Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quick Link

Here's a link to our Inca Trail Trek. We're starting it tomorrow.
Any thoughts and prayers on Thursday to help us get to the top of Dead Woman's Pass will be much appreciated : )

Jan and Paul.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Most Dangerous Road and on to Peru

While we were in La Paz (it seems like ages ago) we decided to cycle down the World's Most Dangerous Road. It is a 64km long stretch of twisting dirt road that is cut into the side of a mountain and descends over 3,400m from start to finish. To the right, there is a towering cliff face with occasional rock overhangs and waterfalls washing the road away, to the left, a sheer drop of over 1,000m (3,300 ft.) And as luck would have it, it's the only road in Bolivia where they drive on the left, meaning we had to ride along the edge of the road, right beside the death-defying drop!

We had a fantastic day, although we were aching the day afterwards. At least the only thing we had to do was sit on a bus that took us over the border to the Peruvian town of Puno. The main attraction there is Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake apparently. It's home to this wierd little group of floating islands, called the Uros Islands, made from reeds. The ground, the houses, everything there is made from reeds. St. Brigid would have been proud!

We also went to Amantani, one of the islands further out on the lake, not a floating one, and spent a night in a homestay there. It was really nice to stay with Peruvian family and experience a day in their life.

While we were on the island they had a 'fiesta' for us and we got to dress up in traditional island clothing.

After Puno we went to Arequipa and from there did a side trip to Colca Canyon, a well know trekking area. For some crazy, idiotic, insane reason one of the most popular treks is to hike it down to the bottom of the canyon there, a mere 1200m descent, have a swim in the pools down there, and then try to haul yourself back up again. Obviously that's exactly what we did! Even though we were kind of aware of the stupidity of it beforehand, the point was really hammered home as we tried to drag ourselves back up the steep, winding, dirt path. It took us about twice as long as it had to get down there!

On the way back from Colca Canyon we stopped off at Cruz del Condor to see the condors that live there. Amazing birds that drift on currents of hot air, really big once they get close.

After Arequipa it was on to Nazca, where we  flew over the Nazca lines, in what could only be described as a toy plane.

They're fairly certain at this stage that the lines were created by ancient Nazcan people, not aliens as once believed. But they're not 100% sure why they created these lines that could only be seen from the air in an era when there was no flying. One opinion was that they were for the benifit of the Shamans (ancient priests). When the priests got high they believed they could fly and so the people created the lines to provide a bit of scenery for these drug induced 'flights'.

After Nazca, we visited Pisco to go out to the Islas Ballestas. They're nicknamed the poormans Gallapagos, and that suited us fine since we won't be going to Ecuador.
The islands were literally covered with birds (we got to see penguins, pelicans, comorants and lots of others), and the rocks were dotted with sealions.

Apparently they make a fortune from collecting guana from the islands, that is they harvest the bird shit!

Our next stop was Lima. We've had a lazy few days here because we got here a bit earlier than intended since we didn't go to Rurrenabaque. To be honest it's been nice to laze around and not really do much. We saw some of the city sights, but nothing really stood out.

Tomorrow we head to Cusco and have a few days to try and get re-acclimatised to the altitude before we do the Inca Trail. Then it's on to Central America, scary hown close to the end of the journey we are!

Anyway would love to hear from anyone reading the blog, we're getting as little bit homesick at this stage.

Jan and Paul

Monday, October 5, 2009

Pantanal and Bolivia

We spent 3 days in the Pantanal. It's an area of savannah grassland about the same size as France. We went hiking through the grasslands, did some horse riding, went on a boat trip, fished for pirhana ( and used them as bait to fish for alligators), and went on a jeep safari looking for snakes.
We got to see lots of wildlife. Loads of different type of birds including toucans, storks and blue macaws. Right in front of our lodge was a lake with hundreds of alligators, caipivara (giant guinea pig like things) and the occasional flamingo. We spotted the odd armadilo, deer, stag and monkey too.
The highlight was probably the 4 metre anaconda. Our guide nearly danced a jig when he saw it stretched across the road. It was unbelievably long and a lot heavier than it looked.

After the Pantanal we left Brazil and headed across the border to Bolivia, on a day that happened to be a fiesta. We ended up waiting about 2 hours for the border guards to leave the party and grace us with their presence. When they did decide toshow their faces they demanded that we pay them a bribe for showing up to their jobs and stamping our passports.

Then it was on to the Death Train. It wasn't quite as bad as it's name, well we're still alive anyway, and we got some sleep too, which was a bonus we weren't expecting.

We spent a day in wandering around Santa Cruz before hopping on a night bus to Sucre. It was posssibly the worst journey we've had so far. 16 hours in a rickety old bus, on unpaved dirt roads winding up and around through the mountains.Sleeping wasn't a possibility.
Sucre was a really pretty little town, but we were really struck by the level of poverty there, especially when we went to a local market in Tarabuco nearby. Most of the locals there barter for goods rather than buying with cash.

We went to visit a dinosaur park too. It's a World Heritage Site due to the fact that it has biggest collection of dinosaur footprints in known existence- over 5000 dinosuars left their tracks there. It also has the world's longest single dinosuar track. It was cool to think that dinosaurs really were there millions of years ago.

In Sucre we met an English gentleman called Simon. Because Simon has fluent spanish he has been able to converse with the locals and he filled us in on the urrent political situation on Bolivia.
Santa Cruz and the Eastern part of the country is very prosperous. This is in total contrast to the standard of living for the campesinos (indigenous country people/peasants) who try to eke a living in the harsh conditions of the altiplano in the west. The President at the moment is an indigenous campesino called Evo Morales. Morales' priority is to improve the standard of living for the campesinos, which is a very noble goal. However, he has rubbed quite a lot of people up the wrong way due to his policies and opinions. He is very racist against Bolivians of European descent and constantly refers back to the Spanish enslavement of the indigenous population. He is also anti- American (he has kicked out all American aid agencies, and some others as well) and is said to be in the pocket of the Venezuelan President, who is supposedly supplying him with arms. He has a very liberal attitude to the coca (cocaine) industry. He has increased permitted coca growth from 1 hectare to 8 hectares per farmer, he has asked for campaign donations in the form of coca leaves (to be sold on to the cocaine industry presumably) and he has banished the American Drug Enforcement Agency. In addition to all of that, he is underminig the Judicial system by placing his own cronies in positions of power and changing the procedure for becoming a lawyer and how the system is regulated. He has also changed election procedures to make it easier to hold onto his position of power. It seems like he is paving the path to a dictatorship. He dislikes private industry, which is booming in the east, hence the prosperity there. Last year civil war nearly errupted when some of the provinces in the east tried to declare indepence from his rule. There is going to be an election in December, and it's expected that he will be re-elected because the campesinos who make up almost 70% of the population are suppostive of his plans to improve their rural lifestyle. His opponents are apparently of the opinion that what's needed in the country is a military dictatorship. Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the rest of our lot don't seem quite so bad now!!!

After Sucre we headed to Potosi. The altitude there hit us a bit harder than in Sucre. At 4060 metres above sea level, we found ourselves breathless walking up the slightest bit of an incline. The main reason for visiting Potosi was to see the mines there. In the 16th century Potosi was the richest city in the world due to the silver mines there. Now most of the silver has dried up and it's mainly zinc there . Even at that it's totally hit and miss. The miners work as a co-operative and basically they only get paid for what they get out of the mine, which isn't very much anymore. The conditions in there are terrible, basic tools, manual methods and no safety precautions. In order to prepare themselves for such a hard workday the workers spend the morning chewing coca leaves and sipping 96% alchol until they're sufficiently anaethisised to enter the mines.

From Potosi we got a bus to Uyuni and took a trip out to the Salar de Uyuni (the salt plains). The landscape there is absolutely amazing, so different to anything else we've ever seen. Millions of years ago there was some tectonic movement that forced the land up and trapped some of the Pacific Sea high in the mountains forming a lake. Eventually the water in the lake evaporated and left this huge salt desert. Like all good deserts there's an oasis in the middle of it. It's called Fish Island. At one time is was part of a coral reef, but since the sea dried up so did the coral and now it's home to some of the tallest/oldest cacti in the world.
The people in the villages bordering the salar have different rights to use the salt there. We visited one village where they are allowed to take the salt and refine it down to salt grains. Then there is another village that can take blocks of salt that are used for building. On our first night of the trip we stayed in a 'hotel' (that's a very loose term) that was made from these salt bricks.

Salt Bricks

Bedroom in Salt Hotel

Dining Room in Salt Hotel

As part of the tour we ventured into the desert proper as well, as opposed to the salt desert. We saw lots of lagoons that were brightly coloured due to the minerals and algae in them. Most of them were home to flocks of flamingos. Because the whole altiplano area was formed by the movement of tectonic plates there are lots of volcanoes in the area too. The whole trip was really cool, got to see lots of wierd and unusual stuff.

Now we're in La Paz, the highest capital city in the world and we're hoping to go to Rurrenabaque today to visit the Amazon. Fingers crossed though as the flights this morning were cancelled because the grass landing strip was wet.
Ok so there's thunderstorms in Rurrenabaque today, and they're forecast for the next week. Our flight was still going ahead apparently but we weren't too comfortable with the idea of landing flying a toy plane through a thunderstorm to land on a grass strip. But more importantly we were afraid that even if we did land safely we'd be stuck in Rurrenabaque because if the flights get cancelled due to rain, then there's a good chance the road would be impassable too and timewise we just can't afford to get stuck there for a week. We'll just have to suss out if we can squeeze in a trip to the Amazon from somewhere in Peru instead.

Jan and Paul