Chile was a slow burn. Valparaiso was a hill-filled, graffiti covered town but lonely on my own. A 24 hour bus ride on a very civilised bus brought me to the Atacama Desert. San Pedro de Atacama is undeniably a tourist town but its adobe walls still retain their charm. I floated in a salt lake, saw geysers at dawn, sampled the first of many hot springs (this one only barely making it to lukewarm), and watched sunset over Valle de la Luna. I hired a bike and cycled out into the desert, accidently riding the very fun canyon called Quebrada del Diablo (Throat of the Devil), dodging over-hanging cliffs of red rocks putting NZ mountain bike training to good use.
I crossed into Bolivia on a classic three-day tour of the salt flats. Luckily, my jeep was full of very interesting people which made the whole tour a great experience. The landscape is nature’s craziest, most beautiful invention. A lake so clear, it perfectly reflects the snow-covered mountain rising above desert. Vicuna graze on vast plains of nothing. Pink flamingos feed in a red lake rimmed by yellow under a blue sky. We saw (and I attempted to climb) surreal rock formations said to have inspired Dali. One night, we stayed in a salt hotel where everything is made of salt. We tasted coca beer (not great); a lot of people were drinking coca tea against the altitude. The highlight is of course the polygonal-tiled white salt flats themselves with their endless expanse offering ample photo stunts. We stopped at Incahuasi Island, a cactus filled island that is the top of a submerged volcano. I went for a walk and discovered the crack in the rocks where they are dumping all the plastic generated. This upset me a lot. Tourism does not mean that they have to do this. Simply tell people to pack it in, pack it out!! I felt guilty for every piece of rubbish I’d thrown away while on the tour and resolved to use even less plastic bottles- as if that would make up for all the flights.
So we arrived in the town of Uyani and immediately got a bus to Potosi, making friends with German Carolin along the way. Potosi is famous for its silver mines which kept the Spanish monarchy rich for centuries with one of the worst safety records and highest death rates of any mine. Tours of the mines are said to be highly dangerous and exploitative… but mine was fine. We stopped by the markets to pick up some gifts for the miners: coca leaves, cigarettes, pure alcohol and dynamite (about £2.50 a stick). The entrance is a wooden hatch in the ground and then you climb an old ladder before crawling some distance. You can hear explosions in the distance. There are creepy statues to the miners’ deity El Tio leering at you out of the dark; miners pour alcohol and coca leaves over his giant penis in an offering to get out of the mine alive. After two hours, I hurried out of the tunnel to see sunshine again; the miners work 12 hour shifts six days a week.
After Potosi, I spent some time with Carolin in the white city of Sucre before heading on to La Paz. Coming into the city, you see both sides of the steep valley to which the buildings cling. From the main road at the bottom, it feels like walls of houses are rising up above your head. I wandered around the markets considering whether to buy a llama fetus and visited Tiwanaku, an ancient site that a lovely man on the bus told me could only have been built by aliens.
The 19 hour bus ride from La Paz down to Rurrenabaque to visit the rainforest was memorable. Part of the road is now the World’s Most Dangerous Road and you can appreciate why when your double decker bus is scraping at the cliffs one side while the road is invisible beneath the wheels on the other side. You start to imagine a lean gently sideways on the vehicle… Or maybe that wasn’t even my imagination. Then we stopped for four hours because the road was washed out and everyone had to help rebuild it with some pickaxes and mobile phone light. All in all, a very exciting way to start a trip to the Amazon!Because there was an incredible tropical storm including sheet lightning and sheet rain the night before, the weather was actually quite cold and not as steamy as expected. We spent the days exploring the green jungle, red cliffs and brown water. We fished for piranhas and fed the camp’s resident baby tapir. We saw spider monkeys, avoided bullet ants, had an extreme jewellery class involving drills, hunted jaguars at night, and learnt that there is such a thing as a garlic tree and a tree that can “walk”. But I loved just sitting in my hammock watching the hummingbirds feed on pink flowers.
A more palatable bus ride back led me to Copacabana, the main town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. A lot of people were there because it was the Festival de la Cruz. This meant we watched a lot of fun parades and met some very fun drunk cholitas but that I and my new American friend Nadia ended up sleeping in a room in the family home of a lovely family that ran a hostel because there was not a bed in town. Outside the cathedral, Benedicionde de Movilidades was taking place: blessing cleaned cars with flowers, holy water and alcohol. I then took a ferry to Isla del Sol; a very happy time there wandering around the island for two days to see Inca ruins and eat as much trout possible. Its setting is incredible: green terraces running down to the blue lake with the snow covered Andes behind, sheep and donkeys everywhere, not a single road but paved Inca paths.
Bolivia is grittier, earthier and more entertaining than Chile. When I think about how many landscapes I saw in my brief time there, the cholitas in native dress selling on every street corner, the white mountains looming over La Paz, markets making the best juices from fruits you’ve just discovered, my addiction to fried egg and avocado sandwiches … I want to go back.
But it was time for yet another overnight bus to Peru. Peru made a splendid first impression. It helped that the hostel was great serving banana pancakes for breakfast, American Nadia was there, the city Arequipa was one colonial dreamland, I made chocolate and I got to visit Juanita, the famous ice mummy found at the top of Ampata. My aspirations to be a mountaineering archaeologist were formed. I had returned to civilisation in the form of good wifi and craft beers (passionfruit beer!).
Nadia and I spent three days hiking in the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world. Fortified by a cactus fruit pisco sour, we ended up in a little village where the only place to stay was with the mayor who was breeding guinea pigs in his backyard. We had alpaca for dinner instead. The next night, we stayed in the oasis at the bottom of the canyon, swimming and doing some yoga. The third day, we had to hike 1200m up out of the canyon which was good training for what was to come.
I arrived in Cusco by overnight bus at 7am and by midday had sorted out a seven day hike with a Swiss couple to visit first Choquequirao then on to Machu Picchu. What a seven days it turned out to be, a complete highlight. It felt like luxury camping with four mules carrying our things and Alberto the cook sorting out coca tea in the morning, cooked breakfasts and two-course dinners. Reto and Susie were great companions, telling inspirational stories of travelling with three children around Mexico. Frank, our guide and owner of the agency, was very passionate about his people and his heritage: his baby’s name translates as “Inca prince”. Choquequirao is a city abandoned to the forest and guarded by mountains; its terraces with white quartzite llamas were rescued by archaeologists in 2004. All about us were classic views of mountains and deep ravines, then up into cloud forest, down again and up again to camp at a farm where the occupants spoke Quechua (the language of the Incas) before a day’s climb to a pass at 4100m to watch condors soar and do a little sunbathing. In the next town, we watched a local football tournament where the ball would escape from one side of the pitch down a steep sided valley and be lost. It felt like the end of an adventure to join the Salkantay trail with its streaming hordes of hikers along the railway lines to Aquas Calientes and MP. To enter the town, you pass a mound of plastic bottles waiting to be piled into trains- I hope for recycling. In the morning, Los Chasquis (the name of the Inca messager runners that our group had been christened by Frank because we were so quick) made it up the last 400m to MP in less than an hour. We were greeted by a site covered in mist, dull persistent rain and one café where everyone was hiding out. The crowds, the buses, the rain could not have made a sharper contrast with sun-soaked Choquequirao. But once the sun burned away the mist and we escaped our official guide spouting rubbish (this time, I resisted arguing with him), there is no avoiding the magnificence of the site and the required pictures were taken.