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Sunday, 2 November 2008

Wine and Whales

20 hours on a bus and we arrived to Mendoza, one of Argentinas largest wine producing regions. We never actually saw the city because we were recovering from the previous night but the nearby village of Maipu (pronounced 'my poo' teehee...) provided us with an enjoyable days cycling and wine tasting. Flat treelined streets made for easy cycling and the locals are very tolerant of wobbling gringos making their way home in the afternoon (We didn't follow the swirl and spit rule of wine tasting). The day ended with the hospitality of 'Mr Hugo', the local bike rental man who enjoys spending the evening giving out lots of free wine and chatting to the tourists. What a lovely man!

We were sick of long buses after the 20 hour stint so decided against going further south and instead cut across the country to Puerto Madryn, a small seaside town with a Welsh heritage. its been a lovely few days of paddling in the sea, picnics in the sand dunes and eating chips from a paper cone as we walk the promenade. It's coming into spring here so the weather has been scorching, altogether charming!

The absolute highlight of our time here was the whale watching trip we took yesterday. This small corner of Argentina is home of the 'Southern Right whale'. They were named because their natural curiosity of boats and tendency to float once dead made them the 'right' whales to harpoon back in the golden days of whale fishery. We saw a mother and calf and a group of 5 whales mating (Males help each other chase the female, they then take turns and last one in's the winner! Their equipment can reach 2.5 metres in length... according to our guide "because they don't have hands and they're sliding around in the water, size matters"). Fascinating.
Another whale then swam right up to the boat and underneath it which really made the day. You can see Sian in the bright blue cardigan front right side of the boat.

Today we visited the Trelew dinosaur museum, loads of full reconstructed skeletons and an actual 130 million year old fossilised femur that you can touch! Only in South America...

Next stop is Buenos Aires for 9 days of debauchery and the end of our amazing year... very sad.

We're meeting up with a gang for drinks on Saturday 15th November. Tables booked in the Porterhouse on Nassau St for 8 or 9pm. All welcome to join us.

See you then folks!

S and D

Friday, 24 October 2008

Don´t cry for us

We have now entered the final phase - 3 weeks to go! We´ve left Bolivia behind and now in Argentina. Spending a lot of time together... some might say too much judging from the photo below.

Dave spent a day in the working silver mines of Potosi. We were taken first to the miners market where we bought kits containing a stick of dynamite, plastic explosive and a fuse for 1.80 euro, some as presents for the miners and some for ourselves to blow up for the fun of it. We also bought presents of drink, cigarettes and coca leaves.

We spent about 2 hours walking around the cramped dusty mines as the working miners hurryed past with cart loads of ore in the dusty rarified air (we were at 4800m). We wore dust masks but the miners didn´t because they said it impeded their breathing! It´s a co-operative mine where the miners work for themselves in small groups. We met one family group who worked with just a hammer and chisel to make holes to insert the dynamite and then carry out the ore by hand just like they have been doing for the last 400 years.

Down one passageway we made a ball with 2 sticks of dinimite, the plastic explosive and lit the fuse and ran..... 2 minutes later we heard the bang and the rush of air - real safe!

We continued our journey south through Bolivia to Uyuni and the Salt Flats. An amazing pre-historic salt lake that has dried up and left behind 10,582 square km of dead flat salt. At 3,600m above sea level its a realy striking place. The pratical upshot of having miles of plain landscape is it allows you to take some interesting perspective photos. We spent an hour taking photos, but we could have spent 5 hours, with all the props we could gather; rubix cube, toy soldiers, beer bottles, bananas etc. It was a 3 day trip with an insane amount of driving that took in sights from one of the dryest place on earth; rocks etched into interesting shapes by the sandy wind, volcanoes and geysers, bright blue skies over lakes filled with pink flamingos (I am informed by the David Attenborough watching Chris Dowley that they are pink because of their diet of pink shrimp).

We slept on beds of salt in a house constructed out of salt blocks. Swam in balmy thermal water, after which my hair promptly froze! (Sian took the lazy option and stayed dressed on the sidelines in her ski gear). Looked at blue lakes, red lakes and green lakes. All and all a great trip but far too many miles of drving in a Land Cruiser to see all these sights.

Hi Ho Silver. We did a days cowboying (and cowgirling) in Tupiza. "Will there be riding helmets provided?" "Yes, yes, there´ll be hats", turned out to be cowboy hats, looked better and luckily their crash protection wasn´t put to the test. We walked, trotted, cantered and even galloped our way through wild west country - rugged red hills, cacti, the works. Running along the railway ahead of trains and trotting through rivers. Great fun, but we were very stiff and sore afterwards.

We´re now in Salta, Argentina, and loving it. They´ve got all that we were missing in Bolivia, shopping centers with multi screen cinemas and McDonalds, good comfortable buses, low altitude easy to breathe air and people who don´t reply to all requests with a surly "No".

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Cat Whisperers

What a month! We ran pumas through the jungle for 5 hours a day, cuddled ocelots, played with monkeys, got bitten by birds, built cages, took down cages, danced at the fancy dress parties til 5am then got up at 7.30 and cleaned VAST amounts of shite.

All the animals of Inti Wara Yassi have been rescued by the charity from circuses, private homes (some people think that a puma is nice to have around the house), black markets and general bad circumstances. The main aim of its work is to give the animals as much freedom and dignity as possible. Some of the birds and monkeys can be released after rehabilitation but unfortunately the cats lose their instincts when removed from their natural environment for too long and would only come looking to people for food if released.
Roy Little baby Luna

Civility went out the window. Same clothes for days on end. A monkey pee´d on Sian and she didn´t wash her cardigan (why bother when they´re just going to pee on you again tomorrow). Socks were banned from the bedroom. The days were long starting at 8am and finishing at 5pm if you´re lucky... Dave pulled an 11 hour day once when his puma Roy wouldn´t get back in the cage for the night. Then there was the day an escaped parrot called Lolita came for dinner... (tasty)

You´re next on the block bird spider monkey family with baby Vladi
A day with Millie the ocelot was a little more sedate for Sian. Climbing the half hour hill to her house was the most challenging part of it. Then a pleasant few hours of sleeping, thumb sucking and the occasional scramble down a vertical cliff when she decided to go "off trail" in pursuit of lizards and snakes. She also found nests of birds and ate the eggs and babies like cat popcorn. Sian also got a day with Luna the 8 month old baby puma when her walker was sick. A far more energetic day´s work!

Millie she loves the thumb Luna
Dave walked 2 mountain pumas (the biggest cats in the park) Roy who LOVED to run for 2 hours non-stop through dense jungle and Lishou who has a more relaxed attitude to life. his favourite thing was to wrestle with palm tree branches and hide behind trees to ambush his volunteers (all in the name of fun). Its an impressive sight when you see 90kg of puma 7 metres up a tree.

Lishou Hiding for an ambush

Chris walked his "beautiful baby girl" the murderous Tigre. She was Millies evil twin, a proper predatory ocelot who liked to run at high speed, never on a trail for 6 hours or more a day. Every day was a bloodbath of baby birds and large snakes which she dispatched of with ease. She has a healthy disrespect for her volunteers but Chris soon sorted her out with a good dose of discipline.

Some mornings and evenings were spent helping understaffed areas finish their work but other times we just went to play with the monkeys :) We also had a brilliant group of people to hang out with for the month and will miss all of them now we´re back to just the 3 of us.

All in all, hard HARD work. Great GREAT fun. We reccomend it to anyone who has a month to spare and wants an unusal holiday.

Now we sit in our luxurious 3 star hotel Monserrat (it has carpets!) planning our journey south to Uyuni and into Argentina. Home in just over a month...

X Sian, Dave and Chris

Friday, 5 September 2008

Rafting and Condor spotting enroute to Bolivia

Ah.... finished the trek. Finally smashed the giant granite monkey that had been hanging off my back for so long - Sian.

We decided to relax with a 3 day whitewater rafting trip down the Apurimac river. It was absolutely brilliant :) Gregg joined us for 5 days around Cusco and on the trip too so we had a merry gang of 4 again. Started off with a gruelling 5 hour bus journey down dirt tracks into the valley as the main way in or out of the valley is by river. The scenery was stunning with huge cliffs rising up on either side of the river and no sign of other people. We camped each night on deserted beaches and the only light came from candlelit torches and a big driftwood bonfire. The stars were incredibly bright. Each day the river got progressively more interesting with bigger rapids and waterfalls but our guide Wiliam was very experienced so nobody fell out unless they wanted to!

Said goodbye to Chris and Gregg when they flew to Lima, the 2 of us are now in La Paz, Bolivia having travelled south through Arequipa and Puno. Arequipa was a lovely colonial town with a large convent in the city centre. "One of the largest religious centres of South America" and it didnt dissapoint! Peaceful alleys, beautiful views across the courtyards and fascinating stories of the nuns lives back in the 1600s when the convent was first built. A 12 year old girl would pay the equivalent of $20,000 to enter as a novice. It then took up to 4 years of solitary confinement, only leaving the cell to attend mass before the girl was a full nun! Her reward - a personal servant and life of prayer inside the convent walls. Not very appealing.

We then went on a 2 day condor spotting trip to Chivay. Very touristy but made enjoyable by seeing the amazing birds. Wingspans of 3 metres!

Puno next for a tour of the floating man made islands. Constructed by one of the oldest tribes in the area, it is thought that they fled the mainland when the bloodthirsty Incas came to chop out their hearts and eat their babies (according to our guide). The engineering of it is very impressive and secure for the most part but there were times which felt like I was about to sink through the reeds into the lake...

And now, La Paz. We havent seen very much of the city yet but first impressions are of a vibrant city, full of poverty and with big hopes for their current president Evo Morales. The graffiti covering the city is very much in favour of Evo and his ability to promote change, revolution and a new era of dignity for Bolivia.

Next stop... Inti Wara Yassi ( where we will live in harmony with the monkeys and possibly learn to fight with the pumas!

Sian & Dave

Friday, 22 August 2008

Hail the mountain conquering heroes

As the trek approached we decided to get in some serious training. Emma, Chris, Martha and Aindreas joined us for 2 weeks of steady drinking/beach/hammocks and eating copius quantities of junk on tropical Ihla Margarita. We had a great time but Venezuela didn´t really agree with Chris. His bag was delayed by airport for 5 days, shoes stolen from our own porch and credit card cloned. Nice work for the gypsy Venezuelans, general consensus - we´re never going back again.

Then we flew to Cusco - a beautiful town set high in the Andes at 3300m or thereabouts. The altitude change was really noticable at first but after 3 days we were ´prepared´ to hike. This is Sians Tale in normal text with additions by Dave in bold....

Day 1 - Sweaty. Uphill. Heart pounding. That was only the short walk from the village to meet our porters. I had serious thoughts that a big mistake had been made and then I saw them... glistening like gods in the sunlight. The emergency horses!!! Walked for an hour or so then called an emergency. Took breaks on and off the horse and after lunch the guide told myself and Emma we weren´t allowed to walk as we were slowing down the group. By late afternoon our four legged friends were communally known as "Sian and Emmas horses". The day stretched on and on with LOTS of walking, it grew dark and we still hadn´t reached the campsite. I was now walking at an estimated 0.5km/hr accompanied by the ever patient Dave and our guide ´Coco`. Hitched a ride in a minivan for a few hundred metres... then struggled the last 10 minutes to camp. When we arrived there was lots of muttering among the guides and we realised that Emma, Chris, Guy and Etienne (the other 2 guys in our group) hadn´t made it back yet. They spent a horrible 2 hours or so lost in the pitch black Andes before finding the camp. We were all in sparkling form and looking forward to day 2.

We spent a nice day walking our way up the valley, hindered only slightly by the thin air at that altitude. Had a great feed of pasta for lunch, and then marched up the hill staying just ahead of the horses and their precious cargo. Towards evening the horse man ran off with the horses to set up camp, so our pace was slowed a little. This lead to us reaching camp after night fall. Got some amazing long exposure photos of the glacier and stars by moon light. It was an icy night with frost on the ground in the morning.

Day 2 - It dawned with a shake of the tent at 4am. Everyone was freezing and not very well slept. The mattresses were made of rocks and the sleeping bag felt paper thin. Trekking time! Today the Salkantay pass beckoned us (Salkantay translates as 'savage mountain'). A winding path up the mountainside rising from 3700m to 4700m. Myself and Emma refused to walk at all but Coco said we should do the first 10 minutes and then the horses would catch up with us. 5 minutes in Emma had a mini fit at the prospect of another day on the mountain. An hour later we were long behind the others with no respite in sight. Luckily eagle eye Clarke spotted the horsemen taking an alternative route and sent them back to us. We then spent a really enjoyable afternoon overtaking everyone on the mountain except for Dave. He kept up with the horses and at one point even overtook us - the man is a machine. The mountain and glacier scenery was spectacular and the sky was a beautiful blue. Felt so well rested that we walked the downhill side of the mountain until lunch and did the entire afternoon on foot!!! We arrived before dark to a beautiful campsite tucked into the side of the mountain. I don´t think I´ve ever been so proud of myself. Total distance covered so far 58km.

After spending the night at high altitude I was fairly well acclimatised and although it was steeper then the previous day it was easier going. Horses are for the weak... In fairness to Sian she did walk the whole afternoon, even passing up an offer of a horse as nightfall approached.

Day 3 - Feeling much better today. Warmer, lower altitude and the prospect of a mostly downhill walk all day. Took 2 breaks on the horse but otherwise did it all on my own! Found a dead snake on the road which I carried for a long time before coming after Emma with it - Totally worthwhile. Lots of walking along the riverside and pleasant jungle paths. That evening we vistited the hot springs of Santa Teresa, it´s one of the nicest places I´ve ever seen. Huge vertical cliffs and mountains on all sides and 2 giant pools of hot water to swim and relax in. They also had a freezing waterfall for the brave gentlemen to dip into. We spent the evening there watching the sun set and the stars come out. In the words of E. Cobban "It almost makes the walking worthwhile".

We finished off the night in the local disco where a quadruple vodka in a jug is only 6 euro. Go Peru :)

Today was a short day, after a feed of rice for lunch (and chasing baby ducklings around a field) we took the local public transport - an open back truck with bars to hold onto along a windy road cut into the steep mountain side. Nice to get a good clean in the thermal baths under the stars. Sian was mountain nurse today, fixing a bloke´s sprained ankle while he remained on his (a.k.a Emma´s) horse.

Day 4 - The boys decided to walk today. Emma & I played with the campsite´s resident baby spider monkey "Panjo" for an hour and then took a taxi. Slept most of the afternoon beside a railway and took a train to Aguas Calientes - the departure point for buses to Machu Picchu! Went for dinner and made our plans to catch the 5am bus. These early starts are a killer.

Had a big lie in today - 8am! After cutting away our dead weight, the four remaining lads headed off on the final stretch to Machupicchu. We had spent the night in New Santa Terese, and this morning we saw Old Santa Terese, which looked like a lost city itself. They had built too close to the river and in 1988 a flood wiped it out. Took a small basket zip line to cross this big white water river and only after we all got safely across did Coco tell us about how last month a tourist got his leg caught in the rope and pulled to his death. We could have just taken the perfectly good suspension bridge beside it.

It was a baking hot day, so much so that Chris had to use his (clean spare) boxers as a sun hat. Was very tempted to take a swim in the icy river. After 3 hours walking we found the girls snoozing in the train station restarant.

Day 5 - FINALLY!!!!! As I said before an early start to join the queuing hordes at the bus station. We were among the first 250 people up on the mountain so the boys all got tickets entitling them to another 2 hr hike up ´Wainu Picchu´. Lunacy. I gave my ticket away to a man who hadn´t been able to get there early enough as he had to walk with his unfit wife. I helped a ´Dave´. We had a tour of the main temples and sacrificial sites (Dave and I accidentally took a wrong turn which gave a bonus 30 mins uphill walking in the wrong direction...).

Its a fantastic place to visit, so many of the buildings are intact and the quality of the stonework is very impressive. It was bigger than I expected so even when crowded with tourists late in the morning it had a peaceful feel to it. While the boys climbed their extra hill we girls spent a peaceful 3 hours sleeping in the shade.

Our wrong turn gave us an oppertunity to walk some of the traditional Inca trail, see the Sun Gates and get amazing view back to Macupicchu as it peeked out from the morning mist. Wainu Picchu was a hell of a climb but well worth it, and worth getting up at 4am to be one of only 400 people allowed up each day. It gave a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountans. The terraces and buildings they made at the top of this tower of rock are amazing. It was actually harder to climb down then up the steep steps, forcing us to walk down backwards at times. Got back to the main Machupicchu site to find the girls sunbathing.

That evening we journeyed back to Cusco by train and minivan. The train was hilarious with a dancing display and fashion show all performed by the attendants. Overall it was the worst trip imaginable as Dave and I had been struck down by food poisoning which we´re only recovered from today.

Our minivan driver decided to make a little extra cash by picking up 8 extra passangers along the way as I silently tried not to puke on them.

Well done if you´ve managed to read all the way to the bottom of our epic tale. Emma - you´re only gone a few hours now but are and will be sorely missed! Gregg arrives in the morning though so its not all bad and we´re off on a 3 day rafting trip on the 24th. All this excercise will be the death of Sian.

Ciao Amigos :) S & D

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Sunday, 27 July 2008

Missing our Mummys

After our flight over the Nazca lines we went to Chauchilla cemetry where there are 2000 year old mummies that the dry salty desert has preserved. Besides the 20 or so whole bodies in the graves the surrounding sand is covered in hundreds of human bones and shreds of woven cotton cloth. We were just amazed at the wonderful condition they were in after twenty centuries.

Next stop on our journey was Huacachina, a desert oasis famous for its sand-boarding, like snow boarding but on sand. We were taken in a nine person dune buggy thrill ride up and down to dunes, then let out at the top of several steep slopes to strap a board on our feet and fly down the hill. The first surprise was when you fell it was hot sand instead of icy snow in your face. I (Dave) fell hard on my final run and its still painful to sit down 4 days later! It was easier to get going then snow, but harder to control your speed.

Following the road north toward Lima we stopped off in the town of Pisco (home of Peru´s national drink - Pisco Sours). On the 15th August last year there was an 8.0 earthquake in Pisco that destroyed 85% of the town. We had been advised not to go because it is in bits but we were glad we did. It was interesting to see them gradually rebuilding almost a year later, and we hope that the money we spent there will help towards their reconstruction.
From Pisco we did a day trip out on a boat around the Ballestas islands, which are completely covered with several species of birds, so much so that they harvest the guano annually for use as fertiliser. The boat trip was alright but the highlight was feeding crowds of hungry pelicans on the beach.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Llama llama theres a llama!!!

Click here for title explanation...

16 hours on a bus later we arrived at this!

Hard to describe the sheer size and power of the falls but the lonely planet does a good job when it says "Niagra falls is a ripple in comparison to Iguazu". We viewed them from both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides. The former gives a good overview but its on the Argentine side that we got a close up view. Went on jetboat ride that took us under the spray and it was like buckets of cold water being dumped on our heads - great fun! Falls were spectacular and the visit was topped off by thousands of butterflies, sunbathing lizards and dinner stealing coaties (raccoon things). They actually climb on tables and try to steal your lunch. Another highlight was the first taste of Argentine steak and locally produced inexpensive red wine.

Next stop was Lima, Peru (where we had to buy a new camera despite the nice Sao Paulo lady's many attempts to fix it). Stayed in the pleasant suburb of Miraflores (Limas equivalent to Rathgar/Malahide) and took a day trip to the old Inca pyramids and temples of Pachacamac. Despite encouraging guidebook reviews it was relatively unimpressive... Lumps of bricks in the desert and mangy bald dogs wandering around the place.

The best part of the day was getting there on the Peruvian local buses. Converted Hi-ace vans driven at breakneck speed, swerving in and out of the traffic with the conductor hanging out the side door and dragging unsuspecting customers into the bus "Hey hey... get in get in". We were never sure if the bus was going in the right direction, the conductors main mission seemed to be to get as many punters in the van as possible without worrying where they want to go. We made it anyway!

We´re now in Nazca, home of the famous lines. Took a 35 minute plane ride over the desert today to see them which was really worthwhile. Its totally fascinating to think that they´re around 2000 years old and still in such great condition. Tomorrow we go on a tour of the Nazca grave sites - 2000 year old mummies sitting out in the desert that still have their hair and clothes intact. Attempted to visit the museum but only found a pile of rubble. Such is life in Peru.
Donde esta?

Thats all folks :) We´ll leave you with some interesting images you might not see at home.

xoxo Sian & Dave

p.s. Added images to the last post as well