31 Mar

Dilapidated Church spre with wires

Lima has some of the best food in South America, especially if you like fish. So if you happen to find yourself here you really have to go to any of Gaston’s restaurants as they are all brilliant apparently. Although we can only personally recommend Astrid & Gaston.

Lima coastline

But if you want our advice, don’t go out of your way to come to Lima. And that’s all we have to say about that.



18 Mar

Exhausted and ill prepared we race from our trek briefing – which predominantly involved the tour operator trying to persuade us out of the trip, “it’s extremely difficult, maybe too difficult” – from shop, to shop, to shop, gathering all the provisions we can think of. Much haggling later we collapse in our Cuzco hotel room and survey a pile of socks, inflatable pillows, plasters, muscle rub and chlorine tablets that make us wonder what we’ve let ourselves in for.

The following morning, after the standard 5am breakfast, we are bundled into a clapped-out taxi, followed by a stomach churning mountain bus, then finally an ‘off-road’ dust box for the final up, then down, the hill to Cachora. It’s the bus that provides the morning’s most entertaining moment – a deafeningly loud on-bus sales pitch by a Latin American cup-o-soup vendor. For one hour, and seemingly without drawing breath, this man preached about ‘Maca’, a powdered concoction (not Cocaine he felt the need to point out) which will, with but two spoonfuls a day he assured us, cure malnutrition, osteoporosis, and even impotence! Not a marketing technique you’d see Bachelors following any time soon.

Road in Cachora, Peru

In Cachora we are led to an adobe farmhouse where, in the sunny courtyard within, we are served a rice and chips lunch along with a fermented maze beverage that we surreptitiously pour into a flowerbed. As we sit on the impossibly wonky floor, casually watching the chickens pecking about our feet, two mules are loaded with provisions including – as it later transpires – leaky tents. We are also introduced to Silvio, our “English speaking” guide, whose only English bizarrely turns out to be the word ‘sugar’, and Demetri, the cook and mule man. Silvio, with his portly physique and maturity of years is a rather unconvincing looking guide for such an expedition, but we need not have worried because old Silvio proves to have the strength of an Ox and the stamina of a prize fighter.

Standing in the courtyard

At 2pm we take our first walking-booted steps and, with packs and hiking poles strapped to our backs, we leave behind the terracotta houses, Chicha flags, and toothless old women for the undulating mountain road ahead. We ascend and descend at a steady pace for the next four hours, stopping only to mutter words of amazement at the beauty and vastness of the valleys stretching out before us.

Just after dark we arrive at the first night’s campsite. It’s better than expected, but the same cannot be said of the tent. The four-man, ‘extreme weather” tent we were promised in Bamba’s* office turns out to be a mix and match one-man that Adam can’t even fit in diagonally. Thank God there was a kitchen tent for us to sleep in which, although neither waterproof nor four-man, nor even vaguely complete, could at least fit all of Adam inside. Although this becomes little conciliation when, on day four, it begins to rain and we have to start sleeping partially submerged in water.

Shelter aside, we’re very well looked after over the next seven days, with surprisingly hearty meals conjured up hunched over a gas stove and served on a little wobbly table covered in a chequered cloth. On particularly tough days, afternoon tea is even served, and trust us, you need it after hiking vertically in both directions for between eight and 11 hours.

Mountain picnic

For the first few days we find ourselves keeping pace with a German duo, Udo and Julian who, apart from a few rugged mountain folk, are the only people we meet. This allows our mule men to keep each other company – it transpires they are father and son, both called Demetri – and meal-by-meal they inch our tables closer together until finally we’re united to share reflections on the day’s hardships from within the adobe storerooms, chicken coups and idyllic small holdings in which we eat.

Walking the mountain pass

Even with the jungle boot camp as training it’s still tough going. With moments – walking relentlessly uphill, soaked in sweat, baking in the sun or freezing in the cold – when you were ready to give up. But then you would stop for a Snickers, look back over the twisting path by which you’d come, and muster the energy to continue. To magnificent Incan terraces that reveal themselves through the trees, or fresh mountain rivers that reward you with a swim. Through potato fields in remote Andean villages, or jagged peaks above the clouds where we watch the sun melt into the snow-capped mountains.

Reaching Choquequirao was another of these moments. Emerging from the forest with legs wobbling the path opens out onto what would have been the main square. It is completely deserted (one of the benefits of visiting an ancient site that can only be accessed on foot), with only the manicured grass revealing the presence of another human being before us. The Incas themselves only inhabited Choquequirao for 40 years before abandoning it when the Spanish invaded in the 16th Century. But luckily for us the Conquistadors, unsurprisingly, never found it precariously perched atop of a mountain, and its majesty remains preserved. All we can say is that if you want to understand why the Incas built their cities up this high, you really have to go see for yourself.

There were also days which were, at the time at least, less rewarding. Like climbing to the highest point of over 5,000m in the pouring rain. Struggling to breathe was hard enough, but pair this with no visibility and freezing, wet clothes, made it quite unbearable. Only unbearable wasn’t an option. So we walked for six hours without stopping, and only then briefly for lunch sheltered beneath the overhanging roof of an animal shelter.

Somehow Silvio and Demetri managed to cook us a meal, whilst we could barely talk or hold a spoon so numbed were we with cold. Oh how we craved a roaring fire that day, but the best we got was a cold beer in the farm shop (a.k.a. mud hut) and a wet tent to sleep in.

And then there was the plain ridiculous, like having to hitch a ride in the back of a logging truck after a landslide had swept away any possibility of our bus getting through. Not so bad you might think, until you find out that we were sharing this truck with a mad, foaming-at-the-mouth, thrashing about, bull on its way to the butchers. Or the time when Silvio strung a rope across a 50-ft raging waterfall and, just after loosing his footing and sending a rock tumbling into the froth below, wondered whether we might like to cross here. We didn’t. Opting against certain death for the mildly irritating two-hour extension to our journey. And finally, the “cable car”, a basket suspended on a cable over a mountain river that involved the three of us pulling ourselves across using our hands. To be honest though, this part wasn’t that scary. That is until, just before pushing off, our guide thought we’d like to here the story of the other guide who’d died here recently.

By the time it came to ascending Machu Picchu, feeling had returned to our fingers, our sodden boots had dried and the sun had come out. Machu Picchu is as incredible as you expect it to be. Only with far more people. Thanks to the trains that pull into the base town of Aguas Calientes and the buses that connect you with the summit. It gave us quite a shock to see so many other human beings and to dine in a restaurant when we’d been eating in chicken coops by candlelight for the past six nights.

When it came to the final ascent – us now being seasoned hikers – we shunned the bus in favour of getting up at 4am, waiting for the bridge to open and climbing/running to the summit on foot. After 50 minutes of steep steps in the cool mist, we arrived at the entry gates at dawn. Unsurprisingly it became a race to the top and we fared well, with Adam the 3rd person up there and Olenka the 6th and number 1 girl (although unfortunately she missed out on the testosterone fuelled high fiving of the podium positions). So, first in line, we got to experience Machu Picchu before the tour buses descended and would have had that postcard people-free photograph if it hadn’t been for the pesky mist veiling the view.

The mist eventually cleared and we got to see what everyone raves about and yes, it was all very worth it. After a few hours of exploring the green terraces, petting the resident llamas and weaving our way amongst the Incan temples we took a slow, and aching, walk back into town to catch the train back to Cuzco where a well deserved massage awaits us…

* Heed warning here; if you see the name Bamba on your booking form proceed with caution, if at all. We booked our trek through STA Travel and, although STA Travel dealt with our problems as best they could, Bamba are to be avoided. They are a totally unprofessional outfit and, frankly, very playful with the truth.



20 Jan

And here’s a short, cobbled together film made up of random clips shot whilst working in the jungle.



12 Dec

The Manu reserve in the Amazon Rainforest, Peru

We’ve come to the end of a month of hard Amazonian graft, but before we leave for good, we’re off on a four-day expedition to visit some of Manu’s indigenous communities.

We begin, in typical jungle style, wearing ponchos (it’s been raining all night) aboard a boat riding low in the swollen Madre de Dios river, attempting to avoid the huge storm swept trees that glide ominously past. When we reach the port of Atalaya we wait. And wait. And wait. And, being Peru, there is no indication as to how long we will be waiting for.

Man riding motorbike on pot-holed Pilcopata road, Peru

Just over two hours later a battered minibus emerges from the landslide cleared mountain pass to take us to Pilcopata (or Pillcopata, depending which of the town’s signs you read). Here we find a pot-marked road sprinkled with a handful of shops selling a limited, and identical, collection of wares, two restaurants (if they can be called such), an internet café, one bar serving one type of beer, and our very own, very basic hostel.

Hut in Peruvian community in Manu Reserve

In the afternoon the rain lets up just long enough for us to begrudgingly slip into our welly boots – we’re literally counting the days until poisonous snakes no longer pose a threat so we can indulge in more comfortable footwear – and walk two hours to a nearby community. Rather oddly the villagers aren’t expecting our visit, but they tolerate us nosing around their thatched huts, photographing their livestock and taking a dip in their river. Refreshed, but somewhat hungry, we make our way back to town, timing our arrival perfectly with the setting of the sun over the ramshackle roofs.

The sun setting over the tin roofs of Pilcopatta, Peru

That evening we patronise one of the local eateries to tuck into the standard Peruvian fare of chips, rice and ‘something else’ and, since this is our first taste of (semi) freedom, we can’t resist the urge to buy a bottle, and then another bottle, of rum. Which regrettably results in us bidding one another goodnight at 2.30am, six and a half hours after our usual MLC bedtime.

Hut at Queros Community in Manu Reserve, Peru

The following morning we drag our tired and hungover selves out of bed for a breakfast of rice, chips and…fried banana in preparation for another mammoth walk, this time to the Wachiperi speaking, Queros community. We’ve been told of a Peruvian prophesy which predicts a renaissance of the Incan empire, and states that it will be from amongst the Queros people that its next ruler will be chosen. Although with a couple of old ladies, some hyperactive kids, and just two good men of fighting age, we think it might be best for the Incas if they hang fire for a bit.

Toothless Queros lady in Peru

Queros is a tiny indigenous community of simple, stilted huts clustered around a small rectangle of grass where coca is dried, football is played, and the ducks do laps. It’s an incredible experience being here and the hospitality and lodgings go far beyond our expectations of a remote rainforest community, sleeping in a sturdy hut complete with beds, and eating hearty meals of fried, boiled, or steamed yucca along with, if you were lucky, a cockerel that had obviously lived a long and very energetic life.

Olenka by the river in Queros community, Peru

We also swim in the giant bouldered river, take part in an archery competition (no prizes for guessing who came 1st) and are taught how to make traditional seed necklaces by elderly women with leathery fingers. The following morning we visit the forest to pick up all sorts of medicinal plant wisdom: the Tiger Blood tree whose red sap has antiseptic and healing qualities; The Angel Trumpet flower that will save you from a snake bite as long as you can stomach the three days worth of paralysis, blindness, and severe hallucinations; The Sano Sano, an ancient fern that can be administered to a wound in place of stiches; and a type of fig tree whose leaves can be boiled to relieve extreme stomach complaints (although too much will kill, rather than cure you). When it’s time to leave the boys take on the long walk back, and the rest pile into a motorbike trailer and, on thin wooden planks, bump through the forest at high speed, slowing down for nothing, not even the two river crossings.

Adam at archery at the Queros community, Peru

Back in town we discover it’s Pilcopata’s 8th birthday celebrations, although none of us really have the energy for a party and, aside from a handful of men congregating around crates of beer and one staggering/dancing drunk, neither do the locals. Before escaping to bed a few of the girls oblige the crate-sitters, and the poor band, with a dance, but their drunkenness only widens the language gap and they head of to bed. This leaves Adam with Mr Electricity, a wild eyed madman whose only party piece was to shout “electricidad” whilst miming being electrocuted. If this wasn’t the cue to leave the next party guest, a thug who joined the conversation by pointing to his profusely bleeding nose and repeating the word “fighting”, was.

Peruvian men drinking sat on crates at Pilcopata's 8th birthday

The following morning we don lifejackets (or in Adam’s case a crop top) and take to the rapids. Well, there was one ‘rapid’ part – during which two people fell in – the rest of the trip back is spent quietly gliding through tranquil canyons, jumping off rocks, enjoying the views, and saying goodbye to the rainforest. Because once we return to the MLC, all that is left for us to do is pack up our damp belongings and bid farewell to the people we’re leaving behind.

Rafting with the volunteers on the Amazon, Peru

It’s bitter sweet. Because although we’re looking forward to getting back to a life of varied meals, hot showers, dry clothes and, most of all, privacy, we also realise what a unique opportunity this has been. To spend a month living and working in one of the most diverse environments on the planet and to gain an understanding of the complex and fragile ecosystems and communities that live here, has been unforgettable. For over a month we have called home an area of land that is supports 20% of the world’s known species of bird and over 10% mammals. A region we have also shared with some of the world’s most un-contacted communities. It’s amazing for us to think that we lived alongside people completely untouched by modern society. Communities so remote, in fact, that the locals call them ‘naked people’ for they are yet to adopt clothing.

Jungle community in remote Manu Reserve, Peru

However, it’s also frightening to discover how in danger life is here. We have seen first hand how much damage has already been done to the rainforest and the knock on effect this has for the wildlife that relies upon on it. And, like the original, untouched rainforest – or Primary rainforest as it is known – which some say can no longer be found anywhere in the world, these indigenous communities are also on the brink of extinction. Only last week we heard that a local man was shot in the chest with an arrow by one of the naked people. Luckily two of the MLC staff were passing in a boat and managed to rescue the man’s wife and children. But incidences such as this must inevitably spell the end for Manu’s indigenous people and a way of life that hasn’t changed for, well, ever.

Queros kids with camera in Peru

Despite the many barriers that stand in the way of a sustainable Amazon, we have also come to realise that it is absolutely vital, when tackling a problem of this size, and however futile it might seem, to do the little you can. What we were doing is not going to save the rainforest, sadly perhaps nothing can, but the work we did at CREES did help maintain the MLC as a viable research centre and the projects we completed in the local communities did, in a small way, slow the ravaging effect people are having on the forest. Is it enough? Of course not, but if there were a lot more organisations like CREES, it just might be.

Damaged forest in Manu, Peru

Anyhow, back to the chain of events…We then pull up in Cuzco, have a hot shower, and eat an enormous pizza.

But unfortunately our freedom is short lived, as we only have one day to readjust to the altitude, purchase whatever provisions we might require for an 8-day trek to Machu Picchu and get some sleep. Because at 5am tomorrow, we’re off …



26 Nov

Volunteers walking home after bio gardening in Salvacion

Know your transects from your tomahawk traps?  Can you distinguish between the calls of a White-Eyed Parakeet and a Blue-Headed Macaw?  Ever come across an Oropendula?  Seen a Tapir?  Or eaten Termites straight from the nest? Any idea what to do if you encounter a puma stalking you on the path or are bitten by a Coral Snake?  Perhaps you’re more familiar with wielding a machete then?


Nor us.  That is until we have worked our way through a few weeks worth of jobs marked up on the Manu Learning Centre’s whiteboard.  The routine itself is pretty simple, generally starting at about 5am if you’ve got to go and count Macaws or check on the animal traps, and finishing up at around 4pm, depending on how quickly you walk or how well you handle a machete.  All in all there are about 10 projects running at any one time, making each week slightly different, however to give you an idea what CREES does, all of the jobs fit within one of two main categories; Community Projects or Scientific Research.

Whipsnake in the Manu Reserve, Peru

First up – for us at any rate – was a bit of Bio Gardening, a community project in the nearby town of Salvacion.  Of course when we say nearby, we mean a 50-minute boat ride followed by a one-hour hike through the jungle to reach a clearing in the forest where just over a thousand families live in wonky planked simplicity.  The aim of the project is to tackle the problem of malnutrition in the area by giving local families access to vegetables and skills they otherwise wouldn’t have. It involves (in the baking sun) digging, weeding, chopping, shaving, sowing and watering.  Sometimes the families help and sometimes, sadly, they remain tucked up inside with the TV on.  However, the families that do choose to toil with us, and reward us with luminous bottles of Inca Kola at the end of a hard day’s work, make it all worthwhile.  As does walking past previously planted gardens laden with plump courgettes and thick heads of lettuce, or seeing another that’s been extended to accommodate the growing demands of a hungry family.

Woman being helped to build a garden fence by a little girl in the Peruvian Amazon

Another community project we were involved in was Agroforestry, a carbon offsetting initiative led by Oxford University, which aims to provide local farmers with a sustainable alternative to logging.  Like Bio Gardening, Agroforestry means leaving the MLC early with a Tupperware box of rice under your arm, and hiking through the jungle for one or two hours before crossing a number of waist-deep rivers, but this time with no aid of a boat (requiring a certain amount of disrobing and, depending on the amount of rain the night before, a precautionary amount of hand holding).

Olenka knee deep in the Amazon on the way to work

Twice a week we struggle to the Agroforestry plots – one acre semi-cleared areas of land – to hack through bamboo forest, (unsuccessfully – check out the pic of the Doc digging away at Adam’s hand) avoid spearing ourselves on toxic splinters, and dig through rocks and rock-like roots with a machete (the Peruvian tool of choice for pretty much anything) in order to plant a variety of trees between the bananas.  The idea being that the various soft and hard wood species will give the farmers – at no cost to them – a reliable revenue stream that incentivises the protection of these trees into maturity.  Not to mention creating a source of wood that would otherwise be taken, illegally, from the rainforest itself.  It’s no easy feat, it is unfathomably sweaty and it doesn’t always work, as only a few can be persuaded to take part, look after their plots properly, or be deterred from the big old boys in the forest.   But that aside, it’s extremely satisfying seeing the neat little rows of Pashacas, Cedros and Tornillo nodding their green heads in the breeze whilst munching on a fresh, juicy pineapple slice courtesy of a grateful farmer. Yes, ha ha, look how much of a lanky goon Adam is.

Adam and Olenka with the Agroforestry farmers

Back at the MLC the focus is on the forest and the wildlife living within it.  A fact that is made patently obvious by the enormous tattoo of a jungle ecosystem winding its way up and around the arm of Andy, CREES’s Scientific Coordinator. Andy’s role, in addition to working on his PHD, is to ensure that all the research projects shared out among the seven of us run smoothly. 

Juvenal at the MLC measuring an possom caught in a tomahawk trap

Projects such as the 5am Claylick shift (where we count the Macaws and other colourful birds that congregate to ‘lick’ the clay for minerals); the marking out of transacts (forest paths that the biologists routinely walk to gain an understanding of the diversity in the reserve); the setting of butterfly traps (we don’t keep them, just photograph some of the thousands of species); the twice daily checks of the tomahawks (small mammal traps where we measure, weigh and take mug shots of the mice, rats and opossum we find); the recording of leaf litter, canopy cover, tree growth and animals snapped on the camera traps; and the frequent attempts, day and night, to catch frogs, snakes, and other amphibians in the jungle.

Puma captured at night on camera trap at the MLC

At CREES you also get to live with and learn from some incredible people.  Like Renaldo, the Amazon’s answer to The Swiss Family Robinson, who has turned his garden into a sort of laboratory of subsistence farming.  Alongside the standard veg plot and the chickens, goats and guinea pigs (they’re tasty to Peruvians) he keeps, he fertilises eggs for his trout farm in a bucket, suspends chicken coops above the lakes so that their waste will fall into the water and create algae for the fish to feast upon, grows special trees to encourage termite nests that he mixes with his compost and, probably best of all, even produces his own cooking gas in a bio digester powered by his family’s own, um, gases.

Renaldo the sustainability guru

But for all the hard, hot work, cobweb strewn forest walks, bamboo spiked fingers, thunderstorms in the forest during night walks, mountains of laborious hand washing, ridiculously early mornings, creepiest of crawlies, and a jungle camping trip from which Adam came back with one eye swollen shut from an unknown sting (naturally he still had a great time), there’s a lot of fun to be had. 

Adam with a swollen eye returning from jungle camping

You see some fascinating things, from wild forest tortoise and giant jungle crabs to Tarantula-eating wasps and Capuchin, Dusky-Titi, Red Howler – and so many other – monkeys swinging and cackling in the trees.  In the garden Hummingbirds put on daily shows between the sleek, silver trees and Razor-billed Curassaws take a stroll across the tic-infested grass.  And each Sunday is yours to enjoy the beauty of the place in whichever way you please.

Inflated frog in the night time Amazon

We even manage to celebrate Adam’s 30th birthday in style.  Well, jungle style.  With a breakfast of ‘Feliz Compleanos’ decorated pancakes, video messages from the family (with no phone or other form of contact, birthday wishes had to be ordered ahead), and a dinner donning our finest threads (which turned out to be an interesting range of get up), after which we indulge in a mammoth, candle-strewn chocolate cake (for other newly acquired field kitchen cookery skills consult the MLC blog), play music (this may seem normal but it is a VERY rare occurrence), and stay up past midnight (a completely unique incidence!).

Adam's birthday pancake

We then repeat, Birthday excluded, for the remainder of the month, at the end of which we have a four-day expedition to look forward to.  Although the word ‘expedition’ doesn’t sound like a particularly relaxing reward…



21 Nov

Mist rising from the Manu Reserve Rainforest from the Madre de Dios

Our Cuzco bound bus lurches out of the La Paz terminal past hoards of bowler-hatted women perched amongst pavement stalls and performing the morning ritual of ferocious hair combing. Leaving them behind we first climb steeply through the tightly packed houses, then plateau out into partially built uniformity before the city, and its bustle, eventually give way to open farmland.

The first leg of the journey is relatively uneventful, apart from an ‘are you smuggling drugs?’ type form that needs to be filled in at each military base we pass along the way, so it’s not long before we hit Bolivian border control, which is as relaxed on the way out as it was on the way in. Across the bridge in Peru (where we lose yet another hour not to mention a number of locals who make a dash for the hills) it’s a different story, with a long queue, official looking staff, and even an electric swipe system. Which makes it all the more surprising when we see that they’re watching Thundercats.

Crossing the Peruvian Bolivian border bridge

Back on board the bus, and with the great expanse of Lake Titicaca (the largest lake in South America and the world’s highest navigable lake) to our right, we set a course for the snow-capped Andes in the distance beyond. As we struggle upwards we pass undulating fields of hardy pampas grasses, sporadic herds of llamas being watched over by crouched, stoic looking farmers and, as the sun finally disappears into the folds of crumpled mountains, twinkling tin roofed farmsteads cut directly into the rock.

Cuzco at dusk, just after the rain

At 9pm, 18 hours later, we’re welcomed by the glittering lights of yet another high altitude city – Cuzco, or Qosqo, in Quechua, the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the Americas and the one time centre of the mighty Incan Empire. Here we are due to spend a couple of days before starting our “jungle training” and, thanks to an admin mix-up, we gain an unexpected extra day of sightseeing. Which we spend visiting the Chocolate Museum, emerging bathed in the heady aroma of cocoa, drinking beer in the sunshine of a leafy square with Cuzco’s answer to the Rio Jesus perched above on a hill, indulging in unique and ridiculously delicious pizzas at 138 Bodega, and eating out at one of the best restaurants (Cicciolina) we’ve been to since leaving London. It’s the most touristy place we’ve been to yet, but with its narrow, cobbled streets, beautiful colonial plazas and nearby ancient sites such as Machu Picchu, it’s hardly surprising.

Peruvian woman walking down cobbled streets in Cuzco

Our CREES (Conservation, Research and Environmental Education for Sustainability) volunteering baptism officially begins with a tour around the market with Tilman, our volunteer co-coordinator. Here we sniff, prod and nibble curious fruits, cheeses and salted meats, learn about the hundreds of varieties of Andean potato and visit a frog soup serving ‘witch’. We then head to the office to fill in forms, sign health related waivers, hand over our passports and non-jungle specific belongings, place an order for bio-degradable detergents, and generally find out a little bit more about what we’ve let ourselves in for. The rest of the afternoon is spent feverishly hunting down computer sized zip-lock bags, collecting shrunken washing and sending some ‘farewell-we’re-off-to-the-jungle-for-a-month-type-emails’.

Man eating fruit in a Cuzco market

The journey from Cuzco to CREES’s Manu Learning Centre starts early the next morning and spreads itself out into the following day with a stopover at the Cock of the Rock lodge, where we watch hummingbirds dart around the garden and have our first experience of dive bombing gigantic insects that are a feature of jungle dinner time.

A hummingbird in the Manu Reserve rainforest, Peru

The drive isn’t all too pleasant (although it is beautiful) as we bounce and twist our way down the endless dusty switchbacks that take you through the misted Cloud Forest and down into the humid lowlands thousands of metres below. But for those of us who are not being ill, Tilman redeems the journey with an overview of the country’s complicated history, the dire state of the Peruvian politics (a military government has just taken over), the troubling affects of mining (mining towns are polluted visions of hell cut into the rainforest full of prostitutes and murderers), illegal logging, and the ever present growing of Coca (1/3 of deforestation in Peru is to grow the plant).

Overgrown Bridge in Pilcopata on the edge of the Manu Reserve

He did also have an awful lot to say about the local wildlife, flora and fauna too.

Waiting for the boat at Atalaya Port

At the port of Atalaya (imagine a couple of wooden boats and the odd shack, not Portsmouth) we shake hands with the volunteers heading home, before ditching our mini bus in favour of a boat that will take us – along with the eggs, toilet rolls and countless other supplies we’ve been carrying – the remainder of the journey down river to the Manu Learning Centre. The MLC is nestled in a clearing in the forest at the top of a steep pebble staircase that connects it to the winding, silt filled waters of the Madre de Dios. And there, in amongst a cluster of stilted, thatched and wall-less buildings is a partitioned ‘room’ consisting of two single beds, two mosquito nets and a small wardrobe: our home for the next five weeks. All in all, despite being basic, we’re actually pleasantly surprised.

The Manu Learning Centre, Peru

Next we are shown the best spots to dry washing (and with days at 98% humidity that’s only ever going to happen in the midday sun), the bio garden where some of the food we eat is grown, the resident sloth and nesting oropendulas, and the roughly fitting pair of wellies that will seldom leave our feet during the next five weeks. We then go for a swim, or should we say, a battle with the current. Top tip for the boys…don’t pee in the water, as ‘something’ will swim right up there.

The remainder of the first week is spent familiarising ourselves with the rhythm and soundtrack of the jungle; the cold showers, the 5.00am starts, the local animals and their calls – don’t touch that, watch out for these, these things are really nasty etc. – the long, humid jungle walks, the best technique for removing tics in the shower, the nocturnal insect activity, the incredible downpours, and the meals that, irrespective of time of day, will contain both rice and potatoes.

Cicada at the MLC in the Manu Reserve

It’s surprising how quickly you get used to a cockroach inspecting your wash-bag, or a tarantula accompanying you on the walk to the bathroom, and we’ve no doubt that this experience is going to teach us a thing or two. The first of which is definitely how to be brave…



10 Nov

The ‘bone shaker’ bus wasn’t quite as bad as reports had suggested. However, with broken seats (Adam’s reclined beyond the horizontal position so that the highest point of his body was actually his groin), a nappy clogged toilet and enough bumps to dislodge various objects from the overhead compartments (one of which connected with a Frenchman’s head, opening up a healthy gash), you could hardly say that it was a breeze either. Which is why we are even more surprised when, against all the odds, we manage to arrive an hour ahead of schedule at 6am, much to the dismay of the sleeping hostel security guard.

La Paz is the world’s highest capital city and the advice here is to, ‘go slow, eat little and sleep by your own poor self’. Out of the three, the one thing we’ll definitely be doing is going slow. There’s just no other option (even with copious amounts of Coco tea) as we can’t even make it to our bizarrely muralled room on the third floor without feeling the effects.

Bowler hatted traditional women on the street of La Paz

Other advice is of the fear inducing kind. If we thought BA was bad for the scare mongering, this place is something else. Posted on the wall of every hostel and shop, and covering whole sections of the guidebook are warnings of phlegm attacks (someone gobs on you whilst someone else steals your belongings), bag slashing, camera snatching, pickpocketing…the list goes on. At first it rather drains the fun out of sightseeing, precisely because you’re too busy watching your stuff to see much of anything else. But like everywhere else we’ve been, you just have to take normal precautions and get on and enjoy it. Which we duly do. Even though we quickly realise that there are some places that are best just avoided, such as the Black Market with its prowling bare-footed men and dustily isolated location.

La Paz Cityscape with snow capped Illimani mountain in background

Having said all this La Paz, despite its high crime rate, high altitude and even higher levels of pollution, still manages to grow on you. It’s a remarkable city, sprawled across an immense valley from whose base the world’s highest skyscrapers rise and onto whose slopes colourful houses cling, like crystals formed directly onto the rock. To get the best views of this you need to climb (uh hum, get a taxi) to the Northern ridge where, to the sound of the city’s youth practising their instruments, the valley and the snow-capped backdrop of Mt Illimani opens up before you.

Also well worth a visit is the weird and wonderful street of Linares, familiarly known as the Witches’ Market, where the colonial buildings are crammed full with impossibly soft Alpaca wares alongside more unusual items such llama foetuses (which are buried beneath the doorways of new homes to welcome in good luck), and sugary votives for Pachamama, Mother Earth. Even Adam tolerates a day here stocking up on pressies. Just.

Llama foetus' in La Paz, Bolivia

On one evening we meet up with Austin and Tim (the boys from the Salt Flats with whom we’ve coincidentally synced journeys) for a meal in a particularly eccentric establishment – dripping with antique curios from rifles to clocks – and learn the effect of drinking red wine at nearly 4,000 metres: you get very drunk. Normal rules don’t apply here, so our advice is to estimate at being at least half as tolerant as usual and hope that one of you can remember the way home.

Looking down on a School Band playing in the streets of La Paz, Bolivia

Other La Paz ‘high’lights: watching the gaudily decorated buses zip around the streets as conductors lean out of the windows hollering out the destinations; climbing up to the top of San Francisco’s church tower to people watch in the square below; visiting the Coco Museum (seriously bad in parts but also rather interesting); and sitting out on the cobbled streets observing curious people go by. People like, for instance, heavily tattooed Dave from New York City, who walks the street barefoot seeking out tourists crazy enough to accompany him to the notorious inmate-run prison of San Pedro where, we’re guessing, he’s incarcerated (N.B. we were desperate to see the place but clueless, since it’s illegal for civilians to enter, just how, and if, we’d get there and back with our wallets and our lives).

Druggy Mannequin in the Coca Museum in La Paz

After three days our time is up and, having been informed by numerous people and even more websites that direct travel between La Paz and Cuzco is impossible, we’re somewhat dubious when handing our money over for just such a ticket. We’re more dubious still when the teller at the bus station has no record of our booking. However, to our amazement, we’re soon handed a pair of tickets and ushered to the front of a bus that appears to read ‘Cuzco’…



2 Nov

A woman walking across the horizon line of the Bolivian Salt Flats

Staggering off the bus at the Bolivian border the first thing you notice is the difference in people. Unlike the relatively modern and European Argentina, the women here go about their business with colourful loads wrapped to their backs, baggy woollen socks within sandals, layer upon layer of pleated skirt, and wide-brimmed bowler hats precariously perched atop of thick plaited hair. Their skin is deep terracotta with a smooth, yet distinctly leathery, quality. And they are all so tiny. It’s a little bit like arriving in an Incan Lilliput.

Having breezed through Bolivian immigration via an unenthusiastic glance at our passports, we emerge an hour earlier (thanks to the time difference) in Villazón. In the dusty town square crackly speakers blare religious incantations and we find breakfast in the only café open. Once inside we are handed the extensive menu, however it is only once we have systematically gone through it from top to bottom – “Can I have such and such?” “None left” etc. – do they give up the charade and bring us the only thing they have; stale bread and a revolting liquid they refer to as coffee. Holding all this all down is further complicated, especially for Olenka, by the lady draining fluid from a pile of chicken carcasses at the table next to ours.

Man standing in desert like wild west

Refreshed (if you could call it that), we opt out of waiting eight hours for the three-hour train to Tupiza in favour of a taxi and one and a half hours later, and £2.50 lighter, we arrive at a bright pink cube of a hostel carved into the rock face. Tupiza, pink cube aside, has a distinct ‘Wild West’ quality about it, and it’s therefore of no surprise to learn that this is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid finally met their end.

Since entering Bolivia we’re yet to come across a single cashpoint, so begin a desperate search for a way to get hold of the money needed for our four-day tour of the Salt Flats. Turns out Tupiza is another ATM-less town but, when power is restored (no doubt a power down is a daily occurrence here), we manage to get a cash advance from the local bank. Greatly relieved we confirm our booking and stock up on some Alpaca knitwear to protect us against the bitter cold we’ve been forewarned of. At nearly 3,000 metres the altitude is already having an effect on us, so we head back for the last hot shower in days and take ourselves to bed.

Man standing on the roof of his 4x4

In the morning we pile into our Jeep with two Surrey lads (very agreeable – good job too since we’ll be spending every waking minute with them for the next 96 hours), our driver Edel (stern as hell, pre-empts every sentence with the word ‘bueno’, never removes his sunglasses) and Nancy the ‘English Guide’ (speaks very little English, knows very little about the area, more often than not confuses whatever has been said then laughs like a maniac).

A herd of Llamas grazing on flooded plains in front of a mountain backdrop

We turn left out of town and instantly the landscape becomes alien and spectacular with red, needle-like mountains surrounding a parched desert of lunar-like boulders, deserted mining towns and roaming, seemingly ownerless, llamas. As we climb to 4,200m where we’ll spend the first night, we furiously munch on Coco leaves to stave off the headaches and dizziness. The accommodation is basic to say the least – mattresses on concrete blocks, no windows, one solitary light that doesn’t work since there’s no power, and no shower – but it’s not exactly too much of a bother since we’re off again at 4.30am the following day.

Silhouetted Llamas against sunrise in Bolivia

Everyone’s shadowy-eyed as they take on the rock pastries, but it’s well worth the pain when we bump across a frozen river just as the sun finally frees itself from behind the mountains ahead. Before reaching the National Park and taking a dip in the hot springs, we explore a ghostly Spanish mining town, abandoned when all the locals died from dust inhalation (according to the locals they were possessed by the devil), and now populated only by llamas and weird rabbit/squirrel things – let’s call them squibbits.

Rabbit squirrel cross

In the afternoon we visit Dalí’s Desert (so called because he painted an image from a dream, then visited Bolivia and recognised the place) with its unnatural looking pillars of rock and, at short pauses between long stretches of very fast off-road driving, we see smouldering volcanoes, flamingoes feasting on multi-coloured lakes (well, apart from the green one full of arsenic), and bubbling, smoking geysers on a steady incline to our 5,000m high accommodation. Here we pile on as many clothes as possible and, still shivering, take to our concrete beds.

Four Flamingoes feasting on algae in the red watered Salt Lakes

The next day it’s more coloured lakes, flamingoes, crazy landscapes, squibbits, and our first experience of a salt flat at Salar Chiguana. Driving across the white, once water-filled, plain is surreal.  As is the giant sandcastle (the military border control to Chile) that we pass on the way out. However that night’s stop is undoubtedly the weirdest and the best: a hostel made entirely of salt. Salt bricks, salt beds, salt tables, salt chairs, salt crystal floor…you get the idea. The only things seemingly not salt were the lurid neon cushions strewn about the place.  Here we get a little over excited, making the mistake of drinking large quantities of an unknown clear Bolivian ‘grappa’, and wake up feeling decidedly ropey.

Watching sunrise at the Bolivian Salt Flats

But what a day it turns out to be. We watch dawn break over the largest salt flat in the world (10,500km2) and have breakfast on one of the 14 islands scattered about it. We sit in the sunshine surrounded by the island’s strange geography of cacti, calcerous rocks, and washed up corals and marine shells, marvelling at the fact that this would have once been submerged under a prehistoric lake. The white carpet of salt creates an almost imperceptible horizon and, with a cracked patterned floor pot marked with crystalline lined holes, you get the feeling you’ve been transported to another, far less hospitable, planet.

The Salares de Uyuni, the Bolivian Salt Flats

As with most of the incredible sights on earth, our journey ends in a dump (literally) of a town, this one is called Uyuni, where thankfully we only have to spend the afternoon waiting to board the notorious ‘bone shaker’ to La Paz. We’ve heard many a terrible tale about Bolivian buses, and this one in particular, so we’re very much hoping that the rumours aren’t true…



28 Oct

The journey to Salta takes us northward across a flat area of land bordering the Andes, through regimented table top vineyards and Nevada-esque desert, and past roadside shrines with red fabric sails, rugged men on horseback, and bold political slogans slopped onto every available wall. All of which we are lucky to enjoy from our panoramic position up top and front of the bus; the premier location, we have learnt, for freakishly long men.

A road sign for 'Llamas Crossing' in Argentina

Along the way we’re greeted by the now familiar, and highly unimaginative, road names – 9 de Julio, Córdoba, San Martin etc. – not to mention, at every stop, a welcomed incremental rise in temperature. With great views and a glass of red in hand it really is, incredible as it may sound, quite a pleasure to spend 21 hours on an Argentine bus. Unless you happen to be with your kids, as 8mm, a film about snuff porn is shown at midday (for all our elderly or innocent relatives out there, a snuff film is a porno in which someone gets horrifically butchered), or happen to have the misfortune of sitting next to a drunken right-wing Texan lawyer, as we did. It really was annoying to hear him explain his political views (Tea Party / Republican), thoughts on war (often necessary), his opposition to the new healthcare bill (the American military funds the NHS) and be anywhere near him as he played – in a bus load of people who undoubtedly spoke no English – the ‘how-many-times-can-I-slur-the-name-Hitler-before-passing-out’ game.

To be fair to him, he did pass on one interesting dribble of information – somewhere between a warm bottle of white wine and the following four beers, although we only have the gun-toting cowboy’s word for it – that Winston Churchill was once put at the helm of the White House for a couple of days, making him the only foreigner to ever be in charge of the USA.

Now, back to us.

When we arrive in Salta the sun is yet to rise, so the full beauty of the place doesn’t reveal itself until after we’ve been for a sleep and enjoyed pastries in the garden of our welcoming hostel, Hostal La Posta. But in the bright sunshine we see that Salta certainly lives up to its nickname of ‘La Linda’, the ‘Pretty One’, with its idyllic streets crammed full of pastel churches, colonial buildings, pink blossoming trees, well planned squares, and a grand mountain backdrop.

Pigeons resting on the neck of a statue of a horse

The only tastelessness around is in the form of decorated llamas, Cowboy-hatted ponies and bags of candyfloss being sold in the city’s parks. The rest is smart coffee shops, tasty parillas, incredible ice-cream parlours and museums. Of particular (morbid) interest was the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology where, amongst many other fascinating things, you can find the perfectly preserved mummy of a 15-year-old Incan girl who had been married to the teenage son of a neighbouring community before being buried alive atop of Llullaillaco Volcano. Best way to keep the burgeoning empire connected apparently.

A Llama in Argentina with colourful ribbons in its hair

It is here that we also have the good fortune of spending our 2nd wedding anniversary and decide to mark the occasion by hiring a car and visiting the town of Cachi. Once out of the city Route 68 takes you to the compact village of Chicoaca where, amazingly, our fleeting visit coincides with the festival of Santa Rosa La Linda, a celebration that sees the entire town tramp through the streets with idols above their heads, followed by red-caped Gauchos sporting outrageously large leather chaps.

An Gaucho on horseback followed by his dog

Before long the villages fade to nothing, the paved road gives way to rubble track and the car, which couldn’t be less suited to this sort of terrain, begins to struggle. But we do our best to pretend it’s a 4×4 – at one point Adam must be convinced it is one as he fails to see the need to drive around the large boulder in the centre of the road that will, and does, rip a huge hole on the underside of the car.

“Nothing to worry about”, Adam reassures from under the car, “it’s merely cosmetic”.

And so, with a huge gouge in the car’s belly, we plough on. Every so often tarmac reappears then, after a couple of hundred yards, inexplicably disappears again forcing us to return to dodging landslides, crossing mountain streams, and waiting behind cows who will not be rushed crossing the narrowest, ricketiest, bridge you ever did see.

A windey mountain road just outside Salta, Argentina

As we climb further into the hills spindly silhouettes appear and wave at us from all around to signal that we’ve entered cacti country, a.k.a. Los Cordonnes, or the land of the cacti skeletons. Aside from the prickly fellas, the odd goat-herder, and a few trucks, we’re pretty much alone on our journey. Although there are rather a lot of roadside cemeteries about making us wonder, with no visible civilisation for miles around, where all the bodies coming from?

Cacti with a mountain backdrop in theLos Cordonnes National Park, Argentina

In the late afternoon we arrive in the sleepy little town of Cachi, where we bask in the sun-baked square eating empanadas and drinking chilled Torrontes. Having spent a little time exploring the few streets and marvelling at the cacti ‘wood’ roof of the church (turns out that the cactus is a rather versatile plant) we depart for our country retreat of Casa de Campo el Paya.

The three bells of Cachi Church, Argentina

The white farmhouse has a quite courtyard enclosed by squat adobe walls, a little vineyard and tearoom, a swimming pool clogged with leaves, and an appending church surrounded by layers of mountain disappearing into the distance. It really is the embodiment of tranquillity. On arrival the Octogenarian owner shuffles us to our room (he is probably the least athletic human being we have ever met) and we excitedly inspect the huge cushioned bed, simple antique furniture and cavernous bathroom. This is a touch different to what we’re use to and we’re wishing our stay were for more than one night. But that’s the way it goes. That evening, having spent the afternoon toasting ourselves by the fire, home-cooked pasta emerges from the kitchen and is presented alongside local wine.

Adam reading in an unbelievably comfy bed

After a marathon sleep and a somewhat strange candlelit breakfast (unpredictable power) we drag ourselves away to embark on the long, bumpy ride back to Salta, because the following day we are to bid the pretty one, and Argentina, goodbye as we head for Bolivia. But not before spending the day outside in the sunshine in La Posta’s courtyard, eating delicious antipasti and, naturally, indulging in a chilled bottle of Torrontes…



25 Oct

Stacked wine bottles with shadow at San Felipe Wine Museum, Maipu

After 21 hours on a bus we arrive in Mendoza to blue skies, glorious sunshine and the crisp cold air that only comes from being surrounded by snow capped mountains. It’s Children’s Day here (yes, Argentina has a Children’s Day) and so the town’s parks are filled with picnicking families. Although we opt to appreciate this from the safe distance of an outside restaurant where we can soak up the rays and take on another ‘Menu Ejecutivo’.

Boy playing football lit in afternoon light in Mendoza Park

We’re staying at Casa Pueblo, a great value little hostel that is, with the exception of one man, run by very lovely people. The chap in question is so irritatingly unfunny we are genuinely relieved on the days he is not at work. To get an idea of his humour you only need to know that on day four he actually said, “Benny Hill is my spiritual leader”. Word for unbelievable word.

He also told us that the Internet cost 50 Euros (it was free), that it took two weeks to get to Salta (it doesn’t), and that he was the man in a poster of a cowboy on horseback (you’ve guessed it, he wasn’t).

Winter vineyards In Maipu with snow capped mountain backdrop, Argentina

Now, the real reason for coming to Mendoza isn’t the town, which is fairly uninteresting, it’s the wine. And this can be experienced via Mr. Hugo’s ‘Bike and Wine’ tour. In case it isn’t apparent, this involves hiring a bike, being handed a map that looks as though it was drawn by a five-year-old, and cycling round as many wineries as your liver can handle. Which is, as it happens, only four, as each one involves a very generous tasting session. There’s no messing around with a thimble of wine and a spittoon here, instead you’re handed a full glass and expected to swallow it all. Which, naturally, we do. We also meet some lovely advertising folk from Iris (small world, yada, yada) and – whilst our brains were still able to absorb information – learn a little bit about Argentine wine making.

Brass butterfly screws at San Felipe Wine Museum, Argentina

The Argentine palette, and most likely the winedrinkers’ pockets, prefers a young wine so you are less likely to come across the oaky flavours that we’re fond of. All the wineries do it a bit differently, but the majority only age their wine in the bottle for six months plus or, if they do age it in oak (‘Crianza in Roble’ for those interested), will not do so for more than five years. We also gain a new appreciation for Torrontes white wine while having an indulgent lunch in the sunshine at the Tomasi Family winery.

Adam and Olenka lunching in the sun at Villa Tomasi winery, Argentina

At the end of the tour we wobble back to the rental shop with our new friends Jo and Sam only for Mr. Hugo, a wonky-eyed man with a pirate’s gait, to lock the gate and force feed us free (though terrible) wine for the next three hours. How we got home (we think it involved a bus), and how Mr hugo makes money, is any one’s guess. Although we are still able to remember Benny Hill welcoming us back in:

Olenka bike wobbling in the sun after wine-tasting in Maipu, Argentina

“Do you hunt? I like to hunt cats, dogs, penguin” (queue waddle impression).

Whilst nursing our heads the following day we make plans for a two-day skiing trip to the Andean resort of Los Pennitentes. Although this swiftly transforms into a day trip when we get there and realise that it’s pretty shit. We’re obviously far too spoilt by having the Alps on our doorstep to enjoy the limited slopes, creaky lifts and rubbish equipment. Adam doesn’t even fit said rubbish equipment so, all things considered, we thought it wasn’t quite worth the broken bones, or the whole in the pocket. Fortunately the lovely people of Casa Pueblo, who’d been babysitting our belongings, still had room for us that evening and with cracked ribs (Adam’s, not Olenka’s. Yes, amazingly he fell) we returned to Mendoza grumbling profusely and trying to make ourselves feel better; “Well, at least we can say we’ve skied in the Andes”, “before the bus windows steamed up we saw some amazing scenery” and “that’s the first time I’ve been searched at gunpoint on entering a ski resort”.

Adam skiing Los Penitentes, Argentina

Fortunately Benny Hill is on hand to cheer us up:

“Want to swap that jacket for this biscuit?”

After a couple more nice meals (some in, some out) and a lot more good wine, we decide it’s time to move on and head north to Salta. And, being known as Salta ‘La Linda’ (the pretty one), we have some high hopes as we travel upstairs and upfront to make the most of the incredible views and legroom on the 12-hour bus ride…

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