Everything Is Coming Up Milhouse

Lunch stop in the Andes

WHILE taking you to parts of the world you would not normally see, overlanding has a tendency to keep you away from the real world.

The appearance of WiFi has people scurrying for the sports results and, if it holds up long enough, possibly some actual news.

We have checked on the latest Brexit situation and tried to explain it to our non-British travellers, just not sure we have been able to report anything without getting more confused than them.

Far more interested in the rugby scores.

Calm amid any number of storms in Cusco

But every so often, the real world impinges on our journey. And all around us, South America is getting very real.

Behind us, riots broke out in Quito which forced the Ecuadorean government to backtrack on proposed fuel price increases.

Lima was in a state of flux with road blocks and threatened protests against the Peruvian government while Argentina – not many miles away once we have pulled the truck out of the river bed we are camping in – and neighbouring Uruguay headed to the polls today.

And Venezuela, officially still on our route, is in such a state the alternative option of heading down the Amazon to Colombia – remarkably, a bastion of sanity – is on the map on our tour T-shirts.

Far more to the forefront of our minds is the situation in Bolivia and Chile.

Both have been hit by protests, road blocks and turmoil which has forced one rethink to our schedule and has us keeping a watching brief on what lies ahead with multiple crossings between Chile and Argentina on the way south, not to mention departures and arrivals due in Santiago.

Most of the Horny Llama with reinforcements in the hostel bar

All that was a long way from our minds as we made our way back from Machu Picchu to our Cusco base at Milhouse Hostel.

Top of our agenda as we headed back via train and minibus from Aqua Calientes was getting dry, laundry, a shower, getting to the bar and avoiding sleep on the journey as part of the 24-hour challenge to stay awake for a day after our 3.30am wake-up call – some with more success than others.

Dry, clean and laundry crammed into bags for delivery, the final climb of the Inca Trail adventure carried us up the steps to the hostel bar to a wide selection of happy hour cocktails, shots won by throwing bottle tops into a bucket above the bar, chocolate cake, a variety of silly hats and a beer pong tournament which never reached its conclusion.

By the early hours the bar staff were not too keen on letting a couple of Anglo-Aussie survivors stay behind to watch the Rugby World Cup quarter-final, my 24 hours awake ending watching the game on Twitter while my roomie fell asleep five minutes from reaching the target.

Not surprisingly, the following day was not too action-packed – a hefty late breakfast (try the Gordo at Jack’s Cafe if you are ever in Cusco, you will not go hungry), a massage for aching muscles after the trek, some more sleep and a group trip out for a curry at the Korma Sutra.

Very pleasant and pretty restrained amid the first stirrings of trouble ahead. At least for most of us, those on the top bunks in our dorm were glad to be well clear from the fallout of one person’s night out.

Morning came too early for the late-night reveller as a convoy of taxis reunited us with the truck to make the way to our next stop in Puno, our base on the banks of Lake Titicaca.

Not that we stayed there too long – at least at this point – as we headed out the next morning on the world’s highest navigable lake. Very slowly.

Lecture on a floating reed island

Our boat chugged along, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the views over the next two days, soak up the sun, catch up on sleep, attempt to throw corn into mouths between decks, sample the local wine and work out how soon one of the children playing on the roof was going to fall in.

Our slow boat to nowhere in particular did have a few stops to get us on dry land as we headed slap into the heart of the tourist trail.

Well, sort of dry land, our first port of call taking us to a floating reed island to meet the Uros Indians who talked us through how they built the islands – interesting, once our rather long-winded guide had let them explain – before trying to sell us stuff. 

And transporting us to another island on an even slower boat.

Sunset over Lake Titicaca…

Back on our normal sedate transport, we chugged across to Amantani island, our base for the night where we were dished out in groups to our host families.

After fears of minimal facilities, our group – most of the Inca Trek veterans plus tour leader Danny – were pleasantly surprised as we found comfortable beds (if you did not move too much), a toilet and good food served up by our Mama for the night.

Meals were interspersed with a walk up to a temple at the top of the island – a steep incline which suggested the Inca Trail had left its mark on our legs, broken up by another lengthy lecture by our guide on the meaning of an Inca Cross.

Something to do with things in threes evidently.

…and sunrise

We were beginning to switch off before discovering a bar and alpaca on a stick on our way down, despite his claims the islanders were largely teetotal and barely ate meat.

The local falling drunk into the barbecue and the men drinking in the local shop until late rather ruined his argument as we headed back to our home for the night before heading back up the steep slope in traditional dress for a party or up the slightly less steep stairs to bed.

Our guide had another couple of chances to tell us more than we needed to know as we headed to the neighbouring island of Taquile for another steep walk and a rather less strenuous stroll around the island before heading, slowly, back to Puno.

Which is where the problems on the road ahead started to get more real – a group meeting at the hotel outlining a plan to stay another day to monitor events in Bolivia with a potential second round of voting in their election.

News of problems in La Paz – our first major stop – and road blocks drifted through as the wine flowed and more people descended, clinking, on one of the rooms.

We headed to bed with heads slightly spinning. Partly from wine, partly from altitude and partly from the prospects of what lay ahead – a run for the border or an alternative route via land or air.

All we could do was sit and wait.

The massed ranks in the middle of Lake Titicaca
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One Step Beyond

Ideas above my station in Arequipa – paired with a white hoodie, poncho took on a more sinister vibe

THIS blog normally looks backwards, but feel the need to break from that pattern.

Not that nothing has happened over the last few days, but what is coming up has been looming large since well before the start of this South American adventure.

Right back to when, against all my assertions to the contrary, the decision was made to tackle the trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

No, was not going to do it. Was definitely taking the train. No amount of asking or prodding would change my mind. 

Right up until, with only the last few daily permits for the Classic route remaining, some asking and prodding changed my mind.

Nazca Lines

So tomorrow morning, far too early, we head off on what promises to be one of the most challenging, memorable, exhausting, exhilarating and possibly painful experiences of the whole trip.

The first three days will take us up and down a route hewn into the Andes – the up is occupying most of our minds, although the down sections come with a fearsome reputation as gringo killers – before the final morning to reach Machu Picchu early on the fourth day.

Not all of us. Some are heading off on the alternative Lares route while some put discretion (and a fair amount of common sense) above valour and opted for the train. My current roommates Becky and Robby have done it before and are heading off on their own jungle adventure.

What lies ahead seems to have concentrated the minds and sent us scurrying around Cusco to stock up on supplies (via a rather lovely bagel cafe), warm gear for the cold nights (in my case, hiring a better sleeping bag) and knock-off North Face clothing.

Thankfully, we will not have to carry all of our new purchases – hiring a porter to carry a duffel bag up to 7kg full of sleeping bags, warm clothing for the evenings and assorted other gear may prove to be the best $40 spent on the whole trip.

That leaves us to carry our own day bags – camera, rain gear and essentials such as toilet paper, water and snacks – while the porters break down camp, catch up and run ahead, cook lunch, run past us again and have camp ready and the evening meal on the go.

Puerto Inka. Bush camp on a beach where we stole a fire. Twice

The tip we are sorting out at this evening’s briefing may not be enough.

Just hope they do not have to carry me over some of the bigger climbs, the longest, highest and most notorious of which comes on (and occupies most of) the second morning – Dead Woman’s Pass at around 4,200m.

Writing that again has me wondering about the wisdom of doing this, a common occurrence over the past few months.

Twenty four hours ago was all for pulling out – however frowned upon relinquishing one of the precious permits is – as a complete lack of sleep at an even higher bush camp and a slightly dodgy stomach had me confined to bed (and the bathroom) while the others explored the delights of Cusco.

Thankfully, was in a much better state this morning. Certainly a much better state than some who kept exploring until late into the night.

But clothes sorted, camera charging, backpack packed and stuff awaiting the arrival of the duffel bag at the briefing, there is no going back .

Have never been one for trekking. Did a couple in the distant past but preparations were confined to walks to and up Robinswood Hill – not exactly an Andean peak – and along the notoriously flat Gloucester and Sharpness Canal to at least break in my boots and get used to the mileage and a chunk of time on the move.

Arequipa – restaurant with a view. And a poncho

Shorter bursts on the treadmill with a rising incline added some extra preparation while a trek around a volcanic lake in Otavalo at the start of the trip suggested some of that effort may have paid off.

But there is little preparation for the altitude and sheer length of the inclines we are just going to have to take one step and one laboured breath at a time.

We have not been without a fair amount of acclimatisation over the past few days.

When you left us, we were still heading largely down the coast and nursing the pet bug which laid a few of the group low for several days and earned us a bonus upgrade to rooms at our stop near Nazca.

The upgrade came at a price for the healthy, a night cleaning pretty much everything on the truck – especially the kitchen – to see off any lurking germs and we seem to have shrugged off any lingering affects.

Condor at Colca Canyon – easier to photograph on the ground

Opted out of the big ticket item at this stop – a flight over the Nazca Lines – opting for a brief view from a tower, but did get tours of the Cahuaci Pyramids and Chauchilla cemeteries (complete with complete mummies) brought to life by the enthusiastic Janssen.

An overnight stop on the beach at Puerto Inka ended our time at sea level and we began our climb inland at Arequipa.

Don’t think we can blame the altitude (2,800m) for a sudden Jesus complex at our restaurant overlooking the main square, but when they give a bearded bloke the sole white poncho among coloured fellow diners, it can go to his head. 

Poncho returned, it was out to sample the nightlife of Arequipa which ended far too late for one of us while others were heading out far too early for an overnight trek in Colca Canyon.

Our Reality Tour provided a very different taste of the city, taking in a cemetery, day care centre for  children of single mothers, a stone quarry and market. Very interesting it was, but cannot help a feeling of unease when other people’s misfortune is used to lure in tourists.

Colca Canyon

The burger joint which kept luring members of the group back was far more acceptable.

A group of us were back in the minibus the next day as altitude came to the fore on a less strenuous trip to the canon.

Whisked out of Arequipa, we were taken up to 4,900m – it was all a bit quiet on the bus at that point – and through some spectacular scenery, any number of llamas, alpacas and vicunas, our first taste of coca tea and a dip in hot springs.

Our stop for the night saw us ignore advice to eat small meals in the evening and avoid alcohol at altitude but very pleasant it was too, good food served up by a very forthright French woman.

We were up early to be on the lip of Colca Canyon – a mile down and the second deepest on the earth – to watch condors taking flight on the thermals before winding our way through spectacular scenery to our meeting point with the truck and the rest of the reunited group.

What became known as Tomato Soup Bush Camp. At around 4,500m

At least that was the plan, while we were waiting and watching a llama spit at a group of tourists when they were not so keen to share their lunch with him, the truck was undergoing a few mechanical problems.

Patched up and back on the road, the delay put the night’s planned bush camp out of reach and forced us to find a new location – turning up a path and climbing to find a bit of flattish land well in excess of 4,000m.

It made for a difficult night – not least for cook group – in the wind as several of us struggled at the height and sparked my less than pristine arrival in Cusco.

But hey, there’s nothing major coming up at altitude is there?

Cusco
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