour of the Peruvian jungle, as that was all the time I had, but of course it wasn't long enough. When the bus picked me up early the next morning, I realised I was in a tour group with six much older people. I had obviously booked with Granny Tours. But they were really friendly, if a little opposed to anything too strenuous. The bus trip to our lodge in the middle of the jungle was interesting, as the roads were awash with rain and the driver and guide had to get out on numerous occasions and dig us out of a bog with a pickaxe. It was like driving with Sam (:P). We then transferred to a boat where we were delivered to our jungle lodge complete with mosquito nets, cold showers and lazy hammocks. It was a cool little place and we all fell asleep to the sounds of frogs and crickets chirping through the mesh windows.

The next day we got up at 5am to go "bird watching". This apparently excited the geriatrics on our trip, as they eagerly wielded their binoculars and wide lens cameras. I, however, will not be taking up bird watching as a hobby any time soon. We sat across the bank of the river watching a part of dirt cliff where apparently the birds all hang out early in the morning. But we were out of luck this morning, as the birds obviously enjoyed sleeping in as much as me. We were so far away you could only see birds through their special bird watching telescope anyway. It failed to excite my interest. So after an interesting breakfast of hamburgers on the side of the river, we boated to our next destination where we went on a bit of a walk to see a huge old tree and I tried to get some good photos of butterflies and flowers, which there were plenty of.

We also went on a "gondola" ride in a river complete with wooden raft and saw some prehistoric birds and woolly monkeys as well as some other weird looking animals. We picked some bananas for dessert and got a crash course in jungle medicine before heading back to camp. The next day we already had to head back to Cuzco. I had one day to recover before starting the Inca Trail, which I had booked three months ago with a company called Llamapath. I had to attend an information session that night and got to meet the group I would be hiking with, a group of 11 of us. Five couples... and me. Ever had to be an 11th wheel? No, only kidding, it wasn't like that at all and everyone in my group turned out to be really lovely. In our group were Kerry and Bruce, a couple of lively Americans from Salt Lake City; Adam and Sarah who were honeymooning medical graduates from Manchester, England; Sindre and Jurenn from Norway; Grant and Anne from New York; and Anje and Camil, the youngest in our group and least experienced hiking-wise, from Poland.

So day one we left Cuzco while it was still dark (some of you must be wondering how I am coping with all these early mornings on the hikes... the answer is strong coffee!) for a bus to a restaurant for a buffet breakfast of pancakes, eggs, fruit and... strong coffee. Then we drove to the starting point for our hike and after stowing some of our heavier items with the amazing porter team, (affectionately nicknamed "The Red Army" due to their red uniforms and backpacks) we were off. The first day day of walking lulls us into a false sense of security, as the weather is nice and warm, the hills not too steep and the hummingbirds and butterflies guide our path. Lunch is provided by the porter team, who already have a tent set up for us to eat in and all the cutlery and crockery set out waiting for us. We also have warm bowls of water for washing hands and a cold glass of juice. The food is amazing and this is the standard of excellence we become accustomed to throughout the trek. Talk about luxurious hiking! We arrive to our first camping spot at about 4:30pm, where of course our tents are already all set up with foam mattress and all. We all have a celebratory beer as the night sky grows dark and the most stars I have ever seen emerge from the darkness, as well as Jupiter. That night I start to feel a bit ill, headache and a sick feeling in my stomach. I figure a good night's sleep is all I need and fall into bed.

The next morning I feel alright and I feel even better after drinking the coca tea that is delivered to my tent door early in the morning by a porter. I feel a little tired, but ready to take on the most difficult second day, where we climb from 3300m altitude to 4200m, then down again. We walk uphill through beautiful jungle, interrupted only by a herd of alpacas coming through. Suddenly the uphill becomes much steeper, until the last killer flight of uneven granite steps, which make your thighs and calves ache just to look at them. We arrive to the peak, appropriately named "Dead woman's pass" (not because that's how you feel when you get there, of course, but because there is a rock shaped like a woman's nipple at the top) to a standing ovation from our Red Army. Adam passes around a bottle of rum for a celebratory swig and it warms the cockles of the heart, as it is pretty cold and foggy at 4200 metres. We all get our "Japanese moment" photos (as our guide calls these Kodak moments) and then begin our descent... a very steep descent. I'm feeling alright until about halfway down when I start to feel a little nauseous. We stop for lunch and when I lay down and it is a struggle to get back up again. I eat some lunch, then immediately throw it up again. I sit and drink some tea and then I vomit again (sorry about the ew factor, but I just want to illustrate that I felt more than a little sick at this stage). When it comes time to hike again, I am certainly not feeling up to it. I have no food in my belly, no energy and I am spewing up everything.

At this stage, the collective kindness of my group almost brings me to tears. Sarah walks with me even though I am lagging way behind the group, Adam lends me his walking stick and Anne even takes my backpack for me, as she doesn't have one. I can't remember ever feeling so ill in my whole trip and top of it all I am being forced to hike uphill when all I want to do is curl up in bed - it seems like an impossible task. I feel as weak as a 100 year old lady so that each step looks like a mountain and I am stopping every 5-10 minutes to take a breather. I try to eat an apple only to throw it up 5 minutes later. I don't think things could get much worse until it starts to drizzle down. Finally, I'm nearly at the top of the second pass, so I muster my last atom of energy, even though I feel like a ten tonne deadweight powered by a little AAA battery that is almost dead. But somehow I make it and our guide finally decides I need an antibiotic and it helps me to continue the rest of the way, which thankfully is downhill. My legs are like jelly and I walk mindlessly. The rest of the group visit an Inca site which is at the top of an extremely steep flight of stairs, but I decide to give it a miss and continue to the campsite alone. Thank God for the porters, they have the camp set up and as soon as I tell them "Estoy infirma", they provide me with some warm water and I crawl into my sleeping bag and get some much needed rest. I wake a few times to loud thunderstorms and torrential rain, but mostly I sleep right through dinner and everything. I wake up at 2am feeling ravenously hungry, so I eat a mandarin, stumble around the dark campsite for a few minutes trying to find the toilet then almost get into someone else's tent. But I didn't throw up the mandarin, so I figured I was feeling better. Then I went back to bed and slept right through to the morning.

The next day was an easy day, our guides, Raul and Edwin assured us. I was feeling better, still not much of an appetite but I could hold food down, so that was good. I don't remember much about the third day, I guess we were all pretty tired, but after 5 hours we made it to the next campsite. The boys played a game of high altitude soccer and I took a hot shower for 5 soles - I don't mind saying, it was the best 5 soles I ever spent. Even our guide commented that I looked like a new woman. We also went to see a huge Inca site called Winay Huayna (Forever Young) which was a great warm up for the main attraction the next day. That night we farewelled the porters and tipped them generously, as they did such an amazing job of looking after us and smiling the whole time.

The final morning we got up at the ungodly hour of 3:30am, but I drank my chamomile tea and made a concerted effort not to talk to anyone, especially Raul who was being overly chirpy. The sun came up as we walked through the checkpoint and this time our group was one of about ten others walking in a steady line. We walked at a cracking pace, eager to get there, but the serenity of the journey was sort of wrecked for me by the amount of people. One more flight of almost vertical steps and we made it to the "Sun Gate" to see our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, the lost Inca city. The weather was perfect and clear with just a wispy mist hovering at the tops of the green covered craggy mountains. The granite stone ruins stretched out beneath the sheer mountain which rose up out of the ground like a tombstone. All the hikers took their dorky victory photos and we got the group shots you see in all the tourist brochures. They allow 500 people on the Inca trail per day, and an additional 1500 to the Machu Picchu site itself. So you could imagine, there were a lot of people there and it was really weird after being isolated in the mountains for so long. Raul gives us a 2 hour tour of the ruins, but it is so hot and everyone is fading.

So we are left to our own devices for a while and we watch some llamas stealing an apple straight from a lady's mouth and then we have a "National Geographic" moment as Bruce calls it as we watch a tiny bee carrying a huge tarantula up a vertical cliff face. I wander around for a while until the heat wears me out and then catch a bus down to the little town of Aguas Callientes to meet the others for lunch. Afterwards we hop on the train for a slooooow two hour ride through the middle of the mountains back to Ollantaytambo, where we started. From there we hop on a Llamapath bus back to Cuzco.

That night I had an amazing sleep, before flying to Santiago, my final destination. There isn't much to be said about Santiago; it's a nice enough city, but there isn't a whole lot to do and I find myself just chilling out and relaxing with the guys in my hostel, counting down until my flight home.

So, there you have it, my final blog entry. Thanks for reading and keeping up with my adventures. I had a blast, but it's good to be home and to be able to tell you all my stories in person.

Tam biet, sayonara, selamat tinggal, hou doe, au revoir, ciao, elveda, aufwiedersehen, adios, farewell!
(see how many languages you can recognise...)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Livin' la vida loca in Bolivia

My first stop in Bolivia was at a little town called Copacabana, a laid back place perched on the edge of Lake Titicaca, the highest elevated lake in the world. I made friends with two German guys and we found some accommodation then settled in for a delicious lunch of rainbow trout, fresh from the lake. The next day we did a tour of Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), supposedly the birthplace of the Incas. But I have to say, the Inca ruins were disappointing and the fact that we had to pay each village a fee just to hike through their towns was not cool. But we hiked from the north end of the island to the south regardless. On the ferry back to land, we also stopped at a "floating island" which was basically a floating wooden barge covered in straw with some huts and nets for catching trout.

That night I caught an overnight bus to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia and a city at the lofty altitude of 3000m. The place was surrounded by mountains and all the terracotta roofed houses were perched on the edge of steep hills. That night I initiated myself at the hostel with a little game of "shot pool" followed by "very tipsy Jenga". My loud claims that I was a champion Jenga player and had won tournaments all over the world were quickly quieted when I felled the tower. I blame the shot pool.

The next day I did a tour of a jail. It wasn't something that was advertised in the Lonely Planet or something I had really planned on doing, but a couple of Aussie girls from the hostel were going and they convinced me to come along. I am really glad I did, because it's not every day you see the inside of a jail, especially one in South America and it was a truly eye opening experience.

So here's what happens; tours through the jail are obviously highly illegal, but there are certain people within the jail who like to seize the opportunity to earn a bit of cash. So we loiter outside the jail and within one minute a lady approaches us and asks "You're here to see San Pedro?" We affirm that we are and she asks us to follow her into the jail. It's a weekend so there are visitors queued up outside the door and many prisoners staring through the bars of the gate. We get ushered into a little back room where we hand over some cash and get our cameras taken. Then the lady fetches our tour guide, one of the prisoners who speaks English and we go to another room where we have to sign in. Our guide is Mauricio, a Bolivian guy who seems to be in his 30s and is in for armed robbery. He has two months left of his 19 month sentence and this is his second time in San Pedro. He introduces us to our "body guard" who is going to protect us as we walk through the jail. He shows us the different cells where the prisoners sleep, and we notice there is a hierarchy of which prisoners get the better beds. Apparently the government doesn't put any money into the prison, so prisoners have to make their own income through various means, and how much money they make determines what kind of cell they can afford. I am surprised to see little kids and many women hanging out in the prison; apparently they value family very highly in Bolivia, and the families of the prisoners are allowed to live in there with them. They can come and go as they please and this is often how they are able to make their income, by getting their wives to bring in goods to sell from the outside. Mauricio turns out to be a very informative guide, and I am glad for the body guard, as the prisoners are giving the three of us girls a little unwanted attention. I am also grateful for the body guard when we go into the kitchen where the meals are prepared and Mauricio tells us that the guys who get delegated to the kitchen duties are the lowest scum in the prison, murderers and rapists. I look at the young guys cleaning out the giant pots and shudder a little at the thought. Mauricio tells us prisoners have been killed in the kitchen before by other prisoners. I am pretty glad to get out of the kitchen.

The tour ends in the prison "bar" where we are offered anything from coke (the liquid kind) to the other kind of coke. We politely decline the offer and pay our tips to the guide and body guard before being escorted back into the real world. We get our cameras back and the ladies are looking a little nervous and frantic about us being seen exiting the prison, as there must have been some police around or something. So we are discretely ushered out and all the way back to the hostel we are just thinking "Did we really just do that?" It was certainly a surreal experience.

Another surreal experience in Bolivia were the Salt plains, the largest salt lake in the world situated in the south of the country. I booked a three day tour and hopped in a Jeep with Edgar, our driver, who also ended up being our cook and tour guide. We had a group of six of us as we hurtled across the seemingly endless plains in the Jeep. It was so hot and dry, I felt like the sunscreen was burning right off my skin. We got to see a fuzzy cactus plantation, take some odd perspective photos and see a hotel made completely from salt. That night we stayed at very basic accommodation on the edge of the salt flats with no running water, but we did have a table tennis table to keep us entertained and the beds were pretty comfy.

The next day we got to see some beautiful lagoons, some weird rock formations that looked like they came from a Salvador Dali painting and some vibrantly pink flamingoes. Photos really speak louder than words to describe the landscape, so you should check them out on my Facebook. We stayed in some even more basic accommodation the next night and it was rather cold, but we warmed ourselves up with a nice bottle of red that Edgar surprised us with. The next day was a looooong day of driving in the Jeep back to Uyuni, only to hop straight back on an overnight bus to La Paz. Needless to say, I was exhausted. I spent some time in La Paz shopping and recovering before heading to Cuzco, back to Peru where I was booked in for the Inca Trail. And what an experience that turned out to be!

Til next time,

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Peru Part I

My South American adventure started in Lima, the capital city of Peru. I have to admit, I hardly saw a thing of Lima; I was so tired out after my whirlwind trip of Mexico, I just wanted to lie down and watch movies. So that's what I did for one night. The next day I caught a bus to Huacachina, which is a surreal little oasis town near the southwest coast. The place is literally a big lagoon in the middle of a desert of sand dunes surrounded by backpackers and restaurants. But the place was packed with gringoes (that's what Western tourists are called here) mainly because of one thing; sandboarding. So that afternoon I strapped myself into some snowboarding boots, grabbed a snowboard (which felt really weird in such hot climes) and hopped into the big dune buggy. The ride in the dune buggy was fun enough; our crazy Peruvian driver laughed maniacally as we squealed in delight going over the bumpy sand dunes. Every now and then we would stop at a nice looking dune and we would all take turns sliding down it, either on your feet or stomach. All my snowboarding practise in Japan didn't really help that much on the sand... it was a completely different ball game. The only way to get to the bottom without falling off (which I did many times) was to just go straight down. By the end, I had sand in places one should never have sand.

Afterwards we went for a sandy dinner of pizza, before showering and deciding to hop in on a wine tour with a couple of Norwegian girls, an English guy, an American, a Portugese girl and a couple of Belgians. But this was like no wine tour I've ever been on before. First the taxis took us to the middle of nowhere, which was apparently a winery. From the outside, it looked like someone's old rickety shed, with a nightclub next door. So the guy showed us a big cement pit where they make the wine the traditional way, by squelching the grapes with their feet. Then we went into the shed where there were heaps of stone vats full of wine. There were also lots of stuffed animals looking at us and a lot of dust. Unsure of how hygienic it was, we tasted a few wines and a Peruvian spirit called pisco. I swear I could still taste the dirty feet in some of the less mature wines. They certainly tasted different to any wine I had ever tasted before. So we selected a bottle of one for the group and after a few glasses, we were ready to hit the dancefloor at the "nightclub". I use the term nightclub quite loosely as it was basically a whole lot of young locals dancing to music in a carport type thing with some flashing lights. They all stared at us as we showed them how gringoes dance and after a while, everyone joined in together in a big multicultural dance fest.

Things were winding down at the winery, so we all hopped in a couple of cabs and went to another bar back in Huacachina, but no one seemed to be dancing, so of course we fixed that. There was a big group of young Peruvian girls just standing watching, so we pretty much made them join in and before long the dancefloor was pumping. Meanwhile, right on midnight, an older lady who had been keeping an eye on the girls ushered them all out the door. We asked her in Spanish how old the girls were and she said 14. Turns out she was their teacher; they were on school camp and they had a midnight curfew. Ha! I'm pretty sure that would never happen on a Flinders camp. I think they had a good night though. I know I did.

My next destination was Nazca, to see the ancient Nazca lines drawn in the sand in the middle of the desert. I wanted to get a flight over them, but then I heard that three British tourists had died in a plane crash just the week before, and for once I decided to err on the side of caution and just go to the lookout instead. I think I'm glad I saved my money because I spoke to an older lady later in my trip and she said it was the biggest waste of money. The flights are only half an hour and she said they all got sick because the plane wobbles around so much. So I got to see some of the lines and I lived to tell the tale so that's enough for me. For those who have no idea what I am talking about, the Nazca lines are huge pictures in the sand thought to be thousands of years old, drawn by the Nazca people, but it is a mystery why they drew them. There are symbols of a hummingbird, a monkey, a spider and many more, but they are so big you can only really see them from the air. This led many people to believe they were drawn for extraterrestrial beings, but the more likely reason is that they represent some sort of agricultural calendar or offering to the Gods or something.

After Nazca I caught a bus to Peru's second biggest city, Arequipa. This place was charming, very Spanish-looking with big cathedrals and cobblestone streets. I had another night out on the town with some people from the hostel, then did a three day hiking trip to the Colca Canyon, which depending on who you talk to is either the deepest or second deepest canyon in the world. Our guide thinks it's the deepest. We saw some big condors from a lookout then began the hot, dusty descent into the canyon. The best thing about a canyon hike is that you get the good view before you even start hiking. The downhill stint was pretty taxing on the old ankles and knees, but we rewarded ourselves by dipping them in the nice cool river at the bottom. Then we walked to a little village. One thing that hasn't ceased to amaze me in this trip is the strange desire of people to live in the most isolated places, despite the difficulties arising from such a choice. These villagers were so cut off from the world; most of them looked like their skin had spent just a little too much time being cooked by the sun, so even though they all looked about 90, for all I know they could have been 35. The only way they get supplies into the canyon is via mule, which meant water was expensive. Goodness knows what they do with their day, other than farming... actually, they did have a dusty old soccer pitch and I am told that the people get VERY excited when it's football season. I will have to take their word for it.

So we left our basic lodging at ridiculous o'clock then continued on to the next place we were staying, a lush little oasis in the dusty canyon with a few cool blue pools scattered around the place. We nearly lost two older German ladies in our group who insisted on leaving before us so they wouldn't hold us up, only they got lost so we ended up having to wait even longer for them. We all had a dip in the pool then lazed away the rest of the afternoon. Early night, as we had to get up at 4:30am again the next day to begin our arduous climb out of the canyon (it's alright, good training for the Inca Trail...) before the sun came up. I have to say, I was grateful for the early start, as the sun was HOT when it got going. Our group climbed the 1000m in two hours, which was a pretty good effort, and I am glad to say we beat the mules, which some people decided to ride to the top. May I point out that they do have the advantage of two extra legs... it only takes them about 1.5 hours, but they left an hour after us, so we still beat them :P

So we concluded our tour with breakfast of fried eggs at the village at the top and then we went to the hot springs to have a cold beer and soak our sore muscles. I slept pretty well that night, then caught a bus the next day to Puno, my last destination in Peru before crossing the border to Bolivia. But I would be back again for Peru Part II!