Into The AndesPosted on: 29 May 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
Peru is perfect for a more adventurous holiday, with Inca history, Amazon wildlife and much more.
South America is intriguing. It has many similarities to Southern Africa; it's not very far away, and it offers a travel adventure different from more established European, North American and Australasian travel destinations.
Eight years ago we had visited and loved Argentina - with a side trip into Chile. Where next?
Peru seemed the obvious choice: great mountainous scenery, the jungle and the Incas. And so armed with air tickets and accommodation booked through the Internet, off we went via Buenos Aires.
The sol is the local currency with an exchange rate about 6 soles to the £.
Yellow fever inoculation is required, although no one checked if we had it, and pills for malaria are necessary if you visit the rainforest.
All of our tours and bus trips were organised by local tour operators when we reached each city.
With very limited Spanish we managed to cope very easily. Some of the locals we met spoke good English, with the others we managed very easily with a few words of Spanish and sign language!
We started in Arequipa as that's the jumping off place for the Colca Canyon where the Condors fly in the thermals above the canyon.
We also thought that it would give us a few days of part-acclimatisation to prepare for the altitude of Lake Titicaca. We were wrong, as en route to the canyon we reached 4,500 metres and there the altitude hit us. We had taken medication to help with the altitude, but it didn't work for us. We'd have been better off just drinking coca tea as the locals do.
The canyon and the condors were absolutely brilliant. We were also very intrigued and impressed by the Andean work ethic on the land. Little patches of cultivated government-owned land are sculptured out of the mountainside. The locals walk great mountainous distances to and from their land, and they are all incredibly fit.
Arequipa, in common with the other cities we visited, has a few elegant Spanish colonial buildings around the central plaza, but many other drab unfinished private and business buildings. The roads are not good, with many potholes, and the driving not for the faint-hearted. The taxi ride to the bus station got our adrenaline pumping!
We took local buses from Arequipa to Puno, and then from Puno to Cusco. Local long-distance buses are an excellent way to travel in most countries. They are comfortable, they are reliable, they are quicker than the train, and they are much less expensive than air or rail travel. Our only problem was that one of the buses had a DVD player on which they showed a very noisy and gung-ho movie, which we would never have chosen to watch! And in parts the bus had to drive quite slowly to avoid the potholes on the main road, and some of the overtaking on blind corners was a little hair-raising.
Puno is the jumping-off spot for Lake Titicaca and the floating islands of the Uros people, who built these reed islands centuries ago to isolate their tribe from the aggressive Incas. There are twenty or thirty of these extraordinary floating islands with several families living on each. Everything is made of reeds - the islands, the houses, the boats, even the primary school and a church. We had a wonderful welcome on one small island with granny cooking in an iron pot, the women-folk making tourist gifts - out of straw of course - and the men helping organise the tourists. They saw us off with wonderful cheerful songs. It was touristy, but great fun.
The other really fascinating highlight of Puno was an old steam ship, the Yavaris, which is in the process of being restored. In 1862, it was commissioned as a gunboat for the Peruvian Navy from shipbuilders in England at a cost of £8,000, and four months later 2,766 boxes were shipped via Cape Horn to Arica, a Pacific port. From there these boxes went some of the way by train, and then over the Andes by mule. This trek took six years, and then the boat had to be assembled on the lakeshore. Initially the ship was fuelled by dried llama dung - the only fuel available in the area then - but in due course it was converted to diesel when roads were opened up to Puno. Once the rebuilding is complete, tourists will be able to cruise overnight on the Yavari.
Cusco is the main Peruvian tourist city, from where trips to Machu Picchu depart as well as the 4-day Inca trail. It's an elegant city set below a ring of Andean mountains, with a huge statue of Christ on one side and ancient Inca ruins next to it with the interesting name - English pronunciation - of 'Sexywoman'! We took three side trips while we stayed in Cusco: an excellent short city tour on a converted old tram, a day trip to the nearby Sacred Valley, and then a 2-day visit to Machu Picchu.
The Sacred Valley is formed by the Urubamba River, which also passes Machu Picchu further downstream. On this day trip we visited two amazing Inca cities - Ollantaytambo and Chinchero. In both places, the Inca's magnificent engineering skills were evident. All the original walls and buildings still stand untouched by the frequent earthquakes over the last 600 years. The walls, built with access only to very primitive mason's equipment, step down sheer mountainsides, and formed the areas for growing their crops. Another highlight of this day trip was a fabulous ceiling in the church at Chinchero, painted in the 1500s by a local artist and rather like a Persian carpet.
It takes four hours by luxury observation train to reach Machu Picchu from Cusco. The train climbs to the top of the escarpment above Cusco with four switchbacks, where the train zig-zags backwards and forwards very slowly up the very sleep incline. The journey is smoother from there on. In due course the train drops down into the Urubamba River Valley, and follows this really attractive river all the way down to Aguas Caliente. From the station there, it's a short bus ride along the river valley until the bus has to climb up the very steep mountain slope - fourteen very sharp hairpin bends zig-zagging up a slippery gravel road to the lost city of the Incas.
Machu Picchu was built in the 1400s, abandoned by the Incas when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, and only rediscovered in 1911. It was built from granite quarried from the top of the mountain with very primitive tools, using very sophisticated building methods. The city incorporates its own terraces for growing all the food required by the city, and its design demonstrates a very advanced knowledge of astrology. The city is situated between two mountains exactly north and south of the main temple, and to the east is another mountain over which the sun rises precisely on the summer solstice. It's quite a hard climb up to the top of the ruins - in our case more exhausting than usual as it was pouring with rain. It's an extremely spiritual place, and quite extraordinary that it has lasted so well over the last 600 years.
We stayed overnight in Aguas Caliente, a good move, as it gave us time to wander around Machu Picchu rather than having to rush to catch the afternoon train back to Cusco. It also enabled us to dry off after our soaking up in Machu Picchu, to have an excellent meal in a Franco-Peruvian restaurant, and to have a walk along the river the next morning to visit an excellent museum, which gave all the ins and outs of the life and times of the Incas.
Our last destination was Puerto Maldonado. We flew there from Cusco because the road is so bad that it takes 50 hours to drive the 500 kms. Emerging from the plane at an altitude of 250 metres, we were hit by temperatures of 35°C and 95 per cent humidity - a complete change from the cooler temperatures and the altitude we had experienced up to this point. Our journey into the jungle consisted of a very bumpy bus ride through swamps and lush farming land to catch a long, thin boat for a 30-minute journey upstream, followed by a 20-minute uphill walk through the muddy, sweltering jungle to reach our camp.
Posada Amazonas is a local community owned and run lodge on the south side of the Tambopata River. The whole complex is designed to be eco-friendly. There is no electricity, no hot water, and the rooms have one side open to the jungle. After the rainy season, the paths were still muddy, and we trudged along in borrowed 'wellies'. The local guides were a fund of knowledge about the vegetation, the birds and animals.
Two of the trips we made were to a lake and to an observation tower. To reach the lake we took a boat along the river followed by a long walk through the jungle. Once there we spent the morning bird spotting from a low punt. We also fished for piranha - without success, but a young lad with us caught one so we were able to see its teeth up close.
The observation tower is high enough to see over the top of the canopy of the rainforest. It's about 2 by 3 metres in size, and to reach the top you have to climb the equivalent of twelve stories. Well worth the effort as the sun rose and we could see very exotic birds perching in the top branches of the trees, even for those of us who suffer from severe vertigo. The other highlight of the jungle was seeing howler monkeys from the camp; they make the most extraordinary noise rather like thunder, which can be heard over several kilometres.
We really enjoyed our trip to Peru. The people are happy and friendly, the Inca history is really fascinating, and the jungle unforgettable. It's not a leisurely destination, but well worth a visit to experience such a very different country.
By Nick Green
Peru Tourism: www.peru.info/perueng.asp
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