The West Coast of Peru

Cheese!During our time in Peru, we’d heard a lot about the ‘gringo trail’, which is the route most backpackers take through Peru. Once in Arequipa, as gringos (backpackers) ourselves we decided to follow this trail up to Lima, taking in Nasca, Huacachina, and Paracas en route.

Nasca is home to the Nasca lines, mysterious patterns drawn in the land which have no explanation. Theories range from it being down to Incans, pre-Incans, or aliens, so it’s safe to say no-one really has any idea. Paul and I decided to splash out on a flight, the only way to get a complete view of the lines. The planes they use are tiny. There were 5 of us in all as passengers, positioned to distribute the weight as evenly as possible, and our pilot did some crazy flying to ensure we all had clear views of all the lines; swooping, diving, and generally flying like a maniac. It quickly became clear why the UK government guidance says they aren’t safe and to stay away. We had been warned that the turbulence meant people often got sick, which I did. Being sat at the back of the plane, coupled with my irrational decision to eat some tomato slices 2 minutes before flying, was too much for my stomach. But despite that, it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far and a brilliant experience.

Next up was Huacachina, an oasis resort just outside of Ica. The only reason this place has become popular is because of the massive sand dunes that surround all sides of the resort, and so we happily followed the crowds to try sandboarding. We had the option of upgrading our boards so that we would effectively be snowboarding, but we chose to stick to flying down on our stomachs. After minimal guidance in Spanish that roughly translated to ‘board, wax, dune, go’ we found ourselves careering down slopes far steeper than anticipated. Definitely as good as a scary black run. After 2 hours we were happily bruised, bashed, and absolutely covered in sand.

Ballastas Islands Our final stop before Lima was Paracas, home to the Ballastas Islands. These are billed as the poor man’s Galapagos, and as we were missing the Galapagos due to the cost, this sounded perfect. It wasn’t. I can safely say that Paracas is the only place we’ve been in all of our travels that I wish we hadn’t. The town itself has very little to offer except overpriced restaurants and a pleasant beach view. The Ballestas tour was a big disappointment. As promised, the islands are home to thousands of birds. However, the majority of these appeared to be Peruvian Seagulls, which are about as interesting as UK ones. To be fair, we did see some cool sea lions, turkey eagles, and some pelicans, but given the hype, the tour was a dud. In the afternoon Paul and I ventured out on bikes into the nature reserve. Little did we know we’d be battling a ridiculously strong headwind through desert like conditions, only to get to our destination and see not a lot. In a reserve which is famed for its massive array of animals and fauna, we saw absolutely nothing. Safe to say, we were happy to be leaving Paracas.

Returning to Lima was a welcome change. Whereas on our first visit we’d resented the big chains and busy streets – having come for Santiago, a much prettier city – this time, after a few weeks of very remote towns, we couldn’t have been happier to see so much choice and variety. McDonalds! Dunkin’ Donuts! We may also just have been grateful to be alive after the scariest taxi ride of our lives getting from the bus station. This time we had an opportunity to visit the centre of Lima, where we watched the changing of the guard at the palace, and also visited the catacombs in the San Francisco Cathedral. 3 days well spent, it’s time to say goodbye to Peru, and hello Brazil.

Arequipa Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon

After the Inca Trail trek, I didn’t expect to be trekking once again in the same week but here we are, Colca Canyon.

Leaving Cusco we headed overnight on a bus to Arequipa. We have a flight booked out of Lima but have about ten days to get ourselves back to the capital, seeing what sights are available on the way.

The town of Arequipa doesn’t seem to have too much to offer outside of the trekking. Annie chose to do a city tour whilst I chose a hammock, book and some sleep, culture can wait….

Meeting back up with Mike, Lucy, Marat and Marlene from the Inca trail, we started with another early 3am pickup heading first to a viewing point where Condors were meant to be. I had my cynical hat on, but eventually removed it as the birds were out, flying around reasonably close, quite nice to see them in the wild.

Reaching the nearby start, the first morning was a three hour decent over “just” 1200 meters, as the whole Canyon is 4200m, double that of the Grand Canyon. By the time we started the sun was out in full force, making the decent rather gruelling. Stopping for lunch with a group doing the trek over 3 days, we realised that they stopped there for the night. With absolutely nothing to do there, this news made our group more willing to get some more km under our belts to see what our accommodation offered.

Oasis PoolHappy to get on with things, our two day trek continued along the flatter terrain where we were given the option of the full trail, or a shortcut that chopped off two hours. It seems the shortcut didn’t miss much scenery and was the obvious choice after our painful descent in the baking sunshine tat morning.

Around 4pm we arrived at the overnight accommodation, I was happy to see it had a bar and a decent pool, just what the feet ordered.

5am on day two, we had an early start before breakfast to get back up to the summit before the blistering sun reached us. There was an option to pay for a lift on the back of a Mule, not something I would be up for, poor things are worked hard. The climb wasn’t too bad at all, everyone was at the top under three hours and ready for food and relaxing. After grub we headed to some hot springs in the nearby town of Chivay to sooth the body, seriously hot springs at 38 degrees.

On the journey home, we passed the aftermath of a fatal bus crash with a body lying beside the overturned vehicle. A grim reminder that we were still travelling on the South American bus network, though seat belts would not have been of much use for those poor passengers.

Full photo set as usual is available on Flickr

Cusco & The Inca Trail

The Inca Trail
At the start of planning this trip, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was one of the key destinations and trips I wanted to see and do in South America. The trail and site are both very popular which has led the government to limit the amount of daily visitors to 200 trekkers on the trail, and 2500 on the actual site. Knowing this, we spent the summer watching the permits website and picked our day accordingly.

It`s highly recommended (demanded) that you arrive in Cusco a few days early to acclimatize before making the trek as the route starts at 2600 meters above sea level and reaches 4200m. We were very aware of altitude and its effects; constantly out of breath, tired and sore heads. Having spent a few weeks at altitude in Bolivia (4600m on the Death Road, 4100m in La Paz and getting burnt at 3800m on Isla Del Sol) and beating the side effects, we felt ready to proceed with the trek.

The town of Cusco is quite nice but caters for the tourists far too much for my liking. The main square tries to keep its historical look but has a Starbucks, KFC and McDonald’s hidden in plain sight, all three ghastly places were avoided.

A little walking tour helped us get our bearings of the town. After collecting our walking bags and items for the trek, we headed to bed early in preparation for the 5am pickup the following day.

We chose to pay extra for the services of a porter to carry our 6k of items including sleeping bag, mat and clothes, leaving us with day bags for water and food supplies. We were recommended to buy hats and walking sticks, but neither appealed to myself. I’ve tried walking sticks in Scotland and find they are more of a nuisance, happy for my knees and legs to take on the downhill themselves.

Day One is an easy 12k winding though the valleys, giving us time to meet our super friendly group of 16 Trekkers, a mix of Scottish, English, Dutch, Canadian and Australians. We were supported by two guides, Percy and Marcos, and a massive team of 22 porters. These guys are insane, carrying up to 25kg each they race ahead, set up tents and tables for lunch, the chef works utter miracles with gas and a hot stove to ensure we are all fed and watered for the trail ahead. Percy informed us that the porters have a yearly marathon race over the full 42k and the fastest time is an outstanding 3:45, I really need to up my game!

Arriving at the Wayllabamba camp-site, we were greeted by a cringe-worthy applause from the porters, we should be applauding them! The food was once again outstanding, appetisers, soups, hot freshly cooked main courses, deserts… No one went hungry.

The Inca TrailDay Two is another 12k and has a bit of a reputation as a killer due to the climbs involved, the peak of the trail at Abra de Huarmihuañusca (Dead Womans Pass) is situated at 4200m, it was a fair climb but no where near as bad as the reputation it held.

During these inclines we broke out the coco leaves purchased from back in Cusco. The leaves are rolled up and placed inside your cheek, slowly sucking on them draws out what seems initially a tobacco-esque flavour, it may well be a placebo but when feeling tired and gasping for breath, taking a bit of Coco really did lift the spirits and after time starts to numb the cheek. These are the same leaves used to make cocaine – though you need a ton of them to get a single gram. Either way we need to use up our limited supplies before going anywhere near the border.

Day Three started with a 03:30 awake call, the superb porters chapped on our tents and handed over a hot cup of coco tea to get us going. This was a the longest day, with 15k of ground to cover, heading through clouds, a small bit of rain – we were so lucky with the weather, staying dry for all the days and only raining overnight. Chef Justino made a birthday cake for Louise, it was a proper iced cake which using some magic he baked on a stove with a pan.

Day Four – 04:30 breakfast before queuing to get on the path to the Sun Gate. Coming over the crest of the mountain this is where you first get to see what was a cloud covered Machu Picchu. In a matter of minutes, the clouds lifted revealing the whole site for all to see in spectacular fashion. From the camp to the site was a 5k walk, giving us the morning to explore and learn about the ruins.

Unfortunately, the 200 limit only applies to the Inca Trail. The nearby town has a train service and bus loads of tourists decend on the site fresh faced and camera happy, totally spoiling what tranquil sites we initially appreciated, feeling smug that we earned our access, I was ready to head to the nearby village.

Leaving the site, we had the afternoon to get lunch, visit the hot springs and get a few drinks before making our way back to Cusco for a well needed shower and comfy bed.

Choc MuseumWe decided to spend a few more nights in Cusco at the Loki hostel, notorious for its late night drinking and parties it did not disappoint. Flaming ‘Blood Bombs’ and highly alcoholic slush puppies are only going to end in one way.

A final thing we did in Cusco was a chocolate cooking course at the Coco Museum. After a quick history lesson on the roots of Coco and its use in Peru, we got to partake in a speeded up version of the end to end process, making our own chocolates, filling them and collecting the next day for consumption.

There are loads of photos from this part of the trip, the best ones are here on Flickr

Peru – Part 1

We didn´t have high hopes for Lima, our first stop in Peru, as we hadn´t heard many positive stories about it from fellow travellers. I was pleasantly surprised though, as it has a lovely coastline full of good surfing spots. And even more importantly, a public pool that was open and would let us in! The city itself is designed for cars, with packed motorways cutting through the centre of town. The main roads were constantly traffic jammed, with local police often taking the place of traffic lights and directing hundreds of cars with a blow of their whistle and a point of their hand.

El Circuito Mágicgo del Agua
The one activity we were both keen to see was the ´Magic Circuit of the Water Show´ at the Parque de la Reserva. This park has distinct 13 fountains that are all lit up in different colours in the evening. This was in a park in central Lima, and having got our times slightly confused, we arrived nearly 3 hours early. Instead of leaving the park and returning later, which would have meant paying the entrance fee of 4 Peruvian Soles again (about 50p each), we were true budget travellers and made the very most of the quiet of the park, despite the cold. The show itself uses lasers and the main fountain to create images in the sky, all to a mix of music. Although fun, it did feel a little dated. And after a 3 hour build up, maybe our expectations were a little high!

Coach CrashWe´d arrived in Lima with no onward travel plans, but quickly decided to make the most of our time and pop down to Bolivia before the Inca Trail. Paul and I have a general rule that we wont take any bus journey that lasts more than 24 hours (a day on a bus is just too much), but we did find a bus that would take us to Puno, near the border of Bolivia, in 18 hours. This bus, followed by another the next day, would get us down to La Paz with enough time to spare. Although we both had our lifetime fill of buses in Argentina, we decided to go for it, thinking how bad can it be? Around 12 hours into the journey, we found out. In the middle of the night, we were woken by screeching brakes, screams, and then a sharp thud. Although Paul and I were fine (we had both independently put our seatbelts on earlier as the driver had been going at a fair lick around the corners), there were a few injured passengers on board, including an older man sitting near us who was thrown out of his seat on impact. After initially refusing to open the doors to let frightened passengers off the bus, the driver eventually relented and we were all able to see the bus crashed into a pile of rock and sand at the side of the road, uncomfortably close to a sharp drop. After eventually getting the bus dislodged and back on the road, we were all reloaded back onto the bus to the nearest town, where we waited for 8 hours for a replacement bus. This replacement bus had clearly been taken out of retirement, and so after another slow 13 hours,we eventually arrived at our destination, Puno; tired, groggy, but more than anything relieved.

Puno is a medium sized town on the edge of Lake Titicaca. We hadn´t planned on spending any time there, but due to the nature of our previous journey, we ended up staying there