Sun, Skulls and Sacrifices.

31 01 2009

Slowly the headaches began to subside and my joints began to ache less. Thankfully, being in Baranco, One Hostel is about a 5 minute walk from the sea. As my strength began to return I would spend most evenings watching the sun set into the water, and the surfers cramming in a last few waves before darkness fell. Baranco has a much more authentic feel to it than Miraflores; it is far less touristy and retains much of the area’s original charm and character from when it was the Capital’s seaside resort. It is scattered with Old Mansions and bars clinging to the clifftops, buzzing with artists and intellectuals. Claire and I found a wonderful bar right on the sea front, where we could sip a cold beer or Pisco Sour and watch the sunset from the comfort of large leather sofas; it was bliss! As always the sea air did wonders for my constitution (as did Claire’s cooking and tlc), and finally I felt well enough to continue on with my South America adventure.

There a few things I wanted to do in Lima though before we left; I wanted to visit the Water Park and also the Catacombs! The first day I felt well enough we had a big picnic tea in the hostel, Frances and Gillian joined us (both whom provided great company and DVDs during my recovery – so thank you!) – we covered the table in plates of food – we even had egg mayo sandwiches! We followed this up by paying a visit to one of Frances’ friends who owned a Bakery. It was on the way to the Water Park, so it seemed very rude to say no… furthermore there was zero chance I was going to pass up the opportunity of cake now I was on the mend!

Berta’s cakes was the final piece in my recovery ( Not only were the cakes heavenly, but she was also a fantastic host. Once we had eaten our share, we caught a taxi to the Circuito Magico del AguaParque de la Reserva. If you have been to Vegas – think the Bellagio: the park is full of amazing water fountains, with the centre piece being a water show set to music with video clips of Peru played on the water itself. It also has the highest water jet certified by Guiness records at 250 ft. Some of the fountains you are free to run around in, something we took great joy in doing, getting soaked to the skin in the process. It was innocent care free fun at its best, and a great way to celebrate being back in the land of the living.

The next day we booked a bus onwards towards Lake Titicaca, our next destination. As the bus wasn’t till the evening we said our sad goodbyes to everybody at One Hostel and after dumping our bags at the bus terminal, we headed to the San Francisco Monastery. Just up from the Plaza Mayor and the Palacio de Gobierno (both worth taking a look at), the San Francisco Monastery is wonderful seventeenth century construction, that has stood the test of time fantastically. Tour runs daily, and I definitely recommend taking one. Not only do you get to see the Library and central courtyard, but you also get go down into the Church’s vast crypts; only discovered in 1951, they contain the bones of over seventy thousand people. There was decidedly eerie feel to the place.

Afterwards we still had some time to kill, and I was also keen to the watch the first of the Six Nations rugby matches, so we headed across from the Monastery to a small eaterie that was incredibly popular with the locals. After a brief battle with translation we managed to negotiate a table at the back and control of the remote control. Over some food and a couple of cold beers, we passed the afternoon watching Wales v Scotland, whilst repeatedly trying to explain the rules, and that it wasn’t American football, to group of old boys who had joined us.

It was finally time to catch the bus out of Lima and onwards with our journey. To avoid a relapse we decided to make one last stop over in Cusco, before heading onto Puno and the Lake Titicaca. We had enough time for last meal at Jacks before hitting the sack and catching the early bus on towards the border.

As on the way into Peru, this leg of the journey was terrible. As the number of people on the bus began to deplete, so did the comfort and safety levels, until three buses later we found ourselves in a rickety old mini bus held together with duct tape, with our bags held onto the roof by old fishing nets. As I pulled my trout smelling bag off the roof in Puno, I was praying we had arrived in time to catch the connection across the border… we hadn’t. To make matters worse, as we were paying for our connection for the following day, the ATM decided to have a snack and swallow Claire’s debit card; so were now down to one source of funds for the remainder of the trip…mine.

After much haggling we managed to negotiate a taxi into town and found a cheap hotel for the night. In between checking in and heading out for dinner, the sky’s had opened and rain was lashing down over the streets of Puno, putting a slight dampener on the marching band that had been parading around. However, not being able to ignore our grumbling stomachs any longer, we had to don our anoraks and head out into the elements.

Puno was once the capital of the region and served as the main port of Lago Titicaca and important stop on the silver trail from Potosi. Four hundred years later however, it is a tad run down, and has suffered noticeably from the recent droughts. We were only here for one night though and our aim first and foremost was to get some food.

Arriving at Pizzeria del Buho looking like drowned rats, we quickly tucked into some delicious pizzas washed down with a couple of local cervezas. We then headed across the road for an equally delicious hot chocolate, before tiredness kicked in and it was time to hit the sack. On the way back to the hotel though we were repeatedly attacked; unable to hide our gringo status, numerous locals, young and old took great glee in soaking us in shaving foam and water balloons. This was our first, but by no means last experience of this kind – Carnaval was approaching!

Our bus the next day was booked with Tour Peru, it was a far cry from our experience the previous day, and before we knew it we were across the border and back into Bolivia once more. Arriving in Copacabana, we wasted no time heading down to the port and catching a boat out towards the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), where we planned to spend the night.

Lake Titicaca, or Lago Titicaca, is the largest high altitude body of water in the world. Making our way across its sapphire blue waters, we chatted freely with a group or Uruguayan lads about our travels, mentioning our experiences of their home country. They assured us that we had gone to the wrong parts i.e the capital, and promised us, if we ever decided to go back, that they would change our perception of their country. We agreed to discuss this further over drinks later that evening.

Lake Titicaca has always played an important role in Andean Religion: the Inca’s believed that the creator god Viracocha rose from its waters to call forth the sun and the moon to light up the world. Thus the two islands are named Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna.

The area around the lake is the heartland of the Aymara people, who despite centuries of domination, first by the Incas, then by the Spanish, have maintained their language and culture. To this day they still continue to cultivate the maize on the ancient terraces that span the surrounding mountainside, and grow barley, potatoes and quinoa on the fertile plains. Every you look you will find herd of llamas, alpacas, sheep and cattle. Time has not robbed these people of their identity or heritage, and this is something very unique to this part of the world, particularly so in Bolivia. This I feel has a lot to do with the current President, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, who is making sweeping reforms to give rights back to the native tribes.

The Isla del Sol is about 12km northwest from Copacabana. It was once considered one of the most important religious sites, but is now a relatively quiet island, populated still by the Ayamara people, with settlements dotted over the island, interspersed with mysterious ancient ruins.

All the boats make their way their first stop at Yumani, on the on South side of the Island. It was here that we wanted to spend the night, however we planned to get off on the North, at the northernmost settlement of Ch’allapampa, and walk the four hours back across the island; a walk which we had been told would afford us the best views of the Island and also meant we could visit the Sun Gate which I was especially keen to do.

On the second boat that took us across to the other port at Ch’alla, we met three girls from the UK who were planning on walking the same path as us, so we joined up and set off together. After a shaky start, where after a mistranslation we ended up getting slightly lost and attempting to climb a sheer rock face, we found our bearings (and a very helpful local child who showed us the right way…) and headed off towards Ch’allapampa. It was about an hours walk to Chicana where the ruined Inca complex was situated. The sun was starting to set, but I figured we still had enough time to make the walk before it became pitch black. The boats had taken longer than expected. However it was hard to be too worried. The island itself was beautiful; there was a strong Mediterranean feel to the place. The secluded beaches, cerulean waters and hilly landscape; it was hard to think that we were in the middle of a lake –the water stretched to the horizon in every direction. We walked past numerous tiny settlements and had to repeatedly get out of the way of a stray donkey or cow that was meandering along the path: it was very tranquil.

Eventually we arrived at Chicana, and spent some time walking through the rambling interlinking rooms and passageways that were purposefully built around the Sacred Rock: the spot where Viracocha, the creator god, is believed to have created the sun and the moon. As with the Inca trek, there was a mysterious air to the place, and it was easy find yourself transported back. Nearby there was also an Inca sacrificial table- it was like something out of the Chronicles of Narnia.

The rest of the walk continued in the same vain, we walked, we chatted and we soaked up the beautiful surroundings. Sadly we missed the sun setting into the water as we didn’t make the viewpoint in time, but it was great none the less. However we were still an hours walk away from where we planned to spend the night, when the sun finally had its last encore and left the stage for the day. We completed the last section of the walk in thick darkness, thank goodness for head torches which I thankfully had remembered to pack!

Finally we saw lights ahead, and we knew we were almost there. By this point we were all starving so first objective was to find a restaurant to recharge and share a bottle of wine or two before bed. The restaurant we eventually settled on promised us “chef’s trained at Bolvia’s top food college and organic food”… we were too tired to be sceptical and headed in to order.

Over two hours later our food arrived, all cooked ‘fresh’ by one woman. I assume my trout must have been caught fresh; sadly though my veg was clearly from a tin and there was also a side order of hair which I don’t remember ordering. However I was hungry and wolfed it down, minus the furry garnish. After dinner, we checked into the same hostel as the girls: thankfully they had room as it was late and we were very tired and achy. It had been a great day though and I had survived my true first bout of exercise since the Amazon.

We were due to catch the ferry back in the morning, however due to forgetting the one hour shift in time since crossing the border we very nearly missed it. It was pouring with rain as we checked out and quickly headed down the authentic inca stair case (La Esclaera del Inca) that leads down the hillside to the port. As with Machu Pichu it was incredibly steep and at times I came very close to full backside over breast in our rush to catch the boat. It must have been the magic that is supposed to come from the natural springs on the Island, or simply Bolivian attitudes to time, but the boats were late so we were ok. Nobody could work out which port the boat was due to dock in, and it was an amusing sight to behold to watch everybody run from gangway to gangway in the hope of being on the right one and securing a spot inside the boat. On this day we were fortunate.

We made it back in time to catch our bus onto our next stop – Sucre.


Hammocks, Huts and Hallucinations.

10 01 2009

Once we had arrived in Chiclayo, we then had to catch another bus onto Tarapoto. From here we would head to Yurimaguas, where we would board a boat that would take us all the way to Iquitos, a journey covering 3 days. It was hard to ignore the fact that it was rainy season once we decided to head inland. Each night, and most of the day we were subject to the heaviest rain that we had come across in the entire trip; you were soaked to the skin in the blink of an eye. With a day to spare in Tarapoto we decided to buy our supplies for the boat; the essentials such as Pringles, chocolate, fruit, water and the most crucial item – a hammock! With 3 nights on the boat, unless you planned to spend it sleeping on the metal deck, a hammock was a must! I was getting excited; this was shaping into a real South American adventure!


With the supplies packed, the next day we headed onto Yurimaguas, and once there, we caught a tuk tuk to the port. The port was alive with peddlers, pushers, touts and tourists, and the ground was rich with knee deep mud and sawdust. Yet thankfully there were the remnants of a thin plank walk way through the midst of it all. We precariously carried our stuff along and onto our home for the next 3 days – the reasonably ship shape looking “Eduardo III” – alongside Eduardo II though it looked like the Titanic so we were extra thankful for that. There are five ‘Eduardo’s’ in total, each taking it turns to make the round journey to Iquitos and back.


The ground deck was already filling with live chickens, plantain, oil, vegetables and numerous other interesting items. We made our way up the top deck; after some research online we deemed this to be the best deck on board, and judging by the fact that it was the most expensive, the shipping company must have deduced the same thing. Not only is it the furthest from the engine, and thus the noise and heat that it produces. It is also has open sides (plastic sheeting is secured over it at night and during rain) so you can sit and look out, and a nice breeze at night that helps lull you to sleep. It was also the least crowded as well. Once on deck, a deckhand kindly offered to put our hammocks up, and in return we kindly offered to place some money in his out turned hand… With them firmly secured though, and our bags safely locked up and padlocked to a pole, we headed off to explore the market and get one last dinner on dry land.


We found a quiet little restaurant just 5 minutes from the boat, and ordered the fish of the day with rice and chips. We watched as it was freshly prepared and smoked on the fire outside, before being served. The fish had awfully sharp teeth, and resembled a piranha! However I was told by the old man running the place that it was in fact a relative of the piranha, and not the real McCoy. It tasted good though and we wolfed it down and headed back on the boat as the ships horn began to sound warning us of its impending departure.


I love boat life! The next three days consisted of sleeping, eating (food is provided on the boat – 3 meals a day and very good quality!) sleeping some more, a game of chess or scrabble, reading, dozing, chatting to our hammock neighbours from Portugal, playing with the kids on deck and watching the river go slowly by. The sun would rise and set on the river. Occasionally we would pull into port, and more bananas would be piled on deck, and interesting smells would pass my nose, as numerous different dishes were brought on deck to tempt us. I spent most of the time though, when we were anchored trying to dodge water balloons!


At every stop, the local kids would be standing with buckets filled with copious amounts of water balloons, filled from the river itself, waiting for an unsuspecting backpacker, fresh from a hammock induced doze to stumble clammy eyed to the side rail to look out at the new surrounding! Then with great glee, they would launch a bombardment that would have made Churchill proud – balloon after balloon catching the wide eyed tourist (me…) square in the chest, face, and once even my Pringles! Big mistake… Soaking wet and fuming, I tried to catch a balloon so that I could launch my own attack and frantically grab back some pride… I failed.


Finally the port of Iquitos loomed into sight. Iquitos is the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest, with a population of 370,962. It is generally considered the most populous city in the world that cannot be reached by road. Once off the boat, we were bombarded with offers off a lift into town, and as our sea legs hadn’t quite adjusted, we consented. After five minutes we began to wish we hadn’t. Our driver wove recklessly in and out of the traffic, and to top it all off initiated a road rage induced tuk tuk war – at traffic lights our driver cut another up, so he in turn lashed out with his boot at our driver covering him with mud, so our driver attempted to push him into the line of oncoming traffic… as passengers we could only sit, opened mouthed in horror, with our hands tightly grasping the side. Luckily we reached our hostel in one piece (no tip for him!) and checked into the delightfully named, Hobo Hideout. Our room was up three flights of stairs, and was mostly thatched with an actual bear skin rug on the floor!


The reason we had come to Iquitos was to find a guide who would be prepared to take us further up the River Amazon and explore the Peruvian Selva (the Jungle). We spent the first day in Iquitos exploring and attempting to book a tour to depart in the next day or so. We were lucky enough to come across a man named Alex who ran a tour company called Ecological Jungle Trips (Opposite The Yellow Rose restaurant if you are ever in neighbourhood.) We had looked at many different trips, and the biggest downfall was that many had prescribed itineraries, and the accommodation was pretty fancy. We wanted to rough it in the jungle and to do what ever took our fancy. Alex was our man. Our tour was for five days and five nights, the accommodation was a choice of a hut or camping in the jungle, and we were free to pick and choose our activities as we pleased; and all for a very reasonable price.


We had a day in hand before we left to on our trip so decided to take a boat across to a place that had been recommended to us: it was an animal orphange and butterfly farm called Pilpintuwasi. Heading down to the port we came across a bizarre sight; one man was transporting his cow across to his village in his little boat! There was barely enough room for them both, it was very amusing to watch them navigate the busy waterway.


After haggling the price down we too headed out in a boat of our own (animal free). The ride to the park was around 50 minutes. Once there it was a further 30 minutes to the sanctuary itself.


Arriving we headed up the main path to be greeted by a small monkey, screeching at us and jumping around; I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little alarmed. Anxiously tip toeing around him we headed up to look further around the park. My guard was up though; I wasn’t going to be jumped by a monkey again! The first place we looked in was the butterfly enclosure. It was amazing seeing them fly all around, their vivid iridescent wings shining in the sunshine. My favourite were the Blue Morpho butterflies; their great aqua marine wings caught my eye everywhere I turned, as they played around head. We got to see the chrysalises squirming about with life, and were even lucky enough to witness a butterfly hatching before our eyes and make its first flight into the cool jungle air.


After the butterfly enclosure we headed down to see the Cheetah. The conditions in the sanctuary are about as good as they come. The animals have all been rescued from far worse situations, and the guides are very knowledgeable about them. On the way down to Cheetah, we were joined by a little friend – the monkey we when we arrived! He followed us along the fence, seemingly calm after our aggressive introduction. Without warning he suddenly jumped down towards Claire, and climbed up her leg, and onto her shoulder. He stayed there as we looked at the jungle, attempting to undo the string on her shorts. His human like hands picking at the knot until it was undone.


After he got bored of that he jumped onto my back and undid the zip on my bag. Before I even realised what he was up too, he had taken a box of matches and jumped into a tree. I did not want to be responsible for burning down an Animal Orphanage, so frantically tried to coax him down with the offer of food. He refused, and spent the next 20 minutes shaking the box and throwing them around the jungle. Thank goodness for safety matches! The rest of the trip passed with out incidence, or almost did We saw Anteaters, McCaws and many different types of monkeys, including some very cute marmosets and pygmy marmosets. Right at the end of trip just before we were going to leave, I started talking to a very sad looking monkey who was missing some fingers. He was fascinated by my watch, and reached for my wrist to take a closer look. He then began to inspect my hair for any bugs. I let him do so, and he thoroughly began a search for anything that might be lurking there. After around 5 minutes though, he suddenly flipped: he started shrieking and running about. Something still haunted him from his life before the Sanctuary, and he was very distressed by something, hopefully not something he found in my hair… The guide anxiously signalled for us to walk away slowly and we made our exit.


When we got back to Iquitos, we made sure that we had copious amounts of mosquito repellent packed and that our camera batteries were charged and ready to go. That evening, we decided to head to the cinema as tickets were ridiculously cheap. Popcorn in hand, we decided to watch a particularly dire teen/horror film (in hindsight, I hasten to add – I don’t make a habit of choosing films I know are rubbish…) However it was one of the more interesting cinematic experiences I have had. Half way through the film I could hear squeaking and the flutter of wings, and looked up 5 minutes later to see a couple of bats flying around the auditorium; even more noteworthy given the subject of the film – Vampires! I definitely recommend the Iquitos cinema for their avant garde approach to cinema.


The next morning bright and early we headed off to begin our Amazonian jungle adventure. We were picked up by Alex and driven to nearby town of Nauta. From here we would go on a 3 hour boat trip to our final destination. In Nauta we were introduced to Lucio, our guide. Lucio was born in the village near where we would be staying, and had lived in the jungle all his life. He spoke no English at all, so we had to get by on our limited Spanish and a lot of hand gestures. In the jungle though, this proved to be no problem. You don’t really need to talk much in case you scare the animals away, and when we did we got by perfectly.


We arrived at our base camp by dug out canoe, again sampling the delights of drifting lazily down the river. Our base camp consisted of wooden food hall and kitchen, 5 smaller bedrooms connected by walk way, each equipped with a two mattresses and mozzie nets, a small toilet away from the main building and a football pitch in the middle. All around us we could make out the weird and wonderful noises that made up jungle life – our imagination began to run away with us. What was out there!? Over the next 5 days our senses were attacked by a five prong charge. We were determined to make the most of our Amazonia jungle experience.


Our guide Lucio was great. He was the Master of Machete and could rival Doctor Dolittle when it came to making animal noises. He taught us a great deal about his home, the medicinal properties and the animals. We even learnt jungle folklore. The first day we arrived, after an hour or so to get our bearings and collect our wellys, we headed off into the jungle to see what lay around the camp. We didn’t follow a path, simply used the machete to mark the way, occasionally checking the sun to know where we were. Lucio pointed out numerous trees and plants on the way, occasionally cutting of the bark to show us its medicinal qualities. There were treatments for everything, from diabetes to cancer.


When we got thirsty, Lucio cut away at a large tree root, shaping a section about a metre long, before handing it to us. By tipping it up, we were able to drink the nutrient full water that lay inside. It was fantastic! The only problem we had was with the bloody mosquitoes! Pardon my French, but they annoy me more than anything in the world. They serve no purpose only to irritate and spread disease… Lucio spread some orange goo on us from one tree that was supposed to prevent getting bitten. This was on top of the regular applications of DEET that was already warming my flesh. Not that it did any good! They were ruthless in the jungle, biting any exposed section possible. Some were so full of blood they had trouble flying away, lazily hovering from side to side, eyes glazed over in a blood drunk manner. I took great joy in killing as many as I could, hoping the message would spread, that if you drunk from me, then you had better understand it would be your last supper. Either they didn’t understand or were just too addicted they couldn’t help themselves, but they kept on biting, and I kept on slapping.

That night, covered in DEET, dead mosquitoes, mud and also my own blood, I relished the idea of a good scrub in bath. The bath being the River Amazon itself! It was fantastic, although at first a little apprehensive! I had been assured that there were no piranhas around, but then my Spanish wasn’t perfect… Lucio assured me that whilst dolphins were swimming in the water, there would be no Piranhas. Soaping myself up I timidly dipped a toe in, (note – Claire was happy to let me try first!) Toe still intact, I took a running jump, a sharp breath in, and landed with a splash in the cool refreshing water. It was heaven, the dirt left my body, and I happily swam about, relishing the experience. As I lay floating, looking up at the sky, I heard a noise approaching from my right and flash of something moving through the water. Momentary panic though was soon replaced by astonishment, as I witnessed the dorsal fin of a river dolphin breach the surface.


Later that evening we played chess by the river and had our first jungle meal, consisting of fish, rice and fried plantain. We hit the sack before the mosquitoes ate us alive. The next morning we were paddling down stream to camp, so needed to recharge our batteries. For the first night, we fell asleep to the sound of the jungle.


For the next three days we planned to camp in the forest. Each morning we awoke early and paddled further down stream. Our camp consisted of a fireplace, and three hammocks complete with mozzie nets. Each day we went for a paddle as the sun rose up, declaring each day open. We watched keenly as the animals came out to feed. After which we too headed back for a quick breakfast of fresh mango and deep fried pancakes (not so nice…) before heading out into the jungle. We walked for miles, and saw an abundance of wildlife. During our trip we saw a vast array of wildlife, from monkeys and porcupines, right through to pink dolphin!


At night we went for walks in the area around our campsite. One night Lucio came to get us from our beds where we had been reading to show us something. We slipped on our head-torches and headed to where he was standing; right on the tree in front of us was a large, incredibly hairy tarantula. It was around 2 hand spans! Right above it was something even more daunting: a scorpion spider! 8 legs, teeth and scorpion like pincers! Some things I’d rather not see, particularly when my bed was literally metres away… We also took the dug out canoe to look for crocodiles. When we had spotted a few, Lucio took us closer up and actually grabbed one from the water so that we could get a closer look. It was very… thoughtful of him!


We ate under the stars before heading off each night early as the mosquitos were even more prevalent when the sun had gone down. Each night we had to do a tedious check of every inch of the inside of our mosquito nets! Just one of the little devils in and you would know it in the morning!


Two of the three days we went fishing for piranhas for dinner! For bait we had to search for a particular seed pod. After lopping of the top of one from the floor with the machete, we would tap it to find a number of fat grubs inside. Lucio was a master at knowing which ones contained them, Claire and I kept finding empties. After we had sufficient supplies, we collected our lines and headed off into piranha territory! Lucio taught us that Piranhas live in the cloudy sections of the water – areas that he described as café con leche (coffee with milk). Remember this if you are reading; who knows it might one day save your life! Claire turned out to be a dab hand at fishing for Piranhas, much to my envy and Lucio’s awe. She netted a whopping 8, to go alongside my measly 3 and one baby that I had to put back.


On the last day, we took our left over bananas and paddled to a spot where we could see some more monkeys. Sitting under the trees where they sat, Lucio instructed us to hold up our bananas. I stood open mouthed as they made their way down, pushing past each other in a rush to get a snack. They jumped into our boat, using their small little human like hands to quickly peel the skin off and get to the good stuff inside.


One monkey in particular ate his too quick and ended up with hiccups. I watched as he sat there all confused as to what was going on, before turning to Claire for some help. She is like the Monkey Whisperer, or just a kindred spirit. Claire took to burping the monkey, like you would a baby, and he sleepily fell asleep in her lap. It was an absolutely magical experience!


The final night we headed back to the main camp. I wasted no time in stripping off and cleaning myself up in the river. After swimming out to the middle, the sky suddenly turned black and commenced to open up and pour down on me. I could see nothing around me except the rain; feeling it penetrate the surface of the water like bullets from the sky. It was incredible; I don’t think a conventional bath will ever be the same again!


The final evening was upon us, and we still had one last thing to experience; A Ayahuesca ceremony. Made from the roots and leaves of numerous plants in the jungle, Ayahuesca is a psychoactive infusion. It is used largely as a religious sacrament, yet it is also used for its purgative properties. Many refer to it as la purga, “the purge”, for reasons that we would soon discover. There are no long lasting effects at all.


We prepared ourselves in the way that we had been instructed. We had refrained from eating that day, and had kept our diet free from spices and such like. We also attempted to clear our minds and prepare any questions that we might want answered. I was curious as to the effects and keen to try new experiences. We had spoken to many locals who had taken the substance on a number of occasions, and there was a certain mysticism that surrounded it that I was curious to understand better. The ceremony itself was done in the main hut, with our guides present to ‘look after us’. There were three Chilean guys who had arrived that day who were taking it with us. We spoke to the Shaman, a weathered man in his sixties before hand. He answered any worries that we may have had, and made sure that we were fully relaxed and understood what was going to take place.


It began with sitting in a circle, in front of a bowl that we would need later… There was a lit candle on the floor and the Shaman was in traditional dress. We sat focusing on the candle for 15 minutes, before passing around a medium sized glass. We each were instructed to drink the thick brown, foul smelling concoction in one go, and then wash it down with something equally horrid tasting. We then sat there for a further 30 minutes. I was sceptical for a while that nothing was happening, when I suddenly felt my hands go numb, quickly followed by the rest of my body. Suddenly before my eyes, the area around appeared as if looking at it through a kaleidoscope. Vivid colours and shapes danced before my eyes.


The next four hours was like a rollercoaster. After half an hour, the first person began to vomit. We had been warned this would happen, and shortly one by one we joined him. I found myself emptying my stomach contents into the provided bowl for over half an hour. It was an incredibly unpleasant experience, but one I had been forewarned about. Afterwards I slipped in and out of lucidness. I found myself shaking hands with shadows and getting invited for a walk in the jungle by a little girl, who then began to stroke my hair. I saw insects, heard voices, all from inside my mind. I found I could grab handfuls of light, feeling it flow through my fingers, rippling with my touch…


Would I do it again? Probably not: the vomiting and other reactions were pretty violent and unpleasant. But I don’t regret the experience, and am glad that I tried it when and where I did. I certainly will not forget it.


The next morning, after our last jungle breakfast, and a number of goodbyes, we paddled back to reality. That night we found ourselves back in civilisation, drinking beer in a restaurant in the Iron House. Built by Mr Eiffel, it is a symbol of what Iquitos was once, and a stark reminder of the life we had lived the past 5 days and the one which we had come back too.


That night I developed a terrible headache, which quickly turned into a violent fever. I was burning up and began to hallucinate. Luckily we were staying at the Casa Pescada, and the owner instructed Claire to get me to Hospital. Thankfully the owner came too and translated it all for me. I had a number of tests run, and was placed on a drip. The results came back within the hour, confirming the owner’s prognosis – I had caught Dengue Fever.


The WHO says some 2.5 billion people, two fifths of the world’s population, are now at risk from dengue and estimates that there may be 50 million cases of dengue infection worldwide every year. The disease is now epidemic in more than 100 countries, many of these being in South America.


Dengue Fever is caught from day time mosquitoes, and I estimate that I must have caught it sometime whilst on the river boat up to Iquitos, and not in the jungle where I received more bites than I thought humanly possible. It is a mixture of flu like symptoms, ranging from headache, dizziness, loss of appetite, high temperature. It is also known as Breakbone Fever as a result of the joints swelling and stiffening up. I could barely move my head, and everything ached. It can develop into serious complications, such as haemorrhaging, if regular fluid in take is not maintained. All in all it is extremely unpleasant!


The next day we were due to fly to Lima. We checked into One Hostel, and it was the best decision ever. Melissa and her family treated me like one of their own. The hostel is a lovely place; a perfect home from home, just what the doctor ordered! Over the next month I slowly got better. I had lost just under two stone, and was incredibly lethargic. The symptoms began to disappear around the two week mark, and then it was a question of gaining my appetite and strength. If it hadn’t been for Claire being the perfect nurse and the kindness of the Tola family I might still be ill now. The hostel was right next to a large supermarket so I had plenty of fresh fruit and veg for when my appetite returned. The hostel also had a large sofa, complete with blankets on which I could wrap up and watch TV and the numerous DVDs they owned.


With time counting down though on my escape to South America, I was anxious to get better quickly, yet determined to allow myself time to completely get over the illness so as to avoid a relapse. It was an immensely frustrating time; there was still so much I wanted to see!

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.

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!

Ponchos, Pancakes and Pachamama.

29 11 2008

Leaving La Paz, we headed across the border to Cusco in Peru. We still hadn’t done everything we planned to do in Bolivia, but we needed to get to Cusco before the rainy season kicked in. The reason for this was that we planned to do the World famous Inca Trail, which finishes off at the magnificent Machu Picchu.After checking into our hostel, we headed down the hill to have a look around the city and hopefully book our tour. We planned to come back to Cusco for Christmas, so didn’t plan on spending too much time exploring, as we were too excited about doing the trek. We had been thinking about the trip long before we arrived in South America. It is one of the highlights of any trip to the continent, and we had poured over photos of the amazing ruins as we planned our trip in rainy Wales. It had been Claire’s dream long before, ever since studying the Inca’s at middle school; and now the time had finally arrived to see them in real life!

We had planned to book one of the alternative tours, such as the Salkantay. All the treks eventually end up in Machu Picchu, but all take different routes to get there. However, once we had looked at photos of the different tours on offer, we decided that we wanted to trek along the genuine Inca trail, walking the path that the Inca’s would have walked over 600 years before. Furthermore, the path passes a number of well preserved ruins along the way, each offering an opportunity to gain further insight into the Inca Empire.

As we headed down into town to book our tour, we recognised a friendly face lying on a bench. It was Susan whom we first met in Bariloche, and kept bumping into at every stop. As we approached her though, we came across a horrible smell coming from her direction. Looking closer we saw that her leg was bandaged tightly up, yet the material was soaked in a pasty yellow concoction. She explained that she had damaged her foot falling over whilst intoxicated, and rather than go to the hospital, the staff at her hostel insisted that she visit one of the local doctors, which she did.

The doctor lived outside the town, up a narrow backstreet. Upon arrival, she was invited into what appeared to be his garage, and was full of dusty knickknacks, with an old massage table amidst all the clutter. His treatment can best be described as typically unconventional; first his massaged her entire foot, and then spread the said yellow paste all over her injury. The paste itself was rather pungent, and resembled the smell of a homeless man’s trousers… She had since been back twice for further treatment, and claimed that it miraculously appeared to be working. Her foot was healing incredibly quickly, and she hoped to be back on the dance floor in no time.

Whilst I remained slightly sceptical of ´witch doctors´ and their so called ´miracle´ treatments, the evidence was there before me. South America is a mix of modern and traditional, from views on medicine through to religion. Whilst predominantly Catholic, the older Pagan traditions still play a principal role in day to day life. The indigenous people still believe in a lot of the things that were believed by the Inca civilisation, and even before then. The Inca trek itself was, and still is a pilgrimage, and the ruins along the way are all heavily influenced in their design and original purpose by the beliefs and ideologies that the Incas themselves subscribed too. All have Quechan names which relate to their design and purpose.

Quechua (Runa Simi) is a Native American language of South America. It was already widely spoken across the Central Andes long before the time of the Incas, who established it as the official language of administration for their Empire, and is still spoken today in various regional forms (the so-called ‘dialects’) by some 10 million people through much of South America, including most extensively and numerously in Peru. In fact, it is the official language in Peru: at the last census (1993) there were over 3 million speakers of the language in Peru alone.

We booked our tour with United Mice. We were fortunate to get a place on the Inca trek, as usually you have to book 3 months in advance. Fortunately for us it was quieter during the wet season, so we were all good to go! We hired some smaller bags in town, as we didn’t fancy carrying our large pack backs the whole length of the walk. It is possible to hire porters to carry your belongings, but having found out that nobody else in our group was hiring one, we decided to follow suit. With the tour booked and paid for, we set about stocking up on the essentials; snacks, wet wipes (didn’t want to be completely dirty!) more snacks, batteries and a small bottle of rum to keep us warm at night! We were so busy trying to work out how to make our bags as light as possible, whilst still making sure we had all we need, we almost missed our orientation meeting that evening. We were still rearranging our bags way after we returned from it as well.

The next morning we awoke at 4am, and carried our bags (as light as possible) to the awaiting bus outside. The rest of our group was already on board, but it was still a tad too early to make conversation. We contented ourselves with dozing and staring out of the window, watching Cusco disappear behind us, and the snow capped mountains and flora becoming the prevailing view. Disembarking the bus in the last town before the trail begun, we headed to a small café to fill up on breakfast to keep us going for the morning. Most of us ordered two breakfasts, and plenty cups of tea and coffee, just to be on the safe side! As we gradually began to wake up, and the food found its target, conversation began to flow. We could tell right away that we had a good group; we had 7 medical students from Sydney (Aussie, Julian, Scott, Rich, Emma, Jacqui and Maddi), and a couple, Stephen and Johanna from just outside Surrey. All looked in good health and up for a laugh.

Before we left to start the trail, we were set upon by a number of locals trying to sell us coca leaves and walking poles. We bought some coca leaves, but didn’t really feel that we needed the walking poles. Only after seeing that the rest of the group had bought them (all apart from Scott) we decided to be sheep, and bought one each. I’m so glad that we did; they proved to be the best buy of the trip, due to the treacherously wet walking conditions. They were also great for pointing things out, swinging around, and once or twice, for poking another group member with.

From the out, our guide Freddie was full of information on the surrounding area. He regularly stopped us and made us sit whilst he told us about the Inca ruin that we could see. He explained that most of what we know about the Inca Empire is hypothesis. Many believe that the Incas did not have a system for writing, therefore leaving no written accounts of their civilisation. However others propose that the Inca kept their accounts, their genealogy, their astronomical calculations, and (probably) their stories on a complicated system of cords and knots, called quipu. Either way, very little can be put forward at hard fact about how the Incas lived, and the purpose of the buildings that we can still see today, dotted all across the Inca Empire.
Freddie also explained about the Inca’s beliefs, and what the indigenous people today still believe; much of which is based in Inca mythology. Freddie explained about Pachamama, who is a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. Pachamama is usually translated as “Mother Earth”. He also explained about the Chakana, or Inca Cross. The Chakana is the three-stepped cross equivalent symbolic of what is known in other mythologies as the Tree of Life. It is represented in many of the buildings in a diamond shape. The snake, puma, and condor are representatives of the three levels; the condor is the heavens, the snake is earth or water, and the puma is the underworld. These symbols were represented repeatedly in the ruins that we saw.

The first afternoon consisted of a long up hill walk through the trees to get to our first camp. We were soaked in sweat by the time we reached it, but thankfully there was a fresh mountain stream in which we could wash. I didn’t waste any time, and stripped off my saturated clothes, and thoroughly enjoyed the feel of the ice cold water as it cleansed me of the day’s exertions. As each member of the group arrived at camp, they each followed suit, and after, we sat in our clean clothes, enjoying a hot chocolate and looking out at the amazing view. Our tents had been pitched right on the edge of the mountain side, affording us breath taking views across the valley through which we had trekked that day. We fell asleep that night the moment our heads hit the pillow. Unfortunately for me, my sleeping bag was far from adequate, and quickly the cold mountain air permeated my sleep, and I was forced to put on every piece of clothing I had packed, in order to try and get at least 10 winks that night.

The next day we continued the trek up hill to get to the highest point of the trail – Dead Woman’s Pass! (It lies at 4200m, and is so called because of the way the mountains lie, they create the shape of a women lying down.) The last section to the top was pretty tiring, yet the great thing about the group was that everyone walked at their own pace. There was no pressure at all on anyone. The aussies were doing remarkably well considering that they had literally flown from Sydney to Lima, then headed straight to Cusco to do the trek. They were suffering from both jet lag and altitude sickness, yet you never would have guessed it.

At the top of the pass, we paused for a group photo and also to each have a glug of rum, and to pour some into the earth to toast Pachamama. The rain finally came later that day, but in true traveller style everybody pulled out their rain gear and carried on walking. The aussies had even accessorized and got different colours: they looked like a walking rainbow. A lot of the walk is through cloud forests, and the views were not quite as amazing as they could have been due to the weather, but this didn’t put a dampener on the experience. In fact, the light through the cloud produced a somewhat ethereal quality.

As a group we were all relatively fit and kept up a good pace, yet nothing could prepare us for the pace that our porters went; I swear they were part machine. We could never have done the trek without them; they carried the tents, cooking equipment and food for the whole group. Each morning they packed up after we had left, and practically ran to the next point to prepare lunch for us, and then on towards the camp for the evening. They were dressed mostly in shorts, t-shirts and sandals, yet not once did they slip on the wet surface. We were incredibly grateful for their work. Furthermore, the food that the chef and his assistant prepared for us three times a day was amazing. For breakfast we had fresh fruit, porridge and pancakes. Then for lunch and dinner, we had heaped platters of rice, pasta, vegetables and a selection of chicken, llama and beef. We never went hungry; the only quibble we had was that we finished the supply of strawberry jam too quickly! We ended each day with a selection of teas that aided digestion, ease tired bodies and keep us free from altitude sickness. We were truly spoilt.

Considering that the official Inca trek is one of the most popular trails to take, we saw nobody for the first 3 days of the tour. We were alone, with only our guide and porters. It was great to be out in the open, and imagining what it must have been like all those years ago. Even, going back 100 years, to when the ruins were first discovered. The place was covered in over-growth, and no where near as well maintained as the path is today. Only 500 people can walk it at any one time, and the trail is closed each February in order to clean it and keep it well preserved. Everywhere you look you can catch glimpses of Inca ruins, many of which are around 90% original. You can also see the famous Inca Terraces. The Inca built huge agricultural terraces into the mountain side. The terraces had 2 purposes: the most important was to ensure food, then, secondly, erosion of the land could be blocked this way. They were all well irrigated, and each had its own store house to preserve food for when it was needed. Some of the terraces were experimental, meaning that they brought crops from the low lands and vice versa, and experimented at different altitudes to see how well the crops produced. They even encouraged certain crops to grow at different altitudes, thus supplying the entire empire with a huge array of different food types.

After an equally cold nights sleep, we began the third day that would take us to our final campsite. This was also one of the hardest days as had to tackle what is known as the ´Gringo Killer´; over 3000 steps, taking us over 1100 metres down. This is when we had never been so grateful for our walking poles. Playing twenty questions and numerous other games to keep us going, we started the knee assaulting descent. We made it to the bottom though, only to find we then had to head back up hill in order to get to the final ruins before Machu Pichu. They were definitely seeing, and yet again we had the place to ourselves. We spent hours wandering around the two sights, Winay Wayna (Forver young) and Puyupatamarca (Town above the clouds). The walls had stood the test of time, and whole houses still stood. They had complete drainage systems, and huge stone steps. There were gardens, and temples with windows that had been positioned for the sun and the seasons. It was awe inspiring. We were incredibly blessed with the views of these sights as well. Each time we arrived at a spot there was terrible fog, and the view was somewhat marred. Yet every time, after around 10 minutes, the fog lifted and revealed to us the sight in all it glory. We were offered an ephemeral glimpse, enough to take it in, before the fog slipped back and hid the view once more. This further added to the numinous ambience of the trail.

The third night was a shock to the system: the campsite that we stayed at actually had other people staying there, lots of people! In order to get as close as possible to Machu Picchu the night before, all the groups on the trek converge at the one place. Luckily for us our company had chosen a pitch slightly further away from the main group. We had got used to our solitude, and were in no rush to join civilisation just yet. We did however make a quick reconnaissance mission down to the main site, where there was a bar where we bought a couple of beers to have with our last supper together. That night we said thank you to our porters and also, as is apparently tradition, we sang them a song. In keeping with the theme, and also to keep it easy, we decided on The Proclaimers “I would walk 500 Miles”. The porters look terrified as we burst into a rendition of the infamous song, yet they were soon cheering and laughing along (most with their fingers in their ears). In return, they sang for us a traditional song in Quechan, that they all learnt as youngsters. It was a lovely moment, and we were incredibly grateful to them.

The next morning we were up bright and early in an attempt to be one of the first groups to the gate that leads onto the final stretch to Machu Picchu. We were promptly up and ready, and were actually the first group to the gate. However we hadn’t even had time to go to the bathroom, so in two separate groups, we left our bags and quickly headed back to use the facilities. On our way back though, to our place in the queue, we weren’t prepared for the level of abuse that we received from the other groups, who were behind us. They called us all sorts of names, and refused to believe that we weren’t in fact pushing into the queue. It was quite shocking to hear grown men and women act in such a way, and at such an early hour in the day. We weren’t too bothered though, we were the champions at the front!

As soon as the gate opened we headed straight down on the final leg of the walk. As the rest of the walk had been, the steepness was measured in Peruvian terms. The final section was deemed by our guide to be ´Peruvian flat´, thus meaning that it was on the whole uphill, with a few small flat sections. Not wanting to rush this last section meant that we were overtaken by a few anxious hikers, determined to run the whole course so they could say “they were the first there!” It seemed a waste to rush through without taking in everything along the route, especially on the final section. We finally reached the Sun Gate, the first spot that offers views over the site of Machu Picchu. In with keeping with the rest of the walk, there was thick cloud blocking the view. We waited around in the hope that it would clear, yet as more and more groups appeared, we decided that it wasn’t going to happen this time. I believe that it only cleared for us when we were alone as a group.

As we headed down towards Machu Picchu, we found ourselves walking quicker and quicker. Claire and I had been looking forward to this moment for ages, and round the next corner we were not disappointed. It was every bit as awe inspiring and breath taking as we had hoped. A civilisation lost in the clouds, built on the edge of the mountain, with the river raging below, and the immense terraces still in place, sloping down the sides. All the buildings had stood the test of time phenomenally, you could visualise perfectly how it would have been all those years ago. It was impossible to believe that what we were seeing had been lost for over 600 years.

Built around 1460 by the Emperor Pachacuti, it remained unknown to the Spanish conquerors that brought the Inca Empire to an end. It lay forgotten for many centuries, only the local Indians and settlers knew of its existence. It wasn’t until July 24th, 1911 that it was rediscovered, by an American explorer Hiram Bingham. He had been exploring the area, and had discovered many of the other ruins that lie along the Inca Trail. Bingham was led to the site by an 11 year old boy, and it didn’t take him long to realise that this might be the place that he was looking for. Bingham’s theory was that it was the site of the Inca’s last refuge from the Spanish. (It wasn’t until the 1940´s that doubts began to arise over this assignation – many now believe it to be Espiritu Pampa in the Amazon jungle) Machu Picchu still remains one of the most best preserved remains of a citadel which the Inca´s used for both religious and agricultural reasons.

The buildings were built without mortar, and carefully designed in such a way as to remain standing against the elements, and withstand numerous earthquakes. In fact, the architects who built the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a site also built on shifting plates, visited Machu Picchu to learn more about the design and construction of the buildings. The place contained such energy and I was in my element exploring. I loved it for the way that it transported me to a time long forgotten. I spent many hours walking around, peering through doorways and running my hands over the ancient brick work. In some houses I could almost smell the smoke coming from the ancient fireplaces.

Sadly it was eventually time for us to leave. We walked the down the hill to the small town of Aguas Calientes, where we boarded the train back to Cusco. There was a small problem with the train, as we had to pay extra because it was the tourist train. As soon as the train was moving I was asleep, my dreams transporting me to ancient empires. I was suddenly awoken however by a masked man, waving a dried llama in my face. Apparently it was an example of traditional dance… I was more content however being left to my dreams. It was in all an incredible experience, one that I shall definitely never forget.