Getting by with a little help from some friends...
I ended up spending five days in La Paz with Simon and the Swedish tigers, Marten and Viktor. It's a lively city with lots of steep streets and a beautiful back drop of snow capped mountains. The first evening we were there, we went to the Cholitas Wrestling which happens every Sunday. It was a very bizarre experience, like WWF with a twist. Try to imagine lots of feisty Bolivian woman dressed up in their traditional heavy skirts wrestling with Bolivian men dressed up in very tight lycra! There were local families there getting very enthusiastic about certain fighters and throwing popcorn, plastic bottles and watermelon skins at the ones they didn't like. During some of the fights, the women even threw the men over the barriers into our laps! The interval also descended into chaos when the local children and a few crazy tourists started throwing each other round the ring!
After making it out of the wrestling alive, the next day Marten, Viktor and I cycled down the world's most dangerous road, also known as The Death Road, from La Paz to Coroico. It is given this title because of the huge number of accidents that have happened over the years, mostly vehicles plummeting off the cliff edge. Don't worry mum, apparently it is much safer to cycle down! Having said that, I was petrified because you are literally hurtling down a very narrow rocky road on a cliff edge for 64km. You do have to be very careful because one lapse of concentration and you could fly over the edge and we did see wreckages of cars and vans that have fallen off. It was a brilliant day though, the scenery was breathtaking and I only screamed a couple of times!
We also visited the famous witches market in La Paz. Walking through the streets, you pass many colourful shops selling everything you can think of made from alpaca and llama wool, as well as llama foetuses which are supposed to ward off evil spirits from homes. We wandered past the looming grey walls of San Pedro prison which is run soley by the inmates and the only guards are two outside the entrance. La Paz was a great place to spend a few days - we enjoyed lots of good food at the international restaurants, had a couple of nights out at the local nightclubs and even went to the cinema to see Paranormal Activity 4 (which I had my eyes shut for most of)! It was sad once again to say bye to Viktor and Marten but I had to go and meet my G Adventures tour group to travel around Peru with...
So the last three weeks have been spent with some great people from my tour group and it's been very busy (hence no blog action) but lots of fun! We travelled across the border from Bolivia into Peru and spent one night in Puno where we drank Machu Picchu cocktails and ended up in a karaoke bar with lots of crazy locals! Little did we know it wouldn't be the last time in a karaoke bar as that was our tour guide, Nury's, favourite evening activity... The next day we were picked up in a convoy of tuk tuks and then straight across the pituresque Lake Titicaca to a homestay in Taquile. We stopped off to visit one of the floating islands made entirely of reeds and straw. We were greeted by some local ladies dressed in very colourful attire selling beautiful tapestries among other arts and crafts, and once the girls of our group were pulled away from the stalls we were back on the boat to our island for the night. That evening, we played football with the locals (and lost!), and then got dressed up in traditional clothing. This comprised of mostly bright pink ponchos for the guys and about five skirts each layered up for the girls as well as a fetching black velvet jacket, a good look! We then danced around the football pitch with the locals and tried to fling strings of woollen balls around as elegantly as the professionals! Our group of 13 then spread out around the island and went to different families for the night. My family was made up of a mum, dad and their three children, aged 15, 14 and a cheeky 6 year old. We ate a tasty dinner prepared by the mum of soup and vegetables with rice, then early to bed ready for our chores the following day. Up at 7am, we had a quick breakfast before helping out on our family's farm. First we had to take the cows down the hill to graze and needless to say I got the feisty one and had lots of trouble controlling it. She was leading me rather than the other way around! We also had to wade through marshland to retrieve the cows once they had eaten so myself and Sarah-Jayne were covered knee deep in mud by the end of the morning! We helped carry heavy stones to the area where the dad was building a new house and even had a go at milking a cow (not very successfully though)! It was a great experience to see how a family on the island live and learn a little about their lives.
Back across to mainland Puno and after another good night out we headed to Cusco the next day where some of us flew into Puerto Maldonado to spend two nights in the Amazon. We stayed in a beautiful eco lodge by the river which was surrounded by lots of wildlife - maybe a little too much at night when some of us (men included although I'm not naming and shaming!) couldn't handle the huge bugs flying at us left, right and centre without screaming and flapping around! We went on a night walk where we saw a wandering spider, the world's most poisonous, just calmly perched on a leaf in a pathway. Needless to say, we didn't get too close to take pictures! The nest day we trekked through the jungle, went on a boat ride and visited a local farm where we discovered that pineapples grow up from the ground and got to try lots of different fruit, including a cheese fruit although we only smelt it because as the name suggests it isn't very nice. We also braved entering the natural swimming area which didn't look too inviting as the water was brown and we were told there were sting rays there but we enjoyed an afternoon there nevertheless!
Once back in Cusco, we wandered around the beautiful plazas and markets before being reunited with the rest of our group and heading to a restaurant to sample a Peruvian speciality of fried guinea pig. It arrived on a plate, fully intact, looking a little frazzled with a pepper in its mouth and was then whisked away again to be shredded up like crispy duck. I was very apprehensive to try it but managed a mouthful of the very strong tasting, rich meat. I can't say I'd have it again but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be!
Next stop, the Inca Trail and what an incredible and memorable four days that turned out to be. After packing up a duffle bag with a limit of 6kg of essentials, we headed from Ollantaytambo to kilometre 82 to start our trek with our guides, Rosie and Evelyn. The porters carried the duffle bags plus our tents, camping gear and food and all we had to carry was a day pack. All feeling slightly nervous but very excited we set off to walk about 11km on the first day. The scenery was stunning, the lush green valleys and inca ruins below. We couldn't believe it when we got to our first camp and our porters had already set up our tents as well as a large communal one which was to be our dining room complete with a long table laid out with a colourful Peruvian table cloth and stools - I still have no idea how they carried everything! The food they cooked for us was delicious and again I have no idea how they served up such tasty meals. Sarah-Jayne and I were hosts after dinner and we somehow managed to fit seven people in a two man tent for an evening of cards!
The next day we prepared ourselves for what is known to be the toughest, 12km of mostly uphill and some very steep steps. We were told to go at our own pace so the boys sped off but I was proud of myself to be the first girl out of our group to get to the top of Dead Woman's Pass, about 4200m above sea level. I made it to the top of two passes in under an hour for each. The views from the top were stunning and you could see the Inca Trail path winding down through the valley as we watched and cheered on the rest of our group making their way up. In fact, our group was so fast that our porters told our guides to slow us down because they were struggling to set up camp in time for us! The next section was steep uneven steps downhill and it also started to rain so I was like Bambi slipping all over the place and at one point I twisted my knee. Got to our camp for the evening and was dosed up on various drugs ready to continue the following morning.
The third day, complete with a knee brace and some very supportive friends, I made it to the top of the next pass. At one point, I had Sarah-Jayne and a chorus of girls from another group singing to me to keep me going! Our guide wouldn't let me walk down the next section because it was so steep so a massive thank you goes out to the two guys from my group, Tim and Ging, who took it in turns to carry me down. The first pick-up into a fireman's lift made me scream loud enough so even the rest of our group down in the valley could hear! This day is the longest at 16km but also the most scenic passing by more ruins and walking through dense cloud forest. At lunch time, our cook very kindly presented us with a delicious cake that said 'well done amigos' on it which was devoured pretty quickly! In the afternoon, I walked as much as I could with the great help and support of Evelyn (as well as some more singing and the entire story line of Glee told by Sarah-Jayne!) but at very steep points two of our porters took it in turns to carry me. They wrapped me up in a blanket and had no problem running down the steep steps with me on their backs. It was pretty scary being bounced around knowing that just one slip and we could both go tumbling! We eventually all made it in one piece to our final campsite where we had a small ceremony to thank all our porters and cooks for the unbelievable work they did. They worked so hard to carry all our things with about 20kg each on their backs, run ahead of us every day to set up camp, cook us brilliant meals, pack everything away to do it all over again the next day. My hat goes off to you all.
The final day we were up at 4am and were the second group in line to go through the check point to walk 4km to the sun gate to try and catch the sunrise. I was very proud of my group to be some of the first people to get there and I wasn't too far behind; I hobbled through just in time for the group photos! It was quite emotional making it through the sun gate and catching our first glimpse of Machu Picchu through the mist down below. As the clouds cleared we continued on down to Machu Picchu itself and once again the views did not disappoint. You can't quite put into words what a magical sight it is and maybe it is made all the more special because of the personal achievement it is to get there - for some it is more physically challenging and for others it has more emotional significance but for whatever reason people choose to do the Inca Trail, you are all joined together at that one special moment overlooking the breathtaking ruins and luscious green peaks in the valley.
We toasted with a beer and then spent the morning exploring the crumbling ruins and beautifully carved temples surrounded by llamas and alpacas grazing in the grass, before heading into town, exhausted but proud, for our celebratory lunch. The Inca Trail was definitely one of the best experiences for me and was made even more unforgettable because of the incredible support, emotionally and physically from my group, the guides Rosie and Evelyn, our porters and even the other groups shouting words of encouragement to me along the way. A huge thanks to everyone again, especially to Tim, Ging and Tom P for carrying me (and my day pack!) at various points of our journey, to Tom R for his emotional support and to Sarah-Jayne for walking alongside me and being my personal I-pod. I truly could not have done it without you guys so thank you.