Friday, 28 November 2008

Peru - Lima

Ok... this time we actually got to see Lima, well as much of it as could be squeezed in in a day anyway. We were met from the Nazca bus by Antonieta who is the mother of Ben's cousin's wife (tenuous link!) and we spent the night with her family. It was lovely, we were like guests of honour and met all the extended family and had a traditional Peruvian meal with them (potatoes and corn based - the Peruvian staples). The following day we had a whistle stop tour of Lima, which is ridiculously big; eleven million people, but nicer than I anticipated, with some beautiful buildings and squares and a pretty coastline. (Well that is when I was able to open my eyes, as every time we had to get into a cab I genuinely thought we were going to die, so coped by just not looking!) The whistle stop nature of the tour means there's no photos of Lima though - sorry :0(

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Peru - Nazca

About a thousand years ago the folk of Nazca made strange markings in the desert. They're still there. No-one really knows what they were for. In fact no-one even realised what they were until relatively recently, when someone flew over them and saw that they weren't just random lines in the sand, but in fact geometrical figures and designs. There's a dog, a monkey, birds (one with a wing span of over a hundred metres), a spider, a tree and hands to name but a few. From the ground you can't see anything, which is why their function is such a mystery, as presumably they didn't fly too often a thousand years ago (although one theory suggests that the Nazca people actually had hot air balloons). Some people say that they mark out some sort of astronomical chart, others think it's about water sources, it may be a form of worship and one theory even has them down as running tracks! Who knows? Anyway the point is there's these really big, really old weird marks in the desert and we went to see them...

In order to see the Nazca lines we flew over them in a tiny six seater (including the pilot) plane. I have to say the markings really are impressive, the designs are so intricate it's impossible to imagine how they were created without being able to see them from above. From the pictures you can get an impression of what they look like but really no idea of the scale of the things. They are HUGE! However, my personal enjoyment of witnessing the spectacle was somewhat hampered by the fact I spent the majority of the flight trying desperately not to be sick. In fact the only point at which I wasn't trying not to be sick was when I actually was being sick! Fortunately it was into a bag provided for just such an event. It happens all the time as the pilot insists on flying the plane around each shape completely on it's side then turning around and flying past the same shape banking steeply on the other side. It's something that I'm finding incredibly difficult to describe without the use of hand signals and sound effects! But take it from me it was far from pleasant and I wasn't the only one turned green by the experience. The point of this crazy behaviour is to allow you to take photos of the lines but with all that swooping about and trying not to vomit even Ben's photos are a bit crap, so apologise in advance! (Look out for the alien Nazca line which we're sure is someone taking the piss!)

The other thing the Nazca people did was bury their dead in the desert. They intended for the bodies to be preserved for as long as possible so they would be whole when entering into the next life. As a result archaeologists (and treasure hunters) have been digging them up ever since and we went to have a look. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about looking at corpses lying (actually sitting as they were always in the foetal position in order to be born into the next life) in their open graves. It's all done fairly respectfully but to me it just looked like something from the "Goonies"! Good photo ops though...

A few pictures of the bodies can be found here. Whereas the Nazca line photos have been relegated to facebook and can be found here.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Peru - Arequipa

It feels like we've been in Arequipa a long time. We were ready to leave a few days ago but the buses were full so we've had to hang around a bit longer. We're in a lovely hostel; luxury room, cable tv, WIFI, pretty garden and little pool, but it's a bit of a trek from town and that combined with the fact that we've really seen everything that there is to see in town, means that we seem to have turned into Wayne and Waynetta Slob! We've had take away pizza twice - twice! I never have take away pizza at home. It's no wonder I'm bursting out of my clothes - a situation not helped by the fact they've been shrunk in the tumble dryer! Anyway we leave today on the night bus, on which we have bed-seats booked, whatever that means. I wonder if it'll be like first class on a plane where they bring you wine and massage your feet (that is what happens in first class isn't it?!).

So, Arequipa... Another city. We're pleased that we've been on the treks into the countryside because otherwise it feels like we've been in cities a lot, and we don't really like cities, and they're ugly too. Arequipa is the second biggest city after Lima (but Lima is ten times the size so they don't really compare). The centre is pretty but most of it is just really dusty and the streets are gridlocked with little yellow taxis spewing fumes. Each crossroad terrifies me as the right of way appears to go to whichever vehicle gets there first and fastest whilst hooting it's horn the loudest! On every corner is a police man or woman who blows their whistle constantly, but as far as we can tell several aggressive bursts of the whistle means "Everyone carry on doing exactly what you're doing"!

The touristy sights to see here include a museum telling the story of the recovered bodies of children sacrificed by the Inkas. They were trying to appease the angry mountain gods, following a volcanic eruption. The bodies and other sacrificial items were preserved as they froze solid on the mountain until they were uncovered by archaeologists. It was pretty spooky looking at a five hundred year old corpse!

There's also a huge nunnery here, which is like a whole town behind walls within the city. Most of it is open to the public now and you can wander around the beautiful old buildings and gardens. Apparently there used to be a tunnel leading to the near-by monastery, but the tour guides deny that. It reminded me a lot of home as the decorators seem to share Ben's taste as most of it is painted either bright orange or dark blue :0)

The main event during our time in Arequipa was a night out on the town with some of the people from the last trek. Given that Ben and I have been in bed by half nine most nights and not really drunk since our leaving party, I blame entirely the influence of the Irish boys for all drunken behaviour!! A deadly mix of rum-based beverages ensured that the night was carnage! The Irish left the club to get straight on an early morning flight - nutters! I just about made it to breakfast (it's included, of course I wouldn't miss it!) but then promptly puked it back up and had to spend the day in bed!

Didn't take many photos in Arequipa, but there are few more photos of the nunnery here.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Peru - Colca Canyon

Another trek; this one in the Colca Canyon, which is (apparently) twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. A group of twelve people from all over Europe: Switzerland, France, Lithuania, Holland and Ireland (plus Wales of course), a guide and a driver on a three day adventure together...

For most of the journey to the canyon the landscape was incredibly barren, with desert stretching between mountains and volcanoes. On route, we hung out in a "rock forest" (big, weird rock formations in the middle of the desert) and saw strange high altitude plants which are as hard as rock. We visited villages and saw little kids waving placards with their striking teachers. We learned the differences between llama (bigger, longer neck, tail up) and alpaca (smaller, shorter neck, tail down, woolly face) and that only the males have coloured wool threaded through their ears, the more wool - the more important - like llama bling! We failed to get excited at the sight of condors (birds - yawn!) but did get excited about seeing little chinchilla / rabbit things (cute, fluffy and cuddly!), of course Ben didn't get a picture of either, they're too fast (or he's too slow)!

The valley that narrows to become Colca Canyon is green and farmed, with animals grazing in it, a relief after so much desert. No-one (not even wikipedia!) seems to know the difference between a canyon and a gorge, but it was deep and steep and there was a river at the bottom. It looked pretty far down - and it was! We spent the first night in a hotel in a village at the top, and the following morning walked down into the canyon. It was dusty, steep, slippery and hot and took about three hours to reach the bottom. Fortunately mules carried most of out stuff and we were greeted by an "oasis", complete with flowers, palms and swimming pools, where we camped for the night. (Although it wasn't quite as luxurious as it first appeared with dodgy toilets, tents that didn't zip up and midges but I'm keeping the focus on the positive!)

There was great debate over dinner as to whether the group should get up at three am to climb back out of the canyon, in the dark, to look for more (boring, boring) condors or have a lie-in until six (when the hell did six am become a lie-in?!) and fortunately good sense prevailed! So after our "lie-in" we climbed back up the canyon side (a thousand metres - that's a kilometer - straight up - higher than Snowdon - from sea level!!!!!) and I'm pleased to say that I didn't even require the services of the "emergency mule"!

After lunch (where we were entertained by an ever-present panpipe player - Ben's personal favourite) we had a dip in a hot spring. A bit weird in the blazing sunshine (once again... rainy season?!) but good for the aching joints. Then we headed back, with a stop to see hawks (I think? Some sort of big birds anyway!) that even Ben could manage to photograph as they were tied to their keepers!

There are more photos here!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Peru - Lake Titicaca

Having already discovered that long bus journeys are not Ben's favourite way to spend his time (and I'm not really a fan either) we weren't really looking forward to our first long Peruvian bus journey. However, once we established that there really was a toilet on-board and Ben discovered that he had plenty of leg room, we relaxed. In fact I think it's fair to say that we were quite impressed, especially when they brought around sandwiches and put on a film in English. But, inevitably it all went a bit "tits up" when we ran out of water just in time for the bus to grind to a halt because the road was being blockaded by striking farmers. In both directions for miles, as far as the eye could see, were bus, after truck, after bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. The time spent sitting in a stationary queue of traffic extended our supposedly six hour journey to more like eight, and we were really thirsty and starving but there was nothing to be bought. Finally an enterprising local woman appeared selling bananas and Ben put his bargaining skills into action, resulting in us acquiring five of the smallest bananas you have ever seen!

Eventually we made it to PUNO, which is the main town on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. It hasn't impressed us much. It's ugly and smelly and I fell on my arse in the street! Ben decided to buy some ripped off DVDs for us to watch on his laptop,and as a result of we are now the owners of twenty-seven Hollywood classics dubbed into Spanish. He wasn't a happy boy!

However, the reason to come to this part of the world is to see Lake Titicaca, which is unbelievably huge, and to visit it's islands and their people:

ISLAS DE UROS is a series of floating islands made from reeds by the people who live upon them. It's pretty bizarre to be on a man-made island and to see what the inhabitants manage to make with the reeds. They build houses and boats and eat them too (that's the reeds, not the houses and boats!) Usually several families live on one island but apparently if they fall out they can just saw apart their islands and float their separate ways!

My favourite bit was seeing the guinea pigs running around. I should probably explain for those of you who don't know at this point, that one of the main local dishes here is roasted guinea pig. They're not too popular with the tourists because they arrive on your plate whole, complete with claws and little teeth, and as Ben says "a lot of people don't like their dinner to look back at them"! But the way I see it, if you're going to eat meat, those guinea pigs looked a lot happier snuffeling around in the reeds than the battery-reared chickens you get at home. Anyway...

ISLA TAQUILE is the second island we visited, it's very pretty and home to another unusual community of people. We learned about some of the local customs, such as the different coloured bobble hats worn by the men to indicate whether they are married or not and that the people greet each other not with a handshake but with an exchange of coca leaves (which they keep in brightly coloured bags that are the exact same ones in every hippy shop in the UK!). Also only men on the island are allowed to knit, and when couple's get married instead of handing over a ring the bride presents her man with a belt woven not just of wool but also her hair. Nice!

There are more photos here!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Peru - The Inka Trail to Machu Picchu

We did it! It was "punishing" and "utterly exhausting" at times and little men carrying huge loads did jog past me, but I didn't need oxygen or a piggy back :0) The trek involved hiking for four days through the peaks of the Andes, along the old Inka Trail which runs from Cusco to Machu Picchu. The scenery was breath-taking, in both senses of the words; walking among mountains so high that they contain glaciers left me feeling both in awe and short of breath!

We were lucky enough to be in a group of only four people. But my hopes for the other couple being fat Americans (to make me look better!) were dashed when we met the fit Bob and Sharon from Scotland. For just the four of us we had a guide, Fernando, and nine, yes nine, porters. We carried our day-packs, with water and a jumper etc in, and the porters carried everything else. They would bring us coca tea and a bowl of hot water for washing, to our beds in the morning. They'd arrive at our lunch spot ahead of us so that we could sit down at a table in a big tent (which of course they had carried) and eat the lunch they had prepared. After a little siesta on the sleeping mats they'd laid out for us, we'd trot off, leaving them to wash up, pack up and come rushing past us on the trail, so that they could have our overnight camp and delicious three course meal ready for our arrival in the evening. We'd then be tucked up in bed in the tents that had been put up for us by eight o'clock every night. It felt like we were part of the Raj or something! But seriously, seeing the porters, who were all about half the size of me, some of them just boys really and others old men, carrying packs bigger than them and wearing tatty old sandals, charging up and down the mountain sides was a very humbling experience.

The first day was relatively easy. We stopped regularly for breaks and for Fernando to tell us all about the increasingly impressive Inka sites that we passed along the way with contagious enthusiasm. But day two was the really tough one. We set off early in the morning and over the course of the day climbed the two highest peaks on the trail, the highest being around 4500 metres and rather disconcertingly called Dead Woman's Pass! The uphill sections were unbelievably steep and even the porters looked like they might collapse at any moment. We all sounded like a troop of Darth Vaders panting our way to the top, sporting ridiculous head-wear to protect us from the unforgiving sun (what "rainy season"?!) and leaning on our trusty sticks. But it was worth the pain as it was a truly exhilarating experience to look down from the top of the highest pass, quite literally "on top of the world"!

Ben has, we've found, a remarkable ability to somehow leap gazelle-like up the slopes disappearing into the distance only to periodically reappear, puppy-like, to make sure we're still following painfully slowly behind! This was fortunate as he captured some fantastic shots whilst waiting for the rest of us to catch up. I remained well behind for the whole trek with the only exception being the time when I was desperate for the loo and had to run off to camp to avoid making a terrible mess!

Day three was in comparison an absolute breeze, although it was just as well, given that we were all (even Ben!) hampered by our aching muscles. The idea was that we'd all be bright and breezy the next day, despite getting up at four am, for the final push to Machu Picchu. Of course everyone wants to be the first to see it, so there was something of a "Wacky Races" feel to the last few miles as lots of trekkers jostled for position along the path, despite the sheer drop to one side, and the excitement built!... Then that first view of Machu Picchu, from above, with the morning mist rolling around it, and the feeling of a pilgrimage complete, really was magical.

The site is enormous and impressive both in terms of it's architecture but also for it's position among the sheer mountain tops. No one really knows what it was for, but it's clear that it was religiously significant, and one theory goes that it was a place for witches and mediums to worship the Inka gods of the mountains, water, earth and so on. All I know is that for someone with very sore legs there are a ridiculous amount of steps!!

There are more photos here!

Friday, 7 November 2008

Peru - Cuzco

For the last week we have been in Cusco. It's the 'gringo' capital of Peru and is filled with tourists of all kinds, from backpackers to posh five star holiday-makers. The city itself is dusty and sprawling but the old town is made up of beautiful old Spanish colonial buildings, lots of pretty squares and a ridiculous amount of churches, all linked by steep, narrow cobbled streets (with mental taxi drivers flying down them!). But the reason that everyone comes here is because of it's setting among the colossal snow-capped mountains of the Andes and the numerous ruins of the mighty Inka civilisation. Cusco is the place from which the famous Inka Trail to Machu Picchu begins.

Cusco is located more than 3300m above sea level. Now figures like that don't really mean much to me, but think about it... Nearly three and a half kilometers up!! (How many Billy Wints is that Karen?!) Because of the altitude we were pretty rough for the first few days we were here. We felt like we were moving through treacle and would end up wheezing like old ladies with a 40 a-day habit from simply walking up the street. We were both grumpy and shouted at each other a lot too! Our grumpiness was not helped by the fact that we went to some really shit museums (I'm sorry but I just can't get excited about bits of broken pot, even if they are really old!) or Ben having a tantrum when he locked the keys for his camera bag inside his camera bag!! However, things have definitely improved since then. We've been to the Sacred Valley to see a number of important Inka sites and even I have to admit that some of them really are impressive. Although whilst Ben was off taking photos I did fall asleep at the last one!

Cusco is filled with women in traditional dress with babies strapped to their backs (or in the absence of a baby a lamb!) and grubby children leading llamas around, all hoping to have their picture taken for a tip. Obviously this is something of a show for the tourists but even when you get away from town the women working in the fields are dressed the same way and there's still llamas all over the place! There also seems to be some kind of parade or other around Cusco's main square every other day. One day it's the military, the next a marching band, today lots of kids dressed in various traditional outfits are dancing along. Bless them though they've been at it all day and look pretty knackered now!

Initially Ben wouldn't let us go out after dark, which was pretty awkward when it came to getting dinner as it gets dark at 6.30pm because he'd read about "strangle muggings"! However, I'm pleased to say that there has been no evidence of the aforementioned "strangle muggers" but that might be partly because we've been in bed by 9.30pm every night (even when we went for a beer in the obligatory Irish bar!) because even though it's sunny by day in the evening it gets really cold.

As well as the odd bit of site-seeing we've been trying to acclimatise and mentally and physically prepare ourselves for the four day Inka Trail trek that we embark on tommorrow. Ben's only concern is his new hat which he is convinced gives him a headache and so has gouged air-holes out the side of with his "trusty pocket knife"! However, I have to confess the words "punishing climb" and "utterly exhausting" which are used to describe various sections of route in the guidebook have slightly freaked me out! I just know that little men with giant loads on their back are going to jog passed me in bare-feet whilst I have to be given oxygen and a piggy-back!

There are more photos here.