October 2016 - August 2017
  • Day280

    Revelstoke, Canada

    July 24, 2017 in Canada ⋅ 🌙 16 °C

    Impeccable roads through indescribable views.

    We got a Golf. It's dark grey and reminds me nothing more than a St Cuths senior, except that it's stuffed full of camping gear which - as a far as stereotypes go - it's very un-st-cuthbert-like. Sorry Yitty but you know there's at least a bit of truth there!

    Turns out St Cuths girls have reasonable taste and the Golf is a decent enough vehicle for two. It took us east out of Vancouver, via the nearest-but-not-actually-so-near Tim Hortons for bagels and coffee and onward towards Revelstoke. Of course, an obligatory Walmart visit was made where we stocked up on all things American (and the missing camping/cooking gear).

    It didn't take an engineer to notice how smooth the roads were. Even Cat passed a remark or two, much to my astonishment. She was spot on. We didn't see a pothole for our first four days on the road. The lanes were wide, well marked and almost over sign-posted. There were slip-out lanes for every turn and lowered speed limits through every intersection. Even the road works and construction had minimal impact and maintenance had seemless transitions with existing surfaces. A pleasure to drive, and the complete opposite to how we've been travelling the last six months.

    We didn't get to Revelstoke until the early evening but the views on the way were amazing. The sun was out, the grass was green and the mountains just kept on growing. We got a lucky score on the campsite at Williamson Lake; nabbing the last available spot which was actually not really a spot and made us look like creepos camping in the children's playground. Fortunately the next night we upgraded to the lakeside spot which was a little less embarrasing. Our first dinner was a hot chicken stir fry which we impressed ourselves with and then spent the remainder of the evening scrubbing ourselves and the dishes before removing our food-smelling clothes in paranoia of the dreaded bear.

    Mount Revelstoke National Park was our playground for the following day. We've nabbed a park permit from Tristan which, as part of Parks Canada's 150th anniversary, means we get free entry to every national park in Canada. Now we're talking! We drove to practically the summit where we embarked on a four or five hour hike.

    It was amazing! We started in fields of wildflowers and meandered through lush forest, over rocky slopes, raging rivers and made our way up to the snow line where we found two lakes; Eva and Miller lakes. They were equally as impressive as each other and our cream cheese and ham bagels completed the sensory overload. We were also graced with the presence of plenty of cheeky squirrels and several much larger marmotts. What a hike!

    On our way back to the campsite that evening we picked up some much needed beer and an inflatable lilo ($3 each) which would prove the most valuable investment of the entire trip.

    The gas cooker that night delivered us a meal reminiscent of Torres del Paine; instant mash and chorizo. We had hot showers, flush toilets and wifi which was all just ridiculous for what you would imagine to be 'camping'. I'm not complaining and to be honest, at $32 per night I wouldn't expect any less.
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  • Day279

    Cat Lake, Canada

    July 23, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    Canadian camping and a floating fiesta.

    After our hike we continued our expedition north with the intent of finding somewhere to camp for the night. Em had kindly loaded her car with all the camping gear under the sun plus the four of us. This proved troublesome on the unsealed road up to the lake and after tackling several fairly severe washouts at the expense of the car's undercarriage, we aborted the mission and headed elsewhere.

    It's peak season for camping in Canada - summer holidays and it was a Saturday evening; the task seemed impossible. Fortunately we met some rowdy Irishmen who offered to share a campsite with us on the condition that we wouldn't complain about their partying - of course they were already on their second strike. Them Irish! The location: the beautiful Cat Lake.

    Dave met us at the lake with another car full of gear and we spent some time assembling it all over cold beverages. Camping in Canada is not for the feint hearted. Right now, British Columbia is largely on fire. It's burning like Australia's eucalyptus forest only it's pine and the forest covers practically the entire state. It goes without saying there's a fire ban. But fire was not what worried us. Our fear was the bear.

    This far in life, every animal threat I've received has failed to eventuate. This has led me to the belief that animal threats are cause for reserved excitement. That is, there is a slight but highly unlikely chance you will encounter such animal, and if you do it will likely be from such a distance it's rather indistinguishable and more probably just a tree stump. Bears, however, are not part of this belief. They are real. Very real. And they actually eat humans. In fact, the bear rules are more strictly enforced than the fire rules. Bear boxes (steel chilly bins) are to be used to store all food, food packaging and kitchenware, and they lock! Bear proof bins are the only form of bin and bear spray is sold at most supermarkets, camping stores and liquor stores. On top of that, almost every Canadian you talk to has seen one. It is also very confusing that the words bear, beer and bare have no audible difference in the NZ accent. Nonetheless, beware of the bear - you've been warned.

    Cat lake really turned it on. An early evening dip, hummus dip, chip or two and a beauty of a sunset set up a great night which quickly disappeared into early morning. The dice were brought out and our opinion that Canadians are very friendly was reinforced by, well, lots of very friendly Canadians. Dave and Em introduced me to KDs (Kraft Dinners) which I can tell you take after the brand much more than the verb.

    Late the next morning the kitchen reopened for breakfast. On a tiny gas burner we cooked french toast with maple syrup and vast quantities of local berries (it's berry season and we're really making the most of it). It was delicious and in line with the vast quantity of maple syrup we have already consumed in this country.

    After breakfast, in his box of tricks, Dave conjured up a pair of inflatable paddleboards. We packed up snacks, drinks and some music and set out on the lake. It's not a big lake but somehow we managed to drift around (two people per board) for two or three hours soaking up the sun and dipping to cool off. We also had several attempts at log running/rolling which made us feel all the more Canadian. Dragonflies mating was another oddly interesting highlight, especially when they chose to do so on your body.

    We spent the remainder of the afternoon/evening (who knows...it doesn't get dark until 10pm here) getting back to Vancouver with a vital stop at a brewery for lunch and a Caesar - a clamato (tomato-clam) juice cocktail with snacks (in it). Definitely nothing like the salad. I was again disappointed in not seeing any bears, but little did we know that would change in the Rockies. I also had enough of the other beers to keep my disappointment at bay.

    Em kindly gave up her apartment for the night so we could have a sleep in a real bed. It was a really good bed and an even better sleep. Sooo much better than the floor (which we will be spending almost every other night in Canada on). We packed up our gear and most of Emily's camping gear and she dropped us at our rental car the next morning: let the Rockies road trip begin!

    To Em, Dave, Tristan and Mahsan - you guys are legends! Let's hope paths cross again soon!
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  • Day278

    Sea to Sky, Canada

    July 22, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ☀️ 16 °C

    Squamish and a surprise encounter.

    Squamish is just a short stint north of Vancouver and a stones throw short of Whistler, Canada's famous ski resort. Squamish has some of the best rock climbing in the world which was news to me, news which otherwise would have come as a great surprise until I found out my cousin Alastair was hiding out here. Of course, he'd been up and down the area like a spider on it's web and proudly owns an 8 seater people mover in which he lives. Go the people mover!

    Al joined us for a wee hike that morning. We were supposed to tackle the Chief but given that everybody in our party had done it we opted for a three hour uphill to 'the sky'. It was good hard work and the breathless chat lasted all the way to the top. I'm still not convinced either way on commercialised mountains but this was one. The sea to sky gondola greeted us at the top, with a hoard of tourists, a cafe, gift shop and a whole lot more including a wedding, of all things. What I did appreciate was a cold beer and a bowl of fries which revived me whilst we all enjoyed an awesome but cloudy mirador - oh wait, viewpoint. Some 800m of elevation had taken it's toll and we lazily opted for the gondola down (at $15 a head!). It was great to hike in company and to bump into family so far from home. Big Al's got big plans, much of which involve climbing and his tales of El Capitan are something else.
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  • Day276

    Vancouver, Canada

    July 20, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    First world feast.

    I'm not a huge fan of flying and I'm definitely not a fan of waiting so I had to mentally prepare for our journey from Lima to Vancouver. Hope for the best, expect the worst. Amongst many things, I expected insufficient leg room, fat neighbours (two stops through the US...put the odds at roughly 5:1 given that Cat would be occupying one of those seats), crying babies, horrible customs officials, lines, sleeping on airport floors and troublesome delays. It's fair to say my expectations were low.

    But we had a fantastic trip. At the top of my list of surprises were outrageously clean bathrooms (with flush toilets - which flush paper), friendly staff, skinny neighbours, hamburgers with real meat and, what struck me like a bat to the face, the English language. We haven't been in an English-speaking country since we left the BVIs at the end of January, six months ago. It was an absolute joy to check in, order food, ask for directions and listen to obnoxious overhead announcements and blaring tvs. So much comprehendable information drifting through the air. We got so excited we didn't bother to read signs or check tickets - we literally just kept asking. In fact we were so excited we tried to check in with the wrong airline and weren't even embarrased when the attendant corrected us. Ciao español...I'm not looking back in a hurry. There are so many things I've come to miss about the western world without even knowing it.

    Vancouver itself was another real treat. We cleared customs so easily it felt like a domestic flight and were aboard the skytrain heading downtown before you could say humpty-doo. We also made a card payment on an automatic ticket machine which made us feel like we were either in a futuristic space movie or just back in real life. We disembarked midtown and got sushi (!!!) before boarding an on-time bus (with no chickens!) - obviously the fare was waived when we didn't have correct change. I love Canadians. I love the western world.

    We walked down wide, sealed and well-lit streets, generally empty save for the odd jogger (yes, jogger!), cyclist, or vehicle which took great care to give way to us, irrespective of our distance to the intersection. The gardens were absurdly immaculate, with not a petal out of place or a weed in sight and the houses...oh the houses! Did I mention I'm in love?

    Cat's friend Tristan and his girlfriend Mahsan have a one bedroom apartment in Kitsilano which they had kindly offered to share with us for a few nights. We were greeted with smiles, laughs, cold beer, vegan snacks and a warm lounge to sleep. They offered up their house, their kitchen, their pantry and their camping gear - we really couldn't have asked for a warmer welcome!

    Cat and I enjoyed our rest the next morning before setting out to explore. Starting east of the city we walked a silly distance, along fantastic boardwalks, parks and reserves. People were out jogging and strolling and walking their dogs and generally just doing all things South Americans don't. We were surprised at how surprised we were. We went to the Granville markets and abused the free tastings before settling on avocado rolls with feta - we needed a little South America something to help prevent an overload!

    Our stroll took us through downtown and into Stanley Park, which despite my impression of that in Lima, was an outstanding public space and green zone. A monstrous, green and ancient park I know many of you would enjoy taking to by foot or on bike, several times per week. The sun was out, the wind was down and there was so much space. Nobody hustling you, no vendors blocking the footpath, no trucks whistling wing mirrors past your head or horns in your ears. It was bliss.

    We hit the wall in the park (figuratively) and crawled back through town to Kitsilano with the aid of smoothies and an essential trip to the infamous Wholefoods. We spent that evening at The Local in Kits, with Tristan, Mahsan and my friend Emily, her boyfriend Dave and a selection of their friends/housemates. Good beer, great company, tasty food and many, many months of catching up were had.

    Cat and I had a slow start the next day, passing the morning with admin, coffee and bowls full of (largely) maple syrup. We attempted to venture out but the truth is, Kits has so much to offer it's not really worth the trouble. We brunched at Ellis cafe (appropriately), did washing, shopped, ate ice cream and took time to appreciate quality. Quality shops, quality clothes, quality food, cars, gardens and lives. We also made little effort to engage in strenuous activity, except for a short run which was quiet, cool and despite embarrasingly poor fitness levels, very enjoyable. It was also interesting to note that a slight rain had zero effect on the population (seriously nobody even acknowledged it) compared to Sydney which would have turned into an umbrella department store and a city-wide traffic jam at the fall of the first drop.

    We passed that evening at Earls - date nights with football is my favourite - before stopping by Biminis on the way home. We met the others at Tristans and chatted away the night. After two days I was head over heels for Vancouver. I'm not entirely sure it was Vancouver itself or just the western world (to which I'm so very much attached) but those two days were dizzingly lovable. In more ways than one, I felt like I was born again at considerable expense. It was an emphatic reminder of just how lucky we are.

    The next morning at an hour we're not used to, Emily picked us up for a weekend camping in (or near) Whistler. A couple of (real!) coffees later I was pumped!
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  • Day273

    Lima, Peru

    July 17, 2017 in Peru ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    Last stop South America.

    Well here we are. Our last day in Spanishland. I'd wonder where the days went or how the time passed but I needn't. It's fresh as a daisy in my brain and recorded right here for my impending mental deterioration. And it's been an absolute hoot!

    We've found some lavish accommodation in the nicest area of Lima, readjusting to a Peruvian version of a western lifestyle; hot showers, hamburgers, french fries, Starbucks and dogs on leashes. We planned nothing for our darting visit to Lima. Our only business was packing and exercise and business like that can only be done after a good night's sleep, a delicious meal and a strong cup of coffee, of course.

    Wining and dining aside, Lima has a malecon (or boardwalk) worth writing home about. For a city reputable for nothing good, Lima has an absolutely world class boardwalk. Running along the clifftop between two or three of the city's wealthiest suburbs is a stunning exercise haven. They've paved 8-10km of pathway through immaculate maintained gardens and lush green lawns that could put most golf courses to shame. The pathway splits, weaves and joins with turnoffs to lookouts and the like. Amongst the beautiful gardens are playgrounds, rotundas, seating, workout stations, tennis courts, volleyball courts, football fields, a parasailing club, skate park, bmx track, popcorn stands and a noticeable void of traffic and intersections. It even runs over an underground mall! The view of the coast and pacific ocean is nothing short of spectacular and the expensive real estate lining the land side appears unintrusive. It's an outstanding stretch of green space which we thoroughly enjoyed with a morning run and a rather lengthy afternoon walk.

    Other than that I don't have much to report on Lima. We had some fantastic ceviche, delicious mexican and generally steered clear of the cheap and nasty food which we've been living off for the last few months. I even convinced Cat to join me in one of the numerous KFCs for some dirty bird.

    It's been a fantastic last few months but if I said we wish we could stay I'd be lying - at least for now. Western comforts are calling and they're long overdue. Since arriving in Colombia we've spent over 270 hours on buses covering at least 15,000 km, not including tours and van rides. That's only a few thousand kilometres short of driving from Auckland to London (18,000 km). No mas, por favor.

    We've had a decent crack at our list of must do's, ticking off the big tickets like Torres del Paine, Colombia, Huayna Potosi, Death Road and if I must - Machu Picchu. In between we've met some awesome people, worked some awful jobs and filled a silly amount of time both walking and eating. Balancing the good and the bad has been hard work, but after some time travelling I think I'm in a position to say it's the best way to do it. I'm sure Cat will agree that a hot shower is so much better off the back of a few icy cold ones, right Cat?

    We'll no doubt miss the cheap food and board that is so readily available in many of these countries. We'll miss the activity and vibrance of the cities and the frequently changing scenery and company. Cat in particular will miss the hoards of cats and dogs which leave her weak at the knees at least once a day - especially the two puppies I had to drag her from to get to the airport on time.

    We've been in Spanish speaking countries since January and our Spanish speaking skills have progressed from naught to about the ability of a four year old, on a good day. Although I've really enjoyed learning and embarrassing myself in front of almost everybody I've spoken to, I'm really disappointed with myself for not knowing more. Fluency would have made this a completely different trip for many reasons. Hopefully we'll pick it up again sometime in the future but for now I'm chomping at the bit for an English speaking country.

    Travel in a second language at speeds like that requires a lot of research and a lot of bookings and I definitely couldn't have done it without Cat. She's a google master, bookings.com genius and Trip advisor legend. Her incapacity to be underprepared is astonishing and her ability to sniff out a hostel deal or swish mexican restaurant from the slums of the world is superb. She's the one who's been proof-reading all these posts so we have her to blame for any outstanding errors, or to thank for the lack thereof. Oh, and while we're at it, she's also not bad company.

    From Lima, we've got three flights to Vancouver, detouring through Ft Lauderdale (third time at this airport) and Chicago (second time). Here's hoping all goes smoothly. Adios América del Sud, Holà Canada!
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  • Day272

    Cuzco, Peru

    July 16, 2017 in Peru ⋅ ☀️ 18 °C

    The tourism capital of Peru.

    It's no secret. Cusco (or Cuzco if you're speaking Spanish) is the tourism capital of Peru. And it reeks of it. It's not a bad thing. Tourism makes up 70% of Cusco's industry (I'm quoting Fidel here and I don't think he's qualified to make that statement but I lack a better source) and that provides jobs and dollar for many Peruvians who mightn't have otherwise.

    I'm sure by now you all know my view on confrontational sales people, in particular taxi drivers, but I feel that this time I did very well to suppress my disapproval. Right Cat? From tours to massages, restaurants to jugerias, llama garments to paintings, taxis to buses, tissues to batteries to cakes and icecreams or even photos with a llama - these people are at every turn and will sell you anything. It's chaotic but after a good night's sleep, a cup of coffee and time to kill it's an entertaining scene. It's also part of the reason why we went a bit overboard on the budget in Cusco.

    We felt like we were in recovery much of the time we were here. Recovery from tours and bus rides and lack of sleep. That, combined with our time in South America coming to the end, meant we needed to treat ourselves. So we did. We ate at nice restaurants (sampling the local delicacy guinea pig), drank artesenal (and cold) beer, indulged in delicious juices and an excellent sandwich. We shopped, drank coffee and hot chocolates and lounged around like any decent tourist would. Cat even succumbed to a Peruvian-chinese massage (which was in the company of an enormous grunting Chinaman, much to her disgust). Combine that with endless hours of sun, a cool breeze and some outstanding architecture made for a very relaxing few days. There's always stuff going on in Cusco, so much to enjoy and entertain. I'm glad we splashed out a little here and took some time to enjoy it - it was well worth it.

    I even attempted a run. As much as it pains me to associate this performance with MERC, it was a true MERC performance. My current state of fitness is poor and Cusco is at 3700m asl and as mountainous as the Andes themselves - this was a recipe for disaster from the outset. My body gave up on me twice as my heart rate struggled to new highs and there are some running statistics on Strava that should never see the light of day. I'll never know if it was the fitness or the altitude that caused me so much grief but I'm just happy my lungs are still in my chest and my windpipe still drinks air.

    Our exit strategy from Cusco involved a twenty-something hour bus to Lima. It was a perfect summary of all things bad about busing. First off, we've long since given up paying extra for a nicer bus because at least 50% of the time you don't get what you paid for. So we forked out a lousy $30 each for a bus that was promised to be 20 hours. Of course, the bus left late and was loaded to the gunnels with luggage - Peruvians don't travel light! Our seats were tiny and barely reclined and the man on the seat in front of us boarded with a lamb that would not stop baa-ing. Just before dark, that lamb peed. On the floor. The puddle seeped into our foot space and absolutely stank. It was sickening. This was about the same time the man asked me for my knife so he could open his can of milk and feed the poor critter. I was not impressed. We then stopped at an isolated dinner spot which served nothing but slop. Thankful only to not be in piss, we ate the worst meal of this entire trip - cold rice, cold slop, unidentifiable chewy meat chunks. It's a miracle neither of us were sick. It was probably the only bus ride where nobody came on to sell us empanadas. We got a few hours sleep that night and were awoken by a salesman with a loud speaker who spent two hours on a sales pitch for vitamin supplements. At 6am in the morning! Then Cat made herself some friends, the local kids, who at first were cute but their curiosity turned relentless and actually quite violent until we had to remove them with force that might have been considered criminal in a western country. We arrived in Lima in reasonable time (having skipped breakfast - another revolting food stop) but spent a gruelling two hours in traffic to get to the bus terminal. By that stage we were three hours late, starving, tired and stank of lamb urine. The only joy we took was in the fact that (aside from getting to the airport) that was the last bus we will take in South America. Hallelujah!
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  • Day269

    Manu National Park, Peru (Part 2)

    July 13, 2017 in Peru ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    Bugs and bites.

    We found a campsite that night. It was right on the rivers edge on flat and soft sand. Perfect. Except for the bugs, which took to our headtorches like flies on a carcass. Alas we spent much of the night in darkness and long sleeves, yet that wasn't enough to prevent Cat from being bitten on the bum, perhaps the bugs mistook her bum for a moon during a bathroom break. Hilarious from my point of view although I was suffering the second day itch from my indeterminable number of Machu Picchu bites.

    We did get the chance for an evening dip/wash in the river which we were assured was safe. It appeared so until two blokes tried to cross it and ended up getting washed so far downriver we almost lost sight of them. Everybody was extremely concerned except Fidel who assured us nobody had ever drowned on his tours.

    That night we built a fantastic Peruvian bonfire. I'm sure 'Peruvian' is not far from making the list of synonyms for lazy because that's what kind of fire this was. We chucked all the driftwood we could find in an enormous pile, scrunched up a heap of dry grass, lit it and stuffed it into the nearest nook. It actually worked surprisingly well and the result was an enormous flame. Way too big and hot to be anywhere near (especially in the already warm ambient temperature), which caused us to more or less evacuate the campsite until it cooled down sometime later. At least there was enough light to turn off the head torches!

    Meanwhile, our boat crew had sourced some unnaturally straight and branchless Amazonian wood to build our accommodation. They whipped up a frame in moments using just their machetes to cut and clean the wood, and to strip bark from a tree for rope. It was impressive work. In fact, I'd hire them if I could trust them not to make a bonfire. The tarp went on the roof and they even strung up mosquito nets over our camping mats. It was luxury. Well except for the fact it was only big enough for about eight people and we were 13. A quick overlap of the matresses and mosquito nets suddenly made the tent big enough (in their opinion) and it wasn't until we demonstrated the Amazon jungle's first thirteen man spoon did they understand that we wouldn't fit. I don't think they had another tarpaulin so the nights accomodation was beginning to look a little disastrous. They finally managed to find another tarp and whipped up another hut in no time.

    Fidel assured me there would be no rain that night yet mere moments after my head hit the (lack of) pillow, the pitter-patter began. We scrambled to get our bags under cover but there was so little space it made our accommodation look like a refugee boat. Ironic really, given the enormity of the jungle in which we lay. Anyway, nobody complained too loudly, or perhaps complaints in foreign languages didn't register and I got a reasonable night's sleep. I think I was the only one, as the next morning there were four wet campers (the ones on the end), many sore backs and quite a few poorly rested souls. Precious gringos we were - the crew just moved some rocks and crashed on the sandy beach in the rain, no nothing.

    That morning we were up before the sun to see the clay lick - an activity in which hundreds of parrots occupy a clay wall to supplement their diet by licking the clay. It sounded fascinating to me but somewhere between the previous night's rain and a dirty great big parrot-eating eagle, the parrots decided they weren't going to lick any clay. Just our luck. But it is the jungle after all and it wouldn't be much fun if they'd put all the parrots in a cage and thrown some clay at them, would it?

    Fidel showed us a video of the phenomenon from his last trip which made us all the more jealous and expedited our progress on getting out of there. Some boating and some vanning saw us back in the occupied areas of jungle, which surprisingly were not much less natural.

    We visited a lake which we toured by balsa raft. I got the honour of captaining a raft (powered like those in Venice) around the lake whilst we undertook the activity of birdwatching. Now I've never been much of a birdwatcher and in fact I've been known to say some fairly awful things about it, which is why it pains me to say I enjoyed this activity. Let's just say it was because boating was involved. We did get up close with some huge birds, as well as many little ones with fascinating nests and behaviour. There you go, I said it.

    Afterward we walked more through the jungle spotting lots of tiny monkeys (squirrel monkeys), a cayman crocodile, turtles, birds, plants, fruit and insects. It's an incredibly lush and diverse environment amd Fidel just kept impressing us with his knowledge and understanding of it. Again (seriously, every time) he got carried away and led us miles into the jungle before someone spoke up. It took us ages to get back despite his shortcuts through knee deep mud and rivers (luckily he provided gumboots). Our team had prepared lunch at the van (legends) and the hungry, thirsty and tired lot devoured it in silence before retiring to the van to begin the extraction process.

    We drove several hours back to the main lodge (not the jungle lodge - yes he has two lodges) where we enjoyed a well needed cold shower, clean bed and some free time which was spent drinking beer. Dinner was light that evening but nobody was bothered, we just wanted a snooze!

    The next morning we began the drive back to Cusco at nine. Fidel assured us it was six hours, despite it taking at least seven on the way there. At three pm we were hardly close and the driver was taking the corners with apprehension I didn't think Peruvians could have. It turns out their tourism licence expired while we were in the jungle and they were risking a $2000-4000 fine by being on the road (at least that's what he told us). Eventually we found the checkpoint (police move it around) and pulled over the van, just out of sight. Fidel encouraged us to board a local bus, leaving behind the van and it's driver to wait for the police to leave. A few German faces looked livid and Cat and my humour did little to relieve it. We didn't get into Cusco until around 6.30 where we disembarked and Fidel put us all in seperate taxis to be dropped at our accommodation, three hours late. I didn't mind, we had nowhere to be and if we saved him from paying the corrupt police a significant sum of money then I'm happy to have done it. The shambles of a process was actually quite amusing.

    Despite being in recovery for a good deal of the trip, it was an awesome adventure and a really unique one at that. I was surprised at the lack of mosquitoes (compared to my expectations) even though Cat is still scratching her bum. Fidel was the guide we hope for every tour and without him I'm certain it would have been a very different trip. I suppose we can thank Tripadvisor for that one.

    Upon cleaning ourselves up in Cusco (which included 6.5 kg of washing!) we realised this is our final tour of the trip. A moment of sadness was quickly overcome by the fact we don't have to put up with all the things we hate about tours anymore. Hurrah!
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  • Day269

    Manu National Park, Peru (Part 1)

    July 13, 2017 in Peru ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    The Amazon Basin.

    You wouldn't believe it. Cat, she who fears all things bug-like and most of all - mosquitoes, wanted to visit the Amazon. Not only that but she managed to convince me, he who fears all things hot, to join her. I anticipated disaster at best.

    When I say 'Amazon', I'm referring to the mind bogglingly enormous Amazon Basin, the drainage area defining the extent of the Amazon Rainforest (more or less). I've never been one to comprehend land area very well, but let's have a crack. The amazon basin covers an area of 6.9 million square kilometres. It covers forty percent of the land area of South America (the continent) which is roughly 26 times the area of NZ. That's gigantic! It turns out NZ and the Amazon have comparable rainfall so lets just for a minute imagine every single river, stream and creek in NZ were combined into one mighty river. Now take that mighty river and double it in size, then double that again and hell, double that two more times and you know what - add another half of that for good measure. That's how much water is flowing through the Amazon river. Despite coming in at a measly 7th longest in the world, the Amazon is the indisputable heavyweight of the world's rivers in terms of drainage. And no, much to my disappointment, we didn't see the Amazon River. Our trip to 'the Amazon' was to Manu National Park - a small part of the 13% of the Amazon Basin situated in Peru. I can tell you now, it was big enough.

    The Madre de Dios (mother of god) river flows through Manu National Park, which begins some four hours or so from Cusco, at roughly 3600m above sea level. It then takes another 3-4 hours by car (along a pretty horrendous gravel road) to complete the majority of the descent and reach the first town. We completed this part of the trip in a freezing cold van at 3am in the morning right off the back of our Machu Picchu trip. After some seven or eight hours on the road, we had breakfast in the lodge and began another two hour drive to the Madre de Dios river - the beginning of our journey to the deep jungle. Cat and I had endured nine hours of gravel road (largely in frost) off the back of four hours sleep and, to be fair, a rather outstanding fruit salad. With fatigue levels high and still building fast, I can't say we were in a good place to begin a rough and adventurous Amazon trip.

    Our guide was the 28 year old Fidel, born and raised in the jungle to a tribal father and Cusqueñan mother. His first trip to a city was at age seventeen but you wouldn't pick it - he has multiple properties, a five year tourism degree, study in ornothology, a wife and three year old, owns and operates his own business and speaks four languages. He is also never unhappy and fears cheese like the plague. Viva la revolution! If I'm going to nit pick (you know I'll find a fault!) he does have a fairly serious deficiency in organisational skills. Like, he'll make a Fijian look like a German at a job interview and unfortunately for him, our group was majority German. I let it slide...jungle time, island time, same same.

    After a few cheeky stops for spotting monkeys and birds along the drive, we boarded our river boat for the two or five hour journey downstream. It was sooooo good to be on a smooth mode of transport after nine hours of bollockings in the back of a van. Our group (now thirteen and promised not to exceed ten - still unhappy about that) was accompanied by a cook, a sous-chef, a captain, a deck hand, the van driver (not sure why), the lodge manager and of course, Fidel. We were quite the possy and our faithful vessel required quite a lot of attention to stay afloat. Fear not, we had life jackets and Fidel's vote of confidence in our skipper, what more could you possibly need?

    That river never ended. We stopped for lunch on the riverbank, and for monkeys and other animals and the afternoon passed on to early evening and we were still humming downstream. After some time I had to ask: 'how far to the actual Amazon?'. I will never know but apparently three weeks by boat will get you within shooting distance of the mouth. Given that we were less than 300m above sea level I was absolutely baffled: on average, you would descend a meagre 14m per day, the river itself less (as it is slower than the boat) and probably much less in the lower stretches. Surely the river runs out of slope before the Atlantic? Perhaps one day we'll see for ourselves.

    Finally we spun around and docked on a very natural river bank in what will most likely be the most remote location of my life. The best part of 16 hours transport from the nearest wifi, and five from the nearest shop. This is the jungle. What we weren't far from was bananas, mosquitoes, trees and vast quantities of mud. It was extreme isolation and in it, a five minute walk from the river, was a lodge. Fidel's lodge he had purpose built for tours. With a bed and running water (ish) and mosquito nets. Jungle luxury you might say. There were birds in the trees, papaya in the garden and the sun was setting. What a place!

    Cat and I tucked into some rest and relief from the bugs for all of about ten minutes before Fidel decided we would bring forward the night walk. I did not appreciate the disruption from my nap but it didn't take long before I was getting stuck in. Under the cover of darkness and some obnoxiously bright flashlights we saw snakes, frogs, tarantulas, dozens of spiders, grass hoppers, fireflies, giant rats and dozens of other plants and insects. But the best part was the stars. With no light pollution for who knows how far, the stars were the biggest and brightest I've ever seen. Absolutely incredible. I somehow managed to stuff up almost every photo I took, operating in complete darkness with a broken tripod and in somewhat of a hurry, but the milky way is seared into my brain like a hot grill to a juicy steak. Mmm. Nobody forgets a juicy steak.

    We dined that night on more rice mixed with spaghetti bolognese and chased with a chocolate mousse and vino tinto, after a toast to the jungle of course. It's the second time we've found ourselves unintentionally drinking the sweetened wine, a beverage we continue to strive to avoid.

    The dawn walk the next morning disrupted the sleep in we desired. However, the sunrise alone was worth the early rise, as we bashed through the jungle chasing the trail of banana skins left behind by hungry monkeys. Fidel got a little carried away (he seriously loves the jungle) and we ended up being late for breakfast. Breakfast was a little light and rather brief and before we knew it we were back in the jungle, tasting different plants, chasing monkeys and drinking bamboo juice. We walked three hours to the end of Fidel's vague track (cut with machete) before realising it was lunchtime and we had the same distance to cover in return.

    Everyone was spent by the late lunch after walking for nearly seven hours in the jungle heat. We feasted on a huge spread and washed it down with a warm beer. We then packed up camp and returned to our trusty chariot, which had been undergoing maintenance for most of the morning. I came to love that boat for the cool breeze, comfy seat and the implication that we wouldn't be walking. We spent the remainder of the day battling the current upstream, stopping only when we hit the bottom (which was surprisingly regular). Our destination was a spot with flat, soft land; we'd be spending this night under a tarpaulin.
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  • Day265

    Machu Picchu, Peru

    July 9, 2017 in Peru ⋅ ☀️ 28 °C

    Lies, waits, crowds and nonsense - my Machu Picchu experience.

    Aguas Calientes is a strange town. It's the closest town to MP and exists solely to serve the tourist (as with every other place along the way). It is surprisingly upmarket; paved streets, concrete footpaths, glass facades, flashy restaurants and boutique hotels fall oddly into place in this isolated riverside town. They even chill their beers which is a testament to how un-peruvian the town has become. Obviously, along with that comes the hustle; hoards of locals with relentless and agressive sales attempts - probably the worst all trip.

    Our guide spent the best part of half an hour trying to find our accommodation. When he finally figured it out, it was at the expense of his sweaty shirt and brow - he had run most of the city trying to find it. It was a stroke of luck that we got a big room with a comfy bed and a hot shower - all much to our delight given the previous night's experience. Of course, just moments before, I was panicking because the hotel staff physically couldn't find our room. Lost it like a set of car keys. But a whole room. In a three storey hotel. With six rooms per floor. Unbelievable.

    Dinner that night was an atrocious display of rice and something followed by a fruit salad which, given it's 95% banana content, has redefined the fruit salad. The company however was great and given that almost the entire group had brought their own dinner prior to this one, it wasn't such an issue. Dinner was followed by a briefing for the next day, with which we were provided tomorrow's box-breakfast - only for Cat and I to have ours taken away again as we weren't officially part of that group (even though we ate the last five meals with them). Following that, power went out in the whole town so we packed up shop and went to bed. I did take a moment (a lengthy moment at that - ask the German kid who was holding the torch) to fill out a tour feedback form with some colourful words which probably shouldn't be repeated.

    Three forty-five triggered a blaring alarm which was quickly snoozed at the expense of a shower. Four am had me at the hostel table awaiting my promised breakfast. I waited five minutes with no activity before leaving to finish preparing for our 4.15 departure. When it finally did come it was bread, jam and tea - a far cry from the colourful box-breakfast prised from my hands the night before.

    Running only a smidgen late we stormed down the hill to join the line at the bridge to the park. At 5am the bridge opened. We streamed across in single file and began ascending the 2000 odd steps to the gate of MP. Under some specific and very heavily emphasised instructions not to be late, Cat and I bolted up the steps in forty-five minutes arriving at the top in a borderline liquid state - at 6am on the dot. We were in the first hundred of the five thousand visitors the UNESCO World Heritage site sees per day. But we couldn't enter without our guide, who arrived a tardy thirty minutes later, at least ten minutes after the last people in our group. When he finally arrived the queue to get through the gates was in full roar and he'd casually picked up another group (an entire group!) to ensure that the process would include as much palava as possible. I was livid and just a camel's straw from ditching the group altogether.

    Fortunately he split the groups into English and Spanish and began what could be described as an average tour of quite an incredible place. But I'll bite my tongue for a moment, pause the rant and let you know why Machu Picchu is frequently beheld as the Holy Grail of Peru.

    For me there are three things that make MP so spectacular: the setting, the scale and the craftsmanship. You could throw in the friendly llamas, dynamic microclimates, and pristine lawns but they're just the icing. MP was constructed on top of a mountain with near vertical 600m drops on most sides amongst a plethora of other peaks in every direction (some more snow capped than others). The views are fantastic and landscape dramatic! MP itself is said to once have been home to 600 Incas in 120 odd buildings (don't quote me on that). But that's just housing. Then there are the temples, the stores, the ceremonial areas and so on. That's inside the city walls. Outside the walls are a myriad of terraces for farming complete with stores, lookouts and a variety of other buildings. And that is just on the hill. Then there's the lookouts which were constructed on the adjacent (and not so adjacent) hills, the Sun Gate and, of course hundreds of kilometres of Inca trail that lead to and from all that, as well as all the way back to Cusco and in numerous other directions which geographically elude me. Bear in mind the Incas don't make trails from mud - these things are entirely made of stone and navigate some incredibly treacherous and inhospitable stretches of cliff. Finally, the craftsmanship at it's best (the temple buildings) is jaw dropping. Solid granite stones are carved and fitted so precisely that the walls could well have been monolithic with the joints drawn on in pen. Not a crack or pinhole in sight, with perfect vertical walls and symmetry that would put even the most obsessive compulsive at ease. With proper understanding, there's so much to appreciate.

    And therein lay the problem. Proper understanding is hard to get when your first language differs from that of your guide. Or when your guide gives you a brief overview then shows you the gate. We did a small loop of just a few important places before being driven out the exit. MP has two one-way circuits which both force you to exit the park. You then get one opportunity to queue up again and re-enter to complete the second loop. If you take a wrong turn or need the bathroom, tough you had your chance. I can understand a one way system but the forced exit has to be the biggest waste of time since airport security. There is also something very un-Inca-like about the pre-selfie hair brush at a world heritage site - as entertaining as that may have been (on more than one occasion). People these days.

    We did take a side trip to the 'Inca bridge' which was really cool. It's suspended off a cliff and was a secret escape for the Incas in an emergency. They had a mechanism to collapse the bridge behind them and prevent the enemy from following. I managed to overhear the blurb on the bridge from a guide who was apparently far more qualified than ours. Oh what it could have been.

    At the end of the day we did enjoy Machu Picchu itself, despite the average guide and vast quantities of tourists. Our day digressed from there however, as we had come to expect. We had a three hour walk back to the van, interrupted only by a 45 minute wait for a burger. We raced to the vans where we ended up waiting another hour in a hot, dusty, mosquito-infested car park for our van. There were about 200 other tourists in the same scenario, witnessing a system so disorganised it was difficult to believe. Finally after a Spanish girl threw her toys out of the cot and gave the head 'organiser' what for (much to our delight) we were on our way. It was the third van we were instructed to board and disembark. The van ride took the best part of seven hours on windy gravel roads and we got to Cusco at 10pm, heavily fatigued. The tour had been a right faff from start to finish and I wouldn't recommend it in a hurry. I especially wouldn't believe a word a tour salesman tells you - ever. Not a single word. The best part? We had a 3am wake up for our Amazon tour the next day. Ugh.

    Rant over.
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  • Day265

    Santa Theresa, Peru

    July 9, 2017 in Peru ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    The road to Machu Picchu.

    From the outset, Cat and I were unsure about Machu Picchu (MP). We didn't fancy the crowds and our previous experiences of ruins have left us with little more than a mild sense of intrigue. However, almost everybody we spoke to in the weeks prior to Cusco insisted that we shouldn't miss it. That, combined with the fact that it's recently been named the seventh wonder of the world (and a small fear of missing out) was reason enough to spend a ridiculous amount of money on the experience (US $45 just for the ticket).

    MP was the final day activity on a three day 'Inka Jungle' tour. We booked this tour largely because MP is miles away from anything and inaccessible by road. We would have done the Inca Trail but you have to book that months in advance, or the Salkantay Trek but we didn't have enough time. I'd be lying if I said we weren't a little disorganised on this one, which was a shame. The other option was to catch the train but we were deterred by a ridiculous US $150 per person ticket - absurd, I'm sure you'll agree.

    I don't regret doing this tour but the tour company did a fantastic job of trying to ensure we did. They forgot to pick us up on the first morning, only showing up in a taxi after we called them. After we joined the group, it took us a full two hours to leave Cusco, most of which was spent in the van, parked on the side of various roads with no idea why we were waiting. After we got out of Cusco, we had to stop for fuel and then had another 40 minute stop at a cafe for no apparent reason. It was the classic take-the-cash-and-treat-you-like-trash tour we've come to despise. We survived that journey thanks only to the interesting (and quite horrific) life story of a Peruvian ex-guide in our van who grew up in a cocaine factory deep in the Amazon Jungle. He was just a boy at the height of Pablo Escobar's reign and he himself had worked with cocaine and witnessed several very public murders. Crazy!

    We got around to our first activity just after midday, five hours after we were meant to be picked up. We'd arrived at the top of a mountain range at an elevation of about 4200m. It was sunny, cool and clear and we suited up for another downhill bike. Our actual tour guide left the ex-tour guide to lead us and we spent the next two hours or more bombing the smooth asphalt road. Almost non-stop. It was awesome fun with next to no uphill and the continuity left us exhausted and starving! It was after 3pm when we finally stopped in a small town at around 1100m and we hadn't eaten since our bread and jam breakfast at 7am. We packed up and drove another half hour to lunch which was promptly wolfed down.

    We were supposed to go rafting that afternoon but we'd booked the express tour, cutting out a day and several of the activities. Quite happy to skip what looked like timid rafting (it's the dry season) and the extra day of faff, we were shoved in a taxi with nothing but the name of our new guide and dispatched along the bumpy gravel road to Santa Theresa.

    Lucky for us, Santa Theresa is a small town. I say that because neither us nor our driver had any idea where we were supposed to go. Our only tool for navigation (the guide's name) proved about as useful as a steak knife in a vegan restaurant. After a few laps in the car holarring 'Nerio' at numerous Cholitas we eventually got out and followed one to our accommodation. Nobody seemed to have a clue who we were or what we were doing but we were shown a basic room which we swiftly took before passing the remainder of the evening at a bar, waiting for our new group. Turns out they too, were behind schedule, information which took some effort to extract from the lovely lady who had kindly adopted us for the privilege of our drinks orders at happy hour.

    Finally we met our group who made us feel a bit like kids on a family holiday but the motley lot were all very friendly and chatty unlike our previous group, much to our relief.

    The next day we went ziplining across the valley which leads to MP. Despite an enormous conglomerate of groups, the cables were high, long and fast and we had a blast. The sketchy swing bridge over the river was a nice touch (although Cat will disagree) and all we had to do from there was battle the most persistent mosquitos whilst we waited for our van. On the subject of mosquitos - if you're in the area bring heaps of really high deet repellent. There are swarms and swarms of the pesky buggers which seem to get through your clothes (especially leggings) causing grievous bodily harm. You were warned!

    Lunch was had at Hydroelectrica, an almost non-existent village which serves only to feed tourists on their way to MP - oh and to provide power... obviously. We then had a two hour hike along the railway tracks which was pleasant largely because of the limited grade - certainly a change from hiking in Colca Canyon. We arrived in Aguas Calientes in the mid-afternoon (on time and having barely even seen the guide we had paid for since breakfast) where we were handed over to an 'official' MP guide.
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