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Published: August 12th 2007
View over Cusco
Many many many roofs. Roofs or rooves?
After a whole month of travelling, I seem to have been brought back to earth with a bump. I'm back in Quito, living with my evil stepmother of a madre, and suddenly everyone is leaving Ecuador. I have four days left to go, and everything seems strangely surreal.
As you can imagine, a month of travelling is quite a mouthful, so I'm just going to give you the highlights and some nice piccies to look at.
Imogen and I left Quito the day after returning from our Galapagos trip, and couldn't help wondering just why we were travelling south just as Ecuador hit Summer in glorious style. The first stop was a town in southern Ecuador called Loja, where we took the plunge and got ourselves a haircut. Loja is about ten years behind England with hairstyles, so we ended up with very nineties, bouffant do's. After that it was straight across the border and to the Peruvian town of Piura. All that had to offer was an ice-creamery and a protest, so we got on another bus that evening and went on our way to Lima.
I'm sure Lima is very nice at other times of the year, but on this particular weekend
Plaza in Cusco
Featuring a Spanish church built on Inca foundations. Lazy things.
it was completely covered in smoggy clouds, and not a lot of fun. Still, we managed to have a fairly rockin' night out with a few other travellers, despite the fact that we mistakenly strolled into a bar for, as the locals called it, "prostitutes and perverts". Needless to say we didn't stay very long.
The next day we moved on yet again to our first main destination, Cusco. The first thing that we noticed was how many inconvenient hills and steps it has for such a high city - and the second was that it was very, very cold. Sure, people had warned us that it was Winter down south, but how cold could it be? Well, we couldn't bear to leave our beds after 5pm on the first night because our toes were so freezing. Over the next two days we acclimatised, moseyed around the lovely colonial streets and casual Inca ruins, saw lots of llamas, a couple of ruin sites, and many, many cafés. Finally we were ready to catch the rickety train to Aguas Calientes, a little, hideously touristy, village at the foot of the infamous Machu Picchu. We arrived at night, got in a few hours'
Train at Aguas Calientes
The novelty of it! A train!
sleep, and somehow managed to haul ourselves out of bed in time to catch one of the first buses to the ruins.
Even at 7am when you're tired and have walked up a big hill and paid a fortune to get into the site, looking up and seeing Machu Picchu really is a fantastic moment. It is the perfect location for a lost Inca city, because it's just so impossibly high, so that you feel like you own the whole of the Peruvian mountain range.
We had to move fairly quickly, as the area was rapidly filling up with tourists, and after a slight glitch where Imogen dropped her camera off the side of the mountain, and risked life and limb to retrieve it, we headed for Huayna Picchu for a bit of a climb. Huayna Picchu is the steep mountain on the right hand side of the classic postcard view of the ruins, and only admits 400 people per day, so we thought we'd give it a go, reasoning that once we were in we could take all the time we wanted. I think, considering that my leg wasn't in tip-top shape and I hadn't done any real exercise in weeks,
we did quite well. In fairness, about 50 people jogged past us on the way up, but they must have been maniacs anyway. Well, after all that it was completely worthwhile. The view from the top was stunning, and we quite felt that we deserved to be in such an incredible place after such hard work. However, when we got back down to the ruins and had a little picnic on the lawns, we couldn't help feeling that a bit of National Trust magic might do the place good, considering that tourists are free to run, jump, jog, kick (if no one's looking), or do more or less whatever they want to the remnants of the sacred city. It even has a pack of native llamas wandering around!
Eventually it was time to leave Aguas Calientes, and after a little trouble with strikes and angry tourists who wanted to leave right now, not a moment later, no matter what, we were on our way back to Cusco.
The next stop was Lake Titicaca, which is so big that it looks like a very high, cold sea. On the Peruvian side, at the town of Puno, we took a boat trip to
Ruins on Huayna Picchu
This is at the top of the reeeally big steep mountain.
Los Uros, otherwise known as the Floating Islands. These are literally inhabited islands made completely from reeds, which have been piled up over the years to create a liveable surface. The houses are made of reeds, the resaurants are made of reeds, the boats are made of reeds... even the phonebox is made of reeds! It was truly fascinating, and we didn't mind buying a bit of Lake Titicaca tourist tat off the inhabitants, who live very comfortably in their unusual environment.
That afternoon we travelled across the Bolivian border to the little town of Copacabana, where we stayed for the next couple of nights. The main attraction here is the Isla del Sol, which is the supposed birthplace of the first Inca. We took a boat trip out for the day, and slowly baked as we climbed the long, hilly, rocky, dusty road from the south of the island to the north. To be honest, the ruins at the "navel of the world" weren't that impressive, - and the island's donkey population, who were determined to boof me at any opportunity, were much more fun!
Soon it was time to move on to La Paz, which is NOT the world's highest
capital city (because it isn't the real capital of Bolivia). The city is dirty, polluted, dangerous and cold. We stayed long enough to watch Harry Potter 5 (very
Gap), and left for Uyuni. By this time we'd travelled so quickly that we were starting to improvise and add bits into our route, seeing as we'd gained about a week already. So, as soon as we arrived in chilly Uyuni, we booked ourselves onto a tour of the lesser-known but much raved-about Salar de Uyuni.
The Salar is basically part of one of the driest deserts in the world, Atacama, but is much higher, colder and saltier. Sounds divine, doesn't it? Plus the fact that the tour is by Jeep, shared with a driver, cook (and cook's son in our case), and five other passengers, and nights are spent in military camps or equally basic and unwelcoming accommodation. Nevertheless, it seemed like an interesting way to spend three days.
On the first day we were taken to a train graveyard just out of Uyuni itself, where people had gone a bit graffiti-happy, and you could clamber all over the rusty carriages. Next we visited the salt plains, which are absolutely vast and as
Sun arch on a floating island
I am saluting the sun, clearly.
white as snow. It's difficult to imagine how entertaining a big area covered with salt can be... but I suppose you'll just have to look at the photos.
After a very cold and showerless night, we set off again. On the second day we entered the real desert, and climbed over lots of big, sandy volcanic rocks to amuse ourselves. Later we visited a saline lagoon, which was very
smelly, but inhabited by pink and white flamingoes, which pretty much made up for it. The next stop was a group of volcanic rocks including one that had been eroded into the shape of a tree, and then on to a huge red lake. Ok, I'm not really bigging it up, but it was fun, despite the many hours spent squashed into the back of the Jeep.
That night was spent in very basic accommodation indeed, with intermittant spells of electricity, and temperatures of around -20ºC. Brrr. The best thing was the perfect night sky and view of the milky way, but that didn't exactly warm our cockles in our time of need. Nevertheless, we managed to get up at 5.30am to drive to some hot geysers as a morning warm-up before breakfast.
... on a floating island?!
I am proud to say that we all got out of the Jeep in sub-zero temperatures, amid snow and ice, to run around in the huge gas clouds from the bubbling geysers. Still, we weren't quite brave enough to have a dip in the hot pool near our breakfast spot. After that it was on to our final destination, the infamous green lagoon. We were slightly disappointed to find on our arrival, that the lake was no more green than you or me. However, it was completely frozen over, so we had a good time skating around on the solid ice, having finally warmed up a tad.
After all that we were quite sad to be leaving Uyuni, - although the regret didn't last long, as our next destination was San Pedro de Atacama, in northern Chile, and the weather was practially warm. We could have danced for joy, if we weren't so tired and dusty.
The good mood soon wore off, though, as we discovered how devastatingly expensive everything was, particularly after the cheapness of Bolivia. I mean, we were suddenly paying the equivalent of four quid for a bowl of soup. That's like being in Britain! Naturally, we booked ourselves
Making a reed canoe
Is there nothing those reeds cannot do?
onto the first bus out of that dastardly country, and into Argentina.
Our first stop was Salta, a pleasant little town in the north with a distinctly pro-British vibe. Our cab driver spent a good fifteen minutes expounding on the virtues of English women, football, language, people and country in general, before moving on to the corruptness of Argentinian politics, and general evilness of the USA.
The funny thing about travelling is that you think everything will be so difficult, but when you start looking at your options, you realise that you really can do anything. With this in mind, we booked our ticket for a 20 hour bus journey to Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires was by far our favourite city in South America, if only because of the decent chocolate and alfajores (little cakes filled with caramel and covered in chocolate). We spent much of our time lounging around in cafés and strolling around the shopping streets, because that's just what all Argentinians do! However, we did manage to do one semi-productive thing during our stay, which was to catch a boat for a day-trip to Uruguay.
Colonia is a little, quiet coastal town in the south of Uruguay, which has a few
Inca trail on Isla del Sol
As you may have guessed, there was indeed a lot of sol.
coffee shops, restaurants, posh boutiques, boats, and not much else. Still, we were happy to laze around for the day, and get ourselves some nice stamps in our passports on the way back. Pointless? Moi? Never.
We would probably have liked to have spent a while longer in Buenos Aires, but unfortunately we needed to catch a bus to Santiago de Chile sometime over the weekend to get us there in time for our flight to Easter Island, taking into account the fact that the border had been closed all week due to heavy snowfall. However, due to some fantastic luck, we managed to catch a bus on the one day that the road was open, and made it safely through the snowy mountains back into Chile.
I'm afraid to say that we may not have made the most of our stay in Santiago. We arrived, found a hostel, went in search of food and ended up (this is shameful) at Subway Sandwich, and then went straight to bed. The next day we did slightly better, getting up before midday, doing a quick supermarket shop, as the thought of the price of eating out made our heads hurt, and eventually got together
A flurry of activity on Isla del Sol
Donkeys, llamas, travellers, - all intent on knocking us from the path.
with a few other travellers from our dorm and made a collective decision to tackle the metro system and go to the city's teleférico.
To our surprise, we managed to navigate our way underground, find the teleférico, jump in a cable car and wing our way towards what would have been a wonderful view over the city, I'm sure, if the whole mountain hadn't been swathed in mist. Well, it was a fun trip anyway, and we consoled ourselves that at least we'd tried (better than back in Ecuador, where we still haven't visited Quito's teleférico).
On our final day in Santiago, we really did surpass ourselves. We were up before 10am, and by midday had managed to get ourselves some money, used the metro, and bought ourselves return tickets to Viña del Mar, a coastal town two hours away from Santiago. You see, we were on a slightly improbable mission to locate Imogen's uncle and cousins who had arrived in Chile that morning and didn't know we were here. Through sheer cunning and detective work, we managed to locate their hotel, then the mall where they were supposed to be eating, then the restaurant they were eating in and... well, the
And their traditional, indigenous trade in... pedalo boats.
rest is history. We went to bed that night feeling very pleased with ourselves, and slightly overwhelmed that after just a few weeks of travelling we had reached our final stop before the last leg to Easter Island.
We were up at the ungodly hour of 4am the next day to make ready for our flight - a process which included eating all the food we had, because the Chilean customs police are picky about that sort of thing. The flight itself was pretty impressive - personal televisions, decent films (no vegetarian food though - as standard), and we arrived on Rapa Nui (as named by the islanders) in a very good mood. Did you know that the island boasts the world's longest airstrip? Amazing.
We soon found that practically all native Rapa Nuians are incredibly easy-going, relaxed and generally happy. There are some similarites with Hawaiian communities - such as the use of flower lays, and preference for floral patterns and bare feet. We felt right at home, especially since a few hours after our arrival it began to rain. Just like being back in Britain!
Fortunately, we were already prepared for prices in Easter Island to be absolutely extortionate, - seeing
Hurrah for trains!
In the train graveyard at Uyuni.
as the island only produces bananas, pineapples and guayabas, - and were ready to spend four days eating nothing but crackers, egg mayonnaise sandwiches and jam. In fact, our hostel offered a very good free breakfast of pancakes with peach jam, which I quickly became addicted to, as the most substantial thing we ate all day.
Our helpful hostel owner, Ana Rapu, would greet us each morning with a plan of what we would do that day, so that we didn't really have to think about anything at all! On the first full day we were taken on a tour of the eastern side of the island by a two brothers, who were fascinated by our travelling story, and why our boyfriends weren't with us, and what our boyfriends were like, and what men were like in general in England... We were taken, in miserable drizzly conditions, to an ahu (altar) with toppled moai (stone statues), then to a volcano quarry where the statues were originally made, featuring several huge moai that had never left the site to be erected at the coast. We climbed the volcano for a view of the island that rivalled that of the teleférico in Santiago
Little salt mountains
The salt plains at Uyuni. Very salty indeed.
due to the rain, and slipped and slid our way back down under the stony glare of the silent heads.
The next stop was an immense ahu with no less than fifteen moai, which were all toppled a few years ago in a tsunami, and restored by the Japanese. Hard to see what they got out of it, but they did a jolly good job anyway. After that we visited a round stone called the Navel of the World, which is supposed to give you mana
if you place your hands and head on it and concentrate really hard. Needless to say we weren't very good at this, but we did feel a bit of a tingling in our fingers! Lastly we stopped off at a beautiful sandy beach where the first islanders supposedly embarked, lead by their king who sailed there under divine influence from an unknown location... Very mysterious and vague, but it was a nice beach anyway. On the way home we were also shown another of Rapa Nui's mysterious powers - a magnetic force, possibly created by a buried meteorite, which is strong enough to pull a stationary car backwards up a hill!
On day two we were
Some lovely cacti in a sea of salt.
sent off to the National Park of Orongo, in the southern tip of the island. This entailed a steep uphill walk to a massive, swampy crater, which we walked around to find the village of the ancient bird-man cult of Orongo. According to legend, the strongest members of tribes from all over the island congregated here at the start of Spring, to climb down the side of the crater into the sea, swim across to an island and wait there for days or even weeks for the arrival of the first terns. The first man to find a tern egg and bring it back to the island was crowned "bird-man" for the year. They earned respect for their tribe and a year of solitude for themself. Seems like a bit of a mixed blessing to me.
On the third day we were given a very vague map of the western coast, and told to follow the footpath until we reached a certain point (apparently we would know when we got there), then join the road for an inland walk back to Hanga Roa, the island's town. Well, the coastal walk was nice enough, as we were graced with a bit of
Imogen on a big volcanic rock
Day two in the Salar de Uyuni.
sunshine at last, and lovely views of the unbroken horizon (did you also know that Easter Island is one of the most isolated places on Earth?), and eventually we found an ahu with a few toppled moai, and, as it had begun to rain again, decided that this was probably the point at which we should join the road. Luckily, after about twenty minutes of trudging through mud and puddles and rough undergrowth, we were picked up by a nice Chilean couple, who decided they'd show us a bit of culture, and took us to an ahu and another quarry where the red stone topknots for the moai were made. We then managed to hitch-hike back to Hanga Roa, arriving back at the hostel muddy, tired, and rather pleased with ourselves.
Our time in Rapa Nui was short, sweet, and expensive, but absolutely worthwhile. We sadly waved chao to the little island on our distinctly mediocre flight back to Chile, and settled down for a 36 hours spent entirely in airports or on aeroplanes as we made our way back up to Ecuador. We slept very little, and ate a lot of chocolate (seeing as it was less expensive and more
In a variety of different colours on a very smelly lake.
delicious than sandwiches in Lima airport), and by the time we reached Quito at midnight on Sunday, we felt that it really was nice to be home.
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