Saturday, February 19, 2011

Chile: Pronounced Chili, not Chilay.

Welcome to Chile, home Pablo Neruda, the driest desert ever and rolling mountains of the Andes and of course, Patagonia. We`ve been here a good two weeks, and so its time for that bloggy fix.

So far on our trip, we`ve been having a pretty pain free and wonderful time. One of my favourite things about travelling over the last 8ish months has been that we`ve never HAD to be anywhere. If we like a place, we stay, if we don`t we move on, wonderful! Not even a deadline in the form of a plane ticket! We`ve had things pretty easy. No tails of horror or robbery. We haven`t had to deal with that hidious cash grabbing monster known as `High Season`.  Everything has been fantastic! Alas, all cheap things must come to an end. Since we only have a little over 6 weeks left on our trip and we really have a lot of space to cover, we`ve had to start `planning` and worse, `booking in advance!` *Shudder. Also, we`ve now hit high season in an already expensive country and we pretty much know where we`re going to be on any given day over the next six weeks. *Sigh.

And worst of all, we`ve had our first run in with thieves. My wonderful camera, and Ian`s largely redundant one have both been rubbado. Which means my avid readers, less pretty pictures. I`ll have to resort to stealing pictures from the internet again. Blame the thieves.

However, the show must go on and we still have most of South America to get around by D-Day (April 4th if you hadn`t heard.) If you trace us on a map, we`ve just come from the desert in San Pedro de Atacama, via poetic town of Valparaiso to Puerto Montt, the beginning of Patagonia. Thats about 3,500km give or take. If you thought the 252km from Cork to Dublin was far, think again!

Arriving from Bolivia into San Pedro was something of a shock for us. Firstly, there were roads and those roads were paved. Public transport seems to function, and there are huge supermarkets that are reasonably well stocked. The weather was hot and dry and we were guaranteed sunshine. Suddenly coca leaves were deemed socially unacceptable, and probably the most shocking of all, the cost of a bed in a dorm more than trebbled. In one night we went from paying $2-$4 a night for a dorm to paying $16. No longer did we have our pick of the Lonely Planet`s funkiest and hippest hostels, everywhere seemed to have this strange sign out front "Llena". It didn`t take long to figure out that these hostels were full. What were we to do?

Well, you could do worse than San Pedro. It is expensive since water is scarce and everything has to be brought in. There also seems to be a tourist town and a separate town for local people that doesn`t appear to be nearly as pretty. But, we spent some lovely days enjoying the sunshine and staring and strange sand dunes. Unfortunately, we couldn`t get over the $8 for a chicken sandwhich and decided it had to be cheaper further south. It just didn`t make sense that anywhere could be more expensive than home.

While we were in San Pedro, we did make the acquaintance of Dave. Now, Dave is a nice guy from England, travelling on his own, but I feel he deserves a mention. Due to all the aforementioned high prices, we ended up sharing a dorm with Dave. I`ve been trying to think of the best way to describe this experience for the better part of two weeks. The best I can come up with is this: imagine you`re a hobbit, in the land of Mordor. You´re alone and scared in a strange place. The firey depths of volcanoes errupt and spit lava and ash around you`re little group. You quiver with fear and dread. Suddenly, Hordes of Orcs begin to surround you, and as their numbers swell, all you can hear is the thumping of the war drums and the snarling of their twisted beasts. The battlecries of a mob of angry demonic like creatures pound your eardrums. The roar is deafening. That is what Dave`s snoring was like. It was so bad, Ian tried to sleep in a hammock outside (several metres away) and could still hear the orcish battlecry through the walls. Being a former snorer myself (Ian assures me I`ve kicked the habbit), I sympathise with Dave. Its a terrible feeling knowing that you`re keeping everyone around you awake. Normally a shout would suffice, unfortuantely Dave was unwakeable, if it weren´t for his snoring, I might have thought he was dead. Take heed potential travellers, chose your dorm buddies wisely if you can!

Wanting to fulfil a promise to a friend to visit the house of Pablo Neruda, we decided to bus south to Valparaiso and spend some time on the beach. (The bus is where the hateful thieving happend, so no pictures of SanPedro`s beautiful Church.) As a warning to other travellers, I´m going to tell you all quickly what happened. I was pretty tired after Dave´s performance the night before and decided to take a nap at 2pm on the bus. Ian thought I was awake and thinking that the bus was about to leave, he very quickly answered natures call. At this time, the two women behind us equipped with kid for distraction took my bag under my seat, removed my camera and walked off with Ian´s day pack. Peachy. It was pretty stressful, but not the end of the world.

That particular bus not only was the first time I was really robbed, but it was also the most embarassing moment of my life. In an attempt to help all others travelling long distance by bus, I´m going to share my other tale of woe in the hope that maybe you can avoid my fate. Answering nature´s call myself, I went to use the bathroom on the bus. I was quite sure the door was locked, but as the bus took a particularly sharp corner I fell face forward into the door and out into the aisle of the bus with my pants around my knees arse shown to half of Chile. Always make sure the door is locked. That´s my lesson for the day.

Arriving in Valparaiso, we had to do things like visit police stations. Also, we actually ended up staying outside of Valparaiso on the beach near a town called Quintero. We intended on spending 2 nights in this oasis called Ritoque Raices. This place seems to be some kind of Vortex that traps travellers. Anyone who could rearrange their transport out did so that they could stay longer. Which we inevitably did, 2 nights turned into 5. We lit fires in the evening and sat around with some wonderful people talking about the world and learning world history from an Argentinian genius named Agustin. What a guy, he nearly knew more about Irish history than I did and I have a degree in it. We also spent an entire evening explaining to a Swedish couple exactly WHY we pronounced Chile, Chili and not Chilay. Chilay would be knobbish. It took a while.

I also took my very first yoga class out here. Now, having never tried it before I wasn´t sure what to expect, but it sounded like fun and it was on the beach, so I think I know a good idea when I see one. Well, we trudged through sand dunes for a half an hour searching for The Sand Dune where the lesson was to take place. A pack of local dogs kept us company on the trek. I watched the sun set and the stars appear while listening to the crashing waves all with my knees around my ears. What a way to learn yoga! I´d highly recommend it.

When we finally decided we couldn´t put off leaving any more we moved onto Puerto Varas after a quick stop visiting Pablo Neruda´s gaff, possibly the first cultural thing we´ve done since we were in Bogota. Anyway, landing ourselves in Puerto Varas, we camped in the back garden of a hostel and exploed the town. Puerto Varas is a pretty little town that reminds of be America a little bit. Its very clean and proper. We walked down the the lake side beach and watched the sun set over the lake. It was probably the most spectacular sunset I´ve seen. We sat in our shorts at 9 at night and watched the sky turn pink and purple and blue. The snow capped mountains that surround the lake changed colour with the sky, so we had pink mountains. It was beautiful.

Before we headed off into southern, more popular Patagonia, we decided to explore Isla Grande Chiloe. You´d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the coast line here and in West Cork. Except for the penguins. You don`t usually see a colony of penguins hanging about Mizen Head, whereas there were hundreds of fluffy baby penguins shedding their furry coats in this place. As well as sea otters, a few of them were splashing about as well. Seeing penguins in their natural habitat was really special, it was definately one of the coolest things we`ve done so far, I got really excited about it. For some reason penguins bobbing about in the water looking like ducks and waddling around the rocks was just brilliant.

When we originally decided to come down to Ancud and Isla Chiloe, we wanted to see if we could get some diving in. After seeing their diving equipment, we took a rain cheque. Basically they use a compressor to compress air into a beer keg and they run a garden hose out to you in the sea. The local mussel fishermen use it all the time, so our diving sales man assured us it was safe. Following Muriel´s advice about compressor reliability, we skipped it all the same.

While we were on Isla Chiloe we did some hiking hoping to see a pudu. Now a pudu, for you table quizzers everywhere, is the world´s smallest deer standing 30cm at shoulder height. We didn´t see any, but it wasn´t from lack of effort. We also sampled the local fare, for the first time in Chile I might add, we couldn´t afford it anywhere else! The food was great, oysters and mussels the size of your forearm! I wanted to take a picture to prove it to my Dad, but... grrrrr...

Isla Chiloe is a beautiful island that seems to get a lot less tourists than other parts of Patagonia or Chile. Its like most people forget that its a good place to visit. The coastal views are really specatular. For me, I just thought I could have been walking down to Sandy Cove or up Toe Head. It was strange being so far from home and yet it felt like I was right there. Its odd how two places can be so far away and so alike!

When we left Chiloe, we took a ferry to the real Northern Patagonia, a town called Chaiten. Now our guidebook is a few years out of date and when we decided to go there, we had no idea what had happened. About two years ago a volcano behind the town errupted and filled the river with ash. The river of ash then burst its banks and buried most of the town in silt, sand and ash. We had no idea when we walked up to the hostel that there was no running water or electricity. When we walked through the town we had a sense of it being something of a ghost town. Firstly, the usual congregation of village owned dogs were nowhere to be seen. It wasn´t until we went for a walk down the beach and discovered the roofs of buildings sticking out from under the sand that we started putting together what happened. There were dozens of houses completely buried with just the tip of the roof and the chimney sticking out of the top. The strangest thing to see was the school´s gym hall which was a huge indoor basketball court, mostly filled in with silt and sand. Even I could have gotten a slam dunk!  It was a sad place, but we were glad we stayed and went indoor camping. Whats left of the old town definately needed the money.

Getting the ferry back to Puerto Montt we´ve hit the 33hour bus to Punto Arenas. In the next few days we´ll be trekking through Torres Del Paine National Park and roaming through Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego. You have much to look forward to loyal readers. Will check in soon, but other than that I hope you´ve learned a few traveller tips.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Bolivia Special.

Welcome to Bolivia, land of many extremes. Highest capital in the world, highest city in the world, biggest salt lake in the world, world`s most dangerous road and world`s worst internet. There I said it, the only negative thing anyone has ever said about travelling in Bolivia.

So when travelling around, you have the travelling conversation. Its the same one over and over but you always listen because you never know when someone is going to give you a bit of gemlike information that can save you money, time and maybe even send you to somewhere exceptionally cool. For the last 8 months or so (yes, you have been living happily without us for 8 months now), Bolivia has been high on travellers `must do when in South America`. Did we have high expectations? Yes. I was a bit worried it was going to be like when everyone says `This is the greatest movie of all time you have to go see it` and when you do you think, `Eh`. Were we disappointed, no. Did we like it? Yes we did! Should you go there? Emmmm.... Yes!

Now that we only have 2 months to go, we`re speeding up and whizzing through so we can get to Patagonia. Which means, we`re pretty much sticking to a very well trodden gringo trail. Nevertheless, Bolivia is a roughly epic country.

We started off on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, which is apparently pronounced Titi-haha. Well we haggled our way onto a ferry and visited the beautiful Isla Del Sol. We hiked from one end of the island to the other, passing empty beaches and high hills. Its a quiet spot, not a lot of people living there, but they defiantely know how to charge. You get charged for leaving the north part of the island and then again entering the south part. Its very little and the money goes to the local community so its not all bad.

As beautiful and all as Titicaca was, having just spent a few days on the Peruvian side and being in search of some more adrenaline pumping thrills, we bussed it over to La Paz. Yes we survived the world`s most dangerous road, yes its scary but manageable.

So, in 1996 some international agency labelled the road as the world`s most dangerous because of all the people that died every year when a bus, lorry, truck would tip over and fall down the valley (on average 200-300 people every year). Ten years later they managed to finish the by pass and now that road isn`t normally used for traffic, just tourists looking for a thrill. So the fact that its no longer the main road definately makes it easier. That said, its still very easy to take a butterfly trip, (which I nearly did.) That`s when you get distracted by the beautiful scenery (or a butterfly in my case) and cycle off the edge. You`d think you`d have to be pretty stupid to do that, but trust me, its very difficult to ignore the rolling green mountains and giant blue butterflies.

From the stories we heard, we decided to go with the more expensive company, when travelling down death road, its probably better just to pay the extra for better bikes. It gave me some piece of mind anyway. You start off on the new road, biking to the beginning of the old road gives you a bit of practice on the bike before you hit dirt and gravel. I was badly in need of practice. But we biked the whole 64km to the bitter end. Surrounded by ice capped peaks of the Andes and green valleys of lush cloud forest, we raced down the thin dirt and gravel path where the edge was terrifyingly close and drop dizzingly high. We biked under waterfalls and passed the spot Top Gear made famous when Jeremy Clarkson came dangerously close to the edge. We ended in an animal sanctuary where monkeys were running around trying to pick pocket the bikers.

The trip back up in the bus is probably the worst part of the whole thing. There are times when you look out the window and all you can see is the drop and it is terrifying. There is no room for error as an inch in the wrong direction and the whole bus would be gone over the edge. Its at this point that the guide tells you about the worst accidents on the road and about how various bikers were injured or died during the ride. Their timing is impeccable as the bus stops underneath one waterfall at the narrowest point on the road and they open the doors for you to get a look.

As it turned out there were two Irish girls doing the trip with us, it was brilliant to hear a familiar voice! Particularly when it was all I could do to not look out the window of the bus. They regalled us with tales from home which kept me blissfully preoccupied and not looking out the window. Thank you Jill & Caitriona!

While in La Paz, Ian really wanted to break the 6000 metres above sea level mark declaring "I really just want to use some crampons and an ice axe!". Huayna Potosi was the mountain that obliged. We spent one day hiking up to 5,100metres to base camp, where we played cards with 2 Canadians and stuffed ourselves full of coca leaves, coca tea, coca hot chocolate and anything to relieve altitude sickness. We felt great! Well, that is I felt great until it was time to go to sleep. When you lie down your heart starts pounding trying to get oxygen around. It was a crazy feeling, liying down not moving, trying to go to sleep and yet your heart feels like you`ve just run a marathon.

At midnight we got up to start trekking. We donned our crampons, sharpened our ice picks and attacked the glacier with vigour. Unfortunately, I only had so much vigour in me, coca leaves and altitude sickness tablets weren`t enough to relieve my symptoms. I popped at 5,400 meters above sea level and couldn`t make it any farther. That said, it was a brilliant experience, we got amazing views over La Paz, we saw green and red lakes and ice blue glaciers. And, Ian got to use crampons and an ice pick and has a new resolve to make it past 6,000 meters above sea level. I`m ok with 5,400.

Leaving La Paz we went to what used to be the world`s biggest Silver Mine, Potosi. Potosi is a beautiful city (the highest in the world) and the silver mine which made it famous is horrible. When going to visit the mine, you first stop off at the miner`s market to buy presents for the miners. Here we got them such presents as orange, 96% alcohol, coca leaves and dynamite. No your eyes are not decieving you, we simply walked into  the shop and got a couple of sticks of dynamite. Some for the miners and some for us to set off. No fluttered eyelids, so baffled looks, just our change and a smile from the shopkeeper. We wrapped up our purchases and our faces and headed off to the mine.

Our guide had worked in the mine for 5 years on and off since he was 15. Walking into the mine, I was a bit nervous, I don`t really like small spaces. But Diego, our reliable guide took us to into the mine without any hesitation. We went to visit the miners god, Tio, who is basically the devil. As we were sitting there and Diego was explaining the miners` beliefs and practices, we all felt a thump and heard a bang. the walls shook slightly and there was some more dust floating around our heads. A miner one grotto over had just set off some dynamite. I think that might have been when I started to get scared.

Big Bag of Coca leaves

Going over to the next grotto, we met the miner who had just set off the explosion. He looked as old as the mine istelf. He told us that he had been working there since he was 14, he was a member of the mining co-op and as such had his own grotto to work. It was around 3pm when we got into the mine, this miner had been there since 7am and hadn`t eaten or drunk anything since then. All he had had was coca leaves and he was delighted when we were able to produce a new bag of leaves for him. He new how long he had been in the mine for because after 4 hours, coca leaves run out of juice and he was able to count how many sets he had gone through in a day. No need for a watch. Now I`ve heard of fad diets before, but that one really takes it to an extreme.

The way that the mine is organised, or disorganised rather, emans that its every man for himself. A Co-op member can employ regular miners to help him work but there`s no over all structure to the mining. One miner could literally be undermining someing. (I`m sorry I couldln`t resist the temptation.) The mine has no proper air circulation as there`s no air vents. The temperatures in the mine range from stifiling hot to below freezing in places. The shafts are held up with rotting wood that is cracked and caving in places. When asked why they don`t use horses to remove the tonnes of material, our guide told us it was because the mine shafts were too narrow, a horse wouldn`t fit. The shafts are barely a metre wide in places. Now, I would have though, why not make the shafts bigger, etc, but that wouldn`t work because its every miner for himself. The place has no safety standards whatsoever. Its a disaster waiting to happen. Specialists have apparently given the mine 10 more years before it will eventually collapse the entire mountain. I doubt very much that it will take ten years to reach that point. The miners start every day with a large shot of 96% alcohol and continue it all day topping up with coca leaves and lime.

When we reached the lower levels of the mine, I was scared stiff. Or shook rather, I couldn`t stop my hand shaking. I was suitably terrified. Chatting to another one of the miners while he tried to hit on a german girl on the tour with us, he told us he was 20 and had been working in the mine for 10 years. This place is like taking a trip back in time to the Industrial Revolution in Britian when children used to work in the mines becuase they could get into the smaller spaces. Nothing has changed in Potosi, except they now have electric headlamps.

Tight squeeze

Yes, that is a big bundle of dynamite.

When we left the mine, our guide set up our dynamite for us, we all took pictures with the lighted exploive in our hands, and then he ran down to the side of the road and left it there. A car driving by was quickly waved in the opposite direction before it actually exploded. I might point out that he simply left a lighted explosive lying at the side of the road with oncoming traffic, on top of the mine. Zero health and safety.

 Having had enough excitement for a while, we went to a place called Tupiza. (It had a very cleverly named restaurant called Tu Pizza). Tupiza is where the careers of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid came to an end after robbing one too many trains. We were literally in cowboy country. We did a horse trek around the area to see the amazing rock and cactus formations. There are places where its like there used to be an entire mountain but everything except for the front wall has been washed away. Its spectacular.

Carrying on from the `traveller conversation` one thing that most people say is the `Best thing we`ve done in South America` is the Salar de Uyuni. This is the world`s biggest salt falt, and its without a doubt an ocular delight! Also, because its rainy season, it was particulary amazing!

We decided to head to Chile through the Salar and took a three day tour in a 4X4 to San Pedro through the Salar. Day one is through the actual Salt flat where hundreds of people are taking funny looking perspective photos. We joined in and Ian jumped on his passport and even stood on my hand. Fun times!

Driving through the salt flat in the rainy season is like driving on a mirror. The sky is perfectly reflected in the water and when you see another 4X4 in the middle distance, it looks like its floating in mid air. Visually its like nothing else you`ve ever seen in your life. How the driver has any idea where he`s going is anyone`s guess. As it turns out, one car was actually lost in the salt flats for two days while that driver tried to figure out where he was. A compass would be a good idea for these drivers, but they seem to prefer to go off instinct.

The second and third day is like driving on a power plate, you know those exercise machines you stand on and they jiggle your whole body? By my reckoning I must have lost at least a stone and a half through all the jiggling. the trip is fantastic though, we went from snow covered mountains where it was hard to tell where the snow stopped and the clouds started to gysers flushing steam and finally to the world`s driest desert. It was surreal, the whole 3 day trip.

We started off by visiting the train cemetery where Bolivian trains go to die. We visited one of the salt factories and saw where they process the salt. We visited buildings made entirely of salt and our hostel was even made of salt. There are islands in the middle of the salt flat where there are giant cactus growing in the middle of nothing. We saw huge lakes of vivid blues and reds where hundreds of flamingoes were chilling out.

Bolivia is a special place of extremes for those seeking adventure. Remember though, you will have to put up with zero internet, bad or non existant roads and the craziest drivers since Mexico. Be warned!!!

From here on in is a jam packed schedule taking us to Patagonia, Buenas Aires and Brazil. The count down is on and we`re stuffing as much as is physically possible into the 2 months we have left. Remember, you now only have 2 more months of joy without us, make use of it wisely.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Peru: Nazca, Salkantay & Machu Picchu

Welcome back, welcome back loyal readers. Feast your eyes on me keeping up with my New Year`s Resolution to update the blog every two weeks.

When last I blogged I told you all about the wonders of the Galapacos and today, I`m going to skip Christmas and Ecuador (those stories and more to follow). Today, we`re here to hear about a near vomit commet over archeological signs; 90km hiking around glaciers and jungles; ending in stroll around the world`s most famous Inca ruin, Machu Picchu. If we`ve time, we might get to hear about the lovely Lake Titcaca (pronounced Titihaha) and the floating islands there.

So, when we left Ecuador we took a 30 hour bus to Lima, overnighted in a hostel and then took another 12 hour bus to the desert town of Nazca. Along the way we drove through miles and miles of uninhabited, otherworldly desert wasteland. When we finally arrived in Nazca, the heat of the desert was pretty much overwhelming. It is hot, and I mean really hot. Like what you`d imagine living in the Sahara is like hot.

Well we decided that we could only fully appreciate the famous Nazca lines from the sky so we charted a plane and off we went. Now, the Nazca lines are like giant hyroglyphs in the ground that you can`t actually see unless you`re very high above them. Flying is pretty much the best way to see them since you can only see one or two from the viewing stand that`s been constructed.

Now, the plane held 6 people including the pilot and co-pilot. The  first 10 or so minutes you spend getting over to the Nazca lines, so in spite of my initial nerves at the fact that the plane nearly tipped over when I got in, I was doing ok. A few mintues later, we`re soaring over huge marings in the ground, over 100m long. First the right side, then you`d swing back so people on the left side could see. This is where the problems started. You feel a bit the way you do in a wobbly lift when your stomach tries to jump into your brain and then gets sucked back down to the ground again. A bit like that, only in the extreme. At one point, I thought my whole insides would be sucked down to the ground. It was then that I handed Ian the camera and grabbed the sick bag with both hands just in case. I had to go for a good lie down for an hour after that flight!  While I was turning several shades of unchartered green, Ian was having the time of his life.

Flight and dodgey plane aside, the lines themselves are really interesting. Nobody really knows what most of them are or why they were made. Some people specualte that they are landing markings for aliens, which is all a bit X-files for me. But one of the figures does look like a cross between a man and alien and an owl. Its all a bit odd.

Anyway, from Nazca we headed to Cusco to make our way to Machu Picchu. Now we`d been told that the Inca trail can be pretty pricey and that there`s another trail that`s a bit more of a hikers hike to get to Machu Picchu. So we picked the Salkantay trail as the way for us to get to Machu Picchu. Now, the Salkantay takes you to just under 5,000M above sea level, through the mountains, under a glacier, through the jungle and around the mountain that Machu Pîcchu itself is on. It goes from very very cold, to very hot! Every day you see a completely different scenery, you go from high altitude with only bugs for company to jungle heat with monkeys trying to steal your dinner. Its a fantastic way to arrive at Machu Picchu.

Day one is a pretty easy going day. You walk for 8 hours, up a bit, flat a bit, up a bit, flat a bit. You stop for lunch and you watch as the Salkantay mountain slowly gets bigger like its coming out of a backdrop for a film at you. You spend one very cold night in a tent well wrapped up chugging down coca tea to combat the effects of altitude on you. It was the first time we had seen stars so clearly in a long time. We watched as the sun set over the Salkantay mountain, the snow turned from crisp white to firey red until eventually the mountain disappeared and we could only see the faint glow from the moonlight reflecting on the snow. It was cold, and probably not all that poetic, but it was beautiful.

The next morning your up at 5.30 or so and hiking by 6am and the tough part starts. Now, the climb isn`t that difficult in and of itself, its just the altitude gets to you a bit. So after 10 minutes of walking your starting to huff and puff your way up like a chain smoker. After 15minutes, your wheezing like an asthmatic wondering why you`re doing this to yourself. But you set yourself targets, like, I`ll walk to that next big boulder and then I`ll sit down. By the time you do sit down and take a few minutes your heart is pounding like you`ve just run a mile when really you`ve walked very slowly a few metres.

We were exceptionally lucky with the weather, we had crisp cold and clear skies our whole way up and pretty much all of the way back down. You could see the whole of the Salkantay mountian and the valley around it. The feeling when you get to the top on that second day is brilliant, not only becuase you`ve made it up without suffering the dizzing effects of altitude sickness, but also because you know its all downhill the rest of the way. What a feeling!

The third day you walk through jungles and end up in the `city` of Santa Tereasa. Now, I say city with a little bit of sarcasim here. When they sell you the tour they tell you that Santa Tereasa is a big town, its not. Across the road from our hostel (which was really just a camp site) was the local abattoir. This consisted of a concrete platform at the side of the road, covered by a corregated iron roof, completely open to the world and it had a hose and a drain at the side. It was the first time in my live I`ve seen a whole cow slaughtered in a mere 15mintues. From full animal to carted away in the back of a pick up truck in minutes. We all had a morbid curiosity about it and everyone stood around to watch at some point. Some of us were extra shocked as inedible enrails were tossed into the hedge along with a fetus. It was not pretty.

That night we all looked at our dinners long and hard before eating. Unfortunately, monkeys would try nd nip it off your plate which didn`t leave us with a lot of time for too much reflection, probably a good thing.

The next day was our last before reaching Machu Picchu and some of us had some sore heads becuase of some crazy american drinking game. Word to the wise, never get into a drinking game with american MBA students where you`re not allowed to make any facial expressions, it won`t end well for anyone involved, especially Ian.

That said, the walk was beautiful and by lunch we`d perked up enough to enjoy the landscape again. Most of it was clouded with heavy rain, but we were still awed by the huge green mountains leering over us.

Day 5, finally we reached our destination, the world famous, Machu Picchu. We got up at 4am, and started to walk up to Machu Picchu at 4.30am. Even at this early hour, there are groups of people walking very quickly towards the entrance. Everyone is trying to make it look like they`re not runing when all they want to do is break into a sprint down the road. The thing is, if you get to Machu Picchu early enough and you`re one of the first 400 to the gate, you get a special stamp so you can enter Huayna Picchu. Huayna Picchu is a mountain at the back of Machu Picchu that overlooks the whole site and where you can get some of the best vistas in the valley.

Now as we were walking up ot the gate, you suddenly feel really competitive. Like you`re thinking, Ive just walked 90km, I`ve had about 5 hours sleep and noone is going to take my spot in Huayna Picchu away from me. They just don`t deserve to be up there as much as I do, and I refuse to allow anyone to take my spot away from me. Subsequently, I was one of the first 30 people to the top. Taking it two steps at a time, I whizzed past anyone who got in my way and stopped for noone. I was really just trying to keep up with the Belgian man from our group. This guy goes ski mountaineering every year and is probably the fittest man I`ve ever met and if we hadn`t taken a wrong turn and missed the steps at one point, he would have been up there first with hours to spare.

At 6am having gotten our precious stamps, we met our guide who took us around the site. Machu Picchu is fantastic, there`s a reason its as famous as it is. Its every bit as amazing as everyone says and there`s nothing anyone can do to talk it down. It is pretty crowded later in the day when the trains start arriving, but when you get there that early, you more or less have it to youself. Even with the crowds, the site is so impressive on so many levels that the only way to do it justice is to go and visit it for yourself. Everything from where it was built (on the top of a mountain) to the plumbing (the aquaducts that run through it are still fully functional) and the farming technique that were used. On top of that, the whole city is basically a calendar where on the June soltice the first ray of sunlight hits an exact spot on a carving of a lama. The place is spectacular and not to be missed.

When we got back to Cusco we headed in for some well earned Alpaca burgers before making our way to Puno. Puno is a town on Lake Titicaca and from there we were able to visit the floating islands which are completely made out of reeds.  We were also able to stay with a host family on one of the natural islands and take in the scenery. The thing about these places is you have to see it to believe it. There are litarlly people on these floating islands that have never set foot on dry land. The traditional dress on the natural islands is so important that if you don`t know how to make the kind of hat that shows your married, you can`t get married. The people here hold their traditions very close, but at the same time, they`re really open to sharing it and letting outsiders learn about it. Which is brilliant!

So that`s Peru, next up should be hair raising bike journeys in Bolivia and mountain hiking with ice picks, but watch this space!

Friday, December 31, 2010

Galapacos: Seals, Sharks and Boobies.

Apologies to all avid blog readers, I`m sorry for the delay in telling you all about adventures south of the Equator.

So, the question for today is, can you go to the Galapacos without having to thieve from the very strigent budget? Is the ROI positive?

Lets get this straight, the Galapacos is expensive, but its brilliant! We made a few adjustments to the budget to funnel a little extra to Decembers budget and it was well worth it! We went, we swam with seals, hammerhead sharks and penguins and were still able to afford to go on holding hands throughout South America.

So for starters when going to the Galapacos you have to get a three hour flight from the mainland to get out to these tiny volcanic islands in the middle of nowhere. A plane and not a 36 hour rickety bus? Yes please!

Despite all the cost fearmongering, this dynamic duo did everything we wanted to without having to call the IMF (International Mammy Fund) for a bailout. For starters, we met a nice man who had been on the flight and who offered us our own apartment complete with wifi (weak as it was), television, dvd player and kitchen all for the low low price of only 15$ per person. Considering all research points to accommodation at least 20-25$ per night for dorms, we were pretty chuffed. In general, all the accommodation is of a pretty high standard because land based tours have to compete with boat cruises, so you can do very well in terms of finding somewhere to stay even in the supposed high season.

There are heaps of fun things to do on your own in the Galapacos, like a trip to the Charles Darwin Centre where you can meet the saddest Turtle in the whole world. His name is Lonely George and he is the last of the turtles from Isla Pina in the galapacos. He is litterally the only one of his kind. Thanks to those loveable rogue pirates who used to eat turtles and all the introduced species destroying turtle nests and habitats, 70 year old George is the last of his kind. George isn`t the oldest turtle in the research centre, and he isn`t the biggest either, he`s just the only one left.

After visiting George, you can wander off down to Tortuga Bay which is the softest whitest most beautiful beach in the world. Its also home to a load of marine Iguana`s and blue footed boobies. You walk about 2.5km down a path lined wth cactus and finches and you arrive and a surfers heaven and a paradise beach. No wonder turtles like to lay their eggs in the sand dunes at the back of the beach.

When we were in the Galapacos, we made a decision not to go on a cruise and to visit what islands we could by ourselves. Instead of an 8 day cruise, we did 8 dives from two different islands. The water is cold, and the diving is unbelievable. You hear the guide`s rattle and look up, there`s a seal swimming by. Look back again, there`s a hammerhead shark. If you see one of those, look up, look around, do a full 360, because when you do you`ll realise that there`s probably about 20 or 30 swimming around you. If it were possible for your jaw to drop to the ground in sheer awe as Manta Ray`s the length of a table glide by, it would!

Some of the diving isn`t easy, you can spend most of your time stuck holding a rock trying not to get pulled into the school of sharks by the current. Also, the diving isn`t cheap, but if you shop around the dive shops you can get better deals, they don`t all charge the same price. I was definately wishing I had my drysuit, all this warm water diving has me spoilt, I can`t handle the 18 degree water anymore.

Once we had spent a few days exploring Isla Santa Cruz, we got on the fast boat to Isabela and booked straight into a hostel under contsruction. The owner was slowly building his hostel and most of it is still a small building site at the moment.

Our first stop on Isalbela, Volcano Sierra Negro. A recently active volcano who`s lava flow cooled only 3 years ago. Its not a particularly high volcano, and its not a difficult walk to the top, but the crater is just over 10km wide, and as you go up and around it, the scenery changes dramatically. On the walk up the volcano, the guide points out plants endemic to the Galapacos and the introduced fruit bushes that are taking over and strangling them. The green is vivid. After we stop for lunch, we move on to Volcan Chico which is a series of volcanoes that go right down to the coast of the island. You feel like you`ve stepped into the Land Before Time and any minute a T-Rex is going to come charging after a herd of Stegasoraus. The quiet around the innermost part of Volcan Chico is deafening. There`s no life in the rocks yet. It was only about 5 years ago that it errupted and lava seeped down to the bay below. There are no plants, no insects, no birds, nothing. Since the island is by law mostly uninhabited, there is no sign of any kind of civilisation anywhere. Not only that, but you can actually see down to the point where the Equator passes through the top of the island. You`re litterally standing in the Southern hemisphere on a volcano, looking at volcanoes on the northern hemisphere. I`m not sure how many places in the world you can do that.

One of the cooler things to do while in Isabela, is to go on a tour of the bay. The bay is literally the harbour where the boats come in. Its so protected and shallow though that it takes any captain a lot of patience and great skill to get in and out. Not only that, but seals think its a great place to hang out since its so shallow, not many sharks. You can snorkel with baby seals while they try to impress you with their spins and then snort bubbles at you when you`re simply not as fast as they are. You drive by blue footed boobies and penguins hanging out on the lava rocks. You walk around to pools where sharks like to hang out for a few zzz`z and get trapped when the tide goes out. You might be lucky enough to catch 10 or 15 sharks taking a cat nap there. One of the best parts though, is snorkelling over to the car wash. There`s a particular lagoon formed when the tide goes out, and that`s where the cleaner fish like to hang out. Coming up to mating season, in preparation for their big night out, you can find 15 or 20 turtles hanging out about 4 meters down, sitting on the sand waiting their turn to get cleaned up and dolled up for their upcoming big night out.

When we`d explored Isabela including checking out Flamingo hot spots, (the birds rather than the nightclubs) we made our way over to Isla San Cristobal. Chilled out, popular with surfers and sea lions, its actually the capital of the Galapacos, even though its a smaller town. We went all around Cristobal, everywhere we were allowed. There were sealions everywhere from park benches to the locals boats. The locals got so desperate in their attempt to keep the sealions out, that they started putting barbed wire around their boats.

The sealions as a rule are very cool They`re not terribly aggressive, but you would definately know when you`ve gotten to close. Generally, the biggest, grumpiest bull seal on the beach will waddle up to you and shout furiously. I`ve seen people not being able to get into the water because a bull seal was blocking their path. We also watched as one poor man who was trying to get an artistic shot of a baby seal was chased down the beach by a bull seal. The man was trying to keep his camera from falling into the water while holding onto his shorts which were now somewhere around his knees and all the time the bull seal shouted and chased him down the beach. Kodak moment if ever I saw one.

So, the Galapacos has penguins, famingoes, boobies, turtles, more turtles, sharks and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. You can surf, dive, snorkell and hike. Its a place like nowhere else in the world and it is spectacular. If ever you get the chance to go, do it! You won't be disappointed.