Monday, March 12, 2012

Los Ultimos Días en Peru

Two hours drive in the very early hours of the morning found us white water rafting just outside of Cusco. Decked out in a wetsuit, splash jacket, neoprene boots, life jacket and helmet, the 6 of us got inside the raft and proceeded down the river. 

We started off small but as time went on, we tackled some grade 4-5 rapids and did all sorts of tricks. We even got out of the boat to jump off a small cliff into the freezing, deep water. Each time we were out of the boat, it took great effort to fight the current and swim back into the boat. Although challenging, the adrenaline kept us all excited and eager for more.

So fast did the time seem to go that soon we were by the side of the road, munching on locally baked bread with our delicious lunch. With 2 great guides, this day trip was worth every penny spent and missing out on an extra day at Machu Picchu. 

Back at our hostel, we tried our luck with some warm cooking from the hostel kitchen before crashing into bed for another early night. 

The following morning we were on a plane heading towards Lima; maybe not the cheapest way of travelling but definitely more enticing than a 20-hour bus ride during the day. At the airport in the capital city of Peru, a driver had been arranged to pick us up. 

After a little bit of a wait for him to pay for parking and lot of waiting in traffic, we finally arrived at our host's home. Our host was a lovely and generous Peruvian woman who happened to be a friend of one of my students back in Chile. She had organised two days off work to show us around her city, although for some reason she was expecting 6 girls not 2 to be sleeping under her roof. 

Once that was sorted out and we had drunk our fresh juice, we went to visit the town. First stop: the Franciscan Monastery and Museum, which also houses catacombs. After a few hours looking at rotting skeletons, we were hungry for lunch. We ate at a restaurant opposite and that's when things started to go downhill. 

The waitress smashed the glass saltshaker all over my friend and although the meal was absolutely delicious while eating it, it didn't sit to well once digested. We walked to the centre of town to check out the old government palaces and beautiful Spanish architecture before taking a taxi to the bohemian beachside. 

My knees began to shake and I had to run to the toilet. Braving it, I went outside to watch the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean. We walked over to a nearby pub to have some drinks - a cup of coca mate for me - which only accentuated my stomach's unease. Racing me home in a taxi, I barely made it in time and spent the rest of the night stuck in the bathroom of a woman I had only just met, unable to stop or keep my liquids up. At one in the morning, I had had enough and I took some imodium to help block me up.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to see much of Lima during our only day there. About to board an international flight, we had to be at the airport 3 hours early, which meant that we had to leave our lovely host ever so soon. 

We arrived to a cancelled flight and the next one wasn't until the following day. We complained, of course, and they miraculously made space for us on another flight. We only had to wait 11 hours but at least it left that same day. They gave us lunch vouchers that we used to eat McDonalds for fear of contracting yet more food poisoning. Then they took a whole heap of us to a very fancy hotel, where we spent the afternoon watching cable TV and drinking Pisco Sours while lying in beautiful, white, soft sheets. 

It wasn't exactly how we expected to spend our last days in Peru but I can't say it was boring.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Machu Picchu

It hadn't even reached midday and there was still much to discover within the historical site of Machu Picchu. Unbeknownst to many of the visiters, including those that arrived with oxygen tanks because their aged lungs couldn't support the altitude or the pensioners who made up the majority of the tourists with their expensive hiking brands and hiking sticks, Machu Picchu is not the original name of the site.

No one knows the real name and so people have adapted Machu Picchu, whereby Picchu actually means mountain and Machu means big. It is the name of the enormous mountain behind the historical ruins. Huayna Picchu to the side means New Mountain and third mountain facing the site is called Old Mountain.

As my fellow traveller couldn’t possibly climb anymore, I made friends with an American and a Canadian couple and together we paid the $5 each to climb up the tallest mountain, Machu Picchu Mountain. It took us roughly two hours to make it to the summit where we were the only 5 people around. 

Below us, Huayna Picchu had halved in size and the ruins were barely visible way down below. Above us, a giant indigenous flag flapped in the wind. The flag was composed of horizontal lines of bright, rainbow colours each representing some aspect of nature.

With a fantastic 360 degree view of the surrounding area, it was definitely worth every tiring step up. We could see the river, which had flooded not long ago, flowing across the valley and a little town off in the distance. We could also see just how far we had come from Aguas Calientes and now we were in what seemed like heaven in the clouds. We took turns to sit as close to the edge as possible just to get the best snap with our cameras. 

It only took us an hour to descend and it must be noted that this activity was rather scary as the path was very narrow at times and one nervous mistake would mean you would meet with the sheer drop to ground. At the bottom, I raced to meet my friend and we made our way back down to Aguas Calientes. We ate lunch and were going to visit the hot springs when our host sprang a surprise on us and told us he had booked the early train out of town. 

We had to run to the station and we were straight into the carriage and on our way back to Ollataytambo, still in our stinky, sweaty clothes. Once back in town we waited for what seemed like forever for someone to collect us but no one came. Eventually we rang our hostel in Cusco from a public phone and they told us to take a taxi.

The taxi then proceeded to wait until it filled up but with no luck we eventually started on our journey back to Cusco. 20 minutes in and the taxi driver picked up 2 strange men from the side of the road, one of which feel asleep on my fellow traveller's shoulder. She was not amused.

Back at Loki hostel we got the same dorm, this time without the drunkards (or at least we hoped). It was to be another early start tomorrow but I lay awake for a while, hardly believing the day I had just had.

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes seemed almost like a ski resort town amongst the luscious, green vegetation of the Andes. It was full of touristy restaurants with staff out the front encouraging passers-by to eat within. Row upon row of pizza, pasta and other western food cascaded down the sloping road, the cycle only broken by a giant luxurious hotel or two. 

We only spent one night in this town and it seemed more than enough to see the sites. At 4 in the morning we awoke to begin our day's adventure, something we were becoming accustomed to. Our friendly host had knocked on the door to wake us up and when we were showered and ready to head downstairs, he had breakfast waiting for us. 

We filled up as a much as we could and set off. Just on the outskirts of town, my fellow traveller realised she had forgotten her entrance ticket to Machu Picchu. Surely we could buy one up there but no, tickets were only sold in the public office in town, confirmed the security guard watching over the city, and that opened at 5:30 – in an hour's time. We would miss the sunrise, the reason we had woken so early in the first place. 

My friend ran back up the steep streets to the hostel. No one answered. Our host had gone back to sleep. I arrived and I banged and banged on the door until our host came. Finally with tickets in tow, we began our ascent up the one-hour journey to Machu Picchu. It took us longer than this and we missed the sunrise but pushing back a little annoyance, we approached the historic site and the beauty of the landscape blew my breath away, well at least what was left of my breath from climbing. 

The sheer, penetrating mountains seemed to have shot out of the ground rather than develop over time. Mist covered their peaks and the sky glistened blue behind them. They stood regal and wise. That's not to say that stepping through the modern entrance into the Machu Picchu site was not as amazing because it was but its because of its setting, this is sacred place is so magical. 

Our guide took us around the area, creating an image for us as to what the place would have looked like centuries ago. Today 70% of the ruins lay visible, while 10% have been restored to show tourists what the original building would have looked like and 20% still remain underneath the jungle, yet to be discovered.

Machu Picchu was not a city but a sacred ground where the dead were bought to help them on their journey to the next life. Shaped as a condor, this city represented the local bird’s ability as the only animal in the area to take the soul from earth to heaven. The Inca’s beliefs came in 3s with the condor representing the future or spirit, the puma - king of the jungle representing the present or material and the snake representing the past or mental. 

They had 3 laws to abide: don't steal, don't lie and don't be lazy as well as 3 morals to live by: work, love and knowledge. The Inca believed it was important to work from your heart and if you helped your neighbour today, they would help you tomorrow. This 3-step ideology is often represented by 3 steps ascending, which had been craved into the stone all around Machu Picchu.

Underneath a stone formation shaped like a condor, the Inca priests would mummify the bodies for 3 days and the soul would be taken by the condor to heaven or reincarnated for another life. This explanation varied depending on who told it and which area they were from but the general basis is as told.

Sacred Valley

From Cusco, we took a very touristy bus towards Aguas Calientes - the closest town to the trail leading up to Machu Picchu. Somehow we always managed to tour with some slightly annoying tourists with no idea of restraint but now with a few weeks of touristing experience behind us, we entered the Sacred Valley or otherwise known as the Urubamba Valley in the midst of the Andes of Peru. 

This valley got its name because of its special geographical and climatic qualities, particularly important to the production of maize - the most expensive maize in the world according to our guide. Carved into the sheer mountainside, we could see ancient terraces created by the Inca to cultivate all the rich foods that made up their healthy diets. 

It is understood that the Inca, the name for the nobility and kings of the empire, were in fact very tall, lean people who enjoyed a diet of healthy vegetables, fish and lean meat. It was the Spanish who introduced red meat to what is now known as Peru and also gave the Peruvians their height deficiency.  

We stopped at an artisans' market in the town of Urubamba, where we took photos with the locals in their traditional clothing as they carried tiny baby goats wrapped in their beautifully colourful, hand-woven blankets. We visited a jeweller who showed us which local stones to blend with the local silver and most importantly, how to tell a fake apart from a genuine. A common pattern used by the indigenous is a spiral symbolising the cycle of life. 

Having been told that we could buy cheaper food rather than paying for an expensive meal in the valley, we opted out of pre-paying for lunch but sincerely regretted it as we were forced to watch the others indulge in a somewhat succulent buffet as we waited to journey onto our next destination. With rumbling stomaches we arrived at Ollantaytambo, the last city captured by the Spanish. 

This ancient Inca town provided lodging for the Inca nobility while the terraces were farmed by yanaconas, retainers of the emperor. These terraces individually formed microclimates that were able to grow any vegetable despite the altitude and were also equip with clever irrigation systems that enabled the Incas to live sustainable lives. 

Carved into the facing cliff were the giant faces of Wiracochan (messenger of Viracocha) and Viracocha (creater god of pre-Inca and Inca mythology). Throughout the year, the sun would shine into the heart of Ollantaytambo either to the left, right or over the centre of this cliff. Depending on which side hit the sun gate within in the town meant the time of the year ie. the time to harvest or re-plant. Unfortunately, the Spanish stole the top of the sun gate from its perfectly carved rectangular legs.

More impressive was the temple wall, which similar to many Inca cities remains unfinished. The Inca only lasted one century and yet despite their short reign they certainly left a long-standing mark on society. When the Spanish arrived, the Inca empire already lay in tatters and unfinished after long civil war, allowing the Spaniards to take advantage of this pre-existing rift.

We said goodbye to our wonderfully encaging guide who showed such passion and knowledge for her forefathers. We left the puma-shaped city by Inca Rail and finally we sank our teeth into some food as the one-carriage train passed through the towering mountains encased in low white fluffy clouds. 

As night drew upon us, we entered Aguas Calientes where our host greeted us and delivered us to our hostel.

Friday, March 2, 2012


We took another overnight to Cusco and in the small hours of the morning we drove off in taxi high into the hills to Loki Hostel. We later learnt that the taxi driver ripped us off.

Loki Hostel is located in a beautifully restored 450 year old Peruvian house, with obvious Spanish influences like its central courtyard which backpackers use to relax in the Andean sun.

With tired, drooping eyes we ate at the hostel restaurant. Sleep was nowhere in sight for although we longed for bed, we chose the value dorm to accommodate our diminishing savings. Despite being favourable to our wallets, it wasn't the greatest place if you wanted to relax and rest. We figured we were only going to stick around for a short time, so it shouldn’t matter.

The skies were grey and the climate cold as we wondered through the enchanting old streets with their iconic mix of traditional Spanish architecture and churches amongst surviving Inca monuments and sacred sites. Every which way was a story to tell and even more local indigenous with glorious bright colours parading their garments. 

We found the local food markets and savoured the smells of fresh fruit, flowers and raw meat, exotic coffee and rich dark chocolate, and much more, all of which were local products from this apparently very fertilite land. 

Cusco is and always has been a meeting point for the indigenous to trade and practice their spiritual beliefs. The Inca, aka the nobility of the Inca Empire, called Cusco their capital and it was here the Inka   throne was located, which is why Cusco is so abundant with Incan ruins. Today many indigenous come here for work and money, which they know will be supplied to them because of the tourists. Unlike Arequipa, more homeless have taken to the streets of Cusco in hope that a tourist will put a penny in their pocket. 

Through our hostel we organised the tours we would take over the following few days. With time as our enemy, we had no choice but to take the more expensive, well-planned route to discover the local area.

Knowing we would have to wake early, we went to bed early. Around two in the morning, a loud and most obviously drunk intruder came crashing into our dorm, tripping over people's belongings in his struggle to walk straight. He began to climb up the base of my bunk bed to which I said, "hey, what are you doing?" He crawled up beside me as I lay under the sheets in my pajamas. Again I asked what he was doing! 

He didn't seem to understand what I was saying so I switched to Spanish, now almost yelling at him to get out of my bed. He said, "no, no, no. This is my bed!' and rested his drunken head on my pillow. His feet were black as soot as he has obviously lost his shoes.

My travelling friend turned on the light. The drunk was not going to leave my bed so I had to. To my annoyance, no else seemed to notice my problem, either too drunk themselves from alcohol or with sleep. I slept in the single bed with my friend and in the morning I went to get one of the hostel workers to retrieve my socks from underneath my ex-pillow.

It was such an effort to do this because no one in the room was sleeping in their assigned bed so they had no proof that I was indeed telling the truth. Eventually, they began to nudge him to waken him and ask whether he was in the right bed. He grunted and look down at us with confusion.

The Danish girl on the bottom bunk got out of bed to see what the fuss was about and shouted, "hey, what are you doing? That's not your bed. You're supposed to be over there!" pointing to the bed next to mine. The intruder looked at her with an expressed as to say “whoops!”  and his only comment was "Fantasmo", which doesn't even mean anything (fantasma means ghost in Spanish but I don't know why that would be an appropriate word to say at a time like that...). He merely got down from the bunk only to pass out again in his own bed. Apparently he had been off partying for the past 3 days and apparently he was Australian. 

It was the talk of the town over the next few days but we weren't there to hear it all. We left on an early tourist bus in the direction of Machu Pichu

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


In a semi-cama overnight coach we journeyed further into the heart of Peru until we arrived at Arequipa, otherwise known as La Cuidad Blanca (the White City). This second largest city in the country is vastly composed of colonial-era Spanish buildings built from sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock, while on the outskirts of town three wise volcanoes stay watch from amongst the Andes mountains: El Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu

We stayed in a brand new hostel, actually still under construction and so the price for a private room including private bathroom and TV was ridiculously cheap. One block forward and the road opened up into a beautiful plaza de armas, with the cathedral as its crown and government buildings at its side. 

We had intended on travelling to the south of Bolivia to visit the salt flats but faced blockades of protestors so instead we ventured off to Arequipa. We arrived there on a day of protest, followed by a night of religious marching by candlelight. 

With only a couple of days to explore we took a double-decker tourist bus around the city and saw the key highlights. The city was filled with churches, fronted by green crosses, a combination of both Christ and the indigenous' worship of Mother Nature. We tried queso helado (cheese ice cream), a local ice cream recipe that looks like cheese but tastes of cinnamon delight. 

We ate a superb meal of ceviche accompanied by true Peruvian Pisco Sour. It was by far the best meal of the entire trip, not too spicy but fresh, melting heaven in the mouth. We saw llamas and alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas, and also rode horses for a measly 5 minutes to see the panoramic view of the city with those giant volcanoes in the background.

The following morning we awoke before dawn to travel 2 hours to Colca Canyon; a canyon so large it's twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and is promoted as the world's deepest canyon. Stopping at tiny villages along the dirt road, we took pictures with the local girls dressed in their tradition costume and hanging tight to the rope around baby llamas. Their ropa was intricately stitched into beautiful colours and patterns, and even the detail transferred onto their unique embroidered hats.

At the lookout, we rested half an hour and waited for a condor to show itself. When he did finally fly out, this giant bird became the focus of everyone’s camera. The condor’s wings spread out to 3 metres in length as it soared through the canyon. It seemed little to the distant eye but dear me this vulture sure was big, a true idol to be worshipped as the local indigenous once did.

Before lunch we visited thermal springs. In the midday sun, the 32 degree water proved to be too much and we lasted maybe 10 minutes within its heat, not to mention the smell of the leaking, nature sodium was a bit off-putting. Once at the restaurant, the temperature only rose when I accidentally ate a rocoto relleno, a stuffed chilli that can easily be mistaken for a stuffed tomato. 

Back in Arequipa, we envisaged our lives in amongst the historically romantic stone walls, with the help of some more Pisco Sour. So far, it was the only place we could envisage ourselves ever living in.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Las Islas Flotantes

On the other side of Lago Titicaca, located within the Peruvian borders, the Uros can be found. This group of indigenous have constructed 44 or so artificial islands made from floating dry reeds some 5 kilometres from the mainland, purposely distant from any unwanted danger. 

The Uros tribe pre-dates the Inca and because of their choice to live amongst the reeds, their culture is both unique and intriguing. According to legend, the Uros existed before the sun when the earth was still dark and cold. They apparently moved into the depths of the lake for protection against other tribes, including the Inca who often took them as slaves, and the native totora reed gave them everything they needed: a home, sustenance (they're eatable) and transportation. 

There are about 2000 or so Uros left but only a few still live on the islands, most having chosen to live amongst the modern comforts of the mainland, a place where the Uros have always buried their dead in special ceremonies. These few traditional Uros continue to fish and weave, and some, but not all, have opened their homes to tourists. These tourist islands are rumoured to be fake but are an insightful way to see how the locals once lived or still do live.

We waited all day to see them. Eventually we took an old motored boat filled with noisy tourists to one of the tiny, man-made islands, complete with solar panels and TV. Apparently these tourist-friendly islands rotate their open days so their inhabitants get the chance to rest and continue with their habitual lives. This particular island we visited was void of men, most supposedly as they were out fishing or busily collecting reeds before sunset. 

The women of the island, in their traditional dress not too unlike that of the women in La Paz and who are normally left to weave and cook, showed us how they constructed the islands, which are basically bundles of dry reeds placed in different directions and anchored to the wet reeds below. Every day they spread out a fresh layer of dry reeds so the island doesn't rot or sink from heavy feet into the water and at any time they can release the anchors and move the entire island elsewhere.

One particular little girl, the chief's daughter, grabbed my hand and insisted I saw her house, while other little children tried to sell their drawings to tourists so they could buy sweets. Tourism provides financial opportunities to the Uros but undoubtedly challenges their traditional way of living. We took a double-decker reed boat with two dragon-like creatures at each side across to another island as the women sang goodbye songs to us in different local dialects. Their harsh, sun-dried black faces smiling back at us as the sun finally went to rest between the mountainous mainland. 

Although it may have been touristy, the islas flotantes (floating islands) were fascinating, especially to think that the Uros lived there and like that for centuries. Who knew just how versatile reeds could be?