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Doctors to Deserts

Following an unexpected and somewhat chaotic end to our Inca Jungle Trek we extend our stay at the Intro Hostel Cuzco, in an attempt to recover Steve, who at this point is dancing with delirium. As luck would have it and unlike the rest of Peru, Cuzco has an on call doctor service, where medics travel out to illness stuck travellers at their hostels. Following his bedside examination, I head off across town with the ambulance driver to pay for Ste’s treatment and collect the large bag of various prescriptions, including two radioactive looking bottles of re-hydration electrolyte juice. We again count our luck to have chosen the Peru Hop, as on my return from the hospital I detour to the Cuzco Hop office where the infectiously friendly Hop Staff sympathise and adjust our bus for the following night, despite being within twelve hours of our scheduled departure. Sometimes it pays to pay a little more. With Ste tucked up in bed, I share some campfire beers with the fabulous Sabrina, our fellow Inca Jungle Trekker.

The following day the mystery pills and potions appear to be working and that evening we resume our schedule, hopping on to Arequipa. Arequipa is a colonial city sitting at around 2,500m above sea level. Naturally we join the free walking tour and soon learn that by Peruvian standards the town is pretty affluent. Arequipa carries the nickname of ‘The White City’ and from our initial amble it is clear to see why. Arequipa is situated in alongside three major volcanoes – Chachani, Misti and Pichu Pichu and these volcanoes are all in part responsible for the beautiful white volcanic rock that comprises the elegant colonial buildings. The two largest volcanoes El Misti towering at almost 6,000m, and Chachani at over 6,000m, can each be climbed in a two-day trek. Sadly due to Ste recent illness, an endurance trek to such high altitudes would pose a risk of relapse of Ste’s sickness and so we reluctantly skip these treks. This was not to be the only frustration caused by his illness; we had planned to do Rainbow Mountain in Cusco, again over 5,000m and Colca Canyon – one of the world’s deepest canyons. With the disastrous end to Machu Picchu still fresh in our minds, neither of us felt inclined to repeat this. As result we were sadly left with mixed feelings of Arequipa, both highly aware we had not seen its full potential.

 

 

Constricted to the city,  two nights surrounded by sunny white colonial buildings felt satisfactory and it was decided to hop-on to Huacachina, Peru’s famous desert oasis town. With our current yo-yoing luck there was of course another almost disaster. Due to a rooky miscommunication between ourselves and the Hop-Rep (he said “five-fifteen”, we heard “five-fifty”) we almost missed our morning departure. Unlike almost everything else in South America, the Peru Hop bus schedule runs to military precision and we later learned from another unfortunate Hopster, if you miss your departure it’s a solid twenty-four hour wait for the next. Half-asleep and half dressed we bundle our possessions into anything with a handle, and scramble out of the hostel and onto the impatient bus. Good morning!

The luck swings back again as we realise we are the first pick-up; the bus is filled with sleeping Hopsters who are skipping Arequipa and heading straight through to Huacachina. We have at least escaped the judgemental stares as we shuffle up the bus aisle. There is a strange phenomenon we have noticed, particularly with western travellers fresh off the plane. Despite having all in the time in the world and happily sitting on buses for twenty-four hours straight, they are quick to silently berate any fellow western traveller who causes even a five minute delay to the schedule. Fortunately normal South-American time works to its own lunatic schedule of what I like to equate to ‘Cornish Time’, in other words things happen when the happen and this beats the judgement out of them eventually.

As part of our Hop route to Huacachina, we stop at Nazca to see the UNSECO World Heritage Site, the Nazca Lines. These are ancient geoglyphs – designs in the rock – predominantly of zoomorphic (birds, monkeys, jaguars) and phytomorphic designs (trees and flowers) with the largest as long as 370m in length. Historians date them as being created between 500BC and 500AD by the ancient Nazca people. The reason behind the existence of these lines is unsure, but most hypotheses ascribe them to have religious, cosmological or astrological purpose. Sounds pretty darn interesting right? The reality of our visit however was somewhat underwhelming. The bus pulls in along a deserted (pun intended) road and we all head up a rickety wooden tower to view some of these lines. Despite the desert sunshine, the wind is fierce with dust and you can just about make out a line or two, nothing of the intricate designs the promotional information provides. To get a birds-eye view of the lines in their full glory, you can take a flight in a light aircraft over the desert. But with prices starting at $80 US per person, this is absolutely not within the budget of the frugal backpacker. So unless this is a particular passion or you are the bathing in the dollar, best to settle for the windy, dust-blown tower or in fact just skip it altogether.

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Back on the bus its a quick final stint on to Huacachina. We arrive at the Oasis. A tiny town circumferencing the central waterhole, flanked on either side by towering dunes; it looks the part. To our slight disappointment we later learn the oasis, though once a natural phenomenon, is now artificial. Due to an earthquake changing the underlying strata the pool no longer refills naturally and so water is pumped in to refresh it. In spite of this the little Oasis is still beautiful. The rich golden sand forming the high dunes enclosing the tiny town, shimmers with desert heat and gives a feeling of complete isolation from the rest of the world; desert bliss. Across these dunes roar dune buggies, fresh out of Mad Max and racing across the sand. For 50 soles (£15) each you could strap yourself into one and skid across the sand. While appearing great fun, Ste and I were again budget busting. Following over a month of solid travel and spontaneous medical costs, each activity is carefully selected weighing up the enjoyment of the experience against the cost.  Boring, but essential if you want to travel indefinitely. Speaking to others it was 50/50 on how much of a maniac your driver was, and Ste concluded that being packed into a twelve seater buggy like tourist sardines, kind of killed the appeal – especially as you couldn’t drive. I know what your saying £15 you cheap skates, but when your are attempting to travel as long as possible you have to compromise things- in Peru £15 can be as many as three nights accommodation, you can’t do it all.

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There is a limited selection of hostels in Huacachina and thanks to a sneaky tip from a traveller in Cusco we had booked the Wild Olive. Pretty pricey at £9 each a night including breakfast, but one hundred per cent worth it. As we checked in it was clear this was quite possibly the nicest hostel we had yet stayed in. Shiny with its recent refurbishment, with showers that attempted to blast you into another dimension (trust me after months on the road, finding a decent shower fills you with some serious misplaced ecstasy – first world phenomena). The onsite restaurant provided delicious and discounted pizza for guests, cheap beer and sitting right on the oasis front, the lights reflecting on the still pool were tranquility at is finest. As if that wasn’t enough, the included breakfast the following day was a-la-carte and obviously I went for pancakes and ice cream. Having just one night in our desert dream, we took a post dinner walk around the pool, stopping for a quick Pisco Sour at the infamous Huaca-fucking-china, an establishment as classy as its name.

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The following day we headed straight out after breakfast in an attempt to beat the heat and scale one of the two large dunes on either side of the oasis. Legs, lungs and skin burning we made it to the top, where we subsequently cooked in the morning sun, refreshed only by the slight breeze resulting from our increased elevation. Occasionally a sand whirlwind would whip along the peak of the dune as we sat watching the buggies race below; a truly surreal experience. Another travel optional extra available as part of the buggy tour is the sandboarding, something else we skipped. However as we ran, slid and tumbled back down our steep dune, we felt satisfied in knowing our efforts had cost us nothing except maybe the skin on our noses.

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Included as part of our hostel is use of a swimming pool on the opposite side of the oasis, and having observed its swim-up bar from the top of the dune, it was decided that this was next on the agenda. We made it as far as around twenty meters down the street from the hostel before bumping into an Australian couple Michael and Lisa, fellow Hopsters. Keeping up the Australian standards, our small pleasantries exchanged in the street quickly lead to our pool idea being abandoned for an afternoon of solid drinking with these two. A fabulous turn of events.

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Before we hopped on to our final stop before Lima, another ‘free tour’ is included within the Hop package. Here we head to a Pisco distillery to learn how Pisco is made, try a few different varieties and have the opportunity to splurge at the gift shop. It’s all very interesting, but highly touristic. Cue the arrival of perfectly pleasant sixty-something American tourists in matching Hawaiian shirts, who invoke an instant roll of the eyes from Stephen; hello tourist trap. We enjoy our free samples and override our temptations to splurge on a highly unnecessary leather pisco bottle, holder shaped like a revolver. After an hour of learning of the fermentation and distillery of Peruvian grapes we hop on to our penultimate destination, the small fishing town of Paracas.

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The Good, the Bad and the Inca-redible

Our jungle trek to Machu Picchu begins with a street-corner minibus pick-up. Here we meet our first comrade, a twenty-something-year old American Chris. His adventure started North in Mexico and sadly he is coming to the end of his trip (talk of which always gives me a stomach ache). We hop on board and take in winding mountain views as we head up in altitude. A surprise to some, but Machu Picchu is significantly lower in altitude than Cusco by almost 1,000m – the ancient Inca settlement sits at around 2,400m above sea level. Our tour however would begin with down-hill road biking and the bus takes the effort out of our legs escorting us to over 3,000m. Here we suit up in our bargain £10 waterproof(ish) jacket and trousers that we purchased last minute in the UK, pop on a helmet and hi-vis and get partnered with our two-wheeled companions.

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The fog had really set in at this point and there was almost a taste of Cornish mizzle (mist + drizzle) in the air. We set off and chaperoned at either end by the minibuses, we race down the mountain roads in ignorant bliss of the sheer cliff faces looming under the fog. It’s surprisingly cold, and as the rain increases its intensity, the wind chill gives the legs some extra power to throw ourselves around the corners in an attempt to generate some body heat. The mountain road is intermittently a stream bed for intersecting waterfalls and even the most careful cyclist doubles their soaking as they splash through the flowing water.

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After a good two hours of racing through the elements, the cloud lifts and the humidity sets in. We really are heading into the jungle. The sun evaporates the surface water, and our cold, foggy ride ends in a hot and steamy sprint. Though just a well-tarmaced winding mountain road, a small sense of adventure is injected by the decidedly manic driving of passing traffic, the limited visibility thanks to the eerie fog, and the occasional aquaplane makes for a few spikes in heart-rate. We deposit our bikes back at the truck, hop back into the minibus and head to Santa Maria for a late lunch. Here we get a clearer idea of our group. A late twenties, early thirties something couple from the North of England (Nick and for the life of me can’t remember his girlfriends name so we’ll go for Sarah), two Chilean students, Sabrina (a Bavarian who quite comfortably sits in my top ten favourite people of our travels) two dutch girls and a huge group of Israelis. Israelis (a common theme observed by most backpackers in South America) tend to stick together and so we are quickly separated into two groups, them and then everyone else. After lunch we head for our next excursion; white-water rafting. It’s a decidedly miserable day and already getting dark as we bundle into our inflatable boats wearing little more than a life vest. Having been lucky enough to raft in Queenstown when visiting New Zealand a decade ago, the rapids were less of a rollercoaster than my previous experience. However, the occasional miss-timed stroke got the boat rocking and Sarah quickly jumped in as an honorary coxswain to synchronize our crew. As dusk set in we floated along a tributary and headed to the vans. Soggy and windswept, but all wearing tired smiles, we grabbed cold showers, dinner and a few beers before turning in.

The next morning was another early start. After breakfast we headed out onto a riverside trail to begin our eight-hour day hike to Santa Teresa. As the river path meandered into jungle our guide Jimmy (a pint-sized pocket of Peruvian fun) stops to show us the wonders of the Achiote plant, otherwise known as the ‘lipstick tree’. Contained within the small waxy seed arilds is a red dye that was used by Native Americans including the Incas for body paint as well as ground seeds used for spice. Jimmy wastes no time in displaying his somewhat questionable artistic flair, painting each of us in his interpretation of an Inca design.

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Glowing like sunset moons we continue our trek, stopping at various cliff-edge viewpoints to take some pictures of the truly spectacular mountain views – and also wait for the other half of our group, who appear to treating the hike as a leisurely Sunday stroll. We soothe the hunger pains by feasting our eyes on the luscious green surrounding the glistening river as it slinks through the valley. Our first true rest break comes in the form of a spontaneous cafe nestled within the mountain trees. Here we sample raw chocolate, honey and shot tequila infused with dead snakes. An interesting combination on an empty stomach, we turn our attention to the various animals dotted on perches. A Squirrel Monkey, an Emperor Tamarin and a Macaw gaze at us unimpressed, and I would be lying if I said I was one hundred percent OK with animals being harnessed up and used as tourist attractions. Instead I turn my attention to the one animal that seemed to be enjoying the experience even more that we were. The baby Coati. This little fella made up for his small stature with one hell of a outlandish personality. Flinging itself from person to person, this social butterfly loved nothing more than scrambling all over you, snatching clumps of hair, nipping at ears and rolling around all over you until you gave his fuzzy baby belly a scratch. Life goals.

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From the cafe we temporarily (for 1km to be exact) joined the real deal official Inca trail.

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We were now high in the mountains, and for some of our group the narrow and stony cliff-side path turned their strong backpacking legs into wobbly limbs of goo. Our pace further slowed. The wait for food was almost interfering with the beauty (especially as I am a chronic suffer of hunger induced rage) and as we stopped at one of the highest outcrops to throw Coca leaves into a mountain crevice, I included a quick prayer to the food Gods along with the ritual donation to the Pachamama.

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Finally we made lunch. Spaghetti bolognase of all things – not quite what you would expect from a kitchen deep within the Peruvian jungle – but at this point I probably would have eaten tree bark if it had filled the aching hole that had become my stomach. Full to burst, we lazed in colourful shaded hammocks, the surrounding wild birds and the occasional rooster adding a strangely, entrancing lullaby to our siesta.

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An hour later we returned our tired feet into our hot boots ready for the final leg of the hike. Having hugged the mountains West of the Urubamba River, we crossed what I liked to refer to as the ‘Russian Roulette Bridge’ to walk a few kilometres along the East bank. This suspension bridge was intermittently missing wooden slats along its walkway, leaving gaps most definitely bigger than my undersized shoes. Most of the remaining slats were in various stages of rot and this combined with the sway of the bridge caused by our walking motion as we crossed, our passage became a game of hopscotch. Across the bridge we continued low alongside the river, until we had to cross again. Crossing B was equally as interesting. Suspended on wire high above the fast flowing river, is something I could only describe as a wooden kids trolley tray (think of a baby’s trolley walker, one that might contain wooden blocks or some other toy, minus the wheels and handle), with a pulley to shift it across the wide river expanse. The trolley took three at a time, you sit on the bottom of the wooden tray with you feet dangling over the edge. More joy for the height-haters. Steve, Chris and I settle into our wooden carriage of doom and the two Peruanos on the other bank begin pulling us slowly across the river. With legs dangling high above the rapid river water, I break into fits of giggles at the sheer random and downright stupidity at the fact that at after 26-years, a lifetime of education and  a semi-professional career, my existence has amounted to being sat on a piece of chipboard suspended on rusty wires, above a menacing looking Peruvian river. That’s when you know you have made it folks!

Eventually after we had all taken the high wire and reconvened back on the Western bank, two primary school aged children approach us with the offer of drinks. For some unknown reason I decline and get instantaneous beer-envy as we walk through a large concrete tunnel passing under the mountain and I spot Sabrina loving life, sipping on a cool-box fresh, chilled bottle of Cusqueña beer. We walk for another half an hour or so before we arrive at our penultimate destination, the thermal baths. The sun is well into its set when we arrive and so it becomes a night swim for our aching bodies. The pools vary in temperature, and we opt for a middle one in an attempt to avoid too many children and the inevitable urine they produce when swimming. We float around relaxing our muscles in the steamy water for an hour before shivering back into our clothes and noticing that despite our careful planning, the pools are staggered with one flowing into another. So the light coating of child’s pee was unavoidable. There is an option to take a taxi from the thermal baths to Santa Teresa the next town within which we would spend the night, or walk the final forty-five minutes. The taxi was only 10 soles each (around £2.50), but there would be no access to an ATM until Aguas Calientes, so we opted to penny-pinch. The two Chileans, Chris, Nick, Sarah and Sabrina, joined Ste and I in an uphill dusty-track night walk to the town. This was a bad time to realise we only had two head-torches between the group and phone batteries were completely depleted at this point, so the decision to walk along this narrow and at times only one-way track was rather stupid. We laughed our way through our adversity and made it into town before the taxi, smashing the last leg of the hike in just thirty minutes.

After freshening up we headed to a local restaurant for dinner. Initially this restaurant appeared like any other small-town cafe, however after our meal the tables were cleared, the budget disco lights came out and the Reggaeton was blared at full volume. Now I would have taken more time here to explain Reggaeton, but thanks to some jumped up Canadian attention seeker, (who constantly overestimates his clothing size), Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s ‘Despacito’ has done the job for me. We order the house special of four pisco sours for 20 soles (£5) in an attempt to loosen our awkward British limbs and embrace our inner Latin dancer. Pisco as well as Chile is also the national spirit of Peru. Pisco is made from fermented grapes and then distilled to give it its clear colour and its 48% proof. It’s taste is synonymous of brandy or whiskey, and it packs an equally warming punch. Our cocktails have the desired effect and everyone soon begins to embrace the salsa vibe. The second half our group had decided to bake a batch of rocket fuelled happy brownies and we watch in amusement as they, one-by-one, they are overpowered by their chronic concoction.

The next day is a lie-in. After a 7.30am breakfast we head to the next adventure, the zip-line. We adorn our harnesses synonymous of sumo nappies and climb the large cliff to the start point. Somedays I am scared of heights and others I am fearless (I have concluded it’s hangover dependant). Despite last night’s antics, today is a hangover free affair and so I seize my opportunity why the rest of the group are organising themselves and take the second spot to throw myself across the valley. This zip line is advertised as the biggest in South America (I’m sure many other companies say this) and I am suitably impressed as I hurtle across the valley. The zip line consists of four wires crossing back and forth and you take one immediately after another. I glance back to see where Ste has slotted himself in the line and find him strapped upside down speeding along the wire. I chose against the inverted posture. The zip lines terminate at a final challenge – the bridge of hell. Essentially it is a wooden ladder bridge with large gaps between each slat, suspended on ropes around meters above the valley. This description really doesn’t depict how its intensity. The large gaps combined with the sway of the bridge caused by multiple individuals crossing together, meant a poorly timed step would result in the reverberation catapulting  you off your current slat and it was pure luck as to whether you made it to the next. The bridge easily surpasses the zip wire when it comes to fear factor and the jelly legs got me good.

After the zip line we are driven to Hidroelectricas. Here the final 12km stomp alongside the famous railway line to Aguas Calientes begins. We start with a quick lunch, our final included within the tour, and then slowly march along the ballast. Huge trains pass hourly and it’s amazing how many tourists are just ambling along the rails with us. South America does not have the same cotton wall culture we endure in the West and to be honest with you at times their attitude is more logical. So yes you are walking along a live railway line, but here’s the thing. The train gives constant warning blasts of it’s horn, it’s bloody huge and noisy and when it comes, well guess what? You just move out of the way. Simple really.

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Around two hours later we arrive into the breath-taking mountain town of Aguas Calientes. The rain clouds have arrived in full force and the darkened afternoon sky causes the town’s lights to dance across the river as we peek through the hoods of our emergency rain ponchos. (Not just for festivals folks, here in hot humid climates these throw-away plastic sheets are actually valuable items of clothing for the locals. Crazy cheap, lightweight and functioning as well as any North Face jacket – though of course less fashionable). We arrive at our final hostel (another private room, that’s two out of three) head for our final dinner, grab some celebratory beers and turn in.

The next morning is not a lie-in. Jimmy had informed us that the bridge to cross the river to climb up to Machu Picchu opens at 5am and the queuing begins at around 4.30am. Subsequently the alarms screeches us into consciousness at 3.45am. Ouch. We arrive at the bridge around 4.20am and there are already a good fifty zombies in the queue. After the bridge opens we begin the long march up the hill to Machu Picchu. There are two options to scale the final 1000m up to ancient Inca settlement. A bus winding up the mountain for $24 each way, or climb the two thousand plus steps. Being budget travellers is pretty obvious which we took. I fall into step behind Chris and power up the endless stone steps cut into the mountainside. The thigh burn is real, but Chris and I power past people stopping to catch the breath and race to the top resulting in being second in line to enter. I keep looking back for Ste and am unimpressed by his fitness. I remark to Chris that Ste probably needs to work on his cardio as I see him around twenty minutes later cross the final step, drenched in sweat and stark white in colour. Ste joins us and the gates open – annoyingly there is a cock up with our guide. He skips the watch tower and so despite our prompt entry, we miss the perfect empty Machu Picchu photo opportunity. Here’s the weird thing about Machu Picchu. There’s a one way system, you can’t return to where you have been without exiting the site and re-entering through the main gate. You also are only allowed three entries. Luckily the route our guide takes us is full of llamas who are yet to reach their threshold for human interaction and we feed the banana skins and pet their fuzzy necks.

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Our guide has an unique accent and as a group we understand little of what he is saying. Ste is slowly looking whiter and whiter and decides he needs a bathroom break which are also located outside the site. We head out and I do the classic tourist activity stamp our passports with the Machu Picchu stamp whilst I wait for Ste. Sometime later Ste rejoins us and he’s gone from white to ash grey. Something is seriously wrong. I beg him to re-enter once more, grab a photo at the watch tower and then we’ll leave. He agrees and we head in, him grimacing as we pose for photos while I try and pass off propping him up as an affectionate hug.

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The low-lying cloud lifts and the lush green mountain views across the township almost sparkle in the dawn light. The intense spiritual power of the place is humbling and despite the increasing flow of tourists as the morning wakes into the day, the wonderment does not become too lost in the crowds. The ever increasing footfall does eventually  take some of the magic with it as the selfie-sticks arrive and so advice to any of those heading to Machu Picchu climb the watch tower first thing. Sit and watch the sun rise and the clouds dissipate over the empty city and just bask in the reverence of it all. Ste lasts another half an hour before the grey in his face becomes too thunderous to continue. The rest of the group have an earlier train so they join us with our decision to exit. Ste is barely shuffling and so I pay $24 to stick him on the bus down as I trudge back down the steps with the others.

Now here’s my favourite bit, the when you marginally win an argument and then fate comes along and throws all its weight into your corner. I had wanted to pay an extra $60 each for the train, whilst Ste wanted to save and take the bus. Now as he sat shivering with fever, drifting in and out of a dazed sleep, it dawned on me that by winning my argument Ste would have to walk from the hostel around one hundred meters to the Aguas Calientes train station. If he had won then there would have been an impossible 12km hike back to Hidroelectricas. Sadly my gloating was not able to surface through the pure concern at the state of Ste. It was a real one-thing-at-a-time situation and right now I just needed to keep him hydrated and get him back to the hostel.

Aguas Calientes is beautiful, hosting charismatic markets full of all manner of tourist tat, trinkets and treasures. Machu Picchu is (well for the first hour or so) a spiritual wonderland. The train ride back was elegant and luxurious. But sadly the final day of our hike and Machu Picchu became a blur. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, when someone close to you is sick everything becomes a bit pixelated and out of focus. In a place of real spiritual reflection I was reminded of what really matters. A short-arse hobbit man.

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Cusco – Grandma’s Kitchen and the Black Lord of the Earthquakes.

As with all great plans, they are pretty much changed instantly. We had decided to use the Peru Hop to its fullest and stop at every point we possibly could. However, once we boarded the bus in Peru, we sat downstairs in what would be known as the VIP seats. The thought of disembarking in Puno, in the pouring rain and hunting for a hostel late at night was much less appealing than just staying on the bus and snoozing in our big leather chairs until Cusco. In Puno you can access the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, which includes the floating islands. These are made by the Uros, the indigenous people of the Lake and are constructed using totora reeds that grow naturally in the Lake. You can take a tour to these islands, meet the indigenous people and (for an extra fee) dress up in the traditional clothing. We decided to skip this, having been on the road for almost a month, and with the pricey Machu Picchu looming in Cusco, we decided to be selective. These leads me to something I think is a undiscussed  issue while travelling and that is a subconscious pressure felt by some travellers to try and do everything and anything. Of course if the budget were endless, why wouldn’t you? But it is vital to remember everyone’s travel is first and foremost for themselves. It is an individual journey, which should be enjoyed your way. In the year social media AD, even those blessed folk living on the road, who’s Intsa-lives look like a travel brochure by smug.com, can succumb to pressures from other travelers to do/eat/hike/swim/dive/experience everything. I believe the key to a long and happy travel life is to be selective. Research your interests, travel your way. For me to hear other people’s experiences can be as rewarding as experiencing it first hand myself. If you want to check into a hostel and spend a day or two doing nothing but reading your favourite book, do it. If you want to spend three days in the world’s most cultural city drinking beer and making friends, do it. If you want museum hop all day, jump out of plane at sunset and dance naked on the beach till dawn, do it. Travel your way.

Back to it, so we arrive at 5am and as is our new theme, have no hostel booked. Our Hop guide recommends to us a new hostel in Cusco called ‘The Point’. Sounds like an alright establishment and we get a discount thanks to being part of Peru Hop  (something we should have got in every hop stop with affiliated hostels, and would have known this had we bothered to read the welcome pack), so all seems fine and dandy. We can’t check in until midday, so after a slight disagreement with the hostel receptionist, who wants use to check in now and pay for the previous night (jog-on mate) we find a nest on a tattered sofa to wait. As the sun wakes, the cracks in our new lodging start creeping into view. The hostel is freezing, there is glow-paint and confetti everywhere, a group of stoners are still having it large in the frosty courtyard and the showers and toilets appear torn between a reinvention of a bottle bank and an ash-tray. All in all we’ve arrived uncharacteristically stone-cold sober at the after-party and feeling like teetotal, middle-aged parents, we conclude we are in the wrong place at the wrong time. We load up our bags and head out to the cobbled old town streets to find an alternative. (As irony would have it, in the months to come we end up working at The Point in Mancora, North Peru, where we would find the complete reverse situation).

Our saviour comes in the form of the Intro Hostel Cusco. Slightly out of town and just down the hill from the Wild Rover Hostel, which is basically the biggest party hostel alongside the formidable Loki (fresher student union vibes), it is a 400-year-old restored colonial building, now a cosy and elegant hostel. For $8 a night we get a 14 person dorm and breakfast, with plush feather down bedding and showers that are trying to blast you into a another soapy dimension. The dream. The staff take pity on us as we explain our early morning mishap and let us help ourselves to the included breakfast a day early. Give tired me a cup of tea and an jam roll and I will pretty much fall in love with you. Throw in Whiskey the cat and it’s clear this go down as one of my favourite hostels of our travels.

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We begin to explore the charming mountain city that is Cusco. The colonial force is strong with this one. White buildings with ornate wooden balconies surround large cobbled plazas. We wander through time and find what will become our daily pilgrimage – San Pedro Market and ‘Grandma’s Kitchen’. San Pedro Market is a vibrant buzz of colour; stalls selling juice, fruit, cheese, llama jumpers, meat, tourist tat, fish, candles – everything you could ever bargain for. We sample cheese and honey, skip past whole pigs heads perched on white tiled counters, haggle our way through the aisle of fruit juices, and arrive at the lower end of this sensory feast. Here there are counter after counter of ladies, all in the white pinnies with matching white hats, cooking in a haze of steam in their individual, one-meter square kitchens. White boards, chalkboards and even a few fancy hipster-style boards are dotted around advertising the ‘Menu del Dia’. From just 5 soles (around £1.25) you can get a soup and main dish, freshly prepared and synonyms of any hearty lunch a grandparent would rustle you up, after quipping about how skinny you are. You wander in and most definitely waddle out, hence Ste’s affectionate nickname of ‘Grandma’s Kitchen’. Later we read on some travel site somewhere it isn’t advised to eat here. BS in my opinion, it’s where all the locals go and this negative comment is probably sponsored by an overpriced tourist trap cafe, that wants to gobble down your cash. All the locals eat here, the food is cooked fresh and everyone still appears to be alive and well after eating. Did I mention also that the food is pretty bloody delicious? Would recommend you research traditional Peruvian dishes if you don’t speak Spanish so you know what you are ordering. All have the standard milenasa de pollo (breaded chicken) and lomo saltado (stir-fried beef with vegetables), so unless you have a particular hankering for an overpriced burger, the budget traveller can eat here just fine.

Grandma's Kitchen
A plate piled high with rice, chips, salad and lomo saltado. The stuff in the bowl is known as Aji (chilli) or picante (hot sauce). It’s a blend of several chillies with tomato, that devil herb coriander and fresh onion. It packs one hell of a punch and is down-right delicious.

As we leave the market however our lunch almost repeats on us. In the spilling street markets, ladies sit next to buckets of naked cuy. The name cuy comes from the indigenous language and is named as such after the sound the animal makes, ‘cuy cuy’. It’s Guinea Pig. An occasional treat for the working-class Peruano and a staple of the average dinner for the poorer remote mountain villagers, these slimy looking buggers almost cause a change in our wandering direction. Spying sheeps heads, pigs trotters and offal splayed out in the distance we suck it up and walk through, observing with curiosity the local meat trade. Ste is unfazed as always, if not fascinated by the complete use of the animal we have observed. Meat-eater, vegetarian or vegan, I’m sure we would all agree that the western world is desensitised to what we are actually consuming and all omnivores really should be able to look their dinner in it’s slightly gross deceased face. It is actually inspiring to know that here, the carcass and innards have value, not just the prime cuts. This may be a gross anecdote but it’s part of the way of life here, so to not discuss it would be hypocrisy.

We attempt the walking-tour of Cusco, but duck out pretty quickly. There are several companies and I guess we were just unlucky, as ours felt like a scripted money trap. We went with Mr Red T-shirt. Mr Blue T-shirt had a huge crowd and seemed to be loving life so perhaps we should have tried him, but were kind of over it at this point. We sat on a wall to collect our thoughts when a woman approached with a flyer. In Cusco you will be approached pretty much every other second by someone trying to sell you something or trying to strip you off and rub you down ‘Masaje lady?’. Auto-pilot rejects her before my brain hears it’s trigger word and goes into a full action-replay. Chocolate. I run after her and take the flyer she’s offering. 10% off all products at the free (yes F-R-E-E) chocolate museum. Just two blocks away we head there immediately and try free samples of all manner of chocolatey treats. Cacao tea, hot chocolate, chocolate liqueurs made with Pisco (national spirit of Peru, will get back to this), oh and even that dreamy old thing chocolate itself. It should be noted that the chocolate museum became my second daily pilgrimage.

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Old-Town, Cusco

Machu Picchu. Now there is the official Inca Trail. To get on this you have to book at least six months in advance and pay quite a bit of dollar. Don’t quote me on actual costs because we did not want to restrict our schedule by pre-booking dates that far in advance, but I know it is darn pricey. To enter Machu Picchu alone it is $45 US so a hefty sum before you have even thought about getting there. In Cusco there are endless tour companies offering excursions to The Sacred Valley, Rainbow Mountain and treks to Machu Picchu. On the advice of a German guy we skip the The Sacred Valley after he describes it as a tourist-ridden queue-fest. His opinion was that the saturation of people far overruled the beauty of the moment and this was filed instantly into Ste’s no folder. Rainbow Mountain we decided we would do after Machu Picchu (never happened – see next blog post for more information) and so we simply had to decide how we wanted to get to Machu Picchu. There were cheap one night offers – a bus to Hidroelectrica, a night in Aguas Calientes (the town next to the MP) and a bus back the next day. Or there were longer, several night treks. First option was the Salkantay Trek. 4 days/5 nights, this involved trekking in the high Andes, past beautiful glacial lakes before merging at Santa Teresa where itenary became the same as the second option. This was the Inca Jungle. 3 nights/4 days this involved downhill road biking followed by white-water rafting in Santa Maria, an 8-hour day hike (including part of the official Inca Trail) to Santa Teresa, hot springs and ziplines, and finally being dropped in Hidroelectricas to join the long march beside the railway to Aguas Calientes, ready for Machu Picchu the next day. Similar in price we opted for the Inca Jungle tour as we decided it could check off a few tick-boxes of adventurous activities. We had yet to experience any sort of jungle environment so for $220 dollars each we signed up. The tour can be around $60 each cheaper if you catch the bus back. However our Norwegian friends Linn and Stig had informed us this road was a cliff-side rat-run, and due to my lovely knack of vomiting on buses and cliff-edge induced vertigo, we splashed out for the train. This decision wasn’t easily won with Ste, but this extra spend would actually be probably one of the most vital money-saving decisions of our trip so far (again see next blog).

A note. We walked around for ages comparing prices of agencies. Some include all the activities, some don’t – prices really do vary. Absolutely haggle and had we known in advance, the best cheap company is Coca Tours.

We spend our days bouncing around this beautiful city, venturing out of the charismatic but touristic old town and we view a more conventional and functional Cusco. Our series of unfortunate events in Bolivia climaxed in me leaving my somewhat essential glasses in that not-so wonderful hostel in Copacobana. So for a very reasonable £50 I had a sight test and purchased a brand new second pair of eyes. It was during this sight test that I realised a slight flaw in my Spanish – I don’t know the alphabet. I politely informed the optician that she had the choice between English or French. I can’t even speak French but for some unknown reason I known the entire alphabet. She laughs and settles for English.

Around midday on Easter Monday we find ourselves in the central square, the Plaza de Armas of Cusco. There is a lot of commotion going on; bomberos (firemen), policia (police), soldiers, camera crews and marching band members, along with ordinary people, are assembling around the square. 

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On the steps.

We sit on some steps near the Catedral de Cusco and ponder want on earth is going on. As the crowds build around us, we strike up a conversation with a gentleman sat beside us. He’s from Lima, a retired engineer, who now spends his days focusing on his passion – solar energy. He now travels around helping to install solar panels and bring power to poorer homes and distant communities. This guy is an inspiration! He informs us today is the parade of the Señor de Temblores (The Black Lord of Earthquakes). Most South American countries are Christian, with a majority Catholic population. This is part of the legacy of the Spanish Colonisation – and in some parts the indigenous religions are diluted into legend. Religion takes prime position in the lives of most people and as such there are regular parades, where entire cities come to a standstill. We experience this first hand. Easter is the Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Cusco, a blend of Andean and Catholic traditions, it is one of the most important religious events in Cusco. It all kicks off on the Lunes Santo (Easter Monday) where this Black Christ is paraded around the two main Plazas in Cusco and almost all of the 510,000 strong population turn out to view it and throw the local red ñucchu flowers on the statue.  When conquering the lands, the Spanish had difficulty converting the religious beliefs of the indigenous population and so the statue of Black Jesus was introduced to Cusco to seem more familiar and more in line with their own complexions. During the devastating earthquake of 1650, the Black Christ was paraded through the streets to stop the aftershocks, and now Señor de Temblores is the patron Saint of Cusco.

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It all kicks off.

Around 2pm the parade kicks off, we watch it’s slow procession out of the Catedral de Cusco and begin to move its way on various shoulders, past us and around the square. We watch for around 45 minutes before heading off on our usual daily pilgrimages. Later that evening we rendezvous with two of the Irish lads, Cathal and Barry in the Irish bar (but of course), the other side of the Catedral de Cusco. The bar is pretty much empty and we think nothing of it as we enjoy drinks and good company. The few attendees in the bar head to the windows and peer out. The procession (some four and half hours later) is working its way towards the bar and up the few steps back to the Cathedral.

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Four and half hours later.

The streets are crammed, soldiers are using rope to contain the jostling mass, and we feel a bit rude for our unintentional perfect view from the small balconies of the Irish bar.

The crowds
Standing room only.

We even throw some flowers! The crowds keep us trapped for a while – yes trapped in an Irish bar by the Black Jesus, now that is my kind of divine intervention!

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Going nowhere.

Craziness over we head back to our hostel where a guide meets with us to discuss the arrangements for our coming tour to Machu Picchu. The hostel (as with most hostels in Cusco) will store our big bags free of charge while we are away. You have to carry everything with you on your hike, so a small lightly-packed day sack is all you need. We are off to explore the world phenomenon of Machu Picchu.

 

Lake Titicaca

Hop on. Firstly, in La Paz, Peru Hop is known as Bolivia Hop; the name changes once you jump the border. Set up by two Irishmen and a Peruano, it is the first hop-on, hop-off tourist bus of its kind in South America. There are various routes you can take, missing certain cities or even hopping only through Peru, but we sign up for the full $199 package. This includes every possible hop from La Paz to Lima. Now this is the first ‘organised fun’ type of tour we have been on so far. Ste categorically hates anyone planning anything or ‘hand-holding’ as he calls it, but having only just missed the epic flooding caused by El Niño throughout Peru, he decides it’s a safe bet to ensure we get through to Lima (and the surf). The price is also astronomical compared to that we would pay if we just used the local bus system (around double the price), but the flexibility it offers is appreciated instantly as we twice extend our stay with Nappa in La Paz. (Once you have booked your route you have up to a year to complete your hop. You can change your buses up to twelve hours before your scheduled departure – full flexibility, the traveler’s dream).

So off we head to our first stop, Copacabana. No no, not the white sandy beach filled with cocktails and beautifully bronzed Brazilians, but Bolivia’s small Lake Titicaca-side town, filled with a few cocktails, but mostly tour agents and hostel owners hustling for your custom. Our first experience on the bus takes us immediately back to the western world. Our guide explains all the details in perfect English, hands out welcome packs and water and settles us in for a spot of Mrs Doubtfire, as we head through the luscious mountain terrain. I should point out, excluding the guide and driver, the bus is 100% caucasian – let the hand-holding commence.

Included with the Peru Hop ticket are some free tours, as well as an option to book extra trips directly through them. The itinerary for the first stage of the Hop is the arrival at Copacabana, an extra excursion of a return boat trip to Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca and onwards across the border to Puno. Our calculations leave just two hours to explore the island and so we opt to hop off, book a boat separately and hop back in a few days. With two small rhinos strapped to our backs, we made all of five minutes into town before my brain short-circuited my legs, and we found ourselves preyed upon by a hostel owner. Bulky and shined in sweat, we were easy prey, and for 50BOB (£6.25) for a private room en-suite, it was hard to fight him off. Once decamped however, it seemed we had been misled by our captor. Now normally WiFi isn’t high on my and Ste’s priorities, but we had allotted two days in Copacabana. Our arrival to this small, highly touristic town had changed our minds and so we needed to login to alter our hop for the following day. When agreeing to the hostel we had asked about WiFi and the guy said it was good, however on this particular day the whole town was without electricity until 6pm and so we couldn’t check. This lead to one of my proudest moments, oh how far my Spanish had come! Now I’m sure people will disagree with me, but in my mind, you know you fully have a grasp of a language when you can use these newly found wonderful words, and hold a fully fledged argument. Power on, the WiFi was a mystery beast, and after asking several times, the owner of the hostel came up to our room and showed us movies he was clearly streaming on his phone’s 3G whilst  telling us all our equipment was bad. By the 5th ‘Tranquilo amiga’ (Relax friend), my polite British nature went out the window and Ste stood back looking rather puzzled as I unleashed a torrent of angry Spanish at the poor guy. Sounds harsh, but you have to show you mean business with these guys as the majority of tourists speak zero Spanish, and if there’s one thing I have learnt about South America is the level of respect you are held within increases exponentially if you can converse in their mother tongue. Few speak English, and Bolivians on the whole don’t like tourists. Sad but true. Sure enough another WiFi option became available and was sufficient to make our necessary adjustments. Now don’t be foolish enough to read into this as a disagreement about WiFi, that would be a rather boring anecdote. This is actually a self-indulgent tale of the moment I realised (be it badly) I could finally speak some understandable Spanish.

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We book ourselves a boat for an 8.30am departure to Isla del Sol (60BOB each return – significantly less that the $10 for the Peru Hop excursion, however not as straightforward we would later learn). All aboard probably one of the slowest boats ever to navigate the high lakes. I don’t exactly have guns of steel, but chuck me an oar and I probably could have added a few knots. The lake was choppy that particular morning, a result of a powerful storm we had slept to the night before. I lasted about twenty minutes in the dry below deck before scrambling onto the roof and enduring a bracing drizzly breeze, surprisingly pleasant now I was relieved of my queasiness. (I wasn’t alone –  a steady stream of people quickly followed). After two and half hours bobbing along we finally made Isla del Sol. Feeling slightly disheartened and a bit windswept Ste and I paused at the bottom of the stairs to look at the map. Our plan had been to get dropped at the northern end of the island, hike across to the south and catch a return boat. However, there was a mini civil war going on between the northern and southern islanders and so tourists weren’t currently allowed in the northern part. Feeling somewhat frustrated at our lack of options we start up the many steps without any sort of plan, other than to wander aimlessly. We made all of around three steps before we heard a shout of ‘Steve’ in a strong Irish accent. We turned around to find a true ray of sunshine had arrived in the faces of three Irish scally-wags. Graham, Cathal and Big Bad Barry. We had had the pleasure of meeting these three and climbing the Volcano Villarrica with in Pucon, Chile, and by pure chance here they were at the bottom of a gigantic set of steps, on an island, in the middle of Lake Titicaca.

Now we had a slightly larger team for our aimless wandering, the island’s delights were more obvious. Graham and Ste wasted no time trying to out-selfie one another with the island’s many four legged inhabitants. Alpacas, horses, donkeys and even a sleeping pig felt their 15 seconds on insta-fame as these two chased mostly each other from animal to animal.

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The rest of us took in the beautiful panoramic views, once we had scaled the breath-taking steps. Now I don’t mean spectacular. I mean this in the most literal sense of struggling to breath. The lake and the island sit at around 3,800m above sea level. There be not so much oxygen about those parts (I read that last sentence out loud in a Devonshire accent so please re-read in one).

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Isla del Sol lives up to its name. We are bathed in endless sunshine, and the views across the bays a synonymous with small Cornish inlets. It feels like coming home to a beautiful summer’s day, bar the occasional alpaca – though what with the current farmlife fashion trends the UK enjoys, one could argue alpacas included.

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We explore a ruin, which looks like a tiny abandoned castle bearing the face of pac-man. This stone masonry caricature inspires a brief moment of madness from Graham and Ste and they record Bolivia’s first edition of Grand Designs (link here for your viewing pleasure https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Dx-QPnf0Z0s).

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We bump into some tourists who have unsuccessfully attempted to pass to the north of the island; their attempt thwarted by the wagging finger of a Bolivian guard. This inspires the inner explorer within the boys; we head off the main path, cutting across pasture (cue more selfies) and farmland in an attempt to head as north as possible. Our mini venture is wonderful, the views are spectacular and we head deep down into a valley with the promise of a sandy beach ahead.

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Sadly reality sets in; we had been heading almost entirely downhill, none of us had eaten and we had just under two hours until our return boats. Mission deemed successful enough and abandoned, we scale back up the hill and stop at a little restaurant with more spectacular views for beer and pizza.

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South American standards are once again applied and after waiting almost an hour, I manage to negotiate take-away pizza as we all sprint down the hill after our boats. As we skid down the steps a flash of vibrant hair sails past me. It’s only Nappa! He’s leading a Korean tour group and I snatch a smile and a hug before continuing my helter-skelter down the steps, trying not to drop my long-awaited pizza. The boat company the Irish lads went with is about to depart and they launch themselves on board without a second to spare. Our boat however, was nowhere in sight. Typical.

We knew we are up against it, we had just two and a half hours until the Peru-Hop’s departure from Copacabana and our boat was showing no signs of life. We spot the Peru Hop boat and run over flashing the cash in an attempt to buy a quicker passage. The captain was having none of it; he wanted the full original tour price to board. Even in our desperation were not going to be conned. Defeated we sat on the jetty and scoffed our pizza. Probably one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten, let alone in South America. Every cloud! We get chatting to some fellow ‘Hopsters’ (yes that is the official name of Peru-Hop voyagers – I even have the t-shirt) and they team up with us taking our names to tell the guide we are on our way if our slow-boat is delayed. By some miracle the crew arrive and our boat sets off before Peru-Hop; we might just make it! Up on deck (well the roof), I relax seeing the island and the boat containing our fellow Hopsters shrink into the distance. This is short-lived. Around halfway through our crossing, their  shiny new boat, that uses all its engines, motors past us. Bollocks. When we finally creep into our dock, Ste and I launch ourselves from the top of the boat to the jetty, before we were even moored. We sprint up to the bus where our lovely comrades have informed the guide of our imminent arrival. Next problem. Bags. We had left all our bags at the tour agency that morning. Back to sprinting uphill. As I run I remember; we are about to leave Bolivia and I haven’t bought a fridge magnet. OK another moment of sounding slightly neurotic, no-one will die without a fridge-magnet. However, my mother has a long standing tradition of having all her kids bring back fridge-magnets from each country they have visited. She’s getting quite the collection and I was not going to let a snail-paced Bolivian boat break that tradition now. Sweat pouring (the miserable grey morning was now glorious 20+ degree heat) I yell at Ste go grab the bags as I dive into a shop, snatch the first magnet I find and throw a random selection of Bolivian coins at the perplexed store owner. (Fun Fact: Bolivian coins look like pirate money). Back to the uphill sprint, Ste rounds the corner looking like some Michelin Buckaroo, giant bags hanging in all directions. We re-assemble and charge back down the hill at the large Peru-Hop bus that is quite definitely leaving. Ste channels his inner Bolt and flies down the hill, throwing himself at the closed door of the driver. The bus stops and the guide jumps out looking puzzled before quickly remembering less than five minutes ago, he had reassured us we had about ten minutes to get our bags.

Finally we are on board and after a thumbs up from our allies, we sit down to another round of Mrs Doubtfire. The border is only 10 minutes away, where we are offloaded, passed through security and then as a huge pack, we walk across the border from Bolivia to Peru. Somehow I managed to lose Ste in immigration and so this strangely powerful moment is enjoyed alone. Flanked by a few street dogs, I march the two hundred meters into a new country. This is probably quite insignificant to most continentals, but as an islander there was something quite humbling about just me, and my giant pack, walking from one country into another. Peu, we’ve been waiting for you.

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La Paz – something to sink your teeth into.

La Paz. As the administrative capital of Bolivia – home to both the executive and legislative branches of government and the Presidential Palace – is arguably the highest capital city in the world, averaging around 3,600m above sea level. (Sucre, depending on who you ask, was/is the true capital as it is the constitutional capital of Bolivia, home to judicial branch of government. Months later in Quito I will have a pointless beer-fuelled debate with Patrick the lovely Australian midway through our salsa lesson. FYI I’m on team La Paz).

As crusty as seadogs from out salt adventures, we hop on an overnight bus from Uyuni to La Paz for a bargain 130 bolivianos (BOB) – around £16 (or not – it’s clear I need to dust off my haggling hat as I later learn others paid just 90 BOB). We arrive around 5.30am into the main bus terminal of La Paz , uncharacteristically early for a South American bus journey, exactly an hour before our ETA. We grab a taxi for 10 BOB and head over to Isobela de Catolica a large roundabout downtown, which hosts both the Ritz hotel and the apartment of our couch-surfing host. Despite my dishevelled and downright salty appearance the Ritz night manager is a soft touch and we tap into their WiFi to awaken our host and head to his apartment.

So unlike our previous couch-surf stays in which I applied directly to hosts, this stay was the result of our first publicly advertised trip. Essentially I just posted our dates and a little bio and hoped that a good-hearted soul would open their door to us. And that was exactly what we found in Nappa. A now self-proclaimed Italian, he is the only South Korean tour guide working in Bolivia. With bleached hair and colourful attire he welcomes us into his huge apartment over looking potentially one of the most manic roundabouts in La Paz. (At one point I tried to count to 10 between the car horns and the furthest I reached was a measly 6 during the middle of the night). Forwardly unknown to us today was Nappa’s birthday and he welcomes us with traditional Korean birthday soup. Over this rich and salty breakfast he shares his crazy tale of how he turned his back on the conventional Korean life of endless study, followed by endless work and bounced his way through the UK, Europe, America and now South America. The man is an inspiring enigma.

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Following a necessary nap, we leave Nappa to attend his birthday affairs and wander into town. As we stroll, we pass many women sat along the pavement in traditional dress, each attending a small stall. These women are affectionately known as ‘Cholitas’ and their traditional dress consists of multiple layers of long, colourful skirts and two long plaits hanging down their backs beneath a bowler hat. A few days later when we join the free city walking tour (which we eventually found after a cat and mouse game around the city centre – we need to learn to be on time) I learn the origin of these hats. When the British were in Bolivia working on the railways, they imported bowler hats to try and sell to the workers. When the hats arrived however, it became clear the sizing was seriously underestimated and so the importers were left with hundreds of hats too small to market to the Bolivian men. Some genius then saved their business by coming up with the imaginative idea to market them to women instead. They clearly ran a successful marketing campaign and their deceptive talk of the high fashion statement the bowler hat was for European women clearly had its effect; the bowler hat is now a staple of the traditional dress of the Cholita. Despite humble appearances, these women are often quite affluent by Bolivian standards. For these women working long hours, even late into life, is seen as something to be desired, respected and gives them status.

(Another interesting tale we learnt on this walking tour was that of the dead-baby llama fetus’s. So in the religion of the indigenous people of the Andes, for every building constructed a sacrifice must be made to the Pachamama (mother earth). This consist of sweets, alcohol and the dead baby llamas. I know, gross, but on the plus side the babies have to have died of natural causes and so it is pretty grim, but not barbaric. That takes me to the next twist in the tale. La Paz is made up of hundreds of high rise buildings; the bigger the building, the bigger the sacrifice for Pachamama. The story goes that when a new construction is underway a Witch-doctor heads out and befriends the local homeless drunks and addicts. If he discovers they are estranged from family and friends, he fuels them with booze until they become drunkenly comatose. Then he takes the poor soul to be sacrificed alive, concreted over in the foundations of the new building. What. The. Bloody. Hell. The guides laugh and say it is just an old wives tale, though they keep the suspense alive by throwing in a final sensationalist comment that human remains have been found during demolitions of old buildings. Yuck.)

Another misconception is debunked as we wander. La Paz is almost formidably grey, and I have heard countless tourists before me talk of it with little affection. Large high-rise buildings flood the sprawling valley and in the centre the somewhat futuristic park, boasting a maze of elevated walkways does little to inject colour. Despite the grey, the noise, and the smog, I am entranced. The mountains wrap around in all directions, their jagged snowy peaks dauntingly awesome. I am beginning to realise I am a mountain girl.

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As we wander the streets we begin to notice a flow of human traffic with a uniform of coloured shirts, hats and scarves. We join the stream arriving at the national stadium. 80 BOB each later (£10) we find ourselves seated in the stands. It’s a national game between Bolivar and National Potosi and unknown to Ste this is my first attendance at a football game. Unlike Europe no alcohol is permitted in the stands, however horns, kazoos and giant drums are. Despite the stadium being only around 30% full, the northern end of the stands is generating an electric atmosphere, fans pogo-ing in unison to their chants. I am torn three ways watching the fans, the game and simply absorbing the Spanish profanities being screamed in all directions.

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After the game we head back to Isobela de Catolica and reunite for dinner with the wonderful Gerit and Sabina. These guys travelled all over Bolivia, to Sucre (the other capital) and Potosi (the highest city in the world) and experienced the oddity that is a tour to the silver mines. As a tourist you have to purchase a stick of dynamite as a gift for the miners as you head underground to watch them at work. Bolivia is strange. Following dinner, the altitude combined with days on the road gets the better of me and I head for bed as Ste and Nappa head out for his birthday celebrations. Keeping up the standards Ste falls into our room around 6 am and curls up asleep on a bundle of our clothes. Classy.

 

After finally awakening the boys, we head out to El Alto market. El Alto is the highest part of La Paz, sitting at around 4150m above sea level, and the ‘Mi Teleferico’ system (cable-car) is required to scale the height. This cable car system is new to La Paz and each route is a different colour. You need a pre-loaded card to skip the large queues and Nappa uses his for the 3BOB (around 40p) each per one-way. We scale up the red route and the slight swing of the car combined with the ear popping climb means this would not be a pleasant trip for those with height induced jelly-legs. El Alto is one of the poorest areas of La Paz and as we amble through one of the largest markets in South America, it’s advisable to keep valuables and coins close. The market is sensational. Each stand sells more random and varied items, from car parts to cooking pots, shampoo to pet food, we lose hours just strolling.

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As you travel the continent, South America has a pretty much set path of South-North or North-South; ‘The Gringo Trail’. The beauty of this means sooner or later you will cross paths with those heading on the same bearing and our first experience of this occurs in Bolivia. Helene, a charismatic Norwegian we had the pleasure of sharing wine with and Eleanor the beautiful Canadian soul, both of which we met at ChiliKiwi, are in La Paz. Nappa decides he wants to host dinner of traditional Korean food and so we get the girls over for a wonderful evening of incredible food, questionable wine and fabulous company.

Eleanor is in La Paz visiting her Canadian friend Abi (great name) who has just started working in journalism in the city. The pair have a plan to go hiking to a spot known as ‘Muela del Diablo’ (Devil’s molar) and invite us to join their adventure. This tooth-shaped, extinct volcanic plug is situated around 3,850m above sea level and offers spectacular views across the mountain city.

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Thanks to both girls being fluent in Spanish, we catch a local colectivo out of the city centre to Los Pinos (1.25BOB) where we start our climb. You can get a specific bus to a little village nearer or a taxi almost directly to the base of the climb, but our drop-off added an extra hour from Los Pinos for which we were rewarded with spectacular views during our initial climb.

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We pass through a quiet village and eventually arrive at the base of the large rock formation scaling the last 150m ascent just in time to catch sunset over La Paz. Our hike down turns into a breath-taking night walk as the city glitters below us.

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We make it down almost unscathed, until a headtorch-less Nappa investigates a dark pathway and is immediately seen off and nipped by a less than welcoming dog. Though unfortunate for Nappa, this leads to a hilarious evening running from clinic to clinic trying to locate a rabies vaccine, whilst trying to appear sympathetic and not falling apart with laughter at Nappa’s award-winning opera rendition as he has his bite cleaned.

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The following day is our last with the wonderful Nappa (we had already extended our stay with him twice) and we have three key tasks on the agenda. Rabies shots, haircuts and a full English. In return for the delicious Korean food, Ste manages to find the ingredients to rustle up as near an English breakfast as he can. Even the black pudding. Needless to say we can’t eat a thing for the rest of the day.  

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Stomach’s severely stetched we first head to the final clinic hop to get the prescription for Nappa’s seven required jabs (ouch). We enter a room with Bolivia’s answer to Laurel and Hardy who babble nonsense between them in Spainsh, fringed with the most infectious laughter and random out bursts of ‘Bad Dog’ and cackling. Paperwork done we head to a hairdressers near Nappa’s apartment. Ste’s shampoo is clearly laced with miracle-grow as he currently resembles Donnie from The Wild Thornberrys with a neck beard. For 50BOB (£6.50) I get a cut and blowdry worthy of any over-priced salon in the UK.

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Through broken Spanish, pictures and miming, the hairdresser successfully turns Ste from jungle creature to the latest member of One Direction – Daniel Radcliffe’s German brother. 80BOB (£10) as she insisted on a cut throat shave. She’s my hero.

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Bags packed, it’s a very sad goodbye to Nappa and an early morning taxi to a random hostel on the other side of the city. We had signed ourselves up for Peru Hop (a hop-on, hop-off bus that would take us from La Paz to Lima for $199 each). We were off to the less famous Bolivian Copacabana and the very famous Lake Titicaca. Hop on.

Me and Uyuni.

So we are off to investigate what all the hype is about – the Uyuni salt flats. But first we need to hop across the border and cross the vast volcanic landscape between us and the almighty expanse of white. So it’s an early start for us, but our British promptness for the 7am pick up is given a South America slap back into reality; the minibus finally arrives outside our hostel at 7.45. Fortunately every cloud and all that, our late departure results in the unexpected gift of a two-headed dinosaur, donated by a fellow early riser, the perfect prop for that cliché salt flat silliness. Our cloud pours rain once again however, as our late pick up means we are placed solidly at the very back of the slowest immigration queue. Our final few hours in Chile provides us with a real patience test.

(In the coming months I will reflect on this as whole experience as being in fact rather timely. We will get to that when I finally regain a grasp of my previously excellent concentration span and catch up with my blogs. This trip has caused some serious mental regression, leading to an ability to be distracted by absolutely everything and anything. Well I say it’s this trip, it may actually be down to an lengthy and unregulated exposure to the mentally wandering force that is Stephen Beddows. I’m yet to decide.)

Finally passports stamped, we are on our way up into the hills to reach the Bolivian border control. There is a bitter rivalry between Chile and Bolivia (shockingly it’s bigger than football – basically some years ago Boliva got too big for it’s boots withheld shared resources, Chile and Perú went to war with them, Bolivia lost and they took Bolivia’s coast. This is a rough and somewhat biased version of events I have collaborated from various conversations with Chileans. Sorry for the lack of more detailed information, my brain is a sieve for facts and hey we can all Google (could be the Pacific war?!) Anyway we view this legacy first hand as a stout and heavily armed security guard shreds the immigration paper of our fellow Chilean tourist, chucks him out of the immigration shack (shack would actually be romanticising this tin lid on crumbling blocks) and orders him away. To where I don’t understand as we are quite in the middle of nowhere. It would appear though that this is a common phenomenon and our guides quickly settle the matter, tensions drop and he’s issued a second immigration paper. Compulsive viewing as we tuck into our giantic complimentary breakfast at over 3,500m (not the best idea at altitude, all blood to the stomach!)

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Our bags are tucked up on the jeep and we are introduced to our driver the fabulous Fabian (yes I went there). When booking the tour we were informed our driver would speak basic English, but Fabián exceeded all expectations and continually surprises us with random bursts of complex English vocabulary. We drive off into the vast and imposing landscape to the unexpected tune of his trance Tomorrowland mixtape. Rave on.

Our first stop the national park. After paying our entrance fee (150 bolivianos – around £18 an unavoidable extra cost) we drive to beautiful lakes dancing with colours and wildlife, including that famous pink fella the flamingo. The weather for the first day quickly turns sullen and arriving at the hot springs there is a unanimous decision to skip the people soup and stay dry. Following a huge feast of lunch there are some serious nodding heads as we continued our drive by rave through to the Giezers.

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Situated 5,000m above sea level, Coca leaves are chewed on mass to contain the affects of the altitude. Now for those who have never experienced pure Coca leaves it pretty much tastes like super strong and very bitter green tea. You have to leave a ball in your cheek until it is soft enough to chew and then once throughly masticated it is spat out. Completely legal within Perú and Bolivia (calm down Mum), the effects vary and for me I just felt like I had had a strong coffee with a numb tongue. Ste however looked like he had ingested a family pack of only blue smarties. Just what I needed trapped alongside him in the back of the 7 seater jeep.

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The Giezers were impressive. Continual blasting steam, people took their chances to capture a shot of themselves surrounded by smoke. The powerful sulphuric odor and the fact the people stood in the steam were somewhat reminiscent of an 80s music video heavy on the dry ice, I decided to just document from a far and take in their natural awesomeness.

We then headed to our first hotel for the night. We ventured out into the tiny town to hunt some alcoholic treats and visited both of it’s two shops. These shops were essentially shelves in a bedroom and we were served by two painfully adorable little Bolivian Grandma’s,  wearing traditional dress and who both gave me some serious feels. I think they could have charged me almost anything and I would have paid, so enamoured by the delicate simplicity of their existence. After a game of ‘Shithead’ – the universal card game of the traveller – it was time to sleep. This was my first experience of being truly bone-cold in South America and even Ste looked happy when, in the early hours,  I squeezed in alongside him in his single bed. As someone who has serious nocturnal personal space issues – Ste regularly reports if he comes to bed after I’m asleep I spend a good 5 minutes growling at him to get away from me before he’s even fully entered the room. Categorically deny this; I’m asleep so there is no proof. This is a matter of survival and being 95% reptile I am the ultimate body heat thief.

After a solitary pancake for breakfast it’s back in the jeep and off to view rocks that are shaped like various random things. The football world-cup trophy, a camel, a face and a dragon. Those with the biggest balls climb to get the better views, while I linger down the bottom chasing small rodents to get blurry and mostly camouflaged photographs. Wildlife photographer of the year.

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Next we head to a big canyon caused by the lava flows. The views are somewhat epic and I try not to get sympathtic vertigo as some of the others jostel for that life on the edge Instagram shot. Lunch is llama filled affair, basically a shepherds pie and but instead made with llama. I hate to say llama is quite tasty, somewhere between chicken and lamb, and I greedily pig out as the sensitive types refrain. And to think I used to be a vegetarian.

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We all head off on a very nessecary post lunch ramble, to a lake – I think it was called the black lake (Laguna Negra), but the sieve brain strikes again so don’t quote me on it – filled with birds and surrounded by the fuzziest llamas.

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We then finally head out to the Salt Hotel. A hotel made of –  yeah you guessed it – salt. It’s a strange and somewhat crunchy experience as I try my hardest not to lick the table during our dinner of yet more llama. Wine + altitude leads me to monetarily forget my British politeness and accidentally berate one of those delicate flowers who had spent most of the trip drinking only Coca Cola due to their misplaced morals about eating llama. Catching myself before I went into a full rant (it’s hard as an ex-veggie not to seriously condemn selective meat eaters, I now find myself very much in the all or nothing category), I am pleasantly surprised when the particular couple in question take a portion and try the llama. Not to their taste but I openly congratulate them on their gesture and remind myself this is not how you win friends and influence people. I feel that travel makes the shy more extroverted but makes the extroverted bigger assholes. Your experiences simultaneously open and narrow your viewpoints and the footfall of people you meet gives you a solid ‘you win some,  you-lose-some’ attitude, leading to me have a lower threshold for bullshit. I probably need to work on that.

The pre-dawn alarm clock is torturous and we battle heavy eyes out to the jeep where Fabián is positively buzzing as he packs the jeep and raring to go. I remain in awe of his boundless enegery until Matt who rode shotgun the previous day informs me he pretty much chain-chews Coca leaves. We drive out onto the vast waterlogged plain. The whole scene has a deep greyish-blue tint as the water reflects the lingering cloud, absorbing the creeping suggestions of the sun’s arrival. We capture our first few photos, overawed at the sheer natural beauty of the mirrored sunrise through the lessening cloud. I whole heartedly believe that a scattering of cloud can make for the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The added dimension of the cloud gives the light more dynamism and can produce breathtaking murals of colour. A demonstration of how truest beauty can only be observed when combined with an uncontrollable element of imperfection. Philosophical much.

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We are soon to become spoilt. As the sun rises, the reflectivity of the water increases and it is impossible not to capture shot after shot of insane images. Fabian rounds up our group plus our sister jeep to make some clever reflection shots including spelling Uyuni and a trippy 360° walking video. Other tour groups weren’t treated to this so we counted our lucky stars once again for our fabulous Fabian.

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Back in the jeep we headed from the waterlogged to dry salt and across to the island. The salt flats exist because thousands of years ago, the area was in fact a salt water lake which evaporated. I’m thinking something like the future of the Dead Sea. This island remains as an island surrounded now by salt rather than salt water. After a cake filled breakfast at a salt table we explore the cactus filled island (entrance 30 Bolivianos – around £4) before heading back to the jeep and out into the salt. It was time for those cliché shots.

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With two-headed dinosaurs, Pringles tubes and wine bottles, we play around with perception, taking shot after shot of silliness. Fabián then records one final video of our two groups dancing in and out of a Pringle tube to the sound of Kaomas ‘Lambada’.

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After the flats we head to a little Bolivian town for lunch. We browse the market and Carina is pounced on by the two cutest Bolivian children. Ste who has never really acknowledged any human below the age of ten is transfixed. Their chubby cheeks, sparkling eyes and widest smiles make them probably some of the most adorable children in the world. Ste with almost no hint of a joke asks me how he gets one and I announce he’s just going to have to get a Bolívan wife. (I happily run along with this – I’ve heard rumours of Colombian men and I am playing the long game).

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We finally head to the train cemetery. Years ago the British government built railways across South America. However their success was not the economic rush they had hoped for and now a handful of old trains lay in Uyuni, abandoned, derelict and heavily graffitied. Though I know it isn’t, the whole thing feels slightly staged. Like we have rocked up to an album shoot for a hipster indie band called Rage Against the Organic Machines or some other oxymoronic, eco-friendly word-play, the brain child of someone who only smokes clove cigarettes. I feel like I should be wearing 1990s clothing, but ironically, and I’m almost certain Fabian informed us Sam Smith or someone like that shot a music video there. Case in point.

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After a fabulously fun,  Fabián-filled three days with our wonderful Anglo-Deutsche group, we bid farewell to the lovely Carina, Yannick, Max and Matt and head to buy our onward ticket. It’s off to the highest capital city in the world. La Paz.

Dust and the Cosmos

Two bus journeys and 36 hours after setting off from Pucon,  our scene has changed from plush leafy greens to endless arid oranges. San Pedro de Atacama. The Atacama desert is one of the most arid places on earth. The intense dry heat is a welcome change from the previous sticky humidity of Iguazu. San Pedro is a tiny desert town existing soley for tours. We meet up with a Chilli Kiwi Alumni Matt and start planning our trip to the Bolivian Salt flats. Hoping for a group discount, Matt brings Max, yet another Chilli Kiwi-ite. As we are deciding who else to invite we bump into to more people from Chili-Kiwi (you see the theme here – it would appear Ste and I were temporary celebrities in this tiny town. Having now hoped onto the Gringo trail ourselves, our old guests were everywhere. After several interactions with subtle confused eyes being between myself and Ste, I realise we must get better with names…). We convince a lovely German couple (regular customers of the burger boom) Yannick and Carina to join our tour.

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Our first San Pedro tour is to the Luna Valley. Matt and Max join us taking a last minute deal. For ten pounds we purchased a late tour guide, who was clearly preoccupied with something very important when he was rudely interrupted and reminded he had to work. I guess get what you pay for.

The Valle de la Luna, The Valley of the Moon. Aside from the tarmac access road cutting across the scene, the dusty rocks and sandy peaks were other-worldly. It was a constant battle to keep up with our clock-watching guide as he rushed us across the luna landscape. We were bundled through a busy cave walk and off to watch the sunset. However, the beauty of the scene was slightly diluted by the sheer density of tourists. As with Iguazu, all photo opportunities had to be carefully positioned to create the illusion of the freedom of travel, escaping the crowds to be at one with nature. In truth it was just a mass of SLR wielding travellers, queuing for the best spot. The reality of it created the reverse desire and we stored the cameras away, set our eyes to record, and just took in the sunset for ourselves.

The next day we reunited with the lovable bearded Dane, Marcus and his two Belgian companions. We hired bikes for the day (3,000 pesos – £3.50) and set off into the desert in search of ruins. The questionable artistry of our hand-drawn map lead to multiple river crossings and cycling across fields whilst being chased by an ecstatic bouncing hound. As we dropped the bikes across barbed-wire fences it turned out there was a perfectly functioning road the other side of the river. We stopped halfway up a large hill, admitting defeat to the combination of desert heat and altitude (San Pedro sits at 2,400m above sea level) we lunched at the shady foot of a cliff before hearing back down. Having trailed the pack most of the trip due to my ill-poisitioned saddle, a lunch time adjustment had given me new legs. In order to take the road back we had to cycle the largest and deepest river crossing. After watching a car on the way up, I decided it was achievable and as the others scratched their heads about feasibility, I accelerated down into the river, blasted my legs against the current and landed safely on the other bank. I think I almost saw a glimmer of respect in Ste’s eye.

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That evening, Matt and Max who we were later to do the Salt flats with headed with myself and Ste for a night of astrology with ‘La noche con las estrellas’ (A night with the stars). For 18,000 pesos (£22.50) we headed to a bungalow out in the desert. The group was divided into English and Spanish and our group headed inside for a glass of Chilean wine and a lesson in astrology. The tour was run by a husband and wife team, and the wife did the initial education, running us through the basics of the universe. Following this we headed outside to view snippets of the cosmos though powerful telescopes. Both humbled and inspired, we viewed the constellations upside down (perks of the southern hemisphere), different star forms, the southern cross (and how to use it to find due south), learned of the movement of the constellations across the sky and finally glimpsed Jupiter and a handful of her moons. Following the slight disappointment of the Valle de la Luna, this tour exploded our expectations. Channeling my inner Brian Cox it ignited a fresh appreciation and wonderment for the universe.

Back to the hostel, we shared crazy Spanish and English tounge twisters with our Argentinean roommates and packed our turtle backs ready for our early start. We were off to the salt flats.

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Sky-high Bananas

So it’s our final few weeks in Pucon. We had an unexpected but fantastic arrival of the sickly Van Gough (VW combi) and his two travel companions Kelsey and Gui. As the weather slipped into autumn these two injected the biggest beam of French-American sunshine. I don’t think it was possible to have a single interaction with either of them without being left with a smile. And Kelsey’s take on a British accent was nothing short of a masterpiec

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After a week of rain and some serious cabin fever, myself, Marcus, Jamie (fellow Brit, a local in Pucon and quite the incredible chef) and Ste, set out to hike one of the national parks, Huerquehue. Finally on the first blue sky day for over a week, we set off early on a Sunday morning to climb San Sebastián. We had varying reports of the hikes endurance level, and Ste was left questioning his hiking boot purchase when that crazy dane Marcus rocked up in vans. It’s 5000 pesos entrance (£6.25) and you can  either catch the bus or use the car of a local – cheers Jamie! Following an the intial hour-long steady up-hill climb (with our regular pauses for outfit changes, cigarettes, water, photos and just general time wasting) we reached an open meadow. On the one side we could see Volcan Villarrica glowing bright white on the horizon, and the other the looming summit of San Sebastián. Thanks to the recent rain, all surrounding peaks were packed with snow and made a photographic dream-scape.

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We continued through forest, pausing at breaks in the trees to catch a glance at our increasingly elevated view. The trees thickened, the incline increased dramatically and it was a case of root climbing the slippery vertical mud walls to reach to next plateu.

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Finally was the large boulder scramble across the narrow ridge to the final inclined plain that lead to the summit. As we ascended, the snow deepened, and trekking with three lads meant an envitable snowball fight.

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Keeping up the rear with my two bamboo canes, I paused to avoid the crossfire. Suddenly my back foot gave way on the ice beneath it and I crashed down the side catching myself on a rock. The sheer sides of the thin ridge we were traversing suddenly became very apparent and the movement of legs went from confident strides to jelly stumbles. As Ste helped lower me onto another icy ridge my nerves got the better of me, I went full stalked deer mode and couldn’t move another step. Ste tried to reason with me, but the mental block had formed. We turned around and headed back. I am somewhat convinced there is some seriously faulty wiring in my brain as after 5 steps back towards home, the fear fog lifted and I spun back towards the summit, stomping happily past a bewildered Ste. A final climb on the ice and we caught up with Marcus and Jamie to enjoy our snowy banana filled lunch, with 360 degree views of lakes, waterfalls and ten volcanoes.

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The departure of Gerrit, Sabina and Madison gave the hostel hearts temporary blues, as they all headed north the week before us. Our misery was short-lived however, as along came a little bundle of Scottish beauty to distract us from our heart ache. Only 10 days with this pint sized packet of fun, but we became the kayak Queens (despite the upside down paddle board incident, and the cookie incident – let’s just say Sarah’s attempt to get a cool picture on a paddle board was seriously compromised by my own and David’s careful coaching that yes of course the fin faces upwards…)

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Soon enough it was out time to fly. Sad goodbyes, particularly to the owners girlfriend Kris. My sassy hostel wife and we had gone on our weekly shopping dates to restock the hostel, a brief taste of normality and ‘coffee’. Our taxi arrived and it was off to the bus station. As we waited my Pucon crush Armund, the most hansome French – Indian sky diving instructor hopped on his bus and bid us farewell. Steve comforted me for the loss of my love – he was just so handsome.

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Volcanoes and Maqui

Pucon. So this our second work away at the award winning Chilikiwi Lakefront hostel. Fortunately we weren’t aware of the whole award winning bit until the night before else there may have been some serious reconsiderations. Like to think of me and Steve as comfortably not award winning… Anywho we arrive at this crazy little hippy style hostel and meet our future family.

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First we meet Jono, on his morning hunt for a cigarette. Well I say we meet Jono, we actually meet Jono’s beard. This maverick Australian and his beautiful voluminous beard (I think I braided it at some point) welcome us and instantly pass us to someone who looks responsible. And this person is Gerrit. Gerrit is a handsome man from Beligum,  who Ste was sure stole his eyes from a wolf. Next is his pint sized beauty of a Swedish meatball Sabina. Then there is David, the truly charming, multi-lingual Swiss with equally fabulous facial flair. The bearded brothers Jono and David’s where living Chile’s finest bromance. Finally and by no means least, I mean how could she possibly be, is Madison. Madison has a presence of nothing I have previously had the pleasure to experience. Both energy and volume of a pack of puppies on amphetamines, you can’t help but smile as you question the safety of your eardrums.

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We were put task straight away, working the cover shift (basically keeping the hostel looking fab whilst chatting to all the worldy and wonderful guests) and working the bar (basically trying to count whilst drunk). How lucky we were to have found ourselves staying for free at this tree house, hobbit-hut paradise, and if we weren’t spoilt enough already, we also go all the excursions thrown in.

Number one was horse riding. Now maybe it’s his height or maybe just his loose cannon demeanour, but Ste has a real thing about horses. Me, not so much, but Ste would quite happily run a horse off the side of a mountain. Oddly enough the lovely German girls who ran the horse riding appeared to have a side talent in match-making. Ste’s little grey horse named Moro was as mental as him. Whilst my horse jolsted with the other mare for the affections of the aptly named stallion Casanova, Moro and Ste were hell bent in just galloping anywhere and everywhere. A true Gringo gaucho we climbed the mountain taking in views of the volcano Villarrica, stopping at waterfalls and trotting through the forest. A normal tourist price of 30,000 pesos (around £38 for three hours) this tour I would have happily paid for ourselves.

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The next day was canyoning. Here I was to meet my next hero. Ralph. An Austrian teacher who was on a career break and travelling South America. Ralph was a darling, and as we jumped and zip lined and slid our way down the river, Ralph’s boy like enthusiasm warmed me from heart to chilly hands. It was also hard not to fall slightly in love with the fiendishly handsome French man who ran the canyoning, with his subtle whit and humble charm, he casually reassured the nerves before throwing each of us of a cliff. Another 30,000 pesos for canyoning normally, it was a half day of river based madness, including post jump chocolates midstream.

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Time flew by at ChiliKiwi, Jono was replaced by Marcus, the adorable crazy Danish carpenter, who also had an impressive beard despite only being 21. He added yet more hilarity with constant shouts of ‘Buena!’.  The days were spent meeting a mixing with wonderful people and evenings on Maqui berry beer. Ste, ever the entrepreneur, started to feel there was money to be made. The hostel at present did not officially serve food, and thanks to a drunken tipping competition with the beautiful Norwegian couple Linn and Stig, an idea was born.

Lairy off a few too many lagers, the guys v gals tipping competition was in full force and I threw Ste under the bus saying it we made over 30,000 in tips he would make all the staff, plus our two adopted Norwegians, burgers. (In total we made 33,000 which is around £41 and we definitely still owe Linn and Stig a few beers for their efforts). So Ste whipped up his culinary treat, burgers based on The Meat Counter in Falmouth. While we were students there Ste had an almost vendetta against the place. This were without a doubt his favourite burger and so he became a man on a patty mission to replicate them. After a few hundred attempts the guy nailed it, and with some tweaks he now has the recipe for the burger of dreams.

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Following the success of the staff burgers, Ste took his opportunity to ask the hostel owners Peter and James if he could sell burgers out of the hostel bar. A nervous first day coaxing people to give them a try, turned into 3 weeks without a single sales pitch. With a record of 40 burgers sold in one night (3,000 pesos a burger which is around £3.75), the burgers became self-selling and sold us a tidy £700 profit. Always knew he was a keeper.

Burger making by day and beer pouring by night the adventure continued and our next excursion loomed. Climbing the volcano Villarrica. Villarrica is the most active volcano in Chile. On clear nights you can sometimes see an orange glow of lava above the summit. In the last week before our climb Villarrica was grumbling and two groups had had mini spurts of lava, showering the climbers in little rocks. As a childhood geologist I was somewhat excited.

The catch with the free excursions was that we had to be ready for wherever the opportunity came that there was a space for staff. Unfortunately I had decided to come down with a bout of hostel flu, probably the worst illness I had had for a few years. After a few days of ‘will we, won’t we’ , I was working pub quiz night on the bar with a raging headache and a very old frog wedged in the throat when Gerritt excitedly informed us we climbed in the morning. Bollocks.

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Saturday morning and the alarm goes off at 5am. We pack our lunch and water into the rucksacks provided by the guides and head to the mini buses bound for the national park. There are two options for climbing Villarrica, you hike the first 800m of sand like lava dust or you pay 10,000 pesos (£12.50) for a 1960s chair lift. Seeing as we were getting the tour for free (normal price 75,000 pesos – just under £95) and myself being wrecked with cold, Ste was more than happy to play the ‘better look after my sick girlfriend card’ for all of 5 minutes and jump into the ski lift next to me. To be honest with you, the lift was worth every penny. With no safety bar you definitely got a little adrenaline kick as you looked over Pucon, the lake, and the thining clouds, watching the rising sun paint pastels across them. Off the lift and of course me with the bladder of a gnat, joined two other girls for a nature wee behind the lift house.

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We began our climb, Pepper our guide leading ahead. The first initial climb was on a combination of gravely lava sand and bare rock. After an hour and half we reached the glacier. Ice picks in hand, we zig-zagged up the glacier, stomping feet to ensure grip, following one foot after the other. Due to a spell of good weather, a well trodden path meant there was no need for crampons. A clear day meant the higher we climbed, the more intense the sun became, and at every rest stop we reapplied our UV war paint. Finally at the fake summit, we ditched our kit bags and climbed for the final 20 minutes of bare rock with only gas mask, helmet and ice hack. Fortunately it’s low altitude (only 2,800m) meant no altitude affects, however the physical exertion with a head stuffed with cold I was beginning to feel incredibly weak. A pep talk from the wonderful pepper and I trudged up to the top. Once in the summit all thoughts of illness were instantly replaced with sheer joy and wonderment. For safety reasons you are supposed to stay at the summit for only 5 minutes and wear a gas mask. But our perfectly still conditions meant there was little gas pollution. We peered in seeing the vivid orange bubbling away, and listened to the natural roar of the dragons belly. It was simply awesome.

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After another cheeky nature wee at the top – this time the boys got pee envy so all joined the volcano toilet gang – it was back down to the fake summit. We got suited in our thick jackets and tough trousers, and paddles ready we stepped out onto the glacier ready to side. Little half pipes had been carved out of the glacier and one after another we slid down, twisting and turning and rocketing out into the ice. My slight build reduced my speed so in the end a Brazilian guy gave me a push and as a team of two we shot down the volcano. Sliding over we bounced down the lava sand to the bottom. Back to the hostel and to celebratory beers, we were all buzzing from both experiencing the natural wonderment and just being full of endorphins. We had conquered our first Volcano.

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Art Attack

First stop, Valparaíso. This hippy ocean-side city, is a hilly world of colour. Famed for its great nightlife, hipster vibe and phenomenal street art, Valparaíso is a must see for any visitors to the capital. Only an hour and half drive, there are numerous bus companies offering cheap transfers for day trips or extended stays on the Pacific coast. We however were blessed with our wonderful couch surfer who took us to the coast for the day free of charge. Parking the car underground we follow Leonardo’s personal tour, taking a little funicular up to the top of one of the many hills and weaving through the cobbled streets (only 100 pesos so around 12p would definitely recommend, those hills are steep!). Each turn emits a new explosion of colour; Valparaíso is renowned for its street art and we are not to be disappointed. Interactive, imaginative, and emotive, we dawdle through street after street. Leonardo pops into a bakery and comes out with a small pack of wafers filled with dulce de leche. Dulce de leche is basically sugar crack – a type of condensed milk it would appear every South American resident will spread it on almost anything. Munching our treats we finished our brief but satisfying tour of Valparaíso and head back to car.

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Across the bay is Viña del Mar. We drove through and up around the headland to a local restaurant recommended by Leonardo. On route we stop at a rocky outcrop of the headland and scramble across boulders to Leonard’s favourite spot. We watched sea lions playing in the shore break, jumping off rocks and riding the swell back on again. Their playful charm transfixed us. On to the restaurant and we enjoy both delicious and incredibly unhealthy Chilean seafood. My selection, the crab pie, is essentially crab in creamy sauce covered in crispy cheese. Bargain lunch for only £12 for the two of us, stomachs engorged we head back to car and straight to our post lunch aerobics. Climbing the giant dunes.

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Melting quickly under the afternoon sun, we reached the summit of the dunes, which offer impressive 360 degree views across Viña del Mar, Valparaíso and its neighbouring bays. We spent a while filling out shoes, pockets and ears with sand, jumping and flailing like toddlers.

Next and final stop is Viña del Mar. Weaken your focus and you could well be in a European sea-side resort. A popular destination for Argentina tourists there are sun-kissed bodies everywhere, a concert stage is assembled ready to entertain the amassing crowds, and out of control pedal cars veer into everything and everyone. We walk along the promenade and out across a man-made beach blocking the end of a disused estuary. Chancing it in the Pacific, I end up with jeans soaked to the knees. We head past a puppet show in the park and head into an ice cream cafe which offer ice creams filling bowls suitable for a small shark.

A dozy hour and half back to the city, we catch an early night ready for our final day. We head to Chile’s newest shopping mall, beneath it’s now tallest building. In preparation for our trip south Ste picks up a bargain pair of new North Face hiking boots (£67). This place is the shopsters dream. Each floor organised by demographic and function, we focus hard not to blow all of our well saved budget on shiny new things. Another nugget of knowledge (we only found out post shop) is that as a tourist you can take you passport and get a tax reduction on your goods. Probably best we didn’t know as this may have impeded our willpower.

Back to Bellavista and Riggo’s bar for a lovely sunshine lunch with Julian and Sophie, and after Leonardo drops us to the terminal. It’s a sad and grateful goodbye to our wonderful host; next stop Pucon, the heartland of the volcanoes.

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