Our bus journey from Chivay to Puno followed an electric storm for the entire 6 hours. As we drove over the high plateau (up to 5,000m in places) the journey was punctuated by forked lightening and claps of thunder. I clung to the wise words of someone from Devon, who once told me you’re safest inside a vehicle in a thunder storm.
Eventually we arrived in Puno, which is a bit of a bizarre place and not somewhere you want to spend too much time. Despite being on the edge of Lake Titicaca, it’s not at all pretty. It’s busy and doesn’t seem to have much to do. It’s no colonial city! We were hoping to meet up again with some friends from the UK who we’d seen in Cusco. Kath (who worked with Rob) is travelling with her husband Charlie and their daughter Chloe is living in Chile. We had a great couple of meals with them in Cusco, but our dates sadly didn’t work out in Puno.
The locals were celebrating a festival called La Candelaria which essentially involved everyone marching around the streets all night long accompanied by about 50 brass bands. Apparently people in Puno don’t need sleep.
Luckily we’d booked a tour of some of the islands on the lake and set off on a very slow boat the following morning. After chugging out of the harbour and through miles of reeds, we came to the floating islands of Uros. They’re absolutely incredible. About the size of two netball pitches, the Island we landed on was created using reed roots, then piling more and more cut reeds on top to make a kind of reed cushion. On top of the base, the locals had built houses – out of reeds of course! The whole effect was very impressive, although I don’t think I’d have fancied staying there in the rain!
We journeyed onto the Island of Amantani; not a floating Island but still very beautiful. We stayed with a lovely family in what’s described as a ‘home stay’. This is how many of the local people make a living. The mother of our family, Los Milla was very friendly and welcoming, although we barely understood each other! A brother and sister from Holland, called Iris and Dillion were also staying at Los Milla’s home and between the four of us, we attempted to hold somewhat stunted conversations. Both Rob and I wished we had done a Spanish course before we arrived in South America! Los Milla had three children, Jack, Julie and Rosillie. They were all very friendly and the youngest, Rosillie, was extremely cute. We wondered what they made of us…and when Los Milla (who was only 32) found out our ages, she couldn’t believe we didn’t have kids!
The whole group (from the chugging boat) trekked up a very steep hill to watch the sunset from two ancient monuments. Unfortunately I became ill and had to pretty much run back down to our ‘home’ before the sun was anywhere near setting. Rob assures me it was nowhere near as good as the sunsets we saw in Costa Rica!
The next day, feeling better, we all ate pancakes (luxury!) in Los Milla’s small kitchen before saying our goodbyes and boarding the boat once more, heading to the Island of Taquile. After a walk from one side to the other (it wasn’t very big!) we had a delicious lunch of trout caught in the lake.
The islands were stunning and very relaxing, and if they’d been in the Med, they would’ve been absolutely overrun with tourists. But instead, the people lead what appears to be very simple but happy lives. We were sad to leave, especially as we were heading back to Puno and yet more drumming….!
After a great few days in Arequipa, we set off to explore the nearby Colca Canyon. We’d read about this place before we left the UK and were intrigued by the prospect of a 3,500m deep canyon (that’s deeper than the Grand Canyon!) and seeing the great Andean Condor – a bird revered in Peruvian/Inca culture with a wingspan of 10ft and weighing in at 15kg (that’s about what my backpack currently weighs).
We set off from Arequipa via the shanty towns that Jess mentioned in her last post. Pretty staggering that 750,000 people inhabit these shanty towns and it was pretty far removed from the affluent tourist district we stayed in. Our first stop of the trip was to be the highest we have been so far in South America – a lung busting 4,900m. The view from here was predictably spectacular. Arequipa is surrounded by a half a dozen volcanoes – all of which are dormant or extinct I’m pleased to say – and we got a view of the lot from this first stop. Incredible.
We then journeyed on to the small town of Chivay, the staging post for the Colca Canyon. I think it’s fair to say this town is a little odd. It serves one main purpose on the tourist trail and as a result is filled with hotels and restaurants with no real sense of community in the town itself. We went to the nearby hot springs for an afternoon and bathed in the 39 degree water that stank of rotten eggs. We were guaranteed by our guide that we’d look 10 years younger. We’ll leave you to judge the results from the photo.
The following day we set off early to find them condors. They conveniently tend to swoop around one place called the cruz del condor which apparently has good thermals for them to glide around on. They are so heavy that they rely on these thermals to hoist them up high enough to prey on dead cow/donkey carcasses! We arrived at 8am and despite it not really being the best time of the year (many of the condors have migrated to the coast to feed on the placentas of recently spawned baby sea lions!) we were greeted by 6 condors all strutting their stuff. They are magnificent. Huge, graceful and very obliging when it comes to posing for the cameras (photos to follow – the iPhone camera wasn’t quite up to the job).
Buzzing from the condor show we headed back to Chivay to get our bus to our next destination – Lake Titicaca! We have booked a tour on the lake which involves a homestay on one of the islands with a local family. Given that our hosts apparently only speak Quechua and Spanish this should be an interesting test of Jess and I’s dismal Spanish and our mime skills!
All the guidebooks say the sun shines in Arequipa 360 days of the year and the people who live there barely see a raindrop. However, being the true Brits that we are, we brought the rain with us…! More on that later.
We took an overnight bus from Cusco to The White City (as Arequipa’s known). It took 10 hours, which is nothing compared to some South American journeys (Lima to Buenos Aires takes 2 and a half days!). But it certainly was an experience. We chose what we’d been told was the most reputable company, Cruz del Sur. Before we boarded, our bags were checked, our passports were scrutinised (several times) and we had to go through a metal detector. It was almost as thorough as our experience of US customs! We set off on our journey through the night and almost immediately regretted booking the seats at the front of the top deck. We could clearly see the driver’s cowboy attitude towards other motorists; overtaking on blind corners, driving just millimetres from the vehicle in front and swerving violently to avoid potholes. In the end we closed the curtains and tried to sleep. Imagine sleeping on a rollacoaster and that will give you a pretty good idea of the journey.
Arriving in Arequipa just after sunrise, we were treated to a spectacular view of Volcano Misti, which looks over the city. Worryingly it’s still classed as active and there are also between 7-9 earthquake tremors felt in the city everyday. However, we were used to being all shook up by the bus ride so we noticed nothing. We stayed in a great hotel near the Plaza del Armas and set about doing a bit of chillaxing.
We joined a walking tour around the city on our first morning. The guide took us to the market, where he showed us all the strange lotions and potions you can buy to supposedly cure pretty much anything. These included a dried llama foetus (think it might have been for good luck) and a soap that apparently makes men irresistible to women….! In the afternoon it absolutely tipped it down, and the rain continued into the evening. I’m pretty sure we were the only people prepared with our rain jackets. Told you – true Brits.
To be honest, if you’ve seen one colonial city, you’ve seen them all. Ok, not strictly true, but they all have a main square, a prominent cathedral and some nice architecture. But if you find yourself in Arequipa, you must visit Santa Catalina. It’s a convent which was closed off from the rest of the world for almost 400 years. Behind a high wall, it’s a mini city within a city. We were actually quite surprised by how well the nuns lived. They all had very nice living quarters, some of which were the size of a decent flat in Bristol! There are beautiful gardens, rooftop viewpoints of the city and lots of artwork. 25 nuns still live there in a new section, and when we found out where most of the city’s other residents live, we could see why they chose that solitary life.
The main square of Arequipa is very touristy, with people trying to persuade you into their restaurant (all of which look the same). But if you head out a couple of streets, there are loads of great places to eat. We went to a place called Zig Zag, where they served fish on hot volcanic rock! It was delicious. As we were leaving, we heard a sound similar to that of an ice-cream van, but playing a song by the Eagles (I think). It turned out to be the bin lorry! The tune called people out from homes and restaurants and it worked a treat. Bristol City Council – take note.
We really enjoyed our stay in Arequipa, which felt quite cool and cosmopolitan after the Inca relics. But inevitably we were staying in the ‘touristy’ part of town, and when we left we realised where the locals lived. On our bus journey to the Colca Canyon, we passed miles upon miles of shanty town. The guide on our bus told us a staggering 75% of the city’s residents (which amounts to 750,000 people) live in these half-built houses. Many have no running water. It certainly made us think.
The time had come to take on the Inca trail. I think it’s fair to say that Jess and I had done relatively little research into what the trek actually involved. We knew it ended at Machu Picchu and involved some walking and camping etc… Having just come back from our 7 day adventure I can now confirm it was 10 times harder than we thought and also 10 times more incredible!
We met up with our G Adventures group the night before the trek and sized up the people we were going to be spending the next 6 nights with. It was an eclectic mix both in terms of nationalities (Canadian, Australian, British, Danish etc…) and age. First impressions were good and everyone seemed keen to get stuck in.
We received a briefing from our G Adventures guide, a lovely Peruvian man named Elias. The briefing started to give us a glimpse of what was ahead. 42km of trekking, climbing and descending over 1km in just 1 day to a peak altitude of 4,200m above sea level (to a place called ‘dead woman’s pass’ and through various sections of track the locals call ‘gringo killers’. Awesome.) We also found out at this point that our main bags (which would be carried by super human porters) needed to weigh less than 6 kilos. Goodbye personal hygiene for 6 days!
We set off the following morning to the Sacred Valley with a quick stop to view the White Christ that stands guard over Cusco city. Our trip to the sacred valley involved taking in various Incan archaeological sites which sit above the Urubamba river that leads all the way to Machu Picchu. We also visited one of the projects that has been developed by the company we did our trek with, G Adventures. They are supporting a local community with funding for a weaving project. We saw the ladies weaving using traditional methods and Jess also tried out her weaving skills. Apparently women in the highlands of Peru prove themselves to their future in laws by mastering weaving and cooking – men by becoming porters, cooks or guides on the inca trek. Jess was really very good at the loom. Whether my chocolate ankles were going to stand up to 42km of hiking was yet to be seen! This day culminated in the town of Ollaytaytambo where we took in another site that has a fantastic sun temple at the top (3,200m above sea level) and was also where we were spending the night before starting on the Inca trail proper the following day.
Unfortunately my night in Ollaytaytambo didn’t go exactly according to plan. I must have picked up some sort of bug in Cusco and ended up with a fever and ‘doing the double’ as I believe it’s known in traveller circles. Thankfully Jess and our guide Elias were on hand, and stuffed full of antibiotics and some violently coloured electrolyte potion, I began my journey back towards a steady tummy!
The following day we drove to ‘kilometre 82’ which marks the official start point of the Inca trail over the mountains to Machu Picchu. This first day was not too hardcore (11km – 7 hours – 700m in elevation). We were treated to some more archaeological sites on route and eventually found ourselves in an amazing camp site with mountains on all sides. That night we sampled for the first time the sensational food that our travelling cooks rustled up for us. For guys who have a couple of gas rings to cook on they produced amazing food, with 3 courses every night! We also had a chance to get to know our porters a little better. They introduced themselves one by one in either Spanish or Quechua. They were genuine, humble, decent people who worked as farmers mostly but come to the Inca trek to earn some more money for their families. They ranged in age from 18 to 67 (!) and each carried 20 kilos. They ran ahead of us at every stage, putting up our tents and preparing food. They clapped us when we got to camp each night despite the fact they’d worked 10 times as hard. Amazing people.
Day 2 of the Inca trail was hard. Fact. We’d been forewarned that it was a tough day but I don’t think we quite realised just how much. We only walked about 12km but this included the ascent to dead woman’s pass at 4,200m (we climbed over 1km that day) and the descent to our camp site (we descended over 1km as well). Our lungs felt like the size of tea bags on the way up and our knees got an absolute pounding on the way down. Had it not been for a truly brilliant Canadian friend called Duane who lent Jess and I his hiking poles, I think knee surgery would have been a certainty. We camped that night at cloud level and started to get used to the long drop toilets, which was tough – squatting after 9 hours trekking is not easy!!
And so came day 3, the longest in terms of trekking distance, featuring lots of ‘Inca flat’ sections as our guide affectionately called them! This turned out to be arguably the best day on the trek. We must have been through 3 different ecosystems in one day and despite some persistent rain the views were once again spectacular. Our lunch stop was made extra special when our cooks produced a cake for Jess and I to wish us a happy honeymoon! How these guys managed to produce a cake at 3,400m with a gas ring is beyond me. Jess and I were really overwhelmed by the gesture and the delicious cake lasted about 30 secs among hungry Trekkers.
We got an amazing view of Machu Picchu mountain as we neared our final camp site and stopped via an area full of farming terraces and llamas! These marvellous creatures weren’t too bothered by us humans but did take a slightly aggressive shining to a dog which had followed a couple from California right from the start of the trek.
The final night of camping was again marked by an amazing meal and by a bottle of pisco sour which Duane had been carrying all along. Talk of hot showers and beds were starting to creep in but most of all we were buzzing at the prospect of seeing the great Machu Picchu.
We got going at 3am the following day so we could queue up at the checkpoint for Machu Picchu and make sure we arrived at the sun gate overlooking the site without 5000 fellow Trekkers. We all had so much adrenaline pumping round our systems that we nailed the final trek up to the sun gate in 45 mins less than was scheduled!
And of course it goes without saying that Machu Picchu is phenomenal. Any picture you’ve seen just doesn’t do it justice. Getting to that sun gate was an emotional experience for all and we were then taken on an hour and a half guided tour around the site to explain the intricacies of this amazing place. I think it’s fair to say that we all felt as if it wouldn’t have been as special if we hadn’t shed the blood, sweat and tears to get there. You feel quite virtuous (albeit you’re aching and smell awful) when you walk past the people that have taken the train up there!
Having taken in every ounce of Machu Picchu we then started the long journey back to Cusco via bus and train. The train down from Machu Picchu is amazing with large Perspex panels on the sides and on the roof giving you panoramic views of the mountains. Our return to Cusco was marked with a farewell dinner organised by our incredible tour guide Elias. Pretty much the only bad word I could say about this brilliant man is his choice of celebratory meal. Let’s just say Jess and I are unlikely to order a whole roasted guinea pig as an appetiser ever again. Watching Mr Duane Krikke rip open a guinea pig head will haunt me for the rest of my days. Apparently it is a Peruvian delicacy. I think we’ll leave that to the Peruvians 🙂
Jess and I would like to say the biggest thank you we can muster to the following people for making this trip so unbelievably special:
– Elias, our guide. A nicer, more generous, more knowledgable, more passionate guide you will never meet. Thank you brother
– Edwin aka Chino or Little Chinchilla, our second guide. Again a truly lovely man with an amazing spirit
– Bruce, Laura, Patsy, Danielle, Shannon, Duane, Sara, Charlie, Shaun, Claire, Kasper, Mark, Jennifer and Andrew – our fellow G Adventures Trekkers aka the ‘Black Llamas’. You guys are all brilliant and we enjoyed every minute of the trek with you. Thank you for your company and we really hope our paths cross again in the future. Any and all of you are welcome in Bristol any time.
We had a brief overnight stop in Lima before flying onto Cusco. We didn’t see much of the Capital City, but it looked vast from the air. We stayed at a great place (despite the slightly odd name) called SM Hotel & Business. We were picked up from the airport by a guy called Rene, who was getting married in 3 days time! He’s originally from Cuba and studied Economics at University. He’s now trying to earn enough money to train to be a teacher. He’d been working all night when he picked us up again at 4am to take us back to the airport and almost fell asleep several times at the wheel. He was clearly working hard!
In the departures lounge at Lima Airport, an announcement came over the tannoy for Mr & Mrs Wynn-Jones to come to the desk, and we had a horrible feeling we’d missed our plane. But it turned out they’d overbooked the economy seats and they bumped us up to business class – result!
The view you get from the plane flying into Cusco is incredible; the city is surrounded by beautiful mountains, which you circle before landing on the airstrip, which is pretty much in the centre of the city! We got a ridiculously expensive taxi to our hostel, La Boheme, which is in the San Blas area. The cobbled streets are very steep and narrow, and our hostel was tucked out of the way. It’s a very welcoming place, with a great communal area where you can help yourself to Coca tea at anytime. It’s also attached to a creperie. We went there for supper and had an absolutely delicious combination of chicken, mushrooms, spinach and bechemal cheese – all served in a massive crepe.
The view from nearby San Cristobel church is amazing; you can see right over the city. We also visited San Domingo on the site of a former Incan temple, which the Spanish partially destroyed and built over. The church was also partially destroyed by an earthquake in the 1950s and you can now see the unique combination of Catholic and Inca remains together.
Cusco is inevitably a bit touristy, because thousands of travellers pass through every year on their way to do the Inca Trail. You can’t walk through the main square without being offered a guided tour, a massage, or your photo taken with a baby llama – complete with a woolly hat! However the people are friendly and there’s a great atmosphere. The one thing we can’t understand is their obsession with fire crackers. We heard bangs going off throughout the day and were told by Quentin at our hostel, “that’s Cusco”. I think the whole area was woken again at 3am when the ‘fireworks’ started again, and continued until breakfast! It definitely wasn’t the good night’s sleep we needed before starting the Inca Trail!