Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Ups and Downs of Chile, Bolivia and Peru

We came, we saw, we conquistadored.

In fact we outdid the Spanish by taking off our armour and finding our way through the sacred jungle-clad valleys, over Dead Woman´s Pass and all the way to Machu Picchu...the only Inca settlement, it seems, which the colonistas failed to find and plunder and replace with a giant cathedral.
Some other parts of the continent they're frankly more than welcome to -- the Hotel Joya de Titicaca, for instance, and the meat pies in La Paz, and the smell of the toilets at certain border posts. In a moment Alison will give you her memories of those earlier days.
But first, the trek:
This was the one bit of our whole 5-month trip that was all planned and booked beforehand. You can't just turn up and do the Inca Trail on your own, as Parnell and I did on our Annapurna trek in 1973, sleeping in yak-sheds and swapping shoes as we went to beat the blisters. (Hope you're still with us, Dr G, as we're only a week or two away from turning up at your vineyard gate in California). No, this one you have to do with a guide and group -- otherwise the 500 year old path would probably be worn out by now, or piled high with rubbish.

We turned out to be the oldest in our group but not necessarily the weakest. Over the four days, no less than 7 out of the 16 of us became ill in one way or another -- several of them quite badly. So we tended to get quite strung out along the track -- in more ways than one, with some of us chewing coca leaves to fight altitude sickness and others just throwing up over the nearest available precipice ( not us I'm glad to say).
It's not what you might call a very long trek (28 miles), but there aren't many easy flat bits: it includes both climbs and descents of more than 7,000 feet each.
Alison's injured foot did brilliantly on the first day, with the help of new drugs and stick, but it did get worse again on the very long second and third days as those high Inca stone steps just kept on coming. I was mighty proud of her, as I'm sure you would all have been, as she kept cheerily hobbling on for hour after hour (stopping to examine the odd blue hummingbird or purple fuchsia along the way) as one false summit gave way to another. And in fact the whole, mainly young-american group would cheer us in as we got to each day's campsite with high-school-style whoops and hollers (or at least those who were well enough to have already arrived).
There was some talk of food poisoning as the only possible cause for so much illness, but in fact the food was pretty fantastic. Especially given the fact that everything -- from cake ingredients to curried chicken to cutlery to tables and chairs, not to mention tents -- had to be carried the whole way. OK, so we did have 20 porters with us to help.
After four days without hot water we were beginning to remember why we'd never been campers. But the views were a delight -- whether from our tent at night, looking out at brilliant skies and snowy peaks, or from the path as it wound its way through dark wet cloud forests and over windswept grassy plains, past old Inca fortresses and staging-posts and over wobbly rope bridges, high above foaming brown rivers charging down towards the Amazon.
Then came the final morning's dash, getting up at 3.30am to get to the lost city itself before all the crowds who come up during the morning by train and bus from Cusco. Sadly, when we got to the Sun Gate, where you get the first view down to Machu Picchu, instead of a glorious sunrise there was just a big white cloud. But as we came down that final hill the mist cleared and the ruins were revealed on their narrow ridge in all their incredible neatness and detail and precariousness. Quite apart from the surreal setting, the stonework itself is beautiful.

Yes, wonderful as Asia may be, this just has to be ahead of the Great Wall, Angkor Wat, Taj Mahal etc as one of the newer wonders of the world. Just a shame about the sandflies, which possibly came to us via the llamas and have left us both with the itchiest bites we've ever known. With that I'll hand over to my fellow-scratching wife to fill you in on what happened earlier, after New Zealand.
So - next major continent - we arrive in Santiago, Chile and have 2 nights and a day. Not fair on Santiago really to have left an impression of a cold, dusty city full of building sites and chunky schoolgirls in thick blue wool leg warmers. Grand old buildings decaying, but glimpses down side streets of a more glamorous and Barcelona-ish type city springing up..
Then on to La Paz on the roof of the world (or so it felt). The airport situated on a plateau, there´s an exciting drive down a steep hill to La Paz city which jumbles itself up and down hills with cobbled streets, the ladies with windburnt faces and their too-small bowlers, and sellers of Incan knickknacks and Andean knitted hats and socks all over. A strange smell ever present that can only be described as ´cold dirt´ and lots of breathlessness at this altitude. So lots of coca tea and plenty of rest and water...the whole of Bolivia gearing up for Santa Semana or Holy Week, churches and cathedrals bringing down their statues and preparing the massive litters which people will carry through the streets.

From La Paz by bus '√Čl Conquistador' to Lake Titicaca and Copacabana -sounds jolly and tropical, no? No, v cold, v wet and the worst hostal so far -
words can´t do it justice - small, bright orange room complete with one wall a badly executed Tuscan 'view', shiny thin purple nylon curtains, rock hard two-seater brown fake leather sofa, 1 bedside light with bright green glass shade giving no light beyond an underwater glimmer, Lion King faux fur bedspread and hot water only minimally available in a trickle in the shower if you diced with death and loose electric wires. ..Tim turned onthe TV (OK, so it did have pretensions to modernity and sophistication) only for it to fizz, emit sparks and die. Loose wires hung out of sockets where they presumably planned further lighting in the future. Spirits v low, bodies v cold we piled on all clothes to survive Night No 1...

Of course things improved the next day (after most amazing thunder and lightning storm over the Lake, heard amplified by the corrugated plastic sheeting which formed the roof of the hostal) and we sailed off to the Isla Del Sol (home of sungod and cradle of civilisation for incas) where the sun shone and T walked and I pottered along doing nature study...beautiful wild flowers and very tidy well-tended fields of maize and quinoa and lupins! Bus again along the Lakeside through the Andean Plateau and across a very informal border to Puno in Peru.
Back to Tim for a final fling: Hotel in Puno was close second to previous night's as worst ever. Breakfast in a dark icy room six floors up with no lift.... But again, our boat trip the next day, this time across the Peruvian half of the world's highest navigable lake, more than made up for it. First, to a group of floating islands made of reeds, where we were immediately picked out from all the other tourists by a colourfully dressed lady called Christina -- our silvery hair tends to persuade people we might have lots of money -- and invited into her home (built of reeds like everything else) .

Next, Taquile Island, where no-one's supposed to sell or buy anything at all because they only grow what they need and all work for each other. In theory anyway. Oh yes, and the women knit for the men and the men knit for the women (or even for tourists, as in the case of the man in the picture) . And the way they wear their hair tells you if they're available or not (I don't think he was). And they have some revolting herbal drinks.
Then it was onto a splendid train
for a 19-dollar, 11-hour ride past mighty Andean ranges and endless fields of maize and alpacas (we can now tell the difference between them and llamas, which have short pants and long ears) ... and so to the old Inca capital of Cusco, where we checked into a much nicer hotel and geared up for the big trek, while checking out some of the aforementioned Spanish cathedrals and Irish pubs.
But yes, some of those early days in south america were indeed pretty tough for various reasons. Partly no doubt because we´d been so spoiled in many ways by the comforts of NZ and such places before we arrived here, when we were suddenly hit by 3 months journey fatigue just as things became a bit rougher. Plus we were getting fed up living in same clothes out of same rucksack -- Well done, Carmela, on spotting that the photos showed new clothes... but they were really old clothes that had been washed so often they began to look new.
We're now once again safe and clean and back in the lap of luxury -- having hot baths and fine meals here in sunny (and warm!) Lima with Lorna and Hal. All around us are lists of things to do (along with articles to be written for the Financial Times, for which Hal's supposed to be Andean Correspondent) before their wedding in Scotland in June... which we're even now hurrying back for, via just 3 more countries. But there's also been time for strolling along the Mediterranean-style boulevards, sampling the local specialities of pisco sour (best cocktail ever) and ceviche (delicious raw fish with chili sauce, onion, corn etc). We've drawn the line at baked guinea pig, but our hosts were happy to pick out some cakes for us at the DessertMarket.....


Carmela said...

Well done you 2 for conquistadoring the Inca Trail, especially Alison despite injured foot. It amounts to heroism in my book. I'm skipping Skye really to avoid the humiliation of lagging far behind you youngsters.
You've also outdone yourselves in your wonderful account of the three countries. No doubt being back in the lap of luxury with hot baths and fine meals contribute to good travelogue writing.
I suspect Viveca's level of envy rising back up. I know mine is.

Anonymous said...

Dearest A & T

This is Anonimo in Peru (so that means Lorna!)

Hope you had a wonderful time in L.A and enjoyed your hotel with the room to the stars.

Have a safe trip to Vancover and please pass on a big 'hello' and xxxx's to cousin Mary.

Just had a very successful time with Hal's twin brothers visiting and they're now off (with H) to Machu Picchu to retrace your explorers footsteps (though they're passing on the Inca Trail!).

I'm off to London late tonight and will be there for a week before heading to Scoootland the Brave for wedding preparations. Finger puppets successfully secured by the way!

Can't wait to see you both again. Won't be too long.

Until then, much love from Halski and me.

L xxx

ps: By the way, you had the BEST of the Lima weather. All change here now and it's cloudy, grey and almost impossible to see out the window. Roof-top sunbathing wouldn't have seemd too appealing if you'd come just a little later -- so very good timing A & T!

Inedible Halk said...

TnA -- Anonymous habla mierdita. The weather in Lima is still lovely and sunny, unlike Scotland, apparently. Thanks again for a brilliant visit to Lima. Hilda asks you to send Dunkin Donuts Munchkins. Raul sends love and a poke in the arm. And the gardener says thanks for giving him his private roof terrace back. So when are we getting an update on the US leg?