Peru - a fascinating country

The first impressions are not good. You have just been flying past magnificent snow-covered mountains, then you then realise that the whole of the coastal plain is covered in low-lying cloud. The plane makes a turn over the sea in clear air then descends into the murk.


Any Third World country is going to look a bit rough, but the drive to the hotel is particularly depressing. Part of the shock is the battered looking surroundings of the hotel and the big iron gates with an intercom and automatic locking, followed by a second barrier at the door not ten metres from the gate.

Our initial briefing recommended that we got our passports photocopied so that they are easier to replace "if they should be stolen". Shopping for a food and water for tomorrow's lunch proved to be something of an ordeal as we made our way through hordes of villainous looking people anxious to change US dollars for Intis. A hectic exchange in sign language at the supermarket suggested that we could not buy drinking water because we had no bottle to pour it into. (Why can we not we pay for the bottle it is already in?) A second visit to another supermarket after fetching water bottles from the hotel succeeded as we poured water from bottle to bottle at the checkout desk. I hoped we are going to enjoy tomorrow's lunch of dry biscuits, marmalade and over-carbonated drinking water. Paying 6.8 million Intis for it had a certain novelty.

In the evening we walked several blocks to a recommended restaurant. The atmosphere was good but the food heavy and glutinous. Only the enlightenment of our first Pisco Sours was an uplift. [Pisco brandy, egg-white, fresh lime, sugar and frozen until there are fine crystals of ice in it]

Dawn still had not broken as we got up for our first whole day in Peru and went to the dining room to get a roll and coffee for breakfast. It was a modest but expensive meal. At least we had now had a chance now to sleep after more than 25 hours of aeroplanes and airport lounges. We emptied our rooms, packed our bags, reclaimed goods from the hotel strongroom and left. If I remember clearly, we were on our bus at 6:40am. Before 8am we arrived at our first port of call: the site of an old Peruvian temple. The curator waited to show us round the museum before we started a walk through the ruins. The museum behind us, we set off up the hillside in the bus. It is a big site and would have been impressive were it not that the Peruvians built it of adobe and it has crumbled a bit in the last few hundred years. We wondered what had happened to all that famous Inca stonework which no-one can put a knife blade between?

The temple site was quite impressive at the top. It had big terraces looking West across a narrow strip of plain to the Pacific Ocean. On the plain we could see a modern bullring and cock-fighting ring below us. However all was shrouded in the perpetual fog of the coastal plain. They say that the fog lasts for more than six months of the year. They also told us that in Lima it has only rained three times this century. So that was why the houses all lack a pitched roof and why some seem to be only partly covered by a few laths and pieces of cloth or paper!

Back into the bus and on our way. Click here if you would like a map in a second window The bleakness of the coastal strip was impressive. Nothing at all grows there, except at the few places where the a river comes down from the Andes on its way to the sea. When visiting new places, I like to take photos showing the countryside, but here it was so featureless that I was baffled how to find a shot to express the vast bleakness of this place; a simple picture would look just like an unexposed frame.

Sea lions


The target of our journey was one of the tourist hotels near Pisco. There we planned to take a boat to the guano islands of the Pacific. These are full of birds and sea lions. The hotel was sheltering behind locked and guarded gates and was moderately luxurious. The boat was small but fast and bounced out across the seas towards the grey islands just visible in the distance.

The islands were really impressive. They had cliffs that towered above us, while gulls wheeled gracefully overhead and pelicans flew around us. There were huge sea caves and we took the boat right through them and out the other end. The sea lions were plentiful. They had all climbed out up steep rocks and were lying in the sun, unconcerned as we looked at them and took photos. It is amazing that anything without arms and legs can climb up on to such steep rock. The sun was strong, there was no mist, the air was cool and crisp. We were beginning to enjoy the holiday.

Back to shore and wet from the flying spray, we settled among the overfed and overdressed-looking hotel guests and ate our supermarket lunch as they watched us with either amusement or disgust.

Museums by pocket torch

Off again in the bus. This time to another museum: larger and more urban. We arrived to find a power cut and the museum in the dark. Never mind, you just get out your torches and line up to pay your entry fee; what is unusual about looking round a museum by pocket torch? The exhibits are impressive: gold jewellery, beautifully woven cloth in attractive patterns and anything up to 2000 years in age. There were also ceremonial cloaks in brightly coloured bird feathers. Here was even some unintentional humour when one display case had, at the end of a row of richly feather-clad mummies, a dead parrot with half it's feathers missing. A Norwegian Blue?

An oasis

The bus again. More featureless grey desert. Then the ultimate in charming oases. A lake circled in a band of trees, hotels and a promenade reminiscent of the French Riviera. A walk before dinner. Civilisation stops suddenly as one emerges from the trees. Sand hills towered above us. We decided to walk to the top of one sandhill to see the sunset over the dunes. I had never walked on a sand hill in my life. It is murderous. As each step is taken, your foot sides down through the dusty sand almost to where it started. We were clearly never going to get to the top by sunset, so we stopped part way up. The sunset was worth the effort.

Back down among the hotels we sat having a beer. It was not the best of beers but it tasted good and the surroundings were comfortable and graceful. Dinner followed and finally we went off to our own hotel. Behind a high wall was a pleasant garden with rooms facing on to it; but this the first hotel we had seen where the hall porter was armed with a pump-action shot gun!

Llamas In the morning we were up for an early start, although we did have a few moments to wander around the garden and see humming birds. One of our group managed an early morning swim in the hotel pool. Breakfast was pleasant, eaten in a garden room. Finally we said goodbye to the guard and his shotgun and set off on a long desert drive. We passed a few places where rivers crossed the desert and we stopped to look at cotton fields and also inspect cochineal insects living on cactus plants. At one little settlement between groves of huge olive trees we met a nice herd of llamas and took a lot of photos. They all had nice faces.

Nazca Lines

Nazca Lines seen from tower

Then on to Nazca. We already know something of the Nazca Lines (huge patterns and drawings made in the desert several thousand years ago) and we were keen to see them. Our first contact was when we climbed a metal tower standing beside the desert road in the middle of nowhere. From the top we could just make out the outline of a huge drawing near us. We headed on to the hotel; the real way to see the lines is to book a light aircraft. The hotel was pleasant with a small swimming pool in the sunshine and a garden full of birds. We were by now well away from the fog of the coastal plains.

Tower and lines seen from air After a short break by the pool we took our turn in small groups to go up in planes. Joan and I went in a six-seater. It flew up to 600 feet a.g.l. then set off across the desert. The most impressive of the Nazca Lines were the long straight ones, some as long as 7 kilometres, up and down over hills without losing their straightness. They link into huge triangles and trapezia. Among the lines are huge drawings. A clearly defined humming bird, a spider, a dog and a monkey with a ridiculously long spiral tail. One wonders how and why people, who must have found it difficult enough just to stay alive in this inhospitable desert, went to all the trouble to set out these drawings that they had never seen and could never see.


A humming bird - one of the Nazca Line images Forty minutes seemed little enough to see all the drawings, but later I realised that most people were happy to get down again after flying tight turns over the main drawings. A gentle bathe in the swimming pool got everyone feeling relaxed again.

Meeting ancient corpses

After a quick lunch we went out in the bus. After driving some way we turned off from the road and bumped over the dunes of tight-packed sand. As we came over one dune we could see ahead a large area scattered with white fragments and a little group of people huddled in a circle nearby. My first impression was that the place was a rubbish dump and the people were scavengers. We stopped alongside and got out. The ring of people were dead. Very dead, in fact some of them had been dead for about 1500 years. The place was a former cemetery, but it has recently been dug over by grave robbers looking for fabric and pottery from the graves. The bodies themselves had no sale value and had just been dumped. As we walked around we saw many more bodies and many sad fragments. The extreme dryness of the climate had kept the bodies intact after all this time. One I particularly remember had the front surface of one eye still intact as a thin curving dry membrane.

Plaits of hair like new! All had their hair looking fairly new: in one case it was easy to imagine the plaits had been made in the last few days. It was a most weird experience. The bodies would have been interesting even in a museum, but being able to wander around among them generated a strange feeling of being out of contact with reality.

Sendoro Luminoso

Potter, whose cousin had just been killed by Sondoros

Still feeling rather detached, we got back into our bus to travel on to town with the object of meeting a pottery-maker. He lived in a typical flat topped house like so many that we had driven past. This time we were to see inside. There was a long succession of interconnected rooms in a row running back from the road. Some were open-topped and formed little courtyards. There was a well for water despite the house being in town. We found the potter, a big plump man, very affable and entertaining as he demonstrated his methods of making the pottery. His main line was a copy of the funeral vases like the ones the grave robbers were after and all his products were well made. Most of us bought something from him as souvenirs.

Everything had seemed fine; it was only after we had left that our group leader came out the house looking upset that we heard the incredible story. This cheerful man had been putting on a complete show for us. During the morning he had just heard that his cousin, a policeman, had been killed by the Sendoro Luminoso. After we left he then had the task of going to break the news to the cousin's widow. It left us feeling shocked and realising that this country is very different from our own.

Being a threatened tourist

Next we were asked if we wanted to go and see the aqueducts. These were "probably all right although earlier there had been a problem with band of brigands robbing tourist parties there". It says a lot for the sort of people who go on such trips that there were no dissenters among us. So off we went to have a fairly tame and pleasant time wandering around an ancient system of field irrigation. It used sub-surface water channels with access via a few spiral-ramped pits for water carriers to get down and fill their vessels.

By now it was early evening. Still no time to stop. We drove back to Nazca and in the main hotel we went to a talk about the Nazca lines from Renata Reiche. She, herself elderly, is the sister of Maria Reiche who devoted her life to a study of the Nazca lines and a careful restoration of them. Maria is now an invalid, but the Peruvian government supports her and her sister partly as a tourist attraction; hence the regular talks.

It was late when the talk finished. We then went on to a local restaurant for supper and finally back to our hotel and bed.

The Pan-American Highway

The following morning we were off again early in our bus. It was to be a long and rather dull day with endless journeying across barren deserts. The Pan-American highway is a minimal two-way tarmac road and it is in a rough state of repair. The thing that will always stand out in my mind about these deserts was the presence of beggars who turn up, tens of miles from the nearest habitation, begging in the desert. The technique is to stand all day near a bad bit of road and, as a vehicle approaches, to throw down a token shovel of sand into a pothole and stand looking piteously up to the drivers or passengers in the hope of getting some little money thrown to you. I would love to have known how they got themselves to such remote places and what they would then do with any money they obtained; spend it at the nearest shop thirty miles away perhaps?

The distance to be covered that day was substantial. However we did have a special lunch stop arranged; the Incas used to have several ports including one major port with a sheltered harbour, which was where we stopped. The road plunged down a ravine leading to the harbour. At the foot of the ravine was a beach and the remains of quite a large Inca town. There was a rocky shore line which had steep paths going near to the roosts of pelicans and gulls, with views of sea lions and fish in the waters below. It was a good place to walk and one of our party did swim, but he reported that the Pacific water was horribly cold. We all went for a lunch of freshly caught and cooked fish from the Pacific. The visit was a welcome break from travel and all too soon it was time to get back into the bus again.

An elderly whale

On the way to visit a whale

This was the day when we stopped to go to a "special interest site". The bus turned off the road and drove some way through the desert until a dry river bed stopped our progress. We then continued on foot for some twenty minutes along the river bed, which must have had water below ground since a few trees were growing. There was a single house amongst the trees and then beyond it, in the middle of nowhere, was a small building. It was in good repair and about the size of a small chapel. Inside was the fossil of a three million year old whale! It was still embedded in the ground which formed the building's floor. The fossil was good and one could even make out something which looked like a gill structure (?) of the whale. After that visit we felt that nothing now could come as a surprise. We wandered back to the bus, passing a second fossil whale in poorer condition and just protected by a rough wall as a windbreak. There were also masses of sea shells around. In a country like this one such things as Continental Drift can seem like quite a normal part of daily life!

Pan-American Highway It was in the afternoon when our driver Pedro stopped the bus and had a look under it. He then announced that it would need repair. It was still driveable, so we made our way to a quite large village spanning the Pan-American Highway. The edges of the highway were some fifty metres from the shabby buildings on either side. While the bus had its repairs done we wandered along looking at the few shops and shut-up market stalls. The whole place had an air that suggested nothing had ever happened there and nothing ever would happen. Whilst it was hardly a tourist stopover, it did give some insight to the lifestyle of the locals. Finally our bus was fixed and we were mobile again. We dozed as the bus charged onwards through the darkness. It was late in the night when we finally arrived at Arequipa.


Guinea pig for lunch

After a night's sleep we got up to breakfast in a fine building with cool whitewashed rooms and high vaulted ceilings in the main rooms. We had a late start by our standards, then went off on foot to visit the Santa Catalina Convent. This is a huge rambling establishment formerly used as a convent. It consists of an interlaced set of paths between a mass of small living chambers. All of it is very attractive and built on a pleasant human scale. It looked superb in the cool air and thin sunshine. This was to be a relaxing day and we spent a lot of time sitting in the sun drinking tea and eating freshly-cooked spicy pasties. It was a welcome relaxation after the wearying pace of the previous days. We also looked round some of the rest of the town, which had many beautiful buildings. Lunch we took as a group in an open air restaurant with a sheltered garden in which a group of Peruvian musicians was playing for us.
Have a good look! Two of our party were brave enough to order cuy: this a plate with a complete dead guinea pig roasted and served flat on its stomach with its big canine teeth hanging over the side of the plate, plus two plain boiled potatoes. Not recommended.

This was the day of a local festival and we bought tickets to return to the convent for the celebrations in the evening. The event consisted of bands and troupes of dancers performing in one of the courtyards of the convent, then a procession of everyone to the next courtyard. They also had fireworks. One of our party got mildly burnt when in the crush he was unable to escape from a Roman candle. There was a barbecue in operation and at another place where large doughnuts being cooked. Joan and I queued for some doughnuts and decided that we could manage three between us. The tickets were bought without the benefit of a common language. They had seemed quite good value, so we were a little surprised to realise we had bought three lots of three doughnuts.

Flying to Juliaca

Next day we had to get up early to go to the airport. Take-off involved turning sharp right to miss the volcano. A little while later we had the opportunity to look straight down into a volcano.

We were heading up to Juliaca in the Andes. Once there, our initial experience of high altitude was not too bad, but we were to have constant headaches over the days to come. We quickly discovered that starting the day with an aspirin seemed to produce good results. A stop at Juliaca Market was enjoyable for its bustle and strange sights. We bought cheese, fruit and bags of coca leaves. Everyone was planning to try chewing coca leaves to help keep us going at high altitude. However we rapidly revised our plans since no-one had warned us that they tasted exactly like used tea leaves and that chewing a mouthful of them required a certain determination. Another small snag was that we had not asked for the pieces of alkaline volcanic rock that one has to chew with the leaves to release the cocaine. It was only later when we got both ingredients in place that we finally achieved our romantic aim. The reality consisted of having a numb mouth, just like the after-effects of a visit to the dentist, plus a mouth full of tea leaves!

Alpaca The journey on to Puno gave us our first sight of Alpaca with their white woolly coats, supercilious expressions and attractive tufts of coloured wool in their ears. We detoured to go to see the Sillustani chulpas: beautifully made burial towers, more or less intact despite the efforts of the Spaniards to blast them apart in the hope of finding gold inside. We walked gingerly up the hill, well aware we were not used to such high altitudes. During most of our visit we were followed by a group of tiny girls in colourful clothes, who hoped we would give them some sweets or money in return for being photographed. We also saw the traditional growing of potatoes on strips of land built up into mountain lakes: the water stops the potatoes freezing in the cold nights. The locals still use the technique today.

Puno and Lake Titicaca

The day finished in Puno at the Railway Hotel, across the road from the station. Luckily it is not a busy line. Before dinner we went out to the market, having been warned to stay in groups for mutual protection. There were lots of beautifully knitted clothes for sale and a one of the local industries seems to be making pirate copies of cassette tapes of the local Peruvian bands. Dinner was rather bleak and we had the local band playing at full pitch in the bare echoing dining room. Finally we retired to bed, shivering in the cold.

Taquile Usland

Boatman Next day we were up early and off to the docks on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We got into an open boat and set off for a trip of some three hours to Taquile Island, in the middle of the Lake, where we were to stay a night.


Sitting on floating reeds On the way we stopped at the floating island of the Uros Indians, who live on a huge raft of tortora reed. It should have been fascinating place to visit, but seemed a little sour; there was a sort of Disneyland atmosphere. Clearly the Indians now lived entirely on tourism, selling mostly woven wall hangings. This was a bad year for them, with the tourist figures down 80% on the previous year (due to the Peruvian cholera epidemic). We left the island glad to say we had been there, but not really enthusiastic about it.

We arrived finally at Taquile, landing on a jetty of piled boulders, and had to walk slowly up the slopes of the rocky island to the town above. The town surprised us by possessing a large square bounded by buildings and surfaced by flagstones: much more civilised than we had expected for such a remote spot. The whole place had a delightful relaxed atmosphere; on the sunny side of the square sat a number of men, enjoying the sunshine, having a chat and getting on with their knitting. (Men here knit and women weave) Everyone was in local dress, beautifully made and decorated. We had a simple meal in one of the houses which acts as a restaurant. Then we were each allocated to a local family and went off to meet "our" family before it got dark.

Gonzalez sells a waistcoat Joan and I were introduced to Gonzales, a short man with a lovely smile and a gentle manner. He showed us to our room with a bed of reeds on a frame of wood. He lost little time in showing us some lovely knitting and weaving he wanted to sell us. Without any common language he acted out that he would use the money to buy paint to paint the door of our room. I did buy a nicely decorated waistcoat covered in knitted patterns. We had already been told that Gonzales was in charge of the local museum and we were soon being shown round the collection of costumes and musical instruments. However the big surprise was when he showed us his personal photo album. Here we were on top of the Andes, in the middle of the highest lake in the world, in a peasant hut at one end of the only tiny town. There, smiling out from the page was the face of Gonzalez with the Eiffel Tower in the background! Another showed him near the Arc de Triomphe and a third showed him in a jet cockpit beaming at the pilot. It appears that some French impresario had come and taken the whole of the local band half way round the world to do a series of shows in Paris.

The local youngsters then challenged us to a game of volleyball on the village square. Joan and I left it to the younger members of our group. The locals proved to be good players and announced, after the game had started, that it was the custom for the losers to buy beer for the winners.

By then it was getting late, so we all walked up through the outskirts of the village to a high point where we could watch the sun setting across the lake. As we stood there we were passed by some local children escorting sheep home for the night. We then went back down for dinner and finally back "home" to bed for a comfortable night.

Gonzales knits while he shows me the local scenery The morning was sunny and cool. When I went outside Gonzalez beckoned me to come with him and we strolled together from one viewpoint to the next. At each one he sat and knitted while I looked at the scenery and took photos. It felt really relaxed and friendly.

During the day we all walked up to the highest point of the island past the outlying houses. The air of calm and contentment was everywhere. Although work could be hard (one cooperative toiled all day making bricks for a new house), it seemed to be a good way to live. Of all the places I have ever visited, I rate Taquile as the most relaxed and welcoming.

Competitors in the cholo taxi race We left in the afternoon and our boat went directly back to Puno. When we arrived at the jetty, some way out of town, it was dark. There should have had a bus waiting, but it had not arrived. In the gloom there were a number of cholo taxis waiting, hoping for a passenger. They are three wheeler bicycles with a seat on front. Our guide told to use those in pairs. The drivers seemed overjoyed to get a fare each and set off amongst much shouting. As we hurtled unlit along the dark potholed road, the whole thing developed into a sort of chariot race. Our drivers were panting for breath, and on the steep places jumped off and frantically pushed on foot to get us up the hill. The whole thing had a real sporting air (our driver finished second). The hotel seemed a little grim after our huts on Taquile, but we were ready for a meal and an early night.

Food seller at station We had another early start the following morning. This time we just went just across the road to the railway station and there we were safely locked into the "gringo carriage". Slowly the shore of Lake Titicaca slid past us and we were off across the high Altiplano. The train was bedecked with extra passengers riding on the outside in the cold mountain air. At each station there were many sellers of food and drink, plus a lots of people selling tourist wares. The sellers of knitted goods would throw the garments through any open window. As you sat there it arrived in a continuous torrent of soft wool and could either be thrown back out again or you could go to the window and bargain to buy one. The designs and workmanship were good and quite a few were sold.

The Altiplano

The Altiplano is vast. We travelled most of the day across great plains that stretched between us and the distant mountains. The plains did not look fertile enough to support life, but everywhere one could see huts dotting the plain. At one stage we stopped at a high pass, La Raya, to wait for a connecting train. There was no station. We all got out and enjoyed the sunshine in the cool air. This was to be our highest point at 14 177'.


Plaza in Cuzco

The journey then continued downhill until we finally reached Cuzco some time after dark. We checked in to our comfortable hotel and then went out to eat. Out in the cold night air the pavements were covered with clothes and souvenirs for sale. It looked a very hard life for the sellers; many of them had small children with them. The buildings of the town were attractive, but there seemed to me to be something threatening about it.

In the morning we were out at about 6 o'clock. There was a cafe beside the cathedral that had been recommended to us and it proved to be very good. It was cheap, the service was lightning fast, there was classical music playing on a gramophone and the food was interesting. I had a huge glass of hot milk, drunk through a thick straw and with some strange flavouring added. It came with a big dish of chopped fresh fruit covered in yoghurt and two crumbly buns served with honey. The flavour was peculiar rather than immediately tasty. Writing now, some months after eating the food, I can still clearly remember the flavours.

Pisaq market, then rafting

Pisaq market

Today we were to go to do some white-water rafting in the Sacred Valley. On the way we were to visit Pisaq market. The market was packed in to a central square, surrounded by elegant buildings in the Spanish style. The roads down to the square were also lined with stalls. This is a difficult place to describe since the effect was purely visual; a seething colourful mass of people and goods. An enjoyable place to visit and a place to take photos literally by the reel.


Ready for rafting The rafting began some long way down the valley. We finally stopped, rather incongruously by the railway track, and got our two big inflatables off the bus roof. There followed a shore-based rehearsal of how to respond to the commands of our captains and then off we went down the river. The scenery was good and the rapids fun. They were certainly not in the same league as the Zambesi Rapids below Vic Falls, but they were interesting. They needed some concentrated effort of the crew to steer safely between the many rocks and there was some small element of skill, unlike the Zambesi where one merely requires a certain measure of fatalism.

As we got further down the river we were met with a truly fierce headwind that made paddling hard work. If we stopped paddling we were blown back upstream! When finally we saw the bus on the bank ahead no-one was too sad that our voyage was ended. Once we had floundered ashore, the sight of a magnificent picnic set out on the bank complete with plenty of a quite good red wine resulted in quite a feeling of euphoria.

The evening was an eating-out session. The food was not good. However, mention must be made of the dish that Lynda ordered. It consisted of dark green stuff piled on a plate into the shape and very nearly the size of a volcano. It tasted awful.

The Amazon Basin

Airport bus The following morning was another up-before-dawn job to get us to the airport. This time we were to fly down into the Amazon Basin to a place called Puerto Maldonado. The plane, surprisingly, was a modern jet. On arrival in the tropical steamy heat, the airport bus was, by contrast, down-market to most farm lorries with a truly home-made body on it complete with wooden plank seats and no windows. Still there are merits to having no windows when it is really hot.

Puerto Maldonado had a genuine frontier atmosphere. It is set up on a small rectangular grid of dirt roads, mostly with plants growing from them. It lies by the side of the Madre de Dios river. We walked through the town and looked down the steep muddy bank of the wide river to the long thin boats propelled by outboard motors and learned that ours was the one with a thatched roof on it. The journey up the river took some time and there was a surprisingly strong current when you considered that we were only 600' above sea level and about 1500 miles from it.

Our hut Finally we reached the jungle lodge where we were to stay. We were welcomed with a large glass of fruit juice and Pisco served wrapped in leaves and flowers. We then were taken out of the main building to an area of individual huts, which were most agreeable. The surroundings were very green, the huts were comfortable and they each had a couple of hammocks on the veranda. Around about there were flocks of rather jolly green parakeets in the bushes. If you got as close as possible to a bush you could see the swarms of green birds and realise how many there were. An attempt to move closer led to a sudden emptying of the bush and a realisation that your estimate of the number had been at least five times too low.


Drinking sap from creeper In the afternoon we went for a walk along a meandering path through the surrounding rain forest. It was good with lots to see and hear about. The best bits for me were seeing the vast buttressing roots of the big trees and drinking from a piece of cut creeper, apparently of solid wood, which would pour sap into your mouth when tilted.


We were also introduced to the "forest passport stamp". This is a fruit which was cut and rubbed on the flesh. After some delay a dark blue colour is developed, which we were told lasts for a lifetime (they told us after applying it).


Dinner that evening was a rather affected pile of junk stewed up in a large leaf: a piece of "local colour" that most of us could have survived without. After dinner there was a big surprise for Iain, one of our party, who had a gigantic birthday cake baked for him. A substantial part of the surprise was finding that it had been baked from maize flour!


Part of a flight of Macaws Next morning we were up before daybreak and out on the river in the dawn mist for a rather pleasant boat journey. We landed and set off into the rain forest for a good long hike through it. Our objective was a large isolated lake where we were to go for a ride in a big canoe. The idea was sound: up until now we had scarcely been able to catch a glimpse of the birds as they flew through the high canopy of the trees. At the lake the most convenient route for a bird was to fly out of the canopy, along the lake and back in again. So from a canoe we could see the birds as they came out over the lake. We saw great flocks of Macaws and plenty of other birds including a cormorant that put on a show of imitating the Loch Ness monster for us. We could see large clumsy Hoatsins floundering around in the trees. We also saw many terrapins basking in the sun on logs and stones and even a group of tiny bats hanging under a log. After our canoe ride we sat for a while in the sun as hordes of huge brightly coloured butterflies landing at our feet.


Ship in the forest

We retraced our long walk through the rain forest and returned to our boat. However that was not the end of our tour. Some way back up the river we were set ashore and sent along a meagre track into the forest. Following it for some distance, we scrambled down a bank to find ourselves alongside a huge steamship in the middle of the forest. It was an old stern-wheeler with the tall smokestack still in place, dwarfed by the forest trees. Apparently it had been taken up a side creek to shelter from a very high flood early this century and they had not got it out quickly enough when the water went down. There had never been another flood high enough to float it.


Gold collector We then returned to the jungle lodge to have lunch and an afternoon nap, then off across the river to visit peasant farms on the other side of the river. There was just a tiny path up the river bank to mark the place. In the forest were some houses and tents amongst an area of slash and burn clearings where we saw cocoa, maize, sugar cane, squash and pineapples. The local people watched us in a friendly but guarded way. Afterwards we went back down to the river edge where they were panning for gold. It apparently can make one a living, although not a good one. We watched as a shovel full of sand was washed for us to reveal a few very tiny specks of gold.

We returned to the lodge for our last night there. An early morning start took us back down the river at first light to Puerto Maldonado. We arrived in time to witness a vicious a bare-fist fight between two dockers at the timber wharf. Then off in the ramshackle bus to the airport and civilisation again. The flight was quick and we were actually back in our hotel in Cuzco well before lunchtime. It seemed a good time to do some gift shopping and we needed some bottles of Pisco for our mountain porters so, putting a little extra money in my shirt pocket, Joan and I set off through the town.


We found suitable gifts a little hard to find, but the town was attractive and full of sunny open squares. At one point we went up into a road where there was a street market. It was entered via a vehicle arch and two smaller pedestrian arches. As we emerged from a pedestrian arch I was suddenly aware of many small old Peruvian ladies in their bowler hats charging on me in a sort of well-padded version of the Eton wall game. I immediately thought that they were a gang of pickpockets and I had little hesitation in punching two of them and bursting out of the ring.

Razor-slashed shirt pocket Apparently I had beaten off their attack, so we carried on into the market stalls. Moments later, in an alleyway between stalls, there was another charge from the grannies. This time I pushed two away and sprang backwards towards open ground. This seemed more than enough, so I said to Joan we were going to go back. We went down the centre of the road through the vehicle arch to more open ground. It was only then that I realised my shirt had been slashed open across the pocket and all the money (about 100,000,000 Intis) had gone. Luckily the razor had not gone too deep and apart from a tiny cut I was OK. That seemed to be the cue to go back to the hotel and have some lunch!


Later we were collected by a bus for some more tourism. It was our first meeting with Avelado, who was to be our guide on the Inca Trail. First we had a visit to a small zoo to see condors and some most elegant vicuña. Then on to Sacsayhuaman where one finds the most photographed of the Inca ruins. There is one huge wall some hundreds of metres long and made of blocks the size of a big delivery van, each one fitted meticulously to the neighbours. It is truly impressive. We then visited a number of other sites, ending up in the cathedral, which can rival anything in Europe for intricate masonry and woodwork.

We did our shopping in the early evening, this time keeping to areas with good viewpoints and escape routes. Dinner was at a really awful Italian restaurant, then back to the hotel to repack ready to begin trekking tomorrow. We felt happy about the trekking and reasonably confident of our ability to cope. All of us had had the same experience; our high-altitude headaches had been cured by the visit to the low-lying rainforest and had not restarted when we returned to Cuzco.

The Inca Trail

An early start took us to Ollantaytambo before any tourist groups had arrived. That did not stop a number of pleasant ladies coaxing us (exaggerated demonstrations of people without hats shivering) into buying Peruvian hats to wear in the mountains. The square in Ollantaytambo looked delightful in the early sunshine and it was very hard to realise that this was the town where recently the Sendoros had attacked the police station and had killed most of the police.

Our porters We continued up along the Sacred Valley to kilometre 77 where we met our porters. They were a colourful lot in their orangey patterned ponchos, big hats and sandals made from motor car tyres. The count, as we set off, was 14 of us gringos, 28 porters, 2 cooks and 1 guide.


Campsite We set off for a very pleasant walk on a path that rose gently as we followed the river and railway to the more normal starting point at Cusichaca somewhere around kilometre 87. Along that first path the scenery was gentle and there were birds and beautiful cactus plants to be seen. The path then began to rise steeply and whilst we enjoyed the walking and the scenery we were quite glad to reach our first campsite at Wayllabamba. It was a sheltered little area, quite level and, thanks to our porters, the tents were up and ready and there were cups of tea waiting on folding tables. No doubt at all: this was going to be the best camping trip that either Joan or I had ever done!

Later dinner was served in the dining tent and, no question or doubt, the food was the best we had eaten in Peru. We felt happy and tired. We all felt sympathetic to Rob when he fell asleep at the dinner table. After dinner we staggered the few yards to our comfortable tents and thick high altitude sleeping bags. We had shone our torches round and realised that our porters were settling down in groups, covered by their red ponchos to look like hibernating ladybirds. They were clearly going to spend the night in the open, covered only by sheets of polythene.

A peaceful night for us was terminated by a call and a hand clutching a cup of tea coming in through the tent flap. Shortly afterwards a bowl of hot water arrived the same way for us to wash. Outside the ground was covered in frost.

Our porters in action Breakfast was followed by our start. No packing up equipment; the porters were going to do that for us. We set off, feeling a little apprehensive at the size of the climb ahead. This was to be our hardest day with a long haul up to Warmiwanusca (Dead Woman) Pass. We all felt it hard and Jenny, who had no previous experience of mountaineering, had a cold as well. Part way through the morning the porters came scuttling past, bent double under their heavy loads. At about lunch time we had a stop and a local man came up to us with a pony. Clearly Avelado was setting up to get Jenny over the pass on horseback. However he had not reckoned on Jenny's determination: she refused to give in and ride. We set off very slowly and determinedly and, late in the day, we all got to the top of the pass. There was a general sense of relief, since we all knew we could cope with the remaining days. There only remained a steep descent on scree (always a pleasure for me) to the camp now waiting for us packed tightly into a patch of bushes and stunted trees. We had plenty time to before dark to sit around and admire the scenery and watch the birds. The distant scenery could have been better. We had all pictured the mountains as having clear air and vision over vast distances, but the reality was that smoke from the burning forests and bush kept a constant haze everywhere at this time of year.

Hill fort Dinner was a leisurely affair and we were not anything like as tired tonight, despite having done far more than yesterday. We followed dinner by a good night's sleep and we were well ready for our start in the morning. It consisted of a steep climb, straight up to the first of our Inca lookout points - Runkurakay.

This had been visible from the campsite the previous night. Hardly surprising, since these lookout sites are all perched like a proverbial eagle's eyrie and command a view of the valley below plus all of the approach routes such as nearby passes. They were the control points of the old Inca empire; one doubts that they missed anything that happened. This one was quite small and simple compared with many we saw later, but it was well made and the stone work is still in good order. We sat there for a while and looked at the valley and at our campsite where the tents were still standing in place. Finally we left, setting off upwards to the Runkurakay Pass.

Path in cloudforest Beyond it we began to meet the area of cloud forest. In this region there is ascending air which gives rise to clouds that deposit moisture on the leaves and branches of all plants. Cloud forest is something I have always liked, since the plants it produces have gnarled complicated shapes covered in layers of veil-like creeper; the general effect is very dramatic. We also had the Sayajamarka ruins to visit. They are extensive and very spectacular in their setting, even to having a steep path rising across the face of a cliff as the approach route. Today was the best day of the Trail.

We could have finished at a camp on top of an exposed hill, but we wanted something with a little more by way of shelter and interesting local surroundings. So also did our porters: they were waiting anxiously to see if we would go on further and they seemed delighted when we opted to do so. The descent started well, through attractive forest, but then the path grew very dusty and we found ourselves constantly in sight of electricity pylons. Finally we reached the site our porters so liked: a huge youth hostel of concrete and corrugated iron perched high on the hillside. Mercifully we stayed in our own tents on a ledge nearby. However we did come round to the idea of showers and of buying beer to drink with our evening meal.

At first we sat at a table drinking tea and beginning to feel quite tolerant of our accommodation when, to everyone's delight, a Condor launched itself from the hillside nearby and made its way slowly up to the ridge above us using a weak late-afternoon thermal. In the evening the pleasure of our porters with this minor metropolis was evident and they spent a good part of the evening playing a Peruvian game where you attempt to throw counters through the mouth of a large brass frog.

Huinay Huanya We slept well. In the morning we started, not by setting off along the Trail, but by visiting Huinay Huanya. This was little more than a few paces from where we had spent the night. It was just a matter of walking around a projecting rocky spur and there was a vast amphitheatre of terracing with a complete small town at the far side. We had a fascinating time exploring it and the atmosphere of peace and isolation was delightful. We had the place almost entirely to ourselves and the scenery had all the spectacular characteristics of the simpler mountain look-out places that we had met before. Undoubtedly this was the most enjoyable of the Inca ruins that we visited.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu After that we strode onwards, knowing that this would be an easy day. And so it was; we were soon at the Gate of the Sun. There we sat eating our lunch and looking down on Machu Picchu, the best know of all the tourist visits in South America. It was not as impressive-looking as we had hoped, mainly because of the smoke haze. The whole scene lacked detail and was coloured grey. The most obvious feature was the horseshoe-weaving road built to bring the tourists up from the valley far below us.

We continued down the path. It was quite a fair walk. Eventually we were at the side of the famous Machu Picchu and it was fully recognisable though the haze. The ruins are vast and we explored a little of them before the time came for us to set off down to our campsite. No walking: we got on to a tourist bus and rolled interminably down the hairpin bends of the hillside. A local small boy was bounding down the hillside on footpaths connecting the loops of the road and bellowing greetings every time the bus went past. Finally we rolled in to the yard below the train station and the boy collected his tips. We strolled down to the campsite on a field beside the river, where our tents had been set up and tea made for us. The porters had now all gone but our cook and his assistants were with us still.

Springs & Fireflies

Aguas Calientes After a quiet time sitting around the tents we embarked on a visit which had sounded uninteresting in guide books but proved to be very rich in character. We set off walking along the railway line to the next station, Aguas Calientes, where there are some commercialised hot springs. It was a fair walk and when we got there we found a substantial village with the springs up a small side valley which seemed to form the main street. The springs were a scruffy and run-down but we were delighted to get into our bathing costumes and stand in hot water up to our chins, loafing around and doing very little. One could even get a waiter to bring drinks from a nearby kiosk. It seemed a very pleasant end to our walk through the mountains. Afterwards we sat in a cafe beside the railway track and had a drink before setting off back along the railway track. By this time it was well and truly dark and we needed our torches to avoid falling down the big drainage channels crossing the track. A delightful feature was the presence of fireflies which took off at our approach and flew flashing around us.

Band at campsite Back at camp and feeling well content, we sat down to dinner. As we ate, a local band of drummers and pan-pipers came to play for us. Unlike the bands we had met in hotels, these seemed very much in keeping as they played in the open air and darkness. Afterwards, helped a little by measures of beer, we all got to our feet and danced like happy idiots in the field beside our table.


Alleged antique The following morning we got up bright and early to catch an early bus up to Machu Picchu, where we had the whole place to ourselves since the train from Cusco would not arrive for some hours. We were given an extensive guided tour. We particularly enjoyed seeing a few buildings which had been re-roofed in original materials: it gave a better idea of what the place would have been like. Despite the early hour, the place was full of security guards, one of whom tried to sell us a sculpture he had "found on the site". We thought it was more likely that he was selling it for a local mason.

Staircase on Wayna Picchu Above Machu Picchu is a small but prominent and steep mountain called Wayna Picchu and there is a trail up it to the summit. We went up that as a finish to our Inca Trail tour. The path was well constructed on steep rock, much like some of the more spectacular parts of Alpine hut-to-hut paths. The path also included the steepest rock staircase that I have ever set eyes on. The situation and views were great, although the smoke haze was present as always. It was an enjoyable way to finish.

There were still a few parts of our holiday for us to enjoy, such as the Plaza de Armas in Lima, but was now mostly a matter of travel and winding-down ready for our long flight home. We felt very relaxed and contented. We had experienced a lot. In many ways Peru is a sad country with much poverty and a very shaky future, but fascinating because of it.


The trip to beat them all! We were probably lucky in going the year of the cholera epidemic, since I think it is normally very crowded with tourists. Even so, don't miss it.

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