I had a dream that one day I would visit Peru, and Machu Picchu in particular. But I always thought it would be impossible for them to live up to the hype that surrounded them. My dream came true and I was wrong. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that was very wrong! Join me on my journey and hopefully, I can convey some of the magic I experienced during those two wonderful weeks. I promise not to be too teacher like!
We started our adventure in the ancient capital of Peru, Lima. It was built by the Spanish in the fifteen hundreds, and despite a devastating earthquake in 1746, many of the grand Colonial buildings survived and others rebuilt. You have however to search for them as most of this sprawling desert city on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, is a mass of uninspiring grey buildings. In the centre of the city, we spent time in the grand Plaza Mayor, once the venue for bullfights and a market. Now it is a square surrounded by government buildings and the cathedral.
The cathedral was originally constructed in 1624 and has suffered four major earthquakes and undergone several reconstructions. Although the cathedral appears to be built of stone, much of it is in fact made from bamboo and mud then rendered which allows it a certain amount of flexibility. The palace and government buildings are relatively new dating back to the mid-1900’s.
60% of the vehicles in Lima are Toyota’s earning it the nickname Toyota City!
We, however, were fittingly based in the upmarket area of Miraflores which I believe means see flowers or smell flowers – something like that! In contrast to the main parts of Lima, this area is ultra modern with upmarket shops, smart hotels and hoards of restaurants.
Its other claim to fame is the Love Park – El Parque del Amor! This small area is a mass of flowers surrounded by a Gaudi style low tiled wall featuring romantic words and sentences. At the centre is a massive statue of embracing lovers. Romantic couples leave messages on the bows of the trees. I decided not to!
We flew to the Inca capital of Cusco. To drive would have been a hairy journey taking sixteen hours, but our flight took just one. This beautiful city is considered to be the archaeological capital of the Americas and here we had our first view of the Inca walls that were to feature regularly during the rest of our stay. These walls were constructed in the 1200’s AD from huge granite blocks which perfectly together without the aid of mortar beds like giant pieces of a massive puzzle. When the Spanish arrived some 300 years later they built on top of on these walls when creating their Spanish city. It’s a tribute to the skill of the Inca builders that although the Spanish walls collapsed and needed rebuilding after several earthquakes, their Inca foundations remain undamaged to this day.
Cusco also gave our first experience of thin mountain air. Being situated 3360 metres above sea level we immediately experienced a shortage of breath and lightheadedness. Although the effect lessened after a few days, it stayed with us during the remainder of our trip
When walking up inclines and steps we needed to pause every now and again to slow our breathing – except one of our group, 77-year-old Stan who regularly had to wait for us!
Cusco was to be our base for several days. From its main square the Plaza de Armas, overlooked by its magnificent Catholic cathedral, narrow cobbled streets and alleys lined with artisan shops and stalls rise high above the city.
High in the hills above the city, we visited Sacsayhuaman with its stunning Inca walls and disinterested llamas!
We went to the Sacred Valley through which runs the Urubamba (Sacred) River with its dams and irrigation systems which serve the fertile land along its banks.
Then we had our first serious climb!
Our challenge was to climb up the Inca terraces at Ollyantaytambo. We climbed a few steps at a time huffing and puffing our way to the top. I’m breathing more heavily just thinking about it! But it was worth it as you can see from my pictures.
…..but it was great to come down again!
We travelled by minibus along a poorly maintained winding dirt track to the salt mines. I expected to see people digging salt from the ground but I was wrong! Salt water rushes down the mountainside where it collects in shallow ponds. The water evaporates leaving layers of salt. That’s it! Why they are called mines I know not!
Later that day we visited an Inca agricultural ‘laboratory’; a bowl of terraces where the temperature at the bottom is twelve degrees different from the top terrace. Some of course claim it was created by aliens!
Machu Picchu is an Inca city 2400 metres above sea level and many people reach it by a four-day climb along the Inca Trail. But not us! We let the train take the strain!
We had a fabulous ride alongside the river through a valley to the town of Aguas Calientes which was to be our base, then a steep and slow trek up the mountainside to the magnificent Machu Picchu which is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Words are not necessary – the pictures say it all!
Right now I’m feeling a little hungry so maybe it’s time to talk about food and drink!
Peruvian cuisine is simply outstanding. Every menu leaves you spoilt for choice. Okay, so pet lovers may have a bit of difficulty with my first photo which is Peru’s national dish, guinea pig, but there is so much more to tempt the taste buds. Llama steaks and alpaca; kingfish and ceviche – raw fish marinated in lime.
Then there is chicken and beef and pasta, and for the less adventurous, the best pizzas I’ve tasted in years!
At weddings, the bride and groom are often given a pair of guinea pigs as a present as they are prolific breeders and a great source of food.
Meals are usually preceded by a glass of pisco sour, a cocktail concocted from pisco, a local clear spirit, sugar syrup and egg white. It’s shaken not stirred then topped with a few drops of bitters. The local wines are typically South American and the beers excellent – if you like lager! My favourite was Cusquena (there should be a wiggly line above the N but I can’t find it on my keyboard!) It was available in massive one and a half pint bottles for around £2. The most popular drink has to be Coca Tea. This is prepared by simply submerging coca leaves in hot water. In case you are wondering, these are the same leaves that are used in the production of cocaine, although in their raw form they are no more of a stimulant than coffee. Even so, I could not have got them through customs even if I’d wanted to! And then there’s Inca Cola, a bright yellow sweet liquid which tastes like bubblegum!
Inca Cola was invented by a British immigrant to Peru in 1935. It became so popular that Coca Cola bought the right to produce it across South America except for in Peru where they would not let go as they consider the drink to be a source of national pride! Coke has a small stake there, but it remains well and truly Peruvian in Peru! As far as I’m concerned this strange smelling beverage is it’s less of an Inca Drinka and more an Inca Stinker!
We took a ten hour coach ride to our forth hotel which was in Puno, a lively and colourful town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Along the way, we stopped several times at places of interest including the highest spot of our trip at 4445 metres, La Raya, and at the remains of an Inca Adobe temple.
The following morning we left our hotel in Puna by trishaw, a sort of three wheel cycle on which you sit in a basket at the front like a bag of shopping!
We were taken to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, where we hopped on a little motor boat and glided across the water to one of sixty-four floating reed islands. Everything on them including houses and boats and the ground you walk on is made from totara reed.
The island we visited was shamelessly commercialised, but who can blame them?
All over Peru, we met people trying to sell us something. Our eyes were constantly assaulted by vivid colours splashed across ponchos, scarves and bags and rugs. Take a look at some of the market stalls and the people we encountered.
Yes, those dolls really are breastfeeding!
You would be forgiven for thinking that the traditional national costume is just worn for the sake of tourists. However, you’d be mistaken! In the country districts, it is the normal attire, albeit a little less fussy, and those who move to the towns continue to don a traditional dress.
And then it was time to trawl along the shore of Lake Titicaca and cross the border into Bolivia.
En route we stopped at the remarkable ancient ruins of Tiahuanaco. It was the site of a technologically advanced and self-sustaining civilisation starting in 500 BC which mysteriously vanished 1200AD. They are considered by many ‘romantic’ archaeologists to be the oldest ruins in the world. In fact, the city was already in ruins when the Incas first came upon the scene and adopted it. There we saw temples, statues, sun gates and terraced pyramids. For me, the most intriguing part was the Sunken Temple, a sort of open courtyard several steps down. Around its walls are 175 carved heads, many of which appear alien. This has led to much speculation by those who believe much of the building in this region was in fact carried out by beings from another world. They back their claims up by pointing out the precise cutting of embellishing details with their precise angles and holes which would be difficult to replicate even with today’s technology. Whatever! The ceremonial complex is, by the way, thought to date back to the eighth century BC.
We were to spend a couple of days in the crazy city of La Paz! Whilst La Paz has often referred the highest capital in the world this is only half true as Bolivia has two capitals! Sucre is the constitutional capital and La Paz the administrative one! Don’t ask me why! We were all told not to carry cameras, take next to no money, hold hands when walking and huddle together when standing still ( I may be exaggerating slightly) but we managed to avoid being attacked mugged jumped upon whilst there! The weirdest things I saw were people dressed as zebras helping folk to cross the road! From everywhere in the city, you can see the snow-capped peak of Mount Ilimanni which towers to 6439 metres above sea level.
La Paz boasts the world’s highest football stadium and many national teams have tried to have the venue banned as the Bolivians are thought to have an unfair advantage being used to altitude!
One of the most fascinating areas of La Paz is its famous (or infamous depending on your viewpoint!) Witches Market where you can buy all sorts of weird potions and lotions as well as dried llama foetuses which are said to process peculiar powers.
In La Paz, every way is up! The steep and narrow streets are awash with colour from the heaped market stalls selling clothes, and air filled with unusual smells some pleasant some not! Much of the city is modern with hotels soaring high into the sky.
And so for our final visit, the Valley of the Moon, a strange eroded maze of canyons and one of the oddest landscapes I’ve ever seen.
And so, I go back to the start of my piece where I said that this trip exceeded all my expectations. As well as the sights and sounds I experienced, the trip was made all the more memorable by the superb hosting skills of our constant companion Diana. My fellow travellers John, Marilyn, Sue, Betsy and Stan, and Jan and Peter were a diverse a bunch of people I could ever wish to meet and great company! I’m sure they join me in saying – Peregrine Adventures, thanks for the trip of a lifetime!