Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cachora - Machu Picchu trek. Days 7-9

With 6 days down, we were now on the home stretch to Machu Picchu. The toughest days were certainly behind us and there was even some real treats to look forward to in the remaining days. 

Day 7 is a fairly simple walk from Ccollpapampa to Playa Sawayaco (not actually a beach!), and then a half hour mini bus ride to the town of Santa Teresa. We started walking along the newly graded dirt road along with the other trekkers (on day 3 of their Salkantay hike), and about half an hour down the road Abel gave me the option of continuing down this flat, and to be honest kind of boring road, or to cross the Rio Totura and use the old trail. Of course, being the adventurous type, I chose to cross the river and do it the old fashioned way. 

From the other side of the river it gave a better view of the newly constructed road, and after seeing what I'd seen in the last 6 days, it made me a little sad. Development is obviously the way forward for these tiny remote towns, but the environmental impact of these roads is easy to see. Cutting a huge wedge out of mountains in order the make a road wide enough for two cars, combined with the rain and mountain waters in these parts obviously causes landslides. As we witnessed on day one, when we walked along a similar road, landslides will come quicker and bigger than the local authorities are able to clear, and inevitably the road will become impassable by vehicles. That's what I saw on day one, and I hope I'm wrong, but that's what I think will happen to this newer road in the future. I don't know what the solution is, but it seems that a lot of money is being wasted, money that could be better used in these communities in different ways. 

Anyway, I'd be interested in seeing what happens in the next few years, now back to the hike! We'd crossed the river over to the old trail, and this was much more enjoyable for me. Once again we were pushing through overgrown forest and crossing small waterfalls, some with somewhat suspect hand made bridges, and some purely on foot after attempting to pick the most stable rocky path, which wasn't always successful. Stopping to taste wild strawberries and having numerous other plants and flowers pointed out showed the value of having a knowledgable guide, and when we arrived at one of the many cable trolleys across the river and decided to have a go, I was glad I also had an adventurous one. One at a time we sat in the rickety trolley and had the other push us out to the middle of the valley, high above the river (50-60m at least). Slightly terrified at the thought of leaning too far left or right and toppling off the trolley, my nerves quick subsided after doing it once, and I just had to do it again to take a video (and then again when I realized the first video didn't work!). All this made for a fairly leisurely 4 hour hike, overall about 1km downhill to our lunch spot for the day, Playa Sawayaco (2070m), where we had the final delicious meal cooked by our chef.

After lunch you have a choice. You can either keep walking along the road for a few hours, or pay about $3 for a local mini bus for about a half hour ride. Since our horseman finished up his job at lunch and we still had a few cumbersome supplies to take with us, we took the bus option. The walk wouldn't have been anything that we hadn't encountered before, and saving time allowed us to get to Santa Teresa with plenty of time for a late afternoon visit to the hot springs, which stretched into the evening after a few welcome cold beers. The hot springs here are amazing, exactly what I imagine true natural hot springs to be like. The pools are perfectly constructed into the surrounding environment and almost look as if they've been exactly like that forever. A perfect way to relax and recharge after 7 long days. Stay as long as you like there for 5 soles (~$1.50)

Having now arrived at Santa Teresa we were now pretty much officially back in civilization, and that meant taking the chance to sleep in a real bed at a hostel (for about $3), and of course heading out for more drinks and a night on the (small) town. 

I woke up on day 8 feeling a little worse for wear, both from the night on the booze, and from sharing my bed with some sort of bug who liked the taste of my arms and legs. Itchy as all hell, we started with breakfast and headed to the zip lines for some more fun. After little to no instructions on what and what not to do, we were clipped on to the first zip line and sent across the canyon. 5 more zip lines followed and all gave similarly incredible views high above the river. The highest point is 150m high, and the fastest speed reached is about 65kph, pretty cool stuff! My camera didn't think so, and decided to pack it in whilst filming a video, never to work again, one day before Machu Picchu!

We jumped onto another bus and headed to the hydro electric station, strangely the only construction being permitted with Machu Picchu national park. We freaked out briefly as a worker ran up to our mini bus parked at the gate and said 'there's going to be an explosion!', thankfully, it was a controlled one and we were never really in any danger, but we were all deceived nonetheless by his broken english and ill-placed sense of urgency.

As lunch went down my hangover intensified, and knowing there was only a short 2-3 hour hike to get to Aguas Calientes I wanted to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. Shortly after we started the walk, I got to experience my first taste of the magic of Machu Picchu. I say magic because I just can't comprehend how it was done, but in all honesty it's just sheer brilliance. An oddly carved rock sits seemingly in the middle of nowhere about 800m in altitude below the ruins atop the mountain, and probably somewhere in the order of 5-6km in actual distance. This rock is huge, has almost perfectly square steps carved into it, and sits perfectly in line with one of the windows in the temple on the top of the mountain, and where the sun rises on the winter solstice. Absolute perfection, mind blowing for mine. That was just a taste of what was to come though, and on we moved for the days hike, walking along the train tracks along the Urubamba River stretching right around the mountain. It would have been a very pleasant walk were it not for the hangover, but even still, the scenery was terrific.

After a couple of hours we arrived at the bridge into the Machu Picchu park itself, a good opportunity for photos in front of the giant welcome sign, and then it's just a short 15 minute walk up the road to Aguas Calientes, a surprisingly modern, clean and busy town. I suppose tourism will do that.

It's at this point you can officially say that you've made it to Machu Picchu (when coming from this direction, the traditional 4 day Inca trail is different and you walk directly into the ruins), there's no more real distance to be covered, and day 9 is just venturing around the ruins. If I wasn't so tired, I would have gone out for a celebratory drink! Instead it was early to bed, to prepare for the 4am wake up to be one of the first to the ruins.

It's funny how 4am doesn't seem early at all when you're super excited about something. Like Christmas as a kid, I bounded out of bed full of energy and raring to go. By 4:30 we were down at the bridge again, where entry to the park starts at 5, enough time for a quick breakfast on the go. The anticipation was high, we were nearly there, only 45 minutes up the mountain to ruins, easy right? I'd been issued a challenge to try to beat Abel's record of 22 minutes, but knew after only a couple that that wasn't going to happen. Dressed warm for the cold, I was quickly dripping with sweat and stopping to strip off layers of clothing. Step after step, in the dark, with only a battery-fading headlamp to guide, this was probably the most intense 33 minutes of the trek. I couldn't stop because I knew the top was so close, but actually had no idea how much further it was. 700m worth of altitude later I arrived at the top cold, wet, thoroughly out of breathe and thankful for the best piece of advice I'd been given all week; Take a spare t-shirt with you. A little more time for a snack, then it was time to line up before the ruins open at 6am. First in line at one of the four lines, I was now crazily excited about what was to come. Finally 6am came, passports and tickets were checked and in we went.

Approaching the lookout where you can get a first glimpse of Machu Picchu from above, I closed my eyes and was led to the edge. Everything looked just like a postcard, a perfect view of this once lost Inca city. A few quick photos was all we got the chance for before the clouds rolled in and you could barely see 10m in front of you. I felt for the people walking in just minutes after me who wouldn't have got the same spectacular view to start the day. 

The cloud stayed thick and unfriendly for the next five hours. In that time I again came to appreciate the extra value I got from doing this trek as a lone tourist, I had a personal 1 on 1 tour of the ruins with Abel, and also got to hear so much more about Incan history that I don't think bigger groups would have got to hear. It's hard to put into words just how amazing the architecture, planning and construction at Machu Picchu is. For starters, just how a group of people 500 years ago could have such an understanding of the stars astounds me. The fact they can then plan to build buildings that create effects with shadows and light at such precise times of year (solstices) is beyond my comprehension. And then their ability to carry out their plans and actually spend years carving huge rocks with such precision that their buildings still stand perfectly 500 years later is something to make modern day rockmasons and bricklayers cringe. The sun temple, being one of the most important buildings in the Incan city, was built with the most precision. There's not millimeters to spare between huge rocks that must weigh hundreds of kilograms. I can't imagine how much time was spent carving and shaping these rocks to fit together with little or no mortar, and quite frankly, I don't think I want to know. A lot of Machu Picchu is still a mystery, as is the whole Incan culture, and some things are better left a mystery in my opinion. There's a magic and intrigue about Machu Picchu that I hope never goes away. My head is full of questions about how they built such precise buildings, how long certain things took, what inspired them to build in such a remote location, but I don't think I actually want these questions answered. For now I'm happy with just walking around the place in awe, and I hope I get the chance to do it again some day.

I will admit though, in the midst of the thick morning fog, I'd temporarily forgotten that spectacular early morning glimpse I'd gotten of the place, and was walking around thinking the place was pretty good, but not as good as I'd hoped. It wasn't until the fog cleared at 11:05, about 15 minutes after I'd climbed to the top of nearby Wayna Picchu mountain that I again was struck by the sheer magnitude of what I was seeing. Wayna Picchu is the postcard photo spot, where you can see the whole of Machu Picchu from an incredible vantage point. It's a pretty tough/steep stair climb to get there, but well worth the effort (maybe bring a second spare t-shirt if you do!). As I sat on one of the ledges overlooking the Machu Picchu site, I found myself cheering with a bunch of strangers for the fog to clear a little more, minute by minute, until finally we had the perfect photo opportunity. The look on one Korean girls face, who'd sat in that one spot for 3.5 hours, waiting, said it all. "I can go home now, I've seen it!" she said excitedly. I too, was again renewed in my faith that Machu Picchu was indeed every bit as spectacular as I'd hoped, and more. I returned from Wayna Picchu and did one more lap around the ruins soaking in as many visual memories as possible, using up most of my remaining energy, and every last bit of camera battery (camera borrowed from Abel for the day, thanks again Abel!)

And so it was that my much anticipated trek ended, with barely the energy to walk up the hill to the hot springs back in Aguas Calientes. It was certainly an extremely physically taxing 9 days, and not something I would recommend to just anyone. But if you love a challenge and are able to push yourself to the limit, you'll be able to tackle the Cachora to Machu Picchu 9 day trek. Having the chance to see the Choquequirao ruins with virtually nobody else around gives a whole different perspective to seeing Machu Picchu along with 1000 other people, and something I would highly recommend doing whether through this same trek or another. The scenery and landscapes along the way I'm sure are matched by other treks, but the river crossings and landslide navigation are probably not covered by the more popular treks, this one is certainly for the adventurous. Seeing single families and sometimes even individual people live in such extremely remote locations is something that makes our everyday lives seem infinitely complex, and really gives you something to think about. For me, the good parts heavily outweighed the hard parts. I'm extremely glad I chose this trek and can't wait to do something like it again, if that's even possible.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cachora - Machu Picchu trek. Days 4-6

After another night of heavy rain, we were beginning to think we were lucky that it wasn't raining like that during the days. March is still wet season, so it wasn't out of the question that we'd still get some rainy days. But for now, the mornings were very foggy, and the afternoons quite sunny, temperatures probably around 15-20C. Good hiking conditions really, except that we missed out on some spectacular morning views because of the clouds.

After the relatively easy day 3, my batteries were recharged for another decent climb on day four, which was, looking back, probably the most fun/adventurous day. On paper the itinerary seems about the same as day 2; morning descent, river crossing, uphill for the rest of the day. Where it differed was in the details, the morning descent was via a very overgrown, rarely used track, again descending about 600m in 40 minutes or so. Approaching the final section to get right down to the river we encountered a number of fresh landslides, fresh as in 2-3 weeks old. Since this was a rarely used track, there was work to be done in clearing a path for our horses. I didn't get to help out personally, but watching the horseman and chef (all round helper, really) clear a decent track with a pick axe and a machete was pretty cool. Having to stop to do this four or five times slowed the descent, and it ended up taking about an hour to get the Rio Blanco.

What looked like a rather sedate and straight forward river crossing from hundreds of meters above, quickly became a much more difficult proposition at river level. While certainly much smaller than the previous river, this one we had to cross without the assistance of a bridge. The sight and sound of the icy cold waters gushing downstream was not unlike things I'd seen before, but the power behind the foot deep flow was quite extraordinary. We spent almost half an hour wandering up and down stream looking for a good place to cross, and then another 20 minutes throwing rocks in to make some sort of stable platform to shorten the jump across to the other side. Watching rocks we could barely move get washed down stream as soon as they hit the water was both disheartening and exhilarating at the same time. Eventually we had about a six foot jump over to a nice big rock, then a few more little jumps over the shallows and we were across. Sounds simple enough, but if anyone is able to get across without ending up with two wet shoes, I'd be impressed. Getting the horses across next gave me goosebumps, they struggled a little but got across without too much trouble. These animals are incredible and with a little encouragement will do anything for you, it was great to watch, and I felt like an extra on the set of 'The Man From Snowy River'.

From this point it was all uphill once again. Still traveling on fairly unused paths, at times we really had to push through the overgrown 'high jungle'. The altitude and climate obviously combined to make the perfect conditions for mosquitoes. And these weren't just ordinary mosquitoes; bigger than I've ever seen, they were like grasshoppers. Blood sucking grasshoppers, whose bites would end up bothering me for the next 10 days (hopefully there's no longer lasting side effects!). Mosquito repellent did little as within a few minutes of walking in the humid conditions it sweated out, so the only solution was to just keep walking to get above mosquito altitude. 'Cant stop, grasshopper mosquitos will eat me' was a line that replayed over and over in my head in Simpson-esque fashion. Onward and upward it was. The track remained overgrown, but fairly rocky and dry, so it wasn't too difficult physically. There was less traversing than previous days, meaning you could often see 30 or more meters ahead, all of which was solidly uphill, so it was best just to concentrate on a spot just a few meters ahead and keep on plodding one still wet foot in front of the other, mentally it was very tiring. After 2 solid hours with barely more than 30 seconds rest at a time (curse you, grasshopper mosquitoes), we arrived at the nights camp site. 1500m climbed in 2 hours, we'd certainly earned an afternoon of rest, and even treated ourselves to an ambient temperature beer, the possible purchase of which astounded me as we were now at least two days walk from anywhere. There's no possibility of cars accessing these areas, so at some stage someone has to bring these supplies here, presumably on horseback, amazing stuff. A single family lived here, along with a whole bunch of chickens, and a few goats and cows. Looking out over the surrounding valleys, it's hard to believe people can live in places as remote as this. Night four was once again peaceful, and rainy.

Days 5 was, to be honest, a fairly uneventful day. Probably the cloudiest of days, there wasn't much scenery to be seen, and the hike was tough, without being memorably difficult. Starting from camp, this path had been worked on recently, and was fairly wide and clear. Muddy in places with plenty of waterfalls along the way, it was nice to walk in a slightly different environment. Along the way to our summit we passed a number of 'illegal' mines, where we were able to fossick our way through rubble and find some decent chunks of silver, a nice little souvenir to take home. Our lunch destination was the pass between two summits, at about 4100m. Once again, being a solo tourist, we'd managed to cover this ground quite quickly, so it was an early lunch then we had some time to wait for the clouds to clear. Unfortunately on this particular day that didn't really happen, so we moved on a little over an hour later, downhill to the day 5 campsite at Yanama, the closest thing to a town that we'd seen since leaving Cachora, but really its just a big farming community. The late afternoon was spent laying on nice thick green grass, maybe even falling asleep for a brief moment, a sign that 5 days of hiking was starting to catch up with me. But still I felt fine as long as I kept drinking enough water, ready for day 6 - 'Challenge day'.

After earlier being told that day 2 was the hardest day, I was intrigued by what day 6 would have in store. I was pleasantly surprised by the first 90 minutes hike, quite clearly the most scenic hike of the whole nine days. Walking along an easy, only slightly uphill, rocky path through a valley above the river was an almost magical experience offering spectacular views in all directions. Mt Salkantay in the distance was unfortunately mostly obstructed by cloud for most of the morning, but the few glimpses we got made a lasting impression. The rest of the hike was breathtaking, literally as well as figuratively. After 90 minutes we started heading more severely uphill, at first not too bad, but after an hour it was getting tough. The last half hour was constant traversing up the steep dry, rocky path, to the pass at about 4200m, and was as tough as it got for the whole trek. The effects of altitude kicked in a little and I found myself with extremely tired legs, and hiccups! Rest was required every couple of minutes, and it was very slow going. Finally reaching the pass, we rested there and it wasn't long before I found myself with a bit of energy and wanting to scale the nearby rocks to get as high as possible. Some good photo opportunities arose as the skies cleared a little, but then just as quickly clouded over again and we decided that it was time to move on.

Another couple of hours walk down the opposite side of the mountain, along another picturesque valley above a river and we reached our lunch destination, Totora (3500m). More delicious soup and another hearty meal had our batteries recharged for the final 90 minute walk to our campsite for the night, the town of Ccollpapampa. There we met up with some other hikers coming in on the Salkantay trek, my first sighting of other Gringos in 4 days! Day 6 was over and it was certainly the  longest and one of the most challenging, but also the most picturesque and peaceful days of the trek. The rain set in a little earlier and heavier than what we'd come to know as normal, so the small huts at this more popular campsite were a welcome relief to sleep in for the night once our regular card games had finished up.

So we were now 6 days down, with 3 to go, and the worst was now well and truly behind us. Days 4 to 6 were tough, tougher than I expected, but not so tough that anyone in reasonable shape couldn't do it. From this point it's all about looking forward to Machu Picchu, and some of the fun stops along the way - hot springs at the end of day 7, and zip lines on the morning of day 8. We were nearly there now...

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cachora - Machu Picchu trek. Days 1-3

I'm a little bit different. I like doing things the hard way and receive an enormous amount of satisfaction from attempting any sort of physical challenge, as evidenced in earlier blog  entries with a run around the top of a volcano, and a backflip from an 8m platform. Succeed or fail, I like to push myself to physical limits. It was for this reason that I went against the grain when selecting a trek to do in Peru. The traditional 4 day Inca Trail is tough from all reports, but 500 people complete it every day, of all shapes and sizes, young and old. 'How hard could it really be?', I found myself asking without really knowing the answer. But I wanted something different. I searched the net for alternatives and found a few other 4 and 5 day treks finishing in Machu Picchu. Less popular, and at least as challenging, now I was getting somewhere. Then I found it, a 9 day, 8 night adventure, taking in more ancient Incan ruins than just Machu Picchu. Not offered by many tour companies, I booked a spot on this trek starting March 15 there & then.

Fast forward a few months, and I was incredibly excited about this trek, especially once I got to Peru. Two days before the trek started I was scheduled to meet my guide, and when the first thing Abel asked me was 'You're a little bit crazy, right?', I knew I'd made the right choice for me!

It turned out that the other people who had pre-booked this trek had since cancelled, so I was the only tourist! There's not a lot of information about this trek or the sites we visited along the way available on the Internet, so my next few blog posts are going to be a rather detailed account of the journey from my fairly unique perspective. Hopefully it encourages more people to challenge themselves and give this trek a go. It really is worth the hard work.

Day 1 started with an early (5am) start. The plan was to catch a bus from Cusco to our starting point, the town of Cachora, a few hours west. Local political protests meant the the road beyond Cachora was blocked, and as a result no bus companies were operating that route on that particular day. A few phone calls were made and soon enough we bundled myself, Abel, our chef(!) Esterio, and 9 days worth of camping equipment and supplies into a taxi to make the 3 hour journey.

I'd been warned that along the way we'd see many landslides, but still I was blown away by just how many there were. Coming from the relatively flat country of Australia, a landslide onto a major road is a pretty big deal. Here in Peru, it's an everyday (multiple times a day) occurrence. It seemed that every 2 or 3 kilometers there would be what I would call a major landslide, where traffic on the road is significantly impacted, and at least a small offroad detour is required. 4 or 5 of these bigger sites had bulldozers and trucks working to clear the road, but it appeared to be a losing battle. Between these major landslides was any number of small ones, sometimes it seemed that every hundred meters there was a car sized deposit of rocks on the roadside that had been dislodged from above either by rain, or the 'natural' environmental impact of cutting a wedge into the mountain to make a road. A winding and at times treacherous 3 hours later we turned off the main road and headed toward Cachora. Popping quickly over the top of the mountain and descending into the nice green valley on the other side, I noticed this side of the mountain seemed wetter, and wet dirt roads mean one thing, more landslides. It was only a few minutes before we came to a point that we couldn't pass. Locals said gradually, over a couple of weeks, this huge section of mountain above the road had slowly been slipping, then all of a sudden it gave way, completely covering about a 30m section of road and enveloping a house or two on the other side. We had no choice but to unpack the car and lug everything to the other side by foot, where another car took us the rest of the way to Cachora (only about 5 minutes).

By now it was lunch time and I had a head full of memories already, we hadn't even started the hike yet!

After lunch we met our horseman and his 3 mules, who would helpfully carry most of our supplies so we didn't have to, certainly necessary considering the amount of stuff we had for 9 days. Now I really felt like I was really doing my bit for Peru's tourism industry - 3 men and 3 mules on a trek for a single tourist! (These numbers probably would have been the same had there been another 2 or 3 tourists).

Off we started walking out of Cachora, along a mountain track next to what started as a pretty small little stream. The first hour had a few waterfall and landslide crossings as we went up maybe a couple of hundred meters fairly quickly. The track then widened and flattened out for a couple more hours of steady but not steep uphill walking until we reached our highest point for the day. By now the small stream we started next to was a roaring river 1000m below us, having been added to by all the waterfalls we'd crossed and merging with other streams coming in from between different mountains. The sound of the rapids churning was only bettered by the views of the huge mountains we'd been walking amongst.

Still struck by the sheer number of landslides we'd come across, looking across the valley back towards where we'd come from gave a good indication of the difference in magnitude of the 'manmade' landslides, caused by cutting into the mountain, and the natural ones, which were much, much bigger. Pondering these natural landslides gave me my first mind blowing moment of the trek. How many thousands (millions?) of years have these gigantic mountains been here, only to get to a single instant in time where a massive chunk weakens and falls down creating a new landscape? The world is a big, old place, and I'm so fortunate to be here exploring this extremely remote and unique place that is The Andes!

From the highest point for the day it was about another 1.5 hours down to our campsite for the night, at 1800m above sea level. A few more tricky waterfalls to navigate, but in general the descent was fairly dry and rocky. All in all about 17km covered on day one. 11km of pretty easy uphill followed by about 6km of fairly quick descent. Campsite for the night was a place called Cacerio Chikisca, and it's actually a 'community' where a few people live, and make bugger all money selling drinks to the few trekkers that come this way. On arrival we drank sugar cane juice, an alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane (duh) that tasted and smelled like a plastic bag of apples left to ferment and turn to a liquid in the sun. Surprisingly delicious though (I didn't think of that comparison until AFTER I was finished!). The rain set in for the night soon after dinner, so it was early to bed to get ready for day 2, the hardest day from all reports.

Day two was another early start, breakfast soon after sunrise and on the move at 630. The itinerary for the day involved making our way down the to river, crossing the bridge and then walking steep uphill for a few hours to our lunch spot, then continuing on to the Choquequirao (easiest pronounced 'Chocky-kira') ruins by mid afternoon, with time to explore one half of the site before dinner time. A full day!

The descent of about 600m was much the same as the previous afternoon, a dry, rocky mountain track, zig zagging quickly down the mountain in parts, and winding down and around more gradually in others. Landslides and small waterfalls again a prominent feature of the 35-40 minute trip to the river at the bottom.
I was pleased to see a sturdy looking, relatively recently constructed bridge, as this was grade 4 or 5 type rafting river, no chance of crossing on foot. The power and energy in the raging torrent was easy to see, and hear. Once across, it was up up up. We'd been warned about one section in particular where there had been recent landslides, and to move through that section quickly. That was motivation enough for me to push through any desire to stop or slow down. Once you start seeing rocks the size of microwaves, and bigger, strewn all across and around the track you're walking on, you realise how helpless you'd be if there was ten or more of these things tumbling down the mountain towards you. The track zig zagged up the mountain so we had to traverse this precarious landslide section 6 or 7 times. I tried not to stop the entire way. Once past the particularly dodgy part the track got even steeper, still traversing up the mountain, it became a real mental slog. Most of the time I found myself looking straight down in front, only occasionally glancing up to see how far away the next turn was, which was never more than 5 or 10 meters. After an hour and a half of this uphill business it was getting really tough, physically now as well as mentally. My quads were cramping and I found the only way to push through was to count my steps. 350 was my first count between rests, these were small steps, one foot in front of the other. Right, now I had my goal, from now on I couldn't rest until I'd done at least 350 steps. I'd focus on the bead of sweat rolling left and right on the frame of my glasses with each swaying footstep and just trudge forward, ever uphill. This tactic actually worked and before long Abel was saying its just 10 more minutes to the top. I turned and looked at him and asked if this level of exhaustion was normal at this point of the climb. 'Yep' was his one word response as he also struggled for breath. So on I pushed, Abel constantly just a few steps behind, I figured he must have been doing it a lot easier than me. It was 10:15 when we finally reached some flat ground at our lunch spot, Marampata, my shirt was dripping with sweat (there's a video of me wringing it out!) and Abel collapsed forward onto his knees and assured me that what we'd done wasn't actually normal, and usually groups get to this point closer to midday, you know, lunch time. We'd climbed 1700m in a little under 3 hours, and I was pretty proud, not to mention exhausted, at this point.

Some bonus rest time ensued before lunch, then it was onward and upward to Choquequirao. Another hour and a half and we could see my first glimpse of Inca ruins. From across the valley there's two distinct sets of terraces, 15 to 20 six foot high evenly spaced walls stretching across the sheer face of the mountain, making some flat ground for the Inca's to plant crops in. Facing east for plenty of morning sunlight, combined with the rain in these parts, plus the extraordinary aqueduct system (which we couldn't see just yet), I imagined this site covered with all sorts of fruit and vegetables back in the day.

It still took another half hour to wind ourselves up and around the valley before we actually got to the ruins site. In this time we past maybe 15-20 workers, issued with the task of uncovering and restoring this enormous site.

We finally reached the top part of Choquequirao around 2pm, and it was immediately breathtakingly stunning. Starting at the top of one of the agricultural sections, these terraced walls were even bigger than what we'd seen before. 10 feet high and perfectly straight, still, after 550 years. Corners as square as you can imagine, everything just perfect. Moving on up the hill to what's assumed to be the royal houses, things get even more breathtaking. Bigger, straighter cut rocks, and less mortar distinguish these buildings from the surrounding terraced walls. The time and patience required to shape and carve these rocks so perfectly straight to make such walls is simply mind numbing. Small by today's standards, but these grand two story houses were obviously built with such perfection for someone very special. Small details that would have eluded me had I not had Abel were things like windows almost always being in groups of 3, likely representing the 3 animal gods cherished by the Incas - the serpent, the puma and the condor. Little things like that, and the fact that ALL windows and doors had a trapezoidal shape, slightly narrower at the top than the bottom. The attention to detail was unlike anything I've witnessed in person before. Absolutely amazing stuff.

We continued down the mountain a little to the sun temple, again a smallish rectangular room perfectly constructed from huge, perfectly shaped stones. The angles here were probably some of the sharpest I saw, and again the trapezoidal shapes of windows and doors wowed me. By now many, many dozens of photos had been taken, and it was beginning to get dark, with rain threatening so we had to be quick in exploring the terraces on the east side of the mountain that we'd seen earlier from across the valley. Full of energy, we ran downhill to these sections in about 10 minutes (the Choquequirao site is huge and very spread out over the mountain). The size and scale of these terraced walls was even more amazing up close. The stairs between levels were so steep it felt like if you leaned forward too far you'd topple hundreds of meters down the mountain. Now we got to see the incredible aqueduct system in more detail. From the very top of the mountain it runs all the way down to here, splitting and diverting water to different areas, and to each and every terrace in this section. Most definitely this section was used for agricultural purposes. There was also another small section that I thought looked like an amphitheater, nearly semi circular terraces, getting bigger further up the steep incline. Possibly for performing, possibly for public addresses, possibly for more agriculture, the truth is we don't actually know much about this historical site, and there's so much more to learn about the Incas. Whether we'll ever know exactly what all this stuff was used for remains to be seen.

So there ended day 2, it was a slow ascent back up to camp, much slower than the ten minutes it took to get down! In all we covered about 14km of hiking to the Choquequirao site, and then probably another 4 or 5 exploring it for a few hours. An incredibly tough day that lived up to the hype. Physically and mentally challenging, it left me tired, hungry and pretty dehydrated, my water intake nowhere near what it should have been considering the physical exertion I'd outputted. Another fantastic dinner, followed by some card games, then the rain set in for the night once again.

Day 3 started with a well earned 8am sleep in. I awoke feeling pretty average from the dehydration and resolved to drinking a lot more water that day! The Peruvian horseman, chef and guide seemed to get through the days drinking no more than four cups of tea and maybe one bottle of water. I don't know how they do it, but I now know I certainly can't get away with doing the same.

Lacking energy I was glad to hear that day 3 was a pretty easy day. We spent the morning exploring the west side of Choquequirao, where there was even more terraces, and once again, hundreds of 'steeper-than-work-safe' steps. These terraces were different though, each terrace had a llama built into it, sometimes two! 4 or 5 feet high, out of a different white rock to the rest of the terraces, these 24 llamas all faced the same way, and provided a mystery to the whole place that hasn't been able to be solved just yet. What exactly went on here? This isn't natural llama territory, so why here, why llamas on the walls? Whatever the answers, these walls were pretty cool to look at from afar. We made our way around the mountain a little bit to a really good vantage point, took some photos, yelled out into the mountains to hear the echoes, and just sat and took it all in for a while.

It was on this third morning that we saw two (yes 2!) other tourists exploring Choquequirao. For anyone who's been to Machu Picchu, it's an incredible feeling walking around one of these sites with it pretty much to yourself. A few workers here and there, and even less tourists, I'd highly recommend seeing Choquequirao before it inevitably gets over overrun by tourism in the next 5, 10, 25 years, who knows.

Moving on after having lunch at the top of a cliff overlooking kilometers of nothing but massive green mountains and hearing the roaring rivers connecting below, the rest of day 3's journey was an easy downhill walk to camp for night 3. This campsite was yet another set of Incan terraced walls, less spectacular than Choquequirao, but equally mystifying. What went on here? Who lived here? There was one small structure, most likely a house, in the middle but other than that it was just terraces, a few hours walk from Choquequirao. This site was also probably cleared by maintenance staff only once or twice a year, giving some idea of just how quickly these ruins can become overgrown by the surrounding high jungle, and what sort of condition early 20th century explorers would have stumbled across them in. How anyone managed to get to these places without the reasonably well worn tracks used today just astounds me. Any journey to these parts would easily take 4 or 5 times longer than it does today, as they would have to be cutting through thick vegetation the entire way. Mind blowing stuff once again.

Camping atop one of these terraces gave us an afternoon basking in the sun, and bathing in an original Incan bath. Waters that had flowed down from somewhere at the top of the mountain are diverted to this point once again by an aqueduct system and sprout out from one of the terraces, giving me the opportunity to shower in icy cold Andean water, crystal clear, and good enough to drink. I did just that, a lot, finally getting back to a more normal level of hydration and feeling good, ready for day 4...

Monday, March 26, 2012


Peru's a place that I can remember thinking I wanted to visit from a fairly young age. Proximity to both surf and snow was something that I thought was pretty cool. I'm not really sure what I was expecting when I got here, but it's safe to say I've been surprised, impressed and fascinated by what I've seen so far.

Starting in Miraflores, a suburb just outside of the capital Lima, I was please to find the climate to my liking, definitely shorts and t-shirt weather. I liked Peru already. An afternoon wandering the streets of Miraflores left me surprised at how modern everything was, and amazed at how crazy the driving is. There's more big shopping centers and department stores than I thought there would be, and more new cars than beat up old bombs. Cats roam free in Central Park which i found a bit weird, but i suppose they're healthier and cleaner looking than the stray dogs gracing Guatemala's streets. In general everything is pretty modern, clean and orderly. Except on the roads! All the streets are one way, which is fine, but there appears to be absolutely no semblance of giving way. Approach an intersection and you'll have traffic coming from either left or right. Toot your horn, maybe slow down a little but just keep on going. Indicators are optional, turning can be done from anywhere, at any time, you can even make third and fourth lanes on 'two' lane roads. Amazing, but it seems to go off without too much of a hitch.

You don't have to go far to find old stuff either. A 10 or 15 minute walk up a beautiful tree lined street and you come to an ancient ceremonial site that pre-dates the Incas by a lazy 800 years. Thousands upon thousands of bricks made from mud and crushed sea shells have withstood the elements for hundreds of years. Walls still stand near perfectly straight, and the half uncovered pyramid (work still in progress) might not evoke the same awe as some others around the world, but is still pretty cool in its own rite. The guided tour, complete with comical Spanglish speaking guide, was most definitely worth the $4.

A 10 minute walk the other side of Central Park, down a winding tree lined street, and you hit the Pacific Ocean. Oh to live so close to a surfable break. Continuing the tradition of beaches being completely different to what I'm used to, this one was a beach of black rocks, made smooth by the surging waves of the ocean. Difficult to walk on, especially without shoes, but apparently just as comfortable for the locals to lie on.

16 hours on a bus is surprisingly comfortable when you go first class (amateur backpacker, pffft). I slept for about 5, and don't really remember most what I did in the remaining time, so it must have been comfy. The scenery was unlike anything I've seen before, starting with vast arid rocky  desert meeting the even vaster (more vast?) ocean. What an awesome sight to wake up to. Once we left the coast it was just more desert, like a scene straight out of a movie, rocks and sand as far as the eye can see. We'd occasionally roll through tiny desert communities, which actually did look like badly crafted sets from an old school Western.

We eventually hit Arequipa in southern Peru, and if I thought the driving in Lima was crazy, here it´s just plain madness. Same road 'rules' as before, but these guys just took it up a notch. You'd be waiting a long time to see any polite waves in rear view mirrors. Arequipa is another nice old city, but I found there wasn't really a lot to do with only a day to spend there. Longer stays could involve mountain climbing, canyoning and rafting but for one day all I could really do was walk around, look at old churches and try some different cuisines. After that, back to the hostel for some pool competitions and gigantic Jenga (my new favourite game).  A pretty big night not leaving me in the greatest state for another early morning bus ride.

This bus brought me to Puno, on the banks of Lake Titicaca - the highest freshwater lake in the world,  in a mere 6 hours. Again, not a hell of a lot to do on the city itself, but there's day tours galore. An absolute must is a visit to the floating islands, centuries old communities that live day to day on floating islands made of tatora reeds. Life is simple for these people. So simple it blows my mind. Days are spent either out in boats collecting reeds to keep rebuilding your island or boat, gathering food to eat - usually in the form of fish, pigs or potatoes, or making tapestries and other arts and crafts to sell to one of the few tourist boats that come to your island each week. Overnight stays for tourists are possible, but I didn't have time for this unfortunately. I wish i did because i've been told its one of the most peaceful nights you'll ever experience. At the very least, it couldn't possibly be any worse than the hostel I stayed in.

I also took the opportunity to head out by myself on a hike recommended in my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook. Safe to say that a one paragraph description isn't really enough to get you to a place over 15 kilometers away by foot. I wasn't lost, but I never did end up finding the ruins I set out looking for. I did end up climbing to about 4300m before the setting sun stopped me and I had to turn around to get back to the main road to hitch a ride back to Puno in the dark. An interesting afternoon.

Not wanting to get another bus to get to Cusco, I again lashed out. The Andean Explorer is one of the most scenic train rides in the world, and the 10 hour journey was filled with colourful experiences. Starting with the train rolling slowly out of Puno, the tracks lead directly through a local market. Close enough to reach out and touch the market stalls, standing on the rear of the train allows you to see the market return to normal as soon as the train has passed. As the train trudges on through dead flat green farm land, it´s easy to forget that you´re actually at 3800m above sea level. Again, life in these areas is simple, and I can´t quite comprehend how these people do it. The scenery changes quite a bit as you enter a valley alongside the river and between some enormous snow capped mountains. This really is the stuff of postcards. On board there's local musicians and dancers providing some traditional entertainment, and the Pisco sour's flow, making the afternoon fly by.

Arriving in Cusco late afternoon, I switched back into true backpacker mode and headed to my hostel for the night, the busiest in town, and really more of a pub you can sleep at rather then a hostel you can drink at. Every night's a party of insane proportions, and bar tabs soar as the Blood Bombs and rum & pineapples flow.

So my first 4 or 5 days in Peru went by in a bit of a blur. Lots of time traveling and never long in one place. An excellent way to see the varying landscapes the country has to offer but again not enough time to see or do all that I would really like to. A couple of days relaxing in Cusco prepared me for one of the highlights of my trip, a nine day hike from Cachora to Machu Picchu, also taking in the Incan ruins of Choquequirao. More on that to come shortly...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chance encounters maketh the memories

It's hard to believe I've been away from home for just 4 weeks now. While I'm certainly glad I still have 7 weeks of this amazing journey remaining, I could easily stop now and be content with the things I've done, the places I've been, and the people I've met. It's been a great trip so far.

A lot has happened in the last two weeks, so I'll try to keep this short, but allow me to first get a bit philosophical if you will.

Its been even more evident to me whilst traveling solo that small decisions, the willingness to take a risk or two, and more than just a hint of pure luck play a huge role in our enjoyment of the day to day things we do. Going through the motions and following a preconceived plan can be great, but it's been one of my goals for this trip to be more spontaneous, take more risks (within reason of course), do things that I hadn't planned on doing originally, and generally just take things as they come.

When I sit and think about it, there's literally been hundreds of forks in the road in my last two weeks. Junctions were I've made decisions, both consciously and subconsciously, that have led to the remarkably enjoyable time that I've had. Some are as simple as talking to a random person in a bar, others as difficult as doing a backflip off an 8m platform above Lake Atitlan. Its mind boggling when I think about how I could have taken the opposite path at any particular point. Would I have had as much fun? Maybe. Would I have met as many good people as I have? Probably not. Would I have been able to deal with the bad news I received from home so well? Almost certainly not. Every decision has combined equally importantly to get me where I am today (on a plane to Peru), and I'm extremely grateful for how things have gone down to this point.

Now onto the details, here's what I've been up to for the last two weeks:

My second week of Spanish lessons was just as intense as the first. Frustration rose as I learnt ton of new words, but couldn't string them together properly to form anything near what you'd call a coherent sentence, until it finally clicked together a little in the final couple of days. So after 40 hours of Spanish lessons, I found myself able to get around town, but I'll hardly be socializing with the locals any time soon. Proper conversations are still tricky, and I challenge you to have a conversation with someone today using only the present tense. You can even use your own native language.

I enjoyed a few nights on the town in Antigua, including one at Cafe No Se, where the famous Mezcal Bar runs by its own set of rules, if you're prepared to go through the 5 foot doorway adorned with the '2 shot minimum' warning message. Delicious Mezcal and good vibes await inside, a lot of fun.

A trip to the beach is one weekend I won't forget in a very long time. With the desire for a bit of adventure, we set off for a weekend in Monterrico 'the local way'. Two chicken buses, one comparatively luxurious mini-bus and a small wooden boat later we arrived about $6 lighter after three and a half hours of traveling. The journey certainly lived up to the hype. Monterrico is a pretty sleepy little beach town, and the first thing to strike you is the black sand. Coming from where sand is yellow or white, it's a strange feeling walking around in what looks like, but doesn't feel like dirt. The next thing that will strike you, literally if you let it, is the power of the Pacific Ocean. Churning black waves dump right on the beach, and just standing in the knee deep water is a challenge. If you manage to get through the breakers there is some respite, but the heavy undertow must be respected. A few minutes in the water and I came out quite exhausted. Watching the stars and listening to the power of the waves relentlessly hammering the shore in the darkness was a great way to spend the evening. A few bottles of Quetzalteca, and some great company were a fine addition to these natural wonders. A very memorable weekend indeed.

More chance encounters with fellow random travelers started one of the most enjoyable and relaxing weeks of my life. Everything slows down when you get to San Pedro, the Amsterdam of Central America. So it was lucky that by chance I'd stumbled across 4 genuinely good people to pass the time with as we'd wait for whatever it was we were waiting for. Card games and trivial pursuit quizzes were the norm once we'd ordered our meals. Unplanned hikes through coffee plantations, swimming in the lake, and kayak adventures filled the rest of our days. The trip over water to San Marcos was rewarded with the opportunity to jump from the 8m platform built into the rock face. Somewhat daunting the first time, it wasn't long before I found myself eager to get a little more adventurous thanks to being in the presence of an extremely talented amateur cliff jumper. A couple of backflips ensued, the second of which was caught on video and should surface on the Internet soon. Far from perfectly executed, but looking back I'm extremely happy with myself for giving it a go.

I returned to Antigua for the weekend, and it really was a weekend of mixed emotions. A birthday in Guatemala, a funeral back home. Through the highs and lows I was extremely glad to be in the company that I was, it made the hard times easier, and the good times even better. A couple of days relaxing and not doing much after the weekend had me feeling like a local, and not wanting to leave. But the flight was booked and more adventures await, on to Peru!!

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Looking for something to do over the weekend, attention quickly turned to the volcanos constantly looming ominously over Antigua. Coming from Australia where these things simply don't exist, the curiosity factor was high, and I was quick to sign up for an overnight stay atop a dormant volcano.

Vulcan Acatenango presented  psychological and physical challenges like no other I've experienced before. At 3970m it's Central America's third highest peak, and the 'hard' rating is certainly appropriate. 

Starting at 6am, we left Antigua (~1500m) and drove through some more authentic Guatemalan towns, similar to Antigua in street scape, but obviously without the huge tourist influence. Kids play in the main street though the town, stray dogs roam free, and it seems that everyone in town has their own fruit stall set up by the roadside. We stopped amid some very picturesque farmland and started the days hike at about 2400m above sea level. 

There was four distinct sections of the hike through varying types of terrain. First was through farmland, which meant walking in the small passageways between fields. Sounds nice, but these passageways were just dry  little gullies full of 3 or 4 inches of loose gravel, it was one step up, half a step back. This section was hard! 

Next up was the cloud forest, the landscape suddenly changes to thick, lush, green vegetation, but surprisingly little wildlife (the whole hike the entire group saw a few birds and a couple of lizards, I only saw one bird myself). This section was steep, with lots of traversing, but solid underfoot, overall I'd say moderately easy. 

Moving above the cloud forest, the terrain dries right out again, and we had an hour and a half or so of walking through the pine forest. This section was less steep, as we did less traversing and just wound ourselves around the volcano. If you replaced the pine with gum trees, and flattened it all out a little, I could have mistaken this landscape for a piece of the Australian bush. 

Then things got tough again, tougher than before. Above the pine forest is where you realise your climbing a volcano, not just a mountain. All of sudden you're walking on black volcanic crushed rock, and it's like walking up a sand dune of fish tank pebbles. We set up camp in the saddle between the two peaks, then continued up the remaining 150 vertical meters or so to the summit. This section was extremely hard, there was no traversing, it was just straight up on 6 inches of loose gravel. One step forward, 90 percent of a step back at some points. Being at 3900m for the first time in my life probably didn't help the situation. 

Getting to the very top was every bit as exciting as I'd imagined it to be, climbing 1600m in one day is no joke, but the views justified the 6 solid hours of hiking. The barren alien landscape and the bright blue sky both equally different to anything I've witnessed before. Mind blowing stuff.

Of course once I'd recovered from the final part of the ascent and taken in the view, I had to have a crack at the tour guides challenge of running around the volcano's crater in under 4 minutes, we guesstimated it to be about 600m. Coasting for the first 2 minutes, I thought I'd be done in under three. Then it hit me, muscular fatigue like I've never experienced before, it felt like my lungs were the size of a couple of coin bags from the bank, or even smaller. I tried not to stop, but simply had no other option, my legs would not keep walking. Eventually finishing in 4 minutes and 14 seconds, I missed out on the free t-shirt up for grabs. Damn it. Next time. A pretty sweet experience though.

The tone in our guides voice changed when the clouds started rolling in a little thicker, and we could literally feel (and hear) the electricity in the air. We had to descend back to camp quickly, and just made it before the rain really set in for an hour or so. When it cleared the stars appeared, and we had a nice little meal and sipped some red wine before heading to bed for a well earned sleep. It was a cool night, and I woke up with a layer of ice atop my bivvy bag. Certainly the coldest conditions I've used it in, but I was dry, so I was happy. At 5:30AM we again started the tough climb back to the summit, this time by torch light in pitch black conditions. It was probably slightly easier this time because 1) the gravel was sort of frozen together making your footing a little more solid, and 2) without being able to see the top you had no option but to keep on trudging uphill.

If you've never experienced sunrise above the clouds on top of a mountain, you simply must do it, soon. It's hard to put into words just how cool it is, so I won't even try. Just do it! We even got to experience looking down on the nearby active Vulcan Feugo as it spat out a red hot rock or two, and saw them tumble down its side. Very cool indeed.

Once the best part of the sunrise was over, the weather changed in a matter of minutes yet again and a thick fog descended on the volcano. Visibility was down to about 5 meters so it wasn't really surprising when one of our party got a little lost on the way back down to camp. A rather anxious guide, along with our local porter & security guard searched fruitlessly for 15 minutes or so before our kiwi friend eventually found his way back on his own.

The descent back down to our starting spot was quick, and basically the reverse of going up. The loose gravel sections were easy to fly down, and the foresty sections were hard going with plenty of big steps down and lots of slippery tree roots.

After a few quick hours we were back to where we started the previous morning, weary, and somewhat looking forward to the cramped minivan ride back to Antigua. It was an amazing weekend spent with some pretty cool people, and full of experiences that I'm sure I'll be recalling for many years to come. If you haven't done something like this, I highly recommend you do. The world is just different, and even more amazing at 4000m, you won't regret it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A whole 'nother world, sort of

The flight to Guatemala City saw this inexperienced traveller slightly overcome by the thought of stepping into a foreign country without speaking the native tongue. So with my Spanish phrase book in hand, and a few pleasantries in mind, I left the plane a little unsure of what was to come.

Having organised to be met at the airport by a driver from my Spanish school in Antigua, my observations of Guatemala City are few. The first thing that hit me was a huge billboard for Dominos pizza. I was amazed by the sheer number of billboards advertising all sorts of things from fast food (McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Pollo Campero - Guatemala's KFC) to new cars and health care products. Most buildings were in need of some good handy work, the roads even more so, and most of the cars I saw were very old, with the driving erratic at best. Pretty much what I was expecting on those accounts.

The trip from Guatemala City to Antigua is about 40 minutes on windy mountain roads, and it didn't fail to throw up some interesting sights. Entire families travelling in utes (a few kids on the tray),  a four car incident that left a police car with a broken rear axle in the middle of the road blocking all traffic, luckily in the opposite direction to my travel, and also a car spun off the road into a ditch. Both incidents presumably caused by the misty, greasy conditions high in the mountains. People of all ages walked tightly along the edge of the major road with traffic whizing by because there are no footpaths, and at a military checkpoint backpackers nervously unpacked their bags infront of soldiers with ancient yet no doubt effective automatic weapons. A very interesting little journey.

Arriving at my homestay mid afternoon Sunday, I was met by my host, Juanita. She's a delightful old lady whose speaks little English, so the conversation was short and there was lots of gesturing going on as she showed me around her home. "Mi casa es tu casa" was one of the few sentences I understood. I instantly felt very welcome in my simple little home of the next two weeks.

The city of Antigua itself is an amazing place, and I instantly fell in love with it. The mix of old and new is extraordinary. From the outside, all buildings appear to have been built hundreds of years ago, and some of them were. The cobblestone streets are lined with high concrete or stone walls, many with grand old wooden doorways and barred windows. It's impossible to tell what lies within. Places like McDonalds and Subway are no exception to this. From the street they are just another wall painted a single colour, with a small sign beside the doorway, but inside, they look like any other McDonald's or Subway anywhere in the world, or even nicer with beautiful plant filled courtyards to eat your meal in, completely hidden from view from the street. Theres many places with hidden gardens like this; bookstores, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Amazing.

Remains of buildings destroyed by the 1773 earthquake dot the city, most of them churches, and to look through them is absolutely breathtaking. The markets are a vibrant mix of colours, sounds and smells, and after seeing chickens being chopped up and red meat hanging in shop fronts under the hot tin sheds of the marketplace, I'm somewhat glad we don't eat much meat at my homestay!

The contrast between rich and poor is quite striking as well. Central park and the streets around it are filled with ladies selling beaded necklaces and hand woven blankets for as little as a couple of quetzales (25-30 cents), people pushing ice cream carts (with cow bell attached) along the cobbled streets remind you that ice cream is extremely tasty, and kids as young as 5 or 6 offer to shine your shoes, even if you are wearing brown hiking boots. Or thongs.

All this goes on whilst armed guards with shotguns stand in the doorways of numerous jewelry shops, and slightly twitchy fellows on street corners not-so-discreetly ask 'whatchu need?', which goes some way to explaining the high end Audis and brand new BMW's you occasionally see roll down the street, windows tinted so dark I'm not even sure they're made of glass. The gap between rich and poor is obviously quite large, but the city seems to roll on without too much trouble. The stories of gangs and late night personal security appear, at least at this stage, to have been greatly over exaggerated, whilst the legends of the chicken buses appear to be every bit the truth judging by the stories of each and every traveller I've met who's been on one. An experience like no other, an experience I'm looking forward to.

All this blogging, and hardly a mention of the main reason I'm in this wonderful city. The lifeblood of the place is tourism, and a big part of that tourism is Spanish language schools. Every street has at least one, and every foreigner I've spoken to has been to one for at least a week, many for a lot longer than that. Having never been interested in learning a language while at school, the decision to come here to learn Spanish for 4 hours a day for a couple of weeks may seem a strange one. But one week in, it's one of the most satisfying decisions I've ever made. It's an experience I certainly recommend to anyone remotely interested in learning a language, throw yourself into the deep end and just go for it. A long way out of my comfort zone, the first week was tough, but I came through it able to (more or less) understand conversations going on around me. Confidence in making conversation myself is growing, but still has a way to go! I know 2 weeks is hardly going to make me a master of the language, but I'm closer to my goal of being able to ask questions handy for travelers, and most importantly, understand the responses!

I hope this goes some way to explaining how much I've enjoyed my first week here in Antigua. It's a fantastic place, and I'm glad I made the decision to come here. In some ways it's exactly what I expected, in others it's much, much more. Nothing has disappointed me so far, and I'm sure the experience will get better and better the longer I'm here. Until next time, adios amigos!!