One Step Beyond

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 whole South American adventure.

Right back to when, against all my assertions to the contrary, the decision was made to join 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.

So tomorrow morning, far too early, we head off on what promises to be one of the most challenging, memorable, exhausting, exhilarating and, no doubt, painful experiences of the whole trip.

The first three days will take us up and down a route hewn into the Andes – it is the up which is occupying most of our minds, although the down sections come with a fearsome reputation as Gringo Killers – before the short final morning burst to reach Machu Picchu at sunrise 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 certainly seems to have concentrated the minds and sent us scurrying around Cusco to stock up on supplies (via a rather lovely bagel cafe for brunch), 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, smaller day bags – camera, rain gear, essentials such as toilet paper etc – 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.

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 by 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 now.

Have never been one for trekking. Did a couple back 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 good chunk of time on the move.

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

But there is little preparation for the altitude and the sheer length of the inclines which 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.

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 at least 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 can’t help a feeling of unease when other people’s misfortune is used to lure in tourists.

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 really came to the fore.

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 the 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 true, good food served up by a very forthright French woman.

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

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?

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Please Look After These Overlanders

ANYONE who travels for any time will find themselves faced with unravelling the local tipping culture.

South America is no different and the past few days have seen the familiar service charges in restaurants and guides alongside a few more unusual requests for a few Peruvian soles.

The guide on the open top bus tour who pretty much gave up on the English version of her spiel, the guy dressed as a monk who mysteriously threw himself off a cliff for our entertainment and the random guy demanding $5 for wandering in and singing badly as we ate largely did so without profit.

One of them may have cursed us. Or called us donkeys.

Thankfully, the curse does not seem to have come to anything as none of those targeted have gone down with the pet bug which has laid low several of our truck group.

We have taken steps to stop any further spread of infection, spending an evening washing everything on the truck and, more radically, avoiding any cross contamination by having a couple of bottles of local drink pisco poured into mouths (or somewhere near) in our night out in the sand dunes.

Perhaps we should rewind and explain some of that…

Last time we were chilling out at the beach in northern Peru, watching a huge pod of dolphins swim by and the owner refloating the carcass of a dead sea lion and prodding it down to someone else’s stretch of sand.

For much of the intervening time, we have been hugging the Peruvian coast as we wind our way south, albeit losing the glorious sunshine to several days under a gloomy haze which sits over part of the country almost relentlessly and seems to infect the whole atmosphere and national identity.

Our first stop was the seaside town of Huanchaco, where we found ourselves sharing a hostel with members of a Peruvian circus which provided a night out for much of the group in between a couple of visits to pre-Inca sites (and a supermarket trip which involved most people’s bags clinking and sparked an interesting jeopardy to reaching for a bottle of Coke).

The Chan Chan Ruins – a series of palaces made out of adobe (possibly photoshopped) – are the more celebrated but think many of us found the nearby Temples of the Sun and Moon more interesting.

A series of temples built on top of each other by the even older Moche civilisation, intact decorations made the whole thing easier to comprehend.

From camping in the the relative luxury of a hostel garden – a kitchen to cook and the overlander’s holy trinity of WiFi, showers and toilets – our next stop provided what was billed as the first bush camp of the trip, not to mention a maiden outing for my cook group.

Hopes were not high as we headed off the road towards the sea to find a rock fall blocking the way, only for Will to swing Spongebob to the left and through a narrow tunnel which emerged on a small beach, lined with largely deserted bars and restaurants.

One of those provided our base for the night, both for cooking (a biryani which proved very successful, far more down to Izzy’s efforts than my sous cheffing) and sleeping as, a few who opted for tents on the beach apart, we bedded down on the floor of the restaurant terrace or sun loungers.

From the almost deserted surroundings of Vesigue, a long drive day took us into the traffic-choked streets of Lima.

It is not a pretty city, not helped by those seemingly never-ending overcast conditions seemingly weighing down on everything and everyone.

Warnings of not heading out on your own after dark or taking valuables out were added to by the threat of protests against the government which saw the main square near the hostel fenced off and patrolled by police throughout our stay.

Not that we ventured too far on the first night, the clinking from the supermarket taken up to the hotel terrace for a few (well, quite a few) drinks well into the night, either side of the first appearance of a guinea pig on the table at a nearby restaurant.

Many of us ventured further afield the next day. We just wish we had not bothered.

Perhaps the traffic issues coming in should have tipped us off that an open top bus tour was not a great idea. Especially as it was not that warm.

There certainly is not that much to see – certainly not enough to fill four hours, the small statue of Paddington in the distance prompting the most excitement – and what there was the guide opted not to tell us about while we were anywhere near it or she lapsed into Spanish halfway through her English explanation.

She pretty much gave up altogether by the end, but not before what she seemed to think was the highlight of the trip.

Quite why the man dressed as a monk – any pretence that he was actually a monk was ruined by watching him change from sweatshirt and jeans in a car park – dived off a rock into the waves was never explained.

Maybe that might have prompted a few more soles being thrown into his collecting box as he dripped his way up to the top deck.

He had more success than the elderly guy who wandered, guitar in hand, into the small place roomie Keith, Lisa and I had chosen to refuel after so long without nutrition.

One pretty awful song we never asked for and he seemed to think the gringos should stump up more than the cost of our meal, lingering next to our table for several minutes before getting the message and departing with what may have been a curse and certainly was not very polite.

Having not made a great impression, Lima did redeem itself a bit with an evening trip out to a park across town to a park with a series of fountains and an impressive light show, followed by a curse-free late night assault on some local fast food joints.

None of us were too sorry to wave goodbye to Lima (very slowly, given the track and its sprawl) as bolstered by three new arrivals we headed off to a more traditional bush camp.

Celebrations for Alli’s birthday started early on the truck and continued into the night, largely undeterred by the gale blowing across our clifftop bush camp in Paracas National Park, although the wind marked a swift demise off the cliff to the first of several kites acquired en route.

Sadly, it was not just the aftermath of those celebrations that laid a few people low the next day as the arrival of the bug coincided with what was billed as Funday Sunday, a series of activities which ended with most of the group spending the night among the sand dunes.

First up was a boat trip to Iles de Ballestas, billed as the poor man’s Galapagos.

The fun took a while to get going with various people feeling under the weather and the absence of the planned English-speaking guide, our Spanish traveller Rebeca stepping into the breach and earning herself a job offer as things improved with an array of wildlife – the sea lions and odd penguin stealing the show from a multitude of sea birds (do you really want me to do the boobie gag?).

Next up was a trip to see how the local brew pisco is made and, probably more pertinently, a tasting session which saw a few of us succeed in downing rather more than our allotted amount.

What we had to do to get it must remain within the group.

With even more clanking from a few new purchases, we headed off to Huacachina for the final part of the triple bill.

After hurtling across the dunes in Mad Max-style 10-man dune buggies, we threw ourselves down them head first on sandboards before being whisked off to our home for the night, a makeshift camp in the middle of the dunes.

A very pleasant night was enjoyed by all – well, all of those well enough to savour it – as the pisco flowed, our hosts cooked up a wonderful barbecue and absolutely nothing happened involving a dinosaur onesie.

Well, not that we have got room for here.

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Creating A Pong

WHEN the list of great British sporting achievements in 2019 is written, Ben Stokes will be a prominent figure for his efforts in the World Cup final and his astonishing match-winning Ashes innings.

Over the next few days and weeks, the Rugby World Cup and World Athletics Championships could well throw up some major candidate. And Lewis Hamilton will earn an awful lot of credit for having the best car.

But one sporting success is unlikely to receive much recognition in any end-of-year reviews.

Granted, beer pong is not a high-profile sport but having discovered some form of natural aptitude, am going to celebrate victory in our campsite tournament. Especially as was not even meant to be in it until wandering past at a timely moment with no good reason not to.

The tournament was one of the highlights of our stay at our campsite near Banos, at least for me as a need to stay near the facilities limited opportunities to get into the nearby town, take the perfect photo opportunity on a swing with a huge drop as its backdrop or soaking up the hot springs which give the town its name.

Or canyoning. But did anybody really have me down for that one?

Did manage to make the short walk up the road to get soaked by the Diablo waterfall and to sample the excellent empanadas at a local cafe. Twice.

But much of my time was spent back at base where the camp dogs seemed to spend as much time on bodily functions – always a key topic of conversation in overland groups – as me. They were just less fussy about exactly where.

Which added extra jeopardy as we gathered in the communal area for an Argentinian barbecue provided by our hosts – basically huge piles of meat with the odd bit of salad and bread to break it up – and the first sporting battle of the trip.

Had originally opted out, but found myself in the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) place when somebody was trying to hand her place onto someone else. Just had to bend the rules slightly, downing mouthfuls of disgusting water with rehydration salts rather than beer.

Alongside partner Robbie, our Anglo-American team somehow became the ones to beat and charged to success, rediscovering our top form just in time to close out a final interrupted by the need to use the table to house piles of meat.

Having tackled the morning job of packing the tents back into their bags, transporting the kitchen equipment back to the truck and dodging the final obstacles left for us by the dogs, it was back on the road early for the drive to the city of Cuenca.

Arriving at the hostel was most welcome for all of us – the discovery of a happy hour for much of the group and a comfortable bed for me after a difficult day fighting off what, thankfully, seemed to be the final symptoms of whatever laid me low.

So come morning after the best night’s sleep of the trip, was considerably brighter than several others as a group of us headed out on a walking tour of Cuenca.

It is a very attractive, interesting city, littered with churches – 72 of them evidently – and pretty buildings. Which is why the picture most of us fought over was the whole pig in the central market which provided our tasty, cheap lunch.

While most of us were discovering Cuenca anew, for two of our number – my beer pong partner Robbie and wife Becky – it is familiar ground as they have an apartment there and they opened the doors to us and a load of pizzas to soak in the spectacular sunset. And a few drinks.

It was our final fling in Ecuador, until we return to complete the circle in April, as we made the run for the first border and headed into Peru.

And having bounced around at varying altitudes and temperatures, our arrival in country number two has seen the heat rise as our height dropped to sea level, which is pretty easy to gauge when the waves are breaking yards from your tent.

Our time at Walkato Beach has given us time to draw breath, relax, get sunburned (just one knee bizarrely), down the odd drink or two and spend a couple of evenings around a campfire on the beach.

We did break camp to head down the coast to the bustling resort town of Mancora – think a Spanish beach town with less neon, chrome and Brits (assorted other nationalities) on the piss. Well, apart from our day in and around a bar on the sand run by a guy styling himself as James Bond.

There was a diversion to some cook group shopping which crowded into the back of a minibus with 14 of us for the ride back to base and another night around the fire on the beach.

No doubt the fire will be lit one last time tonight. Before or after the pizzas we’ve ordered arrive. Before then, there’s a pool to be led around or a tent to be napped in.

It’s a tough life.

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To Pee or Not to Pee?

THERE are many great questions which have dogged mankind across the centuries. 

Is there a God? To be or not to be? Is the earth flat? Why are Coldplay so popular?

To those we can add, should you have a wee while floating gently in a large inner tube down a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon?

It was a pretty idyllic way to spend an afternoon, having been taken upstream from our base on the Rio Arajuno by boat – pretty much the only way to get around in these parts – handed a tube and a beer to wind our gentle (most of the time) way back to our lodge.

But the effects of the beers handed out off the boat as we drifted along for an hour or so raised that important question and threw us back to our first stop on the road out of Quito on day one.

The Mittel del Mundo museum sits on the equator which gives its name to Ecuador and offers an insight into the scientific effects of being slap bang in the middle of the earth and the experiments which pinpointed its exact location, together with a look at the lives of the tribes of the country.

As well as various native creatures, blowpipes and cultural exhibits, we were treated to the sight of sunken heads and – the one which had us all wincing and questioning our decisions a few days later – the penis fish.

Sure there was a proper scientific name, but all we heard while looking at the size of the exhibit on show, was how it latches on (male and female) when people use the Amazon as a public convenience. So penis fish it will remain.

Thankfully we had plenty more to flush that thought from our minds as we wound our way through the mountains, via a first communal roadside truck lunch, to the town of Otavalo.

The main weekly market which takes over much of the town may not have been on, but the smaller daily version was more than enough to lure several of us out and several tents are adorned with alpaca blankets.

After crafts during the day, one side of the square is given over to street food stalls at night and that was enough to attract pretty much the entire group to feast on huge sticks of various meat, cheese empanadas and sheathes of corn among others, all for a couple of dollars (there’s a recurring theme here over the coming days).

Day one, for a good number of us, came to an end at the Red Pub with free-flowing Cuba libres and some rather less pleasant shots enlivening a game of Jenga which ignored most of the traditional rules.

Sore heads or not, the next morning saw us up, tucking into huge plates of pancakes, chocolate and fruit and heading out on a hike around a volcanic lake – a prospect which would have stunned me as much as anyone else not that long ago.

One local bus ride and a journey bouncing around on the back of a utility truck to get there – the last part uphill and off road – we headed off from the high point of the three-hour trek (bar a smaller group who opted for the entire circuit) and all that time spent on the treadmill in the last few months began to pay off.

Considering the elevation – all above 3,100m – and the amount of uphill sections, my body held together and while there is much tougher to come (one lengthy ascent giving a hint of that) was pleasantly surprised at how well it went.

Certainly better than those unable to get a berth inside the trucks on the return journey who had to deal with a downpour of epic proportions. It certainly looked unpleasant for those of us who benefited from a bout of tactical politeness that ensured hanging back for the last truck saw us all seated in the dry.

A brief evening return for street food apart, there was little time to dry off and pack a day bag before we headed off to our jungle retreat for the next three nights – via a lunch stop in the town of Tena which introduced some of us to the delights of neck (recommended) and feet (not so much) in a chicken soup at another ridiculously good value roadside meal.

Run by an American and his wife, the Arajuno Jungle Lodge is a little bit of overlanding heaven – except when you are getting bitten by any number of insects, as my legs will again attest – on the banks of the river which gives it its name.

Between three ridiculously good meals a day, a stream of beers from the lodge and spirits we had carried in ourselves, games to while away the evenings and spotting any wildlife close to home – notably a sizeable tarantula in the roof above the campfire – we headed out on a package of activities over our two full days.

A trip down river to the animal rescue centre Amazoonico was enlightening but a bit depressing, magnificent creatures forced to live out much or all of their lives in cages and enclosures so close to their natural habitats after being mistreated by humans.

The weather took a turn for the worse as we headed upstream – itself an issue with the low water making navigation a bit of an issue – to visit a local community.

Among the parts of their lives covered, we discovered my future does not lie as a blow pipe hunter, the local drink chicha is unlikely to catch on in a big way back home (even with the tradition of using saliva to help the fermentation being ended) and that cooked grubs taste like smoky bacon.

At least when you first start chewing them. That taste quickly morphs into something fishy and then into something that basically urges you to swallow, spit or get it out of your mouth as quickly as possible.

Considering the first stirrings of an upset stomach were already evident, it perhaps was not the brightest choice of snack from those provided, but when in the rainforest…

Not sure the bug was to blame, but my stomach was enough to opt out of the jungle hike the next morning, but no way was it stopping an afternoon tubing. 

You are, largely, at the mercy of the river as to your speed and direction, the odd flailing arm steering away from anything potentially tricky.

Somehow managed to hit the current well before everyone else and shot off down river, eventually trapping myself on a tree to wait. Only to struggle to get free and back to the boat to pick up a refill beer.

The boat was needed again to prod me back to shore – and a very ungraceful flop out of the tyre – as the current took hold close to the lodge and we finally had an answer to that great question.

It appears the women did, the men opted against it.

Probably very wise.

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The Wrong Trousers

THE journey of a thousand miles, said ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (cheers Google), begins with one step.

Not sure he foresaw that step taking place at a bus step next to a petrol station in a Gloucester suburb, particularly by someone sweltering in a hoodie that was never going to fit into his overstretched bags and wearing the wrong trousers due to a bit of a packing cock-up.

Starting point

But that’s how my next adventure, of considerably more than a thousand miles, started in rising temperatures completely unsuited to wearing or carrying the hoodie and a fleece-lined jacket.

Both will have a part to play – even if only as a handy pillow when camping – in the seven months ahead as we meander our way around South America.

As will the unintended jeans.

A few days ago, they had been confined to a bag in a rapidly filling storage unit before being rescued from their fate – at least temporarily – when my best jeans had been set aside to travel in and the spare pair pulled from the storage pile had proved to be far too big after my weight loss and spent half their time soaking up puddles.

Thought they had been part of the last trip to the storage unit – right up until getting changed before heading off to catch the 444 National Express to Heathrow and realising they were the ones which had been neatly packed away and the intended pair were starting their hibernation alongside most of my earthly possessions in that storage unit.

Fully armed for an 11-hour flight

But if that’s the biggest packing nightmare of this whole trip, so be it – being very careful on that, given the strain being shown by my shoulder bag until a trip to a Quito market to get a lightweight extra bag to ease some of the congestion (a life changer in Africa) and a total repack before climbing on board the truck will do,

These jeans will do. They are smart enough (if you don’t look at the frayed bits at the bottom that have been constantly trod on), comfortable enough and not too big to be totally out of sync with my current waist size.

There are shorts aplenty crammed in the rucksack, just might be worth holding off on them until some of the bruises decorating my legs in a lovely range of colours have had time to fade.

No idea how most of them got there and, bar one right on my left knee, they don’t even hurt if you touch them, but the legacy of several days clearing and cleaning my flat and transporting its contents to storage.

Sliding the final wardrobe through the door and into almost the ideal remaining space was like the finale to the perfect game of Tetris, rewriting the top score and crossing off the final major item on my to-do list before the off.

Which is not far off. This is being written in a rather swish lounge, courtesy of my bank, which may help the jeans fit a bit more snugly and the boarding gate is due to appear in the next few minutes. For what appears to be one of the last two flights out of Heathrow this evening.

The to-do list is all but empty, one late issue about an onward travel document at the airport sorted – will elaborate on that and a possible amendment to the route in later posts – and it is time for the off.

Next stop Quito. Well Bogota, for a few hours, but you get my drift.

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