Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Buenos Aires

Wow it is hot in Buenos Aires. Really really hot, especially during December.

In Buenos Aires we decided to stay at a well known party hostel, Millhouse hostel. There are two of them in the city - just a few blocks away from each other. We found that Loki, the party hostel we had stayed at in Cusco, and Millhouse deserve to be compared so a post will eventually go into the details.
Did we mention it was hot? High 30s for sure, when watching the news it looked like they were talking about a new record; not speaking Spanish we can’t confirm that.

Because we were coming from Chile and we already knew about the Blue Dollar we had about a thousand dollars of large denomination US bills with us. It didn’t take long to find the street that was full of Cambios - Money Exchanges. We timidly approached one of the men on the street shouting out rates and converted our dollars into Pesos at a rate of 9.4 : 1.

Big markets meant for cheap shopping, especially with the blue dollar. Sarah ended up buying a pair of nice leather boots, and two pairs of shoes; while I bought sandals, a suit and a pair of nice pants.
Buenos Aires is the birthplace of the Tango dance and this is evident all over the city. While enjoying lunch at a cafe you would often be entertained with a couple Tango dancing. One evening we went out to watch a Tango show. This all inclusive evening included a Tango lesson, dinner, and quite a good performance.

enter image description here
Another memorable evening in BA was going out to a Jazz bar and watching a Brazilian group preform while we enjoyed a nice dinner.

During the day, when we weren't shopping, we went for walks. These usually consisted of an hour or two of walking between necessary stops for smoothies and ice creams in air conditioned cafes to cool off. We visited the famous bridge across the docks on one such walk.

enter image description here

Monday, 23 December 2013

Backpacking through Arequipa Peru

Arequipa's main plaza

After a full day of recovery from our Salkantay adventure we decided to get the night bus to Arequipa. We booked our bus about 5 minutes before the bus left. When we got on we recognized four other travelers on the bus; Caroline and Inge from our Huayna Potosi Adventure, and Charlotte and Warren from our Salkantay trek.

While waiting for our bus to depart, a local merchant was on the bus selling what we thought was a delicious block of dark Chocolate. Brian eagerly bought some and took a massive bite out of it, whilst I took a little nibble. It turned out to be a horrible tasting coca paste, used for making hot chocolate drinks.

The bus was more than full, with people sleeping in the aisles. We arrived at around 8am, two hours late but a perfect time to look for a hostel. Charlotte and Warren had been recommended a quiet hostel that sounded perfect. We shared a taxi and made our way to the Amazing Home Hostel. It was close to amazing with great pancakes for breakfast, actually decent wifi and a hot shower.

The four of us wandered into town for breakfast. The town square was surrounded by beautiful colonial designed buildings made out of white porous volcanic rock. We found a cheap but average breakfast overlooking the main plaza at The Tuturutu. The food was simple and didn’t quite manage to satisfy our hunger. The bill was half what we expected, which was a pleasant surprise!

The local market was really cheap, selling a wide range of food and goods. We spent about 10 cents NZ for a big bushel of parsley, 40 cents for 4 fresh buns and $2 for a couple of hot empanadas filled with cheese and meat. Freshly blended juices were available directly across from the raw meat stalls, which we pretended to ignore so our appetite wasn’t instantly killed.

Dinner at Peruita Pizzaria was really good, we shared a large jug of Sangria over a pizza.

We ended up staying in Arequipa longer than expected due to the buses to Colca Canyon all being full. We booked a bus to Chivay, about two hours drive away from Colca Canyon, that left at 5pm. This left us with an extra free afternoon in Arequipa. We used the time to visit the historic Monastery of Santa Catalina which had beautiful architecture, artwork and history.

There were many long hallways filled with religious artworks

The monastery took up an entire city block with one guarded entrance. The rooms were referred to at the monastery as cells and some of them were as small as prison cells.
Porous rock makes a slow water filter

The kitchens all seemed to feature pizza ovens.

The outside featured vegetable gardens built into rock and bathing/washing tubs with novel plumbing:

You can see more reviews of Monastery of Santa Catalina on tripadviser. The rest of our photos are in this Google+ album.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Salkantay to Machu Picchu

Booking the Salkantay trek.

The tourist office at Loki came highly recommended but we found out that they booked through an agency we had just visited and applied a hefty markup. We decided to walk back into town (down a steep hill) to visit the office again as we knew they would give us a much better price. In the end we paid $215 USD each for the 5 day catered trip. This included all transport, accommodation, horses to help carry equipment and a train on the last day at a decent hour.
early morning start in Cusco

Day 1 - Early Start in Cusco

We were picked up from Loki Hostel at 4:30am and sleepily met our group of 4 other adventurers. Seems we had signed up to the couples retreat with two other couples. We were accompanied by one guide, one horseman and one cook.
We had breakfast in the small town of Mollepata just a few hours drive from Cusco. Here we had the dreaded weighing of our bags. Each person was only allowed five kilograms of luggage carried by horse - everything else would have to be carried the traditional way! We definitely had the biggest bags to carry, after spending 70soles on sweets and chocolate.
After breakfast we set off at about 7am passing rural properties, sharing the dirt road with horses and pigs. Our pace seemed slow to start with but stayed consistent while the gradient increased. Our guide Edwin gleefully announced shortcuts every half hour or so, these would inevitably be extremely steep muddy tracks that possibly took longer than staying on the road.
We passed a couple who were walking the Salkantay independently, they had booked in at very nice hostels along the way.
Lunch spot on day one
Lunch was at a small outcrop surrounded by chickens and roosters. We were a litte surprised when the guide informed us that lunch would be in approximately 45 minutes. We then witnessed Salso the cook set up a mobile kitchen and cook up a three course meal! We soon got used to the luxury of starting meals with coca tea and soup.
Unfortunately the weather packed in during our lunch break. We set off for our campsite at the base of Mount Huamantay a mere few hours walk away. Through the clouds we caught occasional spectacular views of the high mountains that surrounded us.
Group shot with Mount Huamantay in the background
The strange campsite was inside a tarpaulin walled farm shed. This confused us to start with as the rain had abated. Later that evening the weather took a turn for the worse and we appreciated our corrugated iron covering! Our group of six started a nightly ritual of playing the Israeli card game Yannif.

Day 2 - Mountain Pass -> Jungle

It took us most of the morning walking through snow to reach the highest point on the trek, Apacheta Pass at an altitude of 4,600m. This was actually quite cold, bring some warm layers of clothing! We shared the route with a few dozen grazing cattle and our own horse crew which left after packing up our tents. Behind us we saw one other large group which caught up to us over lunch.
Snow at the pass
Over the afternoon we dropped a thousand meters in altitude. The snowy alpine terrain was switched for muddy jungle tracks and both the number of insects and the temperature kept increasing.
Because the weather on the pass had been so bad we hadn’t dawdled, our guide was very surprised that we reached the campsite at 3pm - before the horses had made it. That evening we had awesome accommodation in Chaullay. Beers, hammocks to read in, open air second floor camping spot that afforded decent views. It certainly helped that it wasn’t raining!

Day 3 - Cable car crossing

Followed the trail down river and saw waterfalls. Edwin pointed out lots of orchids, and we ate wild strawberries while walking. At one point we needed to cross the river and the method was a rather high cable car. There was room for three people cramped onto the platform and it was quite an effort to pull across the river.
Hopefully it's not tied up!
Day three was only a half day of walking and everyone was quite happy to stop at lunch time. We all enjoyed the incredible buffet lunch that Salso prepared for us. This was the last time we saw the horseman and our noble steeds - from here on we’d have to carry all our stuff or pay extra for transportation!
That afternoon we visited the hot springs in Santa Theresa! Being a fast group we had the hot springs all to ourselves when we arrived, but the Inca trail trekkers and Jungle adventure junkies soon helped to fill the pools. A cold shower was a violent start that turned out not to be necessary - as the hot water pouring out of the pools was also available to wash off the jungle mud.
Soaking tired muscles at Santa Theresa
The pools had no chlorine and didn’t have the characteristic sulphuric smell. Instead they offered deep crystal-clear water with a smooth pebbled bottom. The pools were so good you almost forgot how sore your muscles were from the previous three days of hiking.

Day 4 - Llactapata

Our group decided to split up for day four; one couple opted for the adrenaline of taking the longest zipline in South America, while the rest of us convinced our guide to take us on a slight detour to the ruins of Llactapata along the Inca Trail.
We had a sad farewell to Salso the cook on day four. He got up incredibly early that morning preparing us packed lunches and breakfast. We left our main bags with him to take on the train.
Breakfast was served at 4:30am to give us ample trekking time. It was a small drive by taxi to the Inca track up to Llactapata. We saw lots of orchids, bananas and flowers on our walk up. Edwin pointed out eatible foods such as blueberries which were a welcome change from our sweets. From the ruins we saw across the valley to get our first cloudy sighting of Machu Picchu.
Heading up to Llactapata
We rejoined the main Salkantay route at the powerstation town of Hydroelectrica. From there it was a few hours walk in the rain along the railway to Aguas Calientas. Sarah didn’t seem to like this part of the journey much…
Having fun
Our tour operator had organized a night in a great hostel with private rooms including hot showers. We were taken out for dinner at an average restaurant that served really good Pisco Sours. Although we had to get up early the following day for Machu Picchu we all indulged in a couple of these amazing drinks.

Machu Picchu

We set off walking from the town very early in the morning to avoid the crowds. It took us about an hour and a half to climb the 1700 steps to the historical ruins.
After the gates opened at 6am our Salkantay guide gave us a tour of Machu Picchu. We visited the major highlights and heard what each area was used for in Inca times. The following photo looks over to Wayna Picchu which we climbed later in the day.
Somewhat scenic place
The weather was mostly overcast but that didn’t dampen our experience. Wandering through the ruins we enjoyed taking in the sights. We had mid morning tickets to climb the peak of Wayna Picchu. The path up to the temple at the peak was very steep and slippery. We stayed at the ruins on top for an hour waiting for the clouds to dissipate and give us a good view over Machu Picchu.
Tiny steep steps
The last thing we did was visit the Inca Bridge, a half hour walk around the mountain exposing more of the Inca’s amazing engineering. Much of the walkway was built on impossibly steep cliffs, with brick supports built straight down nearly a hundred meters to the next natural abutment.
Incredible support
To top off our trip we walked back to Aguas Calientas and enjoyed a few cold beers and played more cards with our fellow travelers. Our train left a few hours later and before we knew it we were back in the comfortable Loki Hostel in Cusco.

Tips for the Salkantay Trek!

  • Don’t book the late train back to Cusco from Aguas Calientas (6:45pm seemed perfect)
  • Bring lots of snacks (weight isn’t too much of an issue)
  • KB tours were really great. Used by Loki Hostel, although it can be cheaper if you go directly to them in Cusco.
  • Book your Wayna Picchu tickets well in advance. Two people in our group tried to get them on the day but it was full.
  • Save a change of clothes for Aguas Calientas and carry them in your day bag. It is annoying to shower and then put on your trekking clothes while you wait for the train with your bags!
  • Llactapata is worth a visit on day four!
  • Enjoy!

Horse Trekking in Cusco

Horse riding is something I’ve always wanted to try, it seems like a great way to get from place to place. Little did I realize that it isn’t a painless experience! By the end of the day I was actually walking beside my horse - much easier on the body!

We were told to take small day bags and that a car would take our overnight gear to the small village where we would stay. We packed our large backpack and then found out that our guide would have to carry it instead!

Our trek started from the incredible ruins of Saksaywaman and heading towards a small lake that supplies Cusco with its fresh water. The guide was accompanied by a horseman who brought the two horses for us to ride.

Brian riding

We stopped off at one village where all the women were all dressed up in traditional attire. One kid in particular loved the sight of us white strangers.

enter image description here

To end our horse trek we had a home-stay with our tour guide’s family. The home was a quaint farmhouse overlooking the lake, made of mud bricks and designed for hobbits; the doorways and ceilings were all about a meter high!

Hobbit house

Sarah was a little bit nervous as soon as we arrived. We both wished we’d bought our tent as it become very obvious we were displacing someone from their bed. Somewhat annoyingly the guide had to return to Cusco, leaving us with his family who spoke absolutely no English and only some Spanish.

The toilet was “NOT OK“, a tiny mud shack construction out the back of the house, sharing a paddock with donkeys and pigs. The “toilet” itself simply consisted of a small open hole in the dirt ground. Unfortunately due to Bolivia’s effect on the system we couldn’t avoid the use of these facilities…

Our host mother was lovely - feeding us at every opportunity. The kitchen was interesting, one dingy light, no fridge, and there was no door protecting the food from the animals (pigs, dogs, chickens), which popped in regularly. We were fed fresh hard boiled eggs for entree. Dinner was a very homely stew, we’d said that we were vegetarian in a cowardly attempt to not get sick. Tea was served after dinner, but it was probably more than half sugar!

The household all rose at around 5am, our guide wasn’t due back until about 9am so we had a lot of time to kill. Breakfast was our first experience of liquid porridge/rice pudding, served steaming hot in a mug. Delicious gruel!

Our guide’s brother turned up at about 11am to take us home. We had spent the hours awkwardly read our kindles in the courtyard beside the pigsty. It was a short walk through farm tracks to the village where a road reached, then we were whisked away back to the civilization of Cusco.

Sarah riding

The route that we took on horseback was beautiful, taking us past ruins, up a valley, over a pass and along a lake. We don’t necessarily recommend the horse trekking, but it’s definitely an area worth seeing if you want to spend a day near Cusco.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Colca Canyon

After Machu Picchu one of the most highly recommended places to visit in Peru is the Colca Canyon. An extremely deep canyon that features beautiful oasis and majestic soaring condors. From Araquipa many tour operators offer guided tours of the canyon - usually taking two or three days. The tours all pick up customers from their hostels at 3am and return late in the evening after action packed days.

Sarah and I decided that we could travel independently for this trip, we wanted to use the tent we’d been lugging around South America but hadn't gotten to use.

The freedom of traveling without a guide started off rather poorly. Our plan was to leave on Sunday morning and get to the small town of Cabanaconde that evening. Because many professionals visit the city for the weekend all the buses were fully booked. We managed to book an evening bus ticket to Chivay, a small town half way to Cabanaconde. The extra time in Arequipa wasn't entirely wasted, we got to visit the incredible Monastery of Santa Catalina. We found a crummy but cheap hostel as we arrived late in the night.
Unfortunately our transportation woes weren't alleviated in Chivay. The only bus that went to Cabanaconde didn't use tickets - rather you just had to queue in the sun waiting for the bus which might or might not have room. After we’d ruled out hiring a taxi for $200, it was our only option so we settled in at the bus station to wait.

Two hours after the bus was due to arrive it still hadn't turned up. A entrepreneurial minibus driver noticed the large frustrated group and offered a ride direct to Cabanaconde for twice the price of the bus ($5 or so) - we couldn't say yes fast enough and 20 people were crammed into the shiny 16 seat van. We finally arrived at the canyon side town mid afternoon - a day after we had wanted to.

We followed a recommendation and immediately visited a hostel known to be very friendly to independent travelers. This proved more than accurate as the host offered to take our excess bags while we hiked and pointed out the way to descend into the canyon to the Oasis.

A very hurried repack ensued, and then we were finally on our way. The trek down was reasonably steep, and being late in the afternoon it was very hot. It only took an hour and a half before we arrived at the oasis lodge at exactly the same time as a tour group which included our friends Inge and Coraline from Huanu Potosi!

After paying our $2.50 camping fee we set up the tent by some hammocks and got into our swimmers. The pool was deep and warm, surrounded by big rocks to jump off. We enjoyed the refreshing half hour before the sun went down immensely. It was a short but still an amazing swim - rinsing off all the dust and sweat after walking in the hot hot sun.

enter image description here

Warm beers and the last of our picnic food followed down by our tent. It was sad to eat the last of our Avocado, cheese and herb sandwiches. We introduced four other people to the joys of avocado and pringles. At happy hour we got a few Pisco Sours - unfortunately they didn’t live up to expectations.
Listening to another group’s briefing informed us that we should get up early - walking at 5am early. So we dutifully set the alarm for 4:30 and finally got to enjoy sleeping in our own tent. We’d lugged it around South America for six weeks without setting it up.

It was already light at 5am when we got under way climbing up the hill. Unlike all the guided groups we had large, heavy backpacks and it was hot work. It took us two and a half hours of steady climbing to get out of the canyon and into the stifling sun.

Friends from different adventures all came together for Colca

Taking a shared bus trip with guided group back was maybe going to be possible. We hurried back to the hostel for breakfast and to repack.

We arrived at the town square at 9am to see if there were any tour buses leaving with spare seats. Fortunately there was also a public bus, bound for Arequipa, just about to leave. We decided that the bus was the safer option, so once again abandoned the idea of joining a tour, and hopped on the bus.
The bus followed a beautiful scenic rout that skirted along the canyon until we approached Chivay. As we drove, we saw condors soaring about the canyons. We were feeling quite smug with ourselves for figuring out how to get back to Arequipa so quickly and cheaply. It looked like we would be arriving at our destination just after lunch. However our good fortune ran out when the bus broke down climbing the mountain side just outside of Chivay. The bus driver tried to start the bus in neutral/reverse which gave all a fright. Eventually we all got off the bus while the driver made numerous attempts to start the engine. After about an hour of tinkering with various pipes under the front of the bus, it miraculously started again and our return trip was back underway.

We arrived back in Arequipa at around 4pm, had a quick bite to eat at the bus terminal, and hopped straight on to our next bus, bound for the southern Peruvian town of Tacna - just six hours of further busing to go!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Lake Titicaca

The last adventure that we had in Bolivia was visiting the largest body of water in South America - Lake Titicaca. We took a bus from La Paz which included a rickety old ferry. Eventually we arrived in the gorgeous lakeside town of Copacabana.

Due to an oversight in our organization, Sarah and I went down to the Lake to get a boat to the famous Island del Sol at around 9am - just after the many boats had left. The only options were to wait until 2pm, or charter a private boat for around ten times the price. We roamed the now abandoned town dejectedly trying to recruit people to travel with us, and eventually came across a Bolivian family on holiday who, after some negotiation, were literally in the same boat as us.

They spoke about the same amount of English as we did Spanish so it was a very interesting day in terms of communication.

The main stop for the day was the gorgeous Island of the Sun. We stopped on the northern end and went for a couple of hour walk with our new Bolivian family.

Among the many old ruins we visited a sacred rock that reportedly looked like a Puma. The guide had to throw stones at each eye and ear before anyone could see the slightest resemblance, although in Inca times it was apparently painted and adorned in gold which might have helped!

Local lamb making sure we weren't disturbing the ruins
Sarah admiring the tough construction

Not many people lived on the island, but most of their houses were constructed using ages old techniques - drying mud bricks themselves.

The small section of the day where we had a guide was good - lots of ruins packed into a prominent place on the island. Unfortunately our guide spoke only Spanish and even with the Bolivian family doing their utmost to help translate key points most of it was lost on us.

We did clarify that a huge rock table we were sitting around was used for animal sacrifices and not human ones.

We had some very fresh fish for dinner; first selecting which size fish we wanted then watching it caught, filleted and cooked. Sarah didn't like watching the fish get prepared, although she didn't seem to mind eating the fish. The introduced fish was a variety of Salmon - and was delicious.

The boat ambled its way slowly back towards Copacabana where we had to run for our next bus taking us out of Bolivia and into Peru!

Saturday, 14 December 2013


What a city, so much history, art, drinking and adventure! The sightseeing tour on foot or bus is worth while if you’re remotely interested in history.

Our trip from Bolivia was on a luxury Cama bus, but unfortunately it was freezing! The next overnight bus we take, we will bring our sleeping bags onboard with us. Arriving at 5am was definitely a mistake, obviously the town was only just waking up. The 5 sole taxi into town was a great investment as we avoided carrying our bags through quite a downpour. As we wandered the rainy streets a hostel owner asked us if we wanted to stay at his “Hostel Hostel”, as it was really cheap and we could go into our room then and there we said we were keen. Sadly this hostel was above the biggest nightclub in Cusco (The Temple) so we didn't get that much sleep!

The next night we moved to the Loki Hostel, known as a party hostel, it has a very vibrant young atmosphere. Try get a room near 11, 12 or 13 as you’ll get private wifi that is much faster than what everyone else has to use at the bar. Unfortunately this can still be painfully slow - like most of South America; uploading our pictures from Machu Picchu at the hostel was an exercise in futility. Loki had different activities each day we were there including an all you can eat BBQ and a pizza night which was a lot of fun.

Cusco probably has more tourist operators than any other profession, and because of the intense competition to nab tourists for their tours, you get verbally assaulted just walking down the street. Cusco also seems the place to be if you’re in the market for a massage, every corner near the central plaza has at least one person offering a rub down! The only place that is worse is bus stations, where everyone is trying to sell tickets to all possible destinations.

We came across a random rock climbing establishment offering nightly climbing movie screenings. We went along one evening, the movie was in Spanish but we still got the gist of it! We even signed up for their yoga class in the morning - although that was across town and we didn’t end up finding the studio among the jumbled streets.

The Inca Museum in central Cusco was good, but sadly most of the descriptions were written only in Spanish, which we still can’t speak or read. We also visited the Chocolate Factory, which was free but wasn't that amazing (mostly due to lack of Chocolate samples).

We met up with Inge and Coraline from Huayna Potosi and we all went out for an amazing vegan meal. Like many places in Peru the best value meal was the Menu of the day. We also had a tip about the vegan Chocolate Mouse which lived up to its reputation.

Overall Cusco is a fun place to hang out, relax, meet other tourists and organize great adventures.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Climbing Huayna Potosi

One of the biggest adventures on our South American holiday was climbing the 6080 meter high peak Huayna Potosi. This impressive peak overlooks La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia. Many of the tourism companies offer guided trips up the mountain. We were walking around on our last day in La Paz, we hadn't quite made up our mind whether to take a one way bus trip to Lake Titicaca or to try climb this formidable looking peak. After calling in on many of the operators we selected an operator who was busy prepping a young group of English speaking tourists. We convinced him to add an extra guide and to take the two of us in one hour! The charge was only 950 Bolivians per person (around $170 NZD) for three days including food, transport and accommodation.

So we hurried back to our hostel to pack up all of our belongings and pack for an alpine adventure! We met up with our guide who thankfully spoke more than passing English. He organized a taxi to take us to the base camp where we met the rest of the group. They were a veritable mix of Dutch, Israeli and anzacs. They didn't believe that we had only jumped on the tour that morning as they had all booked weeks in advance!

Introductions occurred over a nice lunch. Then we were busy getting ready for our first altitude and gear acclimatization walk. The destination was a glacier only an hour away, but at 4800m high this really took its toll! Once there we had a basic priming in ice axe and crampon work, walking up and down steeper and steeper ice on the glacier. I was a little surprised that no self arresting was taught, but of course for the actual climb everyone would be roped to a guide.

After getting our bearings on the ice, the guides set up top ropes for Ice Climbing! They set the first one up on a relatively easy slope. This took a while as there were nine people to get through, Brian opted to play photographer.

The second anchor was set up above an overhang which was a much trickier challenge for everybody. In fact only about half the group even attempted to climb it, and of those maybe half made it to the top - both of us included.

Getting back to the camp before dark was an opportunity for everyone to compare their aches, pains and sicknesses that Bolivia seems to share out generously. The base camp was equipped with two toilets near a stream - you had to fill a bucket after doing your business to flush them. Luxury compared to what was to come! Egg fried apple was an interesting dinner to say the least.

After a big sleep in the next day we had a gentle but still difficult walk to High Camp. It was a two to three hour walk but everyone was feeling the altitude, some would take just a few steps before becoming to breathlessness, others would just feel dizzy. Any outbursts of speed or effort would soon be followed by a severe lack of breath.

Once we arrived at the high camp (5200m) almost everyone went straight to bed, the guides started cooking and Brian continued walking up to catch sight of our peak and to take photos of our camp. By 6pm we were all encouraged to be in our sleeping bags attempting to rest before the summit attempt.

Sarah woke with a groan. It had just passed 11:30pm and most of the group hadn't caught a wink of sleep. Looking out the window we saw lightning exposing the entire mountain side, slightly worrying to say the least! Our guides told us that the storms were common because of our proximity to the amazon jungle. We dressed quickly and attempted to eat stale bread and coca tea for breakfast. We had together been assigned the best English speaking guide "Friendz", and our group of three was one of the first to head out of the camp sometime around 12:30am.

We scrambled down to the glacier before donning our crampons, ice axes, and roping up. The glacier ice was solid and made for particularly good travel, although there were of course pockets of really hard ice which caused us to slow down substantially. Friendz set a good pace, a compromise between going too fast - succumbing to the dizziness and exhaustion and too slow which would mean we wouldn't make it. The company had set a cut off time, most parties could make the summit in 5 - 6 hours, and if they thought you were outside of that, they would turn you around.

Slogging onward the weather closed in and turned claggy. To start with we could see the lights from all the groups attempting the mountain - our groups were not the only people attempting to summit that day. By 2am we had been passed by most other groups, Sarah was really starting to suffer from the effects of altitude, dizziness was almost getting the best of her. We took turns leading then being lead by the group containing Nick and Inge.

By 3am a couple of groups from other operators had turned back and passed us on the way down. Addie traveling with just her guide was behind us and we could still see the Nick and Inge group in front of us so we kept on going.

Friendz told us at about 4am that he didn't think we would make it at our current pace, he also predicted the group in front wouldn't summit either. When we stopped for refreshments, the lone trooper Addie caught us up. The guides conferred and transferred Brian onto Addie's rope leaving Sarah to continue up to see the sunrise with Friendz.

It didn't take Brian and Addie long to catch up to Nick and Inge which prompted the guides to have another reshuffle. Inge wasn't doing so great so Nick joined Brian and Addie in pushing onward to the summit.

Sarah caught up to Inge and they combined, freeing a guide "Wilson". Wilson rushed up to Brian, Nick and Addie. Sarah and Inga climbed to 5850 meters before they turned around. They were massively high, well above the clouds.

Wilson took Nick and Brian, leaving Addie once again to continue on with just a guide. Nick was really struggling with the effects of altitude, needing many rests and lots of encouragement as the weariness was getting to him. Brian and Nick got up to 6000m before Wilson decided that Nick couldn't go on. One of our other groups was descending from the summit so Wilson instructed Nick to join them heading down.

Brian was then left alone with the guide Wilson. Both being familiar with mountaineering they raced up the final and most technical part to the summit. It was now at least an hour after sunrise, but what a view!

After spending a few minutes taking panorama photos and admiring the view all the way back to Cusco, they began descending at a rapid pace, soon overtaking all the other groups descending. Wilson wouldn't let the leash or crampons be removed for descending some of the steep snow which was frustrating. Sarah, Inge and Friendz went down the final section on rock instead of down the glacier. Sarah also had found it frustrating that the guide wouldn't consider removing the rope - even on an easy rock scramble down to the hut. It wasn't until after Brian had returned to high camp and going for a scramble up the rocks that we met back up.

Over the next hour all the other groups returned in various states of exhaustion, exhilaration and disappointment. It was a quick bite to eat before heading back down to low camp and the trip home. Because we had arranged our trip after all the other plans were made we once again got the taxi option, this would have been fine except our ride managed to get two punctures on the trip back to La Paz - as with most cars there was only one spare tire so we had to wait more than an hour for another car from the same company to be sent out.

Doing the mountain guided was a mixed blessing, enjoyed being fed and not having to arrange transport, accommodation but would have liked to take the leash off while actually climbing! We can now both attest to the fact that altitude does weird things to you. We tried chewing on Coca leaves (yuck) as well as the Gringo altitude pills but still felt very weak when going anywhere near a normal pace!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

La Paz and cycling the death road

La Paz is crazy. There were steep streets, lots of traffic and next to no road rules. Brian got road rage just walking along beside the road. Taxi's and Minibuses toot at passing pedestrians hoping to entice them to take a ride, they also toot at anyone crossing the road to inform them that they are driving on the road and you'd better get off it, also they toot at all other traffic for all manner of violations - like driving too slow and waiting for pedestrians.

We stayed right in the tourist center beside the San Francisco Cathedral at Naira Hostel which was more of a hotel than a hostel. We both agreed this was the best shower in South America so far. The breakfast was also very good, with pancakes and eggs included.

One of the recommendations we had was to visit the Taj Mahal - an Indian restaurant close to our lodgings. We visited on our first evening in La Paz, we had barely started with our delicious curries when Brian got a bleeding nose. The staff said this was fairly common with people not yet adjusted to the altitude. A small crowd of Indians gathered around, dunked Brian's head in water and made him lie down on a blanket in the courtyard.

The market streets are amazing, they seem to specialize in particular items. There were streets primarily selling potatoes, streets for fruit, and streets for cellphones. We happened to be staying on a very touristy street which had lots of shops selling alpaca wool items, much to Sarah's delight.

We took our first Spanish lesson at Pica Verde. We are still struggling but the lesson certainly helped with our numbers and a few key verbs.

La Paz Prison is infamous for various reasons, primarily it allows prisoners to conduct tours for tourists. Brian had recently read a book called "Marching Powder" about the start of these tours and of the cocaine production that occurs within the prison. As we walked past the prison we were approached by David, a convict asking if we wanted a tour. We weren't quite brave enough though so perhaps wisely only got to see the outside of the city block that makes up the prison.

One of the most popular adventure attractions offered in La Paz is to cycle the most dangerous road in the world. Couldn't confirm that it deserves that name but Mountain Biking the so called Death Road was fun. We went with a new company, "No Fear Adventure" they had new bikes and were really good. Having "rear suspension" would have been nice, but the bikes were good quality and importantly had very good brakes!

We'd only just got on our bikes when we saw our first crash on the Death Road. A truck driver had apparently fallen asleep and drifted into the ditch on the side of the road. Very fortunately it wasn't the incredibly steep cliff side of the road! We saw the truck still in the same location being emptied into another truck at the end of the day.

Somewhat oddly the few road rules of Bolivia don't apply on the death road, rather they officially change to drive on the left. The main reason for this is the drivers are then on the outside - better able to see how close their wheels are to the cliff and edge.

In Sarah's words "It was a nice bike down a hill". It really wasn't too scary or anything like that. At times it was possible to get quite fast, we started on the sealed road and would have loved road bikes for that part. We biked through small waterfalls and the odd stream which made it a bit more exciting. There was still some traffic going in each direction but they were pretty

After the cycle we went to a small family run restaurant for lunch. We played in the pool with the owners' two young daughters. We attempted to speak Spanish with them bossing us around to play games in the pool. Just before leaving Sarah was a bit parched so ordered a watermelon juice, it was quite a surprise when the proprietors came out with a five liter container of fresh juice! Luckily our group was large enough to make short work of the surplus!

The minivan ride back was interesting in its own right. The new road opens late in the afternoon so we weren't in a big rush to get away. A couple of the Brazilian lads bought a couple of Rum + Cola drinks with plastic cups and we essentially had a party bus trip the whole way back. After the Brazilians had run out of tunes on their smartphones, everyone had to give a rendition of a song native to their country. By the time everyone was through a few cups of rum and coke we were all having a good old sing song.