Friday, January 28, 2011

Bienvenidos A Pacifico (24-27 January 2011, Days 46-49 of 127)

Welcome to the Pacific Ocean!

Our new life on the Pacific Coast began in Peru starting with Mancora (Pop 10K, Sea Level), a small surfie town with tuc-tucs and souvenir shops everywhere - very reminiscent of Asia (Thailand or Bali) but without the "essence". It is weird seeing the tuc-tuc drivers not looking Asian and speaking Spanish.

The great thing about the Peruvian coast is the low humidity - much lower than Asia and even Queensland given the proximity to the Equator! Sun is hot and it reached 28C on both days we were here. Our hotel was individual style bungalows with palm thatched roofs - very large with hammocks at the front! I enjoyed a fabulous coastal run and big swim in the green coloured Pacific amongst the local fishing boats. On both evenings we enjoyed Ceviche (featuring the non-soup version of raw fish marinated in herbs, onion and lime) and

Parihuela (crab, fish, squid and scallops cooked in a spicey yellow-curry style broth). The restaurant was on the beach and we enjoyed magnificent sunsets (a-la Phuket) whilst sipping the local brown ale beer (malty with hint of honey sweetness). Peruvian wine is not that great so we experimented with the Chilean "Carmiere" grape (a lighter version of peppery Shiraz) for our pre-dinner drinks around the pool! It is here we met two dudes from Finland literally "surfing" the world - they had just spent 6mths in Asia so we figured that they must be funding their trip with drugs! We also met a history teacher from Liverpool England, living in Lima for the past 6yrs!

The 25JAN saw us climb aboard 1 Tuc-tuc, 2 Buses and 1 Van to travel 11hrs door-to-door to our coastal hotel in Huanchaco (Pop 18K, Sea Level), 12km from Trujillo. The landscape between Mancora and Piura (3hrs on the bus) is like an elephant's back - sandy dunes with small scrubb-like bushes that look like African Thorn Trees. It is hot and dusty - but still not a lot of humidity. It is semi-arid here and you can sense the desert of Atacama in Bolivia starting to take shape! At Piura we changed buses for another 7hr ride to Trujillo via Chiclay.
The land in between was weird: flat, dry and dusty with scrub and what looked like Ozzie salt bush. At times it was just all sandy dunes then suddenly you see rice paddies and even a few vines then its back to desert. I used this time to write this blog and catch up on "sta-stis-tis" (statistics) such as total km travelled to date (almost 45,000km including all flights from Sydney or 32,000km within South America including flights). I will easily exceed the 40,000km I predicted within South America at the launch. After arriving at our sea-side hotel in Huanchaco at 8pm we set off for a fresh seafood BBQ dinner cooked on hot coals and washed down by Peruvian Negro beer. We slept like babies!

The following day we rented a taxi and the four of us set out to discover Trujillo and two ancient ruins. I call Trujillo, "The Cairo of Peru" since it has two huge mud-brick pyramids just outside the city in a dusty barren landscape that resembles the Pyramids outside Cairo in Egypt.

Our first stop was 22km away at "Huaca Del La Luna" (Temple of the Moon) which is a huge adobe mud brick pyramid structure of 5 levels built by the "Moche" peoples between 100-600AD. This temple was used to worship a number of Gods including human sacrifices of losing warriors in armed combat. Every 100yrs, the Moche would add another level to their temple identical in layout to the one before. You can see the total of 5 levels in this huge site with plenty of unearthing still to occur! There are rooms and intact friezes of lions heads everywhere with a very impressive 7 layer entrance wall.

Approx 1km away we visited the second temple of "Huaca Del Sol" (Temple of the Sun). This is more intact, the largest ancient structure in Peru built with 140million adobe mud bricks and has walls that slope 77deg. This place is also home to the furless Peruvian dog which actually looks like a giant rat! It has such a high body temperature that the locals use them as leg warmers on cold nights!

Our second stop was the "Plaza De Armes" at the centre of Trujillo city (Pop 682,800, Elev Sea Level, Est 1534 by Francisco Pizarro). This is the best plaza we have seen to date. It is filled with pastel coloured, black painted wrought-iron, huge suspension lamps, colonial Spanish buildings, church and fountain. It is also very clean.

After observing a Catholic student demonstration against the evils of the internet we walked down the main foot-mall drag with colourful musuems, shops and fountains every 200m. This city was a pleasant surprise and the third largest in Peru.

Our third stop was the historic city of "Chan Chan" (Sun Sun) built around 900AD by the "Chimu" peoples (only the Inca's are now left for us to visit). Once again this city is made of adobe mud bricks but the Chimu were less volatile and did not engage in humann sacrifices. Our guide was a nice old guy, barely 5ft tall and reminded us of a Peruvian version of Yoda! Most of these historic sites are worn down but there is enough detail to make you appreciate their size. At its height, Chan Chan covered 20sq km with 100,000 people.

After a quick supermarket stop for more booze we returned to Huanchaco to go for a run and swim. There was a long board surfing competition when we were there with a $30,000USD first prize! The beach has great surf but has dark sand full of small rocks and pebbles. The water was also 17C - I cannot understand why, since we are still above Capricorn and close to the Equator. Not good for swimmers. Huanchaco is also famous for its fishing canoes, made of a long thin buoyant reed to enable passage through the big surf.

Tonight it was back to our favourite seafood place for a nice BBQ fish caught that morning followed by a visit to the local bar to enjoy several "Pisco Sours", the Peruvian signature cocktail! Suffice to say we were a bit crumbly the next morning as we journeyed another 9hrs from Trujillo to Lima, Peru's capital. The only blessing was the big double-deck luxury bus with air-con, business class style almost flat seats, a hostess and even lunch! To top it off was on-board wi-fi which I used to post this blog! Who said that Peru was not up to date!

NEXT BLOG: to cover the final leg of our Peruvian Pacific Coast journey from Lima (incl) to Arequipa (excl) due 31JAN.

PERU FACTS: 1) Third largest in South America covering 1,285,220 sq km (5 times size of UK). 2) Pop of 29.5m with 80% Catholic, 45% Indigenous (highest proportion in South America, most speak "Quechua", nothing like Spanish). 3) Poorest with over half living below poverty line with unemployment so high that it cannot be measured. 4) First settled by nomads around 7000BC with Incas only ruling between 1100-1600 and dominating for only 100yrs. Spanish arrived 1526 took over 1535. Independence started by Jose De San Martin in 1821 and completed by Simon Bolivar in 1826. Up to 2007 nothing but mitlitary dictatorships and corrupt Presidents. So bad that inflation reached 10,000% before 2000. 5) Soccer is no 1 sport but Peru has not qualified since 1982. Next big thing is bullfighting, Spanish style. 6) Peruvian Andes are even higher with most peaks between 3000-4000 and highest being Huascaran at 6,768m! 7) Cheapest country to-date: 640ml beer $1.30, typical restaurant main is $5, Sandwich is $2, 330ml water is $0.50, Canned food is $0.80, Bread is $1, Milk is $0.80, 1GB Mini Laptop is $300, T-Shirts $4 but petrol is $1.10/L.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to Poonan for fliming more crazy Ozzie-dance sequences.

HINTS & TIPS: I am quickly realising how easy it is to rock up and catch buses from city to city in the countries visited to date. I think it is feasible to book hotels and buses once you are here - it is tons cheaper but you do need more time allocated. The wi-fi in most hotels also makes booking the next hotel a snap! So instead of a hire car you just substitute buses and you can do your own trip!

NOTES TO SELF: I beginning to call South America "the continent of unfinished buildings"!!!! Everywhere you go you see heaps of houses and commercial properties at various stages of incompletion.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Adios Descent (20-23 January 2011, Days 42-45 of 127)

Our descent from the Equadorian Andes began at 11am on Thursday 20 January from the city of Riobamba and ended in the Peruvian Pacific Ocean coastal town of Mancora at 4:30pm on Sunday 23 January.

Along the way we visited the cities/towns of Riobamba and Cuenca in Equador, saying "Adios" (Goodbye) to Equador along the way!

And what a descent that was!

Riobamba (Pop 182K, Elev 2,750m) is a shabby, unkept industrial town but features a long straight cobbled-stone main road with many colonial buildings and 3 main plazas. Riobamba is surrounded by Andean volcano's and is the base for Chimborazo, Equador's highest mountain at 6,310m, it is 2/3rds the hight of Everest! Chimborazo is also recognised as the farthest point from the centre of the earth given the "equatorial buldge" of the Earth! Worth googling to see if the buldge is big enough to surpass Everest!

The area around Riobamba is also dominated by fruit growing areas featuring the sweet "tree tomato" (drunk as a juice) and the grenadilla (passionfruit). Did not do much in this town except two runs and my first tub of ice-cream in a long time! Our hotel door-to-door journey from Riobamba to Cuenca took 7hrs via 2 taxis, 2 buses and 1 van. Given the 6hr bus ride with no stops, Maureen and I stocked up on white wine, cheese and olives from the night before and enjoyed a civilised but shakey lunch as we watching the steep farmed hills of the Andes roll past. The landscape was definately softening from the harsh jagged peaks and cavenous valleys of the Quito north. Many of the villages were so high that they were covered in cloud, making for some awe-inspiring scenery.

Cuenca (Pop 470K, Elev 2,530m, Est 1557) is a more, rustic, charming city with narrow cobblestone streets, a river running throught the centre and surrounded by a ring road and more mountains. It is UNESCO protected and home to the famous white with black band "Panama Hat". Cuenca is known as the "Athens of Equador" given it is a city of learning with 3 universities and the home of Equadorian poetry. It certainy looks better than Athens with multiple church domes amongst colourful colonial buildings - more like the "Florence" of Equador! Dinner on our first night (20JAN) featured the local "Plato Typica" off roast pork pieces with corn and scrambled egg, chips and avocado! It is here we discovered the local export Pilsener - very malty and severely refreshing.
The following day (21JAN), Maureen and I hit the streets and in classic Golfin style we visited the entire city by noon covering, 2 plazas, 3 churches, the river, some piss-weak Inca Ruins and of course some shopping. The highlight was the massive1885 granite built New Cathedral with 3 huge capollas and a massive crucifix under an even bigger gold painted sepulchure (see pictures).

In the afternoon we took a local bus and within 30min we were soaking in the local thermal public baths of Cuenca fuelled by some seismic activity beneath smaller dormant surrounding volcanoes.

A great way to complete the day!

Our final day in Cuenca began at 8:30am with a 2hr bus ride to Ingapirca which features the ruins of a small Inca setllement from the 16th centrury.

Given the drama of a 3hr bus ride back (first bus broke down) and the lack of enough guides to explain the ruins (which are not that intact) I reckon it was a waste of a day. Better to go to the National Park for a bush walk. The only point of interest was the face of an Inca in the side of a hill (see photo).

At 6:45am we farewelled our Cuenca Hotel and took a taxi to the bus station to start our 5hr journey down from the Andes to Huaquillas at the Equadorian border. Even though this crazy lead-foot bus driver turned our morning yoghurt into lunchtime cheese, the scenery on our way down from the Andes was fabulous: narrow valleys, towering peaks, very green slopes, full of farms, small villages and brightly dressed indigenous women. The final descent to the Equadorian coastal plain was simply the best to date.

Massive open valleys with cliff-edge dirt roads, peaks hugged by clouds and raging rivers below. This was made possible by a detour caused by a rain-induced landslide covering the main road. My camera worked overtime. Finally we got to the Equadorian border post (crappy building and the worst toilet to date!) where we spent 20min getting our passport stamped and another 20min waiting for the Peruvian bus. Another 20min entering Peru which was an atco shed with everyone queued outside in the hot equatorial sun! Lucky it was not raining. After 45min the aqua green Pacific showed itself - a sight for sore eyes - I had not seen it since arriving in South America.

NEXT BLOG: to cover the Peruvian Pacific Coastline to Lima due 27JAN.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: 1) My thanks to Maureen for taking most of my crazy dance sequences for the film, especially the one under the New Cathedral main door which took some time because of dumb-arse people walking in front of the camera.

HINTS & TIPS: 1) Peru is the cheapest country in South America for electronics, especially laptops. Good place to replace lost or broken stuff or invest in a small laptop for travel. 2) You can catch buses on main routes that have "no sellers". These are 50% more expensive (most tickets are $5-15) but can be up to 30% quicker.

NOTES TO SELF: 1) Buses in Equador remind me of Greece 40 years ago - there are no set stops, people just get on and off along the way, including locals selling stuff. This is what makes the journeys so long. A 200km trip can take up to 5hrs!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Amazonopoulos (17-19 January 2011)

Casa Kanela Hostel in Quito to Cotococha Lodge in the Amazon Basin took 7.5hrs, 1 van and 2 buses to cover the 193km.

We rode through the Andes along spectacular valley roads passing through 4,000m and descending down to 518m surrounded by thick lush green jungle into a town called Tena (Pop 23K). What a ride. Windy roads, high humidity but the final destination a real treat.

This part of Equador is home to the Quechua indigenous peoples who speak their own language (nothing like Spanish) and are fairly autonomous. I stayed in a wooden, palm-thatched bangalow facing the river (Rio Napo) and surrounded by thick jungle. Rio Napo is one of 12 main rivers that "start" the Amazon from the Andes. The lodge is 15km from Tena, has 22 stand-alone bugalows offering 44 beds, seperate bungalows for eating and entertainment and two long boats for the river.

After our arrival at 3:30pm we were whisked away in a long boat on the river and to the indegenous town of Tiya Yaku where we learned all about local food (mainly the potatoe-like "Yuca"), pottery and poison dart shooting. Back at the lodge, each of us received two kero lanterns for our rooms as there is no electricity.

Maureen and I adjourned to a lovely bottle of Chilean 2008 Cab Sav and local cheese, before dinner, overlooking the river. Dinner slipped past a moonlit night and off to the starrey night of river and jungle nocturnal music...

The 18JAN began with a 12km run at 6:30am through the Amazon Basin, past a village and 3 chasing dogs!

After a quick coffee, we were in the long tail boat across the river and on our half-day walk to a waterfall, deep in the jungle. The Amazon is thick and noisey! It could be Greek! The main feature of visiting this area is purley flora! Animals are here but unlike the low shrub-line of the swampy Pantal, they are hard to spot. The other signature feature is butterlies - they are everywhere. Even the trees "strangle" each other with their roots and trunks in competition for space and light. We also learned that because there are no seasons, Amazon trees have no rings so you cannot tell their age.

The one hour sweaty walk was quickly forgotten in the cool clear waters of the Napo waterfall. After a relaxing swim and sunning on the rocks we headed back to the river and instead of taking the boat to the lodge we "tubbed" back, sitting in huge truck tyre tubes and paddling on our own down the river for 40min. This was a defining moment since we all spread out and with no boat engine, all you could hear was the jungle on both sides of the river and you alone in the middle of the river - such isolation - such beauty. It was at this moment that the enormity and wilderness of the Amazon hit me.

I could not believe I was in a tyre in the middle of the river in the Amazon! Another highlight of tubing is riding the rapids and spinning around as you do it. Back at the lodge and instead of lunch I went for a 30min swim in the river. The afternoon was spent at a butterfly farm learning about the entire life-cycle and observing several species through each stage. The highlight was being let loose in a huge nettted area to chase and photograph these graceful creatures.

We had a mountain of fun getting back to the lodge - instead of the river pebbles on the way there we had to run through a very narrow jungle trail so that the soldier ants below our feet did not have time to climb on us and bite us! On our way back I actually ate some ants that the local guide, Marco, offered to us that live in the stem of a particular plant. They tasted like lime. Back at the lodge we showered and relaxed to the more civilised pre-dinner wine and cheese under lanterns with Maureen at the top floor of the bangalow overlooking the river, jungle and full-moon. Tonight was a special night with "local tucker" before dinner and indigenous dancing after.

The tucker involved a souvlaki of beetle lavae ("Chontacuro") and banana. I proceeded to bite the head off (you do not eat this part) and consume the body - tasted like the skin of a grilled salmon - quite rich and oily but suprisingly tasty - no bitterness. I consumed 3 of these, helped along by my second bottle of Chilean Cab Sav! The dinner featured the local Amazon fish "Tilapia" and local beef accompagnied by the local potato-like "Yuca". The dancing after dinner was like "piss-weak world" in D-Generation.

It started with a local dressed as a medicine man "cleansing" volunteer American tourists and sending Maureen and I to sleep at the same time! Then I tried my hand at some indegenous dancing which was very repetitious so I improvised with my "dag" dance and some Ozzie Aboriginal moves which got the audience going for a while. After watching the locals accidently swash a grasshopper as they danced, it was off to bed. Too much red!

The next day we left the lodge at 8am and started our journey out of the Amazon Basin heading south back up to the Andes to end up in our overnight stop at Riobamba (Pop 182K, Elev 2,7540m), after 10hrs (5hrs on the road), 1 van 3 buses and 1 taxi. Near Banos, we visited three huge waterfalls, the most famous being "La Pailon Del Diablo" (The Devil's Cauldron). Many locals from the coast come to visit these waterfalls via bikes or open-air "party truck" serving booze with music. Banos (Pop 15K, Elev 1,800) itself is famous for its thermal baths (caused by nearby 5,016m semi-active volcano Tungarahua) and "Melcocha" (toffee).
We also visited the town's spectacular cathedral with wood-scuplured fornt door icons and an ornate tiled interior. Poonam tried to bungie-jump off the 60m Banos bridge but I pissed my pants and she couldn't bear the thought of a smelly bus! The scenery between Banos and Riobamba was the best to date featuring a massive valley with Banos volcano Tungarahua steaming in the distance!

NEXT BLOG: to cover our descent from the Equadorian Andes to the Pacific Coast due 24-25JAN.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: My Sincere thanks to Poonam who took the "Insect Photo" and the "Waterfall Photo", in particular, amongst others. She too is in the running for "Best Signature Shot" to be judged by the followers of my blog and a grand prize awarded to the winner by nme on the launch night of "Ai Caramba 2011 - The Movie!" approx 2 mths after my return.

HINTS & TIPS: Definately see the Amazon in Tena Equador or Iquitos Peru via "Jungle Lodges" rather than the boats at Manaus Brazil - the lodges are more isolated and feature a rich array of activities to get you close to the jungle. If its animals you want to see you must do the Lodges at the Pantanal where they cannot hide as easily! Lodges are worth booking from Oz as they fill up.

NOTES TO SELF: 1) Equador has just recently passed a law that forbids the buying and drinking of alcohol on Sundays! I got around this by filling up two water bottles with Sav Blanc and sharing it with Maureen. What a blast. 2) I take my hat off to Maureen who is travelling 2 yrs through South America and europe from 6DEC10 just planning it as she goes. I also admire her ability to "rough it". 3) Equador does not use trains for general transport. There is one for tourism.