Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Arequipa to Cuzco (29-30/May/06)

Cuzco, Peru

Met up with out two Peruvian friends for the proper tour of Arequipa, so we walked around the centre for a few hours and visited a few of the churches. Then they invited us to their house for a typical lunch and then we went off to Arequipa’s most famous attraction, the Santa Catalina monastery (well, convent). A steep entrance fee, but well worth it, even if you are a bit overdosed on colonial architecture and religious buildings. It’s like a small Spanish village, with small streets and houses, all made of stone, but painted red and blue instead of white. Spent ages in there, had a small siesta, and then went to the bar we had met our new friends for a goodbye drink (well, more than one actually). They were so sweet they even got us a goodbye souvenir.

Next day’s wake-up call was a 10 second 5.4 tremor (who needs an alarm clock in Arequipa!?) and we ran to the nearest safety point, only to find ourselves alone there – apparently earthquakes are not a big deal here unless a few houses get flattened, this one didn’t even make the local news (though I liked Esther’s quote "I’m completely within my rights to be shit scared"). Got on the 11h bus to Cuzco and now have a few days free here before we go off on the Inca trail; I’m sure we will find plenty to do. First on the list is some kayaking.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Arequipa & the Colca canyon (24-28/May/06)

Arequipa, Peru

Headed out on the morning bus to Arequipa, which is the nearest town to the "deepest canyon in the world" - Colca (in fact it’s the second, it has a deeper nearby neighbour Cotahuasi, but that involves a 12h bus ride). After visiting a few agencies we decided we could easily trek round there without a guide and headed off to the pub. We found a bar in the middle of the Gringo area which had a few locals, plus an enticing happy hour. Chatted with a couple of girls who were studying tourism and decided to hook up with them the next day for them to practice their skills on us, which we did. But no real tour of Arequipa as we were all pretty hung-over, so we all had lunch instead. Then they went off to their lessons and we went off to see the Davinci Code at the cinema. Near the end there was a small tremor (Arequipa is in the thick of it in terms of earthquakes) so we were scared stiff (remembering the fun we had in the Tsunami in Thailand) for the rest of the film and consequently didn’t really understand the plot.

The next morning we headed off to the Colca canyon. Had lunch and started the descent. After about 3h we reached the bottom where we bumped into some French Canadians we had met before in Puno, so we continued with them for the little bit left to the next village hostel. There we met a couple of other agency groups and all had a nice meal and evening chat together. The next day we followed the groups with guide at a discrete distance until we knew we couldn’t get lost, walked around the amazing canyon scenery and a couple of villages and then down to the "oasis", a series of swimming pools where we had lunch. Then the long march up. I decided to cane it and did it in 2h. Double the time of one of the guide’s record. Ah well. At least I impressed the 70 year-old donkey driver I met, who said he normally took that long. And I got to see my first hummingbird in action.

The next morning we got a stupidly early bus to a place where condors gather, and spent an hour looking (and photographing) at the impressive birds. From there we returned to Arequipa for a slap-up meal with some of the treckers we had met on the way. Also got a yummy present of some home-made maple syrup!

Puno & Lake Titicaca (21-23/May/06)

Arequipa, Peru

Followed through with our plan and got the bus to the Peruvian border, and from there round lake Titicaca for a few hours to Puno. Goodbye Bolivia!

Peru is a million more times geared up for tourism. By the first evening we’d had ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime) and cuy (guinea pig), to the tune of “authentic” Inca descendants belting out the inevitable El Condor bloody Pasa.

The next day we wend for a bit of island hopping to see the natives of the lake. Quite a bit like a human zoo in fact, we’ve decided ethno-tourism isn’t our thing (especially in the package holiday style). Still, the first stop was really worth it, the floating islands. Basically some time ago a band of Indians felt the heat from the expanding Inca empire and, having nowhere to run, literally dived into the lake. There they made huge reed rafts, more like small islands, and have been living on them ever since. We visited a couple of these floating islands and discovered how these people live (mostly fishing and tourism). The second island was a let down though. This is a real, proper island which didn’t seem to offer much more than a bunch of blokes dressed up in floppy hats and regional clothes much like ancient Spanish farmers (as it was imposed on them by an Andalucian bigwig). The whole thing felt a bit like Disneyworld, plus there were loads of other tourists (at least on the floating islands we had been spread out a bit).

One more day in Puno, the morning productively spent bargaining for alpaca objects d’art. In the afternoon we headed for some ruins called Sillustani. This is a huge burial ground of pre-Inca (Colla) and Inca people who made big towers to bury their dead. It’s quite impressive, and the setting is beautiful.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Uyuni (21-26/abril/06)

El Salar de Uyuni y sus alrededores es uno de los sitios más alucintantes que he visto. Cruzar el salar en 4x4 y ver el amanecer en la zona húmeda del salar fue una experiencia inolvidable. A lo mejor envíamos alguna foto al National Geographic a ver si hay suerte :-)

Aparte del salar visitamos lagunas de colores con falmingos, desiertos y volcanes. Fue im-presionante!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Huayna Potosi, 6088m (15-20/May/06)

Puno, Peru

Next on the agenda we had a climb near La Paz, a mountain called Huayna Potosi, clocking in at 6088m. We went to chat to the director of the main agency, who is also a doctor, who told us we had lost our acclimatisation and would have to spend a few days in La Paz. We decided to stay an extra day and spend 4 days on the climbing tour, doing extended mountaineering training and acclimatisation (climbing takes 2 days, plus one day if you have no experience to learn the ropes) – we already had used crampons (spiky metal things you attach to your boots to walk on ice and snow) and ice axes but wanted a bit more formal training. Spent the other day in La Paz buying some food as we wanted to go straight on to a 3-day trek downhill on an old Inca path to a town called Coroico.

Got to the base camp (4700m, a full-on hotel, no freezing in tents like the other agencies!) after a short drive, had lunch, and then walked up to the glacier (panting a bit, definitely not yet used to the height). Had a fun time properly learning to walk with crampons on all types of slopes and using the ice axes to climb up a wall of ice, all a bit more in-depth than what we had done on the glacier in Argentina and going up the volcano in Chile. On the second day we trekked a bit more to another glacier (also quite exhausting, I actually felt faint going up) where we learned to use ropes and also how to break falls.

Third day was a free morning lazing about, and after an early lunch we walked 3 hours up to the high camp (5200m), taking all out equipment with us. With this agency the high camp was also not a bunch of tents, but a nice cosy metal hut. It is on some rocks just below the snow line, and the peak of the mountain is tantalizingly visible just 900m above. There is a steepish long climb, a short 45-degree wall, another climb, and finally a longish 45-degree wall. In all it takes 4-6 hours. The plan was to leave at 1am to arrive at the top at dawn.

That night was really windy, and we decided to postpone a few hours. But at 1ish the wind died down so by 2am we were on the way up. It was only half moon but you could see quite well. Far to the right of us, over the jungle, was a massive thunderstorm which lit up the clouds beautifully. To the left you could see the lights of El Alto, the city just above La Paz. About an hour into the ascent it was pretty obvious Esther wouldn’t make it, she was short of breath and having to stop every 10 steps or so. We had a scary moment just before the first wall when we saw a small avalanche just to our left. That, plus the fact that we were going pretty slowly through what looked like avalanchy terrain (in the eyes of the famous avalanche expert, Joshua Hewitt), Esther running out of energy, me getting cold and starting to also feel tired because of the start-stop pace, the wind starting to pick up again, and the obvious fact that we wouldn’t reach the summit, made us pull the plug and turn back (Esther’s plan was to go on as far as she could, but I reminded her she’d still need energy to get back). We didn’t reach the summit (or even get close!) but it was an amazing experience and a really good intro to serious mountaineering. We’ll definitely be attempting a few more peaks in Peru and maybe Venezuela. And we saved quite a lot of money by realising climbing Aconcagua (South America’s highest peak, in Argentina, 6962m), at over $1000 per person (plus buying some expensive clothes and equipment) is probably not for us at this moment in time.

Got back to the high camp just before daybreak. The other guide, with 2 other tourists, came soon after. They hadn’t managed it either as one of them had knackered out just before the last wall (the other one had been OK and was pretty pissed off at this – he had travelled back to La Paz especially for this). If we had all gone together he might have made it as Esther and the other guy (and maybe me, though I think I would have gone on) might have turned back together with just one of the guides. After a short rest we packed and walked down to the base camp.

The plan after was to go straight on to out 3-day trek the next day, but not only were we tired and feeling a bit lazy but our porter/guide had been wrongly briefed. Rather than risk another Sorata-type mixup we decided to simply go back to La Paz, have a good night’s sleep, and go to Peru a few days early.

Lago Titicaca y Sorata (6-17/abril/06)

Nuestras primeras aventuras en los alrededores de La Paz fueron el Lago Tititaca y el pueblo de Sorata.

Lago Titicaca

Los alrededores del lago fueron durante años la base de muchas poblaciones pre-colombinas. Cuenta la leyenda que la gran divinidad creadora de la cosmovisión andina, Viracocha, emergió del Lago Titicaca y creó el cielo y la tierra. La leyenda inca cuenta a su vez que el creador del Imperio Inca, Manco Kapac, emergió de la "piedra sagrada" en La isla del Sol, la isla más grande del lago, y desde allí emprendió su camino hasta Cuzco donde fundó la base de su imperio.

La ciudad de Copacabana a orillas del lago es un buen lugar para explorar la zona. La iglesia de Copacabana es el mayor atractivo turístico de la ciudad debido al toque árabe de sus cúpulas recubiertas de baldosines de colores. Los domingos hay una gran peregrinación de vehículos que llegan hasta la puerta de la iglesia para recibir la bencidión del párroco. Los coches se decoran con collares de flores y se rocían con sidra. Es todo un espectáculo (y un desperdicio de sidra!).


Fuimos a Sorata con las intención de hacer el trekking del Apolobamba “el mejor trekking de Bolivia” según la guía. Cuando llegamos allí nos enteramos de que el trekking no se hacía desde allí sino desde otro pueblo a 12 horas de La Paz. Aún así los guías locales se ofrecieron para venir con nosotros (contratados claro) de vuelta a La Paz y guiarnos durante el trekking. El plan pintaba bien pero las cosas no dejaron de complicarse desde el momento en que llegamos a La Paz. Fue una cadena de mentiras tras mentiras y falta de profesionalidad por parte de los guías que no nos lo podíamos creer. Tardamos 2 días en salir de La Paz porque se habían inventado el horario de los autobuses y lo peor de todo es que los guías estaban bajo nuestra responsabilidad en cuanto a alojamiento y comida y cada día que pasaba era un gasto para nosotros! Por fin y tras 12 horas en un bus y una carretera de la muerte conseguimos llegar al maldito pueblo con un cabreo considerable y una niebla y un mal tiempo de campeonato. Nada más llegar decidimos que lo mejor era cancelar el trekking y volver a La Paz, teníamos la sensación de que los guías no tenían ni pajolera idea de la ruta del trekking y el clima no acompañaba. El único problema era que el autobús de vuelta salía en 2 horas y el conductor era el mismo que nos había llevado (!) . Yo me quería morir de sólo pensar en esa carretera otra vez y en que el conductor iba a hacer 24 horas del tirón pero no nos quedaba otra alternativa. Así que respiré profundamente, me metí en el saco, porque en el bus hacía un frío del copón, e intenté dormir. Pero eso tampoco resultó fácil porque el autobús estaba overbooking (es el pan de cada día en Bolivia) y teníamos un perro en mi regazo, un señor durmiendo en el suelo y un borracho que casi aplasta a su hijo al caer redondo en el asiento. El conductor no dejaba de mascar coca (lo cual me tranquilizaba porque le mantenía despierto) y poner la misma cinta una y otra vez (que por cierto era la misma cinta que en el viaje de ida!!!!!!!!). Sea como fuere y por arte de magia (y de coca) después de 12 horas estábamos otra vez en el punto de partida, La Paz. Fue una pérdida de tiempo y de dinero pero la sensación de libertad al decirle adiós a los guías mereció la pena. Ahora lo recuerdo todo y me muero de risa.

Aparte de este altercado he de reconocer que Sorata en sí es un lugar precioso donde pasamos unos estupendos días de relax antes de que empezase nuestra peor pesadilla.

Monday, May 15, 2006

More photos

La Paz, Bolivia

2 more CDs of fotos in the right hand column. This brings you all the way up to Samaipata in Bolivia (though the order is a bit weird).

Bolivia, un país de contrastes (abril – mayo 2006)

Si bien el contraste de Bolivia con Chile y Argentina, nuestros anteriores destinos en Sudamérica, es abismal, tardamos un poco en darnos cuenta de que ya no estábamos en uno de los países más ricos de Sudamérica sino en unos de los más pobres. La razón de este desliz se pudo deber a que nuestro primer contacto con Bolivia fue la ciudad de La Paz, donde la pobreza se difumina entre los turistas, las agencias de viajes y los grandes edificios que habitan el centro ésta.
En 6 semanas en Bolivia hemos disfrutado de 3 paisajes muy diferentes: altiplano, pampas, y cordillera, y experimentado cómo se vive en cada uno de ellos. El principal elemento diferenciador entre estos paisajes es la altura, la cual no sólo potencia el desarrollo de diversos ecosistemas sino que también influye en la gente, su forma de vida, sus costumbres y sus creencias. Las condiciones climáticas a 4,000 metros de altura son muy severas (aire frío y seco) y la vida en el altiplano se hace muy dura. Aún así, un elevado porcentaje de la población boliviana se concentra en esta región. La principal actividad económica es la ganadería (cría de llamas y vicuñas), la agricultura (cultivo de maíz, patata y quinua) y la minería y las pequeñas comunidades son en su mayoría autosuficientes. En las laderas de las montañas abundan las terrazas pre-colombinas todavía en uso (!) y en las planicies pequeños minifundios familiares. Las gentes que habitan estas tierras son su gran mayoría indígenas y conservan muchas de las costumbres y rasgos culturales de sus antepasados.

A partir de los 2,500 metros y hasta alcanzar el nivel del mar las cosas van cambiando, la vegetación es cada vez más verde, el clima menos extremo y los rasgos indígenas menos marcados en la población. Si bien la agricultura y ganadería siguen jugando un papel importante en la economía del país el sistema de explotación de la tierra no es el minifundio sino el latifundio lo cual conlleva a la concentración de capital en manos de muy pocos.

Hemos observado como debido al alto grado de mestizaje en las zonas bajas, la comunicación entre el "gringo" y el boliviano resulta bastante fácil. El contacto con la población indígena resulta por el contrario, más complicado, dado que ésta es muy conservadora y en determinados casos no presenta gran simpatía por "el hombre blanco".
Esto es sólo un resumen de los muchos lugares y sensaciones que hemos experimentado en Bolivia. Desafortunadamente no hemos podido visitar todos los rincones del país y a pesar de un pequeño percance al comienzo del viaje, nos vamos con muy buen sabor de boca y con ganas de volver.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Rurrenabaque; a load of old crock (8-14/May/06)

La Paz, Bolivia

Because of the strike there was no morning bus to where we wanted to go and we had to wait until the evening, so we killed the day as best we could. After a bit of walking aimlessly around we decided to go to the cinema matinee (and saw a really appalling movie with Jennifer Aniston, but it was either that or Mission Impossible III - the Davinci Code was “coming soon”). After that walked back to the bus station and got on the night bus (not doing very well at avoiding these) to Trinidad. From there, after a few hours stopover, we caught another bus to Rurrenabaque and arrived there around 1am.

Spent the next day deciding which tour agency to go for. Rurrenabaque has 3 main tours - 3 days at a lodge in the Madidi (or, less famous but also less touristy, Pilon Lajas) national park in the jungle, 3 days at a lodge on a riverbank in the pampas (flat floodlands), and various days hardcore trekking in the jungle. We went for the pampas as we’ll do civilized lodge jungle with Esther’s parents in Peru (in fact the same jungle as Madidi) and we’ll do hardcore jungle treks in Brazil.

The pampas have a river going through it which is where all the animals congregate, especially during the dry season. When we went the rainy season had finished and it was drying out. And the amount of animals there was just phenomenal, much more than what we expected. In the jeep on the way to the river we didn’t see any sloths which apparently hang around there, but as soon as we got on our little motorboat and went round a couple of bends the menagerie fest started. We saw loads of caimans and alligators, capybaras (the world’s largest rodent, basically a 46kg water rat, but cuter), various species of monkey, turtles, river dolphins (never knew they existed), eagles, herons, kingfishers, vultures, river gulls, storks and a whole bunch of other birds I can’t remember the names of, and a species of orchid. We also went piranha fishing (and kept one each for a taste at dinner), went looking for anacondas in the floodlands and I was lucky enough to see one (Esther sadly missed it as she was at the rear of the group) and take a quick couple of snaps. We also went out at night with the flashlight to see alligator eyes, and saw an owl fly off at a distance. On the last day we went for a swim with the dolphins (they scare off the piranhas and alligators, which is handy) and also caught a glimpse of a toucan. All in all we did very well, and to top it off our group was really good and we got on really well together. Another great tour.

To get back to La Paz there is an 18h bus ride up a ridiculously dangerous road so we did the sensible thing and splashed out on a flight back, only $50. It’s a small (takes 19 passengers) propelled aeroplane and the view is amazing. A bit hairy near the end where the mountains create a lot of turbulence but we landed safely after 40 minutes and got a bus to what is becoming our local hostel. Not too out of breath - red blood cells hang around the blood stream for about 3 weeks and we’ve only been at low altitude for about 2. Now we will hang around here for a bit doing a few nearby treks and then do a couple of things in southern Peru before going to Machu Picchu to meet up with Esther’s parents.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Chiquitano missions & back in Santa Cruz (4-7/May/06)

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

There are good bus connections to the first (and most important) two Jesuit mission villages, so that’s what we did. First stop was San Javier, the oldest mission. The church was, as promised, beautiful. We were also very lucky as the annual baroque music festival was on, with free concerts in each church. That night in San Javier there was a Spanish group of five men specialising in Mediterranean monastic singing, and for the last few songs a couple of women joined them. It was really good stuff, and the setting was in a beautiful colonial church.

The second day we went to Concepcion, which is slightly more charming and rustic (unpaved red dirt roads). Here we saw a Brazilian group do mostly Brazilian baroque pieces in Latin, with more musical instruments than the day before (the Spaniards had only used an organ, and that on the last piece). Sadly the church doors were left open this time, so occasionally you’d head the odd motorbike or something outside.

Back in Santa Cruz we just missed the laundry where we had left some clothes, and the next day was Sunday, so we decided to chill for a bit until we could retrieve our togs. Our next destination is Rurenabaque, a jungle village north of here. Getting there might be a problem, the transport strike shows no sign of abating. Costs of trips outside the province (when available) have nearly doubled.

Samaipata & Santa Cruz (1-3/May/06)

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Got the bus towards Santa Cruz the day before the strike started, and got off a few hours before in a village called Samaipata. It is one of the gateways to a national park, has some pre-hispanic ruins, and is a weekend destination for rich people from Santa Cruz. We arrived at 4am and had to bang on a few doors before we got a room. Next day we went to the ruins, a big sculptured rock which belonged to the lowland tribes and the Incas (depending on who had won the latest battle) – this was the place where the two cultures met (Incas on their way down, Amazonian tribes on there way up).

The next day we went with a guide to the Amboro national park. The area we trekked through was mostly cloud forest (we were incredibly lucky here – it was one of the few days without cloud & mist) and was full of ferns and other greenery, though wasn’t as green as we expected. Climbed up a hill to get a good view of the surrounding area, and had lunch. Not much for me as I was just finishing a 2-day diarrhoea special.

Next morning we got the bus to Santa Cruz. It is the biggest city in Bolivia (bigger than La Paz) and also the richest (which isn’t saying much). We spent much of the day walking around and looking for a rucksack for Esther (finally found one which didn’t look like it would disintegrate after 1 week). The main attraction here is a series of Jesuit missions in various villages nearby, each with a beautiful colonial church, recently restored to former glory in the 80s. The tours were laughably expensive so we decided to go at it ourselves.

Potosi & Sucre (27-30/Apr/06)

Santa Cruz, Bolivia

“Worth a Potosi”, coined by Miguel de Cervantes, refers to something of great value or opulence. Potosi, at the foot of a mountain rich in silver ore, is the city where the Spaniards annihilated a vast amount of natives in the process of transferring the silver from the mountain to the banking houses of Europe (without it sticking around in Spain for long). Not so much in the mines, but mostly through mercury poisoning during the process of extracting the silver from the ore. The forced labour idea was inherited from the Incas (who called it mita), though in Potosi a simplified version was used (cutting out complications like job safety, adequate food supplies or benefits to the local community).

These mines are still worked today by miner cooperatives, who sell the ore to a handful of local companies that grind and separate it, and then ship overseas for processing (and then re-bought by Bolivia at ten times the price in the form of electronic goods). There isn’t much money for proper engineers, so most new tunnels are opened by the more experienced miners (not hugely experienced – average life expectancy is 15 years down the mine, mostly due to respiratory diseases). Ore is extracted in the stuffy tunnels, by drilling small holes (luckily using hydraulic drills – these generate less dust), stuffing it with dynamite, and returning next day once the dust has settled to slowly cart it outside. All of this in temperatures of up to 40C and at 4000m above sea level, for shifts of 8-12 hours, sometimes much longer, without food. This is quite probably the worst job in the world.

The main tourist attraction is to go down the mines and have a look. This has been criticised as voyeurism, but in fact it gives some people a chance to get out of the mines (most guides are ex-miners) and the miners receive 15% of the tour price (at least with our agency), and we also started the tour going to the market to buy a few presents: coca leaves, fizzy drinks, 96-proof drinkable alcohol, and dynamite (no licence required, or even age restriction). The tour itself is an awesome eye-opener. I for one am never going to complain about my job again. Dressed in the proper garb (overalls, helmet, light, wellies) you crawl and scramble around the low-ceiling hot, dusty tunnels in the dark, avoiding the 1-ton carts that whiz around the place pushed by two people. You slowly get to see the whole process, slowly going down the various levels. I think the worse bit is the hole drilling, with a really loud noise and lots of dust. Apparently you get used to it eventually. This is probably the best tour we’ve been on as it is a glimpse into a different universe. Mining isn’t something one normally gives much thought to.

We also spent some time round the town itself, looking at the colonial architecture and absorbing the atmosphere. It’s not ugly for a mining town, but Sucre is a lot prettier. In Sucre we spent less time than we would have liked as there was a transport strike coming up. But we got to see a lot of it’s pretty churches, and even got on the roof of one for a great view of the city. It also has the world's largest amount of dinosaur footprints which is nice (even if the tour to see them sucks).