Tag Archives: South America trip

Living with kids in Bolivia – good advice from Facebook friends change our plans

Don’t believe everything you read

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As we were getting into the month of May we needed to settle down somewhere and start thinking about what to do at the end of our year long trip in July. We had started looking for UK jobs already in February while we were living in Nicaragua, only to realise that it was too far out in the future to yield any results. Now was the right time to get into our homecoming plans properly, but where could we settle down for a bit do so?

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Settling in and looking for a job while in Nicaragua

We had agreed that the country we would stay in would be Bolivia, simply for the reason of cost. Bolivia is one of the cheapest countries in South America still and as we were approaching the end of our 12 month travel, our remaining budget was becoming increasingly important in our decision making. I had done some research about travel in Bolivia during our time in Peru and Chile and was feeling a bit apprehensive about staying here for a a month or more after reading about travellers experiences of unfriendly people, dangerous roads, rubbish food and dangerous dogs.  However we know by now not to trust everything we read but rather to follow our own instincts as it always takes a bit of time to adjust to the people and the culture in a new country. After a week here our first impressions of Bolivia did not match the negative things we had read so we thought we’d give it a go and stay.

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Carlos, one of our new friends in Bolivia

While exploring Sucre for a few days, we initially thought we might stay there and enjoy the more developed part of Bolivia. However, we quickly decided we didn’t want to stay there due to the pollution and big town feel.

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Sucre the white city

Paul and I had agreed that our the top priority for the next month or so was to stay somewhere cheap with good internet access to help progress with our job hunting but we soon found ourselves doing the exact opposite.

Great advice from local Facebook groups

Back in January I had found some great Nicaraguan and and Costa Rican expats groups on Facebook. The expats in these groups are in may ways similar to us. Families and people that have left the old “western” way of life to enjoy a new and simpler life in other parts of the world.

By simply asking these likeminded people for advice on the best places to live with kids we found a great place to stay and a local school in Granada, Nicaragua. In the end Nicaragua turned out to be one of our favourite parts of our travel so far. So with no ideas of where to go next in Bolivia or what to do for the next 2 months other than avoiding the big cities and living cheaply, I contacted a Bolivian expats group on Facebook for some inspiration and advice from families who had already made the move.

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Expats Facebook groups have proved very useful

Change of priorities – and plans

Where in Bolivia is a good place to live for a travelling family with primary school age kids? I simply put this question to the few thousand people on the closed Facebook group and only minutes later the advice from friendly folk came thick and fast. Sucre, Cochabamaba, Tarija and Samaipata were the main 4 suggestions with lots of advice and information on why these friendly people through so. Cochabamaba and Sucre we had already ruled out due to size so that left Tarija and Samaipata. Tarija is located in the far southeast on the Argentine border so did not really fit our travel plans, but Samaipata to the east on the Amazon border would not be ideal either.

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After reading up about both places and compering the two I instantly felt that little rural Samaipata could be the right place. A small town of 3500 people, lovely climate of 25 degrees, in the mountains full of wildlife, plenty of things to do and see and with a small community of foreigners that we could tap into to for help.

 

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The Samaiapata crowd had also been particularly helpful on Facebook and that felt like a promising start. The main issue was internet coverage. After 2 weeks in Bolivia we already knew how poor internet is here so when we discovered that there is only 1 cafe in Samaipata with decent internet we knew we had to change our plans or our priorities.

Putting the new plan into action

Hours earlier, on Air BNB I had fond a great little house in the centre of Semaipata that was pretty cheap soI contacted the host to check that there was internet in the house. No was the answer, “but you can buy internet data to use on your phone with a Bolivian SIM”…Could we live for a month and look for jobs and houses back in the UK without good Internet access?? We agreed all other things about Samaipata seemed too good to turn down and so agreed we would go for it and make the job hunting process work one way or another.

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Our house in Samaipata, with a garden and mandarin trees.

Once decided, we started looking at how best to  get there. Bolivia is not a huge country but the mountainous terrain makes it hard to travel anywhere. From Sucre to Samaipata is about 400km but would take some 12 hrs on bumpy roads in an uncomfortable night bus. The advice I got from my new Facebook friends was “Fly don’t die” and so that is what we did. Only 2 days after posting the question Facebook, we were on our way to Samaipata.

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Leaving Sucre for Samaipata by plane via Santa Cruz

We flew from Sucre to Santa Cruz for about £40 each and then got a mini bus to Samaipata from there. Despite opting out of the bus it was not the easiest of journeys. After weeks in the cold high in the mountains we were also surprised and bit bothered by the heat as we got the bus from the airport to the minibus station in Santa Cruz.

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Quick break before the 3hr minibus up into the mountains
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9 people in a minibus. This guy got the short straw.

The mini bus schedule ran as most mini busses do in Bolivia, they leave when they are full rather than follow a specific schedule. So we let the first bus go in order to have something to eat and a quick travel break. The next bus didnt leave for another 2 hours when all the places were full. Finally, with one guy practically sitting on the gear stick, we were off to our next Bolivian adventure.

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Ingrid and Scotts school in Samaipata, Bolivia

Rock climbing in Bolivia

Sucre – climbing with new friends in Bolivia

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Carlos and Ingrid

We desperately wanted to go climbing in Bolivia as we had not managed to do any climbing at all in Peru. When we were in Peru the catastrophic floods and landslides made it impossible to reach many climbing areas and unsafe to climb in many places. It had been 4 months since our last outdoor climb in Cat Ba Vietnam and we were itching to get back on the rock. At the same time I was wondering if I still would have enough climbing fitness in me to really enjoy it.

 

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Beautiful Ha Long bay Vietnam back in December 2016.

Once we got to Sucre from Potosi and started looking at things to do there, we immediately realised that there is plenty of rock climbing in the Sucre area. Happy days! There are 2 main climbing companies that operate in Sucre and through a friend of climbing friend that met in Lima 2 months earlier, I got in touch with Carlos at ClimbingSucre to se if he could help us out.

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Climbing at base camp Lima

By the time Carlos and I got talking we only had 2 days left in Sucre before our flight to Santa Cruz. Luckily Carlos offered to take us out climbing that same afternoon so that we could fit 2 climbing sessions in before leaving. Perfect! With such a long time since our last climb, to fully enjoy it we would need a proper warmup session before trying any harder climbs. We agreed on 2 half days of climbing at BS1000 and headed off out to Sica Sica crag just a few hours later.

Rock climbing at Sica Sica Crag, Bolivia

With only a handful of climbs in the last year in China, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand x 2, and Vietnam. Ingrid and I were lacking our usual climbing strength, especially in our fingers so we were both hoping to  enjoy climbing some lower grades than usual.

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View over Sucre from Sica Sica crag

Carlos met us at our hostel and a taxi buddy of his picked us all up and drove 10min to the crag at the edge of town. How amazing to have such a big wall to climb right on your door step at almost walking distance from the centre of Sucre. No wonder foreigners have settled here to run climbing businesses.

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Bolivia, Sucre, Sica Sica crag set in a tranquil eucalyptus forest

Getting back on the rock after 4 months break

Ingrid was soo excited she was almost hyper. She was skipping along the steep path up the 20 min ascent from the road to the crag and singing non stop. We soon arrived at the gorgeous crag and enjoyed the great view over Sucre right behind us. The 25m wall has a steep path up one side, perfect for setting up top ropes. Carlos went to set up the ropes, while Ingrid and I got our gear out.

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Ready to climb

As he came back down he was keen to point out that there are a lot of unsafe routes set up by amateurs in Bolivia. 2 routes he pointed out on this wall were set up with unsafe bolts and unless you come here with a guide, you would not know this and perhaps have an accident as a result.  Bolts and drills are hard to come by in Bolivia, and although climb Bolivia pay for some of the routes there guys set up, Carlos also explained he and other climbers have invested a lot of money in bolting routes and buying gear that is more expensive in Bolivia than in most European countries.

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Sore toes

I was not looking forward to unwrapping our smelly shoes that had been hiding in layers of plastic bags in the bottom of Ingrid backpack for months. Happy to find that they were ok and good to use…my feet however were not as pleased. I got another little bag out with what i thought was chalk, only to discover it was a bag of pasta! What a plonker, a days climbing without chalk as Carlos had not brought his either! At least the crag was in the shade so we would hopefully not be climbing too hard or sweating enough to really need it…

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Lovely routes on the Sica Sica crag

We started easy on a couple of 4s on the giant slab and were happy to find that the technique was still in us. We were also pleased to start the 2 days of climbing on a slab as it meant more leg power and less reliance on our weak fingers and arms. Most of the climbs were along flakes and cracks and friction on this sharp sandstone was good all they way. We continued climbing through the 5bs and 5cs  and finished on a couple of lovely long 6as. What a lovely afternoon of climbing.

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Ingrid on top rope at Sica Sica crag Bolivia

Lead climbing on Garcilazo Crag, Bolivia

Day 2 we headed off at 8 and had only a 15 drive to Garcilazo crag. The driver who’s car was running on something other than petrol was struggling to get the car up the hill to our drops off point, but eventually we made it.

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Tricky approach to the Garcilazo crag in Bolivia

Once there I could not see the crag anywhere…turns out that we were on top of it and the approach was s steep scramble down a slippery hill to the impressive wall of exposed sandstone. Luckily Ingrid is like little mountain goat these days so we managed to get there safely in the end. The Garcilazo crag is a high quality vertical sandstone with long cracks, some tough crimpers and a distinct lack of foot holds.

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Typical route on Garcilazo crag in Bolivia

It is south facing so in summer, this shady spot provides great protection form the sun, but as this is winter it was very cold in the shade so I was glad we had brought our hats and puffers. Yann (one of Ingrid climbing coaches back in London) says cold is good for friction said Ingrid with a smile.

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No hanging about, I has asked to lead and that is what I got. I set up the first 5a route and Ingrid second it after me. We were both really suffering with cold fingers, especially the 1st third of every route. It was total agony and  sharp rock on our cold weak fingers made for an uncomfortable start.

Fingers apart, I felt really confident leading this route as it had many options for hands and feet. As the crag is approached from the top, all the ropes can be cleaned from the top as we were leaving, meaning could spend more time climbing and less time cleaning routes.

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Excited and happy to be lead climbing again
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Ingrid working her way up this 6a+

We moved on to top a few other routes of the same line and started to feel the pain building up in our relatively weak finders and feet after months of no climbing. I loved this crag, such a perfectly clean and sharp vertical rock towering up above you and a great mix of comfortable and hared moves. There are also many different routes to climb in a great range of grades from 4 all the way up to 7b+.

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Having a rest before topping out on this long crack

The first few moves on all the route were quite reachy and hard so Ingrid opted to second me while I led. Even I struggled to get the first 2 clips in on all routes and was secretly pleased she opted out of leading today. With more recent climbs in the bags I’m sure she could have led these routes with confidence, but lack of regular climbing does quickly take your top performance and climbing confidence out of you.

 

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Sore fingers after 2 days of climbing

After 4 leads and 2 top ropes my feet were absolutely killing me and Ingrid was getting hungry. Time to head back into Sucre to meet up with Scott and Paul who had been out to se the dinosaur footprints and park.

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Over 5000 dinosaur foot print on this wall
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Having fun in the dinosaur park

 

 

Dynamite sticks & fear deep inside the Potosi mines

Potosi, Bolivia the richest mine in all of world history

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Waiting for the bus in Uyuni

We initially through we would stay in Uyuni for a few days to chill out after our 3 day 4×4 adventure across Salar de Uyuni, but quickly changed our mind. Uyuni is not a particular nice place to hang out, just a transit town where the roads from both Argentina and Chile converge before continuing up towards la Paz and all other cities in Bolivia.

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Uyuni playground had a great slide and not much else

We only managed dinner at a really good pizzeria, a visit to the playground in the morning followed by lunch and a 4 hr bus ride up to 4090m, to Potosi, the old silver mining city but that was just about enough. 

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Beautiful colonial buildings and me looking silly in Potosi!

We could definitely feel the lack of oxygen at this altitude and the pollution from heavy traffic made it even worse. We all suffered light headaches, dehydration, general fatigue and grumpiness. Hostel Realeza was in a good spot right in the heart of the colonial city centre, close to the market and the beautiful town square.

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May 1st march in Potosi, a town full of workers and unions

Our first full day here was May 1st, the whole city of Potosi was closed as different unions of miners, farmers, shop keepers, teachers etc marched through the city centre. A great sight to see all the people out marching for their rights, especially the ladies dressed up in the finery and traditional costumes.

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Ingrid showing off on the monkey bars

After spending the day acclimatising and hanging out at an amazing playground we organised our trip to the mines the following day.

Safety gear for us – dynamite sticks for the miners

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Excited miners – before going into the mines

The main thing to do in Potosi is to visit the old silver mines so this is what we decided to do. There are a few travel agencies offering a mine tour, but we chose Koala tours, the only tour that takes you into an actual working mine rather than a closed down mine. Early departure in a minibus a few blocks up from the main square then a quick stop to get kitted our with protective clothes. Ingrid and Scott were both excited as Paul had explained to them that going into the mines would be a bit like playing Minecraft. Little did we know……

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Getting kitted out with safety cloths before heading into the Potosi mines

We all got protective trousers, coats and welly boots. I was surprised that they had wellies just the right size for the kids. Final touch was a protective hat with a head torch and a heavy battery pack clipped into your belt. Just getting dressed and walking in all the gear was hard, especially for Scott. How would he cope walking like this deep inside the mine…..

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Buying dynamite gifts in the miners shop

Next, the minibus took us to the miners market were we bought gifts to take with us to give to the miners we’d meet inside the tunnels. The guide explained that its the part of our tour fee that goes to the miners and the gifts we bring that keep the working miners happy for tourist to come into the mines to see them working. We bought dynamite sticks, ammonium sulphate, detonators, coca leaves and soft drinks that they mix with 96% alcohol while working. Next stop the actual mines!

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Feeling scared deep inside in the dark Potosi mines

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Cerro Rico at 4400m

After a 15 min drive up the hill we were there. Young coca chewing men covered in dust and dirt were having a break outside the mine entrance as we got a safety briefing from our guide. Every now and then a 2ton cart with dirt and stones came hurtling out of the entrance on old rickety train tracks pushed & pulled by 3 young men. These were the carts we would have to avoid at all cost once inside the tunnels.

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Getting ready to head into the mines
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Last minute safety chat before we head into the mines

With our head torches turned on we went into the tunnels covering our mouths with our buffs to limit inhaling the dangerous mining dust. The tunnels were pitch back and very small,  much smaller than I had imagined. Only Scott could walk upright the rest of us were folded over trying not to trip on the tracks and stones along the tunnel floor.

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Inside the dark mining tunnels

In the distance we could hear carts being loaded and pushed down the tracks. “Out of the way” cried the guide and we all had to jump into a niche along the side of the track to avoid being run over. Every 10 min or so another cart came hurtling at us as we stumbled along the dark tunnel, folded in half and sweating profusely in all our heavy gear.

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Miners hard at work

As we got deeper into the tunnels, the oppressing feeling and slight fear was getting to all of us, especially Ingrid who was looking very uncomfortable stumbling along in the little light from her head light. After 40 min of walking, 450 m deep inside the mountain, where more than 10 000 men work everyday, we finally arrived at a resting station. During our 10 min break the guide told us about the hard life of the miners in Potosi and the gods they worship to stay safe.

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The mining god

Each man work for himself in a syndicated group with their earnings depending on the minerals they find. Around 50 miners die every year in accidents and another 50-100 in lung related diseases, their life expectancy is only 40-50, but working the mines earn them more money than any other job they could possibly do here. 

Time to get out of the mines – we end the tour early

After the 10 min break we were supposed to head further into the tunnels for another hour of exploring the tunnels deep inside the mines. At this point Ingrid and Scott were starting to feel a bit unwell and so I told the guide we had to take the kids out. To be honest, at this point I did not want to go in any further either.

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Feeling uncomfortable deep inside the mine

On the way out we had to wait as carts were filled up with rubble from a shaft in the roof…and all I could think of was the terror of being stuck in the mine behind falling rocks. The guide assured us we were safe, but I certainly did not feel very safe.

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Happy to be out in the fresh air
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Well deserved rest in the fresh air

Once outside, we waited an hour in a little safety shack before the rest of the group returned. Ingrid almost fainted as we sat down, totally overcome by the stress of being inside the mine for over an hour. I too felt unwell and relieved to be out in the fresh air again. Scott and Ingrid both promised then and there to study hard in school so that they never ever would have to work in a mine.

Magical Machu Picchu

Aquas Calientes – A charmless town built for tourists

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Arriving at Aguas Calientes

The train ride from Ollantayatambo to Aquas Clientes, or Machu Picchu as the town is called these days, is the most expensive train ride per kilometre in the world but its the best way to get to Machu Picchu unless you are hiking there. You are only allowed to bring hand luggage on the train so we left our big bags at the hostel in Ollantaytambo to spend 2 nights and 2 days there.

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The train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes

We went on a Peru rail train with 300 degree panoramic views, meaning you can see out the window and also up through the roof. The view is great even on a cloudy day like ours. The train ride only takes almost 2 hours and on the way you get served drinks and a little something to eat.

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Not looking at the views…just colouring in!

The quinoa strudel they served was supposed to be authentic and tasted ok but I would have preferred a simple empanada instead. All in all the journey was not too long and quite comfortable ….as expected when paying top dollars for the tickets

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The valley of Aguas calientes

Aguas Calientes town is the gateway for all tourist who come to see Machu Picchu and is very different from Ollantaytambo, the old Inca town. It is built specifically for tourists and so lacks any real charm of the Peru we have grown to love. Streets lined with restaurants and 4-5 story hotels and with the the hot springs at one end and the roaring river at the other. We stayed at Machupicchu Packer, a basic hostel with breakfast is included in the price. For those starting early they give you a parcel with a cheese sandwich, fruit and water to take with you on your way to Machu Picchu.

Unhappy 4.30 wake up call to walk up to Machu Picchu

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5am start…mixed emotions

We had packed 2 small day packs wth essentials the nigh before to allow everyone to sleep as long as possible before the 4.30 am start. 1 bag with raincoats and hats and one with food and drinks. We talked to the kids about the early start the night before, but Scott was still recovering from illness so we were expecting the worst when waking him up in the morning….and he did not disappoint. After very reluctantly getting dressed he went on a huff about not having breakfast before leaving the hostel. I want pancakes he was shouting and he refused to walk.…Nothing we said could change his mood so in the end we just set off with Scott on Paul shoulders and Ingrid and I trailing behind.

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The queue to the bus and taxi up to Machu Picchu that we walked straight pased

We were slightly delayed by the morning tantrum and reached the river crossing 5.15 rather than 5 when it officially opens. As we approach we saw a huge line of people waiting by the river. Oh no, we thought it was the queue up the trail…. but no it was the queue for the taxi:-) Ingrid was laughing wondering why people waiting for the taxi were all wearing hiking outfits and survival gear. With no other hikers in sight we left the streetlights behind, turned on our head torches and started the 2 hr climb up the the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu

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Getting ready to hike the trail up

Scott was feeling happier but had no intention of walking so Paul set off up the trail in his own pace with 25kg of Scott on his shoulders while Ingrid and I climbed at our own speed…as usual while conversing about her shed and invention workshop she is planning to build when we get back to the UK.

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1hr into our 2 hr hike up to Machu Picchu

1hr into the the hike, we started passing people who had set off slightly earlier and that helped keep us going for another 45 min until we were finally there. The path of stone steps up to Machu Picchu criss crosses the main road that the taxies and busses use to shift tourists up to the ruins and we had fun waving at tourists in the busses every time we saw one. The views you climb up through the clouds is amazing but nothing compared to the stunning view you get when you enter Machu Picchu itself.

Steep climb to spectacular views

You can only see the actual ruins once you get through the tickets gate and round the corner into the main site. As we were there at 7am the stillness of this majestic place as it appears in the fresh air through the lingering clouds is breathtaking. This must surely be the best time to visit. It felt like it was all ours.

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Machu Picchu with Huyana Picchu peak in the clouds just behind

The tickets we had bought a few months earlier gave us entry to Machu Picchu and to climb up Huayna Picchu, the highest and most spectacular viewpoint over Machu Picchu itself. Our time slot to climb up was 7-8 so once inside Machu Picchu we went straight through the ruins to the Huayna Picchu entry point. There is an age limit of 12 to do this steep and slightly dangerous climb that takes about 2 hours up and down. Our plan was for Paul to race up on his own at 7am on the dot while I hung our with the kids by the entrance.

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Playing about while waiting for Paul

We were assuming he could go up and down in less than 1 hour so that Ingrid and I could still go up before the 8am deadline. Paul came down just before 8 so next up was me and Ingrid. We showed Ingrids passport and luckily the guard only checked the name in the passports against the tickets, not the age, so we were good to go up!

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Steep and narrow path to the top of Huayna Picchu

The view was totally amazing climbing up the steep and narrow stone step path. We kept a high pace and passed over 50 people on the way up to the top. Ingrid keeps count. We slowed down through a bottleneck of people just below the top viewpoint where everyone had to climb using hands and feet on the steep, slippery and very narrow steps that wound up ever higher and higher. Finally if was our turn at the very top and the view simply took our breath away.

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View from the top of Hayana Picchu

We found a perfect boulder where we sat for a minute and enjoyed a morning Twix while the clouds scattered revealing the beautiful site of Machu Picchu far below. We didn’t stay long as we were keen to get on the path down before most of the crowds and quickly defended the 500m down to the waiting Paul and Scott. What a  glorious morning of hard core climbing!

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Twix at the top

Exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu

You are not allowed to bring in food or drink to the Machu Picchu site and there are no toilets or resting areas inside the site. I guess it helps keep the crowds moving on as otherwise people would be inclined to linger and spend the whole day there. I liked how it was done as it helps keep the site clean and natural looking without modern buildings or constructions ruining the view or experience.

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Ingrid and Scott having fun exploring Machu Picchu

By the time Ingi and I reached he bottom of Hyanu Picchu it was already 10.30 and high time for a rest and recharge of everyones fading batteries. We went out of the main gat for a toilet break and to enjoy our packed lunch. Scott was tired but gradually we could see his entry levels were on the up soon ready  for some more exploring of the ruins themselves. Some ice-cream and coca cola for a final boost and then we were all ready to get going again.

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Scott like to pretend that the sun dial was a human sacrificial stone
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Exploring the royal temple and the fantastic the stonework

We entered the site again on the same ticket and joined the marked trail round the ruins, spectacular buildings and sights. A couple of hours later the big crowds started to appear just as we were feeling ready to leave. Paul and Ingrid walked the long trail down while I took a sleepy Scott on the bus.

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Ingrid still going strong after 6 hrs of high pace hiking

Finally together again at the bottom we had a celebratory early dinner, giant burgers all round! We had all too been looking forward to this day in macho Picchu and I have to say it did not disappoint.