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November 19th 2007
Published: November 28th 2007
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Right, so on with the show..(having just spent an hour yesterday trying to update blog only to discover it didn´t save anything!)

After several sad goodbyes in San Jose it was time for round 2, so off I flew to Quito, on the way getting some good time to practice my spanish with an Ecuadorian fighter pilot on the way. Quito is the second highest capital city in the world after La Paz, nestling away at 2,300m above sea level, and the altitude becomes apparent when even doing something so menial as climbing 3 flights of stairs! Managed to meet up with Matt without problem and took a highly interesting bus ride out to the Ecuator monument (Mitad del Mundo) for lots of entertaining perspective photos and some nice panoramas of the beautiful surrounding quarries (some 85% of Ecuador´s forests have been lost as a result of industrialisation, demonstrating the need for some kind of conservation initiative). In typical French fashion (the monument was their invention), the Ecuator monument is actually off the zero latitude line by some 270m, something which a bunch of very passionate archaeologists are working on rectifying, supported by ancient Incan structures that were correctly positioned many centuries prior to the current statue.

Having met up with the rest of the group and led by our very capable guides, Jo and Luke, we trekked out in our big yellow fun bus Jack for a short (!) 8 hour drive on very very bumpy roads (a couple of us at the back did nearly hit the roof on a couple of extra large bumps!) to Misahualli, our entry point into the Amazon basin. Having avoided the local terrorists (a bunch of kleptomaniac Capuchin monkeys), we filtered into 2 very low riding river canoes to head on up to the start of our jungle walk. With the immense knowledge of our guide Willy, we were made aware of the medicinal and practical properties of many of the plants we passed along our extremely muddy trail through secondary jungle (I got a very funky palm leaf hat!), full with many replicas of actual plants - fake banana trees, fake bamboo and the like, before emerging exhausted several hours later at our home for the next couple of nights. This was little more than a handful of log cabins with no electricity and precious little running water positioned right next to the Napo river, an Amazon tributary. Later we headed out to a local family, hidden away up an extremely muddy hill, to witness them making traditional pottery, drink the local home brew Chicha and try our hand with a blowpipe before drifting back on down the river in the dark accompanied by the sounds of the jungle. The next day it was more jungle trekking and a visit to a local school, culminating in a drift down the river in a truck tyre inner tube before heading back to the relative civilisation (Cuba Libres, salsa dancing with the locals and karaoke) of Misahualli.

On from the jungle we headed on up into the hills to the fabulous town of Banos, which is somewhat the Moab equivalent of Ecuador, namely catering for every adventure sport under the sun. Surrounded my mountains, it is a beautiful city oozing character and is definitely on my hit list for a return visit. Between playing basketball versus the locals and taking a dip in the local thermal baths, I managed to squeeze in jumping off a bridge for a bungee swing (as silly as it sounds - when can I go again?),
Bridge Swing, Banos, EcuadorBridge Swing, Banos, EcuadorBridge Swing, Banos, Ecuador

Can´t believe I jumped off this!
canyoning (abseiling down more waterfalls, followed by some fantastic trout), rock climbing with the Ecuadorian champion (technique needs work - got so much lactic buid up in my arms I couldn´t grip the face any more and had to come down - very annoying, but fantastic workout!) and hitting the town for some of the best Mojitos ever while fraternising with the local talent. The baths were very welcome following the obscene amount of salsa dancing and all around activities that filled our days, giving some good and much needed relaxation time. Our last evening continued the high octane theme with a bus ride up to view the local volcano (singing on top of a truck climbing a freezing mountain and having to duck to avoid decapitation by low flying wires all part of the charm!), offering fantastic views of the town before fog stopped play and we returned to town to party the night away for the hugely popular Day of the Dead festival. In keeping with the need for sleep before a long travel day, I did the logical thing of ditching the rest of the group and staying out all night, coming back for 5.30 just in
Rock climbing, Banos, EcuadorRock climbing, Banos, EcuadorRock climbing, Banos, Ecuador

Perfect backdrop to a great day
time to load the bus before a nice 9 hour travel day (much to the delight of our tour leader who had asked everyone to get me in bed for a reasonable hour!) over a spectacular road to Cuenca, our next destination. Stopping along the way (and experiencing our first bit or rain) we took in a tour of Ingapirca, a pre-Incan site designed in the shape of a Puma, that was used for lunar and solar observations, marked by windows that light up during the equinoxes. A pretty colonial town set 2500m above sea level, Cuenca offers a plethora of vistas in the form of spectacluar balconies and a highly impressive couple of cathedrals, along with some very good food (mmm sushi) and streets that are precariously slippery when wet (couldn´t resist!). Having finished sulking about missing Metallica playing there a week after we were due to leave, I stumbled accross a local parade before heading out to the Homero Ortega factory, to witness the origins of the Panama Hat (so misnamed as a result of them being shipped to and sold from Panama) and buy the obligatory souvenir!

Leaving Ecuador, we crossed an apparent DMZ before entering Peru and heading on down the coast to the delightful town of Punta Sal. Here we got our first chance to tent it on the beach, potter down to enjoy the sunset before an evening dip in the sea and chill out for a couple of days, dancing into the wee hours once more on the sandy floor. The local transport continues to amuse and entertain, with 6 of us getting a taxi into town that should have been decommissioned a good 10 years ago (the handbrake was a rock in front of the tyre and the doors popped open while driving!). Our driver continued to be helpful by finding out we needed a barbeque grill (I had been asking everywhere around town - word obviously travels fast!) and taking us to a friend of his to weld us one from scratch! Getting another crack at surf lessons, this time from an ex pro, I got to catch some waves at long last (I rule!) before enjoying some very fresh shrimp overlooking the sea. Having missed the bus, we took a 25 min tuc tuc ride back (didn´t stop vibrating for a good ten mins after arrival!) to the campsite, which had us in stitches the whole way. Later I got to test my horse riding skills along the beach, getting the leader of the pack and ending up at a full gallop (very very cool!)in a race back home, infintely more enjoyable than my prior limited horse-based experience. Aching muscles were later soothed with a nice swim in the sea and testing the surfing skills with a bit of body surfing (riding in on the wave minus board) before a cracking barbecue and yet more dancing.

With another early start and a tear in my eye we set off to the old fishing town of Huanchaco, en route taking in the fascinating Lord of Sipan museum. One of the most important archaeological finds of the last 30 years, the tomb of the (Moche era, 250 AD) Lord of Sipan, a warrior priest, was discovered intact including his 3 wives, 2 llamas, 2 guards, his military chief and a plethora of gold items including a full gold outfit (now housed in Lima, to be seen later). Huanchaco is supposedly the birthplace of surfing and also known for its Caballitos de Tortora (reed boats), still very much in use to day by the local fishermen. Another spectacular sunset later (loving being back on the west coast!), we hit the town for a very interesting mixed grill (the restauranteur kept running next door for supplies) and one or two cocktails in the only bar open in town. The next day, having waited hours for our (Brummie!?!)guide, a man with a tendency to hark on about El Nino at any opportunity and the remarkable ability to be incredibly boring while waxing lyrical about highly interesting subjects, we eventually got to walk around Chan Chan, the largest adobe city in the world. Built by the Chimu, the site covers 28 km2 and houses some massive plazas with excellent acoustics along with an oasis and a huge mausoleum. After Chan Chan we moved on to the (pre Chimu) Moche pyramids, Huaca del Sol y de la Luna (temples of the Sun & Moon), immense structures built over earlier versions of the temples (4 layers in total) with many murals depicting the deities of the era, human forms with animal characteristics - crab, spider, owl, starfish to name but a few.

Lima was our next destination, stopping at 2 pre Incan sites along the way, Sechin Alto and the Paramonga fortress. The Sechin settlement dates back to 1290 BC (although it was under development from at least 1700 BC), is the largest complex of this era in the Western hemisphere, and has some delightful depictions of warriors along its temple walls parading the severed spines, heads and limbs of their victims. It is also home to a museum with a fully intact mummy and a pair of (severed) mummified hands, on which tattoos can still clearly be seen, preserved by the intense heat and dry climate of the region. Paramonga sits atop a hill and offers fantastic views of the surrounding area while being a welcome leg stretch on another long journey. Moving from the extremely dry desert, to a weather system governed by the Humbolt current, a perpetual layer of fog enshrouds the approach to Lima at this time of year. Moving through this, we witnessed the sprawl of shanty towns (pueblos jovenes) surrounding Lima, before arriving in the sprawl of the capital. Here we explored the gold museum (fantastic, priceless collection including the outfit of the afortementioned Senor del Sipan, a pair of gold gloves, immense gold earrings and the most extensive armoury I have ever witnessed), along with yet more interesting taxi rides (driver had to collect money en route to cover petrol and then broke down on the motorway!), the Inquisition museum (painful), catacombs and witnessed the changing of the guard in the Plaza de Armas (Buck Pal much better). Not far from the old town is the ultra modern Miraflores, a bonanza of shopping malls and restaurants, more akin to Monte Carlo than anywhere in South America, where some fantastic salads and ice cream were enjoyed while overlooking the ocean view. Here we also enjoyed a city tour by night follwed by a lip smackingly good buffet accompanied with traditional Peruvian dancing, ranging from flamenco-based styles to Carribbean, Cossack, Chinese and even breakdancing!

Leaving Lima we collected a few newbies for the tour, bringing the total to 34 on the truck, before heading off (yes early, another long day) via the Ballestas Islands, the Galapagos´lesser known siblings. Amid the overpowering smell of guano (originally a highly profitable export for fertilizer), we were surrounded by cormorants (the main provider of said export), boobies (;-)), pelicans, sea lions, penguins and dolphins for a fascinating boat trip (that then ran out of fuel on the return leg). Next stop was Huacachina, an Oasis town set amidst towering sand dunes for yet more high octane activities in the form of dune buggying and sandboarding. Powered by monstrous engines, the buggies flew up the dunes before emulating roller coaster rides, jumping over ridges and plummeting down massive mounds of sand, leaving us all clinging to our 5 point harnesses and wearing smiles that could swallow a shark! Having arrived at our destination, we then lay down on the sandboards face first before bombing down the slopes on our own momentum. A couple of the group tried standing up on the boards, mostly with no avail or massive wipeouts, but for once I decided discretion was the better part of valour and decided to stay horizontal. Several hours later, and with sand in every imaginable orifice and item of clothing we travesed yet more spectacular scenery to arrive at Nazca. Weary and sandy, a barbeque was the obvious way to lift the spirits before partying into the night and sleeping in a hammock. The next day between swimming in the pool (underwater window into the bar much fun!) we took to the skies in the smallest 6 seater plane imaginable for some aerial acrobatics over the mysterious Nazca Lines, where only one of the girls (thankfully on a later flight) managed to lose her lunch. Impressive though they were, the actual surrounding scenery is more of a highlight of the flight than the Lines themselves!

Following Nazca we traversed the scorching desert, stopping at Chauchilla cemetary to see (some very dreadlocked!) mummies over 1000 years old preserved by the dry climate typical of the area, before arriving at the initial start of the original Inca Trail to Cusco, Puerto Inca. Set in the middle of absolute nothingness, we were confined to the campsite (on the beach, sea sadly a bit cold down here) for some volleyball, football with the site staff (Matt was a hero in goal while I did what I do best and drank beer on the sidelines), playing much cards and busting out some moves in our own personal disco until the early hours. Slightly bleary eyed we set off to our next destination, the beautiful colonial city of Arequipa, from where the next blog will start.

Pictures will follow on this but currently experiencing yet more of the joy of SHIT COMPUTERS in Peru that won´t let me download, upload or move pics across. Rant over for now. Hope everyone´s well and loving life in general. Ciao for now.....

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