Galapagos Overview

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Giant tortoise roaming free on San Cristobel… 

We expected the Galapagos to be a highlight of the trip, and given how much it cost, and how much we had built it up, I was very much hoping it wouldn’t be a let down.

It wasn’t.

It was at least as good as our incredibly high expectations.

We spent our first week aboard the Letty, a beautiful 20-person boat, with two incredibly well-informed and personable naturalists on board to answer Lauren’s millions of questions about the animals and the islands.

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M.Y Letty, our home for a week. 

This was no relaxing pleasure cruise. We were woken every day between 6am and 7am, for a hearty breakfast before a full day of hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, swimming, zodiac rides and time spent up on deck scanning for whales, dolphins, turtles, rays and other sea creatures as we sailed from one spot to another. During all of these activities, the naturalists kept up a constant stream of information about what we were seeing.

We were given an hour or so after lunch for ‘nap time’ but given this was our only free time of the day, we inevitably got caught up doing washing, backing up photos, or simply taking a breather. The one time I started to doze off I was woken by a whale sighting!

We fell into bed before 9pm, after an always-delicious dinner, and we were both generally asleep within minutes, despite the often very rocky motion of the boat. We crossed the equator 6 times during the week.

I will go into more detail on the various animals we saw – on land and in the sea – in later posts, when I have the bandwidth to upload more photos, but while all of the animals – and even the birds – were fascinating, the most amazing thing of all was that none of them were scared of humans. Some of the sea creatures might mistake a human form for a predator and move off, but whether it was having to edge round enormous giant tortoises blocking our path, floating for ten minutes above a marine iguana contentedly munching on seaweed, having to back away from a massive sea turtle who was in no mood to deviate from his path, or watching a male blue footed booby put on a mating dance for a pretending-not-to-be-interested female – they all took absolutely no notice of us.

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Even the birds were interesting …. here a Frigate bird showing off his pouch… 
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A young Nazca booby…. 
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Whale Bones…..
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Land Iguana….. 
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Another wild tortoise… who didn’t get the 2m memo… 
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A cactus…. their spikes aren’t spiky but just hairy, as there are no ‘predators’ apart from bugs….. 
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Marine Iguanas…. 

The exception were the sea lions who were actively keen to play with us, rolling around us and sticking their faces right in front of our masks as we swam or snorkelled.

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The sea lion and Lauren had been swimming together just before I took this…. 

The feeling of not being perceived as a threat was odd, and wonderful. It’s hard to describe how tiny birds, massive fish, crusty land iguanas simply not being bothered by us is exhilarating.

It feels like how it should be.

And it is that feeling that I take away from the Galapagos – it was all wonderful – the stunning islands with their various red, yellow, white and black sand and volcanic backdrops, the azure sea, the animals and birds, the chance to hike, swim, kayak, snorkel in such pristine environments – but my main feeling is one of pure happiness that there is at least somewhere in the world where humans are not causing too much damage to the environment and its inhabitants, and where animals and birds can get on with their lives without too much interference from humans.

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Its not perfect, nowhere is, and there are conflicts between human habitation, tourism and nature, but kudos to the Ecuadorian government, and the people of these islands, for the incredibly stringent rules, attention to detail and lack of corruption that keep it as pristine and natural as possible. We saw two tiny pieces of litter during the week – both of which our guide removed.

What a place. Just incredible. I don’t think we have fully absorbed yet just how amazing this last week was. We keep replaying things in our heads and reminding each other of yet another amazing moment. I think we will be saying ‘remember when….’ for a long time to come. I wish I could have shared it with you all, particularly my family. The only thing that could have made this week better would have been to have the whole Ennis clan here.

If any of you ever get a chance to visit, do. It is absolutely worth the money, the distance, the effort. No photo or video or attempt to write it up can fully reflect how amazing this place is. I will do a full write up of the week for those interested, but if you can, one day, come experience it for yourselves 😊.

Quito and ‘Operation Galapagos’

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As I was still feeling dreadful after ten days of limited food intake and antibiotics, I figured I really should seek medical attention. On arrival in Quito therefore, we dropped the bags and headed straight for the hospital.

They put me on a drip, gave me loads of different medications, and ran blood tests. Turns out I had cleared up the bacterial food poisoning with the antibiotics (although I got a lecture for ‘self diagnosing’), but I also had a viral stomach bug, which was hanging around. My stomach was also so irritated after ten days of constant retching, that it was unhappy when I ate, and even more unhappy when I didn’t. Luckily, the drugs meant I could keep some food down, and they kept me in until I could eat some crackers without throwing up.

After this, I finally started to recover, spending 3 days in Quito doing not much more than eat, sleep and take my tablets. Lauren called this ‘Operation Galapagos’ and was a most attentive nurse.

We head for the Galapagos tomorrow – and I am about 70% fit, still a bit weak and shaky but way better, so hopefully that will be enough to enable us to get the most out of what promises to be a trip highlight – 2 weeks in the Galapagos, the first living aboard a small boat of 16 passengers with two naturalists to show us around the various islands and answer all Lauren’s difficult questions, and then another week just chilling with the sea lions on one of the inhabited islands.

You probably won’t be hearing much from us for a while….. but we will take a few pics…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Machu Picchu

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I was still feeling awful, constantly nauseous and shaky, but mind over matter and all that, we had an Inca city to visit. Voted one of the 7 modern wonders of the world (by somebody?), I had been here in my 20s, although much of my memory of that time was wiped by excessive partying in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire, and still today a magnet for backpackers looking to party, hippies looking to get strung out, and well heeled old Americans who wheeze around the city in brightly coloured tour groups with remarkable fortitude.

Its still not that easy to get to Machu Picchu, although admittedly easier than it was for Hiram Bingham, who ‘discovered’ it back in 1911 when he noticed Inca artifacts in the houses of local peasants and asked them to show him where they found them. The Spanish never found it, although they still managed to kill most of the inhabitants off through disease. Well, that’s one of the theories as to why it was abandoned anyway – there were just two local peasant families living there when Hiram Bingham uncovered it.

First, we had to get a taxi at 5am to the station which is not in Cusco but half an hour drive away in Poroy. Then we got on a super swish train along with masses of tourists (foreigners aren’t allowed on the ‘ordinary’ trains unless they are permanent residents).

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We edged our way slowly through the mountains towards Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of the mountain upon which MP perches. At one point they announced a ‘zig zag zone’ and the train zig zagged its way down a mountain, shunting back and forth as it went. We moved from fairly arid mountains to a more jungle/rainforest type environment, with some weird and wonderful cactuses (ok, pedants, cacti) and then orchids, vines and weird and wonderful flowers and trees.

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Once in Aguas Calientes, we had to queue up and get a bus (no way was I walking like I did 19 years ago – its straight up for an hour and a half minimum). The bus journey itself was, ahem, interesting – racing round steep curves for 40 minutes.

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The road up….. 

19 years ago, we arrived on a crusty local train, stepped off directly onto the train tracks, dumped our bags in a small hostel in the (then) tiny village of Aguas Calientes – which had about 3 hostels, one slightly nicer place, a couple of local eating places and not much else – and started walking. Things have definitely changed – AC is a big town now, with loads of places to eat and stay, from relatively nice hotels to dumps, but even the dumps have wifi! Getting tickets to MP is also a much more bureaucratic affair than back then, which is not surprising given just how many people visit (thousands per day in high season).

Anyway, once up at the top we checked our baggage in and found a private guide – another difference from when I was first here, when I just wandered around with my trusty Lonely Planet.

The guide was great, and although it was a fairly steep climb and I was in constant fear or throwing up, he made us go slow and answered all of Lauren’s questions until we made it to the highest point and I could rest, take the obligatory photo (attempting not to get too many of the thousands of other tourists in), and breath again.

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I won’t go on about MP, yes its incredible, yes its worth seeing, and yes a lot of what the guide had to say about the social, economic and military organization of the Incas was interesting. I’m glad we went, and Lauren learned loads – she was particularly taken by the ‘compass stone’ – an exact replica of the southern cross, pointing due South – and the temple of the sun, constructed so that the sun lights up the altar exactly at the solstices.

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The ‘Compass Stone’
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Temple of the Sun, where sacrifices to the sun were made. 

Once we had seen everything – including the chinchillas chilling on the stones (if you zoom in on the photo above, you can see one on the bottom right corner of the altar), and the llamas munching away on the terraces – we agreed we’d had enough, and retreated back down the mountain to Aguas Calientes for a late lunch, before I had to retire once more to bed.

 

Next – on to Quito, then, the Galapagos!

Uyuni to La Paz to Lake Titicaca to Cusco

After two days barely moving and still feeling dreadful, I decided we’d better try to get to the capital. I decided to fly – it was three times the cost of the bus, but still only 80 USD each, gave us a great view of the salt flats and the Andes, and got us there in a hour rather than a bone rattling night bus that got in at dawn.  Sometimes its OK to just whip out that credit card.

I also treated us to a nice hotel in La Paz, and an airport pick up. This latter turned out to be a mixed blessing as while I was in no fit state to negotiate Bolivian public transport, the driver spent the entire 45-minute drive telling me about corruption in Bolivia and the president, of whom so many had high hopes but who recently ignored a referendum on whether he should change the constitution and stay for a third term. The usual story of someone getting into power, doing lots of good and then not wanting to leave and slowly getting corrupted. I’m sure its more complex than that, but I spent most of the ride trying not to throw up, while following his rapid Spanish and trying to get him to turn around and look at the road rather than me.

I did get some antibiotics from a pharmacy in La Paz, no prescription needed, and they did at least seem to stop the diarrhoea in its tracks, although I was still constantly nauseous and shaky.

I wanted to show Lauren the witches market, a bit of a tourist trap but also genuinely stocked with things local witches use for their magic (icons, herbs, llama fetuses etc), so after a brief rest, I staggered a few blocks to get her some lunch and show her the market. After that, it was back to bed for the rest of the day.

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Next day we got the bus to Cusco, which was a mammoth day-and-a-half with a stopover of a few hours in Copacabana, on the edges of Lake Titicaca. At one point, we had to get off the bus and catch a small boat, so that the bus could cross the lake on a wooden ferry.

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The Incas believed the sun (which they worshipped) came from here, and that the first Incas also came from here. For lack of anything else to do in Copacabana – where I have vague memories of stumbling about 19 years ago, completely out of it with altitude sickness – we joined a boat to the Island of the Sun – immensely holy to the Incas, now a bit of a tourist trap. Lauren nattered away to an Irish couple we met on the boat, and ran around on the island, climbing up an ancient Inca staircase and admiring the Incan ‘fountain of youth’ as well as the local donkeys, while I sat shivering at the bottom.

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Supposedly the Inca fountain of youth….. 

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After an uneventful if exhausting trip across the border to Cusco in Peru, we arrived at 5am and thankfully the guest house we had booked let us check in. I went straight back to bed for a few hours, then we ventured out, to find ourselves slap bang in the middle of some major procession of traditional costume and communities. No one we asked gave us a clear indication of what it was – someone said it had to do with a convent, another it was a rehearsal for something, but it was rather fun.

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We basically spent the next 3 days in the room, making brief forays out to get food (which Lauren ate, and I either couldn’t face or ate and threw up). I was trying to get my strength up for what should be a highlight – the Inca city of Machu Picchu. We had tickets and train reservations, and spent a couple of hours at the museum learning about the Incas in preparation, but I really needed to get my strength up. There is only so much gatorade a girl can drink.

 

Crossing the Andes to Bolivia – Day three

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The sun about to rise over the salt flats…… 

This day for me was both wonderful and horrible. The salt flats were incredible, but I felt awful. I’d been up every 20 minutes overnight with diarrhoea, plus vomiting, and was shaking, cold and miserable. If Lauren hadn’t been so excited about the salt flats – and if she hadn’t spent the last 2 days making plans for various pictures she wanted to take with her new-found Irish friends – I might have insisted on staying in bed/the bathroom. As it was, I gritted my teeth, and did my best. This unfortunately included sullying the salt flats at times. There aren’t exactly a multitude of bathrooms out there. Hopefully pachamama  (mother earth) will understand.

The Irish guys and Katerina were wonderful – most importantly taking Lauren to each of the sites when I couldn’t get out of the car and keeping her entertained and happy, but also feeding me Imodium, carrying my bag, bringing me coke when I couldn’t make lunch, and just generally making it as easy as possible for me. Some of the photos in this post were taken by them and shared, so thanks guys 😊.

Anyway, we started off heading to an area of the salt flats that was still wet from the recently ended-rainy season. This created a spectacular mirror effect, and we watched the sun rise here. Even in my state, I could enjoy the majesty of this view.

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The sun finally rises over the salt flats……
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Keeping her feet dry while watching the sunrise. 
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The whole team enjoying the sunrise….. well worth the early start.
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One of the nearby hills reflected in the flats. 

After that we headed to an ‘island’ (the salt flats are simply a vast dried up sea) that was covered in cactuses (I know, I know, but ‘cacti’ is so old fashioned). Lauren and the others went for a hike around the island, while I made regular use of their facilities, and sipped on coca tea. Coca tea is made from the leaves of the coca plant, better known for its purified state, cocaine, but in leaf form is a mild painkiller and locals swear by it for all sorts of aches and pains, and for altitude sickness.

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Cactuses/Cacti…. whatever you call them, they are spectacular. 

Everyone else had breakfast, then it was the moment we’d all been waiting for. Finding a stretch of the salt flats so flat that you could take ‘perspective photos’ when the lack of any differentiation in the background means you can take photos of people/objects at different distances that look like they are close together. The guys had been planning this for ages, and Lauren had some pretty specific requests. Paul was clearly an expert, having brought his dinosaurs along and knowing just how to do it. I participated in a couple (Lauren particularly wanted to be a giant stepping on my head…..) then left them to it. As you can see, some were more successful than others, but they all had a lot of fun.

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A tiny Lauren on my hand…….
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No ‘perspective’ here, just full of energy and having fun……
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Lauren about to stomp on my head……. 
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Seb eating a tiny Lauren….. 
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Escaping some fearsome beasts….
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The whole team……

Next we headed off across the salt flats to a place where flags from all around the world have been placed. Katerina had brought a Czech Republic flag (so organized!).

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Think the Irish lads might have found the Irish flag….. 

After this, my memory is a bit vague – the Imodium was slowly taking effect but I spent much of the time dozing in the car, worrying about when the next bathroom stop would be, clutching a plastic bag in case I threw up. I think we headed for lunch then, where I stayed outside in the car and sipped on coca cola, supposed to be good for stomach upsets, but I promptly lost it again, inelegantly out the car door ☹.

The final stop of the day (by this point I was simply counting the minutes until I could find a hotel, our pre-booked overnight bus to La Paz out of the question) was a train ‘graveyard’. It was quite a melancholy place in a way, rusting hulks of engines that used to take minerals from Bolivia through the Andes to the Pacific. The guys and Lauren had great fun clambering about on the trains and I was once again grateful to them for including her in everything.

Eventually we were dropped off at the office of the agency, where I sat inside shivering while everyone else dealt with my stuff. We checked into a hotel directly opposite, on the basis it had rooms with private bathrooms and was staggering distance – Sebastian, Connor, Guy and Katerina all came over to reception, carrying various bits of our luggage, to make sure we were checked in and I was settled. What a nice bunch of people. Katerina, who was staying in Uyuni too, even came round the following day and took Lauren for lunch and played games with her while I led in bed trying to recover.

Thanks for everything guys, and safe travels 🙂

P.s. photos just don’t do justice to the scenery around here, so I put together a 6 minute video with some of my favourite video clips from the few days ….   apologies for all the heavy breathing, I was usually out of breath!!!

watch here if interested: 

 

Day Two – Crossing from Chile to Bolivia

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One of the strange rock formations we saw on day 2.

Day two of our crossing from Chile to Bolivia was just as spectacular as day one, with strange desert rock formations, more beautiful lakes, some weird rabbit-type creatures with long tails, a beautiful green valley as we emerged into inhabited areas, and the start of the famous salt flats that day three would be all about.

The day started off bright and early, with pancakes and tea. I was feeling fine, despite the altitude, although had woken in the middle of the night convinced I couldn’t breathe and on the verge of a panic attack. Only knowing Lauren was in the bed beside me got me to focus enough to breathe deeply and calmly, working every bit of oxygen I could out of the air. By morning, I was coping well enough, although still pathetically breathless after any exertion. Lauren of course was coping fabulously, generally running around outside with the llamas. Some people had headaches but paracetamol seemed to do the trick.

We set off driving along what passed for tracks, sometimes across broad empty plains, other times through deep canyons, and even at one point along a riverbed. First stop was at a huge collection of rocks, thrown from a volcano at some point in the past and eroded by the wind into weird shapes.

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Next we found ourselves driving through a canyon with steep sides, and some rather unstable-looking boulders we could just imagine falling at any moment, as some obviously had in the past as the track wound round big chunks of rock. It was worth it though to see the weird rabbit-like creatures who live on the rocks….

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Strange creatures, look like rabbits with really long curly tails… can’t remember their name… 
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Despite the sun, that’s ice on the ground! 

We reached another beautiful lake, filled with flamingos, with an ‘ecolodge’ that had pay toilets. Its the first time I’ve been to a toilet where half of the bowl is restricted to ‘number ones’ and the other half to ‘number twos’. Not only that, but the ladies had a window, and the (male) attendant came and peered through it while I was on the loo, presumably checking I was aiming accurately enough….. it was a bit odd, but hey, you take any chance for a wee out here, there aren’t many bushes!

Lunch was by another beautiful lake…..

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One of the many mineral-filled lakes…. 
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Loving the mirror effect….
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Flamingos…..
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Lauren with her new best friends….they were so brilliant with her. 

Eventually we reached ‘civilization’ with a few scattered dusty villages, and enjoyed about ten minutes of an actual road before another diversion, this time to clamber on yet more rock formations. Lauren and Connor found a ‘fortress’ and were quite happy up there until it was raided by the others…. cue lots of shrieking and squealing (and that was just the boys!).

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Lauren and Connor in their fortress.

After that, Paul promised us beer, although it seemed an awfully long time coming – first we drove up a valley that was actually green due to a river running through it, and we went for a walk through the waterlogged fields amidst a herd of llama.

20180423_151748.jpgWe drove through a lovely green valley full of llamas, and went for a walk among them….

Once back in the car we came across one of the other vehicles, that had broken down. Apparently, the drive shaft had ‘popped out’ and was ‘popped back in’ using a stake one of the drivers wrenched out of a villager’s field and a rock.

The day ended with beers (coca beer, cactus beer…) at a local shack before heading to the salt hotel where we would have dinner and spend the night in the relative luxury of private rooms (and bathrooms!).

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Sun setting as we head for the Salt hotel for the night….. 
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Our trusty steed….
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The beds, part of the walls and the bedside table are all made of salt…..

By 9pm we were both in bed, having had warm showers, as we would be up at 5am for a 5.30am departure to the salt flats. However, I needn’t have worried about getting up in time, as I got about one hours sleep all night, due to an explosive reaction to what I can only imagine was some bacteria on some of the food at dinner, or possibly something I picked up on my hands, despite regular applications of antibacterial gel.

Within a couple of hours I was vomiting profusely, and had terrible diarrhoea, and I spent most of the night in the absolutely freezing bathroom. Lauren, thankfully, slept on regardless.

Crossing the Andes to Bolivia – Day One

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I am happy to admit I was somewhat nervous about this trip. Those of you who know me personally will be well aware I like to be in control, and this time I was putting my and my daughter’s well-being into the hands of a travel agency to get us across some very remote territory with extreme conditions. I had done as much research as I could and thought I’d chosen a decent agency, but still, given my dodgy lungs and previous problems with altitude (and we would be going far higher) and given I had Lauren along, I was anxious it go well.

The agency assured me that the driver was experienced, the jeep had proper seatbelts (I was still carting Lauren’s booster seat around), and they would carry oxygen in case of altitude sickness.

We were picked up at 0630 by a minibus that took us and a number of other people to the border with Bolivia, where we would transfer to the 4 by 4’s required for Bolivia. We climbed and climbed for around 45 minutes, in the pre-dawn darkness, everyone a bit quiet until we reached the small building that housed Chilean immigration.

The contrast between two countries can hardly be greater than when crossing from Chile to Bolivia. On the Chilean side, decent tarmacked road, polite immigration officials, clean toilets, even a ping pong table that some of the members of our group made use of, challenging the immigration officers to a game.

Then, a few Km later on, a dirt track and a stone hut with brusque Bolivian border guards.

We had breakfast in the searing cold wind – we were high, the sun was hiding behind a cloud, someone said it was below freezing. As far as the eye could see was just flat brown earth and snow-capped mountains. It couldn’t have looked less appealing. What had we signed up for?

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Not much out there……. 

It turned out that there were three vehicles that would be travelling roughly together, which was reassuring. We had all heard horror stories of breakdowns on the rough terrain. We were fortunately assigned to a jeep driven by Paul, an experienced and careful driver who seemed to be the most responsible of the three.

We were also lucky in our fellow travelers – after all, we would spend three whole days with these people, at close quarters, sharing the car, a bedroom and all meals. We were joined by a trio of mid 20s Dublin lads, Sebastian, Connor and Guy, much to Lauren’s delight, as half the time she thinks she’s Irish, and a Czech woman, Katerina.  I was by far the oldest of the group, and Lauren by far the youngest.

The day passed in a blur of mountains, stunning lakes, thermal springs and geysers. Nature at its harshest. Arsenic in the ground, sulphur from the geysers, salt in the water, intense heat and cold at different times, and of course the ever present reminder of the altitude. Tracks varied from rough to non-existent, we saw the odd fox and vicuna (a wild deer related to the guanaco we’d seen in Argentina), a few birds and not much else in terms of wildlife.

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The real secret behind Blackburn Rovers’ promotion – this is a site where people make cairns to worship pachamama or mother earth….. the guys and Lauren made one, with Roar as an offering (he didn’t stay behind though). 

 

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Then, in the middle of nowhere, some volcanic hot springs, with filthy changing rooms and zero health and safety. Felt so good though, although ten  minutes was enough given the altitude. 

 

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Bubbling, sulphic mud ponds, truly evil. 
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We were told the mud comes out at 200 degrees C. No health and safety, you could just wander around at will. 
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Evil smelling place but fascinating. 

We ended with a wonderful (if rather breathless), walk around laguna colorada, possibly my favourite of the whole day, as it was pink, full of flamingos, and just beautiful.

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Lauren was by now in full hero-worship mode and firm friends with the Irish lads. When I tried to intervene (not all mid-20’s lads want a 9 year old girl tagging along) I was firmly told that she was now ‘one of their crew’ so left well alone.

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Three Irish musketeers and an eager D’Artagnan… deep in conversation as I breathlessly bring up the rear. 

The evening saw us arriving at a very basic lodge – electricity for a couple of hours in the evening, no heating (we were at 4,600 metres), no showers, and 2 shared toilets without paper or soap. For Lauren, at least, none of this mattered, as she made firm friends with this filthy orphaned Llama, which at least twice had to be ushered from the kitchen…. where our dinner was being prepared…

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Orphaned baby llama at our lodge in the mountains. 

 

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Another Llama….. 
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And another….. we liked the llamas. 

All 6 of us shared the same room. The food was basic – boiled chicken, salad, and smash (reconstituted dehydrated potato). Lauren taught everyone how to play Uno, and an Irish guy from another group brought out a guitar and entertained us with songs.

By just after 9 everyone headed off to bed, many feeling some effect of the altitude and the grueling but amazing day.