Saturday, 31 December 2011

Shock to the body - from South American summer to European winter

Hi folks.  I am now back in Europe and checking in from Madrid, where I will be spending New Years Eve before heading back to Zurich.  We arrived on the 28th and Anny's sister and dad were at the airport to greet us, along with my little dog Negrita and her mum Punkita.  Negrita hasn't seen me for 4 months and at first she was barking at me like she does when strangers approach her.  I have to admit I was a little upset that my dog didn't recognise me immediately, but after a minute or two she knew exactly who I was and started licking me frantically on my hands and arms.  What a relief that was.

The first thing I noticed on leaving the warmth of the airport was the low temperature outside.  I have been used to temperatures in the mid 20s and it was a shock to suddenly experience temperatures close to 10 degrees.  In Switzerland it will be even colder so at least I get a chance to acclimatise a little here first.   Rather foolishly I haven't got any warm running clothes with me, so in the last few days I have been running in my cycling clothes.  I didn't think about these few days I would be spending here on my return, and only had shorts and Tshirt for running in.

I did a quick weigh in the other day as I was interested to see if I had lost any weight since leaving to South America.  Obviously I lost some weight during the bike tour itself, but since finishing the Inca trail I haven't done that much exercise and have been enjoying the Peruvian cuisine somewhat, so probably gained a few pounds in those couple of weeks.  It was a pleasant surprise to see that I am still only 73.5kg, so well below my pre tour weight.

The last few days I have been out running every day, and slowly trying to increase the time that I am on my feet.  Today I went out for half an hour with Negrita, dropped her off at the apartment, and then did another faster hour by myself.  Previously I would have taken Negrita with me for the full one and a half hours, but yesterday she had an annual check up and I asked the vet about a tendency she has to hop when she is walking.  The vet says she suspects that she has a small issue with the movement in her knees,and that is is common in small dog breeds.  When I told her that I usually go running with Negrita all the time, she told me that I need to be careful and not to go too far or it could make her knee worse.  Heeding her advice I have decided to limit my runs with her to one hour in duration.  At first she even said I shouldn't run with her at all, but when I told her how happy Negrita is when running and how happy I am to have such a loyal running companion she changed her opinion slightly.  She had initially thought that Negrita was hopping more during and afer running, but I explained to her that isn't the case and that she hops more during walks than runs.  I will have to monitor her and see how it goes, but the thought of not being able to run with her at all makes me very sad, and I hope it never comes to that.

Well folks, with the new year almost being here, it means there are only 3 solid months of training left before the Marathon des Sables.  When you break that down into weeks and realise that it is only 14 weeks or so, that thought scares me somewhat.  I still have a long way to go to be in the required shape for the race.  I am already contacting my Pilates instructor to arrange for the lessons to commence again upon my return to Zurich, and I will be taking full advantage of my free Holmes Place membership from the moment I get back.  I want to do a combination of spinning and weights and yoga and Pilates on top of the running.  My running training will be a combination of speedwork, tempo and hill work, in addition to long steady back to back (or sandwich) runs.  I have plenty of time to train during the day and the only issue will be how much exercise my body can withstand.  That was one of the reasons I wanted to do the South America bike tour, to get my body used to doing very large amounts of exercise without getting injured.  Running is much higher impact than cycling however, so even now I need to be extremely careful as I increase the amount of running I am doing each week.  What I can do though is to use lots and lots of cross training whilst I am building up my running endurance so that I don't get overuse injuries from the high impact of running alone.

On a final note, my fundraising has had another boost, with the sale of the second half of the membership that Holmes Place donated to me.  I cannot thank them enough for giving me the opportunity to train for free at their club and on top of that donating a 1 year gym and spa membership and allowing me to sell it to raise funds for my charity.  Only another 1,000 GBP left to raise now, so if a few more or you donate I will be there in no time at all hint hint.  So now in closing, I would like to wish you all a happy new year and please wherever you are enjoy yourself but stay safe and don't get hit by any fireworks.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Hitting the gym

Well I stuck to my word and went to the gym this morning.  It was not quite what I was expecting.  The machines were quite old and there were not so much cardiovascular equipment, but it was sufficient enough to do some weight training.

I tried to stick to compound exercises like squats so that I didn't need to spend so much time there, allowing us to do other activities this afernoon like sightseeing.  In total we spent one hour there.  I think that if you don't spend too much time resting then an hour is quite sufficient.  When I used to go to the gym I always used to try to lift as much weight as possible.  Today I decided instead to focus on endurance and do 3 sets of 20 repetitions at each station.

At the same time as training myself, I was coaching Anny.  I really enjoyed helping her to push herself harder.  I probably wouldn't mind being a personal trainer if I had the chance.  I do tend to push people quite hard though, and not everyone can handle it.  I recall when I was in Belize with Raleigh International and it was my turn to be leader for the day some people said they felt as if they were in the military.  If I was ever to become a personal trainer I would try to pick my clients carefully, and choose only the ones that were willing to really push themselves hard.

Let's see how it goes, but I think tomorrow there will be quite a few aches and pains shared between Anny and myself.  If all goes well we will go for a run together nethertheless.  Have a good day my friends and speak to you tomorrow.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Running the Pisco route in Moquegua

Moquegua in Peru is famous for its pisco, a type of brandy made from grapes, which can only officially be produced in 5 areas of Peru.  The most famous pisco in Moquegua is called Biondi.  Just outside of Moquegua city centre there is a route called the pisco route that passes through various vineyards, the grapes of which are used to make pisco.  Today I decided to run this beautiful route and I was glad that I did.  It took me just over an hour and the landscape along the way was stunning.  There were also plenty of dogs along the way, and that part I did not like so much.  However, since I did the route around midday the dogs were already hot and tired, and so bothered me very little.  Just in case though, I ran with a rock in my hand.

One of the vineyards on the Pisco route

This is the first proper run (one hour or more is my definition of "proper run") that I have done in months, and it went fine, except that I was suffering a fair amount in the heat.  I think that the fitness I have built up from cycling can easily be carried over into running fitness, given a few months of specific training.  Moquegua has a very hot dry climate due to its proximity to the Atacama desert in Chile.  I am not sure exactly what the temperature was, but it felt bloody hot.  Most of the runners here go out in the early hours of the morning, before it becomes too hot.  With the Marathon des Sables in mind, I decided not to try and go during the early hours when it is comfortably warm, but during the midday heat when it is unbearably hot.  On top of the heat and the hills that I encountered along the way, Moquegua lies at 1,410 metres above sea level, so it is also altitude training.

The only problem is that I have a little bit of a cold at the moment, and since I came back from my run my nose seems to be running more, so I hope I haven't made myself iller.  They usually say though that as long as the cold is above the neck you are okay to run, but if it is below the neck then you should rest.  With this in mind, I should be okay to run.

Tomorrow I am planning on going to the gym, and doing some weights and sprinting on the treadmill.  As with everything new, it will be an interesting experience to see how Peruvian gyms differ from Euopean ones.  Just like it will be an interesting experience to see how Peruvian Christmases differ from British Christmases.  I can report back on that subject in a few days.  Goodnight everyone and with frequent internet access at the moment, you can be sure I will post something again soon.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Some of the worst customer service ever, with the bus company Sagitario and the tour company Jumbo

Well my friends I rarely complain much, but on this occasion I really have to vent my frustration at what happened to us last night at the bus station in Puno.  We arrived half an hour before our bus to Moquegua was due to depart and presented our tickets at the desk of Sagitario transport.  The first thing that annoyed us was that the guy was on the phone with his wife and made us wait for over ten minutes, and that already shows poor customer service, as he should have told his wife he had customers and would call her back later.  Once the impolite guy at the desk looked at our tickets he said they were not valid as there was no date written on the tickets and that there was no way those tickets had been sold by him or one of his colleagues.  The problem was that those seats were already occupied and it seems the travel agency Jumbo who bought the tickets had bought them for the previous night, although because there was no date on the tickets there was no proof of when they were booked for.

Anny and I tried to explain that if the date was not completed on the tickets that was the mistake of his company because it is the bus company who sold the tickets and who must complete them properly.  The idiot did not seem to understand this point though, and he just phoned his colleague to ask him if he had sold tickets without a date, and then held up the phone so we could hear his colleague deny it.  In his opinion that was proof enough that we had no rights.  But to compare this situation with another, it is like someone committing murder then going to court and when asked if he is guilty, phoning his friend in court on loudspeaker and getting his friend to say that he didn't do it and expecting to go free.  Sorry but it does not work like that, so we asked to see his boss.

His boss was a little more reasonable, although still disorganised, like the company in general it seemed.  I mean they also had issues with other passengers the same night, and had 5 seats booked that they did not seem to know who was meant to occupy them until a few minutes before departure, because once again they had not filled in the tickets fully with names etc.  The boss tried to get us on the bus, but there was no chance as it was completely full.  She did at least admit that it was partly their fault for selling tickets without a date on them, and partly the fault of Jumbo travel agency as they had requested them on the wrong day she claimed.

Throughout the time we were waiting, which was one hour in total, a representative from Jumbo came to supposedly sort out the situation.  He was basically a wet lettuce though, and stood around doing nothing, leaving us to argue with the desk idiot and his boss.  He may as well have stayed at home for all the good he was.

To summarise how it all ended, the bus company purchased tickets for us on another bus owned by another company for this morning, and Jumbo took us by taxi to the hotel where we had been staying the previous night.  They refused to pay for the hotel though and wanted us to stay in their own sub standard accommodation, so we had to phone the main agency with whom we have dealt the whole trip which is based in Cusco, and get them to agree to pay for the hotel and sort out the mess with Jumbo themselves, as aftterall Jumbo is a local tour operator and we should only have to deal with the agency in Cusco who we booked our whole trip with.  The agency in Cusco agreed to pay the costs and now we will shortly be trying to make our way to Moquegua once again, and hoping that nothing else goes wrong, as Anny's family is waiting for us.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Arequipa, Colca Canyon, Puno and the islands of Uros, Amantani and Taquile

Hi everyone.  Well the tour of Peru is fast coming to an end.  We are now in Puno and only one more destination in Peru awaits us.  That is the city of Moquegua, where we will be spending Christmas with Anny's family.  After that it will be back to Europe and back to full on running training ready for the MDS.  Because of all the travelling I haven't been able to run that much the last couple of weeks.  I was however able to run a little on the island of Amantani, although with the island located at over 3,800m above sea level the short jog really took my breath away.

After leaving Nazca our next stop was the beautiful city of Arequipa.  On the first day we did a walking tour of the city and saw the cathedral, monastery, Plaza des Armas and other key monuments.  Then we met up with some of Anny's cousins who study there and enjoyed some of the scrumptious Arequipa dishes, of which there are many.  I also tried the Arequipan papaya juice, which is very different from the usual much larger papayas that you find elsewhere in Peru.  In my opinion it is a lot more tasty.  In the evening I decided I needed to do some exercise, and since I didn't know the parts that were safe and not safe in Arequipa I decided to do my exercise in the hotel room.  I did a combination of press ups and sit ups and step ups on a chair, along with jogging on the spot with high knees etc.  By the end I was exhausted.

The next day we were off on a tour of Colca canyon for 2 days.  Colca canyon besides being stunningly beautiful is also a great place to see Andean condors whose wingspan can exceed 3m.  The guide warned us that the likelihood of seeing them was not that high though, because they had already started nesting, and only leave the nest for brief periods to look for food and then they return to the nest.  On the way to the hotel where we would stay for the night, we passed over a road at over 4,900m above sea level.  On clear days you can see all the volcanoes in the region from this point, but because it is now rainy season there were clouds covering most of the volcanoes.  It was still a precious view though, and on the top are many rock constructions that people have built, because they believe that the apus (spirits of the mountains) can protect them and so they build small houses from rocks and make a wish for good things to come to them.  Anny and I decided to build a small house and make a wish for a long and happy relationship.  It is always worth a try even if you don't believe fully in these things.

In Chivay we left most of the group and went to our hotel in Yanque, which was owned by some French people, and so gave us a good chance to practise our deteriotaing French language skills.  At the hotel there was an option to do some horse riding, which I was very keen on.  Anny agreed to join, but just before we set off the rain came and she decided she would rather stay in the warm and dry.  I had full waterproofs with me so I wasn't phased by the rain and went ahead with the ride.  The ride to the thermal baths where I wanted to go was very pretty, but the main road was closed due to construction, and the alternative path we had to take was rather steep in places.  I wasn't that comfortable with being on a horse on a steep rocky downhill, as I worried that the horse would slip and fall, taking me with it.  At some points we were only a metre or so from a sheer drop of a hundred metres or so, so there was a little adrenalin in my veins, and I tried to keep the horse as close to the rock face as possible.  All worked out fine in the end and I arrived safely at the thermal baths.  The water in the baths is lovely and hot, somewhere in the high 30s.  I spent around 45 minutes in the water and then I walked back to the hotel to meet Anny.  In the evening we took advantage of the sauna and jacuzzi at the hotel, and we also paid for a massage.  After the massage my aches and pains from the previous night of exercises in my hotel room were somewhat less, although still present.

Horseriding in Colca canyon

Early the next morning we were picked up from our hotel by the tour company, and driven along the Colca canyon to the Cruz del Condors viewpoint, stopping at various other viewpoints along the way.  We were at the Cruz del Condors viewpoint for around one and a half hours, and there was not a single condor in sight.  The group was worried we wouldn't get to see them, as we were meant to leave after one and a half hours and return to Arequipa.  Just as we were about to get on the bus however, someone spotted a condor and so the guide gave us a little more time.  Within a few minutes 3 condors were soaring up and down the valley.  It was an awe inspiring sight.  They are such masters of flight, and their flight seems effortless and graceful.  At one point the condors made a pass over our heads, so that there was less than 10 metres between us and them.  It was now that we could appreciate just how big they really are.  We left the Colca canyon and drove back to Arequipa very happy people.

By the time we arrived back in Arequipa I had a horrible migraine, and I decided to book a hotel room so I could rest, until it was time to take our night bus to Puno.  I haven't really had any migraines since arriving in Buenos Aires so maybe I am starting to lose a little fitness, as I only usually get them when I am not at peak fitness.  It could also be the combination of lots of travelling and altitude and early mornings though.

After taking the night bus and arriving in Puno, it was 5am and we were taken to the hostal owned by the tour company so that we could rest for a few hours before our tour of Uros, Amantani and Taquile began.  After a quick breakfast the driver raced down to the port at breakneck speed and all of us in the bus were scared to hell.  Someone asked him to slow down but he didn't seem to heed the advice and continued to swerve around the tuk tuks.

The first stop was the Uros floating islands, and these I have already written about before in a previous post, so I wont repeat myself here.  If you recall I visited the floating islands when I was in Puno on the bike tour before meeting up with Anny in Cusco.

After leaving the Uros floating islands the next stop was Armantani, which is the second largest island on lake Titicaca.  The island is a peaceful place free of traffic and noise, and we spent the night there with a local family.  In the evening the locals put on a music and dance show, and we all had to dress up in the local attire and take part in the dancing.  It was a lot of fun and almost everyone joined in.

Dressed in traditional costumes on Amantani island

The following morning we took the boat to Taquile, another island not far from Armantani.  We did a walking tour and took our lunch at a restaurant with views over the island.  Throughout the lunch, the guide explained the local customs on the island, regarding marriage and love, and how the way the people dress tells you whether they are married, single and looking or single and not looking.  Then it was time to head back to Puno, a 3 hour boat ride.  Once back in Puno we were transferred to our hotel and took some well deserved rest.  Later in the evening we went to a pena, which is a restaurant where there is also a music and dance show.  We saw dances from the various regions of Peru, and I really loved the eagle dance, where the men wore head attire so they resembled eagles, and danced like warriors.  Anny's favourite dance was the one from Moquegua for obvious reasons (with Moquegua being her birthplace).

View from Taquile island looking towards Amantani island

Now we have the day to rest and do some shopping and then we are off to Moquegua for Christmas.  I am really looking forward to it, and Anny is excited to be seeing her Peruvian side of the family too.  I will visit my family in the UK in mid January, and we will be with Anny's parents and sister in Madrid for new year.  Take care everyone and I will try to check in again soon.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Islas Ballestas, Paracas Reserve and the Nazca lines

Hi everyone.  As usual the last couple of days have been quite busy in terms of travelling, and after leaving Lima we took a bus to Paracas where we visited the Paracas Reserve and the Islas Ballestas and then we took another bus down to Nazca where we did an overflight of the Nazca lines in a little Cessna.

The bus company we travelled with is Cruz del Sur (one of the best in Peru) and on the bottom floor is the first class compartment (which we decided was worth paying the extra for) where the padded seats recline by 160 degrees.  I was impressed just how comfortable their buses are, and I was able to sleep easily along the way.  That is very good news as tonight we are catching an overnight bus from Nazca to Arequipa and I would like to get a good nights rest.

The first class compartment on the bus - very comfortable

On arriving at Paracas we were transferred to the port, where we got on a boat to go and visit the Islas Ballestas.  The Islas Ballestas are a group of small islands not far from Paracas that provide an important sanctuary for many species of birds and animals including the blue-footed booby, Humboldt penguin, pelicans and sea lions amongst others.  Every 8 years there is a guano (bird droppings) collection campaign on the islands, and the guano is sold as fertiliser, providing an important source of income for many people.  The guide told us that the first time guano was collected from one of the islands it was said to have measured 12 metres in depth.  One year however the guano collectors started too late, and some of the birds had already began nesting.  Since the islands are part of a nature reserve the collectors were not allowed to disturb the birds and so had to cease their collection campaign.  It was very impressive just how many birds there are on the island, and also a little scary with them flying overhead due to the constant ongoing threat of poop attacks.

Birds, birds everywhere

Sunbathing sea lions

After the short visit to the islands we then went to visit the Paracas reserve.  The reserve is part desert and part sea, but the largest part is the marine part.  Throughout the reserve are pristine beaches and sand dunes, but the most striking beach is the playa roja or red beach, which has this reddish colour due to volcanic rock present in the area that is broken down into sand.  At the end of our visit we went to the museum, which has various displays and a short video about the diversity of life that exists in the reserve, and followed the path from the museum down to the colony of pink flamingoes that feed at the edge of the sea.  It was great to see that the visitors had to maintain a good distance from the flamingoes so as not to disturb them.  Animals welfare should always come before tourists desires to see them in my opinion.

The playa roja or red beach

By the time we arrived in Nazca it was late evening and we went directly to the hotel to rest.  Our overflight of the Nazca lines was booked for this morning at 8.45am, and we were advised not to eat breakfast beforehand, as a lot of people get nauseous during the flight.  We followed the advice and and skipped breakfast, heading dirctly to the airport ready for the flight.  The wait at the airport was around 20 minutes, and during this time Anny took the opportunity to visit the medical clinic and get some anti nausea medicine.  The cost of the medicine is included in the aiport tax of 25 soles.  I however chose not to take any anti nausea medicine, as I don't like taking medication when it is not absolutely necessary.

After the short wait we were shown to the aircraft.  It was a little Cessna that can carry up to 4 passengers, and 2 crew.  The plane was full as there were 6 of us in total, 2 crew and 4 passengers.  I have only flown once before in a small plane (on the way to Angel falls) and that time it was a very bumpy ride so I was a little apprehensive, but the thing I like about small planes is that they stay closer to the ground.  The plane took off, and within minutes we were seeing the first of the Nazca symbols, the whale.  The pilot would bank left and right so that everybody got to see it regardless of where they were sitting.  Over the next 30 minutes we saw all of the other symbols including the monkey, the condor, the hummingbird, the dog and the "astronaut".  The most puzzling name for me was the "astronaut" because the Nazca culture would not have known about space flights at that time.  Maybe they intended it to be a man or an alien.  The amazing thing about the figures construction however, is how the Nazca people would know what they would look like without aerial assistance.  Apparently from the ground you cannot see them at all, so how did they check up on their work and see how it was coming along?  There are various hypotheses about how the figures were constructed and one is that they used some kind of hot air balloon, but other people have dismissed this theory and said that can be constructed with simple tools and surveying techniques that were available to the Nazca people at the time, and researcher Joe Nickell of the University of Kentucky managed to reproduce the figures using tools and technology that would have been available to the Nazca people.

Preparing to board

The "astronaut" (middle left of photo)

Towards the end of the flight Anny and I started to feel nauseous.  The girl in front of us had already vomited a few times.  There was only 7 minutes flight time left to get back to the airport, so I tried to distract myself and to avoid having to vomit into the little white bags.  The problem for me was not the banking left and right, but the small up and down bumps that would happen when we hit thermals.  It wasn't scary at all, as the weather was fantastic, but all the same my stomach did not like the little bumps.  Anyway in the end it all turned out well as neither Anny nor myself vomited.  When we got back to the hotel we took our breakfast and we now feel back to normal again.  We were considering to do another tour in the Nazca area this afternoon, as our overnight bus to Arequipa is not until late tonight, but we have opted instead to have a nice relaxing day, as till now our program has been quite intense.  Sometimes it is just good to have a day of r and r and then to continue with the program the following day.  With that note I will leave you and take my siesta now.  Goodbye my friends.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Saved from a venomous snake bite

Two posts in a day - wow that doesn't happen vey often.  Well I just wanted to write a post separate from the ayahuasca one about the various other things we did whilst in the Peruvian Amazon.  So here goes.

On arriving at the first lodge we took a quick siesta and then went to visit a local tribe called the Yaguas.  They painted our faces according to our marital status, which is apparently what they do within their own tribe.  Everyone in our group was married except for Anny and I who are engaged, so our faces were painted differently to the others.  Then they played a little music for us and then for what I found the most fun part - they got out their blow gun and showed us how they shoot down monkeys from the trees using a poison that paralyses them, by practising on a wooden post.  I would not have appreciated practising on real monkeys as that doesn't fit with my vegetarianism.  Two of the Yagua guys missed the post, but more than half of our group hit the post first time, which is surprising considering that the Yaguas need to be good at darting so that they can catch food.  Maybe they had drunk too much before the demo, although they seemed perfectly sober to me.

Anny tring her hand at blowdarting

Later in the day we went to see some young healers who taught us about the plants that they use in their traditional medicine, and this is where I asked them about the ayahuasca ceremonies and managed to sign myself up for one.  There is a drink made from seven roots that the locals drink, and each root has some particular medicinal properties.  The properties of each root was explained in detail, along with the strict rituals that the healers must follow regarding their diet and abstinence from alcohol and sex during their training.  They have a tough life it seems.

The lodge where we slept the first night was about an hour from Iquitos and is located in what is termed a secondary forest.  Basically the trees have been felled and the vegetation is not the same as it would have been before the felling began.  The remaining trees are much shorter and the vegetation less dense.

In the morning we got on the boat, which is the main form of transport in the Amazon and headed towards the other lodge, which is located in primary forest where the trees are much taller.  On the way we stopped at a place where there is an 80% chance of seeing dolphins, and we were the lucky 80% and not the unlucky 20%, as we saw plenty of them.  We saw both kinds - the grey and the pink river dolphin.  The pink dolphin in fact is unique to the Amazon.  We had to make a short walk by land across an island to another river where a boat was waiting for us.  Whilst crossing the island a young boy came out to greet us carrying a baby sloth that he had as a pet, and he asked for a tip.  We didn't give him one of course, as we don't want to encourage the locals to take animals from the forest thinking that they can make easy money from them.  The poor animals have a hard enough time as it is with the locals killing them for food.

The second lodge was quite remote and was exactly the kind of place I like to stay.  After resting for a bit some of us went for a jungle walk, but Anny wanted to rest as she has been to the Amazon before and seen most of the animals.  Unfortunately I was stupid enough to forget the insect repellent and so got eaten alive by the mosquitoes during the walk.  I was hoping there was some kind of natural repellent I could use, but the guide didn't know of one that was easily accessible.  Instead he gave me a leaf and told me to keep fanning myself to try and keep the mossies away.  Throughout the walk the guide talked about the various symbiotic relationships that exist such as the tree that houses ants that then help to protect the tree and the pig that makes a hole that snakes share in return for the snakes helping to protect the pig from predators.  I have heard about all these symbiotic relationships on wildlife documentaries but it was great to be able to see them firsthand.  We didn't see the pig and snake though.

Later in the day the guide took us out on the lagoon on a canoe, and Anny and him did some fishing whilst I just watched them.  I did the paddling as I wanted to get in some exercise and it was pretty tricky at first as the canoe didn't have a rudder so it is hard to stop it doing circles.  After a while I got the hang of it though.  The guide caught two small fish before throwing them back in the water and Anny didn't seem to be catching anything.  In the end though Anny caught two small fish also, so it was a two all draw.  Anny also threw them back as neither of us wanted to kill the poor fish.  I had hoped to see a piranha as there are plenty of them about, but the guide said to catch them we would need to use meat as bait, which would involve killing one of the fish we caught and using that, and that is something I didn't want.  I was also interested to hear that the infamous fish that swims into people's orifices does exist and it is a type of catfish.  Apparently it more often swims into men's anuses than up their penises.  On the walk back from the lagoon the light was starting to fade, and as we were strolling through the jungle the guide suddenly stopped us in our tracks.  Neither Anny or I had seen it, but there was a snake right in the middle of the path that hadn't heard us coming and so hadn't had time to slither away.  It was clearly startled and was coiled up ready to strike if we came any nearer.  I don't have a fear of snakes so it didn't really scare me, but I asked the guide all the same if it was venomous.  It most definetely was, as he recounted that this snake was a common lancehead viper or bothrops and one of the same kind had killed his aunt when he was younger.  She believed in traditional medicine and didn't go to the hospital, preferring instead to use plants and herbs to counteract the venom.  He said when she died later in the day she was bleeding from her gums and from under her fingernails, and it didn't sound like a pleasant way to go.  He said if she had gone to the hospital she probably would have lived.  Despite telling us that if we had continued walking without seeing the snake it would have most likely struck us on the boots and not penetrated the rubber outer, we were very happy that he had seen it in time.

At night I went out with the guide for a quick walk around the camp to try and spot some tarantulas.  We didn't find any, but we did find plenty of other spiders instead.

The next morning at 6.30am we went out in the boat to do some bird watching.  Once we turned off the motor we saw plenty of them.  There were all kinds of colours of birds from bright yellow to blue to multicolored beauties.

On the way back to Iquitoes we saw yet more dolphins and even saw some tourists swimming in the river near to where they were.  Rather them than me as despite the fact that most dangerous piranhas live in Hollywood and in reality they are unlikely to bother you, there are all kinds of other nasty parasites that live in the water and may make you sick.  Not to mention the anacondas, other snakes and caimans.  We also made a short stop at an animal rescue sanctuary where the animals are actually free to leave anytime they want.  All of the animals have been rescued from captivity and are roaming in a space that has no fences or cages to retain them.  The only thing that keeps the animals coming back is the food that the sanctuary owners provide for them, as most of the animals have no idea how to fend for themselves and how to catch their own food.  There was a baby monkey called King Kong that was ever so cute.  He would jump up on me and sit on my head and lie on my arm, but he was also a clever little fellow and was opening all my pockets to see if I had anything interesting inside.

King Kong and me

The trip to the Peruvian Amazon was a fantastic experience and although we weren't trekking into virigin jungle and seeing jaguars and other rarely seen creatures, it was a nice insight into the other world that exists outside of the cities and villages where most of us live.  A place where animals run the place, and where we need to afford them respect.  The venomous snake was a poignant reminder of how respectful we must be of the power of nature.

Experiencing the force of the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca

As those of you who know me personally know, I am always up for trying out new things from other cultures.  Well my visit to the Peruvian Amazon was no exception, and whilst I was there I took the opportunity to try the substance that is known as ayahuasca, made from a jungle vine.  Ayahuasca is more than just a hallucinogenic drug to the local people though.  Taking ayahuasca for them is a religious sacrement and it is also widely used in their traditional medicine.  They take advantage of the fact that it induces intense vomiting and diarrhoea to clean the body of worms, parasites and toxins.

Originally I did not think that I would get the opportunity to try ayahuasca, as our tour was already prebooked and did not include any ayahuasca ceremony in the itinerary.  As part of our tour though we got to meet a couple of young healers to talk about the medicinal properties of various plants that you can encounter in the jungle.  At the end of the talk I asked them if there would be any possibility to try ayahuasca later in the evening, and it seems I was in luck as another tourist was already taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony later that evening, and they said it would be possible to join him.

Anny holding the vine from which ayahuasca is extracted

Someone came to our lodge to pick up me and the other guy at around eight thirty in the evening.  The other guy told me that he had tried ayahuasca twice before in the US, despite it being illegal there, and that he had travelled to the Peruvian Amazon for the sole purpose of taking part in a week long series of ayahuasca ceremonies.  He had already taken it the two preceding nights, and told me to expect a lot of vomiting taking it for the first time.  I asked him if he had had any hallucinations but he said that he had not, although he had seen many other people having hallucinations throughout the various ceremonies he had attended.  I was not sure what to expect and I felt it best to just enter the whole experience with an open mind and see what happened.

The shamens normally have their hut outside the main part of the village so that there are no distractions for the participants and so that they can focus on the ceremony itself.  When we arrived at the hut the shamen himself was busy with a villager and we (the Japanese guy and myself) sat in the darkened room with a younger healer who started to prepare the ayahuasca.  The preparation consisted of a series of rituals combining smoke (which is very important in their traditional medicine and is blown into the bottle containing the ayahuasca) and songs (which are whistled throughout the whole process) and some words (almost like a prayer to the ayahuasca that it would treat us well).  The shamen then entered the room and repeated the process that the young healer had started, but for a shorter period of time, and the ayahuasca was now ready for our use.

First to take the ayahuasca was the Japanese guy.  He swallowed down the liquid quickly and then handed the cup back to the shamen.  Some more smoke was blown and songs whistled, and then next was my turn.  I checked with the shamen that I should drink the whole cup and not just part, as I didn't want to take more than was necessary.  He reassured me that it was fine to drink the whole cup and I started to swallow it down.  The liquid was very bitter and I tried to drink it as quickly as possible.  It was not a drink that you would want to sip and savour the flavour.  Next the young healer and the shamen took the ayahuasca and then we all sat down in silence waiting for the drug to take effect.

Half an hour passed and I still felt nothing, other than the occasional eruption of gas and rumble of my stomach.  The young healer left the building and went into the forest outside and I assumed that he had gone to be sick.  He came back shortly afterwards and then it was the turn of the Japanese guy.  I could hear him vomiting outside and I wondered whether I would be out there alongside him shortly afterwards.  The Japanese guy returned and then suddenly the drug started to take effect.

At first I felt just slightly dizzy, but then as time went on I started to see fuzzy multicolored patterns infront of my eyes.  Next I started to feel as if I was a snake and I was moving my hands in a kind of wave motion.  I realised now that I was really starting to get into the twilight zone and that strange things would start to happen.  I would close my eyes and then when I looked up suddenly there would be a person standing there infront of me, but in fact there was noone and it was just my imagination.  The urge to vomit came and I went outside ready for the cleanising of my body to commence.  As I was stood outside strange things started to appear at the edge of the garden where the forest began.  I would see people that suddenly would disappear and then animals started to appear.  At first the animals were scary like big black dogs and a wild boar or big and a dead badger on top of the compost heap in the corner of the garden.  Then later the animals became more exciting and less scary.  I saw a polar bear and a white horse and I didn't feel scared of them.  I just remember thinking how beautiful they were.  Inside the hut the shamen and the younger healer began to whistle the ayahuasca song and start to shake their rattles.  My perception of sound was heightened and everything around me began to vibrate.  The sound of a mosquito buzzing about me was driving me insane.

Inbetween the bouts of vomiting I returned to the hut and sat with the group.  Inside the hut with the whistling and the rattles being shaken vigorously I felt waves of euphoria rushing through my body.  The sounds, the dizziness, the visions - I had control of myself enough that I knew what was happening, but at the same time the drug was running its course inside me, and I felt its power.  The shamens believe that in this state they can communicate with their ancestors, and I am not sure whether I believe in that kind of thing or not, but I can see how it takes them away from their normal state of mind where everyday distractions can take over.

After two hours or so the effects of the ayahuasca began to fade, but it was another hour of vomiting and diarrhoea before I started to feel that I was back to my usual self.  Three hours after the ceremony began we were all more or less okay again, and the young healer did a quick healing ceremony on me and explained the things that I should and should not do in the coming days.  For instance he explained that you should not have sex for at least a day, and that you should not eat pork for at least fifteen days afterwards.  He also told me that my aura was very positive and that I would lead a good life.  He then took the Japense guy and me back to the lodge and I took a well deserved sleep.

In the morning the young healer came to the lodge to deliver some traditional medicines to our fellow tourists, and Anny asked him what my visions had meant.  He explained that the polar bear and white horse are very positive signs, and good things will happen.  The black pig or wild boar that I saw on the other hand is a very bad sign, and he says this was my body and mind ridding itself of something very negative.  Once again I am not sure whether I believe in this kind of thing or not, but around the time I saw the black pig or wild boar I recalled one of my ex girlfriends who treated me very badly.  So that does kind of fit with what he was saying.

I cannot say that I feel the need to try ayahuasca again, despite the fact that you are normally meant to do it three consecutive times, as it has a kind of learning curve associated with it, and each time the visions lead you a little further down the path to enlightenment they say.  I can say however that I felt pretty good the following day, except for being a little tired, and I am glad that I got the chance to try it at least once.  When I am old and grey I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I tried all the weird and wonderful things that exist out there, and not to always have to wonder what something would have been like.

Monday, 5 December 2011

A Marriage Proposal and Retracing the Footsteps of the Mighty Incas - the 4 Day Inca Trail

Good morning from Lima everyone.  Anny and I are now back from the 4 day Inca trail and it was definitely something I would recommend doing for anyone that is in Peru and has 4 days to spare in their itinerary.  Whilst you could just take the train or bus to Machu Picchu directly, arriving there after completing the Inca trail is much more special in my humble opinion.  So now for the story to begin.

We were picked up from our hotel on the 30th November at an ungodly hour, and driven by bus to just outside of Olyantaytambo, with the springs from the seat poking us in the back and causing some discomfort.  Despite this discomfort the route was very scenic and also a little scary with huge drops on the one side of the mountain.  Arriving safely at kilometre 82, where the 4 day Inca trail begins, we disembarked the bus and prepared to set off.  There were 8 of us to begin with, 4 Aussies and 2 Brits in addition to us, and a Canadian guy joined us in the evening after finishing another trek that he had been doing in the region.  All of the other couples who commenced the trek with us had taken the option of an extra porter to carry some of their personal belongings, but Anny and I had decided to forgo this option so that I could get in some extra training and save a few pennies.  I had promised Anny that I would take most of the weight.  I put my pack on and realised that it was going to be much tougher for me than for the others, with my pack weighing 11kg, and most of theirs weighing less than 5kg.  The Canadian guy was carrying 16kg though, so he has to take the hardcore award.

After signing in at the first checkpoint we were off.  The first day of walking is not that tough and follows the valley that the train route to Machu Picchu also follows.  It is a beautiful valley and there are lots of houses at this point on the route, and also mules and horses transporting goods for the local people.  Anny and I walked at the back of the group for most of the day as Anny doesn't like walking too fast, and day one was what I would describe as a lovely stroll in the countryside.  There were several Inca ruins along the way, and at each one the guides would tell us the history behind the places and what they were used for.  We slept in a small field near some houses and a small snack shop, and there were some beautiful views down the valley.  The only problem with the campsite was that there were dogs barking late into the night (something I am now used to after my bike tour of South America but something that Anny is not yet used to) and a rooster woke us up at 4am, a whole hour before we needed to get up to start the days hiking.

The group at the start of the trail before the Canadian guy came

Day two of the Inca route is a toughie and is uphill for most of the time.  The highest pass of the day is 4,215 metres above sea level and for those that have not spent long in Cusco beforehand to acclimatise it is hard going, and they suffer headaches and nausea.  Some do not manage to make it and have to turn back at this point, although the vast majority do make it, and once you are over the pass it is better to keep going even if you are suffering from altitude sickness rather than have to climb back over it.  The guides are also carrying oxygen for those that need it.  Anny coped very well with the altitude and I thought she would have a tougher time than she did.  For me it was absolutely fine but recall that I had been at heights of around 3,800 metres above sea level for 3 weeks before the trip, so was fully aclimatised.  Day two was pretty long and after finishing the hiking everyone in the group was pretty tired and had a dodo or siesta before the evenings meal.  The food by the way was fantastic and the chef definitely earned his tip.  There were 3 of us veggies in the group, and he catered for us very well, incorporating tofu into the Peruvian style dishes so that we missed out on nothing.  In the nightime one of the guides recounted the story of a young Israeli who killed his newlywed bride, a much wealthier German lady, not far from the camp and how he tried to make it appear like a robbery.  He was later convicted of the crime after a porter testified that he had seen the young Israeli earlier in the day with a big knife, similar to the tool that was used to kill his bride.  The guide had a nasty habit of telling us stories of ghosts and murders just before going to bed.  The following day he told us in the evening about a woman who had died at camp 3 after a landslide caused a rock to fall on her tent and about a guide who died when a rock hit him on the head and knocked him off the trail.

At the highest point on the trail - 4,215 metres above sea level

Day three starts uphill but overall there is a lot of downhill throughout the day, and very steep downhill at that.  There are often steps but they are very narrow and so steep that you need to pay constant attention to where you step.  When it rains the stones become very slippery and unfortunately it did rain for us, so we had to be very careful.  Day three like day two is also a toughie, and very long.  For me it was actually harder than day two, because I find going downhill very tiring both mentally and physically.  Towards the end of the days hiking the route splits in two and you have the option of a short and steep route straight down to the camp, or a longer route that passes by some Inca ruins.  Anny and I chose the longer route past the ruins and so did everyone else in the group.  During the night on day three it rained extremely hard, and the water started coming inside the tent.  The porters had not left enough space between the rain fly and the inner part of the tent, but on top of that there were some holes in the rain fly.  We were even considering at one point whether it would be better to leave the tent and seek better shelter elsewhere, but in the end we decided to wait it out and see if it would stop.  After about one hour it stopped and we thanked the Lord.  Throughout the rainstorm Anny had been thinking about the rock that had crushed a tourist in her tent during a heavy rainstorm, the story that the guide had recounted to us.  I must admit that the story had run through my mind a couple of times, but I tried to dismiss it as extremely unlikely and not worth worrying about, and tried to reassure Anny too.

We were woken on day four at 4am and given a coca tea to help us to wake up.  When we got outside the tent we talked with the others in the group and it seemed that everyone had got wet during the night, and most had also been thinking from time to time of the guide's story of the landslide and the crushed tourist during the rainstorm.  On a side note I think the guide should stop telling such nasty stories to people just before bedtime, unless his aim is to cause nightmares.  Other than his stories he was a really cool guy and extremely informative on the Incas history and culture.  Anyway back to the hike itself.  The checkpoint only opens at 5.30am so we all queued at the checkpoint along with the other groups, ready for it to be opened.  When it opened we made our way through and just after the checkpoint some people in the group started running as they wanted to be at Machu Picchu as early as possible.  I couldn't persuade Anny to run though, and she said we should worry less about time and more about enjoying what remained of the Inca trail before Machu Picchu.  In retrospect she was very right.

On arriving at the sun gate we had our first views of the mighty Machu Picchu, and it exceeded all of our expectations.  On the postcards Machu Picchu looks quite small but the site is vast and awe inspiring.  We took some cool photos and then made our way down towards Machu Picchu itself.  The closer you get to it the more impressive it looks.  The Incas were truly an advanced culture and Machu Picchu really makes you appreciate that.  They understood all about the sun and the stars and nature, and all of this knowledge is incorporated into their buildings.  I have to say that this place definitely deserves to be high on the list of man made wonders of the world.  Something else happened at Machu Picchu that is very good news for me and Anny at least.  I got down on one knee and proposed to her and she accepted.  The ring that I had got as a tempory ring until I can buy the one that I have already decided upon didn't fit, but Anny and I both saw the humour in it, and she didn't take it badly at all.

After a guided tour of Machu Picchu, Anny and the Canadian guy and myself went up Wanaypicchu to get the best view of Machhu Picchu that you can possibly get.  The route is not for the faint hearted though and there are many points on the route that induce vertigo in all but the hardiest.  I had vertigo in several places and although Anny seemed fine at the bottom, she got vertigo at the top too.  The path is extremely steep and exposed in several places, and there are a series of ropes and cables to help you up and down.  I am really glad that we had good weather as doing the route in the wet would not be a wise choice at all.  I was really surprised to hear that only 2 people have died on the mountain, as I would have expected it to be higher.  If you wanted to commit suicide it would be a perfect place to do it.  The views from the top are just fantastic though, and if you don't mind heights I would definitely recommend it.  If you don't like heights though, it is probably best that you don't go.  Also it isn't really possible for anyone who has any kind of physical disability unfortunately.

The amazing view of Machu Picchu from Wanaypicchu
An unlikely pair that we saw whilst on the Inca trail

In summary, my overall opinion of the Inca trail and Macchu Picchu is that it is fantastic and I recommend it with all of my heart.  It is also now a place that Anny and I will remember forever, as being the place where I first proposed to her.  I wish you all a good day my friends and may the travels continue, with Iquitos and the Amazon being the next stop on our route.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The bike tour is over

Well the end of the Vuelta Sudamericana bike tour has finally come for me.  I am writing this post from Cusco, which is where I leave the tour.  The others will continue on to Lima and finish on December 13th, whilst I will be touring Peru with Anny until December 27th, but not on bicycle.

The last day and a half I have not been able to cycle, due to periodic crippling stomach cramps.  It is not the way I would have wished to end the tour, but we cannot help getting sick.  I just hope that I recover in time to do the 4 day Inca Trail starting on the 30th of November.  In total I was on the truck for 3.5 days of the tour due to sickness.  At no time did I consider taking the truck except when I was sick.

On the half day before I had to take the truck we reached over 4,300 metres above sea level, so that is the highest I have ever cycled.  We have been at high altitude so long now though that it didn't feel that different to cycling back home in Zurich.  Probably when I return to sea level I will feel super energetic.  One of the particpants on the tour claims that upon returning to sea level we will have an increased sexual libido - that remains to be seen.

Looking back on the tour, it was a fantastic experience.  The group were a great bunch and almost everyone got on well together.  The scenery in places was stunning and the riding was tough, just as it had promised to be.  Definitely I will be keeping in touch with some of the people in the group, and definitely I hope to ride with them again in the future.  I have already tried to persuade a couple of them to enter La Marmotte in July.

I will update the last few posts with photos when I get a chance, and there will be quite a bit more posting over the coming weeks, some of it related to fitness (the Inca Trail for example) and some of it related purely to travelling (the Amazon and Nazca lines etc).

Thursday, 24 November 2011

We are one seriously sickly group

Hello from Puno again.  Today is a rest day, but for most of the group today is far from a day to enjoy the sights and sounds of Puno.  About three quarters or more of the group is now sick and we are divided into two camps.  The first camp is the common cold camp and that has quite a few members, and then the second camp is the diarrhea and vomiting camp, and that has its fair share of members too.  At the moment I only belong to the first camp and don't feel too bad, so consider myself fortunate.

For the second camp there does seem to be a common link, which applies to all except 2 people (myself and Marieke).  Everyone except myself and Marieke who went to a juice bar in Juli is now in the second camp.  There are a few people in the second camp who didn't go to the juice bar however, and so it is not certain that the juice bar is to blame.  It could be though that the sick people who did go to the juice bar infected the others who didn't go to the juice bar.  Hand sanitiser is now indispensable and worth more than its weight in gold.

The people who are or who were so sick that I think they deserve a special mention are

1) Chris P who yesterday was so sick that he didn't go out clubbing till 4am like he usually does on rest days
2) Jason who after the trip to the floating islands this morning was walking up the stairs like a man of twice his age
3) Dennis who has been in bed for one day solid and who still looks like crap
4) Marc who this morning (newly infected) was shivering like a wreck and looked as weak as a newborn
5) Erik (newly infected) who despite winning "The Silent Dutchman" award was even more silent than normal

Hats off to Jason and Erik who despite feeling and looking like death warmed up managed to get themselves on a boat to go and visit the floating islands this morning with the rest of the sickly group that we are.  They didn't want to miss the once in a lifetime opportunity to see the floating islands that they thought it would be.  In retrospect though, the islands are completely ruined by tourism and as commercial as you can possibly get.  It felt like being in Disneyland with puppets putting on a little show for you.  I guess that the people living on the islands have found that tourism is an easy source of money and so overplayed the opportunity to extract money from them.  A little girl comes round and hugs everyone and then sings a song for the group, and the next second her little brother is coming round with a hat.  If you want to see authentic floating islands where the people are not just acting like puppets then you need to go a bit further afield the guide told us.  But on those islands the flocks of tourists are not welcome.  Maybe it woud be possible to get there independently and charm the locals into allowing you to visit them, but we just didn't have the time to do that.  Despite the rampant overcommericalisation of the islands it is interesting to go and have a quick look just to see how they are constructed and how the people live on them.  You don't need more than ten minutes on the islands to do that though, and then the puppetry begins.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Fourth and final country of the Vuelta Sudamericana tour, Peru

Well the end of the Vuelta Sudamericana tour is getting closer for me at least (boohoo).  I am leaving the tour in Cusco to join with Anny (yippeee) so we can explore her homeland together.  I only have 4 more cycling days left.  This morning we crossed the border from Bolivia into Peru and now we are staying the night in a town called Juli on the edge of lake Titicaca.

The last few days of cycling since leaving La Paz have not been that hard for me at least.  Most days have been around 70km in distance, and I can only assume this section is rated as 5 star difficulty on the TDA website because of the altitude.  Yesterday we passed over 4,200m and most of us were a little short of breath.  Erik said he could feel pins and needles in his arm because of the lack of oxygen.  It isn't as though we aren't acclimatised though.  We have been staying at over 3,500 metres above sea level for 2 weeks or so now, and tonight we are staying at just over 3,800 metres above sea level.

There wasn't an immediate change upon crossing the Peruvian border.  The people seemed to be dressed similar to how they are in Bolivia and in fact they are also Aymarans.  The main difference I noticed is that there are more animals in general, and especially dogs.  Marieke had a dog jump at her front wheel today and she had to get off the bike and use it as a shield between her and the dog.  Erik also had a rather nasty looking dog running alongside him for a while baring its teeth at him.

Today was the first day where we had to cycle in the rain.  I am very lucky in that I have full waterproofs and overshoes with me, but a lot of people only have waterproof tops with them and they were shivering like hell.  Around half the group ended up getting in the truck or hopping on a bus, but I was all well and snug in my rain gear.  The only problem for me was that I was I couldn't wear my sunglasses because they kept misting up and as I was following behind Erik for some of the way, water and mud was flying up in my face from his back tire.  Quite a few of us have a little bit of a cold and I hope today doesn't make us sicker.

I am really strong on the hills now.  Today Erik, Marieke and I were cyling together upfront and we all reached the bottom of the climb before Juli together.  After a few minutes of cycling uphill I turned round and they were nowhere to be seen.  I am down to 75kg and that is really light for me.  When I did La Marmotte I was around 80kg.  If I had of been as light then as I am now, then I am sure I would have done better.  It is not as though I have lost any strength by losing weight.  My legs are definitely stronger now and the weight loss is purely due to all the fat being stripped from my body.  Some of the group even call me skinny, and that is not something I am used to being called, and is not a description that would have been appropriate at the beginning of the tour.

Anyway folks that is enough rambling from me for now, as I have to get up ready for breakfast at 5.15am tomorrow, now that the clock has gone back one hour when we entered Peru.  Tomorrow is only around 80km or so, and anything below 100km seems short now after what we have become accustomed too.  I will sign in again from Puno hopefully, as that is where we will be tomorrow, and where we also have a rest day the day after.  Goodnight my friends.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Cycling Death Road, also known as "The World's Most Dangerous Road"

Hi everyone.  I just arrived back from a busy day where I cycled down Death Road, did a 1.5km zip line reaching speeds of up to 85kmph and then got in the bus and was driven back up Death Road.  There was plenty of adrenaline throughout the day that's for sure.  I was a lot more comfortable cycling down Death Road than being driven in a bus back up it.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is that when I am cycling I am in control and not having to rely completely on someone else's judgement and will to live.  The second is that on a bike you have a lot more room for error, because on the bus there is less than half a metre of spare space at some points on the road.

I did Death Road as part of a group of Vuelta Sudamericana riders.  The majority of the group came along and only a few abstained.  I wasn't expecting quite so many people to be up for the challenge, especially the older ones, but I think the group size got to a certain number and then people felt a sense of "well if I don't go and everyone else has a lot of fun then I will feel I have missed out".

The road has the ominous nickname of Death Road or The World's Most Dangerous Road for a good reason.  In the worst accident, one hundred people being transported in a single lorry were killed when the lorry went off the road.  In one year alone around 300 people died on the road, and 18 cyclists have been killed in the road's history.  Some of you may be asking why I would want to do something like this.  Well firstly the majority of the accidents happened when the road was the main route from La Paz to Coroico and there was a lot of traffic on it, but at the end of 2006 a new safer road was opened, and the majority of vehicles use this new route, leaving the route mostly for cyclists.  The problem before was when lorries and buses tried to pass each other and one would fall off, or when people overtook dangerously, or due to the vehicles not being roadworthy.  In the case of most of the cyclists killed, they were pushing their limits too far or they were distracted somehow.  There was the case of a cyclist who was looking at a butterfly so intensely that he just went off the road, although luckily he survived.  Then there was the case of a cyclist who stopped to take a photo of the group, took one step back too far and fell off a drop.  There there was the case of another cyclist who was busy trying to clean her goggles whilst riding and just went off the edge. I wanted to bike the road to see just why it is considered so dangerous and scary, and also I had heard that the views from the road are spectacular.

We did the tour with a company called Gravity Assisted and they picked us up from the hotel at 7.30am this morning.  There were 3 guides who accompanied us, 2 of them Bolivian and 1 from the US.  The drive to the start point was pretty long and basically one continuous climb, as the day starts at 4,700 metres above sea level.  Once we reached the start point we got out of the trucks and were given our full suspension mountain bikes that we would be using for the day.  I have never ridden a full suspension bike with disc brakes before, so it was a little bit different to what I am used to.  After a little test ride to get familiar with the bike, it was time to make an offering to Mother Earth or Pachamama.  This is who the indigenous people worshipped before Catholicism came along.  We had to pour a small amount of alcohol on our tire then on the floor and then put it to our lips.  It may sound a bit strange and I am not normally superstitious, but there are several stories of people who didn't make the offering and who had bad things happen to them.  Of course at the same time there are plenty of people who did make an offering and bad things still happened to them anyway. But hey it was worth a try.

After performing the little ritual and offering to PachaMama and taking a few pics, followed by a safety briefing, we were off.  The company had designed the bikes with gear ratios that meant we couldn't really reach ridiculous speeds like we could have on a road bike.  They do this to try to prevent people from going absolutely crazy.  So we coasted down the paved part of the road, stopping at various points to wait for the slower ones to catch up.  At the first stop, the guide Darren pointed out a bus far far below that had taken the corner too fast and crashed into the abyss below.  Nearby was a minibus that had most likely done the same. This was a pretty shocking start to the ride, but it helped us to realise just how seriously we needed to take our own personal safety and the respect we needed to give to the road.

The troublesome trio ready for the off

If you look carefully you can see the wreckage of a bus

A little further down the road is a drugs checkpoint.  The guide explained that the Yungas valley  (where we were heading) has a lot of legal coca plantations that grow coca leaves for traditional use, but also a lot of illegal ones too, that process the leaves in order to make cocaine or make the paste that can then be transformed into cocaine at a later stage.  At the checkpoint they are trying to check for chemicals and equipment going into the valley that could be used to make cocaine or cocaine paste, and cocaine or cocaine paste coming out of the valley.  They didn't stop any of us cyclists though, so we were through almost as soon as we arrived.

After passing through the checkpoint and paying for the entry to the Death Road (the money is used for the road's upkeep) we then had an optional 8km section, which has some uphill in it.  Normally the climbs would be easy, but we were riding full suspension bikes that are both heavy and very bouncy, and also the climbs were at high lung bursting altitudes.  Most of the group decided to give it a go though, including James the chef and Jono the chain smoking truck driver.  Actually James and Jono finished ahead of everyone except me, which was absolutely amazing considering neither has done that much cycling before.

After the 8km optional section we all grouped up, including those that had ridden the truck for the optional part, and started the descent of the dangerous section of the road, which then basically lasts all the way to the bottom of the Yungas valley at 1,100 metres above sea level.  It was extremely foggy and drizzling slightly so we weren't really able to see what was below us, but we could tell that there were big drops on our left hand side.  Actually I should mention that the road is very unique in Bolivia in terms of the side of the road that you must drive on, because on this road people must drive on the left and not on the right.  The reason for this is that when you are descending the drops are on your left hand side, so the drivers side needs to be on the same side as the drop so the driver can check that his wheels are not going over the edge when passing other vehicles coming up the hill.  Despite the fact that there is an alternative road, some occasional traffic does use Death Road.  For this reason one guide always goes at the front, and if he encounters a car or truck he blows a whistle to warn the riders behind.  In this way we were able to ride a little further away from the sheer drops, and could feel a little more comfortable.

Not far from the top we saw another group and the one woman was wobbling all over the place and was extremely nervous.  It looked like she had barely ridden a bike before and none of us wanted to be alongside her.

We would stop every few kilometres to wait for the slower ones to catch up, and when we were waiting we got very cold as we were soaked to the skin by this stage.  As we descended it did slowly start to get warmer though, and eventually we dropped below the level of the clouds and then it was much warmer.  It was a relief to be able to see the road ahead clearly and not have to proceed quite so cautiously as we did in the cloud and fog, but at the same time the absence of cloud and fog meant that we could see the awe inspiring drops just a few metres to our left.  It is no exaggeration to say that the drops at the edge of the road are sheer.  At some points it looked like the drop must have been around 1,000 metres or so.  We started to see crosses that marked the points where people had died and there was really a sense of just how delicate and precious life is, and just how easily and quickly it can be taken away from us.

As we descended further down the road, it became so narrow in places that it looked like a bus would barely be able to pass, and there were also sections where there had been landslides and where waterfalls fell onto the road itself, eroding the surface.  I just took my time and descended steadily.

Eventually we got to a level where the drops were not so frequent and at this stage people in the group started to descend much faster.  There was still the occasional sheer drop though, so I was quite surprised to see just how fast some were going.  The guide warned us that 80% of accidents he sees happen on these lower sections where people start to become more confident but they are physically and mentally tired from the previous sections.  A couple of people overshot one corner and had to brake sharply to avoid hitting the embankment on the right hand side.  Just after that someone shot down my left hand side without affording me a warning and our handlebars touched together.  I was not impressed.  The guide had informed us at the beginning of the day that passing is allowed but always to shout a warning that you are passing on the left or passing on the right.

Benjamin taking in the beautiful vistas of the Yungas valley

Once we reached the valley bottom we kissed the ground and then went to visit an animal sanctuary where they help to rescue mistreated or illegally poached animals.  We had a buffet dinner, which was provided by the bike company, put on our warm clothes, and rested a bit.  Darren the guide then asked if anyone was interested in doing a 1.5km zip line.  I have never done one before and I like to try everything once, so I thought I would give it a go.  Three other people opted in too.  A minibus drove us part way up Death Road to the first base and then after a short safety briefing and putting on the equipment we were ready to go.  The zip line is composed of three stages.  The first is the highest and you are several hundred metres above the valley floor, the second is the fastest and you can reach up to 85kmph and the final one is the longest.  There are three braking systems to help you come to a stop at the end of each stage.  Each person has an individual brake that they can pull when they want and then there is one that the guide puts near to the end that slows you down and then finally there are some springs on the end of the line that will absorb some impact.  I went first and it was really exciting (and a little bit scary) as I went out over the highest point.  I was also really impressed by the speed that you reach.  Jason and I made it to the other end okay, but the two girls being a fair bit lighter came to a stop before the end and were helped to the side by the guide.  It must have been pretty scary for Marieke as she came to a stop a fair way from the end and was still pretty high above the valley floor.  On the second stage I was more at ease despite it being much faster, but I actually came to a stop a little short of the end and had to pull myself the few extra metres to the end.  The others this time all managed to make it to the end and told me that if I put my feet up in the air more I probably would have made it.  So on the final longest section I did maintain a more streamlined position, and I made it all the way and required a little braking before the end.  The others went in tandem, Marieke with one of the guides and Jason and Virginia together.  I didn't fancy another guy wrapping his legs around me and the second guide didn't offer me the tandem anyway.

A few nervous faces getting a safety briefing on the zip line

All safely done with the zip line, we rejoined the rest of the group and set off in the bus up Death Road.  As I had suspected being a bus was much scarier than it had been on the bike.  At some points the wheels were very close to the edge, too close for comfort I would say.  Darren was also telling us all the bad accidents that happened as we passed the relevant spots, and that didn't help peoples' nerves that much.  As we passed under one waterfall the bus came to a stop and Darren told us to look down.  We looked down the side of the bus and there was less than 25cm of space between the wheels and the road edge (maybe okay if the road was paved but it was just loose rock and gravel) and then it just seemed like it dropped away to nothingness below.  Apparently this had been the place where the lorry carrying 100 people had plunged off the cliff.  We were very happy to move on.  There were several spots like this where the road became extremely narrow and there was nothing we could do but trust that our driver had a strong will to live, just like we all did.

Once we made it safely to the paved section we all gave the driver a huge round of applause, and thanked him for the fact that we were still alive.  We also made sure to give him a nice tip.  It was an adventurous day, and one that made me think what things are important to me.  Now I am back here in the hotel and ready for a good night's sleep.  I will try to put up some pics from today if I can get hold of an SD card reader, but until then goodnight folks and God bless.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Thin air and a new country

Hello friends, Romans and countrymen.  I am writing this post from La Paz, Bolivia.  As you may or may not know, La Paz is the world's highest "de facto" capital city, or administrative capital at 3,650m above sea level.  I use the term "de facto" as the official capital city is Sucre, but La Paz is the administrative capital.  Bolivia is also our third country of the tour, and the only one left to cycle through is Peru.  The air here is pretty thin, and even walking up the stairs is making us breathe heavily, despite the fact that we have been staying at altitudes of over 3,500m for a week now.  We crossed into Bolivia the 3rd day after leaving San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.  Things on the tour have been very hectic the last couple of days, and we should have only arrived in La Paz on the 17th.  However, the threat of a 3 day strike closing all roads in the Oruro district (which always has the potential to turn violent in Bolivia) caused a change of plans and we had to be trucked from the Salinas de Garci Medoza straight to La Paz.  That means we will now be here in La Paz for 6 days instead of the original 2 days.  I am not exactly sure what the strike was about, but there were rumours it was over a land dispute with the Potosi district.

The second rest day in San Pedro we went the Valley of the Moon.  We visited it at sunset and it was a very impressive site, especially once the sun went down and only the moon lit the scenery.  The valley is so called because the landscape resembles the surface of the moon, with lots of strange rock formations caused by weathering of the salt, clay and minerals abundant in the area.  As well as being extremely beautiful it is also kind of an eerie place, with absolutely no animal life.

The first day after leaving San Pedro we headed to a small village called Chiu Chiu, located at 2,525m above sea level.  The first part of the day was a long steady climb and I felt very strong so I attacked the climb somewhat.  After that we had a long gradual downhill and on this section Augusto and Paul caught me up and then we formed a chain and sped towards lunch.  I left lunch before them as I heard from Ricardo that if we left early we would get a tailwind instead of a headwind on the final section after Calama.  Strangely enough the wind tends to switch direction between the morning and the afternoon so depending on whether you are at the front or back of the group you can have an easy or hard time on the same route.  The part from lunch to Calama though was extremely tough, as there was a very strong headwind.  After Calama the direction changed by 90 degrees to head to Chiu Chiu and then as promised by Ricardo the wind was behind me and I was zipping along at 40kmph on the flat.  The village of Chiu Chiu was very pleasant and there is a lovely old church there, that some people in the group said was the oldest church in Chile.

Leaving Chiu Chiu the following day we faced probably the strongest headwind of the tour so far.  It was so strong that everyone tried to form packs and take it in turns to be at the front, save for Laurence who was at the back with Mark and didn´t have a pack to ride with.  She may be quite slow but she is as tough as old boots and she did just fine.  Initially I was with the lead pack but I soon got fed up of people shouting instructions about where I should be etc etc and I went off ahead on my own.  I must have been a bit high on adrenalin from all the effort because after a while I turned back round and cycled till I met Laurence and then turned round and continued, adding an extra 7km to my day.  By lunch time I had overtaken everyone again and was at the front on my own.  After lunch we had to climb to 4,000m above sea level and then descend towards the salt flats of Ascotan.  Just after passing over the summit I saw signs warning that were minefields on either side of the road.  When I asked Ricardo later, he told me that Bolivia and Chile don't have a good relationship at all (Chile took a lot of land from Bolivia and Peru), and the minefields (with Bolivia being very close by) are because of this.  The descent was very rough and upon reaching the salt flats at the bottom the craziness began.  Imagine a strong headwind with lots of sand and rough rough roads and then imagine an even stronger headwind with even more sand and even rougher roads and you probably have an accurate picture of how it was.  I was the first into camp and I arrived sometime around 5pm (compared to 1 or 2pm on a normal day). It was very clear that only the strongest riders would make it before dark and the others would have to be picked up by truck.  I cannot recall exactly how many people made it, but it was far less than half the group.  The place where we camped was very remote and was amongst some old ruins on the salt flats.  The ruins provided the only shelter there was from the onslaught of the winds, but even that was not enough.  Evelyn was putting up her tent when suddenly it just blew away and she lost her tent and her sleeping bag.  Shortly afterwards my groundsheet was torn from my hands and was off towards Timbuktu.  I went on an excursion on the salt flats looking for my groundsheet, but I never found it.  I did however find the rain fly from Evelyn´s tent and when I returned it to her she offered me a spare groundsheet she had as a thankyou.  The one she gave me was a better size than the last one I had, so all turned out well in the end.  After the mishaps of myself and Evelyn losing our stuff, everyone teamed up to put up their tents, some tents requiring teams of 5 people to assist.  Near the ruins was a saltwater pool, and this was home to hundreds of pink flamingos.  It felt so special to be so close to these beautiful birds in their natural habitat.

After dinner it was the turn of Sven and I to do wash the pots and pans.  We couldn't have had a worse night to do them with the high winds, lack of running water and the temperature plummeting rapidly once the sun went down.  The night was fairly sleepless for most, with the winds buffeting the tents and threatening to tear them down.  When we woke up in the morning it was absolutely freezing and it was a struggle to muster up enough enthusiasm to get out of our tents.  Jono (the truck driver) had been kind enough to light a small fire, but that was not enough to make people comfortable and we huddled round the fire shivering.  Even the flamingos on the lake were huddling together, and why on earth they chose to live in such an extreme place where it is hot by day and cold by night with ridiculous winds I cannot fathom.  In light of the ridiculously low temperatures Ricardo and Christiano (the tour leaders) decided that we would leave a bit later and wait for the sun to warm us up first.  Luckily the winds had died down though.  In the meantime they asked that we all team up and help each other out.  We left about an hour later than usual and noone was in a hurry to leave. For the first hour of riding my feet felt like ice blocks and it wasn't that pleasant.  My hands were okay though as I had bought warmer cycling gloves in Santiago de Chile.  Within a few hours the sun warmed the earth, and everyone was happy again, including my poor feet.  It was around 40km to the Bolivian border, and the truck was going to meet us there.  I got to the border soon after the truck and it took very little time to clear the Chilean side of the border.  Some of the group changed money at the border but Jono advised against it and said it would be better to do it at an official money exchange.  Later it turned out the ones who did change it got a much better rate than was offered in the small villages we would pass through for the first few days in Bolivia.

After passing through the Chilean departure point, there is a no man's land of several kilometres, and this is where we met our 2 Bolivian guides (each with a Landcruiser) who would be our support crew for the next few days, as Jono's company did not want him to cross the salt flats of Uyuni with the big truck.  After initial greetings we headed to the Bolivian side of the border, and it was rather painless to get through save for one incident with Lani who has dual Canadian Indonesian nationality. The customs guy wanted to see her Indonesian papers but she only had her Canadian passport with her, and he said that wasn't good enough.  After a bit of pressure from Christiano the guy relented and let her through.  Once all the cyclists arrived we set off.  After 10km we had a bit of lunch and then we had to cross some salt flats/ desert where we were advised it was very easy to get lost with no clear road and hundreds of different tracks in all directions from vehicles that had passed through.  They told us it would be flagged as much as possible though, and the flagging must have been pretty good because noone got lost.  Once again I put the pedal to the metal and went ahead.  It was pretty smooth most of the way (after the initial rough part) and I got some good speed, but the last few kilometres approaching San Juan were very sandy and I had to get off and push a couple of times.

In San Juan we stayed in a hostel and I was in a room with 6 people.  Unfortunately the worst snorer of the whole group was in the room with me, Chris P. He snores so loud that you can hear him even if you have earplugs in.  Luckily I had earplugs with me, which at least helped a bit.  After eating supper and going to bed, we were awoken by the sound of drums and music.  Upon further investigation it turned out that a local band had come to play for us, so we all went to the common room to listen to them.  They only played a few songs as they could see we were rather tired, but that was a nice touch to the evening.  Then we all went back to bed and tried to sleep as best as possible with the worlds loudest snorer in the room, and a chorus of flatulence most likely caused by the high altitude.  Poor Eric only got 3 hours sleep.

From San Juan they decided to truck us to the salt flats of Uyuni, around 50km away.  The reason being that the route is deep sand and very tiring to ride.  Apparently on the previous tour people were so tired upon reaching the salt flats that they didn't get to enjoy them, so this time the tour leaders decided by trucking us to the salt flats at least we could get to enjoy them to their full, as believe you me the salt flats are very special.  Once everybody had been transported to the start of the salt flats we set off.  The salt flats are so amazing because they are pancake flat and all sense of perspective is lost.  In every direction you look it is the same, save for some mountains on the far horizon.  Tour d'Afrique decided to hold a photo comp, with the best picture winning a bottle of wine, the idea being that people play with perspective to make funny pictures.  For instance by lying on the floor and placing an orange on the floor infront of your camera with someone standing a bit further away, you can make it look like the person is balancing on a gigantic orange in the photo.  It was really interesting to see some of the entries and how creative they were, but in the end the winning one was made by Erik, Chris (the female) and myself.  It was of me lying on my back with my bike in the air and then Erik cycling in the distance, so it looked like he was a little mini person cycling over my back tire.

A giant orange or a tiny guy?

A mini person cycling over my back tire

The interesting patterns in the salt flats of Uyuni

Navigation on the salt flats is extremely difficult but we had 2 reference points throughout the day to guide us. The first was an island where we stopped for a drink and the second was a large volcano, with the town of Coquesa (where we would stay for the night) at the base of the volcano.  The distance perception was so deceptive and even when we still had 20km left to get to the island it seemed like only a couple of kilometres away.  The same too as we were approaching the volcano.  After leaving the island the salt flats became rougher, caused by a snowfall cracking the crust a month earlier, and it was tough going with all the bumps taking a lot of energy out of us.  Erik and I stopped several times for a rest and a drink.  Just before reaching Coquesa there was some water to cross, and that wasn't good news.  The dry salt is fine as you can brush it off afterwards, but salty water corrodes the bike to hell.  We tried as best we could to minimise the water getting on the bike, and Erik decided to get off and walk through the water, but getting some salty water on the bike was inevitable.  We stayed in a hostel in Coquesa and the beds were really bad.  They sqeaked and groaned and had big dips in the middle, but still I preferred it over another night of camping.

The day leaving Coquesa was a very easy 41km ride to a town called Salinas de Garci Mendoza.  The first 10km was on the salt flats and then there was a rocky section, followed by another short section at the edge of the salt flats and then finally a sandy track into town. I arrived by 9.30am at the hostel so it was a really short day.  Everyone had arrived by 11am.  Salinas de Garci Mendoza is a really quiet town where time almost stands still.  There was no internet cafe and no money exchange place, and so most of us were stuck as we only had US dollars.  There was no rest day due in Salinas de Garci Mendoza, but in the evening we were informed there would be one, because Jono would have to drive through the night to get to us, since the route bypassing the salt flats is much longer than crossing them.  There wasn't a lot to do in town so we weren't that pleased to be stuck there, but for many the rest from biking was much appreciated.  And at least the hostel was nice and clean and the owner Hugo was super friendly.

After spending our rest day in Salinas de Garci Mendoza we were all ready to leave the following morning.  However, there was to be more unexpected news that evening.  There had been rumours of a strike due to happen in Oruro for some time, but the tour leaders were informed that the strike was now imminent and due to happen the next day at midnight.  The strike would last for 3 days and all roads in the district would be blocked.  Whilst in theory it might be possible to pass the road blocks by bike, strikes in Bolivia can become violent and on the previous tour the cyclists had unexpectedly stumbled upon a strike and the situation had become scary with projectiles being thrown at them.  So Christiano and Ricardo decided no chances would be taken and we would be transferred by vehicle from Salinas de Garci Mendoza to La Paz before the strike happened, and that is where I am now.

I must say I am much happier to have extra rest days in La Paz than to be stuck 3 days in the middle of nowhere, and there seems to be plenty to do here.  A group of us are planning to do an organised bike tour of Death Road and that should be a lot of fun.  Whilst the road has the ominous nickname of Death Road, it is mainly car and truck drivers rather than cyclists that died.  Some vehicles fell of the edge when trying to pass as the road is narrow in places, but another alternative road has now been built for the traffic, and the route is now pretty much only for cyclists.  Only something like 18 cyclists have ever died on the road and considering the thousands of cyclists each year that make the descent that number is not so alarming.  It is all about knowing your limits and staying within your comfort zone in my opinion.