Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Porters on the Trail

These guys are absolutely incredible- human cargo trucks each carrying up to 30kg at a pace that puts daypack carting trekkers to shame. The most often heard word on the Trail is 'Porters!'. When that word is shouted from behind, you have about a second to get off the track and let the group of carriers fly past, carrying everything that is needed on a trip like this.

Inca Trail, Day One

A hideous 5:20am roll-call found us struggling for consciousness in the hostel lobby. However, despite the wicked hour we were excited to be embarking on the journey to South America's premium tourist distraction. On the bus we were introduced to our guide, Gilbert Puma (never has the name Gilbert sounded so cool), a Peruvian encyclopedia with a passion for archaeology and nature.

The starting bridge

Delay struck when, after breakfast in a nearby town, our bus became crippled and could go no further. While we were waiting for replacement transport introductions were made around the group of 16- our new 'fameelee' as Puma was fond of calling us. When the bus finally came we were taken to the starting point of our four day hike, where we bought sticks of eucalyptus to use as walking poles, had our passports stamped and set off. Behind schedule, but happy to be on our way.

Inca Trail drinks for sale

The first day of the Inca Trail is the easiest, a gentle ten kilometre up and down with the occasional pit stop for an Inca ruin or botanical lesson. We rambled into the campsite near dusk, tents waiting patiently and dinner already bubbling away on the stove. The food was exceptional, much of it better than the fare we've encountered back in civilisation. How the cook managed to prepare such handiwork for 18 people on a portable gas stove is the greatest mystery of the trip.

A sample menu:

starter: corn fritters with spicy salsa
soup: vegetable
main: rice, vegetables saltado (stirfry), fried chicken, soy steaks and eggplant milanesa (like a schnitzel)
desert: banana flambe
tea and coffee

We fell asleep under the influence of a carton of red wine with the rain beginning to drum on our tents. We'd been warned of nasty weather for this time of year, and as the pitter patter became a roar, we prepared for the worst in the morning...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Eating a Guinea Pig

Baked whole and served on a bed of fennel, what could be more appetising? I certainly wasn't going to try this 'delicacy', but Marc was more than keen. He told us it tastes a bit like chicken, but then, everything tastes a bit like chicken. There was no point to cutlery, the thing had to be literally torn apart with one's bare hands and ripped at with the teeth, yielding slithers of grey oily flesh. Yummo.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Party Hostel

A smoke machine is spewing fog through a strobe light, there's a bunch of drunken Irish yelling abut funny hat night and, of all the god-awful music on offer, Ace of Base is playing. Plus it's only a quarter past seven on a Sunday evening. Yes, you're in a party hostel. This one wasn't so bad though, because I got to wear the best hat.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Islas Flotantes

Back in the day, an indigenous group was forced to relocate from the mainland to avoid the nastiness of a neighbouring people. The safest place, naturally, was the middle of Lake Titicaca, and they lived there on a series of Islands that they created from the reeds that grow in the lake. These days, not many people actually live there, and as our guide explained, the Islands exist almost purely as a tourist attraction.

Our boat pulled up to the first of the Islands, where a portly collection of brightly decorated women grabbed our vessel and hauled us ashore. After a history lesson, we were free to be once again accosted by the women who had transformed from longshoreman into saleswomen of the highest western calibre. Their technique of asking your name and offering a soft handshake made it hard to pull away from their collections of trinkets, blankets and children.

Eventually we were taken from that Island by a reed boat, where the process of selling was skillfully repeated. Once broken free of the stalls, we were able to enjoy a spectacular sunset over Lake Titicaca.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Isla del Sol

The Island of the Sun is a baked and terraced mountain sitting in the glorious blue of Lake Titicaca. According to Inca legend, the Sun was born on the island, and the moon was born on nearby Isla Luna. We stayed a night on the evilly steep Island and began a running battle with a messy stomach bug that leapt between the four of us causing untold amounts of digestive system chaos.

Our boat has just passed trough the small gap in the background. You can see the captain steering with his foot.

The hotel

This is the moon rising over The Island of the Moon

Sunday, October 21, 2007


After the Death Road, we stumbled into the biggest, drunkest street party of the year in Coroico. Never have I seen so many elderly people completely wasted.

Sunset in the Bolivian Hills

Death Road Photos

Lake at the top

A crashed bus

Memorial rest stop

A macaw at the bottom

The Death Road

Us and La Paz

There is a stretch of dirt cut into the mountains between La Paz and Coroico that until recently held claim to the title of the World's Most Dangerous Road. Up to 300 people a year used to come to horrible ends on this road, hence the grizzly superlative. About a year ago a shiny new bitummen strip was installed on the opposite side of the valley, doing away with the need for vehicles to crawl around the slippery, guardrail-less curves perched atop hundreds of metres of rainforesty freefall. These days the Death Road is the almost exclusive domain of Gringo mountain bikers out for a day of supervised downhill death defiance.

Our party of four set out from La Paz and climbed in a van to the plus 4000 metre starting point. The road starts in the clouds and winds earthwards into a valley. The usual Bolivian roadside decorations of plastic bottles and nappies are replaced, almost in equal numbers, by crosses and memorials for those that didn't make it further. Skeletal wreckage of buses and other vehicles can be seen below this initial length of bitumen, and the cold wind stings your ears.

The scenery is bleak and massive; huge mountains covered in dark low vegetation are spoted with cloud. After a drug checkpoint or two, there is a chest-popping length of uphill (we are still above 3000 metres here), which Angie and Bre chose to negotiate in the support van (cheating).

The Road

This is us looking at the remains of a beer truck at the bottom of the valley

The real Death Road begins soon after. We left the bitumen, deflated our tyres and began the traverse down the loose gravel. By now we had left the lifelessness of the altiplano behind and were cautiously careening through the beginnings of the Amazonian jungle. Every now and then a single lane stretch of straight road would appear from the curves, and we could release the iron grips we held on the brake levers, but soon enough a bend would materialise and it was back to the overly cautious pace of a biking snail.

When not utilising every ounce of concentration on keeping from going over the edge, we were able to catch a look over the ever present edge and see the valley floor terrifying distances down. Our guide hurtled around the curves regardless, always keen to get ahead so he could snap photos of our steady descent.

Resting on the memorial of one poor biker who didn't get to the bottom

As the road continued our confidence grew, and Angie suprised everyone by having quite knack for steering a bike around the dirty, deadly curves. We rolled downward for about three hours, passing by waterfalls, rusting wreckage, memorials and slowpoke riders from other tour groups.

You're supposed to lift your bike above your head here, but our jelly arms were barely capable

By mid-afternoon we had finished and found ourselves lunching in a lush jungle resort, 3.5 kilometres below where we had started that morning. We could breathe again, and we had ridden the 'most dangerous stretch of road in the world'. High on achievement, adrenaline and air thick with oxygen we said bye to the guides and wobbled off to the next destination.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Witches Markets


'Hidden' in a alley in the warren that is inner La Paz is the 'Witches Market', where you can find (among the plethora of usual multicolour ponchos and bags) dried llama fetuses, stuffed wildlife and all kinds of potions. Whether or not anyone actually buys these oddities is a mystery- its well known that here, any kind of hook to get someone into your shop is valuable, and the bizarre goods on display seem to be bait to lure the tourist into the knickknack trap.

San Pedro Cactus drying out

Beady beads

The famous fetuses

Friends Arrive

It was on our second day in La Paz, while we were having breakfast, that Marc and Bre stumbled in. Much yelling and hugging ensued; these to were the first familiar faces we'd seen in seven months, and we'd been counting down to this day for a long time. Marc and Bre had travelled from Rio down through Brazil, into Argentina and then up through Bolivia. Long ago we'd decided to meet somewhere in Bolivia, and this is the reason for mine and Angie's enormous loop-the-loop through this continent. We spent the day catching up, exploring La Paz, getting used to the fact that we were all together in Bolivia and went out for a celebratory Mexican dinner. We finished off the evening in an orange nightclub, that fittingly, reminded us of Wollongong's pumping nightspots where it all began....