Visiting some Inca redible sites!
01.10.2010 - 16.10.2010 10 °C
Sorry for yet another poor pun starting this entry off, I can't seem to stop myself! My last post ended with me leaving Nasca for Cusco, where I arrived after yet another night bus. Cusco is an amazing city, set deep in the mountains and sprawling up the sides of the valley - the first view as you come into town is pretty spectacular.
I got to enjoy a few days relaxing in Cusco whilst sorting out my trek to Machu Picchu, so had a good look round, took some pics etc. The city has a fascinating history - capital of the Incan empire, it was captured by the Spanish in 1533 and they swiftly tried to demolish most of the Incan structures, using lots of the stone to build their own churches and other buildings in an effort to impose Catholicism on the Incas. This has left a fascinating mix of Incan and Spanish influenced architecture - plenty to keep me happily snapping away.
Another highlight was meeting up with my friends Adam and Nicole, who are travelling separately. They got engaged earlier in the year and are travelling round the world for 6 months before tying the knot in Kenya - all very exciting. I'd missed Adam's stag due to my travels, so it was great to see them for the last time before the big day. Due to time constraints they were doing an organised 3 week trip in Peru, and I got to become an unofficial member of the group for 24hrs. This included a great night out, with pisco making lessons, guinea pig for dinner and then a fairly messy night out (ironically this was the weekend of the national elections in Peru, and the sale of alcohol was banned for 3 days, however this didn't stop our guide finding a place to drink the night away).
The next day found us with fairly sore heads visiting an alpaca clothing store, followed by an afternoon of horse riding between Inca ruins. This was great fun, up on the hills above Cusco visiting some of the many Inca sites that are scattered around. The biggest of these is Sasquewama (pronounced "sexy woman"!), which still has an impressive set of ruins.
All too soon it was time to bid Adam and Nicole farewell and to set off on my own trek to Machu Picchu. Based on a number of recommendations, I had chosen to do an alternative to the Inca Trail called the Salkantay route, which is supposed to be quieter, prettier and (slightly) cheaper. Our trip began with an early morning pick-up and then a 3 hour drive into the mountains, stopping for breakfast in Mollepatur (where the restaurant had a shed full of guinea pigs that weren't kept as pets!).
Another couple of hour's drive up a steep and rough track brought us to our start point, complete with spectacular views of Salkantay mountain. We had also got to know each other on the drive - our group of 6 comprised Matt and Jess from San Diego, Daisy from Texas and Suyog and Niral from India (via the USA). We all got on really well and enjoyed each others company - I spent most of the time bickering with Matt about whether the US or the UK was better! We were also fortunate to have a great guide in Whilder - he was always incredibly enthusiastic and taught us loads we went along about flora, fauna and history of the area.
After transferring all of our gear from van to the mules which would be doing the donkey work (sorry!) for the next few days. The first part of the trek was a pleasant walk up the valley, enjoying the stunning views and sunshine. The path gradually steepened until we were working our way up some serious switchbacks. The altitude was also kicking in - at almost 4000m any exertion was extra-hard. I was lucky in that the last couple of weeks spent at altitude had pretty well acclimatised me, so I felt few effects, whilst the others who only had a couple of days in Cusco before the trek suffered from intense headaches and nausea. The emergency horse was soon brought into action, and we staggered our way up to the top of the climb and our lunch stop.
Our cooks and muleteers had raced ahead and were already preparing our lunch - an amazing menu of guacamole with corn chips, vegetable and pasta soup followed by chicken and rice - we definitely weren't going to go hungry on this trip. All this was presented with table, chairs tablecloth and a stunning view of the glacier, even if it was freezing cold. As usual, I ate everything put in front of me, whilst the others struggled with the altitude - I generously helped them out! After lunch we pushed on to the highest point of the trek at 4650m, before continuing down to the valley below. By now the mountains were shrouded in cloud, but we still got some stunning views of the valley below.
We reached camp at 5.30 to find out tents already set up and a cup of tea waiting for us - I could definitely get used to this level of service! We all had a rest before another delicious dinner, which was a fairly quiet affair as everyone was feeling the cold and altitude - we were still camping at 3800m. Then it was off to bed, in preparation for an early start the next morning.
I woke up particularly early, and got up to enjoy a beautiful dawn with the sun gradually creeping over the mountains in a clear blue sky. After a breakfast of pancakes and fruit salad we set off, heading down into the valley below. The terrain quickly changed as we lost height - first an area of bushes thronged with humming birds, then the denser upper jungle. We continued down all morning, as it gradually got hotter and greener. Everyone was feeling much more cheerful after a night's sleep and the drop in altitude, and we made quick progress down the steep and rocky path. The only flaw was a strange injury I picked up - a pain in the outside of my ankle, where the bone spur rubbed on the boot. I have no idea why - I've had my boots for two years and never experienced anything like this, but it got increasingly painful through the day, and would be an irritation for the rest of the trip.
We arrived at our next camp by lunchtime and had a pleasant afternoon relaxing in the sun. Later on, we got to enjoy some football with the locals - first with a local kid called Jefferson, who was impressively skilled for a 6 year old. This was followed by a more serious game with the locals. Matt and I participated - Matt putting on a heroic show in goal considering his team didn't seem to have a defence. I wandered all over the pitch for the other team, and managed eventually to get my name on the scoresheet with a cheeky lob over Matt that I somehow managed to hook in when it bounced off the bar. It was hard work with the altitude and rough pitch, and I was pretty relieved when it finally got too dark to see and the game was called off.
The next day we had another early start with a 6.00am wake-up call, although at least it was accompanied by coca tea in bed! The route today followed the river most of the way, and we enjoyed stunning views of the river and dense jungle, interpersed with the occasional waterfall and extremely rickety bridge. It was hot and sunny, and brightly coloured butterflies were flitting around all over the place. This was another short day, and we reached our lunch stop by 11.30. After lunch we were driven along to our campsite for the night in .... This was the first time we'd stayed in the same place as other groups doing the Salkantay route - 4 or 5 groups stayed here, and it turned into a fairly raucous evening around the camp fire.
This made the 5.50am wake-up call the next morning even more painful, but I just about managed to drag myself out of bed. We were driven along to our start point for the day at a hydroelectric plant, which also marked the end of the railway line. Our route took us along the railway, with the occasional train roaring past. The terrain had changed dramatically into rocky spires all around, which was the first indication we were nearing Machu Picchu. At one point we passed a series of Inca terraces, which amazingly had only been discovered a natter of weeks ago, and were in the process of being uncovered by archaeologists. The fact that these had just been found, literally round the corner from Machu Picchu with people living minutes away, made you realise just how easy it would be for an entire city to remain lost in the jungle.
After a couple of hours we rounded one hill to get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu - a few terraces just visible on the mountain high above us. This was also a sign that we were nearing the end of our trek and the town of Aguas Calientes soon came into view- a pretty uninspiring place alomost totally catering for gringos, despite a stunning location. We all crashed out in our hotel for the rest of the day, emerging for our final dinner as a group, before heading back to bed for an early night.
The next morning was when it started to go a bit wrong. After 6 days of beautiful weather, I woke at 3.00am to the sound of torrential rain pouring down outside. After pulling on full waterproofs we headed down the the bus station for a 4.00am meet - we had to there that early in order to queue for the first bus up to Machu Picchu. This in turn meant that we would be one of the first groups to arrive and would be able to get a pass to climb Wayna Picchu - the mountain behind the main ruins. Only 400 passes are given out each day, so we had to make the early start to be sure of getting one.
We queued till 5.30, with the rain continuing to pour down and it was still raining as the bus drove up the steep switchbacks to towards the summit. We were pretty much the first people to enter the site at 6.30, although there wasn't much to see as everything was still shrouded in cloud and rain. Nonetheless, this was our only chance to get some pictures without hordes of people in shot, so naturally I pulled out my camera and started snapping away, doing my best to protect it from the rain. Whilder took us round a couple of the terraces, and we got the occasional glimpse of the terraces stretching way into the fog, which was a breathtaking sight. It was then that the day went from bad to worse - first I managed to lose the group, stopping to take a picture then turning round to find groups wearing identical ponchos disappearing in each direction. Then, I found that my camera had stopped working altogether, presumably the pre-existing problems combining with the rain to go one step too far.
As most people will probably have picked up from reading this blog, if they didn't know before, I like taking pictures, lots of pictures, so you can imagine just how frustrating this was. To make matters worse, I have been carrying my compact camera around everywhere for the last month as a backup, knowing my SLR was a bit screwed, but I had managed to leave the battery for this one in the charger back at the hostel in Cusco (yes, I know- very stupid)! I couldn't do much else than carry on and try and focus on enjoying the experience of being there, something I'm always in danger of forgetting when obsessing over taking pictures.
I eventually caught up with everyone else and we started our climb up Wayna Picchu. The path wound steeply up the side of the mountain, with precipitous drops of at least 300m down to the valley below. Fortunately the rain started to ease off, and as we reached the top the clouds even cleared briefly, giving us spectacular views of the entire site. It really is a breathtaking spectacle, and one of the most memorable experiences of the trip. We returned back to the bottom and spent an hour or so wandering round the site. By now the 100 or so tourists doing day trips had arrived and were swarming all over the complex, every single one snapping away with their working cameras. It was like some kind of cruel torture, putting me in one of the most photogenic locations in South America without a camera, whilst everyone else has one, and I was halfway between laughing and crying. The rest of my group were all very sympathetic, taking lots of pictures and letting me use their cameras if I wanted, but it wasn't quite the same.
We left the site at lunchtime and headed back to Aguas Caliente to catch our train back to Cusco. The hour and half train ride took us through some spectacular mountainous terrain, before we were collected by minibus for the final drive to Cusco. Just to really rub things in, the sun was setting as we drove through the mountains, and the light was probably the most beautiful I've seen all trip. Sadly I can't show you the pictures! Back in Cusco we had a few celebratory drinks before heading towards our beds for a well-deserved rest.
My next destination was Arequipa in Southern Peru. The city is surrounded by volcanoes and is known for the beautiful white volcanic rock the buildings are constructed from, as well as Juanita, the Inca ice mummy who was discovered on the summit of one of the volcanoes. I had a day there exploring, visiting the museum dedicated to Juanita as well as the Monasterio Santa Catalina - an enormous convent created in the 1580s and which covers a massive city block. It's an amazing place, filled with beautiful courtyards and a warren of the nun's living quarters, all stunningly photogenic. Fortunately, my SLR had just about come back to life after a few days of drying out, albeit with the same shutter release problems as before.
The next day I was up at 3.00am, ready to be collected for my next adventure, a three day trek in Colca canyon. We had a 6 hour drive through the mountains, enjoying more stunning views as the dawn light illuminated the volcanoes wreathed in mist. Colca canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world at 3191m (the deepest isn't the Grand Canyon but a neighbour of Colca which is just 163m deeper), and is a very popular location for trekking. After a brief stop at Cruz del Condor - supposedly the one of the best places to see condors close-up in South America (we saw one a long way away, other than that just hundreds of tourists!), we started our hike. The first morning involved descending to the canyon floor via a steep switchbacked path. We got to see one condor fly past, using the thermals to ascend to the top of the canyon, then we continued down to the bottom. We had another good group for this trek, this time five Spanish nurses, one German and our Peruvian guide so an interesting mix of nationalities.
After three hours of descent it was a relief to finally get on flat ground, at least for a couple of minutes before we started to climb the other side. A stop for lunch and another couple of hours hiking brought us to our home for the night, a small farm on the edge of one of the towns in the canyon. We spent the evening there, playing with the local kids and chatting with the women cooking our dinner (well the Spanish contingent chatted at least).
Next morning we continued on to the oasis, an amazing place at the bottom of the canyon with luscious green foliage surrounded by the stark orange walls of the canyon. We got there by lunchtime and got to spend the afternoon relaxing by the pool and in the gardens, all very nice.
The next morning we were up at 4.30am, ready to start the ascent of the canyon at 5.00. The climb wasn't as hard as I'd feared, and we got to enjoy a beautiful sunrise as the sun slowly crept up the valley, the rays gradually illuminating the far side of the canyon. We reached the top in time for breakfast and a walk round the local town of Cabanaconde before driving back to the head of the canyon at Chivay. Here we got to enjoy the thermal baths, very nice for soothing aching muscles. Then it was time to return to Cusco, getting back with the sunset for a quick dinner and early bed.
The next morning I returned to the monastery for more pictures as the light was much better (obsessed about taking pictures, me?), before hopping on the bus to Puno. We passed through some amazing volcanic plains, the barren landscape interrupted by herds of grazing llamas and vicuñas (a close cousin of llamas), before gradually entering greener landscapes. We arrived in Puno on the shores of lake Titicaca after dark, and I just had time to set up a tour for the next day and grab dinner before falling into bed.
The next day I joined an organised tour for a trip to some of the islands on Lake Titicaca. Our first stop was at the floating islands, an amazing collection of islands formed from reeds that literally float on the lake. They were originally constructed by tribes seeking shelter from the Incas, and have been maintained ever since. Today, the islands only cater for tourists and the inhabitants pretty much rely on the hundreds of tourists visiting for their livelyhoods. Whilst it was overly touristy, it was still fascinating to see the islands and learn a little about the lifestyle of the inhabitants.
After this we motored across across the lake for an hour or so, enjoying the sun and stunning views across the vast expanse. We then stopped at the island of for lunch and a walk around. Again, it was horribly touristy, with hundreds of tour groups and the associated street sellers, but the island itself was stunning, with beautiful views over the lake.
We returned back to Puno in the early evening, where I spent my last night in Peru before Heading for Bolivia. Peru has been an amazing place, and I've loved (almost) every minute of it. So now I'm looking forward to what Bolivia has to offer.