26/01/05 La Paz

Posted: January 27th, 2005 | Tags: | No Comments »

A wobbley ride to La Paz, Bolivia’s capital and the highest in the world took longer than expected: rain seems to have washed away most of the roads (only about 5% here are paved). The city has a spectacular setting deep in a canyon, urbanised all the way up to the rim, in which is located another, donut-shaped city called “El Alto”.

La Paz itself is crowded and chaotic – the most stereotypical Latin American city so far. The streets are jammed with people, balaclavaed shoeshiners (some sort of secret army?) and stalls selling everything you want from bandages to fossils (“psst, amigo, wanna buy a fossil?”) to llama foetuses in the witchdoctor’s market.

But it’s all fun. We’re staying in a hotel called “Happy Days”, we had our washing done in somewhere called “Laundry Speed Queen” and we ate in a Chinese restaurant called “Jackie Chan”. Fantastic.

Tomorrow we off to the jungle. It’s between 18 hours and 6 days on a bus (!), so we’re flying on the plastic instead. We’ll be there for 6 sweltering days looking for monkeys, anacondas, caimans, river dolphins and god knows what other slithery or slimy things.


24/01/05 Copacabana

Posted: January 27th, 2005 | Tags: | No Comments »

First impressions of Bolivia are good. The border town of Copacabana is quiet, chilled out and cheap. We were anticipating things being cheaper here, so we didn’t buy much in Peru or Ecuador and are making up for it here: within a couple of hours of arriving we’d bought a small bag of tasty textiles. We’d buy plenty more stuff, but we’d have to lug it around for the next month. Also, in Peru, there is a tax when you finish building a house, so most are incomplete, with bricks and girders sticking out everywhere. In contrast, the houses here are pleasantly complete.

The town is set beautifully beside Lake Titicaca and its many islands. We caught an early boat to La Isla del Sol (“The Island of the Sun”) where the first Inca apparently leapt from the water to start the empire. We didn’t visit the legendary “Sacred Stone” (sounds like a Father Ted gag), but we did trek a round trip of the island in a quick 5 hours, hastened by the looming thought of the last bus to the mainland leaving without us. At one stage we even employed a small child to row us across a little bay (not exactly child labour – I used to mow people’s lawns at the same age). But it was a pleasant walk through rural Bolivian life. We returned to see the sun go down followed by a spectacularly loud thunderstorm (I think we’re closer to the clouds here).


23/01/05 Puno

Posted: January 24th, 2005 | Tags: | 4 Comments »

The roadblocks have been dismantled and we made it to Puno, a chaotic but pleasant town on the shores of Lake Titicaca and one step closer to Bolivia.

The lake is beautiful. At this altitude (3800), the air is remarkably clear and the moon is as bright as the sun is blinding. In fact, the combination of the hot sun and its reflection on the water has given me the first tingly touch of sunburn since Ecuador. The lake is the highest “navageable” lake in the world and it is home to about six old British ocean liners, each of which were hauled up here on muleback from the Pacific Ocean.

The lake is also peppered with some of the most interesting islands imagineable. The Uros Islas are the famous floating reed islands that the locals built to get away from the Incas. Almost like crannógs, but on a much bigger scale and more mobile. Padding around them produces a strange sense of unease accompanied by the very slight fear of stepping on a rotten bit and falling into the freezing lake below.

The other, more tangibly solid, islands are also unusual for their unique cultures that were kept isolated from the mainland up until the tourist dollar arrived. The absense of cars and dogs provide a strange unperuvian quietness and the local dress looks more Moroccan than anything. For a few hours I wasn’t sure where I was. We wanted to stay the night, just for the peace, but we couldn’t find a family to put us up.

At 170km in length, the return trip across the lake gave us ample bird watching opportunities, the highlights being blue-beaked ducks and some flamingoes. That night, after wading through an inpromptu fiesta (we found out later that everyone was actually practising for the big fiesta next week), we had dinner in a little joint called “Machu Pizza”. Just because.

Finally, to use up the rest of our Peruvian money, we took a trip to some nearby giant funerary towers that used to be jammed with mummies. Tomorrow is Bolivia: land of civil disputes and cheap things!


17/01/05 Arequipa

Posted: January 22nd, 2005 | Tags: | No Comments »

We spent some five days recovering from the trail and generally relaxing in a very hospitable Cusco hostal, which we stumbled upon by accident and is apparantly normally only found by word-of-mouth. The hostal was home (literally – some people have been there for months!) to plenty of interesting heads, at which at any given time, half of whom might have been under the influence of “San Pedro”, a particularly enlightening cactus. A fun week by all accounts, but unfortunately only that, as we had to hit the road again, with only five weeks left.

Next stop was Arequipa, a town of volcanoes and kebabs. A pretty town, coloured white from the distinctive rock of nearby mountains. A volcano called “El Misti” looms overhead, except, of course, when it is shrouded in mist. Arequipa is one of those “staring cities”; a peculiar phenonemon that occurs every 1 in 10 towns whose entire populace seems to think it is perfectly normal behaviour to stop whatever they are doing and stare at the bearded lanky whitey. All the more surprising considering the amount of gringos that seem to shuffle around the streets here.

Yes, we’re certainly overlapping now with a well established gringo trail. This is evident in the hilarious manner in which certain restauranteurs will attempt to coax you into eating in their overpriced, identical establishments. No gracias, señor, I neither want a roasted guinea pig nor an alpaca steak, I prefer to give all my custom to the same Turkish eatery for my entire visit to your shining city. Also, every so often, you’ll accidentally stay at a plush hotel in which the staff are falling over themselves to say “buenos dias” to you, which comes as quite a shock to a pair of ruffians used to staying at places described in the guidebook as “clean, cheap but smells a little musty”.

Arequipa is home to an expensive monastery, more churches, some mansions and a museum full of ice mummies plundered from sacred Inca burial sites at the top of nearby snow-covered mountains. I felt such a sense of malaise and wrong-doing whilst in that particular museum that I felt obliged to leave a strongly worded disapproval in the guestbook. Or at least as strongly worded as my least unbroken Spanish can get.

Despite all that, the reason we’re here was to go to Colca Canyon, the second deepest in the world (the largest being about 200km down the road) and hopefully home to a small family of condors. Half a day up an unpaved road will bring you to Chivay, a small village mere hours from the canyon. The single most impressive aspect of this village is that, together with 4000 distinctly Peruvian inhabitants, it has, incredibly, it’s own Irish pub. Called something like “McGyvers” and requiring serious knocking to even open its doors, it was a welcome sight after 5 hours in a dusty, bumpy minivan. Noting that it sold Bushmills at $6 a pop (the equivalent of three 4-course dinners), we abused the free pool table and drank plenty of the local offerings.

The next morning greeted us with bleary eyes and a few more unpaved hours to the canyon itself. We didn’t venture quite as far to its deepest part, but were impressed enough with the drop of over a kilometer. What impressed us almost infinitely more was the sudden arrival of a large family of seven condors, amazingly beautiful in their three metre wing span and soaring freeness. I’m not ashamed to admit that their colossal but graceful flight right there in their natural habitat might have brought a tear to my eye.

I could have stayed all day, but that bone-jarring journey back to town beckoned. This was made all the more comforting by the discovery of a local bus strike preventing our departure from Arequipa and ensuring several more days of staring eyes and tasty kebabs.


05/01/05 Machu Picchu

Posted: January 16th, 2005 | Tags: | 2 Comments »

The four day hike to Machu Picchu exceeded all my expectations. Rather than spending four days simply getting to the Lost City, to me, the journey itself was just as breathtaking as the destination.

Hugging the side of immense mountains, the Inca Trail sports spectacular views at every corner. Snow capped mountains tower over deep green valleys, high-jungle micro-climates hide ancient ruins, spectacled bears and hundreds of species of orchids. A myriad of Inca watch towers, terraces and lost towns pepper the route, wheting the appetite for the trail’s final destination.

In physical terms, the trail was tough going for me, a seasoned couch potato. But by staying with the head of the group, you have to keep pace with the leader. It’s incredible what you can put your body through if you have the right mental attitude — I don’t think I’ve ever physically worked like that, but it’s an amazing feeling when you push yourself and meet your personal goals. On the second day, climbing 1km in altitude and reaching “Dead Woman’s Pass” brings an incredible sense of achievement and elation, almost like reaching the summit of a mountain.

Unexpectedly, meeting new people was also a memoral part of the trek. Because you’re walking (and recovering) with the same people all day and because you know they’re going through the same experiences as you, you end up making good friends with all sorts of people. Apart from another Dub, the group was mostly young Americans. Also fun was the interaction with the guides and porters and I even learned a little Quechua, still the predominant language around here. To the amusement of many an indigineous porter, I accidentally said “how’s it going, bitches” in the language of the Incas.

Machu Picchu itself was almost an anti-climax after climbing for four days to reach it. The city is full of amazing things — temples and baths and amazing astronomic accuracy, but we were all a bit sleepy after getting up at 3:30 to beat the tourist rush. Nevertheless, reaching the picture postcard point above the city just as the cloud was clearing will be remembered in my mind forever.

Photos for the Inca Trail and Peru so far.


04/01/05 Cusco

Posted: January 10th, 2005 | Tags: | No Comments »

Architecturally, Cusco is an amazing city. The colonial heart contains blocks and blocks of pretty red tiled buildings huddling over winding streets. What’s more interesting is that many of these are built directly on Inca walls, which can still be seen walking around the streets. The quality of the stonework is absolutely amazing and totally overpowers the ye olde European stuff. For this and other reasons the city is a joy to wander around. The valley around the city still has thousands of Quechua speaking indiginous people, who regularly bring their sheep or llamas into the city to sell photos of.

Even in the low season, there are hundreds of gringos wandering around and because it is the off-season, restaurants and bars will do anything to get you in their door, including shouting out their menu from across the street and offering free drinks and 50% discounts.

As the city was the capital of the Inca empire, there are of course plenty of remaints of the great culture. Glossing over the myriad of churches and cathedrals, we spent a couple of days wandering around several ruins outside the city. The most famous and impressive ruin is Sacsayhuaman, a large fort on the hill above the town. We also visited some other smaller ruins a few hours downt the road. It’s crazy, you just walk over to a pile of unmarked rocks at the side of the road and you find tunnels and carved rocks.

We spent a few hours buying chocolate snacks in preparation for the 4 day hike to Machu Picchu. We’re leaving tomorrow and are very giddy about it.


31/12/04 Lima

Posted: January 10th, 2005 | Tags: | No Comments »

After a couple of sleepness nights on a economy class bus, we splashed out the extra few soles for first class and were whisked into Lima in 10 blissfully sleepy hours. Having passed most of the 8 million inhabitants during the night, we picked a cheap hotel in Miraflores, a rich suburb – the centre isn’t at all safe. I’ve mixed feelings about staying here. On one hand, the content confident people and brave contemporary architecture makes this the model modern South American city. On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore the millions of people in a ring of poverty around the city. Walking through posh malls leaves me with a overwhelming sense of claustrophic disgust at the division of wealth.

The city itself is huge, taking hours to get anywhere. The old centre is nice, with pretty colonial architecture, an impressive cathedral and a small chinatown. We’re only here for a day and almost all the sights are closed because of the new year, but it’s ok because we’re flying to Cusco tomorrow, where there’ll be plenty to amuse us.

For new year’s eve, we drank a bottle of bad Peruvian wine and watch some Australians drinking champagne. We all got a bit sleepy and retired to bed around 11:30 to the sound of premature fireworks.