Monday, September 22, 2008

Home, via Madrid

Well From the jungle camp it was quite a long trip back via Madrid, I was basically 3 days travelling till I got to Madrid. The trip back up the river in the boat was fairly uneventful, likewise the jeep back to Lago Agrio, though I got stuck in a terrible downpour just as I changed over to the car, very glad it wasn't 10 minutes before. There was also quite an aggressive passport and document check (again, it's all due to the proximity of Columbia). When I got to Lago Agrio I had to get my bus ticket back for that evening. Cue a very long and frustrating attempt to communicate with the driver where I wanted to go and what my plans were. I don't know why I couldn't communicate with him at all, as I could communicate with the woman at the bus station (where I got my ticket) and the man in the city bus office (where I left my bag and would catch the bus from) fine, though they had no English either. Anyway,  had quite a bit of time to kill as I wanted to get the overnight bus (you don't want to arrive in Marsical Sucre neighbourhood at 4am). I Internetted and had my tea and so on. The bus left at 1130pm and again we all had to get off for a document check. The story I told about guys playing music videos all night actually happened on this trip, not the way out, so I slept quite poorly, we got to Quito around 630.

In Quito I had a long lazy breakfast and just internetted and tried to shop (not much success, I wasn't that impressed by what the craft markets had on offer, I mainly bought pirate dvds!) until I headed to the airport around 5pm. The flight was via Guayaquil (Ecuador's largest city) and I had quite a long wait there before we could get back on the plane. I actually slept reasonable well on the plane, possibly because I was so tired, but also they didn't actually show any movies on this flight.

I got to Madrid and got the subway to the hostel I'd booked. This turned out to be pretty nice, with a lovely old courtyard and a good bar. By the time I had a much needed shower and ate it was getting pretty late, so I headed down to the bar to see what was happening. There I met Matthias (ze german) and Murray from Australia who knew how to make things happen. He managed to corrupt 2 Canadian girls who'd planned on not drinking into joining us in some card games. From the hostel a pub crawl was run, and being Madrid it departed at 1am. We headed off on this but at this point things do start getting hazy. I'm not quite sure how I navigated back to the hostel, but I did find the right dorm, wrong bed though, at least it wasn't occupied. 

When I surfaced the next day I went for a looong walk all around the city to see lots of plazas and churches. This wasn't so wise as my legs were already fairly screwed up, and dancing and long walks never help. Anyway, Madrid was nice, but it didn't get that certain something that other cities have. I finished the walk at the Prada art museum which has everything up to 1850 including lots of Bosch, Goya, Velasquez, el Greco and othere masters I forget right now. It was good, but vast, and as always with that period you get sick of all the same religious images after a few hours! That night I bumped into Matthias in the bar again and headed out on the pub crawl again (we got for free this time) where I met the same two English guys who I ended up exchanging Partridge quotes with, for some reason. I had a lot of fun, and even remembered most of it this time! Next day I had to head to the airport at 2 so I went to the Reina Sofia art museum for a few hours. This is everything since 1850 and includes lots of Picasso and Miro, Guernica being the centrepiece. Again this was an excellent collection!

Well I'd got this far and done a lot of long journeys, but it was still annoying when my flight was delayed by 3 hours. This meant I didn't get home in time for the Scotland game! It was 930 pm when I got to Edinburgh and my dad was there to pick me up and whisk me of to the house, 350 days after I set off.

At the Grand Place (my camera was dying by this point).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Amazon Jungle (Cuyabenyo)

First I'd just like to point out that after the last post I added photos to lots of preceding posts, so if you've not seen them you can go have a look!

Well it was an overnight bus from Quito to Lago Agrio, departing around 11pm. You had to buy the bus ticket yourself at the station, even though I was on a tour to the jungle, as people had the option to fly if they wanted to (pay for it). Anyway, I thought there'd be some other gringos at the bus station heading to the jungle, but no, I was on my own again. I slept pretty badly at first, especially since there was a group of guys playing music videos on their laptop just behind me. Eventually I did sleep pretty soundly, evidenced by the fact I had to be woken when we arrived in Lago Agrio and everyone else was off the bus.

Lago Agrio was a crappy little town with nothing to offer, and supposedly a bit dodgy (quite near to the Columbian border here). It was 0630 when I arrived and I found my way to the hotel where I was supposedly to meet the guide at 930. There was still no other gringos, but I settled down and had my breakfast. Before I finished a driver from the company turned up for me. Unfortunately he had no English and indecipherable Spanish, only a little sticker with the tour company's name on it. Despite the fact it was much earlier, and I was expected to be met my an English speaking guide, I went off to the car with him, relatively confident that I wasn't going off to tea and scones with FARC. It was going on for 2 hours in the car through the junglish scenery before we got to the checkpoint on the river where I was to switch to a boat. Unfortunately I couldn't communicate with the wee driver guy so didn't know how long it would be. After hanging around for an hour or so the boat came and I got lunch with 4 guys who were on their way out form the jungle before I got onto the wee motor canoe to head down the river. It was just me, the driver, and a small hyperactive child who seemed determined to sink or capsize us. It was nearly 2 hours down the river, with stops to view monkeys and an anaconda before I got to the camp. Here it was deserted, with the English speaking guides out on trips with people, so, not too impressed, I just went to my hut and had a snooze. Eventually people got back from trips and I went to find out what was going on. There were a lot of people around, each day around 10 people had came, except my day, when it was just me. Basically I was just going to be stuck in the other groups randomly, again not too great.

Anyway, that evening I was to go off and see the sunset with one of the groups. Eventually it was decided which one and I was off with the guide George and his group of around 12 to go for a swim in the Lagoon and watch the sunset. The swim in the lagoon was good, despite being told many of the group went piranha fishing nearby the day before. The water was warm compared to the Galapagos, but not so deep - you could often feel the weeds on the bottom. It was a pleasant swim and the lagoon was a lovely place for sunset. We waited a while for the sun to go down and then went hunting for caimans and other wildlife. To find a caiman you go along the river in the boat an shine your torches along the river's edge (or rather other people so as my torch is small and pathetic). When you see the two firey red dots, that's their eyes and you go up for a close look. As we were told the eyes really were obvious. After quite a while searching we found quite a small one, which hung around a bit when we pulled up to it, and a large one which buggered of quite quickly when we got close. We also saw a tree boa, which is quite a small snake. We waited interminably while energetic Frenchman and weird Spanish photo-boy took thousands of photos of this tiny snake and then headed back for tea. Food was fine, but not as good as the Inca trail or Galapagos. There was actually a lot of really nice people here and the beer was reasonably free flowing in the camp at night. There was supposed to be a night walk to see insects I could go on, but no one told me and they went without me. I did meet some good people, including two Aussie girls, a Dutch guy, a Dutch couple and an Anglo-Spanish couple. Unfortunately most of them left the next morning. That night a large tarantula did appear on the roof of the dining area. I didn't take a photo as I thought there'd be plenty more, but turns out this was the only one (I'd heard stories of people waking up with 3 of them sitting on top of their mozzie nets).

The next day I was messed around again. Today was to be a canoeing trip. There were two groups going. First I was to go with one and then the other and then back again. I got so far as getting into the motor canoe to go off with one group before being told it was too full and I had to go back. I was told the second group would go at 10am, so I went for a wee nap and returned at 950 to find they'd gone without me!! I was pretty grumpy now, but the guide who was heading into town with the group who were leaving (he needed medical treatment after getting a chunk bitten out of his finger the day before, part of the reason for the guide problem) managed to get me a taxi out to meet them on the river somewhere. Thankfully he found them reasonably quickly and I was just about able to squeeze into the canoe with the 4 others plus guide, though I didn't have a seat and had to sit on some cushions. Well the canoe trip proved quite a trial. I was second, behind a big Mr Muscle Dutch guy, with his Norwegian girlfriend, Sarky English girl and Canadian girl behind me. You'd think Mr Muscle could put some power down, but he turned out to be the most lazy useless eejit going, and it soon became clear he and his girlfriend didn't have 2 brain cells to rub together. The canoeing was actually good fun and the scenery nice as we paddled through lagoon after lagoon. However, Eduardo who was guiding us had no English, and we had little Spanish. After 2 and a half hours we began to wonder if we were back, but no, that was when we turned around and went back exactly the way we came. We'd had no idea how long we'd be out for and it was pretty hot. It took another us 2 and a half hours to drag the lazy Dutchman's ass back to the camp and we were well knackered when we got there. 5 hours was a long time to be out paddling in the sun, and we were a relatively young, fit group. Anyway, we agreed we'd enjoyed it though it was exhausting and we didn't see too much wildlife. Back at the camp we had a very welcome lunch and had a bit of time to kill before we went Piranha fishing and to see the sunset and hunt Caimans. Most of this was spent reading in hammocks at the camp, and playing with the resident tame monkey (Pancha) who was very friendly, but gets a little excited and looses control of her bladder. The other resident animal is a cat who can barely walk. This is probably to do with her tendency to lie under the dinner table and thus get stood on repeatedly. We were bitching about our long canoe trip dragging lazy dutchman (who compounded his bad favour with an impressive display of snoring from his hammock) when we found out the other group had fared far worse. They were in two canoes, had been unable to steer, and had managed to capsize one of them after someone had abandoned ship to avoid banging into a spiky palm. Cameras had been saved but there was a lot of wet equipment and passports.

Anyway, the piranha fishing was fun, though again we were with Eduardo who had no English. The 3 others fishing had done it the day before when they had English instruction. I'd like to think that was the reason why I was the only one, including the guide and driver, who didn't catch anything. Those who caught big ones did get to eat them. We were still fishing when the sunset came, so didn't get to go back to the lagoon and swim. However, it was a nice spot and the sunset was a good one. We didn't really get to see any Caimans on the way back. After dinner English and Canadian girl continued with their gin-rummy addiction and I chatted to some of those from the night before, and also met two nice Belgian girls (Maaike and Karolienen) who'd just arrived that day. Once more the night walk went off without telling me! 

Next day, once again my group from the day before left, but I was put in a nice group with the two Belgian girls, a German guy and 8 German girls! We also had a good English speaking guide who really new his stuff. This day we were to go down the river to the local village. We took our time on the journey down and stopped a few times to view wildlife. We saw an anaconda, and some monkeys and sloths. A highlight was we stopped and saw a pigmy marmoset, this is a tiny monkey, the smallest in the world. Goodness knows how the guide could see it! We also stopped to hear marching wasps marching, which they did when we shouted at them. In the village we got lunch, then saw a demonstration of a woman making Yucca bread (only ingredient, Yucca) right from the stage of pulling up the tree. This was more interesting than it sounds and quite tasty. Next we got to meet the Shaman! I'd been warned by other groups that this was a bit of a charade, and that hit when age was provided by a random number generator. I think he was 95 when we met him. He made some kind of exotic cigarette for our guide before giving a bit of spiel and cleansing one of the group of bad spirits. His house featured quite an incongruous calendar with pictures of kittens on it, but he seemed quite cool, and had very freaky feet with his toes all splayed. I file this one under not to be taken too seriously.

We headed back at a reasonable speed and had a bit of time in the afternoon to go swimming in the river right by the camp. Here there was quite a current, and you couldn't help feeling you got the occasional nibble from something now and then! Occasionally a boat with some more elderly tourist would come by and look rather bemusedly at us. But this was a lot of fun. In the evening we went back to the lagoon for sunset and then finally off on a night walk. We saw some good wildlife on the lagoon, including the moonbird, which sits very still and is incredibly hard to spot, but has an enchanting song at night. Off on the night walk we saw a variety of insects that reminded us to make sure our mosquito nets were very secure at night. There were various large spiders (wolf, scorpion, tiger), jungle lobsters, snails, ants, grasshoppers and the like. We got the boat back to camp for tea, and then had a nice evening where I was compelled to break open the remains of my Crystal, which the guide seemed to think was good stuff. We played jungle speed, a game which the Belgians kindly provided. I was still trying to use my few Dutch words and pick up some more, but I made an embarrassing mistake due to a word having different meanings in Holland and Belgium, but I think this says more about how the Flemish think! I also learned something our Inca trail guide was getting us to say when we took photos was rather unsavoury too! In the end we were up quite late watching an approaching thunderstorm and the shooting stars (Vollensterren!).

As always I was about last to bed and first up in the morning 5 hours later as I had to be packed before the morning trip as I was the only one leaving. Of course I completely overestimated packing time and ended up sitting there for half an hour before breakfast. That mornings trip was for a walk in the jungle and to see some more wildlife hopefully (most of the activities had been water based so far). We even managed to see some river dolphins (and more tortoises) on the boat trip out to the walk. On this walk we ate some ants, did a Tarzan vine-swing, saw a rather phallic plant, had a photo op in a hollow tree, saw some very hairy caterpillars and crossed some rather swampy land in our wellies. I also learned some more Dutch, so now know how to say useful things like 'Armadillo' if it comes up when I get there to work (we saw armadillo burrows, but not the armadillos. On the way back we stopped for a welcome swim at the lagoon, which was as always pretty fun, though idiot-boy here didn't learn his lesson and lost another contact lens mucking around (I'd lost one in the Galapagos, fortunately in the other eye). Then it was back to the camp for a quick shower (my next 2 nights would be on transport) before saying my goodbyes and getting in my private canoe for the long trip back.

I really enjoyed this trip to the jungle, though at first it was a bit frustrating not being in the one group and being passed around. The last two days were much better though. The camp was a nice place and very laid back. I managed to see all most of the animals you could hope to see, though they were nothing like as abundant and tame as in the Galapagos. This was a really good way to effectively finish off my travels.

Photorama time here:

This is the canoe heading to the camp, complete with small boy to ward of headhunters.

Canoetime, it was a long trip...

Mr Muscle bags a piranha.

A pygmy marmoset, its very wee and far away, this was where my camera earned it's keep.

The shaman and his weird toes.

A moon bird.

Sunset on the lagoon.

I think he's called a jungle lobster.

Wolf spider!


Me Tarzan, or maybe Indiana Jones.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Quito

The plane got into Quito about 4pm after having to get off and on again in Guayaquil. Unfortunately our luggage didn't seem to be there... of 7 of us who went through to Quito 2 got their luggage straight away and the other 5 had a long uncomfortable wait for another 90 minutes fearing the worst. However, the bags did turn up eventually and I was able to share a taxi part of the way into town and walk the rest and get a hostel. I'd made vague arrangements to meet some people from the first half of the Galapagos trip that evening, but the directions were crap, so I ended up in the wrong place, but they weren't at the other place anyway, so I just internetted a bit and had quite an early night. Finally I had a large bed, that wasn't being tossed about on the sea, however, it took me quite a while to shake the feeling I was on a boat.

Next day I had some stuff to sort out - I managed to book a trip for myself to the amazon, get the bus ticket for that and put in my underwater camera to the shop. Then I did manage to meet Zoe, Mark and Allison from the first trip for lunch despite them giving me dodgy directions again. It was nice to catch up and we agreed to meet again in the evening. Then I headed on a long walk through the mean streets of Quito to find the office of my airline company - I'd booked online and hoped they really existed and would give me a ticket! Thankfully they did. I then took another walk up a big hill to visit the Guayasamin museum. He was a popular Ecuadorian expressionist artist who'd also collected pre-columbian artefacts and colonial art. These collections were on display along with his own work, which I quite enjoyed. Also further up the hill was his apparently amazing 'chapel of man'. Alas, it was shut on Mondays. At least there was a reasonable view over the town from up on the hill. I took the long walk back to the Mariscal area where I was staying. I met Zoe, Mark and Allison again for dinner. They were heading off on another long trip on a bus and their other three passengers, Sven, Qwen, and Tootji were there along with there two crusty south african guides. The rather strange venue the guides had chosen was an Irish bar. After dinner the 4 of us Galapagos adventurers headed on and tried a few bars, including a small edgy salsa/shisha bar with no-one in it. In the end we looked for a club but only Zoe and I went on. Cue more bad dancing from me, no wonder my legs are still sore. The place wasn't bad and it was £1 for 2 bottles of beer. That might explain the slightly stinking sorehead I had most of the next day!

Tuesday was my day to see the old town of Quito. I walked to the old town and aimed to go into the big national museum, but it was closed for refurbishment. I continued on to the Basillica de Voto National. A relatively modern church on a hill, whose main attraction was that you could go climbing up all the towers and on the roof in various ways that probably wouldn't get past health and safety in the uk. There were good views and I had fun scrambling around, I spent quite a bit of time here. I then wandered on to the plaza grande, which was quite nice and had the obligatory protest march present in all South American cities. Next up was the compania de Jesus, a very ornate church gilted with 7 tonnes of gold. It also had some rather interesting pictures of what awaits us all in hell, with specific punishments for specific sins. Pity the traitors whose fate seems to be being stabbed in the nads with a giant trident. Then I headed up to the Plaza San Francisco where the San Francisco Monastery was also closed for refurbishment. I wasn't quite having the best of luck on this visit to Quito. I then walked back via a circuitous route and ate (I found a curry house, mmm) and did a lot of internetting (this blog takes time you know!) before taking a dodgy walk with my rucksack at 11pm to the bus station for my bus to the Lago Agrio, down in the Ecuadorian Jungle.

Iguana Detail on the Voto National.

The clock towers of the Voto National and view over Quito old town.


Me up umpteen ladders very high in the left hand clock tower in the photo above.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Galapagos Part 2

On the evening of day 4 I returned to the pier with Augustin and Simona to meet the 9 new passengers. We had a Dutch/German couple, an older Australian couple, and 5 Japanese girls. 4 of the Japanese were travelling together, and the other Takako (my new roomie) has spent the last year in Ecuador so had good Spanish. We had dinner and a briefing as usual, and a few people even made an effort to stay up past 10pm!

This half of the trip was to involve much more travelling between Islands than the last one, much of this was done at night, and although I was one of the few who didn't get too sea-sick, it still made sleeping near impossible as I was still trying to hold on to my little top bunk.  Day 5 was at Floreana Island. The first stop was at Post Office Bay, where there's a store of postcards and notes which have all to be hand delivered: you search through and see if there's any for where you going to, it's been there since the days of the whalers. Nearby was another lava tunnel, this one a bit smaller, with no lights, so we had to use torches. After a certain point you were wading through water, but it was reasonably warm. This was quite fun! Afterwards we had some snorkelling from the beach. This is where we got to snorkel with giant turtles, being able to follow right behind them for quite some time as they swam along. At one point I could see three of them around me. Unfortunately I left the underwater camera I'd just bought on the beach as it was overcast and I thought I'd save it for better light!

After lunch we went round the corner to the Devil's Crown for more snorkelling. This is meant to be a top snorkelling site. It's, as it says, the crown of an old volcano, so it's a small island atoll a few tens of meters in diameter, there are reasonably strong currents and you snorkel from the dingy which is not so easy, and some people were clearly uneasy in the water. It was good, but not the best sight we saw.

The third day of the second trip we headed out to Espaniola Island, 8 hours overnight, nobody slept much, and a few were rather ill. It was compared to being inside a washing machine as the boat bobbed around on the open sea.  Here the main new attraction was Flamingos, there was a huge lagoon where we managed to see some up close, there was also another beach where you could see lots of sting rays.

Day 4/7 was first of all San Christobal, very early in the morning, where we say albatrosses for the first time, including babies, and baby boobies, bluefoot and Nazca. There was also a blowhole where the waves sent a jet of water into there due to the rock-formations. From this Island we also had the chance to snorkel: there was an island you could swim out to if you felt up to it, and Taco and myself took up the challenge, and spied another reef shark when we were out there. Then we had a bit of a gap until the next island when I stayed on deck and some of us managed to see a humpback whale, and I got a photo! The next island was Santa Fe Island, where we were meant to see more land Iguanas, unfortunately this was the only time we didn't see something we thought we might see. As usual there were hunners of seals. Before going to this second Island we snorkelled from the boat, where I had great fun playing with the seals, and got some great photos too.

On the final day before heading back to Baltra and the airport we had a pre breakfast trip to North Seymour Island. The big new attraction here was male frigatebirds in all their glory, inflating there chest sacks, quite a sight!

The airport was fairly chaotic to check in, but we got on our way eventually after a little souvenir shopping.

The trip wasy pretty amazing, there were just so many animals and so tame (very different to my jungle trips!). A slight let down was the groups didn't bond so well and so evenings were very quiet (though often lots of people were ill!). There were real language divisions, with Spanish, French and Italian groups on the first boat, and a big Japanese group on the second. Don't get me wrong, everyone was really nice. It was only really the last two nights that I managed to crack open the cheap Ecuadorian spirits I'd brought on board!  By this time the boat had ran out of red wine, whisky and tea! This was pretty poor considering we'd drunk about 1 bottle of red wine and 1.5 whiskies! Anyway, the final night it almost got lively, and we got Shakira on the stereo, and, as you do, had a bit of an oragami session, before some poor attempts at starting Karaoke. I think some of us even made 11pm. Rock and Roll!

Here's an incomplete list of animals I saw:
  • Sealions (two kinds)
  • Sea turtles and Giant Tortoises
  • Land and Sea Iguanas
  • Lava Lizards
  • Herons: Night, Lava and yellow crested.
  • Various Darwin Finches: Lava, Cactus, etc
  • Frigatebirds
  • Pelicans
  • Boobies: Blue-footed and Masked (Nazca)
  • Oyster Catchers
  • Cattle Egrets
  • Flamingos
  • American Golden Warbler
  • Mockingbirds
  • Galapagos Doves, Hawks and Ducks
  • Black headed gulls and little gulls (Noddies)
  • Storm Petrels
  • Sting Rays and Eagle Rays
  • White tipped Reef sharks and Dogfish
  • Octopus
  • King Angel-fish
  • Surgeon Fish
  • Moorish Idols
  • Cornet Fish
  • Puffer Fish
  • Parrot Fish
  • Humpback Whale
  • Others saw dolphins, I missed them though I was on deck and looking where they pointed :(


Going down a Lava Tunnel
Flamingos

Me by a pair of Boobies.

A baby Albatross


Me on a beach by more seals.

A frigatebird (Male).


Monday, September 15, 2008

Galapagos Part 1

The flight got into the airport on Baltra Island around lunch time. It was quite a basic wee airport with not much in the way of walls, and baggage reclaim meant they came and unloaded from the buggy in a pile. We were met by our guide Juan, and it became clear my group was not going to be as young and backpackery as previous trips (well the Galapagos was very expensive) and was rather coupley too! For the first half of the trip we had an older French couple, two older Italian ladies, an older Ecuadorian/Spanish couple, an Ecuadorian/Italian couple, Mark and Allison, who were an Anglo Australian couple, Zoe from England and me. That's 12 people, and we had 6 crew with us on our little boat called the Encantada which we took a short bus ride to from the Airport in time for lunch on board.

The boat was a little red motor-sailer, much nicer looking than all the other boats, but pretty small and 'cosy'. I was sharing with Zoe, and I'll rip-off what she said in her blog about me and the room:
The cabins are small but the guy I'm sharing with - Neil..a laid back Scottish guy who has been traveling for one year and is sporting a pair of blue bathers with a split up the side held together with safety pins...graciously offers me the bottom bunk which is the size of a double bed and comfy. Neil has to lie like a starfish with its suckers spread out on the small top bunk nearly falling out as the boat motors through the first night . We adapt to sharing a small space but on the first morning Neil comes out of the shower as i am dressing and i hear a muffled "oops" from behind me as he retreats back into the shower waits a polite few minutes before knocking and coming out again...i stifle a laugh because it is so English...like some kind of carry on film!


Ah well, yes, about the bathers, they had a small rip in them from Australia, which I was always quick to claim was a nip from a crocodile. I was aiming to buy some new ones before the Galapagos, but never saw any, and they would have been fine, but as I was wearing them almost all the time in the Galapagos for snorkelling and wet-landings they very quickly deteriorated so they had a slit all the way up one side and one began appearing on the other! Fortunately they were lined, and I did what repairs i could with some safety pins I had to hand for such an emergency.

Anyway, lunch, like all the other meals on the boat, was excellent, in both quantity and quality The dining room was pretty cramped with a little bar in the corner, for Hulio the barman/waiter/cabin cleaner to lurk at, but it was big enough. After lunch was our first excursion, which was to black turtle cove. This was a water-borne trip in the little dinghy, and we pootled around the mangroves looking at the bird and sea life. The stars of the show were the blue-footed boobies, who, in a similar way to penguins, are rather stupid and clumsy looking in the water, but in their preferred element are very dynamic and graceful. The boobies dive amazingly fast and plunge a few feet underwater looking for fish. Many a photo was taken trying to catch them at the prime moment. There were also pelicans doing the same thing, not so gracefully, and frigate-birds circling far overhead. Meanwhile in the water we could see fish, but were more interested in spotting sharks, turtles and rays, which we did. The turtles were hardest to see as they were quite shy and only stuck there heads above water to breathe. This site was the most tropical looking we went to and was quite hot when we were out there. Afterwards we tried on our snorkelling gear and had a swim off the back of the boat. Here you realise that the water here is 20 degrees - far colder than in Goa or Thailand where it was like a bath, but warmer than the sea in Scotland! Generally you start feeling the cold after 30-45 minutes, and some opted to go in in wetsuits. After the swim we got snacks before dinner, and then some time to hang around. After dinner we got a briefing about the next day, and then everyone headed off to bed about 9 (those were the late ones) as they were all knackered!

Next day breakfast was at 630, which was fairly standard over the next week, with us disembarking early to be ahead of other groups, which seemed to mainly be older people travelling in more luxury. First up was Rabida Island. Here we saw many lava lizards, seals, Galpagos hawks, sea iguanas and many smaller birds. One of the seals sneezed a giant snotter out as we were watching, what a photo opportunity! After this was our first snorkelling opportunity where we saw many coloured fish and had our first aquatic encounter with the seals, who are very friendly and swim around you wanting to play. After lunch we went to Santiago Island. This was much more volcanic and had interesting lava formations including bridges you could walk over. There were many more iguanas and crabs here on the rocky coast, and fur seals, which are rarer and smaller than the sealions that are everywhere. There was another snorkelling opportunity and after a long day at sea in the sun everyone was so knackered again that when they stuck on a documentary on the islands about 830, I was the only one awake by the end. Not the party boat it could have been!

Day 3 and the first stop was Bartolome Island. This was one of the best islands, very barren and volcanic it has little life on it's slopes, but you can climb the little peak for a great view over some lovely beaches. However the highlight was seeing penguins in the water nearby where we disembarked. They really do zip around quite fast, and it was guaranteed to see them as they are not that common and relatively shy. After that we took the boat round the corner to one of the beaches we'd been looking down at and went snorkelling. Here some of us saw a white tipped reef shark, which was pretty cool. I think this was one of the best snorkelling sights. After this we walked across to the beach on the other side and had a look around. Still plenty of crabs, sea-lions and iguanas. The second stop this day was at Sombrero Chino Island (Chinese Hat) where we walked along by the beach where the landscape was extremely volcanic, with black lava formations with lots of hollow bubbles underneath and cracks. Here again we snorkelled from a nice beach where again the seals came out to play when we snorkelled. As it was the last night for many of us we thought we'd make it a late one, and made it till about 10pm!

Next morning was a bit of and early one though, we went to South Plazas Island before breakfast and this was one of the more singular islands. The landscape had strange red and green coloured vegetation, some cliffs with many sea-birds and cactus forest where we saw the land iguanas. These are bigger and yellower than the sea iguanas. After breakfast we got to Puerto Ayora, the islands' biggest town, where we disembarked (9 of 12 for good). We were here to see the Charles Darwin research centre. Here they have lots of giant tortoises as they have a major breeding profile. A star of the show is lonesome George, and we got to see his backside only! He's now not so lonesome as he successfully bred with the 2 females from a neighbouring island that he was given to help him out, though he did take his time about it. They also run an eradication programme to get rid of introduced animals. After lunch in a restaurant we went up to the highlands of the island and saw more giant tortoises in the wild before going through a huge lava tunnel which was quite impressive. It included a section you had to crawl through. Then it was back to Puerto Ayora for some free time, when I was able to finally get some new swimmies, some nice red ones! I had a drink with Mark and Allison before heading off to meet the new people for the second half of the week.


The Encantada.

A Sealion.

A land Iguana.

Me on Bartolome Island, behind to the right we snorkelled, and walk round to the beach on the left.


Penguins!

Strange vegetation on Plazas Island.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Peru

Time spent: 13 days

On budget/time: Got into Ecuador with not much time to spare for my flight out to the Galapagos.

Lost/stolen: My I survived the Inca Trail certificate was lost in the confusion coming back from Aguas Callientes. After sufficient therapy I may be ready to face the world again.

Sound of Peru: History of Rock and classic rock'n'roll in Aguas Callientes.

Taste of Peru: Had alpaca a few times, never managed the guinea pig though.

Highlights of Peru: As you might imagine the Inca trail and Machu Picchu were great. Quite liked Lima as a city.

Drink of Peru: Pisco sour at the Hotel Bolivar was class. Had chicha moreno and "Macho Tea" on the Inca trail

Didn't make a lot of stops in Peru, but really enjoyed myself there. There was lots more places to see, but I don't think I really had the appetite for many more Inca ruins, I'd seen some of the best. I'm quite happy with the pace I've travelled at.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Lima and Guayaquil

The bus to Lima was 24 hours, I was the only Gringo on board. The scenery was nice enough, descending through the Andes to the coast. I had the front seat at the top so I had a good view. The bus was comfortable but a bit manky. All the locals were chewing coca leaves and the floor was pretty covered with discarded stalks by the end. It got pretty cold at night and the woman next to me was kind enough to share her blanket.

I got into Lima in the afternoon, checked into the Loki hostel, which was fairly lively. After eating I headed to the Museo Larco, which again had a lot of high quality pre-columbian art, with less pseudy captions this time. There store rooms were also open to the public where you could see row upon row of artefacts just stacked up, including hundreds off zoomorphic jars, divided into sections for different animals; pumas, owls and so on. However, the highlight of the museum is its collection of erotic pre-columbian pottery - I kid you not! There was some weird stuff here. As well as every available orifice being put to use, there were also skeletons getting in on the act (I'm pretty sure there isn't actually a bone there), animals, diseases, and a weird selection where the woman was breastfeeding a child at the time. And yes I have photos of some of that.

To get out to the museum was almost an hour in a little mini-bus (due to traffic rather than distance). I was happy to save on the taxi and Lima seemed pretty safe to me, contrary to the lonely planet etc. That night I went to the bar in the hostel. I played a bit of pool and then got talking to various people including some guys that worked in London and some Welsh girls. In the end I headed out to a club in the Barranco district called Dragon, with Katie from Fenwick and Edel from Ireland. We were promised 80´s and 90's music, but when we got there the music was pretty dire, until they played about 5 good songs, then it faded. Anyway it was a good night, but we headed back at an almost civilised hour as Katie and Edel were heading home. I somehow ended up with Edel's alarm clock that her ex-boyfriend gave her that I have to dispose of in a suitably dramatic fashion. As you do.

The next day I headed into central Lima. wandered around the square and visited the cathedral and the San Francisco monastery, where the tour takes you into the catacombs below where the bones of 27000 people are, buried hundreds of years ago. I also went to the museum of the Inquisition, which was pretty small and mediocre. After that I strolled in the drizzle to another of the plazas, which features a statue of a woman with a small llama on here head (a crown of flames was commissioned, but llamas is the word for both in Spanish apparently). I then went into the posh bar in the Hotel Bolivar for one of their famous pisco sours (I'd already had a pisco sour ice-cream that day). It was of course excellent. Then I headed back to the hostel and again went to the bar in the evening where it was fairly quiet at first, but I got 3 free large beers and 2 tequilas just for blowing up some balloons and tying them up for a party that was happening the next night. Perhaps that was why although I went to a club later on with all the bar people (called Sargento Piemenientos, Sargent Peppers!) and I was dancing, I couldn't even tell you what kind of music they played. I came home in a cab with some Peruvians, at some point we realised we didn't have any common language. That night in the bar had seen the appearance of these three characters who were travelling around in matching white Adidas tracksuits smoking cigars and in possession of a giant cookie monster outfit (yes there are photos). That's travelling in style!

The next day with a slightly fuzzy head I went to the Inca Pyramid thing called Huaca Pullanca. There was a quite informative guided tour, but the site wasn't hugely impressive. There had been human sacrifices found there. My bus to Guayaquil left just after lunch and was another 24 hour affair (it actually took 29!) this time it was quite a luxurious bus and half empty, and there was 2 French Canadian and 2 German girls on board as well. For the second time I saw a Spanish movie about a boy who has a Loch Ness monster for a bet (Mi Mascota est un Monster, or something like that). It was later than I planned when I got into Guayaquil, Ecuador`s biggest city, and I managed to get myself a shitty hotel in a dodgy neighbourhood with a joke of a shower! I walked down to the Malecon 2000, the developed waterfront, which was actually quite nice of an evening, and had my tea, got some cash and intenetted before getting some much needed sleep. Next morning the flight to the Galapagos left at 10am, so I was up at 7, and got to the airport no problem, ready for the next exciting trip!


Err, some of the tamer erotic pottery.

Crown of llamas!

Another evening in the Loki hostel in Lima.

Aguas Calientes and back to Cusco

When we got down to Aguas Calientes we still had a couple of hours before we were to assemble as a group for lunch, so we went for a drink in a cafe beforehand. Here I tried an Inca Cola, the local soft drink, which is bright yellow and not too dissimilar to Irn-Bru (or Creaming soda if you're an Australian). We soon ambled along to the restaurant where we were meeting for lunch and the beers started flowing. After lunch we got our stuff from, and tipped, our personal porters, and then teams America and Israel all left as they'd managed to secure an earlier train than our 9pm one. This left the 9 members of team Commonwealth to party it up, and things really took off and kept going! We were the only ones in the restaurant by this point and we requested some music to liven things up. All that they could supply was pan-pipes or Tracy Chapman, and Tracy is fine, but not upbeat enough, so Dayan got sent off with a porter to find a dodgy pirate CD stall to improve matters. He came back with the Rolling Stones, the Bee Gees, and, the crowning glory, "History of Rock 4". This certainly stretched the definition of rock beyond breaking point as it contained a lot of 80's cheese. What followed was a fairly Raucous singalong (it was almost 4pm by this point), though I did not accept that it was my duty as a Scotsman to stand on the table and sing and dance to "Do you think I'm sexy?". By early evening we wanted more and sent Dayan and Madison off to look for the rest of the History of Rock series, and they managed to find one of them, along with a CD of early rock'n'roll classics. They said the rest of the town was dead and that you could hear our music and singing all along the street. Around this time they had to send out for more beer as we were drinking them dry. Dancing then ensued, and we ended up with an audience standing outside, and occasional randoms making forays in to join in. The rock'n'roll went down surprisingly well, with Dayan showing his twist dancing past. In all the commotion we forgot about dinner, but the Aussies kindly got a few plates of chips to help is out. Sadly we had to leave to get our train to Ollyatambo (just Dayan, Madison, team England and myself as the Aussies were staying over). On the train they confiscated out whisky but sold us more beer (they gave the whisky back at the end too). Everyone else on the train seemed to be dead and weary, but we were all still lit up. I continued with my impressions of Andean animals and Madison revealed her plan. Once off at Ollyatambo we were onto a bus for the rest of the journey back, and what a ridiculously bumpy ride it was (maybe it was the unwise choice of the back seat, near the dead local woman. It was after midnight when we got to Cusco, but what an fantastic and "outrageous" day it was, starting at 345am, Machu Picchu, a great afternoon and evening and just kept going!

Back in Cusco showers and laundry were high on the priority list. My plan to see all of Cusco the next day came to nothing, with a very late rise and I did nothing after but sort stuff out and spend an obscene amount of time on the internet, that meant I'd see Cusco the next day instead of going to the sacred valley, but I felt I'd already seen enough ´piles of Inca rubble´ and I need ed that day to rest and recover.

So the next day I set out to 'do' Cusco. I started at Qorikancha, the main Inca site in Cusco and formerly their top temple. The Spaniards had only gone and built a monastery on top of it, leaving not much to see, but there was also a quite informative section of Colonial religious art and some modern art as well. I also finally found out about the Inca astronomy our guide had been alluding too; their constellations were actually dark patches in the milky way which looked like animals.

I then walked back into the town past various Inca walls and visited the cathedral and adjoining chapels on the Plaza de Armas. These were truly impressively decorated, with a very informative audio tour. There was a saint to whom women prayed to be married, leaving notes with the address of their intended by his image, and another, the patron saint of celibate men, to whom the men prayed to be released from these attentions! There was an statue of Jesus which had turned black with age, and another Jesus which is revered as apparently it managed to stop the earthquake that destroyed most of the city after a couple of minutes! The ticket for the cathedral also included some other places on the ¨religious circuit¨so I visited another two churches and the museum of religious art in the Archbishops old palace. This again had an informative audio tour which explained a lot of the imagery. Unique to South America are representations of the Trinity as 3 identical Christ like figures, considered blasphemous in Europe.

Anyway, after all that I had certainly had my fill of colonial religious art and I headed up the steep hill to the Saqsaywaman ruins (better known to gringos as sexywoman). These were the remains of a huge fort that had been pillaged for stones to build the cathedrals bus was still very impressive (though very expensive to visit!). It was pretty cold and windy up there, but there were decent views over the City. I also climbed the nearby hill which had a Jeebus on the top (like Rio) overlooking the city.

The next day my bus didn't go to Lima till after lunch, so I did the remaining museums in the morning. First of was the Inca museum, which was overcrowded with tourists on tour and not fully labelled in English. It did have some good exhibits, including a large number of mummies nonchalantly displayed together. Finally I went to the museum of Pre-Columbian art. This had some really top drawer exhibits and definitely went for quality not quantity. They were accompanied by the most preposterous verbose and circomlucutious labels which told you nothing about the exhibits apart from how exquisite they were and how majestic their purity of form was.

I walked to the bus station I was back in that mood, and found Latin American cities far less dodgy than people and the book would have you believe (touch wood!). From there it was 24 hours to Lima.

Madison and me in Aguas Callientes.

Sexywoman with Cusco in the background.

Main Square in Cusco.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Inca Trail

Well this was a trip I'd booked up months ago, and it doesn't come cheap so it should have been a highlight... and it was! The bus picked us up before 5am and it was a couple of hours to get to Ollyanatambo where we were to have breakfast and pick up the last few people. Dayan (a Kiwi who became my tent-mate and usual partner in crime) distinguished himself immediately by forgetting his passport and having to go back for it (thankfully when the bus was sill in Cusco. The full muster of trekkers was 2 Australian couples (who new each other), an English couple, a New York/Israeli couple, two older American ladies, an older American couple and their daughter, Madison from Canada, Dayan and myself. You can see it was quite a coupley bunch!

We had our breakfast in Ollyanatambo and there were sold at for a while as we waited for the bus. Everyone but me bought a stick to walk with. I got myself a water bottle holder, which was actually very useful. People also stocked up on Coca leaves for the tough time ahead. Our guide was Hubert (or Hubertcito as we later new him) and his assistant was Augusto (Or Gordito (little fatty) as Hubert always called him!). After another hour in the bus we started on the trail, after the all important group photo and stamp on the passport. The first day is meant to be relatively easy, and a bit of a warm up, and it was. At our first stop for lunch we were amazed by the quality of the food, and by the luxury we were afforded in our little tent with picnic tables that was set up for us everywhere. (For our group of 16 there were 22 porters, including the chef and his assistant. Many had taken personal porters to carry 6kg of stuff for you, me included. All those that didn't ended up taking a local porter for the tough second day for far more money!) Most of the scenery was nice, but not amazing at this stage, and we also saw our first Inca ruin. Hubert stopped to point out some of the flora a few times, and later at the Inca ruin he gave a long history talk, and a few people started nodding of a bit. He wasn't a great orator, with poor English grammar and a tendency to repeat everything. You see he would repeat everything, and his English grammar wasn't very good, which made his talks seem interminable, though basically very informative, because he would repeat everything. At the end of the day we had afternoon tea in our camp, closely followed by dinner, again the food was very nice and plentiful. Hubert gave us a tale of woe, about he was persecuted for abjectly failing to follow the rules of society! Can you believe the wanted to knock his house down because he didn't bother with planning permission, and then they had the cheek to shut his restaurant down, just because he didn't bother with a licence. He later told how he punched a guy when driving a lorry, and let his brother take the rap for it because he didn't actually have a licence. We began to get the idea he was a bit of a chancer! After dinner and this speech everyone went to bed ridiculously early, I know we got up at 4am and had to get up at 5 the next morning, but it was still poor! I didn't sleep great, but managed not to hear the domestic a nearby Peruvian couple were having despite almost everyone else being woken by it.

Day two and we were awoken with the hot drink of out choice in our tents! Well almost, as my tea turned out to actually be coffee. Also turned out everyone was a terrible faff, and I was packed and sat in the dining tent for 20 mins before anyone else joined me for breakfast! The highlight of breakfast was some very nice porridge with cinnamon! This was to be the hardest day, with us going over the highest pass, with a lot of climbing in the morning ( in the morning we were to climb 1400m, that¡s higher than Ben Nevis). People spread out a bit more today, with Dayan and myself usually at the front, followed by Diane, the 60 year old American lady (those two names did cause a bit of confusion!) Poor old team New York was suffering from the altitude and was often far behind. After around 2 hours or so we had out morning tea, from there we were to press on for 4 hours before a late lunch. 2 of these four hours were up, and 2 down lots of steps, many of them original Inca. The pas was called the dead woman's pass (WarmiwaƱusca) and Dayan and I took about 50 mins for the '2 hour' climb to the top, with me first after a cheeky late sprint. This of course precipitated a long wait for the rest, and up there the cloud rolled in over the pass and it was pretty chilly. At the final camp I gave my feet a much needed wash in the cold stream and after lunch managed a brief nap before tea. Again it was an early night for all, so I had to lie and listen to my iPod as I was not tired enough! The scenery had been better this day, and more varied. Some sections were not unlike Scotland, others were very pretty could forest.

Day three was to be the longest and most interesting day: lots of Inca ruins as well as cloud forest and two more passes. Before we left the porters all introduced themselves, and we did likewise. The first pass was straight away from the camp, and was not as bad as it looked at first, then came an Inca ruin, with a talk from Hubert and plenty time to wander around, then an early lunch. Then it was a long slow ascent to the third pass, but through some lovely sections of cloud forest, and other sections where the path really clung to the side of the cliff and had taken some construction. Just over the third pass was another Inca ruin, and after this we all went off at our separate speeds again, down a long descent on artfully constructed staircases, into what was becoming rain forest. Towards the end was an optional detour into a ruin which few people took, but I did. This was pretty spectacular as I was the only one in sight when I got there. It was mainly a huge series of terraces, but having it to myself really made it special ( some sections of the trail got really crowded, and you were very aware of the 500 people a day using it). The camp on this day was on quite a steep hillside, but actually had a bar nearby, which was surprisingly cheap for its middle of nowhere location. Dayan and I had a beer or two before and after dinner with 4 girls we'd repeatedly met on the trail who were in there own group, the bar was a bit strange and barren with its plastic furniture and incongruous 80's music (Phil Collins anyone?). This night we also had the massive faff of sorting out tips for the porters, but we got there in the end, it helped that they gave us ´Macho tea´ which has alcohol in it beforehand. We also got cake as it was the last night!

The last morning was a super early start as we wanted to get to Machu Picchu before the crowds. We had to forsake the wake up tea in our tent, but the group really managed to get ready quickly and we were the second group out on the trail in the morning. Everyone managed to keep up an impressive pace together for almost 2 hours till we got to the sun gate where we got our first view of MP. To be honest this was a bit misty and not as great as I expected, however, once we descended closed and things cleared up a bit we got the real great postcard view. We took some team photos, I revealed myself as a Puma, and then we headed down for a bit of a rest at the entrance before going on a tour with Hubertsito for a couple of hours around the site. He was actually more informative and less frustrating to listen to hear this time. After that we had as much time to wander as we wanted and our ticket for the bus back to meet up in Aguas Cllientes. We were quite weary, and after less than an hour more Dayan, Madison and I headed back as Machu Picchu seemed best appreciated viewed from close above on the hill than wandering among it. It is amazing, but we were underwhelmed by some of the attractions, such as the rock shaped like a condor (or not), the rock sculpted like a Guinea Pig, and the rather phallic sundial, which was rather underwhelming despite being sold hard by Hubersito. It was still morning when we descended on the bus, but we'd been up for 8 hours!

I'm going to have to go now as I'm shattered and have to be up at 7am to go fly to the Galapagos tomorrow, so you'll have to wait at least a week for Aguas Cllientes and back to Cusco and all the rest. This has been rather rushed too, sorry!

Slumming it in our private tent eating our 3 course meal.

Crowds on the steep path up to Dead woman's pass.

Getting a lecture from Hubersito.

Some Inca Rubble.


There you go, Matchu Picchu.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Puno to Cuzcho

I'll start with a little diversion to back to Puno, as I totally forgot that the day I arrived I also went to the the Coca museum. The Coca section was quite small and basic; mostly reams of text, but quite informative. There was also a display of costumes for local dances, and quite an interesting video about them too (including the weird Waka Waka!). The strangest thing though, was that while I was there the background music included "The Dark Isle" played on the panpipes. Wasn't really expecting that.

Anyway, to get to Cusco I'd booked on the Inca bus, a posh tourist coach with a guide that stopped at various sites. I thought that since I was rushing through this area it would be good to see a bit more. It wasn't cheap, but within the daily budget. I think I was the only native English speaker on board, with lots of older Italians and French. An argetinian guy that had been on my Puno boat trip was also on board. The first stop was at a fairly crap museum in Pucara, but it was the first inca things I'd seen. It was also in a pretty town with a nice church on the square, and I bought a dodgy empanada thing off a street-vendor for 1 soles as I was starving. We did get tea on the bus, and stopped for a very nice buffet lunch where I certianly ate my fill, including trying cebiche for the first time (yum). The other stops were at the pass (Abra la Raya, 4319m), an inca site (Raqchi) and a church (in Andahuaylillas). The pass was just to take a few picture at the highest point on the trip, it was over 4000m and I got the altitude sickness headache for a little while here. The Inca site was quite good with I huge wall, and various other buildings in a decent state of repair. The Jesuit church was also interesting with impressive art works and alterpieces, and again it was on a lovely town squre, not really worth going much out of your way for though. The guide was reasonably informative too.

I got to Cusco at 5ish, and despite not knowing where I was Iwent for a walk with my rucksack to find the office of my Inca trail tour company as I had to register that day. Turned out I was heading in just about the correct direction, and I ended up there a bit tired and sweaty a little later. They wanted to me to pay my balance there in cash, and to know my accommodation for the pick up, so I had to go a roaming around town again, and finally found a cheap hostal quite a way away (I went for my own room rather than a dorm in a party hostel as I was knackered and wanted to be ready for the trail: because of the long boat trip in Puno it was like 3 days travelling in a row). That evening I ate in a restaurant with another comedy menu. Beef with tree sauce sounded interesting (actually three sauces) but I was intrigued that the drinks menu included "gin with gin", and this was not a mistranslation as the Spannish version said "gin con gin".

The next day I just did nothing. Got this blog up to date, skyped home, got my laundry done, bought some stuff I needed for the trail and braved the dodgy looking slightly hot shower. I was actually a bit sick, perhaps it was the empanada or the cebiche I ate the day before, and I wanted it out of my system before the Inca trail too! I packed my bags up for the trail and set my alarm for 4am so I could get my pick-up the next day for the Inca Trail!


At the top of the pass.
Some scousers had stolen  this poor alpacas legs.


Some Inca thingy wall watsit.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bolivia

Time spent: 10 days, did a lot.

On budget/time: Yes, spent less than Chile and Arg, but probably not enought to compensate for them.

Lost/stolen: My antibacterial handwash, that I'd carried all this was and hardly used. What a loss. It will be suitably mourned.

Sound of Bolivia: ¿Donde Esta Mi Padre? and all Theo's other whiney love songs, no question.

Taste of Bolivia: Cold rice? Maybe not. Had some good llama.

Highlights of Bolivia: Many great experiences, different to anything before: The salt flats, the mine, the gravity assisted mountain biking, the prison!

Drink of Bolivia: Cheap red wine, chilled to almost freezing was popular, though we had one of those vintages later at the correct temperature and it was great. Bolivian beer was generally unremarkable (and the Potosini quite bad) but the microbrewery beer at the hostel was tasty, and their dark beer "Negro" quite interesting.

Bolivia was chaotic but fun, I was ready for somewhere a bit more 'backward' and it was more of an experience. It's quite different to where I was before with a huge indigenous population, and traditional dress everywhere but the big city centres. Customer service was often surly, as they seem to care less about getting your money as being left in peace and getting home; not to be hassled is quite good, but you ofter have to hassle them to get what you want. The protests and elections shennanigans made it interesting too.

Lake Titicaca

It was about 4 hours from La Paz to Copacabana (on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca) on the bus. About an hour of it was spent crossing the lake at a narrow point on a strange ferry system. The bus was put on a raft thing, just big enough to accommodate it, and the passengers had to make there on way across and then meet up with it. I managed to get on the wrong bus momentarily on the other side. D'oh.

At Copacabana I had half an hour to wander around before my bus left for Puno (after I remembered to get my passport out my rucksack, I had to wander surrepticiously past a guard who was checking them when we got off at the ferry point). The post office, which I wanted to go to was shut, so any postcards from Bolivia will have a Peruvian stamp on them. Copacabana itself looked a bit scruffy, with lots of building sites, and it smelled. There were a few nice wee nooks, but I wasn't too disappointed to have given it a miss. I then left my jacket in the bus company office and nearly boarded the next bus without it, I was having quite a day! The next bus soon crossed the border, there I briefly spoke to another Scottish guy, from Kircaldy originally. Thats 2 other scots in SA now! I also tried to take the guards stamp with me when I left the customs office! The journey along the lake side was quite scenic, especially between the ferry and Copacabana

I got in to Puno about 5 and walked quite a way through markets with my rucksack, something I hadn't done for a while as when travelling with others a taxi becomes a reasonable option. I booked a bus tour to Cuzcho two days later, changed money and checked into quite a nice wee hostal, in a single room (well it had 3 beds in it) as I was ready for a rest and some privacy. It had a nice hot shower and a tv for some olympic watching, though it was a bit chilly. That night I had Alpaca for tea, yum, and zero cholesterol apparently, err great.

Next day I'd booked a tour to some of the islands on the lake. It seemed a bit of a farce at first when we weren't on the boat we expected, and more and more people kept getting shepherded on till it was quite packed. No brits now, once in Peru the demographics changed, there were more people, more older, more younger, lots of Americans and Spannish appeared. The first stop was on the Uros floating Islands, which was pretty cool.

They are, like it says on the tin, floating islands, made from blocks of the root systems of the local reeds lashed together and then covered with layer after layer of reeds. The houses and everything else were made of the reeds too. We got quite an informative demonstration and talk, but soon it was off to the proper island of Taquile. This was a 3 hour journey on the boat (only 30km, it was a slow boat). There it was a relatively stiff climb (especially at altitude) up to where we had a talk about local customs, lunch (including an infusion of local mint, which looked suspiciously like a stick in hot water), a very amaturish local dance show (crap might be a better word) and then we climed up to the local town square on the top of the hill. The island was very picturesque, quite Mediterranian looking. It was soon time to get back to the boat for the 3 hours back home. I hadn't brought my book, just my guide book, but I'd been talking to a Swedish girl at lunch and did so a lot of the way back. In the end it was a lot of travelling for not much sight seeing, but I think it's the only real way to see the lake and I quite like being on boats. The sun here is very penetrating so I hid in the inside deck most of the journey.

It was going to be another early 6am start to Cuzcho the next day and I hadn't been sleeping well, so it was a pretty early night, after trying to get this damn blog up to date!

Copacabana from the bus.

Me on the floating islands.


On Taquile Island.

La Paz

The bus left for La Paz at 730 in the evening, and was fairly uneventful until daybreak, apart for a late stop in the middle of the night for a wee and an egg and chip roll. When we awoke we realised we'd not been moving for quite a while. Turned out we were at a blockade just outside Ouro, miners this time. There were more of us than them, but they had dynamite. The usual tactic is apparently to get off the bus with your bags and walk through to the other side of the blockade (usually a few kms) and get on another bus there. However, rumours were starting to fly: there would be another blockade further on before La Paz, there was now a blockade somewhere behind as well so we couldn't return to Sucre. We stayed with the bus and were rewarded when a half hour amnesty was announced and we were allowed through, about 5 hours late by this point. When we got to the breakfast stop (around lunch time) we met again the French couple who'd been on the mine trip. They'd heard their bus wasn't going through the blockade anyway, walked for 2 hours in the cold with their packs, ridden on the back of a truck and were now negotiating to pay again for another bus to La Paz. They chose poorly, especially when on arrival in La Paz we saw their original bus pull in at the same time as us. Arriving into La Paz is quite spectacular. The city is in a valley on the plain, with huge mountian overlooking as well. As you descend into the valley you see cheap red-brick houses clinging to the steep sides... very impressive. We checked into the Adventure Brewhostel - yes, finally a hostel with its own microbrewery. It wasn't the cheapest hostel, but was very swish. We had just time for much needed showers (finally hot this time!) before having a brief walk into town, internetting and finding a place for dinner (not so easy). The problem with many of these Andean cities is that they have far too many steep slopes, especially a problem for Richard who had to keep stopping to cough up a lung. Anyway, we finally got a decent place after wandering past many shops selling dried llama fetuses (feti?), which are good luck apparently, though not for the llama. The bad luck for the llamas didn't end there as that's what we selected for dinner - and very nice too, a white meat, but quite steaklike, especially in the sauce it came with.

After dinner it was back to the bar in the hostel, as for every night in the hostel you get a free beer from their own microbrewed range, now that's civilised. We met Jodie, an English girl who we'd bumped into in the internet cafe earlier as well as Veronica from Glasgow and her friend. Veronica being this first scot I'd met in South America, despite meeting half the population of Ireland and lots of English, French and some Dutch. Anyway, a good night was had, with the microbrewed "Negro" going down worryingly easily at 7%. Things degenerated into er... Mario kart, where I performed shamefully - must have been the altitude. We left when they were very strongly hinting they wanted to shut the bar at 230am. This may not have been the best idea since Richard, Jodie and I were due to cycle down the worlds most dangerous road getting up at 630am the next morning.

So, the world most dangerous road... this is one of the big things to do while in La Paz. It doesn't come cheap, but you hope that you're getting a bike with decent brakes etc and don't want to skimp! It starts an hour or so from La Paz at a height of 4750m and finishes at a height of 1100m, so no, you don't have to do much pedaling! So how dangerous? Well 8 tourist have died on it since 2001, with many more badly injured. 200-300 used to die in traffic accidents every year but there is now a better road on the other side of the valley. Scary biscuits!

Well we turned up at the cafe we were meant to meet at at 715 rather the worse for ware, possibly still a little drunk, however, after breakfast and the bus journey we were raring to go. We were kitted out with bikes, waterproofs, helmets, goggles, gloves, and an all important snood. A safety briefing given, and the company were certainly very safe and professional. We set off on the first sections, which were on a normal sealed road, enjoying the freewheeling and getting used to the corners. The views were pretty grand, but you kept your eyes almost exclusively on the road ahead. We proceeded in shortish sections, from 5 minutes to half an hour, waiting for the slowies to catch up and having snacks and water. An hour or so in there was 2 uphill sections. We were given the option to do these in the van, as the altitude was still killer, but most declined and gave it a go. At the end of these sections was "heartbreak hill", where I think everybody had to get out and push. By this time I'd rediscovered muscle groups I'd forgotten I had, and they weren't very happy about it. After a bit more down hill we were on to the gravel track, and the most dangereous road proper. Only one lane wide, with cliffs of up to 600 ft on the side, this was fun! No really. Once you got used to the gravel you could let go a bit. There were a few rivers to cross and a waterfall to go under, and the whole thing was great fun and quite a buzz. We got to the bottom early afternoon, after descending 3600m over 60 km. At the bottom we went to an animal sactury for a free beer and a very nice buffet lunch, and a hot shower (there was also the option of a swimming pool, but our legs were very much against the 5 minute walk to get there). The animal sanctury also had some very entertaining spidermonkeys, that were desperate for attention, and threw Richards clothes in a puddle while he was showering. Obviously its not recommended that you take photos while you're cycling down, but they were selling dvds of photos the took afterwards, so I don't have any photos, but hope to get some of Richard who bought the dvd eventually. At the end of the trip we were also presented with our survivors T-shirts, all in all a very enjoyable day and a great experience.

It was a 3 hour bus trip back, and a return to the hostel bar for our free beer and to eat, after a late night-early start we were wilting a bit, Veronica popped in for her free beer eventually as well.

The next day the plan was to go to prison, the imfamous San Pedro prison no less. This is a trip that doesn't appear in the Lonely Planet or anything, but you hear lots about from travellers along the way. There is a special wing of the prison that houses all the Gringos, and some richer Bolivian prisoners. They pay to get into this section, and pay for their rooms, a varying amount to the last occupant depending on how good it is. They have it very easy for a South American jail, with cable TV and access to drink and drugs. We just phoned up one of the South African prisoners inside, whose number we'd been given, and arranged to go that afternoon. The guards let us in and we were taken first for an introductory talk by a South African woman (not a prisoner) who claimed to be working for a charity for imprisoned gringos, though its not so clear exactly what she did. There were afew cockroaches around, and we did get bitten by things as we sat on the mattresses, so its not that luxurious, but they still have it very easy. We got tour from another South African chap, quite incomprehensible most of the time, too much marching powder I think, and also saw his room and met his wife and daughter (families are allowed to stay in this wing with the prisoners, but can leave when they like). Well that's a brief description, but all in all it was a truly surreal experience, and I must say I was quite glad when they let us out. One of the strangest things I've done.

That night was my last night in La Paz, and last with Richard who I'd travelled with for 10 days, so we thought it would be good to go out properly. While having our free drink in the hostel bar we also met a couple who Richard had met before in San Pedro, where they were waiting for new passports after having them nicked. They'd just had their wallet stolen upon arrival in La Paz and said there was quite a queue to declare such things in the Police station. We headed out by taxi to try and hit the town. The first few places we tried were shut, and at this point we were cursing Lonely Planet. Then we found an English bar that was open, but would serve only vodka (because it looks like water) as there was actually an alcohol sales ban in place before the referendum 2 days later. Eventually we went back to the hostel bar which was still serving but a bit dead (many people seemed to have heeded advice to get out of Bolivia before the referendum) for a disappointing early night.

I decided not to stay in Copacabana on the Bolivian side of lake Titicaca next night, but to head on to Puno on the Bolivian side so that I didn't get stuck, which could have meant not making it to my Inca trail on time. I was able to turn up at the bus station next morning and get on a bus almost straight away.


I only have 2 photos from La Paz, so here's one of them.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sucre

When we got to the bus station we got straight onto a bus to sucre for 1 pound 50p. So much for the blockade. The road to Sucre was actually proper scenic! There were trees and everything, something we hadn't seen for about a week. Eventually we saw where a earth barrier accross the road had been bulldozed, obviously one end of the blockade, and also various places where people had dug up a bit of the tarmac. When we got to the bus station we were even able to get a bus ticket to La Paz overnight on the next night just like we wanted! However our taxi to a hostal wasn't allowed into town due to police blockades, we eventually got pretty close and walked the rest of the way. Where we stayed was pretty swish looking, but lacking in hot water. We soon walked into the main square and saw many people milling around, waiting to make a march or protest, but not much happening yet, so we went and had another very nice dinner. Next day we wandered back to the square and this time there was lots going on, people gathered to protest about pensions, military marching bands playing (it was the day before Independence day) and shoe shine boys continually hasseling us. We bumped into the Irish girls from the mine in Potosi again, turned out they'd been delayed by washing not being ready and bits missing... more Bolivian Chaos. We had a wander round some other squares and streets - central Sucre was very nice looking. Then we went for some museums, which weren't open in the morning. Our first attempt to get into the natural history museum led us to the museum next door, an overpriced and crappy collection of some dead guys glitzy furniture. The natural history museum itself was at least cheap, with a motley collection of cross-eyed stuffed animals. Last up was the main attraction, the hall where the independence declaration was signed, now a museum. Unfortunately while we'd been in the other museums a long protest march had been heading throught he square letting of bangers. Now there was a rally going on right outside the museum so they wouldn't let us in. Eventually the orator gave up and we got in. We had the same "no English tour, Yes English tour, wait 30 mins, go there now" shennanigans before being led on what was an amazingly interesting and informative tour by a very professional guide, where we learned much about Bolivian history and current affairs. On our way out we took the opportunity to get our faces on local TV as one of the protest leaders was being interviewed and we just happened to walk past and grin like a couple of gringo idiots. Then it was off to the bus station where we dined on cold chips and colder rice before getting out bus. An Australian girl who'd been in out hostel in Potosi recognised Richard by his cough, and we also met a French couple again who'd been on our mine tour. We set of to overnight to La Paz on our nice comfy cama bus (with scabby blankets) with the threat of blockades once more in the air..

Photos:

Cathedral in the main Plaza.


Military band.


In the market.
(I may have better photos, but they're not all uploaded yet.