SLC

A little bit to ease your days.

MOVING

I have moved! I’m afraid for Tumblr that Wordpress has got my blogspirated juices flowing more than ever. 

Find me here: http://sophielcater.wordpress.com/

I’ll be waiting eagerly! 

Sophie

THE END
For 5 months we were on the road. We finished in Buenos Aires, which was also where we started. The fact that I was tired, out of money and missed my friends and family in no way meant that I actually wanted to go home. Reality struck, I was going to have to leave what I had just experience behind as a memory. Just a series of electrical pulses and neurons in my mind, a lot of pictures and some epic stories would be all that remain. Everything I had planned and looked forward to for years was finished and now I had to start again at home. London. Grey. Miserable. 
We boarded our flight and all these feelings left. Home! Family! Friends! My own bed with crispy sheets! Oh the joys of home returned and I was happy.
Home sweet home…

THE END

For 5 months we were on the road. We finished in Buenos Aires, which was also where we started. The fact that I was tired, out of money and missed my friends and family in no way meant that I actually wanted to go home. Reality struck, I was going to have to leave what I had just experience behind as a memory. Just a series of electrical pulses and neurons in my mind, a lot of pictures and some epic stories would be all that remain. Everything I had planned and looked forward to for years was finished and now I had to start again at home. London. Grey. Miserable. 

We boarded our flight and all these feelings left. Home! Family! Friends! My own bed with crispy sheets! Oh the joys of home returned and I was happy.

Home sweet home…

A bit of live music on the tram up to Christ the Redeemer, making our lives just that much more funky!

RIO DE JANEIRO

A city full of sights, beaches, sun, tiny underwear and bodacious behinds.

When we arrived in Rio the end of our South American adventure was really coming close; we were absolutely knackered, I was running terrifyingly low on money and the thought of home was becoming worryingly real. Our week in Rio was to be simple with a few aims in mind, to stay in Ipanema, to complete our tan for our return to England, to eat copious amounts of acai (a super healthy sorbet-esque desert/breakfast made of acai berries, granola and banana) and to see Christ the Redeemer.

(acai and all it’s glory)

Having traipsed around the Ipanema district on a hostel hunt we finally settled for our first port of call, the Mango Tree Hostel (a beautiful, friendly, clean and fun hostel) just one block away from Ipanema beach and costing no more than most other disgusting hostels. However, there was a major flaw in our plan to stay here; there was only one bed for the remaining nights. Considering my financial issues Sophie stayed put and I found a hostel that highlights the saying ‘you get what you pay for’; the rancid Karisma Hostel housed me for two nights for £5 a night. I am not lying when I say I slept with my pocket knife under my pillow for fear of the Brazilian creeps that were lurking around. All in the name of squilla.

On the upside, my brother who works for British Airways arrived in Rio only a few days later for a short stop over and had invited us to stay with him in The Sheraton. Yes, The Sheraton I said – you know, the 4 star luxurious haven with a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, gym and Rio on your doorstep? Who cares about the worst hostel South America has to offer when you stay in The Sheraton after. It was a dream…

While my brother popped back to London with work for a few days (only to return 3 days later) Sophie and I grabbed Rio by the cojones and found the Christo, got our picture, admired the remarkable view and headed back to Ipanema.

During these few days I found myself falling head over heels in love with the city; beautiful people everywhere, wonderful weather, delicious food, great nightlife….the list could go on. Soph and I got so wrapped up in its atmosphere we even braved the lane of fitness obsessed folk and ran the length of the Ipanema/Leblon beach stretch, tops off and tanned. Running past skaters, cyclists, disabled people, old and young, men and women, tight rope walkers and strollers made me consider whether I was in an idealist’s dream or whether these people really do care that much about their fitness. You would never catch a scene like it in England.

(Ipanema’s fitness lane being used by all)

For that matter, nor would you find mass congregations on the beach of the tiniest swimming costumes my eyes have laid on in England. They seem to have such pride in their image and thus they flaunt it without qualms in the way. Bodacious boobs, bums, willies, six-packs galore!

So our time in Rio was spent hurrying between the most and least luxurious living conditions, being in awe of the Cariocas’ (the people of Rio) confidence, fitness and beauty and then trying desperately to replicate it.

STREET ART IN BAHIA

STREET ART IN BAHIA

IT’S A LONG JOURNEY TO BLISS

A THREE DAY JOURNEY TO SALVADOR, BRAZIL

The journey from Sucre to Salvador was abhorrently long and back-breakingly uncomfortable. Here goes:

- A flight from Sucre to Santa Cruz

- An 18 hour night train (supposedly ‘cama’ but definitely not) to Quijarro, an expectedly dirty and sad looking border town.

- A 4 hour queue; 2 hours out of Bolivia and 2 hours into Brazil.

- A 7 hour bus ride to Campo Grande.

- A 5 hour wait in the Campo Grande airport over night, until our flight to Sao Paolo. Then Sao Paolo to Rio de Janeiro. Then another from Rio to Salvador.

SALVADOR LIVING

To say that we were tired when we arrived in Salvador is a vast understatement. After the terrible journey we arrived in beautiful Salvador.

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Thankfully we had prebooked Barra Guest Hostel, which we got to in an extortionately price cab, checked in, walked around, ate and slept. After 3 days in the (might i say excellent) hostel we met someone who rented apartments in Barra which, considering the beauty of its surroundings and the fact that we were too shell-shocked from the three day journey to move on anywhere else, we rented one with open arms and for 2 weeks. A double room, bathroom, living room/kitchen and balcony was the same price as staying in a hostel (90reals/£24 a night). Plus there was a gym, a swimming pool, sauna and steam room and 24/7 security. We couldn’t go wrong!

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Like little moles the men pop out their homes to spot the pretty lady sunbathing by the pool.

The beaches in Barra treated us well - we sunned ourselves as much as the winter weather allowed us to - it rained and clouded over on and off on the daily. The people, permanently smiling and excitable, helpful and kind made our time in Salvador a smooth ride that nursed us back to enjoying the idea of exploring again.

We arrived smack bang in the middle of July Festival, a celebration of the beginning of the winter solstice. Everyone dons their glad rags and heads to Pelourhino, the old town to shake their thang like never before to the tunes of the live Brazilian bands. When I say ‘like never before’ I refer wholeheartedly to Soph and I; we were shaken and stirred by many a Brazilian man, all trying to get the best moves out of the gringos. After boogying with old, young, small and tall alike, I finally met my match (a tall 24 year old with hips that moved like I’ve never seen before in a man) and we danced the Forro (the typical dance for this time of year) until about 2am. A few things stayed with me about the filled canopy of dancers:

- quite how unsexual the whole affair was (or how us Westerners have made everything sexual).

- the varied ages of keen boogiers, shaking and grooving like everybody else.

- the smiles and happiness that exuded from every single face; no hard looking men or sultry women.

- the safety of the dancehall. No problems..not even remotely.

- the lack of alcohol that was floating about. A couple of beers here and there but no-one on the floor, grappling at legs to help them back onto their feet.

It was by far the best night out I’ve had on our travels; it was good to shack it out and learn some new moves, all in the hands of natural born dancers. We were absolutely knackered and dripping in sweat when we got home.

So our days in Salvador were spent in utter relaxation, being fit and tanning mode, i.e. attempting life as a Brazilian. Wonderful!

 

TOP SALVADOR

- Stay in BARRA HOSTEL if you’re staying for a little bit. Otherwise, get your hands on a Barra apartment for the same price.

- Head south down the coast road to BARRA LIGHTHOUSE to watch a beautiful sunset; the only place in Salvador where the sun rises and sets in the same place.

- PELOURHINO is only a bus ride away and is absolutely beautiful; old cobbled roads, rainbow coloured houses and lovely museums, art galleries, shops and cafes. We were told it’s a little bit dodgy by night though and didn’t risk it.

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- THE NORTH COAST OF BAHIA shows just why the state is allowed to boast some of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil. We rented a car and drove to PRAIA DO FLAMINGO one day where you can see turtles and enjoy bliss. A must do.

SWEET, SWEET SUCRE

Yet another night bus took us all the way out of altitude, far far away from La Paz and to sweet sweet Sucre where we would spend the next week.

Here, the sun shines almost every day, it’s lovely and warm, the city is clean and most the buildings are white washed and pretty. It didn’t feel as though we were in Bolivia anymore - it was more like a wealthy colonial city that belonged to rich locals and ex-pats.

When we arrived there was a car race going on. Kitted out boy racers were speeding noisily through the streets, parading their cars and helmets off like noone’s business. The roads were temporarily closed by police who would whistle moments before a car would shoot past at about 100mph. At this point we were jolted back into remembering that we were still in Bolivia.

We stayed in CASARTE, TAKABUMBA (takubamba.blogspot.com) a beautiful, well decorated hostel with an outside communal kitchen and rooms for moderate prices with the best showers in town. We stayed in a room for 3 with Chris that had its own little suntrapping balcony. It was bliss.

(Casarte, Takubamba)

(The outdoor kitchen, dining and hangout area)

While Sophie and I spent our time sunbathing, wandering around the pretty city and going to the gym (an hour class was 10bolivianos =£1!), Chris went to Spanish school. We had a lovely set up that we were sad to leave in the end.

We did one major sightseeing activity that the Lonely Planet recommends, which is worth noting: THE DINOSAUR PARK. A bus or taxi ride away is a theme-ride-looking entrance with kids and adults queuing alike.

A guide waited for us to start a tour of the dinosaur prints that were left on a vertical wall of rock by groups and individuals of different dinos. It is a true wonder that is worthy of seeing; I’ve never seen anything like it. Not even in our very own Natural History Museum. Plus our guide was passionate and really informative; he would get so excited about certain points that his toes started to twinkle and tap until his legs were dancing with glee!

Our time in Sucre ended by sadly having to say goodbye to the one and only Chris Chalk but it had nursed us back towards health and feeling good again. What more could we have asked for before a three day long trip to Salvador, Brazil?

ONLY IN BOLIVIA; LA PAZ, UYUNI & LA SENDE VERDE

Only in Bolivia will you find a city wedged in mountains,
crevassed in a valley,
billowing smoke from every street
onto a hubbub of bustling people.

Only in Bolivia will you find hotels made of salt
and colourful lakes to house flamingoes,
geezers spitting out smoke bolts
and islands sprouting cacti for 10 meters.

Only in Bolivia will you leave sunshine, animals and heat
to get stuck at 4,500m
in a minibus of 16 people on icey, snowy sheets
that run a road that has no barriers leading to a drop of 200m.

LA PAZ

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Our time in La Paz was one of temporary and exhausting extremes. We dabbled in visiting the city’s sights in between visiting the Salt Flats, via Uyuni, and La Sende Verde, an animal sanctuary in the deepest part of a jungle valley a couple of hundred kilometres away from the city.

Our experience started in a dingy hostel called Pirwa, where the prices were too high for its icy cold dorm rooms and dirty, ugly facilities. After a rather large night out we were enticed by Charlie into leaping into the haute society of The Ritz.

Our 2 nights were relatively inexpensive ($250 per night for a suite) and we were in utter luxury and comfort. Disregarding a few confused or dirty looks, our experience was blissful and I would recommend it to anyone who can afford it (I, not being one of them but rather someone with a group of spectacularly generous friends), but only do it in Bolivia.

By day we found ourselves wandering streets of the ‘witches market’ where dead llama foetus’ and ludicrously wonderful herbal remedies line the entrances and walls. We walked slowly and breathlessly, ambling through the endless streets of markets that seemed to sell everything you’ve ever dreamed of, from food to wheelbarrows. Local women dressed in their unforgettably beautiful clothes hustling fervently; men carrying goods piled high on their backs, strapped up like donkeys; shoe shiners masked in balaclavas lining the streets polishing vigorously; tourists clad in patterned alpaca jumpers, gawping at the chaos; cars beeping and screeching and belching their atrocities. Just another day in La Paz it seemed.

Post Uyuni - post -18c and post terrible tour - we all came down with the mother of great big whopping colds, which not only made us hard for hearing and even more wheezy but also left us craving our own beds, baths and warmth. The closest we got was hot water bottles, soup and Arthy’s Guesthouse, a cosy and wholly satisfactory hostel with helpful and kind staff.

Our third stop in La Paz was for an unexpected night (which I will explain further into this entry) and left our views of this city unfortunately very close to dismal and with little hope of redemption. I guess what they say is true: you either love it or you hate it.

UYUNI & ITS SALT FLATS

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Our 12 hour bus ride to Uyuni was an unforgettable one. The tickets were sold under the guise of our seats being ‘cama’ (i.e. ‘bed’) and comfy. As we climbed into the rickety old bus we realised that the seats were reclinable by a few centimetres and were going to be massively uncomfortable. With the added luxury of a heater right below my seat I was unable to put my feet on the floor, as it was hotter than the sun…only in Bolivia would I have to sleep with my feet above my head for fear of burning myself.

Having pre booked our 2 night, 3 days trip to Salar de Uyuni in La Paz, our tour guide beckoned us as we clambered off the bus at 5.30am. It was -10c and dark; we were happy to accept a seat in her tiny office. Little did we know it wouldn’t be until 11am that we would finally set off with a 6th member to our group, an Englishman called Steve.

We were bunged into a 4x4; 6 of us cramped into the back and the tour guide-come-cook in the front with her son driving us. As we looked around at other departing groups, our 4x4 was worryingly old and battered. We kept faith and didn´t complain.

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(Our 4x4)

THE TRAIN GRAVEYARD was a 20 minute drive away. We joined the troops of other gringos, taking the photo opportunities with open arms.

(photo by Chris Chalk, horizonismyhome.blogspot.com)

Back in the car and folded up like pieces of paper, we drove on to the SALT FLATS. Another photo opportunity was made the most of as it really was as beautiful as you’d imagine. A huge expanse of white salt, forever shining and blinding us until the horizon stopped it. We were fully impressed.

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A cheeky visit to CACTUS ISLAND was had next; an island of land in the Salt Flats, covered in 10ft, great big cacti. Before having a look around we were all unfortunately caught peeing desperately round the side of a sodding great cactus, because we weren’t allowed to use the loos without an extortionately priced ticket. In hindsight (it being a cruel traitor), we should have just paid and enjoyed the time. However, I think the fact that we were all crumpled like bank notes in the back seats, meant that we weren’t thinking straight. We rebelled…only to be escorted off the island and back in the rabbit hole of the car. Woops.

THE LAKES & FLAMINGOS were beautiful. There was a red one and a blue one and one that was called ‘The Green Lake’, but the green had been sucked under ground by an earthquake and all were deadly with poisonous components. Flamingos sprinkled each lake with their unmistakably pretty pink and white feathering. They were completely undisturbed by us, suggesting all tourists must try to emulate our techniques of crouching low and as near to them as possible without falling into the water or touching them. Quite a surreal experience really.

THE SALT HOTELS, yes, a hotel made fully of salt was where we rested our heads for the first night. Its entirety (save the bathrooms and mattresses) were constituted of blocks of freezing cold, bright white salt. It was a rather new and exciting experience, albeit a bit chilly. Layers were key to my great night’s sleep; thermals, woollies, hats, silk sack, sleeping bag, covers and socks were just about perfect. Unfortunately the second night was less exciting and quite a lot more nippy. We woke up at 6am and it had warmed up to -18c. Yep, that’s right MINUS 18! Quelle horreure. Ontop of this our battered old tin box of a car broke down. For ages. Luckily we were jammed in and could warm each other’s sides up…the company just must have thought ahead; that’s why we were stuffed in.

(photo by Chris Chalk, horizonismyhome.blogspot.com)

GEEZERS spewed smoke out like noone’s business as we drove past. One quick look sufficed, as the car was incredibly warmer. We drove through the moon, sorry a volcano crater and almost made it out but instead we broke down about 5 times.

Finally we got to the THERMAL BATHS where we soaked our frozen bones alongside about 30 other travellers. Some drank, some smoked and others probably peed so we got out promptly for a quick breakfast and back on the road to finish our journey, back to La Paz.

Well, it was certainly an experience that could only leave us with memories firmly embedded in our minds. All I will suggest to anyone who plans to do something similar is to book with a reputable company. It is worth it as everyone does the same thing so you may as well do it in a lovely, spacious 4x4 with kind and informative tour guides. We did the opposite and got the opposite…only in Bolivia.

 

LA SENDE VERDE

One of my dream locations before leaving for South America was a monkey sanctuary not far from La Paz that had been recommended to me by a very good friend of mine. La Sende Verde is about a 3 hour minivan drive away from La Paz, near a town called Coroico. It is at the bottom of a valley where the jungle is thick, the air is wet and the sun shines.

It started out as a B&B jungle lodge and developed into a sanctuary for monkeys, bears, birds, turtles and more. It is important in the rehabilitation of abused or injured animals in Bolivia; the government send them the animals but do not help the sanctuary further. There are therefore cabins, tree-houses and huts that guests can stay on while visiting the animals. It’s certainly a peaceful and welcome escape to the cacophony of La Paz. (Find out more: http://www.sendaverde.com/)

Our bus from La Paz there was direct to the sanctuary upon request and only £2.50. A bargain. When we arrived at the gates we were led over makeshift bridges and overgrown paths to an open space where parrots squawked, monkeys played and turtles wandered. In amongst the fauna were various huts; a kitchen/dining area, a tv and games room-come-bar and the different accommodations. It was a surreal bliss; just what the doctors ordered for our post-Uyuni, cold ridden minds.

The half day that we had in La Sende Verde was spent gawking at the monkeys that spread out in their various groups, across the sanctuary. They are ‘free’ to roam anywhere, without restrictions but they choose to return for food and health reasons, on top on the fact that their ‘alpha male’ (the owner of the sanctuary who saved them) resides.

(This is the eldest female spider monkey who has been rejected by the group, as she´s considered past her time. She wanders round, looking for cuddles and places to rest. photo by Chris Chalk, horizonismyhome.blogspot.com)

Our trip back to La Paz was one that had to be planned with accuracy as we had a bus booked to Potosi that evening. Obviously we missed it, despite our efforts to be very organised. From Coroico we got the same minibus and expected to arrive 3 hours later. 2 hours in and we were in a HUGE traffic jam at 4,500m on the winding road up a giant mountain, which was due to heavy snowfall and ice on the roads.

We spent the next 5 hours sliding up and down the mountain, men pushing and women and elderly jumping inside. It was horrendous. Sophie was adamant that we should walk but, Chris being in shorts and flip flops couldn’t quite fathom the idea and I was with him. The sun went down, we missed our bus and I got earache. 

At 11pm we finally got back to La Paz, tired, hungry and feeling very sorry for ourselves and spent another night in Arthy’s guesthouse, before heading to Sucre the next day. Clearly, Potosi was not meant to be.

VICE, LIVING IN THE SEWERS OF COLOMBIA

A shocking VICE video about people who live in Bogota’s sewers. In amongst the faeces of their fellow citizens, rats, disease and drugs, they sleep on makeshift beds, hiding from death that slips out of every corner imaginable.

I watched this a couple of days ago and am still in total shock. Not only at the fact that people actually live in sewers, in faeces-filled and rat-ridden holes for a lack of another option, but also that they must watch and dodge the ticking clock of ‘social cleansing’. I mean, excuse my naivety but how in God’s name can this exist and be knowingly accepted, considering the atrocities that this world has seen in its past? Does noone learn or does no one care?

When we were in Bogota a few months ago we saw a man talking to a manhole and steered well clear, thinking he was a total fruit loop…’what a bunch of ignorant tourists’, he must have thought. I concur sir, I concur.

LAKE TITICACA: PUNO, COPACABANA & LA ISLA DEL SOL

Having spent a week of bliss in Cusco, Sophie’s lovely fella, Charlie jumped on the travelling bandwagon for a couple of weeks. The three of us would be spending a few days together in Puno, Peru and then onwards to meet Tyler and Chris in Copacabana, Bolivia.

PUNO

Our 6 hour bus to Puno blessed us with top deck, front row seats. You may laugh but these things really matter when you spend hundreds of hours squashed behind fully reclined seats, without being able to see anything apart from heads and chairs. We were giddy with glee.

Now, The Lonely Planet South America, although wonderfully handy seems to suggest some places to stay at that may have once seen life but have been left abandoned and destroyed by past travellers to rot horrendously. Our first hostel attempt was one of these disastrous places. So we headed quickly to our next bet, Kusillo’s Posada, which ended up being absolutely perfect with a mumsy landlady who dithered and pottered around, finding hot water bottles, coats and scarfs to keep us warm and happy. 

We planned a simple boat excursion to The Floating Islands for the next day alongside leaving for Copacabana. The boat ride was interesting; as we pushed off from shore our tour guide began telling us that the water we could see had slime on was because of the vast pollution that tourism on Lake Titicaca creates. Not a perfect start.

After a scenic ride we arrived at a floating island. The only way the experience can be described is by explaining that the place is one of re-created traditions that the locals reinact for our eyes, the stupid gringos. The Floating Islands are not currently in existance to live on and havn´t been for many moons; they have been kept to feed tourists’ thirst for the intreguing. A group of hugely overweight traditionally dressed women pretending that the 10ft² island and huts (filled with crisp and biscuit wrappers) was where they lived. Naturally, the trip was rounded off by these ladies whipping out their best goods and trying to sell them. Very entrepreneurial.

Needless to say we were glad to be heading off and did so swiftly, across the border and to Copacabana, Bolivia.

COPACABANA

Ignore the ugly cement and other tourists and you will find a bustling local market and lots of beauty around; it is quite cute in parts really.

Especially where we stayed, Hotel La Cupula (http://www.hotelcupula.com). It was a whitewashed series of cylindrical buildings with a lovely restaurant and all amenities you’d want for the average price. A perfect place to spend a night to organise the boat trip to La Isla Del Sol for the next day.

LA ISLA DEL SOL

Another boat ride down and we were in a surreal, high altitude, very sunny yet icy-cold paradise. In front of us stood a grassy island with houses dotting it with yellow painted concrete and donkeys following a cobbled path winding up the steep hill that welcomes people to the south part of the island. Behind us lay a mountain range with snow icing and cloud hats and in between was Lake Titicaca; a true sight for sore eyes.

La Isla Del Sol clearly does not want its visitors to overexert themselves; the altitude will bite them if the do. Charlie and Tyler found this out the hard way, as one night, with Pisco-wine-beer and macho goggles firmly on, they set a race to the top of the hill for the next morning. The top lies just over 4,010m high. As Chris, Sophie and I ambled our way up the winding path they ran and wheezed. We found them standing proudly at the top waiting for us, with very sore chests and feeling a bit worst for wear. I take my hat off to them as, if it were me I would have collapsed less than half way up, for sure. The view that awaited us at the top was absolutely magnificent and worthy of everyone’s work. A highlight for my eyes to feast on for years to come.

We stayed in one of the first hostels you come across. There seem to be more and possibly better quality hostels over the hill but it really didn’t seem worth the climb with my 17kilo backpack. We were more than content with the accommodation, food (not included) and scenery.

I highly recommend letting your eyes and mind repose in this Bolivian blessing.

TITICACA RECOMMENDS

- Don’t go to The Floating Islands, they’re not worth the time or money. Instead I wish we had gone to Amantani Island; you can do trips there that are all inclusive and sound incredible.

- Head to Copacabana and stay in La Cupula Hotel. It usually has a sauna (closed for refurbishment when we went).

- Stay on La Isla del Sol for more than a night in one of the hostels on the South Island.

- Climb the hill for the view and the exercise.

- Acclimatise to the altitude before coming to Lake Titicaca; I could even feel it even having spent 2/3 weeks in Cusco.

- Try guinnea pig somewhere along the way if you’re a meat eater. When in Rome and that!

- Bring sun cream and a high factor at that. It’s insanely burny with the altitude.

THE LARES TREK & THE UNFORTUNATE MULE INCIDENT

The Lares Trek was witness to an abundance of highs, although also a series of unfortunate lows. We had booked the trip many months ago, believing that it would be a true highlight of our trip. It would indeed end up being memorable but not for reasons that we quite expected…

We were briefed the night before about the important bits of our upcoming adventure and told to get a good night’s kip before the arduous next 5 days. We were going to be walking through various valleys, crescendoing at a mountain’s apex that lay 4,600m high, and then make our way to Machu Picchu by bus and train.

DAY 1
Day 1 was an ‘acclimatisation’ day where we mostly sat, watching the Sacred Valley and Inca ruins tumble in front of us through the window of the mini van we were stuck in.

At midday we stopped off at a community: a few huts and a building site where we were shown the craftsmanship and processes involved in turning llama, alpaca and sheep from wool to jumper. A hoard of traditionally dressed ladies put on a well rehearsed show, showing us the spinning technique, others showed dying and also weaving. It was quite lovely really! When the spectacle finished, the huts transformed into shops and the women got their sales faces on….Sophie and I came out with some wooly jumpers.

We ended the untaxing day in Ollantaytambo where we were to rest our undeserving heads for the night. A guided visit to the grand Inca site in town tantalised our minds with traditions, folklore and history. The site was emperor Pachacuti and the townspeople´s residence and was built strategically in order to protect the emperor´s life. These people must have been the fittest people alive because when we climbed the 300 steps of the ancient town we arrived panting and gasping for any oxygen that we could get. At the top of the ruin you can see the face of Wiracochan strategically carved into the adjacent mountain’s edge that showed the Incas the arrival of the winter and summer solstices when either the sun or stars hit it. Impressive stuff!

(The face of Wiracochan)

We headed back to our hostel, to our significantly stomach-churningly decorated room, which showed an exquisitely refined potato print method on the pink ceiling and brown walls. Thanks to a Baileys and hot chocolate in our bellies we quickly nodded off.

DAY 2
We woke up early to wait for and be introduced to our guide, Manuel and full Lares group. We were to be a 5 strong team including Sophie, Claire (an English lady walking for charity), Cecilia (an Argentinian G Adventures CEO) and William (an ever-laughing and excitable man from Santa Monica) and I.

So off we headed in yet another van, to the town of Lares. The 3 hour ride ended at some Thermal Baths - via a market stop-off to buy bread for village children we would encounter and Gatorade to keep us going - that proved to be an excessively indulgent way to start the trek. While we bathed ourselves in the hot, mineral rich water, the chef cooked up a feast of 3 courses, which we devoured post-soak.

We finally begun our first walk - a 3 hour long hike through a valley scattered with villages and traditionally dressed locals going about their daily business; villagers tending to their livestock and children heading home from school. The kids gathered round us, rosy cheeked and hungry to get some of the bread we had brought with us. Bread, we were told, was scarce in these parts and apparently was as much a luxury as cake is for us. Although it was a pleasure giving these little people a bit of culinary glee, I did feel like we were in a human zoo at times. The kids, too polite and well behaved to grab and run, stood eagerly awaiting our guide to finish his spiel about village life and the photo opportunity to be exhausted, before they ran off and ate.

Our short day’s hike finished in a campsite where the mulemen (the mules carried our bags, tents and cooking equipment) had already set up our tents and the chef had dinner on the go! The evening went quickly and after more food we put our layers and layers of clothes and sleeping equipment on and closed our eyes, only to fall asleep quickly and to reawaken momentarily from time to time to remember to breathe  the thin air that the 4,000m we were sleeping in gave us.

DAY 3
We had been warned about this day: ‘it will be hard and long’, as we would be reaching 4,600m of a mountain’s summit.

An early morning and wonderful breakfast (all pre-prepared by Chef and the mulemen) of quinoa and apple porridge, bread, jam, pancakes, coffee and coca tea started us off in good stead. At 8am we headed off enthusiastically and as a cohesive group.

By 10am we were scattered throughout the valley; we had risen significantly and breathing became slower and my legs became heavier. Sophie, not being a lady who waits around for the cold to catch up with her bare legs, zoomed ahead with William and our guide, while Cecilia, Claire and I paced ourselves and supported each other.

At 4,200m our guide came back to see us through to the top of the mountain. By this time we were absolutely freezing, fuzzy headed and very heavy limbed, which was cured simply by a few coca leaves on the gums and some words of motivation. As we traipsed up the barren mountain rain and wind turned to hail and snow, leaving my bare hands purple-blue-white.

Our guide decided this moment would be perfect to give us his life story and try some reiki out on me, which unsurprisingly didn’t work, considering the numbness of every external extremity. Claire and I (the others having raced off in front) were politely very impressed but internally cursing the man for not letting us take in the incredible panoramic view and catching the little breath we could.

(Our guide, Manuel)

After a good half an hour of mountain top freeze, my fingers began feeling their true senses as we started our descent down the other side of the mountain. Through the snow, sleet and rain Claire and I skipped on, solving the world’s issues with our new found energy. We happily came across the hut where lunch had been cooked up and the others were waiting, trying to dry off and warm up on a tiny stove.

While we wolfed down the warming grub, our guide and horsemen told us that we would have to descend to the next campsite. The one we were at stood at 4,200m and would be unbearably freezing during the night. We unanimously agreed and carried on a leisurely walk down to the next site that we were meant to walk to the next day.

Here, disaster would strike on day 4. Unknowingly we ate our dinner and settled for a good night’s sleep.

DAY 4
A slow and easy morning came around; William headed to a local hotel to get a massage and the rest of us woke up carefree. As we wandered around the site waking up we were given news that over night one of the mules had died and another was on its last legs! The mule-men rushed around trying to salvage the last of the latter and preparing our breakfast.

It was clear how much of a disaster the situation was; the sad faces and tails between legs were in abundance. We felt put in a very unfortunate situation; being waited on by men whose livelihoods were crumbling was not pleasant. A kitty was put together of what cash we had, to which William contributed when he returned, in order to subsidise a new mule.

This day we were to walk some more, which we now did with our extra bags on our backs and other goods in hand. This would hopefully give the mule-men time to perform a miracle and salvage their livestock. To this day we don’t know if our efforts were in vein.

After arriving at our destination (a random bus in the middle of a track) we were driven back to Ollantaytambo where we hopped on the beautiful Machu Picchu train to Aguas Calientes. We jealously admired parts of the Inca Trail, which we were told was a whole load harder (and cheaper) than the Lares Trek. Our eyes were turning greener by the minute as we felt cheated by the Lares Trek. It was wrongly sold as being equitable to the Inca Trail; we walked very little in comparison and saw no ruins.

Aguas Calientes welcomed us with a down pour, dark alleys and a dingy and cold hotel. With a warm shower down we headed for dinner and another early night before the big Machu Picchu day.

DAY 5
Through bleary eyes and excited minds we got through the hour of 4am at the front of a growing queue for the first bus up to Machu Picchu. On we got at 5am, ready and raring to go. As the sun rose through the clouds, we raced up the mountain and emerged at the site at 6am to see the beautiful ancient city in all it’s might without the masses of people that arrived later.

After a 2 hour tour of the site we relaxed on the edge of the mountain and hiked up to the Sun Gate. It was well worth the wheezing and sweating; the views were magnificent. Back down at the main part of the site was, however horrific; we had to queue to get down stairs because of the sheer huge amount of people. I would liken it to rush hour on a London tube; a nightmare that we quickly redeemed by fleeing back to Aguas Calientes.

Here our adventure finished; we were driven back to Cusco. The entire thing was a blend of all emotions; from being awe-struck at the immensity of Machu Picchu to being quite shocked at the mule fiasco and being fully out of my body while trudging up the 4,600m mountain. It will be a memory that will certainly stay with Sophie and I, mostly thanks to our lovely group.

Peruvian worry dolls

Peruvian worry dolls

CUSCO STOLE SOUTH AMERICA’S THUNDER

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Our flight to Cusco necessitated another quick stop off in Lima, where we spent one day and night. We filled the evening eating an array of typical Peruvian food like queens in Gaston Acurio’s restaurant, T’anta (meaning ‘bread’ in Quechua) and proceeded to have another turbulent night’s sleep in Pariwana Hostel.

The journey was quick and easy but our arrival left us totally knocked off our feet by the tremendous altitude (despite our fore-planning and taking of Sorojchi pills). The plan was to find a hostel, relax and acclimatise in time for our trek that started 3 days later.

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(by Chris Chalk, http://horizonismyhome.blogspot.com)

So we wobbled out of the cab and panted our way through a sunny and pretty San Blas square and hill to Tandapata street, where we came across a hostel that will remain the bench mark for hostels for the rest of the trip; La Casa de la Gringa (www.casadelagringa.com). As soon as we stepped in we felt at home; we were welcomed by a Peruvian lady, given some Coca Maté and told to relax. We would spend our next few days sipping on this Maté and relaxing in the living room, as well as falling desperately under the charm of Cusco’s spell. It’s safe to say we were fully prepared for the Lares Trek.

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(La Casa de la Gringa)

Our time before and after the trek in La Casa de la Gringa gave us the opportunity to meet a rainbowed array of people: a lovely American lady who had cut her travels short because she had accidentally become the carer when she came to the rescue of a very poorly dog she had come across in a Peruvian forest; an array of European couples who shared pearls of wisdom and tips for our upcoming trip; an Indian Shaman and many spiritually open people who were staying in the hostel to take part in the San Pedro ceremonies that were hosted by the owner (a day long ‘journey’ that involves drinking the traditional San Pedro cactus medicine to heal the mind and body).

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(Me with the very poorly but on the mend dog)

After our trek (see next entry), we took up our trusty tiny twin room and began to slip into a dangerously wonderful routine; I would spend my mornings and some afternoons in Spanish School (Amigos, which I highly recommend), going to the gym or on runs and lapping up the delicious rays that the high altitude and perfect geographical spot allows Cusconians and it’s visitors to enjoy. Sophie headed for the gym with full force and joined me to bathe in the sun. We both explored the city’s wonders thoroughly and loved every winding road, cobbled street and aesthetic marvel, as well as the excellent food and produce.

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(by Chris Chalk, http://horizonismyhome.blogspot.com)

TOP TREATS OF CUSCO

1. SAN PEDRO MARKET - you can find rows of all sorts: live frogs and cows’ noses to feast on, llama foetuses, traditional skirts and hats, fresh fruit and veg, bread, cheese, household goods, juice bars, jelly stools…the list could go on.

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(Llama foetuses sold to burn under one’s house as an offering to the Pachamama, Mother Nature)

2. SAN BLAS SQUARE - A quaint square, commanded by a white washed church and a mirador, where you will find Calle Tandapata. Wander along the Calle to find little coffee shops (try to find the Passionfruit cake at Panaderia - it’s simply muy muy buena!)

3. JACK’S - Best coffee in town, biggest hangover breakfast and most divine desserts. A little bit dear and a typical gringo hangout but get in there to satisfy momentary indulgences.

4. SAQSAYWAMAN - A good hike up a steep hill to the centre of the Inca capital. 

5. The array of VEGAN and VEGETARIAN RESTAURANTS in the San Blas area - so cheap, so good.

6. TANDAPATA STREET - Great little cafes, Pantastico included, where you’ll find the passionfruit cake.

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(Pantastico in Tandapata)

7. AMIGOS SPANISH SCHOOL - A very well run school where I had 20 hours of group and one-to-one classes over the week for approximately $100. Well trained and approachable staff, great resources, group or individual lessons available, as well as it being in a great location on Recoletta street. (http://www.spanishcusco.com

8. LA CASA DE LA GRINGA - All I can say is I wish I was still there; lovely staff, great rooms, excellent social area, the best scrambled eggs and coffee in the South America trip (included in the rent) and a wonderful atmosphere.

9. People watching in LA PLAZA DE ARMAS but don’t go sunbathing on the grass or you’ll be whistled at by the attentive (if anal) plaza guards.

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(La Plaza de Armas by Chris Chalk, http://horizonismyhome.blogspot.com)

10. KORMA SUTRA - delicious, filling and cheap Indian food with a Peruvian twist (research cuy).

11. THE SECRET VALLEY; The Temple of the Moon to Pisaq and all the many other wonders that this Inca area provides our eyes with.

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(The Sacred Valley with our group; from the left, Chris, Charlie, Sophie, Me and Tyler)

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(The Temple of the Moon as a 360^ panoramic)

(Source: CuscoStoleSouthAmerica'sThunder)

HUACACHINA; A DESERT’S OASIS

From Mancora we boarded the most swish (and longest, at 17 hours) night bus to date to Lima. No sooner had we arrived, we jumped unenthusiastically back onto a bus towards Huacachina, a desert oasis 5 hours away.

Our one and a half days in Huacachina were short but very sweet; sand boarding through the beautiful dunes has consistently been within the top most fun things we’ve done in South America.

Be prepared for a horrifying fun and adrenaline pumping buggy ride, being driven down ignorantly dangerous slopes at 50ish miles an hour (NOTE: don’t eat or drink too much before. You will spew. A lot). You must then be happy to strap your feet onto a waxed wooden board or to get on it belly down and face first, to whizz down the dune’s slope.

When everyone’s conquered the first slope you move onto the second, third and fourth, which become progressively steeper and longer. Number five is the finale (queue a sunset at it’s last light, i.e. creeping darkness); the dune’s slope would be classed as a black run if it were snow.

Sophie appears to be a natural born whizz at sand boarding. I, on the other hand had to conquer my fears and be given motivational tips by our sleazy guide to complete the runs successfully. By number 5 I had enough confidence and joy to be whooping my way down as I whizzed through the darkening sky with the stars and moon cheering me on.

A must do!