Monday, 28 May 2012

Arequipa and Trekking one of the Deepest Canyons in the World

Arequipa, Peru's second largest urban center, is known as "the white city" but don't go picturing Minas Tirith of Middle Earth. The stone buildings are more gray than white but they are still beautiful in design. The city is located in a fairly flat arid region surrounded by massive snowcapped mountains, famous for their slopes of orange, red and purple rock dotted with various succulents and other desert-loving flora. It actually reminded me of Phoenix. The pièce de résistance is Volcan el Misti, towering more than 5800 m above the city. It last erupted in 1985. Several Inca mummies have been found there including the preserved corpse of Juanita the Ice Princess, a young girl believed to have been sacrificed by the Incas more than 500 years ago.

Arequipa's colonial-style buildings near the Plaza de Armas.

Volcan El Misti overlooking Arequipa.
Colorful walls of the courtyard near a french restaurant where we had lunch.
Taking a tip from Leoni, the Aussie lady we met in Huaraz, we stayed at Casa de Avila. It was a pretty nice hostal with a huge courtyard garden area. We arrived before the usual check-in time so we had a few hours to sit in the lounge chairs, sipping beers in the hot sun and making friends with the resident tortoise!

Neil knows the way to a tortoise's heart! Also, check out those pipes!!

A lesson in photo editing. Neil is an attentive pupil.
The main reason we'd traveled to Arequipa was to visit canyon country but the city itself has one major "urban" attraction - the imposing Monastery de Santa Catalina, described as a photographer's paradise. I managed to talk Chris into coming with me but Neil elected to stay behind and plan an excursion to a surf spot near Lima. The monastery is more like a small city within the city, originally housing the daughters of very rich families who sent them into service along with a sizeable dowry. Apparently their lives weren't too bad in the monastery at first - they were able to host parties and socialize in much the same way they might've outside the service. However, all that changed in 1871 when the pope sent a strict Dominican nun to straighten things out. For the next 100 years the monastery was closed to the public and that time period is shrouded in mystery. It was opened for tourism in the 1970s but the remaining nuns live in a separate building and don't interact with visitors. There are only about 30 nuns these days but the cloistered community was once home to 450, two thirds of which were servants. 

The vibrantly colored buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, flowers, fountains, and courtyards certainly lived up to the hype of it being a photographer's paradise. We paid for a tour and got a few interesting historical tidbits, anecdotes about nuns that lived there, damage that occurred during earthquakes in the 1900s, and what various rooms were used for. One of the strangest rooms was the mortuary where nuns were laid out after dying and an artist was commissioned to paint their portraits. The walls were adorned with decrepit visages of oldish ladies, all with their eyes closed on account of being rendered posthumously. Creepy but intriguing. The monastery was definitely worth visiting and I probably could've wandered through the houses, kitchens, and gardens for a few more hours after the tour but the sun was setting so we went back the hotel to retrieve Neil for dinner. 

The morgue where nuns were laid out after their deaths and painters were given 24 hours to create their portrait such as those hanging on the walls.
Kitchen typical of one of the larger houses in the cloisters.

A nun's house. Note the bed under the arched wall - this design was to protect them in case of an earthquake.

Spiky sleeping mat of one of the most highly-revered nuns... apparently self mortification and flagellation were fairly common practice. 

The following day we had an early (3 am) pick-up by our tour company for the Colca Canyon. Promoted as the world's deepest canyon (although that's not quite accurate), Colca's depth is reportedly twice that of the Grand Canyon but where it ranks in the world is somewhat unclear since depth measurements can be done either from the highest peak adjacent to the canyon or from the top of the gorge cut by the river that made it. A google search tells me that canyons in the Himalayas are deeper, the Grand Canyon has taller vertical walls, and the Colca's neighbor canyon, Catahuasi, is actually 335 m deeper. But I digress. 

We left Arequipa in the drowsy darkness, ascending from the valley into the Andes towards Cabanaconde, the town nearest the trailhead for our descent into the canyon. The temperature in the minibus plummeted as we gained altitude and, although they gave us some blankets, we were freezing! I don't know why the driver wouldn't turn on the heat but he never did. I developed serious concerns about the warmth factor of the wardrobe I'd selected for the trek. It was hot in Arequipa! 

After a chilly breakfast break at a small restaurant we made a stop at Cruz del Condor: a premier viewpoint for seeing Andean condors fly and for gazing down down down into the spectacular gorge carved by the Colca river. Unfortunately Chris was feeling really sick from the windy drive so I was tasked with taking photos. I did my best! After getting our fill of the sights (and the swarm of other tourists) we continued down the hiway a bit further to our drop-off point. Our group consisted of a German couple, a Swiss girl, and the three of us plus our guide whose name was Edison but he told us to call him Chiki. Okay.

Cruz del Condor; our first glimpse into the depths of the Colca Canyon.
A pair of condors.
Setting out for the canyon.
The first stretch was ~3 hours downhill to reach a bridge across the river. The path was loose gravel and rocks, sometimes with large stones embedded as steps. Somewhat treacherous but not unlike what we've come to expect in South America. We were extra cautious after our guide informed us that a tourist had died that morning on the hike out of the canyon. He hadn't fallen as we first suspected - heart attack. Chiki also let it slip that he was from Canada so we all felt a patriotic sadness for the loss of a fellow Canadian. The views were beautiful although slightly more claustrophobia-inducing in comparison to the magnanimous vistas of the Inca Trail. Despite the downhill trudge being easier on the lungs, our thighs and knees were begging  for mercy long before we neared the bridge. Finally we reached the bottom of the canyon and settled into a shady spot beside the bridge, listening to the roar of the Colca while we waited for the stragglers - the German couple was having a tough time with the hike and our guide eventually had to carry the girl's pack in addition to his own. 

We crossed the Colca river, a ferocious jade snake thrashing its way through the Andes in pursuit of the Pacific ocean,  and made our way up the embankment to the small village of San Juan de Cuccho where we ate lunch. Maybe we were just famished but I thought it was pretty tasty! After stuffing ourselves we stretched out on a sun drenched terrace below the restaurant and napped in the warm breeze. We then held a vote to decide whether to continue on to Cosñirhua, the next village along our route, or to bunk in San Juan for the night. I won't go into details (okay okay, I may have been the swing vote and may have voted the opposite of Chris and Neil...) but the outcome was to move on so we slung our packs back over our shoulders and slogged our way up for another hour and a half. 

Neil making friends with the hostel owners' son.
Our accommodations at a small hostel overlooking the gorge were very basic but there was a hot shower available for those that wanted one and flush toilets - more than I'd expected to be honest. Just as I'd feared, as soon as the sun disappeared above the mountain peaks it got very cold. I manged to score myself a seat by the woodfire cookstove in the kitchen hut, monitoring dinner preparations and the army of guinea pigs scurrying across the dirt floor in search of scraps. The meal was satisfying but we ate in near silence, quieted by the cold and our fatigue. After a few minutes of stargazing we retired for the night. It was about 8:30 pm. 

Overnight Chris was struck with a bad bout of food poisoning. He was very weak and unsettled the next morning but knew he had no choice but to press on. There are no other modes of transportation in the canyon. Well, aside from mules of course. And don't think he wasn't considering renting one. He persevered, albeit looking rather zombiesque for most of the day. 

Our trek was mainly downhill and only about 3 hours to our destination: The Oasis. I'm not sure if that's actually the name of the village or just the self-ascribed description of the cluster of hostels located at that particular spot. Regardless, the name was justified by the numerous gardens of gorgeous flowers, swaying palm trees, and the outdoor pool. Pool?? Yes, there were pools at most of the hostels, including ours. No electricity in the accommodations. Cold showers in small stalls constructed from hip-height cement walls and thin bamboo enclosures - not very much privacy! But there was a pool and it was glorious. 

The Oasis "resort" in Colca Canyon. So many beautiful flowers!
While Chris curled up to sleep off his sickness, Neil and I quickly donned our swimsuits and bee-lined it for the pool. After a refreshing dip, Neil found a giant boulder where he proceeded to bake in the sun, totally in his element. I climbed up another boulder that formed one wall of the pool and had myself a little sunsoak as well. It was lovely. We then had lunch, which Chris decided to forego. Sadly, the location of the Oasis at the bottom of the canyon meant that the sun was obscured by the lofty peaks by the early afternoon, which in turn meant that swimming in the unheated pool was no longer pleasant. Instead, I wandered around the property and snapped a few pictures since our usual photographer remained incapacitated. At dusk the canyon walls lit up in all their golden and copper splendor. Magnificent.

Chris managed to join us for dinner and Neil broke out the bottle of tequila he'd carried all the way into the canyon. A few of us joined him and had a small shot before again retiring early, conscious that the following morning would be yet another early start. 

We made our way by headlamp light to the dining area the next morning and noted the empty tequila bottle on the table. Soon after, a rather haggard-looking Neil appeared, announcing that he "didn't want to talk about it." Haha. Our established departure time came and went with no sign of the German couple. We had become rather tired of waiting for them all the time (they were late the first morning as well) and harassed our guide to get going. He eventually made arrangements for us to join another group for the ascent so we wouldn't have to wait all the way up. We set out as the gray haze of dawn entered the valley, grateful that the sun would soon arrive to take the chill out of the air. It was a challenging ascent! Neil left us behind after the first rest stop, surprisingly unencumbered by the hangover he'd confessed to having just before we left the Oasis. Chris and I hiked with the Swiss girl, taking frequent breaks to rest and admire our surroundings. I also couldn't stop wondering where the Canadian guy had died. Insatiable morbid fascination... Chris did well despite being undernourished after skipping meals the previous day and failing to retain much of the meals of the day before that....

Approximately 3 hours later we reached the top of the canyon. As I cleared the final step Neil came over and told me to hold out my hand. I did and he placed in it a full-sized Snickers bar. It was the greatest moment of my life. I ate that Snickers bar in 15 seconds and didn't feel one pang of guilt. Pretty sure I was still running at a calorie deficit after hiking without any breakfast! We hung out at the top of the gorge for another 20 minutes, revelling in our successful completion of another gruelling trek. Then the guide of the group we'd joined came over to let us know that Chiki had asked him to take us to our breakfast spot because he and the German couple were still quite far behind. We gratefully followed him to Cabanaconde.

The view as the Colca River emerges from the gorge into lands that have been cultivated for agriculture for hundreds of years using terraces.
View back towards the Colca Canyon in the mountains.
Our next stop was the hot springs in Chivay. Bliss. That was almost the best part of the tour but the Snickers still takes the cake. We bathed in the steaming pool and stretched our sore muscles, enjoying the brilliant sunshine and the 80s hits pumping from speakers at the pool-side bar. After a buffet lunch consisting of yummy Peruvian specialties we began our return trip to Arequipa. We made a few stops along the way to see vicuñas and llamas as well as braving the icy winds at the viewpoint "Mirador de los Volcanes" where you can see the snowcapped peaks of several volcanoes in the distance. Overall a worthwhile tour.


Our last night in Arequipa was also Neil's final night of travelling with us. He and I shared a romantic dinner alone as Chris was still recovering from the food poisoning. Bright and early the next morning we said farewell to Neil and he left to catch a plane to Lima. Chris and I had booked transportation to Puno for later that afternoon and had found out just before our Colca trip that the transportation was actually a tour, meaning the trip to Puno would take about 2 hours longer due to stops at viewpoints. We were a bit annoyed but decided it might be alright to see some flamingos and other sights. 

We should've tried for a refund... 

After being picked up by a minibus we left Arequipa to rendevouz with the tour bus in Chivay - yes, the same city we'd been in the day before. A group of 3 Russians were also on our minibus. They were on a whirlwind 8-day visit to Peru and didn't speak much Spanish. Therefore I did my best to translate when our driver got a phone call and we suddenly turned around, heading back to Arequipa. We were already an hour outside the city. The driver was quite agitated but I managed to ascertain that we'd forgotten some people and that they'd said they were sick but now wanted to come on the tour or something. Very confusing. It was even more confusing when we finally made it back to Arequipa one hour later, navigated rush hour traffic and stopped at a small cafe where a woman handed the driver a bag, and then we left the city again. We did not pick up people. We picked up snacks. I mean, I know my Spanish isn't great but I even had him show me the names of the forgotten passengers because the German couple from our Colca canyon trek had told us they were taking the same "tour" to Puno and we thought for sure it was going to be them that caused yet another delay. Nope. Snacks. Sandwiches to be exact. Which we ate a few hours later when we were still on our minibus enroute for Puno, having missed our rendevous with the bus in Chivay, consequently also missing the tour that we'd paid for. The Russians wanted to know if I thought we'd get a refund. Hah! Welcome to Peru, mis amigos!

Our plan was to spend the night in Puno and then catch an early bus to Copacabana - our entry point to Bolivia. We had read about a hostel located right in the Puno terminal terrestre (bus station) and figured we might as well check it out since we really only needed a place to crash for a few hours. Our minibus driver wasn't exactly supportive of this plan but he did take us to the terminal to check things out. Chris sorted out buying our bus tickets and I went upstairs to examine the accommodations. The room the receptionist showed me was actually not too bad. And the price was right - about $15 for the night. Little bit crazy having your hotel door open onto a bus terminal concourse but it seemed safe. Noisy, but earplugs let us get a reasonable amount of rest despite a few screaming children and chatty neighbors. 

The next morning we boarded a bus and arrived at the Peru-Bolivia border a few hours later. We had no trouble getting across; just had to stand in a couple of longish lines with our fellow passengers and some from other buses. And then we were in Bolivia! Our route was initially along the shores of Lake Titicaca but wound its way inland for a stretch. The extremely flat terrain speckled with farmland was surprisingly reminiscent of Alberta. We arrived in Copacabana under a brilliant blue sky and scanned the hillside for our destination - Hostal las Olas. It was fairly easy to pick our - the hostal is comprised of 7 unique, free-standing suites that were designed by artist Martin Stratker. The high altitude (3900 meters above sea level) made the uphill trek with our packs far more difficult than it should've been but oh was it worth it! After waiting 10 Bolivian minutes (approximately half an hour) for our room to be cleaned, we were shown to Suite #7, aka Torre y Mar. It's the coolest place I have ever stayed in. 

The suite is actually 3 storeys, constructed with mostly natural materials including adobe and lots of wood finishings. The main floor houses a kitchenette, bathroom, dining area, and a sleeping area with a kingsized round bed. Up the spiral staircase is a sitting area with seats sculpted out of adobe and plaster, a daybed that gets sunshine all day long, and another round bed. There are huge windows affording amazing views of the lake and Copacabana. Sunsets!!!! The third level is sort of an observatory with a table and chairs and a hammock. Crazy place! We ended up extending our stay because we liked the place so much. 

It was great to be able to cook for ourselves for a change. Although procuring ingredients proved a bit tricky. We found the small market and were able to buy vegetables and fruit but decided to go the vegetarian route after seeing the local meat storage and handling conditions... Fortunately beans and quinoa were easy to get so we still had a few good sources of protein. The limited selection of ingredients meant I had to get pretty creative in the kitchen but I did manage to make a tasty vegetable soup with quinoa, falafel made from fava beans, onions and quinoa, various tomato and cream based pasta sauces, and tuna melts. Okay, that last one didn't require much panache, but it was still tasty. And yes, we risked consuming cheese bought at the market. It was definitely manufactured elsewhere but definitely not kept in a refrigerator. Ahh well, we survived. 

We spent our week at Las Olas doing not much of anything. It was wonderful. Chris had contracted a cold with symptoms similar to my bronchitis so it was perfect for him to be able to rest and work on recovering. We also spent some time planning our upcoming itinerary. And we stared out the window at Lake Titicaca an awful lot too. Oh AND we watched the sunset from the outdoor hot tub. Yep. It was basically the perfect way to kick off our time in Bolivia. Photos to come soon, along with those from our trip to Isla del Sol, where the Inca's believed the sun was born!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Inca Trail & Cuzco

This blog post has been a wee bit delayed because we've done so many picturesque things in the past 3 weeks that Chris would've had to work night and day to keep up with the photo editing. And that was impossible because we haven't had any down-time! Until now. Now we are having marvelous down-time. But more about that later... first, let's get caught up!

Aside from the Galapagos, the only other major site we'd planned to visit on this trip was Machu Picchu, which we'd decided to reach via the Inca Trail: a 4-day trek through the Andes following original and restored portions of a road constructed by the Inca people to travel between Cuzco and Vilcabamba (the last refuge of the Inca's where they hid from the Spanish). We arrived in Cuzco 5 days before the start of our trek in order to acclimate to the altitude (3400 m) and organize a few last minute things like sleeping bags. Cuzco is, not unexpectedly, a tourist hot-spot. It was strange being in a place with so many tourists after seeing only a few here and there in the other places we've been. The Plaza de Armas is swarming with touts proffering tours, sunglasses, handicrafts, paintings, and massages. It's a nice place though with pretty gardens and the architecture of the buildings surrounding the square is among some of the most beautiful we've seen in our travels so far. We just pretend we don't see the McDonalds and Starbucks....

Plaza de Armas, Cuzco. Chris testing out his amazing new wide-angle lens. [NOTE: I believe if you click on this photo you can see a slideshow of all the photos. But that doesn't mean you can skip reading my blog! ;)  ]
Chris and Neil in front of the catedral in Cuzco. I took this shot and I didn't even notice the people in the background... grrr... I blame it on the sun in my eyes. 
Our friend Neil arrived a few days after us and it has been a nice change of pace. As I mentioned in the last blog, his excitement has helped "resensitize" us to the novelty of travelling. Also, Neil brought Chris a new wide-angle lens, an external hard drive loaded with movies and tv shows, an electric razor, and a bunch of other things from Canada so it felt sort of like Christmas!

Showing Neil the ropes shortly after his arrival in Cuzco.
The night before our trek was to begin we attended a briefing session at the tour company office where we met our guides and the other 13 people in our group, all of whom turned out to be very easy to get along with. I'd developed a chest cold and cough the day before we left Lima and it was worsening every day so we stopped at a pharmacy to pick up some medication. I demonstrated my cough and, after asking me a few questions, the pharmacist recommended an expectorant and sulfa drugs! The latter are antibacterials rarely administered to humans since the discovery of penicillin and subsequent development of second and third generation antibiotics. Furthermore, since I hadn't had a fever or any other symptoms of bacterial infection I didn't really see the point of taking antibiotics. I did take them though... because I figured if I did have a bacterial infection it was better to start treating it immediately rather than waiting until after the Inca Trail and potentially having my symptoms worsen when I was out in the middle of nowhere.

We started with a very early morning rendezvous near the Plaza de Armas where we were provided with scalding cups of strong coca tea and loaded onto a minibus with our trek-mates. The bus took us to the town of Ollantaytambo for breakfast and then on to Kilometer 82: the checkpoint for the start of our Inca Trail trek. There we got our first glimpse of the Red Army - our team of 21 porters plus a cook. We watched as the boss of the porters weighed each pack to ensure they were below the maximum 25 kg. This is a relatively new thing, brought about by new regulations instituted to prevent the mistreatment of porters that was apparently rampant in the past.

The red army (our porter team) setting out ahead of us on the trek. They were so fast!
Everything was going fine until the other Angela in our group was given her ticket - for some reason the tour company had registered her as "Second Person". Entrance to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu is stringently controlled - we'd received several warnings to check and recheck our names and passport numbers to make sure everything was correct. Unfortunately for Angela, the tour company had neglected to update her booking even though she'd informed them of the error. It took a while to work things out but eventually they let her through. I think the checkpoint guards mostly wanted to give the tour guide grief and there wasn't really any danger that Angela would be turned away.

Ready to set out! We all look so eager, despite having woken up at 4am.

Happy trekkers.

The first part of the trek was over relatively flat terrain, passing through a couple of tiny villages and farmland along the Rio Urubamba. We stopped frequently so our guide could give us more information about the upcoming days and point out interesting features of the area. The hiking became increasingly difficult as the day progressed but it was such a gorgeous setting that it really didn't feel too challenging. When we reached our lunch spot we were amazed by the efficiency and organization of our porters. They'd erected a dining tent complete with stools and tables and had set out individual bowls of water for us to wash in before we ate. First class service! And the food!!! It was delicious!! We definitely picked a good company.

Inca trail map showing distances, elevation changes, and points of interest. We stayed at the B campsites (in red). 

In the dining tent!

These llamas were calm but shortly after this shot we were stampeded by some less tranquil guys and Chris had to pretty much throw me off the trail into some bushes to prevent me from getting trampled. Hazards of the Inca trail!

The mountains at sunset at one of our campsites.

Each day of our trek offered breathtaking views of the Andes and the opportunity to visit ruins that are not accessible by any other means (unless you happen to own a helicopter and are into rappelling). We were incredibly fortunate to have 4 days of great weather, although it got VERY cold at night! Despite the persistence of my cough I didn't have trouble with the physical exertion during the day. A few coughing fits whenever we stopped for breaks or to visit ruins but I felt only a slight burning in my lungs when hiking. Nights were a different story. I barely slept with all the coughing and, considering the proximity of our tents (i.e. basically seam to seam), I definitely affected a few other people's sleep. Nevertheless, after a strong cup of coca tea and a few minutes of walking to loosen up the congestion in my lungs, I was able to go on (not that there was an alternative... although I do reckon I could've fit into one of the porter bags). It felt positively amazing to reach a peak or walk into camp to the applause of our fantastic porters.

A few stops along the way and finally Machu Picchu.

Ruins along the Inca trail - can't see these sites unless you hoof it!
As with Galapagos, Chris's photos do a better job of showing our experience than any words I could use to describe it. We really enjoyed meeting the other people in our group and listening to our guide talk not just about the Incas and Peruvian history, but about current events in Peru and South America. I would highly recommend the trek, especially after visiting Machu Picchu itself.... But I'm getting ahead of myself.

A little bit of the flora along the way.

Taking in the view. We hiked up from that river!
Our guide, Raul, giving us the scoop.

Terraces and ruins. They chose this site because it was relatively inaccessible and afforded views of the surrounding valley and mountains such that they had advance warning of any "visitors". 

My handsome boyfriend. Oh, and some handsome ruins too.
At Dead Woman's Pass - the highest point on our trek. We came from the right and descended on the left.

Neil and I having snack time at Dead Woman's Pass.


On Day 4, Machu Picchu day, we woke up before dawn (3:30 am) in order to be at the front of the pack waiting at the gate for admission to the final leg of our hike. The control point is relatively new, established after several accidents occurred with people hiking in darkness, rushing to be the first to the Sun Gate. Now the gate opens at 5:30 am, which is right about the time it starts to get light. Despite our fatigue, it was reinvigorating to know that soon we would set eyes on Machu Picchu itself. Compared to the previous days, the hike wasn't very difficult, consisting of mostly downhill except for "the gringo killer": a short but extremely steep stretch near the Sun Gate that actually required a bit of climbing with your hands. Reaching the Sun Gate and finally seeing Machu Picchu was indescribable. It actually felt sort of surreal. Luckily we had to wait there for quite some time in order to take photos after the first groups were finished so we had a chance to let the experience sink in. Then we continued down, stopping at a few other amazing viewpoints. The closer we got, the more people you could see in Machu Picchu and eventually we started passing people coming the other way to visit the Sun Gate. That's when we realized just how stinky we were after 4 days of hiking without showering!

We made it! And we don't even look too bad after nearly 45 km of trekking and no showers for 4 days!

Yes. Amazing. 

Taking a tour of the Machu Picchu ruins. 

Our guide gave us a 2 hour tour of the major highlights of Machu Picchu and then we dispersed to wander the ruins ourselves. I was feeling quite sick but we'd prepurchased permits to climb Wayna Picchu - the cone-shaped mountain that overlooks the ruins and has several ruins itself. I decided to try climbing it even though my lungs were in a lot of pain. It was more challenging than I expected - really steep staircases and bits where you had to climb using cables bolted into the rock for support. The views were pretty amazing but not really superior to what we'd experienced from the trail leading from the Sun Gate. Also, it seemed to attract all of the most obnoxious tourists. Several times I got stuck behind slow hikers who were too rude to let me pass even when they stopped for (frequent) breaks. Neil was clapped at by a Japanese lady for apparently hogging the best spot to take a photo and Chris encountered a complete spaz of a woman while trying to come through a tunnel near the peak. Evidently she'd been waiting far too long on the other side and, and after not having success screaming for people to stop coming through, she shoved her way in and refused to turn back even when there was really only space for one-way traffic. Luckily Chris and his camera made it through unscathed. Overall, although Machu Picchu was absolutely overrun with tourists, it was still incredible to wander the ruins and bask in the success of completing a long and somewhat arduous trek.

Neil and I looking out on Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu mountain.
We'd elected to spend one night in Machu Picchu town (aka Aguas Calientes) on the advice of some travelers we met in Quito. It ended up being mostly a waste of time and money because we'd left Machu Picchu around 1:30 in order to meet the rest of our group for lunch and farewell, leaving more than enough time to go to the hot springs (the main reason we'd planned to stay in addition to possibly visiting MP again the next day) and still catch the train back to Ollantaytambo that night. The town appears to be 100% funded by tourism so it's full of overpriced hotels and identical eateries. I think I also disliked it because I'd finally used up the adrenaline from the hike and was feeling more sick and exhausted and just wanted to get back to Cuzco. The sulfa drugs had done nothing to alleviate my symptoms so we sought out another pharmacy in the hopes of getting something else to help me. We found a drugstore tucked in the back of a convenience store/internet cafe where the attendant gave me a bronchodialator and lozenges containing a cough suppressant. I was skeptical about the former but took it because I was desperate to feel better. I'm not sure it did anything but at least I didn't react to it! We visited the hot springs the next day and that was alright. Soothing for our sore muscles and probably good for my cough as well. But after that we were pretty much out of things to do. The most ridiculous thing is that the hotels make you check out at 9:30 am! Luckily our hotel receptionist let me nap on the couch while waiting for our train departure... at 6:45 pm. She even turned off the saucy Spanish soap opera she was glued to when I first laid down. Meanwhile, Chris and Neil found a computer cafe and played video games for a few hours. Yes. They did.

We are all so attractive!
Back in Cuzco we had one full day together before the boys departed for the Amazon and it happened to be Chris's birthday! We spent most of the day shopping in various markets and then having another adventure at the post office trying to send our purchases home. In the evening we went for a nice dinner at Greens Organic near the Plaza. Chris and I both had alpaca dishes - so tasty!! Chris had originally wanted to find somewhere to watch a hockey game (an Irish pub in town advertises that they'll show any sporting match upon request) but we were all tired from wandering the markets so opted for an early night instead. Such party animals! The next morning, after another night of violent, painful coughing, I decided I should probably visit a doctor. It had been 12 days since my "cold" began and it seemed to be getting worse instead of better. I was having chest pain while breathing and speaking more than a few phrases led to vicious coughing fits. So, after saying goodbye to the boys, I took a taxi to my new hostel to drop off all the bags (I kept everything Chris and Neil didn't take to the Amazon) and then to a clinic recommended by our travel guide.

Amid the curious stares of locals in the waiting area, I approached reception and explained my reason for wanting to see a doctor (in other words, I demonstrated my cough). The receptionist asked if I had insurance and, after inspecting my card, informed me that I would need to go to another clinic by ambulance. I tried to ask why but she didn't speak any English and I couldn't understand her Spanish. I finally agreed after confirming that there would not be a charge for the ride. The other clinic seemed a bit more modern, more like a hospital than a clinic. It took a while for the  front desk to find someone who spoke English but I was eventually escorted into a consultation room with a young female doctor who spoke perfect English. I think she was from Germany. She examined me quite thoroughly and concluded that I had bronchitis, probably with a secondary bacterial infection. Yay... I picked up a new set of antibiotics and an expectorant along with a cough suppressant for nighttime and then took a taxi back to the hostel, ready for a nap.

The hostel I'd chosen to stay at was special. It's part of an NGO set up to help rescue indigenous girls from the slave-like conditions they have been forced to endure as domestic workers. This terrible situation is all too common in Peru. Girls as young as 3 or 4 are sent from their rural communities to cities with the promise of a better education and life opportunities but instead find themselves working day in and day out as housemaids for little or no pay. And they definitely don't get to go to school. A refuge was started by an amazing woman from Italy, Victoria, and has grown to accommodate dozens of girls, giving them the opportunity to go to school and work under better conditions. They broadcast a radio program throughout the Sacred Valley, providing information about about workers' rights and giving the girls a chance to share their stories. Read more here:

I'll admit it was a little strange being on my own after 4 months of having Chris by my side 24/7. I also felt a bit uncomfortable when I first arrived at the hostel because nobody really spoke English and they didn't seem very organized to show you around or even tell you where you are allowed to go. I had asked if there was anything I could do to help out during my stay and one of the coordinators, Andrea (a guy), told me I could help in the library. So, at 4 pm, I reported to what I expected to be a room with books that I could help sort or something. It turned out to be more of a daycare or after school program. There were only a few kids that day because the schools were on strike so most had stayed at home. The lady who ran the "library" was really nice but my limited Spanish skills prevented us from having much of a conversation. She set me up at the table with the kids where we colored for about an hour. Two of the center's volunteers were also there - Simone from Switzerland and Valeska from Germany. They both spoke English so I was able to visit with them a little bit.

Andrea had pointed me in the direction of the supermarket and I decided to make a quick trip there before dinner. It was kind of a ridiculous endeavor because it was really far and I should've been resting but I was eager to have an adventure on my own for a change. It wasn't hard to find but I wasn't totally sure I'd find my way back, especially as it got dark while I shopped. I could hear Chris in my head telling me to just take a taxi but there weren't any outside when I finished so I just walked back. I made it but was coughing like crazy by the time I made it back up the hill to the hostel. Oops.

I had decided to eat dinner at the hostel after reading about the great Peruvian/Italian meals prepared by Victoria herself. It turned out that Victoria is not particularly well these days so her staff does the cooking now. I arrived at the kitchen and felt conspicuously awkward and uncertain as the staff greeted me but then went back to their business without really telling me where to sit or acknowledging me further. I sat down in the dining area and watched the dinner preparations in uncomfortable silence. Eventually Simone noticed that I was still there and helped sort things out. The meal was good but everyone spoke Spanish so I mostly kept quiet and tried to understand as much as I could. Victoria made an appearance after we finished our soup. She is very old and clearly sick but she has a quick wit and is still commands the respectful attention of her staff.

I spent the entirety of the next day in my room apart from breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Taking some time to just rest did wonders for my cough and I was feeling much better by dinner time. I felt a bit bad  for not doing anything around the center but it actually seems that they are not set up for short-term volunteering so I guess it was better that I just relaxed. The next morning I had breakfast with Valeska and then decided to join her for some shopping. She was looking for some warmer clothes because it's freezing up here at the center. I also needed to supplement my wardrobe with another sort of clothing item.... Bizarrely, my supply of underwear has slowly been depleting each time we use a laundromat... The situation was getting critical after the wash following our Inca Trail trek. Anyway, we spent the better part of the day visiting various markets and shops, finally stopping for lunch near the Plaza. It was nice to have some girl time! Valeska, who is incredibly bright and quite mature for only being 19 years old, is helping the center translate their website into English and German during a four-week stay. She's also gorgeous. Look out Peruvian boys!

The boys will return from the Amazon this afternoon and we will have one night here before we move on to Arequipa; Canyon Country.