Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The Galapagos Islands

Words are completely inadequate to describe the Galapagos Islands so we thought we'd let the photos do the talking. Suffice it to say the Islands were everything that was promised and the animals, whilst not tame were amazingly unperturbed by our presence. Walking within inches of sea lions is unbelievable (if a little smelly!); swimming with them and playing in the surf with the babies even more so. Here's some of the highlights of the 100 or so photos we took:

Our boat 'The Angelique'

It's a Seal's life!

Marine Iguana

Land Iguana

Frigate male desperately seeks...

The majestic Albatross

Dancing Blue Footed Boobie


Ahhh! This one nearly came home with us

Balancing an Egg in the Middle of the World

Apparently balancing an egg on its end is quite tricky, but at the equator it's possible. Check out the photos, we have proof.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

All Inca'd Out

We've made our way now to Equador, but since our last post we completed the Inca Trail and spent 4 days chilling out in the rain forrest. I'll leave the description of the rain forrest to Gemma and will fill you in on our time in Cuzco and hiking up and down the hills to Machu Picchu. We left Puno (yay), actually it's worth making a small correction on my previous post about Puno. Lake Titicaca is actually quite interesting and we really enjoyed our time visiting the floating islands and spending a night with one of the families on Amantani island.

We took a tour bus from Puno to Cuzco, actually getting on the bus was interesting in itself, as the hotel that booked our tickets forgot to make the booking. When we reminded them that we were expecting to pick up our tickets, they gave us multiple assurances that it would be okay and we would have our tickets the morning we were to leave. The tickets turned up as promised but when we got to the bus station, we were informed (by some random guy that jumped into our taxi) that the tickets were not for the bus company that we had requested and the bus we were booked on left from a different station (and no the hotel didn't tell us this). Eventually we made our way to the correct station to depart on our bus.

The bus ride to Cuzco is about 9 hours long, but we took a tour bus which made 6 stops along the way at various tourist spots. Including (what is claimed to be) the most elaborate church in South America, a small silver smiths, a couple of Inca ruins, and of course, lunch. It was along this route that we had explained to us the basis of the Inca belief system, the triology of worlds, the upper world inhabited by the gods, the middle world inhabited by us, and the lower world inhabited by the dead (for the first time...).

We had 3 days in Cuzco before starting the Inca trail. Gemma and I have both decided that in Peru, Cuzco is probably our favorite city, it is very touristy, but nonetheless it is still quite interesting. It is filled with loads of ruins and historic sites to visit both in and around the city. We took 2 tours, one for a full day around a number of sites in the Sacred Valley and the second a half day tour through the churches and ruins within the city itself. By the time we finished we had seen the largest Inca temple, the most important temple, and the most important temples for the various elements (water, air, fire, earth) and had the Incan belief system of a triology of worlds explained, on average, once per site - so we were pretty familar with it by this point. We suspected our tour guide (who due to some coincidence was the same for both days) was a very strict headmistress in a former life, constantly calling for "your attention please" in a very stern voice and setting very specific deadlines "you have 2 minutes to take photos" and generally marching us round at break neck speed in orderly lines!

We began our Inca trail hike with a 2 hour bus ride from Cuzco to Ollayantambo (Km 82), where we were introduced to our guides Oscar and William. The Inca trail is broken down into 4 days. The first 3 spent hiking and final day is spent at Machu Pichu exploring. Of the 3 days hiking the first day is described as "easy", the second as "difficult" (the toughest on the heart and lungs) and the third "breathtaking" in terms of views but the toughest on the legs. As Gemma and I huffed and puffed our way into the campsite in the evening of the first day, we were merrily greeted with "no problem, first day - piece of cake", from our guide. We both swallowed hard, with an impending sense of trepidation of what was to follow.

I must pause and make mention of the camping. This wasn't really camping as we were expecting it to be - all smelly tents and freeze dried food. The company we went with (Peru Treks) supply 21 porters, 2 guides, and a cook for 16 people. The porters are simply a force all of their own, they walk or run the length of the Inca trail carrying between 15 to 20 kgs on their backs. The porters were made up 2 groups, some of the younger ones were at univeristy and training to become tour guides and were working on the trail to get experience of the industry, the older ones were local people (farmers and the like) who are looking to make some extra mony. All told the porters ages ranged from 18 to 64 and they are an unbelievable breed of human beings. We applaud these guys for the work they do - we wouldn't want to do it! Then there was the food, it was amazing - 3 course lunches, 4 course dinners and pancakes for breakfast. On the final night we even had a cake baked for us, in a pot, at ~2500m above sea level- unbelievable!

Onto to the second day, we had received nightmare reports about the trek on this day, "wading through molasses", is one description we were given. Fortunately the day was not a difficult as we had feared, Gemma and I both seemed to find our hiking legs and we were thankful for the time spent at high altitude aclimitising. That's not to say that it was a stroll in the park, the day starts up with a 5 hour uphill climb to Dead Woman's Pass, a vertical climb of about 1600m, finishing at 4200m above sea level. I now have a idea about how mountain climbers must feel, when they finally reach a summit, after spending most of the day staring at the constant upward slope, you finally crest the hill to get a view of the landscape on the other side. The remainder of the day was a 2 hour climb down the other side of the pass to the campsite, to stop for some well needed rest.

At the top of Dead Woman's Pass

The third day of the trek proved to be one of the longest and most spectacular. We made our descent, over 2 further passes, down toward Machu Picchu. There is a real variation in the type of landscapes that can be seen thoughout the trek, there are times we you could be forgiven for thinking that you were walking through the Waitakere Ranges (its in New Zealand), then you climb higher into a field of straw with llamas grazing nearby. Our two favourite parts of the trek were on the third day. One was the cloud forest where we hiking along the side of the mountain, but up so high that we were enclosed by cloud, so that it was not possible to see beyond the first few trees. This gave the whole area a very spooky, eerie feeling, not unlike Yoda's swamp on Dagobah (for those who've seen Star Wars - Empire Strikes Back). The other one was when rounded on of the corners, just as the cloud lifted we were presented with an amazing view, we could see right down into the valley to Urubamba River, across to the glacier on one of the mountains on the far side and off to the left was another Inca ruin (a terraced agricultural site).

Through the Cload Forrest

On the fourth and final day, having completed the lion's share of the trek, we were woken at 4am to begin the final few hours trek down the Machu Picchu site itself and unfortunately we were greeting coldly by the rain. The intention on the final day, was to hike to the Sun Gate, which is the first point from which you can see the Machu Picchu ruins. However when we arrived we were met by a wall of white cloud completely obscuring the view. Not lingering to enjoy the non-view, we continued down to the site. We started to feel a pang of disapointment, as we thought we would not get good view of Machu Picchu, but simply a mist shrouded view of some of the buildings. Our guide Oscar, took us for a 2 hour walk through of some of the more important sites (including the explanation of the Ican 3-world belief system, which by this time we could of written a university essay on). By the time the tour was finished, our disapointment had abated, the cloud had lifted giving a full view of the site. We spent several hours wandering around the ruins, as well as climbing to the top to get the postcard-style photograph.

Machu Pichu

Gemma and I were really relieved to finish the trek, just a little impressed with ourselves that we didn't kill ourselves in the process, and all told we really enjoyed it. We hiked with a really great bunch of people, who kept us throughly entertained during the non-hiking parts of the trip. That said, it was really nice to get back to the hostel for a nice warm shower. The trek brought to a close the Incan portion of our trip and after 4 weeks we have to say that we were quite glad to leave their 3-world belief system behind.