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Day 15 – Urubama River & Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town)

8 Apr

Started this morning with a white water rafting trip down the Amazon. Well okay, the main tributary to the Amazon – the Urubama river.

Started off with squeezing one more person in the van than there was seats, which by Peruvian standards meant it was almost empty.

Arriving at the river, the boat was pumped up by hand as the seven of us donned very fetching wetsuits and buoyancy aids. Slightly more concerning was the main train line between us and the river, and the fact that the local kids seemed quite interested in getting in on the action.

Yvonne (my designated swim coach) admitted just as we were about to get in the boat that her lifesaving qualification was only for indoor swimming pools, but happily reassured me with the upside down first aid kit that she was carrying. I’m sure elastoplast is useful when drowning.

The rafting itself started off gently and progressed to three or four different set of rapids. Twice the guide and accompanying kayaker pulled us into the side so they could go off for a cup of coffee – I mean rekkie – to make sure of the safe route down the river. Slightly disconcerting! Apparently we were the first this year to make it down the river, due to the water levels being appropriate.

Anne’s (dry) shoes had missed the bus to the other end, so the guide stuck them down his life jacket and them gave them to one of his friends on the first rekkie.

This was fortunate as Anne soon took a tumble into the water on one of the more entertaining parts of the water ride.  Sitting behind her, I saw her go over the side, still holding on to the raft and her paddle. I saw her go completely under, looking shocked. Still my only thought was “thankfully that’s not me”. Eventually Paul sprung into action and grabbed an armpit. I tried to help where possible but someone had to keep the laughter going and I was Des. She apparently gave herself a black eye at the time and ended up in a heap at the bottom of the raft before recovering and continuing.

After this much excitement we finished up and were treated to a nice lunch on a table nicked from the house we stopped at.

We continued on to Ollantaytambo, a nice Inca village rebuilt by the Spaniards. Spent most of the time people and dog watching in the square, but did manage a large takeaway cake for my second lunch. The others who had not been rafting joined us here, having not had any lunch at all. Shame.

We walked down to the train station carrying our overnight bags and boarded the train where lunch number three was served. Tried the local Inca Cola, which was bubblegum flavour. Coke has no worries there. It rained.

Arriving at Machu Picchu town, we were frog marched through the obligatory handicraft market with strict instructions not to look and head straight to the hotel – Gringo Bill’s just off the main square.

Had time to settle in and wash the Urubama out of my hair before setting off on a flag hunt. Not too long later and one was purchased, much to the hilarity of the shop owner when I asked for her photo with it.

The day finished off with a group three course meal – speaking mostly to Bob again. Must remember that when given chillies to add to french onion soup, not to.

Early start tomorrow to get to Machu Picchu proper.

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Day 9 – Sucre

2 Apr

At one point (4:30am) I had the UK emergency number on my phone and ready to dial as the hotel didn’t have a night service and I didn’t know where Jo was. Pain in chest was terrible and constrictive. Padded down to the foyer, but no one was there.

Eventually full sleep due to exhaustion. Jo promised to leave her room and number in future.

Not really recovered, we headed off on a city tour – appoint off at the Judiciary – the only capital element not lost in the battle with La Paz. Climbed a rather smaller version of the Eiffel Tower.

We headed to the top of the hill overlooking Sucre for a great view and a convent museum, where Franciscan monks were still in residence. Hugged a giant tree in the orangery (oranges are only orange in Europe/Tesco).

Negotiated a small artisan market before finding the artisan museum which had doubled the prices. Some very nice stuff but £40 was the cheapest, so no. Lots of red and black designs.

We then had some free time, which we made use of by buying ice creams – which Paul then promptly dropped on the floor. Ten minute rule applied. A tour of the square to find a place to eat lunch, via the chocolate shop, resulted in a very nice burger and chips.

Yvonne, Maxine, Penny and I  then headed to MUSEF – a folklore museum. It had some interesting masks on the ground floor and some other rooms upstairs with details of language development and other stuff in Spanish!

Moving on, we charged into a supermarket for water, missing the large red arrows on the floor and trying to go the wrong way around a one way system. I never knew supermarkets could be so complicated!

The cathedral was next on the list – housing the Virgin of Guadaloupe (the Spanish one, NOT the Mexican one – oh no) no photos were allowed.

Got back to the hotel about 4pm to discover that Judy had left a note to say that she was going to the dinosaur tracks exhibition on the bus at 2pm – did I want to go. Oops.

Started taking Diamox pills that Yvonne’s GP had given her. At least that what she says they are – if they are something else, this may be my last blog post.

Taking Jo’s advice and using extra pillows to prop me up at night. Hopefully, this should allow a better sleep tonight, if that brass band ever shuts up.

Day 8 – Drive to Sucre

1 Apr

Sleeping at the highest point – 4090m, well almost. This morning was another unproductive one, sleep wise.  Eventually fell asleep, but in the morning missed the city tour (apparently didn’t miss much) of Potosi – the main silver mining town.

Made it down late morning and took up the offer of oxygen from the hotel. Altitude sickness is not nice.

I staggered on to the coach to take us to the bus station where we were to catch a local public bus to Sucre. Jo handed out pasties for lunch with some rather spicy dribbly fillings. One nibble of a corner for me and it went straight in the bin. Stomach not up to food yet.

A three hour journey and we were there – arriving in a bus station full of lambs sleeping in the arms of their owners.

We fought through the crowds – only British people queue and we decided to blend in with the locals.

Our hotel was of the courtyard variety and only two blocks from the main square. The only slight drawback that I discovered later was that we were sandwiched between a primary school, with screening kids and a high school with a brass band obviously needing all the practice they were having.

After checking in to the top floor (again), I went for a wander to the main square. Paul was already reading a book in a leafy place, whereas I just wandered and took some photos.

Back at the hotel I discovered the top floor balcony and met Penny and Judy enjoying a bottle of wine as the sun set, in a beautiful vista, behind some very picturesque buildings.

We had a group meal overlooking the main square – Los Balcones – where the quantities of food where obviously meant for Americans.

And that is where the troubles took on a whole new turn…

Day 7 – Drive to Potosi

31 Mar

Early morning wake up – 4:30am to be precise, although this time it wasn’t from the hotel, but the stomach. The contents of last nights tea were deposited in the bathroom sink, which unfortunately had to be reached by walking barefoot over salt crystals.

Three hours later I did manage to wobble my way to join the rest of the group and headed on to Uyuni and a train cemetery. Judy and I shared a 4WD with Jo. Penny was asked to move to another one as I was still feeling a bit “precious”.

The train cemetery was a pile of rusting old trains. In my state, I didn’t fancy the swing strung between two carriages.

Moving on to Uyuni, there was an opportunity to change money and explore the town. I sat down next to the clock and counted the seconds. People watching was top of my list for today. That and not being sick again.

We found the vehicles parked what seemed like 5 miles away, but was only 4 blocks. They had been refueled and made ready.

The drive to Potosi was mostly uneventful, with the contents of my stomach staying in there. One of the vehicles did have a puncture – on the smoothest road possible – beggars belief after the hard terrain they had previously taken us over.

Stopped also for a scenic photo opportunity at a high river crossing.

Arriving in Potosi, the hotel didn’t do meals, so Jo ordered us a takeaway – chicken and chips and rice – they like their carbs here! Managed to nibble a bit before retiring to the room.

Day 6 – Salt Flats, Uyuni

30 Mar

Salt, salt and more salt.

We had another early morning start. Leaving at 7am, there was ice in the river and and they needed to scrape the ice from the inside of the windscreens. I was in the lead vehicle this morning with our guide, Dieter and driver Heime.

We started on our way, and were soon taking off layers as the day warmed up.

A few photos of the ostrich-like Rea and we stopped at very interesting large rock formations. Judy kept on thinking that they looked like “willies”. She was quite determined to find one, although she did admit to not having seen one in a while.

We were also introduced to a slow growing bright green rock hard broccoli like plant that they used to use for fuel. As it only grows at 1-2cm a year, it is now a protected species.

We passed fields of quinoa (almost ready to be harvested) and lots of grazing llamas.

We were offered a toilet stop behind a wall, next to the llamas, and a surprising number of people accepted! Perhaps it was the view, or desperation.

We took a detour along a river, and then had to use a “shortcut”, utilising all the facilities of the 4WD to get us out again. Yes, it was a man driving. Say no more.

We arrived in San Augustin and had a welcome break next to the bandstand, sunflowers and statute of a previous Bolivian president (that looked like Kim Jung Il) while Dieter tried to explain the Pacific War to us. Basically Chile is the baddie and the British helped.

An hour later, we were in an almost deserted mining town, called Julaca, with train tracks running through. The streetlights were on, but no one was there. Well, only a few anyway. Some of the group decided to investigate the out of town graveyard. Strangely morbid. Also found some copper sulphate lying about.

Moving on to the main event of the day, we drove around the southern parts of the salt flats, which we could see were partially submerged by the recent rains.

We drove on a causeway across the salt and then turned right onto the salt itself. We reached the end of the road when the road became water. We were at the most amazing scene I have truly ever seen, with reflections of the neighbouring mountains and islands being shown in the water covering the salt.

Having been told that the island we were aiming for may not be accessible we were thinking that we were about to turn around and do an alternative option, but no. The vehicles started out into the water, with no obvious road or indication that we wouldn’t drown. Thankfully it was only ankle deep and we drove through the most amazing world of water on salt. Eventually the water disappeared and we were driving on salt which was too bright to look at without sunglasses.

We stopped to examine the ice and for a group photo. Several photos defying perspective were also taken. We continued for 60km to an island in the centre of the salt flats (which are 3 times the size of Belgium) – Incahausi.

This island contains a lot of cactii and after lunch we climbed to the top of the island to see all of the salt, and lots of cactii. We also saw a rabbit and some poisonous wild orchids. Some of the cactii were more than 900 years old as they grow at a very slow rate.

Leaving the island, we drove for another 100km stopping only to plunge our hands into ice cold salt water to break off large salt crystals from underneath the surface.

Driving to the previous ice hotel, which is now a museum, proved am interesting stop if you were interested in smelly overpriced toilets and Bolivian tat.

We also saw some salt water springs where the water was cold – local farmers use this to bathe for the mineral content. The water comes from underground streams.

Salt was drying in large pyramids on the salt flats, next to the nearest town of Colchani, where we stopped to see how the salt is processed.  Also managed to find both Bolivian flags and a fridge magnet (made out of salt).

Arrived at the new salt hotel just before sunset. The entire hotel is made from salt, which makes it difficult to walk from the ensuite bathroom to the bed without crunching salt gravel.

Spoke with Rob from Kentucky before getting my wifi fix and dealing with the after sun, which is particularly needed today. Apparently I should be applying the sun lotion every hour, due to the altitude. Once a day isn’t enough then!

Buffet tea on Good Friday was chicken or beef, washed down with the local spirit – Cinjani and lemonade (Chuflay).

Tried out the hotel hammock, before deciding that more moisturising was required. Have spent the last hour trying to get the shower to stop dripping. Another early morning tomorrow!

Day 5 – Hito Cajón, Bolivia

29 Mar

Getting later – a 6:30am wake up call, followed by a 30 minute lie in, still gave me enough time for toast and a full breakfast.

Packed our bags and the minibus had grown a trailer to take as us far as the Bolivian border. We joined the queue to check out of Chile just after 8am.

After a slight problem with the queue we had joined, we rejoined it at the back. People were going to Argentina as well as Bolivia, but the border guards prefer to stay on the edge of town, rather than in the middle of nowhere. That means that we now have a 40km drive through no mans land until we reach the Bolivian border post at Hito Cajón.

Judy made friends with a dog she called Rabies. We had lots of discussions about previous or future possible holiday destinations.

All the drivers here stick to the rules of the road. With the highway stretching into the distance and absolutely no traffic he faithfully comes to a full halt at the stop sign! Would never happen in the UK.

Skirting a very conical volcano today. How the snow on the top still exists, I’ll never know. Roasting again. Jo is freezing, which she blames on low blood pressure. I am turning a bit red, which means I need to remember the sun cream today!

Road to Bolivia was quite steep, and the vehicle only managed 30kph. We felt that we could be quicker walking!

Bolivian border guards don’t do plush. We left our guide, Oscar and driver, Jonathan to head towards a small building in the middle of nowhere. Apparently this was Hito Cajón. Passport duly stamped, we headed for four 4WD vehicles.

I managed to sneak a photo of the border without getting arrested.

We stopped off at the next place, which was only slightly larger than the previous hut, only to be charged 30p for being allowed to use a toilet.

It was immediately obvious that roads in Bolivia were going to be somewhat different. Don’t think of roads, more of a general direction. “Keep the volcano on the left and the lagoon on the right” kind of thing. None of the 4WD vehicles took the same route as we journeyed on.

On the list for today were the white lagoon and then the green lagoon – both spectacular! I was sitting beside Penny who literally ran out of “wows”. She managed to tell us that she was speechless. There were some spectacular reflections on the still water.

We stopped for lunch at another hot springs and lagoon, where we didn’t take a dip, but did enjoy llama kebabs and quinoa. Look it up. Altitude here is about 4200m and this caused a small problem when trying to open coke bottles! They explode! Also tried some cocoa tea, but won’t be making a habit of that.

Next stop was some more geysers, but this time it wasn’t water but molten rock that was coming out. Lots of smelly fumes as well, which made it the ideal place to pass wind. Had to be careful to stick to the path, or we might have been stepping on liquid rock. Unfortunately everyone made it back to the cars in one piece.

We drove on to the red lagoon, where there were lots of flamingos. The red algae they eat is what makes them the colour they are. Two other types of flamingo were also there, but they live elsewhere, so are not so pink.

Also saw lots of wild llama aka vicqhuña, and some domesticated ones with colours in their ears, much like cattle at home – but far more colourful.

We arrived in Villamar – and drove to our hotel on the far side of the small village. It was wonderful – and a far cry from anything we would have expected. Modern lighting enhanced the foyer and it was very pleasant overall. The only slight problem was the low lintels on the doorways. Also the first hotel with heating rather than air con. It was needed. Highest hotel so far at 3600m.

Meal tonight was lamb and rice, although most were suffering from headaches and sore neck muscles due to altitude sickness and made a quick escape to bed. Not seen a single sheep yet! Worryingly.

We also met a young american man, Nathaniel, who was travelling on a motorbike from Chile to his home in San Diego, California. His Spanish put us all to shame.

Day 3 – Atacama

27 Mar

The day started only 4 hours after the last one finished, with a wake up call at 2:30am. An almost full breakfast had been provided, although the coffee was cold! It wasn’t enough to wake me up.

I hoped that I’d taken everything from the hotel room, as we headed for the bus to the airport. Only one drunk person spotted en route to the airport. That and an ambulance.

Check in was very easy, as Jo had already got our boarding passes for us – some of the group had also got them in London 3 days earlier! Dropped our bags and made it through to the gate, still semi asleep. Anyone looking for coffee was disappointed as nothing was open. What would you expect for a 5:10am flight. I’ve had to manually type that as my phone doesn’t recognise that time!

The flight to Calama in northern Chile took lees than 2 hours and the sun still hadn’t risen by the time we landed. Then a planed 3 hour drive to San Pedro de Atacama actually turned out to only take 90 minutes.  This is in the middle of the Atacama desert – the driest in the world, and we passed through a very barren landscape on the way.

Before arriving, we stopped off to take some photos of the salt on which this whole area is encased. It is normally hidden beneath a brown later of dust and sand, but recent rains (in the driest desert in the world!) Have washed this away and caused the place to take on a white and shiny appearance.

Most of us managed to check in to our hotel in San Pedro when we arrived. Basic rooms with no air con or TV, but perfectly passable.

Jo then walked us into town – the original nature has to be preserved,therefore only blue or brown doors are allowed, all buildings must be one storey and must all be adobe (or at least look like they are!) Population is just over 3500. There is only one tarmaced road. Cars stop for all pedestrians, which makes driving impossible. Place is full of Europeans.

We found the important shops hidden away behind narrow doorways – water, food, changing cash and several thousand shops dedicated to tourist tat.

Our guide left us in the square and we headed to the market for some tourist tat, where Judy bought a hat,after MUCH deliberation!

Judy, Penny & I then went to some more shops, where I found a flag and we all bought Empanadas – the South American equivalent of a bridie.

Sat in the square and fed the dogs the crusts, with Bob & Anne. Dogs still everywhere!

I then headed to the museum of bits collected by a Belgian priest who studied the architecture here – it was very interesting. It was cool, they had toilets, and a bit of history of the people and the area.

I headed back to the hotel for a well deserved power nap, before waking up in time for our trip to Moon Valley.

Oscar, our local guide for this part of the trip, was replaced by Rodrigo, who was a whole lot of fun – no really, he actually was!

We headed out and stopped for a toilet break while he bought the tickets and checked in with the national park security.

The first stop was at a salt mine, where we were allowed to walk on the salt – very different since the 40 minute flood in February this year. It will eventually go back to brown but is currently very white! Coping with the heat, dry air and altitude meant that we went very slowly.

One of the quarries could be heard cracking loudly due to geological changes and the salt was either razor sharp or very smooth, depending on how it was brought to the surface.

Back in the minibus, we headed on to the “Three Marys”. “Imagination” is the key to this and several other interpretations of rock formations! They did look like three rocks. There was also a pac-man shaped one next to it.

Moving on we found a rock amphitheatre with a “monk”-like rock – apparently, and the great sand dune, which would only be great if you’d never seen one before.

Several photos of active volcanos later, we saw the result of the February rain – roads washed away and a heck of a lot of salt brought to the surface.

Second last stop was at “death” valley or “Mars” valley. The Spanish words are very similar and the Belgian priest that named it wasn’t very good at Spanish!  It was definitely red though, so Mars is the more common name.

At this point, imagination was abandoned and someone actually thought they saw a Puma, which is incredibly rare. In the end the verdict was a wild dog, but I think Paul made it up and drew the tracks with his fingers!

Last stop was to overlook the valley, along with every other tourist in the area! Coyote rock (overhanging) was a favourite snapshot. We watched the sun go down and the moon brighten to a cup full of Pisco sour. Or two. Or three.

After we headed back to town, Paul and I headed off to Rodrigo’s suggestion of Adobe (a restaurant) for some food. Turned out to be an excellent choice, with a steak, onions and a fried egg complimented by too many chips even for me! I also tried the local beer. Just the one mind as we didn’t have all week. We were entertained by some locals on panpipes and the place had a great atmosphere, centred around a barbecue pit with a roaring fire.

Back in bed your another early start tomorrow! Sleep will come at some point! Probably April.