Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Happy Christmas from Montanita

We have spent the last five days relaxing on the beach in Montanita which is a very touristy little surf/beach resort on the coast of Ecuador with brilliant sea food. Our Hostel (Brisa Marina) was right on the beach so we could swing in the hammock and watch the sun set... awesome! We also had a go at surfing and the waves were pretty easy so even Jo managed to stand up. The rest of our time has been spent drinking the most amazing fruit smoothies, eating pan au chocolate, drinking cocktails...(Montanita has a street dedicated to cocktails!)... and taking silly photos on the beach!!!! Great news is that we have managed to get a last minute deal to the Galapagos Islands so we fly there tomorrow (Christmas Day) and will spend the next 8 days on a boat cruising the Islands. We will be sure to let you know how we´ve got on.
A Very Merry Christmas to you all and have a great New Years Eve.
Lots and lots of love,
Jo and Al xxxx

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Lima and Mancora

After a short(ish) bus ride along the Peruvian coast we arrived in Lima. The city is huge and we stayed in the southern district of Barranco. The main bonus here was the close proximity of our hostel to the most incredible little fish restaurant where we sampled ´cerviche´ for the first time (raw fish marinaded in lime and chili).We also went into the centre of the city to the Plaza de Armas and got there in time to see the changing of the guard at the presidential palace. There was loads of riot police around (apparently they´re present every day for the procession!) and we witnessed a mini-protest (only a very small bit of tear gas used). We headed back south along the beach (not as nice as Bournemouth beach!) from Miraflores back to our hostel in time to catch the fish restaurant before closing!

After our very brief stop in Lima we wanted to start heading towards Ecuador for Christmas and New Year. Flights to Quito from Lima were astronomical so we instead decided to stick to what we do best and buy yet another 16 hour bus ride! Rather than face the painful 30 odd hour trip all the way to Quito, we decided to stop at the beach resort of Mancora in northern Peru for a night or two.

This turned out to be a wise choice as we managed to find a hostel with beautiful little beach front cabañas just outside town. We had a lovely 2 days chilling by the beach and one boozy night on the rum! And randomly we bumped into two friends (Jim and Tom) from the Inca Trail.
Ecuador was calling though, so after another bus ride (with Al nursing another little bout of stomach issues..... but we won´t go into that) we arrived in Guayaquil to do a little bit of Galapagos research for the day.

Next stop is the Ecuadorian coast to find a nice little place to spend the festive period (probably Montanita or Canoa).
Al drinking rum and trying to look like a pirate....

Lots of love (hope it´s not too chilly back in the UK...!).
Jo and Al x x

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Arequipa, The Colca Canyon and The Nazca Lines

When we arrived in Arequipa we booked straight onto a three day hike into the Colca Canyon (Thanks to Alex), as if we hadn´t hiked enough on the Inca Trail! The Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world and it is also the home to the Andean Condor. We went with a couple from Belgium and our guide Marcel who had grown up in one of the villages in the canyon. The first day we walked into the canyon which was all downhill so fairly painless and gave us a chance to see three condors which were massive (wing spans of about 3metres). That night we stayed at the family home of our guide in a small adobe hut with a thatched roof and we kept warm around a camp fire.The second day we walked through the canyon visiting two villages which are totally cut off as they currently have no roads to them. The villages had primary schools but, when they reach secondary school age, the children have to walk up and out of the canyon to a school in the town at the top. Essentially our trek was Marcel´s old walk to school!!Marcel was also able to point out which trees and shrubs they used as various medicines (apparently wild pepper is very good for arthritic pain) and he gave us cactus fruit, miniature pears and some weird banana type things to try.At the end of the second days walk we stayed in a place called the Oasis which had a swimming pool and lots of little huts.Unfortunately as we arrived the heavens opened so our swimming was limited to a quick dip and then we kept ourselves amused playing cards, football and Al tried his hand at a bit of trout fishing. On the final day, we got up at 5am and started the steep climb of 1200 metres back up and out of the Canyon. It took two and a half hours and several chocolate biscuits but we made it! At the top we caught a bus to Chivay where we stopped for lunch and saw lots of dancing in the streets and celebrations as it was a religious festival. Al putting his rabies jab to the test....

Back in Arequipa we decided it was about time we gave our walking boots a rest and we checked into Arequipa´s only five star hotel for a couple of nights of luxury (Thanks to Auntie Sue, Uncle Mark and family). The hotel was amazing and it was great to spend two days lying by a swimming pool and relaxing. We also made sure we got our moneys worth with the buffet breakfast going up a record six times to fill our plates!
From Arequipa we caught an overnight bus to Nazca where we went to the Aerodrome and took an overflight (Thanks to Auntie Pauline). There are hundreds of figures and shapes in the Nazca desert believed to have been created between 200BC and 700AD and they are best viewed from the air. We set off in a small propeller plane which held five of us and a disturbingly young pilot.During the flight Al saw lines such as the monkey, the hummingbird, the astronaut and the spider. Unfortunately, due to the bumpy ride and the constant swerving from side to side, Jo just saw the bottom of the sick bag! We decided not to stay in Nazca as the town is pretty ropey and, following our flight, we jumped straight on a bus to the capital city, Lima.

Lots of love
Jo and Al x x

The faces of two people who are going to check into a five star hotel after having just climbed out of a 1200 metre canyon.....

Friday, 5 December 2008

Cuzco, The Sacred Valley and the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Next stop was Cuzco. We arrived in the city with a few days to spare before setting off on the Inca Trail. Our hostel had a lovely roof terrace with beaufitul views over the city which we could enjoy every morning at breakfast. There are loads of Inca ruins around here besides Machu Picchu and we took a local bus out to a site called Tambomachay which has some impressive aqueducts, canals and waterfalls. We then had a nice 8km walk back to Cuzco taking in a further 3 sites ending at the large Saqsaywaman site (pronounced sexy woman!). This features some incredible Inca stonework including one 300 ton stone! Cuzco is said to be built in the shape of a puma and this site represents the head of the puma. Having looked at maps of the area we really couldn´t see it, but all very impressive nonetheless! Although for a short time we became the biggest tourist attraction as we were accosted by a group of Peruvian kids who all wanted their photo´s taken with the pale, blond gringos!

We also went out a little further afield into the Sacred Valley to visit another 3 Inca sites and a church. One site at Ollantaytambo features a temple at it´s summit where 6 huge stones were actually quarried 5km away over the other side of the valley at the top of a 3000m mountain! These 6 stones had to be rolled down that mountain, taken across a river and taken up to the top of the Inca site (about another 300 metres uphill!). Not bad considering this was all done in the 15th century! The site also has some amazing terracing (that can be seen at lots of Inca sites).
After a few more days chilling out in Cuzco it was time to embark on the 27 mile, 4 day/3 night Inca Trail. We were met at our hostel at 5.30am for the 2 hour bus ride to the start point just past Ollantaytambo along with the 12 other people in our group. The first day is classed as the ´easy´ day, starting at 2600 metres above sea level with a 7.5 mile trek to the first campsite, Wayllabamba, at 3000masl. We had heard reports from others that we´d met that the food from the company we were trekking with was really good and getting to the designated lunch stop midway through the first day we were amazed to find a dining tent awaiting our arrival together with an incredible 3 course lunch. Our group had 20 porters who had the unfortunate task of carrying all of the food, tents and cooking equipment (including big gas cannisters!)! Somewhat embarrassingly they applauded us each time we stumbled into the next lunch stop or camping site (they routinely carry around 25 kilos, our packs weighed around 8-10 kilos!). We got used to having them jog past us up hills as we crawled our way along!The second day is classed as ´challenging´. We left the campsite at 7.00am and had an imposing view of the ´challenge´ that lay ahead, a climb up from our camp at 3000masl to the first pass at 4200masl called Huarmihuañusca or Dead Woman´s Pass! We certainly found it a challenge but everyone is allowed to go at their own pace so we took our time trying to remind ourselves that we were meant to be enjoying the experience and the spectular scenery. Reaching the pass was amazing and the views back down the mountain and trail we had climbed were beautiful. We then had a knee-jarring descent to our second nights campsite, Pacamayo, which was at 3600masl. We were happy to arrive there although again somewhat embarrassed as the porters once again clapped our arrival!

The third day is described as ´unforgettable´. We awoke early again to climb up to the second pass, Runkuracay, at 4000masl. After this we started to descend into amazing cloud forest before climbing again to the third (and final!) pass, at 3700masl. We passed through two Inca tunnels that had been carved into caves and the scenery all along the way was breathtaking. The guides warned us that the 1000 steps down from here to the final campsite at Wiñay Wayna (2700masl) were particularly steep and had earned the nickname ´gringo killer´! So we took our time and again the views were totally stunning. On our way into the final campsite we were greeted by a little lady selling nicely chilled beers and it seemed incredibly rude to pass by without supporting her cause, and we definately think this was the nicest beer has ever tasted!! The fourth and final day is described as ´unique´, the principal reason being that it takes you to Machu Picchu. We´d had 3 days of really good weather (considering this is the rainy season here it had only rained at night when we safely tucked into our sleeping bags). So we were all a bit gutted to wake on the final morning at 4.30am to really low cloud and rain. At least we got a chance to try the ponchos we´d purchased fearing the worst in Cuzco! We left for the climb up to Intipunku (Sun Gate) where, on a clear day, you can enjoy the sun rising over Machu Picchu laid out in the valley below. Sadly we could barely see a few metres so after a few shots modelling our poncho´s, we headed on down to Machu Picchu with our guide´s attempts of reassurance that it would ´probably´clear up later on ringing in our ears (although he did also start to say as time wore on that it can stay really cloudy all day!). We got down to the site with everything still covered in a blanket of heavy cloud and were starting to get really concerned that we were not going to be able to enjoy the famous picture postcard view in real life. Whilst we were stood trying to form mental pictures of the site from the tiny bits we could see a little clearing occurred in the clouds above and all of a sudden the centre of Machu Picchu was lit up in front of us. With the surrounding cloud it made for an amazing sight and our guide seemed positive that the clouds were beginning to disperse. We went down into the ruins for a guided tour during which time the cloud cleared almost entirely revealing Machu Picchu in all it´s glory. The other added bonus (although not for our weary legs) was that we were able to climb the famous mountain, Huayna Picchu, that sits in the backdrop of all postcard pictures of the site. Normally the restricted daily 400 tickets for this extra climb get quickly snapped up but, as the cloud had set in, people hadn´t bothered trying to get the tickets. It was a ridiculously steep 360m climb up from Machu Picchu but we´d had plenty of practise in the previous few days and we arrived at the small rocky summit to look back at great views of the ruins below. We descended back down to climb up to the otherside once more to get a few final pictures of MP in all it´s glory from the classic angle.
Sadly it was time to leave and we were bussed down to the town of Aguas Calientes for lunch. As our train back to Ollantaytambo didn´t leave until 6pm we still had time to visit the thermal baths in the town (only a few of the more hygienicly concious people in our group had taken advantage of the only showers on the Inca Trail at the last campsite, so this visit was completely necessary!). So we basked our aching bodies in the nice warm pools with cool beers in hand for an hour or so (we could have stayed in there all night!) before making our way back to Cuzco by train and bus, back to normal beds and hot(ish) showers!

We were both tired but agreed that it had been absolutely incredible and a definate highlight of out adventure so far. We were really lucky to have done the trek with such a great bunch of people and two brilliant guides.

Next stop, Arequipa and the Colca Canyon. We figured that with all the high altitude exercise we´ve had it´s best to tackle the canyon now. Then it´s time for some R&R and Christmas beach action (or lack of!).
Still missing you all!

Keep in touch.
Lots of love.

Jo and Al x x x