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Peru tour - Day 5 Cycling down the volcano

August 16th, 2016

It was an early start today because we were being picked up from the hotel at 8am by the cycle tour company. I had the usual 2 cups of coca tea along with scrambled egg sandwich, mango juice and coffee. I packed a bag of things and headed outside to find the van.

Our driver was called Aldo and he explained that we would be driving for 2 hours to get to the start point. Along the way he pointed out the half way point, the points on the journey where we would have to make a turn and the little village that we would finish at. He said if we wanted to make a toilet stop, or photo stop or anything, we just had to say "Aldo stop" and he would stop. He drove a 4x4 with the 8 of us in the back and played Pink Floyd (and a selection of other western albums) on the CD player.

When we arrived at the 4200 meter start point we all got out of the truck. He pointed to a pile of rocks and said behind there is the girls toilet and the rest of the mountain top is for the boys!

We geared up with helmets and cycling gloves and set off down the volcano on the road we had come up. I had a backpack full of water, extra clothes and my lunch for later.

I had thought they would dump us at the top and see us at the bottom which is why my bag was full of stuff. This turned out not to be the case at all. There were 2 support vehicles, one stayed at the back all the time and the other moved up and down the cyclists. Everyone cycled at a different speeds and the support vehicles were never crowding us, but they would drive past frequently to make sure we were ok.

I coped pretty well with the elevation. Can't tell if I'm getting used to the altitude or whether all the coca tea and sweets I'm eating are working. I don't want to stop taking the coca products just in case!

The view down the mountain was impressive but like the first day of skiing I was concentrating on the finding a smooth path over the very bumpy and uneven road surface rather than enjoying the view. Perhaps road surface is a bit of a generous description. Most of it was a bashed down sand. Think skiing piste but for sand.

The road zig zagged down the volcano so there were lots of sharp turns. Toni and I ended up at the back of the pack because we were taking the turns nice and slowly. Many of the turns were quite deep sand but the bikes could handle it so I didn't have to put my foot down. On one occasion I couldn't make the turns quick enough and my arm brushed against a Hawthorne bush so I have 6 bloody scratches which still sting even now.

As I approached the bottom, my confidence had increased and I was taking the corners like a pro, the road conditions were better as it got closer to the end point town which helped. One of the roads even had some tarmac, although only for about 500 meters. While whizzing along the road a dog shot out of some bushes and chased me barking like mad and trying to bit my feet. It was a quite frightening. Speaking to the others later, they also mentioned meeting the dog. The local owner called it away from me, so it probably wasn't rabbid!

All in all it took about 2 hours to get to the end town where I had my sandwiches and chatted to a Dutchman in our cycle group. He was from Utrecht and was backpacking around Peru on his own. I spoke about our group and sang praises about Steve's Nepal trip (hello if you are reading!).

Aldo loaded the bikes onto the roof and off we set back to Arequipa. The weather was still sunny and warm as we drove back through the shatti towns on the outskirts of the city. It was really fascinating to see life going on and kids in tracksuits going to school.

We noticed that all the shops were grouped together. We passed 10 mattress shops next to each other, then 10 kitchen appliance shops next to each other. In England it pays to be the only shop of a particular type in a location to reduce competition and drive up prices. The opposite seemed to be the case here. We guessed that if everyone knows where to buy mattresses you'd be able to get a better deal and if you built a mattress shops on it's own you wouldn't get any customers because everyone would go to the mattress shop district to get a better deal. Not sure which is a better way but I do know which makes more money!

I was wearing my "Trust me I'm a Programmer" t-shirt and Aldo said he liked programming. He started to tell me the programmers joke about going to the market and getting 6 pints of milk and some oranges or apples, but I stopped him because I'd heard it before. In retrospect I should have left him finish to see if there were any cultural differences in the joke.

We were all caked in volcanic sand when we got back so straight into the shower. I hadn't noticed at the time but my t-shirt had ridden up and exposed my lower back to the sun which I hadn't put any sun cream on. I now have a nice red line across my bum!

Val, Richard & I decided that we enjoyed the fruit smoothie we had at the market on the previous day so much that we'd go back for another. We spent about an hour being lost but it didn't matter because Val wanted to try some different enchiladas so each time we bought one we asked for directions. None of us spoke any Spanish but we eventually spotted something we recognized and found our way there!

I had melon and leche milk which was a bit of an experiment as I'd never had it before. I wouldn't get it again give a choice. It was funny because when I handed my empty glass back she refilled it with what was left in the blender and gave it back to me. I smiled, thanked her and drank it like a good boy!

An American girl came and sat with us and we swapped stories of good stuff to see.

We thought we'd been so healthy so we went for a beer in the roof top bar. A couple of the others from our group had had the same idea so we had a little reunion!

Headed back to the hotel to change for dinner but there was no hot water so I just got dressed. We went out as a big group and ended up in a nicer restaurant than yesterday but it was the same chain so the menu was exactly the same. I didn't mind because I wanted to have pizza which I didn't want to have last time.

While waiting for the food I dispensed advice on cameras and phones to the group. I am the youngest and once they found out I was in IT it was like dealing with my parents all over again - I'm supposed to be on holiday!! Not that I mind.

I tried to upload my blog when I got back to the hotel but their internet connection was unusable and the local 3g was too slow.

Completely knackered I was in bed by 2230.

Peru Tour - Day 4 Tour of Arequipa

August 15th, 2016

When I went to bed last night I didn't realise my room had a skylight. The moon light lit up the room and made it difficult to get to sleep. In the morning the room filled with sun light so I couldn't sleep after 7.30. The house and grounds were previously used by religious types so this set up would have been ideal for them, but now it is a hotel less so!

Coca leaves are used here to help with altitude sickness. It is apparently a legal high equivalent of cocaine! It's recommended that you have 2 cups of coca tea in the morning and 2 in the evening. 10 leaves in a cup with boiling water brewed for 4 minutes is recommended. One strong cup is apparently equivalent to half a line of cocaine, but I didn't feel that. I have been drinking it at every opportunity and have bought coca toffees too and my symptoms seem to have subsided.

Breakfast was coca tea, coffee, mango juice, scrambled egg sandwich and cheese and ham sandwich.

I met the others at 9am for a 30 minute bus ride to a view point which overlooked Arequipa. There was a square in front of a municipal building. It was an obvious tourist attraction because there was a school of local kids there as well. There were stalls of local people selling local things including the traditionally made ice cream. It was a cross between sorbet and ice cream, vanilla flavoured, very sweet with cinnamon on top. Very nice but too sickly to finish it all. We had a wander around then got back on the bus.

The next stop was at the convent where we met up with Pelar from last night who was a tour guide here. She showed us around explaining the history of the convent which was really interesting. The convent was similar in design and colour the the archbishop's house we were staying in. At the end of the tour we went to the coffee shop where I had Inca Cola. It was a fizzy yellow drink that tasted like a cross between Iron Brew and Dandelion and Berdock.

We walked back into town to the main square where an exhibition of stone carving was going on. Our guide then took us to a building with a heavy Mor influence and inside the walls and ceilings were intricately painted with culturally significant designs and explained the history of the reglious iconography.

Just a short walk from there was the indoor market. This sold everything from fruit and meat to TVs and slippers. We stopped at a fruit stall where I had an Cherimoya (custard apple) and orange juice blended shake which was lovely. On the way out I had an enchilada (a kind of Cornish pastie).

We proceeded to the tourist tour shop were we bought tickets for the volcano cycle tour tomorrow. After that we were free for the rest of the day.

We had identified a nice roof top bar that overlooked the square so went up for a beer. Climbing the 8 flights of stairs made me feel a bit dizzy but knowing there was a cold beer at the top helped. The view overlooked not only the square but the whole city and the mountains beyond. We sat in there chatting for an hour before heading back to the hotel.

Checked my email when I got back and found I had an emergency bit of work to do. The phrase "let down by technology" spanger to mind here. I just wanted to change someone's password on Google Apps but the internet connection in the hotel is so rubbish that I had to switch to the local 3G network which kept dropping out. Managing a Google Apps domain over a mobile phone was almost impossible. When you zoomed in and tried to click the settings cog it didn't work. You could only click it when you were zoomed out, but then everything was so small you couldn't read it. And don't get me started on trying to have an Andriod device trying to use a different accounts. It took almost 2 hours of fannying around.

I don't know where we had dinner because I was emailing and walking while following in the others. I used Google's augmented reality translation app to translate the menu for everyone. I had what the translator said was Grandma's Lasagne, which was regular lasagne with mushrooms and mozzarella. There wasn't that much but it was just about enough. Flores had ordered chicken and avocado sandwiches but couldn't finish them and offered them up to anyone in the group. Strangely there were no takers so I jumped in. I thought they would make an excellent pack lunch for my cycling tour the next day. The waitress kindly wrapped them up in a doggie bag for me.

Felt pretty knackered after the meal so went back to hotel as I had an early start tomorrow.

Peru trip - Day 3 Off to Arequipa

August 14th, 2016

Managed to sleep until 7.30, so showered and headed to the correct restaurant for breakfast. There was a few of our group in there so this time I knew I was in the right place. I had to deal with a few "well you made it then"s and "didn't you fancy guinea pig today?" jokes but it was all in good spirits.

The restaurant was a Beatles tribute cafe bar. The walls were adorned with black and white photos and memorabilia. For breakfast I had a scrambled egg and bacon sandwich with pineapple juice, a coffee and some bread and jam. It was just enough and a lot nicer than guinea pig. After breakfast we packed and left for the airport.

I sat in the front of the people carrier with Steve and we chatted about the difficulties of trying to find a nice girl when you have a job that takes you all over the place. On arriving at the airport we checked in.

The airport felt like a regular international airport except it was only for domestic flights. We all sat in the departure lounge drinking coffee and waiting for our flight. The plane set off on time which is more than can be said for the British Airways flight that took me to Miami and the American Airlines flight that took me to Lima. The journey was uneventful, just chatted to Steve and Floriee sitting with side of me.

As soon as the plane doors opened I started to feel a bit funny, off balance and a little bit sick. Transfer was 30 minutes to the hotel. The guide talked about the history of the city during the journey. The weather was warm and sunny which made a real change from Lima which was quite cold.

We arrived at the hotel which uses to be owned by the local archbishop. It is a beautiful building with pastel coloured walls. Each room is a separate self contained unit with ensuite. There is a lovely well kept garden with some of the units opening on to it. We unpacked and met at reception for a little walk into the main square.

The square had buskers and street performers doing their things. I got my photo taken with 2 women in traditional Peruvian dress while I was holding a baby larma. I felt like a real tourist but then I am! It was really warm and the sun reflected off the volcano stone pavement straight under the brim of my hat making me wish I had my sunglasses with me. I saw one of the group with an ice cream. We pooh-poohed her for getting it from McDonald's then we all queued up to get one too.

I had set a pin on Google maps to mark the hotel so we just wandered up the street, in no particular direction just letting our feet decide were to go. The shops were clean and modern and it felt like Madrid. As we got further up we could tell we had left the nice tourist part and were entering the cheaper area. More locals, more car parks and cheaper shops selling mobile phone SIM cards and tat. We decided to head back to the hotel a different way.

That took most of the afternoon but we still had an hour before dinner so I watched a bit of the Olympic weight lifting on the telly and got ready for the evening. I was still feeling a bit off but I wasn't going to let it ruin my evening. I had been told the altitude sickness was indiscriminate; it doesn't matter if you are young, old, fit or not, it just gets some people. While I was walking around my room my balance completely went so I had to sit on the bed for a bit and wait for it to pass.

Steve knew I loved my steak so he had enlisted a convent tour guide friend of his to help us get a table at Zigzag's, a premier restaurant aimed at tourist who could afford something a bit more highbrow.

The only local people in there were the staff and of course Steve's friend. She was wearing a beautiful white lace design dress with a Chinese collar.

By Peruvian prices it was quite expensive but by western prices it was dirt cheap! This was fine dining. I was still feeling a bit odd so decided to take it easy. We had been told not to drink too much because of the altitude, apparently hangovers are ten times worse. I shared a bottle of cabernet sauvignon with 2 other people and drank plenty of water. Starter was asparagus and salmon followed by alpaca steak and chips. It was delicious. During the meal Andy was struck by altitude sickness, he completely changed colour and said afterwards that the room started to spin. By the sounds of things a similar experience to me only much worse.

My meal with the bottle of wine and water came to 147sol (33) and it was worth every penny. I was quite taken with Steve's friend so I made her an origami swan from my receipt to go with her white dress. It wasn't much but I could let she liked it even though she was a little embarrassed.

The evening has come to an end so we headed back it the hotel for an early night. I'm feeling a bit better, I just hope I acclimatise soon as I want to do the cycling down the volcano excursion the day after tomorrow!

Peru trip - Day 2 Arrival in Lima

August 10th, 2016

Got off the plane and was greeted in arrivals by Vanessa, Steve's driver. I met my first traveller from our group: Florijee, a chain smoking mother of two from Kosovo who has been living in London for 20 years.

Vanessa drove us both to the hotel where Steve was waiting. It was really nice to see him again. The hotel is amazing. Wooden interior and a relic from the colonial times. The corridors were filled with huge overstated painting. They looked like paintings but I think they were large prints, but vibrant in colour.

We dumped our bags in the room and went back downstairs. Here we met Toni from Ireland, also living in London and a big surprise for me, Val who was on my Nepal trip!

The 4 of us met up with Steve and wandered down to the local pub for a welcome drink. All of us only had dollars so Steve ended up buying all the drinks. 75cl beer cost 7 sol (1.50).

The pub was was a room with a makeshift bar at one end and a set of small tables and chairs in the centre. One of the tables had a mobile jukebox on it. This is essentially a case with a touch screen on it and a coin slot on the side. It was playing local music which was ok once you got used to it. We did the getting to know you thing with the others then I had a long catch up chat the Steve.

Just as my beer was kicking in the girls said they were feeling the jetlag, so we all headed back. Florijee and I sat of the roof of the hotel chatting while we smoked and finished off the beer. When she headed to bed, I got talking to a Belgium man to was cycling across Peru. He recounted his story of arriving in Lima and having to stay in a brothel because he couldn't find anywhere in the dark.

Got to bed at 2am and was up at 9.30am. I remembered from last night that someone had said that for breakfast you come out of the hotel, turn left and it's the first place you come to, so off I set.

It looked like a cross between someone's front room and a crack house, but I had faith. There was a bit of a language problem but Google translate helped. Steve had mentioned that I just needed to say "Steve's group" and everything would be taken care of. So I did and the waitress said yes. They pointed to some photos of food as Steve said they would and so I agreed to whatever they pointed to. I couldn't really see what it was so I went and had a closer look when the waitress left. When I saw the picture it occurred to me that I is was in the wrong place, but British politeness prevented me from doing anything about it as I had already ordered. I had to see it through now.

The meal arrived and this is where I was sure I was in the wrong place. 2 boiled potatoes, several slices of sweet potatoes, some onion salad and what looked like roast rat. It didn't have a head but it did have little ratty feet. So I dived in. All in all it was quite nice, not much meat on the rat and a bit fatty but the salad and salad dressing was nice.

As I consumed the meal it occurred to me that I didn't actually have any local money and if I wasn't in the right place, this was going to be a problem. Sure enough, she'll arrived with a bill and had no idea who Steve was. I bit of Google translate and she started to work out how many dollars it was going to be. 6 dollars and the smallest I had was a twenty, which made her even less happy. I said I'd be back in 5 minutes and left.

Due to my cock up, I had missed the group orientation so phoned Steve and met them in town. Steve pointed out some of the things worth seeing so that we could come back later in our free time. He then showed us how to change money from a street currency seller. They get a margin from travelling further to the bank with a slightly better rate than we would get. 3.30 sol to the dollar was a fixed rate that all the vendors used which is pretty good, certainly not worth the extra hassle to save a couple of pence. I changed $200 and as the group returned to the hotel, I went to settle my debt.

She was understandably very pleased to see me, I think she had given up hope. I gave her a little tip which she wouldn't accept, so I insisted. With her faith restored in humanity I left to join the others.

Today's activity was getting a taxi to Mira Flores, Steve had remained at the hotel to do tour stuff so we all arrived without him. It was clear they the group was waiting for someone to take control so I stepped up with a group photo. Linda had a guide book and wanted to see Testino's photo gallery which was about 1 hour walk. The group split and we set off to find a coffee before our trek.

Mira Flores was beside the sea and was very modern. Lots of joggers, shopping, nice restaurants and all the trappings of a modern capital city. I had the GPS so led the group. Many of the buildings on the way were brightly painted and the city had a youthful feeling to it. We followed the coastal path, then walked inland past the museum of contemporary art which looked good but we were aiming for the M.A.T.E. gallery so didn't stop.

We spent about 40 minutes looking at the photo gallery which wasn't too bad for 10 sol. The gallery contained mostly photos of celebrities including a whole room devoted to Diana Princess of Wales. We had a big discussion about the conspiracy surrounding her death. Afterwards we went looking for somewhere to have a bit to eat.

We found a nice modern coffee shop which sold savoury food too. I had a roasted croissant with ham and cheese which was lovely although it could have been bigger! It was getting on a bit so we decided to try and meet up with the others at 5 so we could share taxis back.

We all walked at different speeds and on this occasion, I was at the back with Richard and Linda. I saw a steeper climb that would save us some time and distance but on reflection we should have taken the longer journey because it was a little bit more treacherous than it looked and I think the other 2 struggled a bit. We arrived with 5 minutes to spare, hopped in taxis and headed back to the hotel. It cost 25sol to get back. Some of the people complained that it was only 20 to get there but I'm not much of a haggler. There was an hour to spare before dinner so I wrote my journal.

Tonight was the welcome dinner so we all wandered into town which was only a couple of minutes walk. Most of us had a local cocktail which tasted of whiskey and bitter lime. I had 2 and hoovered up one from another guest that couldn't finish theirs. I started with a famous Peruvian starter of yellow potato mashed and moulded into a 15cm cylinder filled with chicken and sauce, which was really nice in spite of being cold. It was supposed to be cold but we were expecting it to be hot. Steak and chips for my main. The group was teasing me about going to the wrong place for breakfast. It turns out the guinea pig is a specialty here so that's what I had for breakfast. So everyone had a good laugh at my expense. By the end of the meal most people were ready for bed so we headed back.

Peru trip - Day 1 Stop over in Miami

August 9th, 2016

Got a taxi to the airport and boarded the plane. Sat next to a nice girl on her way back to Chilli. She was doing a master in psychology for human resources. Next to her was an English girl travelling to Bolivia. On my opposite side there was a woman who looked like a zombie. I wasn't sure if it was makeup or natural but she didn't try to bit me and her English was slightly better.

Booked myself into the HI USA Miami Beach hostel while I waited for my bags to appear on the carousel then hopped in a taxi. It was 7pm and 32 and I'm still wearing jeans and my leather jacket.

Checked in, which took an age because the staff are slow and a bit clueless. Headed out to forage for food.

Every town in America by the ocean has an Ocean Drive which is usually the last road running parallel to the sea. Sadly they are never actually on the sea front but a couple of hundred meters from the sea. It's usually a tourist trap but it takes the hard workout of finding somewhere to eat. Miami is no exception.

The steps up to the restaurant had red strip lighting and many other tourists found this to be a photo opportunity: I've seen strip lighting before so didn't bother photographing it.

The Greek salad I ordered turned into a ceaser salad and the beer never turned up. When it did, instead of tasting like local beer it just tasted of Desorado with orange in it. I was too knacked to argue with them so paid and left. Had an Pale Ale from the pub under the hostel. I miss English beer already.

Managed to stay up until 1, but when I got to my room there was a pissed old bloke sleeping in my bed. I turfed him out, got new bedding then listened to him snoring all night.

Went down to free breakfast, which is one of the worst hostel breakfasts I've had in a while. Scrambled egg - Mexican style. Half a tray of spicy scrambled egg with chilli and thousand island goo on top, and no drink. I got some water to wash it down with. Yuk!

I had to go to the airport so queued for up at reception again to ask about that. The receptionist kept telling me the only way to get to the airport was by a taxi organised by them and would cost $40. By this point I had run out of patience and started to get stroppy with them and that's when they told me about the $2.65 bus I could get around the corner. While I was on a winner I asked about tours. The receptionist telephoned ahead and got me a place on the next Duck tour. She said I had to hurry, so nipped back to room, packed, showered and brought my bedding back to reception for checkout. Unfortunately the receptionist was fannying about so I sat there for 20 minutes waiting for my turn. After checking out she said I'd better hurry - really!

The duck tour was pretty good. Mostly on water in Bisque Bay pointing out American celebs' homes and a "famous" house used in 8 episodes of Miami Vice, then a drive down Ocean Avenue. The majority of Miami is Art Deco in design and after you get used to it, it looks alright. Even the modern high rises have Art Deco features keeping it inline with the surrounding architecture.

After the Duck tour it was time to head for the airport. The receptionist instructions on how to find the bus to the airport were absolutely useless. So I went to the general area and while trying to illicit help from another person the 150 bus drove past. So I hooffed it down the road after the bus carrying all my gear in oven temperatures. Finally catching it up when it stopped at a bus stop with absolutely no markings on it. I had found this bus stop before but dismissed it as my bus stop because there was no signs hinting that it might go to the airport and all the people at the bus stop only spoke Spanish.

All in all, I wasn't very impressed with Miami or the people of Miami or the International Youth hostel. I don't think I'll be back anytime soon.