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Chavin De Huantar May 29, 2007

Posted by Jason in culture, Peru, South America, Travel.
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 Chavin carved head

Having organised a trip to the mountains in a few days time, the mountains at last! We had a couple of days to kill, so what better than to see another marvel of an archaeological site of the Chavin Culture, Chavin De Huantar.

Nestled on the other side of the Cordillera Blanca, we took an organised tour for 25 soles (the same cost as catching the local bus there and back).

As usual the transport was somewhat taxing.  Told to arrive at the bus station for 8.45am we were still in Huaraz at 10.30am picking people up and generally in tru South American style dicking around!

Finally we were off! Over a spectacular pass towards the Cordillera Blanca.  Hillsides cultivated to the highest tops by the locals and thatched hillside settlements.  The scenery here is overwhelmingly beautiful with tropical hillsides giving way to craggy mountain tops and glaciated summits.

A beautiful Lagun

Our first stop was a beautiful Laguna which is pretty awe enspiring with mountains rising up beyond the lake.

Then we continued up the winding pass, the bus swerving at regular intervals to avoid the holes in the road or where the road had fallen away.  Indeed the rockfalls here must be a regular occurance, with several sections of the road blocked by large land slides and rocks!

Eventually reaching the top of the pass you see a steep wall in front of you and realise that we have to go through a tunnel to surmount the obstacle! A relief to all!

Out of the other side we are faced with a giant sized statue of Jesus overlooking the pass, quite spectacular.

We then continue the winding road, as tarmac gives way to a dirt road narrowing and becoming more pot holed by the minute.  We pass trucks parked at the side of the road, where people have dug tunnels into the cliff road side to mine. Large slides have been built where debris from the mining can be poured down to finally land in the trucks on the road.  The mining operation looks precarious at best, and the erosion being caused to the cliff at the side of the road is most worrying. But no one bats an eyelid.

We continue and after a brief stop for something to eat we finally reach Chavin De Huantar.

Chavin De Huantar    Chavin main gate    Cheryl in the underground chambers!

The Chavin culture rained supreme in this area of Peru from about 1000 BC to 200BC. Being Pre-Inca the building achievements they made, being over 2000 years before the Incas is remarkable.

We abandoned the “guided” tour as our spanish frankly was not upto the job, and explored the site by ourselves.

The original site was much larger than you see today, but is still impressive.

A large courtyard over looked by a building complex facing east to face the rising sun.  Some of the stones that have been cut and carved are enormous.  The carvings show a strong resemblance of the Tiwanaku culture,  found in Eastern Bolivia.

It is believed that the Chavin culture was the pre-cursar to the expansive Wari and Tiwanaku cultures and then of course to the Incas.

A staircase to the chambers underground

There are underground chambers here that are fascinating to explore. The chambers are large and include a labyrinth of tunnels you can explore, some lit by electric lights (not installed by the Chavins!!) and some not, a head torch is useful!

While we were exploring the chambers the lights went out, and emergency lighting came on, or rather one light in the entire chamber! It made exploring the tunnels a bit more exciting!

The odd scary moment where you have to duck under roofs only held up by precarious wooden poles! There is obviously much of this site that has not been excavated yet.

Which is the Chavin head!?

Finally, there are the famous Chavin heads, only one of which has remained in situ, but there are many carved heads in the adjacent small museum of artifacts.

All in all the site is fascinating, one of many amazing pre-Inca cultures on show in Peru and Bolivia.

Another flat tyre!!

After a couple of hours exploring the site we headed back over the pass to Huaraz.  Of course we had the usual flat tyre situation! That is 5 journeys on the trot in Peru that we have had where a wheel has had to be changed, its becoming a habit on our journeys!

We arrived back to Huaraz after dark at about 8pm, having listened to the incessant none stop traditional Peruvian music( it does your head in after a while!)

A thoroughly enjoyable day and another cultural delight to savour, so many in the high Andean countries.  

Now back to the mountains!     


Huaraz. . . the Chamonix of Peru? May 27, 2007

Posted by Jason in culture, Peru, South America.
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The Cordillera Blanca from Huaraz 

We arrived in Huaraz at 6.30am Friday the 18th of May.  It was a chilly misty morning as we stepped off the night bus and were immediately accosted by a host of taxi drivers and agency representatives eager to “help us” find accommodation and “tours” of the area.

We managed to finally escape the crowd and allowed a taxi driver to find us accommodation.  After several attempts we found a guest house “Jacal” run by a very friendly family on Jose De Sucre.  The price was excellent for a double room with ensuite and hot water.

We had high hopes of Huaraz.  The publicity telling us that it was the “Chamonix of Peru”. Now we have heard this one before.  El Chalten and Bariloche in Argentina for instance.  Both wonderful places in their own right, but simply no need to compare with Chamonix.

Huaraz has a tragic history, with floods and earthquakes causing mass destruction and misery.   The last such event was on 31st May 1970 when an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale destroyed most of the city of Huaraz and severely damaging other cities in the region and on the coast.  The result was a total of 70,000 s and 250,000 casualties.

The city was thus rebuilt.  The results we see today are of a rather drab sprawling city sat below the white peaks of the Cordillera Blanca, some of the most beautiful snow capped mountains in the world.

Our experience so far has been positive, with people being very friendly and the surrounding countryside beautiful.

However, is this the Chamonix of Peru?  Obviously, the people who have suggested such a thing have never been to Chamonix! 

Chamonix is a picturesque town nestled in the Alps with cool cafes, restauraunts and an atmosphere all of its own.  Whether in summer or winter it has something to offer and food to die for.

Huaraz,  however cannot live up to this reputation.  It´s postion below the Cordillera Blanca cannot be denied, and the people very friendly and helpful, however, it has neither the atmosphere or the picturesque nature of Chamonix.

Yes, there are cool places to hang out, eat or have a coffee when you find them.  Some of the best being Cafe Andino, Cafe California, Pachamama restaurant and cinema, El Encuentro and Chillie Heaven(beside the Casa de Guias).

However, in order to get to them you have to pass alleyways and streets stinking of and human excrement. The smell is sometimes so overwhelming that it is enough to make you want to vomit if you are caught unawares.

So the verdict. . . .Well, Huaraz is not a picturesque city, and it is certainly not a “Chamonix”,  but it is a place well worth visiting, and the countryside around is breathtaking. 

Huaraz, in short, is a place from where to launch yourself into the mountains and not necessarily to hang around and relax.

Come to Huaraz, but not for the city, but for the mountains.

The Santa Cruz Trek May 25, 2007

Posted by Cheryl in Peru, South America, trekking.
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The Santa Cruz Trek is a very popular trek in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru.  The Cordillera Blanca are a chain in the Andes that are reputed to be some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.  Indeed, one mountain within the range, Alpamayo was named the most beautiful mountain in the world by UNESCO in 1966.

Alpamayo, the most beautiful mountain in the world!

Right at the start of the trail I spotted a dead snake and a dead lizard.  I took this as a bad omen.  I wasn´t far wrong, within half an hour we were drenched in sweat, our lungs burning in the oxygen deficient 3,000+ metre air, as we struggled up the steep path next to the Santa Cruz River.   We had been spoilt by the luxury of trekking the Inca Trail and my pack weighed heavy on my back.

The start of the Santa Cruz Trek    The first day´s trail up the Santa Cruz Valley   Jason making friends on the trail!     

After about 2.5 hours the gradient eventually eased off and the narrow valley opened up into a flat grassy plain.  Another 2.5 hours and we reached the campsite. 

The next day we headed off confidently armed with our Lonely Planet Trekking Guide.  At lunchtime, we could already see the campsite within spitting distance from where we were.  We relaxed in the sun for ages knowing we were on the home straight.  But on trying to make the campsite we discovered the small matter of a raging river separating us from the opposite bank.  The wooden bridge the Lonely Planet had promised was nowhere in sight.  We spent an age trying to find a safe place to cross, but eventually had to admit defeat and head back down river to where the plain flattened out and it was safe to wade the river.  We finally made it to the camp, soggy shoes and all, just as it was getting dark.

Day 3 took us at last out of the lush valley and into high mountain territory of snowy peaks which had until then just teased us over the tops of the valley sides.  We went to the base of Alpamayo and camped in a beautiful spot called Taullipampa at the foot of the Punta Union Pass.

Our first glimpse of Alpamayo   Day 3 camp site at Taullipampa below Nevado Talliraju   Cheryl approaching the Punta Union Pass with the vista behind

The pass was the highlight of the trek, a rocky gap in the ridgeline at an altitude of 4,760m.  Going up, we had beautiful blue skies, but it had clouded over by the time we reached it and we didn´t get much of a view of the other side. 
The temperature plummeted as we descended and it was soon snowing and then hailing.  It suddenly came to me just why I carry all this gear in my backpack as we piled on extra layers of clothing. 

We got to our next camp at 3pm and chose a quiet corner for our tent.  A few hours later a big group arrived and chose the space not 1m from our tent to pitch their own.  I really can´t understand why people insist on doing this to us!  And then staying up half the night singing raucously and screeching with laughter (I am getting old).

The helpfully provided Hygene facilities!

At these campsites the National Park Authorities have kindly provided stone structures with “toilets” or “hygiene services!” These involve a hole in the ground with not so much a long drop but a short drop! Few if any walls separating the different holes, so communal toilets must be the rage around here! The smell is foul and there are no doors.

The toilets at this camp were the worst. So much so that many people chose to go behind a large rock in the campsite! Rather gross!!

We were up at 6am next morning as our Lonely Planet said we needed to leave by 8am for the 4 hour walk to the road in order to ensure we got transport back to Huaraz.  The walk was through picturesque rural villages without road access, with the locals herding their livestock along the way and guinea pigs designated for the dinner table running in flat boxes beneath the houses. 

Jason with Nevado Talliraju behind

Duly arriving at the road at midday we sat and waited for some transport.  We waited for 2 hours without a single vehicle going past.  On closer reading, we discovered the Lonely Planet somewhat ambiguously said that there was only transport between 6am and 9am and 3pm to 6pm.  So why the need to leave by 8am?  I thought I was bad at Maths, but even I know that 8+4=12 and that 12h00 is a full 3 hours short of 15h00.  So, we sat around, with only the fantastical stories in the Lonely Planet to entertain us, imagining the restaurant that was supposed to be in front of us and wishing we´d stayed in bed for an extra 3 hours. 

When a collectivo eventually came by we were treated to an amazing journey back to Huaraz.  The scenery on the road was much better than any on the trek.  The road climbed steadily through a beautiful valley with huge snowy mountains at every turn.  On the other side of the high pass, the land dropped steeply away.  Our jaws dropped as you could see the twists and turns of the road laid out almost on top of one another to the valley floor far below.  I can´t imagine who thought it a good idea to put a road here.  We gripped our seats as the minivan bounced around on the dirt road and we drove passed numerous crosses on the U-bends to signify memorials of people who had previously gone over the edge.  The pan flutes of the Andean music – soundtrack to all journeys in Peru – droned on and the beautiful Huascaran (the highest mountain in Peru) towered over us.

Buses, minivans, tuk-tuks and collectivos May 21, 2007

Posted by Cheryl in culture, Peru, South America.
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Everybody complains about public transport in England, but honestly, after travelling in South America for so long, I promise never to complain about the state of the London Underground again (OK, at least for seven days after I get back). 

The view back down towards Caraz in the valley below and the Negra Mountains behind

We had a ticket on the 6.30am bus from Huaraz to Vaqueria (with allocated seats and everything!).  It was a painfully early morning, but we arrived to get the bus amidst general chaos, and nobody who was forthcoming with any information aside from general shaking of heads.  Eventually, somebody grabbed our tickets and thrust the 30 soles fare back into our hands.  We figured the bus was cancelled.  I tried to ask a woman behind the counter what was going on.  She pointed randomly up the road and muttered something meaningless that sounded like “Reyes”, but then blanked out and couldn´t be drawn on the subject any further.  Dumbfounded, we plodded off in the direction of her finger, hoping this communication would become clearer in time. 

Lucky enough, someone else was heading in that direction with a big suitcase, so we followed closely behind and arrived at another company to find another bus going in the same direction.  They threw our backpacks into the luggage compartment and we boarded the bus only to find every available seat (and most of the floorspace) already taken.  Standing for 4.5 hours to Vaqueria didn´t really appeal so we hurriedly removed ourselves and our bags from the bus and went in search of an alternative.

We were trying to get to the start of the Santa Cruz trek, but knew we could get to somewhere near the other end of it by minivan, and could then do it in reverse.  At the minivan stand, everyone was touting for our business, and in no time at all our 50 pound backpacks were taken off us and strapped with a piece of string (that resembled a shoelace) to the roof of the minivan.  Let me point out here that this was not a roof ‘rack’, but simply a roof, and we could envision arriving at the other end with only a frayed piece of shoelace hanging from the roof. 

In no mood for this at this time of morning, Jason strongly urged them to remove our packs from their precarious position on the roof.  They eventually obliged and put them instead inside the minivan, but wanted to charge an extra two fares for this.  All this time, the minivan behind, was waiting patiently with a very sturdy roof rack.  After quite a lot of arguing, we eventually managed to extricate our packs and get them loaded onto this one.

Arriving in Caraz a few hours later we were ushered into a tuk-tuk (like a rickshaw with a smokey engine on it!) , a heated argument ensued between the tuk-tuk driver and a taxi driver also vying for our business, but then we were off at about 5km an hour with the exhaust whining in our ears, not quite sure exactly where we were going apart from that it was somehow closer to Cashabamba and was costing 2 soles.  We silently hoped he wasn´t going to try to take us the 30 odd km into the mountains to the start of the trail.  Happily, he delivered us to the collectivo stand and we jumped into a car headed to Cashabamba. 

Changing the tyre on the collectivo

Collectivos in South America are vehicles that ply a particular route, and wait until they are full before heading off, dropping off and picking up passengers as they go.  We thought the car full when there were five of us squeezed in, but oh no, there had to be space for two more in there somewhere. 

One flat tyre (replaced with a badly balding one) later and we were eventually delivered to the trailhead in Cashabamba. 

Yet another cultural delight! May 17, 2007

Posted by Jason in culture, Peru, South America.
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After yesterday´s cultural delight, eating Guinea Pig, we caught a flight to Lima where the speciality is raw fish.  While trying to kill half the day before waiting for our bus connection to Huaraz, we thought why not!

The dish is Cebiche, with raw fish served or marinated in citric fruits such as limes and lemons.


The result was suprisingly good and both Cheryl and I liked it very much.  A much improved and less gross culinary experience!

I think this one may be one to repeat! 

Don´t be so Cuy! May 17, 2007

Posted by Jason in culture, Peru, South America.
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After the Inca Trail and experiencing the delights of Cusco we just had to partake in a local cultural delicacy and try Cuy or in more plain terms Guinea Pig!

Cuy or Guinea Pig to you and me, awaiting to be eaten following a good roasting!!

Guinea Pig is a local delicacy eaten by Peruvians on special occasions.  It can be expensive for gringos in Cusco costing upwards of 40 soles, ( or 7 pounds, US$13).  But, in the local restaurants and outside Cusco 15 or 20 Soles is the norm.

The Peruvians apparently eat around 65 million . . . yes 65 “million” guinea pigs every year, and it is also enjoyed by other upland communities in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia.

So as we were in Peru, we thought we ought to try it.  So while in Tipon, at a local restaurant we decided to have Cuy Al Horno or roasted guinea pig to you and me.

I wasn´t quite ready for the full effect of a guinea pig completely whole staring at me from my plate before I tucked in but hey, when in Peru . . . . . .

My friend. . . the Guinea Pig!      Cheryl ready and waiting to “tuck in”!      mmmm. . . .tasty!

The results of this cultural experience is that. . . .well. . . . this will probably be a one off!  The meat is actually quite nice, but the hassle of actually getting the meat off the bone is rather time consuming.  Little reward for alot of effort was the consensus!

They say that the guinea pig is good for you, being low in fat and cholestoral, but to be honest, give me a fattening juicy rare steak any time!

Some how I just won´t be able to look at those cuddly cute guinea pigs in the pet shop in the same way when I get back to England!!


Cusco, muy bonito May 17, 2007

Posted by Jason in culture, Peru, South America.
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Yet again, time to move on, far earlier than we would want.  We have been staying in and around Cusco for a while now, learning spanish (well trying to!), seeing the archaeological sites, walking the Inca Trail, visiting Manu national park and generally lapping up the atmosphere.

Unbelievably, this is a second visit for both of us having been here last year as well.  We are incredibly lucky, yet there is still so much to experience here.

Tipon, argicultural terraces      Machu Picchu      Jason and Cheryl at Sacsayhuaman

Cusco is a wonderful city, incredibly picturesque and with a great atmosphere.  We are very sad to leave, however, pastures new await again in northern Peru.

Our last foray into the history of the Incas came with our visit to Tipon, a village outside of Cusco to the south east.  The delight of this site is that not many people go there and the site is not crowded at all.

The beautiful village of Ollantaytambo and the Inca Ruins in the background

Obviously not on the scale of Machu Picchu, it is nevertheless a large Inca site only partially uncovered by the archaeologists.

The site has enormous agricultural terraces and an elaborate irrigation system that is partially still working today.  It is very picturesque.

Tipon, irrigation system, Inca site

Just another wonderful archaeological site to add to the many on the travellers list.

Whether it is Sacsayhuaman, Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu or Tipon, you cannot fail to be impressed by the grandeur of the ruins here.

The mountains, archaeological sites, colonial architecture mixed with Inca buildings and the atmosphere of Cusco itself are a wonder.  Our experience of the “Inca Trail” was awesome and the Jungle in Manu was a wonderful experience.

Maybe we will be back some day, I hope so. 

The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu May 16, 2007

Posted by Jason in culture, Peru, South America, trekking.
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Jason and Cheryl at Machu Picchu!

The Inca Trail 4 Day Trek

Day 1

After 3 months of waiting since we booked the Inca Trail Trek the day finally arrived when we would begin it.  There was much anticipation since we had been told so much about the trek. 

We had booked the trek through “Peru Treks”, a trekking company recommended to us through travelling friends in South America.

Inka Trail     Jason and Cheryl near the top of the steps of the Dead Womans Pass     The map of the Trail

A 5.30am pick up at our Hostal took us to the picturesque village of Ollantaytambo, with narrow cobbled streets and Inca ruins.  We had breakfast here before then being taken to the start of the trail at approximately 2,600m at Km 82.  After having our passport stamped we headed onto the trail across the Urubamba river.  The weather was hot and sunny and the trail clear and easy to follow.  It appeared that Chez and I were to be 2 of only 4 people who did not hire a personal porter!  Our bags appeared ridiculously large… we were very jealous of the minute day packs people were carrying!

The 2 guides lead the group at a pretty slow pace stopping regularly which was nice.  We stopped at the first ruins along the way at Llaqtapata, an impressive view of an Inca settlement with agricultural terraces. 

Then we stopped for lunch with was an amazing sit down affair, with a mess tent.  The meal was soup and a cooked meal of fresh trout.  This is like living in the land of luxury after our treks in Patagonia!!

After a short siesta we headed off again up the valley to our final destination for today and our campsite at Wayllabamba.  Our tent was already erected, a 4 man tent for just Chez and I!

An enterprising local was selling beer which we all discovered very quickly!

The evening meal was again fantastic.  A three course meal with more food than we could possibly eat.  All fresh produce, better food than we have found in Cusco!!  We then had a much needed rest for a 6am start!

Day 2 – Inca Trail

Up at 6am woken with Mate De Coca in bed!  Then started walking at 7.30am.  Today would be the hardest day of the trek with the climb up to the “Dead Womans Pass”!! at 4,200m. 

Yesterday was just breaking us into the Inca Trail as the trail was fairly easy going and we passed many small settlements and places where locals would sell water and chocolate.

Today it felt much more like an “Inca” trail as we were walking along paved trail.  The path was steep from the start and the group began to get strung out.  One of our group Ben began to have significant difficulty with the altitude and felt terrible, but he was the only one to be seriously affected by the altitude.

After a steep ascent we reached a spot to rest at Lulluchapampa.  Chez and I were absolutely famished by 10am! This was the last spot to buy water and chocolate so we “stocked up”!  We were given a sandwich by Peru Treks to keep us going.  The plan would be to get over the pass and down to our camp by 2.30pm when we would have our full lunch.  We were very jealous though as a another trekking group were having a teddy bears picnic with table and chairs while the rest of us starved!

The trekking group at the top of Dead Womans Pass     Our Guides Marcelino and Cesar     Cheryl on the steep climb along the Inca Trail

After a rest we continued up the Inca paving steeper and steeper until the top of the pass Warmiwamusca (Dead womans pass).  The view here at 4,200m was fantastic.  Much patting on each others backs for reaching the top and as far as we know no one died in the ascent! Not even Ben! Though he looked like he might!

Atmospheric pan pipes

What made the climb to the top of the pass so atmospheric with the mountains, Inca trail and mist rolling in was the music a guide was playing on his pan pipes.  It felt like we were walking in a BBC documentary!!

After a rest we headed steeply down the other side of the pass along wonderful Inca paving and steps to our camp at Pacamayo 3,600m.

Everyone reached the camp  by 2.30pm and we had lunch at 3pm.  We were then informed that we would have dinner at 7pm!

However, after a brief siesta we were awoken by our guide for “tea”! at 5.30pm.  This involved buscuits, popcorn, Wantons and Mate de Coca!

By the time we had dinner at 7pm I hardly had any space whatsoever for the next 3 course installment!  But can´t complain!

Day 3 – Inca Trail

Again up at 6am with tea in bed and walking by 7.30am.  Today we would be walking over 90% original Inca Trail, stone paving and steps.  It was fantastic.  The scenery was superb with high green steep sided mountains reaching into the sky as we climbed the passes of the trail. As the trail went on we got deeper into the jungle, forested trail.

The first pass, immediately above our camp was at 3,950m.  We passed the ruins of a guard house on the trail Runkurakay, and then continued up the steep steps to the next pass past several picturesque tarns.

The over the pass to snow capped peaks of Urubamba

Then down steeply along wonderful paving to the next Inca site spectacularly situated, clinging to the hillside as a fortress but also religious/sacred site of Sayacmarca.  This is excellent to wonder round.

Cheryl on the way from the top of the pass     Sayacmarca     Chez trying to get more energy from the Sacred stone before another steep climb!

We then had a 20 minute walk to lunch and another enormous 3 course meal.  I needed to lie down after this!  I was exhausted by all the food they were giving us!

Then we continued along the trail through thick forest.  Here you can see that the majority of the paving is original Inca as it winds through the forest clinging to the hillsides.  The atmosphere was made more spectacular by the clagging mists on the mountainside.

Through Inca tunnels and along winding paths we finally reached tha last pass of the day and then to the next Inca ruins of Phuyupatamarca at 3,600m.  Again built on a steep hillside with agricultural terracing and utilising a natural spring still running today along inca channels.

Inca trail through the jungle

We then had a steep descent though an Inca tunnel and along a steep winding path to an Inca agricultural settlement at Winay Wayna.  Here the hillside is so steep it is hard to believe the Inca´s were able to utilise the land here to grow crops.  The steep high terraces are quite spectacular.

It appears that the Incas had terracing at differing heights in order to grow different crops at their ideal  climate location, utilising micro climates.

With dusk upon us we headed down to the campsite.  And again a chance to buy a beer!

A full menu once again and this time even a cake they had managed to bake on the hillside!!  One of the group had their Birthday the following day! The cake was delicious and so was the food on the whole trek, the cook was amazing.

Tonight was the night that we had to sort out the tips for the Porters and cooks. . . .which took some doing!  But we got there in the end. 21 porters and cook looking after 16 trekkers.

But all minds were on the following day when we would have to get up at 4am! For the sunrise over Machu Picchu.

Day 4 – Machu Picchu     

Up at 4am, and Pancake for breakfast. We started walking at 5.20am.

We started in the dark with head torches but by 6am the light was upon us.

Excitement all round as we continued on the trail and finally reached the Sun Gate and our first glimpse of Machu Picchu below us.  An amazing sight.  You can imagine how this must have looked in the time of the Incas looking down on a Sacred city in the mountains.

The sun lighting up Machu Picchu

After many photos we continued down the Inca Trail to a guard house and Sacred site where we gradually watched as the sun rose and light was gradually spread across the Machu Picchu site.  So Beautiful.

We then continued down the trail to Machu Picchu itself for 7am.

We were so lucky with the weather.  Clear blue skies, perfect for the sunlight to hit Machu Picchu.

Cheryl on the terraces at Machu Picchu

We then had a tour with our Guide to tell us what the Archaeologists have discovered at the site. Then we had several hours to meander around the site at our leisure.

Machu Picchu is NOT over rated.  It is an amazing site.  It´s situation on a hilltop within the mountains is amazing, encircled by the Urubamba river.  It is truly a Wonder of the World.

Jason at Machu Picchu     Llamas enjoying the clean Machu Picchu air!     Machu Picchu

This was mine and Cheryl´s second visit to the site, the first being by bus in the early morning a year earlier.

Even though we had seen the city before, it still wowed us. And coming to the city from the Sun Gate made it an awesome experience.

Although this type of trek is not something we would normally contemplate with guides and porters with lots of people. The trek still had its wow factor.  The archaeological sites are truly amazing all the way along the trail.  The Inca trail itself with its paving, steps, and tunnels is also amazing.  The setting of the mountains, snow caps, jungle and steep sided trail is amazing.

The company Peru Treks were excellent, the food superb, we were looked after very well and the guides Cesar and Marcelino were excellent.

The Inca Trail. . . . in short was an excellent experience and well worth the wait!!   


Be careful, it´s a jungle out there. May 6, 2007

Posted by Cheryl in culture, Peru, South America.
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Whilst at the South American Explorers Club we noticed they were running a trip to the Manu National Park which is reputed to be one of the most unspoilt tracts of virgin rain forest in South America.  The trip was only for 4 days so it would slot nicely into our itinerary before the Inca Trail, and it was also excellent value, being run not for profit by a new company setting up a tourist industry in their section of the jungle to help the local people make a living, seeing their old livelihood of logging has been outlawed in the park. 

We set off in good spirits from Cusco cramped into the back of a mini bus for the 9 hour journey down to the rain forest.  En route we stopped at the pretty town of Paucartambo on the edge of the jungle.  It has a number of beautiful colonial buildings in their trademark white with blue balconies and an over powering smell of pee.  Paucartambo like many places in this area was an Inca town, and when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived here, the Incas had all fled into the jungle.  Legend has it that they wouldn´t have fled randomly into the jungle and must have left for a place in the jungle that was there already.  The Conquistadors followed them into the jungle, but weren´t fit for jungle warfare and after a number of their men had been slain, they returned to Paucartambo and made that their last stronghold.  People in the area still strongly believe in the existence of an Inca city in the jungle which has never been found and there have been a number of expeditions over the years to try to find this city.  Nobody has yet found it, but when you see the thick carpet of trees and vegetation over the jungle, you can readily imagine that there could be an ancient city hidden beneath it.

Manu National Park 

The road from Paucartambo to Pilcapata in Manu National Park was really terribly hairy.  We could see where the road had recently been completely washed away in landslides and was still being rebuilt.  The mud was so thick that the minivan slid all over whilst the sheer drops off the road into the jungle below left us clinging to our seats.  On a couple of occasions, we came head to head with a lorry coming in the opposite direction on one of the tight hairpin bends.  Really, I would rather not have been sitting at the front of the car to witness this first hand.

With the harrowing journey over, we were finally in Pilcapata village to enjoy the warm steamy jungle which had us feeling sticky in seconds and the mosquitoes (though not nearly as many of them as I imagined).  We rode horses out to one of the small communities in the jungle, which blew out any romantic notions I harboured of what a jungle community would be like.  The community, though still leading a very simple rural life and living off the land, are not completely untouched by modern life and outside each wooden house, was a neat sink plumbed into a block of stone and concrete.  The people were perfectly friendly, spoke Spanish as a second language, and weren´t nearly as savage as I´d hoped.  They even let us play with their bows and arrows made from palm trees, which they maintain that they still hunt with, though I´m not convinced that wasn´t just the patter for the tourists. 

They have a small medical center in the community, which they apparantly all eschew in favour of the local “pharmacy” which is a section of medicinal plants that they´ve cultivated over the years.  It is very interesting to see people living so close to the land, and who can blame them for their modern conveniences where it makes what must be a hard life that bit easier.  After taking us for a swim in a beautiful spot where the river makes a natural pool, we were “treated” to their home brew alcohol called “chicha” which is made from the yucca plant (similar to the potato).  We spilt the first bit of chicha onto the ground as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth)  according to local custom before imbibing.  I had heard that they chew the yucca to soften it before spitting it out and using it to make the chicha.  I swear it wasn´t only this that put me off, but the stuff was really pretty foul.  I abstained as far as possible whilst trying not to appear too rude.

The following day we took a boat trip on one of the wide local rivers for some typical jungle scenery.  It was very beautiful.  We left the boat and walked into the jungle with a guide who showed us some fascinating plants including a fern which rolled up it´s fronds when you touched it, a tree which bled red blood, the “leche leche” (milky milk) tree which bled milk and vines which when sliced open poured out clear spring water.  The leaf cutter ants were incredible, lines of them that seemed to go on for ever with marching ants carrying segments of leaf back to the nest.  We saw some of them slicing through the leaves with their knife like jaws.  They are fascinating creatures who are apparantly the only creatures apart from humans which cultivate their own food.  They take the leaves back to their nest where they are put in green houses where a fungus grows on the mulch.  The ants live on this fungus.  When the leaves are dead, they are removed from the nest and new ones brought in. 

On our last evening there was a big fiesta with all the locals doing Peruvian dances.  We went and watched them in the village square sporting their elaborate local costumes and doing local dances.  The small children were first and their dancing was very comical.  An intriguing view into a life that is so very different from our own.

Welcome back to Peru May 1, 2007

Posted by Cheryl in culture, Peru, South America.
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Plaza De Armas, Cusco 

We arrived back in Peru and quickly became reaccustomed to the fact that nobody ever has any change EVER.  The ATMs take great delight in only spitting out 100 soles notes, but it is almost impossible to break a 100 soles note anywhere.  In fact even paying for something that costs 8.50 soles with a 10 soles note means you are usually met with looks of disbelief.  You will then be asked for the correct change and failing to have it, the person will then scurry off to try and get change from all the nearby shops and stalls.  This can sometimes take a very long time, whilst you are left fretting that your bus is due to leave in 2 minutes. 

Another strange Peruvian fad is to cover your house in a splattering of political slogans.  I really can´t imagine this taking off back home. 

But, it´s good to be back in Peru nonetheless, where you can buy a 2 course meal in a local restaurant for about 30p (at risk of your stomach).  We are doing some Spanish lessons in Cusco whilst biding our time before going on the Inca Trail.  We dropped in at the excellent South American Explorers Club, looking for maps and information.  They have “club houses” in Cusco, Lima, Buenos Aires and Quito where you can chill out, use the internet, drink coffee and peruse their very useful books and resources. 

One of their side projects is a Spanish School called Fairplay which is set up to train young single mothers to teach Spanish to gringoes.  Young single mothers are often ostracized in Peru, and lead a hard life trying to look after their children in a country which is rife with poverty and unemployment.  This means that quite often their children will be given up and may end up living on the streets.  Fairplay gives single mothers the chance to work whilst looking after their children and builds their self esteem.  Our Spanish lessons through Fairplay were exceptionally good value in comparison to the big schools in Cusco, the teaching was excellent and the classes were divided into “grammar” classes and “practical” classes which took place on the streets, at local tourist sites, the market, or basically anywhere we wanted to go in Cusco.  The lessons were very well structured and I would recommend their classes to anyone.  Ask for Marta, Sonia or Esther for excellent tutoring.  The great thing is that your money, rather than going into the coffers of a big school, goes directly to the teachers.