(Peru: Lima – Cusco – Machu Picchu – Puerto Maldonado & Tambopata River, Amazon basin!)
Bear hunting in deepest darkest Peru… In retrospect, maybe I ought to have started with the Home for Retired Bears, I was in Lima after all. But I got distracted.
Besides which, not being much of a city girl, and not having heard great things before arriving, Lima was always going to be a fleeting visit. And yes, it was noisy, hot, busy, full of sleazy men (or maybe I just found myself in the wrong place at the wrong time – but no, for the sixth time, I do not think a tattoo would look good on me. Anywhere.) But there was also the sunlight reflecting off the grand colonial buildings, military bands playing jaunty jazz, and a statue of Madre Patria (the “Mother of Peru”) with a llama on her head. A lost in translation moment (flame = llama in Spanish – join the dots…) that, to their credit, no one has bothered to correct.
The Monasterio de San Francisco also houses a library straight out of Harry Potter with spiral staircases and ancient books that would crumble if touched. I’m no conservationist, but I’m pretty sure that a hot, bright room visited by thousands of tourists every day isn’t ideal. Better preserved (well, in a manner of speaking) were the catacombs. Around 25,000 Peruvians were buried here in mass graves, and you can now walk amongst their bones… Wells filled with careful spirals of human remains provide a unique, arty, yet still slightly creepy form of earthquake protection for the cathedral above – and Peruvian humour strikes again with a tourist “Keep walking” sign carefully placed in front of a cabinet full of 300 year old femurs. Oh the irony.
Sadly my excitement at a genuine Peruvian national dish & drink combo ended up being a plate of almost inedible ceviche (pleased to report I’ve had better since) and tongue tingling Pisco Sour. I think I preferred the Inca Kola. Much like Irn Bru really, and like Scotland, Peru is apparently the only other country where the national tooth-rotting drink outsells Coca Cola. (This probably shouldn’t be a source of national pride…)
Lima is Peru’s current capital, but at 1000 years old, Cusco is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the continent – and once the capital to the immense Inca Empire that stretched from Colombia to Argentina. Where Spanish buildings crumbled during successive earthquakes, Inca remains with their wide bases and perfectly fitting stones stood firm.
Quite right too – with the shifting, grinding, fitting and polishing, some of the enormous boulders took up to six months to fit in place. Despite the indifference of my tour guide (“we have some stones with many more sides than that”), I dutifully sought out the (in)famous 12 sided stone for your delectation.
And being the dutiful tourist, I also (a) bought a poncho. (Yes. We’ll come back to that one.) And (b) booked my tour to Machu Picchu.
At one end of the spectrum you can do it in a day trip (a bit dull?). At the other end is the Salkantay trek (five days of camping in the driving rain…). The classic Inca Trail falls somewhere in the middle – but is also a hiker’s highway and extortionate. So I opted for a different middle ground – cycling, ambling and (dry) hostels!
However, I did wonder why, on day 1, I was being made to don quite such an alarming amount of protective kit for what was ostensibly a gentle freewheel downhill on (mostly) perfectly good tarmac…? It was soon apparent – a Tour de France style pile up was only narrowly avoided after a fellow (idiot) cyclist got too cocky. Happily there were no life threatening injuries – at least not to us, though the same can’t be said for the butterfly road-kill massacre on my knees. Sad face.
Day 2’s itinerary was a 10 hour amble, following the raging torrent of water in the valley below. We stopped off in a coca plantation – government approved companies buy a small amount for boiled sweets, tea and other altitude busting condiments. They offer pitiful prices though, so the majority of the coca leaves still go to the drugs trade. Peru is now the biggest producer in the world, though 20kg of dried leaves are required for only 1 gram of cocaine.
So I did my bit for combating crime – there are now around 10 grams less of dried leaves in circulation after I stuffed them in my mouth, chewed for 10 minutes, then took a shot of evil local brew (suddenly declaring myself a vegetarian so that I could drink from the bottle with herbs rather than a snake floating in it). I should say this was all as instructed by our resident (pretend) Shaman guide. The sun painted on my face with near-permanent orange plant pigment became the least of my worries when I discovered I could no longer feel my lips or tongue…
At least it made the next five hours walking on a secondary vertiginous Inca Trail a lot easier! Even when it came to the final slightly scary river crossing on nothing but a laundry pulley.
Day 3 was a little shorter with the now iconic walk along the railway line, jumping off swiftly every time we heard the train whistle reverberating around the valley, to Aguas Calientes – which resembles a charming Austrian ski resort – even down to the expense. Sadly no agua caliente though – I only discovered later that our hotel didn’t switch on their boiler until the evening…
And finally to Machu Picchu. This has never actually been on my “bucket list” (maybe because it’s on everyone else’s) so I did wonder what I was doing hiking up a mountain at 5am in the pouring rain. Remember that poncho? I feel that for such an occasion I really ought to have arrived looking slightly more respectable – not like a drowned rat with bruised legs after the previous day’s mauling by sand flies. Love rainy season.
Determined to “do” it properly, I’d also signed up to climb the real Machu Picchu – the Old Mountain (yup, practically fluent in Quechua) behind the town. Which actually turned into an hour’s insane step class – legs now burning as well as bruised. (They were unamused.)
Having finally reached the summit, I then huddled on a rock under my trusty poncho for another couple of hours waiting for the clouds to clear so that I could catch a glimpse of the ruins perched on the saddle between Machu Picchu and Huana Picchu (Young Mountain) far down below. Although it never really did clear up (until I was back down again – when, typically, I got sunburnt!), I still got amazing views of the neighbouring ridges like knife edges, steep valleys, rivers and forests. You start to appreciate the scale and how (relatively) small the town was – hardly surprising no one re-discovered it until 1902 even though it was hidden in plain sight.
In any case, now well and truly “discovered”, I spent the afternoon happily pottering around the remains, or simply sitting and staring. I have seen numerous photos, and am no anthropologist or archaeologist, but there was still something breath-taking and dramatic about the scale. I freely admit to being first, rendered speechless, and second, surprised by the constant feeling that I was somewhere quite exceptional.
How to follow that one?
Two days later, and I was on my way into the heart of darkness…
Wait – no. Different country, different continent. Been there, done that, came out alive. Fingers crossed then.
Landing in the jungle was a shock to the system after my weeks in the mountains – only a stone (ok, big stone)’s throw away. But hold on, did I say “landing”? Confession time. I got into a plane. And flew. As I was coming back to Cusco again anyway this was really just an excursion, not part of the travels… (right?) However, having attempted to break my own “no fly” rules once, karma sprung into action. My return flight was cancelled, so it was back to the night bus again. Serves me right.
On the other hand, the joys of flying also allowed perfect views of meandering rivers, dark green canopy as far as the eye could see, interspersed with light green ghosts of 3000 year old oxbow lakes. After the heights of the Andes, it was bizarre to suddenly be on land only 200 metres above sea level – which continues for over 2,000 miles until it hits the Atlantic. Crazy continent.
Motoring up the Tambopata River I really was going as far into deepest, darkest Peru as possible. Could this be where Paddington was hanging out? Apparently not. It seems he and his type prefer the forests around Machu Picchu (where I was too busy concentrating on breathing during the tortuous step class). On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to be wearing a duffel coat and felt hat in 35C heat with 80% humidity either. My poncho (on its final curtain call) was bad enough – difficult to tell if it was wetter out or in (yuk), but it was good mosquito armour if nothing else.
No bears then, but we did find a huge porcupine up a tree! Delightfully known for peeing on you if you’re too far away for a flying (toxic) spine. I kept my mouth shut. The bats throwing fruit at us 10 minutes later were almost a relief (what, a half-eaten fig? Is that the best you can do?)
Then there were the tarantulas, termites (mini maggots on legs. Move over David Attenborough…), horned frog (rather aggressive – you would be too if you were being tickled with a machete), poisoned tree frogs, monkeys – and a baby anaconda taking a bath in the pond that was once our path. Just after my guide had nearly trodden on it.
And yes, I visited the rainforest during rainy season. It rained.
The upside? The best weather for fishing! We hiked past mammoth Kapok trees, life saving Quinine trees, bizarre Walking Palms (seriously – they move 4 inches a year!) on our way to the local oxbow lake. Gliding through lily pads at the far end, Robert (my lovely guide) encouraged me to trail my hand in the water to feel how warm it was. Just like a nice bath, perfect. And then he said: “yes, this part is a little scary as you can’t see what’s down there.” On a lake inhabited by black cayman, anacondas and – of course – piranha fish. Fabulous.
But I caught one! Having inspected its teeth like a good pesca-dentist though, we decided to let it live to bite another day, and threw it back. (And today’s lesson: piranhas are actually just lapsed fruitarians. If they were really carnivorous, God would have given them molars…)
On my first morning I enjoyed the amazing sight of over 100 macaws flocking up to the river-side canopy, with their colourful undercarriages lit up by the early sunlight.
And on my last night – remember that porcupine? It had morphed into a sloth! Just hanging out on the same branch outside my cabin. I never thought I’d go all gooey-eyed over an animal that looked like a little hunch backed wrinkly grey haired lady, but really, it happened.
It has been an extraordinary two weeks. Ten days ago I was in Machu Picchu, five days ago I was in the Amazon basin, tomorrow I’m off to Lake Titicaca. I caught a piranha. I cooed at a sloth.
Peru is a country where myths and legends become reality.
Except for Paddington… Well of course I never saw him in Peru – he emigrated to the UK. Duh. After all this traipsing around “deepest darkest”, I finally found him. Enjoying a weekend break with my nieces. In Bath.