Monthly Archives: April 2015

Pucon, Friday 24/04/15

My first impressions of Chile were not good, but that may have been because of my state of mind. 

The view from the bus from Arequipa to Tacna, ( while I was still in Peru), was dispiriting. I realised that this was the start of the Atacama desert, as it was rocky and dusty and dark grey. Tacna had a lively nightlife, but what I saw was not an attractive place. 

The next morning I took a “collectivo” to Arica in Chile. The system is a kind of taxi which collects five people and the driver sorts out passports/ID and paperwork. On the drive to the border we passed hundreds of one-storey buildings about 3mx3m big, each standing alone on a patch of land. I couldn’t work out what they were as there were no people, roads or shops among them. There were fences here and there where the sand piled up. Someone suggested they were for agricultural workers – but this was in a desert where the only plantations were of trees. It would be a nightmare to live there. 

There are those who like Arica, but I am not among them. It’s smelly, there are dogs roaming the streets and the markets only have the cheapest of everyday commodities, with little colour or taste. Everyone lives behind bars and metal fences.   You can learn to surf, but there are far nicer beaches all over the world. Apparently there are clubs and bars, but you can find those anywhere. 

So I set off for San Pedro de Atacama on a long bus ride that goes through the night. I had been warned by the manager of my hotel to be awake when it stops at Calama, because there are thieves who get on the bus and take people’s bags as they are sleeping. All was well with me, but sure enough, in Santiago I met a couple who had had their bag taken with their passports and they knew of two others in the same situation. 

In the morning, as the sun rose, the landscape proved to have changed considerably, with looming cliffs and snow-capped volcanoes. 

San Pedro is a small oasis in “the driest place in the world”. The houses, and even the church, are of Adobe and are single storey.  
  

  Tour guides, restaurants and craft shops line the few streets, but it has a nice vibe and the dogs on the street are healthy and  mostly asleep. I stayed in a quirky hostel, full of ethnic symbols and bric-à-brac and where I made friends easily. 

The only tour I took was to Valle de la Luna and Death Valley. The former is a crater largely formed by upheavals of the earth’s crust. Following the rainy season, the water evaporates and leaves salt covering the land. Happily, I arrived at the right time, as this phenomenon only lasts for a month or so.  

 All around there are sand dunes and rock strata.  

 Death Valley should really have been called the Valley of Mars, because of the reddish colours, but there was an error in the translation.   

 Bizarrely, there had been so much rain this year that a part of the valley was flooded.  

  

The last stop was at Coyote Rock, to watch the sun set. It was a stunning place, but it was swarming with other people, most of whom were queuing up to have their picture taken on a rock that juts out over a valley. They made a lot of noise and I’m afraid it rather detracted from the atmosphere for me. I did take a few photos however.  

 Looking down from Coyote Rock.  

 Looking across the desert towards Argentina. 

My biggest disappointment was that I was unable to do the stargazing tour. I went to the Meteorite Museum, in a little geodesic dome, and learnt a great deal about the origins of our planet and about meteorites of course – did you know they have found Adenine and Guanine, two of the amino acids that make up DNA, in meteorites? On the three nights that I was in San Pedro it was too cloudy and “humid” for the tour of the night sky. This is something people rave about and a few days later it was running again. Circumstances here in Chile can be unpredictable, as you may know by now. 

A propos of nothing, I bought a T-shirt with a symbol I’d spotted here and there.  

 Hoping to find out a bit more about the significance of this figure, I have googled it – but what I get is reference to Doctor Who!

I thought I would break up the journey to Santiago by staying the night in Antofagasta. If Arica was bad enough, this was worse. The “hostal” I stayed in was really a B&B and was OK, but the location was awful. There were crippled and mangy dogs prowling the dirty streets, and on two occasions they followed me barking. I could find no cafe or restaurant and no real shops. Let’s just pass on. 

I spent a couple of days in Santiago, which is a likeable city I think. I will say more about it later, as I will return there to catch a flight to Brazil.  I went on a free walking tour, when the guide, who was a nice enough guy, mistakenly in my opinion, discussed the relative merits, or otherwise, of the elected President Allende and the military dictatorship that staged a coup d’état in 1973. Though he claimed to be “neutral”, it was obvious that he was ill-informed and naive. Yet another thing about Chile that has upset me. 

I’m now in Pucon in a great hostel by the Lake Villarrica, with two large picture windows, one looking on to the volcano and one onto the lake.  

   You can see that the volcano is smoking a little and it did erupt in March this year, which means it’s off-limits for hikers at the moment. 

The town is tiny, with buildings made of wood and all sorts of activities for tourists. My first day I just chilled, because I’d been on buses quite a bit and it felt good to relax. 

The following day I took a local bus to Huerquehue National Park and walked around the lakes for about six hours. It’s beautiful country and I felt much more at ease, even if there was quite a climb to some of the viewpoints.  

       There are “Monkey Puzzle trees”, ferns, strange grasses and the “bellflower”.  

 The forest was dense but the day was warm and sunny. 

Arriving back at the hostel I heard that Calbuco volcano, South of us, had erupted. In the restaurant that evening I watched pictures on the news of a vast cloud of ash towering over the mountain, lightning flashes and an incredible sunset. They were evacuating people over a 20km radius, so there were queues of people at the petrol station. Closer to home, the Vallarrica volcano started to glow red hot, as if in sympathy. 

I woke at 9am the next morning, (I had been kept awake most of the previous night by two loud, drunk German girls), in total darkness. At first I was completely disoriented, but then I realised that volcanic ash must have blotted out the sun. Outside the street lights were on and ash swirled around, stinging my eyes even as I was wearing a mask over my nose and mouth. We were advised to stay inside, so there was a brief sortie to the supermarket for food and wine. By midday the sky had lightened, but there was a dusty pall over everything. In the hostel we passed the day drinking wine, playing games and chatting, with a pasta dinner for all in the evening. 

The pictures from Calbuco on the Internet are amazingly colourful but the same could not be said of here. 

 This is what the lake looked like at 11 this morning. I managed to go to the hot springs near Lake Calafquen today and though the surroundings were coated in grey ash,  the water was clear.  

 
  Tomorrow I go to Valparaiso, as I no longer have plans to go further South. 

Arica, Saturday 11/04/15

After the floating islands of Uros, we carried on to Taquile, apparently “famed” for the fact that the men there knit. There’s not a great deal to do there except climb up the hill and then down the other side. It does provide some good views of Lake Titicaca, though.  

   Our guide, who is from there as I mentioned, told us quite a bit about the place over lunch. 

There was a demonstration of the importance of hats. Baby girls wear a red and brown pointed hat and boys red and white. It changes at seven years of age and then again the boys wear it a different way round in adolescence. At that time the girls are supposed to be covered in a black veil, but I don’t suppose this is practiced much these days. Boys used to get round the problems this caused to communication by using a mirror, both to see the girl’s features but also to signal to her and if she liked him she could signal back. 

Men and women can live together as a couple for two years without being married, but after that time, or if she gets pregnant, they must be wed and it is “for life”. 

The three Inca laws in Peru were “do not steal, do not lie and do not be lazy”. Our guide explained that these have little relevance on the island, as there is nothing to steal, it is such a small community that everyone knows everything about each other and if you don’t work hard you would starve. They do get some support from the mainland, such as solar panels, but elect their own pair of mayors, (who are allowed to wear a special hat). 

The next day I was intending to take a bus to Arequipa. I had spoken to the woman in reception, who was the only staff member who spoke good English, and she had said she would book a seat, took my details and said I could pay at the office in town when I came back from the lake. 

There was obviously some kind of mix up because when I asked at reception the woman was nowhere to be seen, there was no reservation and the office in town was closed. I had no option but to take a taxi to the bus terminal and buy a ticket for the same day. It turned out OK, because afterwards I decided to walk back to the main square and came across the fruit and vegetable market.  

   

This was certainly the most interesting thing in Puno in my opinion. 

Once I was in Arequipa I went for my customary stroll and was surprised to see the snow-topped volcanoes from the main square.  

 There are three of them; Pikchu Pikchu, Chachani and Misti, which is active. The city itself is known as “the white city” because of the volcanic stone used in the buildings.  

 The following day I had a bit of time on my hands, as I had arranged to go on a tour to Colca Canyon the day after. I had lunch in a place recommended by Trip Advisor, where I had a dish of seven different types of potato with typical yellow chilli sauce, (Salsa de Aji),  and the large corn.  Great for a vegetarian. 

I took advantage of a free city walking tour. This is the Church of La Compania, with a mixture of Christian and pre-Christian imagery.  

 Behind it is an old Jesuit monastery.  

 There is a theory that the carvings on the pillars represent female reproduction, which would appear to me to be a little unlikely.  

 I found the historical old Arequipa attractive, but my main reason for being there was the tour to Colca. The canyon is more than twice as deep as The Grand Canyon, but the deepest valley in Peru is not easily accessible. 

The trip took me to my highest altitude yet.  

 There were little piles of stones all around, both to mark the trail but now associated with good luck.  

 In the afternoon I went to the hot springs at La Calera, very relaxing and not too smelly. After a night spent in Chivay we headed for “Cruz del Condor” early in the morning to see the Condors themselves. This is a prime spot for seeing these huge birds and we had beaten the majority of the tourists to the place. Within ten seconds of arrival I had seen four of them, flying in and out between the rocks, with two adults flying in unison. I found a good lookout position and settled down for the hour and a half we would be there. 

Three of the original birds I had seen settled on the rocks in front of me and began preening. It was still quite cold and nothing more happened for a while. Then the sun broke through and  suddenly a number of birds came swooping round the canyon straight at me. The others took off with them and they were soaring above and around me. I was very emotional. At one time, ten of them were flying in a circle above me and four more diving down below. I could hardly believe it – by the time I had to go back to the bus I had seen twenty-two Condors, and the last four had flown around constantly. 

I’m sorry I have no pictures, for all the usual reasons, though my binoculars allowed me some superb views. 

We went for a walk along the top of the canyon with the tour guide, when two more white-winged Condors surged up from below us and swung away into the distance. 

Though I have no photos of the birds, here are a few of the canyon and the valley, which I found very lovely.  

       

That was the final peak of my Peruvan adventure. I returned to Arequipa and then on to Tacna for one night before crossing the border to Chile. 

Arequipa, Wednesday 08/04/15

Before I continue with my tales of Peru, I thought I’d say a little about my own state of mind. 

I’ve been travelling for seventeen months now and though there is still so much to see and do, there are some things I find myself thinking about. 

Some days it’s hard to get things organised for the next place. It’s good that I can do what I want, but I do need to motivate myself. Everyone finds packing their bag a bore and I have to time it so as not to disturb others in the dorm. Then it seems to get harder not to forget stuff.  Booking buses and beds is quite easy, but I still find myself putting it off. 

There are the things about others in the hostel that can be trying. Snoring is the obvious one, but stage whispers at night, leaving the door open and even whistling have all caused me to mutter under my breath. Hair in the sink is another. What’s interesting is that these are the sorts of things that annoy people who are living together in relationships, so I suppose it’s the price we pay for companionship. 

Speaking of which, though it would be nice to be living in relative comfort, the hardest thing about being so far away is missing my family and friends. Hugs are precious. 

A lot of the time I feel strange. Why is everyone taking pictures of themselves? Indeed, why is taking photos the first thing they do, before they’ve even had a look around? The tour guides know this and build their itineraries around the phenomenon. Some people even acknowledged to me they never look at these photos again. 

Then there’s health. I got rid of my sore throat when I left Mexico. Now I watch my toenail turning black, though it doesn’t really hurt. Also I worry about my teeth. I should have got the problem with my crown sorted out in Mexico, but it would have meant staying in one place for a while and there was so much I wanted to do. 

All these are such minor things, I know, and they can all disappear in a flash when I find myself in wonder at nature or human kindness or simply laughing at life’s little ironies. In spite of that, at this moment, I could do with a friend close at hand and close to my heart.  

So, on with the Motley. After the Inka trial, I took a single room in Cusco behind the Cathedral. I thought I would get a good night’s sleep out of the dorms/tent, but my room was close to the lobby and the dining area, so I was disturbed by people coming in at three in the morning and others leaving at 5.30. I was pleased with the area, though, full of little local shops, narrow streets and a vegan restaurant where I met some interesting people. The next day I met up with the two Canadian women I had met on the trail and we had a great day; saw the picture of the Last Supper in the Cathedral, with guinea pig on the table, had brunch in the Chocolate Museum . . . 

meandered through the local market . . . 

   

 

 and bought some silver earrings in the form of the Inca Cross from a street stall. 

We finally said goodbye and went our separate ways. 

I was trying to arrange a trip to “Amazonia” on the internet, but having some problems. As it happened, I went to the office of an “Ecolodge” and because I couldn’t manage to book flights on my iPhone or their PC, I went to the Avianca office and the ticket cost half the price!

On Friday 27th March I flew to Puerto Maldonado, then took an hour and a half boat ride up the Madre de Dios river to the lodge.  

This was my personal hut.  

 And this the view from the verandah.  

  I spent two days and three nights there and it almost certainly was the most expensive place I stayed, though it was full board with guides, etc. I wish I could have stayed longer.

I don’t have wonderful pictures, as my iPhone does not like moving targets, deep shady forest and distant objects. I caught glimpses of Toucan, Brocket deer, Tamarin monkeys, Squirrel monkeys, Black-faced and White-faced Capuchins, Agouti, some strange birds and so on. There were plenty of Caimans and Leaf-cutter ants and I got very close to some Spider Monkeys.  

“Cool”.

I heard, but did not see, Howler monkeys in the morning and only saw tracks of Tapir and Jaguar. OK, I’m not David Attenborough, but I’m very pleased I went. 

I flew back to Cusco, where it was Palm Sunday and they were making elaborate structures from Palm leaves. The following day they paraded the Black Christ they keep in the Cathedral in honour of some patron of the city and a huge crowd gathered in the Plaza de Armas in the evening. 

Though I liked Cusco very much, it was time to move on. The bus ride to Puno gave me a surreal experience as they showed “Hairspray” on the small screens – not really what I was expecting.  

Puno is on the shore of Lake Titicaca, but other than that is of little interest. I found myself sharing a “2 bed dorm” with a young Brazilian man, Pascoal, who had lived in Stoke Newington for two years, just North of where I had lived in Dalston, London. 

We ended up going to the “main attractions” together. On the first day that meant the tombs at Sillustani where archaeologists found Inca mummies in the towers. The Inca towers are quite impressive.  

 This is the Twelve-Angle stone which serves as an entrance to the chamber for the mummy on two of the towers.  

The towers built by the original inhabitants are much simpler.  

 The area itself has a wild beauty.  

 There is even a “mysterious ” stone with the spiral that represents Pachamama,  or world mother, that messes with your compass.  

 We visited a local family, in stone houses, who offered more good food – potatoes, cheese and a kind of fried bread. They keep guinea pigs, not to eat but because they believe that caressing or sleeping with them is curative, (or at least that was what we were told).

 I love these people, ( the guinea pigs not so much).

Though it was cold and pelting with rain that night, the next day was sunny and we took a slow boat out on Lake Titicaca. 

First the Uros Islands. According to our guide, (who lives on Taquile Island, our next destination), these artificial floating islands were constructed to protect the natives from enemies and also to evade the conquistadors who wanted them to work as farmers. First they tried building on piles of reeds, but these floated away. Then they tried living on boats, but these were too constrictive. Eventually then found that if they built on the roots of the reeds they could maintain a habitation. They then went through several stages of construction   

(A small model of how the floating islands are made).    

Not all the inhabitants accept tourists, but the life must be hard, with no running water and schools and medical services a long boat ride away, so any extra income must be welcome. They do now have some solar panels to provide a little electricity. Their food consists of  fish, birds and the stalks of the reeds. 

Once again poor WiFi means I haven’t been able to complete this narrative so I’ll just leave it for now with some more photos.  

    The  kitchen  

  

 Adios.   

Arequipa, Saturday 04/04/15

Peru is breathtaking, literally. 

I flew from Cancun to Lima, arriving around midday. The taxi ride from the airport was somewhat off-putting, as I passed rows and rows of dowdy streets with colourless shops. Then there was the sea-shore, with swimming prohibited, an expanse of wasteland and high nets preventing the black gravel cliffs from tumbling into the road. 

The hostel, however, was charming, being an old Manor House with plenty of character and in a bustling part of town. It took me all afternoon to sort out my SIM card, as iPhones can cause problems and my constant changes do lead to confusion. However, the staff were very patient and a young woman eventually sorted it out for me. 

In the evening I went for a short walk and had the first of the many fresh, pretty, delicious vegetarian meals I had in Peru. Hurrah!

The next day I did something I don’t usually do and paid for a tour of the city. I’m glad, because I did find some parts of the old city attractive.  

 In the cathedral I found an effigy of Jesus in bed, which is something you don’t see every day.  

 (Of course, it’s supposed to be him laid to rest in the tomb, but the Spanish had to dress everything up).

That evening I met a small part of the group with whom I was to spend the next eight days and the following morning we were off to Cusco. 

I will say more about Cusco later, but when we arrived we met up with the rest of the group, sixteen in all, and had just enough time to have another good meal, then pack for the next day and off to bed. We were allowed our own day pack and no more than 6k for the porters to carry for us on the  four day Inka trail, to include sleeping bag, change of clothes, etc.      

We all piled into the bus and set off for the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was at Ccaccaccollo, where we visited the women’s weaving cooperative.  

The hats indicate that these women are all married – if they were single the brims would be turned up. 

We encountered the domestic llamas,

 as well as the smaller, fluffier and more attractive alpacas.  

We had an amazing seven course meal in tiny village called Huchuy Qosqo. This was the first course, which was avocado stuffed with mixed vegetables, potato crisp and pigeon egg. 

 We spent the best part of the day in the Sacred Valley 

 and we rested by the terraces of  the Pisac ruins.  

 By the late afternoon we reached Ollantaytambo, with its impressive Inca fortress.  

   As we reached the highest point, we were all amazed to see this rainbow behind the mountains, even though it had not been raining. I took it as a good omen for the coming days.  

 The next day we set off on the Inca Trail, 27 miles in the Andes. This is a picture of the people travelling, with the “hikers” in the back and all the porters and cooks.   

This first day was relatively easy, as we only walked about 7 miles. It rained a bit, but that cooled us down. We ate well in the evening and tried to sleep in the tents. As I had not paid for an inflatable mattress, I found myself on a plastic sheet about 3mm thick. Not ideal!

The next day was hard. It took about four to five hours to climb the long, steep path to “Dead Woman’s Pass”. The steps are very uneven and though we started in good weather, it clouded over the higher we got.  

 I was really pleased to be among the first of the group to arrive at the top.  

 Also Paul, a member of one of the two Canadian families on the trek, commented that whenever he saw me I was sitting down, but whenever he reached a meeting point I was there before him, which I thought sounded rather magical. 

What goes up must come down and camp was about 1,000m lower. The descent was hard on my knees and when there were no steps and just a slope, harder on my toes. I believe I will lose the nail on my left big toe. Hey ho. However, there was time to admire the scenery and even spot a hummingbird. 

It rained during the night and the mountains were cloudy and moody first thing in the morning.  

The weather improved and so did the walk, though it was our longest day.  More cloud forest.   

 The remains of the spa where the Incas would bathe before entering Machu Picchu.   

 More stunning views.  

 Once again, it rained hard all night. I wasn’t feeling  quite right and didn’t know if it was late onset altitude sickness. But as we were about to get up, the rain stopped and I was determined to get the best out of the day, even if it was 3 O’Clock in the morning. 

We rushed to the Sun Gate, but there was far too much cloud drifting about to see Machu Picchu properly. Then, as we approached, the sun broke through and the day grew warm and wonderful.  

  I’m sure you will have seen pictures of Machu Picchu, or could download many which would be better than mine. There are a number of different temples; this one is the Room of the Three Windows.  

This is the Temple of The Sun.   

 

  The Inti Watana stone is one of the many astrological features of the site.  

This is the head of the Condor on the ground in the Temple of the Condor.  

Together with a short guided tour,  we spent about three hours roaming the site, taking some time off in the shade and chewing some Coca leaves.  

 Then it was a bus ride to Aguas Calientes, where we had a late lunch and a few drinks and then took the train back to Cusco. 

I had hoped to cover more of my time in Peru in this post, but the WiFi in the places I’ve stayed is making it really hard to upload pictures. 

It was a once in a lifetime experience for me to see Machu Picchu and to manage the hike. The group were friendly and fun and we were lucky with the weather. Tomorrow I’m off to Colca Canyon.