Friday, 22 August 2014

Colca Canyon

The alarm goes off, and I resist the urge to crash around as loudly as possible to wake our sleeping Mossad friends, and stealthily carry our belongings into the main courtyard to get dressed. By 3am, we're ready and waiting. And then waiting... and waiting...

The bus picks us up 4am and as we curse another hour of sleep that we've lost, Todd confirms that no one was late, they've just been doing laps of the city. Mercifully we are the last ones so no extra city tour for us.

Our guide explains that we are currently at 2,300m, we have a 3 hour drive to Chivay where we will have breakfast at 3,600m, and in between the highest we will hit is 4,900m. After breakfast we have a further 1.5 hour drive to the mirador, Cruz de la Condor, where "the condors will wait for us" - this might be a slight translation thing, but we like the idea of these massive birds waiting patiently for us to arrive and take photos.

Without really doing too much wrong, both of the guides on our bus manage to come across as a couple of idiots, and we're all fairly relieved when we arrive at the start of the trek and are assigned to an entirely different guide, who turns out to be a bit of a star.

Breakfast is a blur, as everyone is still in varying stages of sleep, but we arrive at the Condor lookout point, which is easily identifiable by the dozens of tourist minibuses that are in attendance. We're still rolling with the douchebag guides, who warn us that if we're not back on the bus in exactly 30 minutes they may leave without us, pointing out that they've done it before, 5 times. Are they joking? Either way, this scare tactic has the desired effect - the time is noted, and we will be getting back on the bus!

Condor spotting gets off to a slow start, and part of me is thinking that between the various treks we've already done, we've seen enough so who cares. Suddenly - POW! Two huge condors appear from the cliff face right in front of us. Alright, I'll admit it - this tops what we've seen so far, and we're suitably impressed. At one point, CP swears out loud, in the most unladylike like, very Australian way, as she gets confronted with a massive condor in the eye of her zoom lens and can almost feel the wings on her face.

Back on the bus, and CP is sat chatting to the girl sat next to her. I'm a couple of seats away, but I'm confused... English is being spoken, with a slight accent that I recognise... but it doesn't make sense. Could this be? Have we met an Israeli traveller that isn't self obsessed? It's true! It takes a while to understand her name as if you have to ask more than 3 times it starts to look rude, and no doubt I'm spelling this wrong, but it sounds like "Or". Finally an exception to the stereotype that I was beginning to think was representative of all..!

The bus pulls in at the side of the road, we've arrived at the start of our trek - it's now that our guides get switched (at least for the two of us, Todd and our more Isreali friend who we demanded be kept with us as we had a good feeling about her) - and there's a collective sigh of relief. Our new guide gives a refresh explanation of what the next 2 days will entail, what we can expect to see, and what we can look forward to.

Essentially, Day 1 will involve walking down into the canyon - a long way down. We'll spend the night at a resort nestled in the base of the canyon called El Paradiso, and then we'll get up at some ungodly hour to trek back out of the canyon again, followed by the rest of the day on the bus back to Arequipa, stopping off at various tourist sights including hot springs and smoking volcanos.

The Colca Canyon is the second deepest in the world, at 4,160m, or 3,191m, depending on how you measure it. The deepest is the nearby, but entirely un-touristified, Cotahuasi Canyon which is 163m deeper. The Grand Canyon by comparison, is a mere 1,800m. Not even in the same league!

The numbers don't really matter too much - whichever way you look at it, it's a long way down, which means it will be a long way up tomorrow.

As we round a corner which get a perfect birds eye view of our hotel for tonight, the El Paradiso Oasis, located about 800 metres below us on the valley floor. We're a bit bemused at first, as from here it looks like there's a couple of swimming pools - which our guide confirms. Looks good, from here at least!

This seems as good a time as any to do a quick check with a few others in the group - how much is everyone paying, and is our S95 ($34/£21) a good deal? Somehow, we've paid by far the least, most people having stumped up the full S130 for the trip. Win! Although we're sure this will come back to bite us at some point...

On the walk down, Todd, Carly, and me, mostly find ourselves off the front of the group (with the exception of a French guy who almost knocks us off the path as he runs past us), happily walking along at our own pace and still chatting away like we've all known each other for years. Occasionally we realise we've got so far away from the group that we should stop, but then when our guide catches up he tells us that we're heading for a big unmissable bridge way below, so as long as we wait there we're free to continue. So we do, much to the objection of CP's quads later on.

After the bridge it's not so much downhill anymore, just up a bit, down a bit, wonder along until the lunch stop, where they serve up a pretty delicious Alpaca based stir-fry, which ticks off another meat that we wanted to try while in Peru. There's no dessert provided, but that doesn't matter, as we've all brought way to many snacks, none more so than Or who seems to have nothing else in her bag, and happily shares round the cookies.

After lunch, the group walks together as our guide explains lots of stuff along the way, mostly about different flowers and plants that we see. Some are highly poisonous, with one in particular a big problem if a stem snaps and the sap gets on your skin. If you somehow ingest some of it, then you're in serious trouble and need to get medical help asap, not an easy task at the bottom of the canyon. Then right next door is a plant that you can scrunch up in your hand to produce a natural cure for altitude sickness. We can't help but wonder how much fun the locals would have had figuring out which was which, as it's clearly not something that you'd want to get wrong very often.

This afternoons progress is sloooooooow, as in a bid to keep the group together we're stopping every 5 minutes - it feels like every other group is overtaking us (they are), and we're worried that all the best "suites" at our hotel resort will be taken by the time we get there! From here we can see our resort, and the path back out of the canyon that we'll be taking tomorrow...

We reach a vantage point from where we can see our resort way below us - it looks like it's only a few hundred metres away, and we bet with each other about what time we will arrive. The most pessimistic is about 15 minutes... 40 minutes of switchbacks later, and yes, we've arrived!

No winners here, so after having our rooms allocated (to our surprise, we get a double bed bungalow, Todd is sharing with the French guy who isn't anywhere near as mental as he seemed when he was powering down the canyon earlier, while the S130 crew are sharing 5 people to a room) we head straight for the pools to cool off and refresh - and it is refreshing!

Our bungalow, easily recognisable by the towel hanging outside, the bikini above the door, WMD the boardies hanging off the door handle:

As luck would have it, the resorts bar is running an all night happy hour (we get the feeling this may happen every night), which means we sample our first Peruvian beer (an improvement on anything that Bolivia had offered), and a couple of cocktails (should have stuck to the beer). It's also chance to chat with a group that are staying in the same hostel as Todd back in Arequipa - a clan of kiwis (if that is the correct collective noun?) and a Canadian, surrogate kiwi, called David.

This leads to more cocktails, but the fun is curtailed after dinner when our guide explains that we'll be getting up at 4am so that our climb out of the canyon will not be in the hottest part of the day. Good news for our hike in the morning, bad news for our cocktail consumption, and we make a premature exit to try to get some sleep.

Next morning, we're up early, packed and ready to go at 4:30am. That's us, Todd, Or, and the French guy. The rest of the group seems to have misunderstood the message about our early departure, so we're stood around waiting with our guide. Getting up early for something like this is fine, but getting up early to stand around waiting for other people, not so much!

We're about to send someone in to look for them, when finally the group appears, and we can leave. It's dark (obviously!), and will be for most of the hike up and out of the canyon, so we've all got our torches out, except for CP who has decided to omit this from her packed items. That's not a problem though - Or explains that as part of her military service, she specialised in navigation at night, so for her a torch is basically cheating, and she hands hers over to CP.

If the walk down the canyon gave an idea of people's fitness, the hike back up is the definitive results. Frenchie runs on ahead, followed by a group of me, CP, Todd, Or, and another girl who struggled yesterday but is powering today. We won't see the rest of the group until the finish.

There's an added incentive for us - the kiwi clan weren't leaving until 30 minutes after us, but had "joked" that they would probably catch us on the way up, based on the groups speeds yesterday. This turned into a bet. As the climb was expected to take 2.5 hours, the bet was that they would catch us by 6:30am, 1.5 hours into their climb. We, of course, were fairly keen for that not to happen, although we knew that we'd already lost some of our advantage by leaving late, so without being too deliberate about it, we're setting a decent pace! CP has claimed that the dark walk up was her favourite trek so far, so peaceful and surreal, not to mention relaxing as despite our efforts to increase the pace, we were still restricted by the guides pace.

After about an hour, the sun is starting to show across the canyon, and we decide that we can spare a few minutes for some photos, as the landscape is once again quite amazing.

Just like yesterday, we can see the finish about 30 minutes before we get there and it feels like we'll never get there, as the path zigzags up the steep slopes. Finally we're there, and the kiwis are nowhere in sight, the bet is won, and the spoils of victory (the prestige, and first pick of the fruit and snacks available from the obligatory stall at the top) are ours. David steams in on his own after about 10 minutes, but the kiwi's plod in around half an hour contest!

Once everyone else arrives at the top, a couple of the girls on mules (cheats!), we head into town for breakfast and then wait an hour for a bus to take us to the hot springs. There is a cool fountain in the town for us to look at whilst we waited.

While we wait, Todd realises that he has lost ring that he had designed and had made earlier in his trip - so after checking photos and seeing where it last appears, he runs all the way back to the top of the canyon, but finds nothing.

The hot springs are a bit of a disappointment, being much more like a swimming pool than springs, but at least it meant another clean for us.

Back on the bus after the hot springs and what...? Todds ring is miraculously sat in the middle of his seat. My suspicious mind thinks that someone "found" it and put it back there when they realised it belonged to someone, but the more widely accepted explanation is that it must have been caught in his pocket or bag, and very luckily dropped out while we were getting sorted for the hot springs. Either way, it's back, and we all now have a chance to admire it!

Some epic scenery followed as we made our way to our buffet lunch...but most of it was lost on me as I was suffering massively from a sudden onset stomach issue. As I'm hunched in to the side of my seat, I'm supported by CP... who's being as sympathetic as possible (or not) and starts randomly throwing stuff around her seat. "Whoa, this jacket just fell on me!" Wtf?!

Buffet was epic, we'd be warned by a mate (A Ray) to stay away from the buffet as they had all got sick from it when they did it a few months ago), but we decided to try our luck anyways and it was worth the risk!

The rest of the trip back was spent stopping off at cool (or not so cool) sites, like prayer rocks, llama farms and smoking volcanos. CP brought us a handmade wall hanging for the equivalent of about $4 from a really old looking lady and we ate cactus fruit almost straight from the source. Overall, it was an pretty fantastic way to spend a couple of days and a bit of a bargain to top it off!

Contrary to expectation (and initial results) crossing the border into Peru did not instantly cure my nasal woes, and I continue to deposit large chunks of brain (or whatever it is) into tissues, sinks, toilets, whatever receptacle is available. Maybe it's not an allergy to Bolivia after all?!

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Arequipa, Peru (not Bolivia!)

Having safely negotiated the immigration control on the Bolivian side, we then walk a over a bridge in to Peru, and queue up again for another passport stamp.

CP tries a Peruvian salteña, (CP: courtesy of a lovely British guy who overheard her complaining that we'd just spent our last coinage on ice cream for breakfast and offered to buy her one! RD: Oh my god. I tried to explain this at the time but spending our Bolivian coins in Bolivia had no bearing whatsoever on our ability to buy a salteña in Peru, ffs!), apparently it doesn't quite match her high standards, but it does at least pass some waiting time as the long queue shuffles along. As is the norm, arriving in a new country means that we have no local currency, but this is easily solved by visiting any of the half dozen chaps that set up on this side of the border and changing a few US Dollars for Peruvian Soles - done with minimal fuss and at a better rate than we'll get anywhere else.

This crazy long queue does finally end, but it's taken too long for our bus to meet it's intended connection in Puno, so when we get there, after a quick lunch in a plastic bag acquired by CP from a lady set up outside the bus terminal for less than $1, we're transferred to another company who, despite their claims, are most definitely not operating a semi-cama bus for the trip to Arequipa. Mental note made not to use them when we bus up to Cusco in a few days time!

It's not a bad bus, just that our knees are up around our ears for most of it, and I have to stop the midget in front of me from reclining their seat - your feet aren't even touching the floor, you are clearly not short of legroom, but if you recline that thing you will be sitting in my lap!

There is the obligatory stop at a seemingly random police checkpoint. We don't get how these work, not that we want to be delayed by any more stringent checks of course. There are no sniffer dogs involved, it's just a couple of blokes that open the big luggage compartments and peer inside. On this occasion someone walks the aisle of the bus with a flashlight. No bags are checked, yet we're given the all clear. Presumably because there doesn't appear to be several hundred kilos of white powder sloshing around?

Whatever, we arrive in Arequipe, only an hour after our original plans, and I'm already feeling good about leaving Bolivia - I'm pretty sure I can feel my sinuses returning to normal by the minute.  Cp thinks it's psychological but we will see! Our taxi driver even knows the hostel we're staying at (Bothy's) so we arrive in double quick time, ready to dump the bags in the room and get orientated in anticipation of tomorrow. We play a very long game of pool on the second worst pool table we've ever played on (with the worst being in Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua) and enjoy a much needed German beer to wind down after our little bus trip. The hostel has a nice vibe, cool tunes in the bar and lots of people unwinding for the evening. (CP: It was just a shame that the music didn't switch off until gone 1am...which after a 16 hour bus journey didn't sit so well with us, but thats hostel living for you!)

The main draw card of this hostel is that breakfast (bread, jam, coffee) is included... and more importantly, it's served on a rooftop terrace! (CP: Unfortunately that lovely roof top terrace is reached by metal steps, that are right next our dorm after our roommates exited relatively quietly at around 4am, by the time the cleaners started stomping around at 6am, we are well and truly awake!)

Arequipa is also famed (sort of) for having a number of non-shit coffee shops. I make it my mission to try as many as possible in our time there, and first on the list is the Cusco Coffee Company, which looks suspiciously like a Starbucks imitation, but we're here now so let's do this! (CP: Rich is insistent in his journey for decent coffee in South America...I just wish he'd give it up, there is no such thing! Give me an iced frappe with Oreos every time, then it doesn't matter if the coffee is bad...!)

This is the moment CP was told that her frappe has again cost more than my "so expensive" coffee:

This choice of coffee shop turns out to be a stroke of luck, as while we wait for our Starbucks priced lattes in the Starbucks lookalike coffee shop, an Aussie voice chirps up "so where are you guys from?", followed by "I saw you walk in and thought you looked like a couple of Aussies..." - it's true, I do. CP can obviously answer that question positively. A brief conversation later, and it turns out that we're all grabbing a coffee in preparation for a free walking tour, one which we are all slightly apprehensive about as the walking tours we've done in South America so far would, almost without exception, be getting a "must try harder" on a school report card.

Alas, this one is not an exception. Aside from doing something weird with his teeth which made him look and sound like a llama getting ready to spit in your face, our guide had a habit of pausing for effect at completely the wrong................... *make awkward eye contact with everyone* ...................time. This made it incredibly hard work to listen to him even though he was pretty knowledgable and informative about Arequipa. We didn't mind too much, as we were both more interested in chatting away to our new coffee shop friend, Todd. Good for us, not a great endorsement for the walking tour.

OK, the guide isn't that bad - he is at least able to convey some information about the city. Just like Sucre in Bolivia, it has the nickname La Ciudad Blanca (The White City), but this time it's because the buildings are often made from white stone. 

It's Peru's second largest city (after Lima), with a population of over 1 million. The guide also takes the time to point out Misti, Chachani and PichuPichu, the three volcanoes surrounding the city, and mentions that Misti and Chachani can be climbed without previous mountaineering experience. Oh really...?

The first proper stop of the tour is a nearby church. I can't tell you anything about it, other than to say that a solid half hour of detailed information is too much. Any questions? "Mmm yeah, what's the name of this place?"

As we wonder into a quaint Peruvian courtyard, we notice a little old lady with an ice cream cart, and a sign that says "queso helado" - cheese ice cream, what? I think I need some... as it happens, this is our guides next subject matter, and he explains that it doesn't contain cheese, but gets it's name as the ice cream is made locally using the same process that they use for cheese, which appears to mean "mixing it round in a big tub". It's actually made with a whole bunch of stuff, including beer, cinnamon, llama milk (maybe?), a few other bits, but definitely no cheese. Even better, we all get a free tasting, and it's good enough that I'm buying a full size portion.

Above this courtyard, there's some interesting buildings. I don't know much (anything) about Peruvian architecture, but this looks to be modelled on something out of Star Wars...

Other fun topics discussed on our tour include the possibility of an El Misti volcanic eruption (it smokes occasionally, and an eruption is apparently well overdue). We're invited to guess how long residents of Arequipa would have if/when Misti pops. Half an hour? No. 10 minutes? No. 5 minutes? No. Bored now. 1 minute. No. Come on ffs... 10 seconds is apparently the correct answer, so not really much time to do anything. Which invites the next question, what would you do with your 10 seconds. Oh god, are we guessing again? I'll save you the ordeal - apparently the answer is pray, because the whole city would be getting wiped out Pompeii style regardless.

We move on to a place that has a model of the Colca Canyon - probably the main thing people visit Arequipa for. Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, it's a popular choice. What follows isn't information about the canyon though, it's a 15 minute Q&A about how each of us have chosen a mate. The question doesn't make much sense in English, and a few of the Europeans with otherwise excellent English skills are stumped by the query. (CP of course has no qualms with explaining what attracts her to her "mate", basically describing particular events at a certain touch rugby tournament in Germany 5 years ago...)

By now he's in danger of losing the entire group, but eventually we find out that the purpose of this bizarre question is to do with the Condors, which frequent certain parts of the canyon. The story is that these birds mate for life... with a catch. If the female dies, the male will fly up high into the sky, several thousand metres, before plummeting to his death in a Romeo & Juliet style suicide. If the male dies, the female will just go and shack up with another male. True love...Romeo and Juliet gone wrong.

The tour ends with a trip to a very touristy restaurant/bar, where we are each given a very small Maracuya Sour, and encouraged to order from their overpriced menu. We happily accept the drink and then move on.

Over the course of the tour we've established that the three of us (CP, me, and Todd) are all keen to do the 2 day trek in the Colca Canyon, starting tomorrow. And I'm keen to climb Misti, which means that CP will do that as well. This puts us in quite a decent bargaining position, so we set of to find the best price on these tours. The Colca Canyon trek is a standard S130 (£29), but the second place we visit offers us a deal of S95 (£21) each, and Misti goes from anywhere between S250-400 (£55-£90), and this lady will do it for S210 each (£45), naturally we're a little cautious that such a cheap price is too good to be true, but we're happy to gamble, and sign up!

By now we've missed the standard lunchtime, so when we arrive in the food markets as they are down to their last offerings. Luckily for us, they have just enough of the rocotto relleno (a classic Peruvian dish of roasted pepper stuffed with minced beef and a side of dauphinoise type potatoes) left, although our late arrival means that it needs to be reheated in a less than classic microwave. It's still good, but we might need to try another one of these before we leave Peru to get the full effect! We explore the rest of the markets and stock up on snacks and fruit for tomorrow's trek, got to love a great market shop!

The afternoon is spent wandering the city, purchasing baby alpaca gloves (CP), woollen socks and a mask (me), chocolate lip balm (both of us), and working up an appetite for dinner, while I convince CP that climbing Misti the day after we get back from the two day Colca Canyon trek really is a good idea! Evidently, I was successful on both counts as our final stop before dinner was to the tour operator to confirm that yes, we will be climbing Misti!

To celebrate, we decided to blow the budget for dinner and go to a nice place to try cuy al horno - more commonly known as the humble guinea pig. Roasted in a red wine and onion sauce, it was a little tricky to distance the idea of eating what could be a family pet from the tasty meat in front of us. The verdict... a bit fatty, and we wouldn't go out of our way to eat it again, although I am still keen to try it the authentic way - barbecued by a street vendor. For the other dish, we played it safe and went for the stuffed pepper again. Not being microwaved made a real difference, and this was awesome! So "blowing the budget" on dinner in Peru... a shared starter, 2 mains, and a jug of chicha morada (a juice made from fermented purple corn) to drink, plus tip? £14.

Having gone out for an early dinner, we're back by 8pm pretty much ready to go straight to bed in advance of an outrageously early start at 3am. We settle our bill, which takes forever as they are trying to charge us a different amount to what we booked and several attempts to explain this seem to flounder. Eventually we get there, and head for the room, which is locked. No bother, I pop back to reception and ask for the key. It's not on the rack, but she grabs a massive bunch and we head upstairs. The key she tried does nothing... try a couple more. Then she tells us that this room isn't "Pichu Pichu" (rooms are named after memorable locations in Arequipa, ours being a nearby volcano). Well, it is, and anyway it's where we slept last night and all of our stuff is inside, so how about we just open the door?!

We realise that the 2 new characters that we are sharing a room with have very cleverly locked the shared dorm room, and then gone out with the key. The hostel inexplicably does not have a spare, so here we are, sat outside our room, and then sat outside reception while they try to figure it out. Initially we're offered a different bed for the night (not really an option as all of our stuff is still in that room), but it turns out that they don't have any spare beds a anyway so this idea is a non-starter.

At this point it's worth mentioning that our roomies are a couple of Israeli girls. Previous experience makes them pretty easy to identify as such, and while of course there are exceptions, as a stereotype they will invariably be carrying the biggest suitcases I've seen (certainly bigger than anything I own), and so heavy that they can barely lift it without a second person getting involved. It's usually accompanied by a comment like "I'm travelling for so long, I need so much!". We're in Peru ffs, it's not as if anyone is here for a weekend break! What can they possibly have in there? Mostly a ton of makeup, and always a hair dryer, because you can't possible travel South America unless your face is painted up like Krusty the Clown, and your hair is immaculately coiffured. And that's just the guys. I bet they even change their underwear every day...

CP says it's not their fault... it clearly is. Obviously the hostel should have an abundance of spare keys, but it's a shared dorm room - why would you lock it and take the key with you? The only other dorm room we've had that required a key was at Plantation House in Salento, and that was because the door opened directly to the outside world, and the key was always kept at reception when you left. 

After almost 2 hours - success! A guy that had been called in especially has managed to either pick the lock or wedge it open with a screwdriver. Either way, we're in. Now... why are we paying for a full night in the hostel when we've been locked out for 2 hours and they've shafted our plans for a decent sleep... I think I do a pretty good job explaining our position and negotiating what they will do, entirely in Spanish, until CP can take no more and says in plain English "we have to pack, and then get up in 4 hours. This is very in-con-venienté. We will be fucked! We will continue to be fucked for the next 2 days!"

The response is simply: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!".

It's not this girls fault, she just happens to be the one working at the time, but someone has to take the rap for the hostel not having a key, and she manages to suppress her surprise when we tell her that we won't be needing that extra night of accommodation here between Colca Canyon and El Misti after all.

The end result is...  we get a refund of half of this nights accommodation. Which is nice, but we'd rather just have been in bed 2 hours ago. While all this has been going on, another couple have arrived to check in, but despite them having a reservation, they have no beds. "No problemo" says the underfire receptionist, she's booked them a room at another hostel nearby, which will cost them S70 instead of the S40 that they would have paid here... their response is similar to what ours would be, but this is not our fight so we leave them to it and get on with repacking our bags and getting our daypacks organised for tomorrow.

Partway through this big unpack/repack process, our roomies return, and we explain to them the etiquette of keys in shared dorms. "OH! You didn't have a key?!" No ffs. Then one of them unplugs my phone charger, and as she plugs in her own says "were you using this?" No, no, please just go right ahead.

With a early morning pickup scheduled for anytime between 3-3:30am, the alarm is set for 2:45am, and finally, it's time to get some sleep. Yay!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Back to La Paz and in to Peru!

We've heard the road from Cochabamba to La Paz can be treacherous, and very cold. One of the guys we met on the death road bike ride bumped into us again as we were leaving Sucre, and told us how on the way from La Paz to Cocha his bus had been involved in a crash with another coach, and 4 people had died. That, plus the -5C temperatures do not make for a happy story, and contributed to our decision to fly, along with the avoidance of another overnight bus and comparatively quick travel times.

We avoid the taxis at the airport and jump on a public mini bus straight into town, saving us a fortune. The taxi drivers clearly just wait there for tourists as they get to charge more than 10 times as much as the bus, and we had a laugh with a few of them as they realised that we would not be needing their services after all. The bus drops us off somewhere in the vicinity of where we need to be, sort of. [CP - However the walk means we get to stop off at not one but two salteña shops for breakfast...Oh yeah!]

We manage to complete our tasks efficiently today:

1. Find hostel. We could not find the one we were looking for (walking up and down the steep streets of La Paz with our big backpacks is not easy back in La Paz at 3,600m) but instead found one for about $10 a night, double room, pretty basic, cold shower (who's showering anyway?), no windows, but safe and central. Done.

2. Book a bus for the next day to Arequipa, Peru. After asking in about 5 agencies, we settled for the agency that offered a bus that left the next morning at about 8am, only had one change, was full cama for the first half, and who gave us a 10 boliviano discount each...saving us a whopping £2! Done.

3. Book tickets to Cholita wrestling. This was easy. First agency, tickets issued immediately. 70 bolivianos each, which included transport there & back, two snacks or drinks (we will be getting popcorn, of course), and a special gift (which turned out to be a key ring). Done.

4. Hit the Coca museum. It was interesting to learn all about the coca industry, it's history, it's uses (medicinal, indigenous, as cocaine etc) and how to make cocaine. It is a shame that because of a little white powder known as cocaine, the coca growing industry in Bolivia (and other south American countries) has such a bad rep. Coca has been a staple of the indigenous population for centuries and it was only when when someone started mixing one of the alkaloids found in coca leaves with a lot of chemicals to produce cocaine that it started to become a concern for governments. Over the years, governments have tried to ban the production of coca (whilst some would quietly bankroll the production and export of cocaine - a couple of former South American leaders are rumoured to have been caught transporting it in vast quantities on board their presidential jets), which was a massive issue not only for the farmers, but for the population because the traditional and fundamental use of coca by the indigenous population as both a medicine and as food substitute made that ban impossible to maintain for any length of time. Not least because at the time of the conquests, the Spanish found that when a person chewed coca leaves, they could work for longer and harder and without food or water, making slave labour much more efficient! Anyways, we learnt that it was true that coca cola did originally contain cocaine, but since 1918 it has been replaced by an artificial supplement.

And so on to the Cholitas wrestling... Oh. My. God. What follows next is so incredible that I don't have the words to describe it, my vocabulary isn't sufficient. It falls into the "so bad, it's good" category. In the first match, the referee is in cahoots with one of the combatants, and takes great pleasure in delivering a few cheeky kicks to the opponent himself, must to the crowds dismay. Invariably the fighter being beaten for 90% of the match will win after connecting without one kick/punch/other. The crowd gets in on the act by throwing all sorts of food and trash at the ring.

This was the format of the first bout... and pretty much every one that followed. At one point someone goes under the ring to grab... a steel chair? No, an old plastic bucket, which is then thrown at his opponents head. I'm reminded of the old school WWF commentary: "Bah gawd King, he'll never get up from that... HE JUST DID!"

The pictures just don't do it justice.

We realise that today marks our 5 year anniversary, and what better way to celebrate than a ropey wrestling show in La Paz... we do at least manage a pretty decent Moroccan meal before retiring to our $5 a night hostel room (CP is really being spoilt today!), in advance of an early morning bus to take us across the border into Peru, through Puno, and then straight to Arequipa.

For the last 3 weeks my daily morning routine has involved waking up, gingerly toughing the outside of my nose to test the condition of whatever resides within, followed by a gentle nose blow, or a sneeze if I'm unlucky. Either way the next 5 minutes are spent attempting to stem the flow of blood. What comes out looks like it could be lumps of brain. Suffice to say, it hasn't been that enjoyable, and has no doubt hindered some of the fun times that we might otherwise have been experiencing.

I'm convinced this is due in part to an allergic reaction to Bolivia, and so when we finally get to the border I am genuinely excited. No extra "service fee" paid to the customs officers pocket on this occasion, and yes, we're in to Peru!