Sunday, 28 September 2008

The World´s Most Dangerous Road

We decided to join a tour with Gravity Assisted Mountainbiking to ride down what the World Bank had named the World´s Most Dangerous Road. It is a trecherous narrow gravel road that stretches from the top of a mountain near La Paz deep down into the valleys, with sheer 400 metre drops from the side of the road and no barriers (see below!).
As we drove to the start of the ride, a signpost informed us that 48 people had died on the road so far this year. An ominous start to our day. The start was easy enough - a high-altitude freezing cold stretch of tarmac road where we could whizz down at our leisure. Then, disaster struck as we set off on our second leg. Amy performed some acrobatics, flying over her handlebars and landing on the ground, resulting in two huge bruises on her legs. A little shaken but determined, she carried on as we reached the gravel and the sheer drops.

The weather took a turn for the worst and we couldn´t see great deal with our goggles on, so we took them off and opted for the better option of letting mud splatter onto our eyeballs as we rode down the rough, wet and slippery road, next to huge drops and a cloudy abyss.

Finally, after about four hours, the weather got better and we were able to see again. All the stunning jungle and surrounding scenery was visible, it warmed up, and we arrived at the bottom of the road covered in mud and glad to have survived.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Happy 27th Birthday to me!

Saturday 20th September: my 27th birthday, and my first away from home.

I wasn´t sure that Bolivia would be the best place in the world to spend my birthday, but I was wrong! Everything is so cheap here you can live like a king for a day. Adrian woke me up with balloons and birthday cards on Saturday morning, and then hurried me out the door a couple of hours later muttering all sorts of confusing things in order to put me off the scent - I honestly didn´t have a clue what he had planned for me.

We ended up eating brunch in the rooftop restaurant of a 5* hotel - the highest in the world - with fantastic views over the whole city (see above, I look pretty content!). After that we spent hours lounging around in their pool, sauna and jacuzzi which was super relaxing. After we´d pruned ourselves sufficiently, we wondered out into the streets of La Paz to eat birthday cheesecake and shop! I am now the proud owner of some very nice hand crafted Bolivian wares, and Adrian even bought a handmade miniature guitar for himself.

That evening we went to a beautiful Swiss restaurant across the city (we very nearly couldn´t find it) and had a fantastic meal. Unfortunately we had an early start the next morning so couldn´t hit the town, but it was definitely a super lovely birthday.

On top of the world

We are now in the highest capital city in the world! La Paz is 3,660 metres above sea level, and to top it off, is on one enormous hill. It hasn´t affected Adrian and I too badly, but we have been known to get a little breathless after climbing a steep street.

The city is surrounded by huge snowy mountains and is actually a bit more cosmopolitan than I was expecting. We spent our first day here doing a walking tour from ´Lonely Planet´which, even though it sounds terribly touristy, actually took us through some amazing little back streets where all the locals do their daily business, selling wares, catching up with friends, etc. The only thing I found a bit disconcerting were the dried llama foetuses that they sell to ward off evil spirits.... I think I´d rather take my chances!

Bye bye mummies, Hello Bolivia

Our mothers´ last day in Peru was an eventful one.

We awoke to a beautiful sunny day in Arequipa and had planned to visit the Santa Catalina convent again, as Adrian and I had enjoyed it so much last time. We spent the morning there (see Diana, Adrian and Mum, above) taking yet more photographs, and eating more delicious cake.

After that we split up for a bit - Mum and I went off to do a spot of shopping and Adrian and Diana went exploring.

Sadly it all went horribly wrong when Mum realised her purse had vanished. We aren´t sure whether it had been lost or stolen, but either way it was a complete disaster, mainly because she´d just put her memory stick full of photos in it. The Peruvian police were amazingly helpful, but of course we didn´t get very far. Spent an hour struggling to make ourselves understood for a police report, and then didn´t have long to catch a cab and get off to the airport.

Adrian and I waved them off, sincerely hoping they would get to New York and then London without having any more problems.

We spent our last night in Arequipa and said goodbye to our favourite town in Peru very early on Wednesday morning. We nearly missed our bus because our stupid taxi driver thought ´bus station´actually meant ´airport´, but very luckily for us, the bus waited and we were on our way back to Puno. After a night there, we got another bus over the border to Bolivia and into La Paz, which is where we are now.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

The second deepest canyon in the world, and condors!

After our day on the lake Adrian and I took our mums on the bus to Arequipa. We loved it there so much we wanted to return and show them around, and also spend a couple of days exploring the Colca Canyon and surrounding area.

The Colca Canyon is the 2nd deepest in the world - twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and only beaten by the Cotahuasi Canyon (also in Peru) by a couple of hundred metres.
On our way to Chivay where we would spent the night, we stopped off to see herds of llamas and alpacas, and reached our highest point yet - 4,800 metres above sea level. Apart from feeling a little short of breath, we were all surpringly fine! We stayed in a cute little hotel in the middle of nowhere with fantastic views, and our own personal alpaca who likes to come indoors.

We had a short trek, visited the thermal springs, and the following day we went condor spotting. Over an hour passed without us seeing a single one of these magnificent birds, but our patience was rewarded when an enormous one swooped very low and circled the crowd several times just before we left. It´s a huge bird - it stands at just under one metre high and is alegedly the largest bird in the world. It is also the national bird of Peru.

After a short trek around the canyon itself in the baking heat, we had lunch back in Chivay before returning to Arequipa again, and that evening had a delicious joint birthday meal for Adrian and I!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Fancy footwork and all-men knitting circles

More tribal people live on the lake on real islands, made out of dust and dirt. But because these islands are so small, there are no cars. In fact, animals are pretty rare too (they only eat meat on special occassions). When we visited their stunningly beautiful island, one small girl invited me to join her in a traditional dance with her family. Under the watchful gaze of her father, I tried to keep up with their steps while smiling and wondering how long the song that her brothers were playing was going to last.

But at least I didn´t have to worry about being seen as a prancing sissy in front of my tourist peers. I mean, the men knit there. And they don´t just knit the odd sock or scarf every now and then. They knit all the time. In fact I wouldn´t be surprised if they knitted in their sleep. I guess this is why the tiny island of Taquile is known for producing some of the finest textiles in the world.

If you don´t like your neighbours, sail away

Sitting at 3827m, Lake Titicaca is the higest navigable lake in the World (we´re not actually sure why one can´t navigate lakes higher than LT, but if you know let us know). It´s also an anthropologist´s dream and full of indiginous Peruvian tribes.

We risked life and limb to visit them (mum almost fell into the lake when she lost her footing while clambering on board our vessel) and landed at a collection of floating reed islands called Uros. Everything on these tiny islands is made from reed, from the simple abodes to watchtowers. The floor beneth your feet is springy and unsteady and the whole island is approximately 10m square. Yet 10 families will live on this piece of floating land, fishing, making traditional gifts for tourists and planning grand fiestas to celebrate local weddings.

It may sound like a hard life, but it has a lot of advantages - it´s always clean because there´s plenty of water to wash everything, there´s always lots of yummy fish aronud and if you don´t like your neighbours you can up anchor and find new ones.

Mine´s an alpaca, waiter!

Look down the menu of any standard Peruvian restaurant and you´re likely to find a selection of meats that would only feature as guest stars in London´s more adventurous eateries. Alpaca, ostrich and even the guinea pig all fall under the butcher´s knife in this country. And they´re mighty tasty too (although we´re yet to try guinea pig. I´m not sure Amy is too keen on eating the brethren of one of her former pets).

An alpaca steak tastes like beef, but is much leaner. We were told that it actually has only half the fat of beef. And ostrich, as sampled by Mrs. Ma turned out to taste nothing like a bird at all. Close your eyes and imagine a pig breeding with a lamb. Now, if you slaughtered the baby that was produced by that ungodly scene and cooked it, that would taste like ostrich. Don´t let your mind´s eye put you off. It´s actually a lot more appetising than my description above.

Forget London Fashion Week. Peru Rail is the new black, darling...

Picture the scene... you´ve spent the whole day trekking up mountains. You´re dressed head to toe in smelly trekking gear, covered in dry sweat and dust. You´re sitting in a very comfortable seat on a train which is gently rocking and sending you into a sweet slumber. Then suddenly all hell breaks loose. Noise! Thumping electro is played through the train carriage and then the very people who were being so nice to you by serving you food and drinks on your luxury train are storming down the aisle wearing ponchos made from baby Alpaca, fishing for smiles and applause from the captive audience. This, reader, is the most bizzare fashion show on Earth.

Some marketing director with a sense of humour one day decided that the best way to sell clothes to tourists on their train would be to host a fashion show in mid transit. The poor train staff were made to wear cardigans with llama patterns on them and parade them around carriages to a soundtrack from a bad European rave.

We cowered in our seats. Trapped. We couldn´t look away for fear of appearing rude to the staff who were putting so much effort to endure their pain. But by looking, we were sanctioning this bizarre sales pitch.

If ever you find yourself on the train to Machu Picchu, I urge you to save yourself the embarassment of watching this spectacle by packing earplugs and an eyemask. As soon as you hear the first beat of anything that sounds ravey, block your sense of hearing and sight with them and pretend you´re asleep. You´ll be thanking me for this advice when you reach Cuzco.

The arrival of the mothers and up to Machu Picchu

Our mothers finally made it to Cusco in one piece last Monday morning. We showed them the sights of the town, and were up bright and early the following morning to catch our Agatha Christie style train to Aguas Callientes ready for our trip to Machu Picchu. The train was amazing - a three hour journey through the Inca Valley, with some pretty amazing scenery. We had breakfast served in a very precise and elaborate fashion, and gazed out the window contentedly.

Arrived in Aguas Callientes (literally translated means ´hot water´ because of the thermal springs there) to bright sunshine and settled into our hotel. Aguas Callientes is described by Lonely Planet as being the ´ugliest most over priced small town in Peru´ which we don´t think is strictly fair. It´s overpriced for sure and very touristy, but is nestled between giant steaming jungle covered hills, and you can´t go too wrong with a backdrop like that.

The next day we were up at 5am. Adrian and I put our lazy mothers on the bus, and set off up Machu Picchu. We got up there in 50 minutes and met them at the top. It´s a crazy amazing place up there, definitely worthy of a photo or two! There was also a Bollywood movie being filmed while we were up there, with extras in heavy make-up and feathery costumes running around all over the place.

Adrian and I also clambered up neighbouring Huayna Picchu for the best view of MP, and were very proud of ourselves when we realised we´d made the steep climb in just under 30 minutes. We must be fitter than we thought!

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Cusco madness

We arrived in Cusco at 5.30am today feeling pretty knackered. I was very grateful to have a nice comfy hotel room booked to collapse in while we awaited the arrival of the mothers.

Unfortunately, their time of arrival came and went, and it was only when we charged and switched on my phone that we realised they were stranded in New York due to all flights being cancelled because of Hurricane Ike! There are worst places to be struck, however, and they made the most of their time by getting a taxi tour of Manhattan. With any luck they will have boarded another flight by now, and should be with us first thing tomorrow morning. Fingers crossed!

With time on our hands, Adrian and I decided to get our bearings and ventured out into Cusco, the ´archaeological capital of the Americas´. Luckily for us, today is the day of the annual Día de la Virgen, and the whole town is full of hundreds of men, women and children dressed in traditional costume dancing and singing their way around the city - it´s amazing to behold!

More buses...

We left Arequipa last night after a fulfilling meal and boarded yet another bus, this time bound for Cusco where we would be joining our mums.

It was a pretty long 9 hours, as we couldn´t sleep due to the crazy altitude - at one point our bus ascended to a breathtaking (literally) 4,425 metres, which is the highest I have ever been. So while sleep elluded us, we watched ancient Michael Bolton and George Michael music videos on our bus´s tiny TV. Sigh. Such musical genius. And what hair! Lest thee all forget, here is a delightful shot of Signor Bolton to jog your memories.

We´ve realised that the Latin Americans do seem to have a bit of a thing for musicians of the ´80s - there has been a LOT of Michael Jackson (bit of a Michael theme developing here) and Madonna on the radio too. And I´m talking the old classics, none of that recent rubbish.

Exploring Arequipa

Before leaving Arequipa for Cusco yesterday Adrian and I did a bit more exploring, and decided to pay a visit to the Santa Catalina Convent, which was recommended by our trusty guide book. We thought it´d be a half hour thing: pop in, have a cuppa, wonder off. I think we were actually in there for nearly three hours.... and I don´t think I´ve ever taken so many photographs in one location before.

It´s basically a walled town completely seperate from the rest of the city, despite being very central. It´s so peaceful and you see some of the ´cells´ which have been kept exactly as the nuns left them. There were once over 400 nuns living their (fairly) solitary existences there, but now there are only 50 or so living in an area kept seperate from the part open to tourists.

It´s all narrow cobbled streets with walls painted shades of blue and red, and potted geraniums everywhere. It was a super sunny day too which made it even more beautiful. I could start a whole new blog with the photos I took, but I´ll just have to be selective and pop a few on for now....

Friday, 5 September 2008

Crossing the border

We left Valparaiso to embark on a 30 hour bus journey that would take us north to the Chilean border town of Arica. We arrived there ridiculously weary and very late at night, but fortunately had befriended another couple who had booked a room at a hostel nearby. We got a room there and relaxed in front of the telly with a bottle of wine and watched a movie about a Mexican chef and his 3 headstrong daughters. Food, food, food, all the way through. It made us miss cooking so much!

The next morning we got up and with our new friends, hopped in an ancient Ford (see photo!) which would take us across the border into Peru. It was all very straightforward and we arrived in Tacna (Peru´s answer to Arica) not long after. Then we had ANOTHER bus ride from Tacna to Arequipa, which is where we are now. Got here last night feeling all bussed out but fortunately found an amazing Peruvian/Swiss restaurant that did super delicious fondue. Felt much better after filling ourselves up on that and a bottle of wine...!
We have one more night in Arequipa tonight before we´re on the move again, this time to Cusco where we´ll be joined on Sunday by our mothers - phew!

Monday, 1 September 2008

Paradise Valley

We travelled by bus from the mountains of Santiago to the coast, to a town called Valparaiso (literally translated, means Paradise Valley). The land, full of multi-coloured houses, falls from great heights into the Pacific and rickety wooden diagonal lifts take the residents up and down the town´s steep hills. The whole scene is so idyllic that the whole place is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

Valparaiso is said to be the cultural capital of Chile, and we certainly find this place inspiring. Amy has now run out of film thanks to her trigger-happy camera work and the sound of musicians in restaurants and on the streets has filled our heads with ideas. Among the brightly-painted houses with stunning views, boutiques sell hand-made crafts and jewellery and interior designers dodge stray puppies at the Sunday antiques market.

Here is some of Amy´s handiwork to enjoy.

Chess players in Plaza de Armas

Time travelling

Arrived in Santiago before we left Aukland! We got a second chance at our Wednesday afternoon, a la Groundhog Day.

After a sleepless 10 hour flight we touched down and hopped into a shuttle bus which dropped us off at our hotel, Recidencial Londres, which made us feel right at home. It was a magnificent building at least 150 years old with super friendly staff who helped us out when our Spanish wasn´t quite up to scratch.

We managed a great day snowboarding at El Colorado in the stunning Andes, and did a LOT of walking around museums and up steep hills to little viewpoints over the city.

Santiago is a great city with loads of cool little districts where you can hang out, eat and drink, but we found that a healthy meal was hard to come by - these Chileans sure do love their meat!

City of Sails, ghost town

We left Queenstown for Aukland just a couple of days before we were due to fly to Santiago. We couldn´t bear to part with all the beautiful scenery any sooner!

We arrived on a Monday night and the place was a total ghost town - literally nobody was about and when we dropped into a tiny bar called the Wine Loft, the barman was closing (at 9pm!) because no customers had been in all evening. We wondered the streets looking for somewhere to have a nightcap, and in the end had to settle for the bar in the Crowne Plaza.

We did pop up the Sky Tower to check out the view over the self proclaimed ´City of Sails´though, and it was pretty cool.