Thursday, February 10, 2011

John Cloudrunner "ups the Ande" (1-6 February 2011, Days 55-59 of 127)

I did it! At 3:05pm on Wednesday 2 February 2011, I completed my all time highest altitude 10km run in 60min on the road from Chivay to Cabanaconde in the Peruvian Andes at an elevation of 3,651m (11,978ft). Instead of my usual 4.5-5.0min/km, I did 6min/km and with a 2km hill. I weighed in at 65kg (2 more than I wanted) but the run went swimmingly! No headache, no dizziness, no pain in the legs (no lactic acid) and no shortness of breath. The key new experience was a fast beating heart and many more breaths per minute. I first experienced this in Quito (Elev 2,850) but I must have got used to it with over the 5 runs there. My name is now "John Cloudrunner" and I have "upped the Ande" on Luke Skywalker in Quito!

Our ascent back into the Andes began at 10pm 31JAN with a 9hr overnight sleeper-chair, double-decker bus from Nazca (80km from the Pacific, Elev 563m) to Arequipa (530km from the Pacific, Elev 2,336m). Later we would progress higher to Chivay, Cuzco and finally Oollantaytambo, the base for Machu Picchu (next blog).

Arequipa (Pop 905,000, Elev 2,336m, Est 1540) is also filled with classic Spanish mansions but with a difference. Buildings are made of the volcanic "sillar" stone which is off-white (greyish) and sparkles in the sun. The buildings are huge with big doors and windows, reminiscent of the large apartments of Paris, Athens or Rome. The city is also surrounded by 3 massive snow peak volcanoes: Chachani (6,075m), El Misti (5,822m) and Pichu Pichu (5,571m). After our arrival to the hotel at 8am, I went on a run and then started my walking conquest of the city at 10am.

First victim was the central "Plaza De Armas" featuring the huge city cathedral and 3 double-storey sillar commercial buildings. Nearby are the classic stone mansions of Casa Ricketts and La Casa De Moral and the sillar Inglesia De La Compania church with ornate facade and gold alter inside. The centre is mostly cobble-stoned streets but traffic is thick and chaotic.

The highlight was the 1580 Monasterio Santa Catalina, a 5 acre stone-walled citadel with a mini-city for nuns inside. This was a plush nunnery. Rich families would send their second oldest daughter here to become a nun. They paid the equivalent of $50K in today's money but instead of a cell, the new Dominican nun got a mini-house complete with living room, kitchen and even a servant! The reformation soon fixed this and these luxuries were removed.

The tour was excellent visiting 3 cloisters, 5 mini-streets connecting 80 mini-houses, huge refectory and huge dormatory (introduced in the reformation). There were also a total of 400 paintings in the complex. There are now 20 nuns and 4 novices remaining. Following the monastery I walked to a piss-weak viewpoint and to make matters worse the 3 volcanoes were hidden in cloud. Dinner was a farce - a big restaurant served only by one waiter and it happened to be a carbon copy of "Manuel" from Faulty Towers! Not only did he get the orders wrong and take 5yrs to serve us but had to run two blocks down to another shop to get me a cold beer!

The following morning (2FEB at 8am) we began our exciting 2-day side trip to Chivay by private van, high-up in Andes and the base for the massive Colca Canyon (3,191m deep)!

The 160km journey from Arequipa to Chivay (Pop 4,600, Elev 3,651m) was the best for the Andes so far and possibly the best mountain scenery I have seen in my life. Huge valleys surrounded by snow capped volcanoes straddling 6,000m (Everest is 9,000m) with green moss, multi-pool-like lakes and no trees. We stopped several times along the way to take photos, chew on coca leaves (to prevent altitude sickness) and relieve ourselves (one of the most obvious symptoms of high altitude - affected me big time!).

The highlight was a mountain pass called "Patapampa" where the road reaches 4,910m (16,109ft) which is 2,000ft above the oxygen line (14,000ft, the height aircraft descend to in the event of depressurisation)!!! This is the highest elevation in the Ai Caramaba adventure. I had the highest ever piss in my life and ate some of the heighest ever snow.

After our arrival in Chivay at 1:30pm, everyone went to lunch and I accomplished my lifelong ambition to "run in the clouds"! High altitude simply agrees with me. It must be the red wine opening up all of my capilleries and veins. Only my run in Antarctica beats this one. I am now on-track to run into Machu Picchu!!! How's this for timing. After my run we visited the volcanic thermal mineral springs of La Calera only 10min drive from Chivay. For 60min, I soaked in a huge open-air pool full of minerals at 39C whilst drinking 3C beer!!! It does not get better than this for John Cloudrunner!!!

Just when I thought it was all over, we had Alapaca for dinner with Peruvian music and dancing at a restaurant near the centre of Chivay. The Alpaca was served as a minute steak, grilled on a hot plate - it was tender and tasted like salty pork done in the oven.

The 3FEB began with breaky in Chivay at 6am and by 6:30am we were on our winding way to the breathtaking Colca Canyon. We had several picture stops and visited the little farming town of Maca. We then walked to the "Condor Cross" where we spotted 2 condors and looked down on the spectacular 3,191m deep Colca Canyon.
The river below it runs all thee way to the Pacific Ocean!

At 10am we started back to Chivay stopping along the way for more views of the Colca Valley which is home to several small villages and terraced farms growing a variety of produce and farming Alpacas and Lliamas (many blocked the road).

After my park-bench lunch in the Chivay town square watching short, colourful skirt, pigtail and hat, old Peruvian folk walk by, we departed for Arequipa, leaving 1:30pm and arriving 4:30pm. Our total round-trip to the Colca Canyan was 420km.

That night we enjoyed our first home-cooked meal at the hotel. We had use of kitchen and a nice private room with dining table and TV/DVD. After dinner we watched the latest Harry potter Film (Deathly Hallows - Part 1). Great way to end Colca.

Our last day in Arequipa (4FEB) featured the excellent "Reality Tour", the brainchild of "Miguel", who used to work for Intrepid but branched off when he realised that many tourists are interested in seeing real life - a new concept in touring!

Refer to "REALITY TOUR FACTS" below for a summary of what we learned.

The tour involved a 2.5hr visit to one of Arequipa's "shanty towns" where we saw first hand:

1) A visit to a quarry where local guys made "sillar" bricks. Typically each man makes 10 per day for 1 Sols each - that's 10 Sols a day or $4AUD. Land is owned by Gov and each man pays 50 Sols per year rent.

2) Visit to a local cemetery. People pay 3,000 Sols for 30yrs or 6,000 Sols for ever to bury one body per plot. If family does not reclaim bones after 30yrs then they are put in the tip. Each plot has a mini-house built over it reflecting old pre-Inca custom of pleasing the soul so that they put in a "good word" for the living in Heaven.

3) Visit to day-care centre where local woman (without husbands) take turns looking after each-others kids while they work - brainchild of Miguel's mother!

4) Visit to a local "common dining room" or "soup kitchen" where again, local women take turns cooking for the community for low prices so that both couples can work instead of cooking - again an idea from Miguel's mum. This tour was trully an eye opener. Miguel uses tour money to cover cost of tourist transport, small margin for him and rest as "loans" to local people to enable the initiatives above (self-help). Good luck to Miguel. I spent the rest of the day watching DVDs at the hotel before our 8:30pm overnight bus trip to Cuzco.

After 10hrs on the double-decker sleeper bus, we arrived in Cuzco (Pop 349,000, Elev 3,400m, Est 1100s by the Inca King, Manco) at 6:30am. Cuzco is surrounded by the Andes and has a rustic old town that mixes Inca and Spanish colonial architectures.

After a difficult 10km run, I was off at 9:30am climbing another 130m to view the city from "Cristo Blanco", a hill with a huge statue of Christ in white stone overlooking the city.

The city is South America's longest inhabited city and was conquered by Pizarro in 1533. Plaza San Blas is the arty part of town with the San Blas church (featuring one of the most ornate, intricate, hand-carved, wooden pulpits in South America). Outside are arts and crafts and a huge Trevi-style fountain. Students dressed in black let off fire crackers celebrating one of many Catholic feast days for the Virgin Mary.

Next stop was the central "Plaza De Armas" with the usual huge cathedral and nearby churches of Compania De Jesus and La Merced. All have massive, intricate facades carved from stone and very impressive gold painted wooden altars. The plaza is very big and is surrounded by Cuzco's red rooved houses on steep hills. I then walked down the main commercial road to Santo Domingo church which is built on the Inca site of Qorikancha.

From here I walked down a historic narrow street called "Loreto" which contains an old Inca wall of the "Aqllawasi" or house of the sun virgins - no virgins, just sellers of "Chicharron" (fried pork ribs, the specialty of Cuzco). The central covered market (Mercado Central) is big and jam packed with meats, fruit, vegies, cereals, bread and food-stalls. On my way back I passed Plaza San Francisco, Plaza Regocijo and two "eat streets" full of local food including "Tandoori Guinea Pig"!!! That night it pissed down with rain whilst I settled down to DVD "Sahara" and canned lentils (because no one would come to dinner)!!!

The next morning (6FEB) was a civilised 9:30am departure to the "Sacred Valley" via private van. This is the area of the Andes that best preserves the Inca civilisation including the famous Machu Picchu religious site and the citadels of Ollantaytambo and Pisac.

Our total van journey from Cusco to Ollantaytambo took 5hrs with plenty of stops along the way (total distance of 125km thru very steep windy roads and full of incredibly fertile valleys of green with corn and potato as the key staples).

First stop was Chinchero (Pop 1,000. Elev 3,800m) where we visited a textile co-operative run by President "Marlene" in charge of 46 women and their families making all sorts of Peruvian clothes from Alpaca and Sheep fibres via totally traditional and natural means. This means cleaning the wool in a natural detergent eminating from rubbing a local root in water, colouring the fibre with natural pigments from roots, stones and plants, spinning the fibre into thread via manual means and weaving it into cloth via wooden trescels. Amazing.

Our last stop in Cinchero was the Sunday market, full of local produce to the sound of recorded music!

Urubamba (Pop 10,800. Elev 2,870m) was our next stop which featured a host of local encounters. The first was a demonstration of the making of Inca Pottery followed by Inca Chocolate made from 100% pure locally grown Cocoa Beans, hand-cleaned, roasted, ground, melted and cast.

To top it off we had a lunch at the home of a local family followed by lessons on the making of and tasting of the local "Chicha" beer made from one year old dried giant corn kernels, soaked in water and left to ferment for 8 days to create a 2-3% alcoholic beer that is even given to children!!! This beer is not commercially produced, only by families in the traditional way and sold direct by hoisting up a red plastic bag on the end of a long pole in front of their house.

Finally we arrived in Ollantaytambo (Pop 2,000. Elev 2,800m), an incredibly picturesque village only 58km from Machu Picchu. This narrow, cobblestone village features a massive hilltop perched Inca fortress and citadel and full of "gringos" (tourists)! This was one of my favourite places since it is surrounded by massive peaks, full of history and featured one of the best view points available. Not to mention the lentil soup and quarter pounder lentil burger I scoffed down that evening washed down by a COLD white wine - Peruvians sell and drink their whites warm! After a lengthy debate on the Nazca lines and Peruvian culture with our guide, I farewelled electricity for the last time (internet and charging) before our 3 day trek, the next day starting at 4:40am!

NEXT BLOG: to cover the magical Machu Picchu due 12FEB.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: 1) Thanks to Miguel for his interview during the Reality Tour. His website is 2) Ongoing gratitude to Poonan for the excellent signature shots and ozzie-dag-dance sequences. 2) Thanks to Marlene for the interview on Peruvian textiles. 3) Thanks to Monica for teaching us to make 100% cocoa chocolate! 4) Thanks to Celicia for the lovely home-cooked Peruvian lunch and Chicha beer!

1) Approx 50% of Arequipa's 905,000 inhabitants live in shanty towns under the poverty line. 2) Poverty line is 700 Sols per month ($255AUD) but most earn 450-550 Sols ($165-200AUD). 3) Most people work day-to-day for an average of 15 Sols/day ($5.50AUD) either labouring, cleaning, gardening, painting etc, between 8-12hrs, mostly for the middle to upper class. There is no such thing as minimum salary or unions and all pay is black. 4) Most families have 3-5 kids each since parents will get no pension so they depend on their kids to take care of them in retirement. 5) Most kids will marry and their spouses will stay with them at their parents house for 5-6yrs to get enough of a deposit together to buy their own land or build above their parents ground floor. 6) Most of Peru's rich are actually foreigners who brought money into country and set up enterprises. 7) There are 28,000 taxis in Arequipa, employing many poor with only 15% owned by drivers. 8) Visit to doctor in public hospital costs 10 Sol and social workers determine what a person will pay for an operation. 9) Education is free to the end of public high school with up to 200 Sols per year in books etc during high school (which most poor cannot afford). University averages 2,000 Sols per degree.

HINTS & TIPS: 1) Always check if there is hot water BEFORE you unpack when you stay at a 2 or 3 star hotels in South America! 2) Laundrettes are very cheap in South America. $1-2/kg. Not worth cleaning your own. 3) Intrepid should alter itinerary to stay extra day & night in Cabanacombe in Colca Valley instead of Arequipa. 4) Intrepid should add the "Reality Tour" as a standard feature when in Arequipa - it was one of the most interesting and informative options to date.

NOTES TO SELF: 1) After almost 2mths in South America, three very interesting things have struck me and my fellow travellers about all the indigenous peoples we have seen to date: a) No premature baldness or even receding hairlines for men. b) There are no beards or moustaches on men. c) Very few adults or children wearing glasses!