South America inland trip, Oct 2013

 

 

 

 

Tour in South America

Now f it was time for fun, our inland trip to see some of the sites of South America. Tour director, Sasha, had been planning for the last couple of weeks, booking flights, accommodation etc. On the third of October 2013 we flew out to Columbia's capital, Bogata for an overnight stop before continuing on to Lima, capital of Peru, again really just an overnight stay in a big city.

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Sasha booked us into the Espana backpacker hostel recommended in the Rough Guide. we were met at the airport by the hostel's "chauffeur" in a clapped out old car for an interesting ride to the hostel for or first surprise. At check in an old lady took our passport info from behind a little glass fronted old desk. In a glass door old cabinet in the corner was an exposition of human human skulls, one still with hair on it!

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Here we meet an American couple of similar age, Nancy and Glenn, both still working but long time backpacking holiday makers who had traveled all sorts of out of the way countries, among them Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia and many more.

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As we were heading the same direction we teamed up for the next very enjoyable five days. First up a ten hour overnight bus Lima to Nasca where we stayed in the same hostel, over flew the famous Nasca lines and took in some of the other ancient Nasca civilisation sites including the aqueducts built around 1,500 years ago to bring water from the natural streams pouring out of the Andes 6km away into Nasca itself for irrigation and still in use today.

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From Nasca another bus to Arequipa for two day trekking in the huge, bigger than US's Grand Canyon, Colca Canyon. We thought we would have to pay for a guide but thanks to Glenn we managed to arrange our own transport, accommodation etc at a fraction on the guided tour cost. It all went well, leaving the hostel at 3am busing it for six hours, we saw some rare huge Andean Condors and started our trek at ten.

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Trekked about 15km, the first seven from 3,400m down to the canyon river at 2,200m, up and down some 500m for another 6km to our overnight stay at the tiny settlement of Sangallo, Paraiso Oasis hostel. The rugged arid Andean mountain scenery was just incredible and the trek most gratifying as the vast majority of others on the trail were youngsters, we saw only two others anywhere near our age.

And here is a video of our full day in the sun.

The hostel was located in an oasis on the banks of the Rio Colca but in itself, as with other accommodation there, very basic. No electricity, that means no refrigeration so no cold beer, no hot water, rooms with only a bed and a small table, very rough concrete floor, thatched roof no ceiling, no light but good rugs for a warm nights sleep. After a coffee it was the big climb back up to catch the bus, 1,100m, what looked like straight up. Only a few metres up we was another group climbing onto mules, reckon that was cheating! Fortunately most of the climb was in the shade as we had left at 6am. The estimated time to ascend was two to four hours we did it in three quite comfortably and had a hearty breakfast when we got there. The bus trip back took a little longer than expected, getting us back to the hotel in the evening.

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Next day we parted company with Nancy and Glen who headed to Puno as we stayed in Arequipa intending to go white water rafting. Unfortunately I had eye trouble and went to the doctor who diagnosed bacterial conjunctivitis. He prescribed medication and by next day i was almost back to normal. From Arequipa we flew to Cuzco, 3,600m above sea level, one of the major centres of Andean culture. It seemed that Cusco was completely full of tourists, appearing to outnumber the locals. Our first visit was to what had apparently been an Inca temple in the town itself. Yes the original Inca stone work was superbly done with huge stone blocks perfectly fitted together, even more impressive when you consider they had stone implements, no beasts of burden and no wheels. Unfortunately the Spanish had rebuilt it as a cathedral. The site was wall to wall people not exactly our cup of tea. There are many well intact Inca sites around Cusco, we decided to visit one called Pisac perched high on a mountain about an hour bus ride away. The public bus took us to the town of Pisac from where we had the option of of climbing the 500m up to the highest point, an Inca temple of the sun or taking a taxi. We shared a taxi with two other women tourists, one from New Zealand, to enjoy the walk back down again through four other Inca ruins on the way. It turned out a real treat, while there were quite a number of people arriving by tourist coach to the peak when we got there we were early enough to best the crush and barely anyone walked the trail back down to the town. Not only that but the walk down was almost entirely paths that the Inca had built 500 or so years ago and are still in superb condition, a real pleasure to walk on. We passed through what must have been Inca farming villages with aqueducts distributing the mountain waters over stone terraced soil that grew corn, potatoes, yuca and asparagus. Much of the past was on mountain ridges overlooking huge presepusses with shear drops giving wonderful views of the lush mountain scenery and the river valley below.

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After a local food lunch we took the local bus back to another site only a few kilometres out of Cusco. The remainants were little to look at but the walk back to Cusco most enjoyable. It is difficult to explain the slopes of many of these walks suffice to say stairs and steps were numerous.

Next came the much awaited, particularly by Sasha, visit to the famous Machu Picchu Inca ruins that were not plundered by the Spanish and only discovered by westerners in the early twentieth century. There is no road access to the town of Aquas Calienta at the base of Machu Picchu, you either take the expensive slow four hour train installed specifically to get tourists the 100km there, or take two buses around the mountains and hike the last 11km, a trip of almost twelve hours. We took the train, even luxury class on the way there, only because all other tickets were sold out! At the train station who should we bump into but Nancy and Glen who were only going for the day. The train trip was indeed enjoyable, as it should be for the price, a very professional meal service and wonderful scenery as we wove our way through the mountains, most of the time following the river.

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At one point the train does a switch back because the angle of assent, decent, depending which direction you are going, is so steep.

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We arrived at Aquas Calienta early afternoon and were escorted to our hostel, b&b a short distance from the train station. After settling in we took a short walk through part of the rain forest before a dinner of a very nice hamburger and chips. Being the only town close to the Machu Picchu site it is of course a Mecca for tourists so the costs of everything are significantly higher than in other Peruvian towns. In the morning we had a six o'clock start to walk to the Machu Picchu site, five or six k kilometres but up over five hundred metres, while the vast, and I mean vast, majority of others lined up for an hour or more to take a bus. Visitors to the site are limited to 2,500 people per day, we saw maybe twenty others walk to and from the site.

Our entry ticket allowed us to hike up Montana Machu Picchu, giving fantastic views of the site and surrounding mountains from a further five hundred metres up.

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The climb was a combination of uneven stone steps and inclined paths, although not that easy it was the thought of walking the same trail that the Incas had used five and more centuries ago and the accomplishment of reaching top to look down over Machu Picchu itself that made it so worth while.

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Again we saw only a handful of people of walking. Meanwhile back down in the site itself it was a different matter, wall to wall people with guides spealing out all sorts of stories about what Incas may have done, worshipped etc etc. One thing that we were unable to do elsewhere was get very close to Llamas that in the terraced fields just outside the main site roamed freely and were very much attracted by any good you had with you. I very nearly lost my pre packed lunch! We walked the site to take in the more famous parts, checked out how the Incas built it with stonework added on to the existing rock features but felt that our time in Pisac was much more interesting.

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We were back in Aguas Calianta in time to catch the afternoon train back to Cusco.

From Cusco it was goodbye to Peru as we headed off to Bolivia via the border town of Yunguyo to walk across the border and catch a small tricycle motor bike taxi to Copacobana on the shores of lake Titicaca, famed as the highest lake in the world, 3,800m above sea level, 8,500 sq kilometres and 284m deep. Our, higher quality than others we had stayed in, hostel room have a bit of a view of the lake but not as nice as from it's little restaurant where we had a table for two right in the best view corner. One of the tourist attractions is a visit by "ferry" to Isla del Sol, sun island, apparently the birth place of the Inca culture.

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Many ferries ply the ten mile route to the island and back, most wooden vessels thirty to forty feet with an upper open deck that provides some shelter for those below, and powered by two outboards of forty or fifty horsepower. Both are hand controlled but independent from each other, one more or less held in one position by a rope while the "skipper" uses the other for steering! Cost of the return trip, $4. On the island we walked a short trail, sat in what is thought to be an Inca star gazing seat carved out of the rock and looked at another Inca stone structure thought to be a temple of some sort. A pleasant day out but not exactly awe inspiring. From Copacobana another bus trip to the Bolivian capital, LaPaz featuring a ferry crossing of a neck of water of lake Titicaca.

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Again a similar style vessel as the previous day while the bus went across on a similarly powered flat top barge, sure wouldn't trust my car on it! La Paz, well another city but we had read about the infamous death road bike ride so that was the major reason for visit apart from the fact that it was "on the way". We booked our bike ride because it is the only way you are allowed to do it, you must be in a guided group. Our group was six, a young Dutch couple and two young American guys who were cycling from Canada to Patagonia. The minibus took us from La Paz, at 3,500m up to the start point at 4,700m to start our heroic decent down 3,500m over a combination of bitumen and dirt roads about 35km.

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What an adrenalin rushing experience, absolutely fantastic especially the high altitude parts, above the clouds, sun out, cool to cold, incredible scenery with shear drops of 1,000m or more, as they rightly say, not for the faint hearted.

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We thought our riding of our fold up bikes we have on Ednbal would give is enough experience to at least ride, it did, but did not at all prepare us for the speeds, thrills and spills, cumulating in a lunch around a swimming pool at the bottom, an altitude of 1,200m. At this point we had a decision, take it easy for a couple of days or try and squeeze in a short trip to part of the Bolivian Amazon basin rainforest. Well it was unlikely we'd be here again so may as well go for broke. A lodge deep in the rain forest within Madidi national park called Chalàlan was highly recommended by our guide book. It involved a flight to Rurrenbaquke and a five hour boat trip up river to the lodge with the promise of seeing wildlife and flora endemic to the area both in the forest and on the lake nearby.

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As with so many things its all people. It was towards the end of the season and instead of a group of six or eight we were a group of two, unfortunately while our guide spoke very good English he was not at all informative, instead of pointing out things to us on the boat trip and wetting our appetite for what to expect on out first treks he spent most of the trip up river asleep, responding mostly only when we asked questions. While he did point out a couple of things, like Capybaras on the river bank and some birds, it was to set the scene for the rest of our two day visit. The setting and the individual bungalow accommodation was wonderful, as was the walks through the forest and canoeing in the lake. We saw some wildlife but really not a great deal, less than we saw in more populous areas later on our jolly. When we booked we were promised local entertainment by nearby resident Indian population but it never happened. Food was ordinary with little local cuisine, all in all, considering the location and surrounds it should have been a lot better, yes quite disappointed.

Following the flight back from Rurrenbaque we took an overnight bus took us even higher up to the Bolivian city of Potosi at 4,060m, the highest city in the world.

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One of the must sees here is the silver mine of Cerro Ricco or rich hill. Here you have no option but to take a tour but this time we had an excellent guide, Danny, who gave plenty of information and a very good insight to the men and the workings of the mine as he had, for some years worked there himself. First part of the tour involves "kitting up" protective pants, jacket, hard hat, miners lamp, next off to the "miners market" where, apparently, the miners shop for their essentials, coca leaves, booze (virtually pure alcohol, 95%!), cheap local cigarettes {about thirty cents a pack), soft drinks in two litre plastic bottles and, believe it or not, dynamite and fuses.

Visitors to the mine are encouraged to buy some of these to give to miners you see on the tour or even to keep. Another good old tourist rip off thinks us but when we were inside the mine and saw the men and conditions we were glad to give, very much so! The hill or really a mountain is riddled with small tunnels where miners have been working in much the same fashion since the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. About the only advance is that there is now electricity to facilitate the hauling of rock up shafts and out tunnels. It is estimated that over 9 million slaves, indigenous and Africa, lost their lives working the incredibly rich mines in the first three hundred years of operation.

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Even now the working conditions you see as you crawl though working shafts are unbelievably bad with no thought whatsoever to industrial safety. Average life expectancy of mine workers i is just fifty five. Miners drink alcohol, 95% strength, continuously chew coca leaves, smoke and very few wear any breathing filtration although they do wear helmets! Ventilation is almost zero, certainly no forced ventilation and the further into the mountain you walk/crawl the hotter and shorter of oxygen it gets. Remember you are at over 4,000m in the first place. While we were both glad we did it, oldies in amongst the youngsters, we were both concerned, especially at the difficulty in breathing at times when exerting, most disconcerting to say the least.

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Another overnight bus got us to Villazone at the Argentinian border and another short bus to Tilcara, Argentina before off to Purmarmarca to the seven colour hills. The colour variations of the mountain rock are truly astounding, vivid reds, yellows, greens various hues of brown and even white. As with much of the natural beauty the camera has no hope of doing it justice. A couple of treks in the hills, while only a few kilometres long have wonderful views across the mountains. From Purmarmarca couple of hours by collectivo, a collective car arrangement, to Jujuy and bus to the city of Salta where the highlight was a dinner with good quality local and dancing entertainment. The flight from Salta took us to the much awaited Iguazu, the Argentinian side of about the largest waterfalls in the world, apparently makes Niagara look like a ripple. Iguazu is definitely another tourist Mecca where pricing of absolutely everything is elevated and continues to rise almost unabated. Prices for food, accommodation, buses to the falls and park entry costs were double and more than given in our two year old guide. On the other hand the falls are, as of 2007, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and when you see, up close, personal and wet, as the very good walkways provide you certainly see why.

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Not only that but we saw more wildlife here than in the Madidi park, of the Amazon basin in Bolivia. The several kilometres of walkways provide views from overall to directly above, side on and at the bottom of some of the most spectacular of the 270 individual falls that make up the Cataracts de Iguazu.

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Swifts fly in and out of the thunderous waters that droop eighty metres forming clouds of spray that drift for a kilometre or more with the breeze while vultures soar above and the Tocans provide colour and great attraction. Butterflies abound as do the raccoon like coatis, the latter actually being a pest and the subject of warnings about them taking food directly from tables and, more critically, their rabbies bite! We also saw some huge lizards and even monkeys in the tree tops, a really great day out.

It was necessary to return to the Cartagena, because our busy schedule was to take us to Barcelona on 5th Nov, only a few days later, for a 3.5 weeks stay in our apartement in Almerimar, and from there to Perth for Christmas holidays.

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