Friday, 29 October 2010

Inca Adventures - From lake Titcaca to Machu Pichu

After a few days in La Paz after the jungle trek, we decided to give our livers a rest and head over to lake Titicaca for a few days before moving West out of Bolivia and into Peru. At around 3800m altitude, lake Titicaca is the worlds highest navigable lake and is shrouded in mythology for being the birthplace of the Inca gods.

View of lake Titicaca

Legend has it that both the sun and the moon rose from the depths of the lake, and as we took a boat over to the town of Copacabana on the Bolivian side, the water was crystalline blue and weirdly shiny. Perhaps thats just another effect that altitude is responsible for, but I'm not convinced. If there's one cliched expression on the South American travel circuit it's 'It must be the altitude' a phrase which takes all the credit for a variety of naturally occuring phenomenoms, including people's general lack of fitness and the severity of their hangovers.

It was a real shame to see the sungate; a stone doorway thought to have been constructed by the Inca people, who lived from around 1100 AD, was now covered in bad graffiti. It was amazing to see it just after sunset in the glowing red sky. The town and surrounding coast has a distinctly mediterranean feel and Fred and I climbed the mountain to the South of Copacabana in the afternoon with the guitar and watched the sun disappear into the lake. It was a great moment which I was glad to be sharing with someone as opposed to watching it on my own.

After Lake Titicaca we rejoined forces with Rich and some of his friends from back home and booked our trek to Machu Pichu. For other travellers it really is a good idea to try and get a group of you together when booking these things, because with a group of 8 people we managed to negotiate the price of the 5 day, 4 night Salkantay trail from $180USD down to $155.

The first day of the trip was quite hard work, mainly uphill, and I would recommend getting more sleep than I chose to bank the night before you leave! Try to sort out breakfast in advance as well because we ended up paying 10 Peruvian soles for stale bread and eggs with a cup of hot water. Fortunately, halfway through the day our guide, Jose-Luis was as equally tired as us. 

Jose-Luis getting some shut-eye

The crew; Rich, Fred, Michelle, Me, Caz and Connie

We were all relieved to get to the base camp to eat, but hit the hay as soon as the meal finished. I awoke to one of the guides knocking on our tent and offering us a hot cup of cocoa tea. I asked if Fred or Rich wanted one too, and half the campsite started calling out from inside their tents which the guide found quite amusing. It was pretty cold in the night and some of the girls were crying when they got out the tent, but at least that was the worst night out the way. 

Chatting to the cooks

The full expedition team at dinner

After breakfast the next day it was ipods in and some motivational tunes for the steepest climb of the trip up to 4600m.

We celebrated at the top of the mountain Abra Salkantay (4600m). From that point it was all downhill, which is a good thing... Once we went back down through the clouds and inevitable rain, the weather warmed up and the scenery became less desolate and more tropical.

The sun re-appearing on our descent

Celebrating the power of gravity

You begin to understand how the Incas used these trails when you consider how quickly you find yourself in completely different climates, which to this day enables the trade of different types of fruit and vegetables grown at different altitudes.

Unfortunately, since I was running around like Ray Mears sipping from any spring I could find - perhaps relying a bit too much on the purification tablets I had bought, I began to get a pretty bad stomach after day 3. This perhaps led to my eagerness to skip some of the walking and opt for a series of 6 x 700m ziplines high above the rocky valley floor. 

After this we continued our trek in the boiling sun past the aptly and originally named village of Hydroelectrica, with its huge hydroelectric turbine, and then along a railroad track for what seemed like eternity with my constantly churning stomach to the town of Aguas Calientes, which would be the base for the early morning journey to Machupicchu.

The hydroelectric turbine at hydroelectrica

At about 3am the next day we got up and walked down to the bridge that leads to the steps at the base of Machupicchu. You want to be one of the first 400 to arrive at the top, because this is the number of people permitted to also visit the higher Huaynapicchu for the best views of the ancient settlement. Up and down altogether we probably climbed about 7000 steps that day, but the view from the top of Huaynapicchu was worth it all. You could see clearly the quarry at the top from which all of the stonework was hand chiselled. The way they built the structures, with wide bases that have withstood earthquakes, impressed even modern day Japanese scientists who thought that the amount of tourism the site now received was damaging the foundations. Their experiments using various tiltometers installed around the site have proved this theory wrong – obviously this ancient race was more intelligent than they expected.

Sunrise at Machupicchu - Huaynapicchu in the background

Incan stonework - with perfect joints that have lasted centuries

Supposedly a stone which a puma was tied to

Our guide gave us a lot of speculative information about the purpose of each of the buildings and structures; the Kings quarters with what was apparently a stone to tie a watchful puma to for protection, the observatory which is supposed to align with certain stars at times of the year, random stones that jut out from the stonework where sacrifices were placed. It is the type of place where it is best to just let your imagination run away with what might have happened there all those years ago, and an experience I will remember for many years to come.

Good times at the top of Huaynapicchu

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Bolivian Jungle Trek from Rurrenabaque

So I'm going to make a start on catching up with the blog posts and what I've been up to over the last month, no easy feat as its been pretty action packed! Anyway, first and foremost - our trip into Bolivian Amazonia.

We started our tour in Rurrenabaque, its quite a nice little town on the outskirts of the jungle. We arrived early and found this little bakery owned by a french guy. It was just opening and we had a couple of pan au chocolates straight from the oven. I reckon you'd be hard pushed to find a better place to get breakfast in South America. They were amazing.

As far as the details on prices and everything go for those of you interested I'm afraid I can't actually remember what we paid for the 3 night and 4 day excursion. What I do know, is that being Bolivia, it is one of the cheapest places you can organize a jungle trip from, and there is the added advantage that it is a low risk area for malaria, so you don't need to take any crazy pills.

It takes about 2 hours to get to the boat from the town, and it is one of the bumpiest roads I have travelled on. That didn't stop me from falling asleep anyway, much to the amazement of the other passengers.

Floating down the river we saw loads of wildlife, especially alligators and giant rat type things, lots of birds and once a monkey far off in a tree. We had to get out and push the boat a few times because we did the trip before the start of the wet season. You soon realize that the alligators are a lot more scared of you than you realize. In fact, by the end of the trip we were swimming in the river with dolphins while the alligators watched from the banks.

We stayed in this awesome kind of tree house come jungle lodge which was brilliant to watch the sunset from and listen to the sound of the jungle and the insects around you of a night. They had a nice room full of hammocks which was great to relax in too.

On the second day we went looking for anacondas and managed to find a few buried in holes in a field which was pretty cool. The best part of the trip for me however was the piranha fishing on the last day. Unfortunately it had rained a lot the day before, which meant that the water was more silty than usual and this stops the fish from sensing where the meat is as well, but their appetite was still pretty voracious considering how many times they got the bait off my hook. Eventually I managed to get one, and I later fed him to an alligator. Ken, another guy from our group managed to catch an eel and fred caught a kind of catfish thing. Don't think any of the catches would have sustained us that well though. Good job we had a chef back at the ranch, who, like most chefs on these tours, excelled in making pretty horrible tasting soups with bits of potatoes floating in. Lovely!

On the journey back from fishing though it was really dark, and as we maneuvered through meanders in the river our headlamps caused red reflections in the menacing eyes of the congregations of alligators waiting quietly in the water. The photos don't do it justice but that image of loads of glowing eyes is one of the most memorable things about the trip.