Friday, April 27, 2007

23rd - 27th April (Nasca to Puno)

We had travelled back down to the much less oppressive altitude of 598m, my plastic water bottle had completely caved in. I thought it best to get the flight done as soon as possible as the sky was perfectly clear. 192 soles to share a Cessna with four old Italians for half an hour as the pilot swung around each of the images below so that people on both sides of the plane could see clearly. The Nasca lines are mysterious images carved into the mostly flat rocky landscape below by several different civilisations between 900bc and 600ad. Nobody can prove exactly why and it is the different theories that make them so fascinating. See Lots of geometric lines, a monkey, hummingbird, astronaut, spider, dog whale.
The photos from above were no good as the colours involved are kind of grey on a grey background but when I went to planetarium later that night for a fantastically entertaining and informative presentation on the lines, the mystery surrounding them became much greater. Also I saw the rings of saturn clearly through a telescope and the craters of the half moon as if I could reach out and touch them.

The town of Nasca isn't at all pretty with most of the buildings looking like they are not yet finished. The main street is nice enough and well lit at night. It is extremely hot. I bought 8 dvds for 12 soles so they should be top quality and legal!
I went to the Museo Antinini which would have ben completely dull if it weren't for the wonderful trophy heads! After a lunch that I never managed I sat and read for a while before taking a tour with a taxi driver to see bones and mummies out in the desert,
stopping at the less than fascinating gold prospectors and pottery working place where they tried to sell me stuff I had no use for. I Arived 45 minuted early for the 23.00 bus which arrived an hour and a quarter late.

I awoke on the bus around sunrise, the hills looked like massive sand dunes with a scattering of rocks on them. This desolation continued for miles until suddenly we got to an area irrigated by the river that was lush with trees and farmland. There was a confusing bus change but we eventually got to where we were going and I met Raymond, a strange young Korean living in Canada. We booked in to the lovely and cheap 'Hospedaje el caminante class'(15S), went to the museo santaurios andinos for an interesting presentation on the young Inca sacrifices found in the nearby mountains, and the very weird contemporary art museum. The football kicked off earlier than I expected so I missed most of the Chelsea 1-0 Liverpool first leg but watched the rest in an Irish pub. In the evening I ate Ceviche (marinated raw fish) as I can't quite bring myself to eat the local delicacy of fried guinea pig (served whole). Ray and I went out drinking with a couple of others and played some pool.

The next morning we went to the Convento Santa Catalina which is a massive convent village for years hidden from public view behind huge walls, a fascinating building, pleasant gardens and all that but it seems I am unable to find much enjoyment from anything religious and trudged around completely bored. Later Ray and I caught a 20S bus to Puno, the price was reflected in the standard, an hour late leaving, dirty and for a while I thought the most uncomfortable bus I had ever been on as my chair wouldn't recline and the guys in front did until he was almost behind me! But then I remembered some of those bus journeys in asia and just laughed as the truly horible martial arts slapstick film played loudly above me.

We arrived in Puno in the evening. It was dark and the streets were wet and dirty. The buildings, again unfinished. We tried looking for a sociable hostel but instead found a dive with a bathroom that had a smell that could make your nose run, your eyes water. Truly horrible. We went out for Lasagne and even that never really got my appetite going. I thought of Carly's lasagne, with garlic bread and a lovely trifle for pudding. Back at our 12S hostel, the beds were actually pretty good and I slept well despite being back at the uncomfortable altitude of 3,855m (taking tablets again).

The hotel shower was cold and looked horrid so I skipped it. Puno looks just as bad in the day. Ray and I walked to the port where we joined a 15S half day boat tour to the floating reed islands of Uros. The people here have an interesting lifestyle living mostly off of fishing although they do supplement this by selling tat to tourists! The morning was hot and bright but it rained when we got back to Puno, I ate another half meal before we changed to a much nicer 30S hotel.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

16th - 22nd April (The Quechua Trail and Cusco)

I had gone from virtually sea level in Lima to 3,310m in Cusco. In the next two days I would reach 4,200m before descending to Macchupicchu. I started taking the altitude sickness pills as a precaution as well as drinking Coca tea (very nice), chewing coca leaves (not nice) and eating coca candy (okish).

My alarm was set for 05.15 but the bus was late despite me being the first pick up. Eighty-two km to the start point with some nice views of rural life along the way including farmers ploughing fields using Oxen (how quaint!) and people making mud bricks to build their houses. I bought a bamboo walking stick from one of the women with a baby strapped to her (there must be a local law that says you are not allowed to sell on the streets unless you have a baby strapped to your back). Todays walk was mostly gentle but it was hot, sometimes cloudy and a quick shower at lunch.
I was the only Brit in the group of 11 Norweigan, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese, Brazilian and Israeli. My camera, only about six months old but having taken six years worth of photos has chosen this perfect moment to play up with some of the buttons not working; luckily I can still take photos but playback and delete are no longer possible.

The Inca trail lasts four days and should really be called the Quechua trail; the people were known as the Quechua, the Inca was their king and had a seperate route to Macchupicchu which is now impassable. I don't want to bore you with the facts (mainly as I don't remember them) but if you are interested see and

The porters and cooks of the many groups constantly whizz past with 30kg plus strapped to their backs, tents, cooking stoves, tables, chairs and food. The food is always good and plentiful especially on the last day when we collect their tips from the group, we had more food than a Bavarian schnitzelfest that night! They wake us up with a cup of tea in the mornings, pancakes for breakfast, a good lunch, supper and sometimes a snack inbetween. I sampled the local corn beer made by the farmers 'Cheecha', like blonde beer with a dash of fairy lemon. Some of the views, mist and cloud permitting are fantastic and in the rainforest section in particular you can see brightly coloured flowers, butterflies and birds including the oil slick colours of the hummingbird as it darts between the trumpet flowers (very difficult to photograph!). There are several archeological sites of interest along the way which our guide Miguel told us about along the way. As soon as it gets dark (about 19.45) we go to bed as there are no fires allowed and of course it goes completely black. The trail is about 48km I think. The second day is about 4.5 hours uphill until 4,200m followed by 1.5 hours downhill. The third day is mostly downhill which I was dreading with my old knees but they were fine and the final day.....

Up at 04.00 in pitch black. 04.30, a quick breakfast then leave for the checkpoint 10 minutes away where we wait in a queue for it to open at 05.30. One by one our tickets are checked and we race to get to the site before anyone else gets there to ruin it! It is a short but hard walk to the sun gate where at around 06.00 we caught our first glimpse of Macchupicchu from above just as the sun was coming over the peak of the mountain casting the first rays of light onto a small section of it. A few photos from there before continuing down, taking photos along the way. I took so many photos because every different point seemed to offer something new and every few minutes the sun was casting different shadows (and as you know I can't delete!).
We waited around for a while to gather for group photos before Miguel gave us the fascinating guided tour. Then, time was our own, the 18 year old dutch lads and I had to climb Waynapicchu (the mountain next to Macchupicchu in all the postcards) which has really steep steps carved into the side of it and on a perfectly clear day like today provides some amazing views.
Strangely, only at the very top, there are loads of butterflies swarming about. We took pictures of ourselves on the very highest point of the mountain, sat for a while taking in the view then climbed back down.
From there Q took the 30 minute bus down to Agua Calientes town while Jon and I ran down the god knows how many steps for 25 minutes and walked the 15 minute road with calves burning (how do the porters do it?!). A celebratory beer and pizza and then for some reason my train time was different to the rest, a five hour journey along the Urubamba river with an increasingly sore throat.

The photo cd that I had left behind had been hand delivered to my hostel which was a great relief.

I spent the night alternating betrween uncontrollable shivering and sweating and for a few days in Cusco I felt like absolute shit. I rattled when I walked but no amount of paracetomol or nurofen seemed to help. In the mornings I would decide that it would do me good to get out and about but after a few hours would be in desperate need of my bed, feeling like I would soon collapse in the heat and altitude. I remember waking at midnight after an afternoon in bed thinking how am I going to sleep now, but I did, lots and lots of sleep and lazing around but without much getting better. I watched Hitch, Spartan, Goal and the rather gory Hostel. I had a nice room to myself which was costing me a bit extra but it was worth it just to be able to cough and sneeze without bothering anyone else. I've realised that four days of walking and a few days of not eating has left me looking like a thin version of Albert Steptoe! On the third day of being ill, i spent the morning skyping back home and felt almost human and also like I had got my appetite back so I went for an Alpaca steak which was nice but a little too salty. After struggling to force down as much as I could (about half) I started feeling a little dizzy, then the small amount of light in the pokey locals restaurant suddenly seemed blinding and I really thought I was going to pass out. I managed to order a bottle of water, had to grope around to find it as I couldn't see a thing, and drank until my vision returned. After settling the bill I sat in the nearby park until I felt reasonably normal again. In the afternoon I was nearly tempted to buy a fairly large streetscene painting, had a look around the pre-columbian art museum and the Catedral del Cusco which is as impressive inside as it is outside despite my mistrust of all things Christian. I got my shoes shined and was called a marthafocker by a young boy trying to sell me postcards. At 18.00 I took a bus to Nasca which wound around the mountains until I fell asleep. When I awoke at sunrise we were still winding around mountains but now they were made of bright pink rock with a blue, grey and pink sky all around. There was litle vegitation and looked pretty desolate but I watched the changing scenery for the rest of the journey to Nasca.
11th - 15th April (Into Peru)

Before leaving Santiago, I did manage to contact a couple of my old friends from Sammies, Sarah and Catie who I met up with for a couple of very strange cocktails (on Sarahs recomendation) and a good chat about all kinds of rubbish. I would have been happy to stay out all night but managed to get myself in bed for midnight. At 3.15, having just uncovered my ears to deaden the sex noises of the couple across the room (after staying in so many dorm rooms it's surprising that it hasn't happened before really!) the alarm went off, I dressed and gathered my things in the dark. Olivia, a cute little English girl was on the same shuttle bus, after checking in we went for a bite to eat where we met Rosie; another cute English girl who Olivia had met previously. Things were looking up! Olivia was going to Cusco, Rosie and I were both going to Lima but on different flights so I arranged to meet Rosie at the Lima airport where I held up a board with her name on. We crammed onto the tiny bus on route S to Miraflores with our huge rucksacks on our laps and looked frantically between the 'footprint' road map and the passing street names, none of which tallied up! Eventually we got off and found Nomade hostel that I had booked online which had plenty of room for Rosie as well. We checked in and went for a lovely lunch in a quiet but frienly restaurant. Many places to lunch menus which are either set or have limited choice and are incredibly cheap, if on a tight budget it is worthwhile eating your main meal at lunch time and a snack from the supermarket later. Our three course meal came to 15 soles each (6 soles = 1 pound). We walked through the streets of Miraflores (a well to do suberb of Lima) and along the sea front for the rest of the afternoon, got some food from the supermarket and Rosie cooked it at the hostel. Everything was perfect apart from having to settle for cheap boxed wine as the price of wine here is about the same as in England which comes as a terrible shock after Argentina. We ate, drank and watched 'The Departed' with Matt Damon and Leo di Capreo which was pretty good.

Our plan to hire bikes the next day didn't work out so we ended up walking again, this time with a young American called Max in tow, we stopped at the same place for lunch and looked around lots of local craft markets where I started to realise just how hard it was going to be to find suitable gifts. We went an an hour long open top bus tour where I nearly froze to death, didn't understand a word of the Spanish commentary and saw very little of any interest whatsoever. Back at the hostel we ate, drank and watched 'Notes from a scandal', also pretty good.

The next day Rosie and I took a taxi to central Lima, walked around and took a Spanish guided minibus tour up Cerro San Christobal. The bus did about 10 laps around the block in Lima before setting off up the hill in order to fill the bus, taking about 40 minutes. The most interesting views were of the slum huts built into the side of the hill.
At midday we caught a glimpse of the changing of the guard, with as much pomp and ceremony as back home. We went to a restaurant run by nuns who confused me by speaking French where I had some lovely trout and then we walked around the shops until Rosie went to her Lima hotel to meet the group she would be touring with for the next seven weeks and I went back to Miraflores where I bought a big 45Soles jumper for the Inca trail, a 13S burger king and watched 'Team America' (f#ck yeah!). Lima was much nicer than I expected, very busy and noisy but some very nice buildings and a lot to see. Miraflores is also very nice but it was about time to go.

I spent the morning killing time, then when I got to Lima airport realised that I had left my photo cd in the hostal computer. I found the Peru national footy shirts that Christophe had requested, ate a McChicken sandwich and hopped on the plane. Cusco is amazing, the plaza de aramas is the most perfect cetral square I have ever seen, especially at night when it and the hillside behind it is a mass of lights. The fountain, the huge cathedral del Cusco and the church all glow in just the right amount of light, the women with babies strapped to their backs and long braided hair beneath their traditional hats try to sell all kinds of stuff but stop short of harrassment as the tourist police are keeping a close vigil. The streets leading off of the plaza are narrow, cobbled and full of character until eventually you get to normal scummy streets with scummy cars and scummy buildings. Straight away I noticed the difference in altitude; just walking along a level street had me breathing out of my arse. Apparently I should have allowed a couple of days to acclimatise in Cusco before hitting the trail, too late I'm booked in for tomorrow. Apart from sorting out a few neccesary items for the trek (including altitude sickness pills), I haggled down a metre long street scene and a small portrait of a local child to 105S, ate some pasta and sampled the local brew 'Cusquena' which is pretty good. I slept like a man with a Llama on his chest - badly.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

4th - 11th April (Full circle - Mendoza back to Santiago via Valparaiso)

I felt pretty tired after my long journey which was a good excuse to sit in the hostel all afternoon drinking beer and watching the first leg champions league games of Chelsea and Man.U. I went to bed early and later awoke to the sound of a girl farting in her sleep - nice! The hostel is okay apart from there is only one working shower so had to wait a while in the morning. Later I paid 30 pesos for a bike tour of the city which was really crap. The guy just led the way as two other guys and I followed out to a nice park, up a hill to a crap view and back to the shop. I think we were expecting to take in some of the sights of the city and be told some mind-blowingly interesting facts about them. Ate lunch with the Argie and English guy from the bike tour and hung around chatting for most of the afternoon. I felt pretty ill for some reason though and thought I was coming down with something but it was fine the next day. I tried to get on the Mountain tour which I was told was very good but it was fully booked. Cooked pasta and watched Goldmember.

The next day I took a local bus to Maipu, where I picked up a bike and a plan of the area for 35 pesos and rode around all the bodegas (vinyards) and a wine museum with a very good guided tour. Of course there was some unavoidable tasting involved. The sun was hot but we are quite high above sea level and there is a gentle icy breeze coming off of the mountains. The bodegas are lovely and the mountain backdrop very picturesque but the town itself is scruffy. I learned a little about wine production and tasting techniques and enjoyed the day despite the only restaurant on the route being full and having nothing but wine and fruit to keep me going. Back at the hostel there was a nice BBQ consisting of salty chunks of beef and some bread which I washed down with a bottle of red. Wine in Argentina is even cheaper than in Chile so it is mandatory to pick up a bottle every time I go to the supermarket!

Managed to find a second hand bookshop at last and bought Bill Bryson's 'Neither here nor there - travels in Europe'. Got my ears lowered for 20 pesos by a bloge whose hand was shaking when he used the scisors, still he managed a good job. Steak and chips for 17pesos then a bus across the border at 13.15 to Valparaiso, Chile. Unfortunately I had forgotton there was still fruit in my bag from yesterdays bike trip which nearly landed me in jail at the border crossing. The woman really wasn't very happy but I had no idea what she was saying! My Spanish had also let me down on getting information about the journey as I thought they had seventeen hours when it was actually seven so I arrive late at night and not early in the morning as I had thought. I phoned the hostel I had booked for the following night and they had space and sent a taxi to get me from the station. The hostel is a little scruffy but fine and the dutch girls were there as well as an Irish fella called Keith who I got on well with.
The town used to be quite grand but apart from one or two impressive buildings the whole place looks like it's falling apart, it has suffered from pirates, fires and earthquakes destroying most of it's colonial past.
The centre is the dock area and from here there are 42 hills rising up in a crescent formation with old buildings (mostly diapidated) and slum huts intermingled together on the steep slopes. There are a lot of beggars, drunks and ne'erdowells around and this is the first place in South America where I have felt a little bit wary and kept my hand on my wallet, especially at night. A lot of the smaller streets stink of piss and at one point I had to check my pants as the stench seemed to be following me around! Keith has been here a while waiting for a credit card to arrive and he really likes it here. After a while I decided I quite like it as well, it is grubby, smelly, graffiti covered, scruffy, littered and full of dodgy characters but it has real character, a real change from some of the places I have been that are just like a little tourist village. There are beaches at nearby Vina del Mar which is supposed to be more upmarket and my plan had been to laze around there for a couple of days but the weather was overcast a lot of the time so I never made it. The bars look really nice; small, cosy and a bohemian atmosphere.

There is an area of seafood restaurants (which is also the red light district at night), where i sampled the local wares (that's wares, not whores!)
I had a lovely paella that had an ocean full of seafood, chicken, chorizo and beef one lunch time and some nice salmon the next. Discovered that 'American Pie - the wedding' is terrible. One night Keith and I decided to go out for a couple of beers which ended up being a pisco cola session in a night club which somehow went on until gone 05.00. The next morning I felt surprisingly well and hung around waiting to watch Man.U's 7-1 demolition of Roma and Chelsea getting through against Valencia. As soon as that was over I got on a bus to Santiago where I stayed at La Casa Roja, a lovely big building with too many young idiots getting drunk, making noise and puking up - I was never like that! I ate at an empty Chinese restaurant and spent the following day just killing time. I have an early flight to Lima tomorrow

Monday, April 02, 2007

28th March - 4th April (Worrying about flight change, Israelis and cash card)

I had a flight booked as part of my round the world ticket from Santiago to Lima on the 30th of March but had planned to get this changed as I decided to take the journey south first. I didn't change the date straight away because I wasn't sure what to change it to. But by the 28th I was cutting it a little too fine and if I miss one flight I've heard they for some reason cancel your remaining flights and that would be a big problem. After ringing several numbers and getting nowhere my last chance was in Barriloche, my next destination, which according to the book had a LAN airlines office. If the book is out of date on this I'm in trouble. The only bus to Bariloche was at 21.30 ariving at 11.00 on the 29th. I walked along the street where the LAN office was supposed to be but couldn't see it which worried me but a visit to tourist information gave me their new address and everything got sorted. Phew! New problem. The Israelis are in town en mass and all the best hostels are booked up (nobody that I speak to has much good to say about Israeli travellers). I eventually found a place but the bathrooms were in a bit of a state. Some of the Israelis were a bit annoying but a couple were nice and friendly.

Barriloche, surrounded by lakes and mountains is a pretty big town and wants to be Swiss. The church and many of the buildings are modelled in a Swiss style and the town square would look lovely if it weren't for all the grafitti. Apart from the usual array of shops selling hiking gear and souvenirs to tourists there are a load of shops selling Swiss style chocolates, fodues and loads of different flavoured ice creams.
At the moment they have massive window displays with easter eggs the size of houses. I think dad would have slobbered over the window in a Homer Simpson style. Despite all the chocolate available I have noticed that some of the local women are of a higher standard than I have seen previously! I managed to book a nicer hostel for the next two nights.

The next day I took the local bus to Llao Llao for a pleasant forest walk with lookouts over a couple of lakes. Later, at the internet cafe I bumped into the dutch girls who were again planning to hire a car which I was happy to join for a trip to see the seven lakes tomorrow.

Sanne and I shared the driving of the little Fiat with Steffi and an Aussie guy called Lee from their hostel. We drove for about 400km over mostly bumpy gravel roads. There was some nice scenery but nothing amazing (maybe I have been spoilt by all the lakes and mountains in NZ!).
The final stretch did have some weird, gravity defying rock formations but we couldn´t stop the car as the fuel light had been on for a while and the sun was about to disappear.
We had already changed a punctured tyre but luckily we made it to a fuel station without further adventure. After a shower and some fast food I went to the girls' hostel where we played drinking games with red wine then went clubbing until gone 05.00. I didn't drink much after the hostel as I was worried about getting in to my top bunk with low ceiling!

The next day I had to find another hostel as they had reservations, again the best ones were full but I found a pretty basic one with a very friendly owner. I didn´t realise until later that the bed was far too soft, the matress was just a piece of old sponge and the pillow was disgusting. I had visions of a bad back and all kinds of crawlie things coming out of the sponge! I walked around the town to clear my head, cooked pasta for lunch and used the internet for a while before getting my cash card swallowed by an ATM. Bugger! Hopefully will be able to sort it out at the bank tomorrow. Back at the hostel I started to read 'Five Boys' by Mick Jackson which I had found in a hostel book swap area but then Rocky 3 came on the tv.

The next day was a public holiday so the bank wasn´t open. I was hoping to get on a coach to Mendoza today but will have to put that on hold. The weather is nice again and the town is pleasant enough to just kick around doing nothing much. I don't really want another night on the sponge (although I slept very well) but I can't be bothered to look for yet another place.

The bank opened on Tuesday. I was there by 09.15 by which time the queue snaked around the large hall several times. There was at least a hundred people waiting and it took me an hour an fifteen minutes to get to the front. I had rehearsed my opening line "a domingo mi tarjeta esta dentro la machina" which although I realised was terrible Spanish thought it would probably get the message across "on Sunday, my card is inside the machine". The man said something back which I couldn't understand but seemed to be dismissing me so I asked "¿alguien hablas Inglis?" and luckily a woman came over who understood me and managed to recover my card. I hadn't planned on taking this long so had to run to book my coach to Mendoza, run up the steep hills to check out of my hostel and take a cab to the bus station, arriving just on time for the 11.30 bus having had no breakfast and no time to buy any food for the journey. Luckily, they served up some edible lunch to keep me going. The first part of the journey went past some of the unusual rock formations and I took some photos through the window. As darkness came I slept reasonably well considering there was no 'cama' bus available and had to slum it in 'semi cama' meaning an ordinary reclining seat instead of the lay-z-boys I'd become used to.

I arrived in Mendoza at 06.30 with nowhere to stay, so hung around the bus station until it was light then went out looking. Again, most of the places were booked but I found somewhere then looked around the town. Not at all what I was expecting. The name 'Mendoza' to me conjures up pleasant rolling hills of vinyards and villas but is in fact a sprawling modern city with noise and cars everywhere. There aren't even any old buildings as the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1861 and was completely rebuilt. I hadn't seen a McDonalds in a while and thouroughly enjoyed my grilled chicken sandwich.