Into the Wild
Permit me a moment of orientation: we left you last, with many wishes for the New Year, in the rainforest town of Yurimaguas in northern Peru. Less than an hour after posting our last blog update, we headed down to the port and caught a long boat to the town of Lagunas, with seats for roughly sixty passengers and a toilet with the latest in privacy provisions (a sheet of material on a string to draw around you). For several hours, we travelled along the Huallaga River; wide and muddy, the colour of milky coffee, and bordered by thick rainforest most of the way, aside from a few communities of stilt houses with thatched palm roofs.
Though the population of Lagunas numbers more than 10,000 people, there is no cash machine, the bank runs on electricity from a generator, the ‘main road’ is differentiated from others by way of that fact that it is tarmacked, and, though there were meant to be a few hours of power each evening, we quickly learnt that aside from generators this was not the case, and that evening we remained in the dark as much as the other thousands of people.
After settling into our hotel, we walked to the office of the agency for our rainforest trip. Talking to Miguel, the president, we discovered that Huayruro Tours is more of an association of guides. The guides take turns, between guiding work, to enter the reserve for stretches of ten days at a time in order to protect the area, earning nothing in return except the right to fish for their meals. The reserve is vast, comparable in size (and please forgive the British newsreader explanation) to Wales (honestly, there is only about a 0.2% difference!). By way of providing a more varied perspective, that makes the reserve larger than the land area of Slovenia, Israel, or El Salvador, and more than twice the size of my beloved Cyprus. There are several entrances into the reserve which can be accessed from different town and cities in the Amazonian basin of northern Peru, but we decided to leave from the Lagunas entrance as we thought that with its lack of jungle lodges and motorised canoes we might just find what we were searching for: an unadulterated, really wild experience in the rainforest. We settled on sixteen days, simply because the tourist zone extending away from this entrance could be covered in twelve days and we wanted to see more, wanted to go just a touch further than the usual. We were shown the rough route we would be taking on a map the size of one of the walls. The reserve was named Pacaya-Samiria after the two main rivers which run through it; our journey would consist of travelling down the Samiria River for roughly seven days, then back again, with a diversion along the way to a large lake.
The next morning, we met our two guides, Llefri and Octavio. After a half hour ride in a moto-taxi along a bumpy dirt track, we arrived at our starting point: PV8. PV8 was the last in a series of government Puestos de vigilancia, Points of Vigilance, arranged along the entire river, a wooden house on stilts, luxuriously equipped with a radio as a means of communication (and evidently, vigilance) with the other PVs. In the shallow river next to PV8, Llefri began emptying water out of the bottom of a dugout canoe which looked suspiciously small to carry four people and provisions for sixteen days, whilst Octavio and several other members of the agency organised supplies and began loading up the canoe. The items packed ranged from the staple (a binliner full of bread rolls, two barrels of water, three trays of eggs) to the thoughtful (glass jars of strawberry jam, a sandwich bag of garlic cloves for flavouring, two pineapples), and all were bagged up or contained in some way to protect them from the water and weather. Llefri climbed in and sat at the front, Octavio at the back, two thin foam mattresses were folded up to make our seats, and Sam and I stepped aboard our home, sweet home, for the next sixteen days.
The first half hour of rowing was along a narrow tributary called the Tibilo. After the excitement and flurry of our departure, I settled into my wildlife-watching pose, keenly staring all around me at the trees, the dark mirror of the water, any sign of movement. We shortly reached the Samiria River, the highway for our journey. At its inception, it was essentially a small, fairly fast flowing river of dark, glassy-brown water. Our first couple of sightings — a few Common Squirrel Monkeys rustling in the trees close by and Blue and Yellow Macaws squawking overhead — were incredibly exciting. For lunch, we stopped at a small thatched structure on stilts, which had one ‘room’ and, biggest surprise of all, a sit-on western toilet (no flush, of course). The guides started a fire in a trough-like pit to one side of the structure and cooked us our lunch, then we set off once again. Over the next few hours, I relaxed into it a bit; since the majority of each day would be spent paddling along in the canoe, I simply couldn’t maintain such a level of alertness and what’s more, didn’t need to, what with the eyes of both guides and Sam, who turned out to be by far the better spotter of the two of us.
That night, we stayed at Poza Gloria camp, several thatched, stilt buildings, with rooms, beds and more sit-on toilets. Our evening wash was a swim in the deliciously fresh river.
And so the days unfolded. They all followed a similar structure: meals divided the day into a morning and an afternoon session, both of which were usually spent rowing. During the first week in particular, as we travelled downstream and therefore rowing was easier and the pace faster, we sometimes only had one session of paddling in the canoe and spent the other half of the day going for a walk through the jungle or on a fishing expedition to catch food for the guides.
For lunch, the guides would either make use of a handy cabaña libre, an open structure on stilts with a thatched roof and fire pit to one side, or simply pull over and make a fire close to the bank. Being vegetarian, our food ranged from rice or spaghetti mixed with a tomato sauce with fried onions and cabbage, to fried potato or fried/boiled banana, either sweet banana or plantain, accompanied by eggs cooked in different ways: hard-boiled, fried, made into omelettes.
Our accommodation for the nights varied. For night two we stayed in PV7, and being a fancy government building and all, we got to stay in a room with a bed, but most nights we either strung up our mosquito net and laid out our mattresses on the floor of a cabaña libre (being careful to position ourselves in a choice spot in case it rained, as the quality of the thatched roofs significantly decreased the further we got into the reserve and away from the more frequently used tourist facilities), or the guides made a camp in the jungle, assembled by hanging tarpaulins over a structure of thin branches they cut from trees. After the first couple of evenings, and much to our dismay, we couldn’t swim in the river anymore: due to caiman, it was simply too dangerous. Instead, we used a plastic tub from the assortment of cooking items to scoop up water whilst stood on the river’s bank, as our means of taking a shower.
The rigidity that timekeeping inadvertently exerts over usual life began to dissolve; with no time-telling devices besides our cameras, we lived by the light and so I am pretty sure that we went to bed between 7-9 p.m. each evening, shortly after darkness, and woke up between 6-8 a.m.
Small tricks that my mind played over the first few days demonstrated how much the world we humans have constructed is so integrated into our cognition. One evening, for a good half an hour, I thought in the back of my mind that the full moon rising behind the trees was a street lamp. I mistook certain bird calls for the honking of cars and insects for car alarms. Slowly these moments faded and I settled into the reality, and simplicity, of the nature around us.
The further we travelled, the fewer people we met. Although there was a vague tourist zone marked on maps, in reality visitors rarely spend more than six days in the reserve, and as we were also visiting during the rainy and therefore low season, once we were three days deep, the only other people we saw were those in the odd passing motorised dugout from a community in the reserve, or the people posted at the PVs.
The Carnival of the Animals
The river was the centre of our trip, the thread which bound it together. We were sat in the canoe for more than six hours on most days, and so as not to scare away wildlife, we generally maintained silence. This meant that the many hours stretched over the sixteen days became a sort of process, a quiet contemplation and meditation as we slowly glided through the green world. The deep black colour of the river created a mirror world, reflecting the jungle in saturated tones, which flickered as water boatmen darted around on the surface. What I can only assume is a type of parasitic vine thickly covered entire sections of the jungle here and there. We passed huge, thick spiders’ webs, sometimes stretching more than four metres and wrapping foliage in dusty white. Approaching logs semi-submerged in the river, we would often hear a series of plops as small river turtles slid into the water. Sometimes bats would flit from one branch to another, so well concealed when they were resting that their heads were faint bumps and their bodies couldn’t be seen at all. We turned over thoughts which popped into our heads, considering and mixing the internal and external.
On day 2, we came to a bend where two rivers merged, and heard loud snorting, gusts of water. Dolphins. They were surfacing and exhaling through their blowholes, offering us tantalising glimpses of small fins or the shiny skin of their backs. We were incredibly excited and madly attempted to photograph each appearance, trying to guess where they would surface. Looking back, our animated behaviour makes me laugh: dolphins became our most frequent encounter by far: Multiple times a day, and increasing in frequency the further we travelled along the river, we would hear snorting and splashing and see the curve of a body, or several, surface. By the end I could distinguish between the smaller Grey Dolphins and the larger Pink River Dolphins. Occasionally we saw an exuberant individual jumping, but usually they would just surface enough for us to see a thin grey nose, or in the case of the Pink River Dolphins, the beautiful pink of their bodies and the odd melon shape bump on their heads.
A number of times, we came across Giant Otters. They were always in groups, disappearing under the water with a plop, then taking it in turns to poke their long necks up, meerkat-style, and call out to each other, a sound like someone rolling their rrrs loudly or a stuttering machine gun. They had a funny urgent, confused expression, if you will forgive the anthropomorphism, and sleek brown fur with a large patch of white on their throats. On one occasion, we came across a couple of tiny individuals chomping on fish, which turned out to be the smaller, but similar, Neotropical Otter.
Despite being the rainy season, the weather was by and large sunny and extremely hot. Sometimes there would be a well-timed downpour during breakfast or lunch and we would wait it out, and occasionally we rowed along in drizzle. We were only caught out in two rainstorms, which turned the world around us grey, made the chances of spotting wildlife almost zero, and confined us to sitting rigidly under thick ponchos, like two uncomfortable peas in a pod, trying not to let the puddles of water gathering in the folds drain through any holes.
All day, every day, we were accompanied by the symphony (or cacophony) of the rainforest. Birds squawked, honked, chirped, tweeted, pecked a rhythm on trunks; one bird, I haven’t been able to find the English name, sang a short melody throughout the day and night which I would wake up singing or hum for hours in the canoe. It became usual to hear male Red Howler Monkeys howling each morning (nature providing us with an alarm) and most evenings, a sound like the wind roaring, a guttural warbling, which the females of the troop would add to with a staccato ‘yuk-yuk-yuk’. Dolphins snorted, otters stuttered, and occasionally a long drawn-out whistle descending in pitch would signal the presence of a sloth nearby. Llefri had an incredible repertoire of noises, and engaged in call-and-response with a number of birds, monkey species and sloths. Although we slowly learnt to distinguish certain animals, the soundscape around us remained a layered mystery, but we realised that for both guides it was like hearing conversations all around them spoken in their own language. At night, the noises changed. The loud croaking of frogs and buzzing of insects were a constant theme. On a number of occasions a Rufescent Tiger Heron would take a starring role, their name in Spanish translating as puma heron due to its big cat-like moan, though it reminded me more of plaintive mooing.
Although I have visited the Amazon rainforest on a number of occasions, in reserves and parks in both Bolivia and Brazil, this tour was unique in its use of a canoe without a motor. Without a doubt, we saw so much more wildlife because of it.
Within a few days we had seen eight species of monkey. Common Squirrel Monkeys, small and yellowish, were generally unfussed by our presence and foraged for food along branches close to us. We also got near groups of Black-Chested Moustached Tamarins, so tiny that one could sit in the palm of my hand and coloured black all over with a white beard, though if we drifted too close they would cry out in warning to each other with high-pitched squeaks. A number of times we saw the Red Howler Monkeys in action, pulling faces as though they were playing brass instruments as they howled from the branches of taller trees. Common Woolly Monkeys, large and grey, would dangle from high branches, nonchalantly eating or peering at us. We saw shaggy Monk Saki Monkeys, sometimes with fluffy babies clinging to their backs, Brown Capuchin Monkeys which often hung out in groups with the Squirrel Monkeys, and on one occasion came across the nocturnal Black-Headed Night Monkey peering out from behind the trunk of a tree.
The howling of male Red Howler Monkeys is answered by females of the troop
The reserve was also a birdwatcher’s paradise. We saw numerous birds of prey, such as a Black-Collared Hawk eating fish close to the lunch cabaña on day one, Great Black Hawks calling out with a piercing whistle, and Black Vultures circling on the thermal winds above us. The discordant squawks of Blue and Yellow Macaws became normal, and we frequently saw them flying over us, almost always in pairs as they mate for life. Toucans, we discovered, look hilarious when they fly, interspersing hurried flapping with moments where they pull in their wings and tail feathers and dart forwards like bullets. We saw two species, the larger White-Throated Toucan and the smaller, but more brightly coloured, Lettered Aracari. We saw spotted numerous waterbirds, from the burnished brown and blue-grey of the Rufescent Tiger Heron, to the silvery grey of spindly Cocoi herons. Iridescent kingfishers sat on thin branches close to the river’s edge, and here and there we encountered cormorants diving into the water. We also saw various woodpecker species tapping away at trunks, some with bright red streaks on their head, others with bodies mottled with different shades of brown. I conscientiously wrote down all the Spanish names and it took Sam and I many hours poring over a ‘Birds of Peru’ book Miguel lent us upon our return as well as internet guides, in order to identify the sheer number of birds we saw; even now we still have a small handful we cannot work out.
A Lakeful of Sky
Aside from the contemplation and wildlife spotting of our canoe journeys, the rainforest had many more details to show us. By lunchtime of day three we had arrived at our cabaña libre for the night, so during the afternoon we went for a short row down a fork in the river and came to a field of aquatic plants, covering the water so thickly that it looked like the guides were trying to row through solid green ground. Their hench arms prevailed though, and soon we came to huge floating lily pads, big enough for me to sit cross-legged on had they been able to hold my weight. That evening, we celebrated the New Year in great style, by being in bed by eight and muttering ‘Happy New Year’ to each other when we happened to wake at the same time at some point in the night. The rainforest makes for one hell of a crazy party place.
In the evening of day four, as I washed by the river bank, Sam informed me that my back, bum and thighs were covered in huge red mosquito bites. Squatting to pee was a distinct disadvantage when it came to the hordes of hungry mozzies, and after hours of sitting in the canoe these bites became very irritated and developed (yes, I’m sure you want to know) into a kind of nappy rash. Needless to say I was very uncomfortable, and by lunchtime of the next day, not in the best of moods. We had pulled over, and whilst the guides cooked our lunch, Sam found something to cheer me up, one of the most minutely perfect animals I have ever seen: a frog smaller than the word frog, about the size of a fingernail. The more we looked, the more we found these tiny brown blobs jumping around the leafy forest floor. You’ll be pleased to know, the bites and rash soon cleared up and though there were a few mosquitoes at every camp, I was by and large left alone after that. I also had a run-in with a huge wasp on day two, which was at least five centimetres long and had stung me on my side-boob (technical term), leaving the area sore and patchy red for a couple of days but otherwise unharmed.
For nights six and seven, we camped on the corner of a t-junction created by the Samiria River flowing past Caño Pastococha, Pastococha Canyon. It was a beautiful spot, and seemed to be a congregation point for dolphins from the frequency of snorts and glimpses.
On day seven we made a diversion, leaving the Samiria and rowing up the canyon for a few hours. Towards the end, the waterway slowly began to widen and more aquatic plants gathered at the banks. Llefri began to make a loud gulping sort of noise. Out of sight, and to our astonishment, we heard many similar, but lower and louder, gulping noises and several splashes. Llefri was playing call-and-response with the Black Caiman.
Suddenly the river opened up and we were rowing across an immense lake. Until that moment we hadn’t realised how enclosed within the rainforest we had been for six days. The guides rowed us into the middle, their oars dipping into the reflections of the cloudy sky, as huge black and green dragonflies flitted around the canoe. The long elegant necks of Great Egrets poked out of areas of dense aquatic plants and reeds. In the middle there was a rusty iron structure, the remnant of a petroleum storage unit from a company which exported rainforest products from the area before the reserve was formed roughly fifty years ago. We ate a picnic lunch floating next to the structure and we had a lovely bonding moment when, in my desperation and being at least one hour from the entrance back into the canyon, I had to move to the back of the canoe and wee off the edge whilst the others looked away.
On our way back to camp, we spotted an eagle (as yet unidentified in English) which was evidently close to the nest of a couple of Social Flycatchers, as they dived and trilled at the great bird until it flew off, and Llefri spied a nest with a couple of Hoatzin chicks. We also saw two Brown-Throated Sloths, one high in a tree which turned its head slowly to look at us when Llefri imitated the long whistle of its species, and the other very close to the water level. Llefri scaled the tree trunk and brought the sloth into the boat. I was very hesitant, but the sloth seemed to exhibit no signs of distress, merely turning its head now and then to look at us with what, quite frankly, can best be described as the expression of the world’s most chilled-out stoner.
On night seven, after darkness had fallen but before the full moon had risen high into the sky, we all climbed into the canoe and rowed a short distance down the canyon waterway. We were as absolutely silent as we could be as the guides flicked their powerful head torches into the leaves of the submerged trees on either side of the river. Slowly, they would row the canoe closer to the edge and lift up a branch, and two huge eyes caiman eyes would gleam back in the torchlight. If we made too much noise or got too close, the caiman would disappear under the water with a thunderous splash which suggested its vast size and added to the creeping tension of the activity. In less than an hour, the guides found nineteen Black Caiman in the water. The last had such a long head and made such a crashing splash as it disappeared that the guides estimated it to be about five metres long.
After our day’s detour to visit Pastococha Lake, we continued for one more day along the Samiria until we reached PV6, the final point of our journey downstream. There we met the jovial and very welcoming Manuel, and because his month on rotation covered the festive period, his family were visiting him as well. For the next couple of nights we all became a mini-community: Sam played football with Llefri and Manuel’s young son as our host regaled me with stories from previous postings, in particular, his work with native rainforest tribes which had previously had little or no outside contact.
We stayed at PV6 for two nights, taking the full day in-between to explore the area. We found patterned shards of pottery from a tribe which must have inhabited the area before the reserve was made, came across a Yellow-Footed Tortoise, and passed an armadillo hole and tapir tracks. We climbed many large mounds of fine soil which turned out to be anthills. At a few of these, we saw Leafcutter Ants marching into multiple entrances, carrying large fragments of foliage in their mouths. Manuel informed us, backed up by both guides, that the mother of these ants was a white, chirping two-headed snake which lives in the centre of the anthill, and as we approached another of these hills, we heard this noise emitting from within. We recorded the sound with our microphone; make of it what you will.
Llefri also spotted the perfect print of a jaguar paw, fresh from the night before. This, and a small pile of shit on a previous walk, was the closest we came to the elusive cat. In the combined eighteen years of guiding experience between our two guides, the number of jaguar sightings can be counted on two hands.
The afternoon was spent piranha fishing. The two canoes carrying us and Manuel’s family slowly drifted down the river until an advancing storm chased us back to PV6.
The World’s Pharmacy
On the morning of day ten, having waved Manuel and his family goodbye, we began our journey back. Travelling upstream was very different: the pace was unsurprisingly much slower, and the distance travelled each day shorter. We hugged the banks a lot more, crossing the river at bends to be on the inside curve where the flow of the current was less. This changed the nature of the wildlife we encountered, spotting smaller animals that live on and around the banks. We saw the venomous Tiger Rat Snake in a tangle of thin vines on the riverbank. We caught a glimpse of a bright orange Smooth Machete Savane before it slithered away when the canoe drifted too close. On day thirteen when we were close to reaching PV7, our stop for the night, we came across the most beautiful of all the reptiles we encountered: a Common Anaconda. It was resting on a bush above the water, its five-metre-long body in loops, its skin an olive colour with spots of bright yellow and black. I was excitable as a child: finding an adult of this size at this time of year is unusual and it had been one of the top animals I most wanted to see.
We were received at PV7 by Juan, who we had met on our journey downstream, the government worker currently on rotation and a veteran guide with more than thirty years of experience. The next morning over breakfast, he told me the story of a visit to Pastococha Lake he made at night with a shaman fifteen years ago. Using a cigar of pure tobacco, the shaman called up two guardians of the lake, the greatly feared and highly dangerous Tigre Negro. Throughout our whole journey we had heard mention of this beast, and Juan filled us in with more details: it was the size of a bull, with a gigantic head and paws which made the earth thunder as it walked, and brought nightmares to sleeping men. He also told us about sirens, mermaid in form when above the water, nymph-like below, which can pull a man into a whirlpool they create in the river if they fall in love with him, and of a water-snake which the shamans have a bond with, which can transform into an illuminated, round, flying object when out of the water. The two guides joined in with extra details they knew, then the conversation shifted to the medicinal properties of various jungle plants. The rainforest is well known as the world’s pharmacy, but I bet you don’t know exactly how to make remedies for male impotence (there are many, oh so many), or how vaginal juices and cut-up pubic hairs can save your life after certain insect stings and bites.
That morning, we went for our last walk. Sam tried his first ever maggot, pulled from a fallen tree nut, and Octavio found a Smoky Jungle Frog in a small hole, its skin a light brown fading into a blue grey and marked with irregular black splodges and lines. Sam kept his cool very well when a Bullet Ant, so called because its sting causes twenty-four hours of pain akin to being shot, crawled inside his t-shirt under his chin and he had to wait tensely until it crawled out and Llefri could flick it off. We came to a palm tree with a large bristle of acai fruit, fifteen metres up its slender trunk. Llefri scaled the trunk of the tree next to it, and hacked off the bundle of bristles with a machete. It came whizzing down, and we all pitched in, pulling off the black fruit and collecting it in a white sack which weighed more than twenty kilograms by the time we had gathered them all. I got side-tracked at one point by several weevils, large beetles with funny trunks, which came crawling out of the bristles. That evening we had a tasty juice made by grinding the boiled acai fruit and adding sugar and water, among other ingredients.
Over the last few days, the guides took the opportunity to fish more, in order to take some back, preserved with salt, for their families to eat. On a drizzly morning, when the fish gathered at the river’s edges amid the reeds to escape the rain, Sam tried his hand at spear fishing and was, to his own surprise most of all, successful on a number of occasions.
We could tell we were slowly withdrawing out of the jungle. Over the last few days, we passed a several canoefuls of tourists, and we found out that twenty-two people from our agency alone had entered and left the reserve without us crossing paths in the time we had been on our journey. By the time we arrived back at Poza Gloria, which had been our camp for night one, it felt like a luxury resort with its toilet unit and so many beds, as well as being a buzzing centre of activity with twenty or so people.
The jungle had just a few more things it wanted to show us. On the morning of day fifteen, as breakfast was being cooked, Llefri heard the squawk of a Red and Green Macaw. As we hadn’t had much of a chance to see this species closely, let alone for Sam to photograph them, Llefri rowed us across the river and quietly tracked the noise until we found a female, her head poking out of the hollow of a tree. She flew out of the hollow, where Llefri thought her eggs may have been, and sat on a branch meticulously cleaning her feathers for the long day ahead.
On our last day, we had only three hours of rowing in the morning. The river was once again narrow and fast flowing, and we cut through a lot of small channels where the guides had to paddle madly, so strong was the current. Midway through the morning, we pulled over for me to go to the toilet and the guides warned me to watch out for snakes as the undergrowth was particularly thick. Once we set off again, we came across a Common Lancehead snake only twenty metres down the same bank, its patterned body bulging from a recent meal. When we asked if the guides could row us closer, as they had often been doing, they vehemently refused, informing us that this snake can lance you at three metres and is so poisonous that its venom can kill a human in less than two hours. Wide-eyed, I stared back at my toilet spot.
An hour later, we rounded a corner and there we were, back at PV8. We unloaded the canoe and loaded up a moto-taxi, the buzz of its engine such a weird noise to our rainforest ears. We bumped along the dirt track back to Lagunas, disturbing bright yellow and orange Sulphur Butterflies which were puddled in groups along the way.
Re-entering the human world once again was a slow process. We began with Lagunas, with its dirt roads, houses, and hordes of moto-taxis. During our first shower, our shampoo and conditioner smelled weird, really weird, a chemical mix that we couldn’t believe we had liked. It took about a week before they were back to smelling ‘normal’. We then took the long boat back to Yurimaguas. It had tarmacked roads, restaurants with veggie food, electricity and even WiFi internet. A shared-taxi ride later, we arrived in the city of Tarapoto, still in the rainforest, but large enough to have a range of restaurants and great, clean accommodation, and for a couple of days we just chilled out, starting to work our way through all the photographs, and ordering so much pizza.
Aside from a couple of major tourist hotspots, our trip through Peru so far had entailed a lot of wandering off the gringo trail. However, once we left the Andes and moved towards the coast, looping back to make our way north towards Lima and beyond, we began following a well-trodden traveller route.
When we arrived in Huacachina, we were somewhat culture shocked. Our first impression of the beautiful oasis in the desert, fringed with palm trees and a handful of streets, was the evident influence of so many travellers: dreadlocked gringos wandered between blankets laid out by others travellers displaying handmade jewellery, restaurants were overpriced, and locals spoke English. It was all a touch tacky and so unrelated to Peru that it could have been supplanted from any touristy spot if it wasn’t for the unusual setting.
Seeing as inflation was evident in the price of accommodation as well as food, we checked into our first dorm since Sam joined me. This turned out to be an excellent move. The couple of nights we stayed there were characterised by a series of raucous drinking games as we got to know our dorm mates. The main new friends comprised of two Aussie guys travelling together, Paddy and Chris, an Aussie girl called Hannah and two Swedish friends both called Daniel, who we to referred to as R2 and D2 to avoid confusion.
Wandering around the next day, the charm of the place began to shine through the initial impressions. We ate at a restaurant overlooking the oasis, appreciating the vast sand dunes surrounding us and amused by the spectacle of R2 and D2 drifting around the water of the oasis on a pedalo, enjoying what appeared to be a romantic man-date as both sung along to the tunes R2 was strumming on his guitar, until their pedalo became entangled in a buoy and they had to be rescued.
The main draw of the place also did a lot to convince us of its worth. In the afternoon we climbed aboard a large dune buggy along with R2, D2, four other travellers and a driver. We drove up out of the oasis and after cresting a large sand dune, we were greeted by the sight of a vast rolling desertscape, utterly beautiful and only interrupted by the sight of a handful of other dune buggies whizzing about.
For the next couple of hours, we careered up and down the often extreme gradients of the sand dunes at high speed, an experience I found more exhilarating than most rollercoasters. We stopped intermittently at the top of choice dunes, unloaded sandboards and zoomed down on our bellies. The advantage of being shorter than most of our male-dominant group, meant that I could fit almost all of my body onto the board and, apparently, comically looked like a penguin whizzing down ice. We watched the sun set, then rolled back down to the oasis just as the light faded.
Poor Man’s Galapagos
We left the oasis with pockets full of sand grains which continued to pervade our clothes for the next week, and headed for the coastal village of Paracas. Here, too, the influence of tourists was also evident; the place essentially consisted of a beachside strip of shabby hostels, souvenir stands and restaurants selling unexciting, expensive food, and the only saving graces were the glorious weather and the pelicans bobbing about in the shallow water or waddling on the beach.
However, our reason for the stopover was worthwhile. A boat tour enabled us to visit a small archipelago of three stony islands and twenty-one islets collectively called the Islas. On the way we paused to admire a geoglyph scooped out of the sand in the shape of a candelabra, 177 metres in height. Its origins and purpose are unknown, though there are many theories ranging from a pre-Incan culture of the area creating it as a representation of a holy cactus they used in religious rituals, to a marker made by international pirates to guide passing boats.
When we reached the islands we did not disembark, due both to the high concentration of wildlife and the extreme amount of guano; an agro-rural scheme manages the collection of guano from the islands every eight years, and the last collection yielded 4600 tonnes. We cruised around, admiring the natural arches and caves which provide shelter for a number of species. We passed two beaches of South American Common Sea Lions, often even more cumbersome on land and rock than usual due to pregnancy, and spotted several penguins waddling over a slope of rock towards the sea to go for a group fishing expedition. We also saw Peruvian Boobys clung to the cliffs, Turkey Vultures (whose excretion, FYI, is antiseptic, just on the off chance that that fact ever comes in handy) and multiple species of cormorants, including a colony of Guano Cormorants 40,000 strong and covering the slope of one of the islands as thickly as bees swarming around a hive.
Ghost Town to Manic Metropolis
By the time we reached our next destination, we were, once again, off the gringo trail. We took a bus north with only Peruvians as fellow passengers, then a small minibus into the city of the region and finally, a tiny, beaten-up minibus which wheezed its way through a mountainous valley of vineyards and apple orchards to drop us off in the town of Lunahuaná. Immediately upon disembarking, we had a sensation which I’ve experience time and time again on this trip: that we were somehow missing a vital piece of information. The town was a dusty conglomeration of half-finished buildings and many tour agencies, but absolutely no tourists, Peruvian or gringo, despite the fact that the high season had begun. The coral-coloured church in the main square, the beauty of the location, the three-storey colonial hostel we had absolutely to ourselves, and the fact that it seemed like our town to explore made the place delightful to us.
We had been attracted there by a guidebook tip-off about a series of zip lines rumoured to be among Latin America’s longest. However, walking between the tour agencies, we were quickly informed that the lines would be closed for the next six months for maintenance. Not disheartened, we booked a white-water rafting session instead. The river wasn’t quite at its highest yet, but nonetheless we enjoyed rushing downstream, bouncing off the occasionally rock and frantically rowing when our guide commanded.
After our quick stopover, we moved on to Lima just for a couple of nights, in order to peruse the electronic section of the large market that we discovered on our previous visit, to restock on a couple of items. Upon reading a tiny notation on a map provided by our hostel, I found a small alley of bookshops selling second-hand, old and rare books. Though most were, unsurprisingly, written in Spanish, one of the owners climbed a ladder up several shelves to gather a few dusty English volumes from which I picked my next read.
A Brief Ascent
Of all the stops during the three weeks of our faster travelling pace, our final choice proved to be the place where we most wished we had more time. The city of Huaraz, locked in a valley created by the Cordillera Blanca mountain range to the east and Cordillera Negro to the west, is the point of access to a set of apparently stunning temple ruins and the base camp for many treks as well as climbing and ice-climbing expeditions. After an overnight bus journey, the first day we just about managed a short outing to the small ruins of Wilcahuaín, a three tier temple. We entered each tier via an incredibly low door which required Sam to nearly bend in half and wandered between several rooms where mummies would have originally been housed. The rest of the day Sam was confined to the bed, the slightly flu-like symptoms, pins and needles, and headache all suggestive of altitude sickness; it didn’t matter that we’d spent over seven weeks at high altitude, we had descended for a week and altitude sickness is not consistent in its choice of people to affect and severity with which to attack.
We did have enough time for one day trip. Along with a minibus load of mostly Peruvian tourists, we toured a small area of the valley accompanied by the dark mountains of the Cordillera Negro on one side and the glacial peaks of the many mountains of the Cordillera Blanca on the other. We drove between small towns selling artisan ice cream (including a beer flavour), pots of a sweet gooey candy (which they like to eat on bread??), and pottery (after a demonstration using a pottery wheel, the owner also showed us a magic teapot he created, where the liquid is poured into the bottom and yet when the teapot is righted, none spills out but is elegantly poured from the spout as usual).
The most sombre part of the day was our visit to Yungay. In 1970, an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale, caused great devastation in this part of Peru, killing half of Huaraz’s inhabitants and causing an avalanche of rock, ice and snow from the highest mountain the country, which barrelled its way downhill at speeds of 200 miles/hour, wiping out the town of Yungay along with its 25,000 inhabitants in three minutes flat. Only 92 people who sprinted up the steps of the elevated cemetery and 300 who were at a circus in the stadium were saved; the entire town was buried. Now, the site has been declared a national cemetery and excavations are prohibited. The area has been created into a garden, and the only remains of the original town visible are a few remains of the main plaza such as the trunks of four shabby looking palm trees and the ruins of what would have been the top of the church. The rest of the town was seven metres under the ground and it was an eerie and sad feeling to consider the tragedy that had occurred beneath our feet.
Our final stop of the day was Lagunas Llanganuco, a vast turquoise lake surrounded by mountains. A local rowed us out into the centre in a tiny boat so that we could admire the incredible surroundings.
So Here It Is
After our sprint up the coast for the last few weeks, we reached our arbitrarily chosen spot for Christmas. As a special treat we had booked an apartment (cheaper and available because, as the owner not so subtly informed us, people really are with their families at Christmas), which had an excessive three bedrooms, two bathrooms, balcony with an ocean view and most importantly, a kitchen WITH AN OVEN, an absolute novelty in Peru, so that Sam could cook a Christmas meal.
We were extremely lucky with our random choice. The small village turned out to be one of my favourite spots so far. It was originally a fishing village, and many tiny reed totora boats were still rowed out by fishermen, but it had also become known as a great surf spot and attracted its fair share of both travellers and Peruvian tourists and locals. Although it was more touristy than some places, it hadn’t quite seemed to realise it; it had a variety of restaurants with tasty, unusual menus and yet the prices were very reasonable; it was a beautiful spot but not yet overdeveloped; it had its fair share of gringos but hadn’t fallen prey to blaring nightclubs and excessive drinking.
One day, we did a little sightseeing in the neighbouring city of Trujillo. The main square was surrounded by colonial buildings painted in pastel shades of blue, red and yellow, with swirling wrought-iron grills over the windows and carved wooden balconies. The square also won the prize for the most over-the-top exhibition of Christmas trees I have ever seen: there were no fewer than 14 huge trees dotted around, each of an individual design, from a shiny one decorated with CDs flashing in the sun to an Eiffel Tower inspired creation. We popped into the yellow cathedral and found its ceiling decorated with imitations of famous works of art which had been adapted, such as Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam with an entirely new background landscape.
Apart from admiring the beauty of its colonial buildings, we also utilised our trip to the city to go shopping. We found a large supermarket, and with some Christmas money from family members, we did our Christmas food shop. After more than nine months of travelling, choosing and cooking your own food becomes unbelievably exciting, so this was a real treat and even I had to admit, when we arrived back in the apartment and unloaded everything onto the table, that we may have gone overboard. Just a tad.
Only a few hours after we had first arrived in the seaside village, we ran into a traveller friend from earlier in my trip called Marty. On Christmas Eve, the three of us had our first surf lesson. Our teacher, Eduardo, demonstrated to us on the beach and we practised standing up, then we paddled out into the water and took it in turns for him to instruct us when to paddle and when to (try to) stand up. Although the waves were pretty small, I was excited that I managed to stand up on my first go and the whole session was great fun. We had the surfboards at our disposal all day, but when we went out by ourselves in the afternoon, when the waves were larger, we found it much harder to catch them.
Christmas Day felt strange. It was sunny. We could see the sea. We tried to get in the festive mood by putting a picture of a Christmas tree on the TV screen, then each opened up a present which we had wrapped in the vacuum bags we use for travelling. I skyped my family in the morning and showed them the beach through the glass doors of our apartment, which steadily became more and more crowded with cars, until by mid-afternoon it was absolutely packed, the cars several rows deep.
Sam spent the morning cooking his first ever Christmas meal. The kitchen was ill-equipped and there were a couple of disasters, such as a glass oven dish shattering and spilling Yorkshire pudding batter and shards over the floor and oven door, but when we sat down to eat our vegetarian spread of food with Marty, it was great: pizza with our own choice of toppings, broccoli, carrots, roast potatoes, and most excitingly of all for me, vegetarian gravy. For dessert Sam had prepared a fruit salad of random Peruvian fruits.
After lunch, the other two went for another surf lesson, which I had to unfortunately sit out of due to a dodgy stomach, so I took to the crowded beach and sat among the Peruvian families to be official photographer of the surf lesson.
The evening wound down with several glasses of wine back in our apartment and more helpings of fruit salad. It may not have been a conventionally Christmassy day, but it was a great one.
In celebration of our eighteen month anniversary yesterday, we had an eighteen hour bus journey overnight, travelling through the Andes and into the town of Tarapoto in the Amazonian basin. There, we parted with Marty after a great Christmas together and travelled onwards to another town in the rainforest. This morning is our last contact with the outside world for a while, as we are leaving in half an hour to take a boat for several hours to reach the starting point of our tour. We will be going into the rainforest for quite a while, so our next update won’t be for a bit longer than usual and we will be out of contact until mid January. So, we hope you all had a lovely Christmas, and Happy New Year!
The Streets of Lima
Our short stopover in Lima provided a stark contrast to our preceding environments. Arriving in the early evening, we had inadvertently coincided our taxi ride with the feverish build-up to a football match. Our expert driver (a very friendly half Mario-half Freddy Mercury look-alike) weaved through side streets and, when we had to cross the standstill traffic on the main avenues, he would lean out of the window and charm his way between cars. Busloads of fans stuck in line were interrupting the chorus of car horns with their chanting. Finally, we reached the metal door that led away from the clamour of central Lima and into the converted mansion of our hostel.
The following night had an equally tense feel. From our balcony we had a prime view to watch as, aggravated by the recent legal changes to their holiday allowance, thousands of young limeños had taken to the streets in a long, disorganised trail. Police jeeps blocked off roads, keeping the protesters and traffic from competing for the same space. After a couple of hours, the march returned past our hostel having completed its loop of the city, although more fiery with the edition of riot police, their batons and the tussles this created.
The days didn’t bring the same volatility, but were replaced with the throngs that any capital city centre attracts. Attending to the crowds were all manner of street sellers, and their wares: 3D wire puzzles, quail eggs, fresh juice and our favourite, hiding from the municipal police, a woman selling toffee apples alongside pink and purple candyfloss. At traffic lights, stalls and beggars took advantage of their targets’ inability to escape, while, in front of the first vehicles, hippies juggled, cartwheeled and threw fire as a means of funding their nomadic life. Opposite our hostel, a park, complete with escaped pet parrots adorning its trees, provided respite, though right across the road a high-end mall played host to a hive of shoppers seeking out Christmas presents for their loved ones.
Although we were able to run a few errands, it was with no regret that we left this humdrum behind to head towards an ever decreasing level of civilisation.
Chilled Out Cusco
I had a great few days alone. After a somewhat bleary start, having woken up in the early hours to wave Sam off on his trek, the hovelling-myself-away strategy began to bear fruit and my writing picked up pace. I cooked a couple of large batches of pasta so that I wouldn’t forget to eat whilst writing, and spent a lot of time in the apartment, scribbling away. To make sure that I didn’t become such a hermit that moss began to grow on me or my ability to speak to other humans became impaired, each day I went for a wander. I visited San Blas, the artsy neighbourhood of Cusco, specifically to see the famed pulpit of the church there. It was indeed an incredible piece, painstakingly carved out of one trunk of cedar wood over more than twenty years during the 17th century, and combed catholic figures with more local aspects of life, such as Peruvian fruit, to appeal and relate to the indigenous population. Another day, I had a pampering afternoon, with a relaxing massage and manicure. Those of you who know me well will realise that me having a manicure, with my intense dislike of coloured nail varnish, is almost certainly the thing which has most pushed me most out of my comfort zone in the nearly nine months of travelling, even if I did wuss out a little and opt for clear nail varnish.
A very achy and slightly sunburnt Sam returned to me after four days, and we stayed in Cusco a little longer. In the evenings we enjoyed the night life, whilst exploring further during the day. We went on the free walking tour, an activity which I have really enjoyed in other cities, but though we visited a couple of places new to me, such as Bellas Artes, the art school of Cusco, I have now visited the city a total of three times and knew most of the details the guide told us and had visited the majority of the points of interest. I hadn’t, however, made it into the cathedral yet, a beautiful building on one side of the main plaza, which turned out to be a complex of three churches. The main cathedral sat in the centre, nestled on either side by two smaller churches. It was a vast space, with a ceiling made of a continuous series of arches, the grand goldwork usual of Latin American altars, and huge bunches of flowers placed around life size figures of saintly virgins.
The most unusual activity of our last few days in Cusco, was a trip to the Sacred Valley of the Incas with a bit of a difference; instead of a sightseeing tour (as both of us were feeling ‘ruined-out’ after countless Inca sites), we opted to climb the Via Ferrata, a series of iron rungs drilled into the mountainside by professional climbers. At the bottom, we were given helmets and strapped into harnesses. Cesar, our guide, showed us how to clip ourselves into a safety wire running alongside the rungs as we climbed, so that if we slipped the fall was a maximum of five metres, rather than several hundred.
It took us over an hour to ascend three hundred metres up the vertical mountainside. Having both been rock climbers back at home, the experience of climbing the rungs was in some ways more nerve wracking, as we were used to climbing with our centre of gravity as close to the rock as possible, rather than up a ladder which required us to pull out from the rock face. Midway up, we shuffled across a wire bridge with a heart-stopping drop beneath us. At the top we sat on a ledge, still clipped into the safety wire, and ate our packed lunch whilst Cesar rigged up the rope for our descent. Our way down was a hundred metre abseil, a bouncy affair hopping from foot to foot down the rock face as Cesar lowered us each in turn.
Two Cities for the Price of One
After a couple of weeks spent in Cusco, we were ready to move on and pick up the pace, with Christmas imposing more of a time limit than we’re used to and forcing us to actually plan ahead a little more. Our next stop was the colonial city of Arequipa. The city centre was focussed around the most beautiful main plaza I’ve yet seen, with trees in blossom, a centre fountain of three tiers, each brim adorned with pigeons, a cathedral made of the white volcanic rock the city is famous for, an extremely large, glittery, and most certainly artificial, Christmas tree, all overlooked by the three volcanoes which surround the city.
The free walking tour was excellent. Our guide, with gestures even more flamboyant than Sam’s as Sam pointed out himself, led us a little way out of the city centre, across the bridge of Drawbridge Street. We walked along a boulevard lined with beautiful large houses, once the homes of Arequipa’s aristocracy before they up and moved to Lima in the 1970s, and came to the Yanahuara neighbourhood. This was a particularly charming district of the city, the buildings made of sillar, the white volcanic rock, adorned with hanging pots of geraniums and street lanterns with swirly designs. We slowly climbed the steepest street to a viewpoint, to take in the city and its volcanoes from a better vantage point. Next to the viewpoint, the façade of Saint John church had a subtle local addition: the traditional figure of the Baptist, carved out of white volcanic rock, held in one hand a guinea pig. We made our way back towards the city centre, passing a traditional local restaurant where dead guinea pigs, previously flattened by stones, were hung upon a line like stiff items of laundry. We bought a scoop of the local speciality, queso helado, from a street vendor. Literally translated, the name means cheese ice cream, but it is derived from the fact that the concoction looks like cheese, and thankfully tasted nothing like it, with hints of coconut, cinnamon, vanilla and clove.
During our further explorations of the city, the two of us also visited its most famous museum. In the early 1990s, the body of a young girl was found in the crevice of one of the volcanoes surrounding the city. Extensive archaeological investigations unearthed the bodies of four children in total within the same mountain, as well as many pieces of ceremonial pottery, figurines, and items of clothing. Similar finds have been discovered all over the area which the Inca Empire covered, with fourteen bodies found in Peru in total, all aged between 6-17 years old. The children are believed to have been sacrifices made by the Incas to the gods to stop natural disasters, handpicked from an early age specifically for their apparently appeasing good looks. When the time was right, they climbed the mountain along with priests, and after certain rituals it is thought a blow to the head ended their life and they were buried in a foetal position. The exhibits, such as the geometric designs and colours of the pottery, the small figures of llamas, the figurines of each of the children found buried alongside their bodies, and the incredible weaving of llama wool for their clothing, were amazing to see but Juanita, as she has been named, the most preserved body of the four children, was definitely the main attraction. She was housed in a darkened room, in a glass case especially designed to preserve her, half frozen over and curled up in the position she would have been buried in, her hair still amazingly intact, her skin stretched across her face, her teeth in place, her hands and fingernails shrunken but perfect in every detail. It was a strange and somewhat eerie thought to imagine the thousands of people who file through the museum every year to peer at the dead body of this young girl, especially when the culture which sacrificed her has long since died out.
While Sam had a more chilled out afternoon in our hostel one day, I chose to visit Santa Catalina Monastery. It was an incredible site, an extensive monastery spread across a whole block, a 20,000 square-metre complex, described as a city within a city. I began by walking underneath the silencio archway, which novice nuns passed under to begin their vow of silence. Throughout the complex, I passed through a number of courtyards, surrounded by arched walkways and with orange trees, crosses or fountains in their centre, and wandered along narrow streets hung with flowerpots, the walls either side painted either bright blue or a dusty red. I only saw a few other people as I looked around, so it almost felt like I had the place to myself, especially when I climbed up to a viewpoint and looked across the ‘city’. The buildings themselves were open to view, so I let myself get lost in a maze of quite large cells, kitchens, and the living quarters where the richer nuns would have lived along with a number of servants.
Another unusual and, for me, extremely exciting feature of Arequipa was an international book shop. I bought a couple of translated novels by a Peruvian author, to add to the collection of works by Latin American authors which I am devouring during the course of this trip, and I literally skipped out of the shop happily swinging the bag containing my new purchases.
The Colca Shuffle
The other reason to visit Arequipa is to trek the nearby Colca Canyon. The horrendously early start of 3 a.m. almost put us off entirely, but we napped along with everyone else in the minibus and arrived at the breakfast stop feeling a bit keener.
Once our minibus had entered the reserve, we were driving along towards the starting point of our trek when it suddenly pulled over and we all clambered out. With the fervour of the paparazzi, we began snapping photos of five condors circling on the currents close enough to us to see the detail of their eyes and the lumpy combs on the top of their heads.
At the starting point, our guide Omar introduced himself and the canyon. With a depth of 4200 metres, Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world, and has a length of 120 kilometres. Our small group set off and were quickly greeted by breathtaking views down into the gorge and across the mountains of the range. The hiking of that first morning involved a steep descent into the canyon. Incredible magma formations in the rock revealed themselves as we dropped lower, like vast church organs or waterfalls frozen in stone. Unfortunately, only two hours in, I slipped on the loose rubble and fell. An already aching knee became a painful injury, and seeing as the next couple of hours were solely downhill, so that I repeated the same action which caused my knee to give way in the first place, I was in a lot of pain and had to go painstakingly and frustratingly slowly. By the time we reached our lunch stop, we were all extremely hungry and grateful to sit down.
The afternoon trek began on a more positive note, as a large portion was either uphill or flat, so I wasn’t persistently straining my knee with the same motion. We climbed up the opposite side of the canyon from our morning descent, taking in the views as the light began to fade. Omar taught us about local fauna, weird fruit and poisonous plants which he spotted along the way, and we even sucked little red pepper corns, which were surprisingly sweet tasting to start with. We then came to a long section downhill, to reach our stop for the night, so my pace slowed to a near hobble and when it became clear that darkness would reach our end point before I did, Omar instructed Sam to carry my rucksack and he piggybacked me for the last ten minutes.
Our stop off for the night was a gathering of small bungalows built in the lush greenness of an oasis in the canyon. Omar had me down there in time to relax by the pool, just before darkness fell, with the rest of our group who had, unsurprisingly, arrived quite a while beforehand. As the oasis had no electricity, once it was dark, the starry sky was extremely bright and incredibly beautiful.
An extremely early bedtime meant that the 5 a.m. start the next morning wasn’t as bad as it might have been. The lack of breakfast, however, became the killer. I had refused to take a mule up to the end point of the trek, stubbornly insisting that my body could cope. The final stretch of our trek involved an ascent of 1000 metres in altitude, an incredibly steep and heart pounding exertion, made more of a strain by the altitude. Upon discovery of a packet of biscuits in the side pocket of my rucksack, given to me by my best friend during my brief visit back to the UK two months ago, we hungrily munched down the crumby remains and had enough energy to push on to the top. The moment that the pathway eventually levelled out, the group felt unbelievably triumphant and after a sit down, we proceeded to the nearby village for the breakfast we had very definitely earned. The rest of the day, the minibus drove us back towards Arequipa, breaking up the journey with stops. We stopped by a market where we tried sancayo, the very sour fruit of a cactus. Our achy muscles were somewhat eased by an hour relaxing in some thermal baths. Later, during lunch in a small town, a parade in honour of the Immaculate Conception passed us by as we ate overlooking the main plaza. Each group of women, all dressed in the beautiful and intricately decorated local costume, was led by men dressed in the exact same clothes, a tradition derived from a time when men had to be creative in order to make their advances on the women without being noticed by the parents. We also climbed out of the minibus very briefly at the highest point during the journey back, which is also the highest altitude we have yet been on this trip: 4910 metres.
Slightly worse for wear but still in good spirits, we left Arequipa and moved on to our next stop, dropping to our lowest altitude in weeks and making our way nearer the coast, to the city of Nazca.
Nazca has one main attraction, a sight with which I have been slightly obsessed for the last five years, ever since I first visited Peru during my gap year travels.
The next morning, we were picked up and transferred to a very small airport where we watched a video about what we were going to see, then the two of us boarded a tiny, two-passenger plane, along with two pilots. We took off and levelled out over the Nazca Desert, and the pilots began pointing below us.
For the next hour we flew over the famous Nazca Lines, and the less famous and more recently discovered Palpa Lines. Even after decades of research, the lines remain a mystery. Vast figures, often hundreds of metres in size, have been created by lifting the reddish pebbles of the desert to reveal the white-grey ground beneath. These depict geometric patterns, human figures and animals, and are believed to have been created by the Nazca Culture between 100 BC and 700 AD, because funeral pottery found close by were decorated with very similar shapes (as an interesting side note, the Nazca are also believed to have practiced human decapitation as a sacrifice to the gods, due to collections of hundreds of severed heads also found in the area, as well as a grave containing a headless body). We circled over more than twenty figures: a whale with its mouth wide open, a monkey with a curled tail, a hummingbird recently scrutinised due to a publicity stunt by Greenpeace last week (yes, you could see the damage to the surrounding ground), a condor with outstretched wings, a dog, a tree, a pair of hands, a spider, a figure commonly referred to as the astronaut which looked like a human with an owl head, figures depicting a man and a woman, and a small collection which looked like a family. What I had never realised before was that between all these figures, the desert and mountains are marked with thousands of kilometres of lines, crisscrossing and intersecting. The aerial view across hundreds of square miles gave us an appreciation of the sheer coordination and vision that would have been needed to create these figures and lines, and the fact that no one knows exactly what purpose they served makes them all the more enigmatic.
We will be back for another update after Christmas, but seeing as we are not sending Christmas cards around the world, we will sign off with this photograph by way of a sort of e-Christmas card, taken of a nativity set we found by the viewpoint in Arequipa. See if you can spot the subtle, local additions to the scene…
Day 1 – Starting Out
Aware of the early rise, the pressure of needing to start well rested meant that I only managed about an hour’s sleep before a dazed, 4.30am, walk through the deserted Cusco streets to the meeting point: one of Cusco’s many plazas. I boarded the bus, half wanting to get to know the other people on the trek and half wanting to spend the time curled up in my seat, before it set off to pick up our porters. Helen had recommended the company, Llama Path, partly because of their sustainable attitude towards tourism. This was exemplified on that first journey as we passed by their porters’ house, a free place for the porters to stay before and after the trek. They were the only company to provide this facility, the guide happily told us. After a short stop there, where the seventeen porters, one chef and all our equipment were loaded onto the coach, we drove to our breakfast stop. On the way, we stopped for a rather costly breakfast where we marvelled at how some gringos had not only put paper in the toilet (a massive no no) but seemingly managed to put half a roll in the bowl, before we parked up at the beginning of the trek.
I had opted to not have a porter, instead carrying all my personal items, as I felt that part of trekking to Machu Picchu was the challenge of completing the path under my own steam. Apparently most of the group (perhaps wisely) did not take that attitude, as only three out of thirteen of us did not have a porter. I should have guessed what was in store from the small packs that our guides were carrying. There was a short walk to the start point, which was just across a set of train tracks, where the customary photos at the starting sign were taken, rather a lot of photos when everyone’s pictures had been taken into account.
Our porters had left ahead of us to get through their checkpoint; since 2002, laws have been introduced about wages and a maximum weight of 25kg, so each porter has to have their bag weighed before they can enter the trek, with several further checkpoints throughout the trail. The Quechuans (descendants of the Incas) are built for the mountains, with a different blood composition and being short and stocky, meaning some of their bags looked almost as big as the porter carrying it. They really were unbelievable, when we would be struggling up a long incline, the porters would come powering past, sometimes even jogging!
Once we had our passports and tickets checked, we were allowed onto the trail, crossing a bridge over the Urubamba River, which snakes its way throughout the whole of the Sacred Valley before eventually joining the Amazon. The first half day mainly followed this river, on a relatively flat dirt path, which meant that we had an easy start to things. Our first Incan ruins were across the river from us, where our guide explained some of their functionality, such as how the Incans stored their food and cut channels for fresh water from the glacier several thousand metres above and an introduction to their culture, such as their lack of money, sharing and hospitality. A bit further on, we had our first climb; although it seemed quite tiring at the time, it would pale into significance compared to what was coming up later on. At the top of this hill sat an Incan town, overlooking much larger Incan ruins, with many of their famous farming terraces, where we learnt about how the stones they built the terraces with allowed them to create a greenhouse like affect for their crops, greatly improving productivity.
After the town, we had a downhill section, knowing that this meant we were only undoing the effort we had already put in. Sure enough, it was not long before we started climbing again, away from the dryness of the sacred valley and into more lush, cloud-forested hills, following a tributary of the Urubamba until we reached our spot for lunch, our legs already feeling weaker from the exertion. It quickly became apparent why the porters had rushed on ahead of us: they had set up a tent with a long table inside for a three course meal. This pattern would continue; large three course meals for lunch and dinner meant that we were well fed throughout with some of the best food I have had so far in Peru. Sometimes there were even extravagant flourishes such as cucumber birds and pineapple turtles. How the chef managed to produce some of the meals with only two gas hobs is beyond me!
Our second leg of the day was shorter than the first, but was much steeper and almost consistently uphill, until we came to our camp site, where several of us rewarded ourselves with beers, even if they were at English prices! After another incredible dinner, flambéed bananas included, I crashed into bed at around 8pm.
Day 2 – Stairs
At 5am, a porter woke us up to a stimulating cup of coca tea, readying us for the hard day ahead. After quickly packing and eating breakfast, we set off on the first part of the day, a 1000m climb to our highest point: Dead Woman’s Pass. The climb was continuous and very draining, though fortunately the weather had worsened and the heat of the previous day had given way to cloud and drizzle. Watching the clouds moving through the surrounding valleys provided some respite from the strain, along with the constant chewing of coca leaves, providing their mild stimulant to counter the altitude, which was 4215m at the top. Finally, after around three hours, we were all at the top, not gazing at the views due to the thick cloud coverage, but instead having some snacks and taking group photos.
After this break it was time to undo all our work and descend 600m to our lunch spot. In many ways this was easier, as the steps down did not strain my fitness in the same way as earlier, making it easier to talk and enjoy the views of waterfalls, lakes and the small cave that the path passed through. However, by the time I reached the lunch spot, my legs were like jelly, from absorbing the weight of every step on the way down, and to make matters worse, I could see the next climb sweeping its way up the mountain as I stood there with my legs shaking from the strain.
After another fantastic meal, it was time to set off again, up the many stairs to reach the second pass of the day. Although the Runkuraqay Pass is lower, standing at around 4000m, the climb was possibly tougher due to the strain of the first half of the day. There was a welcome pause halfway up at an Incan ruin and just before the top there was a level area with a lake. I really thought this would be the top and was shocked to see even more stairs trailing up into the clouds. Fortunately, we were nearly there and the top of this mountain indicated the end of the treks strenuous climbs. Invigorated by the idea of no more uphill steps, we pressed on down to our evening campsite. Near the end, we came to the final Incan ruins of the day, which, although optional, had a very steep flight of stairs leading up to them. Fortunately this last climb was worth it and the views offered from this settlement were pleasing, both for the beauty of the cloud forest and for the view of the relatively near campsite. At this point, the trail joined the original Incan Path to Machu Picchu, as shown by their stonework beneath our feet.
Finally, after passing one more ruin, the hardest day was done and it felt like a great accomplishment. We were rewarded with posing llamas and one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. However, the weather took a turn for the worse and as we ate dinner, we had to hold the canvas of the dining tent away from the central gas light as it billowed in the wind.
Day 3 – Able To Enjoy
We had a bit of a lie in on day three, due to the ground we had covered the day before, which also meant that we could enjoy the Incan’s work at a more relaxed pace: they hewed the route into the side of the mountain, before building a path on top of this rock. Kyle and I also took the chance to weigh our bags. They both came in at 17kg and this made the trek seem like a bigger accomplishment, even if it was a silly amount of weight. The storm of the previous night had blown out the bad weather and we could enjoy the sun landscapes. During the morning’s trekking, we had a couple of breaks, with more spectacular views, before descending into the cloud forest.
The wildlife increased, with hummingbirds and butterflies swooping around. One of the guides spotted a snake, which happily posed for photos, meaning several of us turned up way behind everyone else.
This slower pace made the day much more enjoyable, even with aching sides from my bags waist straps. After a huge terrace of Incan farmland, we carried on to our lunch stop, which was also our campsite for the evening. It even had showers, albeit with freezing cold water, though this didn’t matter as it felt wonderful to be clean. There was no afternoon hike. Instead we went to another nearby Incan terrace and relaxed. We even had a cake with our dinner that evening, made all the more impressive by the ‘kitchen’s’ limitations. After our feast, we got an early night ahead of the big day.
Day 4 – The End Goal
We were up at 3am, partly to let the porters head off in time to catch their train back to Cusco and partly to get in line: the gate to Machu Picchu didn’t open until 5.30, but we wanted to be amongst the first to arrive at the sun gate and watch the clouds lift to reveal the Incan City. Once the gate opened, we had a quick, but tiring, walk along the final stretch, which led to a great view from the small terraced area that made up the sun gate. We sat there for around twenty minutes, gazing across the valley to the point where Machu Picchu lay. Except there was one problem: the clouds stubbornly clung to the valley floor. After only two vague glimpses of Machu Picchu, we headed down the final section to the city, slightly disappointed by the lack of a majestic unveiling.
After taking photos in the classic spot, we had to go outside to re-enter with our tickets. We had an hour’s break in the humdrum of buses and visitors, which after the disconnectedness of the past three days, seemed slightly overwhelming and somewhat unfitting of the place. We began our tour of the city with an introduction, followed by an explanation of a temple (possibly for Pacha Mama, Mother Earth) and the sun temple, which rested above this cave. The sun temple had two windows, respectively aligned with the rising sun on the summer and winter solstices. We then climbed up to the quarry above the city, where we learnt how the rocks were produced.
The early pause outside had a knock-on effect here: the tour was cut short for four of us, as we had to make our timeslot to climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain next to Machu Picchu, famed for its viewpoint. This was frustrating as I was interested in other areas of the site, which we would get no explanation of. The climb up quickly dispelled the disgruntlement, as it offered stunning views. The stairs were much steeper than anything we had experienced before, with cabled railings to help pull you up the slope.
As the climb went on, the stairs become steadily more precarious, until they gave way to some terraces with an unbelievable vantage point over Machu Picchu. We stayed there until the staff moved us on, through a small cave, up to the very top of Huayna Picchu. Standing on the crest of the boulders here offered a 360 degrees panorama of the sacred valley and really made the construction of the city on top of the mountain ridge all the more spectacular. The clouds had lifted by this point, with the sun shining on the mountains all around.
After pushing the time limit to its maximum, we had to descend. The stairs down were even more precarious: some were too narrow to have both feet on, very steep and with vertigo-inducing unprotected drops at the bottom. This experience was the highlight of the trek and I would happily pay the entrance fee again to re-experience it.
After we descended, I quickly tried to find some of the areas that I had missed on the tour, before boarding the bus back to the nearby town for a quick lunch and the train ride back to our starting point, followed by a coach ride back to be reuinited with Helen.