Peru

Yesterday we said goodbye to the first country of our trip, Peru, and entered our second country, Bolivia. We have had an amazing time exploring Peru over the past three weeks but we have also had time to think about a variety of things.

We have only visited four of the main tourist areas – Lima, Cusco and the Sacred Valley, Arequipa and the Colca Canyon and finally Puno and Lake Titicaca. Each of these areas is very different to the others, but there are also lots of similarities. The one similarity that is impossible to avoid noticing is the rubbish. Not all cities in Peru have a waste collection system and this is especially noticeable on the outskirts of the cities where rubbish is thrown onto the side of the road or down the hills. This rubbish issue is only exasperated by the fact that tap water is not drinkable. As a consequence everyone drinks water out of plastic bottles. It is estimated that over two hundred million plastic bottles are produced in Peru each month and, with recycling only really starting a couple of years ago, most of these end up in landfill or simply dumped by the roadside. Every tourist site we have been to, regardless of how remote, we have been able to see litter discarded in the bushes or on the side of the path. Chatting to our guides it seems that most tourists are responsible and take their litter away with them and the worst of the problem is down to the locals not taking pride in their local environment. No matter how many times we heard this, I can only believe that the amount of tourists really isn’t helping matters. We have tried to be careful, but still ended up buying two or three bottles of water per day. Multiply this by the number of tourists and you can start to understand understand the scale of the problem. We picked tour companies that believed in their local environment and provided boiled water to us in order to reduce the number of bottles required. We were also very conscious about where we discarded the bottles – looking for places that offered recycling wherever possible.

Another issue we kept noticing was the poverty. In the centre of the main tourist cities and towns it wasn’t so obvious but by taking buses between each place we saw the shanty towns on the outskirts. If we had flown then we would not have noticed these. Everytkme we saw one of these places it was difficult not to think about how very fortunate we are to have what we have, as well has having the ability to travel the world to see amazing sights.

For all the negativity above, however, Peru really is an amazing country. The history it offers, such as learning about the Incas, makes it a fascinating place to travel around. In what feel like three short weeks we have barely scratched the surface of what this country has to offer. You could spend months in Peru and still not discover everything.

I am really glad that we chose Peru as the first stop on our world tour as it has got the trip off to exactly the kind of start we were after. It has treated us to some really beautiful sights, such as the numerous Inca ruins along the Inca trail, watching Machu Picchu appear out of the morning mist, watching Andean Condors gliding along the rim of the Colca Canyon – one of the world’s deepest – and finally seeing the Uros islands – floating islands made from reeds on Lake Titicaca.

We are now over the border in Copacabana, Bolivia, still on the shores of Lake Titicaca and, despite being only 8km from Peru, it already feels like a very different place.

The Colca Canyon

Day 1

We had already decided we wanted to visit the Colca Canyon (one of the world’s deepest canyons at 4160m) – the challenge was finding the right company to book this trip with. We did our research well and ended up booking with Colca Treks – who offered a slightly different experience to the other companies.

We were picked up from our hostel at 8am and started the journey to Chivay. Our first stop was the National Park to look at some amazing rock formations – which had been produced by lava from a volcanic explosion many, many years ago. They looked like something from another planet, weathered into unusual shapes by the rain and the wind over the years. From here we went on to Patapampa by bus – the highest point of our journey (and probably the highest we will ever go!) at 4912m! We went for a walk around with our guide, who showed us a green plant which grows mostly between 3000-4000m and is as hard as rock! The altitude was challenging (but manageable) – it just made us very tired and gave us headaches. In order to reduce the symptoms we dosed-up on sugary sweets and water – which seemed to help. Back in our bus we headed to Chivay for a buffet lunch before driving onto Pinchollo, where we would be spending our first night.

From the main square of Pinchollo we walked for about 30 minutes down the hill to get our first view of the edge of the canyon. It was just magical – it was just our group (11 people) looking into the depths of the canyon as the sun was setting – this is what we had come for! Not another tourist group in sight, as no other groups stayed in this village. We then walked back to the Colca Trek Lodge (our accomodation for the night). After several weeks in hostels, I was super excited by our accomodation which had hot lovely showers, a hairdryer, a beautiful room and a spectacular balcony overlooking the mountains! To top this off we also had a yummy 3 course meal prepared for us before heading to bed with a hot water bottle!

Day 2

I set my alarm for 5.30am as our room had panoramic views of the mountains and I wanted to see the sunrise over them. It was a beautiful start to the day! After breakfast we headed out to Cruz de Cura – a quieter look out point to spot condors (by quiet I mean only our group was there!). We saw so many condors and some were flying so close! Apparently their wing span from tip to tip can reach 2.8m across! They can also live to 50-60 years old in the wild. After plenty of photos we headed to Cabanoconde to start our descent into the depths of the canyon. We had a team of mules who would carry some of our stuff – so we just had to carry our day packs. It was a beautifully hot day, with very few clouds. It was a steep 3 hour descent in the heat and our walking poles definitely came in handy! Despite it being a challenging descent, it was worth it for the views of the canyon – amazing!

We descended from 3200m to 2000m at the bottom of the canyon, where we found Sangalle Oasis. It looked like paradise – lots of beautiful huts, a swimming pool and palm trees – all set in the breathtaking landscape of the canyon! I opted out of the afternoon walk, to sit and chill and read my book… perfect!

Day 3

Up at 4am for a quick breakfast and then start the hike back up the canyon. We started the climb at 5am in the dark with our headtorches and all you could see is a stream of lights climbing up the canyon wall! It got light very quickly but luckily we avoided the sun for the 1st 2 hours of the climb- we set our pace and plodded on-much easier in the cool! We got to the top in 2 hrs 40mins – much quicker and easier than going down the same path yesterday! Once back in Cabanoconde we started the 6 hr journey back to Arequipa via the hot springs and a stop in Chivay for lunch!

Trekking into the canyon had been amazing – the views had been spectacular – being out in the highlands is beautiful and very magical.

Inca Trail… it’s about the journey

We have spent the past four days trekking along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Before we left, we thought that it was just one way to get to Machu Picchu. Having completed it, however, we both agree that the jounrey was possibly better than the destination.

Our journey started very early on the morning of Tuesday 14th May. We had to meet our guide at 0430, fortunately only a few minutes walk from our hostel. We also met the other nine people who would form our group. (We had met them, along with our guide, briefly the night before for our induction.) We all piled on o our bus, along with our 17 porters, for the two hour drive to Ollantaytambo which is located in the Sacred Valley. While we enjoyed breakfast here, our porters were busy stocking up on all of the supplies we would be needing for trek. All stocked up, we piled back on to the bus to continue to kilometer 82 on the train line, where our trek was to start as we crossed the Urubamba river at an altitude of approximately 2720m.

The first part of the trek was along what is known as the “Inca Flats”. This is anything but flat, but describes parts of the trek which have sectins of both up and down. This section before lunch was approximately 12km and took 5 hours. When we reached our lunch spot (Wayllabamba, 3000m), the porters had erected a dining tent for us (with stools and tables inside) and had cooked us a delicious three-course lunch comprising an avacado salad followed by soup followed by omlette with potatoes and veg. Walking during the morning had been hot under the sun but during lunch the rain started to fall and was still falling as we got ready to continue the trek. The route for the afternoon was 2km of uphill, which should take 2 hours as we climbed from 3000m to 3300m at the campsite. Before we set off after lunch we all kitted up in our wet-weather gear. For most, this consisted of a waterproof jacket and then a poncho over the top to cover our daypacks. However, after only a few minutes of walking we all concluded that it was hot work and the rain was falling heavily enough to warrant all the wet-weather kit. I was back to walking in shorts and a t-shirt! The afternoon trek proved harder than it sounded, and we were all very tired by the time we reached the campsite at 1630 – 12 hours after first meeting in Cusco!. Our porters had already set up our campsite, including all of our personal tents, and had dinner on the go. After another three-course meal (popcorn; soup; veg, pasta and potato) followed by flambayed plantain, we were ready to call it a night. As Lindsay and I climbed into our tent we discovered a slight issue… the tents were designed for people 5´5″ tall! We were both unable to lie flat in the tent and it took a few minutes to sort ourselves out so that we could both lie flat – diagonally across the tent!

Day two started with a gentle wake-up call by one of the porters at 0500. After 40 minutes to get our stuff together, another 40 minutes for breakfast and 20 minutes to get ready, we set off at 0640. Today was going to be a difficult day. It started with a 4 hour ascent, climbing from 3300m to 4215m over 5km. This was to be followed by a 2 hour descent to 3580m over 3.5km, at which point we were due to stop for lunch – after 6 hours of trekking. The afternoon was to start with a 2 hour ascent climbing up to 3950m over 2.5km, followed by a 2 hour descent to our campsite at 3600m over 5km. Ten hours of walking, 1300m of ascent and 1000m of descent!

The first part of the trek, up to “Dead Woman´s Pass” was hard work. Not only was the climbing relentless and steep, but the altitude was making breathing more and more difficult. This was the part of the trip I was least looking forward to. As it turned out, despite being hard work it was not as hard as I had expected. The descent from “Dead Woman´s Pass” was also very steep, requiring slow progress and careful foot placement. As we were treading our way down very carefully we kept getting passed by porters – each carrying 35kg – running down the steps! After another three-course meal for lunch, we set off on our second ascent of the day. As with the previous day, the rain had started during lunch and continued for the rest of the afternoon making the ascent hot and sweaty work. Half way up there is an Inca ruin called Runkuraqay, a temple facing back up towards “Dead Woman´s Pass” where had a brief stop for a few photos before continuing to the top of the pass at 3950m.

The descent from the second pass was through what is known as the cloud forest, and it lived up to its name for us. For the vast majority of the descent we couldn´t see no more than 10 metres off the side of the path! It was very magical though, as we were treated to occasional glimpses of what lay below as the cloud thinned and lifted before dropping again. About 20 minutes before we reached our campsite we diverted up a set of very steep, precarious steps to visit the Inca town of Sayacmarca. After a few minutes it was back down the steps to continue towards the campsite, arriving at 1700. After yet another three-course meal it was another early night, laying diagonally across the tent. As we were 300m higher than the night before, the temperature was considerably colder and we all felt it as we slept.

Day three started with a relative lie-in as we were not awoken until 0600. Following the same pattern as day two, it took us 1hr40 until we were taking our first steps of the day along the trail. This was a relatively easy day with a 90 minute trek along more “Inca Flats”, up to a high point of 3650m where a 1000m descent lasting 4 hours was to commence. Just below was another Inca site, called Puyupatamarca. The descent was down some more very steep steps carved into the rock as well as paths through some amazing forest scenery where we were treated to some amazing flowers and the occasional lizard! Thirty minutes above the campsite was another Inca ruin called “Inta Pata”. We sat on the terraces here and just enjoyed the stunning views along the Urubamba valley, just watching the world go by. As the rain started to fall we continued onwards to our campsite at Wiñay Wayna, where we arrived just before lunch. Following our, now standard, three-course lunch we all enjoyed a siesta – time to rest our sore feet and muscles and ensure that we were all feeling fresh for the final 6km trek to Machu Picchu the following morning. At 1630 we all took a 10 minute walk from camp to visit the Inca site of Wiñay Wayna – a site used by the Incans to experiment at growing crops at various temperatures, as the difference between the bottom terrace and the top terrace was in the region of 5 degrees centigrade. They grew potatoes and corn here to test which variaties would work at other sites, based on their altitude. We were back at camp for an early dinner followed by an early-ish night in preparation for the big day tomorrow.

Day four started with us being awoken at 0300, with a view to us all being packed up, breakfasted and en-route by 0400. As it turned out, we were all quite eager and were on our way by 0345! This was only a short walk, however, to the control gate only five minutes below the campsite. Here we were to wait until the gate opened at 0530. The advantage of being at the gate so early meant that we would be one of the first groups through when it opened, and so one of the first groups on the trail towards the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu. The sun gate is traditionally an hours walk from the control gate (3km), but we went at an alarming pace and made it in just over 40 minutes. The first part of this walk was in complete darkness, so this was no mean feat! When we got to the Sun Gate, which is supposed to offer our first views of Machu Picchu, we were all a little disappointed. The cloud hadn’t lifted and so we couldn’t see a thing! We took an opportunity to rest, regain our breath and have a snack before continuing the final 3km down to Machu Picchu itself. All the way down we were all hoping that the cloud would lift so we could see what we had walked so far for, but as we reached the guard house, on the edge of Machu Picchu, the cloud was persisting. As we rested here, we were treated to the magical view as the cloud finally started to disperse and we caught our first glimpses of this amazing place. I was quite emotional as the cloud slowly lifted, showing us more and more of the Inca site until, at last, we could see the complete site. We took some photos, sat in awe at the sight in front of us and felt a wave of relief – this is what all of the hard work over the past few days had been for. Before we could enjoy the views for too long, the cloud and rain returned and hid the site from view. At this point we continued down to the entrance of Machu Picchu and took a seat on the benches on the patio. A few of us treated ourselves to a (very expensive) beer in celebration, despite it being only 0730! That beer was one of the best I have ever tasted.

After sorting ourselves out, we joined the queue to get back in to the site, where we were to enjoy a tour by our fantastic guide Elvis, from LlamaPath, the company we used for our trip. He talked about the discovery of Machu PIcchu by Hiram Bingham in 1911, and the subsequent trips to learn more about the site, the theories on what Machu Picchu was used for, why is was never discovered by the Spanish during their colonisation in the 1500s and how it was likely to have been built. Following the tour we were left to enjoy Machu Picchu by ourselves before catching the bus to Aguas Calientes, from where we were to commence the journey back to Cusco. During our tour and subsequent free time around Machu Picchu the cloud continued to rise and fall and it rained on and off. This did little to dent our enjoyment of the site, which really must be seen in order to fully understand how special a place it is

During our wait in Aguas Calientes, we had time to reflect on our thoughts of the past four days. Machu Picchu really is an amazing place, but the huge crowds of people make it very difficult to fully enjoy the place. During our trek along the Inca Trail we took in more than 10 other Inca sites – places that can only be visited by those who take the effort to trek all the way to Machu Picchu. Whilst none of these can compare to Machu Picchu for size, they are all very impressive in their own way. At most of the sites, our group of 11 (plus two guides) were the only people there. At IntaPata (on day 3) – which was my favourite site of the trip – we were able to explore the site and then sit and enjoy the stunning views in peace for the entire time we were there. These sites are all now unspoilt by mass tourism thanks to the restrictions put in place by the Peruvian Government in 2002, restricting the number of people allowed on the Inca Trail each day to 500 (including all porters, guides etc – so only around 200 tourists per day). Compare this to the thousands of people who visit Machu Picchu each day and it kind of puts it all into perspective. It was a definite culture-shock for all of us, after three days with seeing only a handful of people to be thrust back into reality.

In summary, Machu Picchu is definitely worth a visit. However, if you can find the time to trek the Inca Trail in order to reach it, your appreciation of it will be enhanced dramatically. I think that if we had just got the train and bus to get there, we would have been a little disappointed with it. The effort expended, hardship endured and friendships made along the Inca Trail are what this place is really about.

You can view a map of our route along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu here: view map

The Lima Experience

Mon 6th May – The Adventure begins! We´ve done it, Flights booked, Machu Picchu trek is looming, rucksacks are packed, we´ve said our goodbyes – Peru here we come!

Checking our baggage in, my rucksack weighed 19.4 kgs and Andy´s was 18.2kg. Still a heavy load – but a massive achievement for me! Over 10 years ago I had a 40kg suitcase for a 2 week holiday in Florida (and the wheel snapped!) and I usually don´t travel light for weekends – so for me to pack 19.4kg for 4 seasons of weather and 7 months is quite amazing!

Sitting in the plane from Madrid, somewhere over the Atlantic, I realised there is no going back now – I´m very excited and nervous at the same time! When we arrived at the airport in Lima there were 2 challenges. Number 1, work out what the customs declaration was saying, as it was all in spanish – with a bit of help we worked it out! Number 2, spot our name from about 50 boards at the arrivals area. Lima has 8 million people and it appears they all like to drive their cars at 6pm when we were on the roads – I´ve never seen such busy roads and I´m so glad we weren´t driving! We arrived at our hostel at 7.30pm, in the district of Miraflores, a nice part of town. Rooms were just want we needed, clean beds and hot showers! 

Tues 7th May – Clear Blue skies and 18 degrees  – not quite what we expected, but glad we didn´t ship our summer clothes straight to Australia! Walking round the city I´m learrning that using your car horn in Lima is very common – you constantly hear them – for other drivers, for taxi drivers trying to get your attention – and it will always remind me of Lima now! We had a very lazy first day, relaxing on the hostel patio, walking to the beach and we had our first meal in Peru! We went to a small restaurant in Miraflores recommended by Lonely Planet – 3 courses for about 3 pounds! I had white fish (Seafood is very big in Lima), refried beans and rice – and I really enjoyed it! Then it was back to the Hostel to chill out!

Wed 8th May – We woke quite early – so we headed to Huaca Pullana in Miraflores – Ruins from the Lima Culture in approx 400AD (1000 years pre-Inca). We had the first tour of the day, which meant we had our own tour guide! These buildings were made completly by hand from mud – which in Lima isn´t a problem as it never rains. Unlike the Inca´s who worshipped the sun, the Lima Culture worshipped th Moon and the Ocean, in part because the ocean provided them with much of their food. It was a really interesting tour and start to our visit to Peru. 

In the afternoon we headed to the Cruz de Sur Bus terminal – with plenty of food and drink for the 24 hr bus journey ahead! The bus was a lot better than I was expected, and in fact we had more space and better seats than I have ever had on a UK bus or plane! One of the added bonuses of taking the bus, was that we got to see a lot of Peru on our Journey to Cusco.  The first 8 hours went very quickly – but then we started the climb into the mountains. We were constantly weaving up bendy roads and climbing higher and higher – when we ascended above the clouds I think we were at about 4000m! And I definitely felt it and I now know what altitude sickness feels like! We arrived at 2pm on thursday and spent most of thursday afternoon and friday relaxing and taking things slowly. Luckily in total we have 5 days to acclimatize before our trek, which is going to be much needed. Well Bueños noches mi amigos, Tengo hambre….dinner calls!

24 hours on a bus!

We have finished the first city of the trip – Lima – and have now moved on to Cusco. Before we left Lima we wandered down the seafront, had a tour around Huaca Pucllana (some pre-Incan ruins in Miraflores), relaxed on the terrace at Hostel El Patio reading our books and visited some artisinal markets.

Next up was a looong bus journey to Cusco. It was supposed to take 21 hours but ended up taking 23hr45! During this time we didn’t even get off the bus for more than 30 seconds! We travelled with Cruz Del Sur, on one of their ‘suite class’ buses. We had front row seats on the top deck offering great views throughout the journey and our seats were luxurious reclining leather armchairs. The first 8 hours passed quite quickly but then came the mountain roads, for the next 16 hours. It was constant winding mountain roads as we ascended and then descended multiple times. Most of tbe passengers were suffering from a combination of the constant motion and the altitude at least once during this part of the journey! We spent 90 minutes sat at roadworks at an altititude of 3610 metres 52km from Cusco. We went over some very high passes, up towards 4000 metres above sea level before we got off the bus in Cusco at 3300 metres.

Since then we have been trying to get used to the altitude – even walking along the street is leaving us out of breath but we are hoping that we’ll get acclimitised before we set off for Machu Picchu at 0430 on Tuesday morning. Until then we are taking it easy – reading books, wandering around the city of Cusco. Tomorrow we are hoping to go on a tour of some of the local Incan sites and on Sunday we are planning a trip up the Sacred Valley.

Touch down in Lima

Yesterday was a long day. We left Brighton at 0300 in order to get to Heathrow for our 0620 flight to Madrid (2hr 20 duration). After a 3 hour wait in Madrid we caught the 1250 flight to Lima (11hr 55 duration), landing at 1745 local time (GMT -5). We were straight through passport control, relieved when we saw our bags arrive on the belt and then straight through customs as well. In arrivals there were what seemed like hundreds of taxi drivers holding up boards, but we eventually managed to find ours driver, called Fernando. We then an introduction to south american rush hour – it was crazy!! Lima has a population of almost 10 million (London has about 8 million) and the drivers pay no attention to lane markings. One road had three lanes in each direction, but our side of the road had 6 cars side by side. I was amazed that not all cars had dents in! After an entertaining 45 minute drive we were dropped at our hotel – Hostel El Patio in Miraflores district. Miraflores is an upmarket district of Lima on the sea front, although our hotel is a few streets back from the beach. By this time it was almost 24 hours since we got out of bed in Brighton so we were quite tired, despite both of us getting some sleep on the flights. After a quick wash we hit the sack to get some proper sleep!

This morning has been quite leisurely so far. There is a little fountain outside our room window, so we awoke to the sound of running water. We have been for breakfast – bread, jam and melon – and are about to head out for the day to explore the local area.

Packed and ready to go!

After a very busy final few days sorting things out, getting last minute items and then trying to get everything into our packs, we are finally all done. We even have time to spare – well a few hours to spare, anyway!

Our bags, all packed

At 0620 on Monday 6th May, Lindsay and I jet off on our big trip. It has been years in the planning and it is still hard to believe that it is has finally arrived. I don’t think it will properly sink in until we land in Lima on Monday evening! We have a couple of nights in Lima before catching a 22-hour bus journey to Cusco, where we arrive on Thursday morning (if all goes to plan). From then until Tuesday 14th we will be acclimatising to the altitude as Cusco is at 3400 metres. To give it some perspective Ben Nevis – the highest point in the UK – stands at 1344 metres. On the 14th we set off on a four day trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu – reaching 4200 metres at the highest point, before descending down to 2430 at Machu Pichu.

That is as far as we currently have planned in detail. After Machu Pichu we plan to head to Arequipa to see the Colca Canyon before heading to Lake Titicaca. From there we intend to head across the border to La Paz before making our way across to Iguassu Falls. After the falls we plan to head south to Buenos Aires before crossing almost the width of the continent to get to Santiago for our flight onwards to New Zealand. Well, they are the plans anyway. How much of this we actually manage to do, only time will tell.