Friday, 10 April 2015

Last month in Peru

My last month in Peru was exciting. I managed to fit in some of the activities available in Lima that I had been meaning to do but had never got around to, such as paragliding, surfing, and making my own chocolate. I did learn that I'm not the best surfer - if you call what I did surfing at all. I mostly splashed around like a 2-legged puppy and swallowed a lot of sea water. But I'm not complaining - I got to do it in the Pacific Ocean. Beats the English Channel any day!

Trying to ride a wave

Trying to paddle

My paragliding experience off the Costa Verde cliff was a lot more successful, mainly because it involved no upper body strength and, in any case, the views were 100 times nicer, especially as I paraglided (or should that be paraglid...? :P) just before sunset, so the sky was spectacular. It was pretty expensive considering I was only in the air for 10 minutes, but one perk was that the price included a full length film of my flight, which is pretty cool. This also meant I could grab some good screenshots:

As great as these activities were, the Choco Museum in Miraflores was the tastiest of my experiences! Tobias and I booked a workshop where we learned about the history of chocolate and the cocoa bean in South America (gross fact: the Mayans invented hot chocolate and a key ingredient was human blood!). We were then given cocoa beans, which we roasted, ground, and mixed to create delicious chocolates and hot chocolates (fortunately sans human body fluid).

Roasting the beans!

Crushing the beans

Making the hot chocolate

Moulding the chocolates!

 Me with a (fake) cocoa tree

After all this excitement and fun was over, there were only a couple of weeks until I was due to return back to England. I wasn't sad - I felt I'd done everything I went there to do, plus more. In any case, I was actually really looking forward to spending Christmas in the cold (it was 25°C in Lima by the time I left) and being reunited with my friends and family.

It was an amazing 6 months and I'll never forget it, but for now, Peru and I have parted ways. However, I know I'll be back one day - I'll even visit a few other South American countries while I'm at it...

Monday, 9 March 2015

Machu Picchu: Day Four

Eventually we hit day four, which started a bit too early for my liking - 4am to be precise. Sleepily we arose from our slumber and managed to clothe ourselves in-between yawns. Going outside into the dark with our head-torch, there was then a 20-minute walk to the meeting point, where we had been told we had to congregate at 4:30. However, as we sat on a bench eating our packed breakfast, we were confused at the lack of crowds, for this was at the foot of the 1,800 Inca steps that lead up the Machu Picchu site, and we were thinking that there should probably be more than the 10 of us who were there. After speaking to people gradually trickling to the point, we subsequently discovered that the locked gates were not opened until 5:30, leaving us a little annoyed that we had been deprived of an hour's sleep. However, eventually the gates did open, and little did I know what lay ahead....

Anxiously waiting....

   The start of the steps

Views from halfway up

We had had the option to take a bus or climb these steps, which we had been told would take about an hour and a half. Easy, I thought. However, I almost died! (Figuratively of course - I didn't fall down the mountain or anything). My throat burned, my legs felt like they were made of stone, I could hear my heart thudding in my chest, and sweat was dripping down my face. In short, I was a mess. I started off being one of the first people to begin the climb, but was overtaken by almost everybody, partly because I could not seem to walk anything more than snail's pace, and partly because I had to stop for a break every 5 minutes or so. But there was light at the end of the tunnel. At one point, we began to panic, because we had 20 minutes before we had to meet the guide at the top and we were convinced we were only halfway up. But the angels seemed to be singing as we turned a corner at that very moment and saw the entrance to Machu Picchu. My pain was over, we had arrived on time, and my previous bitter regret at not having jumped on the bus gave way to an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and gladness that I had tackled that ancient staircase (isn't hindsight a wonderful thing!).

The Machu Picchu city

The tour was fascinating, although I did have to strain my ears to understand the guide's thick accent, and after 2 hours of absorbing vast amounts of information so early in the morning and walking around the incredibly hilly terrain, I was quite exhausted. So when we were left to our own devices, Tobias and I had a little nap in the sun before exploring the quite expansive place. The tour had taken us to some of the most important buildings -including the 'university', residential houses, and places where sundials and water wells told the time. The information has taken many years for archaeologists to glean because the Incas had no writing system, despite having such a sophisticated culture. I was also surprised to learn that the city took 200 years to build, but the Incas lived in the completely finished city for only 12 years before inexplicably moving away. Fortunately for us this happened, or this gorgeous relic of a lost culture would have gone the way of other Inca cities once the Spanish got hold of them - completely destroyed. Instead, this site lay untouched in the jungle for hundreds of years before being rediscovered in the 20th century.

Our guide in front of one of the ancient ruins

After our aforementioned nap, and also after having a little more food, we felt a lot more refreshed, and spent the next few hours walking around the site, befriending the llamas, and taking photos. If you want toned calves then this is the place to go - there are steps and hills to contend with everywhere. We had bought a ticket to climb the actual Machu Picchu mountain (the site is not the mountain itself - it is named after one of the mountains that surrounds it), but once we were there we felt the Inca steps had taken the energy we would have needed out of us, so we forwent that. It would have taken 3 hours too, and so we decided to use this time to explore the site instead. If you do decide to go to Machu Picchu, that would be my one bit of advice - resist the overwhelming temptation to buy the mountain ticket when you book. I think there are times later on when you can do this if you really feel up to it, and if you do make the purchase, then take the bus up to the site instead of climbing the Inca steps. Unless you are super fit then nearly 2,000 steep steps and then a mountain is a tall order, bordering on impossible.

Pictures just cannot do the reality of this scene justice...

The llamas were surprisingly social (or perhaps not so surprisingly, considering the site sees over 3,000 visitors per day). I expected that they'd shy away from humans and the most I could hope for would be to catch a glimpse of them from far off, but they were actually incredibly curious and quite unbothered by the fact that there were thousands of humans milling about. They seem to live a charmed life of chillin' in the sun and eating. We did make a couple of friends:

He isn't dead, just sleeping...

After a phenomenal day we got the bus back down to Aguas Calientes, where we grabbed our stuff from the hostel and jumped on a train to Cusco, leaving for Lima the next day. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will never forget. Utterly exhausting but totally worth it! Fascinating, fun, and exciting, I am so glad we opted for the Jungle Trek over the Inca Trail (and not just because of the price). It is hard to pick between the Amazon jungle or this as the highlight of my time in Peru.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Machu Picchu: Day Three

Flying through the mountains had long been on my bucket list and on day 3 of my Machu Picchu trek I got the chance to do it. It involved getting up reasonably early and going through all the boring safety crap - safety talks, getting fitted with harnesses, and being taught how to zip-line without crashing to our deaths (don't get me wrong - I know all of these things are terribly necessary, but I was just chomping at the bit to get going). We met up with our entire zip-lining 'crew', and a good portion were German again. (I have met so many Germans on this trip I started to think I'd flown to Germany by mistake, as I might have mentioned before). However, it was fun to chat in German to some new people, as always.

A few of the group
All kitted out and ready to fly

After being shown how to stay alive and having taken all the obligatory pictures, we then zipped our first line. As you can see, the views were incredible: there were mountains, valleys, and bright blue skies. I was a sweaty betty already when that picture above was being taken and it was only 11 am. 

It was a relatively slow process - there were five zip-lines and quite a few of us to get through each time, so there was more waiting around than I had originally anticipated, but whizzing through the air at such a height and in such beautiful surroundings was definitely worth it. I have been zip-lining a few times before, but only at treetop climbing centres; the lines were nowhere near as long or high, and the scenery nowhere near as amazing.

For most of the time we were in the sit-down position as shown above - some people turned upside down mid-zip, but I was just too chicken. However, on the last zip-line we were given the opportunity to fly 'like Superman' (basically on our fronts with our arms and legs extended). I jumped at the chance to do this one, and flew onto the last platform in style, or maybe just looking like a constipated ape.

The rest of the day consisted of hiking and holding an adorable puppy:

Our last stop was Aguas Calientes, a town just below the Machu Picchu site, and seeing it appear in the distance was wonderful. That night my achy limbs and I were pleased to crawl into bed early and become unconscious for a few hours before our 4am start.

(On a side note, it's completely gross but I just thought I would share the state of my leg at the end of the day. It came as a bit of a shock as I'd been wearing trousers, but they were obviously not barrier enough. Surprisingly the bites were never itchy, but they took a good while to clear up).

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Machu Picchu: Day Two

Being away in Europe for a couple of weeks, I have had little time to update my Machu Picchu blog. However, I decided that today is the day to document Day 2 of my climb.

The second day was actually our least active one. We arrived the night before in a little jungle lodge run by a family and were pleased to be able to sit down, relax, and be served our meal of rice and chicken. Little merriment was had that night as we were all keen to crawl into our beds and refresh ourselves for our impending hike the next day. I attempted to shower, but could only wash one limb at a time in the freezing cold water, so I was kind of clean... :/ I think. I made a point not to look up at the corrugated iron roof as the little concrete space was full of cobwebs and dead insects, and I feared I had a few eight-legged friends waiting to say hello.

The next morning we saw true Peruvian 'punctuality' in action; after being told we were setting off on our hike at 9am, it was nearing 10 before they let us know that actually we were not going to be leaving until at least 11. In the meantime we were given a lesson on various fruits and vegetables that grow in the Peruvian mountains and jungle, including thousands of varieties of potato. My potato knowledge has never been that great, but it was kind of interesting to learn that the vegetable, which originates from the country, was brought to Europe and made popular by the Spaniards, and sadly, due to its subsequent popularity and cultivation, the thousands of varieties that used to exist have now been practically halved, with the less popular ones having disappeared over time.

As well as potato facts, we were also able to eat a raw cocoa bean (bitter, but I was a bit of a fan), and wear makeup made from the juice of various fruits - a practice still in existence by many tribal peoples of today.

Eventually we left, and the day consisted of walking through the breathtaking countryside for around 8 hours before arriving at the natural thermal springs built into the mountains. I had known we were going to be swimming in natural hot baths but I was unprepared for how beautiful the surroundings would truly be. The baths were around 32-35 degrees celsius, and were situated in a natural valley, walled by mountains, rocks, and vegetation. After a day hiking, I was in absolute heaven!

But the day didn't end there. After a couple of hours swimming and relaxing, it was pretty dark, so a bus took us to the mountain town where we would spend the night in a hostel. After dinner we decided that tonight would not be another early night, and so tried the local 'Inca tequila' shots; an alcoholic beverage that has been brewed with a dead snake for a bit of extra flavour. They were...strong. After hitting the bar, we also tried out the local club scene, or rather, the one rather empty club. Having popped a few moves, Tobias and I were then ready to head back to the hostel. An early morning and zip-lining fun awaited us.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Machu Picchu: Day One

Machu Picchu just had to be seen. To have come to Peru and not gone there would have been some kind of sacrilege I feel. And so, like all good tourists, Tobias and I duly booked to go and see this ancient Inca ruin. We decided to forgo the famous Inca trail, and opted for the four day Jungle Trek with Loki Hostels, which included various activities like white water rafting and zip-lining, instead. It sounded much more fun and we also saved hundreds of dollars.

After only one day in Cusco, we got up at an inhuman hour and made our way to the waiting bus, where we met our tour guide and the rest of the group. It turns out I was the only native English speaker there, with other members of the group being from far flung places like Italy, Germany, and Argentina. I was also the only female, which did feel a little strange at first.

It was a long, winding road up to our first activity, and took around 3 hours. The scenery was spectacular though, so I was by no means bored. And as well as this, the weather was so shockingly bad that I was happy at the excuse to sit in a toasty bus. However, the moment came when we had to brave the elements and get ready for our impending bike ride. I was quite looking forward to the mountain biking activity, especially when I learned it was all downhill, but I must admit, I was hoping the weather would be slightly more agreeable. After dressing in our protective gear and choosing our bikes, we gathered for the obligatory group photo before whizzing off down the hill.

Looking attractive

The road was a mountain road (obviously, you might say) - very windy and with a sheer drop on one side. Add to this the fact that it was pouring with rain and you can understand why I was a little cautious. I was the slowest one (slow being relative here - I was going quite fast), and every now and then I would whiz round a corner and see the group was gathered together waiting for me. However, when we set off again, I quickly lost them all, despite trying to live on the edge and not worry too much about impending death or injury. Anyway, despite being 'slow', I found the whole thing rather exhilarating.

A problem did arise after about 40 minutes though. We had to stop when we came across a long queue of cars and people milling about. It turns out that there had been a landslide shortly before (luckily not whilst we were riding past) and so the road was completely blocked. This shortened our ride quite considerably, and at this point we had to give our bikes back to the van that had been following us and take a short cut to our destination. This involved walking down a steep drop covered with loose mud and stones. At one point I landed flat on my back and ended up covered in mud.

Making my way down the hill

We eventually made it to where the car was picking us up and taking us to our well-deserved lunch in an idyllic little lodge, just before we went white water rafting. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons I could not take photos of this activity (not yet the owner of a Go Pro), but I have to say it was the best part of the trip. An absolute highlight. Tobias and I were not actually sure if we were going to do it, partly because we had to pay an extra fee, and partly because I had heard horrific first-hand stories from my friends who had visited Machu Picchu a few weeks previously. However, I am so glad we did. The river was set in the most amazing location, and all we could see around us were mountains covered in forest. It felt kind of prehistoric, as though we'd travelled in time back to the Stone Age or something. 

There were six to a boat and we had a guide telling us how and when to paddle. Fortunately. Or we probably would have ended up being sucked in by rapids. Paddling with the oars was a definite workout for the arms, but I did get into a nice rhythm. The windy weather meant the water was very choppy, but that just made it all the more fun. We did survive, although there was one hairy moment - with most of the waves we'd be lifted up and then plonked back down again, but one was so big that that just wasn't going to happen. As we were thrown through the wave, I headbutted the person in front of me, and learned afterwards that Tobias, who was in front of him, had also hit this guy at the very same moment. In the face. With an oar. Ouch! Going through the wave probably lasted only a few seconds but everything went into slow motion and it felt a lot longer. I was quite scared as I knew that the whole raft was completely out of anybody's control and I was convinced that we'd all be thrown out. We weren't. Despite this moment, I found the water rafting experience to be absolutely amazing, but the best part had to be when we jumped off our raft towards the end and went for a swim in the freezing water.

The day was tiring but incredible, as you can probably imagine, but the adventures weren't quite over yet. Night hiking up the mountain in order to reach our lodge for the night, we happened across a house in the jungle, and stopped for water. The couple living there had a pet monkey, which was (sadly) tied to a pole. Being a monkey-lover, I went over to play with him. All was well for the first minute or so until, out of the blue, he swiftly grabbed my glasses off my face and ran up to the top of his pole. Being blind and terrified that I would be unable to see for the next three days, my first instinct was to wrestle with this little creature and and try and get them back. However, after being bitten (not deeply, fortunately) on the finger, I realised that it was probably not a good idea to fight with an aggressive jungle animal. The owner calmed him down, at which point, the sulky little thing threw the glasses on the ground. I'm not one for tying up wild animals but at that moment I was glad he could only climb the length of a pole and not run off into the jungle leaving me with a lack of sharp vision. Lesson learned: never mix monkeys and valuables. I slept well that night.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Exploring Cusco

We didn't spend long in Cusco, the former Inca capital, so did not have the time to experience the amazing nightlife that my friends (who had gone a few weeks before) had raved about, but we did manage to have enough time to get in a bit of culture and have a whistlestop tour of the beautiful city.

View from our bedroom window

Having previously been warned to take precautions because of the altitude, we made sure to take altitude sickness tablets before we went, and also rested for a little while before exploring the place. However, at 3,400 m, we still weren't reacting too well to being there, despite the pills and copious amounts of coca tea, the ubiquitous drink that you just can't escape from in Cusco - it apparently holds the secret to health in the highlands.

Coca tea

The coca tea is an acquired taste but I did get to quite like it. Although I came across some teabags, most of the time it is given in the form of leaves, to which boiling water is added, and then VOILA! - leaf-tasting water. The leaves come from the coca plant that grows abundantly in the Peruvian jungle, the plant from which is produced the dangerous drug, cocaine. However, don't be afraid of this little leaf - in its original form it is harmless, and actually very healthy.

Cusco itself is absolutely breathtaking and is full of charming little streets, elegant-looking buildings, and impressive churches that date back to the Spanish colonial era. The exploration had to be slow, however; the air is thin, and I found myself feeling faint whenever I tried to run or walk too fast, sometimes having to sit down on the ground until my equilibrium was restored.

The city was originally built by the Incas and has a unique shape - the layout actually takes the form of a puma. However, much of the original Inca architecture was destroyed by the Spanish invaders, and the architectural glories that exist to this day were built on the remains of the Inca temples by the Spanish in an attempt to quash the Andean culture. However, this wasn't completely successful and so nowadays the city is a fascinating mix of the remains of the Inca empire and its traditions and the relatively more modern Spanish influences.

 Many of the locals know exactly how to draw in the tourists

Unfortunately, because of the tourist pull (mainly due to the fact the city has exclusive access to Machu Picchu), Cusco is more expensive compared to other places in Peru, and so a shoestring budget will have to be put on hold. However, it is a must-see for those travelling to this country, and is chock-full of beauty, history, and tradition. I just wish I had spent more time there.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Magic Water Circuit

Oh where to begin! The last two weeks have disappeared in a haze of activity and excitement that far surpassed my original expectations. Machu Picchu was a hard climb but was so wonderful to see; despite having seen countless pictures of the place, I was absolutely bowled over seeing it 'in the flesh'. And, as well as this, I also used my boyfriend's visit as an excuse to do all of the touristy things in Lima that I've been meaning to do over the last 5 months, but never seemed to get around to (such as paragliding and surfing). 

I actually have so much to report and write about that I'm loathe to do it in one post, so I've decided that my two-week stint spent in Cusco, Lima, and climbing Machu Picchu will be done as a series of posts. Just a collection of recommendations and thoughts, rather than a step by step of what we did. Some things probably even deserve a post all of their own. So here goes.

Soon after Tobias arrived, we had one evening in Lima before hopping on the plane to Cusco, the town from which people go on to climb the mountain, and we spent this evening at the Magic Water Circuit (Circuito del Agua) at Parque de la Reserva in Miraflores. This is a place I've been wanting to go to for ages, as everyone raves about it, so a couple of weeks ago I finally did. 

The park, which has been open for about seven years now, has thirteen illuminated fountains, and an amazing atmosphere. It manages to maintain that difficult balance of being family-friendly but also a romantic spot for couples, or just a perfect destination for a fun night out for groups of adult friends. The fountains can be admired at your leisure, either by walking or by taking the little train that drives around the park. We did both - I tapped into my inner child when I saw the little train meandering around the place, and we fitted into the tiny carriage - just. 

The place is awash with colour and joy, and if you fancy getting wet (which I did), you can run into the fountains and enjoy being splashed, or you can keep a safe distance like Tobias did, and just appreciate the beautiful coalescence of water and colourful light, maybe whilst also taking pictures of your girlfriend acting like an overexcited five year old (which she definitely regretting after realising she hadn't brought a change of clothes). 

But the most impressive sight by far was the water show, an absolutely spellbinding 20 minute piece, weaving together music, water, and incredible coloured light projections absolutely seamlessly, and leaving us mesmerised. I'm glad I watched this before jumping into the fountains and running through water tunnels though, as I think spending the 20 minutes shivering and with soggy feet would have detracted from the magic somewhat.

All-in-all, it was a fabulous evening, with the only negative bit being that it ended with a last minute and frantic packing session before we could collapse into bed and refresh ourselves for our adventure the next day. Next stop: Cusco.