São Paulo

Paulista Avenue

After 70 days in South America, I felt sort of comfortable fumbling my way through Spanish conversations we were having in Argentina, Chile and Peru. To finish off our year and the continent we headed to the former Portuguese colony of Brazil, first stopping in São Paulo.

Having no idea what hit us, the language barrier is back and in full force; numbers are mostly the same, greetings and the basics of yes and no work fine, outside that it’s a whole new ball game and English speakers are a rare find.

Flying in and landing, this is the largest state and city in the country with over 11 million living in the city and 40 million in the state, it’s massive. Getting around is easy as the city has a fantastic metro system with plenty of lines. At rush hour it gets crazy busy, trains crammed to bursting point just like the London underground.

We picked a hostel near the city’s largest park, which was modelled on Central Park. They like to compare the city to New York: a bit of a tenuous link but I can appreciate similarities. The park was good for a morning jog to burn off the beer calories. Beer is finally once again superb here in Brazil, first sight I saw in the supermarket was imported bottles of Punk IPA and 5am Saint. I was disappointed to find out that the Brewdog bar opening date has slipped in to 2014, no chance of visiting that then.

Learned the rules of Beer Pong, got quite lucky at it #travel #beer #brazilOne other pub that stands out was the Cervejaria Nacional, listed in a TimeOut article I was impressed with their range of beers brewed onsite in their microbrewery, their IPA and Ale were both great, a welcome change from the national stuff.

Heading out on a group pub crawl on the famous Augusta Street, we got to play beer pong with some locals, visit a few places including a bar with some arcades on free play, though most of them had faults and needed some TLC. The night ended in a local nightclub, the next day wasn’t an easy one.

As with Santiago, La Paz and Lima, we were keen to go on another walking tour, this time run by SP Free Walking Tours. We ended up doing both the four hour downtown tour and the next day the shorter Paulista Avenue tour, both were a lot of walking but a great way to get the backstories about the city and its people, highly recommended.

SP Free Walking Tour

Beco do BatmanA final part of the city that we visited was the Beco De Batman lane, famous for its street art/graffiti.

The nearby neighborhood was filled with artistic cafes, shops and just had a right cool vibe to it. The lane was initially a little dodgy looking as some crackhead was stumbling out of it, once he shifted on we had time to wander up and down and grab photos of the impressive work. Lovely.

As usual, full photoset including many from the lane, are hosted on Flickr.

The West Coast of Peru

Cheese!During our time in Peru, we’d heard a lot about the ‘gringo trail’, which is the route most backpackers take through Peru. Once in Arequipa, as gringos (backpackers) ourselves we decided to follow this trail up to Lima, taking in Nasca, Huacachina, and Paracas en route.

Nasca is home to the Nasca lines, mysterious patterns drawn in the land which have no explanation. Theories range from it being down to Incans, pre-Incans, or aliens, so it’s safe to say no-one really has any idea. Paul and I decided to splash out on a flight, the only way to get a complete view of the lines. The planes they use are tiny. There were 5 of us in all as passengers, positioned to distribute the weight as evenly as possible, and our pilot did some crazy flying to ensure we all had clear views of all the lines; swooping, diving, and generally flying like a maniac. It quickly became clear why the UK government guidance says they aren’t safe and to stay away. We had been warned that the turbulence meant people often got sick, which I did. Being sat at the back of the plane, coupled with my irrational decision to eat some tomato slices 2 minutes before flying, was too much for my stomach. But despite that, it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far and a brilliant experience.

Next up was Huacachina, an oasis resort just outside of Ica. The only reason this place has become popular is because of the massive sand dunes that surround all sides of the resort, and so we happily followed the crowds to try sandboarding. We had the option of upgrading our boards so that we would effectively be snowboarding, but we chose to stick to flying down on our stomachs. After minimal guidance in Spanish that roughly translated to ‘board, wax, dune, go’ we found ourselves careering down slopes far steeper than anticipated. Definitely as good as a scary black run. After 2 hours we were happily bruised, bashed, and absolutely covered in sand.

Ballastas Islands Our final stop before Lima was Paracas, home to the Ballastas Islands. These are billed as the poor man’s Galapagos, and as we were missing the Galapagos due to the cost, this sounded perfect. It wasn’t. I can safely say that Paracas is the only place we’ve been in all of our travels that I wish we hadn’t. The town itself has very little to offer except overpriced restaurants and a pleasant beach view. The Ballestas tour was a big disappointment. As promised, the islands are home to thousands of birds. However, the majority of these appeared to be Peruvian Seagulls, which are about as interesting as UK ones. To be fair, we did see some cool sea lions, turkey eagles, and some pelicans, but given the hype, the tour was a dud. In the afternoon Paul and I ventured out on bikes into the nature reserve. Little did we know we’d be battling a ridiculously strong headwind through desert like conditions, only to get to our destination and see not a lot. In a reserve which is famed for its massive array of animals and fauna, we saw absolutely nothing. Safe to say, we were happy to be leaving Paracas.

Returning to Lima was a welcome change. Whereas on our first visit we’d resented the big chains and busy streets – having come for Santiago, a much prettier city – this time, after a few weeks of very remote towns, we couldn’t have been happier to see so much choice and variety. McDonalds! Dunkin’ Donuts! We may also just have been grateful to be alive after the scariest taxi ride of our lives getting from the bus station. This time we had an opportunity to visit the centre of Lima, where we watched the changing of the guard at the palace, and also visited the catacombs in the San Francisco Cathedral. 3 days well spent, it’s time to say goodbye to Peru, and hello Brazil.

Arequipa Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon

After the Inca Trail trek, I didn’t expect to be trekking once again in the same week but here we are, Colca Canyon.

Leaving Cusco we headed overnight on a bus to Arequipa. We have a flight booked out of Lima but have about ten days to get ourselves back to the capital, seeing what sights are available on the way.

The town of Arequipa doesn’t seem to have too much to offer outside of the trekking. Annie chose to do a city tour whilst I chose a hammock, book and some sleep, culture can wait….

Meeting back up with Mike, Lucy, Marat and Marlene from the Inca trail, we started with another early 3am pickup heading first to a viewing point where Condors were meant to be. I had my cynical hat on, but eventually removed it as the birds were out, flying around reasonably close, quite nice to see them in the wild.

Reaching the nearby start, the first morning was a three hour decent over “just” 1200 meters, as the whole Canyon is 4200m, double that of the Grand Canyon. By the time we started the sun was out in full force, making the decent rather gruelling. Stopping for lunch with a group doing the trek over 3 days, we realised that they stopped there for the night. With absolutely nothing to do there, this news made our group more willing to get some more km under our belts to see what our accommodation offered.

Oasis PoolHappy to get on with things, our two day trek continued along the flatter terrain where we were given the option of the full trail, or a shortcut that chopped off two hours. It seems the shortcut didn’t miss much scenery and was the obvious choice after our painful descent in the baking sunshine tat morning.

Around 4pm we arrived at the overnight accommodation, I was happy to see it had a bar and a decent pool, just what the feet ordered.

5am on day two, we had an early start before breakfast to get back up to the summit before the blistering sun reached us. There was an option to pay for a lift on the back of a Mule, not something I would be up for, poor things are worked hard. The climb wasn’t too bad at all, everyone was at the top under three hours and ready for food and relaxing. After grub we headed to some hot springs in the nearby town of Chivay to sooth the body, seriously hot springs at 38 degrees.

On the journey home, we passed the aftermath of a fatal bus crash with a body lying beside the overturned vehicle. A grim reminder that we were still travelling on the South American bus network, though seat belts would not have been of much use for those poor passengers.

Full photo set as usual is available on Flickr

Cusco & The Inca Trail

The Inca Trail
At the start of planning this trip, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was one of the key destinations and trips I wanted to see and do in South America. The trail and site are both very popular which has led the government to limit the amount of daily visitors to 200 trekkers on the trail, and 2500 on the actual site. Knowing this, we spent the summer watching the permits website and picked our day accordingly.

It`s highly recommended (demanded) that you arrive in Cusco a few days early to acclimatize before making the trek as the route starts at 2600 meters above sea level and reaches 4200m. We were very aware of altitude and its effects; constantly out of breath, tired and sore heads. Having spent a few weeks at altitude in Bolivia (4600m on the Death Road, 4100m in La Paz and getting burnt at 3800m on Isla Del Sol) and beating the side effects, we felt ready to proceed with the trek.

The town of Cusco is quite nice but caters for the tourists far too much for my liking. The main square tries to keep its historical look but has a Starbucks, KFC and McDonald’s hidden in plain sight, all three ghastly places were avoided.

A little walking tour helped us get our bearings of the town. After collecting our walking bags and items for the trek, we headed to bed early in preparation for the 5am pickup the following day.

We chose to pay extra for the services of a porter to carry our 6k of items including sleeping bag, mat and clothes, leaving us with day bags for water and food supplies. We were recommended to buy hats and walking sticks, but neither appealed to myself. I’ve tried walking sticks in Scotland and find they are more of a nuisance, happy for my knees and legs to take on the downhill themselves.

Day One is an easy 12k winding though the valleys, giving us time to meet our super friendly group of 16 Trekkers, a mix of Scottish, English, Dutch, Canadian and Australians. We were supported by two guides, Percy and Marcos, and a massive team of 22 porters. These guys are insane, carrying up to 25kg each they race ahead, set up tents and tables for lunch, the chef works utter miracles with gas and a hot stove to ensure we are all fed and watered for the trail ahead. Percy informed us that the porters have a yearly marathon race over the full 42k and the fastest time is an outstanding 3:45, I really need to up my game!

Arriving at the Wayllabamba camp-site, we were greeted by a cringe-worthy applause from the porters, we should be applauding them! The food was once again outstanding, appetisers, soups, hot freshly cooked main courses, deserts… No one went hungry.

The Inca TrailDay Two is another 12k and has a bit of a reputation as a killer due to the climbs involved, the peak of the trail at Abra de Huarmihuañusca (Dead Womans Pass) is situated at 4200m, it was a fair climb but no where near as bad as the reputation it held.

During these inclines we broke out the coco leaves purchased from back in Cusco. The leaves are rolled up and placed inside your cheek, slowly sucking on them draws out what seems initially a tobacco-esque flavour, it may well be a placebo but when feeling tired and gasping for breath, taking a bit of Coco really did lift the spirits and after time starts to numb the cheek. These are the same leaves used to make cocaine – though you need a ton of them to get a single gram. Either way we need to use up our limited supplies before going anywhere near the border.

Day Three started with a 03:30 awake call, the superb porters chapped on our tents and handed over a hot cup of coco tea to get us going. This was a the longest day, with 15k of ground to cover, heading through clouds, a small bit of rain – we were so lucky with the weather, staying dry for all the days and only raining overnight. Chef Justino made a birthday cake for Louise, it was a proper iced cake which using some magic he baked on a stove with a pan.

Day Four – 04:30 breakfast before queuing to get on the path to the Sun Gate. Coming over the crest of the mountain this is where you first get to see what was a cloud covered Machu Picchu. In a matter of minutes, the clouds lifted revealing the whole site for all to see in spectacular fashion. From the camp to the site was a 5k walk, giving us the morning to explore and learn about the ruins.

Unfortunately, the 200 limit only applies to the Inca Trail. The nearby town has a train service and bus loads of tourists decend on the site fresh faced and camera happy, totally spoiling what tranquil sites we initially appreciated, feeling smug that we earned our access, I was ready to head to the nearby village.

Leaving the site, we had the afternoon to get lunch, visit the hot springs and get a few drinks before making our way back to Cusco for a well needed shower and comfy bed.

Choc MuseumWe decided to spend a few more nights in Cusco at the Loki hostel, notorious for its late night drinking and parties it did not disappoint. Flaming ‘Blood Bombs’ and highly alcoholic slush puppies are only going to end in one way.

A final thing we did in Cusco was a chocolate cooking course at the Coco Museum. After a quick history lesson on the roots of Coco and its use in Peru, we got to partake in a speeded up version of the end to end process, making our own chocolates, filling them and collecting the next day for consumption.

There are loads of photos from this part of the trip, the best ones are here on Flickr

Leaving Bolivia

After the hustle and bustle of La Paz, we decided to take a detour via Copacabana (not that one) and Isla del Sol before heading up to Peru. We´d passed through Copacabana on our way down to Bolivia and liked the laid back hippy feel, but we´d heard even better things about Isla del Sol, so decided to stay there.

Inca EscaleraIsla del Sol is an island on Lake Titicaca – which Incan mythology believes was the birthplace of the sun – and it looked like the perfect venue to kick back and relax before our Inca Trail adventures. However, before we could do any relaxing, we had to climb up the Inca stairway which connects the port to the main town, Yumani. Climbing over 200m with 205 steep steps, we were ready to collapse by the time we eventually picked a place to stay. Even the donkeys looked knackered. However, watching the sun set that evening from our high viewpoint with a beer in hand, it was well worth it.

We had one full day on the island, and so Paul and I, being a bit thick, thought ´what better place to sunbathe than on the island of the sun, this ridiculously hot island at over 4000m´. So we promptly found a beach and after about an hour realised that we were absolutely frying, and our 20 factor sunscreen was doing nothing. Safe to say we were in no state to do much else after this, and were ready to return to the mainland (and clouds) the next day.

I´m aware that pretty much every blog I write includes a section on some sort of bus adventure, but interesting things do seem to happen, so here´s another. We booked an overnight bus from Copacabana to Cusco. As we crossed the border into Peru it felt like a storm was coming, and sure enough, as the bus went up to Puno and beyond, it was soon dodging massive rocks and stones in the road. When we reached Puno, the rocks and stones were joined by fires burning in the streets, which felt a little odd, but we didn´t think much more of it. However, after asking around in Cusco, it turns out that this was all part of a strike taking place. It seems that the strategy is to cause as much disruption as possible, which probably would have worked had our bus driver not been so skilled at driving off road. Bizarrely, on this occasion, our bus even arrived one hour early, though this wasn´t much use to us as we sat on the street at 5 in the morning waiting for our hostel to open. We now had 2 days in Cusco to acclimatise before setting off on the Inca Trail.

La Paz: Death Road

El Alto Above La Paz

To look at, La Paz is an amazing city. Its heart is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains all around. As the city has grown, it has creeped up the sides of the mountains, to the extent that when you’re in the valley the whole landscape has been taken over by orange houses as far as the eye can see. At the very top of the mountains, a distinct city of El Alto is now recognised, although it is fully integrated with La Paz. We were reliably informed that the higher you get, the more dangerous the area, so we decided to stick to the centre of town when exploring.

The first time we arrived in the city, we saw everyone in the hostels wearing ‘Death Road Survivor’ T-Shirts. Asking around about the road, I knew I did not want to miss this experience. The road in question was labelled ‘The Worlds Most Dangerous’ by a company who were researching the feasibility of a new replacement road based on the amount of deaths per year, on average one per day (this is before the biking started). One example was a truck full of 100 football fans, the driver had to back up to allow the traffic coming up to pass, lost his rear wheel over the ledge and the whole lot went over to their death, grim.

There are many companies doing the tour but Gravity was the one that kept coming up on everyone’s recommendations, the key parts that got me were the other companies cheap out on reused brake discs and only Gravity have rope access trained instructors if anything goes seriously wrong. Sold.

Bikers & The Road AheadThe full 64k route starts about 4000 meters above sea level, the first 22k is part of the new road, on Tarmac, and a fun way to get used to the heavy bikes. 8k of the route is an optional uphill cycle – we didn’t come here to sit on a bus and pushed ahead along it.

Arriving at the start of the 42k decent over gravel, this marks the start of the ‘old road’ and where the fun begins, curves and curls around barrier-less sections. We got great instruction, plenty of stops for food and tips on what to expect. We quickly noticed the other cycles flying all over the road with no control, and our guide rightly warned us that the biggest risk to us was other cyclists.

It’s a fun day and really not as extreme as it sounds, overtaking vehicles and other bikes did provide a good adrenaline rush but usually I was happy just to get to each checkpoint unharmed.

Animal Sanctuary Birds
At the bottom we finished with a swim in the river and a few beers with lunch at an animal sanctuary, sadly our tour of the monkeys was cancelled due to “Willy” the female hating monkey being on the loose, damn! Annie got bit by a friendly parrot which was rather funny.