Tag Archives: Manaus

Machu Picchu and Other Majestic Marvels

Bee Says: I know this blog promises a whistlestop tour of Peruvian marvels, but first cast your mind back to where we last left you… loitering in the Lake Titicaca town of Copacabana, Bolivia. Our last meal in Bolivia, an early pre-bus breakfast, turned out to be one of the best ever. El Condor & The Eagle Cafe is owned by an Irish chap and his Bolivian wife, and if (like us) you are in dire need of a few home comforts… you will find them all here! We tucked into a feast of foods very absent from our lives lately including peanut butter, poached eggs, baked beans and SODA bread… a welcome change from Bolivian bread which is generally white sliced packed with so much sugar and chemicals, to keep it from going off, that it crumbles into dust under the knife/in your mouth. They also had BARRYS TEA! For any Irish readers, you will understand the importance of this. It’s the equal to Yorkshire Tea in my heart, and my beloved friend Chloe never fails to bring me back a box from her trips home to the Emerald Isle. It was a special moment as I slurped my first brew in seven LONG weeks!

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From Copacabana we hopped on an international bus to take us the 3 hour drive around Lake Titicaca into Peru. The border crossing was unbelievably lax, not even a vague look at our backpacks, and off we zoomed into Puno, where we had very excitingly timed our visit to take in their annual PUNO DAY festival. Listed in the Lonely Planet as one of the top´must-see events in South America, our brains were filled with dreams of street parties, late night Pisco Sour sessions, fireworks over the lake, parades, fiestas, costumes, music, dancing, lights…..

Nick Says: How can we ever sum up Puno Day? The day dawned bright and clear. We´d been told to go down to the lake early to see a recreation of the legendary first inca, Manco Kapac, emerge from Lake Titicaca. So off we set down the road. Our first indication that something was wrong was the road itself. What should have been a parade route decked out in colour was actually a smelly and trash filled route which was only home to a giant, stinking pig rooting through all the rotting garbage, and who growled at us loudly as we passed. Getting onto the waterfront wasn´t much better. A few people milled around (what we thought was a crowd… was only people going to the bus station) and some woman tried to sell us Ceviche from a cart. Declining her raw fish which had been sitting in the morning sun for hours, we turned away defeated. Puno Day was a poo day.

Later on we eventually found the parade, and it was much tamer than anticipated. Basically, the people of Puno had dressed their children up in various costumes and forced them to march through the town dancing to brass band music. We stayed for a while and clapped at the infants to dance for us before turning away. Puno had disappointed our expectations and it was time to leave.

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Our method for this was a bus service called Inka Express. About 10 times as expensive as a regular bus, it tackles the 6 hour route from Puno to Cusco in 10 hours instead. But what a 10 hours it is. And so worth the extra money. Rather than just a regular boring bus, Inka Express is instead an amazing tour of all the Inka sites between the two cities, MC´d by an amazing guide called Ronald. Ronald endeared himself to me within the first 10 minutes by theatrically intoning over the microphone that when using the toilet, ´ooo-ree-iny only. NO PO PO!´ A friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, he took us first to Pukara, the home of ceramic bulls famous throughout Peru.You put a pair on top of your house to bring harmony and balance to your family, so me & Bee got a couple of mini ones for our future Brighton house. I opted not to match it with a statue depicting a ritual decapitation also on offer, but I’m already regretting the decision. The Inka Express zoomed through the gorgeous natural scenery and we passed from the arid Alti-Plano into the more luscious Sacred Valley, where abundant agriculture fed the Inka Empire. But most importantly, we stopped at a high mountain pass where Bee got to hold a baby Alpaca, who proceeded to try and eat her. Heart melting.

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What was obvious from only a short time in Peru is a) how much more developed (in a Westernised sense) the place and people were than Bolivia, and b) how much more geared to tourism they were. Take for instance the scenic mountain pass. We had seen several such beautiful locations in Bolivia, with nothing more than the shepherds for company. Here there was an entire world of shopping possibilities, and eating options too. This is something that seems prevalent all over Peru. Enter a shop and they´ll be falling over themselves to see if you want to buy their goods. A lot of the time in Bolivia it seemed a mission to even find out who was running the shop (they were usually found glued to a telly novella), and if they wanted to sell anything to you. Tourism in Peru is big business, and just another example of how far this country has come from 20 years ago – as a local guy explained to us, the country was on its knees from terrorist attacks.

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Bee Says: The Inka Express dropped us in Cusco, which is basically the York of South America. Quaint, pretty, tourist tastic and jampacked full of foreigners on their way too or from Machu Picchu (it’s the closest big town with airport to it) – in fact people come here on week holidays from all over the world, so it’s less backpackers and more tourists. There is alot to like about Cusco, it is safe, friendly, and a novelty to be somewhere basically English speaking for a bit. We did some perusing of the artesan markets (both ending up with Inca Cola tee-shirts), had some wonderful meals and visited the Pisco Museum!

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Pisco is the national drink of Peru, a really strong grape brandy. Very excited at a museum based solely around an alcoholic drink, we arrived to discover that it is basically… just a bar! It notched up another cultural fail at visiting museums, considering that the only museums we have been to so far are:
1. The one in Sucre full of scary horror masks
2. The one in Isla del Sol which was meant to be about a giant frog but ended up just being a room with human bones in
3. The one Inka Express Ronald took us to, which was entirely dedicated to Incan babies being born with elongated skulls in Inca times and maybe being extra terrestials?
Anyway this was our 4th museum and then it turned out not to even BE a museum, just basically a Pisco bar.

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We really did need the alcohol though, as we made a horrific error in our hostel choice. We decided to save money by booking a dorm (which we did in Manaus and really enjoyed) but this one was a “party hostel” and full of 18 year old gap students raving all night, doing shots and running around our dorm at all hours. Every night was a different activity like “drinking games” and “karaoke” and there was a bar with photos of people being zany next to guides on how to say phrases like “mashed up” in spanish. They played “pumping ibiza anthems” all day long, until 4am with the speaker right outside our dorm, although that still didnt drown out the drunk teens yelling AAW MAHH GAWWWD at a million decibles at our door. Dont get me wrong, there is a huge target audience for this type of accomdation (and I would have loved it as a student traveller) but it certainly wasnt for us, and we set off from Cusco as bedraggled, sleep deprived wretches.

One thing to probably mention here, is that by this stage we had decided not to trek to Machu Picchu. We had both really fancied doing one of the 4 day hikes there, but my asthma was still being irritated by the altitude, and all the hikes took in mountains of 4500masl+. With only a certain pot of trek pennies to our name, we decided to save the dollars to instead do the Lost City trek in Colombia… which is nicely back on the ground and takes in some crazy jungle passes. Not hiking also gave us the opportunity to visit Ollantaytambo, an often-overlooked “taster” dish to Machu Picchu itself.

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Nick Says: If you ever find yourself in this part of the world, make sure you take the time to visit the village of Ollantaytambo. One of the few places where the Incans defeated the Spanish, Ollantay consists of a incredible Incan fortress on a hill overlooking a Inca town. History truly feels alive here, with tiny cobbled alleys spilling into tradesman yards, trickling streams, or crazy bars like the one we ended up at. Called Gansos, it was set up like a tree-house attacked by a multi-coloured streamers, and as we sat around sipping drinks on the swing streets, we figured life was pretty good. Ollantay was a tranquil oasis after the party hostel, and one of my favourite places I´ve visited. It also helped that I ate the best steak of my life at a restaurant not far from the main square. Considering I´ve not really felt like food recently (vomiting incident), I was so happy I had a huge appetite that night. The Incan Terraces create high walled alleyways, so after our beef and booze we had to scuttle through pitch black cobbled passageways to our hostel, lots of fun and a relief to be somewhere safe enough to do this without getting set upon.

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The next day (we wished we could have spent longer) we walked down to one of the most picturesque train stations in the world and awaited our locomotive. The setting was just a teaser for what was in store. Unable to do the trek, we thought the train was the booby prize. How wrong we were. For anyone who enjoys train travel, this is one of the best. Mile after mile of soaring peaks, tangled jungle, and glimpsed ruins kept our faces pressed to the window. We went the cheapest ‘expedition´ class, but didn’t feel we were short changed in anyway. A panoramic view enabled us to see everything next to and above us. Glorious. If you get the train, make sure you sit on the right hand side on the way there for the best view. But then all too soon we were there at our destination, Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo).

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Bee Says: Aguas Caliente has a bad reputatution for being a rubbish place you have stay pre Machu Picchu (if you want to get on site early you have to sleep here and then catch a bus at 5am, as you can’t stay at Machu Picchu itself) and accordingly we had pretty low hopes, so the town was such a pleasant surprise! Aguas Caliente has a really different look and vibe to anywhere else we’ve been in South America, with everything built on stilts and stacked up over the river that runs through it, very much like places in Asia. Sure it’s touristy, but we had a nice day pottering aroud and opted to visit the natural hot springs with the locals (Aguas Caliente means hot water! So it would be rude not to) but it started storming after 30 mins so we had to jump out. Lightening + hot spring = muy peligroso. Our alarm went off at 4.30am on the most important day of the year… nicks BDAY! We visited a bakery for pan au chocolate and present giving, trickier to organise than it sounds when we have spent about 5 minutes apart in the past two months.

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Nick Says: Birthday and Machu Picchu? What a combo. Leaping in the expensive bus there (you can walk, but it´s a beast of a trek uphill), the anticipation startled to tingle. I couldn’t believe I was about to visit one of the world´s greatest man-made wonders, and a place I´d been dreaming about since I was 18. And boy did it live up to the hype. The site itself is massive, far bigger than I ever thought. You could easily spend days there. In fact we spent hours circling the main site just soaking up the views. It’s iconic and you’ve seen it a hundred times, but nothing compares to actually seeing the place in reality. The photos will do it more justice than we ever could in words, so enjoy them. A little tip though, if you are unable to climb Huayna Picchu (the mountain in all the pictures) as only 400 tickets are allocated a day, then Machu Picchu mountain is a brilliant, and maybe even better alternative. It’s on the north side of the site, and offers you an incredible view of the Machu Picchu and the landscape it inhabits, as well as being a pretty tough and rewarding climb on its own. You need to buy tickets in advance, and its existance isnt mentioned in the Lonely Planet or …. well anywhere, except word of travel-mouth, so you will find it a tranquil spot to escape the crowds too. We were numbers 1 and 2 onto the mountain, what a birthday present.

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Bee Says: We spent 8 hours on site and were hiking or walking the whole time, I actually doubt we would have got the most out of it if we had arrived tired straight from a gruelling trek. I cannot stress enough the importance of arriving early doors – as by 9am thousands of people were milling aroud everywhere and it was almost unbearable. I recommend taking the extra hike to the “sun gate”, a testing hour each way with another breath-taking view on arrival and it meant we could walk part of the original “inca trail”. Machu Picchu lives up to every bit of hype, it has a truly other-worldy magnetic magical feeling, and it’s certainly a wonder of the world in my eyes. If it isn’t on your bucket list, zoom it right up to the top… especially as we are already hearing rumours that visitor numbers will be capped soon, as the site cannot maintain the physical strain of thousands of tour groups rambling through. If that happens, the whole experience may well become prohibitively expensive.

After a dreamy day, it was back to Cusco to celebrate Nick’s birthday night. Except… he had contracted the Inca Death and spent the night vomitting. Poor guy, he was really really sick and feverish and all I could do was keep him dosed up on rehydration sachets. Luckily for a birthday suprise I had booked us into a swanky 5* hotel Aranwa (imagining romance, flowers etc) so Nick could spend the next day in a king size bed, watching movies on the giant telly and ordering chicken soup on room service. It aided a speedy recovery, enough to even eat a slice of the amazing surprise birthday cake that was wheeled out at breakfast – the whole staff singing Happy Birthday in English AND Spanish. The staff couldnt have made us feel more special, and generously overlooked our scraggy stinky appearences and treated us like royalty! To add to the special moment, due to the fact I booked the room there was a name mix-up and Nick will forever be known as Mr Barker.

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Are there brazil nuts in Brazil?

Bee Says: Venezuela > Brazil was to be our first of many border crossings, and the first I’ve ever done on land. Border crossings have a reputation for being tricky, so it was with slight trepidation that I packed my backpack up and headed to a Por Puesta taxi that would take us from Santa Elena across the border and on to Boa Vista, Brazil. The taxis wait for a group of 5 before setting off, so being typically British we rocked up at 8am raring to get going. At 9.30am we finally rolled out of town, complete with a boot full of frozen meat that our driver stopped to pick up en route! We had barely left Santa Elena before our taxi was pulled over by a heavily armed policeman who leant his massive gun and pointy finger into the passenger window and shouted (in Spanish) GERMAN? GERMAN? at us. My sweaty brow creased at his angry red face but between the driver and my limited vocab we realised he wanted to see our passports and then wanted to know what country we were from. His guesses went from German to North American, before he understood we were British. He then went very quiet. TOO quiet. He studied our passports for a painfully long time… before reaching his hand out with a huge grin and saying in perfect English, “Nice to meet you.” It turns out he just wanted to shake hands with a rare Brit couple and show off his language skills! I was so relieved I waved to him until he was a tiny ant-man in the distance and we had no more drama until the border crossing. The taxi driver isn’t used to taking foreigners (who have a different crossing process to locals) so forgot to stop us for a Venezuelan exit stamp. As we declared ourselves at the Brazilian border, the policia informed us that without an exit stamp we won’t be able to go back to Venezuela using these passports. Luckily our itinerary doesn’t take us back there… but still, we felt like we’d done something wrong and shuffled around sheepishly as we were reprimanded. Everything seemed to take excruciatingly long and even though I knew we were going to be fine, every question made me feel guilty and uncertain and I was very relieved when we finally got the holy second-country stamp and were off to Brazil! Not so fast… we were singing along to Brazilian radio for about five minutes before we were pulled over by armed police again, with the same cross faces and pointy fingers (and guns, I can’t get used to the weapons), and had our bags searched. Thankfully all they seemed to take a close look at was Nick’s dirty underwear (!) and finally we were on our way, hurtling along the baking hot road to Boa Vista where the road is so scorching that an optical illusion makes it look permanently wet. I felt the closest I’ll probably get to a mirage in the jungle, surrounded by palm trees and arid terrain. By this stage our bumbling border experience had captured the heart of a young Brazilian woman, Joelma, sat up front. I chatted to her in Spanish and we realised that she was also heading directly to Manaus from Boa Vista, and so would be a useful aid in navigating buses etc. She grabbed Nick’s Lonely Planet, found the Portuguese dictionary section and spent the next two hours underlining what she felt were the most important phrases in biro – mostly revolving around food and personal safety!

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We stopped for comida in a small road side settlement but at this stage neither of us had any Brazilian currency so we skulked around awkwardly eating the remains of some crisps from Nick’s bag. It must have been nearly 40 degrees in the sun, and we were wilting at the thought of another hours driving when Joelma came over with two frosty Coca-colas for us. it was so generous and just what we needed at that moment. A new friend and a refreshing drink! She also introduced us to her favourite Brazilian food – salgado. A fried ball of chicken, olives & veg that she proceeded to eat covering EVERY mouthful in pimenta (hot sauce). My jaw dropped. This is how I eat my food at home – smothered in so much hot sauce that you can barely recognise the dish below. I suddenly knew that Brazil would have a very special place in my heart (and tummy)!

Nick Says: The road (the only road) continued south into Brazil for hundreds of miles, past palm trees and scrubland until finally we reached the outskirts of the first major city in the north of Brazil – Boa Vista. However, while it seemed the journey was almost done, it was about to take a darker turn. Waiting in traffic, a guy was gesturing at the car. Getting out, we noticed that something on the bottom of the car had come loose and was dragging along the ground. I’m in no way mechanical, but it seemed like something we needed. A random piece of rope was procured, and the bit of metal was re-attached. We set off again, but only for a few hundred metres. Joelma turned round and said, ‘accident’. It was a bad one. Two guys had come off a bike and were now lying prone on the road. No helmets, and from the angle of their bodies, as well as some more grisly details, I could tell they would not be walking away from the crash. A crowd had gathered, and attempts were made to cover them with cardboard. I felt sick as we passed by. I never knew these two Brazilian men, and they never knew me, but I was now intrinsically linked to their deaths, and the final actions will affect me for the rest of this trip. It was only after we passed that Bee mentioned we may have been caught up in the crash if it wasn’t for our car breaking. Strange to think of that.

We soon rolled into Boa Vista station, where we jumped out a little shell-shocked. But there was no time to reflect as our bossy Brazilian friend marched us to the cash-point (which thankfully worked) and then led us into the ticket office. Through a combo of Bee’s Spanish and Joelma’s Portuguese the two were somehow able to forge a quick friendship – one I was shoved to the side of uncermoniously. Joelma would take Bee out to the station to parade her round and role-play Portuguese phrases in shops, before re-appearing with some sort of treat for us, including ice-cream which she managed to drop all over the floor (funny in any language) and bars of chocolate. She made sure we got the same bus as her (and in adjacent seats) and then it was off on another night-bus to Manaus.

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Ah Manaus, the city in the middle of the Amazon. Built up in the late 19th Century by rubber barons, it is the major port of the Amazon and a mish-mash of colonial buildings, brand new developments, and favelas. It’s a fascinating place, and by all accounts one of the safest and friendliest in Brazil. It will also play host to several World Cup games next year, and we drove past the stadium on our way in. Considering it’s meant to be staging games in matter of months, I’d say it’s got a fair way to go until it’s ready… We had a few days before the boat sailed, so it was time to enjoy hostel life and see some sights – first of which was the Teatro Amazonas, the opera house built in 1896 in the middle of what was then pretty much jungle. Taking a tour to this amazing building was brilliant, as it’s been fully restored and retains much of its original features. However, my lasting memory of the place won’t be the ballroom or auditorium, it will be the fact the building attacked me. Waiting outside and putting on sun-cream, a storm suddenly rolled in. With it came a powerful gusting wind, which slammed against the building and shattered the plate glass windows. One came crashing down next to me not more than 50cm from my head. Leaping back I marvelled at how close it had been. What I should have done is sprinted away as quickly and as far as possible like Bee. As seconds later another gust of wind blew out another window, causing a shard of glass to deeply slice my back up. OUCH. Luckily we had some tape int he medical pack meaning I avoided stitches, and could stick the wound together until it healed – not easy in the humidity! I’ll add it to my long list of injuries sustained on the road, which will be the subject of a future blog post!

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Bee Says: Ah the life of a hostel hopping backpacker. After spending the last week or so on our own, rattling round hostels with no fellow backpackers, it was a shock to the system to arrive at Hostel Manaus and find there were no private rooms available. We sloped up bleary eyed to a dorm, where we crashed out on our bunks. Being in a dorm actually worked out well, as we instantly befriended our roomies and I remembered this is what I love about hostel life. It is like a current in the ocean, you can just float along with the flow and you know there’ll always be a gang of people doing something you can go tag along to. This happened instantly for us, as a guy from Rio tipped us off about a concert taking place that night at the Teatre Amazones… so a few hours later we headed out. Myself, 2 Brazilian guys, a Dutch guy and an Italian guy (and Nick)… me and my 5 dates to the opera! We opted for slightly pricier tickets, so had wonderful seats high in the beautiful circle, with a perfect view of the stage. The concert was a traditional classical group from the amazon, who made their instruments from local resources and had tons of amazing percussions bits and bobs – including one that was just a coconut shell floating about in water that got tapped with a stick. I think even I could play that one. The night consisted of classical pieces, a famous local opera singer, a man in a shiny suit who sang Time to Say Goodbye in Portuguese, poetry and everything inbetween. The performance lasted hours and was electric, with the audience roaring and clapping in time and swaying to the beats. A truly pinch-yourself experience to be watching this and knowing you are sat in the middle of the jungle!

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From one type of music to another, we were led by our new tour guides to a streetside bar where we drank litres of beer (it’s so cheap here and so refreshing, as it’s served still partially in chunks of ice), ate fish dumplings and listened to a samba band whip everyone into a frenzy and turning the pavement into a dance floor. We sat for hours soaking up this taste of Brazil and both knew that there was something special in the air that would definitely be hard to beat. Marvellous Manaus has been a wonderful place to spend a few days pre-boat experience. We’ve had the time and freedom to find favourite local places, such as the Budega 101 where you load up your plate from a vast buffet of food choices and then your plate is weighed and charged by the kilo! It was here I discovered banana fritter, a popular sweet treat. We also spent alot of time in Skina dos Suco, a juice bar that looks like something from Grease; with high stools and long tables forcing you to squeeze in with the locals as you slurp the most incredible juices. Nick sampled Acai (palm berries – that look like eyeballs – and tapioca) which tasted horrible but he said has made his insides feel cleansed and happy after a few too many salgados. We also found his dream milkshake – Ovaltine biscuits and Ovaltine ice cream. I know my mum will understand just how happy this would make him!

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We have lurked around the port, checked out the markets and today we went to the Bosque de Ciencia (Science Park). A sticky bus journey 30 minutes through more and less desirable sections of Manaus bought us to the 130sq km jungle that houses squirrel monkeys (the most exciting wildlife spot I’ve had so far!), manatee, GIANT otters, crocodiles, sloth and electric eels amongst other beasties.

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Finally, we bought our hammocks (mine is leopard print… obv!) and tomorrow we set sail on our Amazon boat which will take us four days and nights through Brazil to Porto Velho and one step closer to our next stop. Bolivia!

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(PS. I still haven’t received an answer for my number one Brazil question, and the title of this blog post. I haven’t seen any evidence of them around that’s for sure. Socorro?)