It was my birthday on the weekend and it was MOMENTOUS. It’s been all about surprises and friends – two of my favourite things in life – and the fact that it has been a week-long extravaganza has been perfect for this self-centred egotist.
One of the things I find most charming about Sucre, as a dog lover, is the dogs. There are lots of “wild” dogs which roam the street but they are the furthest thing from wild you can imagine. The people of Sucre have such a lovely relationship with these dogs – everyone does a little bit to look after them. The dogs don’t have owners but in reality they are community dogs.
Never heard of San Pedro Prison? You can’t be in La Paz more than a day without it coming up in conversation. It’s rare to find a gringo who’s not read Rusty Young’s famous book about it, Marching Powder. Never read Marching Powder? Do yourself a favour and pick it up. It’s one of my favourite nonfiction books. It’s the story of a British guy, Tommy, caught smuggling 4 kilograms of cocaine out of Bolivia and his experiences being thrown in San Pedro Prison in La Paz. The story is absolutely incredible and captures the imagination of everyone who reads it.
Let’s start with a short (and probably not entirely accurate) history lesson. The Incan Empire spanned present-day Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and parts of Chile and Argentina. Cusco was the capital and Machu Picchu was a town built up in the mountains to the North. Machu Picchu functioned as a religious centre as well as an agricultural one. Important note: pronunciation is critical. Machu ‘pick – chew’ is the correct way of saying it, meaning ‘old mountain’; if you say ‘pitch-oo’ you’re saying ‘old penis’. The Spanish rolled in and ruined shit for the Incas and Machu Picchu was lost to the jungle. Up until 1911 farmers still used that land and were aware that there were Incan ruins on the mountain. Then a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham III rocked up and ‘rediscovered’ it. It’s now one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and visitors to the site are increasing in numbers every year.
Now, the Inca Trail… To relay messages across such a vast empire, the Incas built thousands of kilometres worth of trails all across the land. To this day there are still a lot of Inca trails (lower case ‘t’) but THE Inca Trail (capital ‘T’) was built as a pilgrimage route to Machu Picchu. There were other, easier ways to get to Machu Picchu but the Inca Trail climbs right up into the Andes where it’s possible to see Salcantay and other sacred mountains and then winds down into Machu Picchu.
The Inca Trail is so popular these days that the number of people allowed on the Trail per day is capped at 500, including porters, cooks and guides; and you have to book your place months in advance. Most companies tackle it the same way – three nights, four days, cooks to provide three meals per day and porters to carry the gear and set up the camp sites. We set off in earnest from KM 82, the start point of the Inca Trail (82 kilometres from Cusco), and it soon became apparent that there were those in our group that could zip up the trail like it was no big deal. And then there were those of us who just struggled. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that I was in the latter group, it did, however, surprise me that Fish was consistently the first person to reach the camp site and rarely even broke a sweat. Who knew the kid was good at hiking?
To be completely honest, I wasn’t loving being on an organised tour. I was finding the lack of independence smothering and I frequently realised that we could’ve visited many places by ourselves and often for less money. The Inca Trail really changed that though. I am so, so glad that we chose G Adventures – the guides were amazing, the food was some of the best we had in Peru, and they treat their porters really well. There’s strict regulations as to how much porters are allowed to carry and this turned out to mean that we could pack 2.5kg of stuff, not including the sleeping bags and mattresses we rented. I felt like such a dirty gringa when I’d move to the side of the path, huffing and puffing, to let a porter steam past with all 20kg of gear he was carrying to go and set up a tent for me and put all my belongings in it. It made me feel a lot better knowing that I’d chosen the company which pays their porters the most and purposely hires more so that more local people can have jobs and so that they can carry less.
Day 1 is considered the training day – there’s a few ups and downs but nothing too hard-core. We stopped half way for a two-course lunch. Day 2 is the killer. I still don’t know how we managed. You go almost straight up a mountain, reaching 4215m above sea level at Dead Woman’s Pass, only to then ruin your knees descending the other side to the campsite. The saving grace is that the views are absolutely, indescribably spectacular. We started the day in the jungle – everything was covered in moss, even the trees. Then suddenly the trail popped out of the forest and we were in barren, scrubby, rocky mountain land. Walking up a steep hill is hard enough at sea-level, but altitude is an evil ninja and can affect you in all kinds of ways. Breathing is just so much harder – two steps and you’re out of breath with that burning back-of-the-throat feeling. You stop and you’ve got your breath back in about 30 seconds. Coca leaves are a godsend. Chewing a wad in the side of your mouth can abate the nausea and the headache that are common symptoms. Fish and I were both so lucky that we didn’t suffer the other common symptom of diarrhoea like some others did.
It’s so important to walk at your own pace on the Inca Trail and luckily for an extrovert like me there were a bunch of other lovely ladies who had the same snail pace (Lol and Kaysie can attest to the fact that I dawdle and was consistently the last to arrive anywhere on the Camino De Santiago). We kept each other going with words of encouragement and Disney sing-alongs and frequent stops to ‘look at that flower!’ (code for: I’m knackered and need a rest!). Despite it being such an epic effort, we all felt bloody proud of ourselves that evening and the endorphins were FLOWING.
The third day of the Inca Trail is renowned as the most beautiful and it lived up to all expectations. There are varying degrees of authenticity on the Trail – none of Day 1 is original Inca road; Day 2 is 50/50. Day 3 is all genuine, original, been-there-for-centuries Inca Trail. And it is just spectacular. You can truly get the sense of it being a pilgrimage. It was also a lot flatter than the previous day which made it far easier to enjoy. The other days it had felt like we were the only people on the path and I was so impressed with how the guides had worked it out so that was the case. Day 3 was a little different and there were lots of retirement-age Americans dotted along the way, “Bob! Wow! Geez! We haven’t seen this kind of vegetation before!” was a favourite overheard quote.
The views included more Incan ruins; lush green mountains; waterfalls; snow-capped mountains; the river Urabamba snaking its way through the valley far below. And in the afternoon when we started descending, Mount Machu Picchu became visible down below (you could only see the mountain, we just knew that Machu Picchu itself was just down and around the other side of it).
These three days of the Inca Trail were just unbelievable incredible and it was one of the best things I’ve done in my life. I’d heard from various sources that Machu Picchu is a very spiritual place where you can’t help but feel moved. These two factors combined made the anticipation enormous for the last day, the day where we wake up stupid-early to arrive at the Sun Gate at dawn and descend into Machu Picchu. And there’s no other way of putting this: it was a great disappointment. Some groups wake up at 2am for the last day, which is absurd as there’s a checkpoint which doesn’t open until 5:30. Luckily we had a sensible guide who only got us up at 4am purely because the porters all had to barrel down the mountain to Aguas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu) to catch a 5am train. I was more than happy to do that for them considering all they’d done for us over the last three days. Aside from that, it would’ve been better to stay in bed til 10. We marched off in the dark to arrive as the last group at the checkpoint at 4:45am. We waited in the cold and dark with all the other gringos until we could show our passports and entry tickets and continue on. It was misty as shit and a little bit drizzly and we had to walk in a tight little line behind all the other tight little lines. The combination of early morning, misty drizzle and not being able to go your own pace made us grumpy and silent. Now, I’d read a book before doing the Trail called Turn Right At Machu Picchu by Mark Adams that is recommended by most websites for people travelling Peru. Because of this I knew that we’d never see the sunrise over Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate (the entry to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail) – Machu Picchu is a tiny mountain surrounded by enormous mountains which block the sun. However, I expected to see something other than mist as thick as custard.
We stopped there to munch on some cheese and bread sandwiches and the best thing that happened was seeing our Swiss buddies, Tristan and Lenny, who’d been doing a different Trek, and our usual guide, Elmer, appear from the mist. We trundled down the mountain (it made me wish I was climbing Dead Woman’s Pass again – I’ll take difficulty breathing over painful knees any day), mostly catching up with Lenny and Tristan (and making fun of Tristan’s Arnold Schwarzenegger accent) and trying to hide our disappointment in the weather. The fog didn’t clear and the tourists increased in numbers the closer we got to the main site of Machu Picchu. The momentum was really lost when we had to exit the site, wait around for 20 minutes, and then re-enter through the main gates amongst the swarms of day-tripping tourists who’d not put in the hard yards we had and had showered within the last 4 days. Bastards. Not being able to see more than 10 metres in front we followed Alex (our main Inca Trail guide) around Machu Picchu learning about some temples and stuff. It was one of those historic sites where you have to follow arrows around a particular route and can’t explore yourself. I was really glad I’d read Turn Right At Machu Picchu as it gave me a really in depth historic overview and I understood a lot of the sites and their significance beyond what Alex had time to tell us about.
After this we all climbed back up (uuugggghhhhh) to the Guard House where all of the famous pictures of Machu Picchu are taken. Suddenly, the fog cleared. And it was more than I ever could have hoped for. A lot of famous landmarks look better in postcards and famous pictures (Sphinx, I’m looking at you…) but honestly, nothing can compare to looking out over Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu in the background, surrounded by the Andes, with the valley far, far below. Unfortunately, I am my father’s daughter and the hoards and hoards of tourists really detracted. They apparently cap the number of visitors to 2500 per day, but it felt like they were all swarming the view point exactly at the same time I was there. I had to get out of there before I ended up in a Peruvian prison for murder.
All in all, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. But it’s definitely true that it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Title Time: This blog’s title was inspired by The Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park”
We’re in a guesthouse in Lima right now. There’s not been any toilet paper in the bathroom for the last day; the shower takes ten minutes to be warm enough to even dip a toe in; and we got three single beds instead of double in our room. We’re also just sorting out our ‘social media’ (what a fucking stupid term, it irritates me every time I hear it; it’s so obvious some middle-aged man in an ill-fitting suit made it up and ordered a raft of internet-savvy employees to ‘make it happen’) which is really rosy and happy and totally a travel brag. I did say to check our blog for the behind the scenes, but even our blogs are pretty positive. So now let me give you the true behind the scenes. Let me tell you all the ugly bits…
I’m no lady
This seems like an obvious statement that could be used to describe me at any point in my life. Anyone who knows me knows I’d be a Finishing School Drop-Out. But this shit is next level. It’s been over a month since I waxed my legs (and even then it was with packaged wax strips from Target as we drove along a highway, much to Mary and Kosta’s amusement).
I’m covered in bruises and scrapes because I’m as clumsy as a drunk with an inner ear infection. We’ve been quite active being adventurous and shit but combine that with my lack of balance and I’m surprised Fish hasn’t been taken in for questioning.
While we’re talking about our extreme activities and me being the furthest from Miss World, let me fill you in on something Fish nicely neglected to mention in his post: I cried like a little baby when we were canyoning. We had to abseil down a 25m cliff and this did not mesh well with my fear of heights. I cried and cried and swore and cried and I felt no sense of accomplishment when I arrived alive at the bottom. It was the furthest thing from graceful you could imagine.
I haven’t worn make-up in ages; I more often than not wear deodorant but my perfume rolls around in the bottom of my bag neglected; I’ve worn flip flops every day and I’m not sure whether that’s a tan or caked-in dirt; and I can’t remember when I last washed my hair. Basically I look like The Crack Fox from The Mighty Boosh.
I’m on my way to becoming the Michelin Woman
Long term travel means adhering to a strict budget (something I’ve never been good at and for which I’ve entirely relinquished responsibility to Fish) and one of the best ways to save money is to not eat out. What a paradox: the best part about travel is experiencing the food, but to be able to keep travelling we have to cook our own budget meals. Pasta is a staple. It’s carbs upon carbs upon Nutella. I feel like I’m a uni student again, but I’m not seeing my parents once a week for a decent meal.
We’re also on holidays and, according to The Accountant, beers don’t count in the budget and we can have as many as necessary. This doesn’t help with The Spread.
My fitness is slowly but surely decreasing, too. It was quite obvious when we went canyoning that all my radiographer’s upper body strength has disappeared in two months of unemployment. A few days ago we climbed 740 steps to the top of a big rock- I nearly died and was one email away from cancelling our Inca Trail hike. Fuck a 4 day hike, I’ll take the train thanks.
Those beers aren’t Coopers
Those unlimited beers? They’re the local version of VB. I’m going to murder a pale ale when I get home. Also, the coffee is really fucking bad. How can a region that produces coffee have such a penchant for Nescafe?!
Travelling with a Boyfriend is a whole different ballgame to travelling with your Girlfriends
Don’t get me wrong, Fish is great, I really like the kid.
But, faaark, it’s a lot harder work hanging out with a partner compared to your two best girl mates.
With the girls I could truly just enjoy the moment. With Fish, I question the rest of my life frequently: can I be with a guy who doesn’t know what pesto is? What will the rest of my life be like if we never have cheese in the fridge? There’s a lot of Radiohead in his music collection, should I just run away now?!
Yesterday our taxi driver was as useless as a chocolate teapot and we were going to be late. I cried. I’d never have done that with the girls, I’d have been laughed at mercilessly, which is obviously the appropriate reaction. A partner can’t laugh at you though, they have to reassure you and pat you gently on the back, thus travelling in a relationship makes you a weakling.
With the girls I made an effort to be fun to be around and easy to get along with. With a partner you can be yourself. This is obviously a terrible idea and the beast has been unleashed. It’s completely valid that every time my mum checks in with me she asks if Fish is still around and is always surprised when the answer is ‘yes’.
But really life isn’t that tough
It’s Sunday night and I don’t have to work tomorrow. That’s a wonderful consolation. And until my hormones calm down and my mood improves, there’s always $5 bottles of Chilean red wine.
(Title is from Ben Folds Five “Rockin’ The Suburbs”)
Medellin. Wow. We’ve been here for five days and there’s just so much to say about it. Never have I been to a place where people’s perceptions are so divorced from reality. The end of last century was hell for Medellin but the progress that’s been made in the last 20 years and the city that it has become and the people that populate it are truly remarkable.
The free walking tour is a must for everyone who visits Medellin (pronounced Med-eh-jzin, where the ‘jz’ sound is like when that guy from Queer Eye For The Straight Guy wants to ‘jush’ someone’s hair). They take you to the downtown area where most people would tell you not to go. Best of all they explain “why your parents are freaking out that you’re here, but why there is no need to worry”.
Colombia has a very complex political history which led to ole Pablo Escobar and his cartel buddies running rampant all over Medellin which I can’t even begin to explain. The over-simplification is that there was a civil war raging between conservative and liberal guerrilla armies for the last half of the 20th century; therefore there were lots of people with guns kicking around that were more than happy to do Pablo’s dirty work in exchange for a few pesos. By the end of the 80s he pretty much had control over the whole country.
In the early 1990s Medellin was the most dangerous place in the world with nearly 7000 murders in 1991. Hernán, our tour guide, remembers catching a bus to school and seeing entire buildings which had been bombed the night before. Children would be sent off to school and the parents wouldn’t even be sure if they’d see them again. Kidnapping was par for the course – tourists were prime targets because their countries’ governments could be bribed for more money. With that kind of shit going on Colombia, and Medellin in particular, deserved the international reputation it got.
But that was in the 1990s. In the early 1990s you couldn’t go to New York without getting mugged and yet no one freaked out when Fish and I said we were going to the Big Apple. 20 years ago Brixton was less than salubrious and now it’s a trendy place for young people to party if not move to. So why does everyone still assume we’re going to get kidnapped/robbed/stabbed in Medellin? I don’t have the answer to this, but I suspect it’s got something to do with the War On Drugs – poor Colombia is blamed because they’ve got the supply, yet basic economics would tell you that it’s the demand which is the driving force. The other element is that tourism is only just starting to take off so there hasn’t been enough people going back to their home countries to tell people how beautiful, safe and friendly Colombia is.
The city began transforming in the late 1990s with the help of an iron-fisted president and a brave mayor with a very civic approach. This mayor claimed back public spaces that had become over-run with criminals, where regular residents would never dare go, and overhauled them. The central square for prostitutes, drug-dealers, and hit men was cleaned up and now hundreds of pillars are planted around which are beacons of light at night. Around the square the historic buildings have been converted into a library and cultural centre. Escalators were installed in the poorest neighbourhoods where people would normally have to walk up 300 steps to their house. A metro system was constructed – the first in all of Colombia – which includes a cable car (exactly like the ones on ski mountains) up the hill of those poor suburbs – the first commuter cable car in the world. The striking thing about all of this infrastructure is the way the residents interact with it. It is so apparent that they’ve very recently lived through hell and they take nothing for granted. The metro train is unlike any I’ve ever seen in the world because it’s 20 years old and has not even so much as a scratch on it. The people are so grateful to have that metro system they practically worship it. Every ‘park’ Fish and I visited (they use the words ‘park’ and ‘square’ interchangeably, quite often there won’t be a single green thing in a ‘park’) was filled with people enjoying it. El Poblado- the touristy area and centre of nightlife – is gorgeous and surprisingly cosmopolitan. The streets are lined with enormous leafy trees and there are bars, boutiques, restaurants and cafes for about ten blocks around the main park, Park Lleras. It’s a really hip area, like, sushi bars and succulents-in-cute-pots level of hip.
As a crowd of 30 gringos on a walking tour through the heart of the city we stuck out like dogs balls. Locals would gather around as well despite not speaking a lick of English. They were just so interested as to why we were there. And appreciative of the fact that we had bothered to come. Once an older local man who may or may not have showered in the last week stood right next to Hernán the whole time he was talking, nodding along to everything he was saying. When Hernán had finished and we were about to walk on to the next place, this local grabbed at his arm and rattled off something in Spanish. Hernan stopped and announced to us, whilst Old Mate stood grinning widely next to him, “this guy just wants me to tell you that you’re all very welcome here”.
I found it very interesting that Hernán would make us stand in very close so no locals could weasel in whenever he was about to reference something bad which had happened during Escobar’s reign. People from Medellin are very ashamed of that part of their history. Even Hernán wouldn’t say Pablo Escobar’s name and wouldn’t talk about him directly unless he was asked. There are plenty of tours you can do that are solely about the guy, but we felt uncomfortable supporting them. We heard that they weren’t very good, that they glorified him – made him out to be a Robin Hood type figure. When you’re making $50 million per day I’d imagine that you would have some spare change to give to the people in the slums. The most interesting thing I learned from people who’d done the tour was that he didn’t use banks and spent $1000 every week on rubber bands to tie up bundles of cash. And 10% of his income was written off due to being nibbled by rats.
Of course, Medellin still has its troubles and it’s not all a Utopia. The unemployment rate is about 17% and there were a lot of drunk old men passed out on the steps in the town centre. Down the left side of every church (not sure why it’s always the left side, but it is) you can find a lady (or lady-boy) to take to a nearby hotel room which you can rent by the hour, or if there are none that take your fancy you can pick up any number of hard-core porn dvds from the stalls that line the street. But as a tourist I never, ever felt unsafe. The guerrilla armies are all but dissipated and the few that are still active are in select rural areas near the Venezuelan borders.
I had such a fantastic time in Medellin and was so impressed with what it’s like now compared to how it was. I feel like it’s a personal mission to do some international PR for Colombia and tell the world how beautiful, safe and welcoming it is. It’s becoming an essential leg of the Gringo Trail – the backpackers have discovered its glory. I’m sure it won’t be too long before the rest of the travel and tourism world joins in. And Dad, stop sneering about how it’s the Drug Capital – I’ve seen more lines racked up at house parties in south west London.