In the past three weeks or so that I've been train-hopping around Europe, I've been seeing Christmas markets everywhere I go. You may have noticed my blogging about them again, and again, and again. That's because at this time of year — in December, leading up to the big holiday itself — it seems that you're guaranteed to find them in virtually every city and town around. I've seen them in Switzerland, in Belgium, in Germany, and now also in Austria. Here in Europe, they really take their Christmas festivities seriously: every man and his dog's off to the local Christmas market, to share in the spirit and to have a bit of fun.
Katharina is one of the many European travellers that I met, whilst backpacking down in South America. I must admit: until I met her again this evening, I'd kinda forgotten who she was, or where I'd met her. But seeing her again sparked the recollection that she's a fluent Spanish-speaking German girl, who volunteered for several months in Peru; and that I met her while chillaxing on the beach in sunny Máncora, in northern Peru. Katharina lives here in Dresden (where she's currently wrapping up her master's thesis in geography), and it was primarily to catch up with her that I came here.
Before buggering off out of the place, this morning I took a little stroll around the charming city of Freiburg — the first place I've ever visited in Germany — and explored its historic centre. My buddy Killes had already shown me a fair bit of the town last night: but it was too dark and rainy last night to see anything properly; so today, I re-discovered it again in better conditions. I stuck mainly to the area of the cathedral and the daily morning market (home to plenty of different foods), as well as the central shopping area. Sadly, all I had was about an hour to complete the tour, before I needed to leave: a bit rushed, but better than nothing.
It was a bit of a slow start to the day, today being Sunday, and last night having been such a big one. But eventually, Oly and I managed to haul ourselves out of our hostel, and off for some afternoon lunch and some exploration of the city. We ended up in San Telmo: the quaint and quirky artists' area of BA, and home of a sprawling Sunday market. San Telmo's my favourite neighbourhood, out of everywhere I've seen so far in BA: both the buildings and the people are filled with character; there are great places to eat and to shop; and it almost feels like being in, say, Montmarte in Paris. Was also a good, not-too-demanding place to hang out and to wear off the effects of last night.
I woke up this morning, to find Otavalo completely transformed. Outside my hostel was a market. Down the street was more market. In fact, the entire town had been converted into one giant, sprawling, souvenir-riddled market! So the rumours were true: it is indeed a big deal, here in Otavalo on Saturday. And since this was my last full day in Ecuador, and in the Central Andes as a whole, it was time to embark on a serious splurge of souvenir and present shopping. I now have a very overstuffed bag, and a rather lean pocket.
Since my camera got stolen yesterday, it was top-priority that I got myself a new one today. Luckily, Arequipa is one of those cities that has a great black market (although it's not as good as some), where you can get yourself a brand-new digicam for quite a bit less than ye 'ol RRP. The Canon PowerShot SD630 (called the "IXUS 65" in Europe, Australia / NZ, and elsewhere) is a great 6MP, 3x optical zoom camera, with a beautiful big bright screen, and great photo-taking abilities: so far, seems to be working great, and seems to be a big step up from my stolen baby.
Since Chris still ain't feeling 100%, and since we haven't got too much of an urgent hurry (we have about 7 visa-free days, out of 30, left in Bolivia), we just relaxed and hung out in Uyuni today, and we'll start a salt flats tour tomorrow. Uyuni's actually quite a pleasant place to chill for a day; although "chill" is definitely what you do there, since it's so daym cold!
Cusco was cold when I got here (almost 8 weeks ago!), and it's been getting progressively colder ever since; but everyone warns me that my next destinations, Puno and La Paz, are even colder. In preparation for this, I visited El Molino this afternoon, and bought myself a new jacket. Warm, waterproof, and reasonably stylish: and all for just s/40!
Most tourists who come to Cusco do their shopping at only a few central places, such as Gato's Market, Mercado Central, Mercado San Pedro (for the slightly more adventurous), and the shops in or near the Plaza De Armas. But if you stay in Cusco for a while, the locals will soon inform you that the only real place to shop is at El Molino. It's not in Lonely Planet (not in mine, at least — ostensibly too far away and too dangerous). It's not near the city centre. But it has everything you could possibly need, from shoes to DVDs, and from seafood to sunglasses. And all at rock-bottom prices. El Molino is the black market of Cusco.
I've been very slack in my time so far in Cusco, because after 4 weeks here, I still haven't visited the Valle Sagrado ("Sacred Valley") at all. Lying about an hour north of Cusco (by public bus), and consisting of three principal towns — Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo — it's one of the main tourist attractions in the area. This morning, I was planning to visit Pisac (and to continue on to Urubamba) on my own; but at the last minute, I ended up going with Jesus. We didn't quite make it up to the Inca Citadel, but we did have a colourful and relaxed morning at the markets.