Brazilliant

15 – 22 February 2012

For a country as large as the United States, we had allowed ourselves very little time to explore Brazil. This was partly intentional, as we had been warned to expect high prices all across the country, particularly as our visit coincided with carnival celebrations. So, we opted to explore only three places: Foz do Iguassu, Paraty and Rio de Janeiro.

We started off in Foz do Iguassu, after a quick hop across the Argentinian border. The Brazilian side offers the opportunity to view the falls from a distance and take in their sheer size and beauty.  From the viewing platform we could just about catch a glimpse of the Argentinian flag at the Devil’s Throat where we had stood the day before.  Once again, there was plenty of wildlife, and we spotted more Coatis, brightly coloured butterflies and iguanas.

From Foz de Iguassu we took another overnight bus to Sao Paolo, where we changed terminal and caught another couple of buses, arriving in Paraty after around 30 hours on the road. Finding accommodation when we arrived was a little challenging as carnival was about to start and most hostels were only offering (hugely overpriced) five day carnival packages. Finally we found a place – it was among the most basic places we stayed on our trip but was also the most expensive!

Paraty is a compact little city with a lot of charm. It has a beautiful beachfront location and its historic centre is full of uneven cobblestone roads, which make wandering around after dark a little challenging. We decided to catch a bus to nearby Trinidade to do a little sunbathing, and were lucky enough to find the coast virtually deserted. We enjoyed a great afternoon, soaking up the sun and sipping on cold beers with the beach to ourselves.

That evening, back in Paraty, carnival was in full swing with giant effigies being paraded around the streets followed by a band and crowds of locals in costume swaying behind. We joined the crowds, following a couple of blocos (cars pumping music to the trailing crowds) through the centre and joining in the music and dancing in the main square. It felt like the whole town was out in the streets, and the atmosphere was fantastic.

The following day, we were down at the beach enjoying some fresh fish, when hundreds of muddy revellers descended on the beach. Apparently part of carnival tradition making a trip up to a beach a few kilometres out of town and covering yourself from head to toe in mud before parading back to town. When they reached the beach the fire brigade were waiting with their hoses at the ready to wash them off! The party continued that night in the same vein as the previous evening (as it would every night for the rest of carnival week). It was great to experience the festivities in Paraty as they were quite different to what we would encounter in our next stop Rio.

We were very fortunate to be able to stay in the apartment of a friend’s relative in Rio – consequently, we ended up with an entire penthouse apartment to ourselves in the country’s most affluent neighbourhood, Leblon – situated just a block away from Ipanema beach. You can imagine how great this felt after over three months in very basic hostels! As we weren’t able to get tickets to the famous celebrations in the Sambadrome, after spending some time at the street carnival, we settled down to watch the Sambadrome action live on TV. The costumes were absolutely incredible, and the sheer number of people that take part, representing each Samba school, was amazing.

Among the attractions we visited in Rio were the colourful Seleron steps in the Lapa neighbourhood. Using tiles collected from across the world, the Chilean artist has turned this drab area into a beautiful spot to live. The project is still a work in progress and we were able to meet the artist during our visit. Of course, we also made the trip up Corcovado to see Christ the Redeemer, now one of the seven modern wonders of the world. The site was heaving with tourists, but we still got great views of the city as well as a close look at the iconic statue.

During our visit, the entire city was in party mode. Almost all the shops were closed and people dressed in crazy costumes filled the streets. We soon discovered that most of the action takes place in the late afternoon and early evening, when blocos can be found on every other street. We went to several while we were there, mainly in Copacabana and Ipanema. This street carnival attracts literally millions of revellers and creates an amazing atmosphere. We enjoyed soaking it all up, indulging in some Caipirinhas and joining the dancing in the street.

Our time in Rio came to an end too soon, but on our final day, we decided to take a tour to one of the city’s favelas. Our guide drove us up to Rocinho, the largest favela in Rio which sprang up as workers flocked to the city from the north east to build some of the city’s tunnels. Up until three months ago, the favela had been a lawless area, with police banned from entering. However, the recent police occupation has had a positive effect on the community, with banks opening branches, satellite television being introduced and some housing being torn down and replaced with modern apartments for some of the poorest residents. As a result, house prices in the favela have risen by up to 100%. We got fantastic views of the city from the top of the neighbourhood (arguably better than at Corcovado) and learnt a lot about life in this part of the city. I’m glad we were able to experience this other side of Rio, as around one fifth of people in Rio live in similar conditions.

Sadly, that was our last stop in Brazil and marked the end of our four month trip around Latin America.  From here we had a flight back to Chile before continuing on to New Zealand. The whole trip has been an amazing experience and while I am sorry that it has come to an end, I am hugely excited about our next adventure, when we reach New Zealand!

Don’t cry for me Argentina (or Uruguay)

1 – 14 February 2012

After crossing the Andes into Argentina, our first port of call was Mendoza, a pretty city with shady tree-lined avenues in the heart of wine country. Not surprisingly, soon after arriving, we went to visit some of the vineyards, located in nearby Maipu. We hired bikes from a friendly chap called Mr Hugo who fixed us up with our first glass of wine of the day (it was only 10am) before sending us on our way. We visited three separate boutique wineries, as well as an olive oil producer and the local wine museum. At each we were given a tour of the site, learning about the production of the wines and of course sampling their wares. The majority of the wine produced in the region is Malbec, though we sampled different maturities and were able to taste the difference between the new wines and those matured in different oaks. After touring the vineyards (our cycling deteriorating as we went), we returned to Mr Hugo’s place, where our host kept our glasses topped up for a couple more hours. I think it’s fair to say that our return to Mendoza that evening was a little wobbly!

Once we had recovered from the wine tasting (it took us at least a day), we took off on another trip out of town to try our hands at white water rafting. Neither of us had tried it before, but we ended up at the front of the raft where, along with getting wetter than everyone else, I’m pretty sure we ended up doing most of the work. It was great fun, especially as we hit the rapids and had to cling on tight so as not to fall in.

After a few days in Mendoza, we caught our next overnight bus on to Cordoba. We were lucky in our timing visiting Cordoba as, just a week earlier, the city had been hit by violent storms which toppled many trees and caused damage across the city. By the time we arrived though, it was baking hot (quite possibly the warmest place on our trip) although the signs of damage and debris were still visible across the city. Our host, Ger, took us on a huge walking tour of the city pointing out all the sights of the historical centre as well as showing us the university campus which attracts hoards of students from across the country.

The following day we caught a bus to Altagracia, a small town whose claim to fame is being the town where Che Guevara spent most of his childhood. We spent a couple of interesting hours at the museum, housed in one of his family’s former homes before visiting the Virgin of Lourdes grotto on the hill above town.

Then, it was on to the country’s capital, Buenos Aires. We spent five days in the city, but there is so much going on, it simply wasn’t enough time for us to do everything we had hoped to.  Our first day or two was spent exploring the city, thanks to a couple of free walking tours that took us round many of the sights as well some of the most affluent parts of the city.  There is a great deal of European influence in B.A. with many buildings having been imported, piece by piece from Europe during its heyday. We took a trip to the Boca neighbourhood, which is home to the famous Boca Juniors football stadium but which also boasts streets of beautiful brightly painted houses (originally painted by its poor residents using left over boat paint) and displays of street tango.

One of the most interesting attractions in town is the Recoleta cemetery, the final resting place for a number of key Argentinian personalities, including the legendary Evita. The cemetery resembles a small city, with streets of ornate tombs and it was fascinating to explore.

We also made sure to stop by the Plaza de Mayo, next to the presidential palace, at 3:30pm on the Thursday to see the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in their weekly procession. These ladies have been demonstrating at the square for decades since their children went missing during Argentina’s dirty war. Their children are among thousands who “disappeared” at the hands of the military regime and their weekly meeting ensures that they are not forgotten.

Having sampled the local wine, earlier in our trip and given the country’s reputation for great steak, we were desperate to try the local cuisine. We found a restaurant in the city’s Palermo neighbourhood which was so popular that we had to wait outside for a table despite it being very early by Argentinian standards. It was well worth the wait; Neal opted for the sirloin while I chose the tenderloin. It was incredible, really melt-in-the mouth stuff (makes me salivate just thinking about it) and just maybe the best steak I’ve ever had. We washed it down with a lovely bottle of cabernet sauvignon and followed it by a delicious chocolate mousse – a lovely early Valentine’s treat, made even better given that we had been living off mainly pasta and other cheap eats for the past three months!

In the middle of our stay in Buenos Aires, we decided to make the quick hop over to Uruguay, a three hour boat ride away. We visited the town of Colonia, a quaint and rather sleepy old town with a strong Portuguese influence. We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon strolling around and taking in the sights before we had to return to Argentina – a brief but worthwhile excursion.

On our final day in B.A, we visited the presidential palace, known as the Casa Rosada for its pink walls. We were given the grand tour and were able to step out onto the balcony where Eva Peron gave many of her famous speeches to the crowds gathered outside. We learnt more about Evita and her life (and wardrobe) at the Eva Peron museum that afternoon before we made our way to the Racing Club football stadium to watch them in action against Tigre FC. The atmosphere in the stadium was incredible, with passionate fans dressed in blue and white chanting, singing and jumping in support of their team. When the crowd was in action, you could feel the stadium moving as the 50,000 odd fans jumped together. Unfortunately, the action on pitch wasn’t as memorable, resulting in a 0-0 draw – but that aside, it was a real spectacle.

Our stay in Argentina was nearly up, but we had one last stop –Puerto Iguazu, an 18 hour bus ride away (I didn’t realise when we are planning our trip that Argentina is as big as India!). Soon after arriving, we set off to the town’s world-famous attraction, the waterfalls. The Iguazu Falls are so large they span across Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. On the Argentinian side, you have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the falls, like at the Devil’s Throat, where the sound of the water was deafening and we got completely soaked. We explored many of the falls, following upper and lower circuits. The site was breath-taking and a league above other waterfalls I’ve seen, including Niagara. Another highlight for me was the wildlife we came across in the reserve: coatis, monkeys, brightly coloured butterflies and even a toucan.  Besides the falls, there wasn’t much on offer in Puerto Iguazu and so the next day it was off to Brazil to catch a glimpse of them from a different angle.

Chile

22 – 31 January 2012

After three days in a 4×4 cruising the salt plains of Bolivia, we made it to our first stop in Chile, San Pedro de Atacama. Though the border between the countries was not marked, we knew we´d entered Chile when the roads changed from dirt tracks to modern motorways.  Chile is certainly much more developed than its northern neighbour, and I must say it was nice to re-embrace some of the modern conveniences we had been missing (fast internet, decent showers etc). Unfortunately, these conveniences come with a price tag, and we found our costs (especially for accommodation) literally quadrupling overnight.

San Pedro is a tiny town, home to just a couple of thousand people, on the edge of the driest desert in the world. Despite its size it attracts hoards of tourists, and its narrow, dusty streets swarm with visitors. We set out to explore the area on mountain bikes, taking ourselves to an ancient Atacamenan fortress built into the hills and later on to a rocky pass, known as the Quebrada del Diablo (Devil´s ravine). It certainly felt like the devil had a hand in things as we climbed the rocky trail in the blistering heat, but the effort was worth it as we free-wheeled back down the twisty ravine at great speed and cooled off in the river at the foot of the pass.

San Pedro de Atacama has plenty of attractions for visitors, including geysers, thermal pools, moon valley etc. However, we felt we had seen similar sights in the Bolivian desert and so we continued south to La Serena, a city about a 17 hour bus ride away.

La Serena is a coastal city located in the Elqui province. The area is known for its Pisco (a grape brandy) production and so we opted to take a tour of the Pisco Elqui Valley to find out more. We passed Papaya and Chirimoya farms and stopped at the roadside to buy some incredibly sweet, freshly picked, grapes. Later we made a stop at a traditional Pisco distillery where we learnt the process of producing the liquor and were able to taste samples. Let me tell you, it is strong stuff!

That same evening, we headed up to the Mamalluca observatory, close to the town of Vicuna. Chile boasts a number of world-class observatories, all funded by other nations including the US and Europe. As our guide remarked, “Chile has the skies, but not the money.” The Mamalluca observatory is a European project, with the various parts of the telescope being provided by different EU countries. In return for hosting the telescopes, Chile is entitled to a certain amount of free usage. Our guide for the evening, Luis, was fantastic – anything he couldn´t tell you about the night skies was probably not worth knowing. The skies were lit up with thousands of stars, so clearly visible thanks to Chile´s unique and dry climate. We gazed at Jupiter, Venus and the moon, learnt how to use the southern cross for navigation and saw two other galaxies. It was simply amazing, and made me feel very small in such a vast universe.

We spent some more time in La Serena, exploring the city, sunbathing on the beach and relaxing in the very tranquil Japanese garden before it was time to continue south once again. Our next stop (another overnight bus) was Valparaiso, formerly one of Chile´s most important seaports and a town with a long history of European immigration. The city is a jumble of multicoloured houses covering every inch of its steep hillsides. To access the highest parts of the city, a series of old funiculars, dating back to the 19th century is in place and for a few pennies you can save your legs a lot of effort. Our visit to the city coincided with a music and arts festival so, as we wandered round the historic centre we came across a number of live performances, which was a great treat.

Just along the coast from Valparaiso, is another seaside resort, Vina del Mar. We walked the five or so kilometres that separate the two to spend some time sunning ourselves on Vina´s beaches. The two towns, despite their proximity, couldn´t be more different. While Valparaiso has a very bohemian feel and seems to lack structure, Vina is a city of wide boulevards, manicured gardens and order. It was nice to experience both, although for me, Valparaiso had so much more character.

After a couple of days on the coast, it was on to the country´s capital, Santiago. Santiago is a beautiful and elegant city and, though it is home to several million, it has an intimate feel and is easy to get around by foot. On our first day in the city, we took a walking tour to get to grips with what the city has to offer and learn a little more about the history of Chile and Santiago´s turbulent past. We also learnt about an interesting phenomenon in the city – “coffee with legs”. Apparently, coffee shops didn´t originally take off in the city, so one entrepreneur decided to put a spin on the concept to try to boost sales. He employed a staff of female barristas, wearing very skimpy skirts – not surprisingly, the idea was a hit, especially given the coffee shop´s location in the city´s financial district! Now there are several of these cafes on offer, where invariably you can find the local financiers holding their important business meetings…

One of the reasons we included Chile on our itinerary (and we did think about cutting it a few times) when we were planning our trip was its reputation for producing good wine. So a trip to one of the area´s vineyards was a must do while in town. We chose the Concha y Toro (you probably know them as the producers of the Casillero del Diablo label) site for our visit. First off, we toured the company´s vineyards, learning about the different grape varieties they grow all over the country. This was followed by a tour of the cellars and the inevitable tasting. It was a rather rushed tour and we would have been disappointed, had we not booked in for the additional sommelier tour. Here we sat down with a professional sommelier, who took us through a detailed tasting session, answering all our questions, advising us which wines go well with which foods (and cheeses) and giving us a great insight into the subject. If you find yourself in Santiago, I would definitely recommend this experience.

Later that day, we headed to the city´s Human Rights Museum. This is a very worthwhile and interesting museum but it’s also very unsettling as you learn about the coup which removed Salvador Allende from power and the ensuing regime under General Pinochet. The museum explains about the disappearances which took place during this period, the violence and torture that many were subjected to and the fight of the Chilean people to restore democracy to their country. We listened to first hand testimonies from people who were interrogated as well the impassioned speech Allende gave to the people shortly before his death, and came away with a new perspective on the country.

On a lighter note, before we left Chile that evening, we were sure to try the local alcoholic specialty (other than wine) known as the Terremoto (Earthquake). It was a delicious, sweet cocktail of pisco, grenadine and pineapple ice-cream. The pineapple masks the strength of the alcohol, which is why it feels like the ground is moving under you when you stand up again after drinking it!

Unboliviable

12 – 21 January 2012

From Lake Titicaca we caught a bus on to the Bolivian capital of La Paz – the world’s highest capital city. The view as we arrived was amazing as the city sprawls over a huge valley, with every inch of hillside crammed with houses. After checking into our hostel, we started exploring the city, which gives the impression of being one huge, never-ending marketplace. Along the main boulevards, stalls and street sellers lined the edges of the pavements, on the hills between our accommodation and the bus station, the streets were filled with stands selling everything you could possibly imagine and in the narrow streets of the old city, artisanal goods hung everywhere. Of particular note was the so-called “witches market”  – a small neighbourhood where you can buy everything from medicinal herbs to dried llama fetuses (in Bolivia, burying a llama under your new home brings luck, and if you aren’t rich enough to sacrifice a real llama, one of these will do the trick instead!)

The following day, we embarked on our next adrenalin inducing adventure, this time in the form of cycling “The worlds most dangerous road”. This single track road, which connects the amazon area of Bolivia to the capital, descends around 3,000m, clinging to the hillside in a series of twists and turns, with extreme drops of over 600m from the sides. Sadly, estimates suggest that in years gone by around 200 – 300 people lost their lives in accidents on this road every year. However, nowadays a new motorway has been built which carries virtually all the traffic on this route, meaning that the old route is devoted almost exclusively to mountain bikes.

Despite its fearsome reputation, the road was actually great fun to cycle. We were cautious, not getting too close to the edges, but were able to build up plenty of speed as we descended the track. The scenery was spectacular and the adrenalin rush was great – although I’m quite glad we opted for the more expensive, full suspension bikes!

Back in La Paz the following day, as we wandered aimlessly around, we stumbled across a festival taking place in the church grounds. WIth lots of music, bright costumes and fireworks going off, we were curiously observing the festivities from a distance until we were called over and invited to join in. We weren’t able to establish what the cause of the celebrations were, but we offered yummy saltenas (slightly sweet, slightly spicy meat pasties) and cold beers and we followed the carnival-like procession as it made its way from the church out into the city. We felt lucky to have chanced upon the occasion, and even more so to have been allowed to join in!

That evening, we had another authentic(?) Bolivian experience – Cholita wrestling. Seemingly, a popular local sport, the venue was filled with both Bolivians and gringos alike who’d come to see this unique take on lucha libre wrestling, featuring traditionally dressed Bolivian women in full skirts and their hair in pigtails. Neal (a WWE aficionado) was not impressed with their efforts as each fight seemed to follow the same predictable storyline: there’s a goodie and a baddie and a ref who takes the baddie’s side. While the baddie seems to be winning, through a variety of underhand tactics, the goodie always wins through in the end, with the crowd’s support. It was a spectacle to behold if not a very convincing one.

After La Paz, it was on to Potosi, another of the world’s highest cities at over 4,000m elevation and home to some of the countries largest silver mines. The mines are cooperatively worked and tourists like us are able to take tours inside the mines and actually see the men (women bring bad luck) at work in them. Our guide took us deep into the mines, along tunnels that sparkled with traces of silver and zinc, and down shafts of around 30m. We saw the workers winching the rocks out of the mine and carting ton loads of it our of the mountain. Some of the workers were as young as 15. For me, while fascinating, it was a very claustrophobic atmosphere and I was happy when we finally returned to daylight. I can’t imagine working for any length of time in such an environment.

Our next stop in Bolivia was Uyuni where we were to set off on our tour of the salt plains and across to Chile. Unfortunately, we ended up spending longer than anticipated here as we were struck down with food poisoning. If you are going to get stuck anywhere, Uyuni is about as miserable a place as you could hope to be (I wont bore you with all the reasons why), although at least it was a cheap place to get stuck! Finally, when we were sufficiently recovered, we set off on a three-day tour.

The first day of the trip took in a train cemetery, home to abandoned, rusting locomotives and railway tracks and an artisanal markets before reaching the Salar itself. The salt flats were just breath-taking – it was as though we had been transported to some other planet. As far as the eye could see was white like ice. We took the requisite silly photos but it was impossible to capture just how stunning the landscape was.

On the second day, we experienced in a number of different terrains – as we drove through the region in our 4×4 they just seemed to change constantly around us. One minute we would be driving through desert, then snow-capped mountains and rocky crags with lagoons and mirages appearing before us out of nowhere. The lagoons were all different colours, silver, pink and green and each was home to hundreds of flamingoes and some, packs of llamas. It was quite other worldly and magnificent. I must have taken hundreds of photos, but surely none of them will do the area justice.

Our final day was a short one with an early start. We stopped first at the geysers – lots of slimy clay holes, bubbling and spurting into the air (took us ages to de-gunk our flip-flops after). Then it was onto the hot springs which were wonderfully hot to relax in, despite the cold temperature and icy terrain we drove through to reach them. Finally, we passed volcanoes and a green lagoon before reaching the border post to cross into Chile. The trip was amazing – be prepared to be bored by my hundreds of photos when we next see you!!

Peru part two

After bringing in the new year high in the hills above Cusco, our next stop in Peru was Arequipa, the country´s second largest city. We soon learnt a key meteorological lesson for this part of the country (at least at this time of the year): the mornings are beautifully sunny, but don´t count on doing anything in the afternoon as it tends to pour down!

Having lost a day following one lazy morning, we headed out again the next day to explore the town. The city´s Santuarios Andeanos museum is home to the famous Inca Ice Maiden, Juanita – a 600 year old mummy, who was just a young teenager when she was sacrificed to the Inca gods. We had hoped to catch a glimpse of her, but sadly she is not on display for the month of January and her replacement (there are a number of similar mummies) was being worked upon for the duration of our stay, which was disappointing. Instead we headed to the Monasterio Santa Catalina: a convent in the city centre which occupies an entire block and which is like a citadel within a city. Unlike your typical convent, for many years, this one catered to daughters of rich families who were required to pay substantial dowries on their admission. Within the confines of the monastery, these women were permitted several servants each, were known to give parties and generally lived a rather lavish lifestyle (at least until the Pope caught wind of things, and sent someone down to reform things!). In any case, the convent was a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours and I must have taken hundreds of photos while we were there.

Arequipa is full of tour agencies offering trips to the nearby Colca Canyon – one of the world´s deepest- and while we were there, Neal and I spoke to a number of them about a potential trip. However, after some research online, we decided we could just as easily do this trip ourselves and so we set off, catching a bus to the town of Chivay, some three and a half hours away.

From the outset, things didn´t go quite as smoothly as we had hoped. Firstly, the morning buses were all fully booked, meaning we didn´t get to Chivay till hours later than planned. When we arrived, we headed to the local hot springs, which were lovely and relaxing, although it was pouring down with rain, only one pool was open and we nearly got stranded there when the baths closed. The next day, we caught another bus towards Cabanaconde where we heard there were a number of trails we could hike. We hopped off  en route at a point known as Cruz del Condor which is recommended as being a great place to spot the impressive Andean birds. Little did we know, the next bus wouldn´t pass for another four hours! We were left sitting on the roadside in the cold with the local women who come up to the point to sell their wares – but happily, we did spot several Condors within this time!

The local women were an incredible sight in themselves, they all wore intricately woven hats and beautiful brightly coloured traditional dress.

We finally made it to Cabanaconde and the next morning, we set off on our trek into the canyon as planned. It was beautiful and we both loved taking in the scenery, although it was a steep trek downhill followed by a slow ascent back up afterwards. Our trek ended up rather hurried as we had to catch a bus on to our next destination. So, unfortunately our DIY plans didn´t go as well as hoped – we would have been much better off if we’d signed up with one of the organised tours.

After the Colca Canyon, it was on to our last stop in Peru, Puno. The weather had picked up again in this part of the country, so thankfully we were able to regain our afternoons from the rain. We made a visit to see the Yavari – a former gunboat in the Peruvian navy. The boat was made in England and the pieces shipped over to Peru in the mid 19th century. It was then transported by man and by llama across the mountains to Puno were it was rebuilt, almost ten years later. Now the boat serves as a B&B but it made a curious and interesting visit. Later that night, we went to a restaurant which offered a show of traditional music and dance. The costumes the dancers wore were amazing, some with feather and masks like birds, other comprising mini skirts and knee-high boots. It was great to watch, if a little twee.

The highlight of our visit to Puno was the trip we took to visit the islands of Lake Titicaca. We set off early in the morning, and our first stop was the floating islands of Uros – a collection of over 40 tiny islands each made entirely of reeds. Each island is its own community, with the one we visited being home to nine families and 32 people.

The families who live on the island wear traditional dress, live in reed huts and earn their living through fishing, hunting ducks and collecting their eggs – and now, of course, tourism. We were welcomed to the island, shown how they use the reeds, invited into their homes and finally, given a ride on one of their ornate reed boats.

The islands are like nowhere else in the world and to experience them was fantastic for us. We continued on to another island, called Taquile, about two hours boat ride away. On this island, the people are Quechua and are known for producing some of the finest textiles in the country. The island was beautiful with stunning views (and fortunately for us, fantastic weather) – it reminded be of being on an unspoilt Greek island in the middle of the Med, rather than on a Peruvian lake.

The lake, of course, is not solely Peruvian – part of it is Bolivian territory – our next stop. But as the proud Peruvians like to joke, “Titi for Perú, Caca for Bolivia.”

 

Andean adventures: Cusco and Machu Picchu

After taking a flight from Cali, we had a brief stop in Quito, Ecuador before continuing on to Lima where we had around seven hours to kill overnight. It wasn’t the most comfortable stopover (think makeshift bed of cafeteria chairs) and the fact that my backpack hadn’t made it to Peru didn’t help matters. Still, the next morning we were in Cusco and, after a few hours of much needed rest, my backpack thankfully arrived (I hadn’t been looking forward to trekking the Inca Trail in Neal’s clothes!)

We spent our first afternoon orientating ourselves and exploring the city of Cusco, as well as acclimatising to the altitude (3,400m). Cusco is a stunning city, with beautiful old churches, large squares, cobbled streets and arcades set against its mountainous backdrop. The city was lit up for Christmas and an illuminated statue of Christ looks down on the people from high in the hills. As we wandered the narrow alleyways, we came across a barber shop and Neal, with a little gentle persuasion, decided to brave the barber’s blade. The results were pretty good, particularly given that it cost less than $2.

The following day was spent finalising our arrangements for the trek – hiring sleeping bags, buying hats, ponchos and high energy snacks. That night, courtesy of our host, we sampled the local (alcoholic) speciality, Pisco Sours – made from ¨Pisco, lemon juice, egg white and sugar. It was quite delicious, but we werre careful to limit ourselves given the early start we had the following day.

The next morning we set off on our Inca Trail adventure, taking a bus to Ollantaytambo with our trek companions – we were a group of 17 from some 12 different countries. As we got kitted up at km 82, the weather couldn’t decide what to do, switching from bright sunshine to rain and causing us to keep putting on and taking off our ponchos (very attractive purple and green ones!). Our first day was apparently the easiest but, as we were carrying our own backpack as we climbed to 3,100m, it was still a struggle. The walk was picturesque and we passed our first Inca site, Llactapata mid way through, arriving at our campsite for the night at around 5pm. We were both surprised,from our first day onwards at how good the food was on the trip. The chef was clearly very talented as he whipped up everything from burgers and chips to soups and chicken roulade – all from what he and the porters could carry on their backs.On each day, we were amazed too by the speed and strength of the porters – they would literally run past us, up and down hill, carrying around 25kg each on their backs.

It was a 5:30am start the next day for what is considered the hardest day of the trek – around seven hours climbing up over 1,000m. We decided to hire a personal porter for this day and the next so that we could focus on enjoying the hike – definetely a wise move! Neal, along with many others in our group suffered from altitude sickness on this stretch of the hike, so every step of the ascent required a massive effort. After the climb, it was another two hours downhill to our camp for the evening where we would spend New Year’s Eve. As is tradition in Peru, many of us donned yellow hats, flowers and ties to bring us good luck for the coming year. Between us, we had a variety of bottles of whisky, rum, pisco etc which we used to bring in the New Year. We celebrated the occasion on European time rather than Peruvian as we were all exhausted from the long day and we knew we had another early start the next day. New Year’s night was freezing cold (by now we were at 3,500m) and thermals and llama hats were a must!

We were on the road again by 7:30 the next day, starting with a couple of hours climb before reaching a stretch of rainforest. The weather that had stayed mainly dry and sunny thus far, turned to rain for a good couple of hours but fortunately, after lunch it dried up once again. We passed through Inca tunnels and stopped at Phuyupatamarca, another impressive Inca site with ceremonial fountains and several grazing llamas. This was followed by a descent of 3,000 steps through some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. After the hard ascents, it was a relief to be going downhill, but the steps were a killer for the knees and, after nine hours of trekking we were glad to reach our camp and even to take an icy cold shower.

On our final morning, we were woken at 3:30am (not that we slept much/well at all on the trip as each night’s camp was set on hard rocky land), given a quick breakfast and set off on the final stretch to Machu Picchu. As the porters had to leave us to catch a 5am train, we were forced to sit in the dark for an hour until the final checkpoint opened at 6am (yes, this also meant we had to carry our own bag again!). Unfortunately by this stage, I was feeling ill from lack of sleep and the altitude. The final push was a real struggle but we reached the Sun Gate around 7:30am, where we were rewarded with our first incredible glimpse of Machu Picchu. We were fortunate to arrive as the clouds parted, as not long later, it was completely hidden by mist. From that point, it was less than an hour’s walk to the site itself. We arrived at the summit, affording us great views over the entire area – an incredible sight to behold.

After dropping off our bags, we were given a tour of Machu Picchu, learning about the temples to the Sun God, the Condor and Mother Earth. It was fascinating, although I must admit that at this point I was stuggling for energy and every step we climbed was a struggle! After the tour, we had a lovely nap on the ancient terraces which revived us sufficiently to continue exploring by ourselves for a couple more hours. Finally, that afternoon we made the descent to Aguas Calientes. Gluttons for punishment, we chose the hour and a half route down steep steps rather than hopping on the bus, but thankfully there were cold drinks and pizza waiting for us when we reached the town. From Aguas Calientes, we took a train to Ollantaytambo followed by a bus back to Cusco that night. Never have I been so glad to take a hot shower and climb into a comfy bed! That said, the whole experience was absolutely amazing – the hard work and sleepless nights were well worth the effort. The views throughout the trek were breath-taking and, as many others will testify, the trek itself is just as amazing as the finale at Machu Picchu!

Christmas in Colombia

20 – 27 December 2011

We began our Colombian trip in the country’s capital, Bogota. With a population of around 10 million people, this was the biggest city of our trip so far but, despite some of the negative press the city receives, we felt relaxed and quite safe during our time there. In fact the city seems to go out of its way for tourists, providing free walking tours and offering free entrance to several sites.

Given the timing of our visit, we were fortunate enough to be able to soak up the festive atmosphere of the city. It seemed as though every square and park was decked out in Christmas lights and the streets were full of people, out doing last minute Christmas shopping or simply enjoying the ambiance. On our first evening there, we strolled around the Candelaria neighbourhood where we were staying and visited the Plaza Simon Bolivar, which boasted a beautiful Christmas tree and many wonderfully lit buildings. Here we indulged in a delicious treat known as ‘oblea’ – a thin wafer sandwich with an array of different fillings on offer. Not knowing what filling would be the best, we went for the works – caramel, jam, cheese, condensed milk – so tasty!!

We dedicated the next day to some intensive sightseeing. First, we visited the Botero museum where many of this famous Colombian artist’s works are displayed. If you don’t recognise the name, you will probably recognise his distinctive style which kept us enthralled and amused for some time.

Next, we went to the city’s gold museum – one of the largest in the world. It was fascinating and gave a detailed account of the history of metallurgy in Latin America. (I pointed out a few items -gold crowns, jewelled earrings, ornate breastplates etc- to Neal as potential Christmas gifts but I’m not sure he took the hint!)

Our next stop was the National Police museum – a quirky establishment which we were shown around by a young guy working as a guide as part of his national service. He explained that he had chosen this option as it paid better than the army and he got to stay at home with his parents (a pretty sensible choice I think). Aside from a room full of guns and an exhibit of a shotgun-guitar (??) the main focus of the tour was the Pablo Escobar room. Here numberous artefacts related to the infamous drug lord – confiscated gold-plated Harley Davidson, blood spattered roof tile – as well as some unconvincing dummies of Escobar are displayed. Strange, but weirdly fascinating.

In the evening, we caught the cable car up to the Santuario de Monserrate, a17th century church situated high on the hill overlooking Bogota. We arrived shortly before sunset so we had great views right across the city. Once daylight faded, the Christmas lights were turned on – illuminating the whole hill. It was quite beautiful and we left feeling suitably festive.

We continued our sightseeing the following day with a tour around the Candelaria neighbourhood and a trip out to see more festive lights, this time in the Parque de Independencia.

Christmas lights Parque de Independencia

We also squeezed in a trip to one of the shopping malls (Christmas gifts) and were stopped by the Policia Nacional and photographed next to a Ferrari that was confiscated from another drug lord. The Colombian police are on Facebook, so you can check out the photo they took of us!

On our final day in Bogota, we caught a bus to Zipaquira to visit the famous salt cathedral. The town is home to a huge salt mine which is still being actively worked. On the lowest level of the mine is a cathedral and a series of representations of Christ’s death and resurrection which the miners carved. The structures were impressive and beautiful, if a little eery.

Salt Cathedral Zipaquira

Walls of salt mines

The next day was Christmas Eve, which we spent on the bus from Bogota to Cali. Despite being on a luxury bus (the only one that wasnt fully booked weeks in advance) it was a long journey of over 11 hours through windy mountain roads, which made us a little queasy. Still, we arrived safely in Cali late that evening.

We spent an unconventional Christmas Day in a nice hostel in the Bellavista neighbourhood of Cali. Dinner was a four course meal prepared by a former Michelin chef from Barcelona washed down with lots of cheap local Champagne. The rest of the day was spent lazing by the pool and enjoying a steam room and sauna (yes our hostel had a pool, sauna, chef etc – quite unbelievable!) We missed celebrating Christmas with family, but at least we had Skype as a substitute.

Christmas Cake

Lazing in hammock on Christmas Day

The rest of our time in Cali was spent rather lazily. We had planned to hike up to see the Three Crosses on the hill over the city but a combination of poor directions and suggestions that it wasn’t safe led us to abandon this plan. Instead we wandered round the San Antonio neighbourhood and checked out the Las Lomas artisanal market and the many feline sculptures along the river.

El Gato, Cali

Our time in Cali coincided with the city’s festival, and although we didn’t make it to any of the formal parades, we were able to catch a few performances in the squares around the Canchas Panamericanas. The streets were full of people and there were salsa and reggaeton concerts taking place all over the city. Although we didn’t make it to the concerts, we thought it would be shameful to leave the salsa capital of the world without getting involved in some way. So, on our final afternoon in the city, we found ourselves at a salsa class at Jovita’s hostel  run by the famous Son de Luz school. For an hour, our instructor put us through our paces, showing us salsa and merengue moves and demonstrating some very fast footwork! I think this might have been the most energetic and sweatiest thing we have done all trip – but it was also one of the most fun. Happily exhausted, it was then time to head for the airport to catch our flight to Peru.