The border crossing from northern Chile (Arica) into Peru (Tacna) was relatively straightforward. The most noteworthy moment was in Chile when a young white guy that looked like Lionel Messi came onto our bus and rapped down the bus aisles to try and get money – we have never seen anything like it. It was really bad, so we played the clueless tourist card to our advantage for the first time. From Tacna, we journeyed straight up towards Arequipa which was our first destination in Peru. We experienced for the first time in Peru their policy of filming people as they board buses – maybe so they have an account of who was on the bus if there is an accident… It made us feel really awkward to have a video camera pointed in your face for at least 5 seconds, but I didn’t have time to think of anything funny to do in response other than a creepy smile 🙂
We stayed in Arequipa for 5 days, which was longer than we needed but we wanted to have a couple of slow days to recover from all the travelling. Our main highlight of the city was the food! We quickly found out the cuisine in Peru is amazing – maybe a little bit on the posh side in terms of presentation, but absolutely delicious. If you ever visit Peru, and you eat meat/beef, you need to try Lomo Saltado – it’s tender wok-fried beef with tomatoes and onions (two things that wouldn’t normally draw me to a meal) in a soy sauce-like marinade served with rice and chips. Sometimes, it comes with risotto rice in specialty restaurants, and this is even more delicious! YUM. We also saw guinea pig (Cuy) on a lot of the menus for the first time but the pictures were enough to put me off (a fried, splayed whole guinea pig sitting on a bed of chips? No thanks).
In Arequipa, we also enjoyed Museo Santuarios Andinos, which was one of the most interesting museums we went to in South America. It focuses on the Inca culture of sacrificing children to the mountains (which they believe are gods). We saw the real frozen mummy of Juanita, who it is thought to be one of the most prestigious sacrifices, given the clothes she was buried in and the artifacts found with her. Hat and I had never heard anything really about Inca culture so it was fascinating to learn more, even if it was a bit bizarre (the mummy was in a really cold room in a glass box and I swear was watching me…).
We decided to do the Colca Canyon in a day trip from Arequipa. It was a long day as we had to get up at 2.45am but it was definitely worth it. One of the main touristy things to do is to visit Cruz del Condor and watch the massive condors (birds) fly around the canyon. Despite there being a fair few tourists about, we really enjoyed the experience and it was a good test for the camera! The other stops on the tour included a couple of viewpoints over the canyon to take photos, the nearby village of Maca to see the local church and shops, thermal springs (although it was way too hot to really enjoy them and dehydrated us instead) and Chivay (the capital of the province we were in) for food.
Our next stop in Peru after Arequipa was Cusco which we loved. We did the walking tour here, as we’ve done in most cities we’ve visited, and we were joined by loads of lovely (and sometimes Rastafarian-looking) alpacas and llamas. We also got to enjoy some traditional music played by a father and his daughter on a variety of instruments, in full Inca dress.
We used Cusco as a base to explore the Sacred valley including Pisac market, Inca ruins in Pisac and Ollantaytambo. We also visited Chinchero where we met a friendly woman in the market wearing traditional clothes (some exclusive to just the small region of Chinchero only) and she let me take a photo of her 🙂
From Cusco, we also embarked on the Inca Jungle trail which we signed up to after a monumental fuck-up by STA Travel and Geckos Adventures failed to get us permits for the Classic Inca Trail which we really had wanted to do and had booked in early January to secure the permits (and got their guarantee we would get them). Anyway, they forgot about us obviously, even though we had fully paid them already, and emailed us two weeks before we were due to go on the trek to say they hadn’t managed to get us booked on. Furious and cheated does not go far enough to describe how we felt. Stupid, unreliable companies.
Having done quite a bit of trekking already in South America, and after being told the classic trail was not possible, we decided to book on to the Inca Jungle Trail with Lorenzo Expeditions – a fun trek that encompassed trekking with a 55km downhill mountain biking section, white water rafting, and zip lining. We joined on to a tour with a couple we had met previously in Brazil, Matt and Emma, which was great – we already knew our trek would be fun!
Hats and I both agree that one of the highlights of the jungle trek was the day 1 downhill mountain biking where we went from approximately 4200m in altitude to 1500m. At one point, I was speeding downhill on my own (a faster pack of riders was ahead, slower pack/Hats behind) and a massive bird was cruising along with me only meters above my head. My GoPro footage does not do this moment justice, it was incredible! Then in the same afternoon, we both went white water rafting – which although Hats was happy she did, she didn’t enjoy it as much as I did!
Day 2 was a full day of trekking mostly on original Inca trails, around the stunning Urubamba Valley between Santa Maria and Santa Teresa. For once, both of us were feeling fighting fit, and the other treks on this trip must have paid off as we didn’t find it too tough at all. The main problem we found though was that we were being bitten alive by all sorts of flying things, but we were better off than some people whose legs were literally covered in bites (because they decided to wear shorts…). Also on the trek, we stopped at a couple of local houses, which both had pet monkeys. Firstly, we don’t endorse pet monkeys, and the first monkey we came across was a pest and a bit aggressive probably because of his predicament. However, the second monkey we came across was very friendly, and less of an entertainment piece than the first. And although I still don’t condone pet monkeys, we had a nice moment when it enjoyed being my right-hand man on my shoulder.
Day 3 started with zip lining over 6 different canopy wires which Hat decided wasn’t for her due to her fear of heights. After I worked out how to zipline without scrapping the GoPro attached to my helmet on the metal wire, I really enjoyed it! Sadly though I think all the footage is with me yelling excitedly and half of it is upside down as I thought it would make a cool video to put my head upside-down (it didn’t, it just made for an annoying, upside-down video). After this we had a shortish afternoon walk before arriving in Aguas Calientes (known locally as “Gringolandia”) the nearest town to Machu Picchu where we were staying overnight. Nothing special here apart from western comforts and lots and lots of tourists (gringos).
We had two options for the next morning – walk up to Machu Picchu, or get a bus up there. Walking up to Machu Picchu sounds great, until you realise what the walk is – 2 hours steep uphill stairs, constantly crossing a road that is shared with the buses in complete darkness only to arrive at a massive entrance queue (and not even see Machu Picchu yet). So it was an easy enough decision to choose to get the bus up in the morning, and we could preserve our energy for when we got up there to do a planned additional trek up Machu Picchu mountain (this didn’t end up happening due to the weather though). Judging by the displeased, red-faced, tired-out tourists that did the walk, we think we made the right decision.
We thought we were unlucky as we had enjoyed 3 days of glorious sunshine on the trek and then for the day of Machu Picchu it was cloudy and drizzly, but actually this turned out to be not as bad as we first thought. Machu Picchu was amazingly atmospheric with the clouds rolling in and out, and yes there was a little drizzle, and yes most people were wearing colourful rain ponchos which made everyone look a little silly, but it was still hard not to be impressed by our surroundings.
After an amazing tour around the ruins by our superb guide throughout the whole trek Wilbert, I persuaded Hat to climb up to Sun Gate – which she was reluctant to do as it was so cloudy we didn’t think we were going to see anything. I figured we were potentially only going to be here once in our lives and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to visit it (it’s the original entrance to Machu Picchu, where the Classic Inca trail would have entered from). It was still extremely cloudy when we arrived, but only minutes after we got up there the clouds parted and we got an amazing shot of Machu Picchu in the distance – we couldn’t believe our luck! We then rushed down to try and explore the ruins in the sun, but on the way down it started to rain really hard, so abandoning that we headed back to Gingolandia.
After our Inca Jungle Trek, we had a couple of days to rest up in Cusco before our overnight bus to Puerto Maldonado – the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon. Before we left, we managed to squeeze in one more Inca must-see sight – Saqsaywaman (pronounced “sexy woman” much to everyone’s amusement). It was impressive, and the steep uphill walk to it was worth it to get some superb views of Cusco.
Hat was particularly nervous about the creepy crawlies and spiders that may be awaiting us in the Amazon jungle, but actually our experience was really positive (maybe because we quickly discovered that tarantulas were nocturnal). We were staying in a lodge called Pousada Amazonas in the jungle around a 45 minute drive and 45 minute boat ride down the Tambopata river from town. Over 2 days in the jungle we saw amazing amounts of wildlife – 5 species of monkey, giant river otters and caimen (from a far through binoculars), a poison dart frog (one of our favourite finds) and lots of crazy colourful birds like macaws, a toucan and loads of parrots eating clay from the side of the river bank.
I also went on a night walk with our guide (which Hat probably sensibly didn’t come on) where I saw loads of creatures, including a lizard sleeping on a leaf, lots of huge insects, and of course a tarantula (the whole point of the walk really). It seemed like it was waiting for us on a little platform outside its cave which I found particularly creepy, and when it got a bit nervous from the torchlight, we all saw it clamber halfway back in to it’s hole, which again was a little creepy to watch it move. I was assured that this was a small one, which didn’t actually reassure me at all.
One of the highlights of being in the Amazon was over lunch when hundreds of monkeys descended on our lodge. It started with a whole pack of squirrel monkeys, flanked by a couple of brown capuchin monkeys (which apparently is common for them to travel together). With the camera back in our room, Hat decided after 10 minutes of this monkey invasion that we just have to go and grab it, so off she went while I continued to watch the little critters having lunch with us and jumping around. We were then, almost simultaneously, joined by red howler monkeys (they make amazing noises at 4am like Darth Vader being put through an evil blender) also jumping around on the trees near our lodge. I started to wonder where Hat had got to after 15 minutes, only to turn up at the room to see that the squirrel monkeys had started crossing right outside our room (we only had 3 walls to our room, with a big opening facing the jungle) – and there were even more of them this time! Hat had been happily snapping away!
The other big Amazon highlight for me was piranha fishing! I really didn’t think I would enjoy this as much as I did. We travelled to Oxbow Lake on foot early in the morning and then took a boat, where the owner provided us with basic rods (small sticks with a line and hook) and pieces of cut up beef. It took us a while getting used to it, as the fish kept stealing the food before we could reel them in, but I managed to catch not one, but two yellow-bellied piranhas! They were tinie tiny compared to the big ones our guide caught, but their teeth were still pretty formidable. The guide wanted me to hold them, which I was a bit unsure about due to their large teeth, their probable grudge against me, and my fleshy captor fingers, but I learnt that as fish go they’re not so slippery – especially if you hold them at the top and the bottom where they are very bone-y.
I was sad our Amazon experience was fairly brief, but really happy with all we crammed in to it. We headed off to the Peruvian capital of Lima, and saved ourselves around 25 hours on a bus by flying from Puerto Maldonado. It was really a stopping point on our journey north as Lima doesn’t have that much for tourists but the walking tour of the Old Town was perfectly fine. The best thing about Lima, and Miraflores (where all the tourists stay), was Parque Kennedy – a park filled with hundreds of cute cats hanging about and waiting to plunge into the lap of any human who sits down! Although this was brilliant for us cat lovers, this also should illustrate the extent of the appeal of Lima as a whole.
Our last endevour in Peru was to board a 27 hour coach to take us through north Peru into Guayaquil in Ecuador – the longest of all our bus journeys by far! Now only two countries to go til we’re home!