Travels


The next park was Bryce Canyon. Although not originally on our route, we had seen so many amazing images of this place in the various Parks offices and visitors offices that we just had to visitt. It’s only a couple hours from Zion and before we’d even got there we’d been wowed by driving through the amazing red and orange landscape of the small Red Canyon Park. We got there as the clouds were breaking and the view from the first lookout we arrived at was breathtaking.

Bryce is all about hoodoos. Thousands of improbably tall and knobbly columns of rich coloured sandstone, sculpted by the wind and rain. It is such and unusual and alien looking landscape, it really is amazing.

We had been warned by a couple of people that “it might be a bit cooler” up at Bryce, but we’d taken it in the Australian sense. It was freezing! Actually freezing! It was Spring, but in the evening and morning when I was taking photos it was cold enough to really make my fingers hurt and it was below zero during the night. We’d had some really cold temperatures in South America especially combined with wind, but it was not often below zero. This was a big surprise. We had a very chilly night in our tent.

The first half of the trip was a loop taking in three amazing parks to the East of Vegas. The first, about 3 hours drive away, was Zion National Park. We arrived in the dark, and were quickly shooed away by a police officer, who to our surprise was really nice and actually gave us directions to a place were we could camp for free.

After our first of many nights in the car, we arrived at the gate at first light. We had to fork out $80 for the National Parks card to get entry. Although quite a sting to the budget, it is valid for all National Parks for a whole year, and looking back at how well the parks are maintained and the services provided, it’s great value, even for just the 8 days we could use it.

Zion itself was beautiful. A river valley between towering cliffs of amazing white, orange and yellow sandstone cliffs. To these cling gnarled trees and shrubs. Unfortunately, due to high water levels we weren’t able to do the Narrows Walk, which follows the river far into the canyon where it narrows to a water carved slot canyon. We did do several short walks, and the free shuttle bus really made it easy to see a lot of the park.

On the drive out the next morning we could see even more of the park as the road would through the arid but amazingly colourful rocky “slickrock” landscape.

After Las Vegas it was really good to have the freedom of the car. You really can’t do much in Vegas without a vehicle. With our new found freedom we drove straight out of town and into the desert on one of America’s huge smooth highways. It was to be the start of an eight day, 1600 mile tour of all the nearby (relatively) National Parks that would end with us on the coast in San Francisco. The natural beauty of those parks was absolutely amazing. In the following posts I will give a relatively brief summary of each and let the photos do most of the talking.

As well as the amazing parks, there were several very interesting stops in the small towns along the way. In particular, I think we stopped at just about every second hand and antique shop we saw. They were always inhabited by very friendly people, only too keen to have a chat and help us out with any info they could. We also scored some mean bargains, like a super retro, mini thermos flask, actually made by thermos, for a stunning 25c!

It was quite sad when we arrived in San Francisco and had to relinquish our beloved second rental car.

After seeing the city in so many movies we had big expectations of Las Vegas. We were expecting glitsy nightlife, lights, fast cars, beautiful women, suits and more. Our first impressions however, were not so glamorous. We landed in the middle of the day, and the city seemed like a scaled up version of Logan. There were wide roads, huge blocks and cars, but not all of the cars were limousines or sports cars. The iconic Vegas landmarks were there, but they seemed much smaller in real life, especially in daylight, and they are spread out over a really long stretch of road.

We were originally booked into a hotel called the Stratosphere Tower, one of the major landmarks on the Vegas skyline. However, due to shifting plans, we had to cancel our booking and when we tried to rebook the prices had risen considerably, thus Sophie and I had to resolve with the fact that we would now be staying at the humble Howard Johnson Inn instead. Despite this disappointment, the place was, needless to say, at least as good as anywhere we’d stayed in South America. We dumped our bags, and after a short snooze, set out to explore the town.

The first thing I did was drag Sophie, kicking and screaming into the first burger place for a real American meal. Supersize? Hell yeah. It wasn’t really that different from an Australian burger place, except this one was full large American stereotypes. The supersize drink cup was huge, evidently the populace has yet to cotton on to the fact that that the drinks are refillable. On the other hand, I guess the huge cup saves a trip to the drinks dispensers, or three.

Unsurprisingly, the lunch left left us feeling a bit sick, but we walked it off over the course of the afternoon. If you are ever visiting Vegas, don’t try and do it on foot. Blocks are huge and everything is miles away. When someone tells you that a place is just down the road, they mean that it’s a short drive. Nobody walks anywhere in Vegas.

That evening, after recovering from an afternoon of walking, we went out to hit the pokies! We walked down the strip, observing the flora and fauna as we went. Most people were increadibly, average looking. Most guys were middle aged, white men wearing shorts with belts and buttoned shirts. There were also some black dudes walking around with their baggy jeans around their knees, and of course there was the odd limo driving past with either drunk girls screaming or drunk college boys hooting. It’s easy to get drunk in Vegas. If you can’t find your way to one of the bars offering one dollar beers, just drop in at your local pharmacy. As well as the usual pharmaceuticals and a range of groceries, they have a full selection of booze, and the beers come in huge one litre cans, often with an alcohol content of 8% or more.

We eventually made it into one of the big casinos. It was lit up with millions of lights on the outside and on the inside, even more. Apart for being huge though, it was not too different to casinos in Australia. We worked our way from casino to casino down the strip, but although quite impressive on the outside they were much the same inside. I think we got about halfway down, which is actually a very long walk, before we got tired and bored and caught the bus back up to our hotel.

The next day we got an authentic taste of Vegas, when we met a guy on the street while looking for directions. He claimed to be an out-of-luck high roller, cleaned out and on his way out of town. He said he had some tickets to one of the Cirque de Soleil shows that he could give us if we were keen to go. He made a quick call for us, and bam that was it! We’d be going to see Love that night! Soph was over the moon! I was excited but had the nagging feeling that it was too good to be true. And then came, “Ah by the way, I’m broke and need to get to the airport, would you mind giving me some money for a cab…”. Uh Oh, I thought, suspicious, but at the same time really hoping it was all true, it was Vegas after all, anything could happen. Luckily I only had five bucks in my wallet, which I started explaining was all we had the the moment, when in jumps Soph, “Thats ok! we can draw some more!” Ugh. So in the end, after a quick chat to Soph we managed to limit damages to 25 bucks. Needless to say, when we rang up later on in the day, the tickets did not exist. Not a great financial loss, but a big disappointment, especially for Soph who really wanted to see the show. That’s Vegas.

After two nights we’d seen enough. We picked up a rental car, packed it with all our luggage and headed out into the desert, next stop would be Zion National Park, Utah.

The first thing that caught my attention arriving in the US of A was that people were still speaking Spanish. Are we in the States yet? The sign says Houston, but everything is still in Spanish. People chatting, signs and announcements were all in Spanish as well as English. I had no idea, but according to Wiki, USA has more Spanish speakers than Spain. It was actually quite nice to be eased back into an English speaking environment after our 4 months or so in South America.

So there we were in Houston, in the Immigration queue, taking in the American-ness of it all. People chewing gum with their mouths open, people wearing baseball caps, fat people and black ladies who actually talk like Laverne from Scrubs. We got to the front of the queue and I got a big American welcome. “err, we got a lookout here”, “What’s a lookout?”, he doesn’t stamp my passport, “please sir could you stand over there and wait a moment.”
Sophie, who had a can of mace confiscated at the security station in Lima, gets through no problem.

I stand waiting for 10 minutes or so before I guy comes out and escorts me into one of the holding rooms where I wait another 20mins or so. I knew I should have had a shave. Finally I’m summoned into one of the offices for the 20 questions.
“Where do you live?”
“What do you do in Australia?”
“What were you doing in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru?”
“How did you afford to travel for so long?”
Then my favourite, “So, what military training have you had?”,
“Umm… I shot a kangeroo once…”

Later on Soph is dragged in with our bags. “Do you have any illegal substances in those bags?”,
“Umm… There is a small chance that we’ve left some Coca leaves in there, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t.”
“Could you show me where these Coca leaves might be.”
I dig into my bag and luckily there are no coca leaves. He seems happy. We are now free to go. Soph plays the guy a quick ditty on her Charango before we hurry off to try and make our connection to Las Vegas.

After living in rough in Pongobamba for so long, we decided to treat ourselves to the fancy seats on the trip to Lima so we’d be able to get some sleep. It was to no avail. We discovered the route from Cusco to Lima is one 21hr stretch of contiguous hairpin corners as the road winds up the mountains, and down, and up. During the daylight hours the stunning scenery was was worth the stiff neck, but it made it very hard to sleep at night. Thus we arrived in the morning quite tired, but managed to find ourselves a room to stay in downtown Lima.

The place, Hotel Espana was wacky, filled with old paintings, busts, spiral staircases, talking parrots and tortoises. We didn’t have time to relax however, as there was a lot of Lima to see and only 2 days to see it. After dumping our bags we took a taxi across town to meet up with our American friends Brett and Emily in the outlying suburb of  Barranco.

While Lima central was very hectic, Barranco was a much more relaxed neighbourhood by the coast. We spent a couple of hours walking along the coast, which was very hazy and not too appealing. At one stage we wondered into a big shopping mall which was an instant reminder of how dirty and smelly and in need of a shower we were.

Later on and the next day we did our best to explore central Lima. To be honest, I was not really looking forward to Lima, having being told it was dirty, busy, smoggy and dangerous. Though the city is under a perpetual hazy white sky, and has some of the most hectic traffic I’ve ever come across, we did not feel under threat at all, in fact the people we spoke to were some of the friendlies we’d met in Peru. One particularly funny chap, a security guard at one of the churches, was learning English and after a short chat, insisted “I want to tell you yust one yoke”. I can’t remember how the yoke went, but it was hilarious anyway. There was plenty of interesting things about to keep us busy including the churches and monasteries, shops, the huge central market, where everything and anything is available, Chinatown and of course numerous different delicious and very cheap street snacks to try.

We really enjoyed our short stay in Lima and it was all too soon that we were saying goodbye to all the delicious and cheap snack vendors of South America and catching one last insane cab ride to the airport. At the airport we marvelled not only at running taps, but automatic soap squirters! It was a small taste of the first world. Next stop, Houston Texas, followed quickly by Las Vegas Nevada.

Just before our trek we had met up with a couch surfer in Cusco and he had told us about his home in Chinchero, a small town just outside of Cusco. There he has set up a Albergue, a centre where the local school kids go for extra curricular learning, and where we would be able stay and to help out. We have been on the lookout for some kind of volunteering work our entire trip but most “volunteering” nowadays seems to be through big companies and for some reason involves you paying them a substantial amount of money. This was directly through a local person, helping local people with no big white land cruisers involve.

So, after a day of recovery after the trek, we excitedly met up with Ermo and were soon watching anxiously as our now huge backpacks were tossed onto the roof of a local bus. A couple hours later we arrived in what was to be our home for the next few days, the little community of Pongobamba. It consists of little more than the school and a few dirt roads, lined with the most delightfully rustic mud brick houses. Like Isla del Sol, the silence of the place was striking. It was only broken every now and then by the laughing of children, the snuffling of the pigs in the gutters and the crazy braying of mules and donkeys.

Our lodgings were set on a hill looking out over the Laguna Piuray and the mountains beyond. Behind it were miles and miles of rolling fields. The buildings themselves were surprisingly modern in construction, but this was slightly deceptive as we soon found out that the water was not working. Our first task was to walk down the hill to Ermo’s mothers house to fetch some water, then lug it back up the hill to our kitchen. According to Ermo the the water would soon be working again. With that promise he returned to Cusco, leaving us to make ourselves comfortable. After Cusco, the solitude was wonderful and with relish we set about cooking what was our first home cooked meal for a long time.

The following afternoon Ermo had not retured, as he said he would, and the local children had arrived to find a panicing Sophie. I had gone to explore some nearby towns so Soph was left on her own to try and handle the arrival of about 10 local kids of various ages, only a few of whom could speak Spanish, let alone English. I arrived back to find her engaged in teaching a very basic English lesson. It very quickly dawned on us that we would have to cut back our expectations of the amount that we’d be able to teach the kids. With such a big language barrier, gone were Soph’s plans of imparting repect for the environment and each other, and the desire to create a better world. Instead we concentrated on topics such as; names of farm animals and ingredients of a chocolate cake .

Despite that,  it wasstill  a very interesting experience working with the kids and trying to come up with things they could do. In the end we did some art, some music, some English, and for the big finale on the last night, we got all the kids to help out to make a huge chocolate cake, which we very promptly devoured.

During days when the kids weren’t there, we spent the time exploring the nearby towns in the Sacred valley. For a tiny fare, we were able to zip between the very interesting towns of Chincero, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Pisac on the local buses and taxis, often packed to the brim with locals going about their daily business. All the of the towns had a huge amount of character and history, most of them being former Inca towns. The scenery in the area is just fantastic, with rolling plains dropping dramatically down into the valley and then rising up to the snow capped mountains on the other side.

It was a spectacular place to stay, but hard work as well. The water never did reappear, so all of the tasks involving the running water that we take so much for granted became very tedious. Washing up, cleaning floors, making tea, flushing toilets, now all relied on us having water in the 20l container that we’d have to lug 300m up the hill. In addition, we became quite friendly with Ermo’s mum, and the one day she managed to rope us into coming out into the fields with her to harvest some potatoes. While really hard work, it was an amazing experience of rural Peruvian life.

The day began with everyone gathered round having a few capfuls of Quanyasa, the local (very local in fact, probably brewed by one of the guys) cane spirit. Then the ox-plough did a first pass to rip up the rows of earth, quickly followed by us, bent double, sorting through the clots of earth to find the potatoes and tossing them into a carrying cloth. When full, someone would wrap them up and take them to the waiting sacks.

At tea time we all gathered again and sat down in a circle. A 20l container of the traditional beer, Chicha, was opened with a big pop and in turn it was passed to each. It was warm and very tart, not unlike the traditional brew of Zimbabwe, Chibuku, except mercifully much less thick and lumpy. After everyone had had their fill it was back to work. While we worked, a couple of the guys built what looked like an oven from large clots of earth from the field. Inside, a big fire was lit, and after letting it burn for half an hour or so, some of the potatoes we’d just dug were placed in the oven, and it was collapsed on top of them. Thus, after the second session we feasted on super fresh, ground baked potatoes, seasoned with salt and a chillie and cheese concoction with salad. Never have potatoes tasted so good!

That evening after our classes we were rewarded for our labors with a huge pile of potatoes, much more than we could possibly eat in the couple of remaining days. We did our best though, cooking many of them with the kids on the final night.

Such was our week in rural Peru. It wasn’t easy, but it was an unforgettable experience that you simply cannot sign up for at your local travel agent. We returned to have one night in Cusco where we were desperate to have a shower that didn’t come out of a bucket, and where we had a new appreciation for the fact that water just comes out of the taps simply by turning the knob. The next day we had one more delicious and cheap Cusco restaurant meal, before we boarded a 21hr bus for the capital, Lima.

Our trip began with a bus hooting outside our room at 4am. The other passengers were not very chatty at this stage and neither were we. We drove in the dark for an hour or so before reaching the tiny town of Mollepata. While we had some basic breakky, the horesemen loaded up the mules with our stuff. No carrying of heavy packs for us, just a daypack with the essentials, a couple of cameras, tripod, things like that. Our group was quite big, 16 people, and luckily they were a very nice bunch of people. Our guide too was very passionate about what he spoke about, also a very entertaining guy. So after a quick introduction to get us in the mood, we began with the walking.

The first day took us up through some beautiful rural mountain scenery. It never ceases to amaze me how much of the steep mountainous land is cultivated. Later on a nice lunch was provided, amazingly, the cooks were able to whip up a lunch with soup, a main and tea for all 16 of us. Then it was back to the walking. Our first camp that evening was on the plains beneath the mighty Salkantay mountain, glowing angelic white in the late afternoon sun. Another nice meal was had, washed down with a few cap-fulls of “Quanyasa” a sugar cane spirit brewed in the local shoppe, and served in an empty coke bottle out of a bucket.

The next day took us up a windey path up to the Salkantay pass at a breath-taking 4600m. While we were up there taking our group happy snap, we were witness to a big avalanche from the Salkantay glacier above. For almost a minute, tonnes and tonnes of snow came rushing down the mountain like a huge waterfall. From there it was over the pass and all downhill, the terrain changing gradually from rocky and grassy, to green forest. The next day took us further down the valley, past local avo and passion fruit trees. We had dinner that night at in a small, very rural village.

Not long after we got into camp the rain started bucketing down. It seemed to rain all night. In the morning we had the difficult decision of whether to continue in the wet, up and over the mountain, which would be quite dangerous on the now very wet trail, or take a bus to the next point instead. After much discussion the group was split. Me, with a few others climbed up the mountain. I was a little bit worried that of the three others, one was a very keen mountain racer, and another was in the process of cycling from Ushuaia to Alaska. The walk didn’t turn out too hard though. The rain stopped just before we started, and the cloudy vistas were beautiful, we even got a quick peek of Macchu Piccu, far across the valley, before it was quickly hidden again. Things got a bit crazy on the way down though with mountain runner John in the lead and we did the rest of the 2 hours of walk down in about 45 minutes.

Sophie and the others had an equally exciting trip, having to be shuttled across the river in a rickerty cable contraption. The two groups met again on the railway to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Macchu Piccu. Although tired from our 4 days of solid walking, we still had the huge stretch of inca stairs to look forward to in the morning, so we tried to get an early night.

Our final day began with a hard slog up the steps, in the dark, to be at the gates and in line at 5am. They finally let us in just as the sky was lightening. A few more steps up and the classic postcard view of Macchu Picchu was laid out before us. It really is spectacular, just like the postcards. We were also increadibly lucky to have a clear sunrise, and a pretty much cloudless day after that. After a guided tour, we made the hike even higher up the impossibly steep mountain of Wayna Picchu which overlooks the ruins. The trail up defies imagination, and perched right on the top are even more terraces and buildings. From there, there are amazing views in all directions of the jagged green mountains all around.

We stayed at the ruins the entire day, right up until the last rays of the sun left the ancient walls and the guards started chasing us with their whistles. It was a really amazing day. We finally trudged down the mountain exhausted. After a fun dinner with all the crew we departed on a crazy sequence of a train trip and various bus transfers that eventually landed us back in Cusco, shivering at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Cusco, capital of tourism in Peru, is a beautiful town, set in a valley with hills rising up all around. Once the capital of the Inca Empire the city is packed with ruins and remains from Inca days, even though the Spanish did their best to build over them. Many of the streets and building fountains are original Inca construction. The main plaza is stunning, bordered by amazing cathedrals on two sides and charming old buildings on the others.

There is no question of Cusco’s status as the tourist capital of Peru (maybe even the entire world!). Just walking across the plaza one is absolutely bombarded with offers of wool gloves, beanies, socks, shoe shines, massages, drugs, tours and more. By the time you reach the other side your voice is hoarse from saying “no gracias” so many times. On the up side though, the glut of tourists seems to have driven all of the restaurants to compete themselves into offering meals at the most amazing prices. In Peru one can always find the ol’ quarter chicken, rice and chips for dirt cheap, but in Cusco we found some really delicious, as well as nicely presented, three course meals for as little as 7 Sols (US$3).

A similar situation exists with the bars. On the one night we went out in Cusco we were swamped with guys literally forcing free drinks tickets into our hands trying to get us into their bars. All you have to do is bar hop everytime you need another drink, no wallet required. When you run out of bars, just head back to the first. Needless to say, we had a pretty drunken and fun night.

There is plenty to see in Cusco and the surrounding areas, however to do so one requires the “Boleto Touristico”. This diabolical tourist trapping invention is a multipass ticket costing a whopping US$50 (thats a pretty whopping price for anything in Peru). It grants entry (only one entry though) to all of the must see sights around Cusco and the sacred valley, however the catch is it only lasts 10 days, so you have to be pretty deteremined to see them all in this time. Additionally, if you only want to, or have time to see only one or two, thats too bad, because the ticket is the only way to get into most sights. So after much grumbling and gnashing of teeth, we eventually had to fork out the cash for our tickets. Of course some of the sights were amazing, such as Saqsayhuaman, a huge fortress built of carved rocks, some over a hundred tonnes in weight. Others were not as impressive, having only a couple of walls left, not really worth it after you’ve seen some of the more impressive ones.

Our first day was spent meeting up with our mates from the Uyuni trip, Brett and Emily, to organise our trip to the main attraction of the area, Macchu Piccu. Luckily for us they had got there before us and had already done most of the research for us. All we had to do was draw some money and sign up.

Although most people have only heard of the very expensive and difficult to book “Inca Trail”, there are actually many other options for reaching the site. The one we eventually settled on was the Salkantay trek, a five day 4 night trek of about 80km. With excitement we awaited our 4am bus pickup to the starting point of the trek.

Just prior to heading off on our Titicaca island tour, we were pressured by the machine into signing up and putting a deposit on the next leg of our trip, The “First Class” bus tour to Cusco. This “tour” is an all day bus trip to Cusco, complete with multilingual guides and a few stops at select tourist destinations. Of course its over 3 times the price of the simple overnight bus trip to Cusco. So we had the 2 days island trip to think about whether this was good value for money or not, but since we’d already given up a deposit, when we got back to Puno we had no choice.

If we weren’t already regretting our decision, we were soon informed that the entry cost to all the of sites we’d be visiting wasn’t included. So off we went. The seats certainly weren’t anything special, but the guides were quite interesting, the ruins at Raqchi were quite impressive, and the church in Andahuaylillas was amazing, painted wall to wall with old frescos. Needless to say at all the stops was a wall of handicraft stalls, waiting to eat up all the tourists. A nice lunch was included, although for that day I was suffereing from some severe tummy unhappiness so was in no position to enjoy lunch, or that day in general.

Coming up to Cusco we were treated to some amazing mountain scenery, with large potions of the steep slopes somehow being used to grow various crops. We arrived in Cusco in the evening and I sat in the beautiful main Plaza in a state of extreme discomfort while Sophie went to look up a hostel. Then it was a sprint to the hostel for me to relieve my bowels. After an hour or so on the can I could finally appreciate the fact that we’d made it to Cusco.

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