The world's most dangerous road (10th Dec 2009)

So, just days after my scary bus accident I’m off biking down the road judged by the Inter-American Development Bank to be the most dangerous in the world.

It’s the old road from La Paz to Coroico in Bolivia and is more of a dirt and gravel track, at points clinging narrowly to the mountain, barely wide enough for a single minibus.

At the top we were greeted by dense fog, wet and hands freezing before we’d even started. On the good side the bikes were great, with chunky tires and suspension like I’d never seen. The suspension had so much travel that pedaling while standing up made you bounce up and down. Also, they were pretty heavy. Perfect downhill bikes.

The first section was straightforward, on tarmac and not yet part of the ‘death road’. But somehow one of the guides managed to hit a truck and fall in this section, and needed to be taken to the hospital.

The next section was the start of the death road, with gravel and stones instead of tarmac. It was scary at first, but the suspension and tyres meant that you could get shunted left or right by a stone and the bike would keep it’s balance.

As we got further down the climate got warmer, visibility improved slightly, and I got comfortable with riding on gravel. We past many scary drops off the cliff edge, rode under a few waterfalls, and through a few streams. It was very cool.

We drove back up the road and I took a few pics.

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Lake Titicaca (6th – 7th December)

At over 3800m the worlds highest big lake, or the biggest high-altitude lake, or something like that. Basically it’s big and it’s high.

We set off on a boat to Uros, the floating islands of lake Titicaca. They were originally made by people wanting to live in safety away from the warring tribes on the mainland. Some of their descendants are now making a living selling trinkets to tourists. Interestingly there was not a single man on the island, apparently they all work on the mainland, often living far away.

Afterwards we sailed for three hours to Isla Amanti. I stayed here with a local family for the night. Our hosts were a mum, her father, and her daughter. The husband lives in Lima.

Before dinner we climbed to the top to see the sunset. We were obliged to buy a hat each so that our hosts would recognise us after (yeah right).

In the evening we went dancing to some traditional music. The locals performed some typical dance routines, the best being one in which the guys pretended to get more and more drunk and started stumbling round, with the girls helping them home. All the girls had to wear colourful dresses and I had to wear a colourful poncho. This was fun.

Why I shouldn't travel – 4 – bus crashes

It was 3am on the overnight bus from Cusco to Puno. I was woken up by violent juddering and screaming. I didn’t panic or even get scared, I just thought to myself “if the bus topples over, could I survive?” This was the Andes, one of the largest mountain ranges in the world, and notorious for traffic accidents. I’d been scared here before by day-time bus rides, reckless drivers and narrow mountainside roads. And just the day before, a friend’s bus had somehow crashed into a mountainside on the way from Cusco to Nazca. So with everything pitch-black outside, and the bus clearly out of control, I was imagining us careening down the edge of a mountain. But strangely my heart didn´t race, I just put my hands on the seat in front and got ready. The next thing I knew my head whacked the seat in front, giving me a nice bloody nose.

We’d smashed into a boulder. The bus was static but leaning at an angle and I was anxious to get out. There were shouts around me of “la montaña!”, “dispachio!” and “rapido!”. When I eventually got out I saw we weren’t on a mountainside. We were on a verge of grass and rocks at the side of the road I was worried about getting my luggage and about the freezing cold.

Luckily we managed to get the bags out of the hold and a row of passing buses stopped to pick us up. We hopped onto one and rode in the aisle for an hour. I don’t know where we were, but it wasn’t Puno. Luckily we found another bus and payed a further 5 soles to get there.

Unfortunately my camera was out of batteries that night. The next day I took a picture to assess the damage:

Why I shouldn't travel – 3 – pickpockets

This happened last month in Cusco. I was walking along a fairly busy street when something wet landed on my face. I thought it might be bird shit. A couple of guys started shouting to me in Spanish and pointing up at a building. I looked up and shrugged my shoulders, I had no idea what they were trying to tell me.

Back at the hostel an hour or so later, I realised that my camera was missing from my pocket. Damn! And only days before going to Machu Picchu!

From now on, if I’m being distracted by something suspicious I keep my hands firmly on my pockets.

Choquequirao (30th Nov – 4th Dec 2009)

Nowhere near as well known as Machu Picchu, this is another Inca city in a similarly spectacular location.

Part of what makes this a cool place to visit is the difficulty in getting there. The only way is a tough two day trek from the small town of Chacora, and there’s relatively few people who make the effort.

There were four of us paying for the trek, an Australian, an American, a Frenchman, plus myself.

Although it’s possible to go it alone, perhaps hiring a mule or two, we decided to take an orgainsed 5 day tour for $170. We ended up being outnumbered, having a guide, a cook, and 3 porters with 2 mules. Although I was initially tempted to go it alone I’m glad we had these guys as it was pretty tough even with their help, plus they were great company.

After the bus ride on the first day, we started walking at about 1pm with a relatively flat bit followed by a long descent down almost to the Urubamba river. The climb down was tough on the knees. Along the way we saw the first of many great views.

Here’s our campsite for the first night:

At the campsite we met another Steve from Canada who was returning the opposite way. He was really rushing and not particularly enjoying the experience, having only his guide for company. He’d walked all the way to Chocequirao, looked around, and walked half way back in only 2 days. It was only later that I appreciated just what an achievement this was.

The second day was very tough. We completed the descent, 1.6km in altitude, down to the Urubamba river, and started the 1.7km in altidude ascent up the other side. I was so glad of my bambo walking stick that Jose, our guide, had found for me. My legs felt so weak that by half way I gladly got blisters on my hand by transfering weight onto the walking stick.

Along the way we stopped and munched on some sugar cane at a place full of the stuff. There was a contraption to extract the sugar which our guides tried to operate.

Getting to the top was worth it. More amazing views, right out of our tent.

Our Peruvian host at the campsite was busy grinding maize to make Chicha in this thing:

Chicha is the traditional alchohol that the Inca’s drank, and takes only 1 day to prepare.

The third day we walked the final few kilometers to Choquequirao. The first glimpse of the city was through a gap in the clouds.

By the time we got there I was knackered and dismayed to find out that exploring the city would take a lot of walking since it’s so spread out.

Like Machu Pichu this city was claimed to be Vilcabamba, the last city of the Inca’s, where they took refuge from the Spanish conquistadors. Now it’s accepted that Vilcabamba is somewhere else, and Choquequirao may even pre-date the Inca’s. The stone work there isn’t of the precisely cut kind found at Cusco and Machu Picchu.

A condor!

The agricultural terraces have cool llama designs in the stones.

They had water channels like at Machu Picchu but not as well crafted. And unlike at Machu Picchu these ones weren’t working since part of the channel upstream is still overgrown.

Only 30% of the city has been excavated and there is ongoing work to uncover the rest.

After looking round it was great to be able to spend a couple of hours resting and reading amongst the ruins. In all this time at the ruins, I only saw 2 other tourists not part of our group.

In the night we came back to the camp to find a group of guys on their way to work excavating the ruins all drinking the Chicha that was being prepared yesterday. I had a taste and wasn’t impressed, it was very vinegary, like beer or wine that’s gone bad. But it got them drunk, which is the point I guess.

After eating we played cards, and all sat and watched lighting from a distant storm in the mountains. During this we overheard a conversation that a Spanish guy was having with the owners. He was interested in renting some land to fly in tourists by helicopter. We were pleased that the farm owner wasn’t interested in the proposal.

The fourth day was gruelling, walking back down and up the valley in the blazing midday sun. The fifth day was far easier, with misty,
overcast weather perfect for walking.

It was tougher than I expected, but I had an amazing time.

Bolivian instruments

There’s quite a few variations on the guitar in the Museum of Instruments in La Paz.

Little ones made from Armadillos:

Ones made from turtles:

For when one neck isn’t enough:

OK, I wouldn’t have thought of that:

What the??

Genius or mental? I can’t decide.