The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Our tour group consisted of five Canadians, seven Brits and the two of us. We got really lucky with the people – all really cool and we had lots of fun together.
Day 1 is a relaxed one where you visit two of the projects that G Adventures, the tour company, supports before spending the night in Ollantaytambo (Inca ruins here).


Day 2 is the start of the trail, a few hours of fairly relaxed hiking after a visit to another Inca site.
Day 3 is the climb up to “Dead Woman’s Pass” and it is actually really hard. It’s a very steep climb in high altitude (not helped by the fact that I felt really sick and hadn’t been able to eat breakfast). At the last bit, we probably stopped every few minutes to catch our breath. Fortunately, there were a few of us climbing together and there was plenty of encouragement from all sides! People had some celebratory beers once we got up to the top.


The second half of the day was better as it was downhill (but we were all hurting already from the climb up). You camp early on that day for that reason, which was good for me because I spent the rest of the day in my sleeping bag and felt better the next day.
The chefs on the tour had managed to bake a birthday cake for one of the ladies on the tour (something about hot stones and closed pots – not sure exactly how they did it but everyone was very impressed!).
Day 4 is a lot easier compared to the day before. You walk through absolutely stunning scenery, sometimes in the sun, sometimes in the rain, often in the clouds (as you go down in altitude into the cloud forest), taking in some Inca sites along the way. Our excellent guide Carlos explained a bit about the religion of the Incas and how the believes play a role today, especially in the countryside.
We got introduced to all of our 20+ porters that night as we thanked them for their incredible work in getting all our stuff, food etc up and down the hills (Oscar and one of the other guys carried one of the 25kg packs each for a few minutes during the day). They have unbelievable strength and stamina (and our oldest porter was 60!).
Day 5, the final day, starts at 3am so that the porters can pack up and catch the train back at 5am. For us, it was a 2 hour hike to the sun gate for what is usually the first view of Machu Picchu, but we had a lot of fog and clouds in our way.
Suddenly being in crowds of people is a bit strange after the quiet days before….
It cleared up a bit as it got warmer and anyway, the clouds added to the whole experience by making it look really magical. One of the ladies on the tour proposed to her partner and really had a stunning backdrop to it!
So we had something to celebrate in town before catching the train back to Ollantaytambo and driving to Cusco and going our separate ways…

Puno

Next stop was Puno, just across the Peruvian border. And what do you do in Peru when you’re Oscar? You try the guinea pig (not bad, but a lot of bones).
We spent a night here again and visited the floating islands of Uros – very impressive reed grass layers 2-3 metres thick on which people live in groups of 3-4 families. The main income is tourism. Some pretty amazing constructions with the same reed grass around empty bottles builds these “Uros Mercedes”.

After that, on to Cusco! Where Oscar promptly got ill and spent the day in bed with a fever. Fortunately, it got better in time for our Inca Trail start.

Copacabana

From La Paz, Max and we booked a ticket on Bolivia Hop, a bus for which you can book tickets covering various cities (and you can stay a night or two at each stop if you want). Not a bad system, but not as cheap as local buses would be. But hey! Something to try.
Our first stop was Copacabana at the shores of Lake Titicaca. We stayed for one night, did some kayaking and hiking and visited the Isla del Sol and the Isla de la Luna (a tour with a very high boat to land time ratio. I got a bit sea sick. My head is very sensitive…).

La Paz

From there, we decided to head to La Paz while the rest of the group continued to Sucre – we only had a week before the start of the Inca Trail. In La Paz, we met up with Max again and visited the ruins of Tiwanaku together (a very impressive pre-Inca civilisation which at some point had a very large sphere of influence in the area).

Our tour guide was really helpful and explained some features of life in Bolivia to us – for example, why there are so many unfinished houses. Basically, a family will build as much as they can afford at a certain time, but with a long term vision for the house. Usually, the ground floor is finished and rented out as soon as possible because the view is that every house should “work”. The second floor might be rented out to a restaurant or other business once finished, the third may be turned into flats and finally the fourth will be for the family. People decorate finished houses in all sorts of individual ways (will find a picture on the camera – haven’t uploaded that part yet).

He also said that instead of renting out a flat, people often do the following: As a tenant, I pay my landlord say 10000$. For that, I have the right to live in their flat for the next two years or so, during which they “work” with the money – invest, finish their house, etc. After the agreed time frame, the money gets paid back in full. I thought that was a pretty smart idea. Interest-free loans for one, rent-free living for the other (though obviously you need to have that sort of money first…).

Potosí

We arrived in Potosí around 9pm and walked into the nearest cheap looking hotel, which happened to have space for 11 of us (2 other people had joined us on the bus). The place wasn’t great, but it gave us a base for the two days we spent there.

San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni

We’ll! It’s been a while again. Time to catch up…

We did the standard tour from Chile into Bolivia via Jeep. This meant that we got picked up early, waited in line with a lot of other travellers from other tours to get our exit stamp from Chile, then drove under and hour to wait in another line to get our entry stamp for Bolivia. The border here is quite high up and since it was still quite early, it was also really cold! But obviously there are the usual suspects in shorts and flip flops.

Once all the formalities were done, we got split into groups of six and assigned to jeeps. Our group consisted of a brother and sister from Spain, two South Korean ladies who spoke no Spanish and only very limited English and us two.
On the first day, you pass a few lagoons, some hot springs and some geysers:

Night is spent at an altitude of 4500ish metres and that really messed with my head. I had a pounding headache to the point where I went to bed at 8pm and actually woke up at night because my head was hurting so much. Oscar got up at some point to go to the bathroom and came back warning me to not get up as quickly as normal – very easy to faint from the headrush I think.
Next day was a bit better, plus we were going to spend the night lower down (something to look forward to!). We passed some impressive stone formations, lagoons full of flamingoes, and a llama herd that day:

The second night is spent in the salt hotel, which is a bit outside the salar (no hotels allowed in there anymore) but has walls and floors made out of salt. We managed to explain and play some card games with our jeep team at night, in spite of the language barrier (reminded me of holidays when I was little :).

Day 3 is the big day – got up at some ungodly hour to be taken into the salt flats for sunrise. Great for pictures, not so great for shoes – a layer of water a few cm deep on top of the salt soaks into everything.

After sunrise, we drove to Isla Incahuasi for breakfast and more pictures (no water here, fortunately, so our shoes had a chance to dry). Then on to the middle of the Salar for some classic dinosaur/ other prop pictures! They may be cheesy, but we had fun. And obviously being in the middle of the salt flats is amazing – brilliant white wherever you look…

We finished around 3pm with lunch in Uyuni. We took one look at the city and decided that we didn’t need to stay here for the night – there is not a lot to do. So we joined the group from one of the other jeeps (there were 3 jeeps in total) and booked bus tickets to Potosí for the same afternoon.
There were 9 of us, so we had a fun bus ride through absolutely stunning scenery (unfortunately it got dark at some point).

On the road to San Pedro de Atacama

We now had only 5 days left before we had to drop off the van in San Pedro, over 1200km away. So on the day after the match, we wanted to get to the Elqui Valley for some star gazing and a tour in Mamalluca observatory.
By the time we had packed up all our things, said our goodbyes and were ready to go, it was nearly 2pm and we had a good 6 hours of driving to do. The observatory tour was to start at 8:30pm, but we had been told to get there for 8pm and buy our tickets. We were doing well for time, the motorway wasn’t too busy when everything suddenly stopped… A lorry had slid sideways after a bend and was now blocking every available lane going north. After a little while of just waiting, we saw some cars go back a little bit and take a side road. We followed some of them to the top of a hill, where an ambulance was parked saying it was very steep and narrow and they would not be going further. A line of cars formed while people got out to look at the road, deciding whether to take the risk… In the end, we decided to give it a shot. It wasn’t the steepest we’ve driven down on this trip, but this was mainly sand and there were two really, really narrow bends were it felt like we could just slide off the side any second. But we managed to get round at snail’s pace and I’m sure once the van appeared on the other side, some more cars were encouraged to try!
We joined the (very empty) motorway again a bit later, but were by now running​ late for our tour. For the rest of the afternoon, we caned the van down the motorway at 130/140 km/h and then overland to Vicuña as fast as we could. The guys in Santiago had tried to call the observatory for us, but nobody had picked up. We got to the ticket office at 8:39pm and thank god, the group had not left (they were still loading people into vans). So I very quickly bought our tickets and then we followed the tour bus up the hill and got to do our tour.
It’s a shame it was nearly full moon, as it meant that the stars were not as visible as normally in that area, but our guide clearly loved his job and kept us entertained and informed for 3 hours while we waited our turns on the telescope to see different stars. He also took pictures of the moon on everybody’s mobiles through one of the weaker telescopes.


Unfortunately, getting there late had meant that we didn’t have time for dinner in the village, and when the tour find ished at 11:30pm we couldn’t really be bothered anyway, so we just had some biscuits before bed.
The next day was nothing but driving again, 7 hours to a national park where we planned to stay the night. No accidents this time, at least! We spent the night on a parking lot by a beautiful beach and enjoyed the full moon.

 

More driving the next day – we had another 650km to cover. We decided to camp in the Valle del Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley) a bit outside of San Pedro. We got there late, in the dark, swearing about the state of the road. But how it was worth it, because this was the view in the morning:

We visited the Valle de la Luna during the day, as well as book a tour from San Pedro to Uyuni in Bolivia for Friday (we’re dropping the van off on Thursday :(…).

Our last night in the van we spent near Laguna Chaxa, where we had watched the sunset and some flamingoes. And of course, because it was the last night, we got stuck in the sand! Fortunately, some other visitors and the park guides helped push us out 🙂

So! It looks I’m finally, for once, up to date. We’re currently in San Pedro, watching Manchester United play Anderlecht; we’ve already exchanged money and done our shopping for tomorrow  (leaving at 7am); we can pick up our washed clothes this evening… Now all that’s left is get Oscar a hat (I’m trying to convince him to get a traveller fabric one – the woven kind that many hippie travellers seem to favour ;). Until next time from Bolivia!

 

Santiago

We were headed to Santiago mainly to see Camila and Gabriel, who had couchsurfed with us in London just a few months earlier during a trip around Europe. Gabriel had space for both us and the van, which was perfect… And we enjoyed sleeping in a proper bed and having access to regular hot showers!
We have been trying to watch a football match both in Brazil and in Argentina, but for different reasons it hadn’t worked out (Brazil was off season and the Argentinian players were striking while we were there). We had originally planned to stay in Santiago for a week, but in the end decided to extend by 3 more days so we could see Gabriel’s team (La Universidad de Chile) play in the local ‘clasico’!
We had a great time in Santiago. We got private tours, got driven around, played an old version of Billard with Camila’s dad, bought Oscar a new phone on a market where you could get anything from sofas to puppies, saw a street art open air museum, sat in the spot overlooking the city where Camila and Gabriel had their first date, got driven to a wine tasting (so we could finally both drink!), tried Gabriel’s homemade Cazuela (a sort of traditional Chilean stew), played many rounds of ‘Heads Up’, took a number of photos that can be used if the four of us ever decide to start a band, met Max again after Buenos Aires and Ushuaia, had ice cream in one of the top 25 places in the world (not sure if that’s true, but it was definitely very good), had many completos (a fancy version of hot dogs), went on a pub crawl with Anto who we’d met in Rio, took one of Monika’s friends who lives in Santiago on the same pub crawl and got told off by her the next day :), went to Santa Lucia and San Cristobal for amazing views of the city, went to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights about the dictatorship in Chile (very moving and thought provoking), had lots of wine, tried Pisco Sour, saw the presentation of a presidential candidate, made friends with Charles the cat who came to wake us most mornings, met Camila’s dog Freddie who Oscar tried to tire out by running down part of San Cristobal hill, went out in Bellavista, drove to Valparaíso and Viña del Mar for a day, and finally we went to watch La U vs Colo Colo.
And now we hope that Camila and Gabriel will come to London again soon!

 (Valparaíso)

(Viña del Mar)

 

Pucón to Pichilemu

We drove all the way to Pucón that day. It’s a strange place full of German stuff – there’s a German bakery, Omas Café, Kuchen on sale everywhere…
I was very tempted to try and join a tour to climb volcano​ Villarrica, but the weather was bad and it was also rather expensive. Instead, we decided to follow another tip the Canadian couple had given us and go to one of the many thermal pools in the area. The one we were heading to allowed you to also camp there. It was a good 2 hour drive from Pucón up the mountain on narrow gravel roads. Early on, we were stopped by an elderly farmer on his way back from the a Sunday drink and shopping, so we gave him a lift. Unfortunately, I could hardly understand a word he was saying! But I did get that after we dropped him off, he still had to do a 1 hour walk to his actual house… A bit later we picked up another old man about 10km from his home (people really do walk far!) and dropped h off in front of his house. We got invited for tea if we passed by the house again ;).
It was a pretty grey and rainy day, and once we finally reached the termas, it was amazing to sit in the hot pools. We must have spent 4 or 5 hours just sat in the warm water while it rained occasionally.


When we finally got out, we just cooked some food and went to sleep (not that there was anything else to do! We were the only people staying overnight). Next morning, we jumped back in the pool to wake up (there are showers as well, but they’re cold – i don’t think anyone ever used them) and then started on a few hours of driving.

Our first stop was a vineyard in San Javier, where we got a very interesting and private tour and of course a wine tasting (but unfortunately it was my turn to drive…).

(This is what earthquakes do to wine tanks…)

We then headed for the coast in Constitución and from there on to near Pichilemu. We stayed near a semi-private beach and had an awesome view of the sea and sunset.


A few people working in the hostel nearby joined us for the sunset and later invited us to a little bonfire on the beach. We had a spare day before we wanted to reach Santiago, so decided to stay in the area for another day. One of the people at the hostel was planning to go to Santiago as well, so we arranged to give her a lift the day after.
We spent a relaxed day checking out the market in Pichilemu and trying to find a particular kind of meat for Oscar, as he was planning to cook dinner on the fire that night. Once we’d finally found it, we watched surfers for a bit and then headed to our spot. The sky was so clear in that area that we had a really good view of the milky way and we just sat by the fire until midnight.