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,

Monday, October 8, 2007

Bolivia - Salt plains and desert

Hi all,
A bit of a catch up to do today as just back in La
Paz after 5 days in the desert. Pretty tired and very dusty but have seen some of the most amazing, spectacular scenary along the way. I´ll try and do a bit of a recap but as I´m just off a night bus this mightn´t be the most eloquent.


At 4160m Potosi is the highest city in the world of its size. At one stage it was the richest city in the world and kept the Spanish empire rich for 300 years. That´s because it´s was one of the largest silver mining cities. The conditions here were very harsh and over 8 million people died in the mines and the town in colonial times. African slaves were even shipped in to keep the mines going. The are still some mines open but mining is a voluntary and quite prosperous occupation though still harsh conditions. There are currently about 14,000 miners as the price of silver is reasonably good at the moment.
We went to visit the Mint museum which shows how they minted the silver coins for the Spanish empire. Ironically all current Bolivian coins are now minted in Spain! We also went on a tour to visit the miners´market and the mines. This is the only market in the world where you can just buy dynamite at the side of the street. If it had just said ACME on the side it would have just been like something in the cartoons. Some of the crew then got all kitted out to go into the mines themselves to visit miners at work with gifts of coca leaves and 95% alcohol which is apparently all they survive on all day. As dark, small, enclosed spaces with explosions and noxious gases are not exactly my favourite I decided against going into the mines but went up to the mining area anyway to watch the miners coming out with their day´s booty.


From Potosi we had a very bumpy journey down to Uyuni. This was our first experience of unpaved dirt roads - something we would get very used to in the next 4 days. Unfortunately very rattley bus which we though wouldn´t make it but it did eventually. But for me it was my first experience of the vast South America country side and so enjoyed just watching the scenery go by. We were mostly weaving our way through the mountain ranges to get down from the heights of Potosi. Nothing up here really but some goats, sheep and lots of llamas!

Uyuni is the town on the edge of the huge salt plain of Salar de Uyuni. We overnighted here before picking up our 4x4 jeeps and crew for our 4 day trip. We had 3 jeeps with 5 passengers, driver and a cook who bring all our cooking needs for the 4 days.
The salt plain covers a vast area of 12,000 km square. The high altitude lake dried up about 8000 years ago leaving just a huge expanse of flat white that looks a bit like snow. The only people out here are a few locals who work on refining the salt for cooking and hundreds of tourists driving all over the place in jeeps! There are no roads - you just follow previous tracks to know where you are going. The main entertainment is taking pictures where the perspective is all confused due to the perfect white everywhere - see my example of me standing on top of 'giant' beer can! We spent hours just having fun with photos. I´m hoping the group will be able to share all the photos as I don´t have too many on my camera but there are some excellent ones where a group of people look like they are standing on someone´s hand, etc.

The strangest place in the middle of the plain is an island completely covered in giant cacti some hundreds of years old. Our cooks made us a delicious lunch of llama steaks whilst we did a hike around the island! Very tasty.
That night we went to stay in a salt hotel on the edge of the plain. Yep, all the walls, tables, chairs and beds made out of salt!

Desert - Flamingoes

The next day we set of on a bumpy drive into the start of the desert. The 4x4 jeeps are great and well able to handle the terrain. We visited a number of lagoons where there are huge flocks of pink flamingoes.

The surrounds areas are very barren and the flamingoes are the only real sign of animal life. Some of the lagoons are rich with minerals and so are all sorts of colours from deep red to glowing green.

As we continued to drive further we began to get further and further into desert where even scrub grass no longer grows. Just spectacular to be driving across red dusty plains surrounded by volcanos, some still active.
Our accomodation in the desert was prety basic but the cooks did a really good job at producing great meals for us with very limited resources. The main thing was that at 4300 metres of altitude in the desert it was freezing at night! So we wrapped up in all our thermals and recently purchased alpaca hats and weren´t too bad.

Birthday in the Desert

Well this is certainly the first birthday I´ve had where I´ve had to get up at 5am in the pitch dark and freezing cold but it was worth it to get to the geysers and bubbling volcanic mud as the sun was just rising. The freezing temperatures certainly added to the amount of steam coming out. Next stop was a dip in thermal pools before breakfast! Can´t believe I really was outside in minus temperatures at 7 in the morning in a swimsuit but the thermal pool was absolutely gorgeous once you got in so warmed us up beautifully. It then gets really hot and sunny during the day - there are absolutely no clouds in the sky at all here. We continue south almost to the border of Chile and the Atacama desert - this is one of the driest deserts in the world. We pass through areas over 5000 m and our most southern stop is the Laguna Verde - an amazing green lake which is like a mirror when still (see above) or an amazing illuminous green when the wind blows - we luckily caught both conditions whilst there.
Our final night was spent closer back to Uyuni which was at a bit lower altitude and therefore a fair bit warmer. I´m not sure how the cooks managed with only a gas burner to cook with but somehow they managed to bake me a lovely birthday cake which we all enjoyed for breakfast the next morning as we were all too stuffed to fit it in that night.

Right, time to sign out and catch a nap before heading out tonight in La Paz. It´s the last night with this whole group - should be a fun night. Hopefully we´ll get our laundry back as everything was so dusty and dirty I´ve little left to wear!
Five of us are continuing on into Peru and three new people will join us tomorrow - two Aussies and one Canadian I think. Hope to catch you soon from Peru...

Monday, October 1, 2007


We have a good group of 14 who are going to spend the next week in Southern Bolivia. There were 8 of us who flew down to Sucre from La Paz to join 6 others who were coming here after travelling from Brazil. So we have 5 Irish, 5 New Zealanders, 1 English, 1 Scottish, 1 Aussie and 1 Canadian. So yes funny to end up with a bunch of Irish but good group altogether. We have a really nice Peruvian leader who is really good at making our lives easy.
The journey from La Paz to Sucre was probably one of the most stunning flights I´ve even been on. La Paz is in a giant bowl and above it on one side is a huge plain called the Altiplano which extends from La Paz into Peru and Lake Titicaca (which I will be visiting later). So we took off from the airport on top of the plain and you could see the whole of La Paz below in the bowl. The other side is surrounds by high snow-covered Andean peaks. At one point we were the exact same altitude as the peaks so we were flying along beside them. We then crossed lower lying Andeas for our dramatic entrance to Sucre. We were just skimming the tops of the surround mountains and then had to do a huge bank to get around to the airport which seemed to be on top of a mountain but again there was a flat plain. Very exciting/scary.
Sucre is the official capital of Bolivia although La Paz is really the main administrative capital. There´s lots of rivalry between the two cities. Sucre is a far more pretty city than La Paz with all the buildings white-washed like a Spanish city. It was actually the centre of the Spanish Court in colonial times and most of the buildings have been well preserved. It a really nice city to wander around and the local people like to hang out in the squares.
I had wanted to go to see dinosaur footprints this afternoon but heard from other people not worth the effort. I really just wanted to go for a ride in the Dinobus!
After Potosi tomorrow we are off to the Salt Plains which I´m really looking forward to - except for the fact that it is supposed to be absolutely freezing at night! Will hopefully update you all about that when I get back to La Paz in about 6 days.
(Sorry not pics today - slow connection)