Archive for October, 2009

Northern Peru

Flying to Lima from La Paz, we almost immediately hopped on a pre-booked bus to Huaraz (plane landed at 7 p.m., bus departing at 10 p.m.). The plan had been to do a nice 4-5 day trek up near Huaraz, in the Cordillera Blanca, said to be one of the most scenic ranges in South America. Well, no such luck. The rainy season was upon us, and Dan wasn´t feeling that great, either. The annoying part about the start of the rainy season is that while there isn´t enough rain to deter serious hikes (it only drizzles in the late afternoon/evening), the low clouds are constantly present due to you being trapped in a valley between two high mountain ranges – so there is no view to speak of. Only to the next foothills, and then everything past that is covered in billowing white clouds. And at that stage – what´s the big point of doing a hike renowned for the vistas it offers?

So while Dan was recovering, I explored Huaraz itself and took two day tours. Huaraz is a cute little town but not much to speak of, although I did find one cafe which would put Canadian coffeehouses to shame – 3rd and 4th levels of a building, with an open middle and mostly-couch seating along the outside of the ¨second¨ floor which offered great views of the surrounding mountains (where there were no clouds, that is).

The first day trip was to Laguna Llanganuco, with a few interesting stops along the day. On the first stop we visited the town of Yungay, the site of an avalanche on May 31, 1970 (a result of the Ancash earthquake) which killed most of the town´s inhabitants. The earthquake dislodged a large glacier shelf at the side of nearby Huascaran Mountain, and the multi-million-cubic-meter-strong mass tumbled towards the city, avalanche-style. The debris demolished the city and buried the remains, the force of the impact instantaneously killing nearly all of the inhabitants. The only exceptions were people up in the cemetery (a hill with a giant Jesus statue) and the stadium (natural features upstream of the stadium diverted the flow just enough for the avalanche to bypass most of the stadium). Due to debris settling with age, the city is now buried in around 5-10 meters of debris, and the whole area has been declared a cemetery by the government – no excavation is permitted. This used to be a very rich area, with brides decked out in multiple golden decorations on their wedding day, so numerous fortunes have been lost. A lone palm, old but only with a few top meters sticking out of the rubble, is a poignant reminder of the disaster. It used to grow in the central square of the town, and is about the only thing that survived the force of the avalanche intact. Pieces of the cathedral and a few twisted bus frames also litter the landscape, amongst small memorials erected by families in approximate places where houses uses to be located.

The lake itself was very scenic, with a few glacier-covered mountains in the background, and the drive was just as good – a nearly infinite serious of switchbacks up the mountain. On the way I also got to try two local snacks – steamed corn with some fresh cheese over top (the corn here is like nothing I´ve ever tasted), as well as papas rellenas (mashed potato patties, stuffed with bacon, onion and cheese, and fried on the outside). Have I mentioned yet I love Peruvian food?

The second trip was to Chavin, the site of a ruin of a ceremonial site of the Chavin civilization, build in 1,200-1,300 BC. After another nearly-full day on the bus, I felt like I had gone for a good hike, with my whole body aching – it turns out it takes quite a few muscles to keep you upright on a bumpy road!

Our first stop, after a bit of a scenic climb, was Laguna Querococha, a lovely little (but deep, up to 80 m) lake below a cute peak. One thing I find interesting here is that the source of canyons in the mountainsides is very obvious – large funnel-shaped deposits of rubble litter the slopes right underneath most canyons. Getting back on the bus, we drove past an area where the rocks make fairly obvious shapes of animals – much less imagination required than usual. I saw the dinosaur and the monkey, but not the elephant. Eventually, we got to Cahuish Tunnel, a very impressive tunnel carved right through a mountain – 500 m long, all of it still with the rough look of a just-dug-through-tunnel, and water dripping down from the roof and walls in some places. Coming out of the tunnel, we were greeted by another large status of Jesus, looking over the valley into which we were about to descend.

I ran out of patience at this point, since I was getting tired, so my observations of the Chavin architectural park will have to come in point form. Here are some notable things about the site:

1) The main plaza is perfectly divided into a north and south half, a division which extends into the main temple, as well. The main steps leading up to the temple are divided by this line, with one half being made out of white (well, grey, in the rain) stone, and the other out of black. Same goes for the outer walls of the temple. The Chavin really believe in symmetry.
2) Underground water drainage systems, leading away from the temple to the river. Guess it rained a lot back then, too. They are shaped in a zig-zag instead of a straight line in order to slow down the flow of water, and include small aeration shafts in order to keep the water flowing when necessary.
3) A stone with 7 circular bowls cut into it, which are thought to have been polished smooth, filled with water, and used as (magnifying?) mirrors to observe the stars. The whole site is supposed to have been an astronomical observatory used to predict which crops should be planted next year, used by farmers from far and wide – and the priests were paid in agricultural product. Clever, huh?
4) The underground tunnels. Very cool. Various tunnels used for everything from storing meat (cold storage) to a maze used in religious rituals. Another subset is called the Gallery of Columns (or something to that effect) and the archways are formed by giant slabs of stone resting overhead. Actually, that one was just a bit scary since some of the stones were cracked, and held up by makeshift wooden supports.

So, a bit of scenery and some history lessons. Not bad. But not as much as I had wanted to do, either. I kind of regret not having put Huaraz first in the list instead of last, when we were closer to the dry season, and weren´t as tired or sick. A pity. This would be another good reason to come back to Peru some day, but with all the other places we keep talking about visiting, I don´t know if that will ever happen. Guess we´ll see. Maybe a 20th anniversary trip to retrace our honeymoon steps? 🙂

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Mountains around La Paz

Our last few days in La Paz were filled with shopping and mountains. We decided to do things in order of increasing complexity, so first we did the Chacaltaya trip and then the Pico Austria trip.

On the first day, when we were picked up in the morning, we drove for about 2 hours to end up at Chacaltaya, once the world´s highest ski resort at 5,300 m. Along the way we had great views of Huayana Potosi, as well as Lake Titicaca, and the mountain ranges surrounding La Paz. A little bit cloudy, so we didn´t see everything, but still very impressive. It should be noted that we drove up to 5,300 m. Yup, them hills (and roads) around here are pretty high. From there, where the view was already pretty spectacular, we hiked for almost an hour (hey, hiking actually take effort at this altitude) to get to the 5,421 summit. The second most stunning part about the tour (after the views, of course), was finding out that 50 years ago, the areas where we walked had been covered by a glacier 50 m deep. Now, occasional small patches are the only thing that´s left, remnants of snowfall a few days ago.

From there, we drove back to, and through, La Paz, to end up at the Valley of the Moon, a very interestingly eroded area. The erosion happens during the rainy season as the clay soil gets washed out. After tens of thousands of years, we´re left with what looks like a desert filled with stalagmites, a very interesting and intricate network of walls and spires, reminiscent in places of organ pipes. In others, narrow openings plunge 15 m below, serving as a drainage during the rainy season. Some spires, where there is some rock material present, in addition to the clay, end up with these cute little hats made of small rocks.

The second day, our last full day in Bolivia, was devoted to a scramble of Pico Austria (5,300 m). This was a hike that actually involved work, as we started around 4,500 m. What didn´t we have on this day! – oh yeah, that´s right: sun. We had all forms of precipitation (rain, hail, snow), but no sun and few moments when clouds parted enough to see. Up at 5,000 m, this means that parts of the hike, as well as the summit, were spent in a milky-white haze.

Breakfast at the hostel officially started at 7:30, but we headed down around 7:29 and were lucky enough to find some pancakes already out. Our pick-up time was 7:30-7:45, so we figured we had a good 20 minutes to eat. Imagine our surprise when, at 7:25, our guide shows up! Amazing, given all our previous complaints about the timeliness of things around here. Luckily, we were the only people in the tour, so he graciously waited for us to finish out breakfast.

The hike began easy enough, with a pleasant little stroll past pastures and a few small lakes to the base camp. This one is used for climbing Condoriri, as well as a half a dozen nearby peaks whose names I can´t remember. We kept getting teasing glimpses of a few of the closer peaks, as well as the glaciers, but never enough of an opening to see everything at once. Here, too, the effects of global warning are apparent – our guide said that he first started coming here in 1985, and back then there were two glacial lakes which are now thawed into regular lakes, and the glacier was at least 100 m farther, as can be seen from the distance between the moraine and the current glacier.

From here, the trail started to get more difficult. Much more steep with sections of loose rock. To the lake took an hour. The rise and a bit of plateau-walking took another hour and a bit. Eventually we got to an area with dozens of the little long-tailed rabbits we had first seen in Uyuni (so adorable!). Nearly impossible to spot when sitting still, as soon as you made a sudden noise they started in a flurry of hopping and springing, taking a few bounding leaps and then freezing again.

Now began nearly an hour of slogging up to the first pass, up a path on crumbly loose scree. Not too exciting, but becoming hard. As soon as we got to the pass, though, fantastic views of the glaciers, mountains, and a lake around the back side of Pico Austria opened up. The rest of the path lay along the back side of the peak, much less steep and more manageable than the front. The summit looked within reach from here, but was still over an hour away. When we got there, four and a bit hours after starting out, there was absolutely no view – just white clouds all around. Boo. For the last hour, the guide´s pace, which had seemed on the slow side up till then, was just about all I could manage.

On the way down, we stopped at the pass to have some sandwiches made by our guide on the spot, and they were the best sandwiches ever. But then again, I think that at the altitude and after that much exertion, I would´ve eaten anything with equal gusto. As we kept descending, the hail, and then rain, picked up. However, on looking back once we got to the lake, we discovered that our peak looked much more like a ¨real¨ mountain, with a fine dusting of snow along its upper third.

Once we got to the car, we found that in addition to the driver, there were 3 girls and their dog, from the nearby settlement, waiting for us to return. All 4 were almost equally as wild – it would be sad if it wasn´t so comical. They circled us in curiousity, but shied away when we made any sudden movement. Dan shared some wafers with them, and after hesitating each grabbed one, and then ran off a bit to nibble. So very odd to be so cautious of.

Overall, I would say two spectacular (and very tall) days. One of these days, Dan and I will

a) make it up a peak together, where
b) the weather will cooperate enough that you´ll be able to see that we´re actually on a summit.

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Despite his previous insistence that he really wants nothing to do with the LOTBADNFAW (lie on the beach and do nothing for a week) vacations, we´ve come to the conclusion that, in fact, that is exactly what he wants. So the last 3 days in Sucre have been pretty much that – lounging about, relaxing, not doing much at all.

We discovered a terrific little cafe overlooking the town, on top of a hill, with umbrellas made out of branches for shade, and cozy sun loungers. We have frequented it every day we´ve been here, staying for at least a few hours at a time. I discovered that they have fantastic iced cappuccinos, and amazing tiramisu (with very generous portions). In fact, as pleasant as these few days have been, my main complaint about LOTBADNFAW vacations is that they make me fat. 😉

We spent Sunday ascertaining that pretty much every store, including most restaurants, is closed in this town on Sundays. Very odd. The market was open, however, so we had a lovely lunch upstairs in the market, in a courtyard ringed by ladies in mini-kitchens, surrounded by a half-dozen bubbling pots with local dishes. Since then we also tried little pastries with meat & veggie fillings, sandwiches (with super-thick slices of freshly sliced ham – delicious!), and a bunch of other things we weren´t as impressed with.

I´m starting to understand more and more Spanish, and when spoken by a wider range of people. Most interactions in a restaurant are intelligible, and I seem to understand (the important) half of the conversation in a travel agency. Speaking is still quite a struggle, though, since my vocabulary is so limited (and don´t even ask about verb conjugation – I simply don´t do it since I couldn´t find the rules in our little phrase book), so I´m sure I sound like a child a lot o the time, with words that only indirectly get the meaning across.

One of the days, we also happened to catch a Dino Bus to the local dinosaur museum. On top of the amusement-park-like life-sized replicas of dinosaurs, this is actually a fairly important paleontological site. There is a cliff wall there, maybe 30 m high and a few hundred long, where you can see dinosaur tracks preserved in the (ancient) mud. The theory is that this used to be the shore of the large lake (same one from which the Salar Uyuni and Lake Titicaca formed), frequented by dinosaurs. During one of the periods of seismological activity, this particular piece ended up getting flipped 90 degrees and so is now vertical.

From what I understood of the discovered of the site, it was a lucky and completely unexpected find. After an earthquake destroyed many buildings in the city, a decision was made to build a concrete factory, and this site was chosen to get the rock from. Work began and progress on mining out the rock, but eventually they hit a patch that contained some minerals which made the rock unsuitable for being made into concrete. They moved onto another section, but eventually the erosion from rain and wind, combined with the impact from dynamiting not too far off, started exposing some of the tracks. They started looking into this in more detail, and voila, a rock face with a few dozen very clearly visible tracks, with feet of all different sized. It´s a little bit awing to look at these tracks, such visible and real reminders of something so long-gone.

As part of our “vacation from vacation”, we also went to see a movie, titled “The Devil´s Miner“. It is a story of a 14-year-old working in the mines of Potosi – once the richest silver mines in the world, financing the Spanish empire, and now considered mostly depleted. However, cooperatives of miners still work its depths, where enough of the less-lucrative veins remain to just barely support their existence. Recommended, although a bit of a depressing story.

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I wrote about 15 pages in my journal on this subject, but I will spare you most of the details. I´ll just put down the important ones. 🙂

The first day of our trip started off with a visit to the locomotive cemetery. These are steam engines which had been put into service around the 1870s and decommissioned in the 1950s, all this time used to haul minerals from Uyuni and Potosi. They were put on the edge of town in hopes of restoring them – this never happened, so now they are slowly rusting away. There are a few dozen locomotives, actually in pretty good shape except for the rust. It was fun to clamber in and around them – no way you´d have that much run of a place like this back in Canada. Dan really seemed to enjoy it, and I´m glad we found at least one place to visit that was mostly for him.

The rest of the first day we spent visiting Salar Uyuni itself. It is a remnant of an ancient inland sea. The Salar Uyuni segment now floods every year during the rainy season, dissolving some of the top layer of salt, and bringing some more down from the mountains. The lake formed during the rainy season is actually bigger than the salt flat was the previous year, so as the dry season comes and the water evaporates, the salt deposited expands the area of the Salar a little bit each year. The result is that in the oldest parts of the Salar, salt deposits are up to 8 meters deep, while at the edges it´s just a few millimeters. The thicker the layer of salt, the more pronounced the cracks in the surface, forming an endless pattern of irregular octagons. Salt is actually “mined” from the lake, but only for internal Bolivian consumption.

In addition to driving on the salt flat itself, for hours (it has a total area of 12,000 square kilometers), we visited Island de los Pescadores, a little hill in the flat which becomes an island in the wet season, and is home to some truly impressive cacti (up to 12 m in height and 900 years old). At the top of the hill, volcanoes in every direction made a great backdrop for the cracked pale earth in every direction, and the associated mirages.

The second day was a real test for our 4×4 ride. We went up and down sand dunes and rock gullies, through a few different types of desert (rock, hard packed sand, soft flowy sand), and even a transport “highway”, which was just a 4-car-wide packed dirt and gravel road.

It was also a day for wildlife – we saw (and fed bread to) a sly little fox who approached our car; we saw herds of vicunas, which are endangered in Peru but apparently quite alive and well in Bolivia; local long-tailed rabbit (looks very much like a cat); and what I think were chincillas. And, of course, the main highlight – flamingoes. Lots and LOTS of flamingoes. Until that day, I always thought of flamingoes as tender tropical animals – it´s never occurred to me that they could live in near-freezing and near-toxic conditions. All day, we kept seeing flamingoes in lakes which had a crust of ice around the outside (apparently the flamingoes only migrate south to Chile when the temperatures drop to -15/-20 degrees Celcius, and the lakes actually freeze), and most contained high concentrations of arsenic, sulfur, and borax. <Aside: who knew borax occurs naturally, in large quantities, and just deposits itself on shores of lakes???> One lake even had “no smoking” and “skull and bones” signs along the shore – just what is IN that water?! However, the flamingoes themselves were so gorgeous and a little bit funny, wading around with their backwards knees, fishing around for algae and small microorganisms (the water is too toxic for fish). I could stare at them forever, but the wind was vicious, so at most stops we only got out long enough to take a few pictures. This day made me very glad that I stocked up on warm clothing when I packed. Layering works wonders!!

We also visited a few lava formations. The first looked very much like a lava field, with solidified but brittle waves. Just as we were wondering which volcano it would have come from (there were many to choose from in the near vicinity), the guide explained that this was actually formed when the plates collided and mountains were also formed, and magma spilled out directly. The second had a much smaller area, and was much more individual – whereas the first was a field, the second was a collection of free-standing monoliths which had been eroded by wind into pretty cool shapes. As for the volcanoes, apparently there is a currently-active one of the Chilean side, but all we could see of it were a few steam plumes. I expect more of my active volcanoes!!

On the last day, we were pretty busy as well. Our first stop was geysers, although in my non-edumacated opinion they seemed to be more steam vents combined with sulfuric pools of bubbling water. I always thought a geyser has to involve water shooting out, not just steam (Dan disagrees, wikipedia seems to agree). Still an incredibly cool site, though, especially back lit by early morning sun with silhouettes gliding through the steam. Our next stop was at a fabulous hot spring. Undressing to get in was quite cold (it had gotten down to -3-4 degrees that night, and this was only around 7:30 or so), but sitting in there to thaw out was pure bliss. We had a beautiful view, as well, of a lake with flamingoes shrouded by patches of steam of the hot spring. These guys were a little bit smarter than your average flamingo, living in a lake surrounded by hot springs, and so significantly warmer than all the rest.

Throughout the trip, what never ceased to amaze were the mountains. We actually covered a lot of ground over the three days (it took nearly 8 hours to drive back to Uyuni on the last day), and the shapes and colours of the mountains were always changing and always beautiful. Definitely the most scenic area we´ve visited so far!

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More La Paz and Uyuni

Both yesterday and today have been pretty quiet days.

Most of yesterday we spent wandering around La Paz, including the Witches´ Market, which is the hot spot for all the souvenirs. Our hope is to hit it up again once we´re back in La Paz in a weeks´ time, to shop around for things to take back home with us. We just need to make sure first that our flight from La Paz to Lima allows us to check two bags, not one. We also discovered two fantastic areas of the Mercado Negro (the black market, although it´s actually pretty legit) – the yarn alley and the fabric building. The yarn is stunning, and a fairly decent price. The fabrics were OK, but not nearly as varied and colourful as the ones I saw in Asia. No real reason for buying some, since I don´t even know what I would do with them.

Dan even ventured to have lunch at a little market restaurant, with so far no ill effects. Yay for slowly being acclimatized to local food. 🙂 The lunch was chicken in a delicious curry-like sauce, served over top of potatoes (yum) and mysterious starch #2 (not the biggest fan).

After spending a few hours in the afternoon in a coffee house, I headed off to check out a few museums while Dan went back to the hostel to enjoy their beer. I only had 40 minutes before the museums on Calle Jaen closed, but this was actually just barely enough time to see them, since they´re mostly mini-museums. The museum of precious metals, as well as the Casa Murillo museum (mostly artefacts from colonial times) were the most impressive.

At the precious metals museum, the display of Inca gold was quite literally inside a safe, you having to walk through a large bank-vault door and down some stairs to get in. While all the ornaments were quite simple, just hammered sheet gold, with an occasional pattern hammered in, the size and showiness of these were something else. It´s easy to see how the spaniards could have been so captivated by such opulence. There were also many silver and bronze ornaments from Tihuanacu and Inca periods, both beautiful in their simplicity.

Casa Murillo did not disappoint, either. One thing I liked about it is that the museum is housed inside an old house, with a central courtyard and verandahs running along the inside on both floors, leading into the rooms. I really like the design. There were plenty of things of interest here, including old guns; a change-purse made out of chain-mail; chairs with the seat and back made out of carved or painted leather; beautifully carved ferniture, including benches with the back-support made out of vertical posts, each carved so that it almost resembled a line of an abacus.

The bus ride can be summed up as cold and bumpy. By morning, the windows were sheets of ice, but at least this time we were prepared. The bumpy road started a few hours outside of La Paz, and quite literally didn´t stop until we came to Uyuni. It would probably have been quite impressive, had I not been trying to sleep through the night. Not much luck. But at least the bed at our hotel here is very comfy, and the shower incredibly hot, so we caught a little catnap before going out to book our tours. Leaving for a 3-day trip to Salar Uyuni tomorrow, then on to Sucre – which sounds like exactly the place to lounge and relax after a bit of outbacking.

Uyuni is by far the coldest city we´ve been to so far, despite being at a similar altitude to other places. Right now, I´m wearing my padded pants, a long sleeve and a down vest. However, the temperature change is quite impressive – in the sun, you can be in a t-shirt and shorts, but as soon as the wind picks up, you need an extra two layers just to stay comfortable.

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La Paz

We got to La Paz yesterday afternoon, after quite a pleasant bus ride which included a ferry ride. I call it a ferry, but really, our bus drove onto a large platform with the floor covered with barely overlapping boards, with an outboard motor attached to the whole thing. We got to take a little motor boat across, and see our bus slowly catching up to us. What fun.

We haven´t had that much time in La Paz yet, but already I find it a strange city. The steepness of the streets and the presence of a multitude of stairs is quite pleasant. Makes for some nice exploration. This is also the most metropolitan city we´ve been to since Lima, with not one but multiple skyscrapers. What a change! The city itself is absolutely gorgeous, and we got a nice view of it yesterday when we got to see the centre of the city from the top of a cliff before descending into the bowl containing the main part of the city. Stunning! And with a few large, snowcapped mountains in the background.

The weird thing about La Paz is its love affair with fried chicken places. They are everywhere. I think we gave up counting after getting to a dozen within a 5-minute walk. Worse, they are pretty much the only places to eat, other than street stalls and coffee joints. “Normal” restaurants just don´t seem to exist in nearly the same density as in all the other place we´ve visited.

Short update for now – today will be a bit of a bookkeeping day as we try to sort out our tickets and tours, and hopefully get a bit of sightseeing done with a self-guided walking tour. I´m excited because there are two tours we can do around here which involve relatively little effort for a 5300m peak – we´ll do at least one of them, but probably after we´re back in La Paz (leaving today to start our tour of the rest of Bolivia first). Can´t wait!

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Lake Titicaca

After leaving Arequipa, we spent a fantastic few days along the shores of Lake Titicaca. Our drive there (6 hours) was also fantastic, since we ended up in the sleeper compartment (i.e. first class) of the bus. Holy legroom, batman!

Our lakeside visit started in Puno. What a cute little town! The first afternoon we just wandered down to the harbour, and shared a beer while watching the locals paddle around in a small pond on family-sized paddle boats. What fun! Dan even convinced me to talk to the ladies manning the souvenir stalls about yarn, which resulted in me walking away with 3 different colours of alpaca yarn. Score! Will have to keep an eye out for this in Bolivia.

The next day we had a half-day tour to the floating islands of Uros. What an amazing experience! These “islands” are literally floating, built out of the reeds for which the lake is famous, and anchored in a preferred spot. Before the rainy season, the anchors are removed and the islands are moved to a shallower spot to avoid flooding. Each island has 10-20 families living on it – if conflict arises, an island can literally be cut in half and the dissenting group can start their own island or go join another existing island.

In the afternoon, we had bought tickets for a bus ride onwards to Copacabana, just over the Bolivian border. The “bus” ended up being a little bitty micro-bus, with all of our backpacks piled on top and held in by a net. Good stuff! The crew on the trip turned out to be a great mix, with 4 australians, 2 kiwis, and a swiss guy along for the ride. Good times were had, including 3 trips across the (physical) Peru-Bolivia border since we didn´t know we had to go to two different offices to get the correct stamps in our passports. The bus driver dropped us off on the peruvian side, told us to go get our passports sorted out, and that he would meet us at the other end so we could transfer our stuff onto the bolivian minibus. No instructions were given, of course.

That evening, we ended up going to the same hotel as the whole crew, and also going out for dinner with everyone. What fun! – it´s been a while since Dan and I had been that social.

The following day, in a perverse twist on the scenario a few days previous, it was Dan who was not feeling well, so I went off on my own to explore the Isla del Sol, one of the larger island in Lake Titicaca. I ended up spending the day with the swiss and kiwi guys, and also a kiwi girl the swiss guy had met previously and whom we bumped into on the boat ride there (talk about random connections). In all, given that Dan wasn´t there, this was about the best day I could have had.

The kiwi girl was staying overnight on the island and so had hired a guide to take her along to the ruins, etc., so the 4 of us tagged along with promises to tip the guide well. Score! Just off Isla del Sol is an old ceremonial temple, currently buried under 5-10 m of water, given that the lake had risen almost 100 m since the site was originally built (glacial melting). We also saw the site where, according to Inca legend, the Sun was born (a rock in the shape of a condor, use of imagination is a must), as well as the ruins of a temple and sacrificial stone.

The rest of the afternoon was spent hiking along the ridge of the island from the north end to the south. The views were absolutely spectacular, with the startlingly blue lake on all sides, and the snowcapped mountain range (including a few 6000+m peaks) in the distance on one shore. I would almost call the scenery reminiscent of the mediterranean, at least until you remember that the lake is a balmy 10 degrees. I really felt sorry all day that Dan wasn´t able to make it, since this is something he would have absolutely loved. But I brought him back a rock and lots of pictures. 🙂

Later on that evening we ended up going to a little bar which had advertised live music. Wow, were we in for a treat! First of all, we ordered our drinks when we got there (had dinner earlier at another place), and were very surprised when the server came back not with 2, but 4 glasses. “Happy hour”, he told us happily! The grand total for the evening, with 6 delicious drinks between the two of us and a piece of cake, came out to about $13. Where else? The music was also absolutely wonderful – a peruvian band on tour, with slightly pop-y sounding south american music. I don´t know what it is about the south american music, but most of it sounds so inherently happy, that it just makes you want to get up and dance. We even bought a CD of theirs, so we have a musical reminder of our honeymoon. What a great deal.

Dan has just reminded me that it´s Thanksgiving back home today. So… happy Thanksgiving everyone! I guess we pre-celebrated by having BFC (bolivian fried chicken) yesterday!

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El Misti

Well, to say the two day trip was a disappointment will be an understatement. Not because of the volcano itself, mind you , but…. well, read on.

The first day of the trip started with me feeling unwell with what was likely mild food poisoning. I figured I could do this, so I got in the car and we drove up the mountain. I was even starting to feel somewhat better. However, after about an hour of hiking the nausea kicked in. So… yup, that´s right, I had to come back down and back to Arequipa. I wish I could´ve kept going, but there was no way I was doing another 4 hours of hiking with the way I was feeling. It was good while it lasted. As you´ve probably already seen from Dan´s blog, I made him not come down with me, so he went on to do the full ascent.

So there I was at the hotel, staring up at the mountain from the conveniently placed terrace at our hotel. Angry. Upset. Alone. What a tease! So much for wanting to do a good-sized peak together with Dan, and lugging around all those cold-weather clothes just for this occasion.

I guess this just means we´ll have to come back someday… and aim high by trying to do Chachani (6000+m) this time.

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Whew. What a busy few days. Also, before the post gets underway, I have somewhat bad news – I´ve decided that despite promises to the contrary, I will for now omit pictures from these blog posts. Sorry. The new plan is to update the blog once I´m back home, and add in the pictures then. It´s just proving unrealistic to sort through all the pictures and pick out the best two or three to put in each post. Although, the ipod to camera connector seems to be working wonderfully!

Anyway, back to the trip.

On Sunday morning, we left for our trip in the Colca Canyon. The trip began at 3 in the morning (yes, that´s not just my timezone deprived brain talking) when our guide was to pick us up. This ended up happening closer to 3:30, but hey, apparently this is normal for “South American” time. Our group consisted of us and another canadian couple, which was fantastic. We´ve met quite a few canadians on this trip, but this was the longest we´ve spent with any of them.

The morning started with a 3-hour drive across the plateau, where first the windows fogged up and then that turned into a sheet of ice. Yup. It´s that cold. Luckily, we were prepared this time. In the pre-dawn, we drove past some enclosures (consisting of 1 meter or so high walls built out of small rocks) containing herds of alpaca – too dark for pictures, though. Our first real stop was at Cruz del Condor, the best spot to get a glimpse of condors. We got there at a good time, as right after we got out spots a few of the show-offs among these majestic creatures started making close passes above the crowd. They were a few dozen meters away at least, but even so they seemed huge. Throughout the rest of the hike we saw a few more, but never as close as this. Even so, there is something about them that makes me want to freeze and stare at their amazingly smooth gliding flight.

A few hours later the bus dropped us off for the start of our hike. 15 minutes´ walk brought us to the edge of the canyon, and we began our descent. We were starting at about 3300 meters, going all the way to the bottom to cross the river, climbing back up to maybe 2800, and finally going down to sleep at 2400. A good balance for getting adjusted to the altitude! So far, neither of us has had any problems beyond being out of breath much quicker than normal during the more strenuous exercise, which is fantastic.

We stopped for lunch around 2, after climbing back up from the river. To my utter delight, just before lunch we walked in the shade of the groves of avocado trees. That´s right. Groves. Filled with trees with hundreds of gigantic avocadoes on them (comparable to a good-sized red mango you´d find at a store at home). Sadly, all too green to be eaten right away. Must come back in the summer. All the avocado sandwiches I´ve tried so far have also been delicious, with nice meaty texture and a much sweeter taste than you´d get at home, so I would love to try one fresh right off a tree.

Lunch was fantastic (but after that hike anything would´ve been, probably), and a whole menagerie of animals visited us during the lunch – two large dogs, a weight-lifter chicken (it was that big), and an adorable little black cat which immediately took up residence on Dan´s lap. Eventually, I managed to coax her onto mine, too.

The afternoon hike was uneventful, and hot. Passing by lots of the aqueducts delivering mountain water to the local villages, and many half-abandoned settlements (looking a bit sad with buildings with full walls, but no roof, and grasses growing out of the floor). We did see a local game of futbol – apparently, on Sundays people from nearby villages converge on this one field in the middle, to spend the day socializing, trading news (all of these villages are only reacheable by foot) and of course play futbol.

Our day ended at the Oasys – a village at the bottom of the canyon with a natural spring nearby. Not hot, but definitely fresh source water. Every lodge has their own little swimming pool, filled with this water. At 22 degrees C, this would´ve been perfect during the day, but unfortunately we got there after the sun had set beyond the edge of the canyon. Incredibly refreshing, though, and putting on clean and soft clothes afterwards felt like pure heaven. The temperature at the bottom of the canyon is a lot more constant than on the plains, so it never got very cold in the evening. We spend the few hours until dinner sitting under palm trees, drinking warm beer, and chatting about this and that. Bliss!

Our overnight accommodations consistent of a cute little round mud hut, with a roof made of dried palm leaves, and two windows covered with sheets of plastic, set close to the river. Best sleep ever! The moon was incredibly bright, fully lighting up the opposite cliff face, so unfortunately we did not get to see as many stars at night as I had hoped.

The next morning involved a 3-hour hike back out of the canyon. The simple bread&egg&jam breakfast at the first village we hit was divine. The bus picked us up and drove us back along the canyon, stopping at a real hot springs. Despite my reservations (who wants to go into a hot spring on a hot day?), it was fantastic – more like warm bath water, and after getting out and drying off in the chilling breeze, getting back in was heaven. A great way to soothe the muscles no longer accustomed to 1000+m climbs.

I knitted on the drive back (the gloves are progressing nicely), while most of the people on the bus slept. We saw lots of herds of hundreds of heads of alpaca, but the road conditions (horrible) made it very difficult to snap a picture on the go – only about 1 shot out of every 3 turned out clear due to all the bumps. Even worse, the roads that had at one point been paved but had falled into disrepair were actually worse to drive on than the pure gravel roads. Odd. Even worse, I´ve had a hard time finding any alpaca yarn. Plenty of overpriced garments made of alpaca wool, but no raw wool yet. Hopefully in Bolivia?

Today was more of a relaxation day. We went to a grocery store and bought food for breakfasts and dinner. We booked our next few bus tickets, and planned out the rest of our trip a bit more carefully. Tomorrow we head up El Misti, then on to Puno (Lake Titicaca) and on to Bolivia. We need to end up in La Paz on the 24th for our flight back to Lima, and time is starting to get disappointingly short. For our first night in La Paz, I found in the book a hostel that comes with a microbrewery on premises. I should´ve just booked it without telling Dan, but I was too excited and had to tell him. He looked pretty happy about it too. Now I just have to email them to make sure they have space. Until the next 50-cent hour of internet!

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Cusco and Macchu Picchu

Grabbing a half an hour of internet at the bus terminal in Cusco before our overnight bus to Arequipa leaves, and since there are no emails to reply to, thought I would post a little bit (no photos this time around, though).

Our flight from Lima to Cusco was pretty uneventful, and after some time spent waiting for other passengers to join us in the collectivo directly to Ollantaytambo, we caved and decided to pay for the extra two seats so we could leave sooner. A private ride all the way to our hotel, sweet! Ollanta is a sweet little town, about 2,000 people. Its claim to fame is that it´s not Aguas Calientes, but you can still catch an early-morning train from there to Aguas Calientes to beat all the tour groups to Macchu Picchu.

Our train the next morning left at 5:30 a.m., and we fell asleep around 8 without even having dinner. The train ride was fun, getting tickets was effortless, and before 7:30 we were standing at the gates to Macchu Picchu. First thing I noticed – all those notices they write in the book and on the tickets about no food, drinks, or walking sticks? Yeah, you can ignore them. I saw all of those being broken within about 5 minutes of walking around (lucky for us, since we were also breaking the first two as our plan was to stay there most of the day and hike up Wayna Picchu).

Macchu Picchu itself is absolutely gorgeous, everything you see in the postcards and more. We were lucky enough to get some time to wander around and explore before the throngs of tourist groups (complete with matching t-shirts and tour guides with flags and whistles) got there. The stonework on some of the buildings is absolutely amazing, in particular how often you seen a stone that has actually been shaped to fit with another stone. Both of them the size of your torso. The weather that day turned the site into what I had always imagined it as, surrounded by clouds hanging on to nearby mountains. The air stayed clear enough to offer us incredible views, though.

Our hike up Wayna Picchu was like the Peruvian version of the Grouse Grind. Steps, more steps, tourist backups, and views all along the way that made it all totally worth it. Macchu Picchu looked even better from up here that the other side.

On the way back down, we walked the stone steps instead of taking the bus back down switchbacks – very tiring, following a day of walking around, but incredibly rewarding. The shared pizza and beer in town, waiting for our train, was bliss. As we were sitting in the town square, wasting some time, the cutest little dog (there are many of them in Peru) came up to us, tried to get some attention, and then promptly plopped on the ground and curled up right in between my boots, one paw possessively on top of my hiker. How do they know?

The train ride back was the best thing ever. Not only did we get airplane style service of food and drink, but we also were treated to a traditional dance performance (in costume) in the aisles, along with a fashion show of alpaca-cloth clothing. The awesomeness of the performance (the sound track included “Too Sexy”) wasn´t even spoiled by the fact that they later tried to sell us the clothing.

Today, on our way back from Ollanta to Cusco, we again hired a driver who took us to the sites of Moray and Salinas. Absolutely amazing.

Moray is an old Incan agricultural site, where apparently they spent time breeding and acclimatizing many of the plant species currently widely used on the continent. The site is set into quite literally a hole in the ground, so you have no idea what you´re in for as you approach it by car. Walking to the edge, you´re looking down into a pit of circular terraces, access into each lower terrace allowed by steps made of stones literally sticking out of the wall to form steps. An arduous climb down, but so stunning to be standing down there. Amazing that someone could have not only come up with the concept for this area, but also built it and successfully used it to accomplish something so significant.

Salinas, on the other hand, are a salt mine. Driving up, right before beginning a dizzying descent down a series of switchbacks, you see a “The Matrix”-style field of terraced pods, set into the mountainside, each containing liquid in various shades of white. Upon further inspection, you realize that each “pod” is a small salt pan (maybe 3 by 2 meters) in various stages of drying. The sight is absolutely incredible. So far as we were able to figure out, there is a natural stream that comes out of… somewhere, which is actually salt-rich. The banks of the stream are stacked with salt deposits. I can´t wait to read up on this and figure out how this came to be (and how it has grown to be exploited in such a way).

My half hour is almost up, so I leave until next time. Hopefully, there will be a picture update soon!

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