Sunday, 18 May 2008

Coca Tea

We keep talking about coca tea and so I thought we should explain a little. The leaves when refined by the drug cartels become Cocaine, but don´t worry in their original state they are completely legal and do not have any where near the same effects as the drug!

The leaves are chewed by the locals to give a mild stimulant (a bit like drinking a caffiene drink) and are made into tea and various toffees and sweets. Coca leaves are reputed to have medicinal qualities and also help immensely with the effects of altitude sickness. The leaves when chewed on their own are extremely bitter and so neither of us liked them much when we were offered them. The tea is very simply made by putting some dried leaves in a mug, adding hot water and lots of sugar to get rid of the bitterness. It basically tastes like leaves in hot water and is not my favourite thing in the world, but believe me when suffering from the altitude you´ll drink anything to make it go away. It´s an acquired taste!

The Peruvian govenment is making noises about outlawing the cultivation of these leaves that have been farmed for 1000´s of years for reasons far removed from making recreational drugs (although this is a main reason for production now) and this is creating an uproar among the population. It is an unfortunate fact that farmers in Peru earn a pittance for growing coffee and fruit, but can earn a liveable wage growing coca for sale to the drug cartels - a similar problem to the growing of poppies in Afghanistan.

Boring, Boring Puno

We arrived in Puno 4 days ago and was hit by the hammerblow of altitude sickness. Puno sits at 3830m above sea level and we spent most of the afternoon downing cups of coca tea in a effort to stave off the headaches and nausea. We felt better the following day, so decided to have a look around the town, but due to a South American political summit in Lima most of Peru was given a couple of days holiday. Some of the citizens of Puno decided to use their free time to launch a protest march due to inflation (1KG of rice has gone from $0.50 to $1.80), therefore everything was shut. Puno is a really small town on the edge of Lake Titicaca and there really isn't all that much to do even when everything is open, so with most things shut we managed to pick up a couple of post cards and spent most of the day holed up in the hotel room.

The following day we took a trip to see the floating reed islands and stayed overnight with a local family on Ilsa Amantanì. In the morning we left to spend the day on Isla Taqulie, including a 3km walk across the island, good practice for hiking at altitude when we come to do the Inca Trail hike.

The day after the tour we thought that we would try again to see some of the city, but again it was shut, this time due to a power cut that covered most of the town. Today we are trying once more, but it is Sunday so again most things are shut. This afternoon we are going to take a trip out to the ruins at Sillustani, at last something to do! Tomorrow we leave for Cuzco (yay!!!) on a tourist bus that stops along the way at villages and some of the more interesting ruins, it also passes right over the top of the Andes, the views should be spectacular.

Hopefully Cuzco won't be shut when we get there.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

It´s cold up there!

We took a 2 day trip into the Colca Canyon, high up in the Andes and made one major mistake - we didn´t take any socks!

Our tour picked us up and we started to climb into the mountains, and we climbed, and we climbed, and we climbed. We were very proud of ourselves in Arequipa, not having felt any effects of the altitude but this soon changed. After about an hour and a half of driving we stopped at a roadside cafe and I was having chest pains, had a headache and we were both having trouble breathing. I am now a huge fan of Coca tea (watch out for a seperate post on Coca tea soon) as it really does help. It tastes like leaves in hot water but after a few sips it´s ok. So a mug of tea, some lemon sweets and 2 snicker bars later we were feeling better and got back in the bus.

The Altiplano is beautiful, if you can use the term beautiful for a place that is really just rocks, lichen and moss. We stopped at intervals for Kodak moments, the highlights being seeing Vicuna and Alpaca (smaller cousins of the Llama) and spectacular views of the volcanoes and mountains. At lunch we both had Alpaca - they are very cute but very tasty too (apologies to the veggies among you!), and we went to the local market for some much needed socks.

I keep mentioning socks (or rather our lack of them) because Mike & I were quite unprepared for just how cold it was going to be once we left Arequipa. We had taken a jumper and fleece each but had left our socks and boots (and all other cold weather clothing brought for just such tempertaures) safely locked in our hotel's left luggage room. As we got on the bus and noticed everyone had boots on I had a suspision that we may have made a mistake and boy was that an understatement.

Chivay (the town we stayed in) at 3630m was freezing (like January in the UK) and our meagre jumpers and fleece just couldn´t cope. But 2 pairs of Alpaca socks (with pictures of Alpacas on them) and we were at least a little more comfortable - we´ll say nothing of the fashion faux par of socks and sandals!

An early start the next day at 5am (I thought this was supposed to be a holiday!) and we were back in the bus to visit 2 local villages and the Canyon. The villages were a little touristy but the journey between them gave us a chance to see what rural life is really like. Donkeys used for transport, fields ploughed by hand and generally a way of life we couldn´t imagine, way up in the mountains. The highlight of the day was going to the Cruz del Condor, going to the look out point over the 1200m drop and waiting patiently to see if any Condors would appear (something I doubted immensely) and we were amazed that over the next hour we saw about 5 or 6 adult birds, some within just a few metres of us. A truely awesome sight, watching them glide on the thermals.

Into the Andes

I just have to re-iterate how awful that bus journey was! The Peruvians have a need for incessent noise and the buses play traditional music and films constantly. Traditional music is not what you need at 7am after an almost sleepless night on a bus!

Anyway we arrived in Arequipa - the white city - very beautiful as all the buildings are made from white volcanic stone (however we have been reliably informed that the name 'the white city' is because of the inhabitants not the stone) and is overlooked by two volcanoes - El misti and Chachani. It is a noisy place full of beggars, street sellers and touts trying to divorce you from your money at any opportunity.

At 2350m above sea level we are well into the Andes but have no signs of altitude sickness, which is good. We visited the Monastery which is almost a citadel within the city, a network of small streets, chapels and homes that have been inhabited by the Nun´s since the 1600's. A beautiful oasis within the city that exudes calm and quiet and is painted in hues of terracotta, blue and white representing the earth, the heavens, and innocence and purity. It was a welcome break from the madness just outside the walls!

Our next excursion was to the museum dedicated to 'Juanita' the ice mummy found 15 years ago in the mountains in the south of Peru by a climbing expedition. She was about 12 years old when she was offered as a sacrifice by the Incas to appease the mountain gods and has been frozen in the ice for 1000's of years. It was a little gruesome especially as once she was found the expedition group went back up the mountain and found two more girls aged 6 & 8 years old and literally dug them out of their graves. It seemed almost as barbaric as the blows to the head the girls received to kill them.

We´re a bit bored of the food here now as most of the restaurants are aimed solely at the tourists and all offer the same fare of burgers, pizzas and pasta. There´s not much chance to sample the local food as the 'locals' restaurants are a bit too intimidating to enter and we don´t trust the street vendors or small takeaway places - they look like an open invitation for food poisoning if you ask me!

The Lines of Nasca

We´re more than a little behind on our posts at the moment. We spent a couple of days in the small town off Nasca in the Peruvian desert. The main attraction in this area is the mysterious Nasca lines. They were made approximately 1500 years ago, but were only discovered in the 1930s, as they can only be seen from the air. There are numerous theories regarding the purpose of the lines, ranging from offerings to various gods to alien landing sites. Gemma thinks that they are just ancient graffitti. We took a flight in a small plane to view the lines. An interesting experience and horrific for those without a strong stomach. So much so, that we have banned small aircraft from the rest of our trip. The 6-seat Cesna performed steep banking turns circling around a number of the most prominent patterns. It was a sight worth seeing, however they weren´t as impressive as the post cards we had seen. From the height we were at, they were a lot smaller than we thought they would be.

We followed that up with visits to a nearby graveyard established by the Nasca people (1000 CE), still containing some of the original mummies and an original still working aqueduct also built by the Nascans. That evening we embarked on the least exciting part of our trip. the overnight bus to Arequipa. After waiting for 2 hours in the bus depot for the midnight bus, that didn´t turn up ´til 12:45 we spent 8 hours travelling through to darkness to Arequipa. I don´t think I have ever been happier to get off a bus in my life.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Paradise found...

How can I describe the amazing place that is Huacachina: sand dunes hundreds of feet high, blazing sunshine and a lagoon surrounded by palm trees - a true desert oasis just like in the movies!!

We went on a dune buggy ride which was the best rollercoaster experience I´ve ever had minus the tracks! High speed across the dunes, up to the top and straight back down (Oblivion style from Alton Towers). After sending our pulses racing we were given snowboard type things to strap to our feet in order to board down the dunes - we soon discovered the best fun to be had was to lie on the board and slide straight down on our fronts - look Mum no brakes :-). I couldn´t have imagined ever having an experience like that, especially on my Birthday! It was then back to the buggies for more thrills and spills and we watched the sun set over the dunes - beautiful.

We spent the following day chilling out by the pool and worked on our tans - we look very pasty white and British compared to everyone else! We´re on our own now as the group from Brazil are on a tighter schedule so we are having to practise our small amounts of Spanish and sort ourselves out!! Mikes Spanish is coming along well and we are managing to make ourselves understood with a combination of Spanish, English and usually waving our arms about to try to get the point across - seems to work!

We will try to upload some photos very soon...

P.S. lack of apostrophes is not my inability to spell, but the absence of an apostrophe on the key board!

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Lima and beyond

Gemma and I have arrived in Nasca after spending a few days in Huacachina, a very picturesque oasis just outside of Ica. Our last day in Lima involved an excursion into the center of Lima. In Peru they don´t really have the concept of a bus stop. Just a vague area where the buses tend to congregate. You stand on the street and wave madly at the bus that you want. The bus will hurtle across 2-3 lanes of traffic including 10 or so other buses to cacophony of car horns. The bus will then stop (and I use stop in its loosest definition) as you jump on board.

In central Lima we did a tour through the San Francisco cathedral to see the catacombs. Followed by a nail biting ride up to the top of San Cristobar (a hill in the center of Lima). The tourist bus passed through some of less affluent areas of Lima and up the hill via a perilously narrow road with a shear drop on one side. This wasn´t helped by a 4 year old boy sitting next to Gemma shouting out: "We´re gonna die", as the bus went up one of the steeper parts. The view from the top of very spectacular, but served to remind us how bad the smog is in Lima. The visibility was went out to several kilometers, but disappeared in a haze before the horizon.

Rather than jump on a bus the following day, our hostel owner/taxi driver/tour guide offered to take us to Huacachina in his mini-bus along with 5 others from Brazil. On our way we stopped at Paracas to take a boat trip out to Isle Bastillas. This is a marine reserve on the coast of Peru, with the island playing host to a plethora of marine life including sea lions, penguins and literally thousands of birds. So many that some areas were completely covered.

Later that evening we arrived in El Haucachinero, the hotel in Huacachina, but more on that later...

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Update to arriving in style...

I thought I would add my two penneths worth as lady luck was certainly shining on us after our very early start and uneventful flight to Madrid. We joined the chaotic scrum cheerfully described as a queue at the gate for our 12 hour flight to Lima and as Mike and I passed through different desks both our borading passes were rejected at the same time. Fearing the worst, that somehow this was the wrong flight/date/gate etc we waited with baited breath as the ladies at boarding frantically typed into their computers and double checked our tickets. Finally both scribbled out the seat given to us at check in and nonchanently announced we had been upgraded to Business Class! In case there had been some mistake we left very quickly!

Our large leather seats in the centre of the plane adjusted to our every need, reclining to a flat bed for the ultimate in flying luxury. Not daring to believe our luck we were careful to conceal our shock and sheer pleasure from the other full fare paying passengers as we sipped champagne at take off!

After 12 hours of luxury we landed in Lima to a very pleasant 23 degrees but our relaxed states of mind did not last long. Pushed, rammed and generally man handled at the baggage belt we were painfully reminded that we were no longer in Blighty. High speed driving and a reliance on the horn to announce your presence to other road users and pedestrians alike seemed to be the only way to drive in Lima as we tore through what can only be described as the less salubrious areas of the city towards the cliff top haven of Miraflores.

Our hostel, Miraflores House, run by the fountain of knowledge that is Francis is great. A trightly wound maze of around 4 floors each squeezing as many roms as possible, it seems to go on forever, and all is painted varying shades of olive green - a cheap job lot of paint or a higher significance we are yet to find out. Francis overloaded us with information on where to go, where not to go, what to do along with numerous recommendations for local dishes that are "too good to miss" and testiment to his expanding waistline we presume! Armed with a small map and these gems of wisdom we ventureed into the city for the first time.

Hot, dirty, smelly, noisy and totally random are the first words that spring to mind to describe my first impressions . Cars with no emissions controls and drivers leaning permanently on their horns make for an assault on the senses immediately. Affluence and poverty sit side by side in the manner we've experienced before in other cities in developing countries; old and new provide a striking contrast from small corner stands selling groceries to the large, cliff hugging mall on the seafront offering souvenirs, clothes and the ever present KFC and Burger King to the descerning shoppers.

We had a lovely day, easing ourselves into the culture and ways of this new city and we think we have built up enough courage to venture out of the back packer haven of Miraflores and e xplore down town Lima today.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Arrived In Style

We've finally made it to Peru. We touched down in Lima around 5:30pm local time. Struck with our first bit of good fortune yesterday as Iberia Airlines kindly upgraded Gemma and me to business class. In all the flights I've been on it's the first time that it's happened to me.

Today we spent the day wandering around Miraflores, the area of Lima, in which we are staying. Nothing really exciting yet, just adjusting to the realisation that this isn't just a weekend and we don't need to see everything in 2 days.