Team VA's Wonderings

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Phone Bolivia

New country, new phone update. My travel phone, the one that worked in Peru is now dead (I expect until Brazil). You need to use my O2 number, the one I´ve had for 6 or 7 years and ends 3642.

For those who are so inclined I have added some albums to Facebook with more people based photos. If you have as much idea of what Facebook is as I did 6 months ago, then facebook probably tells you how to get at them, tho you may have to become my friend (Facebook is very odd, I got something today that lets me know how popular I am). I am painfully easy to find as there can be only one. John van de Poll produces a single hit in the Facebook search.

Distressingly this also gives you access to photos other people have taken of me.

Oh, and look below for hot press exciting new post!

Adios Peru

Last day in Cuzco
It was midnight when we finally got back to Cuzco; I was up for a few beers. No one else was.

The Inca trail posse all felt they had seen enough Inca ruins and archaeological sites so no one wanted to come to Saqsaywamán (most commonly pronounced sexy woman) with me. Or maybe having not seen me for 3 days, they were keen to keep their good run going. So I met up with Sarah from my trek and we were most impressive as we climbed up to the site atop a fair sized hill overlooking the city.

The site was quite impressive and the location stunning, tho this is the pick of the pics.

Right next to Saqsaywamán is a big Jesus statue that I may have stood next to in preparation for Rio.

I guess the Inca trail must take it out of you-that must have been the reason we had such a lame night out.

Possibily the best bus in the world
I've told a few tales of buses, most of which have struggled to convey the full thrill of the experience. 2 hours in, this looks like a winner. We've had '50 first dates', a film that shouldn't work, but I find strangely affecting. The comedy highlight was undoubtedly just as it finished, when Rich, sat between 2 weeping women, bellowed ''oh for pity's sake". We've had cake and just finished a game of bingo.

5 hours to go.

Perhaps the high early standard was too much to sustain for the whole journey, but this was my favourite bus trip to date and it arrived early. Most unprecedented.

So we're in Puno, where there's not much apart from 100,000 people. This is the place for us to explore Lake Titicaca, at 3,820m, spread across the Peru/Bolivia border, this is the world's highest navigable lake. I'm told there's one higher in Chile, but it's only 2m deep.

So how best to start the day at 7.30? How to get to the port from the hotel? Clearly in a tutt tutt race.

Olivia and I moved up from second last to finish just behind the winners-given that drives was shifting my weight on a cycle rickshaw, this was testament to his roadcraft and sprint finish. He got tipped.

Our boat is slow, which is lovely, as many hours are passed sat on the roof watching the scenery, swathed in a gorgeous blue, pass us by.

We land on 2 islands. Firstly Taquile, where we hike up for panoramic views across the lake and into Bolivia. There's a very famous arch where we took interminable team photos, but this arch looked rickety and needed support.

Note the total disinterest of the local child-he knows he's now safe from falling masonry.

Another hour in the boat and we're on Amantani, where we're doing a homestay. Brett and I are allocated to the seriously lucky Esteban. He and wife will get to feed us dinner and breakfast, give us a bed, and take us to our meeting points on the island. In return they are paid, we have brought gifts of food and stuff for the kids who must have left home some time ago as well as giving them the pleasure of our company and sparkling repartee. In Spanish. Yeah, you're right, they were had.

We spend about 15 mins with our new Mum and Dad before Esteban took us to a football pitch to meet the others. From there we hiked to the island's high point for sunset and doughnut.

Dinner may have contained all 3,000 varieties of the Peruvian potato. Good for me, less so for potato hater Brett. Dinner was tasty, hot and filling-just the job for a night of dressing up and dancing. Esteban put us in ponchos and hats

and sent us off to meet the others.

We did some Andean dancing, which seemed very like Scottish Reels. It was a good laugh, but I'd like to thank the lovely Laura for rebuffing me to make me dance with old women.

Next day we stop on the floating islands (reed pontoons) and take a ride in a reed dragon boat across the lake within the lake within the floating islands.

Back in Puno, we took a wander, a spot of dinner and a few drinks for the last night in Peru. Nice.

The mood in the group isn't the best. There's a lot of tiredness and only 3 of us haven't been ill (I have secured a podium finish in the health Olympics)-the sound of poor Manuel being sick woke me up twice on Thursday night. Apparently I slept through the third. Ian didn't come to the islands-he saw a doctor and tried a day in bed in Puno to sort him. Psychologically some folk are a little funked-my inability to help one person contributed to my low spell. However, after a nice little night out in Puno and behaving like an arse, I'm feeling back on track, which means my energy and comedy levels are right back there: so the others are either gonna get cheered up, or I'll get right on their tits.

So we left Peru and headed ariound and across Lake Titicaca to reach Bolivia and then La Paz. So far Bolivia is making a good impression and I´ll write more anon, but it seems a lot touristy than the southern part of Peru did. No one´s tried to play music while I eat yet. It wasn´t so kind to Vanessa however, who crossed the border without trouble, but then was nearly arrested crossing the Lake. Bolivia doesn´t like overseas tour guides operating in their territory, they say it´s illegal working, which is a viewpoint of sorts, tho the tourist they are bringing ought to outweigh the perceieved disadvntage. Vanessa and Julio and now back in Peru and Christian has the difficult job of looking after us.

His surname is von John.

I think he´ll do fine.

And a special message to my Pa, who had knee surgery today, get well soon and I want to see you on a golf course in the New Year.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Yes, that is a wonder

To Cuzco
We're spending just the one night back in Arequipa; there's a massive parade and festival on, but I doubt we'll be getting too involved as we're getting up at 4 to catch a flight to Cuzco, which is essentially our base either side of Machu Picchu. Everyone else is going on the Inca Trail, because they were keen and booked at birth. I'm going on the Lares trek instead with Julio, who's doing it as part of his guide training; I have mixed feelings about missing out and getting a break from the whole group thing.

After possibly the finest veggie sandwich on earth, Brett and I left the ladies to do something called shopping, while we headed for the cathedral. It was shut as a navy band was at work out front, so we got a cab to destination no 2 the Monasterio de la Recoleta. It was shut-the Lonely Planet omitting to mention they shut for 3 hours at lunch each day. So we found an internet café, where I did the last post. Brett got the last machine in the front, so I was shown out back. This is where you get a PC next to the guy watching hard core porn. Lovely. Especially when the first thing I had to do was bend down to his ankle level to plug in my 2 USBs.

We rolled back to the Recoleta just after opening time and 10 mins later we were in. Brett and I reckon this is the best museum so far. It had 4 courtyards, one filled with cacti, so it was compact yet managed a great array of stuff. We saw tribal stuff, religious artifacts, religious painting, pottery, porno pottery, dead people, toys, stuffed animals, textiles and the library.

And one of Laura's relatives was there

You got a bit of everything and mounds of nothing.

The fiesta has closed some one way streets, so the taxi went the wrong way down one way streets as we headed back to meet the girls. We found chocolate and cash, packed, had an early and spent a strange hour at the fiesta. The highlight was definitely the spray paint artist who created something rather good in under 10 mins, then got the crowd to play bingo with the painting as prize. I was in bed by half 9 and asleep by 10.

We got a bonus when we arrived at the airport and were told our flight was direct and about an hour and a half quicker than expected. It's quite parky here in Cuzco, so I'll be getting more clothes than just the happy pants I'd already planned on buying to replace the trousers I ripped in the jungle. I expect all my shopping to fit into Swiss Toni's 'ethnic shit' category.

We were at the hotel just after 7, where a cup of coca tea proved sufficiently reviving to propel us out into town to drop off washing and have a bit of an explore. We had the quickest peek in the cathedral on the Plaza des Armas-it was only really open for those wanting a bit of a pray.

So, onto Qorikancha, where an Inca site forms the base of the colonial Santa Domingo Church. There's some nice art for a change, but we're blown away by the Inca stonemasonry. It's not decorative, but the size and quality of the blocks that they've carved out are amazing. This is no rubble wall, but a construction made from massive, regular blocks, fitted together seamlessly without mortar; much of it has stood for over 500 years, although the Spanish used a lot as building materials.

Another bizarre highlight was the German tour group, who were apparently being accompanied by their very own Inca. Clearly Peruvian and in full local dress, he accompanied the group and their guide without saying a word. It seems they had bought an authentic Cuzco tour with real live Inca. Wunderbar. Failing to get a photo shows I must be tired.

Laura gave me a lot of patient shopping help, so there's a fair chance I won't now freeze to death. However, the main talking point of the shopping trip was something we didn't buy.

We'd spotted a llama in Arequipa and had been sorely tempted to buy it for where's wally type photos. The seeming impracticality of the idea had stopped us. This time we gave it more thought and found a single stumbling block-Machu Picchu. We felt that without Machu Picchu there'd be little point in having a llama, but a solution presented itself. Vanessa isn't trekking, she's getting the train to Machu Picchu. So if we could persuade Vanessa to take the llama on the train, then the llama would be ours. Hence the photo above: Brett is displaying the joy of llama ownership, while Lor shows the empty despairing misery of denial. We're confident we can melt Vanessa with this and an almost deranged level of enthusiasm.

It worked.

So we're getting ready to go out; Brett and I are laughing at our room as we discover the fusebox is by the shower and the window casement in the bathroom isn't attached. Then I'm shouting that the mirror's wobbling. Brett's thinking that the bed is shaking. Then Iz is knocking on our door, asking why we're not standing in the doorway. Penny drops. Earthquake. Freaky, especially when so tired, but not scary, tho we are wondering if it was a small local quake, or if we're feeling something more substantial from further afield. Cuzco is not normally an earthquake area.

About 30 mins after I wrote the above, I suggested we check the breaking news on the BBC website. At that point it mentioned Lima and a 7.5 quake. Julio and Vanessa both have family in Lima, so were very concerned and did a frantic tour of the web and mobiles. Happily for them, the news was good; tragically it wasn't for so many others.

Next day, as I walked through the main square, the Cuzco flag was at half mast. Sobering to think that we were around Pisco, Nazca and Ica in the last 7 days-towns where hundreds now lie dead. I toured the cathedral, from which I'd expected more. I've found the churches/cathedrals rather samey. For the most part, they've been architecturally uninteresting and without stained glass. The effort is focussed on the decorative side, which is the bizarre mix of the gaudy and the sentimental; the extensive use of gold and the worship of dolls. Still, it's worth visiting anywhere with a painting of Jesus and the disciples tucking into a Last Supper of roasted guinea pig.

Lorna, Lor, Brett and I are proud new parents. For just over 10 quid we took possession of Lionel the llama; we also got Penny thrown in, who's coming with me on the Lares trek and is small enough to sit on my hand.

The number of smiles we got just taking Lionel home proved to me he'll make the world a happier place. It's unclear from now on if any photos can be taken without Lionel. Although no one else seems to want to share in Lionel's parenting, the rest of the group has shown enthusiasm and changed the plan. Unlike me, Lionel will travel the Inca trail. Tests proved he can be successfully strapped to a day pack.

Facebook, visits to all 7 wonders, a website and an ongoing global roving role are among the plans for Lionel.

Sacred Valley
A day of Inca ruins and markets as we transfer to Ollantaytambo to start the treks. At this stage I'm pretty much over markets, but the Inca side was great. Having said that, I've written so much of late that I'm going to let the photos do the talking.



Lares trek
We were all due to leave at 8, but my bus was late. I made some rather awkward au revoirs with some of the others, then met Sarah and Tiffany, who were in a similar position with the rest of their group heading off to Inca.

Julio is taking great pleasure in telling me how gay my stuff is. Admittedly I chose the only purple duffle bag for the trek, got a purple poncho and am wearing a purple shirt. He was overjoyed when he saw my purple maglite.

'Look how much bigger your day pack is, and I'm a gay.' it's hard to argue with that.

I'm not going to go into it here, but I've been rather out of sorts the last few days. I've been flat, felt disconnected, unsure of myself and irritable. Alright, more irritable than usual. Can't remember the last time I said something funny. Hopefully some time more on my own will give me a kick in the arse. I'm thinking about being rather insular and anti-social on the trek, tho the odds are I won't manage it.

Today we cross one pass: we start at 3,700m, cross the pass at 4,250m and finish at the campsite at 3,950m. I think it's a fairly short day-we start walking about 1 after a stop to buy toys for the kids we'll see on the way.

We are very well looked after-there are 10 guides, cooks, waiter and horsemen for the 9 of us. At least they use horses to help here-the other 14 have 22 looking after them on the Inca. In fact, it's kinda embarassing. We set off while they're packing stuff and loading the horses; carrying just day packs, we are soon passed by the laden porters and horses; after an hour and a bit of huffing and puffing, we arrive at the lagoon, where a kitchen tent has been erected, a dining tent (complete with table and chairs), a toilet tent and a hot lunch prepared-each of us is provided with an individual bowl of hot water to wash our hands before eating; we set off again, leaving the guys to clean and pack up; again we are soon passed; when we finally roll into the evening campsite, it's the same scenario as lunch, but all our sleeping tents have been put up for us-they're collapsed and put away the next morning. Did I ever mention I don't like being fussed over? It's all amazing, but a part of me would like to carry a packed lunch, eat it sat on a rock, put my own tent up and piss in a bush. They must think we're bloody pampered and useless.

Julio has told me he hates me-if it wasn't for me, he wouldn't have been on the trek and I think that would have been his preferred option.

It was a good day, but due to the late start it was as good as dark when we reached camp. My fleece was quite damp from the mist that had envelopped us throughout the trek. We'd been to some great looking spots, but the views were all in our imaginations as the visibility was really low.

It cleared at some point later- when I had to brave the great outdoors at 3 a.m I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the night's stars, framed by the ridges and mountains that surround us.

Day 2
So this is where we camped

always strange to be somewhere for 12 hours before you see it.

As we clambered up out of the valley the mist was both rising and rolling towards us.

A mixture of luck and the desire to see the views we were denied yesterday kept us ahead of the cloud. From where I'm sat, memorable passages waxing lyrically on natural beauty haven't been a feature of this blog. So here are some photos of what we walked through.

Each morning we receive a bag of goodies-today was a muesli bar, sublime (top local chocolate), apple and juicce. Naturally we couldn't go till lunch without a snack stop in a scenic location

Cheese sandwich and biscuits more than kept me happy. From there it wasn't much further to the high point at 4,780 (a climb of 830m for the day)

Sadly while I was clambering about looking for good photo rocks, Tiffany got some pretty bad altitude sickness, which she's still suffering from 24 hours later. The descent back to 3,900 wasn't so physically demanding, but needed a lot of concentration. I managed to catch her once, but she had a nasty fall as well.

Originally I was worried about the Inca trail; physically this is meant to be more demanding, but I really feel I've quite a lot left-we may have started walking at 7.10 this morning, but I was done at 2.15 and there was more in the tank. Climbing 3 volcanoes in Ecuador probably helped a lot. Here's home for the night

I feel a bit bad that none of us joined the crew for the game of football. I watched for a bit-with 6 North Americans, Julio, Sarah and I, I reckon we'd have cramped their style.

Day 3
Today's itinerary-3 hours walking downhill, then bus to Ollantaytambo to catch the train to Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu town). Then tomorrow early bus to Machu Picchu itself.

We got a lie in this morning-all things are relative, so we got up at 6.30. I was in charge of the tips, so had to do a fair bit of maths over breakfast. When we set off, I felt it had a very LOTR feel-specifically when they're working their way through the woods along the river at the end of the Fellowship. Although the river was small, that's basically what we were doing.

Somehow I managed to lose the group:

we were a little stretched out as people's pace varied, but there were 4 and a bit in front of me when I lost control on a steep bit and hared off away from Victoria and Tiffany. I couldn't see very far ahead as the path twisted through the trees and kept thinking the others must be just round the next corner. When I caught up with the porters, I realised something was a bit odd. When I waited at the bus for half an hour before the others turned up I realised I'd found a short cut without noticing a fork in the path. Could have been fun.

I deserve kicking for saying this, but overall I found it a touch lightweight. Yesterday's tough 8/9 hour day wasn't easy, but we took 7 hours between camps, walking 4 hours. It did take its toll on some of the others, so I should probably just accept that, despite my Denver experiences, I'm genetically well disposed to altitude and shut up. I'm glad I did it and loved that the only evidence of other tourists we saw were some empty tents on day 2 and 3 or 4 puffed trekkers today.

The Picchu
It's 8.30 pm. I'm sat on the train to take us back to Cuzco. Julio and I talked till past midnight last night. The alarm went off at 4.30. We caught the first bus at 5.30. Met the Inca Trail posse at 6.30. So I am a little weary.

Can I find the words for one of the new 7 wonders?

Not really.

And I'm not sure it matters. Machu Picchu is so familiar that my spin on it would be redundant. It was spectacular, special and singular. The chaotic nature of the day and my tiredness probably meant I didn't feel the magic and the spiritual connection of Uluru, Rapa Nui, the Opera House or Milford Sound. A disappointment it most certainly was not; it was well worth it.

So instead of a history lesson, this was my day.

It was great to see Lor, Lorna and Brett again. I'd really missed them, guess I probably should tell them. My one regret of the day was not getting a photo of them at the Sun Gate. There are those who would think my trip to the Sun Gate pointless; I think it was the best decision I made in a while. Vanessa, Julio and I pottered up the stairs and got an early look at a misty Machu Picchu.

I then had the option of hiking to the Sun Gate, where the Inca Trail ends or waiting for the rest to come down to me. As the others had a 2 hour hike to the Sun Gate, going to them seemed the right thing to do. I'm not sure Julio wholly agreed. It was tough going-warm and quite substantially uphill. Towards the end the hikers arriving held us up as they moved against us. I could make out figures on the Sun Gate, but didn't know until the shouting and screaming started. Closest to me, sat together on a wall, the first faces I made out belonged to the 3 Amigos. That's the photo I should have got. We managed a Machu team photo all the same

The guys' Inca guide gave us a tour of the site, but it didn't feel right. This was a time for being here, not a lecture. Breaking away, we found this spot

Despite the weight of tourists, there seemed to be plenty of spots that felt secret.

All that remained was to hike Waynapicchu-the decent sized peak behind the site.

The altitude's nowt-2,600 and change, but this was difficult. It's quite a rise, steep in parts (handrail needed), scary in parts (when you remember you're scared of heights) and includes a bit where you take off your daypack and basically crawl through a fissure in the rock. If you do it in sandals, there's a fair chance of feet looking like they belong to someone of different ethnic origin. But it's all about the photo ops and you should be beaten up to get these views.

In conclusion? Machu Picchu-I have nothing clever or insightful to say.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Gay Bar

Lima is set to be the scene of 2 different nights out: first up we're going to Vanessa's and she's going to cook for all of us, even the fad eater. Julio's in charge of the second night, so we'll be heading to a gay bar after dinner. There's been mention of a drag queen.

So after the night bus sleeping disaster I found it difficult to muster much get up and go for exploring Lima. Julio's doing a city tour tomorrow, which ruled out a number of options and it's Monday so a few places are shut. Almost by default 6 of us plumped for the Museo Larco-pottery, gold, textiles and erotic pottery involving men, women, skeletons and animals. I must have been out of my tiny mind.

It took ages to get the taxi driver to understand where we wanted to go; I got hacked off very quickly as it wasn't a language barrier-Museo Larco is a pretty basic request (the second listed museum in the LP, so ought to be well known); then the others ran back from their cab-he'd had no idea where it was; ignoring the warning signs, I rashly chucked them my Lonely Planet to help them navigate; we began to think our taxi driver had no idea where it was, then he tried to drop us in Calle Larco; I managed to remember the address which we had to write down; renegotiating the fare fired Laura's temper; when we realised we didn't even really want to go to the Museo Larco, we pretty much ranted the rest of the way; even then the cabbie was clueless-he tried to offload us at a random museum and a wine shop before we finally made it. We'd been 45 mins, yet the others only just beat us. After all the Met, Louvre or Vatican would have struggled. Museo Larco had no chance. It wasn't very good and was inexplicably expensive.

So, after porno pottery, lunch and posting my last blog, I felt a nap was in order. This may have been a mistake. I woke up just in time to go to Vanessa's confused by my surrounding and totally spaced out. I spent the next hour feeling like I'd just come round after being knocked out by Mike Tyson. Another roundabout cab ride didn't help.

It was a lovely evening: the food was fantastic and we met Vanessa's Mum, sister and cousin. Later the grandparents were roused to meet us. I had already met Vanessa's grandparents when Julio told me their bedroom was the bathroom. Grandpa said some gringo had barged in! He'd put his hat on to meet us. Once they went back to bed, the music got louder and the smoking started.

Julio's tour kicked off at the cathedral Pizarro built; Pizarro killed many indigenous people as part of the Spanish colonisation, but founding Lima and the cathedral has left him as a neutral character in Peru. The chapel for his grave is impressively mosaiced.

The choir was beautifully carved,

the museum of artefacts cult-like and the crypt creepy. After showing us a number of bones, the guide brightly announced 'and over here we have babies and infants' and led us to some tiny coffins. Just how long do you have to be dead before your remains become a tourist attraction? If the crypt at the cathedral was shocking, the carnage at the Monasterio de San Francisco was appalling. 10s of thousands were buried here, the bones have been collected, sorted piled and in one area used to produce a geometric pattern. I tried to imagine the meeting where they agreed upon this lunacy. The library was gorgeous-with no photography allowed. Then a quick walk through some of Lima's streets and plazas led us to the swanky hotel Bolivar and a very strong Pisco Sour.

I got the feeling Julio's tour got a touch abbreviated as we ended up in a mall for lunch and then got left to our own devices. The danger in this policy was evident when Laura and I headbutted each other while walking downstairs and talking. Still can't work out how that happened.

I can't remember if I wrote about shoes in Quito, but Lima reminded me of it, albeit on a lesser scale. The number of shoe shops is staggering; OK, I admit shoes is the one form of clothing that fails to even vaguely interest me, but the relative number of shoe shops to clothes shops seems way out. Only the number of shops selling chicken and fake DVDs come close. In Quito especially, the number of shoe shiners (men and boys) is huge. Obviously this is an attractive employment option for the terribly poor, but there does seem to be quite a market. In the main square in Quito, there's always someone having their shoes cleaned although offering to attack my action sandals is somewhat ambitious. I'm a touch unsure as to the motivation for this compulsive foot cleanliness. Ostensibly it's about being presentable, but watching so many of the punters staring down at the cleaner below, I felt there was a lot of 'look at me, I'm having my shoes cleaned' going on. A slightly strange status symbol.

And the gay bar? It didn't open till 11; we went out at 7 for dinner; I was still tired and reeling from the headbutt; Laura and I got through 3 bottles of wine. So I was a mess. At least I stayed clear of the vodka that Brett and Lorna had. We'd agreed that whichever bloke got chatted up the most would get a drink off the others-I don't think I really competed. Judging by my empty pockets this morning it wasn't a cheap place to drink.

Lima is very spread out and none too tourist friendly-there seem to be few sights and they're spaced out. The feeling it was somewhere to pass through was fairly universal. There's a distinct chance Lima's highlight was coming back from lunch and the taxi driver taking a short cut by going the wrong way up a 4 lane 1 way street. Coming up we've the Ballestas Islands (a mini Galapagos) and Nazca, where I plan to be brave and fly over the Nazca lines-another one of Dan Cruickshank's 80. Back on the bus then.

We stopped overnight at Paracas and I gallantly escorted Lorna back from dinner: she was still suffering from the gay bar and I felt an early night might be a sensible plan. Come morning, after a rotten night's kip, we breakfasted while dolphins cavorted in the bay and then boarded the boat for the Ballestas. For $11 and after the Galapagos I wasn't expecting too much. Katie, Rich and I all agreed we hadn't seen such densely birded skies on the Galapagos. Guano used to be Peru's no 1 export (fuel and fertiliser), oil buggered that up for them and now it's 50m deep in places. That much shit needs a shitload of birds

I hope if you click on the second pic, you'll see the rock's surface is just birds. Boobies (brown footed this time) abounded and I got some (Humboldt) penguin pics, something I'd not managed in the Galapagos.

Overall it ranked alongside a decent Galapagos outing. Still loving pelicans

I've stopped at a few wineries in my time, but this was the first in South America. Grapes may be used, but at 43% Pisco can hardly be called wine. I don't care how many times Marco, who showed us round, describes the pure Pisco as beautiful, paintstripper is much closer the mark-an impression the tasting did nothing to dispel. Naturally we bought a bottle to share tonight.

Pisco sour (paintstripper, egg white, lemon juice, syrup, bitters and ice) is the national drink of Peru. And Chile. I believe this causes some friction over ownership and whose is better. While the nations may bicker, more interesting is what such a drink says about a country. They're not drinking it to savour a fine beverage, from any pretension or for their health; they're drinking it to get out of their tree. It's brain rot.

So onto Huacachina for lunch and sand fun. This got off to a good start when I got more vegetables in my Arroz con Vegetales than I'd seen in the previous few days put together. Feeling a little stuffed, I headed off to the dune buggy. This is a 9 seater roll cage with some large engine on it: it closely resembles the vehicle driven by the mole in DangerMouse.

Some lunatic slams you round the dunes for a bit, then you sandboard a bit, then back to the loony and repeat. To quote old mother Lonely Planet "Dune-buggy drivers are notoriously unsafe, so go at your own risk."

Not for the first time I heard Laura screaming 'we're all going to die'-this time it had a greater ring of truth and was accompanied by plenty of regular screaming. We hurtled down some very steep dunes and got thrown around a lot. Spud protection was a popular pursuit for the gentlemen: the safety harness consisted of 3 straps-one over each shoulder and the third between your legs. I had hoped to board like a snowboard and although the boards looked right, our driver made us go down face first, lying on our stomachs. When the second group arrived they stood on their boards, but it was apparent the velcro bindings weren't up to it. Good laugh all the same, some fair speed, a pair of broken shades, a flip flop swallowed by the desert, but no chance of an action shot

As there were straps to hold onto, I didn't flip as in Kiwiland-still covered in sand tho. After we paid came the tray of complimentary Pisco Sours. Strong ones. And not that I'm competitive, but on the last run-the steepest, the longest, the biggest-I did go the furthest. While bleeding on the board. Rad dude.

On the way to the Ballestas yesterday I wonder if the candelabra would hint at Nazca

and in a way it did. The Nazca lines make no sense; or more accurately no one around today can explain them-they can only theorise. Maybe they're astronomical, or to do with the calendar, maybe they're just fun, maybe they're the work of aliens or students. Basically they are hundreds of lines over 500 km2, forming scores of geometrical patterns and dozens of animals/creatures. And they can only be seen properly from the air, despite substantially predating air travel. Which is weird. Oh and they were only discovered by accident in the 30s.

Or in summary, a huge amount of effort went into creating something for no understandable reason. We needed 3 Cessnas as they sat 5 each; Lorna, Laura, Is, Ian and I were in the last one up, so watched the others take off.

Laura sat up front and there were two rows of two seats behind so we all had a window seat. We put our headphones on and it was very cosy.
Initially it was all very pleasant and reminded I'd thought about learning to fly. It was about 10 mins to the lines, but the views over the mountains were lovely (I was looking out the window and breaking all my rules of flying). I thought it was like being a puppet on string-we wobbled a little from time to time, but it mostly felt like noisy floating. At the lines it all changed: so the people on one side got a good view, pilot tilted the plane so the wings were off horizontal. So the other guys got a good view, a sharp turn was needed. It felt like we were banking with the wings vertical. One time all I could see was mountain. I'm sure pilot knew what he was doing, but his passenger death stared him when he went hands free. Not long after the biggest (i.e. Scariest) turn, the plane dropped. Lorna grabbed at my arm, Laura lost her headphones, I'm not sure what happened to Ian and Is behind us, but I think we all breathed in hard. It probably wasn't a big drop, but it seemed fortunate to me that this didn't happen when we were turning. It was still quite alarming and I was grateful the weather conditions were essentially benign. Prior to the drop Laura and I had been exchanging worried/fearful glances during the hairier moments; afterwards the turning round stopped and she couldn't speak when we first got off the plane. There's the distinct possibility that the pilot used to drive sand buggies. In the usual way the misfortune of another helped us feel better: Rich threw up on his flight.

Anyway, it was very impressive, even if they didn't look quite as big as expected. The combination of the noise, headphones and a slight state of confusion meant I'm not too sure which Nazca line is which. I'll have to match them up in the future, but I got a few good pics.

And if there's something worth seeing, I'd do the small plane thing again.

I skipped the mausolem-the idea of more mummies didn't inspire me. As this was the only other sight of note, it was lunch and then a wander round. Lunch was a little strange, they wouldn't make me a sandwich, but I managed to buy a salad, plus cheese and bread. So I made my own. Brett and Chris ate half a chicken. Each.

In town I pounced upon the 7 soles (£1.15) Power Rangers Monopoly set. We'd been looking for monopoly for while as the money makes for easy to transport poker chips. It's possible it may have been an unofficial set: the board was made of thick paper, we had one dice, 4 coloured playing pieces, the property cards were smaller than cigarette cards and printed on one side. Oh and the money was photocopied onto coloured paper: we had to cut it up from sheets of 12 notes and each colour had two different denominations. Still, we managed a game.

A bit of gloom came over me as the night bus approached and I was told off for my poor mental attitude and dozing on the pavement while we waited for the bus. Despite my lack of optimism, I pretty much slept. It was another very nice bus and although you don't get full value for your sleep, it was a massive result for me.

The bus pulled into Arequipa, Peru's second biggest city. The feel of Arequipa is totally different to Lima and more like a good size town. I liked it as it's a walking town and full of attractive colonial buildings. We have one night here, then 2 in the Colca canyon and then we're back in Arequipa before heading to Cusco.

We visited the 2 main sights today. The Museo Santury is home to Juanita. Juanita was found a decade ago at the top of a volcano above 6,000m. She was 12-14 years old and had been sacrificed by the Incas to appease the volcano Gods. She'd been preserved in ice before tumbling free after an eruption. Eventually 3 more children's bodies were found lower down and scientists have concluded all 4 were sacrificed at the same time-soon after an eruption.

The Museo is based around Juanita and you get to see her tiny body, stored at minus 20. The museo was very well done, even tho I found it a struggle staying awake through the 30 min video, but I struggled with some of what was said. Some of the video re-enactment and conclusions lacked a bit of academic discipline for me. I couldn't see what facts supported the statement that Juanita went peacefully and joyfully to her death.

I felt there were 2 ways of looking at Juanita's end. She was fed little so that she would sleep more easily when drinking a preparation before a precision blow ended her life. Alternatively she was starved, marched up a freezing volcano, drugged and her skull was caved in. The Museo was on the former line-even claiming that in a way the Museo and our visit fulfilled the promises to Juanita that she would live on with the Gods after her earthly death.

I think my total lack of religious conviction is something of a problem in getting the human side of Peru and South America in general. Human sacrifices, at least initially, came from noble families. This was an honour. Try and imagine the strength of conviction that requires. Despite the corruption, child abuse, the near obsession with homosexuality (families still regularly ostracise gay children) and hypocrisy, the slightly odd, cult like version of Catholicism maintains a strong hold. I simply cannot forgive that Church's position on contraception in an overpopulated and Aids ravaged world. The African and South American churches would be better off listening to Desmond Tutu than Benedict. With due deference to my Catholic readers, that's my opinion. I understand the Church's grip is loosening on the younger generation: the 'do as I say, not as I do' practices may have taken their toll.

The other main sight? The Monasteria Santa Catalina. Arequipa really does provide a microcosm of the leading recent beliefs. There wasn't a great deal to really see, it was more a maze of rooms and streets, but it was quite attractive and nice to wander through. It would have been good to get some more history on the number of nuns at peak (about 30 of all ages remain today) and why they were so totally cut off from the outside world. Were the temptations so great? If you can't trust a nun? Although Laura reminded us one stole our taxi last week.

There was quite a lot of this kind thing.

Each nun's cell had some kind of shrine/altar and a kitchen. The view from the roof was my favourite.

We set off from Arequipa for the Colca canyon: like Fish River in Namibia this is making some claim to the second biggest canyon in the world. I think Fish River may have been 2nd for length, Colca going for depth-something over 3,500m. As well as a big fissure in the earth, the Colca river sees the source of the 6,792km Amazon-the world's longest river.

We made a few scenic stops on the way crossing a 4900m high point. Our guide Daniel, who looks like a guerrilla friend of Rambo, pointed out numerous volcanoes and their elevations. Still, I'm not convinced all these volcanoes (Peru has 402) are as high as I'm being told.

We had a quick afternoon walk to get a view over the valley. The hills have been widely terraced for farming and apparently this pre-dates the Incas by about 500 years.

Feeling a little weary (I think my sleep deficit is now into weeks rather than days), I settled into a hammock to gaze over the valley and watch the swooping eagles. By 5.15, even with hat and gloves, it was too cold to stay outside.

When you get up at 5.45 to see Condors, you want to see Condors. We did.

They seemed to come in waves; we got an early glimpse and then waited, wondering if we'd had our chance for photos. Then one appeared. Clearly conditions were favourable, for almost as fast as we could count there were six gliding, rising and turning. Wingspans reach 3m and their aerial swooping is very reminiscent of the Albatross (to whom I believe they are related). We looked down on them for some time as they circled repeatedly. Slowly they got higher, until one swept right over our heads, barely out of reach. The canyon edge was rammed with tourists, but the birds transported me out of the throng.

Condors-another for the magic moment list. We hiked along the canyon for a while with more condor moments and safe photo opportunities.

This really is a harsh environment: the ozone hole has brought skin cancer, the weather varies viciously, volcanoes rumble and erupt and towns are levelled by earthquakes-the piles of sand around Nazca were homes 10 years ago and one of the towns on the way to the canyon was reduced to rubble in 95.

When we got back to the hotel, Manchez the alpaca came to lunch, which meant teetering down 2 flights of stairs to the delight of the massed eaters.

Manchez back in the wild.

Lunch was another marvellous buffet, full of veggie goodies. There was no need for a big plate as there was loads of food. Best of all, the meat had been banished to the outside as it was being barbecued. Afterwards we had a quick wander round town and then hiked to the hot springs. After a look round some pretty run of the mill markets, the town trip was rescued by the discovery of the 1 soles surprise bin. We all tucked in on the condition that you had to wear what you got: pleasingly the rules were flexible enough for me to swap my earrings with Lorna. Tho it still left me wearing more dodgy jewellery. Having walked to the hot springs I realised that I was hot and didn´t fancy it; anyway, I´m not sure I could look at myself in the mirror again if I went to two hot springs in one lifetime.

On the way back to Arequipa, we stopped at the road's high point. Ian said it was likely to be the highest point he ever stood on the planet and at 4,910m that's far from unreasonable. However, it was odd to be at such altitude and still see mountains and the peaks of so many volcanoes above us. There was no sense of being at a summit-the vistas were on our level and above. The terrain was very barren, brown and rocky. The scenery had been changed and made interesting by a very human intervention. Wish piles of stones and rocks were everywhere (and hard to photograph).

Yes, I found a stone and made a wish. No, I'm not telling you what it was.