Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Source

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It may not look like much, and to be frank, it’s certainly not one of my better photographs (try doing more in a 3 minute bathroom break at 4,800 metres high with a main road running through the shot). But this photo represents a nice circular conclusion to the first three months of our trip.

En route from Colca Canyon to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and from there on to Bolivia and our next chapter, we traversed the Andean Altiplano, seeing some of Peru’s most stunning scenery.

The mountain range in the shot is the Mismi range in the Peruvian high Andes, and up there is a small, almost constantly frozen trickle of water. What’s the big deal? It’s not the biggest mountain, or the toughest to ascend, and lots of mountains have frozen streams. Well this frozen stream is the source of a certain river called the Amazon.

It nicely draws to a conclusion our 5 weeks in Peru since arriving in Lima from Brazil and the Amazon itself.

It’s been a great time and the country has been nothing but welcoming to us. Machu Pichhu was most definitely a highlight, but it was far from the only one. Trekking up in Huarez was stunning, Lima was great and the food was fantastic.

But as is always the case with travelling, it’s time to move on, and Bolivia will hold its own challenges and highlights. Can’t wait.

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A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… or to put it more accurately, it was a mildly annoying time, it was a great time.

That fairly surmises our recent visit to The Colca Canyon in southern Peru.

The canyon itself is spread along 70 odd kilometres between the towns of Chivay and Cabanaconde. Chivay is the first stop when traveling from the main southern city of Arequipa and is also the regional capital and administrative centre of the canyon. As such it is the obvious place to start ones exploration of the area.

Unfortunately, this is a foolish assumption. Although the town is well served with amenities, it is not attractive nor situated to easily travel into the canyon. At Chivay, the start of the world ‘s second deepest canyon is nothing more than a small, narrow valley with a river running through it. We rented bikes to get out of the town and explore the surrounding villages which were raved about in tourist offices and guidebooks alike. Unfortunately these villages, much like Chivay offered little in the way of picturesque views or welcoming locals.

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The view from the bridge west of Yanquay – the canyon starts to get deeper but remains far from the world’s second deepest.

The next day we took the sensible decision and boarded a local bus to Cabanaconde, having decided to leave early and stop at the Canyon’s deepest point in the hope of sighting the giant Andean Condors that can, if lucky, be spotted. We were both very lucky and very unfortunate. Like the hundreds of others that had come out in the hope of seeing a condor, we were not disappointed – largely due to the local tour guides arriving several hours earlier to put food out for the birds. However, being the photographic whore that I am, a photo is a photo, whether set up or otherwise.

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A female Andean Condor circling on a early morning thermal with the canyon and Rio Colca far below.

After that, we were frustrated to find that the next bus wasn’t for another 4 hours and so, in the 30 degree heat we set off on the 14km trek to Cabanaconde. Predictably, we arrived just in time for the bus to pass us!

Cabanaconde, being much smaller than Chivay and barely even a village had none of the amenities offered in its larger cousin, but it’s one bar/restaurant had a great vibe and the fact that everyone was forced to go there gave it a great village pub feel. The hamlet also differed from Chivay in that just 20 minutes walk from the main square and you were looking down an almost vertical precipice into the Canyon itself, and a proper canyon to boot.

All in all it was yet another great experience that Peru offers it’s visitors and the Canyon gives amazing views and spectacular photographs, even if it is spectacular in a stunningly bleak not beautiful way.

One word of advice – don’t waste time on the villages or towns – as with all canyons, it’s about the natural and anything man made rarely improves it.

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The view from the ‘outskirts’ of Cabanaconde, with the near vertical drop of the canyon wall in the near distance.

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Scotland ‘v’ Ireland

As most of you will know, I am somewhat patriotic. I am frequently seen futilely cheering on the Scottish rugby team, I took a secret pleasure in counting how many golds Scottish athletes won at the Olympics* and I was overjoyed on Monday to see British and Scottish number one Andy Murray lift the US Open Trophy. However, sadly there is one area that I must admit Scotland and Scots do not dominate, furthermore, not only do we not dominate, but we are trounced by our Celtic cousins The Irish; it is the arena of themed bars abroad.

Many of you may have read our first rule of travelling, to drink in an Irish bar whenever we saw one. Well, when we arrived in Arequipa that rule was amended once more. On picking up a tourist map my eye was immediately draw to an icon including the Scottish Rugby Union logo. It was for a Scottish run hostel and bar – The William Wallace Bar! It is not often that you see a Scottish bar outside of the UK, indeed it is hard enough to find one in London, a city with more Scots than Edinburgh, and so the rule was changed once more and a visit to The William Wallace was booked.

Tonight was that night. En route I joked that I may have a Laphroaig, my whisky of choice. I didn’t seriously expect it, but I did relish the opportunity of having a malt for the first time in months.

On arrival I knew it wasn’t to be, in fact, any thoughts of home were not to be. We walked in to a large, and empty room decorated with pictures of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The sign above the bar offered numerous spirits and beers, including ‘whiskey’, but nothing Scottish (or notably Peruvian – only Brazilian beer was on offer).

We were served by a somewhat confused, albeit friendly Peruvian barmaid who produced a lukewarm Brahma and a centuries old glass of wine (the bottle had been opened centuries ago, it was not a good vintage).

In fairness they did have a picture of Robert Burns (wearing shades) and Mel Gibson (who’s both racist and an alcoholic) on the wall. But it wasn’t enough to keep us there and we drank quickly and left.

The sad truth is that Irish Bars around the world prevail because they are known for being great craic, whereas Scottish bars are not. This bar did nothing to disprove that reputation.

We headed straight home where I poured myself a whisky and recited Auld Lang Syne.

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*Scottish athletes were very successful at the London 2012 Olympics because they were part of Team GB and received funding from various UK nationwide bodies.

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Machu Picchu

It was 4am, we’d had little more than 4 hours sleep, on gravel with a thin foam mattress for comfort and a small tent for shelter. But despite this, there was a buzz in the air. This was what the moments before the starting pistol must surely feel like. People chatted and joked in dozens of languages but universally in the manner of excited children.

Over one and a half hours were spent in this way, but rather than diminishing the anticipation, the time only added to it. At a few minutes after 5:30, a light came on a few metres up ahead, the crowd hushed and then, slowly, surged forward. The gate was open!

The cursory glance at the passport and the final of 4 stamps on our ticket and we were off. It wasn’t the slow and steady pace of previous days. Nor was there the usual banter. Today we were single minded. The pace was fast, faster than would have been possible at any other point on the trek.

Moments later we caught up with the group in front, demolishing their 4 minute head start. Speaking Spanish and wearing Argentinian football shirts, their slow pace riled us. The path was too narrow to pass and it seemed our bid to reach The Sun Gate for sunrise would be dashed.

Suddenly our guide made his move and, seeing a native Peruvian edge past, the Argentines assumed it was someone official. Pouncing on their confusion, a group of six of us edged passed. Their annoyance was clear and my childish excitement spilled over; “ha ha, we have The Falklands” I muttered as our group resumed our frantic, near jogging pace.

The steps were steeper and more numerous than any encountered on previous days, but we bounded up them and could now see our guide standing at the top, the finish line. People began to wane and words of encouragement were shouted – it was like the Army, but without the bullying or fear of becoming cannon fodder.

Then we were there!

Perhaps it’s too many issues of National Geographic, or watching Indiana Jones with such a frequency, but I couldn’t help but feel a slight disappointment that the citadel hadn’t been revealed to me with a swipe of a machete and the falling away of foliage. Instead, tired and slightly out of it, we stumbled through The Sun Gate, a centuries old archway on a high ridge overlooking Machu Picchu.

We stopped and stared, not fully comprehending that we were there, we had made it and we had beaten hundreds of others to it. And yet, it was still more than a mile away. The buildings were still just dots in the distance, the small hills and the peak of Huayna Picchu looked wrong, the angle wasn’t right!

It took yet another hike, this one largely downhill and lasting a mere 40 minutes, before we found ourselves amongst the buildings themselves, impossibly well built, with masonry work that seems to elude all but the best craftsmen today with the most sophisticated tools, let alone the Incas, with nothing more that other rocks, wood and sand to carve these huge stones from.

And then it came, the moment I, if not everyone else had been waiting for… our guide pointed to a large boulder protruding from one of the countless terraces. I stood right on the edge, looking out over Machu Picchu, my camera glues to my face, my right index finger in turn glued to the shutter release. This was the “classic view”. There was nothing new about it – since 1911 there must have been thousands of photos of it, now seen by millions of people. It was instantly recognisable the way few places in the world can be. It was utterly familiar and yet different. This wasn’t a photograph or a video, it was real and it was in front of me.

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The Google List

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Have you ever found yourself at 4,000 metres having a heated argument with an Australian about the name and lyrics to “The Hokey Cokey”?

If you’re from the colonies, you may have already realised how the argument went – are the words hokey cokey or hokey pokey? But at 2.5 miles up in the Andes, 30 KM away from the nearest town and two days hike from anywhere that is likely to have a wifi connection there is no way of proving it one way or the other. The result is the most primitive form of mob rule – majority wins. One Irish, two Australians, two Canadians and 5 Americans verses 3 Brits meant the conclusion was inevitable, and no amount of “we made your countries” or “it’s called English for a reason” would work. For those two days, we were subjected to illegitimate renditions of The Hokey Pokey.

Such was how the Inca Trail panned out for us. Lists were made that were to be verified on Wikipedia at a later stage. Ignoring the stunning beauty of the fringes of The Andean Jungle and pausing only briefly to listen to our guides explanation of the countless Incan ruins dotting the trail, we debated everything that came to mind: how long were Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes married for?, is it true Peruvians keep guinea pigs under their beds to keep them warm, what are the lyrics to “These are a few of my favourite things”? (turns out Julie Andrews didn’t tie up kittens with warm woollen mittens).

And so we past the days and nights of the trek. Of course we listened intently and shot off countless metaphorical reels of photos. We encouraged each other up steep inclines and offered hands to those coming down big steps. We were a family and got on amazingly. The setting was fantastic, the people great, the food delicious and the trip unforgettable…

And what was the first thing we did to celebrate the achievement of completing the Inca Trail? Google The Hokey Cokey*.

Machu Picchu was a whole different story of course, and I’ll save that for later.

*http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hokey_cokey#_

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