Here comes the rain

It had to happen in the end. After over a month of little or no rain, the heavens above Lake Titicaca opened and decided to dump it all on our heads in one evening. First lighting decided to strike a bit too closely for comfort while we were up an island mountain on a - failed - geocache expedition, then the floodgates opened, the winds picked up and the deluge started.

We were staying with local families at the time, which meant a tin roofed room in their house typically, and at 2 in the morning it was tempestuous to say the least. In pitch blackness with the rain hammering down like a thousand mad drummers above our heads, it felt like we were suspended in an iron box in the sky and the gods were trying to hurl us down to the ground. Maybe, I thought in a sleep-addled fug, I really should not have walked round that pagan temple widdershins three times and made a whole-hearted wish without appeasing someone or other first. This continent is fairly crowded with gods...

We woke to mild drizzle (which still sounds like the end of the world under a tin roof) and a Lake that was the subdued grey of the Atlantic. After so much of Peru had delivered big time on the scenic impressiveness front, Titicaca let the rest of the country down badly by being like Cleethorpes on a wet November weekend. Still, the homestay had been fun if a bit cheesy (you haven´t lived till you´ve been dressed in a poncho and whirled breathlessly round a dancefloor by a tiny, cackling Peruvian woman) and it was good to pump some tourist dollars into the bottom of the local economy rather than simply turning it over to the purveyors of Guinness and other beers; the happy look on the face of the three kids Rob and I were staying with when I gave them a Kit Kat after a simple dinner will linger long in my mind. We, as in the Exodus group, stayed with the poorest community on the island and even with our input and dollars they often only manage to make the three hour boat trip to the mainland twice a year. It´s one of those times when yes, tourism is probably destroying local cultures and traditions, but when those local cultures and traditions include grinding poverty, back-breaking work and low life expectancy, then sod it. If you´d seen those three kids huddled on the floor round the fire, you´d want more for their future too.

Happily though, I managed to climb three peaks over 4000m on the lake which means I don´t have to hang up my walking boots for ever and retire to my sofa and look at my Wii as a dangerous amount of exercise over coming months.

Talking of poverty, the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, is trying to wipe it out of Bolivia by a programme of nationalisation and redistribution of wealth that´s seen a state pension introduced, incentives for kids to stay in education, and all the large multinationals crying foul. So far he´s doing well though and Freddie, our guide round La Paz today, certainly thinks he´s doing a good job of it and, like a good socialist, I nodded along vigorously. Morales needs to do well though. If the poor everywhere are in chains, those on the outskirts of La Paz are bound and gagged too, while elsewhere in the city the paranoid rich dwell in sumptuous houses behind iron gates. The inequality of wealth here, as in too many other places in South America, can take your breath away.

And that´s quite literally. La Paz, at 3600m, is the highest administrative capital in the world and the Bolivian national football team keeps trying to host tournaments here so it can run rings round the opposition (unusually, the richer suburbs are at lower altitudes, mainly because it´s a couple of degrees warmer down there). Perhaps if England had played Croatia here we´d have had a chance, but we arrived to the news that England had lost that match and were out of Euro 2008, which was a nice synchronous closing of the loop of sporting disaster considering we left Quito 5 weeks ago after losing the RWC final. Anyway, La Paz is a cool city: very bustling, very Asian in some ways (Kathmandu seems to be the favourite comparison), and for some reason I haven´t done my usual freak at the sight of more than 10 people and a goat in one place and instead have really dialled into it and enjoyed the place. In fact, it´s a shame that I´m leaving tomorrow because I get the feeling I´d very much like to see more of the city and the country around it, llama foetuses in the Witches´Market and all.

But, a cab´s picking me up at 5am tomorrow morning and then American Airlines are taking me to Miami before I mount a Virgin for Heathrow. 10.25am on Saturday morning I´ll be back in England (though sadly with not enough energy or time to get down to Bath to watch us demolish Bristol that afternoon). After nearly six weeks, I´m ready to come back too. I´ve had a great time here, made some great friends, laughed like a loon on more occasions than I can recall and seen some unforgettable sights. But John Urry´s concept of Tourist Gaze turns into Tourist Glaze with me after a while, and I´m ready to get home, see all the people I miss, revel in the space, have a pint, stomp around the countryside, ride the mountain bike and relax in a good hot bath.

It might not be as romantic as disappearing over the horizon with a pack on your back and a paranoid guidebook in your hand, but truly one of the best things about travel is the bit where it´s over and you come home.


Cuzco, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

According to most of the guidebooks, Cuzco, nestled 3310metres up in the Andes, is a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah but without the fun bits. If you don´t get mugged you´ll get stabbed, if you don´t get stabbed you´ll get mugged and at weekends you can take advantage of a special local two for one offer and get both stabbed and mugged, which would be unfortunate.

The reality is very different. It´s a charming city with some superb architecture in a stunning location which the Incas originally laid out in the shape of a puma. Sure, there´s some tourist hassle to contend with, but you just shake your head, say ´No gracias´and walk on. Its bad reputation probably comes from the fact that there are a lot of gringos fresh off the metaphorical banana boat and on their way to Machu Picchu strolling about with gaping bags and wads of dollars in their back pockets. The biggest danger we found was that the local Irish bar (the highest Irish bar in the World allegedly) actually had cans of Guinness in its fridge, which led to a very long and expensive night when we first got here, not to mention bodily injuries caused to two of our number in the infamous Yorkshire Terrier versus Wiltshire Warrior fight-dancing contest.

It´s a great city to nose around with some fabulous Inca ruins in and around it and some great post-Colombian religious art too, including a highly impressive local rendition of the Last Supper with Jesús et al tucking into a roast guinea pig in the main Cathedral, and some archangels painted as if they were modern street kids in Santo Dominigo. The last in particular were strangely haunting, which probably explains why I started hallucinating them halfway up the first murderous climb of the Inca Trail a couple of days later.

We looked round the city, we looked round the various ruins dotted around the Sacred Valley in which Cuzco nestles, and then we donned our walking boots, got a coach to Km 82, and passed through the control gate and onto the four day long Inca Trail.

Whether it was the heat, the humidity, the altitude, or whether I´m just a lot less fit than I like to think I am, the first day was hell, pure and simple. The 12km along the valley floor was okay, but after lunch we started the 700m climb to our campsite and only about 50 metres up I died the first of what seemed like a thousand deaths. I dropped off the back of the group and first my head went, then my body and it all started getting a bit strange. Demons of past failures flayed me and tried to push me back down the mountain at every step as they reared out of the rock, before I then started seeing all my friends standing at the hairpins and cheering me on while the Santo Domingo archangels swooped overhead. When that got too emotional to deal with and I was on the verge of weeping, all of a sudden I started imagining my fellow overlanders as characters out of Á Midsummer Night´s Dream´ for some reason with Rob as Oberon, Shannon as Titania, and Leader Tubbs as a very Puckish Puck. Weird…

It was three of the worst hours of my life to be honest: every step a painful, sweat-soaked exercise in agony and near despair. By the time I eventually got to the campsite I was white as a sheet and utterly exhausted, and all I could think of as we ate the excellent food provided by our team of porters (the average ratio of porters to trekkers on the trail is a little more than 1:1) was that next day we still had 500m to go to get to the top of the 4200m high Dead Woman´s Pass and it might have to be renamed the Dead Stout´s Pass at this rate.

Thankfully, a night of rest and altitude adjustment got me mentally back on track if nothing else and, with the aid of an iPod full of righteous tunes as motivation, the two hour drag to the top was just physically knackering and nothing more. I even managed to fill my lungs and let out a fairly impressive ´Come on you Bath´ before it spluttered to a wheezing end when I got to the top, which startled at least two porters and could apparently be heard echoing off the mountains a good half hour back along the trail.

None of the rest of the trail was as bad, though it´s still probably the toughest physical thing I´ve ever done. The rocks the Inca used to build the path are uneven and treacherous so you have to watch every step closely, meaning that everytime you looked up at the view it seemed your ankle was in danger of turning over. So, you get into a rhythm of watching your feet with only the occasional snatched glance at your surroundings, which kind of misses the point a bit if you ask me. Still, I managed to catch a glimpse of a condor soaring on the thermals and the occasional humming bird snaffling nectar from the plants of the cloud forest crowding the path, and the views of mountain tops and valley bottoms when the clouds and mist parted were of a Hollywood special effects budget standard.

Cloud cover took the sting out of the heat and we were lucky that when it rained it rained at night, so it was good walking weather. Nevertheless, when we were up at 03.30 on the final day to get to Machu Picchu I´d had more then enough of walking in the mountains to last what (at the moment anyway) feels like a lifetime and my legs felt like half-set jelly. Next time, I might just get the bus. From the station at Km 82 where we started you can actually walk along the valley to Aguas Calientes, the village at the bottom of Machu Picchu. It takes about 10 hours and was the way that the Incas kept the site supplied. The Inca Trail which we followed over three Andean passes was a religious pilgrimage and only fit for the noble classes, which will teach me to get ideas above my station…

And so to Machu Picchu (pronounced ´pickchu´ - it means Old Mountain. Don´t pronounce it with a single ´c´, as that apparently makes it mean Óld Penis´). Make me walk over endless mountains to an NCP car park for four days and I´ll be glad to see it when I get there to be honest, but arriving at the Sun Gate just after dawn and seeing Machu Picchu laid out like a living thing in the saddle between two mountains was a stunning sight and one that will long live with me.

We got to wander round for a good couple of hours before the tourist hordes arrived from Cuzco too, which made the aching calves and quads well worth it. The ruins, the mountains and the cauldron of cloud surrounding us that morning all combined to create a scene of awesome beauty, but I have to admit I didn´t get the spiritual kick out of the experience that others did. Maybe it´s because it´s not my land. Take me to Avebury or to the White Horse and I can almost feel the earth alive beneath my feet, but for all it´s grace and photogenic allure, Machu Picchu failed to speak to me. Perhaps – along with the aching legs – that´s why I decided not to spend another 45 minutes climbing the perilous steps up to the nearby Huanta Picchu site, but instead disgraced myself by going down to Aguas Calientes and taking pictures of trains :-)

I´m writing this back in Cuzco on a Sunday afternoon, sipping fresh limonada in a café overlooking the Plaza and the Cathedral, with the pueblos of the city stretching up the hillside behind. It´s odd to think that in under a week I´ll be thousands of miles away in another hemisphere back in England (when I promise to upload the photos finally) and looking out of my windows across the paddocks and the Oxfordshire countryside to the Ridgeway beyond. But before that happens and life snaps back to normal tomorrow we head up to Lake Titicaca where, amongst other things, apparently we have a football match organised against the locals at 4000m. We´re fighting over who goes in goal already…



Not a huge amount to report. We’ve spent the past couple of days journeying through the Andes to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas. We’ve got a day here sorting ourselves out before we head out on the four day trek up to Machu Pichu but, in the meantime, some random observations:

Alpacas look cute but taste of liver. Best avoided IMHO.

Guinea pigs don’t look cute without their fur on and roasted on a spit, but I still haven’t quite managed to bring myself to have a nibble.

Camping at 4000m in sub-zero temperatures is not fun in any accepted definition of the word. Especially after drinking five litres of water the previous day.

Peruvians have extended the game of pool to cricket-like lengths by shrinking the pockets and increasing the size of the balls. Or maybe it’s just the altitude playing tricks…

Coke’s native rival, Inca Cola, is essentially liquefied bubblegum. We’re thinking of introducing a Malibu & Inca Cola forfeit for anyone that does something really annoying on the truck.

Condors make red kites look like sparrows.

Truck + big rock = slight mishap.

Irish Bars are even more prevalent than internet cafes, but you have little to no chance of getting a Guinness in either of them.

Peru is large and varied enough that it looks like most other countries at some point or another. Today was Scottish Highlands segueing into the Alps with a hint of high altitude desert and a touch of Chinese terracing.

21 people do not always manage to travel harmoniously together. Best make that a case of Inca Cola thinking about it…

Coca leaves are great at mitigating the effects of altitude sickness, but only because you’re spending the entire time wondering what that ruddy awful taste in your mouth is.


The Immodium Express

It is one of those immutable laws of nature that the English, whenever they congregate in foreign climes, will inevitably talk about their bowels at some point in proceedings. For our mixed crew of English, Welsh, Irish, American, Dutch and German brethren and sistren though, this has become almost the sole topic of conversation because of an outbreak of extreme gastric nastiness that has poleaxed about 75% of us. No sooner has one come back from the loos whistling “Solid as a rock” in a smug fashion, than another´s eyes start gently revolving and a Stygian gurgling is heard from their belt region. Not pleasant at all.

It´s made the trip down from Lima a bit arduous in places to be honest, especially the night in the rough camp where people were disappearing over the horizon clutching a trowel and a wad of loo roll with alarming frequency. Oddly enough though, after several days of feeling like death (including a day shivering in a hotel bed in Lima with a daft temperature), it took getting in a light aeroplane and indulging in some light aerobatics over the Nazca Lines for me to feel better. Others went green, but set me in the sky wheeling and turning over a desert and, it seems, I feel remarkably chipper.

The lines look like scuff marks from the ground to be honest – which perhaps explains why they built the Pan-American highway right through the middle of one of the figures in the early 20th century. But they are fairly spectacular from the air and cover a hostile area of barren wilderness area verging on 500 square km. The current favourite theory is that they were generated as part of a water cult, though I still prefer Erich von Daniken´s entertainingly crackpot notion that they were runways for alien spaceships. von Daniken gets the last laugh too, with one of the main glyphs being dubbed ´The Astronaut´.

Everything – lines, bowels and all - was thrown into very sharp context by the devastation of the area surrounding Pisco after the summer´s earthquake, with toppled buildings, many people still living in tents and piles of rubble everywhere. In places Peru is a grindingly poor country, and to see people with nothing actually lose even more is more than sobering.

We´ve since worked our way up from the coast (on a fairly monotonous diet of mainly boiled rice and dried bread, since you ask) to Arequipa, Peru´s second city, set at 2400m under the massive perfect cone of the Misti volcano. It´s cosmopolitan, chilled, and a nice welcome to the high country.

It´s also home to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, which is a definite highlight of the trip so far. A monastery that encompasses an entire city block, it was closed to visitors for nigh on 400 years and boasts an entertainingly chequered history until Pope Pius IX decided to stop the partying and kick the nuns´ servants out in the latter part of the 19th century. It was just one of those days when the ambience of a place hit the perfect light for photographs and dovetailed with a mellow mood and we wandered round in a happy daze taking pictures of geometrical designs and goggling at some of the imagery in the religious paintings (okay, that last bit was mostly me).

Beyond the city limits, it´s canyon country out there, but we´ve not done much in the way of adrenalin fuelled nuttiness yet due to the aforementioned stomach lurgy. I don´t know about you, but after 48 hours of not eating anything and then two days on boiled rice (I fell off the wagon once and the consequences were, shall we say, explosive), the energy for white water rafting or volcano climbing just ain´t there. Still, someone mentioned the possibility of mountain biking down from about 5000m up the slopes of Misti tomorrow, so provided I can get a vegetable or two to take their normal course through my digestive tract over the next 12 hours, I might be well up for that. After all, it´s downhill and thus not really exercise.

Anyway, hope this finds all of you who read it safe and well. Let me know what´s going on in your lives and I´ll try to write more as we head towards Cuzco and the start of the four-day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu next week. Will try to get some more pics up soon too.


Deepest, darkest Peru

Heading up the Amazon from Iquitos in a speedboat is one hell of a thrill. Even though it´s firmly on the gringo trail nowadays, Iquitos still has the feel of a wild west frontier town about it and, well… it´s the Amazon. And boy is it mighty. Over 3500km from the sea still, in places it´s well over a kilometre wide and reaches 20m deep in some channels. That´s a lot of water. I booted up the GPS to see how fast we were going and saw that home was 9081km away to the north east. At 50kph in the speedboat we could have made it in 7 days.

Arriving at Muyuna Lodge 140km away on one of its tributaries, the Rio Yamayura, was also a thrill due to it being a decent slice of luxury for a group of increasingly raggedy arsed overlanders. Welcomed with cold towels and fresh juice, with a cooked meal and a cold beer round every corner, the rooms are open but enclosed with netting so you can lie in bed speculating about exactly what just met it´s grisly end in the jungle outside your room. And, while you´re at it, what the hell is that flapping sound too…

Half the time, most of the carnage was, in fact, being caused by the Lodge´s cat a close encounter with which has probably knocked more years of the lifespan of the region´s tourists than the surrounding 1000 square kilometers of wildlife combined. I managed to commute my girly scream at finding something large and furry on my feet into a ´Christ on a bike´ just in time but it was a close run thing.

Sadly, for me anyway, the jungle itself was not quite as much of a thrill. Trekking through it was like walking through dense English woodland with a steambath in attendance and some mad scientist’s Giganto Ray turned on the wildlife. There was not much wildlife about either, probably all having been scared off by Tiddles the homicidal jungle cat. Still, we saw some pygmy marmosets and numerous other monkies, others saw some three-toed sloths and caymen, but biodiversity of an interesting nature was a bit lacking to be honest.

So, I sat about half the trips out, preferring to chill and ruminate in a hammock with a cold beer or two while trying to avoid activities that made me sweat like blinking too often. All that said though, I have now seen pink dolphins (shiny), swum in the Amazon (freaky), fished for pirhana (bitey) and eaten the things too (fishy) so it´s been worthwhile. Even so, bring on the mountains…

(Coda – the pressure release from being back out of the jungle led to one of those Great Lost Nights out in Iquitos which is now a succession of somewhat blurred images including a bunch of us encouraging tuk-tuk racing, drinking a bar dry of rum, throwing shapes in the church of dance, rescuing one of our number from a stick situation, and all in all ending up a sweaty, sticky, sleep deprived mess. Needless to say, my body is now a temple… ruined and of archeological interest only.)