A Travellerspoint blog

Rio baby! But our trip went out with a whimper...

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Oh maaan! Sooo frustrating... I was ill in Rio which hampered so much of our time here. We had 5 days to enjoy the city but only managed to get out and about for one day and an afternoon. What a bummer.

I think having had 3 flights in 8 days had a lot to do with it... all those lovely germs circulating in the dry cabin air.

We arrived to a baking 31c Rio, amazing for winter eh! We found our little apartment which was located one block from Copacabana beach, our host had left us some food, water and juice in the fridge and some chocolate... a lovely welcome.

Accommodation in Rio is definitely not cheap. On our searches we were finding guesthouses with shared bathrooms for about £50 a night, so to get our own 1 bedroom apartment for the same money was a bargain.

After settling in we wandered to the beach and had caiprinhas as the sun went down. Very chilled.

Our first full day was the best... we walked from Copacabana to Ipanema, both beaches are impressive and so iconic!

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Copacabana beach

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Ipanema beach - one of the most upscale districts and an expensive part of town to stay.

I must confess I thought Rio's beaches would be full of body beautifuls, but it wasn't massively different to any other beach - all shapes and sizes. Although we did see more thongs on the beach than we've seen since the 80s!

Completely by accident we stumbled across the corner cafe where the composers of "Girl from Ipanema" penned the song, so we had to stop by for a drink and lunch. Turned out to be a pretty good cafe.

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Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking... (apparently she was only 15)

From there we wandered to a food and flower market to buy loads of fruit - the strawberries were so big and to die for!

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Nearby street to our apartment

Late afternoon/evening stroll on the beach...

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Impressive sand sculpture on Copacabana beach

A night market is set up along Copacabana's front every evening so we had a browse, I bought a couple of sarongs which seem to be the main souvenir staple over here.

The next day I was feeling ropey but we'd booked on a half day city tour so having slept all morning, we ventured out for the trip. The main stop was Christ the Redeemer, which is perched atop a very narrow peak. It's obviously the most iconic sight to see in Rio, so it was good to go although it was extremely crowded and we both felt a bit underwhelmed if we're honest. It's one of the 7 Modern Wonders of the World, but doesn't even come close to Machu Picchu by comparison. The views from the mountain were pretty special mind.

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The Maracanã - just a few days after the World Cup Final was staged

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The rest of the tour was very average, we stopped at the Maracanã stadium but we could barely see the stadium from the point they took us to.

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The last stop was Rio's Cathedral which we got to moments before it closed. A weird place that looks like a 1960s concrete Chichen Itza. It's more beautiful on the inside but pretty darn ugly on the outside.

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I felt rough from that point on, so that was pretty much our sightseeing over. We had plans to take the cable car to Sugar Loaf mountain, do an inside tour of the Maracanã, have a day on the beach and see a favela (1 in 4 people in Rio live in favelas)... but alas, it was not to be.

I guess it's a reminder that with travelling you have to take the rough with the smooth!

Having had two days/nights in the apartment, I was determined to make it out for our last night. It just felt like our big trip was ending on such a damp squib otherwise! We had caiprinhas by the beach looking wistfully out to sea, and reminisced about our incredible 10 month journey. It didn't take much for us to get misty-eyed about the fact it was our last night "on tour".

After dinner we headed back to the pad and settled in to watch Life on Mars on Netflix. Rock 'n roll! Unfortunately by our last morning (this morning... I'm that up-to-date!) Ant has come down with it too.

It's obviously not the ending we would have wanted but, as I said to some friends, after the fun and experiences we've had along the way it's difficult to get too hung up about it - it's just one of those things.

So, Rio, maybe we'll see you again sometime to finish what we started.

And now, as I write this, we have the final job of packing our rucksacks one last time. It's time for Galavantie to come home!

(Stay tuned for a trip 'Top 10' wrap-up!)

Posted by Galavantie 22.07.2014 07:23 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

The spectacle that is Iguazú Falls

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We experienced the first hiccup to our travel plans when we got to the airport in Buenos Aires. It appeared to be in chaos, even the luggage belt behind check in wasn't working so bags were just left strewn about. About an hour before take-off we discovered our flight to Puerto Iguazú had been cancelled... and ours wasn't the only one. We queued for about 2 hours to find out what the options were and were told the flight would be the same time tomorrow morning. Ratbags.

The airline put everyone up in a city centre hotel with meals provided, and I have to say it was a fairly decent hotel which came as a surprise. We were both a bit flat having spent the entire morning at the airport for nothing, so we couldn't motivate ourselves to do more sightseeing. We took the chance to chill out, do some admin and find our Rio accomm.

Unfortunately then there was a power cut, so we sat in the dark chilling out and doing admin! It had affected a few blocks not just our hotel, and the power remained off for the rest of our stay which was a right pain.

Thankfully the flight took off the following day without any hitches, although ironically we almost missed it as someone else took our taxi from the hotel which made us cut timings extremely fine, and we had to run through the airport! But anyway, panic averted and 2 hours later we had been transported to an entirely new world. Brilliant blue skies, verdant green forests and plants everywhere you looked, countless butterflies and warm temps in the mid 20s.

Puerto Iguazú was quite a cute town, if geared entirely to serve the constant flow of tourists, and is located just 11 miles from the falls. Iguazú Falls straddle both the Brazilian and Argentine borders, with roughly 80% on the Argentine side.

It's recommended to do both sides as you get a very different feel. The Argentine trails take you closer to the top and bottom of the falls, whereas from the Brazilian side you get more of a panoramic view, and really get a feel for the full extent of the falls. We'd heard that the Argentine side is better, but unfortunately some of the trails were closed as they'd been washed away from very heavy rain and floods just last month. So as it stands we actually preferred the Brazilian side.

One of the great natural wonders of the world, Iguazú Falls (according to our Rough Guide) make Niagara Falls look like a ripple. Only Victoria Falls in Africa can compare in terms of size. It is vast - comprising of 275 separate waterfalls which cascade 80m over the rim of a horseshoe shaped cliff that's 2.7km long. At any viewpoint it's impossible to see the entirety of the falls.

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One path takes you up close and personal to one of the roaring curtains of water, very cool... and very wet!

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Viewed from above

Because we'd lost a day from the cancelled flight we had to really rush around to see the Argentine side. By the time our flight had landed, we'd got to the guesthouse, checked in, dropped bags and caught the bus from the town to the falls, it was 4pm. The park closed at 6pm! One of the trails was quite long so we were virtually powerwalking our way around to make sure we saw everything in time. It was funny/exhausting!

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We spotted several toucans and had a really great view of them in the trees - much better than the rare glimpses we got in Mindo, Ecuador

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The mist thrown up rises 30m high resulting in rainbows

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Looking frazzled but relieved we'd made it!

We had a more leisurely experience on the Brazilian side and really enjoyed the trails and walkways around the falls. The land border crossing was straightforward enough - our first would you believe as Laos was across the Mekong, Malaysia was by sea and everywhere else we've arrived by flight.

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'Cute' coatis were commonplace... they possess a mean set of claws

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At the heart of the falls is Garganta del Diablo (The Devil's Throat), where 1800 cubic metres of water per second hurtles over the rock into the misty river beneath. Wow!

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We haven't had an "awwwwwwesome" for a while ;)

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Pretty damn spectacular I think you'd agree.

Posted by Galavantie 20.07.2014 02:27 Archived in Argentina Comments (1)

Buenos Aires: Steak. Malbec. Repeat.

semi-overcast 14 °C

Before getting to BA we had a flight back to Lima from Cusco. The only two things of note were that this time we stayed in the Barranco district of Lima which we loved... much more bohemian, arty and 'real' compared to the touristy Miraflores. We found a fantastic locals restaurant for lunch which was packed to the rafters in readiness for the Brazil v Germany game... and we all know how thrilling that was!

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We also squeezed in a visit to Mario Testino's only permanent exhibition in the world, which happened to be about a 20 minute walk from our guesthouse. His work was beautifully presented with just four huge portraits in each room... a Kate room, a Madge room and a Princess Di room were the highlights. Fab stuff.

Then we took a flight from Lima to BA. Ahhhh Buenos Aires, what a great city.

Obviously there are a lot of factors at play which determine how much you like a new place... your own frame of mind, your chosen accommodation, the weather, the people you meet, the food and so on... and BA ticked pretty much every box.

We had splurged a little on an apartment through airbnb...turns out the company cater to the gay community, but hey - this just meant the apartment came complete with animal skin rug and chandeliers! ;)

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Our street in upmarket Palermo - a highly recommended part of town to stay

BA doesn't have lots of touristy sights compared to other capital cities, it's a 'real' city if that makes sense... people just going about their daily business. It has a European feel and is justly known as "the Paris of South America". It's really strange because we met a well-travelled, intelligent and balanced Aussie way back in the Galapagos who commented that Buenos Aires was the most dangerous city in South America for tourists and he really didn't like it. We couldn't have got a more different feeling and, whilst you have to be careful in any major city, we felt we could let our guard down much more here than say in Lima or Quito.

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Plaza de Mayo - the main square

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Casa Rosada - the Presidential Palace

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The landmark obelisk along Avenida 9 de Julio, famous for large congregations of football fans (more on the football later) and for being on the widest avenue in the world. The avenue has up to seven lanes in each direction and is flanked on either side by parallel streets of two lanes each!

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I have to say it... Don't cry for me Arrrrrrrgentinaaaaaaa

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The gorgeous Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Merced, probably my favourite church interior we've seen (and we've seen a few...)

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Buenos Aires' answer to the Trafford Centre

The city's newest area - Puerto Madero, or is it Salford Quays?

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What BA has that not every city can claim is an 'essence'... a certain vibe/feeling. Paris has it, as does NY and London. You just almost immediately immerse yourself in the feel of the city. There's a sultry moodiness in the air - very Latin American.

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The locals sometimes appear a little rude but it's just their mannerism and way. We probably had the most gruff welcome through customs and immigration of all the countries we've visited.

It's the coolest place (temperature cool) that we've been to. It's mid-winter of course but considering this it was still mild at 14c.

We loved so much about it, but especially the steak and wine. We found some great restaurants (and a pretty bad touristy one - La Cabrera... v overrated) and the reputation for Argentine steak did not disappoint. I had one of the biggest fillet steaks I've ever seen which melted in the mouth like butter... and for less than a tenner! We pretty much drank red wine every night, to the point where we left the city feeling completely redwined-out. But when in Rome eh?!

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Annie: "You're drinking great wine and about to have a steak in Argentina. You could look happier about it."

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"That's more like it!"

Oh, and another thing. They eat really late over here. 8.30pm is considered early, some people were getting their main courses after 11pm! It's amazing how different the world is... many Kiwis are tucked up in bed by 9pm...

So what's to see?

BA is famed for its cemetery, and as the final resting place for the "Spiritual Leader of Argentina", Evita Peron. Granted it's an unusual tourist attraction, but it was a beautiful place to stroll around and admire the crumbling (and shiny black) vertical crypts.

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We did our usual art gallery thing seeing as it's been a while since we've had our fix. We visited MALBA (modern art), Museo de Bella Artes (traditional paintings) and the privately donated Fortabat Art Collection.

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Antonio Berni - a famous Argentine "New Realism" painter in the 20th century

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I love this - the central woman epitomises Buenos Aires for me

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Frida Kahlo

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The bench that keeps on giving

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On Sundays an entire street is given over to a vintage/tourist market. It was crazy busy which drove Ant a bit doolally but there was a great atmosphere with excellent street musicians, puppeteers, dancers and street food vendors.

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We also visited La Boca, a somewhat shady district which has a few problems, but the touristy area of La Caminita is home to BA's famous colourful buildings. We were really disappointed though as there was only really one street where you could get a good look at the brightly painted wooden or corrugated iron clad houses. The rest of the area was so incredibly touristy with very average looking restaurants, naff figurines of famous Argentinians and tango dancers pestering passersby for photo opportunities. Urgh.

And wander a street or two away from this and suddenly the area feels very grim. We walked to the Boca Juniors stadium for a quick peak and passed some kids having a kick about on an urban pitch.

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There were two final key activities left to do - wine tasting and watching the World Cup Final. We really wanted to do a winery tour in Argentina until we realised the wine regions were miles away and close to the Chilean border. So as a compromise we found a wine tasting option in the city.

It was completely different to any other wine tasting we've done in that a) it was in a room in a city and b) it included small food platters with each wine. It was fab! There was only 7 of us tasting - a couple from Brazil, Tim from London over here with work and Ca & Rob who live in the UK - Ca is originally from Germany.

The evening was hugely enjoyable... not forgetting the wines which were gorgeous. And best of all the host was more than happy to top up any glasses so we ended up having full measures instead of usual tasting ones.

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No doubt helped by the volume of wine, the group got along famously so when it was over we all headed to a packed micro-brewery bar to continue the evening. And we agreed to meet up the next day for the final. Nice to watch it with new friends!

Tim works for a sports marketing agency and was doing a promotion for Samsung in a busy sports bar, so it made perfect sense to head there for the game. Sadly the Brazilian couple didn't make it but we watched the game with Ca and Rob. Must've been so hard for Ca who had to suppress her support for Germany, and I was willing them to win too. Ca had put her Germany football shirt on at the start for a photo and apparently got some disgusted looks so we had to keep a low profile. We actually met another German at the end of the game who went disguised in an Argentina shirt!!

We had purposefully decided to avoid Brazil for the World Cup mainly due to inflated costs and availability of accommodation, but as it turns out to be in Argentina when they were playing in the final was probably even better. The atmosphere was electric... well until Germany scored of course and then it went pancake flat...

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Oopsie... taken before the first goal was disallowed

All in all one of our favourite destinations!

Posted by Galavantie 18.07.2014 11:51 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

So Machu (Picchu)

sunny 22 °C

Our alarm went off at 4.30am and we were in a long queue with our guide, Isaac, to catch a bus to Machu Picchu before 6am. We're getting good as this early morning stuff! Apparently on a busy day there can be 7,000 visitors, so we were glad to be up and at it before the real crowds kicked in.

We had a thirty minute bus ride up the mountains that had me squirming in my seat as I looked down the steep drop offs around every hairpin bend...

I read a little known fact that apparently you cannot enter the site dressed in the traditional costume of another country. Phew, thank goodness we left our bearskins behind!

As I got my first glimpses (Ant's been here before) it was pretty special. The sun hadn't yet reached over the peaks so we got to see the sun rise over the mountains around 7am. It was definitely worth the effort to be there for that moment.

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Our guide (the same one for the two-day trek) came from a farming background and speaks Quechua as his first language. His viewpoint was interesting, culturally he doesn't identify with the Spanish heritage. It was fascinating to hear 'his peoples' side of the story, where he considers the Spanish as invaders rather than conquerors. It's not hard to see why when the Spanish came and destroyed in their quest for Inca riches and gold.

So much about the Incas has been lost because no records were made of their temples when the Spanish tore down some of their buildings. To this day we still don't know how they managed to achieve such perfection with the limited tools they had available - theirs was a spoken language and nothing was written down.

Isaac gave us a two hour tour of Machu Picchu and then we had our own time at the site to explore. In Quechua 'machu' means old, and 'pikchu' peak, therefore "old peak". The site is 2,430 metres above sea level and close to the edge of Amazonia. Where we'd trekked was part of the "brown Andes" but here it's much warmer and forms part of the "green Andes".

Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. It was built around 1450, but the Incas abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

Machu Picchu was brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. It wasn't until 1983 that it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and more recently in 2007 it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

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The Sun Temple

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One of the 16 wells - an ingenius water system throughout the complex

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A chinchilla!

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Once we were left to our own devices, we decided to climb to the sun gate 'Intipunki' to see another iconic viewpoint of Machu Picchu. The day was already becoming very hot so we had to take a few breaks on the way up!

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The road up with Machu Picchu looking like a tiny cutout in the rock

We were so glad we did it as the views were fab, even though we did time it with lots of American teenagers who were 'whooping' constantly and being annoyingly loud!

It was a nice chilled walk back down and for our final views, we sat on one of the terraces that had been packed first thing but were now quiet.

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After leaving MP it was the train journey back to Ollantaytambo and an onward bus trip to Cusco. It was about 8pm by the time we got back to the city so we were pretty knackered after an early start and full day.... but wow... to see one of the seven modern wonders of the world was fantastic, and it completely lived up to my expectations!

Posted by Galavantie 14.07.2014 13:46 Archived in Peru Comments (2)

Trekking in the Andes - Huchuy Qosqo

sunny

We meant to do the Inca Trail but we were so busy having a good time at the end of last year, that we didn't get round to booking it when we should have. When we finally got round to looking at it in February all the day permits had gone. They only allow 500 permits a day, and 300 of those go to the sherpas.

Initially we were a bit gutted, but the more we researched, the more we realised that some of the alternative treks offer a totally different experience and are a lot less busy.

We decided to do the two day Huchuy Qosqo trek with Machu Picchu as an add-on for day 3. The most frequented treks are generally three days so the one we went for was a little-known, barely walked trail. We saw just one other group of 8 doing it, and then there was our group... of two. Well three if you include the guide. We were quite happy to have the trek just for us!

It was a 6am start and we met up with our guide, the head chef and sous chef. They cooked up a fab breakfast in the middle of a field in a tiny settlement outside of Cusco. There was still frost on the ground and it was bloomin' nippy.

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The horseman then arrived with three horses to carry all the gear. Apparently to get to us he'd been trekking since 1am! Good grief! It was a strange feeling having a support team of four people for just us two.

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Breakfast clearly didn't satisfy Ant and he'd resorted to eating his trouser leg

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Our entourage

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It was uphill straight away and we had to go through a couple of mountain passes until we reached a plateau for our lunch stop.

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The food was unbelievably good considering what the guys had to work with - basic cooking facilities in an erected tent in the middle of nowhere.

We passed loads of llamas and alpacas out in the open, a couple of lakes, and then finally descended to reach our overnight camp spot.

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An old Inca water channel

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The village where we camped just on the outskirts

The sherpas had set up our tent already on a narrow strip of ground above a small village. We relaxed for a bit when we could hear children coming up the hill, then they started peering into the tent saying "hola", it was pretty cute. They were all grubby, dirty feet and faces... definitely living the rural life.

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Then the mamas started traipsing up to our campsite and before we knew it, they'd set up a mini-market of Peruvian crafts between our tents and the kitchen tent! Talk about awkward. We've already practically doubled our bag weight in souvenirs and we're pretty much done with the 'scooby-doo' stalls you see everywhere. But we were the only tourists and they looked so expectantly at us! As we politely browsed through the wares, I felt about 100 eyes burning into us willing us to buy from each mama... it was bloody awful! We felt so obliged we ended up buying a material bracelet each and had to take our leave with a "gracias" whilst they all looked back as us very disappointed.

By now, around 5pm, it was already worryingly cold with the sun no longer on the hills. The order of Andean trekking days is early to bed, early to rise, so after dinner (where we were sat in the kitchen tent shivering and just wanting it to be over), it was straight to bed. It was only about 7.30pm! I think that's a first.

I admit I was dreading this bit. I know, I've got a brilliant idea! Let's camp in a tent, at altitude, in the Andes, in winter!

The company had supplied top quality mummy sleeping bags which was a relief, along with two thick blankets, but it was cold. More to the point it was below freezing. The Titicaca homestay was positively balmy by comparison!

We kitted ourselves out in thermals, hats, scarves, gloves and an extra layer, and settled into our mummy-bags. The good thing was going to bed so early gave us plenty of opportunity to get some kip. It wasn't as bad as we had thought, we woke several times conversely either cold or roasting hot, where the sleeping bags were clearly very effective. Dogs barking in the village kept us awake, but at 5.20am when it was time to get up, we felt refreshed and wide awake. (Anyone who knows me will know this was nothing short of miraculous!)

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Frost on our tent in the morning

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Our pitch and distant loo tent

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Brrrrrr!

The second day was a fantastic walk - challenging at times - but such awesome scenery and vistas. Because we started walking at 6.45am we reached the first mountain pass before the mountain clouds had burnt off. Far below us stretched the Sacred Valley of the Incas covered in cloud. It was breathtaking!

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Farmers' crops

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An Andean village

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The path took us through an impressive gorge and over some rickety bridges which led to a perfect rest stop overlooking the now clear valley. To top it off we saw a condor circling and casting an enormous shadow on the mountainside.

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The final point of interest, and what gives this trek its name, was the remains of the Inca site Huchuy Qosqo (little Cusco). It's still being uncovered from the mud so it could be 50-100 years before the site is fully restored, but it was an impressive site.

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By this point the sun was fierce, and as we were continually descending it was getting hotter and hotter. We both started to overheat and it was a long arduous descent down a steep scrabbly path which was parched and giving off a lot of heat. Despite some of the climbs we'd done, this was actually the hardest part, and we weren't far off suffering from heatstroke. So weird that it was the same day we'd set off with frost on the ground!

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Stunning view of the Sacred Valley of the Incas

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It was a wonderful feeling getting to the site where the sherpas had set up for a late lunch. Throughout the trip they had fed us so well, three courses for lunch and dinner, and a choice of five dishes for breakfast. And they left after us at each stop, ran past us at some point on the trail, and set up at the next stop before we'd got there... ridiculous! We had so much respect for these guys.

Tired and aching feet, but having had a brilliant couple of days, we then had a bus transfer and train journey to Aguas Calientes in readiness for Machu Picchu - our reward!

Posted by Galavantie 11.07.2014 19:35 Archived in Peru Comments (2)

Inca ruins, wee smells and tonnes of touts

sunny 20 °C

We can't deny it was a nice feeling to be in a comfortable B&B again and have the facilities of a town after our Titicaca homestay. It was also exactly three weeks to the day we would be flying home.... so these two things combined put us in the mood for a few drinks back in Puno.

Several hours later, several cuba libres downed, and we'd had a great evening... but, oh boy, I seriously paid the price the next day. Urgh!

We had to be up at 6am to catch a 7am bus to Cusco. When I first came to I really didn't think that was going to be possible. But we managed to get the bus with just a few minutes to spare, and had a long 10 hour journey ahead. Just what you need with a raging hangover...

The journey to Cusco is only 6 hours if you go straight through, but we'd chosen to do a tour bus with about 6 stops at various points of interest. I have to say it was really good all-in-all, and thankfully the hangover subsided surprisingly quickly.

Soon after Puno we passed through Juliaca, a city not recommended for tourists. It was a chaotic state of a place, incredibly dusty with a poor infrastructure. It's renowned for its black market with smuggled cheaper goods from Bolivia, and it's pretty much left to its own devices with authorities turning a blind eye to the illegal activities. Residents don't pay taxes and therefore the government don't invest anything to improve the city... so it's Catch 22.

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We then drove through the altiplano (high plateau) of the Andes, getting glimpses of rural folk going about their daily business.

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The stops the bus made ranged from archaeological sites to small village churches, one of which has been dubbed "the Sistine Chapel of the Andes", on account of its painted ceilings and murals.

High altitude souvenir shopping... I tell you what, Peruvians don't miss a trick...

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Pukara, an historic village where the pre-Inca Pukara people were famed for their ceramics and stone carvings...

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Very errr... Catholic

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The locals have two (surprised looking) ceramic bulls on their roofs - the bulls signify power to bring strength and protection to the family

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Raqchi, an Inca site...

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Churches en-route...

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Being an idiot

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St Peter's - the 'Sistine Chapel of the Andes'... no pics allowed inside but it was beautifully painted

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Great views from the bus as we got closer to Cusco...

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The white 'blob' on the hill is a large figure of Christ overlooking the town

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There's no denying Cusco is quaint, and as the "navel" of the Inca civilisation is an absolute must on any Peru itinerary, but my God it's touristy. Depressingly so. You get mithered to death on the streets to buy paintings, keyrings, massages, coins... you end up permanently saying "no gracias" to everyone. It definitely takes the edge off.

Oh, that and the wee smell everywhere. Well, almost everywhere. Down narrow Inca streets and around smaller plazas it really reeks of urine. Ant said he doesn't remember it from his 2006 visit, so we're not sure if it's a new problem or not. But either way it's pretty gross and gagworthy.

Cusco's Plaza de Armas is gorgeous, and probably one of the finest examples (ignoring the open top tourist buses and the touts) that we've seen. Cusco has some extremely narrow cobbled streets which give the city real character, and are great to wander around (ignoring the endless touts, shop assistants trying to lure you in, oh, and those wee smells).

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Cusco streets

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The most famed of Inca kings - Pachacuti... he is acknowledged to have established the Inca Empire which reached from Ecuador in the north to Chile in the south

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Plaza de Armas

Mainly due to our unexpected extended stay in Arequipa we weren't left with much time in Cusco, so to maximise our time we booked on a city coach tour which took in the key sights. It was fascinating seeing the Inca buildings with their interlocking wall perfection very apparent in the stonework.

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We did feel incredibly herded around and every place we went to was so overrun with tourists, that I didn't like Cusco as much as I'd hoped to.

I suppose ultimately its proximity to Machu Picchu is inevitably going to mean it's a tourist mecca. And of course it has itself been declared the archaeological capital of Latin America - the surrounding area of the city is jam-packed with fascinating Inca sites.

But Cusco has to win the most touristy place we've been to award, and not just in South America but of the whole trip.

Posted by Galavantie 10.07.2014 20:29 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Puno & Lake Titicaca

sunny 19 °C

The 5.5 hour journey from Arequipa to Puno (located on Lake Titicaca) was really enjoyable. We chose a tour bus this time which was a small mini-van with guide and some stops along the way to break it up.

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El Misti, one of the big volcanoes in this area

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During the drive we reached a height of 4,500m which will probably be the highest point of our whole trip. It's definitely enough to feel the effects... a bit of a headache and shortness of breath. The locals living at altitude have more oxygen per blood volume than the rest of us, giving them the ability to cope with the reduced oxygen in the air. Apparently at 4,000m the oxygen level is only about 60% of that at sea level.

Puno is a relatively new city, and the first thing that strikes you is it's a very 'brown' town. The majority of the buildings are identical in colour and really blend into the background hills when viewed from a distance.

Rather than jump straight on an overnight tour of Lake Titicaca, we gave ourselves a day off to chill out and do some 'travmin'. There's not a great deal to do in Puno itself but we found a fab restaurant in the evening and browsed a few shops. The main square was small but attractive with a beautiful compact cathedral.

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It's really sad to see older women wrapped up sitting on cold streets selling wares to make a few Peruvian soles

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Our B&B was good - our room was decorated in bright reds, oranges and yellows so it looked very cosy but the first night was pretty cold. Thank God for our New Zealand head to toe thermals! The altitude is 3,800m and at night the temperatures plummet to around -3c. During the day the sun is fierce, it's very warm in the sun but quite cool in the shade so it makes dressing appropriately a challenge.

Our tour started early and a boat trip took us out to the Uros islands, the floating islands made of reeds. There are 80 islands in total, thankfully most are not 'open' to tourists.

We saw a demonstration of how the islands are built. From the many reed beds in the area they use the deep root systems, which naturally float, as a 1 metre foundation. They then cover this with a metre deep surface of layered reeds. The base lasts 30 years before rotting away.

The experience was super touristy... after the demo, we were ushered to the women sat down with all their crafts and wares and we all felt pressure to buy something. We didn't appreciate that part but it was interesting to see the reed islands and how the communities live.

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Puno viewed from Lake Titicaca

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You gringo! Buy stuff!

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We headed on to Amantani Island which took about 3 hours! You probably know this already but Lake Titicaca is the world's highest navigable lake, and when you're on it it does feel a bit like being at sea, albeit much much calmer.

Amantani was where we were staying the night in a family home. We were paired up with another couple, Karl (UK) and Malin (Sweden), and we met our host - a mother, Rosalia - early 30s with the cutest baby carried on her back.

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Our accommodation, as expected, was very basic - two single beds, no heating (cripes) and an outside loo.

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Our front door was tiny!

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What a cutie-pie!

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Karl and Ant playing footie with our hosts' young son

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The small blue door was the outside loo

We met the rest of the group (around 20 in total) to tackle a hill just behind the village for views of the lake and sunset. It wasn't a massive hill but it's no mean feat walking uphill at altitude and we all took it slow and easy. Several mamas from the village had already got settled up the hill with various goods laid out for sale, not missing an opportunity to take the gringos' money. Bloomin' inflated prices too... we bought a KitKat as a summit treat for about £1.50!!

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Dinner was served back in our respective homes. It was a welcome sight to see a real fire burning on the stove after being up on the cold hill. The food was simple but delicious, particularly quinoa soup for starters.

It was very cute to see the family go about their daily business, feeding the baby and the other two children helping out. We met the father who was as welcoming as the mother, and we couldn't help but feel we'd been matched up with such a lovely family. Their living conditions were very basic, it really does make you think about how much stuff and comfort we have in our lives by comparison. It's very humbling.

The village put on a 'fiesta' for us, which again felt super touristy, but the band were excellent with traditional uplifting South American music. All the gringoes were kitted out in traditional dress which was very heavy (and tight), although I was actually quite grateful for the extra layers.

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Us and our lovely hosts. Because we were fully dressed underneath including woolly jumpers, the clobber was muchos unflattering... adding some serious girth!

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We stopped to admire the night sky for a while which was incredible. There's no light pollution, and being at elevation the sky glistens with more stars than is normally possible to see. The Milky Way was so clear, and because some of the stars are close to the horizon it felt like being under an enormous sparkling dome. A very special moment.

And so to bed, and our very cold bedroom. Bed attire consisted of top and bottom thermals, two pairs of socks, a scarf, a hat and a fleece! I was just about ok although my legs were cold whenever I moved in the night, as was the air in the room. The thick heavy blankets were pretty good at pinning us down and trapping the warmth, but we were grateful it was just the one night.

We had breakfast with the family and big goodbye hugs and kisses, even from the kids - bless!

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Bye bye Amantani... the middle hill was the one we walked up to see the sunset

The final part of the tour was a trip to the island of Taquile. It was so beautiful, and felt like a Greek island at the end of a hot summer. The brilliant blue lake shimmered like a sea as a constant backdrop, the terraced land was golden and the smell of eucalyptus filled the warm air. We were instantly transported back to Australia on first whiff!

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It was just stunningly beautiful

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UNESCO declared Taquile's textiles a 'Masterpiece of the Oral and Tangible Heritage of Humanity' in 2005. Bit of a mouthful but basically their handmade textiles are so fine and detailed they look like they're machine made.

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The locals seemed a bit tetchy. We were told they don't like their photos taken and we should ask first (fair enough), but I was taking a photo of some sheep along the path and a grumpy old woman stuck her hand out asking for money. I said no as I deliberately didn't take a photo of her and she angrily waved her hand in the air saying "no photo!". Payment for a sheep photo? They didn't seem put out by the experience. Baaaaaah.

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The islanders have developed a unique method of differeniating the married men from the singletons. The single men wear a red and white hat, which is then worn slightly differently once they are in a relationship, and once married they only wear red hats. Genius! Must make life a lot less complicated. You could also make out the married ones as they looked the most unhappy... ha ha.

A highlight was lunch in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the village and across to the snow-capped mountains in Bolivia.

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Such a fantastic trip, certainly one of the highlights of our time in Peru!

Posted by Galavantie 08.07.2014 18:50 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

Arequipa's a keeper! (It's not easy thinking up blog titles)

A warning for the squeamish: contains pics of human mummified remains!

sunny 22 °C

It just goes to prove you have to make up your own mind about places rather than take too much notice of other people's opinions. As the crowd once said to Brian of Nazareth, "Yes! We're all individuals! Yes, we ARE all different!".

We'd briefly chatted to two Dutch girls in Nasca who were doing the 'Gringo trail' the opposite way to us. They were quick to say there wasn't much to do in Arequipa and that one day was plenty enough. We couldn't disagree more!

Arequipa was lovely, perhaps not as pretty as Cuenca overall, but we thought there was more to see - and what was on offer was either super interesting or very beautiful.

The guidebook describes Arequipa as having a relatively wealthy population of 750,000 and it "maintains a rather aloof attitude to the rest of Peru". It's also known as the "White City" due to the extensive use of white sillar stone (of pyroclastic origin) for its stunning colonial buildings.

Now, admittedly if you were up for full sightseeing days you probably could squeeze in all the main sights in two days, but this still (in our opinion) doesn't do the city justice. There are wonderful courtyard cafes, cute bars, a great choice of restaurants and plenty of souvenir shopping opportunities, which all deserve leisurely investigation.

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Most of the city's taxis are like this

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Coca leaves tea - good for altitude sickness!

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Amazingly tasty food!

Our time in Arequipa ended up being dictated by me being floored with a bad case of traveller's tum, and our planned three days became five and a half. However, despite having to spend nearly half the time holed up in the hotel room, we still managed to see all we wanted to, we just had to take the sights one by one and slowly.

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So, as well as the ubiquitous Catholic churches, a landmark Cathedral, a main plaza and a central market - all of which appear to grace South American cities, Arequipa also has some fascinating museums.

We only made it to two - Museo Santuarios Andinos and Museo Arqueológico UNSA.

The former explains the story of "Juanita" or "Ice Princess" - the immaculately preserved mummy of a young girl aged around 13, who was sacrificed atop a nearby mountain around 500 years ago. Her body was found in 1995.

A National Geographic video provides further insight into the sacrifices the Incas made, which were all children aged 16 or younger. A total of 18 graves have been uncovered. We then saw the various intricate offerings found within the graves, culminating with Juanita's tiny mummified body itself, displayed in a -20c perspex container in a darkened room.

It's very hard not to feel saddened and shocked by the practice of sacrificing children. It seems barbaric and cruel to us. But to the Incas this was a hugely important ceremonial offering to the Gods. The children to be sacrificed were chosen as young as one, and usually for their beauty, clear skin or health. They had to be as pure as possible, and their sacrifice would be made at a time of great need, for example, after a severe drought or a natural disaster.

They would sedate the child with a mix of chicha and a hallucenagenic plant extract, and a powerful blow to the head was delivered to make the sacrifice. It's not easy to understand, but they believed the child would become a deity in their own right, effectively Gods, and it was considered a great honour to be selected.

No photos were allowed inside the exhibition but the second museum, Museo Arqueológico UNSA, gave us the chance to photograph some of the gruesome displays. A number of gnarled mummies were on show, including some deformed skulls.

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The Plaza de Armas is dominated on one side by the white facade of the Cathedral, and on the remaining sides by colonial architecture and a series of arches.

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Cathedral

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The beautifully ornate Iglesia de la Compañía

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The central market was great for a wander, and although we've seen a few on our travels now, they never fail to fascinate. Just seeing the different produce available in different parts of the world (and generally how much nicer it is than our scrubbed and bleached supermarket fayre) is really interesting... and just a tad depressing. However, the meat stalls in developing countries, with the various 'bits' they sell, are ever so slightly less appealing...

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Purple corn

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Bet you didn't know there are 3,000 varieties of spuds in Peru!

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An impressive line of fresh fruit juicers

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Hanging meat products...

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Mmmm, stomach linings

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Those without stalls in the market spill out onto the street

The highlight, without question, was the Monastery of Santa Catalina. I had no idea a monastery could be so engaging. It was absolutely beautiful... a warren of cobbled 'streets', nooks and crannies, open kitchens, orange tree courtyards... it was a total surprise, and probably the most outstanding building we've seen in SA so far.

The monastery takes up a whole block on Arequipa's gridded street layout, and dates back to 1579. There are just 21 nuns here today, ranging from as young as 25 to 100!

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Arequipa is also the main base for trips to Colca Canyon, however as we were delayed here we chose to press on to Lake Titicaca as our next stop.

Posted by Galavantie 03.07.2014 19:38 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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