A Travellerspoint blog

The End

"Take me home...Bogota roads...to the place...I belong..."

I really, truly, honestly didn't know what to expect from Bogota. My friends and acquaintances had supplied me with a smorgasbord of horror stories mixed with a side order of negative anecdotes so I assumed that I would be gravely disappointed. Maybe that's why the city made such an impact on me - I was expecting nothing and received an enormous packet of juicy loveliness. The cold weather did get my hump up at first but by the time I had slept off my LAST EVER (woop woop!) bus journey from Salento, the mist had burnt off and a blue sky was left hanging in its' place. According to locals and travellers in-the-know we were incredibly lucky with the weather - it was stunningly clear almost every day during our week there, whereas it had been rainy and cold just before we arrived. Finally, my prayers had been answered by the Weather Gods! We reunited with Sohail once we had settled into our hostel and I commenced on my last week of my trip. I was ready to throw my all into these final hours!

Bogata impressed me endlessly...the friendly folk on every corner; a hustle and bustle that can only be acquired by a capital; the polarisation of colonial and nouveau riche architecture; the delicious al muerzo's for a fraction cost....and as for the dodgy dangerous bits? Yes they exist...every city has them, but they are inescapable and in my view they simply add to the character. Plus, at this point in my journey I, perhaps foolishly, felt comfortable in my surroundings wherever I found myself (I did, however, have the bodyguard that is Sohail Rostam-Shirazi with me at all times. I suppose that helped a little!). Our impressive gaggle now returned to seven people with Sohail back in the game. We also gained a few more peeps, particularly a beautiful Colombian contigent - Laura's friend Sabina, and Sohail and Dom's friends Alejo and Felippe. We were a force to be reckoned with!
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The days and nights spent in Bogota were culture-fuelled and party-packed. Well, after all, the culture in Colombia is party time. Two birds, one stone and all that! We were soaking up the last specs of our time together as a group and witnessed many a last weekend/last night/last meal celebration with our little Colombia fam. We were staying in La Candelaria, the colonial, tourist-based area of Bogota, brimming with character, blanketed in street art and with plenty of interesting folk wandering the cobbled lanes. Colombian flags swirled proudly on their poles as the city scape could be glimpsed through the grid-like alleys, the sun setting tenderly down each evening with a beautiful glow. We spent one dusky evening sitting atop a hill looking over the city, soaking up the view without hindrance and I truly absorbed every drop, every exotic fluff of strewn cloud, every glimmer on towering building windows. It was beautiful and strangely familiar in its' foreignness. The South American reality that had now become mine. I was melancholy in my knowledge that this would be one of the last far-flown sunsets that I would view...for a little while at least But I was simultaneously eager to see what my little isle had to offer me in these days of 2010.
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On one of our days in Bogota, Sohail, Harry and I were treated to a tour from Alejo, one of Sohail's Colombian friends. He took us to the very north and to a restaurant called Andreas Carne de Res; famous for being the most incredible place to party in the whole of South America. And I have to say, this restaurant/club/bar/all-round winner of an establishment blew my tiny little mind! There were queues coming out of the door for miles when we went in at 6 in the evening. We were simply looking around so just walked in. And it was like walking into a carnival (hence the name) but one where people are being served succulent, steaming steaks in every direction and a conga line of fancy dressed characters are prancing round the tables, playing tricks on the kids and stealing cutlery! Thought had been put into every last minute detail and apparently everything is handmade on the premises, from the twinkling heart lights hanging in the trees outside, to the intricately designed mirrors, picture frames and banisters that run around the maze-like restaurant. The atmosphere was alive and brimming with joviality and exuberance...the music pumped, the laughter rolled through the air, tumbling along with the heavenly aromas of the impressive fodder. I wished more than anything that I could've spent one night eating, supping and partying in that magical building, but my time was up. Next time - I am there!
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And so, as I packed my trusty backpack for the last time on my nine-month journey...as I left my last hostel room...as I hugged my last goodbyes to my fellow travellers....as I took my last taxi to the airport and participated in my last broken-Spanish conversation with the taxi driver (for now, at least!), I truly absorbed the emotions, fears and anticipation that I felt about returning to little old England. I reflected on what I had learnt, the people I had learnt from, the magical times and events that had shaped my time away. I had not "found myself" in some astounding, clichéd, dramatised way. I did not discover myself hiding under a bus in India or roaming the top of a Peruvian mountain...but those Indian buses, those Peruvian mountains, the magical bonds, the weathered and telling faces, the sickness, heartaches and loves, they had alI assisted in my growth, supported my development from a sapling into an oak. Strong enough to stand alone, without the dependency on someone or something else. I was fearful of losing this addictive feeling of independence...scared it would seep from me as my plane landed, oozing from my body and onto the Heathrow runway only to be cleared quickly away by efficient English airport staff. But that beautiful, grimy, autonomous glow that incrementally filled my cheeks and my heart in the months I was away has remained. It remains in my every day demeanour and the spring in my step, it lies within my voice and emanates from my arms as I hug those special people who were so sorely missed and are now back in my grasp. Even the cold winter months will be that bit warmer thanks to this tender, travelling glow.

The ability to travel is the ability to see, to experience, to reach outside of your own bubble and realise what world lies just beyond the horizon. It is enriching, fulfilling and exhilarating to me, this small-town Brit, and be sure that I am bursting to spread my wings again. Now they have been spread once, they refuse to shut, they refuse to be forgotten or pushed to the top shelf in my bedroom. They want to fly to all corners of the globe. So, I suppose I should let them....

Thank you for reading. x

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Posted by Anna Rowl 13:06 Comments (0)

Cracking.

Colombia...topping the charts of South America!

The journey after Machu Picchu, from Cusco to Lima, was long and chilly. Why on earth South American coach operators feel the need to freeze the passengers onboard to a state of benumbed rigidity is and always will be beyond me. Lima was unimpressive and served simply as a transit stop for Steph, Nat and I before we journeyed off in our respective directions. I left the girlies to bus up to Ecuador, a lengthy trip that I would be doing on my lonesome, whilst they took a shorter option to the coast of Peru and the hot spot of Mancora. All was going swimmingly for me until I reached the Peru-Ecuador border, and then, disaster struck. My passport was stolen. I'm not sure when the deed took place exactly but I know that when I entered Ecuador, I was sans passport. As a result, Ecuador did not hold many joys for me...I spent my time in Quito, the capital city, taxi-ing from police stations to embassies to immigration offices, ending up £300 poorer and with increasing levels of stress wrapping around my heavy shoulders. Alas, I succeeded in obtaining an emergency passport, but the cherished one containing all my stamps, memories and sentimental value was no more. Although it was a nightmarish time and one that I had to experience on my own, after it was all done and dusted I felt stronger and more independent as a traveller than I had ever felt previously. Having to cope, alone, in the face of diversity, in an unfamiliar country where you do not speak the native tongue, is certainly an empowering exercise for the mind and soul (saying that, I would give my right leg not to have to go through it again!).

I took a flight from Ecuador to Cartegena in Colombia and spent a night in the city of romance, greedily soaking up the new-found heat of the Nothern Colombian climate and absorbing all I could sponge from the delicious and sumptuous exoticism. I could tell I was going to like Colombia. The time had now arrived for Bristol love and affection, familiar faces, and some good old fashioned party time. I trundled excitedly off to Medellín to reunite with some very special friends of mine, Sohail and Dom. I was ready for the love!

Medellín is Colombias second largest city, with a population of 3 million, and was once known as the most violent city in the world (don't panic Mum). This unenviable title was the result of an urban war set off by the drug cartels at the end of the 1980s. As the home of the Medellín Cartel, headed by Pablo Escobar, the city was victim of the terror caused by the war between this organization and its enemies. However, after the death of Escobar, the crime rates in the city began to decrease. The city still has its' problems with crime and corruption but the will to change and regenerate is palpable, and the improvements that have been invested in are a point of pride for Medellínians city-wide. An impressive and vast urban transport service, Metro de Medellín, became the pride of the city when it was constructed in the early 1980s, conjoining the whole city, from poor to rich districts. Sohail and I took the Metro up the hill towards a park that lay past the plateau and the sights were incredible. The city spanned out in a burgeoning metropolis for as far as the eye could see and as we glided up and up we soared over myriad slums and houses that teetered down the steep hill, reminiscent of Rio but with its' very own flare and vibrancy. And with these homes you could peer into their windows almost - Big Brother goes Metro! On that Metro ride up into the heavens, a teenage girl chatted busily in Spanish to So and I, us not really understanding what she was saying for much of the time, but the smiles on our faces telling all, and further compounding my perception of Colombians to be some of the friendliest in the world. The warmth and graciousness that exudes from the people in this city is a privilege to behold. And another little fact that is interesting to know: Medellin is a leader in plastic surgery and boasts a veritable carnival of protruding body parts. You can't go one block with seeing a pair of bulbous boobs or enhanced buttocks strutting down the street! Some say all the fake breasts, bums and facial features are a lingering reminder of the profound influence drug lords long exerted on Medellín's culture and aesthetic. It certainly was a bizarre sight to see...but one that kept all the boys gawping for hours on end!
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Seeing Dom and Sohail for the first time in 8 months was a true treat for the eyes. We reunited with hugs all round in a hostel called Casa Kiwi, situated in the wealthy and bustling area of Zona Rosa. In true Bristol style we spent our first day together drinking rum in the parks around the Zona Rosa. It would be rude not to! Casa Kiwi was a really great place to stay, confirming the realisation for me that the majority of travellers in Colombia are slightly older and more mature than in the other countries I have visited in South America. Less gap year students, more late 20's career breaker types. I imagine this is probably thanks to the negative reputation that the country has been labelled with due to drugs, crime and corruption, a reputation that Colombia as a homogenous entity are attempting to banish and revive both for the people inside and the outside world. This underdog status, the rawness and the undiscovered element of the country made me love it even more. You don't get the established gringo traps as in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil...instead it has a sense of the uncontaminated and unique, something I tend to crave when I travel.
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The best part about Casa Kiwi was undoubtedly the numerous, swinging, all-encompassing hammocks that hung from the walls in a sheltered area outside. I use the adjective "all-encompassing" because you could literally get four people in those things - a trick we practised a fair few times, along with our very own theme tune! The group that we had accumulated spent the bulk of our time "swinging in the hammocks..." Obviously we managed to squeeze in a few nights out on the world-renowned tiles of Medellin. With the 15-strong group of travelling folk that we had mustered up, we had fun times galore under the big city lights.
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Sohail, Dom and I headed to Manizales after Medellin with our new-found friends, Harry, Laura, Monica and Corey. Unfortunately, due to excessive rain fall and post-party time head, Manizales didn't really ring my bells. Manizales is built within the Andean mountain region on a number of ridgelines and steep slopes and so the chance of dodgy weather is as high as the altitude. On a clear day you can see snow-capped peaks in the distance (apparently) but we were not afforded such sights. We did however get to some delightful thermal springs and there was a hot tub in the hostel (!!!) and as I'm sure you'll agree, sitting in the rain, in lovely warm water, makes precipitation seem slightly more bearable! The excess of water and lack of sun did start to mess with my mind after a few days (I was after all, in my last precious weeks of travelling and needed to think about the tan factor with increased urgency), Sohail had left for Bogota ways and I was well and truly done with Manizales. Next stop: Salento and a cow finca!
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Salento was like a healthy helping of sumptuous heaven pie, served with freshly made cream from the cows milked in the finca that we stayed on! Salento itself is a sleepy little colonial town full of "real men" in cowboy hats that lead their livestock around on ropes, there is a quaint little plaza in the center boasting an idyllic church, and brightly painted buildings line the narrow streets. The place was truly brought to life by the sunshine that graced us on a few of the days we stayed in Salento, the beams of light flickering and bouncing from pink and green paints and from the smiling faces of shop owners and passersby. Our little family of six stayed on a cow finca (Spanish for farm) - cum - hostel that had only been a few weeks in business. It truly was the most amazing hostel I'd ever stayed in, feeling far more like a luxury ranch than your run-of-the-mill travellers rest. The grounds of the finca were enormous and we were surrounded by rolling hills and valleys that hid behind clouds and then reappeared mysteriously. The landscape was ever-changing but yet always remained the same, reinforcing the comfort in the security of nature and its' beautiful, reliable continuation. There were even some snow-capped mountains that, if you were perseverant and stubborn enough, you could see clearly in the light of the early morning. A rustic atmosphere was present in all corners of the large farm house that we stayed in, from the wine bottles hanging from the roof to the antiquated typewriters and sewing machines scattered around the place. Our group milked the cows one morning, cooked impressive meals together, had bbq's in the sunshine, chilled on the homely sofas and watched endless films in cosy bedrooms. Relaxation station!
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The most amount of activity we achieved in those tranquil days in Salento was a group walk to Valle de Cocora, a national park famous for the wax palms that reach up to the sky on delicately thin trunks, splaying out to the sky in its' lofty palm glory. The weather that day started off cloudy but bearable, we could certainly see enough to appreciate the stunning valley and its' army of wax palms. However, after a wrong turn and a resulting trek up a massive mountain, we became well and truly enveloped in a world of precipitation, soaking us all through our sweat. Harry, one of the group of eight, had for some reason decided to not wear any rainproof gear whatsoever and somehow ended up in what can only be described as "beach wear"...but we weren't on the beach...we were up what soon became a freezing cold mountain, in the rain! The stress of losing our way and being really quite chilly were eased fully by the sight of little Harry, prancing around in the hazy mist in his bright orange swimming shorts, a waist cape that had his soaking wet jeans attached, and his flip flops. Harry - I salute you!
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Although I was with the most amount of people I had ever travelled with over these weeks in Colombia, I found that I could easily achieve space when I needed it and when I desired company I had a smorgasbord of beautiful characters to chose from. Dom, Harry, Laura, Monica and Corey will have a special place in my memories and heart from those amazing times in Salento. Salento certainly afforded me with the time to reflect, to write, to think, to read...being around and inside nature opened and relaxed my mind and allowed me to think freely about what I had achieved in the almost nine months that I had been away. I will always be extremely thankful for that precious time.
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Next stop, last stop, the big city of Bogota and reuniting with the wonder that is Sohail Rostam-Shirazi. Almost the end now readers...hold back those tears if you can!

Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Reuniting with So and Dom. Bristol lovings!
- Being in Salento and being with the amazing people that I was lucky enough to share that special time with.
- Harry, up a freezing cold mountain, looking like he was accidentally inserted into the wrong environment. Should of been a beach...not a mountain!

Posted by Anna Rowl 10:03 Comments (0)

Up The Mountain

The mind-boggling, epically amazing, awe-inspiring....MACHU PICCHU!

I have been waiting some time to write this particular blog. Leaving all my avid readers all in dying suspense cruelly and heartlessly (are there any left!?) whilst I attempt to gather the words and phrases that will truly do justice to the undoubted highlight of my entire trip...yes that´s right, my entire trip. A tall order I´m sure you´ll agree for a blog entry summary. Alas, it has been long enough. We begin...

I had journeyed to Cusco after crossing the Bolivian/Peruvian border late in the evening and arrived in the designated Historical Capital of Peru early the next morning after yet another freezing cold night bus. They were getting no easier for me! My friends Steph and Nat, who I had met in Brazil and Argentina, were also in Cusco and we had arranged to meet and embark on the Machu Picchu trek together. An excitable bundle of Anna hopped round to their hostel and creeped up, unbeknownst to them as I had planned to arrive a day later but hadn´t told them, and screamed "SUPRISE!", receiving some high-pitched screaming in reply. The troublesome trio had entered the building! Steph, Nat and I had not spent time just as the three of us but it turns out it was a match made in Inca heaven! And the perfect combination for our upward journey to Machu Picchu. The girls had been in Cusco for a while before me but I just stayed for the two nights before the trek began. A shame of sorts as the city is idyllic and picturesque, with cobblestone streets lining grandiose church doorways and history steeped in every nook and crevice. The Spanish conquistadors that dominated the city adopted the Quechua name (Quechua is the Native American language family spoken primarily in the Andes of South America) for the city, but transliterated it into Spanish as Cusco. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire but the Spanish invaded the city in 1533. The many buildings constructed after the Hispanic invasion have a mixture of Spanish influence with Inca indigenous architecture. The Spanish destroyed many Inca buildings, temples and palaces. They used the remaining walls as bases for the construction of a new city. As a result, wandering around the quaint city an atmosphere of rich colonial history fills the air, yet stamped with an indelible mark of Inca tradition. Nat, Steph and I enjoyed the delights of the city that first day as we nattered away about the incredible amounts of news we had to share with one another. A beautiful thing to be back with these girls and the promise of an incredible experience ahead filling our hearts with enthusiasm and our smiles with vigour!
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The Machu Picchu trek we had chosen to do was 4 days long, taking us on downhill mountain biking, through coca plantations, jungle scapes, over train tracks, aside rushing rivers and finally, up the mountain to Machu Picchu. Day One started with the usual amount of hilarity, the three of us giggling girls laughing uncontrollably in our people carrier van about Graham the Dog and his concerned, expressive face (don't ask!). In our van we had an English couple, an Aussie couple and one German guy and so, once everyone had been picked up and the mountain bikes had been loaded onto the roof we set off on our adventure! As we journeyed higher and higher into the mountains (the biking was to be downhill only...thank god!), the clouds began to shroud our vision and blanket us in a thick sheet of fine rain. The type that doesn`t seem that threatening but will absolute soak you, through and through! We relucantly got out of our warm van seats and cowered in the rain, donning helmets and gloves and trying to cover all parts of our already chilly bodies with any available waterproof material. Already soaked, our group and another van group began our painfully cold, windy and wet downward ride through clouds of rain and lack of visibility. As I tried to shield my raw face and hands from the biting wind and see through the waterfall of drips that fell across my eyeline, I suprisingly managed to have a good old chuckle to myself. I had actually paid for this experience! The irony was overwhelming and thankfully made me laugh, not cry! We stopped for lunch once we were entirely soaked and shivering with the cold, and were given the option to stop riding the bikes and ride in the car instead. I jumped in to the van before you could say "frozen fingers". The lads of the group all soldiered on and sods law being what it is, the sun came out on the second leg for them! Grrrr! We arrived at our first accommodation spot later that evening, in a sleepy little town called Santa Maria. Santa Maria had once been a wealthy, busy, vibrant town but two landslides in the 90`s had destroyed a large proportion of the place. We settled into our clean, spacious room, attempted to dry our sodden boots and clothing, and had a delicious dinner with our entire group in a small restaurant in the town. An early night was called for as an early morning awaited us.
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Day Two of the trek was the toughest day by far. Steph, Nat and I were truly chomping at the bit...ready for some real walking action and keen for a challenge. We ate breakfast, wrapped our socks in plastic bags (the walking boots were still squelching with water from yesterdays' wash out!), and started out on our epic day of walking. After yesterdays` endurance of chills and goose-bumped bodies, we were welcomed past Santa Maria with the warm arms of the sunshine. A blue sky ruled fair above us and the sun beamed with force. We were like excitable puppies meandering down the dirt track that hugged the powerfully flowing river to our right side. We trekked through the Urubamba Valley for the entirety of the day, (and for the whole trek), always looking down or across to the Urubamba River, flowing beside us like a benevolent guardian. The sights were stunning at all times, encouraging all us walkers to make efforts to look up from our boots and take in the landscapes we were being treated to. The path was a little hairy at times - at one point in the morning we scrambled along a cliff edge, the sheer drop below us plummeting straight down to the gushing river. We clung on to precariously crumbling rocks as we edged along the half-metre wide path, finally making it to the end and snapping the feat we'd just achieved! We visited a coca plantation and were educated on the cocaine trade in Peru and then we proceeded further into the jungle, painting our faces with red dye from a fruit our guide had picked, becoming true tribal trekkers! The sweat pouring from our brows soon washed away the dye, although leaving remnants of orange, giving us all the appearance that we'd been "tangoed"! It was absolutely boiling hiking higher and higher up through the undergrowth, thanking each leaf for the shade it provided from the searing sunshine. Before our lunch stop we reached the highest point from the day and we all stood, invigorated, pulsating and tinged with orange, gazing down through the Valley we had just conquered like a kaleidoscopic tunnel of lush mounts dropping dramatically into rocky depths and frantically snaking water rhythms. It was truly more-ish. Truly exhilarating. I wanted doses and doses of this drug. Lunch was much needed and appreciated. We had already walked for five hours and the damp in my shoes was lingering and had afforded me with some kind of trench-foot issue. Nice. After lunch we continued along the Urubamba Valley from a lofty, birds-eye view, hiking up sharp inclines that really got the heart pumping, being heavily dusted by passing trucks on the dirt track we sojourned, blisters and aches beginning to complain noisily throughout my weary body. When we finally reached our rest place for the evening, Santa Teresa, we had been walking for ten hours. I could barely drag my limbs into the shower...but it was hot...so I made sure I made it. A hot shower has never been so relished in the history of the world! Steph, Nat and I were sleepy, content, if not slightly achey, bunnies when we went for dinner. The other people in the group were intent on drunkenness and all we wanted to do was eat and go to bed! We're getting old (even though we were the youngest on the trek!).
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Day Three was another tough day of trekking - not so many ascents to tackle but a gaggle of physical ailments to try and ignore as we continued to soldier on. We sat smugly at breakfast, feeling fresh in mind and well-slept, in comparison to those who had gone out the night before, and were feeling less than ready for another full day of exertion! I'm sure we were highly annoying flouting our bubbly demeanors at a volume that probably hurt the hungover ears like a sledgehammer to a brick wall! Ah well! The day was even hotter than yesterday, and the start of the walk was completely unshaded. The raw, arid heat bore down on us like a demon as every tree or slight piece of shade resembled a heavenly oasis to our overheating bodies. Finally, we made it to some prolonged shady patches and that also brought the most entertaining part of the day - the cable car! This cable car was entirely manual and entirely unstable, traversing fifty metres above the rocky, fierce Urubamba River, the tiny car holding a disproportionate amount of weight considering its' size. We watched a dozen cable cars make their unsteady way over and back, over and back, until Steph, Nat and I were up (well, we were the first in the group by choice...we resembled eager children trying to be the first in line at the sweet shop!). Truly ridiculous! The experience was a lot of fun and much less frightening than I had expected, although we still did our fair amount of screaming. It would be rude not to! Afterwards, our route lead us past a hydroelectric power station that had 150 people working inside the rocky caves. A huge cascade of water rushed from a gaping hole and was dumped into the river below. Such an incredible natural force to behold. The last part of the trek that day was along unused train tracks, over bridges, and always always beside the paternal, omnipresent river. We walked through the most stunning scenery, zebra-print rocks stained from rain and weathering, enormous milky white boulders placed precariously along the path, lush greenery sprouting in all directions, and the unblemished blue sky always above us. At points we could see some of the Inca ruins peeking over the top of the mountain that loomed above. We were directly below the point we would be gazing down from the next day and it seemed an impossible feat for us to achieve, especially considering how many hours and how far we had walked already. As we reached Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of Machu Picchu, we had been walking for eight hours. We were exhausted, but feeling satisfied and excited. We were at the feet of the legendary mount, at the precipice of giant, at the base of the beast, and we were within hours of conquering it. Aguas Calientes was an odd little place, entirely focused around the influx of wealthy Western tourists and their waving wads of cash (I was certainly exempt from this group!). We spent the evening showering, stretching, eating and being given a preliminary introduction to the Mountain, what to expect, what time to meet, what to take, and so on and so forth. The tension and anticipation within the group was palpable and I was in for a short night of disturbed sleep before the final day arrived.
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Day Four. The final day. The day we had all been waiting for, trekking for, sweating for and aching for. It was upon us and I was as keen as a bean to get up and go when the alarm clicked on at 3.30am. Ouch. All three of us had struggled sleeping and so we sleepily dressed and readied ourselves to meet the others at 4am downstairs. Unfortunately, none of the others were there when we arrived on time - not late, not early - on time. Not even our guide or the person who had knocked on our door at 3.40am to wake us were there. Hmmmm. We decided to carry on and get to the gate for the steep ascent up to the Lost City, a little concerned that we were leaving people behind, but we had waited long enough. In the darkness of that Tuesday morning, the giggling trio began the incline...perspiring, panting and pushing ourselves up the hundreds of rocky steps that lead to the treasure of Machu Picchu. We shocked ourselves by how quickly we stormed up, barely stopping, supporting each other through the breathless exertion, our bodies and minds so focused on the task before us, our lungs and hearts and blood pumping like well-oiled machines. Each step was placed meticulously and methodically in front of the other and all thoughts concentrated on that effort. It was liberating and testing and truly truly enjoyable. As we rose in altitude the mountains surrounding us began to show their forms through the eerie, dull light and through the shroud of gently sleeping clouds. Every time we looked up from our feet we realised how high we were, holding hands and bumping heads with the mountains. We reached our goal at 5.30am, drenched with sweat and pride. We had made it! We found the rest of our group at the top - they had left without us after all. What a lovely bunch. Well and truly in our bad books! But that was not to ruin our day at Machu Picchu. Nothing could ruin this day!

We had climbed up to the base of Machu Picchu ("Old Mountain" in Quechuan) which is 2,430 metres above sea level. Machu Picchu is a pre-Columbian Inca site believed to be an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). Often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas", it is perhaps the most familiar icon of the Inca World. The Incas started building the estate around AD 1400 but it was abandoned as an official site for the Inca rulers a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. Although known locally, it was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since then, Machu Picchu has become an important tourist attraction. Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Since it was not plundered by the Spanish when they conquered the Incas, it is especially important as a cultural site and is considered a sacred place. As we were given our tour around the Lost City, the mist transformed the landscape from second to second, shifting mysteriously around the rocks, revealing in places the fascinating ruins whilst keeping some secret from our eyes. Our group wandered in and around the polished dry-stone walls, learning more about the Inca traditions, their faith, and the way they lived within this city under the mountain. Layers of structured rock settlements stretched out before us, tantalising and baffling. Small houses, temples, guardhouses, observatories, all maze round one another creating a world to truly get lost inside. There were condor birds soaring and wheeling in the sky, signifying for the Incas messengers from the next life. One landed on a rock just where we were stood listening to our guide, providing a really special moment for us all. We absorbed and respected and appreciated the lessons that were afforded to us and after the tour had ended, the three of us sat atop the highest point in the City and just breathed in the energy and the atmosphere around us. Poor Nat's feet had literally fallen apart, blisters covering all her toes and the sensation of walking on glass as she walked. Steph and I decided to really push ourselves, as we weren't in as much discomfort, and trekked up the steep Waynapicchu, or "Small Mountain", which faces Machu Picchu. This really was the piece de resistance. We literally rock climbed up the sheer "steps", slipping around from the moisture and feeling the burn in our tired muscles. But my lord, it was worth every strained breath. From Waynapicchu we were treated to an aerial view of the entire Lost City and the path we had taken to climb the mountain early that morning. It felt surreal and fantastic. I truly was on top of the World- the condors circling and the jigsaw pieces of the Inca structures below becoming pieces of me, pieces of myself and the feat I had achieved. Steph and I sat atop that mountain for hours, putting the World to rights, allowing emotions to flow free and embracing the natural elements that ruled supreme within this beautiful creation, within our truly mind-blowing World.
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And so, Machu Picchu was conquered and will be loved, cherished and remembered forever in the realms of my mind as one of the most bewildering, exhausting, impressive and wonderful experiences I have ever had in my life.

Highlights since my last blog entry:
- Seeing the beautiful Natalie and Steph again, realising the true potential of my laughing capacity, and being absolutely ecstatic that I experienced Machu Picchu with them.
- Achieving what I had gone to Peru to do and getting to the top of the Mountain!
- Soaking up the magic and mystery of the most amazing place on earth atop Waynapicchu. On top of the World!

Posted by Anna Rowl 16:11 Comments (0)

Boliviaaaaaa!

It`s only little...but it`s bloody cool!

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Arriving in Bolivia on our very early flight and venturing out into the Santa Cruz night, I felt like I was back in India, in ways that are hard to articulate. The streets were more barren and desolate, the boxy architecture and makeshift clumsy constructions reminded me of India and the atmosphere that promised something energising and undiscovered, all congregated to bring back nostalgic memories of the beautiful Asian country that I miss so much. I was eager to see what Bolivia had to offer.

Bolivia is a country of superlatives. It is the hemipsheres highest, most isolated and most rugged nation. It`s one of earths coldest, warmest, windiest and steamiest places. It boasts among the driest, saltiest and swampiest natural landscapes in the world. Although the poorest country in South America, it`s one of the richest in terms of natural resources. It`s also South America`s most indigenous country: over 60% of the population of 8.8 million claim indigenous heritage adding to the unparalleled beauty and vibrant, distinctive nature of the place. Bolivia has it all...except that is, for beaches. It is a landlocked country that, although frequently shaky in terms of society and politics, thanks to an impotent economy and a history of disfranchisement, flouts soaring peaks and hallucinogenic flats, steamy jungles and wildlife-rich grasslands. The underdog of South America, if you will. I was ready for the Bolivia ride!
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Our first night was spent in Santa Cruz, a sprawling city on the East of the country that seemed to have only a little to offer. We had managed to coordinate an unplanned reuinion with Sally T, as Eddie hadn`t seen her in a year and I was massively missing her face. Sally was in La Paz, the highest capital city in the world (so it boasts), with the lovely girlies that we had met in Brazil and Argentina, so after a morning of wandering about Santa Cruz and attempting to get our Bolivian bearings, Eddie and I headed off on a suprisingly luxurious but ever so chilly night bus to La Paz. La Paz is a stunning, breathtaking city, teetering on lofty heights surrounded by snow-capped mountains. We drove into the city as the sun was rising over the soaring mountains, shedding light onto the valley of La Paz. We skirted round the top of the valley and before descending onto the sprawling mayhem were treated to the full view of the expansive valley, the hundreds of terracotta buidlings tumbling down into the turbulence, the sleepy morning mist delicately shrouding selected areas like a soft blanket, the clear crystalline sky promising the delights of a beautiful day and all watched by the beautiful presence of the Bolivian mountain range including the looming Potosi. We departed the bus and the fresh, chilly morning air smacked me around the chops and soon invigourated my weary, travelled demeanour. We headed straight to Loki, the infamous party hostel in La Paz, that Sally and the girls were staying at. As soon as we walked in, a little blonde excitable lightening strike stormed towards us, bowling Eddie and I down with cuddles and kisses. Sally T!
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Seeing Sal again was a treat of epic proportions - she looked great and had obviously been having a brilliant time with the Steph, Tessa and Nat. We chatted frantically (as we do!) about our gossip, news and reviews before heading out onto the chaotic city streets. We spent hours wandering the winding intricate alleyways of the Witches Market, brimming with magic and mystery, llama fetuses, herbal remedies and women in bowler hats. Yes, that`s right. A large proportion of the women in Bolivia wear the most unbelievable outfits, including large pleated skirts called polleras (usually made out of the sparkliest material available), tassled shawls (also made out of the most garish material imaginable), and bowler hats. Apparently, it is fashionable among Bolivian Andean women of indigenous descent to wear the skirt because it was originally a Spanish peasant skirt that the colonial authorities forced the indigenous women to wear, but now it is also a symbol of pride in being indigenous and is also considered a status symbol. The bowler hat, my favourite item hands down, was adopted from the good old Brits and according to my sources the position of the hat can indicate a woman's marital status and aspirations. Whatever the reasons...these women look GREAT!
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We enjoyed a debaucherous night out in the city, a LOT of shopping and a dodgy curry that unfortunately lingered with me for a few days and with Eddie for the rest of his trip. It really did feel like India! With bellies grumbling angrily, we said our sad goodbyes to Sally T two days after we had said our ecstatic hellos. It was time for Eddie and I to experience the Salt Flats. One horrendously freezing, bumpy, sleepless, juddering, toilet-fuelled overnight bus later we arrived in Uyuni at six in the morning, half the woman and man we were before we had boarded the dreaded bus. Uyuni, the starting point for the Salt Flat tours, was an odd little town, reminding me of a bad Western movie set, where the roads are incredibly wide, dust flies up behind the tin-can cars and trucks, and dogs run wild through the streets, fighting and picking ravenously through rubbish on the ground. I felt like we had gone through hell only to arrive in Hades as we trundled in a taxi to our hostel. We collapsed, exhausted, as soon as we laid eyes on a bed and when we emerged a few hours later to book our tour, Uyuni didn`t look so quite so scary! Blue skies against quaint white churches and antiquated classic cars crawling the roads added character to the place that had resembed a ghost town earlier that day! We were both still feeling rotten from the evil curry and so booked the first tour we could find and the headed back to horizontal status.

Our much-anticipated Salt Flat tour was absolutely incredible, and made for an outstanding highlight of my trip. The first day of the three day tour was spent firstly playing on huge, rusting locomotions and carriages at the train cemetery. I felt like I was on an Indiana Jones film set (film sets being a prominent theme over the next three days!), leaping on and over oxidising metal machinery and posing for photos on the tracks. Then, it was onto the Salt Flats, or Salar de Uyuni. The flats sit at a lofty 3653m and blanket an amazing 12,000 square km. They were was part of a prehistoric lake, Lago Minchin, which covered most of southwest Bolivia. When the lake dried up, it left a couple of seasonal puddles and several salt pans. When we suddenly pulled up onto the salt in our trusty jeep, I felt like we had inadvertently landed on another planet of vast white expanse, where nothing seemed real or made any sense. A desert of salt spanned before us, the dazzling white brightness gleaming against our eyes, demanding the attention it duly deserved. Mounds of salt drying in the sun punctuated the flat plains, like myriad mole hills created by some strange salt monster. I waded in the salty water, the texture and consistency confusing my feet as it turned from a slushy, mud-like consistency to hard, crystalline sharpness as I climbed through the salt puddles to a larger mound. We visited a hotel made entirely of salt, complete with salt sculptures, tables, chairs and floor, and enjoyed a delicious lunch of llama steak and salad! Surely the most incredible of the stops that day on the eerie, hallucinogenic plains was a place called Isla de los Pescadores, or Fish island. Isla de los Pescadores stands tall on the salt desert, appearing out of nowhere as we soared across the brightness. It used to be underwater and so bears resemblance to coral but also bears amazing stands of giant cactus. The cactus sprouts all over the land mass and as I climbed to the top of the island, I literally felt like I was under the sea somehow...the bright white oceanic expanse spanning out before me and the bluest sky peering over, meeting the salt desert in a haze on the horizon. So strange. So beautiful. I never wanted to leave.
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Alas, sadly we had to leave. Off to our salt hotel (again, entirely made of salt - they really know how to maximise their resources in Bolivia!) for a cosy night at our lofty heights. The next day brought more breathtaking sights, more film-set reminisces (Star Trek and Jurassic Park to name but a few!) and...a hostage situation. Hmmmm. That wasn`t included in the itinerary!? Protests, marches and demonstrations (mostly peaceful) are apparently a perpetual part of the country`s mind-boggling landscape (she reads in Lonely Planet after the frightful event took place!) and we experienced this first-hand in what can only be described as a desperate demonstration by local people. We were happily riding along in our jeep, soaking up the bizarre surroundings of boulders made of coral and volcanic mountains, when a group of men intervened in the road, placed rocks infront of the car wheels and asked our driver to get out of the car. They had basically created a road block so that they could raise awareness for the fact that they were being deprived of basic necessities such as water and electricity. Their roads are in a bad way and their government isn´t listening to their requests for help. The group wanted us to go in convoy with them to their town, email to our embassies and appeal to them for assistance for the Bolivians. It all seemed pretty dodgy but eventually we agreed to go with them, as it is was either that or waiting in the middle of the wilderness for hours. So, again resembling some kind of action movie scene we journeyed in convoy following a huge black freight truck with three dozen Bolivians in the back bearing rocks and stones, one Bolivian on the top of each jeep, again with rocks in the pocket in case we tried to veer away. Dust was flying up behind the truck and all of the ten or so jeeps that were following on. It was a bizarre and unsettling experience. No one knew what we were getting ourselves in for and when we arrived at what can only be described as a temporary settlement, with hundreds of people cheering our arrival, and more freight trucks lined up in a row with small huts on stilts scattered about, we knew that we had been brought there on false pretenses. The rest of day consisted of waiting...a lot of waiting. The locals protested for about an hour, holding up banners and chanting about their plight (which was ineffective seeing as most tourists couldn´t understand Spanish) and then, around 6 hours later, after our driver had lined up to receive a flimsy piece of white paper liberating us from our hostage status, we drove off into the sunset, feeling more confused than ever! But certainly relieved. Bizarre!
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The next day consisted of no hostage-taking (score) but spouting geysers and hot springs (score!!!). We awoke at a heart-wrenching, eye-wretching 4am and, in the freezing climes, bundled into the car and towards the geysers as the sun rose. We were now at a lofty 4950m altitude and two of the people in our group had been truly struck by altitude sickness. Eddie was still a poorly one too, his stomach like a teething baby, demanding constant attention. The geysers, albeit stinky, were amazing! A gaggle of boiling mud pots and sulfurous fumaroles bubbled away as we wandered about the soft ground, holding our noses and watching the sun rise above the steaming holes. It was quite a sight...I almost expected to peer into a pit and see Jabba the Hut, shaking his flab and lauging contendedly in his stinking jacuzzi! After the geysers and after my feet had well and truly turned to ice blocks we arrived at the Termas de Ploques hot springs. Oh my lord, those hot springs! They were heavenly...perfectly temperatured sulfurous water spouting naturally to provide us with the most relaxing morning dip at 4200 metres! Perfection!
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After the Salt Flats we bused it off to Sucre and chilled for a day before Eddie embarked on his monumental trip back to England. A mere five flights, two taxis and a bus ride over the space of three days. Brutal. I was left in Sucre, wondering what to do with myself and decided to buzz back to La Paz, where I had toyed with the idea of working on the bar for a while at Loki. At the bus station in Sucre I started chatting with a Aussie girl called Loz, whom I became good friends with (you´re never really alone when you´re travelling!) and stayed in Loki with for the 5 nights I was there. La Paz was once again party time at high altitude...amazing fun but by the end of the 5 nights I was ready to leave, detox, breathe and exercise! And so, Loz and I decided to go to Lake Titicaca for some good, clean, natural beauty gazing.

Lake Titicaca is an incongruous splash of sapphire amid the stark planes of the altiplano and is absolutely gigantic. It is more than 230km long and 97km wide and straddles both Peru and Bolivia, and is apparently a remnant of Lago Ballivan, an ancient inland sea. We boated across the expansive gleaming lake to get to Isla del Sol, or Island of the Sun. Isla del Sol is the legendary Inca creation site and the birthplace of the sun in Inca mythology. Having befriended a Swede named Sofie and a Dutchie named George, we departed the boat and heaved up the millions of steps to the hostel we had chosen to stay in. After the debauchery of La Paz, the fact that we were at an elevation of 3820m, and considerig the enormous lump of possessions on my back, it is safe to say that my heart nearly popped out of my chest! So exhausting! But it was so worht it once we had scaled the many steps - cobbled alleyways, glistening lake stretching out as far as the eye could see, donkeys grazing and whinnying in to the atmosphere, tumbling hills falling to the steep precipices of the waters below. bgith Bolivian materials against the beaming blue sky. Utterly gorgeous. We only had twenty four hours on the island so we made the most of it. We took a bumpy boat up to the north of the island, as we were staying in the south, and then walked back down. It was an arduous walk considering the altitude and the oppressive sunshine (wearing factor 70 I still got burnt!) but so beautiful, and really made me remember how much I love to use this body of mine. Not just for partying and riding on buses, but for exercising! Bring on the Machu Picchu trek!

And so...Bolivia had had its´time and I parted ways with my company. On my own again and off to Cusco, Peru to see what all the fuss is about this mountain!

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Posted by Anna Rowl 13:30 Comments (0)

Back to the Brazilian Neddles beat

Reuniting, Rio and Rain!

After the most nightmarish journey imaginable, nearly missing my two flights and seriously testing all levels of stress in both body and mind, I arrived at Rio airport. In time. A miracle of the highest degree. Wiping the sweat beads that formed on my brow, I eagerly waited for the man I hadn`t seen in far too long to walk though the arrivals gate. The butterflies in my stomach must have flew from my mouth and met him as he walked towards me. And there, under the intense airport lights, beneath the oppresive Rio heat, and under the watch of many a locals eye, Eddie and Anna reunited, finally, after six months. We kissed and it was like a glove being placed on a hand that had been cold for a really long time. Beautiful and comfortable and right.

Our first two nights were spent in Santa Teresa at the most beautiful hotel I have ever seen, let alone stayed at! Rio180 suites was a stunning establishment with a swimming pool, jacuzzi inside the room (that`s right, INSIDE the room!) and breathtaking views of the city. I felt like I was dreaming, in a constant smiling daze, not quite believing that this was reality. The time I had anticipated and spent so much time thinking about was finally upon me. Upon us. We were upon each other and it was beautiful. Emphasised heavenly by the heavenly surroundings we found ourselves in. We obviously made the most of the hotel, the pool, the jacuzzi, the plush decor and the delicious food and drink. We ventured out once to explore Santa Teresa for an afternoon, breathing in the hot, thick air and appreciating the quirky, arty neighbourhood and its`varying open-air grafitti galleries.

The next few nights following the highs of Rio180 were spent enjoying our own space in a flat in Copacabana, which Eddie had also found and arranged (boy done good!). I was ridiculously (and probably quite sadly) invigorated at the prospect of having our own kitchen, lounge, TV, computer, bathroom and...get this...washing machine! Domestic bliss! (god...I need to get a life...). But really, after six months of questionable stains on sheets, shared bathrooms, kitchen crises and endless handwashing sessions...these domestic utilities can really get a girl going! The weather was hot hot hot in Rio and the flat was baking most the time, but we made the most of the space and cooked every night we stayed there. Heaven!

Eddie and I stayed in Rio for a week and a half, visiting all of the beaches (of course) so Eddie could sport his highly impressive backpacking wardrobe consisting mainly of items from the `80s (think Wham with a Northern swagger!). We saw Botanical Gardens, hippie markets, Easter processions, Lakes, Sugar Loaf Mountain and went wild on a few nights amongst the Lapa madness. Eddie and I also headed up to Cristo Redentor (or Christ the Redeemer) which was an...interesting experience! Good old Christ, enormously towering Christ, looming over Rio in his distinctive manner was covered in scaffolding. You literally couldn`t see his face because he had a billboard over it! Eddie thought that perhaps he was being painted gold for Easter but no, he was still covered in metal poles when the day of resurrection came along! The view was still incredible though, regardless of party pooper Cristo and the immense crowds that had gathered at those lofty heights. We stayed up on the hill whilst the sun set, the light becoming pink and golden and as the eerie mist settled comfortably across the landscape, the tops of the lush mounds poked their heads over cautiously. Rio was shown to our adoring eyes in the most beautiful light and with the world at our feet we absorbed the view of Sugar Loaf, the dotted lakes, and the intricate patterns of this vibrant city. My second time in Rio and I was as impressed and overwhelmed as the first time.

Spending the afternoon and early evening on Ipanema beach was also a time I will never forget. The distinctive and unmistakable black and white paved stones leading the beach by the hand, the vision of the long, white beach, punctuated with red umbrellas and gorgeous bronzed bodies, the tumbling waves crashing against the shore, creating a hazy sexy mist highlighted delicately and exotically by the strewn sunlight. And, as you gaze down the beach, wondering how on earth you could be lucky enough to be here, the characteristically Rio de Janierian mounts emanate perpetually over the scene, always watching and spectating the glamorous, shimmering carioca party that ensues on the beach below. As the sun set, as the sun-worshippers dispersed, as the beach workers, blaggers and hagglers finished their days`slog, the mountain at the head of Ipanema slowly lit up like it was covered with glow worms slowly waking from their lazy slumber. The favellas on the mountains were the providers of the twinkling lights, tumbling down the sloping hill like boiling hot lava. I could feel the heat of that lava and its`Brazilian soul as Eddie and I strolled down the monochrome path, the balmy air filled with floating sounds of busking musicians, sweet song, and salsa beats. The cerveza was flowing freely and the vibe was alive! But of course...it`s Rio.

Me and Eddie were treated to a good week or so of beaming sunshine, blue skies, and hot hot heat. After that...the rain came. And oh how it rained! The day we left, there were such torrential floods that 200 people died in landslides in the favellas. The whole city was in panic mode but we somehow managed to have the audicity and determination to make it out of Rio, but only to be met by more rain in Ilhe Grande, Brazil`s third largest island, 150 km southwest of the city. The islands` lush and tropical scenery was shrouded to an extent by the rain and we could not fully access the beauty of Ilhe Grande. We did get to one of the most popular beaches, Lopes Mendes, on one sunny morning, before getting absolutely drenched as the heavens opened soon after we arrived! We also squeezed in a sunny morning of kayaking - good for the alcohol-filled body and soggy soul. But overall, unfortunately, poor Eddie had escaped rainy England to...rainy Brazil! Very rainy Brazil.

Next stop was Paraty. A brief stop before Eddie and I flew to Bolivia for an improvised, spontaneous section of Eddie`s month away, that we had decided woul be ideal for experiences and our Brazil-beaten bank balances. Ouch! We managed to intercept a Saturday night in Paraty that was celebrating the beginning of a bar man`s working time at Gecko hostel, two of my friends leaving Gecko hostel`s work force and the theme casting over the evening - an 80s party! Eddie was made for this party! He not only clothed himself but also me and my friend Tom. Quite a wardrobe he had in his possession! Many caipirinhas and a stolen camera later (hence the distinct lack of photographic documentation in this blog) we left Paraty, and Brazil. What an eventful month this was turning out to be...

And so, a camera short, slightly soggier, but gagging for some new, exciting (and cheaper) times, Anna and Eddie journeyed by air to Bolivian lands!

Highlights:
- Seeing Eddie again after six months of deprivation
- Rio180 suites, pool, jacuzzi, city scapes...need I say more!?!
- Ipanema beach sunset. Stun my face off.

Posted by Anna Rowl 18:21 Comments (0)

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