Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Rio Verde - Baños - May 27, 28, 29, 30

We left Punta Sal at 5.00 a.m. on Sunday morning and set out for Rio Verde in Ecuador, about a 14 hour drive. We drove up the Peruvian coast, and the scenery continued to be bleak and barren, but as soon as we crossed the border into Ecuador around 9.30 a.m. the landscape, the people, and the cutures changed dramatically. The border crossing was similar to some of the others we have experienced where you exit one country, then maybe about 20 minutes later go through the border control into the new country. We crossed the border from Aguas Verdas to Huaquillas in Ecuador.

When you drive through the South American countries, there are lots of police road blocks, or police controls, which you have to pass through. Depending on the particular control, depends whether you drive through with no problems or with some problems. A couple of times, we have been glad to have Tony as a driver. I think it was in Argentina where they wouldn´t allow meat, vegetables, fruit, etc. through the control. At one of these they confiscated a huge roast we had purchased for dinner. Tony spat on it, and threw it to the ground and stomped all over it because he wanted to make certain the policemen didn´t keep it for their dinner! Once in Ecuador, we stopped in the grounds of one of these controls for lunch. Apparently, there is always an ambulance sitting there together with some medics. While we were having lunch a battered old green VW beetle smelling of burning gasoline, screeched to a halt, all the doors opened and a young women and a guy got out. The woman was crying hysterically. After a few lazy moments, a white-coated doctor appeared, and a person was dragged out the car, laid straight on the road and examined. After a few more lazy moments, the ambulence drove around and some medics got out and the body was lifted onto the stretcher and raised into the ambulence which put on its siren and drove lazily off. There always seems to be something happening around us.

We stayed at a small rustic hotel just outside of Rio Verde which is about 25 minutes from Baños. We were actually supposed to be camping in the little campsite immediately in front of the hotel, but once again we upgraded to a room. It wasn´t that we mind the camping, but I really wasn´t feeling that great stomach wise - and afterwards we were glad we made that decision because it poured heavy rain for 2 of the 4 nights we were there and the tents got really flooded inside.

From the hotel "Pequeño Paraiso", we took the bus into Baños. Now this was fun. The narrow 2-lane road winds along the side of a river canyon with a fair number of S bends, steep drops, and 5 tunnels through the solid rock before arriving in Baños. The bus, which was equipped with TV, and beautiful blue cotton curtains with yellow tassels, was full of sleeping, baseball-capped, Ecuadorian men. We squeezed in behind the reclined coach-seats of the row in front, so that we literally had the head of the chap in front in our laps, and suffered the rank body odours that some of the men gave off. However, the drive kept us on our toes as I think the bus drivers must have a competition as to who can do the run the fastest. We flew along at great speed, around the corners, and the S bends, passing anything that got in our way, hooting at everyone and everything on the road. It was great fun, but we were glad we made it safely to Baños. On another trip, I met an American who was living in Puyo and he told me that this was the new road, built over the past four years. The old road was, I think, something like the most dangerous road in Bolivia that we biked down. He told me the road was one lane and when the buses met one had to back up, often ending up with one wheel off the road and hanging over the edge of the canyon. He said, when this happened, he would get out of the bus, and wait for the other bus to pass and his bus was safely moving forward before he got back on! Life is literally lived on the edge here.

Baños is a small tourist destination about 1,820 meters above sea level which is nestled among the soaring green hills of the Andes which are literally wrinkled with waterfalls. Its known for its thermal baths, but compared to the baths we visited in Pucon, Chile, they are not nearly as spectacular; so we didn´t bother going. The town itself is really quite sweet. The people are very friendly and helpful, and the narrow streets in the town have a nice mix of locals and tourists.

On the second day of our stay in Rio Verde, we went canyoning. Another new experience. I was terribly nervous and had a horrible night´s sleep the night before. In fact, travelling to the location in the truck in the morning, I almost changed my mind. This was after we had been fitted out in our wet suit, plastic nappy (to protect the wet suit from the rocks), harness, shoes, life jacket and helmet and had our practice at abseiling in the grounds of the hotel.

We arrived at the drop off point and had a short walk through the rich vegetation to a narrow, rushing, stream with a deep pool of water where the guide dunked us under and our adventure began. We waded down the river, over the rocks, sliding down small waterfalls, then doing a 3 meter jump into a pool of deep water below. Next we abseiled down about 12 meters, then were immediately hooked up to a zip line to fly across the canyon on the "Flying Fox". We continued our walk in the river bed to the next waterfall where we abseiled down beside a water fall for about 25 meters. Then we did some more river walking to the next abseil which was straight down right beside the falls for about 15 meters. It was so neat, hanging out there on the rock face and looking between the water of the falls and the rock behind. When we arrived at the bottom, we swam behind the waterfall, then across the pool of water to the next smaller falls which we went over face first. As a finale the guide tried to get us to repeat this last drop with a somersault. Ray tried, one of the other girls did, and everyone else, myself included, just bombed it.

It was all so much fun, and I am really glad I went after all.

Our third and last day in Baños, I went for a 4 hour horse back ride with Robin, Nikki, Gemma, and Sam. It was supposed to include a lot of cantering and be a fast ride along the side of a canyon. The horses were really crappy, but none the less we had an incredibly picturesque ride, and Robin and I managed quite a bit of cantering. We took the horses up the side of the river valley, then followed along and came down over a suspension bridge to the opposite side where we rode back along narrow paths with steep drops to the river below. We crossed back over the river on a pretty covered bridge. Along the way we met a few really cool local people all of whom were so happy to see us. One gentleman even shook hands with each of us.

The countryside in Ecuador is absolutely beautiful. The Andes are rich in vegetation, the snow capped peaks of the higher ranges peeping through in the background. Everywhere is lushly vegetated with many palm trees, banana plantations, and tons and tons of impatiens lining the banks and acting as ground cover under the trees. The people too are very sweet. They have wonderful smiles, are truly pleased to meet you, and go out of their way to help you, such as the young lady who walked with me in Baños to show me the way to the supermarket. But all of this aside, the way of life is very simple. We are told there is a lot of family abuse, mainly caused by drinking, the women have babies by different men, and corruption is everywhere. We have had many discussions about sorting out the social, economic, and political problems we have been exposed to, and other than education, we have not come up with any answers.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Punta Sal and Horseback Riding in the Moonlight - May 25, 26

Punta Sal is located along a small road leading off the Panamerican Highway, somewhere around Km 1187. It is a tiny, sleepy, seaside resort on the northern beaches of Peru. The wide, white-sand, beach stretches for miles along a very controlled Pacific Ocean, making swimming there very safe - and the ocean is reasonably warm as the effect of the Humboldt has disappeared. The town is located at the foot of a bleak, barren, hill range which leaves room for a very narrow dirt road leading through the town, paralleling the ocean on both sides of which are an eclectic mix of homes, some obviously quite rich, and others quite poor, but all with a quiet Peruvian charm. There were no shops and only the odd beach vendor selling jewellery and sun-hats. A number of small fishing boats were anchored off the shore but they never seemd to move while we were there.

We stayed two whole days at the Hostal Hua, which allowed us to pitch our tents on the beach. Waking up in the morning to the sound of waves beating on the shore and the sight of the sun rising over the ocean is one of these mind-clearing, soul-feeding experiences that most people need more of in their life.

There wasn´t much to do in Punta Sal except chill. So, we walked along the beach playing with the numerous red crabs that were scurrying away from us to safety, swam in the ocean, lay on the beach, and sat in the shade of the Hostal reading.

We also took a taxi into the nearby town of Mancora which was a 30 minute, 30 soles ride. Mancora is a trendy surfers beach town which is said to rival some of the north-eastern Brazil beach towns with its safe swimming and extensive sands. We were doing some food shopping for the Truck and also trying to buy "papel aluminio" (tin foil). We must have tried 10 to 15 stores, including the local market, and had half the town helping us, including our taxi driver who was driving us from shop to shop. We eventually did find it and with our request for 7 rolls depleted thier supplies. Mancora was larger than Punta Sal and busier with lots of little tourist shops on the main drag and the local shops and market behind, and street vendors mixed in.

One night we cooked a pig on a spit for dinner, a process which took most of the day with each of us taking a half hour shift in which we had to turn the spit three times. We set the spit up on the beach using the metal sand mats that Tony has on the Truck to get it unstuck should it sink in the mud or sand, as the uprights in which the spit was placed and then placed this over the charcoal which was in a pit dug into the sand. As the pig began to cook, the delicious aroma spread out over the beach and by the time it was ready everyone was starving.

The coup d´etat of our stay in Punta Sal was a horseback ride Robin and I did along the beach. We left about 4.45 p.m. with our guide VictorHugo mounted on three beautiful, 15 hh, Peruvian horses, with long flowing manes and slim withers, who were quivering with energy and excitement and foaming at the bit in anticipation. With a mixture of walk, the most comfortable sitting trot ever, and long canters, we made our way for miles along the deserted beach. We passed outcroppings of rock, areas of beach which were scarlet with crabs, white herons, and on the whole two and a half hour ride only three other people. We rode through the brilliant red sun setting, and finished the ride by the light of the moon shining on the water and glistening on the rocks to show us our way back to the hostal - and dinner - and another night sleeping beside the swelling ocean.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Lima to Punta Sal - May 22, 23, 24

On Tuesday morning, Tony brought the Truck to the hotel in Lima so we did not have to take taxis to the Truck Park. We sadly said goodbye to Iain, Lynne, and Nic which leaves 18 of us in the Truck plus Tony and Diana. We had a sleepy drive through the bleak and barren countryside in a light fog and stopped around 5.15 p.m. by the side of the ocean for a rough camp. A local guy had some van problems on the road beside our camp site and asked us to keep an eye on his van while he went into the village for help. He also warned us that it was dangerous to camp outside the town! So, just as a precaution, we were careful to make sure that none of our valuables such as the camera were in the tent but that they were safely secured in the Truck.

We woke safely the next day, Wednesday, and left early in the morning and after driving for about three hours arrived at the Huacas del Moche archeological site. On the way, we passed a town called Chimbote. This has to be one of the worst cities we have visited anywhere. It apparently used to be a quiet fishing port, but now it is a busy, ugly city of about 159,000 full of unfinished adobe houses, piles of garbage strewn all over the streets and wastelands, and in some parts, dirty-looking people, unusual for Peru because people are generally spotlessly clean. It also stank of fish due to the over 30 fish packing factories and Chimbote accounts for over 75 per cent of Peru's fishing related activities. I think a lot of the "ugliness" in some of these towns is the result of the many earthquakes which leave piles of rubble staggered throughout the city. For example, almost every building in Chimbote was either destroyed or damaged by the 1970 earthquake.

We arrived at two adobe pyramid structures standing in the desert-like landscape 5 km south of Trujillo located by the side of the Rio Moche. These were Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna - i.e. the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. These are believed to be the capital, or most important ceremonial and urban centre, of the Moche culture at its peak between 400 and 600 AD.

The Huaca del Sol is not yet excavated and is not open to visitors, but you can see a massive, very weathered, adobe, pyramid which rises about 50 metres out of the desert. Apparently, this is only about 30% of the original structure.

The Huaca de la Luna on the other hand, located about 500 metres from Huaca del Sol, is much smaller, but more impressive due to the number and quality of the painted friezes. It consists of a complex of interior rooms and interconnected patios decorated with the friezes. The friezes are original and the intensity of the vivid colours is outstanding. The pictures depict nature and the things that were important in the life of the Moche, for example, ray fish (representing water), pelicans (representing air), and serpents (representing earth). It is also believed that human sacrifices were carried out at this site because of the 42 skeletons of sacrifical victims that have been found.

We spent about an hour and a half at the site listening to the information about the life, culture, and legends of the Moche and looking through the naturally preserved ruins.

It is a very sad fact about Peru´s ruins that most of them have been looted - either by the Spanish or by locals, and probably both, thus making it very hard for the archeolologists to be certain of the facts surrounding the various cultures.

After visiting the ruins, we drove into Trujillo, and went to the supermarket to individually buy our lunches and for Cook group to buy the incredients for dinner - spicy lentils and mashed potatoes.

We then drove for another 20 minutes or so eating our lunch as we went, until we reached the ruined city of Chan Chan. This was the capital city of the Chimu Empire in about 1100 AD. The site is enormous and we were told that about 25,000 people lived there in its heyday. The city had 9 temples. Apparently each time a king died, he was burried in the temple and the new king had to build a new temple. There are 3 parts of the site that have been excavated, restored, and preserved, and are open to the public. Of these, the Tschudi temple-citadel is the largest and most popular to visit. We spent another hour and a half going through this site and learning about the ceremonies that took place in the public square, the private life that the 100-200 inhabitants of the temple lived in the private quarters of the temple, visiting the huge well system on which they boated and caught fish, and ultimately about the burial of the king. Unlike the Moche site of the Huaca de la Luna, the colour in the frescoes has been lost due to the fact that the site has been exposed to the weather, whereas the previous site was covered by sand and dirt. Neither the Chimu nor the Moche could write so there are no written records to tell us about day to day life. The Moche however, left graphic descriptions from which archeologists have drawn out information, but the pottery of the Chimu was black and there are few graphics depicting their story.

We couldn´t help but contrast the civilization of the Chimu in 1100 AD vs the civilization in Europe at the same time. Just thinking how much more we know of life in Europe and how much more of this life still remains today compared to the now extinct civilizations that existed in SA. But that is probably not an educated comparison. In any event, it was pretty marvellous to be exposed to so large a site, and to visit such well preserved ruins of a culture that was so very different from our own.

After leaving Chan Chan, we drove west and north up the bleak coast to Huanchaco and the Hotel Bracamonte where we styaed the night.

Huanchaco is about 12 km west of Trujillo and is a small resort on the ocean which is turning into a surfer´s haven due to the huge rollers crashing into the beach. It is also a fishing town and you can see hundreds of fisherman riding the waves in their tortola reed caballitos del mar. These are made from four cigar shaped bundles of reeds tied together into a tapering arc at each end. The fishermen kneel, or sit, at the stern and paddle kayak-style while they drag their fishing nets through the ocean to make their mini-sized catches returning to shore around 3 to 4 p.m. daily.

Huanchaco is a neat little town that could provide a couple of weeks relaxation or surfing as desired. The weather however, was cold and misty, probably due to the influence of the famous Humboldt currents that are still prevalent in this part of coastal Peru.

The hotel Bracamonte was quite unique. It was built into the hillside on a small street close to the ocean. On the roof, it had a small camp ground which could support about 10 tents and provided a nice camp kitchen, dining area and lounging area with hammocks. Camping was about 3 soles a night each. Across the narrow street, the second building of the hotel supported more bedrooms, the lobby, restaurant, and internet room. We upgraded for 35 soles into a double room which at least had private bath, hot shower sometimes, and was very clean.

Thursday was another long driving day through the northern desert of Peru. This really is stark, barren, and desolate coastal desert with scattered rural communities such as Chiclayo, Lambayeque, and Piura (commercial centres). Nonetheless, despite its bleakness in landscape, the region is rich in archeology and history including pre Inca, and Chimu as well as a number of pre-Columbian cultures which have provided a wealth of archeological sites and led to gathering an abundance of information about life in the region thousands of years ago.

Peruvian tourism is trying to establish the "Circuito Nororiental", which is the route from Trujillo, through the Moche Valley, archeological sites around Chiclayo and the northern beaches like Mancora (where I am writing this from), and Punta Sal, where we are staying as well as the ancient citadel of Kuelap. This would be an exciting and interesting trip for anyone who is interested in Peruvian cultures.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Lima, Peru : May 20, 21

We had two full days to see the sights of Lima. We decided, that since this is a city of 8 million people, we would take a city tour which started at 9.15 on Sunday morning. On the second day, we wandered around on our own, did some washing, updated the blog on the internet, sent some emails, and tried to confirm our Galapagos trip for June 7. It was nice just to have time to ourselves and accomplish some of the admin stuff we needed to make the rest of our journey comfortable.

Lima is a big city. It has a couple of nice areas, Multiflores and San Isidro, where the rich people live and some of the houses and parks are truly spectacular. However, it is also a city that has grown very fast, and therefore there are a number of areas or shantytowns where the majority of the poor population live which are not too pleasant to see. Surprisingly, one of the major problems is unemployment, which we find hard to believe because the city seems very busy, lots of building, and we also met an accountant from PWC in Lima who told us how healthy the economy is. Something doesn´t add.

There is also the colonial Centro where the old Spanish buildings are being fixed up and looked absolutely spectacular, especially at night when they are all lit up.Our hotel is very near the Plaza Mayor which is one of the two main squares. The cathedral, government palace and city hall are all located in this square, and all are very distinguished buildings. This morning, we watched the changing of the guard at the palace which was a rather sleepy, noisy procedure that brought out a ton of riot police, a couple of tanks, a water truck, and hundreds of additional police, police dogs, etc. Quite an event. This happens every day at noon.

We have visited the San Franciscan nuns convent and went down into the catacombs where all the bones and skulls of the 25000 dead people buried there have been separated out into containers labelled with each type of bone. A little gruesome.

There have been several earthquakes in Lima and a big one in 1746 destroyed 70% of the colonial buildings, but these seem to have been rebuilt in the 1800s and then recently restored as much as possible. None, or very little of the Inca buildings remain, as the Spanish destroyed them all before building over the top of them. We did see an archaeological site dating back to the Lima Indians who lived 200 to 700 AD. It is currently being restored in Miraflores. We also went into the Banco Central Museo which was quite fun as it was an old bank complete with vault in the lower level and cash cages on the first floor. Here we saw an explanation of all of the South American cultures leading up to the Incas, and there are many of them depending on which part of the continent you are in. We also saw splendid examples of Inca gold jewellery and other artifacts. The Inca prized sea shells more than gold or silver, and so most of the ceremonial jewellery is made of seashells.

Lima also has a large China town, which we saw the outskirts of.

There is a strong European influence in some of the buildings, mainly Italian, and French, as after the WWII many Europeans moved here for safety. We learned that the Spanish have big doors so that people could ride right into the house to take their horses to the courtyard behind. Also, the Spanish loved processions, and so all the houses have tons of balconies so that people could stand on the balcony watching the procession.

We also stepped into the Postal Museum and saw myriads of beautiful stamps from around the world, let alone a beautifully restored colonial house. One of the lovely things about the people here is their enthusiasm. The security guard who ushered us into the Museum was so anxious to have us visit. He was so excited to show us in and tell us where things were. This spontaneity and enthusiasm are definitely missing in the service areas in Canada. Just like the restaurant we had lunch in today. It was a small little typical cafe and when we walked in the waiter was so delighted, he took us upstairs, smiling all the time and treated us like kings. There is no subservience about their attitude, it is just one of genuine delight.

Late yesterday afternoon, we went out to Larco Mar in Miraflores which is a suburb of the city situated on the coast, and sat high in one of the restaurants on the rocks above the sea shore watching the sun set. We had quite a ride getting there. The cab was very broken down. No shock absorbers, a half chewed back seat, the dashboard was stripped, and the cab stank of petrol. We had agreed on 10 soles for the ride. The cabbie couldn´t find the restaurant. He tried to ask a young chap on a motorbike delivering pizzas but the young lad wouldn´t even stop to speak to him. Then we stopped a Miraflores security policeman,and he directed us to a restaurant. The cabbie let us out just around the corner and another concerned citizen took us to the cafe. However, it turned out there are two in Miraflores and we had the wrong one. So we had about a half hour walk to the shore to the correct restaurant. The view was perfect though looking out over the Pacific Ocean. We also saw the statute to the Lovers. Two lovers kissing. Apparently on Feb 14 there is a kissing contest to see who can kiss the longest. It has to be a Peruvian kiss, a French kiss is not acceptable!!

The people in Lima are generally very friendly and helpful and get a big kick out of you trying to speak their language. But it is still a little racy, although we believe 10 years ago, it was a lot worse, and the door of our hotel for example, has iron grills in front of it which are closed all the time and the security guard has to let you in and out. This doesn´t give you a very good feeling. We were also warned not to walk on the streets at night in the Centro area. This really makes us feel very limited in what we can do after dark as Ray and I both like to walk a lot. Anyway, its really only another big city. I do hope the economy continues to pick up and that way the City will be able to develop into a safer environment.

While in Lima, we learned that Penny, one of the truck group who left us in Santiago had been travelling by overnight bus and someone had crawled under the seat in front of her, slashed her day pack and taken out her passport, travellers´cheques, money, and some other items. It seems that all of those who left us and continued their journeys on their own have had major items stolen. This confirms to us that one of the major advantages of travelling overland on a truck is the security and safety issue and we just don´t have to worrry about those sorts of things happening during our travel time. Means we can sit on the Truck and sleep in peace as we journey!

Early tomorrow morning we are off on the next stage of our journey. We have 9 nights of camping, five in Peru and then we enter in Ecuador. We also have 3 nights at Punta Sal, a beach resort on the Pacific which we are all looking forward to. So stay tuned, but bare with us if we do not get pictures or more text updated for a while. Not every camp site has an internet, and we do have a couple of rough camps thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Trains, and Boats, and Dune Buggeys ' May 18, 19

On Thursday, May 17 we drove from Ariquipa to Nazca through barren sandy hills covered with alluvial deposits from the volcano activity which occurred in this region thousands of years ago. At Nazca, we camped in one of the best camp sites yet. There was a fabulously clean swimming pool, a restaurant, bar, internet, and hot showers. The next morning, Friday, we were up around 6.00 a.m. to be ready to start our plane flights over the Nazca Lines. The flights started early so as to avoid turbulence which seemed to build up later in the day. The Nazca Indians are thought to have existed between 200 and 600 AD. Many mysteries surround their culture, including why they disappeared, however, they are the tribe that is reputed to have constructed the Nazca Lines.

We, Ray and I, John and Lynn, Robin, and the pilot, took off in the 6 seater Cesna 182 from Nazca Airport, directly opposite the campsite, listening through our headsets to the pilot pointing out the 13 shapes we would see on our short, 15 minute flight. Takeoff was smooth and we climbed steadily to about 1000 feet. Numerous other small planes filled the aire space around us, but we had learned that due to some previous accidents, each plane was now given its own altitude to fly at, and thus able to avoid mid air collisions. Then, unexpectedly, the pilot banked the high winged plane so that it was almost perpendicular on its right side, then very quickly banked to the same position on the opposite side. As the blue sky whizzed above me and to the left and right of me, I tried desperately to steady my swirling stomach and find my equilibrium. Needless to say, I totally missed seeing the first shape ' the whale. Thank goodness none of the other moves were quite as violent, and when we compared notes with others in the group, this seemed to be an automatic first move. Perhaps it was purposely done to set us up for the rest of the journey, which although we seemed many times to be flying perpendicularly while the pilot identified the shape ¨at the tip of the right wing¨ for example, none of the other moves were as alarming. The flight was very smooth and our Peruvian pilot very slick.

The ground below us was a continuation of the sandy desert like alluvial landscape that we had become accustomed to in the Truck the day before. It was hard to make out the lines and shapes because of the numerous other visible lines and car tracks over the ground, but when we did, it was an amazing sight to distinguish the perfectly formed shapes of triangels, an astronaut, a monkey, a dog, a condor, a spider, a hummingbird, Alcatraz, a parrot, hands, and a tree. We are quite concerned about the preservation of this wondrous site, as at present, it seems to be totally unprotected from money grabbing tour operators.

What do these lines mean? Since they are only properly distinguishable from the air, how and why did the Nazca make them, if in fact they did? There are many theories including: ancient gods, a landing strip for returning aliens, a celestial calendar created by the ancient Nazca civilization -- putting the creation of the lines between 200 BC and 600 AD, used for rituals probably related to astronomy, to confirm the ayllus or clans who made up the population and to determine through ritual their economic functions held up by reciprocity and redistribution, or a map of underground water supplies. There are about 300 hundred figures etched in the surface of the desert pampa sand made of straight lines, geometric shapes most clearly visible from the air. The shapes have survived due to the almost non existent rainfall in the desert area which minimizes the effects of the wind so that there is no rain to wash the lines away, or blowing sand to cover them.

All too soon, our flight was over, leaving us with more questions than answers about this strange phenomena in the Peruvian desert.

We stayed around the camp site at Nazca, after the flight, sitting by the pool, eating lunch and relaxing and about 1:30 p.m. loaded up in the Truck for our 3 and half hour drive to Huacachina. Here we left the comfort of the Truck for a dune buggey. The buggeys were weird looking vehicles wtih a strong roll bar mechanism built on top of a 4 wheel chassis. I thought I was embarking on a sandboarding trip with an overnight stay under the stars in the desert.

There is a strip of desert in Peru that stretches for about 177 kms long by 57 km wide. The desert is created because of the Humboldt currents in the Pacific. These are areas of cold water which create a cold atmosphere above them and do not allow any rain to fall on the land. Occasionally, the effects of El Nino will counteract this, and torrential rains will come causing substantial flooding and damage to the area.

The settlement of Huacachina is about 5 km southwest of Ica. There is a myth that says the lagoon was formed when a princess stripped off to bathe and noticed in the mirror that a male hunter was watching her. Startled, she dropped the mirror which turned into the lagoon. The settlement only has about 20 houses, but in the 40s it was an exclusive resort, surrounded by sand dunes, palm trees and the curative powers of the lagoon. Then the subterranean source of the water became eratic and the water now is pumped up from Artesion wells. The curative powers of the lagoon still attract people. The mud from the lake is said to cure arthritis and rheumatism, and the sand is said to help chest problems such as asthma or bronchitis.

We set off in our sturdy dune buggesys straight into the desert. And then the fun started. The dunes are huge and stretch as far as you can see. Our drivers determined to give us the ride of our life. We were racing across the sand, then headed straight up the highest dune only to shear off near the top and head straight back down again. Another trick took us flying across the desert, straight up the dune to the peak, a moment to level out and straight down the opposite side flat out, just like a roller coaster. Ray and I were sitting in the front seat with the driver. Ray loved it. I sat gripping the bar on the dash with one hand and the other hand held on to the seat. I should aslo mention that I was strapped in with a waist belt and another belt that came up between my legs and over my shoulders and connected somewhere around my tummy button. I guess this should have alerted me to the fact that this was not going to be a normal ride!! I was also wearing protective eye glasses... but no helmut. I am not quite sure how I made it through. I remember slipping further and further down into my seat trying not to let my tummy get ahead of the buggey. Ray said the concern on my face showed all the fear I was feeling. Having analysed it, it wasn´t fear ' it was dread of the terrible reaction I was trying to hard to control in my tummy.

After about 30 minutes of whooping and hollering our way through the desert like a bunch of kids on the Thunder Mountain roller coaster at Canada´s Wonderland, we stopped for some sand boarding.Relief, bliss, now I was in control. Because we had no experience, instead of riding the board like a snow board, the guides suggested we lie on them and head straight down the sand dunes, face first. Now this was fantastic fun sliding down a hundred foot sand dune on your belly. Unfortunately, one of our young guys, Duncan, who was taking the steepest and longest dune standing up, got going too fast and crashed, breaking his wrist in two pieces. Once again, Diana and Tony came quickly to the rescue and had Duncan into the medical clinic, x'rays taken, casat fitted and back to the join the group for dinner around 7.30 p.m. We do really have to complement the medical services here. For 400 soles )about $US 135 he had x'rays, consultation, cast, medication in the swiftest time imaginable.

After we finished sand boarding, we drove through the desert to a protected area, in otherwords a dune valley, where we stopped for the night. Our buggey drivers turned into chefs, and barbecued a brilliant meal of chicken and sauseage, potatoes, and vegetables over the charcoal fire which they built well into the sand. After supper, our by now multitalented drivers, struck up a band with a guitar, a beer bottle and spoon, and the speaker box out of one of the vehicles as a drum. And, so we spent the evening, sitting around a camp fire, drinking a few cervezas, chatting, some singing, some dancing. Around 10.30 p.m. which seemed like the middle of the night because it had been dark for so long, some of the group, including Ray and I wandered from the fire to find a flat spot where we blew up our air mattresses, opened out our sleeping bags and curled up inside our sheets in side the bags, well protected from the cool desert air. We lay staring up at the starts in wonder, until slowly, sleep carried us into a peaceful, desert induced oblivion.

The next morning, I woke up at daylight, I think I was the first awake, and lay listening to the quiet and marvelling at where we had spent the night. Slowly, bodies came alive and crawled out of their sleeping bags shaking sand out of hair, ears, and clothes. There was a moment of excitement when Gemma was showing us the scorpion she had squashed under her sleeping bag, and suddenly it got up and ran across the sand. You can imagine how quickly we all scattered!!

Shortly after 7.00 a.m. we climbed back into the dune buggeys for our thrill ride back to town. It ws then I knew I hated it and that I would never knowingly put myself in that situation again!

Back in Huacachina, we had breakfast then drove 1 and a half hours to the Paracas National Reserve. This is an area established in 1975 to protect the marine wild life of the 117,000 hectares of pampa that surround the coast. Here we boarded a 24 seater motor boat which whisked us through the swell of the Pacific Ocean to the Ballestas Islands, sometimes referred to as the poorman´s Galapagos. These islands are heaving with birds and sea lions and covered with guano or bird droppings. Every inch of flat space was taken up by birds of all kinds including cormorants of numerous varieties, boobies, terns, pelicans, penguins, etc. Our guide told us that they harvested the bird droppings every 6 years. The smell of all the droppings was quite ripe!! This boat trip was about 2 hours and a half. When we arrived back to shore, we had lunch in a small restaurant on the front and then drove another 4 hours to Lima where we stayed at the Kamana Hotel. A very pleasant hotel, with a spacious room, TV, phone, ensuite and hot shower that seems to work all the time.

That night, we had a farewell dinner for the 3 people who are leaving us in Lima. I have to admit to not feeling very well, suffering from cramps in my tummy and the odd bout of diahorrea. However, since I have been totally fit and well for the rest of the trip, I think I have got off quite lucky.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Arequipa, Peru - May 15, 16

We have spent two full days in Arequipa, which is a UNESCO heritage site and about 2335 meters in altitude. Population, around one million, it is the second largest city in Peru next to Lima. The City was founded by the Spanish in 1540, but because of the amount of earthquakes suffered over the years, a lot of the colonial architecture is not original. The last earthquake was in 2001 and damaged the beautiful cathedral in the main square. When Arequipa was founded, it was the main centre where silver from Potosi was transported to the port on the coast for shipment to Spain. Arequipa is the capital of the region, and sits in a valley surrounded by the extinct volcanoes Chachani, Misty, and Pichupichu. It is also known as the "White City" because many of its churches, convents, and mansions are built out of the white ash rock from the volcanoes.

Yesterday, we spent about 3 hours in the Santa Catalina Monestery. This is a fabulous colonial building which has been restored to demonstrate the life of the Dominican nuns over the years. Apparently, there are still 30 nuns living in the convent. Today, we took a 4 hour tour in and around the city. This included a visit to the Founder´s house outside the city, and old mill which has been operating for over 300 years, and various miradors and other interesting sights. The main square, Plaza des Aramas is quite beautiful with the white cathedral at one end and arches around the other 3 sides.

Arequipa seems like quite a nice town. It has a bustling street life which seems to close down around 11 p.m. Food is generally good and there are many restaurants. People are friendly, but you do have to watch yourself from the point of view of theft - much like any other city.

Tomorrow we leave here and head for the Nazca Lines, Huacachina, and Lima on May 19, 20, 21. Since we are camping for a couple of nights, we may not be in touch until we hit Lima.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Colca Canyon - May 13, 14

Following hard on the back of the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, we had a trip to the Colca Canyon just outside Chivay, Peru. We left Cusco on Sunday, the day after arriving back from the Inca Trail and drove for about 10 hours before transferring to another coach and driving into Chivay in the Colca Valley. We stayed overnight in a fabulous hotel called Inkari Eco Lodge ( and set off at 6.00 a.m. the next morning on a tour of the Valley.

We drove along the canyon where corn, potatoes and other crops were grown on the terraced sides. People in traditional dress worked in the fields, and donkeys, llamas, cows, horses, and sheep grazed in the fields or travelled along the roads interrupting the traffic. We saw some hanging graves in the white volcanic ash rock where many years ago the dead were burried in graves dug in the side of the mountain. In the background jagged snowy peaks peeped above the moss green lower mountains. Flowers of purple, orange, and yellow grew freely in the scrub by the side of the canyon, and eucalyptus trees grew up the sheer sides of the yellow, orange, and grey coloured rock. Along the way, we passed many small, quaint, towns where the main occupation is farming and tourism. These included Achoma, Maca, and Pinchollo. There were was one area the guide pointed out to us where there were no roads, only paths, and the inhabitants of the village had to trek for 5 hours down the mountain to get anywhere.

Once inside the national park, we got off the bus and did about an hour's trek along the edge of the canyon. There is some dispute, but Colca Canyon ( claims to be the deepest canyon in the world - even deeper than the Grand Canyon in the States. Anyway, we didn´t see it at its steepest, but it still looked very deep, and our walk was very pretty, going through clumps of beautiful blue, purple and yellow flowers in the sunshine and under pure blue skies.

The main attraction of the trip was seeing the condors, and we were lucky, they put on a wonderful show for us. They are huge birds with a wing span of over 3 meters which soar high in the sky. They live to about 50 to 70 years and are carion birds. We got lots of pictures of them, but of course they were very difficult to capture adequately.

Chivay is a small town, maybe about 6000 or 8000 people. It is the capital town in the region, and was built in the 1500s. It is very pretty, but is also very touristy which does not go down well at all with our group. In fact, our poor guide had a really hard job knowing what to do with the group, because at any of the "contrived" tourist attractions, we all just refused to get out and participate.

The first part of the drive from Chivay to Arequipa was very beautiful, and we drove through volcanic scenery surrounded by some 9 volcanic peaks. The highest point we reached was 4,900 which I think is about the highest we have been on the trip. Fortunately, we all seem to be acclimatized to the height and except for shortness of breath, suffered no ill effects.

We arrived in Arequipa around 5 p.m. on Monday.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu - May 8, 9, 10, 11

Our Inca Trail expedition started on Tuesday, May 8 when we drove from Cusco to Ollantaytambo along the beautiful valley of the Urubamba River with steep mountain sides rising from one side of the road and lush green vegetation, jagged mountain peaks and snow capped mountains in the background on the other. In Ollantaytambo, we bought our coca leaves and catalyst necessary to mix with the coca leaves to make them effective, snacks, and last minute supplies. Then it was back on the coach to kilometer 82 and the start of our trek. I should clarify that there are many Inca trails, but the one we trekked is the most common trail. We were feeling excited about the expedition, but also a little anxious about how we would cope with it.

At kilometer 82, we got off the bus, walked along the railway to the control point, showed our passports on which we got a really nice stamp, crossed a bridge and we were on our way.

Our first day's hike was an easy one with only 11 kilometers to be covered. The scenery was spectacular, trekking along the river Kusichaca Stream, with huge grassy jagged mountains on either side, then crossing over the river and heading to the campsite at Wayllabamba at 3000 meters above sea level. We started trekking about 10.30 a.m., and arrived in the campsite around 3 p.m. The trail was kind to us with a good mixture of up and down. The surface of the path was quite clear with some stoney areas and some steep steps. We met all kinds of pack-donkeys and mules along the way which were loaded up with goods or else hiding in the bushes resting. Along the way, ladies in traditional dress sold bottles of water, juice, gatorade, chocolate and other snacks. We were astonished at both the number of people trekking, and the number of people on the trail. Every so often there were rest areas with thatched rooves. Loos were squat boxes, with flush. Just before lunch, we stopped at the ruins at Patallacta, an Inca village.

Our tour was arranged by Pachamama Exhibition and along with the 22 of the Oasis
group, there were 24 porters, which included a head porter, 2 cooks, and 2 assistant cooks, and three English speaking (or should I say 1 English speaking and 2 attempting to be English speaking) guides. The porters are an amazing group of people. They carried our luggage - 7 kilo max each -, tents, food, gas cylinders for cooking, etc. The porters start out life living in the Andes usually in a farming community where they get experience running up and down the side of the mountains carrying large loads. I thought that maybe there would be a training program for the porters, such as shadowing an experienced porter, maybe carrying half a load for half the time, or some other build up to carrying 25 kilos up and down the mountain, but no, there is none. Straight from the farm to a full fledged porter expected to carry their weight. The porters literally trot along the paths always aiming to arrive at the lunch destination or the camp site ahead of the group, so that when we arrived, lunch would soon be ready, and at the end of the trek, we would arrive at the designated camp sites to find our tents erected and waiting for us. We were a little spoiled. Also, the food the cooks prepared was outstanding. Very tasty, loads of it, and beautifully decorated. I´'ll put up some pictures at some stage to show some of the dishes they served.

So needless to say, when we finished our short trek on our first day, we arrived at the camp site and set up our sleeping mats and sleeping bags in our tents ready for bed. There are designated camp sites along the trail, which wind up the mountain side on tiers. Each group is assigned a different level. Also, apparently, the number of people on the trail is limited to 500, including porters. The government also prescribes that there will be at least one porter for every tourist trekking the trail. So, it is all quite controlled. That first day, at tea time (yes, we even had tea - usually popcorn and cake or biscuits of some description at 5.15 p.m.) we had an introduction to the porters and cooks each of whom took great glee in giving all the girls a hug and a kiss on the cheek, this being the traditional Quechuan greeting.

At 7.30 p.m. we had dinner and immediately after went off to bed. The weather on this day was quite warm, but in the evening when the sun went down, it was quite chilly, and we all wrapped up warmly in fleeces, gloves and hats. It also got dark early, probably around 6 p.m., so it seemed natural to be in bed before 9.30 p.m.

Inside our tents we were cosy and warm, and had had a great night's sleep lulled by the sound of a waterfall falling close by the camp site. It was so still and quiet and the only noises came from some of the other campsites until they too fell silent.

Day 2 was a killer. Sometime during the night, it started to rain, and it poured solidly until the end of the 2nd day. We were up around 4.45 a.m. for breakfast, packed up the tent, and set off trekking around 6.45 a.m. to cover the 15 km - in the rain! We had to climb straight up the mountain in approximately 5 hours, then 1 1-2 hours going equally straight down the mountain. We started climbing right from the camp site and climbed up the mountain in a river gorge, waterfalls all around us. The scenery was absolutely stunning, no words can describe the vastness of the mountains, but it was absolutely the hardest physical trial I have ever completed. Worse than any marathon! I was totally stretched. I never doubted that I would be able to finish the climb, but at times, I did wonder how long it might take me. We climbed up hundreds of granite steps, and over boulders and stones, with sheer drops of thousands of feet down into the valley below. So we not only had the physical test, but a psychological test as well, as a careless slip, could be fatal. In fact afterwards, we learned that even porters have fallen to their death - nobody mentioned tourists! The climb took us up to 4,215 meters above sea level at the highest point of the pass - ironically called "Dead Woman's Pass". At this point, the rain had turned into snow, there was a strong wind blowing, and it was freezing!! Needless to say, we did not spend more than a few minutes at the top to celebrate our success. I think it was the altitude that made it so difficult. We would literally climb a few steps, maybe 50 feet or so, and then feel absolutely breathless. At some points towards the end, my legs seemed to have no strength left and at one stage I remember standing in front of a big step willing my legs to work. Marathon training definitely helped with the stamina required, but 10 and ones were out - definitely worse than any Hell Hill - and it lasted 5 hours. The descent, although not as taxing from a breathing point of view, was definitely very difficult as we were now going down the steep mountain side on the same type of path, i.e. hundreds of steps, stoney paths and clambering over boulders - all in the rain, which only made everything very slippy. Fortunately, I had rented two walking sticks and to Shaheda who first suggested this, and our tour leader Diana who said they were a must, I shall for ever be grateful. I don´t think I could have managed the climb with so little after effects without them. At one point, I slipped and fell - didn´t hurt myself, and we even saw one of the porters slip and fall, so we know conditions were bad. It was slow progress down, but we saw lots of little birds, including some humming birds, and lots of beautiful yellow, white, and purple flowers. There were waterfalls all around us, and as I said before, the scenery was stunning with huge moss-green mountains towering all around us. Just as we were coming into the camp sitearound 1:45 p.m., a couple of the porters met us with a cup of tea and coffee with two huge chunks of bread. I almost kissed them! We weren´t last though, I think there were 4 people behind us who arrived within the next hour. The young guys in our group, Duncan and Sam (both 19), arrived around 11 a.m.!! I also have to admit to having two melt downs on the climb up and thanks to Ray, I overcame them, pulled myself together and kept on going. And, we did it!!

When we arrived in the camp site, Ray went to lunch, and I went straight into my tent, changed out of my wet clothes, put on my dry thermal underwear and crawled into my sleeping bag. I lay there warm and cosy, listening to the rain outside and one of my audio books for about 3 hours. Then I got up for tea, ate tons of popcorn and started to feel better. Everything was absolutely soaked though, my rain suit, my one set of thermal, gloves, etc. and because of the dampness, it had no opportunity to dry out. I was so glad we had packed our clothes in our duffle bags which were carried by the porters in plastic bags, so they were nice and dry. After supper, it stopped raining, but by then everyone was totally miserable, even the porters. So it was early to bed where once again, I was warm and toasty, and had another great night´s sleep.

The third day we had 12 kms to trek and it started a little later, and we didn´t start trekking until 8.30 a.m. The porters woke us up each morning with a cup of coca or muña tea. Mmmm, delicious! We headed straight up hill from the camp site for 45 minutes to some Inca ruins at Runkurakay at 3800 meters. It is truly amazing to see so many ruins that are mostly original and which are incredibly preserved. Mind you, when you think of it, they should be, they are in the middle of nowhere, and I am sure there isn´t exactly a large population around to destroy them!Then after a short rest at these ruins we set off again and continued up for another 30 minutes to a second pass at 3900 meters, Then it was down to a further set of ruins at Sayaqmarka, and finally down further to our lunch stop. After lunch, and a short rest, we set off again climbing up for 1 1-2 hours to a third pass at 3,650 meters and then down a bit to our camp site at Phuyupatamarka at 3,580 meters altitude. We had a lovely walk in the afternoon along the same stoney path with steep drops to the valley below. In some cases the path was not more than 15" to 18" wide and this certainly kept us awake and the adrenalin flowing. Fortunately, there were not quite so many steps. We also went through a natural Inca tunnel. The sun was shining once again, and all of our wet clothes were draped in various fashion over our day packs as we tried successfully to dry everything out. There were more Inca ruins just below the camp site and once again we marveled at how advanced the Incas were back in the 1400s-1500s and what a shame it was that the Spanish wiped them out. Because of obvious reasons, we note a very strong hatred of the Spanish, particularly in Bolivia and Peru where the people really feel that the Spanish looted the country of many riches. The world has so much beauty but to see it, you really have to put yourself where few have been. South America in particular has many of these spots and we have been so lucky to have this opportunity to see some of them.

Once again we had tea at 4.45 p.m. served in our Andean living room overlooking the most fantastic mountain scenery in the world. Then it was a first class dinner since it was "the last supper" together. Once again we had an opportunity to thank the cooks and the porters and went through the same ritual of kisses, hugs and handshakes all around. Since we had an early start the next day, we were in bed by 9.15 p.m.

On Friday morning, our final day on the trek (12 kms to trek), we were wakened up at 2.00 a.m., in an effort to leave camp at 2.40 a.m. A group of 6 of us had decided to leave about an hour ahead of the rest of the group because we felt we were a little slower and we didn´t want to be the cause of the group not seeing the sunrise at the Sun Gate. So, we set off in the pitch black with our head lights to guide us down the steepest, most treacherous slopes in the world. Well, that may be an exaggeration, but that was what it felt like. We were up in the clouds, and the light from our headlights glistened against the droplets of moisture falling from the clouds. The path was narrow and steep, and there were hundreds of steps, both regular and irregular, lots of bolders, rocks, and it was so slippy. Our progress was really slow. There were about 2 occasions when the path was so narrow, that I almost had a panic attack at the thought of walking down and really had to talk severely with myself to keep my cool. And once, I slipped and fell, once again not hurting myself. All around us was silence. It was so earie. It was as if there was no one else in the world except us. This precariousness lasted for about 2 1-2 hours by which time the main group had caught up with us. After that, we were down out of the clouds and the trail became much easier. Then daylight came and around 6.30 a.m., after another body stretching climb, we arrived at the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is at 2,750 meters and this is supposed to be where you get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Everyone was so disappointed, because the early morning mist had filled the valley and you couldn´t see the mountain or the ruins. All you could see was cloud. The guide books did warn us of this, but none the less, it was a little disappointing. We waited about an hour, and the mist played with us. It would drift slowly away, giving us a sneak preview of the ruins, then just as quickly, it drifted back into the valley. But it never let us see Machu Picchu. Dejected, the group started down the mountainside to the Machu Picchu site where we arrived around 8.30 a.m. We had some breakfast (a hamburger and fries!) and entered the Machu Picchu site. At last the sun was hot enough to burn off the cloud, and we got a full view of the ruins and our first glimpse of Machu Picchu itself. You have probably all seen the famous picture of Wayna Picchu and the ruins, well that is just what it was like. It was so overwhelmingly beautiful all I wanted to do was sit and take it all in. The enormity and quality of the ruins is amazing. Apparently, I think they are about 70 per cent original and the rest has been restored. Our guide took us all over the ruins and then around 11.30 we were left on our own.

You would think that we had had enough of climbing! But, we had been told that the climb up Wayna Picchu was spectacular, and particularly since we had not had the view of the site from the Sun Gate, we thought we would climb it. Well, if we thought the Inca Trail was treacherous in parts, the climb up Wayna Picchu was totally treacherous. It was literally one hour of scrambling up steep steps to the top. We were OK climbing this because the altitude was only about 2500 meters. But the mental stress made up for the lack of physical stress! When we got to the top, Ray and I scrambled over the rocks at the pinnacle only to find ourselves coming down the side of the ruins at the top of the mountain on some very steep steps, which were about 6 to 8 inches wide and maybe 18 inches long with an immediate drop at the edge and in front of about 1000 meters to the Inca site of Machu Picchu below. Fear doesn´t describe what I felt! However, being fairly practical, I once again spoke severely to myself, got my panic attack under control, and moved very slowly, step by step - sideways, hugging the ruins on my left and not daring to move my eyes forward or to the other side. I guess we must have done about 20 feet like this before slipping in through one of the windows in the ruins to safety. Now Ray's perception of this escapade is a little different, and his blazay comment was something like "You have to learn to trust yourself". Well I did, and thank goodness, my body co-operated. An hour later we were down on the ground and I heaved a sigh of relief. No more climbing for me for a long time!

So, all in all, Machu Picchu was an outstanding experience. Having trekked the trail really gave us a huge appreciation for who the Incas were and how they lived. They must have been hugely fit to trek the mountains the way they did. Everything is either up, or down, there is no flat. We certainly had our fill of physical challenge, cultural education, and outstanding scenery. The girls on the Truck say we are "hard chore". Not quite sure what this means, but I guess its got something to do with doing the extreme.

After our day at Machu Picchu, we caught the bus down the switch back road to Aguas Calientes at 2000 meters to the train station. We took the train along the Urubamba River and had a beautiful trip to Ollantaytambo where we caught the bus back to Cusco. We were supposed to be participating in a 24 hour challenge - i.e. 24 hours awake. However, after having dinner back in Cusco, we crept off to bed for a good night's sleep and to dream of the incredible adventure we had just completed.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Puno, Lake Titicaca, Peru : May 3, 4, 5

On Friday May 4, we headed off to Puno in Peru across the Bolivian Altiplano to Yunguyo for the border crossing into Peru and a stop for lunch at a typical restaurant, then a beautiful drive along the side of Lake Titicaca. Once in Puno we stayed at the San Marco Hotel. In the evening we were briefed for our home stay on Amantani Island in Lake Titicaca and spent some time organizing ourselves as advised.

On Saturday, we were picked up by coach at 7:30 a.m. and taken down to the Port in Puno. There we shopped in the market to buy our "gifts" for our families. We bought rice, sugar, salt, milk, oil, tinned fish, jam soap, pasta, candles, matches and a couple of exercise books and pens for the children spending around 40 sols. Then we boarded a small motorized catamaran for our 3 1/2 hr journey to Taquile Island.

Lake Titicaca, said to be one of the world,s largest navigable lakes, is approximately 3,820 meters above sea level, 160 kilometres long and about 45 kilometers wide. Its huge. It straddles the Bolivia/Peru border and depending who you talk to, is 60% in Peru and 40% in Bolivia, or the opposite. It is also very deep, and our guide indicated that there are many mysteries about the lake, including one that someone recently found a citadel under the water but because of the manner of the formation of the lake, there is no explanation as to how the citadel would have gotten there. Another item to be explored further when there is time.

About one kilometre wide and six to seven kilometers long, Taquile rises steeply out of the Lake , and we were soon huffing and puffing as we climbed up the numerous steps and along well defined paths to the main squre. I have to admit that this was a big disappointment. The Lake and Island are so beautiful, but the Square was crawling with tourists and islanders trying to sell you their home made crafts. Our Guide soon led us out of the Square and further up the island along the winding paved paths to a small restaurant for lunch and we had our first taste of coca and maña tea, mmmm, delicious. After lunch, we walked 500 steps down the other side of the island to our waiting boat.

Amantani is about an hour,s boat journey from Taquile. The port here was not quite as well defined as in Taquile, and once again the island seemed to have been pushed straight up from the bottom of the lake. There did not appear to be quite as many tourists here, and there are no cars on either island. We were met by our "mothers" and Ray and I were introduced to Gladys whose home we would stay in overnight, sort of like a bed and breakfast set up. Gladys was delightfull. She was dressed in the traditional dress consisting of a red bustling skirt, brightly coloured cumberband, white embroidered shirt, and black embroidered cape, with a tiny pair of thin soled, black, flat, sandals. Gladys led us up the steep hill to her home over paths of stone, some paving, and dirt. Her home was about half way up the island and was built in the typical quadrangle style with mud bricked two storey buildings built around a paved courtyard. We were led up some cement and wooden stairs to a low wooden door off the verandah into our bedroom. The room was about 8 feet by 15 feet with large planked wooden floor, light green plaster walls and two metal_muntined windows, one of which had a stunning view overlooking the lake and the island below. The furniture consisted of four mid size beds with reeds lining the walls against which the beds rested, a round table beside one of the beds, and a chair. There was a potty under each bed and four beautiful blankets and a quilt cover to keep you warm. A mirror, wall hangings, and framed education certificates for the family, adorned the walls. We were lucky, our room had electricity so there was electric light. I don,t know what I expected, but we were very pleasantly surprised with the quality and cleanliness of the room.

The dark smoky kitchen was located outside the square on the same wall as our bedroom, and the loos were located through a gate at the back of our building. One toilet flushed with tins of water, and one squat box. The property, located opposite the loos consisted of a series of small fields where various crops were grown and sheep huddled. The fields were reached by short, winding paths. Our house was located beside the soccerfield and just above the community hall. Gladys father owned a shop which looked after and this was located right in front of the home buildings.

We met Gladys two sisters Olga and Lucy who also lived in the home with their children Carey and Joceline. We never heard about the husbands but our guide explained that many fathers go to Puno to work and send money home and are never heard from again. Gladys was not married.

We dropped our stuff off in the room and then went up the hill to see the sunset. Unfortunately, we were a few minutes late to see the sunset, but nonetheless the view was absolutely gorgeous, with the remaining hues of the sun reflected across the lake. When we came back down, our group collected in Gladys store and sat around wooden tables drinking beer and talking with the local children who snuck in despite their mothers efforts to keep them out. Soon, one of Gladys sisters was calling us for dinner which we ate in the smoky kitchen with the two sisters and the children. It wasn{t long before Carey, a little girl of 4, was snuggled up to Ray and chatting away in a mixture of Spanish and Quechuan. First we were served soup, then a pasta dish, then muña tea, all quite palatable. Gladys spoke about as many words in English as we did in Spanish, but somehow, it worked, and conversation, although I wouldn{t call it animated, was at least somehow possible, between sign language, the words we have picked up, and any other way we could think of to communicate.

Once dinner was over, Olga and Lucy dressed me up in the traditional costume, and Ray donned a poncho and we were off to the ball! This was a party specially arranged for our group with our families. The music was provided by a local band and we were soon dancing up a storm in our newly learned Quechuan style. It was all good fun, but dancing at 3820 meters above sea level takes it out of you and the next day we all agreed that it would have been better if the dances had been a little shorter!

Around 9.30 p.m. we suggested discreetly to Gladys that we leave and as she had to be up at 5.00 a.m. she readily agreed. We were warm and snug in our beds, despite the below freezing weather outside. The night was so quiet and peaceful, the stars so plentiful in the sky, it all seemed a little sureal.

The next morning, we were up around 6 a.m., fed pancakes, jam, coffee-tea for breakfast and led down the hillside by Gladys to the boat for departure. It was a very moving experience to live so simply for one night, but the islanders are happy with their lives, and life expectancy is around 80. They are virtually vegetarians because they can{t afford meet every day, and with all that walking up and down the hills, carrying their crops, and supplies, its no wonder they are fit and healthy.

Our next stop was the Islas Flotantes, or Floating Islands, which were about 3 hours away. Here we were exposed to the culture and way of life of the Uros peoples. About 1000 to 1200 people live on the Islands. They apparently took to the islands to escape from the Spanish. We were shown how the islands are made by overlapping layers of totora reeds harvested from the Lake. Stepping on to the reed islands felt quite spongy and although the surface is dry, you only have to push your fingers down a few inches to feel the dampness. The surface apparently has to be replaced about every 2 weeks. As the islanders grow older, some of them live in a colony on the mainland to escape the arthritis and rheumatism that attacks them from the dampness of the reeds. Lots of the crafts are made of reed. Also, their canoe shaped boats are made of reeds and nowadays, plastic bottles have been added to make them last a little longer. All over the 3 islands, there is a lot of begging and selling which does become annoying: as well, you have to be careful taking pictures as some of the women turn away. I found that by buying something and then asking politely if I could take their picture with what I bought, the women were very pleased to be photographed. We took a short ride in one of the canoe boats which was lazy and peaceful, and then were back on to the motorized boat to make our way slowly back to Puno.

Arriving in Puno we quickly walked through the market to pick up a salteña, orange, and mango juice for lunch which we ate sitting outside our hotel. At 2.30 p.m. our coach arrived to take us to see some Inca ruins at Sillustani. The ruins at Sillustani are situated on a hilltop on a peninsula in Lake Umayo and is where the Colla nobles are burried in chullpas or funeral towers. Collasuyo is the south quarter of the Inca Empire and this is where the Colla people are from. The remains have been looted so no bones or funeral acompaniments exist, but the funeral towers are very impressive silhoutted against the dark sky.

Back in Puno we went out for dinner and I had llama brochette. The meat is quite tasty, a little bit of a cross between lamb and veal.

Puno was founded on November 4, 1568, and it is busy and rather chaotic. There are not too many colonial buildings left. There is a nice pedestrian mall but on the whole, it is very touristy, being a centre for visits to Lake Titicaca.

Tomorrow we are on our way to Cusco, and our 4 day Inca Trail trek.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

La Paz and Death Road - April 30, May 1 and 2

On Monday, we left Potsi round 8.30 a.m. to drive 500 plus kilometres to La Paz. Once again, as is so common to Bolivia, the scenery we drove through was spectacular. Stunning mountain scenery through moss-green coloured volcano shaped mountains, steep red sandstone canyons, lush green river valleys and - of course - hundreds of hairpin bends. Then on to the Altiplano, past grazing llamas, sheep, and cattle. For lunch, we stopped at a very local restaurant in Oruro. It was a fixed menu with soup and a main course served with rice. It tasted good, but I didn't enquire what I was eating!

Around 5 p.m. we reached El Alto, once a suburb of La Paz, now a poor neighbour city. Our descent down into La Paz from the Altiplano was stunning. La Paz has a most impressive location at the bottom of a canyon with Illimani Mountain providing a triple-snow-peaked backdrop. The City is therefore all built on hills climbing up from the bottom of the canyon and is about 3100 to 4100 meters above sea level depending on where you are in the City. The population is just over a million. The streets are steep, narrow, and bustling with people, and the sidewalks are lined with tiny stalls and small shops selling everything imaginable from stationery supplies, toilet paper, material, toilets, doors, produce and meat. It just seems like one big market and the energy level is astounding given the height of the City. The streets are packed with cars and small vans. The vans are like buses, and a conductor leans out of the sliding door yelling out all the stops on the route the van is taking. So you can imagine the noise in the streets, let alone the honking of the vehicles.

Since Tuesday was a civic holiday, we decided to bike the Death Road - $65.00 US. This used to be the main highway between La Cumbre and Coroico and is considered the most dangerous road in South America due to the number of cars going over the edge. So, we topped up our accident insurance, picked one of the most reputable tour companies (out of about 20) called "Down Hill Madness" (, and after being equipped with first class mountain bikes, waterproof vests and pants, gloves and a full face helmut, we set off. At La Cumbre we got out of the coach, and were given a pep-talk on safety procedures before setting off to bike the 64 kms dropping 3400 meters from about 4600 meters to 1200 in about three and a half to four hours of riding. The first 30 km were paved, and we mixed it up with the trucks, buses, cars and other vehicles for a fast downhill ride. Then we had about a 4 to 5 km uphill ride which sucked at 4000 meters above sea level - nonetheless, we managed it. From here the condition of the road deteriorated hugely. The remainder of the ride was on a one lane dirt road descending by a series of hairpin bends with plunges up to 600 meters to the valley below. The road, which is still travelled by the occasional cars, trucks, and buses not forgetting the tour company buses which follow you all the way, is in shocking condition - for a road - there were boulders, stones, gravel, and sand surfaces to contend with, and we rode under waterfalls and over small streams, through rain clouds, mist, and brilliant sun. The scenery was absolutely stunning, from above the treeline down into lush jungle. I was never scared, although many are, but treated the ride with an abundance of caution. It was certainly not for the faint hearted, but your safety was certainly all in your own hands and your limits were taxed to the full.

We heard horrible stories such as the Israeli guy who was killed this March when his bike went over the edge - apparently two bikes were passing each other on a hairpin bend and they collided sending the one chap over the edge to his death. Earlier this year another young guy decided to do the ride without a helmut, on his own at dusk. Needless to say he went over the edge. It took them quite a while to find his body and when they did, it had been partilly eaten by the dogs. Only a couple of weeks ago, a young girl passed out on the ride and is still in hospital in a coma. We believe she passed out from altitude sickness. Then there are the numerous cars that go over the edge, including a bus with over 30 passengers. So, you can imagine the ride! But we were very cautious and are now "Death Road Survivors" and proudly wearing the complimentary T-shirt we received.

After the ride, we had a fabulous swim, sauna, and meal at the Esmeralda Hotel in Coroico. The views from this hotel were also stunning as it sits above the town looking over the jungle valley below.

On Tuesday, we set out to explore La Paz but had to return after about an hour as Ray was not feeling well. We did manage to make it to the main square and went into the Cathedral where there was a service in progress. Once back at the hotel we discovered that quite a few people were not well. Not quite sure what it is, maybe a flue, maybe just exertion and altitude. I spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon writing up my journal and preparing my posts for the blog. Later in the day we went walking through the city to experience the "street scene". We saw tons of markets, and walked down the Calle Commercio which was one long market. The stalls were grouped according to what they were selling - so all the sports goods are together, all the underwear, socks, etc. The material and haberdashery stalls far exceeded anything on Spadina or Bathurst in Toronto. The meat market was fun, and some of the locals had fun trying to sell us some sort of fish which quite frankly looked awful!

In the evening, despite the fact that Ray was not feeling a hundred percent, we (Robin, Ray and I) went out to an Aymara folk show with music and dancing. The food was not very good and was twice as much as anywhere else we had been (for example a llama steak was 89 bollies as oposed to about 38 bollies elsewhere) plus a $US12 cover charge each. Nonetheless, the show was terrific and I now have a CD of the band that played.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, we are on our way to Puno in Peru and our visit to Lake Titicaca. We will try and update the blog with some pictures and further info as soon as possible. Our 4 day Inc Trail trek is May 8, 9, 10, and there will definitely be no Internet during that period. So be patient!