Monday, April 17, 2017

Peru again.....and a bit of Bolivia too



I was worried Cusco and Machu Picchu might not seem as special second time around but Cusco was just as charming as on first inspection. And Machu Picchu was even better cos there was no rain and no rush. We got to spend a whole beautiful blue day there and saw the sun gate and lots of llamas ‘mowing’ the lawns. It’s been renovated but in a sensitive way that blends in with the original site - just more walls and more gardens and smoother paths to prevent injury.


Aguas Calientes has grown a bit with more hotels but is still as beautiful as ever.

The rest was new territory. Ollantaytambo turned out to be our favourite town. It's a living Inca town where people live in the original Inca houses on tiny cobbled streets and small canals run down every street carrying fresh water.  We stayed at Casa de Mama hostel which had a very friendly manager Victor and endless hot water, yay! (finally got to wash my hair). We visited the main ruins on the hill overlooking Ollantaytambo, which were very simple ancient walls but gave fantastic views over the surrounding countryside and farms in the Sacred Valley and the colourful native flowers growing all over the hillsides. Next day we trekked to some ruins on the other side of the valley just above Ollantaytambo which cost nothing and gave fabulous views over the old Inca houses in town and their lovely gardens and mini orchards.   

Practically all of Peru was perfect. Highlights were the Nazca Lines, Huacachina sand dunes (highest dunes in South America) and the islands on Lake Titicaca (highest altitude navigable lake in the world). The reed islands were the most interesting because they were so different but sadly we didn't get to stay on a reed island. But the island we did stay on overnight was beautiful - we felt as though we were on an island in the Mediterranean with the calm blue lake so huge it felt like an ocean and all the colourful flowers and buildings very Mediterranean as well.  We were billeted in a large hostel built by a middle-aged couple as their income source. After getting totally soaked on our rainy trek to the top of the island to watch the sunset, we were fed and dressed in warm traditional clothing and taken to the community hall to dance to music by a local band.  Next day we toured another 'Greek' island where a man gave us a great feed in his garden and demonstrated how they make shampoo from a plant that grows there.









Bolivia was all about Uyuni – the world’s largest salt desert – which took us two days of bus rides to get to. We set off from Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca through beautiful high altitude hills with great views down over the lake on both the Peruvian and Bolivian sides. We could tell straightaway when we saw our first Bolivian town that this was a poorer country than Peru. When we finally reached Uyuni it was amazing. A friend in Australia had said to me when I told her I wanted to travel miles from anywhere to see the world's largest salt flats and Michael couldn't understand why, 'Well, think about it Elizabeth - salt flats!'

But what salt flats. They were endless and as it got nearer to sunset the textures and colours revealed themselves more strongly. By the time we got to the cactus island, our final stop on the tour, it was late afternoon and the walk around the island in the early evening sunshine was breathtaking. It's hard to describe the vast sparkling immenseness of it, you had to be there. But the photos certainly help!


We left so late - it was hard to drag ourselves away when the full sunset hit - we thought we were in danger of missing our overnight bus back to La Paz, Bolivia’s highest altitude city. But these tour operators obviously know what they're doing. They got us back just in time to grab a snack bar and jump on the bus (luckily they'd fed us well at lunch in a cave-like restaurant built entirely from salt).



We arrived at La Paz central bus station at 4am so we had a long wait before we could respectably arrive at our hostel. Stay in La Paz for a day to check out the views of the snow-capped mountains overlooking this highest altitude city in the world, eat at the 'vegetarian' restaurant Tierra Sana (Healthy Earth) which has non-vegetarian versions of all its vegetarian fare, then go. (And be prepared for taxes on everything, from the few metres trip from the bus station to the bus stop, to the tax at Cactus Island that you weren't told about in the tour itinerary.)
We stayed an extra 'unnecessary' day in La Paz: unnecessary for sight-seeing but necessary for recovery from our Uyuni trip - day and night on bus to get there, day there, whole night to get back. Yours truly then picked up a brochure at the hostel about the Peru/Bolivia Hop bus just as her long-suffering Michael was about to book us a plane to Lima for a few days' rest & a day trip to the Nazca lines, before flying home. 
So the last week of our trip was spent cramming in as many of the sights of Peru as we could by Hop bus. We went straight to Copacabana just before the border on the Bolivian side. It was in glorious sunshine so we planned to spend the day on Isla del Sol, a Bolivian island on Lake Titicaca, but there was an argument between the tour boats and the Islanders about money so they were on strike. Our consolation prize was to climb to the top of a hill overlooking the lake and enjoy the 'Mediterranean' scenery again. Onward to Arequipa which was supposed to be one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Peru. We were a little bit underwhelmed because the colonial part of the town was fairly small but our free walking tour explored the local market which sold interesting things like llama foetuses and cactus fruit. And ended at a restaurant which gave us free Pisco sours, our first Pisco sours since arriving in South America.







Next day we did a long day tour to Colca Canyon, the world's second deepest canyon - scenery was beautiful, sweet cactus fruit tasted like kiwifruit, sour cactus fruit was so sour it made my eyes water but the most amazing part was watching the condors gliding overhead. The canyon was pretty but not a patch on the Grand Canyon or any of the other canyons we've seen like the one on Kauai or the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado. Fun trip though with a nice bunch of travellers, a great buffet lunch and got to 5000 metres on a plateau where we saw lots of llamas.


Bussed to Nazca, which was a nice little town with the typical family-oriented central square like in most other Central and South American towns. The trip to Nazca passed through some beautiful desert hills winding right down to the Pacific Ocean. The very high and dry rocky dunes reminded me of the beautiful rockscapes in Morocco. Next day we did the light plane flight over the Nazca lines which was as much fun for the dipping and swerving plane ride as for the huge figures of birds, monkey etc..





By early afternoon we were back on the bus for a lightning trip to Huacachina which has the highest sand dunes in South America. Shame we could only stay an hour but we got the best hour of the day - sunset hour. Just had enough time to climb up one of the dunes and get a view of all the other surrounding dunes and the oasis below in the tiny town. Then on to Lima where we arrived late at night to crash in a comfortable hostel room right opposite Kennedy Park. So we got to say a brief hello to the cats of Kennedy Park next morning on our way to pick up our bright red Peru Hop T-shirts and zip in a taxi to the airport.
The cats of Lima



videoThe reed islands of Lake Titicaca

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Volunteering in Peru

March 2016 - ‘Home’ again in Cusco – this time for 3 weeks instead of 3 days. It definitely feels like home as we settle in for 3 intense weeks of voluntary teaching and Spanish language study. We live with local lady Carola who feeds us tantalising tropical fruit breakfasts and wonderfully filling vegetarian gluten free dinners in her cosy suburban apartment.

We teach for half the day at Inti Runakunaq Wasin School (Kechuan for House of the Men of the Sun) and it turns out to be one of the happiest teaching experiences of our lives. We finally get to team teach, which we’ve dreamed of since we first became teachers over a decade ago. The work is incredibly rewarding because the children are so enthusiastic and appreciative. They range in age from 6 to 13 years, boys outnumber girls 3 to 1, and the school is running a program for them during school holidays because they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. We teach them English during the morning and their other teachers run classes in practical skills like art, gardening and cooking.




We work pretty much non-stop from 9.30 to 1.00 but it’s still hard to tear ourselves away and by the end of the 3 weeks we really don’t want to leave. The children are making such great progress and we have so many ideas buzzing around in our heads about new topics to teach them. We learn heaps from the children about their culture, especially on the day Michael turns 55 and nearly gets his head pushed into his non-gluten free birthday cake. He manages to close his mouth just in time so his lips only get grazed by the icing.

Turns out the cultural norm in Latin America is to squash birthday boy or girl face down into their cake before everyone eats it: a messy, unhygienic and hilarious custom. Michael only escaped because he yelled out, ‘I’m allergic to my cake – I couldn’t get a gluten free one’ when the attack began. We also learnt more about Peruvian food as we were often invited to stay for lunch, which was made by the cook with assistance from the children and served in the classroom.  


The school has its own dog, that would meet us each morning

My Birthday

Last Day with the class :-(

Looking at what they had made in crafts

Cleaning up after lunch