Fry ups, Fins and Fireworks.

23 12 2008

Arriving back in the historic capital of the Inca Empire, we headed once more back up the hill to Loki hostel. The hostel itself is over 450 years old, and matched with the cold climate, was perfectly suited for some traditional festive fun. The place is built around two central courtyards, and looks out across the city. Our dorm room was complete with exposed beams, original wooden floor and a door that opened out onto a mini balcony. From here we could stand and stare out at the red tiled roofs that make up Cusco, and could see all the way across to Plaza de Armas, dominated by the Cathedral. We were in our room with a number of friends who we had met along the trip, namely Susan and Enda. With Christmas literally around the corner, we finally felt the festive spirit.Being back in Cusco, there was yet another reason to celebrate; we could go to Jacks café again! We discovered Jacks last time we had been in Cusco for the Inca Trail, and we had been looking forward to going back again! The food was divine, and there is no better time than Christmas for some guilt free indulgence. As soon as we were together we headed down for some afternoon tea. It was quite simply the best place we had found the entire trip. From the breakfast through to the lunches, Jacks had every base covered. For breakfasts, you could choose from porridge, or fresh pancakes with fruit, or even go for a full fry up! Then for lunch, there was a huge array of toasties, salads, nachos, or burgers. All the portions were generous and cooked to perfection. If you had room, you could then choose from a selection of wonderful home made cakes, accompanied by the best coffee, hot chocolate or frappes in the Southern hemisphere. Claire and I were in heaven, and it quickly became the focal point of every day that we were in Cusco.

If you wanted to cook however, there was also an amazing food market in Cusco. Located just outside Plaza San Francisco, the first thing that hit you was the assortment of smells that invaded your nose as you entered. They sold anything you could possibly want, and at an extremely affordable price. There were whole pigs laid out on the counter, chickens, sections of llama and a huge variety of fish. There were every vegetable and fruit imaginable, and huge sacks of herbs and spices. Plus if you got peckish walking around there was also dozens of stands serving fresh food there and then. All the locals came here for lunch, from the shoe polishers through to the suited business men with their polished shoes. Claire and I sat down for a heaped plate of ceviche and soaked up the atmosphere, and just listened to the eclectic conversations taking place around us.

It was an unconventional Christmas in Cusco. By this I mean not only were we away from family, mince pies and Christmas decorations, but it was also the first Christmas that wasn’t dominated by long cold hauls down the high street searching for that allusive Christmas present. There was no late night shopping, no X factors Christmas covers, and no midnight wrapping of gifts. It may sound cheesy, but it was lovely to focus on the true meaning of Christmas, and on friends, fun and laughter. The highlight for me was Christmas Eve; the hostel had invited all the children from the local orphanage to join us for the morning. We had all donated gifts, and we had a Father Christmas: I don’t know who was more excited about seeing him; the kids or us! As they came in, all 150 of them, their eyes lit up. We watched as they ran about, giggling and playing games. One by one they were called up to receive their gift. Some could hardly contain their excitement; they threw their arms around Papá Noel (Father Christmas) and ran back clutching their present tightly. Each one said a loud thank you. Afterwards we all had hot chocolate and a slice of Christmas cake. We sat with them all morning, playing, chatting and helping some who couldn’t wait, to open their presents.

In the afternoon we headed down to the main Plaza. There was a huge Christmas market taking place that day, and we passed the time walking round the different stalls and purchasing a few items to take back home. We also bought plenty of biscuits from Susan’s stall, who was selling them to raise money for a children’s trust that she had been volunteering for. When it began to rain heavily, we headed back up the hill to prepare for the evenings carousing. Some things never change!

In keeping with a long held tradition, we all headed out for Christmas Eve. After a few happy hour specials at the Loki bar, we walked down to hill in convoy to see what the town had to offer. The main square was in full swing, and there were people everywhere, many of which were selling and setting off huge fireworks. I purchased a few and we stood back and watched with trepidation, as they shot up into the night’s sky. Some weren’t so effective though, and we had to be on constant look out for stray rockets heading in our direction! We headed to Uptown first, and then onto Mama Africa’s. I’d recommend both for a good night out! We slumped into bed in the early hours of Christmas day.

Christmas morning, Claire and I awoke bright and early with the customary hangovers, yet nothing was going to get in the way of our excitement: we had two large boxes to open from our wonderful Mothers back in England. Trying not to wake the others, we ripped open the sellotape like 5 year olds, and threw wrapping paper all over the place as we opened the contents. True to form, my mum had paid heed to the ´subtle´ hints in my emails, and the box was full of sugary goodness; from Percy pigs to Chocolate Oranges, we had been truly spoilt! There was even a Marks and Spencer´s Chocolate Christmas pudding in there as well! By this stage we had successfully woken everybody else up, and not before long we were all sat in bed, clutching a warm mug of English tea, and munching away on chocolate coins and Minstrels.

To purge ourselves of the previous evenings abuse, we headed down in our Christmas gear (I had a pair of Llama socks and matching jumper from Claire!) to Jacks for a Gordos Special Fry up! We were joined by an Aussie from our room, also called Jack funnily enough, and a special guest.

On our previous trip to Cusco we had met William. William was one of many children that worked the streets of Cusco, selling postcards, sweets and jewellery. William himself sold wonderful hand painted postcards of local scenes, which his older brother produced. His English was perfect, as was his patter. He entertained us and educated us with facts and stories about England and the surrounding area. We met him every day outside Jacks and had a chat, and he was cheeky enough to ask if we were coming back for Christmas, and hinted that he had always wanted a bicycle…

We couldn’t afford a new bike, and sadly even if we had, the fact remains that it would have caused jealousy amongst his peers and siblings. Furthermore, when his family could just about afford to put food on the table, what use really was a new bike. Instead we opted to buy him a Manchester United football shirt, his favourite team. He was extremely pleased with this, and we invited him to join us for Christmas breakfast. He told us he only really liked Peruvian food, but was quite content with a bowl of curly fries and a strawberry milkshake.

That evening we all sat down in the hostel for a huge Christmas dinner. The hostel had gone to town, and we were treated to roast turkey and all the trimmings, all washed down with a number of bottles of bubbly and red wine! Afterwards the Christmas tunes were cranked up loud, and not before long everyone was joining in, singing aloud to Slade and Bing Crosby. Claire was the only one that made it into town that night, and by all accounts had an eventful night out, specifically the journey home…

The next day was spent in true Boxing Day style; we had a wander around town, had lunch in the pub watching the television, and then headed back to the hostel for a nap, before cwtching up and watching “Home Alone”, accompanied by a few slices of Terry´s chocolate orange. This was followed by…yet another hectic night on the tiles… ´tis the season to be jolly after all!

With the end of the year approaching we decided to head up North for some sea and sunshine; with this in mind we boarded the bus to Mancora. We headed up with Susan, and were going to be joined up there by a number of people from Cusco, all with the same idea.

As the journey was long we decided to break it up with a stop over in Lima. We stayed in Miraflores, and enjoyed a rather decadent night out at Larco Mar, full of paella, calamari and cocktails overlooking the ocean. The next day we continued the journey north, anxiously waiting some surf and sand.

Mancora itself felt like a Thai town, there were tuk tuks everywhere and it was full of noise and dust. We stayed in the brand new Loki hostel which was right on the seafront, and complete with pool and poolside bar. Our room, whilst not quite finished, had a large balcony overlooking the beach, and we could hear the sea from our beds. I was happy, and slipped on my boardies and headed down to see what the surf was like.

Whilst not large, it was clean and warm. Claire and I wasted no time in hiring boards and paddled out for a session. It was so lovely not to have to spend ages of time putting on a damp wetsuit and gloves and booties. The water was clear, and fish nibbled on our toes, and as we sat waiting for a set, several pelicans flew overhead, one stopping to plunge into the water for some lunch. I could tell already we were going to spend a while here!

New Year’s eve itself began in a relaxing fashion, lazily sipping G&Ts on our balcony as we watched the sun set for the last time in 2008. We then headed down to the bar where the party was getting underway, and saw the year out with fireworks and plenty of Peruvian cervezas. Afterwards, the few of us that were still standing headed down to the beach. Claire, myself and our friend Mike sat in one the wooden bars on the beach, and chatted long into the morning, finally heading to sleep as the sun rose on the new year and the first surfers of the day paddled out back for an early session.

Over the next ten days we made the most of the fantastic restaurants that Mancora had to offer; there was Thai, Mexican, Sushi and a great steak house. Our favourite place though was Papa Joe´s Milk Bar. Looking right out across the sea, we spent many a lunchtime enjoying a cold beer and munching away on our toasties with beer battered chips, all for a bargain 12 soles. We topped off the great food, with plenty of dancing, sunbathing, reading and the occasional cocktail.

If it wasn’t for the fact that we managed to counter all this relaxing with some exercise, we would both have been forced to take up two seats each on the bus out of Mancora. On top of the surfing, there was also plenty of table tennis, volleyball, swimming and a few great games of beach football (South America vs. the Rest of the World) Claire found a fantastic yoga place as well; situated further down the beach, it took place in a quaint wooden hut looking out across the waves. The sessions seemed to have some wonderful effects: each day the girls came back looking as if they were on something, a glazed look of contentment spread across their faces. I got the same feeling from an ice cream and a game of Frisbee. The simple things in life…!

After a while though we got itchy feet, and it was time to get back on the road and explore more of what South America had to offer. This time we decided to go further off the beaten track than we had been so far; and caught a bus to Chiclayo, from where we headed inland, into the jungle, and up towards the Amazon River.


New Photos!

20 12 2008

Have finally loaded a new selection of photos up – Just click the link on the right! More to follow…

Canyons, Condors and Cockroaches.

8 12 2008

As we were heading back to Cusco for Christmas we didn’t hang around after we got back from the Inca trek, so we hopped on a bus to Arequipa. Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city and is nicknamed the ´La Ciudad Blanca´ (The White City) due to the many colonial-era Spanish buildings built of sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock. It’s also called “the city where the volcanoes rest” because it’s surrounded by three impressive volcanoes: Misti, Chachani and PichuPichu. Volcanoes are visible from almost every place from the city. It is also possible to go on an expedition up these mountains. We decided not to do it though as we were still recovering from the Inca Trek. By the sounds of it, this was a wise decision; we met some guys in our hostel that had attempted to climb up Misti (5821m high) and had to be evacuated down as they suffered from severe altitude sickness and lack of oxygen. One of them ended up in hospital for a week.One of the main reasons for coming to Arequipa was to visit the Colca Canyon. It is located about 100 miles northwest of Arequipa, and is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Parts of the canyon are still habitable, and Inca and pre-Inca terraces are still cultivated along the less precipitous canyon walls. The Colca River runs through the middle. The canyon is home to the Andean Condor, something which I was very keen to see.

It is possible to do treks through the Canyon, but we had been recommended a 2 day tour by bus through the surrounding area, visiting several Inca sites along the way and ending up with a visit to the Canyon itself to view the Condors. We set out early morning, and in less than two hours regretted our decision. Our bus was full of holiday makers who were desperate to see as much of Peru as possible in such a short time. Our tour guide talked non stop in Spanish, then with halted English translations. He repeatedly attempted to crack jokes and had the microphone up at such a volume that it was impossible to drown out. We stopped every 20 minutes for either a toilet break or for a chance to take a photo of a llama or a field… The breaking point was when most of the people on the bus politely turned down the offer of coca leaves for the altitude, as they “didn’t do drugs…”

That we visited a number of different Inca ruins; whilst still relatively interesting, I found it hard to be too captivated having just come from Machu Picchu itself. Furthermore the ruins that we saw were only around 20% original, and had been rebuilt using a mixture of materials. We trudged round with the rest of our group, attempting to look interested. The saving point was another couple of the tour from Holland. They were of similar age, and also feeling about the tour. Chatting to them we found out that they were in the process of emigrating to Australia, and were stopping over in South America for 3 months on the way. We passed the time asking them questions, and swapping travelling stories about the East coast.

That evening, once we had checked into our dilapidated motel, we were treated to a night of traditional music and dancing. The band that played had modeled themselves on the Beatles, by this I mean that they had cut their hair and dressed the same; the music itself wasn’t quite in the same league. Dinner was a selection of over cooked typical Peruvian dishes, and conversation was out of the question as the music drowned out everything else. Luckily after dinner there was some traditional dancing, this was interesting to watch, and at times amusing. One in particular, involved myself being dragged onto the dance floor by the Peruvian woman, where I was spun round several times until dizzy. I then had to lie on the floor whilst she whipped me with a rope (she showed no mercy!), then when it began to actually hurt, she rustled her skirt over my face, and the dance was finished… it was bizarre to say the least. Afterwards we headed to the main square where there was a local festival going on. Basically it consisted of everyone dancing around the main square in traditional costume, slowly but surely getting drunker and drunker.

The next morning we headed to the canyon itself. We had been told that due to the season, we would be lucky if we saw one condor. With this in mind we headed up to the viewpoint, Cruz del Condor, and waited. As luck would have it, we ended up seeing almost 20 Condors, some swooping right by our heads. The Andean condor is the largest flying land bird in the Western Hemisphere. It wingspan can be up to 10ft. It was captivating watching them flap their massive wings once or twice, before stopping and simply letting the huge thermals that came up from the Canyon, to take them higher and higher up into the crystal blue sky.

We spent the whole morning watching the giant birds of prey, before heading down the side of the canyon, where we were going to spend the afternoon in the La Calera natural hot springs that are located at Chivay, the biggest town in the Colca Canyon. The name Colca refers to small holes in the cliffs in the valley and canyon. These holes were used in Inca and pre-Inca times to store food, such as potatoes and other Andean crops. They were also used as tombs for important people. We spotted many of these as we walked, many lying just above the river. The afternoon was passed in a relaxing manner, free from incident, and after a quick bite to eat we boarded the bus back to Arequipa.

That night we headed out for some dinner in Arequipa with the Dutch couple, Erik and Sandra, and another girl from the tour, an American named Lindsey. We headed up Calle San Francisco where there is a great selection of bars and restaurants. We picked one and enjoyed a delicious meal over an equally nice bottle(s) of wine.

The next day we headed down to Plaza de Armas. With there only being a couple of weeks left until Christmas, Arequipa had actually got itself into gear and had erected a giant Christmas tree in the main square. Whilst not quite the same as the one in Trafalgar square, it was the first time that we had even begun to feel remotely festive, and staring up at the tinsel and baubles, we felt a slight pang of homesickness. The best cure was to keep busy. One option was to go the Santa Catalina Monastery, the most important and prestigious religious building in Peru; instead we opted to go to the Museum of the Universidad Católica de Santa María, home to Juanita, the Ice Mummy!

The “Ice Maiden,” is an Inca mummy of a girl, or more precisely, a frozen body, between 12-14 years old, who died sometime between 1440 and 1450. She was discovered in southern Peru in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner Miguel Zarate.
In 1995, during an ascent of Mt. Ampato, Reinhard and Zarate found, inside the summit crater, a bundle that had fallen from an Inca site owing to melting caused by volcanic ash from the nearby volcano of Sabancaya. To their astonishment, the bundle turned out to contain a remarkably well-preserved mummy of a young girl, frozen in the ice. In addition, they found-strewn about the mountain slope down which the mummy had fallen- many items that had been left as offerings to the Inca gods; these included statues and food items.

It is believed by some archaeologists that Juanita was in fact a human sacrifice to the Inca mountain god, Apus. What I found astonishing was that the Incas would have walked for days, sometimes even months in order to perform these sacrifices. They would have climbed up the volcanoes without any climbing apparatus or breathing equipment. On top of that they would have carried all their food and sleeping materials. The girls would have been offered up by their parents, and would be treated like living deities. It was believed that through their sacrifice they would be become gods themselves and would live on through nature and the mountains. It would have been considered a huge honour.

Once at the top, the priests would have performed a number of rituals, and the girl would have been dressed in the finest materials and adorned with the best jewellery. She would then have been given a drink consisting of a number of drugs which would numb her senses and calm her. Modern tests show the girl had died of blunt force trauma to the head (scientists think it may have been from a club), and she was then buried by the Inca priests at the summit of Mount Ampato (6309m), and left undisturbed until being discovered in 1995.

It was morbidly fascinating to look at the body of Juanita, as she lay in state in her frozen box in the museum. She had been remarkably preserved; you can see her individual fingers still grasping at her gown. Her skin and hair, even her eyelashes are still there to see. I’m unsure how I felt about her being there on show, apart of me thinks that she should have been left to rest in piece at the summit of the mountain. Either way, she has achieved a form of immortality; she is there to see, flesh and bone, over 500 years later.

That night we headed to a great Crepe restaurant that we had discovered. There was a huge array of savoury and sweet creations, plus there was a large selection of board games to play. We went with Mark and Laura from our Hostel, and were so busy eating and playing that we almost missed our bus out of Arequipa and on towards the town of Ica.

On the way to Ica we planned to stop of at Nazca. Nazca is famous for one of the great mysteries of South America, the Nazca lines. The lines are a series of animal figures and geometric shapes, some over 200m in length, drawn across over 500 square kilometres of bleak stony land. Each one is created in a single continuous line. No one knows how they were created or why; some propose they were a kind of agricultural calendar, or perhaps they served as sacred paths connecting huacas, or power spots. Nobody knows for sure.

Unfortunately for us, the bus we were on failed to wake us up when we reached Nazca at 6am in the morning, and as all the stops appeared the same; we were unaware that we had driven through until waking up in Ica. Luckily for us that we did wake up then, as the bus went all the way to Lima. We decided to get off at Ica, and attempt to go to Nazca on the way back to Cusco. Whilst the town of Ica has relatively little to offer in terms of interesting sights, just 5 minutes by taxi and you arrive in the small village of Huacachina, population 115.

Huacachina appears to be an oasis, built round a small lagoon and surrounded on all sides by towering sand dunes. Legend holds that the lagoon was created when a beautiful native princess was apprehended at her bath by a young hunter. She fled; leaving the pool of water she had been bathing in to become the lagoon. The folds of her mantle, streaming behind her as she ran, became the surrounding sand dunes. And the woman herself is rumoured to still live in the oasis as a mermaid.

We checked into our Hotel, a tranquil place named the Huacachinero. There was a large swimming pool, some hammocks, a bar, several parrots and the sand dune themselves spilled into the backyard. The reason most people come to this small place is to go sand boarding and ride in the large cadged dune buggies. We were no different, and the next day we signed up and headed out. We were joined by two lovely girls from London, Lisa and Lucy. It was the most fun that we had had in ages; the buggies flew up the steep slopes, at times catching air as they shot over the top and down the other side. It was better than any rollercoaster I had been on. Regularly we would stop and get a chance to sand board. The slopes were far steeper than those in Chile, and there was no need to struggle to walk back up again. After a few attempts, I was flying down the slopes, only once or twice ending up with a face full of sand. It was great fun to lie on the boards as well, rushing down the huge slopes, with literally centimetres between your face and the hot sand. We watched the sunset over the dunes before heading back for a cocktail and a few beers at the bar.

There is relatively little in the way of nightlife in Huacachina; most nights we went for dinner at one of the small selection of restaurants by the lagoon, followed by a few beers at the hostel next door – Casa D´Arena. This was known as the party hostel, and there was usually something going on each night. Unfortunately it also resembled at times, a rather bad 18-30 holiday resort, complete with awful music: each night the bar staff insisted on playing hours of reggaeton, the local popular music. There was a puppy though to keep us entertained and a pool table. Curiously enough, there was also a lone tortoise plodding around, which sadly someone had decided to paint it shell blue. It looked particularly sorry for itself.

We stayed around Huacachina for around a week. We had done all we wished to do in the south of Peru, and were quite content spending some time soaking up the sunshine, catching up on reading and lounging in the pool, before heading back to Cusco for some festive fun. We were joined by Gaz and Adam, two lads from the north of England. They were full of tales and kept us entertained with their antics. One night in particular, we had decided to venture into Ica for a few drinks and to head to a club. Adam got particularly intoxicated and had to be helped to his bed. We made sure he was safely tucked up before leaving him to sleep it off.

The next morning we were doing the usual routine of sunning ourselves and cooling off in the pool, when Adam was approached by a rather angry looking man, complete with handlebar moustache. He was the French father of the family that was sharing the dorm room with the lads (quite why he was paying for his family to stay in a dorm room is unclear…) He began to berate Adam in French, before switching tact, and shouting in broken English… “If you get into bed with my boy tonight I will kill you!” When he had gone we all turned to Adam for answers… he said that when he woke up he found himself in a different bed, spooning with an 11yr old boy… Quite how he got there is anybody’s guess. It was the most disturbing, yet funniest thing I had heard in a while.

Finally it was time to leave, and we decided to head out for one final meal. The lads had left that afternoon, but we were joined by a Dutch girl named Babet who had arrived that afternoon. We headed to what we had been told, was the nicest restaurant in town. It certainly looked nice, and we sat on the balcony overlooking the lagoon. I ordered steak with peppercorn sauce. The food arrived, and we promptly tucked in. The steak was cooked to order, and the side orders accompanied it well… I was shocked then to discover a cockroach under my pile of veg; the only saving grace was that it was still whole. After complaining we got the meal for free, but I was still hungry. I refused any more food from the restaurant, and opted to fill up on dessert instead. For dessert we headed to the HI hostel next door. Here they served very good budget food, and the best desserts: they made ice cream sundaes, layered with any chocolate bar of your choice (Peru´s limited selection of Mars, Twix or Snickers), then topped off with hot fudge and caramel sauce. It went down very well, all 6 times that I had one that week.

The next day we caught the bus back to Cusco, in time for our first Christmas away from home!