Saturday, 19 February 2011

Peru pt III: Machu Picchu at last

by Tim

So we arrived in Cusco and managed to haggle a good deal on a room for 3. The hostel was nice, still got the comedy electric showers where you get a shock if you touch anything (the other shock being that it actually works at all).  We're in the centre of town but off the main drag. With plenty of steps to take your breath away, literally with the altitude which thankfully we are getting used too.

Which is good as we are ready for our next pivotal moment in our journey - Machu Picchu. 

Very briefly, this is 'relic' city built by ancient Inca tribes.  It is regarded as one of the new 7 wonders of the world as it is at the top of a mountain and no one can be sure of its origninal purpose.  Today of course, its purpose is to generate revenue for the country by charging tourists extortionate prices for guided treks to the ruins. 

Though such a trek (4-5 days up and down mountainous jungle) would have been amazing, we agreed that it was beyond our budget and I was unsure my achilles-heal would have managed the entire route.

And so, the following morning we set off at at 5.30am to catch a bus to Santa Maria from the Western Terminal (via a rushed taxi journey after discovering this is not the main one in town).  We waited for the bus to be full  before setting off and heading for our 5 hour journey, (which will actually take us 6.5 hours because of road works).

When we arrived at Santa Maria there were alot of Collectivos (cars and mini-vans that transport for next to nothing but cram people in wherever they can).   Luckily for us, on our arrival, there was one heading immediately to Sta Theresa which needed 3 people so we haggled for a good price as we we're in demand. Deal done and we're all aboard we seem to be on the party bus with a pumping CD circa 1980 playing out. The whole bus began to sing along to the lions sleep tonight, a classic! or as it turned out, a distraction.

We bounced through hot, dusty villages until we hit the mountains. The road was now a loose gravel, single track which we were travelling on,at break neck speed.  Gravel turned to rocks and as we climbed the mountains, the gentle bends in the valley turned into a hair-pin fight with physics to avoid being flung to the valley floor.  Still singing along on our party bus we whizzed through the rocky terrain playing "chicken" with other cars...thankfully we won every time!

We arrived at Sta Theresa 1.5 hours later... quite literally at the end of the road.  Time to put on the deet spray and hit the train tracks for the 2 hour walk/march to Aguas Calientes.
A lovely walk along the tracks with mountains all around us and beautiful trees towering either side giving us shade. We got to Aguas Calientes for 6pm,  time to find cheap accomodation which is hard to come by but what we have learnt is that we have quite a good bargaining power now we are 3 people. So we found a room for 3 at a not so nice hostel but as we will be getting up at 4am a bed and a shower is all we really wanted.

That done it was time to head to the Machu Picchu tourist office where we neeeded to buy our pass to get into the ruins and past the check point guards.  Off we went to get ourtickets at the not so bargain price of s/126, (FYI if you are a student with a student card it's half price).

Time for a pizza and then off to bed ready for our bright and early hike.  Before you know it, its 4am and the alarm clock is ringing.  Katy and I get up, dress and off into the dark morning with our head torches on. chomping on bananas as we go.

From Aguas Calientes, there is a very regular bus service winding up the side of the mountain to Machu Picchu and it was this bus that Letty was going to take at 5.30am which only takes 30mins so she got a lie in.

As we walked through town and along the valley base it was so quiet and peacful; there were maybe another 5 people with the same idea as us as we crossed the river bridge and arrived at the base of the mountain.  Path turned to stone turned to steps turned to BIG steps!  Despite the early hour, the air was warm and this combination quickly got the heart going.

Our mission was to get to the top before Letty and the rest of the slackers on buses. As we climbed, we met a few more people but not so many that you were queuing, just a slow steep slog. Katy bounded off in front and if I was lucky would wait for me with a grin on her face like a crazed loon! She is very much a morning exerciser, I am NOT! Though I was quite pleased that I managed to overtake several sweaty masses along the way (oh, by the way, many thanks to whoever decided to fart along the pathway... it lingered).

6am and we'd made it to the top with the most amazing views on either side of us and into the valley below.  When we got to the top we joined the queue of people who had stayed at the [exceptionally expensive] hotel that is right by the entrance to the ruins. just as we joined the back of the queue, Letty arrived on the bus... perfect timing.

While we waited to enter MP, a man came round to ask if we would like to hike up Wannu Picchu, a bigger mountain by the Machu Pichu (limited to 400 people a day at specific times). I thought it was crazy but, Katy - still slightly euphoriphic from our morning hike - talked me into it.

As we passed through the gates, slowly walked along a narrow track then rounded the corner we're greeted by magnificent Machu Picchu.  Books and photos really don't convey the magnificence of the place (but we've included some anyway).

We climbed up to the top for a spectacular view and photos before the mist drifted in and hit the delete key on our view. It was such an amazing exeperience to be there with hardly anyone else around and Well worth the 4am start.

10am (our alotted time for climbing wanu picchu) arrived quickly so we we're in the queue once more and ready to go on our second hike of the day and all before lunch! We made our way to the front, signing in so they know who's up and down. There was a sign giving a guide time of how long it should take you. Apparently it would take 1 hours. Obviously Katy seeing this took it as a challenged and bounded up in 28 mins myslef and Letty a respectable 35mins,i think you'll agree.

By the time we got to the top the skies had once again cleared and we had amazing views of the valley, where we had hiked up and the Machu Pichu ruins. As we stood on what felt like the top of the world I pointed out to Katy that I recognised a chap sat on a rock, so wandering over we both did the, "don't I know you?", and sure enough it was a guy we had met in Whistler 9 months earlier...small world? We said our hellos and good byes then sat on a rock and had our lunch taking in the beautiful views, we could see for miles.

Then it was time to head back down, job done. We were made to stretch by Katy then had a quick lie down on the grass at the base of Wannu Pichu.

Once we’d absorbed all the sights, we headed back down the many, many stone steps to Aguas Calientes - this time with Letty in tow… our personal trainer keeping us quite literally on our toes.  Letty went off for a well earned massage, Katy went off to the hot water springs… I just lay down :) During this time the weather had taken a turn for the worst and we had the most amazing rain storm, bouncing off the pavements then becoming a river down the cobbled streets. The girls arrived back: massage was ok, hot spring was like a hot human soup (apparently full of sweaty Peruvian men rubbing their bellies and staring), my sleep was brilliant.

Time to refuel so we ventured out into the weather and found a restaurant not too far away, which wasn’t hard as the streets of Aguas Calientes are comprised of a shop, hostel or restaurant.  We sat eating our food in an open-fronted restaurant, watching people paddle past in the river that was – just a few minutes previously – the main street.  Then back to the hostel, to prepare for another early start.

Alarm set for 5am > Ear plugs in,  out like a light > 6am Alarm goes off...

Re-tracing our steps from a couple of days previously we headed back along the train tracks.  Despite the early hour, it was a warm day with bright blue skies.  Along the way, we passed a large group of Peruvian school children and teachers who were so excited to see us they all wanted us to have photos taken with them, slightly strange for that early in the morning to become minor celebrities, but quite funny (and an insight to how they feel with tourists cameras clicking away in front of them).

We got to the end of the tracks and it was a hive of activity. People selling everything from cold drinks to scrawny chickens.  We were in no need for either, so carried on along to find ourselves some wheels. Thankfully there was a guy with a car. We haggled a price then hopped in and sped off along the now flooded, wet, loose gravel, single track.  No music this time so we all focused on the views as they suddenly dropped down on one side and looming sheer rock faces on the other that were so close, if needed we could of touched them.  But we were reassured by the fact that we’d already survived the journey going the other way.

The journey became more interesting when we got to what had been a small stream a couple of days before was now a torrent of a river with a bit of bridge missing. The driver got out to have a look – never a good sign- so we quickly followed. The water had washed away the first couple of slats of the bridge so he was deciding if he could get across. We made the decision for him by taking ourselves and our gear and walking across.  He climbed back in and we then watched as he slowly edged toward the bridge… then floored it!  It was a bit bumpy but he made it over and we tentatively climbed back inside… I wouldn't want to be in the next vehicle across.

Along the way we got overtaken by 2 Aussies on motorbikes, Letty and I were very jealous but ten minutes later, rounding a corner we saw a plume of dust: Aussie down! And quite bloody with a broken bike.  So Katy got out her first aid kit and administrated antiseptic wipes, Savlon and water.  They were fine if a little dented.

Our collectivo finally deposited us safely in the middle of nowhere… hot and dusty nowhere.  In typical Peruvian style, the bus was nearly an hour late, then what should have been a four hour journey became six.

Back in Cusco and back to our hostel, unpacked, showered, electric shock included in the price, then a long overdue visit to the laundry before heading to the much recommended Jacks.   And what a fabulous treat it was, the food was delicious, everything we could ever dream off. And i'm not just saying that because we were starving and tired. I had a steak sandwich and the girls had huge burgers. Everyone happy and tired we headed back and slept.

The following morning we got up and collected our laundry, clean clothes is such a treat these days. Then we ventured to Jacks for breakfast as it was so nice last night, and the breakfasts were everything we could’ve dreamed of (again), I had a massive full english, Letty had museli and Blackcurrant Jam & Toast and Katy got museli & fruit. We know we should eat like a local and we have most of the time, but then sometimes you just can't handle stale white bread rolls and jam again.

A nice chilled day today just being tourists, visiting the markets and looking around town, which is a beautiful place to be.  We went to a big artisan market where Letty haggeled like a native and managed to get everything she wanted (for ocho), packed up and sent off to France for Christmas pressies.  Katy got a scarf for the bus journey as the nights are pretty chilly on the buses. It was nice to not have a move on today and just chill for a change as it take it's toll on these old bones… not complaining,  just saying. That evening we found a lovely little pizza restaurant which was off the main touristy drag in Cusco. It was so nice, like sitting in someone’s kitchen while they cook and it tasted great… it was hard to leave to go out into the cold night back to hostel.

The following day we got up, popped down to Jacks for a final breakfast - it would of been a shame not to and Letty wouldn’t shut up about the homemade jam!(have you recreated it yet L?).  Packed our bags, put them in storage at the hostel and headed down to the buses to get our tickets to Puno (“Puno!  Puno!  Puno!” ... blasting from every ticket office in the bus station).  We managed to get night tickets for 11.30pm so we had a whole day to explore more and get things sorted out for our next trip. Unfortunately I wasn't feeling too good, so I wasn't going anywhere without a bathroom, also the weather had turned and was now cold and wet. So we moved into McCoy's an English cafe with free wifi and spent the whole afternoon there with the odd cup of tea. Katy had a lovely Skype chat with Miss Chandler and then it was time to leave and go. The girls had a last visit to Jacks, Katy had spyed they had carrot cake on the menu and as this is her favourite cake we headed there for our last time. Letty had toast & jam...     I just watched :( 

At the bus station we got on our semi cama bus, made ourselves as comfortable as possible. Then it was a bouncy drive through the night until we got to Puno at 6am.
We found a hostel, haggled then had to wait until the previous guests/victims were vacated from the room, then had it clean before we could go in. The turn-around of tourists; which seem to be mainly french, is quite spectacular at these places.

Once in, we showered and headed out to find breakfast. We went to "the best bakery in Puno", which didn't bode well for the rest of Puno eateries.  We explored Puno and headed down to the "beautiful" Lake Titicaca, making our way through dirty street-markets selling mainly BIG pants, and what looked like highly flamable saucy underwear, sewing kits, beer or toilet roll. When we got to the lake it was such a disappointment. It had a tired look about it as did the whole of Puno really. There were pedalos that looked like they hadn't seen any action for some time and we were hassled by half a dozen fat greasy men who would just love to take us out on their boats.

We left gladly and headed to the main square, where we were entertained by spinning dancers, which looked quite fun. When we got to the square it was full of protestors (they enjoy a good protest around here).  It mainly involved shouting and smashing glass bottles on the ground.  We sat and people watched for while then realized we were being people watched ourselves!

So we headed out to find food instead.  We found the tourist street, (it had previously been hidden by protestors).  We had a great meal with live music but it wasn’t enough to change my mind… 24 hours in Puno is 23 hours too long.  Bolivia: here we come.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Peru pt II: Arequipa, Cabanaconde, Cusco

by tim
After a relaxed few days in lazy Huacachina it was time to hit the road again. Departing from the nearby town of Ica in the late evening, this was to be a thirteen hour bone-shaker. To take the edge off, we booked a semi-cama bus; these are relatively plush with more leg space and extra reclining seats (and occasionally a working toilet). But lets face it, 13 hours in a bus (surrounded by people you might normally cross the street to avoid) is never gonna be fun. iPod on.

We arrived at our next stop, Arequipa, in time for Halloween. This was a big place, replete with all the things we've come to expect from a South American city: an impressive town square or two; black market (food, clothes, electronics... anything really), many cafes selling almuerzas (cheap lunch, invariably based on rice), mucho solero, beggers, dogs and hippies selling jewellery(!). The main square was bustling and actually pretty good; streets branched off in all directions full of shops and people.

Halloween is a big celebration in these parts. Most of the bakeries were enticing people with cakes and bizzare breads with heads on (if AB start marketing

these, I want my cut). Later that night, we went out for food and we weren't alone; the streets were thronged with halloweeners of all ages, running around with pumpkin-shaped confectionery-collecting devices.

Many were harranging the sweet-shop owners which seemed like cheating to me but at least it took some of the pressure of us as children milled around our table as we ate (occasionally being ushered out like stray dogs). We ventured from our restaurant into the herds of Halloweeners in the town square, feeling very under dressed and with no sweet-retaining-recepticles, we headed back to the hostel to prepare for our next bus journey.

Ahead of us was a six hour journey; breathtaking not only because of the scenery but also because of the road conditions... without doubt the lumpiest, bumpiest road we have ever ridden. We arrived in a mist shrouded valley with primitive tiered farmland covering the hills all around. Occasionally the bus would stop to allow people with enormous sacks of 'whatever' to get on or off. In this part of the country almost everyone wore the traditional styles of clothing which to us seemed cumbersome but I guess it must work for them.

By the time we arrived in Cabanaconde, the sun had burned off any remaining mist and the day was a scorcher. The main draw for the area was the Colca Canyon... correction: the ONLY draw was the canyon. There was pretty much nothing else to do here and it was about as rural as it gets, with the dogs in the dusty streets sharing their space with pigs and donkeys. We headed across the square and found our hostel, PachaMama. Pleasant enough - certainly in comparison with recent stays.

Unfortunately our arrival coincided with illness... Letty took straight to her bed while Katy & I had a mooch around the village (didn't take long). With time on our hands we then headed out to a condor viewing point (Cruze del Condor). The walk took about 40 minutes but at more than 3,500 metres above sea-level was surprisingly tough.

Whilst we took in the views and waited for the condors to return a couple arrived in an Audi 4WD (exceptionally nice for the area we were in). We started talking and it transpired that their travels made ours look like we were just playing! Luke (spiderluke if you are a couch-surfer) was italian but lived in Mexico; he and his mexican wife had been travelling for two years already. they started in alaska and had travelled down all the way in the same vehicle to south america and didn't plan to stop until they were at least in south africa... impressive stuff! Anyway, after saying our farewells, we waited and eventually saw some distant specs which we convinced ourselves were condors and headed for home, beer and pizza (in that order). Katy was planning to trek down to Colca Canyon the following day which is supposed to be a lovely walk with the added bonus of an oasis at the bottom where you can swim and eat etc.

The new day dawned with Letty feeling back to normal; she and I opted out of the canyon walk and alas by 5:00am Katy had caught whatever Letty had (or maybe it was a dodgy pizza from the night before)... she was going nowhere. So, the one thing that there was to do in the area was not going to be done by any of us! Instead Katy slept, while Letty and I strolled the streets. Somewhere in the distance a local band of musicians were murdering a probably pleasant tune somehwere in the hills.

Amazingly we found a concrete football pitch complete with stadium (sort of) where Letty patiently continued to teach me guitar; i fumbled with strings until a group of kids arrived with a football and a plinky-plonky radio, so we walked some more, through narrow paths past crumbling walls and crumbling homes until we arrived at a beautiful hillside with views into the valley of lush green vegetation where instead i practiced my rockstar guitar pose. I plucked at strings again until i thought Letty had sufferred enough, then gave her guitar back and she played and sang to me... on a hillside... in the middle of nowhere... and it was lovely. She really is very talented and it still makes me smile whenever i think of that afternoon.

And that was our time in Cabanconde at an end. The following day we headed back along the bumpy road toward Cusco (with a thankfully recovered Katy). On the way to the bus we found some of the band members from the previous day; their tastefully decorated drum pronounced them to be the 'Dinamicos de Cabanaconde' (with the emphasis on the 'Din').

Another protracted journey saw us arrive dazed and confused at 5:30am. We secured a room for the three of us for just 4GBP/night and slept.

Slightly recovered but hungry we tried to make sense of our new location. Cusco is a big, well developed city and the closest we'd come to civilation for some time. And by civilisation i mean recognisably english food! sorry - i know we should be immersing ourselves in the local culture... and to a large extent we do - but when you know there's a cafe serving sausage, egg, bacon, beans, toast and REAL COFFEE for the first time in months... oh, i fell in love with Cusco. We were in McCoy's - an unashamedly british cafe/restaurant/bar; everything was nice, they had free wifi which worked and we stayed for several hours!

But We were in Cusco as a starting point for the Machu Picchu (which I guess most people will have heard of). In preparation for the trek, we explored the black markets to kit out Letty with appropriate clothing and equipment. With all of us equipped to take on the inca ruins, we then needed to make sure we had plenty of nutrients. We thought McCoy's was good but then we found 'Jacks'. We'd been told by several people about this place (some before we'd even left the UK - thanks Em!). It didn't dissapoint, with an amazing burger.
Unfortunately it is so good it was where we ate almost exclusively thereafter... especially for breakfast where i was in cooked breakfast heaven, katy had something which was healthy AND tasted nice and letty became addicted to their blackcurrant jam and toast.

But all good things come to an end and we had the small matter of one of the seven wonders of the world: Machu Picchu...

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