Machu Picchu, Spanish, salsa and salt flats
21.03.2015 - 03.05.2015 15 °C
We'd been planning this trip for over a year and saving for the best part of 12 months. So what's the first thing we did when we arrived in Lima at 6am on a Sunday morning? Yep, that's right - join up with Liverpool Reds Peru supporters group and watch the football. As you can imagine, Sophie was thrilled!
Following the excitement of the football, our first few days were spent lapping up the sunshine and wandering around the city. We often stumbled upon the bizarre Park Kennedy, which is littered with cats, much to Sophie's bemusement.
After a few days, we hopped on a bus down to Huacachina. It may well be a funky sounding name, but it's an even funkier place. The tiny town is perched in the middle of sand dunes, with hostels and restaurants clustered around a small, tranquil oasis.
The tranquility didn't last for long though. Lurking nearby were a group of dune buggies, growling and roaring at the prospect of careering into the desert. After a quick safety check (which involved violently shaking the front wheel a few times) the driver began to launch us off the top of dunes and fling us around tight corners. When we eventually stopped and regained our composure, it was time to throw ourselves down the dunes on sandboards.
Not wanting to risk broken ankles, both Sophie and I decided it'd be better to lie down on the boards. On one of my attempts, I still somehow found a way to make a fool of myself though, and in true Laurel and Hardy fashion the sandboard slipped from my grasp, crept up behind me and knocked me on the head as I lay prone at 45 degrees on the dune.
Nursing a sore head, we went back to Lima to join up with our G Adventures group in preparation for the Inca Trail. However, in the week before the hard slog began, we sipped beers on rooftop terraces in Arequipa, lounged in thermal springs in the tiny village of Chilvay and gawped at condors in Colca Canyon as they swooped above the click of camera shutters.
Then we arrived in Cusco - a full 3400m above sea level. The city, which was the main hub of the Inca Empire, is beautiful during the day with it's countless grand squares and tiny cobbled streets, but just as dazzling at night as the houses dotted on the hillsides all around the city centre illuminate the night sky.
I'd only been in the city for two hours before I was frantically paddling along a ferocious river on a white-water rafting trip. The initial panic soon subsided into pure adrenalin as the dingy crashed into countless waves.
The whirlwind tour was only just gearing up though, as we then went to Ccaccaccollo to stay the night with a local family. Within minutes of arriving, the girls were carrying heavy pots of mashed potato, quinoa and guinea pigs up a steep hill, while the guys hacked away at the land with huge hoes. Thankfully, the hard labour didn't last long and after a massive picnic, we were soon singing and dancing with all the families in the village.
Finally, the main event dawned on us - a four-day trek along the Inca Trail, which would lead us to Machu Picchu. The scale of the climb was magnified at the main gate, where almost 100 porters carrying in excess of 20kg each were hoisting their heavy bags onto their backs.
The first day was relatively simple, bar a steep ascent for roughly 30 minutes, but it was made slightly easier by a swig of corn beer at the top! It must have been hell for the porters with their weighty bags, but can you believe that they applauded us upon reaching the campsite?! If that's the welcome we receive, then they deserve a five-star holiday!
Before we went to sleep that night, we were warned about the next day.
"There will be five hours of continuous climbing up steps tomorrow," said our guide, Alexis. "Be prepared."
You can only prepare so much. By the third hour, with grey, drizzly rain spitting in my face, I began to feel the effects of altitude. I was dizzy, light-headed and weak. But with the help of my glamorous assisstant Sophie, I struggled to Dead Woman's Pass, the highest point of the trek at 4,200m.
Despite the miserable weather, everybody's spirits lifted after Dead Woman's Pass. The third day was a stroll in comparison and the appearance of a cake at lunchtime went a long way to cheering everybody up. Quite how our cook managed to bake a cake in a tent on the third day of a trek still baffles me!
Our final day began at 2:30am. We stumbled out of our tents, trying not to disturb the sleeping llamas just a few feet away. We thought this would be the easy part, but the steep descent in the dark took lots of concentration. For hours, we continued downhill in silence until the sun finally revealed the 400m drop to the river below.
By 7am, everyone was beginning to tire, but then we saw it.
At the top of a five-minute climb, we appeared at the Sun Gate and saw the majestic Machu Picchu in the distance. A small, whispy cloud floated over the lost city of the Incas, adding to its mystery.
Exhausted, we all collapsed on the floor, trying to muster a smile to enhance the inevitable new Facebook profile picture. After a while, we picked ourselves up and bounced down the remaining 40 minutes of the walk and spent the next few hours gawping at the sheer scale of the site, which was built more than 500 years ago.
After a couple of days of rest and relaxation in Cusco, we finally said goodbye to our amazing G Adventures group and joined up with our host family, where we stayed for two weeks while we learned Spanish and salsa. Americo, Laura and their two-year-old son Juan Diego were fantastic, laying on gargantuan Peruvian feasts every lunchtime and looking after me through my two bouts of illness. As they spoke very little English, our American friend Eric proved an invaluable translator, particularly during the first week!
Learning Spanish for four hours daily is slightly overwhelming, but after a short break we were soon racking our brains again as we tried to remember our salsa steps. After two weeks, we reckon our salsa is better than our Spanish! Just don't expect us to pull out the moves in Banbury or Bury...
Following a fortnight with our brilliant family in Cusco, we hopped over the border to Bolivia, stopping briefly at the bizarre floating islands in Puno and the idyllic Isla del Sol.
When we arrived in La Paz, the hustle and bustle was a little overwhelming after the quaint streets of Cusco.
I wasn't there for long though, as I headed out of the city to bike down the infamous Death Road. The first 60km saw us speed down tarmac roads, with the path sweeping down the valley in front of us. However, the rest of the ride was a bone-rattling decline down gravel paths.
To make matters worse, our guide said: "We're going to ride on the left-hand side of the road. That's the side with the 500m vertical drop."
His reasoning was that this would prevent us from being run over by drivers coming up the hill. Not much of a choice, eh?
With my hands gripped tightly to the handebars, I barely blinked for four hours as the misty abyss to my left loomed ominously, but I eventually made it to the bottom and quickly sank a well-earned beer or two.
We were only in La Paz briefly and soon headed out to Uyuni, the starting point for dozens of daily salt flats tours.
Now, you've all seen the pictures. The 'giant' duck chasing us, tiny people cowering from the dinosaur. Due to the number of photos I had seen online beforehand, I was a little worried that it might disappoint, but I had absolutely no reason to be concerned.
The brilliant white salt flats stretch as far as the eye can see. Imagine this eery landscape and magnify it a thousand times over as the sun sets. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.
Before we left Bolivia, we still had a day left and things only got better. We stopped at a number of lagoons, filled with thousands of flamingoes paddling in the shallow, blood-red waters while the indominatable Andes mountain range lurked in the background.
Our final night was spent slupring beers in a 40 °C natural hot spring under a full moon in the middle of a desert and it's at moments such as these that I wish I could pause time.
Chile, you've got a hell of a lot to live up to!
Kristian and Sophie x