30 December 2010 – 27 January 2011
The last four weeks or so can only be described as a full on endurance test. Having to fend off men wanting to trip me off, touch their crotch, not take no for an answer, rob me, deal with unhelpful people, being given false information whilst undergoing cockroach infested bus journeys, bladder control and trying to walk for miles above 3500m on barely any sleep has really toughened me up. People who know me well know that I never stop but this has been something else. Sure, the lows have been counterbalanced with the highs. Relaxing in a hut on the beach, staying at a secluded hostel in the mountainous region of the Cordilleras Blancas in Peru with snow capped peaks as the view, being stunned by the beauty of The Inca Trail and being perched amongst The Andes in Vilcabamba could only mean that I would have a pants New Year. When is New Year ever plain sailing anyway?
It may have gone smoother had I managed to secure a seat on a bus from Ecuador to Peru or a bed in a hostel, but after being told that there was another bus an hour later at midnight on New Years Eve or failing that one in the morning at 6am to Piura in Peru and being promised some sort of accommodation in a full hostel in Mancora (beach, party town in Northern Peru – totally not my scene but I had to head there because a friend, Alexia, was due to come and meet me on 2 January in a small town nearby and I couldn´t take the risk that there might not be any buses running on New Year´s Day), I decided to wing it.
The nearest boarder crossing to Mancora is via Tumbes in Peru and after researching and re-accounting horror stories to fellow travellers all day of people arriving at Huaquillas and then having to get a taxi to the Ecuadorian Immigration Office 5km away, then another taxi to the border of Peru before being dumped and having to get another taxi from the border to the Peruvian Immigration Office 3km away whilst trying to fend off swarms of persistent taxi drivers claiming that you´d save money by letting them take you to Tumbes and dodgy money exchangers on the street before getting another mode of transport to Tumbes and then another bus usually onto Mancora, I decided to head inland and take the safer border crossing via Piura which was still easily accessible to Mancora.
After unwillingly leaving Vilcabamba and a sexy French guy, I took the bus to Loja only to be told by rude agency workers, (after being barged out of the way by even ruder local travellers, ´No I´m just standing here carrying 80 litres for the fun of it´) that there were no buses to Piura for three days. Panic time. For the next two hours I run between the two possible agencies, the even ruder Information ´Help Desk´worker and a semi helpful local who´s trying to get to me to head to the beach in Ecuador with him. It´s like some sort of rubbish game where I literally have five seconds with each person to ask them something before getting pummelled out of the way by another rude local traveller.
So, I don´t need to re-account my horrendous border crossing experience, you´ve already heard it. To make things worse, some well dressed WAG I´m sat next to on the overnight bus to Huaquillas tries to rob me whilst I´m sleeping so for the rest of the journey I´m too scared to sleep. Thankfully a Peruvian local from Sullana (the next town on from Mancora), takes me under his wing at the Peruvian Immigration Office after I ask him how much I should pay to get to Tumbes, S./2 (about 50p, the taxi driver was trying to charge me USD10). Sullana´s kindness comes at a price though as he makes throat slitting actions when he has to pay for his ticket but I don´t mind giving him S./5. After 13 and a half hours, 4 buses, 4 taxis, a 15 minute walk and a moto taxi (tuk tuk), I arrive into Mancora and to my hostel (complete with no bed) safely. And relax. I explain to the girl on reception that I´m aware that there are no beds but the manager has promised to look after me some how. She calls the manager and then asks me to take a seat. After a couple of hours there´s a lot of commotion and drilling taking place and I realise that they´re actually building a bed in one of the dorms. Amazing, now that´s what I call service. I start laughing at the traumatic journey I´ve just had. A little while later I witness six lemmings being led into the dorm and I´m left there for another hour. The traumatic journey comes flooding back. After four hours of waiting not a single person has told me what´s going on so I go and complain and am told that there is absolutely no way that they can accommodate me. ´But we´ll look after your bags while you look for something else´. ´Oh how helpful you bitch, I´m sure it´s going to be a breeze trying to find something on New Year´s Eve in a beach party town´. This is probably the loneliest I´ve felt since I´ve been travelling. My desperation is highlighted by the magnetic pull from a Worzel Gummage freak who´s calling me over. ´Stop it Cheung, what the hell are you thinking?´
My digs for NYE are a tent on a remote patch of land, ´Just around the corner from my hostel´ the owner tells me. ´My arse, it´s a good 20 minute walk away´, complete with no bathroom and a toilet/au natural hold in the ground. Thankfully two girls from Lima are also in my situation and we camp together so it doesn´t turn out to be the worst NYE ever. They don´t speak any English so I have to converse in Spanish but this isn´t a problem. We go for dinner, drinks, dance on the beach, run into the sea at midnight, avoid getting hit by dodgy fireworks flying back into the crowd and pay a fortune to get into a crap club. I meet some locals who have a crate of beer which they feed me all night which is all good as I had to borrow money to get into the crap club. I then head to the beach at around 5am for sunrise. Some pervert tries to kiss me on the beach then grabs my hand and puts it down his crotch, (Peruvian men don´t mess around). After I think he finally get´s the message I lay down on the beach and the next thing I know ´crotch boy´ is trying to get into my bag and rob me. I escape and head back to my luxury accommodation only to have to palm off another persistent Peruvian. After screaming and making a scene he finally gets the message and leaves. After two hours sleep and sweating like a pig in my sauna, the girls from Lima get up and tell me that they´re going for a shower at the hostel. They´re back within an hour and tell me that they´ve found some accommodation and feeling like death in the scorching heat they make me pack up the tent. The accommodation is a basic room with literally two beds in a policeman´s house where the only running cold water is coming out of the shower but this beats a tent any day.
The following day I book a cab and head to our hut on the beach at the earliest possible time that I can check in and it´s bliss. I sit down for dinner and will Alexia to arrive though I know she´s not due till around 11pm. A worker calls me over saying that there is a problem so I worriedly head to over to my hut only to find that Alexia has arrived early. Amazing, and a good job that she wasn´t too engrossed in Jilly Cooper or she would have missed her unannounced two hour earlier departure. (Soooo normal in South America).
The next three days consist of eating, sunbathing, reading, eating, sunbathing, walking on the beach and seeing a variety of washed up dead animals including a dolphin and a sea turtle (´You´ve saved yourself $1500 that I paid for The Galapagos Alexia´), eating, sunbathing and drinking. We walk past the dolphin on the way back. ´Look´, says Alexia, ´those people are calling for help´. ´No they´re skinning the dolphin and filleting it to feed the whole community for a month´. Not a pretty sight especially for the next few hours when we´re surrounded by hawks-esque birds that give up on the small boys fishing on their three logs because they can smell fresh meat.
Alexia then encounters some of the dramas of being a traveller. Not being given any solid information on how to get to Huaraz, having to trail around agencies while carrying a backpack and sweating in the scorching heat, trying to sleep on an overnight bus with cockroaches crawling all over your face, being told the road to Huaraz is closed after numerous people tell us that there are a multitude of buses, having to negotiate with a dodgy cab driver who claims he has access to the closed road, (is it a scam?), refusing to pay him until we reach our destination (we end up paying him half so he can give a cut to an agency worker), having to transfer to a collectivo (shared mini bus), but then, finally after a 45 minute cab ride we arrive at a remote hostel in the heart of the Cordillera Blancas, the horrendous journey is all worth it. We sack off our ´warm up Inca Trail hike´ for homemade food, a sauna, books and a fire. All guns blazing we plan a 28km ´easy but long´supposedly 8-10 hour walk for the following day.
After walking for about one and a half hours it starts to piss it down and doesn´t stop for the next 12 hours. We almost die walking up the section of steps and have to stop every 10 seconds because of the altitude. ´Mmmm not sure the acclimatising it working´. Our goal is to see a glacier and reach a lagoon but it´s so grim that we barely see anything and after walking forever on the never ending path we have to annoyingly turn back before it gets dark so don´t even get our reward. The only thing keeping us going are the Fizzy Cola Haribo´s I especially requested that Alexia brings out. We´re still completely shattered and can barely lift out feet. ´But Alexia, at least enjoy the amazing sunset up in the mountains´. ´Fuck off, I´m about to die´. We finally reach the road and can see the hostel like a beacon of light glowing in the distance. The workers very sweetly put the generator on early for their two hours of electricity allowance a day just so that we could see it. (It´s usually candle lit until about 8pm.) We drag ourselves to the hostel only to find that one of the workers has gone to look for us as everyone is worried we won´t make it back. We feel bad but a little later she returns. ´I don´t know how the hell I´m going to manage The Inca Trail,´Alexia exclaims. I try to reassure her that there is no way that The Inca Trail will be as tough though I´m trying to convince myself too.
Because we´re limited with time we decide to get a 5.30am flight to Cuzco from Lima. Surprise surprise our bus to Lima is delayed meaning there is no point checking into our hostel for a good nights sleep of three hours so to make the journey smoother we polish off a bottle of rum and wash it down with Inca Kola (an luminous yellow/green teeth rotting drink similar to Iron Brew only worse, that the locals are addicted to). We´re eager to see what all the hype is about so purchase a bottle. It´s vile. We head straight to the airport, stay awake on Papa John´s, (it´s either that or McD´s or Dunkin Doughnuts. I was desperate, everyone knows how anal I am about my food), water and Shithead. We make it to Cuzco obviously looking horrendous with Spanish barely dribbling from our mouths, as we´re allowed a two hour kip in a dirty room while our room is getting prepared. Our two hour kip gives us just enough energy to pack in a full day of sight seeing, sort out the Inca Trail, get supplies, eat mounds of food, barter at markets, go to the Trail briefing, sample a local dish down ´pork street´ and pack but leaves no energy for the Trail itself and with a get up time of 3.30am we´re seriously not looking forward to it.
The awful build up definitely contributed to the fact that we have an amazing time in the end. The attention to detail from Llama Path (the company we chose because the porters looked really happy and they had ´proper shoes´ – this all became evident during the walk as porters from other companies were literally wearing sandals and pretty much carrying 40 kilos in a rice bag covered in tarpaulin), was outstanding. After each trek there would be a bowl of hot water, soap and a towel waiting for everyone and we´d get woken up with coco tea. They were all so professional (none of them tried it on), and our army of red ants would speed ahead of us carrying our spare pants and baby wipes and set up camp for us before we got there and even applaud us when we arrived. Respect, we just had to do the easy bit of walking 45km. Upon saying goodbye to the porters and chef I was chosen on the spot to hand over the tips and make an two embarrassing speech in Spanish which consisted of ´Muchos gracias´. (Yeah, thanks for the warning).
After three days of hiking we were finally ready to see Machu Picchu in all it’s glory so after a 3am breakfast complete with an iced cake, (god only knows how the chef managed to bake a cake up a mountain and ice it), a bit of Shithead, pooing in the bushes, so obvious as I came back with twigs and moss all over me but beats queueing for the hole that stinks to the high heavens of piss and shit, the gates opened and we pelted it like crazy freaks to Sun Gate. (First viewing point of Machu Picchu). This had so not been the case for the previous three days but adrenaline made sure that no other groups passed us as we strode along with our elbow out. A couple asked me if they’d reached Sun Gate on the way and I could barely answer because I was breathing so heavily. We arrive at Sun Gate in record time dripping with sweat, hair glued to our faces, (highly attractive) to the beautiful vision of thick fog. Slightly annoyed but on a high from the last hour of treking/running we head down to Machu Picchu for our two hour guided tour with 6 million other people. (Mainly of the American variety with bulging fanny packs). The sun finally came out and the battery on my camera finally died, perfect timing.
We have a well deserved soak in some hot springs in Aguas Calientes after where the water is pretty murky and we believe the natural minerals are actually the sweaty and dirt off numerous hikers who have just finished the trek giving it a nice viscosity.
After an emotional goodbye to Alexia I head out with peeps from the hike where we traipse around all the clubs trying to get free drinks but only succeed in getting one. I return back to my hostel at around 6am dying for sleep and get woken up at 11.30am by the angry woman on reception and a maid telling me I have to stay for another night or get out of the room immediately. Whoops, I forgot that check out was at 10.30am. I embarrassingly leap out of bed just in a tee and pants and flash my arse at everyone waiting in the lobby (my pj’s are at the laundrette) and frantically pack in a hung over state and exit to different digs.
I have a well deserved rest of the next two days before heading to Arequipa where I feel like I’ve done the city after a day so decide late in the evening that I’d like to partake in a three day tour trekking into one of the worlds deepest canyons, The Colca Canyon, (I´m obviously missing The Inca Trail). I have to get up at 2.30am. The trek is a piece of piss compared to The Inca Trail. We’re only trekking for about four hours a day and have hours of chill out time which we weren´t aware of so no-one even bought cards along which meant that we could only do one thing, drink. The views were incredible and it turned out to be a fun trip. On arrival back to Arequipa I erupted in a massive cold sore; think I may have overdone it these past few weeks.
Thinking I might be able to take it easy I head to Lake Titicaca (the highest lake in the world) though unfortunately the luanch pad is stinky Puno which I really dislike. Minging city, hostel, I can’t even sit on the toilet without getting rained on, the ‘hot water all day’ is merely a driblet, we head out for pizza which is burnt and disgusting, (not sure how they managed to burn our pizza as we were the only people in the place), I try to get a discount but they offer the equivalent of 20p off and I had arguments with at least four locals who all tried ripping me off. On the plus side my Spanish must be improving if I can have an argument but I have realised that I need to learn more abusive words.
I spend as little time as possible in Puno before embarking on a two day tour to some of the islands, the most interesting of them being the unique Uros Islas (the reed floating islands), though it’s so built up for tourists it’s a shame. A few of us take a ride on one of the magnificent boats which stay afloat with Inca Kola bottles, (one good thing that comes out of drinking gallons of the stuff). On Isla Amantani we get dished out with our families for our authentic home stay and it’s like school sports day all over again as everyone is picked bar me as I’m the only looser singleton. I end up traipsing around with the guide who’s frantically trying to find me a bed for the night. We come upon a yard where numerous girls are washing their hair in a bucket of water behind a sheet and a well built mother with three teeth and receding gums waddles over to me, introduces herself then heads into the kitchen (a mud hut with a stove) and starts cooking me my lunch. I politely get through the food without choking on the dry rice, potato and cheese slice. ‘Estuve muy rico’ (That was delicious), I tell her and she flashed her three teeth at me. Next comes the big sell where she pulls out hats, gloves, scarves and seat covers from a filthy tarpaulin bag but I can’t even buy anything as I genuinely don’t have any money (Bolivia is my next stop so I didn’t want to get any more Peruvian Soles out). I feel so bad; she put her pegs away. After chatting to her for a while I fine out that she shares a single bed with her husband and that her six other kids share the other single bed in the same room. (The seventh and eldest child has escaped to Lima to study and if he finds a bride in the Capital, is not welcome back the island as tradition is so important – and being inbred). Herself and her husband don’t work (I guess looking after six children is taxing enough), and rely heavily on tourism and homestays (there are no hotels on the island) but the distribution of tourists doesn’t seem fair and I’m the first person she’s had in a month. The families are supposed to get S./25 (about GBP6) for offering a bed and three meals but ´Peggy´ tells me that she only actually gets S./10 (about GBP2.50). I feel like stripping off just so that I can give them something. The mud hut I’m eating in while trying to stay up right on the sloping floor has a sheet over the windows (it’s freezing) and the door doesn’t even close. The bathroom is merely a bucket in the yard though there is a separate room for the toilet which is a pot placed over a hole. I hand over all the fruit and snacks that I’ve bought for myself as an offering which is raided by the kids as soon as it’s put down.
After a hike and slop for dinner, pretending to enjoy it while my stomach is killing me, I have a 10 minute rest before the big night out where we get to see a pena (traditional folk dancing complete with band). Just before I leave, ´Peggy´ waddles into my room holding traditional dress that I’m expected to wear. ‘Errrm is everyone else going to be wearing this or am I going to look like a twat?’ I ask her in Spanish. I’m assured everyone will be wearing the lovely attire. She fastens the belt so tightly around my waist that I can barely breath and my stomach is still killing. The disco can only be described as a shit town hall affair, the lights are on full blast, there are about 15 of us (including the band, ie, it´s empty) and there is a 5 year old local selling beer in the corner. Luckily everyone is also looks like a twat and oh look it appears that ‘we’ are the dancers. Family members who have escorted us to the ‘disco’ drag us unwillingly onto the dance floor for 15 minutes of repetitive simplicity. The band tease us into thinking the song is about to finish but start up again but only faster. Thankfully the band give us a few minutes to recover after each dance thought this kills the ambiance somewhat. The family members sit at the opposite side of the hall and look as though they’re about to commit suicide.
The day after our crazy night on the town (over by 9pm), we visit another island then head back to stinky Puno where we head out (any excuse to spend as little time in the hostel as possible). I get back around 2am then nearly throw up on the American next to me on the bus the following morning but luckily we are crossing the border into Bolivia and I get off for some fresh air. After my previous horrific border crossing this is a complete breeze and there are hundreds of other doing the same thing. On arrival into Copacabana I get straight on a boat and head to Isla del Sol, (Island of the Sun), still Lake Titicaca but on the Bolivian side, and supposedly the birth place of the sun in the Inca mythology. After tackling 100’s of Inca Steps carrying 80 litres (yeah thanks Looser Planet) I finally arrive in heaven; and relax…