Escaping the rain

Many people in Peru will tell you with absolute assurance that the Canon de Colca is the deepest canyon in the world. Others will tell you with equal confidence that the nearby Canon del Cotahuasi is actually the deepest. Others still will inform you that the world’s deepest canyon is not in Peru at all but is in China/The United States/Russia/Luxembourg/Wales/Atlantis.

Whatever the truth, it is a subject which sparks healthy debate in Arequipa.

Personally I couldn’t care less whether the Canon de Colca is the deepest, highest, narrowest, shallowest, widest, oldest, newest, longest, shortest canyon in the world. It is absolutely spectacular.

I wasn’t going to let a pesky cold get in the way of trekking through one of the world’s great geological wonders, so at 3am on Saturday my alarm sounded and up I got, snivelling and sneezing, to catch the bus to Chivay, which sits at one end of the Colca valley.

It was an inauspicious start as we drove into driving rain then as we got higher, I’m talking Mont Blanc high – 4800m or so – through thick grey cloud.

We were fed a rudimentary breakfast in Chivay before continuing the journey to a famous viewpoint, the Cruz del Condor which looks down over the canyon. But since we could only see about ten yards through the wet haze it was a less than inspiring stop off.

The bus trundled on for another 25 minutes or so to where we would start the circular trek down into the canyon and back up the other side before a steep descent to the oasis, Sangalle, at its base.

So into the fog we marched, unable to see anything anything beyond the ragged path which zigzagged down the near vertical canyon wall.

After nearly an hour of determined cheeriness our collective prayers were answered. The cloud began to lift and clear allowing us at last to gasp in admiration at the incredible gorge falling thousands of feet to the small river below.

Then a mighty condor glided past, proudly exhibiting his 13ft wingspan, a sign our fortunes were changing.

The rainy season here is supposed to be confined to December, January and February but this year it has decided to greedily annex March as well.

This did however mean that the canyon, usually brown and arid, was bursting with green vegetation adding to its already magnificent vistas.

We walked for six hours that day, into its heart, to rest among its ancient rocks. Looking back at the terrain we had traversed it seemed impossible that anyone could have walked there. We were all asleep by 8.30pm.

As an aside, it turns out that walking up and down mountains at high altitude cures a cold better than any hot toddy or day nurse.

By the end of the first day my headache had nearly disappeared, I could breathe again, and only had to blow my nose every couple of hours.

The next morning was brutal. Up at 4.45am and walking by 5am with a relentless three hour climb ahead of us before breakfast. But as dawn crept over the distant icy peaks, it was a perfect clear blue sky which greeted us.

And my body appeared to have finally come to terms with the altitude – or maybe it was the promise of scrambled eggs at the top – because I whizzed up that mountain.

I won’t pretend I found it easy, it was exhausting but I was sitting relaxing in the early morning sunshine by the time the rest of the group arrived. Such smugness is very unseemly I know, but I feel it is allowed here because my fellow trekkers were all at least five years younger than me. Mwah ha!

From the top we all had the satisfaction of looking at the 1000m drop to the river which we had just ascended. Beyond the gorge the mountains rose, snow peaked and glistening. And scrambled eggs had never tasted so good.

We drove back to Arequipa via a number of amazing ‘viewpoints’ from which we could admire miles of Inca and pre-Inc terracing along the valley but predictably as we neared the city the angry clouds closed in around us once again and that familiar clatter of rain started to attack the bus.

After racing through a downpour to my hostel, wet and cold once more, I decided I would no longer be a hostage to the weather. I boarded a bus to Cuzco the next day.

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Arequipa

It seems the fates are doing their utmost to make me dislike Arequipa.

I have come down with a stonking sledgehammer of a cold, been attacked by a crazy-eyed dog, lost a load of work on my phone and been shivering and damp fairly constantly since arriving at 4am yesterday. But despite all this, I think it is a wonderful city.

Yes, it has been cold and raining with a consistency I would normally only expect in western Scotland, and yes, I feel like someone has my head in a vice which they are gradually tightening as each hour passes, but I cannot blame Arequipa for either of these misfortunes.

Arequipa is simply gorgeous. Even under thunderous grey skies.

Known as the White City, its historic centre is largely built of a light grey volcanic rock, unsurprising given its position just 17km from the summit of the still active giant, El Misti.

The buildings have a colonial loveliness unmatched by any cities I have yet seen on my South American travels. Most open into pretty central courtyards, often set around a fountain. The centre is awash with enticing places to eat and drink.

The Peruvians know how to cook. They have taken influences from all over the world – Spain, China, France, Japan – and created their own distinct brand of deliciousness with lomo saltado, ceviche, papa rellena and rocoto relleno.

I had easily the most amazing hot chocolate of my life about four hours ago. Its rich velvety chocolate flavours cut through with a mild saltiness which rendered it ambrosial.

The city’s proximity to many cocoa farms means puts its chocolate on an altogether higher level.

It also abounds with enticing panaderias. Walking around the city centre one is constantly taunted by the sweet scent of freshly baked bread and pastries.

Another delightful eccentricity in Arequipa is that the dustbin van, which does its round each afternoon, does so to the cheerful tune of Under The Sea from Disney’s Classic The Little Mermaid, bringing smiles to every street it passes.

Arequipa is a perfect place to eat, drink and enjoy.

Imagine how glorious it would be in the sunshine.

Lake Titicaca

I have attempted to rewrite with equal enthusiasm most of what Apple so kindly erased from existence.

I hope it was worth it. Enjoy:

Lake Titicaca. It is such a name to conjure with. I have wanted to see Lake Titicaca since I first heard it mentioned as a child, before I even knew where it was. But in truth I thought it would remain forever confined to the realms of my imagination. So it felt strangely miraculous when the rackety bus from La Paz turned a corner and the lake’s blue sparkling waters stretched out before us. I had reached a place of my dreams. 

A sacred place for the Incas, Lake Titicaca was believed to be the birthplace of the sun, moon, stars and humankind.
Sadly it’s ancient mystique is being slowly swept away by the rising tide of commercial tourism.
One can hardly begrudge the locals for embracing with arms outstretched the money-making opportunities bought by increased visitor numbers. There are few other options here for a successful living.
The lake is huge. It’s 8372 square kilometres, sitting more than 3,800m above sea level, are split between Bolivia and Peru.
The Bolivian side of Titicaca maintains more of its mysterious allure, probably because the chaotic nature of the country prevents organised tourism progressing too fast. 
Bolivia also boasts the breathtaking Isla del Sol, setting for the Inca creation story and home to dozens of Inca ruins. 
According to Inca legend Viracocha, the white bearded creation God created the sun from a crag on the island’s northern coast, where the first Incas Manu Capac and his sister-wife Mama Huaca also sprang forth.
There are no roads, no motorised vehicles, just a few age-old paths crossing the island which have been well maintained to allow the 5000 or so inhabitants and visitors like me to move between its small settlements.
With a motley group of travellers I caught a small boat from the sleepy lakeside town of Copacabana, which dropped us at the northern end of the island.
We walked the 8km to the southern coast, stopping to admire a number of Inca constructions enroute, accompanied by the sounds of wind and water, before being ferried back to the mainland, sleepy from too much sun.
After the manic madness of La Paz, the quiet streets of Copacabana seemed heavenly.

Puno on the Peruvian side of the lake is less heavenly. There is no reason to go to Puno other than for it’s access to the islands.
I had no desire to hang about and as luck would have it the friendly man at my hostel reception was able to offer me a trip to the islands which exactly matched my desired itinerary, starting the very next morning.
It seemed too good to be true.
Alarm bells should have sounded. 
It was too good to be true.
A small group from the hostel were picked up by minibus early the next day and taken to the port.
So far, so good.
It was when we boarded the boat and found it already carrying an army of Malaysian tourists all clicking their cameras in every direction at a rate that would elicit envy from a Japanese tour group we began to question the wisdom of our choices.
The Islas Uros – small floating islands made of buoyant totoras reeds – are fascinating. But when you are trying to calmly listen to an explanation of their construction while what seems like a thousand Malaysian tourists run around pulling ridiculous poses and taking photos of everyone and everything within their sights, completely ignoring the carefully prepared demonstration by the island’s ‘president’, it is difficult to reach the desired state of tranquil concentration. 
We moved on to the permanent rocky Island of Amantani where we were split into smaller groups and each allocated a local family who would host us for the night.
My family fed us a simple lunch of quinoa and vegetable soup followed by fried cheese and potatoes.
We then reconvened with the rest of the boatload to walk up to one of the highest points on the island, the temple of Pachatata – the earth father – from where there are amazing sweeping views of Amantani and the islands beyond. 
This is another example of where being part of a tour group is a pain in the proverbial backside.
Some people walk a lot faster than others.
I know I am a quick walker – it was ingrained into me when as a little girl I would virtually run to keep up with my father and avoid getting lost as he paced brusquely down London busy streets – but some people take the piss with how slowly they walk. A sloth would move faster.
For some reason our irritatingly overconscientious and overanxious guide Jose Carlos had a terror of letting any of us progress too far ahead up the well marked and non-divergent path.
Walk, wait. Walk, wait. 
Near the top it transpired there was a second temple to Pachamama – Mother Earth – atop an adjacent hill which our snail-paced group were not going to see.
At this an American guy and I took off determined to see both. We ignored Jose Carlos’s protestations,  promising him we would be up, down and up again to rejoin the group long before it was time to head back.
Ah, sweet escape!
We sat on high cliffs gazing across the lake at the mainland and soaked up the sunset. 
And we were good to our word and had returned to the Pachatata temple before even Jose Carlos had a chance to panic.
That night the locals, presumably for their own entertainment, dressed us all up in their colourful traditional clothes and hosted a ‘fiesta’ for their foreign visitors. Before I had a chance to remove either of the two thick woollen jumpers I was wearing – it is very cold once the sun goes down – I found myself being trussed up in a corset-tight belt and skirt and expected to dance enthusiastically to songs that seemed to last about 20 minutes each. By the time the music ended I was so hot I thought I might pass out in the arms of whichever unfortunate Amantani man had chosen that moment to dance with me.  
A storm that night whipped Titicaca’s glassy waters of the previous day into a tangle of large rolling waves which threw out little boat about like a plastic toy.
For a few minutes everyone sat very still, stoic, silent, trying to ignore the relentless rolling then the strain began to show.
First to go was a German girl sitting near the front of the boat.
She stood up suddenly and began to race towards the door at the back of the boat.
“Are you okay?” Called the ever-worried Jose Carlos, this time with some reason.
“I just need some fresh air,” she called back, not pausing.
Then a rather green looking Dutch woman sitting a few rows in front of me rose and made her way with concentrated steadiness towards the back, staring straight ahead, not meeting anyone’s eye – or opening her mouth.
A few minutes later a middle aged Australian woman, crouched over and supported by her equally unsteady looking husband, limped towards the door.
And so it went on.
I stared out the window at the walls of water washing towards us, tried not to think about what scenes may be unfolding at the back of the vessel, and thanked God – or more accurately my genes – for not cursing me with motion sickness.
It was a rather shaky group which disembarked on the Isla Taquile, another stunning rocky terraced island, for a final walk and lunch of rainbow trout.
Fortunately, by the time we headed back to Puno the waters had returned to their former state of calm.
I lazed in the roof of the boat, snoozing in the sunshine until I was deposited once again at the port.
The Peruvian islands of Lake Titicaca are worth seeing but don’t make my mistake. However well priced, convenient and tantalising the tour offer, don’t do it. Go it alone. There are boats that leave Puno for the various islands throughout the day and accommodation can be sorted on arrival.
This leaves you free to enjoy these beautiful places in your own way, at your own pace.
You live and learn – and I have learnt. 

I hate Apple

I had just finished writing about five thousand words worth of lyrical prose about my exploration of the Lake Titicaca islands, which has taken me the best part of two days to complete, when I accidentally pasted something over it having highlighted all the text to copy to my blog. In Apple’s wisdom there is no normal undo feature in iPhone Notes unless you know to immediately shake your phone after the mistake when a small info box appears. The moment you close Notes, in my case in order to go online and find out how rectify the error, this will not work. Thanks Apple. Great design. That’s several hours of work lost. I HATE YOU. And it’s raining. 

Dog attack

I just got attacked by a dog on the streets of Arequipa! Me! One of the greatest dog lovers of modern times. The sneaky little – or rather large – shit ran up behind me and grabbed hold of my foot. The next thing I knew I could feel teeth through my, thank god, quite thick shoes. A nearby doorman ran over and shouted at it which thankfully shocked it into letting go. It turned to face me. Miranda vs large dog. I did the only thing I could think of and let fly at it, shouting and clapping at it, making myself appear as large, aggressive and fearless as I could – in the circumstances. It considered its options for a second or two then decided this angry English harridan was not worth the risk and started to back off. But it was keen to have another go so I must have made an entertaining spectacle for any innocent bystanders as I made my progress down the street shouting and running at it until it eventually let me pass. Thank god I grew up with dogs and know how much they hate direct eye contact. I didn’t let that nasty mutt out of my sights until it was entirely cowed, tail between its legs, and I was safely round the corner. I am now ensconced in a cafe with a restorative coffee. Miranda 1, Peruvian dog 0.

Posts about my recent adventures on Lake Titicaca to follow. 


La Paz

Wow. The party hostel was true to form. By 9pm there were people so drunk they were struggling to navigate their way into the lifts. All Brits of course I am proud to say.
Every stereotype was covered.
There were the three blond public school girls whose drawling upper class tones could probably be heard in Cuzco as they complained how they could “haaardly walk” after doing Death Road and ordered all those in sight to head to the bar on the top floor, “Floor seven bitches” they shouted on entering the lift.
There was the drunk Scottish couple who I had seen at 7am that morning when I arrived demanding to stay another night with no attempt at politeness – or Spanish. Twelve hours later they staggered into the lift stinking of booze and slurring so much I couldn’t actually work out what they were saying. Perhaps they were finally trying out some Spanish, it certainly wasn’t English coming out of their mouths.
There was the swaggering cockney ‘lad’ who seemed to have found himself at the head of a gang and was getting cross that reception were unable to give them a room for seven people all together.
“We’re gettin’ the room for seven and that’s that. No arguments, right.” He told his acolytes, only to have it calmly explained to him that he and his friends were not the only people staying in this hostel.
The advantage of all my fellow countrymen spending their sojourn in La Paz knocking back cheap beer in the hostel bar from morning until night is that none of them were roaming the city streets breaking into my happy musings with their irritating noises.
And I would actually recommend the Loki Hostel. The ‘party’ element is largely confined to the bar – and apparently the lift – so does not disturb your sleep, it is in a great position and is clean and well run with an in-house restaurant and fantastic views out over the city.
In spite of my disdainful attitude towards anything referred to as a party hostel, most of the people staying there were absolutely lovely.
Had I not been so sleep deprived I could have happily stayed up drinking all night too. Hypocrisy is sometimes hard to avoid. 
But I had been pacing the streets of La Paz all day and my bed seemed more attractive than any alcoholic beverages.
Ignoring the warnings of stomach upsets I treated myself to a three course lunch at a charming restaurant called the Colonial Pot for a mere 40 Bolivanos, or £4. I felt I deserved it after existing entirely on dry bread, chocolate biscuits and peanuts on the bus from Villazon such was my fear of eating anything that might create problems… I ate a hell of a lot of bread and biscuits, largely out of boredom, but bread and biscuits alone can never satisfy. 
So by about 2pm yesterday, faint from hunger after exploring the crumbling historic centre of La Paz, I decided to gorge myself. 
I wouldn’t pretend it was the most amazing food I have ever eaten, but my god it tasted good.
I started with the traditional Bolivian dish of quinoa and vegetable soup with slightly toasted bread dipped in oil and herbs.
Yum.
This was followed by roasted lama – which I should have mentioned after my first taster of lama in Tilcara is bloody delicious. It came with chips and a tomato and onion sauce.
All this was rounded off rum flamed apple.
Oh yes.
Bloated and happy, I set out again, this time with the energy necessary to deal with La Paz properly. It is not a city for the faint hearted. 
La Paz is a crazy city. Crazy. It is a bustling, noisy, smelly, colourful melting pot of traditional indigenous Bolivian culture – think women with waist length plaits, full skirts and high bowler hats – rampant commercialism and modern business. And traffic. Lots of traffic.
Everything is for sale in La Paz it seems, from Quechuan alpaca knits at prices which wouldn’t buy you a burger in Britain to lama foetuses in the witchcraft market – funnily enough I didn’t enquire about the price of those.
Virtually every street in the centre heaves with market stalls.
And the geography of the city alone is crazy enough. 
It sits in a deep bowl surrounded by snow peaked mountains. The city centre is at the bottom of the bowl with the rest of the sprawling metropolis rising up ever steeper slopes. Only the near vertical tops of these slopes remain bare. Above the cliffs is a high plateau on which sits the separate city of Alta, looking down at its more famous and prosperous neighbour.
I took a cable car up to El Alto from where you can look down upon the whole of La Paz and get a real idea of the scale of this city of nearly a million people built 3650m above sea level. 
This is also means it gets very cold at night. Don’t be fooled by the temperatures in the midday sun, by 8pm that alpaca jumper will come in handy.
For me a day and a half amidst the madness was enough. You cannot relax in La Paz. Fun, fascinating but stressful. 
The cool lapping waters of Lake Titicaca seem very appealing right now.  

Beware the ‘party hostel’

I have made the mistake of booking into a ‘party hostel’, two words which make me want to pack my bags and run to the other end of La Paz. Loki Hostel was recommended by a number of friends who failed to mention those two dreaded words. Party hostels are like being forced to relive freshers week all over again. No thanks. I did it once. I bared my gums, pretended to be hugely confident, drank on demand and was charming, asking the same questions over and over again, to lots of people I didn’t know or care about for a whole week back in 2004 before collapsing in a miserable hungover heap. I have no desire to do it again so soon. 

However, I am only here one night so I am sure I can grin and bear it for that long. And you never know, perhaps I might even enjoy it…