We hadn’t planned it this way, but some of the final days of our trip round South America were spent trekking to the most iconic site of them all – Machu Picchu!  This was mainly due to running out of time and having to skip Ecuador, but it felt rather poignant to be visiting such a place at this stage in proceedings.

This was our last excursion of our 5 month trip - and what a way to end!

This was our last excursion of our 5 month trip – and what a way to end!

Like most backpackers, we opted for an alternative Inca Trail, as you have to book the original one months in advance and it costs almost double.  We were having trouble deciding between the difficult five day Salkantay trek and the fun, easier going four day Jungle Trek, which includes mountain biking, rafting and a zip wire. As you can imagine, Antonin fancied the challenge of the Salkantay, but I managed to convince him he would enjoy the macho activities offered on the Jungle Trek.

I convinced Antonin to do the easier of the two trekswhich included modes of transport such as rafts, bikes and zip wires!

The alternative ‘Jungle Trek’ to Machu Picchu incorporates rafts, bikes and zip wires!

Day One, began with a downhill bikeride from up in the mountains down to the jungle zone below.  I was slow as per usual, so slow in fact that I had to get in the van half way down to be sure I’d catch up with the others!  The views on this ride were great, but having experienced the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia, this didn’t quite compare in terms of scenery or excitement.  This was made up for however in the afternoon, when we went rafting on the rapids of the Urubamba river.

Day Two was dominated by eight hours of trekking through beautiful ‘high jungle’, often along original Inca paths.  These paths were used previously by the ‘chaskis’ or messenger men to deliver code made from knots of string to faraway Inca communities.

Our group in traditional dress (check out my scary baby!)

Our group in traditional dress on the way to Machu Picchu

This day was also very educational, as we saw coca plantations, coffee being dried and also tasted unprocessed chocolate, which is disgusting without the sugar. Our guide, Picasso, was always picking out bizarre fruit and chillis for us to try.  At one stop, he also found us some traditional costumes and a very scary looking doll for me to cary on my back as the locals do!

Scary doll woman!

Scary doll woman!

After dealing with obstacles that afternoon including a sand fly invasion and a man powered cable car, we ended our day with a rest in the hot springs at Santa Theresa and a cold cerveza.

crazy man powered cable car

crazy man powered cable car

The following day, we woke up and jumped straight on a giant zip wire, which was extremely good fun, especially for Antonin who did it upside down in a ‘superman’ pose!  I was very brave on the series of zip lines, but the rope ladder we used to get back was a scary business and I had to get our new South Korean friend, Denny to help me!

After lunch, we continued walking again, this time up the railway track towards the town of Aguas Calientes.  We could see the back of the famous Huyana Picchu mountain in the distance and I began to feel excited by what lay beyond it.  We settled for the night in the town of Aguas Calientes which is nestled in a beautiful setting between immense, jagged rocks, covered with luscious vegitation.

Our group (without costumes this time!)

Our group (without costumes this time!)

For some reason, our group, who all got on very well, decided it would be a good idea to visit the local disco that night.  We had a 4am wake up call, but that didn’t stop us playing Argentinian drinking games and tapping our feet to the aptly named ‘DJ Inca’!

Our group all met in the early hours to begin the hour and a half climb up to Machu Picchu’s main entrance.  A hundred or so other people joined us, whilst the majority of older, more obese tourists took the bus.  We scrambled up the 1762 steps as fast as we could, hoping to catch a glimpse of Machu Picchu at sunrise.  I was expecting something pretty incredible when I got to the top, so was disappointed when all I could see was the visitors centre!  But my mood changed as we walked through the gates and my eyes fixed on the view I had seen in a million photos.

We made it! - our first sight of the full spectacle

We made it! – our first sight of the full spectacle

Myself and Antonin hadn’t been exptected too much from Machu Picchu, knowing we had to tick it off the list, but asuming it would perhaps be a little over-rated.  Of course, we were entirely wrong and were very pleasantly suprised by just how remarkable this place is.  Words just can’t describe it – you really must go and see it for yourself.

View down over Machu Picchu from Huyana Picchu

View down over Machu Picchu from Huyana Picchu

One of our highlights of the day (although exhausting), was climbing to the top of the Huyana Picchu mountain and looking down on the ruins from a great height.  Access to Huyana Picchu is restricted and we felt lucky to be one of the few tourists who had managed to get tickets for it that day.  My other pick of the day was seeing random llamas on the loose, wondering around the ruins as if they owned them.

llama chilling by the ruins

llama chilling by the ruins

After our big climb, we found South Korean Denny in a quiet area away from the many tourists, and sat for ages just staring at the place and wondering how on earth a city so remote came to exist and prosper.

Machu Picchu is said to date back to the 15th century and was discovered by the American historian, Hiram Bingham in 1911.  There are many theories as to what the site was used for, ranging from an Inca nunnery for ‘Virgins of the Sun’, to a royal retreat and a shrine to honour the sacred landscape.  Its true purpose, perhaps we will never know, but one thing we can be sure of, is that it left a lasting impression on myself and Antonin.

We found a quiet spot from where we stared and stared and stared!

We found a quiet spot from where we stared and stared and stared!

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Hola chicos – as many of you know, I am now safely back in England.  My mother keeps telling me to finish the last few installments of the blog, so I will rewind a few weeks, to a time when we were still making our way through Peru…

…Arriving to Arequipa on a night bus from Puno, we played our usual Peruvian trick of asking the taxi to take us to a low budget hospedaje. These places are much cheaper than the private rooms in hostels which you can book online, and what they lack in character they make up for in peace and quiet.

Colca Canyon - view from the bottom

Colca Canyon – view from the bottom

The white stone architecture in Arequipa’s town centre is some of the most charming and original I have seen in South America and we spent a lazy day mooching around the cafes and gift shops, listening to men playing panpipes and purchasing various alpaca based products.  We booked onto a two day, one night Colca Canyon tour the next day, with a standard 3am start!

A courtyard in Arequipa

A courtyard in Arequipa

Due to leaving my sister’s hiking boots back in the Atacama desert, I had to hire an uncomfortable, shoddy beige pair straight out of the 1970’s. Our drive by minibus to the 3km deep canyon took us to the height of over 4000 metres, where we had breakfast whilst wrapped up in blankets, as it was so cold.

sporting my dodgy 70's hiking boots on the walk down

sporting my dodgy 70’s hiking boots on the walk down

At around 9am, we stopped at a spot above the canyon to watch condors as they rode the waves of hot air. These magnificent creatures make up an important part of Inca mythology, representing the sky and the upper world.  Other animals considered sacred by the Incas were the puma, which they believed represented the middle world or earth and the snake, which they said represented knowledge and the underworld.

Condors played an important role in Inca mythology

Condors played an important role in Inca mythology

We were assigned to groups and began making our way down the canyon, which is a remarkable 3400 metres deep.  The Colca Canyon was considered the deepest on earth until recently, when a nearby valley was remeasured and stole the record!  I found the walk down tiresome, until I got talking to an Israeli guy in our group who had just completed his military service.  There are a lot of young Israelis letting off steam in South America after their obligitary two year stint in the army and it was eye opening to hear about his experience (not good but character-building and necessary was his conclusion).

The lush Colca Valley is full of fruit and cacti

The lush Colca Valley is full of fruit and cacti

We stopped off for lunch at the guide’s family home and continued walking several hours until we reached the lush oasis at the bottom where we would spend the night.  Our accomodation at the oasis comprised of several huts with no electricity, built around a garden of tropical flowers.  It felt a bit like the Garden of Eden, with people running around happily, jumping into the pool and playing volleyball (although I doubt Adam and Eve had a volleyball court and of course, nobody was naked!).

Me in the Garden of Eden

Me in the Garden of Eden

Awaiting us the next day was yet another early start – 4am this time.  The idea was to clamber for three hours, reaching the top of the canyon before the sun was up, and the heat became unbearable.  I had fully intended to cop out and get a mule up, feeling I had done enough to challenge myself after the 6088 metre climb back in La Paz. But the mules were not cheap, so I gave up on that plan.

To my suprise, I got quite into the climb and was the second to the top of the canyon (after Antonin of course, but ahead of the ex Israeli soldier and the other boys).  The girls made it to the top an hour after we did, so I think I can finally say, my trekking abilities have improved!

We made it!

We made it!

I celebrated this fact by getting my photo taken with various local animals in the nearby village of Maca, mainly all at once, and then soothing my aching joints in a hot spring!

Looking like a bit of a tool with a lama and an eagle!

Looking like a bit of a tool with a lama and an eagle!

I had been dying to get to the mystical Lake Titicaca, famous for it´s floating islands, reed boats and Isla del Sol.  Unfortunately, we couldn´t reach the Bolivian side of the lake at Copacabana, due to an ongoing strike over rises in ferry prices.  Instead, we drove straight to Puno, entering our beloved Peru once more.

A reed boat sails Lago Titicaca

A reed boat sails Lago Titicaca

Puno is a pleasant enough town, but more of a base for excursions than a tourist attraction in itself.  As soon as we got there, we booked onto a trip which had been recommended by a fellow traveller – a tour of the lake, coupled with a traditional homestay on Amantani island.

We chose to go with a company called Edgar Adventures, who had been commended in various guidebooks for their ethical approach.  The boat we took was comfortable, with only about 10 other people and a sundeck where we could relax and look out over this beautiful lake.

Daily scene on a floating island

Daily scene on a floating island

Our first stop on the tour was the floating islands of Uros, where people live a traditional way of life on islands made out of reeds.  Living like this is not easy – for example, when these people need the toilet, they have to hop on a boat to a nearby island, and use a hole in the ground!

These islands only last about 40 years, and are constantly being refurbished with new layers of reeds.  The houses they live in, also made out of reeds, only last for a few months.  The only food available is the reeds themselves, the eggs of a local bird, and seven species of fish.

Locals singing "goodbye" tunes in ·Chechua", "Aymara" and spanish...

Locals singing “goodbye” tunes in ·Quechua”, “Aymara” and Spanish…

The islanders make a lot of their money from tourism, selling handicrafts and giving rides on reed boats.  Some of them kindly let me into their home for a few minutes – it felt more like a wendy house than a home though and I have the upmost respect for them for not giving up and moving to the mainland.

Inside a reed island house - pretty cramped as you can see!

Inside a reed island house – pretty cramped as you can see!

Our next stop after the reed islands, was the natural island of Amantani.  Here again, all of the four thousand residents wear traditional dress.  I was a big fan of the cholita´s clothes on this island, which featured some beautiful embroidary.

Making our way to our host families

Making our way to our host families on Amantani island

As we got off the boat, everyone in the group was assigned to a family.  Antonin and I were very pleased with ours, whom we shared with a young German couple.  Here, the extended family all live under one roof- grandparents, children, partners and grandchildren.  We ate a tasty lunch of quinoa soup and potatoe with the family before going on a walk round the island and admiring the many wild flowers and snow peaked mountains in the distance.

Waiting for lunch at our family house

Waiting for lunch at our family house

When Antonin and I returned from our walk though, we found the German couple had been put to work, peeling quinoa.  Ooops – I think we should have been helping too!

Antonin makes a last minute attempt to help with the task of peeling quinoa!

Antonin makes a last minute attempt to help with the task of peeling quinoa!

It turns out we chose the best day possible to come to the island, as there was a big party taking place to celebrate I can´t remember how many years of independence from the mainland.  It was faboulous to see all the local men and cholita women out in their traditional dress, drinking and generally enjoying life.  There is a real sense of community on this island and I felt privileged to be a part of it, if only just for one night!

Party in the main square

Party in the main square

Before the party got into full swing, we walked up to some ruins on the hill to observe a spectacular sunset over the lake.  in the distance, we could see Huyuna Potosi mountain – the peak we had scaled only days before.

Not a bad sunset over Lake Tits!

Not a bad sunset over Lake Tits!

We went back for dinner with our family to find our host mother in some pain.  As the island is so remote, the residents have no access to healthcare.  The woman had been having stomach problems for over a month and was unable to see a doctor.  Antonin sorted her out with some antibiotics and we were pleased to hear in the morning that her stomach pains had subsided.

Trying to blend in and failing!

Trying to blend in and failing!

After dinner, our host mother dressed us up in traditional costumes and took us out to see the band performing in the main square.  It was a raucous affair, with dodgy fireworks, fights and men pissing on the dance floor, but very enjoyable nonetheless!

raucous party!

raucous party!

The next morning, it was time to bid our host family farewell, and visit the island of Taquille, famed for its textiles.  Our host mother very sweetly, walked us to our boat, where she bid us farewell and said she hoped we would visit again one day.

Time to say goodbye to host mummy!

Time to say goodbye to host mummy!

Taquille is a beautiful island too, although with more tourists than Amantani.  We looked at the array of textiles produced by the local people here and had a delicious lunch of trout, overlooking the sparkling lake.  We learnt that whilst the women here spin wool, it is usually the men who are responbsible for the intricate knitting these islanders are famed for.  It is said that if a man here doesn´t know how to knit his own hat, he cannot marry!

A local lad gives us a knitting demo over lunch

A local lad gives us a knitting demo over lunch

As we headed home to Puno, with the climate on Lake Titicaca resembling that of a Greek Island, Antonin thought it would be a good idea to jump off the boat.  Little did he realise, it was freezing cold!

Antonin jumps into Lake "Tits"

Antonin jumps into Lake “Tits”

Our stay on Lake Titicaca, or Lake “Tits”, as one guy in our group amusingly named it, gave us a real insight into the culture and lifestyle of the local people in this area.  We felt their warmth as they welcomed us into their homes, their love of drinking and dancing, but also their pain, as they struggled to get by with little access to healthcare.

Chilling by a burrial tower

Chilling by a burrial tower

We ended our stay in Puno with a trip to some Inca burrial towers.  This was a really fascinating trip, learning about the biggest known Inca cemetary.

Back in La Paz, I made a spontaneous and ridiculous last minute decision – to join Antonin on an attempt to make it to the top of Huayna Potosi – a 6088 metre mountain, which towers over the city.

Antonin had been talking about conquering this mamouth peak for some weeks, but it had never been in my plans to join him.

Sunrise at the peak of Huyana Potosi

Sunrise at the peak of Huyana Potosi

For a couple of days, we visited agencies in La Paz, trying to find one which would be suitable to guide Antonin on his ascent.  I joked with fellow travellers that Antonin was a little crazy for wanting to do this, claiming I would be chilling out by Lake Titicaca while I waited for him to complete the climb.

But the day before he was due to leave, we visited a tour guide, who claimed to have a hot shower in one of the lodges, and made the climb sound more achievable than I had previoiusly thought.  They showed me a photograph of a girl reaching the summit – if she can do it, I thought, then why can`t I?

It turns out only 50% of girls who attempt this climb make it to the top, compared to 70% of boys, but I didn`´t realise this at the time.

Stocking up on coca tea and coca leaves ahead of the climb - these help with altitude!

Stocking up on coca tea and coca leaves ahead of the climb – these help with altitude!

“Antonin – I`ve decided I´m going to come with you”, I said.  “Really?”, Antonin questioned, his face lighting up with a mixture of amusement and amazement.  “Yes, why not”, I said.  “How hard can it really be?”

Hmmm… famous last words! I should mention my decision was also aided by the fact the road to Lake Titicaca was blocked due to a strike.  Since relaxing in the sun by this beautiful lake wasn´t an option, I thought I may as well spend my time getting altitude sickness in -15 degree conditions!

Cemetary under the mountain... (promising start)

Cemetary under the mountain… (promising start)

That afternoon, we purchased alpaca socks and gloves, and stocked up on coca tea and leaves, which are said to help with the altitude.  The next morning came around quickly, and before I could think too much about what I was letting myself in for, we were in a van with a load of strong looking outdorsy types, on our way to the mountain.

As we approached Huayna Potosi, we passed a cemetary, which was a little unnerving.  I wondered if any of these graves were those of over-confident backpackers who never made it to the top!

Looking good in our black and orange ensembles!

Looking good and ready to take on the ice in our black and orange ensembles!

After arriving at basecamp and having lunch, we got geared up in our fetching black and orange climbing outfits, complete with ice axe and crampons! In order to acclimatise to the altitude and get used to the crampons, we took an hour long walk uphill to a glacier, where we were given a crash course in ice climbing.  This was great fun, but physically very challenging.  I made it as far as an overhang, where I thought I would have to stop.  Somehow I found the strength to hack into the ice with my axe and haul myself up.  Abseiling down was just as alarming, given that I have little experience in this area!

Me ice climbing - just after I beat the overhang!

Me ice climbing – just after I beat the overhang!

So the first day was exhausting but manageable.  I had a bit more confidence after completing the ice climb successfully too.  However, at dinner, our guide David warned me he didn´t think I would make it to the summit – well thanks a bunch!  He said he had no doubt Antonin would succeed, but that I was a question mark.  I found this comment incredibly demotivating and took it quite personally, going to bed in a sulk.  What is the point in even trying if the guide thinks I won`t be able to do it?, I thought.

chewing coca leaves and already starting to feel nauseous

Chewing coca leaves ahead of the climb and already starting to feel nauseous

The next day, we only had a few hours climb ahead of us before we reached high camp at 5130 metres.  I had already been drinking lots of coca tea and taking altitude sickness pills as a prevantative measure, but the time had come to start chewing the leaves.  All the locals chew coca leaves in these parts and state firmly that ´coca no es droga´.  To give myself the best chance of making it, I gave the coca leaves a go, but found the taste so disgusting that I was nearly sick half way up the slope.  So much for coca leaves preventing nausea!

Upwards progress

Upwards progress

As we slowly progressed up the hill, our backpacks weighed down by our ice boots, crampons, axe and helmet, I began to really struggle.  I was incredibly short of breath and as the hill got steeper and steeper, I got weaker and weaker, having to stop after every few steps.  This was like El Cocuy in Colombia all over again!

Somehow, after several hours of climbing, we made it to the high camp.  I had received a last minute piece of motivation when our guide, David informed me, he owned a pair of skis.  “Skis!!?” I shreaked! “En serio”? “You have skis here?” I explained my skiing credentials and David offered to carry the skis up for me the next day and let me ski down in some serious Bolivian off piste.

Somehow I made it to rock camp at over 5000 metres!

Somehow I made it to rock camp at over 5000 metres!

At 6pm, as the other climbers went to bed ahead of their 12pm wake up call, David made me climb a steep slope behind the lodge to test out the skis.  Antonin told me I was surely mad, not going to sleep with the others, but I knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.

The skis were straight out of the 1980s and tied on with a piece of string! They were so thin and the snow so wet and heavy that they ran away ahead of me, and I almost lost my footing.  But after I had got a bit more confidence, I was giving the mountain guides tips, as they had been teaching themselves up until now, seemingly with limited success!

Our guide David and the  tricky 80`s high mountain skis!

Our guide David and the tricky 80`s high mountain skis!

How crazy I thought – here I am over 5000 metres above sea level on a Bolivian mountain, teaching guides how to ski!  I am meant to be sleeping ahead of my climb.  A keen Swiss mountaneering woman in our group voiced her concerns as I stumbled into bed, saying I may have ruined my chances by wasting my energy!

I think everyone in the lodge struggled to sleep that evening – not only was it very early to go to bed, but the altitude was disorientating and headache- inducing.

Struggling in the dark!

Struggling in the dark!

David woke myself and Antonin up an hour earlier than everyone else, having little faith that I would ever make it to the top without a big head start!  As we put on our climbing gear in the pitch dark and attached ourselves to David with a rope and harness, I almost decided to give up there and then.  Each guide takes two people with him and if one fails to make the summit, the other must turn back too.  I didn`t want to ruin Antonin`s chances of making it, but something made me go ahead and take the risk.

The first twenty minutes or so of climbing in crampons up the steep slope felt ok to me.  We were going incredibly slowly and I liked this! But then we reached a section with a ledge and I started to feel nervous – I could see the lights of La Paz in the distance but up here in the mountains, it felt so stark and isolated.  What on earth was I doing? How could I ever have thought I was up to this challenge? After an hour of walking I had little energy left, and began moaning pathetically.

Our guide, David was constantly agitated by my snail´s pace!

Our guide, David was constantly agitated by my snail´s pace!

“What is the problem?”, asked David.  “You told me yesterday you could do this.”  “We have at least another five hours of walking ahead of us, seven at this rate, so if you don´t think you can do it, we should turn back now – it`s dangerous!”

But I couldn`t turn back – despite wanting to desperately.  I couldn´t let Antonin down – he was so keen to make the summit. “No – I have to keep going”, I said.

At this point, some of the other climbers caught up and overtook us.  We reached a steep section where we had to climb on all fours, using our ice axes for support.  It was quite scary, especially with just a head torch to light the way.

We made it - how I will never know!

We made it – how I will never know!

For the next couple of hours, I was struggling to walk more than a few steps at a time without stopping again, and David was getting increasingly agitated.  He wanted us to turn back, but I couldn`t let that happen.   “I`m trying as hard as I can”, I said.  “It isn`t enough, said Antonin – you are going to have to try harder.” And my favourite quote from Antonin that day – “cry if you have to – just keep walking!”

Finally, we reached the approach to the summit.  I found some extra strength from somewhere and began to impress David and Antonin with my stamina.  We were forced to use the ice axes again and climb on all fours – the drop below was quite impressive and I was getting scared for my safety once more.

Are we in heaven or hell?

Are we in heaven or hell?

We scrambled to the top and reached the infamous Polish ridge – named after a Polish climber who fell off it once and met his death.  I had seen pictures of the ridge, but had I realised quite how steep and petrifying it would be, I would never have gone up there! On each side of the ridge is a huge drop – 1km on the right according to Antonin!

I began to prepare to crawl along it towards the summit, when David informed us we had to stand upright and walk.  For about five minutes, David and I had a stand off where I refused to get up. I was scared for my life and kept thinking of how selfish and unfair on my family it would be to die in this way!

The triangular shape in the sky, is the shadow of the mountain we just climbed!

The triangular shape in the sky, is the shadow of the mountain we just climbed!

Of course, I was totally overreacting, as David had Antonin and I attached to him by a rope and harness.  He later told me that had I fallen off one side of the ridge, he was trained to jump off the other side in order to counterbalance my weight and rescue me!

It took a good twenty minutes walking with tiny steps and extreme concrentration to make it to the summit. Only 60% of the climbers made it up that day.  When they did, most people seemed over the moon, but I was mainly shocked, exhausted and terrified of coming back down again! The views and sunrise however were utterly breathtaking.  Peering down over the clouds, it looked like we were in heaven (although at -15 degrees centigrade, it felt more like hell!)

More sunrise!

More sunrise!

We didn´t stay too long at the summit, as it is cold and dangerous.  The walk back down along the ridge was as terryfying as the way up.  David had left his skis at the midway point.  Antonin questioned whether I should be attempting to ski, given that I was so tired, but I just had to give it a go.

The feeling of skiing at somewhere between 5000 – 6000 metres, above the city of La Paz, all alone into the unknown was indescribable.  Every time I stopped to wait for Antonin and David, I couldn´t stop laughing in disbelief at what I was doing.  It is the wrong season for skiing in South America, so I had never expected to be doing this.  I only had one pole, the skis were awful and so was my technique, but it didn´t matter – I was skiing down a Bolivian mountain – woohooo!!!

Skiing down with one pole in ecstacy!

Skiing down with one pole in ecstasy!

On the wall of the high camp, people had written comments about their climb.  One quote summed it up perfectly –

” Huayna Potosi – simultaneously the worst and the best thing I have ever done in my life.”

Hopping on my night bus from Sucre to La Paz, I almost shed a tear! What an amazing week I had living with my Bolivian family.  I also got to experience for a little while, what it is like to travel solo.  In many ways, I loved the feeling of being so independent, but was equally excited to be reunited with Antonin in La Paz.

La Paz from above - what an amazing setting!

La Paz from above – what an amazing setting!

Other travelers and Bolivians alike had said some nasty things about La Paz, calling it dirty, polluted, cold and ugly.  I therefore didn´t plan to spend longer than a day or so there, but ended up staying about nine in total!

I arrived at the hostel to find poor Antonin living in a smelly dormitory full of drugged up 18 year olds.  As I went to use the bathroom, I discovered a sink full of vomit – I was not impressed!  Luckily, Antonin had been wise enough to book us a private room in the B&B next door, where there is also a bar with fantastic views over the city.

La Paz - it aint pretty but it sure has character

La Paz – it aint pretty but it sure has character

I think the geography of La Paz is possibly the main thing I fell in love with.  La Paz resides at an altitude of aproximately 3,650 metres and for the first few days, breathing was proving a little difficult.

It is by no means a pretty city, but it is edgy and different to anywhere I have visited before.  When you drive up into the hills above La Paz, past the ramshackle, plain brick houses, you get the most fantastic view of the place, and can also see the snowy mountains of the Corderilla Real in the distance.  From the same spot at night, you are greeted with a sea of flickering blue and orange lights – muy romantico!

La Paz at night

La Paz at night

The second thing which makes La Paz so alluring, is its Cholitas,  Cholitas are the indigenous women of Quechua and Aymara decent, who can be seen wondering around the streets of Bolivia in traditional dress.  Their outfits consiting of a bowler hat, plaited  hair and big, layered skirts were originally introduced by the Spaniards in colonial times, but have now become a symbol of indigenous pride.

These ´cholitas´wrestle in traditional dress!

In La Paz, you can pay to watch these ´cholitas´ wrestle in traditional dress!

You initially assume these women must be quite sweet but soon come to learn they are not to be messed with!  During our time in Bolivia, we came across cholitas singing drunkenly, cholitas breaking up flights amongst the men and cholitas urinating in the middle of the street.  One traveler we met even claimed he saw a cholita go for a poo on a bus, into a plastic bag, before throughing it out of the window and narrowly missing, so that all of her business covered the windows.  Apparently most cholitas don´t bother wearing knickers, so that they can easier relieve themselves when caught short!

On our second day in La Paz, we went to one of the most bizarre events I have ever witnessed – Cholita´s wrestling.  Here, a mixture of locals and curious gringos crowd around a boxing ring in Alto La Paz, as women in traditional dress attack one another WWF style.   Some of the cholita´s favourite moves are removing one another´s under garments, grabbing their oponents by their braided hair, or throwing them into the crowd.   It is all quite brutal and humiliating, but also strangely captivating.

cholitas fighting!

Cholitas fighting – brutal stuff!

A visit to La Paz isn´t complete without a visit to the witches market.  Here you can choose between items such as lucky charms, coca tea, coca candy, coca leaves and most shockingly, dead lama foetuses.  Why would anyone want to buy one of these?, I hear you ask.  Well, in countries such as Bolivia and Peru, Catholicism is the main religion, but equally, if not more important, is ´pachamama´ or mother earth.  It is common practice here to make offerings to pachamama, as a way of thanking her for all we take away.  A lama foetus is just one of the many offerings which are burnt and offered to pachamama during religious ceremonies.  Other offerings include flower petals, coloured paper, candy, seeds and wine.

These lama foetus´s are sold in La Paz´s witches market as spiritual offerings

These lama foetus´s are sold in La Paz´s witches market as spiritual offerings

Antonin and I learnt more about these offerings to pachamama when we visited the nearby ruins of Tiwanaku, which date back to 1500BC.  These ruins are not as well preserved as Machu Picchu, but this is unsuprising given that they are roughly 3000 years older! It is here, from Tiwanaku, that the Aymara people built their large and successful kingdom, which is considered to be one of the most important precursers to the Inca Empire.  Incredibly, in this region, the Aymara people resisted Inca invasions, and the language is still spoken by many indigenous people to this day.

The entrance to Tiwanaku´s temple of the earth

The entrance to Tiwanaku´s temple of the earth

Another key attraction for gringos in La Paz is surviving the world´s most dangerous road. The road begins in the mountains at 4700 metres and ends down in the Yungas jungle at 1600 metres.  Before it was replaced with a newer, safer alternative, hundreds of vehicles fell off the vertical drop, down into the lush, tropical valley below.  Now countless companies offer gringos the chance to cycle down it and get the T-Shirt.

Although a new road has now been built, the occasional lorry driver still uses the old death road - something which I found alarming whilst cycling down!

Although a new road has now been built, the occasional lorry driver still uses the old death road

I was in two minds about doing this, partly as my mother begged me not to, and partly because I wasn´t so keen on the idea of making a tourist attraction out of a place where countless people have met their death. But then I saw a poster in a tour operator´s office and the views looked too good to resist.

As you can imagine, I was near the back of the group, breaking cautiously the whole way down whilst Antonin raced the other testosterone fuelled youngsters at the front.  Despite my initial reservations, it was actually a really fun day.  So there you have it, I am now an official death road survivor.

The views on TWMDR are scary but beautiful!

The views on TWMDR are scary but beautiful!

To top it all off, as if La Paz hadn´t provided us with enough entertainment, my old university mate Jess and her boyfriend, decided to show up.  Jess has been living in France for the past three years,  but is now traveling the world, so it was great to see her again and hear about her adventures.  How funny that three of my university friends are in South America right now – it makes me feel even more at home here!

Managed to catch up with Jess - an old university friend, and her boyfriend

Managed to catch up with Jess – an old university friend, and her boyfriend

Hola chicos, I have a treat for you – a post from Antonin on his escapades in Toro Toro park, Bolivia, whilst I was off learning Spanish….

Me and a footprint!

Me and a footprint!

I first drafted this post sitting in the pub in the centre of Cochabamba, Bolivia, with the great company of Pilsner larger wondering how to go about writing my first ever blog post. Well, I decided to keep it simple 😉

Our adventure to Toro Toro started innocently. The idea was to visit the famous dinosaurs footprints and possibly do some caving. Craighton decided to be “Spanish geek for a week” so we said “Hasta Luego” and I was on my way to meet the twins (Sarah and Jeorjie).

The 9 hour bus journey from Sucre to Cochabamba was out of this world. The smell of kids unwell bellies – both top and bottom, 20cm leg room space, no airconditioning, together with the bus driving over recent landslides, just enriched my experience of discomfort.

Carnosaurus - meat eating dinosaur. Glad these are old...

Carnosaurus – meat eating dinosaur. Glad these are old…

At 5:05am, the bus arrived in Cochabamba. It was cold, 7C. I jumped on the taxi to wake up the twins. It took the taxi driver over 40 minutes to find the place! At 6:30am I woke up the sisters….

The same day we went to “Avenida Republica” just to fail to obtain any kind of ticket to Toro Toro. It was Sunday, lunch break time. That afternoon, our extremely helpfull hostel owner managed to book a tour leaving the next day by private jeep – 4l, V6 Nisssan Patrol. It was five of us. Sarah J, Jeorjie, Lee and Briany (sweet couple we met) and me.

The next morning, happy Neatherland´s chappy was waiting while we had breakfast. The four hour journey to the National Park was informative, fun and rather pleasant. On arrival in Toro Toro village, the accomodation seemed to be basic, but clean and functional.

water

The destination of our first day – the bottom of the El Verdel Canyon.

The same afternoon, we took a hike to El Vergel Canyon. We saw footprints from numerous species of dinosaurs, got an introduction to some geology and saw the red faced macaws (a rare species of parrot). Our destination was a spectacular waterfall at the bottom of  a 600 metre deep canyon, where we could also swim!

The red faced macaws, unique to the region to Toro Toro, highly endangered but in recent years apparantelly thriving!

The red faced macaws, unique to the region to Toro Toro, highly endangered but in recent years apparantelly thriving!

The same evening, we visited a “Chiceria”. A strange smelling, looking and feeling place/room. There was no furniture, just a few stools, fridge and a dodgy looking 500 litre barrel of “Chicha”.

Velociraptor footprint... from anbout 90 mil years ago!

Velociraptor footprint… from anbout 90 mil years ago!

For those who are not familiar with “Chicha”, it is what is locally called the wine of Inca kings (even though pretty disgusting). It is made by local women, who chew maze (corn seeds) and spit them into a barrel, adding some water and sugar, then letting the fermantation process take place. It can contain anything between 40 – 60% alcohol.

Sarah and Jeorjie enjoying some "Chicha"

Sarah and Jeorjie enjoying some “Chicha”

All of us had to follow a very specific antient drinking ritual. First, one chooses an other person to drink for their health. Then just before drinking the liquid, a little bit is to spilled on the floor while saying “para Pacha Mamma” (for Mother Earth). Then one drinks the liquid. Then one serves Chicha and passes it on to the previously chosen person. Works great if you like Chicha! 😉

After arrival back at our accomodation, one would have thought that the daily adventures were over. Wrong! I got electrocuted in my face by the shower!

Our innocent looking accomodation, which later proved to have doggy wiring with some corn drying at the front for ·"Chicha"

Our innocent looking accomodation, which later proved to have doggy wiring with some corn drying at the front for ·”Chicha”

The next morning it was time to visit the Humajalanta cave. It is famous for its beauty, stalagmites, stalagtites and underground waterfall, where it is possible to observe the blind cave fish. Sounded great! We got our helmets with attached flash and expected a walk in a park cave visit.

We possitively started our decent to the cave bottom. Climbing, jumping and mini rappelling some 110 metres down, crawling through gaps only 50 cm high. “This is extreme” we thought. We reached what seemed to be the cave bottom. We swithced our flash lights off and kept quiet. Never have I heard such silence, never have I seen such a darkness. Yet, it was not intimidating or scary, it was peaceful.

Sarah and Jejorjie going down the cave

Sarah and Jejorjie going down the cave

Headlights back on, our guide pointed to the corner of the cave. A hole about 2 metres wide and 40cm high, we are taking this to the next level. Fortunately it was only about 5 metres crawl before the next “level upgrade”! This time it was about 30cm wide, 40cm high gap going for about 20 metres! “Crap, I am claustrofobic”… no I use to be claustrofobic. I could not fit in the hole, unless going side ways, almost dislocating my shoulders. It was a little struggle, which got easier after while…

Sarah cheerfully squeezing through the mini cave

Sarah cheerfully squeezing through the mini cave

We reached our destination. A relatively small underground waterfall, peacefully flowing over cave rocks, silently disapering uder the rocks under our feet. The place to see the blind cave fish. Suddently there was a noise travelling through the cave. The cute waterfall, is becoming bigger! Withing next few seconds the waterfall became a muddy monster.The water started gushing over the rocks we were standing on. Our guide started to run, other guide started to run, we followed.

Oh, we are in a cave, there is nowhere to run! Great! We gathered on a high rock, the water was allready coming over stones we were standing just few seconds ago. “This is serious, we can die” our guide said. “No one knows how deep this cave is, if we get washed off we are sure to die” he said just to make sure we understand the seriousness of the situation. Great!

Stalagnite tree... Apparantelly took over 40 thousand years to form...

Stalagnite tree… Apparantelly took over 40 thousand years to form…

I could feel the slight nervousness within the group. The noise of the water comming down on top of us was intimidating. I heart our guide saying: “There must have been a massive storm outside!” The temperature in the cave was quickly dropping. The air was somehow misty and full moist. “The only way out is the way we just came” our guide said. Great! This involves crawling squeezed through the tiny caves again! Everybody though of the same: “What if the water comes in on top of us?”

We started to crawl. Right next to my helmet, the mini cave was shaking, the sand covering the floor was shaking, it was possible to feel the sheer weight of water comming down. The temperature continued to fall and the noise was not becoming any calmer. I was last out, being more comfortable having the twins infront of me, knowing they are ok. We progressed pretty smothly, with some mild traffic jams through the mini tunnels. All of us made it through when our guide turned around: “It is not over yet, we have to be out of this cave as quick as possible!” We were up some 90metres in less then 10minutes – what adreanalin does to people hey? 🙂

The twins about to get rescued.

The twins about to get rescued.

We reached the river crossing point. The stream have beacome a muddy monster river! There was no way to cross. We waited on a high rock. Park rangers arrived with ropes. Our rescue involved: climbing up a 10metre rock face, crossing one part of the river, crossing second part of the river. Sarah J or “the guinee pig” as she calls herself was first in – smooth. Jeorjie – smooth. My turn, not so smooth. I stepped into the river thinking it is the same depth everytwhere – naive. My leg went in over my knee. Once I learned this, the rest was smooth…

We scrumbled up some 35 metres to the day light. “Put your shoes on and lets go” our guide said.

surve

We survived, but it was not over yet.

On way back to our next destination – another cave and a massive waterfall, the river decided to block the road. No match for our Patrol. We got through no issues. On top of the hill however, the muddy clay blocked the tires. Me, Lee and one of the guides go out to receive a decent shower of mud.

About to cross river, which before the rain was only a stream...

The local school bus is waiting and we are about to cross river, which before the rain was only a stream…

We spent the afternoon, enjoying some stunning scenery, doing some more caving and finding some more dinosaurs footprints. On some of these it was possible to track a group of velociraptors attacking some plant eating dinosaurs! Amazing!

Jeorjie and Briany on our "afternoon walk" through Toro Toro

Jeorjie and Briany on our “afternoon walk” through Toro Toro

I liked Toro Toro…

A x

Antonin suggested I call this post ´Spanish geek for a week´, as he thinks his visit to Torro Torro National Park to see dinosaur footprints with Sarah and Georgie is far cooler.  Maybe he has a point, but I for one am glad I opted for an intensive Spanish course and host family stay in Sucre – the official capital of Bolivia.

Sucre, not La Paz, is Bolivia´s official capital

Sucre, not La Paz, is Bolivia´s official capital

Of course, my Spanish must have improved a fair bit since arriving in South America, but I felt I had picked up some bad habits, and needed to brush up on my grammar.  Sucre is well known for its Spanish schools and after some research, I went with a place called Me Gusta!

Having travelled with Antonio for four months solid and spending practically 24 hours a day in his company, I was a little anxious about my week alone with a Bolivian host family.

Studying with Gunis - the Latvian shaman!

Studying with Gunis – the Latvian shaman!

Luckily though, I was so incredibly busy, there was little time to miss him!  I had six hours of lessons a day – four hours of grammar in the morning and two hours of conversation in the afternoon.  In the evenings, I was usually out with the other students, watching a football match or taking part in a Bolivian cookery course!

My class from l-r,  Teacher and host mother Elizabeth, classmates Aurelie and Gunis

My class from l-r, – Teacher and host mother Elizabeth, classmates Aurelie and Gunis

I shared my morning classes with a lovely French girl called Aurelie and a Latvian shaman called Gunis, who gave a fascinating presentation one day on meditation and finding our hand shakras!  Our amazing teacher, Elizabeth, was also my host mother, and welcomed me into her family for five days.

My host parents eating lunch with Aussie students

My host parents, Elizabeth and Fernando eating lunch with Aussie students

Lunch is the main meal in Bolivia and I went home to eat with the family every day after my morning classes.  The two little boys of four and six were very amusing, and always refused to eat their soup!  Personally, I thought most of the food was delicious, but one day, I was served some nasty looking bits from ´the inside of a cow´, which apparently is a very popular dish here!  Luckily the family were very understanding when I couldn´t finish it!

My host brothers - Fernandito y Nikolas

My cheeky little host brothers – Fernandito y Nikolas

There is no English spoken in the house, and so I got used to speaking in Spanish constantly.  As a result, when occasionally I did end up speaking in my mother tongue with the other students, it felt quite unnatural for the first few minutes!

Me and the lovely Joss, who I took my conversation classes with

Me and the lovely Joss, who I took my conversation classes with

In the afternoons, I had private conversation classes with a lovely guy called Joss, who as well as teaching Spanish, is a semi-professional footballer for Sucre FC!  We always left the classroom for these lessons, either visiting the park, the cemetary or the mask museum, usually followed by a milkshake in one of Sucre´s many cafes.

Learning to cook, Bolivian style!

Learning to cook, Bolivian style!

I thought I would have a lot of spare time on my hands during my week in Sucre but this was not the case! With my host parents also being the directors of the Spanish school, a Bolivian cookery class is held at the house every week.  Another evening, some of us met up to watch Bolivia vs Argentina, which was possibly the most tense and exciting match I have ever seen (although I admit I haven´t seen many!) 

An Aussie girl called Jackie, who we met on the Salt Flats tour was also learning Spanish in Sucre, so we met up quite a few times.  The most amusing meet up, was when we decided to visit some nearby waterfalls the day before my course began.

Usually only the local boys make it up here, but somehow, we thought we were hardcore enough!

Usually only the local boys make it up here, but somehow, we thought we were hardcore enough!

Instead of taking the proper path to the cascadas, we scrambled along the river bed.  When we arrived, the falls were little more than a trickle and also contained a fair amount of litter!  There are seven waterfalls in total, and whilst the majority of people stopped at number four, we decided to copy the local boys and rock climb up to number five.

Jackie celebrates arriving at the trickle of a waterfall

Jackie celebrates arriving at the trickle of a waterfall

We soon realised why other people were avoiding this climb and had to literally be hauled up by a nine year old Bolivian boy who I was concerned wouldn´t be able to take my weight!  On the way back down, we were shaking with fear as we climbed along a very steep section of rocks.  When we finally made it back to safety in one piece, we received a round of applause from the locals.

These lads gave us a lift home on their van and taught us some Quecha

These lads gave us a lift home on their van and taught us some Quecha

We were so pleased not to have fallen, and to have braved the last waterfall.  Yes, it was also a rubbish trickle, but what an adventure we had getting there!  The situation improved further, when we were given a lift home on the back of a van by some local lads – one claimed to be 32, but I think he was in fact about 15!  His chubby, somewhat flirtacious friend was kind enough to teach us a bit of Quechua – hello is “Rimaykullayki!”

Riding home in style - on the back of a truck!

Riding home in style – on the back of a truck!

Sucre was intense – I have never spoken so much Spanish in my life!  Needless to say though, I do think I have improved – particularly when it comes to my conjugation, which sucked previously!

Living with a host family gave a unique insight into the Bolivian way of life.  The hospitality and kindness of my host parents was amazing – to the point they were even sympathetic and amused when I came home slightly tipsy one night and broke their key in the door!