Andean Adventures

When last I wrote (about two months ago – apologies for the delay!) I had just arrived in the colonial city of Sucre, Bolivia. My favourite memory of Sucre is climbing the streets up to a small market and sipping a drink whilst enjoying the remarkable views across the red-bricked roofs of the white casas of Sucre across to the hills behind it, all bathed in glorious sunshine.

One rough, overnight bus ride later and I arrived in Cochabamba. Not my favourite place in Bolivia, but a good place to stop for a few days. Had a good saturday night out helping some Irish lads celebrate a birthday (not that the Irish need much help in that regard!).

Later in the week I was invited by a Bolivian guy to go to a football match between Aurora and Wilstermann (both from Cochabamba) – another derby (clasico) match and another insight into the crazy phenomenom that is South American football. The stadium, although obviously not a patch on the Bombonera or Monumental of Buenos Aires, still contained an awesome atmosphere.

Numerous fireworks (some from straight out of the crowd!) were set off as well the ubiquitos flares and bits of paper and even a bonfire in one of the stands behind the goal which a guy precariously attempted to keep under control. The derby was a typically fiery affair, with lots of late tackles flying in. Wilstermann’s Brazilian import, whose skills were both as impressive and annoying as Christiano Ronaldo’s, was Wilstermanns main threat. Midway through the second half a Wilstermann player was given his marching orders and hilariously had to zigzag his way to the dressing room to avoid the shower of bottles raining down on him from the Aurora fans! Wilstermann began to struggle against a wave of pressure from Aurora and weren’t helped by their keeper who spilt more shots than Mohammed Ali carrying a trayful of Tequilas. Anyway, much to the delight of my friend, Aurora dramatically grabbed a winner just a few minutes from the end to send yet more fireworks blazing into the night sky.

A bus jouney later that week had me arriving in La Paz (highest capital city in the world) luckily (or perhaps strategically) just in time for the weekend fiestas. A bar called Mongo’s was the scene for most of the carnage. It was on the dancefloor of this place that it became obvious that in Bolivia having white skin is equivalent to having a 16 inch… well you get the idea.

I enjoyed my time in La Paz. It is not a city for clostrophobes, however. In every direction huge sprawling settlements spread up the sides of the giant bowl that contains downtown La Paz at it’s centre.

Once the glazed eyes from the weekend had recovered, myself, a German and a couple of Israelis (whom i’d met in Argentina) hired mountain bikes and prepared to launch ourselves down something known as ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’. It is a 17km stretch of road/dirt track that takes the cycler/masochist from an altitude of around 4000m down to just 1600m above sea level. Although it isn’t a complete death trap, numerous backpackers have still just disappeared over the edge. Considering that at some places the sheer drop down is over a km, even Mr Bond himself would struggle to get back on his bike after that. There are numerous graves dedicated to the unfortunate victims along the road.

The real danger, however, is for the trucks and the few buses that still use this route. Around the halfway point we saw men working at the side of the road with piles of timber next to them. When we swung round the corner we saw at the bottom of the cliff, smashed to pieces, the truck that had been carrying the timber. It had happened the previous week and the men, employed in what must be something of a full time job, were engaged in retrieving it up the slope with ropes. The driver was killed although miraculously the passenger survived.

After a couple more hours of vibrating handlebars and driving through dust clouds thrown up by passing trucks we finally arrived in the beautiful mountainside town of Coroico. A deserved beer later and we were on our way back to La Paz in the safety(?) of the minibus.

On the same day that I was burning rubber down the side of mountains a young scally by the name of Rooney was helping England secure a place in the quarter finals of Euro 2004 against Portugal. The Portugal match was the first I had seen live since the France match… I sure know how to pick ’em, eh? So yes, I also watched the farce that is the England football team taking penalties. Finally, having had quite enough of watching Zidane and Beckham riding scooters around Lisbon (yes we got the fucking Adidas advert here too) I decided to forget about Euro 2004 and instead set my sights on the Copa America in Peru at the start of July.

My last destination in Bolivia was Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. Following a delightful boat journey across to Isla del Sol, myself and a couple of guys embarked on a trek across to the other side of the island, arriving just in time for sunset. I have a great memory of the 3 of us sitting high up at the end of the island in complete silence, with not a single person in sight, as the sun slowly dropped below the horizon. Click here >> for more info on Lake Titicaca.

My first stop after crossing the border into Peru was a small, dirty town called Puno on the northern shore of Lake Titicaca, from where the famous ‘floating islands’ can be reached. The islands are made from reeds woven together, the result being a series of large floating islands on which families actually live. If there is a serious dispute between two sets of families on one island the solution is a simple one – cut the island in half and move to a different part of the lake from where their enemies are nothing more than a dot on the horizon.

From Arequipa I embarked on a two day tour of the nearby Colca Canyon. The journey involved passing over snowy terrain at an altitude of 4800m before descending to the canyon area. The evening activities inculded a visit to some hot springs – most of which time was spent in complete darkness following a powercut! A nice touch I thought. Click here >> for more on Colca Canyon.

The second day was supposed to include the highlight of the trip – condor watching. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas, and after an hour standing at the lookout point staring at the interior of a cumulonimbus we reboarded the bus slightly disappointed, although the weather cleared up enough on the drive back to treat us to some spectacular views out across the valley.

The following evening I sat through a 12 hour bus journey complete with the, by now, annoyingly repetitive Andean music and a bunch of dubbed b-rate movies with the volume set to ‘deafening’. And shortly after these forms of ‘entertainment’ were finally switched off at some small hour of the morning and I was able to grab an hour or so of broken sleep, the guy next to me decided that it was of paramount importance to catch the 4am news on his portable radio (minus headphones), once again at full volume. I considered loaning him my own headphones, however half the bus quickly follwed his lead and so with another sigh I shut my eyes and tried to block out the Peruvian shipping forecast or whatever the hell it was they were all so fascinated in.

The destination more than made up for the journey getting there, however. Cusco, the old capital of the Inca empire, is a beautiful city. The place is swarming with gingo’s of the backpacker and also tour group variety. The bright yellow raincoat wearing tourists of the daytime were replaced by the hedonists among the backpackers at night where girls, booze and ‘illegals’ were the attractions. As a result of this, Cusco is a city I found myself spending a lot of time in without actually doing any of the things I had come here to do. It was well into the second week before I finally booked a ticket on a train that would take me to a small town called Aguas Calientes…

The following morning at just after 7am I was to be found standing on a hill, the sun just peeking above the mountains to my right, as I gazed across the wonder that is Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas.

Surpassing my expectations, Machu Picchu really is quite a special place. It still amazes me how little is actually known about this place including when it was built and what it’s purpose was.

After wandering through the ruins I arrived at the large hill that you will probably recall from photographs etc at the back of the ruins. One steep climb later and I reached the very top and took in the remarkable views around. Machu Picchu would be an amazing site even if it was situated next to the M25 motorway – that it is to be found in such a spectacular landscape makes it one of the best sights I have ever laid my eyes upon. Click here >> for more on Machu Picchu.

I managed my escape from Cusco after just over two weeks there. I travelled across to the coast where I bloodied my nose sandboarding in Huacachina and then visited the so-called ‘poor man’s Galapagos islands’ off the coast of Pisco, before arriving in the capital of Peru, Lima.

Lima is not a city i’m desperate to go back to. A huge, sprawling, grimy city with quite a dangerous feel to it in certain places. As previously mentioned the Copa America football tournament (Latin America’s answer to Euro 2004) was taking place in Peru. I managed to buy a ticket to the final between Argentina and Brazil. Although much of the crowd was made up of Peruvians the atmosphere was still worthy of a final. Argentina looked to have the game won before an injury time equaliser from Brazil’s rising star, Adriano, took the game to penalties. Argentina missed their first two spot kicks (including one that was dismally skied by new Man Utd signing, Gabriel Heinze – seriously, it makes Beckham’s penalty against the Portugese look agonisingly close!) and Brazil held their nerve to lift the trophy.

After leaving Lima I briefly visited Trujillo and a nice beach at Mancora before crossing into Ecuador via a couple of (as always) grim looking border towns.

I spent a lovely sunday hitchhiking between quaint villages to the south east of the city of Cuenca. I wandered around the markets that were in full swing and strolled along the side of a gorgeous river in which women washed their clothes whilst children happily played by it’s edge.

A couple of days later I left the chilled out town of Baños for Riobambe, from where the famous ‘Nariz del Diablo’ (Devil’s Nose) train runs to Alausi. By arriving at the train station at the wee small hour of 6am I was able to secure a place on the roof of the train. At 7am the train pulled out of the station in the drizzle and made it’s way through the countryside where we saw farmers working the fields and small children waving at us as we passed by their villages.

Next stop, Quito, capital of Ecuador. Quito lies just below the equator and so myself and a Russian guy ventured up to the ‘Mital del Mundo’ (middle of the world) where, once the fun of jumping repeatedly from northern to southern hemisphere had worn off, there were exciting scientific experiments to keep us occupied. The Coriollis effect was demonstrated using a portable sink full of water and watching the floating leaf as it spiralled anti-clockwise when situated just one metre into the northern hemisphere, vice versa in the southern and simply dropped straight down when positioned directly on the eqautor. It was an impressive demonstartion. I also have a certificate stating that I successfully balanced a raw egg on a nail. That one’s definitely going on the CV!

Before leaving Ecuador I had time for a quick stop-off at Otavalo – known for it’s huge saturday market. I left Ecuador after a limited journey of just over a week with a fairly good impression of the place. I do, however, feel excited about moving on and exploring the country I arrived in this afternoon – Colombia.


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