A Travellerspoint blog

The Amazon: ala Douglas Adams, just don't get bit...

Trip to Ecuador was on an overnight bus. It wasn't quite as impressive as our first two busses, but the seats reclined to provide decent enough legroom for me to sleep. Customs as Ecuador was simple enough despite the itchy little insects everywhere INISDE the building.

The best thing about the trip though was our new friend, Peter. He was an elderly (ish - older than me, anyway) Swedish man who now lives in Queensland, Australia. He was travelling solo but I think he had more than a couple of voices rattling around upstairs keeping him company. When we spoke I genuinely couldn't keep a straight face. Mainly because Katie and Rashid were looking at me and laughing at every comment the guy made.

He informed us all, quite openly, that Ecuador being more expensive that Peru was of no concern to him because he was loaded. He then proudly patted his bag and exclaimed how he had $400 rattling around in his backpack. Which he then left beside me as he went to the toilet (the toilet being perfect for him at that moment, he offered).

Peter was an avid motorbike enthusiast, though. We got on the subject when he asked where I lived and became very animated and excited about the TT races. He would talk to me at length about bikes and models and him racing. As with all our chats up to that moment, he either didn't hear or didn't understood my additions to the conversation, so he stared at me blankly for a moment before continuing at passionate length on his latest tangent.

After we boarded the bus, he came over to my seat and rather loudly pronounced in his clipped-English Swedish-accent, "I like speed!" Of course, he was referring to the speed of his bikes and the best times to cycle at night to avoid the police. He let slip a couple of times how he had suffered many a fall, even ending up in a coma for some time, and didn't so much as blink when I suggested "that explains so much."

Sadly, he departed the bus before we all had a chance to offer him our farewells, but he had already invited himself to the island one year for the TT races. Who knows if we'll meet again...

We arrived at our hostel quite early, but it was a comfortable place. The top floor was a great common place with enough cushions (and bastardly low ceilings) to sleep on the floor, which I did.

I stupidly marked myself "safe" when Facebook asked me if I was still alive after the earthquake. I had no idea it would suddenly and automatically post an overly-dramatic message. I even tried to remove it from my timeline but it would seem everyone else could see it. I am safe and was never close to any danger.

In fact, the most distressing thing to happen to me with regards to the earthquake is that the bars in Cuenca (and I imagine elsewhere in places affected) had not served alcohol since the quake. But otherwise, completely unhurt and not even a little shaken - BA-DUM! Anyone? No? Too soon?

Cuenca is quite a pretty little city. As far as cities go, that is. I'm not a city person, and I don't really get my jollies looking at architecture and all that jazz. Although I will say that the view from our hostel's common area allowed me a view of a great white spire shooting high above the silhouetted rooftops and cutting into the clouded yellow night sky, and the contrast of colours caught me as more than a little impressive. And that was a church spire! So maybe there's hope for me after all.

All in all it's clean, fairly up market (certainly in comparison to Lima), and the street-sellers are conspicuous by their absence. It's very nice to walk around a city and not try to be sold every little handicraft going or have massages offered to you by the under-enthused and unmotivated.

The food is impressive though. Food does it for me in ways buildings generally don't - which has oddly reminded of something Katie asked while in Cusco, which I'll mention later as Katie is of sad relevance while I write this blog, if not the subject of the question itself. Anyway, digression aside, the places we are were incredible. The coffee shop beside our hostel, while small and slow to cater to 12 people, provided amazing French toast with fruit and syrup. They even offered me the chance to try my first ever Nutella muffin - delightful. The restaurant on our last night provided food so tasty Eleanor nearly had a fit over her salad, and I helped finish off about 5 different meals.

Not wanting to waste a free day - and me so completely uninterested in walking the city - we went canyoning! Which, to anyone who's done it is basically gorge walking. I'm not sure if there's a technical difference between the two but it can't be huge.

We donned wetsuits, harnesses, helmets, and followed our excellent guides along a cold and fast flowing river. We slid down smooth surfaces, jumped off boulders into pools, abseiled down waterfalls, and generally made ourselves very wet and very cold. I was foolishly left in charge at the bottom of one slide where I had to guide people down the mint waterfall with the aid of a rope, and provide my body as support. Unfortunately, the problem with that plan was that people had to rely on me to guide and support them. So it can't come as a huge shock when Katie eased herself slowly down the rope towards my reassuring voice. "Don't worry, I'll get you," I said, just as she slipped past me and landed in the pool at my feet. I watched curiosity as, fully submerged, she bobbed towards the next waterfall. In a second when her head broke the surface she shouted something vaguely accusatory like, "thanks for bloody catching me, Andy!" If you think about it, it really is all her fault...

Anyway, aside from my blundering the whole experience was fantastic. The guides were brilliant, it was exhilarating and adrenaline-pumping. The drops and falls were mighty and fast-flowing. The surroundings were impressive and I really got the sense of walking places few tourists have, despite the contrary probably being the case. Considering it cost us less than $70 a head for nearly 6 hours, including transport and snacks, it's excellent value. If you're in the area check the company out - they're well worth the money and you won't be disappointed:
http://arutamecotours.com/canyoning-in-cabogana/
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But Cuenca, Ecuador was just a brief stop on our way to the Amazon, where we'll be working at an animal sanctuary. We woke around 4:30am to get on a(nother) bus for several hours. Unfortunately, we woke to some bad news.

Katie was quite poorly and had been up vomiting most of the night. Frank, our guide, took her to hospital as the suspicion was she might be having a bad reaction to the Malaria tablets she'd just started taking. As it transpired Katie was suffering from appendicitis, and had to be operated on that very morning. Sadly we could not wait and Katie (obviously) could not continue on with us. It feels pretty rough, both that we all miss her presence in the group, but more so that it must be an awful thing to suffer through while on holiday. As yet, we know nothing more than the fact of her operation, but I hope everything goes smoothly and she recovers as quickly and speedily as anyone before her. Perhaps she might still be able to join us in the weeks to come? We can hope!

Katie, if you're reading this (why would a sick person read this?! Can you imagine anything more depressing than reading this when you're unwell?) then I'm thinking of you and you get well soon. Hoping you can make fun of me in person again!

It never failed to impress me her ability to know the lyrics of seemingly any song; and loved loved loved the fact that you knew all of Tenacious D's songs off by heart - even rocking Wonderboy at karaoke!

I was in awe of Katie's appetite for good food, too. Somebody idly said that when they have a big breakfast they don't need much else for lunch. To which Katie retorted that if she had a big breakfast she still wanted a big lunch and dinner. Which struck me as rather impressive as that's exactly how I feel about food - I like it when someone other than me is like "fuck it, I'm hungry and I want food". It was an extra (and slightly guilty) treat, when we all went out as a group to a cafe or restaurant, to watch Katie's hunger grow and grow as everyone around her was served their food...and Katie waited until the very end, served last for no apparent reason on multiple occasions. Strange that she didn't find it quite as amusing as I did...

And this may perhaps be a touch inappropriate given the circumstances (but given I've never cared terribly much for propriety, I don't really care!) but way back in Cusco, Katie asked me and a few others a hypothetical question over lunch. Would I rather: 1) have no more sexual pleasure again for the rest of my life; or 2) have everything I ate or drank taste like cardboard (therefore never eating or drinking anything tasty ever again) for the rest of my life?

I must admit I'm still back-and-forth about which one I'd prefer!

Anyway, these are just a few examples which remind me of the fun I've had travelling with Katie so far. It's with heavy hearts we go on while she's so poorly. We're a lesser group without you!

So we all finally arrived at the animal sanctuary, Sacha Yacu. It's built into the Amazon and is home to various birds, monkeys, turtles, saimiris, pigs, coatis, guacamayos, kinkajous, ocelots, dogs, cats, a cheeky fucking toucan, a shit-ton of insects, spiders, and other nefarious beasties - whose sole purpose it is to bite and/or get in my way - and more animals besides! (Please forgive my spelling of these animals)
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Basically, the sanctuary takes in and rehabilitates animals that have been kept in captivity and/or are being mistreated, are being sold on the black market, or need rehousing because their territory has been damaged or lost for whatever reason. The sanctuary was actually seeing a sharp influx of new animals because the recent earthquake has left natural habitats a little damaged.
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The lodgings are as basic as you might expect, with only a couple of hours of electricity to use a day. But being out in the Amazon you don't really have much in the need for electricity. We take it in turns to cook and we cool for everyone. The supplies are basic but oddly enough, apart from the lack of meat, we've probably had access to more fruit and veg here than in Cuenca.

All of the work we do is rotated amongst our group and a handful of other volunteers who are staying at the same time. We have a variety of tasks: feeding the animals and cleaning out their dwellings, cleaning the volunteer house, cooking, washing up, hunting grasshoppers (to feed to some lazy-ass animals), catching piranhas (again, to feed to the lazy animals who can't be bothered to go fishing themselves), monitoring the animals (for research purposes, probably...I don't know), building platforms and branches and feeding stations for birds, harvesting cocoa plants - then roasting, peeling, and grinding the beans into cocoa grains, digging trenches for new buildings and dwellings, sifting sand ready for cement, mixing the cement and laying bricks, fixing tools, and basically trying to not get bitten or die.

A couple of the girls were attacked by vicious little monkeys trying to assert their alpha-male dominance - I think? Or maybe the girls just talked back...who's to say?! Seriously though, the nuggets can be very nasty. The birds too. One cheeky shite is called Pascal, and is easily identified by his speech-mimicry, "Hola Pascal, hahaha" right before he tries to peck at you. Gobshite.

And then there are the insects. Our time here is regularly broken up by someone shouting "what the fuck is that?" or "NOPE!" Spiders are a frequent cause of intrigue but they're not the only things that cause a quick re-think of a particular path you're walking along. They're just everywhere. Big hairy fuckers and little nasty looking ones! You might think tarantulas are bad but they're not even poisonous. There was one particularly savage looking bastard of a spider under the bonfire hut. It was more skeleton than flesh, with daggers for feet, about the size of my hand and not even the good grace to be skinny either. Oh, and it had glowing green eyes (well, they glowed when I took a picture of it). It looked like something a demon would shit out!
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So far nobody has gotten bitten but I'm still looking for bullet ants. I just want to know HOW painful the "most painful sting" can really be. That's all...

There's a massive tree close to the sanctuary that has more ants in this solitary tree than in the whole of the U.K.- not quite sure there needs to be that many ants.

But it's not just the insects that have it lit for us! Even the trees and plants are getting in on the action. One tree in particular can leave you with either a very painful, or else a completely numb, appendage for a few days, depending where you prick yourself on it. There is a white plant that will give you shooting pains and the sensation of ants crawling under your skin. Basically, in the rainforest, everything wants to kill and eat you, so touch nothing.

Strange then that I've decided to make this my home for nearly a month!

The rainforest itself is hot and sweaty, and I more than most sweat like a demon. Which causes a problem by midday when I've sweated through every item of clothing I'm wearing. But luckily there is a fresh-water pool I can frolic in - it might not dry me off but it fucking well cools me down! I gave up on the idea of fresh, clean clothes everyday, and simply rotated two pairs of shirts and shorts every day, washing them when not in use. The weather switches almost in seconds from roasting-hot sun to torrential downpour. On our penultimate day it rained more than a week's worth in a few hours but in the late afternoon, the mist clung to the trees and cloaked the horizon. And when night falls, you know it. Darkness consumes all and what scant illumination the moon and stars provide is not enough to navigate by.

But I feel as though I've been harsh on the place. Despite everything being geared towards discomfit and/or death, it's a remarkable place to be in. The group really helps each other out and in the evening We eat until pregnant with food babies. We gather and split wood with axe and machete for our bonfire (I nearly - but didn't - lose a toe!); Sam brings his guitar, and we lie in hammocks and laugh with the noise of the Amazon all around us. The sky flashes with thunder-less lightning and fireflies dance in the lull. Sam even learned to play Good Riddance by Green Day (for me, obvs) and made up an impromptu song about Rashid's fascination with a warm log from the bonfire ("Rashid's toasty log - it's brown, brown, brown - Rashid's toasty log - it's fucking brown! - Rashid's toasty log...its sticky...").

The work can be pretty hardcore, especially digging the trenches and sifting the sand (as well as other jobs!), but it feels rewarding. I'm sweating my body weight and I ache fully at the end of the day, but still. To see your efforts go towards building a shelter, a quarantine, and enclosure, a clinic. It really makes me appreciate again why it was I came on a trip like this.

Our last morning of the first week saw us having to say farewell to Sara, Sarra, Yas, and Stefan, our Serbian guide. Unfortunately they were only doing one month with us for various reasons, but I've invited them all to the glorious seaside resort: the Isle of Man. Hopefully I'll see them again soon but if not I'm sure I'll annoy them online.

And with our food running out and washing piling up, it was time to take an early weekend (well, Friday afternoon) visit to Baños for supplies and extreme sports - I'll have an update for you on the next blog!

Posted by WrightA 18:29 Comments (0)

Mancora was hot

Machu Picchu took a lot out of us. Physically. Emotionally.

How does one hope to quickly recover after trekking a gruelling four (even five) days, up and down high altitudes, across difficult terrains, scaling steep steps, pushing through searing blisters, agonising muscles, insect bites, scrapes, cuts, colds, sickness?

The answer: Oreo milkshakes and waffles!

Which worked. Apart from the over-active child in the room with us (it wasn't me this time) it was a feast of epic proportions. Just the thing we needed before a 22 hour luxury bus journey from Cusco to Lima. And what a Hellish bus journey it was too - the seats only reclined to 180degrees (apart from Eleanor's, which wouldn't remain down!) with our own private TVs (though most things were in Spanish if even they worked), WiFi (which didn't connect to the Internet), food (hmmm, sort of), and air conditioning (which was better when we opened the emergency exit hatches on the roof)! But, of course, I jest. The bus trip was really nice, especially when compared with the busses in Belize, and it was a hell of a lot simpler, and with considerably more leg room, than flying. It was an enormous luxury bus and I'm just making fun of some of the problems we had, but all in all I've been in far less comfortable places for 20+ hours, planes included. A couple of the group even managed to watch the Revenant, which sadly would not work for me.

So we arrived in Lima mostly refreshed and with less than 24 hours before we would leave the capital and head north.

Like my short stay in Miraflores weeks ago (it really feels like a lot longer...) we didn't get much of a chance to explore Lima. Although I can't say that exploring big cities is my idea of fun, we did go and watch the most incredible light-fountain show. I mean, literally, the Bellagio really has to up its game. This was bright and colourful without being gaudy or tacky, beautiful without being ostentatious. I must say it impressed me (well, obviously) and just goes to show what you can find in the most unlikeliest of places. They even had a dog show going on. It should go without saying, but I shall say it anyway, that the little golden Labrador puppy did not perform EXACTLY as the owner perhaps hoped he would.
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We played some pool in our hostel, and somehow I wasn't the worst player. I think this largely had to do with the fact that everyone else's skill was handicapped due to crooked cues and a warped table top. Still! I played admirably, and certainly did not sink to low-character methods of distraction and petty annoyances...

Sam and Rashid brought the noise with their insanely talented (from my perspective, at least) performances on little wooden cajón boxes. Not quite sure how they can make impromptu beats of such quality when I can't walk straight without tripping over, but there you go!

After stocking up on sushi, pizza, burgers, subways, fruits, and water, we headed off on our next over-night bus journey. Sam took note of a couple of massage chairs which we proceeded to make full use of! The bus trip was more of the same, only this time I got lucky with a working TV - The Heart of the Sea, followed by Heist/Bus 657, and finally It Follows.

Mancora though!

The Pacific, the sun, the sand, the beer, the food. A place to have fun and enjoy!
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It turns out though that there are side effects to spending the whole day jumping into waves and swimming around like a loon. Apparently - now, hang on tight with this one, because it might be confusing at first, but apparently - the sun burns. It burns worse when it's very hot and riding a cloudless sky. It burns the most when you don't wear sunscreen. Now, anyone that has read my previous posts (surely not!) would know I spoke a little feverishly about wearing sunscreen. I even quoted Baz Luhrmann. Turns out, like the rest of the world, I didn't pay any attention to myself. So now my face and shoulders are a little crispy! But then my sunburn wasn't even a fraction as bad as Aaron - the man sprayed on sunscreen to his arms, but didn't rub the cream in. So all he ended up with was livid-purple burns on his shoulders, bright pink arms, and one white spot on each arm where the sunscreen had done it's protective job!

Anyway, I didn't let that stop me. We all decided the answer was more sun and sea. So we set off to go swimming with a bunch of laid back and chill turtles! The excursion wasn't quite how I imagined - swimming around a reef or a sandbar while the turtles congregated around me, hungry to be involved in my GoPro selfie. Instead, we hopped off a pier and swam around a little roped-off square of water where the turtles came, eager to be in my GoPro selfie (or maybe for food, who can tell at this point?). Don't get me wrong, it was enjoyable and I love being around marine life whenever possible but I just hoped for a little better environment. Although relaxing on the beach afterwards was pretty fun, and for a four hour excursion with 800+ pictures included for free wasn't too shabby for what equated to less than £10.
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As a quick aside, I'm pretty sure we also found the worst laundry service in Mancora, possibly in Peru. Situated opposite our hostel, the man informed us he would have our clean clothes ready for us by 11 the next day. A little under 24 hours, which is a fairly reasonable turn around. Except...not only were all our clothes NOT ready, the ones that had been "washed" smelled of sweat and were stained and dirty. Nobody ended up paying and we fortunately found an angel of a woman on the next street who folded our clothes and made them smell like a fresh meadow, even mine, which had been steadily and eagerly fermenting in a plastic bag with all my Machu Picchu sweat.

Jet-skiing, running on the beach, and watching a phenomenal Pacific sunset were highlights of the next day. I'm not saying I'm a natural jet-skier but I did tell Eleanor I would make us fall off...and we fell off. Pretty sure I'm an expert, therefore. If I wasn't, how would I have known I'd have been able to make us fall off? Logic! After my unbeatable powers of foresight, we both figured a short run was in order; though neither of us timed it or knew the distance, so I can't really tell if it was a reputable run. But it was excellent to run barefoot on the beach, to end with a swim in the Pacific, waves crashing over us as it cooled us down, fish jumping out of the water all around us, surfers riding the waves, birds gliding in front of the setting sun. Hard to describe the scene perfectly - and I would show you a picture but I didn't take my camera; sad to say my camerawork probably couldn't do the image justice anyway.
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Sam even treated us to some tunes on his guitar as we sat on the beach under the night sky. Slightly talented guy actually, which is a slight understatement. Somehow, Sam can make a beat out of any solid surface, but hand him a guitar and he's in his own world. It was really impressive stuff!

For our last day? We had to say a temporary farewell to Alex, who flew to Milan to sort out her university (bloody students), but thankfully we'll see her again in a week.

And then back to the beach! Eleanor and I decided to ride the jet ski again. Some highlights included me hitting a huge wave at the wrong angle, launching into the air for a good few seconds, before landing with ball-crushing force and smacking my face against the controls! After that we decided to swap controls, although Eleanor managed to throw me from the back of the jet ski by turning the machine sharply after a jump (she says the jet ski turned itself...) and getting pummelled by another wave after surfacing.

Some of the group tried their hand at surfing later on, thanks to Sam (talented mother fucker...) for offering to teach them. I didn't think I'd have enough time, but I did join them for a bit in the waves to film it and grab some pictures.
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And that about does it for Mancora. You've been a great place to relax and have fun. Next stop: Ecuador!

Posted by WrightA 19:42 Comments (0)

Machu freaking Picchu

What a busy and physical few days!

This post is very much about our trek to Machu Picchu but I'll have a quick little aside at the start about the Alpaca Farm. Because I want to.

So, we went to the Alpaca Farm. There were lots of alpacas but sadly very little opportunity to purchase and/or consume alpaca burgers. At least we got to feed, stroke, and selfie with the alpacas, which was pretty good fun. We got to see the locals working the alpaca wool and there was a little museum section about the history and genealogy of the alpaca, but I can't remember much of it - just the cute little alpacas.

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It was all good fun, but this is and was just a prelude to my main point of excitement...

The Salkantay Trail

This is an old Incan trail, but not THE Inca Trail. It's longer and steeper and a lot less travelled, so logically I was more excited to do this trail.

We started off in the afternoon with a short trek of about 8km to Soraypampa, which sits at 3,880 MASL (meters above sea level). It was a steep trek and took us all a while to get used to the change in altitude, but the views were more than promising of the sights to come. We stayed the night at the camp beneath the glacier, and to say it was cold was an understatement. I wrapped up in several layers and a sleeping bag just to sleep, but even then I still felt the cold. Still, the night sky was alive with shooting stars and the Milky Way.

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Next morning, we woke at 5am to begin the next, and longest, day or trekking. We climbed up to 4,630 MASL to Salkantay in about 2 hours 15, which were all proud of as the guides reckoned it would take us 3 hours. We even managed to beat those of us who took the horses up! It was a very taxing trek; mainly because some of the slopes and inclines were exceptionally severe. A couple of our team even suffered slight nosebleeds due to the altitude! Tough as it was though, as usual, the views were worth it.
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After a short break, we then hiked onwards and downwards for another couple of hours to Almuerzo Huayracmachay, dropping down to 3800 MASL. The mountains were shrouded the entire time in mist and cloud, only momentarily parting allowing us a quick attempt at pictures of the snow-capped mountains. After the skies decided to piss down upon us, we finally arrived, cold and wet, for a much deserved lunch. Our departure was a lot more timely though as we left just as the rain stopped.

The mountains and rocks finally gave way to the jungles of Peru as we headed towards camp for the second night. You could literally feel the humidity increasing as our altitude dropped to 2850 MASL. The mud track was steep but this time in descent, although that does not make it easy. All our joints and knees were aching, shoulders stiff from backpacks, feet and toes raw from blisters. When we finally arrived at the Challway campsite we were ready for our much earned sleep. 25km covered in day 2 and every step fully earned.

Our third day, another 5am start, was not nearly as steep as the second but quite long. We hiked alongside the Salkatay River to our next destination, though it was a fairly flat hike. That didn't mean it wasn't a tough 6 hours and 19km to walk. We had to cross a fairly sizeable ford by placing the stones in the river ourselves and hopping across. It didn't work for everyone and a couple of people sadly had to continue with wet feet!

But we all kept on, spurred on by the treat at the end of the day. After having lunch and arriving at our next camp site (we camped inside an empty hostel building!) we were taken to natural hot springs for two hours of relaxation and fun. You cannot imagine quite how good it feels to jump into naturally hot water after three days or walking and climbing and aching and sleeping in the cold and hard and waking early and hurting and being tired. But whatever you can imagine, it feels better, let me tell you!

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The evening rounded off with a bonfire at our campsite, where we roasted marshmallows and are smores. Where we drank Inca Tequilla and beer. Where we danced and rejoiced and...sang happy birthday to me.

Yes, I made the mistake of telling the hostel staff when we were buying drinks that I would be my 32nd birthday in three and a half hours. Well, we got four free shots of Inca Tequilla and I was quite happy about that. But moments later the Happy Birthday song was belted out over the speakers. And so under full pressure of my group and complete strangers in the campsite I was forced - forced - to dance against my will in celebration of my birthday. Thankfully I was fuelled by a little bit of alcohol...

That was a very good night!

Sadly the morning was another early start. We woke at 6am, but this time we weren't to start trekking immediately. After being surprised by our cooks having made me two cakes (and Aaron shoving my face into one as he grossly misinterpreted a Peruvian custom) we started the day off with by ziplining over the Peruvian jungle. 5 wires and 1 massive rope bridge in 2 hours. It was incredible fun, and what a way to spend my birthday, I have to admit. I loved it! We shot around those wires at speeds of 70-80kph! Unfortunately, one traveller from another group, who just happened to be standing in front of me, decided it would be great to ride the last wire completely naked. Don't feel bad for me, feel bad for the staff who had to help him in and out of his harness.
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After the adrenalin rush of the ziplines, we started on our final leg of the trek to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. It wasn't a physically demanding trek, it was completely flat and followed the railway line, but it was difficult. We were tired and sore and hot. The trail just went on and on. Perhaps because we just wanted to be there and rest in our hostel? Who knows! But when we saw the edge of Machu Picchu on the cliff tops, I must admit it lit a little fire in me again.

The night in the town at the base of Machu Picchu was fair enough. It's a typical tourist town, in that everything is twice the price it should be. But it does what it needs to do!

In the morning, we began our ascent of Machu Picchu.

The mist was out in force and it cloaked the mountains and trees in a King Kong-style fantasy. When the sun began to shine through, it turned the mist into clouds of minuscule flecks of gold. And we went up...

Hard to describe Machu Picchu without turning into a bit of a fan-girl. I've mentioned before that MP was the factor in which I had built my travels around and possibly one of the first things on my bucket list. I had high expectations. Could it live up?

Yes.

Yes it could.

When we arrived the Incan ruin was shrouded in the same cloud as the mountains during our ascent, turning the ancient buildings into an almost a longing mystery. As we waited on a bluff, catching glimpses of the city through gaps in the grey clouds, Sam (being born in June - a lucky birthday for the Incas) performed the act of waving the mist away. And strangely enough in a matter of minutes the mist dissipated.

Before us lay Machu Picchu in all her wondrous glory.
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Just wow. Pictures will not do it justice but they will at least help remind my brain how great the views are. We had a tour around the ruins, then hiked up to the Sun Gate for more views of the ruins.
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The size and scale, and especially the craftsmanship and effort involved in its construction, was staggering. That it was built in 50 years was incredible. We checked out the temples and gardens, the homes and factories - they all looked remarkably alike. But still the work involved, the creation of it, it can't be denied as anything short as a wonder.

It was a shame to leave. There is something humbling yet inspiring about it. Maybe I'll never return but I'll never forget either the trek or the ruins. It was what I'd hoped it would be and more.

Posted by WrightA 13:39 Comments (0)

Peru At Last


View Travel 2016 on WrightA's travel map.

Peru at last! Not because anything before this has been arduous or dreadful, but because Peru was the first place I planned on travelling to and where I'd built the rest of my trip around. It has felt like a long time coming and I'm very glad to finally be here!

Thankfully when I arrived in Lima, it was nighttime, so I didn't have too much to worry about with the temperature difference from Ushuaia. What did concern me was the driver that was supposed to pick me up wasn't there. But, like Venezuela, I didn't panic. I just chilled out with this Aussie fellow who was about 20 hours late arriving in Peru due to a flight cancellation. It should go without saying (though I'm going to) that his ride wasn't waiting for him. So, after we figured out our hostels were roughly in the same area, we hitched a ride and made our own way to Miraflores.
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Miraflores is a great little district of Lima. Without having explored much of Lima (yet - I'm told our tour is coming back this way!) I can tell you that Miraflores is a great place. Sadly I did not get enough time here, but the 5km walk along the coastline was fantastic. They're built great communal gardens where you can play tennis, ride bikes, skate, exercise, walk and train dogs, sit and read, enjoy a coffee, surf, or even go windsurfing! It's colourful and it's very fun. They also have quite a sizeable shopping mall on the cliff face that overlooks the Pacific Ocean - plenty of designer products and places to eat.
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I'd happily have stayed longer but now I had to fly off to Cusco to meet the (unfortunate) people who would be (stuck) with me for the next 8 weeks. Sorry that I didn't even realise I was on the plane with Georgie - my bad!

The usual meet and great unused and I think it's fair to say we all got on really well from the outset, even if I'm a granddad in comparison to their age group! Almost immediately after getting to the hostel we started playing cards and it turned out a great way to get to know everyone. Mafia. That's the game we played; I'd never played it before but I think it's fair to say that now I am obsessed! I could go into the details of my excitement regarding this game but it would take to long. Suffice to say, Aaron is always neutral; Tom is always suspicious; I can read Eleanor, Katie, and Georgie like a book; Sarah has crazy deductive abilties; and Sam nor Alex are ever the killers.

Cusco is a wonderful city. Seems like I feel that what about every place I visit but I guess it's hard not to be impressed when there's a lot going on. The city itself is at a higher altitude than Machu Piccu and, being a city built on a mountain, has very steep steps and climbs - it takes you a couple of days to get used to the extra effort required. What you would climb at a lower altitude without breaking a sweat (well, for most people...) will leave you gasping for breath here.

You should check out the Chocolate Museum, which is far better than I thought it would be (and I already was giddy with excitement). The chocolate is phenomenally tasty and the tour is really interesting. You can actually be involved in the process of making chocolate but you have to book ahead for this - sadly we did not. If you're lucky your tour guide might even kiss you on the cheek! You can try a far amount of chocolate flavoured jams and liquors. There are also plenty of non-chocolate chocolate products to buy: like chocolate moisturiser, cocoa butter, and chocolate condoms...

The food in Cusco - well, in Peru in general I think - is brilliant, especially if you don't mind trying new (and admittedly, disgusting sounding) things. Cuy (pronounced coo-ee) is Guinea pig; not a pet here but a common dish - it tastes a little like chicken. Cuy is so common to the locals and strange to most tourists that they have Cuy-themed t-shirts: like "Cuynnibal" spoofing Hannibal; "Game of Cuy" spoofing, well, you should know this; and "Cuy Wars: The Cuy Awakens" (I think you get the gist).

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Anticucho is grilled cow's heart. Which probably sounds of interest to those into organ meat, but it pretty much tastes like one of the nicest steaks you've ever had. For about 2 soles (which is less than 50p) you can get a kebab of meat with a potato on top! Well worth a try.

There is tamales, which is a maize desert type thing. You can have it sweet or salty but it doesn't really matter as they're both nice, and for only 1 sol. Causa is a phenomenally tasty dish, which is like a savoury square cake consisting of a layer of potato, thin layer of avocado, another layer of potato, chicken, and a sliced/boiled egg on top!

You can also try a juice made with blended frog. I couldn't taste any of the frog but it felt awesome to try it anyway.

Shop around the markets and stalls and streets and you'll find a near endless supply of places to eat and drink. Which, of course, I love to do!

Then there are the markets. They all basically sell the same things (alpaca related items, shirts, flutes, pipes, souvenirs, basic crap) but that doesn't mean you can't pick up a bargain. I went a little overboard by getting three alpaca tops but I refuse to have regrets! Just remember to haggle. You can sometimes get an item for half the original price, and often it's just fun to watch Eleanor steadfastly refuse to settle on a deal even if it means to pay 1 sol more!

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We all separated after the second night and went to stay with Peruvian families. Aaron and I came to stay with Patty and Marco, and their kids Lucas, Flavia, and Emie. This was to help us learn and improve our Spanish (not sure it worked for me!) and to get a bit of a flavour for the local culture. Everyday from 8:30 to 1pm we all had Spanish lessons at the local language school. Although I can't say I was really bothered by the end of the week, it was fun at the start, and despite my stubbornness a little bit of Spanish even snuck into my vocabulary. Just not for long!

To get us a little more acclimatised for our trek to Machu Piccu (although Cusco is at a higher altitude than the big MP, our trek would take us close to 5000 metres before we got to our destination) our guides Frank and Stefan took us to a place high in the hills of Cusco - Devil's Balcony.

The Devil's Balcony is a little cave that forms a natural looking balcony, which overlooks a sheer drop to the river below. It has some fantastic views of the region and the city below. It's a great hike and a nice way to get acclimatised, but it does feel as though the trail to MP is going to be a looooooong few days.
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Of great interest to me, on the way down, we walked to the statue of Jesus that overlooks the city.

By pure coincidence, by Irish friend I met in Colombia, Eamon, was in Cusco. So thankfully we got to have a couple of drinks together, as well as sharing a few completely inappropriate jokes! Hopefully I'll see this crazy Irishman in Dublin sometime.

I hope you're wondering how my singing voice is doing since leaving the island...

Well that's good! Because I'm glad to report that all 17 of us went to a karaoke bar in Cusco and absolutely smashed the tunes. Okay, so some were better than others, and some others (just me) were awful. I really can't remember every single song that we sang, but there was a lot. From Tenacious D's Tribute and Wonderboy, to Total Eclipse of My Heart, to Rage Against the Machine, to Justin Bieber, Pink, the Stereophonics, Beyoncé, Shania, and far too many more. And, of course, all of the group joined me on stage for Bohemian Rhapsody - standard!

It was an epic night, one so good I didn't even begrudge the 4-hour-sleep hangover in the morning. I did, however, with the upmost maturity, give up on even trying in Spanish the following morning. But it was so worth it, and amazing to have such a great time with people who were strangers only a few days earlier.

We're due to visit an Alpaca farm tomorrow, and then on Sunday we'll leave to start our 4 day trek to Machu Piccu! Ordinarily, I would wait until our last night in Cusco before posting this (as it satisfies my OCD to have a specific blog post for each location) BUT I doubt I'll have access to wifi from Saturday morning onwards, so here you are. Consider it an early present, and if you're stupid enough to have read this far then maybe you'll even believe it's a present!

Anyway, onwards to Machu Piccu. I have to admit to being a little giddy with excitement. MP has been on my to-do list for years and years, and now it's happening. I may even arrive on my birthday, or the day after.

This, I cannot wait for...

From the back row, left to right:
Me
Sarah (from Spanish), Emma, Aaron, Sam, Bryony, Sara, Alex, Ellie, Katie, Georgie, Maurice (from Spanish)
Rashid, Tom, Sarra, Yas
Eleanor
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Posted by WrightA 19:04 Comments (2)

The End of the World has never looked so good


View Travel 2016 on WrightA's travel map.

And so it is: Ushuaia. The southernmost city on the planet. The End of the World as it's so openly and proudly referred to down here. A36D985109DB3D2F110CE9395A708D7D.jpeg
It was a long journey down here with a lot of hours spent in planes - and thankfully this English-speaker managed to communicate enough Spanish to get transferred to the Emergency Exit seats for the extra legroom.

I was very hyper from lack of sleep lying in Buenos Aires airport messaging people and looking up nonsense online, and at one point singing quite loudly because the lounge was empty. Turns out I was waiting at gate 1 instead of 11, but I didn't miss my plane so that's completely besides the point.

It was a long journey but it was so worth it. If the sunrise was anything to go by (and it was) I was in for some spectacular sights
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As soon as I had stepped out of the airport I was struck with two things.
Firstly, I was still wearing my shorts and shirts from Venezuela's climate. It was a might colder down here in Tierra del Fuego.
Secondly, the views were amazing. I mean beautiful. All around the city is surrounded my mountains and forests and glaciers.
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Unfortunately, the city itself is not the greatest looking place. It's a victim of it's circumstance of growth as much as anything. From a small town of 7000 some decades ago, the Argentine gonverment decided to attract as many of its citizens to Ushuaia as possible in order to keep the Chilean's at bay. And so Ushuaia became tax free and very attractive to business and factories as well as the average citizen looking to get twice the wage for their same job in Buenos Aires.

And the sad result is a mismatch of different architecture and aesthetics, different states of repair and finance, of quality and practicality. There's not even a vague sense of romantic wayfarerness about the design, and certainly not even the whiff of a luxury ski resort or Swiss chalet about it. They have plenty of ramshackle construction and graffiti. And, maybe for the best, your eyes are drawn outward rather than inward. Still, on occasion, the city can surprise you with its picturesque quality.
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And yet, Ushuaia never feels unsafe. The people are exceptionally friendly and patient, especially with my poor (non-existent) Spanish. Even when they think I'm English they're very friendly, despite the Malvinas (never call them the Falklands) being a raw memory for some of the locals.

It's actually quite amusing to explain where I'm from. Eager to not want to say I'm Inglés, I quickly say I'm from Isla de Man. They pause for a moment and they say "Ah, Berlin?" Which might sound odd but Isla de Man (a place few in South America have heard of) sounds remarkably like Alemania, which is Spanish for Germany. So I try again: "No, Isla de Man. Isla de Hombre." The pause, frown, and then proudly say: "¡Dublin!"

Then I just agree and say yes. It's easier that way.

Now, what is there to do in Ushuaia? Pretty much the same things you can do in most of Patagonia but with a few extras thrown in. There is so much hiking and walking to do, fans of those particular activities will never get bored. I don't just mean of the actions themselves but the pay off at the end. The views are beautiful! I've been here nearly 2 weeks and I still look at the mountains in awe. And sad to say I've covered only a fraction of Tierra deal Fuego and virtually nothing of Patagonia in comparison. This will be a region I will eagerly return to.

So what is there you can do? There is the standard tourist stuff (which of course I did!) such as traversing the Beagle Canal. Being a fan of Darwin and Captain Fitzroy's world-altering voyage, I would have regretted not sailing just a slice of their path. A35373B6A4E6A26A48B405C6EA6AD502.jpeg

Expect to see commorants, seals, and sealions as well as incredible views of Ushuaia from the bay. I actually think the views are better than the wildlife but maybe that was because of the shockingly cold wind detracting from the experience a little.

(N.B. For those not in the know, Fitzroy was the captain of the HMS Beagle at the time of the famed voyage, and was very close friends with Darwin. He was even the reason Darwin was on the ship in the first place. But then Fitzroy sort of got a bit peeved with Darwin because of the whole evolution thing, given Fitzroy was big on God and all that. There's a great book called "This Thing of Darkness" all about their journey and rivalry; it's a fantastically engrossing read, but it's long and a little dire and glum at times - the title refers to Fitzroy's bouts of manic depression which bookend the whole story.)

You can also view penguins on the same boat, or do what my friend Amit and I decided to do, which was to get on the island itself. There is one tour (and one tour only) that will allow you to actually walk with the Penguins. How could I refuse?
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Sadly, as with everything in Ushuai, these tours are expensive. You need to hunt for the best offers and haggle with cash-offers to get the best deal you can, but even then expect to part with more than a little cash!

The National Park is incredible too. Feel free to bring you tent and camping gear to spend the night - plenty of places in the acres and acres of land accomdate those who don't mind the cold. There are 4 or 5 "official" hikes and countless more you can do just walking around and exploring. The official hikes are anywhere from an estimated 1 hour to more arduous 8 hours, though even the later only took me 4 hours. Amit and I walked to the Chilean border (the border control there is non-existent if any unscrupulous readers wanted to sneak into Chile) in the National Park before doing a longer hike round the lakes and forests (and definitely not getting lost along the way). You can hike up right to the top of the surrounding mountains for unbeatable vistas of the park and Ushuaia. Pictures sadly do not do it justice but I have tried my best to capture what I can.
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There is Laguna Esmeralda, just one of the many lakes about Ushuaia you can hike to. It's a meltwater lake nestled at the bottom of the mountain and should only take an hour or two to get there. You can hike to the glacier but the lake itself is the most breathtaking turquoise you could imagine, and more than enough reason for a visit alone. Also, if you're feeling brave you can have a little dip in the crystal clear water - such as myself and Nicholas did! What? You only have so many chances to swim in ice water as far south as possible. A3689640F14E023B94FB7FEAABDB6084.jpeg

Horseback Riding around the hills and paths is another option. Like me, you don't actually have to posses any skill or prior experience with horses. Just a thirst for adventure and a will to not fall off! The paths are winding and steep, and your horse's sure-footedness is all that stands between you and a very nasty injury. So I clung on as though I was scared. Imagine...
It's perfectly safe though. The horses know where they're going even if you don't! They move easily between walking, trotting, and galloping - which is a completely freeing experience. It feels a bit like downhill mountain biking but more powerful. I can see why horse riding is addictive. As with everything else the views are incredible and the longer you ride these horses (four hours is a fairly long time) along cliffs, between forests, through rivers, you are almost overwhelmed with awe at what you see. A39AAB07CF7F476DF0DD05F519AB163E.jpeg

There is always the Antarctica cruise you can go on. Prices range, obviously, but the lowest I saw was around $5,500 for 12 days. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to go and see it, but I haven't that sort of money to spend quite yet. Maybe another time! But the cruises were all finishing up at this time of year (due to it being their winter and the ice beginning to expand). Amit, my hiking partner, tried desperately to get on the last cruise of the season; even going so far as checking with the Navy base to see if he could accompany as a civilian passenger. That, sadly, did not work. But if you ever fancy visiting Antarctica, you won't have trouble finding a place to buy your ticket - just bring your money!

Ever fancied walking on a glacier? Easy! There are several to chose from. Make sure you don't attempt them solo though unless you're experienced with it and have the kit, or are with a guided tour. You can hike up the paths as far as you can yourself, but actually traversing the ice is not safe without guides or proper equipment. This is a view from the top of the path to Martial Glacier. A38B807DE95AEC28649894D7011450F2.jpeg

And there's more to do besides this! 4x4 excursions, canopy slides, mountain bike trails, rafting, paintball, kayaking, and probably more on top of that! As for food, there is plenty of that here too, but you'll want to try out the King Crab if nothing else 👌

And I have to give a final shoutout to my constant roommate in Ushuaia. Where others in the room have come and gone, this guy has been in the bed opposite mine for the duration. He doesn't know my name (keeps calling me Phil, from Ireland...) and I think his name is Carlos. He doesn't speak a word of English and I speak no Spanish, but we have persevered with our respective conversations, merely talking in our native-tongue and just ignoring the fact the other will have no idea what is being said.

I think we developed a real bond.

I will certainly be returning to Patagonia in the future, if not Ushuaia I particular. But for now, I'm flying up to Lima begin the start of my 8 week journey across Peru, Ecuador, and the Galápagos. Who could ask for more?

Posted by WrightA 06:28 Comments (0)

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