I will post some writing soon but for those of you who are not on facebook, here is a link to my first attempt at videography! It hopefully gives you an idea as to where I now work and how amazing the underwater world is.
I will post some writing soon but for those of you who are not on facebook, here is a link to my first attempt at videography! It hopefully gives you an idea as to where I now work and how amazing the underwater world is.
So unfortunately all good things must come to an end and the less said about my last few days on Little Corn Island the better. I just needed to head home and see my friends and family. Its nice meeting new people on the road but nothing beats a hug from your besties and your mum and dad! A good friend Sarah (whose wedding I was gutted to have missed while travelling), greeted me off my flight at Heathrow with a big hug and a bottle of pepsi max and a packet of mini eggs (my favourite delicacies in life in case you weren’t aware!). After affording me the luxury of a hot bath, it was time for me to head to my parents house to see the folks, catch up with friends and plan my next adventure.
I knew it wouldn’t be long before my feet got itchy and I had no intention of returning to Sunderland for long! I had enjoyed my dive master training so much that I decided I was going to go and do my instructor course. I applied for an internship in the Maldives and was ecstatic to be accepted but unfortunately it didn’t start until July….which was a whole 5 months away! I needed to somehow fund this internship and survive in the meantime so decided to lay low in Sunderland, become a hermit, and try and find some form of employment.
Unfortunately, in an area like Sunderland where unemployment rates are sky high, the likelihood of finding a temporary job is slim. So after a couple of weeks of negative responses I accepted the first job offer that came my way. It wasn’t the best job in the world, outbound sales which basically involved cold calling people to try and sell them phone and broadband services, but it served its purpose. It was a means to an end and I left after I had earned enough to fund the next big adventure!
And that’s where it brings me to now….. the bags are packed, I have acquired all of my own dive gear and I just cant wait to get back underwater and start blowing bubbles again.
Next post will be from the tropical paradise of the Maldives….wish me luck!
It is hard to put into words how much I loved the life on Little Corn Island. It was such a fun yet laid back place to be. Little Corn is a little piece of paradise around 40 miles off the coast of mainland Nicaragua and that distance makes the difference….gone are the dirty, hectic cities and here are pristine beaches and unspoilt beauty. Talking to westerners who have lived here for the years they say change has come and not for the better but I don’t know how it was then so to me this is still unspoilt beauty. There are no cars or motorbikes on Little Corn so no horns to disturb the peace and the only thing to block your path that winds its way around most of the island is the man powered carts that locals use to ferry supplies from the dock to businesses and to homes around the island.
Island Life is a simple life…no shoes required. I did choose to wear flip flops after my initial attempt to embrace a barefoot life resulted in sliced feet from broken glass and random tree stumps!
You only have cold water showers and sometimes don’t even have water at all…..but you have the Caribbean Sea at your doorstep so why should that pose a problem? You have flushable toilets but just cant flush things like paper down there. You might have electricity for a few hours a day but more often than not the generator broke down and so power was out of the question for weeks so no air con or fans to cool you down (unless you had the luxury of a generator at your accommodation). Who needs power though….actually I do when electrical devices need to be charged but luckily the dive shop had a generator and so when they were filling tanks we had power!
None of the above bothered me at all but the hardest thing for me to get used to was the near non existent internet connection. I guess this is what some people love, being cut off from the rest of the world but it was the hardest luxury for me to lose. For the whole trip so far I was in regular contact with my family via skype and also was able to blog of my adventures. I could maybe get enough connection to post a picture on Facebook occasionally but the connection was never strong enough for a decent conversation. It was frustrating when you wanted to find out the Sunderland score or other such important information but I got used to it and accepted that life without permanent wifi is just about bearable!! In all seriousness I bought a local sim card and my mum was able to phone me so life was good all round.
It is crazy how small things that you take for granted can feel like luxury when removed for a period of time. For me the main thing I missed was a choice of food. The food boat came in once a week and so fresh produce was available to an extent if the boat arrived but most often than not the choice was non existent. And without power you cant run a fridge and so you cant stock up on a weekly shop as everything will go off. One day I trawled every shop on the island as all I wanted was some eggs but the island was barren and I had to wait for next weeks delivery. How I craved some broccoli or some nice mature cheddar. It was funny the the things you miss food wise when away from home….the picture below is what my friend brought back following a brief trip to England:
The bane of my life however was rice and beans. We were given a free lunch in the dive shop each day but virtually every day rice and beans was the dish of the day. When I first arrived I tried to convince myself it was edible, as food was expensive on the island was free, but free or not I could not eat it and lunch no longer existed in my life! I never want to see rice and beans again (unless they are Heinz baked beans!).
It was a good job the local western restaurants on the island existed otherwise I may have starved to death. The Italian restaurant called Desideri would give me my pasta fix, while Tranquillo would give me chicken burgers or pulled pork sandwiches (I don’t usually eat meat but Greg’s smoked food kept the hunger pangs at bay). There was also a few good local eateries to indulge on delicious lobster and prawns but Tranquillo usually won my business due to its happy hour drinks having sucked me in already! I spent way to many hours in Tranquillo but it’s a great bar, had fun staff and a great vibe. I would go in there alone but could always find someone to hang out with or would sit in the bar having the craic with the bar staff who were awesome. Troy will forever be remembered when I hear Daft Punk’s ‘Lucky’ as his sole purpose in working that bar was to get ‘Lucky’! Geral, my favourite local kid was also usually around trying to borrow my ipad and generally winding me up!
I was over the moon when my friend and I were invited to Tranquillo for Christmas dinner. Christmas in paradise was beautiful (once I’d surfaced from the Christmas Eve frivolities!) but all I craved was a turkey dinner. Given that you cant buy turkey on the island this didn’t look an option. However, John the owner of Tranquillo had shipped some in, Greg had smoked it and I had an invite…..result. I don’t think he realised how much that invite made my Christmas Day…nearly as much as Dave did behind the bar when he played the Pogues ‘Fairy Tale of New York’ for me. You cant have Christmas without that tune although no-one else seemed to have heard it before!
New Year was also a great party at Tranquillo with the Garifuna guys playing and a dance floor erected on the beach for me to dance badly on. A firework display saw in midnight, followed by a trip to the reggae bar before I got obsessed with hitting the beach for sunrise. No-one seemed bothered but when in paradise for New Year you have to see the start of a new year in on a beach watching the sunrise. I persuaded my friend Steph to follow me so we trekked to the other side of the island only to find that it was cloudy and so we had left a great party to watch a non existent sunrise! Ah well it could have been spectacular!
Steph was one of the Instructor’s at the dive shop and we hung out a lot. She had a real passion for diving and inspired me a lot with her enthusiasm for marine life….this is a picture of her with a shark’s tooth that one of the jewellery sellers had. It was a Megalodon shark’s tooth that had evidently been found in the Atacama desert and she so wanted it but at $1,000 she could no way afford it!
Her boyfriend was one of the members of the Garifuna band who regularly played at Tranquillo. After my time in Belize I had grown to love the Garifuna culture and their drumming just mesmerises me. It was always a good party night as the guys did the drumming and the dancers engaged the crowds.
Things weren’t always perfect and there was death in paradise on a couple occasions. I always had a fear of death by coconut given the statistics (which may be urban legend) that your are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut (150p.a) than being eaten by a shark (5p.a.). When I heard a tourist had been killed on beach I thought the worst. However it turns out he had slung his hammock between two trees on the beach and one of the trees was dead and so while he slept the tree fell on him and crushed him to death….or at least that is the story I heard! That’s the other problem with living in a small community like Little Corn, stories abound with the reality of most being far from what you hear. I always took everything with a pinch of salt. One of the guys who witnessed this dead body also had the unfortunate experience of witnessing another body washed up onshore…. I declined the offer to go and check it out! A poor fisherman who couldn’t swim fell overboard I think.
The worst thing I witnessed though had to be when one of the local guys was carried to the dive shop with suspected decompression sickness. Ironically, I was assisting Steph on a rescue course and we were about to show the student the oxygen kit when she got a real life case of someone requiring oxygen. It was a scary sight as this guy was losing the feeling in his legs and everyone looked concerned. ‘The bends’, as decompression sickness is known, can occur for example if you come up to fast from a dive. The locals don’t follow safe practices like the dive professionals do, they take tanks to go catch lobsters and dive up and down with their catch thinking of the money they will make rather than the implications of their actions. Luckily the guy involved got to the decompression chamber on the mainland in time for oxygen treatment and recovered a month or so later after lots of physio. At one point they didn’t think he would walk again so although he is not back to full health he was a lucky man but I don’t think he will be diving again for lobsters.
Just before I left Little Corn my friend Caroline (the DMT after me) and I took a little holiday away from our holiday to Pearl Keys. It was quite a long boat ride of an hour or so but with sugar white sand beaches on deserted islands with swaying palms this was beautiful and serene. Of course we took some rum and enjoyed the Caribbean as you should and it was an awesome end to a fab time in this part of the world.
I had such fun times on Little Corn Island and that is how it shall be remembered. I wish I had taken more photos of Island Life but I rarely took my camera out so nearly all of these photos were from my iphone. It is strange that when you visit somewhere briefly you take millions of photos yet when you live in one place for a while you never get around to taking snaps. I’ve seen some amazing photos some people have taken of Little Corn and I wish I had bothered to get my SLR out to capture the sunsets and the stars in particular but I will just have to return one day!
Goodnight and goodbye LCI
So what is so special about Little Corn Island that it made me want to quit my travelling through South America and return to a place where I had already spent two weeks? I had only made it as far as Peru but had been planning on visiting the salt flats in Bolivia, re-living scenes from Evita in Argentina and maybe checking out the World Cup in Rio but these things will all have to wait for another time. It was cold in South America and as my friend said to me recently when discussing a country we had both visited “of course you wouldn’t like it there as it has no Caribbean beaches” and of course Little Corn had those beautiful Caribbean beaches and laid back life style and that is why I chose to call it home for a few months.
However much I like just chilling out in tropical paradises, I also needed a purpose for this major change of direction and so I signed up with Dolphin Dive to do my dive master course. This would give me the chance to dive as much as I wanted and also to have something to show for it at the end of it. Maybe it could lead to work and I could stay in this little part of paradise forever!
I could tell you all in depth about my rescue and dive master course but for those of you who are non divers, which is most of my friends, it will not mean a lot so I will try and keep it brief (ish) and just put in lots of photos of marine life.
Before you can start the Rescue course, you must fulfill the prerequisite of Emergency First Responder training. I began the EFR course with no prior first aid training, but my Instructor Steph went over the basics, including lots of catch phrases: Stop think act! Hello, my name is Joanne, I’m an Emergency Responder, may I help you? I practiced CPR, recovery positions etc and just hope I don’t ever have to put it into practice.
With basic skills under my belt, it was time to move into the water with Jen taking over as Instructor for the in water Rescue training. It was a tiring, but fun couple of days with people pretending to run out of air, be unconscious, get lost etc etc. The hardest scenario was definitely bringing an unconscious diver to shore as I had to lift a grown man on my shoulders and get him to the beach to carry out CPR within a certain time frame. My victim, my fellow dive master trainee, Romain, thankfully wasn’t a fatty but it still nearly killed me!
Once these courses were passed it was time to get this dive master training underway. There was a lot of theory to get through and I found it tough to concentrate, my brain having not been very active for the best part of a year! The temptation to close my eyes and relax on a sun lounger always seemed preferable to studying about pressure and physics. I know the theory is important but the practical diving part is way more fun. I nailed the two exams with pretty good marks so I was happy and wasn’t quite as stupid as I thought!
I really enjoyed my dive master training and although I wasn’t the speediest to complete the training, I got there in the end. I was on holiday too so I didn’t want it to feel like a full time job so enjoyed a few days off a week so I could enjoy some of the regular party nights the island had on offer. I was on holiday after all!
My favourite dives off Little Corn had to be those at Blowing Rock which unfortunately I only had the chance to do once due to the weather changing shortly after I arrived. The visibility was awesome and we saw so much life there with big life like Barracudas, Eagle Rays, Reef sharks, Nurse sharks and lots lots more. I would love to dive there again….here are some great shots from those dives.
The dive sites around the island became increasingly more limited as Christmas approached as the weather affected the number of dive sites we could go to but even if we had to go to Stanley Reef every day I was happy as Spot the friendly nurse shark usually came to say hello.
One of the problems in the Caribbean is the lion fish. These are an invasive species, not native to this reef and so with no natural predators they are killing the reef. As a result, wherever possible the DMs take spears to kill any lion fish that we encounter on the dives. This was great to watch especially when the lion fish were then fed to sharks and rays etc…..anything that smelt the blood and fancied some dinner! On other days the lion fish were brought to the surface where one of the guys would make lion fish ceviche for the dive shop.
Here are a few of my other favourite shots from diving around Little Corn Islands:
I love these yellow head jaw fish which pop up from out of the sand
When I wasn’t diving I also loved to snorkel and one of the local kids, Geral, would always hang out at the dive shop wanting someone to take him out. I went out with him a few times and he loved taking photos on my camera too. He is so enthusiastic about the sea and the marine life that I hope he gets the opportunity to take this passion into professional diving later in life.
The Snorkel Test
All of the Instructors and Dive Masters at Dolphin Dive helped me loads and were very patient with me. It was a pleasure to meet them all. We also had some great nights out together but one of the most memorable has to be the snorkel test!
I finally completed my final dive master tasks just after Christmas but no dive master trainee is allowed to become a fully feldged ‘dive master’ without passing the obligatory snorkel test. For those of you not au fait with the snorkel test it usually involves copious amounts of alcohol being consumed via a snorkel while partaking in some kind of task.
Adam (bossman) devised the tasks and as he knew me pretty well he based my challenge on football. Sunderland had just progressed to Wembley that week and so my task was to score as many goals as possible and for every goal missed I was to have something poured down my snorkel. Clearly I figured the more I missed, the more free alcohol I got so I missed the goal every time!
The only downside of drinking out of a snorkel is when you also have a mask on as you cant breathe through your nose…..but I did quite well and only a little was spilled. The same cannot be said for the task when beer was poured into my mask…that was an epic fail!
But it was a great night that ended in the Reggae bar with people congratulating me on my downing capabilities!
I was lucky enough to be able to work as a paid DM on a few occasions (which was super fun and great experience) when people were sick but unfortunately the dive shop was fully staffed with Gary the permanent DM and his girlfriend Molly as cover when the shop was busy. She struggled for work a lot of the time so I soon realised my dream of staying here and working was not to be. It was time to move on.
So only a short 4 hour bus journey took us from Ica to our last destination of Lima. Mum was flying home from here and this was where I had decided to end my South American adventure. We had a couple of days here but it was mainly set aside for shopping and sorting things out. I wanted to swap rucksacks with mum so I could downsize my luggage and also renew my wardrobe by taking most of mum’s clothes. I had clothes for all climates, hiking boots, sleeping bag etc but now I had decided to head back to warmer climes and the Caribbean there was no need for such stuff. Mum may as well take it all home and just leave me with some nice new bikinis and summery dresses! I also needed to stock up on boring stuff like toiletries and so a days shopping was needed.
We did go down to the waterfront in Lima which was quite pretty but Lima is just another sprawling South American city which I wouldn’t have visited if we hadn’t have been flying out of there. Both mum and I flew out the same evening/early morning so we both took a cab together to the airport and after saying our sad goodbyes I killed the next few hours in Starbucks! It had been great having mum visit and I think Joanne’s tours had again been a great success. However not knowing when I’d next see her again is always sad.
The sadness soon abated as I boarded my plane back to Central America. I had enjoyed my time in South America but the altitude and cold is not my thing. You learn a lot about yourself when travelling and I have definitely learned that my heart lies on a Caribbean beach! Give me sun, sand and sea every day, throw in a bit of diving and I’m a happy girl. Also travelling gets tiring. Yes it’s enjoyable but after 8 months of being on the go and seeing new places, I’d got a bit sick of meeting new people and having the same conversation..ie where are you from, where have you travelled, blah, blah blah. My enthusiasm for seeing new places had waned and it was time to stay in one place for a while.
Belize aside, my favourite place on this trip so far had been an island off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua called Little Corn Island. I had visited there with a group of friends and had a blast and then when they moved on I stayed with a friend I had made there for another week. I had fond memories of my time there and couldn’t wait to return.
Another factor in my decision was the opportunity to do my Divemaster training on Little Corn Island. I have been diving for 13 years now and had always talked about doing my Divemaster but needed to find some where that I was happy spending a few months to be able to do this. This was the perfect opportunity. My friend managed one of the dive shops on the island and I was more than happy spending as long as I could afford to there.
I flew into Managua airport where my friend came to meet me and then we decided to have a few days chilling in Granada before heading back to Little Corn. He has a friend Chris who runs a B & B there called Miss Margrits and so we were so lucky to be able to spend a couple of days there enjoying luxury. It didn’t disappoint and certainly deserved its 5 star Trip Advisor rating! It is fairly unassuming from the outside but you walk inside the colonial building and the lush gardens and swimming pool makes you realise you are somewhere special. This was definitely more luxurious than I have been used to!
The guest house is also just a short stroll from the central square in Granada so we spent our time relaxing and enjoying some tasty meals. I’m not a fan of cities but Granada is an exception, it has Colonial charm and some cool cafes so I was happy to revisit this city where I had already spent a week a few months earlier.
Unfortunately we did have to spend a day and night in Managua before catching the plane to Little Corn the following day as my friend had to stock up on supplies . Managua is definitely not a pleasant city!
The overnight bus was super comfortable so we both managed to get some sleep and arrived in Ica feeling fine. The coach had stopped once in Nazca and I was in two minds whether to spend a night here and visit the famous Nazca lines but the only way to view these is by light aircraft and the cost just didn’t seem justified. So, onward we went to Ica where we then caught a cab to the nearby town of Huacachina.
Huacachina is a weird place, a desert lagoon ringed with Palm trees and a scattering of hotels and shops with amazing sand dunes as a backdrop. It was a beautiful spot but best of all we were back to sea level and could breathe properly again. The headaches were gone and the sun was out. We found some basic accommodation, as the place I’d reserved hadn’t got our booking and was full but this was fine and it had a pool with some sun loungers scattered around. We spent the day relaxing in the sunshine until it was time for the activity I had come here for sand boarding!
With all these sand dunes, buggies roar around the streets and then up to the dunes where you are then given a wooden board on which to fling yourself down the dunes on. Mum was a little nervous to begin with but once we got up there, there was no holding her back. The adrenaline was pumping and she wanted to be first down each dune whilst I was the wimp debating whether I was brave enough to throw myself head first down the slopes on a bit of wood!
We had great fun and with a bit of wax added to the bottom of the board we were flying! Some people tried to go down on the board as if it was snowboarding but the sand just didn’t see to lend itself to this approach and most of them ended up wiping out half way down or losing so much speed that they were stopped in their tracks.
The only downside to the trip was the litter. All over the dunes plastic bottles and waste is scattered which is such a shame as the landscape was incredible. We soon learnt how such waste is a problem when mum lost her water bottle over the side. We left our bottles and stuff on the jeep but when we boarded down the jeep came to meet us at the bottom. The drivers were lunatics and didn’t secure anything so when they came flying down the dunes bottles etc were scattered out into the sand and added to the litter problem. There was no way we could retrieve them and were just thankful that we had secured our bags enough so as not to lose the cameras etc!
My favourite bit of the trip was yet to come. As the sun was starting to set the maniac buggy driver decided to take us on a roller coaster like drive through the dunes. It was fast and fun and lots of screams were let out! It was an awesome trip out but when we returned to the hotel we found sand in places we didn’t know existed! It was ingrained everywhere.
All that was left was to head for food and beers and plan the next days activity. This area is famous for its wineries and so for mums benefit we decided to signup for this. Clearly as I hate wine it wouldn’t have been my first choice of activity but mum had done the sand boarding for me the day before (even though she ended up being better at it than me!) so this was her time.
The first winery was in what had been a Jesuit monastery and there was still a church on the site. It was a large efficient concern and the guide was very informative. The tasting was very good with samples of red, white and rosé and finally pisco, which is a spirit traditional to Peru and Chile. Each country claiming to have discovered it. As I don’t drink wine Mum had touring my share too! We have had pisco sours which is a common cocktail here and just about drinkable but straight pisco is like drinking meths. The second winery was a small old fashioned place but packed with groups of tourists. The tasting was the same with the addition of a pisco cream liqueur. Mum again had all of my samples and was definitely looking a bit wobbly by the end!
When we got back to the hostel she felt the need for a siesta by the pool and woke up refreshed and ready for our evening meal and a few happy hour cocktails. Huacachina was a cool little spot for a couple of days but with nothing else to see here it was time to head to our last stop, Lima.
It was lovely to have a lie in today as our bus wasn’t leaving until 3pm. It’s been a hectic few weeks and it seems to have caught up with me as I am now full of cold. Mum went out to visit the churches and I stayed in bed, blogging.
We opted for the Cruz del Sur bus again so we didn’t have to share the journey with cargo and animals like on the local buses. When travelling with mum it’s also nice to have the comfort of the added security of this bus company. They check all your main luggage in and then metal detect your hand luggage and then video each person who gets on the bus and your seat number so it feels super safe. This is reassuring for mum.
On arrival I bartered the taxis down to an acceptable level and then headed to town. Unfortunately the taxi driver dropped us at the wrong place but good old Lonely Planet saved the day with their maps and so a short walk and we reached our accommodation. I was a bit gutted as the room we had was windowless and with a stinking cold I was definitely in need of some air. Ah well it was cheap and I survived.
Arequipa is at elevation 2350m and Peru’s second largest city. It is a Unesco world heritage site but regularly rocked by earthquakes so a lot of original colonial buildings have been damaged over the years. The gigantic cathedral with the ethereal image of 5825m El Misti rising behind it makes for an impressive centre and pretty cityscapes are everywhere.
Mum spent the next day exploring the city on an organised tour whilst I found a hairdressers. They didn’t speak English but I came out with blondish hair in a reasonable style so I was happy. We then visited a potato restaurant which mum had visited on her tour and which was cool. They serve a layer of several different types of potatoes with a topping of your choice and even desert, Dulce de Chuño, was like rice pudding but made from potatoes. They love their potatoes here with over 3,000 varieties!!
The next day was a trip to Cañon del Colca and unfortunately a 2:30am start. Luckily we had paid a bit extra and so it was a nice comfy mini bus that picked us up and as it was half empty I took the opportunity to nab two seats and lie flat out and go back to sleep. Mum wasn’t quite so lucky and was unable to snooze but she enjoyed the amazing stars and landscapes as the sun rose. I awoke in time for our first stop and breakfast.
Unfortunately we then had to make a stop at a place called Yanque where local women in traditional costume dance to music in the main square. They blatantly come out every morning to catch the tourist buses going to the canyon but looked so disinterested in what they were doing and some where even texting on their mobiles while dancing. It wasn’t my thing and then even worse were the women by the roadside with eagles tied up and llamas dressed up for photo opportunity. The amount of tourists that actually encourage this by paying for a photo never ceases to amaze me. I was happy when we got out of there and were on the road to the canyon.
It’s not just the vastness and depth of the Canyon that make it so fantastical, it’s the shifts in its mood. There are more scenery changes along its 100km passage than there are in most countries, from the barren steppe of Sibayo through to ancient terraced farmland of Yanque and Chivay, into the steep sided canyon. Cacti dotted the many slopes.
The canon is the worlds second deepest canyon, a little shallower than near neighbour the Cotahausi and twice as deep as the more famous Grand Canyon in the US.
Despite its depth the canon is relatively young. The Rio Colca has cut into beds of mainly volcanic rocks which were deposited less than 100 million years ago along the line of a major fault in the earths crust. Though cool and dry in the hills, the deep valley and generally sunny weather produce frequent up drafts on which soaring condors often float by at close range.
This was why we’d made the long trip here as I really wanted to capture these birds in flight. Ideally we would have also hiked the Canyon but the altitude and recent trekking had made us think better of this idea and we were just coaching it through the canyon and various viewpoints.
Some much hyped travel sights are anticlimactic in the raw light of day but this is not one of them. Cruz del Condor, a famed viewpoint about 50km west of Chivay is a truly spectacular spot.
The spectacular 1200m drop to the river below and the sight of Nevado Mismi reaching over 3000m above the canyon floor on the other side of the ravine makes this a mesmerising spot.
A large family of Andean condors nests by the rocky outcrop and weather and season permitting they can be seen early in the morning gliding effortlessly on thermal air currents rising from the canyon, swooping low over onlookers heads.
Unfortunately the Condors weren’t playing ball today and although we could see a couple in the distance they didn’t come close so it was a little disappointing that I couldn’t get some great photos but still a spectacular view.
After a couple of hours we got back on the bus and headed back through the National Park stopping at various view points. The views were truly spectacular at each stop but it got annoying as every stop was the opportunity for hawkers to try sell their tourist tat.
At one point I’d just put my camera away and with that a condor flew low overhead. Typical!I tried to get my camera out as fast as possible but it wasn’t to be. At least I’d seen a condor up close though so I was happy.
Our final stop was at a viewpoint , the highest on our trip so far at 4,900m. The air was thin but the view spectacular with three volcanoes in the distance. Of course there was the obligatory tat sellers even at this height and I think they deserve respect for sitting there all day every day in the cold wind. It still didn’t make me inclined to buy anything though!
The drive back was also spectacular and we saw lots of llamas and alpacas roaming wild in the National Park and also some vicuñas which provide the most expensive fleece of all the cameloids.
We returned to Arequipa to spend a few hours chilling before we headed off to the bus station to catch the overnight coach to Ica.
There was no rest from the altitude as we headed on the bus for the seven hour journey to Puno. The journey was really comfortable as we took the Cruz Del Sur bus which was only a little more expensive than the local buses with nice reclining seats and wifi! Not very fast wifi but still impressive in a country like Peru. I did have to point out to mum that this wasn’t the usual standard of transport on which I’d been travelling!
Puno is situated at elevation 3,830m so you can imagine our faces when we reached the hostel I had booked and realised our room was to be found up several flights of stairs. Randomly, there was some gym equipment outside our room which I would have usually jumped at the chance of using but after making it up the stairs each time without a heart attack and being sick, I was in no fit state to use the machines!
I had no desire to come to Puno as I had heard it was a bit of a dive but such a stay was necessary to go visit Lake Titicaca. It wasn’t so bad with a regal plaza and a few nice eateries but once you headed out of the tourist street it was ugly concrete block buildings and crumbling bricks.
It was here that mum decided to try the local delicacy of guinea pig. We found a restaurant that came highly recommended and headed there so mum could finally try a Guinea Pig. I was having none of it. Luckily when it came it was minus it’s head as some places serve it where it still looks like a guinea pig on your plate. This was quite a fancy restaurant and so was served just looking like crispy pork, until I looked a bit closer and saw the little claws were still on. This was just gross to me but mum assured me it was super tasty. She was happy, she had tried her guinea pig!
Lake Titicaca’s islands are world famous for their peaceful beauty and the living tradition of their agrian cultures which date to pre Columbia times. It is also the highest lake in world at 3,812m. We decided to take a day tour to Islas Uros and Isla Taquile on the Peruvian side of the lake (part of the lake is in Bolivia). Although it seemed a must do tour, I was feeling a bit sceptical about the whole thing as I had heard that it was super touristy.
Islas Uros was just 7km east of Puno and these unique floating islands are the lakes top attraction. Their uniqueness is due to their construction. They have been created by from nothing…built entirely with the buoyant totora reeds that grow abundantly in the shallows of the lake. Partly edible, the reeds are also used to build homes, boats and crafts. The islands are constructed from many layers of the totora which are constantly replenished from the top as they rot from the bottom, so the ground is always soft and springy. It certainly felt strange to walk on!
The popularity of the islands has led to aggressive commercialisation of some islands and the most traditional reed islands lie further away through a maze of channels, the inhabitants preferring to be away from tourists.
The island we visited only had about 10 houses and it was basically a tourist trap. I was sceptical about its authenticity! They tell you the families live there permanently but it seemed like the demographic was all wrong. Lots of cute children to try try sell the tourist tat but then where were the old people? Call me cynical but I just didn’t believe that this was their way of life and that it was merely an island to bring tourists to. Yes it was interesting to see, but was it real? I don’t think so!
Next stop was Isla Taquile which was a tiny 7km sq island with population of just over 2000. Taquile ‘s lovely scenery is reminiscent of the Mediterranean. In the strong island sunlight the deep red coloured soil contrasts with the intense blue of the lake and the glistening backdrop of Bolivia’s snowy Cordillera Real on the far side of the lake. Several hills boasted Inca terracing on their sides and small ruins on top.
I didn’t like the way as soon as we arrived we were all shepherded into a restaurant where we were all going to be fed the same set menu. I hate this part of tours so just said to the tour guide that we would go do our own thing so that we could go explore at our own at our own pace. We headed to the main square where we watched the world go by. Taquile has a fascinating tradition of handicrafts with the men knitting here which is a bit random so we checked out their overpriced goods in the cooperative shop in main square.
We then watched the local children posing for photos for tourists while demanding money each time. It made us laugh as one of the kids must have ate about half a dozen ice creams in the time we sat there. Every time he got money he went and bought another one so these tourists who think they are helping the kids are actually just making them fat!
So, an interesting day but super touristy. Next stop Arequipa.
So this was the Inca Trail, an experience on many people’s bucket list and I must admit something that I had wanted to do for a long time. However as the trek approached and I realised my body’s aversion to altitude, the excitement waned and the dread started to kick in. I’d paid enough for the experience so I was just praying for nice weather and hoping it would be better than I was imagining. Mum was super excited though, being the keen rambler that she is!
I was however looking forward to the experience we had organised for the day prior to starting the trail where we were offered the opportunity to spend a night with one of our porters family. Wayki trek was the company we had booked with and this was why I chose them. They offered us the opportunity, at no extra cost, to camp in a local village and experience true Peruvian life.
We left our main packs at the hostel and headed to the Wayki office for our briefing and to meet our fellow Trekkers and guide. There was a couple from Canada on their honeymoon, two girls from Denmark Dorte and Lisbet and an American couple Bonnie and Jerry along with our guide, Rox. Only Liz and James, the Honeymooners had chosen to also do the Wayki experience, the others would just join us the following morning.
Originally we were just going to pay for the porter to carry the minimum weight and I would carry the rest. Mum was always keen on lightening our load as much as possible but trying to reign in the spending I was having none of it. Feeling as rough as I did though, on the morning of the trek I bit the bullet and paid for the porter to carry everything. We just needed to carry our daypacks with cameras, waterproofs etc. This was to be a good idea given that my body’s aversion to altitude continued!
Anyway soon after the briefing the four of us headed out to the porters village accompanied with someone from Wayki trek. We took a public bus from Cusco for the hour journey to Ezcuchacha which was the usual story in these parts with as many people crammed on as possible and then the traders come on selling their ice creams etc. We then transferred to a minibus to take us to the porter’s village but not before I’d bought some jelly and custard from the traders on the side of the road! It always amazes me what random food they sell. You had to climb over sacks of rice to get aboard and it was very squashed so mum and I thought we were in luck to get the front seat……that was until we smelled the driver. Jeez, he’d definitely never washed for a week or two!
This vehicle did not seem to possess suspension and the steering made very strange noises. This didn’t bother me as I’m used to rickety old transport but mum still gets in every vehicle looking to put a seatbelt on (as if you get such things here!) so I could tell she was decidedly uncomfortable when we left the paved roads and headed uphill along dirt tracks full of pot holes. We eventually reached Huayllaccocha, the nearest village to our bed for the night. The bus could go no further so we had to walk with our bags and tents etc (we didn’t get our porters until the following day) for around 15 minutes walk to the house where we were met by two small scruffy children playing.
The mud brick house was built around a dirt courtyard with chickens and pigs running around with a barn on one side where we stored our bags until our tents were erected on the hillside outside next to the ‘loo’, a small building with the typical hole in the ground and bucket of water to ‘flush’ with. We were shown the kitchen where we would eat with the family that night and the porter’s wife ( he was still working in the fields) was busying about and dressed in traditional Peruvian dress.
A little girl who was about a year old and the porter’s granddaughter was crying out on the very steep hillside alone but no one seemed at all concerned.
We were then taken for a walk around the surrounding countryside, being educated about their crops etc and mum had a go at weeding the potatoes with a traditional tool. I didn’t bother as the guys only had to redo it all.
It was also funny to pass kids playing as I noticed they were playing elastics which was the type of simple fun that kept me entertained when I was a kid and if I could have spoken their language I would have asked for a go!
As darkness fell, we returned for our dinner and our porter who was nicknamed Condor had arrived back from the fields. The kitchen had a dirt floor and was equipped with a table and benches for us to eat at, a wood fired clay oven in the corner and as we sat at the table and watched the lady preparing our meal, chickens and guinea pigs ran around our feet.
The guinea pig is a delicacy here for feasts and holidays so I was relieved our visit didn’t warrant the slaying of one! We were served a thick corn soup made from the freshly ground corn we had just watched her grind. By this time one of the children had fallen asleep with her head on the grind stone in front of the oven and the little girl was on her grans back in the traditional Peruvian manner fastened by a large shawl.
We felt like we were on another planet! After some coca tea we retired to our tents where mum was to spend her first ever night camping but only after nearly stumbling over the cows now lying outside the kitchen door. Neither of us slept particularly well and it didn’t help that we were on a hill and kept slipping down it….a few hours shut eye was not great preparation for the inca trek!
I would like to say we had a hearty breakfast but being served a bowl of potatoes in their skin was not what I expected. We were told you peel the skin off and throw it on the floor to the guinea pigs but eating a cooked potato out of your hand with no sauce or salt or anything was just bizarre and pretty gross. The fried corn things Mrs Porter made weren’t much better and all washed down with more manky Coca tea (people kept telling me the coca leaves would help my altitude sickness…it didn’t and added to the nausea). I felt a bit guilty not appreciating the food as Mrs Porter had obviously been up since dawn preparing this and was being run ragged, grinding corn and feeding the animals too. Condor had already disappeared to prepare for the trek.
Coca Tea and breakfast Peruvian style
A minibus came to collect us from the village, carrying the other people on the trek and our guide and we headed to Ollantaytambo an hour and a half away. There was some ruins here to check out but I skipped them in favour of buying last minute snacks for the trek after spotting some Haribos in one of the shops! It was then 45 minutes to Piscacucho -K82 (2750 m) and after a short walk to the initial checkpoint we were on the original Inca Trail!
It was an easy introductory day with ups and downs but not too high an altitude that I was sick. We made regular stops for snacks and to allow mum to catch up on the up bits. Nobody in the group minded the waiting as it gave us a chance to catch our breath but just meant mum didn’t get quite as long rest as the rest of us. The path alternated between hard packed earth and stone paving with stone steps of uneven size which weren’t mums favourite (she dislikes steps!).
We stopped at a couple of Inca ruins, Wilka Rakay and Llaqtapata and had lunch at Tarachayuc. Rox gave us a chat on the Inca history at each site and Mum found it fascinating but I can’t lie, I was bored and had no interest in listening.
The porters not only carried our luggage but also all the provisions for four days,the cooking equipment, gas bottles, tables, chairs, tents, mats, and the toilet tent for the American couple who were on a luxury trek. We had to use the toilet blocks which were too gross to describe. I have experienced some bad toilets around the world but some on this trek made me want to vomit. It is amazing what you can put up with when there is no choice!! In some parts near the beginning you could pay to use cleaner ones but I told mum to get used to basic and use the gross ones….by the time we got to the last day and an option to pay one Soles for a cleaner toilet I was first in the queue! Double standards and all that!
We arrived at first nights camp at Wayllabamba (3000 m) at around 5. Once the tents were sorted we had happy hour which consisted of tea, coffee or chocolate and snacks like biscuits, or crackers and jam or one day cheese wontons and always popcorn! Happy hour was always my chance to refuel as the likelihood of me eating dinner would be slim!
The food is amazing when you consider that the facilities are a small tent with a gas camping stove. It’s just that as you know I’m such a fussy eater that often there is no pleasing me with food! Every day we get a cooked lunch and dinner of three or four courses one of which is always a soup that I wouldn’t touch and which everyone else would rave about! I could usually find something edible between the other courses and although mum loved all the food she couldn’t always eat it as she’s such a tiny eater the thought of all that food made her queasy!
The second night of camping proved better as we managed a little sleep but not sure mum will be going camping with her friends any time soon! Although saying that I think her friends do glamping whereas this is definitely camping!
With a 6.40 wake up call, a bowl of warm water and a cup of coca tea was delivered to the tent. Breakfast, like the other meals was plentiful and varied although this was to be the hardest day and typically mum couldn’t face food. I bullied her into eating something which she didn’t appreciate but you can’t climb hills on an empty stomach (You know where I get it from now Dan!). The first half was in three sections, the first hilly, (1.5hours) the second continuous steps (2 hours) and the third very steep steps (1.5hours).
That then brought us to Warmiwañusca which is also known as Dead Woman’s Pass and by the end of the second stage Mum wondered if the dead woman would be her! Thankfully it wasn’t! On the third stage it was decide that everyone would go ahead and Rox would accompany mum as she was struggling by this point. Rox encouraged her, carried her bag and generally helped her reach the peak where we were all waiting ready to celebrate.
We had bought some beers at the last mountain shop and had decided to drink them when we’d conquered the notorious ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ so as soon as mum arrived (which actually wasn’t that long behind) we cracked open the Cusqueña’s. A toast was made to reaching the highest point of the trail (4215m), obligatory photos taken before we headed downhill to Pacamayu for lunch, a siesta and for our second nights happy hour, and dinner. Mum nails the downhills faster than most so it was her time to get a taste for waiting for people as a couple of dodgy knees held some of the group back.
I was totally bored at this camp and also felt rough due to the altitude. I hadn’t really thought we would have so much down time so didn’t have a book or my iPad so there was nothing really to do from when we arrived around 2 at the camp until sleep time. Luckily I had my iPod so just relaxed in the tent listening to music, it also helped me on the uphill climbs when some good dance music spurred me on. It also stopped me having to be sociable!
Opening the tent on day 3 the view was spectacular and almost worth nailing dead woman’s pass yesterday. Today was described at the briefing as better then day 2! As this was to be our longest day – 10 hours, our early morning call was 5.30am and after breakfast it was an uphill climb. We were now in the cloud forest and so lush and green and a different landscape to the previous days.
However by this point I looked and felt terrible and Mum was exhausted by the altitude. I was happy to keep mum company at the back but really just wanted to curl up and go no further. The rest of the group noticed from my lack of conversation that I definitely wasn’t well! We were lagging behind but the others were very encouraging. We had descended to 3636m last night but we were now back up to 3900m and dying.
Thankfully the afternoon was 2.5 hours steep downhill which was welcomed as I knew once we got lower my altitude sickness would abate. However when we reached another ruin (Sayacmarca) which meant leaving the path and climbing steps, although we now felt better at only 3500m, mum and I decided to await the others at the bottom! I had no desire to exert more energy for the sake of another stupid ruin!
We finished the day as before and the cook had made a lovely cake for dessert in honour of the honeymoon couple which we all shared. How he managed to make and decorate a beautiful cake in a cooking pot on a gas stove we couldn’t figure out.
I retreated to bed at the first opportunity, thankful that this would be our last night under canvas and hoping I would feel better in the morning. I wasn’t so impressed by the 3 am wake up but everyone was excited at the prospect of finally seeing Macchu Picchu. I have to admit I was more excited at he prospect of a coke zero, pizza and a hot shower but I tried to pretend to still be enthusiastic!
It wasn’t a good start to the day though as mum gave me another heart in the mouth moment. Our tents were near the edge of a bank and as Mum tried to climb out and stand up her tired legs gave way and she fell down. Fortunately it wasn’t a long way down and only her pride was hurt but I decided to walk with her to make sure she was ok. I was more worried after Rox told us someone died earlier in the year falling of one of the paths on the trail! I kept by mums side making sure everything was ok especially as we were walking by torchlight.
It had been raining all night and the path was rocky and narrow and the rain had made the stones slippery. We made it to a checkpoint where we then had to wait for an hour until we were allowed on the final stretch of the trail. We had been so lucky with weather all week but typically, today, when we had a magical view to check out it was raining and misty.
We finally reached the Sungate where all the iconic photos of Macchupiccu are taken and all that we could see was cloud. I was seriously underwhelmed and wanted to cry!! All this effort for nothing. Fortunately the cloud kept lifting and falling so we got a few glimpses of Machu Picchu in the distance before continuing the descent into the lost city of the Incas.
We were a bedraggled and wet and queued up to get the standard photo in front of the ruins. I guess the skies gave the scene character but the rain kept getting on the lens and so my dream picture of the site was ruined.
When we reached the main site we were met by all the tourists arriving by bus and it was pretty busy, but I guess that’s what happens at such tourist Meccas. I was just jealous that I hadn’t just taken a bus (or the above mentioned train!) to the site instead of enduring four days on the trail! I guess the mountain scenery was fantastic along the route but even on reflection Machu Picchu was overrated for me.
Yes, I enjoyed taking some touristy photos but the two and a half hour history tour tested me to the limit! In the end mum just made her apologies to Rox and told him just to ignore me doing my own thing. I’m guessing most people who do the trek are super interested in the history of the site but I had had enough! I just wanted to get the hell out of there. The weather was still tipping it down and so when mum had had enough of my moaning, we took a bus back to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town.
The group all arranged to meet there for a farewell lunch before we headed our separate ways. I had my pizza and coke and of course a beer or three and was happy again! The train back to Cusco was quite impressive with windows in the roof and side so you could get a full panoramic view of the mountains. After another beer it was no surprise as darkness fell that we all nodded off and woke up when we were back in Cusco around four hours later!
Back at the hostel we were both over excited by a hot shower and to be clean again but there was no rest as we had to repack our bags for a 7am bus ride to our next destination, Puno.
We took an early morning flight from Quito to Cusco with a few hours lay over in Lima airport. It was painless and I took full advantage of a Starbucks in the airport and of mums wallet as she offered to treat me! We were heading to Cusco a for a few days of acclimatisation before we were going to attempt the Inca trail. I was dreading it as I have decided me and altitude don’t mix. It makes me feel sick, dizzy and I have constant headaches. Cusco was unfortunately to be no different.
Situated at elevation 3,326m I immediately felt breathless and sick for pretty much the full 3 days we were there. I tried to take altitude sickness pills but these made me feel worse and gave me permanent pins and needles in my hands and feet and so I ditched the pills and tried the coca tea instead. This just tasted disgusting but I persevered with it. Mum also suffered but not quite as bad.
I also hated Cusco as it was just the most touristy place ever and expensive. Yes the streets are pretty with narrow cobbled streets,and pretty plazas with churches over looking them but with traditionally dressed women plying the streets with pet llamas under their arms permanently asking if you wanted a photo with them, I knew this wasn’t my type of place.
Even the Pisco sours which I was so looking forward to trying were a let down. They were super strong and only just drinkable!
On our first day mum had picked out a walking tour from her Lonely Planet guidebook she wanted to do and took us on a tour of the streets and attractions in the city.
It was nice to be guided for once although I did have to step in a few times to help with the map reading! The highlight for me being stopping in the San Pedro market where we enjoyed freshly squeezed fruit juice at one of the many stalls that are hawking for business. We also headed up to some ruins known as sexy woman (not sure of their actual spelling but when spoken sounds like you are saying “sexy woman”).
As we huffed and puffed our way to the to top, we read that you shouldnt attempt this walk until you are acclimatised..Maybe this was why I felt so rough! Either way the prospect of Macchu Picchu was filling me with dread. In any event when we reached the ruins we discovered you had to pay a small fortune to enter and look around. I’m not a lover of ruins so told mum if she wanted to go in I would just wait outside but wasnt paying £20 to go look at some stones.
Being a non historian, museums are also not my favourite past time but I made allowances for the chocolate museum. I wasn’t really interested in the history but more in the cafe that was attached. Mum enthusiastically read all there was to read about chocolate while I sized up the menu for when we finished. I had a cup of hot milk with a lolly of chocolate that you stirred in to your hot drink so it melted and then mum and me shared a chocolate fondue with fresh fruit. It was delicious so who cares how fattening it was!
You can’t come to Peru and not buy a cheesy alpaca jumper with pictures of llamas on it and accompanying wooly hat so we decided as a nearby town called Pisac had a Sunday market we would head there the following day for our tourist tat shopping. I was a bit over local ‘tourist’ markets but thought it would be a good experience for mum. We could get there on public transport so I thought this would also be a good experience for mum rather than taking a bus tour.
We took a collectivo there which was pretty painless and actually quite comfortable because it wasnt too packed. On the way back was a different story though as a llama got in with us and return journey was broken up by the sound of a llama baaaaaing and then the owner telling it shhhhhh! It was quite entertaining though and gave mum a bit more of an authentic feel for local travel as most things I have planned when she is here are organised tours.
Apart from the llama incident, the day was fairly uneventful with us just wandering round the stalls and haggling for a few tourist things. I say we, but I mean me as mum can ask how much something is must then can’t understand the reply! Not saying my Spanish is great but after 7 months I can just about understand the numbers!
I also just enjoyed the time we spent hanging out on one of the balconies overlooking the market, just people watching.
The next day I had gone for an organised tour. Salinas was billed as one of the most spectacular sights in the Cuzco area and this was coupled on a tour with some inca sight called Moray. I hadnt heard of this but mum had seen a documentary on this before leaving the UK so was keen to go see it. I was just happy for responsibility to be taken from me for the day!
Salinas didn’t disappoint. A hot spring at the top of the valley discharges a small stream of easily salt laden water, which is diverted into salt pans and evaporated to produce salt. The thousands of salt pans have been used for salt extraction since Inca times and it was interesting to see the locals extracting the salt while we were there.
Of course there was the usual tourist tat thoroughfare to navigate on the way to the pans where you could buy anything and everything salt related. Mum bought some souvenirs but I just enjoyed photographing the interesting salt pans.
Moray is an impressively deep amphitheatre like terracing which dates back to inca times. Different levels of concentric terraces are carved into a huge earthen bowl, each layer of which has its own microclimate, according to its depth. Some theorise that the Incas used the terraces as some kind of laboratory to determine optical growing conditions for growing crops of each species. I’m not into ruins particularly but this was still pretty impressive.
We headed back to Cusco and I was so fed up of the expensive tourist restaurants etc that we opted to stay in the hostel for the night and have dinner there. Usually hostel food is expensive and average but in Cusco it was a steal and yummy.
After sorting our bags it was an early night as we prepared to head off the following day for our Inca trek adventure, starting with experiencing the life of a porter.