Friday, December 14, 2007

Hot, hot, hot in Brazil

Greetings from Iguazu Falls! The falls form the border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

I arrived at the Argentinian side so went to visit the National Park directly from the airport. The falls really are stunning and cover a huge area so you get different perspectives from all different angles. I spent about four hours hiking the various trails which enable you to view the falls from across, below and above. It is seriously hot and humid here so it was nice when you could get close enough to the falls to get cooled from the spray.
After the park I crossed over into Brazil where I´m staying. So far I´ve been happily muddling along with my basic Spanish but as I haven´t a word of Portuguese this could be more fun - I think there´ll be a lot of smiling, nodding and pointing over the next few days!
Today I went to visit the Park on the Brazilian side of the falls. You get more of a panoramic view of the falls from this side with less walks available but still the chance for getting soaked to cool down. In the afternoon I went to the Bird Park close by which has an amazing collection of parrots, macaws, toucans, eagles, anacondas and all sorts of other feathery things. (Yes, I know anacondas are not birds but they were in the park so thought I´d mention them.)

Lovely day for a GUINNESS
Nice and cool under the canopy of the jungle walks. But if I´m finding it hot in t-shirt and shorts I don´t know how the poor Santa is fairing in the supermarket down the road in his big red suit with snowy lining and great big fluffy white beard. Somehow I think the southern hemisphere should invent a new image of Xmas more suiting to their climate!
Next stop Rio for an overnight before I board the Tocorime tall ship. We´re sailing from Rio down the coast to Paraty stopping at various locations along the way. Not sure if I´ll be near an Internet connection anywhere but if I am will try to post an update. If you want to see more about the boat here´s the site I´m really looking forward to it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Buenos Aires

We left Ushuaia with snow falling and the mountains covered from a night of snow to arrive in Buenos Aires in 27 degree heat - woohoo!

B.A. is a big, busy, vibrant city of 22 million people. It is very European in its buildings, people and culture - very different from the other South American cities I´ve visited. There´s many different neighbourhoods with their own history, style and culture. Certainly a great place to spend a few days shopping and sight-seeing. Our first evening here was the last night with our whole group so we went to a Tango show which included a 45 minute lesson beforehand. With about 60 people in a tiny room it was more like musical bumper-cars but by the end we were all very proud at how we had mastered the basics in such a short time. We were then completely brought back down to earth when we saw the real thing in the show later...mmm think I´ve still a bit of practice needed.

The next day a few of us went out to La Boca, famous for its football club and the club´s most famous player, the one and only Maradona. La Boca has an area famous for its brightly coloured buildings where you can have your picture taken with a Diego lookeylikey i.e. just a fat fella with a mop of curly hair wearing a soccer shirt!

I´m staying my last couple of nights in the area of San Telmo which is an old area with an arty, bohemian feel to it. The hostel is in a lovely old restored art-demo building. Today I went on a guided bike tour around the areas of Recoletta and Palermo which are the rich´n´leafy areas with some lovely parks for biking around.

Off to Iguazu tomorrow to cool down in the spray of the falls...

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The End of the World

Well, in this trip I´ve gone from The Middle of the World to The End of the World. (And yes, there is a certain REM song stuck in my head for which I only know the one line). Ushuaia is very proud of its claim to be the most southerly city in the world and if ever you wanted an egg-cup that says ´Ushuaia the Most Southerly City in the World´on it then this is definately the place to get it!

Ushuaia is on the southern coast of Tierra del Fuego the island at the tip of the South America. We were surprised by the calm weather when we arrived two days ago but strong seas meant our boat trip along the Beagle channel was cancelled yesterday. So instead we went and got covered in mud in the Tierra del Fuego national park instead. Luckily today was much calmer so we managed to get out this morning. Lovely calm weather when we were leaving but it got really cold along the trip. We were all layered up like a Michelin man convention. Apparently the native people, before the European arrival, used to live naked here just covered in animal fat - madness! Don´t think I´d fancy winter here if this is mid-summer. Along the channel, which is surrounded by snow covered mountains, we saw lots of sea-lions, cormorants and some swimming penguins.

Flying back to Buenos Aires tomorrow for a few days shopping, sight-seeing and hopefully enjoying the nice warm temperature. Then off to Iguazu Falls on my way to Brazil for my final week!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Perito Moreno glacier and El Chalten

The Perito Moreno glacier is unusual in that it is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still advancing rather than receding. It is incredibly hard to comprehend the sheer size of it let alone describe it. Even when you are there it is hard to get perspective on it. The front wall of the glacier is about as high as a twenty storey building and the whole area of the glacier is about as big as Buenos Aires. This is just a small section of the whole Patagonia ice-sheet which is second in size only to Greenland. As the glacier advances large sections of the front wall crash down into the lake causing huge splashes and new icebergs. We only saw some small breaks when we were there but they seem so load and dramatic it must be incredible when there are huge falls.
We caught a boat out along the glacier but still kept to 300 metres from the wall otherwise the falling ice can be really dangerous.

From El Calafate we drove to El Chalten across the Argentinian steppes, huge plains of scrub where´s nothing much but sheep estancias (ranches). They need huge areas of land in proportion to the amount of sheep as the land is so infertile. Due to the strong winds and low moisture the plants are all very low to the ground. El Chalten, is a funny little town which seems like the last place on the Wild Frontier. Mostly just used a base for hikers heading to Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. In winter I think there are only 600 hardy souls left here.

Our first day we did about a 9-hour hike up to a view across Laguna de los Tres to Cerro Fitzroy. Serious climbers spend a number of days crossing the glaciers to summit the peak so we really just arriving at their first base camp. With the aid of a good support bandage, my knee was much better and managed to complete the trail. Again we were lucky with the weather in that we had a clear views of the peaks without any rain and only a light scattering of some snow flakes at the top!

(Connection doesn´t seem to be working too well at the moment so will have to finish this later. For now, there´s a giant piece of chocolate cake with my name on it. Just as well we´re getting some exercise in this place otherwise I´d be rolling home.)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Torres del Paine - do you want iceberg with that?

We set out to Torres del Paine expecting the worst but I think somebody somewhere up there likes us as we had brilliant sunny views of the spectacular scenery. There was some of the famous Patagonian wind of course but you´d almost feel cheated if you came here and didn´t get knocked over by the wind a few times (see my hair in the photo below)!
Our first day´s hike was up to the Torres (or towers) themselves - dramatic high rocky towers formed into spikes by wind erosion.
We were completing the famous ´W´circuit of the park over five days. A night we were camping but have to confess to ours being the ´luxury´camping option i.e. someone was transporting our luggage, putting up and taking down tents for us and providing us with lots of food.
We got lots of dirty looks from all the hard-core trekkers who were carrying huge packs all day (probably filled with rocks for extra suffering). We´d been expecting freezing nights but it wasn´t cold at all at night really and each nice we had a nice lodge to eat together inside. There´s even been hot showers which we completely weren´t expecting.
The second day was a short hike and we were all in shorts and t-shirts it was so warm.Beautiful views and sunset from the mountain lodge where we stayed that night out over the glacial lake which is a deep green colour during the day.
The third day was a long day with a nine-hour hike up to view one of the glaciers in the valley and then on to our camping area lake-side. Unfortunately I´ve developed a bit of a knee injury which has make hiking a bit tougher but hasn´t stopped me doing anything yet. Hoping it´s just a short-term thing.
On the fourth day we hiked over to the Grey glacier where we took a boat trip right up to the impressive glacier wall where it meets with the lake edge. Quite bizarre with icebergs floating by on the lake (made sure my life-jacket done up tight just in case). Our complementary Pisco Sour came with a bit of iceberg floating in it that they had just fished out of the lake! The glacier is an amazing blue colour in the crevasses.
Our last day included a short hike to a view point of the whole mountain range and again we were very lucky to have a clear day. Some people come to this park and see absolutely nothing for five days which must be just gutting. We felt the full force of the Patagonian wind on our way back as it literally blew us down the hill and we just had to give in to it - luckily we weren´t hiking on a cliff edge at the time. It really is a stunning area and not sure that my photos will do it justice but hopefully you´ll get a taster here.
After a night back in Puerto Natales we travelled today back into Argentina to the town of El Calafate. Tomorrow we are off to the Moreno Glacier where again we will be doing a boat trip along the glacier wall. The following two days we are off to Chalten and a couple more days hiking in the parks here some hopefully catch up in a few days time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Chilly in Chile

We´ve been working our down the coast of Chile for the past few days. We began with a beautiful trip across the mountains from Argentina to arrive at the lake-side town of Puerto Varas. We went on a full-day trip to Chiloe island and we blessed with beautifully clear skies all day. Chiloe Island was at one stage the most important point along the westerly South American coast as it was the control point of the Magellan Strait, which was the only available trade route across from the Atlantic across to the Pacific and vice versa. Also one of the last Spanish strong-holds as independance was gained by the mainland towns. But after the creation of the Panama canal Chiloe has become a quiet sleepy place with painted wooden houses in very Germanic styles inherited from its early settlers. We took a boat trip out along the coast to visit the penguin colonies where there were also sea-lions and loads of different bird varieties. My favourite though were the cows taking a stroll along the beach. Along the way we stopped to have some oysters fresh out of the sea, I´m not exactly an oyster expert but other in group told me these were the best they´d ever tasted. In the evening we had an amazing dinner cooked in a traditional under ground pit of huge amounts of mussels, clams, pork, chicken, potatoes and onion bread. A really enjoyable day but unfortunately due to full moon, very low tides meant we couldn´t get onto the ferry home ´till about mid-night.

Next day we took a flight further south to the town of Punta Arenas. You may have heard of it in the news as it´s the town where the passengers from the Explorer ship were finally airlifted to. If you haven´t heard the GAP Explorer ship, which set out from Ushuaia on a 19-day Antartica trip, hit an iceberg and sank. Luckily all passengers and crew were all evacuated successful though they did spend about 6 hours in life-boats in ice-filled waters. The boat is actually owned by GAP the company I´m travelling with. It´s terrible news for the company but great that the evacuation was handled well and everyone safe.

The highlight of Punta Arenas is a trip to the Otway Penguin colony. You can actually walk along designated areas of the penguin colony and nesting group so you can get really close and the penguins don´t seem bothered as they waddle by. I´ve some funny video footage which I´ll hopefully get to show those interested when I get home. Definately a bite in the wind down this far south so we´re preparing ourselves for our journey further south.

From there we have travelled further north slightly to the town of Puerto Natales, which is starting point for trips into the Torres del Paine National Park. Taking it easy today catching up on mail and doing some shopping before we head of on 5 days of hiking/camping in the park! The weather can get really harsh here, particularly the icy winds so we´re all wondering about the camping at night certainly. So we´re all sort though our best warm thermals, fleeces and jackets as we have a limited weight that can be carried on the trip. The park is supposed to be stunning though so definately hoping for some clear days. Better go get myself ready and hopefully have some great photos to share in a few days.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bariloche, Argentina

Greetings from Argentina!

After a brief overnight in Buenos Aires, we flew down to Bariloche, Argentina´s biggest ski resort. (I´m coming back to B.A. for a few days at the end of this trip into Patagonia). It´s summer time here now so no skiing obviously - maybe I´ll have to come back in winter sometime. The town is all ´swiss-style´i.e. it´s looks like a US ski resort that it supposed to look Swiss. We´ve a Swiss girl in our group who is finding it all very funny particularly the St. Bernard dogs with barrels around their necks. There´s 12 in the group - English, Australian, Swedish, Swiss, and I´m the only Irish for a change. Lots of hand-made chocolate shops too which combined with the amount of steak we are eating is a bit dangerous. Everything you hear about Argentinian steak is so true - really delicious but you get absolutely massive servings. Just as well we´re going to be getting lots of exercise on this trip. Yesterday we hiked up into one of the surrounding ski areas with a great view around and today went out for a bike ride around the lakes - gorgeous views of the snow-capped mountains all around.

The weather here has been absolutely stunning since we arrived. Completely clear and about 25 degrees. From the top of the mountain we could see 360 degrees around and there wasn´t a wisp of cloud anywhere. Not sure how long this will last but enjoying it whilst we can.

The oddest to me is probably the long evenings - there´s still real heat in the sun at 6pm and it is still light at 9pm. We´re going to be going all the way south to the very southern tip at Ushuaia so not sure what time the sun sets down there - if at all.

That´s all for now, we´re off into Chile tomorrow to the Chilean lake district.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Devil´s Nose and Cuenca

It was an early 6am start from Baños to try and get to the 9:30 Devil´s Nose train but worth getting up early for. Along the route we had a great view of the Tungurahua and Chimborazo volcanos (6,310m). Ecuador has two parallel ranges of the Andes and the area between is known as the ´Avenue of the Volcanos´. Tungurahua was actually blowing out great clouds as we passed.

The Devil´s Nose is so called as the the train twists back and forth down through a tight mountain valley. It was a huge undertaking originally building this main transport route but now it is just used by tourists. At some points it has to go backwards as it zigzags down the mountain side. The best bit is that we got to sit on the roof on the way down which gave us a spectacular view. Really beautiful surrounds.

Cuenca is a lovely colonial city, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. There´s a lot more money in this city than anywhere else we´ve been in Ecuador - some very nice houses and fancy shops. One of the most famous industries in Cuenca is the famous Ecuadorian hat, incorrectly known as a Panama hat! The hats sold as Panama hats are actually all hand-woven in this region. We did a trip around the factory to see how the hats are finished and shaped and styles applied. We then had great fun trying on lots of hats in the shop but were very disappointing customers as there was very little purchasing going on.

The culinary speciality of the region is these attractive creatures to the left - yep, it´s guinea pig. Apologies to anyone who had one as a pet but they are actually quite tasty! The restuarant did cut them into small pieces for us which made it a lot easier - I didn´t fancy having the head staring at me on my plate. We were in one of the most famous guinea pig restaurants in Ecuador, where Ecuadorian vips apparently come for special occasions.

Also in this region we visited Cajas National Park - there are over 235 lakes within the park. Ecuador is such amazing country as it has such diversity in such a small space. There´s something like 32 different eco-systems in the country. So in a single day you can travel from jungle to mountain to highlands.

After a brief overnight back in Quito, we travelled north to stay at a beautiful hacienda ranch for a couple of days. At 400 years old, it´s Ecuador´s oldest hacienda and has had a rich history over the years. Felt very lucky to have the priviledge to stay there.

Just down the road from the hacienda is the ´Middle of the World´ - latitude 000. We went to visit the Equator site where there is a massive sun-dial - at equinox there is no shadow at the equator. The indigenous people here figured this out thousands of years ago and therefore this area has been a sacred place for a long time. (The name Quito actually means Middle Earth). The guy there tried to convince us that all world globes should be side-ways with Ecuador as the centre of the world! I guess it´s all a matter of perspective but not sure it´s going to go global. It´s interesting though that Ecuadorians believe Chimborazo to be the highest mountain in the world - due to the fact that the world is flatter at the poles and fatter at the equator this mountain is further up into the sky than Everest.

We were lucky again with our visit to Cayembe volcano, which is the only place you can find a glacier bang on the equator. It was quite a dramatic drive up to the volcano as myself and two of the others were travelling up in a 37 year-old Land Rover whose back door kept flying open whenever we hit bumps, which we hit a lot of. So Emma and myself were clinging on to the seats to prevent ourselves and our stuff disappearing off down the mountain! We did a short hike to get to the start of the glacier and then climbed up the ice and snow for a bit, just in order to slide our way back down. It was good fun - some of the group went flying down the snow on a big plank which created great video footage.

That afternoon we went out for a horse ride around the local area of the hacienda (no rest for the wicked!). I luckily got the best behaved horse of the group who didn´t want to stop and eat all the green stuff it could find (unlike all the others) and was quite happy to clop along at the back without needing to fight for a position in the line. This area is now one of the largest producers of roses in the world - they even export roses to Holland! So we had a lovely gentle ride through the country-side.

Our final destination on the trip was the market town of Otavalo, which has the largest market in South America. We had a fun last night out with lots of mohitos and salsa dancing but after getting to bed at 3:30 we had to be up at 6:00 to get to the animal market. And I´m so glad I did get up as it was probably one of the funniest mornings of my life. Firstly Dana, one of the guys from the US, bought a piglet! So here was this big gringo walking around the market with a piglet on a string, who was screaching quite a bit (the piglet, not Dana) at being separated from his family. All the locals were just laughing as we walked around. Eventually Dana found a buyer for his piglet - sold at a $4 loss but the entertainment value was priceless. After a wander around the cattle section we were just heading back for breakfast when Edel spotted a lovely little goat which she purchased for $15. And so we headed back across the city with a goat in tow on a string. Everywhere we went there was just a wave of giggling locals at the `gringa with the goat´. We named the goat Little Henry after our tour leader and he was extremely well behaved and bonded well with his new parents. Edel was so attached to Little Henry that she didn´t want to sell the goat to anyone, even though we got some good offers through town. Eventually the restaurant owner, where we were having breakfast gave Little Henry a good home - he owns a hacienda-style hotel where Little Henry could live happily as a lawn-mower!

After the rest of the morning at the craft market we then headed back to Quito for the end of our tour. I´ve really loved this trip and Ecuador has definately been my favourite country on the trip so far. If anyone is thinking of coming to South America and only has a couple of weeks I´d definately recommend coming here as there is just so much diversity and so much to do in a small space. One of the reasons the trip was so good was that we had a brilliant tour leader, Henry, who as a trained ecologist knew so much about the flora and fauna but also about the history and info on all the areas that we visited, that it made the trip so much more interesting. He also had a real enthusiasm for his country that we couldn´t help loving it. Add to this a brilliant group, who were loads of fun and we had a lot of laughs, and it all adds up to an excellent trip! Very sad to say goodbye to everyone ... but next stop Argentina!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Hot´n´humid in the jungle

Been a busy but very fun week since leaving Quito. After overnighting at the lovely hot springs at Papallacta we descended over the Andes to the lowlands at Tena. Our first stop was two nights in a Jungle Lodge, Shangri La, which was perched on a cliff looking down on the river Napo and out across the rainforest. A great place to hang out in a hammock. The whole of the area to the east of the Andes is known as the Amazon basin - the area we were in is known as the Amazon highlands as the rivers are still flowing downhill quite rapidly. The Napo joins with the Amazon itself a long way downstream from here.

We set off down the river in a dugout canoe and along the way visited a local culture museum and animal refuge. At the museum we learning about how the local people hunt, their boats, cooking, animals and food. We also got to have a go at using a blowpipe to shoot darts for hunting - well we were trying to hit a fixed target but I was impressed to get a dart into the board at least. The animal refuge houses animals that have been rescued from mistreatment and illegal pets. Lots iof monkeys that liked showing off, some scary looking ocelots (wild cats) and very noisy mackaws. The weather can change very suddenly here, one minute it´s hot and sunny and the next you´re in the middle of a thunderstorm. Guess that´s why they call it rainforest, eh?

The next day we went rafting down a tributory of the Napo which has class 3 rapids. So really good fun and nothing like as crazy as the class 5 rapids I´d been in previous on the Zambesi. We had three boats with 5 in each and actually had the Ecuadorian national rafting team as our guides so in very good hands. I still managed to fall out in the middle of one rapid and went for a bit of a scary swim but picked up safely at the far end. We stopped at one point at a cave where the mud is supposed to work as a very theraputic facepack so the raft-guides enjoyed themselves painting us up in yellow and grey coloured clay. It was a gorgeous, hot, sunny day which was pretty lucky as we were out on the water for about 5 hours.

From there we headed further into the jungle to stay with a local community for a couple of days. Our host family, Delphine, Estelle and their children were lovely and looked after us all extremely well. We were staying in lovely lodge huts. There is no electricity available in this region but we managed fine without it. The family cooked us amazing food each day on a basic gas stove. GAP, the company I`m travelling with, having been working with this family and the local community for the last 15 years.

In the morning we went to visit the local school which has been supported by GAP. Before the establishment of this school the local kids had to walk 1.5 hours to get to the nearest school in the town. There are just 12 pupils in the school at the moment. Estelle, our host mother, is the local teacher. The kids were very cute on the visit. First they all introduced themselves and then sang us some local songs. They learn both Spanish and Quichua here.

We then went out on a walk through the jungle with Delphine to learn more about the area, the plants and animals. It was extremely humid and lots of bugs but really interesting to hear how the local people know which plants to use for food, medicines, building, tools etc. The rivers here still have traces of gold in them so Delphine showed us how they pan for gold and actually found some small traces whilst we watched. We also tried some palm heart, coco fruit (some of us didn't quite get that we weren´t supposed to eat the coco bean raw which wasn´t the tastiest - obviously needs a bit of something doing before it becomes chocolate!) and lemon-tasting ants. And as you can see did our Tarzan vine-swinging impressions (wellies´n´all).

In the afternoon some of the crew went climbing waterfalls. But I decided to engage in my favourite activity instead - lying in a hammock. Apparently it was pretty crazy what they were climbing up but even worse coming down. That evening the family did a show of local music and dancing after dinner.

The next day it was on to Baños, famous for its hots thermals (hence the title which means baths) and the continuously active volcano, Tungurahua, which is just above the town. It`s nice to get away from the humidity of the jungle as we have headed back into the central Ecuadorian region again. We had a great night out in Baños. We were in a funny bar called the Leprecaun Bar which played the bizarrest mix of salsa, rock and classic 80s tunes that we managed to stay out dancing `til 3 am. The group are very good fun and we`re having a great laugh.

This morning we went for a bike trip down the along the beautiful valley from Baños to Rio Verde - all along there are huge waterfalls falling down to the river floor. It was a lovely ride as it was all downhill (we were all a bit rough around the edges after our late night)and we were able to catch a truck back up.

We are hoping to do the Devil`s Nose train ride tomorrow which is a highlight of the region. We then arrive in Cuenca which is another UNESCO World heritage city. So hope to tell you about that and hopefully get to upload some photos over the next couple of days.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


Spent a few days relaxing in Quito before the start of a two-week trip around Ecuador. Quito has two main areas - the Old Town and the New Town. The New Town is where all the hotels, bars and restaurants are, known as ´Gringoland´to the locals. The Old Town is the Spanish Colonial centre which is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Incas destroyed the Inca city before the Spanish arrived so the Spanish built a new city on top of the Inca ruins. They liked their churches, those Conquistadors - there´s 18 Spanish churches in a km sq area.

Just met up with the new group for the next two weeks - there´s 13 of us plus our Ecuadorian local guide, a mix of Irish, English, Canadian, Australian, U.S. and Dutch. I had to laugh when I met my new room-mate and she lives in Dublin (originally from Meath). And of course it didn´t take us long to work out a friend in common, the famous Jane Ryan.

Ecuador is a very volcanic country and therefore has some great hot springs. Tonight we are going to be staying in a small town that has the best hot springs in Ecuador. Apparently the pools are right outside our cabin doors!

After than we are off to the Amazon jungle for 4 days. We are spending two days in a jungle lodge and two days staying with a local community which should be really interesting. Really looking forward to it - have my bug spray at the ready. Will hopefully manage to post update after that.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Snow at the equator!

Q: where in the world can you find snow at the equator?

Sounds a bit like a trick question but I got caught in a snow-storm today in Ecuador! Ecuador, so called because it lies on the equator, is the only point where high land and the equator intersect.

We were supposed to be mountain-biking down Cotopaxi, the worlds highest active volcano, but when we up to the normal start point at 4800m on the side of the volcano there was a snow-storm blowing. Its possible to do a two day hike to the summit across the glacier normally but not today. The bikes normally start their down-hill at the hikers refuge just below the start of the glacier. But sensibly our guide decided biking in snow mightnt be the wisest idea and no arguments from us on that. (Just two Belgiums and myself on the trip). So we drove back down to the plateau area at the base of the volcano where the weather was clear and began our ride across the flatish boulder field over volcanic ash paths. The boulders had been through out of the volcano during previous eruptions. The most recent was in 1877.
Actually a lovely ride as we continued on down through highland mountain meadows with wild horses around. Then we reached an area of rolling hills that was exactly like the Wicklow Mountains! Ecuador is very green after the desert areas of Peru and Bolivia. Our last section left us completely soaked and muddy though as a sudden downpour as we descended through the forest turned the track into a completely muddy mess. Good fun but I was very glad Id brought a complete change of clothes in the jeep before our two hour drive back to Quito. Apparently the weather in Ecuador is always unpredictable so better get used to changeable conditions - sound a bit familiar?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nasca to Lima

(cant get apostrophe to work on this keyboard plus most of the keys rubbed off & relying on memory so apologies for typos and punctuation!)

From Arequipa we travelled up along the west coast of Peru. One of the most surprising things to me about Peru has been the amount of desert land. You know about the jungle and the mountains but never realise the whole west coast along the Pacific actually has an annual rainfall of zero! Some areas are just sand dunes whilst others are able to be cultivated somewhat due to underground rivers that come down from the highlands. Whilst Arequipa was clear and hot now that we are down from altitude, up along the coast apparently is always covered in grey clouds particularly Lima which is very smoggy.

Our first stop was the town of Nazca famous for the bizarre, giant drawings in the desert believed to have been done about 2000 years ago but the thing is no one is exactly sure what their purpose was. You cant see anything from the ground - you need to take a flight to be able to see them which obviously people 2000 years ago couldnt do. So there are all sorts of theories that these drawings were done by aliens or by humans as communication signals to the aliens. Others believe they are some form of complex agricultural calendar and indicators of water sources. Who knows?
We took a flight in a tiny 5 seater plane which was a bit stomach lurching as the pilot had to bank up at steep angles so we could fly right over the drawings. Theres a very clear monkey, humming birds, condor, whale, and "astronaut" (see above) as well as all sorts of pointing arrows and trapezoids. My photos not that clear but hopefully you´ll get an idea.

I mentioned earlier that some areas are just covered by huge sand-dunes and so our chance to try our hand at sandboarding - ie like snowboarding but on sand! What we hadnt really realised was that we were also being taken on a crazy dune-buggy ride in order to get to the biggest dunes to try boarding. So we strapped into a 9-seater buggy that looked like something out of Mad Max and taken on a insane trip over the tops of the dunes. It was just like a rollercoaster ride but you really didnt know what was over the peak of the next dune and half the time we seemed to be at impossible angles. But we survived and after that the sandboarding was reasonably tame! (But good opportunity for silly poses photo session - see right). Its actually hard to get moving on sand - not like snow at all so in the end the most effective method was to lie on the board and get launched off the top of a dune. Sand just got everywhere - very important to keep your mouth closed on the way down as much as you may want to scream!

As if we hadnt had enough of being thrown around the next day we headed out to the Ballestas island in a speed boat. Luckily a pretty calm ride. The islands are pure rocky outcrops that are home to thousands upon thousands of birds as well as seals and sealions. There are even small Antartic penguins here which were very cute. The craziest thing is that the bird droppings here are excellent fertilizer and so people actually work at collecting the droppings from the rocks. At one stage there was huge wealth to be made in Peru from bird-droppings!

Tour groups are only just returning to this area after the earthquake in August. We stayed in Paracas as most of the hotels in Pisco have been destroyed. We passed through the centre of Pisco and there are few building left in the main square. The most tragically hit was the church as 200 people were at evening mass at then time of the quake and only 3 survived. A lot of people are living in tents in the space where their house once was. A lot of the houses here are still made of adobe mud-bricks and not able to withstand quakes. Theres lots of construction going on outside town but it will be a long time before everyone gets re-housed. Just hope they build something that will survive better.

It was a bit odd being back in a big city when we arrived in Lima. Theres over 9 million people and most of it single storey so it seems to go on forever. The centre is very American with thousands of casinos and the usual fast-food restaurants. We had a good last night out with the group - I completely broke the bank on the most outrageously expensive dinner weve had - actually cost about 15 euro when you convert it! So this is the end of travelling with this group - some are heading on to New Zealand and Australia on their Round-the-World trips, others are on their way back to work. For me, next stop Ecuador!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Arequipa and Colca Canyon

Now in the city of Arequipa, which is Peru´s second most important. We´re back in a more desert-like region with the city formed on volcanic ash from the surrounding volcanos. The city is one of the best examples of colonial spanish influence with the main square with huge cathedral, pillars and enclosed courtyards.
For the last two days we have been to visit the Colca Canyon which is the deepest canyon in the world. We were only able to visit the beginning section of the canyon as to get to the deepest bits you have to hike in for a couple of days. We passed up over a dusty mountain range at about 5000m to get down to the canyon valley. You can see vicuñas as well as llamas and alpacas on the mountain sides. Vicuñas, which look a bit more like hairy deer, are protected here - they have the most expensive wool at about $500 per kilo.
It´s much more fertile in the canyon valley as there has been terraced agriculture established here for hundreds of years with irrigation channels coming down from the mountain tops.
Our first evening a few of us went to visit the local hot springs which was lovely to soak in the seriously hot pools as the sun set around us. Very relaxing.

Early start the next morning in order to catch the main draw of the canyon - the Andean Condor. These birds are the heaviest in the world and rely on circling thermal up-winds in order to rise from their nests at the canyon floor. So you have to try and catch them in the morning when the thermals are blowing. This is not the best time of the year to see the condors but we were lucky enough to see five of them - four adults and one juvenile (you can tell as the young ones are brown whilst adults are black and white). Sometimes there can be about 40 condors in this spot which makes it one of the largest concentrations in the Andes. Unfortunately my skills at photographing condors a bit of a disaster! I got lots of pictures of rocks or tiny spots in the distance so don´t have any to include here. Some of my trip mates had better luck so might hopefully get them to send me theirs.

Only a few days left of my Peru trip now - we´re off to Nasca tonight and hopefully get to do a flight over the strange and unexplained Nasca lines. And then on up the coast to Lima. Probably catch up next from Lima before I continue on to Ecuador.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

Hola a todos,
Just back from the Inca trail and Machu Picchu.

We began with a day trip to the Sacred Valley before we started the trail. We had an excellent local guide for the trip, Miguel, who grew up in this area and just has a huge enthusiasm and knowledge about the mountains and the local area. One of our first stops was the Inca site at Pisac. We are just at the beginning of the rainy season in Peru and unfortunately it looked like that day was going to be the start of it - there was an absolute torrential downpour whilst we were on the mountain and we were all cold, wet and miserable within 10 minutes. We were all wondering what on earth it would be like if we had to hike for four days on the trail in weather like this! We also went shopping for emergency plastic ponchos that night (very attractive) and didn´t feel much better when we woke in the morning to rain and travelled on the bus for an hour to the start of the trail in another complete downpour. After we passed through Passport Control (there are strict regulations on the numbers allowed on the trail these days and you have to have booked at least 5 months in advance to get on), Miguel made an offering of coca leaves to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for good luck. Well, it seemed to work as within a couple of minutes the rain stopped and the sun came out and set out on a lovely day up to our first camp. The going was fairly gentle on the first day as we were on the lower slopes of the valley along by the river. Along with our guide we also have a team of 16 people supporting us! That´s two cooks and 14 porters to carry everything including our bags, tents, cooking equipment, food, chairs...everything. These guys are amazing in how they manage to carry such heavy stuff up the mountains but at least the Peruvian government now regulates a limit of 26kg per porter so they are not carry up to 50kg each like they used to a few years back.
It rained during the evening but our tents held firm and we woke to the most beautiful clear morning with a clear view from our tent door out to the surrounding glaciers.

Day 2 was the tough day with the famous Dead Woman´s Pass to get over. We started from camp at just above 3000m and had a long, steep climb to get to the pass at 4215m. Probably one of the toughest hikes I´ve done as close to the top you can really feel the altitude just making you pant your way up. But we were hiking up through the loveliest river valley following the trail through a steep valley so there were plenty of excuses for stopping for photos or a quick rest. We all made it up in good time in the end and enjoyed a photo session at the top. The rest of the day´s hike was a fairly leisurely downhill to our second camp. There had been an option of continuing for a further three hours that afternoon but we were all very happy when our guide said we would be staying put for the afternoon and continuing the next day. So we all had a massive lunch, then an afternoon nap, followed by tea at 5 and then dinner at 7! Just as well we are doing some exercise as we are eating so well. It´s amazing the food that the cooks manage to whip up on a simple camping stove. Very impressive set up all together. Everytime we arrive the porters have already set up the kitchen and dining tents as well as our sleeping tents (2 per tent) and have bowls of hot water ready for us to wash our hands. Again Pachamama was very good to us as although it rained overnight when we were tucked up in our tents and a very chilly night we awoke to another beautiful clear morning at the early hour of 6am.

Day 3 began with another steep but much shorter climb to the top of our second pass but after that continued with a beautiful walk along the high valley with amazing views all around. There are lots of different Inca ruins along the route. Some are agricultural centres where the Incas were able to grow different crops on the terraces at different altitudes. We arrived at the final pass which had an amazing view down over the whole valley of the river Urabamba. Then it was a very long downhill to get to our camp - about 2 hours of walking down stone steps which was pretty rough on the knees. But we eventually arrived to our camp which had hot showers and cold beer! Oh it´s the small things in life that keep you happy. As we´d been hiking for the past three days without showers and limited clothing changes (each person is only allowed 7kg including sleeping bag and mat) then the shower was great. Again it downpoured in the evening and really didn´t think tent would hold that night but survived ok.

Day 4 very early start with wake-up at 4 in order to try and get to the sun-gate above Machu Picchu as early as possible. The porters had to pack up very quickly and run down the mountain as there was a census on in Peru and they all had to try to get back to their homes. It was about a hour´s hike to the sun-gate with tired legs but it was a beautiful view right down over Machu Picchu when we finally got to the sun-gate. Again we were graced with a beautiful clear sky which is unusual as often Machu Picchu is shrouded in cloud.

From the sun-gate is about another 20 minutes down to the city itself. Luckily the census meant that a lot of buses were not running so there were less day trippers than usual. We spent a couple of hours learning about the city and the Inca people from Miguel. Very incredible place.
Train back to Cuzco very tired but having had an excellent trip.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Peru - Lake Titicaca

There is now a group of 8 of us continuing on the trip through Peru. Five from the Bolivia group (3 Irish, 1 Scottish, 1 Kiwi) plus 2 Aussies and 1 French-Canadian.

We crossed into Peru at Lake Titicaca, the world´s highest navigable lake, where we spent a couple of days out visiting the island communities. The lake covers a huge area and it look about 3 hours to make it out to Taquille island where there are still about 4000 inhabitants. We learned all about the local hats which tell you a lot about a person. You can tell if someone is married or not and if not you can even not whether they are engaged, looking to get married or not interested just by the direction they wear their bobble! Fresh trout caught in the lake that morning for lunch.

On to Amantani island where we were to stay the night with a local family. When we arrived at the dock we were divided up into 2 or 3 per family. All the local people speak Quechua here but luckily my host 'papa' (see left) spoke spanish so we were able to communicate fairly ok. Very, very sweet family we made us feel very welcome. The island is very hilly and we were tired just after the walk up to our house. So when we hiked to the top of the island at 4180m to see the sunset we were all beginning to wonder how we would fare with the Inca Trail if we were finding this tough.

But sunset worth the climb. As you´d expect it gets extremely dark out here with thousands of stars visible. Everyone else in the group was very jealous that our house had electricity so we could actually see what we were eating for our family dinner. Really good homemade soup.

In the evening we had one of the funniest evenings ever. All the local people still wear dress that comes from the Spanish colonial times where they were expected to emulate Spanish country dress in particular here from Andalucia. So the local entertainment on the island is to dress all the guests up in local dress and all go down for boogie in the community centre. So the two other girls in my house and myself were crying with laughter as our papa dressed us up in a white embroidered shirt (see above), two giant pleated skirts, a very tight thick belt around the waist and then a long black embroidered shawl. Beautiful clothes but we immediately looked about 18 stone or 8 months pregnant or both! Also very hard to breathe with the belt so tight. We waddled our way with the family down to the hall to find everyone else similarly dressed up with the men in ponchos and funny hats. The local boys all played in the two bands. And so the dancing began - somewhere between a ceili and a Jack Rabbit Slim´s twist competition! Very, very funny.

We´re now in Cuzco relaxing for a few days before we start 3 day hike on the Inca Trail and visit Machu Picchu. Four of the group have gone to the jungle for two days. I´m going to be in the jungle later in Ecuador. Cuzco is a great city to wander about with old, narrow winding streets and lots of great shops, bars and restaurants to keep the credit card busy. Trying to get all my energy together now for the Inca Trail which we begin in a couple of days - catch you all after that,


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A quiet day in the country

Hi Mum & Dad,
Today we had a lovely scenic day travelling into the Bolivian countryside. You may not want to read the rest of this entry so advise you stop here!

For everyone else....yesterday I moutain biked down ´The World´s Most Dangerous Road´!!!
It´s a narrow gravelly road cut into the side of a mountain with a huge cliff drop to one side. We started at 4700m and ended at 1100m and the most amazing thing is that you can travel between two completely different climatic regions in one day on a bike. The start is surrounded by bleak, snow-covered sharp mountain peaks and you finish in a tropical valley with heat, humidity and lots of buzzy things! Just to clarify the title world´s most dangerous road really comes from when this was the main thoroughfare into the valley and all the traffic used to be trying to drive in both directions when there is hardly room for one. (Boo, I can´t imagine what it was like for you guys arriving here all those years ago). But now there is a new road and the old road is only used by tourists and hundreds of mountain biking groups. I went with the company with the best security record, Gravity Assisted, though and they were really good at equiping us with great bikes and safety gear, advising us and informing us about the route the whole way down so we were well looked after and no accidents in our group. They have brought 34,000 bikers down the road without a death yet!
The first bit on the WMDR was fairly scary though as the drop is just huge beside you and we were just learning the best techniques for biking on gravel. At points we were cycling through waterfalls that were falling on the road and through a few rivers which was really fun. Began to relax and enjoy the ride more as you progress down the valley - really stunning surroundings when you got the chance to look around. Only one car passed us all day so not too hairy in the end and the lower bits where the road is a bit wider a lot of fun. In total we covered about 70km all downhill except 5km (which we panted through at 4000m) so our hands and arms were the sores as we had to continually have them on the brakes. We ended up at an animal refuge in the valley were there were hot showers, beer and buffet lunch. Completely exhausted last night and was in bed at 9pm. Muscles a bit sore today but not too bad - proudly wearing my ´I biked the World´s Most Dangerous Road´ t-shirt!
Just arrived in Peru - off to Lake Titicaca for the next couple of days.
Chat soon,