After haring about almost ceaselessly for a couple of weeks, I have come out of orbit and crash-landed in Cochabamba in central Bolivia. I have taken a day off the road to do some much-needed sorting out of emails, plans, washing, brain… STUFF. And as luck would have it, I’ve happened upon a cute little hostel with vaguely reliable wifi (by Bolivian standards anyway) in which to do so. It’s all very gap yahhh: a group of French girls are sitting opposite me in the garden, chain-smoking and discussing the best onward routes, a pair of excitable Brazilians are hanging over the balcony chatting up the receptionist, a guitar is being inexpertly strummed somewhere out back and there is a dread-headed, tattoo-covered Eastern European sitting in the corner reading Marx. Doesn’t get much more stereotypical than that.
I’ll leave the clichés of hostel-ville for a second and train my mind’s eye on the days and steps that have led me here, beginning with the world’s highest navigable lake…
Puno and Lake Titicaca. After grabbing a few final zzzs in Cusco post-Inca Trail, I jumped on an early-morning bus out towards Puno, a not unpleasant little town on the lakeside which I will remember primarily as the place in which I found the cheapest meal of my journey thus far: quinoa soup followed by a main course of rice, salad and cheese (or chicken stew for the meat-eaters I was with) and finished with a sweet tea… all for 3 soles (60p). My reason for stopping in Puno was not its affordable cuisine, however, but its access to Lake Titicaca, a stunning body of high-altitude water featuring a series of intrguing islands which I felt deserved some exploration.
The first stop on the 2-day boat tour was on one of the bizarre floating Uros islands, which are made out of reeds roots and which continue to be inhabited by descendants of the pre-Incan Uros people. We were given a demonstration of how the islands are built, and were introduced to a group of one island’s smiling, colourfully-clothed residents – all very lovely indeed.
From Uros it was on to Amantaní and Taquile. On the first of these, we were divided into small groups and assigned a ‘mama’ to take us home. We dumped our stuff at our assigned house and made our way up the hill to take in the glorious sunset over the lake, to which my photos again do no justice. We all trooped home and were greeted by our ‘papa’ Benigno and a veritable carb-fest (potato soup followed by rice with pasta), which we chomped our way through before being presented with traditional clothing (brightly and intricately embroidered sashes, skirts, ponchos and bobble hats) and marched down the hill to attend a local dance. The moves I was throwing in my oh-so-flattering cow-hide poncho and stripy hat were terribly impressive I’m sure… We wandered home an hour or so later, guided by the light of our torches and by the utterly spectacular light show provided by the stars above – almost fell over several times as I was staring upwards rather than looking for the path!
The second day saw us back on the boat and heading towards Taquile, where we stopped long enough for a short hike up to the main square, a delicious lunch of freshly-caught trout and a knitting demonstration by a couple of the island’s menfolk. In a wonderful reversal of European gender expectations, men on Taquile are taught to sew and knit from an early age (six or seven), and must impress potential spouses by the quality of their stitching. The hat a man wears must also reflect his marital status: red with white is for singletons whilst red with black hats mark those who are hitched. Makes courting much more straightforward, I should imagine.
The trip was all too short, but a wonderful way of bidding farewell to Peru. It also allowed me to meet another fab group of people from all over: Canada, Spain, Germany and even good old Blighty (thanks for the wee dose of home, Katie!) Beautiful place, beautiful people.
La Paz. I arrived in the world’s highest capital (in the altitude sense, not the other one) after a day-long bus journey which included crossing the border into Bolivia and stopping briefly in the tourist hot-spot of Copacobana. Back in Puno, I had hit it off immediately with my room-mate Louisa from Germany (aka my German doppelganger – seriously spooky how much we have in common…). She was also heading towards La Paz, so we teamed up and found an excellent deal on a B&B in the heart of the city. Our first full day was taken up by walking tours through the INSANE traffic (asthmatics beware: certain areas are totally toxic), during which we learnt about Bolivia’s chequered presidential past, its bowler hat-donning, wrestling matriarchs known as cholitas and the city’s obsession with witchcraft. Most disturbing in relation to the last of these were the dead baby llamas and foetuses dangling from many shops in the Witches Market, which are used in ceremonial offerings and buried beneath new buildings to bring luck. Supposedly they die of natural causes, but I remain unconvinced.
Later in the day, I had a slightly uncomfortable encounter with a fortune-teller, whom I had agreed to pay a visit as part of the tour. She eyed me beadily from within her dimly-lit shed, and then proceeded to scatter some coca leaves about whilst muttering indistinctly. Once she’d studied the leaves that had fallen in her lap, she informed me that I have bad headaches (I don’t), and that for her to whip up a potion to cure said ailment would cost me a mere 300 bolivianos (I don’t think so!). She also told me that I was my own worst enemy, that my apparently poor health would only worsen and that the only way forward in my life was to “make a choice” of some kind. I mean I’ve heard more convincing statements coming out of the Tory party conference. I suspected a quack. I thanked her, declined her kind offer, and stepped smartly back onto the street. PSHHH.
Condiriri. Louisa and I escaped the fume-choked city the following day and ventured out into Bolivia’s stunning countryside. There is something quite brutal about it; the land is untamed and scrubbier than what I had seen in Peru, but was entirely bewitching and featured a backdrop of towering mountains, reaching up jaggedly as though attempting to rip through the deep blue sky. We spent the fairly straight-forward 4-hour hike chatting about pretty much everything, stopping to marvel at the sheer beauty all around us, from the placid lagoons we passed to the snow-capped peaks above. Easily one of my favourite hikes of the journey, both in terms of company and scenery.
That’ll do for now I think. Tomorrow I am off to Quillacollo just outside of Cochabamba to get down to some volunteering work for a week or so. The last few weeks’ adventures have been brilliant in so many ways, although I’ll be grateful for a little time in the same place! This travel lark can be a tad disorientating… news from the volunteer ranch whenever an internet connection is available.
All my love, as ever.
K 🙂 x x x
Glad tidings my friends! After 4 days and 28 miles of rocky passes, cloud forests and dizzyingly beautiful views, I am happy to report that I have finished the Inca Trail in one piece!
I have decided to make this a photo-based post, due to the uncharacteristically large number of snaps I took during the trek, and also the fact that I am doing a fair amount of haring around for the next few days and won’t be able to sit down and give my account of the journey the thought it deserves just yet. I hope to be able to write a fuller, more anecdotal update before too long… In the mean time, a bullet list of key reactions:
- It was BLOODY BRILLIANT
- I am currently revelling in the luxury of having access to non-squat toilets again
- It was BLOODY BRILLIANT
…and there we have it!
Currently in Puno and off to visit the floating islands of Lake Titicaca for a couple of days tomorrow – what a whimsical whirlwind, I can barely keep up… News should hopefully be coming your way from Bolivia next week!
Take care lovely people, lots of love as ever x x x x x
October already eh?! Time is playing such odd tricks on me – half way through the journey now would you believe! I am writing this from Cusco, specifically from underneath three layers of cosy llama wool blankets (it’s chilly at 3400m above sea-level!). I’m pleased about my decision to build up the altitude slowly from Arequipa, as I’ve met a few people who have been knocked for six on arriving here directly from sea-level. That’s not to say I haven’t been a bit breathless and dry-mouthed, but no major headaches thankfully, and I’ve been drinking a lot of coca tea – a well-accepted remedy for altitude sickness. Hoorah for not feeling like crap and being able to enjoy this wonderful place!
Getting the grim bit out of the way first. I am probably full of such glee at feeling on top form due to comparison with a recent set-back. My stomach took a beating from some savage ceviche (fish in citrus juice) which I ordered back in Huacachina. The result was 11 hours of toilet-bowl-hugging on a night bus to Arequipa, conking out for a good day and a half once I got there and missing out on a trek to Colca Canyon, which I had been really looking forward to. BLOODY CEVICHE. The mere mention of the dish now makes me feel queasy. And gutted to have missed out on Colca. But as my wise wee pal Lindsay reminded me the other day, the great overall memories of this journey, and not the little unfortunate kinks that creep in along the way, will be what endure. God bless lovely Linds.
Arequipa. Once I had successfully managed to keep down water and a few bits of bread, I tentatively stepped out of my hostel for a wander around the Plaza de Armas area of the city. What little I did end up seeing of Arequipa, I liked very much. It was bustling and charming with some great little shops tucked away into broom-cupboard-sized alcoves under stone balconies. I paid a visit to the Santa Catalina Monastery – a beautiful collection of labyrinthine courtyards and cloisters once inhabited by an order of rather hedonistic nuns (contradiction in terms..?) El Misti mountain surveys the daily throng from on high, peering down imperiously at the city from about 5800m above sea-level. Very impressive indeed. I didn’t remain out an about for too long, as Arequipa’s 2300m altitude packs a punch of its own, and I was loathe to test my body’s coping mechanisms much more that day.
Cusco. I have enjoyed these past few days in Cusco immensely. The city is unapologetically geared up towards the huge influx of tourists here (Starbucks, the North Face and numerous hotels and tourist agencies line the streets), but I feel it has managed to do so without compromising its character too much. Highlights have included walking up and down the cobbled streets, surveying countless hand-made garments and jewellery stalls, and discovering what may be the best ice cream I have ever eaten, which I watched being made from scratch in front of me – from quinoa! Less wonderful things have included the pongy exhaust fumes and some the bolshiest drivers I have ever encountered, who constantly honk and rev at pedestrians (and at each other) in their battered old bangers. But no place is perfect I guess!
Horse riding around Rohan. Not long after my arrival in Cusco, I got chatting to my room-mate Isabella from Montreal, and we decided to head up-hill together to the Saqsaywaman (‘Sexy Woman’) archaeological site and surrounding Inca burial grounds on horseback! It was so wonderfully peaceful up there, and looked so like Rohan from The Lord of the Rings that we spent quite a while imagining crossing paths with some hot-tempered horse-lords out on the rippling grassland. Seriously, if New Zealand hadn’t made the cut for some of the LOTR film sets then Peru’s Sacred Valley could have been a serious contender I reckon. My horse was named Alegre, although I secretly renamed him Shadowfax, because he had a bit of a magical look about him. Galdalf would have been proud.
Pisaq. On Friday I took a bus to this lovely little village, famous for its market and ancient ruins. The bus ride in itself was spectacular, with the road winding its way straight through the Sacred Valley. We passengers were all treated to the usual rounds of fruit and sweet sellers, who paced up and down the bus’ aisle chanting their wares in almost unintelligible monotones (“ge-la-ti-nas-ca-ra-me-los-man-da-ri-nas-ge-la-ti-nas-ca-ra-me-los…”), as well as the inevitable salesman who usually spends the first minutes of his pitch warming the audience up with gags about his wife leaving him before whipping out a pack of some nondescript chocolate bars or herbal remedies and waving them in each passenger’s face in turn. I have enjoyed these little shows since first experiencing them in Ecuador; although no one ever seems to buy much, these sellers are always very good-natured and entertaining. ANYway back to Pisaq. A lovely lady on the bus, whose rosy-cheeked little daughter fell asleep clutching my arm, told me where to get the best-quality alpaca sweaters in the market for the best price, so I am now the proud owner of some pukka woollen goods! After leaving the market and taking in the tranquil streets of Pisaq, I went for brief hike up through the ancient Inca terraces which rise up over the village. So so quiet up there. Gorgeous.
That just about brings us up to date! The rest of the day today will be spent getting ready for what really brought me to this part of South America: The Inca Trail and Mach Picchu. Four days of hiking right through the Sacred Valley, freezing nights and boiling days on windy, rocky terrain… I am SO ready for this 🙂
All my love from the ‘Navel of the World’ x x x x x
Greetings from Huacachina – an oasis of 113 inhabitants in the southern Peruvian desert! I am currently reclining on a lumpy little sofa in my hostel, recovering from an evening of several pisco sours, numerous rounds of bilingual shit-head and one very intense marriage proposal (more on that later…). Before we get there, however, I’ll rewind to my last week in Ecuador, as it was rather a good’un!
White water rafting. Tena is considered Ecuador’s rafting hotspot, so it wouldn’t have been right to have left without giving it a whirl (whirl being the operative word – turns out that getting thrown down a series of rapids in a large dingy is pretty dizzying!) After negotiating a decent discount through Misael and co, Michaela, Ben and I hopped in the back of a truck with the raft and several kayaks strapped precariously to the roof. We chugged down to the Napo River, possibly a little faster than was wise given said cargo, but made it to the launch point in one piece. We were greeted by our instructor, and were soon on the river, paddling and ducking inside the vessel on command. It was MENTAL – we all got regularly thrown into the water before getting hauled back into the boat by whoever had managed to stay in it, only to face a new set of rapids and get chucked straight out again. At one point, instructor Andy decided to flip the boat completely and I found myself under the boat itself, my brain struggling to catch up with the reality of my situation. I finally surfaced, gasping for air and laughing hysterically at the same time (I have learnt that this seems to be my standard reaction to high-adrenaline situations – see skydive post), so much so that my strength was sapped from my body and I was literally paralysed with laughter. I remained sort of flopped on the side of the boat, my legs flapping weakly in the water like some demented, freshly-caught fish. We eventually made it back to Tena some hours later, buzzing, breathless and a little burnt – what a total hoot!
Baños and back to Quito. After two wonderful weeks in Uchuculin, I bid a sad farewell to Ben and Michaela, and to the community who had taught me so much and shown me such warmth and kindness – I will carry the memory of these wonderful people with me far into the future, of that I am sure. They waved me off at the bus stop, and I pressed on southwards to Baños, a great little town nestled in the lush Ecuadorian hillside. I only stayed there one night, but had more than enough time to jump on a chiva bus and get up close to some of the region’s stunning waterfalls – really quite jaw-dropping in their majesty and power. I returned to the town and headed down the road to try out the famous thermal baths from which Baños takes its name. These were unfortunately a little disappointing – one pool was heated to 50°, so hot I couldn’t get in it! Another pool was more enterable, but so rammed with people that there was barely room to squeeze in amongst all the bodies. Nirvana it was not I’m afraid, Mum! Glad I scoped it out anyway though. Come morning I took a short hike up the hillside to get a great view of the town, before getting on a bus bound for Quito. I had just enough time to pop down to the equator at Mitad del Mundo (a bit touristy but worth a look) before waking up a loco o’clock for the flight to Lima. Phew!
From Lima to Huacachina. The whole of Friday was spent in the air/on the road: I arrived in Lima at 8am, where I caught a rip-off but licensed taxi to the bus station, which took me on one of the most depressing drives of my life. I have since been told that I judged Lima too harshly and only saw the nastier part, but MY GOD it was grim. The half-built/half-demolished buildings were enveloped in a blanket of grey, drivers jolted menacingly at each other, fumes billowed from the exhaust pipes of ancient, un-roadworthy trucks. Bridges sported billboards of scantily-clad, excessively well-endowed young models, presumably to offer drivers something slightly less depressing to look at than their otherwise dismal surroundings. Everybody we passed looked deeply morose. Perhaps it was sleep deprivation or disorientation that roused such a strong negative reaction in me, but I was very much struck by the tragedy of it all. All cities have their less pleasant areas of course, so perhaps I should give Lima a break. It’s important to record the less wonderful experiences alongside the positive ones though, I think. ANYway, I finally caught my bus to Ica, where I got a security guard to flag me down a reliable taxi to take me down the road to Huacachina. By this point I was exhausted – it was 9pm, I hadn’t slept properly in almost 24 hours and I was starving. So imagine my delight when my taxi driver, after rechristening me ‘Kata’ (all Catalinas are called ‘Kata’ for short in his native Colombia, apparently) whacked on the radio, sending reggaeton blasting through the car, all the while yelling “DANCE, KATA, DANCE!!!” and rocking about wildly in his seat. On acknowledging my reluctance, he said he’d change it to something I might like more, and Backstreet Boys’ ‘Everybody’ promptly burst out of the speakers. So Backstreet was back that night, but it was most certainly not ‘all right’ – my head hung and pounded all the way to Huacachina. In retrospect it was utterly hilarious, but in that moment my sense of humour deserted me somewhat – I managed a friendly parting exchange with my exuberant driver before checking into the hostel and falling asleep almost instantly.
Sand-boarding. After a good sleep and decent brekkie, I was much restored and ready for a day in the oasis. I jumped on a dune buggy with fellow hostel-stayers Sofia (Argentina), Inés (Spain) and Ruth (Mexico) and we headed off into the sand. The desert is stunningly beautiful, whipped into silky ripples by the wind, rolling away far into the distance. The buggy took us roller-coaster-styly over the dunes, making us shriek with glee at every dip and skid. The driver stopped at a few points so that we could dismount, lie flat on the sand boards that had been brought for us and be pushed down-hill at great speed. My adrenaline-triggered hysterical laughing kicked in, and I giggled my way down every slope, each time trying to go further than the last. Before returning to the oasis to shower off the sand in which we were all completely caked, we stopped to watch the beautiful desert sunset – glorious.
Pisco-induced madness. The hostel greeted us from our sand-boarding escapades with a tray of complimentary pisco sours – the official Peruvian tipple. Tastes a lot like tequila, which might explain how much it went to my head in a very short space of time. Much of the evening was spent teaching a group of the other hostellers how to play shit-head, which I’m amazed was achieved given the amount of pisco involved and my messy hybrid English/Spanish explanations. We then rocked up to Huacachina’s only club, where I received a very heart-felt marriage proposal from a Peruvian bloke (“My life is not complete without you, Catalina! Do not break me with your rejection, I am your servant and protector for ever, Catalina!” etc etc). Just when I thought the hilarity could not increase, from behind me a voice bellowed “Kataaaaaaa!!!”, and my insane reggaeton/Backstreet-loving taxi driver lumbered drunkenly across the dance floor towards me. The rest is a blur of dancing, singing and toasting anything and everything under the sun. Not sure where my would-be fiancé went, but judging by the lack of ring on my finger this morning, I am assuming that I said no and that he sensibly gave up the ghost. Needless to say, today I am not at my perkiest. My Slovak room-mate Vlad and I have spent the day eating ice cream by the lagoon, speaking only to curse the inventor of the pisco sour. Bloody good night though 😉
Onwards to Arequipa tonight – more photos from the past week will be up soon!
Thinking of everyone back home, love you ever so much! x x x x x