June 28, 2009

The heat is on!

Having just endured the worst London winter in over 18 years, we were ready for some serious heat. And boy did Seville bring it!

With highs reaching 45° Celcius, our poor pasty bodies didn't know what hit them. To combat the heat, we guzzled several litres of water each a day as we wandered the seriously gorgeous streets of this southern Spain city.

With many streets off limits to cars – they're too narrow – Seville is a pedestrian's paradise. Seeking shade whenever we could, we'd find ourselves walking around in awe of this stunning city. 'It's a good-looking city, hey?', 'It is a pretty cool city but, don't you reckon?', 'It's such a nice place.' Were some of the inspired and insightful comments we'd make to each other throughout the day.

Of course our first stop in Spain wouldn't be complete without a touch of tapas, so we headed out one evening to sample what Seville had to offer. Forgetting our phrasebook, we had to rely on whatever the Spanish speaking owner recommended to us, which worked out great, and we ended up sampling a number of tiny treats and washed them down with some local beer and wine.

Also on the agenda was a tour of the local bullring, where we learnt all about the traditions of bullfighting. Unfortunately, we left Seville on the morning of a fight – Craig blames me for that planning blunder – so the tour alone had to satiate our curiosity.

After three nights in scorching Seville, it was time to turn the thermostat to the max in Morocco!

June 24, 2009

Lisbon and Lagos via London

Our brief return to London was a refreshing change from our three-month existence in South America. For starters, we spoke the language fluently, which meant I no longer had to rely on my now-honed miming skills, it also meant we could finally flush toilet paper. Best of all, we enjoyed two days of Scott and Karl's amazing hospitality, including home-cooked gourmet delights.

With only one full day in England's famous capital, and a long list of 'to dos' that had accumulated over our time in South America, our brief stopover was all about business. First on the list was a much-needed shopping spree in Oxford Street's ultra-cheap Primark– I scored two tops, a pair of shorts, five pairs of undies and a small across-the-shoulder bag for just £17! Then there was a toiletries stock-up, a mass printout of various bookings we had made, and the all-consuming search for a new bikini (er, for me, not Craig.)

An essential curry was enjoyed with Scott, Karl and Julie (my super-cool pal who was joining us in Portugal) in Islington. And before we had a chance to get over the jet-lag, our London stop was complete.

What came next was a series of public transport bungles. First, we missed our EasyBus to Luton Airport – turns out it wasn't so 'easy' to spot the bright orange bus when they dont tell you you are s'pose to get on the green one instead. Then, once in Lisbon, we found out that the bus that would usually take us straight to our door couldn't take us that far because there was a festival on and the streets were blocked. We were then forced to bus to the metro and then cram in with hundreds of festival goers.

Transport dilemmas aside, Lisbon itself was pretty damn stunning. We tasted the legendary Portuguese custard tarts, tried to solve the mystery of the abandoned cherry*, visited the Discovery Monument, admired the many tiled buildings, and hiked up to the castle only to decide we didn't want to fork out the €5 entrance fee.

After just one short day in Lisbon, it was time to get our beach groove on in Lagos, three hours south of Lisbon. We arrived expecting a cheap and cheerful dump, but we were pleasantly surprised by the chic, streamlined hotel we were greeted with – Julie hit the jackpot booking this place, which had only been renovated a month prior.

We quickly slipped into holiday mode, heading straight for the hotel pool as soon as the sun broke through the vacation-dampening clouds. All was hunky dory until the Killer Milkshake struck...

Having been deprived of decent dairy products for so long, Craig indulged in a milky treat. He complained that it was warm, but drank it anyway. That night, the milkshake struck, causing Craig to vomit and then rendering him bedbound for most of the next day.

With Craig out of action, Julie and I took one for the team and kept the holiday spirit going with plenty of book reading on the beach – Julie was finishing off Atonement, while I took the slightly-less literary route with Schapelle Corby's No More Tomorrowsinterrupted by the occasional breath-stealing dip in the icy cold sea – them waters in Portugal are a tad nippy.

Luckily, Craig was back in action for the momentous occasion of his 26th birthday. The weather really turned it on and we awoke to a glorious, sunny day. The day was spent on the beach and by the pool, and Craig was treated to a massage at our hotel, by an Aussie named Roy of all people!

That night we dined on local seafood delights, with Julie opting for salmon, me for calamari and the birthday boy getting his wish of a fish hotpot.

After four great days of sun, bikinis, boardshorts and the without a doubt the worst pool performance in history by yours truly – Julie did not believe how bad I was until she saw it with her own eyes. I suck! – it was time to say our final 'ciao' to Julie as she got set to head to the States and we continued on our journey across Europe...

* Personal joke involving a rogue cherry in the hall of our hotel.

June 20, 2009

Killing time in Quito

It only took a flight from Cusco to Lima and a mere 39 hours on the bus to get there (seriously, not as awful as it sounds, though I had serious cankles by the end of it), but it was sheer relief to be in our final destination a whole week before our flight out to London.

That's not to say that our time in Quito was totally happy and hassle-free. First, there was the 3am arrival to the hostel who claimed to have no record of our booking (we got to spend the rest of the night on their couch for free – score!), then there was the total dodginess of the city (we saw a guy getting bashed and three people from our hostel were robbed on our first day), and finally there was the sheer boredom of having NOTHING TO DO!

A trip to the cinema to see Terminator Salvation cured our case of boredom for a good couple of hours, but with Hannah Montana: The Movie and Zac Efron's 17 Again the other choices on offer, a return trip was not on the cards. There was also the trip to the equator, which was a painted line on the ground. The rest of our days were spent eating banana cake, reading and surfing the net – our flight couldn't come fast enough!

After the high of Machu Picchu, it was a shame to end our South American adventure on such a low note. We did eventually leave Quito, and, with some truly amazing experiences well and truly under our belts, we said, 'adios' to South America!

June 08, 2009

We made it!

I've been sitting here for about 10 minutes now, desperately trying to come up with the wittiest, most-creative opening line possible for this Machu Picchu post. After all, doing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was without a doubt the highlight of our trip to South America, and anything less than literary excellence simply won't do it justice.

I don't know how to get across just how awesome it was, and I just don't know where to start. So I'll go the boringly logical route, and start at the beginning...

The farmers in Peru had decided to strike on the very day that we were supposed to start the Inca Trail (they block all the roads and attack people who try to pass – fun!) so we were starting a day early, which not only meant we had one day less to prepare ourselves (there were plastic ponchos to be bought, walking sticks to be hired and bags to pack), we also had to fork out an extra $US35 each for the privilege. To top it all off, Craig was fevering it up, big time, putting our already questionable hiking ability (too much fried chicken and zero exercise) in serious jeopardy.

With Craig pumped full of miscellaneous drugs – hey, I just rolled with whatever the chemist gave me! – we attended the mandatory night-before meeting to meet our group and tour leader, and run through the four days of pure pain that were to follow.

As expected, the room was full of whiny, loud-mouth Americans (er, generalisation and stereotype alert). OK, to be fair, the room was full of Americans, two of whom were whiny and loud-mouthed, and there were a couple of Irish and Hollanders thrown in there for good measure. While the rest of our group drank coca tea and whined about the havoc the altitude was wreaking on them, we sat smugly in the corner (having been at altitude for about six-weeks, we were well and truly acclimatised. Now, if only we had done some exercise in the last year or so...).

'I hate our group already,' said Craig as soon as we exited the meeting.

Love 'em, like 'em or hate 'em, we had to meet up with all of them the next day at 2pm to start our four-day adventure. We sat at the meeting point (a local square) with our tiny 5kg backpacks and watched the rest of our group roll in with their ginormous backpacks plus their bursting-at-the-seams duffel bags for the porters to carry – being the stingy backpackers that we are, Craig and I opted to carry all our own stuff, thus saving $US50 on the porter fee. No one in our group could believe the size of our bags. 'I just don't know how you did it, there is no possible way I could cut back on anything I bought,' said Whiny American One (we'll call her Rita, as, funnily enough, that's her name). We later found out that Rita had packed three pairs of pants (we had one each), full toiletries (we just had suncreen, insect repellent, deodorant and baby wipes) and three dresses (er, we didn't pack any of those).

That night we camped on a soccer field close to kilometre 84 (the starting point of the Inca Trail). The rain poured down as I slpet snugly, while poor old Craig tossed and turned the night away, still plagued by fever.

The next day it was backpacks on, walking sticks in hand and hiking boots on – or in our case, joggers. It seems the rest of the group miraculously managed to score themselves head-to-toe sponsorship deals with The North Face, and were kitted out with all the latest hiking gear and gizmos. We, on the other hand, were pretty much wearing the same clothes we had been sporting for the previous 72 days. Once we got our passport stamped through the checkpoint, we had officially started our Inca Trail journey.

In typical Craig fashion, he quickly powered on up the hill, leaving the rest of us in his Asic-induced dust. The day was hot and sunny, and we were all soon sweating up a storm and asking ourselves why we had forked out $US500 each to put ourselves through all this pain.

The first day consisted of walking, walking and more walking – which funnily enough, so did the other days. We were truly exhausted by the time we reached our campsite, where we washed ourselves with little bowls of hot water and enjoyed hard-earned Twix bars.

It's safe to say that when the dreaded 'Day Two' rolled around, we were shitting ourselves. Day One was tough enough, but Day Two was meant to be a real killer, so with some Kylie Minogue pumping through my iPod headphones, we set out to conquer Dead Woman's Pass.

Day Two was the hardest thing we have ever done in our 25 years on this earth. We pushed ourselves to heart-thumping, lung-burning, calf-wobbling extremes, there were times when Craig would stop and say, 'I'm done. I can't go on.' It was so tough you would walk ten steps and then have to have a break. After 2000 steps and over two hours plodding up hill, we finally made it to Dead Woman's Pass, only to realise we had an hour-long, bone-jarring descent in front of us until lunch time, after which , we would then climb for another four hours until we reached out campsite.

Physically and mentally, we were spent. By the time we reached camp, I was on the verge of a Mariah Carey-style breakdown. Craig flopped onto his roll-up mattress, his fever was back with a vengeance. That night, Craig was so sick he did even emerge from the tent for dinner.

Of course, while I am banging on and on about the blood, sweat, tears and pain we endured, this really was luxury trekking, thanks to The Red Army. Our tour company, Llama Path, are renowned for their efficient and well-looked-after porters. These guys are amazing, not only do they carry 27 kilograms each on their backs, they also do it in record speed, giving them enough time to set up our tents and cook all our meals before we arrive.

By Day Three we were really feeling the pain, but with the knowledge that all our trekking would be finished by lunchtime, we pushed on. The Red Army clapped us off, as they did every day, and once again we were winding our way through the mountains on the stony Inca Trail Path.

With our tour leader, Casiano, willing us to go on with a Peru pipe version of Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart, we willed our aching knees and blistered feet to keep trudging on to our campsite. We celebrated our mammoth achievement over a few cold beers, and shouted all 22 of the porters to a cold one, too.

Once The Big Day, rolled around (that'd be the day we made it to Machu Picchu), we were a team on a mission – be the first at the checkpoint. On the final day, they don't open the gates to the path until 5.30am, meaning first in, best dressed. Determined to be first in line, we awoke at 3.15am, quickly dressed, packed and stuffed down some breakfast, before making our way in the dark to the gates. We then sat there for over and hour, but as we were first, it was worth it.

So what's the big deal with being first at the gates? Well, you set off on the trail first, meaning that you have a better chance of getting to the Sun Gate (and the first glimpse of Machu Picchu) first, and therefore get to take in the magnificent view, minus the 200 other hikers who are hot on your heels.

Once we were through those gates, we were off. A half run/half walk pace was adopted as we navigated the rocky path, headlights and torches lighting the way. For about an hour we kept up the pace, I stopped for a brief moment to fall over, then it was back to pushing ourselves to the limit. Having gone through three of the toughest days of our lives, we weren't gonna give up now.

Craig pushed on faster, and unable to keep up the pace, I fell slightly behind. Every inch of my body was in pain, but I kept on going...

Craig was the third person to make it to the Sun Gate that day and got the whole place to himself (the two that had beaten him had already left), and I came in fifth – not bad for arguably the unfittest person on earth. We got a clear, beautiful day and stood there for a while to catch our breath and take in the moment we had been waiting for, Machu Picchu.

There are some famous sights around the world that really don't live up to expectations – they're never as big, bright or spectacular as in the photographs. But Machu Picchu certainly lives up to the hype, it is simply awesome. We got to spend a good couple of hours staring at it and walking around it, and it made the 45 kilometers we had just hiked totally and utterly worth it.

It's one of those experiences that we would never do again (once was enough), but we are so glad we did it, and damn proud, too!

June 07, 2009

Spot the difference...

Looks like someone fancies himself as a bit of a photo director...



June 05, 2009

Sand, sand and more sand

The tiny oasis town of Huacachina was never on our travel radar. We'd never even heard of it, let alone added it to our list of South American destinations (yes, I have a list). But a few Facebook pics of Geoff and Alex hitting up the nearby dunes soon changed all that.

On further investigation, it turns out that the Peruvians are so proud of this patch of sand, it's on their 50 Soles note, and unbeknown to us, the backpacking set (or BPs as Craig calls 'em) flock there in droves for one thing and one thing only – some serious sandboarding action.

Not wanting to be the only backpack-lugging, wrinkled T-shirt-wearing, bargain-hunting westerners in all of Peru not to glide down the massive dunes, we altered our itinerary and caught an overnight bus from Arequipa for a few days of sun and plenty of sand.

We managed to haggle ourselves a room in some pretty plush digs, complete with an oversized pool, for 50 soles per night ($AUD 21) and set about discovering what this teeny town had to offer.

Turns out, not a lot. Sandboarding and overpriced food is pretty much it.

So we did what any good tourists would do – we ate... and we sandboarded!

Each afternoon a convoy of rip-roaring dune buggies propel the town's eager tourists out onto the dunes. Ripping up and down the giant mounds of sand full throttle, with little care for safety, is all part of the fun – think rollercoaster meets dirt rally.

Then comes the sandboarding – the more wax, the better. The fatter you are, the better. The louder you scream, the better.

Forget trying to stand up. Sure it looks cool, but flat on your stomach is the fastest way down. Once you've had your adrenaline fix – and your shoes, pockets and everything in between are full of sand – it's time to take a breather and watch the sun set over the dunes.

Huacachina – the place to go for a good time, not a long time...