Monday, June 26, 2006

Ica, Nazca and Paracas (19-21/Jun/06)

Huaraz, Peru

No time in Lima, rushed straight off to Ica for a tour of the area and a local Pisco vineyard. Next day, up early and off to see the Nazca lines in a small 5-seater plane. From there we saw a few more ruins, pre-Inca this time, a cemetery and some underground waterways. Rush rush! The third day we saw the Ballesta Islands which had the biggest concentration of birds any of us had ever seen (it is a prime guano, ie bird poo, producing area to be used as fertilizer), plus a few sea lions thrown in. From there we saw the desertic Paracas peninsula which is also beautiful and has some really yummy seafood restaurants. And then off back to Lima.

5-star treatment in Cuzco (14-15/Jun/06)

Huaraz, Peru

Wow, this is the life! My first 5* hotel (that I remember, my father assures me I lacked nothing as a kid and had been in one but I was too young to remember). Also no more thinking for nearly 2 weeks, all has been pre-booked and pre-planned from Spain. We’d also arranged a couple of tours ourselves with the agency we did the Inca Trail with.

First we had a walking tour of Cuzco which was really good as the guide made it all come alive. The afternoon tour of nearby Inca ruins was a bit worse though. The next day we went on a big tour of the sacred Valley and its Inca ruins, also a success - did the normal route plus some salt pools and a Inca "laboratory", a set of cultivation terraces set out as concentric rings; the middle of the circle was low and was used to select crops for the lowlands (they even brought earth from there to simulate the local environment) and the outside was used to select crops for the highlands. Though feeling a bit overdosed on ruins now. Sadly we leave our lovely hotel and go off to a lodge in the jungle next.

Jungle capers in Puerto Maldonado (16-18/Jun/06)

Huaraz, Peru

What, cold showers! Shocking! Well, not that bad as it’s boiling down here. Got off the plane and the heat hit us and it felt bloody good after so much time up in the mountains. After a quick tour of the town (where we saw a plant that was “good for curing AIDS” – Esther, having worked for so long in the sexual health front, nearly wanted to kill the guide) we hopped on a boat to the lodge. From there, after lunch, we had a fun time photographing monkeys (though not too happy the guide fed them bananas, it’s not good to feed wild animals as they forget how to fend for themselves). At night we had a boat trip with flashlights to see caiman eyes.

Next day we went for a trek through the jungle, with all the trimmings – climbed up a tree to see the canopy, boat trip to see caimans and turtles, a bit of rowing on the way back. Gave Tomas and Marisa a taste of proper jungle. In the afternoon we ditched the human zoo (aka going to see how a “local family” lived) and went for an unispiring tour of the botanical garden.

The third day we got back on the boat back to the airport, and from there to Lima. Only a 4* this time :-( But nice none the less.

Escalada hasta el cielo, Huayna Potosi (6,088), Bolivia (15-20/may/06)

De vuelta a La Paz tras la visita de las pampas, nos lanzamos a escalar el Huayna Potosi, un nevado de 6,088 que no requiere altos conocimientos técnicos aparte de los suficientes para realizar dos escaladas en hielo. Dado que habíamos perdido bastante aclimatación pasamos dos días en el campamento base (4,720 m) para recuperarla y de paso practicar la escalada en hielo. El tercer día ascendimos hasta los 5,200 m al campamento Campo Alto, y tras una merienda-cena temprana (18:00 de la tarde) y dura porque la altura nos había quitado el hambre, nos fuimos a dormir para levantarnos 7 horas después y empezar el ascenso hasta la cima. En el refugio estábamos 4 turistas más 2 guías. Yo no pude dormir porque tenía un dolor de cabeza horrible, seguramente debido a una mala aclimatación, aún así a la 1.00 de la madrugada estaba lista y dispuesta para conquistar la cima. La montaña estaba imponente, reinaba el silencio y la nieve reflejaba la luz de la luna. A lo lejos se divisaba una tormenta en la selva. ¡Era un paisaje precioso! Tras la primera hora de subida mi ritmo empezó a bajar rápidamente, cada 5 pasos tenía que parar para respirar y opté por activar el piloto automático. Me movía muy despacio y sin pensar, sólo quería llegar a la cima a pesar de que parecía inalcanzable. De repente hubo una pequeña avalancha, pequeña a mi parecer porque Josh quería dar media vuelta, pero entre el guía que decía que no había problema y yo que estaba flotando convencimos a Josh para seguir. Al cabo de otra hora Josh me hizo abrir los ojos y aceptar que no iba a poder llegar a la cumbre. De repente y como por arte de magia recuperé el sentido común, y me rendí ante la inmensidad de la montaña optando por regresar al campamento Campo Alto. Tras un par de horas de descanso en el campamento continuamos el descenso hasta el Campamento Base donde nos recibieron con una deliciosa taza de té caliente. Sinceramente no sé de dónde sacamos las fuerzas para el descenso...nuestros cuerpos no paraban de sorprendernos.

En conclusión calculo que llegamos hasta cerca de los 5,450 m de lo cual estoy muy orgullosa. Fue nuestro primer contacto serio con la altura y la montaña y nos encantó la experiencia. Espero que la próxima vez podamos alcanzar la cumbre.

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia (8-14/may/06)

¿Cuántas especies de aves crees que se pueden ver en 2 días y medio? Nosotros vimos por lo menos 15 además de caimanes, tortugas, monos, pirañas y delfines de río en nuestro tour por las pampas de Bolivia. Cuando reservamos el tour y el tipo de la agencia nos enseñó todas las fotos de los animalitos que íbamos a ver pensamos "ni de coña..." pero por una vez las agencias de viaje decían la verdad. Pasamos casi todo el tiempo rió arriba y río abajo en nuestra pequeña barca observando la variada fauna, viendo y escuchando el amanecer, pescando (y cenando) pirañas, nadando con los delfines rosas de río y escapando de los mosquitos. El campamento estaba a las orillas del río y teníamos una cocinera que hacía maravillas con un pequeño hornillo. ¡El último día hasta nos hizo un pastel!

Fue un tour perfecto, incluyendo a nuestros 7 compañeros de viaje que eran muy buena gente.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Inca trail to Machu Picchu, the verdict (10-13/Jun/06)

Cuzco, Peru

So we’d heard mixed reports about the Inca trail (the 3 day-and-a-bit trek to Machu Picchu) and about Machu Picchu itself. This is probably the most touristy thing in the entire backpacker world and I wasn’t feeling too confident. Additionally it is extremely regulated due to the demand and therefore impossible to do without an agency, porters, and a hefty $280 investment per person. However, it had to be done (though I had definitely discarded buying the t-shirt), if only to be able to bore our grandchildren. There are a few unregulated alternatives which can be done independently (one of which’s first two days we’d done already when we visited Choquequirao) but they aren’t the real official thing endorsed by UNESCO (and Lonely Planet!) and all the rest of it. So we booked this thing in advance way back in January as this is the high season.

The first day we got on the tour bus and headed off to the “82nd kilometre”, had lunch and then ambled for a few hours to the first campsite. Not exactly hardcore trekking, and not exactly pristine wilderness (what with villages and electricity pylons) but we expected that on the first day.

The second day is the hardest, with the scary 4200m pass mentioned on the t-shirt. It’s not hard going if you have done any sort of trekking before and know that you are not supposed to run when going uphill (we were constantly amused overtaking panting trekkers that had overtaken us at high speed 5 minutes previously – the only ones that can keep it up at speed are the porters, carrying 25 kilos each). Here the scenery is much nicer, though you see a lot more people on the trail. Still, we were at the second campsite by 12, so loads of time to chill.

The third day is the most beautiful, with most of it through cloud forest (high jungle). But sadly the weather was appalling, with loads of low cloud and mist. Even so it was really pretty; it must be amazing on a clear day. We passed through a few of ruins on the way, mostly messenger rest-houses, storehouses, control points and agricultural terraces all Machu Picchu satellites. We went the long way round at the last bit of the trail and got to the last campsite, where we celebrated with a nice cold beer or five.

Fourth day we got up very early to get to the sun gate before sunrise. Not much point because of the mist, but while we waited it cleared a bit and we got our first real glimpse of Machu Picchu. And yes, it’s amazing. Even more so when we walked down to the main area. Here we decided to ditch the tour (our guide was a bit crap) and go up the Huayna Picchu mountain early as they only allow 400 people a day. From there you have anther amazing view of the whole complex. We went up & down like a flash as we had to be at the entrance for Esther’s parents.

They arrived amongst a flurry of (mostly Japanese) tours and the happy reunion took place. We hooked on to their guide (who was infinitely better than ours) and tried to pay attention to what he said and not talk too much amongst ourselves. After a lot of pictures we hopped on the train back to Cuzco and to our super duper hotel.

So was it worth it? I’d say $280 is a bit steep for a trek that isn’t more or less beautiful we’ve trekked through before. But hey, if UNESCO/LP says it’s cool I guess it is. It was actually better than I expected (but I wasn’t expecting much), a bit full of tourists and overorganised and overregulated but that’s life. In hindsight I’d have done an alternative trail with a mule to carry the food & equipment, but I wouldn’t have had hindsight without doing the Inca trail. Logical innit? And then Machu Picchu is absolutely amazing. Beats any ruins I’ve seen before.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A bit more of Cuzco (8-9/Jun/06)

Cuzco, Peru

Again got stuck at the turn-off waiting for busses to Cuzco, but got there in the end. Rushed around for a bit with last-minute preparations for Esther’s parents and the Inca trail. A bit more of the same the next day, and went to see a few museums that aren’t on the tours we will be doing (no wonder they aren’t on the tours, they are no big deal). Took the bags to the hotel we will be staying at. What an upgrade! When we come back from Machu Picchu we will transform ourselves from scruffy backpackers into 5-star jet setters. The Cuzco hotel is amazing, and the other ones we will be in with Esther’s parents are just as good. All have hot water! And even towels! And no bunkbeds! Sadly this life of luxury lasts just for a couple of weeks. Well, better that way, we have already spent the whole of next month’s budget.

Sucre y Santa Cruz (30/abril-7/mayo/06)

Sucre y Santa Cruz son dos grandes ciudades coloniales de Bolivia. Ambas han conservado en muy buenas condiciones los edificios coloniales, en su mayoría iglesias , y se respira un aire de tranquilidad que no existe en el resto de Bolivia.

En Sucre no tuvimos mucho tiempo y en poco más de un día visitamos casi todas las iglesias de la ciudad más las huellas de dinosaurio!!!!! No es broma, a pocos kilómetros de Sucre hay huellas oficiales de dinosaurio. El tour para visitarlas es bastante cómico, primero te tienes que montar en el dinotrack para luego pasearte la zona con un casco de colores, rodeado de miles de niños que se saben de memoria Jurasic Park, y recibir unas explicaciones básicas sobre las huellas. He de reconocer que aunque el tour no fue especialmente didáctico fue divertido.

Camino a Santa Cruz paramos en Samaipata para hacer una pequeña excursión por el "cloud forest" del Parque de Amboró y ver helechos gigantes.

En Santa Cruz visitamos las Misiones Jesuíticas de la Chiquitania y coincidimos con un ciclo de conciertos de música barroca. Así que durante 3 días disfrutamos de la paz y belleza de las misiones a la vez que de los conciertos.

Elections in Peru

Cuzco, Peru

Well, our new president will be Alan Garcia, who narrowly beat the nationalist leftist Ollanta Humala. Alan has had a go at running the country before, in the late 80’s he nearly brought the country to it’s knees, and later had to flee because of corruption charges. But Ollanta is a bit of a wild one who would join Chavez, Castro and Evo in an attempt to invade the United States, so the voters had it tough deciding between these two beauties.

Choquequirao (2-7/Jun/06)

Cuzco, Peru

Got the morning bus to the village of Cachora, about 4 hours from Cuzco (though a lot longer if you are left stranded at the turnoff with nobody in sight to share a taxi). Got there quite late so decided to stay the night (in a hotel still under construction) and make an early start the next day.

First day didn’t start well. Quite a lot of cloud and mist, which combined with some confusing directions, meant we got lost for over an hour. But anyways, by the time we got to the first stop it was sunny and the view was amazing. Basically we were walking around a mountain into a river valley. After lunch (and a cold shower, luxury!) we got down to the river, crossed, and started on the way up the other side. Here we started getting really tired and were completely knackered by the time we got to the campsite halfway up. Esther wanted to kill me as I patiently explained we hadn’t got mules because we were purists. We decided to not be purists anymore and get a mule for the next 3 days.

What a difference! We weren’t carrying much weight but we really noticed it with the mule. Even so, the previous day had taken its toll and we were really slow the rest of the way up. At the top we got to the night’s campsite, left the mule and went off to the ruins, about 2 hours away. Since we were pretty knackered we didn’t give them their full attention, and didn’t go down to the agricultural terraces, or see the panted llamas, or go up to the upper square. But still, we had lunch and wandered around for a couple of hours and quite enjoyed it. It’s quite small but at the end of the day we were doing it for the trek and not the ruins.

The way back was pretty easy as by then we were more-or-less OK again. The only major problem was we were bitten to death by mosquitoes even though we smothered ourselves in repellent. Esther looks like she has chicken pox. We then stayed an extra night in Cachora as it is a really nice little village (here we noticed we could see kids playing in the street for the first time in a long time, not working).

Some time in Cuzco (31/May-1/Jun/06)

Cuzco, Peru

Well, no kayaking as it was a bit expensive, plus the only two agencies didn’t have a "taster" session, only full-on 3-day courses. Spent a couple of days walking around, sorting out our lives, investigating restaurants and checking in with Esther’s parent’s agency. Thank goodness we did - they’d got the dates wrong for the big meeting in Machu Picchu. As there was little for us to see in Cuzco (as we will be seeing it all with Esther’s parents) we decided to go on a 4-day trek to some alternative ruins (Choquequira) which are a bit off the beaten track as the only way to get there is a two-day trek (and another 2 days back). The trek also goes on all the way to Machu Picchu on an alternative 8-day route, but no point for us. Our booked "Inca trail" trek may be a bit too typical, but it’s got to be done.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Las minas de Potosí (27-29/abril/06)

El Cerro Rico de Potosí fue uno de los mayores tesoros que los españoles encontraron en América Latina. Han pasado ya más de 550 años, desde que el indio Huallpa, huyendo del frío de la noche, se refugiara en una grieta del cerro y descubriera una gran veta de plata. Durante años los indios trabajaron en el interior del cerro en condiciones infrahumanas para extraer este preciado mineral. El panorama hoy día no ha cambiado mucho, la única diferencia es que la plata escasea y las cooperativas mineras extraen estaño y zinc en su lugar.

Josh y yo tuvimos la oportunidad de pasar una mañana en la mina y aprender mucho acerca de la minería, los mineros, y sus creencias y valores. Y esas pocas horas, no muy agradables ni física ni psicológicamente, fueron las más intensas y educativas de las que he disfrutado en mucho tiempo.

Pudimos observar cómo el culto andino a la "pachamama" (la tierra) sigue vivo dentro de la mina. Los mineros agradecen diariamente a la pachamama por los frutos que ésta les da, especialmente los viernes cuando brindan con ella (con alcohol de 95 grados) y celebran el fin de la semana laboral. Esta costumbre es más un ritual que una realidad si bien la jornada laboral no siempre está determinada por los días y horas de la semana sino por la cantidad de mineral que el minero se ha comprometido a extraer.

En el petate de los mineros sólo hay dinamita, hojas de coca y refrescos. Nosotros mismos les llevamos provisiones para agradecerles el tiempo que nos dedicaron. Dentro de la mina no hay comida ni mucho oxigeno. Y la situación no es mejor fuera de la mina. La comercialización internacional del mineral manufacturado está sujeto a condiciones muy desfavorables. La única solución que les queda es exportar el mineral en bruto a precios ridículos e importarlo en forma de tuberías o piezas para el coche a precios exorbitantes.

El fin de fiesta fue una explosión de dinamita controlada y fuera de la mina!
Para haceros un poco a la idea os recomiendo ver las fotos del CD 6.