This blog starts from the time I spent in Baghdad 2006 to 2007, when I wanted to record some thoughts and give friends the inside mail on a crazy environment. Since then, after some time out from a broken ankle and between times working in London, I've been on the road again around eastern Europe, NZ and South America. So far. This continues with the hope of telling anyone who's interested about the new places I'm seeing and the people who make them interesting.
On the right you can find links to previous posts. I need to figure out how to get the order of current posts right. Maybe having used this for a few years it's the kind of thing I should have sussed...
It was a relief to get out of La Paz. It was fun there for sure but a little crazy too. I'd hoped to see the legendary Uyuni salt flats on my way south but, Bolivia being Bolivia, some transport links were blockaded, and anyway I'd lost too much time in La Paz and needed to get a move on.
Last time I was in Argentina I never made it to the northwest, so it was to Salta I flew. It was great to be walking on flat, ordered streets again, and coming back to Argentina felt like coming home. Salta's a beautiful city too - I was going to say "wee city" but it's pretty big for a place with half a million people. Like La Paz, the size of the place doesn't seem to bear much relation to the number of people living here.
One thing that struck me immediately when I got back to Argentina, having been through Peru and Bolivia, was how European people look. It was the same in Colombia. The genetic makeup of people in South America is incredibly diverse. "Mestizo" is a term used to describe people of mixed European (essentially Spanish) and native South American descent, and are the prevalent ethnicity in Colombia and Ecuador (as well as Paragruay and Venezuela). White descendants are prevalent also in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Brazil is a melting pot of everything you could imagine. People from Peru and Bolivia, on the other hand, are unmistakably Indian. When I got to Argentina, I couldn't tell who was a gringo and who was a local, which was blindingly obvious in Peru and Bolivia.
Continuing the trend of turning up to places when there's something big on, it didn't get much bigger than this. The day after I arrived was the 200th anniversary of Argentina declaring its independence from Spain, so there was a big party all over the country. In every Argentine town there's a street or road called 25 de Mayo - that being the relevant date in 1810.
In Buenos Aires the festivities were attended by up to a staggering 2 million people - the biggest gathering in the country's history. In Salta, the party was somewhat smaller but it was nice to see people turning out and taking pride in their country, their history.
Salta was a great spot and next time (I'm sure there will be one) I return to Argentina I'll hang out there for longer as there's a lot to do in the region. I'd have liked to see some other places too, like Jujuy, Cordoba and Rosario, but time was running short and I was keen to get to Buenos Aires and catch up with friends from last time. It's strange to be here when it's getting colder as last time I was there in the sweltering summer. It's weird to think I'll be leaving South America soon and getting warmer in London. Just one last very random photo for you - I can't remember if I mentioned it in the blog last time but Palermo's wealthy hire people to walk their dogs. A professional dog walker can have their hands full....
Now I'm off back to London but I have another 2 months off before starting work so there may be some more entries to come...
Back in La Paz, I only had 2 things to cover, but because that place is made for partying, it took another week to do them and another week of partying before I made my escape. The first of those was the much anticipated midget wrestling, billed as "Cholita wrestling", featuring as it does women dressed up in traditional Bolivian dress, wrestling with each other and with men.
My expectations of some midget content had been managed by others who'd recently been and said we'd be lucky to see any, but I felt a little short changed, if you'll excuse the pun. Still, it was one of the most amusing things I've seen and worth the effort.
The guys were all dressed up in ludicrous outfits, the referees got involved with the "fights" and the cholitas got stuck in. All were "goodies" or "baddies" as you could tell from the reaction of the locals who go every week. They get the crowd involved as well, and it's encouraged that you throw fruit or whatever at the "baddies" when they're "cheating" or throwing things themselves at the crowd.
They'd throw each other out of the ring and jump off the ropes, use props as weapons, chase each other around the arena, and it was all just very silly and very entertaining. The sight of a Cholita jumping from the ropes (click to play below) was worth the admission alone.
The other compulsory thing on my list was "Death Road" - a long downhill mountain bike ride down what they say is the world's most dangerous road, And it's true - people can and do die on that ride.
It starts when they drop you in the cold and rain at 4300m, and you ride down 65km of sealed road, overtaking trucks if you fancy. Which I did. Then you start the hard part - another 3-4 hours of nearly constant downhill (obviously not as hard as it would be going up...), with sheer drops several hundred feet down - if you ride off the edge you're not coming back up.
Our agency had good bikes so I got more cocksure as I went. Probably too much. I expected to be hanging at the back and taking it easy but instead I ended up pushing it as hard as I could and taking corners close to the edge. I enjoyed that ride from start to finish and would happily have been taken back to the top to do it all over again.
The visibility wasn't great in parts the day we did it, but the scenery was still clearly amazing and riding through the mist close to the top had an eerie atmosphere. If you should find yourself in La Paz considering doing Death Road, pay for a good company with good bikes and safety gear. Plenty of people have accidents that don't involve riding off the edge - 2 in our group had minor falls - but your odds are better if you've got better kit.
The pampas and jungle tours are based from Rurrenabaque (or "Rurre" as it's known), an hour north of La Paz by plane, or 20 hours on a bus. I'd spoken to someone who went by bus, sharing their tiny bench seat with a family and their crate of chickens. As interesting and authentic as that experience would have been, the novelty would have worn off well inside 20 hours so I opted for a flight. Transport in and out of Rurre was tricky when I went. The flight I did book was delayed by a day due to the airstrip at the other end being too wet, and when we did arrive we found the town busy with people who'd done their tours but were still waiting to get out.
The thing was, apparently there'd been a factory planned for construction near Rurre, but the location was changed not long before construction was due to commence. The locals, unhappy that more jobs wouldn't be coming after all, did what Bolivians do best (next to striking) and blockaded the roads in and out of the area. This had been going on for 2 weeks before we got there, and they spiced things up by setting off dynamite on the roads to boot. All of which meant no buses were getting in or out, leaving hundreds of gringos to compete for the limited number of spaces on flights, on the days they were going. (I should make it clear here I have no problem with the Bolivians' appetite for civil disruption: it's good to see people exercising their voice instead of rolling over and accepting corruption and broken promises as just another thing to endure)
Another consequence of the blockades was a shortage of fuel, which made it harder to find an agency offering the tour we were after. In Rurre you choose between a jungle tour, which is said to be better for plants and insects, or the pampas tour, through more open terrain, which is said to feature more (larger) animals. Nothing against bees or trees, but it was the pink dolphins we were after. The agency we wanted had no gas for the pampas tour, but we found another which did and which was just starting up pampas tours, having in the past specialised in the jungle. Most of the agencies doing pampas go to the same part of the river, but this agency was going to a different part, and offered horse riding as part of the tour. We fancied something different so we chose them, and were the 2nd group they'd ever taken.
On one part of the river we had to stop and clear some trees that had fallen and were blocking the river, which involved hacking with machete and pulling all the roots and branches out. With alligators in the area and it being difficult to see below the surface, this was something of an added adrenaline rush.
It's amazing how your perception of an experience can change over time. The tour was great, and we had a good group, but at first I was a little underwhelmed at the wildlife. Maybe after the Galapagos I'd subconsciously expected there to be hundreds of pink dolphins waving us in with their flippers, and was almost disappointed to find just a few solitary ones occasionally breaking the surface, and certainly not hanging around to swim with us. No Flipper the Dolphin here.
But looking back on it, there were huge birds of paradise swooping through the air, we saw more alligators than I could count, the occasional capybara (a rodent the size of a pig), and of course monkeys, and some turtles too. So while it wasn't quite evidence of that concentration of biodiversity I'd heard about, it was still pretty bloody amazing. Back in Rurre afterwards, the roads were by now open again, but we were still stuck for a couple of days waiting for the backlog to clear. We had fun there and I could happily have been stuck there for longer, it was such a great little spot.
With the national strike over and the border open for business again, it was an easy 4 hours around the lake to get to Copacabana. I seem to have a habit of turning up at places when there's something significant happening, and there was a big festival in Copacabana this weekend.
Seemingly the whole town was out, involved in a carnival procession with marching bands and colourfully dressed women and men dancing in various uniforms through the town streets.
Much of the town was also on the grog, with the men huffing from cans between puffing on their tubas and trumpets. You could tell from each man's stagger whether they'd already done their lap of the town yet. The stoutly-built older women stuck to shaking their heads in weary despair at the pissed men and completing the procession with the slightly-less-stout-but-heading-in-that-direction younger women.
It was a relaxed spot and you could spend a few days here if not in a hurry. If I'd been able to come a day earlier as planned I'd have gone to Isla del Sol for a night, but as it was Sunday I was keen to get to La Paz for the live midget wrestling. Unfortunately, in the event we arrived in La Paz too late for the pickup, but I also wanted to be in La Paz to arrange a trip to the pampas, where apparently you can swim with pink river dolphins and see some of the most densely concentrated biodiversity in the world.
Flights for Monday were full so I had a day to walk around the city and get my bearings for when I'm back. It's the highest capital in the world, at 3,600m, and boasts possibly the world's least eco-friendly buses. Like many South American cities, the orientation is reversed from what we see in the West - the affluent living lower down and the poor neighbourhoods lining the hills. One such area - El Alto - sits up on the plains right above the basin in which La Paz sits. It began life as a slum but has grown efficiently and exponentially to now be an award winning city in its own right, with a population to match the 855,000 of La Paz, which is an incredibly small population for the area each covers.
Bolivia's 2nd highest mountain - Illimani - peeps out at you from beyond some of the streets, and in the late afternoon I walked up one of the northern roads to seek a beer at sunset and take in the view. I walked up.... and up...... and up..... and gradually became aware that I was not in a touristy part of town. I kept on anyway, for a while, but when I passed a bar populated by what looked like a biker gang, staring in disbelief at the gringo walking so far out of town, I figured it was time to head back.
Aside from the name, which I can't help but laugh at childishly, Puno's a good place to break up the trip to Bolivia. Sitting on the Peruvian shore of Lake Titicaca - the world's highest navigable lake, at 3,860m - there isn't a great deal to do here, but that was what the doctor ordered after a few post-trail fun nights in Cuzco.
You can take the bus here, and if I was being sensible with my money I'd have done that. But the train ride is said to be one of the world's finest so I had to see for myself. At $220 it had to be pretty good, and it was. The route snakes alongside the Huatanay river and up to, and across, the Andean plains as it heads south. It reminded me a lot of the Andean scenery when Ed and I left El Calafate to bus it towards Ushuaia.
You pass farming communities constantly, and one thing that was noticeable was that it was usually women, dressed up in the heavy traditional Quechua dress, working the fields. Now is harvest time, and you see piles of wheat in a wigwam shape, tied towards the top, standing like rows of sentries. Perhaps the way these piles point towards the sun is a hangover from the Incan sun worshipping days, but more likely it's not...
Kids run and wave as the train goes past, as no doubt they do every day. And no doubt they show the same unbridled enthusiasm every day that they did the first time. Which is great!
From the outside deck of the train you can sit back, put your feet up and watch it all roll by. They gave us a first class meal, and a "fashion show" for which read a couple of hot chicks were modelling scarves and gloves made from alpaca wool, which we were kindly invited to buy.
There was also some live Peruvian music but this was lost on me. I'm not the world's biggest fan of panpipe music, and Peru's the wrong place for me to be on that score. But all round, I got to see and absorb a lot more than I would have done through a bus window, and the food was amazing. Definitely worth it.
The main tourist attraction in Puno is a trip to Uros - the floating islands. The Uros people originally started constructing these raft islands, with their villages on, to prevent attacks by the Incas, which gives you an idea how long they've been there. The 42 islands are made from totora reeds, with straw huts sitting atop. They replace the reeds every 15 days, to stop the "ground" rotting.
Nearly everything is made from reeds. It's not all traditional, though - they also have solar panels and electrical goods like TVs. I didn't see a Playstation but you never know. They're chasing the tourist dollar now, big time. Every island has the usual array of stuff, bracelets etc, for sale, and they tried to have us believe, on one island, that they only get visited 3 times in a month. We saw 2 other trips that day, and I don't think they only take visitors one day in the month...
Apart from that I chilled out in Puno. I was supposed to go to Bolivia today, but there's been a national strike there for 2 days. I'm told this is something I will get used to in Bolivia - things taking an unpredictable amount of time. So the best bet is not to make any cast-iron plans. It is what it is, and I don't have any meetings to make on Monday morning....
Bidding the islands a groggy farewell, I flew to Lima for a couple of quiet nights. Most travellers give Lima a bad rap but it seemed okay to me. It's a huge city and it's not easy to get around the sights, which may be why people complain, but I'd like to come back another time and spend a few days here.
Cuzco was a big change of climate and change of scene after a couple of weeks on the islands. Fortunately for me, the altitude didn't present any problems. They call Peru the Egypt of the Americas, and it's from Cuzco that most people set off to see the jewel in the Inca crown - Machu Picchu, of which more later.
Due to such an attraction, Cuzco's one of the most touristy places in South America. At the airport you have to run the gauntlet of tour agencies offering you this or that, and in town you're always running the gauntlet of women selling massages. (How this came to be such a massage mecca, I'm not sure). The city and its surroundings are beautiful and interesting, and Cuzco's enough fun, so it doesn't matter. And in any case, there's something stupid about a tourist complaining about a place being too touristy.
I took a bus 11km out of town to a site called Tambo Machay, which was small but in good shape and still boasted Incan plumbing with water flowing. Near to that was Puca Pucara, which wasn't remarkable. From there I walked back towards Cuzco, taking in another 2 ruins, one being the magnificent Saqsaywaman (pronounced similar to "sexy woman" in a thick Jamaican accent).
Although the Spanish burned most of the original site, the stones remain, and you can see how the Incas constructed their cities. The stones were enormous, some being as high and wide as 2 tall fatties, but fit together perfectly as the Incas cut them to fit without any bonding or cement. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces, weighing up to several tonnes each (the heaviest is 120 tonnes) and you get the idea.
The Inca Empire and the Spanish Conquest
The Inca empire emerged from the 13th century and covered, at its peak, all of present day Peru and Bolivia, and the surrounding areas from Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina and Chile. Most of these territories were captured and ruled by peaceful, pragmatic means. Cuzco was where the early tribe sprang from and it remained the heart and administrative centre throughout the empire. Quechua was the official language but, inevitably over such a large area, there were hundreds of dialects and variations. The word Inka itself means ruler or lord in Quechua, and referred to the ruling family. (The Spanish later transliterated it to Inca and used it to refer to all subjects of the empire rather than just the ruling class.)
All empires ultimately crumble - Egyptian, Ottoman, British and Spanish and all the rest, just as today's superpowers won't always be superpowers. The Incan empire came to an end with the Spanish Conquest in 1533, but had already been fraying at the seams. The Spanish had reached Inca territory in the late 1520s and reckoned they'd stumbled on a great and rich place to raid. By the time they returned in 1532 to conquer the Incas, the empire was already weakened due to a conflict between two ruling brothers, unrest in the territories, and smallpox. Within a year, much of the empire was under Spanish control. In 1533 they arrived in Cuzco and promptly smashed and burned the place up. Some original walls are still in place, the Spanish having incorporated them when constructing the new city.
True to form in their conquest of South America, the Spanish quickly set about destroying the traditions of the Incas. Many aspects of Inca culture were systematically destroyed, including their sophisticated farming system. The Spaniards implemented mandatory public service which literally worked people to death. One member of each family was forced to work in the gold and silver mines, the foremost of which was the silver mine at Potosi in present day Bolivia. When a family member died, which would usually happen within a year or two, the family would be required to send a replacement. Smallpox, diptheria and measles largely finished the Inca empire off.
It's tragic that we lost the intelligence of the Incas, like the Egyptians before them. Their endeavour, techniques of mathematics, agriculture and construction make the skyscrapers in our cities today seem vulgar by comparison. We still can't figure out, with all our wonderful technology, how the Egyptians did some things. But history is littered with conquest, and oppression of the conquered. It's fitting that the empires which grow from such brutality and enslavement also seem to crumble under their own weight. Perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of the fall of the Inca empire is that its growth was largely peaceful, and could have served as an example that, even if you do believe that conquest and expansion is somehow good, violent means can be a last resort rather than the first. Then again, if you believe that conquest and expansion is somehow inherently good, maybe you're not a people person anyway.
The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu
Not being sure if I would need time to adjust to the altitude, I'd arrived 3 days before starting the walk. I managed to take it easy for the first couple of nights but then met up with a friend from London and the drinks were flying. So although with a 5am start a few drinks were ill advised, I couldn't resist.
I'd booked the trip 2 months before, as I heard you need to book several weeks in advance. It used to be that you could just show up in Cuzco and find a late place, but not anymore, at least not with any agencies worth using. That being said, there are plenty of alternative treks to the Inca Trail and no doubt some of these are just as good if you're willing to do something different. I chose Peru Treks on the grounds that they put some of their profits back towards community projects, and they're said to treat their porters well. They treated this Porter well, for sure. I'd heard from people in Cuzco that the food was good with Peru Treks, too, and I wasn't disappointed.
There were 16 in the group, a mix of Aussies, Americans, Brits, Swedish, a German, and me. The trail only opened at the start of April, so the timing was lucky for us. Huge landslides in January wiped out part of the railway line between Cuzco and Agua Calientes (the nearest town to the site) leaving thousands stranded for several days. There was damage throughout the area, and it wasn't certain that the trail would be open again so soon. They always close the trail in February to give it some time to regenerate from the other 11 months of sweaty gringos walking it. This year it was closed in March, too.
We went by bus 2 hours east of Cuzco in the Sacred Valley of the Incas to Ollantaytambo for breakfast and to buy last minute provisions. I didn't bother with a walking stick on the Colombia trek and the downhills killed my knees on that, so I made sure to arm myself this time. From there the bus continued to KM82, at 2,600m the start of the trail and the end of the road.
It's stunning scenery from the start, as you're surrounded by mountains and steep, towering hillsides. We passed some terraces at a site called Llactapapa, which was once used as an agricultural station to supply Machu Picchu with maize, the staple crop. Onwards along the river and up a steady incline, we reached our first camp, at 3,100m, Wayllabamba.
There was a rough football area ("field" would be pushing it, without grass on 90% of the playing surface) so some of the group joined the porters and guides for a kickaround. There was something special about the setting, being so high up yet surrounded by still-higher peaks. This felt like the Peru I was hoping for. The first day was complete with us standing around the bar, which consisted of a bucket of beers on the ground. It was a fitting end to a hard first day.
The next day we were up at sunrise for breakfast in spectacular surroundings, before hitting the trail. We were shown how to chew coca leaves, with a little lump of charcoal to release the active ingredients in the leaves. It's hard to describe just how unpleasant the taste is, and I'm not sure how necessary it was for me seeing as I wasn't struggling with the altitude anyway, but when in Rome...
The first section was painless enough, up to 3,300m for a break. From there the going got a little harder, and it was another 1.5 hours to the next break point which, bearing in mind we'd been on an incline pretty much the whole way, was inexplicably only another 380m up. Most people consider the 2nd day to be the hardest, as the next section's a long, steep uphill to the highest point of the trail - Dead Woman's Pass, at 4,200m.
After the pass it was another 1.5 hours downhill to our 2nd camp. At 3,500m it was the highest place we would sleep, and definitely the coldest. We had a good introduction to the porters - all 19 of them - and the cooks, legends both. Most of the porters also work on farms, and leave the trail during harvest times. There was a wide range of ages among them, the youngest being 19 and the oldest a staggering 63. How anyone can stomp the trail with 25 kilos of camping gear, week in, week out, at that age, in rubber sandals, is beyond me. It was enough to hike with about 6kg in good boots at 33. It was difficult for them when the trail was closed for the extra month in March but Peru Treks went to their villages and gave donations to help see them through.
The mist rolling up the valley added some atmosphere to the location, cold as a witch's tit though it was. The guides treated us to some ghost stories after dinner. They were possibly the worst ghost stories I ever heard, such as Dead Woman's Pass being named after a woman who camped in the cold at the top years ago against locals' advice....and who wasn't there when they checked in the morning..... and they went further down and found her pale and...... not moving and...... went to get the police, who came to collect the body and discovered that....... she wasn't really dead.
Those who don't rate day 2 as the hardest say that day 3 is, as it's easily the longest. It starts with another climb past the Runkuracay ruins to another pass at 4,200m. The view from here is amazing and it's nice to know there are no more big uphills. We descended to another ruin at Sayacmarca, whose purpose wasn't known. After here the trail took us through spectacular cloudforest, with ferns and mosses that wouldn't look out of place on the south island of New Zealand. We made it to the final pass and again had amazing views of the surrounding valleys, with cloud and mist rolling in and out.
From here is the reason some say day 3 is the hardest - a long slog down over 1,000 Inca steps they call the Gringo Killer. Even with the walking pole it wasn't the easiest on the knees by the end, and it was a relief to make the last camp for a cold beer and a hot shower, expensive though they were. I guess they have a captive market. After 3 days of walking and having survived the Gringo Killer, there's a sense of achievement that can only be rewarded with a bottle of suds.
There wasn't much sleep on offer that night, partly because of the rain making a racket on the tent, partly because they got us up at 3:45 for breakfast. They have to get you up early so you can cover the 2 hours to the Sun Gate (leading to Machu Picchu) before the sun appears over the peaks to the east. It's hit and miss at Machu Picchu at that time of day, and with clouds coming in upon our arrival at the Sun Gate, we'd hit a "miss" day. Still, there was something special about sitting there on the terraces in the high cloud, in the eerie silence, having reached our destination.
We continued down to the main site and waited for the cloud to lift. Even with some cloud enveloping the site, there was a magical feel to the place, but when the clouds did lift it was magnificent.
The city was built around 1450, at the peak of the Inca empire, most archaeologists believe it was to be an estate for the Inca emperor. It was abandoned in 1572, although (fortunately) the Spanish never found it, and therefore never destroyed it like pretty much everywhere else in the empire. What a waste.
In 1983 this became a World Heritage site, and in 2007 a new Wonder of the World. The pictures explain better than I can...