Friday 6 January 2012

Peru - Machu Picchu and More

First thought that comes into your head when you hear Peru.....? Machu Picchu, right? Now, what's the second thing....? Exactly... and that's the manner in which I entered the country too - dreaming of Machu Picchu, but pretty much ignorant of anything else Peru has to offer. Of which, it turns out, there is actually quite a lot - chilled beach towns, a central highland area boasting 22 peaks over 6000m high, a beguiling capital city and random oasis spots surrounded by otherwise barren and expansive desert, two of the world's deepest canyons, and a remote amazon jungle town reachable by air and river only. As this smorgasbord of varied and exciting traveller options slowly became apparent to me, I began to regret some of my previous dilly-dallying and the fact that this left me only 2-3 weeks to play with in Peru.

Lima shopping arcade
This short time was reduced even further by the unexpected attachment I developed towards my first stop in the country. At first glance, Mancora is just another beach 'party town' - a fun diversion, but not the sort of place that defines my personal reasons for travelling - and similar to locations in which I've had more unsavoury encounters in the past (with the obligatory drug dealers and people harbouring more than just a passing interest in my shiny new laptop). With such previous experiences, I intended to spend just a single night in Mancora - right on the border with Ecuador, it's a useful stopover for anyone leaving that country before heading further inland into Peru. However, by the time I finally arrived in Mancora (at 4am in the morning) exhaustion levels were at a new high: It had only been a couple of days since my energy-sapping excursion up to the top of Cotopaxi and I'd since endured two night buses in a row - one with no spare seats available despite my early booking - along with a 2am crossing of one of SAm's dodgiest borders. As such, I was resigned to having to extend my stopover in Mancora by an extra night. This quickly developed into three extra nights as the great company and pristine poolside at Kokopelli Hostel along with the always intoxicating combination of sun, sand and sea triggered the realisation that I wouldn't be seeing any of those three elements again for a while as I planned to head further inland to the continent's interior. Sea swimming, beach running, beach volleyball and late night frivolities - barefoot-dancing, sand beneath your toes and bright moonlight shimmering across gently lapping waves - such luxuries are hard to leave if you're unsure when you'll encounter them again!

However, it was also during my extended Mancorian break that I became steadily more aware of just how much more there was to see in Peru, and this finally provided the extra shove I needed to get off the beach, get fully dressed again, and get out of town.

The capital, Lima, isn't generally considered to be one of Peru's highlights, but the sheer size of the country (third-biggest on the continent) along with my increasingly stubborn no-fly policy meant that Lima was a sensible place to spend a night or two en-route to the bigger attractions in the South. Lima has something of a reputation among SAm travellers as a dangerous badland (similar to Ecuador's capital, Quito) but I found nothing to support these allegations. Sure, you need to take some precautions and use a little common sense - avoid certain areas, no flashing of valuables, no walking alone at night, only taking official taxis, and just generally being vigilant and aware of your surroundings at all times - but that's often all that's necessary to ensure you have no negative experiences in these 'big, scary' cities. I often think that people travelling solely in the Southern portion of Latin America would benefit from a taste of CAm capitals; that'll make them appreciate the relative safety of the South.

Lima outskirts
The only action of real note during my short time in Lima came courtesy of an informative walking tour around the historic town centre concluding with a visit to the eerie, extensive catacombs underneath the San Francisco Monastery. Over 70,000 people were interred here in the 35 years following the church's completion in 1774. The tombs were 'rediscovered' in the mid-1900s and archeologists excavated and collected all the remains (mostly just thigh bones had survived) into huge piles, with a few skulls arranged in neat patterns nearby. They were obviously rather morbid archeologists. The Monastery's slightly odd decision to leave the bones in these arrangements, amongst the gloomy, oppressive underground corridors, makes for an uneasy and spooky, yet strangely enchanting, tour experience.

By now, almost half of my time allotted for Peruvian exploration had passed and I'd still not made any real progress towards the only attraction I was initially aware of; Machu Picchu. Nearly all visitors to MP come via the attractive, colonial city of Cuzco - at a respectable altitude of 3300m and South America's oldest continuously inhabitated city. In truth, most people are only really drawn into town by the magnetism of nearby Machu Picchu, but there is plenty else to keep you occupied if you've a few days to kill before your tour - vast plazas, numerous museums and a smattering of other more low-key inca sites just outside town.

Cuzco main square
Arriving on a Thursday afternoon, I checked into the Irish-themed 'Wild Rover' hostel, only to find that my chosen weekend coincided with their 1st anniversary celebrations. Any illusions I'd had about being a good tourist from the get-go vanished during the first night's extensive festivities. Only a warm-up, two days before Saturday's main event, but still featuring lots of questionable karaoke, followed by bar-dancing (I'm ashamed to say that my initial reaction to the three, pretty girls who stood on the bar and proceeded to 'shake their stuff' in front of me, was to think "Oh, great - how long's it going to take to get served now!!?"), all accompanied by pint-loads of Irish hospitality. It was obvious that things at the Wild Rover were only going to get wilder as the weekend progressed, so I decided to forget about any more productive activities I'd had planned for the duration and just let myself go with the fiesta - a choice that culminated in my being dressed in a bright pink, Sgt.Pepper Ringo Starr outfit and only being aware of this fact thanks to photographic evidence and the fact that the crumpled costume was discarded next to my bed the following morning. It was fun....

As soon as Monday rolled around though, just like having a proper job again, the frivolity was over and it was time to get back to business; my mind now firmly focused on Machu Picchu. But how exactly to get there? With my great ignorance of Peruvian travel and tourism, I hadn't realised quite how far from Cuzco the ancient Inca citadel and one of the official 'New Seven Wonders of the World' is located. It's actually situated on a remote mountaintop, deep in the Sacred Valley and over 100km from Cuzco. The reason that Cuzco is seen as the entry point for MP is that the majority of agencies offering the famous 4 day 'Inca Trail' trek to MP are based here, and most tours set off from the city. It's undoubtable that the Inca Trail is a highlight for many travellers on the continent - a 40km long path, winding up and down mountainsides, peaking at 4200m, past numerous smaller inca temple sites, and finally reaching the main attraction before sunrise on the fourth day - and I'm sure I would have loved it too. But, with the huge popularity of this route and the general over-tourism at MP, the costs for this excursion have become frankly extortionate. I was quoted prices over $500 for the tour and, with my significantly-diminished budget after 7 months of travelling, that was just too much for me.

So, to find another way.... the cheapest way.... by local bus, right? Well, it also turns out that Aquas Calientes (the actual entry town to MP, the 'real Cuzco' you might say) is unreachable by road - it's either walking or train. Brilliant! I love train travel, and there's hardly any other opportunities for such a mode of transport in LAm. However, my locomotive dream was also soon shattered - the authorities haven't just overpriced the Inca Trail; a train from Cuzco to AC costs around $100, and that's before you've even shelled out for the entry price to the site itself (around $60). Luckily, it wasn't just me who was having trouble swallowing MP prices and it didn't take long to assemble a rag-tag motley crue of other budget-conscious travellers.

Walking to Aquas Calientes
Myself, Mathius, Remo and Suzanne set off early Monday morning to Cuzco's local bus station with only a vague understanding of the possibility and logistics behind independent overland travel (sin tren) to AC, but determined to give it a go at least. We ended up taking a bus 7 hours through the Sacred Valley - relentlessly-winding, nausea-inducing roads on a bum-numbingly uncomfortable 'bus', but astonishing views if you could stomach the ride - to a random valley village. From there, it was a colectivo ride (think: minibus, like at home, but with twice as many people crammed into the same space, and one that would have been decommissioned and removed from service years previously) - slightly more comfortable than the bus, but driven along one of the scariest, mountain-side-hugging roads I've ever experienced (and there's been a few!). Any split-second hesitation or mistake from the driver and it would have been curtains for us all - there was only inches of gravel between our wheels and the sheer drop to the valley floor far below. This excitement was increased by our chauffeurs apparent adolescent age and his penchant for 80's power ballads, played constantly and at very impressive volume.

Still alive, 2 1/2 hours later, we arrived at 'Hydroelectrica' - like the name suggests, this is a dam, but also marks the end of road transportation towards AC and MP. Our arrival happened to be perfectly-timed to catch the last train to AC - only $18 from here, but we'd so far only spent $6 each, so this would quadruple the day's expenses. Instead, we opted to simply walk the final 20km. Backpacks on, serene, secluded nature, walking along train tracks and alongside a river at the bottom of a lush valley, we felt like proper old-school travellers (even as the sun set and the encroaching darkness added a definite edge to the proceedings; we were never 100% sure how much further it was to AC). Finally, 11 hours (but only $6 down) since leaving Cuzco, we stumbled into AC with just enough time to book MP tickets for the following day.

V.foggy Machu Picchu
Now it was time to deal with the main attraction. After an early night, we rose at 4am to begin the final leg of our journey to MP. As already mentioned, these iconic Inca ruins are perched on a mountaintop, so there's still a little work involved in order to reach them from valley-bottom-based AC. It's about a 1 1/2 hour uphill hike from town, or you can pay around $15 dollars for a return bus trip. Do I have to spell out what option we went for? This is when we learnt that simply saying or reading the phrase '1 1/2 hour uphill hike' is misleadingly easy in comparison to actually doing it. In the pre-dawn pouring rain, it was remarkably tough work and we arrived, hugely fatigued, just before the smug, well-rested tour groups inside their warm, dry buses.

Our early start turned out to be of no real benefit either - thick fog enveloped the entire MP complex for the first two hours after our arrival. We were all very tired, increasingly disheartened, and beginning to think our whole extended endeavour may have been a colossal waste of time. However, a little after 8am, the thick blanket of clouds slowly began to shift - first allowing only short glimpses through to sections of indistinguishable stone, before rolling back to hide the treasures contained within once more, until, finally, the fog morphed into only wisps of mist and eventually dispersed completely to reveal MP in all it's glory.

Machu Picchu
Now, I'm sure you've all seen photos of MP before (scroll down if not) and it is undoubtedly an impressive sight. It doesn't look like a place that really exists in the modern day, though - more an ancient, faraway, fantasy land, perched above the clouds and borne of someone's impressive imagination rather than the sweat and toil of a real ancient people. And it's still the same when you're actually there: Unreal. Impossibly beautiful. A stone mirage in a dreamy setting. But it's also different. This time you know it's real. You can breathe in MP oxygen, wander amongst the vast constructions, reach out and touch it. Thinking about the mysterious civilisation who (relatively speaking) not so long ago, created this wonderful world, only to then disappear from the area completely - general knowledge of the location vanishing too, until being 'rediscovered' in 1911 (exactly 100 years ago) by American historian Hiram Bingham - it's all quite overwhelming when you're actually there. Sure, my photos are quite pretty, but for all it really matters they could be paintings. You have to physically go there, and not in a tour group (shuttled around in a bus or train and then herded from point to point in the complex). Go independently, or walk the wonderful Inca Trail - you need to experience this astonishing place first-hand; breathe it in, feel the atmosphere.... Trust me - it's quite good! :)

Canyon tour gang
Back in Cuzco, and my time in Peru was nearly at an end. Before traipsing across the border into Bolivia, though, I decided to check out one more location (on numerous recommendations from other travellers in the country). Arequipa is the second biggest city in Peru, framed by three giant peaks - Pichu Pichu (5571m), El Misti (5822m) and Chachani (6075m) - and surrounded by boundless desert, ripe for exploration. I did have vague ideas about attempting my first 6000+m mountain here. Chachani is generally considered one of the easiest summits in this category - no special experience or equipment is required to walk (not climb) to the top. However the sheer altitude is still something that needs to be seriously considered and, after much deliberation, I concluded that I probably wasn't sufficiently acclimatised to attempt a summit of this magnitude with absolute confidence in reaching the top. The extra knowledge that there would be another opportunity to climb over 6km just around the corner in Bolivia cemented my decision to spend my time in the Arequipa area on a 2 day canyon tour instead.

Crowds at Condor Lookout
A few hours outside town, the Cañon del Colca is the second-deepest canyon in the world, with it's soaring steep sides dropping down nearly 4km in places (canyon number one - Cañon del Cotahuasi - is also in the nearby vicinity, but you need more spare time and money to explore that one properly). I'd heard many good things from other travellers regarding treks in the Colca Canyon so, still in the company of MP expedition partner, Remo, we set off at the rather obscene hour of 3am on a 2day/1night tour down to the depths of this rupture in the earth's surface. The early start was warranted as it takes a few hours to reach Chivay - provincial capital and entry point to the Colca area - a quick break for breakfast, and then another 2/3 hours to Cabanaconde - the main base and beginning of most hikes into the canyon. We also stopped momentarily en route at the 'Cruz del Condor' lookout point, so named because of the giant Andean condors that rest in the vast rocky outcrops here. They can be notoriously hard to spot, so I was satisfied to catch only a brief, fleeting glimpse of a blurry black shadow.

Descending to Oasis
It was late morning before we reached Cabanaconde and began the actual hike. From the start the scenery was stunning - taking a thin, dirt path that traced one side of the valley and slowly descended down, down to the distant floor. The terrain was simply astonishing - a stark juxtaposition with the bare, desert-like upper regions containing only multicoloured rock formations and the odd, solitary cactus, but the lower section filled with vegetation - lush, green, alive and thriving thanks to the trickling streams and main river flowing along the bottom. We trekked all the way down to the floor, crossed the river, and, after a brief pause for lunch, climbed a little way up the opposite side before descending once again into the aptly-named 'Oasis', our base for the night - a mirage-like, pool-filled paradise standing out in the middle of largely-barren land.

First on top of the Canyon! - 6.30am
There wasn't too much time to enjoy the refreshing surreality, though, as the next morning demanded a 4.30am start in order to climb all the way back out the canyon again before breakfast. Our guide informed us that the 8km long path, directly up 1200m, takes an average of 3 hours to cover, but the current 'Gringo' record was 1hr 10mins. Needless to say, I needed no further encouragement and along with a like-minded (equally big-egoed?) climbing instructor from Wales, gave it everything to reach the top as quickly as possible. We reeled onto the top, sweat-drenched and jelly-legged, just under 1 1/2 hours - not quite the record, but sufficiently respectable nonetheless. Then, it was time for the long bus trip back to Arequipa once again - this time with a stop off at a wild, colourful, local dance festival and the highest lookout point (4800m) to break up the journey.

Back in civilisation, I enjoyed one more impromptu evening of drinking with Lee - Aussie guy who I first joined for a Mexican road trip right at the start of the trip and met again during Halloween in Colombia - before preparing for my Peruvian exit. Next on the radar: Bolivia. Another slight enigma, but I'd heard only glowing reports from other travellers about what is generally thought to be the cheapest country on the continent. Border-bound, my bank balance and I were very much looking forward to the next chapter.... until next time! :)

More photos (Especially MP!) below....

Lima centre



Cuzco cathedral

Walking to Aquas Calientes in the fading light...

Hola Machu Picchu!!

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu (just like the other big photo above, but improved by the absence of my ugly mug...)

Preparing to climb Huayna Picchu (Mountain in background... Remo in foreground)

View down over MP from top of HP (winding path on left provided the 1 1/2 hour early morning uphill hike...)

On top of Huayna Picchu

Myself on top of HP (looking far less stylish than the previous fellow!)

More Machu Picchu ruins

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

The MP gang - Suzanne, Remo & Mathius

Enjoying the Colca Canyon view

Starting the Canyon hike

View down to the Oasis - our intended destination

Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon

Down in the bottom of the Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon - showing the stark juxtaposition in terrain (left and right)

Arrival at the Oasis

Well-deserved break at the Oasis

Photo showing the path for climbing back out of the Canyon... :-s

Made it to the top!

One last Canyon lookout point

....and a local youngster... :)


  1. Once again, wow... amazing blog son. I love the ridicuous bus journeys, and can only wonder at the stamina you guys have for some of the things you have undertaken! One hell of a book one day lots of love Mum xx

  2. Beautiful blog, James! You write very well with great expression and, having now read the above, I am green with envy and simply itching to get back to SAm. I was planning on waiting until April for my return but now... who knows?

  3. Hi James,

    Great blog! I'm very jealous as Machu Pichu is one of the locations on my own to do list although as already mentioned above, I doubt I'd have your stamina and would be one of those closeted tourists in the comfy air-conditioned bus. I must be such a disappointment to you....

    Lots of love Dad xxxx