THE GRINGO TRAIL
Trip Start Feb 11, 2008
27Trip End Ongoing
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From the white sandy beaches of Brazil and the big city lights of Buenos Aires, to the misty mountains of Peru and the steamy jungles of Bolivia, we've covered it all in South America in the past seven weeks.
Our last update left us dropped in the middle of sticky Rio after nearly six months in Europe.
We landed in Rio on November 6 after an 11-hour haul from London during which flight BA429 suffered the unfortunate predicament of running out of alcohol somewhere across the Atlantic.
"What about vodka?"
"What about wine?
"I'm really sorry, but there's nothing left."
So, jet-lagged and thirsty, we found ourselves on Ipanema Beach in Rio, where we spent three nights, swinging in hammocks, sipping Caipirinhas and watching the beautiful people swagger by on the beach.
On our second day there, we signed up for a tour of Rio, undoubtedly one of the most spectacular cities on the planet, with its sparkling ocean and lush suburban rainforests enclosed by gorgeous mountain ranges.
We covered quite a bit of territory, hiking through the enchanting Parque Nacional da Tijuca - a huge tropical rainforest right in the middle of the city and drove through the sprawling favelas (the poor areas of the city) in Lapa.
We wound our way up the surrounding mountains to take in the million-dollar views from Corcovado, atop which sits magnificent Cristo Redento (Christ the Redeemer) statue.
We gaped at the towering Sugarloaf Mountain and checked out Maracana Stadium, Rio's enormous football shrine...
...where we walked the same path as some of Brazil's greatest players.
We also stopped by colourful bohemian area of Santa Teresa and checked out the famous tile steps.
This well-known walkway is comprised of thousands of mismatched tiles created by a local artist who changes his "exhibition" regularly (and which features in the opening scenes of The Incredible Hulk).
Perhaps the highlight of our visit to Rio was hang-gliding over the city. Having stayed an extra night due to poor whether on the day of our scheduled take-off, we took a wild ride up 700m to Pedro Bonita, were strapped into a set of giant wings and then told to run off a perfectly good mountain.
Caroline, who is completely terrified of heights took the plunge first, closely followed by Chris who secretly pretended he was Superman. It was an exhilarating experience, gliding over the jungles, the favelas and the highrises on the beach.
We circled over the ocean to land safely on the golden sands of Praia do Pepino where we celebrated with a couple of cold beers at a little beach bar.
On November 9, we headed south along the coast by bus to Angara, where we took a local boat two hours to the island of Ilha Grande.
Arriving at the jetty at the tiny town of Vila do Abraao, we had a 1km walk along the beach - with our heavy packs - to our little hostal overlooking the water.
Needless to say the beers were well deserved by the time we finally arrived.
Vila do Abraao is a great town - a long beach, one main dirt road and no cars allowed.
Our arrival in South America had coincided with the start of rainy season, so we spent four days here, relaxing in hammocks, eating cheap seafood with locals in little shack restaurants and trying to avoid the afternoon storms.
One afternoon, with a couple of beers, we sat on the jetty watching local boys play a heated game of football.
As the mist rolled in over the rainforest-covered mountains behind the beach we considered our current situation. "Life", we thought, "is good".
On November 13, we caught the ferry from Ilha Grande back to Angara and then headed further south along the coast by local bus to Paraty (pronounced Parachee).
With its cobbled streets (made of stones bought from Portugal - they were brought over to weigh down the boats the would return with gold collected from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais), this colonial town is one of Brazil's hidden gems.
We stayed at a hostel right on the beach and spent our time - as had become the custom - sitting in hammocks and drinking cold beer at little shacks overlooking the ocean.
Unfortunately we were only in Paraty two nights as we could have stayed much longer, but with so much to see, and relatively a short time to see it all, we had to keep moving.
On November 15, we took a bus six hours to Sao Paulo, then hopped on an overnight coach for a 15-hour drive to Foz do Iguazu in Brazil's south west. It was during this journey we hooked up with Pink, a journo from Hong Kong who we met in Paraty who would travel with us for the next 12 days.
The three of us arrived in Foz do Iguazu at around 11am the next day and set about making our way across the border to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina. After some searching, we found our point of departure (a ramshackle little bus stop with a tiny, hand-painted sign that read "Argentina" - how obvious!) where we caught a local bus to the border where we were stamped out of Brazil. We then waited by the side of the road for an hour for another bus to take us the rest of the way to the Argentina border where we stamped into country 25 for this trip.
Hang-gliding over the jungles and white-sand beaches of Rio - terrifying and utterly exhilarating.
Standing in the shadow of the giant Cristo Redento and gazing down upon one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The all-you-can-eat BBQ extravaganza at Aquario Hostel in Ilha Grande. So. Much. Meat. If there is a heaven, that was it.
Swinging in hammocks with cold beers.
People watching on Ipanema.
Things we learned in...Brazil:
They don't speak Spanish in Brazil, Portuguese is the local lingo.
Don't expect a bargain in Brazil - it's about on par with Australia and no, Havianas aren't 50 cents a pair as the rumours suggest (though we did pick up a few pairs at $5). The best way to secure a cheap feed it to find a por kilo restaurant. Grab a plate, load it up with all sorts of delicious buffet options, weigh your takings and dig in.
Griminess = freedom. After all the effort of having to look and smell half decent for our time in Europe, the impossibility of adequate personal maintenance in a humid, dusty country is somewhat of a relief. There's no point trying to look good, because it ain't gonna happen. Accept it and move on.
The local dish is rice, black beans and fish or chicken. Get used to it.
Buses in Brazil (as we discovered in most South American countries) are great - not the chicken-transporting, bone-rattlers we had expected.
DON'T CRY FOR US, WE'RE IN ARGENTINA
Our reason for visiting Puerto Iguazu was to check out Cataratas del Iguazu (Iguazu Falls) - one of the world's natural wonders (depending on which list you are looking at).
The second biggest waterfall in the world, we'd heard they have to be seen to be believed and, by god, they do. You can view them from both the Argentinean and Brazilian sides, but the general rule of thumb is, if you only have time for one, which we did, then the Argentinean side will blow your mind.
We took a day trip with Pink, arriving at Parque Nacional Iguazu at around 10am. The park is divided into three sections, the Circuito Superior (upper circuit), the Circuito Inferior (lower circuit) and the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat) accessed by a train ride through the rainforest.
We decided to tackle to Circuito Superior first, making our way across walkways beneath which flowed gurgling rivers that would eventually turn into great, gushing waterfalls.
You could hear the sound of the falls before you could see them but when they first came into view, the scene was breathtaking. They were so big, so powerful, so noisy. They curved around the horizon for as far as the eye could see, and that was only part of them.
Standing there, mesmerized by the beauty of the thundering water, we wondered for the first of many times that day, "where the hell was all that water coming from? And where the hell was it all going to?"
We continued along the circuit, passing several coaties (strange creatures that looked like a cross between a cat and a bandicoot that seemed unfazed by humans as they scavenged for food but are apparently quite vicious when provoked) along the way.
We crossed the vast, gushing mouth of the Salto Bernabe Mendez and sat in the shade eating the lunch we had packed, watching the water cascade over the cliffs as colourful butterflies curiously fluttered by.
After lunch we headed back along the upper circuit to the Estacion Cataratas to catch the train to the Garganta del Diablo.
The minute we stepped from the platform, we were literally engulfed by butterflies of all sizes and colours - electric blues, bright purples, fluorescent oranges and stunning reds. Pink and Caroline "played" with them for a while (Chris stood by and watched...apparently butterflies aren't really his "thing") and then we made our way across four long catwalks spanning a great brown river that would eventually spill over into the waterfalls.
Again, we heard Garganta del Diablo well before we saw them, and the giant sprays of mist gushing high into the sky would bee seen from more than a kilometre away.
As we drew close to the lookout, we began passing people returning in various forms of saturation and wondered exactly how close we were to get to this Devil's Throat.
The view from this lookout was even more spectacular than our first sighting - a giant waterfall curved around in a giant horseshoe shape with water cascading over the edge in a velocity that's we'd never imagined could exist. At times the mist was so thick, there was almost zero visibility making it impossible to see Brazil directly in front of us on the other side of the falls. Rainbows appeared from deep within the "throat" and birds swooped and dived precariously though the spray of water.
Within seconds we were soaked through, it was hard to hear anything above the thundering sound of the waterfalls. It felt so...powerful.
Again we were memorized, but eventually we had to tear ourselves away to make our way back along the series of catwalks to the station where the little locomotive transported us to our final destination, the Circuito Inferior were we were to get up close and personal with a waterfall.
We followed the path through rainforest as it hooked around the headland until eventually a great panorama of the falls opened up before us, looking back across to the Garganta del Diablo where were had been standing. We saw speedboats rushing underneath the cascading water and could hear screams across the great canyon as their passengers and thrill and a soaking.
As we rounded the last bend of the path, the thunderous roars of the great Salto Bossetti become clear. And then, there it was. At the end of a 20m catwalk, the enormous face of the falls, tumbling at a frightening speed,
For a few moments, it was just us there, not another single tourist in sight. As we stood at the edge of the railing, staring into the face of the falls, arms raised to the heavens, screaming at the top of our lungs and our hearts pounding, we had never felt more alive.
There is a theory that the cascading water creates negative ions, which make people happier, and we have no doubt that is true. We were energized. Invigorated.
Sunburnt, mosquito-bitten and completely soaked to the bone, we squelched out way back to the main entrance and caught the bus back to town, utterly content.
The next day, November 18, we caught an overnight bus 20 hours to Buenos Aires on the east coast of Argentina.
We only spent two nights here, which was enough time to check out the local sights and sample the world-famous Argentinean steak.
Our key sightseeing was done at La Boca, a working-class suburb located at the boca (mouth) of the Rio Riachuelo, settled by Italian immigrants.
The neighbourhood's main attraction is the Caminito, a pedestrianised area lined with colourful buildings with vibrant corrugated iron roofs and larger-than-life characters protruding from upstairs windows observing the tourists below.
Another highlight was the El Ateneo, an awesome bookstore housed in a former theatre, complete with it's original stage (now a café) framed by huge red curtains, VIP box seats-cum-reading rooms and the ambient lighting created by hundreds of fairy light like globes positioned around the tiers.
It was here we farewelled Pink, who had been our traveling partner for almost two weeks, and headed to the airport to catch a plane to Lima, Peru.
Feeling the force of Iguazu Falls - like nothing imaginable. A highlight of our entire trip so far.
Playing amid a cyclone of butterflies at Cataratas del Iguazu.
The all-you-can-eat Argentinian BBQ extravaganza at a little restaurant called Puerto Leyenda (noticing a trend?)
Taking in our sumptuous surroundings at El Aterno. A visual feast.
Things we learned in...Argentina:
Waterfalls and butterflies are among the simplest pleasures in the world.
DEEPEST, DARKEST PERU
We arrived in Lima on the evening of November 21, which was to be a one-night stay before heading south to Nazca to fly over the famous Nazca Lines. However, the one night was full of more excitement than anticipated, discovering our visit had coincided with the APEC summit and not only was our own Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, in town, but so was George Bush, on his last official business as US President (incidentally, it was the second time we had been breathing the same air as Bush, with him also being in Bled in Slovenia while we were there).
But the excitement didn't stop there. During the night, Caroline awoke to what she thought was a large truck rumbling past the hostel and shaking the window and walls. The next morning we found out Lima had been rocked by a small earthquake. It was out second earthquake for this trip (after the one we experienced while we were in Fethiye in Turkey). It was also the second earthquake Chris had slept through!
On November 22, we caught the bus south to Nazca via Ica (where we finally came across noisy live chickens in Hessian sacks that were also about to board a bus - thankfully not ours).
We arrived in Nazca in the evening and booked ourselves a flight for first thing the next morning.
Spread across an area of 500sqm, the Nazca Lines are actually around 800 lines, 300 geometric shapes and 70 huge animal and plant drawings. They were accidentally discovered in 1939 when an American scientist, Paul Kosok, flew over the desert and noticed the strange marks, which were created by removing stones to expose the lighter soil below.
There are many theories as to what they actually mean, and who created them, ranging from a giant astronomical calendar to extra-terrestrial landing sites, but no one knows exactly what they are or who created them. More importantly, it's not known why anyone would create such large, complex designs that could only be seen from the air.
We had been advised not to have breakfast the morning of the flight and as we took off in the tiny six-seater plane (that's six seats including the pilot's seat), we understood why.
The flimsy plane - roughly the size of a bathtub - shuddered and lurched with every pocket of air and as we dipped and banked to give each side of the plane a view of designs with names like the Whale, the Trapezoids, the Astronaut the Monkey, the Dog, the Condor, the Spider, the Tree and the Hands.
It was an interesting, albeit stomach-churning, experience.
On November 23, we caught another overnight bus (yes, we were getting very used to them by this stage), east to Puno, some 3800m above sea level.
It was here we got our first taste of altitude sickness - which, for anyone who hasn't experienced, feels like you are both drunk and hangover simultaneously. You feel slow, lethargic, heavy, light-headed and like you are about to have a heart attack and/or vomit at any given moment. It's really hard to breath and you have a constant headache. Walking, carrying packs, even rolling over in bed send you into a wheezing fit.
Thus we spent our first afternoon there in bed, shoveling altitude sickness tablets and aspirins down our throats while trying to recover.
Our main purpose for visiting Puno was as a jumping off point for a side trip out to the islands of Lake Titicaca.
The day after we arrived, we headed down to Puno dock, collected supplies of fruit, vegetables, pasta and rice as gifts for the host family we would be staying with that night and hopped aboard a boat, stopping first at the floating islands of the Uros people.
In an effort to escape the Incas living on the mainland, the Uros people began their floating existence, living on islands built using layers of the buoyant totora reeds that grow in the lake. As the reeds rot away from below, the layers are replenished. The people who live on the island use the reeds to make their homes and boats.
Their main food source is fish (they even have fish farms on the islands) and the reeds themselves (we sampled them - raw - and they taste much like lettuce with the texture of soft potato) as well as supplies bought from the mainland.
The chief of the island talked to us about how the islands are built and joined or carved up when families marry or are fighting and we inspected their tiny homes (one even had a solar panel and TV).
We took a reed boat to another reed island and then a proper boat to the village of Santa Rose on Isla Amantani, where we were met at the dock by a group of buxom "mamas" - cute little Peruvian ladies with red checks and long black plaits protruding from beneath their bowler hats, dressed in colourful skirts and white blouses - who would be hosting us in their homes for the night.
As the last two to be allocated a mama, we ended up with a "papa" instead - Victor, whose daughter Marleni had already taken two girls we had made the trip to the island with under her generous wing.
The six of us climbed trekked up the mountainside for about 25 minutes until we reached Victor's little mud-brick home, which he shared with his wife Luisa. Marleni lived next door.
We were shown our little room, complete with two single beds and a table, upstairs from Victor and Luisa's room. There was a small courtyard at the front with a kitchen off to the side that they shared with their daughter.
Luisa and Marleni prepared a delicious lunch of vegetable soup and then we hiked up the hill to 4100m (by now we were really out of breath but put to shame by tiny old ladies practically running past us carrying gigantic sackfuls of water, vegetables and even sheep on their backs) to check out the ruins of Pachatata (Father Earth) and Pachamama (Mother Earth) which had once been used for religious ceremonies.
We spotted Bolivia on the other side of the vast expense of Lake Titicaca and nibbled on Picarones (Peruvian doughnuts) from a small mountainside café as we watch the sun set over the lake.
However the highlight of our adventure was still to come.
Every now and then, we will marvel at how, at any given moment, no one else we know has any idea where we are. That night really felt like one of those moments. As we sat huddled together by candlelight (there is no electricity on Amantani) in the tiny, dirt-floored kitchen at Victor and Luisa's house - Louisa and Marleni cooking dinner on an open fire - we felt completely detached from the world we knew. It was terrifyingly freeing. This was why we travel.
We ate the dinner they had lovingly prepared right there in the kitchen, somehow managing to converse in their very limited English and our very limited Spanish as the candles burned down.
Afterwards, they dressed us up in traditional Peruvian clothes, took us down the mountainside to a little hall lit by a generator, where a band played traditional Peruvian music (and some better known classics) and we danced and sweated until it was time for bed.
The next day, our host family walked us to the dock and waved us off as our boat chugged back across Lake Titicaca to our final stop at Isla Taquile, where we did even more trekking up mountainsides which, we were later to discover, was to be excellent training for the Inca Trail in the coming days.
On November 27, we took yet another bus, this time north-west to Cusco, where we would spend a few more days acclimatising before tackling the trek to Machu Picchu in a few days.
It was during this bus ride that the reality of our surroundings started to hit home. We have seen so much poverty and sadness on our trip that we have almost become a bit immune, possibly for self-preservation reasons. You can't help everyone, and that can be quite depressing. There have been times when we have felt guilty for having money to spend on this holiday - enjoying ourselves while we pass people in the street who haven't got enough to eat. Yes, that is life and yes, we have earned every cent we are spending, but it really was just through pure luck that we were born into a country where we have such opportunities. We understood, but it can be hard to always remember not to take this for granted.
It was the face of a young boy who drove this message home harder than anything else on this trip for Caroline. He'd boarded our bus and was busking, singing and banging some shells together for money. It was dreadful. We plugged our iPods in and tried to avoid his eyes as he collected money from other passengers, until he got off the bus about 15 minutes later.
But as he stood on the side of the road, watching the passengers getting off and on, perhaps wondering how he was going to get back home, guilt began stirring and unfurling it's tendrils in the pit of Caroline's stomach. It was his face. His face was sad, but accepting. He didn't necessarily like his lot in life, but what else could he do? This was a poor country and he had to survive.
The guilt turned into a sick feeling. We'd ignored him, choosing instead to listen to our iPods. A few Peruvian Soles to us was nothing, to him it could have meant food for his family for a week.
But the realization came too late, the bus pulled away and he was left standing by the side of the road.
We immediately resolved to be more generous and aware.
Neither of us is overly selfish, but it's easy to get caught up in commercialism and things that don't matter at home. This trip is constantly giving us harsh reminders that there are more important things to worry about. Ever since that little boy stood on the side of the road, we have both tried to be better at being human. We hope we can continue when we finally make it home.
We had four nights before the trek began, which we spent relaxing. One morning we took a horse ride through the mountains surrounding Cusco, taking in the Inca sites of Saqsaywaman (pronounced Sexy Woman) and the Temple of the Moon. It was a casual trek through the bush (which, surprisingly was full of Eucalyptus trees), just us and the horse guide, but at times we broke into a canter as we emerged in to open fields and valleys.
We also spent some time looking around the markets full of colourful scarves and blankets and all sorts of alpaca wool products, and sampling the cheap local eats whenever the appetite reducing effects of altitude sickness has subdued.
Then, on December 1, the four physically hardest days of our life began.
On the bus we met our guides, David and Juan, and the other 10 people who would be joining us on the trek - a few Aussies, a few Americans, an Irish girl and a Swede.
We drove four two and a half hours, taking in spectacular views of the snow-capped Andes, to the mountain town of Ollantaytambo where we stopped for breakfast. From here it was another hour to Km 82 - the start of the trail.
We had hired one porter (Cesky) between us, who would carry an extra 6kg in special bags on our behalf on top of whatever else we wanted to carry in our own daypacks. At Km 82, the Cesky bags were weighed, we coated ourselves in sunscreen and insect repellant, gave the hiking poles we'd hired from a local camping company a quick test and then we were off.
The first few hours of day one were relatively easy and surprisingly, we lead the pack for most of the way. We passed little houses along the way, as well as various animals such as donkeys, chickens and the odd goat. Eventually though, the track began to climb steeply and within minutes we were puffed and sweaty and at the back of the pack. The path ascended steeply up a mountain and when we finally made it to the top, the view was incredible, looking back over the valley though which we'd just walked.
After a rest, we walked along the ridge, and spotted our first Inca ruins sprawled out in another valley far below.
A further 5km, we stopped for a late lunch in a tiny village and it was here we got out first glimpse of how efficient the Ceskys really were. We had seen them on the track, tiny men with spindly legs carrying 30kg packs the size of beanbags on their back, or sometimes, stacks of 20 plastic chairs, or gas bottles, passing us at almost sprinting pace as we puffed and panted with our tiny day packs, dragging ourselves up the hill with our walking sticks.
When we were to stop for lunch, we expected a tarpaulin on the ground and perhaps some soggy sandwiches, but we were completely shocked by what was awaiting us.
Our group of Ceskys had set up a giant dining tent, complete with tables and chairs, a table cloth, silver cutlery and napkins. There were several hand basins of warm water, soap and towels for us to wash up before we ate, and something that smelt amazing cooking on a portable BBQ nearby.
As we stumbled into the campsite, the Ceskys clapped us in and we took our places, shocked, at the table. One by one plates of the most gourmet food we had seen in almost 10 months began being delivered to the table - avocado and Parmesan salad, baked trout, steamed vegetables and pasta. It was incredible.
We finished up and as we rubbed our full bellies and comprehended the three-hour trek still before us, the Ceskys had cleared away lunch, washed up, packed up the dining tent and were already on their way.
The rest of the final 7km was spent trekking a slight incline and by the time we arrived at the tiny hamlet of Wayllabamba, the Ceskys were of course already waiting, the dining hall and the hand basins ready and waiting, our own personal tents for the night erected in neat rows next to a paddock full of donkeys.
We dropped to the ground, removed our sweaty shoes and socks and enjoyed a cold beer as we watched the sun set over the snow-capped mountains peeking through the valley below. We ate another gourmet dinner and almost immediately retired to our tents, all of us fearing the next day, which every backpacker who had attempted the Inca Trail had reported was the hardest of the trek.
We were woken at 5.30am by David and Juan who came bearing hot Milo. We dressed and ate breakfast in the dark while the Ceskys dismantles our tents and by 6am, as we were putting on our daypacks the Ceskys were already on the road.
To say day two was hard is an understatement. We were all allowed to walk at our own pace and never once told to hurry up. Which was good, because the increasing altitude combined with our general state of unfitness, meant we had a permanent spot at the back of the pack.
The 12 km trek was divided into three sections, with all of us meeting at each checkpoint for a brief rest and a cup of coca tea (which, like chewing coca leaves is supposed to help with the altitude sickness).
But while it was grueling, the scenery was spectacular - rolling green hills and rugged mountains capped with mist, eventually turning into lush green rainforests with waterfalls. We even saw some hummingbirds.
Our destination was a summit, Dead Woman's Pass at 4200m above sea level. For a good few hours it was just steps up. We thought we were going to die.
And then, finally, with the air so thin we could hardly breathe and the rain pelting down around us, we reached the summit.
We stopped briefly to give each other a pat on the back and then began the long knee-jarring descent down the other side. Much easier, though hindered by the limited visibility caused by the rain and Chris snapping his walking step after just a few steps.
We arrived soaking and exhausted at the campsite perched on a mountain overlooking another valley with snow-capped mountains in distance in the early afternoon. We ate lunch, slept for a few hours, woke only to eat dinner and then went straight back to sleep at around 8pm.
Day three began at 4.20am with tent-delivered Milo and a hearty breakfast in the dining tent. By 5am we had slipped on our cold, wet clothes that still hadn't dried from the day before and were on road to conquer what was to be the longest day of the trek - 16km - some very steep up, some very steep down and quite a bit of in between.
It was this day we decided the Incas were really crazy. Loco. We were following the ancient Inca Trail. The trail they used to make their four-day pilgrimage to Machu Picchu.
Of course, there was a path they could have taken that would have had them there in less than a day, but no, they chose to do it that hard way. Something about being "at one with the earth".
And they'd build these giant stone structures as places of worship on the mountainsides along the way. On the mountainsides. Not in the valleys. Up great flights of stone steps and around precarious paths. Loco.
On day three we saw quite a few Inca ruins as we made our way along the track, as well as passing through an incredible cloud forest of flowers, colourful moss and tree ferns.
At times the mist in the mountains was so thick you could only see the path directly in front of you, with an endless sea of white on either side of the path.
As we traversed the rugged terrain, we also encountered several alpine lakes - one of which resembled our home country.
The last section of day three involved another knee-jarring descent down literally thousands of stone steps. It was a pleasure to finally be heading downhill after three days of up, and we decided to celebrate by descending at almost lightening speed. This, we were later to discover, was to be the end of our kneecaps as we once knew them.
As we neared our campsite for day three, we journeyed through an Inca "greenhouse" - tiered terraces used by the Incas to experiment with fruit and vegetable growing conditions built, of course, into the side of a mountain.
Our campsite for the final night was just outside the main gate to Machu Picchu. We ate our final dinner, had a sing-along with the Ceskys and personally thanked them and the guides for all their hard work over the past couple of days.
Day four, the final morning, there was no messing about. Despite severe protest from our knees and thighs, we were up and waiting at the gate to the site by 4.45am.
From here it was a one hour walk (mostly flat but with a brief hands-and-knees climb up a steep stone staircase) to the Sun Gate where, if the weather was co-operating, we would get the classic postcard view of sunrise over Machu Picchu.
Turns out, the weather wasn't co-operating, and there was no view. Nor a sunrise. But the sight of the mist lifting over the famous stone ruins as we made the final descent was unforgettable.
Filthy and stinky after four days trekking without showers, we checked into the site, scowling at the fresh-faced day-trippers who had just arrived by train, secretly declaring them undeserving of being there.
The past four days pain, the blood, the sweat and the tears, vanished the minute we took in our first sweeping view of Machu Picchu. It was so huge, so well preserved.
The colours of the grey stones and the impossibly green grass. The mist was clearing but would sweep in every now and then giving it an enchanted touch.
We wandered around as our guides pointed out ancient sewerage systems, toilets, mummification rooms and houses. We were completely in awe.
Afterwards we all passed out on the grass in the middle of the ruins. We were all exhausted, but it has been one of the most amazing experiences of our lives.
After a rest, we all made our way down the mountain to the nearby town of Aguas Calientas where we had lunch and a few of us rested our tired muscles in the thermal springs.
It was a strange place, with a working train track slicing the narrow main road in two. It was odd experience, sitting at an open-fronted restaurant for lunch and having a train pull up next to your table.
At 6pm we caught a train, then a bus back to Cusco where we checked into the hostel and promptly passed out for 12 hours.
On December 5, after one final day in Cusco, we were back on an overnight bus, this time for 17 hours, crossing the boarder into Bolivia.
Machu Picchu. The pain of four of the hardest days of our lives and the indescribable pleasure at watching the mist clear over one of the world's most breathtaking sights. Unforgettable.
Bouncing our way over the springy floating islands of the Uros people - such a wonderful insight into a alternate way of life.
Horseriding through the Eucalyptus-scented forest in the mountains behind Cusco and being reminded of home.
Dancing with locals to The Beatles in the mountains on an isolated island on Lake Titicaca in a tiny hall lit by a generator. Experiencing real Peruvian hospitality and sharing a meal by candlelight in a tiny dirt-floor kitchen.
Soaking away our aches and pains in the odd town of Aguas Calientas.
Things we learned in...Peru:
The Peruvian people, while among the poorest we have met in the world, are probably the happiest. From their rosy cheeks and smiling eyes, to their endless generosity and kindness - we have so much love for them.
The Peruvian delicacies are guinea pig and alpaca. We tried neither.
Beer does funny things at altitude. It's really hard to pour without filling your glass almost entirely by froth and when you drink it, it tastes fizzy on your tongue - kind of like liquid alcoholic sherbet.
"On-board meals" on buses often means an entire lamb, bought on the coach in a paper sack and carved up right there in front of you.
That we are tougher than we thought...but we are still learning ultimate human compassion.
VIVA LA BOLIVIA
There are subtle changes once you cross the border into Bolivia. It is a poorer country than Peru and thus, everything is slightly less reliable. Buses breakdown, official processes are less formal (we walked across the border and we were asked for bribes when we wanted to use a pen to sign our customs declaration forms). It was going to be an interesting stay.
We arrived in La Paz (altitude 3660m) on December 6 and spent two nights staying at the Adventure Brew Hostel (microbrewery on site and a Nintendo 64 with Mario Kart in the bar...booya!) organizing tours to the salares (salt flats) in Uyuni and to Rurrenabaque in the Amazon Basin.
We also checked out the Mercado de Hechiceria (Witches Market) where, if the urge had of taken us, we could have picked up all various spells, pastes and potions to make this grow bigger, or that grow smaller or so-and-so acquire a bad case of warts. All sorts of herbs and ingredients were on sale, from Viagra to llama fetuses.
On December 8 we took yet another overnight bus to Uyuni. But this one was different. Out of every bus trip we have ever taken in our lives, this had to be the worst. Unsealed road in a bus with shot suspension for 12 hours straight. If you can imagine sitting in one of those vibrating chair you can pay to use in shopping centres, strapped to the back of a camel galloping through an earthquake, then you'll be half way to imagining what this bus trip was like. Just watching the seat vibrating in front of us, put us in danger of suffering an epileptic fit. And neither of us have epilepsy.
After a night of no sleep, we arrived early the next morning and hooking up with a couple of other travelers for a one-day tour out to the salt-flats. We stopped briefly at the Cementario de Trenes (Train Cemetery), 3km out of town, and then to a salt "museum" (read: shop) where everything was on sale - from dice to ashtrays - were made of salt).
And then we hit the salt flats.
We hate to be so repetitive, but they were like nothing else we had ever seen before. Once an enormous salt lake, from which the water had evaporated, there was endless white as far as the eye could see. If it wasn't boiling hot, you would have sworn you were on Antarctica.
Puddles from a light shower that morning were shimmering in the sunlight and casting perfect reflections of the blue skies and fluffy white clouds above.
We stopped at a few houses and hotels made entirely of salt, including the furniture, and then continued speeding across the white expanse.
After a while a large rock appeared on the horizon and increased in size as we drew closer. After an hour we arrived at the rock, which turned out to be a massive island in the middle of the salar, completely covered in nasty looking cactuses.
It was here we had lunch and spent a few hours taking funny photos making use of the odd perspective the endless white created.
You know, us with giant Kit Kats, us jumping out of Pringles containers, Chris surfing a thong (flip flops for our overseas friends), Caroline emerging from a banana...
...Chris giving Caroline a boost and...
...Caroline giving Chris a prod.
After several hours in the scorching sun reflecting off the brilliant white, we headed back the way we came, stopping twice for two flat tyres (a common occurrence in Bolivia that usually requires waiting by the side of the road until a passing can pulls over and lend you their spare).
And that was the Salar de Uyuni.
Making use of Bolivia's lax over-the-counter drug laws, we headed to the chemist, bought a local version of Valium and popped a couple for a surprisingly restful overnight trip back to La Paz.
We arrived back in town at 6am the next morning, December 6 and promptly headed for La Paz airport for our flight to Rurrenabaque for our three-day Pampas tour in the Amazon Basin.
We had the option of an 18-hour bus trip, but, with limited time left in South America, we decided to pay the extra for a 45-minute flight. The only problem was, with Rurrenabaque airport being little more than a tin shed and the landing "strip" being just a paddock, flights were often delayed or cancelled because of rain.
Fortunately, that morning, we were in luck, and we made our 11am flight without any dramas.
We spent the afternoon checking out the tiny three-street town of Rurrenabaque and dozing in hammocks, unaccustomed to both the heat and the normal atmosphere at just 400m above sea level.
The next morning at 9am, we took off by jeep (along with an Irish couple and a German girl, our driver, our guide Yuri and our cook Thomas). It was a journey of roughly three hours, along a bumpy, dusty road to Santa Rosa de Yacuma on the banks of the Yacuma River.
We loaded up the long canoe and then we were off. We had hoped we might see a couple of the alligators promised in the brochures but within minutes we were seeing hundreds - lounging on the riverbank, resting in the murky brown water or just a pair of yellow eyes submerged just below the surface.
There were squeals of delight and nervousness (and that was just the boys) as the 'gators swam out to inspect our canoe.
Coming from Australia, we expected to be snapped up and swallowed whole at an moment, but we learned that 'gators would leave us alone unless they felt threatened as we were just too much effort. Which was lucky because for the next few hours, as we cruised slowly down the Yacuma, we saw thousands of alligators who could have decided we could make a worthwhile lunch.
Fish plopped in the water while turtles lazily sunned themselves on logs.
We also came across strange creatures called capibarras that looked like oversized wombats lounged in the mud on the riverbank.
We saw loads of amazing bird species - colourful chicken-size things that gathered in flocks in the trees and huge storks that stood on needle thin legs taller than a human, as well as all sorts of eagles, vultures and hawks.
We even fed tiny squirrel monkeys that raced down from the trees and jumped aboard our canoe the minute a banana was produced.
However, the pink river dolphin, also mentioned in the brochures, remained elusive.
For the next three days we cruised the Yacuma by day...
...and slept on the riverbank in a wooden lodge on stilts by night.
We were stalked by psycho cows that glared at us as we glided by on the way to the "bottleshop", a riverside shack run by local Amazonians who crushed us several times at volleyball.
We fished for piranhas and ate them for dinner ...
...and walked through the steamy pampas in search of anacondas (we eventually found a rather large one curling itself around a tree).
We had beers and watched sunset at a bar on the riverbank and took respite from the heat in hammocks back at the lodge.
And we met Frederico, the enormous 'gator who lived below the jetty at our lodge. He seemed friendly enough, but we couldn't help but notice the desirable way he eyed us off every time we disembarked the canoe.
One night we piled into the canoe with our torches for a bit of alligator-spotting.
It was an unforgettable experience as we cruised in silence down the river in the pitch-blackness, a thousand glowing eyes staring back at us like floating candles.
By day three, now unfazed by the alligators that shared our surroundings, we dared to take a swim in the river.
First, our guide, Yuri, enticed a 'gator the locals had named "Pedro" to the shore with a meal of leftover piranhas from our fishing adventure.
Yuri showed us how to "pat" Pedro on the nose - between the eyes and well away from his frighteningly sharp teeth.
So, after plucking up the nerve, we did too. Our courage now well-and-truly bursting over, it was time for a swim.
We quietly slipped into the murky water, fully aware of the piranhas and alligators that would be swimming, unseen, beneath us.
It was completely terrifying, yet we were so glad we had done it. What a rush!
With overnight rain on our last night in Rurrenabaque, our flight on December 14 was delayed by a few hours until the runway (paddock) dried up.
It was slightly off-putting to see a couple of blokes scooping water out of puddles on the paddock with a cup and bucket when we arrived at the airport, but we were just glad to be getting out of there without to much of a delay.
We initially had just three nights in La Paz, but decided to stay extra two nights so we could visit San Pedro Prison.
We know, it seems like an odd addition to our sightseeing list but from what we'd heard, it was definitely a worthwhile expedition.
If anyone has read or heard about the book Marching Powder by Australian journo Rusty Young about prisoner Thomas McFadden, you'll know all about San Pedro.
If not, here's the basics:
It's not your usual prison. Like everything in Bolivia, San Pedro is a corrupt system. Prisoners buy their own cells, much like you would buy a house. And, just like any housing market, there are certain areas, or sectors in the prison, that are more exclusive than others. Prisoners can own TVs, microwaves, fridges - pretty much anything they want to pimp up their cells - as long as they can pay for it. Prisoners have their own keys to their cells and the guards don't go in except for role call in the morning. There are restaurants and shops and entire families live on the inside - kids and wives mixing with prisoners incarcerated for all sorts of crimes.
Rusty Young spent three months living in the prison with Thomas McFadden, writing his story - a Scouser arrested for drug trafficking.
You can go on a "tour" of the jail by bribing police and tipping bodyguards to ensure a safe passage. Enough money will even buy you a night's accommodation there, if you so wish.
We weren't up for a night behind bars, but, having secured a copy of the book while we were in La Paz, we were keen to see this strange place for ourselves.
After following the advice of other travelers who had been to San Pedro, we took enough money for bribes, headed to the prison and loitered out the front, waiting to be approached for a "tour".
Almost immediately a lady called Liz approached s and took us through the gate and to a small room just off to the left. Here we met with a couple of other travelers who were there for the same thing, and we paid our "bribe" (250 Bolivianos each, roughly $50) which would go to the guards to turn a blind eye as we walked through the main gate.
We were introduced to Phillipe, our friendly guide, a Portuguese prisoner who was also in for drugs...
...as well as three burly bodyguards who would be escorting us on our "tour".
For two hours we wandered through San Pedro, checking out the various accommodations and sights we'd read about in the book. We ate lunch at one of the prison restaurants and watched a game of football being played between two prison teams (they even had uniforms).
For the most part, the living conditions were fairly basic (there was no hot water - prisoners had wired up an element to the power lines to boil water in a bucket), but it seemed everything we'd heard was true. Prisoners were free to roam around - smoking, watching TV (ironically 'The Shawshank Redemption' was playing while we were there) and playing pool kids. Women worked side-by-side in shops and children played with toys in the courtyard.
We wondered about the kind of childhood these kids would have living in a prison, but we were told that living on the outside, the prisoners' wives would struggle to support their family and their husband in jail so the children would be forced to work. But when the wife and children move into jail, the family stays together and the husband and wife are both able to work in shops and restaurants while the children go to school (it's compulsory).
We never once felt threatened or unsafe.
Though we must admit, it was a bit unnerving standing on the edge of the "swimming pool" talked about in Young's book. Apparently the small pool is used during times of in-house justice, when criminals of a certain natural - pedophiles, rapists etc. - are convicted and the prisoners administer their own form punishment, usually by drowning them.
The tour itself ended in the cell where Rusty and Thomas had lived while they were writing their book. It was completely surreal and despite it all being a bit strange, we are glad we did it - a fitting way to end out time in Bolivia and a great conclusion to our South American chapter.
Swimming with alligators, fishing for piranhas, floating down the Yacuma. Our few days in the Amazon were absolutely incredible.
Drinking 12-year-old Scotch and having Spanish lessons with Marta, Harry, Sylvia and Max, an aging hippy who was a dead ringer for Mick Jagger at the La Luna bar after hours.
Being smuggled into one of La Paz's most exclusive clubs, Ruta 36 and emerging in daylight the next morning
Tearing across the white expanse of the Salar de Uyuni. Wicked!
San Pedro Prison. You have to see it to believe it.
Things we learned in...Bolivia:
Everything you hear about Bolivia is true. The things that we saw might have struck us as bizarre in other countries, but in Bolivia, they don't even warrant a comment.
We had an awesome time in South America and our only regret is that we couldn't stay longer. The things we saw, the people we met - it is a chapter of this trip that we'll remember forever.
But on December 20, after seven weeks on the continent, it was time to leave. we spent one night in Lima before flying overnight to New York where we were to meet Chris' parents and sister for Christmas and New Year's Eve. That update, up next.
Chris and Caroline xx
We hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, wherever you were in the world!
Happy Birthday to Beck, Carlos and Vanessa and belated wishes to Dave B, Dara, Lou, Patrick and Jen (and anyone else we missed!). We hope you all had a wonderful day and celebrated in style. Very special birthday thoughts to Caroline's little brother Johnathon who is now finally able to drink legally. Happy 18th Birthday Jack!