Tha Khaek to Si Phan Don

After another hugely entertaining bus journey, this time from Phonsavan (via Paksan) to Tha Khaek a burgeoning town on the east bank of the Mekong river. Its literal translation is ‘guest landing’, thought to be a nod to its original role as a stopping point on the river for foreign traders passing through with their wares.

There are multiple selling points for this stunning beautiful central region of Laos, but it is also fair to say that there are two lead reasons that time-poor backpackers swing their rucksacks through this town. The first is to merrily motorcycle ‘The Loop’, a three day off road experience round a circuit of the more remote parts of Khammuan and Bolikhamsai provinces. The second is to spend a day’s merry motorboating through Tham Kong Lo, a 7km long cave through a limestone mountain in the nearby Phu Hin Bun national park.

Unfortunately, I am one of those time-poor backpackers so it is Tham Kong Lo that draws me here to Tha Khaek. As we exit the bus, there are quite a few of us headed towards the most popular budget choice in the area, a hostel called The Travel Lodge. Our game driver packs up the heavily laden tuk tuk, and deposits us (two Swiss, two Americans, one English and the standard solus Scot) at the hostel.

The Travel Lodge is to Laos hostels what, well, Travelodge is to UK hotels…basic, wildly overpriced for its standards and vaguely uncomfortable. Thankfully for me, nobody has a booking…and I watch politely as everyone else checks in to the available rooms. By the time myself and travel buddy Jackie get to the front…there is only one room in the Lodge rather than the hostel, which is finished to a significantly higher standard, ant free and positioned round a little courtyard about 100 metres along the pathway. It is still only 12 pounds like…but it feels like walking into Malmaison. Result. Having been poorly for a day or so back in Phonsavan, this is the (relative) luxury I have been craving.

The next day, after a momentous sleep, we wave our compadres off on their dollar-a-day rented motorbikes to do ‘The Loop’, equipped with minimal safety features and maximal smiles. I’ll admit to a sharp pang of jealousy and a subsequent internal vow to return one day with ‘The Loop’ in my sights.

For now, it’s time to explore the small, sleepily relaxed town. Franco-Chinese architecture and tall trees line the streets all the way to the riverside, its natural centre, which is a pleasant 1.5km walk from the hostel.

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Again, the sun here disappears into the haze before it hits the horizon. Yet it is still a sight beautiful enough to stop the locals in their tracks.

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We bump into two travel pals from the bus, Spanish Berna and French Audrey who teach English in Beijing, and settle into Inthira for a beef and cashew stir fry with sticky rice. We tried for a sundowner by the river, but approximately 6,000 large river flies had the same idea so we escaped inland.

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It is here where our story saddens. Fans of Same Small World (both of you) will know that I’ve never had the greatest luck with cameras whilst travelling. My blog post from the stunning Galapagos Islands was cut short by the introduction of an impertinent wave to my unsuspecting camera. This time, here in Laos, the unfortunate meeting was between a large pothole in a Tha Khaek road and the wheel of the tuk tuk ferrying us home. It set off a chain of events including my open bag being airborne for less than a second, choosing to execute a mid-air spin and landing indelicately, contents first, on the floor of the tuk tuk.

The camera doesn’t make it through the night, and I contemplate the onerous thought of a dearth of beautiful images to reflect on after this trip.

The next day, Jackie and I head out to Tham Kong Lo with Brit brothers Sam and Harry and students Shoya and Maren from Japan and Germany respectively. Lucky for me, Maren is something of a photography whizz and kindly offers to share her shots with me. So you can thank her for the following contributions.

Having spent many an hour staring out the window at the Laos scenery, the sights which await us en route to the cave are the standard to which we’ve become accustomed. Gothic mountains darkly preside over verdant landscapes below. But when we reach the monolithic mountain that hides the cave itself, a beauty not yet seen starts to reveal itself.

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We’re kitted out with headlamps and wisely relieved of electronic devices, then we meander through the rock paths to the mouth of the cave.

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With boatmen at the top and tail of out motorised longboats, we set off into the cave which is 7km long and up to 100 metres at its widest point. Its a natural wonder which meanders nonchalantly through the karst limestone mountain, its vastness revealing glittering stalagmites and veiny walls.

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There are several lighting projects within the cave, mostly funded by New Zealand according to the signage. But much of it naturally attacks the senses, low lighting adding to the majesty and curved stonework which sonically turns our engine into a chopper at fleeting points.

We alight at various points for further investigation or to outfox the water, especially at the effusive Muang Houng rapids. Slowly, we start to emerge into the sun.

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We’re greeted by bathing water buffalo.

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There is time for a swift Beerlao on the riverbank before we volte-face and take the return leg of the 90 minute journey.

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We all cool down with a dip in the clear pool at the base of the cliff, before snoozing all the way home.

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Starved after all of the excitement, we pile out to the riverside and spot a nameless but bustling Thai restaurant just around the corner from Inthira. It is utterly ace, take a left exiting Inthira then the first left and it is four doors up. Green curry, sticky rice and Beerlao cap off a very respectable day of misadventuring.

Here in Tha Khaek, it’s time to bid Jackie farewell as she travels onwards to Vietnam and I catch another bus to Pakse then (four hour) tuk tuk to Ban Nakasang on the banks of the Mekong. Here nestles Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) just a hop, skip and a jump from the Cambodian border.

It’s a long and laborious journey on a dusty road. When we arrive at the shanty port town under cover of darkness, it is closed and there are no scheduled boats. Of course, everything in Laos is available for a price. Before long the tuk tuk driver is hollering through the window of a house calling out a boatman to take us the twenty minute scoot across to Don Det. We glide noiselessly across the Mekong under the pale moon light – it was a pretty special way to arrive. Before long I’m checked into Little Eden on the Northern tip of the island and sound asleep having suffered my last bus journey on this side of the border.

Whilst there is much to explore in and around the islands, two of the favoured pastimes by backpackers here are floating down the Mekong in a rubber ring and enjoying pizzas and milkshakes with ‘happy’ added as a precursor. Contrary to popular belief, this is not because Pharrell Williams wrote his critically acclaimed chart-topping and mind-numbing hit here, but instead denotes the addition of cannabis. Many backpackers do these activities together, creating the kind of sunburn that only an utter imbecile would inflict on themselves.

The unfortunate by-product of this, is that there ain’t much authentic about this paradise. You’ll be lucky to find a word written in Laos or a two yard walk where you won’t be touted at. It becomes abundantly clear that one man runs almost every business on the island, from bike rental to stoner cinema and everything in between.

Cannabis has never been my drug (I’m much more of an Ayahuasca girl…) But thankfully, there is plenty to see if you hire a bike for the day from Mr Mo’s and head on over to neighbouring Don Khon. Cycle down Sunrise Street (one of two only roads, both pedestrian, the other predictably named Sunset Street) until you hit the bridge on the left, for which you’ll need to pay for crossing but the fee includes entry to the Khon Phapheng waterfalls to the south of Don Khon.

After a hot hour-long cycle down a road named Rocky Shadeless Road (I jest ye not) you loop round to the falls which are just about the most aggressive I have ever seen. I take shelter in the wooden mushroom huts set out over the water, called the Oasis, and read to the thunderous beat of the water before cycling back to base. The views have been really wondrous, but I can take or leave the ‘spring break’ vibe. I fall in with Lasse, a German backpacker, just about the only other voice of sanity on the island. Together we hit the culinary high notes of Don Det including the ridiculously tasty Pumpkin Burger at Mr B’s Sunset View (not to mention their stunning Lao Mojitos), and find ourselves to be ‘happy’ enough with the milkshakes.

Next stop Cambodia. Keep the faith readers, I will have photography by then…

And the soundtrack was:

Biffy Clyro ‘Opposites’
Editors ‘The Weight of your Love’
Woodkid ‘The Golden Age’
Teenage Fanclub ‘Songs from Northern Britain’
Roots Manuva ‘Run Come Save Me’
Rodriguez ‘Cold Fact’
Ohios ‘Faceless’

Part III: Peru

Thursday 22nd January – Thursday 7th February

So, when I started planning this trip, there were two must-do’s on the list. The first was Machu Picchu in Peru. I know it is a path oft travelled, hundreds of thousands of backpackers before me have taken the same trip, but having heard of their tales I knew it was a sight I needed to see. So, when I flew to Peru, I sidestepped Lima and flew straight to Cuzco, the jumping off point for the most famous of all the Inca ruins.

There are two ways to access Machu Picchu; you can either get the train or you can trek one of the many trails for four days camping on the mountain each night. Of course, I have never been known to make life easy for myself…so I have opted for the latter. It makes sense right? I am such a hugely keen camper….

The flight from Auckland also marked my first crossing of the international dateline. I arrived two hours before I even left…a fact which mashed my spuds somewhat. It was a good flight, but I fully expected the onslaught of powerful jet lag.

Cuzco is at an elevation of 3,300 metres above sea level, and as such, the highest I will have been at for an extended period of time. Supposedly, the best thing to do with altitude is to rest for a few hours upon arrival. I did just that, however fell asleep for around 6 hours which of course meant the jet lag was even worse. Cue two hours sleep per night for the coming few days….

To compound this, altitude sickness did grab hold of me in the form of intense headaches. Needless to say, on the first day I was not fit for much. Once recovered, I explored the city’s cathedral and the Pre-Colombian Gallery with it’s beautiful Inca and Pre-Inca carvings and totems, but with every step up your lungs seem one step closer to explosion. I wonder quite how I am going to manage 1500 metre inclines up the mountain.

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Then it is time to meet the team I’ll be trekking the Inca Trail with, including the guide Roger, and we are given duffle bags and a strict 4kg weight limit on our bags! How the flip am I going to manage that…serial overpacker that I am.

So, our group is really mixed in age and nationality, but thankfully early impressions are good. Roll call as follows! Kiwi/Brit Kim (she hasn’t committed herself yet), German couple Olav and Barbara, Norwegian upstarts Robert and Magnus, Aussie brothers Jason and Ron, Canadian buddies Sarah and Jess, English lass Suzette and three Aussie pals who join the group late on. Marvel below at how fresh faced we are before the astounding ascent into the mountains!

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Before that though, we have a day of ‘rehearsals’ where Roger puts us through our paces at two other steeply inclined Inca sites. It’s enough to let the gravity of what I have signed up for sink in… Also, we visit the Cristo Blanco…as no South American metropolis would be complete without a gigantic white Christ staring down upon the town! We also visit the Sacred Valley, an injured animal sanctuary and a local community in the area ending up in Ollantaytambo for the night.

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After my first much-needed good night’s sleep, we’re off, and our lives are now in the hands of this man…

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So, full of trepidation and a healthy dose of fear, we set off from Kilometre 82, the classic staring point for the full four day trek, 82 kilometres from Cuzco. Roger is great, as he always tells us what to expect of each stretch of the path…unfortunately little of the path is undulating…and much of it is a steep incline. The Incas love a step, so they do.

Needless to say, the views are breathtaking…pun intended.

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There are a team of porters accompanying us who carry our gear and all the equipment needed for camping. They swiftly become our new heroes as they race up the hill past us in flip flops carrying up to 20kg at the same time as we struggle with our 1kg day packs and our walking boots. Each time we reach a destination for lunch or dinner, there they are with the tent already erected and a wholesome two course hot meal waiting for us. We couldn’t do it without them, so a team photo is entirely necessary.

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After a solid first day, we arrive at our first camping spot for the night. Look how gleeful we all are to not be walking…

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Rather sensibly, we all stretch down and Canadian Sarah leads us in an impromptu yoga class at 3,800 metres.

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We are rewarded with dinner…but the shattering news that we have a 4.30am start the next day, our toughest as we will reach the peak of Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of the trail at 4,215 metres above sea level. So, after a few rounds of international card game Shithead, it is early to bed for the intrepid explorers and nature dazzles us with a late night lightning show to rival any I’ve seen.

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We wake to this view, and to llamas calmly grazing at our campsite. It is remarkable.

It is going to be a tough day, not just due to the height but because we are doing the four day trek in three days. This is due to landslides in the traditional camping site for the third night. This means that we have a ridiculous amount of ground to cover today, but it will make tomorrow slightly shorter.

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Nobody is exited at the prospect…

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The incline is excruciating, but the group finds a good rhythm and helps each other along the way. I am in the ‘little breaks and often’ group…rather unsurprisingly. At last, the peak beckons us and everybody makes it to Dead Woman’s Pass. Here, Roger encourages us to leave offerings to the mountain gods of three coca leaves and llama fat to ensure our safe delivery to Machu Picchu. I really like this, whether you believe in it or not, I love how connected Peruvians are to spirituality.

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Then, it is a long way down…before going up again…then down again…

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Despite it being rainy season, we very lucky to only have had around one hour of rain whilst we were trekking. But to be honest, this allowed us to break out our designer ponchos. Who says the Inca Trail isn’t a fashion show…? (Adam Freedman, I’m looking at you)

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At the second camping site, we’re virtually on a cliff in the clouds. It is beautiful, but treacherous getting around after dark. Cue more rounds of Shithead, and an interesting boozy version of coca tea before bed.

Then, we are on the home straight on the next day. It is still a solid trek, but we have less distance to cover. So we’re a little demob happy…

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Limbs and joints are starting to struggle now. I seem to have a gammy hip. Roger gives me snake oil from a tiny whiskey miniature bottle to rub on it. I take a couple of ibuprofen too, but I’d like to think it is the former that heals me. We are encouraged to soldier on with every marvellous vista we pass on the way.

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Then, it is time for that sun gate moment, when we finally see Machu Picchu for the first time. That moment will stay with me forever, I could feel myself welling up. It was absolutely amazing, made even more brilliant by the sense of achievement. I’ve never completed a three day hike in my life. We arrive as the sun is thinking about going down, and the site is closed…so completely empty but for the resident llamas.

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And here is the classic shot…

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I took quite a few…knock yourself out…

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And then we reward ourselves with a shower, yards of ale and a bucket load of Pisco Sours in nearby Aguas Calientes.

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After the shortest night’s sleep I think I have ever had, we head back to Machu Picchu at the crack of dawn for more exploration of the site. Roger encouraged us to feel the energy from the mountains when we were struggling through the trail itself. Now, after a heavy night on the sauce, some need it more than others.

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I love that last shot as it looks like Kim, Magnus (aka Mangoose) and Robert are about to step off the edge of the world.

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Then it is time for a well earned rest and recharge on the Inca terraces, and a relaxing plate of…guinea pig? Yeah, we did.

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Then we train and bus back to Cuzco for the last supper together. The Inca Trail was definitely the most difficult thing I have ever done, I think it even knocked my marathon into a cocked hat. But honourable mentions must go to the dream team who completed it with me. Just goes to show, you can do anything if you keep a smile on your face – and this lot kept me laughing. Here’s to new friends…and this guy…

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The next few days would be spent in the Peruvian Jungle, the Amazon basin, near Puerto Maldonado. I stay at a lovely little posada, my room has only three walls which means I will be sleeping in the jungle, the mighty jungle. I have mixed feelings about this but I am comforted by the gigantic mosquito net around the bed. That’ll keep snakes ‘n’ that out too right? RIGHT?

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This guy Jony will be my naturalist guide, and he consistently wows me with his knowledge throughout my stay.

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The purpose of this part of the trip is to take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony. For those of you to whom this is new, everything you need to know is here…

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Now, I was in two minds about whether to do this, or to get involved in some jungle yoga. I threw it open to Facebook to gauge the response…it was overwhelmingly in favour of the organic and entirely natural drugs (my own Mother was even convinced.) So, in the interests of investigative micro-bloggerism, I signed up.

The experience itself was amazing, but the events preceding and following it were less so. Firstly, you have to follow a strict regime for three days in advance and three days afterwards; no red meat, no spicy food, no alcohol, no sex, no papaya. This is something to do with the contrasting toxins thy have in them. Basically, I ate chicken and vegetable soup for a week. Peruvian food is ace, so this was a bind.

Then, after the ceremony I stayed at the ethnobotanical centre in the nearby village on the Tambopata river. An army of ants found their way into my backpack and travelled back to Cuzco with me. Plus a cloud of fruit bats (if this is not the collective noun, could someone shed some light on what is please?) were feeding in the roof above where I was sleeping. That would have seemed hallucinogenic enough…even without the drugs.

Anyway, I met Honorato my shaman and he talked me through what would happen at the ceremony. Here he is…actual size…

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Basically, we would sit in a Maloko deep in the jungle by candlelight, and if I am lucky I will have a good four hours enjoyment from the Ayahuasca. The Maloko is a hut with a circular roof leading up to a funnel-like chimney in the centre through which it is believed spirits are channeled. There is a young local family joining us with their six month old baby. The little one is not well, and the parents have brought him here so that the shaman can perform prayers to heal him.

Earlier I talked about how connected the Peruvians are with spirituality, and this is another great example of that. It is exactly why I am here to try this, and I am delighted that I am not sitting in a Maloko full of tourists. That said, I am absolutely petrified. Principally by fear of the unknown, but also a little bit by the vastness of the jungle I am sitting in in the dark…and how many animals there are that can kill me. Jony insists I shouldn’t worry, saying that a liana would not hurt another Liana. Let’s hope his logic works.

Honorato ceremoniously opens the bottle of Ayahuasca, chanting and puffing tobacco to expel bad spirits from the bottle neck. Then I am passed around half a pint to drink. He advises that I shouldn’t take my time with it. Don’t worry Honorato, I get that this isn’t a garden party. The Ayahuasca tastes despicable, kind of like I would imagine mud would taste but it has a very chemical aftertaste. And away we go…

During the ceremony, I have the most overwhelming feeling of well being and happiness, complete and utter satisfaction with the world and all in it. I do have some visions: men on horseback, wild cats. But I don’t try to channel these too much, apparently it is difficult to do that on your first try and I want just to enjoy it. It is really amazing lying there with the sound of Honorato chanting and singing in Quechua in complete darkness, and even in my reverie I know I will likely never have another experience like this again in my life.

Another symptom that people often have is a surprising and overwhelming need to either vomit or go to the toilet. Many don’t make it. I am delighted to say that I have neither, which I am told is rare. I wander to my bed in the middle of the night and see pleasant tracers and images on the inside of my eyelids as I drift to sleep.

Of course, the jungle is not just for intense legal chemical experiences. It is also for spotting wildlife…from a safe distance, and there was plenty. Stunningly plumed macaws, spectacular butterflies, a jungle full of liana vines, monkeys, toucans and piraƱas!

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We also visited the nearby Lago Tres Chimpadas at sunrise in this impressive catamaran…

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In between times, there was a lot of dozing in hammocks, reading and Brazil nut oil massages. Sleeping in the jungle was beautiful, fireflies danced around the room once the gas lamps went out at 9pm and red howler monkeys were our 5am alarm call…letting the jungle know that it was time to wake up.

Soon, it was back to Cuzco to meet Barbara and Olav and head south to Puno and Lake Titicaca. We took a tour onto the lake visiting Uros (floating islands), staying on Amantani with a local family and then visiting Taquile. There are hundreds of floating islands and we visit just two. They are quite remarkable, built with earth and reeds which are tethered down to the lake floor by rope. You can feel them bouncing as you walk.

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They show us how they are built then, of course, offer us the opportunity to buy their handicrafts. This has been a running theme in Peru (but I would later learn what the ‘hard sell’ really is in Colombia.)

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Later on Amantani, we cook with the local family who are hosting us for the night before a rather forced and tacky, supposedly ‘local’ party…which is clearly arranged for the gringos and feels about as authentic as Wayne Rooney’s hairline. We are even encouraged to don the traditional Peruvian island attire. Basically, the tourists are all invited to dance in a circle…kind of like Ring a Ring o’ Roses. I would like to believe that the Peruvian islanders are more cultured than a three year olds birthday party.

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So we are pleased to get up into the island for a trek to their Pachmama temple, built in honour of Mother Earth, a goddess revered by people from across the Andes. The views are beautiful.

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The local speciality is coca tea with pisco, mint and sugar cane…it would be rude not to.

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Then our group join the rest of the boat to visit Taquile. Our group were this lovely lot.

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And Taquile looked a lot like this.

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After lunch, it is time to head back…so we stop to check we are going on the right direction. Look how far away from Lundris I am!

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Back on the mainland, my post-Ayahuasca booze ban has thankfully come to an end. So, me and the Germans celebrate a cracking couple of weeks together the only way we know how…Pisco Sours and Shithead.

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With a hand like this, it did not end well for me…

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Then, all too soon it is time for a fond farewell to Peru. What an adventure it has been, and what amazing people. Onward to Bolivia for chapter IV.

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And the soundtrack was:
Snow Patrol ‘Hands Open’
Survivor ‘Eye of the Tiger’
The Antlers ‘Burst Apart’
Tennis ‘Young and Old’
Casio Kids ‘Togens Hule’